“What in the hell am I doing?” Jackson Pollack asked himself, giving the once over to the rise of the road, driving up too fast toward the top of it for what was on the other side. He couldn’t dope it out. He was driving like a crazy man, like what all the shrinks he had ever gone to always told him he wasn’t.
Not crazy, not exactly.
One of them once said, “You’re just in search of a nervous breakdown.” He didn’t tell that one about 1938. It didn’t matter. He knew he was raw on the inside. That’s why the work on the floor worked. He wasn’t a nutcase because he saw psychiatrists. But in the last five minutes he had twice caught himself steering the car straight at the soft shoulder.
He was the next-best driver in Springs, next to Harry Cullum, who told him he was second best on a late afternoon one day in mid-winter when the two of them were having beers at Jungle Pete’s.
“You’ll have the last laugh, just wait and see, Jack,” he said, clapping him on the back. “Maybe not on the road, but you’ll get ‘er done.”
Jackson Pollock’s convertible didn’t have seat belts, even though Harry, the best driver in town, had outfitted his family car with lap belts. He told everyone it was for his wife’s sake. “In stock car racing we never used seat belts if there wasn’t a roll bar, suicide if you do,” said Harry. “Family life is different, different kind of suicide, need a belt.”
The girl in the middle of the front seat, between Ruth and him, was screaming. “Stop the car, let me out, let me out!” He wasn’t going to stop the car, he knew that, but he had a bad feeling. It was a clear, starry night, splashed no moon dark, hot and muggy. The road felt spongy. He felt queer, not himself, not yours truly.
It was August 11, 1956. The car was an Oldsmobile 88. It was a big open-air carriage.
He got his first convertible, a Cadillac, when his action paintings started to get some action, after Life Magazine put him on the cover almost exactly seven years ago. He was wearing denim pants and a denim jacket in the photograph. The jacket was dirty and spattered. It was his high-octane light-of-day look at me now ma year of success. They said he was the new phenomenon of American art.
“He looks like some guy who works at a service station pumping gas,” said Willem de Kooning.
When 1950 got good and done, the next month Art News published a list of the best exhibitions of the year. The top three shows belonged to him. It wasn’t bad for somebody who never graduated from high school.
Even though he purposely used to throw his car keys in the bushes when he was getting drunk at parties, he smashed the Caddy into a tree. He got off light, a citation and no broken bones.
Action painting, he thought, and snorted, spraying spit on the steering wheel. What the hell did that mean? There wasn’t any action, just headlines.
What critics didn’t know wasn’t worth a pot to piss in. “If people would just look at my paintings, I don’t think they would have any trouble enjoying them. It’s like looking at a bed of flowers, you don’t tear your hair out over what it means.” He had meant it when he said it. He’d say it again.
Who needs a critic to find out what art is, or isn’t? Most of them, these days, if they saw him walking on water, crossing the Hudson River at Canal Street, would scribble something about him not being able to swim. All they wanted was to see you drown. The only time he met Man Ray, at the Cedar Tavern when the born-again Frenchman was on his way back to Paris, he told Jackson, over a boatload of drinks, he hated critics.
Franz Kline laughed across the table. “Manny, tell us what you really think.”
“All critics should be assassinated,” he said.
Lee called his work all over painting because he got it all over the flat canvases nailed down on the floor, the hard floor, and his boots and jeans and hands. Bugs and bits of litter and blackened shag from his cigarettes fell into the paint.
“Is Jackson Pollock the greatest living painter in the United States?” is what Life Magazine said, blowing the balloon up, with a picture of him slouching against a wall with a smoke dangling from his mouth, and a couple of pictures of his paintings. He looked good, like he didn’t have a care in the world, didn’t give a damn, like he had the world by the balls. Now it was different. He hadn’t made a painting in more than a year. The ball was over.
He was washed up. He didn’t have anything to say anymore. He was almost sure of it.
“She started to scream,” said Clement Greenberg. “He took it out on this pathetic girl by going even faster. Then he lost control on the curve. The screaming is what did the killing, finally.”
What was her name? He chewed it over in his mind, tossing a glance sideways at her. He couldn’t remember. They were on the Fireplace Road in East Hampton, not far from home. It couldn’t be more than a mile. Not much of a home anymore, though. Lee was in Paris with her friends. She said she was coming back, but he had his fears. He wanted her back, but it had all gone to hell.
Hell-bent in his Olds with two broads in the car and his wife in Europe wasn’t going to get it done, wasn’t going to get it all back. He had to get back on track. Maybe the last analyst he’d seen was right, maybe there was something gumming up the works. He was going to try a fresh approach, the shrink said, calling it hypnotherapy.
He was one of the new downtown brain doctors. “It’s not hypnosis, at least not how most people think of it,” said Dr. Sam Baird. “We’re not going to try to alter or correct your behavior. We’ll try to seed some ideas, sure, but we’ll talk those out before we go ahead.”
He told Lee he was going to get his mind clear this time. “He isn’t full of old-time shit,” he said about the new man.
If any of his neighbors saw his car fast and sloppy staggering down the road they would laugh and say it was like his paintings. Most of them still thought he was nuts, even though they didn’t say so anymore to his face, now that he was in galleries and museums. When he was a nobody, they looked down on him like he was a nobody.
“I could see right away he wasn’t from here,” said Frank Dayton. “I asked a fellow later who he was. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘that’s just a loony artist.’”
“To some goody-goody people he was a bum, just someone to laugh at,” said Sid Miller. “They didn’t think much of his work. They didn’t think he was doing anything.”
“Folks said he painted with a broom,” said Ed Cook. “Near everybody made jokes about his paintings, never thought they’d amount to anything.”
“To hell with them,” he said to Ruth, her elbow laying careless on the shelf of the door. She was a looker, that’s for sure, the juice he needed to get him going again. He had gone dead inside. He knew he had. She was the kind of girl who could crank him up. What’s-her-name in the back seat kept screaming.
“What?” asked Ruth, loud, twisting towards him.
“To hell with them,” he muttered to himself. “What do they know?”
“Slow down a little bit, the car’s a little out of control, take it easy,” she said.
The joke was on them. When he was painting, straddling a canvas, it was when he was most in control. It was when he didn’t have any doubts about himself or what he was doing. He knew exactly what he was doing. He told anybody interested in listening to him, I can control the idea, the flow of paint. There is no accident in the end, not by my hand.
“He picked up can and paint brush and started to move around the canvas,” said Hans Namuth. “It was as if he suddenly realized the painting was not finished, His movements, slow at first, gradually became faster and more dance like as he flung black, white and rust-colored paint onto the canvas. He completely forgot that Lee and I were there. Finally, he said, ‘This is it.’”
I work from the inside out, he told Hans. That’s when I’m in the painting, in the middle of life, but outside of it at the same time. I can see the whole picture. Someone told him his pictures didn’t have any beginning or any end. He didn’t mean it as a compliment, more like a sneer, but it was fine by him. It was a fine compliment. Only twisted lip didn’t know it.
He was good driving his Olds, too, even when he was as drunk as could be, which was what he was now.
“He came in for his eye-opener, a double, about 10:30 before train time, that day.” said Al Cavagnaro. “Start your day the way he did sometimes, you’d be in the same fix he was. If you said he was half bagged up, you’d be about right.”
Doc Klein said it was OK for him to drink and drive. Jack liked that. He knew trees never hit cars except in self-defense. “But stay on the road,” said Doc Klein, a big man laughing a big laugh.
“Goddamn right, I always stay on the road,” said Jackson Pollack. “Except when I’m pulling into Al’s or Pete’s, then I get off the road. I have to. Anyway, there’s no trees in those parking lots.”
“It was continual, almost nightly drunken large parties,” said Patsy Southgate. “Everyone was totally drunk all the time and driving around in cars.”
He wasn’t driving right. He was driving wrong. The screaming girl grabbing his right arm was right. He lived it up driving. But tonight, instead of fluid with the steering wheel, like he was with free-flowing paint out of a can, he was going clumsy, as though he was at cross-purposes, herky-jerky. The quiet precise gestures he used to stream paint from a stick when he was working were usually the same when he drove his car. Tonight, they were too big around, whiplash gestures, like they had a life of their own.
“He had to be moving fast, 85 to 90, anyway,” said Harry Cullum. “There was one hell of a crown where the town tar road begins at the beginning of the left curve. Jeez, I almost lost my car a couple of times there when I was a kid, but finally you smarten up and ride that crown, the one they fixed after Pollock got killed.”
It was after the fact, like an empty bottle of beer thrown out a car window at a stop sign that wasn’t there.
“Jackson’s death is he died of drink and the Town of East Hampton Highway Department,” said Wayne Barker.
It was three years ago, the first week of November, when he stormed over the crown of the road like a firecracker. He came back from the city on Friday, on the train. It snowed all morning and it was still snowing at the end of the day when he found his car in the lot, brushing a mound of snow off the front window with his hands, rubbing the cold out of them at the car’s dashboard heating vent. When he finally got on the road to Springs, he was one of a handful of cars. The storm was blowing off the ocean. The car trembled whenever the road flattened out and he was sideways to the coast.
“I crawled up there, could barely see, and stopped when I saw the pile of snow,” he told Lee later at home, the windows in their sash frames rattling in the wind gusts. “There was a snowdrift, five feet, six feet high, down the other side blocking the way. I backed up a little, to where my rear tires could get a grip on a stretch of clear road and hit the gas as hard as I could. I went as fast as I could, hit the snow head on, everything went white, everything disappeared, no color, just white. By the time I came out the other side the Olds was barely moving, just crawling.”
They laughed about it all night, over dinner, and later in bed again, curling close together under a pile of blankets.
The girl beside him was still screaming. How long could she keep it up? She was driving him nuts. He was driving wrong, all wrong. There was a reason. He knew it, but he also thought, how could there be a reason? What was it? He could feel it. Where was it? He knew it was right there, right at the edge of the front of his brain. It was like the images behind the abstractions in his paintings, right there. But when he tried to think of why he was driving wrong his brain hurt like the next day’s hangover, before getting his hands on some hair of the dog.
He had a hangover all the time now, more than five years-worth of hangovers, but it wasn’t from gin. It was from having rocketed to fame, putting everything he had into it, until he didn’t have anymore, and he quit pouring liquid paint cold turkey. It was all over. After that he couldn’t make a painting that anybody wanted. When he finished his black paintings, he couldn’t give them away. Even his fame couldn’t prime the pump. Nobody thought it was any good.
He knew they weren’t any good.
“An artist is a person who has invented an artist,” Rosenberg burst out with something that meant something one night near the tail end of a long night of poker and drinking.
Rosie always thought he was right, Jackson thought. He got it wrong on the train, though, the day we were riding into the city together. When I said the canvas was an arena, I meant it like it was a living thing, not a dead thing. I didn’t mean slugging it out in the ring. He thought I meant it literally, even though both of us were dead sober at the time, and the next thing I knew I was an action painter.
At least he finally got it right at the card game. Not like Hans. He was like all the others.
When Lee brought her teacher, Hans Hoffman, over to meet Jackson, he saw the sour look on the great man’s face right away. Hans was a neat freak, everything in its place, clean and orderly. His own studio was a mess. There wasn’t a sign of a still life or a life model anywhere.
“You do not work from nature,” said Hans. “You work by heart, not from nature This is no good, you will repeat yourself.”
“I am nature,” said Jackson Pollack.
There wasn’t a drop of a map left in the sky or anywhere on the other side of his windshield. It surprised the breath out of him when he got to the curve at the dip, where the concrete stopped and the town’s blacktop started, and he suddenly veered off the road, aiming for the trees. The car skidded in the sand. He let it slide, its big front-end dead set on the big oak tree to their left.
Going into a skid in the dirt off the road didn’t surprise him. Besides, he was going too fast. He was going fast, that’s all. It didn’t mean anything. The girl next to him stopped screaming. She got small and slowed down. She was squeezing her handbag in her hands with all her might. His hands felt dry and relaxed on the steering wheel. He didn’t squeeze the steering wheel even when he smashed into the tree head-on.
The Oldsmobile broke every bone in its chassis when it hit the one hundred-year-old tree. Jackson Pollack was catapulted over the windshield and into the woods. The front end flipped over, tossing Ruth to the side. When the car landed upside down, crushing the frame of the windshield, the girl with the handbag tight in her hands suddenly stopped gripping it. The car horn blared, stuck, crazed. Gasoline poured out of the punctured gas tank. The taillights blinked on and off and on and off.
“I’m going to be one of my paintings,” Jackson Pollack realized in mid-air, midway to the future, rocketing his way to forever. “I’m going to splatter all over. I’m going to be in nature, be nature, once and for all.” He hit the oak tree hard. When he careened back, he landed with a mortal thud, even though it was soft ground. There was a barely jutting out of the ground lump of rock granite mottled with luminous moss beneath him.
His neck hit the rock like a falling star. Gravity had been the heaven-sent hand that gave life to the paint and flotsam that dripped splashed flowed down onto his canvasses. It was now the hand that dealt him a death blow. He broke his neck
He lay there like a tree branch, a crack in the stick, shoeless, his arms and legs haphazard.
When Stan Riddman walked out of the basement of the Flatiron Building it wasn’t dark, not yet. It was the first day of the second week of fall, but it felt more like the middle of summer, except for the autumn-like light. He wore a short sleeve shirt and linen trousers. The thin wallet in his back pocket was flush with more fives and tens than it was with one-spots.
He gave his wallet a friendly pat. The Seven Card Stud they had been playing had been good to him. I can buy the kid some new clothes, get up front on the office rent, and score tickets for the Series, he thought.
The Socialist Labor Party used to have offices in the Flatiron Building, but not in the basement behind the boiler room. He wondered if they would have banned gambling, making it out like it was exploitive, if they had ever come to power. You took your chances at poker, but it was only exploitive if you had no skill at it. You deserved to be taken if you played dreamland cards.
He walked down 22nd Street to Lexington Avenue, turned right, walked through Gramercy Park to Irving Place, and looked for a phone booth
The Yankees were in and the Indians were out, that was for sure. The Redlegs were running on an outside track, but the Braves were neck and neck with the Dodgers. Sal the Barber had no-hit the Phils earlier in the week at Ebbets Field and the Cardinals were going hard at the Braves out in the boondocks. It was all going to come down to the weekend as to whether there was going to be a subway series, the same as last year, or not.
Last year it went seven games, and the oddball thing was the Yankees won three at Ebbets Field and the Dodgers won their four at Yankee Stadium. Neither team won on their home field. Nobody won that bet. Nobody took the backside odds on the seventh game, win or go home, either, especially since Jackie Robinson wasn’t penciled in to play the deciding nine.
Nobody but Stan and Ezra, and anybody else who flipped a coin.
Who would have thought the Cuban would be the difference-maker when he took over right field in the sixth inning? Stan was in the upper deck with his sometime partner, Ezra Aronson. The Yankee dugout was on the first base side, so most of the Bum fans were on the third base side. A client who was a Yankees fan, after Stan had gotten him the black and white’s he needed to get his divorce done, gave a sudden pair of passes to him, so they were on the wrong side.
“Beggars can’t be choosers,” Ezra said, sitting in a sea of Bronx Bomber fans begging for a clutch hit.
When Yogi Berra hit an opposite field sure double, Ezra sprang out of his seat, like everyone else, but the lightning fast Sandy Amoros caught it coming out of nowhere. He fired a pill to Pee Wee Reese, who relayed it to Gil Hodges, who doubled up the retreating Gil McDougald off first, ending the last threat Stengel’s Squad made that afternoon.
Casey Stengel managed the Yankees. Back in his day, when he still had legs, he had been a good but streaky ballplayer. Good glove, fair bat.
“I was erratic,” he said. “Some days I was amazing, some days I wasn’t.” When he wasn’t, he played it for laughs, catching fly balls behind his back. One afternoon he doffed his cap to the crowd and a sparrow flew out of it. Another day, playing the outfield, he hid in a drainage hole and popped out of it just in time to snag a fly ball.
When he stood leaning over the top rail of the dugout, he looked like a cross of the scowling Jimmy Durante and Santa Claus in pinstripes. He managed the Braves and Dodgers for nine years and chalked up nine straight losing seasons. But after the Bombers hired him in 1948, the only year he hadn’t taken them to the World Series was 1954.
Stan and Ezra were the only men in their section who hadn’t fallen back into their seats, stunned, after Sandy Amoros snagged Yogi Berra’s liner. Stan had to pull Ezra down so there wouldn’t be any hard feelings. As it was, Ezra was so excited there were hard feelings, and Stan had to drag him away to a beer stand.
“This beer is bitter,” Ezra scowled, looking down at the bottle of Ballantine in his hand. Ballantine Beer was on the Yankee Stadium scoreboard, its three-ring sign shining bright, flashing “Purity, Body, Flavor.” Whenever a Yankee hit a homer, Mel Allen, the broadcaster, hollered, “There’s a drive, hit deep, that ball is go-ing, go-ing, gonnne! How about that?! It’s a Ballantine Blast!”
The Brooklyn Dodgers, Ezra’s home borough baseball team, played at Ebbets Field. Their scoreboard boasted a Schaefer Beer sign, with the ‘h’ and the ‘e’ lighting up whenever there was a hit or an error. Below the Schaefer Beer sign was an Abe Stark advertisement.
“Hit Sign Win Suit”.
“That’s some super beer, that Schaeffer’s,” said Ezra, polishing off his bottle of Ballantine and spitting.
Stan Riddman didn’t have a home borough, even though he favored the Bums. He had an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, up from Times Square and down from the Central Park Zoo. He wasn’t from New York or New York City. He was from Chicago, although he wasn’t from there, either. He had been born in Chicago, but when his mother died two years later, in 1922, his father moved the family, himself a new Polish wife two boys two girls two dogs and all their belongings a year later to a small house behind St. Stanislaus Church in Cleveland, Ohio, in the Warszawa neighborhood south of the steel mills, where his father worked the rest of his life.
Stan wasn’t working on anything he thought would bring him free Series passes this year. As long as I put most of this away, he thought to himself, walking down Irving Place, thinking of the jackpot in his pocket, I can blow some of it tonight, and still have enough for ballgames and more card games.
Dottie was at Marie’s for the weekend. That happened about as often as the Series. It wasn’t too early or too late, and if Vicki hasn’t taken any work home, and is at home, and picks up the phone, maybe she could meet him for dinner.
He found the phone booth he’d been looking for and called her. It rang once almost twice before Vicki answered. That’s a good sign, he thought.
“Hey, Vee, it’s Stan.”
“Stan, my man,” she laughed.
“How’s Stuy Town tonight?” he asked.
“Hot, quiet, lonely,” she said.
“How about meeting me at Luchow’s for dinner?” he asked. “I’m buying.”
“Stan, I love you for the dear German or Polack or whatever you are, but the food at Luchow’s is not so good, even if you can ever get though that insanely long menu of theirs.”
“That’s what I’m here for,” he said. “Only a dog-eared investigator like me will look into everything the kitchen’s got to offer.”
“All right, but the other thing is, since they seat more than a thousand people, how am I going to find you? And if I do, with that strolling oompah band of theirs, if we do bump into each other and maybe get a table in that goulash and Wiener schnitzel palace, we’ll only be able to make ourselves heard some of the time and not the rest of the time.”
“We can always take our coffee and their pancakes with lingonberry over to the square after dinner and chew the fat, it’ll be quiet there,” he said.
“Chew the fat? What it is I like about you, sometimes I just don’t know.”
“I’ll take that for a yes.”
“Yes, give me a few minutes to change into something fun,” she said gaily. “I hope there’s no goose fest or beer festival going on.”
“Meet me at the far end of Frank’s bar, he’ll find a low-pitched spot in the back for us. Frank says the new herring salad is out of this world.”
“Don’t push your luck, Stan, don’t push your luck,” she said.
Luchow’s was a three-story six-bay building with stone window surrounds, pilasters, and a balustrated parapet on top, while below a red awning led to the front door. The restaurant was near Union Square. It looked like the 19th century, or some more earlier century, heavy Teutonic, North German. A titanic painting of potato gatherers covered most of a wall in one of the seven dining rooms. Another of the rooms was lined with animal heads, their offspring being eaten at the tables below them, while another room was a temple of colorful beer steins.
There was a beer garden in the back.
“Welcome back to the Citadel of Pilsner,” said Frank. He gestured Stan to the side. “Did anybody tell you Hugo died?”
“No, I hadn’t heard, although I heard he wasn’t feeling well,” said Stan. Hugo Schemke had been a waiter at Luchow’s for 50 years. He often said he wasn’t afraid of death. He had firmly no ifs ands or buts believed in reincarnation.
“Did he say he was coming back?”
“He did say that, but I haven’t seen him, yet,” said Frank.
“How’s Ernst doing?” asked Stan. Ernst Seute was the floor manager, a short stout man both friendly and cold-hearted. He had been at Luchow’s a long time, too, since World War One.
“He took a couple days off,” said Frank. “Remember that parade back in April over in Queens, they’ve got some kind of committee now, he’s over there with them trying to make it an annual thing here in Little Germany, calling it the Steuben Parade.”
“You going to be carrying the cornflower flag?’
“Not me, Stan, not me.” Frank was from Czechoslovakia. “I’m an American now.”
Frank led Vicki and Stan to a small round table at the far end of the bar. He brought them glass mugs of Wurzburger Beer and a plate of sardines. Vicki ordered noodle soup and salad. “Hold the herring,” she commanded. Stan asked for a broiled steak sirloin with roasted potatoes and horseradish sauce on the side.
“I saw Barney the other day,” she said, cocking her head. “He told me you’ve made progress.”
“I didn’t think there was anything to it the first day I saw him, that day you brought him over to the office,” said Stan. “I didn’t think there was much to it all that first week the top of the month. But then there was all that action, and Bettina finally got it worked out, that it was the shrink. So, I know who did the thing to get Pollack to drive himself into that tree. I know how they did it. What I don’t know is why they did it.”
“Do you know who they are?’
“No, I don’t, even though one of the two, a psychotic by the name of Ratso Moretti, who roughed up Ezra, is being held at the 17th. He doesn’t seem to know much, but what he does know says a lot. The shrink is going to tell me all about it. He doesn’t know about the talk we’re going to have, yet, but that doesn’t matter.”
“You don’t think Jackson Pollack had anything to do with it?”
“He was the wrong man, that’s all, if you look at it from his point of view. Bettina and I think he was a test run. We think they’re up to something bigger. It’s hard to figure. We can’t see the pay-off in it. You know Betty, though. She’ll piece it together.”
After dinner they looked at the dessert menu, but it was only a peek. Vicki shook her head no.
“How about coffee at my place?” asked Stan. “We can stop and get pastry at that Puerto Rican shop on the corner, sit up on the roof.” It was a clear sky night.
“I can’t pass up that pass,” said Vicki.
They hailed a Checker Cab.
“Take us up 5th to 59th, the corner of the park,” said Stan.
The cabbie dropped them off at the Grand Army Plaza and they walked into the park, following the path below the pond towards the Central Park Driveway and Columbus Circle. He liked her loose breezy walk. They didn’t notice the two greasers, as they strolled on a quiet wooded path south of Center Drive, until the two of them were in front of them, blocking their way.
One was taller and older, the other younger and thinner, their oiled hair combed back. Both of the dagos were wearing high tops, jeans, and white t-shirts, one of them dirtier than the other. The younger boy, he might have been fifteen, had a half-dozen inflamed pencil-thick pencil-long scratches down one side of his face and more of them on his forehead. Small capital SS’s topped with a halo drawn in red ink adorned the left sleeve of his t-shirt. The older dirtier dago had LAMF tattooed on his neck above the collar line to below his right ear.
Stan knew what it meant. It meant ‘Like a Mother Fucker.’ He kept his attention on LAMF.
“Hey, mister, got a double we can have for the subway, so we can make it back home,” he asked, smiling, his teeth big and white as Chiclets.
They were part of the Seven Saints, thieves whose favorite easy dodge was holding back the door of a subway car just before it was ready to leave the station, one of them grabbing and running off with a passenger’s pocketbook, while the other released the door so the woman would be shut tight in the train.
“Where’s home?” asked Stan, stepping forward a half step, nudging Vicki behind him with his left hand on her left hip.
“You writing a book, man?”
Stan asked again, looking straight at the older boy.
“East Harlem, where you think?”
“Why do you need twenty dollars? The fare’s only fifteen cents.”
“The extra is for in case we get lost.”
“It’d be best if you got lost starting now. “
“I mean to get what I want,” he said, smiling smirking, reaching into his back pocket.
Stan took a fast step forward, his right foot coming down on the forefoot of the boy’s sneaker, grabbing his left wrist as it came out of the back pocket a flash of steel, and broke his nose with a short hard jab using his right elbow. Stepping away he let him fall backward and turned toward the younger boy, flipping the switchblade its business side face front.
“Go,” he said. “Go right now.”
The boy hesitated, looked down at the other Seven Saint on the ground, splattered with blood, and ran away like a squid on roller skates.
Stan let the switchblade fall to the ground and broke the blade off the knife, stepping on it with his heel and pulling until it cracked at the hinge, and threw it at the older boy getting up. It hit him in the chest and bounced away.
“The next time I see you,” he spluttered, on his feet, choking, his mouth half-full of blood.
“The next time I see you, you fill your hand with a knife, I’ll break your face again,” said Stan. He took a step up to the boy and spoke softly to him. “Actually, it won’t matter what you do, nosebleed, what you’re doing, who you’re with, where you are. The minute I see you is when I’ll stack you up. Make sure you never see me again, make sure I never see you.”
He took Vicki by the arm, pushed the teenager to the side, and they walked away.
“You didn’t have to do that,” said Vicki. “You won plenty of hands tonight. You could afford to give up a few chips. You might have tossed them a dollar-or-two.”
“I know,” said Stan.
“But I don’t care about those cockroaches,” he added. “They were working themselves up to be dangerous and that had to stop. The sooner the better.”
“They were just kids.”
“You saw the scratches on the face of the kid who ran away.”
“Of course, the whole side of his face was gruesome.”
“The Seven Saints have an initiation to get into the club,” Stan said. “They find a stray cat and tie him to a telephone pole, about head high, and leave the cat’s four feet free. The kid getting initiated has his hands tied behind his back and he gets to become a Seven Saint if he can kill the cat, using his head as a club.”
“Oh, my God!” Vicki exclaimed, stopping dead. “How do you even know that?”
“I make it my business to know, so I don’t get taken by surprise.”
Stan paused, then said, “I didn’t want them near me. I don’t give a damn about them. I care about you, Dottie, Ezra, Betty, the crew, what we do, not who we do it for or whatever they think it’s all about. I care about getting it done and getting paid. I like playing cards. Throw in a dinner, a dance, a drink, I’m all done. I don’t need anymore.”
They passed the USS Maine Monument.
“I don’t want greasers in my face.”
They walked out of the park under a quarter moon, crossing Columbus Circle and strolling down Ninth Avenue. At West 56th Street they turned towards the river, stopping in front of a four-floor walk-up with a twin set of fire escapes bolted to the front of the flat face of the brick building.
“Anyway, maybe it will do them some good,” said Stan, fitting his key into the door lock. “Not everyone is as nice as I am. Someday somebody will go ballistic on them.”
“Ballistic?” she asked.
“Like a rocket, a missile that goes haywire.”
“I wish we had a rocket to take us upstairs” she said, as they took the stairs up to the fourth floor. “We forgot our pastry.”
“Another time,” he said.
At the door of the apartment Stan fitted his key into the lock, opened the door, reached for the light switch, and let Vicki go around him as he did. In the shadow of the back of the front room there was a low menacing growl and a sudden movement. It was Mr. Moto. He crossed the room fast. He lunged at Vicki’s lead leg as she stepped across the threshold.
“Hey, watch out for my stockings,” she cried out. Vicki was wearing Dancing Daters. “I’ll smack you right on your pink nose if you make them run.”
Mr. Moto came to a sudden stop a whisker from her leg.
“That’s better,” said Vicki, bending down to stroke his head.
The cat arched his back and purred.
Tony the Phil had a pounding headache. It started the minute he stood up from an unsound sleep, and it bothered him through breakfast. It bothered him walking to the newsstand to get his copy of the Daily Mirror. It bothered him as he rode the train to Ebbets Field.
He couldn’t shake it off. Shaking his head made it worse. It felt like his brain had gotten too big for his head, like it was swollen. He closed his eyes. He tried to read the tabloid, but he couldn’t concentrate. He closed his eyes again. Five minutes later he was getting some shut-eye, lulled to sleep by the rocking of the train.
He woke up when his stop was called. He felt a little better. He knew he wouldn’t miss his station when he dozed off. He never did, even though his hearing was bad. It was like his head screened out the talk of the passengers but was primed to hear the voice of the PA system.
“Goddamn that Robert Moses,” he cursed, crossing Bedford Avenue, the ballpark in sight.
Everybody knew somebody was going to have to blow up his limo before the Dodgers got a new stadium. Ebbets Field was the smallest park in the National League. The seats were bad. The plumbing was bad. There was practically no parking anywhere. Even sold-out games didn’t help, although they helped. The Atlantic Yards was where the team wanted to go. But Moses wanted them to move to a city-owned stadium in Queens. Robert Moses was the city’s all-powerful mover and shaker.
That wasn’t going to happen. “We’re the Brooklyn Dodgers, not the Queens Dodgers,” the boss said. No one wanted to be a Queen Bum.
Walter O’Malley was determined to get a bigger ballpark somewhere else. He’d been planning it for ten years. They were already playing seven or eight of their home games at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City. They’d played the first one there almost two weeks ago, edging the Phillies by a run. The threat of relocating was in the air. O’Malley was going to face Moses down. He was making his point. There was no doubt about it.
The front office was going to move the team, that was for sure, maybe move out of Brooklyn, maybe even move to the west coast, even though there wasn’t a team anywhere west of Kansas City. It would be like moving to the moon.
“Jeez, Jersey City, already!” and Tony spat on the sidewalk.
King Hanky-Panky of Jersey City was gone, he wasn’t the mayor anymore, but his gang was still running things, and he was still living like a millionaire. Anybody who said anything about it to him was told he was a rotten commie. Then he was thrown out.
The drive to the ballpark was terrible. There were no shoulders on the Pulaski Skyway over the Hackensack and Passaic rivers and the breakdown lane was in the middle of the bridge. Everybody called it the suicide lane. They were finally building a concrete median this summer to put a stop to the head-on accidents. Once you got over the bridge it smelled like soap and perfume, especially the closer downwind you got to the Colgate Plant on Hudson Street.
It was the first day of May. It was sunny, in the low 50s, the sky far away. By the time they got to work on the field it might hit 60. The team was in Cincy playing the Redlegs. The grounds crew had the rest of the week and more to get the home field in tip-top shape. After that it was rule the roost games the rest of the month.
Tony De Marco walked past the ballpark, crossed Flatbush Avenue, and walked into Prospect Park. He had a half-hour to kill. When he got to the shoreline opposite Duck Island, he found a bench and sat down, looking out over the water. He pulled a pack of cigarettes and a Ronson lighter from his jacket pocket. His headache wasn’t any worse. It was probably a little better. He hoped so.
“L & M filters are just what the doctor ordered!” is what the ads said. Maybe a smoke would make him feel better. He leaned back and lit up, watching ducks and a line of ducklings, all waddling into the water. One of the mallards stayed on the shore, sideways, in profile, keeping that side of his eyes on him.
There was a wall of six and seven-foot-tall butterfly bushes flanking and to the back of his bench. In the summer, once it got hot and the red lilac-like flowers bloomed, the bushes attracted butterflies and hummingbirds. Now that the ducks were back, he would have to remember to bring a bag of stale bread to the park.
Tony sometimes ate lunch in Prospect Park when the team was on the road. When they were at home there was too much work to do. He was on the gang that rolled the tarpaulin out when rainstorms loomed, like everyone else, and he had his assigned work, but he didn’t do any mowing. The head groundskeeper made sure the grass was cut everyday if the team was in town, He might cut the infield grass shorter than usual if a bunt happy team was on the schedule. When Jackie Robinson had been faster than just about anybody the grass was kept long and the dirt in front of home plate watered down for him.
The Colored Comet’s first ever hit for the Dodgers had been a bunt single.
One of Tony’s jobs was laying the foul lines, coaching boxes, and batting boxes. Jackie Robinson stole home plate two and three times a year. Tony made sure the chalk line from third base to home was straight as an arrow.
He took a drag and felt better. He would have to tell the doc about his headaches. He had been able to help him with his bad dreams without shock treatments or talking about combat fatigue and the rest of the crap. He knew most of the VA shrinks yakked it up about hostility and neurosis aroused by war. They didn’t know anything about cold that never stopped and mud frozen solid. They didn’t know what the hell they were talking about. They didn’t know how goddamned horrible it was.
He was lucky to have found Doc Baird, although when he thought about it, it was more like Doc Baird had found him. He couldn’t remember exactly how it happened. Besides the ear doctor in Japan, who told him he had lost some of his hearing, Doc Baird was the only doctor he had talked to the past three years who made sure to face his good ear when they were talking.
“They didn’t have earplugs or nothing for us,” said Tony the Phil.
“They’d say, you just have to live with it. Put paper or cotton in your ears. They didn’t care about us. I had to go to a MASH hospital one time. There was something wrong with me. I thought it might have been pneumonia. That night they brought in a bunch of guys who’d been in a firefight, crying and hollering, all mangled up. I couldn’t stand it. I left and hitchhiked back to my outfit.”
The ducklings swam in a broken line behind the drab-feathered mother duck, who was putting up a racket to keep her brood together and safe. He had once seen a turtle rise up and gobble down a duckling. It was gone just like that.
“When did you serve in Korea?” asked Doctor Baird.
“I was there from the start, at Inchon. I got drafted in 1949, right after I turned 21, when the new law said everybody over 18 had to register. I just didn’t have any luck. Only ten thousand guys got drafted that whole year and I was one of them. I didn’t want to go. My doctor wrote them a letter saying I had a bad back and you can’t use him. My boss wrote a letter saying we can’t spare him, we need him for the team, but they didn’t listen to nothing.”
“You didn’t want to join up?”
“No, but when my number was finally up, I went down to the draft board. There was a big Marine there. He got us all lined up. He’d hit a guy in the chest. Marine! A couple more guys, he would hit another one in the chest. Marine! When he got to me, he looked me up and down, and went to the next guy. He didn’t want me. I only weighed 140 pounds then. They pushed me into the Army for two years and sent me to Fort Dix. We had a newspaper there, the Stars and Stripes. It said, ‘Fort Dix Turns Out Killers’. They called us killers. But I wasn’t mad at anybody. I wasn’t a killer.”
The ducks dipped their heads underwater as they swam, scooping up plants and insects. The drake on the shoreline walked off looking for land bugs. Waddling away he twisted his head around and grunted, then whistled at Tony. He didn’t hear the whistle, just like he barely heard birdsongs, if they went into his bad ear.
“You lost most of your hearing in the one ear while you were in the artillery?”
“A lot in the one ear, yeah. I wasn’t supposed to be in that racket, but that’s what happened,” said Tony.
“Most of the guys I trained with went to Europe. Three squads of us got sent to Korea. I had to fly to Seattle, wait thirty days, and then they put us on a ship across the Pacific, which took another twenty days. When we landed in Yokohama, we said, maybe we’ll just stay in Japan, but the next thing I knew I was landing at Inchon in a barge. That whole town was blown to bits.
“I was trained for the infantry, but after we landed, they said, we have enough infantry guys, we need guys in the artillery. They sent me to the 37th Field Artillery Battalion, the Second Division. They gave us a patch for our sleeve with a star and an Indian on it. We used to say, ‘Second to None!’ Right away they put me on a gun section, and we got orders for a fire mission. We had twelve guns, 105’s, loud, just boom, boom, boom. When it was over and guys were talking, I only saw lips moving. I couldn’t hear a damn thing for a half hour, right off the bat, the first time. I wasn’t used to that kind of noise.”
“How did you get captured?” asked Doctor Baird.
“What happened, after about four months, after Inchon, they said, you’ve got infantry training, right, we’re going to make you a forward observer, so I had go back to the infantry. My job was to tell our guys where to shoot the stuff. If there were ten thousand gooks in the open, we’d say, shoot the stuff that explodes in the air. It would rain down on those guys, the shrapnel getting them. Other times it was quick shells, the kind that explode the instant they hit the ground, or delays, the kind that stick in the ground and wait a while.”
“You were fighting the North Koreans?”
“No, we were fighting the Chinese, tough soldiers, small, always blowing bugles, padded up in quilt coats. They knew how to stay warm, not like us, with the summer outfits MacArthur sent us. They were good with mortars. If a round landed in front of you, and right away another landed behind you, we always said, get the hell out of the middle. There wasn’t anything but hills in Korea. We would lob over the hills when the infantry was going up one side to take it. We tried to shoot over them, down on the gooks, but sometimes it would land on our own guys.”
It was friendly fire getting unfriendly.
“That’s what happened to me and my buddy. We got caught up in some wire. You always had to watch for incoming rounds. As long as you heard a whistle, you’re OK. The one that gets you, you never hear it. He got killed, and I got nicked up. I couldn’t get off the wire. I still have scars on my arms. The Chinese picked me up. They had me for about three weeks, but I got sick, something in my stomach, and when there was a prisoner exchange, they sent me back. I got flown to Japan and was in a hospital for a month, but I made it.”
Tony stubbed the L & M out under his heel. He tucked his lighter away. It was time to go to work. He thought about the Greek kid.
“There was one Greek kid I knew, he was a baseball player, but he got a leg blown off. They gave him an artificial leg. He didn’t tell anybody about it and tried to come back. He was still trying to make it in the minors after I got home, but, of course, he couldn’t make it.”
The home plate entrance to Ebbets Field was an 80-foot rotunda made of Italian marble. Tony went around the back, to a door behind the bleachers in center field. He checked in with the watchman.
“When I got healthy, they said, you can go home unless you want to re-up. We’ll give you $300.00 if you do that. We made $90.00 a month and they paid us $45.00 extra whenever we were in combat. But they didn’t want to pay me for the couple of months I still had left on my two years, so I said, no way.”
“You went home after you got better?” asked Doctor Baird.
“Yeah, I came home to Brooklyn, got my old job back, except my old job was turned into cleaning up in the aisles, but now I’m doing maintenance work, better pay.”
After Tony changed into his work clothes in the cramped grounds crew locker room, he walked out to the field. They were raking the sand clay mix today, the infield, foul lines, and on-deck plot. His headache was gone. The ballpark was going to look good for the Giants next week.
“Hey Tony, big night tonight with Phil?” asked one of the three men with rakes on their shoulders as he walked up to them with his own rake.
“You bet,” he said.
”It’s Bilko tonight. He gets it over on the con men who try to gyp one of the guys. Ike’s going to like this one”
Dwight Eisenhower was a fan of “You’ll Never Get Rich.” Earlier in the season the King of Chutzpah had gotten a telegram from Ike’s press secretary. “The Old Man missed last night’s show,” it said. A print of the show was immediately shipped to the White House.
“You must have seen it filmed.”
“That would be a good bet. They made everybody roll around on the floor, except for Silver, in their uniforms because the uniforms came in looking too crisp, too starchy, for being in the motor pool. They looked scruffy enough when they were done.”
The show was filmed live in Chelsea in a building that used to be the armory of the Ninth Mounted Cavalry. It was shot like a play and recorded to film. It didn’t matter that that it was a comedy and Phil Silvers ad-libbed like a man lost in his own thoughts. Tony had been in the audience more than a dozen times. He always looked forward to Phil Silvers coming up with something off the top of his cue ball.
Tony the Phil was a big fan of Master Sergeant Ernest Bilko, who was named after Chicago Cubs first baseman Steve Bilko. “Bingo to Bango to Bilko” was the way the Chicago radio play-by-play man called double plays executed by shortstop Ernie Banks, second baseman Gene Baker, and Steve Bilko.
Tony never missed a show, unless the Dodgers were playing under the lights, and it was Fernandez to Robinson to Nelson.
He wasn’t the only fan of the show among the crew, but he was the show’s biggest fan among them. Sergeant Bilko was a pushy patsy whose get-rich-quick schemes almost always fell flat on their face. His tips never panned out either, but nobody ever bad-mouthed him for trying. They loved him for trying.
“They always lose, sure, but they don’t blame me, because to a gambler a bad tip is better than no tip at all,” said Phil Silvers.
A short man wearing a plaid cap, a stogie stuck in his thick lips, standing on the far side of the pitcher’s mound in a pair of green knee-high rubber boots, waved a hand at Tony.
“Tony, go out there and check the drainage in center,” said Max Ringolsby, the crew chief, pointing over the top of the second base bag. “Duke said something about the grass being damp out there, maybe the drain is clogged up.”
The Duke of Flatbush was one of the team’s best outfielders, usually assigned to roam center field. The year before he was the National League’s MVP runner-up. Nobody wanted to see him go head over heels on a slick spot.
Tony walked off the infield, into the outfield, to the middle of center field, and found the drain. He got down on his hands and knees. The ground was more waterlogged than it should have been. Drainpipes crossed the field and water flowed down a slight fall to a larger drainpipe that ran into the storm water system. The pipe was about four inches below the sand, clay, and gravel that was below the grass.
Tony cut a block of sod from around the drain and dug down to the drain grate. It was stopped up with debris. He retrieved a screwdriver from the tool room and removed the cover. He put it on the ground beside him and started cleaning it. He had the feeling somebody was watching him. He looked around the field. Almost everyone was working at something. Nobody was watching him.
But he could smell a rat when he saw one.
He bent forward and looked into the drain. A dark-eyed brown rat leaned up and looked back at him. He might have been a foot-and-half stretched out. His teeth were long but gnawed down. Rats chewed on anything, cement, brick, and lead pipes. One of the guys fed scrambled eggs to the rats that visited their locker room. Tony wondered what he was doing up and about in the middle of the day. He didn’t wonder that the rat was in the sewer. They could tread water for days.
