Authors: Peter Blauner
Tags: #Hard Case Crime
P.F. WASN’T SURE
if it was the hangover or the clams that were nauseating him as he stood in front of the grocery on Florida Avenue, talking to Teddy and his two soldiers, Joey Snails and Richie Amato.
“So I’ve been asking myself,” said P.F. with a hand over his stomach. “Who would wanna do a thing like that to poor Larry DiGregorio? Senseless.”
The heat was like a gorilla suit. Teddy, sitting on a milk crate, pried open a clam, sucked out its insides, and threw the shell into a white plastic bucket at his feet.
“That’s three times I been asked the same question,” he told P.F. “First I had the feebs. Then the state troopers and now I got you. The man was a friend of mine. Ask anybody. I never wanted to see him chopped up like that.”
On their milk crates nearby, Richie and Joey Snails exchanged bad-boy smiles and talked about the movie
Dances With Wolves
. The baking sun turned the sidewalks salt white and conjured a murky stench from the bucket at Teddy’s feet.
P.F. felt the gorge rising in his throat. “Well the word is you were having some kind of problem with Larry’s son Nicky . . .”
“Ah, bullshit.” Teddy struggled for a few seconds with a clam that wouldn’t open and then tossed it into the bucket at his feet. “You know the only reason you come around asking questions like that is because I have a last name that ends in a vowel. It’s discrimination, that’s what it is. Being Irish and a drunk like you are I would’ve expected better from you.”
P.F. gave up a smile he’d meant to keep to himself. On his crate, Joey Snails put his fingers up to his head like horns and told Richie “de-tonka” was Indian for buffalo.
“God forbid a robin should fall out of a tree, I’d get blamed for it,” Teddy went on. “Why don’t you do something about real crime? I heard there was a shooting down in the Inlet last night. I don’t see you working on that.”
“I had no idea you were so concerned about the violence in our minority community. You ought to think about organizing a volunteer patrol.”
“There’s crime going on everywhere, you wanna look for it. Look across the street there.”
Teddy pointed to a small Vietnamese restaurant with a yellow-and-red sign out front. “Every night I see twelve guys coming and going out the back of that place,” he said. “So don’t tell me they haven’t got a card game going back there or an illegal shipping operation.”
Three young Asian men dressed in black and wearing sunglasses got into a white Lexus and drove away laughing.
“Sure that’s not just jealousy?” asked P.F.
He’d heard Teddy was getting squeezed these days. Something about Jackie from New York coming into town.
“Poor fuckin’ buffalo,” said Joey Snails. “They hadda go whack most of ’em. But there are still a few left. I saw some the other day when I was driving up the Turnpike ...”
“Get the fuck outa here,” said Richie, admiring the new biceps and traps the steroids had given him. “There ain’t no buffalo in Jersey. They’re all in upstate New York. That’s why they named a town after them ...”
Teddy coughed uncomfortably and dropped another clam in the bucket. “You know,” he said, looking up at P.F. “I hope you didn’t come by here looking for a payoff again, like you used to with your old partner.”
The memory and the gorge in P.F.’s throat seemed to rise simultaneously. Twenty years ago. Coming by with Paulie Raymond, to collect televisions and carpets as bribes.
“No,” P.F. said, trying to keep himself bottled up. “That was Paulie’s game. I was just along for the ride.”
“Good thing too,” Teddy grumbled. “’Cause there ain’t any more where all that came from. A man oughta work for a living anyway.”
“I had occasion to think of those days recently.” P.F. cleared his throat. “Michael Dillon. He was a friend of yours too. I wonder whatever happened to him.”
Teddy took part of a clam into his mouth and spit the rest of it into his bucket. “I don’t know. Maybe a building fell on him. He wasn’t too cautious, you know. Mike.”
P.F. remembered. The smiling tan face. The shoes that he couldn’t afford. And the payoff Paulie took to stop investigating his murder. Thinking about it was like picking at an old scab.
“I wouldn’t go around asking too many questions about that,” Teddy warned him with hard, slitted eyelids. “It might reflect badly on you, if you know what I mean.”
Joey leaned over and asked Richie if he thought a buffalo would make a good coat.
P.F. put up a hand like he was trying to slow traffic. “I just came by to see what you knew about Larry,” he said. “I remembered he was a friend of yours and thought you might have something to add to the investigation.”
“And I already told you. I don’t know nothing about nothing.” Teddy went back to concentrating on his clams.
“Beautiful,” said P.F. “No wonder you go around confused all the time.”
VIN HAD FINALLY ARRANGED
for me to pick up theweekly envelope from the roofers’ union, but I wanted nothing to do with that. I was determined to raise the boxing money legitimately. What I found out, though, is when you try doing things in a legitimate way, people can get hurt too.
