John Strausbaugh, Stories




Bullet to the Moon





Chapter Five





  Gus had music on the radio now. Some dame was singing "Give Me Five Minutes More."

"I'm with you sister," I said.

Gus slid a shot of Four Roses at me.

"What's the news?" I asked him.

"Nuttin. Whatever that contraption was it was all she wrote. Home Guard boys is on alert for all the good that'll do."

I nodded at my glass and then slid it a little ways away from me. I figured I couldn't afford to get boiled. My brains was straining themselves to work out the angles. Only one I could see was to play along. Help these birds pull their caper, whatever it was. Get back on the sunny side with Seymour Spitz, go to work tomorrow like nothing happened. Everybody happy, nobody the wiser, and Prince Jeepers stays out of the can.

So why did I feel like a mouse sniffing the cheese in a big fat trap?

Brown and Smith stepped out into the night. O'Grady stood at the end of the bar. He lifted a shot glass of gin to his puss real dainty, with that big pinky ring held out. I wondered what the stone in it was worth.

Gorgonzola sideways himself between us with a glass of beer in his skinny hand.

"So you gonna be Mr. Spitz's boy someday?"

"I don't know, pal," I said. "You gonna grow fuzz on your jollies someday?"

"Pipe down, Clarence," O'Grady rumbled.

"Clarence?" I said. "Do lace drawers come with that?"

He screwed his rat face up. "Keep crackin wise. You and me's gonna dance."

"I'll brush up," I said. "I ain't cut a rug since the Bunny Hug was in. Clarence."

"Shut it," O'Grady said.

Clarence shot him a look. Then he took his glass of beer to go mope by himself at a table.

"Say, you know that bird?" I asked Gus.

"He been in and out." That was how you talked about us yardbirds when you didn't want to say much of anything. We all been in and out.

"Thought I knew all the bent guys around here."

"He started coming around when you was on holiday," Gus said. "Think he's from up guinea Harlem. Don't ride him too far. He don't look like much, but they say he's a real blowtop."

"What's his beef?"

Gus shrugged. "I heard that when he was a kid he got in a scuffle with a organ grinder's monkey over a nickel. Monkey grabbed his jewels and wouldn't let go for ten minutes. He been on a grouch ever since. Also it stunted his growth, too."

O'Grady made a sound like rocks crumbled together. I think it was a chuckle.

"What's your excuse?" he rumbled down his mountain at me.

"Me? Ma went to the circus and the midgets scared her," I said. "Like your ma and the elephants. So what's this caper we pulling, Rushmore?"

He didn't answer.

The front door swung open and Brown and Smith came back in. Two more big lugs dressed identical to them followed them.    

"Jeez, who's making you guys?" Gus asked. "Henry Ford?"

I was with Gus. Them four big lugs including one lady all lined up by the door with their hammers shoved in their trenchcoat pockets and their fedoras screwed down low and their collars up and showed us a line of square chins like they was carved out of granite. If they was gangsters I was the pope a Rome. What was I getting myself into here?

"Okay, I'll stop callin you Rushmore now," I said to O'Grady.

Seymour Spitz came out of the back room.

"Send the package?" he asked one of the new bruisers.

"On its way."

"What's it like out?"

"Ghost town. Nobody but the Guard."

"Lahss gehn."

Everybody moved toward the door.

I looked around the Three Bells, wondering if I would ever see it again.

"Keep the home fires burning, Gus," I said.

"Jeepers," he nodded. He slid his mitt across the bar toward me. When he lifted it, that pack of Luckies was under it. What a prince.

We stepped out to a weird scene. The city was blacked out, as usual. But from all over the place searchlights was poking at the clouds, feeling around up there for any more flying gizmos might appear. They slid around like spotlights at the circus, only none of the clowns showed up.

I could hear the East River sucking and tugging at the rotten old piers a few feet from me. Smell it too, that East River smell I known since I was a kid, diesel and creosote and dead fish. I was just happy not to be floating in it.

Two big black Chevy Clippers stood waiting in front of the bar. Brown, O'Grady, me and the dame Smith got in the second one, with her and me in the back seat. I was surprised she smelled like rose water. Something else was coming off her clothes too, something like oil or grease. This broad was good at giving off the mixed signals.

Brooklyn was a ghosttown all right. Just us and the rats and an occasional old geezer in a Home Guard tin hat standing on a corner as we went by, with those searchlights sliding around overhead.

