As the colors in the sky faded, the red casino lights along the shore came up to replace them. Slowly, dozens of seagulls began to circle the glowing sign on top of Trump’s Castle, like bits of paper caught in a cyclone.
I was watching from the parking lot of a club called Rafferty’s, on the other side of Gardner’s Basin. It was a short boxy car-battery of a place with a blue neon Schaefer sign in the window. I’d stop by once or twice a week in those days to help total up liquor receipts and invoices. But on this night, my father had called me to a special meeting and I knew it wasn’t to count any invoices.
I lingered outside awhile, trying to think of a reason not to go in. I checked my Filofax three times, hoping I had the wrong night. But there it was, 7:30 p.m., June 3. A little stretch of pink showed under the dark skirt of the night. I saw a light cross the sky and thought it might be a shooting star. But before I had a chance to make a wish, it turned into a plane and went blinking off toward Philadelphia. There was no sense putting off the inevitable. I buttoned my jacket and went in to see my father.
Inside, the club was what my old man would call a real fugazi kind of joint. Smoked mirrors on the walls, a plush red carpet that would’ve looked right in either a brothel or an airport lounge, and a guttering disco ball hanging from the ceiling that might’ve seemed hip in about 1977. The club was officially closed that night, but that ball was still going around.
My father was sitting in a booth near the back, talking to Richie Amato and a guy named Larry DiGregorio, who had a carting business over in Brigantine.
As soon as I saw Larry sitting there, my head started to throb and my heart began to race. I knew he was in some kind of trouble with my father’s crew. He was a nice, mild-mannered guy with a slight stammer. I’d known him since I was a kid. Always fastidious. Never a hair out of place on the steel gray helmet of a wig he wore, and never a stain on his crisp white shirt. He had absolutely no chin, though. His neck pretty much began at his mouth.
Driving over, I’d been praying that he wouldn’t come tonight. But with him already sitting there, nursing a beer next to my father, I wasn’t sure what I could do. I’d hoped to get my old man alone to talk him out of this craziness.
"Look who decided to show up," said my father.
"It’s the Great Pretender," Richie chimed in.
My father—who was actually my stepfather, if you want to get technical—was named Vincent Russo. He was sixty then, but he moved around like someone twenty years younger. His muscles weren’t the kind you got from lifting weights, but from ripping open shipping containers with your bare hands. His face was a record of every beating he’d ever caught in a police station or a prison yard without breaking down and giving someone up. When he smiled, he showed rows of broken, snaggled teeth on the top and bottom. He was the most loyal man I’d ever met. If he liked you, he’d take a nail through the heart for you. If he didn’t, he’d never rest until he got you around the neck with chicken wire.
He’d been my real father Mike’s best friend until Mike disappeared. After that, Vin came in and took care of my family. He courted my mother with Black Label scotch and chrysanthemums and played war games and boccie with me in the backyard. In the fall when it finally dawned on me that my real father wasn’t coming back, and the whole world seemed strange and frightening, Vin was the one who took me by the hand and led me back into the schoolyard. When bullies taunted me about losing my old man, he’d stand outside the fence and stare at them with eyes like ball bearings until they slunk back to their dodgeball games. He raised me like I was his own flesh and blood and looked after my mother when she started taking pills and stopped being able to tell the difference between her dreams and real life. I knew he loved me, but in the last few years I’d realized I didn’t want to be part of his world.
"You’re late," he said in a voice like a manhole cover being picked up. "You were supposed to be here a half hour ago."
"I ran into traffic on the Expressway. I think one of these buses turned over that was carrying old people to the casinos. They had it backed up all the way to Camden."
"You could’ve taken the White Horse Pike. You would’ve been here in five minutes."
"I didn’t think of it."
"You didn’t think of it because you didn’t want to think of it," my father said.
