Last evening, starting around nine o’clock and going on till just before midnight when the Standard got its searchlights finally hoisted into place and the generators working reliably, small gangs of dark-clad strikers had taken turns charging up the earth embankment that rose against the north wall of the refinery to ignite torches and sling them over the concrete stockade. They used the greenest branches they could find wrapped to a bulge with shirt cotton soaked in accelerant. A lumber shed caught fire, and the low fence around a regulating station, and so did gummy patches of crude in the refinery yard.
At eleven, Superintendent George Hennessey summoned two of Pearl Bergoff’s nobles to his temporary quarters in a company yacht docked on the upper bay. He instructed them to rouse every off-duty man and set them all to work drawing off kerosene, naphtha and gasoline from 50 jeopardized tanks. As a further precaution, he wanted the pits surrounding the tanks flooded with water. And so, at half past the hour, Big Spanish and Red Casey banged into the makeshift barracks that housed all of Bergoff’s gunmen (80 were present) as well as several dozen rueful and terrified replacement workers—Swedes, Italians, and Dutchmen brought over from Staten Island on company tugs the first afternoon of the strike and, to their great distress, confined there for its duration. Casey clapped his hands and ordered everyone up. Big Spanish, like a collegiate basket-ball coach, added, “Chop chop, ladies.”
Joe Dell’Appa, gaunt, whey-faced, and ill, had just sat down on his cot to eat a meat paste sandwich. He took a quick, furtive bite—it was the first food of any kind he’d had since his miraculous escape from the city jail—and then pressed the sandwich into his coat pocket with the guard badge he’d been given but purposely had neglected to pin on. It was Joe’s single act of defiance at the works, and he still was fretting over it. Any hesitancy in following orders or procedure got you a hard smack along the head, with no clemency granted if your head happened to be swathed in bandages, as was his.
“Form a single line!” Big Spanish called out sharply.
Joe got to his feet and joined the end of the line, and the mercenaries and the strikebreakers, everyone tired but nobody openly grousing, swarmed out of the barracks into the clammy hot night.
For the next three-and-a-half hours Joe helped drag heavy black hoses across the immense yard and nicked his fingers a hundred times struggling with clamps, valves, locks and nozzles. Despite the incessant throbbing in his skull, he pulled his weight, he performed the work, but always with lowered eyes, anxious that one of the nobles or crumb bosses would recognize him for the imposter he was. And then what? Either they’d grab him as a spy or else call the cops. Regardless of whichever it was, he was a dead man, right there and then from a beating, or later in Trenton Prison from electricity. He had to get out! As he trudged back and forth across the yard, back and forth, back and forth, Joe kept glancing, as casually as he could, to the different gates in the stockade walls. They all were heavily guarded, and the only one that opened during Joe’s surveillance, and then for just a moment, was a gate at the plant’s maritime entrance; three nervous-looking whores from New York City were hurried inside and then taken by a waiting auto to the company fire house where most of the nobles now were quartered.
When the job was nearly done, and after most of the men, Joe Dell’Appa not among them, had been released back to the barracks, another of Bergoff’s nobles—Billy Carroll—appeared in the tank yard lugging rifles in a plaid golf bag that hung by its strap on his sloped shoulder. He walked around tagging men, handing each man a rifle, and then pointing them over to the south wall to stand there and wait. Without success Joe willed himself invisible. After what happened yesterday in Olive Ince’s flat, he’d promised Almighty God he never again in his life would touch another weapon, of any kind—but what could he do? Billy Carroll would’ve throttled him if he hadn’t accepted the rifle. He shuffled to the wall and stood a few feet away from an arched timber door. The guard stationed there happened to catch Joe staring at it. He made a fleet, pitying smile, and slowly shook his head, for which Joe Dell’Appa, in his raw, frantic state, felt so much gratitude that his eyes filled.
After a dozen men had been selected, Billy Carroll crooked both index fingers, and they followed him sullenly to the front wall and waited while an equal number of tired-looking men climbed down from the parapet walk. Carroll tipped his empty golf bag, and the guards being relieved stuck their rifles into it as they passed. As each replacement guard stepped to the foot of the ladder, Carroll handed him a box of cartridges. Joe fitted his box into a shirt pocket, and climbing to the parapet made God another promise: no matter what, he would not fire!
And he didn’t, although he pretended to whenever the crumb boss in charge of the watch suspected his men might be dozing on their feet and had them snipe at a little hotel on East Twenty-second Street or at a workers’ tenement on Avenue F. He even offered a reward— snapping down a 50-cent piece on top of the wall—to any man who could put out the big light hanging in front of Mydosh Hall, diagonally across from the works. Dutifully, Joe set his rifle to his shoulder, sighted along the barrel, and then, in synch with another man’s shot, flinched from a sham recoil. The light was put out in no time by a tall bulky Swede wearing a shapeless broken-peak cap. He bit the coin leerily before putting it into his pocket.
At that hour there were no strikers gathered out in front of the Standard, only police officers. Occasionally one of them would call up the stockade wall and order an end to the shooting, but it was always with half-hearted exasperation, and the sniping continued intermittently until around half past three when Sheriff Kinkaid showed up on foot and in the company of a young patrolman. Instantly word passed down the parapet for everyone to stow his rifle.
Dizzy and congested from the acrid gun smoke, Joe leaned against the wall to rest. His throat was dry and irritated. He cleared it. He cleared it again, which attracted the notice of the patrolman who’d arrived with the Sheriff and was now standing alone, directly below, illuminated starkly by one of the great searchlights. When he glanced up, Joe recognized him—it was the same cop who’d hit him yesterday with a riot stick!—and the shock was so tremendous that his legs gave way and he dropped to his knees. He couldn’t catch his breath. His groin felt scooped out and packed with ice. He was lost, finished, expecting at any moment to feel a hand snatch him by the collar and drag him back to jail. Joe had a profane impulse to throw himself over the wall and just end it all—this foolish opera. How, God, had it come to this? He was a barber, just an ordinary young man with ordinary ambitions, ordinary hopes, but now look where he was, see what he’d done! Life had betrayed him. All because he’d fallen in love with a pretty American girl and she’d laughed at him! Go on, get lost, you must be off your nut!
Still on his knees, Joe pitched forward and pressed the bandaged crown on his head against the gritty walk, pressing till his black dull headache flared red and turned racking. Let me die.
“You sick?” said a voice close enough to his ear to moisten it. Then a hand touched his shoulder, lightly. “Look at me—you sick or something?” It was the big Swede. Hunkering, he cupped Joe’s left elbow in one fist and bunched the seat of his trousers in the other, and then standing up very slowly brought him back to his feet. The first thing Joe did was look behind him, to the top of the ladder. Nobody was coming for him. Then his glance traveled to the street, where the patrolman now was strolling away from the barricade alongside of the Sheriff. Joe’s blood carbonated like a penny phosphate, and he would’ve dropped again with enfeebling relief had the Swede not grabbed him.
“You two!” called the crumb boss from the opposite end of the parapet. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing what should interest you, got it?’ threatened the Swede casually, and turned his back on the man. “Can you stand by yourself?” he asked Joe.
“Yes, thank you. Thank you.” The Swede nodded, and after giving Joe a chummy slap on the arm he returned to his station.
Incrementally the darkness melted and at last the red sun came up from behind Manhattan, and by 6:30 refinery workers and their families started to appear, slouching around corners, emerging in groups from tenement cellars and doorways, gathering at the dead line in Avenue F, milling around outside of Mydosh Hall and over by the swamp that fronted on Twenty-second Street beyond the south wall of the oil works. The crumb boss ordered the men to load their rifles and stand ready. Instead of doing that, the Swede turned his back to the street and methodically rolled a cigarette. When he noticed Joe watching him smoke it, he winked.
Then, about 7:30, waste oil flowing into the swamp caught fire and swiftly blazed toward a train of Lehigh Valley tank cars standing on a nearby spur. When company firemen rushed out of the works, throngs of strikers pelted them with rocks and stones and sticks, and the parapet guards shouldered their rifles. Bullets whistled over the swamp as men, women and children plunged into the ooze up to their knees and waists in a mad rush to get out of range. In less than two minutes, the blaze was under control, and in five minutes it was extinguished, but the frenzied sniping went on. Joe, once again, pretended to shoot, squeezing the trigger, the trigger metallically clicking, but in the loud hail of bullets nobody noticed his simulation.
The Swede blithely fired at seagulls.
