"Did Nasserman pick up the tab?" Dolores asked, when her husband finally appeared in the kitchen, his hair remarkably untidy.
"De Palma Roma paid," Diego replied. "Where's Roland?"
"Putting on a sweater."
Diego stared down at the patches of perspiration soaking his fresh shirt.
Dolores put down the knife, sticky with orange, brusquely rinsed and dried her hands, and went to help Diego on with his jacket. "We have to talk about Roland. He told Chief Huff that Mikie committed suicide."
Naturally, Diego found this perplexing. "I'll ask him about it when we get to Florescu's. Huff seems like a pretty decent fellow."
"Yes, but that's not the point." Dolores returned to squeezing her oranges.
"I'll call if I get stuck after the funeral," said Diego.
"Don't let Gus keep filling your glass."
"I doubt there'll be much drinking."
Roland strode into the kitchen, hand outstretched for his juice.
As Roland and his father strolled by Lilette's Lingerie on their way to Florescu's Continental Pastries, the boy's attention was drawn to two hands fluttering high up in the front window. The pink slip his mother so coveted was being slipped in a tangle over the mannequin's shoulders. It slithered over the nippleless breasts and fell onto the dusty floor.
At Florescu's, Roland found his father uncommonly quiet. He hadn't sung in the shower either, which usually portended some dire irrelevance later in the day, like a trip over to the landlord's apartment on Washington Street to complain about some technical indignity. Basically, Roland didn't like self-important people like their landlord, who droned on about nothing. Roland guessed people like that didn't know how uninteresting they were. Or, if they did, either they didn't care or had some sick compulsion to simply make noise with their mouths. Either way, Roland could do nicely without them. His father's cannelloni arrived, one of the two flattened like a squashed sausage.
"What happened to him?" asked Diego.
"His wife must have slept on top of him," said Florescu, and went off to fetch Diego another double espresso.
Diego now turned his attention to his son. "How did it go with Chief Huff?"
"He's a nice man," said Roland, his saliva-moistened finger playing in the powdered sugar near the edge of his father's plate.
"I'm glad to hear it. What did he ask you?"
"If I killed Mikie."
"Well, you asked Pop."
"What did he say exactly?"
"He started out talking to Mom about books."
"No, later on, when he was--"
The espresso arrived.
"Interrogating me?" Roland thought for a moment, his finger lodged in his mouth.
Diego urged his son to have a bite of his cannelloni.
"Chief Huff knows his business," said Roland, "but he's no psychiatrist. I mean, psycho-ologist."
His father glanced around for a napkin. "You had it right the first time."
"On the next table," offered Roland helpfully.
"Thanks. I disagree."
"About what? Not about Chief Huff?" Roland's tone was incredulous.
"I really don't know Chief Huff. And furthermore, it doesn't really matter what we think of him--he has a job to do."
"Some job, picking on little kids. "
Diego glanced at his watch, which had stopped, then up at the clock over the display counter.
"I guess it's bye for now," said Roland.
"Afraid so. I'd rather spend the day with you, my boy."
"Me too, Pop. We could really have some fun." Roland knew his father was too fat to do much of anything.
"Do you mind if I have a word with Chief Huff myself?"
"I don't know, he's pretty busy right now. The Rozzos will have him out looking for Alicia today, and then there's the Friedrich kid, who may have taken her somewhere and killed her."
"Who told you that?"
Grinning, Roland snatched up his father's cup and sucked the bitter dregs from the bottom. He then smacked his lips and pointed to his father's inside breast-pocket.
On cue, his father took out his first cigar of the day and began to dampen it with his tongue. "Don't say that sort of thing in front of your mother," he went on. "Or any of the other kids. You may think it's cute, but nobody else does."
On his way home, Roland stopped before Lilette's window.
"That lady didn't even bother to brush the dirt off mom's slip before she put it back on that skank," he said to Rupert.
They peered up at the mannequin--the slip had haphzardly been put back on the vapid pink figure.
"Look at her eyes," Rupert observed, "they're like Val Nolan's. And her foot has a hole in it where the big toenail should be."
"She sucks," sneered Roland.
"So good so far," said Val. It was just shy of ten o'clock, so she was getting a late start, and Dolores didn't have time to dawdle on the telephone.
"Roland and I are going shopping in about twenty minutes," offered Dolores.
"You're not going to Mikie's funeral?"
"I don't have anyone to leave Roland with. But Diego's going."
"Nobody in the building?"
"Mrs. Finkelstein does her shopping today."
"How'd it go with him and the police?"
"Chief Huff was very nice."
"Yea, but what happened?"
"OK, so don't tell me."
Dolores wasn't in the mood. Maybe Roland's explanation wasn't so far from the truth. Certainly Val's own son was depressed--how could he not be? "It seems Mikie may have jumped rather than fallen."
"What, off a Ferris-wheel?"
Dolores could hear Val pouring herself a drink. She'd always said Seagram's goes down nicely with a spoonful of frozen orange concentrate mixed in, especially when you felt like shit.
"Families are weird," said Val, apparently feeling more congenial. "You can do everything for a kid and still they turn into messes. Look at the Friedrich's kid."
"You know about that?"
"Yea, Babs told me how he was molesting Alicia or something at the fair. On Monday night when she disappeared."
"I doubt it was very serious. The Friedrich's are a nice family."
"Tell that to Gus."
"Oh, I know about Gus and his precious paint-job."
"Paint-job? He just don't want his kid getting felt up in public."
"Billy's at the playground, I take it?"
"He goes every day."
Dolores knew older kids hung out at the playground too. It was a dangerous place to leave your child. "Well, I guess I better sign off. You know Roland, he's somewhere in the building doing God knows what."
"Yea, at Mrs. Finklestein's probably--he likes her wiener schnitzel."
"She's out shopping, remember?"
"I guess I forgot."
"Val, I've got to go and round him up and get ready to go out myself."
Dolores had hoped Val would say Yea sure, fine or something equally dismissive and that would be the end of it, but instead she said nothing. Dolores sensed her struggling with some thought. Then she heard her snuffling. Val was crying. Something was more wrong than usual.
"I got a confession to make."
Dolores knew better than to respond.
"He didn't come home again last night."
Dolores was sick and tired of Tommy-Tom Nolan. She thanked God her husband wasn't spending as much time with him as he used to. "He'll show up. He always does, doesn't he?"
"I couldn't get him at work yesterday. You know, he was supposed to drop Alicia off at one of her girlfriend's or somewheres. Well, he never came home after that. That was Monday night. I don't even know about last night." Dolores could feel Val sinking into a hole. "No, he did come home Monday, cause he was messing around in my sewing-box. But I never saw him or nothin. I guess I was asleep. He just changed his clothes like he used to and went out again. I hate that."
"I know," whispered Dolores. "He'll be back."
"Oh, how do you know?" moaned Val. "How do you know what it's like?"
"I guess I don't. I'm sorry." Dolores was trying her best to be gentle. She knew this was what Val needed. Then she realized Roland was standing in the doorway between the kitchen and the living-room holding her purse out before him and shaking his head woefully from side-to-side.
On the way to Mikie's funeral, Gus went into the Police Station by himself to ask Chief Huff if he had learned any more from Tommy-Tom about Alicia's possible whereabouts. He also intended to ask him to do something about Freddie Friedrich's kid.
"How long've you and Tommy-Tom been friends?" said the Chief.
"I've known him since I was fourteen," Gus replied.
"Then you should know if you can trust him with your own daughter."
Gus couldn't believe Leon Huff was giving him a lecture.
"Tommy-Tom's a hard case," the Chief went on. "He does what he likes. And he's got a big chip on his shoulder."
"He can be a real prick. I know."
"Tommy-Tom doesn't like anybody, and I mean anybody to interfere in his fun."
"Yea, I know, I've partied with him. Why do you think he works in New York and not out here in Jersey with the rest of us? He always wants to get in on the big scene. Tommy-Tom knows all kinds of people I never heard of."
"Ever seen him with a black guy named Bootsy?"
"Tommy-Tom with a fucking black guy?"
Gus didn't like the sound of this. Tommy-Tom was dumber than he had thought. Gus didn't want to say anything, so he just looked around Huff's office. There was a framed photo on the top of Huff's filing cabinet: the Chief had a wife and two kids, a boy and a girl. Not much of a family, compared to Gus's.
"How often do you see them socially?" asked the Chief.
"The Nolans. Tommy-Tom and his wife."
They'd just seen them. What a stupid question. Gus tried to keep a civil tongue in his head. "Whenever there's something going on."
"Anything. How should I know? Sometimes we do things together, like go to the fair. That's what families do."
"Val was at the fair too?"
"I don't know. She could have went with Billy all by herself."
What was with all the questions? Gus just wanted to find out what Tommy-Tom had done with Alicia, where he'd left her on Monday night. Simple. This was a fucking waste of time.
"I get it," said Gus, "you didn't find out anything from Tommy-Tom. So, can we talk about Freddie Friedrich's kid?"
"I've been over that territory with you, I thought. Your pal took her into the city, where according to him she disappeared."
"Yea, and then Friedrich's kid took her somewheres."
"In his car, how else?"
"He doesn't have a car. He doesn't even have a license." The Chief was looking at Gus as if he were insane.
"Yea, well, he could have taken her somewheres with some other kid, some other kid with a car, who can drive."
"He went home with his father."
"That's not what Friedrich told me yesterday. He told me he didn't know his kid was at the fair."
Cops could be so dumb. Freddie Friedrich Sr. was a liar. He lied about when he'd have your car ready. He even lied about what colors of paint you could get. You could get any fucking color you wanted. Anybody knew that.
"He probably didn't want to get into an altercation with you," said the Chief.
"What? Like I call him a liar?!"
"Something like that."
"I got my kid's funeral."
Nobody gave a shit, not even the fucking Chief of Police.
"I'll be over later," said the Chief, looking gravely into Gus's eyes.
Gus couldn't believe Huff was going to make his presence felt at Mikie's funeral. It was a publicity stunt. "I guess everybody would appreciate you being there," he said, and left.
For at least ten minutes, Diego Ildefonso had been standing at the open back door of Pretty Feet smoking his cigar and gazing at the debris in the alleyway from the Woolworth's next door. Many things had passed through his mind, not the least of which was the visit he would make that evening to St. Mary's Hospital. There really wasn't a whole lot to think about until Dr. Herbert had reviewed the results from the brain and body scans and conjured up his diagnosis. Now the back door of the Woolworth's swung open and a hand appeared, clutching a half-eaten sandwich and a crushed cardboard coffee cup, and flung them unceremoniously into the alleyway. Diego decided he had best make things ready for the day.
First, he turned on all the necessary lights, then latched open the shop's front door. He sat on the banquette before the front window, feet raised on one of the sales-stools, and waited for his first customer. After a while, he got up and went into the stockroom and relit what was left of his cigar. It was stubby and damp but still tasted good. Then someone came into the shop. No, there were two: Gilbey, a wealthy old fart who appeared every so often to waste Diego's time, and a young woman supporting the old fart at the elbow.
"I don't really need any more shoes, Francis," said the young woman.
"Indulge me," Gilbey replied. "How's tricks, Ildefonso?"
The young woman, aged about thirty, went to the banquette, sat, and began undoing the straps on her shoes. Diego gazed at Gilbey expectantly.
"Bedroom slippers," he said. "Sensible ones."
Diego knew what he meant and hastened to the stockroom. There he found the item in three pastel colors. In a matter of moments, he was kneeling before the young woman. She had beautifully kept feet, and her legs were bare.
"These are so common," she sniffed. "Isn't there anything in gold?"
"How is one to cope?" said Gilbey, and lowered himself with some difficulty to sit beside her. "Why don't we see how the other two colors flatter your own?"
