Back to the Boke
"You got a bathroom here?"
Jimmy's frantic. Old guy, late seventies. Capillaries rippling through his face. His eyes are wild, his body trembles. He reminds Ricky of dogs who are about to take a shit on the carpet. Ricky steps out of the doorway of the brownstone and points to the door of his own apartment.
"Right in there. On the left. Go."
Jimmy mutters his thanks as he runs.
Ricky steps out of the threshold and onto the stoop. He's wearing sweatpants and a threadbare T-shirt. Tall, early fifties. Good muscles on his arms; the abs not so much anymore. He looks down the street. Across the road, where the old farts congregate at the Napoleon Club, a guy in aviators looks up at Ricky from the sidewalk, chuckling at him.
"What's a matter," Ricky says. "You don't have a bathroom down there?"
The guy's got his hands in the back of his pants, as if propping up his spine. "We don't bother with that fuck." He shifts one of his hands and winces. "Fucking crybaby. It's his penis. Got prostrate trouble. Everybody's got it. I should cry for him?"
He goes in the club, still laughing.
Ricky stands on the porch. Parked in front of his apartment house is Jimmy's truck, crammed full of junk. Out-of-whack screens. A boiler. Radiators. Tire rims. Lengths of pipe. All of it rusted out and looking like they've been wrenched with great effort from wherever they were once installed.
When Jimmy comes out of the apartment, he's hiding his eyes. Far as Ricky can remember, Jimmy was always a shambling sort. Used to make low-level runs for Ricky's father, back when Ricky's father was doing the things that got him his bunk in Rahway. Things Ricky's mother doesn't talk about now that the old man is gone.
Jimmy looks ashamed. Drops of piss on his blue work pants.
"Jimmy, what do you get for scrap these days?"
"Not enough," he says.
Which seems to remind him. Jimmy carefully inspects the trash bins in front of Ricky's place. He extracts what looks like four lengths of powder-coated gray pipe out of a blue plastic bin, which is stenciled with the words, HOBOKEN RECYCLES. The tips are fitted with adjustable plastic discs. Ricky pegs them immediately as the legs to some cheap-ass Ikea computer desk.
"You need this?" Jimmy says.
It's in the fucking trash. And there are ten apartments in Ricky's building.
Ricky shakes his head.
Jimmy drags the legs along the sidewalk and dumps them in back of the truck. Loud clanging.
Jimmy gets in the truck and takes a while, breathing.
"Don't get old," he tells Ricky.
Then he tug, tug, tugs on the truck door until it pops with a screech and slams shut. And drives away.
You can waste a lot of time in the morning and this is what he does most days. Putters around the apartment, fusses with the coffee maker and lingers over scrambled eggs and bacon, watching the morning news, taking a long crap and an even longer shower.
A few months back he was sick at home with the flu when they announced the planes had hit the towers. A horrible fucking thing happening just across the river from Ricky's place. Ricky sat the whole time in front of the tube, disbelieving. He'd tried to call some of the guys he knew at Aldo's security firm. Guys he drove for. Guys he was supposed to see today. But no luckhe couldn't get a line out. When they announced one of the towers had fallen, Ricky didn't believe it. He ran out the back door onto the fire escape and up to the roof. Stood there on the gray sheathing and watched the stinking smoke across the river. He could only make out one tower. And then, right before his eyes, no tower at all.
He's been at a loss since. Now, sure, he can go to the library to use the computers, spend time surfing the web, work on his resume, and upload it to the various sites he learned about in the seminar last week about finding work in the digital age. But he isn't going to do a lick of that shit.
Noall he has to do is make one call once a week to the unemployment hotline, type in some numbers, and he'll have drink money for the week. On top of that, he has some savings. He has some contacts. Bouncer work. Bodyguard work. He even has an offer to lead classes on office place security from the very same outfit that's giving classes on finding a job in the digital workplace.
In other words, Ricky has options. This is what he keeps reminding himself.
But right now, his personal feeling is that the digital workplace can suck his left nut.
When the phone rings, he ignores it.
His heart isn't in it. He doesn't feel it. He is not going to come along nicely. He is not going to be one of those go-getters. The truth is, in spite of the bread he's pulled in for sixteen years working on Wall Street, driving around shitheel suits and allegedly keeping them safe, he always knew that he owed his success to being in the right place at the right time.
Aldo had known his father from his days in the Boke. Aldo had gone straight. Aldo had been sentimental enough to pull others after him, and all Ricky had had to do sixteen years ago was say yes to a cushy job that got him off the streets of the Boke around the time his brother went inside.
But now Aldo and most of his guys were among the missing.
