John Strausbaugh, Stories






Bullet to the Moon





Chapter Four





 Note: Chapter One is here.



 It was the first time I ever seen Seymour Spitz after all the years of hearing about him. He wasn't the sort of gangster you see on the street. I never seen him in stir, either. He had his own private wing of the joint reserved for big whale gangsters like him. He never eat with us regular cons in the mess, never walked in the yard, never scraped spuds or folded laundry or any other job a work like us common criminals.


It was his first stretch ever. Two generations of DAs banged their heads against the wall trying to nail a conviction to him. Somehow a key piece of evidence or a star witness or a grand jury panelist always vanished, regular as the leafs in the parks fall in the autumn. The caper that finally tripped him up was a charity scam that bilked a hundred thousand bucks out of colored churches in Harlem and Brooklyn to send bibles to Liberia. Seymour Spitz didn't run the gaffe, he just laundered the dinges' nickels and dimes, but that was enough to sink him.


The young assistant DA who nailed him was a clean, bright-eyed Cagney lookalike who grew up in a Henry Street tenement with pictures of the Virgin Mary and Al Smith over his bed. When Seymour Spitz was convicted, the newspapers predicted big things for that ADA, maybe the mayor's office someday.


A couple a weeks after Seymour Spitz went up the ADA's roadster was found tipped into a pond out on Long Island, with the ADA and his pretty wife inside. His bright eyes was shot out, and she had a icepick in her ear.


I didn't know what I pictured but this Seymour Spitz wasn't it. He was a little guy, little as me and Gorgonzola. And he was all different shades of gray. Thin gray hair pasted like wet ashes to the sides of his otherwise bald head, gray skin of a guy who don't hardly ever see daylight, gray suit with a lighter gray silk shirt and a silk tie that was gray with black diamond shapes. He looked like a guy on a movie screen.


No I never seen him in my life but I knew it was him all right. It was the ears that sealed it. Seymour Spitz's ears was the flattest I ever seen except one other time.


He was playing a hand of solitary and didn't look up.


"Does it still count as solitary if you got a audience?" I heard myself blurt out. Must of been the Four Roses.


Seymour Spitz's hand paused, holding a card in midair, like one a them automatic fortune tellers in a glass booth. He still didn't look up.


"This him?"


"That's the bird," Gorgonzola said behind me.


I turned my head. The little rat was standing right behind me. His face was sweaty. O'Grady stood right behind him. I would of never thought them two lugs could sneak up on a fellow like that but there they was.


I looked past them at Gus. He was leaning on his elbows over his newspaper like we wasn't there. I didn't blame him. Gus had so many raw characters in that joint over the years that he learned never to get himself in between any of them. Long as they paid for their hooch and didn't wreck the joint too much it was none of his business.


"You want I should salt his tail?" Potatoes rumbled.


"I want you should keep shtum," Seymour Spitz said.


He laid the card down. Even from where I was standing I could see he was playing a red jack on a red queen, but I thought I better keep shtum, too. Guys like him made their own rules, even when they was only cheating themselves.


"Get over here," Seymour Spitz said, looking at me for the first time. Even his eyes was gray, like drops of rain water in the gutter. "Scared I'll bite?"


"I heard stories," I said.


"Sure you have," Seymour Spitz said. "It's all true, too. I'm rotten to the core. Snort? Go get him a drink."


"No thanks," I said. "Had one."


"Temperance man?" Seymour Spitz said. "Well, that's all right. Don't mostly touch it myself. I said get over here."


I crossed the floor until I was standing across the table from him. He ran his watery eyes up and down me.


"You could of just come," he said. "Save yourself and the boys all that running."


"Figured Potatoes could lose a few," I said. I waited for O'Grady to reach over Gorgonzola and slap my head off but he didn't.


"Big of you," Seymour Spitz said. He give me another once-over. "Know why I wanted to see you?"


"I just now figured it out," I said.


One night right after Seymour Spitz come up the river me and Buffalo Bill was laying in the dark when he hissted up at me from his bunk.


"Hear about Seymour Spitz?" he whispered.


"Course I did, Bill," I whispered down at him. Seymour Spitz coming up there was the biggest news in the joint since Roosevelt died. "I ain't deef."


"What you gonna do?" Bill asked.


"What you mean?"


"So you didn't hear."


"Thought I did."


"Listen up, chum. Word is Seymour Spitz decided long as he's in here he gonna put his time to use by settling a few open accounts he got with some of his fellow guests."


"Too bad for them," I said. I leaned up on an elbow and poked my head over the side of my bunk. "Bill, you been smokin tea with the dinges again? You ain't makin sense."