When the watch was relieved at 8, he accosted Joe at the foot of the ladder. Tapping a knuckle against the full box of cartridges still in Joe’s shirt pocket, he whispered, “If you’re interested, bud, I’m leaving today.” He stuck his rifle into Billy Carroll’s golf bag, then snatched Joe’s rifle and stuck that one in, too. He strode off with a sportive, rolling gait.
Dumbfounded, Joe watched him go. “Say, hold on!” he shouted and raced like a boy after the Swede.
For several months now, and with only the rare cancellation (after his bunion surgery and following the removal of her wisdom teeth), Liz Landrigan had been trysting with portly Johnny Gillick every Thursday morning before work. He would arrive at the law offices on West Eighth Street about seven o’clock, having motored downtown from his big craftsman house on the city park, and would let in Liz—quickly, girl, quickly!—no later than a quarter past. Then there would be touching, fondling, kissing, and a fellatio with the grateful gentleman, in its immediate aftermath, providing the miserable lady with a handkerchief, which he disposed of later across the street in the facilities at the train station. There never was any novelty, and despite the leather couch in Johnny’s private office, never sexual intercourse.
Back in late spring, at the start of their intrigue, Johnny told his wife he had early railroad business now on Thursdays—a company manager would be riding in on the 6:52 commuter with freight contracts to be considered and proofread—and Johnny felt it was just good service and smart business attending personally to such a valued client. After all, it was the Jersey Central! Annie Gillick, as usual, had paid little attention to what he’d told her (she’d nodded without lifting her eyes from a new book she was reading on auction bridge), but still Johnny worried that she might, in time, grow suspicious. Or, God forbid, mention that “early railroad business” to his father or his brother Tom. (Gillick, Gillick & Gillick had no railroad business.) Probably not, though. Almost certainly not. Johnny’s law practice, his livelihood, and the manner in which, and among whom, he spent each weekday of his life, interested Annie not in the least. Hardly anything did, that concerned him. It had been several years since she’d even visited the office, and Johnny wasn’t sure Annie realized that Liz Landrigan worked there. Possibly she did, but also possibly she did not…
On this particular Thursday morning—That’ll be his nibs, thought Liz when the telephone’s bell signaled outside of her bedroom door. Calling, no doubt, to inquire what’s “keeping” me. Well, let him wonder. Earlier, while scrubbing her teeth, she had decided No. Not today, not again, not ever, and Johnny Gillick with his vulgar big penis—a penis more suited to livestock—would just have to get used to it. Dressed now in a tan linen suit and seated on the bench at her vanity mirror, Liz pulled a silver brush (a gift from Michael on their wedding night) through her long brown hair that hung past her shoulders, wincing whenever it tugged at a snarl. Once she’d finished (the telephone, by then, had quit ringing), Liz put up her hair deftly, fastened it with bone hairpins, then fretted it some with her fingertips. She looked…presentable. No great beauty, never that, but I’ll do. And considering she’d hardly slept overnight, she looked better than she had any right to expect.
The telephone bell started in again. For the love of God, Johnny, it’s almost 8 o’clock—obviously I’m not coming, so cut it out! She turned around and glared at her door till the ringing stopped.
After one final check in the mirror (and a soft sigh at the two lines bracketing her mouth that looked gouged there now: she was middle-aged and no denying), Liz opened the door and stepped into the hall, instantly surprised to discover Patsy standing hip-cocked at the foot of the attic stairs. Usually he was still asleep, or at least still up in his room, when she went down to breakfast in the morning and then left the house for work. Seeing he looked upset, she asked, “Did the telephone wake you?” He shook his head no, and Liz was about to ask him then what was the matter because something obviously was—his tongue slotted back and forth over his top lip, and his long fingers kept flexing and unflexing—when she realized that he was dressed in street clothes: white shirt, charcoal belted trousers, and steel-toed black boots dating from his time at the Sanitation Department. This summer, this past spring and summer, Patsy had stayed in his pajamas all day long, and never went outside. Unless she’d insisted he get dressed and then taken a walk with him to the kill or to Newark Bay, which she ought to have done more frequently, she knew, but…
“Pats?” She stretched a hand toward him, but he didn’t budge. Only his mouth moved, as though chewing gum. “What’s wrong?”
“Cassius didn’t come back.”
“What do you mean—all night?”
“Did you look downstairs?”
“He always sleeps with me.”
“Well yes, yes I know, but he is a cat, darling—and he’s probably just down on the sofa, shall we look?”
“He didn’t come home.”
“Oh no, I’ll bet he did. Let’s just go look, shall we?” Since Patsy wouldn’t come to her, he seemed rooted, Liz went to him. Draping an arm around his shoulder, she pressed a tight hug. After a moment, she released it and looked him up and down with overcooked admiration. “Aren’t you the handsome devil today!” Liz being Liz, she reached and smoothed a wrinkle in his shirt front, plucked a thread from a cuff, brushed down a wispy sprig of hair that stuck out above his ear. “Very handsome, indeed.”
“I have to find Cassius.”
“That won’t be necessary, I’m sure. We’ll find our little friend in the parlor sleeping on the sofa, where he knows he doesn’t belong.” And if they didn’t? What was Liz supposed to do then? It had been years since Our Patsy went out traipsing about all on his own; he used to know his way around the city, better than she—he’d collected garbage and swept, hosed, and shoveled the streets in every ward—but Liz couldn’t trust that he still did. She checked her bracelet watch: ten past the hour. Still plenty of time, not to panic. Maybe the cat door had swollen after the heavy rain and Cassius was shut out on the back porch. “Don’t fret, Pats, he’s fine.” She gave his wrist a tug, and he’d just started to follow her down the hall when yet again the telephone bell started to ring. When she swept past it and continued on to the head of the back stairs, Patsy veered off the hall runner to the longcase, reaching for its ear piece.
“Don’t!” said Liz.
“What if it’s Cassius?”
She threw her hands in the air. “Cats don’t use telephones!” Liz hadn’t meant to be shrill.
“Somebody found him, maybe.”
She turned around and went back up the hall, shooing Patsy away from the telephone and answering it irritably.
It was a reporter calling from the Bayonne Times, and that’s how Liz Landrigan found out that their brother King was back, and not only back but was being proclaimed a hero in his own home town.
Sunlight striking hard through window curtains brought Charlie Gillick awake. He raised his head and looked around his big airy bedroom. On the west-facing wall (the wallpaper was green, tan and blue, a repeating motif of starfish and willowy marine grasses) stood his maple highboy (brush, comb, and loose change in his tarnished teething cup). Strung over it was a large linen calendar featuring a reproduction of a 17th- century color map of the world depicted in two hemispheres. On the east-facing wall was Charlie’s desk—nothing on it since the end of his school days but a pristine blotter. Beside that was a marble-topped square table stacked with picture-puzzle boxes and scattered over with several hundred pieces from the bird puzzle he’d started to work back in April or May (a black-capped chickadee) but never had returned to finish. And on the north-facing wall, the wall directly opposite the foot of his four-poster bed, hung framed rotogravure pictures of Charlie’s most admired heroes and can-doers: Robert Peary and Louis Bleriot, Richard Harding Davis, Henry Ford, Barney Oldfield, Roald Amundsen, and Jim Thorpe, Thorpe’s picture having replaced Teddy Roosevelt’s three years ago during the general election of 1912.
Charlie had been terribly disappointed in the old Rough Rider for running against President Taft. The Gillicks were loyal Democrats, naturally, so on the one hand, Charlie was well pleased that both men lost to Woodrow Wilson, but on the other hand he could not, in good conscience, forgive Teddy, otherwise a fine, brave man and a boyhood idol, for turning on his old friend William Howard Taft. Charlie Gillick was a firm believer in loyalty, and if you weren’t loyal to your friends, you were no hero of his.
On Charlie’s night stand the alarm clock read twenty before nine, but since he kept it ten minutes fast (he couldn’t remember why he’d started doing that, back in grammar school), it was really just half past eight, which meant he had a full hour yet before he was to meet Sheriff Kinkaid at the St. Charles Hotel. Mechanically, his left hand (Charlie remained a lefty despite the vexed efforts of nuns to change him) moved to the fly of his pajama trousers. But then it dropped away to rest, palm up, at his side. For more than six years he’d been a chronic self-abuser, the habit automatic before sleep and often upon waking. This morning, though, the urge failed. His body ached all over, particularly throughout his left side—he’d been kicked there during the riot yesterday, so maybe a rib was cracked.
