Keep your voice down - EditorCorner of River and Rain
by Gary Cahill
From the bird's eye view, above the old tenement rooftops down to what's left of Hell's Kitchen, through the spinning rain that flipped between covering like cream and icy bite, our lonesome parade looked like two campesinos driving two wayward burros to water. Switch out the Mexican peasants for me and Willy, the watering hole for the Hudson, and the doleful donkeys for a pair of booze sweating, bleeding, braying jackasses, and you've got it.
A little earlier, I'd seen this coming. Things were going to go badly if these guys didn't shut the hell up.
On the way to meet him, I'd answered a call from Willy on a cell I answered only when it was him.
"G...G... where the hell are you? I'm waitin' here." Here being the old bar on the edge of Manhattan's West Side where we met socially and professionally. Professionally being if we needed to collect money -- owed on outstanding loans with exorbitant interest rates, or illegal gambling loses, or to insure a string of broken windows and fires of unknown origin would not interfere with someone's fledgling business becoming a success. Like that. All the stuff that invigorates our underground economy. Not that me and Will are on equal footing in this endeavor. He does most of the heavy lifting; I kinda sweep up after the dust settles. Or mop up if it gets messy.
He sounded edgy, not like him, and I said, "On the way big man, I'm right down the street.
What's the matter?"
"Just get here. These dopey bastards are killin' me." He's definitely itchy around the collar, and certainly considering turning around that phrase about dopey bastards and killing. I hopped to it and jogged the last block. Every second counts with Willy.
Through the glass front doors -- tables and booths on the left, the worn wooden long bar on the right, and behind the beer sticks, blessedly, Stella, our friend and sensible respite from all that "Hi! How're you doin'?" "You bet!" "Oh, sure!" barkeep word slop that's the ruination of decent tavern talk almost everywhere.
And Willy, thick fingers grasping a tumbler way too hard, a couple empties in front of him, glistening with the strain of controlling himself. He turned and looked at me with an odd combo of rage and relief.
"These guys are wearin' me out."
"I can see that." I took a look around. "What guys?"
"Freakin' Frick and Frack in the back here."
I'd seen, and heard, them here before -- a pair of business grads who'd stumbled into the goldmine that was flipping, redeveloping and building on properties where landlords stopped at nothing driving tenants out and local governments worshiped at the throne of Eminent Domain, simply taking people's private property and giving it to a big-money-someone-else. You'd think a crappy economy would slow them down, but that puts the brakes on building, not buying. So these guys were rolling today; drunk and stupid, wallowing in both, even more offensive than they tried to be. And they would not be ignored.
Beany and Cecil. Beany the Fawning Younger wearing very blue jeans, bluer pullover, knocking down two or twenty beers, no way to tell 'cause he's loaded after one, sniffing at a whiskey. And nothing against knit caps or Calvin Klein, but a Calvin Klein knit cap? With Cecil the Honored Elder sporting a "Trump Int'l Hotel and Tower" t-shirt and donning sunglasses to poke at buttons on his BlackBerry.
"Jesus, it's easy. Just run 'em out and roll it over. It's not like Gramps and Gramma don't have places to go, right? Hit up the family, or use up whatever they've got socked away for, what's that called, assisted living or an old age home or whatever. You see that deal in Connecticut?"
Beany had. "Oh, yeah, government just took that shoreline and handed it off. I don't know, people just move on and go live somewhere else, right? Homeless corpses aren't piling up by Long Island Sound."
That got the veteran to laugh, and the newbie was happy he'd sucked up appropriately.
It was erotic. They tongued it. You could smell it on them. See it behind their alky glazed eyes.
"And the Jersey Shore," said Cecil, lips smacking. "Long Branch to Wildwood and Cape May, just one after another. Piles of money for nothing."
Cecil was right about that. Buy 'em out, kick 'em out, throw money at motels and knock 'em down, spackle and strap together cardboard boxes and call them condos, and every dope from Maryland to Philly to NYC sucks them up. Selling sunshine. And when they can't pay off, you sell them again. Just take it back and milk it dry. Christ.
"And plenty left in the city, right boss? Chinatown, Little Italy, places still right around here? Down and out it goes." Was Beany the butt wipe talking about downtown and "right around here" in this place? Have another, pal. Here's to your health.
Cecil the boss raised a glass. "And down and out they go. All of 'em," toasting and cheering themselves, not smelling the smoke rising from a smoldering Willy.
"What the hell, Will?" I went easy. "We've heard this crap before. It's business. It's America. It sucks, but it's business." I was tempted to add "... not personal." I was glad, maybe lucky, I didn't.
