A thin milky layer of light from a bare lightbulb at the top of the ten steps shone down to the basement. Tony the Phil looked up at it wide-eyed. If it was a 25-watt bulb, it was as bright as it was ever going to get. If it was a 40-watt bulb, it wasn’t making payroll. If it was a 100-watt bulb, it was on its last legs.
Tony kept his eyes on the lion in the near darkness, even though the animal was taking a nap. He hoped to God the animal wasn’t dreaming of breaking loose, getting his claws into him, and devouring his flesh. He sat quietly on the hard, thin mattress, as far back at the back of the bunk in the corner he was in as he could get.
He thought one of the flame throwers he had seen in Korea would come in handy, just now, just in case, if the lion got loose, except for all the hay. There was hay in the cage, and it was strewn all over the basement floor, too. He thought it might be Timothy hay. They used it at the ballpark. There were piles of it in the corners, and there were several bales stacked up. The basement smelled slightly musty, not dirty, but there was a strong smell of urine.
There were no mice to be seen anywhere.
The two men who had taken him to the storefront, taken him around back, and taken him into the basement, hadn’t been rough with him, but it was clear as day as he went down the stairs that he was going into the basement, and that was that.
“The boss will be down later,” one of them said. “Just sit tight. Lucifer is locked up. Her bark is worse than her bite, anyway.”
They tramped back up the stairs, he heard the lock click, and was left alone with the big cat. The lion twitched and tucked her head into her paws. She was dreaming about something. Maybe the big cat was dreaming of a smooth breeze. Maybe the big cat was dreaming of lying low in the grass beneath a bright blue sky. Or maybe the big cat was dreaming of ripping Big Paulie to ribbons and getting the hell out of the dark basement.
Anything would be better than being alone all the time.
Tony de Marco was a loner who didn’t like being alone. When he was around people, they often made him feel more alone, but it was better than being in a room all by himself. He didn’t like sleeping alone. It hadn’t been bad when he was in the army. He slept with the other GI’s, all of them in their fart sacks. But back home in Brighton Beach he didn’t have a girlfriend. There was no one nearby close by at his side in bed. He was lonely most of the time.
He didn’t have to answer to anybody, like most of the guys he knew, but he didn’t have anybody to talk to, either.
He wasn’t good at talking, anyway. What was there to talk about? At parties, what few he went to, he was always clumsy and lost. He never knew how to start a conversation. He didn’t know how to jump in, jump out, stay loose.
He hadn’t been good at school, but he hadn’t been lousy, either. He never had been involved in even one extracurricular activity. After he graduated he forgot everything about high school. He wasn’t any more anti-social than the next man, but he wasn’t social, not exactly, not at all.
He didn’t care about the small lives everyone led in the big city, doing the same thing every day. riding a bus, working in an office, or a store, or somebody else’s business making something. He didn’t care about what their kids and their wives did. Even though he worked at the ball park, and liked his job, he wondered what in the hell everyone was hollering about. He liked baseball, but it didn’t matter who won or lost. He liked the Brooklyn Dodgers best, but knew that the team could be in Milwaukee, or Los Angeles, and it would be the same team, and the fans hollering it up for them would be different fans but the same fans.
Luca “Big Paulie” Gravano, when he came down to the basement and invited him upstairs for dinner, was different than what Tony the Phil had imagined. He was big, but not as big as he thought he would be. He was a gangster, it was easy to tell, but he was affable and friendly. He didn’t seem dangerous. He didn’t seem notorious. He seemed to be sure of himself.
“C’mon upstairs, Ma has a family spread laid out next door, we can eat, you can relax, go for a walk around the neighborhood afterwards, get a good night’s sleep. We’ve got a bedroom for you, Ma made it up special.”
“I’m a little nervous,” said Tony.
Something was wrong about being taken down into a basement with a lion not twenty feet away, and Big Paulie, who he didn’t know from Adam, draping a beefy arm over his shoulders and giving him a warm smile.
Something was wrong with the whole day, all last week, all the summer. It was a soup sandwich.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Big Paulie.
“Why do you have a lion here in Brooklyn? He’s could be dangerous if he got out.”
“It’s a lioness, a she,” said Big Paulie. “Lucifer is just here to keep the rats away. Besides, she doesn’t know how to break out of her cage anymore.”
“Lucifer is a man’s name, it’s the devil’s name.”
“She’s a man-eater.”
“When can I get out of this basement? It’s damp down here.”
“It’s just for a few hours,” said Big Paulie. “We’ll have you up next door for dinner tonight. Ma is making her special meatballs, and tomorrow we’ll move you a couple of blocks down the street with some of the boys. Wednesday is your birthday and you’ll be setting off the fireworks. It’s going to be a special day. Nobody will ever forget you after that.”
Tony the Phil liked the sound of that. Sometimes he thought he was invisible. At work, in the neighborhood, sometimes people didn’t notice he was right there, right next to them. They didn’t see him. He didn’t like that. He didn’t like it that other people thought he didn’t matter.
It was an hour or two or three, Tony de Marco couldn’t tell, he had forgotten his watch and couldn’t make sense of the time, when Luca Gravano came back, led him up out of the basement, and into the showroom of the Murphy Bed Company. The walls were lined with pull-down beds. A poster read “The Disappearing Bed.” There were some desks and chairs on the ground floor, and an arrangement of a sofa, armchairs, and a coffee table to one side. Luca led him to a side door, they stepped across a passageway between the store and a brownstone, and through another side door.
The house was the last in a row of townhouses. It was the color of cold sauce. They went up a set of stairs to the dining room above the parlor. The heavy dark table sat eight but was set for four. The head and foot of the table weren’t set. A young man sat at the table alone. His gun was on the table.
“This is my kid brother Frankie.”
Tony glanced down at the gun next to Frankie’s plate. A fork and knife were on the other side of the plate. The gun was Smith & Wesson 45 caliber “Military” model. It had a long barrel and a blue finish. Tony had seen them in Korea. Frankie was wearing a short-sleeve white shirt open at the neck. His holster was on the floor next to his chair.
“Everybody calls him Kid Blast,” said Big Paulie.
On the walls of the dining room were several photographs and paintings. There was a photograph of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and next to it a photograph of Fiorello La Guardia. There was a color photograph of Pope Pius XII. He wore a red cape and his hands were clasped over his stomach. He was a lean man with the thin face of a bookkeeper.
There was a large framed painting of the Bay of Naples. The water was a bright mixed-up blue. The Roman emperor Caligula, insane and sickly, had once ordered a bridge of boats assembled across the bay so he could ride over the water in a chariot wearing the armor of Alexander the Great.
“The thing that interests me is that today painters do not have to go to a subject-matter outside themselves. Modern painters work in a different way. They work from within,” said Jackson Pollack, down the drain and dead cold sober.
There was a large framed painting of the Infant of Prague. The child was standing on a golden pedestal inscribed JHS – Jesus Savior of Mankind – wearing a red robe puffy sleeves puffy white collar a golden crown on top of golden curls and holding a golden orb, the globus cruciger.
“Honor this image and you shall never want” was written on a slip of paper and tucked into the bottom corner of the frame.
“The modern artist is living in a mechanical age and we have a mechanical means of representing objects in nature such as the camera and photograph. The modern artist, it seems to me, is working and expressing an inner world – in other words – expressing the energy, the motion and the other inner forces. The modern artist is working with space and time, and expressing his feelings rather than illustrating,” Jackson Pollack said, packed-up and eighty-sixed.
There was a large framed copy of Norman Rockwell’s “Progress?” Three boys plead with a construction crew, “Gee, mister, this is our baseball lot!” The man looking out from the seat of the digger back hoe looks bemused. The man with the shovel looks like he wants to agree with the boys.
Big Paulie looked at Tony the Phil looking at the painting.
“You like that one?” asked Luca.
“Yeah,” said Tony
“The important thing is that Clyff and Rothko and I – we’ve changed the nature of painting. I don’t mean there aren’t any other good painters. Bill is a good painter, but he’s a French painter. I told him so, the last time I saw him after his last show. all those pictures in his last show start with an image. You can see it even though he’s covered it up, or at least tried to. Style – that’s the French part of it. He has to cover it up with style,” Jackson Pollack said, all done in and pushing up daisies.
Tony inhaled a waft of after-shave. He wrinkled his nose.
“I like to stink myself up,” said Big Paulie.
The smell of homemade meatballs and spaghetti walked into the room. Raffaella Gravano carried a large platter, her arms bent at the elbow, back straight, and eyes on the table. She put the platter down. There was enough food on it to feed twice as many of them as there were.