It wasn’t just pain, though, putting him off his routine. Already his head teemed with anxious thoughts of the day ahead—well, not so much of the day as the coming night. Before they’d parted company a few hours ago outside of the hotel, Kinkaid had endorsed Charlie’s bold (and probably, now he thought about it, cockamamie) plan to break into Mydosh Hall and confiscate the strikers’ cache of weapons. (“No need for a raid, sir, I can pass everything out the window to you with no one the wiser!” But could he?) With that risky task weighing upon him, it seemed hopeless now even trying to picture Liz Landrigan disrobed and stepping into her sudsy bath, a vision he’d conjured, cherished, and finessed since earliest adolescence. He threw off his covers, and got out of bed, his bare feet pleasurably touching the warmed pinewood floor.
After pulling on his uniform trousers and while slowly buttoning up his tunic, Charlie went and stood at one of his windows. From long habit he gazed across the street to the house where the Toueys used to live. Before Liz married, there was always the chance he might glimpse her coming or going, even walking along the sidewalk beside her brother Patsy, keeping him company on his cuckoo sweeping rounds. A large family of Methodists named Stocker lived there now, and had for many years—they’d moved in just days after Mrs. Touey abandoned Patsy without so much as a farewell note (not that he could’ve read it) and disappeared forever with Bruno Cure. Remembering how Liz often would catch sight of him standing at his window and then wave, Charlie expelled a sigh; of nostalgia, longing, grief. Why couldn’t he find and fall in love with a nice girl his own age? Liz Landrigan was 35, he was barely 20—this unfaltering, this unavailing, this unwholesome infatuation of his needed to stop! It just—needed to. Especially since her brother King had threatened to kill him the next time they met. Not that Charlie believed anything that moron said. Not really. He stuck his varnished riot stick through his wide leather belt, grabbed his cap, and went downstairs.
As he did every morning, Charlie slowed and quietly took the last half dozen stairs to the front hall, walking on tiptoes by the time he got there. He stood and listened a moment outside of the dining room. Since becoming City Attorney, Charlie’s father almost always was gone from the house by seven, spending mornings at his municipal office so he could put in full afternoons at his law practice. Although both of Charlie’s older brothers nominally were equal partners in that practice, Mr. Gillick still exercised jurisdiction—one of the reasons Charlie had refused to study law after his graduation from high school.
When he was certain his father was not still at the table to rag him as the “family mick” for choosing to walk a beat instead of join the family practice, Charlie swept into the dining room and grabbed two slices of bacon and a wedge of buttered toast from the sideboard. He heard muffled chatter and laughter back in the kitchen—his mother with Mrs. Gosch, the heavyset and sluggish maid-of-all-work who came in three days a week but spent most of her time there drinking coffee and eating sweet rolls, then finger sandwiches, with Mrs. Gillick. Mrs. Gosch had a daughter two years younger than Charlie, a spicy package of a girl still in high school. June. June Gosch, who had one of the most developed bodies Charlie had seen outside of cover illustrations on the adventure dimers he sometimes bought at the drugstore. There were still times when he considered asking her out on a date. But that was no good. His parents would hit the roof—because June was a “Polack,” of course, although they would never say it. No, instead they’d mention something about June’s “fast” reputation (she occasionally wore lip rouge on weekends), then probably add, “What a shame, her mother is such a lovely woman.”
The true reason, though, why Charlie Gillick had never asked June Gosch for a date was because of his feelings, his doomed, besotted feelings, for Liz Landrigan, who didn’t know about them, and never, please God, ever would. And if she ever did discover the truth about Charlie’s passion, he’d go join the Foreign Legion!
He bolted the strips of bacon, and finished his toast in two bites. Then he drew a splash of coffee into a china cup and washed everything down. As he was turning to go, Charlie noticed that his father had left the morning paper, folded over several times into a narrow oblong, lying beside his place at the head of the table. He grabbed it, swatted his leg with it once, and left the house.
He hadn’t gone far when someone hailed him, “Good morning, Charles!” It was Mrs. Harrigan, red-haired, exceptionally slender, still pretty at 55, and wearing the kind of white summer dress so-much-younger women wore, but then only while strolling the seaside with a parasol. She’d set out a bridge table for her typewriting machine, and while she waved now to Charlie, she rose a little from her chair and leaned forward toward the porch railing.
Mrs. Harrigan was a novelist, the only one of those Charlie had ever heard about living in the city of Bayonne (but of course there may have been dozens, what did he know?). According to Charlie’s own mother, whose knowledge of the Harrigans was considerably more certain than his, none of the novels—and apparently there were dozens of them!—had been published by a commercial press; her husband (or possibly their rich, brainy son Bill) had her books privately published in editions on 150, copies available for purchase at Fleming’s stationers as well as at both of Mr. Harrigan’s bicycle shops. To be neighborly, Charlie’s mother had bought several, and had them signed. (“Mabel Natwin,” her maiden name, the signature all looping lariats and unnerving to Charlie Gillick in a way he couldn’t explain.)Years ago when he was recovering from the mumps, he’d tried reading one of Mrs. Harrigan’s novels, Nadia of Nebraska—the dustcover described it as “a bold tale of passion and perseverance” set in 1874 about a mail-order Russian bride’s fateful first winter on the turbulent American frontier—but he never made it past the opening sentence: “Bret Cummings was savage and cruel to Nadia during the short days of light, and even more savage, though less cruel, come the long black nights.” That a neighbor lady from three doors down wrote that sentence embarrassed Charlie—his face got hot and red—and he could not continue.
“At least the humidity is less oppressive this morning,” said Mrs. Harrigan, her attention already reengaged upon the sheet of paper rolled in her machine, her fingers seeking their correct places upon the high metal keys.
“Certainly is, ma’am, and we ought to enjoy the relief while we have it,” said Charlie.
Even as he was making his reply, she had commenced typing again, and that would’ve been that—a brief, pleasant exchange—had Charlie not raised his father’s paper then and used it instead of his left hand to wave good-bye.
“Oh, you’ve read the news,” said Mrs. Harrigan. She gave a flicking glance at what she’d just written before getting up and going to stand at the top of the steps, bracing one palm against a support post and then leaning. Charlie’s heart jumped: it seemed a provocative pose, although he was sure it was all in his own mind, his salacious mind, and that she was blameless, with no idea of the stirring effect she was having upon him. She’d be mortified if she knew. (Yes, but she had composed that sentence about long black nights in Nebraska, hadn’t she?) “Just goes to show us, Charles, that a person can change. Even a ruffian like him.”
Charlie said, “Ma’am?” but instead of waiting for Mrs. Harrigan to explain whatever she was going on about (ruffian like who?), he shook open the newspaper. For the first time in nearly a week, all stories about the refinery strike ran below the fold: “Searchlights Scour Constable Hook,” “3 Dead, Many Hurt in Standard Oil Riot,” “Governor Balks at Troops,” “Little Girls Play Tag with Bullets Whistling Above Their Heads.” He took in the tall across-the-top headline—UNDERCOVER ‘OP’ SMASHES BLACK HOOD GANG–and then turned ice-cold, empty and weak at the flashlight photograph of King Touey with his clasped hands lofted club-like over his head.
Quickly, Charlie read the lead paragraph. Undercover operative? So that’s what ‘op’ meant. He’d had no idea when he first saw the headline. King Touey? An undercover operative? He let out a mild oath (“Lord take me!”), and exchanged looks with Mrs. Harrigan: his of shock, hers of bemusement. “We always knew he stole those bicycles that time out of Billy’s shed, but there was never any proof. And now look at him,” she said. “Wyatt Earp.”
“I wouldn’t believe everything you read, Mrs. Harrigan,” said Charlie, quoting his father. “This doesn’t seem 18-karat to me,” he added, quoting Nick Carter, the great Street and Smith detective.
It wasn’t until Charlie Gillick stepped off the curb at Avenue C at Sixth Street and nearly was run down by an automobile that he realized he’d gone all that way, three blocks, while reading the banner-head story—the long column on page one and the two other columns on page four—in an ambulatory open-mouthed coma. He had completely forgotten about Mrs. Harrigan and was mortified, though he needn’t have been. She, for her part, hadn’t noticed Charlie’s abrupt departure because at the very moment she’d heard him say “18-karat,” a wonderful idea had struck her so powerfully that, in a coma of her own, she’d turned back to the porch table and her current manuscript, a novel about the Alaskan gold rush entitled “Anna of Anchorage,” and then, picking up a pencil, made a note on the top sheet—writing in dipping, writhing loops—to change the name of the “mysterious brute in the saloon” from Red Cavanaugh to King Cavanaugh. Much better!
