There were those that said Junior was never the same once he got back from Korea. Just as many said he wasn’t the same before he left.
Junior lived a few short blocks from Buck Wilson who left town after high school at his country’s behest to walk point in Vietnamese jungles for two years. It was a job with severely limited prospects. Now, some years later, Buck was a big, gentle guy who delivered appliances for Sears. He’d catch himself crying at the coffee shop now and again-Buck never drank-but that was about it. Except for he hated trees or any place where he couldn’t see everything within a hundred meters all round. Among his favorite spots were the parking lot at Sears before it opened and drive-in theaters before any cars got there.
One time a lady friend asked him for a ride to visit her daughter out near Frick Park in Pittsburgh, with its towering oaks and sycamores. He sweated in the cooling shade then, to be accommodating, took a walk with the ladies and the daughter’s dog along the park. He hesitated but a moment when the women veered down a path into the woods, the dog nosing a squirrel. He followed, dragging his feet as through sand. The humid Pittsburgh summer had raised a riot of thick green on both sides of the trail: rhododendrons, laurel, sumac and jagger bushes that closed, reached and grasped. The women stopped when they realized they were alone and back tracked to find Buck frozen in place vibrating like a tuning fork. They gently turned him and let the dog lead them back to the road.
Afterward with the women in the kitchen, Buck took his coffee to the porch and never once took his eyes off the treeline.
Bob knew enough people with enough history. Christ Almighty, his own Uncle Nick had been a prisoner of the Germans in World War Two. So he really didn’t care how many Junior had killed in Korea, somewhere between none and a hundred depending on how high he was when he was telling the story and who was listening.. Bob’s concern was who Junior might kill now. Or had killed recently and how to keep it from blowing back on him and his.
Billy Ragg hurried up the street both hands shoved deeply into the pockets of his unlined leather coat. Back in June, when he’d stolen it, the coat had been real sharp-worth about two hundred bucks. Wasn’t worth a shit today what with winter deciding to blow in a couple of months early. Moving kept him warm. He only slowed to adjust the pistol in the belt at the small of his back. It seemed like a good way to carry it-nobody could see it-but it was uncomfortable as hell. Felt like it was going to fall down his pants.
He was going to have to get himself a new coat. Something for winter. It was easy enough. Dress nice, go into some happy hour bar, order a beer or two and scope the place like you wanted to hit on somebody but just keep on the lookout for a coat or jacket tossed over a chair or some such. That nobody was keeping tabs on. Hang out long enough you can usually find one that almost fit. Wait for the guy to take a piss to try to chase down a lady and walk off with it. Just walk. Smooth and cool, like it was yours. Plenty of time to run, if you had to, when you hit the street. That was the kind of small-time shit he wanted to put behind him. After today he’d be able to buy anything he wanted.
He stopped at the corner of Van Braam and Wharton and looked up the street toward the Showboat. It was a little after noon and the matinee crowd was probably just getting settled. A bracer would help. Not much, it’s not like he wanted to sit in there and drink the day away. Not today. Just something sweet to push this friggin’ cold out and a couple of beers to pry his tongue from the roof of his mouth. It would settle him for what was coming. For a moment he actually leaned in the Boat’s direction then remembered that his hands were the only things in his pockets. He grudgingly turned away then hustled shivering, down toward the river.
He didn’t see anyone he knew. Seemed that the population down here on the ward turned completely every couple of months. Here and there was somebody familiar, but only because he’d seen them hanging around the last time he came down. Not because he knew their names or ever spoke to them. If it was a little warmer he would probably have had to nod to someone that knew him in passing but the cold front had moved most of the derelicts under cover for awhile. That was fine with him. He liked the anonymity of this end of town. It wasn’t like the old days, scoring down on Walnut Street when he was the only white guy for blocks.
He stepped into a doorway across from Geezer’s building and tightened his belt a notch wincing at the .38 dug into his spine. He was looking up at the fourth floor winder where geezer lived and not paying attention to the street so he missed the blue Chevy that stopped about a half block away.
“What’s he doing down here, ya think?”
Connie didn’t answer right off, his eyes on his quarry, trying to get a handle on what he was up to. Ragg was a real gem. Connie had played high school football with him twelve , fifteen years ago. One helluva lineback with no more brains that a side of beef. After a couple of junior colleges gave up on him he came home to settle into the life of a small town hustler. Mostly petty stuff, some strong arm work. Nothing major. Ragg got into the kinds of shit that Connie wouldn’t mess with except for slow days when there was nothing else to do. Like today.
“Doesn’t that guy…big spook…Geezer something or other, live down here somewhere?”
Jimmy Proffo took one hand off the steering wheel and pointed across the street. “Fourth floor, corner apartment. Busted him for grass coupla years ago. Deals some. Mostly grass, some coke. You think that’s what your friend’s after?”
