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"You and me, honey, we should go out sometime."
"I'm flattered." I placed the dinner check on the table and hoped my answer wouldn't affect the size of my tip. "But I can't."
Chubby Charlie Chiccante, a 300-pound capo in the Gambello family, squinted at me as he reached for his wallet. "I'll show you a good time," he promised. "Let me tell you something. In the sack, I'm fuckin' spectacular. Ask anyone."
I said loudly over my shoulder to Lucky Battistuzzi, who ate here at Bella Stella almost every night, "Lucky, is Charlie spectacular in bed?"
Lucky nodded his grizzled head. "The earth moved for me."
Four male acquaintances of Charlie's sitting at a nearby table heard this and guffawed. A predictable round of jokes ensued. I knew from staff gossip that those four guys weren't Gambellos, they were soldiers in the Buonarotti family. It would be exaggerating to say the Buonarottis were on cordial terms with the Gambellos, but there was enough absence of animosity between the families that Buonarotti wiseguys could dine at Bella Stella, a stronghold of the Gambellos, without bloodshed. Well, as long as they didn't irritate any Gambello soldiers.
Whereas Corvino wiseguys knew better than to come near Stella's. As Lopez had pointed out to me, there was a lot of bad blood between those two families.
Chubby Charlie rolled his small eyes at the crude jokes the Buonarottis were making, then pulled a red silk handkerchief out of the breast pocket of his suit and patted his shiny face with it. Like Lucky, he was a regular at Stella's. And Charlie, who was in his late fifties, was notorious among the staff; he always ate two full entrees, sweated while he ate, and propositioned his waitress.
Whether Charlie tipped well depended on whether he liked your voice. He always wanted a song with his dinner. If he enjoyed the performance, he left a generous tip. If he didn't, he stiffed you. And no server at Stella's chose to argue about this with a man who was rumored to have killed at least seven people (mostly members of the Corvino crime family). Tonight, he had demanded to be seated in my section, and he'd requested a rendition of That's Amore. As always, I'd sung to the accompaniment of our accordion-playing bartender.
Now, as Charlie stuffed his red handkerchief back into his breast pocket, he said to me, "So why won't you go out with me? You got a fuckin' boyfriend?"
Lucky put down the newspaper he'd been reading after finishing his dinner and said to Charlie, "Hey, watch your language, paesano. You're speaking to a lady."
I smiled at him. Alberto "Lucky Bastard" Battistuzzi had acquired his nickname due to surviving two attempts on his life as a young man, both times because an attacker's gun jammed. He had spent almost forty years as a hit man for the Gambellos, but he was reputedly retired now. Or semi-retired. He'd once quoted another "Lucky" wiseguy to me, the famous Charles Luciano, saying the only way out of his business was "in a box." According to kitchen gossip, he had probably killed more people than anyone else who ate at Stella's. But despite his profession, he always behaved like a gentlemen to me.
"Hey, I'm just askin' her out," Chubby Charlie protested. "What's your fuckin' problem?"
"You know want to know what my problem is?" Lucky retorted.
"Yeah, I want to know what your fuckin' problem is," Charlie riposted.
"You're asking what my problem is?"
"Yeah, I'm askin' your fuckin' problem."
"I ain't the one with the problem," Lucky said.
"So who's the one with the fuckin' problem?" Charlie bristled. "Huh? Come on, wise ass! Tell me!"
I'd worked long enough at Bella Stella to know that this was typical dinner-table talk among wiseguys, so I just accepted the cash for his dinner that Charlie handed me while arguing with Lucky, and I interrupted only to ask him if he wanted change. When he said no, I gave him a big smile and tucked a flapping edge of his bright red handkerchief more securely into his breast pocket; he had tipped me very well. I must have been in good voice that evening.
"You'll be the one with the problem," Lucky advised him, "if you don't show some respect. Esther's dating a cop."
Chubby Charlie went rigid and looked at me with an appalled expression. "You date a cop?"
