Authors: Peter Blauner
Tags: #Hard Case Crime
“I’m sorry, Carla,” I said. “Don’t wait up for me.”
It turned out I didn’t go see my father again that night. Instead I went where I always go when I don’t know what else to do. To the Boardwalk. It was a nice night. If I’d had my jogging clothes with me, I would’ve gone for a run. Instead I sat on a bench outside the Golden Doubloon Hotel and Casino, watching the lights go on and off on the
TAKE A CHANCE
sign over the entrance while the tide pulled the sand from the shore behind me.
Sometimes it seemed this was where I ended up whenever anything important happened. There are whole parts of my childhood that I don’t remember, but I can still picture my real father Michael taking me for a long walk when I was seven. He was a tall, good-looking guy who always wore the best French shirts, Italian suits, and English loafers, even when he couldn’t afford them. I’d hold his hand and think the Boardwalk would go forever if we could just keep walking. It was right around this spot that he pointed out a vacant lot and said that was where the two of us would build a castle one day.
About a year later he disappeared and it was Vin taking me for a walk down the Boardwalk. I can see myself pointing to that vacant lot again and asking what happened to Mike and the plans we’d made.
“I guess he made a mistake,” Vin said.
The Boardwalk was empty in those days. A bunch of half-demolished hotels and broken storefronts. I remembered all the stories Mike told me about how this used to be the Queen of Resorts before I was born. The place where all the old robber barons, industrial leaders, and flappers from the 1920s used to come and sun themselves. This was where they had the first Miss America Pageant, the first movie theater, the first Easter Parade, the first bra-burning, the first Ferris wheel, and the first color postcard. And down at the end of the Boardwalk, there was the Steel Pier, where thousands of people would come to watch Sinatra himself sing with Tommy Dorsey’s band while horses dove off the end of the pier.
All that was gone by the time my real father left. But there was always the chance that it would come back. “It’s Atlantic City,” I remember him saying. “Anything could happen here.” And even in those ghost town years, I knew he was right. There was a special feeling about the place. Something about the way the sea met the sky as the salt air rustled the red-and-white-striped tents on the beach. Summer always seemed right around the corner.
And then it finally came. The state decided to allow casino gambling in A.C., and soon those castles my real father had been talking about began appearing all along the Boardwalk. Places with names like Bally’s Grand, Caesar’s, the Taj Mahal. Huge rectangles of chrome and glass that turned gold when the sun hit them just the right way.
Except by then, I had no way into them. Because I had Vin as a stepfather and Teddy as an in-law, I couldn’t apply to work for any of the casinos. Any of the standard background checking would make it look like I was mobbed-up too.
So I was stuck on the porch of a rickety shack while these palaces went up literally in my backyard. And now, more than ever, I wanted to go into them. I had Larry’s murder weighing on my mind and Carla, the kids, and the bills waiting for me at home. There had to be some other kind of life out there.
I looked up again at that sign blinking
TAKE A CHANCE, TAKE A CHANCE
over the entrance of the Doubloon. I just watched it awhile. I thought nobody was supposed to have flashing lights like that in Atlantic City. The local politicians used to say they didn’t want anything too flashy or vulgar displayed. But here the Doubloon had this thing blinking so brightly you’d get the message if you were flying ten miles up in an airplane. I wondered how they got somebody to make an exception for them.
“THE STONES,” SAID
Vincent Russo. “I’m telling you, Ted. You can’t believe the stones on this kid.”
“He stands right up like a man, shoots Larry twice. I never lifted a finger. I was too scared, you know. Larry gets up, Anthony gives him two more for his health. Bang, bang. I had nothin’ to do with it. My ass was sucking. You know what I’m saying?”
Teddy Marino, his boss, watched him suspiciously and said nothing.
The two of them were standing in a third-floor bathroom, where they were sure their conversation wouldn’t be bugged. Noise filtered up from the social club on the first floor. The old lady down the hall turned her light off. Teddy, wearing a pinstripe suit without a tie, shifted uncomfortably in the doorway.
He was fat in the way of people who can’t help themselves, rather than those who actually enjoy eating. His stomach stuck out over his belt like scaffolding and his jowls flowed over his collar like lava. Though he was turning sixty in a week, the pudgy boy who’d been tormented by his reform school mates in the shower was still close to the surface, biding his time, waiting for revenge.
“So I was thinking,” said Vin, pulling on the hem of his green polo shirt. “Now might be a good time.”
“A good time for what?”
