Ralph Cramden. Jill God damn called me Ralph Cramden. As if. As if I'd ever treat her that way. I've never even touched her much less hit her back, as much as I might have wanted to. Raised voices maybe but never fists, that's what I've learned from living under my old man. And what was with the Archie Bunker wanna be crack? Jesus, she's really gotten under my skin tonight. She's not even smooth about it, the way she used to be. No subtle barbs to make me feel unexplainably guilty, no manipulative "processing" of her feelings designed to make me feel inadequate and wrong. Now she's just straight to the point hurtful. Bitchy. Bitchy and mean, and hating. Jill used to be my brother's girlfriend. They had a rocky time, split, then she started dating me part-time. At first, I used to think that Dez was the shit. He's no easy guy with women, I know this having grown up with him. Then one night Jill tells me that what she really wanted all along was Dez's little sister, and it took a moment for that to sink in. So then I thought I was the bad one, for taking her away from him, even though I knew it was all over. Dez was a shit, I was a shit, and why not it runs in the family. Now the only one with a familiar stink about them is Jill. I feel guilty for thinking this and can't tell if it's true or she's right and I am a bad one. I don't know why I bother, why I stick with it. She's not like Kerri. Both of them said they weren't into a commitment, and even though they both meant it, they both don't. But Kerri doesn't get strange and weird and possessive. Kerri doesn't get mean, even when she gets too close. Even when she wants to. They're the yin and yang of my bedroom scene.
I'd stopped by Jill's, wanted to take her to see a hockey game. Her old man coached hockey, and if there's anything Jill loves, it's her pop. And hockey. She just sat there, smoking, pretending to watch the tv through me.
"If you don't want to go." I shrug, keep my hands in my pockets.
"What makes you think I'd want to be seen out with a bruiser like you. Off with your bruiser friends, me on your arm." She blew smoke as if it could injure me.
"I don't know why you go on like that," I said. "Dez is the violent type. You wanna get smacked up, go back to him."
"You and your freakin cars."
"Limos. And what do they have to do with anything?"
"Cars," she said and pushed her shoulders deeper into the chair. "Cruddy over grown matchbox toys. And you're just a glorified cab driver."
"Well, you don't mind when you get free rides. You never minded that what I made bought you half the shit you got."
"You want it back?" She threw her spent butt into the ashtray. "Cuz you can have it back you know."
I didn't want to be mean, but I couldn't stop myself. "I don't want to have to fumigate it all. You poisoned it, you keep it. Good damn thing I didn't get you a pet is all I have to say." And that's when she started yelling. Calling me Ralph freakin Cramden, making cracks about Archie Bunker. I didn't know what to do or say. I didn't know if she wanted me to raise my voice or what, but I was sure she wanted me to hit her. So I got up and left, with her following behind, yapping like an obscene terrier. I'm not sure what to do about it. I wish Jill were happier, but it's obvious I'm not going to make her that way. Once, she was funny and wild and so so willing to see the humor in things. But that left her, or she left it, and I think it's her way of dumping people she cares about. I'm thinking about all this when what I'm supposed to be concentrating on is my fares. Bellardo and the Japanese business man, who I'm certain there's something off about, are standing over against the bar, watching me play pool. I know they think my concentration is really on them. I know they think that I'm there for them, only them, and would lay down and let em walk on me if the situation called for it. They don't know or care that I've got all this stuff sogging through my brain right now. No more than I care about what's going through them.
Bellardo is a small cog in a growing syndicate. He used to be more important, but guys get edged out when the growing pains start. He orders a drink I know he doesn't drink and I know that he's about to play the gregarious benevolent jr. kingpin. He brings it over and all but sets it on the felt.
"Drink," he beams. "Loosen up for a minute Tony." He keeps pushing me to drink it while Nagasaki or Namagucci or whatever the hell his name is looks on. "She's my beautiful Antonia, eh? Have a drink." I finally pick it up because we both know one drink wont mess my ability to drive. And because it'll get ugly and mean if I don't. I can see in a brief crinkle near the lip of the business man that he knows this too. When Mr. B. turns around I put it on the floor. I don't want the drink, I want one of those awful chalky stomach coating pills. I want the bottle of antacids I got stuck in the glove compartment. I used to measure it out in the cap, and now I just drink it straight from the bottle, no chaser.
"Don't let her fool you, my Tonia." Bellardo says as he grabs my shoulders. "She's not one to be messed with. Not a person in the world would mess with us with her around." Speech over, making it clear he believes no one ever would mess with him, he goes back over to the bar.
