Tony saw the girl as she hurried out of The Green Room on Sutler Street, turned and started walking away from him. Something about her stirred memory in his brain and he walked slowly after her, watching the black skirt swirl above her rounded calves, the slow, liquid ripple of her hips. She stopped suddenly and lit a cigarette, half turned toward him, and in the light from one of the street lamps he saw the small young face, the plump red lips and straight dark eyebrows. Now he remembered: Maria. Maria Casino.
Christ, he’d practically grown up with her here in Frisco, back on Howard Street. He grinned, remembering that first time when he was thirteen and she was fourteen, he and Joe and Whitey Kovacs had taken Maria into Kovacs’ house when his folks were gone. Jesus, that was six years ago; he hadn’t even seen her for almost three years. He looked her up and down from his dark, too-narrow eyes. She sure as hell hadn’t been built then like she was now. He started walking toward her.
She was still standing about ten feet beyond the entrance of The Green Room, puffing on her cigarette. Tony was looking at her as he passed the entrance, so he didn’t see the big guy weave out the door until the guy staggered into him. Tony jerked his head around and looked at the drunk, irritated, then turned and started to walk on. The guy grabbed Tony’s arm.
"Hey," he slurred, "watch where you’re goin’."
Maria turned and started to walk on down toward Powell. Tony glanced at the drunk. He was about six feet tall, heavy, with a flushed red face. His breath stank of beer and whiskey.
"Let go my arm," Tony said quietly. "You’re drunk. Beat it."
The guy didn’t let go. He said nastily, "Goddamn punk. Watch where yer goin". Goin’ round knocking people down. Bastard sonofabitch, watch—"
Tony, at nineteen, was five feet ten inches tall, with much of his weight in strong well-muscled arms and legs and heavy shoulders. He slammed his open right hand against the drunk’s chest, bunched coat and white shirt and stringy tie in his fist, and easily yanked the bigger man close to him. Me didn’t say anything, but his too-narrow eyes narrowed even more and his lips pressed together in a thin, hard line. Anger jumped in his stomach; he felt like putting the slug on the bastard and rubbing his red face into the sidewalk until it was really red.
His thoughts showed in his face, in his lips and eyes and the thick bulge of muscle along his heavy jaw. After a moment he spoke softly, savagely, to the other man. The drunk’s mouth sagged open and he said, not belligerent now, "Look, forget it, fella. Let’s forget it. Look, leggo."
Tony slowly uncurled his fingers, dropped his arm to his side. The drunk moved around him, keeping his eyes on Tony’s face, then hurried down the sidewalk.
Tony looked down toward Powell and saw Maria walking slowly, not yet at the cross street. He hurried after her and caught up with her at the corner. He put a hand on her arm. She stopped and turned toward him, a half smile ready on her lips.
"Hi, baby," Tony said. "Where the hell you been?"
"Tony!" The half smile broadened and she put her hand over his. "Tony Romero. Where’d you come from?"
She was really sharp. Her dark brown hair was cut short and fluffed about her pale face, large brown eyes almost black against the white skin. Her lips were plump and red, and her small, even white teeth gleamed as she smiled up at him.
He said, "Just spotted you coming out of The Green Room. Damn, it’s good to see you. You look like a million,"
"Gee, Tony," she said, "where you been, I ain’t seen you for ages."
"Knockin’ around. I don’t live home no more; I got outa that trap a couple years back. Never see none of the old gang no more. What you doin’ now, Maria?"
She dragged on her cigarette and tossed it into the gutter. "Oh, a little of this, little of that. I ain’t home no more, neither."
Tony glanced at his cheap wristwatch. It was after one in the morning. Sunday morning now. He said, "Come on, I’ll buy you a drink. You got time, haven’t you?"
She laughed. "I got all night, Tony."
"Good deal." He took her arm and started walking back up Sutter the way they’d come. "I got nothin’ to do." He grinned. "Do it with me."
"Love to, Tony." She hung onto his arm, chattering about old times as he steered her back toward The Green Room, the nearest bar.
When they reached the entrance, she looked up and then stopped on the sidewalk, "Oh. I didn’t know we were goin’ here. Let’s go someplace else."
"What’s wrong with here? They got dark booths." He laughed.
"No...I’ll tell you later. I don’t like the place."
"Ah, come on, baby. One drink so I can catch up on where you been." He pulled her by the arm and she resisted at first, then went along with him, "We’ll hit another spot after, if we got time," he said. She went inside with him, frowning.
The Green Room was a small place. A bar with several stools in front of it stretched along the right wall, then there was a row of booths with tables on their left, and more booths against the wall. About a dozen people, mostly men, were drinking.
After drinks had been ordered, Maria was quiet for a few seconds, then she said, "Well, what do you think, Tony?"
"Me being...on the hustle."
"You’re a nice kid, Maria."
"Tell me the truth, Tony. You known me quite a while. Does it, well, does it make any difference to you?"
Tony squinted at her and thought about it. He considered it seriously, wondering if it did make a difference. He thought back to the times he and other kids had been with her in the empty Kovacs house and other places. And she hadn’t been the only one by a long shot. So Maria was getting paid for it now, that was about the only difference.
