Chapter One: White Boy in Harlem
I open my eyes. The train tracks. The river. A wall of heat. Unbearable white sunlight smacking off the railings, the street and the god-awfulness of the buildings. Steam from the permanent Con Ed hole at the corner. Gum and graffiti tags on the sidewalk. People on the platform -- Jesus Christ, are they really in sweaters and wool hats? Garbage everywhere: newspaper, bits of food, clothes, soda cans, beer cans. The traffic slow and angry. Diesel fumes from tubercular bus engines. Heat and poison from the exhausts on massive, bruised gypsy cabs.
I'm smoking. I'm standing here on the elevated subway platform looking down at all this enormous nightmare and I'm smoking. My skin can barely breathe. I'm panting. The back of my T-shirt is thick with sweat. 100 degrees, 90 percent relative humidity. I'm complaining about the pollution you can see in the sky above New Jersey and I'm smoking Camels. What an idiot.
Details. Dominican guys on the west side of Broadway. Black guys on the east. The Dominicans are in long cotton pants, sneakers, string T-shirts, gold chains. The black guys are in neat blue or yellow or red T-shirts with baggy denim shorts and better sneakers. The black guys are more comfortable, it's their turf for now, the Dominicans are newcomers. It's like West Side bloody Story.
In the deep pocket of my baggy shorts I start playing absently with the safety on my pistol. A very stupid thing to do. I stop myself. Besides, these guys aren't the enemy. No, the enemy, like the Lord, is subtle, and in our own image.
Some kids playing basketball without a hoop. Women shopping; heavy bags weighing them down, the older women pushing carts, the younger wearing hardly anything at all. Beautiful girls with long dark legs and dreamy voices that are here the only sounds of heaven.
Harlem has changed, of course. I mean, I'm not talking about the 125th Street of today or even of five years ago. There's a Starbucks there now. Multiplexes. HMV. An ex-president. This is before Giuliani saved the city. Twice. This is 1992. There are well over two thousand murders a year in New York. Gang wars. Crack killings. The New York Times publishes a murder map of Manhattan with a dot for every violent death. Once you get above Central Park the dots get thicker and east and north of Columbia University it becomes one big smudge. A killing took place yesterday at this very corner. A boy on a bicycle shot a woman in the chest when she didn't give up her pocketbook. Those guys down there are packing heat. Shit, we're all packing heat. The cops don't care. Besides, what cops? Who ever sees a peeler around here except in Floridita? Anyway, it's 1992. Bush the First is president, Dinkins is mayor, Major is PM, John Paul is the pope. According to the New York Daily News, it was 55 degrees yesterday and raining in Belfast. Which is par for the course in the summer there.
With a handkerchief I wipe away the sweat from the little Buddha fat gathering on my belly. The train is never coming. Never. I wipe under my arms, too. I stamp out the fag and resist the temptation to light another. Are people giving me looks? I'm the only white person at the station and I'm going north up to Washington Heights, which, when you think about it, is just plain silly.
The guys wearing the wool hats are West Africans. I've seen them before. They sit there serene and composed, chittering about this and that and sometimes scratching out a game of dominoes. They're going downtown. On that side there's no shade, it's boiling on them and they're as mellow as you please. They sell watches from suitcases to marks on Fifth Avenue and Herald Square. I know their crew chief. He's only been in North America four months and he has a twelve-man unit. I like him. He's suave and he's an operator and he never flies off the handle. I'd work for him but he only employs other boys from the Gambia. If you've ever checked, it's a funny-looking country and I mentioned that to him one time and he told me all about the Brits, colonialism, structural exploitation, the Frankfurt School, and all that shite and we got on fine and laughed and he took a Camel but still wouldn't give me a job selling knockoff watches from a briefcase. And it's not like they're kin to him either, it's just a question of trust. He won't even hire Ghanaians. I can understand it. Do the same myself, more than likely. Today no dominoes, they're just talking. English, actually, but you can't follow it. No.