"Tellin me you don't know he got a beef with you?"


"Me? Seymour Spitz don't know me from a knothole, Bill. Why he have a beef with me?"


"Just tellin you what I hear, brother. Thought you knew."


"Why, that's just bilge," I said. My heart was beating like a little bird in the dark.


"Suit yourself," Bill said. "But I'd watch my back if I was you, chum."


"Surprised at you Bill," I said. "Listenin to some darkie talkin out his neck."


I put my head down but I didn't get much sleep. Next day I found out Bill heard it right. I didn't know whatever I done to get on the wrong side of Seymour Spitz. Nobody else did either. Didn't matter. When a whale like Seymour Spitz decided you crossed him it didn't make a lick a difference if you didn't know how.


Alls I knew was I had to get out a Sing Sing before he closed my account.


"Mr. Spitz when they told me you was out for me I thought it was all a misunderstandin," I said.


"Yeah I heard. But now you know different."


I nodded. "He takes after you pretty good."


"Lookswise anyway," Seymour Spitz muttered. He reached up like he was gonna scratch a earlobe if he had any.


"If I knew I never would of touched that girl's money in a million years," I said.


"Course you wouldn't. You look pretty dopey but not that dopey. Girl was a floozy. He met her at a dime a dance. He didn't give a hoot about you taking her purse. It was the ruckus she made. Gave him a red face in front of all those people. Well I evened the score with her. Nobody pay her another red cent for a dance now believe you me."


"I do," I said.


"You get why I got to settle accounts with you too."


"I guess I do," I said. "I wish it was any other dame in the world."


"Course you do." He looked up at me with those rain puddle eyes. "I knew you didn't know it was my boy and his gal you clipped, but I couldn't let it stand. Look bad in front of my boy, not to mention all the low life micks and wops I call my business associates. Too bad for you but you had to pay. Luckiest thing ever happen to you they sent you up the river before my boys got a bead on you. Course I could of reached out to you in there. Easy as pie. But I wanted to see your face. I could wait till they sprung you. Then what do ya know I find myself doin a stretch of my own. You wasn't the only mug in there on my list. Fact you were near the bottom. Lucky for you again."


"Yes sir it sure was," I said.


Me and Lady Luck was never real close. Myself, I thanked Eleanor Roosevelt for saving me. She was the one who signed the war work release law. With all the able-bodied men and boys in the whole country off in the trenches and all the dames pulling Rosie the Riveter tours somewhere, production still wasn't up to snuff. So all the low-rung cons and skells in all the prisons and jails got offered a deal. Early parole in return for swinging a lunch pail to a court-assigned job. Your real hard guys and hoodlums didn't get the chance, but lots of penny-ante mooks like me did.


A week after me and Bill had our midnight conversation the warden called me into her office and shoved the papers across her desk at me. I couldn't believe my luck. Luck wasn't even the word. Three days later I was back in Brooklyn, reporting for duty to Miss Abbondanado and Mrs. Jakes. After six months I almost began to feel safe. Seymour Spitz was away for a long stretch. I figured him and me both be old men before he got out and come looking for me, if he even remembered to. Then O'Grady and Potatoes stopped me on the street and I knew the jig was up.


"How you like recycling tin?" Seymour Spitz asked me.


"About as much as I'd like Potatoes to sit on my chest and pluck my eyebrows," I said.


Seymour Spitz nodded.


"Birds like you don't cotton to punching the clock. All you gonifs are the same. You think you're the wise men and all the regular joes is chumps."


"Well," I said, "I guess if we was so wise then how come we spend so much time in the can while all the chumps walk free?"


Seymour Spitz nodded again.


"Maybe you ain't as dopey as you look."


"Gosh I sure hope not," the Four Roses said.


"All right, crackwiser," Potatoes rumbled.


"I thought I told you to button it," Seymour Spitz snapped at him. "Go take the air. Both of you. I want to talk to this guy in private."


I breathed a little hearing that. Everything about Seymour Spitz said that if he was going to do for me it wouldn't be with his own hands. The more time I spent alone with him, the more time I spent.


Seymour Spitz's gray eyes followed the boys out the door. "Morons."


He motioned me toward the empty chair with a long, slim, gray hand. I didn't move.


"Tell me you ain't as big a moron as them two bugs," he requested.


"On my better days I'm almost up to stupe," I said.


"Guess this ain't one of them," he said. "What made you think we wouldn't look for you here? Every two-bit crook in Brooklyn come running to Gus when he's in a jam."


"Guess I wasn't thinking too good."


He waved the three of spades at me.


"I said sit." He put the three of spades on the four of clubs.


