07 Jul Anything For My Bubela
“Anything For My Bubela”Written by Geoff Sturtevant Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 41 minutes
Sol ran the red light at the intersection of Main and Marigold and tore down the road to Marigold Court. He’d outstayed his welcome at the poker game, and since the Dominicans knew where he lived, he’d outstayed his welcome at his own apartment. That is, unless he wanted to be there when they showed up with switchblades, turning the place upside-down looking for their three thousand bucks.
A motel was out of the question too—you needed money for a room, and he’d left every cent on the green felt. So much money, he could barely believe it was gone. Just like that. He could barely believe it when Eyeball had reached into his jacket and handed him the brick of bills in the first place. His face must have looked like a winning slot machine; it was like every bright light and ringing bell of Vegas went off in his skull at once. Eyeball must have seen the cherries in his eyes—those gangsters had a knack for judging character—so he must have known it was a bad move. Even a part of Sol had known it was a bad move, but far be it for him to turn down cash. And of course, the rest was history. The money was history, the apartment was history. Now Sol needed a place to squat and lick his wounds for a while.
He had a few buddies here and there, but none came to mind who owed him a favor. It was he who owed most of them favors; in fact, the more he thought about it, he was into just about everyone he knew for a few bucks. No one was going to take him in, especially with the Mob nipping at his heels. There was only one place he could go; one place he was always welcome, no matter what. Mom’s house.
He checked his watch. 5:15 a.m. The only sign of life was the light in his mom’s kitchen, the sole glow in the neighborhood. Mom was up early, as always. Up, and toasting a bagel.
The undercarriage of the old Mercury Cougar bottomed out on the driveway, and he knew she would soon be peeking through the blinds to investigate. Until he had the money for a new suspension or a new car altogether, it would be impossible to make a discreet arrival. The curtains parted and the poofy silhouette of Edna Edelbaum rose in the window. You didn’t need to see her face to sense the excitement in her bobbing bouffant. Sol sighed. He was in no mood for the onslaught to come, but considering the circumstances, it was a fair trade for sanctuary. The curtains shut, and before he could even get out of the car, Edna Edelbaum’s reception shattered the calm of the early morning.
“Angel boy darling!”
Sol closed the car door and smoothed down his jacket. His shirt was still tacky with sweat. Sweat, and who-knows-what-else. “Hiya ma.”
She shuffled out in her slippers to embrace him in the middle of the driveway like a carnivorous beetle.
“I had a feeling you’d come to visit. Maybe I dreamt it, I don’t remember. Why so early? Are you hungry?”
“I just need a shower, ma.”
“Of course, take a nice shower. Are you hungry? I have leftovers. I can make you an omelet. You smell like smoke. Have you been smoking? Don’t break my heart. You know Uncle Merle has emphysema.”
“It wasn’t me, it was the guys I was with.”
“You’re covered in schmutz, why don’t you take a nice shower, I’ll make you something to nosh on.”
“I’m not hungry, ma, just a shower and some sleep, alright?”
“Have you been eating? Look at you, you’re all schmutzed. Are you sure you weren’t smoking?”
“Just hanging out with some friends.”
“Oy, not that Finney boy I hope, he’s a real no-good-nick.”
“That was high school, ma, I haven’t seen Finney for fifteen years.”
She was straightening the lapels of his jacket. “Finney’s mother was always worried sick with that boy. He was nothing like my boy. Oh, I’m so glad you came to visit.” She rubbed his bristly cheeks.
Sol glanced up and down the street. He didn’t think he’d been followed, but you never could be too careful. Especially with the Dominicans. At least the wops would think it over before they stabbed you. The Dominicans, they’d just stab you.
“Let’s go inside, ma, huh?”
“Let’s go inside, honey.” She went after his cheeks again. “Oh, you know what I have? Liverwurst, your favorite!”
“Liverwurst? I hate liverwurst, can we go ahead inside?”
“I could’ve sworn you loved… oh, you know what? That was your brother.”
He was backing up to the front door at this point. “Let’s talk about it inside, eh?”
“My poor buby, you must be starving. Let’s go inside, I’ll make you a bagel.”
After some time, Sol managed to escape to the bathroom. He turned on the shower and stood looking in the mirror. His face was smeared with dirt where he’d fallen in the alley after dropping from the fire escape. With his shirt off, he saw his elbows and left shoulder were scratched up too. It could’ve been worse. It should’ve been worse. For the lousy luck he’d had at the table, “Slippery Sol” had lived up to his nickname yet again, hitting the bricks before the bricks hit him. Like a cat.
“How many lives you got left, Slippery Sol? A couple, maybe? Yeah, I got a couple left in me…”
“Angel boy darling…” It was mom, shouting from behind the bathroom door. “I brought you a towel, bubela.”
“There’s towels in here, ma.”
“Open the door, honey, I have a nice towel…”
“The one in here’s fine.”
There was no reply, but Sol knew instinctively she was still standing there. He waited patiently for her third attempt. There would be three attempts, and then she would finally…
“It’s your favorite towel from when you were a—”
“I’m fine! I already have a goddamn towel!”
He waited until he heard her shuffle away and he got into the shower. The water was hot and the steam like a veil to hide him from his problems. He wondered what his apartment would look like by the time he could go back. He played a kind of hopeful movie in his head, one where both the spics and the ginzos showed up looking for him at the same time and fought it out right there in his apartment. Eyeball kicks in the door and there’s Ramos. Ramos, in true Dominican fashion, goes ahead and plunges a knife in Eyeball’s neck. No, he decided—plunges it in his one good eye. Then Eyeball pulls a gun and blasts Ramos in the sternum. They both lie there dying, lamenting about how they never caught up to Slippery Sol, but it doesn’t matter anymore, because both of them are worm food. The Gambinos forget about Sol and go after the Dominicans for retaliation. Sol grows a mustache and moves to Florida, off the hook. On to bigger and better things.
“Yeah, that’s rich,” he muttered.
“I’ll leave the towel by the door, honey, That’s what I’ll do. It’ll be right outside the door. I’ll go make you a nice bagel!”
The next day, Sol went out for some groceries and Edna stood in the kitchen admiring her new Ginzu bagel knife. She tried it on a frozen bagel, and you wouldn’t believe it, it cut right through with the lightest nudge. What a delightful device, she thought. The Chinamen usually made such shabby knick knacks, but with their samurai swords and throwing stars and all that, they made just a terrific bagel knife. She decided she’d keep an eye on the television for a Ginzu cream cheese shmearer. But wait… Did Chinamen eat cream cheese?
A car pulled in front of the house around 1:00 p.m. and she hurried to the blinds to see if it was Sol back from the store. He’d be amazed at what a great gadget this Ginzu knife was. And a bargain to boot. Could you believe it? The Chinamen usually made such shabby things, and what a wonderful bagel knife they’d made.
But it wasn’t Sol’s car, it was a black Volvo.
“Feh,” she said. But just as she was about to turn back to the cutting board, two sharply dressed gentlemen got out of the car. She thought she’d wait a minute to see what they were up to. But what was this? They were walking across her lawn.
Edna panicked. She was still in her curlers and nightgown, what would she do if they came to her door?
Before she could decide, they were knocking. “Of course,” she said. She checked herself in the hallway mirror to make sure she wasn’t too disheveled and peeked out the peephole. It was them, alright, and they didn’t look like they were leaving a door tag. She sighed and opened the door.
“Edelbaum?” asked the young fellow.
“Yes,” Edna said. The fellow’s clothes were so spiffy. Sol never dressed up like that. She wished Sol would dress up sometime, at least for a nice picture.
“What a spiffy outfit,” Edna said. “Are you boys Jewish?”