After tossing the Bayonne Times into a metal refuse barrel on the corner, Charlie steadied himself against it while he experienced a quiver of fear that left him humiliated. Undercover operative, my foot! I saw King Touey’s very own black mask in his bedroom two years ago! He’s as much a member of that gang as the two men he killed and the two others he wounded. Bending over with his hands pressed flat against his thighs, Charlie almost threw up his breakfast. But the sick feeling passed, and drawing himself up straight again, he pulled his riot stick from his wide belt and commenced to beat it against the rim of the barrel, splinters wheeling away, with the same murderous ferocity that had ripped through him the other day when he’d struck down Joe Dell’Appa on the street.
As he stood there red-faced and puffing and whacking foolishly away, his father’s crabbed voice sliced through Charlie’s jumbled thoughts: “For the love of God, what do you think you’re doing?”
Last night at the dinner table…
Mr. Gillick’s hair was thick and snowy white. The curving lines around his mouth seemed etched there. He wore a tight-fitting navy blue suit with scarcely more than the slipknot of his gray silk tie showing above the high-cut vest. “And here he is, our own copper-in-residence,” Mr. Gillick had pronounced with just a trace of brogue as Charlie took his chair at the side of the table. Leaning back, he’d clasped his hands behind his head. “How are you this evening, flatfoot?” Charlie’s mother, coloring slightly, passed Charlie the summer salad—it was too uncomfortably warm for anything else—and then filled his glass with sweetened ice tea.
“I’m fine, thank you, sir,” said Charlie.
Mr. Gillick was looking at him with alert eyes. Charlie waited tensely a moment before adding oil and vinegar to his salad from the pair of cut-glass cruets. “Glad to hear that, son. Since to the naked eye, anyone’s naked eye, you look considerably less than…fine.”
“Just a little black and blue,” said Charlie, managing a weak smile.
“John,” said Charlie’s mother. With her palms out, she made a placating, pushing-away gesture. “Please don’t raise your voice. There’s really no—” When Mr. Gillick shot her a look she bit off the rest of her complaint and gummed her lips. She looked pleadingly at her husband, then got up from the table—excusing herself, just remembering something—and slipped away into the kitchen. Charlie knew she’d be gone for a while. But it’s okay, he assured himself, it’s all okay. He picked up his knife and fork and held them poised above his salad. “If you think I look bad, father, you should’ve seen the 16-year-old kid who got a bullet through his head.”
Mr. Gillick dropped his cutlery and glared. “That’s enough!”
Strangely unintimidated, Charlie refused to look down or away. He cut through a leaf of lettuce, pierced it and a cherry tomato with his fork, and then he inclined his head. “Since Mother has left the table, I assume you have something important you want to say?”
“Careful there, son, that comes close to being insolent”
“It wasn’t intended. I’m sorry.” He pushed the lettuce and tomato off the fork with his knife and laid down the cutlery beside his plate. Took a sip of ice tea. “Perhaps…”
“Perhaps you might be intending to remind me again, just as Mother did this afternoon, that in little more than a month it will be Labor Day, the end of summer and the start of a new school year. And that you might…be intending to say, as Mother did, how pleased you’d be if I would consider enrolling in college.”
Mr. Gillick sat forward. “And if that were something I’d intended to say?” His voice came low, a grumble in his throat. “Your response would be…?”
Before he could shrug, Charlie caught himself; that, he knew, would just blow his father mad. “With all the respect in the world, sir, I’m not cut out to be a college man. Or a lawyer.”
“And how do you know that? How would you?”
“I believe I know myself by this time, and I’ve…taken stock.”
“Taken stock!” said Mr. Gillick with an aggravated shaking of his head.
“We’ve had this conversation before—”
“Yes! Many times! But never when you were sitting here in front of me with your face puffed up and purple as a plum! Charlie! For the love of God, what do you think you’re doing?”
“Making something of myself.”
“As a cop? You might’ve been killed today, boy, don’t you realize that? It might’ve been you with a bullet through his head! On the salary you’re being paid, it’s quite a risk you’re taking.”
“I’m pleased enough with my salary, Father, and I’m not taking any ‘risks.’ Only doing my sworn duty.”
“I can’t puzzle you out, boy. You sound like a ten-year-old playing Wild West.”
“I’m sorry you feel that way,” said Charlie with deliberate pomposity. “But I’m satisfied with the choice I’ve made. More than satisfied.” Which was anything but the true state of affairs (either he was bored stiff on the job, or scared green), although Charlie would be damned if he’d admit that. It was no puzzle to him why, without aptitude or vocational interest, he’d joined the cops; the reason was clear. And he knew exactly when, the exact hour, the very minute when he’d decided he would do it: immediately after King Touey had shoved him against the porch wall of Liz Landrigan’s house on the Boulevard two summers ago and then threatened to kill Charlie the next time they met. Immediately after that, and after King Touey had tromped away and Charlie Gillick realized he’d wet his pants.
Not if I kill you first, he’d said to himself then despite, or because of, his humbled pride. Not if I kill you first. And the way to do that, and to get away with it? Was to join the police.
“Now, if you’ll excuse me, Father. Sheriff Kinkaid is coming by to pick me up in a little while.” If he hadn’t lost his strap watch during the firehouse riot, Charlie would’ve glanced at it then, just to provoke Mr. Gillick.
He’d got up from the table, carefully fitted his chair back under it, smiled at his father, and left the dining room…
Charlie came out of his reverie when the top quarter of his stick broke off with a loud crack and shot down the sidewalk, just missing a newsboy of 10 or 11; he’d dodged the missile at the very last moment and with the presence of mind to not release the small bunch of newspapers pressed against his right side. The chunk of yellow wood bounced and skittered and clonked against the foot of a telegraph pole. “Damn it all!” said Charlie. He looked at what was left of his stick and flipped it into the refuse can. His palm throbbed and smarted. “Damn it! Are you all right, kid?”
The newsboy swallowed hard—his adam’s apple bobbed—and a few seconds later he nodded. He was wearing a gray felt beanie with the turned-up brim snipped in zig-zags and a white change apron screened with the Bayonne Times logo. He looked behind him at the piece of wood before shifting his wide steady gaze back to Charlie. “What’d you do that for?”
“I lost my temper.”
“Me,” said Charlie. “At me.” Digging a hand into his pocket, he pulled out a quarter and flicked it off his thumb; the newsie caught it and snapped his fist closed. “Sorry if I scared you.”
“You didn’t scare me.” The newsie looked annoyed. “You want a paper?” He was pinching one out from the bunch.
“Naw, thanks,” said Charlie by then on his way across Avenue C. “I already read it.”
Yes, but he had read the Early Bird edition, not the Three-Star Extra, which the newsboy had picked up, with the ink still wet, barely twenty minutes earlier, and so for the time being Charlie Gillick would remain unaware that a third member of the Black Hoods (Dim Rasmusson, the driver, shot in the throat) had died in the early morning hours during surgery at the Bayonne Hospital and Dispensary, or that Andrew Irons’ (“Li’l Andiron”), the gang’s runt of a mastermind, had launched himself like a squirrel across the table during his interrogation by Detective Ed Fearenside and managed to bite off the plainclothesman’s right pinky finger before being tackled to the floor by two uniformed patrolmen who’d then inadvertently, but strictly in the line of duty, broken his neck. When Loretta B. Irons, who had been arrested along with Li’l Andiron at their home in Cottage Street and then remanded to a cell in the basement of City Hall, was told of her son’s death, she’d reacted with “a stony countenance wholly uncharacteristic of a loving mother” and then, “like someone waiting in a dentist’s office,” had requested something to read. (“Mrs. Irons, according to neighbors, was “always a great reader.”) A sympathetic jail matron provided the woman with a copy of the Holy Bible, which “greatly displeased” Mrs. Irons because, she said, “she’d read it already.” Nevertheless, she accepted the book, but then, shortly before 7 o’clock that morning, she was discovered unconscious in her cell. Dr. Thomas J. Egan, the police surgeon, was summoned, and, at a few minutes past the hour, he declared the woman dead by her own hand. She had choked on pages torn from the Bible that she had wadded up and then stuffed down her throat.
Meanwhile, the last known remaining member of the Black Hood Gang, Joseph Bloodgood, 22, of Elizabeth, remained in critical condition.
At five minutes before nine, and as if on a rampage, Helen Ince stormed into St. Mary’s. Head high and fists clenched, she plunged down the center aisle, churlishly shoving past O’Brien the undertaker as he rolled a church truck conveying a tiny mahogany casket that resembled a trunk of doubloons in a pirate story. Helen took her place in the second pew, and by the time Olive and Aunt Dot got there, her arms were folded inimically as she glared at both Mary Margaret and Neil Cudhy, who sat in the front pew weeping and sniffling and leaning upon each other. Any time Neil Cudhy buried his face in his hands, Helen made a noisy grunt of deep disgust. People kept looking.