I put myself in the chair. He looked at me with those gray eyes some more.


"How surprised were you when them morons told you I was out?"


"Mr. Spitz you could of knocked me over without a feather," I said. "I thought the release deal was just for little guys like me."


"See me sitting here don't ya?"


"Yes sir I sure do."


"You scared?"


"Ain't everybody around you?"


He liked hearing that. His gray lips grinned like a razor cut.


"They should be," he said. "I'm a rotten so-and-so."


"I heard stories."


"So you said. I may not look like your average gangster or hoodlum, Bigelow, but that's just because I ain't average. Lots of guys made the mistake of thinking that because I don't wear double-breasted suits with chalk marks wide as the Broadway or walk around with a tommy gun shoved down my trousers I ain't a tough guy."


"I bet they regretted that."


"You bet they did," he said. "Problem with most hoodlums is they're all beef and not a teaspoon of brains. Compared to most guys in the rackets I'm E equals Einstein squared. No need to outgun them when you can outsmart them. I buy lugs like O'Grady by the bushel and pay them to do my muscling for me. I run circles around my competition, and the cops, and the district attorneys. This last little trip to the country was my first go-down in a long and illustrious career. Smart aleck little pisher of an assistant DA got lucky."


"I heard he regretted that."


"You bet he did. And his silk too. And if they had kids, it woulda been them too."


I believed him. I heard stories.


Mr. Spitz leaned back and reached into a pocket of his gray jacket. I come close to hitting the deck.


"Relax," he scowled. He hauled out a small sack and a packet of cigarette papers. He tossed them at me. "Roll yourself a bone. You're making me nervy."


I watched my shaky fingers open the little sack. The wonderful aroma of real tobacco went up my beak. I set to work building myself a rail. As I rolled it up and licked it he slid a box of matches at me. I struck a match with my thumbnail, lit up and sucked a big lungful of delicious Virginia leaf.


"Much obliged," I said, blowing the smoke at the nicotine-brown ceiling. I went to shove the sack and papers back to him.


"Keep it," he said. "I'm a clean liver."


I stuffed them in my jacket.


"You know there ain't really a tobacco shortage, Bigelow?" he said. "They still growing it by the boxcar down South. Shortage is a racket. Increase the demand and build up the black market. It's like the dry season only with smokes. Bent guys like me making a killing."


I said, "Government boys know about that?"


He waved a hand. "They all bent too. Making their own killing."


"I sure didn't know that," I said.


"Don't be a moron," he said. "Everything's a racket, see, and everybody's dirty and mean. You want to get ahead, you gotta be dirtier and meaner than everybody else. You know who gets that? This guy Hitler, zalts im in di oygen, feffer im in di noz."


"Scuse me?"


"Kike for salt in his eyes, pepper in his nose. God give him boils on his tongue and polyps like cactuses up his colon. He's eviler than Pharaoh and cuckoo to boot, but he knows what he got to do if he wants the whole world for his racket."


Never in a million years did I expect to be sitting in the back room of the Three Bells talking world affairs with Seymour Spitz. Only guy I ever done that with was Bill. He had a sister Verna worked at the World-Herald. Kept us up on all the war news. Including a lot of war news the government censors kept out of the World-Herald because it would be bad for public morale. When I come back to Brooklyn public morale didn't feel like it could get much worst. Everybody knew the war was bad and not getting better. They didn't need to read it in a newspaper.


"How long was you in the can this trip?" Seymour Spitz asked me.


"I done a injun and was looking at another deuce," I said. Injun, or cherokee or buffalo, was all different words we had for a nickel, and a nickel was what we called a five-year stretch. "It wasn't the chain gang, but it was a long haul. Longest I ever been cooped. A fellow gets so even his dreams forget what a dame's ody colony smells like or how it feels to walk a straight line more than ten paces before smacking into a wall."


"Capisco," Seymour Spitz said. It was funny hearing a heeb talk wop, but in our world we all picked up a little. "Six months was enough for me. Supposed to be a lot more than that, a course. Missed my children. The wife not so much. But my kids." He made a what-can-I-say gesture with his thin, gray hands. "You got any, Bigelow?"


"Not on purpose."


"Should try it. You look like you still got time. Marriage, feh. It gets to be a different kind of doing time. But children, a family. Makes what a man does in his life feel like it means something. Like he's building a empire to hand off. Even in our racket."


Now I was having a heart to heart with Seymour Spitz, family man, in the back room of the Three Bells. I didn't know what to say or where this was heading, so I just nodded and picked a crumb of tobacco off my teeth. In the old days I would flick it away. Now I stuck it on my tongue and savored the taste.