“You know.” Vin ran a hand through his shock of gray hair. “To think about inducting Anthony.”
Teddy inhaled deeply and his jowls reddened slightly. “How many times I gotta tell you, Vin? It’s a closed issue. Anthony hasn’t the Sicilian blood on both sides so there’s no way I can make him.”
Vin started to say something, but Teddy was already waving a chubby hand in his face. “Look, this isn’t my teaching,” he said. “It’s the way it’s always been. You can’t just pick and choose from tradition. It’s either all or nothing. Like believing in God. You either buy into the whole program or go fuck yourself.”
Vin bit his thumb and listened to the music pounding up from downstairs. Either “O Sole Mio” or Elvis Presley singing “It’s Now or Never.”
“There’ve been exceptions,” he said.
Teddy watched him through two eye sockets that were like, small ditches in his fleshy face. “Name one.”
“Neil up in New York,” said Vin. “He was gonna make his daughter. They had a date for the ceremony and everything.”
Teddy stuck his hands in the pockets of his pinstripe jacket. “It’s not the same thing. She was Sicilian. Like her father.”
“They were still gonna bend the rules.”
“Listen, Vin.” Teddy tugged on his ear and drew back his lips. “Forget about him getting made. When is this kid of yours Anthony gonna stop being a cripple?”
Vin looked stricken. “Wha?”
“He’s married to my favorite niece. Last month, I had to give her two hundred dollars to get a haircut and some shoes for the kids. Do I look like fuckin’ Jerry Lewis running a charity?”
“No, Ted, but . . .”
“But nothing,” Teddy huffed. “The kid’s a cripple. I love him, but he’s a cripple. I sent him to college and set him up in the concrete business. I haven’t seen dollar one back from him. I wonder should I be so trusting. Now you want me to get him inducted. Well, it ain’t that easy, Vin. If my own boy Charlie was still around, I’d have to go through channels ...”
He stopped talking a moment and spit into the toilet.
“Is that what this is about?” asked Vin. “Because my boy’s alive, and yours ain’t?”
“That’s got nothing to do with it.”
“Because that ain’t Anthony’s fault. He didn’t have nothing to do with what happened to Charlie.”
Teddy started to frown, but before he could say anything, the door down the hall opened and the old lady came out. She was using a walker, and wild wisps of white hair flew from her pinkish scalp. Teddy moved out of the bathroom to make room for her, his stomach grazing the door frame. Vin plodded out after him and they both bowed their heads respectfully as the old lady went in to use the can.
After a few minutes, a pale, oily-skinned ex-junkie named Joey Snails came upstairs and handed Teddy a thick envelope.
“It’s the pickup from the roofer’s union,” said Joey, who had crevices shaped like seahorses in his cheeks. “Richie said I oughta get it this week, because you didn’t want Nicky D. doin’ it no more.”
Teddy opened the envelope a little and made a point of touching each bill. “I hope it’s all here,” he said. “I’d hate to hear that you skimmed some and put it in your arm.”
Joey Snails looked gravely offended. “It’s all there.”
Teddy pinched Joey’s cheek hard enough to make the seahorse disappear. “Go on, get outa here. If I find two dollars missing, I’ll kick your ass.”
Teddy stuffed the envelope into his inside jacket pocket and swallowed hard. Money had been tight the last few years. The problem was the casinos. For all his time as a boss in Atlantic City, Teddy had never been inside a count room or placed a high-level executive in the industry. There were too many state watchdogs around. For a while, he’d had his share of crumbs spilling off the table—union pension funds, carting and linen businesses—but when the construction boom ended, there were fewer and fewer crumbs to go around.
He waited until Joey was down the hall and out of earshot before he turned back to Vin. “Remind me, I wanna get somebody else to do that pickup,” he muttered. “I still don’t trust that fuckin’ hophead.”
“I thought we were gonna give Anthony a shot at handling the envelope.”
“See if you can find somebody else, I’m not sure I trust that kid of yours either. He reminds me of his old man Mike.” Teddy loosened his belt a notch and closed his jacket. “Anyway, I haven’t got time to worry about it right now. I got Jackie and Sal coming down from New York to talk about something next week.”
“What do they want?”
“I don’t know. Something to do with the Commission. Some fuckin’ thing where they want to make a ruling.”
“Jackie. Ha?” Vin scratched his ass and looked impressed.
“Twenty-five years ago, guys from his crew would come into town and make me run to get their cigarettes.” Teddy patted his abdomen like he was trying to calm an anxious child inside. “We come a long way. Now they treat us like equals.”
