Heart of the Old Country

Heart of the Old Country

by Tim McLoughlin

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Overview

A young man stumbles into danger in his Brooklyn neighborhood in this “inspired” crime novel that is “part coming-of-age story, part thriller” (Entertainment Weekly).
 
In working-class Bay Ridge, Michael drives for a car service and gives lifts to his father, a former sanitation worker and current small-time bookie. He has a friend with a heroin habit, and a longtime girlfriend who expects they’ll get married one of these days. Michael spends most of his time on the familiar streets where he grew up, but now he’s crossing the bridge into Manhattan for some college classes—where he meets a seductive female classmate who seems to come from a whole different world.
 
He is pulled in two directions, but it seems like he has time to figure it all out—until he finds himself in the periphery of a murder that will change his destiny forever . . .
 
“Sweet, sardonic and by turns hilarious and tragic . . . Powerfully describes the bonds between Michael and his father . . . The novel’s greatest achievement is its tender depiction of Michael as a would-be tough guy, trying to follow his father’s dictum of ‘Give them nothing,’ while undergoing a painful education in the real world.” —Publishers Weekly
 
“Reads like an inspired cross between Richard Price’s Bloodbrothers and Ross Macdonald’s The Chill.” —Entertainment Weekly

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781617750496
Publisher: Akashic Books (Ignition)
Publication date: 06/01/2009
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 216
File size: 648 KB

About the Author

Tim McLoughlin is the editor of the multiple award-winning anthology Brooklyn Noir and its companion volumes. His work has been included in The Best American Mystery Stories. He lives in Brooklyn.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

Nicky Shades was maybe the best sewer-to-sewer football player I ever saw. Of course that was before he became a junkie. When I was a kid I would watch him and the rest of the older guys playing rough tackle on Sixty-ninth Street, black leather jackets and watch caps bouncing off car fenders and each other. No one got seriously hurt, stitches here and there but nothing to speak of. All of them seemed to play with the passion of pros, but Shades was Namath at the Super Bowl every afternoon.

Nobody was playing now as I turned and drove by with my father, and that was surprising, since it was perfect football weather. Overcast but not too cool, and the kind of cloudy that didn't portend a monsoon. I went down to Fort Hamilton Parkway and along it to the Keyboard Lounge, my old man's last stop of the morning.

"Five minutes," he said, getting out of the car.

I remained behind the wheel, just off the corner, and thought about watching Nicky play. When the game used to end, several of the players would stay and toss the ball around for a while. If Nicky was one of those who lingered, he usually invited me to join them. I'd go the distance until I swore my arm would fall off. Sometimes we'd keep throwing past dark, then I'd have to call it quits and head in for dinner. Shades never looked tired, and if he didn't run off immediately he was usually the last to leave. He was about four years older than me, which meant adult when I was fifteen. After he got jammed up and went away for a while we lost touch. I didn't run into him for over three years. That was why it was so shocking to see how he'd deteriorated. He'd probably started on smack in the football days. It would explain the black-lens aviators he was never without. But who knows? What was it at first, fashion or crutch? Anyway, by the time I came to drive for Big Lou's car service, Nicky was already pretty much a wreck.

My father, true to his word, stepped out of the bar within five minutes. I knew he must have hustled to come back that fast, and he was still sorting policy slips and cash as we pulled away. The placement of these scraps of paper in his shirt, pants, and jacket pockets represented an elaborate filing system which, although observed by me for years, I'd yet to crack. That it worked was clear, as I'd witnessed him fairly toasted more than once, getting every bet phoned in and all action correctly covered.

