Bumpy Williams had a receding dimpled off-center chin and dead-set eyes. There was an ugly scar on one side of his chin. His eyes were a colorless brown. He wore a brown single-breasted jacket and brown pleated trousers, although his shoes were City Club two lace two tones. His face was what made him good at what he did. No one could ever remember what he looked like. Nobody wanted to get caught staring at his chin and nobody ever looked in the vicinity of his eyes, which when he was on the job had a flat cold gaze.
Most people couldn’t have said whether he was a white or black man. He was a Negro. He had a rolled up dog-eared copy of All-Negro Comics in his back pocket. He had five dollars and change in his wallet, a 6-ounce stainless steel flask with a picture of a roller skating chimp on it in his jacket pocket, and a Vest Pocket Colt .25 in a vest pocket. It was only good at close range, but it was better than nothing.
He looked across the curb at the four-story building on the other side of the street. Queen Stephanie’s man had said the snooper worked on the second floor. A sign on the building said “Duluc Detective” in green and white neon letters. The building was one back from the corner of West 48th Street and 10thAvenue.
Bumpy looked into the parking lot behind him. “This is going to be easy,” he thought. He would put the glad hand on a car, park it in the lot where he could spy the front door, and keep track of the comings and goings. A separate door on the side in plain sight led up to the snooper’s office. There was a cobbler’s shop on the ground floor and apartments on the top two floors.
He could see an oversized gold register through the street window and a line of shoeshine chairs with brass pedestals. The repair shop was probably in the basement. The heels of his two tones needed repairing, but he didn’t like the idea of leaving his shoes in Hell’s Kitchen.
He always took his shoes to Tony’s Shoe Repair in mid-town, in the garment district, off Seventh Avenue, even though there wasn’t a Tony. “The real Tony was the guy who opened the store in 1928 and sold it six years later to another guy named Gaetano. He kept Tony’s sign, so he became the second Tony, and his son Dan became the third Tony,” was how it was explained it to him one afternoon.
There were too many Poles, Greeks, and Irish in Hell’s Kitchen. The cops were all Irish. There were too many Italians and Puerto Ricans. Everybody spoke a foreign language. There were too many longshoremen. There was too much stickball and stoopball. There were too many kids on scooters. There were too many tough kids. They didn’t carry weapons though, no guns, no knives. They thought they were tough enough, he knew, to fight natural, with their hands.
He had gotten into a beef with one of them, not even shaving age, hands like boxing gloves, fingers as thick as thumbs. He had hit the boy on the head and nothing happened, except the second finger on his own right hand was still bent, a year later.
When Stan Rittman walked past Bumpy Williams, espresso in hand and biscotti in a bag, and went in the side door, Bumpy went looking for a car to steal. By the time Stan and Bettina were sitting opposite one another at Stan’s desk, biscotti spread out on the torn open bag, espresso still hot, Stan’s notes and Bettina’s notebook at the ready, Bumpy was back with somebody’s car.
He would leave it behind when he left. It would be cleaner than when he stole it, too. He didn’t like spending all day in a dirty car.
Stan swept crumbs off his desk into the palm of his hand and shook them into the trashcan next to his desk.
“’He looked like an old dead tree lying in the brush,’ was what one of Pollack’s neighbors said,” he said. “The man helped the police search the woods with a flashlight. ‘There was a little blood run down from the forehead, no other damage except for the neck swollen like a balloon,’” he read from his notes.
“I talked to the undertaker up there who handled Pollack and the dead girl. He said Pollack died of a compound fracture of the skull and the girl died of a broken neck.”
“What do the police think?” asked Bettina.
“They think he had a hell of a lot to drink, they think he was a hell of an unhappy man, and they think it was a hell of an accident. I talked to an Earl Finch, he was the patrolman on the scene.”
“I knew he was dead from the look of him,” said Earl Finch. ”It was so dark up there I don’t think I even covered him up.”
”Jesus!” said Dr. William Abel when Patrolman Earl Finch showed him the body of Jackson Pollack fifty feet into the woods.
The East Hampton police report showed Earl Finch radioed back to the station at 10:30 PM. It was less than twenty minutes after the accident. “Two dead at scene of accident.” One girl was crushed by the upside down Olds, the other girl fractured her pelvis, and Jackson Pollack died of a head injury. He was wearing “a black velvet shirt, gray pants, a brown belt, blue shorts, brown socks, no shoes, no jewelry, and no ID.”
“Who called in the accident?”
“Three or four people. One of the neighbors said he heard the car barreling down the road and told his wife, ‘That fool isn’t going to make the curve.’ The others heard the car horn after the accident had already happened.”
“After, not before?”
“Yeah, I guess the horn got stuck and started blowing and wouldn’t stop.”