Larry DiGregorio raised his beer glass to me and smiled. I turned away quickly and caught sight of myself in the mirror behind the bar. I’ve been lucky enough to inherit my real father’s high cheekbones and dark eyes, but tonight my suit was letting me down. A blue silk double-breasted Armani knockoff that cost three hundred dollars at the Italian Dimension on Atlantic Avenue. It was a kind of clean-cut GQ look I was going for. None of that Italian Stallion bullshit, with all the chains and cologne. Bells and smells, I call it. But in the nearest pillar mirror, my suit made me look like a thirteen-year-old taking his great-aunt Doris to her seat at a wedding.
"No respect, no respect," said my father, taking out a comb and trying to smooth back the wild shock of gray hair that was always jumping from the top of his head.
The other two laughed and tilted back their beer mugs.
"Sit down a second, Anthony, you look like sh-sh-shit," Larry DiGregorio said.
I could barely look at him, knowing what was expected of me. I remembered Larry taking me with his son Nicky to a Phillies game when we were kids. I can still see him climbing over the people in the next box, trying to get us a foul ball hit by Mike Schmidt. But he was too slow. Afterwards, he was so depressed he could barely talk to us. Even as a kid, I felt sorry for him.
"I don’t know, Larry," I said, rubbing my fingers together and trying to figure a way out of this. "I don’t know. Lot of stress these days, lot of stress. I oughta have my head examined, starting a contracting business in the middle of a recession."
"Recession!" Richie smirked like he’d never heard a word with more than two syllables before. He spent all his time reading Muscle & Fitness and the Physician’s Desk Reference, looking for different combinations of steroids to try.
In that picture The Ages of Man, Richie’s the second one over from the right. His chest was so pumped up it looked like he’d swallowed a two-hundred-pound barbell. A single eyebrow ran from one side of his forehead to the other like a hairy railroad.
"Yeah, recession, Rich." I looked at him. "You ever hear of that? You oughta pick up a newspaper for once in your life."
My father jabbed a gnarled finger at my white oxford shirt. "And if you’d listen to me, you wouldn’t have to worry about no recession. I’m trying to get you to do some work so you can get the button. But you can’t even keep an appointment. I tell you seven-fifteen, it’s almost quarter to eight."
"Hey, Vin." Larry put a hand on my father’s arm. "He’s here. That’s all that matters."
"That ain’t the point," said my father, slapping the table with his palm. "I’m trying to get Anthony to be a man and accept his responsibilities."
Some people’s families want them to be doctors. Others would like them to be lawyers. Mine wanted me to be a gangster. To my father, the greatest thing a man could be was a made guy in the mob. To be able to walk into any bar or restaurant and have other men fear and respect you, and even pick up your check. He’d worked hard all his life and wound up the underboss in a scrubby local Atlantic City crew. But he had greater aspirations for me. He thought I could become a capo or maybe even a consigliere with one of the major families.
He couldn’t understand that what I wanted more than anything was to be legitimate. I’d grown up around the Cosa Nostra, I’d lost my real father because of it, and I’d had enough. I didn’t want to spend every night of my life staring at the ceiling, wondering if a rival crew was going to have me whacked or if the cops were going to arrest me. I wanted what most people with some college education want: a bigger house, longer vacations, the love of my kids, and a shot at doing better. But my problem was that at the age of twenty-eight, with a wife and two children to support, I was struggling to make an honest living. I hadn’t had a decent contract for my concrete business in over a year, even though I was hustling around the clock. To my father, the way I lived was a disgrace. Only suckers worked nine-to-five.
"Listen," he said. "If I could get you in with Teddy, you wouldn’t have any more worries in your life about providing."
Teddy was my father’s boss. His capodecine. A three-hundred-pound engorged pig, who always wanted half of whatever you made. I remember him stealing pancakes off my plate when I was a kid.
"If I lived like you and worked for Teddy full-time, I wouldn’t make any real money anyway," I said. "I wouldn’t even have a name."
"What’re you talking about? I have a name."
