Tuesday, September 8, 2015
BREAKING YOUR CHERRY, 1963
For Joey Diliberto, my brother in arms
The year John F. Kennedy was assassinated was the same year I first got high. There is probably no connection between those two incidents, though each, in its own particular way, left the country and the people close to the center of each event, altered forever.
I’d been cutting school pretty regularly by then, intuiting that the education I was getting outside the traditional classroom was much more exciting, not to mention pragmatic, than the rigors and requirements of subjects like math or foreign languages had and demanded inside the jail. I liked daydreaming. I was good at it. I’d watch the specks of dust float in the light in front of the grimed window of Duke’s, while occasionally savoring that most delicious of truths: friends, at this very minute, were in school listening to some boring shit coming out the mouths of teachers with dandruff, bad breath, and few alternatives. Also, more importantly, lurking in those dancing specks, lived the smooth soft shoe of danger and violence that Duke’s encouraged, yet protected.
My father was rich-- at least that’s what everyone believed, including me--and I was smart, male, first born and Jewish...therefore exempt from any requirement that I felt superior to, which was most any requirement there was.
In Dukes there were Jew bastards or kikes. Also, wops, micks, one spic, and a few niggers, though they, while not “officially barred,” kept to themselves.
Me? I was tough only in regard to friends my own age, but not to the greaseballs and mick cocksuckers who punched the shit out of my arms. But they liked me well enough; I could just tell. I stood up for myself a few times on the basketball court by standing up to this insane motherfucker, Joey One-Eye. He thought I’d fouled him but that was bullshit--he just missed an easy shot and didn’t want to look bad--and I told him so. He stepped back and looked at me with that one ice-cold blue eye of his, crossed one arm over the other and began rubbing it with this up and down motion. It sort of lulled me until, fast as lightening, he cracked me good across the face with the back of his hand. “C’mon bitch,” he said, “Do somethin.” “Fuck-you,” I replied, and began to walk away. Big mistake. He ran up behind me, grabbed me by the throat, and threw me down on the cement court where, I’m sure, he would have stomped the shit out of me had Johnny, who lived a few blocks from me, not taken hold of him and told him to, “Cool it. I like him and his ol’ man.” “Who gives a shit,” came the response. Then Barry came over. Barry, though a few years older than us, was rumored to be in line to control Coney Island and that section of Brooklyn when the time came. He said he was on Johnnie’s side, and that was that. Yet that was not that for me; my insides belied a foundation that was all but mixed, let alone settled. I still tried not to back down from anybody, and I always kept my mouth shut. This was not something I planned out exactly, but it was something I thought about from time to time.
For at least two years I’d stir in my bed at night not able to sleep, uneasy with the thoughts that spun in my head. I’d been real sick and knew that that sickness would never go away but would stay with me forever--however long that was. And so I began to construct scenarios to right the ship. I began to mythologize my own fears.
“You’re a little cocksucker, you know that? You know that don’t you, you little cocksucker,” Duke said to me one day. Duke was sitting behind his desk, a slab of thick wood sitting on top of four piano legged poles the same color that his dark mahogany Brunswick pool tables, some with drop pockets, were. Sprawled across his desk were ashtrays filled with jaundiced butts of filtered Marlboros and Winstons and the pinched stubs of non-filtered smokes. The Racing Form and The Daily News laid on top of each other, packs of Pall Malls, Camels, and Kools in various states were scattered as well; some contained a few cigarettes and others were crumpled and empty. Coffee mugs and containers, etched with the markings of dried caffeine were like a literature of symbols if one were inclined to probe further, laid in no particular order on top of his desk as well. Duke himself was fastidious: clean shaven, groomed, spruced, and dressed all in black--black shirt with black snaps, black trousers, socks and boots-- except for the silver belt buckle with crossed pool cues. He held a Pall Mall between his fore and middle fingers as if he had just made a shot into the corner pocket and was considering his next. He took a pint bottle of Martel and poured a pinch into his coffee; it was nearly eleven in the morning and both of us were trying to ease our way into the day.
“Duke, I ain’t got no money, lemme run a couple racks.”
“’I don’t have any money’; and the answer is go fuck yerself.”
“C’mon, willya, there ain’t no one here; whatthefuck, c’mon.”
“You know how to speak correctly; who the hell are you pretending to be?”
“’Who am I pretending to be?’ I don’t know, who am I pretending to be, I give up.”
“You wanna get funny, you can play with your own balls, now.”
“Ah, c’mon, Duke. I ain’t getting funny, that’s a complicated fuckin’ question.”
