Authors: Tyler Knox
And for Mr. G.,who introduced him to me
A story, for example, something that could never happen, an adventure. It would have to be beautiful and hard as steel and make people ashamed of their existence.
As Kockroach, an arthropod of the genus Blatella and of…
They call me Mite. You got a problem with that?
The world, Kockroach discovers, is marvelously hospitable when your skin…
All right, I hears you. Enough with Mite’s weepy childhood.
Kockroach doesn’t question where the little man in the green…
Each night after work, as she poured the cream into…
Kockroach feels a surge of excitement roll through him as…
Was a geezer what hung around the Square name of…
Celia Singer stared down at the thick slab of beef…
Kockroach does not dream. The inner mechanisms of his brain…
If you took a midnight stroll in the Square in…
Kockroach waits patiently in the car. He has an inhuman…
Was one more player you needs to know about, missy,…
Within the hard brown exterior of the Lincoln, wedged in…
The train, it shivered as it pulled out of Penn…
Singed and smoldering, driven relentlessly by fear, Kockroach slithers through…
Kockroach moves now through the streets of the city in…
Eight years after, after it all went to hell, eight…
The night of Mite’s reappearance after eight long years, Celia…
Kockroach can feel it in his bones. Mite is close,…
Celia moved through the days after her visit to the…
Kockroach is ill at ease.
I suppose I gots a problem with saying goodbye.
As Celia Singer sewed the beads on the wedding dress,…
Kockroach stands at the center of his world. He can…
About the Author
About the PublisherPART ONETHE SWITCH1
As Kockroach,an arthropod of the genusBlatellaand of the speciesgermanica,awakens one morning from a typically dreamless sleep, he finds himself transformed into some large, vile creature.
He is lying flip side up atop a sagging pad. Four awkwardly articulated legs sprawl on either side of his extended thorax. His abdomen, which once made up the bulk of his body, lies like a flaccid worm between his legs. In the thin light his new body looks ridiculously narrow and soft, its skin beneath a pelt of hair as pale and shriveled as a molting nymph’s.
Maybe that is what has happened, maybe he has simply molted. He reflexively swallows air, expecting his abdomen to expand into its normal proud dimensions and the air to swell his body until the skin stretches taut so it can begin hardening to a comforting chocolate brown, but nothing happens. No matter how much air he swallows, his body remains this pale pathetic thing.
A flash of red rips through the crusts of Kockroach’s eyes before disappearing, and suddenly, in the frenzied grip of positive thigmotaxis, he wriggles his legs wildly until he tumbles onto the floor. With his legs beneath him now, he scurries under the wooden frame supporting the pad, squirming back andforth, ignoring the pain in his joints, until he has found a comforting pressure on his chest, his back, his side.
Better, much better. The red light snap-crackles on, hissing and glowing throughout the room, slinking beneath the wooden frame before disappearing just as suddenly. It snap-crackles on and disappears again, on-off, on-off. His fear of the light subsides as the pattern emerges, when something else draws his attention.
A rhythmic rush of air, in and out, an ebb and flow coming from somewhere nearby. He turns his head, trying to find the sound’s source before he realizes that a peculiar undulation in his chest matches the rhythm of the rushing air.
Cockroaches don’t breathe, per se. Instead, air flows passively into openings called spiracles and slides gently through tracheae that encircle their bodies. There is the occasional squeezing of air from the tracheae, yes, but nothing like this relentless pumping of air in and out, in and out. It is terrifying and deafening and unremitting. It is so loud it must be drawing predators. Kockroach spreads his antennae to check his surroundings and senses nothing. He reaches up a claw to clean the receptors and gasps upon finding no antennae there. The sound arising from his throat is shockingly loud, a great anguished squeal that frightens him into silence.
His shock wanes as quickly as it waxed. He doesn’t wonder at how this grossly tragic transformation has happened to him. He doesn’t fret about the blinking light or gasping breath, about his pale shriveled skin or missing antennae. Cockroaches don’t dwell in the past. Firmly entrenched in the present tense, they are awesome coping machines. When hisright leg was pulled off by a playful mouse, he hadn’t rolled over and whined, he had scampered away and learned to limp on five legs until he grew a new limb with his next molt. Deal with it, that is the cockroach way. When food is scarce, cockroaches don’t complain, first they eat their dead, then they eat their young, then they eat each other.
Kockroach blinks his eyes at the growing brightness in the room. He is tired already. He is used to two bouts of feverish activity in the middle of the night and then a long sleep during the day. The dawn light signals him it is time to retire. Pressed against the edge of the wall, his aching limbs jerk beneath him, his back rises to touch the slats of the wooden frame, and he falls asleep.
When Kockroach awakens again it is dark except for the rhythmic pulse of the hissing red light. He is still wedged beneath the wooden frame. His four legs now ache considerably and a line of pain runs through his back.
From beneath the frame he can just make out the contours of the room, its walls and baseboards veined by inviting little cracks. There is a wooden object in the middle of the room, and beside it, floating above the floor, is a piece of meat, the top of which is obscured by the top of the frame.
Kockroach crawls quickly out from under the wooden frame, stops, crawls quickly again, dashes beneath the meat, heads for a lovely little crack he espied from afar. He dives into it and bangs his head on the wall.
He had forgotten for a moment what had happened to him.Slowly he brings his face down to the crack that seems now so small. In the recess he sees two antennae floating gracefully back and forth. He reaches to the crack, tries to place his claw in the crevice to touch his fellow arthropod. His digits splay, the claw screams in pain. He articulates the digits, five of them, one by one before his face. What a grotesquely useless configuration. He reaches out one digit and guides it to the crack. Only the slightest bit of soft flesh slips in.
Suddenly, he is overwhelmed by a thousand different sensations that seem strangely more real than his bizarre altered presence in that room. The patter of hundreds of feet, the crush of bodies, the blissful stink of the colony. The feel of his antennae rubbing against the antennae of another, pheromones bringing everything to a fever pitch, being mounted from behind, his hooks grabbing hold. The taste of sugar, starch, the desperate run across a patch of open light. He is slipping back through his life. The shedding of old chitin, the taste of it afterward, the delicious feel of his mother’s chest upon his back when he was still the smallest nymph. He slides his digit back and forth along the crack in the wall and falls into a pool of remembrance and emotion, both stunning and unexpected.
But sentimental nostalgia is not a cockroach trait, neither is regret, nor deep unsatisfied longing. He had never felt such sensations before and he fights against their unfathomable power with all his strength. Insectile resolve battles mammalian sentimentality for supremacy over this new body until, with a great shout, Kockroach triumphantly climbs out of the strange emotional swirl and falls back into himself.
He won’t let this strange molt ruin him. He will stay trueto the purity of the instincts that have guided him safely through the earlier stages of his life. Whatever has happened, whatever will happen in the future, he will forever remain a cockroach.
He traces his digit up the wall, as if the tip itself is an arthropod making its way to the safety of the ceiling. Halfway to the top his claw alights on a dull white plate with a black switch. Cockroaches instinctively try every crevice, search every nook, climb every tilting pile of dishes. It is in their nature to explore. He flicks the switch.
Light floods the room. Panic. He would flee, but to where? He follows his second instinct to hide against a wall and freeze. He spins and presses himself into the corner and moves not a muscle.
He listens for the sound of a predator and hears nothing.
He presses his head so hard into the corner the vertex of his face throbs.
With a start, he realizes he is standing and the ache he had been feeling in his legs, the pain in his back, are all slowly receding. This is a body that works best vertically. He will adapt, he is a cockroach.
Balancing precariously on two pale slabs of flesh at the bottom of his lower legs, he takes tiny steps as he turns around, his upper legs moving contrapuntally with his lower legs out of long-ingrained habit. And as he turns he examines the now-lit space in which he finds himself. It is in actualitya small pathetic hotel room, green walls that can barely contain a bed and a bureau and a tiny desk, a single window through which the hissing red neon of the hotel’s sign can be spied; it is a sad cramped piece of real estate but to Kockroach it is a palace. And in the center, hanging from the source of light, is the piece of meat.
Kockroach is frightened when he sees it there, shaped as it is like a predator, but it is just hanging, not moving, hanging. He determines it is not a threat and his fear subsides.
Still in the corner, he reaches out his upper appendage, an arm now that he is standing vertically, and with his claw flicks down the black switch on the white plate. Darkness.
He flicks it up. Light.
He flicks it down. Darkness.
So that is how they do it.
Up and down, up and down. After an hour of that he leaves the light on and practices walking.
He falls twice, thrice, six times, struggling to stand again after each fall. He is trying to retain the feel of his cockroach walk, when his legs moved forward three at a time while the other three maintained a steady tripod, allowing for sudden stops and quick switches of directions. This body is not so nimble or steady, the center of gravity is absurdly high, but finally, after much trial and error, he comes up with something that feels organic.
He leans back, his weight to the right as he steps forward with his left leg, his right arm rising reflexively with the step,two digits of his right claw pointing up in the shape of a V, like the pincers of the cockroach claw. Then his weight shifts to the left as his right leg steps, left arm rising, two digits of his left claw shaping the V. Back and forth, rhythmic and steady, it becomes a natural movement as he circles the room, first one way, then the other, covering great gulps of distance with each step, stepping over and back, over and again, until it is mastered.
It isn’t long before Kockroach wonders how he ever before crawled on his belly or why.
With his walk in place, Kockroach explores. The bed, the bureau, the small desk covered with bizarre fetishistic objects. He takes in the color, size, the shape of these things, without knowing their purposes or names. There is a door he can’t open with all manner of metal running down its side, there is an open door leading to a cozy dark little room with cloths hanging from a rod, and there is another open door leading to another small room, slippery and cold, hard tile covering the floor.
In this room there is a large white seat that seems to fit his new proportions. In his many journeys he had seen seats like this before, in rooms much like this one, and from hiding places in baseboard cracks he had seen creatures sit on these white seats and let out horrible groans that had terrified him. It must be something dangerous, something awful, something truly bestial. Perfect reasons for a cockroach to try it.
He sits and groans, the sound rising, reverberating in thetiny room, and he feels something, something not entirely unpleasant, causing him to groan ever more loudly. Cockroaches release desiccated pellets which grind as they are forced from the gut through the anus, but this, this is wet and slippery and strangely lovely. And the smell, the smell to a cockroach is ambrosial.
He groans again, louder, lets it out, tries for more, but it is over. There is nothing left. Maybe if he sits on that special seat long enough he can do it again. And again.
But what is that over there? A basin, with a strange panel atop it. He rises from the seat, steps to it. There is a single silver thing sticking out of the basin. He fiddles with it and cold water starts leaking out. He leans over and latches his mandibles around the thing to capture the water until it feels like his gut will burst apart. When he stands straight again what he sees in the panel above the basin sends him backing away with a shriek.
A predator face, staring at him, backing away as he backs away.
He approaches the panel again and stares at it. The face stares back. He tilts his head. The face tilts the same way. He reaches up a claw, points a digit to the face, and the other points a digit back. Kockroach moves his digit closer, closer, and so does the other, until just when their claws are about to touch they reach a barrier.
Twenty minutes later, after realizing that the other is himself and that the face staring back at him is now his own, he examines himself critically. The eyes are tiny and set low, there is a strange protuberance, like a beak, sticking out of themiddle of the face, and short bristly hairs cover the bottom half, surrounding a thin wide rictus, the mandibles bizarrely set horizontally and lined with ghastly white teeth. It is horrifyingly ugly, with none of the sharp elegance of a cockroach face. Where are the huge black eyes? Where are the antennae? Where is the smooth lovely frons or the two sets of articulated palpi used to grind and test his food? This face he has now is both hideous and nearly useless.
As he stares in horror, the extent of the disaster that has befallen him slowly becomes manifest. He has become, of all things, a human.
Then he remembers where he saw before a face just like his new face: on the long piece of meat hanging from the ceiling.
He returns to the main room and circles the hanging thing with the exact same face as his own. It is a human, as is Kockroach now, naked, as is Kockroach now. A rope is fitted around the human’s narrow prothorax and tied to a fixture overhead. Maybe all humans have the same face, he considers, unlike cockroaches with their infinite differences. The eyes of the human are closed, the hypopharynx is purple and hanging thickly from the mouth. He pushes the hanging human and jumps back, but there is no reaction other than a slow swaying.
Kockroach knows dead and this is it.
A sound erupts from his abdomen. Kockroach spins, scared. The sound comes again and with it he can feel a vibration and suddenly he is certain that it is time to eat.
How can he be so certain?
Because, for a cockroach, it is always time to eat.
Kockroach searches the apartment for food, pulls out drawers, inspects the room with the cloths, the room with the seat. There are the brown lumps in the bowl of the great white seat, but that is feces, he knows, and even cockroaches won’t stoop so low as to eat their own feces, though the feces of other species are often a culinary treat.
In the desk he finds a thick black thing with shiny gold edges. He used to eat such things, used to delight in the tasty gobs of pale paste oozing from the back. He tries to gnash the thing in his teeth but his mandibles aren’t strong enough. He splits it open and rips out a thin individual leaf with its black markings, stuffs it in his mouth. He chews and chews until it is soft enough to swallow. He leans down, throws it up on the floor, sucks it up and swallows it again. He still is hungry but he doesn’t want to eat another leaf.
From the desk he takes a strange rectangular fetish and tries to bite it. Failing to turn it into food, he examines it instead. It is a picture, highly detailed in shades of gray, a picture of humans, a group of them, wearing cloths and shiny coverings on the tips of their legs. He is surprised to recognize variances among the humans. Their faces are not all the same, and somehow he can pick out the facial differences as if the ability is an integral part of this new body. Only one of the faces in the picture is identical to his own. Standing nextto the human with the same face as Kockroach is another human, this human covered in white cloths, its face surrounded by masses of light, curly hair, its facial features very soft and very even. This human, and the human with Kockroach’s face, have their arms bizarrely intertwined.
Kockroach feels something strange. He looks down. What he had assumed was his wormlike abdomen has swelled and is now sticking straight out. He bats it down but it pops up again and the whole process, the batting down and the popping up, feels good, feels pretty damn terrific. He does it again and again. The abdomen grows even harder, longer, his head swarms as if inundated with pheromones.
He looks back at the picture, at the face with the light, curly hair. So that is a human female and the wormlike thing is not an abdomen. He is relieved that there are human females. And with the relief a new determination appears as if suddenly implanted in his brain.
He raises again the picture to his face. Yes, there are other females in the group, and a nymph, and all the faces are different except for the one that is just like his and just like the face on the hanging human. He turns around and looks at the dead thing. He does not like that they share the same face. Something tells him this is wrong, that he needs to be unique.
His stomach growls.
He slides over to the hanging piece of meat and chews off its face, regurgitates it onto the floor, scoops it up and swallows it.He eats until he can eat no more. The thing hanging now is faceless, his head just a mass of red chewed meat. Good. Now there is only Kockroach.
He sits on the floor, opens his mouth, and begins to groom himself. He can’t reach everywhere, but he cleans what he can with his tongue and teeth. What he can’t reach with his mouth he rubs frantically with his legs and arms. It takes an hour.
Suddenly tired, he sees the sky outside his window begin to dawn. Someone must have flicked the switch. He crawls under the bed until he is again surrounded by pressure and falls back asleep.
In the middle of the day Kockroach is startled awake by a banging on the door he couldn’t open.
“Hey, Smith, you in there?”
The voice is loud, deep. Kockroach slinks closer to the wall, stays silent and still.
“No one’s seen your face since the girl left two, three days ago. You still in there?”
There is more banging, the door shakes but remains closed.
“Smith, hey. You okay? Is something the matter?”
More shaking. Kockroach crouches beneath the bed, ready to scurry away if the door opens.
“Look, Smithy, your week’s up tomorrow and we want you out. There’s been complaints about a smell. Can you flush the toilet or something, Jesus? People are living here, for Christ’s sake. You’re out tomorrow or we’re gonna have to come in andget you. We need a bust down the door, we’re gonna charge you for it. You got that?”
A final bang, a final shake of the door, and then footsteps disappearing.
Kockroach shivers with fear and falls back asleep.
Kockroach knows he must leave. The predator that had been banging in the middle of the day will come back, they always come back he has learned, especially in kitchens in the middle of the night. Here, he knows, there is no good place to hide. But before he leaves he sits again on the white seat and groans loudly and feels the pleasure of the wet thing slipping out of him.
He stares a long time at the picture with the group of humans. The males in the picture are all covered in the same way and Kockroach, missing his chitinous armor, wants to be covered too. He remembers the cloths hanging in the small cozy room.
Using the picture as a guide, he attempts to place the cloths upon his body. He tries the long black tubes on his claws, on his ears, but finds they go best on the tips of his legs. He sticks his legs through the soft white thing with one big hole and three small holes. The center hole between his legs, he assumes, is to allow the wormlike thing between his legs to grow when he is mating. Based on the size of the hole it must grow very big indeed. The soft white thing with one stretchy hole and two smaller holes he puts on his head but finds he can’t see and takes it off. Hanging from a hook is a narrowloop with a knot which, from the picture, he can tell goes around his prothorax.
He has an easier time with the larger pieces because he can learn from the picture exactly how they go. The brown cloth to cover his legs, the white cloth to cover his thorax and arms. He spends a long time fiddling with the buttons but finally figures them out. The brown thorax covering goes over the white thorax covering and the narrow piece of cloth slides under the flaps around his prothorax. He discovers that the knot of the narrow piece of cloth slides. He slips it up until it is tight and he likes it, the tighter the better.
On the floor of the little room are two shiny brown things with some sort of pocked design. He caresses one, remembering the feel of his old chitin, before he slips them onto the tips of his legs. There are strings hanging off either side. He pulls hard at the strings and tucks them into the edges of the brown things.
All buttoned up, tightened and taut, feeling much more protected than before, he takes the photograph back to the panel over the basin and stares at his reflection.
Not everything is right.
There are little hairs on his face and none in the picture. He tries to pull them out one by one but it is impossible, they are too short to grip.
All the people in the picture are doing something strange with their mouths. He stares in the mirror and stretches his mouth to show the teeth atop his mandibles. It is a fearsome sight but it must serve some purpose in human culture, maybe a warning. He practices his warning grimace for many minutes.He will wear it constantly, he tells himself, to keep danger away.
Finally, all the males have something atop their heads. Kockroach searches the room until he finds just such a thing sitting on the bureau. It is brown and stiff, and following the example of the picture, he places it on his head. He goes back to the basin and compares what he sees in the panel with what is in the picture. He turns the thing around. Better. He tilts it. Much better.
“Hey, Smith, you in there?” he says into the panel. His voice is high, almost twittering, but with a deep rumbling undertone that rises like a predator to swallow the high notes. He tries again. “Smith, hey. You okay? Is something the matter?” He keeps speaking, baring his teeth all the while, repeating the sequence of sounds he had heard through the door until his voice matches the voice of the human who had been banging.
He finds a storage pouch in the brown thorax covering for the picture. On the desk he finds something small and brown and shiny, a folder filled with little green papers with human faces on them. He puts this into a different pouch. He considers taking the thick black thing whose leaf he had eaten, but it is too big for the pouches and he hadn’t found it very palatable and decides he can do without it.
It is time.
He searches for a way out of the room. He goes first to the window from where the blinking red light slithers. There is agap in the bottom. He sticks his claws in the gap and pushes the window up. The noise of the outside world attacks him, like a swarm of wasps. He sticks his head out. The red light is right next to him, painfully bright, hissing loudly at him every time it goes on. He wonders who is flicking the switch. He looks down and feels a burst of fear that tells him it is too high to jump. There are humans walking back and forth below him, little humans, a species no bigger than cockroaches. He will be a giant among them. But still he needs to find a way out.
He goes to the door that had been banged on that day. He tries to open it and fails. He fiddles with the hard shiny things along its side and tries again and still fails. He grips the knob on the side of the door and pulls as hard as he can and the door falls apart with a splintering crash.
Kockroach drops the knob, steps over the debris, and strides down the hall, his hat at a jaunty angle, the V’s of his claws moving up and down with each step.
“Can you flush the toilet or something, Jesus?” he says as he makes his way down the hall and into the world. “People are living here, for Christ’s sake.”2
They call me Mite.You got a problem with that?
Mite, as in Mighty Mite, on account of my size. They meant it as a joke, them bully Thomasson twins from the schoolyard, all gristle and snarl. They hoped the name it would sting, but I took it as a badge of honor and wear it proudly still. Mite. That’s what you can call me.
You eating them shrimp?
Boss says I should stroll on over to the hotel, introduce myself, hand over the envelope what you’re waiting for. It’s all in there, everything I dug up on that son of a bitch Harrington what thought it was a brainy idea to run against the Boss. But I figured, whilst I’m at it, I’d also tell you a little something about the Boss hisself for that blab sheet you’re writing for. Do you want to hear the real story, missy, the truth about the millionaire candidate for the U.S. Senate and his soon-to-be bride? The truth according to Mite?
Don’t be so quick in saying yes, you might not like what you hear. It’s my story and I don’t like it one stinking bit.
Am I talking too fast for you? What was you, buried in the society pages afore they tapped you for this exposé? All parties and hemlines and Joes in bad toups trying not to stareat them flush society tits? Hey, what’s the difference between a Times Square whore and a society dame? Beats me.
But what I gots here for you is a story what could pull you out of the society racket and put you smack on the front page. A story of the rise and the fall and the resurrection. A story of a man searching for his place in an outsized world and finding nothing but a hole in his heart in which to fall. A story what will murder the Boss’s chances for the Senate.
But the Boss’s Senate run ain’t all I’ll be killing. Consider this my suicide note, because after this gets out I’m as good as gone too. But what the hell, I’m in the mood to bump my gums. And I gots my reasons for spilling. Alls I ask is that you write it straight.
So go ahead, missy, and fire up the reel-to-reel. I’m ready to begin.
They call me Mite, as in Mighty Mite, on account of my size.
I was born in Philly, same as the nation, Philadelphia, a city of alleyways and wild dogs. Nights, from the edges of Fairmount Park, you can hear them in the woods, the wild dogs, howling. Once, them Thomasson twins tied a string of wieners around my neck and dragged me into the dark depths of the park. A couple of cutups they was, them Thomasson twins, and when I peed my pants they held their sides and bent over as the laughter, it kicked the snot from their noses. I didn’t fight back, didn’t bust them boys, big as they was, in the snouts. Instead I ran away, pulling them wieners off my neckas I went—not throwing them away, mind you, in them days meat was meat—but I sure as hell ran. I suppose it was my heritage kicking in. We Pimelias, we’re runners.
My father was a runner too, Tommy Pimelia, a running star in high school, what spent his afternoons burning up the cinders on the four-forty track. He was a miler then, but I guess he moved on up to the marathon because he took off long ago and best as I can tell he’s still going. I often imagine what he would have been had he hung up them spikes. He might have grown fat, worn cardigans, affected a pipe, he might have called me sonny boy and tiger, had catches with me in the park, brought home toys in big white boxes. But all that hooey was my dream, not his. I was barely old enough to remember him afore he ran away from me. By then he could look at his son standing in the crib, his head still not reaching the top bar, and see him for what he was.
It’s not like he was no giant hisself, the son of a bitch.
My mother was like a ghost in my life after my father left, always present and yet not really there. I can see her still, sitting at the kitchen table, thin elbows on the Formica, straggly blond hair falling limply across her face. Her tattered housecoat is belted around her waist. The veins in her ankles pulse slowly. Fluffs of cotton pill off them dirty blue slippers on her feets. She brushes the hair off her eyes and stares out at me from her prison of vast sadness.
“What am I going to do with you, Mickey? What am I going to do?”
“Look at you. Let me get you some milk.”
“Another glass of milk and I’m going to puke on the floor, Ma.”
I grabs my books, heads to the back door, to the wooden stairwell that leads three flights down to the alley, and then I stop. Back inside I gives my mother a kiss.
A smile flits across her thin lips, it is forced, a gesture purely for my benefit, a feeble attempt to make me feel all is right, and strangely, against all odds, it does. Because in them days I still believed the world was good and that something would come along and save us. What a sap I was, I can’t hardly tell. But still, I smiles back at my ma afore taking off for school, leaving her alone at the kitchen table.
My mother at the table, weighed down by her life, a husband long gone, an apartment infested with vermin, an affliction she can’t control, a boy what refuses to grow no matter how much milk she pours down his throat.
But hey, life ain’t fair, missy. You ever forget that, you’re a goner. Life is like a heavyweight on the ropes; no matter how beat you think you got the sucker, it can still reach out with one well-timed hook and send you spinning.
I was nine first time it happened.
My dad now was long gone and I was nine and in school and my ma every day was staffing the register at Klein’s Discount Clothes, where she fended off the advances of old man Klein and brought home my wardrobe from the clearance bins. Corduroy pants two sizes too big, stiff canvas shirts, shoes with rubber soles so thick they squeaked. I was like a one-man band when I walked down the school hallway, rub,squeak, scruff, squeak. Throw in Billie Holiday, I could have played at Minton’s. But that night, that first night, I was at the kitchen table, doing my homework, surrounded by the piles of sewing my ma took in for the extra money.
She stands at the stove, stirring a pot filled with canned corn—my mother’s idea of home cooking was canned corn and a butter sandwich—when suddenly she turns around and I sees something in her eye, or more precisely something not in her eye. Whatever had been there before, the worry, the disappointment, the love, it all has vanished. She is less than a stranger, a wax dummy of my mother filled only with sawdust and the big empty. And she turns around again and again, spinning in ever-tighter circles. I wonders at first if she is playing, but then her body locks in on itself. I’m up in a snap and I grabs hold of her waist as the shaking starts. She hears not my pitiful cries of terror. She is rigid. I struggles to lay her gently on the rough wooden floor, and fails, and her head cracks onto the wood, and she doesn’t feel it, she doesn’t feel it, not a thing. I hugs her tight and wipes the foam from her mouth as she goes through it, her surface writhing and beneath the surface, scarier still, the big empty.
No comparisons here, missy, nothing to compare it to, had never seen nothing like it before and nothing has been the same since. You want the bright line in my life marking the before and the after, like a Charles Atlas ad at the back of them superhero comic books what I would lift from the drugstore? Well there it is, the bright line, when the big empty entered my life. It slipped inside my mother and latched on and never let go, and neither did I, even as thebrown smell of singed corn filled the kitchen, even as the shuddering ebbed and she calmed into a sleep.
She didn’t remember what had happened when she awoke on the floor, told me she must have slipped and banged her head, that explained the headache, she said, and I let her tell me just that. But we both knew it was something worse, something simply too huge to talk about. She even later gave it a cute name, Hubert, telling me after I found her passed out on the floor that Hubert had come again to visit, like it was a gentleman caller paying his respects. And bit by bit, as Hubert returned once and then again, she hid herself from the world, left her job at Klein’s lest the shame of it hit her there, and started her vigil in the apartment, alone with her sewing, waiting for Hubert to take over again, which he did and did and did and did, growing ever larger, growing ever more ravenous, until he swallowed her whole.
I knows what it is to lose the meaning of things. I knows what it is to watch the world spin around in a tight helpless circle and get eaten by a nothing bigger than everything there ever was.
Pass the sauce, hey, missy?
Them shrimp are tasty little critters. Tiny clots of muscle what slide around the ocean floor and feed on whatever garbage they can scavenge. Sounds familiar, don’t it. For alls I know I could be eating a cousin.
What’s the matter, you maybe got better things to do thanlistening to my sad boyhood song? You’d rather we talk about the president? Why not, everyone else is. Should he stay or should he go? Is he a crook or what?
You wants to know what I think about the president? You wants to know what I think about the special prosecutor, the Senate Select Committee, Ehrlichman and Haldeman and that stoolie Dean? I think this: Who gives a crap? He stays, he goes, it ain’t going to change my life a stinking whit.
But this I knows: the Boss, he’s been a big supporter from way back, from when the president he was still just an ex–vice president, a two-time loser eyeing the big chair from afar. The Boss has been a big supporter, and not just with a pat on the back. That money theys all talking about now, the hush money, well the Boss, he’s been shoveling cash to the big guy from afore the first election. It was the Boss what convinced the president to hang in there all this time, and it was the president what convinced the Boss he ought to run hisself for that vacant Senate seat.
“The party needs people like you,” he told the Boss in his deep skulking voice. How you like that apple?
In fact, you know that thing he does, the president I mean, his two arms raised, two fingers of each hand in the air, that thing? He got that thing from the Boss, from the queer way the Boss walks. “I like that,” he says when he spied the Boss in the back of some hotel ballroom. “That’s good.” Next thing we knows the president, he’s up on the stage, shoulders hunched, arms raised, doing his imitation of the Boss.