The man seemed taken aback for a moment, then smiled tentatively. “Is Sol here, ma’am?”
“Sol will be back soon, come on in, I’ll have coffee ready in just a minute.”
The two looked at each other for a moment, then the second fellow took off his sunglasses. “Listen, lady, I’ll cut to the chase. Our boss sent us to collect on a loan made to Sol. He’s late. We need payment, or there’s gonna be consequences.”
“A loan? For what? Are you gentlemen from the bank?”
“Let’s just say it’s a private bank. Anyway, five thousand, plus a five hundred dollar-a-day late fee makes six thousand by tomorrow. Cash. Go ahead and let Sol know we’ll be back in twenty-four hours to collect.”
“Six thousand…” For a moment she thought she’d plotz. “Gevalt, what in the world did Sol need six thousand dollars for?”
“I don’t know him personally, Mrs. Edelbaum, that’s none of my business, but I can tell you I’ve seen him at quite a few card tables. In any case, my associate and I will be back tomorrow. And if we leave without the money, well, let’s just say my boss imposes a very severe late penalty.”
“My God, I can’t believe it. Are you two from the… Mafia?”
The man grinned. “There’s no such thing as the Mafia, Mrs. Edelbaum. Have a nice day now. We’ll see you tomorrow.”
The men got back into the Volvo and drove away. Edna stood stunned in the doorway, the smell of her burnt bagel not even occurring to her.
She thought about what the man had said. Always good-natured, Edna had tried her best to ignore all the signs over the years: the sleazy friends, the smelling like cigarettes, the pocketfuls of crumpled lottery tickets, the sporadic trips to Atlantic City, the constantly needing a few dollars for this and that. He always needed money for something, always in a hurry. Always had big ideas, always had a “lock” on something. He always…
“Oy, Sol, you’re such a schlimazel. And you know what? I’m a schlimazel too!”
Sol never came home that day. He arrived the following morning, his head pounding, his eyes bloodshot, and six crumpled dollars left in his pocket. Another losing night at some little dive joint where nobody knew him. His mother’s car was gone. The smell of potpourri and an over-toasted bagel hung in the air. He tossed his smokey jacket on the kitchen table, and that’s when he saw the note:
Sol, I’ve gone to the credit union to get that six thousand dollars you owe those nasty men. They said if we don’t have it by today, they’ll do something bad. I swear, I thought I’d drop dead right there on the doorstep. How could you do this to your old mother? Your poor, old mother. But I’ll never let them hurt my little angel boy, so don’t you worry. Help yourself to a bagel. Make sure you try the new Ginzu bagel knife in the silverware drawer, I got it on sale from the television. Cream cheese in the fridge.
Sol stepped back from the table, breathing heavily. He thought he’d be safe here for at least a week or two, enough time to get back on his feet. But they’d tracked him down in a matter of hours.
“My damned luck,” he growled, and looked at his watch. 9:30 a.m. He stood there thinking for a minute, then stomped his foot and put his smelly jacket back on and went back out to his car.
Edna stood outside the bank. It opened at ten, and she wanted to be the first one inside, so she wouldn’t have to wait to talk to a loan officer. A group of colored gentlemen walked by and she clutched her purse to her chest. “Oy Sol,” she said. “How could you do this to your poor mother?”
A car pulled up and jammed on the brakes, and she saw it was Sol. Finally, Sol had showed up. She donned her most guilt-provoking countenance.
“I knew it and I ignored it all this time. You have a problem, Sol, I should’ve said something a long time ago. Look at you, you’re all schmutzy.”
“Take it easy, ma, don’t make a scene.”
“How could you do this to your poor, old mother?”
“Listen ma, I’m really sorry, I never meant for you to get involved in any of this.”
“I’ll never let them hurt my angel boy. We’ll give them the money and they’ll leave you alone. But no more of this nonsense, Sol! You could’ve been a doctor. Or a lawyer, buby! Like your uncle Merle.”
“I learned my lesson, ma, no more gambling. But there’s got to be some other way, I can’t let you just take out a loan—”
“I’ve made up my mind. I’m not letting those men hurt my buby. You should’ve seen them, Sol, they were menacing. I thought I’d faint right there on the doorstep.”
Sol rubbed his neck the way he always did when he was nervous. This is what everyone meant when they talked about “hitting bottom.” He’d heard all the stories from the degenerates in the meetings he’d tried going to. Ironically, it was all those stories that knocked him back off the wagon. They all seemed so awful; so much more severe than anything that had happened to him. Sure, he’d been roughed up a couple of times. Sure, he was usually broke. But he’d never hit bottom the way all those other schmucks had—losing houses, ruining marriages, emptying college funds. That kind of stuff is what it took to get clean for good—to really hit your lowest low.
Well, this was it. He’d dragged his own mother into it. And if she knew the whole truth, she’d probably have a heart attack. He owed a lot more than six thousand bucks to the Gambinos. And now that they knew where he was, they’d be back to collect again next week. And the week after, and the week after that, and so on.
“Alright, ma, just this time. But listen. I’ll find a way to pay you back, alright? I promise.”
“I know you will,” Edna said. But Sol knew she didn’t mean it. He’d never been able to pay her back before, how was he supposed to do it now?
They left the bank an hour later with six thousand dollars at an interest rate not much better than a mob-loan. Following her back to her house, wallowing in the guilt and the hopelessness of it all, he only found solace in the idea that he’d finally hit his bottom. Once he found a way to get out of this mess, he could finally clean up his act. Maybe he could go back to school after all. He could be a doctor. Or a lawyer, like Uncle Merle.
“God, get me through this mess, and I’ll never forget it. I swear. I’ve hit bottom, God. How could I do this to my poor, old ma?”
He could see his mother’s silhouette through her rearview window as they went, gesticulating, shaking her head. He knew what she was doing, privately airing her grievances. She was so disappointed in her buby. He knew she was. She should be.
“God, how am I gonna make this go away? Please, show me something. Show me the answer, and I’ll do it, I swear.”
Then, like a flash of lightning, he had an idea. The light turned green and his mom pulled away, but Sol just sat there a second until the car behind him started honking. He gritted his teeth, put on his signal and turned right. It must be the right move. God had heard his prayer and given him an idea. Not the idea he’d expected, but an idea nevertheless. And Sol knew exactly what he had to do.
Sal—a.k.a. Sammy the Bull—Gravano stood at the phone booth by the subway station, squinting against the cold mist. Not quite rain, just wet enough to be a pain in the ass. He checked his watch. The phone would ring soon; it would be John Gotti and whatever big news he had that couldn’t wait until tomorrow morning. He double-checked the street sign to make sure he was at the right corner. He was. Restively, he scratched his balls.
The phone rang. Gravano slid into the booth and picked it up.
“Hey. Do you have Prince Albert in a can?”
“Very funny, boss.”
“Listen… We’re getting rid of the old man.”
“Nobody approved it, nobody needs to. The prick doesn’t even show his face at Dellacroce’s wake. He sanctioned his own hit if you ask me. Who’s gonna disagree with that?”
“Not me. It was reason enough when he whacked Scibetta. Say the word, I’m in.”
“It’s happening. Soon. And with him out of the way, you know who’s at the helm, don’t ya?”
“Yeah, you can bet on it.”
“And you know who’s gonna be a big Capo, don’t ya?”
Gravano looked up and down the street. He swirled his toe on the floor of the booth.
“That’s right. Sammy the Bull.”
Gravano stifled a cough. “What about his wake?” he said.
“His wake? Waddya mean?”
“You gonna show up at Castellano’s wake after we do him?”
Gotti paused. “I never thought of that. Seems a little disingenuous, huh?”
“Hmm. I’ll tell you what, you go first, then call me and let me know how the food is.”