Raffaella Gravano was a plain looking woman, short and stout, thick-set and thick-necked. Her face was small, but her eyes, nose, and chin were large, and her expression was expressionless. She had on a short-sleeved print dress cinched at the waist by a thin black belt, her breasts sagging into her stomach, her upper arms beefy, strong, an ugly scar on one of her forearms, and wearing a pair of simple sturdy comfortable black shoes.
She set the platter down on the table, brought glasses of ice and a pitcher of water, and a bottle of red wine.
“Eat, eat,” she said to Tony when he hesitated.
He didn’t have to be told twice. He was hungry. The meatballs were fresh hot delicious. They tasted like the meatballs his mother made when he was a youngster, ground beef with pork, diced yellow onions and pressed fresh garlic, and made by hand marinara sauce. The spaghetti was good. The bread was warm.
“Take that off the table, Frankie,” Raffaella said, nodding at Frankie’s gun.
“Sure, Ma,” said Kid Blast.
The men ate quietly, like wolves, not talking. Raffaella ate, too, but sitting up straight, enjoying savoring the taste of the food she had made, chewing the meatballs rather than gulping them down, drinking her wine like wine, not water.
“Is this wise?” she asked, nodding at Tony, when Big Paulie came up for air.
“It has to be, Ma,” he said.
“I understand,” she said.
Tony slowed down, winding down, finishing his plate, feeling full. There were no clocks in the room, but there was dusk in the windows. He drank some of the semi-sweet wine from his glass and smiled at Ma
“Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce, from near Sorbara,” she said.
“Oh, I see,” said Tony, not seeing much of anything.
“The wine is from there. They call it that because the grape clusters look like a sausage of salami. You like it?”
“Yes, and the meatballs, too, very much,” said Tony.
Raffaella turned to her son, Kid Blast.
“Frankie, did you remember to bring that leg of lamb home like I told you?”
“Oh, fuck, Ma, I forgot.”
“Watch your language.”
“Damn, Ma, I’m sorry.’”
“What are we going to do about Lucifer tonight?” she asked. “You know what she’s like when her dinner is late.”
“What about him?” asked Frankie, looking at Tony the Phil. “He’s got two legs. He could give one up, right? He only needs one leg to stand on to do whatever it is he’s going to do, am I right?”
“You’re right,” said Big Paulie. “But he’s got to get there first, to do what he has got to do, so he needs both legs for now. Maybe he’s the sacrificial lamb, I don’t know, but the boss wants him in one piece and on time for doing up the contract, you got that?”
“OK, OK, don’t bite my head off,” complained Kid Blast.
After the dishes were cleared, Luca and Tony went for a walk around, four blocks up and down and around, around the neighborhood. They walked past bars, luncheonettes, restaurants, Italian cheese stores, barber shops , dairy stores, laundry shops, cut rate luggage stores, men’s wear, women’s wear, leather repair shops, candy cigar soda stands, and the New Deal Sales Company.
They passed a butcher shop that was closed with its lights on, the butcher wrapping up ten pounds of top round for Frankie Gravano. He waved and gave them a thumbs up when he saw them through the window, pantomiming carefully feeding Lucifer her late dinner.
They turned the corner.
“What was all that about a sacrificial lamb?” asked Tony.
“You don’t want to know, kid,” said Big Paulie. “You don’t want to know.”
Storm Drain – A Stan Rittman Mystery
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.
At noon, at mid-day on Monday, October 1st, President Eisenhower greeted more than nine hundred invited guests to the Sales Executive Group Luncheon in the Main Ballroom of the best and biggest hotel in downtown Cleveland. He spoke briefly, walked out of the hotel, and crossed the street to the Main Speaker’s Platform next to the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. He was giving a speech at twelve-thirty.
He was in the middle of two months of pressing flesh and giving speeches.
A dozen black and white Cleveland Police cars blocked off Euclid Avenue, Superior Avenue, Ontario Street, and Rockwell Avenue.
Bert, Mert, and Luke had scampered out of the Memorial Room of the monument out to the roof and to the base of the polished black stone column. They could have climbed to the top, one hundred and twenty-five feet to the top, wending up the six foliated bronze bands listing the names of the thirty battles in which soldiers from Cuyahoga County fought, if they had wanted to. Their eyesight wasn’t the best, not like their sense of smell, but where they were was more than view enough.
Since it was only a month to the election, President Eisenhower got right to the point.
“The opposition say that they alone truly care for the working men and women of America, and that the Republican party is really a vague kind of political conspiracy by big business to destroy organized labor and bring hunger and torment to every worker in America,” he told the overflow crowd.
Secret Service agents watched from the roofs of the May Company and Higbee’s, and from inside the twin steeples of the Old Stone Church. The Berea sandstone of the church had long since turned black from air pollution from the Flats, the nearby industrial valley that sprawled on both sides of the curvy Cuyahoga River. The sun gleamed on the white terra cotta façade of the May Company. The faces of shoppers pressed against upper story windows of the two department stores.
The pastor of the Presbyterian church sat in a lawn chair outside his front doors, his sleeves rolled up, warm in the warm October day.
He had a ploughman’s sandwich, cheese and pickle, wrapped in wax paper in his lap. He unwrapped his sandwich. He took a bite and chewed, slowly, methodically. The sky above Public Square was dappled with small passing clouds. He stretched his legs out. His father had been a pastor. He grew up in the church. He served on all the church committees, was a volunteer at all the events, and made all the hospital and home care visits.
Thank God for Ike, he thought, a day off.
“Have you got your lunch?” asked Vicki that same morning in Hell’s Kitchen.
Dottie held up her lunch box. It was a metal Roy Rogers and Dale Evans lunch box with wood grain printed sides. On the front of the box Roy was riding away on Trigger, and Dale, in a red dress, was waving goodbye from underneath the Double RR Bar Ranch sign.
“Let’s go,” said Vicki.
Dottie went to the Sacred Heart of Jesus School on West 52nd Street. It was an all-children school, all boys and girls. It was the reason Stan had taken their apartment on West 56th Street, so that Dottie could walk to school. It was a large school, more than a thousand students, most of them Irish kids, and growing, A new convent for the Sisters of Charity had been built a few years ago. The Congregation of Christian Brothers, who had a reputation for strong-arm discipline, had their own residence on West 51st Street.
“If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses,“ Stan and Vicki heard Lenny Bruce crack at one of his shows.
Dottie didn’t wear a cross.
Bert and Mert were twins. Luke was an orphan. All his friends called him Eaka Mouse. They usually slept during the day and foraged at night, avoiding birds, but this was a special occasion. They had never seen the top man of the Grand Old Party up close. The birds were staying away because of the hullaballoo, but the mice couldn’t contain their curiosity.
“This is more than political bunk,” said President Eisenhower. “Those men are fretting fear and worried doubt. It is wicked nonsense. We have given to our nation the kind of government that is a living witness to a basic virtue in a democracy, public morality, public service, and public trust. There is no special favoritism, cronyism, or laxity in our administration.”
Luke had the best sense of smell of the three of them. He led the way when they went searching for food, which was fifteen, twenty times a day. Their favorite foods were seeds and grains, which made the monument a dream diner for mice. It was visited by hundreds, sometimes thousands of people, many of whom left behind crumbs of whatever they were snacking on.
The pickings today were going to be out of this world.
None of them liked cheese. No mouse they knew liked cheese. They snickered at the traps filled with shavings of it. Besides, they could smell the hand of a crafty man on the carefully prepared cheese, and they knew to beware.
In Brooklyn, Bumpy followed the two men who were following Stan and Betty. When they got to Ebbets Field, the men parked across the street from the main entrance to the ballpark. Bumpy passed them, doubled back, and parked a block behind them. He turned off the engine and got comfortable.
It was inside of fifteen minutes that the zip on the passenger side of the car got out, walked down the street, turned into a corner store, and came back with a brown bag with a bottle of Sneaky Pete in it.
“Dumb asses,” Bumpy said to himself.
He understood when the pie isn’t perfect, cut it into wedges, but if it was him, he would throw the two slices of stupidity out of the hoodlum roll call and send them back to Sicily where they came from.
The one-year sale on fresh blood from the homeland had been going on for seven years. It was getting stale. On the other hand, Bumpy thought, it isn’t like I’ve got to reinvent the wheel with them.
When Stan and Bettina walked out of the ballpark and hailed a cab, the two men in the car didn’t follow them. Instead, the man on the passenger side got out again, sauntered to a phone booth outside the corner store, and made a call.