“What bothered us was that horn blowing,” said a neighbor “We jumped in the car.” They drove to the crash. “There wasn’t anyone around, just this girl with her head toward that piled-in car and blood on her coming out of her scalp. We had to holler at her with the horn blaring.”
“What is Springs like?” asked Bettina.
“Small,” said Stan. “It’s sort of a thumb of land stuck out into a bay, so there’s water on three sides. There’s a lot of the middle of nothing there. The locals call themselves Bonackers.”
“I’m going to be a Bonacker same as you some day,” said Jackson Pollack, reaching for a beer at the Joe Loris bar in the East Hampton Hotel.
“You only got to wait four hundred years,” said George Sid Miller.
“Everybody says he drank phenomenal amounts of beer,” said Stan. “They say it had been going on for about fours years. Before that he’d been good, although he seems to have always drunk plenty. One of his neighbors said if he hadn’t killed himself in that car he would have killed himself with drink, sooner rather than later.”
“How about the car? Did anybody check to see if it had been tampered with?”
“No, it was turned over, busted, and a wrecker hauled it away. It wasn’t the first car he had driven into a tree, either, He had a Caddy, did it about five years earlier. I talked to a Jim Brooks, one of his friends, and a painter. He said, ‘I expected him to kill himself in an automobile, and I knew he wanted not to do it alone.’’’
“So he was suicidal?”
“Not that anyone said, but some of them said he was self-destructive. They seemed to think there was a difference. One guy at Jungle Pete’s said Pollack was too much of a coward to kill himself.”
“What is Jungle Pete’s?” asked Bettina.
“He came to my restaurant every day for eggs and home fries, toast and coffee,” said Nina Federico. “He bought a second hand bike and would come evenings on the bike for beers. He didn’t always get home on the bike.”
“There’s a couple who live right there, “ said Stan. “Nina would give them the high sign and they would take him home. The beer is a nickel. I spent some of the night before there. The locals bring their kids in their pajamas, the kids fall asleep on the floor, and the parents dance and party all night.”
“It sounds like a house party. What was their house like in Springs?”
“There was a lot of paint in a studio, a converted barn, it looked like to me, but you wouldn’t know he was a famous artist by his house, even though he was famous enough that the Times ran the story of his death on page one.”
“Did he have any problems in the neighborhood?”
“He seems to have had a soft spot for kids and dogs. Somebody said he had a pet crow for a while. One lady said he was an innocent, childlike person, except when he was in a car. Everybody had seen him falling down drunk, more than once. I talked to a doctor neighbor of his who said Pollack would put away two, three cases of beer when he was on a bender.”
“Jesus!” said Bettina.
“Found Jackson Pollack outside on the sidewalk lying down,” said the East Hampton police blotter.
“He could be mean, got into fights, broke his ankle just a few years ago fighting with some other artist, but I didn’t talk to anybody who disliked him, although not everybody liked him. There were more people than not who felt sorry for him.”
“Did anything look funny about the crash?”
“Not to anybody up there,” said Stan. “Not to me, either.”
Bumpy William cracked open All-Negro Comics and balanced it on the steering wheel. Ace Harlem was the private detective of the cover story and the bad guys were zoot-suited, jive-talking, back alley muggers. He was planning on re-reading both “Lion Man and Bubba” and “Sugarfoot”, which was about the traveling musicians Sugarfoot and Snake Oil being on the prowl after a farmer’s daughter.
He had brought a double-decker sandwich and thermos of coffee with him.
He peeled back the parchment paper the sandwich was wrapped in and spread it out on his lap. He poured himself a cup of coffee and put the cup on top of the dashboard.
It was after two o’clock when he finished eating and brushing crumbs out of the car. “Remember – Crime Doesn’t Pay, Kids!” Ace Harlem said on the back cover of the comic book. Bumpy folded it and slipped it into the inside pocket of his jacket.
“While you were re-discovering that Pollack drank like a fish and finding out what he was wearing when he died, I talked to the death-car girl,” said Bettina. “Maybe everybody back home expected something like that accident to happen, but she says it wasn’t an accident. She says Jackson Pollack swerved off the road and accelerated into the oak trees he hit.”
“She thinks he was committing suicide?”
“No,” said Bettina. “She calls it his death-day.”
“What’s the difference?”
“At the moment he died I believe his soul went into my body,” said Ruth Kligman. “When I was convalescing in the hospital, he came and visited me. I’m like Cleopatra and he was like Marc Anthony. He was a very deep soul mate. The minute I met him I felt I had known him for years.”
“You don’t believe any of that anymore than I do, Betty.”
“No,” said Bettina. “But, she was right there and she believes he deliberately drove off the road.”
“There were no skid marks, on or off the road, according to the police report,” said Stan. “The police sergeant I talked to estimates he was going sixty to seventy when he hit the trees.”
