I was looking away from the window, opposite it in fact, at the rectangle of light it cast on the fifties paneling and old theatrical posters on Sid's back wall. I was tired of looking at Sid, so I thought maybe I'd brush up on the big road productions of 1969, just in case it was ever a category on Jeopardy. Just in case I was ever on Jeopardy. As I was wondering whether the babe in the Oh!Calcutta! poster was a grandmother yet, the rectangle of light disappeared and reappeared. It was so fast I thought something was wrong with my contacts.
There wasn't. "Holy shit!" Sid usually had a pretty good two pack a day rumble, but the last word came out a falsetto squeak. He was out of his chair and nose flat against the window in the time it took me to snap my head around. No mean feat. Sid was the kind of big fat guy who runs dirty book shops but who happened through a lucky roll of the genetic dice to inherit a theatrical hotel. He covered almost the entire window.
His hands were on either side of the sill. "Jesus, Sid, what is it?" I said. "Boy or girl?" He spun as fast as a fat guy could. "Didn't you see it? Didn't you hear it?"
"See what? Hear what?"
"Not much, asshole. Just some guy just went past my window at about a hundred miles an hour. Going down."
"Jesus Christ." I was on my feet now too. "You heard him?" We were both headed for the door.
"Kind of? Was he screaming or something?
"I heard him hit. He sounded like a water balloon."
"Jesus." We were through the lobby and onto the street. It was the middle of an October Tuesday morning. Not much traffic. Just the guys from the Korean grocery standing in front of the shop staring openmouthed and starting to wonder whether the approaching siren meant that the cousin in the back room was going to have a big INS problem.
I was a little bit relieved when I saw the body. I thought he'd look like roadkill without the treadmarks. Instead he was just a guy curled up on the sidewalk, maybe having a little snooze. For a moment I wondered whether he might still be alive. Then I noticed the puddle forming around his head. Then if you paid attention you saw that he was spread out and flattened slightly on the pavement side. He must have been going pretty fast when he hit the concrete.
I figured it was the cops' job to look at his face. But Sid had to look, too. After all, it was his hotel. He swallowed hard, getting ready. "Hey," he said, "I hope the fucker is at least paid up for the week, huh?" He walked around to the other side to get a look. From the way his face changed I guessed it had to be pretty horrible. Maybe the guy's eyes had popped out or something. "Shit," said Sid. "Shit. Shit shit shit."
I didn't say anything. I didn't know what to say. Sid walked back around the body. The siren was getting louder. The cops would be here in a second.
Sid looked like he was thinking. "It's Holy Joe."
"Shit," I said. It seemed the only thing to say.
He turned suddenly and bounded with his surprising new speed up the four steps to the lobby. I followed. I knew where he was going.
Fortunately the elevator was free. I didn't want to think what would happen if Sid tried to go up five floors by stair. "Fuck," said Sid as the doors closed. "Guy finds Jesus in a tree in Columbus Park. Every tabloid in the country all over him for a month. Even Japanese TV. Two years later he's in a big hurry and says hey, why bother with the stairs, I'll just go out the fucking window."
"Fuck," I agreed. "It wasn't Jesus in a tree, actually. It was a tree that looked like Jesus. Then when the TV crews showed up he saw Mary in another tree."
"What was Joseph, a squirrel?" Before I could answer the elevator doors opened. "Which room?" I asked.
"And what makes you think you're coming, asshole?"
"I'm the press, asshole."
He snorted and pulled a passkey out of his pocket. I knew we had only a couple of minutes before the cops came up and I wanted to see the place first. Sid was right; Holy Joe was a celebrity, and the wire services would pick up whatever I had to say and then some. Next week I'd be out of features and maybe out of town. The word Pulitzer formed in my mind and I pushed past Sid and into the room.
Of course the first thing that hit me was the open window. Cheap curtains with some kind of mock Colonial pattern flapped in the light breeze. But the breeze didn't do anything to cut the smell. Not the musty stink of a headcase SRO. It was a grandmother smell, powdery and warm and sweet.
Then I noticed the source. On the dresser were maybe a hundred votive candles, all lit, flickering in little glass jars the colors of hard candy, deep green and blue and red. They were arranged around all these statues of the Virgin. Some were little plaster jobs that looked like First Communion gifts; others, Baroque confections dripping gilt, I guessed had come from Holy Joe's fans in the glory days.
