“Your lip’s getting better.”
Dan did not answer. He was watching a black guy with a beard walking a German Shepherd on a thick leash. Back and forth across the plaza that fronted the Cathedral. A show of strength, Dan thought, power. He and his friend, Jay Cassio, were sitting at the top of the sweeping stone steps that led to the soaring church’s huge front doors. A few clouds drifted across a pale blue summer sky above Branch Brook Park, sunny and deceptively serene, which they could see into from their panoramic perch.
“What happened?” Jay asked.
“Crazy Eyes was beating on my mom,” Dan answered. “I tried to stop him.”
“Why didn’t you tell me that last week?”
“I wasn’t sure what to do, but now I am.”
“Kill the fucker.”
Dan stole a look at Jay, who was pursing his lips and shaking his head. Somber Jay, grown up at thirteen. He then turned his gaze back to the guy with the dog, who was now joined by a young boy with an Afro. Probably his son, Dan thought. Don’t fuck with my kid. He and Jay were among the last white kids in the neighborhood. They were left alone for the most part, but that was only because Danny could fight and had taught Jay some of what he knew. Like don’t fight to win, fight to destroy.
“I’m only telling you in case I have to run. Hop a freight train.”
“There are no freight trains around here.”
“I know where they are.”
“Are you serious?”
Dan nodded. “I have to do it before he kills my mom.”
“Has he hit her before?”
“All the time.”
“He’s big though, Jay. That’s the problem.”
Dan looked directly at Jay now. He was implicated. He wished he wasn’t, but he couldn’t leave Jay cold assuming he came up with some kind of a plan to kill his father, and then had to run. When they were six they had cut open their hands and mixed their blood. Then they had gone about the business of surviving in post-race riot Newark, a city that turned bleak as its white ethnic neighborhoods vanished in two or three quick years and reappeared in the suburbs.
“You’re scaring me, Dan.”
“Antoinette left home.”
Again Jay was silent. I’m sorry to do this, Jay, Dan said to himself.
“Where’d she go?”
“To my cousin’s in Belleville.”
“My mom says they’re working on her wedding dress.”
“I’ll tell my parents.”
“They already know. Your mom’s been to my house a couple of times when Kay had a black eye, or a swollen lip.” Dan remembered the hope he had when he saw the look on Carmela Cassio’s face the day she first saw Kay’s bruises. But that hope faded. Among Italian-Americans of his parent’s and the Cassio’s generation, there was no interfering in other people’s families.
“I’ll help you,” Jay said.
“You can’t go head to head with him.”
“I almost did the other night.”
“Why, because I’m short?” Dan, unable to stop himself, gave Jay one of his looks as he said this. Mock hostility. Or was it? Stocky and muscular, Dan was indeed short. At five-five he stood six inches below his friend, who was sprouting that summer like a string bean. Dan’s height never came up between them, an unspoken rule never broken, until now.
“You’re tough,” Jay said, ignoring——except for the slightest of smiles appearing for a second in his handsome gray eyes——Dan’s look, and the word short. “But he’s twice your size, and he’s strong from laying bricks all day. And he’s nasty.”
“What about that kid with the bike? He was twice my size.”
“You had a running start, and you took him by surprise.”
“I’ll figure something out.”
“That’s what I’m worried about.”
Dan smiled then, relieved. He was still afraid of his father, with his huge arms and that demented look in his eyes when you crossed him, or just as often for no reason at all, just to show you how mean he was. But he wasn’t afraid of the consequences any more. He had given his friend Jay a quick glimpse of the hell that was his home life, and Jay had offered to help kill Dominick. He didn’t mean if of course. What normal thirteen year-old boy even considered murdering someone? And Jay was normal, whereas he, Danny, was not. Not with that violence in his house for as far back as he could remember.
“Let’s go talk to that guy with the dog,” Dan said, getting to his feet.
“He takes the numbers at that black bar down on Stone Street.”
“Protection, Jay, protection.”
* * *
The guy in the black suit was there again, smoking. The last two days Danny had crossed the street at the corner then turned down an alley in the middle of the next block that took him to the back stairs of his five story apartment building. Today he decided to use the front entrance.
“Kid,” the man said as Dan approached, “do you live here?”