He and the business man finish up. Bellardo's so drunk he can hardly walk straight. The business man feigns drunkness I know isn't there, and I can only think how shrewd he is, how Bellardo doesn't have a chance. I'm the driver and the body guard. I'm small, really, but I get by on looking surly and mean. And on the fact that I don't normally take people to the kinds of places that they'll get their heads busted at. But Mr. B, he's different, had to show this poor Japanese business man the seamier side of the city. I guess to show how tough we are, how tough he is that he can get by. The place is tame actually, I know this and he does, and I watch for signs that the business man knows it too. I manage him into the car. Mr. Nagawhatsis climbs in with no difficulty. I offer him a slight apology with my eyes, and he nods and smiles. Bellardo leaned over and pushed a 50 dollar bill at me, and while it's not the time or place I take it deftly. I close the door on them both and have to wonder what he's really thinking.
I chew through half a roll of antacids, and deliver Mr. B. first. I buzz through his gate, and his keepers are waiting. As I open the door he stands shakily. He's trying to tip me again and I decline. Normally, when they're this drunk I go ahead and take the money. But Bellardo, shrinking cog that he is, has too many strings in his hands and I never know when he'll decide to pull em. Plus, in spite of how he gets when he's drunk, I kind of like him. So him I play straight.
"You already did that Mr. Bellardo."
"Take the money."
I push it back toward him gently. "You did that already. Let's get you in."
"Take the money," he says more forcefully. He's not jovial or smiling for a moment, and then he cracks a slow drunken grin. "It was such a bad tip I don't even remember it. Can't have you thinking ill of me." I take the money and hand him over.
"Goodnight Mr. Nagagucci," he calls. I get back in the car, and turn back toward Embassy Row, named not for any real embassies but because of the posh hotels that line the block. I thank god he's said the name because it's jarred my memory. "I'll have you back to the hotel in ten minutes Mr. Nagagucci."
The intercom crackles. "I talk to you," he says.
"Sure," I say. "Is there someplace else you'd like to go?"
"Please to lower window."
I hit the button and the smoked glass partition lowers. Almost immediately he's leaning up against the seat. "What can I do for you sir?"
"You veeery handsome woman," he says, and all but winks.
I roll my eyes at this. I hadn't expected it from him, but I'm not entirely surprised. People get flirty a lot when they get a little drunk. "I'm the driver and the watch dog, Mr. Nagagucci. I don't do that kind of service."
Suddenly his voice changes. The hesitancy is gone, as is the thick almost stuttering accent. "You are very handsome," he says. "But I was thinking maybe you could find me a nice handsome young man."
I'm professional, or I would have burst out laughing. "You sound kind of corn fed all of a sudden."
"Oh please," he says, loosening his tie. "I'm from Pennsylvania. And my family is Chinese. But I've got high tech electronics to push, and who's gonna buy electronics from some dink named Nagel? It always comes off better from the Japs, don't you think?" He grins. "Very respectable," he says, using his accent.
I nod. I've got a reputation for keeping everything mum, so he knows I guess that nothing he says will ever go back to Bellardo, or his boss Julius Cozner. He's got guts to be pulling such a stunt, and he'll either wind up wishing he hadn't or their darling golden boy. I wonder then about my clientele. I do weddings, sometimes fresh cheeked prom dates who get too noisy in the back. But mostly it's big planners and backseat liars, who pay oh so well. "So. Handsome men."
"You want high end or low end?"
"A nice medium end, who I can play the old hump and bump with. But dumb enough I can keep being Mr. Japanese business man."
I check my watch, and decide which club I'll take him to. I pull up, and the party has spilled outside and into the street. "You want me to wait, make a real impression with the car?" Bellardo rented the car til 2 am. That it's barely midnight means nothing. He's paid in advance, and technically I owe him the time.
"Could be an idea for the future," he says. "But right now, I just want to be the lonely traveler. And I don't want him back in MY hotel room."
I pull closer to the door, and already the party boys are pressing close to the chrome. Nagagucci laughs. I pull as close as I can, and see the night's doorman is Hogey. "Tell the guy at the door that Tony C sent you." I get out, open the door for him. He slides a folded bill in my hand.
"Whatever you're paying yourself, it
I stop at Kerri's place after I put the limo up. She's willing but sleepy, which is good because I don't feel like a big thing tonight. I could just go home, but there's something about having someone beside you. Don't get me wrong, she has no committed attachments to me either. Kerri is nice. I like her more than I should, at least better than Jill. Jill likes to pick fights, likes to try and push my buttons. As mean as she gets, I've never hit her. But she hits me. On the arms and back mostly, but once she threw a coffee cup that left a neat half circle around my eye. And she whacked my leg with a rolling pin, crying when I pretended it didn't hurt. I think of her and understand completely why Nagagucci didn't want his night toy in his hotel room. I've never let Jill in my house either, and she must think I live inside my car. Something else. Jill always calls me Tony, like it's a dirty word. Kerri sometimes calls me Tony, but almost always it's Antonia, and she says it like I'm light.