That’s what you want, isn’t it, the details, the dirt? Oh, Iknow it ain’t nothing personal, you digging the dirt, it’s a trait of the profession. Lawyers sue, dentists drill, politicians drill aides named Sue. And reporters want the mud, the slime, want every last drop of excrement, raw and unfiltered. Well hold on tight, that’s exactly what I’m giving here. But it’s not just the envelope on Harrington you’ll be getting, and not just my morsels about the Boss, neither. This ain’t your story, this is my story, and I’ll tell it like I choose or you won’t get word one. You want the meat only, but you’re getting the bone and gristle too.
So sit back, missy, and keep the reel-to-reel rolling ’cause it may take us a while.
We was talking about my life in Philly, afore ever I saw New York. Philadelphia, a city of lawyers and whores, of crooners and con men. Like Old Dudley, what found me in the Philadelphia Free Library, Logan Branch, and who was maybe a bit of each.
There I am, in my red jacket and corduroy pants, my thick-soled discount shoes, twelve but looking eight, reading through the fiction section, book after book, because it was safer hiding in the apple barrel with Jim Hawkins, or floating on that raft with Huck and Jim, than it was staying outside in the fresh air where them Thomasson twins could have their way with me. And there was Old Dudley, in his ragged black suit, gray hair pouring out both sides of his head like a torrent of the thoughts that kept his mind a-buzzing. He appeared as nothing so much as a lunatic, leaning over his battered old chessboard, muttering to hisself in strange dead languages as he harvested dandruff from his silver tufts. And every once in a spell he would lift his brow and give me the eye.
I suppose it was inevitable that the two of us would find each other, there in the library. He come over one Saturday afternoon and sat beside me, with the sweet smell of liquor on his breath, and said with that fake bluster of his, “Do you perchance, my boy, want to learn the game of chess?”
It wasn’t no mystery what Old Dudley wanted from me, what with how he sat close beside me and squeezed my biceps beneath that red jacket as he taught me how them bishops moved on a slant. What wasn’t so clear was what I wanted from him. Maybe I was seeking a substitute for the father who had sprinted off into the horizon, thin black track shoes pounding on the asphalt as he fled. Or maybe I imagined that this man could somehow teach me the mysterious ways of the world. Or maybe I was, even then, searching for a protector of my own, for by that early date I had already intuited the sad truth of my existence. I suppose at some level deep in my skull it was a combination of all of them maybes, and if so, then my instincts was spot on, because almost everything I could have hoped to get from Old Dudley came true. It all came true, with a price to be sure, steep as the crack in the Liberty Bell, but isn’t that always the way of it?
And all them maybes, they burst into bloom a few evenings after that first squeeze of my biceps when I left out from the library and, on my way home, stepped into an alley to pee. I thought I was safe in the alley, behind a pair a garbage cans, facing the brick back of a row house, in the dim glow ofa bare yellow bulb, I thought I was safe. But in this world, when you’re the size I am and you’re alone, you are never safe. My knees are still bent slightly, my yard is still out, the stream is still hissing against the brick, when I hears a voice from behind me.
“Well look who it is, the Mighty Mite.”
I jam my yard back in my pants, zip up, turn around. Them damn Thomassons.
“Hey, Mite, you hungry?” says the fat one.
“Who cares if he’s hungry, let’s just hit him,” says the fatter one.
“Well if Mite’s hungry, he might want a sandwich. Do you, Mite? Do you want a sandwich?”
“Why would we give him a sandwich?”
“A knuckle sandwich, dimwit. With mustard.”
“Sure, that’s it.”
“Can I get one too?”
“Shut up and hit him.”
The fatter one, he grabs the collar of my red jacket and cocks his fist and he is about to feed me my teeth when a figure appears out of the steam from some faulty pipe running through the ground, a silhouette what stands there, legs spread and arms on hips like a hero right out of them comic books. I catch just a glimpse of this heroic silhouette and my breath stops with hope, with hope that it is my daddy, returned from his run, home at last, ready to save my life as he should have from the start, my daddy.
And then the figure strides forward into the light.
Old Dudley, wouldn’t you know.
And the fat Thomasson turns around and gapes and the fatter Thomasson drops me to the ground and tries to run, but he can’t get away, and neither can the other.
Old Dudley, he grabs both them Thomassons each by their lank hair and smashes their faces one into the other so that their heads resound like two blocks of wood and their noses mash one against the other and the blood first spurts and then streams down their cheeks as they stagger away.
“Well hello there, Master Mickey,” says Old Dudley with a rheumy wink as he pulls me up off the concrete. “I doubt those young ruffians will bother you here on in. Children need to be instructed how to properly behave, even towheaded cretins like those two. But now, perchance, if ’tis not too much trouble, maybe you could do a small something for me.”3
The world,Kockroach discovers, is marvelously hospitable when your skin is pale and you walk on two legs.
Each morning now, just before dawn, his gut full to bursting, he scurries around corners, through marvelous dank alleyways strewn with aromatic scraps, to a pile of wooden cartons leaning against an old brick wall. He climbs over two cartons, tunnels under a third, arrives at a crate with one edge shattered. Through the shattered timbers lies a comfortably narrow space where he can sleep with pressure on three sides of his body. He carefully takes off his coverings, folds them neatly, grooms himself for an hour or more, and then slips into the narrow space.
At dusk he awakens, grooms himself again, cleans every inch of his coverings with his teeth, places them on his body in the precise order he learned from the picture, and slithers out of his carton, emerging into the night to feed.
Behind almost every building there are containers left out for the great monstrous collectors to devour in the morning, and from these containers Kockroach gorges himself nightly. Soggy breads, rotted fruit, the wilted leaves of great heads oflettuce, peelings from all sorts of starchy vegetables, porridgy mixtures congealed into delicious balls of gluck.
In his old body it was the starches and sugars for which he hungered, but this body eats everything and savors, most of all, the knuckly joints of meat he finds in the containers. Sometimes, if he is lucky, the meat he scavenges is covered by a clutch of writhing maggots. He sucks off the maggots, shakes his head wildly as they slide down his throat, and then pulls off the red-blooded meat with his teeth.
From puddles, or from snaking green tubes, he washes down his nocturnal feasts with water.
There is far more in the containers than even he can eat, but this bounteous buffet is not without its risks. If he makes too much noise, rattling the containers as he searches, sometimes humans stick their heads out of windows and shout phrases at him which he dutifully shouts back. “Get the hell out of there.” “Ain’t you got no self-respect?” “Get a job, you bum.”
Other times he is forced to share his food with creatures that fill him with a long-ingrained terror, slippery rats, narrow-muzzled dogs, raccoons, and, worst of all, cats, with their flat ugly faces and their quick paws. He remembers these brutal felines having lazy sport with the young cockroaches that scurried carelessly within the ambit of their gaze. They would flick out a paw, knock a cockroach on its back, lethargically pierce its abdomen with a claw. Even though he now stands five times taller than the largest cat, fear overwhelms him whenever he sees such a creature. But still he eats. Since when did fear ever long stop a cockroach from eating.
Once, when he regurgitated his food out of long habit, arat rushed between his legs and began to slurp. He has since learned there is no need to regurgitate in this body. His teeth are ugly yet marvelous things, and once he pulps the food in his mouth he can swallow it straightaway.
He should be hugely content in his new life, he is living a cockroach’s dream, food and shelter, a nice brown suit and leather wingtips.
But something, something is missing.
Nightly now, after feasting, he makes tentative forays into the world of the humans. He has no longing for friendship, no pathetic need to blend within the jagged contours of human society, but still he feels an urge to insinuate himself among the specimens of this noisome species.
At first his fear and self-consciousness were debilitating. He shied away from anyone who came close, aware that he was being stared at, certain that every human was seeing him for what he truly was. Which of the humans, he wondered as his head swiveled back and forth in alarm, would lurch out and crush him. Which of the humans would dust him with their virulent powder. And no matter where he stood, no matter how far from the street, he threw himself against the nearest wall to avoid the vicious humped things that prowled like hungry yellow cats all hours of the night. But gradually his fears subsided, he felt more comfortable among this bizarre and repulsive species, and he began to explore.
Striding along the sidewalks, weight shifting, arms pumping, the V’s of his claws rising and falling in opposition to hisstep, he follows a human here, a human there, following at a distance, studying their walks, their manners, their words. He halts when they halt, starts again when they start again. He models their behavior. One man stops to tie the strings of his shoes. Kockroach kneels down, as does the man, and quickly learns the order of movement to create two equal loops which keep his shoes from slipping. Another man lifts his hat as a female passes and Kockroach does the same. There is much he doesn’t know, but he intends to learn.
The humans he follows seem to be headed toward some great glowing place in the distance, like a day in the middle of the night. He always turns away well before he reaches the glow, his fear of light is deeply ingrained, but each night he moves closer, closer to what he now is certain is the great center of human activity. And each night, as the great center nears, he finds himself surrounded by ever more humans. He even finds the jostling from large crowds pleasant; it reminds him of those times of plenty when his fellow cockroaches climbed each one over the other as they raced for the crumbs of sweet cookies or the stray swollen crust of bread.
As he walks among them, Kockroach listens to the way humans talk among themselves.
“Got a light?” “Looking for a date?” “Who ain’t?” “It’ll cost you five.” “You got it, sweet pea.” “Boy, bush, jam-alam.” “And don’t come back, you fresh bastard.” “I’m from out of town.” “Move along, pal.” “Not so fast, big boy.” “Girls,girls, girls.” “I like it dark.” “That’ll cost you more than five, you filthy boy.” “Enough with the blatta-blatta-blatta.” “Gotta run.” “Nothing personal, pal, just beeswax.” “I’m hungry, Jerry. Jerry, you hungry?” “Jam-a-lam-a-lam.” “Did you hear?” “No.” “Yes.” “Want to have some fun, honey? You look like you could use it.”
Back in his shelter, naked and groomed, pressed against the sides of the crate, he manipulates his hypopharynx to form the sequences of sound he has heard. To get the sounds right, he repeats the phrases to himself, one after another, all the time remembering who said what when and what happened afterward. “Looking for a date?” “Who ain’t?” “It’ll cost you five.”
Each night he learns something new and each day he becomes more ready to enter the great lighted place, the seeming center of all human activity.
Striding behind a human as they move together toward the light, the street growing dangerously bright, the human suddenly stops. Kockroach stops in turn.
There is a table set up on the sidewalk, a cloth over the table, and atop the cloth a myriad of strange objects. The human stands over the table to look and so does Kockroach. There are rows of shiny disks with straps on either side, the purpose of which remains a mystery to Kockroach. There are brown and black folders like the one Kockroach took from the room, though these don’t have the green pieces of paper with the faces on them. There are little bottles with a colored fluid inside that smell of stinkbugs and overripe flowers. There are fake black eyes.
“Is this real?” says the human that Kockroach has been following, holding in his hand one of the shiny disks.
“Right off back of truck, and price, you can’t get price like this at Macy’s.”
Kockroach ignores the disks, ignores the bottles and the folders. He reaches down, instead, for the fake black eyes. He has seen humans wearing such things, some clear, some dark like this, and so he knows how they are supposed to fit. Kockroach slips the black rods over his ears and suddenly the world has turned lovely. He looks around at the bleaked landscape, grim and shadowy, and as he does the constant buzz of fear at the back of his prothorax subsides. It is as if he is seeing the world now like he used to see it as a cockroach.
“You like? Ray-Ban. Special shipment. Fell right off truck. I give you nice price.”
“I like it dark,” says Kockroach.
“I’m from out of town,” says Kockroach.
“You don’t need tell me such ting, I’m not yet blind. Four dollar.”
“Move along, pal.”
“Hokay. Three-fifty, not penny less.”
Kockroach, with the fake eyes still in place, turns and begins to walk toward the lights.
“Hey, you,” the man behind the table shouts. “Four dollar you owe me.”
Kockroach, still moving, shouts back, “Nothing personal, pal, just beeswax.”
“Hey, you. Hey, tief. Stop tief,” shouts the man behind the table, and Kockroach can hear the man yelling as he runs toward him.
Kockroach doesn’t know why he is being chased, but he knows he must do something. On instinct Kockroach turns around and stands on the very tips of his legs. At the same time he reaches his arms high in the air, V’s pointing right at the man. While fearsomely smiling, he jerks his body up and down and lets out a long loud hiss.
The human chasing him stops suddenly, his eyes widen.
Kockroach steps forward on his stilt-like legs.
The human backs away and raises his arms.
Kockroach has fought enough battles when still an arthropod to know that he has won. He turns around again and continues on his way, walking fast now, weaving through the humans.
“You pay later then, hokay,” shouts the human. “Five dollar.”
“You got it, sweet pea,” shouts back Kockroach.
Kockroach keeps walking, fake eyes in place, his world turned comfortably gloomy, ready now to face the brightness and to solve the mystery at the center of human activity.
He is surrounded by lights, great piles of lights, frantically pulsing and glowing lights, shouting lights, shrieking lights, a miasma of lights. Even with his new fake eyes, the noise ofthe lights is overwhelming and suffuses him with fear. Over here piles of twisting blinking red lights, like the ones outside the room where he changed. Over there a ribbon of lights passing by with the strange mystical symbols he sees everywhere now. Lights, lights, a riotous chorus of lights.
He looks about for the white plate with its black switch which will allow him to silence the lights. It will have to be larger than the one in the room, he knows, it will have to be monstrous, but he finds nothing and the lights keep calling, burning, shouting.
But as he spins around and takes in the entire scene, it is not the shocking volume of the lights that shakes him most deeply. Scattered high in the sky are pictures, like the one in his pouch, only far larger, representing a giant species of which he is not aware. And one picture grabs at his attention like the warning screech of a cat. A huge grimacing face, rising within the deafening expanse of lights, aiming a fierce stare directly at Kockroach, as if the huge creature recognizes Kockroach for exactly what he is. Gripped in the creature’s giant claw is a large white fire stick, and pouring out of his fearsome grimace are great circular billows of smoke.
Kockroach has seen humans with the smoldering white sticks which they hold in their mouths or claws and use to spit out smoke, the sickening smell of burning floating about them. He had assumed the sticks were protection against some great predator, but now he knows they are also something else, a tribute to this totem of pure power with his brutal stare and grimace open in fierce warning. Kockroach suddenly has a great craving for a white fire stick of his own.
Cockroaches are not religious creatures. They take what they can as their due and live by a simple morality hardwired into their tiny brains. They never stop to contemplate their place in the great scheme of the universe for they have no doubts about their place in the great scheme of the universe. They are cockroaches. And whatever that sentence implies, they deal with it by surviving. Whenever a cockroach sits back and wonders what it’s all about, he gets stepped on.
Cockroaches are not religious creatures, but still Kockroach can’t help feeling a kind of awe while staring up at the wonderfully dreadful creature with the great smoking face. Awe is not an arthropod emotion, it is purely human, unfamiliar but not unpleasant, and so Kockroach doesn’t fight it as he did the ugly emotional nostalgia that had almost defeated him before. He lets the awe sweep through him and he finds himself, somehow, in the strange, for him, act of prayer, directed toward the fierce creature staring down upon him.
There are no pat words, no liturgical screens placed upon the raw emotions, it is prayer at its purest and most vital, flowing straight from the gut, simple and heartfelt, representing the deepest yearnings of this mortal being. If you could somehow hear this prayer, the sounds would be simple and repetitive. A message of desire that transcends all posits of philosophy to reach a true measure of universality. A sweet, rhythmic song, like plates of chitin scraping one against the other, over and over, into the night. A song whispered reverently by all manner of species, by all manner of men. A song that is heard in every farm field, every suburban lawn, every urban tavern.A lovely plaintive song which, if translated into human language, would contain a single chorus of a single word repeated ad infinitim, emphasized only occasionally by a short yet urgent imperative.
Sex. Sex. Please. Sex.
All right,I hears you. Enough with Mite’s weepy childhood. Let’s bring on the big guy, let’s bring on the Boss.
I was in the city when first I spied him, this city, the Apple, handing out leaflets with a coupon for a buck off some second-floor peep show sporting a pack of girls what all needed a bath. And all the while I was keeping a wary eye out for Big Johnny Callas and his mauling fists, what personage I’d been told was looking for me hard and was frankly cheesed.
My moms by this time was dead, done in by the affliction what overtook her ever more frequently until her dying it was a gift. Hubert, which maybe started as something the size of an acorn, grew in her until at the end it was all that was left. I stayed with her to the last, and covered her with my tears, but in those final hours it wasn’t my momma lying there no more, it was Hubert hisself, begging me to give him a new home.
“Mickey,” he said to me in an empty voice no louder than a whisper. “Mickey, I’ll take care of you. Don’t let me die. Mickey.”
And even after they wheeled her away, it was like that son of a bitch was still whispering in my ear.
I stuck it out a little while longer in Philly, but when the rent came due that was it for me. I dug into the cookie jar, herprecious collection of bills and coins meticulously hoarded over the years from her work at Klein’s and the odd bits of sewing she took in, and what should have been hundreds was nothing, not a thing, gone. But still I found a way, a cocktail of blood and tears and betrayal, to get me and my goods, pack, shack, and stack, on the bus away from Philly, away from Hubert, a bus to New York and my future in the Square.
I’m talking now of Times Square, in the heart of the Fifties, my Times Square, shimmying in all its gaudy glory, where first I made my mark on this world. The Times Square of pinball palaces and shady dance clubs, of the grand old Sheraton-Astor and the fleabag junkie haunts what surrounded it, of the Broadway theaters where never I set foot and the Roxy Burlesque, with its second-rate strippers playing to a third-rate crowd, where certainly I did. I’m talking of knife fights over college girls at the White Rose, of hot dogs at Nedick’s, of high-stakes pool at Ames Billiards, of the neon marketplace with its counterfeit suits and chest expanders, its little brown bottles of Spanish Fly. High heels and low brims, angry taunts and pearl-handled switchblades, jazz fiends looking for green, Benzedrine addicts looking for God, humped yellow taxis and Motogram headlines and politicians strutting and whores strumpeting and Satchmo trumpeting. Fleas pulling chariots, three-headed cows, rubberneckers and pickpockets, street-corner preachers, married suburban men looking for orgies and finding them, oh yes, with bad boys in tight tight jeans. Charlie Parker is blowing wild and incomprehensible at Birdland, Dizzy is blowing up them cheeks at the Onyx. The Criterion is showingThe Desperate Hours,theLyric is showingKiller’s Kiss. The Pepsi-Cola sign, the Canadian Club sign, the Admiral television sign, the Hit Parade cigarette sign with its slogan: “The Tobacco, the Tip, and the Taste!” Is that a blow job or what? Call for Philip Morris. The Warner is showingSearch for Paradise,and missy, let me tell you, I emerged from that tunnel motherless and broke, with nothing to go back to but loss and nothing to go forward to but a forlorn hope, and I found my paradise, right there, in Times Square.
It was in the middle of that whole damn circus, beneath the Camel cigarette sign just off Forty-fourth Street, whilst I was handing out my leaflets with the sketch of a stripper looking oh so come-hither, that first I spots the Boss.
He wasn’t the Boss then, just a Joe on the street, but there was something about him that caught my eye from the start. Maybe it was the way his brown suit twisted in strange ways around his torso, maybe it was the way he wore his dark glasses even in the thick of the night, maybe it was the clawlike fingernails or the smile plastered onto his bearded face, as if his lips was stapled into place. Or maybe it was the way he stared into the night sky as if scanning the very face of God.
I won’t say I had the inkling even then of what he would be, my instincts are good, but not that good. First off I figure him for nothing more noble than a dope fiend looking to score. So even as I kept passing out them leaflets, I sidled up to the bizarre man in the brown suit, lifted the brim of my hat, looked away, and whispered my standard offer out the side of my mouth.
“Boy, bush, jam-a-lam-a-lam?”
He says nothing, instead he flinches for an instant afore looking down at me with those dark glasses. When I turns to meet his gaze I feel just then a shiver. I can’t see his eyes for the glasses, but it was like I could, like them dark oblong plates of glass was indeed his eyes, dark and piercing and absolutely cruel in their utter blankness, like the big empty, Hubert hisself, was staring back at me.
He raises his head and points two fingers up to the Camel cigarette sign, you know, the one with the cat blowing smoke out his piehole.
“Smoke?” I says. “Smoke is it?”
“Smoke,” he says. “Smoke is it. I’m hungry, Jerry. Jerry, you hungry?”
It wasn’t just the words what confused me. His voice was strangely high, almost twittering, but with a deep rumbling undertone. To hear him speak was to hear two men who disliked each other talking at once, one munchkin, one gargantuan, two separate voices harmonizing badly. I looked at him as he continued to stare upward and realized, quite suddenly, that he was either a total nutjob or maybe the coolest, hippest cat on the Square, dropping on me a boatload of jazzman jive I hadn’t yet cottoned to.
“Smoke it is,” I tells him, hoping for the latter of the two possibilities. “You got the spinach?”
He stares down at me again, that blank stare, Hubert. I reach into my pocket and pulls out the thin wad I affected—a fiver wrapped around six ones, which was all I had just then to my name—and swish it back and forth. He aims his blank stare at the bills in my hand as if he had never seen a buck before.Then he reaches into his jacket pocket, pulls out a wallet thick with cash, and swishes it in a perfect imitation of me.
“All right,” I says, stuffing them leaflets into my pants. “Tag along and I’ll take you to your dreams, palsy. What’d you say your name was? Jerry?”
“I’m hungry, Jerry. Jerry, you hungry?” he says.
I shakes my head in confusion.
“Enough with the blatta-blatta-blatta,” he says.
“Blatta is it? Jerry Blatta?”
“Well, follow along then, Jerry Blatta, and I’ll hitch up the reindeers for you.”
“And don’t come back, you fresh bastard.”
I laugh, tap the brim of my hat over my eyes, and start off for Roscoe’s place, where I knows he could cop whatever it was he was looking to cop and where I had business of my own. I glanced back once, maybe, to be sure he was following, but as I led him north, up through the Square along Broadway, I couldn’t afford to be worrying about my new friend Jerry Blatta keeping up. Instead I had bigger concerns, like keeping my lamps peeled for Big Johnny Callas and those fists of his, thick enough it was like they had their own saps built in.
“Hey, Mite,” says Sylvie, one of the girls what hooked for Big Johnny on the Square. “My man, he’s looking for you.”
I smiled, or maybe it was more like a wince, and hurried on.
“Mite, you scrawny half-pint,” comes a voice, soft and mocking. It was a lean, leather-jacketed joint-swinger name of Tab. Tab was one of those Joes what strutted around likehe was all man, a girl’s best friend, like he could rub the bacon with the best of them, yet he still was always trying to slip my yard out my pants and a fiver out my wallet. “I got something just for you, sweetheart,” he says. “It won’t protect your skull from Big Johnny, but I promise you’ll enjoy it. Hey, stop running.”
Running? Who was Tab kidding? I wasn’t running, but damn if I wasn’t walking fast. See, just then I was in the middle of what you might call a situation.
Big Johnny Callas, with his big fists and blue-black pompadour, was the main man in the Square for that old geezer Abagados. The Abagados gang was a Greek crime outfit what covered the whole of midtown tight as a noose, and it was Big Johnny who did the squeezing on the Square. He was a sweet-dressing man-about-town, wearing flash suits, sawing steaks at Jack Dempsey’s, paling around with Joe D. at Toots’s place, pumping starlets in high-heeled pumps, and running a string what included Sylvie. He also booked numbers, booked bets, offered optional protection at a mandatory price, and lent out low amounts at a high vig, which was maybe where the trouble between him and me it began.
It had seemed like a good idea at the time, taking the two Bens off Big Johnny to give to Pepe to get in on a load of porno magazines what were coming up from Louisiana to be resold at obscene profits. As Pepe told me with that droopy smile of his, the hottest porno came from New Orleans, what with all the Frenchies there. In them days I was surviving night to night by handing out my leaflets, or selling reefer to hollow-eyed jazzmen looking to buy their inspiration, orsending businessmen with that hunger in their eyes over to one of Big Johnny’s sidewalk socialites for a short spurt of entertainment. My hustles was a step up from my first years in the Apple, when I racked balls for quarters and ran out on rainy nights to get some big dick a pack of cigs, but even so I was barely earning enough to keep me in feed and make the rent on my crappy flophouse bed with the toilet down the hall. I was heading nowheres, fast, and Hubert once again knew my name. He had tracked me to the Square, he was stalking me now like a panther stalks its prey. With my porno deal I thought I could rise to a level where he couldn’t reach out and swipe me with his paw, but I should have known never to trust a mope like Pepe. Old Dudley had taught me better than that.
So I was hustling up Broadway, trying to avoid Big Johnny, when I caught a flash of pompadour coming the other way. I quickly ducks into a doorway and holds my breath until it passes on by. Strange thing is this guy, Jerry Blatta, he ducks in with me, faster than ever I could have imagined. I just looks at him, he looks back with them dark glasses.
“What are you doing?” I says.
“Looking for a date,” he says back.
I give him a once-over. “Keep your mitts off, palsy.”
Just then, down the street comes the pompadour, but not on Big Johnny Callas, instead on some silly snot-nosed stick from Jersey. I let out the breath I had been holding.
“Let’s go,” I says as I head back up Broadway.
“You got it, sweet pea.”
Oh man he was hip, was he ever. I had then the first inkling that maybe this strange man in the brown drape and shades had things to teach me. I guess it was the jive patter he slapped on me, that and the way he walked, that bouncy stride, arms pumping, body moving side to side, split-fingered V’s rising and falling with each step. He was quite the sight, he was, following me up Broadway, and you couldn’t tell for certain whether he was the coolest cat on the Square, strutting like a jazz band throwing out a syncopated rhythm, or some physically disabled vet wounded terribly in the war. Except I had seen him duck into that alley after me quick and smooth as a snake.
Roscoe sold out of a crappy fifth-floor railroad flat on the West Side. We stepped over a junkie curled like a potato bug just inside the front door. The stairwell was dank and filthy, cockroaches scattered like councilmen at a cathouse raid as we climbed. At the right apartment, I knocks on the door. An eye appears in the peep, the door opens.
“Mite,” says Roscoe in his soft, slurry voice. “This is a surprise.”
Roscoe stands shirtless in the doorway, leaning carelessly on the right jamb, sweat glistening off the smooth flat plates of his chest. A lit cig dangles from his snarl. It was the era when every other Joe looked like they was ready to drop to theys knees and yell for Stella.
“I brought a customer,” I says.
Roscoe’s heavy-lidded eyes lift over my shoulder to take in the man in brown behind me. The edges of his mouth twitch. “What you having, friend?”
“Smoke,” says Blatta.
Roscoe takes a deep drag from his cigarette. “You’re in luck. Received myself a shipment of green just this week.”
“But first, Roscoe,” I says, “we needs to get square.”
Roscoe stares down at me through the smoke from his cig. “Take a bite of air, Mite,” he says finally. “The man and I are talking business.”
“I must have sent thirty tea-heads up here in the last two months. You owe me my cuts. We had a deal.”
“I’ve changed the arrangement. Go outside and play. We’ll talk later.”
“Roscoe, man. Man. I need it, the money. You know Big Johnny he’s breathing down my neck. I gots to give him something. I figure you owe me like a hundred. That was our deal. Big Johnny, he’ll crush me I don’t pay.”
“I’ve got two words for you, Mite: grey and hound.”
“Roscoe, you’re dicking me, man.”
“Yes, well.” He drags at his cig. “It happens, kid. It happens.” With his left hand he quickly grabs my nose and gives it a twist.
Just then Roscoe’s gaze, it falls to the floor. A fat cockroach was taking its main chance and sprinting across the threshold of his doorway. With his hand still grasping my nose, Roscoe reaches out the toe of his shoe and flicks the cockroach onto its back. The little bugger’s legs spun wildly in the air, like it was trying to ride a bike, afore Roscoe, he brings his shoe down and squashes it with a loud snapping crunch that pops out the pale insides.
I hears a strange gasp from behind me.
“Get the picture?” says Roscoe.
I does, absolutely. I had been bullied before, I would be bullied again, I knows the dance. I’m back on the schoolyard with them Thomasson twins, fat and fatter, passing me back and forth as they lay their blows. And there isn’t a damn thing I can do about it. I would have run, I would have, my nature demanded it, except it’s hard to make a getaway with your snoot in some Joe’s hand, so I am standing there, trembling, when it happens.
Blatta behind me suddenly grabs hold of Roscoe’s wrist, the one connected to the hand still latched onto my nose. He grabs Roscoe’s wrist and pulls it away from my face and then jerks the arm down with a terrible force. The sound of Roscoe’s knees hitting the floor comes at the same time as the snap of the bones in his arm.
The howl Roscoe lets out as he sags back on his heels, cradling the flopping remnant of his arm, brings me out of my shock. I steps back and turns. He’s standing there, smiling his maniac smile, Jerry Blatta, the Boss, though not yet the Boss, as calm as if what he had just done was as simple as flicking a switch.
“Who the hell are you?” I says.
