Authors: Robert Grossbach
At the store, Myerson, the owner, calls Joe aside one day; Myerson is getting old, wants to sell half the business, would
Joe be interested in buying? Joe has some money now, could possibly borrow the rest, but nevertheless declines the offer.
“Who needs the headache?” he says to Myrna. Another salesman, who came in after Joe, decides to take the
plunge. The business goes so well he opens a second store, skips over Joe for manager. That’s the way it goes, says Joe. I
In 1969, Joe retires. He is sixty-eight years old. Brian works in Los Angeles for Columbia Pictures. The youngest girl, Jean,
lives in Miami; Betty, the middle daughter, is with the Peace Corps in Uganda. Joe hardly sees them. After Myrna dies in 1971,
they all pledge to keep in touch, get together more frequently—but, somehow, it doesn’t happen. Once Joe takes a bus trip
out to California, visits Brian in his small, suburban ranch house. His three grandchildren are polite and friendly but, of
course, hardly know him. Brian and his wife are having some kind of marital problem; by the time a week passes, Joe senses
his presence has increased the strain. He leaves; now he and his only son lose touch.
In 1979, Joe is seventy-eight years old. His spine is beginning to curve, his cheeks to sink beneath the bones of his face,
his shoulder and hip joints to freeze. But he still has all his hair, even if it is a bleached-out white, and he still has
an infectious, mischievous smile. His income from Social Security is two hundred thirty-seven dollars a month.
They walked down Ditmars Boulevard, the warm September sun beating down from directly overhead. As usual, Joe was out in front,
Willie and Al dragging slightly behind.
“I did some stealing during the war,” said Joe, “so I’ll set everything up.”
“What do you mean, ‘you did some stealing’?” said Al. “I thought I was the only experienced thief around here.” Al had years
before worked as a bartender; during Prohibition, he’d smuggled some booze. His involvement was actually quite minor, but
you’d never know it from his stories. “And what war?” he asked Joe now.
Joe grinned. In World War I, he’d been with a company that had occupied a small German town near the French border. Joe and
a few friends had
bought cartons of cigarettes from the base PX and resold them to the German burghers at four times the price. The transaction
was conducted in a tent pitched on an unpaved side street; Joe would do the actual bargaining. When the customer emerged and
had gone a few blocks, Joe’s friends would arrest him and seize his belongings. “Black market cigarettes,” they’d say, when
they found the cartons. “We’ll have to take these, they’re illegal.” The cowed customer would slink away, and the cigarettes
would be returned to the tent. The men managed to sell the same goods eight times before word finally got around.
“Never mind what I mean,” Joe told Al now. Why tell them that his only experience with stealing was completely irrelevant
to what they wanted to do? Why worry them? After all, he had seen his share of crime movies, and had avidly followed the doings
of Capone and Lepke and Dillinger in the papers. Besides, what was there to know?
He recognized a tall, graying woman approaching them on the street. “Hello, Mrs. Spelios.”
Mrs. Spelios nodded. “How are all of you feeling today?”
Willie tilted his head. “Well, you know, the bursitis is—”
Joe poked him in the side. “We’re very good, thank you. And yourself?”
“Don’t ask,” said Mrs. Spelios. “God’s curse is to be old.”
“A shame,” said Joe, without sympathy. “I hope things will improve.”
“Never,” she said.
“See you later,” said Joe.
“Ya,” said Mrs. Spelios. “If I’m still alive.”
“Good-bye,” said Al.
She passed them and continued on.
“Why’d you poke me?” Willie asked Joe.
“Why? Because if you tell her one thing is wrong with you, she tells you twenty things wrong with her. You got a little bursitis,
she’ll give you a half-hour spiel on her heart murmurs, and her hysterectomy, and her arthritis in her hands, and her root
canal work, and even her athlete’s foot. You can’t win with that woman. Even if you’re dead, she’s worse. Last week she cornered
me for an hour, told me about some yeast infection in her vagina. Most disgusting thing I ever heard. I’m seventy-eight years
old, I don’t want to know from that.”