After the services, she stormed back out of the church, ahead of her older daughter, her son-in-law, and her grandson’s casket, waving off all condolences from neighbors and parishioners. With great truculence she seated herself in the second of two limousine funeral coaches parked in front on Avenue C perilously close beside the trolley tracks and facing uptown. Because Mary Margaret had insisted upon holding the casket on her lap for the ride to Sacred Heart Cemetery in Jersey City, there was no hearse, just the lead limousine; by the time she was assisted into it by her husband (she’d refused an invalid chair and crutches, relying instead on two canes) and the casket had been passed to her through the open door, Olive and Aunt Dot had joined Helen. “Really, sister,” said Aunt Dot, “I’m ashamed of you!” “Not another word!” said Helen with grim antagonism, and there was not.
While the two limousine chauffeurs conferred with Mr. O’Brien on the pavement, Olive looked out her window and watched people leaving the church. Had Bill come? He’d promised he would, but after what had happened between them last night she wasn’t surprised not to see him. As she kept glancing around with, she hoped, a properly forlorn expression, she noticed two uniformed policemen standing apart from the church crowd—a young, slightly built patrolman who might’ve been Charlie Gillick but on closer look was not (Charlie was homely, this boy scarcely that) and an older, heavyset officer with a lush, oldfangled handlebar mustache. Olive had an uneasy feeling they were actively searching for someone: their eyes kept skipping from face to face to face. (Thinking about Charlie now, she was reminded of the time in seventh grade when, called upon to read aloud a passage in their history book about the siege of the Alamo, he’d mispronounced “colonel” half a dozen times—saying “Colonial” Travers this and “Colonial” Travers that, to the tittering amusement of Sister Rose Bernadette and the entire class; when finally the room had erupted into mocking laughter, Charlie’s face had turned tomato-red. Silly boy.) One of the policemen, the good-looking young one, saw Olive watching and moved forward as if to walk over to her limousine, but his companion stopped him with a peremptory touch on his elbow.
Just then, Bill Harrigan appeared on the corner of Avenue C behind a group of elderly women who’d come out of church by the side door on Thirteenth Street. When Olive leaned closer to her window and inclined her head, he saw her, too. Lifting one hand timidly, he lip-formed, I’m so sorry. But Olive couldn’t decide whether he meant he was sorry about her poor little nephew or for their dustup last night in his automobile. Thank you, she lip-formed back, hedging, and he frowned.
During the interminable ride to the cemetery, Olive fretted she’d made the wrong reply, but couldn’t decide what the correct one might have been. I’m sorry too?
At the graveside service, Helen Ince stood with her fists planted on her slim hips; it seemed she might actually spit, but fortunately she did not.
Back in the limousine for the ride home, she looked more like a woman who recently had quit a heated quarrel than just come from the burial of her infant grandchild. Seated rigidly between Olive and Aunt Dot, she worked her mouth and her jaw muscles while her gloved hands ruthlessly twisted a linen handkerchief. Which, since they had been together now for two miserable hours, Olive knew for an empirical fact she had not once used to dab at her eyes. Not that Olive herself had shed tears, not during the Mass and not at the cemetery (although she had prepared for at least the possibility of tears by stuffing two monogrammed hankies into the black sling that cradled her left arm), but that was only because she had never in her life been a weeper; she couldn’t remember the last time she’d cried. That, however, didn’t mean she couldn’t feel sad, she could, and she did; she felt terribly sad today. Anyone who’d looked at her, she was certain, would have seen it there in her eyes. But her mother! That woman. That awful, awful creature.
“May I speak now?” said Aunt Dot, then put a hand up as if blocking the sun. “Don’t answer—I shall speak regardless of what you say. Helen, you’ve shamed us all. And for the love of God, after today’s behavior, do you seriously think Mary Margaret will speak to you ever again?”
Helen said, “Oh yes, she’ll speak to me,” almost to herself in a flat, embittered voice. “Bet your life she’ll speak to me. She’ll come crying the very next time that filthy husband of hers leaves again for his fat whore from St. Andrew’s. Just you wait.”
Aunt Dot shook her head—sighed and went on shaking it. “How can you be this way? She’s your daughter, she’s just lost her baby boy, how can you be so—”
“The crust of that man, showing up today!”
Olive bowed her head, poking fingertips into her brow and pressing both thumbs under her cheekbones.
“Of course he showed up—it was his child’s funeral! Where’s your heart, sister?”
“My heart? Where’s her head? Taking him back, sitting there with him in church, when everybody knows, everybody in the whole wide world knows—”
“Nonsense. And what does it matter anyhow? A baby died, Helen. Little Timmy died, rest his soul. Your grandchild , and today was his funeral. What was poor Mary Margaret to do—was she supposed to tell Neil he wasn’t welcome?”
“Then I’m afraid your own anger at Danny has turned your heart to stone.”
“How dare you mention that name to me!”
“Because ever since he left you and Olive—”
“That’s enough, Dot.”
“‘That’s enough, Dot, that’s enough, Dot.’ Whenever anyone says something you don’t want to hear—”
“I said, that’s enough!”
“Are you going to strike me with that hand, sister? Then go ahead, strike me.”
“Mom.” Olive reached with her good arm and grabbed hold of her mother’s wrist.
“Don’t you touch me, you!” Helen slapped at Olive’s fingers till they let go. “I’m not forgetting this is your fault as much as it is Neil Cudhy’s! Yours and your wop boyfriend!”
“It’s all right, Aunt Dot, it’s okay.” Olive managed a pained taut smile, then glanced out her window; the limousine had just passed the corner of Forty-fourth Street and the County Boulevard. She stared for a moment at her mother’s frozen profile before leaning forward and knocking on the translucent glass partition that separated the driver’s compartment from the tonneau. “Could you please stop at the next corner, please?”
“Olive, honey, don’t do this.”
“I’ll see you soon, Aunt Dot,” said Olive after the limousine had slowed to a stop. She levered the door open, got out, and slammed it behind her. As she started down Forty-third Street, heading east, Olive reached automatically into her sling, drew out one of the hankies, and touched an edge of it finically to the outside corners of her eyes. She had no idea where she was going. Bill’s place? Her flat? To work? She would just have to see where her legs brought her finally. Right now she felt too distraught to make a decision.
When Olive was in mid-block, a police car drew alongside of her, then pulled ahead and stopped. Both front doors flew open at the same time and the two officers she’d noticed earlier at St. Mary’s climbed out and intercepted her on the sidewalk. The older one spoke while the younger one gave Olive that Look, the wide-eyed smitten one with the little stringy smile.
“Miss? Sorry to bother you like this on such a mournful day, but could you give us a moment of your time?”
“Yes?” said Olive frowning at the young policeman before turning a weak smile on the older one.
“Fact is, Miss Ince, we have some news we need to pass along so’s you can take the proper precautions—not that we think you’re in any danger, mind. But just in case.”
“News?” said Olive. Black speckles sprayed out and jigged in front of her eyes. “What news?”
“Well, that Italian fella who gave you and your family so much grief…seems he—and the police department couldn’t be any more embarrassed and sorry about this—it seems as like he just up and walked out of his jail cell, we don’t know when exactly, and is currently what we’d have to say unaccounted for and on the loose.”
It was the younger cop with the quicker instincts who stepped forward and caught Olive the very second that her eyes rolled back in her head and her knees buckled.
Earlier in our melodrama, and more than once, mention was made that King Touey throughout his life had declared himself to be that rarest of paragons, a completely truthful man, which doubtless struck the reader as humbug. But it was more than that. It was psychopathy. Even as he told a lie, any lie, it became in King’s mind the absolute truth and evermore it remained in his memory. So before things get too busy and bloody for a lengthy digression, now seems the time to describe just when and why and how such a preposterous self-deception—the product of a youthful episode that our man himself long since had forgotten about—ever took root and then grew like a weed.
It was a cold, raining-on-and-off Friday afternoon in late autumn of 1898, not quite three months after the Spanish surrender in the Cuban War, when patriotic bunting, sagging and badly weather-faded, still draped porch railings and latticework on nearly all of the clapboard houses in Hobart Avenue, where the Toueys had moved from Constable Hook Village the previous summer. King felt tied up inside and furious, even more that day than he ordinarily did (his brother Patsy, they kept saying, wouldn’t live through the weekend) and, with a penknife in each fist, he trudged across lawns through spitting drizzle slashing at that ubiquitous worsted bunting. Daring anyone to come outside and stop him. No one did. Even in that time before his growth—he’d only just turned ten—King was a raw piece of meanness; not just a nuisance, but a wild animal to be feared and avoided.