“Blatta is it?” he says, “Jerry Blatta? Look, Smithy, your week’s up tomorrow and we want you out.”
I squints up at him, but not for long. Old Dudley had taught me that when things they slide in unexpected directions there is always advantages to be had. Things here had slid in an unexpected direction all right. I glance once more at Blatta and turns back to Roscoe, who is letting out a high-pitched wail and laying now in a puddle of his own drained dew.
“What about my money, you muscle-bound craphead?” I says.
Roscoe, still cradling his arm, keeps on howling even as he struggles to rise, his eyes steady on Blatta.
Blatta steps forward and smacks Roscoe’s forehead with the palm of his hand. The son of a bitch sprawls backwards into the doorway.
I leans over, pats Roscoe’s pants pockets, feel nothing but a slippery wetness, wipes my hand on his head, then steps over him into the bare apartment that smells now like some gypsy old-age home, all incense and urine. I toss a few cushions, empty a few drawers, scatter a shelfful of strange religious tracts as I remembers the vicious rumor going round that Roscoe was a Buddhist. The search, it doesn’t take me long. For all Roscoe’s talents, cleverness wasn’t one of them.
The cigar box, it is slipped behind the tank of his toilet bowl, a box filled to the brim with sweet bills of many churches and all denominations. I consider carefully counting out the hundred I was owed, but then figure what the hell and takes it all. Six hundred and some dollars it turned out, enough to get me off the hook with Big Johnny Callas, for sure.
But already I wasn’t so much worried anymore about Big Johnny Callas.
I stood inside the apartment, with the wad in my hand, and looked through the doorway, beyond the broken, prostrated body of Roscoe, to Jerry Blatta standing there in his dark glasses, smiling at me with that plastered-on smile. And right there I knew, in my heart, with the inbred instinct thathas been the key to any success I’ve ever grabbed hold of in this life, that I had found another one.
For here it is, the sad truth of my existence: I am not enough to make it on my own. I learned it early, I learned it hard, and since I learned it I have always been on the lookout for someone stronger to latch onto. Others have the strength to head out on theys own, to embody the pioneering spirit what stretched America from one ocean to the next. Others, but not me. Because I am not enough. Let others fill their hearts with the lonely struggle to reach great heights, I need someone to carry me.
And I figured, if I played my cards just right, I had found my someone, a jive-talking, jazzy-walking, shady-eyed customer name of Jerry Blatta. Now all I needed was a plan.
I steps over Roscoe, whimpering as he was, still on the floor, and gives him a kick in the side for good measure. “Stiff me again, Siddhartha, why don’t you?” Then I grabs at Blatta’s sleeve and says, “Let’s blow.”
“But first, Roscoe, we needs to get square,” says Blatta.
“What?” I says. “You want your cut now? Sure.” I separate the bills into rough halves and offer Blatta the thicker share. When you’re my size, muscle always gets the thicker share. “Here you go, palsy.”
He takes the wad of bills I hand him and examines it, as if he were realizing the value of money for the first time, afore stuffing it in his pocket.
“All righty-rooty,” I says. “Time to amscray the hell out of here.”
“Not so fast, big boy,” says Blatta.
I step backwards as Blatta leans over Roscoe. “Nothing personal, pal,” he says. “Just beeswax.”
Roscoe squirms backwards in fright, like a wounded spider trying to get away.
Blatta ignores him, staring instead at the still-lit cigarette lying on the floor, loosing a thin white string into the air. Blatta picks it up, looks at it queerly, sticks it in his teeth.
“Smoke,” he says.5
Kockroach doesn’t questionwhere the little man in the green cloths came from. One moment Kockroach was staring up in awe at the giant face breathing smoke into the night sky, and the next moment, as if upon decree from the great fearsome figure itself, the little man had appeared, spoken to him as if they already were familiar, and gestured for him to follow. Kockroach’s immediate instinct had been to scurry into a hiding place, but something about this human, its size, its overt familiarity, the color of its cloths, made it seem a less threatening presence than the other humans he had observed. He decided instead to follow along and see what he could learn.
The little human had taken him to a fierce predator human with the smoking white stick, a human who had proceeded to grab onto the beak of the little human and then to kill one of Kockroach’s former brothers. For some reason he couldn’t fathom, Kockroach was now in the middle of a battle. It was a fight that Kockroach sensed wouldn’t be won by a stilt-legged show of aggressiveness. So instead he had grabbed at the predator human and tried to pull his arm off, like the mouse had pulled off Kockroach’s leg many molts ago. Kockroach had failed to detach the arm, but the attemptwas enough to injure the predator and just that fast the battle was won.
With a quick victory, and with the placing of the white fire stick in his mouth to pay tribute to the great smoking god, Kockroach’s confidence swells. He still doesn’t doubt that the humans would crush him had they half the chance, but now he knows it won’t be so easy for them to do so. And with that realization comes a familiar and innate urge.
Rams butt heads over ewes, mustangs rear at one another for the right to mount mares. All animals fight over territory, battle over mating rights, struggle claw and breath for sheer superiority. It is the natural order of things for the strongest of a colony to impose his strength upon the others. Kockroach looks around himself, sees the little man, the injured predator human, remembers all those he has passed in the street. Maybe he is stronger than other humans. Delicious possibilities begin to open to him.
After the battle, the little human had given Kockroach more of those green pieces of paper with the faces on them. Those pieces of paper remain a great mystery to Kockroach. He has seen them passed back and forth among humans as a sort of token. He doesn’t know what they mean or what they are used for, but he can tell they are important to the humans, so when the little man offered him a number of the papers, Kockroach understood immediately what was happening. The little human had given him a form of tribute, a token bespeaking clearly Kockroach’s superior status. He likes the feeling. Hewants more tokens from more humans, more green pieces of paper. The desire for these papers grows almost as large as the other desire that burns in his blood. Almost.
Now that the little human has given tribute and acknowledged Kockroach’s superior status, Kockroach feels far more comfortable following him out of the building and down the street back toward the seeming center of all human activity.
“So, Jerry Blatta,” says the little human, “what can Mite get for you? Anything. I owes you, palsy. You did a job on Roscoe, you sure did.”
“Smoke,” says Kockroach. That word, which the little human had taught him, seems to have magical properties.
“Oh yeah, let’s see.”
The little human reaches his claw up to Kockroach’s face and takes the white smoking stick from between Kockroach’s teeth. It is now short and stubby, no longer glowing, no longer loosing its noxious burning smell.
“We need get you more, we do,” says the little human, the human called Mite. “What’s your brand?”
Blatta points up at the great visage in the sky with the smoke pouring out its fearsome open mouth.
“Camels it is. You got matches?”
“I like it dark,” says Kockroach, pulling what seems to be appropriate from his stored inventory of human sounds.
The little human lets out a loud snort, pats Kockroach on the upper arm, disappears into one of the doorways off the street. Kockroach stares after him but doesn’t dare follow. Heworries for a moment that the little human has left for good. It was a comfort having him close, someone who acknowledged an inferior status to Kockroach and yet was willing to usher him through the bizarre twists and turns of the human world. Kockroach’s smile remains even as he searches with his gaze for the little human. Mite. Of all the humans, his is the only name Kockroach knows. Mite. He wants this Mite to stay near, to guide him through the thickets of this strange new territory.
After many minutes, the human returns. The relief Kockroach feels is both surprising and enjoyable. The little human gives him a small packet with silver at the top. Kockroach stares at it without understanding what it is. The little human takes the packet, rips off the top, taps the bottom so that three of the little white sticks appear. Kockroach takes them all. They are long but without the glowing tips. Still he puts them in his teeth. He tries to give the packet back to the little human, but the human refuses.
“My growth’s stunted enough, don’t you think? But I got you something else,” says the little human. “A gift.”
The little human shows him a small shiny thing, golden in color, a thin rectangle with a line running through it. Kockroach peers at it without comprehending its purpose. Then, shockingly, the little human opens the top and spins a little wheel.
Flame magically appears.
Kockroach backs away and squeals. The little man stepstoward him, places the fire to the end of the three white sticks. They begin to glow and smoke.
As Kockroach stands on the street with three smoking white sticks in his teeth, the humans passing him stare. He must seem very powerful with the three sticks, strong with magic. But he grows fearful being noticed like that. He tells himself that from now on, to remain as inconspicuous as possible, he will limit himself to one at a time.
Even as Kockroach is teaching himself moderation in his new smoking habit, the little human does something marvelous; he closes the top of the magic rectangle and places it in Kockroach’s claw.
Kockroach rubs the magic rectangle with his digits. “Mite,” he says in a soft, slurry voice. “This is a surprise.”
“We’re pals, ain’t we, palsy?”
“You got it, sweet pea.”
Kockroach opens the magic rectangle. He spins the wheel slowly. Sparks but nothing more. He tries again, harder, and suddenly a flame erupts. Fire: the bane of arthropods throughout all eras, scorcher of the bold, decimator of colonies. With a bright yelp, Kockroach drops the magic rectangle.
The little man picks the rectangle up, closes the top, and gives it back.
Kockroach opens it again, flicks the wheel: fire. He closes the top, opens it again, spins the wheel, repeats the act over and over, over and over. Fire. Fire. Fire.
Cockroaches have existed on earth for more than a quarter of a billion years. Fossil evidence shows hundreds of species of cockroaches living among the ferns and mosses thatcovered Pangaea during the Paleozoic age, 150 million years before the coming of the dinosaur. From that distant age to this, cockroaches have evolved little. Any 350-million-year-old cockroach that magically appeared on the sparkling linoleum of a New York kitchen would be recognized for exactly what it was and squashed without a second’s thought. They were cockroaches then, they remain so today, crawling along in the manner passed down for billions of generations with nary an advance. So it is safe to say that Kockroach’s mastery of fire would qualify as the most stupendous leap forward ever in the bland, static, and yet oh-so-persistent history of his species.
“Hey, palsy,” says the little human as Kockroach stares into the flame in utter fascination, “you hungry? You want some grub?”
For a cockroach, the question is rhetorical.6
Each night after work,as she poured the cream into her coffee at the Times Square Automat, Celia Singer watched the ebbs and flows of lightness in her cup as if in the swirling shapes a private message about her future was being relayed, the meaning of which was just beyond her grasp. She was everywhere haunted by the vague terror that she was missing the meanings of things. It was an occupational hazard, she supposed, eight hours each night plugging lines, making connections, eight hours behind the huge grid, sockets connected by fraying cords over which endless words were streaming back and forth in a great communal conversation, words of which she caught the hum and rhythm and yet no meaning.
She added sugar and twirled her spoon in the cup. Her second cup. It was well after midnight and still the Automat was alive with comings and goings, with life. Maybe that was why she came here each night and sat by the window with her coffee and a slice of pie and let the night burn down around her, even as Gregory slept alone in their bed at the apartment. She preferred the tortured intimations of others’ lives to the dead quiet of her own, and at the Automat there was a regular group of others on which to latch her attention.
Over there, at their usual table by the coffee spout, were thepoliticians in their shabby suits, loudly arguing about the great issues of the day as they endlessly refilled their coffee cups. Celia admired their passion, it was obvious that their political beliefs were the most important things in their lives, certainly more important to them than their teeth.
And sitting as far from the cashier as they could sit were the college boys in their sweatshirts, slurping their makeshift tomato soups, concocted from ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, butter, and hot water. They split a sandwich bought with three precious nickels from one of the windows and talked with an uncontained excitement about the new jazz record bought by some hipster named Elmer, and the Céline novel being passed around, and the reform school kid on his way in from Denver, and their plans for getting out of the city and hitting the open open road. They were a jittery crew, slapping arms, jabbing fingers in the air, seeming to buzz with a pure current of energy that electrified the night for them but to which Celia was immune.
Far to the side, hunched over his pie, sat Tab, thin and good-looking, with his black leather jacket and ruined complexion, who trolled the shadows of the Square for men willing to buy what their wives could never give them. Tab made bravura come-ons to all the girls in the Automat, including Celia, just to be sure everyone knew that he was only doing what he did for the money, though no one believed him. Celia felt nothing but sympathy for the young boy, and the things he was forced to do to survive, but still, sometimes, in the mornings she would wake up beside Gregory with a start, realizing she had been dreaming of Tab stretching his leanmuscular body over hers. Whatever that said about the state of her malformed id, she didn’t want to know.
And at a row of tables pushed together near the great decorative pillar in the center of the dining room sat the comics and chorus girls and trombonists from the shows, calling out hearty greetings and swapping jokes. She was jealous of their laughter, jealous of their direct connection to a brighter world, but jealous most of all of the pretty girls and their ability to dance. The very thought of it pressed tears to the back of her eyes, tears that should have dried and died years ago.
Not to forget Sylvie, on a break from the street, sitting alone, staring into her coffee as if it were to blame for what she had become. Celia supposed she should have felt sorry for Sylvie, in the way good girls feel sorry for girls like that, but Celia was no longer a good girl and what she felt instead of pity was a kind of bitter envy. Sylvie had the most magnificent body, long legs and wide hips, pillowy breasts, all of which she showed off with the sweaters and tight wool skirts and gorgeous high heels that Celia would never ever wear. When Sylvie walked through the dining room with her tray, each man in the restaurant watched the shifts of her body with some sad longing in his eyes. That it was as available as the lemon meringue pie behind the little glass doors if you had enough change didn’t alter the way they looked at her.
“You’re such a pretty girl,” her mother had told Celia over and over. “You have the face of an angel. You’ll have the family you deserve, a family to make you whole.” This was not what she supposed her mother meant, this ragtag assortment of losers and late night hangers-on that surrounded her eachnight at the Automat, but this was the closest thing she now had to a family. “The boys will come running, they won’t let you slip by just because,” had said her mother. Except they had, hadn’t they, Mom? All but Gregory, who behaved as if he were doing her the greatest favor of her life, reaching down to help the disadvantaged, like they were two models in a March of Dimes poster.
Maybe Gregory actually was doing her the greatest favor and maybe she should be ever so grateful. He was basically decent and fairly upstanding and not bad-looking in a scholarly sort of way. But Gregory had no problem with indecipherable messages, he delighted in relaying to her the meaning of everything. Of course he was a graduate student in Russian history and so he knew just enough about everything to be unbearable. And of course he was a Communist, which meant his earnestness and self-importance were beyond endurance. But it was not like she had so many alternatives. And he seemed so certain of everything, which was comforting in its way because Celia was the most uncertain person she knew. Maybe his certainty was why she had stifled her doubts and let Gregory move into her little walk-up when his lease ran out.
So now she was living in sin. She laughed ruefully at that. Living in sin was what her mother called it when she spoke of the town strumpet or the widow in the next township. Oh, the image it brought to a young girl’s mind. Other girls dreamed of marriage, of children, of the family Celia’s mother so desperately wanted for her; Celia had dreamed of living in sin. Well, be careful what you wish for. Where was the canopiedbed, where were the long lascivious nights, where was the secret passion that kept the world’s scorn at bay?
Living in sin, hell, it was more like living in Cleveland.
She turned to look out the window at the passing stream, a scene decidedly roguish. Sometimes she thought she stayed nights at the Automat to be apart from Gregory, and sometimes she stayed nights to feel a part of this. This was the juice in her life, not Gregory, not the job, not her pale hopes for the future, but her little table at the Automat, sitting with this strange dismal family, separated from the carnival of Times Square by a single pane of glass. It was sometimes hard to impress, even upon herself, exactly how pathetic her life had become.
Someone caught her attention in the throng outside the window. A man in brown, a handsome-faced man in sunglasses walking with a strange, jerky step. He had a ragged beard, his suit was on wrong, though how it was on wrong she was uncertain, his nails were long and unkempt, and he had a bizarre smile fixed around the cigarette in his teeth. Her immediate reaction to spotting him outside her window, just a few feet from her, was an irrational but very real fear. And her peculiar fear increased when he stopped right next to her, turned to the window, and stared inside.
She cowardly dropped her gaze to the tabletop before her. At all costs she wanted to avoid this strange man’s gaze. “Please, please,” she whispered to her coffee and still-uneaten pie, “don’t come into the Automat.” Celia loved being part of the midnight world, but only so long as she could maintainsufficient distance from its inhabitants. That was her method of approaching all of her life, the rigid defenses of the maimed.
She stirred her coffee, lifted it to her lips, felt its tepid heat upon her teeth. When she put it down again she glanced up to the window. He was gone. Relief and disappointment both all at once and she wondered to herself at why that man had given her such unease.
It was his awkwardness, his hesitance. Celia could tell in some subliminal way that the mass of instinctual acts we take for a physical presence were not, in his case, being done instinctively. Nothing was easy, nothing was natural. That was it, his raw unnaturalness, and who felt more unnatural than Celia? In that way he was a mirror into her own uneasy place in the world and she mustn’t have that. She had troubles enough, she didn’t need some lunatic in a bad brown suit pointing out to her with utter clarity her own gnawing sense of alienation. So instead of reaching out, one alien to another, she hid in her coffee cup. How brave, Celia, how wondrously courageous. She felt sick, useless. Maybe that was why she didn’t want to go home, so that even Gregory wouldn’t find her out.
She glanced up and saw the man in the brown suit suddenly inside the restaurant, his right side brushing the wall as he scurried toward the food. It was a shock to see him and she had to fight a strange revulsion. But having castigated herself before, this time she bravely refused to look away.
He reached the glass serving doors and peered inside at all the offerings, the pies, the fruit, the sandwiches, tuna, egg salad, deviled ham, olive loaf, the crocks of baked beans, thebowls of soup, the little dishes of spinach, of macaroni and cheese, of Harvard beets and carrots glazed with brown sugar. His head moved back and forth and his whole posture bent with a desire so obvious it was pitiable. When had he eaten last? He reached out a hand, caressed one of the little glass doors, grabbed hold of the chrome handle, pulled. It didn’t open. He pulled harder. It still didn’t open. He slid to another door, took hold of the handle. Then to another. He moved from one to the next, looking for a door that would open. He must be hungry and have no money. He shouldn’t be in here if he didn’t have any money. Why was he here, ruining it for everyone? Why did he insist on making everyone feel so uncomfortable?
She spun her gaze around the Automat. The politicians, the college boys, Sylvie, the comics, no one was noticing the strange man in brown. Even the cashier was more interested in her nails. It was only she whom he was making uncomfortable. Celia felt suddenly ashamed at everything she had been feeling, the revulsion, the anger, even the pity. Who the hell was she to feel any of those things for anyone else when she felt those exact same things for herself?
Almost as an act of penance she was about to stand and make her way toward him, to buy him a sandwich, when she realized he wasn’t alone. There was a smaller man in a bright green suit bustling about him. She recognized the suit immediately.
Mite, the tiny young aspiring gangster who spent his evenings at the Automat huddled over a hot tea, eyes desperate and searching, ever vigilant for a mark to hustle. Mite introduced himself to everyone new at the Automat, sat down, told anelaborate series of lies, and then asked to borrow thirty-nine cents. Always thirty-nine cents, as if the sheer specificity of the number made it hard to refuse the entreaty. He was short, thin, nervous, full of hope and despair all at once, and Celia, overwhelmed by the empathic sympathy only one loser can feel for another, had given up the thirty-nine cents more times than she could remember. Now they were close to friends.
She was shocked to see him there, in the Automat, that night. A few weeks ago he had told everyone about the big deal he was about to score. A little import-export, he had said. All he needed was some up-front cash, he had said. It was sad seeing the hunger that marked his face like a stain, a hunger that couldn’t be satisfied in that Automat with all the nickels in the world. It was that hunger that had sent him to Big Johnny Callas, who often held court in that very Automat, to borrow the up-front cash at the Greek’s brutal rates. And, as could only have been expected, Mite hadn’t settled up when he was supposed to. She hadn’t seen Mite for a couple of nights, she had heard he was on a bus to somewhere new, Moline, she had heard, or Fresno, away. She’d been glad he had escaped.
But now here he was, stunningly present, accompanying the strange man in brown. And now here he was leading the man by the elbow, bringing the man across the floor, past the politicians, past Tab and the comics, right smack to her table.
“Yo, Celia,” said Mite. “This is my new friend, Jerry. You mind if we sits here with you?”
Celia kept her eyes off the strange man, always obedient to her mother’s order not to stare whenever a strange or deformed person crossed her path, much as others fought not to stare at her. She would have liked to say no, would have liked nothing better than to be left alone that night to peer at Mite and the stranger from afar, but Mite just then seemed so anxious to please, so desperate almost, that her heart cracked for him.
“What are you still doing here, Mite?” she said. “I heard you were already on a bus out.”
“You heard wrong, then, didn’t you?”
“Big Johnny has been telling everyone about his plans for you. They’re not very pretty.”
“Let him talk.” His nonchalance died quickly and he peered out at her warily. “What plans exactly?”
“Something to do with the spleen. You know where the spleen is, Mite?”
“Isn’t that in New Jersey somewheres?”
“It’s behind your liver. Big Johnny says he intends to remove it.”
Mite sucked in a breath and then shrugged. “Well, the hell with him, excuse my Polish. He wants that spleen thing he can have it, I gots no need for it no more.”
“Mite, you have to go. It’s too dangerous for you here. Do you need money, bus fare?”
“Nah, I decided to maybe stick around a bit. It’s a free country, ain’t it? Believe it or not, things is looking up for me. Thanks to my friend Jerry, things is looking way up. So can my pal park hisself here while I grabs us some grub?”
“Sure, I suppose,” she said. “Any friend of yours…”
Mite pulled a chair from the table. “Sit down, palsy. I’ll take care your dinner. Keep an eye on him, Celia, won’t you, whilst I load up? Anything you want?”
“No thank you, Mite. I’m fine.”
Mite winked and then was off to the wall of food.
She watched him go before turning to the man in the brown suit, who was still standing.
“Sit, please, Mr….”
He kept standing until she gestured at the seat Mite had pulled out for him and finally he sat.
The strange pull of revulsion she felt when she spied him outside the window, and then by the wall of food, strengthened in proximity. He had a peculiar smell, strong and furry, less the deep neglected tones of normal body odor, more the higher-pitched animal musk that arose with its own not-so-hidden message from the carnivora house at the zoo. His beard was dark, his hair, beneath his hat, long and greasy. There was something disconcertingly real about him, as if the rough edges of existence, normally smoothed by societal conventions or blurred by the plate of glass through which she viewed the world, were still jagged and sharp on him. He sat there in his dark glasses, unmoving, as if he were blind, but at the same time it seemed as if he were staring at her with a brutal intensity. She tried to stare back, to see beyond her own reflection in the dark lenses, but failed to connect with his eyes.
Suddenly he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out something small and golden. He flicked open the top, spunthe wheel. A small flame erupted. His smile increased its vast wattage.
Celia tilted her head, unsure of what the stranger was doing. In the way he smiled and held himself, he seemed to be trying to impress her, as if he were some prehistoric man showing off to the females of his clan his ability to make fire. She felt strangely flattered, there was something almost gallant in the gesture. To be polite, she reached into her purse, took out a cigarette, leaned forward and lit it on the flame, all the while staring into the dark lenses.
“Thank you,” she said. “Your name is Jerry?”
“Blatta is it? Jerry Blatta?”
“That’s an interesting name.”
He continued to stare.
Self-consciously she leaned back, crossed her arms over her breasts. “And you’re a friend of Mite’s?”
“Sure, I suppose. Any friend of yours…”
The register of his strange disjointed voice suddenly slipped higher, as if in imitation of her own, using even her own words. She began to laugh, she couldn’t help herself, the charming gesture, the flattering imitation, the disconcerting stare.
He drew back as if under attack, and then through his fixed smile he laughed too, a laugh as high and girlish as her own.
Mite returned with a tray laden with plates and cups and glasses. Before his friend Jerry, Mite placed a ham and cheese sandwich, cut diagonally into two triangles, an apple, a tapered glass filled with tapioca pudding and topped withwhipped cream, a cup of coffee. Ever frugal, for himself Mite brought only a hard roll, two pats of butter, a glass of water, and a cup of tea. Mite sat himself next to Jerry, solicitously close, and edged the plate with the apple, red and shiny, toward his friend.
“Go ahead, Jerry,” he said. “You know what they say, an apple a day keeps the coppers at bay.”
Celia watched the strange maternalistic display with a curiosity that turned to amazement as this Jerry Blatta devoured the apple in four bites, swallowing skin, core, all, leaving only the tiny stem sticking out from his teeth.
“He’s a hungry boy, your friend,” says Celia.
“Ain’t we all. Look at him close, Celia. He’s my ticket.”
“To where, Mite?”
“To the pineapple pie, sweetheart, where we all wants to go. Just like Pinnacio. You ever hear of Pinnacio, what worked out of the Square a few years ago?”
Celia shook her head.
“He’s a legend now, sure, Pinnacio, but back then he was just an Alvin like me, a skinny hustler what styled hisself a show biz impresario with nothing but a single blue suit and a pretty face to get him through. He had two clients, a sad-sack comic who got the mokes laughing only ’cause he couldn’t stop sweating on stage, and a contortionist what had a fatal fondness for chocolate and couldn’t no longer touch her toes. Pinnacio used to hoard his nickels so he could sit over his coffee at the Automat and readaVarietyhe’d pluck out of the ashcan and plot the careers of his two loser clients. And then each night he would squeeze his way through the stage doors of every cheap vaudeville and burlesque house in the Square, scoping for the next big thing. You asked anyone then, the next big thing for Pinnacio was going to be the Bowery. You want cream in that, palsy?”
Blatta didn’t answer but continued to stare at the cup filled with hot coffee. As Mite and Celia looked on, he stuck his finger into the cup, pulled it out, stared at it as it reddened from the heat.
Mite took hold of his own cup by the handle, pinkie sticking out absurdly, and lifted it to take a sip. Blatta, seeing this, did exactly the same. It is as if he is learning, thought Celia, as if he is a child learning his way in the world, latching onto the worst possible teacher in Mite.
“So one night, Pinnacio’s at the Roxy and he sees a girl what looks no older than twelve doing a semistrip, and the geezers in the house theys just loving her show. She’s got something, sweet little Suzy does, something a twelve-year-old shouldn’t have, which makes sense ’cause this girl she’s twenty-two and working a second shift on her back after the theater darks. But on stage she’s playing the little-girl thing for all it’s worth and the yards in the joint are springing to life like a crop of winter wheat, you get the picture? So Pinnacio, with this Suzy, he sees his ticket.”
Jerry Blatta lifted half of the ham and cheese sandwich off the plate and squeezed the half in his fist until the cheese and mustard oozed out. He stuck the mess into his mouth, jammingit all in until his lips could close one upon the other. Celia stared at him, dumbfounded. Blatta stared back with defiant humor, even as he reached for the other half.
“Well Pinnacio,” continued Mite, “just the day before, in aVarietyhe hawked from a can, spied something about an opening for a juvenile in some second-rate C movie they was filming in Brooklyn. He strolls right up to little Suzy what wasn’t so little and tells her he can get her an audition if she signs a management contract with him. She shrugs her shoulders and signs, figuring this skinny mope didn’t have the pull to get the audition in the first place. But the thing was, this audition it was open, he didn’t need no pull, and she didn’t need no him, but there it was. And in that audition room she gives it the full twelve-year-old-with-a-glimmer-in-the-eye treatment and the director is a perv through and through and so hot to lay his mitts on a twelve-year-old he practically throws hisself at her feet. Now she’s in Hollywood, a real star, and Pinnacio, he’s riding around with a tan and a Cadillac, living flush in the pineapple pie. All because he found his ticket.”
“Is that true, Mite, or just another one of your stories?”
“True, true, you could look it up. Her name is Susan Harrison or Susan Haywood or Susan something, they changed it for her, but it’s true, I’ll swear to it. And Celia, sweetheart. I have the damnedest feeling that Jerry here, he’s my sweet little Suzy. Ain’t you just that, palsy?”
Blatta ignored the question, maintaining his stare at Celia as he moved to the pudding. Reaching his hand into the tapered glass, he pulled out a glob of the yellow and whitegoop, slurped it into his mouth, and then proceeded to lick his hand clean with his long pink tongue. The sight of him licking off the tapioca even as he continued to stare at her affected Celia in the most peculiar way. The raw hunger, the unmasked appetite, the disdain of elementary manners, the size and color of the organ, all of it she found both revolting and thrilling. Watching him lick the gaps between his fingers with his tongue was like having a cat reposition itself over and over on her lap.
“What do you know about him?” said Celia softly.
“Nothing,” said Mite.
“Where is he from? Where does he live?”
“So why do you think he can help you?”
“Oh he can, believe you me.”
“And why do you think he will?”
“’Cause, Celia, I can help him too. See, he’s something special, but he needs guidance, he needs management, he needs me. With him and me together, there’s no telling where it will end.”
“Just like Pinnacio.”
“You got it.”
“Did you know him personally, this Pinnacio?”
“Nah, not really, but I heard, I heard.”
“So the whole story is apocryphal.”