“No,” Dan replied, “down the street.”
“Do you know a guy named Dominick who lives here? They call him Crazy Eyes?”
Dan did not answer. The man’s eyes had widened in surprise at Dan’s question and then narrowed as he asked his own. He was very clean-shaven, his face pale, almost white. He was taller than Danny——most people were——but thin and a little jumpy, agitated about something. Dan couldn’t tell how old he was, but not old, maybe thirty. Dan remained silent and watched as the man threw his cigarette down and stamped it out. His shoes were shiny, new, but the black suit he had on was old. With his white shirt and thin tie he looked like one of the pallbearers that Dan saw from time to time when there was a funeral at the church around the corner. His hair was thinning already.
“Because I’m asking,” the man said. “I need to talk to him.”
“I don’t know him,” Dan said, trying at the same time to step past the man, who grabbed his arm, stopping him.
“I thought you said you didn’t live here.”
“My grandmother lives here.”
“I’ve seen that old lady.”
Dan stepped away but did not try to shake loose from the man’s grip. He was tempted to. As he was tempted to head-butt the man in the teeth. But he didn’t. Mrs. Zoppi, an old crone with only one front tooth lived on the second floor.
“How old are you, kid?”
“Do you know Mindy’s on Sixth Avenue?”
“I’ll be there the next few days. Here.”
Dan looked at the twenty-dollar bill folded in half in the man’s hand, which was also white and pale. Bloodless, Dan thought, a word he didn’t know he knew.
“If you see this guy Dominick around, let me know.”
“I told you I don’t know him.”
“I think you do.”
Dan took the bill and the man let go of his arm.
“What do you want to talk to him about?”
The man did not answer. He eyed Dan up and down. “You got balls, kid, don’t you?” he said, smiling, showing even white teeth broken by a gold cap on top. “Go ahead, go visit your grandmother.”
* * *
“There’s a guy outside looking for dad.”
“That was him on the phone. He’s coming home.”
“What about that guy?”
“He says it’s taken care of.”
Dan’s mom, Kay, had been on the phone in her bedroom when he came in. He could here her voice through the apartment’s thin walls. She was making coffee now, a five o’clock, after-work ritual of hers, while they talked.
“Here, take this,” Dan said, putting the twenty dollar bill on the kitchen table.
“Where’d you get that?”
“I helped the Hawk unload.”
“He gave you twenty dollars?”
“Yesterday and today.”
Kay picked up the bill and put it in the front pocket of the cardigan sweater she wore to work most days at the small fuel oil company in the neighborhood where she did the books and took orders on the phone. The water in the aluminum coffee pot would take a while to come to a boil. She sat down.
“Where’s he been?” Dan asked.
Only thirty-nine, his mother’s long once-black hair was mostly gray. Once or twice a month, her friend, Carmela Cassio, would come over and help her dye it from a kit sold at the drugstore. The stuff smelled weird, but the two women laughed and drank coffee as they worked on Kay’s hair, which Dan loved to see.
“Not around here,” Dan said. “The guy would have found him.”
“He can always find a game.”
“She’s at Arlene’s. They’re working on her dress. She’s sleeping over again.”
Dan joined his mother at the table. He nodded, but said nothing, pretending not to know that his sister, only eighteen and getting married in six months anyway, had moved out.
“Maybe he won,” Dan said.
Kay shrugged again.
The coffee pot whistled and Kay got up to turn down the gas flame. She looked at her watch, another drugstore purchase, before sitting back down. In five minutes it would be ready. Dan watched his mom. She seemed, if anything, bored. But he knew this was an act, her way of suppressing the anxiety she felt when she wasn’t feeling depressed, of getting through another day. Not too many more, he said to himself, struck by how calm he felt, at how comforting was the bubbling sound of the coffee as it brewed; was the strong, nostalgic smell filling the small kitchen, the scene of so much family trauma.
* * *
Later, Danny was watching television in the living room with his mother when he heard the front door swing open, and footsteps moving through the kitchen. Dominick came in and slapped a wad of bills on the coffee table.
“There’s five hundred dollars there,” he said. “What good will that do?” Kay said, staring at the money but not touching it.