I crawl into bed, pull her close so that I can smell the apricot conditioner in her hair. She snuggles back, pulls my arm across her chest.
"What time is it?" she asks.
I kiss the back of her head. "Late."
"Did you stop at Jill's first?"
I hesitate. "I saw her earlier," I admit. "But I wanted to be here."
"I'll fix you french toast in the morning," Kerri says. "With strawberries." I know this means she's been shopping, expected that I'd be here tonight and again in the morning. I've been here almost every night this week. In spite of my rules about commitment, I'm starting to feel almost settled. Actually, I haven't been home in quite a while. It's always been here or Jill's, and I wonder if I made the right decision letting my friend Miller hang at my place like a squatter. I should go by sometime soon and check up on things. I tell myself this decision to go back there for a while has nothing to do with fear of commitment.
"Strawberries will be nice," I tell her, and we go to sleep.
I pick up Bellardo a lot lately. Sometimes he's alone, but increasingly he's with Nagagucci. Who pretends not to have any secrets with me. But he's been throwing business at me of late, more and more often after hours good time boys, beautiful and eyes full of money lust. They're always impressed with the limo, with the trim, with the stocked bar and refrigerator, cd stereo and tv with vcr. I laugh about that vcr. Everyone is wowed by it, but really, when you're just scooting across town, you don't have time to watch a freakin movie on it. It's not even connected, but no one gets past being impressed with it. The arrangement is I drop off Bellardo first, then while I'm supposed to be taking Nag back to his hotel, I'm really cruising for take out. Occasionally I'll pick up just one or the other. Although it's rare, I pick up Bellardo solo today. He hardly ever wants the partition up, but today I wish he'd have requested it. He looks nervous and pissed, and I see he's cleaning me out of the Glen Livitz as fast as I'm eating flavored Tums, which don't work anyway.
"It's not bad enough," he says. He takes a drink and looks at his knees. "Tell me Tony, how come it is you can keep every freakin secret in the city?"
"Cuz I don't see or hear anything. Ever." Don't test me now, please, I think. Don't spill your guts in my limo, because I don't want to be held accountable to the law, the mob, or for my soul. He spills too much anyway, and it's how I know where he's at on the ladder of things. The guys going somewhere, they never say a thing, don't even look smug when things are going their way. But I can tell by the way he's working the ice against his teeth that he's getting ready to drop a load.
"Well, here's to you." He downs another shot and sits back. He looks like a great belly with stick legs, his neck hanging over his collar like putty. "Thank God I've got that little Jap bastard under my wing," he said. "Smart mothers. He's been helping my books look good, and it's a damn good thing he started before Cozner saw them. Cozner's pissed because now anyone could find out how the money works. But Nag's convinced him he can fix it all before anyone does. And he will too." He pours another drink for himself. "Why Tony?" he asks. "I was always crap at numbers. Never mathematically clever. Why Coz left me to cook the books I just don't get."
"Good thing you've got Nag then."
"Damn right," he said. "You're damn right." He falls silent, drinking and chewing ice, and I don't prompt further conversation. I pull up to the curb, get out and hold open his door. He gets out slowly, looking bewildered for a second. I'm terrified it's because he's just realized he's spilled some business in front of me, but he stretches and pats me on the back.
"You're one of the good ones Antonia," he says.
I pocket the fifty he slips me without even looking at it. I stop by the florists and use it to send flowers to Kerri, not roses, she hates those, but a mix of carnations and exotics. Flowers that last, with some excitement thrown in. Then I go back and give the limo a good cleaning, taking my time with the detailing, inside and out. I do this even though I did it before I picked up Bellardo. I'm supposed to head out to the airport to pick up some blue haired old lady, who I've been assured has never been in a limo before. Somehow I want her to be happy and impressed more than Julius, who's footing the bill. I've got just enough connections that I've scored a police pass, so I place it on the dash and go inside the terminal. I wait patiently with my perfectly scripted placard, waiting for Mrs. Esther Stein. She's old, I've been told, but she's a true blue haired old lady. Tiny floral old lady print on her dress, but with a nice cut that says she didn't get it off the rack at any Kmart. She has perfectly matching luggage, a thick gold chain with a Star of David dangling off, and thin wrists and ankles. She takes to me right off, or maybe just likes being waited on. She's chatty and hunched, slow, and I can see her talking to herself on some park bench as she feeds birds and squirrels. I wonder what connection such a sweet old lady can have to such a rat bastard as Julius but know better than to ask, because who really knows anything these days. When she leans on my arm she's heavier than she looks, and she has too much perfume on. Sweet and powdery, stereotypically old lady like. But underneath, there's a smell like death.