SOL PULLED INTO THE DRIVEWAY two hours after they’d left the bank. Edna ran to the window to make sure it was him, then ran out the front door and seized him by his shoulders.
“Good gracious, Sol, where were you? I thought those men had gotten you! Just look at me, Sol!” She embraced him. “How could you do this to your poor, old mother?”
Sol looked oddly pale. “I don’t wanna talk about it,” he said.
Edna watched him walk past her and limp up to the doorstep. She remembered back when Sol was a baby; he was always cranky around midday, that’s when she used to put him in his crib for a nap. Maybe that was it, maybe he just needed a nap.
“Sol, honey, maybe you should have a nap.”
“A nap? What?”
“You seem tired, that’s all. A little cranky. You might feel better if you took a little—”
“Ma,” Sol snapped. “I… I lost the money.”
“The money? It’s in your pocket, honey. I saw you put it in your—”
“No, ma, I mean I lost it. I bet it on the horses. I’m so sorry, ma, I thought I had a lock. I really thought I had it…”
Her kneecaps seemed to turn to matzo balls and her legs began to wobble. “Oh, Sol. My legs. I think I’m going to faint.”
“Oh no, ma…” Sol steadied her and helped her inside. He walked her over to the kitchen table and lowered her down onto a chair.
“How could you be such a…such a schlimazel? How could my own son be such a stupidnick schlimazel?” She swatted at his forearm. Sol feigned agony.
“It was gonna pay ten-to-one, ma. I thought I had it this time.”
“I’ve had it this time!” she snapped. “What are we going to do when those men come back? They said if we didn’t have the money, they’d be very angry!”
“I’ll handle them, ma. I’ll take care of it, I know how to handle these people.”
“You’re delicate, Sol, you’ve always been delicate. What if they hurt you?”
“They won’t hurt me, ma, these guys are all talk, it’s what they do. Just leave it to me. And I’m not delicate.”
“You could’ve been a doctor, Sol. Or a lawyer. Like your uncle Merle. Instead, you’re a schlimazel!” She swatted him again.
“Listen ma…” He pulled out another chair and sat rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands. “It’s not just the six thousand the Gambinos are after…”
“The six thousand is just the first payment. I owe them sixty.”
“What?” She shot up out of her chair. “Oy vavoy, I’m gonna faint…”
“Well sit down, ma.”
“How could you do this? I give you life, and you give me what? Agony!”
“Ma, sit down, please.”
Clutching her heart, she lowered herself back into her chair. She checked the clock on the wall. “The men are coming in an hour. What am I going to tell them, honey?”
“You’re not telling them anything, ma. Just go in the bedroom and wait. Watch your programs. When they leave, I’ll come get you. Alright?”
“I won’t let them hurt my buby. I’ll never let those no-goodnicks hurt my bubela.”
The no-goodnicks arrived as promised. Sol stood in the kitchen, smoothing his clothes and going over his lines. Sol was a smooth talker, he knew that; even back in his car selling days, he could talk his way around questions, talk his way out of trouble. But this was no car and these were no rubes. There was a lot more at stake now than a used car commission.
A hard knock on the door. Sol waited a moment, just long enough so he wouldn’t seem either over-eager or scared to death, which indeed, he was both. He checked his looks in the mirror, smoothed back his hair, took a deep breath, and opened the door.
He recognized the two men. A couple of Eyeball’s street toughs, Mike and Ralphie. Mafia wannabes that would never be more than loose associates, but were too dumb to know it. Eyeball kept them hooked, and it kept them hungry.
“Gentlemen,” Sol said. “Pleasure to see you.”
“Cut the shit, Sol. Just fork it over so we can get outta here, huh?”
Sol stepped outside and closed the door behind him.
“Where’s mom?” asked Ralphie.
“Ma, oh she’s out at the grocery store. But listen. I’m glad you two are here, because I happen to have an extremely lucrative little business venture I’d like to share with you. Big-money we’re talking about here.”
“We’ve heard it all before,” Mike said. “Can the small talk. You got the cash or not?”
Sol stifled a swallow. There was a short but uncomfortable pause.
Ralphie nodded. He took off his sunglasses and folded them into his breast pocket. “Maybe we came off too strong,” he said. “Let’s start over. You going to invite us in for a drink or what?”
“We could just talk out here,” Sol said.
“You’re gonna pitch us this idea of yours out here in the cold?” Mike said. “Come on, where are your manners?”
Sol cleared his throat. “I uh… I suppose.” Without breaking eye contact, he opened the door and stepped aside. The men went in.
In the kitchen, Sol went to fetch two glasses from the cupboard. “So tell us about this idea, Edelbaum,” Mike said. “I’m intrigued.”
“Sure,” said Sol. “Here’s the thing. I’ve got a lock on this—”
The wind went right out of him. Sol felt his feet lift off the linoleum, and the next thing he knew, his face and right hand were squashed onto the kitchen table. The chairs skidded backwards against the sink. Before he could protest, he felt the cold bite of steel just above the knuckle of his little finger. His eyes slowly focused on a gleaming piece of metal. A chisel.
“The boss doesn’t appreciate you beating around the bush. Hand over the envelope or you’ll be doing it with one less finger tomorrow.”
“Guys, I can get you more than what you’re asking, I promise. I’m just a little short right now, that’s all, but I’ve got this inside information, I’ve got—”
A hollow clunk and crash of glass…
“What the fuck?” said Mike.
The pressure on Sol’s face and arms abated. The room filled with a fruity astringent smell Sol recognized immediately. Manishewitz. Broken glass rained down on the linoleum.
“You’ll never hurt my bubela!” said Edna, and Ralphie crashed heavily onto the floor.
“You dumb bitch!” Mike turned on Edna, wielding the chisel.
Reflexively, Sol dove onto Mike’s back. He remembered jumping onto his father’s back as a young boy. The effect was similarly ineffectual. He didn’t have a chance in hell.
Mike shook him off like a bug. Sol sailed into the kitchen cabinets and landed in a heap, salt and pepper shakers and sconces teetering off of their perches and onto the counter and floor. The world was spinning, his eyes clamped tightly against the pain in his head and lower back. He was helpless. Too weak to protect his own mom.
“I’ll never let you hurt my angel!”
Disconnectedly, Sol heard next what might have been an axe thunking into a wet, rotten tree stump. Followed by a clang.
Get a grip, Sol… He forced his eyes open.
There was Mike. He had dropped the chisel. He appeared to have antlers. His arms were flailing in some strange interpretive dance. Then he saw the antlers were not antlers, but the branches of a menorah lodged in his skull. Still dazed, he pictured a lit candle on each one.
Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam…
“Buby, are you alright?”
Mike’s feet treadmilled in the puddle of Manishewitz, then went out from under him and he sprawled face-first into the wine and glass. More trinkets fell into the sink. A baby picture of Sol fell from the wall into the trash can.
“Baby, say something!”
That’s when he saw his mother standing there. Her face was wrought with terror. Not terror of the gangsters laid out on the kitchen floor, but terror that he had been maimed.
“Sol! Say something! Do you know where you are? Do you know what year it is? Who’s the president?”
“I’m alright, ma.”
“Oh, thank God! I thought you’d bumped your little head.”
“I did, but I’m alright. Just give me a—”
Ralphie, the one Edna had hit with the Manishewitz bottle, had begun to stir. He wasn’t conscious yet, but it looked like he was waking up.
“Ma, we gotta get outta here, quick.”
“How dare you assault my bubela!”
