Authors: Mark Winegardner
“Cold in here.” Geraci found a thermostat and turned up the heat. “My good deed for the day.” He winked.
Minutes later, atop a sputtering red tractor, in the caretaker’s hat and too-small coat, swaddled in horse blankets, Geraci bounced along on the rough surface of the lake, snow chains biting into the ice and drifted snow, cursing the wind and learning as he went how to use the plow. The sitting duck to end all sitting ducks.
Canada was out of the question now. Ohio was closer. Again and again, he looked back for the men who, surely, were coming after him. Slowly, Rattlesnake Island receded from view.
He was sitting on his manuscript. He’d lashed a gas can to the back of the tractor, just in case. Geraci had never even been on a riding lawn mower. He guessed he had six or seven miles in front of him. Who knew how far a tank of gas would go?
The only signs of life were off to the east—ice fishermen just off South Bass Island, with sleds and little shanties on skis that must be at least as heavy as the stolen tractor.
It occurred to him that his father was an ice fisherman, too. He’d never taken Nick. Nick always imagined the old man sitting in his homemade coffinlike shanty, stewing in cheap red wine and bitterness, head down, staring into the void—just like home, only colder.
He laughed. First he hears a kid say his dad can do anything, then he sees that earflap hat. Now this: ice fishing. While Nick Geraci was not especially superstitious—he’d walk under a ladder if it saved him a step—he chose to take all this as an omen. And why not? He certainly had no one else he could call who’d be as trustworthy as his father. Before he retired to Arizona, Fausto Geraci worked as a Teamster and did other jobs for friends of the Forlenzas. He could put Nick in touch with Cleveland guys who would help. Presuming his father was still alive.
A handful of the ice fishermen must have heard the motor and came out of their shanties. A few called to him. Geraci turned his face into the wind and headed the other way, southwest around Green Island, an uninhabited little bird sanctuary, the long way to the mainland. Then he looked back. The ice fishermen seemed to be pointing at him and laughing, but no one was following him.
No airplanes that he could see or hear.
As he passed the skeletal lighthouse on Green Island—more of a scaffolding, really—the mainland came into view. Geraci kept his eyes on that lighthouse, but there didn’t seem to be anyone up there. He was waiting for the other shoe to drop, and it kept not dropping.
There were no ice fishermen that he could see anywhere near the coastline. He pointed the tractor toward what looked like a sloping bit of shore he could pull onto.
As he drew closer to land, he had to plow through bigger drifts, a few higher than the plow blade, several that forced him to throw the tractor into reverse and make an end run around the piled-up snow. Several times, he jammed the blade into the ice too hard and nearly got stuck.
Then, finally, he did get stuck.
Just like that, he buried the tractor in snow up to the hubs of the rear wheels. He went back and forth a few times. The plow blade seemed to be stuck in a crack in the ice. The ice made dull cracking noises. The rear wheels spun and melted patches beneath them but didn’t move the tractor at all. Wisps of acrid black smoke wafted from the engine.
Geraci climbed down into snow and immediately cursed his stupidity. The snow was wet and so, now, were his feet. He had on Italian loafers, when he could have lifted the caretaker’s boots, too. He grabbed the manuscript and sized up the task ahead: maybe half a mile to go. He regarded the stuck tractor. As if in answer to a prayer he hadn’t gotten around to offering up, there was a dull grinding noise, like a building about to collapse.
Geraci took off running, after a fashion. In recent years he’d gotten a little lax about his roadwork. The gun fell out of his pants, but behind him there was a loud, sharp crack. He kept going. His shoes were soaked. His lungs were on fire. The cracking continued, and he kept running, and he heard what sounded like a gigantic slurp, and he kept on running.
He stopped, bent at the waist, and cocked his head to see the hole in the ice where the tractor had been.
He recovered enough to keep walking. He kept hearing the cracking, kept thinking that at any second he was going to fall through the goddamned ice. Finally, with a wet
sound, he plunged up to his knees in filthy brown icewater. He stifled a yell. But he was only ten feet from shore, tops.
Sometimes, it’s just your lucky day.