We get in the car. She wants to know if she can have a drink. "Certainly, Ma'am," I tell her. "Everything here is for your comfort."
"In other words it's all paid for," she says. I laugh and nod. "Can I have one of these little mints?"
"Sure. Go whole hog." She throws half of them into her purse. "There's Godiva near the liquor," I say.
"Is that some kind of caviar?"
"Chocolate," I tell her. She has one, sucks it thoughtfully, then has another. She puts a few in her purse for later and leans forward.
"Are they terribly expensive? Those chocolates?"
I nod. "Yes ma'am."
She shrugs. "I'd rather have a Hersheys." For a moment she stares out the window, then plays with the fridge and the stereo, opens all the compartments she can find. She rolls her eyes at the vcr, and runs her fingers over surfaces, perhaps searching for dust.
"This is too much for an old lady like me," she says.
"Do you like it?"
"Well of course. Hell yes." She patted the seat. "I like it too much. I'm not sure if I should be tickled or angry I haven't lived my whole life like this." She shakes her head and turns business like. "Did Julius give you a bag for me?
It's on the front seat in fact. It's empty, and plain. Stuffed with tissue paper to make it look like there's something in there. "He said to give it to you when I dropped you off for lunch."
"Well, dear, I'm asking for it now." I hand it to her. "It's so damn hot here. That rat Julius never said a thing about the heat." She's unbuttoning her shirt and I start to raise the partition.
"No honey, I want to talk. Five hours this trip, and I get stuck on the plane next to a moron who can only talk stocks and football. And I want to see who it is I'm talking to."
People operate under the assumption that we can't see them back there. But we can, there are all kinds of ways, and some drivers even have extra mirrors and fiber optic cameras installed. As I glance back she strips off her blouse, and there's something lumpy under her slip. Her clothes looked far too baggy, her limbs too skinny and sallow.
"I got the cancer," she said simply. "My Gabe, he had the cancer, but not the same kind."
"I'm sorry," I say.
"What's to be sorry. We all gotta go." I hear as she slips the silk and lace over her head. And she's got like 30 bags of cocaine taped around her. I try not to react. I try to pretend I'm seeing nothing. But an old Jewish woman with cancer is stripping in my back seat, and has one of the biggest shipments of coke I've ever heard about taped round her. Although I'm not Catholic, I send a short prayer to Saint Christopher to clear the way of any mishap.
"Never tried the stuff myself," she's saying. "But Julius promised me I'd get a sample." She's packing the bags she strips off herself into the larger bag. "Julius wanted me to wait, but that stuff's too hot to keep on, and I'm too tired. I'm an old lady after all. Besides, he said you could be trusted."
"Esther," she says.
"You ever tried this stuff?" she asks. "I don't see what the fuss is, but then I've never tried it. Tooted, snorted, whatever it is you do. Now, what were you going to say dear?"
"I'm dying. What are they going to do to an old lady? I decided to take the risk and do what Julius wanted. Now he'll be set, and I know my grandchildren can go to college." She waves a hand. "What a load. I just wanted to do something exciting. Now I'm just tired." She takes two last bags, held in place by her sagging breasts, and drops them into the duffel. "Are you ashamed of me?"
"No," I say. "I think you're pretty spunky."
"No. I was just bored."
"What time do you have to meet Julius?"
"Not til four."
"Why don't I give you a nice tour of the star's homes."
"Stars live out here?"
"Or I can just make up a tour."
"Was that included in what Julius paid?"
"This one's on me," I say.
"I'd like that then. Can you show me where Sinatra lived?" And even
though he didn't live here, I show her his home, ask her if she can see his pool
just over the privacy fence. She smiles, nods, and says she can.
Things have been going well with Jill and me lately. Don't ask me why. But I know pretty soon something will happen and it'll be back to the prizefight. We went to that hockey game after all, and she did in fact hang on my arm. She talked strategy, yelled obscenities, and when our team won we ran home, called her dad, then screwed our brains out. I'm waiting though, wondering if all this round and round stuff is worth it. I wonder about who I am when I'm around her. Why she calls me Ralph Cramden, why I sometimes believe she's right. I can't figure her out, I can't figure myself out, and I know who I used to not be. She called me earlier today to have a limo ready. This usually means she's made reservations for us somewhere. I feel completely indifferent, self protective maybe, but I make sure to look good when I go to pick her up. Wear something that can double as a uniform, but still look sharp. I decided on the Armani, a suit I could hardly afford at the time I bought it, and drive to the address Jill gave me. She's standing there, just inside the building and when I pull up the doorman ushers her outside. She looks stunning. Tight black dress that ends mid thigh, not too revealing though. Her hair is loose about her shoulders, soft and inviting. I open the door and before I know it, some guy is getting in with her. She just smiles, lets me know it's all part of the evening. I shut the door, but it takes a minute of me standing there on the sidewalk before I get in. We're not exclusive. We both see other people. But Jill has never thrown it in my face, and it's never been a man. She has the partition down. She and the meatcake are grinning.