“Don’t start, Kay,” Dominick said, going over to the wall near the door and turning on the overhead light. Bright lights were one of his intimidation tactics. He wanted you to see that nasty smile of his, the madness in his eyes. He’s right, Kay, Dan said to himself, don’t start.
“I need to pay Sorrento’s by Friday,” Kay said. “And the rent’s due on Monday.”
The restaurant they had booked for Antoinette’s wedding reception was asking for a two thousand dollar deposit. If they didn’t have it by the end of the week they would book another event. Dominick owed the local bookie another two thousand. Maybe more. The guy downstairs was probably working for the bookie. Dan had little interest in school, but he paid keen attention to his small dysfunctional family and the streets he roamed all day. He surmised that his father had borrowed from a loan shark and spent the last two days and nights gambling, most likely playing poker at an all night club on the other side of he Passaic River in Kearny or Harrison.
Dan stood up and faced his father.
“What?” Dominick said, looking at Dan, his eyes flatter, not burning as brightly as Dan thought they would be. He did win, Dan thought, he doesn’t have to beat anybody up tonight.
Dan did not reply. He looked at his father, his mason’s forearms thick and hairy, cement dust still in his fingernails from the last time he worked. Last week he had accused Kay of having Antoinette with another man. You were already pregnant, he said. You had that other boyfriend. Why should I pay for her wedding if she’s not my kid? Kay had leaped at him with a kitchen knife and Dominick had hit her with a closed fist across the face, crunching her nose, from which blood poured onto her housedress and the worn linoleum floor. Kay had attacked him again, unbelievably, and Dan had stepped between them, catching the blow meant for his mother full on the mouth.
“Nothing,” Dan said. “I’m going out.”
* * *
The night was warm and Dan was wearing his customary jeans and T-shirt and low-cut black sneakers. Crazy Eyes had been drinking, which was another sign that he had won. When he won he celebrated with whiskey. He says it’s taken care of, Kay had said. He must have stopped by Mindy’s and paid off the money he owed the bookie. Although sometimes when he won he went right back out and lost it all back, thinking he was God. Mindy’s was just a candy store with a pinball machine. Dominick drank at Valerio’s where he could get credit and where other degenerate types either celebrated a score or licked their wounds.
Dan sat on a milk box concealed by the side of a dumpster in the alley behind Valerio’s, trying not to notice the smell of piss and vomit and garbage. He had watched earlier from a doorway across the street as his father went into the bar. The moon was full, but there was no looking at it tonight. Only later, lying in bed, intoxicated with what he had done, thinking of the fifty-two hundred dollars under his mattress, would he remember how bright the night was, and, strangely, how fitting it was, like a stage perfectly lit. In his hand he had a heavy wrench wrapped in two woolen socks. He knew the drill back here, where he would sometimes make a delivery or a pickup for one of the numbers guys or drug dealers in the neighborhood. He gave his pay, usually five or ten dollars, to his mother, telling her he had helped the local grocer unload a truck. The bathroom inside was small and disgusting and usually stopped up anyway. Guys preferred the alley, where there was a drain of some sort in a dark corner across from the dumpster.
He watched as one or two guys came out, swayed, pissed, zipped up and went back in. He didn’t have a watch, but time was not a factor. He knew without thinking it that time held its breath when you were waiting for your life to change. When Crazy Eyes came out and started to piss in the corner, Dan stepped across the alley and whacked him on the back of the head with the muffled wrench. Down he went, like a bag of old bones. Dan dragged his father behind the dumpster and leaned him against the brick wall. He put his hand to his chest and felt his heart beat. In his front pocket was a money clip full of hundred dollar bills. These he stuffed in his pocket, throwing the clip into the dumpster, alomg with the wrench.
On his way home he stopped at Mindy’s, where, for another twenty dollars, he told the man in the black suit where he could find Crazy Eyes Del Colliano. Lying in bed, he went over their conversation.
“Are you still looking for that guy Crazy Eyes?”
“Do you know where he is?”
“Why are you looking for him?”
“He cheats at cards. He owes somebody money.”
“What if he doesn’t have it?”
“He’s a dead man.”
“I need another twenty.”
The man in black had smiled, showing his gold cap, and reached for his wallet.