I nodded. I hadn't seen Lopez since he'd left my apartment that Sunday night nearly two weeks ago, and we'd only talked once briefly by phone since then. But we were planning to have another date after he got back from Long Island. Meanwhile, telling customers that I was dating a cop was a quick-fix solution to men like Charlie Chiccante.
"A cop?" Charlie repeated.
"A detective," I said helpfully.
Lucky said to him, "You want that a cop should hear you've been hitting on his girlfriend?"
"Jesus." Charlie looked at me as if I'd nearly given him a case of the clap. "Dates a fuckin' cop."
"And he's very possessive," I said. "Wouldn't like it if he found out you'd even flirted with me." I smiled at him again. "But I was flattered."
(Yes, I was hoping to encourage more good tips. I had bills to pay.)
Charlie's shiny face got quite pink as he heaved himself to his feet. He dropped his napkin on the floor and said, "I was just being charming, you know? Didn't mean nothin' by it. Wouldn't hit on a cop's girl."
"Of course not," I said.
He gave a big belch and patted his massive belly. "Oof! I'm stuffed! I think I fuckin' ate too much."
"Oh, really?" Lucky muttered.
Charlie said to me, "Tell Stella the pasta arrabbiata was fuckin' out of this world tonight." He brought his hand to his mouth to kiss his fingers in an eloquent gesture of appreciation, then fastened his suitcoat over his enormous stomach. The buttons looked strained. Charlie considered himself a snazzy dresser and often (misguidedly, in my opinion) called attention to his appearance. He dressed more formally than most wiseguys, almost always arriving at Bella Stella wearing a suit and matching accessories (socks, tie, and handkerchief).
After taking a satisfied glance in the mirror on the nearby wall, Charlie wished me goodnight and left the restaurant.
"What a schmuck," Lucky said.
"Thanks for stepping in," I said.
"I don't like guys who try to take advantage."
"When's your cop coming back, anyhow?"
"Friday." I had told Lucky that Lopez was out of town, though I hadn't said more than that. He was working this weekend (and so was I), so I wouldn't see him then, but I hoped we could get together soon. I was looking forward to that foot massage. Or maybe I'd feed him some ice cream again, only this time...
"Friday?" Lucky said. "You mean tomorrow?"
Startled out of a very private reverie, I nodded. "Yes."
Lucky said, "Well, good. It's about time. He's takin' a risk, leaving a pretty young woman unattended for so long."
I smiled and asked, "And how is it that you're still unattended, Lucky?" Like most wiseguys, Lucky had married and had children. But Mrs. Battistuzzi had died a few years ago, and Lucky never brought a date to dinner. "Do you like bachelorhood?"
He shrugged. "A man gets lonely."
"So you think you might settle down with someone again?" I asked as I started clearing Chubby Charlie's table.
When I glanced at Lucky, he lowered his eyes. I thought he might be... blushing.
"Hey, Esther, I got that." Angelo, one of the bus boys, came over to Charlie's table and started clearing it. "Stella says it's slow tonight, you can leave early."
I nodded, then asked, "Lucky, can I get you anything else before I go?"
He waved me away. "Nah, I'm fine. Get out of here, kid."
"This fuckin' job," Angelo said. "Such bullshit."
Angelo Falcone was an aspiring young wiseguy. He had the social skills of a rabid squirrel, and he made sure the rest of us knew that working in a restaurant was way beneath him. When he wasn't bussing tables, he was doing everything he could to make himself useful to the Gambello family, in hopes of achieving a full-time career change. Since I didn't want to know anything about my co-worker's life of crime, I had told him, too, that I was dating a cop. (Though absent, Lopez sure was coming in handy lately.) And since Angelo wasn't very bright, I had to keep reminding him about my cop "boyfriend" to make him shut up.
Glad that Charlie had tipped me so well on such a slow night, I went into the staff room, took off my apron, clocked out, and divvied up the bartender's and bus boy's portions of my tips. Then I grabbed my sweater and purse, and I headed out of the restaurant. As soon as I was out on the street, where my cell phone got better reception, I checked my voice mail. I was hoping for a message from my agent telling me I had an audition. But no such luck. I snapped the phone shut and sighed.