"The Olive Tree," she says. This is where she normally takes me.
"Yes ma'am." I resist reaching for the bismuth. They're nuzzling in the back. I want to drive faster, want them out of the limo. He shoots a look my way, but Jill brings him back.
"Don't worry about her," she says. "You should worry about me." She's reaching for his belt, and when it's clear she's more than just playing, I hit the partition. "No," she says. "Leave it open. I'm claustrophobic." He giggles at this and they go back to nuzzling. I'm furious, and try to tell myself I'm not, which makes it worse. I'm not looking, but I know what they're doing back there all the same. I pull up to the curb more than abruptly, but they don't say a word. They put themselves back together and I open the door to let them out before they're quite done. Jill touches my arm.
"Wait for us."
"Call me when you're ready." So I spend the next several hours driving around, wondering what I'll do when and if she actually calls me for a return ride. Suddenly the sidewalks and traffic patterns don't make sense, all the one way streets and construction stupid and needless. I'm not so jealous as confused, and am stunned to find out just how professional I am when the phone goes. I go back, pick them up, and take them back to Jill's place. He gets out and she says she'll be right with him. I pull a key off my key ring, a little brass heart Jill gave to me, and hand her back the key to her apartment.
"What's this?" She looks confused, and I can tell she wasn't expecting it. I don't know what she was expecting, but I'm not going to try and figure it out either.
"I won't be coming back."
"What about your things?"
"Anything there I don't want." I give her a look that means I include her in this. She frowns, her lip trembles into a smile.
"Can't take it can you?" she says.
"I can take a lot. But this..." I shrug. "This was just rude. This was abusive. And I'm finally sick of it."
"You can't handle it," she says. "You've got no backbone. You can't even stand up to me."
"I just did." I get back in the car, and leave her standing there on the curb. I drive around again, get tired, and although my impulse is to go to Kerri's, I decide to go home. When I try to unlock the door the key sticks, and I'm sure that Miller's gone and changed the locks on me. But then the door opens, and I hear him inside, singing off key. He's standing in his underwear, waving his arms and throwing his laundry out of the basket.
"My life MUST be over," I said. "The fat lady is singing."
Miller jumped, nearly tripped over himself. "Dear God," he said. "Couldn't you have warned me you were on the way?"
"It is my place," I remind him.
"Well, I could have had a man in here." I laugh at this and he brings one hand to his chest, sniffing indignantly. "Well, I could have. The fact that I chose not to..."
"Means someone out there still has standards."
"Tony baby, you are deeply wounded." He shrugs into a shirt. There's a sock stuck to it and I decide not to point this out to him.
"I'm just snake mean and always have been." I fix myself a scotch before I remember I don't even like the stuff. So I pour a shot of vodka and drink that instead.
"Jesus loves you," Miller said mock piously.
"But everyone else thinks I'm an ass."
He shakes his head. "You must have seen Jill recently. Talk about snakes." He hissed dramatically.
"I just dumped her actually."
"No!" When I nod he dances. "This is celebration material! Call the Society Page, call your brother." He starts pouring drinks, juggling olives. Miller is flaming tonight. Normally I can handle it, but I just want to clock him. I feel a sense of relief, I feel sad, but I don't feel like making a celebration out of it. I try to sit down, and there's a stack of Playstation games in my easy chair. I hardly recognize my own apartment. He's taken over the whole place, framed pictures, knick naks and curios, even filled my refrigerator with fancy bottled juices and jars with things in them I can't begin to fathom what they could be.
"What's wrong babykins?" he asks.
"I just wanted to make myself a sandwich." I hold up two curious jars and shake my head.
"Let me make you a nice dinner."
"Just a sandwich."
"A nice sandwich then."
An acceptable compromise. I nod. "Just a cheese sandwich. I don't care."
"Well, you must have a Brie sandwich then. With some apricot chutney, and grapes. Hmmm, capers too much, yes. No capers, what was I thinking?" He collects the ingredients together and then stands back. "Now what kind of bread..."
"Beast," he says. "We have a nice crusty bread, sunflower and spinach, french, Italian herb, some really nice foccoccia..." He makes a choice without conferring. Hands over a masterpiece and a glass of wine. I hang up my tie and jacket and eat in front of the tv, not really watching a show which he's explaining the history of. I'm tense, and can't concentrate on his prattling. I can't read. I'm afraid the phone will ring. I'm afraid it won't. I want to talk to Kerri, but that wouldn't be right. And I don't want to end up at her place. I'm in my own home, but it brings me no comfort.