"Yeah? Ever have a car leased in your own name?"
"Why do I need that? I got four or five driver’s licenses."
Across the table, Larry was sipping his beer and using the handkerchief from his breast pocket to wipe his mouth, oblivious to what was about to happen.
"Ever live in a house that didn’t have someone else’s name on the lease?" I asked my father.
"No," he said. "And I never paid no taxes either. So what does that tell you?"
He turned to Larry and jerked his thumb at me. "You see, he thinks it’s beneath him to be part of a crew."
"Well, Vin, the young generation d-doesn’t have the same priorities as we did." Larry stroked the part of his face where a chin should have been. "The F-family doesn’t mean the same thing to them."
"That’s because they don’t understand all the sacrifices we made."
Larry shrugged as my father rubbed his nose with his forearm. "Look, V-vin. They’re never gonna t-t-take him anyway. So what’re you gonna do about it?"
"That’s right," I said. "I can’t be made because I haven’t got Sicilian blood on both sides. Those are the rules."
I was hoping that would derail the conversation, but my father was set on his plan.
"Every man wants his son to have a better life than the one he had," he said gravely. "Maybe they could bend the rules for once."
"Hey, don’t be so...officious with me."
My father looked at me like I was giving him a migraine. "Officious?"
"V-vin." Larry leaned over and grabbed my father’s elbow in a show of old-man camaraderie. "May-maybe it’s better like this. Look at my boy Nicky. If he could’ve stayed clean, like Anthony, maybe I wouldn’t have to be here tonight trying to straighten this out with you."
My father grumbled. "And if Nicky woulda come in to talk about it himself, we could’ve had it out with him insteada you, Larry."
"You know about this?" Larry turned to me as a potential ally. "My Nicky had a little m-m-misunderstanding about the union p-p-pension fund."
"He was skimming an extra fifteen hundred a week," said my father. He stared at me. "Haven’t you got something to tell Larry about that?"
"What?" I just looked at him.
"Don’t you wanna say something to Larry?"
"No." I looked away. "What am I going to tell him?"
"That thing you said you were going to tell him."
My father’s eyes were like two drill bits going through the side of my skull. I suddenly became aware of every breath being taken in the bar, the tick of the clock, and the catch in Tony Bennett’s throat as he sang "Cold, Cold Heart" on the radio.
"I haven’t got anything for Larry," I said.
My father was still staring. He punched me lightly in the shoulder.
"You sure about that?"
"Yeah, I’m sure."
I saw Larry’s eyes shifting around nervously. If he’d had any brains, he would’ve leaped up and run out of there.
I patted my pockets and stooped my shoulders as the blood began pounding in my ears. "I haven’t got anything for him."
"Aghh." My father waved his hand in disgust and started to get up from the table. "I’m gonna go take a piss."
"Don’t fall in," said Richie as Larry stood up to let Vin out.
My father walked around the circular chrome-topped bar and went through the brown door on the other side of the club marked "Mermen." Most of the tension went out of the room with him. The pounding in my ears subsided and I let the music from the radio wash over me. Tony Bennett was hitting all the high notes. Larry was going to be all right, I thought.
He sat back down and reached across the table to tap my hand.
"He’s a real old hard-ass," he said softly. "B-but he loves you. D-don’t ever forget that."
"I know, Larry. But he doesn’t understand."
"Sure, but in his heart, he only w-wants what’s best for you."
That disco ball was slowly turning on the ceiling and a thousand little stars of light chased each other around the room. They reminded me of the gulls outside.
I was about to tell Larry that this would be a good time to leave. But right then my father came out of the bathroom with a .357 Magnum in his hand, just the way I thought he would. He walked around the bar and raised it slowly, leveling it at Larry from fifteen feet away. I got ready to hit the floor and cover my ears.