The door opened and we swung our eyes around. Bones, with his mountainous mass of flesh stood outside while his face “wedged” it’s way into the doorway. He was about six foot five and weighed nearly three hundred. I heard some of the others marveling that Bones was the fattest junky anyone had ever seen. One time he was boosting a crib and stopped to see what was in the ice-box. Discovering some thick rib-eyes, he couldn’t resist, so stayed to fry up two of them before departing with his score. Before he was able to enter, Duke called out, “The answers are: No, and not yet.” I looked quizzically at Duke who looked at me and shook his head to tell me it was none of my business and I was better off that way--though I didn’t think so. I was dying to get in.
Duke got up from his chair but before he did he flicked a switch that lit the lamp above table three, grabbed a tray of balls and handed them to me. “Go ahead you hooky playin’ sonofabitch, run a few.”
“Thanks, man, I’m gonna grab a smoke, too, if you don’t mind?” and reached for his pack of Pall Malls on the desk, tapped one out and quickly, before he could see, grabbed a second one which I quickly tucked behind my ear. I lit the first from the old Zippo Duke had nearby. It was the first smoke I had had since I copped one of my father’s Chesterfield regulars before I took up my aborted attempt at reaching Lincoln, my high school. Chesterfields always tasted a little stale to me, but Pall Malls were delicious. Not as good as Luckys, but good none the less; they were almost a longer Lucky, same Indian, too.
I watched Duke walk over to where Bones waited and tried to discern what was going on as I made my way over to the pool table. I was looking for an exchange of money...or merchandise...or whispers. But I didn’t see or hear anything, much to my disappointment. The only thing I saw was Bones turning and walking back to the curb where he lowered his bulk into a beat-up Chevy Corvair which sagged from his girth, it’s door frame digging into the curb. He tried to force it closed, but all it did was scrape more metal from the door’s lip forcing him to lift his bulk from the car. He was surprisingly fluid as he, in one motion, grabbed the window’s edge and hoisted himself up and out. The Chevy’s right side rose a few inches, lifting the door off the cement. Bones closed it and motioned to the driver, a slight, beak-faced accomplice, to move from the space. Once sufficiently away from the curb, he stopped. Bones opened the door and, in the same clean, almost ballet like motion, positioned his hands on the roof and the door and slid into the seat. Duke watched it go lopsidedly down the block, turned and walked back to his desk where he poured a little more Martel into his coffee cup and took a sip. “That’s fuckin’ cold! Jesus. Watch the store, I’m goin’ out for a second. If the phone rings, take a message.” I watched him go out and across the street where a pay-phone stood. I looked at the phone on his desk and the phone booth in the corner of the store, next to the bathroom. I watched as he returned. “Any calls?” I shook my head. I went back to my table and tried to turn my attention to what was in front of me.
I flipped over the tray containing the balls and watched as they emptied onto the table. I dug the way they rolled, the sound they made when they kissed one another, how they caromed off the rails and how I, or especially a good shooter, could make the ivory cue ball do what we wanted. How, when the heavens were aligned, the stick was an extension of your arm, and the cue ball had all the colored balls obey the shooter’s touch, dropping them into the mouths of the six pockets. In this world, where most recently little of what I experienced was ever ordered, ordained, or sanctioned by me, this was a god send.
I went to the racks of sticks, selected one that felt good and was as straight as possible, and then looked at the beautiful emptiness of Dukes. Fourteen other tables were silent in the darkness, the covers on them like sheets over the dead. Duke was back at his desk deep in concentration scoping out the ponies for the card at Belmont and I was getting ready to try and figure out what to shoot and try to run the table.
I positioned the cue ball, chalked the head of the cue and leaned over the table. I was about to bring the cue forward to make my first shot when I heard Duke’s voice, a voice tinged with sarcasm, authority and foreboding. It fell in the space between the tip of the cue and the skin of the ball. “I told you to practice first. Practice. I keep tellin’ you that. Practice.”
“I’m practicin’ while I’m playin’,” I replied without looking up, my back still perfectly parallel to the floor, my eyes staring down the shaft of the cue.
“Bullshit. You’re takin’ a fuckin’ shortcut. And there ain’t no shortcuts, not if you want to play good.”
I straightened up and turned to face him. His eyes were still buried in the form. I couldn’t understand how he could know I was ready to shoot. “Man, that shit is boring.”
“So’ fuckin’ life. Unfortunately, you can’t practice that. But I’m tellin’ ya now: if you wanna be good, you gotta get your ass to practice. No gettin’ around it. You line up the balls and you practice shootin’ them in the corner and side pockets; you practice your English, you practice your draw, you practice your stroke; you just practice.”
“I practice while I’m playin’, same thing,” I said, with a little too much plead in my voice for my own liking.
“Who do you think you’re talking to, asshole? I’m not your father. I’m not trying to punish you.”
“Nah, of course not,” I said a little too quickly, “it’s just it’s so fuckin’ boring doing that shit.”