I go back to the kitchen for more wine and Miller is lining up some coke. For a moment I wonder if it's compliments of Esther.
Nothing says I'm cool like coke. Celebrate dumping the cretin. Coke adds life to any party."
"I don't do that shit anymore."
"Just a line? An eensy weensy little line?"
"No." I sit down hard.
"OK, then, I have just the thing."
"I'm afraid to ask."
"A nice soak in a hot bath."
"Everything is nice to you."
"A Nice soak in a Nice hot bath," he says.
"I hate baths. Sitting in your own dirt and sweat. It's like grunge soup."
"Then shower off after. Word, girl. Sometimes you have no sense." In the end Miller talks me into the bathroom. I see that he's imported all kinds of bath accessories, from inflatable pillows to scented bath salts, sculpted soaps, scrubbers, and lotions. There's even a decent stereo system. Maybe having a squatter isn't so bad.
"And for the finishing touch, the crowning bit of spoilment..." he turns on the tape player and mystical new agey music comes out.
"Nuh uh. No way in hell I'm listening to that."
"Give it a chance babykins. It's...Nice!"
I do. Give it a chance. Pretty soon it's part of the steam, the gentle motion of the tub water as I shift. I want to de-evolve suddenly. Want to soak off or steam off my layers of humanity, grow gill slits and become amphibious. To live in the bathtub. It works so well that I'm not aware I'm drifting off til I sit bolt up in the tub, sloshing water over the sides. I blink, feeling light, and wonder if I was about to slip under. Then I hear it again. A bumping, a breaking, and several someones walking heavily.
"Shit." I crouch to get up and the door flies inward, bouncing back off the wall. Three guys are standing there and I make it across the bathroom. I slug the first guy in the jaw before it comes to me that I'm naked. I fight, but not for long. I'm on my knees and staring into the tub.
"What the hell.." They push my head under the water. For a moment I'm calm, eyes tightly shut. But then I feel like I've counted off an awful lot of seconds and they're still not letting me up. I thrash about, and they let me up. There's a slight clouding of blood in the water, and I wonder where it's from. I cough, choke out some water, then laugh as soon as I get some air. "Sorry I can't make any witty conversation," I say. "But I'm scared shitless and can't think of a thing."
They push me under again. Up, a second in the air, then back down. Bath water fills my ears, my sinuses. When they finally let me up my ribs are burning. "My mother will kill you if I get pneumonia from this." I'm laughing again, I'm so scared and confused because I can't think what this is about. I can't think at all. One of them brings out a straight razor. It shines, the blade and the mother of pearl handle. I look away from it, back toward the water. Something sharp bites my ear, and I try to grab it but they're still holding my arms.
"Sonovabitch, you goddamn..." And I'm under again. This time not for long. "You cut me," I cough. "What the hell?"
"You know you don't want us to come back, don't you?" I look into his eyes. I know that I didn't want them here to begin with. I know that I don't know what's going on.
"What..." I'm standing now, and he's folding up his razor.
"You do what's right, we don't come back."
"What's right..." I see they're going to go now. Only now do I worry about Miller. And as soon as I worry, I get mad. If this is about Miller's coke habit, I'll kill him myself if they haven't.
"Remember," he says. Then he hits me, and as I stumble back I slip, knowing something's going to break. I don't know how long I was out. But I'm cold, the floor is cold and everything hurts. And that freakin music is still going. I roll over slowly, careful so my head doesn't fall off. Miller is hunched over by the sink, his knees drawn in. His head is in his hands and he won't look at me.
"Cakes. Oh God, I thought you were dead."
"What the hell was this?" He looks up. His eyes are puffy and darkening. "They broke my nose. I thought they killed you."
"You could have covered me up." I grab a towel and wrap myself into it. "I'm gonna hurl." I deep breathe to clear my head and a moment later ask him if this is to do with his drug habit.
"No. No way." He's trying not to cry. "I'm a cash only kinda guy. And I buy in very small quantities."