“I think it’s interesting,” said Willie.
“I’ll tell you what’s interesting,” said Joe. “We’re gonna need some guns.”
Willie stopped walking. “I don’t believe this.”
“Willie,” said Joe patiently, “we’re gonna need your help, we can
your help… but if you don’t wanna go, that’s okay too.”
“I haven’t said definitely—”
“I respect your feelings,” said Joe. “I’m sure Al does too. Al, is that right?”
“Yeah, I respect his feelin’s,” said Al. “I don’ understand ‘em, but if that’s what he wants to do—fine.”
“I’m just not sure yet,” said Willie. “I mean the idea of three old men…”
“I want you to know,” said Joe solemnly, “that you’ll still be our partner and we’ll cut you in on everything. That is, if
it’s okay with Al, of course.”
“Yeah, it’s okay with me,” said Al. “I don’ understand it, but if that’s what you think is right—then fine.”
“Yeah?” said Willie. “And if you go to jail, am I still gonna be your partner?”
“Through thick and thin,” said Joe. “For better or worse.”
“I hear they got a lot of them homos in jail,” said Willie.
“Yeah, maybe. So what?”
“I’m afraid of gettin’ raped.”
“You won’t get raped. Who wants old coots like us?”
Willie shook his head, and they resumed walking.
“My nephew Pete is a gun nut,” said Al. “He’s got a little collection he keeps in a cabinet down in his basement.”
“Well?” said Joe.
“So maybe there’s somethin’ for us.”
“When can you find out?”
“I’m going over there to watch his kids for a little while this afternoon.”
“Soon’s I have a chance,” said Al, “I’ll go down and check everything out.”
“Great,” said Joe. “But remember, don’t say nothing to nobody.”
“Of course not,” said Al. “I’m not a
fool, am I?”
“No one’s perfect.” Joe turned to Willie and put an arm around his shoulder. Willie’s face was pinched with tension. “Don’t
be torturin’ yourself now,” said Joe. “It’s not worth it, and it’s not necessary.”
necessary,” said Willie. “I never stole nothing in my life.”
“But the government steals from
Joe. “And they been stealin’ all along. I mean, is it right that an old man who worked so many years ends up havin’ to eat
dogfood for dinner? Where’s the morality in that?”
“It ain’t the government’s fault we’re poor,” said Willie.
insisted Joe. “All these years they been printin’ money like it’s going out of style. The mint’s in the business of makin’
paper, an’ so you got all these dollar bills floatin’ around buying up cars and lettuce and sweaters. Naturally, the prices
hit the moon. If you got a job, you tell the boss you need a raise. But if you’re like us, you’re stuck.”
“We tell our congressman,” chimed in Al, “only he’s too busy gettin’
to worry much about ours.”
“Sure, now an’ then they throw the old folks a bone,” said Joe. “Usually it takes one of them nursin’ home fires, or some
poor couple found starved or somethin’—and then people remember for a little while. Oh yeah, we forgot about the
they say. Yeah, let’s raise the Social Security by another two percent. And that’s the way it goes till the next tragedy.”
Willie compressed his lips. “It’s still stealin’,” he said, “no matter how you justify it or talk around it.”
“Sure, it’s stealin’,” said Joe. “I never said it wasn’t. As for justifyin’—all I claim is that people our age gotta look
out for themselves. Nobody’s gonna do it for ‘em.”
Willie nodded uncertainly.
“Don’t worry about a thing,” reassured Joe. “We’re gonna make you feel young again.”
It was an old, small house in Jackson Heights; every five minutes a plane landing at LaGuardia Airport would buzz the roof.
Kathy, Pete’s wife, met her husband’s uncle at the door. “Colleen and Kevin are inside,” she said. “I told them you were coming,
and I left them something to eat, so everything should be fine.”
“Yeah, yeah, don’t worry,” said Al. “I can handle everything at this end. You stay as long as you like.”