There was more geezers at the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge, standing around their sandbag barricades pouring each other coffee out of thermoses and probably fortifying it with schnapps. We halted for a few seconds. I saw Seymour Spitz roll down the passenger window of the first car and say something to the old birds. It must have been something like open says me, because them old codgers touched their steel pots and stood back and waved us right onto the bridge.

I groaned and sank into my seat. We was going into Manhattan. Manhattan gave me the creeps anymore. If there's one spot in the world that ought never be dark and empty, it's Manhattan. It goes against the natural order a things. I was Brooklyn through and through, but there was no place on earth like Manhattan. The crowds, the cabs, the lights, the action. If your blood didn't fizz in Manhattan, brother, you might as well just lie down and wait for the meat wagon.

But now Manhattan was like a cemetery full a giant mausoleums. It died while I was in stir. LaGuardia held off on the blackout and curfew for a while. "New York isn't scared of the little man with the little mustache," he said. "If he wants to come see what we're made of, we'll leave the lights on to show him the way." But he was rowing his dinghy with a teaspoon against the tide of the war, the rat saboteurs, the War Department and the Home Guard Administration. Manhattan kicked in stages, and all he could do was preside at the wake. He closed the subways and bridges and tunnels to take them off the target list of the natsies and their patsies. He switched off the lights and set a 10 p.m. curfew, then changed it to 9, then 8. Every fellow under 45 shipped off to one front or another. Lady drivers took over the cabs and buses for a while, but then the scrap metal drive ate up all the cabs and buses. Folks who could afford it moved away to anyplace that might feel safer and cheerier. Restaurants and theaters and movie houses and bars and whorehouses and penny arcades and pool halls closed up, and lots of companies moved their headquarters over to Jersey or up to Connecticut "for the duration." The city was a ghost of itself in the daytime, with dames tromping to and from work and old geezers leaning on their canes watching them go by. At night it was a big tomb.

And here we was driving straight up it in our identical black Clippers like a funeral procession. From Brooklyn Bridge we drove up to Houston Street, over and straight up 7th Avenue. Our headlamps was painted over except for narrow strips in the middle and they was just about the only lights. Even the traffic lights was off, not that we needed them since we was the only traffic.

I think worst of all was driving through Times Square. Times Square was always crowds, action, shows, movies, and especially all the lights. Sure mostly they was shilling for something. The Wrigley's goldfish, the Camel soldier puffing his perfect smoke rings, the Pepsi bottle that popped its lid. Now even the Camel soldier wasn't blowing his rings out over Broadway no more. There was no one around to watch. And the Paramount closed, and Chin's Dine & Dance closed, and Rector's Cafeteria closed, and the International Casino closed. Everything still and quiet like we was sailing canoes up a black river between some cliffs.

We kept going up through the 50s and into the 60s. It was like we was heading straight out of Manhattan.

"Say, anybody want to tell me where we going?" I asked.

Brown and O'Grady didn't.

Smith said, "Face your window."

I jumped in my seat. It was the first words I heard her speak. Before this I didn't know she knew how. I thought she ought to do it more often. It was a nice voice. Deep for a gal but she was big for a gal. But not deep like a fellow. It was deep but kinda soft too. It reminded me of one of them big whistles they blow in the orchestra. A oh boy.

"Turn your head that way and close your eyes."

I did what she said. She wasn't a broad a little mook like me said no to. A second later she slid some kind of cloth blindfold over my eyes and cinched it up at the back of my head.

"So it's the firing squad at dawn?" I said.

"Relax. Where we're heading is a secret is all."

After a while we paused for a few seconds. When we started up again the tires sang over a bridge. I figured we crossed over into the Bronx. And then we kept going. And going.

I could stop worrying about violating my parole. It was over the falls now. I couldn't even step off of Brooklyn without Miss Abbondando's permission, and here we was leaving the city altogether.

I began thinking maybe going back in the can wasn't so bad after all. It was safe and quiet and you knew the drill. It wasn't no picnic but there's hard time and there's harder time and my six months out in the cockamaimie world was feeling like harder time.

It was the war, a course. A lot of people thought back at the end of '41 that when GI Joe came out swinging the war would be over in a couple of months. Instead, our boys came roaring out of their corner and took it right on the chin in Africa, Italy and Spain, while the Japs played hidey-go-seek with us all over the Pacific. Those first few months come and went and then a few more and a few more and before you knew it we was in it a whole year and you'd have to be the Fourth Stooge not to know that things wasn't going as planned.

