It was hot, humid, and the sky was spotted with dull clouds. The hot dog Ezra had wolfed down for breakfast was giving him trouble. On top of that, the bunion topping his left big toe was aching in the new shoes he had neglected to stretch beforehand.
It was a bad day to have a bad day.
But that’s what it was turning into. He was sure nobody was behind him, but running fast and far was going to be a problem with his goddamn bunion. He kept his hands at his sides, his right hand balled into a fist.
“You can forget about that roll of pennies in your hand,” said the small man next to Luca “Big Paulie” Gravano. Big Paulie wasn’t big tall. He was big all around, a dark suit, dark tie, and white shirt. His face was pockmarked and he wore thick browline glasses. The lenses seemed like they were smeared with a thin film of Vaseline. His brown eyes looked slippery and unfocused.
He stank of high-priced cologne.
“They’re not pennies,” said Ezra. “They’re Jefferson’s.”
He could use a lucky penny.
“Hey, let’s cut the crap,” said Big Paulie. “We ain’t gong to get up to anything here, broad daylight, all these guys all around here,” waving a fat hand over his shoulder. “We just wanna know what is it you wanna know.”
Ezra looked past Big Paulie. On the finger pier side was a boat. Hemp slings were easing swaying pallets off the boat. In the distance he could see the Statue of Liberty. On the dockside was a two-story brick building. A loose group of longshoreman was coming their way, baling hooks in their belts. They would be D & D, deaf and dumb, if anything did get up. “I don’t know nothing about it,” they would all say after it was all over. But, they could be the smoke screen Ezra needed to be on his way.
“I’m trying to get a line on Tommy Dunn,” Ezra lied.
“Never heard of him,” said the small man in shirtsleeves.
“Fair enough,” said Ezra.
“You private?” asked Big Paulie.
“Yeah,” said Ezra.
“Who you work for?” asked the small man. He had yellow fingernails and sharp front teeth. He wore a black felt pork pie hat.
“The Archer Agency,” Ezra lied.
“I’ve heard of them,” said the small man.
“Best we don’t see you down here again,” said Big Paulie.
“Fair enough,” said Ezra.
He took a step back, smiling weakly, turning and walking away in stride in front of the group of longshoremen going his way. He hated shucking and jiving, but he knew enough to hedge his bets. The hoodlums ran the shaping up, the loading, and the quickie strikes. They hired you for the day if you were willing to kick back part of your day’s pay. At the shape-up you let them know by putting a toothpick behind your ear or wearing a red scarf or whatever the hell it was they wanted to see.
They controlled the cargo theft, the back-door money stevedores paid to keep the peace, and the shylocking from one end of Red Hook to the other end. They didn’t steal everything, although they tried. The unions were the hoodlums. The businessmen were the hoodlums. The pols were the hoodlums.
The Waterfront Commission hadn’t gotten much done since they got started, even though the State of New York and Congress of the United States were both in word and writing on board.
It was just two-some years ago on a Christmas week when a new union butted heads with the ILA. Tony “Tough“ Anastasio flooded the streets with the faithful. It took more a thousand club-swinging City of New York police to break up the melee at the Port of New York. In the end, gang rule stayed the rule on the docks.
Ezra Aronson put the roll of nickels back in his pant’s pocket. He walked the length of the wire fence to the gate. Through the gate he turned his back on the Buttermilk Channel. He couldn’t get away from the sinking feeling in his gut, though. Red Hook was surrounded by water on three sides. A longshoreman smoking alone stared at him suspiciously. He crossed the street into the neighborhood. The houses, six-story brown brick apartment buildings, were less than twenty years old, but they were already getting seedy.
“I need a drink,” he thought.
Most days Ezra ran on caffeine and nicotine. Most nights he ran on alcohol and nicotine. Even though it was only late morning, today wasn’t most days.
He found a restaurant bar grill at the corner of Court Street and Hamilton Avenue. At the bar he ordered a shot and a chaser.
“What have you got on tap?” he asked the bartender.
“Ballantine, Schlitz, Rheingold.”
A couple of longshoremen were on stools a couple of stools away.
The TV on a shelf behind the bar was on, although the sound had been turned down. A beer commercial was running. It was a ticker tape parade through Times Square, but instead of war heroes everybody in the parade was a bottle of Rheingold Extra Dry.
