Before his parents rose, Roland Ildefonso usually stood by the living-room window that had the best view of the square, his gaze inevitably drawn to the WWI cannon that had been enshrined there under a canopy of poured concrete. Like many children, Roland had an imaginary friend. His was named Rupert. As they watched an early bus passing in the empty street below, a fly alighted on the window-pane before them. Roland quietly engaged Rupert in an exchange similar to many they'd had.
"Flies aren't like us," he said.
"They're different, aren't they?" Rupert replied.
Now Roland heard his father in the shower--he always sang, and always in Spanish or Italian. In the morning, his father often complained of a ringing in the ears. He said it was due to permanent damage done his eardrums by bombs dropped on his Uncle Isidro's restaurant when he was nine, only a year older than Roland--his father would be forty-seven in May. His mother, Dolores, passed silently behind him, through the darkened living-room and into the kitchen.
Roland wished they would drop bombs on Hoboken, like they had on Guernica. He wished it with all his might, so that he and his father and a handful of other courageous men could rush down to the square and man the cannon and, as his father put it, blow the Commie bastards out of the sky!
Dressed immaculately as usual, Diego Ildefonso strode into the kitchen. His son followed.
"You look nice," said Dolores.
"I look like I feel," Diego replied.
She waited. He wasn't about to elaborate. As she returned to squeezing her oranges, he went to stand behind her and breathe in the fragrance of her damp hair. Roland, who was lingering in the doorway, blushed.
"Shall we plan on eating early?" she asked. "It would be fun to get to the fairgrounds before they turn the lights on."
Roland observed their behavior at an angle in the large mirror over the sofa in the living-room. He observed his own behavior too. The boy he saw in the mirror, fair of complexion and deceptively delicate, now turned to smile endearingly at his mother and father. Diego went to him, touched his face, and kissed him on the head. His mother followed his father into the back hallway. A long moment passed before Roland heard his father go down the stairs and off to work. Every morning it was the same.
It was spring and Dolores Ildefonso longed for a lawn with daffodils, an enchantment she remembered vividly from her childhood in Trenton. At thirty-seven, and having been married contentedly to Diego for nine years, she had only this one wish. An only child, she had often gardened with her father, who considered bulbs one of God's finest creations. He called them "instant flowers." Once when substitute teaching, Dolores had managed to convey this ingenious concept to her third-graders and it had fascinated and delighted them. Today, while Roland ate his breakfast-- scrambled eggs, one long spicy sausage, a slice of white toast smothered in store-bought grape jam, and a large glass of milk--Dolores thought about the daffodils.
Roland knew his mother had a kindly face. Sometimes it was beautiful too, especially when she wore lipstick and smiled. Billy Nolan's mother's face was like a statue. It was very pale, and her hair fell without curving at all, straight down along her cheeks, which were peppery, like a pitted stone. Looking at Val Nolan always made Roland feel funny in his stomach.
The telephone at the Ildefonsos' rang every morning but Sunday between 9:00 and 9:30--Val, on her second cup of coffee. This morning when the telephone rang Dolores was already sorting through Diego's and Roland's socks to see which needed mending.
"How's it going, Val?"
"My Billy's got a rash."
"Where do you think? He still leaks in his drawers. Things form in there. Then his testicles get contaminated. Something like that, anyway."
"Diego broke Roland of that when he was only four."
"I wish Tommy-Tom had any inclination to do that about Billy. What'd he do?"
"He made him go around the house without any pants on."
"That sounds OK."
"It forced him to use the toilet."
"Otherwise he would have been wetting all over the place."
"Like a dog."
Dolores often found Val's comments perplexing. It was as if Val subconsciously resented her rapport with her son.
"I'm thinking about getting a job," said Val. "Something in hosiery. I've got good legs. Your Diego says I've got good legs, and he ought to know."
Dolores was now thoroughly annoyed with herself for answering the telephone. The agitation Val demonstrated on coffee was often disconcerting. When drinking alcohol, she could be positively chaotic.
"Nobody can spend all her time doing next to nothing around the house," Val went on.
"I find there's always something to do," Dolores responded, wearily.
"Yea, and the man goes out and has his fun with younger women. You probably wouldn't know about that, about those girls who hang out at The Jewel--most likely, they wouldn't be interested in Diego."
"Those are drag queens."
There followed a lengthy silence. Val's face floated up vividly before Dolores, but it wasn't the face Dolores now knew, it was the face Val had had before the energy had gone out of her. She was standing on a patio by a swimming pool, resplendent with Japanese lanterns, and she was grinning. Eighteen, and her face was like the face of a wild angel, illuminated from within and wickedly disconcerting to behold. It was about to happen all over again. Val was about to make a mess of things. A senior in high school, Dolores had just moved to Teaneck, had met Ray, Val's older brother, at a dance in Fort Lee, and more than liked him. Val was drunk. Everyone stared and Tommy-Tom--up from Hoboken and not about to suffer their snobbish scrutiny-- slunk off to find another beer. Val pressed herself to Ray, clutching his hand to her skinny thigh. There she was, again, flirting with her own brother in front of all of Dolores's nicest friends, pressing herself against him and smiling up adoringly into his eyes. Before long, Dolores and Ray wouldn't be welcome anywhere, not in the homes of the nicer people, and all because Val insisted on making Dolores her friend.
Val mumbled something. It sounded like the word repellent, but Dolores knew it couldn't be. Val was lighting a cigarette. She claimed she only smoked outside the house, in the evenings, when she went out on the town with Tommy-Tom, but Dolores knew she lit up the moment she was alone with little Billy.
Diego Ildefonso made his way along Willow Street in the direction of Bernardi's Italian Restaurant. The sun had broken through the clouds and the buildings along the way shone with that mysteriously comforting yellow light Diego had come to associate with Hoboken on a good day. Glimpsing himself in the wide front window of Willow Street's only laundromat, recently defunct, the idle washers and dryers staring out from the darkness within, Diego liked what he saw: behind the big man in his smart clothes rose, several blocks away, the spire of St. Eleanor's Catholic Church, giving the bedraggled scene around him a majesty perversely reminiscent of the old world. Beyond this picture, lying unseen but undeniably gleaming, lay the Hudson River, and beyond that, the epic towers of the metropolis itself. Pausing to savour the dimensions of his universe, Diego sensed the imaginations of his fellow-citizens, most of whom dwelled eternally in the warm shadows of their living-rooms, drifting through their television sets and deeper into the cosmos.
Fred Barbiche, who owned Pretty Feet with his partner Giles Petit-Pont--they also owned glitzy St. Martine on Lexington Avenue--had come over that morning from Manhattan to have a chat with his manager. He had been nice to Diego: usually nothing was sold on a Monday morning and the fat man had sold two matching pairs of baby sneakers to Mrs. Delano for the twins, Bonnie and Bobby, both little girls. The sneakers were adorable, with tiny broken eggs emitting yellow chicks scattered over a magnolia ground.
To celebrate, Diego was planning on having Bernardi's only Mexican dish on the menu, Yellow Mole, for lunch. He was particularly fond of pork and most particularly pork bones, and this dish had pork bones in abundance. It also had a hearty sauce, made with guajillo chilies, tomatillos, acuyo leaves, green beans, onions, zucchini, and lots of garlic, which Diego loved. He steadfastly refused to give up his garlic at lunch even though he was obliged to then ruin what taste was left in his mouth by sucking a peppermint on his way back to the shop.
Today Diego chose a table by the front window. As he sat, he tucked his tie into the waist of his trousers. In imitation of his uncle Isidro, he wore braces rather than a belt. His suit was a roomy fifty-eight inches around the middle, which easily accommodated his tie without creasing it when he was seated. As the restaurant wasn't too busy, he insisted Bernardi keep him company while he ate.
When the Yellow Mole arrived, Bernardi sat himself at one corner of the table to watch. Bernardi was also a large man, but his weight was firmly lodged in his bulky shoulders and chest. Before long their communication consisted exclusively of glassy-eyed smiles. The head-waitress Ramona, who harbored a secret affection for Diego Ildefonso, watched from the doorway to the kitchen. She often wondered why her boss treated the beautiful fat man with such deference, invariably concluding that it was because Mr. Ildefonso was political.
After ten minutes or so, Bernardi said, "A little Frank for the digestion?" meaning Sinatra on the restaurant's sound-system, and got up, leaving Diego to his meticulous extraction of the pork bones.
"Succulent," said Diego, through the mulch between his teeth, and his host limped off happily, his left foot having been reduced to spaghatini by a land mine outside Agrigento in 1943. Diego and Bernardi had this in common: ghastly memories of the war.
As the Yellow Mole settled in Diego's stomach, he pondered the peculiarly unpleasant intricacies of the previous evening. In the end, what was meant to be fun had been nothing but wearying. Sunday and as usual he'd had his two pals Gus Rozzo and Tommy-Tom Nolan over for spaghetti--Babs and Val and Dolores had all agreed that this was a safer situation than having the boys finish off the afternoon at some local bar, although it was Dolores who had to make nice entirely on her own. On these occasions Diego played the music he liked best. Of course only Dolores, listening quietly in the background, appreciated this. It had been an unseasonally hot night--utter stillness in the streets. At 231 Willow, seven blocks up from Bernardi's, if you listened carefully, you could hear the hi-fi playing Puccini's Madama Butterfly, the delicate strains eddying forth like a gentle breeze four floors above you. The heat had swarmed in from nowhere, the limp air murky with the overwhelming scent of humanity. At one point, feeling faint, Diego went into the bedroom and threw open the window. Across the way, a cat lay sleeping in the darkness under one of the parked cars. Even with the door closed, Diego could hear Gus and Tommy-Tom arguing at the other end of the apartment. They usually stayed late, drinking Diego's wine and talking--about work, about other guys they knew, about politics--but they'd drunk more than usual and the conversation had overheated. They were still carrying on when Diego finally left Dolores to her book, around eleven, and returned to the kitchen.
Black hair shining blue in the fluorescent light, Tommy-Tom stood slouching by the kitchen sink. "So, what is it?"
"So, what is what?" Gus snapped back. The diminutive Italian, the sleeves of the pastel orange shirt he'd worn to church that morning rolled above his biceps, stood up and leaned violently across the table, took up the bottle of Chianti, the seventh Diego had uncorked that evening, and refilled his glass.
"The fucking Knights of Columbus, what else're we talking about? It's a club to control things, all with guys who already think the same. Big fucking deal. I don't get it. What's to fucking control?"
Diego had been studying Tommy-Tom for the past few minutes. There was something wrong about Tommy-Tom, he concluded, and it wasn't merely his insolent manner, so unbecoming in a man whose virility and alleged maturity obviously meant so much to him. Diego waited, savoring the moment, watching Gus wonder anxiously whether to go on the attack or not: naturally, Gus was one of the guys Tommy-Tom was referring to, a guy who hadn't the guts, as Tommy-Tom saw it, to separate himself from what came easiest in life, like joining some dumb men's club. Gus had asked Diego to join, early on in their friendship, but at the time Diego hadn't realized the political potential in such an involvement.