“All right, and you’re sure they didn’t make you?”
“And no one was on your tail?”
“All right, I’ll pass it on to the skipper. You two go home, or wherever, and lay low for the next few days. Stay straight, don’t boost anything, stay out of trouble, but stay heavy, just in case we need you, understand?”
“I got it,” the man in the telephone booth said.
The man on the other end of the line hung up.
The two slices of pie sat in their car and finished their Sneaky Pete.
“The men of the opposition know perfectly well that one of the main reasons they were thrown out of office four years ago was their tolerance of the fiery of inflation,” said President Eisenhower. “Just in the final seven years of their tenure of office this economic fever had cut the value of the dollar by almost one-third, damaging the livelihood of the aged, the pensioned, all salaried workers.”
Luke had recently chewed up the front page of the Cleveland Press for bedding. He noticed an article about last month’s government index showing living costs at a record high point.
“The cost of living has been remarkably stabilized,” the trim balding man in a brown suit below them said earnestly. “During the previous Democratic administration, the cost of living increase was twenty times as great.”
Mert gave Bert and Luke the high sign. They couldn’t go down to look for food, but the speechifying was making them sleepy. It was a lot of cutting corners and trying to corner the other guy. The three mice stretched, groomed themselves briefly, efficiently, curled up together, and were soon napping.
Ezra met Stan and Bettina when they got to Brighton Beach.
“He’s gone,” said Ezra.
“The lady of the house says he left yesterday, with a couple of guys, had an overnight bag with him. She saw the car, but doesn’t know the make, much less the plates. I asked around, talked to some of the neighbors, nobody saw anything, so that’s a dead end. My guess is they’re guessing we’re on to him and have got him on ice somewhere until Wednesday.”
“That sounds about right,” said Stan. “We’ll have to snag him at the ballpark. We’ve got tickets for the game, so getting in won’t be any problem.”
“No, no problem and we can get in early, spread out,” said Ezra.
“Are we still keeping this to ourselves?”
“Yes,” said Ezra. “The Secret Service is always on high alert, so our ruffling their feathers won’t make any difference. Besides, they don’t trust anybody. Whatever we tell them is likely to get us in a jam.”
“I’m on the same page,” said Stan. “But what if we don’t get our man and he gets to Ike?”
“We’re not anybody’s bodyguard,” said Ezra. “He’s got all the bodyguards he needs.”
“But we know who is and what he looks like,” said Bettina. “They don’t.”
“Yes,” said Ezra.
They had walked down to Brighton Beach Avenue.
“Did you read that tawk from Ike on Stevenson?” one man asked his companion as they strolled past the Duluc Detective operatives.
“Yeah, just more smoke and mirrors from the Republicans.”
“The thing is, how do you even know he’s telling the truth, when you know you’d lie about it if you was him?”
“Fawget about it.”
“Yeah, yeah, I got that. Let’s stop in here.”
They were approaching a diner.
“Let’s get some cawfee and a bite.”
“That’s a good idea, I’m with you.”
“We can’t be sure we know with one hundred percent certainty what our man is up to,” said Stan.
“No,” said Ezra.
“It puts us in a bad spot.”
“Yes,” said Ezra.
“OK, we’ll play it the way we have been. It might be a squeeze, but I don’t want to get in the middle of a political assassination, if it is an assassination, and everything that would bring down on us, hell in a hand basket.”
“No good deed goes unpunished,” said Ezra.
“We’re getting paid to find out what happened to Jackson Pollack, not anything else,” said Stan.
Bettina wanted to argue, but when she remembered some of the things Pete had told her, after their ping-pong games, or out for a drink, she bit her tongue. TF is what Pete muttered when what he said fell on deaf ears. She didn’t want to be the mouse in the headlights with the Feds at the wheel. She knew Pete was right about the high and low.
Two teenagers slouched past them. Both of them were wearing large bright medal medallions. One of them had a girl’s ear-clip stuck onto an earlobe.
“You going to the skin battle tonight?” asked one.
“Diddley bop, I’m all in,” the other one said.
“You got your stenjer ready?”
He had wet his Alpine-style hat, his stenjer, under a faucet the night before, rolled the narrow brims tight, and dried it on a radiator.
“Don’t forget to pull it down over your ears.”
“Ain’t that like punking out?”
“No, it’s going to be tight fighting, but you still want to take care of your ears.”
“I got it.”
“You’ve got to have heart, though.”
“I’ll tell you who’s got heart, Blood’s got heart.”
“You got that right. He isn’t afraid of anything or anybody. He will do absolutely anything. If he has to fight five against one, he’ll fight five against one. He’s a butcher, man. If you need someone to pull the trigger, he’ll pull the trigger.”
“Get that man a stenjer.”
“Fast, faster, disaster!”
They both laughed, taking their own sweet time.
Stan, Bettina, and Ezra walked in silence.
“Anybody hungry?” asked Betty.
“I’m dog hungry,” said Ezra.
“Same here,” said Stan.
“How about H & S? We could walk, it’s not far.”
They passed an apartment house. At the top of it an inscription in block letters read MOTHER JONES. Bettina knew who she was, which was Mary Harris Jones, a labor organizer for the Socialist Party of America, fifty or sixty years ago. A district attorney had called her “the most dangerous woman in America.”
Pete said, laughing, that women couldn’t even vote in her day, which was what really made them dangerous, pivoting into the 20th century.
“When you want something bad enough is when you get dangerous,” he said.
Stan, Betty, and Ezra walked to the deli on Sheepshead Bay Road.
President Eisenhower wrapped up his speech, stepped down from the platform, and was in his big car in his motorcade on its way to Cleveland Hopkins Airport by one o’clock. He and Mamie boarded the Columbine and were airborne to Lexington, Kentucky by one-thirty. In the next two days, at the same time of the day the Boeing lifted off, Dwight Eisenhower would be tossing out the first pitch of the 1956 World Series at Ebbets Field instead of tossing out half-truths.
“There it is,” said Bettina, pointing to the blue and white H & S Hebrew National Deli porcelain sign across the street.
She had mushroom barley soup and toasted challah, while Ezra and Stan ordered pastrami sandwiches. Betty winced at the tongue offerings on the menu. One of them touted itself as center cut tongue, better than the other parts of the tongue.
“Look at this,” said Stan. He pointed to a sign on the wall
“Instant Heart Attack.”
It was a three-quarter pound meat sandwich, your choice of animal, with potato latkes instead of bread.
“Our food is delicious, but it can kill you,” said the waiter.
After they had finished, and were having tea, Ezra said, “I didn’t want to mention it while we were eating, but some of the deli’s I eat at, you can’t find what they offer anywhere else. There’s a place, they have something called pitcha, which is made by cooking calves’ feet and making a gelatinous block of it, chilling it, with bits of meat in it.”
“Oh, my God!” said Betty.
“I’ve never had it,” said Ezra.
“Thank God for that!” said Betty.
Outside, on the sidewalk they heard a man in the distance, a man coming their way.
“Ice cream! Get your Good Humor ice cream here, ice cream, orange drinks. Get your Good Humor ice cream here.”
He was a black man wearing black shoes and khaki pants. He had two large boxes slung over his shoulders. One was filled with ice cream and the other one with orange drinks. His face was shiny.
Stan asked if he had vanilla.
“Yes sir,” the man said.
“I’ll have one, too, “said Betty.
“What other flavors do you have?” asked Ezra.
“Strawberry, chocolate, eclairs, fudge.”
“I’ll take a strawberry,” said Ezra.
When the ice cream man opened his box, white smoke from the dried ice spilled out of it. After they paid him, he grunted when he lifted the two boxes up, slinging them back over his shoulders, and wiped his face with a handkerchief.
“Ice cream, ice cream, get your Good Humor ice cream here.”
His voice trailed off as he went down the sidewalk.
Most days, Monday through Saturday, as long as the weather was good, the mice looked forward to the nut ladies, the woman who looked more-or-less like Doris Day, and Mammy Two Shoes, who only looked like herself, a middle-aged Slovenian woman with dark skin dark hair dark eyes, to take their mid-day break on the steps of the monument. They worked across the square, at Morrow’s Nut House, near the revolving doors of the May Company.
They worked behind the glass counter display case, selling fresh warm lightly salted cashews and redskin peanuts, Spanish peanuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pecans and walnuts. Morrow’s was on the corner, on the intersection, on a CTS bus stop. They pumped the smell of roasting nuts out onto the sidewalk all day.