Ricky knows other firms are hiring. Jesus, everyone right now is beefing up their security. He could certainly apply, but they'll want to do a background check. They'll want him to be bonded. He didn't have to jump such hoops for Aldo. Ricky could theoretically jump them now, but he doesn't know if he can risk having anyone find out about his father and brother. They'll never find anything on him, because in spite of all the things he'd pulled for his father, Ricky has no record.
When he lets himself get down, he feels somewhat fucked. What the hell is he going to do? Does he have anything he can put on a resume like the suits who've been displaced? He does not. Is there anyone in the big town who will vouch for him? There is not. So now all Ricky wants to do is sack the fuck out.
Around 11:30, close to lunchtime but not quite, he heads down to Moran's at the top of Church Square Park. Paul stops whatever he's doing behind the bar and comes over to shake his hand and ask about his family. See? Respect.
He doesn't know what to say sometimes. His father is dead. His mother is close. His brother is inside. His sister, who gives a fuck. No, he's the only one left in the Boke, the only one anyone remembers of that fine lineage.
"You eating or drinking?" Paul says, though he knows the answer.
He pours off a pint and sets it front of Ricky with a shot. And leaves the bottle there too.
The day warms up. Paul puts SportsCenter on. The lunch crowd is light, as usual. Ricky washes the lunch special down with more boilermakers.
He hasn't drunk like this in years. Not since the days when he was bouncing. He'd get off shift and hit the industry bars. Aldo had pulled him out of one of those places, straightened him out.
Those days are gone, and Aldo's gone with them.
Close to four, when the yuppie pieces of shit start streaming in, Paul asks, "How we doing?"
Ricky feels like sleeping right here on the bar. But he can't do that to Paul. It would embarrass them both.
"Let's us wait a bit."
The water comes. Fucking beautiful.
He is sitting waiting when Sal comes in with the delivery.
"Rick," he says, "how you doing? Heard you were hanging here."
"Oh," Ricky says, "who told you?"
See, right there? That's proof you've gone soft. Who gives a fuck where he's heard it?
The guy sits. Gets himself a ginger ale. Off the juice but on the sweets.
"My father said he heard you were out of work, maybe you're looking to pick up a few hours. Like the old days. No disrespect, we just thought it would be nice to have you there."
Ricky looks at Sal. Jesus, he's getting fat. You don't see it in yourself but you see in your friends, in the ones you came up with.
"I'm out of the other business," Ricky tells him. "I have no intention of reclaiming that, you understand?"
"I wasn't asking about that, Rick."
"But if anyone asks, that's what you tell them."
"We were just talking about you coming and help us out with the deliveries."
"No one cuts meat anymore, Rick. Things have changed."
Once, the Boke had its own slaughterhouses. The cattle that weren't butchered here were shipped across the river to the big town to meet their doom in the meatpacking district. Beautiful fucking days they were, but no one in Sal's family remembers those days but his grandfather, whose nerves are shot so bad now that he can't carve a hamburger sitting on his plate.
"Now everything comes to us boxed," Sal tells him. "We apportion it out according to the orders. Once in a while, if a customer orders something special, we have to cut it. But pretty much it's loading the trucks and doing the deliveries to restaurants. The supermarkets have their own sources now, God fuck 'em."
Ricky's touched by the offer. He really is. But he doesn't want to say anything. He never liked working all day in a fridge.
Neither does Sal.
"God forbid my old man goes tomorrow, I'll sell the building to these developers. Let them build another shithole for the yuppies. I'll retire with the money."
Retire? Look at him, Ricky thinks. Sal's fifty-four, about the same age as Ricky, and talking about Florida like it was a chick giving him a free show.
Sal looks in Ricky's eyes. "Hey, you want something? A sandwich or something? I'm buying."
"I ate already."
"The fried thing. The special."
Sal looks at his watch. "I should get going."
"I'll think about it, Sal. I really will. I appreciate the offer."
He walks past the "senior-centered" apartment house on the way back. Ugly apartment building that disgorges oldsters on walkers all day long. Taxis and the granny short buses swing by to take them to banks or doctors.
He's passing by when he sees a head pop out an open window.
"Hey, hey, hey ..."
Only, Jimmy can't really see Ricky all that clearly because he's waving from a few stories up and he's wearing sunglasses.
"You're Victor's boy, right?"
I'm fifty-two, Ricky thinks. I will never stop being his kid. Either I leave this town or I deal with it.
"Can you get me some stuff at the A&P? I can't go out."
This is why the guys at the club hate Jimmy. Nobody but Jimmy would think of making such a request.
He rattles off a list. Orange juice. Campbell's soup. Cottage cheese. Some first aid supplies. Coffee. A package of Steak-umms.
"You need money?" Jimmy says.