"Try getting in on your own--then let's see what happens," stammered Gus, and began twicthing his dainty fingers through the breadcrumbs scattered over the table. "I bet they don't want you, and not cause you're a fucking mick." He laughed to let Tommy-Tom know his Irishness really didn't matter, it was a joke as far as his pal Gus was concerned.
"Cause I don't fucking cooperate with nobody." Tommy-Tom directed this remark to Diego, then stared off into the Ildefonsos' living-room.
Following his glance, both Gus and Diego now saw the child listening in the dim light just beyond the doorway.
"What's your kid doing up?" Gus abruptly inquired of Diego. "Kid should be in fucking bed by now. It's--what?" He peered around the kitchen looking for a clock.
"Leave the fucking kid alone." The gangling figure by the sink smiled at the boy. "Come here, Rolex. Come over here and give your uncle Tommy-Tom a kiss."
"Roland?" said Diego, softly.
Tommy-Tom smoothed his hair, limp with lanolin, back with both hands. "Hey Rolex," he whispered, "gettin any pussy lately?"
"He's drunk," Gus cautioned Diego.
"Roland, what're you doing up?" Diego persisted, shifting his enormous bulk away from the table to wave his son back into the shadows.
"I want to know what the Knights of Columbus have to do with the communists," answered Roland, matter-of-factly.
"Get this," sighed Gus, and glanced up at Tommy-Tom, who shrugged. "The kid's brainy too."
Roland stepped fully into the doorway. "Hey Pop, aren't all these organizations fronts for counter-revolutionary activity?"
"What organizations?" whined Gus, and drained his glass. "Yea, yea, I know, our kids are all gonna be marching around Red Square--for Chrissake."
"Around Manhattan, but they'll be wearing suits and carrying brief-cases," said Diego.
"What about the girls," snorted Tommy-Tom, "what're they gonna be wearing, combat boots and nothin else?"
"Roland, go back to bed, before your mother wakes up," urged Diego.
"Yea, and tells us to go home," said Gus.
"She wouldn't," murmured Diego, "you know that."
"I know who's the boss in my house." Tommy-Tom stared blearily at Gus. "Me. That's who."
Gus looked at the bottle of Chianti. "Somebody should finish this."
"Yea, and somebody should do the fucking dishes. What'ya say, Captain?" Tommy-Tom, now gazing down into the sink, was addressing Diego--both men, Diego knew, had come to acknowledge him as their intellectual superior, in Gus's case, begrudgingly. "Somebody should get this here tomato sauce before it gets hard."
"Dolores won't mind. Roland, go to bed. Tommy-Tom, please, just leave that."
"I gotta go," said Gus. Wobbling on his little feet, he picked up the bottle of Chianti and drained it. "Oooeee! Get ready Babs, you gorgeous piece of fuck-meat, here I come!"
"Shut-up," grunted Tommy-Tom.
"Oh yea-ah," Gus blurted back. With laughable determination, he then walked past Roland and through the living-room in the direction of the front hallway. "Go to bed, Roland," he barked, mimicking Diego, as he let himself out.
"I'm goin out the back so I don't have to give the fucker a lift," said Tommy-Tom. "Hey Rolex, shake it more than three times and you're playin with it."
"How many times do you shake it?" Roland called after him.
"So now you're a wise-ass too," was the last thing Diego remembered saying, as he scooped up his son and took him in to bed.
The strains of "September" cascaded over the shining surfaces of Bernardi's. Diego shifted his focus from the pile of bones he had amassed on what would have been his neighbor's napkin and concentrated his attention instead on the deliciously spicy sauce at the bottom of the dish before him; it adhered beautifully to the large pores of the baguette provided by Ramona. Without Bernardi there to distract him, Diego's thoughts turned once again, sadly, to himself. The sentimental music reminded him that he had awoken that morning in tears. What had he dreamt? He couldn't remember, only that it was somehow unbearably lovely. As always, he had found his enormous belly tucked into the curve of his wife's lower back, the underside of his girth resting, gently pulsing, on the lean rise of her buttocks. This was where his belly belonged, and would belong forever. He was fat, fat and middle-aged and mundane in every way. Fat with sincerity and stale thoughts. Earnest to a fault. Fat with nothing new.
My stomach is full now, Diego concluded, and pushed himself away from the table, accidentally tipping it upwards, like a see-saw. The dish that once held the Yellow Mole slid onto the floor and shattered. The pool of yellowish gruel he had been soaking up splattered in tiny droplets over the immaculate tiled floor.
"Fucking oaf," he muttered, and reached for the fresh handkerchief he always kept in his breast-pocket, his eyes wet with shame.
"My mother's looking after Dommie and the twins," said Babs Rozzo, when she ran into Dolores on the street that day, Roland by his mother's side. "I'm shopping for some new bras. I've grown."
"They say child-bearing will do that."
"Yea, child-bearing and bras that are too tight!" Throwing back her head, Babs let out a laugh. Gus and Babs Rozzo lived in a split-level on the western fringes of Hoboken. This meant they perceived themselves as being a lot more glamorous than some people. "Aren't you gonna take you-know-who (meaning Roland) you-know-where (meaning the fair) this year?" Cocking her head to one side, pin-curls bound in a huge scarf decorated in what appeared to be panda bears, Babs waited.
Dolores absorbed the spectacle. "We haven't decided about that."
"Well, let us know if you change your mind. We'd love to go with you. You know how Mikie looks up to Roland."
Dolores wondered why Babs allowed herself to be seen on the street in such a guise, her wide babyish face startlingly immature without make-up. Then it came to her: Babs's mother Ruthie. Ruthie had always done the same in anticipation of a big night out. Before evening events at church, Babs and her mother often presented themselves to the world, out shopping in tandem, in that condition. Dolores imagined it heightened the thrill, after hours of chatty exertions, of finally looking utterly ridiculous.
"Roland looks funny," said Babs.
How do I look funny? wondered Roland, waiting for her to elaborate, but instead Babs's attention was drawn to a new car passing in the street.
"You think Diego's ever gonna get that, you know, whatever it is he's always talking about?"
"We don't really need a car." Dolores smiled down at Roland, mildly embarrassed. There were times when she rued the night she and Diego had met Babs and her husband Gus, an old friend of Val's, at Bernardi's and brought them home for more drinks, the evening ending with Babs and Gus in their bedroom, on their bed, simulating love-making and laughing hysterically. That was ten years ago. The Rozzos had found the Ildefonsos entertaining, especially Diego, and took them everywhere, even on a canoe trip, just the four of them, down the Delaware River. Now there she stood feeling strangely sorry for this woman, and, deep down, she knew why: Babs hadn't a life of her own, never had and never would.
"Gus says he's gonna call Diego about that trip they're planning to Vegas. Ugh, I gotta go and get my boobies some relief. I'll call ya. Bye. Bye, Roland. What a great looking kid!"
Her hips rolling deliciously--Dolores knew that was what she was thinking--Babs sauntered on.
The evening air was alive with excitement. Blocking the long low slant of the sun, the Washington Street bus pulled up to the curb and the Ildefonsos got on. The three had eaten early and well on tuna fish salad, cold boiled potatoes, iceberg lettuce, one head cut into three tidy wedges, two similarly sectioned tomatoes, and blueberry pie with ice cream. It was a meal that Diego particularly disliked but ate without signalling his aversion as a gesture of affection for his wife: it reminded her of the summer holidays she'd spent as a child with her aunt and uncle on Lake Pocono. Roland always ate his supper in two identical installments, Rupert obliged, naturally, to eat the second installment after Roland had finished the first. The dessert course was another matter altogether. Rupert was only ever allowed to lick the plate.
On the bus, Roland and his mother sat chatting softly on one seat, while his father sat silently on the seat behind them. Like his son, Diego gazed out the window, the clamoring color on their side of the street now submerged in shadow. The doorways, most laid open and breathing in the cooling breezes, shone along the way like the spaces between a pumpkin's teeth. Diego wanted a cigarette.
"Look, it's the Rozzos," said Roland, turning around and tugging at his father's sleeve. The bus stopped and the Ildefonsos peered down, watching the nine Rozzos board the bus.
"Where's the van?" Dolores asked Babs as the Rozzos trooped down the aisle.
Babs swung her baby around, nearly striking the infant's head on the rounded metal edge of the seat in front of Dolores and Roland. "Ask the boss," she said, directing her words at her husband.
"Fucking spade ran into me on a bicycle," Gus declared, loud enough for everyone--conveniently all of the passengers on the bus were white--to hear. He pushed his eldest son Teddy, a skinny kid with a bad case of acne, on ahead of him.
Roland looked expectantly up at his mother.
"Mr. Rozzo means a colored man."
"A Negro," said Roland, with satisfaction.
"Yes, sweetheart." Dolores was staring at Alicia Rozzo, aged about fourteen, who had made up her face identically to her mother's. Babs looked like a surly Jane Mansfield, with the added dimension this evening of having dipped her head in a geisha's paint box.
Alicia caught Dolores's curious gaze and stopped to grimace at her, her face only inches away, like an insane person. Dolores glanced past her, blushing, at Gus Rozzo.
"You can fit here," said Diego to Gus, and shifted his cumbersome weight as far back in the seat as he could. Gus gave his son another push, insisting the boy move to the very rear of the bus, and sat next to Diego, his legs splayed out before him, obstructing the aisle. Gus giggled, making twinkle-toes by vibrating his little feet in the air: he had new shoes. They were two-toned snakeskin cowboy boots reduced by some smart-aleck designer to slip-ons.
"Different," commented Diego.
"Originals," Gus corrected him, "from Nudie's--you know, in Vegas."
"Too cool," said Roland. He had his pale head hung over the seat before the two men, balancing himself with a tightened fist on his father's knee.
"Dyn-o-mite," said Gus, and swung around to survey the lay-out of his family. He winked at Babs, who was gesturing in secret sign-language at him: she was asking his permission to breast-feed the baby. Gus opened his mouth wide and bit down slyly on his tongue to communicate the word later. "I love to watch her do that," he confided to Diego, who didn't know what he was talking about.
"So how long will your vehicle be out of commission?" asked Diego.
"Only a week. Or so the mother says."
"Who's doing it?"
"Freddie Friedrich, who else? He's the only one can match the paint. Fucker charges an arm-and-a-leg. He was telling me that they're talking about starting up a union of auto-body workers."
"I thought they had one?"
"I'm talking body shop guys."
"I've never seen them do it so that it looked like it was before," interjected Dolores.
Gus frowned at the back of her head.
"Mrs. Ildefonso, I was trying to listen to what my dad was saying," called Alicia Rozzo, from somewhere behind her father and Diego.
"That'll do, sweetheart," said Babs from across the aisle.
"But what my dad's saying is interesting. And I want to hear," insisted Alicia.
"At any rate," Gus went on, "it looks like some of these morons just won't let well enough alone. I mean, who needs a fucking auto-body shop union to jack up the price of repairs, which only jacks up the price of the goddamned insurance? Right?" He stared at Diego, screwing up his face to look aghast. "Oh right --I forgot!"