Every other flat surface in the room looked the same. If I closed the window we would have suffocated in minutes. On the walls were the kind of pictures you see in Italian grandmothers' kitchens, highly colored representations of Last Suppers and Bleeding Hearts and Crowns of Thorns.
"Jesus," I said. "Jesus."
Behind me Sid guffawed. I surprised myself by getting angry. I mean, the guy had been dead about five minutes and he obviously took this stuff pretty seriously. But before I spoke I saw what he was looking at.
In the center of the unmade bed was a pile of magazines. From where I stood I could see a couple of titles. "Big Black Titties" "Ebony Orgies" and "African Leather". Well, he was consistent, give him that.
Sid, still laughing, was holding something in his hands. He extended it. "Recognize this?"
I didn't, really. The thing was about a foot across, elliptical, and mounded in the center It was light pink except in the middle where it was almost magenta. It seemed to have a slit or cavity in the middle of the deepest pink. Something liquid glistened in the slit. "I don't."
"Jeez. Your social life must be worse than I thought. It's a pussy."
"Okay, well, not a real pussy, obviously, an artificial pussy. And because I just found a switch back here I can tell you it's an electrical vibrating artificial pussy." He fumbled with the back and the thing almost jumped out of his hands. "Whoa, down girl. And I hate to say this but it looks like it got kind of used in the past, oh, ten, fifteen minutes."
I was still trying to absorb the notion of an artificial pussy when two cops walked in. I knew them both. I'm only a features writer but it's a one-paper town; we get to know everyone.
Quagliano was the first to speak. He was pushing fifty but still carried himself like some thirty year old cavone, paunchy but taut, with a forty-dollar haircut and I think a little bit of a tint going on. He said he wasn't a detective because he couldn't stand the paperwork. Which wasn't quite right. He wasn't a detective because he was stupid. "So hey, Sid," he said. "Not for nothing, but you got this dead guy in front of your place. And whaddaya know, here you are in his room with Jimmy Olson Cub Reporter."
"Hey Quag," I said, "showing your age. Jimmy Olson's in the senior center."
"Yeah right. Shut up." Good to see that the cops know and respect the power of a free press. "So Sid. Tell."
Sid passed the artificial pussy to Quags. "Well, Sherlock," he said, " I know you'll make me and my pathetic theories look like assholes, but here we go. One we got a religious nut who jumped out my fucking window. Two we got a room that looks like the fucking Vatican. Three we got a pile of Afro-American split beaver gazettes. Four we got a freshly-used artificial pussy. Five we know that these candles don't burn that long. So here's what I think. Laughing Boy fucks this rubber snatch while studying these Somalians and then feels real bad about it, so he lights these candles, says some prayers, and jumps. Or maybe he lights the candles, fucks the rubber snatch, and then jumps. But the way I see it he's fucking a rubber snatch and jumping."
Quag's lip curled. "You know what I think? I think you are a fucking disgusting degenerate."
"You do? Oh. Say, you know you got a dead guy's jiz all over your shirt?"
Quags looked for the first time at what Sid had handed him. Oddly enough he didn't seem to have any trouble recognizing it. Nor did he have a problem identifying the viscous fluid that had run out of the orifice and onto his nice navy uniform. He flipped the fake pussy into the air like a midget pizza and ran out of the room.
I thought Sid was going to wet his pants or have a stroke or something. But Sid wasn't the only guy laughing. This surprised me. Mike the Cop is so called because he is the image of probity. He is also one of the scariest looking people I've ever seen. He is a five-foot-seven-inch two hundred pound African-American Pentecostalist with a shaved head who can bench press five hundred pounds. Three times. He looks like a mailbox. With a gun.
The doorway was suddenly busy. Quags was back and he wasn't alone. I was getting a little antsy. I wanted to get to a phone. Another hour and someone was calling it in to AP before me. But now I couldn't leave. Not with the mayor there.
The mayor always made me wonder whether there was an extra Stooge who didn't get through the screen test. He had rubbery lips and pop eyes and really bad hair. His voice was particularly unfortunate; he reminded me of a Saturday Night Live character I could never quite place. "Sid," he said. "Nice. We let you keep this fucking flophouse open and what do you do? You let a saint snuff it."