Sometimes I worried about my father. Since my mother died he seemed to have given up on women, and I'd developed a fear that he would grow old alone after I left. Whenever the urge struck, he took himself to a whorehouse in Coney Island, dragging me along if we were both drunk enough. Otherwise, his only social contact was with men. He was out on a disability pension from Sanitation, which he supplemented nicely by taking numbers in a few neighborhood bars. Every morning, seven days a week, he made the rounds. That was where the car service came in. My father didn't drive. He was paranoid that for the rest of his life the Sanitation Department beakies would be watching for a sign of miraculous recovery. So everywhere he went, he went by cab or with me. He was Big Lou's most dependable customer. He also tipped generously, though most of the drivers gave it back to him on a number. He usually completed the circuit by noon and dropped his receipts off with Lou's brother Tony, who ran the social club on Sixty-fifth and most of the neighborhood action as well. Then he'd hang around the car service for a few hours, playing cards and bullshitting. When I got my license he hooked me up with a job, which was how I came to see Shades again.

Driving car service was supposed to have been a summer job, but I angled such a good schedule at the castle-in-the-air university I'd started that I'd be able to work almost full-time every week through fall. Going to college had been my idea, and with the exception of my high school guidance counselor — who probably got a kickback — nobody gave a shit. My father thought I was wasting my time and going into debt, but he wasn't in a hurry to see me leave the apartment, so my being a student kept me poor enough to suit him. Gina lost her mind over the idea of not being able to get married right away. Pretend I got drafted, I told her, but the girl had no sense of humor. It was a stall and she knew it, but she let it go for the time being. I figured I was good for about a year. If the school thing panned out I could always finish up part-time at night.

Gina lived with her mother in a two-family up on Twenty-first Avenue. We started going out when I was fifteen, and a year later the old woman who was renting the second floor in their house died. Gina's mother kept the rooms empty and said that they were for us when we got married. They had been vacant for three years and I could feel the weight of them over my head when I ate dinner there. Once we tried setting my father up with her mother, but that was a disaster. It was just as well. If it had worked out, I figured I'd have the two of them to contend with when I tied the knot.

"What are you thinking about?" my father asked abruptly, almost as if he knew.

"You and Gina's mother," I said. "Just picturing the two of you as a couple."

He snorted. "That was one historic fuckin' meeting, hah? Her house looks like a church. I'd have to go to confession every time I farted. How could a person live like that?"

I dropped my old man off, accepting the dollar and a quarter commission on the call. When I first began driving for Lou, my father insisted that he would pay and tip me like he did the other drivers. When I told him to fuck himself, he tried to at least pay the fare. I hadn't planned on taking anything. Ultimately, we settled on the commission Lou would take from the ride, so in a sense we both saved face.

I pulled a U-turn and headed for the store. It was Friday afternoon and the next day was one of my every-other-Saturdays off. I looked forward to sleeping in. Shades was parked in front of the car service, hood up as usual. Even if there was nothing wrong with his car — and that was rare — leaving the hood up kept him from getting tickets in the bus lane.

I knew Nicky was supposed to be cured, but I'd seen right off that it didn't matter. After he was released on parole the last time I'd heard that the state sent him to Florida for free to enroll in some experimental program, but that first day at Lou's I was stunned. The years of junk were written all over him. Still in the dark glasses, thank God. I didn't want to think about what Nicky's eyes looked like. His face had become tighter — skeletal — and the cords in his neck were prominent from the years of working out. The rest of him just looked used up. If I hadn't known him I would have guessed he was in his late forties. He was twenty-three; that made the two of us and a guy called Little Joey about thirty years younger than almost all the other drivers. It was a typical car service crew, evenly split between retired and retarded, with a few degenerate gamblers thrown in. Surprisingly, no drunks, but then maybe they'd hired me for my potential.

Nicky and I had never been friends, but our acquaintanceship was renewed over the first couple of weeks I was driving. We discussed mutual allies and enemies; who had married, moved, or died; who was on the way up and who was a loser. These were ambitious judgments for two guys with ten-year-old cars shuttling old women to their bingo games for two bucks a pop minus commission. The irony wasn't lost on me, but Nicky was always so serious when he spoke that I didn't bring it up. He never talked about being a junkie either, so I hoped he might be temporarily straight. He was able to get to work on time anyway, something I wasn't all that good at.