“Boring!? What ain’t? Even fucking can get boring if it ain’t done right. But if you practice...become a student in a way, then it can, maybe, just maybe, become like an art or somethin.”
“Art? What the fuck...”
“Hey, man, I see your nose in those books; the kind of books that nobody else reads. I know you know--or think you know-- what good shit is---you just don’t know that all shit, all shit, can be good, maybe even great. Ya haveta practice and haveta be blessed. Not many have both but everyone can practice...but few do. Your choice, baby.”
I turned back to the table and didn’t know what to do: shoot or practice. The shots were there just waiting for me to make them; a blessed forgetful rhythm was begging to be established; life was in the “doing” wasn’t it, providing the heady sensation of accomplishment? That feeling lay beckoning me from all six pockets. “Duke, I’m gonna practice by “doin” I’m tellin ya.”
“Yeah, yeah, you and everybody’s mother gonna rewrite the books. Go ahead, get back to me in twenty years and tell me which way was quicker...or better.”
“Pool ain’t my real game anyway, it’s bowlin.”
“Why don’t you go over there and bust their balls?”
“They ain’t opened yet, that’s why.”
“Lemme have another smoke,” I said, walking over to where he continued to dope out the races, but first I took the one I had in the behind my ear and laid it on the table, out of sight.
“Jesus Christ, some of you guys in here cost me more money than the ponies...not to mention my x-wives.”
“How many of em you got?”
“Three and one soon to be; it’s just a matter of time.” He paused. “But God knows I love her...hell I loved them all.”
“None of them worked, huh?”
“My man, I have many talents, but living with a woman is evidently not one of them. You know somethin? You always get people to talk when they don’t wanna, don’tcha? I see you around here in that quiet way of yours. Don’t think I don’t see you. You think you’re invisible, but you’re not; at least not to me you’re not...and stop takin’ my cigarettes. Here’s some money, buy yourself a pack and one for me and bring me a cup of coffee, black...”
“Yeah, black no sugar and one for yourself...and whatever else you want, case you’re hungry...just what I need another prodigal son.”
Duke reached into his slacks and produced a roll of bills that had a rubber band to hold them in place. He snapped off the band, peeled off a fifty and handed it to me. “They gonna have change, this early?” I said.
“Hey, if not not. Just tell em it’s for me and I’ll catch-up to them later,” he replied without looking up.
I grabbed the fifty and, without bothering to get my jacket, went out the door to get what for me was a little bit of contraband. My pop knew I was smoking, but didn’t like it. He didn’t make too much of a stink about it, but would never give me money to buy my own pack and wouldn’t like me to be showing them around the house either. But now I had a half a buck to get a pack of Luckys and sip a cup of coffee with besides. What a score! I was thinking about that when I nearly ran over Jimmy coming in.
Jimmy was a mopey looking kid, a few years older than me who, as far as I knew, just hung out either at Duke’s, Surf Lanes or the basketball courts adjacent to the boardwalk around back. He’d never, to my recollection, played any of the games offered there, just watched others play. His brother, Mel, was another story. “Mad Mel” was what he was called, but you had to know him real good to call him that...to his face, or be tougher than him... or have earned his respect. On more than one occasion, when Mel didn’t like an umpire’s call during a softball or basketball game, or when he just didn’t like a person, or when there was retribution to be claimed for this or that infraction of family or turf, he’d take the knife he’d always carried with him, sequestered in his pocket or sock, bury it up to the hilt in the offender’s thigh and then, looking at the person’s expression, break the handle off, leaving the blade in the person’s leg. He’d then place the handle in that person’s hand before moving off. Because of Mad Mel you kind of danced around Jimmy.
“Hey Jimmy,” I said to him.
“Hey,” he replied.
He reminded me of something young, but nevertheless decaying--all the more peculiar because he was so obviously still in the process of maturing--as I passed him and headed for Norm’s Candy Store, on the corner.
It seemed like Norm was either chained behind the cash register or afraid to leave it, his ass growing out of the cushion that sat on a stool on the other side of the counter. His wife, Flo, ran the place it seemed, though she made these ridiculous sounding deferments to her husband: “I’d like to eat now, but if you’re hungry you eat first.” “Eat, go ahead, eat; you want to eat, eat.” “No, I don’t have to; you eat--if you’re hungry; I could eat but you eat first.” “Eat for Christsakes, eat!”
“Norm, what’s up?” I asked.
“What could be up? I wish my dick was up,” he said, and looked at Flo who, I could have sworn, blushed and looked twenty years younger.”
“I’ll go out and getcha some splints.”
“Whatdayathink, Flo? One for ol’ times sake? I still remember where to put...”
“Stop with that funny talk.”
“I’ll leave and let you lovebirds work it out, but first lemme have two coffees: one black, no sugar and one regular with--do you have Sweet n’ Low?”
“Sweeten what? What’s Sweeten?...”