"My own what?"
"I do have something in gold," said Diego.
"Actually, we're not buying them for Nina here, we're buying them for her mother."
"Oh, that's so sweet," said the young woman, brightening. "Francis, how do you remember everyone's birthday?"
"I don't know, I just do."
She gazed down at Diego Ildefonso's hands fiddling at her feet. "But I thought you didn't like my mother?"
"I don't." Gilbey now smiled at the beautiful fat man crouched on the carpet. "Ildefonso, we'll take them. All of them."
Diego thought he heard Nina laughing as he took the slippers over to the counter.
At the cash register, his voice lowered discreetly, Gilbey said, "These things can't cost very much?"
"Whatever they cost, it's too much," Diego assured him.
"Fine, cash or check?"
"Cash is always nice."
Gilbey glanced over at his companion, who was ready to leave.
"She'll just have to learn to be patient," he whispered. "I hired her as a secretary. But she can't even sit still long enough to type a letter. She says she's rather fond of me. As usual, I didn't have to do anything to deserve it."
Gilbey patted the pile of money he'd left on the counter, his hand a few old bones wrapped in blue veins. As Diego searched for a bag big enough to accommodate the three boxes of slippers, all the while keeping an eye on the front door, the young woman wandered out onto the sidewalk where she posed seductively against the passing traffic. Diego was suddenly, inexplicably jealous.
"I've left my card--there with your gratuity," said Gilbey. "Call me any time after eleven tonight. I'm serious, I have my reasons."
Diego now watched as the silly old fart left the shop, was embraced by the young woman in the street, and carried on, giggling and gesturing inanely, in the direction of Newark Street. The card had a number in Nyack on it.
The telephone at the back of the shop was ringing. It was Linda in Dr. Herbert's office. The scans were on for that evening. Diego was to be at St. Mary's Hospital just before six, so Dr. Herbert could fit him in ahead of the needy, as Linda put it.
Dolores was hugely disappointed to find Lilette's closed, the front window emptied of all merchandise. She knew there wouldn't be time now to purchase a similar slip elsewhere, not before her assignation with Diego the next day.
"They were open this morning," volunteered Roland.
Dolores's eyes were downcast.
"Look," said Roland, "there's a woman in there and she's getting ready to do the window!"
The woman was now backing into the display area with a big box of cuddly cloth bunny rabbits. It was Sylvia Drescher, who had recently taken over the shop's management. Dolores couldn't quite see what bunny rabbits and Easter had to do with under-garments and lingerie but she also accepted that Sylvia was very clever: she had been to art school in Manhattan.
Roland went to the window and rapped on it. Sylvia ignored him. But he persisted and finally she turned, her pointed chin thrust high, to peer out over the street.
"Down here, you twat," said Roland, softly enough so that his mother wouldn't hear.
When Sylvia finally saw Dolores, an enormous smile divided her face.
"Oh, she sees us," said Dolores.
"Chirp, chirp, chirp," said Roland. "Let's go in. I'll bet the door isn't even locked." It wasn't.
"Dolores, I didn't realize it was you," called Sylvia from behind the window's backing. "I asked everybody to clear out so I could concentrate on getting things done around here without blah-blah-blah."
"Well, I hope we're not bothering you."
"Want some coffee?" Sylvia stepped down into the shop.
"I don't drink coffee," said Roland, glancing over a loose selection of brassieres.
Dolores laid her hand tenderly on his head. "If it's no trouble."
"I drink too much coffee," confessed Sylvia,"especially when I'm working."
Roland browsed the display cases as Dolores and Sylvia had their coffee in the office. Dolores sat quite comfortably where a potential employee or sales rep might sit for an interview, while Sylvia leaned against the wall with her foot up on the seat of the chair behind the desk.
"Do you have any idea what women are paying for sexy underwear these days?" asked Sylvia. She said this as if sexy underwear were something completely alien to Dolores.
"I have some idea. In fact, that's why I'm here, to buy some sexy underwear. My husband and I are going on a cruise and I need something for lounging around hotel suites and the like."
"Oh," said Sylvia, apparently stunned.
"Actually, I was quite interested in a rather pretty pink slip that's been in the window for several weeks now. I need that sort of thing too."
"Pink slip?" Sylvia couldn't remember any pink slip, although she must have removed the slip from the window herself only that morning.
Roland, who was now standing at the door to the office, said, "Pink. You know, the one the lady dropped on the floor and got all dirty."
"Oh, that one," said Sylvia.
Roland often astounded Dolores. He must have noted the condition of the slip on his way back from his morning stroll with his father. Now Dolores was certain she could get the slip at a better price.
"You wouldn't want that old thing," said Sylvia. "It had a smear on it from the grease they use to keep the security grate functioning. I've been using it as a dust rag."
Roland saw the pain in his mother's eyes.
"It must be wonderful to be so stupid," he said, shifting his gaze from his mother to Sylvia Drescher.
Dolores reached out and took her son's hand.
North Philadelphia was far worse than anything Bootsy Holloway had ever seen in the south, or in New York for that matter, although he'd never gone above 125th Street. Usually sunshine made things look better, happier, but the sunshine soaking the dingy surfaces of the old rowhouses, the same sunshine making the filthy train window look even filthier, only made the rundown buildings look worse. Staring down into the backyards, most littered with things no one could ever possibly use, Bootsy was sad to see a man, an older man, still living in a house where there'd been a fire, and it looked like the fire had been a long time ago. Bootsy figured the old guy didn't have anywhere else to go. He'd torn out as much of the burnt wallboard as he could and thrown it into a pile, then put some plastic over what was left of that part of the house to keep the soot from getting into his food and clothes. The old guy looked a little like his Uncle Tookus's pal Tyrone.
The gash in Bootsy's palm was throbbing. The wound was deep but clean. No stitches. His fingers were cut too, digs the glass had made along the insides, where he'd grasped its jagged edge. He'd thought of going back to the Stamford to get his things and tidy up his room, so it would look like he'd left in a civilized fashion, but then he'd decided that it would be better to just leave. Nobody kept track of anybody staying at the Stamford Arms anyway, unless they were sick and had a welfare agent stopping in. And nobody gave a shit if a young black guy disappeared. They'd figure he'd gone out on drugs. Drunks could live forever it seemed, but with smack or meth you could drop fast. Blow was different. Blow was for partying. Blow made Bootsy feel rich. Everybody'd wondered what a cool motherfucker like Bootsy was doing around there. Bootsy figured what he'd done was probably the smartest thing, although none of it was very smart.
He'd thrown his jacket, which was a bloody mess, onto the front seat of Tommy-Tom's car where it was parked around the corner from Shirlee's. Bootsy wasn't sure why he'd done this. He was passing by the car, the window was down, and in it went. He'd then gone straight to Penn Station in a taxi--the driver didn't even look at him. Somewhere around 30th Street and Ninth, maybe three blocks over from the station, he'd taken a clean jacket off a guy passed out on the sidewalk, to cover up the blood that had soaked through his shirt cuffs and splashed down his front. Bootsy had then gone back and bought a ticket for the train to Rocky Mount, which left at 9:12; it would get in around 7pm, if it didn't run late, and then he could call somebody to come get him.
If he'd saved little Shirlee's life, then it was OK to be inconvenienced so bad. Bootsy's cousin Junior was like Shirlee. He was precious as a child, and always sang the girls' parts in church. Everybody liked Junior, and nobody would've hurt him. What Tommy-Tom had done to Shirlee, even before smashing her balls, was low. But guys like Tommy-Tom were into making other people look sick. Bootsy knew that now, he seriously knew that. He never did feel right around Tommy-Tom. It was Tommy-Tom who wanted him for a friend, not the other way round. Tommy-Tom wouldn't have done anything for him anyway, only mess with him. It was a bad thing to want, but Bootsy hoped he'd killed Tommy-Tom. At least that way Tommy-Tom wouldn't come looking for him. Bootsy felt sorry for Tommy-Tom's wife and kid. He wanted to think they were better off without a guy like that. But family was family, and some people would put up with anything--truly anything--from the people they thought they loved.
The taxi Diego Ildefonso had called to take him to St. Eleanor's arrived late. As the driver jerked his way through the midday traffic, Diego thought about what Gus Rozzo must be feeling at that moment. Then he thought about Gilbey. The old fart wanted something. But what? Then he thought about his appointment that evening at St. Mary's Hospital. And he thought about Dr. Herbert, who hadn't given him any idea what the required procedures would cost. He also thought about how people always just assumed these things would be taken care of in life. Years ago, being the fatalist he was, he had taken out a life insurance policy, but he'd never managed any health insurance. This was largely because Barbiche and Petit-Pont had said they were looking into a policy for all their employees. Naturally, nothing ever materialized. If he were mortally ill, perhaps he would be allowed to die at home. He decided to think about something else. So he thought about Cuba. For the longest time, he had wanted to take his wife and child on a holiday to some place where the people spoke Spanish, not the Americanized Spanish spoken on the streets of Union City, but something more like real Spanish. Cuba would have been ideal, if Castro hadn't overwhelmed the island, demeaning its archaic glory with the presence of his mindless uniformed drones. Cuba had always been beckoning, somewhere in the back of his mind. Now it was of no use whatsoever.
A police car went charging by, its blue light flashing. In the back seat sat Val Nolan with little Billy. She regarded Diego with an unnatural stillness, her gaze so empty one would have assumed he was a total stranger. He instantly realized Val's plight was far more important at that moment than seeing Mikie Rozzo laid to rest, and told the taxi driver to follow the flashing blue light.
Not only had the bottom of the broken glass Bootsy had used on Tommy-Tom ruptured his jugular, it had also moved diagonally deeper, tearing into his larynx, the tender vocal chords striated by the jagged edges like parmesan cheese on a grater. And, due to the violence with which Tommy-Tom had smashed his face into Shirlee Simonaire's, his eyes were surrounded by purple bruising, now verging on black.
"How much will the tooth-fairy give him for that?" asked little Billy, when he saw one of his father's teeth sitting in a paper cup by his metal bed.
"Daddy's too old for the tooth-fairy," his mother replied.
When Diego Ildefonso first appeared in the room, which also held seven other near-fatalities, Val ignored him, her gaze fixed on Tommy-Tom's shaved head.
"Daddy looks like an army guy," said Billy.
"Daddy is an army guy," said Val.
Now Chief Huff appeared in the corridor outside Intensive Care. For some reason he stared directly at Diego, perhaps because he was so big. Although he felt uncomfortable, Diego went over to ask the Chief if he knew what had happened to his friend. The Chief said everyone assumed it was Tommy-Tom's colored drinking pal Bootsy Holloway who had done the damage to both him and Shirlee, but he wasn't entirely sure about this.
"So what do you think Tommy-Tom was doing up on Palisade Avenue at that hour?" asked Diego.
"Making a big mistake," the Chief replied.
"Hard to believe."
"Somebody went there for oral sex, while somebody else went there for something else, and somebody else didn't know what he was getting himself in for."
Diego took this to mean that Bootsy Holloway hadn't known that Shirlee Simonaire was a young man. Most astounding however was the notion that Tommy-Tom would have sought out the attentions of a homosexual. There had to have been some element of cruelty motivating Tommy-Tom. Some inclination to humiliate. But Diego still couldn't comprehend how Tommy-Tom had wound up in shreds. Drag queens very seldom provoked altercations between friendly fellows like Tommy-Tom and himself, although he never had anything to do with drag queens, and he wasn't black. He watched as the Chief went into the ward to stand with Val and little Billy at Tommy-Tom's bedside. The Chief smiled down at the child, who continued to stare at his father.