King had grown used to Patsy’s serial bouts of illness, many of them dangerous, some dangerous enough for quarantine, but this one, what they called “pneumococcal meningitis” –there was no hope he could beat it, not this one. No hope at all, they kept saying, which had provoked King to volcanic wrath; he’d been ripping things, breaking things, kicking things, stomping down on things, and bloodying his knuckles punching things for going on five days now, ever since the night his brother woke up with a racking headache and his throat swollen and sore. An ugly purple rash that had appeared on his torso kept spreading. He vomited for hours, became incoherent, and hallucinated (a spider the size of a bear, eggs and rotten teeth that pelted down like chestnuts from the ceiling, a starved horse that nudged him with its muzzle and breathed in his face); he shouted profanities that no one in the family had realized he knew (King was held responsible, naturally), and called his father, repeatedly, by the name of “Becky.” (The first time he did it was almost funny; by the fiftieth, it was chilling.)
The doctor had diagnosed Patsy and then sent out to New York City for an antiserum that didn’t arrive for two days. In the meantime, he and King and Hugh Touey lifted Patsy from his bed and set him down in the tub and buried him up to his neck in chunks of ice. When his lips turned dark blue, they lifted him out again, wrapped him in blankets, and put him back to bed. The doctor left and the priest came. The doctor came back while the priest was still there. The priest left but the doctor stayed for the night. The priest came back and the doctor went home to sleep. The priest left, and the doctor came back. The priest came back. The antiserum arrived, and when King asked what it was, the doctor said it was rabbit blood, and King jeered and put a fist through a door. Doctor Gleason injected Patsy, and they all waited, and waited, but nothing changed. The priest came back—today, three hours ago—and administered Extreme Unction, and the bad air in Patsy’s room reeked with doomy chrism. Now it was just a matter of time. Nothing more to be done. No hope. No hope at all.
But fuck that shit! thought King and he slashed with both penknives through another skirt of red-white-and-blue bunting tacked across the front porch of a house sitting high on the corner of East Third Street. Fuck. That. Shit. Doctors, priests—what did they know? Nothing! Rabbit’s blood, church chrism! What was that? That was a big laugh. And so were priests, so were doctors—so were his mother and his father, so was his skinny sister Liz. All of them—stupid phonies! Worse than dogs and horses.
Except for Patsy.
For as far back as King could remember it always had been “except for Patsy” and “at least Patsy’s not” and “Patsy’s all right, all right.”
Everyone else? Just buzzed and rattled and should go fuck themselves. Anyone asks? Tell him King Touey said so. And even at the age of ten, he’d been saying so for at least six years. Go fuck yourselves! All of yiz!
Except for Patsy. And why had sickly Patsy Touey of all the people living in the world (or at least in Bayonne, though King had no doubt that people living elsewhere, anywhere else, were likewise stupid shits) been granted dispensation from his younger brother’s otherwise universal contempt? Now, that’s a stupid question, King would’ve answered had you asked him, and answered while putting up his dukes or maybe even throwing a punch that would’ve knocked your block off. Because it’s Patsy, you fool. Because it’s Patsy. Who neither buzzed nor rattled.
Now, as King crossed from the west side to the east side of Hobart Avenue, a small, calm thought whispered: It’s up to you. Then: It’s up to me what? What? What’s up to me? he thought, but that was stalling, just King indulging his habit of contrariness: he knew what was up to him. It was up to him to make sure Patsy didn’t croak. But what would it take? What could he do? He could, he supposed, keep doing what he was doing—and shred every piece of patriotic fabric festooned on every last house along Hobart from Second Street north to Linnett, but do it now with different intent and a ferocious will. That could work, why couldn’t it? Especially if with each down stroke of his knives, with every rip and tear, he said men-in-gi-tis, men-in-gi-tis, men-in-gi-tis, men-in-gi-tis.
Cripes! why hadn’t he thought of it before?
After an hour of this curative (he was convinced) mischief, King returned home exhausted and wet to the skin. The Toueys were renting a cottage set far back in the expansive yard (formerly a barn yard) behind an unoccupied four-square farmhouse in a state of advanced dilapidation. On the short porch he pocketed both of his knives, and then flung himself inside like a raider. “Well? Is he better?”
“Keep your voice down, mutt,” said his father, short and irritated, the way he always was with King. Near the front of the long paneled room, Hugh Touey and his friend Bruno Cure were drinking coffee at a table cluttered with building-supply catalogs, rolls of asphalt felt, and various shingles of wood, slate and sheet-metal. The two men had gone into business together recently, so recently that the company letterhead and invoice pads stacked on a separate table still were in wrappers and tied with twine. Mr. Touey swung his head around. “And no, Pats ain’t better.” He paused, just a second or two. “Don’t you listen?”
Bruno Cure took a slow drag on his cigarette. “Sorry about your brother,” he told King with smoke whiffling from his mouth, and while the man buzzed and rattled like everyone else, there was, and always had been, something about Cure, something about his steady smile and his failure to make gestures whenever he spoke, and something about his eyes, too, something recognizably scornful, recognizable to King Touey at least, that could almost—almost—unnerve him. “Yeah. It’s really too bad,” said Cure, and then leaning back over the table, tapping one of the pine shingles lying there, he said, “This one’s good enough, Huey, and half the cost of that,” —pointing to the one King’s father had just picked up.
King hung his oiled slicker on a wall hook, warmed his hands briefly at the wood stove, and went up the narrow stairs to the bedrooms. He met his mother coming from the one he shared with Patsy whenever Patsy wasn’t sick with something contagious; the last four nights he’d slept on two chairs in the kitchen. Mrs. Touey pulled the door shut behind her and kept her hand on the knob.
“Well?” said King. “Is he better?”
She looked at him intently, worry and pain in her eyes. She looked away and then back. “No.”
“And I’m sayin’ he is!”
“Oh King…” She started to cry and then she was sobbing out loud. That infuriated King, and he removed her hand from the knob and went into the bedroom, where the shades were drawn to the sills, no lamp burned, and Patsy’s iron bed was concealed behind several pairs of hinged screens. He was lifting one pair and setting them aside when his sister whispered shrilly, “King!” from across the room. He hadn’t noticed her sitting there. Liz was almost18 that fall. “Put it back.”
He didn’t. He stood there and watched his brother struggle to breathe. Patsy’s feet and hands twitched beneath the covers. His face was terrible and ugly and old-looking—brass yellow. Shit. He wasn’t better. In fact, in fact, thought King, he looks worse. How could it be, how come? King had slashed every goddamn piece of bunting in the whole fucking neighborhood—why wasn’t Patsy better?
“Stop that,” said Lizzie. She was pulling on King’s arm now because he’d commenced growling like a dog and was grinding both thumbs into his eyeballs. “Stop it!” He flung her off and walked to a window. He raised the shade. Think! He stared across the long wild yard that looked as bleak as a prairie, and breathed deeply, heavily. Think! It was up to King, it was all up to King, and he couldn’t think of what to do. Maybe…
Behind him, Liz put back the screens he’d removed, closing Patsy in.
Maybe—maybe what I should do, King thought, maybe I should go out to the wood pile, right down there below, and find a good-sized chunk and—men-in-gi-tis, men-in-gi-tis, men-in-gi-tis— use it to break my arm. Maybe that was the remedy to make Patsy better. Or maybe I should put out an eye. I ain’t scared, I got two. Or I should…
Digging his right hand into his trouser pocket, he took one of his penknives.
…stab myself in the stomach.
And King, carried away as he was in that moment, might well have done it (already he was pinching open the blade) if his gaze hadn’t lifted just then from the sill and his attention been diverted by two older boys (he knew them both from the grammar school they all rarely attended: Dick Langtree and Bull Hayser) who were struggling, one pushing and one pulling, both spraddle-legged, to get a slat-sided wagon across the open yard that ran behind all the houses on the block. Something heavy and vertical and draped with grommetted canvas stood in the bed of the wagon, and both Langtree’s and Hayser’s shoes sucked and slipped in the mud. Suddenly they stopped their efforts—rest break. Bull Hayser wiped a coat sleeve across his forehead while Dick Langtree glanced around to see if anybody was looking. He spotted King in the window and hailed him. Then Bull Hayser did too, cupping his hands and calling, “Come see what we got!”
