Tough to Quit
Charlie Dickles (rhymes with "pickles") could smell cops a mile away.
No, really, he could.
That's why the Bovadiglias wanted him.
And when he was offered his first job, Charlie flinched at a shadow passing in front of his eyes.
A silvery noose had been thrown over his neck.
The choke chain was looped; the loop went around his neck, was snapped tight around his neck, and Charlie was yanked back against his seat.
Charlie could not breathe.
The driver said, "It takes five minutes to strangle somebody until they're dead. That's five minutes where at any time you can stop and the person you're strangling lives."
The choke chain was yanked, snapped tight. The pain came instantly. Charlie was snapped back in his seat. He couldn't breathe. Excruciating pain stopped his heart.
Charlie clawed at the chain choking him. His fingers couldn't get under the chain. Frantically he bucked like a bronco trying to free himself.
Gotta gotta gotta get free
"Five minutes is a long time. You pissed at the guy you're choking? You filled with rage at the fucker? Sometime during that five minutes, that rage has time to cool down and re-consider, hey, what am I doing?"
Charlie fought for his life. He had risen up in his seat, his feet pushed against the floor mats. Now his body was fully extended.
Desperately he reached over his own shoulder to grab at the chain, to control the chain, loosen the chain.
His eyes were wide as an owl's.
Chain so tight, Charlie can't gag.
Oh god I'm dying! Trying to grab the driver. Hands helpless flailing at nothing to grab onto
The driver said, "Five minutes is a long time to be dying. You got time to think things over, what you want out of your last minutes of life."
Pain breaking my heart! Charlie thought.
Panic in my throat! Can't breathe!
His lungs spasmed.
Push back, break the car seat? Can I break the seat?
Using his feet, climbing up the dashboard, feet slipping, falling forward, the chain digging deeper into his flesh.
Grabbing the driver by the sleeve, but his hand was knocked away.
Trying to throw punches sideways. Helpless.
Getting his fingernails under the chain.
The chain pulled back more.
A finger from his left hand got under the choke chain, got between his flesh and the chain. Pushing his finger into the soft part of his neck under the chain.
Can a finger from my right hand find a space by my left hand?
I'm passing out!
But strange hands were ripping at the chain. Hands bumping into his hands. Powerless to do anything? Pushing his fingers aside.
Both men have hands on me.
No! Have to save myself!
Throw forward, doubling over, tried straightening up, but doubled over again, heaving, chest heaving, pain. Both hands inside the chain, pulling it loose, gasping, air in my windpipe, air like sandpaper going into and out of my lungs, feel like gagging.
Pull the chain off me!
"When you're going into eternity, what are you taking with you?"
Charlie huddled against the Cadillac's door. Sucking in ragged breaths, great breaths, fast breaths. Gasping. Cowering. Eyes tearing up. Coughing. Shaking. His whole body was shaking. Shivering suddenly. Couldn't talk. But alive! Couldn't breathe. Sucking in air. Now feel a burning pain. My throat is in agony. So weak. No energy. Arms and limbs not mine, don't feel like me. Wanting to faint. Nose making snorting sounds. Still afraid of dying. Coughing, gagging, dry heaving
He wanted to throw up. Wanted to curl up.
Chest hurt bad. Hacking coughing.
Hands can't touch my face.
So frightened. So frightened.
The two men waited until Charlie ended his dry heaves and started to breathe without gagging.
"Try saying something," the big guy in the back seat said.
Charlie winced. His windpipe was burning. He gulped air from the sudden pain. He ached all over. He was drained of energy.
The driver started the black Cadillac Eldorado moving forward. "We're going for a drive and you're going to tell me when and where the cops are."
Charlie couldn't stop staring at them.
He was horrified.
They tried to kill me!
Over that? Over smelling cops?
The driver said, "You smell cops? You tell me."
They wanted me dead!
The driver said, "You get it wrong you're dead forever."
"Take us to the nearest cop car."
Charlie gritted his teeth.
Only show the pain you can't hide, Jeffrey said.
"Take the next right up ahead," the big guy in the back seat said.
The next three hours were a living nightmare. They drove all over the Las Vegas Valley, seeing whether Charlie could truly sniff out cops.
Now and then the big Italian guy in the back seat would yank the choke chain tight.
"Teach you a lesson," he said.
Later that afternoon, after meeting other members of "the family," on the elevator going down to the lobby, Charlie saw the choke chain marks in his neck in his reflection from the polished brass plate for the elevator buttons.
He tried clearing his voice. Had trouble swallowing. Had to give that up.
As they walked through the red plush hallway of the Valencia Hotel and Casino, Bull said, "You work for me."
Mike Merisi said, "Think of it as taking your medicine. It tastes bitter, but it keeps you alive."
They hiked outside to the porte cochere like old buddies.
