Authors: Peter Blauner
Tags: #Hard Case Crime
My father’s mouth twisted. “Hey, Teddy, we can bend the rules a little. Can’t we? It’s not etched in stone.”
“I’m sorry, Vin,” Teddy said. “I already considered it. I know it’s hard and I know it’s unfair. But somebody’s gotta uphold the old ways.”
That was maybe the biggest joke of all. Teddy upholding the old ways. The only reason he ever got to be a boss was because he happened to be living in exile in Atlantic City when the referendum on casino gambling passed. And by then, he’d been out of the Mafia mainstream for so long he actually had to call somebody up and ask them how to perform the induction ceremony.
“So again, Anthony, I must apologize,” he said. “I can’t change what’s come before. It’s tradition that makes us stronger. If we lose that, we lose everything.”
Actually what made Teddy strong was being willing to stab his friends in the back when they had something he wanted. My father passed a palm over his plate, signaling to me that he’d work things out later.
“It’s all right, Teddy,” I said. “I understand.”
“So that’s why you should do the right thing and listen to your father,” he said, taking half my father’s veal off his plate. “You may never get the button, but you can make a few dollars doing this casino thing he was talking about. Be smart is all I’m telling you. Take your breaks where they come. The rest is up to you.”
“Yeah, I’ll think about that, Teddy.”
He reached over my father and pinched my cheek so hard I almost yelped. “You know what I figured out?” he asked in a fake-affectionate voice. “I figured we’ve been too lenient with you and it hasn’t been doing you any favors. We been spoiling you. So maybe it’d be better if we put you on a schedule. Say if you don’t pay me the full sixty you owe in six months, you come work for me full-time.”
Which meant I’d have all the risks and none of the protection of a made guy. My butt cheeks slammed tight as a cell door. Made guys looked out for each other. But unmade guys, like I would be, had all the exposure. They wound up in prison or dead by the side of a service road with twenty-dollar bills stuffed in their ass. Not me. Now I had twice as much pressure to pull this boxing business off in six months.
I stood up and asked to be excused.
“Here’s looking at you, kid,” Teddy said, cramming the veal into one side of his mouth.
I bowed to the other guys at the table and asked my father if I could talk to him a minute out by where the cars were parked.
It was a cool night and all the stars were out. I could see Ursa Minor hanging over the red-brick housing projectacross the street. My car was parked by the curb right in front of the restaurant’s door. In the old days you could just leave it there, because even in a bad neighborhood like this, people understood the meaning of respect. Especially for guys who ate at Andolini’s. But now any little hood from the projects thought he could just slash your tires with impunity. So the owner had a guy sitting out front in a lawn chair, making sure nothing happened.
“So you told him I pushed a button on Larry,” I said. “That’s terrific. I’m just overflowing with gratitude.”
“I didn’t say nothing about it. I just told him you were man enough to do the right thing.”
“Why’d you go and do that?”
“I wanted him to show you some respect. Or at least set it up so you could handle the envelope.”
“And now I got six months to pay him off. Very nice.”
Across the street, I could hear the sound of children’s laughter echoing through the housing project. But all I saw were clotheslines full of sheets and shabby shirts strung up between the little red buildings. It was kind of eerie, like hearing the ghost of a good time.
I thought of the dead-eyed look I’d seen Teddy give my father inside.
“Hey, Dad,” I said suddenly. “What happened to Mike?”
I don’t know why I thought to ask about my real father right then. The question just popped out of me. Maybe because I’d been thinking lately about how my life could’ve been different if he’d stayed alive.
Vin looked like I’d just dropped a safe on his head. “Why the fuck you asking about that now? We been over it a million times.”
And the answer I got from him was always the same. “I don’t know.” “He must’ve made a mistake.” “It’s better not to think about it.” But I wondered. Especially after seeing that look on Teddy tonight. I wondered if somebody gave my real father a look like that before he disappeared.
“Why you gotta bring that up again?” asked Vin. “Ain’t I been a good father to you?”