A week after I’d seen Elijah Barton at his house, I was home having dinner with my wife Carla. The kids were in the next room, watching some piece of mayhem on the VCR. He-Ra the Slaughterer or She-Man the Magnificent, one of those superhero cartoons about people getting their skulls crushed. I was eating the Spaghetti-Os that Carla had heated up—little ringlets of death—and thinking about how I’d improve my diet once I started to make some real money.
Then out of the blue, Carla looked up and said, “I got a call from Mr. Schwarzberg at the bank today.”
We’d barely spoken since that blowup we’d had about the couch. I just sat there, stupefied.
“Yeah, what’d he want?”
“He said you were talking to him this morning about us getting a second mortgage.” She opened her right hand like a fan. She’d painted all five nails fire engine red.
The house we lived in wasn’t what you’d call spacious in the best of times. But now I felt the off-white ceiling getting a little lower.
“Schwarzberg called you about the mortgage?”
“Yeah,” she said. “You didn’t say nothin’ to me about that.”
She took out an emery board and began filing her fingernails with it. I felt sick. Not just because chipped bits of fingernail might go flying in the red sauce, but because it was the type of thing her mother might do. Marie the cow.Teddy’s sister. Filing her nails over a steaming plate of linguini while her husband Jack droned on about scamming auto insurance companies.
“Well, we haven’t been saying much of anything to each other lately,” I said.
Even though we’d been fighting, I hadn’t quite lost all the feeling I had for Carla. Maybe because we’d been through so much together. She turned sideways in her chair and rested her hand on where the baby’s spine would be.
“And what kind of second mortgage you think we’re gonna get?” she asked as if she was just curious.
“I don’t know. I thought we could maybe renegotiate a home equity mortgage. See how it goes. What’d we start off with? A house worth fifty-five thousand dollars? I figure it’s worth almost twice that now.”
Her face got all knotted up and for a second I thought the baby must’ve kicked her in the kidneys. Something about having this third kid had really put the years on Carla. All of a sudden she was starting to look like her mother, heavy under the chin and sad around the eyes.
“What’re you, crazy?” she said. “You think this house is worth more now than when we bought it? You take a look outside lately?”
Our house was a blue two-story with a red triangular roof and a brown porch in what used to be a beautiful neighborhood. Years ago, it was all Italian, maybe a couple of Jews, and not a single piece of trash on the street. People used to be able to leave their doors unlocked at night. Now vandals regularly broke into the abandoned houses on the block to steal the plumbing fixtures and sell the parts for scrap. Some of the other houses were falling apart because the old Jews who used to live there moved down beach to Margate and rented their places to four or five Asian or Puerto Rican families at a time. When you walked by, you’d see the broken windows and the children scrawling graffiti on the walls.
“You never know. Things could turn around.”
Carla dropped her fork and her cheeks started to get all red and puffed again. “Anthony,” she said, “the man told me you wanted a loan of thirty-five thousand dollars.”
I was hoping she wouldn’t find out about that. The guy at the bank said he’d call back, but I’d been counting on picking up the phone myself.
“Listen, if you didn’t spend money like we were at a county auction, I wouldn’t have to do this. It’s only ’cause we don’t save like we should. That’s why I need the money right away.”
She deflected the lie like a champion turning away a weak left jab. “What’re you telling me? You’re in so deep to a bookmaker you gotta borrow thirty-five thousand dollars?”
Her nostrils were flaring, like they always did when we were arguing. I decided I wasn’t going to knuckle under, though.
“Never mind what I need it for,” I said. “You wouldn’t understand anyway.”
“Anthony, they’re gonna charge like eight and a half percent interest!” She leaned forward, pressing the baby in her stomach against the table. “You’ll be dead before you finish paying off the interest. We’ve barely made a dent in the fifty-five we owed them in the first place.”
I suddenly had this vision of us sitting in this same kitchen fifty years in the future, all old, worn-out and toothless, with the kettle on and the ceiling falling in on us. Her in her mother’s housecoat, her flabby arms hanging out like dead flounders. Me in the same cheap moth-eaten suit. Talking about the good old days that weren’t actually that good.
“You just don’t understand the way things could be,” I said, raising my voice. “You were the one saying I was stuck in the rut. Now I’m trying to get us out of it and you’re slapping me down.”
She put a hand on her forehead. “What’re you saying?”
“I’m saying I need this money to start up a new business.”
“What new business?”
I wasn’t going to tell her about the boxing and let her call me crazy or stupid. It was too early and I needed to work some things out. So instead I shifted the subject. “I can’t go on the way I was,” I said. “Construction is dead in this town.”
“But if there ain’t no more construction, how can our house be worth more?” she asked, half rising in her seat tomake the point. “Don’t you get it? If you’re saying Atlantic City is dead, our house can’t be worth any more than we paid for it. We haven’t got the assets. What’re you gonna tell the bank appraiser when he comes to our house?”
