John Strausbaugh, Stories

naziplane300


 

 

 

 

Bullet to the Moon

 

 

 

Note: Chapter One is here.

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

 

 

 


 Pierrepont recycled tin for the war machine. Most of it come in cans that had to be washed, mashed flat, bound and stacked on palettes. Some of it come already in sheets, like tin ceilings, that was dipped in big vats of eye-watering corrosive to strip the paint or decades of tobacco grime off of them. The palettes left the wharf on barges or trucks, and I had no idea where they went or what happened to them after that. I could ask Mrs. Jakes, but she wouldn't tell me.

 

My job wasn't complicated. I stood beside a big tub of a cleaning solution that stung my eyes and lungs like ammonia mixed with tear gas. A conveyor belt at one end dropped cans into the tub. Me and two healthy young dames who were taller and stronger than me used big, flat wooden paddles to push the cans around in the solution for a while, washing them. The labels was already steamed off them at another station farther down the shed, so this was just to clean them of any last beans or sardines. Then two more gals used a mechanical scoop like a small steam shovel to haul the dripping cans out and dump them onto another conveyor belt. It carried them to a big steam press that flattened them by dropping a block of steel the size of a Packard on them with a crash that rattled my teeth every ten seconds, all day long.


Eight hours a day, with thirty minutes for lunch, I stood there pushing my paddle around and wheezing. It was the price I had to pay for getting out of the caboose. It was the first regular work I ever done, unless you counted prison and the year I ran numbers and other errands for Harry the Hat instead of going to the seventh grade. The Hat was a medium-time gangster who made work for a army of truant schoolboys in his policy and contraband rackets. He paid us a fraction of what he would have to give adults. Because we was kids we carried on a lot of his business right under the noses of the bulls, mostly collecting numbers slips from shop owners and stoop-sitters all over the neighborhood. Only truant officers paid us any mind. It was one of them who eventually collared me, which led to my being shipped up the river to a Poughkeepsie reformatory.

 

It was my year there that another boy taught me the basics of picking pockets and locks. Shine Schwidke could open any lock in the reformatory, and he did it a lot just to keep in practice. They called him Shine because he caught a bad scrofula as a infant and it left him bald as a billiard ball. Shine made his own tools right there in the metal shop. When he see how interested I was he made me a set. Nothing fancy, just the necessaries, a L-shaped tension wrench and a couple of picks, or jigglers we called them, bent different ways to work different pins. Most keylocks used some version of your basic pin and tumbler, and picking them is all in keeping the right tension on the tumbler with the wrench while you ease the pins out a the way with the jiggler. When you develop the feel for it there ain't many keylocks can keep you out.

 

Lockpicking and purse diving was handy skills for little guys like me and Shine to know. You don't need muscle, you just need good eyes and ears and a light touch. After a few months a practice I could open any door in the joint too, and by the end of the year I could lift your wallet from anyplace on your person, even if it was double-bagged, as the saying went, which meant a guy wearing his wallet in his vest under a jacket. Your Average Joe would be mortified if he knew how easy his pockets can be picked.

 

Pickpocketing made a little fellow feel good, knowing he can pull the wool on the biggest, toughest lug there is. And I got good at it. I was proud of how good I got at it. Okay, maybe it wasn't like being a great second baseman, or a fat tycoon, or a genius scientist. Still, it was something to be proud of. It was all I had to be proud of. I wasn't tall or strong, I wasn't no ladies man, I wasn't the smartest guy around, but I had a real knack for the skulk and the lift.

 

The fact that I got pinched a few times had nothing to do with how good I was at it. Everybody got caught once in a while. I wasn't one of them mooks who acted like doing a stretch was a badge of honor. But I wasn't ashamed of it, either.

 

I stood at the vat sucking up the fumes and trying to think what to do. I had to leave the shed eventually. It was for sure O'Grady and Gorgonzola would be waiting for me. They wouldn't want to go back to Seymour Spitz empty-handed.