"Come on, Gus, you know we don't need a car."
Roland couldn't quite work out what was the matter with his father. Perhaps he only shouted back at Mr. Rozzo when they were at their house. His father looked sad.
"I told you before, National Finance will give you a loan. I know the manager there." Gus had lowered his voice but still spoke loudly enough for both Babs and Dolores to hear. Diego resented Gus's high-handedness. He stared at him, and kept staring at him, until Gus grew so nervous his eyebrows shot up involuntarily. "You want a car, you can have a car. You can do anything you fucking want, boss. That's all I'm saying."
"You'll never grow up," Roland said to Rupert, as the two boarded The Wild Mouse for their first carnival ride of the evening.
"Maybe we should have gone on The Snowball instead," said Rupert, obviously frightened to death of the stupid machine with its stupid safety-bar which was being clamped over their thighs.
"It's not even as scary as The Bullet," sneered Roland. "It's just like that tea-cup thing. Remember? Only faster. You probably don't remember, you probably were too scared."
"I remember. At Dorney Park."
"Wait just a minute there, Roland," grumbled Babs. No matter what tone she used, Mrs. Rozzo always made Roland's name sound too sweet, as if she were addressing a little girl or, worse, a sissy boy, as Tommy-Tom Nolan liked to say. She wrenched the safety-bar out of the attendant's hands and shoved Mikie Rozzo, who was just five, in next to Roland. "Watch him," she ordered and left.
As the curvilinear metal box in which they were sitting began to slide slowly outward on its long hydraulic arm and swing around in a series of uneven arcs, gradually elevating itself as it went, Roland stared down at the little boy. Mikie wasn't gripping the safety-bar, he was banging his tiny fists up and down against it in a fit of gleeful excitement. He had orange wax, like a clot of gooey caramel, in his ear.
"Push his head the other way, Rupert!"
Roland freed one hand from the safety-bar, reached up awkwardly between himself and Mikie, and flicked the child's ear sharply with a spring-like finger. Mikie screeched and reared away from him.
"Now stay that way. I mean it, you little asshole!"
Throughout the ride, Mikie glanced fearfully over at Roland, who had shifted his attention once more to Rupert.
"You see, he's only a child. Anyone can control a child."
"Oh, really? And what are you?"
"Nearly an adult."
"How do you figure?"
"I behave like a man."
"Yea, you play with yourself."
The two continued to bicker, neither taking any enjoyment in the exhilarating elasticity of the machine's odd movements.
"Go with him," said Babs to Mikie, when the ride was over.
She expected Roland to offer the smaller boy his hand. Sensing this, Roland thrust his hands into the pockets of his shorts. He walked on, ignoring Mrs. Rozzo, and Mikie was obliged to follow.
Most of the paint had been blasted from the shifting metal silhouettes by millions of snapping pellets, so that the cut-out shapes looked more like the battered tines of some archaic conveying machine than cute aquatic targets. Dolores watched as her husband and Gus shot at the ducks. They both had cigarettes stuck between their teeth. They pling-planged the last two ducks over on their hinges.
"Dead-eye Dicks, I'd say." Diego put down his rifle.
"You're opposed to be shooting one at a time," said the man running the game.
"That was all me anyways," chortled Gus, then threw an arm around Diego's broad shoulders.
"I always let him win," Diego assured the man.
"You bet," said the man, and reached for a chartreuse panda bear with a day-glo pink tongue, which stuck out like the tip of a dog's erect penis, or so it appeared to Dolores.
"Please don't offer it to me," she said. "You can give it to one of the kids. Or all of them, for that matter."
"Get outa here, I'm giving it to Babs!" Gus yelled over the din. "She loves fucking bears!"
"Smart move," said Diego.
"I'll bet she's feeding the goddamned baby right now," tittered Gus. "Kid gets all the tit. They gotta beer tent this year?"
"They always do," said Dolores, as she moved away slowly, distractedly, through the corridor of gaming stands.
"Last year it was Cassarole did the food," said Diego. "I don't know how he did it but he lost money on the deal."
"His food costs too much," declared Gus flatly and led the way, quickly overtaking Dolores, in the direction of the beer tent.
Eventually Diego caught up to her.
"The guy's got a nose for a drink," he laughed as he took her by the arm.
Dolores said nothing.
"I said he's got a nose for a--a beer," he insisted, coughing, momentarily out of breath.
"I know, I heard you," she whispered, making the effort, as she always did, not to spoil the occasion.
"The sign says Miller's High Life!" shouted Gus, fist raised high, thumb extended, not glancing back. The chartreuse panda bear was staring over his shoulder.
Alicia Rozzo was watching the older boys, boys who were old enough to drive cars, wrestling outside the portable lavatories. Rather than appearing formidably glamorous for her age, an illusion she was confident her meticulously rendered mask of cosmetics had accomplished, Alicia, at that distance, appeared forbiddingly grave and anemic. She had intended to change her tampon, but now shifted her emphasis, in anticipatory terms, from the delectable insertion of the cardboard applicator to the idea of intercourse itself.
"Look at the blood-sucking freak," called one of the boys.
Alicia glanced around.
"Suck me," called one of the others.
Alicia, always too quick to judge, could imagine herself sucking the first boy's penis but not the second's, an uninformed and biased attitude, especially as the second boy's father was the manager of the Chemical Bank in Jersey City.
"Go suck yourself," she called back, and scrunched up her face fetchingly.
Boldly, she now went where no sane girl her age would go: directly through the boys, in the direction of the Ladies' portable lavatory.
As she passed by, the boy who had called to her first said, "Real warm for April," and plucked at her blouse.
When she hissed back at him, he yanked her blouse from the waist of her black fake-leather skirt and out of her rayon panties. The tail of the blouse, upon which she'd been sitting on the bus, fell over the dark shape of her bottom. Down between her plushy buns had seeped the contents of her engorged tampon, leaving a wealth of menstrual discharge clinging to the fragile stuff of her shirt-tail. The boys stared.
Thinking they were only mugging, Alicia turned on the youngest.
"Aren't you Freddie Friedrich Jr.?"
The boy made a face as if she were talking nonsense.
"Your dad's fixing our van. You know, he had better do it right. And he had better not have any of those union guys mess up the job."
Friedrich Jr.'s face reddened, and then he began to giggle.
"You better get your rag fixed first," he said, and pointed at her bottom.
Alicia turned indignantly. She felt him gingerly lift the tail of her blouse with a finger or two and peered down awkwardly to see her menses soaking the gauzy sweep of fabric. Stamping her gold ballet slippers violently up and down at the heels, Alicia began to stutter.
To most of the boys, who moved closer, surrounding her like anxious insects, it sounded as if she kept saying I must copulate... They sniggered nervously. But only Friedrich Jr., who was now silent, actually heard her moaning refrain:
"It must be chocolate..."
To Alicia's surprise, her mother emerged from the Ladies' lavatory, baby on hip, walked directly over to Freddie Friedrich Jr., and slapped his face.
Tommy-Tom Nolan had found Gus and Diego and was making the most of it buying them endless cartons of beer. His long black hair shining with oil, he stood slouching against the bales of hay brought in to preserve the playing field beneath their feet. He had dressed his gangling figure all in green, so that he looked like an overgrown leprechaun. As usual, Dolores found him repulsive. Although Tommy-Tom had at first only bedgrudgingly accepted her husband--a foreigner ten years her senior who used big words--he now followed Diego around as if he were a cross between Elvis Presley and Leonardo Da Vinci. For twenty minutes or so, she'd been yearning to locate Roland and set about gathering the Rozzo brood together. This Babs would require of her anyway, before the Ildefonsos could themselves leave the fair. Dolores couldn't work out why some Catholics, like Diego for instance, were sensible about the number of children they had and some bred in a sustained frenzy. It certainly wasn't that some Catholics were sexier than others, and it certainly wasn't that they simply adored children. No, it undoubtedly had to do with a single-minded commitment to the Church, a carnal dimension to life invoked in childhood. Babs, she accepted, was incapable of any other mode of behavior, not by choice but by circumstance. Sometimes, when she studied Roland's luminous features, she thought of the Rozzo children, picturing each face and dreading the moment God's turmoil would come to fill their eyes with despair. It was a numbingly sad admission but in many ways she worried more for Babs's children than she did for her own son.
Dolores wandered away from the beer tent. Walls of jostling flesh pressed in on her and she longed to stride from the confinement of the stadium, out into the night. The Christmas lights strung overhead hung so loosely they flapped in the breeze. The breeze rode well over the crowd, its currents free of the metal vats stinking of bubbling grease, free of the tangle of slick garments brushing annoyingly up against her, rich with the stench of perspiration, adrenaline, cheap cologne. The Ferris-wheel loomed over the stadium. Its colored lights glinted like fireflies in a jar. More and more people were crowding in, to get on the thing before it shut down for the evening. But the Ferris-wheel never shut down, it revolved endlessly in the darkness, even after the fairground had been emptied of everyone but the carnies. The crowd gathered at the base of the wheel had to be there for another reason. As Dolores drew closer, she heard one woman, her voice hushed but tinged with condemnation, say: I certainly wouldn't entrust my little Bobby to another child. And then another shout: What kind of mother would do such a thing?!
When Leon Huff, Hoboken's Chief of Police, heard Roland babbling to himself, his head swivelling on his shoulders, he assumed the boy was hysterical and allowed him to go home with his mother without questioning. Huff would visit the Ildefonsos the next day, when Roland was sufficiently recovered. Babs Rozzo refused to look at her son's broken body. She stumbled off in silence, clutching her baby to her breast, to find her husband. Alicia, who was already in a state of extreme agitation, was left to identify her brother. Although Mikie's face had been destroyed on impact, Alicia knew him by his shirt, a miniature Hawaiian-style one identical to his father's. When Babs returned to the base of the Ferris-wheel with Gus and Tommy-Tom and Diego, Mikie's body was already on its way downtown in an ambulance. Diego volunteered to take the Rozzos' remaining children home, but no one responded.
Staring down at the mixture of dust and blood at his feet, his face a quivering mass of black lines, Gus spluttered, "You should of left him, Huff. You should of left him for me to take."
"I'm sorry," said the Chief.
"Where is he?" wept Babs.
"He'll be at the morgue," offered Tommy-Tom. "It was a freaky type of accident. They'll have to autopsy him."
Babs's words riffled from her. "What's that mean? Gus?!"
A long silence followed. The men stared at one another.
"That's not true," said the Chief. "He'll be in the basement of the hospital. St. Mary's."
"What'll they do with him?" demanded Gus.
"They'll keep him there until you can make other arrangements."
"To bury him," added Tommy-Tom.
"I can give you the telephone numbers," said the Chief.
Pressing herself frontally against her father, her thumbs locking and unlocking convulsively through his belt-loops, Alicia now insisted on displaying her grief.
"He was my little brother," she sobbed.
"Yea, Mikie was real cute," said Tommy-Tom, and reached out his heavy callused hand and allowed his fingers to slide despairingly down the hair at the back of her head.