The rats bred and lived and died and bred in Ebbets Field. They never left. Why would they leave? They had been there since the stadium was built in 1913, generation after generation, because there were always leftover hot dogs roasted peanuts soft pretzels, and Cracker Jack beneath seats and around overflowing trash bins.
“Boo,” said Tony the Phil.
The brown rat blinked and slipped back into the storm drain.
Vicki Adams stood in the doorway, leaned forward, nudged Barnett Newman into the office, and said to Stan, “Here he is. I’ll be at MOMA until 11:30, then lunch at Eisenberg’s before I have to hit the typewriter. Join me there?”
It was 10 o’clock the Monday morning.
“See you at noon dollface,” Stan Riddman said. He grinned wolfishly.
“Watch the language, bub.” Vicki scowled. Stan looked sheepish, apologizing with a two-finger salute. It was how the Polish Armed Services saluted. Stan had picked it up during the war.
Vicki waved goodbye and went out the door.
Barnett Newman had thinning hair and a heavy mustache, wore a polka-dotted bow tie with a monocle dangling from a neck strap down the front of his shirt. He was a heavy man who had not gone heavy. He had never met spoken looked a private eye in the eye in his life.
He was born and bred in New York City, and was sure he would die in NYC, studied philosophy at City College of New York, and worked in his father’s clothing factory in the Bronx before it went bust after the stock market crash. He had been a small-time magazine publisher, ran for mayor in a whimsical write-in campaign in 1933, and finally gave up the single life and got married in 1936.
His wife went to work, and he joined the Art Students League. He made himself into a painter of strict abstraction. In 1950 he painted an 8 by 18-foot long picture in all-over red. He added four vertical bands of color and called them zips. No one knew what he was talking about. He spent hours days weeks explaining it. Barnett Newman enjoyed polemics more than most people.
“It’s no different, really, from meeting another person,” he said about his oversize painting. No one knew what that meant, either.
“Have a seat, Mr. Newman,” said Stan Rittman, standing up at his desk and motioning to one of the two armless wood banker’s chairs that floated around the office.
“Call me Barney.”
“All right, Barney.”
The office of the Duluc Detective Agency wasn’t large. It wasn’t small, either. It had a separate side entrance as well as the front door. The side door went into another office they kept behind an unmarked front door. Stan’s desk faced and was not quite to the left of the front door. It backed on the windows looking down to 48th Street. Ezra shared Bettina’s desk on the rare occasion he had paperwork to work on or needed to stretch his legs up on something. It was perpendicular to Stan’s desk on the right. There were two rows of filing cabinets, a freestanding coat rack, an umbrella stand, and a water cooler. In a small storage room were shelves of typewriter ribbon stationary invoices envelopes stamps pens and pencils. One shelf was for whiskey. A floor safe was tucked into a back corner. Stan and Ezra kept their cash and guns in the safe.
“Vicki hasn’t told me much, other than she knows you through the magazine, and likes you, and you have a problem with how a friend of yours died.”
“That’s right, Mr. Rittman. It was Jackson Pollack, who was my friend. There was a car crash. Neither Lee nor I believe it happened the way the Hampton police say it happened. Jack could drive those roads blindfolded no matter how much he’d had to drink. He could drive them in his sleep.”
“Call me Stan,” said Stan, thinking Barney Newman to be ten fifteen years older than himself and at least twenty years older than Bettina.
“Betty, can you sit in with us, maybe take a few notes?”
“Sure,” said Bettina, stepping over with a steno pad, sitting down on the other loose chair next to Barney Newman.
Ezra called her Big Head Bettina behind her back because she was smart and because her head was slightly larger than it should have been. He called her Betty to her face because she had punched him in the nose the one and only time he called her Big Head. She had grown her hair out recently in a high ponytail style with round bangs at the top of her forehead. When Stan threw an eye on her now, she looked like no worries.
“You said Lee and you. Who is Lee?” asked Stan.
“Lee Krasner was Jackson Pollack’s wife.”
“Vicki said he died up on Long Island, some small town out there, is that right?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“I’ve heard of him somewhere, probably the papers, some kind of famous artist, if I’ve got that right. What was he doing out in the middle of nowhere?”
“He lived in Springs and he was living it up with his girlfriend.”
Bettina looked up, paused, her pencil quiet in her hand, as neither Stan nor Barney said anything for a few seconds in the lag of soaking it in.
“Why don’t we start at the beginning, tell me all about Jackson Pollack, and what it is you want me to look into,” Stan said.
Most of the work Ezra and Betty and Stan did was insurance and marital work.
“I didn’t steal no inventory of my own,” said a small-time supplier of slabs of beef. “I am the Dolores, understand? I can’t stand my husband being unfaithful,” said a dark-haired sultry woman wearing a slash of red lipstick. “I’d rather see her dead than unfaithful,” said a burly middle-aged man wearing a diamond pinkie ring. “I hope to God you prove me wrong.”
Pinkie went up the river to Sing Sing after all was said and done and dead to a faithless world.
“Do you mind if I smoke?” asked Barney.
“Not at all,” said Stan, and pushed a three-rest yellow glass ashtray towards him.
Barnett Newman smoked one cigarette after another with girlish puffs and spoke in a nasally voice with a not quite scrubbed away New Yorkese accent. He didn’t drop r’s or add them where they weren’t wanted or lengthen his o’s and w’s, but it was in the background if you cared to listen. He talked with his hands, his cigarette always in his right hand. He shifted forwards and backwards in his seat, riffling his sport coat out by the lapels, and folding himself back into the chair.
“Where should I start?” he asked.
“Start with Jackson Pollack,” said Stan.
“He was one-of-a-kind, a new man, a new artist. He made a new world out of nothing.”
Nearly an hour-and-a-half later, Barnett Newman’s steps going away in the hallway, a haze of not-yet-stale cigarette smoke lingering behind him, Stan turned to Bettina. “One of us is going to have to go up to Springs,” he said.
“Ezra’s on that waterfront thing, and I don’t drive, remember, so it’s going to have to be you,” she said.
“All right, but you find the girlfriend and talk to her, find out what happened, what she thinks or knows happened, especially that part about Pollack aiming for the tree.”
A half-hour later Stan snuck a look into Eisenberg’s. It was a few minutes before noon. He spotted Vicki on one of the red leather stools halfway down the long counter. Her purse was keeping the stool to her left reserved. She smiled when she saw him and waved him over
“Do you need a menu?” one of the cooks behind the counter asked while he was halfway down to the stool.
“No, I’ll take the lox, eggs, easy on the breath, and don’t forget the cup of pickles.” Vicki ordered smoked salmon on a boiled bagel with lettuce, tomato, and Thousand Island. She avoided the pastrami at Eisenberg’s. “Too fatty and too chewy at the same time,” is how she described it, looking down her nose.
“What about the cream cheese and scallions?” he asked.
“What about them?” she said.
“Not much, not by your appetite. Have you ever wondered why they call it Thousand Island?”
“It’s from Thousand Islands, New York, that’s why,” said Vicki. “Maybe fifty years ago, a fishing guide’s wife up there made it up for her husband’s fish dinners. The rest is history.”
“Oh,” said Stan.
“You told me you graduated from detective school.”
Stan looked up from his cup of coffee.
“I graduated from the school of hard knocks.”
“How did it go with Barney?”
“It’s a hell of a yarn,” he said. “I don’t know what to think about it. There might be something to it, who knows. Betty is going to look into something Barney told us, about the girlfriend. Maybe you can fill me in on who’s who.”
“You’ve heard of abstract expressionism, I’ve mentioned it, that’s who they are, the painters, it’s all here in New York. Most of them live and work here or out on Long Island. Jackson was an action painter, the real deal.”
“Wasn’t he the painter they called Jack the Dripper?”
“That’s what Time magazine called him earlier in the year, which was all wrong because he wasn’t painting that way anymore, hadn’t been for a few years. He’s been on the quiet side overall the past two, three years.”
“He’s on the I can hear a pin drop side now,” said Stan.
“Another draw in the dark?” asked the counterman.
“Thanks bud,” said Stan, sliding his coffee cup and saucer forward.
“He was famous,” said Vicki, “Not everyone thought he was good, though.”
“If he’s good, I’m going blind and should get out of the business,” said art dealer Kurt Valentin.
“This is new,” said the painter Giorgio Morandi. “Vitality, energy – new!”
“Was he good?”
“It depends on who you ask. I liked his work. Some people said it was complete disorder without any method, while others said it was a whole new way of making art, visual energy like no one had ever seen. Life magazine wrote him up, said he might be the best, right around 1950.”
“Most of Jackson Pollack’s paintings resemble nothing so much as a mop of tangled hair I have an irresistible urge to comb out,” said an offended reporter for the New York World Telegram.
“Jackson is the greatest painter this country has produced,” said art critic Clement Greenberg.
“Some people thought he was off his rocker and didn’t know what he was doing,” Vicki said.
“When I am painting, I am not much aware of what is taking place,” said Jackson Pollack. “It is only after that I see what I have done.”
“Lee Krasner, his wife, they got married in the mid-40s, is an artist, a good one, too, but it’s hard to say what school she works in,” said Vicki. “She’s been doing collages for years, as far as I know, not exactly groundbreaking.”
“Lee devoted more time to taking care of Jackson than she did to her work,” said Roger Wilcox. “He was difficult, but she believed in him.”
Roger Wilcox’s wife, Lucia, whose own abstract paintings were spelled out with lively sweeps of color, was someone who from the late 1930s helped get the artist’s colony on the east end of Long Island going, from Alfonso Ossorio and Robert Motherwell to Jackson Pollack. She liked to cook and often fed the hungry artists in her large kitchen that opened into her large studio.
“Barney is a color field painter,” said Vicki. “He’s not as well-known as Mark Rothko, more of a minor key guy, but he talks it up, and he’s committed to what they’re all up to.”
“What are they up to?” Stan asked.
“Not any one thing. They’re mostly all trying to make it, make New York the capitol of the art world, take over from Paris, and when they do, they’ll be made men. They’re more than halfway there. Most of them, whether it’s abstract or not, most of them are doing something new. An Italian painter, Morandi, he said they dive into the water before they learn to swim. He meant it as a good thing. It’s American-style painting.”
Before he left the Duluc Detective Agency, Barnett Newman asked, “The name of your business doesn’t sound American, sounds French. Do you mind my asking why you’re not Ace Detectives?”
“No, I don’t mind,” said Stan. “I was in Paris the last year of the war. I was a military policeman, black armband, big yellow MP on my steel pot. After it was all over, I stayed. I liked the city, liked the food and drink, and I liked the girls. I ran out of money soon enough and started looking for work. I knew the language reasonably well. A friend of mine introduced me to someone who introduced me to Duluc Investigations.”
Stan stubbed his butt out.
“The office was on the ground floor right around the corner from the Louvre. Most of the work was swindle cases and missing persons. It was 1946, so there was a lot of swindling going on and a lot of gone footloose. I stayed for two years, learned a lot, but got homesick.”
“What borough, where’s home?”
“That’s not New York.”
“No, but after I shipped back here, back from Europe, a buddy of mine put me up for a few weeks, catching up. One thing led to another and before I knew it, I was taking the police exam. I didn’t make it back to Ohio. I was in blue for almost three years, but I butted heads with some hard heads in the department. It wasn’t for me. When I set myself up as an independent, I called the old man back in Paris and asked him if I could use his name on my shingle. He said he was too far away to do anything about it.”
“Will you take it up, take a look at what happened to Jackson?” asked Barnett Newman.
“I’ll give it a few days and get back to you. We’ll check out the girl and the hometown and go from there. I’ll need something from you introducing me to the wife. Let her know I’m coming, if you can. I don’t want to waste my time or your money.” said Stan.
“Are you going to be able to help them?” asked Vicki, reaching for her slice of apple pie.
“He signed on the dotted line, gave us a deposit, but I’m not sure,” said Stan. “Betty is going to try and see the girlfriend who made it out alive and I’m going to drive up to Springs tomorrow, nose around, see if I can touch base with the widow, stop and see the local cherry toppers, get my hands on what’s in the public record, anything they might be willing to tell me.”
“You won’t take Barney for a ride, or anything like that.”
“It sounds like it doesn’t amount to much and it’s probably going to end in nothing. We’ll keep it short.”
“What do you charge?” asked Barney.
“We charge a flat fee for sweeps, backgrounds, interviews, things like that. Yours isn’t anything like that. Your work is going to be $10.00 a man hour, plus expenses,” said Stan. “Expenses mean anything we have to pay out, buying somebody a beer, buying somebody’s talk, buying gas getting out to Springs, incidentals. We’ll check with first with you about anything over twenty dollars.”
“That sounds all right.”
“How did Jackson Pollack end up in Springs?” asked Stan.
“They were living here in the city, but Jackson got sick of it. He and Lee borrowed some money from their dealer, more from a local bank, and they moved there, and got married on the way, ten, eleven years ago,” said Barney. “They bought an old farmhouse, no bathroom, no central heating, a barn, five acres, a great view of the harbor, and a mortgage.”
“It doesn’t sound like they got much for their money.”
“Jackson did his best work in Springs,” said Barney, “He loved it out there.”
“I admire his work, a great painter and all that. But he was a difficult character, always drunk and wild, impossible to deal with” said Sidney Janis.
“I know you don’t like monkey wrenches, but I should tell you he wasn’t born with a paintbrush in his hand. He was from Wyoming. The only thing they paint there are houses. It wasn’t simple to spill a Pollack out. He was a self-destructive man,” Vicki said. “I’ve heard it from more than one person.”
“When he went on those drinking spells, we didn’t want to see him. We were afraid of him, of his anger,” said Lawrence Larkin.
“One time, Jack got to driving the damn car so fast I was sure we were going to veer off the road. I thought he was out there to kill himself, kill us all,” said his brother, Frank Pollack.
“He was so deeply troubled and depressed, in pretty bad shape,” said Grace Borgenight. “There was that suicidal drive.”
“He was ambitious, driven, came from a hardscrabble family, but he was dark and antisocial, too,” said Vicki. “He could be mean. He was mean. He went on benders and got into lots of fights, especially at the Cedar Tavern down in the village. They all lived in the neighborhood and hung around there for the cheap drinks. He was banned for a while after he tore the bathroom door off its hinges and hurled it across the room at another painter.”
“I thought most painters were mostly pansies,” said Stan.
“Where have you been? That has never been true. It’s a new day and age, anyway,” said Vicki. “The greatest artists have the biggest fights, even though sometimes it’s only with themselves.”
Stan paid the bill, pocketing the receipt, and they stepped out of the no-frills luncheonette onto the sidewalk. Stan flagged down a hack, pecked Vicki on the cheek, and held the door of the car open as she slid into the back seat.
“Where can I see some of Pollack’s paintings?” he asked when Vicki rolled down the window.
“I would try the Sidney Janis Gallery.”
“And the Cedar Tavern is down in Greenwich Village, right?” he asked as the cabbie shifted into gear.
“Go to the Cedar afterwards. You’re such a numbskull about modern art, you’ll need a stiff pick-me-up after you see the all-overs, believe me,” she cackled unladylike, pleased with herself. Her hand waved out the window as the cab pulled away from the curb, merging into the midtown midday traffic.
It was hot, humid, the city smelled bad, and the sky was spotted with dull clouds. The hot dog Ezra had wolfed down for breakfast was giving him trouble. On top of that, the bunion topping his left big toe was throbbing in the new shoes he had neglected to stretch beforehand.
It was a bad day to be having a bad day.
But that’s what it was turning into. Now the other penny was dropping. He was sure nobody was behind him but running fast and far was going to be a problem with his goddamn bunion. He kept his hands at his sides, his right hand balled into a fist.
“You can forget about that roll of pennies in your hand,” said the small man next to Luca Gravano.
Luca Gravano was Big Paulie. He wasn’t big tall big. He was big all around, a dark suit, dark tie, and white shirt. His face was pockmarked, and he wore thick black browline glasses. The lenses looked like they were smeared with a thin film of Vaseline. His brown eyes looked slippery and unfocused.
He stank of high-priced cologne.
“They’re not Lincoln’s,” said Ezra. “They’re Jefferson’s.”
He could use a lucky penny.
“OK, let’s cut the crap,” said Big Paulie. “We ain’t going to get up to anything here, broad daylight, all these guys all around here.” He waved a thick hand over his shoulder. “We just wanna know what is it you wanna know.”
Ezra looked past the big man. On the finger pier side was a boat. Hemp slings were easing swaying pallets off the boat. In the distance he could see the Statue of Liberty. On the dockside was a two-story brick building. A loose group of longshoreman was coming their way, baling hooks in their belts. They would be D & D if anything did get up. “I don’t know nothing about it,” they would all say, deaf and dumb, after it was all over. But, they could be the smoke screen Ezra needed to be on his way.
“I’m trying to get a line on Tommy Dunn,” Ezra lied.
“Never heard of him,” said the small man in shirtsleeves.
“Fair enough,” said Ezra.
“You private?” asked Big Paulie.
“Yeah,” said Ezra.
“Who you work for?” asked the small man. He had yellow fingernails and sharp front teeth. He wore a black felt pork pie hat.
“Ace Detectives,” Ezra lied.
“I’ve heard of them,” said the small man.
“Best we don’t see you down here again,” said Big Paulie.
“I take your meaning,” said Ezra.
He took a step back, smiling meekly, turning and walking away in stride with a group of longshoremen going his way. He hated shucking and jiving, but he knew enough to hedge his bets. The hoodlums ran the shaping up, the loading, and the quickie strikes. They hired you for the day if you were willing to kick back part of your day’s pay. At the shape-up you let them know by putting a toothpick behind your ear or wearing a red scarf or whatever the hell it was they wanted to see.
They controlled the cargo theft, the back-door money stevedores paid to keep the peace, and the shylocking from one end of Red Hook to the other end. They didn’t steal everything, although they tried. The unions were the hoodlums. The businessmen were the hoodlums. The pols were the hoodlums. The whole business was hoods.
The Waterfront Commission hadn’t gotten much done since they got started, even though the State of New York and the Congress of the United States were both in word and writing on board. It was taking some doing to make it into deeds.
It was just two-some years ago on a Christmas week when a new union butted heads with the ILA. Tony “Tough“ Anastasio flooded the streets with the faithful. It took more a thousand club-swinging City of New York policemen to break up the melee at the Port of New York. In the end, gang rule stayed the rule on the docks.
Ezra put the roll of nickels back in his pants pocket. He walked the length of the wire fence to the gate. Through the gate he turned his back on the Buttermilk Channel. He couldn’t get away from a sinking feeling in his gut, though. Red Hook was surrounded by water on three sides. A longshoreman smoking alone stared at him. He crossed the street into the neighborhood. The houses, six-story brown brick apartment buildings, were less than twenty years old, but they were already getting suspicious and seedy.
“I need a drink,” he thought.
Most days Ezra ran on caffeine and nicotine. Most nights he ran on alcohol and nicotine. Even though it was only late morning, today wasn’t most days.
He found a bar grill at the corner of Court Street and Hamilton Avenue. Sitting down at the bar he ordered a shot and a chaser. He looked up at the bartender. The man was wearing a bow tie. He looked like a tossed-out mattress wearing a bow tie.
“What have you got on tap?” asked Ezra.
“Ballantine, Schlitz, Rheingold.”
A couple of longshoremen were on stools a couple of stools away. Squat bottles of beer squatted in front of them. Neither man had a glass.
The TV on a shelf behind the bar was on, although the sound had been turned down. A beer commercial was running. It was a ticker tape parade through Times Square, but instead of war heroes or celebrities everybody in the parade was a bottle of Rheingold Extra Dry.
“No one knew what that was about,” said one of the longshoremen, pulling a pack of Luckies out of his shirt pocket.
“I got no trouble,” said the other one. “I support my family. I got my four kids. It’s good work.”
“Nothing changes,” said the Lucky Strike man lighting his cigarette. “You just live every day as if it’s your last.”
“I’ll have a Rheingold,” said Ezra Aronson. “No glass.”
“I’ll have that one,” said Bettina Kohler, across the river, pointing to the fresh cheese Danish the spinning steel drum had just fed into the window. Pete Murphy deposited three nickels, turned the handle in the lower left corner of the window, and pulled out the plate. He bought a ham sandwich for himself. They poured two cups of steaming brewed coffee for a nickel each and found seats in the cafeteria.
The automat had recently installed photo booths in a row along a back wall. “The New Photographic Sensation! 4 Poses 25 cents! Ready in 2 Minutes!” A young woman wearing a polka-dotted swing dress stood combing her hair in front of one at the small square mirrors next to the entry curtain.
Pete and Bettina had played three games of ping-pong at the pool parlor on 42nd Street, working up an appetite. After two games it was one up. Pete won the rubber game. After lunch he was going back to work across the street at the New York Public Library and Bettina was going downtown to talk to Ruth Kligman, Jackson Pollock’s girlfriend, the girl who had survived the car crash in Springs the month before.
In the meantime, Pete had written up notes from clippings on her.
“Ruth was the girlfriend and the other one, the girl who didn’t make it, her name was Edith Metzger,” said Pete, biting into his sandwich. “She was a hairdresser in the Bronx. It’s too bad, since she was only along for the ride, a young girl.”
“You never want to be the innocent bystander,” said Bettina.
“It was a tough weekend all around up there in East Hampton and Southampton,” said Pete. “Ten people died in smash-ups.”
Ruth and Jackson Pollack had only met earlier in the year before the accident.
“How did they meet?” asked Bettina.
“Audrey Flack hooked them up,” said Pete.
“She wanted to meet important artists,” said Audrey. “I drew her a map of how to get to the Cedar Tavern. She asked which one was the most important and I said Pollack. She went right to the bar and made a beeline for Pollack.”
“Who’s Audrey Flack?” asked Bettina
“About the same age as Kligman, but an artist, not a hanger-on,” said Pete. “Cooper Union, BFA from Yale, the Institute of Fine Arts here in the city.”
“I remember Pollack’s grin, his arm around her and the finger with the missing tip caressing her shoulder bare above the halter,” said Audrey. “I saw what he meant about loaded with extras.”
Pete and Bettina played ping-pong at the pool hall once or twice a week. Pete was an attacker, standing about three feet away from the table, going at the ball at the top of the bounce, aiming to end points quickly. Serve it smash it was his motto. Bettina believed in outwit beats outhit. She was a close to the table defender, countering with under-spin blocks trying to force weak topspin returns then volleying with a well-placed drive or loop.
Baby got backspin was her motto.
Pete led with more long serves than not, with different amounts of topspin backspin sidespin, looking for a counterattack on the third and fifth balls. On the flip side Bettina offered up under-spin and no-spin serves so the ball slowed down or skidded when hitting the table.
“If you want a soft serve, go to Dairy Queen,” complained Pete.
Once in play she spun the ball more often than not. She wasn’t wet behind the ears. She played the long game.
“Spin it to win it,” she said pointedly to Pete.
“She was working at the Collector’s Gallery when she met Pollack,” said Pete. “She was new and single, had the Elizabeth Taylor look and feel. He was 44 and married. He was looking for some feeling.”
“He looked tired out, sad,” said Ruth Kligman. “His body seemed as though it couldn’t stand up on its own.“
She told anyone who would listen that she brought his energy back up. Jackson Pollack fell head over heels for the 26-year-old in a red dress. He spent nights in New York City with her. She moved to Sag harbor at the start of summer to be closer to him.
“He felt good about her,” said Jim Brooks, the painter who moved into the Greenwich Village apartment Jackson Pollack and Lee Krasner moved out of when they moved to Springs. “You know, a pretty, voluptuous gal, thinking he was the greatest man on the word.”
“It looks like the girlfriend knew about the wife and the wife knew about the girlfriend,” said Pete. “The wife went to Europe in July, gave Pollack his marching orders, told him it was going to have to be her or the floozy, and he had until Labor Day to decide. He moved the floozy into their house on Fireplace Road the same afternoon the wife left.”
“His dream was to have both, like a little boy,” said Patsy Southgate.
“Lee was dealing with a powder keg,” said Nick Carone, an artist friend of the Pollack’s.
“I will never give Jackson a divorce,” said Lee Krasner.
“The car was flipped over, cans of Rheingold all over,” said Pete. “The young girl was pinned under the car, DOA. The girlfriend broke a leg and Pollack got rocketed into the woods. He was DOA, too.”
“It sounds like it was a hell of a mess,” said Bettina.
After the accident Patsy Southgate visited Ruth in the Southampton Hospital. “She didn’t look much banged up to me,” she said. “In fact, she looked great.”
What Bettina took away later after talking to an eager Ruth Kligman, leaning back on a sofa, her bare legs propped up on an ottoman, in a friend’s living room in the East Village, was that what happened was going to happen.
“Edith started screaming, ‘Stop the car, let me out!’ but he put his foot all the way to the floor. He was speeding wildly,” she said. She made it sound like he had meant to drive himself to death, as though the car crash was no accident, no speed limits to save you from your own fate.
“It had to happen. Jackson was schizoid and he couldn’t be stopped. Edith was scared by the situation with him. She was a victim, but she always was. Jackson was a victim, too. He had to die,” Ruth said.
“It was a mess,” said Pete, “but at the wake about a week later, out at their house there in Springs, a lot of people said afterwards it was the best party they had ever been to.”
“The best chili I ever had in my life, really hot stuff,” said Franz Kline.
“What stays with me is that baked Virginia ham,” said Morton Feldman. “I never tasted such ham, never.”
“I had too much to drink,” said Charles Pollack. “I remember dancing with a black girl.”
Artists are always hungry, whether they are starving, or not.
“We all had a good time,” said Clement Greenburg.
“Thanks, Pete,” said Bettina. “How about Friday? You were good, but I can be better. You owe me a rematch.”
“See you then,” he said. “Bring your lucky paddle.”
Bettina whistled a cab down to go down to the East Village to talk to Ruth Kligman.
In Brooklyn, Smokey the garage man tossed the car keys to Stan Riddman.
“All gassed up,” he said.
Stan got into the driver’s seat, turned the key in the ignition, and eased the 1955 Pontiac Star Chief into the flow of traffic for the drive out to the far end of Long Island. The engine hummed, 1954’s straight-eight replaced by a new V-8. The sedan was a light gray color, two wide ‘Silver Streaks’ running the length of the hood, and showcase leather upholstery. Although neither he nor Ezra drove it overmuch, and might have been able to do without it, they both liked the car, and since in their line of work, they reasoned, some things happen somewhere else besides the city, they would be better off getting there in a Star Chief, instead of some heap of nuts and bolts, like a Ford.
“Fix or repair daily,” is what Smokey said about Fords.
He was concerned for the car whenever Ezra took it out for whatever reason. Stan was a careful driver, usually staying a few miles–or-so below the speed limit, always signaling, never trying to beat a light, but Ezra was not the nice guy at a dogfight behind the wheel. He hadn’t put a wrinkle in the car, yet, but it was only a matter of time. Riding in the car with Ezra was like bad weather no matter the weather.
They kept the Pontiac garaged in Brooklyn to keep expenses down. He guided the car through East New York, through Queens, and on to Route 27, and was on his way the more than one hundred miles to East Hampton. From there the Fireplace Road would take him directly to Springs and Jackson Pollack, or whatever was left of him.
He slipped past convertibles, panel vans, and station wagons full of wives and kids going to Howard Beach, Lido Beach, and Jones Beach. He kept his mind off his errand. The old man had always said not to overthink the work, especially at the beginning, when there wasn’t much to think about, anyway.
The drive took almost four hours. The road was a two-lane that went through every town on the way. He stopped in Patchogue to stretch his legs in the shadow of a billboard. Stan craned his neck to look up at it.
‘Patchogue: Biggest Shopping Center on Long Island.’
There were at least six gas stations in Bridgehampton, a small potato farm town north of Sagaponack Pond. He pulled into the Sinclair, even though he was less than ten miles from East Hampton. A side lot was filled with tractors, sprayers, and harvesters waiting to be repaired.
“Fill it up?”
Stan got out of the car while the attendant, dressed in a shirt and cap with the company’s logo, limped to the pump. A teenager ran up and cleaned off the windshield, checked the oil, and added air to one of the tires. There was a sign in the window.
‘Free All-Plastic Dinosaur Piggy Bank With Every Fill-up.’
“Make it 5 gallons,” said Stan.
“$1.25,” said the attendant.
Stan pulled some singles from his wallet. While the attendant went into the station to make change, he looked at one of the Silver Certificates still in his wallet. Congress had passed and President Eisenhower signed a new law the month before. “In God We Trust” was now the motto of the United States and it was going to be on all paper money starting the next year. Stan didn’t follow the Red Scare or the Cold War in the papers, but he knew enough to understand why the USA had to be a God-fearing nation and the Commies were shamed as atheists.
A piece of paper stained by water oil dirt was taped to one of the gas pumps.
‘In God we trust. All others pay cash.’
Stan wasn’t a religious man, but he thought printing God’s name on money might be sacrilegious. What about what happened to the money lenders in the temple?
East Hampton’s Main Street was lined with elm trees. He located the police station on Newtown Lane. They had their own two gas pumps on the sidewalk outside the front door and two cells in the back. The post office was across the street. He drove past Bohack’s, the grocery store. There were no street numbers on many of the houses. There was one traffic light in the center of town. He stopped at it when it turned red.
A loose group of Negro migrant workers sat on benches with bottles of Thunderbird in paper bags. It might have been their day off. Across the street the Candy Kitchen was full for lunch. There were no dark faces at the counter or at any table and there were no half-empty glasses of curb juice.
He was going to have to stay the night, find somewhere for dinner and a bed.
A woman was watering the lawn and a bed of flowers in front of a small white flat-roofed building. He pulled over. A sign said ‘Ladies Village Improvement Society’.
“Hello,” said Stan.
“Hello,” said the woman, turning off the nozzle of her garden hose.
“I wonder if you could tell me where I can find a motor inn?”
“Montauk is where I would try,” she said. “They’ve built more than a half-dozen new ones up there in the past few years. It’s just fifteen-or-so miles up the road.”
“Thanks,” he said, and added, “Do you mind my asking what the society does?”
“Not at all,” she said, brightening. “We water all the flowers and gardens downtown, help keep the public order, not that I’m saying the police don’t care, and make sure all the stores are closed on Sundays. We do our best to make sure everyone is in proper dress whenever they’re out in public, too.”
A busybody’s work is never done, thought Stan.
It wasn’t far from East Hampton to Springs, about four miles. He found Jackson Pollack’s two-story wood-shingled house on the Fireplace Road. It looked like an old farmhouse. There was a cherry tree next to the house, silver maples all around, and the long backyard sloped down to salt marshes. There was a small barn behind and to the side of the house. When Stan looked in through one of the windows he saw a floor spattered with paint and footprints. The floor shelves workbenches were crowded with cans of paint and half-empty cans full of sticks brushes and turkey basters. Canvases were rolled up on top of a cabinet. A pile of sand was in one corner, a stepladder in another.
An expansive light poured in through a large high window.
He walked back to the house and looked in through the living room window. There were paintings hanging on the walls, filled with sprawling looping crazy colors. Jazz records littered the floor in front of a record player.
There was no one in sight. He got into his Star Chief and drove to Montauk. There were no sidewalks in town. He parked at an angle. A horse was tied up to a telephone pole. He ate at Gosman’s Deck, a clam bar shack, and had clams, pasta with olive oil and chopped tomatoes, and a bottle of Falstaff.
He found a reasonably priced room at Uncle Tom’s Cabins.
“There’s a nice beach down on Fort Pond,” said the woman in black capris and a red and white Roman shirt, a cigarette burning in the ashtray at her elbow, behind the counter.
It was a five-minute walk.
Stan sat on the beach, his back against a pretzel log of driftwood, and watched the sun go down. He got to his feet before it got too dark to see, making his way back to the motor inn. He walked up the crushed clamshell driveway, guided by the light next to his room door that he had turned on before going to the beach.
Barnett Newman had said Jackson Pollack did his drinking at Jungle Pete’s. It wasn’t overly late. He could drive up there for another beer. He would get the lay of the land tomorrow, talk it up wherever Jackson Pollack had done his stomping and dying, drive back to the city, and compare snapshots with Betty the day later. He didn’t believe darkness could be understood by overwhelming it with a flood of light.
Slow and steady out on Long Island. No one hand, no matter how good, ever busted the bank. But, with a good flashlight, the potholes in a dark road could lead to the key of the brain-twister, if there was a brain-twister.
“Is it the same as being in jail?” asked Dottie.
“None of them have committed a crime, so it’s not the same, not exactly, even though they’re all behind bars,” said Otis.
Dottie Riddman and Otis Arnold were at the Central Park Zoo. All the animals were behind bars. They were innocent, in their own way, but it didn’t matter to their keepers, no matter how well-meaning the keepers were. The lions might have bitten their heads off if they could, but they couldn’t.
“I asked Ezra to take me before school started,” said Dottie.
“What am I, chopped liver?” asked Otis.
“No, you’re Oats!” said Dottie, laughing gaily. “Do you know what he said?”
“No, what did he say?”
“If the zoo wants you, let them come and get you.”
“That wasn’t nice.”
“I think he meant he was busy,” said Dottie. “He had to do something for dad.”
Otis liked Dottie, even though he didn’t especially like children. They were needy, messy, and noisy. He didn’t dislike them, but he didn’t like them, either. Only Dottie. She was tomboy as much as she was a 12-year-old girl. He liked that.
Children were always being told by their parents to listen, but what they did more than listen, tending to only listen to the voice in their heads, was watch, sizing you up. When they weren’t watching, they were imitating whoever and whatever was in the neighborhood worth imitating. When they weren’t doing that, they were moving around all the time, getting lost and found,
Or they were wasting their time. He thought it was OK for children to waste some of their time, but only if there was something in the wasting. Otherwise, it was lost time.
Dottie was 12 years-old – “No, I’m not, I’m almost thirteen!” – but she knew how to listen and talk and not size him up. She had fun going to the movies, the park, the zoo, but she didn’t play around at being playful. She wasted less time than most children.
Otis had taken the day off from Osner Business Machines to take Dottie to the zoo. Dottie had taken the day off from school. School had just started, but it might be the last time Dottie could get to the zoo, and she convinced everyone it was worth playing hooky. Stan wrote a note for her before he drove out on the other end of Long Island. Otis had heard fifty thousand people tramped through the zoo on Saturdays and Sundays, so weekends were out. It had to be a weekday. They ate breakfast together and he treated her to a cab ride to the Pond. They took a long walk around it, fed ducks with old lettuce Otis had torn into small pieces beforehand, and finally walked up East Drive to Park Road to the Central Park Zoo.
It wasn’t any stretch getting the day off. He was the best repairman in the shop on the Upper West Side, two or three times faster than the other repairmen, and he got the stickiest jobs done with the least effort. It didn’t matter of it was keys or platens or carriages. It didn’t matter if it was a Royal, an Underwood, or a Smith-Corona.
Besides, he didn’t absolutely need a full-scale paycheck every two weeks. He lived quietly, for the most part, and had a nest egg squirreled away, besides. Nobody knew anything about it. Otis kept some things close to the vest. He worked part-time at the typewriter repair shop and part-time for the Duluc Detective Agency. His cash savings were the payoff for being a part-time off-the-record do-it-all big city gumshoe.
The Central Park Zoo was sometimes called the Robert Moses Zoo, because Moses had redesigned and rebuilt it twenty years before, from a rough-and ready place to a picture-book place of limestone and brick buildings. It was on the small side, maybe seven acres, but it had tropic, temperate, and polar animals, bird and monkey houses, and a sea lion pool in the middle of it all. Eight outsize granite eagles were two-by-two on the four corners of the pool.
Nobody had to guess what was inside the animal houses. Friezes were everyone’s guide. Rocky Mountain sheep on the antelope house, a gorilla chewing on a twig on the monkey house, and marching penguins on the bird house. Every house had a chimney, too, and on every chimney was an iron weathervane of the animal inside.
The Arsenal, a hundred years old, had always been there and was still there. In its time it had been a weather bureau, a police precinct, and an art gallery. The front of the Arsenal faced Fifth Avenue. The turrets on the roof were offices for the parks department. In summer the office workers kept time for lunch hour by listening through their open back windows for the sea lions barking for their fish fillets.
Dottie liked the bearcats, which weren’t bears or cats, but like dust mops with a long tail and a pointy face. She liked them because they smelled like popcorn. “When they pee it soaks their feet and their fuzzy tails,” a zookeeper told her. “That’s what smells like popcorn.”
She wished her pee smelled like popcorn.
In the park near her dad’s apartment she had noticed, down on her hands and knees and her nose to the ground, the ants smelled like lemon drops and the flat creepy crawlers smelled like cherry cola.
Otis Arnold was the Duluc Detective Agency’s jack-of-all-trades. He was the master of some of them. He could pick most locks in a minute. He knew how to start and stop anybody’s car. He operated all the photographic equipment and sound recordings. He was even good at lifting prints, if he had to.
He owned an Exakta and a new Leica. The Leica M3 was the finest 35 mm ever made, he reckoned. He had a Minox spy camera, which was handy when he was rifling mail.
He used a letter remover that didn’t disturb the gummed seals. He would insert the pincer-like device into the unsealed gap at the top of the envelope, turn the handle of the remover to wind up the letter, extract it from the envelope, photograph it, and carefully repeat the process to return the letter.
He had picked up a button camera, too. A coat button hid a lens that screwed into a small camera. A cord ran into a pocket. When he was ready to take a photo, he put his hand in his pocket and pulled a lever, shooting the still onto 16mm subminiature film.
He used a Mohawk midget recorder to wiretap telephones and a Minifon portable wire recorder with long play cassettes, a watch microphone, and a shoulder harness, when he was working face-to-face. Otis had a face like Eleanor Roosevelt’s, making everyone think they had seen him somewhere before.
Otis and Dottie had a late lunch at Kelly’s Restaurant. A bronze statue of a tigress, her jaws clamped on a dead peacock, her young sniffing at her feet, was front-and-center in front of the eatery. Dottie clambered on top of it, straddling the tigress like a horse.
“Ride ‘em, cowboy!” Otis whooped.
“I’m a cowgirl!” Dottie yelled.
They sat outside on the terrace at a table beneath an umbrella. Otis was outnumbered ten to one by women and twenty to one by children. He had a broiled hamburger sandwich and stewed fruit. Dottie had a cold sliced ham sandwich and applesauce. Otis drank an A & W root beer and Dottie had an Orange Crush. He stretched his legs out and Dottie curled hers up underneath her.
“What do you like best about the zoo?” asked Otis.
“The smells,” said Dottie.
It smells like shit, he wanted to say. It’s a safe place to fart, that’s for sure. No matter how well the cage keepers did their jobs, animals urinated and defecated all day long. If human beings didn’t use bathrooms there would be one hell of a smell worldwide. Not only that, animals didn’t bathe. Their body odor was everywhere downwind. You could smell the zoo a mile away.
It was hard on the flank of Fifth Avenue. What was it like every summer, on stagnant hot humid summer days, the nearby apartment windows open to catch a breeze, he wondered? Whatever breeze they caught, the wind was westerly, and Fifth Avenue was on the east side of the park.
“That goo that comes out of the beaver butts, it smells like vanilla, and those toads in the mud, they smell like peanut butter, even though the smell makes me sneeze and my eyes burn,” said Dottie.
“What else do you like about the zoo?”
“I like being in the park, the sunshine, and the animals, but I don’t like that they’re in cages.”
“No, I don’t, either,” said Otis.
“Why do they put them in cages?”
“They do that to protect us. Lions and bears can be very dangerous.”
“Are they the most dangerous?”
“No, people are the most dangerous. Animals only kill to eat or defend themselves. We kill animals to eat, too, like chickens and pigs, but we also kill elephants for their tusks, tigers for their teeth, and bears for their fur. Sometimes people kill animals for no reason.”
“Lions and bears don’t live in cages at home, do they?”
“No, they live in jungles and forests, which is too bad for them, because their cages are thousands of times smaller than where they used to live.”
There were two six-foot bronze statues on either side of the restaurant. One was Dancing Goat and the other one was Honey Bear. The goat was rearing up and ducks at his feet sprayed water out of their mouths. The bear was on its hind legs, twisting its neck and head to one side, and sticking his tongue out. There were bronze frogs spraying water at his feet.
“Dad says some people belong in zoos.”
“He means bad people, not zoos so much, but behind bars.”
“That’s for damned right,” said Stan.
“Nobody puts people in zoos, do they?”
“Not anymore, but they used to, they were the zoo, a hundred years ago. They were like traveling zoos, people from India and Africa.”
“What kind of people?”
“Exotic people, different people, rope dancers, camel herders, Zulu fighters. There were whole villages, primitive people on display.”
“They didn’t mind?” asked Dottie.
“I don’t know,” said Otis. “I know I would mind.”
They watched boys and girls glide by on bicycles. Mothers pushed strollers, slow, slower, talking to their friends. A mime wheeled past on a unicycle, pretending to have great difficulty staying upright.
After lunch Otis and Dottie walked across the terrace to the sea lion pool. Dottie hopped on the bottom rail of the fence to get a better view. One of the sea lions was napping on top of a platform. Another one, across the gap from her, on the other side of the second, inner metal fence, was slip sliding on the wet ledge, barking at the sleeper. Other seals were sunbathing and three were chasing each other in the water.
“Let’s go see the lions,” said Dottie.
“OK, let’s go,” said Otis.
The lion they saw spread out in the cage was seven feet long, or more.
“Jesus!” said Otis. “He must be three hundred, four hundred pounds.”
How do tamers get into the ring with them, he wondered? I wouldn’t dare. It would be like trying to stare down a gangster.
“What does it say?” asked Dottie, pointing to the label screwed to the wall. Otis read the label to her.
“The Southeast African lion, also known as the Kalahari or Transvaal lion, is found in the southern parts of Africa. Groups of them called prides live in open woodlands, savannas, and grassy plains. They survive 10 years in the wild and up to 20 in captivity. Lions spend most of their time resting, napping and sleeping. They hunt at dawn and dusk.”