“Like saccharine, but it’s a powder; it’s new--we don’t have any sweetie, we have saccharine.”
“Yeah, that’s all right,” I said quickly, “put two of em in there for me, would you; and a pack of Pall Malls and Luckys.”
They both looked at me, Norm one way and Flo another. She went to make the coffees and Norm reached to the side of the register where the cigarettes were and produced the two packs, placed them on the counter in front of him with books of matches. I reached for the Luckys and without looking at Norm quickly and deftly peeled the red ribbon off the circumference of the pack and removed the clear cellophane. I opened up one corner of the tin foil, leaving the Indian’s face intact, and, tapping the pack against my left forefinger, removed the first of twenty fresh smokes. I placed the opposite end in my mouth leaving the insignia to burn--just like I seen a tough guy friend of my father’s do to his Camel’s--smelled the raw tobacco, felt the softness of the cigarette against my lips, and lit it. The sweet smoke swirled around my head as I drew in the delicious first drag and, as I exhaled through my nose, I drew in the second wave--as I’d seen my ol’ man do thousands of times. Then I let go what remained of both and looked around. The coffees were there in a bag on the counter and I handed Norm Duke’s fifty.
“What am I supposed to do with this?”
“He said if you couldn’t break it he’d catch up with you later.”
“He’ll never catch up with me, I’m way ahead of him. Tell that shicker--is he drunk already?-- gonif bastard to make sure he sees me later; I don’t want to have to look for him.”
“I’ll tell him,” I said, eager to get out of there and back to the pool room where a table, coffee, cigarettes and solitude were offered to me; where I could observe without being seen or questioned.
Jimmy was with Duke by his desk when I entered. Duke, who towered over Jimmy, was telling him something and Jimmy, his head lowered, eyes averted, was listening. It was something about their postures that made me unsure whether or not to approach, but I was curious--I also had his coffee and smokes--and so I cautiously walked closer.
“I wisht you wouldn’t have done that,” Duke said, “should keep that kinda stuff outa the store. Shit.”
“What time do you think?”
“Around one, somethin like that.”
I looked at the black bordered clock whose facial dirt danced around it’s face, eleven forty-seven it read. I went over, as unobtrusively as I could, and placed his coffee and Pall Malls on his desk with his fifty, and walked back to my table. Whatever was going to happen I was determined to nurse the time, table, cigarettes and the day until it did. I pulled another smoke from the pack and lit it while I eyed Jimmy lazily walking with Duke’s Daily News to a high-backed chair near the window. He boosted himself up in the seat, took a cigarette from his shirt pocket and lit it as he opened up the back of The News to the sports section. His eyes caught mine and I quickly took the Lucky from my mouth and put it on the edge of one of the wooden rails. “Wanna shoot?” He shook his head and went back to reading the paper and I was relieved. The burning tip of the cigarette had left a nicotined wet scar which would later settle into the grain of the table. I picked up the cigarette, reached for the tray holding the balls, placed them back in and, wanting to start fresh, casually flipped it over again, releasing the colored numbers onto the green felt of the table. I took the ivory cue ball and placed it in a position where I thought I’d do the most damage. I chalked the tip of the cue, the blue dust of the chalk settling on the fingers of my left hand and began to shoot. Five balls found pockets before I had to make a decision on what to do next.
From time to time I checked on Jimmy. He had positioned himself to where he could look out the window and down the corners of both sides of Surf Avenue. On the floor, directly beneath his feet which rested on a rung of the stool he was sitting on, were the butts from the cigarettes he’d smoked down to the filter.
When the phone inside the booth rang we all braced ourselves. Our heads swiveled, Jimmy’s hands gripped the arms of the stool and Duke seemed to stiffen, his posture straightening. I began to go over to pick it up. Duke stopped me short, “That’s all right, I’ll get it,” he said. He moved quickly into the booth and I followed him with my eyes and ears. “Duke’s...no, he ain’t here...yeah, if I see him I’ll tell him. Yeah, I’ll tell him.” He cradled the phone and got out of the booth. He turned to Jimmy. “That was your brother; he’s lookin’ for you.”
“Fuckim; he can look all he wants,” he said in a flat, affectless tone. He turned his attention back to the window.
“Do me a favor, willya? Don’t play it off like it’s nothin and why don’t ya get out of that seat and take one in the back? There’s nobody in the joint, he’ll find ya, don’t worry.”
“You’re worried about my brother?” he said, as he moved his feet to the floor and lifted himself off the stool.
“Shit yeah, I’m worried about your brother...and you should be, too.”
“Maybe I should, but I’m not,” he said, as he made his way into the dark and dingy recess of the room. The yellow light from the street mixed with the specks of dust in the air of the room and danced around his head and back as he walked slowly to another stool and mounted it. “Better? Happy now?”
