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Authors: William Kennedy

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Legs

BOOK: Legs
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Legs

William Kennedy
1975

This is for Pete McDonald, a
first-rate relative
and for all the
archtypes lurking in
Ruth Tarson's
lake house
 
 

People like killers,. And if one feels
sympathy
for the victims it's by way of
thanking them
for letting themselves be
killed
—Eugene Ionesco

JACK'S ALIVE

"I really don't think he's dead," I said to
my three very old friends.

"You what?" said Packy Delaney, dropsical
now, and with only four teeth left. Elephantiasis had taken over his
legs and now one thigh was the size of two. Ah time.

"He don't mean it," Flossie said, dragging
on and then stubbing out another in her chain of smokes, washing the
fumes down with muscatel, and never mind trying to list her ailments.
("Roaches in your liver," Flossie's doc had told her. "Go
on home and die at your own speed.")

Tipper Kelley eyed me and knew I was serious.

"
He means it, all right," said Tipper,
still the dap newsman, but in a 1948 double-breasted. "But of
course he's full of what they call the old bully-bull-bullshit
because I was there. You know I was there, Delaney."

"Don't I know it," said the Pack.

"Me and Bones McDowell," said the Tip.
"Bones sat on his chest."

"We know the rest," said Packy.

"It's not respectful to Bones' memory to say he
sat on the man's chest of his own accord," Tipper said. "Bones
was the finest reporter I ever worked with. No. Bones wouldn't of
done that to any man, drunk or sober, him or Jack the corpse, God
rest his soul. Both their souls, if Jack had a soul."

"He had a soul all right," said Flossie. "I
saw that and everything else he had too."

"We'll hear about that another time," said
Tipper, "I'm now talking about Bones, who with myself was the
first up the stairs before the cops, and Jack's wife there in the
hallway, crying the buckets. The door was open, so Bones pushed it
the rest of the way open and in he snuck and no light in the room but
what was coming in the window. The cops pulled up then and we heard
their car door slam and Bones says to me, 'Come inside and we'll get
a look before they kick us the hell out,' and he took a step and
tripped, the simple bastard, and sprawled backward over the bed,
right on top of poor Jack in his underwear, who of course didn't feel
a thing. Bones got blood all over the seat of his pants."

"Tipper," said Packy, "that's a
goddamn pack of lies and you know it. You haven't got the truth in
you, and neither did Bones McDowell."

"So in comes big Barney Duffy with his
flashlight and shines it on Bones sitting on poor Jack's chest.
'Sweet mother of mine,' says Barney and he grabbed Bones by the
collar and elbow and lifted him off poor Jack like a dirty sock.
'Haven't cha no manners atall?' Barney says to him. 'I meant no
harm,' says Bones. 'It's a nasty thing you've done,' says Barney,
'sittin' on a dead man's chest.' 'On the grave of me mother I tripped
and fell,' says Bones. 'Don't be swearing on your mother at a filthy
time like this,' says Barney, 'you ought to be ashamed.' 'Oh I am,'
says Bones, 'on the grave of me mother I am.' And then Barney threw
us both out, and I said to Bones on the way down the stairs, 'I
didn't know your mother was in the grave,' and he says to me, 'Well,
she's not, the old fart-in-the-bottle, but she oughta be.' "

"You never got a good look at the corpse,"
Packy said to Tip. "and don't tell me you did. But you know damn
well that I did. I saw what they did to him when he was over at
Keenan the undertaker's for the autopsy. Thirty-nine bullets. They
walked in there while he was sleeping and shot him thirty—nine
times. I counted the bullet holes. You know what that means? They had
seven pistols between the pair of them. "

"Say what you will." I told them, savoring
Packy's senile memory, remembering that autopsy myself, remembering
Jack's face intact but the back of his head blown away by not
thirty-nine but only three soft-nosed .38-caliber bullets: one
through his right jaw, tearing the neck muscle, cutting the spinal
cord, and coming out through the neck and falling on the bed; another
entering his skull near the right ear and moving upward through his
brain, fracturing his skull, and remaining in the fracture; and the
third, entering the left temple, taking a straight course across the
brain and stopping just above the right ear.

"I still don't think
he's dead."

* * *

I had come to see Jack as not merely the dude of all
gangsters. the most active brain in the New York underworld, but as
one of the truly new American Irishmen of his day; Horatio Alger out
of Finn McCool and Jesse James, shaping the dream that you could grow
up in America and shoot your way to glory and riches. I've said it
again and again to my friends who question the ethics of this
somewhat unorthodox memoir: "If you liked Carnegie and Custer,
you'll love Diamond." He was almost as famous as Lindbergh while
his light burned. "The Most Picturesque Racketeer in the
Underworld," the
New York American
called him; "Most Publicized of Public Enemies," said the
Post
; "Most
Shot-At Man in America," said the
Mirror
.

Does anyone think these superlatives were casually
earned? Why he was a pioneer, the founder of the first truly modern
gang, the dauphin of the town for years. He filled the tabloids—never
easy. He advanced the cause of joyful corruption and vice. He put the
drop of the creature on the parched tongues of millions. He filled
the pipes that pacify the troubled, loaded the needles that puncture
anxiety bubbles. He helped the world kick the gong around, Jack did.
And was he thanked for this benevolence? Hardly. The final historical
image that endures is that corpse clad in underwear, flat-assed out
in bed, broke and alone.