Mrs. Edelbaum had other plans. She seized the Ginzu knife from the butcher’s block and dove on top of Ralphie like a kamikaze pilot. She started sawing. She sawed and sawed, snapping through meat and gristle. Fountains of blood cascaded onto the floor. The blade hit bone. His head flopped left and right as she sawed, like he was repeatedly looking both ways before crossing the street. Finally it looked left, then just lay there at her knee. She’d sawed his head off.
Edna looked at the head for a moment, then stared at the bagel knife with a kind of reverie. She heard in her mind the hammer and anvil of the forge, the great, red heat of the glowing coals. The pudgy-faced Chinamen, long hair drawn back in those samurai coiffures, hammering the steel, folding it over, hammering again. The legendary blades of the samurai Chinamen. As she held the bagel knife, slathered in gore, she too felt the thousands of years of culture and tradition and power.
“Heavens to Betsy,” she said. “Did you see that Sol? I just cut the man’s whole head right off! …Sol?”
Sol was staring at the severed head.
“Bubela? You look pale.”
Something occurred to her suddenly. The man she’d brained with the menorah looked dead, but what if he wasn’t? What if he got up again and tried to hurt Sol?
Edna got to her feet and approached the second man.
“Ma, wait, take it easy.”
“Nobody’s going to hurt my buby!”
“Aw, no, ma…”
This time she started at the back of the neck. Once she got through the bony parts, the rest was a piece of cake. Another body’s worth of blood poured into the expanding red pool filling the kitchen floor. Her dress was soaked up to the waist. She would have to take it to the cleaners. But Sol was safe now, that was the important thing. She looked lovingly at him. For all the blood on the floor, there seemed to be none left in his face.
“Sol, can you believe this knife? I got it from the television.”
It took the both of them two hours to mop up all the blood after they’d gotten the bodies into the bathtub. Sol didn’t know which was worse, the blood or the hours of niggling over his foolish decisions. He should’ve stuck with school; he could’ve been a doctor. Maybe a lawyer, like Uncle Merle. But no, he wanted to earn his money the easy way. Only shortcuts for Sol Edelbaum, no hard work or dedication to anything. He deserved the niggling. How could he have done this to his poor, old mother? Yada yada yada.
“I get it, ma. I understand already.”
“Then stop horsing around and hold up that foot. Oy, my back is killing me.”
“Let me do it, gimme the knife.”
“I can do it buby, just hold up that foot.”
“I got it ma, let me have it already.”
The color never quite came back to Sol’s face, not even after Edna forced him to eat a Fig Newton. Not even as they drove the Volvo down the dark paths through the Great Swamp later that night.
They rolled down nameless dirt roads until a bollard post forced them to stop. They got out and opened the trunk and Sol lifted out the garbage bags and dropped them on the ground. Each one weighed roughly seven thousand pounds. Edna carried a third bag containing the mens’ blood-soaked suits.
Dragging them through the leaves and pine needles, one of the bags got caught on a sharp tree stump, and Sol stumbled. Dammit… He yanked it free, ripping the plastic. As they trudged on, a shoe worked its way out of the hole. Then the whole leg fell out.
“Sol, honey, you dropped a leg.”
“I know, ma. Dammit.”
“I’ll get it.”
“I got it, I got it.” He grabbed it by the shoelace and tried stuffing it back in the bag. After a few tries, he gave up and just dragged it. They continued on.
Once Sol caught the smell of the bog, he was sure they’d been walking in the right direction. He remembered the place from when he was a kid; the little legend he and his friends had imagined, that whatever fell in the fetid bog water would never be recovered. They wondered what might happen if they lured over one of the school bullies and pushed him in. Or if one of them were to fall in by mistake.
It was all about the gamble back then too, he remembered; swinging over the bog on the tree vines, tossing Frank’s pet cat back and forth. Now, he looked at the hairy leg dragging behind his. This guy must’ve known he was going down too, one way or another. Everyone in this life ended up in hot water eventually. Some water, it was best to never, ever dip your toe into.
When they reached the bog, he swung the leg out into the water and it sunk in the sludge with barely a splash. Only a few sluggish bubbles in the moonlight. Then he spun around for momentum and hurled in the first garbage bag. Thwaap.
“Your father used to throw the discus,” Edna said.
“You never told me that,” said Sol.
“Boy, oh boy, could he throw the discus.”
Driving back through Newark, Sol parked the Volvo in a shabby lot, opened the windows and left the keys in the ignition. The car was like a carcass in a lake of piranha. By the time they got a cab and got back home, the thing would be a different color. “It’s a shame to leave such a fancy car for the you-know-whos,” Edna said.
Gotti was at his usual breakfast spot, sitting and smoking and reading the paper. Gravano walked through the door and the two exchanged nods from across the room. Gravano sat down across from him and Gotti smeared his cigarette in the ashtray.
Gravano began: “So Eyeball sends two of his bullies out to collect on a defaulted account. This was yesterday, and he never hears back from ‘em. So he calls last night, and nobody else has heard from ‘em either. They just poof, disappeared.” He lit another cigarette.
“Did they get the money?” Gotti asked.
“I don’t know. No one does, Eyeball can’t get ahold of either of ‘em.”
“Who’s this guy they went to see?”
“This Jew named Edelbaum. Used to hang out at the card tables a lot. Personally, I wouldn’t loan the guy a penny.”
“How much did Eyeball loan him?”
“I know it.”
A waitress came by and set a cup of coffee down in front of Gravano. They were quiet until she left.
“Think they took the cash and split?” Gotti asked.
“Nah. No way. I doubt the guy had the first payment to begin with. What’s he loaning to gamblers for anyway? What’s he think they’re gonna do, open their own casino? I told him that. He goes: ‘Sammy, this guy’s a Jew. He knows what he’s doing.’”
“Yeah, he knew what he was doing, alright,” Gotti said. “You know who else was a Jew? Remember Schwartz, the guy who owned the pet shop in Jersey City?”
“No, never heard of him.”
“Well get this. Eyeball loans the guy ten grand to start some trained-parrot business. Meanwhile, you know what happens? The guy gets locked up for fucking pigeons.”
“That’s rich. Like no one’s gonna be able to tell the difference between a parrot and a pigeon?”
“No, you don’t get it. I mean literally fucking pigeons. Some guy shows up looking for bird food, and there’s Schwartz in the back, fucking a pigeon. Hand to God.”
“Get outta here, how do you fuck a pigeon?”
“In the ass, I guess. But it just goes to show…”
Gotti dragged on his cigarette. “Hold on, what were we talking about?”
Sol sat staring at the bottom of a scotch glass at the Mire Pub, wondering where his next buck was coming from. All he needed was one good score and he could stop all this nonsense for good. One big nut. But how was he going to get it?
Suddenly, a heavy hand landed on his shoulder, and the barstools on either side of him were heavy with the presence of large men.
“Edelbaum. How’s tricks?”
It was Eyeball. The last man on earth he wanted to see. His heart rate immediately doubled. My luck… The streak continues.
“Just having a few drinks after a hard day’s work, happened to notice you here. Hey, a couple of guys went down to see you the other day. Funniest thing, they never came back. You know anything about that?”
Sol had begun to sweat. They had to smell the fear on him. “A couple guys? Who?”
“Don’t be smart, Edelbaum.”
“Oh, you mean Mike and Ralph? Yeah, yeah, I paid them what I owed you, sixty thousand. Payment in full. They said thank you and they left.”
Eyeball squinted at him with his one good eye. He glared at him for an uncomfortably long moment. “You’re telling me you gave those two the money?”
“They’ve got the money,” Sol said. “Every cent of it.”
“Now where the fuck did you get sixty grand?”
Sol paused. “I sold a bunch of my father’s old war memorabilia. I swore I never would, but I did it. I had to. I wasn’t about to be late paying you.”
“That right?” Eyeball said. “How much did you get for it?”