“The way it should be,” said Vin.
“I remember when the old man Ang from Philly used to come into town with Johnny Blowjob and they used to treat us like their shoeshine boys.”
“Somebody shoulda put a bullet in his head long time before they did,” said Vin.
The old lady flushed the toilet and came out, barely acknowledging the two men as she went back to her bedroom.
Teddy took out an unfiltered cigarette and stuck it in his mouth. “You know what the problem was with that old greaseball?” he asked Vin. “He was like a pay toilet. He wouldn’t give a shit for nothing. He had dozens of young guys like you and me doing work for him, but never showed any gratitude. From ’57 to ’76 he wouldn’t open the books and make anybody. Remember? We were prisoners.” Teddy squinted through the smoke, still smarting from the memory. “He wouldn’t move any of us up in the organization. Oh, he was an old hard-on.”
Vin shrugged and sat against the rusty sink. “Well, now you know how Anthony feels,” he said to Teddy. “He’s a young guy, just like we were, and he don’t have any way to move up and make some money.”
Teddy gave him a look that was meant to cut like a buzz saw. “Don’t give me any more grief about that, Vin. I’m under enough pressure already.”
He coughed three more times and spit something else into the toilet. Before Vin could see what it was, Teddy flushed it down.
“Will you at least think about it, Ted?” Vin pleaded. “We been together a long time. It would mean a lot to me. At least let him handle the envelope.”
Teddy let the cigarette dangle out the side of his mouth, Humphrey Bogart-style. His face was splotchy and there was no luster in his slicked-back hair. “I’ll think about it. If you’ll think about getting him off my welfare roll. It’s embarrassing having to support my own niece.”
Vin looked like he would have fallen on his knees and kissed Teddy’s pinky ring if the floor hadn’t been so damp.
“Thanks, Ted. I feel more a man after talking to you.”
Teddy took the cigarette out of his mouth and looked at it warily, as if it had done something to offend him.
“You’re a good father, Vin,” he said, putting a hand on his old friend’s shoulder. “That kid don’t deserve you.”
OVER THE NEXT WEEK,
Larry DiGregorio’s murdergrew like a fungus in my mind. I couldn’t get rid of this image of him lying there with his wig off and the ice pick in his kidney. I kept thinking the police were going to come by my house at any minute and take me away from my kids. I loved Vin, but I had to get away from him and his crew. Their lifestyle was contaminating me.
And then I got my chance.
I had an appointment on a hot Monday morning with a guy I knew named John Barton. We were supposed to meet at the local P.A.L. and talk about some drywall work he wanted me to do on his garage.
He was a funny kind of guy, John B. He had a long angular face, coalblack skin, and tinted aviator glasses that made him look like some bad-ass pimp hustling girls on Pacific Avenue. But once you got to know him, you realized he was actually a very sweet, soft-spoken guy who painted boats for a living. He was so pathetically shy that he almost never looked you in the eye, and when he talked you had to lean in because he swallowed half his words.
Except when the subject was his older brother Elijah, former middleweight boxing champion of the world. When he talked about Elijah, John B. suddenly got the heart of a lion. Everything he said became clearer and more articulate. Even his posture changed, so he stood up an extra six inches and looked you straight in the eye.
I found him hanging out by the doorway, trying to feed a crumpled dollar into a vending machine. I traded him for a smoother bill and asked him how he was doing.
“Fine,” he said in his regular mealy-mouthed voice. “Wanna meet my bro?”
“I’m askin’, do you-all wanna meet my brother?”
That was the other thing about John. Every time you saw him, he’d ask if you’d like to meet his brother. It was kind of sad. He just assumed that was the only reason anyone would want to talk to him.
“Sure. I’d like to meet your brother someday.”
“He’s here today, man,” said John B., who wore a baseball cap with the name of a battleship his brother once fought on.
I looked around the gym and saw a skinny black kid jumping rope on the scabby red floor and an out-of-shape cop doing situps on a crusty slant board. Finally, I noticed a middle-aged man standing in the boxing ring near the back, red-gloved hands on hips, trying to catch his breath. I didn’t recognize Elijah Barton at first. He was about twenty pounds heavier than I remembered him and his face was barely visible under his headgear. But here he was, slowly beginning to move around the ring with a strong-looking kid who had to be half his age.
By my calculations, Elijah had to be at least forty-three. He hadn’t been champion for nine years. I hadn’t even seen his last six fights. But as he ducked under one of the younger kid’s punches and swung his arms like a woodsman about to chop down a tree, he didn’t seem overly frail.