Val kept trying to hold Tommy-Tom's hand, but her husband was unwilling to have her touch him, even in the distressing circumstances she now found herself. She could never forgive him for the way he had treated her over the years, so now she might as well hate him. Little Billy would miss his father only for however long it took her to find him another one. Finding another man could mean a lot of work, but Val was ready for some self-improvement anyway. The doctor, who was called Ray, had been nice to her. He had also warned her that her husband might never speak normally again. He would probably have to use one of those talking gizmos that cancer patients use after they've had the cancer removed. All Val could think of was what sweet justice it was going to be for Tommy-Tom to have to wear a diaper over the hole in his throat. Still, she felt panicky. All she really knew was that her husband was still breathing and that he was using each feeble breath to fend her off.
When Val left Intensive Care, little Billy shuttling between her hip and Chief Huff's, Diego went along. As they made their way down the corridor, he tried to catch her eye, to let her know she wasn't alone. But she didn't notice. He again confronted her in the parking-lot. The taxi was now waiting to hurry him on to the cemetery, but he offered to take her and little Billy home instead. Val didn't object: Billy was impatient to get back to the playground, and it was better than pulling up in front of her building in a cop car.
As he helped her and little Billy into the taxi, she said, "You must be crazy."
"Where was everybody?" Gus asked Babs, as he laid a slice of ham on her plate with his fingers rather than the fork provided by his mother for that purpose.
"There were people." She gestured for him to lay on a second slice.
"How can you be hungry?"
"Your mom made all this food cause she loves us." Babs glanced up to find Gus's mother on the other side of the table with a very large bowl of potato salad in her arms. When Mrs. Rozzo saw her, she again began to weep. "Oh grandma," said Babs, and went to comfort her.
Gus reached across the table and, with one hand, took the heavy bowl from his mother and set it down next to the punch, into which he had secretly poured a fifth of vodka shortly after their arrival. "Mama, none of our good friends came."
"Like who?" said Babs.
"Like your pal Val, for one."
"I don't think she's very well." Babs hugged Mrs. Rozzo a little harder. "And how could she anyways if Tommy-Tom wasn't there to bring her?"
"Tommy-Tom has a whole building to take care of. He can't come back out here when he's got work."
"So, what about Ildefonso?"
"Yea, so what about his wife?"
"Dolores has Roland."
Mrs. Rozzo pressed her finger to her lips for the two to be quiet. Gus hated being admonished by his mother in front of his wife. He was the youngest of her four sons--
six years separated him from his next brother--and had always felt left out, while simultaneously feeling that she treated him like a little bambola, which was what she had really wanted. This perhaps accounted for the strange and contradictory mix of sensibilities bubbling inside Gus. He was quite capable of taking an hour to perfect his outfit for a weeknight gathering of the Hoboken Knights of Columbus. Often on such occasions he was seen in a cowboy hat, which he wore throughout the meeting, or, even more ostentatiously, his long snakeskin coat, actually a supple plastic tour de force made in South Korea, which he wore draped over his shoulders, like the diminutive consigliere of one of the big Mafia families.
"With Ildefonso it's different," said Gus. "Him and me, we were like brothers the other night. He loved Mikie. If he can't make it, he can't make it. End of story. What I don't get is what was Friedrich doing there?"
"Well, I didn't see him," said Babs.
"You don't even know what he looks like."
"I know what Freddie Jr. looks like."
"He could look like him."
"He don't look like his kid. At least not as I can see. He looks like a kraut, like a big kraut. You know, like from out in Allentown or somewheres. A kraut with a big red beard." Gus waited for Babs to respond. If he knew his wife, she was picturing a pirate, a pirate with a big floppy hat and a long tendrilly red beard with tiny snails in it. "Like a kraut!"
Again Mrs. Rozzo gestured for the two to be quieter.
"Huff said he was going to be there too, and where was he at?" said Gus. He poured himself another cup of bunch. "Mama, where's the glasses? Can't I get a glass for this?"
Mrs. Rozzo threw up her hands in surrender and gently dislodged herself from her daughter in-law. The old woman, her hair softly floating over her powdery puckering scalp, went back into the kitchen, and Babs breathed easier.
"You invited him? I thought you was just going in to talk to him?" Babs began poking her finger into the slice of ham on her plate. "I want something else. I thought your mother was going to have something lighter, some cold macaroni salad or something."
"Where's Dominic?" asked Gus, sternly.
"With Dot Perosa. They're sitting on the couch in the den. He's OK with her."
"I hope so."
As he went by, on his way into the kitchen, Gus put his hand on his wife's bottom, to let her know he felt close. Standing with his mother at the sink, waiting for her to hand him a tumbler, he heard himself sob.
"Oh Guiseppe," Mrs. Rozzo whispered, "Mi dispiace molto. Amante, permettetemi..."
Feeling his mother's hair brush his lips as she stood on tip-toe and raised her frail arms, Gus sobbed, just once more. "We can't find Alicia neither, mama."
"She'll come home. Don't you worry too much, she'll come home. She knows who loves her." Mrs. Rozzo stared through her kitchen window at the wash she'd hung out earlier in the week. She didn't know what was happening to her. This was the second time since Christmas she'd forgotten to take the wash down. Now everything was embarrassingly dingy with the black dust that blew over from Kennedy Boulevard. Thank God, her Dominic, Guiseppe's papa, wasn't there to see it. Thank God, he wasn't there to see any of it.
By the time Diego had left Val and was back on Willow Avenue treading slowly in the direction of Pretty Feet, he was thoroughly depressed. He glanced into the front window of Lilette's Lingerie. It was empty but for one mannequin which had had its face caved in. He decided to return home briefly to tell Dolores and Roland he loved them, before going on to the shop. It would just have to stay closed a little longer.
He stood before his building in silence. He then trudged up the front steps, lowered himself onto the concrete porch, leant his throbbing temple against the cool balustrade, and closed his eyes. Perhaps he and Dolores should find another place to live. A place where his son wouldn't have to watch another little boy throw himself from the Ferris-wheel. A place where a black man wouldn't turn on you and slash your throat. Now Diego dimly realized he was falling asleep, there on the front stoop of his building in the middle of the afternoon. It was Roland who found him and led him upstairs, while Dolores was sorting and folding laundry with Mrs. Finkelstein in the basement. Roland could tell by the way his father was shambling along, barely managing to climb the stairs, that he wasn't very well. He encouraged him to go into the bedroom, where he took off his shoes and closed the blinds, saying, "I'll bet Mr. Rozzo's drunk too."
Diego would have less than twenty minutes rest before Gus Rozzo was standing over him, reeking of alcohol. "It's alright you didn't come," said his friend, slurrily, "but you gotta come with me now. OK?"
Roland knew his father would eventually respond and most certainly oblige Mr. Rozzo. He decided it would be best to retreat out onto the landing of the back hallway where he and Rupert were trying to work out how to kill a rat they had trapped under a metal milk crate. Once they'd killed the rat, they planned to dissect it, probably in the bathtub.
"I have to go back to work," Diego insisted, still prostrate on the bed, as Gus wrestled his shoes on.
When Gus had finally swung the big man into a sitting position, he said, "I'll explain everything about it in the van. You know, in the van..."
But Diego didn't know in the van, all he knew was I feel sick.
The streets of Hoboken were uncommonly empty for that hour. Usually by three o'clock, or whatever time it was--the clock in Gus's van had a Woody Woodpecker decal plastered over its face--the sidewalks were picking up a little more pedestrian traffic as the wives ventured out to shop for the evening meal. Hoboken being a city of a relatively insular nature, domestic responsibilities were managed much as they are in most European cities, with food-gathering being a leisurely pursuit accompanied by much social intercourse. Diego liked this about Hoboken.
"Friedrich just stood there," said Gus, "looking at Mikie's coffin with his beard all lit up in the sun like some fucking Santa Claus or something."
Diego wasn't about to say anything. He doubted Gus knew what had happened to Tommy-Tom, but wasn't as yet sufficiently lucid to know how to tell him. This would take a moment or two of well-inflected concentration. Diego's concern was undoubtedly warranted as Gus and Tommy-Tom had been like brothers at one time, or so Diego had been told by both men individually on various occasions.
"It was a fucking insult," Gus went on. "He didn't show up at my mama's after. He just went to the cemetery to give us the finger. Babs says he was just trying to be nice. Give me a fucking break. Huff told me this morning that Friedrich was at the fair when his kid was feeling up Alicia. So the motherfucker lied."
Gus wasn't reasoning very clearly. He was drunk and he was upset. He'd just buried his son. Diego reckoned Gus should be at home with his wife and children, not driving wildly down Willow Avenue. Perhaps the best way to upend Gus's ranting was with news of Tommy-Tom's predicament. Perhaps that would put things into perspective.
"You don't really want to hurt anybody, do you," said Diego, and it wasn't a question.
Gus glared at him. "It's blood that holds this fucking country together!"
"That's one way of looking at it. There's a kid on a bike behind that delivery truck."
"I seen him!"
Diego groaned. "Look, what I've got to tell you isn't easy, but maybe it'll get your mind off Freddie Friedrich."
Eyebrows raised, jaw dropped in imitation of a simpleton, Gus waited.
Pacing his words so precisely that even in his present state of inebriation Gus couldn't mistake what he'd heard, Diego said, "Tommy-Tom's up in Union City at the Medical Center and he may die."
"He wreck his car?"
"No"--the story was obviously too long to tell in one protracted account--"his black drinking buddy from New York cut his throat." Gus was going to have a field day with this one. "And do me a favor, don't start screaming about niggers, OK? Tommy-Tom was with this guy because he liked him."
"Tommy-Tom's a dumb fuck."
"So who needs friends when they've got you, right?"
Gus slammed on the brakes and pulled the van over.
"You can't double-park here."
"Fuck double-parking. I can't fucking believe you said that. I thought we were pals?"
"We are. That's why I'm telling you about Tommy-Tom."
"You expect me to fucking sit here and do nothing, about any of this shit?! Not about the Friedrich kid, or anything?! Not even about this fucking Negro?!"
Diego would remain calm. "In both cases, we don't know the whole story."
Gus gazed down at his hands on the wheel. "OK boss," he said, finally. "So you tell me."
As the van moved back into the flow of traffic, Gus plucked a cigarette from his shirt pocket and lit it. Diego watched. God, he was sick and tired of fools like Gus Rozzo. All the guy could do was pump his wife full of babies, go to work doing just about nothing, and complain about everything.
"I'll tell you what. I'll have a word with Freddie Friedrich myself," said Diego. "I'll ask the questions. If Huff isn't willing to do the research, I will. "
"Like I said, you're the boss."
After there'd been quiet for a minute or two, Diego said, "Shirlee from The Jewel had his neck broken."
Gus was silent.
"You know, Stanley, that short-legged kid whose mother lives way up on Washington. He was with Tommy-Tom and the black guy. They say he may be paralyzed."
"What, the one sucks cock?" Gus replied. "What's the matter with Val?"
When they arrived at Friedrich's Body Shop, it was closed. Gus said he had to take a pee and got out of the van and went behind the building, where the office stuck out making an L. He came running back laughing. Diego could smell the gasoline soaking Gus's trousers the moment he landed in the van.
"Look, look," panted Gus, pointing to the building's roof, "there's your fucking research!"
The office, blocked from view by the cinder-block garage itself, was billowing black smoke. Gus was so preoccupied with the glory of this accomplishment that he kept the van idling in place as the fire spread. The toxic plume unfurled in bursts, higher and higher, growing ever blacker.
Diego shifted his attention to Gus. "What do you expect me to say?"
"Nothing, and you won't."
"You're on your own with this one." Diego began getting out of the van.
"What if Babs and me prefer charges for Roland pushing Mikie off the Ferris-wheel?" Gus was no longer grinning.