“Do you know what lion means?” asked Dottie.
“No, what does it mean?”
“It means king. That’s why they’re king of the jungle.”
“You’ve seen too many Tarzan movies,” said Otis.
“No, it was in my book.”
“What book was that?”
“Tawny Scrawny Lion.”
“It doesn’t sound like he was much of a king.”
“You have to read the book.”
Otis and Dottie were less than eight feet away from the lion. The big cat was a male, straw and leaves stuck in his short, light-colored mane, his face like a sphinx. He had a long tail with a black tassel at the end of it. He flicked his tail. When Dottie walked to the other end of the cage, the lion followed her with his orangey brown eyes, turning his big head. She walked halfway back to Otis and stopped.
Dottie looked up into the lion’s eyes. She was excited and scared. The lion opened his mouth, stuck out his tongue, and panted several times. She took a step back. She couldn’t look away.
“Do you think he wants to eat me?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Otis.
“Maybe we should go. Can we stop at the monkey house before we leave?”
“Sure, Dots, let’s go,” said Otis, taking her hand.
They left the Central Park Zoo twenty minutes later. Dottie looked back over her shoulder, walking out the gate of the zoo, at the clock at the top of the musical clock tower. There were dancing bears and elephants on ledges beneath the clock. Above the clock was a cast iron bell. It was a quarter to four. It would be four o’clock by the time they found a cab.
On Long Island it was four o’clock when Stan Riddman checked his watch. There was time enough to make it home with daylight to spare. He could have dinner, a cold beer, and if Dottie wasn’t staying over with Otis, no matter the confirmed bachelor he was, tuck her into bed. He slid into the Star Chief, started up the car, and started the drive back to the other end of Long Island.
It was a quarter after four when a skinny East Hampton policeman slid into the phone booth a block away from the station and called the number on the slip of paper the one-hundred-dollar bill had been paper-clipped to.
“This is East Hampton. You wanted to know if anyone ever came up here snooping around into Jackson Pollock, right?”
“Yeah. What do you know?”
“There was a guy here today, talked to the chief, some of Pollock’s neighbors, spent the day sticking his nose into things.”
“Did you get a name?”
“He said his name was Stan Riddman, a private dick from the city.”
“OK, forget this number, don’t call again.”
The policeman crumpled the piece of paper in his hand, stepped out of the phone booth, and threw it down on the sidewalk. A woman walking past, a member of the Ladies Village Improvement Society, snapped a disapproving look at him.
“Mind your own business,” said the skinny policeman, kicking the paper into the gutter, where it rolled into a sewer drain.
Bumpy Williams had a dimpled receding off-center chin and dead eyes. They were a colorless brown. At the same time, they were dead set on the prize. He rarely missed what he meant to see and have.
He was wearing a colorless brown single-breasted jacket with brown pleated trousers, but his shoes were gaudy City Club two lace two tones. His face was what made him good at what he did. Most people couldn’t ever remember what he looked like. There was an ugly jagged scar on one side of his chin. Nobody wanted to get caught staring at his chin and nobody ever looked in the vicinity of his eyes, which when he was on the job had a cold flat gaze.
Some people couldn’t even say whether he was a white or black man. They avoided him, hugging the gutter side of the sidewalk. He was a Negro. It was Thursday, a week before the end of summer, and he could hear Doris Day singing ‘Whatever Will Be Will Be’ on a car radio pulling out. “White people are down in the damned dumps,” he thought. Little Richard had ‘Rip It Up’ and ‘Ready Teddy’ on the Billboard 100 chart. That was slippin’ and slidin’ music.
He had a rolled up dog-eared copy of All-Negro Comics in his back pocket. He had five dollars and change in his wallet in a back pocket, a 6-ounce stainless steel flask with a picture of a roller-skating chimp on it in his jacket pocket, and a Vest Pocket Colt .25 in a vest pocket. It was only good at close range, but it was better than nothing.
He stood still and looked across the curb at the four-story building on the other side of the street. Queen Stephanie’s man had said the snooper worked on the second floor. A sign on the building said ‘Duluc Detective’ in green and white neon letters. The building was one back from the corner of West 48th Street and 10th Avenue.
Bumpy looked into the parking lot behind him. “This is going to be easy,” he thought. He would put the glad hand on a car, park it in the lot where he could spy the front door, keeping track of the comings and goings. A separate door on the side in plain sight led up to the snooper’s office. There was a cobbler’s shop on the ground floor and apartments on the top two floors.
He could see an oversized gold register through the street window and a line of shoeshine chairs with brass pedestals. The repair shop was probably in the basement. The heels of his two tones needed repairing, but he didn’t like the idea of leaving his shoes in Hell’s Kitchen.
Bumpy took his shoes to Tony’s Shoe Repair in mid-town, in the garment district, off Seventh Avenue, even though there wasn’t a Tony anymore. “The real Tony was the guy who opened the store in 1928 and sold it six years later to another guy named Gaetano. He kept Tony’s sign, so he became the second Tony, and his son Dan became the third Tony,” was how it was explained it to him one afternoon.
There were Poles, Greeks, and Irish in Hell’s Kitchen. The cops were all Irish. There were Italians and Puerto Ricans. Everybody talked a foreign language. There were drivers, factory men, and longshoremen. There was too much stickball and stoopball. There were too many kids on scooters. There were too many tough kids. They didn’t carry weapons though, no guns, no knives. They thought they were tough enough, he knew, to fight natural, with their hands.
He had gotten into a beef with one of them, not even shaving age, hands like boxing gloves, fingers as thick as thumbs. He had hit the boy on the head, and nothing happened, except the second finger on his own right hand was still bent, a year later.
When Stan Riddman walked past Bumpy, espresso in hand and biscotti in a bag, and went in the side door, Bumpy went looking for a car to steal. By the time Stan and Bettina were sitting opposite one another at Stan’s desk, biscotti spread out on the torn open bag, espresso still hot, Stan’s notes and Bettina’s notebook at hand, he was back with somebody else’s car.
He would leave it behind when he left. It would be cleaner than when he stole it, too. He didn’t like spending all day in a dirty car, so he always tidied it up first thing.
Stan swept crumbs off his desk into the palm of his hand and shook them into the trashcan next to his desk.
“’He looked like an old dead tree lying in the brush,’ was what one of Pollack’s neighbors said,” he said. “The man helped the police search the woods with a flashlight. ‘There was a little blood run down from the forehead, no other damage except for the neck swollen like a balloon,’” he read from his notes.
“I talked to the undertaker up there who handled Pollack and the dead girl. He said Pollack died of a compound fracture of the skull and the girl died of a broken neck.”
“What do the police think?” asked Bettina.
“They think he had a hell of a lot to drink, they think he was a hell of an unhappy man, and they think it was a hell of an accident. I talked to an Earl Finch, he was the patrolman on the scene.”
“I knew he was dead from the look of him,” said Police Officer Finch. “It was so dark up there I don’t think I even covered him up.”
“Jesus!” said Dr. William Abel when he was led to the broken body of Jackson Pollack hundreds of feet into the dark woods.
The East Hampton police report later showed Earl Finch radioed back to the station at 10:30 PM. It was less than twenty minutes after the accident. “Two dead at scene of accident.” One girl was crushed by the upside down Olds, the other girl fractured her pelvis, and Jackson Pollack died of a head injury, was how the report put it.
He was wearing “a black velvet shirt, gray pants, a brown belt, blue shorts, brown socks, no shoes, no jewelry, and no ID.” But Officer Finch knew who it was.
“Who called in the accident?”
“Three or four people. One of the neighbors said he heard the car barreling down the road and told his wife, ‘That fool isn’t going to make the curve.’ The others heard the car horn after the accident had already happened.”
“After, not before?”
“Yeah, I guess the horn got stuck and started blowing and wouldn’t stop.”
“What bothered us was that horn blowing,” said a neighbor “We jumped in the car.” They drove to the crash. “There wasn’t anyone around, just this girl with her head toward that piled-in car and blood on her coming out of her scalp. We had to holler at her with the horn blaring.”
“It sounds like a small town. What is Springs like?” asked Bettina.
“Small,” said Stan. “It’s sort of a thumb of land stuck out into a bay, so there’s water on three sides. There’s a lot of the middle of nothing there. The locals call themselves Bonackers.”
“I’m going to be a Bonacker same as you some day,” said Jackson Pollack, reaching for a beer at the Joe Loris bar in the East Hampton Hotel.
“You only got to wait four hundred years,” said George Sid Miller.
“Everybody says he drank phenomenal amounts of beer,” said Stan. “They say it had been going on for about four years. Before that he’d been good, although he seems to have always drunk plenty. One of his neighbors said if he hadn’t killed himself in that car, he would have killed himself with drink, sooner rather than later.”
“How about the car? Did anybody check to see if it had been tampered with?”
“No, it was turned over, busted, and a wrecker hauled it away. It wasn’t the first car he had driven into a tree, either, He had a Caddy, did it about five years earlier. I talked to a Jim Brooks, one of his friends, and a painter. He said, ‘I expected him to kill himself in an automobile, and I knew he wanted not to do it alone.’’’
“So, he was suicidal?”
“Not that anyone said, but some of them said he was self-destructive. They seemed to think there was a difference. One guy at Jungle Pete’s said Pollack was too much of a coward to kill himself.”
“What is Jungle Pete’s?” asked Bettina.
“He came to my restaurant every day for eggs and home fries, toast and coffee,” said Nina Federico. “He bought a second-hand bike and would come evenings on the bike for beers. He didn’t always get home on the bike.”
“There’s a couple who live right there,” said Stan. “Nina would give them the high sign and they would take him home. The beer is a nickel. I spent some of an evening there. The locals bring their kids in their pajamas, the kids fall asleep on the floor, and the parents dance and party all night.”
“It sounds like a house party. What was their house like in Springs?”
“There was a lot of paint in a studio, a converted barn, it looked like to me, but you wouldn’t know he was a famous artist by his house, even though he was famous enough that the New York Times ran the story of his death on page one.”
“Did he have any problems in the neighborhood?”
“He seems to have had a soft spot for kids and dogs. Somebody said he had a pet crow for a while. One lady said he was an innocent, childlike person, except when he was in a car. Everybody had seen him falling down drunk, more than once. I talked to a doctor neighbor of his who said Pollack would put away two, three cases of beer when he was on a bender.”
“Jesus!” said Bettina.
“Found Jackson Pollack outside on the sidewalk lying down,” said the East Hampton police blotter more than once.
“He could be mean, got into fights, broke his ankle just a few years ago fighting with some other artist, but I didn’t talk to anybody who disliked him, although not everybody liked him. There were more people than not who felt sorry for him.”
“Did anything look funny about the crash?”
“Not to anybody up there,” said Stan. “Not to me, either.”
Bumpy William cracked open All-Negro Comics and balanced it on the steering wheel. Ace Harlem was the private detective of the cover story and the bad guys were zoot-suited, jive-talking, back alley muggers. He was planning on re-reading both “Lion Man and Bubba” and “Sugarfoot,” all about the traveling musicians Sugarfoot and Snake Oil gone on the prowl for a farmer’s daughter.
He had brought a double-decker sandwich and thermos of coffee with him.
He peeled back the parchment paper the sandwich was wrapped in and spread it out on his lap. He poured himself a cup of coffee and put the cup on top of the dashboard.
It was after two o’clock when he finished eating and brushing crumbs out of the car. “Remember – Crime Doesn’t Pay, Kids!” Ace Harlem said on the back cover of the comic book. Bumpy folded it and slipped it into the inside pocket of his jacket.
“While you were re-discovering that Pollack drank like a fish and finding out what he was wearing when he died, I talked to the death-car girl,” said Bettina. “Maybe everybody back home expected something like that accident to happen, but she says it wasn’t an accident. She says Jackson Pollack swerved off the road and accelerated into the oak tree he hit.”
“She thinks he was committing suicide?”
“No,” said Bettina. “She calls it his death-day.”
“What’s the difference?”
“At the moment he died I believe his soul went into my body,” said Ruth Kligman. “When I was convalescing in the hospital, he came and visited me. I’m like Cleopatra and he was like Marc Anthony. He was a very deep soul mate. The minute I met him I felt I had known him for years.”
“You don’t believe any of that any more than I do, Betty.”
“No,” said Bettina. “But she was right there, and she believes he deliberately drove off the road.”
“There were no skid marks, on or off the road, according to the police report,” said Stan. “The police sergeant I talked to estimates he was going sixty to seventy when he hit the tree.”
The Olds fishtailed almost two hundred feet through underbrush before colliding with the forest, pivoting, going end over, a hubcap rolling away, empty cans of Rheingold spraying into the dark.
“If we take it for granted it wasn’t an accident, and we take it for granted he wasn’t trying to commit suicide, what do we have?” asked Stan.
“We have him driving into the tree on purpose, but not for any suicidal reason,” said Bettina.
“If that’s what we have, why would he do that? “
“Maybe somebody brainwashed him into doing it.”
Stan and Betty gave it some thought.
“If that’s what we’ve got, then who would have done it? Who had the means and opportunity to brainwash Jackson Pollack? I can’t see it happening out there in Springs.”
“Barney Newman told us he had been in and out of therapy for a long time,” said Bettina. “We could start with his doctor. We know Pollack came into the city often, did business with his dealers, went drinking with his pals at the Cedar Tavern, ran around with his girlfriend. I would expect his doctor to be here in the city.”
“All right, let’s find out he who was and try to get a line on him.”
“Does that mean me?”
“That’s why you make the big bucks,” said Stan.
“When did that happen?” asked Bettina.
Bumpy Williams found a phone booth and called in his watching the detectives day.
“He didn’t do nothing all day. He’s got some girl, probably his office girl, and a Jew man came and went. Other than that, he was in his office all day and then went home. I didn’t see a wife, but he’s got a little girl. I’m gonna head up to the barbershop, get a wig chop, maybe stop up at Joe Wells’ for some fried chicken and waffles.”
Wells’ Restaurant, sometimes an eatery, sometimes a nightclub, was on Seventh Avenue between 132nd and 133rd. Bumpy Williams was from South Carolina but had grown up and still lived on 132th Street. He lived on the top floor of a brownstone. Benta’s Funeral Home was on the first and parlor floors of the building.
“We like your looks,” they said when they had rented the rooms to him after the war. “The crown is yours.”
Benta’s buried famous, infamous, and nobody no how Negro’s. If you had plenty of dead presidents, you could order a gold, green, or red hearse, with a colored coffin to match. If you were low on folding money, George Benta made arrangements. Nobody was ever turned away.
It wasn’t that the funeral director was over generous. Going up the stairs one day Bumpy heard George behind him. “Don’t forget to turn off that hall light when you turn in. My name is George Benta, not Thomas Edison.”
George Benta wasn’t a stingy man. He was a frugal man. Bumpy had no problem with that.
“Stop by the shop and we’ll pay you for the day. The Queen says best we pay you by the day. She says there’s something queer going on, so we’ll keep it close. We maybe will need you again the next couple of days.”
Queen Stephanie Johnson ran the numbers in Harlem, the uptown colored arm of Albert Anastasia’s Italian Hand. Bumpy knew if he was doing work for her he was doing work for them. That’s where the money came from. “The Mad Hatter says there’s no such thing as good money or bad money,” Queen Stephanie said one day when they were smoking after Bumpy had made a delivery to her runners and controllers.
“There’s just money, Albert says.”
Benta’s had buried Alain Locke, a big-time Negro, two years ago. W. E. B. Du Bois, Mrs. Paul Robeson, and Charles Johnson all came and paid their respects. Nobody could find a place to park. Nobody stayed over long. There wasn’t enough space to stand. The breathing air in the chapel started to get thin.
Bumpy was standing at the front door with George Benta after it was all over and the casket coach was pulling away. George was in his work clothes, a long coat, pinstripes, and gray gloves. His wife, Pearl, was accompanying the funeral procession.
“Do you know that little man kept sperm samples from all his lovers in a small box? One of them tried to slip it into the coffin. I slapped his hand away. I wouldn’t touch that box, though, not on your life.”
Bumpy looked down the street
“You pay me what you said, I’ll lean on a light pole every day of the week,” he said to Queen Stephanie’s man. “I’ll check with you in the morning. King Cole is supposed to be in town for that new TV show he’s doing soon, and word is he might be singing it up at the supper club tonight.”
Bumpy hung up, stuck two fingers into his mouth, and whistled down a cab.
“Harlem,” he said, getting in beside the driver. He knew it was like going to an afternoon matinee and sitting next to the only other person at the movies, but he liked riding shotgun.
He was looking forward to seeing a show tonight.
“When I perform it’s like sitting down at my piano and telling fairy stories,” explained Nat King Cole before a show.
It was five months since King Cole had been attacked in Birmingham, Alabama, during a show, when half-a-dozen white men swarmed over the footlights and rushed him, grabbing his legs, wrenching his back, taking him down to the floor of the stage before the police were able to break up the melee.
“Alabama is no place for immoral nigger rock and roll music,” said Willie Hinson the next morning standing in front of the storefront office of the White Citizen’s Council.
Bumpy had heard all about it. He had already killed one white man. He thought he might have to kill another one someday.
“Go out there and tell that kike across the street to get the hell away from here,” said Albert Anastasia, biting into a cannoli full of nuts and bits of chocolate. There was a glass of sweet wine at his elbow. He took a sip.
The man in the car across the street looked like hell, seedy, big bags under his eyes, gray jowls, and a thick cigar stuck in his mouth. He was wearing baggy pants, scuffed shoes, a wrinkled gray shirt, and a loosely knotted worse for the wear Belly Warmer tie. A painted hula girl and palm trees swayed faded on it.
The mob bodyguard was wearing a black shirt, razor-creased slacks, a skinny belt, and lizard shoes. He leaned into the Chevy. There was a camera on the passenger side of the seat. He didn’t give it a second look. He didn’t give the driver a second look, either.
“What do you want here, Weejee? It’s not even dark, yet. There isn’t anything going on. No one is going down this afternoon. Jumping time is five in the morning when the liquor runs out. The boss says beat it.”
“I’m just waiting for a girl,” said Arthur Fellig in a high-pitched voice.
“ What kind of girl is that?’
“A girl with a healthy body and a sick mind.”
“You got a sick mind.”
Arthur Fellig was a newshound photographer. His nom de guerre was Weejee.
“He always wanted to see the soul of the person. He wanted to see the essence of the person. And he certainly wanted to see the tits of the person,” said Judy Malina, who was once chased around Weejee’s apartment by the shutterbug. She escaped before he could get his paws on her breasts.
“You’re going to need some carbon tetra-chloride for that,” said the bodyguard, pointing to the beer stains on the hula girl.
“I like them on the wet side, not too icy and deadpan,” said the photographer.
“All right, why don’t you get in gear, maybe go down to Sussman Volk’s and take some pictures of the salamis and bolonies.”
“How about I stay right here?” said the photographer, exhaling a foul cloud of smoke from his stogie.
The bodyguard stepped away from the noxious cloud coming out the car window. He looked down the street. He waved and snapped his fingers once. The policeman on the corner walked up to the car. Arthur Fellig could see the precinct numerals on the shield over the left breast of the man’s jacket. His black tie was knotted in a standard four-in-hand with a gunmetal tie clasp and he wore a blue military shirt with removable brass buttons.
“This man is bothering Mr. Anastasia.”
The policeman twirled his nightstick and rapped on the roof of the Chevy.
“Move along,” he said.
Arthur Fellig turned the engine over. “One day I’ll see him flat on his back, sooner than later, if I’ve been hearing it right, and I’ll get the shot,” he said to the bodyguard, and drove away.
Albert Anastasia motioned to the waiter for expresso.
“I got nothing against Jews,” he said to Luca “Big Paulie” Gravano. “I had plenty of kikes working for me back in the corporation days.” The corporation was the Brownsville Boys. The newspapers called it Murder Incorporated. After gunning down their man, they often left the impression of a Black Hand on a piece of paper beside the body.
If they were in a hurry, they wore a black glove on their trigger hand and left it at that.
“Gurrah Shapiro, Kid Twist, Harry “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss. What the hell, Meyer and I still work some side by side in Cuba. As long as the Commies stay in the mountains, and Batista toes the line, it’s a gold mine down there.”
President Dwight D. Eisenhower was running for reelection against Adlai Stevenson. The smart money was on Ike. He had gotten over his heart attack and was back eating pig knuckles and sauerkraut. Fidel Castro and his brother were aggravating the President with their penny arcade talk of invading Cuba and overthrowing Battista. Ike would take care of it after November.
Luca Gravano nodded, sipped his coffee, and ate one brutti ma buoni cookie after another from the plate in front of him. They were Tuscan cookies, northern style, but he had always had a taste for them, no matter being from the Mezzogiorno. They were called “ugly but good” and were made of almonds, hazelnuts, pine nuts, amaretto, and oranges.
Big Paulie came from Calabria, in the south of Italy, the same as Albert Anastasia. He had come by freighter to New York, the same as Anastasia and his brothers had done years before, jumping ship the same year Anastasia was convicted and sentenced to death in the electric chair at Sing Sing for stabbing and strangling another longshoreman. But, after he got a new trial, almost everyone who had testified against him changed every single word of their testimony.
The other witnesses dropped off the face of the earth.
After his release he threw in with Joe “The Boss” Masseria, making book, hijacking, and running liquor. Ten years later he was one of four gunmen, along with Bugsy Siegel, who cut down their boss in a Coney Island diner.
Luca Gravano was the right-hand man under Tony Anastasia on the docks, which meant he worked for Albert Anastasia. He had no problem with that. The only problem he had was staying on his toes wary and careful with Albert Anastasia every second of every minute of every day.
The mob kingpin’s friends called him “The Executioner.” His brother “Tough Tony” called him “The Lord High Executioner.” Some of his friends and all of his enemies called him “The Mad Hatter.”
“He is one grand guy,” said Anthony Coppola, Anastasia’s sometime driver, sometime bodyguard, and most of the time crony. “Lots of people will cry when he’s gone.”
Big Paulie understood what Albert Anastasia wanted him to do. What he didn’t understand was why there were three bodyguards with them, one outside, and two in the restaurant at a nearby table. It must have shown on his face when he glanced around and behind him.
“I’m worried about my family,” Anastasia said.
“What do you mean?”
“Forget about it, forget about it.”
His wife and son lived in a mansion on an estate in Fort Lee, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from Manhattan, surrounded by a 10-foot-high fence topped with barbed wire, and the lawn looked after by a pack of Doberman Pinschers. The dogs weren’t friendly, nor was the gunman always in the house. What was there to worry about?
There was the New York County District Attorney. “Make no mistake about it,” the D. A. said. “These are real tough boys, and I mean really tough, but we’re tough, too.” He was pushing to get Anastasia into his office to talk about the murder of his ex-friend, Frank Scalise, a couple of months ago inside a fruit store in broad daylight.
But what was that going to come to? There weren’t any witnesses. Even if there were, there weren’t any witnesses.
Two years ago, it had been the murder of Vincent Macri, and the disappearance of his brother, Benedetto, both of them Anastasia bodyguards, that had gotten the city lawmen worked up. It had come to nothing. There was the disappearance of Charles Ferri and his wife Marie at about the same time, after the two of them testified against Anastasia in the income tax prosecution the Federals had brought.
Everybody knew Vincent Macri and Charley Ferri were friends. Everybody knew what had changed hands. Everybody knew it was going to come to nothing.
“You want me to make sure nobody gets to the doc, right, especially not the private cop.” said Luca Gravano, not exactly asking, but making sure exactly what “The Mad Hatter” was saying.
“That’s right,” said Albert Anastasia. “Nobody outside of his circle, outside of his work, nobody asking any questions.”
Luca Gravano knew what Albert Anastasia wanted. He knew there was a secret and he didn’t need to be let in on it. There weren’t any more questions he thought to ask, except one, to make sure he wouldn’t get the job at hand wrong in any way.
“If anybody gets too close?”
“You feed them to that lion of yours.”
“It’s a female, a lioness,” said Gravano.
“Even better,” said Anastasia.
“Where do you keep her?”
“In the basement of the store”
“That works for you?”
“Yeah, if we’re doing a shakedown, or when somebody owes us money, and won’t pay up, no matter what, we bring him to the store, and push him halfway down into the basement. We throw a slab of raw meat over his shoulder down to Cleo, that’s the cat. She roars her appreciation and there’s no arguing after that. We always collect.”
“That’s good, Paulie, that’s good,” said Albert Anastasia.
“He is a savage,’ said Chief Inspector Raymond Martin, head of the Brooklyn South detectives. “He held another man’s forearm between his hands and broke the bone over the edge of an office desk, as a way of collecting a debt owed to his combination. The man told the story to one of my detectives, but he was too frightened to sign a complaint, unless he be killed. He was killed later, anyway.”
“You take care of this, it’s important. You call me personally, day or night, if you have to,” said Anastasia.
He stood up, put on his hat, and followed his bodyguards out of the restaurant slowly and deliberately in his money-glow suit. Big Paulie had another cup of coffee and another plate of cookies. When he stepped outside, he threw a nickel down for a copy of the New York Daily News. Wall Street was up on a “rousing rally” of five points. The Woolworth heiress was in court, being sued by a Manhattan florist for not making good on $2,500 worth of flowers. He liked the dame’s style. The crime story on page 3 caught his eye when he saw the picture of George Rosen.
“There was a rubber death’s head mask, a grisly Halloween thing of gray and purple, on the seat beside small-time gambler George Rosen, 39, as he and a masked pal stepped from a stolen automobile in Brooklyn shortly before noon yesterday to stage a payroll robbery.” George didn’t get far. In the picture he was lying on his back in a pool of blood on the sidewalk. He hadn’t even had time to slip on the Grim Reaper before he was shot dead.
He knew George Rosen, and if he owed him money, it didn’t matter anymore, he thought.
He stepped off the sidewalk into the street and stuck his arm out like he meant to have the next cab. An “Otto” DeSoto Deluxe cruised up to his ankles. He got into the back, stretched out his legs, and looked up through the see-through roof. The V8 purred as it idled. The seats were green leather. There was plenty-and-more legroom.
He lit up a Camel.
“Where to, chief?”
“You got it.”
The suspension of the big car was roly-poly. It was like taking one of the ferryboats. He started thinking about what ma would be making for dinner. He liked Ossa Buco, Eggplant Parmigiana, and Pasta Primavera, with semolina bread, olive oil, and pesto on the side. His favorite was Chicken Tetrazzini, named after Luisa Tetrazzini, a soprano known as “The Florentine Nightingale.”
Luca Gravano’s headquarters was a small storefront in Brooklyn. The sign above the door said it was the Murphy Bed Company, agents and distributors. “The Disappearing Bed” was stenciled across one window. There were several demonstration models in the front showroom, although neither Luca nor his brothers had ever sold a single Murphy of any kind. Among themselves they joked it was “the foldaway trap for your worst enemies.”
He lived next door in a brownstone with three of his brothers and his mother.
“I don’t know anything about the mob. I don’t know anything about any organizations. I only know about my five children, four sons and a daughter,” Raffaella Gravano said one day when she was asked by detectives about the alleged killers, two of her own sons, of a rival bookmaker in front of a Bronx restaurant.
What she said to policemen wasn’t what she said at home.
“Women run the show in the south of Italy,” she told her sons. “Maybe our men come home with bloody boots, but I know how to cement guns inside walls. I hold my head high. I keep the memory of the dead alive.”
“Hey, driver, stop at Alleva’s when you go by,” Big Paulie said to the cab driver as they passed the Church of the Most Precious Blood.
“The cheese place?”
The Alleva Dairy cheese shop was at the intersection of Mulberry and Grand Streets. The windows were filled with printed and neon signs. Inside were ricotta, mozzarella, and the new hero sandwiches. Prosciutto hung from the tin ceiling.
“When I was young, there was one kind of prosciutto,” said one of the old butchers. “It was made in the winter, by hand, and aged for two years. It was sweet when you smelled it. A profound perfume. Unmistakable.”
Luca ordered a sandwich for himself and five pounds of in-bone prosciutto and a knob of fresh mozzarella for his mother. She liked hers sliced over fresh melon. He liked his wrapped around a breadstick. His brothers got the leftovers.
“When I find the original meal, these leftovers have been coming from, I ain’t going to be sharing it with anybody,” said Frankie “Kid Blast” Gravano, one of his brothers. His two other brothers, Larry and Raymond, nodded that they were with Frankie, even though Frankie meant he was going to be keeping it all to himself.
Luca was the oldest of the four boys. Kid Blast was the youngest. Luca was the smartest of the four. Kid Blast was the most dangerous of the four. Luca had the authority in the family. Kid Blast wanted it.
He had taken a shot at Luca the summer before.
“I just blew my top. He said something about me I didn’t like. I purposefully missed him.”
Their sister, Carnellia, had been engaged to one of Vincent “The Chin” Gigante’s brothers, but had backed out of the marriage. “I’m not marrying a peasant,” she said when she got the measure of the man. The jilted lover entered a seminary and was training to become a priest. Carnellia moved out of the family house, got an apartment in Greenwich Village, and went to work in pizzazz. Her new boyfriend, a third-generation German and a Protestant, who was an ad man at a Madison Avenue agency, got her a job writing TV commercials, making the might be nice into the must have.
Carnellia called her mother every Sunday night, but the Gravano boys had not spoken a word to their sister in more than a year. Big Paulie had flushed red the morning his mother wanted to invite Carnellia to dinner.
“She’s not coming here in her tight dress and that stuck up wise guy who thinks he’s better than us and we’re all wrongdoers, “he said. “I can see it in her eyes, ma. Except for you, she’s ashamed of us. I don’t want her in this house.”
“She’s your only sister, my only daughter,” said his mother.
“We’re from the Old World, but it’s the New World now, what we make for ourselves, in our own world, that’s the new Old World, and when Carnellia flips she can stay with her estraneo,” said Luca. ”We have our pride. When she steps on that she can’t come back here.”
Raffaella Gravano crossed her arms over her stomach, below her sagging breasts, grim and frustrated in her polka-dotted apron, her eyes speaking daggers.
“I’m the man of the house, ma,” Luca said. “Don’t bite my head off.”
“It’s a hell of a good day for it,” said Dwight Eisenhower, smiling broadly.
It was going to be his first full round of golf since June. He had a heart attack last year. Then when this summer rounded into shape, he needed surgery for ileitis. The past week had been filled to the brim with the Republican National Convention at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, Even though he had been unopposed, no need for a stampede, there had been some hard campaigning to get Dick Nixon off the ticket, to no avail.
Ike was president because it was his duty. Richard Nixon wanted to be president. He didn’t think of it as a duty. He wanted it for himself, in the executive’s chair, at the top. He didn’t think of it as a duty.
“Any man who wants to be president is either an egomaniac or crazy,” Ike told Turk standing next to him.
The Negro singer Nat King Cole had spoken at the Cow Palace yesterday, the last day of the convention, to some cheers, some jeers. Ike made Negro speech happen, no matter the carping about it. He knew he had to give in on the Vice-President, who was a hardline anti-Communist, who the rank-and-file supported with cheers. “I don’t want those Communist bastards to be successful,” Dick Nixon always said. Ike knew he didn’t have to give in to Jim Crow. He could take the high road and leave the jeering to the dirty tricks gang.
They drove up to Pebble Beach before the convention ended, before his VP could invite him to dinner. Besides, Richard Nixon’s father was seriously ill and Ike urged him to go before it was too late. There were three cars full of Secret Service men fore and aft. Charlie Taylor, who’d been at it for years, was in one of the cars.
One night when Ike was having trouble opening his safe, and asked for help, his agents told him safecracking wasn’t part of their training. Ike was beside himself, giving them his ten-pound look. Charlie got the cranky combination to give in without a struggle. He had been an anti-submarine officer during the war. Safes weren’t safe when he got his hands on them. “I won’t know whether to trust you, or not, after this,” said Ike, glancing at the trim crew-cut man.
Dwight Eisenhower was driven to his golf outing in a black Lincoln Cosmopolitan. It was one of ten presidential touring cars. They all had extra headroom to accommodate the tall silk hat Ike wore on formal occasions. The cars were almost 20 feet long, V8’s with Hydra-Matic transmissions, and heavily armored, weighing in at close to ten thousand pounds. One of them was a convertible, a 1950 model built for Harry Truman. It had been fitted with a Plexiglas top since then.
Ike called it the Bubble-top. Charlie called it a pain-in-the-ass. Mamie Eisenhower didn’t like sitting under a dome, but she put up with it, like she had with everything else.
It was a high blue clear day, sunny, dotted with seaside clouds. A slight breeze blew up from the water. It was slightly damp. Dwight Eisenhower nodded at his caddy.
“It’s a pleasure, Mr. President,” said Turk Archdeacon.
“Why, that’s fine,” said President Eisenhower.
Turk had been caddying at Cypress Point since he was nine years-old, almost 40 years since. They walked to the practice tee. It was a cool morning. Ike started whacking balls into the distance. He played with Bobby Jones woods, the official five-star general insignia engraved on their heads. At the putting green he lined up three balls 20-some feet away from the cup.
He sank all three.
“I should quit right here,” he laughed.
He had been practicing on a green on the White House grounds, and been hitting wedges, irons, and 3-woods, sometimes sending balls sky-high over the south fence. Whenever he did, he sent his valet to retrieve them.
The squirrels that prowled the lawn dug up his putting green, burying acorns nuts hardtack all their loot. They left small craters behind. One morning he finally had enough. “The next time you see one of those goddamned squirrels go near my putting green, take a gun and shoot it!” The Secret Service asked the groundskeepers to trap the squirrels, instead, and release them in a park somewhere far away.
In a week August would be come and gone. He would be 66 years-old soon. “I’m saving that rocker for the day when I feel as old as I really am,” he said, pointing to the rocker in the Oval Office. More days now than not, he felt like that day was coming close, step by step.
His birthday was in October. CBS was planning a “Person to Person” style TV show the night before. Eddie Fisher was going to sing ‘Counting Your Blessings Instead of Sheep.’ Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel were going to sing ‘Down Among the Sheltering Palms.’ Nat King Cole, with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, was singing ‘It’s Just a Little Street Where Old Friends Meet.’
He was looking forward to it.
In six weeks, he would be throwing out the first pitch for the first game of the World Series. There were five or six teams in the hunt, although the New York Yankees looked like a lock at least to get there. If he were a betting man, which he was, he would be putting his money on the Bronx Bombers.
He liked Cypress Point because it was set in coastal dunes, wandered into the Del Monte forest during the front nine, and then reemerged on the rocky Pacific coastline. The last holes played right along the ocean. He’d played golf on many courses around the world. This was one of the best of them. On the other coast it was hot and humid in Hell’s Kitchen. It was in the 90s and stagnant. The heat was trapping the humidity in the air. Dottie was playing stickball in the street.
The street wasn’t West 56th. She wasn’t about to break a sweat about that. Her father had told her to never play stickball on their own street. The fronts and windows of buildings were ruled home runs. Stan didn’t want any broken windows near where they lived. Dottie and her friends always played on West 55th or West 57th. A boy bigger than her had once teased her about it, pushing her to the ground.
“You always do everything your old man tells you to do?” he said, curling his lip, looking down and straddling her.
She still had the stickball broom handle in her hands. Looking up from the gutter she whacked him as hard as she could between his legs. When the boy’s father showed up at their apartment that night to complain that his son might never grow up to be a father, her father threw the man out, dragging him down the stairs by his collar, threatening him and his son and any of their friends with calamitous harm if they ever laid hands on his daughter again.
“You did the right thing Dottie,” he said. “If somebody says something rotten to you, be a lady about it. But if somebody pushes you, or grabs you, or hits you, you hit them back as hard as you can. You always do that. That’s so they won’t push you down again.”
“OK, dad,” she said.
It was a good day for stickball. Eight kids had shown up, they had picked their teams, and Willy, her friend from Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic School, had brought a new pinky ball. It wasn’t a Pensy, either. It was the cream of the crop, a Spalding Hi-Bounce.
They drew a square rectangle with chalk on the brick wall at the back of a vacant lot on West 55th to represent the strike zone. The buildings on both sides were the foul lines. They chalked first and third base on the building walls and second base was a manhole on the sidewalk. If a batted ball hit any of the buildings across the street, it was a home run. If it hit a roof it was a home run-and-a-half. If it hit a window they ran like hell.
“There ain’t no runs-and-a-half,” a snot-nosed kid from Chelsea, visiting his cousins, sneered.
“If you’re going to play stickball on West 55th, you better learn Hell’s Kitchen rules,” gibed Willy.
Dottie was batter up. She smacked a hot grounder, but it was caught on the first bounce, and she was out. Willy got as far as third base, but three strikes and you’re out finished their inning. By the time they came back up in the second they were behind by five runs. It wasn’t looking good for the home team.
Dwight Eisenhower looked out over the par-5 10th hole. He had taken off his tan sweater, but still had a white cap on his head. Seven months ago, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson, living legend professionals, had taken on the talented and skillful amateurs Ken Venturi and Harvie Ward in a white-knuckle friendly foursome at Cypress Point.
The same 10th hole turned out to be the key to unlocking that contest.
“I bet they can beat anybody,” said San Francisco car dealer Eddie Lowery about the two amateurs, who were his employees. He was talking to fellow millionaire George Coleman. The bet and the match were on in that minute.
Harvie Ward was a two-time U.S. Amateur champion. Three months later Ken Venturi came within one stroke of winning the Masters. The cypress-strewn rolling dunes of the course on the wind-swept coast, the deep ravines, knee-deep grass, sand on all sides of the fairways, weren’t redoubtable, not to them.
Ben Hogan turned the corner on the 10th when he rolled in a wedge shot for a 3. The eagle and 27 birdies testified to the unfriendliness of the match. The drinks at the bar rubber-stamped the camaraderie afterwards. There were backslaps and groans about made and missed shots.
Ike was playing with Harry Hunt, the president of Cypress Point, Sam Morse, a one-time football star who had developed Pebble Beach, and John McCone, a businessman who had been the undersecretary of the Air Force. He was partnered with Harry Hunt. They were playing a dollar-dollar-dollar Nassau bet. It was even-steven at the halfway mark, even though Ike had stunk up the 8th hole.
“Where is it?” he asked getting there, searching for the green across the dogleg.
He sliced his tee shot into sand. When he got to it, he hit it less than ten feet further on. Then he hit it fat, the Ben Hogan ball soaring less than twenty feet, and falling into somebody’s heel print.
“I’ve had it, pick it up,” he said.
“Having a little trouble?” asked Sam Morse. “Not a little,” said Ike, “but a lot.”
“All right, all right, let’s pick it up, let’s get some roofies,” yelled Willy, urging his team on. “But chips on the ball. I mean it.” He meant that if his new Spaldeen was roofed, and couldn’t be found, everyone would chip in to pay for a new ball.
Hal came up to the plate, wagged the broom handle menacingly, and planted his high-top rubber soled Keds firmly in the unravelling asphalt. They were new and felt like Saturday shoes. His batted ball hit the side wall at third base where the wall met the ground and bounced back to home plate in a high slow arc.
“It’s a Hindoo,” he shouted.
“No, that ain’t a do-over, foul ball, so it’s a strike,” shouted back Dave Carter, who everyone called Rusty because his hair was red.
“What do you know?”
“I know what I gotta know.”
“Go see where you gotta go,” said Hal.
“No, you stop wasting my time,” said Rusty. “It was a foul ball.”
“Ah, go play stoopball,” shouted Hal.
Stoopball was throwing a pinky against the steps of a stoop, and then catching it, either on the fly or on a bounce. Catching the ball was worth 10 points. Catching a pointer on the fly was worth 100 points. A pointer was when the ball hit the edge of a step and flew back like a line drive, threatening to take your eye out. When you played stoopball, you played against yourself.
“You got a lotta skeeve wichoo,” Rusty shouted back at Hal.
“All right, already, strike one,” said Willy, exasperated.
He knew Rusty would never give in. He was a weisenheimer. He was someone you had to keep your eyes on, too, or your Spaldeen might grow legs. It wasn’t that Rusty was a thief. He just kept his nickels in his pocket. Willy had heard he was such a tightwad he still had his communion money from two years ago.
Rusty had been born in Philadelphia That was his problem.
Hal hit a cheap, a slow roller, but when Rusty let his guard down, reaching leisurely down for the Spaldeen, it went between his legs, and the next second Hal was standing at first base, smirking. “Comeback stickball,” he whispered to himself. “Our game.”
Eleven batters later Dottie’s team was on the plus side of the scoreboard, nine to five.
On the tee of the 17th hole Ike lined up his shot. Sea lions on the rocks below him barked. “It’s hard to hit a shot and listen to those seals at the same time,” he said, but not so either of the Secret Service agents with them could hear him.
Dwight Eisenhower was accustomed to having guards around him, during the campaign in North Africa, and later as commander of the Allied Army in Europe. The Nazis had tried to kill him several times. Secret Service agents near his person nearly every minute of the day was like a second skin. He knew what it took to save his skin. When he moved into the White House he didn’t mingle mindlessly, shake hands in crowds, or do anything foolish.
“Protecting Ike works like clockwork,” said agent Gerald Blaine.
Mamie Eisenhower gave her agents nicknames. One, who was a good dancer, was “Twinkletoes.” He asked Mamie to keep it between themselves. Some of the agents called her “Mom.”
“You don’t have to worry about me, but don’t let anything happen to my grandchildren,” Ike told Secret Service chief U. E. Baughman.
The Diaper Detail guarded the four kids. Dwight Eisenhower changed the name of the presidential retreat in Maryland from Shangri-La to Camp David in 1953. “Shangri-La is just a little fancy for a Kansas farm boy,” he said. He renamed it in honor of his 5-year-old grandson, David.
When Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Union leader, visited the retreat he said the name sounded like a place where “stray dogs were sent to die.” That’s the difference between us and them, thought Ike.He looked for the fairway on the 18th hole.