Though luck’s the wrong word. Geraci had made a mint off saps who thought they were on a roll. Gambling profits by and large came from idiots who thought math class was a waste of time. Geraci believed in probability and randomness but not luck. Logical explanations you’ll never hear about.
The reason there were no ice fishermen here was that a sewage pipe as big around as a railroad tunnel pumped warm, nitrogen-rich water into the lake near where the tractor sank. When Geraci finally made it ashore, he saw
warnings all over the place. Amusing, but he had business to attend to. He had to steal a car, crank up the heat, get a county or two away from here, where he’d be safe from any local yokel John Law out to make his career-making grand-theft-tractor bust.
For the first time in ages, Geraci wasn’t some crazy degenerate living in a rat hole, some fuck who spent his life looking over his shoulder. All a man can do is keep moving. Play offense, play defense, but for Christ’s sake, play. For too long, Nick Geraci had failed to do even that.
He was back.
eraci told the barber he had a job interview coming up. The frayed clothes gave credence to the down-on-his-luck story. The barber asked what line of work he was in. Bookkeeping, Geraci said. The barber said he had a brother who was an accountant. He said it was kind of a straitlaced field, accounting. He demonstrated his point by giving Geraci a horrible haircut. The reason Geraci gave for keeping the beard was that it covered a scar. Better trim it, the barber said, and did. Geraci thanked him and asked for directions to a JC Penney’s. It was the sort of neighborhood where there had to be one nearby, and there was. He was somewhere between Cleveland and Akron—nowhere, in other words.
At Penney’s, he went into the dressing room and stood holding up clothes in front of a mirror. He wasn’t screwing around with buttons and snaps in a public place. He bought a suitcase and enough unstylish clothes to fill it. He felt as if he were shopping for a Halloween costume.
It was late enough now for Nick to find a closed body shop where he could swap a license plate from some wrecked car with the one on his stolen Pontiac. Then he checked into a Howard Johnson’s, that orange-roofed avatar of the anonymous, out by the Ohio Turnpike.
Still, no one seemed to be following him.
He would have gone back out, but he couldn’t bear getting dressed again. He bought toiletries from a vending machine in the lobby and went to bed.
In the morning, he suffered through getting dressed, and, miraculously bland-looking, he went back to the shopping center, this time to Sears, where he bought a hunting knife, a Ted Williams–brand shotgun, and a box of shells. Then he stopped at an A & P. He bought necessary-looking items like milk and cat food, plus detergent, so that the rolls of dimes he’d come there for would seem laundry-related and mundane. On the way back to the motel, he threw away everything but the dimes.
Buying or renting a car was too risky, at least until he got some new fake identification. But keeping the Pontiac was an even bigger risk. He gassed it up, ran it through a car wash, and drove to the nearest high school. He wiped down the interior, rolled down the windows, and left the car running, begging to be restolen.
He walked back from the school, took a Howard Johnson’s postcard from the desk drawer in his room, and went around to the motels, restaurants, and filling stations in and around the Turnpike exit, jotting down pay-phone numbers.
He was officially squared away.
Nick had phones back in Brooklyn he could call, but it would take time to figure out which of his associates he could trust. There was nothing he’d have liked more than to call Charlotte, but if anyone in his family was under surveillance, it would be her. Nick couldn’t call his father, not cold. His daughter Barb, a junior at Skidmore, was excitable, a more brittle version of Charlotte: a beauty, with all the benefits and responsibilities attendant thereto. It was Bev he’d call first. She was a freshman at Berkeley. Charlotte hadn’t wanted her to go so far away, but Bev had had her reasons, and she’d quietly stuck to her guns; she was Nick’s daughter, all right. Barb lived off campus, but Bev lived in a dorm, where the only phones were pay phones.
He walked to the Sohio station across the street and went through a lot of dimes calling various numskulls at the university to get Bev’s number, nearly as many waiting for the girl who answered the phone to go summon Bev.
“Whoever this is,” Bev finally said, “you’re a jerk.”
, he thought. “Is that what they teach you at that school?” he said. “How to talk like that to your father?”
