At about the time King Touey was following the Cat of Ashes across West First Street, a motorized ambulance—a white-painted Model T Ford with an elongated chassis—was headed uptown on the east side of Bayonne, rolling on pneumatic tires that by a miracle had not been slashed back at the Hook. The windscreen was shattered. A side-mounted bell had been crushed at the waist, and the canopy of painted canvas stretched over the back shell was pitted with bullet holes.
Between Thirtieth and Thirty-First streets, the ambulance turned precipitately left across Avenue E, almost tipping. It bounced over the high curb, shot across the block pavement and braked, shuddering, on a green behind the City Hospital and Dispensary. The driver took a deep fortifying breath before twisting half-way around in his seat to glare at the two policemen. Both sat dazed on the floor behind him with their shoulders braced against slats. The older cop was a captain named Daniel Freel. The younger one, homely and weak-chinned and with a red knot swelling above his right eyebrow, was patrolman Charles Gillick—Charlie! He leaned forward and managed a pallid smile. “God bless you, sir.”
“Go to hell,” said the driver, whose name, regretfully, appears in not a single one of the many diaries and letters, newspaper cuttings, film footage (oh yes!), magazine articles, depositions, court transcripts, labor histories, or police and commission reports that we’ve scoured to assemble and dramatize our story. This poor rattled anonymous man flung open his door and jumped out. Window glass fell in a chinking rush from his lap. He staggered off, but not toward the hospital, away from it, crossing East Thirty-First Street on a shaky diagonal and heading, we’d venture to guess, for the nearest saloon. Soon enough he’d get the bad news. While he’d risked life and limb to rescue Charlie and the trigger-happy Captain Freel from what almost certainly was a lynch mob—stomping the accelerator pedal, ducking pot shots, sluing around logs and water-main pipes the strikers had laid fiendishly across East Twenty-Second Street—the Sheriff of Hudson County had sworn in a hundred more special deputies (truant officers and school principals, embalmers, bankers, tradesman, druggists, even the Clerk of the Court) and dispatched them all to shut down every saloon in the city. Well, perhaps the driver’s saloon had yet to be visited by the law. We can only hope so.
“Captain?” said Charlie. “Captain, we’re at the hospital, can I lend you a hand?” No response. Freel had passed out again (not surprisingly, since he’d been stoned like somebody in the Bible), so Charlie struggled to his feet and squeezed through a long rip in the side canvas. On blessedly solid ground again, he extracted a pencil and a tablet from his uniform tunic, then pushed back a sleeve to make a dutiful note of the time. But his strap watch—the solid-lug radium-dial Waltham his brother Tommy had given him last April on his twentieth birthday—was gone from his wrist. On top of everything else that happened today, he’d lost his prized watch! Charlie hadn’t glanced at it since he’d joined his fellow patrolmen guarding Engine Company 4, close by the Standard works. It had been twenty minutes of eleven then, only moments before the crowd of angry strikers, hell bent on getting their hands on the half-dozen fink sluggers who’d taken shelter inside the firehouse, attacked Captain Freel’s buggy as it came plunging through their flank. They’d shot his horse. (Strange to tell, we know the horse’s name: Goldie.) Under a shower of stones, Dan Freel had fought his way to the firehouse, where he’d flung off the officers, Charlie among them, who tried to drag him inside. Then he’d pulled his revolver and fired it at the strikers until it was empty. One square-faced young man crumpled with a red hole in his forehead. (His name we also know: John Staranchak. He was 18.)
Almost certainly Charlie had lost his watch in the donnybrook that followed, but just in case it fell off during the wild ride through Bayonne, he started to climb back into the ambulance. That’s when two orderlies grabbed him. He was conveyed to a low-wheeled cart, trundled into the hospital, and brought to the nursery ward, empty now of children but crowded with injured patrolmen and deputized citizens. The walls were hung with pictures of Mother Goose characters. The short bed where they put Charlie was set into an alcove opposite a picture of the crooked man, the crooked cat, the crooked mouse, and the crooked house. He sat up and looked at it more closely, but there was no crooked sixpence, no crooked stile. That little curving lane in the background, there, was probably supposed to be the crooked mile. What the hell was a stile anyhow? Then his vision flocked and he fell back on his pillow.
A student nurse who was a fellow parishioner of Charlie’s at St. Mary’s (Eileen McIntyre) recognized him as she passed by the foot of his bed, and as soon as she’d informed her superior that Charlie’s father was Kevin Gillick, the City Attorney, he was transferred to a rolling bed and taken—as Captain Freel had been taken, immediately—to one of only nine private rooms on the premises, and as far away as possible from all of the hubbub. Charlie lay there, semi-awake, wanting to concentrate his thoughts, but not wanting to do it all that badly, till an asynchrony of angelus bells and noontime factory whistles snapped his eyes wide open. Cringing at the bruises spreading—he could feel them spreading—across his back and his chest and belly, he sat up and carefully swung his legs over the side of the bed. When the dizzy feeling passed and he’d checked the urge to vomit, Charlie staggered to his feet, swaying a little, and then swaying a lot. He sat down again. They’d removed his regulation shoes and his flat-topped visored cap, but that’s all. As soon as he trusted himself to stand again, he did, and it was okay, and he stepped into his shoes—the nurse hadn’t untied the laces, just pulled them off—and put on his cap and left the room. There was a side exit at the end of the hallway. He used it and stepped outside into the muggy heat of midday. Since he was ambulatory, Charlie knew he’d be expected to report back to headquarters, but he also knew it’s not where he was going, now that he’d started walking. He was going where he’d always gone when something was wrong and he needed to talk. He was going to Lizzie Landrigan.