And King Touey, indulging his true nature (or perhaps succumbing to his master vice), snapped his penknife closed, wheeled around and impulsively raced from the room. To make sure Patsy wouldn’t croak for the time being, he grabbed a fistful of hair and yanked as much out as he could. Sprinkling it on the stair treads, he trampled down to the living room, grabbed his slicker (while registering this: his mother sitting slumped in a wing chair while Bruno Cure passed her a cup of coffee on a saucer and lightly touched her shoulder with his free hand), and left on the run. Under a formidable umbrella, Doctor Gleason was coming up the front yard from Hobart Avenue, but King ignored him and sprinted along the side of the cottage, back to the fellers.
Bull Hayser, a big hunk of lard with red hair and a red face, put up a hand, palm to King. “You can’t tell nobody.”
“Like I would.”
“Promise?” said Dick Langtree. Already he was pinching the canvas by the grommetted hem, eager to lift it and show King. “Promise and swear?”
“Yeah, yeah, now let me see.” And when he’d seen what was being hauled in the small wagon, King whistled and said, “Ho-ly crap!” and Hayser beamed while Langtree nodded with self-importance. “How’d you get that?”
“How d’you think?” said Langtree. He was stocky with a round, blue-eyed baby face he kept hard and stern with constant effort. “But enough jawin’. Give us a hand, King,” he said planting his feet wide apart and putting a shoulder to the wagon, “and we’ll tell you about it later.”
“Where you taking it?”
Bull said, “My old man’s shed.” He’d slogged around to the front of the wagon; now he stooped, facing back at Dick Langtree, and picked up the steering handle. “It’s got a lock and the old man won’t be around there till next summer.” Bull Hayser’s old man was doing nine months and a day in Hudson County Jail for aggravated assault. After giving a whoop of pure ecstasy, Bull shouted, “Mad Marion! God damn!”
“Tell the whole world, why don’t you?” said Dick Langtree and pushed. He turned his face to King. “You coming?”
At first King wasn’t sure, and he shrugged. But then as he watched the wagon slurp and rock across the sodden yard, he had a sudden cognizance (a real bolt from the blue, like heroes were always having in cowboy and newsboy stories) that Patsy’s life absolutely depended upon that wagon’s cargo, which kept sliding from side to side, threatening to tip over and topple out since it stood a foot higher than the slats. Mad Marion, thought King. God damn! “Hold on, you morons!” he called, and catching up to them, King took charge of the operation. Ten, twelve minutes later, after crossing over Fourth Street and then continuing on into the next stretch of open yard, they safely brought the wagon to a tarpaper shack with a crinkum-crankum stove pipe sticking up through the roof. Bull had to go into his house to get the key to the padlock.
While King waited with Dick Langtree in the rain (which had turned from a steady drizzle to a downpour), Dick told him how he and Bull had happened to end up with good old Mad Marion. Well, it all had started with the wagon, he said—first they’d spotted the wagon on somebody’s front porch over on the County Boulevard at Second Street, and since it was a nice-looking wagon, and a wagon seemed the very thing called for at that moment, they’d up and absconded with it. Then, on their way across First Street, Bull noticed a piece of sailcloth balled up in some high weeds down by the kill; Dick hadn’t had much use for that, but Bull said you could always use sailcloth for something, so he’d fetched it and stuck it in the wagon, and then they had the wagon and they had the sailcloth, and by that time they were over just past the fight arena by the stretch of clapboard penny arcades, which were closed for the season, of course, but since nobody was around, they found a spot where they could pull the fencing away from a post and snuck in, taking in the wagon and the sailcloth with them, and then wandered down the midway between the shuttered game booths and shooting galleries, and peeking through arcade windows at the lined-up kinetoscopes and slot machines, the strength-testers and scales, the emptied-out gum, candy and nut dispensers, the punch-a-bags, the shockers, the bowl-a-games—“acetera, acetera,” said Dick Langtree with a rare grin. “And then—”
“And then,” said King, “you busted into Uncle Henry’s place.”
Dick’s grin grew larger. “We did. And there she was! And since we had a wagon to carry her in and something to cover her with…well!”
Bull by that time had come tramping up with the key. The rusty hasp wasn’t cooperative, but after some struggle they got the padlock off the flange. Then, as soon as Dick Langtree released four barrel bolts, and one slatted side of the wagon had dropped open, King threw his arms around the sailcloth—“Maybe we should help you? said Bull—and without a grunt he lifted out Mad Marion, which had to weigh 40, 50 pounds. He staggered once, pivoted half-around and delivered it into the shack. “Just set it on the floor,” said Bull. But noticing a workbench under a filthy window, King hoisted his load a little more and put it down there. Awestruck, Bull glanced over at Dick and raised his eyebrows. Dick started shaking his head, saying, “Fuck my old lady and call her cheese!”
After King did the honors and Mad Marion finally stood revealed, the boys folded their arms and grinned. God damn. She wasn’t the world’s most beautiful clockwork fortune-teller machine—she wasn’t even the most beautiful machine at Uncle Henry’s specialty arcade; Mystic Mimi and Old Grandma and The Gypsy Queen had far more impressive casings, fancier knobs, shinier coin slots, and the figures inside of them, behind thicker glass, were more elaborately and delicately carved, better painted; The Gypsy Queen even had a crystal ball—but Mad Marion, despite her chipped red turban and her long beaky face with its hard dribbles of wood stain, had local renown; she was preeminent, she was celebrated, she was fun. And despite her predictive and advisory limitations, three words only, printed in muddy ink on a narrow paper ribbon, she was—she was uncanny, just uncanny, people said, and then would impart examples of her uncanniness that even a five-year-old Bayonne native would’ve heard twenty times already, and a twenty-year old, five hundred. There was a guy named Kessler, a sailor named Ashe, a Jew named Simon, a widow named Ida Lynch…
Attached to one side of Mad Marion’s dark wooden casing was a gilded crescent horn, and after you’d deposited your one cent and plunged the slot home, you bent over and whispered your question, then waited a few delicious seconds till out came your answer in a hiccup of chinking gears. Yes, that’s right. No, that’s wrong. You should worry. Stop it now. Put it back. Try that again. Take a train. It still could. Never in all of the time that Mad Marion had stood on the focal counter in Uncle Henry’s arcade had anyone (to anyone’s knowledge) received a message that couldn’t be, well, construed, although sometimes it did require some rumination—the most famous example of that (as Bull Hayser thought to bring up as he stood there in the shack admiring Mad Marion with Dick Langtree and King Touey)—the most famous example of that being the case of a fellow named Zack Whalen who’d found himself in real dutch with a gambler named Leonard Durant; Zack owed Durant somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty-five dollars, but having no way to raise that much cash by the end of the day, which was all the time he had left before Durant lost patience and beat his brains in, he’d used one of his last few pennies to ask Mad Marion for advice. But when the ribbon juddered out, it read Go to church. What the hell! Go to church? That didn’t make any kind of sense—not at first, no. But then Zack took a minute to think it over. Go to church! Of course! Go to church. So he did, he went to church—in fact, he went to three churches, St. Mary’s, St. Henry’s, and St. Vincent de Paul’s, and robbed their poor boxes; Durant got his money and Zack Whalen kept his brains intact.
“Yeah,” said Dick Langtree, emptying his pockets and separating out the pennies on the workbench. “And remember Use the oven?”
Sure, everybody knew about Use the oven. That Protestant lady from Fifth Street, or maybe Ninth Street, who didn’t have anybody left in the world, and no money, and she couldn’t buy food or pay her rent, and what was she supposed to do, Mad Marion?
“My old man said that’s the buncombe,” said Bull, “and never happened.”
“It happened. Didn’t it, King?”
But King Touey wasn’t listening. He stepped up to the workbench and took one of Dick’s pennies and lodged it in the coin slot.
“Hey!” said Dick. “Get out of there! We got first dibs, you didn’t take her.”
“Beat it,” said King. He looked at Dick and then he looked at Bull. “Get out of here. Now.”
“Like hell!” said Bull. “It’s my shack.”
“Out.” King jerked a thumb behind him.
“For how long?”
“Yeah, for how long?”
“I’m countin’ three,” said King. “One…”
Throwing back scowls, they filed out and shut the door and stood in the rain.
King pushed the slot in, then leaned down to the horn and said, “What’s it take so’s my brother don’t croak?” He straightened up and waited. When nothing happened right away, he was sure the machine had got damaged being carted all the way up from First Street in a fucking wagon. But then a clicking started and moments later the little paper ribbon came jerking out. When it stopped and just dangled, he tore it off and held it up in front of his eyes.
Tell the truth.
His first reaction was: Fuck’s that got to do with it?
But then, like old Zack Whalen, he thought it over and construed.
