So I splurged and paid two bucks for a recently invented traditional European type coffee and spun around the corner to Sid's place. In front of the hotel, on the sidewalk, at Holy Joe's ground zero was a mound of flowers nearly three feet high. Any day now there'd be a fountain. It was actually kind of nice to see that none seemed to have been disturbed. Probably bad karma, or its Mediterranean equivalent, to fuck with it.
Here was something out of the ordinary. There were about twenty little old Italian ladies on their knees on the steps of Sid's hotel. They were all saying the Rosary. I knew they were Italian because they were in uniform: black dresses and orthopedic shoes. They had considerately formed up in a double rank so that pedestrian traffic could pass. Just as I got to the door I saw that the head cheerleader was actually a nun, of the old school, wimple pulled so tight that the flesh of her face popped from its starched confines. Kneeling her head just reached above my waist. Thus she looked exactly like a big penguin.
Once inside I went straight to Sid's office. "Hey, monsignor," I said. "What the fuck?"
"What do you mean what the fuck?"
"What's the deal with all the crows on the front steps."
"Oh. Them. Don't you love them?"
"Yes. Do you?"
"Fuck yes. Yes. They give me money." He laughed with childish glee. He was still wearing his funeral suit. He must have bought it five years and thirty pounds ago. Double breasteds always look a little odd when you can't button the jacket, particularly when it's about a fifty short. Nevertheless, he had looked pretty good at Joe's funeral. He was three rows back, almost head of state seating when the Cardinal's officiating and the pallbearers are Kleagles or Grand Wizards or whatever the Knights of Columbus call their big guys.
"They give you money? Can't be because they like you. Nobody likes you except maybe me, and I think tolerance is about as warm as even I get."
"Tolerate this." He fumbled at himself in a hapless effort to grab his crotch, but he was sitting down, and his belly and thighs got in his way. "Fuck it. Anyway. The nonnies want to see Joe's room. So I show them. I told them that I'm very busy this time of year and it's very hard to keep the room vacant because of demand."
"On your best day you're maybe forty per cent occupied."
"Do they know this? So I tell them I'll hold out as long as I can. So they start pressing money into my hands when they leave. So I won't rent it out. They pray. They cry a little. They try to steal things."
"The madonnas. They can't resist. I've had to start asking them to leave their handbags outside the room. So I think maybe I might start up a little trade in artifacts. In fact I already have. I got two hundred for one of the little ones. And you know those fucking candles? Twenty each"
I was impressed. But I saw a couple of flies in the ointment. "Uh, Sid. Those things aren't, uh, yours now, strictly speaking, now are they? I mean, I know his mom lives out in the Cove. They're hers, right?"
Sid snorted. "She was here yesterday with that little pious guinea lawyer of hers. She snuffles and rubs her beads. So I ask her to leave the room for a minute and the lawyer starts to read me the riot act about private property and unjust enrichment and shit. So I say hey, weren't you kind of running Joe's books for him after he got all that dough from magazines and TV and Steven Forbes and whoever? So he says, yeah, and? So I say jeez, isn't it funny that he wound up bouncing a couple checks for a hundred a week rent. Your trust account, too. I wonder where all the dough went. So he looks at me a minute and Mom walks in. He tells her everything is fine but that I'll be taking care of winding up his affairs here and it looked like he owed a few bills and some of the stuff would have to go. So that I'd be sending her whatever was left. Have a nice day, peace be with you, out they go."
"Nice." So that was where the money went. Why wasn't I surprised. "But how much cake can you get out of this? Only so many candles and BVM's up there."
"Way ahead of you. Look." He pulled open a desk drawer. I went around the desk a little cautiously. Sid always had some pretty weird stuff in that desk. Some of it you could go to jail over just for knowing what it was, much less owning it.
In the drawer were maybe a dozen boxes. Their fronts were clear plastic so the contents were easily visible. Each contained ten blue and white statuettes of the Blessed Virgin. Behind the boxes were smaller containers full of votive candles.
"Jesus," I said.
"Exactly." Sid's grin was never pretty. "Exactly. A miracle. Loaves and fishes, asshole."
It was two weeks before I saw him again. I was sitting on a bench opposite St Lucy's on Columbus Square eating a meatball sub from Big Tony's around the corner Three tour busses pulled up in front of me. All with Jersey plates.