Diego lowered himself onto the macadam and closed the door, snapping it shut with very little pressure. As he walked off, he thought, Now I know what they mean when they say shit for brains.
Diego telephoned Dolores on his way back from Friedrich's Auto Body Shop to tell her he'd be late for dinner, also about Tommy-Tom, although he didn't go into the circumstances relating to his injuries, and lastly Val's desolate frame of mind. He said nothing about Gus. A short while later, Dolores telephoned Val.
"I'm getting drunk, and I'm leaving Tommy-Tom," said Val.
"Where's Billy?" asked Dolores.
"Huh? I thought I'd get a job before, but now I think I just oughta get outa here. Tommy-Tom can go to his mother's house. She's alone. His father's a bastard too."
"How bad is he?"
"He won't be able to talk. What does he ever say anyway? Do this, do that, tell Billy to shut up. When was the last time anybody ever heard him say anything nice?"
"I didn't know--"
"I was always telling everybody about Tommy-Tom. Fuck him."
Dolores heard Val pouring another drink. "Do you want me to come over?"
"Why do they make these bottles square when they slip?"
"I could keep you company."
"Maybe you could take Billy. I gotta find another place. Maybe I shouldn't get outa here. Maybe stay. But I'd want to change it and make it nice and he always took all the money. I bet nobody ever knew that either. You say something?"
"I was just thinking about Billy, whether we could manage it, at least for a little while."
"I could go get him now."
"I think it might be best if you stay put. I can talk to Diego about it when he gets home. Or if you want some company, Roland and I could come over. He and Billy could play. It's still early."
"No, then I'm going to find somebody else to take Billy. I mean, tonight."
"You need company."
"I already called this guy I know."
"Sure that's a good idea?"
"How's Tommy-Tom gonna know?"
"I was thinking more about Billy."
"Thanks for asking Diego, OK? I gotta get fixed up now."
"Val, who's this guy?"
"Some guy. He's really neat."
Dolores couldn't imagine who Val might be having over, especially on such short notice. She concluded that Val was just talking, that she would be alone with Billy for the rest of the night, and it worried her.
"Why don't I give you another call later?"
"OK, but if I don't answer it'll be because we went out. This guy really likes to go out. But go ahead and call if you want."
The conversation was over. Dolores wished Diego were there. Val's life was going to pieces. Tommy-Tom may not have been a loving husband, or even a good father, but at least he gave Val something to live for. It was terrible. Then Dolores realized she was wrong. Val hadn't had anything to live for, except her son, and now it seemed that relationship was slipping away. Diego probably wouldn't mind Billy staying with them for a few days under the circumstances. No, Dolores was certain he wouldn't.
St. Mary's Hospital was a Dickensian pile of dirty red brick and crumbling slate. The x-ray equipment was in the basement, along with the boiler system. When Diego couldn't find a single door left unlocked on the ground level, he was obliged to enter the bowels of the building by way of a long concrete ramp used for wheeling the disabled in and refuse out. Once down there, he was overcome by the smell of institutional disinfectant.
"Nurse, help Mr. Ildefonso with his shoes," said Dr. Herbert from outside the waiting-room. Then, a little later, "Get his clothes off and out of here--we have to begin!"
The nurse led Diego into a room that was too tall for the basement: the floor above had had to be removed to allow the equipment into its own brilliantly lit space. He stood waiting in the usual flimsy smock, two shoe-strings at the back, his bare bottom available for all to see.
"Up you go," urged the nurse, meaning he should hoist himself onto the gurney.
This was difficult. Although his arms were exceedingly limber, they weren't very strong. Diego Ildefonso's weight was really more than his arms could bear. The nurse placed a folding-chair between the subject and his vehicle to enable him to climb onto it. The actual thing into which he was about to have his head thrust most resembled a massive front-loading washing-machine. Once his head had been wheeled into the hole, the inside of the scanner seamless and plastic and glossy, he had the sensation of plummeting upside-down into a very large thermos bottle. Sticking out the other end, the antiseptic socks he had been provided with began to darken, or so he imagined, his feet soaking with perspiration.
"Where's Dr. Herbert?" he asked. But the nurse had left the room, bolting the door behind her.
Now, as he heard the whirring of the scanner's gears, Diego resigned himself to his anxiety just as he once had as a boy, day after day after day, sifting aimlessly through the ruins of Guernica. The whirring of the scanner's gears grew louder. It was a bleak tonality, like sand pouring down a long metal chute.
While the Ildefonsos ate their dinner--discussion at the table included Val, alcohol as a preservative, the digestive tract of the average human, little Billy, the draining off of the blood from a roast before it's cooked, Tommy-Tom, the gelatin that resides within the eye, and Bootsy Holloway, in that order--Gus and Babs were already putting their dirty dishes in the washer. As they did, they spoke in hushed voices, so their children who were straying about the house wouldn't hear them.
"The other way," said Babs. "No, not that way, with the fronts all facing the backs, facing the inside. Now, tell me again what he said..."
"He said Tommy-Tom was looking for trouble hanging out with this nigger from the hotel. That's fucking Ildefonso for you--anybody knows Tommy-Tom's dumb when it comes to doing shit like that. You feel sorry for Tommy-Tom?"
"Tell me again why you think Freddie Friedrich Sr. was at the funeral?"
"No, cause you don't get it. I'm talking about what fucking Ildefonso says--"
"Gus, please try to keep it under control in the house."
"OK. I said OK!"
Babs returned to the sink and the silverware heaped over the drain-hole. If she ignored him, he would calm down.
"When I went to get him, it was like he was totally wacked. Fucking guy was passed out on his bed in the middle of the afternoon."
"Well, you were drunk."
"Yea, but I wasn't saying shit and punching the dashboard. He put a fucking dent in it. I'll wash those. I'm telling you, they won't fit. Christ, Babs, just look how full the rack on top is..."
"Honey, it's forks and knives. Just switch the plates around, OK?"
"Well, why didn't you say so?" Gus stared at the plates in the washer. "Anyways, I told him about how Huff wasn't doing squat and how nobody was helping us find Alicia and he acted like it was no big thing and she would just come home without anybody going out and looking for her, which really fucking pissed me off."
"I think Chief Huff will. He'll have to."
"Have to what?"
"Try to find her." Babs laid her apron on the counter and put her arms around her husband. "I'm tired. And Theresa can't keep playing with Dommie when she's still got homework."
"I'm getting to the best part."
Babs rested her chin on the top of Gus's head, which she thought was a cute thing to do.
"It's like he's trying to prove something. Diego, right? Like Tommy-Tom ain't the only one who don't take no shit. So when we get to Freddie Friedrich's, he tells me to wait in the van--he's gonna go talk to him all by himself. What do I care? Let him go, right? Then I notice there's nobody there. No cars, no lights on, nothin. So, I'm waiting, and I'm waiting, and I'm waiting, and I'm starting to think, What's he doing back there, taking a fucking dump? Then I start worrying the fat mother had a heart-attack or something. He comes back and he says fucking drive. He never says fucking anything, so I know something's up--"
"What?" said Babs, not having been listening very carefully.
"Fucking Ildefonso goes and lights the fucking body shop on fire, with me sitting there. And, guess what? I'm the mother who's got the gripe with the guy who runs the place and everybody fucking knows it!"
Babs turned and looked out the kitchen window at the yard next door: Kellaway, who was old, was standing on his back steps with his shirt off, smoking a cigarette. She thanked God it was dusk and she couldn't see much of him.
"I don't get it."
"There's nothing to get," said Gus. "If anybody asks, you know what happened."
There was a standing-lamp in Diego Ildefonso's office at home which resided between his recliner and desk. It shed a dim but warm and comforting light. He felt safe in this room and always left the door just slightly ajar, so he could hear Dolores and Roland moving about.
Diego listened to the radiator softly clicking below the window. Tomorrow, or the next day, there would be a strange small voice in the house. They would keep little Billy close until Val felt better, which probably wouldn't be any time soon. Life was becoming endlessly unpredictable, and it had all begun with a perfectly mundane evening out at the fair. Hopefully, no one had seen him with Gus that afternoon. Gus would be questioned about the fire, and he would have an alibi. The horror would be if his alibi were Diego Ildefonso. Why had he ever allowed himself to trust two such incorrigible men as Gus and Tommy-Tom? Because they made him feel he belonged. And because they allowed him to feel superior.
He gazed at the telephone on his desk. It was time to call Gilbey. He eased from the recliner into his chair, straightened the stack of bills laid out on his desk, picked up the phone and dialled.
"Gilbey Residence." It was the young woman.
"Hello, it's Diego Ildefonso. Francis asked me to call."
"Oh, hi. You met me today. I'm Nina. Just a sec."
Ice cubes clinking in his glass, Gilbey came shuffling over. "Ildefonso?"
He hadn't thanked Gilbey for the tip--twenty crummy dollars bestowed on a poor shoe salesman. "I neglected to thank you for--"
"No need. I probably shouldn't tell you this but I abhor paying taxes. I like to experience my altruism firsthand, not imagine someone else giving my money away frivolously."
"They take it out of my salary."
"Here's one for you--what's socialism?"
"You tell me."
"A hole in the ground to bury yourself in. Only the government provides the shovel."
"Government. You know, we're just that close to living in a communist state. What'll be left?"
"Only the distractions provided by the higher echelons to keep us dopey. Our kids are growing up even dopier."
"Hmmm...Would you say I'm among these higher echelons?"
"How should I know?"
"Well then, if you don't mind, would you kindly name me some of these individuals?"
Diego caught himself shifting in his chair. "I don't know names. Executives. They run the big corporations. They control everything. You know the kind. Ever hear of the Bank of International Settlements? They ran the Second World War."
"Do you know who Puhl was?"
"The Nuremberg trials. A banker."
"You've got it. And now he works for Chase Manhattan."
"How do you know these things?"
"Good for you. Now you know where to put your money."
This brought jaundiced laughter from both men. Gilbey wasn't in the least as infantile as he pretended.
"And here I am in Hoboken," said Diego.
"People don't know what they're up against, do they?"
"Basically, they don't know anything."
"Like your employers."
"They think they know about merchandising shoes. They'd sell anything to anybody, even if it's of an inferior quality."
"Like the bedroom slippers you sold me?"
"That's my job."
"Nina's mother hasn't any taste anyway. She'll love them, all of them. Even though she won't admit it. You're an honest man, Ildefonso. You may be somewhat deluded, but at least you feel passionately."
"Don't kid yourself. I don't feel anything."
"But you've seen things. Like in Spain, and Italy..."
"Yea, I've seen things."
"Yea. A few things."
"And I guess you know that Communism is destined to fail everywhere in the world but here, because people here don't know what's happening and they don't care."
Diego felt a strange flush of contentment, as if he were listening to himself making a speech on the radio.
"They only want to know about themselves," Gilbey went on. "Like whether they're pretty, or too fat, or spending too much money for something. They couldn't care less about actually fitting into the world, or what responsibilities that might entail. And they really don't want to know how much everyone else in the world has to suffer to enable them to carry on with their glorious experiment. They only want to know how much they have to suffer, which is hardly at all. It's an ever-advancing form of ignorance. Take your friends for instance, the stupider they get, the more they like it. And the more arrogantly they behave. Communism, our own form of it, is taking over this country. Nobody knows it's communism because they don't call it anything. Oh that's right, I forgot, they call it freedom. You know, like in the songs."
"The communists, the utopian communists, would call what you describe capitalism."
"That's what they tell us they call it."
"So what do they really call it?"
Diego could hear Dolores running Roland's bathwater. She was humming loudly to herself, which meant she was anxious.
"Yea?--I'm still here, Gilbey."