After King Touey had put on the dead man’s shoes, he looked around for the Cat of Ashes and saw him limp-trotting away through the weed lot, leaping from one mound of refuse to the next, to the next, and then bolting toward the stony shoreline that fronted Newark Bay. He’d assumed the big gray tom would be turning north again now, heading home, but no, and then King wondered why in hell he’d expected him to do anything; he was a cat, for the love of Mike, and you couldn’t reasonably anticipate the intentions of a fucking cat. But since King had decided that for today he would follow the cat just to do it, and to do it just because he’d never done such a thing before, and also because he was in no great hurry to see his high hat sister, or even his brother Patsy, he ambled off after the cat again. Ah crap, these shoes had looked a whole lot better than they felt on his feet. Already his toes were crimped and his heels were sliding up and down.
For a while King walked carefully, gingerly, watching where he stepped, as the ground turned stonier, and the stones turned slicker, treacherous with crude, and the land sloped sharply toward the bay, so that when he lifted his eyes again he was startled—and had to admit, pleased, practically delighted—to see, off to his left, out where the bay started curving into the kill, the old Bergen Point Lighthouse. It resembled a miniature family mansion built on a speck of rock. Navigating out in the deep channel under bright lathery clouds and shrieking gulls were freight barges and green or red ferries and a small fleet’s worth of single-hull petroleum steamers, even one sail-driven tanker, and beyond them all, directly opposite Bayonne, were the piers and wharves, the handling cranes and warehouses of the Port of Newark.
Directly below where King stood were the ruins of a bathhouse, and the tumbled-over dock that he used to swim—cannonball—from in summers just before and after the turn of the century. And further up the shoreline, that was where, as a kid, he used to take off his shoes, roll his trouser legs above his shins and go clamming, and he recalled (in pictures that whisked in and out of his brain: decomposed rat tumbling in silty water, cut finger, a chum’s blue cap) the day when he’d harvested nearly 200, dragging them all home by nautical rope in a slatted wooden crate. And down over there, not a trace left now, but that’s where a hermit’s shack once had stood, and in that junk board shack lived a giant Negro, a Negro hermit at least 7-feet tall, who spoke African, real African, the African language. People called him Jackson or Johnson or Benson: it varied. King had seen him often, over a span of many years, but he had always kept his distance. Except once.
He was 16, almost 17, and when he thought about it now, it was probably the last time he’d seen the hermit, and Charlie Gillick was there. Oh, he was there, all right. This was a time when Charlie used to follow King Touey around, dogging him through their neighborhood, and sometimes out of it, like King Touey was God Almighty leaving a trail of breadcrumbs. Charlie was eight or nine then, and it wasn’t long before King had been sent away to the parental home for almost a year. The same summer, in fact, so this would’ve been June or July of ought-four.
King had been slogging along the water line, right about where he was looking now—squinting for dimples and keyholes, scooping up hen clams with a cylindrical can, tossing them into a porous burlap sack, and then he’d had this…prickly feeling, and glanced over a shoulder. There stood chinless Charlie Gillick, the homeliest kid in the world, watching him from ten feet back. When he saw King looking at him, he’d lifted a hand and timidly waved. Naturally, King ignored him. The kid was a nuisance! Lizzie had thought it was sweet as candy, the way Charlie admired King so much, adored him, worshipped him, but that was the bunk. (“He thinks you’re a real king.” “I am a real King, and he’s a fucking nuisance!”)
What was he just thinking about? The hermit! Right, the hermit. So there was King scooping up clams with Charlie behind him watching, seeing how he did it, until he wasn’t. King looked around again and the kid was gone. Then he’d looked sidelong up the bay shore and spotted him wandering up to the African giant’s hermit shack. Before King could holler to stay the hell away from there, and already Charlie was right next to it, the Negro came outside, clothed in hanging rags and bending almost in half to get through the door. Well, so maybe he wasn’t seven feet tall. More like six and a half—but still, he was one tall Negro! He planted a huge balled fist on a cocked hip and glared, or so it seemed to King from his distance, at little Charlie Gillick, who stood rooted where he stood but then tipped back his head to look all the way up. King ditched his can, ditched his sack, and took off running for the giant’s shack, his bare feet loud-smacking the shingly black mud.