"You worry about them," he went on. "Even when they're grown. Especially in this fachadick world. What kind of empire we gonna hand down with all this meshuggineh going on? Who we gonna pass it down to with all our boys off somewhere getting cut to ribbons? I blame the Rosenfelts."


That surprised me. Rosenfelt was how the wannabe natsies in the Bund always said Roosevelt.


"They shoulda kept out of it," Seymour Spitz rolled on. "Let Adolf have Europe. Who cares?"


"I dunno," I said. "Maybe the Jews."


He waved a hand. "Feh. The Jews can take care of themselves. We been doing it for thousands of years. Take my word, in a few years we woulda been running the Reich. You think the heinies could run it without our help?"


I didn't say anything. From what I knew it looked like the heinies was doing a pretty fair job of running Europe on their own, with no help from the Jews.


"See that gizmo today?" he asked.


I nodded.


"Forget about it," he said. "This wasn't the invasion. But it's coming. I ain't gonna like that."


"I don't guess many folks will."


"I ain't folks," he snapped. "Them natsies a racket like any other, see? They got their territory over there, I got mine here. I spent twenty-five years building my turf. Think it was easy for a yid to get where I am? Had to fight for every dime and every corner. Stood up to all the wop hard guys and played the angles on all their family feuds. Duked it out with the micks and the chinks and the spades. Bought unions, cops, judges. Got three white shoe law firms on retainer. Real blue bloods. Whitest guys you ever saw. The janitors got sheepskins from Harvard. Mayors? When Jimmy Walker wanted real champagne and a chorus girl who danced the can can on her knees his boys come straight to my boys. Anything his crook's heart desired. LaGuardia feh. Little altar boy acts like every day's his first holy communion and when he takes a dump it comes out wafers. But he'll be gone someday."


He tapped the table top with one fingertip. I noticed it was beautifully manicured and painted a clear varnish. There was a lot of dames in the city who'd kill for a nail job like that.


"This is my empire, Bigelow. I built it one block and busted head and crooked alderman at a time. This Heil Hitler come barging in, I ain't gonna like it."


"I bet he'll regret that," I said.


"You bet he will. The world's all ballsed up, see? Somebody got to break these guys' balloon. That daffy dyke in the White House can't do it. She's tough, but not tough enough. It ought to be somebody even meaner and dirtier than the bad guys."


Seymour Spitz pointed his thumb at his tie.


"Namely me truly. I'm meaner and dirtier than Hitler and Hirohito put together."


He stared at me with those dirty water eyes. I didn't know what to say. I put my smoke out on the heel of my shoe and got the sack out to roll another.


"You always smoke so much?" Seymour Spitz asked.


"Only when I get the chance," I said. "What with the shortage and all."


He slitted his eyes at me until they was thin as his lips.


"You listening to anything I been saying? I just airing my gums?"


I watched my fingers start to shake again and spill tobacco on the table.


"I should have O'Grady squash you like a bug for what you done," he said.


My fingers twitched and flakes of tobacco danced all over.


"You gonna smoke the table?" Seymour Spitz snapped.


I scooped some of it up with the paper.


"I be in my rights. I let any Heckel and Jeckle make a chump of my own boy, how long you think my empire would last?"


I was trying to lick my rollo but my tongue gone as dry as the paper. It was queer how big racketeers like Seymour Spitz was about getting back at anybody they thought might of crossed them up in any way, no matter how little it was, like in my case. If they let you get away with it they thought they would look weak, and in their world looking weak was just inviting the hyenas to attack.


But meanwhile they was crossing each other all the time. Seymour Spitz crossed a few guys in his day. It was part of his legend. Word was he even crossed his own partner of ten or was it twelve years, a big time wop gangster called Crispino Rovini. Everybody called him Creepo Vini for short. Creepo wasn't a wop American like most of them. He come over direct from wopland. If there was a hard case hall of fame Creepo would be the first villain in it. He was the sort of dirty guy who made the dirty guys feel dirtier just from being around him. He was a bloodthirsty lad when the wop gangsters in wopland sent him to New York in 1925 or '26 to keep an eye on their interests in the rum running trade. He soon got a reputation as the sort of business partner a racketeer had to watch closer than his competition. But he was untouchable because none of the American wop gangsters wanted a war with the real wop gangsters back home.


Seymour Spitz was the only guy in New York mean and dirty enough to deal with him. Plus being a kike made him outside the wop versus wop code a ethics. So him and Creepo partnered up all through the dry season. After that they ran the dirty end of the trucking business all over Long Island, the Bronx, up to Westchester. They ran slots, made book, was silent partners in some swank clubs and top drawer whorehouses, sold drugs to the dinges and I don't know what all else but I'm sure it was dirty.