“Daddy? I thought you were some…Oh my God! Daddy! Where are—”
Then she started to cry.
He let her. He had a warm coat and plenty of dimes. He kept an eye on the cars coming in for gas and the men pumping it, but no one was giving him a second look.
He knew Bev would come around, and, when she did, she justified every bit of his faith in her. She didn’t ask any questions he couldn’t answer. He assured her that he was fine and that he’d be grateful to her if she passed the good word along to her mother and sister. “In the case of your mother, call what’s-her-face. Her friend across the street.”
“Yeah, her. See if she’ll go get your mom and bring her to the phone. Say you tried to call home but the phone was all screwy.”
“I can handle it, Dad.”
“Tell her that pay phone up by the park, across from that statue thing. She’ll know the one. Tell her I’ll call her there tomorrow at eight.”
“Eight. Got it.”
“But if I don’t call, don’t worry. I’m just tied up with business, is all.”
“Business.” Her voice was faint.
He hated that he was putting her through this. He hated Michael Corleone for being the cause of it all. He changed the subject, and for a long time they talked about how she was doing at school: well, apparently. She claimed to be OK for money, but he got her address and told her he’d send her some anyway. “Just don’t tell your mother,” he said.
“Do you think I tell her anything?”
This was said with a hard edge, well beyond the standard father-daughter mock conspiratorial. He should have said something, but he didn’t feel like getting into it now. He needed to take care of business. “How’s your grandpa?”
“Both, I guess.”
Bev laughed. “Yeah, right.” She wasn’t close to Charlotte’s snooty parents, either. “He’s terrific, actually.”
“Still in Tucson, there?”
“Why wouldn’t he be in Tucson?”
Because the last Nick Geraci knew, his father was en route to Sicily, sailing into an ambush, his main protection being that he wasn’t the Fausto Geraci they were looking for. “No reason. Can you do me one more little favor? Can you call him, too?”
?” Didn’t miss a beat, this one.
“Seeing as you’re getting an A in Spanish, try a lady down there named Conchita Cruz. She doesn’t speak much English, but she’s a friend of your grandfather’s.” He started to give her the number.
“You’re kidding, right?”
“You said A. I took notes.” A white lie, but he did remember her saying it.
“Nonno Fausto and Miss Conchita got married.”
Geraci looked at his reflection in the phone booth glass and barely recognized himself. “Married.” He jabbed his room key absently into the coin return. His father had married a Mexican. Hard to imagine his old pals back in Cleveland accepting that one. “So, what, I got a new mother now? When did that happen?”
“When he got back from his vacation in Italy.
Life is short
, he kept saying. They’re so cute together.”
“They can’t understand a word the other one’s saying.”
“There’s always the language of love.” This cracked her up. “I’m sorry, Daddy. It’s absolutely bonkers, you’re right, but they’re happy.”
Hearing his daughter laugh at love provoked a little pang in his gut, but he let it go.
“Call your grandpa at home. Tell him to write down the number of the phone booth at that diner he goes to all the time, whaddayacallit’s.”
“That’s the one. Lester’s. I’ll call him at home, at noon his time tomorrow. He can give me the number of the pay phone, and I’ll call him back on it.”
He gave her three of the phone booth numbers he’d just written down and a complicated schedule of when he’d be checking them. “If I don’t answer, don’t worry. I’m just tied up.”
She started crying again, and he waited that out, too, before they said good-bye.
“WHERE ARE YOU?” SAID FAUSTO GERACI. “I’LL
come get you.”
Nick burst out laughing. As if he were a boy who’d been picked up for shoplifting. “That’s not going to work, Dad. For one thing, if there’s anyone keeping an eye—”
“Anywhere in this country, I can be there in three days. I don’t count Alaska or Hawaii, only the real America.”
His father was still bitter that the move to make Sicily America’s forty-ninth state fell apart, only to have Alaska and Hawaii sneak in just ten years later.
“I need you to set me up with some people in Cleveland you really trust.”