“Exactly sixty thousand?”
“It was worth seventy-five, the guy knew he was getting a bargain. He scooped it right up.”
That was a laugh, Sol thought. His father’s old guns might have been worth a quarter of that. And he would have sold them already if his mother gave him access to them.
“Who’d you sell it to?”
“How’d he pay you?”
“You’re trying to tell me this guy brought you sixty grand in cash?”
“I insisted on it. You deposit a check like that, the IRS is all over you. I’m already losing out on the goods, I don’t need to pay taxes on the extra sixty.”
His companion piped in: “You forgot this guy’s a Jew, he knows his shit.”
“Oh, I didn’t forget. Hey, listen, I’m not jumping to conclusions here. Say you’re telling the truth. Maybe these jerkoffs decided to take the money and run, it could happen. Unlikely, I’d say, but not impossible.”
He got up from his barstool.
“You gotta understand, Sol. My boss doesn’t want to hear about this little loan sharking shit, he’s making big business moves. But he still wants his envelope.” Eyeball leaned in close. Sol could feel his breath against his cheek. “So I don’t want to have to come to him saying some bum is holding out on me for sixty large. He doesn’t give a shit, he’s either gonna want his cut, or he’s gonna want you out of the picture. Get it?”
“I get it,” Sol said. “Goes without saying.”
“So if that’s what happened, we’ll find ‘em. I’ll hold out on my boss for a few days while we wait and see what happened, but I’m not giving you the free and clear until I have that money in my hand. Understood?”
“Understood,” Sol said. He felt dizzy. He was glad he was sitting down.
The two men got up and went to sit at their own table, servers jockeying for position to wait on them. Had someone tipped them off that he was here? Was he being followed?
Sol finished his drink and slapped a ten on the bar and got up to leave. He gave an amiable nod to Eyeball on his way out. It was tough to read his expression with just the one eye. Had he believed the bullshit story? Maybe, but Sol didn’t think so.
Gravano put a dime in the payphone and rechecked his surroundings before dialing the number. Gotti answered after one ring.
“It’s me,” Gravano said.
“You know the thing we’ve been talking about?”
“The big thing?”
“Yeah, the big thing. It’s almost time to move.”
“You say the word.”
“I need you to chat it up with Bilotti a little bit. See if you can place the two of ‘em together. We off Costellano, we gotta get rid of him too. Clean up the loose ends.”
“Ugh. You gonna make me go talk it up with this prick?”
“Sammy… Who’s gonna be Johnny’s big Underboss?”
“Me,” Gravano said.
“Who’s it gonna be?”
“Sammy,” said Gravano.
“That’s right. So help Johnny out will ya?”
“Alright, alright,” Gravano said. “I’ll think of something.”
Sol had gone again without telling her what he was up to, and now she had to sit here worrying about him. Suppose more of those nasty gangsters were out looking for him. Suppose those were gangsters driving past her house right now? How could he keep doing this to his poor old mother? She sat at the table and peered out the window, waiting. Next time Sol went out, she’d find out just where he was off to.
Edna resolved to keep herself busy until Sol came home. When she was done playing with her Ginzu knife, she turned to a jar of Gefilte fish she’d spotted looming high on the top shelf of the pantry. She wanted to get it down and surprise Sol with Gefilte fish and fresh grated horseradish when he returned home. Sol had always loved Gefilte fish. Or was it his brother who loved Gefilte fish? She was pretty sure it was Sol. Wasn’t it? How long had it been up there anyway, she didn’t remember buying it. Would it still be good? How long did Gefilte fish stay good? Pretty much forever, she thought. It’s preserved in that jelly. Didn’t they find one of the ancient Pharaohs buried with Gefilte fish in his tomb? She was pretty sure they did, and it was still good, even after thousands of years. Wasn’t that something…
Just then, something on the television grabbed her attention. A breaking news story:
A grisly discovery in Morris County, New Jersey. A hiker, this evening, came across the dismembered remains of two men in the Great Swamp. The victims, as yet unidentified, are suspected by police to be gangland murders. Stay tuned for developments as they come in.
“Gevalt,” she said.
Gravano and Gotti were sitting at the diner the following morning, watching the latest developments on the Great Swamp story on the little television hanging over the breakfast bar.
“You think it’s Eyeball’s guys?” Gotti asked.
“Edelbaum couldn’t dismember a Cornish hen. No fuckin’ way.”
“For sixty grand, you never know,” Gotti said. “People do crazy shit when money’s at stake.”
“There’s just no way this guy could’ve taken those two out himself.”
“Lemme tell you something Sammy. I knew this guy once, little guy. Gambling man, like this Edelbaum. You’d swear he couldn’t hurt a fuckin’ bug. Anyway, him and these other bozos are drinking pretty heavy one night. Don’t ask me how it came up, but some guy bets him he can’t beat up an ostrich. So Fritz, that’s the guy’s name, he says that’s bullshit, he can beat the shit out of an ostrich. The other guys ask if he wants to make it interesting, and Fritz says yeah, he bets a thousand bucks he can kick the ass of an ostrich. So listen, it’s like two o’clock in the morning, and one of ‘em knows how to break into the Bronx zoo, and there they are. And Fritz is climbing into the ostrich cage, drunk as a skunk, coked to the gills, and it turns out the guy knows some ostrich karate shit. He’s running around the thing, he’s kicking it in the ass, the ostrich doesn’t know what the fuck’s going on. So just when he thinks he’s spent the thousand, here comes another ostrich, and now it’s two against one. So the other ostrich turns around and now they’re peckin’ him in the forehead, in the ass, the balls. They pecked the shit out of him. The other guys left him there in the ostrich cage, there was nothing they could do. And that’s what happened.”
Gotti sipped his coffee and lit another cigarette.
“I don’t get it,” Gravano said.
“Hmm? Waddya mean?”
“I mean it’s a good story, but what’s it have to do with Edelbaum?”
“Well, I’m just saying, money makes a man do strange shit.” He dragged on his cigarette.
“Hey, what is it anyway with you and boids all the time?” Gravano asked.
Gotti raised an eyebrow. “With me and what?”
“You know, every story you got, it’s always about that shit.”
Gotti waved away the waitress and her coffee pot. “Na, na, what’s with you and what all the time? What was that you said?” A little grin formed on his face.
“Boids? That’s what I thought you said. What the fuck is a boid?”
“Boids. You know… Fuckin’ birds.”
“What the fuck are you, Al fuckin’ Capone?”
“Birds, alright, birds is what I meant to say.”
“Ha! Oh, that’s precious. Wait’ll DeCicco gets a load of this. Boids, he says, you asshole.”
Sol sat at the kitchen table eating a pastrami and mustard. Mom had gone to bed. He’d promised her he would stay home tonight. But he had an itch no pastrami sandwich in the world could scratch.
The sun had gone down, pulling with it that little trigger in Sol’s head, the one that sent an impulsive bullet careening off the walls of his skull. He wanted badly to go out and slap down a bet, any bet. There were plenty of reasons not to, most of them really good ones. Besides losing the last of his money, there was always the chance he’d run into somebody he didn’t want to. But the voice was loud and persistent.
By ten, he’d convinced himself it was his lucky night after all. He’d be a fool not to take advantage of it. He put on his jacket and got in the car. He had eighty dollars to his name. His entire bank account was in his pocket.
This is so goddamned stupid, he thought, nodding at the doorman at the rear of the bar. It was unlikely he’d see any mob guys in the little speakeasy casino—they usually stuck to the more exclusive places—but not impossible either. So goddamned stupid. But maybe not; after all, this was Sol’s lucky night. He could feel it.