 

I remembered what Lemmy Fazool once said about Seymour Spitz. "Seymour Spitz probably never touched a gat or a shiv in his life, but he's the most dangerous gangster in New York." That wasn't long before Lemmy got on Seymour Spitz's dark side, a place you never wanted to be, it was that crowded with corpses. Soon enough Lemmy wasn't saying much of anything. He got all his teeth bashed out with a two-by, and nobody questioned who ordered it. We just wondered why Seymour Spitz let Fazool live, even if he would be licking porridge off a spoon for the rest of his life.

 

Winchell once called Seymour Spitz the thinking man's racketeer. He organized the play and counted the take. He wasn't like other gangsters. He was more like a business tycoon who just happened to be on the wrong side a the law. If he wasn't bent he could run General Motors or J. P. Morgan Bank. Only he was a kike, so he couldn't. But you get the point.

 

That didn't make him no less a caution, though. Like Lemmy said, he might not do for you with his own hand, but that wouldn't help you if you crossed him, or stood between him and a bag a money, or he just didn't like your tie.

 

Seymour Spitz was a big wheel in the rackets since the dry season, which is what we called Prohibition. I was a little nobody since just as long. Just another flea in the circus. He never even seen me wear a tie.

 

But here I was on his wrong side. Believe me I didn't get there on purpose. If I'd knew whose purse I was diving into that day I would of cut my own fingers off first.

 

"How's life on Cloud 9?" Mrs. Jakes yelled in my ear.

 

I near dropped my ladle in the soup.

 

"Sorry, Mrs. Jakes. Fumes."

 

"Put on a new record. That one old as boop boop ditum datum."

 

"Mrs. Jakes, I need to tell you something. I told you a whopper this morning."

 

"Stop the presses."

 

"I knew that mook out on the lot. Works for a fellow means to do me a mischief."

 

"Yeah? And I give a hang because?"

 

"They some real bent guys, Mrs. Jakes. I walk out that door today I might never come back."

 

"Yeah? And I give a hang because?"

 

She got me there. Mrs. Jakes thought I was scum, a yellow rat hiding behind Rosie the Riveter's apron while her husband and sons was all off doing their duties somewheres. She was riding me since the day the parole board sent me. Me not coming back tomorrow wasn't going to put her in no tail spin.

 

"Skip it," I said.

 

Folks like Mrs. Jakes never gave a hang about me all my life. Why'd I think it would be any different now?

 

At noon-thirty a klaxon near the ceiling of the shed went ah-OOGA. All the machines stopped their clanking and banging. All the gals hung up their aprons and gloves and went outside onto the cinder lot for lunch. I backed away from the vat until I was leaning on the shed's corrugated wall. No way I was walking out in broad daylight. Mrs. Jakes looked across the room at me from inside the door. She shrugged and went out.

 

Most of the gals would go hang their feet off the wooden pier over the water, watching other gals patch up them navy ships while they ate their lunch. Most of them carried lunch pails, just like their husbands or brothers used to. Only with the rations on meat and eggs and such they didn't eat as good. The rest of them would line up by the gal who wheeled a hot dog cart onto the lot every noon. She ran out of hot dogs before I ever came on the job. Most days now she sold cheese sandwiches. Your choice a mayo or mustard. Some days just for a fling I'd ask for both, and a bottle of Yoo-hoo. Yoo-hoo was like a cream soda with chocolate mud in it, but when I was a kid we had fights over which was better, Yoo-hoo or Coca-Cola. You had to pick one side or the other. Kids are like that. Adults too, now I think of it. Somehow I ended up on the Yoo-hoo side, even though I never really liked it. And then somehow I kept drinking it all my life, even though I still didn't like it.

 

I stood there in the shadows like the rat I was. I wished I could go out and hang my shoes over the water. But then I'd have to look at Manhattan and the one-armed Lady Liberty and think about all the things that made me blue about the city nowadays. I had things closer to home to feel blue about.