The doors hissed open and people started to pile out. They were mostly middle aged or older, mostly women in scarves with the occasional husband in a VFW windbreaker. They were all looking in the same direction across the park.
"HELLO! WELCOME! GOD BLESS YOU!" A vastly amplified voice boomed across the square and broke down into feedback squeals and eventually silence. I could see a figure in the middle of the park bending over a big black box that I took to be some kind of amp. The figure straightened up and waved to the busses. It looked something like a bear with an hormonal disorder. I recognized it immediately and joined the crowd, now moving towards him.
Sid was wearing a headset. He finally had the amp under control. "Thank you for coming. God bless you for coming." He was wearing a dirty tan raincoat, open like an exhibitionist's, under which I saw a clerical-looking black turtleneck and a big pectoral cross. "We're standing at the foot of Joe's Tree." A hundred heads craned towards the branches. "This is where his visions started. But this is a vision we can share." He whipped out a silvery tube that for a moment looked to me like a vibrator for an android. He clicked it on and a brilliant red point appeared on the tree's scaling bark. My God. Laser. Sharper Image. Who'd have thought?
"You can see the nails through Our Savior's feet where I'm pointing." The light danced up and swung right to left along adjoining branches. "There they are through His hands." The light traveled up the trunk to an old birdsnest. "And there's the Crown of Thorns. It's harder for us now to see what Joe saw. But many times when we walked together Joe brought me here to show me what he saw. Some of you were here three years ago when Our Savior showed Himself to Joe and He was easier to see." A dozen people half-lifted their hands, tentatively, as though they hoped to be called on to witness but were afraid of calling too much attention to themselves.
There was a little old lady in black tagging along with the crowd. Obviously local; she was carrying a shopping bag from which I could see protruding a bunch of broccoli di rapa. Because little old Italian ladies are pretty much interchangeable I didn't recognize her until she smiled and waved. Gina's grandmother.
Because her head was about four and a half feet above the ground I had to bend over for the big one armed hug. "Nonny," I said, "what are you doing here?"
"I just want to see the tree again. Here every night when it happen. We didn't know you then. We all could come." She was certain that if she just acted as though I was a nice Italian boy I would become one. Hey, who knows; she'd scored midnight mass two Christmases in a row. "Did you see it then?"
"Nonny, I came. But I couldn't see it."
She sighed and patted my cheek. Maybe sympathy; maybe a slap she just didn't have the energy to deliver. "You see it. One day I know. My Gina says you're a good boy."
I smiled and thanked her. I wanted to leave, but Sid was starting in on the Rosary. Gina's grandmother fumbled in her purse for the beads and started to creak down arthritically into the turf. I always hated it when this happened. I never knew what to do. I couldn't just walk off with her stuck in the mud. And anyway I knew whatever I did would get back to Gina. The wrong move meant sleeping on the other side of a yard of cold sheet. So I stood there as Nonnie started the rhythmic mumble.
Suddenly I realized that I was the last man standing. This was the part I hated the most. When I did it in church with the whole family; then it was just good manners. Now it looked too much like belief. Oh hell; no way out.
My knees hit sod. Naturally I found a puddle. Gap cords aren't waterproof. And even Catholics don't really know how long a Rosary is supposed to last so they just keep going until exhausted. Halfway through it Nonnie put her hand on my arm for just a second. She squeezed and went back to her beads.
When the last soul was finally out of purgatory we got up. The busses started to fill. "You know this man with the hotel?" she asked.
"I do. He's— " well what was the word?— "he's my friend."
"Can I see it?"
"See what, Nonny?"
"The hotel. They go back there now."
I was sitting in Sid's office a couple of hours later. He was just finishing up with the tour. I wasn't surprised about the trip to Joe's room, now permanently unoccupied behind a velvet rope and illuminated only by regularly-refreshed votive candles. Nor by the T-shirts and Joe mugs in the lobby at tour's end. And even Sid's suggestion that some original relics were available to bona fide religious organizations interested in contributing to the expenses of Joe's House was okay with me. I balked, though, when he showed them a pattern of mildew on the wall of the basement laundry room and related how Joe said it was a time line predicting the re-establishment of Palestine, Monica Lewinsky, and Armageddon. And when Gina's grandmother wanted a Holy Joe rosary I shelled out the forty bucks for her and got her into a cab before she could endow a chapel. So I went to wait in his office.