“Hey King, where you goin’?” said Dick Langtree when King banged out of the shack and then stalked a beeline down the yard toward Hobart Avenue, his fortune paper curling from the bottom of a fist. “Don’t you want to stick around?”
“Yeah,” said Bull Hayser already snorting at the smutty humdinger he couldn’t wait to get out of his mouth, “don’t you want to stick around and diddle her with us?”
Seizing an easy opportunity, King glanced behind him and said, “No.”
“Why, ’cause you gotta go home?”
“No, ’cause the company stinks—and besides I don’t want t’ be here when the cops show up.” This telling the truth, boy, there was nothing to it!
“Yeah?” said Bull. “And who’s gonna squeal on us, you?”
King stopped dead in his tracks and turned around slowly, dangerously.
“Sorry, King, sorry” said Bull lifting both hands, showing his palms. “I didn’t mean it.”
“I’m no squealer.” Another truth, and a basic one! But he had no more time to waste on these two ignorant jays, he wanted to get back home and find out how Patsy was doing.
Less than a minute later as he was walking south along Hobart, a two-wheeled pony trap came down the Fourth Street hill from Lexington Avenue. It arrived at the corner just as King did, and stopped. The driver pressed back against the bench to let his passenger lean over in front of him and call out, “You boy, I want to talk to you.” He was a small and portly man, 50 or so, wearing a brown woolen cap and a black slicker. A pair of water-beaded spectacles, with one chipped lens, was clamped to his nose just behind the bulbous red tip. His cheeks were pitted and his long gray mustache was edged yellow from nicotine along the bottom. Shit, thought King. Fuck. When he stepped closer to the trap, the portly man leaned further across the driver, who wore a derby and a tan duster and was built like a gorilla. “Oh! I know who you are! You’re the Touey boy.”
“One of them,” said King. Another easy truth.
The man studied King and frowned; his magnified eyes narrowed. “We had to kick your ass out once for stealing, didn’t we?”
“Twice,” said King. Again, the gospel truth.
“So you know who I am,” said the portly man, and King nodded. “Who am I?”
“Henry Kurtzburg,” said King.
“Uncle Henry Kurtzburg,” said the man.
King gave a lackadaisical shrug. “So we both know who you are, that’s great. Now, would you mind?” He made a sweeping gesture with a hand: move, you’re blocking my way. “Nice o’ you to say hello, but I’m getting’ soaked standing here.”
“So am I,” said Uncle Henry. “So is Clarence. This is Clarence.” Neither the driver nor King acknowledged the other. “I don’t know why you’re out in the rain, but we’re out in the rain looking for a couple of boys—maybe you seen them?”
King kept his mouth shut: if you’re not talking, you’re not lying.
“Seen two boys with a wagon, have you? Anywhere?”
King decided his best course of action at the moment was to stay quiet and run both hands along the side of his head, pressing out water.
“I asked you a question. Yes or no?”
“Ah, this kid ain’t gonna tell you nothing, Mr. K. He’s a bum.”
Uncle Henry smiled nastily and spoke down to King. “Are you? You a bum?”
“Yeah, sure,” said King. “I am.” Truth, the whole truth, and nothing but. And all of sudden he could practically see Patsy sit up in his bed and ask for a bowl of stew.
“Kid—hey, snap out of it.”
“Bum like him, he’s probably all hopped up.”
“Clarence, that’s enough. Kid,” said Uncle Henry, flapping a two-dollar bill that he’d removed from his moneyfold during King’s little vision. “It’s important. You seen two boys pulling a wagon—yes or no?”
“Yes,” said King, and that truth-telling took his breath away. But it was all right, it was done for Patsy—who was probably so healthy by now and full of beans he was doing a jig.
“Few minutes ago.”
“Pass this down, will you, Clarence?” Uncle Henry gave the bill to the driver, and the driver with a sneer on his face (and while mouthing, squealer) offered it to King, who took it promptly with his left hand and pocketed it; why not? He might as well get something for himself out of this whole lousy truth racket.
“Now,” said Uncle Henry, “where did you see them a couple minutes ago?”
That particular truth, King instantly reckoned, would cost Uncle Henry another five bucks—surely the information was worth that much to him, and it was.
“Okay,” said Uncle Henry, “so where—where’d you see ’em?”
King didn’t know what to do next, or say, till automatically he pointed off to the east, and then changed it to the northeast. “Up on Isabella Avenue,” he said, and fixed it so firmly in his plastic mind that it was so Isabella Avenue, it was so the real state of the matter. Then he added, “Right by Oak Street,” and there they both were in his razor-sharp instant memory, two boys pulling a small wagon north on Isabella, near the corner of Oak, “by that chink laundry.” With his pinky finger King scooped the tail of the dangling paper strip into his right fist and squeezed his fist tighter. But he didn’t really have anything to hide, and if Uncle Henry had noticed and asked him about it he could’ve answered honestly, yeah sure, the two boys had showed him Mad Marion, of course they had, and King naturally had put a penny in the slot and got back a fortune—so what? He even remembered now that the chink had come outside and smiled at the fortune-teller machine. And that his pigtails were tied with black ribbons.
“You know their names?”
“Nah,” said King, and didn’t. “Never seen ’em before.” Never. Two unfamiliar faces flashed briefly in his mind’s eye and took a place, dim but forever, in his memory, nudging out Bull Hayser and Dick Langtree, the open muddy yards and the tarpaper shack.
And so from that moment on, for King Touey the truth, spoken always to keep his brother from croaking, was whatever it was he imagined it was, and said, and he always told it. Told it straight. He was a bum—he knew that, sure—but he was a truthful bum.
Once Uncle Henry’s driver had turned the trap northward, King hurriedly walked the rest of the way home, almost expecting—seeing as how, by his count, he’d told ten truths in a row—to find Patsy all dressed and downstairs playing Chinese checkers or something with Lizzie, and when he discovered that not only was that not the case, but that Dr. Gleason was still there, collapsed in a rocker looking pale and tired, and that his mother was blotting her red eyes with a handkerchief, and his father was belting down a shot of whiskey—when he saw all of that, King’s mouth went bone dry, his whole body turned cold, and he suddenly, wretchedly despaired.
But then he glanced over toward the stairs, where Liz was coming down, all beaming, all smiles, and Doctor Gleason clapped his kneecaps suddenly and stood up, saying, “I’ll drop by tomorrow, but in the meantime just see if he won’t take a little broth every few hours.” He noticed King staring with his mouth open—staring at him, and then at Liz who’d stopped three steps from the bottom, sniffling and knuckling tears from her cheeks, and then back at him—and he laughed out loud. “You missed all the excitement, boy.” Shaking his head, he squeezed Mrs. Touey’s elbow—“Get some rest, dear”—and put on his rain slicker. Mr. Touey stood up from his chair and grudgingly pulled a small roll of bills from his shirt pocket.
“This one’s on me, Hugh. Free of charge and my pleasure.”
At last King closed his mouth, and then he opened it again. “Patsy ain’t gonna croak?”
Doctor Gleason winced, frowned, but let it go—smiled. “No. No, today God took mercy on your brother. And the rest of us by surprise.”
“God!” said King, like saying “Balls!” “So he’s all better now—he’s cured?”
“Shut up, stupid,” said Mr. Touey. “He ain’t all better, he’s better. Till the next time!”
The doctor shook his head again, that time in irritation and disgust; it seemed as if he might wheel around and say something, speak sharply, but didn’t. He put on his hat and adjusted it.
“How better?” said King.
“Patsy had a close call, the closest. So let’s just be glad he’s sticking around, all right?” Doctor Gleason reached and pinched King’s soggy trousers at the hip pocket. “And put on some dry clothes, boy or I’ll be coming back later to look after you. And I’d surely prefer not.” He left and King headed straight upstairs, pressing past Liz and feeling unaccountably winded when he reached the top. He pressed a palm against the wall and leaned, sucking air. Then, as he reached for the door knob, he found his right fist still clenched tight—he turned his wrist, opened his fingers, and there was Mad Marion’s fortune, the paper damp, the ink diluted, and the words lost. He let it drop to the floor, opened the bedroom door, and breezed in, calling, “Hey, you monkey!” The way that King Touey had always greeted his big brother—
—And the way that he greeted him seventeen years later, when, in his peeve, his chronic peeve, and sporting a brand-new blue suit, a fancy striped shirt, and a pair of lace oxford shoes, clean-shaven and with his hair freshly cut and greased, he showed up at the back door of Lizzie Landrigan’s house on the County Boulevard that morning in late July, 1915, just after eleven o’clock, dragging—yanking—the Cat of Ashes behind him by a piece of rope.