Around mid-summer, Little Joey, Nicky, and I began stopping off at Peggy's, a gin mill on my father's route, for a few beers after work. Little Joey wasn't dazzling company. He was aggressive almost to the point of being nasty, probably because he was short and, at twenty-one, nearly bald. He had been laid off from a damn good job as a paper handler at the Daily News and had a bad attitude about the nickel-and-dime money that driving brought in. But we were the three kids and we were sort of thrown together. Besides, Joey loved baseball, and since it wasn't a big betting sport, no one in Lou's except me would discuss it at any length. Relationships have been forged on less.

CHAPTER 2

Gina wanted to go shopping along Fifth Avenue that Saturday, and all my excuses were so dismal that I had to tag along. I didn't know anyone who did anything in the daytime, and figured I'd have to work on that. I swung by her house around noon, fifteen minutes later than I had promised. She was waiting on her stoop with the shocked expression of a bride left at the altar. Since I'd known her, Gina had never managed to be on time for anything. Not school, not any of the jobs she'd lost, and certainly not any of our dates. The only exception was shopping. For shopping she was on time — if not early — and responded to any delay with the understanding of a drill sergeant. Even though I usually arrived early for just about everything except work, I could never resist sitting in the car around the corner from her house until I was at least ten minutes late for our shopping trips. There was no way it balanced out all the time I spent waiting for her over the years, but it made her a basket case, and I took some satisfaction in that.

I stopped at the pump in front of her building and got out, opening the trunk to toss in the several handbags that she seemed unable to do without, but which she never wanted to carry from store to store. She came around to the back of the car and put all her bags in except the one containing her pumps. She'd have to put them on before venturing into any of her regular haunts. She stood up on her toes and I bent down a little and we kissed. Gina was exactly five feet tall and I was just a shade over six. Kissing standing up was awkward if she wasn't in heels, but she wore them almost all the time. She even had a pair of high-heeled slippers. She owned sneakers, but only wore them to and from places — yuppie style — and always changed before we got out of the car. I couldn't even get her to keep them on when we visited her brother in Staten Island and just sat around the house.

We kissed until she couldn't stay on her toes anymore, then I closed the trunk and we got in the car. She began lecturing me about the importance of hitting the stores early on a Saturday. I raised the volume on the radio and nodded my head vigorously whenever she paused to take a breath.

As soon as we were moving she slipped out of her sneakers and began rustling around in her bag for her shoes. She was wearing black jeans and a black denim jacket that was fashionably baggy to the extent that it would have been large on me. The bottom half had dozens of holes the size of half-dollars, each hole ringed in brass. Her bag matched the jacket exactly, except the holes were on the top half of the bag. Probably took a lot of testing in some design house before they realized that everybody would lose their change otherwise. The bag was large also, and glancing over as we drove it was impossible to tell where the jacket ended and the bag began. I reached across and poked a finger through one of the holes in her side and Gina let out a squeal. She came off the seat a few inches and scuttled as far away from me as she could. Gina was about the most ticklish person I'd ever met.

"Stop it," she said, trying to be serious while stifling a giggle.

She kept her eyes on me while she finished changing into her heels, and as soon as we hit a red light she tried to get even. We tormented each other that way for the ten-minute ride to Bay Ridge, and by the time I found a meter and parked, my side hurt from laughing and we were both teary-eyed.

The shopping strip ran from Seventieth to Ninety-fifth, more or less, and we'd worked out a game plan over the years. I'd drive to Seventy-fifth and park there. Gina would shop the five blocks downtown of the car and I would sit in the nearest bar and have a few beers. When she was ready, I'd throw all the shit she'd bought into the trunk, drive five blocks further, and repeat the process. There was usually a ball game on in the bars and I could count on catching it from beginning to end, minus the five or ten minutes of shuttling the car. It's known as the art of compromise.

The sky was starting to cloud over and the wind was kicking up a bit when she pulled me out of the third place. There were only two innings left so I was going to try for a ten-block jump and hope to make this stop the last.

"Remember that place?" Gina asked, giving my arm a squeeze.