“A pocketful of what?”
“Posies, Mite. And what about Big Johnny?”
“What about him?”
“Mite, don’t play the fool.”
“Let me tell you a secret, Celia.” He leaned forward, lowered his voice. “I gots the money.”
“You have the money?”
“Like I said.”
“Sweet little Suzy here.”
“You have enough?”
“More than enough. I could pay the dirty creep off and still have enough left over to take you and me to ‘21.’ But it’s no sure thing paying that creep off is the answer. See, Celia, I gots Jerry on my side now.”
Just then Jerry Blatta reached into his jacket and pulled out a fistful of bills. He held his hand out and offered them to her. His face, his smile, had the same expression as when he flicked the lighter.
“Looking for a date?” he said. “Who ain’t? It’ll cost you five. You got it, sweet pea. Did you hear? No. Yes. Want to have some fun, honey? You look like you could use it.”
Celia was taken immediately aback by the offer of money and the strange words. No hidden meanings here, despite the garbled sentences. He was offering to buy her, like one would buy Sylvie. It had never happened before, no one had ever confused her with a whore, and for a moment her emotions teetered.
Suddenly, involuntarily, she laughed.
She laughed and the strange man in brown laughed and Mite, whose jaw had dropped in disbelief and had stared at her with a worried gaze, he laughed too. And as they laughedand the money in Jerry Blatta’s hand trembled and the offer hung in the air like a helium-filled balloon, something stirred in Celia, some long-buried dream.
Not to be a whore, no, not that, never that, but at least to be desired in that way. Isn’t that part of it, the dream of love, not just a commingling of purposes, or an acquiescence to another’s earnestly held political beliefs, but a commingling of desires too? That was the dream that had died in her, killed off by the virus that had lodged in her spine and the thick sole and brace she now wore on her left foot and the limp that scattered desire onto the floor like so many jacks with each pathetic step. Her mother had been wrong, the boys had not come, the dream had fallen into a deep hibernation, and with the dream went her courage to touch anything beyond the muffled voices of other lives seeping from a distant room. But now it stirred again, the dream, roused by the outstretched bills, the carnivora musk, the long pink tongue, the cat turning in her lap, the strange brutal reality of this man, all of it, and the muffled song of her own pale life seemed so ridiculously wan in its presence that she couldn’t help but laugh.
The man in brown, this Jerry Blatta, he turned to Mite and let out a strange hissing sound, almost like a warning. There was a moment when he appeared to begin to rise from his seat.
She fought to regain control, let the laughter fade, tried to compose herself, not sure what was going on in Blatta’s strange psyche, whether he took the laughter as an insult when that was not her intention, not her intention at all.
And then she imagined the expression on Gregory’s face, the shock, when she would tell him that he absolutely had to move out, and she fell again into a hysterical fit that had them all looking, the politicians and the college boys, Sylvie, Tab, the comics and trombonists at the center table, all of them, and she didn’t care, she didn’t care, she did not care.7
Kockroach feels a surgeof excitement roll through him as the female makes her strange high-pitched bray, the same roll of excitement he had felt as a cockroach when the scent of a willing female’s pheromones started his antennae to twitching. It must be part of the human mating ritual, that sound she makes, and so he echoes it as closely as he can, all the while holding out to her the green pieces of paper he means for a tribute. He is ready to mate, certain it is going to happen, when, to his shock, he hears the same mating bray from the little human beside him.
He turns to stare and lets out a warning hiss, but the little man continues to make the seductive sound. Normally this would be a time to fight, to rise up on stiff legs and battle for the attentions of the female, and he is about to do just that, to rise and attack with no mercy and destroy utterly the little man beside him, when something stops him.
The woman’s braying subsides and she is looking at him, not at the little man named Mite. And Mite is offering up no tribute of his own, just his braying. And suddenly somehow Kockroach realizes that with this female Mite is not a threat, will never be a threat, as if he were of an entirely different species. Kockroach turns back to the woman, makes the braying sound again, and the female joins in.
Kockroach is certain, absolutely, beyond any doubt, that now, finally, he is going to mate.
The female rises from the table and Kockroach rises with her. Will they do it here, right on the table, atop the scattered plates, like two cockroaches, or will they go instead to her lair? Humans, Kockroach has noticed, don’t mate in the open, unless they mate in some strange way he has not heretofore recognized. Maybe that claw-to-claw thing he has seen so often in the street.
The female reaches out her claw to him. He reaches out his claw in the same way and she grabs hold. A jolt of power tingles through his arm and down into the worm between his legs.
“It was a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Blatta.”
“Enough with the blatta-blatta-blatta.”
She makes the braying sound again and lets go of his claw. Is that it, is that all there is to it for humans? If so, what a sad pathetic species.
“I’ll see you around, Mite,” says the female. “Be careful, please.”
“It’s them what oughts to be careful now,” says Mite.
She turns her attention again to Kockroach. “Take care of my friend Mite, won’t you?”
“You got it, sweet pea,” says Kockroach, aware through his assimilation of the bizarre but handy human language that sheis asking him to protect the little man and that he has agreed.
But why does she have any concern for Mite if she and Mite are not to mate? And why did he agree to her request, as if instinctively? Is that what human males do as part of the mating ritual, promise anything? What kind of species can survive doing that? It is all a puzzle, and the puzzle grows as the female turns and walks away, walks away without him, her hip rising awkwardly with each step, walking away as if one leg had been twisted by some fearsome predator.
He stares at the female walking away, at the strange uneven gait, at the rods of metal attached to her leg, at the strange rocking motion of her tail. He feels the tingling in the worm again and begins to follow, until Mite grabs hold of Kockroach’s arm.
“Is that what you want, palsy, you want a little barbecue?” says Mite.
“Girls, girls, girls.”
“Well, why didn’t you say so? Nothing could be easier. Half the girls in the Square this time of night have gone commercial, one way or another. Put the spinach back in your pocket and I’ll get you one, no problem, anyone you want, just not her, all right? You got that, Jerry? Not her. She’s a nice girl, Celia is. But I’ll gets you someone else. Look over there. That’s Sylvie, what with the tits like atom bombs. A bit mismatched too. We calls them Fat Man and Little Boy, we do, but variety, it’s the spice of life, ain’t it? What do you think of her? Hubba hubba hubba?”
“Hubba hubba hubba?” says Kockroach as he continues to watch the strange swaying of the first female’s tail as she leaves through the spinning glass door.
Mite waves his claw in front of Kockroach’s face. “Yo, Jerry, you listening? Anyone but her, all right? Not her. Celia ain’t interested in that stuff. She’s a cripple, for Christ’s sake. No, the Norma Snockers what I was talking of, Sylvie, she’s over there.”
Kockroach slowly swivels his head in the direction of Mite’s pointing digit until his gaze lights on a female sitting alone at a table. Her hair is yellow, her long legs are crossed, she has huge mounds deforming the chest of her thorax, mounds which Kockroach finds strangely appealing.
“Hubba hubba hubba?” says Kockroach.
“Attaboy. Wait here, I’ll set it up.”
Kockroach watches as Mite walks over to the female with the yellow hair. Kockroach turns for a moment to look at the door where he had last seen the first female, the one known as Celia, but she is gone. He turns back quickly enough to see Mite point at him. The second female, the one known as Sylvie, twists her face in a strange contortion and then shakes her head back and forth. Mite offers her a tribute, waving the green pieces of paper, and then clasps his claws together in a symbol of submission, and still she shakes her head back and forth.
Mite makes his way slowly back to Kockroach. With his eyes narrowed, he looks at Kockroach’s face and then lets his gaze drop all along his body.
“Hubba hubba hubba?” says Kockroach.
“Sure, palsy. Sure. But first, maybe, let’s wait out the night and then we’ll sees if we can clean you up a bit.”
It is the substance that slinks out of holes in the street, that rises in slippery wisps and foul exhalations, it is colorless and hot and looks like smoke but it is wet to the touch and it now surrounds Kockroach on all sides with its heat and its pressure and the slime it leaves on his strange pale skin and his dark glasses.
At first, sitting next to Mite with only the glasses on and the single white cloth over his lap, Kockroach’s nerves were shouting and he felt more defenseless than he had ever felt before, even more than when he was a white nymph and the mouse sprinted into their midst. There are other humans in the room with the hot wet smoke, sitting on the benches, water appearing on their soft round bodies as if by magic, and he was certain, naked before these other humans, he would be discovered, finally, for what he was and squashed. But the pale hot stuff, schvitz Mite called it, surrounded him and turned the walls dim and his never-ending urge to be protected on all sides eased and he now feels strangely comforted.
It is no wonder that he feels at home in the steam bath. Cockroaches developed in the steamy marshes of the tropical forests in the early millennia of earth’s natural history, and while the heat tends to sap the energy of humans, Kockroach finds it positively invigorating.
“Schvitz,” says Kockroach.
“It’s a machiah, ain’t it, bubelah,” says an old human in the corner.
“Bubelah,” says Kockroach,
“Hey, you Jewish?” says Mite.
“Right off back of truck,” says Kockroach, with the accent of the man at the table where he found his dark glasses.
Mite laughs and shakes his head.
Through the smear of fog on his glasses, Kockroach examines the other humans in the schvitz. They all have glistening skin and big pink bellies and the same worm between their legs as does he, although his is bigger. What does that mean? he wonders. Is it good or bad? He is about to ask Mite when Mite speaks to him instead, speaking strangely, using only half his mouth to pronounce the words.
“Yo, Jerry. I might got an opportunity for you if you’re interested. Something with huge possibilities what could put us both in the money.”
“Opportunity?” says Kockroach.
“A little business.”
“Yeah, that’s it, beeswax. Something rich. I thought up a plan, see. All you gots to do is follow my lead and let it happen. You interested?”
“Good. Great. This is gonna turn out, you’ll see. All right, let’s hit the shower. I suppose that’s a word you ain’t heard much lately, is it? Shower.”
“Shower,” says Kockroach.
A torrent of water falls all about him. Kockroach squeals as he runs about the long gray room with metal tubes sticking out from above, trying to avoid the spray because that is what cockroaches do. They like the water, like to crawl through it, fornicate in it, slurp it with their food, but they fear it when it comes from above, and at the first dangerous drops they scurry to a place of safety.
“What, too cold?” says Mite. He twists a knob. “Try this.”
Kockroach sees Mite standing under one of the waterspouts, getting drenched, seeming to welcome the streaming fluid, lifting his face up to it as if it were a gift. Kockroach steps tentatively beneath the water and lets it pound on his belly, his shoulders, over his dark glasses, onto his head. He wonders why he had been afraid of it all those many molts.
Mite rubs a shiny white stone all over his body, creating a weird white froth. Other humans do the same thing. Kockroach takes the same white stone. It is slippery, easily bruised like no stone he has ever touched before. He licks it and spits out the bitter taste. He rubs it all over his own body as the other humans do, and the froth covers him head to toe until the water washes it off.
“The thing,” says Mite, again using only half his mouth to speak, “is to let me do all the talking. I know these guys, what they’re looking for. But there’s going to be a time when you got to show your stuff. You’ll know it when you see it, and then, baby, slam bam you do your little act.”
“Your little act.”
“Yeah, the thing what you did with Roscoe.”
“Take care of my friend Mite, won’t you?”
“Attaboy. We’re a team, ain’t we, Jerry? A team.”
“You got it, sweet pea.”
“Sweet pea. I love that sweet pea thing. You kill me, you know that, Jerry? You kill the hell out of me.”
Mite brays and rubs the white stone over his hair and Kockroach does the same and as the water rinses off the froth he feels different than he ever felt before, looser, lighter, fresher.
One thing he has learned for sure. Never again will he lick himself clean.
“My friend Mite,” says the tall thin human with the dark skin in a room filled with cats. “Always a pleasure. What can I do for you this morning?”
“I need a suit, Clive, with all the trimmings. Shirt, hat, skivvies, everything.”
“Lovely. This suit, you’re looking discount or executive?”
“Designer? You’re buying designer? Have you found God, little brother?”
“Something better. But I need a class look for it to go over.”
“Do tell. But I’m sorry, darling. I don’t think I have designer in your size.”
“It ain’t for me, Clive, I’m all set.” Mite jerks his thumb at Kockroach. “It’s for my pal Jerry here.”
The tall man puts a hand on his cheek, turns to Kockroach, gives him a long look. “Oh my. Oh yes. Lucky you, we just received a load, headed for Des Moines, that never found its way over the bridge. Poor Des Moines. And they could use it so. Let us see.”
The tall thin man slips a yellow cord out of his pocket and dances around Kockroach as he stretches the cord along Kockroach’s arms, his legs, around different parts of his thorax.
“Mr. Average, isn’t he?” says the man, nodding with a smile. “Which is good, because that’s what they grow in Des Moines. Forty-two jacket, best as I can tell. Seventeen-inch neck with thirty-five-inch sleeves. Waist thirty-four. I have some nice blues for you, or a lovely gray.”
“What color you want, Jerry?” says Mite.
“Color?” says Kockroach.
“That’s right, palsy. It’s your choice.”
Kockroach steps forward and reaches toward the tall thin man. His skin fascinates. It is the color of his old chitin. He misses his chitin, the strength and stiffness, the color. Running around with this white skin, he feels lost and frail, like the weakest of nymphs. He wishes his skin were like this man’s, dark and rich and full of protection. He reaches up and touches the man’s cheek. “Color,” he says.
“Oooh,” purrs the tall thin man. “Just so happens I have a forty-two in brown pinstripes, double-breasted. You want to see it?”
“Don’t want to see it,” says Mite. “I just want to buy it.”
“No checks, Mite.”
“My, you did find something better, didn’t you?”
“How long to get it altered?”
“If you have time, I’ll do it right now.”
“Clive, my man, you are magic.”
“Yes, yes I am.”
Kockroach is lying back in the chair, a thick white cloth tight around his neck, surrounded by humans, all grooming him. One man in a red vest, having already smeared Kockroach’s face with hot white foam, is now scraping his cheeks and chin with a brutal-looking edge of metal. One man is whipping a cloth back and forth across the shiny brown things on the ends of his legs. One female is cutting and scraping and rubbing the hard tips of his claws. Being so close to so many humans is frightening and yet comforting too. Kockroach feels as if the proper order of things has been established, as if these humans have indeed seen him for exactly what he is and, in lieu of squashing him, have exalted him to his rightful place.
But Kockroach knows it is not his inner self that has caused all this to happen. It is the little pieces of green paper Mite has been giving to all he meets: the human behind the counter at the schvitz, the human with the dark skin who gave him the new brown cloths and hat, the human with the brutal edge of metal who cut and greased his hair and now is scraping his cheeks. He is beginning to understand the power of the little green pieces of paper. He can use them to maintain the properorder of things. He can use them to get the humans to serve his needs. He wonders how many there are and how he can get hold of them all.
“You play chess, Jerry?” says Mite, sitting in a chair set against the wall across from Kockroach.
“It’s a great game,” says Mite. “The game of kings, which is what you and me, we’re going to be. An old geezer learned me the game in Philly. It teaches you how to use your noggin.”
“Your noggin,” says Kockroach as the man in the vest takes a towel and starts wiping what’s left of the white goop off his face.
“That’s it, baby. That’s how to get ahead in this world. When this is all over, I’m going to teach you how to play. We’ll have usselves a game, you and me.”
“You and me.”
“What do you think here, Mite?” says the man in the vest when all the goop is wiped off Kockroach’s face.
“Nice, Charlie,” says Mite. “Very nice. He cleans up good, don’t he?”
“Yes he does.”
“It’s like looking at someone new without the beard. You want a look there, palsy?” says Mite. “Spin him around, Charlie.”
The man with the vest dusts Kockroach with a sharp white powder, brushes the back of his neck, pulls away the towel, spins around the chair until Kockroach is staring at a man in a chair staring back at him. He moves his shoulders and sodoes the other man in the chair. It is the thing he saw before, in the small white room, the thing that shows him himself. He hasn’t seen his face since the early days of his strange new molt, and never before without the little hairs on his cheek. He examines himself carefully. He reaches into a pocket of his new jacket and pulls out the picture of the humans he took from the room at the time of his molt. He compares what he sees now with the face that is his in the picture.
Yes, this is the way he is meant to look.
“What you got there, palsy?” says Mite. He steps toward the chair, looks down at the picture. “There you are. I didn’t know you was married. Boy, she’s a looker, ain’t she?”
“Hubba hubba hubba,” says Kockroach as he stares at the female in the picture. She has light hair, like the female known as Sylvie, but she reminds him of the female known as Celia.
“Where she at now?” asks Mite.
Kockroach shrugs his shoulders.
“She die on you or what?”
“Oh man, women will get you every time, won’t they? That’s why I stay away from them. I gots a weak heart, the doctors they told my momma that when I was a tyke. But that’s what’s so good about them girls in the Square. They’re always there for you. Even when theys with someone else, grab a cup of joe, a cig, and next thing you know it’ll be your turn at the wheel. You ready for some trucking?”
“Ready for some trucking.”
“Good. Let’s go find Sylvie.”
The female with the yellow hair known as Sylvie holds Kockroach’s claw as she leads him down a hallway. The shiny black leathers strapped to the tips of her legs, with their sharp spikes, clack on the rough wooden floor but he can barely hear the sound beneath the roar in his head. He sniffs the air, her sweet floral scent, shakes his head, the roar grows louder. This is more like it, absolutely. He slows his step to watch the twitch of her tail but the woman pulls him forward. He lurches into her and the roar turns into a tempest.
She stops at a door. He lurches into her once again. He rubs against her as she fits a key into the lock and turns it. She spins around until she is facing him, her arms behind her, her mounds against his own flat chest. She grimaces at him and brays. He places his claws on either side of his forehead and reaches out two digits like two antennae. She tilts her head and brays again.
“You’re a crazy one, you are,” she says.
“Sweet pea,” he says, wagging his digits.
“You’re certifiable, you are.”
“Sweet pea, sweet pea, sweet pea.”
She stares for a moment at his wagging digits and then places her claws at the same positions on her own head, raises two of her digits into antennae. He reaches down to rub his antennae against hers. She rubs back, her braying turning to squeals.
“Sweet pea, sweet pea, sweet pea, sweet pea.”
He leans down to bite her. She pushes him away, turns, opens the door, falls into the room.
He lunges in after her.
The mating ritual of the cockroach differs slightly from species to species within the order, but is generally initiated by the female, who raises her wings and secretes powerful pheromones from a special membrane on her back. Sensors in the male antennae pick up the sweet pheromonal scent from as far away as thirty feet and direct the male to the ready female. This release of pheromone can be accompanied by stridulatory singing or hissing by one or both sexes to help bring the partners together. Some cockroach songs comprise as many as six complex pulse trains, a melody more musically advanced, actually, than many Ramones songs.
When a sexually receptive female and male cockroach do finally meet face to face, they begin whipping and lashing each other over and over with their antennae. Antennae fencing serves to excite the varied sensory receptors up and down the antennae, which begin to tingle as the two cockroaches are near overwhelmed by tactile and chemical stimuli. This electrically charged S&M foreplay can last as long as two minutes among certain European species, though it has been observed to be remarkably abbreviated or ignored altogether by the male American cockroach, which often simply charges and thrusts its genitals at the female. Scientists have wondered if this behavior explains the infestations of female American cockroaches in the holds of transatlantic flights landing in Paris.
Foreplay over, the male cockroach displays a peculiar lack of interest by turning his back on the female. It is a feint of course, unalloyed sexual interest is the singular characteristic shared by males of all animal species. With his back turned, the male cockroach curls the tip of his abdomen downward, bends his legs to lower his head and thorax, and raises his wings to a sixty-degree angle, revealing a lobe on his seventh abdominal tergite. This lobe, called an excitator, releases the male’s sex pheromone, called seducin. The male’s excitator is small and bristly and yet irresistible to the female, like a cone of rocky road or a medical degree.
Overwhelmed by the seducin and fooled by the male’s submissive posture, the female steps forward, climbs upon the male’s back, wraps her legs around his torso, and begins to nuzzle and lick the excitator.
Suddenly the male pushes backwards, arches his abdomen, and extends his genitals toward those of the female. The longest of the male’s genital hooks reaches up and clamps itself onto the abdominal tip of the female. Once this connection is made, two other smaller hooks reach into the slim genital orifice of the female and grab hold, forming an unbreakable bond between male and female.
The female, as if in reaction to the male’s sudden brutal move, tries to escape from the male and break off contact. She is able at first to move only sideways, stepping off his back and around and around until, still hooked up, she is facing directly away from him.
In this position, tip to tip, the male’s genitals reaching deep inside the female’s, the struggle stops and male and female thisway remain, for an hour at least, sometimes far longer, one inside the other, together, motionless except for the slow internal humming of their bodies. They stay connected long enough for the male to slowly transfer to the female an oval-shaped packet called a spermatophore, filled to the brim with sperm.
After copulation, it is cockroach tradition for the female to relax with a dose of urates, a supplemental source of nitrogen donated by the male. In some species, the urates are contained in the shell of the spermatophore itself. After the sperm cells are drained, the spermatophore is pushed out of the abdomen and devoured by the female. In other species, after copulation, the male will raise its wings, direct the tip of his abdomen toward his mate, and from special glands secrete a whitish urate-rich ooze, which is swallowed by the female in a feast that can last many minutes. This part of the process can often be seen, late at night, on the tiny televisions in arthropod motels. With no females to swallow this whitish ooze, an excess of urates can accumulate in the male’s body, bit by bit in a toxic swell, until the male’s own urates eventually poison him, or so young male cockroaches often claim.
The mating ritual completed, the male cockroach parts, quickly, washes his claws of the entire enterprise, and hurries off. Male cockroaches are positively Washingtonian in their determination to avoid foreign entanglements and hold no interest in the newborn nymphs that emerge from the female’s egg capsule many days later, except as a quick snack if hunger strikes. Once safely away, the male cockroach feeds and defecates, scratches his belly, lays a few bets on the silverfish, and awaits the next intoxicating whiff of female pheromone.
Kockroach, feeling more himself than he has since the strange molt, stares at his face in the mirror. He rubs his teeth with a digit of his claw. He twists his ears. Fully dressed now in his cloths, he squeezes his tie tight and places his hat on his head at the jaunty angle. It is time, he knows in his bones, to leave.
Something scurries across the sink. He lifts a glass, turns it over, traps the small brown thing. He leans forward to examine his prize. It is a cockroach. Slowly he lifts the glass. The cockroach remains motionless.
Kockroach reaches down a single digit and gently pets the back of the arthropod. The cockroach seems to lift higher on its legs, responding to the touch.
On the pad where they mated, he sees the female with the yellow hair, Sylvie. She is lying naked, twisted in the white cloths. Her eyes are open and they follow him as he walks about the room. Her grimace is soft and dreamy. As she looks at him, she opens her arms, revealing the mounds on her thorax, two large whitish things, one slightly bigger than the other, both with dark brown tips. Kockroach feels roaring through him the strange desire to fall upon his bent legs and place the dark brown tips in his mouth. But even stronger is the craving to flee. It grows within him like a sickness.
“Gotta run, sweet pea,” he says.
“So soon, handsome?”
“Blatta, blatta, blatta.”
“You know where I’ll be.”
“Lucky me,” he says.
Before he leaves he takes from his wallet a few green papers, as a tribute. He places them on the small table next to the pad, beside the glass which he filled in the bathroom, its amber fluid reaching almost to the rim, its uric acid rich in nitrogen.
Kockroach finds Mite outside the building, leaning against the wall by the door, tossing a silver disk into the air.
“Took your time, didn’t you?” says Mite.
“I’m from out of town.”
“Aw hell, it’s the same everywhere, ain’t it? Except maybe in New Orleans, what with all the Frenchies there.”
“Want to have some fun, honey? You look like you could use it.”
“I got no time for such distractions,” says Mite. “There’s business to attend. You ready?”
“Remember what I told you? How to play it?”
“Nothing personal, pal, just beeswax.”
Kockroach takes out his wallet and from the wallet takes out the green pieces of paper. “This,” he says.
“Oh yeah, don’t you know it. We’re going to be drowning in it, you and me. That’s what it’s all about.”
“What it’s all about.”
“The pineapple pie.”
Kockroach sticks out his long pink tongue and licks his lips.
“You got it, palsy. It’s you and me, partners to the end.”
“Attaboy.” Mite pushes himself off the wall and starts to walk down the street. “All right, partner, it’s off to see the wizard.”8
Was a geezerwhat hung around the Square name of Tony the Tune, on account of he was always humming to hisself. Missing half his teeth, bent back, wild white hair, voice like a frog, hum hum hum, crazy old Tony the Tune. Had enough money from somewheres that each night at the Automat he would buy hisself from the steam table a Salisbury steak, with masheds and broccoli, two rolls with butter, pick up a cup of joe from the big metal urn, a wedge of lemon meringue from the wall. Many was the night I nursed my single cup of tea and stared longingly as the old mope sat alone and hummed some cheery song to hisself whilst he sopped up the gravy with a thickly buttered roll.
“Hey, Tony. I got something coming down this week, but I’m a little short right now. You got thirty-nine cents you could lend me just till Tuesday?”
“Get away from me, you little scalawag,” he’d spit at me. “I got no time to waste on the likes of you.”
Tony the Tune.
So one night, Tony started coming into the Automat with some beefy-looking pretty-boy blond with dark eyes and arms like legs. Old Tony would shuffle in and the blondwould follow behind with his bouncy step. When they sats down at Tony’s table, the blond boy’s tray would be groaning with sandwiches and fruit and heaping helpings from the steam table while Tony’s tray would have a single orange and a cup of water. Whatever money he had coming in, see, was enough to feed the boy but not hisself in addition, see. They’d sit together and Tony would spend the whole meal patting the boy’s hand, whispering in his ear, opening his milk cartons, humming some Sousa march, fetching straws and napkins, buying more food if the pile on the tray wasn’t enough to fill the boy’s gob.
I figured Tony for a queen in love, simple as that, but it was Sylvie what set me straight. Tony styled hisself a boxing aficionado, spent his days picking up towels at the Gramercy Gym on Fourteenth Street, looking to get his mitts on a palooka with a chance. Now any fighter with any kind of promise could find hisself a sharper manager than old Tony the Tune, so Tony was left to scrape the canvas for the sad saps with slow hands and glass jaws what were dead meat afore ever they stepped into a ring. A no-chancer, such was Tony’s boy, a colorful pug only so long as the colors they was black and blue.
A few weeks after it started, the boy followed Tony in one night but he wasn’t so pretty no more. His left eye was closed on him, his maw was a swollen mess, his nose busted but good. That night it was soup and milk and pudding mixed with cream, all sucked down by the palooka through a straw. It wasn’t long afore Tony started again to come in alone, humming his tunesand ordering his Salisbury steak and masheds and broccoli and two rolls with butter. We never again spied the pretty-boy blond who wasn’t so pretty no more.
If you asked me then, I would have told you Tony the Tune was the worst kind of fool, starving hisself so some no-chancer could prove exactly what he was. The worst kind of fool, a fool in love with hope. Because Hubert, that sack of nothing what sacked my ma, he seeks out hope, like he seeks out fear, waits for the instant when hope wanes to rise up and seize your soul. My momma, she showed me that. Tony the Tune was Hubert bait without even knowing it. But suddenly, with the coming of Jerry Blatta into my life, I had a whole new understanding of the grumpy old mope. See, even though I knew the dire consequences of relying on hope alone, I couldn’t bring myself to reject its blandishments neither. So just like Tony, I brought my hope into the Automat, loaded his tray with food, groomed him for a shot at the title.
I had my doubts about Jerry Blatta to be sure. Like when I put him to bed the night we met, sacking out myself on the floor so he could have the mattress. I woke the next morning to find Blatta buck naked and curled into a ball beneath the bedsprings. What that was all about I never figured. Or when I noticed he put his legs through the armholes of his undershirt and pulled it up as high as he could. I had to near bite my lip through to stop my laughing at that. He was a queer one, and I had my doubts, but I had no doubt at all about what he had done to Roscoe. And so, when the choice was to save what I needed to pay off Big Johnny or to spring the bills I needed to clean up my Suzy like he needed to be cleaned, Isprang, yes I did. I spent like a fool in love on Jerry Blatta.
Let me tell you something, missy. You want to know who it was what made the Boss all he is today, the sweet-dressing, sweet-talking man-on-the-rise? You’re looking at him, yes you are. Kiss me twice and call me Charlie.
So there we was, the two of us, strutting up the Great White Way. Can’t you see us? Me in the front like a herald of sorts, and Jerry Blatta behind, drawing attention what with his fancy new double-breasted suit and dark glasses, his sharp cheekbones, his syncopated jazzy jazz walk, the lit cig bobbing in his lips, the cocky air of the newly laid. He was a sight, he was, as Times Square as Georgie M. hisself, who was so Times Square they gave him a statue. Jerry Blatta, bucking for a statue of his own, following behind as I led him north through the Square. And then a few blocks west, past all them restaurants, one next to the other, French and Irish and Spanish and Italian, a whole marketplace of cheap European cuisine, until we reached a Greek joint called the Acropolis, where in the back room theNonos,what ran all the rackets in Times Square, held court.