"You know, your friends are out to fuck you."
"You asked me to call you so you could tell me this?"
"I'm telling you for your own good. You should take your wife and child and leave. Go some place nice."
"I don't believe this."
"We'd go together."
"What're you talking about?"
"I'd take care of it. You've got better things to do than getting fucked over by your ignorant friends."
"Nobody's going to fuck me over."
"Not if you listen to me."
Diego Ildefonso could taste the dread seeping into his mouth. "Go on."
"The Rozzo girl is missing, isn't she?"
"Something like that."
"Well, she's not."
"So where is she?"
"You don't want to know, not at this stage."
"But what's it got to do with me?"
"You're the one she was supposed to be with."
"Me? You don't know what you're talking about."
"Just try to remember one thing: Pretty Feet may not need you, and Hoboken may not need you, but your friends do. Your friends need you very badly. Good timing, my glass is just about empty. Call me again tomorrow night, maybe even a little earlier. I'm serious."
"I know you are."
"Only one thing."
"I wouldn't say anything about this to your wife. A very bad idea." Gilbey chuckled and hung up.
Diego walked from his office through the living-room and into the tiny bathroom next to Roland's room. There he stood in the harsh light, unable to speak, and watched his wife towelling dry their son's hair, Roland's narrow shoulders slumped forward as if he were asleep on his feet. What a sad little room it was, with its badly painted yellow plaster and faded print of Jesus blessing the poor children of the world.
Sunoco is a very big company, this goes without saying. It employs many thousands of people all over the world, a couple of thousand people in New Jersey alone. Several hundred work at the refinery on the Hackensack River. One of these employees in April of 1977 was a man named Don Fenton. Don Fenton was an odd-jobber, which meant he was shifted from place to place around the refinery doing various chores and wasn't paid very much for his efforts. Just after dawn on April 14th Don was assigned a pick-up truck for the day and told to take a rake and whatever else he needed and make a circuit of the storage tanks, checking to see which ones needed tidying around their bases. The tidying included picking up trash and throwing it in the pick-up truck, digging out weeds and saplings, and raking smooth the gravel laid in below the pipes that fed the tanks. This was a pretty swell job, and Don knew it. He was planning to stretch the job out to two days at least by loafing where he wouldn't be seen and smoking cigarettes. It looked like the rest of the week was going to be a piece of cake, until he found Alicia Rozzo under a black plastic tarpaulin between tanks 9 and 10. As Don said to his boss later that day after the police arrived:
"She was naked and the tarp was all slimy. I wasn't about to just leave her like that, so I put my coat over her."
To which his boss replied:
"Don't tell me. I believe you. The guys you have to convince are those suits over there talking to the coroner."
It was not unusual for Diego Ildefonso to have several erections as he slept, or tried to, throughout the night. Increasingly, he awoke to find his wife attending to this matter, either by gently fondling him or, with the advent of morning, by easing herself up and down on his erection with a determined cadence. But as he had come to dream more often now of unpleasant situations, he had also come to dread having to associate these entanglements with his engorged member. For this reason he had hit upon the idea of their Thursday afternoon assignation in the stockroom at Pretty Feet. Having to shift from selling footwear to making love to his wife, Diego was not easily aroused. But he always managed in the end, and often with an amplitude of grace and affection that Dolores found astonishing.
Now, as she lay with his semi-erect penis resting in the palm of her hand, unaware that he had been awake for some time, Dolores was mildly startled when Diego suddenly rolled onto his side, his mouth only inches from her ear, and said, "You don't know how bad it is between me and Gus."
"I don't have to tell you what I think of Gus," she groaned.
Diego knew she would anyway.
Dolores tucked his penis back in his pajamas and reached for the glass of water she kept on the beside table. After a sip or two, she repositioned herself then began:
"He's a little bully. He should be in the Mafia. He's the kind of guy they get to threaten people who owe money."
"Whatever they call it. And he's a braggart."
"I wouldn't deny that."
"And vain and narcissistic, and Babs not only puts up with it, she encourages it. Most likely, it's what enables him to perform sexually. Babs acting like that. I know, you should get up. There's a fresh bar of soap on the back of the toilet."
"Gus torched Friedrich's."
"He did what?"
"We went over there--I know, it was stupid, but I went. Nobody was there and he went around back and from the smell of him poured out some diesel fuel or something and lit the office on fire. I wouldn't be surprised if the whole place burned down."
"What did you do?"
"I was in the van. I didn't see him."
"I got out of the van and walked back to the shop. That's when I called you."
"What, all the way?"
"I didn't have the money for a taxi. I'd spent all my money taking Val and little Billy home."
"Some days nothing makes any sense."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Diego nervously rubbed his face, as if to clear the crust of sleep from his eyes, and Dolores shifted to her side of the bed. She lowered her feet onto the carpet and, as he carried on talking, stared at the ceiling. "Listen, there's something else. You know, it's fine to care for people when they need you. That's what you do--you care for your friends. But does anybody do that for us? Who does Val call when she wants someone to take little Billy?"
"I called her, remember?" Dolores leaned over wearily on the bed.
"That's not what I'm saying."
"I know what you're saying."
Diego shifted closer. "I'll tell you something. I don't believe that black fellow broke the Fischer boy's neck. I believe Tommy-Tom did."
"And who did all that you described to Tommy-Tom?"
"The black fellow, but probably defending the Fischer boy from Tommy-Tom. You remember little Stanley--little Stanley Fischer? Well, he's a homosexual now, who dresses like a girl. They started out at The Jewel."
Dolores rose and anxiously began smoothing out the covers on her side of the bed. "But what was he doing? I mean, what was he doing with this boy Stanley?"
"It may be why--" Diego hadn't really thought about this before "--you know, Val and Tommy-Tom don't get along so good. They say a lot of men who don't know they're homosexual, or can't accept it, are disturbed."
"But to break somebody's neck?"
"He's violent. Val and Tommy-Tom aren't exactly the most refined people we know, are they?"
"Fine. Are you saying you don't want us to take Billy, because of that?"
Plucking her bathrobe from the chair by the vanity and putting it on, Dolores glanced over the top of the dresser nearby for her hairbrush. "I didn't think so."
"I've already said we should take Billy."
"Thank you." She briskly set about brushing her hair.
"I don't want Roland to absorb what this place is about, what these people are about."
"What are we supposed to do?"
"I'll tell you what. Get out of Hoboken."
"You're practically shouting."
"I am not. But this is one thing that really pisses me off. How these people pride themselves on being stupid. It would be one thing if this were Georgia or Idaho or some place where all they have is fried food and church, but we're on the steppes of Manhattan."
"I'm going to fix Roland his juice." Dolores headed for the door.
"Not so fast." Diego swung himself out of bed and strode purposefully across the room.
"I have something to tell you."
"Why can't it wait until later?"
He looked into her eyes, which struck him yet again as being very beautiful. She turned to go into the kitchen, but he gently restrained her.
"You look so pretty, like the photograph your mother has of you in the hallway, when you played Mary in the Christmas play."
She kissed him and headed for the kitchen. Before he got into the shower Diego listened to hear if Dolores would begin humming as she sliced the oranges. But he heard only the blade lightly creasing the cutting-board.
Tommy-Tom Nolan was loaded on morphine. His thoughts thudded in his brain as one after the other they struck the firmness of the rear bumper on the Flintstones' pitted car. Sitting in the back seat waiting for Fred and Barney to return from the Rubbles' house, Tommy-Tom eventually realized what stupid thing they'd done to bring this thudding about: they'd parked too close to Godzilla--or whatever that supposedly cute spotted dinosaur was called--who was visiting one of their neighbors, and the thing was flicking its tail angrily against the back of the car. It was annoying, to say the least. Disgusted, Tommy-Tom only very dimly registered the pain deep in his throat. But something else was going on. Something almost equally annoying. Someone was relentlessly kneading his hand. This someone was a woman who had stolen unseen into Intensive Care. She was what Tommy-Tom would call a spook. He spied her through the crust of his lashes. Due to the woman's peculiar make-up, he apprehended Alicia Rozzo. But this person was older, and nicer.
"Bootsy killed the little faggot," said Tommy-Tom.
All the woman heard was the dried up blood and phlegm crackling on his lips. Seeing him awaken, she was thrilled with what she thought she had accomplished. Eyes brimming with tears, she softly chanted, "Know the light that breathes within your mind is the self-same light that breathes throughout the universe...breathe in, breathe out, breathe in..."
But Tommy-Tom was already back in nada-land bowling with Fred and Barney.
Again Roland found himself having breakfast with his father at Florescu's Continental Pastries.
"I'm a little confused," he said.
"About what?" Diego replied.
"About the value of having the Nolan boy stay with us under the present circumstances."
"I'm sure he won't be any trouble."
"Oh no, it's not that. It's what we have to offer him."
"How do you mean? He'll eat what the rest of us eat. We may even go to Bernardi's one night. And as far as sleeping arrangements go, he should be perfectly comfortable in my office."
"But no one's allowed in your office."
"I'll make an exception."
"But he won't be allowed to touch anything, will he?"
"There's not much that's lying out, and we'll keep the closet locked. How's that?"
"Sounds iffy. What about your photographs of the bombing?"
"They're on hooks on the walls. I doubt he can reach them."
"Yea, sometimes I take them down and look at them."
"But you're not supposed to be in there."
"I have another confession to make too."
Florescu was lingering on the periphery, waiting for Mr. Ildefonso to cease dandling his cigar on the handle of his espresso cup so he could take it away. Realizing that Diego hadn't an ashtray, Florescu placed one before him and departed with the cup and saucer.
"Go on," said Diego, trying not to sound too stern.
"I go in there to meditate."
Diego thought this over. "Meditate on what?"
"Being in Spain. I look at the photographs of the bombing and pretend I'm there. It's supposed to be healthy to imagine what your parents were like when they were you. I mean--"
"I understand. But who told you it was healthy?"
"You know, the guy on television."
"Mr. Rogers. The guy who always takes his shoes off. He has lots of good ideas. He showed us some old photographs and told us we could imagine being the people in the photographs, even though the people were dead--I mean, they must have been dead. The photographs were old, older than yours are."
"Sounds reasonable. You know that photograph I have taped on the inside of my closet door, in my office?"
"Right. That's an important volcano I studied but never experienced firsthand. Do you remember me telling you about the other volcano, the one I saw erupting?"
"In 1950," said Roland, confounding his father.
"But you didn't tell me the whole story. You only told me you'd seen it on fire. You told me you'd tell me the rest later, when I was older. Well, I am older."
"Not that much older."
"How much older do I have to be?"
"About the age I was then. About 20, let's say."
"I don't think I can wait that long. And what if something happens to you in the meantime?"
"You name it."
"I'd rather not."
"Pop, I'm really enjoying this, but it's getting to be about that time."
"Thanks for reminding me."
"And your cigar's gone out again."
Diego wasn't about to be rushed off to work, not this morning. He took his time relighting his cigar, all the while watching Roland watching him. "How would you like to see that volcano?"
"No, the one I saw."
"Do you have a photograph of that one too?"
"No, I mean the actual volcano."
"Where is it?" Roland glanced slyly at his father. "Pop, don't tell me Wildwood Amusement Park, OK?"
Diego had to laugh.
"Is that funny?" Roland seemed genuinely surprised.
"You're always one step ahead of the game."
"I am? I guess that's good, isn't it?"
"Roland, I've made up my mind." The lad stared at him, his wide and empty face gradually contracting inward, as if something bitter had emerged in his mouth. "What's the matter?"
"We're not going to adopt Billy, are we?"
"I should hope not. No, I've made up my mind. We're going to Sicily--for a nice long vacation."
"What? Where the volcano is? Is that wise?"