“Yeah, of course, but that’s not the point...”
“Haven’t I always provided for you? Given you everything you ever wanted?”
I could see he was hurt that I’d even thought to question that. He had been a good father, in spite of his obvious shortcomings. Vin wasn’t cut out to be a family man. He was put on this earth to scam and squeeze to muscle and murder. If he’d run a car dealership, he would’ve had me working out on the lot. But the mob was the only world he knew, and borrowing money from Teddy was the only way he could think of to help. So I cut him a lot of slack. Maybe too much, as it turned out.
Above the jagged rooflines across the street, I could see light green laser beams shooting out of one of the casinos on the Boardwalk and crisscrossing the sky like marionette strings.
“I don’t know what happened to Mike,” he sighed. “It could be he had a problem with the old man in Philly. Maybe one day you’ll find out and tell me. He was my best friend in the world besides Teddy.”
For the first time, it occurred to me that he might be lying to protect someone.
“Listen,” he said, putting an arm around my shoulder. “I’m sorry if you were upset about what happened in there. Teddy and me, we’ve been getting all stressed lately.”
“Yeah, well, you shouldn’t have told him that I was the one who whacked Larry.”
“I know, I know.” He ran the comb through his wild hair again, but it had no effect. “I’m just trying to get you the button, that’s all.”
“But I don’t want that,” I said vehemently. “I want you to go back in there and straighten it out. Tell him what really happened.”
“Yeah, yeah.” But I could see he was thinking about something else. His hair was still standing up higher than usual.
“I’m serious,” I said. “Don’t help me with the button anymore. I’ll help myself.”
“One day you’ll appreciate what I done for you,” he told me wistfully.
“Yeah, right.” I gave him a hug just to let him know everything was okay between us. “So next year on my birthday, don’t get me anything, all right? The kind of presents you give, I’ll end up doing eight-to-twenty-five in a state prison.”
“WHEN I FIRST
come out here, there was nothing,” Teddy was saying the next day. “We had to build it up. The Boardwalk was so empty, you could’ve fired a cannonball and not hit anybody.”
“Yeah, I heard that,” said Jackie, the new mob boss visiting from New York.
“It was right after the Democratic Convention in ’64,” Teddy went on. “When all the press said Atlantic City was a shithole. ‘The glory days are over.’ You know. Because people weren’t coming down to the shore anymore. But I tell you, it only really got bad after the stories in the media. Right? Correct me, Vin. Anytime anything goes wrong you’ll either find a lawyer or a newsman behind it.”
They were sitting in Teddy’s backyard at the Florida Avenue house. A gentle breeze rustled the rose garden by the twelve-foot-high brick wall. Teddy and Vin were sitting on one side of a brown picnic table under a large white umbrella. Jackie “J.J.” Pugnitore and his underboss Sal Matera were on the other side. A platter full of cold cuts sat between them. Jackie still had not touched any food. He was forty-nine years old and wore a beige linen suit with a bright red shirt and a black handkerchief in his breast pocket. His nostrils were as wide and dark as his eyes. He’d first made his name as a street fighter in the Bronx, beating up blacks for being in the wrong neighborhood. He would’ve been disturbed to know that his ancestors in Sicily were referred to as “those Africans” by their neighbors on the Italian mainland.
His underboss Sal had slicked-back hair and a closed-off face. His designer polo shirt was a size too small, to emphasize the roundness of his pectorals and the broadness of his shoulders.
“Eat something,” Vin urged the guests.
“In a minute.” Jackie touched his heart.
“Anyway that’s what Vin and I inherited when we came out here,” Teddy continued, enjoying the sunny day and the attention of his visitors. “A pile of shit. We had to lay the foundations. Us and a guy named Mike Dillon.”
Vin flinched a little when Teddy said the name.
“In fact,” Teddy went on, “I got sent out here as punishment by the old man in Philadelphia. Vin and I beat up a shine liquor salesman who wouldn’t give up his parking space on Rosemount Avenue.”