"What place?" I said without looking up from arranging the trunk, which had seemed empty at the beginning of the expedition.

"That place," she said, pointing across the avenue dramatically with her left hand extended in front of my face. I looked.

"Sure," I said. "It used to be Ernie's. It was a decent club. Jesus, it looks like they're turning it into a Chinese restaurant. This neighborhood is starting to suck."

"It was where you first kissed me. Do you remember?"

I closed the trunk, walked around to my side of the car, and opened the door.

"Gina, I don't remember what I had for lunch yesterday." I got in, reached over, and unlocked the door for her. Her expression hung somewhere between a pout and a snarl.

"You're such a goddamn romantic. It was our first date. You took me there after the movies. I was impressed cause you knew everyone and nobody proofed us. You kissed me up against the — "

"Jukebox."

"You remember! You just gotta be a bastard about it, that's all." She put her head on my shoulder and locked her arm through mine as I pulled into traffic.

At moments like that I knew I could rule the world if I wanted the job. Holmes himself had nothing on me in deductive reasoning. Ernie's never had a pool table or a real dance floor to speak of. No video games. What would I back her up against? Bar? Too crowded. Ladies' room? No class. Phone booth? Always occupied. Jukebox? Bingo. She almost had me wishing I really remembered.

"Tell me about your first kiss," she said.

"What's to tell? It was great. You were really hot that night."

"Not our first kiss, your first kiss. The first girl you ever kissed."

"You serious?"

"Sure."

"Gina, I have absolutely no idea. That's like asking me about my first beer."

I got shot down on my ten-block jump plan, because just then Gina saw a shoe store that she had to "stick her head in." I double-parked and told her I was timing it.

I had lied through my teeth about not remembering my first kiss, but she was walking on clouds about the jukebox thing so I didn't see any reason to start telling the truth. Besides, it might've led to something resembling conversation. I had had a first, and then a first, now that I thought about it.

Just before my fourteenth birthday I asked Donna Vitale out on a real date. A going-to-the-movies date. She accepted. We'd go to the Fortway because it was within walking distance. We settled on a day that was probably a Saturday, and fell a few days after I turned fourteen. I didn't go to school on my birthday. Never have. I was sleeping late and my mother came in and woke me around ten. She said my father was on the phone and wanted to talk to me. I picked it up from the bed.

"Hey, big shot. You feel any older?"

"Hi, Pop."

"Happy birthday."

"Thanks."

"Whattaya doing today?"

"Nothing. I got nothing planned yet. Everybody's in school."

"Come on down to the depot. I wanna take you to lunch."

"You want me to come to the depot?"

"Take your lazy ass outta bed and come down here. Me and Chuckie wanna take you to lunch. I can't take my kid to lunch on his goddamn birthday?" He sounded drunk already. I checked the time again. Must have been his day in the union office.

"Yeah, sure, I'll come down. When should I meet you?"

"You should meet me when you get here. Come on down." And he hung up.

I was out of bed and hunting through clothes the next time the phone rang. I picked up. It was my father again. "Take a shower," he said.

"What?"

"Take a shower. It's hot out today; take a shower."

"I take a shower every day. What's wrong with you?"

"Nothin's wrong; it's hot out. I wanna make sure you take a shower."

"So I don't smell too bad around the garbage?"

He hung up. Even at that age I should have known better. My father was very sensitive about being in the garbage business. He liked the Sanitation Department to the extent that he loved the politics, titles, and being involved with the union. But he was a real dandy. Never wore his uniform to work. He always left the house in a sports jacket and slacks, with the collar of a lightly perfumed shirt rolled down over the jacket. He carried his uniform — cleaned and pressed undoubtedly to military standards — in an opaque garment bag and changed at work. I never saw my father's hands dirty. That impressed me as a kid, but later I realized he must've been deadwood to work with. He hated picking up garbage and hated being reminded that it was what he did. I think it was why he ultimately faked his injury.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Heart of the Old Country"
by .
Copyright © 2001 Tim McLoughlin.
Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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