“Fuckin’ thrilled. Listen Jimmy, I didn’t have to let ya stay here, but I did; I didn’t have to say to your brother I didn’t see ya, but I did. I never did, and don’t now, give a good goddamn who’s dick anybody’s suckin. I’m not a fag, but I never thought anything less about anybody who was. But what I don’t want is anyone’s blood, especially mine, on my floor--and conscience--because of some stupid fuckin shit that has nothin to do with me. You know what I mean?”
Jimmy didn’t say anything but my heart was racing. It was lodged at the intersection of confusion and fear where ambivalence and doubt reigned, rendering it vulnerable to all sorts of whimsy, violence included. The word sat uncomfortably in my mouth waiting to explode. I couldn’t imagine what it was to actually be one--what was that all about!?--but I wondered.
My eyes, having nowhere to hide, ping-ponged from one to the other but quickly, embarrassedly, returned to the ivory cue ball, with the red centered dot. I tried concentrating on that dot but the more I tried the harder my ears strained, trying to compensate for my visual disadvantage. I looked up at the time and saw that whatever it was, was a half-hour closer.
There was no real telling what time of the day Duke would open the place and definitely no telling what time he’d close--that would depend upon the business and the business would depend on the “action.” A few times I’d stop by early, either by myself or with some friends and if the door was locked, I’d peer in the window. I’d see, on the last table in the back by the corner, a shape that resembled something human asleep atop a pool table. His back would be to the door and his head would rest on top a jacket or sweater or coat that would be bunched up on the wooden triangle that you’d rack the balls with. “Yeah, I know, I know, I’ve been sleepin on a pool table too long: I’m all balled up,” he’d say to anyone who’d listen. He’d also say that after he bet the wrong horse, or backed the wrong player, or loaned the wrong person money.
People, some of whom I knew enough to say hello to, started to drift in. Alone or in pairs they began shooting on tables that Duke made sure was a good distance from one another. Imperceptibly, the room began filling with sound and cigarette smoke as the overhead lights above each table were switched on in turn. I noted each as I shot, and watched Duke and Jimmy. Jimmy hadn’t moved and Duke, except for a few conversations that took no longer than a minute or two, remained the same; he stuck with his racing form, Pall Malls, coffee and some surreptitious pouring of Martel into his container. “I guess you didn’t make it either,” the voice said behind me as I was getting ready to shoot the five in the side. “You’re better off with the deuce, but this ain’t really your game,” another voice chimed in.
The Heart’s real name was Ira but he had a bad ticker; it had something to do with a valve or murmur or something. All I know is that he had to go to a hospital in Baltimore twice a year to get himself checked. Tommy was just Tommy. But Tommy was really rich, lived in a big house in Seagate right on the beach looking out over the Atlantic. He had the first color T.V. of any of us. I watched Bonanza over there one night; the first time I saw a show in color. Best of all was Tommy’s mom. Theresa was beautiful...and sexy...and she knew I not only knew it, but felt it. She’d walk around in these flimsy nightgowns and I tried to catch the right angle with the sun back lighting her and once in awhile saw her triangle of fur, black and silky looking under a sheer gauze of lace. She’d see me and look back at me in a way no one had ever done. It froze and heated me at the same time.
“C’mon, let’s get outa here.” The Heart said. “The alley’s open, let’s throw a few lines.”
I leaned my pool cue on the side of the table and leaned over to where the two of them stood, lowering myself just enough to be in the middle of their chest’. “Something’s gonna go down here in a little while and I want to be here.” Tommy’s eyes popped open like bread coming out of a toaster. The yellow filter of his cigarette got clenched between his upper and lower front teeth. “Don’t ask me what. All I know is that somethin’s gonna go down with Jimmy and his brother, that’s all I know; that’s all I have to know.”
“Mad Mel? Man, I’m stayin.”
“I’m gonna grab a cue, the three of us can play rotation,” The Heart said, and made his way to the racks.
“Not me, I can’t shoot for shit. I’ll watch.”
“Hey Tommy, you got a couple of bucks you can front me? I ain’t got a dime.”
“Yeah, sure, no problem.”
“Hey Duke, Off and On,” I yelled over to him.
“About fuckin time,” he said, and turned off the light and then back on. It acted as a timer so he could calculate how much to charge once you finished playing.
The Heart, only a few inches above five feet, returned with a cue that was nearly up to his eyes. He was an above average pool shooter and bowler but a below average gambler. He was indiscriminate in who he’d gamble against; it would depend upon what he had in his pocket and how bored he or we were. He was a little better than good which meant that things had to break just right for him to win. Most of the time they didn’t. But even when they did, the money burned a hole in his pocket and he’d find some way to give it back quickly, or lose it later. “We’ll play for a quarter a way...just gimme the break and the eight ball.”