He looked tired but happy. "Hey Hootie. Like the goatee."
"You do?" It was only ten days old.
"Yeah. But it kind of makes your mouth look like an asshole with teeth."
"Speaking of which, how much did you clip these poor goombas for?"
"Ten a head to me for the tour and maybe a grand in sales."
"So about two large just for today."
"Two large for this afternoon. I got another tonight."
"No shit. Aren't you taking this a little bit over the top? I mean, with the time line and everything? Christ, what's next, JFK speaking through the ice machine?"
Sid laughed. "Wait. Slow down, slow down. I want to take notes."
"I'm serious, Sid. You're about to step on your own dick."
"I am? Hey, I guess it can happen when it drags on the ground."
"Just because you got two-inch legs." Neither of us was laughing. "I mean it. My editor is asking why I'm not doing any pieces on this circus. You don't want any more attention. You won't get any from the cops or the State's attorney. But the postal inspectors and the IRS don't give a fuck about the mayor. And I got to tell you the archdiocese is getting a little embarrassed about this."
"Since when was I supposed to pay taxes to them?"
"Smart. Very smart. You're absolutely right. The Catholic Church has no power in this state. And hell, even if it did, just because this is probably the most Italian state in the country, fuck 'em. Man of principal, Sid. Attaboy."
"Fuck you." He dropped into his desk chair. "Listen. Don't break balls. Another six weeks like this and I let the bank take this place and I go to Florida."
"Dunno, Sid. I think you got to stop sooner than that. You got to stop clipping these poor assholes."
"Who says 'got to'?"
"I say got to."
He laughed. "Feeling mighty ballsy, sonny boy. I can see the big piece in the rag right now. 'Hotel Owner Fucks Old Guineas' Or something like that. Or scuse me, you see the big piece in the rag. But you don't see the sidebar. 'Rag Reporter Resigns in Disgrace Over Eighty-Sixed Story.'"
"Hunh? Hunh?" he mocked. "Hey, Safire, that's pretty poetic. Words your business or something?" He snorted. "Jeez, you sounded so much better when you were calling me a fuckhead. Listen. Connect the fucking dots. You don't like what I'm doing? Okay. Don't like it. Be my guest. But you think about doing something about it, you remember the day when Joe hit the dirt and you couldn't wait to bend over for the mayor. So you not only don't give me shit, you make sure I don't get shit or at least let me know if shit's coming. And I don't get hammered. Because if I get hammered I tell the whole story. Which includes you eating a story."
I thought about it. He had me. "I can't protect you from everybody."
"Sonny boy, I'd be surprised if you could protect me from anybody. Now get your skinny ass out of here."
As I turned to go I noticed something on the windowsill. The same one Joe had traveled past at such high speeds a month before. It was a little Virgin statue, unpainted plaster, nicked and chipped. I recognized it from Joe's room. Sid probably didn't want to give it shelf space now.
"Hey," I said, pointing. "That for sale?"
"No. It's mine."
"Joe's mom gave it to him for his first communion. I keep it for luck." Sid looked embarrassed. I hadn't thought him capable of it
"Right. Hang onto it, fat man."
The shop around the corner was still inventing traditional European coffees. I had one. If this was what they drank in France for breakfast it pretty much explained World War II. I got an American drip and thought. The place had a pay phone for its few customers still too backwards or broke for cellular. I used it.
"Can I speak to Tommy the Thug?"
A couple of clicks and the great man himself got on. "Scoop. What are you taking up my time for? Interview? Twenty Questions to the Kingmaker? Make it fast."
"Do something about Sid."
"Why? What's Sid doing that I need to do something about?"
"He's ripping people off."
"Big fucking deal," he snorted. "You do that whenever you deposit a paycheck. So what?"
"So you do something. Or I will."
"Oh. Right. I keep forgetting. You went to journalism school or something. Listen. Two words: Artificial pussy. Two more words: Hands tied. Capeesh?"
"It wasn't newsworthy."
As usual, the laugh wasn't pretty, but this time I think he actually thought something was funny. "Turn on the TV, asshole. Do you see anything newsworthy? Fuck, man, you would've been on Geraldo for a week. But you ate it. So don't give me this 'or else' shit."