"Did your date let you down?" said a voice behind me.
I turned to see Chubby Charlie approaching the restaurant. He was smiling flirtatiously (as he no doubt imagined it) at me.
Wondering why he was back, I said, "Did you forget something?"
"Yeah." He grinned. "I forgot to ask you out last time I was here, honey. You're one of Stella's girls, right?"
"Um, I'm one of the servers here, yes. But you did ask me—"
"I thought so! You're the one with the good voice, yeah? You sang Beyond the Sea last time I was here." He patted his heart. "Got me right here."
The gesture drew my unwilling attention to his chest. "Did your handkerchief fall out of your pocket?" Although I had tucked it in for him a few minutes ago, I saw that it was missing now.
"Your red handkerchief," I said.
"Hey, you remember it?" Looking pleased, he slapped the empty pocket. "I fuckin' lost it. Can you believe that? Probably some prick stole it."
"That was fast." I wondered who on this street would be reckless enough to pick the pocket of a Gambello killer.
"It matched this tie so great, too," he said sadly.
"Uh-huh." I tried to push past him. "Good night, Charlie."
"Hey, where you goin', cutie? I want to hear you sing tonight."
"Your memory's slipping, Charlie," I said. "I did sing tonight."
"Well, I ain't fuckin' been inside tonight yet, have I?" Then Charlie noticed my sweater and purse. "So you're leavin'? I guess I won't get to hear you sing tonight. Shit. Well, next time, huh? I'd fuckin' love to hear you do That's Amore. It's what I was gonna ask you to sing."
"But..." He had asked me to sing it. Tonight. Wondering if he was having some sort of mini-stroke, I asked, "Are you okay?"
"No! I'm starving to death! I got stuck in traffic. And now, I swear, I could eat the fuckin' table!"
"But you just ate—"
"Maybe you should join me," he said. "You look a little dizzy."
"Got a date? Got a boyfriend? Got a fuckin' dental appointment? What?" he prodded.
"You asked about my boyfriend," I said, studying him for signs of a mental breakdown. "Do you remember?"
"Yeah, I asked two fuckin' seconds ago. What the fuck is the matter with you?"
"No, you asked earlier tonight," I said. "I'm dating a cop. A detective. Remember?"
Charlie fell back a step, an appalled expression on his face. "You date a cop?"
Or maybe I was the one having a mental breakdown.
"Jesus." He shook his head and muttered, "Dates a fuckin' cop."
"We had this conversation," I said.
"When did we fuckin' have this conversation?"
"Fifteen minutes ago."
He squinted at me. "Does Stella know you’re doing drugs?"
"I'm not doing—"
"'Cuz she runs a clean place. If she finds out you're into that stuff, she'll can your ass. And I don't fuckin' blame her." He wagged a fat finger at me. "If you want a good job at a nice place like this, you should keep your fuckin' nose clean."
This was just what I needed: to be lectured by a foul-mouthed killer.
"I'm going inside now," Charlie said. "I'm fuckin' starving. I could kill for some pasta arrabbiata." At the door to Stella's, he paused and looked at me. "You're still a great singer, though. Even if you are all fucked up."
"Such a tribute," I muttered.
Lucky Battistuzzi exited the restaurant as Charlie entered it. When he saw me standing there, staring after Charlie with a frown, Lucky asked, "Was he bothering you again?"
"Not exactly. But I think something's wrong with him."
"Yeah, something's wrong with him. He's a schmuck."
"Besides that." I recounted the conversation to Lucky. "Isn't that strange?"
"Hmm. Like the evening was erased from his memory?"
"Yes," I said. "Including the massive dinner he just packed away."
"You'd think even a screwball like Charlie would remember that he just ate," Lucky said, shaking his head.
"Especially since he said just a few minutes ago that he was stuffed."
"He didn't even remember you singing?" Lucky asked.