“I ain’t given ya nothin. We should really play straight pool; rotation is just a game of luck anyway.”
“Bullshit, man. Rotation ain’t luck--ya gotta really know how to shoot; know how to play position; know how to play safe...Besides, I can’t beat ya in a game of straight. I got a chance playin rotation: hit it hard and pray to God.”
“Heart, you have two chances: slim and none.”
“Make it fifty cents.”
I felt guilty. “I’ll give ya the break. Break.”
Usually any kind of action was enough to occupy my mind. But not today. If I didn’t naturally drift to where Jimmy was still sitting, I’d peek at him from a variety of angles as I was shooting, or while waiting for The Heart to miss. I’d imagine Jimmy in the throes of passion. But instead of holding a girl in his arms there’d be a man who’d be doing these sexually bizarre things to him or even worse, Jimmy doing those things to him. My ideas of love, or romance, and hot stirrings of desire and lust were images all born from the Hollywood dream factory, which, unbeknownst to me, conspired with The League of Decency, and other watchdogs of Christian morals and Western ethics, to forever subvert and crucify those whose lives were different, which, of course, was us all.
Carlos, a spic’s answer to Sammy Davis, Jr.’ Rat Pack Step ‘n Fechit’s two-step, breezed through the door and went directly over to where Duke was sitting, put his two skinny arms down on the desk, while his hands gripped the edge, and leaned in close. Unlike Sammy, Carlos did his dance not on a Vegas stage, nor his act on a movie studio lot in Burbank, or sang amid the Copacabana showgirls, but in the ass-end of Brooklyn. Nor did he perform while lining up a piece of ass for Frank, but instead he cleaned up the mess left in his mother’s apartment by the somewhat demented and testosterone driven toughs who Carlos desperately wanted to be part of. Carlos, in other words, “ran errands.”
Duke motioned with his head left and Carlos looked right, to where Jimmy was sitting. He pushed himself upright and went over to him and placed his two hands on the arms of the stool and leaned into him. Jimmy, at first listened, then moved his head slowly to the right, until Carlos stared directly into the wall behind him. Carlos, without loosening his grip on the arms of the stool, swung his head to where Jimmy’s eyes now faced. Jimmy swung back the other way. Carlos countered and when Jimmy tried to climb off the chair I saw Carlos’ arms stiffen. The veins on his forearms rose to where you could see the blue highways from elbow to wrist. Jimmy raised himself up on the stool and Carlos eyeballed him back down.
“And what are you supposed to do? Jimmy said.
“Keep you here.”
“Yeah?...and how the fuck are you gonna do that?”
“Don’t test me, Jimmy.”
By this time I had put my cue down and looked on. Jimmy, unlike his brother Mel, was not one to fight, but you never knew what might happen when a person’s pressed. I was concentrating so hard on the space between their faces that when a black hand gripped Carlos’ shoulder I hardly noticed. It looked cut off and placed there with no special association. Except this hand looked solid and confident about the contact it made. My eyes ran up the wrist to the arm then shoulder and finally the face, in profile, hid by the hood of a sweatshirt. But even in profile and even though he was black, I knew who he was.
The first time I saw him was in the old Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue and Forty-ninth Street a few years ago. When he took off his robe that night it was hard to take your eyes off him; he was all muscle and sinew and sweat and shaped like a V. He fought Dick Tiger, another powerful welterweight, in a ten round bout; war was more like it. My father knew one of the boxing commissioners and we sat ringside, two or three rows from the apron. By the seventh round Tiger’s face was cut pretty bad and each time he got hit blood flew from those cuts to where we were sitting and a few rows beyond. It repulsed, but excited me. Tiger was a good boxer, too, and could also hit and so dished out some good punishment as well. By the end of the fight they both knew they’d earned their money. Tiger lost a unanimous decision and the other fighter a few months later fought for and won the Welterweight Championship.
The last time I saw him was a few weeks ago, on television. He was defending his title fighting a guy called, Benny Kid Peret. I was alone in my downstairs basement mesmerized, watching on a big black and white TV set The Friday Night Fights, watching Emile Griffith beat Benny Kid Peret to death in front of a cheering crowd, a referee, and me. After dominating him for the first ten or eleven rounds and softening him up, he rocked Peret with a straight right hand flush against his jaw. Peret reeled backwards into the corner ring post, ready to fall. Instead, Griffith did not let him fall, but bored into his chest with his shoulder straightening him up. Griffith used his left forearm to keep Peret’s head up by placing it under chin, firmly embedded into the throat, almost lifting Peret’s feet off the canvas. He proceeded to hit Peret with ferocious right hands on top of his head, to the face, the body, the kidneys and the arms; but mostly shots to the head, vicious shots, shots meant to punish and destroy. I looked around in my empty basement hoping that somebody was there, somebody to tell me what I was witnessing wasn’t really real, someone to stop the fight.