I thought about it for a second. I'd thought about it anyway, but it was worth thinking about again. "Yeah. Yeah, I guess you're right. Tell you what. I'll hang up and then I'll call in and quit."
The laugh was now without humor. It was just tired. "Right. Good. Yeah, do that. And then call me back and tell me you did it and I'll call the rag and if you did do it then maybe you'll scare me."
"Nope. Next call I make is the Times."
There was silence for a full minute. "You'd do that?"
"Yep? Yep? Who the fuck do you think you are, Jimmy Stewart?" He paused. "Okay. Any point in just calling him?"
"What do you think?"
"Right. Listen, this won't be pretty. Or subtle."
"That's why I called you"
"Thanks, asshole. Let me call you back. What's your cellphone?"
"I'm at a payphone. I left my cellphone at home."
"Jesus, you are a loser. Can you hang there for twenty minutes or should I just leave a message at the shelter?"
I had another American drip. It was good. The phone rang in fifteen minutes. "Okay," said Tommy. "It happens tomorrow morning. Hey. Are you asshole enough to cover it?"
I hadn't thought of that. "No. I'll get someone else there."
Tommy laughed. "Faggot. Twenty bucks says you don't have the balls to watch."
Tommy was usually right but not always. It was cold the next morning but sunny, so I took advantage of my new friends at the coffee shop and sat at one of their two sidewalk tables watching traffic. When an unmarked cop car went past I got up and moved over to the Korean grocery across the street from the hotel. Two gold shields in plain clothes got out of the unmarked. Detectives are about as easy to spot as their cars; the cars crown vics with whip antenna and city plates, and the cops dressed like plumbers at a funeral.
They went into the hotel. Five minutes later two Saturns with Federal plates pulled into a loading zone. Four guys with plastic briefcases went into the building. I waited for a long time. I realized very late that I'd left the coffee shop with one of their nice ceramic mugs. With all the cops around this made me feel very nervous.
It was half an hour before Sid came out. He saw the guy from the paper just in time to do what I hoped he wouldn't. He pulled his coat over his head as the camera started clicking.
It was time to go. I didn't want him to see me. Anyway, I had to get my mug back to the coffee shop before they missed it.
I didn't know what the deal was until after it had been cut. Sid squeezed the Mayor, the Mayor squeezed the Governor, the Governor squeezed both Senators, and both Senators squeezed the US Attorney. Criminal charges were dropped but half his assets went to the Government. The other half went to charity, which, oddly enough, turned out to be Catholic Family Services. The hotel got turned into a homeless shelter and the actors had to stay at the Holiday Inn like everyone else.
It was about six weeks after the dust settled. I was at Big Tony's again. It was too cold to eat outside. I was sitting in the window watching the beginning of a late November snow squall. I finished my egg and pepper grinder and went outside.
It was completely still and the sky was a featureless leaden gray that seemed about fifteen feet above my head. Snow was falling in sparse heavy flakes the size of saucers. You could actually hear them land.
Sid was the only other person in the park. He was sitting on a bench facing Joe's Tree. He didn't seem to hear me approach, and he didn't move when I sat down beside him. He was looking up into the branches. "So, Sid," I said. "Tell."
He didn't speak for a while. He had lost weight. He was still fat, but he'd shrunk to within normal limits. It was the first time I'd actually been able to see a face rather than separate features adrift in a sea of flesh. Finally he turned to me.
"He was right. Jesus is here." He turned away and didn't speak any more. I glanced down. In his right hand was a rosary. In the left was the Virgin I'd seen in his office.
I looked up. Still just a tree.
It was a few weeks later. I had the graveyard shift so it was still dark when I had breakfast at Big Tony's. I heard the sirens and looked up curiously. Little Tony was the only other guy there. Behind the grill. Big Tony only came in these days to talk about Omaha Beach and Powerball. I was going to go to the window to see what was up but Little Tony was already on his way. If it was important enough to interrupt sausage and cheese on a hard roll he'd tell me.
"Jesus," said Little Tony. I decided my aorta could go another couple of minutes without another coat of protective plaque. I went out onto the sidewalk with him. I wished I'd remembered my coat. Even with global warming dawn during Christmas Week Connecticut can be pretty cold. Little Tony was colder, with nothing but a greasy apron and a Harley t shirt and the tattoos.