Even at 16 he was in pillared shape, had a balanced, sturdy build, and well-strung arms from daily weight training—barbells and Indian clubs—and it was a fact that he wasn’t afraid of anybody, not anybody on earth, but still King Touey had no mind to mix it up with that hermit, whose reach had to be twice as large as his. So without so much as a glance at the man, King swept up Charlie Gillick, hooking him across the chest and under his right armpit, and horseshoed away and sprinted back up the strand. He didn’t stop running till he’d returned to exactly the spot where he’d dropped his can and his sack, right where, earlier, he’d left his shoes. Charlie was struggling, still pinned across King’s body, his legs flutter kicking, and King flexed a tight, lording squeeze before relaxing his arm and letting the boy fall, hard. “You stupid fucking muttonhead!” he said, barely checking an impulse to kick Charlie a good one in the ribs.
“What’d I do? I didn’t do nothin!” Charlie wiped a sleeve across his eyes. “What’d I do, King?”
“You almost got yourself killed, that’s what,” he said, disgusted. The hermit, he noticed now, had gone back inside his shack. “That’s what! You seen the size of that powder burn? He’d’a pounded you flat if I hadn’t saved your sorry ass, you stupid moron!”
“He wasn’t—” Charlie had rolled onto his back and then sat up and hugged his knees.
“He wasn’t, wasn’t he? And how would you know that, you little stupid moron!” King suddenly realized he was out of breath, that his head was in a whirl. “Moron!”
“He asked me if I wanted to buy some oysters, that’s all. He got oysters, King.”
“He got oysters from the bay, and he said—”
“There ain’t oysters anymore! And he never said that!”
“He did, I swear!”
“Don’t you swear and don’t you lie! You’re lying!”
“You’re a liar and you know how I know that? Because that big son of a bitch don’t talk in English, he talks in African!”
“No, he don’t!”
That, finally, had been too much for King. If there was one thing in the world that King Touey couldn’t abide it was lying. Nobody had ever believed him when he said so, but he’d never lied once in his life, or at least in his life as far back as he could recall—never! Not once! Even when it got him in dutch, or into real hot water, he’d never, he’d—never. And that was the truth, so help him, God, who in King Touey’s considered opinion was nothing more than a bigger deal Santa Claus and just as bona fide. He hated liars, and here was this little prick, this ugly little nuisance of a prick lying straight to his face. That, finally, was too much. He reached down and grabbed Charlie Gillick’s shirt placket in a fist, heaved him up and backhanded him so hard that Charlie’s left cheek split open. “Don’t ever tell me he talks in English—you understand? Now get the fuck out of here and if I ever see you again—”
The kid was bawling his eyes out, tears mixing with the blood on his cheek and pinking it.
“Oysters,” said King, putting Charlie down, almost gently that time. “There ain’t been oysters in Newark Bay since I was your age. Everybody knows that.”
He picked up his shoes and his cylindrical can and his burlap sack, jumbling everything in his arms, and walked away, leaving Charlie Gillick weeping hysterically on the shoreline, and King just kept walking till he could no longer hear him, and then he sat down on a fence at the yacht club and put his shoes back on. Shit. Shit and piss. He was sure that Charlie was going to tell on him; they’d ask him how he’d got that cut on his cheek and he’d say King done it, King done it. But that didn’t happen; as King heard about it the next day from his sister who’d seen Charlie Gillick on the street with a big plaster on his face, what happened was, Charlie had been running down a hill at Sixteenth Street Park, he’d tripped and caught his cheek on a rock.
That pissant little fucker had lied! He’d lied, and after what King had expressly told him! Well, so be it, say la vee, but it was a good thing Charlie Gillick never again followed King around after that because if he had? If he had? King would’ve slapped his other cheek, and even harder. Do whatever you want in this miserable world, just don’t lie about it. That was King Touey’s motto, although how he’d ever come up with it, or when, exactly, he’d decided to adopt it, well, he had no fucking idea.
What time was it anyway? It had to be going on one o’clock; before he’d even found the dead man and his shitty pair of shoes, he’d heard noontime whistles blowing. He was hungry—he was starving, he had to put something in his stomach pretty soon or else he’d get a headache and next thing you know, he’d be slugging some jay in the nose just for looking at him. He’d seen enough of the bay, he was sick of looking at it. It was a lousy bay anyhow, he’d seen better bays, they were all over the place—much better bays than this stupid one. “Hey, cat!” he called to the Cat of Ashes who was light footing it along the shore now, skipping back whenever a little foamy curl splashed in. “I’m leaving, you coming?” The cat looked blankly back at King. “I’m going to Lizzie’s house,” he said, “you can come or you can stay here, it’s all the same to me. I’m done following the likes of you!” And with that he realized it was true, he’d told the truth yet again: whatever fascination he’d felt earlier in following around an arthritic old tom cat, it had faded, steamed off from his instinct, and was totally gone. He trudged away, clambering over slick rocks and cursing the shoes that already had rubbed both of his heels raw enough to bleed.
In less than a minute, he’d forgotten he’d ever been following the Cat of Ashes, other thoughts monkeying around in his mind, nothing staying longer than a split second, except for one that kept spinning up into words every few seconds, one that had been returning regularly since yesterday afternoon, starting when he’d thought he saw Charlie Gillick in a copper’s uniform outside the Standard Oil stockade, and the recurring thought was this: One day, someday he’d have to kill Charlie Gillick dead. No two ways about it.
It seemed, what you call, inevitable.