But there wasn’t. Finally, after he hit him with a punch that made Peret’s eyes roll to the back of his head, did the referee step between them. Even that would not stop Griffith. He tried to lunge over the ref who finally hugged him around his stomach in order to drag him away from the slumping Paret. It took less than five seconds for Paret’s body to hit the canvas though it seemed I was watching slow-moving chocolate lava endlessly flowing from the ring stanchion. A doctor, always present at ringside, went into the ring to attend to Paret; a few minutes later men entered the ring and put Paret, who remained unconscious, on a stretcher. They awkwardly maneuvered his body through the ropes and brought him to an awaiting ambulance.
The next day the back page of The New York Post had a big picture of his slumped body with one word, DEAD, in bold black letters.
Inside the paper an article said Paret had called Griffith a “maricon,” a faggot. He called him this before the fight, at the weigh-in. Griffith proved to him and the world that night that he might be many other things, but “maricon” wasn’t one of them. Yet here he was in Coney Island, in Duke’s, moving Carlos out of the way to get closer to Jimmy.
The sight of black fingers on his shoulder made Carlos jump back. The sight of who those fingers were attached to unnerved him even more.
“Hiya, Champ,” Carlos said, looking and turning the color of lint.
Griffith looked from Carlos to Jimmy and back again. “Why don’t you just get on with yourself?” he asked Carlos, except it didn’t sound like a question. His tone, while being measured and low, had weight and danger.
He wedged himself between Carlos and Jimmy and looked Jimmy in the eye. Except his look had more warmth than inquisition. “You all right?” he said. Jimmy nodded. “C’mon, let’s go.” Jimmy pushed himself off the chair and the two of them began to move towards the door. Jimmy seemed to lean into him as they went. I looked over at Carlos as they made their way out of the door. He’d been told to do a cheap and thankless errand by a madman. They didn’t hang around for what would have been trouble with a capital T. He looked relieved. In fact, everyone looked relieved except for the two old guys shooting pool two tables over. If they noticed what was happening, they didn’t care. They were concentrating on beating each other. They had probably been doing that for the last fifty years, maybe more.
Carlos looked over at me and smiled. I smiled back. He shook his head indicating what a crazy scene that was and could have gotten crazier. He took out a cigarette and I turned back to the table and my game when I saw a blur of a figure cross the room. It was Mad Mel. I turned back in time to see him slap Carlos’ face making the cigarette fly from his lips. “I told you, you cocksucker.”
“No, wait, wait a minute,” Carlos sputtered. But Mad Mel had hit him again, this time on the side of his head, also with an open fist. “You don’t understand, Mel, wait a fuckin minute.”
One of the older men came over to the table. “What are you doing to him?”
“Mind your fuckin business, old man.”
“What are you crazy, leave him alone.”
He hardly got that last sentence out when Mad Mel reached into his jacket pocket, took out a knife and, with one hand, opened the blade while keeping it against his right leg. Without any warning he stuck it into the old man’s thigh and snapped off the handle. The old man let out a cry and looked down at the source of his pain. Mad Mel took a step backward. “Crazy? Yeah, I’m crazy.” He took the handle and placed it in the old man’s hand and then to Carlos, “I’ll see you later,” and jabbed him in the chest with his finger.
Mad Mel, without looking back, walked unhurriedly out the door while the old man’s friend, his face drained of color, helped his friend onto the floor where he lay flat. Duke called for an ambulance. Carlos walked over to me and asked for a cigarette. I took one out and lit one for him, and one for myself. His hand and lips trembled and I felt, for a moment, bad for him. “I’m gettin out of here. You wanna go ridin around for a little while?” he asked me.
For a second I was a little confused and didn’t know what to say, not ever being too friendly with him. But I nodded my head and went to put the cue stick back in the rack. Tommy and The Hearts’ eyes were just watching me as all of this was transpiring. “Take it easy,” I said to them, as we were leaving. We walked around the figure on the floor. I passed Duke as we made our way to the door. Duke looked up and into my eyes and just shook his head. I tried to see the broken blade in the leg of the man on the floor, but I couldn’t. All I saw was a dark stain on his pants and a look of unintelligible fear on his face.
Carlos had a cream colored nineteen-sixty Pontiac Catalina, it’s body dented around the right rear door and left tail; it’s neglect slightly rusting the areas around the damage. I wondered if he purchased it like this or let this disrepair accumulate. My father, who, since I remembered, always owned Cadillacs, would never allow something like that to happen. But I would. I liked the casual recklessness it projected.