Kathy leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. “You’re really a sweetie pie,” she said. “I’ll be back in about an hour. In
emergency, if you have to reach me, I’ll be at Queens General Hospital, visiting Rita Dolan. Number’s on the table.”
“We’ll be fine,” said Al. He walked inside. Passing through the small living room, he stopped just outside the kitchen doorway
and peeked around the edge. A girl and boy were sitting at the table. The boy, age seven, was picking listlessly at a sandwich.
His face was serious, intent; his long hair came down almost over his eyes. The little girl, age three, seemed more relaxed.
She was eating something from a plastic bowl.
hair was a disorganized mass of tight curls. Suddenly, as Al watched, the boy leaned over and took something from the girl’s
bowl. She screamed.
“Mommy said you’re not supposed to!”
“I can if I want,” declared the boy
“No, you’re not finished!”
“No.” The little girl screamed again. “Give it back!”
“I ate it already,” said the boy.
The girl, who had seemed unaware of Al’s presenee,
was not; she now addressed him directly. “Mommy said he mustn’t take any potcorn until he finishes,” she said.
Al entered the kitchen.
“Hi, Uncle Al,” said Kevin.
“Hello, Kevin,” said Al. “Hello, Colleen.” He walked to the table and kissed the little girl. The boy, he knew, would not
tolerate such open affection.
“He’s a bad boy,” said Colleen, pointing to Kevin.
“Why is he bad?” said Al.
“He… he don’t eat his fish,” said Colleen.
“I do!” said Kevin. “She’s a liar. She has to share.”
“Mommy said: if he don’t eat, he can’t have potcorn,” said Colleen.
“She means popcorn,” said Kevin. “And I ate more than half my fish.”
“How about if he has a few pieces,” said Al to Colleen, “bein’ that he did eat half?” He tickled her neck and the girl squealed
“Okay,” she said. “But you have to get me orange drink.”
Al nodded. He gave Kevin some popcorn from Colleen’s bowl, then went to the refrigerator and took out a half-gallon container
of orange drink. He poured some in a plastic cup for each child. “There,” he said, bringing the cups to the table, “that wasn’t
so hard to solve, was it?” He felt quite satisfied with himself.
“Except she always gets me in trouble,” said Kevin.
“She stinks!” said Kevin.
“No-oo-oo-oo!” Colleen began to cry.
“Shhh!” said Al. “Everyone shhh!” When the racket abated a little, he cooed, “Now… Uncle Al has to go down to the basement
for a few minutes. When I come up, if you’re not good, you’ll each get hit in the head.”
“Don’t hit my head!” yelled Colleen.
“Why not?” said Al.
“Because Mommy doesn’t like me to get my hair messed,” said Colleen.
“Well, then, you be a good girl,” said Al. He crossed to the basement door, flicked on the light switch, and made his way
down the wooden steps. At the bottom, on the right, he saw the mahogany gun cabinet where Peter, his nephew, kept his small
collection. He ran his hand along the top of the cabinet until his fingers closed on a key. Quickly, he unlocked the top drawer
and then the ones beneath it. Al knew that periodically Pete went hunting, and occasionally target shooting; it was Al, in
fact, who’d helped him build the cabinet. But as to what was
the cabinet, Al had no idea. Rifles would be of little use. They were clumsy and conspicuous to transport, difficult to handle
for close range use, relatively easy to trace.
The bottom two drawers contained rifles. The third drawer was filled with ammunition, perhaps ten different boxes of bullets
of various caliber. Al slid open the top drawer. He stared for a moment. Inside, resting on a blue velvet cloth, were four
pistols. Al slid the drawer shut, made sure all the locks were closed, then replaced the key on top of the cabinet. He went
Kevin had the Lotto cards distributed on the table.
“I didn’t hear any noise, so you must’ve been good,” said Al. He noticed that all the popcorn was gone.
good,” said Colleen
“What were you doing in the basement?” asked Kevin.
“Looking for ghosts,” said Al.
Kevin grinned. “There’s no such thing.”
“Sure there are,” said Al.