But then something unbelievable happened. Old Larry DiGregorio, who’d always had the reflexes of a Valium addict, whipped his hand inside his jacket and pulled out a snub-nosed .38. Before any of us could react, he fired off a round at my father and reality began to dissolve. The bang made Richie yelp like a schoolgirl finding a roach under her chair. My heart jumped up against my lungs. But my father only looked annoyed, like he just remembered he’d left his keys in the car. He fell to the floor in a heap as Tony Bennett finished his song. From somewhere far away, a foghorn sounded.
Larry turned to us slowly like a high school principal about to deliver a lecture. "You know, I want to believe neither of you boys had anything to do with this," he said in the steadiest voice I’d ever heard him use.
My breath froze. Richie farted so loudly it sounded like he was blowing his nose in his pants. Larry began to sit down. He didn’t see my father rising up behind him like a movie creature back from the grave. With one hand, Vin grabbed the nearest bar stool and came rushing at him. And the next thing Larry knew, that bar stool was crashing down on his head.
All hell broke loose. The two of them hit the floor and started wrestling like a couple of old chimps under the banana tree. Spit was flying everywhere, chairs and tables were falling. They began rolling over each other back toward the bar, gasping for air. First my father was on top. Then Larry. A pair of bifocals fell out. Then a set of false teeth. Now a hearing aid. Something furry tumbled off Larry’s head and I realized it was his toupee. It was like they were shaking parts of each other loose. Glasses tumbled off the bar and shattered next to their faces. An ice pick rolled off after them. My father grabbed it and tried to jab it in Larry’s eye. Larry grabbed his hand and bit Vin’s ear. It felt like someone had taken all the nerve endings at the back of my head and twisted them into a tourniquet.
My whole life’s dilemma was squeezed into those couple of seconds. Every fiber in my body was screaming Go, get out of there, drive a million miles away. But I knew I had to stay. Vin was more than the man who married my mother. He was my father, my protector, my sword and shield against the rest of the world.
"GIVITBACK! GIVITBACK GIVITBACK!" It was impossible to tell which of them was screaming.
I saw Richie sitting in the booth like a beached whale. My old man was on the floor making this horrible "ACK-ACK-ACK" strangling noise. He needed me. But they both had guns, which could go off any second. I forced myself to take a step forward, but then two sharp pops stopped me in my tracks ten feet away and I heard a thwop sound like a knife going into a pumpkin.
Peggy Lee sang "Is That All There Is?" on the radio.
Someone groaned. An ice cube cracked. In the revolving disco ball lights, I could see the outline of an arm going limp. There was another muffled pop, pop from the gun and then both of them got very still.
For a minute, I got scared that they both might be dead. That headache turned into a blinding whiteout pain right over my eyes. How could I explain what we were doing here? What would we do with their bodies? And what would I do without my father? Up until that moment, I hadn’t realized I loved him almost as much as he loved me.
There was another groan and then slowly Vin began to disentangle his arms and legs from the pileup on the floor. He stood up and looked from me to Richie and then back to me again.
"Goddamn it," he said. "When I ask if you got something to tell him, you’re supposed to jump up and strangle that cocksucker."
"I didn’t bring the rope," I said numbly. I was still in shock about what had just happened.
"I said, I forgot the rope. I guess it’s still in the trunk." That was a lie. I hadn’t wanted anything to do with killing Larry and my father knew it.
He cursed under his breath and started to wipe the prints off his gun with his shirttail.
"You all right?" I asked.
"Yeah, he just nicked me." My father checked the shoulder of his shirt where the bullet passed through. He seemed more concerned about the rip in the material than the scab forming on his skin.
I breathed a sigh of relief and went over to take a closer look at Larry. He was lying very still with four bullet holes in his chest and the ice pick through his kidney. His wig was off, leaving his pale bare scalp exposed. He was covered with blood and half his blazer was stuck under his back. I kept thinking he would’ve wanted it closed with the brass buttons showing.
The stench was so overwhelming it was like a cloud coming off him.