The square was right in front of us, hundred year old trees even leafless protecting its interior from the graying sky. St Lucy's, on our left, was bathed in floodlights, as it always is during the festive season. Three NHPD cruisers were pulled up on the little fake Neapolitan piazza in front of it, barricading the statue of its patron saint as though she might stick her eyeballs back into her head and walk off with the poorbox.
"What the fuck?" I said through the gummy remnants clotting my mouth.
"Over there. Jesus tree." Little Tony pointed towards the peeling sycamore at the center of the park, even now decorated with a couple of sorry bouquets at its base. And now decorated with a little bit more. There were half a dozen cops there, clustered around what looked like a walrus and a big broken treelimb. The cops were milling around with tape measures and digital cameras and walkie-talkies. One of them looked up into the tree and then looked down and shook his head. Another made the sign of the cross.
"Looks like some asshole hung himself," said Little Tony. He made the Sign and spat on the ground. "Christmas a week away, too. Thank God no kids saw this, huh? Not for nothing but this ain't Santa down the chimney, know what I'm saying?"
"Right," I said. "Hey, maybe I better take a look."
"Right," he said, smiling sourly. "Story."
"Yeah," I said. "Hey, my job."
As I was heading into the park on one of its long diagonal walkways a fourth cruiser pulled up with a very stylish squeal of rubber. Behind it an ambulance that just plain parked. Obviously no hurry. The ambulance guys lumbered out and popped out the gurney, careful not to spill their Dunkin Donuts three-sugars-and-cream larges. From the cop car swaggered what looked like a mailbox with a pro-league bowling ball on top. "Hey Mike," I yelled.
Mike the Cop nodded once, sharply, and gave me a negligent salute. The salute made me go all warm inside. I was one of the boys.
We met about ten yards from the Tree. From where we stood I could see the bottom half of the stiff, its top shielded by the tree's wide trunk. Big body. Obviously a fat guy. Explained why the branch snapped. Maybe he wasn't dead; maybe he just tried to hang himself and the branch snapped and hit him on the head and knocked him out and he'd revive and it'd be the greatest Christmas Miracle story of the decade, maybe the century, like an O. Henry tearjerker.
But judging from the way the cops were snapping pictures and milling around they were pretty sure this guy was down for the count. And from where we stood I could see his hands, which were swollen to the size of outfielders gloves and clenched into the fists of rigor with the deep grayish purple of early permanent death.
"So," I said to Mike. "Merry Christmas."
"Same to you, Scoop," he said solemnly. "Sorry about this."
"Yeah," I said. "Tough thing for the neighborhood."
"Yeah," he said. "You too"
"Why?" I asked. "Good luck I was here."
He snapped his head away from the crime scene and back at me. "That's all you can say? I thought you were friends."
"What? Friends with— " I looked back at the crime scene. Now an official crime scene, blocked off with yellow official cop tape cornered on adjoining trees. Big fat body. Big fat hands; even allowing for the edema of asphyxiation they were big hands when alive. Cheap Rockport knockoff shoes. Cheap brown polyester pants. Dirty beige raincoat. All in all the kind of look you usually see on a guy who runs a dirty bookstore. Instead of a theatrical hotel.
"Oh," I said. "I get it."
"You didn't know?"
"Just got it," I said.
I must have been quiet for a while. "You all right?" Mike asked.
"Fine," I said. "This is my business, after all." I started forward.
A great big black hand wrapped itself around my little white bicep. "Don't," he said. "He strangled. You don't want to see."
I looked at his hand and then met his eyes. "Yes," I said, "I do."
He held on for a long time. Then he let go. "Okay, Scoop." I started to walk. "Pray for him. I will." I nodded but I didn't turn around.
So I kind of strolled around to the other side of the tree where the cops and the EMTs were very busy with their tape and the cameras and the coffee. To the right of the stiff, tethered to it by something thicker than clothesline but thinner than a hawser, the kind of rope you buy to tie down a trunk lid when you're moving cross country, hairy and abrasive, was a tree limb easily twenty feet long, a big thing two feet thick at its raw fractured base and split into a dozen branches.
Left of the stiff was a folding chair. Maybe ten feet away. Lying on its side. About ten feet up the tree was a big white scar where a branch had been. Oozing sap. Slowly, given the season, but oozing nevertheless.