Whoa, that perked you up in a hurry, hey, missy? A little organized crime never hurt a story, did it?
Abagados. TheNonos. Which in Greek means Godfather, or maybe murderous bastard, either one, didn’t much matter the way things played out. Was a time the very whisper of his name sent a shiver through the Square. Prostitution, drugs, extortion, loan-sharking, pocket-picking, tit-shaking, cheap booze, cheap cigs, the more than occasional heist, the more than occasional murder. Abagados ruled his midtown empirefrom a room behind the kitchen of the Acropolis, hiring soldiers like Big Johnny Callas to patrol his streets, and he took a cut out of every crime and caper what went down, from the garment district, through the theater district, into the restaurant district, and beyond. He was a shadowy figure, no pictures in the press, no gossip in the columns, I couldn’t have ID’d him if he strolled up and bit my nose, but every step I took as I struggled to slip a score out from under his shadow, I felt the terrible weight of his power.
And word was out on the street that Abagados, no longer content to feast on midtown, was getting ready to expand south and north and east, into territory controlled by the coloreds, the Italians, the Jews, oh my, getting ready to expand and looking to build an army.
“What fug you doing here, Mite? Get hell out afore Yonni, he take off your head.”
“Yo, Stavros, it’s sweet seeing you too,” I says. “Is Nemo around?”
Stavros, tall and thin with a black fedora and an absurd black mustache, jumped off his stool at the bar of the Acropolis and lifted both his long palms at me like a copper stopping traffic.
“I’m no kidding, Mite. Word is Yonni gonna make example you. He tells whole world he reach in you throat and pull out youarhidis.”
“Yeah, well, whatever the hell that means, let him try.”
“But theNonos,he don’t want no trouble in restaurant.”
“Well then I picked the safest spot in New York, didn’t I, Stavros, old pal? I need to see Nemo.”
The bar sat in front of a huge mural of a bunch of maidens la-di-daing around a pile of ruins. The main dining room off to the left was near to full with the pretheater crowd sawing on their kebabs or cutting into great squares of moussaka, while waiters doused burning bits of goat cheese with juice squeezed from lemon wedges to enthusiastic shouts of “Oooopa.” The band, three men in puffy shirts and red vests, played maudlin Greek melodies with tears rolling down their cheeks.
Stavros takes a step toward me, like he’s about to bounce me out of the joint, when he spies the man behind me.
“Who laughing boy?”
“His name’s Blatta.” I close an eye and thinks for a moment. “Jerzy Blatta.”
“How the hell should I know? I didn’t check his papers. Look, Blatta and me, we needs to see Nemo.”
“He no here for you.”
“It’s important, Stavros. And believe me, it’ll be worth his while.”
“He no here. Now spam you.”
“The word is scram. Spam is what you feeds the touristas here and call it souvlaki. And the answer is no. I came to see Nemo. I’ll just check for myself to see if he’s around.”
As I push by him, Stavros grabs hold of me. Two other boneheads with fedoras at the bar jump off theys stools and reach into theys jackets as if about to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
“Boys, boys, boys,” I says. “Good to see you all. You’re looking swell. But you might want to step aside or I’ll start toscreaming bloody murder, I swears I will. Won’t theNonoslike that, me screaming like a siren here in his quiet little restaurant? If you think that gut scraper on the violin can screech, wait till you gets a load of me. Ready?”
I takes a deep breath, screws up my face, open my mouth wide, like I’m about to make like some fat lady with horns, when Stavros, he lets loose my arm.
“Wait here,” says Stavros to me. “I go see if Nemo, he wants talk to amalakaslike you.”
A few minutes later Stavros returned, followed by a huge round man who squeezed through the doorway from the kitchen and made his way to the bar. The man had no neck, lips like Capone, a cigarette was held daintily in his thick fingers. Fat Nemo.
Nemo was some sort of high underboss—the hierarchy of the Abagados organization was always Dutch to me—and yet seemed a decent sort for a gangster. As he made his tours through the Square, oozing his bulk down the crowded streets with Big Johnny Callas and Stavros behind him, he was all smiles and glad hands, tossing cigarettes and bills to the beggars, caressing the heads of the hookers with his fat fingers, buying rounds at the taverns he stepped into so as to renegotiate the payment schedules. And whenever he passed my way he always had a warm word of greeting.How is it with you, Mite? Dressing mighty sharp this evening, Mite. Someday, Mite, you and me, we’re going to do some business.
“Mite,” says Nemo, leaning now on the bar of the Acropolis, fiddling carelessly with his cigarette, his grin a little lessgenuine, more pained, than on the street. “A pleasure as always to see your smiling face. I’d invite you back but it is a private party. Let me instead buy you a drink.” Nemo gestured to the bartender. “A glass of retsina for my friend Mite. And another for his friend…”
“Jerzy,” I says. “Jerzy Blatta.”
“Aaah, a fellow countryman perhaps? Then please, use one of our imported bottles, none of that swill we mix up in the bathtub.”
The bartender, a lean dark man with hair plastered back, replaced the unmarked bottle in his hand with another, foggy on the outside, sweetly pink on the inside, and filled two of them water glasses like they had at the Automat. I took a sip, sharp like turpentine. I nodded at Blatta and he downed his in one swallow. His eyebrows, they danced just above his dark glasses.
“Now, Mite, I need to get back to the party, so please be brief.”
“Word on the Square, Nemo, is you boys is soldiering up.”
Nemo carefully raised his cigarette to his lips. “The word?”
Nemo stared down at me as he inhaled. “On the Square.”
“And you think you, you are the very soldier we may be looking for?”
Nemo blew the smoke out in a stream above my head.“Let me be frank, my friend. I have craps bigger than you.”
“That just mean you’re eating well, Nemo, and I’m glad to hear it. But it’s not only me I’m talking about.”
Nemo tilted his head.
“My palsy Jerzy.”
“Is that so?” Nemo turned his attention to Blatta. “I haven’t seen you around before, Jerzy.”
“He’s new in the Square,” I says.
“I’m from out of town,” says Blatta.
“You got much experience there, Jerzy? You a fighting man? You single-handedly destroyed a regiment of Japs in the war?”
Blatta didn’t say nothing, he just smiled his smile and Nemo’s eyes they narrowed.
“Thank you for thinking of me, Mite, but I’ve no need now of your help. And I particularly have no need for strangers from out of town who as far as I know couldn’t slap their way out of a pita.”
“But Nemo,” I says, “you don’t understand.”
“I do, Mite,” he says, leaning forward now, his great bulk towering uneasily over me. “Believe me, I do. We don’t want nobody nobody sent. The cops are pouring all kinds of finger men into the street to snitch for them, all kinds of lowlifes. And you, Mite, are about the lowest life I know. So now you might want to leave before Johnny steps through that door.”
His gaze passes over my shoulder and a dark grin appears.
“Too late,” he says.
I didn’t need to turn around to know what Nemo was grinning at, the hairs what pricked up on the back of my necktold me as clearly as any mirror. It was Johnny Callas, Big Johnny, what with the fists and the temper, bopping into the restaurant, two of his lackeys following tight behind. He’d be in a fancy suit, no hat to mar the thick slick of blue-black hair, his broad shoulders and deep chest bobbing up and down as he pointed first to his left, then to his right, acknowledging associates here, clients there, bobbing and pointing as he made his way to the center of the bar where stood yours truly, facing away from him. And it didn’t matter that I was facing away from him, he’d know who I was right off. There wasn’t too many guys my size who worked the Square, and none in a suit as green as mine.
“I been looking for you, you little parasite,” he says.
“Johnny, I’m sorry. I’m trying—” I says. But before I turns around fully, I slams his fist with my face and flip sprawling onto to my back.
“You little parasite,” he says, leaning over me now. He sucks his teeth and slaps me on the face. “I give you the two bills for your deal of a lifetime and what do I get in return? Nothing. And then you score on Roscoe and clean him out and what do you do with that cash? You buy a fancy suit, a good sweat, a fancy shave, you splurge at the Automat and buy a ride from Sylvie. You get all that and what do I get? Nothing. You little parasite. I’m going to take you apart. But before I do, I want my five C’s.”
“I only owes you two-fifty.”
“There’s a late fee of fifty and I get a cut out of the Roscoe deal. I get a cut out of everything goes down in my territory, just like I got to give a cut myself, you understand?”
“I don’t got the money no more, Johnny.”
“You know, Mite, I was hoping you would say that. I haven’t kicked the crap out of nobody in almost two whole days and I miss it.”
“Not in the restaurant, Johnny. You can’t do it in the restaurant.”
“The hell I can’t,” says Big Johnny.
“What about theNonos? TheNonos.”
“Well he ain’t here now to tell me no, is he?” says Big Johnny. “Stavros, get the band to playing a little louder, and the rest of you boys gather round. No one need see what I do to this loser.”
There it was, missy, my defining moment. Not just here, in the bar of the Acropolis, but through all the stages of my pathetic life. Whatever strides I made, whatever precautions I took, it all still ended right there, with me on my back and some bully boy about to turn my face into mincemeat. Look closely and you can see the scars, under my eye, across the bridge of my nose, the white line what runs through my lower lip. My face is a road map of violent despair.
Big Johnny grabbed my lapel, jerked me off the floor, cocked his fat fist and gave it a twirl. It was like poetry, the rightness of it, the beating of my life what was coming as surely as I deserved it. That I thought I could ever put one past the bully boys, manage a situation so over my head, stiff a stiff like Big Johnny and get away with it, all of it was proof that I had goodly earned every last stitch they was going to need to sew up my head. Off to the side Hubert was laughing at my foolish hopes. And I gave him a look of surrender, Idid. The morose Greek music it grew louder, as if it was my own funeral dirge, and I didn’t squirm and wiggle like I would have in the past. I lost myself in the music, relaxed, closed my eyes, opened my heart to the righteous propriety of what was coming. All right, Big Johnny, do your worst, because I deserve every lick of it. All right, Hubert, hope is dead, come and fill me with your sweet wisdom.
I felt a jerk forward and then a lurch and then I fell back hard on the floor. And the blow must have been worse than anything I had been dished before because I didn’t feel it, didn’t feel it, it must have numbed every nerve in my face because I didn’t feel it.
I slowly opened my eyes and I saw why I didn’t feel it.
Big Johnny Callas was high in the air, his legs kicking, his arms twirling, held high in the air by my own palsy Jerry Blatta. He held him there, did Blatta, in the air, held him there as if it were an actual comic book hero doing the holding. And then Big Johnny wasn’t held aloft no more, he was flying in the air, over the ducking barkeep, against the three rows of bottles up against the wall, smashing the bottles even as his own head smashed against the mural of the la-di-daing maidens, afore his carcass fell with a thud to the floor, alcohol gushing down upon him.
The music stopped. The deep murmur of the restaurant died.
“My God,” says Nemo.
“Take care of my friend Mite,” says Blatta.
The two mokes who had come in with Big Johnny made their move and in a flash Jerry Blatta had each by his necktie. Asthe shouts started flying, Blatta lurched forward and lifted both men in the air. Theys hung there, arms and legs swinging wildly, clutching at theys throats and fighting to find theys breaths.
Stavros pulls his big black gun and points it at Blatta’s chest.
I jumps to my feet and stands between the gun and Blatta, the two mokes in the air kicking me as they struggle. “Nemo,” I says. “Don’t let him. Don’t.”
But afore Nemo could answer, the door to the kitchen, it opens and a skinny old man, bent like a question mark, leaning on a cane, hobbles hisself forward. Smoldering in his teeth is a short cigar, thick as a thumb. The crowd silences and parts for the man as if it were the Red Sea and the old man was Moses.
“What happen here?” the old man croaks in a thick Greek accent. “Who stop music?”
He looks at Blatta without an ounce of shock, or even admiration, in his eyes, as if it was an everyday sight to see a man hang two of his gunsels in the air by their ties.
“And who the hell you?” he says to Blatta.
“There’s been complaints about a smell,” says Jerry Blatta. “Can you flush the toilet or something, Jesus?”
The old man looks at the two men held in the air and then at the mess on the far side of the bar. He casually leans over the rail to see a dazed and doused Johnny Callas struggle to pull hisself to his feet. The old man stares down his long nose at Big Johnny.
“Yonni, youskata. I should a known you was in middle this. He’s right. I should a flush you long ago.”
“ButNonos,sir,” says Johnny, “I didn’t—”
The old man raises a hand, the middle two digits missing at the knuckles, raises his three-fingered hand, and Johnny shuts his trap.
“Put down,” the old man says to Blatta.
Blatta immediately drops the two gorillas, who fall into gasping heaps on either side of him.
“You come back with me,” says the old man, eyes still focused on Blatta. “We need talk.”
“He’s with me, Mr. Abagados,” I says quickly. “We’re partners. My name’s Pimelia. Mickey Pimelia. But they call me Mite, as in Mighty Mite, on account of my size. You might have heard of me? I certainly heard of you, yes I have. I’m very pleased to meet you sir. It’s an honor. Really. If there’s anything I can do to help you, sir, just let me—”
“Nemo,” says Abagados.
Nemo raises an eyebrow. “Shut up, Mite.”
Abagados shakes his head wearily. “Both then. And Nemo, my music.”
Nemo looks at Stavros, who holsters his gun and yells, “Play, you fools.”
The music started up again, gayer than before, and after a moment, the crowd it began again its loud murmur. The old man leaned on his cane, shrugged his shoulders like he had seen everything and was surprised by nothing, turned, and hobbled his way into the kitchen.
And with Big Johnny Callas and Hubert now both routed, Jerry Blatta and me, side by side, we followed the old man, theNonos,followed the old man into our futures.PART TWOTHE NONOS9
Celia Singerstared down at the thick slab of beef bleeding on her plate.
There were times, when first she came to New York City, still living in the women’s residence hotel, watching her meager savings thin, that the mere thought of a steak so thick could have sent her swooning. In those days, and even in the later days when she lived with Gregory and earned barely enough for her nightly dinners at the Automat, the desperately hoped-for New York success consisted, for her, of a myriad of nights at the popular spots, treated to steaks by one after the other of her imagined beaus—not Gregory, who saw meat as the purest manifestation of capitalists as carnivores, devouring their cows before they devoured their proletariat—but others, the faceless others, linking their arms with hers to drink champagne and laugh at the witty conversation that swirled about them like the smoke of their fashionable cigarettes. She hadn’t wanted much, she thought, just everything.
And now, against all odds, here she was, in the barroom of the “21” Club, with a steak the size of a small dog on her plate and almost everything she had ever hoped for having come true…well, almost everything. Like the steak, for instance.The steak she had always imagined would be discreetly well grilled, fully cooked without a hint of blood. But strangely, now, she found the cut of meat on the plate before her, raw enough to still twitch, more to her liking.
“So what happened to him?” she said.
“He was taken care of is all,” said Mite. “I was just trying to tell you the way some people are, how they’ll try anything to make a fool of you. I mean, the one thing you can be sure is that anyone what claims to be CIA ain’t CIA.”
“Did Blatta do something to him?”
Mite tried to shush her quiet.
“The things I’ve heard.” Her eyes widened, she smiled slyly. “Did Blatta bite off his ear? Did Blatta break his leg?”
“Look, don’t use his name, especially in a joint like this. He don’t like that, all right?”
“The things I’ve heard.”
“No one’s supposed to use his name, even me. Dig in, why don’t you?”
“Don’t you trust me, Mite?” There was a flirtatious whine in her own voice that she found disturbing, it was the voice of one of those women who talked to their husbands like they talked to their dogs.Don’t you twust me, my sweet wittle wovey-dovey.
“I trust you, course I does, Celia. It’s just not important to the point of the thing. The point was about how careful you gots to be, how everyone’s out for his own self and you can’t trust a one of them. What, is something wrong with your steak? You want I tell the chef to stick it back in the frypan a few minutes?”
“No, Mite, thank you. It’s perfect.”
“It looks a little raw to me. I knows you like it done better than that. Let me talk to Peter.”
“Please,” she said, “don’t,” but even as she said it he lifted his arm into the air and snapped his fingers.
She shrugged her shoulders, looked away and scanned the crowd. Gray suits and black wingtips, women in pearls, mink stoles, highballs and high-handed greetings, a swirl of meat eaters and greeters three deep at the long wooden bar or floating table to table, as if at a big party celebrating their own glorious selves. Actors and writers, internists to the stars, theater producers and publicity agents and columnists with phones at their tables, moguls and their second wives, politicians and their girlfriends and their aides playing the beard. Not to mention the gangsters and their molls, smiling fiercely, which she supposed included the two of them, though Mite was an unlikely gangster with his small stature and his loud green suits and Celia an even more unlikely moll. Still, they came once a week, Mite and Celia, sitting side by side at the same fine table beneath the shelves of athletic trophies, facing out at the room so that Mite could sit with his back to the wall. “Gots to keep an eye out for trouble,” he explained to her.
From their red leather banquette they spied the famous and the faux famous. Was that Richard Rodgers there, in the corner, sitting next to Ed Sullivan, or just two dour lawyers talking shop? Was that Jackie Gleason with a cigar and a girl singer that looked like she was seventeen, or just some fat man from Toledo and the hooker he picked up off the street? Was that, my God, Ernest Hemingway, throwinghis head back in great gales of masculine laughter, his big hand gripped around his PapaDoble, or just some Madison Avenue stiff with a beard and a loud voice trying very hard to look like Ernest Hemingway, or maybe, strangest possibility of all, Ernest Hemingway trying very hard to look like Ernest Hemingway?
The glamorous crowd in the barroom of “21” was not at all like the ragtag assortment at the Automat, where never there was a complaint of a Salisbury steak being underdone. Occasionally, at the end of a night out, Celia would stop back in at the Automat and have a look around, the scene remarkably unchanged: the never-ending argument at the politicians’ table; the college boys discussing Céline; the prostitutes with their weary expressions; the showbiz types with their forced gaiety. Even Tab, the boy hustler, was still around, though no longer looking so young or so innocent. She liked to visit the old place, see the old crowd that had once been like a family to her, she liked to take it all in and feel the bitter gratitude at having escaped its clutches. No longer did she hoard her nickels to have enough for a piece of pie, no longer would she sit dreamily by the window and watch the world stream by beyond the plate glass.
“Is there a problem, Mr. Pimelia?”
“Yeah, Peter, look at this thing.” Mite stuck his fork in Celia’s steak and lifted it off the plate, blood dripping down. “It’s like you herded the cow through the kitchen and the chef sliced it right onto the plate.”
“I’m terribly sorry, Mr. Pimelia. I’ll have a new sirloin cooked to order. Medium well, madam?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“Excellent,” he said as he scooped up the plate and handed it off to one of the waiters.
“Did you hear that there, Celia?” said Mite. “You’re now a madam.”
“To think,” said Celia, “finally promoted to management.”
“Anything else you need, let me know.”
He winked at her, winked as if this kid who had made good could do any sort of magic with a simple gesture, a snap of his fingers, a twitch of his lid. And maybe he could. He had started as a raggedly dressed waif with thrift-shop clothes, but like a hero out of Horatio Alger he had risen. Now his shoes were from Regal, his suits from Bonds, his shirts from Arrow, his watch from State Jewelers, his ties from King of Slims. He was a man of the Square, absolutely, linked so closely and inextricably to the mysterious Jerry Blatta that full-grown men shivered when he came close.
It was strange the way things had shifted and her own reaction to it. Celia liked being seen now with a big man on the Square, no matter his size, liked being given the best tables, the complimentary bottles of wine. She caught herself showing inflated exhibitions of interest in Mite’s conversations, tilting her head and lowering her eyes at opportune moments, letting the light catch her teeth as she laughed at his jokes. When she got right to it, Mite was the most important person she knew, and because of that some Darwinian instinct had clutched at her good sense. He is important, it told her, he has power; these acts of flirtation were genetically compelled and, in the presence of his power, she was powerless to halt them.
She placed her elbows on the table, leaned her shoulder toward his, tilted her head just so. “Is that Jimmy Durante?”
“Over there, at the table by the bar.”
“Sure it is. You want he should come over, say hello?”
“You can’t do that.”
“Sures I can. I’ll ask Peter next time he comes around.”
“How do you know Jimmy Durante?”
Mite shrugged. “He lives at the Astor. We did him a favor once. I’ll ask. By the way, how’s the day shift working out for you?”
“Fine, thank you. It’s nice to wake up with the rest of the world for a change.”
“Yeah good. That Barney guy is all right. He was more than willing to do a favor once I tuned him in. He’s treating you all right?”
“Like a queen,” she said gaily.
The promotion to the day shift had come well ahead of those with far more seniority at the phone company. She had mentioned it once, an offhand comment that she was tired of sleeping all day and working all night, and suddenly her boss, Mr. Rifkin, had put his arm on her shoulder and squeezed and told her she had been doing such a wonderful job that she was being promoted. He did this in front of everyone and the other girls eyed her suspiciously, which secretly thrilled her, better suspicion in their eyes than pity. She wondered at what Mite had done to convince Barney Rifkin to do him the favor,or if maybe he had sent Blatta to make the request. And she also wondered how offhand her own comment had truly been. They were right to be suspicious, the girls stuck on the night shift, struggling still to sleep through the morning with the honk of trucks outside their windows and light streaming through their shades.
She lifted her empty wineglass and a waiter quickly filled it. Another waiter deftly placed a new steak before her, its surface dark and sizzling.
“So tell me, Mite,” she said, “how do you break someone’s legs?”
“I mean, do you just crack them like twigs—” she snapped a piece of celery with her fingers—“or do you use tools? I know they call your friend Jerry a leg-breaker, so I was wondering.”
“It’s just an expression,” said Mite. “It don’t mean nothing. You know what I been thinking? I been thinking I oughts to go see an opera.”
“Why on earth would you want to do that?”
“You know, culture. You think I’d like opera?”
“No, I don’t. So he’s never broken anyone’s leg?”
“I don’t know, maybe. A couple arms I know for sure. He just twists them behind the mope’s back like a chicken wing and that’s it.”
“What’s it like to watch him do it? Do you hear the crack?”
“You don’t want to know,” he said, but he was wrong, she did, every detail, every scent and sound. She was fascinated by his work, even the dark parts, especially the dark parts, theJerry Blatta parts. That the strange man in brown, seeming to be totally lost in the world when first she spied him, could end up being the source of all power in the Square amazed her. She hadn’t seen him since that night in the Automat, but she constantly sensed his presence through Mite, and, somehow, it felt as if he were coming ever closer. The thought of ending up face to face with Jerry Blatta again secretly thrilled her.
This thing with Mite, this peculiar relationship, was now the richest part of her life. She first went out with him as a favor, reluctantly agreeing because he seemed so anxious to impress her, but now she looked forward to their dinners with a breathless anticipation. Mite was her lone connection to a more dangerous, more awe-inspiring world, and she wouldn’t give this connection up, or the gifts Mite tossed to her as if they were nothing more than trifles. The dark blue dress she was wearing tonight, and the pearls, were from him. But she figured it was a square deal. In exchange for the weekly dinners and the gifts, Mite bought a companion, someone he could sit and talk to without the pressure of having to pretend to be other than he was, a kid who had latched onto something and was riding it high, someone to laugh with as Times Square opened up to him like an oyster. And it wasn’t like she didn’t pay a price for all he lavished on her: thrilling and dangerous this new world might be, but also distressingly barren. Everyone assumed there was something between her and Mite and no one anymore ever wanted to be on the wrong side of Mite. So she was like a vestal virgin without the virgin part, lavished with gifts and yet remaining untouched, as if being prepared for some great destiny.
For a while, she had wondered when Mite would make his move, the inevitable pass, and what she would do about it. At one point, she had decided that she would let him, she would close her eyes and let him, and that way she wouldn’t feel like she was a cheat as she swilled his wine at dinner. At another point, she had decided that she wouldn’t, that Mite would have to take only what she was willing to offer, her time, her friendship, her smile, and be satisfied or go on his way. But then she realized that Mite wouldn’t ever make that pass. She would have been insulted except she could sense it simply wasn’t in him, boiling away like it was in the other men she had known.
“Why wouldn’t I like opera?” he asked. “The swells all seem to lap it up.”
“If you’re having trouble sleeping, Mite, buy a pillow.”
“What about that guy with the name what writes them plays. I hear he’s pretty good.”
“With the name?”
“Like a state.”
“Tennessee Williams? Yes, he’s wonderful. He has something opening up in the Morosco soon, something about a cat stuck up in a tree or something.”
“A show about cats? It’ll never go over.”
“Maybe, but I’d still love to go.”
“Okay, I’ll get us ducats, then. Front row good?”
“He’s a fruit, you know.”
“Is he? Well maybe we’ll see something else. There’s plenty else, isn’t there?”
“So why is he not called an arm-breaker, if that’s what he does. I just want to get the lingo down.”
“Why are you so interested in the Boss all of a sudden?”
“I’m just curious, Mite. Just curious.”
“It’s an expression, is all. Look, it’s just beeswax. We make deals, we expect them kept. We don’t go looking for trouble, but when someone starts talking about the CIA being the reason he can’t pay what he owes, we can’t go to no police, we gots to take care of it ourselves, that’s all.”
“Do you hear the crack?”
“All you hear are the pleading and the shake in the voice and then the scream, that’s all you hear. A lot of screaming.”
“It’s the same in opera, too.” She leaned toward him. “How does it make you feel, all the screaming?”
“Like my suit’s too tight.”
She pulled back quickly. It was not what she was expecting. She had expected to hear of the blood pounding, the fingers tingling, she had expected to learn something of the thrill in the raw exercise of power. What she felt now was like going down a fast elevator, a deflating sense of disappointment. Disappointment, she realized with a touch of shame, in Mite.
“Did you ever think, Mite?” she said enthusiastically, trying to mend a rent maybe only she felt. “When I first saw you, you looked like a drowned rat. It was raining, ferociously, and you ran into the Automat, your jacket pulled over your head. And then you hit on each table, one after the other, looking for a piece of change.”
“And after a while you finally came over to my table, water still dripping off your hair onto your face, and asked me for your usual thirty-nine cents.”
“And you gave it.”
“Why thirty-nine cents, Mite? Why not a dime like everyone else, or a quarter? Why thirty-nine cents?”
“Was a Joe I knew when I was still a boy, an old guy what met me in the public library of all places.”
“What were you doing in a public library?”
“I was reading, what do you think? I used to be quite the reader, and not just comic books, thick books.The Count of Monte Cristo. You ever read that?”
“It’s a boys’ book.”
“Yeah, especially for a boy what’s been getting his butt kicked all over the schoolyard. Anyhoo, this old guy he taught me when you’re asking from dough always be specific, a set amount it gives comfort to the mopes paying out. He taught me a lot. Everything I done in the Square, it’s like I’m following his blueprint.”
“He did you a favor.”
“Suppose? Why look at you. Look at all the money you have now, eating in the finest restaurants. Look at the way they treat you, like royalty. You’re Pinnacio.”
“The guy you told me about, the manager now in Hollywood. You told me about Pinnacio like he was a talisman, a symbol that everything was possible. I bet the up-and-comers don’t talk about Pinnacio anymore. I bet they talk about you.”
“You found it, Mite. What did you call it?”
“The pineapple pie?”
“That’s it. It always sounded so tasty.”
“But still, sometimes I feel the suit is too tight.”
“Buy another,” she snapped.
“See the thing is, Celia, the thing is,” said Mite, who was clearly trying to tell her something, who was obviously struggling to make himself understood, “my mother was trapped. I don’t know I ever told you about my mother.”
“No,” said Celia, not sure she wanted to hear about his mother, there, in the “21” Club, drinking red wine and eating red meat and watching Jimmy Durante tell stories at his table.
“She was…she had…I never told no one before, but she had these episodes, she called them. Episodes. They was more like the whole world crashing down. She would spin around and her eyes would roll up the back of her head and she’d be shaking and quivering and she’d fall down bang to the floor and there’d be nothing there, nothing there. The first was this big surprise and the second was not such a surprise and after that she just didn’t want to go nowhere in case it happened right there, on the street, with everyone watching. So it was like she was trapped by this thing, this affliction of emptiness which I never told no one about but which scared me small. It still does.”
“Do you want more wine?”
“Yeah, sure. And now I see those mokes in their suits, wage slaves Old Dudley called them—Old Dudley was the guy what set me on my way—the suckers riding the train in and working on someone else’s money and then riding the train back. Better they hang themselves with them ties, he used to say. Except what are they going back to, Celia? The wife, thekids, the family I never knowed because my dad he ran and my mom she had her episodes, the little houses that Levitt he’s building for them out on the Island with them picket fences. And you know, it gets me wondering.”