Looking back, I think I’d never felt so confused. I’d known my father had killed people, but I’d never actually seen it before. His violence sickened me. It didn’t just turn my stomach; it split my mind open. How could the same man who walked me through the schoolyard do this to another person?
But at the same time, I was secretly excited. There was something incredibly powerful about watching him just take a life. He and Larry had been locked in a mortal straggle and now he was going to walk away and Larry wasn’t. It changed me—seeing that—but I didn’t know how much at that moment. Almost immediately, I went back to being horrified and ashamed.
My father came over and nudged Larry with his foot. "You were supposed to do this, you know, not me," he told me in a raspy voice, pocketing the .38 that had been lying at Larry’s side. "We were waiting so long he would’ve left if I hadn’t of shot him."
"He almost left anyhow," said Richie Amato with a smaller smirk.
"You shut up!" my father snarled at him. "You never got outa the fucking booth either."
He picked up Larry’s beer, which had been sitting on the table the whole time, and finished it in one gulp. The ultimate macho fuck-you. Kill your enemies. Take their women. And if there are no women around, drink their beer.
What could I do? Call the police? This was my father. Besides, it was gradually beginning to dawn on me that by just standing here I was an accomplice to felony murder. I couldn’t say anything to anybody without implicating myself.
"Ah, shit." My father started to wipe some bloody mess off his forearm with a cocktail napkin. His shirt was rank with sweat and his breathing sounded like rats running through a wind tunnel. "Well, now I got a problem."
He took another deep breath and heaved his shoulders. A single green vein pulsed above his left temple. His body was still radiating all the hate it took to rise up and kill Larry.
He looked down at Larry and shook his head. "He wasn’t supposed to get shot and stabbed like that. Teddy wanted him strangled and he wanted you to do it. It was part of the plan for having you take over the union envelope."
"So don’t look at me," I said sharply. "I didn’t want anything to do with this. I only came tonight because I thought there was a chance we might be able to work this out peacefully..."
But even as I was saying this I found I couldn’t stop staring at Larry’s corpse. It was terrible what had happened, but somehow I found myself adjusting to the circumstances. Larry was dead. There wasn’t a thing I could do for him.
"Well, lookit," said my old man, pulling the ice pick out of Larry’s side. "Maybe there’s something we can do."
He bit his lower lip. "Maybe you could just throw a rope around his neck and say you did it and I gave you a hand toward the end."
"He’s still got all them holes in him," said Richie, suddenly turning into a forensics expert. "They’re gonna look at ’em and say that’s what killed him, not any rope."
My father carefully surveyed Larry’s face. "Well then we gotta figure out how we can get the tongue to come out and the eyes to bulge."
I straightened my tie and cleared my throat. It’s amazing how quickly things can go back to seeming normal. The disco ball on the ceiling was still spinning, the music on the radio was still playing, the beers were still on ice behind the bar, waiting to be sold for three dollars a pop. The only thing different about the place was Larry lying there dead on the carpet.
"Look," I said, "forget about saying who did what to who. What are we going to do about him lying here?"
"Hey." My father shot me an irritated look. "I’m just trying to get you some credit with Teddy."
"Well forget it," I cut him off. "You tell a lie, it’ll come back to haunt you every time."
This was the last thing I needed. I was already implicated in a murder. Now Vin wanted to put the weapon in my hand. I just wanted to get out of there, have a drink, and take some time to sort things out.
My father was glaring at me again. "You know, you fuckin’ kids kill me," he said, turning from me to Richie. "Will one of you go get a plastic mat so I can roll up this sonovabitch?"
Richie went springing off to a back room, all gung-ho since there wasn’t any danger now. I was still looking at Larry. Just a couple of minutes ago, he’d been asking me how my business was doing.
"Officious," said my father, taking him by the ankles and starting to drag him away. "That the word you used before?"
"Yeah, Dad. Officious."
"You fuckin’ kids," he said. "You kill me every time."
Copyright © 1994 by Peter Blauner.