“Where do we aim here?” he asked.
“Keep it away from the left,” said Harry Hunt. There was a stand of pine trees on the left. “That’s the Iron Curtain. You’ll never get through that stuff.”
Ike laughed and hit a long drive. His next shot was a 4-iron and he nailed it onto the green, 20 feet short of the pin.
In 1954 eighty people were convicted of threatening the president and sent to prison or locked away as madmen. In 1955 nearly two thousand honest-to-God threats were made against Dwight Eisenhower’s life. The year before, the Russian KGB officer Peter Deryabin, after defecting, told the CIA about a Soviet plot to kill the president in 1952.
“We were preparing an operation to assassinate Eisenhower during his visit to Korea in order to create panic among the Americans and win the war there.”
Whenever he played golf, stern-faced men with good eyesight and high-powered guns took up vantage points on hills, surveying the course with telescopic sights. Other agents, dressed in golf clothes, carried .351 rifles in their golf bags as they tagged along. In the parking lots the “Queen Mary,” an outfitted armored car, was the rolling command center. Shortly after Mother’s Day the Secret Service investigated a threat to plant two boxes of explosives at a baseball park where the president was planning on taking in a game.
“Demoralize the enemy from within by surprise, terror, sabotage, assassination,” Adolf Hitler had said not many years before. “This is the war of the future.”
Dwight Eisenhower and the Allied Army derailed the Nazi night train. No one was going to take him by surprise. He was planning on sitting in his rocking chair one day, swaying back and forth, watching his grandchildren trundle on the carpeting.
The woman sitting on the stoop across the street watching her windows watched Dottie and her friends walk down the sidewalk, their stickball game over, one of them bouncing his pinky, all of them talking happily.
“We killed them, just killed them,” said Willy.
“We sure did,” said Hal.
“What a game!” said Dottie.
“Yeah, first we were down, came back big, you put some Chinese on that ball between Rusty’s legs, they slipped ahead, and then we score fourteen just like that, and it’s all over.”
“Did you see Rusty, the putz, pulling that long face?” asked Hal. “Oh, he’ll be back, he loves stickball,” said Dottie.
Dwight Eisenhower served in the armed forces from one end of his adult life to the other. After he retired, he was dean at Columbia, and then president of the country. He was still the president and, he was sure, he was going to beat Adlai Stevenson better than he had four years ago.
Even though he’d commanded millions of men in the last war, Ike thought war was rarely worth going to war for. He hated it. “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”
“Didn’t you once say that we are going to have peace even if we have to fight for it?” asked Harry Hunt.
“When we have to, but always remember, the most terrible job in the world is to be a second lieutenant leading a platoon when you’re on the battlefield. There is no glory in battle worth the blood it costs. When people speak to you about a preventive war, you tell them to go and fight it themselves.”
Dottie was so glad her team had fought and won. They had scrapped for every run. It was worth it. She didn’t mind losing once in a while, but she liked winning better. She stripped off her hot sweaty clothes, rubbed down with a cool sponge, and put on a fresh pair of shorts and a t-shirt.
She put her stick bat away in a corner beside her bedroom window. In the summer she loved her friends, no matter what team they were on, and stickball more than anything in the world. She even liked Rusty a little bit when it was sunny and warm and the balls and bats were put away.
The Cold War wasn’t as hot as it had been ever since Nikita Khrushchev had denounced Joseph Stalin’s cult of personality earlier in the year, as well as admitting the Man of Steel’s crimes, the outrages committed against Mother Russia. A door had been cracked open. Ike had long thought war settles nothing, even when it’s all over. He was afraid of the arms race, the march towards a nuclear catastrophe. “You just can’t have that kind of war,” he had told his inner circle. “There aren’t enough bulldozers to scrape the bodies off the streets.”
“Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative” is what he had written and wanted to say at the Cow Palace, but didn’t, not with Dick Nixon and the Red Scare and the military hand-in-hand with industry. He wanted to call it what it was, a military-industrial complex that was always crying “fire” in a crowded theater.
But he couldn’t, at least not until after he was re-elected. In the meantime, he planned on speaking softly and carrying a big stick, even if it was only a long shaft wood driver, the biggest club he had in his bag.
Bettina looked herself up down sideways in the full-length mirror. She was wearing a black and white swing dress with a full skirt, red cuffs trimmed just below the elbows of the three-quarter sleeves, and a red collar at the top end of three big black buttons. Underneath she wore a Playtex bra and girdle. Along with the dress she had on a black belt, black shoes, and black gloves.
She had a black short-strapped handbag slung from her wrist and a broad-brimmed red hat on her head. She lifted her chin, looking down at the middle of herself. It was her ping-pong games that kept her fit and the girdle that made her look trim.
“You look good,” she thought. “Straight from the fridge.”
She flashed a peek at her backside. Halfway out of her apartment door she paused, flipped the clasp on her handbag, and made sure she had an Anchor Life Insurance Company business card.
“Swank,” she thought, looking around Dr. Robert Baird’s waiting room.
Everything was white, except for the floor and the two Barcelona chairs. The floor was gray, and the chairs were brown. The round receptionist’s desk was white, as was the sofa and small round table in front of the sofa. The ceiling was white, and the fluorescent lighting was bright white.
It was 8:35 in the morning on Friday.
“I’m here to see Dr. Baird,” said Bettina. “Do you have an appointment?”
“I don’t, but this will only take ten minutes of the doctor’s time. It’s about the death of one of his patients.”
She handed the receptionist her make-believe business card.
“His first appointment at nine hasn’t arrived yet. Let me see if he can see you.”
She was back in less than a minute.
“The doctor will see you,” she said.
“I love your outfit,” she said.
The receptionist was her own age.
“I got the dress at Macy’s, splurged on the bag at Henri Bendel’s down in the Village, and everything else, well, I just picked it all up here and there.” Bettina walked into Dr. Baird’s office. It was even whiter than the waiting room. Dr. Robert Baird came around from behind his large desk, his arm extended, shook her hand, and offered her one of the two chairs at the front of the desk.
“How can I help you, Miss Cross, is it?” asked Dr. Baird, swiveling around in his chair to face her
“Cross, Mrs. Betty Cross,” said Bettina.
“A working woman.”
“Yes,” she said. “A working woman.”
There was something oily about him, Bettina though, as though he were tossing her a few crumbs by just seeing her. She tried to keep the turn off out of her voice and off her face. She crossed her legs and pulled a spiral bound flip pad out of her pocketbook.
The receptionist sat doing nothing. She hadn’t gone to college for just a M. R. S. degree, meaning finding a husband and becoming a Mrs. She was in her mid-20s, neither married nor engaged. Everyone she knew had married right out of high school or while they were in college. Most of them got pregnant inside a year, and most of them were looking forward to their second and third child.
Her mother told her she was in danger of becoming an old maid.
“Better to die an old maid, mom, than marry the wrong man.”
She had her sights set on making money, a small fortune, at least, and stay a single woman, as sensible and respectable as anybody else.
She liked what she saw of the woman from the insurance company. That was what she wanted to be, someone on the go, not someone stuck behind a desk answering a phone and being polite to whoever walked in the door. She was going to make her own way or die trying.
“We carried a policy on the life of Jackson Pollack, and if you don’t mind, I’d like to just ask a few questions about him,” said Bettina.
“I don’t understand,” said Dr. Baird.
“We aren’t asking you to violate the doctor patient relationship, but we would like to know if, in your opinion, he had suicidal tendencies.”
“I’ve heard of Jackson Pollack, of course,” said Dr Baird. “I’ve read about him in the papers, it seems he was larger than life, but I never treated him.”
“Oh” said Bettina. “It was our understanding he had been one of your patients.”
“You were misinformed,” said Dr. Baird.
“He wasn’t seeing you about his drinking?” “No.”
Jackson Pollack drank heavy most of his life, starting when he was 15-years-old, on the road, helping his father make topographic surveys of the Grand Canyon. He got psychiatric treatment on and off to cure his alcoholism. Nothing cured him of it. Joseph Henderson, a Jungian psychoanalyst in Manhattan, found color sequences and symbols in the illuminated manuscript “Splendor Solis” and worked them into explaining Pollack’s dream images to him.
Jackson Pollack didn’t give a damn about it, except when he was drinking and pumping himself up with the splendor.
He got help from Dr. Violet Staub de Laszlo.
She wrote the Selective Service System in 1941, after he got his draft notice. “I have found him to be an inarticulate personality of good intelligence, but with a great deal of emotional insecurity, who finds it difficult to form or maintain any kind of relationship. It has become evident that there is a certain schizoid disposition underlying his instability. I venture to suggest that Pollack be referred for a psychiatric examination.”
He was declared unfit for military service. He got re-acquainted with Lee Krasner. They went drinking and dancing. They went to house parties. They got married. He broke through to the other side.
After the war he slowed down, finally stopped drinking, did his best work, but after the summer of 1950 took his first drink in two years and from then on stopped painting and drank heavily until his death. Whenever he was soused at the Cedar Tavern up-and-coming artists walking past him would try to touch him for good luck.
“That’s a mistake, get your goddamned hands off me!” “I don’t have anything more to say,” he told his homeopathic physician Dr. Elizabeth Wright. “What’s the point?”
“I’m sorry about wasting your time,” said Bettina.
“That’s quite all right,” said Dr. Baird.
Bettina retrieved her hat from the coat rack stand. The wall on that side of the office was filled with a ball clock, diplomas, certificates, a letter from the mayor, artsy black-and-white photographs, and a small drawing in a steel frame at the far end.
It was a pencil drawing of a man-beast, naked, on his haunches, leaning forward, his nose like a snout, and a snake winding out of his mouth. The initials JP in small squiggly letters were hidden at the bottom, just in sight beneath the man’s calf.
“That’s an interesting drawing,” said Bettina, putting on her hat. “Oh, that. It’s creepy, if you ask me. It was done by one of the city artists, the one who died a few months ago.”
“The one who crashed his car?”
“Yes, that one. I read all abut it in the papers. He was a drunk. He killed one of the girls in the car with him.”
“Did Dr. Baird know him?” “Oh, yes, he treated him for months, from about March or April.”
“That picture might be worth a lot of money some day.”
“You think so?”
“I would keep my eye on it,” said Bettina.
After Bettina left, but before she had gotten to the elevator, the receptionist was giving the small drawing a long look, her finger to her chin. She turned back to her desk when she saw the phone blinking. “Hold my first patient for a few minutes,” said Dr. Baird.
“Yes, sir,” she said. He dialed the number he’d been given in case of an emergency.
“Yeah?” “I had a visitor this morning, a woman who claimed to work for an insurance company that carried a policy on Jackson Pollack’s life,” he said. “What did she want?”
“She wanted to know if Pollack had ever exhibited suicidal tendencies, if I had been treating him for that.”
“What did you say?” “I said Jackson Pollack had never been my patient.”
“That was a mistake.”
It wasn’t a mistake from Dr. Baird’s point of view. He planned on being far from New York City by the end of next week, before whatever was supposed to happen happened, more than a half million dollars to the good, almost a million with the rest he had squirreled away, far away in a sunny Mediterranean world in a villa where no one would ever find him for the rest of his life. He wasn’t waiting to be paid the balance owed him for the work he had done on Tony de Marco. He suspected the rest of his life depended on getting as far away from New York City as he could, sooner than later.
“All right, sit tight, we’ll take care of it. What was the broad’s name and who did she say she worked for?”
“He said Jackson Pollack was never a patient of his,” said Bettina after getting back to the office
“We’ve got it from Barney Newman and the wife that he was,” said Stan. “Why would he lie about it when it’s easy enough to see through it?”
“He might be buying time, for some reason.”
“That’s a good thought,” said Stan. “Let’s see if Ezra’s up for some second-story work, do a little digging, get into his files.”
Ezra broke into Whistler Dental Specialists on the fourth floor twenty minutes after they locked up at four o’clock on the Wednesday the following week. He waited tilted back in a dental chair and five hours later broke into Dr. Baird’s office. An hour later he had Jackson Pollack’s file laid out on the receptionist’s desk in front of the Minox spy camera Otis had given him. When he was done photographing it, he returned the file, and removed the film from the camera.
He was wearing a black t-shirt, dark khaki’s, and a brown newsboy cap. He taped the film to the top of the cap’s brim and snapped the bonnet securely to the brim. He put a fresh roll of film into the camera. He tucked the camera away behind the fabric divider in his right front pocket. He waited until it was more than an hour after midnight. He took the fire escape to the first floor and walked out the back door.
He hadn’t taken two steps before he felt, before hearing or seeing them, the two men. A slapjack broke his nose. He hit the ground like a bag of potatoes. A big man yanked him to his feet and slammed him against the wall. He turned him around. A smaller man with sharp front teeth and a black felt pork pie hat stepped in front of him.
“Hey, don’t I know you,” he said, talking to Ezra’s broken nose. “No,” said Ezra.
“Sure I do, you’re the zigzag man from down on the docks,” he said, and hit Ezra twice fast high on both sides of his face with the jack.
“Fuck you!” Ezra spit, screaming, and the man hit him in the mouth. Ezra tried to kick him, flailing his legs, but the small man danced away, and then darted in, jabbing him hard in the ribs with the butt end of the slapjack. Ezra felt something crack and slumped in the big man’s arms.
“You’re in a world of hurt, Jew man,” the small man sneered. “What were you doing in there? You tell me or we will take you to another world.”
Bumpy Williams was suddenly behind the small man. “Let’s beat feet,” said Bumpy. “Radio car just pulled up, blocking that way, they’re coming fast. We got to go the other way.”
The big man let Ezra flop to the ground and the three men walked away, quietly briskly melting away.
One of the Radio Motor patrolmen rolled Ezra over.
“Mother of Jesus, you got a bad dose of it,” he said, looking at his face.
The other policeman came back.
“Gone,” he said. “They must have had a car waiting.”
“Let’s get him to the hospital.”
They helped Ezra to their green, black, and white Ford Tudor RMP, a lit-up ‘Police’ sign on the white roof, one of the policemen sitting in the back seat with Ezra, his battered head in his lap, the other, siren wailing, making the short fast drive to the emergency room at Bellevue Hospital.
It was half past three in the morning by the time Stan and Bettina pulled up chairs next to Ezra’s bed on the seventh floor. A police guard sat outside the door.
“You look bad,” said Stan
“I feel better,” he said. “They doped me up.”
“Do you know who it was?” “One of them was the rat face who’s usually hiding behind Big Paulie. The other one, I never saw, he had me from behind. I saw his hands, though. It looks like he was a fighter once. There was an eggplant who came running up when the cavalry got there, but I didn’t recognize him.”
“OK, we’ll get them. Did you find anything?”
“Yeah,” said Ezra, his voice muffled by the drugs and swollen busted lip. “The film is in my hat.’
“OK.” “I need two, three days,” said Ezra. “Take your time,” said Stan.
In the hallway Stan stopped, the policeman stood up, and Bettina kept her hand on the doorknob.
“Not to worry,” said the uniformed officer. “One of us will be right here until he’s discharged.”
“Get Karol and Bartek first thing in the morning,” Stan said to Bettina when they were outside. “Tell them what I want and tell them I want it by the end of the week, all three if they can do it, but rat face, for sure. I don’t care how they do it, just so long as it gets done.”
“It’ll get done,” said Bettina, a metallic taste in her mouth.
Stan hailed a taxi for her.
She got in and he waved the cabbie to go.
“I’m going for a walk,” he said.
The cab turned away into the still quiet Manhattan morning.
The last bottles of liquid nitroglycerin were tucked into the cavity Tony the Phil dug out to the side of the base of the drain under center field where it met the larger storm drain. It sloped away under right field from there to Bedford Avenue. The tiles he had pried away he tidily carefully replaced. Even when he threw the beam of his flashlight directly on the wall, he could barely see that any tiles had ever been disturbed.
Sure, the Dodgers still had to sweep the Pirates to win the pennant, but it was more than doable. The Buccos were almost 20 games under .500, even with an outfield featuring Bill Virdon and Roberto Clemente. They had nothing to play for. On top of that, they would be playing at Ebbets Field, a doubleheader on Saturday and the last game of the season on Sunday.
Brooklyn had everything to play for, including doubling up on the Yankees, doing what they did in 1955 again in a subway series rematch. If he were a betting man, which he wasn’t, he couldn’t afford to throw money away, he would bet on the Bums.
He would have bet the nitro was going to be a problem, but when he picked it up at the deli, the first package yesterday and the second package today, it hadn’t been any problem, at all.
“Nah, it ain’t gonna blow you up,” the counterman said. “We keep it in the cooler, so it stays stable. It’s packed in ice, so you’ve got a couple of hours. It’s as safe to handle as a baby. It won’t bite you.”
His yellow jacket, yellow TNT sewn into it, was already and all safely ready in the back of his locker. When he pulled the ripcord on it, standing where he was now standing, all hell would break loose on Wednesday. There wouldn’t be any World Series after that.
He was calm ready steady. There wasn’t anything left to do, except to wait. If the Bums ran the table, then the table was set for blowing the commander-in-chief to kingdom come.
A stab of pain on both sides of his head buckled Tony the Phil’s knees. His chin fell into his chest and his hands flew to his temples. His eyes watered. “What the fuck?” He went down to the ground, like a dog, his head hanging. He started to pant.
“Fuck me!” he spit whispered to himself.
His headaches had been getting worse all summer, not better, but this was the worst of them. A grand slam was worse than a single if you were on the wrong side of it. He was on the wrong side of the slam. Five minutes passed before he opened his eyes and cautiously brought his head up. He put his hands on the wall to bring himself to his feet. It was no good. He went back down on all fours and crawled out of the storm drain.
He felt better once he made it outside. He stumbled getting up and lurched out of the ballpark. It was a sunny day.
The Brighton Beach Health Resort at 5th Street and Brightwater Court was a wide beat-up plank platform in front of a corrugated fence. Behind the fence was a parking lot. Parking on weekdays was 25 cents for two hours and 35 cents for three hours. Weekdays the cost was a flat 15 cents an hour. It didn’t matter to Tony. He had taken a bus and walked the rest of the way.
Behind the parking lot were rows of five-story brownstone walk-ups. In front of the Health Resort was the Brighton Beach Boardwalk. The Lower Bay spread out as far as the eye could see. The four-foot painted letters on the fence said, “Health Resort” and smaller letters to the side said “Sat. Sun 20 cents per hr Weekdays 15 cents per hr. “
A small billboard to the side advertised soda pop. The sign said, “7 Up Likes You.”
Tony the Phil didn’t drink 7 Up because he didn’t like Fresh-up Freddie, the rooster mascot for the soft drink. Freddie dressed in flashy clothes, drove a red sportster, and was free and easy with advice about how to plan fun successful picnics and parties by having plenty of 7 Up on hand. Tony didn’t go on picnics, except by himself, and was rarely invited to parties. He drank Dr. Pepper, “The Friendly Pepper Upper.”
He threw down three dimes for two hours and found a chaise lounge in the second row of chairs. There were four rows. Everyone got the same quiet beams of sunlight, no matter what row they were in. The backrest was adjustable to three positions. He set it back two stops, wiggling into the cushions.
The woman next to him was a middle-aged fireplug in a long-sleeved black jacket and a black knee-length skirt. She was wearing orthopedic black shoes. The woman’s chin bobbed softly on the folds of her neck. Her hands were folded over her gut and she was breathing softly. Next to her was a young blonde woman in a two-piece bathing suit, her hair pulled up under a white kerchief. On the other side of him were two middle-aged men, one in a white shirt and the other in a blue shirt, their sleeves rolled up.
“I tell you, he ain’t gonna make it,” said the man in the white shirt. “I like Ike, but he should have stepped aside for a younger man.”
“He’s made it this far,” said the man in the blue shirt. “I’ve seen younger men drop dead for no reason at all. He’s got plenty of good reasons to stay on his feet.”
“You know, my temperature’s risin’, and the jukebox blows a fuse, my heart’s beatin’ rhythm, and my soul keeps on singin’ the blues, roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news.”
Tony the Phil glanced at the blonde in the two-piece suit. She had a transistor radio banded to her wrist and her wrist near her ear. It was gray with a gold tuning dial. It was the closest Tony had been to one of the gadgets.
“That one of those new pocket radios?”
“It’s a Regency,” she said. “I’m listening to WINS, the Alan Freed Show.”
“1010, easy to remember, easy to dial,” said Tony.
“Spinnin’ the discs with finesse, just set your dial to 1010 awhile, to WINS.” He listened to Bob Garrity’s live late night “Jazz from Birdland” sometimes, after night games, when he couldn’t sleep in the dank stuffy dark air.
The first night game at Ebbets Field had been played almost twenty years ago. Some of the old-timers still talked about it. A fife and drum corps marched up and down the outfield. Jessie Owen ran a series of sprinting exhibitions. Johnny Vander Meer, a lanky twenty-two-year-old southpaw, threw a no-hitter for the Bums. Leo Durocher came up in the top of the ninth down three, two outs, and the bases loaded after three straight walks, but Vander Meer got Leo the Lip to hit a loser’s pop-up that shut the lights out on the Reds.
“See you later alligator, after ‘while crocodile, can’t you see you’re in my way now, Don’t you know you cramp my style.”
The first night game was a no-hit shut-out. The crowd went wild. Johnny Vander Meer was mobbed by his teammates. “I said wait a minute ‘gator, I know you mean it just for play, and this is what I have to say, see you later alligator, after ‘while crocodile.”
Everybody young was listening to rock-n-roll, the new music. Whoever heard of Elvis Presley before the transistor radio? Now he was down for five of the Billboard Top 20 songs. Doris Day was in the Top 10, but time was running out for her and Dean Martin and Perry Como. It was time for Carl Perkins and Gene Vincent and Frankie Lymon.
“Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be, the future’s not ours to see, Que sera, sera, what will be, will be.”
“I heard those things cost an arm and a leg,” said Tony.
“I don’t know,” said the blonde. “My boyfriend got it for me. He said it fell off a truck.”
She laughed, full-mouthed, bright and happy.
The Italian woman in black between them shifted her weight. The chaise lounge groaned. She had been gurgling snoring quietly, but now stopped. The blonde turned back to Tony.
“Oh, wait, this is my favorite song by Pat Boone,” she said suddenly.
It was ‘I Almost Lost My Mind’.
“I went to the Gypsy and had my fortune read, I went to see a Gypsy, I had my fortune read, I hung my head in sorrow when she said what she said.”
He remembered the song from the time before he went to Korea. It was a big hit by Ivory Joe Hunter, not Pat Boone. Ivory Joe was Ivory Joe’s given name, not a stage name. He was the Baron of the Boogie. He wasn’t the cheery youngster from Florida who covered R & B hits for Dot Records. He wasn’t the wholesome Pat Boone who the high school girls loved. He wasn’t just piggybank jiving.
Jesus H. Christ, his head hurt again.
He had felt better for a half-hour, the warm sunshine making him hum, but now his head was pulsing. He felt hot, not warm. Some kind brown was creeping in on the edge of his vision. He was nauseous and woozy.
“Oh yes I’m the great pretender, ooh, ooh, adrift in a world of my own, ooh, ooh, I play the game but to my real shame, you’ve left me to dream all alone.”
“Hey mister, are you all right?”
Tony the Phil heard the blonde the second or third time she asked, even though he wasn’t sure what she was saying.
“I was asking if you’re all right.”
“Headache, bad headache,” he said.
“I got some Bayer in my handbag.”
She pulled a red and black box bag out from under her chaise lounge, flipped the clasp open, and shook out two white tablets of aspirin. He swallowed them dry. They didn’t do him any good, though. “Thanks,” he said, getting up, sketchy.
“Are you going to be OK?”
“I’ll be fine,” he said.
He couldn’t take a bus or a subway. He was goddamn wobbly. He needed to see the doctor as soon as possible. Behind him the blonde lifted an Oscar Mayer thin-sliced bologna and cheese sandwich slathered with mayo and mustard out of her box bag. Taking a bite, she watched Tony the Phil stutter down the plank boardwalk. He waved for a cab, getting in gingerly, slumping slightly forward. “Don’t know what they’re doing, but they laugh a lot behind the green door, wish they’d let me in so I could find out, what’s behind the green door.”
Uptown, Dr. Robert Baird put down his menu. He had a dirty martini at hand, although the olive brine hadn’t replaced the vermouth, but rather gone along with it. He liked it that way. The glass was cloudier than a traditional martini.
“I’ll have the Omelette Maison to start and the Sangue de Boeuf a la Milanaise for my lunch,” he said.
“Very good, thank you, sir,” said the waiter.
The psychiatrist was at the Quo Vadis restaurant, on the ground floor of the Leonori Building at East 63rd Street off Madison Avenue, having a late lunch alone in a quiet corner. His office was on the corner of East 66th and Park Avenue, in a 12-story building across the street from the Park Avenue Armory. He practiced his craft on the 5th floor. It was a ten-minute stroll from his office to the restaurant. He always walked, rain under an umbrella or shine.
The Quo Vadis was opulent, heavy with columns and red velvet, Italian mosiacs in the entry, and the two restaurateurs, Gino Robusti and Bruno Caravaggi, paraded the dining room at night in tuxedos. Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Nat King Cole ate there. Frank Sinatra was one of the few diners not required to wear a tie during dinner. Nevertheless, he always wore a tie, out of respect.
Robert Baird was hungry. He almost felt famished, having missed breakfast. He finished his omelet and ordered another martini. He knew his special patient was falling apart, but there was only so much he could do. The problem was the time it was taking. It was taking too long getting to D-Day. The man’s headaches had been getting worse. There was less than a week to go, but he was concerned.
He had been using scopolamine to fine-tune the hypnosis sessions, and there hadn’t been any adverse effects, no dry mouth, no itching, or hallucinations. Headaches weren’t listed in the literature as an adverse effect. He was puzzled, although not surprised, by the headaches. The literature wasn’t always right. Jackson Pollack had come down with several migraine-like headaches in July.
If it happens again, I’ll use a narcotic again, he thought, biting into his beef.
It was the first time he had ordered the Sangue de Boeuf at Quo Vadis. It was literally melting in his mouth. This is absolutely delicious, he realized, at the same time resentfully seeing it was Tony de Marco stumbling past a surprised waiter’s outstretched arms towards his table.
“Doc, you gotta help me.”
“It’s all right, Lorenzo,” Dr. Baird said to the waiter. “Help him into his seat and bring a glass of ice water.”
Tony’s face was flushed, and he looked like he might explode. A side effect of scopolamine was dyshidrosis, a reduced ability to sweat in order to cool off. Tony drank down a tumbler of water and Dr. Baird ordered another.
“Doc, I’ve been getting worse headaches,” said Tony. “The dope you gave me helped, but it doesn’t help anymore. I need something more to keep my head screwed on straight.”
Dr. Baird ate his beef while he watched Tony. He knew he was going to have to get him back to the office, but he wanted to finish his lunch first. He had an enormous fondness for delicious food. He was willing to miss dessert but wasn’t willing to walk away from his entrée.
“Drink a little more water, and we’ll go in a few minutes, as soon as you’ve cooled down. I’m sure we’ve got something that will help you,” said the psychiatrist, lifting another forkful of Sangue De Boeuf to his mouth.
“My head is killing me.”
“I want your body temperature to go down a little first,” he said, stalling, looking down at his plate. There were only a few bites left. He quickly lifted another slice of beef with his fork. He saw Lorenzo approaching their table and made eye contact. He gestured a phantom signature in the air. The waiter understood and made a u-turn.
As Dr. Baird and Tony walked past the bar to the front door, Tony supported at the elbow by the doctor, Stan Riddman, sitting at the bar, looked down into the bourbon in front of him. There were three ice cubes in the glass. He liked the way the bourbon got along with the cold.
On the street the doctor hailed a cab. Walking past them, Stan overheard the address the doctor gave the cabbie, and decided to walk. He would be there practically at the same time, anyway. The cab was pulling away from East 66th and Park when he got there. He watched the two men enter the building, waited a moment, and followed them inside. They were standing at the elevator, their backs to him. He watched them get inside the elevator, and when he saw it stopped on the 5th floor, he walked across the lobby to the pay phone.
“You might have hit the nail on the head about the little man,” he said when Bettina answered the office phone. “He’s with our bird, going up.”
“Where are you?”
“In the lobby of the doc’s building,” he said.
“Are you going to do the bum’s rush?” she asked.
“Yes, get the guys over here as fast as possible, Bartek behind the building, and Karol with me,” he said. “You be with the car in the alley on the Madison side.”
“Give me ten minutes.”
“It’s going to happen fast, stay on your toes”
“Don’t worry about my end. Oh, one last thing, are you going to grab the both of them?”
“You bet I am.”
Ten minutes gave him just enough time to have a square. He leaned against the wall next to the pay phone and lit a Camel. He slowly exhaled twin plumes of smoke through his nostrils and waited for Karol. He knew Bartek would be waiting in the alley. Stan waited behind a cloud of cigarette smoke.
The mistake Bumpy Williams made was having two beers for lunch on an empty stomach. He wasn’t hungry, but he was thirsty. The other mistake he made was breaking his number one no break rule, which was never assume anything.
“It can make an ass of you,” George Benta at the funeral home said the day when his men mixed up two dead men in what they thought were the right coffins and had to dig them up and bury them again.
“Hey, mistakes are just another way of getting things done,” Bumpy said to George’s long face.
He assumed Stan Rittman, frog-marching Dr. Robert Baird out the door of his office building in the hubbub of the 5 o’clock Friday going home rush, down the sidewalk, and into the alley, was alone. He saw the car, the open back door, and got to within a step of the peeper, but he never saw Karol.
Stan saw Bumpy coming but stayed in step with doing what he was doing, not skipping a beat. Never interrupt anybody when he’s making a mistake was one of his cardinal rules. It had always stood him in good stead at the poker table. The only person he interrupted tripping over her own feet was Dottie.
“Hands where I can see them, nigger,” said Karol.
The third mistake Bumpy made was whirling around, blackjack suddenly in his hand, and leveraging his temple into the swinging blunt butt end of Karol’s Colt .45 caliber pistol. The street tilted up to meet his pole-axed face, his knees weak as a baby’s, his brain blank as a bubble.
“Who’s he?” asked Karol.
“Who cares, in the trunk,” said Stan.
Bettina tossed the car keys out the window, Karol snatched them out of the air, and dragging Bumpy Williams by his armpits his heels dragging to the back of the Pontiac, strong-armed the woozy Negro into the trunk.
“You still have a chance, but I hear a sound out of you, it’ll be the last sound you make, and no hard feelings,” Karol said, his mouth close to Bumpy’s ear. They looked straight at each other. Bumpy tried to make his eyes say he understood. Karol gave him a pat on the shoulder. “Good,” he said.
“Let’s go,” said Stan, getting into the back seat on one side of the doctor, Karol on the other side. “Stick your chin into your chest, and keep it stuck there,” said Stan. Karol tied a blue and yellow dotted bandana over the psychiatrist’s eyes. Bettina put the car in gear and eased into traffic. Less than a half hour later they pulled up at the rear of the Warsaw Baking Company in Little Poland.
Bartek was already waiting at the back door, leaning against the brick wall, a smoke dangling from his lips. He had ridden his Twin out of the alley and beaten all the traffic.
The Marman Twin was a motorcycle made in California by a company owned by one of the Marx Brothers, Zeppo. The engine was a drone airplane engine from World War Two. It was a nimble zippy ride.
“You two bring the colored man,” said Stan, leading Dr. Baird hard by the elbow into the building. “Handcuff him in the boiler room in the meantime. We’ll get to him after the doc.”
“What about the little man?” asked Bartek.
“He was gone,” said Stan. “We’ll find out who what and where he is. You and Karol sit tight. This won’t take long.”
Bettina parked the car and followed Stan. She bolted the door behind her, took two steps down into the basement, but then went back up to double-check the door. It was bolted fast. It was a metal door, a heavy metal door.
The Warsaw Baking Company was a two-story brick building between Nassau and Driggs Avenues. One side of the front of the building was double doors and two loading docks. The other side was a single door leading up to a bakery shop. It closed at 5 o’clock. It was closed. There were two glass block basement windows. There was one door at the back.
Karol stayed with Bumpy, cuffed to a pipe and sprawled on the concrete floor. Bartek walked around to the front of the building and hopped on to the ledge of one of the loading docks. He leaned back, pushed his flat cap off his forehead, and lit a cigarette. The late afternoon early fall sunlight felt good on his face. A pretty girl he recognized walked by. He gave her a wolf whistle.
“Save that for the girls who don’t know the real you, Bart,” she said, smiling wickedly as she walked past.
“You’re cooking, doll.”
He lived three blocks away, and Karol lived a block from Bartek, in Little Poland, hard on the East River. Everything and everyone were Polish, drug stores, groceries, hair salons, newsstands, and funeral parlors. Hardware stores and dentists and shoeshine stands advertised their wares and services in their native tongue. The young men had both gotten out of Europe in 1948 when they were both still teenagers and both gone orphan for the rest of their lives.
They worked at the bakery and did odd jobs on the side. One of their sidelines was doing odd jobs for Stan Riddman. It kept them in going out money, going out with girls, going out to ballgames, going to shows, and going out to eat.
They ate at Czerwony Wreprz, what everyone called the Red Pig, once a week, where they always ordered the signature dish, a whopping meal for four served in a wooden boat, of sausages, pierogies, baked hocks, bacon, stuffed cabbage, grilled pork shoulder, and chicken.
“You eat this, you’ll be happy for a week,” said the cook.
The Red Pig looked more like an old country farmhouse than a bar and restaurant, with a long deep stocked bar and plenty-and-more Polish beer on tap. A white bird on a red background was stopped in space over the front door. A sign below the big bird said “Zapraszamy!” It meant you were welcome to enter. The waitresses dressed in traditional folk dresses. Wooden beams lined the ceiling from front to back, lights hung on wagon wheels, and the booths chairs tables were all dark walnut polished to gleam in the thick cig smoke.
Ezra was in the half-empty odds-and-ends room in the basement of the Warsaw Baking Company when Stan came in, Dr. Baird ahead of him, and Bettina behind them. He was tucked in a back corner, his arms folded across his chest, quietly waiting, not angry anymore, but waiting. Stan sat the psychiatrist in a chair at the table in the middle of the room and lifted the bandana from his eyes. Dr. Baird blinked rapidly and squeezed his eyes slits to keep the light out.
Everything was quiet for several seconds. It stretched to minutes. Ezra stayed behind the doctor. Stan stood on the far side of the table. Bettina locked the door and leaned back on the wall to the side of it. Stan looked down at Dr. Baird.
“This is outrageous, who do you think you are?” Dr. Baird said in a thick upset voice, starting to stand up. “Where am I? What do you think you’re doing? I’ll have you all arrested, mark my words!”
Ezra stepped up behind the doctor and pushed him by the top of his head back down into his chair.
“Shut up and stay that way until we ask you something,” said Stan. “Turn his pockets out, Ezra, let’s see what we’re going to see before we get started.”
“I know your name now. You hoodlums will pay for this.”
“My name is Stan Riddman,” Stan said. “It’s spelled with two d’s. The only one who’s going to pay up is you. Keep your trap shut.”
When Ezra pivoted and rousted Dr. Baird halfway to his feet, spreading the lapels of the man’s jacket to search the inside pockets, and the men were face to face, the doctor recoiled.
“My God, what happened to you?”
Ezra’s eyes were black and blue, he was wearing a splint over his broken nose, and his busted lower lip was swollen. He spoke gingerly, careful to not hurt himself. He glared at the doctor.
“Yeah, your goons did this, and cracked one of my ribs, too. I’m in no mood to finesse you, so be a good boy,” said Ezra, his voice slow thin terse.
“My goons? I don’t have any goons. What are you talking about?”
“I already told you to shut up twice,” said Stan, as Ezra tossed the doctor’s wallet on the table and shoved him back into the chair. “The third time is going to be the charm.”
Stan sat down opposite Dr. Baird.
“I’m going to ask you some questions, doc,’” he said. “Some of the answers I already know. Some of them I don’t know. It will be easier all around if you don’t lie to me, especially if you don’t say you don’t know what this is all about.”
“But I don’t know.”
“We’re getting off on the wrong foot already,” said Stan, quickly getting up, leaning over the table, and grabbing the doctor by the knot of his tie. He jerked him towards him. Dr. Baird’s chin hit the tabletop and was dragged forward.
“I told you once, I won’t tell you again. I won’t have it. If you lie to me it will only make it a longer night, and I don’t want that.”
He let go and Dr. Baird fell back into his chair, lurching sputtering. He was starting to sweat. His shirt was damp. He wasn’t a weak man, but he wasn’t a brave man, either. He was a smart man, and realized he was in a locked room, in a basement, with a man bigger than he was in front of him, a short-tempered man, and a man behind him whose mind was seemingly made up for revenge. He belatedly knew without having to know that both had guns on their persons.
The Stan man had spelled his name out to him. He didn’t like what that might mean. He knew this had everything to do with Tony de Marco. He knew they weren’t suddenly unexpectedly going to let him go free. He turned to Bettina.
“You can’t let them do this. You’ve got to help me.”
Bettina gave Dr. Baird a breezy look. “You’re dirty, my fine man. You lied to us about Jackson Pollack, and then you had Ezra beaten up. We’re going to find out what you know, one way or the other.”
“I didn’t have him beaten up,” Dr. Baird protested.
“You know what, doc, I believe you,” said Stan. “You didn’t get your hands dirty, at least. But you know all about Jackson Pollack, you lied about that. Let’s start there, what do you say?”
Stan wasn’t asking a question.
“I treated Jackson Pollack for depression, but I can’t discuss anything about it with you. It would be unethical.”
Stan was taken aback. Ezra’s face hurt when he started laughing. He stopped. Bettina squawked. “You’re going to need a better deadbolt than that,” she said, smiling sweetly.
Outside Bartek zipped up his jacket, lolling against the brick wall of the Warsaw Baking Company. The sun was low in the sky. The warm late summer air had cooled.
“Hey, Mikey, Jake, Eryk, what’s shaking?”
“We’re going down to Elsa’s, have some brews, and play some skee ball.”
Elsa’s was the Black Rabbit Tavern and Elsa was Elsa Brouwerji, a friendly middle-aged widow whose husband had tied a cinder block around his neck and thrown himself off the Rockaway Boardwalk a year to the day after the 30 million-gallon oil spill six years earlier into the Newtown Creek. He had been working at the neighborhood’s Standard Oil refinery and accused by his supervisors of negligence and been fired.
It didn’t help matters that after his suicide it was determined that Casper Brouwerji hadn’t made the mistake that resulted in the largest oil spill in the country’s history. His widow got a settlement from Standard Oil and bought the Pour House Bar and Grill. She changed the name to the Black Rabbit and thumb tacked a photograph of her husband to the wall above the cash register.
She cursed loudly and spat on the sidewalk behind her whenever she walked past a Standard service station.
“Are you coming?”
“No, I’m on the clock, errands for Stan. He said it wouldn’t be too long. I’ll catch up with you.”
Stan lifted his eyes past Dr. Baird’s shoulder.
Ezra reached into his back pocket and wrenching the doctor’s arms behind him, over the backside of the chair, snapped a pair of handcuffs tight hurtful on his wrists. Stan threw two hinged metal frames with an attached head strap on the table.
“Do you know what this is?” he asked.
“No,” said Dr. Baird.
“This is a Whitehead gag,” said Stan. “It wraps around the front of your head and the parts that are bent fit between your front teeth. When we spread them apart, the frames separate your jaw, holding your mouth open. We can get it wide open and keep it that way with that ratchet mechanism on each side of the frame.”
Dr. Baird didn’t say a word.
Stan tossed a pair of needle nose pliers on the table.
“Do you know what those are?”
“Yes,” said Dr. Baird.
“Do you know what I’m planning on doing?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Are you going to tell me what I want to know?”
“I was paid to brainwash Jackson Pollack into committing suicide,” the doctor said.
There was a slight stop of breath in the room, but Stan knew enough to keep the line going on the base paths.
“How much were you paid?” he quickly asked.
“One hundred and seventy fifty thousand dollars.”
Bettina puckered up and whistled, surprised impressed.
“What did you do with the money?”
“It’s in a Swiss bank account.”
“Who paid you to do that?”
“They never told me who they were.”
“Why did they want Jackson Pollack dead?”
“They never said.”
“You didn’t ask?”
“You didn’t care?”
“I need water, a glass of water.”
“No, no water, no nothing,” said Stan. “Who’s the little man?”
“His name is Tony.”
“Is that his real name?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“What’s his last name?”
Dr. Baird hesitated.
“It’s a secret,” he said quietly.
“There are no secrets among friends, doc. “
“I didn’t keep any record of him at the office, not like Pollack, who was my patient before any of that happened later with Tony. I was told my life would be in grave danger if I ever revealed anything about him to anybody.”
Stan laughed again
“Your life is in danger right here and now,” he said. “You have one foot on a bank peel and the other foot in the grave, is what I mean. I mean to have his name, or there will be hell to pay.”
“His name is Tony de Marco,” the psychiatrist finally said.
“Where does he live?”
“I don’t know.”
“What does he do for a living?”
“I don’t know.”
“What were you making him do? Was it the same as Pollack?”
“Yes, but different. When he hears the first bars of a certain song, he’s to wait thirty seconds and then pull the ripcord on his dynamite vest.”
“A dynamite vest?”
“A vest packed with TNT.”
“I know what they are,” said Stan.
Some of the Hitler Youth, in the waning days of the war, when all hope was gone, had adopted the Japanese tactic of throwing themselves under tanks wearing a vest crammed with grenades.
“He’s supposed to blow himself up when he hears a song?”
“What song is it?”
“I don’t know.”
“What does it sound like?”
Dr. Baird hummed a kind of a march with a drumbeat.
“Is that it? Are there any words?”
“No, no words, and that’s all I ever played for him, a kind of four-time ruffle, over and over.”
“Where and when is this supposed to happen?”