The Olds fishtailed almost two hundred feet through underbrush before colliding with the forest, pivoting, going end over, a hubcap rolling away, empty cans of Rheingold spraying into the dark.
“If we take it for granted it wasn’t an accident, and we take it for granted he wasn’t trying to commit suicide, what do we have?” asked Stan.
“We have him driving into the tree on purpose, but not for any suicidal reason,” said Bettina.
“If that’s what we have, why would he do that? “
“Maybe somebody brainwashed him into doing it.”
Stan and Betty gave it some thought.
“If that’s what we’ve got, then who would have done it? Who had the means and opportunity to brainwash Jackson Pollack? I can’t see it happening out there in Springs.”
“Barney Newman told us he had been in and out of therapy for a long time,” said Bettina. “We could start with his doctor. We know Pollack came into the city often, did business with his dealers, went drinking with his pals at the Cedar Tavern, ran around with his girlfriend. I would expect his doctor to be here in the city.”
“All right, let’s find out he who was and try to get a line on him.”
“Does that mean me?”
“That’s why you make the big bucks,” said Stan.
“When did that happen?” asked Bettina.
Bumpy Williams found a phone booth and called in his watching day.
“He didn’t do nothing all day. He’s got some girl, probably his office girl, and a Jew man came and went. Other than that he was in his office all day and then went home. I didn’t see a wife, but he’s got a little girl. I’m gonna head up to the barbershop, get a wig chop, maybe stop up at Joe Wells’ for some fried chicken and waffles.”
Wells’ Restaurant, sometimes an eatery, sometimes a nightclub, was on Seventh Avenue between 132ndand 133rd. Bumpy Williams was from South Carolina, but had grown up and still lived on 132thStreet. He lived on the top floor of a brownstone. Benta’s Funeral Home was on the first and parlor floors of the building.
“We like your looks,” they said when they had rented the rooms to him after the war.
Benta’s buried famous, infamous, and nobody Negro’s. If you had plenty of dead presidents, you could order a gold, green, or red hearse, with a colored coffin to match. If you were low on folding money, George Benta made arrangements. Nobody was ever turned away.
It wasn’t that the funeral director was over generous. Going up the stairs one day Bumpy heard George behind him. “Don’t forget to turn off that hall light when you turn in. My name is George Benta, not Thomas Edison.”
George Benta was a frugal man. Bumpy had no problem with that.
“Stop by the shop and we’ll pay you for the day. The Queen says best we pay you by the day. She says there’s something queer going on, so we’ll keep it close. We maybe will need you again the next couple of days.”
Queen Stephanie Johnson ran the numbers in Harlem, the uptown colored arm of Albert Anastasia’s Italian Hand. Bumpy knew if he was doing work for her he was doing work for them. That’s where the money came from. “The Mad Hatter says there’s no such thing as good money or bad money,” Queen Stephanie said one day when they were smoking after Bumpy had made a delivery to her runners and controllers.
“There’s just money, Albert says.”
Benta’s had buried Alain Locke, a big-time Negro, two years ago. W. E. B. Du Bois, Mrs. Paul Robeson, and Charles Johnson all paid their respects. Nobody could find a place to park. Nobody could stay long. There wasn’t enough space to stand. The breathing air in the chapel had started to get thin.
Bumpy was standing at the front door with George Benta after it was all over and the casket coach was pulling away. George was in his work clothes, a long coat, pinstripes, and gray gloves. His wife, Pearl, was accompanying the funeral procession.
“Do you know that little man kept sperm samples from all his lovers in a small box? One of them tried to slip it into the coffin. I slapped his hand away. I wouldn’t touch that box, though, not on your life.”
Bumpy looked down the street
“You pay me what you said, I’ll lean on a light pole every day of the week,” he said to Queen Stephanie’s man. “But I’ll check with you in the morning. King Cole is supposed to be in town for that new TV show he’s doing soon, and word is he might be singing it up at the supper club tonight.”
Bumpy hung up, stuck two fingers into his mouth, and whistled down a cab.
“Harlem,” he said, getting in beside the driver. He knew it was like going to an afternoon matinee and sitting next to the only other person at the movies, but he liked riding shotgun.
He was looking forward to seeing a show tonight.
“When I perform it’s like sitting down at my piano and telling fairy stories,” said Nat King Cole.
It had only been five months since King Cole had been attacked in Birmingham, Alabama, during a show, when half-a-dozen white men swarmed over the footlights and rushed him, grabbing his legs, wrenching his back, taking him down to the floor of the stage before the police were able to break up the melee.
“Alabama is no place for immoral nigger rock and roll music,” said Willie Hinson the next morning standing in front of the storefront office of the White Citizen’s Council.
Bumpy had already killed one white man.
He thought he might have to kill another one some day.
Storm Drain – A Stan Rittman Mystery
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.