“Dunno. Why don’t you let me get in the backseat then pull up. Have a talk with him.”
He rolled down the window as Proffo pulled the car up to where Billy was standing in a doorway. “Hey Sunshine”, he called out, “You’re outta your neighborhood, ain’t you?”
Billy Ragg was never known for his quick wit but immediately upon realizing he had let the cops walk right up on him,his brain pounded out a chorus of “For Christ’s sake! How in hell could this happen? What the fuck does that pinhead Connie Rucker want with me? Since he busted me he thinks he’s my caseworker! Not now! I don’t want to talk about no old football games or shit like that now. Son of a BITCH!”
That was what he thought. All he could think to say was “Hey Connie.”
“What the hell brings you down here?”
“Just a change of scene, Con man. Shit up the ‘Boat gets old after awhile, you know?”
“Shit up the ‘Boat gets old after ten minutes. But here? What’s here?”
“Don’t know yet. Just starting to know the place, you know? New scene. Used to be a pool hall down here. Little this and that.”
Connie gave him The Face. Like a doctor needs a bedside manner all cops need a Face. He’d perfected his years ago where everything above his neck goes frozen-dead-just like gray stone while his eyes burn with something that he thought approached menace. The first couple of years when he was putting it together it didn’t always work. It took alot of practice-in the mirror, on chicks, other cops, juevies-until it became something he could throw out and actually use to some effect. Let people know he meant business.
Jesus Christ, thought Ragg, now he’s throwin’ that stupid fuckin’ look at me. Why can’t cops just look at you and talk like normal people without all the mysterious faces and questions? Anyway, he didn’t like the way this was going. Not one bit. Ok. So he stopped and did his cop thing. Let him know he was always watching, small talk bullshit that was just trying to trip him up. So that was done. Alright. Message received. Now just say so long and take off. Almost unconsciously he was leaning away as Connie opened the back door. “Why don’t you get in out of the cold”, he asked. “Let’s talk.”
Suddenly that little .38-that tiny gun with a two inch barrel jammed tightly into the back of his pants-felt like a cannon. He could almost feel the barrel growing down between the cheeks of his ass. What the fuck did he put the gun there for? Anybody on the street could see it! Shit man, even a dense like Rucker saw it. That’s what this was all about. SHIT!
Without hesitating Ragg moved toward the car. He knew enough about cops to know that whatever they wanted you to do out on the street: stand on your head, eat dog shit with a plastic spoon had better be the best idea you’d heard in years. Especially with Rucker.
The detective slid across the seat and Ragg got in gently, careful not to let his jacket ride up in back. He pulled the door shut behind him.
“I’m a motherFUCKER!”
“What’s the matter Geez?”
Geezer was standing at the window looking down into the street. “That sonuvabitch just got in the car!”
“You sure they’re cops?”
“Sure I’m sure. I don’t know the one riding shotgun, but that big Dago driving busted me two years ago. Fuck!”
“Whattaya think they want with him?”
Geezer turned slowly, away from the window. Giving himself over to his thoughts, he moved mechanically, long head first, like a swinging crane, not wanting to get ahead of himself. Judy was sitting on the daybed in just her panties, taking a stab at brushing her hair which always did what it wanted anyway. She was a looker, there never was any denying that. Tits, legs, the tightest rounded ass a guy could want-the whole package. And she knew how to use it all, sixteen years old or not. In fact, being so young, without the cautioning stains and scars of a lifetime, gave her a more singular focus on getting what she wanted in the moment. But someday, he was going to have to just pitch it all and get him a smart chick. One that could look around and see things. Know things the way that he did. One that he didn’t have to explain everything to.
“Look”, he said, trying to be patient as he pulled on his shirt. “I don’ see the asshole for a year right? Then one day he pops up on my doorstep to buy a quarter gram. Outta nowhere. Right? What is it? A week ago? Sell him some blow, he goes away. Now-BAM!-he’s across the street with the cops.”
“You think he’s a snitch?”
“Jesus Christ! Sure. Come on, you don’t see that?” She looked at him blankly, still brushing her hair as if nothing he’d said affected her at all. Patience was a wonderful thing, but anger’s hard edge was scraping it away. Anger at himself. How could he have been so stupid?
“Here”, he tossed her jeans into her lap. “Get dressed.”
“I thought you said the cops knew about you. That you had friends and they wouldn’t hassle you.”
“Maybe they got bored, I don’t know. Needed something to do. Probably sent that guy up here last week. To check me out. See what I was dealin’. Set it up, you know?” Not a deep thinker, Geezer didn’t bother to wonder why they would go to all the trouble to set him up when they could walk in any old time and bust him for the butts in his ashtrays. Or pat him down anytime on the street and find something. “We gotta clean this place up a little”, he said.
