And the card game was still going on over on Mount Carmel Road, as it had been for the years of the war and many before that.
Mount Carmel Road was a quiet dead end street in the north section of Saugus, a little more than a half century ago. In the middle of the night when the noise in the Far East was over and the radios blared out the news, all the lights went on in all the houses on that blind street. Except where the card game was being played. Many of the neighbors were solidly indignant about the turn of events that VJ Night. Two Mount Carmel boys were among those who would not be coming back from the mad Pacific, which most of us had only seen in Saturday newsreels at the theater. The family living in that house now is unaware of its past. Tenants and landlords hardly leave scribed notations of a dwelling, thinking all things will ferment, dissipate, and eventually pass on. Fifty years or more of recall usually get dulled, terribly pockmarked, or fade into the twilight the way one ages. Dimming of the eyes proceeds, trouble arrives at the knees, a slow turn at mortality ensues. But I remember that night..
For nearly fifteen years at the gray house at the end of the road the big weekly poker game had been going on. All during the war it had been conducted behind thick black curtains that let out no light.
"They'll be no beacon trail markers from this game to the Navy Yard," a few miles distant, said Mountain Ben Capri. Mountain Ben, once an expert trapper and fishing guide, owned the house. He ran the game, and his wife, the Blackfoot named Dread Child Lovey, made sandwiches on occasion, poured drinks, and picked up loose change. That loose change would have paid some mortgages, for the stakes in the game were sometimes momentous. That was according to some neighbors on that dark cul-de-sac and other parties around town. A few people in town remembered when Mother Shannon had a shady place of business in the same abode, most of them elderly men. A few elderly wives or widows remembered Mother Shannon too.
The only outsider allowed inside that coveted and dark setting was young and pesky Frankie Pike, high school football hero of some renown. They told me Frankie tried to sit in one night, but didn't have enough money so he asked to simply look on. In time, because of good humor and energy, Frankie became the company runner. He'd get special orders from the half dozen classy restaurants out on the turnpike. Or he'd hit the package store for beer, wine and hard stuff when necessary (ordinarily through the back door), or collared the best cigars in town. Often he directed unwanted players away from the game site. It was an occupation of sorts.
After a few games Frankie saw all the opportunities around him With no flies on him from what I could see, he cut a deal with Smokey Carlton of Smokey's Diner. They would get a supply of bags, wrappers and boxes from the big restaurants and provide their own specials, as if the biggies had done the service. Smokey was glad to oblige, even though some of the town's big spenders and known tough guys took part in the game.
"They're all playing with somebody else's money anyway," Smokey would say if caught up for a reason.
Frankie, to up the kitty, even went to work at Gargan's Texan Hilltop Restaurant for two days. That was time enough to stash a supply of purloined imprinted bags and napkins out in the woods. I'd have to say that flies stayed off Frankie like he'd been sprayed with killer bug juice.
But Frankie and Smokey made a good deal, and they fooled the players with substitute foodstuffs. They prepared it right in the back of the small chintzy diner rather than buy it at one of the popular restaurants.
I heard Frankie giving Smokey the lowdown.
"I bring so much booze in there, Smokey," Frankie said, "that they're half drunk half the time and well drunk into the other half. That old lobster boater Cal Landers wants Hilltop sandwiches all the time. Now yours are as good as theirs are, only Cal don't know it seeing the Hilltop wrappers all the time. Some nights, I swear, they can't tell Grade A from swill. And I see DC Lovey scooping a bit of change every now and then, too. She puts the wet tray with booze and stuff right on the pot or on top of someone's stash and lets that old green paper stick to the bottom. There ain't no pesky bugs setting on that old mountain man either. Not the way he goes through coat pockets when no one's looking. Moves easy for a big man. Hate to have him tracking me down. I've seen him go outside and go through some of the cars more than a few times. Smooth he does it, like a ghost in the night, like maybe he heard special information during the game."
So the game went on, and in one quick night the war was over, that special August night. The whole town celebrated. Lights flashed on and off. A few stored up firecrackers or bottle rockets were set off. A lot of horns and sirens cut loose from long silences. . . except the house on Mount Carmel. Nobody went in and pulled a shade back. Nobody came out on the porch to see what was going on. The game was the thing. Only the game.
Warren and I heard about it that same night, tired from the long walk, still angry.
And it didn't sit well with a lot of people. I was all ears later on.
"Tell me, Frankie," Clint Wardley the undertaker said one night around the cracker barrel in the back of the package store, "what the hell makes you think they're such sacred cows in there?" Clint was always in a starched collar, locked into his trade. "They all come my way sooner or later," he often said. Nobody knew if Clint's words were promise or threat.