“No one knew what that was about,” one of the longshoreman said, pulling a pack of Luckies out of his shirt pocket with dirty thick fingers.
“I got no trouble,” said the other one. “I support my family. I got my four kids. It’s good work.”
“Nothing changes,” said the Lucky Strike man lighting his cigarette. “You just live every day as if it’s your last.”
“I’ll have a Rheingold,” said Ezra.
“I’ll have that one,” said Bettina Kohler, pointing to the fresh cheese Danish the spinning steel drum had just fed into the window. Pete Murphy deposited three nickels, turned the handle in the lower left corner of the window, and pulled out the plate. He bought a ham sandwich for himself. They poured two cups of steaming brewed coffee for a nickel each and found seats in the cafeteria.
The automat had recently installed photo booths in a row along a back wall. “The New Photographic Sensation! 4 Poses 25 cents! Ready in 2 Minutes!” A young woman wearing a polka-dotted swing dress stood combing her hair in front of one at the small square mirror next to the entry curtain.
Pete and Bettina had played three games of ping-pong at the pool parlor on 42nd Street, working up an appetite. Pete won the rubber game. After lunch he was going back to work across the street at the New York Public Library and Bettina was going downtown to talk to Ruth Kligman, Jackson Pollock’s girlfriend, the girl who had survived the car crash in Springs the month before.
In the meantime, Pete had written up notes on Ruth Kligman.
“Ruth was the girlfriend and the other one, the girl who didn’t make it, her name was Edith Metzger,” said Pete, biting into his sandwich. “She was a hairdresser in the Bronz. It’s too bad, since she was only along for the ride.”
“You never want to be the innocent bystander,” said Bettina.
“It was a tough weekend all around up there in East Hampton and Southampton,” said Pete. “Ten people died in smash-ups.”
Ruth and Jackson Pollack had only met a few months before.
“How did they meet?” asked Bettina.
“Audrey Flack hooked them up,” said Pete.
“She wanted to meet important artists,” said Audrey. “I drew her a map of how to get to the Cedar Tavern. She asked which one was the most important and I said Pollack. She went right to the bar and made a beeline for Pollack.”
“Who’s Audrey Flack?” asked Bettina
“Young, about the same age as Kligman, but an artist, not a hanger-on,” said Pete. “Cooper Union, BFA from Yale, the Institute of Fine Arts here in the city.”
“I remember his grin, his arm around her and the finger with the missing tip caressing her shoulder bare above the halter,” said Audrey. “I saw what he meant about ‘loaded with extras.’”
Pete and Bettina played ping-pong at the pool hall once or twice a week. Pete was an attacker, standing about three feet away from the table, going at the ball at the top of the bounce, aiming to end points quickly. Serve it smash it was his motto. Bettina believed in outwit beats outhit. She was a close to the table defender, countering with under-spin blocks forcing weak topspin shots, then volleying with a well-placed drive or loop.
Baby got backspin was her motto.
Pete led with more long serves than not, with different amounts of topspin backspin sidespin, looking for a counterattack on the third and fifth balls. On the flip side Bettina offered up under-spin and no-spin serves so the ball slowed down or skidded when hitting the table.
“If you want a soft serve, go to Dairy Queen,” complained Pete.
Once in play she spun the ball more often than not. She played the long game.
“Spin it to win it,” she said.
“She was working at the Collector’s Gallery when she met Pollack,” said Pete. “She was young and single, had the Elizabeth Taylor look and feel. He was 44 and married.”
“He looked tired out, sad,” said Ruth Kligman. “His body seemed as though it couldn’t stand up on its own.“
She told anyone who would listen that she brought his energy back up. Jackson Pollack fell head over heels for the 26-year-old in a red dress. He spent nights in New York City with her. She moved to Sag harbor at the start of summer to be closer to him.
“He felt good about her,” said Jim Brooks, the painter who moved into the Greenwich Village apartment Jackson Pollack and Lee Krasner moved out of when they moved to Springs. “You know, a pretty, voluptuous gal, thinking he was the greatest man on the word.”
“It looks like the girlfriend knew about the wife and the wife knew about the girlfriend,” said Pete. “The wife went to Europe in July, gave Pollack his marching orders, told him it was going to have to be her or the floozy, and he had until Labor Day to decide. He moved the floozy into their house on Fireplace Road on the afternoon the wife left.”