“I don’t trust nobody, nothing. I’ll come get you. Cleveland I can get to in two days. That’s all the farther you got, Cleveland?”
“What about Mikey Z?”
“That Polack? He’s so lazy, you’d be lucky to get him out of bed in two days.”
Mike Zielinsky, a Teamster official, had been a friend of Fausto’s since childhood. His son was a Cleveland city councilman now. Mikey Z would know the right people to call.
“Just call him for me, huh?”
“Two days. And don’t give me it won’t work. Who’s gonna follow me I don’t want following me, eh? How is that possible?”
“It’s possible, Dad.” But he had to admit, unless the person following him was the reigning champion at Le Mans, not likely. In certain circles, his father, Fausto the Driver, was a legend: a retired Teamster who’d driven at least two million miles professionally, many of them very fast, sometimes with passengers whose business he stayed out of, all without ever getting a ticket or in an accident (the exception being a few that weren’t really accidents).
“C’mon, where you at, hotshot? Everything’s gonna work out great. Geraci and son.”
another of the old man’s running complaints.
“I hear congratulations are in order,” Nick said.
“Yeah, well,” Fausto said. “You gonna talk or you gonna tell me where you at?”
FORTY-SEVEN HOURS LATER, FAUSTO GERACI WHIPPED
his Olds Starfire into the HoJo parking lot. It was two-toned, red and white, with leather seats and power everything. He’d had the black Rocket 88 it replaced for ten years.
“You made good time.”
“Good time, nothing.” Fausto waved at his son in disgust. “I’d have got here hours ago if it didn’t take me longer to piss than it does to fill the gas tank.”
Their embrace was firm, wordless, and long. They hadn’t seen each other for months, had each thought the other might be dead. They had never been happier in one another’s company, but their happiness might have been lost on anyone who didn’t know them. They released each other. “Goddamn,” Fausto said, stamping his feet. “I can’t take this cold no more.”
They went into the hotel to get Nick’s things.
“Humor me, Dad, and tell me you took precautions.”
“Look, me and her, we’re married, and that’s the end of it. Life is short. Leave it at that. I’m not getting into nothing personal, which, to begin with, ain’t none of your business.”
“Getting here?” Fausto chuckled. “I took precautions beautiful. Anybody watching me, they see Conchita leave in my car. She drives it from time to time, so nobody’s thinkin’ nothing. Who’s gonna think I went out in the garage and climbed in the trunk? She parks it at her job, that cannery, opens the trunk a crack, walks off, and—butta-beepa-da-boppa-da-boop—I drive off. And get this: across the desert and not on no road. When I’m on a road, finally, it’s straight as an arrow for a hundred miles.” He pantomimed a pistol shot and laughed like a maniac.
Nick was taken aback. When his mother was alive, Fausto never let her drive his car.
“Nice haircut, by the way.” Fausto touched his son’s beard and just shook his head.
“Speaking of, by the way: nice car. I mean that.”
“Ain’t it a beaut?” Beaming, Fausto slapped Nick on the back. “I did a job for a guy you maybe know. It paid real good. There’s three hundred forty-five horses under that hood, every one a fucking Thoroughbred.”
“This came from
money?” Meaning the cash he’d given his father for the trip to Sicily and a healthy tribute on top of that for his trouble. Nick was thrilled. He’d presumed his father wouldn’t keep the change. “I don’t think I ever got you a Christmas present you used or picked up a tab when you didn’t make a federal case out of it.”
“There’s a difference between a gift you get and a job you do. C’mon, let’s go.”
“We didn’t even talk about where we’re going.”
“I still got that spare room you used the last time you needed to lay low.”
“I don’t think that’ll work this time.”
“Wherever we go, make it anywhere but here. Someplace warm.”
“I was thinking Mexico.”
“Warm there, all right. Awful big place, though, Mexico.”
“I was thinking about asking Conchita about that.”
“Conchita? I don’t know. She don’t talk much about where she came from.”
“She’s got people down there, though, right? Family?”
Fausto grabbed his son’s suitcase. “You want to talk to her, talk to her. I can’t stop you.”
“Why would you want to stop me?”