Sid sounded genuinely aggrieved. I didn't blame him. "Hey, I'm running a hotel, not a clinic. I give these guys towels and sheets. No Prozac. What the hell was I supposed to do?"
"Oh, I don't know, Sid," said the mayor. "Maybe talk to the guy once a month or so when he paid his bill. Maybe show some interest. Maybe, I don't know, call somebody when he started to look like he was going off the deep end. Maybe remember you live in this town." The mayor's edgy whine was heading up into registers that were making every dog for blocks whimper and urinate. He turned to the guy with him. "Hey, Tommy, what's up with this guy's liquor license? He get it yet?"
Tommy the Thug was pretty close to the Bizarro World version of Mike the Cop. He sold out to the Dark Side before he even knew there was another side buying. Tom knew where all the bodies were buried because he'd put them there. "Pending," said the Thug. "Deniable."
"Good," said the mayor. "Forget about it, Sid. It's history. And that's just the appetizer." In another minute the mayor would no longer be audible to humans at all. "This is going to make me look like an asshole. We got great ink out of Joe. Guest of honor at every right to life rally between here and Boston. and now what? Even without this guy we're on Rather tonight." He jerked his head at this guy, who happened to be me.
Quags coughed. "Uh, Nick." The mayor jerked upright and glared. "Sorry. Mr Mayor. It's actually kind of a bigger problem than you think"
Sid cleared his throat and explained. In terms somewhat more delicate than those he'd used with Quags. So delicate, in fact, that at first I didn't think the mayor got it. Tommy sure did. He rolled his eyes, crossed himself, and ran his big Irish head into the wall. Twice.
The mayor nodded slowly. "Oh. Okay. So our most famous citizen not only takes a dive from our own little piece of the Bowery, he has one last little fling with a mail-order sex toy first. Oh. Oh yeah. Before I forget, he's face down in a centerfold of Miss Nigeria while he's pumping the latex. But not until he's turned the place into Saint Peter's Basilica. So it's not so bad. Maybe we could host the North American Man-Boy Love Association convention next year. And I can blow a boy scout to kick it off."
"Christ," said Sid. "What are you panicking for? How the fuck did you get yourself elected in the first place?"
"You heard what I said. Now cross your legs so your tampon doesn't pop out. I'm telling you what we're going to do." He did. When he finished the mayor didn't look nearly as angry as when he came in. He looked at me. "Okay. Okay. Tommy?" He glanced at the Thug, who nodded once. Then he looked back at me. "What about this asshole?"
I was this asshole. What a surprise. "I got a story to cover," I said. " Now maybe two stories."
Tommy laughed. This was always bad for someone. "Oh, right," he said. "What's this, Woodward, Whackoffgate?"
He was going to continue but the mayor stopped him. "Don't fuck around, Tom." He passed over his cellphone. "Call the rag. If they want the tax abatement for the new plant this story gets spiked and this guy covers little league for the East Shore Shopper."
Tom flipped the phone open and started to punch buttons. Four digits in he stopped and raised both eyebrows. "Well? What's it gonna be, Bernstein?"
I thought hard. On the one hand was journalistic integrity and a shot at a big break. On the other was the certainty of a medium-sized break and the continued ability to pay for little luxuries like rent and day care. And I also thought about my wife's little old Italian grandmother reading this story in the morning, clutching her chest, and going face down in her biscotti. With my byline on the breakfast table.
I didn't have to think long. "Okay," I said. "The pussy isn't necessary."
The mayor and Quags laughed at the same time. "Hey, kid, it's always necessary for this guy," said Quags.
I ignored him. "So that's me," I said. "But if it gets out I ate this I'm buried. What about these guys?"
"What guys?" The mayor looked perplexed. It obviously hadn't occurred to him that the Civil Service Commission and a couple of unions could kind of get in his way with the uniforms. "These guys? Come one. Hey, Quags, you want to retire a lieutenant or a sergeant?"
Quags was not a big thinker, and he never tried to act like one. "Lieutenant," he said.