It was quiet inside the car. It wasn’t Ragg’s dance; he wasn’t about to lead. Proffo sat in the front seat staring straight ahead through tinted shades. All he wanted was to get through this fucking day and get to work on another hangover. Make him forget the one he was carrying now. Connie got tired of the silence first.
“I like this weather, you know? The first blast of winter coming in always takes people by surprise. Leave ‘em bitching and moaning about the cold…not me though. Opens my head-makes me want to breathe deep in big gulps.” He swallowed a deep breath and slapped his chest. “You know what it reminds me of?”
Here it comes, thought Ragg. “What?”
“Come on man! Football! Doesn’t it get you?”
“Oh yeah…especially in the evening. Like when we would be practicin’ and sweatin’ but the sweat would dry and you’d chill down every time you hadda stand around awhile, you know?” He leaned, wanting a reply.
“Sure were some times…”
“Sure were. Just think. Then you were the cock of the walk, huh, boy? Big shit. Superstar with all the girls and all the fun huh? That was you. Hmph! Sure was something. Now you’re just a punk-hanging out on the streets looking to score drugs from some nigger.”
The detective sat back waiting. He wanted to get a rise out of him-prod him into something. But there was nothing. Ragg just sat there, eyes on the lives passing on the sidewalk. It’s not like Connie needed any information or anything. He just couldn’t resist digging into Billy Ragg whenever he got the chance.
“I mean, that’s all you’re doing down here ain’t it? Superstar? There was a pause, then Connie said, “wait a minute. I’ve got something to show you.”
Proffo glanced into the rearview in time to see his partner lean away from Ragg, as if he were reaching for something, then twist his body back hard, driving his right elbow deep into the man’s ribs. He followed that blow immediately by rising in the seat and delivering a left hook solidly into the solar plexus. Shit, thought Proffo, if the big sonofabitch fights back we’ll have to shoot him and I won’t get out of the office till midnight.
Proffo wasn’t the only one thinking about shooting just then. Bent nearly double by the punch Ragg tried to recover his breathing. He was conscious of the pistol. He could straighten quickly and have it out before either of them knew what was going on. Shove the barrel into Rucker’s eye and wait just long enough to say “Surprise!” before blasting him. Then put a hole in the back of the Dago’s head before he knew what was what.
Maybe he would have done it had he not been distracted by Rucker’s voice . Close up. The cop was right in his ear hissing through his teeth. He said things like, you were always a piece of shit, go on-make a move-I’d love to break your legs, stay the fuck offa my streets, big shot, you see me coming you better cross the street, tough-shit cop stuff like that. It wasn’t the words that froze Ragg as much as the tone. The venom. What I ever do to him?
Connie reached across and opened the door. He was dismissed. Without a thought or word, Ragged stepped out and straightened, trying hard to look unhurt. His breath was coming in little puffs. The door slammed and the Chevy pulled away.
“What was that all about?” asked Proffo as he drove away.
“Fuck him. Let’s go get a coffee.”
Geezer was back at the window. “He’s coming up.”
“By himself?” she asked from the bathroom.
“So far. I don’t see anybody else. It looks like they drove away. Just stay put and remember what I told you.”
Judy was sitting on the tub, right beside the toilet. She held a tray on her lap that was piled high with, what Geezer said, was uncut cocaine. Once he stepped on it a bit and put it on the streets he could nurse it for about ten grand, not counting what he’d keep for personal use. Truth be told, it was more than he could afford to lose-all his ready cash had gone into that coke. But it was only money, he wasn’t about to take a fall for it. No way! This was one man who would trade in some cash to avoid the time. She was sitting in there waiting for his signal to flush the whole shooting match if it came to that.
Ragg took the steps slowly, catching his breath. Even alone inside the building he wouldn’t rub his ribs or his gut. No way was he about to give in. Not to that psycho cop. He would deal with him sometime later. He didn’t know how, but you can be goddam sure he would. For now, he would use his anger constructively.
On the fourth floor landing he sighed with relief as he pulled the pistol from his belt. He’d have to get a holster or something. He hefted it, felt its weight, turning it over in his hand and almost shrugged. Some guys got excited about a gun, like it was a piece of ass or something. They’d hold a gun and get all tingly and short of breath like the secret of the world was sitting in their mitt. Ragg looked at the gun and saw a tool. Nothing more. You want to do a job, you need the correct tool.
The job for today was that stack of bills he had seen in Geezer’s apartment last week. A wad that wouldn’t even roll it was so big. A few grand at least. That’s all he needed. Just a stake of some kind. Buy himself a warm jacket, maybe deal some dope, Get a car. He knocked on Geezer’s door.
