Authors: Peter Blauner
Tags: #Hard Case Crime
IT WAS TIME TO
start raising money if I was going to get serious about the fight game. Fifty thousand dollars was what John B. said we needed. But I couldn’t have Teddy know I was going after that kind of money, or he’d want it all for himself.
That night I had to drop by Rafferty’s, to look at invoices. And since the place was usually crawling with wiseguys and union officials, I figured it might be a good time to renew old contacts and see about getting a little work for my contracting business.
I spotted Paulie Raymond, a guy who I knew had union connections, sitting with his brother Albert the hunchback at a round table. I went over to join them.
They looked like they were having the time of their lives. It was the first night we had Foxy Boxing and Hot Oil Wrestling at the club. Since topless dancing wasn’t allowed at bars in Atlantic City, Teddy decided to have the girls fight instead. Paulie had a ringside seat. He was all red, like a lobster, and every time you saw him he was wearing another piece of jewelry. This night, he had on a gold bracelet with his name spelled out in diamonds. Even though he was over sixty, the skin was tight around his jaw and lizardlike down his neck, as if he’d just had plastic surgery. It didn’t matter though; he still looked like an old fag you’d see hanging around the bus station late at night. It was hard to believe he’d been a detective with the Atlantic City Police Department for more than thirty years.
But Paulie was one of those cops who act more like wiseguys than wiseguys. The badge was just a license to steal. He was into everything: money laundering, ripping off drug dealers, securities frauds, insurance swindles. And on the side, he’d also gotten himself into a position where he was a go-between for Teddy’s crew and one of the local construction unions, where his uncles and cousins were all members. You had to treat him with respect because he had access to half the major building contracts in town.
“You’re lookin’ good, Paulie.”
“Yeah?” he said, watching the girls fight in the makeshift ring we’d set up.
A greased-blonde in a string bikini was throwing a body block on this busty redhead in a green one-piece bathing suit.
“I told that fuckin’ doctor to do something about my hands,” Paulie said.
“He’s got hands like an old woman,” said his brother Albert the hunchback. Albert was a quiet guy who liked to listen to classical music and go out with seventeen-year-old girls.
Paulie held up his hands. The knuckles were raw and the backs were well-mapped with blue and green veins.
He was wearing a fresh coat of clear nail polish and I thought of my mother lying there in the casket with her hands folded, after the last pill overdose. The memory made me gag and I had to stop myself from throwing up right there at ringside with the girls tossing each other around.
“It’s amazing what they can do with hands now,” Albert was saying. “They can give you another guy’s prints even. I swear, they had that when I was young, I wouldn’t have never had no record.”
“Larry felt bad about his hands too,” Paulie said, putting down his champagne glass.
“Who’s this?” I waved for the waitress to bring me a ginger ale.
“Larry DiGregorio, he had a carting business over in Brigantine,” said Paulie, looking right at me. “He was always looking at his hands and saying ‘How come I never hauled a piece of garbage in my life and I always look like I got dirt under my fingernails?’”
He shrugged and turned all the way back toward the girls in the ring. The redhead was biting the blonde’s arm now, even as the blonde had her in a headlock. Their bodies shined and rubbed together. I wondered if Paulie was watching them so intently just to prove he wasn’t a fag.
The waitress brought over my ginger ale. I thanked her and gave her a five-dollar tip.
“You know they found Larry in a Dumpster the other night,” said Paulie, without turning back to the table.
“Is that right?” I kept a poker face even as I stared at the spot by the bar where Vin stabbed him.
“Yeah. His son Nicky’s all hot about it. Says he’s gonna cut the heart out of the guy that did it.”
I just rubbed my fingers together and didn’t say anything.
In the ring, both girls were down on the canvas, wrestling. If you weren’t watching carefully, you’d think they were fooling around like kids in a sandbox. But as close as I was, I could see they were really grimacing and grabbing each other by the hair.
The blonde sank her teeth into the other girl’s arm. She was familiar, I decided. Thin nose and eyes just a bit too far apart. She looked a little like Shelly Francis, the girl I went with just before I met my wife. I started rooting for her for old time’s sake.
Paulie stuck his fat red claw with the gold rings into the popcorn bowl on the table. “So what’s your business with me?” he said. “I know you didn’t come over to inquire about my health plan.”
I acted insulted that he wanted to get to the point so quickly. “I was just interested. I heard Teddy wasn’t happy about Lenny Romano getting that job fixing the parking lot over at City Hall.”