Shrugging him off, Alicia buried her face in the folds of her father's shirt and whispered, "Our family's in mourning now, isn't it, Daddy?" And Gus put his arms around her. Then, so that everyone could hear, she said, "I was molested, Daddy. I was."
Chief Huff watched as Gus took his daughter's face tightly in his hand, her lips puckering with the pressure, and in what struck the Chief as a particularly cold and lifeless voice said, "Who did what to you?"
"Freddie Friedrich's kid--he tried to stick his finger," she grunted, while twisting her head free of his grip. "That hurts!" Alicia now pushed her father away, so that he stepped backwards onto his wife's foot.
"Oh God," whined Babs.
"Easy now," said the Chief, and put his arm around her. The Rozzo infant lay sleeping against her bosom.
"Do something about the Friedrich kid, Huff," Gus blurted. He clutched at Alicia's hand, but she was too quick, and darted behind Tommy-Tom.
"Yea, you'se should bring him in for questioning," said Tommy-Tom, grinning.
"What's so funny?" asked the Chief.
"Nothing," said Tommy-Tom. "That tickles," he laughed, blindly reaching around behind him, as Alicia pirouetted ungracefully away.
"I'm in mourning," she called over her shoulder, eyes dramatically slit. "And I'm not going home. I'm going down to St. Mary's with you to get Mikie."
"You're not going anywheres. Get her," said Babs, and shoved her husband in the direction of their unruly daughter, so that he shot forward, off-balance, lunging onto his knees in the dust, his hands thrust out before him.
When Gus lifted his hands, everyone saw Mikie's blood sticking to his palms. Everyone, that is, except Tommy-Tom, who was staring at the dark stain on the tail of Alicia's slithery blouse.
The inside of Tommy-Tom's Pontiac Bonneville was metallic green. It reminded Alicia of a Christmas tree ornament. Even the carpet at her feet was like Christmas. It was like the wispy blanket of snow you put around the bottom of the tree, only it was pale raspberry--they named colors after different fruits now. Alicia didn't particularly like being squashed in the back next to her stupid smarty-pants sister Theresa. Theresa smelled like soap, even her hair, like Ivory soap, not even nice soap. It was the same soap her father used. A young woman should never use soap like that. Everybody else was in the car too. Only she and her mom and dad and Tommy-Tom were going to the hospital. The rest were going to be dropped off at home to stay with Mr. Ildefonso. Mr. Ildefonso had volunteered to take the bus with her older brother Teddy, because not everybody could fit in Tommy-Tom's car. Mr. Ildefonso was a nice man, nicer than her father even, and much, much nicer than Tommy-Tom, who was basically a jerk. He reminded her of a few of the guys at her high school who were destined for vocational school. They all smoked and had their girlfriends suck them off. Some even fucked their girlfriends. They were trash. But Tommy- Tom was a grown-up. He was married with a little boy. His wife wasn't much though. She always looked sickly. And she hardly left the house. Tommy-Tom obviously didn't have it so good in the love department. And this was truly dumb, because he thought of himself as a big lover. Her mom and dad didn't know it, but Alicia had almost had an affair with Tommy-Tom. This was last Christmas. Alicia wished it were Christmas again now, for all the parties. The summer was OK, but you had to get out of Hoboken if you wanted to have any real fun. Alicia hoped she could sustain her interest in this outing. It was going to be horrible to see her little brother again. She was nearly certain it was going to give her nightmares. Mikie had flown out of the sky and landed on his face, like The Road Runner.
"Mom, do you have any extra Kleenex?" Alicia asked Babs, leaning forward, her hand on her mother's shoulder.
The five Rozzo children in Diego Ildefonso's care lounged before the television watching a black and white movie. He lay on the sofa, exhausted. He had put the children in their beds, but Teddy had insisted on watching the late news. Even with the volume at a barely audible level, the television had eventually drawn all of the children into the darkened living-room with their pillows and onto the carpet. He had decided to allow them to be driven off to slumberland by the film, which featured the tedious hysterics of Katharine Hepburn and an unimaginably bland assortment of spineless young men and women in tweed suits and frothy pinafores. Hating the actress, her manner so blatantly fake in its Englishy blue-bloodedness, Diego savored the sweetness of the plain little faces hovering below him, their pale upturned cheeks illumined ultravioletly, their pillows reassuringly white. These were the faces of the 21st Century, their synthesizing young minds already capable of reducing the likes of a Miss Katharine Hepburn to an animated cartoon, a daffy bird of some kind, like an ostrich with two grimacing rows of pearly white teeth.
Diego Ildefonso doubted Miss Hepburn had been among those celebrities so enamored of the politically exotic that they had risked, stupidly when one considered the cushy life-style at stake, being blackballed back in the 1940's--those square-shouldered guys and dolls the press, in their inanity, had called Hollywood reds. To call such impotent pseudo-intellectuals, such gutless idealists communists was an insult to all true Bolsheviks and especially to a fateful few, like Trotsky himself, a man so dedicated to international revolution that his untimely death, at the end of an ice-pick in Mexico of all places, had been inevitable. Miss Hepburn would have been too aloof, too cowardly really for such unflattering alliances. Money would have been her party of choice, money and the sophistication it can buy.
Miss Hepburn, the camera slowly dollying in to catch her in shimmering close-up, gazed over the children's heads directly at Diego. Taking a beat to add to the precariousness of the moment, she laughed at him. Laughed right in his face. Diego shuddered. Miss Hepburn's eyes overflowed with the degradation of everything he had once loved and respected about America. This was the inadvertent, the thoughtless mission of such effete poseurs, like the Kennedys, who waltzed through wars, marriages, Harvard, as though their ancestors had never known the taste of a raw potato. They were taking America to the cleaners with their false idealism. Now the light that darted in Miss Hepburn's eyes was captured in diffusion. Like two droplets of rain clinging exquisitely to the petals of a rose, her eyes sparkled in the depths of the dark living-room.
"Look away, children" Diego warned, then realized he'd spoken. But none of them had heard. The Rozzo kids were all asleep. Miss Hepburn and Diego Ildefonso were alone.
Miss Hepburn stopped laughing and smiled through the gloom at Diego. Again she spoke. The music swelled to envelope her lines, but he heard exactly what she said. Returning his stare, her brows steaming, she said, "What would you know about it, you fat simpleton?"
"I wish I had your slick cunt in my hand," whispered Diego, then realized with shame that Tommy-Tom Nolan had put this sort of vile remark in his head.
Gus Rozzo walked into the room and looked at the television. Apparently not registering the presence of his children sleeping on the carpet, he went out again and down the hall to the kitchen. Diego waited. Gus went to the refrigerator, took out a can of beer, and opened it.
The Rozzos' kitchen was a study in garish color. Every implement, every object, every stick of furniture had been chosen for its distinctly festive character. Many of the things surrounding Diego, where he sat in one corner by the wall-phone, had faces. Some were molded sculpturally into the surface of the thing, like the cookie jar which was also the head of a clown, some stencilled onto the surface, as with the set of plates on the shelf which were adorned with the sultry smiles of veiled conchitas, and some applied via the slippery technique of decaling--cartoon mutants in pastel colors littered the refrigerator door. Gus's own face was more rubbery than usual in the fluorescent light, an unreal blue reflected up from the pumpkin-yellow Formica counters. His distracted expression, beer can glinting back and forth against his teeth, stood in vivid contrast to Babs's. Her eyes were glassy, the pupils huge, and the rims, with lashes curled back like fish-hooks, as red as the meat of a flayed tuna. Gus had opened his shirt to the waist and occasionally ran his free hand over the naked swell of his tiny melon-like tummy. Babs, whose blouse was wet where her nipples had ridden over her bra, obviously wanted Diego Ildefonso to leave so she could be alone with her husband.
"Anything else I can do before taking off?" asked Diego.
Babs only yawned.
"Something stronger might help," said Gus.
His wife glared at him. "I don't want Alicia to come in here and find us drinking."
Gus flicked nervously at the cigarette packet hanging loosely in his shirt pocket.
"I just want to go to bed," she muttered, "I just want to go and lie down with my baby," and walked from the kitchen without another word.
"I lost a brother when I was little," said Gus. "I mean, my mom and dad did. Ran out in front of a fucking delivery truck. Like bread or something. Smashed his head. With my kid you couldn't even tell who he is. At least with Vinnie you could tell him."
"I guess that would've been better," said Diego.
"After that, I got all the shit dumped on me." Gus went to the refrigerator for another beer. As he went, he threw his empty can into a cardboard box by Diego's chair. It bounced off the others brimming in the box and rolled under the chair. "Fucking leave it," he groaned.
With some difficulty, Diego picked up the empty can and carefully set it in with the others. When he glanced up, he found Gus staring down at him, eyes stricken with concentration. Gus raised the fresh can of beer to his mouth and drained it in a succession of long painful gulps. He wiped his mouth with the back of one hand while simultaneously crushing the spent can with the other. "You're the boss. What would you do about Freddie Friedrich's fucking kid?"
"I wouldn't do anything."
"He put his hand on her--on our Alicia. You don't do that."
"Maybe he likes her. One day he'll probably want to take her out in his car."
"Let him fucking try it." Gus moved once again toward the refrigerator, but stopped. As if he were now caught under the weight of a vast soggy net, he slowly drew up his hands. "I gotta go to bed," he said, palms pressed to his eyes. "I got work in the morning."
"What about Mikie?"
"Oh yea..." Gus gazed blearily up at the clock above the refrigerator--John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. together always."Where's she anyways?" he wondered aloud. "It's almost quarter to one, where is she?" Suddenly Gus's face split open with an anguished sigh, and he began to weep. Diego took him out onto the back steps, so his children wouldn't hear.
Leaning over the porch's metal railing and heaving with grief, Gus drooled out the beer he'd just drunk in the kitchen. Standing there off-balance holding his friend's head cupped in his hands, his huge stomach lodged painfully on a curly-cue of wrought-iron, Diego Ildefonso realized that nobody had bothered to offer him a cold beer.
After returning home from the fair, Dolores had lain down next to Roland. He hadn't wanted her to. He'd even turned away, to face the wall.
"But I love you," she'd said.
"You love my money," he'd replied.
This Roland had heard a man say on one of the soap operas Dolores watched around lunch-time.
Now he slept and she lay alone in her own bed.
When Diego came home, he immediately undressed and got into bed. Within moments, he was asleep. His rest, Dolores appreciated, was paramount in the scheme of things.