He dangles a twenty from on high. Ricky knows that if Jimmy drops it, it will end up in Cleveland.
"I'll get it from you later."
The A&P is on Seventh and Willow. Ricky can use the walk. Clear his head. Forty-five minutes later he's riding the rattling, drafty elevator up to the fourth floor.
Down the hall, the carpet smelling of stale food, trapped air and foul-assed pets.
He raps on the door.
Jimmy limps over, waving the twenty. "Thanks, thanks, here you go, here you"
Ricky looks at him. "What happened to you, Jimmy?"
"What do you mean?" He pauses. Waves it off. "Nothing. Kids. Here's the money."
Ricky reaches for the bill, but feints and goes for the glasses instead. Jimmy's face looks like roast beef.
"Who did this to you?"
"It's nothing. Some fucking kids. Said I was poaching their route."
"You know, the scraps. You know I go around"
"I know. Who done this?
"It's nothing you gotta get involved with, kid. Everyone knows you're out the life, God bless you. You got the peroxide?"
"Look, all I want you to do is stand there and look big. That's all."
"I'm backup, in other words."
It's 10 p.m. They troll the back streets uptown, getting closer and closer to the northern border of town. Walter cracks pistachios, his lips getting redder and redder. Ricky's hunched over the wheel of an Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais he boosted from the parking lot behind the senior center. Its owner will never miss it at this time of night.
Ricky drives in slow, ever-widening circles around the blocks, passing mostly new townhouses that have been built in the last decade or so during the housing boom. A lot has changed since he started working in the city. Some of the new buildings have retail spaces on the ground floors. Dry cleaners, coffee shops, nail salons. The newer condos are bright and gaudy, their facades looking like you could punch a hole in them with a fork.
Other buildings, the old warehouses and factories, have been dusted off and converted into "lofts." One of these places, closer to the cliffs hovering over the Boke, is completely draped in Tyvek sheeting. Only after those rich fucks moved in did they figure out that their charming pre-war factory residence was contaminated with chromium. Now everyone is suing each other and the EPA is crawling all over the site.
The hell did they expect?
Ricky heard once that they were going to build a second bridge south of the G.W., a straight shot to Manhattan from the Boke. Somewhere in the backyard of one of these older brownstones in the commercial end of town were the abandoned pilings of that bridge.
It's funny to think of a project like thatso big, so ambitiousnever getting off the ground, and dying here in the weeds on the Jersey side.
On the outskirts of town, the brownstones end and they see auto body shops, discount clothing marts, fenced-up parking lots, and vacant brownfields crawling with tall grasses.
"You related to Jimmy or something?" Walter says. He's a fat fuck in his twenties, between jobs, who maybe shouldn't wear sweatshirts this tight. He's tall, though, with a face and hands that remind Ricky of some of his father's old crew. Ricky has seen Walter around, but he doesn't really know him. Walter is the best the geniuses at the Napoleon Club can come up with.
Ricky shakes his head no.
"Then why do anything for him?" He lifts a nut to his teeth. Crack crack crack. "He's kind of a pain in the ass."
"He worked with a plumber is all I know. Then did some constructions jobs here and there. What's your point?"
"I'm saying you're putting yourself out for a nobody."
"You have grandparents?"
"Yeah, all four, God bless them. Still alive. They're in Florida."
"Then you know all about it, then."
At 12th Street, Rick gets inspired and guns the car over the concrete bridge that runs along the water.
Up ahead, he sees the lights of vehicles streaming into the Lincoln Tunnel. When he was working in the city, he rarely took the Lincoln or the Holland. The PATH trains were enough for him. All he needed was a five-minute zip and he was right there in the bottom of the towers. He'd go in earlyfive or six a.m. if he was hitting the gym. If he was driving for the firm that day, he took the train across to Jersey City to pick up a vehicle at Aldo's garage.
Ricky has grown up thinking that he is trapped between two streams of traffic, the upper and lower gates, if you will, to the rest of the world. The Boke is indeed cut off from the rest of Hudson County, the rest of Jersey, the rest of humanity, by those cliffs at its back, and two exhaust-choked lines of traffic. Some days the traffic moves beautifully, elegantly, to the big town. Other days, it's a clusterfuck of honking, shouting, and vehicular reaming until everything is packed into two of those three black rectums and shat out on the other side.
Across the river he can see the Empire State Building lording over it all, regrettably back in first place. The building is pretty and all, butand Ricky means no disrespect to the city that has filled his pocketsit is really no big whoop.
"They fucked up Jimmy. I get it. But he's no relation of yours, is he?"
"Then who gives a fuck? It's just Jimmy."
"You know, if this was my car and you were eating those nuts, I'd leave you off right here."