He stuffed the popcorn into his mouth and just stared at me as he crunched it. I wasn’t sure if he knew what had happened with that contract. Normally the way it worked was that Teddy would have Paulie or one of his other contacts at the union threaten to throw a strike if one of Teddy’s phony construction firms didn’t get hired by a builder.
But in this case, that didn’t happen. I’d tried to get the contract legitimately. I went before the City Council with estimates for price, labor, and material, showing I could bring the job in for under three million dollars. But instead they awarded the contract to cross-eyed old Lenny Romano, whose lawyer Burt Ryan was also representing half the council members in their corruption trials. So I got screwed for playing it straight. If I’d gone through Teddy, he could’ve exerted pressure and gotten me the job. But I didn’t want to be any further in his debt, so I’d never asked him to get involved. I was gambling Paulie wouldn’t know that, though, so I could bully him into helping me get another job.
“So how ’bout it?” I said.
But Paulie saw through me immediately. He started huffing and puffing, like a bellows blowing into a fireplace. “Teddy didn’t have nothing to do with the City Hall parking lot. That was Burt Ryan’s contract.”
“That’s what I’m saying.” I stirred my drink. “It’s one of the first construction sites to open up in about a year and it doesn’t go to one of Teddy’s people. That’s why he’s upset about it.”
Paulie looked down his remodeled nose at me. “Well if Teddy’s got a problem, why doesn’t he come talk to me himself?”
I guess maybe he’d retained a few cop instincts. But I was still determined to try to bluff him out. I figured that if I acted like I had Teddy’s support, Paulie might go back to his people at the union and find me some work.
“Teddy doesn’t need to talk to you himself,” I said. “He knows he can rely on me. I’m married to his niece.”
“Oh, that’s bullshit!” said Paulie, spraying me with spit on the
sound. “What’re you trying to do, start trouble or something?”
“No.” I met his eyes. “I’m just saying what Teddy wants.”
Teddy had been dominating my whole life. I thought I should get something out of the association.
In the ring, the redhead threw the blonde against the ropes and got ready to kick her in her midsection. Paulie watched them a minute and then gave me his full attention.
“Let me tell you something, Anthony. Teddy ain’t such a big man anymore. In fact, as far as this union’s concerned, he’s out and Burt Ryan’s in. It’s a lawyer’s game now. So I wouldn’t go throwing around Teddy’s name like it meant something.”
“I’m not throwing his name around.” I frowned. “You know, you shouldn’t be so disrespectful, Paulie. My family goes back a long ways with you.”
“Listen, you little fuck,” he shot back. “I know all about you. I know how you got this act where you come on like you’re Mr. Nice Guy trying to make a buck and then you turn around and screw your partners into the ground.”
“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”
“Oh yeah?” He gripped his champagne glass like he was about to crack it. “What about them cigarettes?”
“What cigarettes? I don’t smoke cigarettes.”
“This fuckin’ guy.” Paulie leaned back to include his brother in our conversation. “He gets three thousand dollars off our cousin Bimmy and says he’s got a line on a truck full of untaxed cigarettes off an Indian reservation. Then he takes the money and leaves Bimmy waiting for the cigarettes.”
He was talking about a scheme Teddy and my father got me involved in years ago, back when I was in high school. They had me go to an albino grocery store owner named Bimmy and tell him I could get him the cigarettes for forty cents a pack. Then they took his money and gave him nothing in return for it. And now I was getting the blame.
“Look, Paulie,” I said. “That was a long time ago. I don’t do that type of thing anymore. And besides, I didn’t even know that guy was related to you.”
“You’re another fuckin’ con artist just like your old man,” said Paulie. I could smell the champagne excretions on his breath. “You’re both grown out of the same dirt even if you don’t smell the same. You’d fuck your grandmother if you could get a contract out of it. The only difference is you don’t have enough balls to squeeze a trigger when you have to.”
In the ring, I saw the blonde pick herself up off the canvas and give the redhead a stiff elbow to the jaw. I knew that if she was in my position, she wouldn’t take this type of abuse from Paulie.
All of a sudden I got a very cold feeling inside. “What do you know about my father?” I asked Paulie.
He opened his mouth, but no words came out.
“Hey.” I stuck a finger in his face and kept it there awhile. “Don’t you ever talk about my father.”
It was one of those moments when I was so mad that all the sound in the room cut off and all I could hear was the pounding in my head.