I put the hanky away and try and breathe for a while. Look around, breathe. The cars. The city. The river again: vulgar, stinking, vast, and in this haze, it and Harlem dissolving and despairing together. There are no swimmers, of course. Even the foolish aren't that foolish.
I look away from the water. In this direction you wouldn't believe how many empty lots there are, how many buildings are shells, how many roofs are burnt away, and it gets worse as you go east towards the Apollo. You can see it all since there's a fine view from up here where the IRT becomes elevated for a while. 126th Street, for example, is behind the state's massive Adam Clayton Powell Jr. building, where I got my driver's license and you get social security cards and stuff and you'd think that that would be prime real estate. But it isn't. Nearly every building is derelict for about three whole blocks. And 123rd, where I live, well, we'll get to that.
Yawn. Stand on tiptoes. Roll my head. Lazy stretch.
Sooner or later -- minutes, hours -- the train is going to come and it's going to take me to 173rd Street and I'm going to meet Scotchy coming down from the Bronx and Scotchy is going to be late and he'll spin me lies about some girl he has going and then Scotchy and I will impose our collective will on a barkeep up there and after that just maybe the tight wee bastard will spring for a cab to get us down to the other bar on 163rd where we have a bit more serious work to do with a young man called Dermot Finoukin. Because walking those ten blocks would just about kill me on a day like this. He won't though, he'll make us walk. Nice wee dander for you, Bruce, he'll slabber. Yeah, that will be the way of it. Crap from Scotchy. Crap from Dermot. Down by myself. Dinner at KFC and a six-pack of beer from C-Town Supermarket for four dollars. Shit.
A black girl is talking to the Dominican boys outside the bodega and it's more Leonard Bernstein than ever as the hackles rise between the blacks and the Dominicans on this side of the street. Jesus, gunplay is all I need. Just make the train come and when it comes make the aircon work. But it doesn't and I look away from the boys in case afterwards I'm asked to be a witness by the peels.
Lights appear in the tunnel at the City College stop. The downtown train comes and the Gambians and the other passengers get on and it's just me now and a few wee muckers at the far end spitting down the sixty feet to Broadway beneath us.
A homeless man comes up the steps having leapt the barrier. He's filthy and he smells and he's going to ask me for a quarter. He's coughing and then he says:
His hands are swollen to twice what they should be and he could have anything from untreated winter frostbite to fucking leprosy.
Here, I say, and I don't want to touch him, so I put the quarter on the ground and then immediately repent of this. How unbelievably humiliating to make a sixty-year-old man bend down and pick up a quarter. He does bend down, picks it up, thanks me, and wanders off.
The pay phone rings. Who knew the phone even worked? It rings and rings. The kids, spitting, look over at me, and eventually I go and pick it up.
Yes? I say.
Michael? a voice says.
Yes, I say, trying not to sound amazed.
It's Sunshine, he says.
Sunshine. Sunshine, how in the name of bloody Jehovah do you know this pay-phone number? I ask, giving up any attempt to play it cool.
I'm paid to know these things, he says mysteriously.
Yeah but --
Listen, Michael, it's all off for today. Darkey's going to see the Boss and he's taking myself and Big Bob with him. The rest of you have the day off. Scotchy'll call you tomorrow.
All right, I say, and I'm going to ask him about money but he rings off. The prick. Sunshine is Darkey's right-hand man, and if ever there was a more weaselly-looking man-behind-the-man type of character, it's Sunshine. Thin, thinner than Scotchy even, with one of those skinny mustaches, and a bald head with a ridiculous comb-over that makes him look a bit like Hitler. I had him pegged for a child molester the minute I saw him but apparently that's not the case. Scotchy says not and Scotchy hates him. I don't. After you meet him a bit he's ok. Actually, I think he's a nice bloke, on the whole.
I hang up the phone and look foolishly at it for a second and one of the kids comes up and asks if it was for me. He's about ten, braver than the others, or more bored. Big hands that are restless behind him. Neat clothes, newish shoes.