Ragg was surprised when the door just swung open. Last time he was here there were alot of questions and the door opened a crack against the chain while he talked his way in, but today it just swung open as if he was expected. He even thought Geezer was about to say something in greeting but his face froze when he found himself eyeball to barrel with the .38. Yessir, this gun was the right tool alright.
Ragg backed the dealer into his apartment and pushed the door closed with his foot. The place looked the same and Geezer was alone. Without a word he backed the man onto the daybed where he sat while Ragg went over to the dresser and opened the top drawer. Aside from some underwear and socks, it was empty. “Where is it?” he asked.
“What?” asked Geezer.
“The money, motherfucker!”
Geezer’s eyes widened and for an instant it looked like he was about to laugh. “Money? There ain’t no money. Is that what this is? A holdup? You in the wrong place, my man. I got no cash. “
“Don’t shit me. I saw it last week.”
“Last week I had it. I’m in business, man. I get cash, I invest it. You oughta know that. Shit! Come in here thinkin’ I got cash…” The asshole cracker was tryin’ to stick him up. Unbelievable. Stupid shit thinks he can just waltz in here and take from me…
Geezer felt the .45 digging into his bony ass through the thin daybed cushion. Asshole trying to hold me up…Now, he was going through the other drawers. He reached between his legs and actually had the gun in his grip when Ragg, seeing the movement, turned. He held his tiny gun outstretched, pointed at the man’s chest. He was careful to hold it straight and squeeze the trigger smoothly. Not like shooters in the movies, always jerking the gun as they fired.
The crash of the report startled Ragg. The only time he had fired the piece was in the alley behind the Showboat where the noise could disappear into the night sky. Here the sound was like a roar slamming loudly off the walls of the cramped apartment. Geezer sat back looking surprised as a red blotch bloomed then grew on the front of his shirt. Neither of them heard the startled cry from the bathroom as Judy jerked herself standing, spilling the tray and coke across the floor.
It wasn’t happening as quickly as Ragg thought it would. He had shot him-that should have been the end of it-but there he was, bleeding but still lifting the gun toward him. Looks like a fucking cannon, he thought as he began to squeeze the trigger again. This time it wasn’t smooth at all. He was panicking and the blast popped a hole in the bottom of Geezer’s shirt down in the belly.
He tried to fire again. Honest to God tried by couldn’t for the life of him make his hand do what he wanted it to. It was like one of those damn chase dreams when, no matter how fast you run, you don’t get anywhere. That was the last thought Billy Ragg had as he actually watched the nigger’s hand tighten around the trigger.
Judy would later tell Detective Rucker that she came out of the bathroom door right then, in time to see both men frozen, like some kind of painting. Geezer was sitting sort of sideways-bent, like with one hand over his stomach-this huge gun pointed and the white guy standing there with his gun pointed and she didn’t know for a moment who was shooting.
Suddenly, the .45 roared with a flash of fire and a concussion that hurt her ears. Billy Ragg’s head exploded in clumps of red and a pink spray spattering the wall and dresser behind him. His body sailed backward and hit the floor hard. As the darkness settled around him, Geezer could hear Judy screaming. The last thing he ever saw was her disappearing out the door, her screams becoming faint.
Two blocks over, Jimmy Proffo was nursing a second cup of burned black coffee when he heard screaming in the distance and instinctively began to rise. Rucker stopped him with a hand on his arm. “Relax”, he said. “She’s coming this way.”
Sam was a small man even among regular folk. Out here, tonight, he felt like a bug. Still though, he was happy to step out of the darkness of the tree-lined avenue into the open square where the buzzing lights cast a monochrome silver tableau before him.
He was relieved for a moment to see what had to be a man in the far corner of the square, leaning one-legged against an old wooden telephone pole smoking. His other leg was crooked back behind him, foot on the pole, affecting the rakish, relaxed look of a model in an old cigarette ad.
Sam’s fingers weren’t sticking together anymore. The blood that was left had dried and would have to be washed off if there was water or scraped it there wasn’t. He shuffled toward the tall man, one shoe on, one missing, hesitating only when he realized how large the fellow really was. Up close, he looked less relaxed and more gaunt, like an anxious scarecrow.
For a moment Sam wondered if it really was it a man he was seeing before him or an apparition leaning against the pole. Standing before him he had to crane his neck back to see his face.
“Excuse me”, Sam said, looking up. “I’ve had a fuck of a night. Can I bum a cigarette?”
The head above him swiveled his way then pitched downward carefully, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. “I don’t smoke”, he said in a flat guttural voice that betrayed no accent. A streetlight glinted in his dark eyes-the light glancing off the dead one like a skipped stone-the other flaring hot for an instant, then fading.
Sam backed into a shadow away from his gaze but the head had swiveled away.
“I wanted to see if he’d give you one.”