“Where he works.”
“Where does he work?
“I don’t know where.”
“Soon, in a few days, I think, since I wasn’t supposed to see him again. That’s all I know.”
“How much were you being paid for this gag?”
“The same as before.”
“Jesus!” Ezra hissed, hating the man who had almost gotten him killed. “And the goys call us money hungry,” he thought.
“What were you planning on doing after it was all over?”
“I was planning on disappearing.”
“I’ll bet you were,” said Stan.
Stan, Bettina, and Ezra went out into the hallway.
“All right, we know what happened to Jackson Pollack, and how, and who did it, more or less. We can wrap it up with Barney Newman, collect our fee, and call it a day,” said Stan. “We can honestly tell him it wasn’t an accident.”
“Or we can we can keep snooping and find out who it really was who did our painter,” said Betty.
“Oh, jeez” Stan exclaimed. “What about the Series?”
“I’m with you,” said Ezra. “But I’ll be damned if I’ve got anything better to do before the ballgames start.”
“All right, all right, let’s get Bart down here.”
When Bartek, Karol, Bettina, Stan, and Ezra were all in the hallway, Stan asked Bart and Karol if they were willing and able to sit tight on Dr. Baird and Bumpy Williams in the basement.
“I want them kept here and I want them kept quiet until I say so. I don’t want anyone to know they’re here. I don’t want them wandering off. I don’t want a peep out of them. Can you make that happen?”
Bartek and Karol had survived Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht, Josef Stalin’s Red Army, and Dwight Eisenhower’s Allied Expeditionary Force. They had survived refugee camps, black marketers, and the deck of a tramp steamer to the United States. They had survived being DP’s in Brooklyn.
“What’s in it for us?” asked Bartek.
“A c-note apiece,” said Stan.
“For how long?”
The World Series started on Wednesday.
“Done, two chunks for the price of one,” said Karol, the older of the two by several weeks.
“All right, said Stan. “Check with Betty every morning, and whenever you need anything, check with her again. Look in on the doc now, stay there for a few minutes, we’re going to see what we’ve got going with Cotton.”
Stan, Bettina, and Ezra walked into the boiler room. The Negro looked up from where he was handcuffed to a pipe in the back of the room. His lips curled, trying to smile. Stan stood between Ezra and Bumpy.
“I know you,” said Ezra, looking down at Bumpy Williams.
“Uh, oh,” Bumpy muttered.
After bacon and eggs and toast and coffee, Ike and Mamie Eisenhower walked out of the large two-story house on the long quiet street and shook hands with Joel Carlson and his wife. “Thanks for having us,” said Dwight Eisenhower. They had spent the night in the guest bedroom. At the end of the driveway a man waited with three ballerina dolls in his arms.
Ike lit a cigarette. He looked at the man. He looked at the man next to him.
“John Krajicek, from Ames,” said the Secret Service agent in a dark suit.
The man holding the three dolls gave them to Mamie Eisenhower.
“Thank you so much,” she said, squeezing his arm.
John Krajiceks’s face lit up.
“It is my pleasure,” he said.
The President and Mrs. Eisenhower were in Boone, Iowa, on a Friday. It was the last day of summer. The next day was the first day of fall. It was a clear crisp morning.
Once in their car they were driven to Carroll Street, to the house Mamie had been born in sixty years earlier. Mrs. Beatrice Smiley, Mrs. Myrtle Douglas, and Mrs. Awilda Stranberg, all dressed up, all in a huddle anxious, all waiting their breathing bated, greeted them on the front porch. They presented Mamie with a photograph of the stone and memorial plaque that had recently been placed on the lawn of her birthplace.
Mamie was slightly unnerved by the God’s green acre look of it, like a memorial garden.
Looking down at the plaque, after reading the inscription, Ike noticed a shiny penny in the freshly mowed grass. “See a penny, pick it up, all day long you’ll have good luck,” he thought. He picked it up.
Adlai Stevenson was coming to nearby Newton tomorrow to give a speech about farm problems. “We’ve got the ‘Truth Squad’ ready,” Joel Carlson said over breakfast. Ike rolled the penny between his fingers in his pocket.
On the far side of bulging cornfields across the continent, Vicki, Bettina, and Dottie plunked down their fifteen cents apiece at the NYCTA booth and walked down the stairs. Dottie stopped to look at a yellow sign trimmed in red on the wall at the entrance to the tunnel.
“Please cooperate. When in doubt, ask any employee. Help keep the subways clean. Use receptacles for paper. Do not rush – Let ‘em off first. Move away from doors. Keep to the right on stairways. Try to shop between 10 and 4. Always be courteous.”
“Run!” she suddenly shouted, running up the platform. “It’s one of those air-conditioned cars!”
Two months earlier the transit system had rolled out the first experimental air-conditioned cars on the East Side IRT line. They were fitted with deodorizers and filters and piped-in soft music. The temperature was maintained in the mid-70s. Signs on every third window said “Air Conditioned Car – Please Keep Windows Closed.”
They were taking the IND line across the river to Brooklyn, across Gravesend, to the end of the line. When they got off the train they walked, crossed Mermaid Avenue, and hoofed it to Coney Island Beach and Boardwalk.
Dottie felt light as lemonade.
They stopped at the Sodamat on West 15th Street as they strolled on the Boardwalk. “Good Drinks Served Right – Skee Ball 5 cents.” There were prize games, hammer games, rifle ranges, freak shows, and fortune-tellers on Coney Island.
“Look, they have waffles,” said Dottie, pointing to a sign on the front of a counter behind which a man in a white jacket and soda jerk cap was making waffles.
“I thought you wanted a Nathan’s,” said Vicki.
“I do, but later,” said Dottie.
“Did you know hot dogs were invented right here on Coney Island, almost one hundred years ago?” asked Bettina.
“Not so fast, how could Nathan have done that?” asked Dottie.
“It wasn’t Nathan, it was Charley Feltman, who used to boil sausages on a small charcoal stove inside his wagon and then slip them into a roll. He called them red hots at first, but later changed it to hot dogs.”
“How about some ball hop before we eat?” asked Vicki, pointing into the arcade behind the food counter.
“My game is stickball,” said Dottie. “Skee ball is for jellyfish. They don’t even play stickball here. They play coop-ball. That’s for jellyfish, too.”
“Do you only play stickball?” asked Vicki. “Oh, no, we play ringolevio and skelly, too, although some kids call it scummy top. Skelly is fun, but all you’ve got are your chalk and the squares and your caps. Ringolevio is way more fun, we run all over, and there’s a jail, and jailbreaks, and everything. Chain, chain, double chain, no break away!”
It was a few minutes before eleven when the Eisenhower’s arrived at the National Field Days and Plowing Matches near Colfax. In the past two days he had traveled hundreds of miles through central Iowa, made speeches, had impromptu informal talks, shook hands, shook more hands, waved and flashed his smile to more than 300,00 people, half of them on Walnut Street in Des Moines, eight and nine deep, on both sides of the street.
Gangs of schoolchildren ran alongside his limousine and kids on bicycles rode behind the police motorcycle escorts.
“There’s never been anything like this here before,” said Governor Leo Hoegh, whistling through his teeth in awe and admiration.
Four years earlier, when Harry Truman had campaigned in Iowa, he got sick and tired of hearing “We Like Ike!” from hecklers. “Why don’t you shut up and you might learn something,” he retorted at one stop, veering from his prepared speech. When he did, he became the target of eggs and tomatoes.
Ike didn’t run in 1948 and Harry Truman got the last laugh the morning after Thomas E. Dewey beat him.
As they drove up the dirt road off Highway 6 to the entrance of the Field Days, Dwight Eisenhower glanced at the cardboard signs at the side of the road. He wasn’t the challenger anymore. He was the incumbent. He was the man in office with a record to defend.
“10-cent corn – the same as 1932.”
1932 was the year 24 years ago when Franklin Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover in that year’s presidential race, more than three years into the Great Depression.
“Ike Promised 100 Per Cent Parity 1952. Didn’t Happen. What Promise – 1956?”
“Ike’s Peace Like Neville Chamberlain’s Peace.”
At the entrance a short round man held up a loosely lettered sign stuck on the end of a broomstick. “Adlai and Estes, The Bestest.”
“That was the best waffle I ever had,” said Dottie.
“You had two of them,” said Vicki.
“She’s a growing girl,” said Bettina.
“Those were the best two waffles I ever had,” said Dottie.
“Where to now?” asked Bettina.
“I want to jump off the Eiffel Tower!” exclaimed Dottie.
The Parachute Jump at Steeplechase Park had been built for the 1939 World’s Fair and later moved to Coney Island. It stood 250 feet high, was open-frame, and everyone called it the Eiffel Tower of Brooklyn. Twelve cantilevered steel arms sprouted from the top of the tower, eleven of them supporting a two-person canvas seat and parachute. The riders were belted down, hoisted to the top, then released into a freefall, caught by the parachute, and floated to the ground. Shock absorbers were built into the seats, just in case.
“I’m not going up on that thing,” said Bettina.
“Do you remember the parachute wedding?” Vicki asked Bettina.
“No, I never have heard of it.”
“A couple got married up there. The minister was in the seat next to them and the whole wedding party was on the rest of the seats. When the ceremony was over the married couple parachuted down first, and everyone else followed them, except for the minister. The cables on his seat got tangled and he was up there for more than five hours before firemen could get him down. The tower is right on the ocean, and it got windy, and he was sick as a dog by the time they got him on the ground.”
“That cinches it,” said Bettina.
“You and me both, sister,” said Vicki. “Time to plow back through the crowd.”
“Mr. President,” said Herb Plambeck. “I’d like to introduce our twenty seven Champion Plowmen and our one and only Champion Plow Woman, Mrs. Pauline Blankenship.”
Ike shook hands with them, taking Pauline Blankenship’s lightly, even though her hand was bigger than his. He shook hands with Frank Mendell, chairman of the National Contour Plowing Match, and Dale Hall, chairman of the National Level Land Plowing Match. In the lunch tent he met Kay Butler, Queen of the Furrow, and ate sitting between Mamie and Governor Hoegh.
Mrs. Jet Adams supervised the dozen ladies serving lunch. Mamie waved her over. “You’re doing a wonderful job,” she said.
After lunch Senator B. B. Hickenlooper introduced President Eisenhower to the crowd after introducing himself.
“Most of you know me, and I’m sure have voted for me often,” he said.
There was a wave of good-natured laughter.
“For those of you who don’t know me, and aren’t sure how to pronounce my name, my friends just call me Hick.”
There was another wave of laughter, larger and louder.
“When I was child, my mother sent me to the drug store to get a nickel’s worth of asafetida for her asthma. The druggist just gave it me without writing it out, because he didn’t want to have to write out my full name, Bourke Blakemore Hickenlooper. “
“Just take this home to your mother, Hick,” said the druggist.
Bourke Hickenlooper had been a senator since 1944. He wore black frame glasses beneath a pinkish bald pate and was one of the most conservative and isolationist members in the United States Senate. He hadn’t lost an election since as lieutenant governor of Iowa almost twenty years ago he made headlines by saving a Cedar Rapids woman from drowning in the Cedar River.
She later told her friends she hadn’t needed saving, but that her savior had insisted.
President Eisenhower’s speech was broadcast live on local TV and radio. He stayed local, steering away from anything controversial, the bland leading the bland. After the address he presented trophies and scrolls to the champion plowmen and champion plow woman.
Henry Steenhock, the owner of the land where the Field Days was held, didn’t think much of the speech.
“I like Ike, but I don’t think I’ll vote for him, even though I’ve been a Republican all my life,” he said. “Flexible price supports have got to go. We’re not looking for a handout, but we deserve price protection. Other businesses are subsidized. Ezra Benson? He’s got to go. Vice-President Nixon? I don’t like his attitude – period. Estes Kefauver, he’s like I am, straight-forward.”
Henry Steenbock always called corn a cash crop and a spade a spade. He was a small wound-up man urgent upright in his beliefs.
“Why do they call it Coney Island?” asked Dottie, taking a last look up at the parachute ride she wasn’t going to ride.
“It’s because of the Dutch,” said Bettina. “When they were here, maybe 300 years ago, there were lots of rabbits in the dunes, so they called it Konijnen Eiland, which means Rabbit Island, which became Coney Island after the English took over.”
“How did they take over?”
“Somebody always takes over,” said Bettina.
“Why does somebody always take over?”
“It’s the way of the world, child,” said Bettina.
“I want to go on the Wonder Wheel,” said Dottie.
“I think we’re up for that,” said Vicki.
The Wonder Wheel at Luna Park was a Ferris wheel and a Chute-the Chutes and a slow-moving roller coaster all in one. It was once called Dip-the-Dip. Some of the cars were stationary, but more than less of them moved back and forth along tracks between a big outer wheel and a smaller inner wheel as it all rotated.
They walked past an eight-foot high neon sign spelling out “Wonder Wheel.” Through the middle of the sign was an arrow blinking and pointing to the ride. “Thrills!” it said.
Dottie sat between Vicki and Bettina in one of the sliding cars.
“You can see Manhattan,” said Vicki when it was their turn at the top of the 150-foot-tall wheel and it stopped for a few seconds.
“Look, you can see the Rockaway,” said Bettina.
“It takes you low and it takes you high,” said Vicki.
“When you reach the top it’s like you can touch the sky,” said Dottie. “You can see the whole world.”
“One minute you’re on top, the next minute down you go,” said Bettina. “I say, stay in your seat, it’s going to get bumpy, enjoy the ride.”
“Top of the world, ma, top of the world,” said Vicki like a crazy person, bulging her eyeballs and throwing her arms up.
“Isn’t that crazy? One day he’s a mama’s boy mad dog killer and the next day, older and wiser, he’s Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
The Wonder Wheel shuddered and started down again.
Dwight Eisenhower and his wife were at the Des Moines Municipal Airport by mid-afternoon for their flight back to Washington D. C. He greeted and answered questions from more than a hundred weekly state newspaper editors, met with two- dozen state Republican Party officials, and was escorted to the Columbine by sixteen Eagle Scouts formed as an Honor Guard.
Inside the plane an aide sat down opposite him.
“Mr. President we have a report that Anastasio Somoza, the president of Nicaragua, has been shot today.”
“Is it serious?”
“The report wasn’t entirely clear, but it said, yes, serious, shot in the chest, point-blank, it might be life-threatening.”
“Where have they taken him?”
“He’s been taken to the Panama Canal Zone hospital.”
“Good, best place for him. he may be a son of a bitch, but Tacho’s our son of a bitch, so tell them to do everything they can to save him.”
“Who shot him?”
“Well, goddamn it. A poet, you said?”
“A poet, yes, sir, a local writer and musician, played violin in a band. He was shot dead, riddled, on the spot.”
“A poet with a popgun, mightier than the pen.”
The plane touched down at 9:35, taxied to the MATS Terminal, and the Eisenhower’s were in bed by 10:45. The next day Ike stayed in the Mansion all day while it rained, only seeing the Secretary of State for a few minutes. Ike and Mamie attended the Sunday morning service at the National Presbyterian Church, and like the day before spent the rest of the day in the Mansion. Sunday night some of ‘Ike’s Gang’ came to dinner at the White House, over drinks planning their next stag trip to the Eisenhower Cabin at the Augusta National Golf Club.
When he was there, which was as often as possible, he worked mornings in the three-story seven-bedroom cabin, played golf with his friends in the afternoon, and bridge after dinner. His friends weren’t his friends at the card table, except his partner, and then not always even him. Ike had cut his teeth playing poker while at West Point.
“How was the Iowa trip?” one of them asked.
“The same as all the others, except it didn’t rain, and the food was better,” he said. “I got an eyeful, shook a lot of hands, and gave speeches to the faithful. I got out the vote.”
Dottie peeked over the front edge of the front car down at the track of the Cyclone as the train creaked up to the top of the lift hill, where it was going to curve over the rails and hurtle down. Vicki and Bettina were in the car behind her, after she had pleaded with them about going on the roller coaster, and she was with her new friend, Ronald, a boy her age whose parents had stayed behind on the platform.
The Cyclone was in Astroland at the corner of Surf Avenue and West 10th Street, almost 2700 feet long, with six fan turns and twelve drops. The lift hill was 85 feet high. Six years earlier a man who hadn’t spoken in fourteen years, riding the Cyclone for the first time, screamed while going down the first drop.
“I feel sick,” he muttered when the train returned to the station, and dropped to the ground in a dead faint after realizing he had spoken.
“I have a friend who counts the seconds until the ride is over,” said Ronnie.
“Why does he do that?”
“He can’t stand it.”
“What’s the point of riding it in the first place?”
“I duuno,” said Ronnie. “Every time I ask if he wants to go with me, he says, sure, as soon as I’ve lost my mind, but he always goes anyway.”
“The Cyclone is for when you want to be scared and thrilled all at the same time. Maybe he should stick to the merry-go-round.”
“Yeah,” said Ronnie. “You don’t want to ride the roller coaster when you’ve got diarrhea.”
“No way,” said Dottie, making sure their buzz bar was locked in place.
“Did you hear about that girl who got hit in the face by a pigeon and broke her nose going down this hill?” asked Ronnie.
“No!” said Dottie.
“It was alright,” he said. “She had some Kleenex and just stuffed it up her nose nostrils to keep the blood out of her eyes.”
“Yikes!” said Dottie, as the Cyclone shimmied shook roared down the other side of the lift hill. “I don’t have any Kleenex.”
They laughed up and down the trick hill, leaned into the banked turns that twisted and tipped the train, ducked beneath the head-choppers, and inside of two minutes pulled into the station where everybody clambered off.
“My legs feel like fried bacon,” said Ronnie.
“Yeah, that was the mostest fun,” said Dottie.
“Bye to you, too.”
“That was sketchy,” said Vicki.
“Shoot low, they’re sending Shetlands,” said Bettina. “Did you feel that tower sway when we got to the top?”
“You bet I did.”
“I’m hungry,” said Dottie.
“You’re always hungry,” said Bettina. “Doesn’t Stan feed you? Do you have a hollow leg?”
“So am I, hungry, I mean” said Vicki.
“How about a red hot at Nathan’s?” Bettina suggested.
“Yippee ki yay!” exclaimed Dottie.
Egidijus and Rokas watched the ensigns, young men strutting between lieutenant and chief warrant officer, step into Connor’s Public House. The navy stood framed in the doorway, the long evening going slowly dark over their shoulders. They both wore white pants, a white shirt over a white t-shirt, a white belt, and a white cap with a black bill. They wore black shoes. There was a single gold bar on their shoulder boards.
“Hey, shut that door, you live in a barn,” someone shouted.
In the next minute, their eyes spotting primetime, they took stools on both sides of a curvy redhead at the bar. They each gave her a smile. She looked them over sparingly scornfully.
“Drift,” she said to the one on her left.
“We just want to buy you a drink,” the one on the other side of her said.
“You, too,” she said.
“Butterbar boys,” said Egidijus. “Nieku nezino.”
“Yeah, they probably do the dishes in the guardhouse,” said Rokas.
“As close to water as they’re going to get,” Giles said.
Egidijus became Giles the minute he landed on Ellis Island.
Sam Ellis never meant his island to be a welcoming place, unless it was the last welcome. Before the first immigrant ever landed there, it was where criminals and pirates were hung. New Yorkers called it Gibbet island, for the wooden hanging post where the dead were left on display for weeks as a warning to others.
“She’s got a classy chassis, though,” said Rocky, eyeing the redhead. “Our man is not going to like us snatching him, ruining his night in more ways than one.”
Rokas had been in line behind Egidijus and became Rocky on the spot.
A longshoreman walked in, glanced at the sailors, and parked himself midway down the bar. The bartender poured a draft without asking. The longshoreman took a swig.
“Did you say something to that guy I just saw outside?” he asked the bartender.
“The guy with the feather in his hat?”
“Yeah, that one, who said this joint stinks.”
“That one comes in, wants a glass of water, and asks me what the quickest way is to Mount Kisco,” said the bartender. “I ask him if he’s walking, or does he have a car? He says, of course I have a car. So, I tell him, that would be the quickest way.”
“He was chunky about it, that’s sure. Hey, isn’t that Ratso’s girl?”
“Didn’t she tell them the gate is closed?”
“Yeah, but they didn’t give it any mind.”
“Oh boy, they don’t know from nothing.”
“Keep your head chicky,” said the bartender, tapping his temple with two fingers.
“You said it, brother.”
The Public House was on the corner of Pearl Street and Plymouth Street. The Manhattan Bridge over the East River was a stone’s throw away. The Brooklyn Navy Yard was a cannon shot away. The new Con Edison Hudson Avenue substation, north of John Street facing the river between Jay Street and the Navy Yard, was a light switch away.
“Did you see the game on TV Friday?” asked Giles.
“The TV’s were working, and I saw the problem in black and white,” said Rocky. “No matter that Mickey is going to win the Triple Crown, no matter how many runs they score, if they keep giving up a dozen, they is not going anywhere in October, no matter who they play.”
The Yankees had been in Boston for the weekend, for their last season series at Fenway Park. On Friday night Mickey Mantle hit a home run that tape measured more than five hundred feet. The Bronx Bombers, though, set a dubious club record by stranding twenty runners on base.
The Mick had three hits. Bill Skowron had five hits. The only time the Moose failed to reach base was when Ted Williams made an all-out running diving catch of a screaming line drive in left field.
“He was running like a bunny with his tail on fire,” said Red Barber, after the outfielder got up, checking all his parts.
Yogi Berra threw a man out at the plate. Mickey Mantle threw a man out at the plate. The Yankees crossed the plate plenty enough themselves. But the Red Sox still beat the Yankees, sending almost twice as many runners safely across the plate, 13-7 at the final count.
Mel Allen and Red Barber called the night game on WPIX, the station’s transmitter on top of the Empire State Building spreading the play-by-play out to the five boroughs. The next morning it would be Officer Joe’s turn. The year before weather forecaster Joe Bolton had put on a policeman’s uniform and started hosting shows based around the Little Rascals and Three Stooges. The kids loved Officer Joe’s taste in comedy.
“That ball is go-ing, go-ing, gonnne!” Mel Allen blared when Mickey Mantle hit his soaring blast. “It’s got to be one of the longest home runs I’ve ever seen! How about that!”
Rocky watched the game at the Public House, on Friday night two nights earlier, at the far end of the bar, where one of the bar’s two RCA Victor portable TV’s squinted down on him from high up on the wall.
“Did you say something?” one of the sailors said, turning to Giles and Rocky in the booth opposite them.
“Hello there everybody,” Mel Allen said to start the televised live baseball game broadcast.
“This is Red Barber speaking,” said Red Barber. “Let me say hello to you all. Mel and I are here in the catbird seats.”
“Three and two. What’ll he do?” Mel asked as the game neared its end and the last Yankee hitter squared up in the batter’s box.
“He took a good cut!” he exclaimed when the pinstriped slugger struck out to finish the game. “Tonight’s game was yet another reminder that baseball is dull only to dull minds,” said Red. “Signing off for WPIX, this is Red Barber and Mel Allen.”
“Hey, you, did you say something about washing dishes?” the sailor said again, standing up, his friend standing up, too, and Ratso Moretti in the meantime walking down the length of the bar from the men’s room towards them, having spotted the sailors buzzing his queen bee.
The redhead swung her stool around to the bar, crossed her legs, and played with the swivel stick lolling in her gin martini glass.
“Who the fuck are you two rags?” Ratso barked at the sailors, glaring up at them from under the brim of his black felt pork pie hat, baring his sharp front teeth. “Why are you sitting with my lady?”
Giles and Rocky leaned back on their seat cushions, their backs against the wall. Rocky stretched his legs out. Giles popped a toothpick into his mouth.
“What do you plan on doing about it, little man?” asked the bigger of the two sailors. Ratso was short. The sailors were both tall.
Ratso took one step back, reached down for his fly, unzipped it, and flashed the handle of a Smith & Wesson .38 Chiefs Special revolver. It was the kind of gun carried by plainclothes and off-duty policemen. He kept his hand on the gun while looking straight at the two sailors. “Hit the road, Clyde,” he said. “You, too, whatever your name is.”
The sailors backed down and backed out of the bar. Nobody paid any attention, everybody focused on the back-out out of the corner of their eyes. When the white uniforms were gone, and he had zipped back up, Ratso sat down next to his squeeze and wrapped his arm around her waist.
“Meanwhile, back at the ranch,” said Rocky.
“At least now we know where he hides it,” said Giles.
Bartek and Karol were at the far end of the bar. They didn’t want anything to happen just right now. They wanted Ratso Moretti to stay snug with his girl, drinking on an empty stomach, stretching the night out. There were four of them and only one of him, but he was a psycho crazy man. Karol knew it for sure, and told the others, and it was the number one thing, he said, they had to remember. There was no sense in letting it go down the drain.
“Did you find a plumber this morning?” Rocky asked Giles.
“No, because not only does God rest on Sundays, so do all the plumbers in Brooklyn.”
“What did you do?
“I fixed it myself.”
One of the toilets in the women’s bathroom in the parish hall next door to St. George’s Church on York Street sprang a leak after mass. The Lithuanian Roman Catholic congregation was around the corner from the Irish Roman Catholic St. Ann’s Church on the corner of Front and Gold Streets. Lithuanians made up more than half of everybody who now lived in Vinegar Hill, but they had never been embraced by the Irish and their church, so they built their own.
St. George’s had three arched doorways, three arched second-story window assemblages, and a stepped façade with a cross on top. It looked first-class when the sun was shining on it. It looked first-class at midnight in a thunderstorm.
“What was the problem?”
The parish priest dragooned Giles on his way out of the parish hall.
“Prasome, galite padeti?” asked the priest.
“The wax ring, that’s all it was.”
“Where did you find a wax ring on a Sunday?”
“My old man. He’s always loaded for bear.”
“Did you miss breakfast?”
“No, mom warmed it back up for me, fried some more eggs, fresh coffee, and a torte.”
When Ratso Moretti hopped off his bar stool, and his girl slid off hers, and they walked out the front door, Karol and Bartek went out the back door, Giles and Rocky following Ratso out the front.
“Goddamn it!” Ratso cursed turning the corner into the quiet side street next to the Public House where he had parked his new car. He looked down at the driver’s side front tire Karol had flattened with his switchblade before going inside.
“What’s the matter mister?” asked Giles.
“Flat tire,” said Ratso.
He recognized the young man and the other one from the bar.
“Need a hand?”
“I’ve got all the hands I need,” said Ratso.
Giles fired up a cigarette, watching and waiting. Rocky leaned against a lamp pole. Ratso opened the trunk of the car, looking over his shoulder at them, and hunched at the tire to loosen the lug nuts.
“This ain’t a show,” he said.
“It is to us.”
When Ratso struggled with the last stubborn lug nut, Giles flicked his still lit cigarette butt at the redhead, who was standing in space, bouncing it off her midriff. She squealed in outrage, Ratso twisted toward her, and Giles, Rocky, Karol, and Bartek rushed him, two from the front and two from the back.
As Ratso started to stand up, Karol kicked him as hard as he could in the groin, the holstered gun Ratso trying to reach adding insult to injury. He doubled over, grabbed his stomach, fell over, and lay on the ground in a fetal position. His eyes ran rainwater and he threw up.
Bartek threw a muslin cloth bag over Ratso’s head and tightened the drawstring. Karol tied his hands behind his back with clothesline. Bartek reached into Ratso’s pants and pulled out the holster with the small revolver. He went to the passenger side front door and tossed the holster and gun into the glove box of the Chevy.
While Giles and Rocky hauled Ratso to Karol’s hunk of junk behind the Public House, Bartek turned to the redhead.
“Vamoose,” he said sharply. “And keep your mouth shut, or we’ll take you next.”
She backed away, smoothed her skirt, gave him a smile, cute cunning snaky light on her feet, and walked back into the Public House.
“Durna mergaite,” Giles said.
“Yeah, but steamy,” Rocky said.
“Going to be a hell-wife.”
At the mouth of the intersection they heard a bullhorn, “Get your hot knishes, I got to send my wife to the Catskills, get your knishes.”
The truck was light blue dented and dirty. It was three-wheeled, a cab pulling a cart, with a Saint Bernard-sized pretzel on top. A sign on the side said, “Hot knishes & pretzels, 10 cents, 3 for $.25.”
“Hey, what kind of knishes do you have?”
“I have kasha or potato.”
“I’ll take three potato.”
“Sorry, all I have is kasha.”
There was a tin saltshaker tied by a string to the cart. The pastry was hot with buckwheat groats inside. The brown bag the street vendor put them into instantly became saturated with enough oil to deep fry three more knishes. He poured in a handful of salt.
“You’re out of your neighborhood, working late,” Giles said.
“It’s my wife,” the Jew said.Giles and Rocky both got bottles of cold Orange Crush.
“Thanks, boys, we’ll settle up tomorrow,” said Karol when Ratso was safe and sound in the trunk, his feet tied together and hogged to his bound wrists so that he lay like a sad sack of potatoes on his side, still groaning.
Giles touched his forefinger to his thumb and pointed the remaining three fingers of his right hand straight up.
Karol and Bartek drove to Sunset Park, turned onto 53rd Street at 3rd Avenue, and finally pulled into and parked behind a three-story abandoned brick building. On the side of the building a painted billboard advertising “R. Moses & Son, Men’s Clothes” was fading away. The storefront’s windows were boarded up and the other windows on every floor were dark.
They manhandled Ratso through a back door and into a small featureless room. A table lamp on the floor tried to make sense of the dark with a 40-watt bulb. Stan was standing in a corner in the shadows smoking a cigarette. They dropped Ratso on the floor. Bartek stood sentry at the door.
“Let him loose, except for his hands,” said Stan.
Karol untied Ratso’s feet, yanked the bag off his head, and moved back to stand next to Bartek. Stan stayed where he was, in the gloom. Ratso stayed where he was, too. He felt better, but he still felt horrible. He had a weird stomachache.
“Tell me about Jackson Pollack,” said Stan.
“I don’t know no Polacks,” said Ratso.
“You know us now,” Karol said under his breath.
“Not Polacks. I said Pollack, as in Jackson Pollack, the painter.”
“I don’t know no painters.”
“Why did you jump my associate the other night?”
“I don’t know no associates. Who the fuck are you, anyway?”
“I don’t know how your sack is feeling, but if it was me, I wouldn’t want it to happen again, especially not now, not so soon,” said Stan.
“What do you want?”
“What were you doing in the middle of the night outside the shrink’s office? Why did you jump my man? What does Jackson Pollack have to do with Big Paulie?”
“You’re a dead man when Luca finds out about this,” Ratso said, terse vehement.
Stan stepped forward, bent down, and framed an inch with his fingers in Ratso’s red face.
“You’re this close to being a dead man,” he said.
He aimed a kick at Ratso’s nuts. The little man rolled over in a flash. Stan kicked him in the side, aiming for his kidney. Ratso gasped in pain and rage. Stan stepped over him, bent down again, nose to nose with the convulsing thug.
“You’re going to tell me what I want to know,” he said.
It didn’t take long. After Ratso Moretti ratted out Big Paulie and Park Avenue and they had hog-tied him again, Stan Rittman stopped at a phone booth on his way home, the cab driver waiting at the curb, and called the desk sergeant at the 17th Precinct. He told him where to find Ratso, told him he wanted to confess to assaulting Ezra Aronson four nights earlier, and wanted to be held in custody for his own protection.
“Does he need medical attention?” asked the sergeant.
“No, he’ll be fine, just a few bumps and bruises.”
“What do I tell the captain? Is anybody going to be looking for Morelli, trying to spring him?”
“Nobody except his bad girl knows anything, but she was a good girl the last we saw her and promised to stay quiet. Ratso’s car is just outside the Public House in Vinegar Hill. His gun is in the glove box. It’s a Chiefs Special.”
“You don’t say.”
“You might want to have that gun run up, ballistics might find it matches something.”
“OK, we’ll have a car there in five minutes-or-so.”
Ten minutes later three policemen and a plainclothes officer spilling out of two cars flash-lighted their way into the back of the building, hauled the left in the lurch Ratso Moretti out the door, untied him then handcuffed him, tossed him face first into the back of one of the radio cars, and drove him to the 17th Precinct, forcing him into a basement cell at the end of a hallway, and forgetting about him for the rest of the next week.
Thirty minutes later Stan Rittman was home in Hell’s Kitchen, in one of his two orange wingback armchairs, a bottle of Blatz on the coffee table, while Mr. Moto licked his chops on the sofa on the other side of the table. Stan took a pull on his bottle of beer and watched the cat. He thought about getting another one to keep him company, but Mr. Moto didn’t seem to mind his solitary life.
He slept and ate and slept some more. He went out on the prowl. Sometimes he sat on the fire escape, seeming to be thinking.
Mr. Moto liked Puss ’N Boots best, fish followed by chicken followed by beef followed by any other meat. He wasn’t picky. He didn’t think it did any harm to ask Stan for what he wanted, since the story of cats was the story of freeloaders. Stan kept Mr. Moto carnivorous with his poker winnings.
“Puss ‘N Boots adds the Plus!”
He wasn’t a mixed-up cat. He lived day-to-day, every day a new day, taking what came his way. He liked fresh water and food in the morning, a long nap from late morning into the late afternoon, and a clean supply of Kitty Litter when he couldn’t get down to the flowerbeds.
“Ask Kitty. She Knows. It absorbs and deodorizes. Takes the place of sand.”
Stan had stopped at Manganaro’s Grosseria Italiana, on his way home, a sandwich shop, restaurant, and grocery on 9th Avenue, for a slice of Hero-Boy. The entire six-foot hero, if you wanted it, was 22-pounds and cost $16.50. The wait staff was surly, but the sandwiches were worth the wait. He took a bite, chewed, and washed it down with his beer.
Ezra was out of the hospital. He would stop and see him tomorrow morning, tell him they had snatched Ratso, who had spilled his guts, but it still wasn’t clear what was going on. It looked like Dr. Baird had engineered Jackson Pollack’s death somehow, but why? Where was the pay-off in it? Vicki said that since Jackson Pollack had died unexpectedly, had died young, and had simply died, there weren’t going to be any more paintings by him. Since he was well known, by collectors and museums, prices for his art were going to go up.
“He was in demand, now he’s in big demand, especially the drip paintings,” she said. “But nobody kills a painter to make a profit on his art, not even in New York. It’s a long-term investment, not like kidnapping somebody for the ransom.”
He would sort it out next week. Stan finished his sandwich, finished his bottle of beer, and went to bed. Mr. Moto followed him, curling up just inches from Stan’s face, and was asleep fast faster fastest. He had never been bothered by insomnia. In the middle of the night, in the middle of a dream, he pricked up his ears.
Mr. Moto could smell a rat when he had to. When he went to the bedroom window, though, it was just a ladybug on the sill. It was red with black spots. He stretched up on his hind legs and sniffed the bug, which opened its wings, flew in circles, and landed on his nose.
“Ladybug! Ladybug! Fly away home. Your house is on fire. Your children shall burn!”
Mr. Moto believed ladybugs were lucky. He believed when a ladybug landed on you your wishes would be granted. He also believed it was unlucky to harm them. He licked the bug off his nose and spat it out through the open window. He jumped on the ledge, crouched, and watched the bug fly out into the big city.
In his jail cell at the bottom of nowhere, Ratso Moretti tried to stare down the big brown rat staring at him. The rat wasn’t having any of it. Nobody was going to stare him down in the rat homeland.
Four hours later, near the end of the night, near the onset of dawn, while a dead on his feet policeman watched, now that it was all over and the car had been searched and dusted for fingerprints, a tow truck hooked the new Chevrolet with a flat tire and dragged it off Vinegar Hill to the NYPD Tow Pound.
“I know you,” said Ezra.
He was looking down at Bumpy Williams handcuffed to a pipe at the back of the boiler room in the basement of the Warsaw Baking Company in Little Poland. The black man’s lips curled up down between a half-smile and a snarl. Ezra sprang at him. Stan, standing between Ezra and Bumpy, held him back.
“Cut it out,” he said.
When the Warsaw Bakery opened at 9 o’clock in the morning they had been open for four hours. When the first two women turned on the lights at 5 AM, the first thing they did was clean the kitchen again and prepare dough. By 6 AM everyone was mixing and kneading. By 7 AM they were baking. Buns and bread went in their own bins, doughnuts and cookies were baked on their own trays, and the potato bread had its own oven.
Their potato bread had been awarded a blue ribbon for “excellence of freshness, flavor, quality, uniformity, cleanliness, and value” by the Independent Bakers Council of America in 1954. It tatsted great made into Moravian Potato Sugar Bread. It tasted great with coffee.
When Karol, sitting on a stool in the boiler room, cut into his half-loaf of sugar bread, Bumpy Williams nodded at him.
“I’m hungry,” he said.
“Later,” said Karol.
“I’m thirsty, too.”
“Later,” said Karol, tipping a mug of coffee up to his mouth.
The door opened and Bartek slipped in.“How’s everything?”
“Good,” said Karol. “The shrink hasn’t said a word, but sooty is complaining about losing weight.”
“You gotta stay lean and clean,” said Bartek.
“Don’t rattle my chain. I got a name and it ain’t sooty, honky,” said Bumpy.
“You ain’t got no name today, black man, not until we say so, we’ll let you now what day that is, so keep it zipped,” said Karol.
Four days earlier, in the breezy spic and span Brooklyn air, Dottie said, “You are kind of a big man.”
“I’m almost 300 pounds,” said Happy Felton. “I used to play football in college, although I always wanted to be a ballplayer, be behind the plate. But I was a perfect circle. How could I be a perfect catcher?”
“You would have been perfect to catch a perfect circle, the baseball,” Dottie said,
Marie had taken Dottie to Ebbets Field to see the Dodgers play the Philadelphia Phillies. The view was so good the fans in the bleachers could see the stitching on the uniforms.
The city’s air was usually so dirty you could touch the grime suspended in it. Coal power plants belched dark smoke. Burnt-up garbage rained ash on everybody except the Upper East Side. Three years earlier more than 200 people died in one week breathing the filthy smog air.
Dottie was in the right field bullpen, she and two boys, playing throw and catch and throw, warming up for Happy Felton’s Knothole Gang show on WOR-TV. The program aired 25 minutes before every home game. Happy knew how to put on a bang-up matinee. He had been in a medicine-man show, beat the drums in a circus, sang as one of the Four Ambassadors, headlined an orchestra for ten years, appeared on Broadway, and been a contract player for MGM.
After introducing the kids, Happy always introduced a Dodgers player, who judged the kids on speed, fielding ability, and baseball smarts. This afternoon it wasn’t a player. It was Buzzie Bavasi, the general manager of the team. He had led the Dodgers to National League pennants in 1952, 1953, and 1955. They won their first World Series in franchise history in 1955.
They were shooting for the stars the rest of the week.
“We don’t usually have girls out here,” Buzzie said to Dottie.
“I always called him Buzzie, not Emil, because he was always buzzing around,” said Emil’s sister Iola.
Buzzie called his sister Lolly.
“I can do anything a boy can do, and better,” said Dottie. “I’m the best stickball player in our neighborhood.”“Let’s see what you’re made of,” said Emil the Buzz.
Tony the Phil walked by on the warning track, glancing over the fence at the kids swinging bats and running imaginary bases. He veered into center field and stopped where he knew the storm drain was. It was where he was planning on planting nitro, enough of it to kill a man, many a man. He looked down at the ground. He hoped it didn’t blow anybody else up besides who was going to be in the car, but he knew it was going to be a hell of a blast.
He didn’t want anything to happen to Happy or any of the kids who might be in the bullpen. It would be too bad. But he had to do what he had been told to do. He was going to follow orders. It was all there, all in his head. He had to go ahead.
After the boys and girls had gone through their paces, and Happy and Buzzie had put their heads together, they pinned that day’s blue ribbon on Dottie. The two boys got baseball equipment for their appearances, and Dottie was told she was eligible to come back the next game, the first of the last series of the regular season, for a solo chat with her favorite Dodger’s player.
“The Little Colonel!” she exclaimed when asked.
“Why is he your favorite player,” asked Happy.
“Because he’s the best shortstop ever. His glove is where base hits go to kick the bucket. He can swallow them down and he can double them up. His wife’s name is Dottie, too, the same as me,” Dottie said.
Pee Wee Reese had been a champion marbles player as a kid in Kentucky. A peewee is a small marble. He was a small child. He could knuckle down playing ringer, boss-out, and black snake, getting low to the ground. His size was a godsend in the sand. One year he was runner-up to the national champion in the Louisville Courier-Journal’s marble tournament.
He was an undersized teenager, too, not playing baseball until his senior year in high school. Since then he’d beefed up and been in professional baseball for 17 years, making the National League all-star team ten years in a row.
“Can I come back Wednesday instead of this weekend?”
“I like your spirit, but we have to win today, and we have to win when the Pirates come into town, too, for there to even be a next Wednesday.”
“I just know you will. I’m counting on it. Can I come back Wednesday, please?”
Happy and Buzzie put their heads back together.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please join us before the game on Wednesday next week, what we hope will be the first home game of the series, when Dottie Rittman will spend a few minutes talking to Pee Wee Reese. Until then, this is Happy Felton signing off for WOR.”
It was going to come down to the weekend, it turned out.
The Phillies pummeled the Dodgers on the Wednesday with ten hits, taking the game 7 – 3. Del Ennis drove in two runs on three hits, which was three hits more than Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, and Jackie Robinson all together managed to put together. Only Duke Snider matched Del Ennis, while the rest of the Dodgers eked out two separate harmless singles, one of them a blooper.
Dottie didn’t go home unhappy, though. She wasn’t somebody who needed her team to win to make the trip to the ballpark worth it. Winning was a part of it all, but everything else, the sunshine in the daytime, jumping to your feet in the stands, peanut shells and tobacco butts, all the fans, the fun of the game, the heroes and goats and memories, was more than anything the whole part of it.
“If people don’t want to come out to the ballpark, nobody’s going to stop ‘em,” said Yogi Berra on the other side of the river.