While Dolores dreamt of Roland, winged and noble in his determination, swooping down from the trembling gondola of the Ferris-wheel to catch Mikie as he fell, Diego Ildefonso dreamt of the destruction of Guernica. Before him lay the foothills beyond the town, the road up to Luno segmented like a brilliant strand of mercury by the out-croppings of pine and wild oak in the moonlight. Briefly, he saw the flames rising on all sides of the Church of Santa Maria, the red stone convent with its many windows standing aglow before it. Turning back toward the town, Diego waited for the solitary cannon on the square, its golden wheels flashing under the streetlamps, to pivot round and re-create in a multitude of perspectives the conjunction of streets before the imposing Bank of Vizcaya. But where the cannon had once been there now stood a gleaming microscope, black and tall as the chimney stack of a gargantuan factory. Gus and Tommy-Tom went ambling along below it, tipsy with drink after a long evening at Bernardi's. The shadow of the microscope, as the moon raced across the night sky, kept apace with the two. Suddenly Gus and Tommy-Tom stopped, their eyes riveted to a single ray of light streaking down from somewhere beyond the moon. Needle sharp, the ray of light struck, painlessly, upon the brow of Diego Ildefonso, where it rested with the brilliance of the sun itself.
Diego sat upright in bed, transfixed, and stared into the darkness before him. He rose, very slowly, and began to move anxiously about the room, while Dolores slept. But the room's stagnant air was of no comfort and he began to perspire, his perspiration cold with fear, rivuleting over the vast roll of fat encasing his ribs.
"Come back to bed. It's still dark outside."
"I have eyes," he said, immediately regretting his anger.
Tommy-Tom Nolan would remain home only long enough to look in on Val and Billy and change his clothes for work. He found his wife asleep, the telephone on the bedside table off the hook and an empty bottle of Seagram's Seven Crown tipped over on the carpet. He found his son asleep too, with his thumb in his mouth, babyish behavior Tommy-Tom detested. He would have liked to cut the kid's thumb off with a razor and feed it to their dog Blinky, but instead he contented himself with slapping the boy across the back of the head. Tommy-Tom safety-pinned a note printed in ball-point to his filthy trousers which read please get out all of stain and put the trousers in a paper shopping bag. He would drop them off at Donelli's Dry Cleaning on his way into Manhattan.
Returning to the bedroom from showering, and feeling much better, Diego Ildefonso stood before his closet door, the beach towel he wore when shaving wrapped around his middle, and finished combing his hair.
"They're red blotches on your chest," observed Dolores, as she lingered in bed.
"I know. I'm going to try to get over there after work, to see how Gus's doing."
"I was just wondering what I could do for Babs."
"Yea." Presenting the broad expanse of his bare back to her, Diego dipped into an open drawer for his underwear. "Pink and white stripes--where did we get these?"
Dolores decided to get up. "Ruthie will be over there. She clings to Babs like she's the one who needs comforting. What kind of a mother is that? I know, I'm boring you." She went to her husband and, as best she could, wrapped her slender arms around him.
"It's Val you don't want to have relying on you too much," said Diego.
"I know, but I feel sorry for her. I can't help it, I just do."
"Maybe she'd be better off not having you to rely on. I mean, you talk to her every day, don't you? "
"Lots of people talk on the phone, it makes them feel normal, like they're doing something."
"What, rather than just sitting at home moving their mouths all day?"
"Oh, Diego..." Dolores wrenched on her bathrobe and went into the kitchen to make the orange juice.
Val had managed somehow, despite her hangover, to feed Billy and send him off to the playground--the kid's Easter holiday, it seemed, would never end. At 9:30, she lit her first cigarette and telephoned Dolores.
"I can only chat for a short while," said Dolores.
"Going shopping or something?"
"No, we're having company this morning. Chief Huff's coming over to talk to Roland. I might as well tell you."
"What? Roland do something?"
"No, it was an accident."
"I don't get it."
"We were at the fair yesterday evening with the Rozzos and there was an accident. Little Mikie fell off the Ferris-wheel."
"What, and hurt himself?"
"He fell and hit his head."
"Was it bad?"
"Yes, it was bad." Dolores wondered if perhaps Babs would want to tell her.
"Is he in the hospital or something?"
"No, he died instantly."
"Holy Mother of God." Val crossed herself. "So what's Roland got to do with it?"
"He was with Mikie."
"What, on the ride with him?"
"Yes. He saw it happen. That's why the Chief wants to talk to him."
Dolores chose to ignore Val's sarcasm. "Gus stayed home from work."
"Yea, but what's anybody doing? You know, about the kids and all."
"Diego was over there last night. He said they were fine. I guess it takes a while for these things to sink in."
"Kids are like that. It just goes right by them. At least with our Billy. I remember when Tommy-Tom's dad died, well..." Val began moving distractedly around her kitchen, the telephone's long cord slapping over the backs of the chairs; Dolores could picture the room vividly, the sunlight pouring in in two dusty diagonal shafts through the large spattered panes on the alleyway. "...and I told Billy at the viewing he was only sleeping and he believed me. He still thinks people go to sleep when they die."
"Maybe that's for the best. I'm sorry, Val, I've really got to go."
"Suit yourself. I gotta call Babs anyway. Don't you think?"
"That would be nice."
Val immediately telephoned Babs Rozzo. It rang for a long time, but eventually Babs answered.
"Who's that?" said Babs.
"I'm real sorry," said Val.
"Thanks." Babs took a moment to blow her nose in the balled-up Kleenex tissue she'd been carrying around with her.
"Jesus loves us all," Val assured her.
"Especially the little children."
"He loveth and he taketh away."
"He's in heaven. I mean, with Mikie." Again Babs snuffled. "Gus and Teddy went over to Klusters to pick out a coffin."
"Is there anything for me to do, with the kids and all?"
"You can try and see what's with Alicia. In spite of everything, she didn't come home last night. And she didn't bother to call. She's not over at Patty's house either. Gus is ready to kill her."
"Maybe she was upset."
"You still call. Tommy-Tom was supposed to be taking her home."
"After we all went to St. Mary's Hospital to see Mikie."
"I thought he was dead."
"To identify him!"
"Jeez, Babs, I'm sorry." Val could feel her friend getting angrier and angrier. "I said I was sorry."
"Well, you knew that. Didn't you?"
"But I didn't know my Tommy-Tom was with you guys. He said he was going over there--to the stadium--but he didn't say for sure. So, I guess he went."
"That's what I'm saying."
"I can always call him and ask him about Alicia."
"You should, cause we don't have that number."
"OK. Can it wait until his lunch-time?"
"It's up to you."
"Today he takes out the trash cans, I think, so I can probably call him."
"Yea, cause I have to tell Gus something when he gets back."
"I don't know. Soon." Babs knew Tommy-Tom wouldn't have anything to say. She knew he had dropped Alicia off somewhere secret. He was a sucker for her. Alicia wouldn't have had to ask twice. "I need her here with me," Babs muttered.
"Sure you do, honey."
They said good-bye and Val telephoned Tommy-Tom at the Stamford Arms, but the telephone in his office only rang and rang.
Freddie Friedrich Sr. was bent over the right fender of a 1967 Chevrolet Corvair Spyder, spray-gun in hand and mask on face, when Gus and Teddy Rozzo transversed the several bays of his garage to confront him. But Freddie was not about to be distracted too easily. It took Gus laying his hand on the small of Freddie's back to get him to stop working. Through the wire-mesh of his breather, Freddie shouted:
"The office is over there! Can't you see I'm busy?!"
Luckily, this was incomprehensible. Gus persisted and eventually Freddie Friedrich Sr. stood tall and straight before him. The man's red beard, imprinted with the rubber ring of the mask, stood out bushily from his pink cheeks, their roundness dappled with metallic avocado-green paint. Freddie held his mouth set wide in a contented smile.
"It's for Freddie Jr.," he said. "Fuel-injected. For his sixteenth."
"We want our van," said Gus.
"I've got the primer on, but I won't be able to get around to the first coat until Thursday."
"It's been too long already."
"Hey Gus, you only brought it in on the weekend."
"Who the hell's the customer here anyways?"
Teddy moved nervously away from his father and focused his attention on a calendar over the workbench. A well-muscled girl in a gold bikini was kneeling on white backdrop paper holding a wrench up before her as if it were a prize-winning tuber.
"Yea, you need it right away--like yesterday," said Freddie, and turned to peer at the fresh paint. "Mind if I finish this up?"
"Do I mind? My kid just got killed and I need my fucking van!" Freddie's schlepper Ned noisily wheeled another, even more ostentatious vehicle into the echoey garage. "You know about my kid?!"
"Yea," Freddie shouted back. "I read about it in the paper this morning. I'm real sorry, Gus."
"What?" shouted Freddie, pretending not to have heard him. He rubbed his index finger over his ear to communicate his inability to carry on the conversation.
"I'm taking the van!"
"Go ahead," said Freddie, and waved his arm dismissively over his head.
Suddenly it was quiet again.
Teddy stood by the workbench, mouth open, a swollen pimple about ready to burst on his ashen upper lip. "Dad?" he called.
Gus, distracted, shifted his attention to his eldest son.
"I wouldn't say too much about Freddie Jr.," cautioned the boy, "not if you want to press charges."
Freddie looked pained. "What's this about?"
"You'll find out," said Teddy.
"Listen Gus, why don't we discuss it now?"
"Your kid was at the fair last night," barked Gus.
"I wasn't aware of that."
"Well, he was."
Gus rubbed his palms over his forehead, then ran his fingers with some difficulty through his thick hair, which he'd recently dyed an unnaturally dark shade of brown. Glancing down at his hands, to see if the color, as advertised, was anything like permanent, Gus realized Friedrich felt sorry for him. But it didn't matter. It couldn't. Friedrich's son had touched his daughter on her bottom, in public, and other boys had watched with glee, their filthy minds fastened on her perfect childlike secret parts.
"And what's this about pressing charges?" asked Freddie. "I can't see what Freddie Jr. has got to do with your boy's falling off the Ferris-wheel."
"It's not about falling off no Ferris-wheel," volunteered Teddy.
"Be quiet," Gus groaned.
Teddy shrugged and focused his attention once again on the calendar. When he realized the two men were watching him, he shuffled on along the workbench, finally gazing curiously at a color-chart on the wall.
"Just tell your kid to leave Alicia alone," warned Gus. "Tell him to keep his hands to himself. Tell him to behave himself around Alicia, who's better than him. Because she wouldn't want anything to do with him. You know what I'm saying?"
"I know what you're saying, but I'm not buying it. If Freddie Jr. did anything, and I don't believe it, I apologize. How's that?"
"Fucking kid stuck his hand. I'm telling you, your fucking kid upset her. She told me. She told me to my face, and she's not like that!"
Freddie Friedrich Sr. said nothing. He went into his office and took the keys to the Rozzos' van down from the rack, walked around behind the garage to the parking lot, got in the vehicle and drove it out onto the street. There he left it running and stood well out of the way as Gus and his boy got in. He still said nothing as Gus sat in the van and stared out at him. When they had roared off and were well out of sight, Freddie went back into the garage, in despair, knowing he would now have to re-sand and re-paint the entire front end of the car.
Roland watched as Rupert dropped the marbles, one by one, into the toilet. Each one made a dull snap against the bowl before rolling down into the hollow at the bottom. There the marbles lay glinting, waiting to be evacuated when Roland was ready.
"Don't put so many solids in," Roland whispered.
"What about these two big ones?" Rupert whispered back.
"They're too big."