And then that year turned into two, and instead of ending, the fight kept spreading. Uncle Sam was screwing tin hats on the boys and shoving rifles in their mitts as fast as they could be cranked out. Me and Bill went on eight-hour shifts at the boot-gluing machine, then another two took it over. The whole prison went on war production. From stamping license plates to making helmets and canteens. Folding parachutes instead a laundry.

The war come home in other ways, too. The biplane full of nitro that dinged a crater in Pennsylvania Avenue was diving for the White House when it went into a stall and the pilot lost control. They never determined his identity from the bits of him they sponged off the sidewalk. In New York, there was the suitcase of TNT found in a locker at Penn Station, and the truckload of small arms stopped right at the Jersey entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel, and the rash of U-boat sightings in Long Island Sound. LaGuardia shut down the subways and closed the bridges and tunnels, so the only way in and out of Manhattan was by ferry or boat, with the gals of the Coast Guard stopping and searching as many as they could.

Around the world, things just kept getting worse. The krauts carpet-bombed England and their U-boats blockaded the Thames and then they invaded, landing troops from Brighton to Ipswich in a big haymaker of a wallop. The Siege of London was on. The Brits showed a lot a grit. They didn't give the krauts a inch of turf they didn't pay for. Eisenhower pulled a big force out of the Mediterranean and shipped it up to Scotland and our boys began to fight their way down the island, but it was a tough, slow slog. Meanwhile, Johnny Jap was making us pay but good for every two-bit island we took from him.

And then Joe Stalin had to stick his oar in and invade China.    

You ever been in a dive when a fight breaks out between a couple of lugs, and then their pals join in, and they start knocking drinks into the laps of bystanders' women so now the bystanders start swinging too, and the barkeep leaps over the bar and starts swinging his bat at everyone and anyone, and pretty soon what started as two mugs full of hops laying into each other has spread through the whole joint and everyone is swinging at everyone else and most of them don't know what for?

That's what it got like around the world. We stopped calling the Great War great. That thing was like a bout of gentlemen's fisticuffs compared to this worldwide donnybrook. The only family resemblance between that one and this was the way everybody dug in and hunkered down, miles a trenches crawling all over the world like the stitches in one of the baseballs Cookie Lavagetto used to bobble in the infield. Millions a troops staring at each other across miles a No Man's Land and nobody giving a inch. By '44 the krauts turned most of Europe into one big fortress and slave labor camp. Our boys kicked them out a England and North Africa, but after that we couldn't find a opening and dug in all around them. Roosevelt wanted to go at them from the east, through Russia, but Uncle Joe wasn't cooperating. The Japs was burrowed in like ticks all over the Pacific.

No one was shocked when Roosevelt kicked in '45. You could see the war bleeding him dry, just like the whole world. He was the bird that got us into it, and he was the bird that couldn't get us back out of it, and after a while he got to looking like every boy he sent off to get killed was standing on his shoulders, one on top of the other.

No one was shocked when Eleanor took over, either. Dames was running everything else on the homefront by then. Why not a dame running the whole flea circus?

Me and Bill didn't need Verna to tell us about it when Stalin tried his sneak attack on Alaska in '46. Uncle Joe must of figured we was stretched too thin to put up much of a fight, and he wasn't far off the mark. But what he wanted Alaska for was hard to figure. Fish, polar bears, Eskimos and ice. Didn't he have enough a that in is own backyard? Anyways, we managed to throw up a line of defense and stop him, then they all dug in there for a long staring match, too.

Now here it was 1947 and the war we all thought was gonna be over in six months was going on six years and nobody believed Eleanor anymore when she got on the Philco and said she saw a light at the end a the tunnel. Felt more like it could go on another six years and another six years after that until there was nobody left but gimps and geezers to fight it and nothing to fight it with but sticks and rocks. Millions was dead and millions more probably gonna be and maybe better off for it. Whole world sick and exhausted and running out a what we ain't already ran out of.

I thought about Fritzy dodging ack-ack over the East River. Hoover's boys had him now and was raking him over for sure. What made him pull such a daffy stunt I wondered. Maybe he was just sick and exhausted like everybody else. Decided ah the heck with this and come over on a one man suicide invasion. Bet he was regretting it now. Then again, I'd rather get a working over from Hoover's boys than Seymour Spitz's.

The Clipper drove on and on, up the Hudson I figured. Nobody said nothing. I lost my sense of time under the blindfold, but it felt like hours.




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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