 

I fished out my second bit of the day and cupped it in the dark. Mrs. Jakes caught me with a smoke in the shed I'd be back in the calaboose before I even finished it. But she was outside with her gals and my lungs was itching. The bit tasted like a old string and the smoke clawed its way into my lungs like a cat with its tail on fire. What I wouldn't give right then for one of O'Grady's Old Golds.

 

It was one a those times when a fellow looks back at his life and wonders how it come to this. With a guy like me you didn't have to be no road scholar to figure that one out. Look at how we grew up, in the rats' nest a tenements stuck between warehouses and factories down behind the navy yard. Where I grew up 16 families lived in one house, four families to a floor, two rooms to a family, fighting over one stinking toilet in the hall on every floor. Eight, ten kids in a lot of them families, sleeping all over the floor in shifts. Our apartment had gas lights, a cold water sink, and a gas ring you could heat up a can a peas on if you was patient enough, all in the front room where me, my brother and sister slept. Our mother slept in the other room. We never knew our father. He was something in the merchant marine. Got my mother with me when he was around for a couple weeks between long hauls. Came back a year later to give her my brother, and a year after that to give her my sister, then disappeared for good. Years later my sister heard that he died with a knife in his eye in a bar somewheres in the Orient.

 

We spent most of our time on the street. I was the runt of every gang I hung with, and everyone including the nuns bullied me and twisted my ears and knocked me off my pins just because it was fun to watch me go down and they all knew I couldn't do much about it. When I did stand up for myself I got knocked down even harder. So I turned into a sneak and a thief and a rat doing my dirt behind their backs and picking their pockets when they was busy batting me around.

 

After reform school I went into it full-time and made my living lifting wallets, dipping into purses and slipping watches and bracelets off unsuspecting pigeons' wrists. I mostly worked in Manhattan, because that's where the money and the pigeons was. I never made a big score doing that, but I made my nut and got by okay.

 

I took my first serious collar in 1928, in a speakeasy on E. 52nd St. called Ollie's. Prohibition was on and business couldn't be better for a sneak like me. Just like Wall Street turned everyone in New York into paper millionaires, Prohibition made them all high-rollers and big livers. There was streets in Manhattan, like E. 52nd St., where there was more speakeasies than addresses. They wasn't just door-to-door, they was stacked on top of each other. In the brownstone where Ollie's was in the basement, a joint called Moe's was on the street level, Madden's Top Hat was one flight up, and Toot's Tropic on the third floor. Going out and having a swell time wasn't just something you did occasionally to blow off a little steam. People dedicated themselves to it like it was their real careers, and whatever they did in the daylight hours was just killing time until the party started up again that night. Inside the speakeasies, everyone was drunk and making whoopee. Bankers, floozies, toffs and taxi drivers, judges and juries, they all packed into places like Ollie's, rubbing elbows and a lot of other parts, their faces shiny, dancing like savages to whatever music the jigs on the bandstand was laying out. For a guy like me it was like grazing in heavenly fields of loose wallets and hand bags left unattended and pocket watches dangling from gold-plated chains. I could score as much in a few hours at Ollie's as it took me a week to earn on the street or in the subway.

 

Until the night I reached into a guy's hip pocket and the guy spun around with amazing speed for a fellow so big and pinched my neck between his thumb and fingers and squeezed until my eyes bulged and my tongue hung out. Next morning standing in front of the judge I found out I was caught trying to dip the pocket of Michael Hamlin, aka Mike the Hammer, Deputy Chief of Police. One year in Sing Sing, followed by a year's probation.

 

I made it almost ten years before me and a guy named Slipper Stupak got nabbed after popping a strongbox at a credit and loan office in the Garment District. Slipper I knew since the reformatory. He grew up to be one of the quietest second story men in the city. That's why they called him Slipper. He could slide in your bedroom window, empty your closet and chifferobe and ice box, strip the sheets from your bed and slip your wedding ring off your finger while you slept through it all. He dreamed up the caper. We pulled it on a Friday night, because the Garment District was all Jews and if we went about it clean and neat they wouldn't even know they was robbed until sometime on Sunday or even Monday.