Nobody was going to stop her from going to the ballpark.
The weather stopped everybody from going to the ballpark on Friday. A drizzling rain started at 5 o’clock. The game was called by Umpire Jocko Conlan at 7:30 and rescheduled as a twin bill on Saturday.
The Milwaukee Braves lost to the St. Louis Cardinals that night, 5 – 4, cutting their lead in the National League to half a game over the second-place Dodgers.
In the first game against the Pirates on Saturday afternoon Sal No-Hit Maglie was jolted early, giving up two runs in the top of the first, but stiffened, and slammed the door shut. The Dodgers came back with three in the bottom of the frame and won going away, 6 -2. Clem Labine, a crack relief hurler pressed into starting, couldn’t solve Roberto Clemente, who went three for four, in the second game, but the Bucs wasted their other four hits, and were barely able to push across a single run in the eighth.
“Sometimes the only thing worse than a Pirates game is a Pirates doubleheader,” said a sportswriter for the Pittsburgh Press, a writer who had endured four finishes dead last in the cellar in the past six years.
After the Dodgers took the front end and then the back end of their doubleheader against the Pirates, it left one game on Sunday for all the marbles. If the Dodgers won, nothing the Braves did would matter.
“You’ve lost your marbles,” said Bumpy Williams.
“Hear me out,” said Stan. “What matters is getting it done.”
Karol and Bartek had dragged Dr. Baird away. Stan brought sandwiches and beer, lost the cuffs shackling Bumpy, and they were having lunch over an empty overturned Elmhurst Dairy milk crate. They took bites out of their sausage sandwiches and downed daytime pulls of beer.
“The Polacks are on the other side of that door, am I right?” asked Bumpy.
“They might be, but they don’t like being called Polacks,” said Stan. “My father was Polish, but I’m second-generation. Besides, I’m not sensitive. They’re from the old country. They take things the wrong way sometimes. They don’t like the slur, you know what I mean?”
“Believe me, man, I know what you mean,” said Bumpy.
“I’m not surprised you do,” said Stan.
“All right, but why should I go along with you? I’ve got it good, no reason to jump ship.”
“The ship isn’t sinking right now, no, but it’s full of rats. Maybe you think you can trust the colored man, but you can’t, not always. The Dago’s, no, you can’t trust them, and the police will always be dogging you. That’s their mission. Even the Dago’s get dragged down, even when they have Carmine DeSapio and Tammany Hall in their back pockets.”
Frank Costello, waking up that morning in prison, where for the past two years he had been waking up serving a five-year sentence, woke up still an American, after court attempts to denaturalize him finally failed the day before.
“By the law of averages, I was bound to win this one,” he whispered in his hoarse voice.
He had only been jailed once before, in 1915, for carrying a gun, and only convicted once before for contempt, in 1952, when he walked out on the Senate Crime Committee, pleading a sore throat. But the Federals got him for tax evasion in 1954.
It didn’t matter to the Prime Minister of the Underworld. He controlled the Lucky Luciano mob from his cell and was embroiled in a power struggle with Vito Genovese and his crime family.
“You got me over a barrel right now, no matter what I say or do,” said Bumpy.
“No, just for a few days,” said Stan. “You’re not a dead duck.”
“What do you mean?”
“The shrink, I’m going to have to do something about him, but you, I just need to keep you on ice for a few days. You’ll be able to go after that. I can’t keep feeding you.”
“Just go? Go where?”
“Back to where you came from. I’ve got nothing for or against you. You didn’t put your hands on my man. After we get square with whatever is going on, you’ll be free to go your own way.”
“That might put me over the same kind of barrel.”
“It might, but you won’t be my problem. You can lay low in Harlem.”
“You can’t never get low enough when they want you.”
“Think about what I said,” said Stan.
“I’ll think about it,” said Bumpy.
“Think what you could do with all that money,” said Dr. Robert Baird, looking up at Karol and Bartek in the other room.
He was handcuffed to the chair he was sitting in. Bartek stood with his back to the door. Karol was reading the Daily News, sitting opposite the psychiatrist.
“You could go and do whatever you want. You wouldn’t have to live in this rat’s nest of a neighborhood, in this rotten borough.”
Karol was reading about the Poznan protests three months earlier that had been put down by 400 tanks and ten thousand soldiers. The ringleaders were being put on trial. There was a picture of a march at the head of which two young men carried a sign aloft.
Another photograph was of three young men accused of killing a policeman during the riots. “I felt great hatred for them,” explained Ludwig Wierzbicki, a fireman at a distillery, when asked why he shot at the secret police.
“The police treated me inhumanely,” said Stanislaw Kaufman, a year younger than the 21-year-old fireman.
“I was taken to the commandant of the police who put me through my second christening. I was beaten with rods on my face and knocked over with a blow from behind. An officer dragged me by the hair down to the second floor and beat and kicked me. I was stood up against the wall while he pummeled the back of my head, knocking my face into the wall.”
Karol looked across at the doctor.
“Shut your face. We like living here,” he said.
“I’ll give you fifty thousand dollars each, in cash, if you let me go,” said Dr. Baird.
“We’re the housekeepers, not the householders,” said Karol. “You’ve got to talk to Stan about that. He finds out about everything.”
“He’s a snoopy guy that way.” said Bartek, flipping a cigarette between his lips. “You tell Stan you want to give him fifty, he’s going to wonder where the rest of it is, what you’re holding back from him.
Dr. Baird blanched, shrinking back into his chair.
“The good news is you’re not bust, yet,” said Karol. “The bad news is, you’re close.”
Dr. Robert Baird didn’t care about being uncared for or unloved. He didn’t care about being unwanted. What gnawed on him was losing everything he had, going hungry and homeless. Maybe poverty was the mother of crime, but he didn’t want to be more than the professional man committing a crime for the fortune it brought him. Poverty was inconvenient. It meant being stuck in one place the rest of your life. He couldn’t stand the thought of being poor. Being rich was glorious weightless. Being poor was miserable. It scared him to think he might have worked his way up from nothing to a life of nothing left.
Stan came into the room.
“All right, back in the boiler room with him.”
“OK, boss,” said Bartek.
“He tried to buy his way out,” said Karol.
“How much?” asked Stan.
“Fifty large each.”
“He’s throwing you a curveball. He’s buying and selling you short,” said Stan.
“Is that right?”
“Let’s go, shuckster,” Karol said, freeing Dr. Baird and pulling roughly him to his feet. “Time to go talk about some real bread.”
Stan stopped at Miller’s on his way to pick up Vicki. They had plans for drinks at the El Morocco and drinks and dinner later at P. J. Clarke’s down the street. Nat King Cole had named the bacon cheeseburger at Clarke’s the “Cadillac of burgers.” Stan bought two sour pickles out of a barrel for a nickel each and ate them standing outside the storefront.
They had drinks at the El Morocco, at the bar, at a slight remove from the blue zebra stripe motif. It was crowded. There was a party going on, spilling into the club after the premiere of Arthur Miller’s “A View from a Bridge” at the Coronet Theatre. Marilyn Monroe was there, having divorced Joe DiMaggio after nine months arguing with the umpire and married Arthur Miller three months earlier.
“Egghead Weds Hourglass” was how the papers ran with it.
“I’m a ballplayer, not an actor,” said Joltin’ Joe. He didn’t feel sorry for himself. Who the hell wants to be a writer, if that’s what the Miller was doing with his time.
Stan and Vicki had another drink at the club. They had more drinks and bacon cheeseburgers at P. J. Clarke’s.
“Do you think he’ll go for it?” asked Vicki.
“A day or two will tell,” said Stan.
Danny Lavezzo was in his usual spot between the front and back rooms, greeting customers, when they got there. The back room was a dining room of bare brick and checked tablecloths A group of regulars met every Friday for lunch at the large oval table. They called themselves the Science Club. Jessie, the saloon’s terrier who ran up and down Third Avenue picking up newspapers, was sleeping behind the bar.
Stan spotted two seats at the bar. He and Vicki snagged them. Danny never let unaccompanied women stand at the bar.
“It would just encourage prostitutes,” he explained.
Buzzie Bavasi walked in and walked to the end of the bar. Jessie jumped up, ran past the bartender, and out the door. He came back with a copy of the Herald Tribune. Buzzie tossed fifteen cents into Jessie’s tip jar.
Anastasio Somoza, who voted himself in as President of Nicaragua, died in the dank morning sometime on Saturday from gunshot wounds after a poet shot him four times pointblank a week earlier. Almost 25 years earlier Anastasio Somoza had assassinated Augusto Sandino and seized power with the help of the United States Marines.
“I was a high-class muscle man for big business, for Wall Street and for the banks,” said Marine General Smedly Butler. “In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism.” He followed his orders, though, good soldier and racketeerDwight Eisenhower had ordered a team of physicians to the Canal Zone to treat the big man, but the big man’s time was up. His son, Luis Somoza, was named Acting President in the afternoon, and looking calm in a white suit, thanked the United States for its “inestimable aid to save the life which guided our destiny.” Luis’s brother took control of the National Guard, making sure their political social economic opponents stayed out of the way.
“Oh, goddammit, we forgot the silent prayer,” Dwight Eisenhower cursed, at the meeting with his National Security Council the following week after they too soon broached Anastasio Somoza’s murder with a minute of desultory attention to it. Nobody cared overly much about a spic dictator.
Bumpy Williams slept like a log, an uncomfortable log. Robert Baird worried his way to daylight. Karol and Bartek drank beer and played cards with the doctor’s pretend money.
Stan and Vicki paid attention to each other all the evening at P. J. Clarke’s, all the way back to Hell’s Kitchen, and afterwards, too, when they paid even more attention to each other. They didn’t know anything about any shenanigans in any banana republic. It was the last thing on their minds.
Mr. Moto spent the night on the fire escape. He was neutered for the safety of the neighborhood. He wasn’t bitter, but still, he wasn’t the man he used to be.
“Hail to the chief,” said Bettina.
“Good morning is fine,” said Stan. “Besides, it’s Saturday.”
“No, what you were humming, that’s ‘Hail to the Chief,’ and you’re the chief, so hail to you,” said Betty.
“That’s what the canary serenaded us with in the basement,” said Stan.
Bettina hummed the tune to herself.
“You’re right,” she said. “I didn’t dope it out when he hummed it, but that’s what it is.”
“He said the action would all happen when the little man heard that song,” Stan said. “When he did, he was going to pull the ripcord on his dynamite vest.”
“It sounds like he plans on blowing up the big cheese,” suggested Bettina.
“How do you make that?” asked Stan.
“Where have you been?”
“I’m right here,” said Stan, leaning back in his chair, pointing to his temple.
“All right, all right, don’t get your dander up,” said Betty. “It’s the anthem they play for the president. He walks into a room and the band plays that song. It’s been around about as long as the Star-Spangled Banner.”
“I’ve never been invited to the White House and I’ve never heard the band. I had a Dutch guy in my outfit who was always telling me “op donderon” until I blew up and asked him what the hell it meant. He said he meant don’t get mad.”
“You were in the army, right?”
“It’s the army band.”
“They didn’t play any songs in my part of the army.”
“I’ve heard it on the radio.”
“I don’t have a radio.”
“They play it on TV.”
“I don’t have a TV.”
“They play it at the president’s funeral, too.”
“I don’t go to funerals, unless it’s business. Even then, nobody wants you to take photographs anymore, so unless I can get Snapshot to go with me, who doesn’t care what anybody says, I don’t even do that much anymore.”
“Yogi Berra said you should always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t come to yours.”
“That doesn’t make sense, and for another thing, Berra plays for the Yankees.”
“Oh, right, sorry. Doesn’t it make you sad, though, missing your own, since everyone says such nice things about you, even though it’s a few days late?” asked Bettina.
“When I breathe one more time for the last time, I’ll be gone for good, and I won’t be missing anything where I’m going,” said Stan.
“Where are you going?”
“That’s a secret.”
“What about the little man’s bomb song? That fuse is burning. Are we going to do anything about it?”
“I’ll be damned if I want to talk to the Secret Service,” said Stan, looking peeved.
“They’ll look me up and down as much as they’ll look up and down for him, bomb or no bomb. I’ve got no doubt they are hard to deal with.”
“On top of that you’ve kidnapped the doctor and are holding him illegally,” offered Betty.
“What are they going to say about that? Christ, I had my part of the show done, and now this. If they find that Tony de Marco, fine, but if they don’t, they’ll come back and want to talk to me again and again. If they don’t roust him, and something does happen, I’ll be the bull’s eye with them.”
“What if you don’t say anything and something happens?”
“Like Eisenhower being blown up?”
“Exactly, like Eisenhower being blown up.”
“He made it through the war.”
“He wasn’t on the front lines.”
“He was target number one, the way I used to hear it. The Germans wanted him dead in the worst way.”
“Aren’t you going to do anything?”
“Look, Betty, I know New York City, but I don’t know Washington.”
“It could happen anywhere,” said Bettina. “It doesn’t have to happen in Washington. He travels all over the country, giving speeches, especially now that it’s election time. It could happen here.”
“How could it happen here? How could the little man get close enough, no matter how big his bomb is?”
“Somebody got close to Lincoln. FDR dodged it, even though it was close, but only because the fruitcake taking pot shots at him was short and had to stand on a barrel, and the barrel wobbled, so he ended up hitting everybody around FDR, instead. I think he killed the mayor of Chicago, or the mayor of some place not here.”
“Why would Eisenhower come campaigning here? He might pick up some votes in Queens, but the other boroughs, no, those are all going to the Democrats. He’ll campaign upstate, not here.”
“What about the World Series?”
“What about it?”
“Who do you think throws out the first pitch at the first game of the series.”
“Some big shot.”
“No, not some big shot. It’s always the biggest shot.”
“I don’t know about that,” said Stan.
“All right, give me a few minutes,” said Bettina, picking up her phone.
“Who are you calling?” asked Stan.
“Pete,” said Bettina.
”My ping-pong Pete.”
Bettina put her index finger into the second finger hole, turned the rotary dial on the shiny black phone to the far bright, put her finger into six more holes, turning each one to the right, and asked for Pete Murphy when she was connected to the operator at the New York Public Library.
“Thanks, Pete,” she said ten minutes later, hanging up.
“Well, what did you find out?”
“The first ball got started with William Howard Taft.”
“The fat man in the bathtub?”
“The president after Teddy Roosevelt.”
“Forty-six years ago.”
“Pete said it was because he’d had a tough day, meeting with the Suffragists at their convention, and telling them that if women got the vote power might end up in the wrong hands, or words to that effect. Big fat idiot! They gave him a piece of their minds, thank goodness.”
“That was before women had the right to vote?”
“Ten long years before it, big fat idiots keeping it to themselves.”
“That would have been just a few years before I was born. Vicki knows more about who to vote for than me, but that’s only because I don’t read all that crap in the papers.”
“And you don’t have a radio or TV, so you can be as ignorant as you want to be.”
“Am I getting on your nerves?” Stan asked.
“No,” Betty said, squinting.
“Dottie has as much right to vote as any boy, probably more, when it comes to some of her friends, especially some of the boys.”
“Amen,” said Bettina.
“Who was playing?” asked Stan
“What do you mean?”
“When the first ball was thrown out.”
“Oh, the Phillies were playing the Washington Senators. The White House thought it would pick Taft up if he went to the ball game, after his run-in with the Suffragists. The funny thing is, Taft was supposed to throw the ball to the catcher, Gabby Street, but instead he stood up from his seat in the stands and threw it to the pitcher, Walter Johnson, who wasn’t ready for it, and Wally almost got beaned. Anyway, they’ve been doing it ever since, except not during the war.”
“You think Eisenhower is going to be throwing out the first pitch on Wednesday?”
“I don’t think,” said Bettina. “I know. Pete said Ike is going to be there, throw out the first pitch, and stay for the game.”
“Goddamn it!” Stan grumbled.
“Where do we go from here?” asked Bettina.
“We’re not going to the Secret Service.”
“We’ve got to do something.”
“All right, have Otis type out a warning, a warning in no uncertain terms, that a man is going to try to blow up Ike when he’s in the city for the game, on a typewriter he’s got in the shop that can never and never will be traced, even if he has to trash it the minute he’s done, and mail it with a Queens postmark, the main post office out there, next day delivery, marked urgent. Tell him to make sure it’s white gloves service, no fingerprints, and tell him to do it right now.”
“Do you think they’ll take it seriously?”
“I don’t know how many threats they get,” said Stan. “It’s got to be a boatload. I don’t know how they dope out what’s serious and what’s unserious.”
“What if they don’t take it seriously?”
“They take their precautions. It’s a serious business. I don’t know how they do what they do, but it’s got to be day-and-night round-the-clock. It can’t be easy safeguarding the top man, but it’s got to be harder killing him.”
“We could try to find the little man the doctor fingered. What do you think?”
“I’ve been thinking about it,” said Stan. “I think tomorrow is Sunday, Ezra and I have tickets for the game on Wednesday, so we would only have to put aside two days of work to stay on this. We’re not in business to do right, but to turn a profit, which is the right of way in our line, but if you and Ezra are willing, in your spare time, we could try.”
“You know Ezra, he’s mad as a hornet, and as for myself, I brought Barney on board, so I’m on board for it,” said Bettina.
She called Otis at Osner Business Machines, where he almost always worked on Saturdays, so he could work calmly and quietly by himself, the rest of the workshop more than half empty. He would rather be neat and organized and methodical than yak it up with the other repairmen.
“Ask Otis if he’s available the next few days, too.”
“Do you want him to join us for lunch?”
“Yes, that’s a good idea, ask if he’s free.”
“Otis is never free.”
“You know what I mean.”
Bettina put her hand over the mouthpiece of the handset.
“He says he can meet us for lunch, but he’s busy, wants to know if we can come up to the restaurant at the boat basin, since he can make it over there in just a few minutes.”
Osner Business Machines was south of 79th Street on Amsterdam Avenue on the Upper West Side, north of Hell’s Kitchen. The restaurant was inside the 79th Street Rotunda, built by Robert Moses during the West Side Highway’s conversion into a clean green parkway, as long as you had a car. Robert Moses didn’t like buses on his parkways.
When Stan and Bettina left the office for lunch at 12:30, Dwight Eisenhower had left his office five minutes earlier, changed into swimming trunks, and gone for a half-hour swim in the mansion’s pool. Unlike Richard Nixon, his vice-president, who had lately been lobbying for installing bowling lanes in the White House, Ike had been athletic all his life. He had been a linebacker at West Point, a good one, although when he collided with Jim Thorpe in the 1912 Army – Carlisle Indian Academy game, the All-American running back was hardly bothered when Ike tried to drag him down.
“Nobody little is going to tackle Jim,” said Jim Thorpe.
“You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world,” said King Gustav V at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm. “I would consider it an honor to shake your hand.”
Ten minutes after getting out of the pool President Eisenhower was being photographed, fresh dressed smiling, for the newspapers, shaking hands with Judge William Brennan, who he had just appointed to fill the existing vacancy on the Supreme Court.
“Do you ever wonder about why they only ever sing the first part of the Star-Spangled Banner,” asked Betty when she and Stan were settled in their cab on the way to lunch.
“No,’ said Stan.
“You go to all those ballgames, and you were in the service, you’ve heard it hundreds of times.”
“I don’t want to disillusion you, Betty, but I don’t pay attention to songs, spangled or otherwise.”
“I shouldn’t be surprised, so I’m not,” said Betty.
The first performance of the Star-Spangled Banner at a ballgame was at the opening game of the season at the Union Ball and Cricket Grounds in Brooklyn in 1862. It became enshrined in baseball’s frame of mind after furloughed Navy sailor and Boston Red Sox third baseman Fred Thomas sang the song during the seventh inning stretch of the first game of the 1918 World Series.
“The mind of the baseball fan was on the war. The patriotic outburst following the singing of the national anthem was far greater than the upheaval of emotion which greeted Babe Ruth, the Boston southpaw, when he conquered Hippo Vaughn and the Cubs in a seething flinging duel by a score of 1 to 0,” was how the newspapers put it.
“It wasn’t even the real anthem until 1931, when Herbert Hoover signed a bill into law making it official,” said Betty.
“Since I didn’t know that, I probably don’t know how many parts there are to it, either,” said Stan. “How many are there?”
“There are four verses.”
“I know the part they sing at ballgames.”
“That’s the first verse.”
“Why don’t they sing the other verses?”
“It would take too long, there are too many words, and some of the words, some people don’t want to hear them.”
“What words are those?”
“Their blood has washed out their foul footstep’s pollution, no refuge could save the hireling and slave, from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.”
“I’ve never heard those lyrics,” said Stan. “How do you know them?”
“I didn’t know them, either, until last month,” said Bettina. “Pete told me about them.”
“He sounds like he might be a Commie,” said Stan, making Betty break into laughter.
Stan sometimes wondered where the money in it was., who was lining their pockets. He didn’t believe there was any patriotism in it. The Red Scare was a dodge. Harry Truman had taken care of all that six or seven years ago. He admitted to himself it got crazy ambitious men elected, and supposed they were printing hundred-dollar bills with the ink the fear they inspired bled their way.
When they got to the 79th Street Boat Basin on the Henry Hudson Parkway, they detoured slightly to the restaurant, spotted Otis waiting for them as their cab pulled up and got a table inside of a few minutes under one of the archways.
“What’s it all about?” asked Otis, after the waitress beat a retreat, Bettina had wanted to make sure there were no “pre-fabricated meats, frozen foods, pre-pared potatoes, or commercial cakes in the larder.”
“There’s none of that, miss,” said the middle-aged woman, smoothing her apron. “I’ve been here nine years, and we make everything fresh to order.”
Stan ordered three glasses of Rheingold on draft.
“Is it about that shrink on Park Avenue?”
“Yes and no,” said Stan.
“Wait, let me ask Otis about the anthem,” said Bettina. “Did you know the Star- Spangled Banner has four verses, but nobody ever sings the last three verses?”
“Sure, everybody knows that,” said Otis.
“Is this a set up?” asked Stan, reaching for his glass of beer.
“Ezra told me that gal down on 66th got elected Miss Rheingold this year,” said Otis.
“It’s not official, yet, but she’s going to be the winner, at least, the way we hear it,” said Stan.
Rheingold Beer was brewed in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and every year a new Miss Rheingold was elected. Everywhere the beer was sold there were ballots with pictures of six pretty girls to pick from. “Want to give a pretty girl a great big break?’ is what it said at the top of the ballot. The only election in the country that drew more votes than the 25 million the Miss Rheingold election drew was the presidential election every four years.
So many ballots poured into the brewery, nobody could count them.
“We divide the ballots into six piles and weigh them every day,” said Walter Liebman, a chip off the old block of the Liebman block. They had been malting mashing boiling fermenting and kegging Rheingold for more than a hundred years.
Miss Rheingold was in magazines, on billboards, and on the side panels of beer trucks. She wore white gloves and signed autographs. She made promotional tours on both coasts, wore a rhinestone tiara and carried a scepter, rode in parades in an open-top Cadillac wearing a hand-stitched ivory satin dress, and waved to her admirers.
The only thing she wasn’t allowed to do was ever be seen or photographed drinking a glass of beer. The Duluc Detective Agency was one of the agencies that did background checks on the six finalists.
“One of the things you don’t want is a Miss Rheingold who is a problem,” said Walter Liebman.
“Who is she?” asked Bettina.
“Her name is Hillie Merritt,” said Stan. “She’s a $25-a-week receptionist at Fortune magazine, married, with a one-year-old.”
“How can you be a miss when you’re married?” asked Betty.
“You can’t, not technically, but it doesn’t seem to matter to old man Liebman. One of the finalists had to be dropped when Ezra found out, even though she was married to a working man, she was living with a drummer.”
“Out of wedlock?”
“Out of wedlock.”
“My God, such a beautiful girl,” said Walter Liebman. “But living with a drummer!”
“Aren’t drummers usually broke?” Betty said.
Otis and Stan both knew Betty was a jazz band fan and probably knew what she was saying. “If you say so,” said Otis.
“Hillie was next in line, got on the ballot, and in the end, it wasn’t even close,” said Stan. “She won going away.”
Over lunch Stan filled Otis in.
“I can give you the next three days, no problem,” said Otis when Stan was done. “We should be able to brainstorm our man down tomorrow, then go look for him. I am thinking he has got to be close to the Dodgers somehow, otherwise he wouldn’t have much chance of getting close to Eisenhower.”
“Are you figuring it the same way I am?”
“I think so.”
Stan studied the water flowing past them. “He’ll fly into LaGuardia, after lunch, they drive to Ebbets Field, the big man throws out the first pitch, watches the game, and is back in D. C. for dinner by 5 o’clock, unless the little man blows him up first.”
“That’s the way I see it.”
“He’ll do it during the game. That’s when he’ll have a chance. Otherwise there is no chance.”
“That’s how I’m looking at that part of it, too.”
“Did you get that letter mailed?”
It was 3 o’clock when Stan and Bettina got back to the office. Stan picked up a scrap of paper Ezra had left lying in the middle of his desktop. There was a fifty-cent piece on top of the note.
“Bumpy wants to talk.”
“I can’t be a catfish without no waffles,” said Bumpy Williams.
Bumpy and Stan walked out the back door of the Warsaw Bakery, around to the front, and down the street.
“I get the picture,” said Stan.
The tropical storm Flossy had torn itself to pieces in small bites and passed harmlessly east of the city yesterday afternoon. It was late in the afternoon, it was in the low 70s, the sun was starting to arc downwards, but the light was still good, sunny and pleasant. The Weather Bureau was keeping a close watch on rain squalls moving west up from the Caribbean.
“It is the weakest sort of a disturbance, but it remains as a suspicious area,” the bureau said.
No one was taking it seriously.
“So, you are up for a bite to eat.”
“The sooner the better,” said Bumpy.
They crossed Lorimer Street and walked into McCarren Park, around two baseball fields, and past the pool building, the biggest of the eleven built by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. In the summertime it was one of the social hubs of Greenpoint. The entrance to the pool was mammoth, arched in brick, and the pool could hold, if it absolutely had to, close to seven thousand swimmers.
Bumpy looked down, as they walked the other way, at a copy of that week’s New York Age Defender left on a park bench.
“South Is Using ‘Hitler System’” screamed the headline on the front page.
“I’ll bet they goddamn do,” he muttered to himself.
“You bet I can,” said the would-be flyboy, not far away as the crow flies, not far by the hands of the clock, not far in what he had in mind.
“If you’re saying, Thomy Fitz, you can make it from New Jersey to here anytime you want to in fifteen minutes flat, I’ll take that bet,” said Bulmer MacNeill, waving his hands, ready to reach for his wallet.
“I bet I can be back here in no time flat and be having a beer to celebrate before anybody catches their wheezy breath.”
“Watch your mouth,” said Bulmer. “There’s still plenty of us left living and breathing in the neighborhood.”
“Hell, we’ll all take that bet,” piped up the two other young men at the table.
“I’ll make a fine landing and have a fine time taking your money,” Thomas Fitzgerald laughed, bending his elbow again that early evening with his friends at a bachelor party being staged at Joe’s, a corner bar at St. Nicholas Avenue and 191st Street in Washington Heights.
“Helen’s not going to like you losing the family fortune,” said Pat Hartling.
“I’m going to be piling on to the family fortune,” said Tommy. “The wife is going to be happy as pie.”
“The bet’s on?”
“It’s on, but not until maybe midnight, and I’ll need one of you to come with me, so we’re all clear about when I got started and when I got back here, so that there is no disagreement among friends afterwards.”
“You’re on,” said Bulmer.
It was after midnight when Tommy and Bulmer staggered out of Joe’s, staggered to Tommy’s car, and staggered down a succession of roads and streets to the Teterboro School of Aeronautics on the west side of the Hudson River. It was near Tommy’s home in Emerson, New Jersey. He drove slowly carefully watchfully. His wife and sons were sound asleep, and he didn’t want to wake them. It was close to one o’clock when he spotted the red and white Cessna 140 on the runway. He eyeballed its wingspan, which he estimated at about thirty feet.
“That’ll do,” he thought. He checked the underside of the wings.
It said N252.
“Never seen that one. I wonder whose it is?” he asked himself.
“Tommy, what’s going on?” asked Bulmer, teetering on the dizzy expanse of concrete.
Tommy opened the door on the pilot’s side and looked at the controls. It was a late 1940s model with a white dashboard, black and red control wheels, and two-tone tan seats. It had shipshape wing flaps and he guessed the stall speed was about 35 knots.
“This will do just fine,” he said to himself.
He had a pilot’s license, but not a plane. He hardly ever actually flew an airplane, although he knew them well enough. Tommy Fitzgerald was a union steamfitter and worked part-time as a mechanic at the airport. In 1944 he lied about his age and volunteered for the Marines. He was sent to the Pacific and saw combat. When the war ended, he was fifteen years old. Four years later he volunteered for the Army and was sent to Korea. He went home after winning both the Purple Heart and Silver Sar.
“During a strategic withdrawal Corporal Fitzpatrick noticed a wounded officer, about 100 yards forward of his position. Attempting a rescue, he and a companion were seriously wounded. Despite severe pain and loss of blood, Corporal Fitzpatrick made it back to safety, directed a second successful rescue party while organizing and providing covering fire to support the rescue,” is what the Silver Star citation said.
“You saved my life,” is what the officer said.
After recovering he was sent home. But first he went to Tokyo. Then he went to San Francisco. He had a good time.
Stealing a Cessna wasn’t going to be much of a problem. Landing it in front of Joe’s was going to be challenging, but he was sure he could do it. Besides, he needed another drink-or-two. He checked the gas gauge. The gas tank was nearly full. George Washington High School was near the bar. He could land on their lighted ball field.
“What time is it?”
“I’m not getting into that thing,” said Bulmer.
“Take my car,” said Tommy. “I’ll take off at a quarter after two. Check your watch when I’m off the ground. I’ll see you back at Joe’s.”
He made sure the radio and navigation lights were off. The Cessna was a simple airplane, a steadfast Continental engine up front, manual flaps, a yoke, throttle, and rudders. He pushed the power up for takeoff. It was a short strip, so he levered the flaps in 25 degrees as he hit 30 knots. The plane launched itself into the air and he bled the flaps off. Inside of a couple of minutes he was at his 90-knot cruise speed with a 2:30 AM by his reckoning landing at Joe’s.
The Teterboro control tower operator watched the airplane take off. It took him a minute to realize the plane didn’t have clearance. It took him five minutes to realize whoever was piloting the plane wasn’t going to respond to his radio calls. It took him a few more minutes to find out the plane been stolen. He picked up the telephone and dialed the police.
The same afternoon before the Cessna sailed into the night sky Stan hailed a cab when he and Bumpy stepped out of the park and onto North 12th Street.
“Tom’s on Washington,” he told the cabbie. “Do you know it?”
“Prospect Heights, mister. About three miles, maybe ten minutes. Ain’t it a breakfast and lunch joint? No mind, we’ll get you there under the wire, whether it is, or not.”
Less than ten minutes later the cabbie deposited them in front of Tom’s Restaurant. Stan paid the fare. Bumpy took one look and squinted. It was a small eatery, the windows filled with neon, flyers advertisements menus, painted platters, and both real and artificial plants.
“What is that,” asked Bumpy, pointing to a shiny undersized fake rhododendron.
“Some new kind of plastic.”
“Is that what tomorrow looks like?”
“Probably,” said Stan.
High on the window to the right of the door white block letters said, “TOM’S EST. 1936.” The casing was dark brown, although above it the signage was white with “RESTAURANT” in lime green and “DRINK COCA COLA” in red and white.
“How’s the food?” asked Bumpy, taking a step back.
“Let’s go in, some of the Dodgers eat here, but I’ll let you decide for yourself,” said Stan.
Ebbets Field was nearby. Jackie Robinson had a sweet tooth and liked Tom’s Frosties, stopping in before day games for a heap of ice cream mixed with a thimbleful of milk.
“In here, Jackie can sit wherever he wants,” said Gus Vlahavas. There were plenty of other diners where the star ballplayer didn’t go because he couldn’t sit where he wanted.
Inside a small tart-looking late thirtyish woman greeted them.
“Hey Stella, I hope we’re not too late for a late lunch. Have you got a booth for me and my friend?” asked Stan, nodding at Bumpy.
“Yes, come on, there’s an empty booth in the back.”
In the back wasn’t very far back. It might as well have been the middle. Stan and Bumpy slid into the booth. Stan flipped cigarettes out for both of them. Bumpy slumped back, letting the smoke slide down into his lungs, exhaling slowly. Stan noticed him counting the American flags in the dining room, big and small, free-standing and on the walls, with his eyes.
“Gus’s grandfather, Constantin, named the restaurant Tom’s to honor his son,” explained Stan. “Tom was over in the Philippines, got shot up, won some medals for bravery.”
“I know you like it black,” Stella said to Stan. “But your black friend, him I don’t know.”
Stella Vlahavas lived upstairs above the restaurant with her husband, worked the cash register, and knew, like her daughter-in-law Phoeni knew, how everyone took their coffee, once they had ever gotten coffee at Tom’s.
“Cream and sugar ma’am, thank you,” said Bumpy.
“Where’s Gus?” asked Stan.
“He and Nonie had to run home for a minute,” said Stella. Gus and Phoeni who everyone called Nonie, lived in a brownstone around the corner. Gus had worked at the restaurant since he was nine-years-old, when it was an ice cream shop. He fired up the grill for his father every morning at 5 AM.
“Tom does the cooking,” Stan said to Bumpy. “I recommend the meat loaf. It’s the star attraction.”
Bumpy had a platter of meat loaf with eggs and potato hash.
Stan ate light, blueberry and ricotta pancakes served with flavored butter.
“All right, what do you have in mind?” asked Bumpy, finishing his lunch, pushing his empty platter away, fiddling with a toothpick.
Stella brought them a plate of cookies and orange slices, refilling their coffee cups.
“What I have in mind is you throwing in with us,” said Stan. “We’ve been talking about adding a man, and you strike me as capable. I think you know you don’t get three strikes with the mob. It’s one strike and you’re out. It’s not whether, it’s when, when it comes to the hoods. This might be the when. You and the other two wise guys didn’t get it done the other night.”
“The hell if I don’t know it.”
“Throw in with us, the pay is good, you’d be surprised, even better sometimes than other times.”
“Bird of paradise, huh?”
“I’ll tell you what the bird of paradise is, which is the Belgian waffle sundae for dessert.”
Bumpy ordered the Belgian waffle sundae.
“No, I’m not saying that,” said Stan. ”What I am saying is it’s good, it’s steady, and we won’t stick a knife in your back. We might tell you to take a walk, but it won’t be a walk off the end of a pier in the middle of the night. We don’t expect anyone to toe the line blindly, or die for us, or any of that Hitler bullshit, like the gangsters do. We’re not catbird vultures.”
That night the bird’s-eye view from the small airplane at 5000 feet was of the big city big and wide and bright. The cabin was only three-or-so feet across at the elbows and Tommy could see clearly on both sides of him. But the field at George Washington High School was dark. What had made him think it would be lit up? He circled the school and thought fast. He banked the Cessna, keeping the sink rate steady, blipped the throttle over the threshold and rolled the yoke forward. He soared over Snake Hill, gliding between stores buildings tenements on both sides of the street, landing neatly in front of Joe’s on St. Nicholas Avenue.
“I saw something coming down,” said John Johnson, driving a jalopy, slamming on his brakes. “I didn’t know what to imagine. The plane skidded over the top of my car and made a perfect landing ahead of me. I saw a man get out and run.”
The man was husky tall wearing a gray suit bare headed and laughing up a storm. Tommy ran into Joe’s. It was 2:25 in the morning. It was twenty minutes before last call and more than a half-hour before closing time.
“Time to pay up, boys,” he said, throwing himself down onto a bar stool.
When their late lunch was done Stan paid the check, said hello and goodbye to Gus, who walked in as they walked out, and he and Bumpy shook hands to seal the deal.
“You know where we are, since you were keeping eagle eyes on us,” said Stan Don’t come in to the office before nine, but don’t come in after ten, either. I’ll see you Monday.”
Bumpy didn’t often leave Harlem on Saturday nights for Striver’s Row or Sugar Hill or Washington Heights, but there was a bar in Washington Heights he liked, and after taking a nap, changing his clothes, and putting some money in his wallet, he took a subway to the 191st station. He had seen neighborhood kids jump the fence at 200th Street and jump on top of the IRT 7th Avenue cars, riding them to Van Courtland Park. He knew without a doubt that one of them was going to kill himself doing that one of these days. He walked up out of the subway and then down the street towards Shorty’s.
There was gang graffiti everywhere on a brick wall that once was part of an apartment building that collapsed. Lucky Lords. The Enchanters. Egyptian Kings. One of the Egyptian Kings, somebody called the Cape Man, had shot a Lucky Lord, who ran out of luck that day and went to the Lord.
Farther down somebody had spray-painted “GUNS FOR THE JEWS.”
There were plenty of Irish and Germans and Italians in Washington Heights, but there were Jews, too, and some Puerto Ricans, as well as Negroes. Irish whiskey, Italian wine, and Jewish pastries were always right around the corner.
The five-story apartment building that collapsed had collapsed when the abandoned ice house next to it exploded.
“It was horrible, said Dorothy Fiege.
“The rumor mill said it was kids playing with matches, causing leftover ammonia fumes to ignite. The icehouse came down and cut the apartment building in half. It was like you were looking into a dollhouse. I don’t remember how many people were killed, but among them was Old Joe, the not-so-funny Good Humor Ice Cream man who used to ride his refrigerated bicycle around the neighborhood.”
There were World War Two veterans up and down Washington Heights. Some of them limped, others walked with a cane, and one walked very carefully. His eyes had been damaged by a grenade. More than a few of them drank too much, even though most of them were family men and held steady jobs.
Bumpy strolled into Shorty’s and found a seat on a stool near the end of the bar. He was black and free. That felt good. On Monday he would have steady work. What was he thinking? He had been thinking about it and now it happened. It deserved a drink.
Harvey Joffe, a Surface Transportation bus driver, was on 191st Street when the Cessna came in from nowhere for a landing
“I had just got back into my seat when all of a sudden I heard something that sounded like a large fan,” he said. “I looked in my rearview mirror and saw this plane coming at me. The plane hit the ground and bounced twenty feet in the air. I thought he was going to take off again. Then he hit the ground again and taxied. “
Harvey Joffe stopped and jumped out of his bus.
“God forbid if I ever hit a plane. What could I say at the safety hearing?”
“That was an almost impossible landing,” said Sgt. Harold Behrens of the Police Aviation Bureau.
“When I saw it, I thought maybe they had trucked it in, as a practical joke,” said Sammy Garcia, a kid in the neighborhood who woke up slowly from a dream and looked out his bedroom window. ”I thought, there was no way a man had landed in that narrow street.”
“A great many terrible things could have happened,” said Magistrate Edward Chapman on Monday morning when Tommy Fitzgerald was arraigned for breaking the city code forbidding landing airplanes on New York City streets.
That same morning the Cessna 140, after having been pushed aside to allow busses and cars to get by, the back half on the sidewalk and the wheels in the gutter, was taken apart and towed to the police station at 182nd Street.
“He landed on a street with lampposts and cars parked on both sides,” said Fred Hartling, a friend of the family in the neighborhood. “Tommy had a crazy side, but he pulled off a miracle.”
“What the hell is that? “Bumpy asked himself, stopping short coming out of Shorty’s, astonished at the sight of an airplane in the middle of the street in the middle of Washington Heights in the middle of Manhattan.
“That’s a tight fit,” he thought. Then he noticed it was blocking the front of the opening to the subway.
Where was there another station? How was he going to get back to Harlem? Maybe he could boost somebody’s jalopy. He walked up the street, in the direction home, keeping his eyes open.
“You look like hell,” said Stan.
“I feel like hell,” said Bettina.
“Long night,” she said.
“You’ve had coffee?”
When he was at the counter in the deli on the corner, Stan asked if he could have take-out soup, in their biggest container, but substitute coffee for the soup.
“Betty,” he said.
“Gotcha,” said the counterman, handing Stan a quart of hot coffee.
“What was the occasion?” asked Stan as Bettina rubbed her temples and quietly slurped the inky black tonic.
“Miles Davis,” she said. “He and his band have been at the Café Bohemia most of the month and yesterday was his last night there, so I had to go. Pete and I made a night of it, before the show, at the show, and after the show. Brother, I need an aspirin.”
Stan shook out two tablets of Bayer.
“More?” he asked.
“Yes, please,” said Bettina.
“Miles Davis is the trumpet player, right?”
“Right, and he’s got a four-pack that plays with him, and they are hot.”
The Miles Davis Quintet was Philly Joe Jones on drums, Paul Chambers on double bass, Red Garland on piano, and John Coltrane on tenor sax. They were touring promoting their Hackensack, New Jersey recordings, due for release starting the next month.
“Trane was blowing his ass off,” said Miles Davis after the show. “He seemed to be pushing each chord to its outer limits, out into space.”
It was cookin’ with Miles.
“As great as Trane was sounding, Philly Joe was the fire that was making a lot of shit happen,” he said. “Philly knew everything that I was going to do, everything I was going to play. He anticipated me, felt what I was thinking. Paul was playing like he’d been around forever and Red was giving me that Ahmad Jamal light touch, and a little bit of Erroll Garner, along with his own shit up in all of that. So, everything was happening.”
Cafe Bohemia was a small club, seating about a tight hundred, with a small stage and a slightly bigger bar. It had only been open a year, although it had been open for years before that.
“For six years I tried to make the place pay,“ said Jimmy Garofolo, the club’s owner, who lived across the street. “First as a bar and restaurant, then with girly shows, and then with various acts. One night I had to throw out a character who had been drinking without any money to pay for it. The next thing I knew, he was back offering to play a few weeks to pay off his obligation, and because he wanted a regular home base from which to play when he was between engagements.”