Bert, Mert, and Luke weren’t waiting for the nut ladies today. There was a cornucopia waiting for them on all sides of the Sailors and Soldiers Monument. Who said the GOP never did anything for the little man?
The three mice had girlfriends, Mary, Suzy, and Perla.
“Hey guys, let’s rake it in, and go to the submarine races,” said Bert.
Eaka Mouse knew what that meant. It was feedbag and hanky-panky time. They weren’t three blind mice.
“Come on, snake, let’s rattle.”
Storm Drain – A Stan Rittman Mystery
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.
“It’s you and me, babe,” said Vicki.
“Yay!” exclaimed Dottie.
“You sound awfully happy to have your dad out of the way.”
“No, no, it’s not that, I love dad, he’s the bestest, but I see him all the time,” said Dottie. “Besides, he told me he’s on a big job and mom is busy, that’s OK, she’s always busy, and he said you would be staying over for a few days, and I like that, a lot.”
Vicki had gone to Stan’s Sunday night, made dinner, and put Dottie to bed. Stan and Vicki stayed up late, playing cards, talking, drinking the better half of a bottle of red wine, going for a walk, and finishing their wine splashed out feeling tight on the sofa.
“This is good,” said Stan.
He looked at the bottle. It said ‘Classico Chianti.’ There was a black rooster on the label.
“I thought Chianti came in a fat bottle in a straw basket,” said Stan.
“Sure, it does, but that’s rotgut. The basket is called a fiasco. There’s a reason they call it that. Sometimes they die from drinking it in the old country. It’s your birthday tomorrow. I wouldn’t do that to you.”
Mr. Moto gave Vicki a sidelong glance.
“Don’t look at me like that,” she said to the cat.
“Dottie comes first with Mr. Moto, but then me,” said Stan. “Sometimes we think he’s part dog.”
Monday morning, the first of October, the weather was good, sunny, in the high 50s, with no rain predicted the rest of the week. In two weeks to the day it would be Dwight Eisenhower’s birthday. In six weeks to the day it would be Mamie Eisenhower’s birthday.
In the morning, by the time Stan rolled over, slapped Vicki on the rear, and shuffled to the bathroom, Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower had been awake more than two hours. They had arrived at the Terminal Station in Cleveland, Ohio, Stan’s hometown, on a 12-car campaign train on an overnight run from Washington. The station was in the prime of its life. But President Eisenhower was putting intercity train travel and the Cleveland Union Terminal, and all its ilk, slowly but surely out of business by federally subsidizing a network of interstate highways.
“Neither a wise man nor a brave man lies down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him,” he said, without a doubt in his mind.
By the time Stan had finished dressing and was on his way to the office to pick up Bettina, the President and Mrs. Eisenhower were walking through the lobby of the Cleveland Hotel on Public Square.
It was warm, expected to hit the 70s. The Soldiers and Sailors Monument on Public Square, across the street, glistened in the early autumn sun. The fire department had cleaned the monument over the weekend, spraying it with hundreds of gallons of white vinegar, and then hosing off the bird droppings and grime.
The monument was built thirty years after the Civil War, a 125-foot granite shaft atop a square base housing a memorial hall, larger than life bronzes lining the outside, and marble tablets inside with the names of all the more than nine thousand Union soldiers from Cuyahoga County, the county in which the city lay, who died in the war.
“Good morning, Mr. President,” said Robert Bridle, the manager of the hotel. “Good morning, Mr. Mayor,” he said to Anthony Celebrezze, the city’s mayor.
Anthony Celebrezze was a Democrat, mayor of the fifth-largest city in the United States. He knew how to get things done. Dwight Eisenhower meant the keys to the federal purse-strings.
The mayor was an immigrant from Italy. His father had been a shepherd in Anzi, and then a track laborer on the Wheeling and Lake Erie after he migrated to the United States. Tony Celebrezze put himself through John Carroll College by working as a freight truck driver and a boxer, fighting it out in undercards.
It was Charlie Jordan’s birthday, too, who died during the war, at home, in the bedroom of his mother’s home. He had been a magician with cards, one of the best, although he never performed live in public. Stan had a dog-eared copy of his book “Thirty Card Mysteries.” It was where he learned ‘The Gray Code,’ a method of false counting.
“Did you give your dad anything for his birthday?” asked Vicki.
“He said all he wanted was a big kiss, so I gave him a big kiss,” said Dottie.
It was Irwin Kostal’s birthday, too, but he was busy working on arrangements for a new musical by Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents about Puerto Rican gangs. They were calling it “West Side Story.” After lunch he threw away the news clippings about gang violence Jerome Robbins sent him every day. He never read them.
“How about we make your dad a birthday cake after school, surprise him when he gets home?” Vicki asked Dottie.
“Oh, yeah, that would be great,’ said Dottie. “We should get him a beer, too.”
“Maybe two, maybe that would be better,” said Dottie.
It was Bonnie Parker’s birthday, too, who had died young more than twenty years earlier. She and her gang had robbed small stores, gas stations, and banks, killing nine policemen in three years. Stan had been a military policeman, a uniformed NYC patrolman, and was a licensed private detective. He bore no truck with cop killers.
“Good riddance to bad rubbish,” he thought, leaning against a building across the street from the building Dr. Baird’s office occupied, the building Bettina had gone into a few minutes ago, a few minutes before nine.
He watched the two eyeties watching her, one of them trailing her, the other staying behind. Stan looked down the block. Bumpy was in his car, playing dumb, the engine idling. He had come to work early his first day, packing a lunch and packing a pistol. Stan didn’t carry a gun as a rule-of-thumb, only when he thought he might need it, fully loaded.
“It’s best to not use dynamite when you go ice fishing, unless there is no other way,” Old Man Duluc had told him. “Then make sure you bring matches.”
He didn’t make it an agency rule one way or the other. There was no manual. He left it up to whoever he was working with.
“You’re welcome to it, but I don’t think it’s going to be necessary, at least not today,” he said.
“If you don’t mind, I’d rather have a biscuit with me every day,” said Bumpy. “I don’t believe in letting anyone close distance on me.”
“I can understand that,” said Stan.
He told Betty to be careful, not bother bluffing, flashing her fake business card, but getting the hell out if anything started to happen. He didn’t think they were up to more than watching and waiting, even though push was coming to shove.
“You know where the fire exits are?” he asked her.
“I know where they are,” she said.
“Where are they?”
She told him.
“OK,” he said.
Bonnie Parker had been twenty-four when she and her lowlife boyfriend Clyde Barrow were shot to death in their high-living Ford Deluxe V-8 by Texas Rangers and Louisiana police bearing automatic rifles. Push had come to shove later than sooner for them, but when Frank Hamer and his lawmen opened fire they stopped only when their guns ran out of ammunition. The Louisiana policemen, unlike the Rangers, weren’t used to the sustained gunfire, and went deaf the rest of the day.
It was Stan Rittman’s birthday. He was thirty-four years old. He had seen plenty of wrong-doers racketeers burglars stickup men highwaymen to know the two young thugs watching Betty bore watching, but not worrying about. Once Betty was back, in a cab with him, Bumpy would follow the followers and find out where they got their marching orders from.
Stan was betting good money on Big Paulie. Ezra was hoping it was Big Paulie. Stan was hoping Ezra wouldn’t blow his stack.
Dr. Baird’s receptionist looked up when Bettina walked in at five minutes after nine.
“Good morning,” she said. “I’m afraid the doctor isn’t in.”
“I know,” said Bettina.
“Oh, in that case, how can I help you?”
“I wonder if you would mind looking at this drawing?” she asked, unrolling the police-style sketch Lefty had made last night and flattening it out on the receptionist’s desk.
”Do you happen to recognize this man as one of Dr. Baird’s patients?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Is he a small man, on the younger side?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Do you have an address for him?”
“No, Dr. Baird said he was a special case, and he would be handling all the billing and correspondence himself. He never gave me a file,” she said, waving a hand at the filing cabinets.
“Al right, thanks,” said Bettina, rolling up the drawing. “You’ve been a big help.”
“What’s going on?” asked the receptionist.
Bettina had the office door half open. There was a man lounging near the elevators, as though he was minding somebody else’s business. She let go of the door and stepped back into the office. She knew a second-string goombah when she saw one.
“Dr. Baird isn’t going to be in today, or any time soon. He’s going to be moving on in few days, maybe out of state, maybe out of the country. If I was smart girl, I would get out of Dodge. I would lock up and leave the minute I’m gone. I would also take that drawing with me,” she said, pointing to what she was sure was a drawing by Jackson Pollack.