"I'll say this for those boyos," handsome Frankie Pike replied, "they're not afraid of anybody or anything 'cepting the game not getting its place of a Friday night. In the storm a couple of years ago that shut down the power for nearly a week, they had Mountain get Coleman lanterns and fire them all up. Mountain knows about those camp lamps and them little wicks he calls mantles. Like butterfly wings almost. Had three or four of them going he did, almost boiling the room away. Way I hear it, they talk about the game all week long. Who did what last game. Who can make the big fake and pull it off. Who's getting shit luck with his cards and when it began. I think they have a pool on when it runs out, each having some kind of turn at a losing streak. They heard the war was over and that was it. They wasn't in it and wasn't getting away from it."
Frankie's sense of timing was as good as an actor. His eyes collected and measured the audience.
"Jake Crews said he ain't celebrating people getting killed or not killed. His daddy came home from the Great Stink in France back in '18 all gassed up and not much of a father from then on. Said his old man never got laid again, even though the old lady was a laundry bag. Life just became a big sourball for him. Jake ought to know, him wearing the scars of it all, the only boy in that big house with that bad ass bastard. 'Cept for the game, he's been a loner his whole life. I'll tell you this," Frankie added, bringing football right back into the balance, putting it all in his own perspective, "I'd be comfortable with him across the huddle from me in a big game. He has that fire in his eye you don't always get, if you know what I mean." Frankie got them nodding as though they had the inside privy on certain players that "didn't bring it with them all the time the way Frankie did."
Frankie liked to sit in the back of McGarrihan's Package Store, around the wood stove puffing on a winter day. A dozen pair of boots were hoisted on the rim of the big iron stove. They all held forth with the other gabbers. They were the psuedo-historians, gossips, ward-heelers and petty politicians looking for the grip on someone, for rich gossip or a shared bottle they didn't have to pay for. Frankie shone there because of his football exploits, being, as many of them would say, "the best damn money player to come down the pike since Harmony Hiltz worked his magic at the stadium in the early Thirties, and then went up-country and played for Dartmouth College."
The players in the game were a cut from another life, the way it's told. Few of them had regular jobs yet always had a "piece" of some small operation. A jacket's inner pocket was an office. For most of them money spilled out of their pockets like an algae growing down inside with the lint. None of them carried money in a wallet. Rather they doled it out of thick clusters kept in the inner breast pocket of a jacket or in a shirt pocket under a sweater.
"They buy their chips with a wad of bills, ever last one of them, taking it out of an iron clip." Frankie said "iron" as if it were "eye-ron," bringing the boys deeper into the fold, getting real up-country homey with them. It was true old Yankee stuff he could get at when he had a mind to. Frankie had timing, if you know what I mean.
"How much money you think been showed in that room, Frankie, best lot?"
Andy Tolliver was a member of the school committee who never went to college, never could spell curriculum, but had a magic for trading off "one for you and one for me" when things got tight. He would feel undressed if he were caught without a bow tie. For twenty-six years he had been on the school committee. Andy, they all knew, could get anything in the system, from the mix of teachers, for those who wanted it bad enough. Including himself. Frankie had seen Andy pick up the new history teacher as she walked home late at night. Had seen it a four or five times, once waiting for two hours by her house before Andy dropped her off, just to see how things went. Now Andy wanted to know how much money was in that room at one time.
"Well," said Frankie, probably thinking Andy was at least twice as old as the new teacher and having a sudden admiration for him, curriculum or no curriculum, "one night, and this is the truth because I was able to count it out, there was over twelve thousand dollars in that room. Course," he added, the sparkle in his eyes, "some of that was loose change." The laughter was pleasant and a few of the listeners elbowed the guy beside them.
Andy's eyes lit up. "Twelve thousand dollars! My, God, that's almost the budget on raises for the next two-three years."
"Hell," Frankie said, "one night Mountain came back in from sniffing through the cars and leaned over Jud Duvall and whispered in his ear. They say Mountain told him someone had been fooling around his car. He has that Pierce Arrow with the big lights up on the fenders. So Jud went out and came back in with his sweater wrapped around something and kept it under his chair and Mountain was real nervous. I heard later Mountain had come across a stash of twenty-five thousand bucks and was scared to death of touching it. But he had to tell Jud some way. He didn't want to be pegged for grabbing it. Mountain knows Jud would have him dropped in the river for less."