 

The office was on the second floor over a wholesale button shop. Slipper gave the old kike in the shop a little something to lock it up with us in it on a Friday afternoon. By night time the Garment District was quiet as a tomb. I popped three doors and the strongbox easy as you please and we split almost two thousand dollars cash in two brown paper sacks and walked out the front door. Slipper went left and I went right and took the subway back to Brooklyn. Sitting there on the train with almost a thousand clams, more dough than I ever held in my life, I planned how I was going to bust it into chunks, hide it all over the neighborhood. Spend it slow, no steak and oyster pies at Delmonico's.

 

I was on top of the world when I walked into my boarding house, where two big coppers, one in a detective's trenchcoat and one in uniform, was lying up waiting for me. Turned out Slipper got pinched before he made the end of the block and give me up without a fight. Way I heard it later the old bird in the button shop took Slipper's money and then ratted on us. You got to watch them kikes. I thought of that guy every Chanukah the three years I spent up river.

 

When I got out there was war in Europe, but here it was still just pictures in the newsreels. Between Bugs Bunny and George Raft you saw Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Hirohito. They was just more cartoons. Folks I knew didn't pay much mind.

 

Sure, I guess some folks with empty bellies and crashed dreams thought maybe the Reds had the right idea. And I knew some krauts, like Winky Steinhauer and Heimie Handshoe, who could get pretty rah-rah about Heil Hitler if you poured a few beers in them and no kikes was around. I didn't know any nips, but I bet some of them thought Hirohito was a pretty swell fellow, too.

 

Most of us thought Roosevelt should just keep his beak out of it. We had our own bellyaches, and plenty. Let the krauts and limeys and frogs and spics and wops duke it out amongst themselves. What did we care?

 

Then come December 7 and 8, 1941. The Days of Infamy. On the 7th the Japs sucker punched us in Hawaii. On a Sunday. How low is that? The next day, saboteurs hit the Navy Yard, the Third Avenue El, and the Statue of Liberty. Thirty-two people killed, a couple of hundred wounded. No one in the city had any doubt who done it. A huge mob went up to Yorkville, the big kraut neighborhood on the East Side of Manhattan. They stormed the headquarters of the German American Bund, a bunch a Heil Hitlers who liked to march around Manhattan in their brown shirts and swastikas. Whether they had a hand in the sabotage or, like Winchell said, was just "patsies for the natsies" didn't make no difference. A swarm of coppers stood around with their arms folded while the mob broke into the Bund offices, dragged a half-dozen guys out, and torched the building. The cops watched while the mob beat them guys with their fists, feet, bricks, garbage cans, jack handles, whatever. Three of them was mashed corpses when the bulls finally busted it up, and two more croaked in jail that night, and nobody in the city shed a tear for them or their widows and kids. The sixth guy got the chair but quick.

 

Roosevelt declared war on the nips and the krauts and threw the wops in for spice. The Axis of Infamy he called it. He added that if the Reds or the spics or anyone else wanted a piece, we'd do for them too. He was itching to get us into the fight for a couple a years by then. The nips and krauts give him his chance, all wrapped up with a pink bow on it.

 

He got a lot more than he bargained for. Even he figured that out after a few years. They say it's half the reason he kicked the bucket.

 

But that wasn't until a few years into it. At first we was all hopping mad and spoiling for a fight. Who knew it was going to go the way it did? Everyone figured that once us Americans kicked in it would all be over in a few months. On December 9 guys stood on lines six blocks long to sign up. They was gonna show them nips and natsies what for but good.