Bull Bovadiglia was friendly now. "In this town, if you're not with us, you couldn't get a dog to bark at you."
Charlie tried flexing his voice. He rasped out some words.
"How long do I have to take my medicine?"
"Till you want to stop living."
Then a crazy young woman stuck a .38 Police Special in Bull's belly.
"You son of a bitch!" she cried.
She was Charlie's age. She had blue-green eyes and red hair. She was a skank: rake-thin and hollowed-eyed. She was quivering with rage, and the barrel of the gun wavered at everyone.
She tried to shoot Bull Bovadiglia, but Bull took the gun away from her with one hand and broke her trigger finger with the other. She howled with pain.
Charlie couldn't believe it. Bull's attacker was a dreamy wisp of a girl, an impossibly young woman who looked a year away from high school. She looked soft and helpless, all dimpled, round and soft, pink and white. She was a distractingly pretty young woman.
"You should feel guilty," Bull Bovadiglia said.
He tossed the gun to his cousin Mike, and it seemed to disappear.
Ginger said, "You fuck, you got another woman!"
"How come you want so hard to be stupid?"
Ginger cursed him and tried attacking Bull, but he kicked her right leg out from under her, and he knocked her to the carpet. Before she could get to her feet, Bull jumped on her and sat on her chest. She tried clawing his face, and he grabbed her hands in one hand, and with his free hand he started bitch-slapping her. He slapped her face again and again. Charlie could see that the slaps hurt like crazy, and howling with rage, Ginger, humiliated, fought back as hard as she could.
"Don't I take care of you?"
"I don't want you with her!"
"The fuck I care what you want me to do."
Ginger would rip Bull's eyeballs out with her teeth if she could get free.
A crowd was starting to form: gamblers, casino workers, security guards.
Mike Merisi pulled Charlie away from the fight.
"Ginger Forsythe," he told Charlie. "Remember her name. You don't ever mention her name to anybody, understand?"
He gestured, and the security guards, all mooks, pushed away the gawkers.
Bull told Ginger, "Think about your mother. She's a saint, right, like my mother, right? Everybody's mother's a saint, right?"
She screamed: "Don't touch my mother, Bull!"
"Pick any six guys that I work with," Bull said. "Any six at all, you don't know what six, either. I get some mooks visiting from out of state, you don't know them."
He held Ginger tightly while she struggled.
"Think of her pregnant, Ginger. Any six guys got her pregnant, and you won't know which one got her pregnant. Would I do that to your momma? I'd have your momma fucked over and over by those six guys until she got pregnant."
Ginger was so angry she had tears clouding her eyes.
Bull said, "Give it up!"
She broke down, gave up, gave in.
He hauled off and smacked Ginger and Ginger's eyes rolled. Then Bull gripped Ginger's jaw in his meaty hands. With his palms he smeared her make-up with her tears until she looked like a clown.
"I own you," he said. "Listen to me, Ginger, you forget about me and another woman. It's business. It's not personal."
Through her gulping sobbing, Ginger said, "You're putting her on the streets?"
"As soon as I break her," Bull promised.
"I never put you on the streets, did I?"
When that seemed to mollify her, Bull hauled Ginger to her feet. Then he kissed her like a man kisses his new wife. Now she was thoroughly buffaloed.
As the security guards were escorting Ginger Forsythe away, Bull said, "You go home and wait for me, get it?"
Some years later, drunk, Bull Bovadiglia once boasted, "Anybody can kill anybody. But not everybody can dispose of the body."
Bull's mother's first cousin Vito owned a funeral home, a very successful mortuary on Las Vegas Boulevard North. Except for the dirty brown mountains behind it, the building looked like a junior version of Monticello with extra parking under the willows.
Some of the mooks hired out as pallbearers at Bull's mother's cousin's mortuary.
That first summer, back when the Bovadiglias had so much more to hide from the fifteen-year-year-oldCharlie sat in the backseat of Bull's limousine, a paper bag over his head. He heard the trunk open and something heavy get lifted out. He heard one of the mooks stumble and mutter a curse and the other mooks told him to shut the fuck up.
That week Charlie heard through the hotel grapevine how Bull Bovadiglia confronted one of the family's enemies and poured a paper bag of ashes on his enemy's desk.
Charlie didn't hear what was said between the two crooks, but Bull's enemy turned pale as a ghost and left Las Vegas for Brooklyn the next morning.
Five years after the incident with the wisp of a redhead at the Valencia, Charlie and Annette and baby Sean were shopping at the Sears store, when they heard a loud scuffle.
"Like a bar fight," Charlie said.
Bull appeared out of some dress racks and accosted them in the aisle. Bull looked like he had been rolling around on the department store floor.
Adjusting his clothes, Bull said, "Shellhead, you come with me."
"He's with me," Annette said,
"No, with me," Bull said.
Annette opened her mouth for a battle.