“I’ve not been there, never heard of it,” said Stan. “Where is it?”
“Greenwich Village,” said Bettina.
“Somebody told me his name was Charlie Parker and he was a saxophonist,” said Jimmy. “I was pretty naïve about jazz at the time and I didn’t know him from beans, but it turned out he was a big man in the jazz world. When I put out signs announcing he was going to play, I had a stream of people coming in wanting to know if the great Charlie Parker was going to play here. It was the way they said ‘here’ that got me.”
“If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn,” said Charlie Parker between drinks.
The Yardbird Charlie died before ever taking the stage at Café Bohemia, before making good on his obligation. But Café Bohemia became a happening, a hotbed of jazz. It was Gravesend when Miles Davis played there.
“The audience regarded the music as an art form, and even acted a little superior about the fact that they were there and listening to Miles,” said George Avakian, adding color to the painting.
“No rock ‘n roll, no vocalists, no big bands, no nuttin’ except small jazz combos,” said Jimmy. “Once Birdland and Basin Street were the mecca of all true jazzmen. Now a lot of them won’t go on the road until they’ve played the Bohemia, too.”
“Big crowd?” asked Stan.
“Small crowd,” said Bettina, “but too big for the place. We barely got in, but we made it, and we didn’t give up our seats the rest of the night for nothing or anything. Whenever one of us had to get up, the other one stayed put.”
“They played into the night?”
“They played until closing time. They might have kept playing until sunrise if the management hadn’t started closing the place. Then when Pete and I were leaving, there was an end of the world crank on the sidewalk. He had a sandwich sign in front of him. It said,‘The End is Near.’ I don’t know what got into me, but I asked him, “Mister, is that a bad thing or a good thing?” He shot me a look, that if looks could kill, I would be looking worse that I do now.”
The sharp jaundiced dirty look was followed by a dirty hand that thrust a fire and brimstone-heavy leaflet at her. There was a picture of an atomic bomb rocketing and spewing flames across the sky on it.
“How was the music?”
“High intensity,” said Bettina. “Spontaneous, full of bop, swinging like crazy.”
Stan smiled and rubbed his lower lip with his index finger.
“You don’t know bop from hop, do you?” said Bettina.
“I wouldn’t get past the first dollar of the sixty-four-dollar question if that was the first question,” said Stan. “But, from across the office it looks to me like you had a good time.”
“We met somebody there, too, somebody who knew Jackson Pollack.”
“You don’t say,” said Stan. “Who was it?”
“A woman at the next table, smoking up a storm. She was doodling, sketching the band, and when I looked over, I could tell the drawing was good, very good. When I asked her, she said her name was Helen, and when I asked her if she was an artist, she said, yes, she was Helen Frankenthaler, which didn’t mean boo to me, but it turns out she’s one of the abstract painters, and she knew Jackson Pollack. She said she got started, made her breakthrough, because of him.”
“Is that right?”
“That’s what she said, but then the man she was with, somebody named Clem, he had to be twice her age, sour-looking, broke in piped up and said she made her breakthrough when she met him, which made her see red.”
“Is that right?”
“Maybe from his side, but not from hers, definitely not. Pete said she looked like he was a bad taste in her mouth, like she wanted to spit him out.”
“She used Clement Greenburg,” said the sculptor Louise Nevelson. “She used everything in an abominable way.”
“Pete should know,” said Stan.
“You’re right about that, bird dog,” said Bettina.
“Did she mean it in a personal way, this breakthrough?” asked Stan.
“No, I think she meant it in some kind of artist technical way. There was something jagged going on with the Clem, though.”
“Something tense personal, like he got on her nerves, like I said. It was like she wanted him gone.”
“Did she say anything personal about our man?”
“She said when she heard the news about Jackson, she was shocked. She said she could hardly believe it. She said he was a mess, had been a mess for a long time, wasn’t going to stop being a mess, but he could handle any amount of booze and handle any car no matter how smashed he was.”
“That ties in to what we think we know,” said Stan.
The door to the office opened and Otis walked in, nodded to Stan, looked at Bettina, and said, “You look like hell.”
“Enough of that,” said Bettina, and sloshed more coffee down the hatch.
Otis rolled a chair to the client side of Stan’s desk and sat down. He flipped open a memo notepad, pulled a black Eberhard Microtomic pencil out of his pocket, and put the notepad and pencil on Stan’s desk.
“Long night?” he asked Bettina.
“Miles Davis down in the village,” she said.
“He’s got one hell of a band these days,” said Otis.
“You know about them?” asked Stan.
“Of course,” said Otis.
“All right, all right, I’ll be the only one not in the know.” said Stan. “Let’s get started, see if we can narrow down who our rocket from the tombs might be.”
“The first step always works,” said Otis.
“We know the shrink worked Jackson Pollack up to drive his car off a cliff and get himself killed,” said Stan. “We know he has worked up another man to do something, which looks like it is blowing up Eisenhower. We know the mob has been brought in for protection, although I would be surprised if they know what it is they’re on the wrong side of. Assassinations are their style, but not this, at least I don’t think so. We know the White House is flying in to the game on Wednesday afternoon, and if anything is going to happen it is going to probably happen at Ebbets Field.”
“The airport will be tight as a drum, the route to the ballpark will be kept out of the papers, the same for the way back, and the same for the security at the airport on the flight out,” said Otis. “If it’s going to happen, the odds are it’s going to happen at the ballgame.”
“We think our bomber is somebody under 30, a small man, by the name of Tony de Marco,” said Stan. “How many Anthony de Marco’s are there in the five boroughs?”
“Not counting Staten island, where every other person is Italian, there are six hundred and nineteen Anthony de Marco’s,” said Bettina.
“How do you know that?” asked Otis.
“Let your thumbs do the walking,” said Bettina.
“You leafed through the phone books?”
“I slipped on my nubbed thumb tip and took a stroll.”
“You should take that to Madison Avenue, maybe AT&T would be interested in a new slogan.”
“Who walks on their thumbs?”
“How about let your fingers do the walking?”
“That sounds better.”
“Let’s get back on track here,” said Stan.
“There are too many Tony’s to go looking for in just a few days, even if there were lots more of us,” said Otis.
“There are too many wop neighborhoods in the city, no matter how many of us there were,” said Stan. “He might even be up the road, or out on Long island.”
“Do we know what he looks like?” asked Bettina.
“No, we don’t,” said Stan. “That gives me an idea. Let’s get a drawing of him. The shrink can flesh him out for us. We just need an artist. Is Lefty in town, do you know?”
“He’s in town until tomorrow,” said Otis.
Gurnee “Lefty” Ford was an apprentice locomotive engineer for the New York Central, hauling passenger freight from the city to Albany Buffalo Cleveland Chicago St. Louis and back. The engineer sat on the left of the cab of the diesel-electric locomotive. Gurnee sat on the right side, and by necessity used his left hand on most of the controls and devices.
Lefty had been an art student until he got married and inside of three years had a family, a boy and a girl. He gave up art. He started work on the railroad as a brakeman, became a head brakeman, and was soon up front. He kept a sketchbook, drawing pictures for his children of the places the train went.
“Can you roust him up, tell him it’s worth a hundred, take him over to the bakery, and sit him down with the doc?”
“Yes, I can do that,” said Otis, making a note in his notepad.
“I want a police sketch, as good as possible, of Tony de Marco. Before you sit Lefty down in front of him, talk to the shrink in a quiet corner, and tell him I will be showing the drawing to his office receptionist the first thing Monday morning, and if she doesn’t recognize Tony in the drawing, I am going to go right to the bakery and beat his brains out, toss him in the street for the dogs, and afterwards throw his body into the East River.”
“In those words?”
“In those words, slowly and surely,” said Stan.
After Otis had gone, Bettina sighed.
“I finally feel better,” she said. “That head shrinker bothers me.”
“Good,” said Stan.
“You should have been there,” she said. “It was a hell of a show.”
“Maybe next time.”
“Sure,” said Bettina. “Bring Vicki, we’ll make a night of it.”
“That might be too much night for Vic.”
“She’s a big girl.”
“How do you figure the big show, Betty?”
“Since it’s almost sure to happen at the ballpark, he’s got to somehow be a part of the Dodgers,” she said. “Not one of the ballplayers, but no Joe Schmo in the stands, either. I figure him to be someone who works for the team, selling tickets, beer man, grounds crew, somebody like that.”
“All right,’ said Stan. “Once we get our sketch that’s the track we’ll take. You be here bright and early tomorrow, we’ll get over to Park Avenue, you talk to the gal behind the desk, and show her the sketch. If she can say it’s him, we’ll go over to Ebbets Field and start snooping.”
“You’re the boss,” said Bettina, and started humming a tune.
“What’s that?” asked Stan.
“Something Miles Davis played last night.”
“It sounds good.” said Stan. “What’s it called?”
“Just Squeeze Me.”
“Let’s see if we can put the squeeze on our man,” Stan said, sober serious grave.
“It’s you and me, babe,” said Vicki.
“Yay!” exclaimed Dottie.
“You sound awfully happy to have your dad out of the way.”
“No, no, it’s not that, I love dad, he’s super. But I see him all the time,” said Dottie. “Besides, he told me he’s on a big job and mom is busy, but that’s OK, she’s always busy, and he said you would be staying over for a few days, and I like that, a lot.”
Vicki had gone to Stan’s Sunday night, made dinner, and put Dottie to bed. Stan and Vicki stayed up late, playing cards, talking, drinking the better half of a bottle of red wine, going for a walk, and finishing their wine splashed out feeling tight on the sofa.
“This is good,” said Stan.
He looked at the bottle. It said ‘Classico Chianti.’ There was a black rooster on the label.
“I thought Chianti came in a fat bottle in a straw basket,” said Stan.
“Sure, it does, but that’s rotgut. The basket is called a fiasco. There’s a reason they call it that. Sometimes the old folks die from drinking it in the old country. It’s your birthday tomorrow. I wouldn’t do that to you.”
Mr. Moto gave Vicki a sidelong glance.
“Don’t look at me like that,” she said to the cat.
“Dottie comes first with Mr. Moto,” said Stan. “I’m somewhere on the list. Sometimes we think he’s part dog. He can spot the evil eye easy.”
Monday morning, the first of October, the weather was good, sunny, in the high 50s, with no rain predicted the rest of the week. In two weeks to the day it would be Dwight Eisenhower’s birthday. In six weeks to the day it would be Mamie Eisenhower’s birthday.
In the morning, by the time Stan rolled over, slapped Vicki on the rear, and shuffled to the bathroom, Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower had been awake more than two hours. They arrived at the Terminal Station in Cleveland, Ohio, Stan’s hometown, riding a 12-car campaign train on an overnight run from Washington. The station was in the prime of its life. But President Eisenhower was putting intercity train travel and the Cleveland Union Terminal, and all its ilk, slowly but surely out of business by federally subsidizing a network of interstate highways.
“Neither a wise man nor a brave man lies down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him,” he said, without a doubt in his mind about the right-of-way of his road project. It had been in the back of his mind since the Louisiana Maneuvers before the war.
By the time Stan finished dressing and was on his way to the office to pick up Bettina, President and Mrs. Eisenhower were walking through the lobby of the Cleveland Hotel on Public Square.
It was warm, expected to hit the mid-70s. The Soldiers and Sailors Monument on Public Square, across the street, glistened in the early autumn sun. The fire department had cleaned the monument over the weekend, spraying it with hundreds of gallons of white vinegar, and then hosing off the bird droppings and grime.
The monument was built thirty years after the Civil War, a 125-foot granite shaft atop a square base housing a memorial hall, larger than life bronzes lining the outside, and marble tablets inside with the names of all the more than nine thousand Union soldiers from Cuyahoga County, the county in which the city lay, who died in the war.
“Good morning, Mr. President,” said Robert Bridle, the manager of the hotel. “Good morning, Mr. Mayor,” he said to Anthony Celebrezze, the city’s mayor.
Anthony Celebrezze was a Democrat, mayor of the fifth-largest city in the United States. He knew how to get things done. Dwight Eisenhower meant the keys to the federal purse-strings to him
The mayor’s father had been a shepherd in Italy, and then a track laborer on the Wheeling and Lake Erie after he emigrated to the United States. Tony Celebrezze put himself through John Carroll College by working as a freight truck driver and a boxer, fighting it out in undercards.
It was Charlie Jordan’s birthday, who died during the war, at home, in the bedroom of his mother’s home. He had been a magician with cards, one of the best, although he never performed live in public. Stan had a dog-eared copy of his book “Thirty Card Mysteries.” It was where he learned ‘The Gray Code,’ a method of false counting.
“Did you give your dad anything for his birthday?” asked Vicki.
“He said all he wanted was a big kiss, so I gave him a big kiss,” said Dottie.
It was Irwin Kostal’s birthday, but he was busy working on arrangements for a new musical by Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents about Puerto Rican gangs. They were calling it “West Side Story.” After lunch he threw away the news clippings about gang violence Jerome Robbins sent him every day. He never read them. He didn’t care about the Seven Saints.
“How about we make your dad a birthday cake after school, surprise him when he gets home?” Vicki asked Dottie.
“Oh, yeah, that would be great,’ said Dottie. “We should get him a beer, too.”
“Maybe two, maybe that would be better,” said Dottie.
It was Bonnie Parker’s birthday, who died young more than twenty years earlier. She and her gang had robbed small stores, gas stations, and banks, killing nine policemen in three years. Stan had been a military policeman, a uniformed NYC patrolman, and was a licensed private detective. He bore no truck with cop killers. He threw away the paper with the clipping in it. He wasn’t a history buff.
“Good riddance to bad rubbish,” he thought, leaning against a building across the street from the building Dr. Baird’s office occupied, the building Bettina had gone into a few minutes ago, a few minutes before nine.
He watched the two eyeties watching her, one of them trailing her, the other staying behind. Stan looked down the block. Bumpy was in his car, playing dumb, the engine idling. He had come to work early his first day, packing a lunch and packing a pistol. Stan didn’t carry a gun as a rule-of-thumb, only when he thought he might need it, fully loaded.
“It’s best to not use dynamite when you go ice fishing, unless there is no other way,” Old Man Duluc had told him. “Then make sure you bring matches.”
He didn’t make it an agency rule one way or the other. There was no manual. He left it up to whoever he was working with.
“You’re welcome to it, but I don’t think it’s going to be necessary, at least not today,” he said.
“If you don’t mind, I’d rather have a biscuit with me every day,” said Bumpy. “I don’t believe in letting anyone close distance on me.”
“I can understand that,” said Stan.
He told Betty to be careful, not bother bluffing, flashing her fake business card, but getting the hell out if anything started to happen. He didn’t think they were up to more than watching and waiting, even though push was coming to shove.
“You know where the fire exits are?” he asked her.
“I know where they are,” she said.
“Where are they?”
She told him.
“OK,” he said.
President Eisenhower was giving a speech in the hotel to the faithful, taking a short break, and giving a speech from the monument to friends enemies the curious passersby loafers and the lunch time crowd. Downtown Cleveland was spic and span. Ike liked what he saw.
Bonnie Parker was twenty-four when she and her lowlife boyfriend Clyde Barrow were shot to death in their high-living Ford Deluxe V-8 by Texas Rangers and Louisiana police bearing automatic rifles. Push had come to shove later than sooner for them, but when Frank Hamer and his lawmen opened fire they stopped only when their guns ran out of ammunition. The Louisiana policemen, unlike the Rangers, weren’t used to the sustained gunfire, and went deaf the rest of the day.
It was Stan Rittman’s birthday, too. He was thirty-four years old. He had seen plenty of wrong-doers racketeers burglars stickup men no-good-men highwaymen to know the two young hoods watching Betty bore watching, but not worrying about. Once Betty was back, in a cab with him, Bumpy would follow the followers and hopefully find out where they got their marching orders from.
Stan was betting good money on Big Paulie. Ezra was hoping it was Big Paulie. Stan was hoping Ezra wouldn’t blow his stack.
Dr. Baird’s receptionist looked up when Bettina walked in at five minutes after nine.
“Good morning,” she said. “I’m afraid the doctor isn’t in.”
“I know,” said Bettina.
“Oh, in that case, how can I help you?”
“I wonder if you would mind looking at this drawing?” she asked, unrolling the police-style sketch Lefty had made last night and flattening it out on the receptionist’s desk.
”Do you happen to recognize this man as one of Dr. Baird’s patients?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Is he a small man, on the younger side?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Do you have an address for him?”
“No, Dr. Baird said he was a special case, and he would be handling all the billing and correspondence himself. He never gave me the file,” she said, waving a hand at the filing cabinets.
“All right, thanks,” said Bettina, rolling up the drawing. “You’ve been a big help.”
“What’s going on?” asked the receptionist.
Bettina had the office door half open. There was a man lounging near the elevators, as though he was minding somebody else’s business. She let go of the door and stepped back into the office. She knew a second-string goombah when she saw one.
“Dr. Baird isn’t going to be in today, or any time soon. He’s going to be moving on in few days, maybe out of state, maybe out of the country. If I was smart girl, I would get out of Dodge. I would lock up and leave the minute I’m gone. I would also take that drawing with me,” she said, pointing to what she was sure was a drawing by Jackson Pollack.
“It’s by an artist by the name of Jackson Pollack. He died a couple of months ago, so there won’t be anymore drawings by him, which means that one is a one-of-a-kind.”
“Oh, I see,” said the receptionist.
“One last thing, after I’m gone, and you’ve locked up, take the fire exit.”
“Why should I do that?”
“For your health.”
“Oh,” said the receptionist.
“Be quiet about it, too.”
She watched Bettina walk to the elevator and watched a young man with a toothpick in his mouth get in with her. The elevator went down. She stood up from her chair. She rifled the office for anything on paper that referred to her, stuffed it all into her handbag, and took the drawing off the wall. She replaced it with a framed certificate Dr. Baird no longer displayed. She scooped up all the petty cash. She walked out with the Jackson Pollack, carrying it partly hidden between several New Yorker magazines, shutting off the lights, locking the office door, and leaving the building by the fire stairs.
When she got outside, she walked some blocks and boarded the first passing bus. She sat down behind the driver. No one got on at the same time, or at the next stop. She didn’t get off until the bus reached the end of the line and she waited to be the last passenger off. It was only when she was on a bus going back the same way that she relaxed, letting out long slow breaths.
It wasn’t even ten in the morning, yet, she thought. Monday morning. She was out of a job. She didn’t care. Dr. Baird was a cold fish, and barely paid her Park Avenue wages he was a stingy bastard. She would take the rest of the week off and start looking for a better job next Monday. She might try Madison Avenue. Her boyfriend wrote copy. He knew somebody at one of the art museums. She would tell him about the picture. Maybe it was worth something.
She sometimes thought he was seeing somebody else, somebody new, somebody in the Village, where he seemed to be more often than not. She didn’t like it, but she had other bad things to worry about. She would worry about it later.
“Are you and Betty taking me to the ballpark on Wednesday?” asked Dottie. “I’m going to talk to Pee Wee Reese before the game.”
Six years earlier Pee Wee Reese had become the only pro ballplayer to ever hit a home run without hitting a home run. He drilled a line drive to the right field fence, where it hit the fencing, caromed, dropped down on one of the advertising boards part-way down the wall, out of reach, bounced, rolled, and came to a stop. The players and fans in the stands could all plainly see the ball. Pee Wee Reese sauntered around the bases. The umpires huddled and finally ruled it a home run. Someone found a ladder, hauled it to the fence, and retrieved the ball. The right fielder disgustedly threw it into the stands, rewarded by a chorus of Bronx cheers. Howlin’ Hilda banged on her cow bell.
Casey Stengel, who would be managing the New York Yankees in two days, hit the first ever home run at Ebbets Field, in 1913, an inside-the-park job. He had to run like hell to get it done.
“I’m going to be on TV!”
“I know,” laughed Vicki. “You’re going to be a big star.”
“So, we’re all going?”
“Betty is on that job with your dad, so I don’t think she’s going to be able to make it, unless they break it in the next couple of days, but I’ll take you. Stan and Ezra have tickets for the game. Maybe he’ll be able to make it. Maybe we’ll see him there and we can squeeze into the stands with him.”
“If I see him, I’m going to wave to him from the field,” said Dottie.
“Make sure you wear your Bum’s cap and wave that.”
The offices at Ebbets Field were above the main entrance. The entry into the stadium was through an 80-foot round rotunda of iron and stucco almost thirty feet high. A chandelier hung over the middle. The flooring was Italian marble tile. The first game ever played at Ebbets Field was delayed when no one remembered to bring the key to the gate. It was delayed again when they remembered they had forgotten to have the Star and Stripes on hand to raise on the centerfield flagpole. Someone rushed to a nearby hardware store to find a flag.
“Howlin’ Hilda?” asked Bettina.
“She comes to all the games, sits in the bleachers and yells her head off. She’s loud, extremely loud,” said Stan.
“I heard she used to work at the ballpark, back when it opened, breaking down 50-pound bags of peanuts into the small bags they sell. She’d stay, they gave them free passes, and watch the games. She used to bang on a cast iron skillet with a metal ladle, but the team gave her a brass bell, instead. They said it was because she was so dedicated, but Ezra and I think it was so she wouldn’t kill anyone with that skillet.”
No one in the offices recognized the man in the picture once Stan and Betty started showing it around, once they had talked their way in, accompanied by an off-duty moonlighting city policeman who remembered Stan, until one of the office girls suggested they try maintenance and the field crew. Several of the men in maintenance recognized the face.
“Go talk to Max,” one of them said.
“Max Ringolsby, he’s the crew chief. I think he’s in the visitor’s clubhouse this morning, thinking up ways to make it more uncomfortable than it already is. Follow the smoke. You’ll find him.”
It wasn’t hard spotting the smoke signals. It was pouring out of the dugout. A short thick-set man wearing a plaid cap was on the steps, a half-foot of cigar in his mouth, leaning on the front railing looking out onto the field.
“If the stogie bothers you, lady, I can put it out,” Max said to Bettina. “I don’t mind.”
“If you don’t mind, it won’t matter to me, and as long as you don’t offer me one, I’m good with the smoke,” answered Betty. “At least for a few minutes.”
“Now you’re my kind of broad,” said Max.
He exhaled a beach ball-sized cloud of grayish white cigar smoke. It smelled like cedar and oak nuts.
“That doesn’t smell half bad,” said Bettina.
“Say, do you remember Frenchy Bordagaray?” Max asked Stan.
“I can’t say that I do. Should I?”
“I’ve seen you at ballgames,” said Max. “You come with a kike, right?”
“That’s right,” said Stan. “You’ve got a good eye.”
“Frenchy played for the Dodgers back in the 40s,” said Max.
“Before my time,” said Stan.
“He played for the Bums back in the 30s, too, played for the Senators, the Cards, the Yankees, and then came back here. He was a good ballplayer, fast. When he was with the Senators, before games, sometimes they had races, one hundred yards, between him and a horse. He never won, but the horses never beat him by much.”
“Is that right?”
“Anyway, this La Corona is the same cigar Frenchy used to smoke,” said Max. “It cost us a game one time. He was on second, tail end of the game, tried to come home on a sharp single, but got tagged out at the box when he didn’t slide into the plate. He said he didn’t want to ruin the La Corona’s he had tucked away in his back pocket.”
“Why do they call the Dodgers the bums?” asked Bettina.
“Not bums, Bums,” said Stan.
“I stand corrected.”
“It happened because Dem Bums were bums for such a long time,” said Stan. “At least they don’t call them pigs, since the stadium was built on land that used to be a garbage dump called Pigtown, because so many pigs grazed there. The name just stuck. It wasn’t until last year, when they beat the Yankees and took the Series, that the Daily News had a hobo on the front page asking, “WHO’S A BUM?” and it finally stopped being a lovable loser thing, which had gotten old.”
“That’s right, sister,” said Max.
“We’re looking for somebody, we think he works here,” said Stan. “Do you mind looking at a drawing?”
“Yeah, that’s Tony,” said Max, glancing at the drawing.
“Tony de Marco?”
“Have you seen him today?”
“No, I haven’t seen him today. If you see him, tell him he’s fired for not showing up two days before the Series, and for not calling me with any reason about why, and he don’t need to show up again, not tomorrow or ever.”
Stan took a business card out of his wallet and gave it to Max. He wrote Ezra and Betty’s names on the back of the card.
“If he shows up, would you call me, or my associates, and let us know?”
“Sure,” said Max. “Can I ask what it’s all about?”
“It’s confidential,” said Stan, “but it’s nothing to do with the team. We think he’s involved in a case we’re working on. It might be serious, so we’d appreciate knowing right away.”
“I’ve got you,” said Max.
He walked them back towards the main entry.
“You’ve got lots of grim-looking guys in gray suits around,” said Stan.
“Yeah, Secret Service,” said Max. “Think they know everything. They’re sniffing around everywhere from top to bottom, so that everything will be safe and secure on Wednesday when Ike is here for the game. He’s throwing out the first pitch.”
“I heard about that,” said Stan.
“We’re going to be opening up the centerfield fence and his limo is going to drive right on to the field all the way to home plate. I hope to God it stays dry, otherwise we’re going to have a hell of a time with tire tracks. One of the guards told me the limo weighs as much as a Sherman tank.”
The stadium organ sounded, lumbering, then tip-toeing into a rendition of “Three Blind Mice.”
“That’s Gladys, warming up,” said Max. “She’s got a good sense of humor, or just a good sense of sarcasm, but she plays that whenever she thinks the umpires have gotten it wrong, at least wrong from our point of view.”
The unofficial Dodgers fan band, the “Sym-Phoney Band,” had played the song for years before every game, at the moment the umpires stepped onto the field for the ballgame, until the league office commanded them to stop.
Gladys Gooding ignored the league office. She was above taking orders from anybody not on the team. Her electric Hammond was high above the crowd in a glass-enclosed loft. She was the lady who brought the noise in the House of Pandemonium, lighting up the Flatbush Faithful.
“Three blind mice, three blind mice, did you ever see such a sight in your life, as three blind mice,” she played, pumping the nursery rhyme out into the nearly empty stadium on her electric organ.
Standing next Mamie as the crowd murmured out the ballroom, Ike wasn’t blind to Cleveland’s friendliness. Everybody knew he was as much shoo as a shoo-in could be. The city was hoping for jobs and development. He clapped Anthony Celebrezze on the back, saying, “I’ll have somebody from Transportation get back to you just as soon as we are back in the capitol from the World Series.”
“Who have you got your money on?”
“I should be impartial, but I’m pulling for the Bums,” Ike said.
“Three blind mice, three blind mice.”
It was noon on the dot when President Eisenhower greeted more than nine hundred invited guests to the Sales Executive Group Luncheon in the Main Ballroom of the best and biggest hotel in downtown Cleveland. He spoke briefly, walked out of the hotel, and crossed the street to the Speaker’s Platform next to the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. He was giving a speech at twelve-thirty.
He was in the middle of two months of pressing the flesh kissing babies and giving speeches. His mouth had gone dry and palms chapped. Flecks of baby spit littered his suits.
A dozen black and white Cleveland Police cars blocked off Euclid Avenue, Superior Avenue, Ontario Street, and Rockwell Avenue.
Bert Mert and Luke scampered out of the Memorial Room of the monument out to the roof and down to the base of the polished black stone column. They could have climbed to the top, one hundred and twenty-five feet to the top, wending up the six foliated bronze bands listing the names of the thirty battles in which soldiers from Cuyahoga County fought, if they wanted to. Their eyesight wasn’t the best, not like their sense of smell, but their perch was more than view enough.
Since it was only a month to the election, President Eisenhower got right to the point.
“The opposition say that they alone truly care for the working men and women of America, and that the Republican party is really a vague kind of political conspiracy by big business to destroy organized labor and bring hunger and torment to every worker in America,” he told the overflow crowd.
Secret Service agents watched from the roofs of the May Company and Higbee’s, and from inside the twin steeples of the Old Stone Church. The Berea sandstone of the church had long since turned black from air pollution rising up from the Flats, the nearby industrial valley that sprawled on both sides of the curvy Cuyahoga River. The sun gleamed on the white terra cotta façade of the May Company. The faces of shoppers were pressed against upper story windows of the two department stores.
The pastor of the Presbyterian church sat in a lawn chair outside his front doors, his sleeves rolled up, warm in the warm October day. He had a ploughman’s sandwich, cheese and pickle, wrapped in wax paper in his lap. He unwrapped his sandwich. He took a bite and chewed, slowly, methodically. The sky above Public Square was dappled with small passing clouds. He stretched his legs out.
His father had been a pastor. He grew up in the church. He served on all the church committees, was a volunteer at all the events, and made all the hospital and home care visits.
Thank God for Ike, he thought, a day off on a sunny day.
“IKE CAMPAIGNS IN CLEVELAND” was the caption beneath a picture of the Chief Executive waving from the window of his train pulling into the Terminal Tower. Stan Riddman got the Post and Daily News delivered. The Daily News was big on pictures, calling itself “New York’s Picture Newspaper.” It was their kind of doorstep reporting.
“Did you see that the president is in Cleveland, your dad’s hometown?” Vicki asked Dottie.
“I saw it,” the girl said, flipping through the tabloid, ignoring her breakfast.
“Have you got your lunch?” asked Vicki, a Wirephoto away from the Soldiers and Sailors Monument
Dottie held up it up. It was a metal Roy Rogers and Dale Evans lunch box with wood grain printed sides. On the front Roy was riding away on Trigger, and Dale, in a red dress, was waving goodbye from underneath the Double RR Bar Ranch sign.
“Let’s go, hustle it up.” said Vicki.
Dottie went to the Sacred Heart of Jesus School on West 52nd Street. It was an all-children school, all boys and girls. It was the reason Stan had taken their apartment on West 56th Street, so that Dottie could walk to school. It was a large school, more than a thousand students, most of them Irish kids, and growing. A new convent for the Sisters of Charity had been built a few years ago. The Congregation of Christian Brothers, who had a reputation for strong-arm discipline, had their own residence on West 51st Street.
“If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of a cross,“ Stan and Vicki heard Lenny Bruce crack at one of his shows.
Dottie didn’t wear a crucifix.
Bert and Mert were Tremont twins. Luke was an orphan. All his friends called him Eaka Mouse. They usually slept during the day and foraged at night, avoiding birds, but this was a special occasion. They had never seen the top man of the Grand Old Party up close. The birds were staying away because of the hullaballoo, but the mice couldn’t contain their curiosity.
“This is more than political bunk,” said President Eisenhower. “Those men are fretting fear and worried doubt. It is wicked nonsense. We have given to our nation the kind of government that is living witness to a basic virtue in a democracy, public morality, public service, and public trust. There is no special favoritism, cronyism, or laxity in our administration.”
Luke had the best sense of smell of the three of them. He led the way when they went searching for food, which was fifteen, twenty times a day. Their favorite foods were seeds and grains, which made the monument a 24-hour dream diner for mice. It was visited by hundreds, sometimes thousands of people, many of whom left behind crumbs of whatever they were snacking on.
The pickings today were going to be out of this world.
None of them liked cheese. No mouse they knew liked cheese. They snickered at the traps filled with shavings of it. Besides, they could smell the hand of the crafty man on carefully prepared cheese, and they knew to beware.
In Brooklyn, Bumpy Williams followed the two men who were following the boss and Girl Friday. When they got to Ebbets Field, the men parked across the street from the main entrance to the ballpark. Bumpy passed them, doubled back, and parked a block behind them. He turned off the engine and got comfortable.
It was inside of fifteen minutes that the young man on the passenger side of the late model black panel truck got out, walked down the street, turned into a corner store, and came back with a brown bag wrapped around a bottle of Sneaky Pete.
“Dumb asses,” Bumpy said to himself.
He understood when the pie isn’t perfect, cut it into wedges, but if it was him, he would throw the two slices of stupidity out of the hoodlum roll call and send them back to Sicily where they came from.
The one-year sale on fresh blood from the homeland had been going on for seven years. It was getting thin back in southern Italy. On the other hand, Bumpy thought, it isn’t like I’ve got to reinvent the wheel with them.
When Stan and Bettina walked out of the ballpark and hailed a cab, the two hoodlums in the panel truck didn’t follow them. Instead, the man on the passenger side got out again, sauntered to a phone booth outside the corner store, and made a call.
“All right, and you’re sure they didn’t make you?”
“And no one was on your tail?”
“All right, I’ll pass it on to the boss. You two go to the house and lay low. Stay handy, stay straight, don’t boost anything, stay out of trouble, but stay heavy, just in case we need you, understand?”
“I got it,” the man in the telephone booth said.
The man on the other end of the line hung up.
The mobster errand boys sat in the panel truck and finished their Sneaky Pete.
“The men of the opposition know perfectly well that one of the main reasons they were thrown out of office four years ago was their tolerance of the fire of inflation,” said President Eisenhower. “Just in the final seven years of their tenure of office this economic fever had cut the value of the dollar by almost one-third, damaging the livelihood of the aged, the pensioned, all salaried workers.”
Luke had recently chewed up the front page of the Cleveland Press for bedding. He noticed an article about last month’s government index showing living costs had gone up to a record high point.
“The cost of living has been remarkably stabilized,” the trim balding man in a brown suit below them said earnestly. “During the previous Democratic administration, the cost of living increase was twenty times as great.”
Mert gave Bert and Luke the high sign. They had heard the lying life on the stump come pouring over them before. They couldn’t go down to look for food, but the speechifying was making them sleepy. It was a lot of cutting corners and trying to corner the other guy. The three mice stretched, groomed themselves briefly, efficiently, curled up together, and were soon napping.
Ezra met Stan and Bettina when they got to Brighton Beach.
“He’s gone,” said Ezra.
“The lady of the house says he left yesterday, with a couple of guys, had an overnight bag with him. She saw the truck, thinks it might have been black, but doesn’t know the make, much less the plates. I asked around, talked to some of the neighbors, nobody saw anything, so that’s a dead end. My guess is they’re guessing we’re on to him and have got him on ice somewhere until Wednesday.”
“That sounds about right,” said Stan. “We’ll have to snag him at the ballpark. We’ve got tickets for the game, so getting in won’t be any problem.”
“No, no problem and we can get in early, spread out,” said Ezra.
“Are we still keeping this to ourselves?”
“Yes,” said Ezra. “The Secret Service is always on high alert, so our ruffling their feathers won’t make any difference. Besides, they don’t trust anybody. Whatever we tell them is likely to get us in a jam.”
“I’m on the same page,” said Stan.
“What if we don’t get our man and he gets to Ike?” Betty asked.
“We’re not anybody’s bodyguard,” said Ezra. “He’s got all the bodyguards he needs.”
“But we know who is and what he looks like,” she said. “They don’t.”
“Yes,” said Ezra. “That’s how the biscuit crumbles.”
They walked down to Brighton Beach Avenue.
“Did you read that tawk from Ike on Stevenson?” one man asked his companion as they strolled past the Duluc Detective operatives going the other way.
“Yeah, just more smoke and mirrors from the Republicans.”
“The thing is, how do you even know he’s telling the truth, when you know you’d lie about it if you was him?”
“Fawget about it.”
“Yeah, yeah, I got that. Let’s stop in here.”
They were approaching a diner.
“Let’s get some cawfee and a bite.”
“That’s a good idea, I’m with you.”
“We can’t be sure we know with one hundred percent certainty what our man is up to,” said Stan.
“No,” said Ezra.
“It puts us in a bad spot.”
“Yes,” said Ezra.
“OK, we’ll play it the way we have been. It might be a squeeze, but I don’t want to get in the middle of a political assassination, if it is an assassination, and everything that would bring down on us, hell in a hand basket.”
“No good deed goes unpunished,” said Ezra.
“We’re getting paid to find out what happened to Jackson Pollack, not anything else,” said Stan.
Bettina wanted to argue, but when she remembered some of the things Pete had told her, after their ping-pong games, or out for a drink, she bit her tongue. TF is what Pete always muttered when what he said fell on deaf ears. She didn’t want to be the deer in the headlights with the Feds at the wheel. She knew Pete was right about the high and low.
Two teenagers slouched past them. Both of them were wearing big bright medal medallions. One of them had a girl’s ear-clip stuck onto an earlobe.
“You going to the skin battle tonight?” asked one.
“Diddley bop, I’m all in,” the other one said.
“You got your stenjer ready?”
He had wet his Alpine-style hat, his stenjer, under a faucet the night before, rolled the narrow brims tight, and dried it on a radiator.
“Don’t forget to pull it down over your ears.”
“Ain’t that like punking out?”
“No, it’s going to be tight fighting, but you still want to take care of your South Brooklyn Boy ears.”
“I got it.”
“You’ve got to have heart, though.”
“I’ll tell you who’s got heart, Blood’s got heart.”
“You got that right. He ain’t afraid of anything or anybody. He will do absolutely anything. If he has to fight five against one, he’ll fight five against one. He’s a butcher, man. If you need someone to pull the trigger, he’ll pull the trigger.”
“Get that man a stenjer.”
“Fast, faster, disaster!”
They both laughed, taking their own sweet time.
Stan, Bettina, and Ezra walked in silence.
“Anybody hungry?” asked Betty.
“I’m dog hungry,” said Ezra.
“Same here,” said Stan.
“How about H & S? We could walk, it’s not far.”
They passed an apartment house. At the top of it an inscription in block letters read MOTHER JONES. Bettina knew who she was, which was Mary Harris Jones, a labor organizer for the Socialist Party of America, fifty or sixty years ago. A district attorney had called her “the most dangerous woman in America.”
Pete said, laughing, that women couldn’t even vote in her day, which was what made them especially dangerous, pivoting into the 20th century.
“When you want something bad enough is when you get dangerous,” he said.
Stan, Betty, and Ezra walked to the deli on Sheepshead Bay Road.
President Eisenhower wrapped up his speech, stepped down from the platform, and was in his limo in his motorcade on its way to Cleveland Hopkins Airport by one o’clock. He and Mamie boarded the Columbine and were airborne to Lexington, Kentucky by one-thirty. In two days, at about the same time of the day, Dwight Eisenhower would be tossing out the first pitch of the 1956 World Series at Ebbets Field instead of tossing out half-truths.
“There it is,” said Bettina, pointing to the blue and white H & S Hebrew National Deli porcelain sign across the street.
She had mushroom barley soup and toasted challah, while Ezra and Stan ordered pastrami sandwiches. Betty winced at the tongue offerings on the menu. One of them touted itself as center cut tongue, better than the other parts of the tongue.
“Look at this,” said Stan. He pointed to a sign on the wall
“Instant Heart Attack.”
It was a three-quarter pound meat sandwich, your choice of animal, with potato latkes instead of bread.
“Our food is delicious, but it can kill you,” said the waiter.
After they had finished, and were having coffee, Ezra said, “I didn’t want to mention it while we were eating, but some of the deli’s I eat at, you can’t find what they offer anywhere else. There’s a place, they have something called pitcha, which is made by cooking calves’ feet and making a big gel block of it, chilling it, with bits of meat in it.”
“That sounds like the Dark Ages,” said Betty.
“I’ve never been there,” said Ezra.
“Thank God for that!” said Betty.
Outside, on the sidewalk they heard a man in the distance, a man coming their way.
“Ice cream! Get your Good Humor ice cream here, ice cream, orange drinks. Get your Good Humor ice cream here.”
He was a black man wearing black shoes and khaki pants. He had two large boxes slung over his shoulders. One was filled with ice cream and the other one with orange drinks. His face was shiny.
Stan asked if he had vanilla.
“Yes sir,” the man said.
“I’ll have one, too, “said Betty.
“What other flavors do you have?” asked Ezra.
“Strawberry, chocolate, eclairs, fudge.”
“I’ll take a strawberry,” said Ezra.
When the ice cream man opened his box, white smoke from the dried ice spilled out. After they paid him, he grunted when he lifted the two boxes up, slinging them back over his shoulders, and wiped his face with a handkerchief.
“Ice cream, ice cream, get your Good Humor ice cream here.”
His voice trailed off as he went down the sidewalk.
The mice avoided ice cream. They preferred Canadian bacon. Most days, Monday through Saturday, as long as the weather was good, they looked forward to the nut lady, the woman who looked more-or-less like Doris Day and Mammy Two Shoes, a middle-aged Slovenian woman with dark skin dark hair dark eyes, to take their mid-day break on the steps of the monument. She worked across the square, at Morrow’s Nut House, near the revolving doors of the May Company.
The nut women worked behind the glass counter display case, selling fresh warm lightly salted cashews and redskin peanuts, Spanish peanuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pecans and walnuts. Morrow’s was on the corner, on the intersection, on a CTS bus stop. They pumped the smell of roasting nuts out onto the sidewalk all day long.
Bert Mert and Luke weren’t waiting for the nut lady today. There was a horn of plenty waiting for them on all sides of the Sailors and Soldiers Monument. Who said the GOP never did anything for the little man?
The three mice had girlfriends, Mary Suzy and Perla waiting in the wings.
“Hey guys, let’s rake it in, and go to the submarine races,” said Bert.
Eaka Mouse knew what that meant. It was feedbag and hanky-panky time. They weren’t three blind mice.
“Come on, snake, let’s rattle.”
Stan Ezra Betty wiped their lips clean and went back to business, looking for their man mouse on the loose.
There was a fog of light from a bare lightbulb at the top of the stairs slipping down to the basement. If it was a 25-watt bulb, it was as bright as it was ever going to get. If it was a 40-watt bulb, it wasn’t making payroll. If it was a 100-watt bulb, it was on its last legs.
Tony de Marco kept his eyes on the lion in the near darkness, even though the animal was sleeping. He hoped to God the beast wasn’t dreaming of ripping him apart and eating his arms and legs. He sat quietly on the hard, thin mattress, as far back at the back of the bunk in the corner of the basement as he could get. It smelled bad rank horrible.
He thought one of the flame throwers he had seen in Korea would come in handy, just now, just in case, if the lion got loose, except for all the hay. There was hay in the cage, and it was strewn all over the basement floor, too. He looked closely at it. He thought it might be Timothy hay. They used it at the ballpark. There were piles of it in the corners, and there were several bales stacked up. The basement was damp and there was a strong smell of urine.