“That’s not you, Mite.”
“Why not? Why the hell not? I could wear gray, not green. I could fold my paper on the train, fold once, fold twice, a little bend and there it is, the baseball scores ready for my perusal. Hey, Don, how’d them Gints do yesterday? I could like opera, maybe, or that queen from Tennessee.”
“Well, nows I understand. But see there’s a whole ’nother layer in the Square that I know nothing about. All them theaters, all them parties at Sardi’s, all them books I don’t read no more. Look around, these mokes are all part of it, why can’t I be too? Sometimes I feel as trapped as my mother she ever was, like I got the same affliction and the emptiness it’s pouring down on me like rain.”
“Mite, stop. Please.”
She didn’t want to hear this, his anxieties and doubts, the weepy telling of his childhood traumas. It was selfish, she knew, he was trying so hard, she could tell, but still his confession was more than she could bear. She needed him to be a cartoon, an amiably winning surface of strut and language whose number had hit and who now was taking her along for the ride. And that other stuff, that darker stuff, the Blatta stuff that tightened his collar, for her that was more than just part of his color, his charm. For her that was, somehow, the root of everything. So she didn’t want to see the undersizedboy tending to his epileptic mother after his father had run away. She didn’t want to see the gangster straining against the violence of his trade and yearning for the bland homilies of suburban life. She didn’t want to see the man, naked and alone, bewildered by his existential anxieties. For God’s sake, did he think he was the only one with the specter of emptiness threatening to swallow him? Didn’t he realize that the surface he wanted to discard, that edge of darkness that sickened him, was the only thing protecting her from the same damn specter? So no, she didn’t want to hear any of it, not because of what it said about him, but for what it said about her taste for pearls and wine, her new job on the day shift, her growing hunger for animal flesh cooked rare.
“I’m sorry, Celia. I don’t want to ruin your dinner. I just thought you’d understand what it meant, and all, feeling trapped.”
Like she was slapped. “I don’t feel trapped.”
“You know what I meant. We all of us are in—”
“Mr. Pimelia, sir?”
The man who appeared at their table was portly and sweating as he stood, literally, hat in hand. She had seen others just like him on other nights, all clothed with either greater or lesser aplomb but all with the same terror in their eyes. This one had a golden ring on one of his fat fingers and the neatly trimmed beard of a man who wasn’t used to standing, literally, hat in hand. She was so relieved to see him it was like he was a reprieve from the sentence Mite was about to impose upon them both.
“Aw hell, Cooney,” said Mite, who didn’t rise to greetthe man but instead glanced at Celia as if the appearance of the man proved his point, and then sawed into his steak, untouched during his awkward revelations. “How’d you get in here?”
“I’m sorry to disturb your dinner, Mr. Pimelia.”
“Yeah? So come back when we’re done.”
“Can we talk?” The man glanced at Celia. “In private?”
“What’s to talk about?” said Mite, sticking a piece of meat in his mouth, chewing, continuing to talk all the while. “You’re late again. Two weeks this time.”
“The closing, Mr. Pimelia, they keep putting it off. Now it’s a problem with the deed. The buyer is ready and willing, but they keep putting off the closing.”
“And that’s supposed to be our problem? You knew the terms. More wine there, Celia?”
“Yes please,” she said brightly. Mite poured the last of the bottle into her glass, raised his hand, snapped his fingers.
“Yes, Mr. Pimelia,” said Peter, who had appeared quickly and silently, and was now standing just behind the man with the beard. “Is there a problem? This man said he was a friend of yours.”
Mite glanced up at the man in the beard and then said, “No, no problem. We’re out of wine here, is all. And get Jimmy over by the bar another bottle of whatever it is he’s drinking and tell him I gives my regards.”
Peter leaned over, snatched the empty bottle from off the table. “Very good, Mr. Pimelia.”
The man with the beard watched until the maître d’ had left and then began again with his pleading. “I can’t make thetwo-fifty, per, Mr. Pimelia. I just can’t. You’ll get it all when we close, I swear, with some extra. But just now, I tried to get the five I owe you.”
“And this week’s too.”
“Of course, yes, I tried. And I can’t.”
“You got a house, don’t you?”
“And three kids, Mr. Pimelia, and a wife and a mother-in-law living in a first-floor bedroom.”
“Aw, Cooney, we don’t want to hear about your mother-in-law, please, we’re eating here. Look, you got something to say, you want to make a deal, make it with the big guy.”
The man’s eyes swam like two fish, left, right, bulging forward. “No please, God, no. That’s why I came to you, Mr. Pimelia, to avoid going to him.”
“But Cooney, there’s nothing I can do. If you can’t make the payments or a deal with the big guy, there is nothing I can do.”
Mite sawed at his steak and then looked up at Celia. Celia glanced at the man and though she believed she should have felt pity, compassion, horror over what was being done to him and his family, what she felt instead was a familiar tremor of thrill at being part of some force powerful enough to shake a man like that to his core. The affection she felt that instant for Mite grabbed at her heart, and if he had asked her just then for anything, anything, she would have given it gladly and without hesitation.
“What about that ring you’re sporting there, Cooney?” said Mite, while still staring at Celia. “The big gold one. How much it worth?”
“I don’t know. It has sentimental value.”
“We’ll call it five.”
“It’s solid gold, with two diamonds and a ruby, Mr. Pimelia.”
“How big are them diamonds?”
“Mr. Pimelia, please God, I don’t remem—”
“Half carat each maybe.”
Mite raised his eyebrows and smiled, still looking only at Celia. “All right, you’re lucky you got me on a night when my mood is sweet and I might just be in the market for a ring. I’ll need to resize it, and that will cost me, still I figure it’s good for seven-fifty.”
“Take it off.”
The man hesitated and then, quickly, he began scrabbling at his finger, trying to yank off the ring. It wouldn’t budge past the knuckle. He gave it a twist, tried again, his face strained with the effort.
“I’ll tell him you’re clear up to this week. But next time don’t come back to me like this. Either bring the money or go see him. And Cooney, believe me when I tell you this, it’s better you find him than he finds you.”
“I understand,” said the man, his voice slow and constipated as he struggled with the ring.
“All right, all right, let’s have it.”
“I’m trying, Mr. Pimelia,” the man said, his face twisting grotesquely from the effort. “All the nervousness, my hands are swollen, but I’m trying.”
Celia edged a small crock of butter his way.
She was still feeling a quivering thrill at what she had done when she looked up. Her heart leaped when she saw him. He was coming toward them, energetically darting through the crowd, arms outstretched. His bent back, his famous nose, a great gleam in his eye.
“Mickey, you son of a gun,” came the celebrated rasp, full of merriment and rhythm, “how you ended up with the swellest dame in the room I’ll never know. It’s a mystery, it is. Guess my good news. Guess. All right I’ll tell you. I made a killing today in the market. Yes indeed. I shot my broker. Mickey, my friend, you look like a million. So how the hell are you?”10
Kockroach doesnot dream. The inner mechanisms of his brain won’t admit to gorgeous flights of fantasy and it need not trouble itself with working through the unsolved dilemmas of the day because Kockroach’s day has no unsolved dilemmas. He does what he needs to get what he wants and moves on. In fact, Kockroach’s life has little day in it. He falls peacefully to sleep at the earliest announcement of the early dawn, the dreamless sleep of the innocent, if innocence is remaining true to inner character, and arises only as the promise of night begins whispering in his ear. What song he hears from the onset of night is the song that has serenaded his species awake for a hundred thousand millennia:
“Darkness comes, sweet darkness, so arise, ye scions of the night, and devour.”
At the first rap on his door Kockroach scurries from beneath his bed. He has slept his peaceful slumber in the lovely narrow gap between the bedsprings and the floor, but still the covers and sheets of the bed are tossed and twisted with some fierce abandon. For a cockroach, a night without sex is like…well, how would one even know? He pushes himselfto standing, protects his eyes with the dark glasses, strolls, naked and unabashed, arms rising languidly in his contrapuntal step, to the door, which he opens.
The man in the red jacket studiously keeps his gaze averted as he rolls in the cart with its twin domes, like two great silver breasts. He parks the cart, bows stiffly, and silently backs out of the suite, leaving Kockroach alone.
Kockroach lifts one dome to find a huge bowl of ice topped with thick pink shrimp, cooked but still in their shells, their little legs clutching at the ice. He dips his hand into the red spicy sauce, licks his fingers clean with his long tongue, and then one by one jams the shrimp into his mouth. He masticates with abandon, letting out a strange series of chortles with each snap of the jaw. He has taken a great liking to shrimp, their briny sweetness, like the briny marshes in which his great and noble forebears first evolved. The lovely crunch of their thin shells reminds him of the crunch of chitin eaten after a molt.
Beneath the second dome lies a great rack of lamb, the bones arranged in a crown, pink paper hats on the tip of each rib. Kockroach lifts the rack, each hand grabbing a number of ribs, lifts it above his head, and then, in a savage jerk, rips it apart. He snaps at the tender chunks of meat rolling off each rib, first from one hand, then the other, and back again, ripping the meat with his teeth, mashing it to pulp with his molars, swallowing the sweet roasted muscle before snapping at more. His lips, his cheeks, his body is smeared with the grease of the rack. When the meat is gnawed off he starts on the bones, crushing them in his teeth, sucking out the marrow.
This fascination with meat, with bone and marrow, with the slippery strips of fat that line each stria of rib, is a corruption of his essential cockroach nature by the carnivorous traits of his human body, and yet, yet…it feels right, oh so right. It is different, yea, but not a departure, nay, not a departure at all. Instead it is a great evolutionary step forward, a natural progression from the discovery of fire. This is how cockroaches would eat had they the wherewithal to hunt larger prey, to cook their victims over savage fires, to smear the grease of their roasted conquests across their abdomen, their legs, their genital hooks.
He struts around, his back arched, his legs stepping high, holding the final remnants of the ribs in the air as the light reflects off the smears of fat on his body, struts and laughs and revels.
He is in the shower when the man in the red coat arrives to roll out the cart. The shrimp are gone, muscle and shell. All that’s left of the rack of lamb are the tiny paper hats, tossed carelessly across the floor.
Kockroach sits back in the stiff, high chair, the white robe cinched around his body, his glasses on, his grimace fixed, the lower part of his face covered with hot white foam. A man scrapes at the foam with a straight razor. A female rubs his nails with a yellow stick. A man is in the corner shining his shoes. Mite sprawls on the couch, his feet on a coffee table, talking.
“The girls are all out, Jerry, all but Sylvie what says it’s sopainful she can barely walk. Don’t know what it is with her lately, but she ain’t bringing in what she was, no surprise the way the skin it hangs off of her like a baggy sack of nylons. She’s on the sleeve, I think, but everyone knows not to sell to our girls so I don’t know where she’s getting it. Having her around, it’s bad for business, gets the other girls upset and, truth be told, she ain’t so appetizing to the buyers. We need do something about her soon.”
Kockroach says little when Mite speaks, but it is not out of a paucity of words. He has learned much of the language, picked it up on the run from conversations overheard, from statements barked by his associates, from the movies Mite sometimes takes him to on hot, slow nights. He now knows the names of the parts of his new body, the names of the human things that surround him. He has collected strung-together bits of noise that he sounds out during the gaps in his sleep until they are polished and ready for the world. The sentences he has learned are short, to the point, active, orders aped from the most powerful humans he has come across. And along with the sentences he has learned a trick about speaking with humans: the fewer sounds you make, the more they respect and fear you; the fewer sounds you make, the more you maintain control.
“The protection’s been coming in like clockwork, no worry there, not after what you did to Paddy’s place and then to Paddy’s wife. Once word got out, the others what was holding back all fell in line like tenpins. Oh she’s walking again, by the way, case you was worried, Paddy’s wife, though she ain’t walking so well.”
The man with the straight razor cleans off his blade and strops it on a leather strap hanging from his belt.
“Today’s collections is on target,” says Mite. “Pinkly’s late with his hundred, but I talked to his mom and she says he don’t come up with it in a day or two she’s good for it. I think she’s got a stash somewheres underneath a mattress so it pays to let him get behind. Rickland paid, Somerset paid, Bert is out of town but his girl’s still around so he’ll come through. And you’ll love this. Seven twelve came up, which is Toddy’s number, son of a bitch. He owed us six plus, but as soon as I heard the number I got to his runner afore he did, so he’s up to date.”
“Show me,” says Kockroach.
“Sure, Jerry, sure. You know I’m always square with you.”
Mite reaches into his jacket, pulls out a thick envelope, drops it onto the coffee table with a solid thwack. The female working on Kockroach’s nails slips and digs a knife into the cuticle. Kockroach’s hand suffers not a twitch as blood wells on his fingertip. The female cleans it off nervously with a white towel.
“I’m sorry, sir,” she says. “I’m sorry.”
“Who isn’t?” says Kockroach.
“I marked out with a paper clip theNonos’s cut, for you to give him the way you like,” says Mite.
“TheNonoswants to meet everyone at midnight. Nemo made sure for me to tell you not to be late.”
“That’s it, I guess.” Mite drops his feet from the table, slapshis thighs and stands. “I’ll see you at midnight then. Have yourself a good night, Jerry.”
“What about Cooney?” says Kockroach.
Mite freezes for an instant, and from behind his glasses, Kockroach notices.
“I told you he made up three payments a couple weeks ago,” says Mite.
“I didn’t see the cash.”
“He made it up in trade. He gave us this.” Mite screws a thick gold ring off his finger. “I had it sized for me and took the spinach out of my cut, but if you want it, Jerry, be my guest.”
Mite flips the heavy ring to Kockroach, who examines it carefully, notices how small it is, notices the shiny metal, the square diamonds, the ruby, and then bites into it as he has seen others bite into gold.
“Swell,” Kockroach says, tossing it back to Mite. “Keep it for yourself. But what about this week?”
“He’s due, yeah,” says Mite, examining the ring with evident disappointment, a bite mark ripping now through its face, “but I think we should give him time. He’s been jabbering something about the city holding up his deal. I checked out what he’s saying and it’s on the up. Once the deal closes and he flips the building he’ll have plenty to pay what he owes and a premium to boot. He’s got a wife and three kids, he needs a break.”
“I think so too, sweet pea,” says Kockroach, his grimace, half hidden by the foam, growing wider.
Mite nods, turns to leave.
“Hey, Mite,” says Kockroach, “how about a game?”
The attendants have departed. Kockroach, still in his white robe and his dark glasses, sits at a table across from Mite. Between them lies the board with its array of brown and white squares and the little wooden pieces. Together they are performing a human ritual that Mite has taught to Kockroach, a ritual called chess.
“What are you up to, Mite?” says Kockroach as he stares at the board.
“You know me, Boss. I’m never up to nothing.”
Kockroach has learned to enjoy the give-and-take over the board. Mite’s was the first name he learned in the human world and he relies on Mite for much as he runs the business of running Times Square, but Kockroach is not certain he can trust Mite anymore. If you know what a human wants, you have control. But Kockroach is no longer sure of what Mite wants. At first he assumed that Mite wanted exactly what he himself wanted: money, power, sex, shrimp, sex. But Mite was never about sex, and money, power, and shrimp seem no longer enough for him, and that is the cause of Kockroach’s concern. This mistrust has leaked into all their business dealings. The hesitancy Kockroach noticed this very night is merely another example. But Mite, who is suitably deferential to Kockroach in business, is anything but deferential in the ritual. He schemes, he traps, he attacks without mercy. The only time now Kockroach feels Mite is being completely honest with him is during the ritual of the game.
It took Kockroach a long time to gain an understanding of the ritual. Not the pieces and the moves, that was easy. The slopey pieces move entirely on an angle. The piece shaped like the head of a wasp jumps up and over. The moves and rules of this chess were easy, it was the purpose of the ritual that confused him. It seemed to him at the start a type of battling. When Mite first slipped his large female piece into Kockroach’s side of the board like a knife and knocked over Kockroach’s boss piece with the cross on top, Kockroach felt a spurt of fear. Now what? he wondered. He tensed his whole body, ready for a confrontation, sad at what he’d have to do to the little man. But Mite merely reached out his hand. “Good game, Jerry,” he said. “Keep at it and you’ll get the hang,” and that was it. Everything after the ritual was the same as before. It seemed to have no meaning. Kockroach didn’t understand. Time after time Mite toppled Kockroach’s boss piece and nothing changed.
Until something did change, and it slammed into Kockroach like a revelation.
In his first games, Kockroach examined the board and made what appeared to be the strongest move. If a square could be occupied he occupied it, if a piece could be killed he killed it. Cockroaches live eternally in the present tense and he performed the ritual like a cockroach, but each game ended with Mite knocking Kockroach’s pieces off the board one after the other before swooping in and killing his all-important boss piece.
“Where did you learn this chess?” said Kockroach early in their practice of the ritual.
“From Old Dudley, what taught me the ways of the world,”said Mite. “I ever tell you about Old Dudley? He said chess was a good thing to cotton to, teaches you how to think ahead.”
“Think ahead,” said Kockroach. “What’s that?”
But slowly, game after game, Kockroach began to understand. Mite moved that little piece there for a reason; if Kockroach killed Mite’s little piece, Mite could kill a stronger piece. If Kockroach moved here, Mite would move there. If Mite moved there and Kockroach moved there, then Mite would move there. Kockroach saw deeper into the game, the rituals lengthened, Kockroach came closer and closer to killing Mite’s boss piece.
But that wasn’t the fantastic change. As Kockroach stared at the board, sequences of moves played out in his head in glorious ribbons of possibility that grew and lengthened and weaved from the now to the then until, like some sort of strong magic, he was no longer playing only in the present, he was playing in the future, too.
“You’re getting tougher, Boss,” says Mite as their current ritual heads toward its conclusion. “You been taking lessons?”
“From you, Mite. Only you.”
“You got me pinned here. You got me pinned there. Looks like I’m in serious trouble.”
“Except watch this.” Mite moves his wasp. “Check.”
Kockroach stares at the board. The ribbons of possibility that had been reeling through his head suddenly shrivel. His boss piece is under attack. He has one possible move. He makes it.
Mite moves the female piece that had been protecting his boss piece, leaving his boss piece vulnerable. Kockroach isready to rush in and kill Mite’s boss when Mite says, “Checkmate.”
Kockroach stares at the board for a moment longer before he topples over his own boss piece.
“Nice game,” says Mite, reaching out his hand as he stands. “It won’t be long afore you own me.”
Kockroach, still staring at the board, ignores Mite’s outstretched hand as he says, “I own you already.”
“Maybe next time, Boss,” says Mite. He pulls back his hand, hitches up his pants, heads to the door. “Maybe, but I doubt it.”
Kockroach keeps staring at the board, willing the ribbons of possibility to reappear and flutter in his brain. The purpose of the ritual, he has learned, is not the game itself, not who kills whose boss. The purpose of the game is these ribbons rippling into the future. Through the practice of the ritual, he has leaped out of the arthropod’s slavish devotion to the present tense.
And suddenly, a whole new territory has opened up for Kockroach to plunder.
Pressed and pleated, shaved and shined and buffed, tie tightened, belt cinched, shoes double-knotted, jacket double-buttoned to his throat, glasses on, hat on, grin on, cigarette burning like a warning in his teeth, Kockroach saunters out of the elevator and greets the world.
“Good evening, Mr. Blatta.”
“Anything we can get you, Mr. Blatta?”
“Should I check your mail, Mr. Blatta?”
Kockroach stops at the main desk, tells the clerk a guest will be coming during the night.
“Very good, Mr. Blatta.”
“Your car is here, Mr. Blatta.”
“Step away, please, and let Mr. Blatta through.”
A path is cleared as if for a tycoon and doors are opened as if for a starlet. Kockroach walks through the crowded lobby, leaving gapes and green tributes in his wake.
Istvan is waiting for him outside, leaning on the hood of the big humped Lincoln, chocolate brown and encrusted with chrome. Istvan is Kockroach’s driver, promoted by Kockroach from the pack of lowly gangsters who police the Square. Istvan’s huge arms are crossed, his peaked cap is tipped up on his wide blond head, his narrow blue eyes light up with devotion when he sees Kockroach exit the hotel. Istvan jumps away from the hood and reaches for the door.
“Good evening, Mr. Blatta.”
Kockroach ducks into the car without breaking stride.
“What’s on the agenda tonight, Mr. Blatta?” says Istvan, his accent thicker than his arms.
The Murdock Hotel is a desiccated pile of cracked brick wedged between a dusty supply warehouse to the east and a failing shirtwaist factory to the west. The desk clerk, perchedon a stool, hunched over something pornographic, glances up to see Kockroach standing before him and jerks back so hard he slams into the boxes behind him, sending mail and keys clattering to the floor.
“Room two-two-four,” says Kockroach.
“Right away,” says the clerk as he drops to his knees and searches the floor for the key.
Kockroach climbs the steps slowly, sensing their rotting boards, their foul stench. He slams his fist on the damp wall and a slab of plaster dislodges to crash upon and tumble down the steps. He opens the door to Room 224 without a knock and finds Sylvie shivering beneath a blanket on her bed. She startles when she sees him, sits up, teeth chattering. The blanket slips down, baring her sagging, mismatched breasts and the ribs beneath them.
“Get dressed,” he says. “We’re going out.”
“I can’t, Jerry. God, I can’t. Don’t you see how sick I am?”
Kockroach steps forward and sits on the bed. He gently caresses the side of her face. She leans into his touch.
“I don’t want to see you like this,” he says.
“I miss you too, Jerry. We’re never together anymore. Remember when you used to take me out, when I taught you to dance at the Latin Club? Those were times, weren’t they? I know I haven’t been working enough, but I’m still sick. Even with the medicine you been giving me, I can’t do it anymore. I have to get away. I got a sister in Pittsburgh. I was thinking of visiting her, just for a while, to get back my strength.”
“You’ll be swell. You need to get up, step out. We’ll go for a ride.”
“I can’t get up. I can’t move.”
Kockroach reaches into his jacket, pulls out a small wax-paper bundle tied with a bright red string, and drops it onto her bed. The faint aroma of vinegar rises from the blanket.
“Medicine,” says Kockroach.
“I don’t know what’s worse,” says Sylvie, “the sickness or the cure.”
“Get dressed,” he says, standing. “I’ll be waiting for you outside.”
Sylvie stares at the bundle with the red thread for a long moment, as if deciding on something, and then snatches it to her chest.
“And Sylvie,” he says, his smile brightening, “put on something sharp.”
Istvan drives the Lincoln slowly through Times Square, the phantasm of light and color reflecting off the brown, the chrome, the glass like a scrambled message from a neon god. Kockroach sits jammed into the corner of the backseat, a cigarette in his teeth, one hand clamped on Sylvie’s knee. She is in a black dress with sequins, high heels, a fluffy boa wrapped around her neck. Her face is pale, pale as death, but her lips are painted red.
Istvan slows the car and then stops. Kockroach’s door opens, a red-haired woman in a tight sweater and bangle earrings leans into the car. “Sylvie,” she says, “dragged your skinny ass out of bed, did you?”
Sylvie snuggles up to Kockroach and licks his ear. Withoutturning her head, she slips a stare at the woman. “Get back to work, Denise. There might be a sailor still who hasn’t filled your mouth.”
“Leastways I’m working, baby.”
“Since you’re in the dough, let me give some advice. Do something about them snaggleteeth.”
The red-haired woman smiles.
“Please,” says Sylvie, “before you start frightening small children.”
“How’s beeswax?” says Kockroach.
“Started slow, must be a Bible convention in town, but it’s picking up.”
“Let me see.”
The woman pulls a wad of bills from inside her sweater. Kockroach takes them, sniffs them, jams them into his jacket. “Any trouble?” he asks.
“A tall hat from Texas thought he was so good he should get it for free. Janine whispered your name and he near pissed himself trying to take the wallet out of his pants.”
“I’ll be back before dawn. Tell Janine I want her to wait for me.”
The red-haired woman nods her head at Sylvie. “Why she get to ride tonight?”
Sylvie leans over Kockroach. “’Cause Jerry is tired of your fat ass and wanted a dose of class.”
“Dose of clap is more like it.”
Kockroach pushes the red-haired woman out the door and slams it shut. Istvan pulls away, down Broadway, as Sylvie leans over and sticks her tongue out at the window.
The great face rising above the car, its mouth open as if in perpetual surprise, blows a ring of smoke.
The brown car slides through empty streets.
“Where are we going?” asks Sylvie.
“I have something to show you.”
Sylvie cuddles up. “Some out of the way club? Some exotic gangster hangout?”
“Something like that.”
“Anyplace is fine,” she says, drowsily leaning her head on his strong left arm. “Surprise me.”
“That’s the intention,” he says. “Feeling better?”
“Much.” She yawns.
“Are you too tired to dance?”
“Don’t be silly,” she says, rubbing his stomach with her left hand. “I’m never too tired to dance with you.”
The streets narrow, twist and turn. The car purrs along, turns right, squeezes through an alleyway. It comes out on a wide stretch of asphalt, lined with blocky brick buildings fronted by wooden frames, the frames empty now of the carcasses hanging daily in the mornings. The thick smell of meat, rotting, luscious, hovers over the puddles and the cracked sidewalks, the dim streetlights, the overturned trash bins being scavenged by rats.
A huge dog in an alley, gnawing on the raw haunch of something, bends in respect as the brown car passes.
“Where are we?” says Sylvie, suddenly sitting up.
“Go to the end, Istvan,” says Kockroach.
“Is that the club?” says Sylvia.
“The far end.”
The car pulls to the end of the street, turns right, then left again, where they reach a wide, uneven strip of cobbles leading to a row of desultory wooden piers, ill lit, swirling with fog, seeming to be in the very process of slowly, agonizingly, collapsing into the Hudson River. Sylvie shrinks from Kockroach when she sees the piers.
On one, a shadow leans on a post, its very posture a signal of defeat. On another, toward the street, are two shadows, one walking fast, head swiveling, the other, well behind, dragging itself toward the light. A car rumbles along the cobblestones, stops at still another pier, a shadow slips in, the car moves off.
“Why’d you bring me here?” says Sylvie, unable to hide the desperation in her voice. “What business do you have here?”
“Do you see the pier straight ahead?”
“What about it, Jerry?”
“It’s yours now, sweet pea.”
“Go to hell. I’m no pier monkey. It’s only dope fiends and toothless scags that need work the piers.”
Kockroach loops a finger around her lower lip and pulls it down. There is a large gap between her front teeth and her back molar. “I’d say you’re a bit of both.”
“It was you that gave me the medicine. It was you that did this to me.”
“You were sick, you needed to be working. Like now.”
“Not here, not on the piers. Jerry, don’t make me do this.”
“Every bum needs a job.”
“Jerry, please. I’m begging you, no. Don’t do this. Let me go to Pittsburgh. My sister lives there. Front me the bus fare, that’s all I’m asking. I’ll get well. I’ll come back better than ever and be the queen of the Square. I was prime once, don’t you remember? We had something, didn’t we? We had nights. I taught you to dance at the Latin. Don’t do this, please, please, I’m begging you, please.”
Kockroach leans over and opens Sylvie’s door. “Nothing personal, pal, just beeswax.”
“Don’t, no, God, don’t make me, please, please, not the piers. I’ll do anything, anything.”
He lets her cry on as a wisp of fog floats in the door. He doesn’t have to shove her out, he sits there and waits until she cries herself into silence and then climbs out all on her own.
“You did this to me, you stinking cockroach,” she yells as she slams the door shut, losing her balance in the effort.
Kockroach watches silently as she staggers over the wide, uneven expanse of cobbles, reaches the pier, collapses against a wooden pole. He remembers that this is the first human with which he ever mated and wonders if that matters. He decides that it doesn’t. Kockroach does not read, but if he did he would agree with Shakespeare that “what’s past is prologue.” And if Kockroach did, in fact, ever have a book in his hand, he would certainly skip past the prologue and get right to the meat of it, which is the desiccated woman gripping desperately the wooden pole, now, turning from a drain on hisfinances to a productive member of his organization, now. Something needed to be done.
“You’ll check on her later, Istvan, make sure she stays all night.”
“No problem, Mr. Blatta. Where to?”
“The Acropolis.” Kockroach lights a cigarette. “Word is theNonoswants to talk.”11
If you took a midnight strollin the Square in them days, missy, what would you see? Degenerate womanizers, degenerate joint swingers, degenerate jazz fiends and drug fiends, and hooch hounds. It was a landscape of degeneration, God bless us all. But of all the degenerate degenerates patrolling the Square in them days, the most degenerate of all were them degenerate gamblers, the DGs.