And who the fuck are you? he asks, squinting up at me and into the sunlight.
I-I'm the bogeyman, I say, and grin.
You ain't no boogy man, he says, his American pronunciation half accusing, half scared. After all, I can look intimidating on occasion.
You always do what your mother tells you? I ask.
Sometimes, he says, thrown by the question.
Well, listen. Next time you don't, don't be surprised if I'm under your bed or in your cupboard or out there on your fire escape. Waiting.
He turns and wanders off slowly, trying to appear unimpressed. Perhaps he is. Not easy alarming little kids around here. Christ, most of their goddamn grandmas scare the hell out of me.
Ok, home. No point lingering. I suppose it's impossible to get my token back since I didn't ride the train. I scope the clerk and she's a tough big lassie whose fucking shadow could kick my ass. She gives me the evil eye while I'm considering the options, so in the end I don't even bother. And then it's step, step, step down the broken escalator, which since I've been here has been unrepaired. Slime on the bottom step.
I turn and walk along 125th past the live chicken store and the discount liquor and the horrible doughnut shop and the thinly disguised All-Things-Catholic, but really All-Things-Santería store. Cross the street. A man in a makeshift stall is selling bananas, oranges, and some green fruit I don't know the name of. It's all well presented but with all this pollution and crap around here you wouldn't eat anything he's vending, you'd have to be fucking crazy. People are, of course, and there's a queue.
At the junction you stop and you take a long look. You have to. For it's all there. The traffic. The pedestrians. Bairns and dogs and men with limps outside under the overhang. The slick off the Jackie Robinson. Public Enemy blaring from the speakers, Chuck D and Flavor Flav outsnapping each other. The hotness and the sizzle and the crack and the craic. Dealers and buyers and everyone in between. It's rich and it's overwhelming but really, in Harlem, all is sweetness. No one bothers me. They take me in. It's a scene. It's like the beach. The moisture, the temperature, the people on the dunes of sidewalk and the great hulking seething city is, in this analogy, the dirty gray Atlantic Ocean.
Up the hill. It's only two blocks but by some freak of geography it's really the equivalent of about five.
I reach in my shorts for my keys and turn on 123rd. Vinny the Vet is ahead of me going in the building, having a full, angry conversation with no one at all. His shopping bag clinks. Danny the Drunk is on the corner in the sun propping himself up. That purple face is leaning down over his walking stick, dry retching. And me as the third representative of the Caucasian race on the street, what am I like?
Aye, what indeed.
Keys, pistol. Pistol, keys.
Nerves are bad.
Keys. But the lock is screwed up and I have to jiggle it. Must tell Ratko, not that he'll fix anything. But guilt-ridden by his laziness, he will invite me down for some foul Polish vodka and Serbian delicacies prepared last year or so by the missus. But at least in my warped brain it'll be home cooking.
Sounds like a plan.
It's 1992 and Serbs are beginning to get a bit of a bad reputation. But it's not so terrible yet. Ratko'll pour me a full tumbler of something clear and awful and we'll toast Gavrilo Princip or Tito or the memory of the bloody Knights of Kosovo and I'll have a cold sausage-and-lard sandwich and another glass and when the drink is sweating me close to a bloody heart attack I'll slink away and stumble up the three floors to the apartment.
Second thought, no.
Inside, Freddie's there doing the mail.
Freddie, I say, and we talk for a minute about sports. Freddie can see I'm beat, though, and lets me go. Nice chap, Freddie.
Go up the stairs. The door. Keys again. Inside. Hotter here than the street. I put on the telly for company. Free cable somehow. I look for something familiar and settle on Phil Spector and John Lennon and some irritated long-haired session musicians being lectured by Yoko Ono on chord progression.
Run the bath. Water comes out brown. Sit on the tub edge and have a brief premonition of the phone ringing and me picking it up and it's Sunshine, come over all ominous, saying that Darkey wants to see me.