“It’s by an artist by the name of Jackson Pollack. He died a couple of months ago, so there won’t be anymore drawings by him, which means that one is a one-of-a-kind.”
“Oh, I see,” said the receptionist.
“One last thing, after I’m gone, and you’ve locked up, take the fire exit.”
“Why should I do that?”
“For your health.”
“Oh,” said the receptionist.
“Be quiet about it, too.”
She watched Bettina walk to the elevator and watched a young man with a toothpick in his mouth get in with her. The elevator went down. She stood up from her chair. She rifled the office for anything on paper that referred to her, stuffed everything into her handbag, and took the drawing off the wall. She replaced it with a framed certificate Dr. Baird no longer displayed. She walked out with the Jackson Pollack, carrying it partly hidden between several New Yorker magazines, shut off the lights, locked the office door, and left the building by the fire stairs.
When she got outside, she walked some blocks and boarded the first passing bus. She sat down behind the driver. No one got on at the same time, or at the next stop. She didn’t get off until the bus reached the end of the line and she waited to be the last passenger off. It was only when she was on a bus going back the same way that she relaxed, letting out a long slow breath.
It wasn’t even ten in the morning, yet, she thought. Monday morning. She was out of a job. She didn’t care. Dr. Baird was a cold fish, and barely paid her Park Avenue pay. She would take the rest of the week off and start looking for a better job next Monday. She might try Madison Avenue. Her boyfriend wrote copy. He knew somebody at one of the art museums. She would tell him about the picture. Maybe it was worth something.
“Are you and Betty taking me to the game on Wednesday?” asked Dottie. “I’m going to talk to Pee Wee Reese before the game.”
Six years earlier Pee Wee Reese had become the only pro ballplayer to ever hit a home run without hitting a home run. He drilled a line drive to the right field fence, where it hit the fencing, caromed, dropped down on one of the advertising boards part-way down the wall, out of reach, bounced, rolled, and came to a stop. The players and fans in the stands could all plainly see the ball. Pee Wee Reese sauntered around the bases. The umpires huddled and finally ruled it a home run. Someone found a ladder, hauled it to the fence, and retrieved the ball. The rightfielder disgustedly threw it into the stands, rewarded by a chorus of Bronx cheers. Howlin’ Hilda banged on her cow bell.
Casey Stengel, who would be managing the New York Yankees in two days, hit the first ever home run at Ebbets Field, in 1913, an inside-the-park job. He had to run like hell to get it done.
“I’m going to be on TV!”
“I know,” laughed Vicki. “You’re going to be a big star.”
“So, we’re all going?”
“Betty is on that job with your dad, and I don’t think she’s going to be able to make it, unless they break it in the next couple of days, but I’ll take you. Stan and Ezra have tickets for the game. Maybe he’ll be able to make it. Maybe we’ll see him there and we can squeeze into the stands with him.”
“If I see him, I’m going to wave to him from the field,” said Dottie.
“Make sure you wear your Bum’s cap and wave that.”
The offices at Ebbets Field were above the main entrance. The main entry was through an 80-foot round rotunda of iron and stucco almost thirty feet high. A chandelier hung down the middle. The flooring was Italian marble tile. The first game ever played at Ebbets Field was delayed when no one remembered to bring the key to the gate. It was delayed again when they remembered they had forgotten to have the Star and Stripes on hand to raise on the centerfield flagpole. Someone rushed to a nearby hardware store to find a flag.
“Howlin’ Hilda?” asked Bettina.
“She comes to all the games,” said Stan. “Hilda somebody-or-other, she sits in the bleachers and yells her head off. She’s loud, extremely loud. She used to work at the ballpark, back when it opened, probably, breaking down 50-pound bags of peanuts into the small bags they sell. She’d stay, they gave them free passes, and watch the games. For awhile she banged on a cast iron skillet with a metal ladle, but the team gave her a brass cow bell, instead. They said it was because she was so dedicated, but Ezra and I think it was so she wouldn’t kill anyone with that skillet.”
No one in the offices recognized the man in the picture once Stan and Betty started showing it around, once they had talked their way in, accompanied by an off-duty moonlighting city policeman who remembered Stan, until one of the office girls suggested they try maintenance and the field crew. Several of the men in maintenance recognized the face.
“Go talk to Max,” one of them said.
“Max Ringolsby, he’s the crew chief. I think he’s in the visitor’s clubhouse this morning, thinking up ways to make it more uncomfortable than it already is. Follow the smoke. You’ll find him.”
It wasn’t hard spotting the signals. Smoke was pouring out of the dugout. A short thick-set man wearing a plaid cap was on the steps, a half-foot of cigar in his mouth, leaning on the front railing looking out onto the field.
“If the stogie bothers you, lady, I can put it out,” Max said to Bettina. “I don’t mind.”
“If you don’t mind, it won’t matter to me, and as long as you don’t offer me one, I’m good with the smoke,” answered Betty. “At least for a few minutes.”
“Now you’re my kind of broad,” said Max.
He exhaled a beach ball-sized cloud of grayish white cigar smoke. It smelled like cedar and oak nuts.
“That doesn’t smell half bad,” said Bettina.
“Say, do you remember Frenchy Bordagaray?” Max asked Stan.
“I can’t say that I do. Should I?”
“I’ve seen you at ballgames,” said Max. “You come with a kike, right?”
“That’s right,” said Stan. “You’ve got a good eye.”
“Frenchy played for the Dodgers back in the 40s,” said Max.
“Before my time,” said Stan.
“He played for the Bums back in the 30s, too, played for the Senators, the Cards, the Yankees, and then came back here. He was a good ballplayer, fast. When he was with the Senators, before games, sometimes they had races, one hundred yards, between him and a horse. He never won, but the horses never beat him by much.”
“Is that right?”
“Anyway, this La Corona is the same cigar Frenchy used to smoke,” said Max. “It cost us a game one time. He was on second, tail end of the game, tried to come home on a sharp single, but got tagged out at the box when he didn’t slide into the plate. He said he didn’t want to ruin the La Corona’s he had tucked away in his back pocket.”
“Why do they call the Dodgers the bums?” asked Bettina.
“It happened because dem bums were bums for such a long time,” said Stan. “At least they don’t call them pigs, since the stadium was built on land that used to be a garbage dump called Pigtown, because so many pigs grazed there. The name just stuck. It wasn’t until last year, when they beat the Yankees and took the Series, that the Daily News had a hobo on the front page asking “WHO’S A BUM?” and it finally stopped being a lovable loser thing, which had gotten old.”
“That’s right, sister,” said Max.
“We’re looking for somebody, we think he works here,” said Stan. “Do you mind looking at a drawing?”
“Yeah, that’s Tony,” said Max, glancing at the drawing.
“Tony de Marco?”
“Have you seen him today?”
“No, I haven’t seen him today. If you see him, tell him he’s fired for not showing up two days before the Series, and for not calling me with any reason about why, and he don’t need to show up again, not tomorrow or ever.”
Stan took a business card out of his wallet and gave it to Max. He wrote Ezra and Betty’s names on the back of the card.
“If he shows up, would you call me, or my associates, and let us know?”
“Sure,” said Max. “Can I ask what it’s all about?”
“It’s confidential,” said Stan, “but it’s nothing to do with the team. We think he’s involved in something, in a case we’re working on. It might be serious, so we’d appreciate knowing right away.”
“I’ve got you,” said Max.
He walked them back towards the main entry.
“You’ve got lots of grim-looking guys in grays suits around,” said Stan.
“Yeah, Secret Service,” said Max. “Think they know everything. They’re sniffing around everywhere from top to bottom, so that everything will be safe and secure on Wednesday when Ike is here for the game. He’s throwing out the first pitch.”
“I heard about that,” said Stan.
“We’re going to be opening up the centerfield fence and his limo is going to drive right on to the field all the way to home plate. I hope to God it stays dry, otherwise we’re going to have a hell of a time with tire tracks. One of the agents told me the limo weighs as much as a Sherman tank.”
The stadium organ sounded, lumbering, then tip-toeing into a rendition of “Three Blind Mice.”
“That’s Gladys, warming up,” said Max. “She’s got a good sense of humor, or just a good sense of sarcasm, but she plays that whenever she thinks the umpires have gotten it wrong, at least wrong from our point of view.”
The unofficial Dodgers fan band, the “Sym-Phoney Band,” had played the song for years before every game, at the moment the umpires stepped onto the field for the ballgame, until the league office ordered them to stop.
Gladys Gooding ignored the league office.