 

I was as mad at them filthy krauts and sneaky Japs as the next guy, but I did not stand on no line to sign up. I had my reasons, plenty of them. For one thing I was small and scrawny and getting a bit too long in the tooth. In those days, before they got desperate, the recruiting officer would of took one look at me and thrown me back. He would know that a career sneak thief and yardbird like me didn't hup-two too good. If I was good at following orders and obeying rules my whole life would of been a lot more level, a regular joe with a ball and chain and a nest of brats swinging his lunchpail with the rest a the downtrodden masses. I ain't saying I had anything against those guys, and there was plenty a times when coming home to a nice cooked meal looked a lot better to me than digging into a can a beans alone in some flophouse. That was just some other guy's life, not mine. I missed that bus and caught the next one, the one marked Skellville that went down dark alleys and stopped at every place a bad business before dropping you off at the calaboose.

 

So I didn't enlist, and later the draft board acted like they wished there was some classification lower than 4-F to pin on me, like 5-F or so, and if you want to chew on some sour grapes about it, I hope you like the taste.

 

Pretty soon I was wearing a different kind a uniform anyway. The kind with big wide stripes.


 

*

 


The klaxon went ah-ooga again and all the gals trooped back in. The machines started clanging and whanging again and I went back to stirring that soup that made my eyes water and my head spin. There were plenty of days when I remembered howI had it easier in stir. It was my third time in the can. I was getting to be a regular guest, one of the boys. I knew most everyone and I knew the ropes. Prison chow was no worse than the slop I ate outside. And because I done a few good turns for a guard during my last rotation I landed a cushy job this time. Four hours a day, me and my cellmate babysat a machine that glued the soles onto army boots. The machine pretty well ran itself, except once in a while when it jammed up and spat rubber footprints all over the place. We had lots of time to pitch pennies and cheat each other at poker. He was a swell fellow, Bill O'Toole, a clip artist from Buffalo they called Buffalo Bill.

 

The collar that got me sent up that last time was the dopiest one yet. I ain't proud of the particulars. In '43 Mayor LaGuardia, the New York Times and a bunch of Broadway theaters pitched in to throw a war rally in Times Square. The war was going lousy and Roosevelt needed all the hand we could give. They set up a stage where some chorus broads kicked to Guy Lombardo's all lady orchestra, and stars like Ethel Merman and Franchot Tone and the Ritz Brothers told us to buy bonds and collect tin cans.

 

The crowd was huge, and I was smack in the middle of it. I swear I didn't go with mischief in mind. Bunny Sparwasser lied to me that Barbara Stanwyck was going to be there and I had a dilly of a mash for Barbara Stanwyck. She wasn't no beauty but she was the kind a tough broad a mook like me dreamed a being pushed around by. And she was from Brooklyn.

 

When she didn't show I started to feel like a chump, and to make myself feel better I reached into the handbag of a young dame standing in front of me and lifted her change purse. But my bad temper must of thrown me off a little, because she felt the nudge and screamed her head off to the sailor boy next to her. He wasn't no bigger than me. As I turned to skeedaddle I remember noticing his ears. They was the flattest ears I ever seen. They looked like they was drawn on the sides of his loaf. I didn't linger on them. The dame was still shouting as I started fast-walking my way through the crowd. She was hitting him with her handbag and hollerin at him to do something and what kind a man was he why didn't he sock me one when he had the chance. I almost felt bad for him, takin a walloping like that in front of everybody and him in his sailor suit and all. People around them was laughing and I might a laughed too if a big copper didn't lower his meathooks on me right then and haul me up by the scruff of my neck.

 

The judge give me the book for being such a lowdown snake as to practice my trade at a patriotic wingding. Back to Greystone, looking at  five to seven.

 

I was still up there when Seymour Spitz joined the crowd in '46 and I heard he had a beef with me.

 

 


 

 

Chapter Three

 

 

 


When the horn went ah-OOGA again at 5 o'clock I had a sort of a plan for how to sneak out past Gorgonzola and O'Grady. It wasn't a good plan. The fumes turned my loaf to pudding. But it was a sort of a plan and I stuck to it.