He reached over and pulled the knob up and I slid into the cushioned seat; inside, the leather was brown, but creases of dark dirt from years of neglect ran through them making me feel slightly uncomfortable. The ashtray was overflowing and the interior had this peculiar yellow film to it, especially on the beige-colored vinyl that covered the top. Carlos put the key into the ignition. When the motor caught he asked for another smoke. He put it into drive and pulled out, made a quick U-turn and headed south, toward Seagate.
The day had become overcast but I was happy to be in a car going anywhere. There was something about motion and smoking a Lucky that made sense. “You mind if I put on the radio?”
“Nah, go ahead.”
I turned the knob and heard the opening notes to The Drifter’s, Up On the Roof. “Yeah, that’s nice,” Carlos said. I leaned back and inwardly sang along.
“That was sure something back there, wasn’t it?” I kept quiet. I didn’t think he was looking for a response. “He’s sure a crazy motherfucker, ain’t he?” Again, I remained silent. “I did what the sonofabitch asked me to. ‘Keep him there,’ he said. ‘Keep him there ‘til I get there.’ Well you know what, that creep fuck was there but he was too fuckin scared himself to come in there. No fuckin way he missed those two on his way in; no fuckin way.”
He made a left and pulled down one of the beach blocks that Mary’s, a sandwich shop during the summer, sat guard over. All the way down the block we went, and stopped to the right of the ramp leading to the boardwalk; a boardwalk that ran all the way from Seagate to the end of Brighton Beach, past the housing projects, and Coney Island proper: The Parachute Jump, Nathan’s, SteepleChase, The Mid-Way, The Wonder Wheel, arcades, The Thunderbolt, The Cyclone and The Aquarium. He shut off the engine and we just sat there looking at the sand, and ocean beyond that.
“I’m gonna get high,” he announced suddenly. I didn’t know what he meant. But I felt something rearrange itself in my stomach. “You ever get high before?”
It was difficult to answer him; I didn’t feel I could talk. “No,” I said. He reached across me, unlocked the glove compartment and put his hand inside, coming out with a small yellow envelope. Again, he reached inside and came out with a small square looking package that was twice the size of a book of matches with the name, “Bambu,” written on the front. From this he extracted two sheets of paper, licked one of the edges and placed one on top of the licked edge and folded, ever so gently, the end of one of the papers.
“You wanna get high?”
I couldn’t take my eyes off Carlos’ hands. He was tapping the yellowed manila envelope until a thin stream of a grass-like looking substance was thinly placed in the fold of the crease. My heart was beating rapidly. The words, not quite catching in my throat said, “Yeah, sure.”
Deftly, he placed both his hands near the ends of the papers and rolled them up in one motion. He licked the top edge, the tip of his pink tongue darting out like a snake, and sealed it. It looked like a thick toothpick. “Watch me,” he said, “watch how I do it; I take in small tokes--drags, you know--hold it in for awhile then let it out. Watch.” He lit it and I heard the pop of something then a sweet and pungent smell filled the air that I didn’t know what to make of. He held this cigarette between his thumb and forefinger and took these quick drags off it, keeping it in like he said, then letting it out and quickly doing it again. He passed me this cigarette and I did the same. By the time I passed it back to Carlos and he passed it to me again I was high.
I felt weird, disoriented. Things at first slowed then speeded up with no discernible reason. My mouth felt thick and coated. When I looked down at my hands they didn’t seem to be mine and what they touched had no memory that I knew of. I looked over at Carlos who was looking at me. He began to laugh. “You high, man. You high, no shit, man, you fuckin high.” I looked at him with what seemed like these monstrous looking eyeballs that must have held all the confusion, fear and awkwardness I felt. “Well, man, I don’t know what you want to do, but I gotta go.”
“Go?” I said.
“Yeah, go. I gotta go, man, can’t stay here with that motherfucker loose man, gotta go try to take care of this shit. I’ll drop you someplace. Where?”
“Where? Shit, I can’t go home man, fuck that. Take me to The Heart’s house in Seagate. I’ll tell you where.”
“Cool.” He started the car, made a broken U, went to the corner, hung a left and went into Seagate. How the hell was he able to talk, much less drive? Heart’s parents were deaf and dumb and never looked too close at anything. I got out of the car where I wanted and closed the door. Carlos sped off without saying a word.
I went and rang the bell praying that he’d answer. He opened the door and looked at me. “What the fuck happened to you? Your eyes are all red.”
“Just let me in, man; I’ll explain later. Could I eat over your place?”
“Yeah, sure. How come?”
“You see the shape I’m in, man. I can’t go fuckin’ home now. I’m on the lam for a few hours, shit maybe days.”
The Heart ushered me into his home, past his parents who were at the dinner table. They smiled to me and I tried to smile back, but I don’t really know what the hell I did. I walked into his living room and to the phone. Fear began to insinuate itself back into my chest. I knew I had to make the phone call, but I’d be goddamned if I knew what I’d say.
Greenwich Village, 2000-2015