“His dream was to have both, like a little boy,” said Patsy Southgate.
“Lee was dealing with a powder keg,” said Nick Carone, an artist friend.
“I will never give Jackson a divorce,” said Lee Krasner.
“The car was flipped over, cans of Rheingold all over,” said Pete. “The young girl was pinned under the car, DOA. The girlfriend broke a leg and Pollack got rocketed into the woods. He was DOA, too.”
“It sounds like it was a hell of a mess,” said Bettina.
After the accident Patsy Southgate visited Ruth in the Southampton Hospital. “She didn’t look much banged up to me,” she said. “In fact, she looked great.”
What Bettina took away later from talking to an eager Ruth Kligman, leaning back on a sofa, her bare legs propped up on an ottoman, in a friend’s living room in the East Village, was that what happened was going to happen.
“Edith started screaming, ‘Stop the car, let me out!’ but he put his foot all the way to the floor. He was speeding wildly,” she said.
It was almost as though he had meant to drive himself to death, as though whatever happened was misnamed an accident, no speed limits to save you from your own fate.
“It had to happen. Jackson was schizoid and he couldn’t be stopped. Edith was scared by the situation with him. She was a victim, but she always was. Jackson was a victim, too. He had to die.”
“It was a mess,” said Pete, “but at the wake about a week later, out at their house there in Springs, a lot of people said afterwards it was the best party they had ever been to.”
“The best chili I ever had in my life, really hot stuff,” said Franz Kline.
“What stays with me is that baked Virginia ham,” said Morton Feldman. “I never tasted such ham, never.”
“I had too much to drink,” said Charles Pollack. “I remember dancing with a black girl.”
“We all had a good time,” said Clement Greenburg.
“Thanks, Pete,” said Bettina. “How about Friday? You were good, but I can be better. You owe me a rematch.”
“See you then,” he said. “Bring your lucky paddle.”
Bettina whistled a cab to go down to the East Village to talk to Ruth Kligman.
Smokey the garage man tossed the car keys to Stan Rittman.
“All gassed up,” he said.
Stan got into the driver’s seat, turned the key in the ignition, and eased the 1955 Pontiac Star Chief into the flow of traffic for the drive out to far end of Long Island. The engine hummed, 1954’s straight-eight replaced by a new V-8. The sedan was a light gray color, two wide ‘Silver Streaks’ running the length of the hood, and showcase leather upholstery. Although neither he nor Ezra drove it overmuch, and might have been able to do without it, they both liked the car, and since in their line of work, they reasoned, some things happen somewhere else besides the city, they would be better off getting there in a Star Chief.
He was concerned for the car whenever Ezra took it out for whatever reason. Stan was a careful driver, usually staying a few miles–or-so below the speed limit, always signaling, never trying to beat a light, but Ezra was barely the nice guy at a dogfight behind the wheel. He hadn’t put a wrinkle in the car, yet, but it was only a matter of time. Riding in the car with Ezra, which he avoided doing, was like a high wire in bad weather no matter the weather.
They kept the Pontiac garaged in Brooklyn to keep expenses down. He guided the car through East New York, through Queens, and on to Route 27, and was on his way the more than one hundred miles to East Hampton. From there the Fireplace Road would take him directly to Springs and Jackson Pollack, or whatever was left of him.
He slipped past convertibles, panel vans, and station wagons full of wives and kids going to Howard Beach, Lido Beach, and Jones Beach. He kept his mind off his errand. The old man had always said not to overthink the work, especially at the beginning, when there wasn’t much to think about, anyway.
The drive took almost four hours. The road was a two-lane that went through every town on the way. He stopped in Patchogue to stretch his legs in the shadow of a billboard. Stan craned his neck to look up at it.
‘Patchogue: Biggest Shopping Center on Long Island.’
There were at least six gas stations in Bridgehampton, a small potato farm town north of Sagaponack Pond. He pulled into the Sinclair, even though he was less than ten miles from East Hampton. A side lot was filled with tractors, sprayers, and harvesters waiting to be repaired.
“Fill it up?”
Stan got out of the car while the attendant, dressed in a shirt and cap with the company’s logo, limped to the pump. A teenager ran up and cleaned off the windshield, checked the oil, and added air to one of the tires. There was a sign in the window.
‘Free All-Plastic Dinosaur Piggy Bank With Every Fill-up.’