“Three blind mice, three blind mice, did you ever see such a sight in your life, as three blind mice,” she played, pumping the nursery rhyme out into the nearly empty stadium on her electric organ.
Storm Drain – A Stan Rittman Mystery
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.
“You look like hell,” said Stan.
“I feel like hell,” said Bettina.
“Long night,” she said.
“You’ve had coffee?”
At the counter in the deli on the corner Stan asked if he could have a take-out soup, in their largest container, but coffee in it instead.
“Betty,” he said.
“Gotcha,” said the counterman, handing Stan a quart of hot coffee.
“What was the occasion?” asked Stan as Bettina rubbed her temples and quietly slurped the inky black tonic.
“Miles Davis,” she said. ”He’s been at the Café Bohemia most of the month and yesterday was his last night there, so I had to go. Pete and I made a night of it, before the show, at the show, and after the show. Brother, I need an aspirin.”
Stan shook out two tablets of Bayer.
“More?” he asked.
“Yes, please,” said Bettina.
“Miles Davis is the trumpet player, right?”
“Right, but he’s got a quartet that plays with him, and they are hot.”
The Miles Davis Quintet was Philly Joe Jones on drums, Paul Chambers on double bass, William “Red” Garland on piano, and John Coltrane on tenor sax. They were touring promoting their Hackensack, New Jersey recordings, due for release starting the next month.
“Trane was blowing his ass off,” said Miles Davis after the show. “He seemed to be pushing each chord to its outer limits, out into space.”
It was cookin’ with Miles.
“As great as Trane was sounding, Philly Joe was the fire that was making a lot of shit happen. He knew everything that I was going to do, everything I was going to play. He anticipated me, felt what I was thinking. Paul was playing like he’d been around forever and Red was giving me that Ahmad Jamal light touch, and a little bit of Erroll Garner, along with his own shit up in all of that. So, everything was happening.”
Cafe Bohemia was a small club, seating about a hundred, with a small stage and a slightly bigger bar. It had only been open a year, although it had been open for years before that.
“For six years I tried to make the place pay,“ said Jimmy Garofolo, the club’s owner, who lived across the street. “First as a bar and restaurant, then with girly shows, and then with various acts. One night I had to throw out a character who had been drinking without any money to pay for it. The next thing I knew, he was back offering to play a few weeks to pay off his obligation, and because he wanted a regular home base from which to play when he was between engagements.”
“I’ve not been there, never heard of it,” said Stan. “Where is it?”
“Greenwich Village,” said Bettina.
“Somebody told me his name was Charlie Parker and he was a saxophonist,” said Jimmy. “I was pretty naïve about jazz at the time and I didn’t know him from beans, but it turned out he was a big man in the jazz world. When I put out signs announcing he was going to play, I had a stream of people coming in wanting to know if the great Charlie Parker was going to play here. It was the way they said ‘here’ that got me.”
“If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn,” said Charlie Parker between drinks.
The Yardbird died before ever taking the stage at Café Bohemia, before making good on his obligation. But Café Bohemia became a happening, a hotbed of jazz.
“The audience regarded the music as an art form, and even acted a little superior about the fact that they were there and listening to Miles,” said George Avakian.
“No rock ‘n roll, no vocalists, no big bands, no nuttin’ except small jazz combos,” said Jimmy. “Once Birdland and Basin Street were the mecca of all true jazzmen. Now a lot of them won’t go on the road until they’ve played the Bohemia, too.”
“Big crowd?” asked Stan.
“Small crowd,” said Bettina, “but too big for the place. We barely got in, but we made it, and we didn’t give up our seats the rest of the night for nothing or anything. Whenever one of us had to get up, the other one stayed put.”
“They played into the night?”
“They played until closing time. They might have kept playing until sunrise if the management hadn’t started closing the place. When Pete and I were leaving, there was an end of the world crank on the sidewalk. He had a sandwich sign in front of him. It said ‘The End is Near.’ I don’t know what got into me, but I asked him, “Mister, is that a bad thing or a good thing?” He shot me a look, that if looks could kill, I would be looking worse that I do now.”
The sharp jaundiced dirty look was followed by a dirty hand that thrust a fire and brimstone-heavy leaflet at her. There was a picture of an atomic bomb rocketing spewing flames across the sky on it.
“How was the music?”
“High intensity,” said Bettina. “Spontaneous, full of bop, swinging like crazy.”
Stan smiled and rubbed his lower lip with his index finger.
“You don’t know bop from hop, do you?” said Bettina.
“I wouldn’t get past the first dollar of the sixty-four dollar question if that was the first question,” said Stan. “But, across the office it looks like you had a good time.”
“We met somebody there, too, somebody who knew Jackson Pollack.”
“You don’t say,” said Stan. “Who was it?”
“A woman at the next table, smoking up a storm. She was doodling, sketching the band, and when I looked over, I could tell the drawing was good, very good. When I asked her, she said her name was Helen, and when I asked her if she was an artist, she said, yes, she was Helen Frankenthaler, which didn’t mean boo to me, but it turns out she’s one of the abstract painters, and she knew Jackson Pollack. She said she got started, made her breakthrough, because of him.”
“Is that right?”
“That’s what she said, but then the man she was with, somebody named Clem, he had to be twice her age, sour-looking, piped up and said she made her breakthrough when she met him, which made her see red.”
“Is that right?”
“Maybe from his side, but not from hers, definitely not. Pete said she looked like he was a bad taste in her mouth, like she wanted to spit him out.”
“She used Clement Greenburg,” said the sculptor Louise Nevelson. “She used everything in an abominable way.”
“Pete should know,” said Stan.
“You’re right about that, bird dog,” said Bettina.
“Did she mean it in a personal way, this breakthrough?” asked Stan.
“No, I think she meant it in some kind of artist technical way. There was something jagged going on with the Clem, though.”
“Something tense personal, like he got on her nerves, like I said, like she wanted him gone.”
“Did she say anything personal about our man?”
“She said when she heard the news about Jackson she was shocked. She said she could hardly believe it. She said he was a mess, had been a mess for a long time, wasn’t going to stop being a mess, but he could handle any amount of booze and handle any car no matter how smashed he was.”
“That ties in to what we think,” said Stan.
The door to the office opened and Otis walked in, nodded to Stan, looked at Bettina, and said, “You look like hell.”
“Enough of that,” said Bettina, and poured more coffee into herself.
Otis rolled a chair to the client side of Stan’s desk and sat down. He flipped open a memo notepad, pulled a black Eberhard Faber Microtomic pencil out of his pocket, and put the notepad and pencil on Stan’s desk.
“Long night?” he asked Bettina.
“Miles Davis down in the village,” she said.
“He’s got one hell of a band these days,” said Otis.
“You know about them?” asked Stan.
“Of course,” said Otis.
“All right, all right, I’ll stay the only one not in the know.” said Stan. “Let’s get started, see if we can narrow down who our rocket from the tombs might be.”
“All right,” said Otis.
“We know the shrink worked Jackson Pollack up to drive his car off a cliff and get himself killed,” said Stan. “We know he has worked up another man to do something, which looks like it is blowing up Eisenhower. We know the mob has been brought in for protection, although I would be surprised if they know what it is they’re on the wrong side of. Assassinations are their style, but not this, at least I don’t think so. We know the White House is flying in to the game on Wednesday afternoon, and if anything is going to happen it is going to probably happen at Ebbets Field.”
“The airport will be tight as a drum, the route to the ballpark will be kept out of the papers, the same for the way back, and the same for the security at the airport on the flight out,” said Otis. “If it’s going to happen, the odds are it’s going to happen at the ballgame.”
“We think our bomber is somebody under 30, a small man, by the name of Tony de Marco,” said Stan. “How many Anthony de Marco’s are there in the five boroughs?”
“Not counting Staten island, where every other person is Italian, there are six hundred and nineteen Anthony de Marco’s,” said Bettina.
“How do you know that?” asked Otis.
“Let your thumbs do the walking,” said Bettina.
“You leafed through the phone books?”
“I slipped on my nubbed thumb tip and took a stroll.”
“You should take that to Madison Avenue, maybe AT&T would be interested in a new slogan.”
“Who walks on their thumbs?”
“How about let your fingers do the walking?”
“That sounds better.”
“Hey, let’s get back on track here,” said Stan.
“There are too many Tony’s to go looking for in just a few days, even if there were lots more of us,” said Otis.
“There are too many wop neighborhoods in the city, no matter how many of us there were,” said Stan. “He might even be up the road, or out on Long island.”
“Do we know what he looks like?” asked Bettina.