He turned and noticed the girl against the wall. She was even smaller than he was-but not a child. Just a girl in bare feet and torn back dress. Nothing special-plain. In fact, in the light, she looked like a pencil sketch of what a plain girl should look like.
“He said he doesn’t smoke.”
“I know him. He doesn’t.”
He looked back once more at the cloud circling around the pole. She took his hand to lead him down an alley out of the openness of the square. At her touch he felt himself thickening.
“I’ve had a fuck of a night”, he said letting himself be led.
“I know. Come on.”
The apparition didn’t turn to watch them go. They mattered not a whit to him. He smoked in peace, scanning the sleeping world above their heads.
Once the train rolled past the mill across the river the ground flattened and the hill backed off step by step until there was room for the town to wedge itself between its natural boundaries. He peeked through the slitted door of boxcar and saw Rohall’s body shop which was still the first building in town but he couldn’t swear it was still a body shop.
Then a few houses that looked abandoned then the fire house with someone, too far away to make out who, lounging in a chair by the open door. The track bent then, bellying toward the river and away from the football field, robbing him of the close-up view but opening the vista of the grimy little houses sprawling between two bridges and up to the hillside.
He watched the ties clicking quickly past and ventured to stick his head out. There was no one working on the tracks that he could see-no trucks, no equipment-but he’d have to wait for the switching yard to be sure. He had played there as a boy-and later-but now it had fallen into disuse-storing ties and timbers instead of old boxcars to play in.
Nearing the yard and its crossing the train slowed enough to make exiting, if not easy, at least possible. He squatted and stretched watching and waiting for the flattest spot with the least ballast which made the footing uncertain. He was entering the yard now, overrun with tangles of thistle, sedge, sumac trees and at least one very dead deer.
Quickly, while somewhat hidden by the brush, he slid the door enough to sit with his legs hanging then pushed off. With barely a stumble, he was walking beside the train instead of riding in it as he had for 300 miles. His boxcar outpaced him and slipped away. He carried no bundle, no bag, nothing that could mark him as homeless, a vagrant or hobo. Everything he owned he wore or left behind.
The creosote smell of the new ties gave him the same odd feeling it always did. Took him back to his first time; jaws clenched, bent grimacing over a stack of ties, the spring drizzle dripping from his hair. That was just down the tracks from here. If there was another man in the world who was aroused by the smell of creosote he didn’t want to meet him.
Every fucked-up path had a fucked-up beginning and once you hit the crooked way, there was no getting off it. Like riding your bike into a street car track-you were stuck where it would take you. It was always that way no matter what anyone said. Once your wires were crossed, they were crossed and singed into a new direction.
The ten foot fence was new-running beside the track for as far as he could see. He might have to walk all the way to the crossing which would be chancy but where there was a fence there would be holes, loose spots and passages for townies to cut across to the river. There was too much beer to be drunk, weed to be smoked and girls to be fucked on the riverbank to be deterred by a mere cyclone fence.
He ran his fingers along it as he walked remembering what it had felt like, as a kid, to be able to scale something like this. Up like a spider, leg over, drop down. That was a while ago. He stopped. There it was. The bottom two wires connecting the fence to a pole had been cut; the loose grid unnoticeable unless you knew it was there. He squatted, pushed at the bottom and the wire lattice lifted like a curtain.
Just like that he was back in town. And no one was going to be happy to see him.
He didn’t remember the hallway being this long. It usually worked in the reverse: the long hallways and overlarge rooms of a child’s memory shrunk for the man. But he moved along, following an aroma that got stronger the further he went. A soft light spilled from one of the rooms at the end. When he got to the door he didn’t notice the high old fashioned library lamp in the corner-only the light it threw. His attention focused on the three women in the center of the room sitting on cushions around a large hookah.
The flanking women were young. Not children or teenagers, he didn’t think, but certainly no more than twenty five. He didn’t know. It was an arbitrary number. What was certain was their indescribable beauty. The blonde, to his left, wore what looked to be simple jeans and a plaid shirt. The sleeves were rolled almost to her elbows exposing soft downy fur that glistened in the low light. The other, on his right, with piercing green eyes glowing below shining, raven bangs wore a double T-shirt, one over the other, and a small leather amulet of some sort around her neck. She was stockier than the blond-even sitting you could tell she was shorter-but just as breathtaking. Both wore radiant welcoming smiles that seemed to cast their own light.
She, the one who had given him the directions, was sitting between them facing the door. She was roughly his own age, better preserved perhaps, but seasoned. Also, she was completely naked.
“You found us…” she said happily exhaling a sweet cloying cloud that settled over the three of them.
“The directions were perfect”, he lied.
“I really didn’t expect to see you.”
“I didn’t expect to see you naked.”
“I didn’t expect to see you at all”, she said.
The blonde giggled a sound like diamonds tumbling down a silken waterfall.