"Right. Then if there's nothing here you don't want found, call the cops." I for one am going to the hospital, and know there's no easy way to explain our state. They'll call the cops for us if we don't. He dumps his coke down the toilet and makes the call. I tell him what we're going to say and they're there a half hour later, grilling us on what we're hiding, what we did to piss who off. I keep telling them I have no clue, but they don't believe me. Hell, I don't believe me. There has to be something. The medics point out to them that we have been attacked, that I'm still bleeding, and they decide not to follow us to the hospital. Once there I get x rays, get my ear stitched, and four more in my eyebrow. The doctor bobs and weaves, then asks "You been fighting Mike Tyson?" We leave after some wrap up questions, with my ear bandaged up, and Miller looking like Jack Nicholson from Chinatown. When we get back I call the super, tell him we were busted into, and he says he'll fix the lock the next day. We spend the night together on the couch, not sleeping, and trying to figure it all out. Maybe it was Jill. I don't think she'd have spent the money it would have taken though, or would have put herself out for such trouble. She was pissed, to be sure, but not that pissed. And the guy she was with didn't seem the type either. Nagagucci would have lots to lose if Cozner found out he was gay, but he's in the peaches right now and why would I bother telling? He's such a golden boy they maybe wouldn't even care. Maybe they'd even see him being gay as an inroad to a new market. No, it isn't him. And Julius has no reason to come after me either. In fact he's been having me take Esther all over town.
"None of my other regulars have a real problem," I say.
"You assume they're after you."
"So who would be after you?" I'm mad. He got a broken nose. I got cracked ribs, a mild concussion, half drowned, and stitches.
"Alas, no one." He sighs.
"It has to be Bellardo. He's the only one in any trouble. Cozner found out he was incompetent with cooking the books." I've never spoken these words aloud. I've never said anything to anyone about what goes on, but now I feel like the bets are off. "Nag was the one who told, that's an easy one, but he's blaming me."
It doesn't feel right exactly, but he's all I have. "Mr. B's been spilling so much lately. Maybe he figures Cozner has me on bill as his ears after all." I figured that's why they'd cut my ear, or at least it was the only thing that made any sense.
"Well, what are you going to do about it?"
"I'm going to flush the bastard. I'm going to start leaking to Cozner. I'm going to tell Bellardo's wife who he's been seeing."
"OH, let me," Miller said.
"Sure, why not start now." Once again I rehearse Miller on what he's supposed to say. We drive out to a pay phone on a quiet corner and I dial the number. When she answers, I know I've woken her up and I hand the phone to Miller.
"Mrs. Bellardo. I'm a private detective." He looked at me and winked. "I want to say this fast before I lose my nerve. My client hired me to find out who his wife was fooling around with. I can't stand this, but it's your husband. I wouldn't say anything at all, but he's got quite a few women coming in and out with him." He gave me a huge smile and a thumbs up, started naming names. "Yes, her too. No. I'm sorry. I just couldn't stand to see him do this to so many people. I'm sorry." Miller hung up. "She bought it. She's gonna kill him." We laughed as we got back into his car. I headed for the driver's side and caught myself at the last moment.
"What now?" he asks.
"Now I get Jill for good measure. She gets the limo comp. I'm going to find out who she was with tonight and bill him."
"I like it. What else?"
Cozner I'm not about to mess with, and Nag is just a closet case. "That's all," I say, and although he's disappointed, for me it's enough.
It's a few days before I go back to driving. I convalesce in the apartment, wearing boxers and one of Miller's oversize shirts. I've talked to Kerri a few times over the phone, but haven't seen her. She sent me a teddy bear with chocolate roses in its paws, and some of my drivers sent me prepaid takeout deliveries. The people in the apartment next door sent us a bunt cake and bottle of rum. They say they're father and daughter, but I don't see the resemblance. Miller says they're really just lovers, and I think he's right. Plus they're just too damn smarmy and slick for my liking. A day later and there's some thumping and bumping over there, followed by moving boxes in the morning. It's a sudden move, sloppy and loud, and Miller and I watch by cracking the door open. He gives me a running commentary on the junk they got like he's narrating some kind of heehaw fashion show. For a while it's just a bunch of kids carrying boxes, then the daughter comes out carrying camera bags. She's got on big dark glasses and a scarf around her head.
"Tha moovie stah!" Miller laughed. I shush him, because the father is coming out now. He's got some very blackened eyes, and a broken nose. His arm is in a sling. I pull the door closed as soon as they get down the steps.
"Jesus," I say.
"What was that?"Miller asks. "Do I want to know what that was?"
"No," I tell him.
"Do gangsters make mistakes? I mean, aren't they professionals?"
"People make mistakes every day," I said. I was trembling, and sat down to keep it from showing. "What do you think malpractice insurance is all about?" I'm in knots, not wanting to think about what could have happened if the orders had been different. "Mafia Malpractice insurance," I say and can't stop laughing. Miller says over and over he doesn't want to know, but he keeps going to the door, offering up a new theory with each peek. Later that night I found an envelope taped to the door. Just a note that said mistakes have been rectified, not to ask questions, and a wad of cash. I figured it was Cozner, and that made me think it was time to get back to work. I'd turned over my regulars to one of my other drivers, and let the secretary figure it all out til I got back. They all gave me big sloppy kisses, and laughed just enough at how funny I looked with my ear bandaged. The only serious business was a call from Peter Jenkins, who said he'd assumed Jill was paying for the limo. My secretary had said he could take that up with Jill, and he'd sent a check directly over. I didn't think it would bounce, and I didn't care that Jill had called me several times both at home and here at the office.