“No, we don’t,” said Stan. “That give me an idea. Let’s get a drawing of him. The shrink can flesh him out for us. We just need an artist. Is Lefty in town, do you know?”
“He’s in town until tomorrow,” said Otis.
Gurnee “Lefty” Ford was an apprentice locomotive engineer for the New York Central, hauling passenger freight from the city to Albany Buffalo Cleveland Chicago St. Louis, and back. His engineer sat on the left of the cab of the diesel-electric locomotive. Gurnee sat on the right side, and he used by necessity his left hand on most of the controls and devices.
Lefty had been an art student until he got married and inside of three years had a family, a boy and a girl. He gave up art. He started work on the railroad as a brakeman, became a head brakeman, and was soon up front. He kept a sketchbook, drawing pictures for his children of the places the train went.
“Can you roust him up, tell him it’s worth a hundred, take him over to the bakery, and sit him down with the doc?”
“Yes, I can do that,” said Otis, making a note in his notepad.
“I want a police sketch, as good as possible, of Tony de Marco. Before you sit Lefty down in front of him, talk to the shrink in a quiet corner, and tell him I will be showing the drawing to his office receptionist the first thing Monday morning, and if she doesn’t recognize Tony in the drawing, I am going to go right to the bakery and beat his brains out, toss them in the street for the dogs, and afterwards throw his body into the East River.”
“In those words?”
“In those words, slowly and surely,” said Stan.
After Otis had gone, Bettina sighed.
“I finally feel better,” she said.
“Good,” said Stan.
“You should have been there,” she said. “It was a hell of a show.”
“Maybe next time.”
“Sure,” said Bettina. “Bring Vicki, we’ll make a night of it.”
“That might be too much night for Vic.”
“She’s a big girl.”
“How do you figure it, Betty?”
“Since it’s almost sure to happen at the Dodgers ballpark, he’s got to somehow be a part of the Brooklyn Dodgers,” she said. “Not one of the ballplayers, but no Joe Schmo in the stands, either. I figure him to be someone who works for the team, selling tickets, beer man, grounds crew, somebody like that.”
“All right,’ said Stan. “Once we get our sketch that’s the track we’ll take. You be here bright and early tomorrow, we’ll get over to Park Avenue, you talk to the gal behind the desk, and show her the sketch. If she can say it’s him, we’ll go over to Ebbets Field and start snooping.”
“You’re the boss,” said Bettina, and started humming a tune.
“What’s that?” asked Stan.
“Something Miles Davis played last night.”
“It sounds good.” said Stan. “What’s it called?”
“Just Squeeze Me.”
Storm Drain – A Stan Rittman Mystery
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.
“I can’t be a catfish without no waffles,” said Bumpy Williams.
Bumpy and Stan walked out the back door of the Warsaw Bakery, around to the front, and down the street.
“I’ve got your meaning,” said Stan.
The tropical storm Flossy had fallen apart and passed harmlessly east of the city yesterday afternoon. It was late in the afternoon, it was in the low 70s, the sun was starting to arc downwards, but the light was still good, sunny and pleasant. The Weather Bureau was keeping a close watch on rain squalls moving west up from the Caribbean.
“It is the weakest sort of a disturbance, but it remains as a suspicious area,” the bureau said.
No one was taking it seriously.
“Are you up for a bite to eat?”
“The sooner the better,” said Bumpy.
They crossed Lorimer Street and walked into McCarren Park, around two baseball fields, and past the pool building, the biggest of the eleven built by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. In the summertime it was one of the social hubs of Greenpoint. The entrance to the pool was mammoth, arched in brick, and the pool could hold, if it absolutely had to, close to seven thousand swimmers.
Bumpy looked down, as they walked the other way, at a copy of that week’s New York Age Defender left on a park bench.
“South Is Using ‘Hitler System’” screamed the headline on the front page.
“I’ll bet they goddamn do,” he muttered to himself.
“If you’re saying, Thomy Fitz, you can make it from New Jersey to here anytime you want to in fifteen minutes flat, I’ll take that bet,” said Bulmer MacNeill, not far away as the crow flies, not far by the hands of the clock, waving his hands, ready to reach for his wallet.
“I bet I can be back here to the heart of darkness in no time flat and be having a beer to celebrate before anybody catches their breath.”
“Watch your mouth,” said Bulmer. “There’s still plenty of us left in the neighborhood.”
“Hell, we’ll all take that bet,” piped in the two other young men at the table.
“I’ll make a fine landing and have a fine time taking your money,” Thomas Fitzgerald laughed, bending his elbow again that early evening with his friends at a bachelor party being staged at Joe’s, a corner bar at St. Nicholas Avenue and 191st Street in Washington Heights.
“Helen’s not going to like you losing the family fortune,” said Pat Hartling.
“I’m going to be adding to the family fortune,” said Tommy. “The wife is going to be happy as pie.”
“The bet’s on?”
“It’s on, but not until maybe midnight, and I’ll need one of you to come with me, so we’re all clear about when I got started and when I got back here, so that there are no arguments among friends afterwards.”
“You’re on,” said Bulmer.
It was after midnight when Tommy and Bulmer staggered out of Joe’s, staggered to Tommy’s car, and staggered down a succession of roads and streets to the Teterboro School of Aeronautics on the west side of the Hudson River, near Tommy’s home in Emerson, New Jersey. He drove slowly carefully watchfully. His wife and sons were sound asleep and he didn’t want to wake them. It was close to one o’clock when he spotted the red and white Cessna 140 on the runway. He eyeballed its wingspan, which he estimated at about thirty feet.
“That’ll do,” he thought. He checked the underside of the wings.
“Never heard of it. I wonder whose it is,” he asked himself.
“Tommy, what’s going on?” asked Bulmer.
Tommy opened the door on the pilot’s side and looked at the controls. It was a late 1940s model with a white dashboard, black and red control wheels, and two-tone tan seats. It had shipshape wing flaps and he guessed the stall speed was at about 40 MPH.
“This will do just fine,” he said to himself.
He had a pilot’s license, but not a plane. He rarely actually flew an airplane, although he knew them well enough. Tommy Fitzgerald was a union steamfitter and worked part-time as a mechanic at the airport. In 1944 he lied about his age and volunteered for the Marines. He was sent to the Pacific and saw combat. When the war ended he was fifteen years old. Four years later he volunteered for the Army and was sent to Korea. He returned home after winning both the Purple Heart and Silver Sar.
“During a strategic withdrawal Corporal Fitzpatrick noticed a wounded officer, about 100 yards forward of his position. Attempting a rescue, he and a companion were seriously wounded. Despite severe pain and loss of blood, Corporal Fitzpatrick made it back to safety, directed a second successful rescue party while organizing and providing covering fire to support the rescue,” is what the citation said.
“You saved my life,” is what the officer said.
After recovering he was sent home.
Stealing a Cessna wasn’t going to be much of a problem. Landing it in front of Joe’s might be challenging, but he was sure he could do it. Besides, he needed another drink-or-two. He checked the gas gauge. The gas tank was nearly full. George Washington High School was near the bar. He could land on their ball field.
“What time is it?”
“I’m not getting into that thing,” said Bulmer.
“Take my car,” said Tommy. “I’ll take off at a quarter after two. Check your watch when I’m off the ground. I’ll see you back at Joe’s.”
He made sure the radio and navigation lights were off. The Cessna 40 was a simple airplane, an unfailing Continental engine up front, manual flaps, a yoke, throttle, and rudders. It was like flying a piece of Kleenex. He pushed the power up for takeoff. It was a short strip, so he levered the flaps in 25 degrees as he hit 30 knots. The plane launched itself into the air and he bled the flaps off. Inside of a couple of minutes he was at his 90-knot cruise speed with a 2:30 scheduled by his own reckoning landing at Joe’s.
The Teterboro control tower operator watched the airplane take off. It took him a minute to realize the plane didn’t have clearance. It took him five minutes to realize whoever was piloting the plane wasn’t going to respond to his radio calls. It took him a few more minutes to find out the plane been stolen. He picked up the telephone and dialed the police.
The afternoon before the Cessna sailed away Stan hailed a cab when he and Bumpy stepped out of the park and onto North 12th Street.
“Tom’s on Washington,” he said. “Do you know it?”
“Prospect Heights, mister” said the cabbie. “About three miles, maybe ten minutes. Ain’t it a breakfast and lunch joint? No mind, we’ll get you there under the wire, whether it is, or not.”