It occurred to me that we’d been talking about one thing when we were trying to say something else completely. We weren’t fighting about the mortgage. We were fighting about trying to stay alive inside. Rosemary was actually a few years older than my wife, but in some way, I was drawn to her because she was still fighting and hadn’t given up yet. But when I looked at Carla in her old tank top and her mother’s bouffant, I thought of a soldier raising the white flag. She was already starting to sink back down into herself.
“What about that casino guy, Donald Trump?” I said, thrusting a finger into the air like I was trying to win over a stadium full of doubters. “Or Dan Bishop.”
“Oh, don’t bring up Dan Bishop again.”
“Why not? He started off just like me, running numbers in the Inlet, and now he owns one of the biggest casinos in Vegas. Just last year he got the banks to loan him twenty million when he didn’t have the assets to cover it. It’s the exact same situation. He had to get people to make the leap and believe in him.”
“Yeah, but Anthony, he had a name. His name was worth something.”
“And one day my name will be worth something,” I blurted out.
We were both quiet a minute. I started jiggling my knee and pulling at the edge of the lace tablecloth. It wasn’t real lace, but some vinyl substitute she’d picked up at Caldor.
I caught a whiff of that cat smell that’s always haunted our house. The lady who used to own the place had one of her cats get run over by a car. The one that was left behind was so distraught he went around spraying the floors for a year. The smell permeated the wood, and there was no way to get it out. So now we had to live with the memory of a heartbroken cat for the rest of our lives.
“Anthony,” my wife said slowly. “What do you think would happen if you defaulted on this loan?”
“I’m not going to default.”
“But if you did,” she said a little louder. “We’d lose this house.”
“I just told you. There wouldn’t be any default.” Hell, if this thing worked out with the fight I’d clear five times what I owed them at least and finally be able to pay Teddy off.
“Anthony,” she said, using my own name to beat me over the head. “If we lose this house, where are we gonna live?”
“We’re not going to lose the house.”
“Where would your children live?”
“They’d live better than they ever did.”
It was like I was having to defend a dream against the daylight.
“We’d end up on welfare, like the coloreds your father’s always complaining about.”
“I would never let that happen,” I said, dropping my napkin and starting to stand up. “I would never allow that.”
“Yes, you would.” Her lips began to tremble.
“What kind of man do you think I am? What’re you doing married to me in the first place?”
“You’d sacrifice all of us for some idea you had.”
“And you want to keep me down. Because you’re afraid I’ll leave you behind if I start to get anywhere in my life.”
I saw her eyes get wide and then start to recede back into her head. It was like watching somebody get stabbed.
“I don’t know, Anthony,” she said in a voice like a little ship heading off into the fog. “Sometimes I feel like I don’t know you no more.”
That night I went to sleep on the couch. Carla was in the next room snoring. I couldn’t get comfortable. There were crickets outside and little Anthony kept calling me to get him a drink of water. Every time I got back to the couch, it seemed like it had gotten a little shorter and narrower. Finally I drifted off at about a quarter to one.
I don’t know how much later it was that I heard something stir. I looked up to see Carla staring down at me. It was still dark outside, except for the street light, and the leaves on the sycamore by the window cast a shadow over her face. With the light like that, she looked young again, the way she did when we went on those midnight swims.
“Anthony,” she said. Her voice felt soft and downy in my ear. “I don’t see why we gotta fight like this.”
“I don’t see why either,” I mumbled.
“This ain’t the way it was supposed to be,” she said. “It was supposed to be me and you against everybody, like we was the last gang in town.”
I started to wipe the crust of sleep off my eyes. She had her nightgown open. Her breast was floating just above my head. And for a second I forgot all of our problems. That breast was as young and perfect as the moon above the Boardwalk. I didn’t even mind the cross lying next to it. A little more of that feeling I used to have for her came back. I began to think about how it would be if we patched up our lives again.
I guess even after what I’d done and said about leaving her behind, she still wanted to be with me. I reached up to touch her breast, just to let her know I still cared, but then her eyes caught the street light coming through the drapes and my fingers froze. Those eyes reminded me of the type of motel rooms where guys go alone to blow their brains out. I didn’t want to go there with her. I knew right then that if I stayed with Carla, I’d never get out of this place.
“Hey,” I murmured. “Maybe another time. Maybe we can talk in the morning.”
I turned away, so I wouldn’t have to see her looking disappointed. She must’ve stood there another minute or two watching me, because that’s how long it was before I heard her trudging back to the bedroom.
I opened my eyes one more time and saw the bright red casino sign way beyond the boarded-up house across the street, burning the words
TAKE A CHANCE
against the dark sky.
I didn’t hear from Carla the rest of the night. And of all the awful things I’ve done since then, turning her away like that may be one of the three or four I regret the most.