 

Me and all the gals drug ourselves over to hang up our aprons and punch out. Then the gals all headed out onto the cinder lot, where the swing shift gals was all waiting to go in. It was always a crowd scene out there for a few minutes. I wormed my way into the middle of a bunch of dames and walked outside with them. They was all bigger than me and I figured they give me pretty good cover.

 

The dames was all talking to each other and saying howdy to the swing shift gals on their way in and none of them paid me any mind, which was the usual. We was a good three quarters of the way across the lot when the klaxon in the shed went ah-OOGA again. The dames around me stopped in their tracks and looked around. Another klaxon went off, somewheres over on the docks. And then a sireen somewheres up the hill from us started to wail like a hound with its tail in a window fan. All the gals stood looking at each other over my head.

 

More sireens was going off all over the place, hallooing each other like mechanical dogs. It was real eerie. Everything else stopped and got real quiet. All the cranes, the trucks, the boats, even the smoke from the smokestacks froze. It felt like it does right before a big summer storm opens up and dumps on you. Everything and everybody making like statues, listening and looking, waiting for it to hit. The only sound all them sirens wailing and klaxons ah-OOGA-ing, over and over and over.

 

And then one of the dames standing in front of me pointed her finger up river and shouted, "Look!" We all turned our faces at the same time.

 

I could just barely make it out over their kercheefed heads and big shoulders. It was some kind of small plane flying down the river toward us. It was no higher than the top of the Chrysler Building, and it was zooming along at quite a clip. But it was in some kind of trouble, zigging and zagging like crazy, jerking up and down, trailing a line of black smoke like a dame's mascara in the rain. It didn't look like no plane I ever saw. It was shaped like a dart, with a pointy nose and wings that angled back like they was stuck on crooked. I couldn't see no propeller on it anywhere, either. What the heck kind a plane didn't have no propeller? With all the racket of the sirens and klaxons you couldn't hear its engine, wherever it was, but you could tell from the smoke and the crazy jerking around that it wasn't running tip top.

 

"What in thunder is that?" a gal behind me shouted, like any of the rest of us would know.

 

And then these puffs of black smoke appeared in the sky all around the thing, like cotton balls soaked in oil. A split second later we heard the explosions, steady like a drummer keeping a beat, boom boom boom. The gals all gasped. The army put anti-aircraft guns along the waterfront not long after the war started. The Home Guard geezers and crippled war vets manning them was shooting ack-ack at that plane.

 

"Natsies!" a dame beside me shouted.

 

Somebody off to the side screamed.

 

"Aw, that's cuckoo," a gal in front of me said. "How could one natsy get all the way over here by hisself?"

 

Right then the poor sap flying that gizmo banked it hard, trying to duck the ack-ack blowing up all around him like a string of giant firecrackers. One wing went up and the other down and we could all see the iron crosses on them.

 

"It is a natsy!" a gal shouted.

 

A couple more gals screamed. But then a lady next to me big as Max Schmeling yelled, "Yeah? Well come on down here, Adolf, we'll give ya what for!"

 

Some of the ladies laughed, and then a bunch of them cheered.

 

"Yeah, come join the girls, Fritzy! We'll show ya a real good time!"

 

"We'll put your wiener in the schnitzel all right!"

 

Oh, they whooped and roared over that one. Boy, these gals was tough. It made me wonder if maybe we sent the wrong team over to the fight.

 

"Ladies!" I could hear Mrs. Jakes shout from somewhere. "Take cover!"

 

But nobody moved. They was all too busy cheering the show as that funny little plane jerked up and down and back and forth in all those black clouds chasing it. It was over the Manhattan Bridge now. Close enough that now we could see the swastika on its tail. All I ever seen of the war before that afternoon was newsreels. Now it was happening right over my head. It didn't look any realer. Them guns was still firing at a steady pace, bang bang bang bang, laying a line a black clouds in front of his pointy nose like they knew he had to fly into one of them eventually. He was jerking the plane all around the sky like he knew it too.