My first ride was Bellardo. I picked him up, noticing he had a black eye of his own. Those seem to be contagious lately. I held his door and he sagged into his seat. He never even noticed how I looked and I hoped that his wife had really kicked his ass but good. He fiddled in the back seat.
"It wasn't bad enough with the books," he said. "But now some fucking detective went and called my wife."
"That's pretty harsh," I say.
"He didn't leave his name. And my wife swears she didn't hire him."
"Really harsh," I say again.
"You know Tony, I could find him. I could do what it took to find out who the bastard is." He sits back, shaking his head and looking out the window. "But Jesus, you know, I never wanted to hurt no one."
I don't say too much, don't say too little. But he's nervous, a little fish about to get fried. I feel bad for him, bad that I'd had Miller make the call. It was a stupid thing to do, and I could have gotten a lot of people hurt if Bellardo were a different guy. I wanted to tell him, get out, throw in your cards and run like hell. It's not in my best interest, never has been. He's blinking hard and I can't look at him anymore.
"Don't want to hurt anyone," he said again.
"Mr. Bellardo..." I can't believe I'm doing this. He can't either.
"I know Tony." We
don't talk any more. I stop and let him out. He holds onto my hand for a long
time, then slipped me his traditional fifty. "Tonia, you were ever the only
one. Don't ever turn your back on any of em." I watch his tired shoulders
as he moves out of sight.
The next few weeks fly by. I've had Kerri over to spend the night several times. I call Jill, tell her I hope she can find happiness, and there's no hard feelings. She tells me to fuck off, but sends a small box with some of my personal effects to my apartment. I hear through the vine that my neighbors were trying to blackmail the wrong people, that Nag's been moved up and that Cozner was amused with his business man stunt. The gay hoods are looking cleaner, and there's supposedly more trade and traffic building up. But I don't hear this from Nag, and I know this means he's learned some lessons from Bellardo's mistakes. I haven't given Bellardo a ride in weeks. At first I thought the worst. But I've seen nothing in the papers and the grapevine is mum. I could always just try calling but maybe I really don't want to know.
Although we never talk about commitment or make plans, Kerri and I are seeing each other a lot. I've stopped buying maalox and stopped answering the stray phone calls and invitations from other women. I told her I'd stopped seeing Jill and she just nodded and poured me more wine. I even bought her a little ring, but we never discuss things. I picked up Esther the other day, took her back to the airport. She said she was going home, packing her bags, and making another coke run.
"Life out here agrees with me," she said. She does look better. There's color to her cheeks, and she's updated her wardrobe. I think she's put some weight on, and her hair is a crisp fine white. "Julius says he'd love to keep me on, but I've only got so much time. And I can only go back to visit the grandkids so many times."
"I'm already looking forward to picking you up," I say. She smiles at this. "And I'll have some Hersheys for you this time around."
"Actually, dear, I've gotten quite fond of the Godiva." I carry her bags in and she kisses me on the cheek. When I get back in the car, all I can think of is what her life must have been like. How she once said she'd loved Gabe and wanted to die too. Now she's glad she didn't but still. I wonder if I'll ever feel that. Or if anyone will ever feel that for me. That kind of connection and longing. And I find myself thinking of Kerri, embarrassed at the timing, wondering if it's my fear or real feelings that are driving me to think of her. When I get back to the garage I'm still thinking. I ask Paulo, my second best driver, if he'll drive for me tonight. He's surprised, says he's honored, and goes to rearrange his schedule. I call Kerri, leave a message on her machine telling her that I'll pick her up for dinner at seven. I spend hours trying to figure out what to say, what to wear, what to stock the limo with. When seven comes Paulo has already pulled up to the curb. Kerri saunters down the steps, wearing jeans and a stretched out sweater. She looks mildly amused when I don't get out. Paulo opens the door, and she gets in.
"Wow," she says. "You got a vcr in here and everything." She's blushing.
"Never ridden in the back myself," I say. I'm nervous, with nothing to hide behind. No wheel, no traffic to take up my attention. "Kerri," I say, but she says my name at the same time. We laugh and she gives me an earnest look. She takes my arm, puts it around her shoulder and settles in against me. And I know, without ever having to ask, what the answer will be. I didn't expect to cry, but my chest is getting tight with it. "I'm hopeless at this."
"I know," she says. "And I love you too."
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