“What’s he doing here?” I moved closer to get a look. “Trying to get in shape?”
“He gonna make a comeback.” John followed me, sounding protective. “He gonna move up to light heavyweight.”
I watched as the younger kid moved forward and hit Elijah with a sharp jab that he should’ve seen coming when he woke up that morning.
“You sure he wants to do that?”
“He’s just got to get hisself back to being the way he was—you understand what I’m saying?” said John B., unfazed, as the words whistled through a space in his teeth. “Been away a long time.”
I noticed how little resemblance there was between the brothers, even though John B. was just a couple of years younger. Probably the benefit of not getting beat up night after night.
“Well listen. What about this drywall work?”
“Wha?” he said, swallowing his words again now that the subject wasn’t his brother anymore. “I don’t remember what I said to you.”
“Drywall. The job we were talking about. The one I was gonna bring in for twelve hundred for you?”
“Oh” His face went slack. “Well I been askin’ around. And, uh, I talked to a man said he could bring it in for eight hundred dollars.” He seemed embarrassed about getting a better price.
All right fuck you, I was going to say, but something stopped me. I was watching his brother. He was right up against the ropes, about ten feet away, when the younger fighter hit him with a solid left hook. Elijah’s head snapped back. But by standing this close, I could see the blow wasn’t as devastating as it might have been. Elijah had turned his chin just enough to take the force off the shot.
“He always take a punch like that?”
“Last five years,” said John B., “he learned to take three for every one he throws. Kept his career alive.”
Probably lost him some brain cells too. A right uppercut slammed into Elijah’s jaw and he shook it off like a bad idea. He reminded me of my father shrugging it off after Larry shot him.
“So he must get paid pretty well to get beat up like that, right?”
“Ain’t just the money,” said John. “It’s the pride.”
Yeah, right, I thought. I’d heard about the kind of money fighters made off casino deals and pay-TV contracts. Before they locked Mike Tyson up, he was making twenty, thirty million dollars a bout.
“He feel like he has to come on and prove himself.”
“So’s he got any new bouts lined up?”
John B. rubbed his chin. “Well you know there’s a spot that opened up on that casino bill in the fall, but I dunno if we can git it.”
I’d heard something about that. They were looking for somebody to fight Terrence Mulvehill, the current light heavyweight champ.
“Why can’t your brother get the slot?”
John shook his head. “You know anything about boxing?”
Before I could answer, Elijah landed a strong right uppercut that caught his opponent on the chin and sent him staggering toward the corner.
“You got to give in order to get,” John B. said. “You know what I’m saying? It takes money to make money. You got sanctioning fees, training expenses, you got to pay the lawyers and the sparring partners, and then you got to be down with the right promoters and managers and man, they are the worst. His old manager Frog Nelson ran off with half his money, man. We still suing that motherfucker.” He put his hands in his pockets and his body sagged a little from the burden. “It’s fifty thousand dollars just to get started on the way back.”
“You can’t borrow that kind of money? That doesn’t make any sense. A guy like your brother, used to be champ, they’re gonna get at least a million back on their investment.”
Elijah Barton was chasing the younger guy across the ring, swatting him with his glove like a big old lion playing with his cub. In the meantime, John B. was watching me carefully, like something just occurred to him.
“Say Anthony,” he said, more confidently. “Your family’s got some money, don’t they?”
“Oh no, John. You don’t wanna get mixed up with them.”
I could see what he was thinking. He was desperate to launch his brother on a comeback and he didn’t care who his partners were. All he knew was he’d once been on top of the world with his brother and he liked the view from up there a hell of a lot better than he liked painting boats.
“Why can’t I talk to your father or Teddy?”
“Because once they get their hooks into you they never let go. You think you can just borrow some money from them and return it, but it doesn’t work that way. There’s never an end to it. They always keep coming at you.”
Besides, I thought, boxing was getting to be more of a legitimate business. The pillars of industry were promoting it: Time-Warner, Donald Trump, and my personal hero, Dan Bishop, who grew up on the streets of Atlantic City like me and ended up the most successful casino owner in Vegas. I knew there were still some rough characters around, but I remembered all the movie stars, magazine models, and CEOs sitting ringside at the last fight I’d seen on TV. That was what I wanted to be part of. Not watching two old men trying to bite each other’s ears off on a filthy barroom floor.