 

He got past the Brooklyn Bridge and got even with us over the river. For a second he flew in front of the sun and turned into a black silhouette. It was a sight I knew I would never forget, that dart-shaped dingus with its crooked wings flying in front of the sun. It was what the newsreels called a historic moment. The first natsy aircraft that ever attacked New York.

 

Not that Fritzy was doing any attacking. It was the other way around. Now the Navy ships along the docks opened up at him too in a big racket of cannons and machine guns. The sky over the river filled up with balls of smoke and we could see lines of machine guns rounds zeroing in on him. It was louder than three or four Fourth of July's rolled together.

 

"Get him!" the dames were cheering. "Get the natsy rat! Gimme a gun, I'll knock him back to krautland!"

 

But Fritzy was good. He had that funny-looking little dingus bouncing up and down and zigged and zagged like Jim Thorpe dodging tackles. He was past us now and all the guns in the harbor was banging away at him making a awful racket that drowned out even the sireens. All the dames screamed bloody murder and shook their fists. And still Fritzy didn't go down. It was pretty much the most exciting thing I ever saw, and I don't mind saying a little part of me felt sorry for Fritzy, all alone out there with everybody shooting and screaming at him. I kind of knew how he felt.

 

He kept dodging ack-ack farther down the river. Then he got the bright idea of turning the pointy nose of that dingus and heading across Brooklyn. He zigged over the rooftops of the waterfront warehouses and then zagged over the houses and storefronts on the everyday streets. All the guns along the waterfront stopped shooting like somebody turned off the bullet faucet. They couldn't be dumping all that ammo on Brooklyn and the civilians. After the echoes of their last shots washed over us it was just the sound of the sireens and klaxons filling the air. We watched that little plane skitter over the rooftops, dragging smoke from its banged-up engine, getting farther over Brooklyn.

 

"He's getting away!" the dames shouted.

 

"Of all the lousy!"


A big groan went up all around me.


In a minute we lost sight of him altogether. Only the trail of his smoke hung over Brooklyn in a rickety line from the waterfront out toward wherever he thought he was heading. Coney Island maybe.


The show was over. The whole scene probably only last two minutes but it felt a lot longer the way those kind of times do. The klaxon in the shed stopped shouting and the sirens around us began to wind down. All the dames chattered and grumbled around me. They was disappointed they didn't get to see Fritzy blown to smithereens. They had all had somebody close who was killed or maimed or still out there fighting. They wanted to see at least one natsy rat get his.


The crowd around me broke up. I was standing alone on the lot. Seeing that natsy dingus was just about the strangest sight I ever seen, but I didn't have time to think about that now. Gorgonzola and O'Grady was making their way across the lot, threading through the ladies.


 


*

 


I started to run the other way, toward the docks. Sailors and lady stevedores stood all over the docks and the rigging of the navy ships. They was straining their necks and shading their eyes to scan the sky for more gizmos. But all there was overhead was the black smoke balls drifting down river toward Lady Liberty.


 I ran along the docks, dodging trucks and forklifts and stacks of wooden crates. Lady stevedores laughed at me.


 "My hero," one of them said.


 "Come back, big fella, we'll protect ya," another said.


I looked over my shoulder. If them two mugs was behind me I couldn't see them for all the crates and machines. I didn't slow down though.


By the time I ran across Atlantic Avenue I was regretting every bit I ever rolled and my head was still spinning. I looked behind me again and them two lugs was nowhere in sight but I still didn't slow down. On the waterfront below Atlantic was a block of old warehouses and factories, one right next to the other. In the middle of the block a low cinderblock shack was mashed between a warehouse and the Casorelli Nut factory, where they shoved salt peanuts in tin cans, or at least they did before the war. There was no sign on the shack, and no windows either. There was just a wooden door in a wall of cinderblocks. If you didn't know what was in there you wouldn't know what was in there and brother you'd be better off for it, because the class of people who knew what was in there had no class at all.