Then, in '38, out of the blue the feds pinched Creepo on a alien resident violation. It was the sort a bum rap racketeers like Seymour Spitz and Creepo kept DAs and judges on their payroll to skate out of, and Creepo should have been out on a bench ticket the same day they hauled him in. But for some strange reason the feds made it stick and before he knew it Creepo found hisself deported and banned for life. Which left Seymour Spitz with the whole operation they spent all them years building together. Which made a lot a guys figure he set Creepo up.


I noticed Seymour Spitz didn't mention Creepo when he was telling me how he built the empire he was gonna pass on to his kids. I didn't know if Seymour Spitz crossed Creepo or not, but if he did he was gonna gift his kids more than his empire. Them wop gangsters was elephants about grudges. They called it vendetta. If Creepo didn't get his back someday, his children or his children's children would.


"Nah, ya gotta pay," Seymour Spitz was saying to me. "Question is how."


My heart sank all the way to the bottom. Between the family talk and the gift of tobacco I let myself hope that Seymour Spitz was going to let me have a Mulligan. Now I guessed not. I stuck the smoke in my dry lips. It was crooked as a old nail and spilled tobacco dust down my front. Back of my neck itched, waiting for Gorgonzola to creep up behind me and stick the lady killer there. I wondered if they was gonna let me finish my crooked smoke before he blew my adams apple onto the card table.


"Cheer up, Bigelow. You look like you already on the hot seat."


"Mr. Spitz I."


"Shtum." He eyed me for a few seconds, drumming them manicured nails on the table. They sounded like a miniature tommy gun. Rat a tat tat. Rat a tat tat.


He leaned back.


"So happens I'm putting together a team for a job," he said. "Big job. Biggest you ever saw. Might involve a few locks and pockets need picking. I hear you one of the best."


"Wouldn't guess it from my record," I said.


He waved one of those thin gray hands.


"Aw that don't mean nothing. Everybody catches a few collars. Cost a doing business."


Down in the heel of my left shoe, my heart raised its head with a hopeful look on its puss.


"I probably ought to have my head examined for weak spots," Seymour Spitz said, "but I decided to give you a chance to square things off with me. I volunteer you for the job."


My heart wagged its tail and climbed up out of my shoe. I looked at Mr. Spitz's eyes to see if this was just a gag.


"That's real white of you, Mr. Spitz," I said. "I sure do want to make it right between me and you."


"Sure ya do."


"Mind me askin what kind of job?"


"What you care?"


"It's just that I gotta be careful what with my parole and all. I already violated twice. One more time and it's Prince Albert." That was what we called being put in the can for good.


He waved that thin gray hand again.


"Never mind about the broad. She's took care of."


"Took care of?" When a racketeer like Seymour Spitz said somebody got took care of, it usually meant and how.


"There a echo in here? I should learn to yo-de-lay-he-hoo. Don't be one of them mooks worries about the wrong things, Bigelow. You working for me now. Foul up and you'll think Miss Abbundanza was sweet as your granny."


"Ah-bun-dahn-do," I heard myself say.


He lowered his eyebrows at me.


"You getting wise already?"


"No sir, Mr. Spitz."


Mr. Spitz snapped his fingers. It was like a twig cracking. I near dove under the table again.


The door opened behind me. Gorgonzola came in, followed by O'Grady. Behind him came two lugs almost as big as him. Actually it was one big guy and one big dame. They was the oddest looking hoodlums I ever seen, with their fists jammed into the pockets of belted-up trenchcoats, and the collars turned up all the way to the brims of their identical fedoras, so that all I could see of their faces was their identical square chins.


The dame pulled one hand out to close the door. It was all wrapped in white gauze like a prize-fighter's. I'd hate to see the other guy. Boy, was she a bruiser. That was one dame you wouldn't want to tango with, unless she was in the mood to tango. Then, who knows, she might show you a few moves you never seen before as she threw you around the dance floor.


"We ready?" Seymour Spitz said.


"On their way," Gorgonzola said. He sneered at me. "He comin?"


"Sure he is," Seymour Spitz said. He pointed a shiny nail at the new characters. "He's Brown. The gimp is Smith. Go water your daisies. Tell Gus the bar's open till our rides get here."


"Our rides?" I said.


"Yo de lay he hoo," Seymour Spitz said.





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All material on this website is copyrighted and may not be republished in any form without written permission. Copyright © 2010 John Strausbaugh

All material on this website is copyrighted and may not be republished in any form without written permission. Copyright © 2009 John Strausbaugh