I shiver, get up, and take the phone off the hook. Disrobe, climb into the bath. Light a fag. Convince myself that this phone call will never happen. Get out of the bath and actually disconnect the phone from the wall, think for a moment, lock the door, get my gun, check the mechanism, leave it where I can grab it. Climb into the bath again. Sink into nothingness. Sink.
* * *
Murmurs, hymnals, and in the vestry quiet whole colonies of insects give me kisses and I'm too buggered to do anything about it. Vodka spills from my mouth. I'm sleeping and on the shores of some immense creature's back, a giant bovine eye and blue nerves and a labyrinth of tentacles. Jesus. I get up out of the water, which is by now cold, and grab a towel.
Later. The phone, the TV. The heat. Fag after fag until the ashtray is full. The fridge works and brings me vodka with ice. Small mercies but mercies nonetheless. I lean back on the sofa and contemplate my surroundings.
And let me describe the beautiful haven Scotchy and Darkey have picked out for me. Not that I'm ungrateful. Took me in, gave me a place. But it's not as if I haven't earned my keep. Only one with two brain cells to rub together. Anyway. They, of course, live in the nice part of the Bronx at the end of the 1 line. But it was full up there, see? Scotchy's claim, anyway. More fool me to believe him. This place apparently is five hundred a month, which comes out of my pay. As did the furniture, which Scotchy admitted later he got all for sweet FA in the street. It's a one bedroom. A toilet whose stink greets you when you come in. Next to it, a bath on little feet and under the bath there are more flora and fauna than David Attenborough could handle with the entire resources of the BBC behind him.
Corridor and kitchen. Forget about swinging a cat, a cat couldn't swing a mouse in here. Gas stove whose pilot light is perpetually going out. Years, perhaps decades, of grease everywhere. Holes in the walls and skirting.
Living room: TV, free cable, a big wooly yellow disgusting sofa.
Bedroom: futon on the floor, cupboard, table, chair.
There is no natural light anywhere. The living room's gray windows overlook a tiny courtyard, the bedroom peers onto the backs of the buildings on 122nd. If you go out onto the fire escape (which I often do) and you set up a chair and look up, now and again, through the skunk trees, you can see a plane or a bit of sky. The fire escape is rusted and rickety and will kill us all when the fire comes, but even so it's the nicest place in the apartment.
The roaches are the big problem. I've been here since last December and I've been fighting a guerrilla war with them ever since. I haven't grown used to their existence. I haven't reached Zenlike tranquillity that allows me and them to share the same territorial and metaphysical space. In Ireland there are no roaches. No creatures of any kind like this. Occasionally, a field mouse would come in the house. Or perhaps a bee or some benign beetle or ladybug. No, nothing like these things.
I respect them now, though. I hate them, but I respect them. I have beheaded them, poisoned them, scalded them, burned them, poisoned them again and somehow they seem to survive. I dropped a liter bottle of Coke once on one big water bug and it lived. I poured a half pound of boric acid on another and put a pot on it that I covered with a brick. I left it there for a week while we all went to Florida for a wake and a funeral for Mr. Duffy's brother. Got back, removed the brick, bastard cleans its antennae and crawls off into the wall. This was about kill two hundred and I had to go and scratch out the table and make it one kill less. The lesson was chastening. Like the RAF pilots in the Battle of Britain, you only report your kill when you see the plane hit the ground.
Anyway, they're everywhere. They crawl on you at night. You hear them in walls. You feed them in the traps. Occasionally they fly. You tell Ratko and he laughs and he shows you his place in the basement. Which if anything is worse.
The fire escape.
Another fag. Sirens. Dogs barking. People yelling. Smoke, sit there and draw it in and hold it. Hold it. Let it go. Let it all go.
I live on 123rd and Amsterdam. A block away is the edge of the Columbia University security zone and there they call the neighborhood Morningside Heights so that concerned parents don't freak out, which they would if they had to send mail to bloody Harlem. But this is Harlem. There are projects one block to the north, not particularly bad projects but projects nonetheless, and to the east it's the real nightmare. The buildings are derelict and most of them seem to be inhabited by crack cocaine addicts. Morningside Park is pretty hairy after dark and all the way up to 125th Street is no picnic. I stick out, too. I have learned some Spanish and have told myself that thus equipped I can pass as a Dominican. However, my paper white Mick skin is not entirely convincing.