I shoved through the door and stood there panting like a mutt. The Three Bells was a dive where all sorts of bad characters been meeting up since back when the ships all had masts and sails and jolly roger flags. The room was basically square and the tin ceiling was low. On your left as you walked in a wooden bar ran the length of the room. It looked like it was put there when Blackbeard was a cabin boy, and its whole length was chipped and dinged by generations of drunks banging their faces and breaking their teeth on it. A half-dozen stools leaned against it. The floor was wide, warped planks sprinkled with a bit of sawdust and scattered with some bow-legged tables and chairs.


A Ruppert beer sign hung behind the bar to your left and give about the only light there was in the joint. On the wall to your right was a large old map where you could barely make out New York harbor under the brown coat of a century's worth of nicotine. In the back wall there was a door to another room and a door to the jakes. A dartboard hung between them, but Gus the owner banned the darts long ago because the clientele stuck them more often in each other's eyes and ears than in the target.


Last time I was in the dump was before the war. The only thing that changed was that it was empty now. Back in the day it would be full of tough guys and desperados pretty much anytime you walked in. Bent guys from all over the waterfront met up there to do their business or do each other in. They wouldn't think twice about stepping over your corpse on the way to the jakes.


Now it was just Gus behind the bar, leafing through a Journal American. A little Philco behind him was lit up and some bird was talking in a low voice on it.


I walked over to the bar. "Hello, Gus."


"Jeepers." He didn't look up. "Been a while."

 

"Donkey years," I agreed. I looked around at the doors. "Quiet. Anybody else stop by last few minutes?"


He flipped a page and shook his head. "Been like this a few years. Just come in to get away from the missus anymore. Snort?"


Before I could stop him he poured a bolt of Four Roses into a smudged glass. When I started to reach in my pocket he rapped the bar with his knuckles, international bartenders' sign language for this round is on the house.


I was never much of a juicer. A pickpocket with the shakes would just be a joke they told at the precinct house. I tossed this one straight back. It burned like lightning all the way down to the gut and my eyes watered.


Gus shoved a sealed pack of Luckies toward me.


"You're a prince," I said, clawing at it.


He shrugged. "Fell off a gal's wagon while she was making a delivery to the Navy."


I fired one up and sucked down a chestful of real tobacco smoke and let it back out with a sigh. Gus swept the rest of the pack back under the bar. One to a customer, I figured.


"I owe you, Gus."


He waved it off. "My crown awaits for me in heaven."


I could hear the guy on the radio now.


"...a report now that the pilot made it as far as Floyd Bennett Field, where he managed to land the strange aircraft and was taken immediately into custody by members of the naval air reserve stationed there. No word at this time on where he flew from or of any other enemy aircraft sighted in the vicinity."


"Sounds like they got them a Wrong Way Wilhelm," Gus said, leaning over the paper again.


Floyd Bennett was out near Coney Island. Maybe Fritzy was trying to fly all the way home.


The heat off the Four Roses took its sweet time to climb up into my dome but now that it got there it made my head feel light and empty as a kid's balloon. A shot on top of the fumes on top of the running and excitement maybe wasn't such a good idea. I felt woozy and eyeballed the front door again.


"You okay?" Gus said.


"Fumes at work," I said. "I'll just go have a sit out back."


"Crapper's busted. You don't wanna go out there. Go have a seat in the back room till you get your sea legs."


"Thanks pal."


I walked over to the door. I opened it and looked in. The back room was maybe a quarter the size of the front. All that was in it was a card table and two folding chairs in the far left corner. Seymour Spitz sat behind the table with his back to the corner.

 

 


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All material on this website is copyrighted and may not be republished in any form without written permission. Copyright © 2009-2010 John Strausbaugh.

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