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.