Was a DG what made his life on the Square when first I arrived name of Jimmy Slaps. He had scuffed shoes and a long face and he wore his greasy old raincoat rain or shine, its filthy beige tail trailing after him like an ugly rumor as he cruised the Square looking for a bet, any bet, at any odds. If was a craps game going off in an alleyway south of Forty-fourth, Jimmy Slaps was there. If was a poker game being dealt in some fleabag flophouse, Jimmy Slaps was scratching behind his ear and raising hard on his two pair. His bible was the racing form, his drug of choice was long-shot odds, he jacked off to queens full.
See, the thing about a DG is he believes he’s found the answer to Hubert, the very purpose of life, and that the Main Street fools living without the thrill of seeing if the up card matches the two jacks down are the ones what are missingout on the true sweetness of the world. That’s why a sure thing don’t never interest guys like Jimmy Slaps. You want a sure thing, sell shoes for a living; Jimmy Slaps, he wanted to gamble.
And here’s the killer. If to be good at the thing you love to do is to be blessed in this world, then Jimmy Slaps was a limp-dick Mongol in a Chinese whorehouse.
So there was a poker game going down in the Chelsea Hotel off Forty-first, a big-money game organized by two pros from Chicago, and all the DGs on the Square was hot to take part. I’m talking about legends now. There was Shifty Mahoose, there was Kings Dagboy, there was Ices Neat, there was Tony Marrone. Big game, hot game, and naturally Jimmy Slaps wanted—no needed—to buy in. But the buy-in was a grand and Jimmy Slaps just then didn’t have enough to fade a game of nickel craps.
Old Jimmy was left out in the cold until Kings Dagboy, never a generous soul to begin with, agreed to cover Jimmy Slaps’s buy-in in exchange for nothing more substantial than a signature. It was a puzzling turn of events, more puzzling still when you knew that the Slap in Jimmy Slaps came from the way Jimmy’s eyes lit and he tapped the table with his fingertips whenever the card he was looking for came through.
With a tell like that, it wasn’t long afore Jimmy Slaps slapped hisself right out of that game, a thousand off the nut to Kings Dagboy. And Kings started immediately putting the squeeze on Jimmy, literally, throwing him in the crapper of that room at the Chelsea, taking Jimmy’s head in his meaty hands and squeezing that long face until Jimmy’s eyes near popped.
Jimmy begged for time, Kings Dagboy laughed and let loose his fists, busting Jimmy’s nose, knocking out two teeth. If Jimmy Slaps was a sad sack afore, now he was a bleeding piece of meat a thousand to the wrong with nowheres to run and no hopes of getting there. That’s when Kings made his offer. It was all a setup from the start, see, all a way for Kings to entertain the two pros from Chicago and make a profit on the thou in the process. And with his back against a toilet and Kings Dagboy’s fist aiming once again for his face, Jimmy Slaps had no choice but to agree.
When word got out, every DG on the Square wanted in on the action. Kings was making book and within five hours of the deal there was twenty thou on the line one side or the other, with Kings bound to make a couple G’s on the vig alone no matter how it all turned out. They set it up in the basement of an old garment factory on Thirty-ninth and the crowd poured in, a festive high-spirited crowd as interested in the show as in the welfare of their bets. Kings’s runners was working the crowd, taking bets to the last minute. Entrepreneurial souls was edging through the room with a bottle and a glass selling whiskey pure for a buck a swallow. Long-lost pals was shouting greetings back and forth like at a county fair.
It were a party until Jimmy Slaps hisself appears like magic beside a crate at the back end of the basement. Hoots and cheers and a few more bets taken and then the crowd quiets. Jimmy Slaps, shivering now, steps up on the crate, sweat pouring down his bloodied face, his filthy raincoat swirling about him, a revolver in his shaking right hand.
“This is my last bet, boys,” he tells the crowd in a quaveringvoice. “Life is all snake eyes without faith in something purer than a string of numbers hit. No more will I put my faith in a king-high straight, now I pledge myself to the King of Kings, the only shooter worth a bet. I have promised God I am finished with the life, and I want you all to keep me to it. If I make it through, no matter how I whine or beg, I’m asking you not to take my bets. Will you do that for me, will you, boys?”
The crowd lets out a roar, but not a roar of assent. It is a roar of disdain, a full-throated bellow of heckles and crude remarks, telling old Jimmy Slaps to quit the Bible-punching and get right to it. A crowd of DGs don’t want to hear about no change, no redemption, no promises to the great good Lord. All they wants is the bet laid and the race run so they can head to the window and lay another.
Jimmy Slaps smiles right into that roar, smiles as if, by God, he means every word of it, that he is finished with it all, that face to face with death itself, he has found an answer to Hubert and is ready to change. And in the middle of the crowd, selling my whiskey for a buck a shot, I believe him, that he really has found an answer. And I cheers for the son of a bitch, I does, I cheers as loud as my larynx allows.
Until right then, in the middle of the crowd’s disapproving roar and my cheers of hope, Jimmy Slaps puts that gun smack to his head and pulls the trigger.
We was royalty, the Boss and me. We ruled the Square, under the kingly benediction of theNonos. We was funny kind of partners; I did what the Boss told me and he, well, he toldme what to do. There it was, the delicate nature of our partnership, and it didn’t matter that I was the brains behind our rise in the Square, that I soothed the nerves he rankled and kept the money flowing, because he was the muscle and muscle always gets the bigger say. I knew better than to hold any kingly ambitions myself, but as long as he let me tell him what I needed to do, and then I followed his directions like a lapdog, we got along like gangbusters and we was both of us making out. I had climbed as far as ever I could hope to climb, I was the key man under the key man in Times Square and life was ever so grand.
Or was it?
Jimmy Slaps, what did he want in this world? He wanted to gamble, to bet, to feel the probabilities work their smooth impartial magic on his life. But when it became too real, when the hammer was cocked and the barrel faced his temple at a smooth six-to-one, suddenly he didn’t want the magic of them odds no more. You see, sometimes everything you’re hustling for it comes true and then you wonder if all that time you been hustling for the wrong damn thing.
In the spare moments between collecting the protection moneys and collecting the sharking moneys and collecting from our whores and collecting our cuts from the beer and drugs and smuggled cigs what was sold on our turf, in the spare moments I began to wonder if maybe I’d be in a whole different line if Old Dudley hadn’t sidled up to me in that library and started whispering about chess in my ear and that maybe the whole other line might have been the right line for me.
I see you trying to hide your sniggers. What the hell couldMite ever hope to be except a hustler, a chiseler, a thief? What other could Mite ever expect for hisself except the bowl of crap he fell into in hitching a ride on the back of the Boss. But see, maybe our fates ain’t as fixed as you would have it. Maybe it ain’t so set in stone, the way our lives they turn out. What better proof of that than old Jimmy Slaps, swearing afore the whole of his peers that his life would change and never would he take another bet.
I thought about going the Jimmy Slaps route, hitting my knees and asking God to save me, I even strolled every now and then up to old St. Pat’s and slipped into the cool calming darkness and watched the light twist blue and red through them windows. But in the end, when it came time for the actual praying, I couldn’t go through with it.
I mean let’s say He is everything them street-corner preachers say He is, let’s just say it. Then He is everything, ain’t He? The sun, the moon, the scrap piece of trash floating like a beam of light on the shiv of the wind. And if He’s everything, then He’s nothing too. Which meant when Hubert came a-visiting my mom, filling her with nothing, maybe he was really filling her with God, and hell with that. I couldn’t help the feeling that if ever I dropped to my knees and said the words and tried to open my heart, it would never be what I hoped would come rushing in, some guy with a long white beard and a cardigan and a pipe calling me sonny boy and tiger. No, it would be Hubert hisself jumping in my head and making hisself at home and sending me spinning in the air afore I fell on the floor with foam coming out my mouth.
So no, it wasn’t never going to be prayer that saved me, noway, I was onto that scam. But see, by then I had something else in mind.
First time ever I saw her it was storming like an orphan and I was soaked to the bone and I dived into the Automat for a refuge and there she was, seated by the window, stirring her coffee. Flawlessly beautiful, the line of her jaw, the bump of her nose, the pale white skin, eyes the blue of a sky you don’t never see in the city, the blue of a sky over an Iowa cornfield, and missy, I had never been to Iowa and still I knew. And when I saw her, all at once my little hustler dreams they faded like a fog beneath the sun and I understood, with the vicious cruelty of a bully boy, exactly what I was and all them things that would never be mine.
And then she stood and walked her crippled walk over to refill her coffee cup and my heart, my twisted black heart, it cracked open with hope. For I knew then that we was two of a kind, this woman and me, two bodies marked with misfortune, two lonely souls looking for comfort in a world what starts out cruel on the schoolyard and goes downhill from there. You could see the goodness in her, how could there not be with her leg in a brace, and her face it glowed with her goodness, just like my mother’s face, even in the throes of her episodes, maybe especially then. And the goodness there, along with her affliction, it gave me the courage to hitch up my pants and slide over to her table and sit down uninvited and tell her a story and ask for my thirty-nine cents. And there it began between Celia and me.
By the time of now I’m speaking, we was painting the town once a week, rubbing shoulders with the hoit-toit at “21,”chugging wine, chewing steaks so thick you had to cuts each piece twice, longways and then sideways, just to get it in your mouth. Good times we had then, and I could confide in her everything about my life except the one thing what mattered most, the desire what kept me up at night, the desire to take care of her, to protect her, to matter to her, just like it was with me and my ma. And we wanted the exact same things, Celia and me, I could tell, security, peace, a place of our own, a family, with the kids reaching up theys little arms to us.
Silly, ain’t it, a guy like me dreaming that hackneyed picket-fence dream, but when you’re my size normalcy suddenly ain’t so normal.
Yeah there it is, what would save me from Hubert’s grasp, the only thing worth the game. Love, dammit, love would save me. I loved Celia Singer, not like the cricket’s love some moke with a highball and a hard-on feels for the dancer what’s grinding away on his lap, no, missy. My love was purer than that, higher than the meat and kidneys what rule the day on this soiled heap of dust. It was like a hard cold star in the night sky, like the flight of a white pigeon skimming the rooftops as it makes its way home, like the explosion in my heart when my momma let the emptiness flow through her one last time.
Can you feel it, missy? I still can. From the first moment I laid eyes on her, it never stopped glowing.
I could never tell Blatta about what I was hoping for with Celia because Blatta wasn’t the type in who to confide your soft intimate yearnings. And I couldn’t tell our girls what were working the Square, and I couldn’t tell the barkeeps whatwere paying our protection, and Peter, over at “21,” he didn’t want to hear it, and my mother she was dead. In fact, there was only one Joe what I could confide all my hopes and dreams to, only one who seemed to understand. And this you’ll never guess, this is a beautiful thing, this, because the Joe I was confiding to was the one Joe what could make it all come true.
Fat Nemo drummed the tabletop with his fat fingers. He was dressed to the nines, double-breasted pinstripes, tie tight. When Nemo, with that neck of his, so thick it was like he had no neck, had his tie tight it meant business. I’m setting the scene, all right, just sos you understand how what happened happened. It ain’t so easy to see sometimes. Sometimes it’s like the smallest breath of air changes everything. Fat Nemo, I knew by then, was the number two in the organization. Sitting beside Nemo was Mr. Abagados, theNonos. The old man appeared to be sleeping, his hands on his cane, his chin falling down to his throat.
“He knows to come?” said Nemo to yours truly.
“I tolds him so myself,” I said.
“Then where the hell might he be, Mite?”
“He’s having problems.”
“Is that so?”
“With a whore.”
“Well, that is a surprise, isn’t it, problems with a whore.”
The back room behind the kitchen of the Acropolis was set for a banquet, a banquet without no food, the long tablesarranged in a O, with theNonosand Nemo at the head table and the bottom U filled with men in slouch hats and bulky jackets, all the headmen of the Abagados mob, sitting back, yawning, rubbing their noses.
“What about we order up some grub,” said one of the men.
“And a liter of retsina,” said another.
“Any moussaka left in the pan?”
“Maybe some bread and feta.”
“And the retsina.”
“This isn’t a party, Cos,” said Nemo. “This is business.”
“Is that what it is, sweet pea?” said the Boss, barging through the door. “Business?”
“Thank you for joining us, Jerzy.”
“I had a thing to deal with.”
“We hope it came off all right,” said Nemo.
The Boss, he kept smiling as he strided to the head table. When he reached Mr. Abagados, he stuck a hand into his jacket. He pulled out a bundle of cash and dropped it in front of theNonos. With his chin still on his chest, the old man reached out his three-fingered claw and took hold of the stack.
The Boss then he moved along the head table to the other side of Nemo, where he pulled out a chair and sat down as if that were his very spot, right there beside Nemo, number three, which it was. He had risen fast, had the Boss. With my brains and his cold brutality, he had become an essential member of the Abagados outfit, especially as the outfit geared for war. Big Johnny Callas had been letting things slip as he tried to slip hisself into the glitter of Square society, but the Boss and me, we didn’t care about no ball stars or starlets. Webrought order back into the territory. And when one of the Italian boys from the east started inching into our territory, a savage brain-dead hood name of Rocco Stanzi, Blatta ended that with silent efficiency, leaving two pizza cowboys broken and Rocco slinking like a slug back east, carrying his ass in a duffel. That was the final bit, the little power play what put Blatta at the head table.
“We are being squeezed, gentlemen,” said Nemo, “like a ripe tomato. We have every organization in the city looking with envious eyes at all we have done to develop our territory. When we took over the Square it was a place of honest revelry and burlesque, with only a few pitiful operations that barely wet a whistle. Now who doesn’t want to own it? The raiding operation run by that greaseball Stanzi was just the most recent attempt at our territory, and not all have turned out so well. At the same time you know it is not enough that we stay still because, in the world in which we live, you stay still you might as well paint red circles on your back. But to where can we expand? To the east is Tartelli. To the south is that madman Zwillman. And to the north we have the most troublesome of all, thatnothos mauvros,J. Jackie Moonstone and his colored all-stars.
“Everyone wants to expand, everyone is eyeing their neighbors like they eye their neighbors’ wives. The fuse is lit. That’s why we’ve spent the last months enlarging our ranks, building our arsenal, sucking up all the surplus war materials we could graft our hands onto and placing it into a secure location known only to theNonosand myself. We are ready, but for what? If we let it get out of control, we are going to end upripping each other to shreds like wild dogs. And then, with blood on the streets, the last one standing will inherit nothing but indictments.
“So we’ve come up with a better plan. TheNonoshas brokered a series of agreements that serves to divide much of the disputed territory. Zwillman gets the South Bronx, Spanish Harlem, and Washington Heights. Tartelli gets the main part of Harlem from river to river. We get south Harlem and the area north of our current territory.”
“But that is all Moonstone’s turf,” said one of the men. “What does he say about it?”
“He is delighted to help out,” said Nemo. “He has invited us all to the party.”
“No, not really,” said Nemo. “We have no choice but to wipe thatnothos mauvrosoff the map. Moonstone has bigger numbers than all of us individually, which is why he’s the biggest threat, but together we can destroy him. So long as we work together.”
“When do we start?”
“When we give the word, not before. Moonstone is a barbarian, anyone tips him off it will be ten times as bad for all of us. But the purpose of this meeting is not to start a war with Moonstone, it is to let you all know that we now have new friends. Do you trustkoproskilolike Tartelli and Zwillman? Neither do I, but for now they are our friends. It’s like Roosevelt making kissy-face with Stalin during the war. We’re going to be allies until it is over, save Berlin for later. No actions against them, no incursions, no fights. We’re going tobe allies until it is over, and then we will turn on them like savages.”
“It ain’t gonna be so easy making love to stinking Tartelli’s boys.”
“You don’t have to sit on their faces, Cos, you just need to make nice until Moonstone is taken care of. And we all have to take care of thatnothos mauvroswhen the time is ripe. Are there any questions? Do you all understand how crucial it is we all follow direction? Do you all understand what is at stake?”
As the meeting was breaking, Nemo, he gave me the signal, a surreptitious flick, so I didn’t storm out the joint with most the rest of them, the Boss included, back to the street to take care of business. Instead I stayed at the Acropolis, buying drinks for Stavros and the boys, cracking jokes and rolling dice for quarters to pass the time, as if I had nothing but time to pass. After my third beer I hopped off the bar, hitched up my pants.
“Remember, boys, you never buys the beer, you only rents it.”
So what if the joke was as stale as the brew they served in that joint, a cloud of laughter followed me as I headed to the bathroom. I could still hear it as I rounded the corner, slipped through the kitchen, and nodded at the gunsel guarding the back room.
He let me pass.
We was alone, the two of us. Nemo made hisself scarce,quite the feat for someone the size of Nemo, and so it was just me and Mr. Abagados at the table, sitting across the one from the other. He was still pitched forward, leaning on his cane, still in his posture that seemed to be one of sleep. But now his eyes instead of being closed were open and focused like twin gunsights on me.
“Tell me, Mickey, how goes things with that girl?”
“Good,Nonos,things with Celia are going good. You know.”
“Does she yet understand how you feel?”
“I don’t know, maybe. She gots to suspect, what with all the cash I’m laying out on her. You don’t give pearls to your palsies, now do you?”
“But you didn’t yet say.”
“No, not yet. The time it ain’t just ripe. I don’t got nothing set up, no place to take her that she’ll want to be, and I don’t want to be scaring her off untils I does.”
“With women is always better to scare than to bore.” Abagados, he reached into the outside pocket of his jacket. “Let me show you this.”
From out his jacket pocket he pulled his loppy three-fingered hand, closed over something big and round, as big and round as a grenade. Slowly, he turned over his palm and flipped his hand so as to roll the object across the table at me.
I snatched it off the table afore it fell into my lap. “It’s a lemon.”
“Tell me, of what does it smell?”
I took myself a sniff. “It smells like a lemon.”
“No, Mickey, no. Close your eyes, try again. In my village was grovelemoni. The owner, he paid children climb top branches and pull down fruit. The smell I still remember. It brings back the child. Roll it in your hands, breathe.”
“This come from Greece?”
“California. I bought my own grove in California. Place to retire when my time here is over.”
“That’s a good racket, I’d bet, letting the sun do all the work and then picking fruit off them trees like they was dollar bills.”
“You’d think yes. The foreman he knowslemoni,and he is Greek, but he is also thief. I need someone watch him, someone I trust. Someone sharp enough to turn sun into money.”
I took the lemon in my hand, rolled it back and forth, lifted it to my nose, let its fragrance, sweet and rich, rise through me like a Louis Armstrong song, like a movie kiss.
“What does it smell like, Mickey?”
“Like a lemon.”
“See, that’s why I enjoy you. You know how to hold back. You are a man who will go far.”
“Think three thousand miles to the west.”
Without saying nothing, I took another sniff.
“And not alone, you understand,” said theNonos. “Never again alone. This is dangerous time. The wolves are circling. They smell something too. What do they smell?”
“Betrayal. And this I found in my life. Two sweetest scentsin all the world,lemonifresh from tree and betrayal. The wolves are circling and I need something from you, my friend. Something of the utmost importance.”
When I left the Acropolis that night, I had a lemon in my hand and a knot of fear in my gut, but more than that, dead in my sights I had my main chance. It ain’t no easy thing to change the world; how much harder is it to change yourself? Some, they say it can’t be done, that early on the bones is thrown and everything after is simply a matter of the odds. An Alvin like me what makes good is still just an Alvin what hit his point. It’s easy enough to believe it, to shrug your shoulders and say there is nothing to be done and go on going on. It’s easy enough, except I had an example to guide me. Jimmy Slaps, what stood on that crate and proclaimed his change to all the world afore he placed the gun to his head.
And it didn’t much matter to me if the change claimed by old Jimmy Slaps, it didn’t take, if soon as the chamber it clicked empty he slipped back into his old ways, flashing his newly gapped grin as he threw the dice or peeked at his hole cards. His face it grew longer, his raincoat it grew grimier, the gaps in his smile grew wider, the odds against him grew filthy long.
Last I saw of Jimmy Slaps was in an alleyway off Forty-fourth where he spun the cylinder like you spin the dice and put another gun to his head. Before him in a box lay assorted bills, a fiver, two tenners, a pile of ones, the paltry payoff for which Jimmy Slaps was letting once again the odds work their smooth magic on his life. It hadn’t been enough no more to watch the odds work on the cards or the dice or the ponies.Once he had a taste of the ultimate bet, the yes-or-no play of the revolver, he couldn’t think of nothing more. He couldn’t stop hisself. Time after time he was betting with his life.
And now, so was I.
When I left the Acropolis that night, I had a lemon in my hand and a knot of fear in my gut. I tossed the lemon in the air and hoped to hell it worked out better for me than it did for good old, dead old, Jimmy Slaps.12
Kockroach waits patientlyin the car. He has an inhuman patience, the patience of a fly on the wall, a spider in its web. Istvan taps the steering wheel with his fingers as they wait, but Kockroach moves not a muscle. The car is parked half a block before the restaurant, behind a wide truck that bars much of the car’s view of the street, but from the rear seat Kockroach can see the entrance of the Acropolis. He waits, patiently.
“Maybe he went out back,” says Istvan.
“No,” is all Kockroach says.
“You want I check he’s still there?”
Istvan taps his fingers. Kockroach waits. The door opens and a small man in a green suit and a green fedora steps into the night. There is something in his hand, something small and yellow. The man tosses it into the air.
“What is he holding?” says Kockroach.
Kockroach watches as Mite turns down the street and walks away, toward the Square, still tossing the lemon up and down. In the past, Kockroach would only have seen a man with a lemon, but that was before he learned the ritual ofchess. Now, Kockroach can see the ribbons of possibility float through time, Mite’s ribbons, flowing out from the Acropolis, slithering toward some great prize in the time to come.
“What are you up to, Mite?” says Kockroach out loud.
“You want me to follow?” says Istvan.
“No need.” It is like the ritual of chess, being played out by the two of them on the streets of the city. And Mite, as usual, is planning a trap. But Kockroach has taken to heart the lessons of the ritual, he has plans of his own now, his own ribbons of possibility reaching out like clawed legs to strike at the future, to battle it and subdue it and turn it to his will.
“To Yonkers then?” says Istvan.
“Yes, to Yonkers.”
The Lincoln pulls away from the curb, turns left on Eighth, and begins heading north, toward a place called Yonkers. Kockroach has never stepped foot there, Yonkers, has only heard the name a few times, Yonkers, but already he likes it. Yonkers. Yonkers. It feels in his mouth like the sound of lamb bones crunching between his teeth.
The house is large and white and sits on a leafy street on the crest of a hill a few miles north of Yonkers Raceway. A shallow white picket fence surrounds the front of the property. Outside there are lights blazing, streetlights, security lights, a light on the post that announces the address. Outside is bright, inside is as dark as terror.
“Wait here,” says Kockroach before slipping quietly out of the car. He makes a quick circle around the house, spies theweakness with an unerring instinct, crawls through the gap in the basement window, dusts off his suit, straightens his glasses, his tie, his hat, begins his ascent up the stairway.
Since his earliest days in this strange body, Kockroach has learned much about the humans. They are a species, he has discovered, governed by emotion. Some of these emotions he understands, emotions such as greed. Greed is the second strongest of all cockroach emotions. His incessant hunger is merely a manifestation of his boundless greed, for a cockroach always hungers, always, even with its belly full and its uric acid spent. To see something is to want it, a speck of starch, a drop of water, a shed plate of chitin, a cozy hiding place, a female rising on her hind legs, to see something is to want it, need it, got to have it. But a cockroach’s greed has boundaries, a cockroach’s view is necessarily limited by its height and size, the narrowness of its territory. How much more can a human desire with its better viewpoint, its stronger eyes, its ability to traverse great breadths of territory.
Yes, Kockroach understands greed, and its cousin envy. For why should one human have something when Kockroach himself could have it just as well, be it food, be it a woman, be it money, be it turf, be it power, be it favor in the eyes of the great god of smoke rising high over the Square. Kockroach knows not Abel but understands Cain.
Other emotions Kockroach has yet to fathom. Love is a word he hears in every song and in every one of the movies to which Mite drags him, it is a word he overhears in many human conversations, yet of it he still has no understanding. It has something to do with sex, yes, and sex he understands, sexis the one thing that travels pure from one species to another, but love, he suspects, is something more. It has to do with the mashing of lips, the clenching of bodies without the purpose of procreation, the swelling syrup of thick music when one set of huge eyes on the movie screen stares into another. All he knows for sure is that every human wants it, and so, therefore, does he: greed and envy work their magic beyond the realm of understanding.
Just as he has no understanding of love, he has no understanding of hate. Yes, he can be violent, brutal and swift, but it is all for him a matter of business, a matter of greed. He does what he must to get as much as he can. It is never personal because for Kockroach nothing is personal. Even to see Mite slink out of the Acropolis long after he should, even to assume he is plotting something with the powers inside, even that is not a personal affront. Mite has greed too, of course he does, is he not also a creature of this world? To see him toss that lemon up and down causes no hate to flash across Kockroach’s calm. Kockroach doesn’t hate, he handles.
Similarly Kockroach fails to understand the way some humans are angry at other humans simply because of the sound of their last names, the shape of their eyes, the color of their skins. To him they are all of the lower orders, all humans, and to differentiate among them because of color or accent or the vowels in their last names is to differentiate among different orders of feces, all tasty, sure, but still.
And pride, embarrassment, vanity, all things that seem to cripple humans have no meaning for a cockroach. Such traits denote a struggle to change, to grow, to fulfill a dream of becoming something different. But cockroaches don’t dream of being crickets and singing sweetly into the night, don’t dream of being spotted hawks and soaring to great heights, don’t dream of being humans and expressing all the world’s joy and sorrow in discrete lines of poetry.I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world. What human would not have wished to write such a line, what cockroach would even consider it, though for a cockroach it be more apt? Cockroaches embrace their cock-roachedness. If they have a charm that is it. They are content with what they are and so are beyond vanity, beyond the possibilities of pride and embarrassment, beyond poetry.
But with all Kockroach still cannot understand of the human matrix of emotion, there is one emotion other than greed that he understands completely. If you could examine the twin strands of a cockroach’s emotion, rising like the twining strands of its DNA, you would find fear and greed, greed and fear, fear and greed, always the two, one with the other, yes and no, stop and go. It is greed that drives a cockroach forward, toward the wet slop of goop upon which it desires to feast—a near-uncontrollable desire to obtain, to mount, to devour—but it is fear that stops him cold, that spreads his antennae, that sends him sniffing for predators before he heads once more toward the goop. Fear. It is why cockroaches sleep in the tightest spaces, why cockroaches are silent, why they scurry, why they scurry in darkness.
Kockroach understands fear, and in dealing with the human he has learned that, of all the emotions, it is fear that drives it,fear even more than pride or vanity, hate or greed, even more than the mysterious joys of love. Fear of hunger, fear of pain, fear of dismemberment, fear of insects, fear of a stranger rising unbidden in your very own house, rising step by step, silently, in the darkness, up your stairs while you sleep, rising to your kitchen, opening your refrigerator, devouring your food with great noisy chomps while the light bathes his front, ripping meat off bones, swallowing raw eggs whole, and, though still not sated, wiping the residue off his mouth with the back of his hand before passing the door of your mother-in-law’s room and rising ever farther up your stairs, skulking past your three sleeping children, entering your very own bedroom, sitting on the side of your very own bed, where you and your wife sleep the sound sleep of the unsuspecting.
Shaking you awake in the darkness.
Startling you awake with a shake in the darkness.
“What? What?” you ask, as if the darkness itself will hold some answers. And it is the darkness itself that responds, darkness in the shape of a shadow, a shadow with broad shoulders and a fedora cocked on its head, a shadow whose voice is both twittering and deep, the deranged voice of fear itself.
“Cooney,” it says. “Cooney. You’re late.”
Kockroach sits in the back of the car as it speeds through the Bronx toward Manhattan. He examines a spot on the cuff of his shirt, a dark splatter. He rubs at it with his thumb but the splatter has soaked into the fabric.
“Back to the Square?” asks Istvan.
“Yes,” says Kockroach, still rubbing futilely at the spot, “but first stop at Kirschner’s.”
In Manhattan, the brown car double-parks in front of a small storefront, Kirschner’s Delicatessen. In New York, all creatures have a favorite deli, even cockroaches, especially cockroaches. The neon beneath the name reads: open all night.
“The usual?” says Istvan.
“Hungry tonight, Mr. Blatta?”
Kockroach doesn’t respond. It is a foolish question; he is hungry every night. After a few moments, Istvan steps out of the delicatessen with a brown paper bag, nearly translucent with grease on the bottom.
With the car again on its way south, Kockroach opens the bag, takes a deep whiff. The rich oily scent, starchy and sweet, reminds him of his childhood.
Sitting now beside Kockroach in the back of the car is a woman with dark hair piled high. Her heels are spiky, her earrings dangle, her white blouse is tucked into her tight gray skirt: a secretary tarted up for a late night assignation with the boss. The look is catnip for conventioneers. Her thin mouth shifts and wriggles like a nervous worm on a hook. The brown car jerks east between two cabs on Forty-second Street.