“There was a Mercury behind it we wanted to steal,” Vin explained, rolling up the sleeve of his blue-and-white running suit so he wouldn’t get oil stains on it.
“It wasn’t our fault the guy dropped dead four days later in the hospital.” Teddy took two slices of salami off the platter and put them in his mouth. “Poor Vin got charged with manslaughter and did a five-year stretch in Graterford for the both of us.”
Teddy laid a heavy, appreciative hand on Vin’s shoulder. “He never once opened his mouth either,” he said. “He did his time like a man. Not like these rat kids, running around now. Can’t wait to find a federal agent to snitch to.”
Jackie seemed interested in something Teddy said before, though. “You were in Graterford, Vin?” he asked, one eyebrow arching up toward his perfectly coiffed gray-black hair.
“Five years.” Vin took two slices of rye bread and made Teddy a sandwich.
“You know Billy Nose while you were in there?” Jackie asked.
They were all quiet. Billy Nose had been boss of the biggest crew in New York. Jackie had had him killed two months before in a power struggle.
“Yeah.” Vin put mayo on the sandwich. “I think he was doing a stretch for driving somebody else’s Rambler on the Turnpike with thirty G’s in the back.”
Jackie gave his underboss a sidelong glance and then turned back to Vin. “And how’d he do his time?”
“How’d he do his time?” Vin handed over the sandwich. “The worst I ever seen.”
“Really?” Jackie seemed pleased.
“I’m telling you.” Vin scratched his nuts. “He was always running to me whenever he had a problem. Always crying, always. He said, ‘Vin, when I’m with you, I’m so comfortable, it’s like I’m sucking on my own mother’s tit.’”
Both of Jackie’s eyebrows shot up. “He said that? Those were his words?” His mouth twisted in disgust.
“You show me someone who can prove he didn’t, I’ll let you fuck me in the ass,” Vin said.
Everyone smiled. Teddy’s wife, Camille, came out of the house with a tray full of glasses. She moved slowly, as though permanently stunned, and wore a dark pair of Ray-Ban shades. She put the tray down with trembling, bony hands and returned to the house without looking at any of the men.
“Thank you, Mrs. Marino,” Jackie called after her.
Teddy poured each of the four of them a glass of Remy Martin and proposed a toast. “Here’s lookin’ at you, Jackie,” he said. “No one deserved to be boss more.”
They raised their glasses and clinked them together. Teddy and Vin downed about half their drinks. Jackie and Sal barely sipped theirs.
“Tell you the truth, I’m glad Billy Nose is dead.” Vin turned sideways and looked out toward the rose garden.
“I heard he was an old scumbag,” Teddy added, biting into his sandwich.
Jackie ran his fingers along his lapels and looked philosophical. “You know what the trouble was?” he said. “He was an old man. No offense, Teddy.”
Teddy lifted and dropped his shoulders. No offense taken. He was only about eleven years older than Jackie himself.
“I mean, he thought like an old man,” Jackie elaborated. His underboss Sal nodded. “He was afraid to make changes. He wouldn’t move anybody up. He was jealous of the young guys like me.”
Teddy wiped his hands on a paper napkin and looked over at Vin. “We were just saying, our old man in Philadelphia was the same way,” he said. “All them old greaseballs are like that. They see a young guy like you, Jackie, and it reminds them they’re gonna die one day.”
“Right,” said Jackie as Sal Matera leaned back and grabbed his own crotch. “Billy Nose just stopped making people. I’m serious. After Apalachin, he didn’t induct one soldier. Not one. Until the eighties. You had a whole generation of guys backed up, because they couldn’t go anywhere. It’s frustrating, you know.”
“Yeah,” said Vin, seeing an opportunity and jumping in. “We got a young guy just like that ourselves. Very capable. My own boy, in fact. We’re trying to move him up .. .”
Teddy cut him off with an angry glance.