But of all the guys who talked shop and whatever around the stove, it was Wolf Stearns who kept alive the VJ Night ignorance of the game players. Every chance he could he'd go back to that dark and bright night. I'd seen Wolf's eyes light up more than once when the subject was opened, eyes light up and his lips get tight. One of the boys not coming back was Wolf's cousin, Edwin Talbot. Edwin was a Marine fighter pilot lost in the Solomon Seas on the day of his eleventh kill.
"Guess whose birthday is next Wednesday, guys? You couldn't guess in a hundred years, now could you? It's Eddie Talbot's birthday. The kid would be twenty-five years old next Wednesday. Do you think those dinks at the game give a shit? Not in a hundred years. They played all through the war and when it came stand up time they stayed behind the damn curtains. Never even came out on the porch to see what was going on, never mind saluting someone for a change."
Now his eyes made movies and darkened as if he were measuring an infinitesimal edge, like a wave of heat off the stovetop or another space uncounted for. Now and then he dropped cautious tidbits like, "Somebody ought to teach them a lesson or two. 'S'all I got to say about it."
Then Wolf would look again at a point in space none of the others hoped to find. Wolf had been around a lot and never left much trail about where he was or what he was after. He had scars here and there, on his cheeks, one on his wrist as if it had been ripped by barb wire. Perhaps on his back the way he scowled so much of the time, bitter angry, the world to be pissed on occasionally.
A few other men seemed to side up with Wolf but never got too vocal about it. Under the layers it was apparent that a means of revenge was swilling in the thicker cloth. Probably would come dark and mean, and naturally would have the backing of the whole of Saugus, loving its heroes to the death.
When it happened it was clean and quick. God, I wished I was there. So did cousin Warren. It was just after midnight. Mountain getting sleepy in one corner. Dread Child Lovey about done with her work and smoking a cigar. Frankie Pike's errands long over and ready to go home. The door burst open and four masked gunsmiths stood aiming their sawed-off shotguns at the players. Mountain rose from his seat and one of the gunsmiths hit him with a crow bar. Mountain smacked the floor like a pallet of concrete blocks. Dread Child Lovey continued to smoke her cigar, ignoring all the men in the room, never batting an eyelash.
Jud Duval, pivoting idly in his chair, said, "If I were you guys, I'd. . . . " He said no more as the barrel of a shotgun was stuck in his mouth.
"There'll be no talking but us," said one of the masked men. "Rake it up, Three," he said, pointing to the players. "Empty their pockets, their money belts, their wallets. Clean out their jackets. Look under the chairs, too."
The leader heard Mountain groan and nodded to another gunsmith. "Hit him, Two." The man popped Mountain on the head again with the crow bar. Dread Child Lovey kept on smoking. Jud said that he noted the men were all in sweat suits and sneakers. The sweepdown was complete in every sense. Every coin, every bit of currency in the room including the entire cash drawer kept by Mountain and Dread Child Lovey, was scooped up. All of it was placed in a black bag that looked like a doctor's bag.
Frankie, fidgeting, started to move, looking to get to a door, but was jabbed in the backside by one of the gun wielders.
"Uh, uh, kid, we need you. You're gonna be a bit of security for us. Hostage stuff. You're gonna earn your keep this night, hero."
The guy turned to the card players and said, "One bad word outta any you guys, we knock off the kid. We're taking him with us. Don't nobody move around or scream until the big guy wakes up, and I'd be real gentle about that. That's gonna be one pissed-off big gent."
One of the gunsmiths opened a door to a small pantry and motioned all the players and Dread Child Lovey into the soon-crowded space. The door was slammed behind them and a couple of spikes were hammered into the door and the jamb. Silence came. Darkness set about everything, falling like clouds on top of Mountain who was out of it for almost another hour. Later it was said a couple of the players copped a few feels of Dread Child Lovey. She never batted an eyelash then or said a word in that small crowded room. Mountain was really upset when he finally woke up and freed the players and his wife from the pantry, because he found her underpants on the floor.
Mountain was like old Mountain, ranting and raving and carrying on like a wounded bear. Every one of the players he marked with a terrible eye, cowing them right out of his house as if a curse had been placed on them.
Two days later the police gave up the search for kidnapped Frankie Pike when he walked back into town. A couple of angry marks sat on his face, but he was healthy as ever otherwise. Mountain never had another game at his house. The players, after a break of a few weeks, found a new place to play, in the back of Tal Rumson's boathouse.
And Frankie Pike walked with a jingle and a tingle in his pockets and was never out of coin for the whole next year. But nobody did anything about it. They figured the players had finally paid their real dues for not standing to when they should have, that VJ Night so long ago, the night my cousin and I couldn't get a ride.
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