“He was going to stiff me, the bastard,” she says.
“Never use my name.”
“I had to tell him something.”
“My momma taught me never to lie. Whoring was okay, but not lying. Is it the truth what I heard about Sylvie?”
“None of your beeswax.”
“Okay. Sure. She’s been tough to take lately anyway, still thinking she was some kind of queen bee even with her junkie shakes. She’s better off on them piers, how skinny she got. I’m tired and hungry and my dogs are barking. What’s in the bag?”
“It’s not for you.”
“C’mon, Jerry. I’m hungry. Just a bite. It smells good.”
“I need something from you, sweet pea.”
“Of course you do.”
She slips off the seat onto her knees, begins to unhook his belt buckle. He pushes her away.
“There is a man in a bar.”
“There’s always a man in a bar,” she says.
“He’s tall, thin, his suits are expensive and too tight. You can tell him by the way his hair grows down to his eyebrow. You’ll go in. He’ll make a move. You’ll promise him a freebie and take him to the alley behind the bar.”
“That’s it. I’ll take over from there.”
“Never knew you liked the other side, Jerry.”
“I like everything, sweet pea. And you mention my name again, you’ll be strolling the piers with Sylvie.”
“Here we are. Hair down to his eyebrow. Put on a smile and make nice.”
Kockroach waits in the alley behind the bar. He stands stock-still, in the darkest crevice of shadow, well out of the single shaft of light that pierces the darkness. He waits with his inhuman patience.
He doesn’t imagine what is happening inside the bar, the music, the smoke, the laughter and slapped backs, doesn’t imagine the woman sitting on her stool, turning her head, smiling at the tall man in the tight suit, taking a cigarette from her purse, placing it in her fingers, waiting for the man to leave his friends, step over and light it. Kockroach doesn’t imagine the repartee, the sexual innuendo, the flitting erotic imaginings that slip through the man’s brain as the woman places the lit cigarette in her mobile lips. He has already worked out the moves in advance and so now he simply stands there. The brick of the alley is weeping. A cat scampers around a puddle and jumps atop a metal trash can. The intermittent sound of cars passing by the narrow alley rises and falls in an endless series, the closest Kockroach has ever gotten to the sound of ocean waves. If you ever wondered what a cockroach was thinking when standing motionless on your kitchen floor, don’t. It doesn’t move, it doesn’t think, it merely waits for the proper stimulus.
A world opens, the sound of trumpets and piano, of talking, of clinking glasses and celebration, then the sound dieswith a slam. He hears footsteps, a spark of laughter, a growl.
“Where you going, baby?” A man’s voice. “Here is fine. Why not here?”
“This is private enough, what I got in mind.”
“Just over here.”
They step into the narrow shaft of light. The man’s suit is tight, his glossy black hair pulled back from low on his brow. There is a bland cruelty in his eyes.
“You’re a hot one, ain’t you, baby?” he says.
He roughly opens the woman’s white blouse, popping a button as he reaches for a breast. He grabs hold of her rear and squeezes.
“One hot baby.”
He leans his mouth into her long pale neck. The woman unbuckles his belt, pulls down his suit pants. His knees are bony, bristly. He takes his hand from her rear, yanks down his own boxers, reaches now under her skirt, growls and laughs at the same time.
With a quick press of her arms, she pushes herself away, leaving him alone in the light, his pants and boxers pooled around his ankles.
“No more teasing, baby. Let’s just get to it.”
“I can’t,” she says.
“You can’t? Don’t act shy now, you tease. Come on, baby, Papa needs to sing.”
“Got to go,baby.”
“Oh no, no you don’t. Not till I say you go, understand? Get on your knees, bitch, or I’m going to rip apart your—”
“Hello, Rocco,” says Kockroach, taking a step from the shadows.
Rocco Stanzi’s head swivels as if slapped. “Blatta?”
“Wait for me in the car.”
The woman nods and scampers out of the alley, tucking her blouse in all the while.
“Hey, Blatta, what are you doing? I was just about to get a little action here. Can’t you wait until—” Stanzi stops speaking, looks at the girl rushing off. “One of yours?”
Kockroach takes another step forward.
“What, you didn’t hear the news? They didn’t tell you?” Stanzi grapples for his pants, pulls them up, fiddles unsuccessfully with the belt. “There’s a citywide truce. Zwillman’s guys and your guys and our guys, all of us, we’re on the same side now. Didn’t you hear?”
“I heard,” says Kockroach.
“Good, yeah. Isn’t that something? One day we want to rip each other’s guts out and stamp them into the dirt, the next we’re bosom buddies. You want a drink or something, to celebrate? No hard feelings about that thing we had, right? That’s all past us now. It was only business. But now we gots bigger fish to fry. Moonstone’s a bear, he’s going to be tough. But together, man, we’re going to fry his black ass. And let me tell you, no one’s gladder than me to have you on my side. You want a drink? Let me get you a drink. To celebrate ouralliance. On me. We’re on the same side now, right? We’re partners now, right?”
“Right,” says Kockroach.
“Good, great.” Rocco Stanzi, his belt still undone, his pants held up with one hand, reaches out his other. “Partners?”
Kockroach steps forward, takes Rocco’s hand in his own. “Partners,” he says. They shake on it, once, twice—and then Kockroach squeezes.
The bones in Rocco Stanzi’s hand press against each other, press into each other, grind into each other, grind and twist and split.
As Rocco Stanzi begins to scream Kockroach’s free hand dives at Stanzi’s throat and clamps hold. The scream is choked off like a stalled engine. Still gripping hand and throat, Kockroach lifts Stanzi in the air.
Stanzi, face now bursting red, swings his arm and feet wildly. He kicks Kockroach in the chest, in the legs, grabs at his eyes. Kockroach pulls Stanzi close, holds him face to face so the flailing limbs lose their leverage. Kockroach’s breath washes across Stanzi’s purple face. Stanzi’s pants drop, binding his ankles together. His flailing grows wilder. Kockroach’s smile deepens. The grip on Stanzi’s neck tightens. Stanzi’s struggle eases. Stanzi’s breathing falters, fails.
After, Kockroach slaps the dust off his pant legs. He takes a bag out of his jacket pocket, the brown paper bag with the greasy bottom. From the bag he pulls out a small brick of pastry. He takes a bite. Potato. Kirschner’s has the best knishes in the Square, they have them delivered daily from YonahSchimmel’s on the Lower East Side. He takes another bite and then leans over Rocco Stanzi’s body, opens Rocco Stanzi’s slack jaw, jams the rest of the knish in Rocco Stanzi’s mouth so that it sticks out like a thick beige tongue.
“Nothing personal, pal, just beeswax.”
Kockroach puts the bag back in his pocket, wipes his hands on the dead man’s shirt, heads back to the car.
Kockroach has a hobby.
It is a very human trait to have a hobby, a pastime with which to while away the hours, and so one might be surprised to learn this of Kockroach. It is hard to imagine him dabbling in watercolors, working with wood, collecting stamps from foreign countries. But Kockroach’s hobby is not philately.
Greed and fear, fear and greed. For a cockroach, a perfect hobby would combine the two, obsessively collecting something that also provides protection. Guns would seem then perfect, but Kockroach does not carry a gun and has never fully understood their allure. Oh, the mechanics he understands. Pull a lever and a shard of metal flies out and puts a hole in an enemy at a distance. Marvelously efficient, yes, but the fascination, the glorification is beyond him. Cockroaches don’t fight at a distance, they fight up close, claw to claw, mandible to mandible, the desperate hot breath of your adversary pawing across your face. That is how it has always been done from time immemorial. To kill from a distance seems to Kockroach unnatural and, in a way, obscenely human. No, a cockroach wouldn’t turn to guns for protection,instead it would want to somehow collect territories, places in which it is safe, holes, crevices to hide. And this indeed is Kockroach’s hobby.
He collects real estate.
Kockroach’s realtor is a tall mournful man with knobby wrists named Albert Gladden who, before he met Kockroach, managed a few desolate properties scattered along the West Side. Albert owed Big Johnny Callas a debt that was on the books still when Johnny mysteriously disappeared. When Kockroach paid the awkward, mournful Albert Gladden a visit in the dusty office in one of his buildings, the realtor raised his palms and sadly pleaded poverty before proposing a deal: a deserted tenement on Ninety-fourth Street in exchange for the debt.
Kockroach toured his new building, sniffed the ruined plaster, bent his head beneath the leaking roof. In the dining area, his foot stepped through a rotted floorboard. The house smelled of old trash, of dead rats, of animal droppings, of desolation: it smelled wonderful.
Immediately Kockroach wanted more.
Now Albert Gladden works out of an office on a high floor in the Empire State Building, managing the properties of a generically named holding company whose primary shareholder he never reveals and whose empire continues to grow under Gladden’s watchful eye. He has a staff of four, including a title man, and each morning finds him carefully perusing the list of property foreclosures. He is still mournful and awkward, Albert Gladden, but now he lives on the East Side, drinks aged Scotch, smokes hand-rolled cigars, is married to a former Rockette withsturdy legs and breasts like huge smothering marshmallows.
As Kockroach drives through the city, he enjoys passing by the properties he owns, run-down brownstones in Harlem, shabby apartment buildings, shabby storefronts, sad sagging hotels like the Murdock, including the Murdock, old industrial buildings, ragged office buildings with long empty halls, a deserted warehouse teetering two blocks off the Square, which Gladden rents to Abagados without ever divulging the name of the true owner. And now, in his inside jacket pocket, Kockroach holds the deed to a large white house in Yonkers that he has just obtained from Cooney. He has a plan for this house, but if this plan of his fails, then he will leave it to his realtor to decide whether to keep it and rent it out or to sell it and use the proceeds to buy something in the city. He leaves everything to Gladden, allows him to buy, rent, sell as he sees fit so long as Kockroach is kept completely informed. Gladden makes his reports in person, at clandestine midnight meetings in deserted alleys so that Kockroach’s hobby is kept secret. The only building Albert Gladden is forbidden to sell is the original property on Ninety-fourth Street, sagging, leaking, stripped of all pipe and wire, its front boarded up with plywood, a disaster of a ruin before which the brown Lincoln is now parked.
Istvan taps his fingers on the steering wheel, the woman is asleep alone in the backseat.
Kockroach roams through the dark ruin, stepping around holes in the floorboards, ripping cobwebs from his path,kicking piles of trash, splashing through puddles. The building sags, shifts, strange sounds emanate from the walls, the floors, joists settling, timbers splintering, plaster cracking loose from lathes as if the house is an old living thing falling into senescence. He breathes deep the smell of feces and decay, molder, rot. Home, it smells of home. In this place, of all the places he has been since his molt, he can best remember what he was.
He stops in a stray beam of light floating through the cracked window of the rear door, standing now before a beaten and blackened stove, so worthless with misuse and age it has survived the multiple strippings of the property. Atop the stove sits the photograph Kockroach took from the room where he first awoke with this body. He keeps it in this house for safekeeping. He picks it up, stares at the face that is identical to his and the woman’s face beside it. For Kockroach the photograph has become a talisman of both his past and his future. He puts the photograph back upon the stove and stoops down on the filthy wooden floor. He reaches out a hand. From a crevice beneath the stove he sees two strands of brown, waving softly.
The strands wave softly, wave, softly wave. And then, slowly, jerkily, with scurries and stops, a lone cockroach emerges and makes its way toward the outstretched hand, stopping just before it, letting its antennae brush the hand’s flesh. The cockroach stays there, motionless for a second, for two, before rising slightly on its hind legs. With the tip of his forefinger, Kockroach gently strokes the arthropod’schest. The cockroach sways affectionately into the touch.
Kockroach takes the greasy paper bag from his pocket, reaches inside, pulls out the second Kirschner knish. He twists off a piece, rolls it into a ball, lays it on the floor.
The cockroach approaches carefully, rubs it with its antennae and then mounts the tiny ball, working the greasy piece of starch with its legs, devouring it with its ironlike mandibles and chitinous teeth.
Kockroach twists off another piece, and two more, and ten more, laying them side by side by side.
In the crevice beneath the stove he sees two more softly waving strands, and then two more and then twelve more. One by one the cockroaches emerge, one by one, one by one by one, from under the stove, from a crevice in the corner, through the holes in the wooden floorboards of the dining room, dropping like a battalion of airborne from the ceiling, they stream forward in a great army, scurrying madly now to the feast. The floor itself is alive with their frantic race.
“There is plenty, my brothers,” he whispers.
Kockroach twists off more pieces, leaves them in his palm, lets the army swarm over his hand as they battle for the food, swarm so thickly not a speck of flesh is left uncovered. He places the remainder of the pastry on his shoulder and the army drives forward until his hand, his arm, his shoulder and neck, his entire right side is covered with a boiling mass of brown. The feel of them dancing on his flesh, piling one on the other, scurrying around his neck, across his face, nibbling his fingernails, his eyelashes, is lovely, warm, scratchy, familiar, rich,sensuous, luxurious, loving—loving. A connection between word and emotion is suddenly made.
So that is what it means.
“Oh my Lord,” says a deep voice at the rear doorway.
Kockroach doesn’t startle at the interruption. Without jerking his body or shaking off any of the swarm, he turns his head and smiles at the man in the now-open doorway even as a cockroach dashes from his mouth to his ear.
“My good Lord. Blatta, you are one aberrant son of a bitch, yes you are. Don’t be denying it.”
“Want to feed my friends?” says Blatta.
“No no no. I spent enough nights with those critters biting at my toes. My bedroom was like a gymnasium when I was growing up. They’d come in, work the light bag, do a few rounds just to keep in shape, then hang in the corner and smoke reefer, snickering at my skinny ass, at the hand-me-downs I was forced to wear. I fed them enough to last me.”
The man in the doorway wears a powder blue suit, a powder blue hat. He has a long nose, a small pursed mouth. In one hand he holds a gold-tipped walking stick, the other sports a diamond as big as an eye. His skin is as black as the coal from which the diamond was formed. His name is Moonstone.
“No surprises?” says J. Jackie Moonstone.
“No,” says Kockroach.
“They’re carving me up like a turkey, Blatta, like it’s Thanksgiving already and I’m the only thing in the forest that gobbles. Well, they’ll find critters in the forest other than turkeys, won’t they? What about Stanzi?”
“And they’re going to blame Zwillman, like you said?”
“Like I said.”
“So everything is smooth, no problems?”
“Nothing I can’t handle.”
“Like what, for example?”
“Like nothing I can’t handle.”
“You’re holding out on me, Blatta, not a good way to start. Is your boy Pimelia on board?”
“He will be.”
“One way or the other.”
“My Lord, you are marvelous, Blatta, yes you are. A couple weeks from now it’s just going to be you and me, just you and me on top of the heap.”
“And then it’s between us.”
“No sir, no more fighting. There’s more than enough to keep us jazzed and balled the rest of our lives. Whatever split of the other’s turf you think is fair is fine with me, just leave me with what I got now and I won’t fight it. I know enough not to mess with someone who keeps roaches for pets. We’re going to get along like brothers. Here, what you asked for.”
Moonstone drops onto the floor a handful of small wax-paper bundles, each tied with a bright red string. A mass of cockroaches sprints from the rest and swarms over the bundles until all that can be seen is a writhing mass of brown.
“Just like you asked for,” says Moonstone. “Waxy Red, finest scat in New York City. Pretty soon you’re going to havethem hooked too. Pretty soon you’ll be selling to every roach in the whole damn town.”
“How low would I have to be,” says Kockroach, “to give poison like that to a cockroach.”
Over the rooftops to the east, the first tentacles of dawn reach through the sky like a warning. Istvan is pulling the Lincoln up to the hotel. The woman in the car, awake now, leans her head on Kockroach’s shoulder.
“You want me?” she says.
“Please, Jerry, let me come up. We haven’t been together in ages. I miss you.”
“Take her home, Istvan. I won’t need the car until the usual time this evening.”
“Yes, Mr. Blatta.”
“Before then, find Mite and take him wherever he wants to go.”
“Yes, Mr. Blatta.”
“And then tell me where that is.”
“Of course, Mr. Blatta.”
Kockroach pats the woman’s knee and slips out of the Lincoln. On the way to the entrance, he feels something squirm up his sleeve. A small cockroach climbs out and halts on the cuff, its antennae waving gently. Kockroach lets it climb onto his finger, pets its back, drops it through a grate in the street leading to the sewer, the promised land.
“Good morning, Mr. Blatta,” says the doorman in his tall brown hat.
“Busy night, Mr. Blatta?” says the porter standing by the door.
Kockroach slaps green tributes into their hands as he walks through the door into the lobby.
“Your guest is waiting for you, Mr. Blatta,” says the desk clerk.
“Very good,” says Kockroach.
With a ding of the bell the elevator arrives, white gloves slip out and hold the door as Kockroach steps in.
“Going up, Mr. Blatta?” says the operator.
“To the top,” says Kockroach.13
Was one more playeryou needs to know about, missy, one more piece what moved across the Square like a deranged knight.
I can see him still, swaggering into some Times Square titty shake. His hat is shiny with grease. His cheap suit is rumpled, like he slept in it two nights running, which maybe he did. His tie is loose, his loose jaw unshaven, his socks smell like old socks.
“Shoot the sherbet to me, Herbert,” he says to the barkeep in a voice with more hoarse in it than what’s running at Aqueduct. He leans an elbow on the bar and checks out the merchandise. “Gin, straight up. On the house.”
“On the house?” says the bartender, whose name is not Herbert and who is new on the Square so he ain’t tuned in.
“And put an olive in it.”
“Who the hell are you to be getting a drink on the house?”
This Joe he flips up his fedora with his pinkie and stares at the sap for a moment. Then he grabs the barkeep by his bow tie and jerks his fist down till the bartender’s forehead it slams smack into the bar. He drags the bleeding face an inch from his own. His breath smells of cheap cigars, of raw onions on street-corner dogs, of wanton unwashed women.
“The name’s Fallon, you piece of dick,” he says. “Lieutenant Nick Fallon. Vice.”
He rose from the mean streets of Hell’s Kitchen, and he fell back into them streets afore it was over, but whilst he patrolled the Square, collecting his envelopes and pulling in rubes by the truckload, Fallon was a power. He kept his thumb up everyone’s ass, just to be sure of the temperature, and everyone smiled whilst he did it, because he could make things easy for you on the Square, or make them very very hard. And missy, easy was better than hard when it came to Fallon. Manys the poor sap what ended up in the precinct house cage with Lieutenant Nick Fallon’s fists asking the questions and the answers already written down afore ever they let slip a word. But he wasn’t all hardworking cop, he had a sweet tooth of his own. What else could you expect from a man with vice in his very name?
“You ever have yourself a threesome, Mite?” said Lieutenant Nick Fallon, Vice.
“I had one going on last night. Two girls. One of them had legs up to here, the other had Himalayas out to there, and they both still had all their teeth. Fancy that.”
“Why you telling me, Lieutenant?”
“I’m telling everyone.”
Fallon had yanked me by my collar out to the beach, the thin triangular strip of cement and grate just south of Forty-sixth, and now he was lighting one of his Cuban candles as cars and trucks wheezed by on either side. With the hubbub, the traffic, the backfires and horns, the pall of smoke and noise rising around us, the beach, in the middle of everything, was about the most private place on the Square.
“A threesome’s like eating in a chop suey house. And in between, while you’re waiting to get hungry again, you don’t even have to entertain them, they can entertain themselves. You know how rare it is, a guy looks like me, setting up a threesome with two broads look like that and still got all their teeth.”
“I’m guessing raw.”
“All their teeth.”
“I’m happy for you, Lieutenant.”
“Yeah, well don’t be. Just as it was getting interesting, a call comes in from my captain. The only bite mark I got on my ass was from his chewing me out, Mite. So I am angry, I am blue, and I want to know what the dick is going on.”
“Just the usual, Lieutenant.”
“You think it usual for one of Tartelli’s boys to end up dead in an alley? You think it usual for the Abagados clan to have a powwow just a few hours before the killing? You think it usual for my captain to suddenly take an interest in what goes on in my territory. You think that’s good for any of us? Get smart, Mite. Something’s up and I need to know about it. You owe me.”
“Hell if I owes you anything.”
“Hell you do. Take a gander,” he said, spinning around to view the whole of Times Square. “Everyone your eye can spy owes me. I keep it safe, I keep it running, I keep everyone in business. You want they replace me with another Johnny Broderick, the cop who handled the Square before I did?Johnny Broderick, tapping you on the shoulder with a newspaper wrapped around a lead pipe. He stuffed Legs Diamond headfirst into a garbage can one block down from here, stuffed him into that can and good as finished him off right there. You want another Broderick running the Square?”
When he talked of that Johnny Broderick, something fierce and hard glazed Fallon’s bloodshot eyes, and looking at him then, and his thick lips wrapped around that cigar, I saw a touch of froth flit around the corner of his mouth. Just a touch, but it was enough to roil my stomach.
It was going to end up bad, the whole thing, I could see it in his eyes, in the froth at his mouth, the way his hand rolled into a fist for emphasis. It was like a curtain was dropped and I could suddenly see he was made of the same cement and asphalt what we was standing on, what ran from our feets east and west, north and south, off the beach, through the streets, in a great stinking sea of stuff what died at both rivers, made of the same grist as was all the raw matter of the city. He was a cop, but that was a lie, because it made him sound like he was something different from the rest of it when he was the same as everything else of it, all of it, even me, all of it. And his lips they was foaming and his eyes they was glazed and he spun around to make a point and it wasn’t no more a cop before me or even a man but a piece of the world what was animated only by Hubert.
I held my stomach and looked down Broadway and tried to blink the sickness away and I did, this time I did, and when I turned back it wasn’t this nameless piece of matter facing offwith me no more but a cop, and not just any cop but Lieutenant Nick Fallon, Vice. And I had blinked it away and could go on like it never happened, play it tough and cool like it never happened, but it did and I felt it in my bones, along with the certainty that it was all, the whole thing, going to end up bad.
“So what do you know, Mite?” he said.
“I don’t know nothing.”
“A midnight meeting at the Acropolis. Every big dick from Abagados down. I even heard Blatta was there.”
“Don’t be coy with me, you son of a dick. Start motivating your mouth. What did you boys talk about?”
“Is that a fact? So tell me,” elbow in the ribs, ready for the coded clue, “what was decided?”
“The key is salting the eggplant. Kosher salt works best.”
“Kosher salt, huh? Is that why Zwillman he dicked Stanzi? Not enoughkoshersalt?”
“Zwillman? Is that what happened? I heard Stanzi, he choked on a knish. That Stanzi, he always liked a good knish.”
Fallon looked at me, licked the froth off his lips, filled his mouth with smoke, blew it in my face. “We got a good thing going here, Mite. Don’t let them ruin it for us.”
“Them? Who them?”
“That’s the question, isn’t it? The coroner says you can’t swallow dick if your throat’s crushed, as you could find out firsthand. I won’t let a war break out on my turf unless it’s my war, understand? I find out who is starting up I’ll get an armyin here to finish it, understand? I’ll be back, and when I do, don’t dick with me, Mite. I want answers.”
Didn’t we all, just then, didn’t we all.
What that iceberg it was to the Titanic, the knish sticking out of Rocco Stanzi’s mouth, the most famous potato knish in the history of gang warfare, was to our peace. The whole delicate arrangement forged between Abagados and Zwillman and Tartelli, the whole beautiful alliance against J. Jackie Moonstone, was shot to hell. Tartelli, he immediately blamed Zwillman for the Stanzi hit, using as his proof the Yonah Schimmel knish, what was baked in the Lower East Side, Zwillman’s territory. And with that accusation Zwillman, slipping into his normal state of apoplectic paranoia, pointed his thick finger at Abagados, what had had his troubles with Stanzi in the past. And Abagados, an old man who had fought too many battles, who had actually lost his fingers as a young Greek soldier in the century afore this one, Abagados struggled with all his powers, political, physical, and persuasive, to bring back the peace. But his efforts were stymied by a series of hit-and-run massacres on the border territories that kept the general uproar uproarious. And nobody knew nothing, nobody, including me, especially me, nobody except those what did, who weren’t saying.
“Same as it always was,Nonos,” I said, alone with Abagados in the back room of the Acropolis. “Everything’s the same with him. I been looking like you asked and I ain’t found nothing.”
“Look harder,” said Abagados.
“I don’t know what it is I’m looking for.”
“Anything that is different, anything that is wrong. Find it and bring me.”
“Trying? I spit on trying and stamp into dirt. Look at what is happening. Only one man strong enough, treacherous enough, only one man won’t let you look him in the eyes.”
“He’s always been loyal to you,Nonos.”
“You know why he wears dark glasses? So I can’t see into his soul. But when I shake his hand I feel it. It is my talent, I could always feel it. His is cold, hard, ruthless, it is like something dark and small, like something that crawls across your skin in the night. It is why I liked him at the start, a valuable friend he can be. Also a deadly enemy. But so am I, Mickey, so am I.”
“I’ll keep looking.”
“You will find, you will bring me proof of his deceit. And this proof, it bind together once again all the families. And together we will destroy him and dance the dance of wolves on his carcass.”
“Add some dip and a swing band and it sounds like a party, Mr. Abagados. But what about me? Blatta and me, we came in together.”
“Mickey, my friend, Mickey.” He lifted his big mangled hand and slapped the side of my face gently afore clasping his claw onto my cheek. “Find. Bring. They tell me there is no winter in California, just sun. Do you know how to swim?”
“You will learn.”
“Or die trying?”
He didn’t smile, he didn’t nothing. Whatever reassurance I was hoping to see in his bitter old eyes, all I saw was a vacancy as dark as Blatta’s dark glasses.
So nows you know, missy. Me sitting here, spilling out the whole story for your snitch-sheet exposé, this ain’t the first time I betrayed the Boss. Mr. Abagados, what he had wanted that long-ago night at the Acropolis when he rolled me the lemon was for me to spy on Blatta. And I had agreed. Playing Judas, I suppose, is simply my natural role in the Boss’s little passion play.
But this I knew with a searing certainty. That thing what happened with Fallon on the beach, that lowering of the curtain and seeing all the city and the fools within it as nothing but the grist of the world? It was happening. Again and again. It was filling me like a fever. It was only a matter of time afore I started spinning and foaming myself. I needed to make something happen, fast. I needed to get on the train west with Celia, fast. I needed to take hold of her love and clutch it like a sword and swing with all my might and separate old Hubert from his head, and I had to do it fast. Because I was losing it, losing it, I was losing it.
“Anything that is different,” had said theNonos,“anything that is wrong.” I crisscrossed the Square looking for something what didn’t make no sense to me, I asked whoever would stand still for the asking, and then the something, it hit me like a punch in the face.
I didn’t let Istvan take me. He had been showing up every afternoon at my hotel waiting to whisk me to wherever it was I wanted to whisk, but I didn’t want to go where I had to go with him. I let him take me on my rounds and then, with him waiting in the street, it was in the front of Toots’s joint, around the big round bar, out through the kitchen, into a taxi afore being let off in the middle of a wide deserted street smelling of blood.
A fog was rolling off the Hudson, a sickly mist. And I walked right into it, turning right then left, crossing a wide cobbled street.
It took me a while to find her, them piers they was one just like the next, hard to tell apart, and telling apart the girls what inhabited them was even harder, each a scabrous spider, clinging precariously to her collapsing web. In the cloaking mist I wrongly approached two strange creatures what grabbed at me like I was a last pitiful hope until I broke away.
But eventually I found the right pier. I stood under the single light and observed a peculiar shadow at the river’s edge. An irregular shadow, moving about in slow motion with a steady skritch heard just over the lapping of the water, an inhuman skritch skritch, evidence of some readjustment of finances and fluids.
“Come to check on me, Mite?” she said after half the shadow had scuffled off and she had slipped back into the dim cone of light. “Come to make sure I’m not taking too many coffee breaks?”
“How you doing there, Sylvie?” I said, but I didn’t need no answer from her.
She seemed as if she was in the middle of some great fever, bone skinny, shivering and sweating both, her swollen hands shaking at her sides. Her skirt was ragged and filthy, her blouse torn, a long scab darted across her neck. Dirt was streaked on her leg, her forehead, so that she blended into them shadows like a ghost.
“Spend a night here,” she said, “in this fog that soaks through to the bone, and see how you hold up. Got a cigarette?”
“Thanks for nothing. What, did Jerry send you to tell me something? Does he even still know I’m alive? Does he care?”
“Sure he does.”
“Tell the creep if he wants to send a message he knows where to find me. All right, let me have a stick.”
I reached into my pocket, pulled out a Doublemint, watched her unwrap the foil. The boards creaked beneath our feets, some ship offshore, hidden in the fog, belched its horn.
“And this, after all I did for him,” she said. “I was the one who spread the word about him to the other girls. I taught him to dance.”