"They'll go down."
"They will not. They're as big as Mr. Nolan's eyeballs."
"Yea, but they're cat's eyes." Rupert dropped one of the marbles into the toilet.
"Sweetheart? What're you doing? Chief Huff and I are waiting," urged Dolores, through the door.
Roland glanced over his shoulder at the little hook resting in its golden screw-eye. "I'm wiping."
"I don't smell anything," whispered Rupert, grinning.
"My shit doesn't smell."
"We won't be a minute," Rupert and Roland called in unison, and laughed.
Leon Huff was sitting on the living-room sofa with his hat in his lap. An empty coffee mug sat beside him on the sports section of that morning's Hoboken Reporter. He was staring at the badge on his hat, wondering why some badges had black paint rubbed into the intaglio and some didn't. He wished his were all shiny, without the black. Apropos of nothing, he said, "Books are getting fatter and fatter. My wife's reading a book right now that's nearly as fat as the Yellow Pages."
"Oh yea, I've seen them," Dolores responded. "I think a lot of research goes into some of them."
"Like Toboggan. I read part of that one. The author had to know a lot about Switzerland."
Roland exited the bathroom, his pants pockets bulging and wet. He smiled at Chief Huff and walked directly over to him, his hand outstretched.
"It's good to see you again," he said.
"Likewise," said the Chief.
"Shall I sit down?" Roland asked his mother.
Dolores nodded. Roland carefully removed the mug and newspaper from the sofa, handing both to Dolores, which encouraged her to remove them to the kitchen. When she had left the room, Roland confided to the Chief, "She's still terribly upset. Don't let that calm exterior fool you."
"You're quite the clever little fellow, aren't you?" said the Chief.
"I'm not so little," answered Roland, in imitation of any other stupid eight-year-old. "Not so little really."
"But you are clever," Chief Huff persisted, his lips smiling, but not his eyes.
"We won't really know until I get my final grades," the lad replied, sensibly.
"Oh? When might that be?"
"In June. Then there's summer school, if we decide I should go. It's just games and crafts. Nothing very challenging."
After first straightening the lace doily draped over the crown of the overstuffed chair in which she'd been sitting, Dolores once again took her place across from them.
When she appeared quite comfortably settled, Roland said, "Mom, I'm not sure you want to be present for this discussion."
"I think it's better if I stay."
Roland gazed, and continued to gaze, expectantly but calmly at the Chief.
"In fact, Mrs. Ildefonso, the law requires that you be here," said the Chief.
"You see, it'll be alright," said Roland. He then gazed so serenely at his mother that her heart began, involuntarily, to melt with pride.
"How did it happen, Roland?" asked the Chief.
"Suicide," said Roland.
"Yes. Mikie Rozzo jumped. I heard him praying, then he jumped."
Chief Huff stared at his badge, frowning. He glanced over at Dolores, whose eyes had glazed over.
"He must have been very depressed," Roland concluded.
"I know this sounds unfair, sweetheart," said Dolores, "but wasn't there any way you could've stopped him?"
Roland shook his head slowly from side to side. After that, he looked up at the ceiling. Then he sighed, "My concerns were elsewhere at that point in time."
"How so?" asked Chief Huff.
Roland gazed plaintively at his mother, almost as if he hadn't heard the Chief's question. "I was looking way down at a bunch of guys picking on Mikie's poor sister outside the toilets."
Diego Ildefonso's palms were damp with perspiration, and the gray troughs below his eyes had sunk deeper.
Bernardi poured more grappa. "Ramona, dig out another bottle," he called, "of the Julia Riserva Stravecchia..."
In his mind's eye, Diego hovered like a hummingbird just out of reach of Roland and Mikie, sitting side-by-side on the Ferris-wheel. Their gondola rocked slowly backwards and forwards, the Ferris-wheel arrested with them at its highest point. The boys hadn't as yet spied him fluttering transparently against the darkening sky. As the Ferris-wheel began reversing with a violent jerk to take Roland and Mikie slowly, safely back to earth, Mikie saw Mr. Ildefonso suspended in the air like a mesmerizing cartoon character. Squealing with delight, Mikie leapt up, his tiny fingers clutching at nothing, and lunged from the gondola.
"Irish brogues," said Bernardi. It resounded nonsensically.
"Speaking of shoes," Diego managed, "I think I'd better get back to the shop."
"No more of my grappa for you then?" The restaurateur smiled.
"Don't think so," said Diego, and rose with some difficulty. Bernardi was silent. His eyes grew moist and he stood to face his friend, then put his hand on Diego's shoulder.
"We haven't seen Dolores for these last few months," he said, his second language now mildly encumbered by the grappa.
"She's fine," said Diego, and sat himself down once more. He could feel the perspiration soaking through his boxer-shorts. Next his trousers would be wet.
"A nice woman," said Bernardi. The light drifting in from the front window settled on his slicked back hair. It shimmered iridescently. He too sat down.
"She has great democracy of spirit," said Diego.
Bernardi gazed at him curiously.
"She doesn't believe the Russians are any more threatening than we are." Diego patted his moist cheeks with his napkin. "I guess I should find that refreshing."
"I know you don't like communists," offered Bernardi.
"We are capitalists," stated Diego flatly.
"Through and through," Bernardi assured him.
"And you probably think things are just wonderful here," said Diego. When Bernardi didn't respond, he went on. "We're no better than pigs fed on garbage in this country, nothing but lies on the television. No one I know can even read a newspaper anymore. Oh sure, maybe the sports, but they can't be bothered with anything about the rest of the world, not even the soccer! By feeding us this garbage, this propaganda twenty-four hours a day, they're making us just like the communists. Like the workers who die without ever having read Charles Dickens, for Christ's sake."
Bernardi was silent.
"We're being manipulated, aren't we?"
Silent still, Bernardi partook of more grappa. Diego only watched, and wondered with increasing dread if Dr. Herbert might see him that evening after work.
Dolores had found Roland's encounter with Chief Huff unsettling and was eager to discuss it with her husband. She had laid Roland down to rest, like the grateful baby he'd once been, after they'd shared lunch together. He'd eaten both his hot dogs. He'd eaten them, he'd said, with relish. This witticism, flying in the face of such numbing events, had seemed an act of intellectual defiance on her son's part and she had committed its piquancy to the kitchen pad, just below her shopping list. Now she lay on her own bed, the drapes drawn against the harsh light slanting in from the west, anticipating the intimacy she and Diego would share on Thursday afternoon. She ruminated on what to wear, figuring up her household costs that week, hopeful there might be enough money left to buy a new slip, one she'd admired in the window of Lilette's Lingerie. She pictured the mannequin on which the beautiful pink slip was left to hang each day. She detested the mannequin. It wore such a contemptuous expression on its bland face. For Dolores, this contrived hauteur was synonymous with the emptiness in the world that threatened her happiness, and the happiness of her family. In the belly of the mannequin, death lay waiting.
Dolores gazed around the dreary room. Keeping absolutely still, loving herself and her life, she wouldn't die. But then she remembered pain. There had been excruciating pain when Roland was born. Pain was death's companion. One day, the two would stand waiting outside on the front steps with more patience than the world, her world, had the patience to endure. Pain would return to take back each treasured notion of consolation and comfort, each sweet breath of remembrance. The dreary room in which she now lay would echo with the ashamed cries of the millions upon millions who had passed on in agony before her. Having herself suffered the ultimate despair, she would be welcomed into their fold. Her soul would be allowed to slip away, gratefully, into nothingness.
The The Stamford Arms wasn't a seriously bad place to live, but it was noisy and it was filthy. If you wanted clean, you had to clean it yourself. If you wanted quiet, you had to either shoot the motherfuckers or go out. Bootsy Holloway went out, although he would have preferred to shoot the scum that hung in the hallways downstairs fucking themselves up on smack and fizzy wine.
Since arriving in New York from the benighted coastal town of Belhaven, North Carolina in February, Bootsy had made only one friend. This was the janitor or super, as he liked to call himself, Percival Thomas Nolan, known as Tommy-Tom. This evening Tommy-Tom had invited Bootsy to go out to Hoboken for dinner. Tommy-Tom had also said they might take in the fair. He had said the fair sucked but that The Jewel, a bar nearby, had topless and the crowd was mixed. Anyone was allowed in as long as they didn't start any fights or, worse, piss on the floor. Bootsy was really looking forward to meeting Tommy-Tom's family too.
As Tommy-Tom, one hand on the wheel and one hand on the stick, piloted his Pontiac Bonneville expertly through the jammed-up traffic and down into the Lincoln Tunnel, Bootsy admired his new friend's lacquered do.
"Your hair always looks so nice," said Bootsy.
"I keep it that way." Tommy-Tom shook his head from side to side to demonstrate the holding power of the styling-gel he used.
"My Uncle Tookus, he's got hair like that," said Bootsy, patting his own, which was electric-cut, high on the crown. "But they say he's mostly white too, like--what's that mother's name?"
"That big-mouth nigger up in Harlem."
"How the fuck should I know?"
"Always says 'Keep the faith, baby.'"
"Oh, that mother."
"That's the man. Pretty."
"Yea. I bet he's got some nice snatch sittin on his face."
"I could eat some right now."
Tommy-Tom, the tiles in the tunnel reflected in his highway-patrolman sunglasses, stared curiously at Bootsy. To Bootsy, it looked like Tommy-Tom had a Chiclet factory inside his head.
"What's your wife's name again?" asked Bootsy.
"Oh yea, I remember now. It ain't none of my business, but she pretty?"
"For a white woman?"
"I ain't sayin that..." Bootsy laughed nervously.
"She's pretty as any of them. She used to have those nipples I like, until she had the kid."
"Them young black ones got the little puffy ones too."
"No shit?" Now Tommy-Tom laughed.
"I forgot to tell Val you're coming."
"She gonna blow?"
"I'll stop and get her a bottle."
"I better call her. What the fuck--if she's in her bathrobe or something, she'll get pissed off."
"She like to look nice when y'all's got company."
"She likes to look nice when there's dick around." Tommy-Tom had to laugh at that too.
"What, even black dick?"
Tommy-Tom laughed even harder, and said, "Especially black dick." Then, "Only kidding." And rubbed his free hand over Bootsy's arm. "Nice suit."
Bootsy brightened. "I got it way downtown, near Wall Street. The label says Cardin."
"Yea, I've heard of that. Maybe I'll wear a suit tonight. Fuck it, let's just stop at The Jewel. I can call her from there."
Bootsy liked The Jewel. He liked it so much that it made Tommy-Tom proud. Tommy-Tom called Val and told her they'd be home after a couple drinks. Then they'd go to the fair and have something to eat. He even agreed to have little Billy come along--it would be good for him to have firsthand experience of a grown black man. Val said, Sure, that sounds nice, Tommy-Tom. But she knew she and Billy would be alone together in front of the television for the rest of the evening. Later, after calling to ask if it was OK, she would send Billy down to Mr. Mainwaring's for another bottle of Seagram's.