"Attaboy." The mayor turned to Mike the Cop. My stomach clenched. The mayor's multicultural sensitivity was not all it could be. I'm sure he figured that with Quags and me in the bag a mooley with a badge was not going to be an issue. I was afraid he was about to offer Mike two quarts of malt liquor and all the Popeyes' he could eat.
I was close. "So," said the mayor. "You forget what you saw and you go to the top of the extra-duty list downtown. What's hard about that?"
Mike's face was impassive. I remembered all of a sudden that he was a deacon. "I don't think so," he said.
"What the fuck?" The mayor looked at Tom. Tom didn't do anything.
"I saw what I saw. I'm on the job. It goes into the report." His face hadn't changed. His eyes looked like obsidian chips.
"Hey Mike." Sid's voice was softer than I'd ever heard it. "Whatever else this guy was, he was a man of God. Let people remember him that way."
Nobody moved. At length Mike spoke. "Okay. I didn't see it." He turned to the mayor. "Forget the extra duty. I'll take my turn like everyone else." He walked out.
"Okay, assholes," said Sid in his normal voice. "Let me do the talking downstairs too. But first, Scoop, you call in the story. We'll listen."
We didn't go downstairs for an hour. Except Quags, who made sure Joe's fly was zipped up before anyone else saw the body. So by the time we walked out of the lobby Joe was in a big bag on a gurney and there were a couple of TV trucks making absolutely sure that the crowd knew that this was a big deal.
The mayor, of course, couldn't leave all the talking to Sid. Not with gubernatorial aspirations and an uplink to the networks. He kept it short, though. A tragic accident had cut short the life of a man many considered a saint. As was about to be explained by one of our city's businessmen, Holy Joe's friend as well as his landlord.
I was impressed. Microphones, cameras, and what was by now a couple of hundred people left Sid unfazed. "I've known Joe for two years," he said, "ever since he saw the Holy Family in Columbus Park and came here to have a little quiet. And he was a quiet man, so it was hard to get to know him at first. But I saw him every day and we would talk and sometimes we would pray together." Incredibly, Sid got this out without turning into a pillar of salt. This was not what he'd mentioned upstairs. The mayor's solemn face didn't twitch, but his eyes seemed to bug out a little more, which I wouldn't have thought possible without them actually leaving his head and bouncing down the steps. Tommy the Thug was a little less restrained. Checking first to make sure that the cops on the steps below shielded his body from view, he dropped his fist to crotch level and made a few quick jerking-off motions.
Sid flowed on. "In the last few weeks he told me that he had seen something over the Green, in the clouds. Just when it was cloudy, like it is today. You can see the Green from Joe's window, but you have to lean out and crane your head to get a good view. I guess today he leaned too far." He paused as though overcome. "What he saw was the Blessed Virgin Mary. I guess he's with Her now." Then with one big hairy paw he made the Sign of the Cross.
I actually heard a few muffled sobs. Sid stood with his head bowed and then turned majestically back to face the hotel. He lifted his eyes to the fifth floor where Holy Joe's curtains billowed and flapped in the breeze. Then he turned again towards the Green. His big moon face scanned the clouds like a satellite dish. So did every other face in the crowd. I saw the Cross made a dozen times. A cop reached into his uniform shirt to extract a crucifix to kiss. I picked out details from a murmur that rose and fell like surf. "Holy Mother of God." "Madrone."
Sid started up the steps. We followed. Just as we got to the door Tommy the Thug leaned over and whispered to Sid just loud enough for me to hear. "You're a thief and a whore," he said, "and I admire you for it."
I didn't know about Italians until I met Gina.
I grew up in the Iron Range of Minnesota and went to college in Madison Wisconsin which my folks pretty much considered Sodom and Gomorrah because there were two gyros joints on the same street and you'd see hairy girls in Birkenstocks holding hands in the food co-op. But the Olive Garden was pretty much the only toehold the Italian Boot had dug into the shores of Lake Mendota.
The depth and breadth of the cultural divide didn't really hit me until the first time I went out with the boys from the newsroom on a Friday before Christmas. We went to an upscale gin mill with wood paneling and yards of beer and Ivy League oars suspended from a smoke-browned tin ceiling. Happy hour wound up ending about nine o clock. While we stood on the pavement outside laughing men wrapped their arms around one another and kissed cheeks and wished Buon Natale while I stood rigid and sweating . As one advanced towards me my editor grabbed his shoulder and said, "He's not a hugger." No, I'm not, I thought as I shook hands as warmly as I could.