Ten minutes later the cabbie deposited them in front of Tom’s Restaurant. Stan paid the fare. Bumpy took one look and squinted. It was a small eatery, the windows filled with neon, flyers advertisements menus, painted platters, and both real and artificial plants.
“What is that,” asked Bumpy, pointing to a shiny undersized rhododendron.
“Some new kind of plastic.”
“Is that what the future looks like?”
“Probably,” said Stan.
High on the window to the right of the door white block letters said, “TOM’S EST. 1936.” The casing was dark brown, although above it the signage was white with “RESTAURANT” in lime green and “DRINK COCA COLA” in red and white.
“How’s the food?” asked Bumpy, taking a step back.
“Let’s go in, some of the Dodgers eat here, but I’ll let you decide for yourself,” said Stan.
Ebbets Field was nearby. Jackie Robinson had a sweet tooth and liked Tom’s Frosties, stopping in before day games for a heap of ice cream mixed with a thimbleful of milk.
“In here, Jackie can sit wherever he wants,” said Gus Vlahavas.
Inside a small good-looking middle-aged woman greeted them.
“Hello Stella, I hope we’re not too late for a late lunch. Have you got a booth for me and my friend?” asked Stan, nodding at Bumpy.
“Yes, of course, come on, there’s an empty booth in the back.”
In the back wasn’t far back. Stan and Bumpy slid into the booth. Stan slid cigarettes out for both of them. Bumpy slumped back, letting the smoke slide down into his lungs, exhaling slowly. Stan noticed him counting the American flags in the dining room, big and small, free-standing and on the walls, with his eyes.
“Gus’s grandfather, Constantin, named the restaurant Tom’s to honor his son,” explained Stan. “Tom was over in the Philippines, got shot up, won some medals for bravery.”
“I know you like it black,” Stella said to Stan. “But your black friend, him I don’t know.”
Stella Vlahavas lived upstairs above the restaurant with her husband, worked the cash register, and knew, like her daughter-in-law Phoeni knew, how everyone took their coffee, once they had gotten coffee at Tom’s.
“Cream and sugar ma’am, thank you,” said Bumpy.
“Where’s Gus?” asked Stan.
“He and Nonie had to run home for a minute,” said Stella. Gus and Nonie, who everyone called Phoeni, lived in a brownstone around the corner. Gus had worked at the restaurant since he was nine-years-old, when it was an ice cream shop. He fired up the grill for Tom every morning at 5 AM.
“Tom does the cooking,” Stan said to Bumpy. “I recommend the meat loaf. It’s the star attraction.”
Bumpy had a platter of meat loaf with eggs and potato hash.
Stan ate light, blueberry and ricotta pancakes served with flavored butter.
“What do you have in mind?” asked Bumpy, finishing his lunch, pushing his empty platter away.
Stella brought them a plate of cookies and orange slices, refilling their coffee cups.
“I have in mind you throwing in with us,” said Stan. “We’ve been talking about adding a man, and you strike me as a capable man. I think you understand you don’t get three strikes with the mob. It’s one strike and you’re out. It’s not whether, it’s just a matter of time, when it comes to the hoods. Throw in with us, the pay is good, you’d be surprised, even better sometimes than others.”
“Bird of paradise, huh?”
“I’ll tell you what the bird of paradise is, which is the Belgian waffle sundae for dessert.”
Bumpy ordered the Belgian waffle sundae
“No, I’m not saying that,” said Stan. ”What I’m saying is it’s good, it’s steady, and we won’t stick a knife in your back. We might tell you to take a walk, but it won’t be a walk off the end of a pier in the middle of the night. We don’t expect anyone to follow orders blindly, or die for us, or any of that Hitler bullshit, like the gangsters do. We’re not vultures.”
That night the bird’s-eye view from 5000 feet of the big city was big and wide and bright. The cabin was only three-or-so feet across at the elbows and he could see clearly on both sides of him. But the field at George Washington High School was dark. What had made him think it would be lit up? He circled the school and thought fast. He banked the Cessna, keeping the sink rate steady, blipped the throttle over the threshold and rolled the yoke forward. He soared over Snake Hill, gliding between stores buildings tenements on both sides of the street, landing in front of Joe’s on St. Nicholas Avenue.
“I saw something coming down,” said John Johnson, driving a jalopy, who slammed on his brakes. “I didn’t know what to imagine. The plane skidded over the top of my car and made a perfect landing ahead of me. I saw a man get out and run.”
The man was husky tall wearing a gray suit bare headed and laughing up a storm. Tommy ran into Joe’s. It was 2:29 in the morning. It was fifteen minutes before last call and a half-hour before closing time.
“Time to pay up, boys,” he said, throwing himself onto a bar stool.
When their late lunch was done Stan paid the check, said hello and goodbye to Gus, who walked in as they walked out, and he and Bumpy shook hands.
“All right,” said Stan. “You know where we are, since you were keeping eagle eyes on us. Don’t come in to the office before nine, but don’t come in after ten, either. I’ll see you Monday.”
Bumpy didn’t often leave Harlem on Saturday nights for Striver’s Row or Sugar Hill or Washington Heights, but there was a bar in Washington Heights he liked, and after taking a nap, changing his clothes, and putting some money in his wallet, he took a subway to the 191st station. He had seen neighborhood kids jump the fence at 200th Street and jump on top of the IRT 7th Avenue cars, riding them to Van Courtland Park. He knew without a doubt that one of them was going to kill himself doing that one of these days. He walked up out of the subway and then down the street towards Shorty’s.
There was gang graffiti on part of a brick wall of an apartment building that had collapsed. Lucky Lords. The Enchanters. Egyptian Kings. One of the Egyptian Kings, somebody called the Cape Man, had shot a Lucky Lord, who ran out of luck that day and went to the Lord.
Farther down somebody had spray-painted “Guns For The Jews.”
There were plenty of Irish and Germans and Italians in Washington Heights, but there were Jews, too, and some Puerto Ricans, as well as Negroes. Irish whiskey, Italian wine, and Jewish pastries were always right around the corner.
The five-story apartment building that collapsed had collapsed when the abandoned ice house next to it exploded.
“It was horrible, said Dorothy Fiege.
“The rumor mill said it was kids playing with matches, causing leftover ammonia fumes to ignite. The icehouse came down and cut the apartment building in half. It was like you were looking into a dollhouse. I don’t remember how many people were killed, but among them was Old Joe, the not-so-humorous Good Humor Ice Cream man who used to ride his refrigerated bicycle around the neighborhood.”
There were World War Two veterans up and down Washington Heights. Some of them limped, others walked with a cane, and one walked very carefully. His eyes had been damaged by a grenade. More than a few of them drank too much, even though most of them were family men and held steady jobs.
Bumpy strolled into Shorty’s and found a seat on a stool near the end of the bar. He was a free man. On Monday he would have steady work. It deserved a drink.
Harvey Joffe, a Surface Transportation bus driver, was on 191st Street when the Cessna 140 came in for a landing
“I had just got back into my seat when all of a sudden I heard something that sounded like a large fan,” he said. “I looked in my rearview mirror and saw this plane coming at me. The plane hit the ground and bounced twenty feet in the air. I thought he was going to take off again. Then he hit the ground again and taxied. “
Harvey Joffe stopped and jumped out of his bus.
“God forbid if I ever hit a plane. What could I say at the safety hearing?”
“That was an almost impossible landing,” said Sgt. Harold Behrens of the Police Aviation Bureau.
“When I saw it, I thought maybe they had trucked it in, as a practical joke,” said Sammy Garcia, a kid in the neighborhood who woke up slowly from a dream and looked out his bedroom window. ”I thought, there was no way a man had landed in that narrow street.”
“A great many terrible things could have happened,” said Magistrate Edward Chapman on Monday morning when Tommy Fitzgerald was arraigned for breaking the city code forbidding landing airplanes on NYC streets.
That same morning the Cessna 140, after having been pushed aside to allow busses and cars to get by, the back half on the sidewalk and the wheels in the gutter, was taken apart and towed to the police station at 182nd Street.
“He landed on a street with lampposts and cars parked on both sides,” said Fred Hartling, a friend of the family in the neighborhood. “Tommy had a crazy side, but he pulled off a miracle.”
“What the hell is that? “Bumpy asked himself, stopping short coming out of Shorty’s, astonished at the vision of an airplane in the middle of the street in the middle of Washington Heights in the middle of Manhattan. “That’s a tight fit,” he thought. Then he noticed it was blocking the front of the opening to the subway.
How was he going to get home to Harlem?
Storm Drain – A Stan Rittman Mystery
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.