I have no air-conditioning and the fan only moves hot air around the room.
I toss the fag and climb back in through the window. I go to the kitchen and get a beer. Milwaukee Great Gold. It's the worst beer I've ever had -- they brew it with corn, if you can believe it. But it's cheap, and if you put the fridge up enough and it gets freezing cold you don't really taste it anyway.
I go back out on the fire escape and watch a few squirrels and way up in the blue the odd ascending vapor trail. The beer goes down and it's almost nice now. The day seems to be getting a little cooler.
The phone rings.
I hardly remember reconnecting it but I must have. Duty, responsibility, that's me.
I let it bleat. It goes on and on and it wears me down. I finish the last of my drink and hurl the can off the side of the rail trying to hit Ratko's pit bull, but I don't and the dog looks up at me and starts barking. I climb in through the fire-escape window and tramp across the bedroom and into the hall. I turn off Nevermind on the cassette player. I pick up the phone.
It's Scotchy. I can tell by that nasally intake of breath before he speaks. He's excited.
Hey, Bruce, something's come up.
Name's not Bruce, I say wearily. Scotchy's perpetual little joke.
Bruce, gotta get uptown. Andy got a hiding. You know Darkey's away, right?
I don't answer him.
Bruce, are you there?
Must have the wrong number mate, no Bruce here. No Bruce, no spider, no cave, no salvation for Bonnie Scotland.
Stop fucking around, Bruce, you dickless wonder, this is serious.
I choose again the path of silent resistance. There is a good fifteen seconds of dead air on the phone. Scotchy starts mumbling and then in a bit of an exponential panic he says:
Hello, hello, hello, oh Jesus, Mike, are you still there?
I'm here, I say with just enough lassitude to irritate the hell out of him.
Well, what the fuck? Christ. Jesus man, I'm holding the fucking ship, you know. Look, Andy got a hiding and Sunshine and Darkey are out of the picture, so I'm the boss, right?
You're the boss? I say, hoping to convey as skeptical a tone as if he's just told me that he is, in fact, Anastasia, lost daughter of Tsar Nicholas the Second.
Aye, he says, my clever intonation going over his head.
Is that how the chain of command goes? I ask in a more neutral voice.
Aye, it does.
Fergal's been with Darkey a wee bit longer than you, hasn't he? I ask mischievously.
Fergal's an idiot, Scotchy says.
Pot calling the kettle black? I suggest.
Bruce, I swear to God, I'll fucking come down there, he says, right on the verge.
Line of succession bumps you up is what you're claiming, I say.
Yes. De factso, I'm in charge, he says, a bit hesitant with the Latin.
De facto, surely, Scotchy, I say condescendingly, to really take the piss.
He's angry now.
Look, I'm in charge and I'm giving the fucking orders, so get the fuck up here, you bastard, he says.
Keep going, Scotchy. I have to admit you've almost convinced me with your earthy machismo.
Jesus Christ, were you put on this planet to fucking give me a stroke? Fuck me. Will you stop acting the fucking eejit, stop wanking off down there and get up here, Scotchy barks out in frustration.
Is he all right, is he in the hospital? I ask with belated concern about our Andy.
No, he isn't, he's over here. Bridget's looking after him. We're maybe taking him to the hospital. He'll be ok, though. Shovel, you know. That lamebrain Fergal thought it was the fucking Mopes but it was fucking Shovel. I know it. I mean big Andy. Shovel must have been half tore. Andy was unconscious, in the street, in the street, Bruce, hasn't come round yet, I mean he...