Whatever look I was giving, it sobered Paulie up. He turned pale and started fooling with his bracelet.
“You shouldn’t talk about things you don’t know about,” I said.
The blonde girl in the ring was getting kicked in the stomach again, but it didn’t slow her down. It just made her mad. There was something special about her, I decided. She wasn’t beautiful exactly. She had a little meat on her hips and some kind of weird scar down by her navel. When she tossed her hair, you could see the roots were dark. But you couldn’t take your eyes off her. It was the way she moved. She put her whole body into everything she did. When her hip went by you, it was like a force of nature passing through. In a funny way, she reminded me of Vin and Elijah. She was the kind of person who never quit. And in a flash, it came to me that I should’ve married someone like her instead of my wife.
Paulie moved his chair back and tried to give me a smile like we were really still friends after all.
In the meantime, the bell was sounding that the fight was over. The referee was holding up the redhead’s arm. The blonde girl was looking over at them with a mixture of disgust and determination. Like she’d known the fight was rigged all along, but she’d given it her best anyway. She was someone just like me. Who’d been put down all her life and had to struggle just to stay on par.
Seeing her fight had inspired me to stand up to Paulie, who was hunkered down at the table like some mean old toad protecting his stool. I knew he wasn’t going to help me get any contracts, but I wasn’t ready to take any more shit from him either.
“Just watch yourself, Paulie,” I said, standing up and giving him a pretty good knock on the shoulder. “Your cousin got what he deserved. No one gets taken who wasn’t greedy in the first place. If he’s got a problem he should talk to me himself. Otherwise I don’t wanna hear it. I’ve got no respect for people who can’t take care of themselves.”
HER STOMACH STILL HURT
where that other girl hadbeen kicking her all night long.
As she looked in the dressing room mirror, she saw parts of her face were bruised too. That bitch. Who told her to throw anybody around like that for sixty dollars a night? You made more getting your ass pinched serving drinks at the casino. At least there the black-and-blue marks didn’t show.
There were two knocks on the dressing room door. “The sign says do not disturb,” she called out. “The bathroom is downstairs.”
She wriggled out of her bathing suit and put two sticks of gum in her mouth. Pain shot through her jaw as soon as she started chewing and she had to spit it out right away. The whole time she was married she never caught a beating like this. But then that was all mental torture, after he closed up inside. Long stony silences over dinner and mornings shooting up in the bathroom. She still remembered waiting for him in bed and staring out the window at a gray sky where the seagulls looked like eraser marks.
It was awful to abuse yourself like that. Not that she’d mind a drink herself, her jaw aching like it was. But everyone was on her to watch her weight these days. It was bad enough she had the cesarean scar showing when she wore a bikini. She told the shift manager, just let me wear the one-piece. But he said, no, fuck it, wear the bikini, the customers are too drunk to notice the scar. But watch the cellulite, he told her. A customer wants to see cottage cheese thighs, he can go home and look in the mirror. Maybe she could get herself one of those Richard Simmons exercise videos and a can of Ultra Slim-Fast.
What did they all want from her anyway? She was the only girl over thirty on her shift and as far as she knew the only one with a kid. So for all that, she didn’t look too bad, did she?
There was the knock at the door again. A little more urgent this time. Probably some drunk trying to use the bathroom.
“Sir, are you hard of hearing?” she called out. “The john is downstairs.”
She pulled on her blouse and jeans and began brushing her hair up while looking in the mirror. She was starting to hate these little in-between moments. They gave her too much time to think about how things were going.
On good nights, a secret dream of moving out west and finding a new career kept her alive. On bad nights, she’d pretend her life was happening to someone else.
Tonight, she wished she’d brought her Walkman. That way she could listen to her own music and block out everything else: the crap they were playing on the speakers outside, the things men would say in the parking lot. Who needed the aggravation? Sometimes she wished she had a Walkman on all the time. That way she could take care of Kimmy, her mother and the two jobs without any distractions.
She finished teasing her hair, put on her sneakers, and went out to the bar, looking for some ice to put on her cheekbone before it started to swell up.
The place was almost empty now. A blue etherish light reflected off the smoked mirrors and an old Hall and Oates song played over the loudspeakers. The drunk who’d been pounding on her door was stumbling out into the parking lot, probably looking for a good Hyundai to piss on.
The guy totaling up receipts behind the bar was the cute one she’d noticed before. With the dark brown eyes and the longish hair he could’ve pulled back into a ponytail. Anthony, she’d heard someone call him.