The naked woman stood. She was a strong brunette with swept wiry hair and a slash of silver running straight back from above her right eye like a lightning bolt. He saw that she had a similar streak running top to bottom through the thick bush below her flat belly.
She placed her hand on the blonde’s head to steady herself as she stepped out of the cushion circle. “Come”, she said tapping him on the arm. He followed her back into the hall and into the next room. Her ass was flat and mannish-always had been-even as a girl. But again, well kept.
In the next room, illuminated only by the streetlight through the window she nodded to a heavy wooden chair. He went over and stood beside it as she wrestled a heavy industrial dolly out of a dark corner. By its creaking limp he could see that the contraption had a bad wheel. She stopped struggling with it when it was close enough.
She glowed the color of old ivory in the dim yellow light as she undid his belt and zipper. Up close she seemed to smell of sage and honey-probably the smoke clinging to her hair. He heard another giggle and answering laugh from the other room. It seemed far away. He kept his hands at his sides as she pushed his pants and underwear down.
“Sit” she said.
He settled himself on the hard wood and focused on the hallways sounds. The deep inhaling and exhaling from the next room and, further away, the grunting and sliding of the behemoth in the front room.
Her breasts hung softly as she untangled the cables that were rolled on top of the car battery on the dolly. She had his full attention as she knelt between his legs cables in hand. He let his eyes wander over her shoulders and down her body. Watching the muscles in her thighs ripple as she shifted her weight from the battery to him and back again gave him the most ill-timed hard on of his life.
“So, what brings you to see me tonight?” she asked lifting his cock, nice sized and well-formed but nothing special, out of the way.
He didn’t have a good answer so said, “Bless me father for I have sinned.”
She snickered lightly and he was happy to have made her laugh. “Try again”, she said.
At a loss, he said something he thought she would understand, “I’ve been smoking again”. He then gasped as she squeezed the clamps at the end of the first cable to his scrotum.
“Ahhh,” she said, seemingly talking into his dick, moving it again. “We’ll see if we can’t take care of that.”
He winced as she pinched the loose skin inside of his thigh and attached the other cable there. He watched the slope of her back as she attached one of the cables to the battery. His hard-on pulsed like a fish tossed on shore to suffocate. He focused on the sounds from the hallway which had become louder.
“Are you ready”, she asked back over her shoulder holding the other cable over the battery ready to touch the positive terminal.
“I am”, he said reaching down to grab the edges of the wooden seat.
“Are you ready?” she asked again, this time louder-in case he hadn’t heard the first time.
“Yesss”, he hissed, grabbing his hard cock with the other hand.
He squinted through the match light to read the numbers scrawled on a wrinkled shred of brown paper that she must have torn off of an old grocery bag. 742, they said, which did him absolutely no good as the hovels and shitholes along this alley were not numbered in the back. He shook out the match and let it fall to the ground.
A little further along, toward the lone streetlight, something about the wire fence behind the blue dumpster seemed somehow familiar. He walked on carefully, avoiding the scattered guts of an overturned garbage can. A rat-it’s grazing interrupted-squeaked and skittered away. A few more paces and a garage materialized from the shadows-the twin doors boarded tightly over. This could be it, he thought, remembering when the doors would stand open by day allowing the ins and outs of the men who worked here. He recalled the rough whine of the impact wrenches and the impossibly loud crashing tires and brake drums and all manner of automotive detritus onto the grease-stained floor. Was that here?
A dim light glowed in one of the high windows of the apartment above. With a cautious familiarity he slipped into the inky shadows of the passage between the garage and the empty house sliding his hand along the cool brick wall as he had as a boy. He came out from between the buildings into an abandoned courtyard illuminated in a muted orange from the foundry glowing brightly across the field.
The fifteen wooden steps up to the simple porch were rickety but the platform itself was sound. The knob turned easily and the door opened into the kitchen-empty but for the appliances leaning forlornly with doors sagged open. Instinctively he reached for the light switch to his right and snapped it on. Nothing. Thick shadows from the side room played against the wall opposite.
He moved through the void where the table and chairs had once been, into the glowing living room. Against the far wall was a high table draped with a tattered, nondescript cloth and covered with candles. The room was otherwise empty of furnishing but occupied by an enormous naked man posing in the center. The guttering yellow light of dozens of tiny flames reflected in the rivulets of sweat that ran down the man’s wide back and massive arms as he flowed-in a grace that belied his size-from pose to pose-freezing at the completion of each, then sliding into the next.
The massively round beach-ball shaped belly might have been his most remarkable feature had it not been for his balls. They hung heavily like a pendulum and swung lazily from side to side like the clapper on some awful church bell. From the doorway he somehow knew the particular form the behemoth was doing and knew that the coming sequence of movements would involve slow spins and high stately kicks which he in no way wanted to witness so he moved on down the hall.
