The thing is the guy, I don’t know, I thought I could trust the guy. He was older, seemed like he knew the ropes. I had seen him coming out of that place where they hung out. Salerno’s. It’s a Starbucks now but back then it was the place, these made guys coming and going all day, younger ones standing around outside feeling at their waistbands every time someone they didn’t know got within a block. The cops, they stayed clear. That’s how things were in those days. There were agreements, arrangements.
This is, Jesus Christ, this is the Seventies? Back then it was still neighborhoods. Guys you knew because they were the older guys, your buddy’s brothers or their sister’s boyfriends. You might know them from school or from the playgrounds or the corners but you knew them, knew who was coming up and knew enough to not ask any questions when one of them went away.
So this guy, I could see he was in it in some way but I was too young to know what any of it meant. Who was who. What it means to be inside Salerno’s and what it means to drop something off with the guys on the doors, light a few of their cigarettes, tell some jokes then strut back to wherever it was you came from, holding your breath and hoping.
I was sixteen, seventeen? He was kind of a cool looking guy, had this way about him, a style. At this point, he was going with Terry’s sister, this redhead name of Cherry. I shit you not they called her Cherry. Like I said I was sixteen seventeen and something like that, something like Cherry? Like Salerno’s? I was just a kid so who was I to say shit when the guy asked me can I get him a ride? Can I get us a ride. I remember he said it like that because at the time I was surprised, shit I was happy he knew my name: hey Eddie, can you get us a ride?
I guess I was hanging around too. I had run some errands, lit my own share of cigarettes for the door guys. If I’m being honest maybe I had started to show up in places around the same time I thought maybe he was going to be there. Like I said, at this point I was just a kid. I didn’t know nothing about what happened across the river.
Now I know it was all bullshit, that he didn’t even have a piece. Told me to stick a roll of fucking wintergreen life savers in my pocket, that it would look like I was carrying. No, even worse than that, the way he said it: it’ll look like you’re carrying a friend. I remember because, I mean, who says that? I’ve been now, how long, forty some years off and on and I never heard another guy say like you’re carrying a friend. Look like you’re carrying a fucking gun is the way you would say that but you know what’s even better? Carrying a fucking gun.
He was like that, though. Worried about appearances. Or maybe more like appearances were all he had, trying to bluff his way into being one of those guys and never even around it enough to realize the real guys, they don’t bluff. Now I wonder if he was kind of, you know, if there was something missing with him and just being cool looking, that hair and Cherry on his arm walking down the street, if it all kind of covered up whatever was wrong with the guy.
We got to the tunnel and he started getting, I don’t know, different. Trying to work me, play me, get me prepared to play out some bullshit scenario he’s got in his head. He started talking all of this shit like how we got ourselves out on the line, how this was our last chance, all this Butch and Sundance shit like we had done this before, like something more had happened than him catching a runner taking a piss in an alley, a lucky swing, and then being such a numbnuts he couldn’t even find a ride through the runnel. The asshole had got himself into some kind of trouble with Cherry and thought he had some kind of deal set up with the big man on the other side.
First of all, it was never gonna be just one guy. Trust me it is never one guy. We got to the place -- nice place, what I thought it was going to be like across the river, to be honest with you -- and he nodded all cool to the guy at the door, said we’re the ones from the other side, the ones here to see the big man. I watched him tap at the goddam life savers in his pocket. He kept on reaching in his jacket to make sure this envelope is in there. Meanwhile he’s looking at me like be cool, Eddie. Don’t smile, he said.
We got in the room and right away I knew it was bad. It was dark, full of smoke, empty but the table with the big man and who I later found out of course was Erin the Gnome and Brooklyn Chris and the one who would become like a father to me, Sammy Squillante. The big man shook our hands, said sit down, and right away the welcome went out of his voice and he just went right into it, asking why he would be dealing with a couple of small timers from across the river, where did we get off stealing from him and trying to sell back.
The big man looked at me and I saw him look to Sammy. Erin the Gnome put his gun on the table and we both backed up, put our hands up. Sammy did that thing he does with his shoulders and he yawned, another thing he does when everybody else is tensing up, and he said out loud, “I don’t know, maybe this one is smart enough?” He nodded at me and while the guy was reaching for his life savers I took my gun out and just did it right there, right in the side of his head. I reached into the jacket and put the envelope on the table. I looked up and everybody was shouting and there are maybe ten pieces trained at me. I’m lucky to be here telling this story, was lucky to walk about of that place that night, lucky Sammy took an interest and that he and Sheila had never had kids of their own.
So I guess I owe him something. I mean, now I know he was just a dumb kid, too, a kid we rolled up in a carpet and dropped out at some waste management place owned by the big man. Been to that place a couple times now, couple times a year now that I think about it.
Every now and then when I’m on that side of the river I think about him, how he had himself all worked up for this meeting, how he had tried to make some kind of scene from a movie. Funny thing is this was the first time I realized, to be honest, either side of the river, it’s pretty much the fucking same. I mean, there’s a goddam tunnel, you know? There’s a bridge. It don’t make you some kind of gangster or anything at all, really, to go from one side of the river to the other.
Dave Housley is the author of two novels and four story collections, most recently Howard and Charles at the Factory. His work has appeared in Booth, Hobart, Quarterly West, Ridivider, and some other places. He’s one of the Founding Editors and all around do-stuff people at Barrelhouse. He is the Director of Web Strategy at Penn State Outreach and Online Education. He tweets at @housleydave.