There were only five tables in the smoky, little room. The blackjack and poker tables were full, and he’d never been a roulette man. A few of the lowlives and their shoddy broads shot craps. Bums. Sol wasn’t here to party tonight. He was here to build up the bank.
It was tough to see through the dim clouds of cigar smoke, but he didn’t notice anyone around he owed money to. Good. And just as important, there was no one at his table to get in the way of his lucky vibes.
He sat down at the baccarat table and threw five bucks on bank. The dealer nodded and put down his cigar and started shuffling the cards.
“Haven’t I seen you here before?” he said.
“A few times,” said Sol.
“Feeling lucky tonight?”
“More than lucky,” Sol said. “I’ve got a system.”
“Everyone’s got a system,” the dealer said.
“They all say they do,” said Sol. “But they only say it. Then they get tripped up and don’t stick to it. See, I stick to things. I’m a stubborn sonofabitch.”
“Lot of gamblers are stubborn,” the dealer said. “Sometimes they confuse it with greediness.”
“I’ll show you the difference,” Sol said.
The dealer shuffled and cut and dealt the cards. Player got a seven of diamonds and Bank got a five of clubs, and the dealer swept away his five. No big deal, he was doubling down.
His system was this: he had eighty bucks, enough to double down four times. And his pattern was this: Bank, Player, Player, Bank. Why the pattern? He didn’t know. He just knew.
He put ten on Player. The dealer dealt Bank a ten and Player a three, and swept away his money. No big deal. He put twenty on Player, and the dealer dealt Bank a four and Player a king. He’d won the hand. The dealer pushed him forty bucks. He was up five bucks now. Time to start the pattern over.
Five on Bank. The dealer won. Ten on Player. The dealer lost, pushed him twenty. He was up another five bucks.
Five on Bank, lost. Ten on Player, lost. Twenty on Player, lost. A bead of perspiration formed on his forehead. He could still only double down three times. But he was sticking to his system. He put forty on Bank. The dealer dealt Bank a five, and he felt his palms seeping sweat. Player got a four.
Sol clapped his hands. “Yeah!”
The dealer pushed him eighty bucks. Sol had built his eighty up to one hundred, and the night was just beginning. To increase his ability to double down an additional time, he’d need to build his bank up to one-fifty-five.
Sol couldn’t believe his luck. Some time later—he had no idea how much later, he was absorbed in the game, that zen-like trance he craved—he had doubled his money, two hundred bucks now, and he’d only had to double down a fourth time once.
Most of the times Sol had lost big were because he’d gotten greedy. So, with two hundred dollars in his pocket, and all the self-control he could muster, he stood up from the table and called it quits. He couldn’t help but be impressed with himself as he walked back out to the parking lot. Not only had he stuck to his game plan, he got up and walked away with his winnings.
The night was cold and damp, and he looked forward to getting back home with more money than he’d left with for once. Maybe he could gamble reasonably after all. Maybe he really could do it for a living.
I could do this shit for a living…
“Edelbaum. Come on, let’s go for a ride.”
Sol spun around. The man who said it was sitting in the backseat of a Lincoln Towncar, another man holding open the passenger door. Sol froze.
“Get in,” the man added, removing his sunglasses. It was the last guy Sol wanted to see. It was Eyeball.
Sol glanced up and down the street looking for a way out, but it was late and there was nobody around. Nobody to help. And nobody to report it if there happened to be an incident. He was out of options. Slippery Sol had no way to slip out this time. Mentally, he put on his sales hat.
“What is it?” Sol said. “I’m paid up, what’s the problem? Your problem’s with those two goons of yours, not me.”
“Just get in,” Eyeball said. “Don’t worry, I’m not mad. I just gotta talk to you, that’s all. Review some terms and conditions.”
“Can it wait until morning?”
“Very funny,” Eyeball said, turning his one working eye towards the passenger door.
There was no getting out of it. God, keep this lucky streak going, Sol prayed silently. Reluctantly, he got in the car.
“No funny stuff,” said Eyeball, and he felt something cold jab at the back of his neck. He didn’t have to look to know what it was.
They took him to an empty blockhouse in the dead part of town, the old meat plant. They walked him inside and planted him in an old wooden chair waiting in the middle of the room and commenced to duct tape his wrists to the arms of the chair.
“You’re shaking,” Eyeball said. “It’s not that cold, is it? I’d turn up the heat, but I guess someone forgot to pay the bill. Sound familiar?”
“Look,” Sol said, “I’ll even help you find the guys. I’ve got some connections downtown. We’ll put out the feelers for them.”
“I’ve got some connections myself,” Eyeball said. “Funny you should mention it. I made a couple calls this morning after I saw a certain news story. I told my buddy I just wanted to have a look at them, make sure it was nobody I knew. I told him no, it was nobody I knew. But I’m pretty sure you know how it turned out, don’t you?”
“Alright, you win,” said Sol. “You want the money, I’ll get you the money, anything you want.”
“You never stop learning in a profession like mine,” said Eyeball. “Who knew a little prick like you could do a thing like that? Frankly, I’m impressed. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t care about those guys. What I care about is my eighty thousand dollars.”
“Eighty? It was sixty.”
“And now it’s eighty. I guess you didn’t check the price tags on Mike and Ralph. You break ‘em, you buy ‘em.”
Sol didn’t know what to say.
“Don’t feel bad, I’m a slow learner myself,” Eyeball went on. From the shadows, he produced a baseball bat. “But eventually, everyone’s got to learn. That’s why I brought along my learning stick.”
He began to circle the chair. The driver leaned in the corner, the moonlight shining on his expressionless rictus. Sol was unable to speak.
“Don’t worry, Edelbaum,” he went on, “Here’s one thing I learned a long time ago. Dead guys can’t pay. So I came up with a formula. When guys don’t pay, I just beat ‘em up so bad, they wish they were dead. Follow the logic?”
“Please,” Sol managed. Eyeball circled back to the front of the chair.
“Well, I’ll never fault you for politeness, Edelbaum. But politeness doesn’t pay debts. It’s time you learned that.”
Eyeball lifted the bat to his shoulder and Sol held his breath and squeezed his eyes shut. In an instant, he seemed to remember where it all started: trading baseball cards at school, shooting marbles, playing cards for nickels, watching grandma play bingo. Poker with his buddies, quarter hands. Betting on the races, scratch-offs, betting on the fights. Hold ’em in Atlantic city, all-nighters at the blackjack table in Vegas. It just went on and on and on, and this is where it all had gotten him. He got the same rush from the losses that he got from the wins. It was all just a drug that made him feel alive. It was the same drug coursing through his veins right now.
And then, the room was filled with destruction.
An explosion and sudden burst of blinding light, followed by the staccato of automatic gunfire. Sol’s captors dove and spun and danced out an old moving picture performance in the pulsing muzzle flashes.
Spatters of red pocked the dancing mens’ shirts. Eyeball, open-mouthed, with one hand to his chest and the other outstretched, appeared to serenade the driver, whose body was trying to slide down the wall as the force of bullets kept it pinned in place. He finally fell, and Eyeball began to spin. He was in a high-speed pirouette. Then, the curtain fell. It was dark.
“Oy, my shoulder is killing me.”
“Ma!” His ears were ringing from the explosions. His mother shuffled forward, rubbing her shoulder. In her hand, she dragged a rifle by the barrel.
“I’m sorry to meddle, honey, I know you hate it when I meddle. But I saw you went out and I followed you. Then I saw you get into that man’s car. I won’t let any of these men hurt my buby. Never.”
He didn’t have to ask where she got the gun. She’d gone into his father’s stash of war memorabilia. The stuff he told Eyeball he’d sold.
“Oh, ma… I can’t believe it…”
“Are you alright, buby?” She fiddled with the duct tape until she unraveled one hand, then Sol unwrapped the other.