Roland's questions came all in a rush, as he was becoming more and more excited, the soles of his shoes tapping wildly against the tiled floor.
"Go home now," said Diego. "This is our secret, alright? And stay on the side-walk. And don't forget to look both ways before you cross the street--those idiots are heading into New York now."
Roland came around the table and put his arms around his father. He felt like an enormous squishy animal bound up in a tent made of some fragrant material.
"I love you, Pop," he said.
Before ringing the Rozzos' bell, Chief Leon Huff tried to remember Alicia from the evening he'd encountered her at the fair and later observed her behavior at St. Mary's Hospital, but all he could remember was Tommy-Tom Nolan flirting with her as Mikie Rozzo's broken body lay at their feet.
"Oh Christ," groaned Gus, when he opened the door.
Huff waited to be asked in, but wasn't. Gus only walked ahead of him down the hallway and into the kitchen, where he and Babs were drinking coffee.
"You want coffee?" said Gus.
"Thanks. Sorry I couldn't make it yesterday," Huff apologized, "but I had to look after your buddy Tommy-Tom."
"Yea, I gotta go up to U.C. and see him myself. You wanna sit down?" Gus was again seated at the kitchen table, Babs sighing over an insufficiency of caffeine in the background.
"All I've got's decaf," she said, glancing over her shoulder. "You want mine? I hardly touched it."
"No, that's OK," said Huff. "Could we go into the living-room where it's not so bright?"
"Whatever suits you," said Gus. He shrugged at Babs before leading the Chief deeper into the house.
"She should join us," said Huff.
When they were all comfortably seated in the living-room, Huff began: "I guess you know about the fire at Friedrich's Auto Body--well, we can talk about that later, on another day, when we all have more time. I guess you're not working today, huh?"
"No," answered Gus, "I've got a head about the size of my asshole. We were over at my mama's yesterday and everybody got into the punch. It was sad and everything but we all pulled together. Well, except for Tommy-Tom and Ildefonso and them."
"Ildefonso strikes me as a pretty dedicated guy," said Huff. "I mean, to his friends, like Tommy-Tom and his wife. He took her and her kid home from the hospital in a taxi."
"I bet that wasn't cheap," said Babs. "We heard all about Tommy-Tom."
"He's been looking out for me too," offered Gus.
"How's that?" asked Huff.
"He went over to Freddie's with me yesterday--to try and straighten out the mess between Freddie's kid and Alicia."
"I didn't know there was a mess," said Huff.
"I told you'se, his kid's fucking nuts for her." Gus laughed to communicate his contempt for the boy.
"For Alicia," said Huff. He wondered where the baby was. This woman, Babs, she looked to be about thirty, although he knew she was older. She had a nice fat face and her tits were big. She was sassy and she didn't care who knew it. She was staring as him, as if to say Don't feel bad, every guy wants to fuck me sooner or later.
"You probably don't want to know who set that fire, do you?" barked Gus, again laughing.
"That's not why I'm here."
"Tell him," said Gus, and reached over and squeezed his wife's knee. They were sitting on the sofa together, a plastic tricycle with a Woody Woodpecker head on the front fender lying on its side between them. "Babs, tell the Chief."
"Whose bike is that?" asked Huff, not wanting Babs to lie to him so early in the game, and most decidedly not before he had told them about their daughter's death.
"It was Mikie's," said Gus.
"You don't have to tell me anything if you don't want to," cautioned Huff.
"It's OK," said Babs. There was no shutting her up. Glancing at Gus, she became more emphatic. "Yea, I do. It was Diego Ildefonso. Gus told me he got real upset and started throwing matches at the place, or whatever."
"He threw some gasoline around. Remember?" said Gus.
Huff saw the color rise in Babs Rozzo's cheeks. She glared angrily at her husband, as if to say So why tell me to do the talking, you fucker?
"How did it go...?" asked Huff.
"He didn't mean to burn anything down. He just wanted to let Friedrich know we're serious," said Gus.
"About his kid keeping his hands off Alicia. Go ask Ildefonso, if you don't believe me."
Huff guessed he'd seen this sort of rank insolence before, but he couldn't quite remember where, perhaps on television, but he wasn't even so sure about that. Then it came to him: his kids acted like this when they were bickering between themselves or talking to their friends on the telephone. Gus smiled at his wife, who didn't smile back.
"Detective Sergeant Molloy can take down your statement later," Huff informed them.
"I think I hear Dommie," said Babs, and left the room.
Huff was playing with his rings. Gus hated all these gold rings Huff wore like they were war medals or something. One was only a high school ring. The Chief came over, set the tri- cycle on the carpet, and sat down next to him. It gave Gus the creeps to have Leon Huff, another guy who wasn't his friend, sitting so close. Maybe the Chief was a fairy. That would be a laugh. Some Marines were fairies, Tommy-Tom said so. Gus got the feeling the Chief was going to hold his hand or something.
"I came here to talk to you about Alicia," said Huff, softly.
"You know where she is?"
The Chief nodded. But he didn't say anything. It was then that he reached out and took Gus's hand.
In all of the photographs Alicia's fine long fingers pointed out at impossible angles, the joints snapped. Her naked body lay on a bed of gravel, her arms making a diamond shape, her broken wrists pressed to the top of her head. Gus was sickened by this detail, by the brutality with which his daughter's hands had been twisted into the pose of an oriental dancer. His eyes trailed down her body, taking in the blackened bruises on her breasts, belly, and thighs. When the teeth marks around her pudenda had fully registered Gus began to vomit. Chief Huff set his hat in Gus's lap to catch the contents of his stomach. He didn't expect Gus to be grateful for this, but Gus was, taking the Chief's hat into the back yard to wash it out with the garden hose. Huff was relieved he didn't have to witness Babs Rozzo's reaction to her daughter's death. Gus said he wanted to tell his wife himself, without anyone else present.
The Chief left and Gus stood staring down at Babs, who had fallen asleep with little Dominic fastened to her nipple. He remembered Alicia as a baby fastened to that very same nipple fourteen years before. Two of their children were dead. This was impossible. No one lost two children in one week. What had they done to deserve having two of their kids killed? God was a fucker. Gus had always known this, but could never admit it, not even to himself. Babs believed everybody had a score-card, that God was keeping track of what you did that was good and what you did that was bad. It was stupid. All you had to remember was to do more good things than bad--if you wanted to wind up in heaven. Everybody knew about the score-card. It was a joke. The best way to score plus points with God was to have as many kids as possible and hand them over. Gus had gotten beyond his problem with fucking for the sake of having kids by always concentrating on how much he liked to make Babs say and do bad things. Gus wished you could make love at a time like this rather than have to say anything. They should be allowed to make another baby exactly like Alicia, but it didn't work that way. Alicia would never squirm around again. Never. If she did something naughty--well, she was just too slippery to catch. She was a squirmer. It was like she had some kind of amazing oil on her, like an eel. Babs was better off asleep. He would leave a note telling her to call him at his mother's house. He would tell his mother about Alicia first and then, with his mother there to help, wait for Babs to call. Maybe his mother would even do it for him.
Dolores Ildefonso had discovered that her prettiest panties were dirty. She'd returned home from being with Diego the previous Thursday and had dropped them back in the drawer without examining them first. The light in the kitchen was the best for hand-washing things and she was confident the panties would dry if she hung them in the back window, which faced the sun in the east. When the telephone rang, Dolores noted that it was now approaching eleven.
"There was some woman sitting with him this morning when the nurse comes in," Val began.
"Yea. Nobody knows who."
"Did you see her?"
"No, the doctor called Ray told me. He's the only one I know. He called to ask me. How should I know? I told him I don't know who Tommy-Tom knows. He could know anybody."
"What? I can't hear you. Are you doing something?"
Val was drunk again, or she was still drunk.
"Did you get some sleep last night?" asked Dolores.
"I was asleep when Doctor Ray called. He woke me up."
"I don't know. At the playground, I guess. Remember me telling you about Ralph? We had a real fun time. I'm meeting him again this afternoon. He likes me."
"The Ramada Inn. I'm in Atlantic City already. Look--"
"All the way down there? Atlantic City's out from Philly."
Now Dolores heard Val giggling, then lighting a cigarette, then slushing her drink in her mouth, then giggling again. After blowing more smoke, Val said, "Dolores, you're so dumb. I'm not in Atlantic City or anything, I'm here in my place. How could I get down there so fast? I just said I was asleep. Ralph's coming over. And then we're going out somewheres."
"What about Billy?"
"You thought I'd go all the way down to Atlantic City just for a date?! What else would I call you for when I'm getting myself ready? I called to get you to take Billy. I got Ralph coming over."
"That's fine. How about if Billy and I call you later?"
"I got your number written down, but I always remember everybody's number. It's in my purse, along with a lot of other junk I didn't think I'd ever need. But I need it now, even the eye-liner!" Val's laughter was teary.
"I'd like to meet Ralph sometime."
"Oh, you will. He's great. I'll call you."
That winter, Dolores had begun entrusting Roland to Mrs. Finkelstein on Thursday afternoons after school. Mrs. Finkelstein liked the company, but Roland seldom stayed very long before asking to be allowed out into her garden. Mrs. Finkelstein was the longest surviving tenant in the building--her lease dated from 1926--and it was in that year that she and her husband had built the shed that still stood against the brick wall that separated her garden from the alleyway behind the apartment building. The shed had a work-plank along the back wall which was lowered into position and secured with two lengths of chain. There were also two stools in the shed and a deck chair with a rotten canvas seat. The deck chair remained folded up and partially hidden behind the shed's door, which swung inwards and was invariably fastened open with a long metal hook. It gave the impression, due to the encumbrance of Mr. Finkelstein's cotton gardening jacket, its pockets still bearing various rusty implements, of a small crouching figure. Mrs. Finkelstein had draped the jacket over the chair's wooden frame the day her husband had dropped to the earthen floor with a massive coronary and died. It had remained there ever since. For Roland, Mr. Finkelstein's gardening jacket served as a manifestation of the unacceptably willful Rupert.
His head silhouetted dramatically against the paint-spattered panes of the shed's only window, Roland rocked precariously back and forth on the stool at the far end of the work-plank.
"Don't scrape!" he ordered.
"I'm not," said Rupert, who cowered in the dust, his obsequious gaze fixed on the door's lower hinge.
"And don't talk back."
Rupert was mute.
"That's it, stare at nothing. Maybe you'll listen better that way. Now, when Mrs. Nolan said Mom could bring Billy over this afternoon, it wasn't just a figure of speech. Billy is definitely coming over. That means it will be our job to entertain him. And you know what that means. It means playing with him without hurting him. Billy Nolan cries at anything. He cries and he wets his bed and he chews with his mouth open."
"Yuck," said Rupert.
"He'll even be using our toilet. Come to think of it, he'll probably pee in Pop's office. Rupert, do you understand?!"
"Yes, I understand."
"Well, you better, because I don't need Chief Huff coming over here anymore on account of you."
"That's not fair," Rupert argued, in a whisper. "I didn't do anything."
"Of course you didn't do anything. Ha, ha, ha. Just remember one thing, dickhead, if you want to come along to Sicily with us you better not get finger-printed for anything before we leave or they'll throw you in jail over there. Chief Huff knows all the police everywhere, even in Sicily. You can bet your fucking fat bippy on that."
"I could join the Mafia," said Rupert. "Couldn't I?"
"You can only join if you've killed somebody, and you're saying you didn't. You go to the Mafia and tell them you want to join and not kill somebody first and they'll get a plastic bag and put it over your head until your eyes pop out. I said..."
"I'm looking at the wall!" whined Rupert.