"And he seemed to love that. You sounded great, by the way."
"Maybe he's having a mini-stroke?" I wondered if we should call a doctor before Chubby Charlie keeled over in the middle of Bella Stella.
"Maybe he was caught in a time warp or something," Lucky suggested.
I blinked. "You've been watching too much Sci-Fi Channel. I was thinking of something more prosaic. Could a myocardial infarction cause this behavior?"
"What kind of infection?"
"Um, a problem with his heart," I said. "So that maybe his brain isn't getting enough oxygen."
"You think something's wrong with his brain?" Lucky snorted. "I'd say that's a given."
"He's a hundred pounds overweight, and he packed away enough food at dinner to kill a wildebeest," I said. "I thought he looked a little red-faced when he left."
"Red-faced? Well, sure." Lucky shrugged. "He just found out he was makin' the moves on a cop's girlfriend."
"I'm wondering if his behavior is a warning sign." Chubby Charlie was a repulsive human being, but I'd nonetheless feel bad about just letting him drop dead tonight, maybe from a stroke or heart attack.
"Ah, Charlie's always been strange, kid. Moody. Forget it."
"Look, if you're worried about him," Lucky said, "why not come to church with me?"
"Because I'm Jewish."
"God don't care about that. You could light a candle and pray for Charlie's good health."
"I was thinking of doing something more practical than that," I said. "Like maybe warning Stella or calling a doctor."
"What makes you think lighting a candle ain't practical?"
"Spoken like a good Catholic."
Lucky put his face against the restaurant's window and peered inside. "Charlie's already sitting down and yacking at his waitress. Seems perfectly normal to me. Have a look, Esther."
Following his example, I spotted Chubby Charlie—just in time to see him pinch his waitress' bottom. "Perfectly normal," I agreed.
"See? No reason to worry."
"I don't know, Lucky. What could explain his behavior?"
"Maybe he was pulling your leg," Lucky suggested. "Havin' some fun with you."
"And eating dinner twice in a row tonight?" I said skeptically.
As we continued peering through the window, Charlie looked up and noticed us. He gave us the finger.
That's when I decided it wasn't my problem if he was having a major medical incident. Okay, so I'm not as compassionate and selfless as I could be.
Lucky scowled and stepped away from the window. "Stronzo," he muttered. "Is that any way to treat a young lady?"
I looked at Lucky. "I think you're right. He was pulling my leg. And his digestive system defies all norms of human physiology."
He nodded in agreement. "Okay, then, I'm heading to St. Monica's."
It was a church around the corner, between Mulberry and Mott Streets, that some of our customers frequented. "Evening Mass?" I asked.
"I might stay for that, depending."
"Depending on what?"
He lowered his head and shuffled his feet. I thought he might be... blushing again. "Well, uh...um..."
"So if you don't go for Mass, what do you do there?"
"I light candles for all the dead guys I know. Especially the ones I liked. And, well, there's, um..."
"Have you lost many people?" I asked sympathetically.
"I didn't lose 'em, I whacked 'em." Lucky shrugged and added, "But the ones I liked, I'm sure they knew it was strictly business."
Since I couldn't think of any response to that, I said, "Well, goodnight, Lucky."
"You don't want to come with me? It's good for the soul."
"I want to go home. My feet hurt," I said truthfully.
"There's a weeping saint at my church," he coaxed. "Well, sometimes, anyhow."
"A weeping saint? Do you mean there's a good person crying at your church?"
"Was a good person. Long time ago. Now it's a statue. Saint Monica."
"A weeping Saint Monica? I thought it was the Madonna that always weeps."
"At our church, it's the saint." He shrugged. "It's still a miracle, y'know, either way."
"Little Italy is full of the strange and the wonderful." Thinking of Charlie again, I said, "Especially the strange."
"Well, maybe next time," Lucky said.
"Maybe next time," I agreed, realizing he was a little lonely.
As I walked toward the subway station, I opened my cell phone again and dialed my agent's phone number.
I needed an audition.