Two guys. One short, one shorter. The taller of the two, who comes toward Ricky in the alley, is more interested in challenging him than making excuses.
"Get de fuck out. We seen it first."
In the light of the sodiums Ricky can make them out. Both Hispanic. Surebecause as soon as you cross the concrete bridge you leave the civility of the Boke behind and enter Latin America.
The littler one has tats. The face of a dragon peeking out from under the shirt he has rolled up over his left biceps. And a girl's name. His girlfriend's a fire-breathing serpent? Nice.
"We got all this," Little says. "De whole block."
His hand seems to take in the world, but Ricky figures he is really just talking about the demolition site a block from the tunnel traffic.
"I came to talk to you about a friend."
Behind Little, Tats's eyes scope out the corners of what's left of an alley between the shells of two buildings. Nothing else here but brick rubble and poorly erected cyclone fencing. His eyes alight on a small piece of pipe under some debris. He pounces on it. Wrenches it off the ground and tosses it in the open door of their sagging tan van. He's trying to make himself useful, probably too restless to focus.
Ricky struggles to understand what Little's saying through his thick accent. It sounds like he's saying he and his boy have come to an understanding with the managers of the site. They are cool with Little and Tats boosting whatever.
"I could give a shit," Ricky says. "I'm here because of Jimmy, the old scrap guy."
"Who de fuck?"
"Tall guy? Old?"
As Ricky talks, Little is already shaking his head. Not even listening. Cutting him off. Shutting him down. "No," he says, "no."
Ricky hates that shit. Hates it.
"You don't know an old white guy you beat the crap out of? Boosted the shit in his truck? Left him lying on the road?"
"No, I don't." Little says. "I don't. I don't."
Like this was the sentence he had to say to make Ricky leave.
These guys match Jimmy's description, which isn't saying much. But so does their van. Just from the looks of them, Ricky figures they haven't got the patience to stay in this game. Not at 35 cents a ton. Most likely, they will tire of scrapping in a few weeks, move on to something else, and their beatdown of Jimmy will have been a waste of their own time.
"You're full of shit. I see you over that bridge," Ricky starts to say, gesturing over his shoulder. "I see you over this fucking bridge, you pieces of shit, and we're going to have"
Little rushes him. Just like that.
One second Ricky is trying to make himself look as bad as he ever has. The next, he is tasting his own blood. The guy has plowed into him, sending Ricky's jaw clamping down on his own tongue. His nostrils fill with the smell of body odor and hair tonic or cologne. It's all over the guy. Ricky tries to get a hand on the guy's hair, to pull him off his chest, but his fingers graze harmlessly over a slicked-back scalp. Ricky does a forearm sweep and shoves the guy back against the fence. He comes at Ricky again, pounding him in the gut. Tats just leans against the open door of the van, laughing.
Then a shot rings out.
And three things happened at once.
Walter screams like a baby.
And the big little guy crumples to the gravel.
Walter holds out his hand, wincing in pain. At first, Ricky doesn't see shit. It's the same old fat hand. Ricky tilts the guy's palm to the street light, and sees a tear in the flesh of his palm, right under his index finger. Blood's trickling.
Ricky gestures for the piece.
Walter hands it over. An old thirty-eight, looks like. Old. Ricky tilts it under the light. Makes out the bumps and pits in the steel. Duct tape covers the grips where the wooden panels have fallen off. Ricky's thumb gently probes under the tape and locates a sharp splinter of steel.
"Where the hell did you get this?"
"My father keeps it in the shed. Behind the house. In his toolbox."
"To shoot rats."
"You see this? See where it's flaking? It's rusted to shit."
He raises the weapon. Walter flinches.
"You fucking idiot. I tell you to bring a piece and this is what you bring? Invest in your equipment if you're going to do this."
"It burned me."
"No. The recoil cut you. It's a piece of shit, okay?" He jerks his head. "Go in the car. Wait for me."
Walter starts to lumber away, cradling his palm.
Ricky stuffs the gun in his back. Looks down at Little. He's sitting with his back to the fence, his ass in a growing blood slick. The guy wheezes, looks up at him with those eyes.
"Please," he says, "please."
"You see how your friend ran off? You see that?"
"Please," the guy says.
His voice is already spluttering.
Ricky looks up at the sodiums. Looks into the street. Looks around the alley at the buses and cars crawling up the city's ass.
I left this shit behind. I have options.
He calls to Walter. "Hold up."
The big guy turns, still holding his hand like it's a sandwich he found on the sidewalk.
Jesus fuckI got out of this life.
"Walter. Hand me that pipe, will you?"
Copyright © 2012 by Joseph D'Agnese