Dr. Herbert's office was very bright and Diego Ildefonso was naked. He hadn't the strength, for the moment, to put his clothes back on. Dr. Herbert had gestured for him to, although he may have only been gesturing for him to sit down.
"You have a small tumescent growth just to the south of your bladder," explained Dr. Herbert. "That's what I kept poking at. I wouldn't worry though, these things often dissipate themselves. There's really no need at this stage for a biopsy."
Christian Herbert, as far as Diego was concerned, wasn't very like a doctor. He was more like a retired airline pilot. The sort of fellow who spends his declining years, without perceptibly declining, on the sunny fairways of an expensive country club somewhere in temperate America.
"Your weight, dear boy, has it increased?" asked Dr. Herbert.
"My complaint has nothing to do, I think, with..." But Diego hadn't the inclination to communicate his own awareness of his ridiculous size.
"Mustn't eat before one sleeps," joked Dr. Herbert.
Diego's indignation miraculously provided him with the energy to drag on his clothes. Balancing on one foot and then the other, he felt sufficiently distracted to pursue with Dr. Herbert the specific attributes of his horror. Dr. Herbert communicated no impatience whatsoever from his position by the room's only window. This was due to the fact that he wasn't actually listening to Diego but watching a young boy standing at the far end of the alleyway outside his office throwing a turtle high into the air, again and again, which fell, again and again, to strike the pavement. Eventually, Dr. Herbert turned from the window.
"Don't look so grave," he said, smiling by merely showing his teeth. "How about if we do both brain and body scans? St. Mary's has the gear..."
"I only have Saturday afternoons and Sundays off."
"We can do it in the evening. I'll have Linda call tomorrow morning and see how late they keep a technician on. Come to think of it, they have a special for poor folks on Wednesday evenings."
"Tomorrow? That would be OK, I guess. Do you mind calling me at the shop, rather than at home?"
Dr. Herbert glanced over the top of his desk, then sighed. "I'll make a mental note, how's that?"
"Do I owe you anything for today?" Diego realized this was a stupid question.
"Linda's left. I'll have her write it up in the morning." Dr. Herbert turned and gazed curiously at Diego. "Are you busy? I mean, right now?"
Diego didn't know what to say.
"Want to go for a drink? If you haven't heard already, Jane and I are splitting up. We'd always intended to, when the kids were old enough. You know, when they'd gone off to college. Well, Lance is at Swarthmore now and Judy's at Bryn Mawr..."
Diego figured he'd better say yes. It might help keep the bill down. "Mind if I give my wife a call? The telephone's through there, isn't it?"
When Dolores finally answered, he asked her how it had gone between Roland and Chief Huff. She said OK but wanted to discuss Roland's frame of mind with him later at length. He said, "Barbiche wants me to stick around and have a look at the leftover stuff from Milan."
"It won't sell," was her response.
Diego knew he'd taken the right approach. "I know," he said, "but it looks smart in the window."
When Dr. Herbert suggested he and Diego take a little exercise by walking over to the Lambeth Hotel on Fourth Street, Diego asked if they couldn't take Dr. Herbert's car--he said his reluctance to walk had to do with a tendency to fatigue. Once they were in the car, he became much livelier and expressed an interest in a new drinking establishment in Weehawken, which was one place, as far as he knew, he and Dolores hadn't any friends or acquaintances. Instantly, he and Christian Herbert were headed in the direction of that useless town with its ghostly slope of dilapidated villas and dizzying view of the filthy mire that floats just beyond the opening to the Lincoln Tunnel.
Teddy Rozzo had taken the twins Margaret and Margery, and the bookish Theresa, to a special evening mass for their dead brother Mikie. Babs and Gus had stayed home with the baby, even though Theresa had thought this shameful and had expressed this opinion to her father. Gus had given Theresa five dollars not to go whining to her mother about it. Theresa had said she would make an offering of the five dollars to the church; it was a bribe, and therefore dirty money, which could, conceivably, be made clean by Jesus Christ. Gus had assured Theresa that this would be a commendable gesture. Theresa went away contented. Teddy had winked at his father over the girls' heads as he'd led them down the hallway and then out the front door.
"I think we'd better call Chief Huff," was the first thing Babs said when Gus entered their darkened bedroom. The baby lay sleeping against her hip.
Gus sat on the end of the bed facing their personal TV. As was usual now, due to the presence of the infant, there was picture but no sound. Groaning noisily with the effort, he pulled off his shoes without first untying them.
"I thought you said Val was going to talk to Tommy-Tom?"
"She couldn't get him."
Gus got up and went to the closet, pulling off his shirt and tossing it onto the dresser as he did. At the closet door he turned and dropped his trousers, then reached into his underpants and shifted his testicles from back to front.
"Do I have to wear pajamas?"
"When Dominic's in bed with us."
"Oh, for Christ's sake..." Gus kicked his trousers and his underpants into the closet and shut the door.
"Honey, what about air conditioning?"
"What about it?"
"Is it hot enough out?"
"It's not hot enough in here."
Babs rolled onto her side and moved the baby up to her breast. She did this because she knew it would annoy Gus, who would probably want to make love as soon as he got into bed.
"Oh man, don't start with Dominic. Alright?!"
"Why're you being so mean, Gus? Our little Mikie's dead and you're acting like I don't even have any feelings." Babs began to cry. "I have feelings. I have lots of feelings, otherwise I wouldn't of had all our beautiful children. Mikie was beautiful. All our children are beautiful. Look at little Dommie, honey. He's real beautiful too." The tears streamed over Babs's cheeks, and she clutched the baby tighter.
Gus came around the bed and sat by her, his elbow pressing down into the pillow on which he would eventually lay his head. He reached out and patted her hair where she had it bunched up and pinned at the back. It felt nice.
"You have pretty hair," he whispered.
"It's because I love you. I want you to be happy."
"How can I be happy when you're so mean?"
"I'm not trying to be mean."
"Well then, be nice." Babs wiped her eyes.
"We scared the fucking shit out of Freddie Friedrich today." Gus hoped this would brighten her up, but instead Babs turned serious, without acting sad.
"Freddie Jr.'s already been punished."
"Slapping the kid don't mean squat."
"Teddy thinks we should talk to Chief Huff about it again."
"Yea, I know, Teddy's the big expert."
"I'll bet Tommy-Tom won't know where she is. He won't know anything."
"Wait a second. Didn't you call to ask her friends?"
"I called some after school. They don't know."
"Who'd you call?"
"You know, her friends."
"Like who, Rosalie?"
"And some others. Honey, look at Dommie, he's sucking while he's asleep."
"He's dreaming. Dogs and cats do the same thing."
Now, gazing down at the baby, Babs smiled. "Who knows but maybe Freddie Jr. did something with our Alicia. That could happen."
"OK, so I call Huff."
"Just as long as he don't have to come over." Again she was frowning.
"I don't want him staring at me."
"What're you talking staring?"
"At the fair, he put his arm around me."
"You sound like fucking Alicia. It must be something in the women in this family, in your family."
"Jesus would hate you for saying that. I know when men are looking at me wrong."
Gus eased back against the velveteen plush of the padded headboard. "I just thought of something. Kidnapping's a federal offense. Remember? In that TV movie about Lindbergh--if you go over the state line it's federal."
"What state line?"
"Like if you go into New York or Pennsylvania, even by mistake, you can get the electric-chair."
"I didn't know they still had one." Babs tried to remember the film Gus was referring to but could only come up with an image of two guys, one white and one black, wearing cute hats and standing out in a field at night.
"I gotta sleep," said Gus. "There's Mikie's funeral tomorrow."
Staring at him, Babs lowered the bodice of her nightgown, so he could watch her suckle little Dominic. Eventually they both grew quiet.
Shirlee Simonaire, the topless dancer, had had polio as a child and her legs were too short. She was The Jewel's greatest attraction, aside from its dollar-cocktails at Happy Hour. It was well past Happy Hour when Bootsy scored the gram of coke from another brother out in the parking-lot. He and Tommy-Tom were about to go back outside to snort some when Chief Leon Huff entered the bar. He was looking for Tommy-Tom.
"Sorry," said Huff, "but your pal Gus sent me down here to speak with you. His call was relayed to me and I was in the neighborhood."
"When aren't you?" replied Tommy-Tom, grinning up at him drunkenly. "Oh, this is my bud Bootsy Holloway, from down south."
Huff nodded at Bootsy. "You remind me a little of Hound Dog Taylor, the Chicago bluesman."
"Thank you, sir," said Bootsy.
"I believe he just died," said Huff.
"He used to be dead in my mind too," said Bootsy.
"I got to talk to your man here," said Huff.
"My man," said Bootsy, and hugged Tommy-Tom, being careful not to touch his hair. Then, gazing up at Shirlee on the little stage covered in purple shag, Bootsy commented, "That damn thang is low to the ground."
"Give it a good sniff," said Tommy-Tom and rose from his seat to take a pee.
Huff followed Tommy-Tom into the Men's Room. By the time they stood side-by-side under the lavatory's single circular fluorescent tube, Tommy-Tom was in tears.
"I feel so bad," whimpered Tommy-Tom, taking out his penis.
"So do I," said Huff, taking out his.
"That kid was my godchild."
"Good place to drown your sorrow."
"I'm sad for Mikie. He had a good little arm. Little fucker could throw. I don't know where he got it--Gus throws like a girl."
"Maybe that's why they asked you to be Mikie's godfather."
"I'm actually here to inquire about Alicia." Huff laid his free hand on Tommy-Tom's shoulder, to keep him from leaving the facility.
Tommy-Tom stared down at the Chief's fingers. His nails were manicured and glistening with clear polish, and he wore a high school graduation ring, a police academy ring, and a large signet ring with the letters LHR engraved in black onyx.
"My girl," said Tommy-Tom. He gazed wistfully into the Chief's eyes. "She gave me a real nice present last Christmas."
"What was that?"
"An ashtray." Tommy-Tom, his tears suddenly a distant memory, was now smiling with irrepressible joy.
"A joke one. Like with a girl with her thing available to put your cigarette in."
The Chief blushed. He shook his penis, replaced himself, and carefully pulled up his fly. "This kid is, what, fourteen years old?"
"Fucking kids are premature these days," said Tommy-Tom. He too withdrew from the urinal. "She wanted to go into the city. So I took her. I stopped at the Stamford, where I work--I don't know, man--she just wasn't in the fucking car when I got back."
As they made their way back to the bar, the Chief questioned Tommy-Tom further, but only just. "Anyone see you?"
"What, at the Stamford?"
The Chief nodded.
"How should I know?"
Huff didn't know what else to ask the scumbag so he excused himself, after attempting to note any identifying marks on the black man.
"Fucking police," said Tommy-Tom to Bootsy, "in Belfast they'd blow that fucking busybody-pig into the sea."
"I don't know nothin like that, man."
"You sound like me," sneered Tommy-Tom, "and I make myself fucking puke taking it up the ass from the likes of Huff."
"That mother that was just harassing me. You want to do some of that stuff now? We can go into the john. Nobody'll bother us in there."