“How about some ice, Anthony?” she said, hearing her mother’s arch, almost formal sound in her voice. “I’m turning into a cyclops.”
“Yeah, you might want to put a slab of meat on that.” He smiled and gave her a glass full of cubes. “Or how about a drink? You look like you had a rough night up there.”
“Don’t tempt me. I’ve got to get up with my kid in the morning.”
He tapped a couple more buttons on the register and put down his receipts. “You got a kid?”
“Yes. Is there something wrong with that?”
“I don’t know.” He shrugged and she decided he must be eight years younger than her. Probably the nephew of one of the goons who ran this place. “It’s just surprising, that’s all. You don’t expect somebody who does what you do to have kids.”
“Well I could say the same about you,” she said with a crooked smile. “I thought everybody who worked behind the counter here had something to do with the mob. But you don’t look like any gangster to me.”
He winced, just a bit.
“So what are you anyway? The hired help or part of the Corleone family?” She glanced back at the booth where Teddy usually sat.
“Just trying to pay some bills.”
“I hear that.”
She took out her wallet and showed him a picture of Kimmy smiling that guileless toothless four-year-old smile that made her feel teary-eyed and fiercely protective at the same time.
“She’s beautiful,” he said. “I’ve got two of my own. I’d kill for them.”
“All I have to do is wrestle other women.” She crossed her legs and showed him the bruise down by her ankle. “Every time I get one of these, I tell myself I’m paying for braces.”
“You sound like someone else I know.” He leaned over the bar to look down, seeming to take in the smell of her. “Another fighter.”
She decided he was sweet, even if he was the nephew of a Mafioso. Too bad about the wedding ring he was wearing, though.
“That’s the life of the single parent,” she said, letting her hair fall back. “Everything’s do or die. Half my paycheck goes for insurance. They ought to have a Purple Heart for mothers.”
“So maybe I can help you out one of these days.”
“And how are you going to do that?” She lit a Merit, enjoying the attention without taking it too seriously.
A gruff-looking older man with unruly gray hair was watching them from the other end of the bar.
“Well, you know.” Anthony glanced at him once and looked back at her. “Something could come up,” he said in a quiet voice you’d use to tell your best friend your deepest secret.
He looked from side to side again and then peeked under the counter, like he was expecting to find a surveillance mike among the dirty glasses. “Remember Elijah Barton, the old middleweight champion?”
“Yeah, maybe.” Was this a boxer he was talking about?
“Well I could be getting a chance to co-manage him in a title fight this fall. At one of the casinos.”
“Maybe I could get you a little work on the side, you know. Something a little more kinda dignified.”
He suddenly stopped talking, as if he was worried about offending her. She decided she really did have a little crush on him. Even if he was full of those silly dreams people talked about after-hours. She’d once dated a bartender who thought he was going to be the next Engelbert Humperdinck. He ended up stacking records in a jukebox.
“So why are you so anxious to help me out?” she said, humoring him. “You don’t even know my name.”
“It’s Rosemary. Right?”
“Rosemary Giordano.” She gave him her hand. The warmth from his palm went right up her arm and into her heart.
“Well, Rosemary,” he said, letting go of her hand and sitting back on a stool behind the bar. “You seem like the kind of person who’s had a couple of bad breaks in life.”
“Whatever. I guess so.” She checked her watch. Half past twelve. Her mother would be asleep by now. Too late to pick up the kid. Rosemary would have to sleep over there herself, with the noisy old fan in the window and the neighbors arguing next door.
“I’ve had a couple of bad breaks too,” Anthony was saying. “So I figure us bad-break people ought to stick together.”
“It’s a deal.” She stood up, making sure her handbag was closed. “As soon as you get your fight together, I’ll be there to sing the national anthem with bells on.”
“Now you’re laughing, but you’ll see. This is going to work out with the fight. I’m going to end up helping you.”
“And what did I do to deserve such luck?”
“I don’t know,” he said, suddenly turning serious. “There was something about the way you fought tonight. With so much heart.”
She looked hard at him again to see if he was kidding, but couldn’t catch a glimmer of a smile.
It was time to go. The song on the sound system had changed to a hit from a few years back. “Every time you go away, you take a piece of me with you,” it went. She didn’t want it to mean anything, but it made her think of the good times when she was married, before the eraser-mark skies and the syringes in the sink.
“The way you fought,” Anthony repeated. He touched his chest with his fist as if to say he was out of words. “I’ll never forget it.”