“Should we cut them up again? You’ll have to do the sawing honey, my shoulder is all sore from shooting this thing all over the place. And it was so noisy.”
“There’s no time to bury anyone ma, you just killed a made guy. We gotta get outta here. We gotta get out of here right now.”
Tom Bilotti finished inspecting his construction trailer for wires and sat down at his desk. The feds knew better than to try it, he thought, but he was so used to his routine, he still did it every morning. Better safe than in the slammer.
Time for work. He put his feet up on the desk, uttered some incomprehensible swear at the tightness in his back and opened the paper.
No sooner did he get through the first page than there was a knock on the door.
“What?” he said.
Gotti’s guy, Sammy the Bull, came inside. Bilotti peeked at him over his paper.
“About Eyeball,” Gravano said.
Bilotti folded his paper.
“We found him. Him and his driver. They were in the old meat plant.”
“About twenty holes in each of ‘em.”
“My God, buonanima. Who the fuck did it?”
“We’re thinking it had something to do with this Jew he was collecting from. Edelbaum is the guy’s name.”
“Edelbaum? I seen the guy. He says he gave the money to those two micks Eyeball sent around, right?”
“Eyeball never saw the money. Or the micks, for that matter.”
“No shit. So waddya think?”
“Well, who’s the common denominator here? It’s fuckin’ Edelbaum.”
“Edelbaum? The guy’s a fuckin’ lightweight, he’s harmless. Someone oughta make that guy a liverwurst sandwich or something.”
“He’s big enough to use a gun if he wanted to.”
Bilotti scowled. “So you’re saying they dragged Edelbaum to the meat factory for a little encouragement and he somehow pulled a gun out of his ass and shot them both twenty times?”
“There’s only one explanation for that. He’s not working alone.”
“Waddya mean working? The guy’s a degenerate.”
“I don’t know. But Eyeball ain’t stupid. He had the guy duct-taped to the chair and everything. We get there and Eyeball and his driver are smeared all over the room and there’s the chair with the duct tape hangin’ off.”
“Jesus, who is this guy, fuckin’ Jewdini?” Bilotti leaned back and grunted.
“He’s got someone in his pocket. Someone good.”
“Paul know about this yet?”
“No, they only found him a few hours ago. You want I should tell him?”
“Not now,” Bilotti said. “He’s too busy to deal with this gangster garbage right now, we got a dinner meeting at Sparks on Monday. Until then, I’m not bothering Paul with any small-time shit.”
Gravano nodded. He made a clear mental note.
“Alright, so you want me to go deal with Edelbaum myself or what?”
“Hold off on it, let him think he’s safe for now. I don’t want to think about anything until Tuesday. Capisce?”
Gravano crossed his arms. He nodded.
“Alright,” Gravano said.
Bilotti nodded. “Alright, good. So can I finish my goddamn paper now?”
Gravano nodded and turned to leave.
“Oh, and Sammy?”
Gravano looked over his shoulder.
“Give the family my condolences.”
“Oh, and Sammy?”
“Watch out for the fuckin’ boids.” He chuckled.
Gravano balled up his fists and went out. Sparks Steakhouse on Monday, the jerkoffs get it. He had more pressing matters to think about than some degenerate Jew who defaulted on his loan. Even though this Edelbaum guy sounded like a lot more trouble than Bilotti had made him out to be. It was like he had some kind of secret weapon or something. Eventually, he’d need to be dealt with.
A Jew walks into a bar, he mused. Forty bullets later, a made guy and his goon are dead. In any case, when it came time to take the guy out, he thought he’d need to bring along a lot more than a liverwurst sandwich.
Finally, Sol was safe at home, sleeping like a good boy, but Edna still felt on edge. She’d taken to testing the bagel knife on random things around the house, just to see if it could cut them. She cut a length of conduit pipe, an old carpet remnant, an old plastic spatula, just marveling at how sharp it was. Sawing through those mens’ vertebrae hadn’t seemed to dull it a bit. This could become addicting, she thought, just cutting things in half for the fun of it.
Now and again, slicing random things to bits, she saw headlights illuminating the kitchen window. She saw them now, and peeked outside to see a black sedan slow down by the driveway, then speed past again. And after a few minutes, the car drove by in the other direction.
Despite everything she’d done, it seemed Sol had opened a bottomless jar of pickles. The mobsters wouldn’t stop until they had their money, she knew, and Sol would never have the money to give them. What would she have to do to protect him? Who would be showing up at the door next?
She sat down and glared at the elusive Gefilte fish on the top shelf. She folded her hands on the table, considering the jar like a wartime general. How do you get a jar off the top shelf?
Edna got up out of her chair and shuffled to the basement door. How do you get a jar off the top shelf? The answer was simple. You take down the whole shelf.
The big day had arrived for John Gotti. If this worked, he knew, he’d end up taking Costellano’s place at the head of the operation. And when he did, he’d breathe new life into the hard-knuckle traditionship of the Gambino family. Castellano had turned it into some white-collar office job and Gotti was sick of it. Why would you want to take all the gangsterism out of being a gangster? No pride. No tradition. It was a sign of weakness. And now it was time for a new regime.
Gotti and Gravano made their way into midtown Manhattan, full of nicotine and adrenaline. The stakes were high; this was an unsanctioned hit. If things didn’t go smoothly, Gotti’s cover would be blown, and the retaliation would result in a full-on civil war within the Gambino family. There was no room for error; both Castellano and Bilotti had to go, and they had to go down swiftly.
Sparks Steakhouse, 5:00 p.m. They saw the disguised assassins standing by, white coats and Russian hats. Two stood near the entrance and two more down the block, in case Castellano and Bilotti tried making an escape. The streets were busting with Christmas shoppers.
“See ‘em?” Gravano said.
“Who’s idea was it to dress up like fuckin’ Eskimos anyway?” Gotti said.
“I thought that was your call,” said Gravano. “Hold on. Eskimos don’t dress like that, they wear those other things.”
“Why you gotta bust my balls? This is a stressful day for me.”
“Those are them Russian hats,” Gravano said.
“Russians, Eskimos, what’s the difference? Ya know, you’d think these cops’d keep an eye out for Eskimos, it’s no wonder these neighborhoods all go to shit.”
“Lousy coppers,” Gravano muttered.
Gotti looked queerly at him. “What was that?”
“No-good cops. What are they good for?”
“Na, that’s not what you said. What’d you say before?”
Gotti snickered. “That’s what I thought you fuckin’ said. Ha! What are you now, James fuckin’ Cagney?”
“Cops. Cops is what I meant.”
“Wait’ll DeCicco hears this shit, oh man, you asshole.”
“Gimme a fuckin’ break,” said Gravano.
Slowly they made their way around the block. Classy broads all dolled-up in their furs and hats, shopping bags dangling from their elbows. Chilly doormen luring them into their stores.
“You know how hard it must be for an Eskimo to take a shit?” Gravano said.
“Think about how much shit they gotta take off to take a shit.”
“Yeah, then you’re freezing your fuckin’ balls off, right?”
“I bet the shit’s frozen before it hits the ground.”
“And how the fuck are you supposed to wipe your ass with those fuckin’ flamingo mittens?”
Gravano raised an eyebrow.
“Flamingo mittens? There’s no fuckin’ flamingos in Iglooland.”
“Sure there are, what are those fuckin’ birds?”
“Oh, fuckin’ penguins?”
“Fuckin’ penguins, yeah, those fuckin’ birds. Why you gotta bust my balls, this is a big day for me.”
“Hold on. They make mittens out of fuckin’ penguins?”
“Well not actual mittens, they just stick their hands in the penguin’s ass.”