It was everybody’s bad luck that Danny had started drinking at noon that day. His regular shift was 11 a.m. to 6:00. He would open for the oldsters who needed a shot and a beer between Mass and Sunday dinner then manage his regulars through two football games, turning it over to Nick for the evening and late night. Nick was away this weekend, though, so the day was his. Clean through till 2:00.
They called Benny Pace, Hats, even though he had only one-a tortured fedora that was as sweat-stained as his rolled up trousers were piss-stained. A yellowed white shirt completed his motley ensemble; a shabby connection in his mind to when he was a snappy dresser.
His sons, Elmer and Frank inherited his gambling territory but it wasn’t much anymore. They ran poker machines and illegal pinball always scrambling one step ahead of the law. They carried the air of two “connected guys” but weren’t really. Big fish in a very small pond-but it was their pond.
Two guys at the bar that night had caught sight of the roll of cash Benny was holding. The regulars were used to it-always picked up bills that he’d let flutter to the floor and put them back in front of him. “Did you see that old guy’s wad?” one of them had asked him. Danny didn’t know him-short and wiry. Dark-with a pinched face. “He was lucky at the track yesterday. When Benny hits, everyone hits.” Danny chuckled and tapped his knuckles on the bar in front of the two signaling that their next drink was on the house.
Had he been a little less drunk he might have caught the gist of the conversation. He might have caught their eyes as they were casing the old man and felt what was happening. But he didn’t. The next morning, when he heard about old Benny being beaten and robbed he knew who did it and also knew that nobody could ever know how he knew. This place that he’d inherited from his uncle was a safe place. People came in here to be protected from “out there”. Danny had let the outside in.
But today, in the light of day, drinking coffee instead of Canadian Club he was not thinking about making something right. Some things can’t be made right. Some things just have to be worn.
If old Benny ever got out of the hospital-was ever back in here drinking wine from the jug that nobody else touched-whistling at the girls and babbling in his ridiculous way he would always have to look at him and know that the shit that he got plunged into was on him.
When sunlight slashed through the bar he knew even before squinting at their silhouettes that it was Elmer and Frank. Elmer was Danny’s age, short and round. Frank, older and smaller, did all the talking.
“Sorry about your Dad. How’s he doing?”
“Looks like he’ll make it. Fucked him up pretty good though.”
“Damn shame…” said Danny.
“They were in here? They guys did this?”
“There was more than one?” Danny asked.
“Looks like two. Cops got one. The other…” he shrugged.
“There was a lot of people in here last night Frank. Don’t know…I probably saw them. Hell, I probably served them. I’m sorry.”
“For what? You didn’t do nothin’.”
“No, that’s the motherfucker gonna be sorry. They won’t hold him till the old man can ID him, and he can’t see now so….”
“He’s getting out this afternoon. We know where he lives. He’ll wished he stayed in jail.”
Danny rubbed at the faux woodgrain on the bar. And rubbed. His eyes were somewhere in the middle distance. And rubbed. Just as Elmer gave his brother his “what-the-fuck?” face, Danny spoke.
“Don’t do nothing. It will be too obvious.”
“It will be obvious.”
The Pace brothers looked at one another, then back to Danny. Elmer stuck out his hand. “You know we’re not going to forget this.” Which is why he was doing it. He wouldn’t forget it either.
“I just wish there was something I coulda done.”
“These animals. There’s nothing you could do.”
“Go someplace tonight. Be seen and don’t worry about it.”
Danny had taken out the street light next to the apartments where the guy was staying. Just a few blocks up-not far. Hell, if he was standing up on the roof right now, Danny could see the house he grew up in. This was his alley, his bar and the street above, his street. Deep truth be known, he didn’t even like Benny or his sons-two entitled fucks who never worked a day. But this wasn’t about them at all. Not at this point.
He skulked behind the dumpster and pulled the bandana up to his eyes when the scuffling tread came up the asphalt. He recognized him even in the shadows. Stupid bastard didn’t know enough to stay away.
He gripped the bat tightly and strode up behind. The guy never knew what hit him. Danny tried to be surgical-no need to go overboard. Kidneys to bend him backward-stomach so he’d fold. The most obvious joints and bones next-bust the knee cap, ankle, stomp the hand and teeth for good measure. Left him writhing and moaning. Slipped between two buildings and out to the main street. The bat down the sewer. Done and done.
The next morning he was reading the paper when Kevin Bannon, his most regular of regulars came in for his first beer to wash down his first aspirins.
“You hear about that guy? The one robbed old Benny?”
Somebody put a beatin’ on him. Ruptured his spleen or his kidney…something. Bled out. Right up the alley there.”
“Benny’s sons maybe? Elmer and Frank?”