I had been in town less than a year and sunk pretty much all of my discretionary income into a gym membership. I was pumping away on a bike when she walked past in a jogbra. I first noticed the cleavage and then I saw the crucifix. Jesus looked like an Acapulco cliffdiver, arms outstrectched, ready to plunge into depths I could barely fathom. And that of course was the whole story, though I couldn't know it then.
So we started dating and then after a while she wanted me to meet the family. Sunday dinner. The whole family. Having met some of the key players individually in the previous few weeks I knew that they had not, shall we say, completely dissolved in the melting pot. I also had the distinct sense that they'd never met a Lutheran before and weren't too crazy about this Reformation business anyway. So I decided hey, when in Rome. So to speak. So I went out to the Barnes and Noble and got some cassettes and practiced in the car for a week.
I obviously hadn't really been paying attention to where I lived because when she said "the whole family" I thought she meant the mother, the father, and both siblings. You know, nuclear. Like the Cleavers. Did you ever see Beaver have an aunt or an uncle or a cousin? Do you know how many cousins you have? No? Right.
So I could hear them when I got onto the porch. And it was the dead of winter so that meant they were blasting through a lot of insulation. Maybe there was some mistake. Gina opened the door. Shit. Right house.
There may have been forty people there. The guys were watching football and yelling at each other. The noise was so deafening and so apparently random that I couldn't begin to make out team loyalties so I decided to keep my mouth shut. The women were all in the kitchen whaling away at big aluminum foil trays.
Gina took me around to make introductions and I had the sense to just smile and bob my head and shake when appropriate. Her father treated me with his usual suspicious disdain. Until today I hadn't seen the tattoo snaking up his forearm. I was surprised when her mother kissed me. My mother doesn't kiss me.
The meal itself went reasonably well. I passed dishes and nodded and smiled whenever anyone spoke even though the background din made it impossible to pick out more than syllables. Gina looked at me every so often and smiled and squeezed my hand but I could see a little bit of that Bambi-in-the-headlights look of sudden despair. I wasn't fitting in.
Then I saw my big break. There was a tray of olives in front of her grandmother, the father's mother, an eighty-year-old widow with a face out of Leonardo's notebooks. I leaned over and asked for the tray in my best Barnes and Noble Italian.
She looked at me as though I'd just farted. Her mouth worked like a freshly hooked carp. She glanced at her son, Gina's father. Her son looked at her. Conversation stopped all around the table and probably all over the block. He leaned across the table. "What did you say?"
Obviously my accent was a bit off. I repeated myself, clearer this time, my Tuscan crisp as breadsticks. "PASSI PREGO LE OLIVE." My shirt was starting to stick to my back.
Around the table uncles were beginning to mutter. Jesus, what had I said? "Say it in English," said father.
"I just asked her to please pass the olives."
His lips moved for a minute. Just beginning to smile he turned to his mother and repeated the Italian I thought I had spoken, only pronouncing it as though he had a cleft palate and a mouthful of marbles. Grandmother's eyes narrowed, then widened as she let out an explosive whoop of laughter. Now that she had everyone's attention she repeated what her son had said, in that weird Sicilian stroke-victim slur, then, pointing at me, repeated what I had said in an exaggerated mince that made me sound like a Neapolitan Oscar Wilde.
Nothing in the noise before had prepared me for the hurricane that knocked me back in my chair. Uncles were pounding each other on the back; aunts wiped streaming eyes with their napkins; little cousins almost incontinent. Through it all Gina kept shouting, "He's trying! At least he's trying!" I knew then that I had no choice but to marry her. Obviously a small wedding; nobody from her side was going to show up.
At last they stopped. Her father turned to me again. "Hey," he said, with something like tolerance. "Where the hell did you learn that? Switzerland? Okay, paisan, let's try it again."
It lasted half an hour. With uncles and aunts pitching in and grandma so delighted I thought she'd break into a tarantella. But when it was over I asked for the olives in a garbled Mediterranean slur that actually got me the olives and a fresh glass of wine and a dozen claps on the back and a big handshake from dad. After that I wasn't in— I never would be— but I enjoyed the same respect and affection usually reserved for a diligent and mildly retarded bagger at the Stop-and-Shop.