“Well, maybe you know somewhere else we could get the money.” John B. sucked the gold ring on his left hand.
I just stood there a moment, thinking and watching his brother in the ring. Elijah had this kid trapped in the corner again and was whaling the shit out of him. There were rights, lefts, hooks, uppercuts, open-glove slaps, closed fists, rattlesnake jabs that slithered past the kid’s ear, and smashes that tore into his rib cage like flying Ninja stars. I never knew there were so many ways to hit somebody.
And I was thinking: This is what it’s all about. You get put down and stomped on all your life; people try to obliterate and annihilate you. And then, just when it seems like you can’t take it anymore, you find that you can take it. And you come back. You learn to take three shots for every one you give. And when you see an opening, you lunge for it.
If I’d been born a rich man’s son, I might have gone to law school. If I’d grown up among honest working people, I might have wound up being a cop or running a grocery store. But I grew up with gangsters and boxing was the only legal way I knew of to make a million dollars without real qualifications. Money I could use to pay off Teddy once and for all. But it was more than that; it was a way out of one world and into another.
Elijah Barton once got three million dollars to fight a man. So when the opportunity came up to be part of his comeback, I lunged at it.
“You know, John,” I said. “There might just be another way to raise that money.”
Later on that day, we stopped by his brother’s house on Maine Avenue. We found Elijah stretched out on a couch in his living room, wearing a pressed yellow shirt and navy trousers. His wife was in the kitchen, cooking and listening to a religious program.
“So you’re the young fella who’s gonna help me get my name back,” Elijah said, getting up slowly to shake my hand.
“We’ll see. I hope so.”
His face was wider than it used to be. Not just puffy, but expanded sideways, like in a carnival mirror.
He began to bend back his arms and limber up his shoulders, like he was about to step into the ring again.
“You know, a lot of these young boys who get in the ring now, they got a lot of spunk, but ain’t none of them know how to go the distance,” he said in a voice as light as pillow feathers.
I noticed that he hardly ever blinked. I guess that reflex didn’t work as well anymore since he’d been hit in the head so many times.
“Can you go the distance?” he said, starting to throw a right hook at my head.
I ducked and then realized he’d just been faking. “Yeah, I can go the distance.”
“Then how you gonna raise the money?” Elijah asked.
“Don’t you worry about that. I’m very motivated.”
A grin broke up Elijah’s face and he weaved and bobbed and popped me on the shoulder with a quick left. It only hurt a little.
“That’s real good,” he said. “It’s important for a man to be motivated. I remember I had a motivation for every fight I ever had. My first fight was for a diamond ring. My second fight was for a car. By my twelfth fight, I was buying my family a house.”
“So what would this fight be for?” I asked, wondering what I was getting myself into.
“To get back everything I had before,” Elijah said solemnly.
John B. broke in, basking in the glow of his brother’s celebrity. “When my brother was champ, there wasn’t nobody who didn’t know who he was. We could go to Zambia or New Zealand and brothers would come out the kitchen, saying, ‘Elijah, Elijah, we love you.’”
A cloud passed over Elijah’s face. “But the last time at the airport, that girl behind the counter couldn’t spell my name right,” he murmured.
“So that’s why you want to fight again? To get your name back?”
“That, and the money.” Elijah put up his guard and rocked from side to side. His wife’s religious program in the kitchen seemed to get a little louder. “Like I say, I’m in it to go the distance. Some of these young boys, who fight now, they just wanna kick butt. I’ve kicked enough butt. Now I want security.”
“All right,” I said, playing devil’s advocate to make sure this deal was going to be worth all the effort I’d have to put into it. “But what about all those people who are going to say you’re too old to fight and you’re just risking more brain damage?”
He threw a big brown fist in my face and for a second my whole world was his knuckles. Then as fast as it came it was gone. The punch stopped short of my nose by less than a quarter inch. If it had connected, I would’ve spent two months in a hospital easy.
“Does that look like brain damage?” He danced away.
“So you’re not afraid of getting knocked out?”
“Hell no.” He threw a quick combination at the lamp in the corner. “Though it must be something. Having the night close up on you like that.” He stopped dancing and punching for a second. “They say it’s hard for a man to live with himself after he gets stopped. I heard tell of one man was lying on the dressing room table after he got knocked out and started to see visions of baby Jesus fighting and boxing with the angels. Imagine that. Baby Jesus, gettin’ in the ring. Man got so scared he ran out naked on the street.”
“Why’d he do that?” I asked, feeling a peculiar chill on the back of my neck.