Tony had been to the houses three or four times, but not for a couple of years. It wasn’t that he saw anything wrong with it, but he didn’t like paying for pretended passion; when he had a woman, he wanted her with him because she wanted it that way too.
"Huh? Oh, hell, I dunno, Maria, I don’t see it makes no difference. You look the same’s you always did—only you’re about ten times prettier." Tony thought, looking at her, that she was damned pretty. She looked almost virginal. Her body was a woman’s body, though, well-curved and soft-looking. He thought of all the men that must have kissed and caressed that body, lusted over it, slobbered on her plump lips. It didn’t do anything to him—except maybe make him a little disgusted with men.
They stopped talking while the waiter served the drinks. Then she leaned forward on her elbows, smiling at him. "Tony. Tony, you’re a swell guy, you know it? You’re sure not gonna take nothin’ from nobody, are you? You were always that way. I used to think you were great, remember? I alwavs liked you."
He laughed. "You used to tell me you were goofy for me, baby."
"Uh huh." She looked at him for several seconds. "Maybe I never got over it."
"Yeah, you got over it, kid. Don’t give me no song and dance."
They decided to go somewhere else. They finished their drinks, then walked out onto Sutter Street again. It was a cold night, the air crisp and bracing, without fog, and Maria looped her arm in Tony’s as they walked to Powell and turned right toward Market Street.
Tony wondered where they’d go. He had about twenty bucks in his pocket, and no job. He’d have to work up another deal pretty soon—unless that longshot came in at Bay Meadows Monday. He had five bucks on Red Dancer to win the third. Money, he thought, the goddamn money. When was it going to happen? That question was part of Tony: When was it going to happen, when was he going to get the break?
It was something that he hung onto, waited for, the break that would get him started, put him in the big dough. It had been part of him for a long time. Tony had grown up in San Francisco pretty much as thousands of others had. He had been the "accidental" child of an Italian mother and father who rarely had enough money to feed themselves and the four other kids before Tony came, and Tony had the further common misfortune of not being wanted. He came very close to not being born at all. For a long time, as he grew up, he didn’t realize that he was poor; when he did, the need for money started growing inside him. He’d quit school in the sixth grade, and in the years since then there’d been a few "deals" and a few odd jobs. Since he’d left home he’d been a laborer for a few months in a warehouse, heavy work that made him strong and also gave him and his best friend, Joe Arrigo, a chance to swipe stuff they later got rid of through a fence; he was a runner for a small bookie for a while, then he worked a few months as a bellhop in the St. Francis Hotel. He stayed there until he got too bored with it, but he had liked being around the people he thought of as having "class," the pink-skinned, well-groomed men with their fat cigars and their slim women, the slim women with sparkling wrists and fingers, and sparkling eyes. Those months at the St. Francis, naturally, only made him want money more.
The years had made him hard, tough, not only in body but in mind. He was cynical, contemptuous of the weak—perhaps because he, himself, was strong. He admired all those men who had, one way or another, amassed fortunes of money or of power. The way they got it wasn’t important; the fact that they had it was. Tony’s attitude toward life was woven of his belief that there were only two kinds of men: the few strong ones he thought of as at "the top," and the rest, the weak, on the bottom; and a guy had nobody but himself to blame if he stayed on the bottom. Tony had no intention of staying there,
Tony pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and offered Maria one, then they stopped while he lit them both. He said, "What you want to do, Maria? Have another drink, or could you stand some chow?"
"Well, I’m a little hungry," she said.
He grinned at her. "Been workin’ hard, huh?"
"Pretty hard. This is Saturday night."
"Little hungry myself. There s a place down on O’Farrell just off Market puts out the best minestrone in the world. O.K.?"
She squeezed his arm and they walked the few blocks to the Italian Restaurant. On the way they talked casually, and she told Tony she wasn’t just out walking the streets; she was in one of the houses, a big place out on Fillmore.
Inside the restaurant, over huge bowls of thick, steaming minestrone, with crisp bread sticks and sliced French bread and red wine, Tony asked her, "How long you been in this racket, baby?"
"Golly, over a year now. About a year after the last time I saw you I got to going with an old guy and he finally put me up in his hotel. I just left my aunt’s house—you know I was livin’ with my aunt since pa married again, the crumb—and we was together about six months. I’d get these guys in a bar and take them down an alley—you know, like they were gonna get a little, they thought—and Max, that’s the guy I lived with, he’d pop them one and we’d take what they had in their wallets. I never did like it, though, and finally we busted up. Well, there I was not livin’ home no more, and no Max. So that’s it."
"How you mean, that’s it? You just start in on the hustle, just like that?"
"No, I had to see the guy runs the houses first. Got a cab driver to fix it so I could see the guy and he put me out on Church Street to start—Church Street, ain’t that a laugh? I been in three, four houses before I come to the Fillmore place. In a hotel once, on call, but I make more this way."
Tony grinned. "Gettin’ rich now, huh?"
"Not rich." She frowned. "They make sure we don’t get rich and get out. But I made fifty tonight."
"Fifty? Fifty dollars?"
"Sure. I’da made more only I don’t work only till twelve."