So after that Gina and I got engaged and by and large it was smooth sailing. Not as smooth as it could have been, of course. Where I come from we don't really have tempers. Scores don't really get settled; no, they fester and metastasize and nobody really knows that somebody's mad until Oly's had about fifteen beers with brandy bumps at the Garrison Keillor Bar and Grill and all of a sudden he's swinging a barstool and the town constable's calling the States.
Here's how I learned about tempers. One day, before we were married, I looked at my watch and it was about a quarter to twelve and I knew Gina was home and I didn't have anything to do until two. So I went over and later we were lying there and she said, "Oh God, I could relish in this forever."
"Revel in," I said.
"Revel in," I said sleepily. "You say that all the time. You either 'revel in' something or you 'relish' something. You don't 'relish in' something."
Silence. Then: "So I embarrass you?"
"For Christ's sake. No. I was just pointing something out."
Suddenly she sat bolt upright. "So I've been wrong all this time when I say I'm relishing in something? And you've said, oh, that's stupid guinea Gina, let's humor her so I can get into her pants?"
"Gina, look, I just thought——"
She threw the sweaty sheets aside and leaped to her feet. She planted her fists on either hip and thrust out her jaw. She looked like Mussolini declaring war on Ethiopia. That is, if Mussolini had a pair of solid D's and legs up to his armpits. "Oh, let's see if stupid Gina can use this in a sentence? Here goes. 'Let's see you relish a nooner again.' Wait, how about this: 'You won't revel in your dick in my mouth.'"
I was sitting up at this point and mouthing apologies. She tore the sheets away. "You come to my fucking house and tell me I'm a fucking idiot?"
"That's not— "
"The fuck it wasn't!"
Well, suffice it to say that thirty seconds later I was hopping one footed into my Dockers and less than a minute after that I was in the parking lot buttoning my shirt and trying to open the door of the Tercel while she leaned out the window screaming, "Oh, how I relish this sight! Even a stunad like me can revel in a smart guy with no shoes! Oh, did you forget something? Here they are!"
She leaned out farther and wound up like she was throwing out a guy at first base. I was relieved to see that she'd pulled on a tee shirt; even in the middle of this bad Sophia Loren movie I didn't want the neighbors to see those gongs flapping around in an early spring breeze. Anyway, the first one— the right, I think— bounced harmlessly against the pavement. Her next, better aimed, ricocheted off the car's roof and caught me on the ear.
I turned speechlessly to the open window. She stood there in obvious satisfaction, her hands on her hips again. She nodded twice, hard, which sent everything jiggling. "I am disgusted," she said. Without another word she slammed the window shut.
The next day, of course, she was fine. Terrified, I had been unable to sleep the night before. I tried to bring up the scene when we spoke on the phone but all she said was, "What?" and in a rare moment of common sense I didn't pursue it. But I was having lunch with my editor that day, who was a) a woman; and b) Italian, or at least half. So I decided to ask her what had just happened.
"Easy," she said. "It's a contract."
"Listen, Sparky," she said, "you've seen The Godfather, right?
"And being a newspaper guy and all, you read about Sicilians blowing up Prime Ministers? By the way, is she Sicilian?"
"All four grandparents."
"Yikes," she said, spearing a ball of buffalo mozzerrella. Which, by the way, in this town we call "moots" in Sicilian fashion.
"So it's easy," she said. "Look, you ever wonder how it is that the folks back in the old country can do these terrible things and then build churches to the Virgin?"
"Yes," I said. "I just thought it was hypocrisy."
"No such thing," she said, chewing contentedly. "Contract. See, over there, when you do something to someone, steal his goat, invade his territory, whatever, you do that knowing that there's going to be a payback. You know. So when the other guy pays you back, blows up your car, whatever, he's just closing the deal. Nothing wrong. You knew it was coming. You knew it was coming when you stole his goat. You consented. So after he kills you he can go to your funeral and take communion with a clear conscience because hey, you knew you had it coming."
"My God," I said.
"So my advice to you, my friend," she said, pushing me the bread basket, "is don't piss her off. Or when you do, do it knowing that there will be a payback. And like they say, payback's a bitch."
(to be continued . . .)
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