"I thought he was just botherin you in there?"
"Man, I took him in there. You wanna do some or not?"
"Hey man, what's mine is yours."
When they were in the Men's Room, noses turning to ice, Tommy-Tom had another bright idea. "Shirlee's one of my girls."
"One of y'all's whats?"
"She shows me a good time. She'd like you."
"Hey, hey," said Bootsy, feeling positive.
"She lives off Palisades Avenue over in Union City, only about ten minutes from here. She'll do us over there."
"We gotta pay her?"
"Give her some of your toot. She'll suck the fucking thing all night long."
"I ain't got all night long. Unless y'all gives me a ride back and I don't have to worry about gettin no taxi."
"No problem, my man," said Tommy-Tom.
Back at the bar, having ordered another Schlitz for himself and a White Russian for Bootsy, Tommy-Tom pointed his finger, the one he'd been exploring his numb nose with, at Shirlee. She smiled back from her perch by the stage, then returned to slowly sipping her rum and Coke.
"He's gonna want me to service his friend too," she said to Eliot, her favorite barman, a moment or two later.
"Spades think they're God's gift to women," remarked Eliot. Then, watching Tommy-Tom and Bootsy more carefully, added, "I'd rather fuck the black stud than the other guy."
"You know Tommy-Tom, El. He's always in here," said Shirlee. But to herself, she said, I hope he doesn't want to use that fucking car antenna on me again.
Diego Ildefonso approached his house. The joy he knew as he gazed up at his darkened windows was nearly boundless. His wife and child lay sleeping behind those grimy panes. The grime of winter, it would vanish with the wipe of a soft cloth and a little ammonia and water, the minutiae of Dolores's life. All around him, the city begged for deliverance. As the filthy mists drew about Diego Ildefonso, like the destitute hags who had confronted so many other great men, he heard the sirens of Hoboken singing. He heard the electrifying wail of the fire, and the somber thunder of the lowering doom.
Diego mounted the steps and stood before his front door. Where had he been until such an hour, not just looking at shoes? No, he was having a drink with Lou Nasserman, the sales rep from De Palma Roma. Mystifyingly, he again heard Dr. Herbert calling from his expensive car, as he had only moments before: Don't kid yourself, Diego, we're all animals! Dr. Herbert had been laughing. One day, like everyone else, Christian Herbert, the mere man, would watch helplessly as his own muscle turned to mush. Diego took little satisfaction in this. There was no consolation in knowing that the arrogant bastard would perish too.
Dolores recognized Diego's weight on the bed. It was gentle. He was with her, and she was grateful.
"Roland's alright," she said.
It was nearly midnight by the time Tommy-Tom and Bootsy made it over to Shirlee's apartment in Union City. Tommy-Tom had done too much of Bootsy's coke at The Jewel and had turned very pale on the drive over. His face was rivuleting with cold sweat and he had an aching under his jaw which felt like it began somewhere in his left arm. Bootsy, on the other hand, was riding high on just the right combination of cocaine and vodka.
Shirlee had left The Jewel at eleven so she would have time to freshen up before the boys arrived. When she had company she initially pleased herself by playing the music she liked, knowing her guests would have their own ideas once things got started. She was most fond of Motown, and especially The Supremes. She figured Bootsy would appreciate the fact that a youngish white woman had such a fondness for the material that constituted the biggest success black entertainers had had in her life-time; he did not look like the type who liked jazz. Shirlee had decided to wear a slinky sarong for the occasion. The sarong was maneuverable and looked good, even though it had been relatively inexpensive, a worthwhile consideration in case Tommy-Tom got into the rough stuff and the garment was damaged or destroyed. On top, she wore a form-fitting lycra halter that made it appear that her breasts were much larger and firmer than they were. She never let anyone near her breasts. Well, there had been one boy, but he'd been young enough not to want to manipulate her roughly; he'd wanted only to fondle, caress, and, most touching of all, suckle her. Shirlee was tidying the kitchen when the buzzer sounded, signalling guests in the horrible over-lit cubicle her landlord referred to as the lobby.
"Hi Tommy-Tom," said Shirlee, opening the door without taking the usual precautions.
"He don't look so good," said Bootsy.
"Maybe I better lie down," said Tommy-Tom, "where it's quiet."
Shirlee led him into her sewing-room, rather than the bedroom. Laid in rows across what she referred to as the "baby bed" was her collection of Barbie Dolls.
"What the fuck?" said Tommy-Tom.
For an anguishing moment, Shirlee thought he going to throw himself onto the bed, which would have meant hours and hours of checking for snapped joints and torn seams. Thankfully, he went to the mirror that hung over the dresser instead.
"I got blood in my nose hairs."
As Shirlee quickly removed the Barbie Dolls, she wondered if Tommy-Tom was going to be good for anything: she hated the idea of having to suck his limp dick for hours, while he got drunker and drunker or, worse, more and more embarrassed. It didn't matter what anyone paid her, it just wasn't any fun. Tommy-Tom lay down and Shirlee made a big fuss of seeing that he was comfortable before returning to the living-room and Bootsy.
"My man ain't used to that shit," said Bootsy. He was sitting stiffly on the sofa with one leg curled under him and the other stretched out, his foot resting on a pile of Vogue magazines.
"He'll be alright. In a little while maybe we'll fix him another drink. Sometimes that helps."
"I could use one myself."
"Me too. What would you like?"
"Anything with vodka--soda, juice, even milk's OK."
Shirlee was very much aware of Bootsy watching her through the doorway to the kitchen as she took down the bottle of vodka and went to the fridge. It felt good to have someone new checking her out. "I don't see Tommy-Tom that often."
"You'd have to be Mrs. James Bond or something to put up with that shit."
Shirlee thought she knew what he meant. "Well, Mr. Bond's on vacation now."
"The man never stops. He just works all day and party's all night."
"Oh? You want a slice of anything in with the ginger ale? I have a brand new orange--"
"Just an extra-big slice of vodka."
He's cute, thought Shirlee. "That's a wonderful suit."
There was a moment of quiet before the next record landed on the turntable and the needle hopped into the groove. Shirlee heard Bootsy say to himself, "Maybe I better do some lickin of my own before the man gets up." Then, over the introduction to the song, she heard Tommy-Tom.
"I go first."
"Sure, sure, my man," Bootsy replied.
Just as Shirlee was putting the ginger ale back in the fridge, she felt Tommy-Tom standing behind her in the doorway.
"I'll bet you'd like one too," she said, without turning. She dreaded the look on Tommy-Tom's face in the harsh light of the kitchen. "You two get comfortable and I'll be right in."
"Do it," said Tommy-Tom.
When Shirlee brought the drinks in on a tray, her Mexican one with huge colorful blossoms scattered gaily over a black background, she found Tommy-Tom was now sitting on the sofa while Bootsy had been displaced to the tiny settee by the hallway door. It struck Shirlee that Bootsy was actually quite handsome, his dark head set off against the pink wallpaper, covered all-over in minty green bows. Tommy-Tom had taken his dick out and laid it, like a big cold noodle, over the cloth of his trousers. Tommy-Tom wore those trousers with the tab and metal fasteners, rather than a belt. They made him look like a smart-ass hippie from the waist down. Shirlee set the tray on the carpet by Tommy-Tom's feet. She then knelt by him and offered him his drink.
"Hey, you'd make a good wife," he said. "Wouldn't she, Bootsy?"
Bootsy only stared.
"Take Bootsy his drink."
She did, on her knees.
"Thanks," said Bootsy.
"Now, you have yours," said Tommy-Tom. "But show us your ass while you drink it."
She swivelled around--somewhat shyly, it seemed to Bootsy--and raised the sarong at the back. She sipped her drink while balanced that way on one hand. Shirlee glanced over at Bootsy. She could tell he was getting excited. Her panties had ruffles joined to the elastic, now creasing the cheeks of her bottom, and she knew it looked nice.
"Stick your finger in there," said Tommy-Tom. "Not you. Bootsy."
"Please don't," Shirlee whispered to Bootsy. "I don't want you to."
"Finish your drink and shut up," said Tommy-Tom.
Shirlee could hear the unmistakable sound of Tommy-Tom playing with himself. His mouth always made a noise like he was sucking an ice-cube.
"Man, I just wanna watch. I'm enjoyin my drink," said Bootsy. But his drink only hung loosely in his hand. Shirlee worried he might spill it on the carpet.
"Don't you want me to suck Bootsy while you watch?" she asked Tommy-Tom, her head cocked fetchingly over her shoulder. She could feel her lips numbing with the vodka. "Don't you?"
"Put her face on the cushion, and give it to her that way," said Tommy-Tom, but Bootsy remained, slightly listing, where he sat. "What's the matter, man?"
"Maybe he doesn't like doggy-fashion," said Shirlee.
"I do," said Bootsy. "But I ain't in the mood yet."
"What a fucking bunch of babies." Tommy-Tom pushed off the sofa, down onto the carpet, taking his drink with him. He came up behind Shirlee.
Shirlee jerked to one side, but Tommy-Tom grabbed her. His glass landed somewhere between there and the kitchen, his drink soaking the carpet. Bootsy watched as Tommy-Tom yanked down Shirlee's underpants, licked his thumb and stuck it in her butt. Tommy-Tom then tried to force his dick into her pussy using his other hand, while keeping her in place with the pressure of his thumb.
"Your nail!" screeched Shirlee.
"Should I stick it in here?" demanded Tommy-Tom.
"OK, OK, just stop hurting me," begged Shirlee.
Tommy-Tom savored the moment.
"She always acts like this," Tommy-Tom told Bootsy. "It works every time...what the fuck?!"
Suddenly Shirlee was on her back in the middle of the room and Tommy-Tom was on top of her.
"You fucking cocksucking faggot!" he shouted, grabbing Shirlee between the legs. "Look at this shit--" he shouted at Bootsy. "Go get a fucking knife! In the kitchen!"
"You're hurting her," said Bootsy, standing over Tommy-Tom. "Don't be doin that, man."
But Tommy-Tom wouldn't stop. Bootsy could sense the desperation rising in Shirlee's limbs. Ramming his forehead into her throat, Tommy-Tom brought the entire weight of his body down on her. Bootsy tried pulling at his head, but Tommy-Tom was too close to the floor, his weight centered too low. Bootsy's long fingers circled Tommy-Tom's neck. He dug his nails into the flesh, trying to bring Tommy-Tom to his senses. Nothing happened. Bootsy scooped up the empty glass lying on the carpet and smashed it against the side of Tommy-Tom's head. Tommy-Tom reared back and stared at the ceiling. Down came Tommy-Tom's head again like a hammer, breaking Shirlee's nose, snapping off her two front teeth. Bootsy took the bottom of the glass, now covered in his own blood, clutched up Tommy-Tom's chin and dug into the flesh of his throat. This time Tommy-Tom's head fell with the full weight of his consciousness. Shirlee watched as he came in childlike spasms to lie beside her. His blood spread quickly into the carpet. The thick pile drank it up. Bootsy bolted, leaving the door to 3B standing open.