So I'd looked everywhere but at the stiff so I guessed it was time to look at it. And suddenly it was him. Like they say in the business, the corpse had a familiar face. He was wearing that same dirty raincoat and black clerical looking turtleneck he'd had on when I saw him at the base of this same tree with a laser pointer and a busload of credulous guineas. Only now his big fat face was even fatter, swollen above the cord almost buried in the folds of his swollen neck, purple as the eggplant that Little Tony would be slicing up for lunchtime grinders in a couple of hours. His eyes were half open but showed only the bloodshot whites. The worst was his tongue, reddish black, hanging almost to his chin and nearly severed by his jaws' last spasm.
"Wow, Sid," I said, and I turned away and started to stumble towards the sidewalk when a couple of cops moved forward and said scuse me and bent over the corpse and started to pry the big hands open and then I had to run to one of the big blue plastic sand barrels to empty my stomach of half of a Big Tony cholesterol booster.
Mike was standing next to the stiff when I got back. Another cop was talking to him. Deferentially. I hadn't noticed Mike's new stripes. "Hey, Sarge," I said.
"Hey," he said. To the beat cop he added, "He's okay."
"Okay," said the beat cop. "So like I said, so he's still stiff, so it's like two hours, maybe three hours ago. So he stands on this little chair and he throws the rope over the limb and he ties it off with this little boy scout slip knot and he kicks the chair out. But it's not such a big limb and you can see he's a pretty big fat guy, or he was a pretty big fat guy, whatever, so the branch bends and his toes are touching the ground, which is why the grass is all tore up there." I looked at where the cop was pointing it and did kind of look like a mad bull had been ripping up the turf. "So I guess he just kind of hung there bouncing up and down till he kind of strangled. You can tell his neck ain't broken. Not like you could, falling two feet with that knot and that neck, you know? Anyway, only thing is this, guy strangles and all you kind of expect he's gonna grab the rope with both hands and claw and everything when the lights are going out, right? I mean, no matter how much you wanna go, when you're goin' you wanna stay, right? Same with this guy, only not. Left hand, nails broke, blood all over his palms, like he's fighting for dear life, like your usual guy who hangs himself.
"So here's the thing. Right hand, it's clean; nails like they was manicured. So we pull the hand open, and it takes two of us, which is a lot even for this big guy who's dead and all, and inside his hand which he didn't use to fight the rope, we find this."
He handed something to Mike, who looked at it. "I dunno," said the beat cop.
Mike handed the thing to me. It was a little statue of the Virgin. Holy Joe's.
"So whaddayah think, Sarge?" said the beat cop.
"What do you think?" said Mike the Cop to me.
"I think," I said, "you should give it back to him. I think he made a deal"
"Drug deal?" said the beat cop.
Neither of us said anything. I turned the Virgin in my hand. Sid's right hand, the clean one, looked empty. I bent forward and put the little First Communion momento in his paw and folded his thick fingers around it. They were the coldest things I'd ever touched. Even colder than his eyelids when I reached over his half-severed tongue to slide them down. "No," I said, "not a drug deal. Just a deal. One way or another, you get paid back."
"So this is payback?" said the beat cop. When he glanced over at Mike I think his eyes landed on the stripes and he wondered how they'd look on him. "So who paid him back? How'd they get some big guy like this up on a chair?"
"He got up himself," said Mike. "He paid it back himself."
The EMTs had finished their coffee. The gurney wheels squeeled on the sidewalk and were soon muffled in the turf as they dragged towards their destination. I turned away as Mike and the beat cop helped them heave the body up.
I really wanted another cup of coffee. No I didn't; I want three beers and a shot of bourbon and my wife snoring beside me while our son gurgled in his crib.
Mike the Cop was standing next to me. "Payback," he said.
"Payback," I said.
The sun was coming up. Late, I thought, but it was the shortest day of the year. Sid was sliding into the back of the ambulance and I saw a couple of the neighbors wandering over to Big Tony's. Mike and I watched the doors slam shut and the ambulance take off with an entirely unnecessary trill of siren.
We stood there a long time. "Well," said Mike, "Merry Christmas."
We shook hands. Mike went back to his cruiser. The sun was finally up. I went home.
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