Mike Merisi stepped between them, pulled the ever-present wad of C-notes from his pants pocket and peeled off a couple of bills.
"Buy something pretty for the baby," he said.
"So, you, shut the fuck up," Bull hissed, pushing the notes at Annette.
Angered, Annette started to squawk, looked at Charlie, wondering why he was hunkered down, saw they were hundred dollar bills, and her eyes never left the money, and her mouth snapped closed.
"Be a good girl," Bull said. "Be quiet. Go home."
"You make sure she gets home okay," Mike Merisi told Bull's older boy Cesare.
Bull told his son, "You do anything stupid, I'll poke your eyes out."
Every man there blanched at the vision of a pair of ice picks poking into his eye sockets. But ice picks were the Bovadiglia signature. Everybody remembered Salvatre "Salvie" LaRusso who worked nights around town for a C-note as a bouncer or doorman. The ice pick broke off in his neck. He was on probation at the time of his death, Charlie remembered.
Pissed, Annette faced Charlie.
"Why do they call you Shellhead?"
Charlie couldn't tell her. Instead, he went with Bull and Mike Merisi, and she was taken home by Cesare Bovadiglia.
As they hiked through the department store, Merisi said, "You can cut off a guy's balls faster with a hundred dollar bill than a knife, and he'll do everything to help you."
Bull's younger son Beau Bovadiglia was at the rear of the Sears by the freight elevator with a hamper on wheels that was covered over with dresses on hangers. He was cleaning himself up from a nose bleed.
"Okay?" Bull said.
"Fuck off," his son Beau said.
Bull smacked his son hard enough to spray blood on the beige walls.
The three rode the freight elevator down in silence. The way Bull stared at his son, Charlie knew better than to speak.
Then Bull relented. He reached out and rubbed his son's skull tenderly. All was forgiven.
On the ground level Bull and Mike Merisi waited for Charlie to step out onto the loading dock, walk around, smell the air, and give the all-clear.
"I want no cops around when I do stuff," Bull said for the gazillionth time.
Through the store room Mike Merisi and Beau pushed the very heavy hamper over to the loading dock. They were alone the entire time. The casters on the hamper squealed and rattled like a suit of armor being moved.
Bull's black Cadillac was stopped outside the loading dock. Uncle Nicodemo, the old mook who sometimes chauffeured, had the trunk open and engine running.
Bull made Charlie go stand in front of the Caddy, his back to them, so he couldn't watch.
As he smelled the air behind the store and listened to the rumble of the big V-8 engine, Charlie felt like a hood ornament. His fear of Bull Bovadiglia and his fear of being crushed and killed kept him scanning the parking lot, pushing out his psychic sense (if that was it) as far as he could. Like radar of a submarine trapped on the surface.
Charlie heard the trunk close and then re-open. He put his fingertips on his carotid artery and felt his pulse throbbing in his neck like Apache war drums. He heard the trunk slam shut the way a Caddy trunk should sound.
Then Bull was directly behind Charlie.
"You okay, Shellhead?"
"Can I go back to my wife?"
Mike Merisi started for the stairs up the loading dock.
"Shellhead, get in the car," Bull said.
Charlie pleaded: "I want to talk with my wife."
"Get in the car."
Charlie rode in the backseat next to Bull.
He kept silent so Bull wouldn't smack him.
They drove out to the mortuary. They parked around back, encircled by a wall of hedges, oak and willow trees and a wire fence.
Bull went inside alone. When Mike showed up in his car, he left it and walked completely around the mortuary.
Charlie stood in front of the Caddy, his back to the action, and stared out at the new housing developments going up all around Las Vegas Boulevard North. No cops for miles, his senses told him.
Bored and twitchy, he let his talent stretch up over the valley. A police helicopter miles away smelled faintly of Metro cop smell. Bummed out, he was thinking maybe being dead might be okay. Being dead was better than being a pasty, he thought.
Charlie heard the men's voices. He heard the trunk open. Something heavy was lifted out. Then the trunk closed again. He did not turn around and look.
After Charlie stood watch outside the crematorium, Mike Merisi came and grabbed him by the back of his neck. He bent Charlie over the hood of the black Eldorado and held Charlie there in a vise-grip.
"Ginger Forsythe? You remember her name? The crazy chick who pulled a gun on Bull in the lobby at the hotel, what, five, six years back? You remember, right? Remember this now, kid. If you never hear her name again, it's okay, okay? Anybody says her name, forget about her. You never saw her."
Charlie said, sure, yeah, okay, whatever you want ...
Bull slapped him on the back.
"No cops nearby," Charlie said.
"Get in the car," Bull said.
Mike Merisi drove Charlie home.
There's no future, Charlie thought.
Pay the rent. Put food on the table.
Inside his place, Annette was already there. He didn't look at her.
Copyright © 2012 by Fred Zackel