“Get the fuck outta here.”
“Nah, seriously. I saw it on one of those fuckin’ nature shows. Seriously, why you gotta bust my balls?”
“How the fuck you supposed to hold onto anything with fuckin’ penguins on your hands?”
“You work the beak with your fuckin’ finger.”
“You know how far you’d have to shove your hand up a penguin’s ass to work the fuckin’ beak with your finger?”
“Yeah, up to the fuckin’ beak, waddya think?”
Gravano thought about that. They circled around and stopped at the light, just half a block away from Sparks Steakhouse, where Paul Castellano would soon be arriving for his dinner meeting.
“Wait a minute, hold on… So how are you supposed to jerk off with fuckin’ penguins on your hands?”
“Don’t be a fuckin’ moron. Waddya think?” He considered it for a moment. “You probably just get another fuckin’ penguin.”
“That makes sense. Wait, what?”
“Yeah, you fuck the penguin. Remember, there’s penguins everywhere.”
“What, there’s no broads there?”
“You seen those Eskimo broads? Believe me, you’d rather fuck a penguin.”
“I never seen an Eskimo broad.”
“You seen a penguin, right?”
“Yeah, I seen a penguin.”
“So you wouldn’t fuck a penguin? If you had to?”
“Fuck no. Probably not.”
“Neither would I, I’m just sayin’. How about a flamingo, you fuck a flamingo?”
“They’re those pink ones, right?”
“Yeah, those ones.”
“Fuck no. Would you?”
“No fuckin’ way. I’d rather fuck a pigeo… Whoa, here he is.”
Castellano’s car was stopped in front of the pavilion. Gravano stopped just across the street. Gotti rubbed his hands together. “Here it is, it’s going down.”
It happened in a flash, the holiday cheer dashed to pieces. Two gunmen materialized around the car and the streets exploded in lunatic gunfire and terrified holiday shoppers. Gotti enraptured, imagining his new future taking shape from the chaos, like a nuclear reaction fusing together some wonderful, new compound. The birth of a new regime. But all at once, the gunfire ceased.
“What’s going on?” Gotti said. “What happened?” He pressed his face up against the window.
When enough of the pedestrians had scattered, he saw one of the gunmen squatted down, struggling with the slide on his pistol.
“He’s jammed!” said Gotti. “These mamalukes get hair gel on the fuckin’ shells!”
“Fuck…” Gravano rolled out the door and loped towards the nearest car, staying low.
Castellano got out of the limo with a gun leveled, not a scratch on him. He fired twice, sending bullets careening off the asphalt. Another shot sent the Russian hat exploding in a cloud of fur. The man dropped his jammed weapon and scrammed. Castellano fired two more shots after him. It was a complete failure. The gunmen had missed every shot.
“You don’t think I know what time it is?” yelled Castellano. “Tell Gotti I got his number!”
Gravano rose from behind a Buick, his barrel perfectly trained on the marked boss.
“Hey Paul,” he said. Costellano turned to see him, his eyes wide as saucers.
“Hope you’ve been fitted for your wooden kimono.” Gravano squeezed the trigger.
click… click… click…
He saw Castellano’s grin through an empty chamber of the magazine. He thought the revolver had felt a little light when he pulled it out of his jacket. He’d forgotten to load it.
“Wooden kimono? What an asshole!” Castellano pointed his own gun, a devilish grin stretched across his face.
As John Gotti watched slackjawed from the backseat of his car, an old lady stepped out behind Gravano, awkwardly small and delicate behind the drum of the gun she held at her hip. A Thompson machine gun with a high-capacity drum. Castellano’s grin slid from his face.
“You’ll never hurt my bubela!” she said.
Gravano dove away just in time. Edna opened fire, peppering Paul Castellano with .50 caliber dum dum bullets. He seemed to dance there in the street, compelled into strange poses and attitudes. Glass shattered near and far as stray bullets connected with cars, apartment windows, street signs and buildings. His driver, still hiding behind the wheel, caught one in the chest with a mouthful of safety glass for dessert.
Gotti was behind the wheel now. Gravano sprinted back to the car swearing and they took off. He had barely enough time to read the license plate of the Buick LeSabre with its door still hanging open. The car the old broad had come out of.
Gotti hooted with excitement. “Dammit, I don’t know what just happened, Sammy, but I’ll be dipped in shit if God himself doesn’t wanna see John Gotti in charge.”
“Jesus,” said Gravano. “I gotta get me one of those old streetsweepers.”
“You’ll shoot your balls off, pal.”
“You know, I could’ve sworn this thing was loaded.”
“The paper’s gonna be priceless tomorrow morning, Sammy. Front fuckin’ page!”
THE NEXT MORNING, Sol woke to find a note from his mother that she was out grocery shopping. He scurried out to the curb and back to retrieve the newspaper. He scurried partly because of the cold, and partly because of the ominous feeling that a hidden gun was always pointed at him these days. He shut the door behind him and went over to the kitchen table to sit down. He unfolded the paper and froze with his hands flat on the table.
“Oy veh,” he said.
Dec. 17, 1985
Yesterday, right in front of Sparks Steakhouse in midtown Manhattan, was perhaps the most significant murder in recent Mafia history. Mob kingpin, Paul Castellano and close affiliate, Thomas Bilotti, were reputedly expecting to meet cohorts for dinner at the restaurant when several gunmen rushed their limousine and opened fire. As hoards of holiday shoppers ran for safety, each of the men were shot multiple times and left to die in the street.
According to investigators, the shooters likely used Thompson machine guns, as all but several of the bullets were large-caliber and residents reported hearing rapid gunfire.
The nature of the blatant and public murder, police believe, signifies a notable change of leadership in the Gambino crime organization. No suspects have yet been apprehended.
A notable change in the leadership… Could he have lucked out? Could he be off the hook?
Just then, a vehicle pulled in front of the house. He promptly stopped celebrating and crept up to the picture window and peeked over the curtains. A Lincoln Towncar. Two men in suits got out of the car.
“Shit,” he said. “You’ve got to be kidding me. God, you wouldn’t do this to me now, would you?”
Moments later, the doorbell rang. Maybe they were Jehovah’s Witnesses, Sol thought. Just Jehovah’s Witnesses wearing thousand-dollar suits. The Witnesses were doing well these days, weren’t they?
He tiptoed to the door and looked out the peephole, hoping desperately to see a bible. But all he saw were the backs of their jackets. The men were walking away. They got back in the Towncar, started the engine and left. What the hell was going on here? They hadn’t even waited for him to answer.
Tentatively, he opened the door. There was a box sitting on the doorstep. He just looked at it for a while, then tapped it with his foot. Not heavy. He leaned close to the box and listened for ticking. No ticking. After a while, he picked it up and brought it to the table and carefully opened the flaps and peeked inside. Fruit. A fruit basket. There was a note:
All debts forgiven and forgotten.
p.s. Watch that kid of yours.
He’s a bit of a schlimazel.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
🔔 More stories from author: Geoff SturtevantPublisher's Notes: N/A Check out Geoff Sturtevant’s critically-acclaimed collection of short stories, Occupational Hazards: The Blue-Collar Omnibus, now available on Amazon.com. Occupational Hazards is an omnibus of acclaimed novelettes from the “Return to the Dirt” and “Just Speculating” collections, and new, exclusive stories only available in this book. The stories exemplify the unsavory side of our everyday existence. Existentialism, absurdism, and outlandish humor merge with ordinary, workaday life for a unique and hilarious perspective of the human experience. Occupational Hazards is an unflinching ride through the absurdity of it all. Not recommended for the faint of heart or easily offended. But if meaty stories are what you’re after… I hope you’re hungry.
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