Mrs. Marino came out of the house again with another tray full of glasses and a tall green bottle of Pellegrino water. She poured two glasses for Jackie and Sal and they smiled appreciatively. She returned to the house and could be seen weeping through the kitchen curtains.
“Ted,” said Jackie, raising the water glass. “I just want you to know we went through proper channels before Billy got whacked. We talked to everyone on the Commission before it happened. I know you weren’t able to make it down to the last meeting, but I just wanted you to know we did the right thing.”
“Jackie, on my son’s grave, it never entered my mind.”
They all stopped talking a moment and looked out at the garden. Since Atlantic City was set on a barrier island, it was difficult to plant anything more than a rose garden out here. Another salt breeze riffled the plain short blades of grass. Smoke from a barbecue rose from the other side of the brick wall. Teddy sniffed, looked down at his glass of Remy Martin, and finished the rest of it.
Jackie watched him carefully. “I wasn’t sure if anybody mentioned it to you, Ted, but there was something else on the agenda the last time the Commission met.”
“We were talking about some of the unions down here and it was decided that Ralphie Sasso over at the hotel workers’ should now belong to us.”
Jackie sat back with a hand on each of his lapels, waiting to be challenged.
“What’re you talking about?” Teddy’s face began to burn. “That’s been our union for twenty years. You can’t just come in and claim it!”
Jackie folded his arms across his chest and Sal Matera sat up a little straighter.
“I’m sorry, Ted, but that’s the way the Commission wanted it,” Jackie explained.
Teddy’s mouth was hanging open. Vin was tearing furiously at his shock of gray hair.
“Look, Ted,” said Jackie, crossing his legs. “We’re all getting squeezed now with these federal cases and the economy the way it is. We’re gonna have to learn to share.”
Vin shook his head. “I just saw Ralphie the other day. He didn’t say a thing to me.”
Teddy was furious. “This is unbelievable, Jackie. You think you can come in here and put my balls in your pocket?”
“Hey,” Jackie interrupted him. “It wouldn’t hurt so bad if you hadn’t given up the narcotics to the niggers or if you’d gotten a little further with the casinos.”
“What’re you saying?”
“I’m saying,” Jackie raised his voice, “that everyone knows you’ve never placed an executive at one of these places.”
“You try doing it with all these cameras and state troopers around,” Teddy protested. “It’s off-limits. You can’t get in there. It can’t be done. They got regulations up the ying-yang. No one’s ever had an
on the payroll.”
“And for twenty years, you’ve been feeding off the crumbs from the unions.” Jackie put a hand flat on the picnic table and stared him down. “And now it’s time for you to share it with the rest of us.”
Teddy started to stand up. “This is bullshit, Jackie!” he shouted. “It’s absolutely indecent. You’re trying to cut my fucking balls off!”
Jackie looked over at Sal, who reached down toward his sock as though he had a gun holstered there.
Vin put his arm across Teddy’s wide chest, trying to calm him down.
“Listen, Ted,” said Jackie, standing up and buttoning his jacket. “You got a problem with this, take it up with the Commission. Otherwise, that’s the way it’s gonna be. It’s decided.”
Teddy sat down, still sputtering angrily, but afraid to do anything about it. Vin put an arm around his shoulders. Jackie checked his Rolex and then signaled for Sal to stand up and leave with him.
“It’s not right, Jackie, not right.” Teddy wouldn’t look at him. He stared down at the picnic table as his stubby fingers grappled with each other on his lap. “You come down here, eat our food, and then you stab us in the back.”
“Hey,” said Jackie, pointing to the platter, which was still piled high with cold cuts. “We hardly ate anything.”
The two guests left abruptly, without saying goodbye. Teddy sat quietly stroking his middle for a few minutes while Vin tried to comfort him. More smoke came from the barbecue on the other side of the brick wall. Mrs. Marino peered out once from behind the kitchen curtains and went back to crying about her dead son.
Teddy stuck a finger into the platter of cold cuts and poked at them awhile.
“All this food I just bought,” he said to Vin. “It’s all gonna turn to shit.”