"Good. Now, when Billy Nolan gets here, first we ask him if he ever had sex. And I don't mean by spitting on a picture of a naked girl in a magazine and rubbing his finger around in it. I mean by at least using one of his mother's things to make blood in a glass or some other see-through container. He won't know anything. His mother is made out of wax, with an egg-beater for a brain, and his father is going to have to buy batteries to make himself talk. So you can bet they're not going to tell him what he should expect. Our job is to sex-educate him. Do you understand?!"
"Fully," said Rupert.
"Good. Now, get up and go out and get the rat. I want to work on it in here." Roland gazed out the door of the shed at Mrs. Finkelstein, who was mixing something liquid and blue in a yellow plastic bucket. "Forget it, I'm going myself."
Roland ventured out into the daylight.
"Do you want me to stir?" he asked Mrs. Finkelstein, as he shuffled noisily up behind her, so as not to frighten her in her deafness.
Now Dolores, who had her own key to Pretty Feet, stood at the shop's very center, listening. It was just seconds past three o'clock. Diego entered unceremoniously through the door at the rear of the premises. She seated herself and waited to be served. He advanced slowly from the stockroom, knelt silently before her, and set about removing her shoes, which were far more elegant than anything the shop had to offer. As he slipped her shoes from her feet, noting that her stockings were of the sheerest and finest quality, his eyes lingered on her legs. Her dress, which was intended to be buttoned from neck to hem, had been allowed to fall open in two folds which lay parted over her knees. Regardless of whatever surreptitious encouragement this casualness might suggest, Diego Ildefonso's manner was courtly, until he came to touch her feet.
At first, his hand rested only for the merest fraction of a second too long on her in-step, which he knew to be unnaturally sensitive. Seconds later, her foot held delicately on-point, his other hand gripped the shivering tendons just above the taut calf. Now Dolores grew more seductive. This she accomplished in several ways: by the almost imperceptible shifting of her weight upon her hips, by the slow movement of her hands upon the rolled edge of the banquette, and by the arching of her back. At last Diego's hand, now beneath her slip, closed down gently on the swell of her thigh. She sighed with the mildness of his touch as his thumb brushed a wisp or two of hair along the elasticized inner edge of her panties.
"I would prefer the doors were bolted," she whispered, and he rose to do her bidding, and to pull the shades.
Behind the shelves in the stockroom was a recliner--it had been brought in several months before when the beautiful fat man had been suffering with a bad back--and it was upon this squarish mass of rubber and steel that he now lay, watching his wife disrobe. It wasn't long before he had eased his erection out into the dim light, where it lay for her delectation. Dolores removed all her clothes. Standing over him, her breasts so seldom appreciated from this angle, her thighs more inviting too, she reached down to touch him. Diego rose from the recliner and took her in his arms. "Don't close your eyes," he said. And she pulled him down, onto the floor. In fits and starts, he too was eventually naked.
As he moved over her, his huge pale back was, in its roundness, like the dome of the earth as it drifts in the utter darkness of the universe. But Diego Ildefonso was wholly there, and Dolores drank in his mouth, and he filled the emptiness inside her, effortlessly.
Bootsy and his Uncle Tookus had driven out to Lake Mattamuskeet to see if the swans had flown off yet. Thousands of the ungainly creatures converged on the vast body of water each winter, its shallows guarded by countless dead cypresses rising up out of the stillness like gigantic fish skeletons. As they drove down the stretch of road that bisected the gloomy expanse, the sky was overcast and the lake the color of dead leaves. Bootsy worried the butt of the cigarette he had taken from the pack his uncle kept on the front seat. He was embarrassed because Uncle Tookus had told him not to go to New York, that New York was a trap for men like Bootsy and himself, men who wanted what they couldn't have, and shouldn't. Bootsy wanted to say something to let his uncle know that his time in New York had been worthwhile, and that he had returned of his own volition, that the city hadn't gotten the better of him.
"What it is is, nobody knows how nobody else sees it," said Bootsy.
Uncle Tookus waited, his jaw pitched high, his few remaining upper teeth gently grinding down on the empty gums below.
He had known Bootsy all his life, and he knew when Bootsy turned philosophical he was usually in some kind of trouble. "Bootsy, you ain't tellin me nothin. Who's this mother goes around messin with some weaker man? You talkin about you? Y'all knows why Goldie got a pistol stuck in his mouth and you ain't got no father no more."
"He was bein hit on for money he owed. Mama told me that. He lost his job and he borrowed some money."
"Your mama don't know. He was messin in smack. You messin in blow. I know what you do. You bringin that shit down here. They don't tolerate no drugs around here. Sure as dogs eat shit, them white-assed motherfuckers is gonna bring the law on you. It's them white kids gonna fuck you up."
"Fuck me up? I don't even know no white kids around here do blow. I don't know nobody."
"What about from high school?"
"I been long gone. Shit man, you don't know."
"So what's it?"
"I'm takin another one of these, OK?"
Bootsy looked out at the lake. It lay on either side of them and went on forever. Bootsy knew he was destined to drift on that lake after he died, he knew he was destined to drift over the featureless silvery surface of infinity, making that slow loop-de-loop like a slug on a ribbon of cold steel. If he was going to die with the long end of the white man's cross shoved up his ass, he would do it where nobody could see him. He would roam the fields surrounding this lake like a scavenging dog, staying clear of those people who'd just as soon smile at you as gas you. When he got tired of that he would find a lonely tree, wait for the birds to start singing before dawn, and put the noose around your neck. On the other hand, if nobody ever found out about any of it, he might just be left to think about what he did or didn't do for as long as he lived. Bootsy figured that even if he did get lucky, he might still like wandering around that lake until he fell down dead.
"Uncle Tookus, I don't know what I did. I got this white man does all the cleanin in the hotel where I been stayin. He wants to be my main man and shit. You know. I give him some cocaine from time to time. I wasn't dealin no cocaine, I just got some from a guy in the hotel who was crippled up and asked me to bring girls in for him. He give me the blow for doin that. I'll cut it short. We go out to New Jersey this night to meet the man's wife and get it on. I gave him some toot and he got sick on it, but he kept to his plan."
"Y'all didn't do nothin with his wife?"
"No, I did not do nothin with his wife. Man, what kind of a dumb ass you think I am?"
"Bootsy, you don't know nothin bout how they can behave. Married people, white married people, can take you straight motherfuckin down."
"I didn't do that. I went out with him and the girl-boy from the bar. Check it out--this fuckin honkie didn't know the girl-boy was a girl-boy. He's a big macho man and gets real tired of gettin his dick sucked all the time, so he wants to be the big pitcher, only this bitch don't catch, and he comes up with her balls. Wants me to go into the kitchen and get a knife."
"Slow down. He wants you to get a knife?"
"Dead straight. He wants me to cut her, man."
"A mother like that knows it's a girl-boy. He's just out to cut her."
"Well, that there might be what it was, but he was workin the thing. You never seen a man go after anythin so harmless as this poor little stumpy girl, and this mother is strong, and he's fuckin loaded."
"Where were you at?"
"Sittin across the room. Until I see what he's doin. He's smashin her face in with his head, and he's punchin her balls and shit. I went after him. I took his glass and broke it and I cut his head and then, cause there was no stoppin the mother, I cut his neck. And he was still goin. Then he stop. It must of been when he seen so much of his blood. I got out of there, man, and come back to New York, but I didn't go in, I just got on the train." Bootsy had just lit the wrong end of another cigarette. "Did I do the right thing? Man, I don't know what I did was right."
Uncle Tookus pulled the old Chevy over onto one of the patches that served as fishing ramps down to the lake. There was a white boy, about twelve years old, with a line in the water, his bicycle lying in the long grass. He looked up for a brief moment, saw that the men in the car were black, and instantly feigned disinterest. Now Uncle Tookus took a cigarette and lit it. Bootsy tore the scorched filter off his and relit it. They sat in silence for a while, watching the boy and searching the horizon for migrating swans.
"You never saw nobody die?" asked Uncle Tookus.
"Never did," answered Bootsy.
"It was the macho man you cut, while he was beatin on the other one."
"He beat her bad," said Bootsy. Then he mumbled, "Now his wife and kid know," and started to cry.
Uncle Tookus gazed up at the sun-visor over the windshield. There was a playing-card shoved under the clear plastic that made a pocket along one side. It had a kneeling model on it, her nipples covered with two bright red pasties, her g-string a vivid blue, her hair a mane of white, reminding Uncle Tookus of Hopalong Cassidy's horse. Her smile was like a tiny silver airplane shining out to reassure all men of the certitude of their determination to live life to the fullest.
"If one or the other dies," he finally said, "somebody is gonna put the blame on you. You know the white man is gonna put the blame on you. And your fairy..."
"Shirlee," volunteered Bootsy, eyes staring blindly down at the cigarette he held in his lap.
Uncle Tookus rested his hand on the back of Bootsy's neck. "Your fairy gonna be too afraid not to say anythin."
"And a fuckin police chief saw me with Tommy-Tom, at the bar," admitted Bootsy.
"Man, that says it all," sighed Uncle Tookus. "I don't think you can be around here. Not if you said anythin to anybody at that hotel about being from here or anythin."
"Where can I go?"
"Someplace where they don't cooperate with the law. Someplace where they have the black man's law all by itself."
Bootsy, his face a welter of frowns, stared at his Uncle Tookus: as far as he knew, no such place existed.
"What about Haiti?" said Uncle Tookus. "You can get on a boat from here. There's boats don't have anythin to do now but cruise. I know the Moore brothers don't fish all the time, and Henry's boy is out at Caswell for stealin a hi-fi. I think we should go over there. We don't have to tell Henry nothin, just talk to him."
"Where do I get any money to get set up?"
"From me. You take the money I got for sellin my gas station. I'll meet you in Haiti next year or some time. Every since my Dottie passed on I been wantin to travel. Now I got a place to go. I didn't ever have no place in mind. Except Paris again, and I don't have enough for that."
Uncle Tookus flung his cigarette out the window and backed the Chevy up onto the road. They carried on heading east in the direction of Engelhard, on the marshy fringes of which the Moore brothers had situated their wholesale fish business in 1951. When Bootsy glanced back he saw the white kid who'd been fishing pick up Uncle Tookus's cigarette from the macadam and casually put it in his mouth.
Having to confront Diego Ildefonso with Gus Rozzo's bullshit upset Chief Leon Huff. The guy was meant to be the fat man's friend. There was a case to be made for tragedy having deranged Rozzo's typically uneventful frame of mind, but Huff had the distressing feeling that Gus Rozzo hadn't been feeling anything. If he had, it wasn't enough. Vomiting was one thing--Huff gagged when he smelled Brussels sprouts cooking--and solemnly enduring such pain was another. There was no solemnity to Gus Rozzo's grieving. Babs Rozzo was another matter altogether. It seemed that as long as she had a new baby to suckle she could more or less contentedly endure anything. But there was something even worse, something unhealthy gluing these men together--Rozzo and Ildefonso and Tommy-Tom Nolan--and it wasn't the usual gunk one found in so-called criminal minds. By the time Huff reached Pretty Feet, or so he imagined, Ildefonso would have returned home, or perhaps stopped off somewhere for a drink. Now he pictured Mrs. Ildefonso, whom he had instantly liked, and who, he assured himself, would never have committed herself to a man capable of such stupidity. He parked in front of Pretty Feet. The shop was dark, shades drawn.
It had been a mistake to have his mother tell Babs about Alicia's death on the telephone. So Gus asked his mother to go over to his house to try to quiet Babs down and make amends, if she could, for his insensitive behavior.
Mama Rozzo had always known her youngest son to be a coward, but she forgave him because, basically, it was her fault for having coddled and pampered him all his life. If he had been born a girl, as she had hoped and prayed, no one would ever have thought a thing about it. His fragility would have been granted by God.