"Jesus," Tony said. "Fifty bucks. In just one night?" He’d never stopped to figure out how much the whores made in a night or a week. "Christ," he said, "that’s dough!"
"I only get half, Tony. And I got lots of things to buy out of what’s left. It’s not bad, though." She smiled. "Better than muggin’ guys in alleys."
Tony nodded somewhat absent-mindedly. Maria had started his brain working a little; he was thinking about all that dough. "What you think of the racket? You like it?
She shrugged. "It’s a job. No kicks if that’s what you mean; just put in my time." She paused. "It’d be...different with you, Tony."
He laughed. "You’re damn right. I wouldn’t give you no dough."
"Oh, Tony! You got no idea what I’m talking about! Damn you—"
"Hey, I was havin’ fun, is all." She looked and sounded angry. "Don’t bust a seam."
They finished their minestrone and had some more of the red wine Tony had ordered with the meal. He sipped the wine and thought, a dozen ideas flashing through his quick brain. Then he asked Maria, "What about the rest of it—you said you only get half. Who gets the rest?"
"Guys that run the show, shift the girls around, pay off the cops. Cops get a lot of it, but that’s all handled by the big guys. Fellow named Sharkey’s boss of the houses, but he’s under the big guys—you know, the ones that got the books and the rest of the rackets."
"Sharkey, huh?" Then Tony asked the question that was typical of Tony. "Who’s the Top?"
She finished her glass of wine. "I think it’s a Italian guy named Angelo, but that’s all I know about him. Never seen him, don’t know what he looks like. Never made no difference to me; I don’t even see Sharkey but once in a while."
Angelo, thought Tony. Angelo. He’d heard that name. He sat quietly for a moment, frowning, scratched his thick thatch of wavy black hair. Suddenly it came to him. Back when he’d been about thirteen he’d known an older man—a guy about thirty or so then, named Chuck Swan, and they’d been about as friendly as two males of such dissimilar ages can get. Tony had been a hustling kid, wherever a fast buck was concerned, and Swan had used him fifteen or twenty times to do little jobs for him, especially jobs that a kid could do better than a grown-up. Tony had run errands, carried messages and packages without ever knowing the contents; he’d even pushed some queer ten-dollar bills that Swan supplied him with—for a dime a bill. Swan had taken Tony riding in his big new car, bought him a beer once in a while. He’d been mixed up in the rackets, always had a thick wad of money, and Tony liked being around the guy. Then Swan had dropped some hints that he was "moving up," and had mentioned this Angelo. Angelo was way up there sitting on top of the rackets, and he was setting up some sort of deal for Swan. Right after that Swan had left the neighborhood and Tony had never seen him again.
Tony thought about things Swan had told him, and his references to Angelo, and asked Maria, "This Angelo guy, he’s about the biggest joe in the Frisco rackets, isn’t he?"
"I dunno. He’s pretty big, I guess."
"He tied in with any higher-ups? You know, the national guys?"
"They got the gambling, naturally, and the dope. But the girls is what you might call independent. Angelo’s the whole thing far as Frisco is concerned—I mean that’s as far as the girls’ money goes."
"Must add up to dough," Tony said thoughtfully.
She lived in an apartment building up on Pine Street, out about a mile, and as they drove down Pine where the lights were a little dimmer than downtown, Tony put his arm around Maria’s shoulder and pulled her to him. She lifted her head to look at him from inches away, and he pulled her closer, bending his face to hers.
This had to be right, he thought. She’d been slobbered on by enough drunken suckers and guys with only one thing on their minds. That wasn’t the way to act around a woman, even a woman you were paying. Tony pulled Maria close to him, and he said softly, "You won’t never get away from me again for no three years. I’m sure glad I found you again, Maria."
She said, "Oh, Tony, so’m I."
Then he kissed her. He kissed her softly with parted lips, gently, with no passion, no roughness, but almost with tenderness. He pulled her nearer to him, shifted in the back seat of the taxi so that their bodies were closer together, touching along more of their surfaces, and he pulled her tighter with his strong arms. His right hand caressed her shoulder, slid down her back, came to rest beneath her armpit at the swell of her breast. He kissed her carefully. And all the time his brain was coldly clicking, clicking, adding, multiplying, piling dollar upon dollar in his mind, and as if his eyes were turned inward upon his brain he saw the money growing, dollar upon dollar, pile upon pile, money, dollars, power.
Their lips parted with a soft moist sound and Maria leaned her head forward, burrowing it against his neck. "Oh, Tony, Tony," she whispered. He could feel the rise and fall of her breasts, hear the heavy breath sigh in and out of her throat.
"Maria, honey," he said. "Maria, baby."
They sat quietly for a few blocks, then she moved away from him. "We’re almost there," she said. "You comin’ up for a drink?"
"I got wine, Tony, good red wine, the kind you like. And I got gin and some whiskey."
"Swell, baby. Sounds real good."
Tony leaned back against the cushions and sighed. After a few seconds he asked pleasantly, "Say, honey. How many girls they got in that place on Fillmore?"
Copyright © 1952 by Richard S. Prather; renewed December 8, 1980 by Richard Scott Prather.