That's what finally caught me, I think: the vision of
Jack Diamond alone, rare sight, anomalous event, pungent irony.
Consider the slightly deaf sage of Pompeii, his fly open. feet apart.
hand at crotch, wetting surreptitiously against the garden wall when
the lava hits the house. Why he never even heard the rumbles. Who
among the archaeologists could know what glories that man created on
earth, what truths he represented, what love and wisdom he propagated
before the deluge of lava eternalized him as The Pisser? And so it is
with Jack Diamond's last image. It wouldn't matter if he'd sold
toilet paper or milk bottles for a living, but he was an original man
and he needs an original epitaph, even if it does come four and a
half decades late. I say to you, my reader, that here was a singular
being in a singular land, a fusion of the individual life flux with
the clear and violent light of American reality, with the fundamental
Columbian brilliance that illuminates this bloody republic. Jack was
a confusion to me. I relished his company, he made me laugh. Yet
wasn't I fearful in the presence of this man for whom violence and
death were well-oiled tools of the trade? Yes, ah yes. The answer is
yes. But fear is a cheap emotion, however full of wisdom. And,
emotionally speaking, I've always thought of myself as a man of
expensive taste.

I chose the Kenmore to talk to Packy, Tipper, and
Flossie because if Jack's ghost walked anywhere, it was in that bar,
that old shut-down Rain-Bo room with its peeling paint and its glory
unimaginable now beneath all that emptiness. In the 1920's and 1930's
the Kenmore was the Number One nightclub between New York and the
Canadian border. Even during the Depression you needed a reservation
on weekends to dance in evening clothes to the most popular bands in
the country: Rudy Vallee and Ben Bernie and Red Nichols and Russ
Morgan and Hal Kemp and the Dorsey Brothers and all the rest who came
before and after them. Naturally, limelighter that he was, Jack lived
there. And so why wouldn't I choose the place to talk to three old
friends, savor their memories and ring them in on my story'?

I called Flossie first, for we'd had a thing of sorts
between us, and I'll get to that. She was pretty back in those days,
like a canary, all yellow-haired and soft and with the innocence of a
birdsong, even though she was one of the loveliest whores north of
Yonkers: The Queen of Stars, she called herself then. Packy's Parody
Club had burned years before and he was now tending bar at the
Kenmore, and so I said can we meet there and can you get hold of
Tipper? And she said Tipper had quit the newspaper business finally
but would be on tap, and he was. And so there we were at the Kenmore
bar, me looking up at the smoky old pair of David Lithgow murals,
showing the hunt, you know. Eight pink-coated huntsmen on horseback
were riding out from the mansion in the first mural, at least
forty-five hounds at their heels, heading into the woods. They were
back indoors in the second painting, toasting and laughing by the
fire while one of their number held the dead fox up by the tail. Dead
fox.

"I was sitting where you're sitting," Packy
said to me, "and saw a barman work up an order for Jack's table,
four rum Cokes. All he poured was one shot of rum, split it over the
top of the four and didn't stir them, so the suckers could taste the
fruit of his heavy hand. 'I saw that,' I told him after the waiter
picked the order up, "and I want you to know Jack Diamond is a
friend of mine.' The thieving bastard turned green and I didn't pay
for another drink in this joint till Jack died."

"His name had power," Tipper said.

"It still does," I said. "Didn't he
bring us together here?"

And I told them I was writing about him then, and
they told me some of their truths, and secret lies, just as Jack had,
and his wife Alice and his lovely light o' love, Kiki, had years ago.
I liked all their lies best, for I think they are the brightest part
of anybody's history.

I began by recalling that my life changed on a summer
day in 1930 when I was sitting in the second-floor library of the
Knights of Columbus, overlooking Clinton Square and two blocks up
from the Kenmore bar. I was killing time until the pinochle crowd
turned up, or a pool partner, and I was reading Rabelais, my gift to
the library. It was the only book on The Index in the library and the
only one I ever looked at.

That empty afternoon, and that book, gave me the
insight that my life was a stupendous bore, and that it could use a
little Gargantuan dimension. And so I said yes, I would take Jack
Diamond up on his telephone invitation of that morning to come down
to his place for Sunday dinner, three days hence. It was the Sunday I
was to speak at the police communion breakfast, for I was one of
Albany's noted communion breakfast intellectuals in those days. I
would speak, all right, and then I would walk down to Union Station
and take the west shore train to Catskill to listen to whatever that
strange and vicious charmer had to say to an Albany barrister.
 

JACK SAUCE

I met Jack in l925 when he and his brother Eddie were
personally running booze down from Canada. Jack stopped at the
Kenmore even then, and he and Eddie and some more of their crew were
at the table next to me, talking about Al Jolson. From what he said,
Jack was clearly a Jolson fan, and so was I, and I listened to him
express amazement that anybody could be as good at anything as Jolson
was, but that he was also the most conceited son of a bitch in shoe
leather. I broke into the conversation and said something windy,
like: "'He sings, whistles, dances, gives out the jokes and
patter and it's all emotion, all a revelation of who he is. I don't
care how much he's rehearsed, it's still rare because it's pure. He's
so at home in himself he can't make a false gesture. Everything he
does is more of that self that's made a million, ten, twenty million,
whatever it is. People find this very special and they'll pay to see
it. Even his trouble is important because it gives him diversity,
pathos, and those qualities turn up in his voice. Everything he does
funnels in and out of him through his talent. Sure he's conceited,
but that's only a cover-up for his fear that he'll be exposed as the
desolated, impoverished, scrawny, fearful hyena that he probably
thinks is his true image, but that he can't admit to anybody without
destroying his soul."

It all stunned Jack, who was a sucker for slick talk,
and he bought me drinks for an hour. The next day he called to say he
was sending me six quarts of Scotch and could I get him a pistol
permit from Albany County? I liked the Scotch so I got him the
permit.

BOOK: Legs
12.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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