Gus became anxious moments after his mother had boarded the bus that would take her across town. He picked up a bottle of Suntory at the liquor store, drawn to the whisky by its exotic label, and set off driving aimlessly in his van, the bottle on the seat beside him. After twenty minutes or so, he decided he needed company and guided the vehicle down Willow toward The Jewel. As he passed the shop where Diego worked, he saw Val Nolan. She was weaving along from window to window. Gus stopped and called to her.
"I'm going to meet someone!" she called back.
Gus coasted the van along beside her. "Who? Who're you meeting?"
"A friend. You don't know him. Neither does Tommy-Tom."
"When he shows up. He's on his way up from Atlantic City."
This didn't sound right. Gus figured she was just wandering around drunk. She had good reason to. He pulled over and got out. At first, when he tried to take her arm, she pulled away, but then fell into him, nuzzling his hair: she stood nearly a foot taller than Gus, but at that moment her disdain for men shorter than herself didn't surface.
"Val, I gotta tell you something, but I need a drink. You wanna get in the van? I got some whiskey, some expensive stuff."
"I'm going out," she insisted.
"You are out. Let's go over to The Jewel..."
"Why?" She was trying to appear pert.
"Because I don't want to have to get you in and out of that thing--it's too high up."
Gus now guided her along, one arm circling her narrow back.
"Oh," she said. "OK."
In the parking-lot in front of The Jewel, Gus said, "You're not meeting some guy. You're just fucked up, Val."
"Ask Dolores," blurted Val. "She knows about Ralph!"
"Come on, let's go in and sit down."
Once they'd gotten themselves situated in a booth in the back room, Val slumped in the corner, Gus said, "Our little girl's dead. Son of a bitch raped her. He hurt her. I seen pictures of what he did to her."
"Wha?" came slurring from Val.
"Some motherfucker killed my baby girl."
"I wanna drink."
"You gotta drink. It's looking right at you."
"Oh. That's OK. It looks nice." Val took a long slurping sip, then ran her fingers through her thinning hair, the fine strands stiff with spray. "I'm waiting for someone."
"Didn't you hear what I said?"
Eyes wide, Val whispered, "Didn't she ever come home?"
"Oh Val," Gus managed, beaten by frustration, and began kissing her hand. He then began sucking her fingers, not individually, but four at once.
"Your mouth feels good cold," she said.
"Where's little Billy?"
"Dolores and Diego came and got him."
"Can we go to your place and drink what I've got instead of sitting in this fucking hole?" Gus knew he could do just about anything he wanted with her. "We can tell the guy at the bar about your boyfriend coming."
"He's not a boyfriend," argued Val, "he knows about money and is real professional at what he does. I was with him at the racetrack this winter. He gave me a tip and it really paid off."
"Good," said Gus, and got her up and out, and into the van.
Later, after Gus had made love to Val's mouth, which he imagined he was doing with considerable feeling, he telephoned Babs. Thanks to Val, he had finally found the confidence.
"You won't believe how sorry I am," he said, "I should of told you myself. Do you know how much I love you and the kids?"
"Why can't you come home?" Babs replied.
"Cause I promised to take Val up to see Tommy-Tom, and visiting hours are just about over. I called her from my mom's to volunteer."
Val, who was listening to their conversation while lying on her bed next to Gus, said, "No you didn't. And you can forget about me seeing Tommy-Tom."
Gus had no intention of going home any time soon. His only intention was to have real sex with Val, which he'd wanted to do for a very long time.
"Do you and Billy like your supper?" Dolores asked Roland.
"I can only speak for myself."
"And?" said his father.
"I like the bone-ring in the ham."
"How do you like yours?" Diego now asked little Billy.
"There's no bread for a sandwich."
"This is supper," Dolores gently explained. "Sandwiches are usually for lunch-time."
"I like the Jell-O."
"So do I," said Roland, and smiled broadly at their guest.
Dolores's heart went out to Val's little boy. He seemed so helpless, so forlorn. And he was one of the homeliest children she'd ever seen. He hadn't much of a nose, so that his nostrils were constantly dilated and wet, his eyes were too far apart, giving the impression of wandering disconnectedly, and, for long periods of what appeared to be almost total distraction, his upper teeth clung to his lower lip. Also, consistent with her own apathetic attitude toward life, Val had allowed little Billy's hair to grow too long for the style in which he wore it, which was a lamentable imitation of Tommy-Tom's quiff. Saddest of all, there was absolutely no flush to his skin. His coloring was like skim milk.
There was a knock at the living-room door onto the front stairs. Diego Ildefonso instantly excused himself. Chief Leon Huff stood, hat in hand, silhouetted against the shiny coral-pink enamel paint covering everything, every balustrade, every brass knob, every single nailhead.
"I hope I'm not interrupting anything...like your dinner. It smells delicious," said the Chief.
"I'd offer you a place," said Diego, "but we already have one guest."
"Not Gus Rozzo?"
Diego found this allusion mystifying. "No, not Gus. Can I offer you a coffee? Like to come in and sit down?"
"No, I'd rather speak with you out here, if you don't mind."
Diego stepped into the hallway and pulled the door partially closed behind him. He waited, arms crossed over his napkin, one corner of which he'd tucked into his loosened collar.
"I think I know what this is about," he offered.
"It's not about Mikie Rozzo. This is awkward--because it involves you and Gus Rozzo. Any idea what's awkward about it?"
"No." Diego didn't appreciate the Chief's tone.
"Gus and Babs Rozzo have both given me their account of what transpired yesterday afternoon." Now he would be interrupted.
"I don't see what Babs has got to say about it."
"He had her speak for him, at first. Then he gave his own account. He says he feels sorry for you."
"I haven't anything to feel sorry about." As he uttered these words, Diego realized they didn't make any sense.
"You will when I tell you about their daughter Alicia." The Chief watched as Diego Ildefonso unfolded his arms, untucked the napkin, and crossed the hallway to lean with his back to him, hands on the banister. "Do you want me to go on?"
"She's dead, isn't she?"
This the Chief hadn't expected. Now he was doing the job of the Newark Detective Bureau and he wished he weren't. "Is that just a good guess?"
"I've had a bad feeling ever since Monday night," said Diego, turning to confront the Chief, "ever since I was sitting with those kids in their living-room while the rest of them were with Mikie's body. I thought Alicia should have been with me, with the rest of the kids. I don't know why they took her down there."
"She was murdered," said the Chief, "raped and murdered, out at the Sunoco plant, the big one on the Hackensack."
Diego saw Alicia in Tommy-Tom's car. She was pressed up against the gear-shift lever, her arm thrown across Tommy-Tom's back, her fingers playing in the inky curls at the back of his neck. "How did she get out there?"
"We don't know. We thought you might."
"I'm sorry, I don't." Diego wondered where Gus was now. He remembered how his friend had suffered with Alicia's absence the night Mikie had fallen from the Ferris-wheel. It seemed like such a long time ago.
"The Rozzos never did say anything about your boy." The Chief needed some help, he hadn't any idea where to go with this. Hopefully, Ildefonso would show him the way.
"I don't want to contradict anything Gus said. You can tell me whatever you want, but I'm not going to say anything that might create even more problems for them."
Huff admired the fat man. He had will-power and he had integrity. Diego Ildefonso was now gazing hopelessly down the hallway, listening to his son and Billy Nolan leaving the kitchen and going out onto the back landing. "It's too dark for them to be going outside now," he said.
As they both listened, they heard Dolores ask the boys to come back inside. Then they heard the television go on.
"You know what he said, don't you?" said the Chief.
"He said I set the fire."
"At this point, it's your word against his."
"I don't want that."
"What happens now?"
"What do you want to happen?"
"Nothing. I just want to be left in peace. I want me and my family to be allowed to go about our business without having to worry about Gus Rozzo or anybody else."
"Let's try it like that for a while, until I can get some men out to look for witnesses. This happened in broad daylight, I presume?"
"I won't keep you any longer," said the Chief.
Gilbey had asked Diego to call earlier that evening. Again the young woman called Nina answered the phone. As he waited for Gilbey to come on the line, Diego glanced around his office--Dolores had borrowed a cot from one of their neighbors for little Billy and had plumped it up with a mattress pad and two pillows. It looked so inviting that he was tempted to carry on his conversation with Gilbey while reclining on it, but it undoubtedly would have snapped into several pieces under his weight.
"Ildefonso," said Gilbey. "How's tricks?"
"I hope I'm not calling too early."
"Not at all. Now, where were we?"
"Something about my friends fucking me over."
"Oh yes. Yes, indeed."
"Has your life become somewhat more complicated since we last spoke?"
"You could say that."
"You tell me, seeing as you seem to know more about what's going on than I do."
"No, you tell me."
"I've just had some very bad news."
"Let me put it this way--there's been terrible sadness in two of the families we know best this week. We've had to take in a little boy whose father was very badly injured and whose mother isn't coping very well."
"Will the father be alright?"
"No, not really. And the police are involved. It's what you might call a sordid matter." Diego told himself not to sound so indignant. "The kind of thing that happens every so often in Hoboken."
"I see. And the other family?"
"There's already been one funeral, and another coming up."
"You don't sound quite like yourself. You sound--what?--too formal or something. Christ, listen to me!"
Gilbey laughed, and Diego laughed too, but it wasn't easy.
"Let's cut the bullshit," said Gilbey.
"What bullshit?" Diego's tongue had begun to thicken.
"I told you I was serious. How do you expect me to help you if you won't tell me the truth?"
"All I know is that a friend of mine is accusing me of burning down some guy's auto body shop--"
"That will be Gus Rozzo."
"You know Gus?"
"Everybody knows Gus."
"Right. Then you probably know that their daughter Alicia has been murdered."
"Let's not forget the bit about her being raped too."
"That's supposed to be funny?"
"No one said it was funny."
"So what's going on?"
"Nothing we can't remedy, I hope."
Previously, Diego hadn't thought of the necessity of hiring a lawyer to protect him from Gus. Asking Gilbey for the money to retain one was suddenly a very real possibility. Obviously, once Chief Huff had organized his case--Jesus, what was he thinking?--two cases, arson and murder, he would be very much in demand. Diego pictured himself sitting in the holding room in the courthouse, waiting to testify, waiting to be proven a liar, waiting to be sentenced for something he hadn't done. Then he pictured himself staring up at the ceiling of a prison cell, with the dreaded light searing his brain.
Gilbey cleared his throat. "Listen, why don't you drive up here tomorrow evening. We'll spend the weekend together. Nina loves to entertain, at least she says she does. I'll probably be out when you arrive, but she'll be here."
"Only one problem--"
"I know, your wife will wonder what you're up to. So bring her along. Bring your boy along too."
"And we have a house-guest. Did I mention our friends' little boy?"
"You did. Bring him along too. The two lads can roam all over the place. You know, woods and streams and the like. And you and I can have a nice long talk."
Diego could hear a certain joy coming into Gilbey's voice, which usually sounded so tired and brittle.
"Watch for 9W off the parkway," Gilbey went on, "then carry on, all the way through town, until you see an open field on your right. You can't miss it. There's a brick chimney standing right in the middle, nothing else--that's what's left of Lee Tires. Take that right, Lescher Road. About a mile on, there'll be a lane off to the left. No sign. Take that lane. Eventually, you'll see the gates. The lane goes on for a long time, through grazing pastures and whatnot. Don't let it fool you. When you see the gates, you'll know you're on target. You'll still have to carry on another five hundred yards before you see the house. The house is quite large. You can't miss it. That's all there is. Just the house, and the lake beyond. Oh, I forgot. Watch out for the peacocks. If you hit one of them, Ildefonso, it'll cost you five points."