“Make it 5 gallons,” said Stan.
“$1.25” said the attendant.
Stan pulled some singles from his wallet. While the attendant went into the station to make change, he looked at one of the Silver Certificates in his hand. Congress had passed and President Eisenhower had signed a new law the month before. “In God We Trust” was now the motto of the United States and it was going to be on all paper money starting the next year. Stan didn’t follow the Red Scare or the Cold War in the papers, but he knew enough about motivation to understand why the USA was being a God-fearing nation and the Soviet Union were atheists.
A piece of paper stained by water oil dirt was taped to one of the gas pumps.
‘In God we trust. All others pay cash.’
Stan wasn’t a religious man, but he thought using God’s name on money was probably sacrilegious.
East Hampton’s Main Street was lined with elm trees. He located the police station on Newtown Lane. They had their own two gas pumps on the sidewalk outside the front door and two cells in the back. The post office was across the street. He drove past Bohack’s, the grocery store. There were no street numbers on many of the houses. There was one traffic light in the center of town. He stopped at it when it turned red.
A loose group of black migrant workers sat on benches with bottles of Thunderbird in paper bags. It might have been their day off. Across the street the Candy Kitchen was full for lunch. There were no black faces at the counter or at any table and there were no half-empty glasses of curb juice.
He was going to have to stay the night, find somewhere for dinner and a bed.
A woman was watering the lawn and a bed of flowers in front of a small white flat-roofed building. He pulled over. A sign said ‘Ladies Village Improvement Society’.
“Hello,” said Stan.
“Hello,” said the woman, turning off the nozzle of her garden hose.
“I wonder if you could tell me where I can find a motor inn?”
“Montauk is where I would try,” she said. “They’ve built more than a half-dozen new ones up there in the past few years. It’s just fifteen-or-so miles up the road.”
“Thanks,” he said, and added, “Do you mind my asking what the society does?”
“Not at all,” she said, brightening. “We water all the flowers and gardens downtown, of course, help keep public order, not that I’m saying the police don’t care, and make sure all the stores are closed on Sundays. We do our best to keep everyone in proper dress whenever they’re out in public, too.”
A busybody’s work is never done, thought Stan.
It wasn’t far from East Hampton to Springs, about four miles. He found Jackson Pollack’s two-story wood-shingled house on the Fireplace Road. It looked like an old farmhouse. There was a cherry tree next to the house, silver maples all around, and the long backyard sloped down to salt marshes. There was a small barn behind and to the side of the house. When Stan looked in through one of the windows he saw a floor spattered with paint and footprints. The floor shelves workbenches were crowded with cans of paint and half-empty cans full of sticks brushes and turkey basters. Canvases were rolled up on top of a cabinet. A pile of sand was in one corner, a stepladder in another.
An expansive light poured in through a large high window.
He walked back to the house and looked in through the living room window. There were paintings hanging on the walls, filled with sprawling looping crazy colors. Jazz records littered the floor in front of a record player.
There was no one in sight. He got into his Star Chief and drove to Montauk. There were no sidewalks in town. He parked at an angle. A horse was tied up to a telephone pole. He ate at Gosman’s Deck, a clam bar shack, and had clams, pasta with olive oil and chopped tomatoes, and a bottle of Rheingold.
He found a reasonably priced room at Uncle Tom’s Cabins.
“There’s a nice beach down on Fort Pond,” said the woman in black capris and a red and white Roman shirt, a cigarette burning in the ashtray at her elbow, behind the counter.
It was a five-minute walk.
Stan sat on the beach, his back against a pretzel log of driftwood, and watched the sun go down. He got to his feet before it got too dark to see, making his way back to the motor inn. He walked up the crushed clamshell driveway, guided by the light next to his room door that he had turned on before going to the beach.
Barnett Newman had said Jackson Pollack had done his drinking at Jungle Pete’s. It wasn’t overly late. He could drive up there for another beer. He would get the lay of the land tomorrow, talk it up wherever Jackson Pollack had done his stomping and dying, drive back to the city, and compare snapshots with Betty the day later. He didn’t believe darkness could be understood by overwhelming it with a flood of light. No hand, no matter how good, could bust the bank.
But, with a good flashlight, the potholes In the dark road might lead to something.
Storm Drain – A Stan Rittman Mystery
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.