I knew guys who'd saw your head off for practice, and Will isn't one of those, but we were all slipping into darkness.
Hands on his glass, elbows on the bar, feet on the rail, Willy raised his head, turned right to see me square, started with, "My mom," quivered, and stopped.
Oh, my, Guilliermo Casella's mama, one of the Little Italy ladies in perpetual mourning. She'd worn nothing but black since her husband bought it long ago in Jersey over some street monies not getting where they were supposed to go. Of course the official version called it an accident, gas pedal instead of the brakes, you can't imagine our sorrow, we'll look out for you and the boy, and after Willy’s stint in the army to avoid jail time and learn to kill, a watchful "uncle" turned him out into the world he inhabited now.
Mama was moved into a walk-up around the corner from where Hollywood had located Vito Corleone's olive oil business, and she'd never been in need. It may well have been her, years ago, pointing out a much younger me one sunny afternoon, stranger in a strange land, circling the block once too often looking for a cold beer. A classic trio of sleeveless t-shirt, turtleneck with open jacket, and three-quarter trench coat in dead of summer appeared out of nowhere to size me up, deliver a message, and their presence hipped me to the eyes in the sky, watching over from the windows and the fire escapes, all rosary beads and veils, and shoes that could crack a shin.
And now Mama Casella's home was in the crosshairs of the real estate boom.
My career of evil at Willy's side is a sprinkle on a cloudy day. Just two drops on the pavement; one dead (totally self defense, I swear), one now a mangled gimp (boy, did he have it coming). A couple wet spots on the sidewalk.
Where Willy's career is, oh, more like a river.
So it was not good for Rich and Richer to slip up and butt in, not good when Will finally spoke again, responding to some half-heard idio-comic remark about "... breast reduction..." with "Why don't you get your ass reducted, change your hat size?"
I couldn't let that go. "Reducted, Will? Wow, you've broken new linguistic ground wi... "
"G? Stop. Get the hell away. Or sit the hell down. Just..." I chose the former, and slid down the bar toward Stella.
Dependent on moon phases or something, there are times when it's hard to pay for a drink with Stella around. Not that I don’t have the money. She just won’t take it.
I opined. “You and me, we’re going to drive this place under.”
“No, you listen. You know what it is between me and you? You’re coastal. Me too. The closer we are to open salt water the better. I’m from here, Mid-Atlantic. You’re New England. And you know what I remember's the best thing about New England girls? The ocean’s warm enough down the shore here in summer, they think it’s the Caribbean. Relatively speaking.”
No need for her to go on.
“... all that Jersey..."
I raised my hands in resignation. Yes, all that Jersey.
“You know,” she said, leaning forward in all fluttering faux sincerity, “you’re so interesting.”
“It only seems that way because of all the interesting things I do and say.”
Which earned me the half-upper-lip-curl-and-nostril-flex, extra toothy. It’s so charming on anyone over twenty-five. Well, her.
“Hey, looks like Big Willy's on the outs!" And after a break for sotted chuckling and gurgling, "Yeh-aah, Will, looks like a barmaid’s beatin' your time with G.” Beating would be only the beginning if these guys didn’t let up. Then, of all things, grade school, just mindless, "Willy and G, sittin' in a tr..."
Now it was too late for these guys with Willy. A little quick on the draw, I thought.
And then the wave of bar noise troughed and the lull allowed the word "... sugarbitch..." to reach Stel and me and I'm up, one stride to reach Willy's stool and one stride past him before he got me by the collar with a sweaty lefty grip and Moe or Larry or which ever stooge it was had his hands in the air yelling, pleading, "I meant you not her I meant you not her!"
Oh, well that's better.
"Think about that long and hard, asshead. I'm sure you both dream about it being long and hard, you and Jocko over there."
And now it was too late with me. Both of us a little quick on the draw.
Willy cut in to wise off. "Jeez, take it easy, G. We've heard this crap before, right?" I managed not to gape at him, and somehow not to laugh. I stared at the floor, said "Quite an echo in here," kept biting my tongue, and took off for the men's room to let it out and throw some water on my face, to calm and cool off.
I found four working guys, construction, iron, electric, the manly crafts, among the two stalls and one seat. They got quiet. Except for one with, "I'm too old to go over a wall, bro..." And another with, "We gotta do it." Now what was this? Something's going to have a new home -- somebody's tools, somebody's jewels, somebody's daughter? In two quick shifts they left, so I just got out in case they wanted to reconvene. What a world.
Stan and Ollie piped up.