There were no mice to be seen anywhere.
The two men who had taken him to the storefront, taken him around back, and taken him into the basement, hadn’t been rough with him, but it was clear as day as he went down the stairs that he was going into the basement, and that was that.
“The boss will be down later,” one of them said. “Just sit tight. Lucifer is locked up. Her bark is worse than her bite, anyway. She would probably lose another toothe biting you.”
They tramped back up the stairs, he heard the lock click, and he was left alone with the big cat. The lion twitched and tucked her head into her paws. She was dreaming about something. Maybe the cat was dreaming of a silky breeze. Maybe the cat was dreaming of lying low in the grass beneath a bright blue sky. Or maybe the cat was dreaming of shredding Big Paulie to ribbons and getting the hell out of the dark basement.
Anything would be better than being alone all the time in a cage in the dark, in solitary confinement.
Tony the Phil was a loner who didn’t like being alone. When he was around people, they usually made him feel even more alone, but it was better than being in a room all by himself. He didn’t like sleeping alone. It hadn’t been bad when he was in the army. He slept with the other GI’s in their fart sacks. But back home in Brighton Beach he didn’t have a girlfriend. There was no one nearby close-by at his side in bed.
He didn’t have to answer to anybody, like most of the guys he knew, but he didn’t have anybody to talk to, either.
He wasn’t good at talking, anyway. What was there to talk about? At parties, what few he went to, he was always clumsy and lost. He never knew how to start a conversation. He didn’t know how to end one, either.
He hadn’t been good at school, but he hadn’t been lousy, either. He never had been involved in any extracurricular activities. He wasn’t any more anti-social than the next man, but he wasn’t exactly social, more queer duck than palsy-walsy.
He didn’t care about the small lives everyone led in the big city, doing the same thing every day. riding a bus, working in an office, or a store, or somebody else’s shop business making something. He didn’t care about what kids and their mothers did. Even though he worked at the ball park, and liked his job, he wondered what in the hell everyone was hollering about. He liked baseball, but it didn’t matter who won or lost. He liked the Brooklyn Dodgers best, but knew that the team could be in Milwaukee, or Los Angeles, and it would be the same team, and the fans hollering it up for them would be different fans but the same fans.
Luca Gravano, when he came down to the basement and invited him upstairs for dinner, was different than what Tony the Phil had imagined. He was big, but not as big as he thought he would be. He was a gangster, it was easy to tell, but he was affable and friendly. He didn’t seem dangerous. He didn’t seem notorious. He seemed to be sure of himself, sure, but that was natural.
“C’mon upstairs, Ma has a spread laid out next door, we can eat, you can relax, go for a walk around the neighborhood afterwards, get a good night’s sleep. We’ve got a bedroom for you. Ma made it up nice. She’ll bring soup up for you anytime you want.”
“I’m a little nervous,” said Tony
Something was wrong about being taken to a basement with a lion not twenty feet away, and Big Paulie, who he didn’t know from Adam, draping a beefy arm over his shoulders and giving him a warm smile.
Something was wrong. It was a soup sandwich.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Big Paulie.
“Why do you have a lion here in Brooklyn? He’s could be dangerous if he got out.”
“It’s a lioness, a she,” said Big Paulie. “Lucifer is just here to keep the rats away. Besides, she doesn’t know how to break out of her cage anymore.”
“Lucifer is a man’s name, it’s the devil’s name.”
“She’s a man-eater.”
“When can I get out of this basement? It’s clammy down here.”
“It’s just for a few hours,” said Big Paulie. “We’ll have you next door for dinner tonight, Ma is cooking something special, and tomorrow we’ll move you a couple of blocks down the street with some of the boys. Wednesday is the big day and you’ll be setting off the fireworks. It’s going to be a special day. Nobody will ever forget you after that.”
Tony the Phil liked the sound of that. Sometimes he thought he was invisible. At work, in the neighborhood, sometimes people didn’t notice he was right there, right next to them. They didn’t see him. He didn’t like that. He didn’t like it that other people thought he didn’t matter.
It was an hour or two or three, Tony de Marco couldn’t tell, he had forgotten his watch and couldn’t make sense of the time, when Luca Gravano came back, led him up out of the basement, and into the showroom of the Murphy Bed Company. The walls were lined with pull-down beds. A poster read “The Disappearing Bed.” There were some desks and chairs on the ground floor, and an arrangement of a sofa, armchairs, and a coffee table to one side. Luca led him to a side door, they stepped across a passageway between the store and a brownstone, and through another side door.
The house was the last in a row of townhouses. It was the color of cold sauce. They went up a set of stairs to the dining room above the parlor. The heavy dark table sat eight but was set for four. The head and foot of the table weren’t set. A young man sat at the table alone. His gun was flat on the table.
“This is my kid brother Frankie.”
Tony glanced down at the gun next to Frankie’s plate. A fork and knife were on the other side of the plate. The gun was Smith & Wesson “Military” model. It had a long barrel and a blue finish. Tony had seen them in Korea. Frankie was wearing a short-sleeve white shirt open at the neck. His holster was on the floor next to his chair.
“Everybody calls him Kid Blast,” said Big Paulie.
On the walls of the dining room were several photographs and paintings. There was a photograph of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and next to it a photograph of Fiorello La Guardia. There was a color photograph of Pope Pius XII. He wore a red cape and his hands were clasped over his stomach. He was a lean man with the thin face of a bookkeeper.
There was a framed painting of the Bay of Naples. The water was a bright mixed-up blue. The Roman emperor Caligula, insane and sickly, had once ordered a bridge of boats assembled across the bay so he could ride over the water in a chariot wearing the armor of Alexander the Great. If he had rocked the boats, he would have sunk straight to the bottom, not being able to stand on anybody’s shoulders.
“The thing that interests me is that today painters do not have to go to a subject-matter outside themselves. Modern painters work in a different way. They work from within,” said Jackson Pollack, down the drain and dead cold sober.
There was a framed painting of the Infant of Prague. The child was standing on a golden pedestal inscribed JHS – Jesus Savior of Mankind – wearing a red robe puffy sleeves puffy white collar a golden crown on top of golden curls and holding a golden orb, the globus cruciger.
“Honor this image and you shall never want” was written on a slip of paper and tucked into the bottom corner of the frame.
“The modern artist is living in a mechanical age and we have a mechanical means of representing objects in nature such as the camera and photograph,” said Jackson Pollack, packed up and eighty-sixed. “The modern artist, it seems to me, is working and expressing an inner world – in other words – expressing the energy, the motion and the other inner forces. The modern artist is working with space and time and expressing his feelings rather than illustrating.”
There was a large framed copy of Norman Rockwell’s “Progress?” Three boys plead with a construction crew, “Gee, mister, this is our baseball lot!” The man looking out from the seat of the digger back hoe looks bemused. The man with the shovel looks like he wants to agree with the boys.
Big Paulie looked at Tony the Phil looking at the painting.
“You like that one?” asked Luca.
“Yeah,” said Tony
“The important thing is that Clyff and Rothko and I – we’ve changed the nature of painting. I don’t mean there aren’t any other good painters. Bill is a good painter, but he’s a French painter. I told him so, the last time I saw him after his last show. all those pictures in his last show start with an image. You can see it even though he’s covered it up, or at least tried to. Style – that’s the French part of it. He has to cover it up with style,” Jackson Pollack said, done in and pushing up daisies.
Tony inhaled a waft of cheap after-shave. He wrinkled his nose.
“I like to stink myself up,” said Big Paulie.
The smell of homemade meatballs and spaghetti walked into the room. Raffaella Gravano carried a large platter, her arms bent at the elbow, back straight, and eyes on the table. She put the platter down. There was enough food on it to feed twice as many of them as there were.
Raffaella Gravano was a plain looking woman, short and stout, thick-set and thick-necked. Her face was small, but her eyes, nose, and chin were large, and her expression was expressionless. She had on a short-sleeved print dress cinched at the waist by a thin black belt, her breasts sagging into her stomach, her upper arms beefy, strong, an ugly scar on one of her forearms, and wearing a pair of simple sturdy comfortable black shoes.
She set the platter down on the table, brought glasses of ice and a pitcher of water, and a bottle of red wine.
“Eat, eat,” she said to Tony when he hesitated.
He didn’t have to be told twice. He was hungry. The meatballs were fresh hot delicious. They tasted like the meatballs his mother made when he was a kid, ground beef with pork, diced yellow onions and pressed fresh garlic, and made all by hand marinara sauce. The spaghetti was good. The bread was warm.
“Take that off the table, Frankie,” Raffaella said, nodding at Frankie’s gun.
“Sure, Ma,” said Kid Blast.
The men ate quietly, like wolves, not talking. Raffaella ate, too, but sitting up straight, enjoying savoring the taste of the food she had made, chewing the meatballs rather than gulping them down, drinking her wine like wine, not water.
“Is this wise?” she asked, nodding at Tony, when Big Paulie came up for air.
“It has to be, Ma,” he said.
“I understand,” she said.
Tony slowed down, winding down, finishing his plate, feeling full. There were no clocks in the room, but there was dusk in the windows. He drank some of the semi-sweet wine from his glass and smiled at Ma
“Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce, from near Sorbara,” she said.
“Oh, I see,” said Tony, not seeing much of anything.
“The wine is from there. They call it that because the grape clusters look like a sausage of salami. You like it?”
“Yes, and the meatballs, too, very much,” said Tony.
Raffaella turned to her son, Kid Blast.
“Frankie, did you remember to bring that leg of lamb home like I told you?”
“Oh, fuck, Ma, I forgot.”
“Watch your language.”
“I’m sorry Ma.’”
“What are we going to do about Lucifer tonight?” she asked. “You know what she’s like when her dinner is late.”
“What about him?” asked Frankie, pointing at Tony the Phil. “He’s got two legs. He could give one up, right? He only needs one leg to stand on to do whatever it is he’s going to do, am I right?”
“You’re right,” said Big Paulie. “But he’s got to get there first, to do what he has got to do, so he needs both legs for now. Maybe he’s the sacrificial lamb, I don’t know, but the boss wants him in one piece and on time for doing the contract, you got that?”
“OK, OK, don’t get on your high horse,” complained Kid Blast.
After the dishes were cleared, Luca and Tony went for a walk around, four blocks up and down and around, and around the neighborhood. They walked past bars, luncheonettes, restaurants, Italian cheese stores, barber shops, dairy stores, laundry shops, cut rate luggage stores, men’s wear, women’s wear, leather repair shops, candy cigar soda stands, and the New Deal Sales Company.
They passed a butcher shop that was closed with its lights on, the butcher wrapping up ten pounds of top round for Frankie Gravano. He waved and gave them a thumbs up when he saw them through the window, pantomiming carefully feeding Lucifer her late dinner.
They turned the corner.
“What’s a sacrificial lamb?” asked Tony.
“You don’t want to know, kid,” said the big bad wolf. “You don’t want to know.”
Even though Mr. Moto didn’t know how to think, he did a lot of thinking. There was no sense of getting on the wrong side of “I think, therefore I am.” He sat on the platform of the fire escape, looking out onto Hell’s Kitchen and wondered, why is there something rather than nothing?
There was a lot of everything in New York City, as far as he could see. It was true he slept more than not, sometimes sixteen hours a day, but between sitting around in windows on stoops on the roof and prowling the land, he saw enough. Where did it all come from? Where was it all going? What was it all about?
“To be or not to be.” Was that what it was all about? Was it all just something and not nothing and never mind the complications? It was the simplest explanation, and the one he liked the most, but there was something about it that nagged him. He never knew his dad, but he remembered his mom. That was where he came from. Everything had to come from something, right?
As far as he could tell, even though he couldn’t read, there were five key concepts that philosophy revolved around, language, knowledge, truth, being, and good. He couldn’t talk, so it got whittled down to four in his world. The truth was always up for grabs, leaving three. He knew good and evil when he saw it. There was no need wasting time arguing what was right and wrong.
When it came to knowledge, he knew what he knew. “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” That left being, and being a cat, he was solid with that concept. He was always being, no matter what he was doing. That’s what life was all about.
It was about eating, too. He was a stickler for clean water in his bowl, refreshed every day. He got cross if it was stale. Stan gave him canned fish in the morning, he ate all of it every day, and the rest of the day nibbled on dry food.
Mr. Moto didn’t like “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates was full of bull. If what he said was true, most life of all kinds wasn’t worth living. Who had the time to look inward all the time?
He never examined his own life. He didn’t know a single other cat, nor had he ever heard of any cat, who did. He didn’t believe most if any animals ever did. He didn’t think many people did, either, at least not in his neck of the woods. Who was Socrates to say their lives weren’t worth living? No wonder they poisoned him when they got the chance.
He didn’t like Kant, either. The man could never just come out and say what he meant. “A categorical imperative would be one which represented an action as objectively necessary in itself, without reference to any other purpose.” What did that even mean?
He thought it might mean something like, it is never right to lie, for example. Should that idea be universally applied? If everybody lied, trust would disappear, so lying is wrong in all cases. What a lot of more bull! Kant was worse than even Socrates. Mr. Moto distrusted almost everybody, and it stood him in good stead. He was willing and able to lie to anybody he didn’t trust. Whatever works was his motto.
His number one goal was survival. “We must all cultivate our own wisdom.” Voltaire was more like it.
He was taking the air on the fire escape, wrought iron stairs bolted to the front of the building. It was where he did his best thinking. It was also where he stayed abreast of the street’s comings and goings. The World Series, whatever that was, was on everybody’s lips. It wes starting tomorrow. He had heard Dottie saying she was going to be on the moving picture box, talking to one of the big men, although he was a small man. Somebody sitting on the stoop next door was reading Sports Illustrated. Micky Mantle was on the cover.
When he looked down at the sunlight pavement, watching Dottie come out the front door and start off to school, he didn’t like what he saw. A black 1955 Chevrolet panel truck was parked at the curb. Two men in dark suits, wearing fedoras pulled down over their eyes, were getting out of the truck They weren’t in the trades, that was for sure.
When they blocked Dottie’s way and reached for her, clamping a sweet-smelling wet handkerchief over her mouth, Mr. Moto sprang up and raced down the steps of the fire escape. He whirled on the sidewalk and ran at the struggle, Dottie kicking furiously at the men, leapt over the back of the man holding her from behind, over her head, and on to the face of the impassive man facing him. The man screamed as Mr. Moto raked his face with his claws.
“Hey, what’s going on?” Sports Illustrated on the stoop yelled, standing up.
The bad man squinting grabbed at the cat, got purchase and flung him away. Blood gushed from his face and one eye. Mr. Moto pivoted and went at him again, coming up short on his chest, and grabbing digging in at the man’s lapels. The man flung him off, bellowing. The cat landed on all fours.
Dottie went limp from the chloroform on the kerchief and the men dragged her to the back of the panel truck, tossing her inside, and slamming the doors shut. An empty bottle of Sneaky Pete fell onto the gutter. Mr. Moto went after them but had to dodge bullets from the soon-to-be-Scarface, and dashed behind a trash can, more bullets ripping through the thin metal and ricocheting off concrete.
The man on the stoop threw himself flat, cradling his head with his arms.
When the truck started pulling away, heads appearing in windows, and shouts that it was gunfire not backfire, he ran after it. When he jumped at one of the rear wheels, hoping to puncture it, all he got for his efforts was two ripped-out claws and bruised ribs when he was flung off the spinning burning rubber.
He looked up at the disappearing truck and instantly memorized the license plate number. Back on the sidewalk he pulled a scrap of paper from the overturned trash can close to himself and wrote the letters and numbers on it in his own blood. Even though he didn’t know how to write, he could recreate symbols. He didn’t know what the symbols meant, but they had to mean something.
He heard a whistle. A patrolman was running up the sidewalk. A woman was yelling out her window, “They grabbed the Riddman girl!”
“I don’t know, two guys were dragging her. She looked like she was knocked out. They threw her into their truck and raced away.”
“Did you see their faces?”
“How about the plates?”
“Which way did they go?”
It wasn’t any better sledding with anybody else. Everybody had seen what happened, but nobody knew what the trail looked like. The patrolman wrote down what he heard and waited for the plainclothes car.
Mr. Moto felt bad. If he wanted to be honest with himself, he felt horrible. He had stanched the bleeding by licking his paw, but he was having a hard time breathing. When he tried to walk, he felt like he had strained a tendon or a ligament or some damned thing in his right back leg. He knew what he was made of but didn’t know the made-up names of the pieces. He limped when he got going. There wasn’t any way he was going to be able to get up the wood trim to the awning to the second-floor platform and back to the open window of the apartment. He waited at the front door until the woman in 2A came running out, slipped into the entrance foyer, and through the quietly closing inner door.
He dragged himself up to the fourth floor, to the hallway window, and gingerly hopped up on the sill. He went out to the fire escape and back into the apartment through their living room window.
The apartment was a living room dining room kitchen and two bedrooms. He went to his water bowl first, caught his breath, and lapped up enough to slake his dry mouth. He limped to Dottie’s room, stopping inside the door to catch his breath again. His chest hurt. He clawed his way up onto the bed, let the scrap of paper fall from his mouth, and fell into a dreamless sleep.
“For you,” said Bettina, frowning, putting her hand over the handset. “He said it was about Dottie and you would want to talk to him.”
“I don’t think so, didn’t say, doesn’t sound like it.”
“Young or old?”
Stan glanced at his watch and noted the time. “Listen in Betty.” He picked up his receiver.
“This is Stan Riddman,” he said cold flat indifferent.
“We’ve got the girl,” the voice on the other end said.
“Why do you want her?”
“We want you to take the cure for the next couple of days, put everything on hold, don’t do nothing about nothing. You do that you get the girl back. You don’t do that you don’t ever see the girl again.”
“Where is she?”
The phone went dead.
“Somebody’s got Dottie.”
“Why? What we’re doing?”
“They didn’t say, not exactly. They want me to sit on my hands for a few days, don’t do anything, and I’ll get her back. Or else. It’s got to be. Nothing else is going on except the Jackson Pollack business. Goddamn it!”
“What are you going to do?”
Stan stood up and went into the utility room. He spun the combination on the office safe and removed two Colt .45 pistols. They were Colt Commander models, aluminum framed, with a short barrel and rounded hammers. The plastic grips were brown. The guns were unloaded. He put four 7-round magazines in his pockets.
“Get hold of Ezra, tell him what’s going on, that I’ve got our handguns, and to meet me at the house. If I’m not there, I’ll be talking to the neighbors, tell him to find me, the sooner the better.”
She didn’t ask if she should call the police. She knew better than that. This had nothing to do with them, even though they would probably have to clean up the consequences afterwards.
“They’re dead men,” Stan said.
There were two beat cops, a radio car, and a plainclothes car on the street when Stan’s taxi eased up to his walk-up.
“We don’t know much,” one of the dicks said. “Lots of people saw it happen, but nobody saw anything useful, except that there were two of them and they drove a black panel truck.”
“Thanks,” Stan said, and walked up to the apartment. It was neat and clean, the windows open, fresh autumn air cooling the rooms. He walked into Dottie’s room and saw Mr. Moto lying in a heap on the bed. There was blood on the bedspread. The cat lifted his head and Stan saw the blood was from his paw. When he touched the cat, he hissed. Stan could see his breathing was wheezy fast. Then he saw the scrap of paper and the letters and numbers scrawled in it. When he picked it up, he knew Mr. Moto had made the message with his bloody paw and it was the license plate number of the black truck.
Stan got a bowl of milk and crumbled up a chunk of tuna, put it in the milk, and placed the bowl on the bed.
“Ezra and I will take it from here,” he said to Mr. Moto. “You stay here and take care of yourself.”
The cat eased himself over to the bowl and lapped up milk, nibbled at the tuna, and went back to sleep, curling into a haphazard ball.
By the time Ezra came through the front door, Stan had the address the truck was registered to and was sitting in an armchair waiting for him. They talked it over for a minute and five minutes later were in a cab. Stan gave the cabbie an address in Gravesend three blocks away from where they were going.
It was a single-family house that had been converted into a two-family house. There were shabby bushes on both sides of the concrete front porch. The only anything in the drive was a black panel truck. There were closed blinds in every window.
“I make them on the ground floor, in case they have to leave quick,” Ezra said. “If they were upstairs, they might get stuck.”
“You take the back door,” Stan said. “I’ll go in through the front. The doors will be locked, maybe chained. When you hear me shoot into the lock, you do the same, kick out the chain, go head over heels.”
The two men, one of them his face gauzed and red slathered in iodine, barely had time to lunge up from the card table they were sitting at, reaching for their heat, when Stan and Ezra stopped them breakneck.
“Throw them on the floor in front of you and kick slide them to me.”
The men did as they were told. One of the guns was an Orbea Hermanos, a Spanish handgun, a Smith & Wesson copycat. It was a piece of junk. The other one was a Smith & Wesson Centennial. Stan kicked the Orbea under the sofa. He picked up the Centennial, opened the cylinder, saw it was loaded, put his Colt .45 away, and trained the Smith & Wesson on the men.
“Both of you on your knees, hands behind your backs,” Stan said. “Where is she?”
“Who the fuck is where fuckface” iodine face asked.
Stan whirled and shot him twice in the chest, the two shots following so fast upon the other it sounded like one gunshot. The man toppled backward, surprised astonished the sneer still on his lips, seconds from dying, which he did when he hit the floor, a puddle of blood forming under him, the two holes in his chest slowly steadily oozing.
“Jesus Christ!” the other man blurted, jumping to his feet, crazy to run.
Ezra clubbed him on the back of the head with the butt of his sidearm and the man went down moaning, still conscious, but a concussion in the making.
“I said, where is she?”
Stan jerked the moaning man’s head up by a handful of slicked-back hair. He held tight, shaking the man’s greasy head. Brown spittle ran down his chin. His eyes started to focus.
“Last time, or you join your friend,” Stan said.
“Not my friend,” he mumbled.
“I’m not asking for explanations. Where is she?”
“At Luca’s place.”
“What place is that?”
“The house, next to the mattress shop.
“I don’t know the address.”
“Let’s go, you can show us.”
“Luca will kill me if he sees me.”
“You’ve got the brain of a crayon. I’m ready to kill you here and now.”
“My head hurts bad.”
Stan wiped the handle of the Smith & Wesson clean and threw it to the side.
“Where are the keys?”
Ezra felt for the keys with the toe of his shoe probing the dead man’s pockets.
“I’ve got them,” he said.
Ezra drove the panel truck, the hoodlum in the passenger seat, and Stan crouching behind his seat, the barrel of his Commander pressing into the back of the man’s neck. The man was tied up at the wrists and ankles.
“Slow down and don’t slam into any potholes,” Stan said to Ezra.
“Business is booming,” said Mario Pugo at Always Tire Service on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. “They’re good for my business but they’re bad for my customers. I repair blown tires and bent rims daily. One customer, he picked up his repaired car and drove straight into another pothole. He was back in five minutes.”
“You know how this gun is, loose as a goose. It could go off any second.”
The man in the passenger seat stiffened. The truck hit a pothole and staggered. Stan kept a grip on the man, his hand tight on his shoulder. The Colt .45 stayed quiet.
The man told them the store was a front, there was a lion in the basement, a steel door at the side led into the house, the brothers might or might not be there, but the mother was always there.
“She’s more them than all of them,” he said.
When Ezra drove past the Murphy Bed store across the street, up tight against a three-story brick house, Stan threw it a glance. Ezra shifted into third, turned the corner, and found an alley. He parked and Stan dragged the wrongdoer into the back of the truck, found a pile of oily rags, stuffed one into the man’s mouth, gagged him to make sure, blindfolded him, and tied two together to tie him tight to a u-bolt.
“He might have trouble breathing,” Ezra said.
“That’s not my problem,” Stan said.
Going in the door Stan and Ezra had their handguns in their hands their arms down at their sides. They moved slowly, but once they stepped across the threshold, they moved fast. Ezra flipped the open sign the other way, stayed at the door, his back to it, and Stan strode straight to the only man in the store, sitting behind a desk at the back of the store.
He was a big man. It was Big Paulie.
“Don’t,” Stan said. “I won’t stand for it.”
Big Paulie crept the top drawer he had been sliding open back closed.
“Get up, come around to the front of the desk, rest your ass on it, and talk like I’m a customer looking for a better night’s sleep.”
“The big sleep is what you’ll be getting,” Luca hissed.
“Shut up. I would just as soon finish you and walk away, but I want my girl back. Where is she?”
“You don’t know what you’re getting mixed up in.”
“I don’t know, and I don’t care. I want my girl. Where is she?”
When Kid Blast came through the side door briskly confident smug, he saw the two guns first, then the two men, and could have killed himself for not bringing a weapon with him. He could have killed himself for not whirling and running, although that would have gotten him killed.
“Next to the fat man,” Ezra said. “Same rules.”
Kid Blast joined Big Paulie, the young man’s face twisted, hate in the black of his eyes. There was a roar suddenly behind the back door, underneath them, followed by a loud yawn. It was Big Paulie’s lion, the beast he kept in the basement to preserve order in his world. Nobody moved, nobody looked anywhere else but where they had been looking. Stan took a few steps back, the better to train his sidearm on both gangsters.
“Check the cat out,” he said. “Be careful
Ezra opened the back door gently and immediately stepped back, forced back by the rancid smell. He flipped the light switch and looked into the gloom, trying not to breath too much. There was hay all over, a large cage, and a skinny-looking tired-looking sad-looking lion in the cage.
“She doesn’t look like much, like she needs a few square meals and some fresh air. They’ve got a wire contraption beside the light switch, so they can open and close the cage from up here.”
Stan stepped up to Kid Blast and hit him hard in the face with the butt of his Colt. It broke the young man’s jaw, some teeth, and laid him flat. Stan grabbed him by the scruff and threw down the stairs. He sprang the cage door open and slammed the basement door shut, locking it with the skeleton key that was in the lock.
“Last time big man or you’re next. Where’s my girl?”
“Upstairs,” said Big Paulie.
Stan didn’t bother asking if where how anybody else was in the house.
“Sit down, anybody comes in tell them to come back, no more, no less,” Ezra said, seating himself at a table to the side, his gun nonchalant in his lap. “I don’t like what you did to me, so don’t tempt me with any monkey business.”
Stan stepped into the house, up three steps, and into a dining room. To his left was a kitchen, to his right a living room, foyer, and stairs leading to the second floor. He knew the mother was in the house, maybe more of her sons, and for sure somebody keeping the clamps on Dottie. He went up the stairs soundlessly. He smelled garlic seeping out from under one of the bedroom doors. A brown house spider made his way up on the edge of the door frame. He watched the spider until it stopped. They both waited.
Stan took a step, took a deep breath, and burst into the room.
A middle-aged woman in a black apron was feeding soup to Dottie, whose hands were free, but not free enough to throw hot soup in anybody’s face. The hand on the spoon was Raffaella Gravano’s hand. The gunman was Italian, like the woman, but not one of the sons. He had the face of a ferret, not the face of family. He was sitting in a chair next to the bed, and the instant he saw Stan he grabbed Dottie. The bowl of soup tipped and spilled all over the mattress. He lunged to his feet, Dottie held in front of him, a gun at her temple.
“Drop the piece or the girl dies.”
Stan lifted his gun, sighting it.
“Put the gun down, or you go down.”
“No, I’ve got the upper hand, you lay your hand down.”
“You’ve got a losing hand. I can make another girl, but nobody is ever making another one of you,” Stan said, his firearm pointed at the man’s forehead.
“Is that some kind of weird joke?”
When Stan shot and the bullet zipped whooshing past the man’s face so close to him he could feel the heat of it smell the burnt powder, and slammed into the plaster wall, everyone in the room couldn’t hear a thing in the next instant except the echo of the boom. The two men kept their heads, hands tense on their gun handles.
“And you,” Stan said to the woman, “sit down on the bed, don’t move.” She sat down. “Turn so I can see your hands.” She turned slightly, her hands in her lap.
“Whatever you’re thinking, stop thinking it.”
He jabbed his eyes back at the man.
“Make up your mind.”
The man hesitated.
“Never get into a card game with the devil,” Stan said. “He will always deal you a bad hand.”
The man wavered, but lowered his gun, Dottie ran to Stan, grabbing at him, crying.
“You should be ashamed of yourself, taking a kid for a hostage,” he said to Ma Gravano. “Tear that bed sheet into strips.”
They waited while the woman did what she was told.
“Stand outside the door, honey,” he said to Dottie prying her off of him. He hog-tied the gunman and Ma Gravano, leaving them on the floor, slamming the door behind him.
Down the stairs and through the house, keeping his daughter behind him, when he and Dottie stepped past the open steel door into the mattress shop, Ezra was alone.
“When I asked the big man who it was that we threw down into the basement, he said it was his younger brother. I thought he wouldn’t mind being his brother’s keeper, so I sent him down to join the family. The cat is harmless, anyway. It’s missing most of its teeth.”
They left the store by the front door, walked to the alley, and rolled the tied-up man out the back door of the panel truck. Ezra found a scrap of paper in the glove box. He wrote “I KIDNAP CHILDREN FOR A LIVING” on the paper and thumb-tacked it to the man’s chest. When they drove away a mongrel dog trotted up and sniffed at him. When they spotted another alley, they abandoned the truck, wiping it clean, and hailed a cab on the street.
Dottie curled up in Stan’s warm embrace.
“How did you find me so fast?”
“Mr. Moto got the license plate number of the guys who grabbed you, and the rest was easy enough, once we knew where to go to find you.”
“I saw him try to get at them, but it was two against one, and then they were shooting at him, and I was being gassed, and that’s all I remember. I woke up in that bed and the old lady came in with soup and then there you were. Dad, dad, I’m so glad, so happy you found me,” she said, squeezing him tight, crying again, a flood of tears.
When they got back to Hell’s Kitchen, wending up to the apartment, Dottie ran into her bedroom, and threw herself on her bed next to Mr. Moto. She reached for him. Startled, the cat jumped to the floor, looked at the girl, arched his back, yawned, and walked out of the room.
“Where is everybody?” Carnellia asked herself.
Nobody was in the house, nobody was in the store, nobody was nowhere. After a day and night of persuading herself to visit, there wasn’t anybody at home. She grew up in the brownstone. That never happened.
“Ma are you here?” she called out again.
No answer again, even though the kitchen felt and smelled warm. The house felt like somebody was somewhere, but it was dusty quiet like an old book nobody read anymore.
She heard a thump. She stopped and listened. When she heard another thump, she walked up the stairs, checking the bedrooms. When she went into her old bedroom, she saw her mother, hog-tied on the ground, thumping the floor with her blocky black shoes.
“Ma! What happened?”
She worked at the knots, then ran down to the kitchen, grabbed a cook’s knife, and ran back upstairs. She sliced through the cotton fabric freeing her mother hands and feet.
“It was your brother. Where is he?”
“Luca tied you up?”
“No, no, but it was his doing.”
“Who is this?” Carnellia asked, pointing to the man on the floor.
Raffaella stepped over and kicked him.
“That’s for not shooting that son of a bitch when you had the chance.”
She kicked him again, hard.
“And that’s for laying your hands on an innocent girl.”
“What’s going on? What son of a bitch? What innocent girl?”
“That man must have done something to him and Frankie,” Raffaella said, leaving the room.
“What about him?”
“Leave him,” she said, stamping down the stairs.
They both heard the banging on the basement door as soon as they stepped into the bed store.
“Who’s in there?” Raffaella demanded
“Ma, it’s me and Frankie. Unlock the door.”
“Your sister is here.”
“Tell her to leave and when she’s gone unlock the door,” Big Paulie said.
“You won’t talk to your own sister?”
“You know how I feel about that ma.”
‘Then you and Frankie can stay down there in the dark.”
“Ma, ma,” yelled Frankie. “It’s Luca, not me, he hates her. I love Carnellia, let me out of here.”
“You and Luca think things over. I’ll come back later tonight.”
She made sure the store was locked up tight and the lights off, secured the metal door, and the two women went back into the house.
“What’s going on?” Carnellia asked her mother when they were sitting at the kitchen table, having coffee and biscotti.
“Your big brother is doing something for Albert, something big, and part of it was kidnapping a little girl. He brought her here, the fool, and asked me to watch her. He left a man, the one who’s tied up, and I was feeding her soup when what I think is her father busted in. Our man had the girl, a bullet at her head, but the father said he didn’t care, he could make another daughter, but if he shot her, he was a dead man the next instant, and nobody was going to make another one of him ever again.”
“Her father said that?”
“Yes, and he said he’d shoot him some more when he was dead, so the devil wouldn’t have any doubt he was getting the right man.”
“What kind of a man would say something like that about his own child?”
“A heartless man,” said Raffaella. “But the girl didn’t seem to take it the wrong way, she just stood there, until Luca’s stupid got the shakes and put his gun down.”
Raffaella and her husband Luigi didn’t come to the United States at the turn of the century, when most of the Italians in New York City showed up. They weren’t birds of passage, either, planning on working hard, saving every penny, and going back home, re-establishing themselves with some land and a better house and a wad under the mattress. Luigi Gravano didn’t work in construction building roads bridges subways and sewers. Raffaella didn’t work as a seamstress They didn’t peddle bread in the street. They made it on the make. I
After the war times were tough in the south of Italy. All the industry was up north. There were few jobs and few prospects. The dockyard owners on the east coast encouraged immigration, one way or the other. They got their labor cheap and tied it up until the working men could repay the passage. After that many of them stayed on the docks. It was all they knew.
Luigi worked the docks where plenty of young Italian men worked informally illegally as longshoremen at the city’s coastal ports. He helped them get work, for a cut, and helped steal freight, for a cut. When their boys grew up, they got into the trade with their old man. When Luigi was shot and killed fighting over a bone of contention, Luca became the family point man. Frankie stayed the loose cannon. The other boys didn’t give lip and there wasn’t a peep from Carnellia.
Luca “Big Paulie” Gravano knew a good thing when he saw one.
“What is Albert up to?”
“I don’t know, Luca didn’t say, not exactly. It has something to do with the World Series. Somebody is going to get killed, but why they would do it in such a public place, I don’t know. I have a bad feeling about it. The little girl gave me the evil eye. That was bad. And her father, if looks could kill, I wouldn’t be here talking to you. I don’t like it happening in our house. Your father would never have allowed it. What happened out there stayed out there. It never came in here.”
She had never stopped missing her husband. He four sons were standing on the shoulders of a giant. Luigi always knew in a minute what they spent days figuring out.
“Stay for a little dinner,” she said.
“All right, ma, I will.”
Although many people in New York City went to their kitchens to feed the cat and dog, that was about all the cooking they knew or did. Raffaello Gravano wasn’t like that. She had fed the family starting with Luigi, then Luca, then the rest of the four newer kids. She still fed the boys every day, unless they had gone to the mattresses.
She got a big pot, poured water into it, and put it on the stove. She believed in having a big enough pot so the pasta could roll around in the water while cooking. She made her own spaghetti.
Earlier in the year the NY Times had reported about factory made pizza. “In New Jersey a belt-line assembles pizza as if they were General Motors tanks. Dough shell goes on the line, plop goes cheese, squirt goes tomato sauce, shake goes oregano, plastic wrapper enfolds, label stamps, boxed, next.”
Raffaella made her own pizza andnever bought pizza from Nino Food Products in Newark, New Jersey, or anywhere else. She suspected there wasn’t anybody named Nino. She was sure there was a company called Food Products. She didn’t buy unassembled pizza, either, the kind that was a fill up package containing the flour mixture, yeast, and sauce with cheese in an envelope.
She made her own from scratch, made the sauce, rolled out the pie, grated the cheese, and sliced the pepperoni. Sometimes she added pesto and pistachios. She had tried mac and cheese on pizza, but it was too much.
When Kraft introduced their mac and cheese in a box twenty years earlier, she fed it to the kids every day. It was quick and easy and fed four for twenty cents. But after fifty or sixty dinners in a row the children started to protest, and when Luigi took their side, she put her apron back on.
“How is everything in the village?” Raffaella asked her daughter.
“Good, ma, I like it a lot. There’s some great home-style eating there.”
“Nothing like my food is home-style outside of my home.”
Raffaella had not seen the Look Magazine article with pictures showing how to eat pizza correctly. “Pizza pie has become an American citizen, here to stay,” the story said. If she had seen the article she would have said, “I’m an American citizen and I been staying here for more than thirty years.”
While she waited for the water to boil, she got the oven lit. She picked up one of the two old loaves of bread from the counter and started tearing cubes out of it by hand. She tore them all the same so the croutons would cook evenly. She tossed them into a bowl as she went and when it was full drizzled the chunks with olive oil and tossed it. She spread the croutons in a single layer on a baking sheet and put them into the oven They would need flipping over halfway through the baking and watching for the crispiness. She didn’t like her croutons to get too brown.
“Are you still living alone?”
“Yes, mother, I’ll let you know when the big day shows up.”
“Don’t get smart-alecky with me.”
“Sorry, ma, but you know I still live alone on 8th, all alone.”
“Do you ever see the diamond man?”
“Oh, yeah, not every day, but we run into each other all the time.”
Carnellia lived in a 3rd floor apartment next to Sam Kramer’s jewelry shop. “I was even one of his Space Girls this summer, filling in for a girl who got sick.”
“He hires out pretty girls, dresses them all in black, with a cape and a helmet that look like a space helmet, hangs his jewelry around their necks, and they ride around town on a scooter showing it off.”
Sam Kramer worked with silver and gold and gems. He made a good living and paid his rent. He and his wife and their two children lived upstairs. He was best known, though, for making jewelry out of glass eyes, moose teeth, porcupine quills, old shoe buttons, and pieces of quartz. When he got inspired, he added rare hardwoods, ancient coins, and fossilized sea insects.
He got written up the year before. Some museums and university art galleries started exhibiting his work. When a friend of his took a finger ring he made to a museum curator, and asked if it were “Egyptian or Etruscan,” the curator said, “Unquestionably Etruscan.”
“Don’t go fast on those things,” Rafaella said. “You’ll kill yourself falling off. Then they’ll steal the scooter and you’ll have to take the subway home. The trains are dirty and there are dirty men on them.”
Carnellia didn’t tell her mother about going barefoot in Washington Square, listening to Ramlin’ Jack Elliott there, drinking cheap wine on the sly in the daytime listening to him trying out his new songs.
“Well, I fills up my hat brim, drunk a sweet taste, thought about the river going to waste, thought about the dust, thought ’bout the sand, thought about the people, thought ’bout the land, ever’body running round all over creation, just looking for some kind of a little place.”
While the pasta was cooking Rafaella sauteed garlic and onion in a pan, browned a small portion of beef, gave it all a good stir, and let it simmer. She brought a bottle of Chianti Spolveri snuggled in straw to the table and poured half a water glass for herself and half that for her daughter.
“Ma, I’m not a little girl anymore,” Carnellia said and topped off her glass.
“If you’re so grown up what are you doing living with riff raff and beatniks?”
She wasn’t ready to talk back to her mother, but she thought it was nutty when a crime boss mother looked down on bohemians as beneath her.
“Have dinner ready, prepare yourself, prepare the children, minimize all noise, be happy to see him, listen to him, make the evening his,” is what Carnellia had read in the “Home Economics High School Textbook” when she was in high school. Keep the house, make the meals, do the dishes and laundry, take care of the kids, and stay gay and gorgeous on top of it. She wasn’t going to have it, not if she could help it. She wanted to stay Carnellia Gravano, and in the meantime find out who she wanted to be, not who everybody else was.
Even Grace Kelly when she got married six months ago all of a sudden became Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco. The Kelly part of her went out the window, even though her family paid two million in dowry to the Prince of Monaco.
It didn’t surprise the Gravano family, since they knew in a hearsay way the prince’s mother was romantically involved with the jewel thief Rene the Cane. The “Wedding of the Century” already looked pregnant. Rainier Louis Henri Maxence Bertrand Grimaldi had made short work of it.
Carnellia wasn’t willing to face high noon at the altar.
“Have you made any plans besides going to school part-time and working part-time and whatever else you do part-time? You’re going to turn into an old maid before you know it.”
“I’m not getting married this minute, ma, and that’s final.”
Getting married and having children was the number one to-do list for girls. The marriage rate was at an all-time high. Everybody either already had kids or were busy making kids. The family was what made Americans better than Commies, whose mothers all worked in tractor factories while their children spent the day in concrete bunker day cares. Home and hearth were what mattered.
They ate their Spaghetti Bolognese and drank Chianti and talked about yesterday and the day before. Robert Wagner the city’s mayor was on the cover of Time Magazine. Robert Moses had gotten the cops to push six women away from a project of his near Central Park West. They insisted the play space was needed by their children. The International Longshoremen were threating to go out on strike since their contract had expired on Sunday. Jacob Javits, the Attorney General, was making noises that a walkout might imperil the national safety and health.
“Hah!” barked Ma Gravano.
Lucy and Desi were in town to promote the sixth season of “I Love Lucy.” In a comedy sketch on “The Ed Sullivan Show” Lucy pretended to believe she and Desi would be appearing on Edward Murrow’s “Person to Person” instead of The Great Stone Face Show. The next day Little Ricky made his debut. He was a smash.
“What about Luca and Frankie?” asked Carnellia, stacking the dishes in the sink, making ready to go home to Greenwich Village.
Raffaella picked up the second loaf of stale bread and poured a pitcher of water. “Bring two glasses and a bowl.” They walked into the bed store and across to the basement door. Raffaella unlocked it and put the bread and water down on the narrow landing.
“Here’s your supper,” she said looking down on her two sons at the bottom of the stairs. “I’ll be back tomorrow, maybe I’ll bring some antipasto and fresh bread, and maybe I will let you out on Thursday morning when this is all over. And keep that lion quiet. If I get another bad night’s sleep, I swear I won’t be back.”
She turned the lock on the two bad boys and went to an early bed.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus