- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
The suitcase was heavy and unwieldy. As he came to Varick Street, he put it down. He rubbed the fingers and palm of his right hand with his left. He lighted a cigarette, lifted the case, and continued on his way. He walked slowly, not to lull the clanking of his load, but because night's end was for him the best part of the day. A11 was quiet except for the waking gray birds and the faint drone of scattered tunnel traffic. He felt strong and serene, unconquerable, if only for a breath or two, in the face of the coming day's inevitable attrition. Black became deepest blue, and the one star he saw vanished before him. He crossed Sixth Avenue. The church campanile came into sight. Deepest blue became day, and Louie entered the Street of Silence, where he was no longer alone.
A fading middle-aged woman stood near the curb, looking away as her leashed black animal released a long amber jet onto the tire of a parked Cutlass Ciera. Some yards away, from a building across the street, another woman emerged. She was younger, and her looks bespoke a greater devotion to the illusion of well-being. Her stretch pants and tent blouse were neatly ironed, and her hair was done in a silvered flip, similar to that worn by the model in the Alberto V0-5 placard in the window of Ralph's Mona Lisa Beauty Salon. She, too, had a dog, a small white poodle. The two women greeted each other like weary patrol partners on a doomed, senseless mission.
A nearby door creaked. The man called I1 Capraio appeared. The women lowered their heads and silently walked away. I1 Capraio looked after them. He saw Louie approaching, but he did not acknowledge him. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, he shook his head in what may have been an expression of annoyance, or perhaps disgust. He inhaled deeply, as if he had been burdened no less in the last moments than God had been throughout all time. Then he turned and disappeared behind the creaking door.
Louie passed by that door, not turning to look at it or at the adjoining black-curtained storefront, which peeling gold-leaf lettering alleged to be the Ziginette Society of Sciacca. A few yards farther, he opened the door of another curtained front and walked in.
It was dark. A1 Martino's version of "Daddy's Little Girl" played distortedly on the jukebox. Four barstools were occupied by human figures in similar states of dissolution. Two of them were completely still, their heads down. Another leaned back, his arms folded across his stomach, staring at the glass of clear liquor before him. The fourth, the fancier of "Daddy's Little Girl," moved his head and emitted a sickly quavering sound in dire harmony with the jukebox.
Louie said nothing as he walked past their backs. He knew them all, and he was gratified that he was not among them this morning. Savoring his strength amid their weakness, he strode straight to the end of the bar. There, poised above a plastic coffee cup, veiled in a haze of cigarette smoke, was a face as cold and hard and untelling as a sarcophagal effigy worn down by time to barest relief. The nose on this face had been broken so often, so long ago, that it could hardly be discerned. The thin mouth beneath it was turned implacably downward, and the nacreous eyes above it were wholly occluded by thick bifocal lenses. Sparse strands of white hair, lifeless as painted lines, traversed the cast of the old man's skull. With his head slightly raised, staring toward the door in stony vigilance, he seemed always to be awaiting the arrival, or the return, of some terrible, inevitable thing.
"Good morning, Giacomo," Louie said. He put down the suitcase and looked into the old man's bifocals. Only then did the old man move his head.
"Is that good Louie or bad Louie?" he asked. He peered through his spectacles into Louie's eyes and saw that they were clear and calm. "It's good Louie," he said, smiling.
Louie lifted the suitcase and carried it a few steps to the small Formica-topped table that stood in the darkness between the jukebox and the toilet. The old man followed him, shuffling resolutely on the worn linoleum floor. Grimacing, he raised his left arm, which suffered less from arthritis than his right. He grasped the string that hung overhead, and a bare bulb flooded the area with harsh light. Two of the figures at the bar stirred, then were silent again. One of them lifted his glass and drank.
Louie opened the suitcase. Giacomo methodically removed its contents: four bottles of Dewar's, four bottles of Johnnie Walker Red, four bottles of Smirnoff, one bottle of Martell V.S.O.P., one bottle of Bacardi Dark, one bottle of Southern Comfort. He held each bottle to the light and examined its seal. He took the last bottle from the suitcase. It was opaque beige in color, and it had a fluted neck. He squinted at it, then sneered dismally at Louie. "Praline Liqueur? What the fuck am I supposed to do with this?"
"Are you kiddin'? The broads love it. It's like Kahlúa, Irish Cream, that sort of shit."
Giacomo looked away. "A hundred and fifty," he said.
Louie nodded, and the old man reached deeply into his pants pocket. He brought out a handful of folded money and held it close to his face, extracting three fifties. He gave the bills to Louie, then began moving the bottles, two at a time, to the shelves that were situated out of sight beneath the back of the bar. As he lowered the last bottle, the Praline Liqueur, he shook his head and coughed.
"You want coffee?"
Louie nodded, and the old man shuffled to the three-pot Silex gas range against the wall. He poured two cups and put a teaspoon of sugar and some milk in one of them. He carried them carefully to the end of the bar, placing the one with the sugar and milk in it in front of Louie, then he came around the bar, settled with some exertion onto his chair, lighted a cigarette, and resumed his posture of grim vigilance. The two of them sat in silence, drinking coffee and smoking. After a while, the old man turned and peered at the clock over his shoulder. It was a quarter to seven.
"The happiness boys," he said, gesturing with his chin toward the four figures at the bar. He took a handkerchief from his back pocket and removed his spectacles. Louie saw that there were drops of teary blood at the corners of the old man's colorless eyes. The old man wiped at them with his handkerchief, then eased his spectacles back on. "Shit-head there looks like he's ready for Perazzo," he said, indicating the slumped form nearest the door. "He can barely lift the fuckin' glass." The old man ground out his cigarette and sipped his coffee. "He wasn't drinkin' for the longest time. He came in here the morning of the Superbowl: 'Make it a short one, I got things to do.' Next morning, he's back, blown out of his socks. He's been burnin' with a low blue flame ever since. And this is, what, the first week of spring?"
"He's got money, then, huh?"
The old man increased his frown and shook his head. "A few bucks at first, but he's been runnin' a tab for weeks now. They're all on the muldoon, the four of 'em. If it wasn't for the young crowd, there'd be nothin' here lately."
"I figured the other asshole there'd be lyin' on the beach down there on that island he goes to."
"Ain't he a piece of work, though? He sticks up that fuckin' jukebox joint in Queens, then he sits around here playin' that 'Daddy's Little Girl' for a month. 'You're givin' it all back, 'I told him. 'Nah, 'he says, 'it's a different outfit.' How do you talk to somebody like that? 'Listen to the words,' he tells me. 'I used to sing it to my daughter.' You know his daughter? That pig that the sanitation guys used to hump?" The old man scratched his neck and put another cigarette in his mouth. "And get a load of Sleepin' Beauty over here. He's ready for a fuckin' room with a view on the East River."
"He owes me, that bastard," Louie said. "He's been dodgin' me for months."
"No. It was only a hundred, thirty cents on a dollar. He was supposed to pay off in five weeks at twenty-six a shot. He made two payments. Since then, domani, domani."
The old man grinned. "Loan him another couple yards so he can pay his tab." Louie uttered a low guttural sound and grinned back at him.
The old man looked again at the clock, then he stood. "It is now post time," he announced. He strode firmly to the front of the room, drew back the window curtains, and raised the shade on the door. The bar filled with daylight. The old man leaned at the window, looking out. A young woman in a blue suit and white blouse walked briskly by, clutching her briefcase and averting her eyes from the window.
"Look at the ass on this one," Giacomo said, with something not unlike happiness in his voice. "Dressed for success. If only she knew." He nodded sternly, and there was nothing like happiness in his voice. "All these cute young girls with their big blue eyes, them and those boy-asses with the fancy haircuts, swaggerin' around like they're in one of them beer commercials on TV. They call these tenements co-ops. I swear, you could sell these kids shit on a stick if you came up with the right name for it. They'd buy the Brooklyn Bridge if you told 'em it was goin' condominium." The old man lighted another cigarette and blew smoke toward the window. "Someday, if they're lucky, they'll look up and see that co-op roof cavin' in and they'll realize they been carryin' thirty-year paper to live in some shit-hole that's been fallin' apart since Christ left Chicago, and they'll look in that mirror and see those gray hairs and all those new up-and-comers comin' up behind 'em; then they'll figure it out." He smoked and turned away. "Then again, who gives a f-k."
He slapped his hand down near where one man's head lay upon his folded arms. "Let's get this show on the road. Live people are comin' here soon." The head stirred. The old man moved down the bar, and one by one the other men were roused. They stretched, rubbed their faces, and nodded in miserable concession. They hailed Louie, seeing him now for the first time. The music lover reached inside his jacket and withdrew some crumpled dollars. He placed one of them on the bar, and he smoothed it with his hand.
"Quarters, Jocko. And another shot," he added, as if it were an afterthought.
"Because you're daddy's little girl," Giacomo sang from the side of his mouth. His hand came down on the dollar, and he grinned to Louie.
As the voice of A1 Martino rose amid the loud violins and surface noise, the front door opened, and there entered a small, smiling man in a tan twill cap and coat.
"Good morning, all you beautiful people," he said, his smile widening sardonically. He walked to the end of the bar, yelling "Sing it, you guinea bastard" as he passed the jukebox. He put a Daily News on the bar and rubbed his hands together. "In spring a young man's fancy turns to love. That's what they say."
Giacomo placed a spoon in a glass. He half-filled the glass with steaming coffee, then poured in Cutty Sark. He pushed the glass toward the small, smiling man.
"What was it?" the old man asked, after the little man had stirred and sipped.
"Nine-sixteen, Brooklyn. Three-eleven, New York."
"More cut numbers," Giacomo said. "What shit." He looked toward the window, receding into his dead vigilance.
The little man turned to Louie. "How's business, kid?"
"Business sucks," Louie said. "How's with you?"
The smile eased from the little man's face, and he breathed drearily. "I ain't had a hit in weeks," he said. He glanced at the jukebox, then at the music lover, then he drank. "This legal shit is killin' us. Everybody's playin' the fuckin' Lotto these days. Some days, the way things are goin', I think I'd be better off makin' the rounds with a shoeshine box." He finished his drink and pushed the empty glass forward, placing a ten-dollar bill beside it. With a fast flourish of his left hand, he indicated that he also wanted to buy coffee for Louie. Giacomo rose and filled the glass and pushed it back, then gave Louie a fresh cup of coffee. While he was up, he went to the switch beneath the counter. He flicked it twice and the volume of the jukebox, which now was playing "You Belong to Me" by Dean Martin, fell to a faint undertone. The music lover protested, but the old man just stared at him until he, too, quieted.
"Let's go to Martin's," the one nearest the door said.
"It ain't eight yet," the music lover said.
"Ah, f-k that joint," the third among them, the risen Sleeping Beauty, said. "Let's go to Brooklyn."
"F-k Brooklyn," the fourth snarled. "You just wanna see that Irish cunt with the tits."
"I ain't goin' nowhere," the music lover said.
All of them except the music lover rose and gathered themselves to venture into society. As they did so, Louie also rose.
"Hey," he called.
The risen Sleeping Beauty turned. Louie beckoned him with his hand, then led him back to the Formica-topped table.
"What is this shit?" he whispered, looking into the other's downcast, reddened eyes.
"Things ain't been good."
"You're old enough to be my father and you're more stupid than I am. What is it with you?"
"Things, Louie, things." He drew slightly back as Louie moved closer.
"You make me look bad, you know that? I don't even really give a fuck about that. I don't. You know what I give a fuck about? I give a fuck about the fuckin' money. Seventy-eight dollars, I know, ain't nothin' to a bigshot like you. But to me seventy-eight dollars is seventy-eight dollars. And I want it. You hear me? I want it. That's it." Louie stared at him, seeing his breath grow deeper and his eyes become more and more like those of a child. "You shouldn't fuck your friends," Louie said at last, softly. The other nodded, and he muttered something. "Go on," Louie said, "try to straighten out. Do what you have to do, then come see me." He dismissed him with a sidewise toss of the head, then watched him join his two companions at the door.
"Always a pleasure." Giacomo waved to them as they left. He turned to Louie. "You're gettin' pretty good at that tough-guy shit, kid," he said, and grinned.
The small, smiling man took a long, final swallow, then smacked his lips. "Oh, well," he said, as he said every morning, "let me go. You want anything?"
The old man gave him two singles. "Four-oh-five, dollar straight, Brooklyn. Same thing, New York."
The smiling man held the dollars with one hand and scribbled with a short pencil onto a scrap of Yellow Freight System notepaper with the other.
Louie handed him a five: "One-eighty-seven for five, straight, Brooklyn."
The smiling man scribbled again, then put the money into the left pocket of his jacket, the pencil and paper into the right. He patted both pockets. "I'll see you people later," he said, then grinned and walked away. As he neared the door, it swung open.
Excerpted from Cut Numbers by Nick Tosches Copyright © 1988 by Nick Tosches, Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
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