"Listen, we're just celebrating our... good fortune's all we're doing. It's just workin' out for us real well. Oh, yeah, real well." Guffaws, clinking glasses, making a pass at the whiskey and looking like it was about to come back up onto their shoes, and then this.
"Look you guys, we know, you been around here quite a while, like, everybody knows, and we're thinking about keeping the party going, you know, maybe a little lift?"
And the other went one step beyond. "Yeah, a little somethin' somethin', pick things up, right?" And then low, conspiring. "Willy, you know any stuff around, any place to go around here?"
Willy's head, almost disembodied, turned left to face them, and in a ragged half-whisper he said, "Sure, sure, a few blocks up and then over toward the river, what's left of the old neighborhood. What's that place, G, the good one? The Smilin' Shamrock, or was it The Gilded Harp?"
"Oh, The Shamrock, definitely," I said. "Always been good for adding a boost to the day. Will, I'm not quite sure -- you can direct these guys, right?"
"Yup," Willy said, "I'll get these guys on their way, and maybe we can catch up in a few minutes after we finish up some stuff here. Better to not show up together anyway. OK with you two? We can straighten this whole thing out, set it right. Cool?"
Bud and Lou were thrilled as Willy walked them to the side door and sent them on their way into the swirling rain and the blue-black evening chill. And when he came back to the bar, working his jaw, he was uninterested in his glass, brimming with another round.
"Please... The Smilin' Shamrock? The Gilded Harp? You tell them that's where they filmed "My Heart Belongs to Mickey" and "Bloody Revenge of the Little People"? Let me handle the Irish lies, you stick with the red sauce, goombah." He heard me, but was busy dressing for the outdoors. "Can I assume you don't want to leave those two boys alone deep in the Wild West Side on a night like this?"
"Let's go. Stella," he called, "be back in a bit, OK?" Her shift was over, but she'd had a look at what'd gone down. Whatever else, she'd figure a way to still be here when we got back. In deference, we turned our backs to her at the door to put our work gloves on -- not much help in winter, but thin, supple, good grip. I stuffed my hands in my pockets and turned around, but she'd been sure to have her head down, washing glasses, didn't even peek, and we stepped outside.
Monday, November, lots of restaurants closed, lots of theaters too, bad night, not pouring rain, but coming from every direction, a soaking fog, like it's being whisked up into foam. There's almost no traffic this far over, everything's muted, all sound a soft whoosh, sight like through those soft lenses they use to polish up aging actresses. Red and green cutting through, but everything washed in a broadbrush-yellow jaundiced street light, with due caution tossed aside by two silhouetted stick figures up ahead, slendered by their lack of soul. We were bird dogging them, a few blocks up, then over toward the river, and the old neighborhood was back in its prime. We caught up.
Ike and Mike were stumbling, laughing, drooling, way gone, but starting to wonder if Willy'd been tripping, or just wrong, when he conjured a bar that didn't exist.
Ike, or whoever, spoke up, words wetted down, and asked, "You guys sure about this... uh, place? No signs. It's pretty…urrm... dark the next block down and, uh…"
"It can be pretty dark wherever you are," I said, and saw Willy snap his eyes toward me and take one big stride forward, and we each grabbed one by the coat and yanked right and bashed them both noses first into a hundred year old building they'd failed to tear down, did it again, then sanded the brick and stone with their faces as we brought them down to the sidewalk. Standard procedure is a tap with the spring loaded sap, just keeping them groggy, then Willy pulled out the leather straps and I mirrored and we cuffed them behind their backs. On their feet, we started herding them west. And at the corner, you know that salty shellfish beach smell, you can taste it, comes off the harbor and the brackish river mouth when the weather's right? Pulled me right into summer. It was wild.
Nothing much intelligible from the Bobseys, not that it would have mattered.
But I was not on solid ground with this. "Will, really, what are we doing here? I mean, I'm not so sure these gu..."
"You're in or you're out, you’re in on everything else, you're in on this, or just get all the hell out, it's..."
"OK, ok, in, in." Both of us a little frantic.
Rain, wind, diffused vision had us under cover. We crossed the street behind a lone taxi, occupied, busting downtown, and then I caught movement over my right shoulder and looked up the block from the corner. Stuffed back into a doorway, somebody short, round, hobbling, did I know him?, bent over, hurting for something strong and moaning "wha'd' I have to do?, wha'd' I have to do?" and standing next to him a human preying mantis named Juan Cordova -- a long, lean local boy, involved with the substances, a hustler, an obsession with all things Batman earning him the tag Juano Guano.