“Naw, they were at the casino all night playing blackjack and winning like fucks. Everybody saw them.”
A single droplet of sweat trailed from Danny’s collar, down his spine and spread at his belt line. “Well. Fuck him”, he said. “They should give whoever did it a medal.”
“Absolutely!” Kevin agreed.
Danny popped his knuckles on the bar. Beer was on him.
“You’re Circo, right?” His old rheumy eyes widened then blinked, trying to sharpen focus at the edges. He wasn’t blind by a long shot but back lighting offered a challenge.
“Nobody calls me that anymore”, Tommy growled low enough that only the one person could hear. He could have yelled it though, the place was that empty.
“I knew your grandfather”, he said. “He was a good guy.”
Tommy’s plan to slip unnoticed into a dark room and recharge between engagements had obviously gone to shit. He had come in tense and was not in the mood to become irritated. There was enough of that outside.
“He was too good”, Tommy said biting off the words. “Got fucked more than a whore by people taking advantage of him. Nice guy,” he sniffed and looked at the old man full on for the first time. “Maybe you did too, huh?”
“Not me”, he said sipping at a clear drink that half filled the highball glass in front of him. Unadorned by ice, lime or lemon it could have been water as easily as vodka. “I worked with him. Lost my truck when those developers declared bankruptcy that time.”
“The Liberty Subdivision.”
“Yeah-I’d a lost my house too but your Pap covered me.” He tipped his glass to Tommy before finishing it off in a gulp. “And I paid him back. Every cent.”
Tommy caught the piney whiff. Gin. “Way I heard it”, he said looking down at his own drink, “They paid ten cents on a dollar.”
“You heard right. They fucked a lotta people. Then two years later they were back in business with a new name.”
“That didn’t work out too well as I heard it. They had a problem with fires.”
The old man nodded slightly. “Had a lot of explosions too. Things kept blowin’ up for them.”
“They were careless people, I guess”, Tommy said.
The old man answered with a small shrug, rolling his palms upward.
“What’s your name old timer?”
“I’m Genesee”, he said, extending a hand.
“Like the beer.”
“Like the beer. And I’ll make you a deal. You don’t call me ‘old timer’ and I won’t call you Circo.”
Tommy grinned tightly. He could see this guy working for his grandfather. Ballsy old prick that you wouldn’t see coming until he was in your pocket and it was too late. He shook the offered hand. Firm grip-some steel left in there. “Deal, Genesee”, he said.
“You got a second?” the old man asked. “I got a story about your Pap you might not a heard.”
Fact is, no, he didn’t have a second. He’d been late coming and going all day and this wasn’t going to help things. But really, in his business being unreliable now and again was almost a job requirement.
She poured it, burnt thick and black, into a shallow cup and pushed the sugar toward him. He fiddled with the spoon that was formed with a small spout on the end as if dumping a spoonful of sugar into a cup was somehow old fashioned. She liked the new things, his Gramma. Even if she horded them all in her little garage apartment across the patio from the family’s grand house.
His name was actually Tomasso or Tommy to those outside his neighborhood, but since he never left the neighborhood as a child it didn’t matter. His given name didn’t matter either as his great grandfather had renamed him.
“Why did Pap-pap call me Circo?”
“Oh he used to laugh when you around. You was always run-you was always jump-you…”searching for the word “….tumble around the yard like in a circus! He laugh and laugh. Said you like a Circo. ‘Circus’. So he call you Circo.”
“I wished he would have called me Tommy-like my name. Everybody calls me Circo now.”
“Every cat in the alley named Tom. You Circo. Better.”
“Some people laugh…like Circo is a joke.”
“They laugh at you, you stop them, huh? You know how to make them stop laugh.”
He waved away her pointing finger. “Alright. It’s alright…”He shifted away from where the .38 dug into his thick waist.
“Who you gone see today?”
“Vinnie, and Joe up on the hill. Then Robert and Shack”. Shack Moran’s real name was Jacques from his French mother. Once he was out of the house he thought life would be much easier as “Shack” so Jacques Moran ceased to be. Until that morning in the not too distant future when a dead body was fished out of the river near the mill outflow pipe. All the reporters then called him “Jacques” in a formal rolling pronunciation and nobody knew who they were talking about. Except for Circo. He knew.
“Circo. You wanna eat?”
“No Gram…” The little man slid off of the chair and looked out the window at the house trying to see if anyone was watching. It was too bright outside-made spying into dark windows impossible. He had parked two alleys away and walked though yards so nobody passing would see his car. But there was only one way in-up the front steps that anyone who was looking from the house could see. He could picture his mother at the kitchen table, smoking and watching her door-keeping track of who came and went. Couldn’t do anything about it now. He was here-and he had to leave.
It wasn’t until they found Shack dead in the river that people began to call him Tommy.