We know each other, and Guano knows the score. Hands up, palms forward, classic surrender pose, he lowered his arms to shoulder height and held them to his sides, like he was hammered up by Roman guards, floppy cap and fish hooks in for the crown of thorns.
But Juano Guano was sacrificing nothing for anyone.
And some people die for their own sins.
Willy and I traded smiles. I thought it unlikely anyone would say anything. In the Kitchen, a tale told out of school about me and Will wouldn't travel far. Like a train reaching the end of the line, it would take a final turn, screech and slow and slide into the last station, and stop dead. Juan would be no trouble. We left him in the mist.
The begging from Rod and Todd, barely understandable as English yet clear as a bell, had come and gone, smacked back into silence, and now the river showed black at the pavement's end. Out of nowhere, Willy started talking -- to me, to the wind? I couldn't pick it up.
So I started myself, opened the door. "Man, some rain, Will. And water all around tonight."
We were mighty far along on this trip -- but maybe not too far.
Willy, looking down at the luggage, gathered himself, wiped his eyes. Reaching. "What's that old thing about water... cleansing? And not the street, moron.” He was struggling, looking for an out. “The water... it's a symbol, a sign, what's that old crap they say,” and trying to stay tough, “it's cleansing, but bigger. A deeper way." And you know, right then, the air went out of the balloon.
What did he mean? Like, oh, happy day, when Jesus washed my sins away?
I guess. "Well, yeah, I suppose every place, people everywhere, that's the deal. Water does it. The sea, the rain. Gives you hope. Start again. All that." Myself, I was hoping the water had washed the blood off the wall, and hoping these now very lucky bastards would appreciate discretion, holding thy tongue, clamming up, understanding silence is golden.
We each took deep breaths, Willy a few more. I rolled my head, shimmied, shaking it off.
Will had gone to pleading, looking down, trying to shed this. "G, you think even here -- now? With them?" Still looking down.
I gave him an out.
"Man, I hope so."
We'd turned around. There'd been one last buck of wind and water that swept up off the street and bounced right back down, left us drenched. We slumped toward home, trading cross corner waves with Juano Guano, looking forward to a civilized gentlemen's drink and Stella waiting to hear what happened.
Which was we'd run these two guys to the river, a classic journey around here, paused to reflect on an alternate to the journey's classic end, and took our eyes off Pancho and Lefty, who panicked, used the eyes they had left between them to signal a last ditch charge, and heads down they bull rushed us. I ole'd Pancho past me and he banged face first to the street but Lefty plowed Willy right down the middle and knocked him on his ass into the rain puddled gutter, so we dragged them to the edge, and stopped, just so. Enough. Fear had melted them into themselves, they hadn’t heard the word of Willy’s epiphany, and had done only what comes naturally when facing a deep-six demise. Choosing not to hold a grudge for once, Will figured they were no more likely than Guano to feel the need to discuss this with anyone, so he delivered an appropriate sermon, real finger-wagging wages of sin stuff, uncuffed them, collected leather straps and gloves and ruined clothing, sent Bob and Ray on their silent way, and foot shoved the mess into the drink, kicking and kicking Pancho's goddamn jacket loose from the edge to finally drop it, the end.
I found out later it was a new moon tide that yanked it all into the down river current, and I watched everything get sucked away.
And for the first time, not good for someone in his line of work, I watched Willy crack, looking out onto the water, eyes wet again, shoulders sagging under the weight of what was in his head.
"Jesus. G. G... I didn't even know their nam... "
Can't have this, real hard, right away, I said "Will" and stopped him, grabbed each shoulder tight and turned him to his right to face me and said, strong again, into his eyes, "Willy."
I took one breath. I spit it out with "It doesn't matter. They're all the same."
I believed it when I said it, and I believe it now.
Willy was flat, done, crying. "Those guys. They didn't kill her."
Didn't kill her? Kill who?
Now I got it.
"No. But they would have."
On the way back we talked about what needed to be done -- getting Willy's stuff out of Mom's apartment, getting Mom's stuff out of Mom's apartment, letting the landlord know the place was available for rent or sale. How we'd lay her out and wake her in one of the old Village parlours and, of course, bury her out of St. Anthony's on Sullivan, no question there, and think about whether or not to put her in Jersey next to the old man. I can't imagine why that matters.
We did not talk about loss, grief, suffering, guilt, or madness. Not yet.And with a messy day behind us I reflected, realizing that since hooking up in business with Willy my personal tally sheet reads one dead, three bludgeoned... none of them in the line of duty.
If I was a cop they'd take away my badge.