I'm not listening because I don't care. I don't care what Shovel has done or what has happened to Andy or what Scotchy is going to do about it. I don't giving a flying fuck but of course he tells me everything anyway. The boss has gone and he, Scotchy, is going to take the initiative. Lesser men than me could foresee trouble in the tea leaves. Scotchy's always been an ill-starred unlucky lout and chances are we'll go over to Shovel's house, me and him, and then Shovel or Shovel's girlfriend will end up throwing hot fat on us or shooting us or calling the bloody peelers or sticking our fingers in the toaster or something worse. That would be typical of Scotchy. 'Course, whatever happened he would live and in the incident I'd be blinded in one eye or lamed or scarred for life. That would just be the way of it.
Suddenly a thought occurs to me.
If he hasn't spoken, how do you know it was Shovel? I ask.
Stands to reason, doesn't it? He was over at Shovel's asking for cash; Shovel had already told me he wasn't paying nothing. Bastard must have got Andy in the street, from behind.
Oh yeah, stands to reason, Sherlock. Clearly that's the only fucking explanation, I mutter sarcastically.
Fucksake, Bruce, you fucker. Fucking fucker. Listen to me, you insubordinate wanker, just get the fuck up here, Scotchy yells furiously.
Oh Scotchy, keep your hair on. Look, I'm on my way, ok? I say with just a hint of deference now.
Scotchy hangs up. I take the phone and kill a water bug on the wall with it. I hang up and go back into the bedroom and close the window.
I'm going to have to take the train after all. This also is typical and it'll cost me another token. I sigh and splash water on my face. I get my jacket, and in case it's going to be an all-nighter I put cigs, reading material, matches, and cash in the pockets. I pull on my Doc Martens, brush my hair, shove in extra ammo, the wee .22, and go out.
* * *
I know at least five Scotchys. Scotchy Dunlow, who beat the shit out of me every Friday night at Boy's Brigade for seven years. Scotchy McGurk, who was a player and whom I personally saw drop half a cinder block on some guy's chest for a tremendously minor reason and who got shot in a typically botched robbery on a bookie's. Scotchy McMaw, who lost a hand in a train-dodge accident in Carrickfergus and who was quite the weird one after that but who ended up saving a boy's life when they were out fishing in a boat, swimming to shore with one arm and later getting some bravery award from Princess Diana. Scotchy Colhoun, who also was a bad lad and got himself nicked for racketeering and murder and went in the Kesh (though he must be out by now because of the Peace Process). Finally, of course, is our Scotchy, Scotchy Finn. None of them needless to say has or ever had any connection whatsoever with Scotland. How they all became Scotchy is a matter of mystery to me and probably them as well.
Scotchy Finn himself does not know. He grew up in Crossmaglen and then Dundalk, which, if you know Ireland at all, could only mean one thing. And sure enough, it turns out his da, ma, three brothers, two uncles, and an aunt were all at one point in the Lads. They started Scotchy early and he did time at some kind of juvenile prison for something. He says it grew too hot for him across the sheugh, which is why he ended up first in Boston and then the Bronx. To be honest, I'm a bit skeptical about all his stories of "ops" and "encounters" with the Brits, the Proddies, the Intelligence Corps, the SAS, and the cops. He says it was the Irish peelers, the Garda Síochána, that gave him his limp for petrol smuggling (a limp that only ever appears when he wants sympathy for something), but I heard from Sunshine he fell off the roof of a parked car after he'd had eleven pints at Revere Beach. This was before he started working for Darkey, and you can't really imagine Scotchy at the beach because his skin is as thin and pale as fag paper and he looks like yon boy that gets beat up at the beginning of the Charles Atlas ads. Red hair, white skin, bad teeth, bad smell disguised by bad musk and that's our Scotchy. I don't know how long he's been here. Ten years, fifteen? He still has a Mick accent (funny one too, touch of the jassboys Crasssmaglayn) but he has Yank clothes and Yank sensibility to money and girls. He doesn't whine on about the Old Country like some wanks ya run into, which I suppose at least singles him out from your average Paddy bastard. That's not to say that he's likable. Not at all. Sleekiter wee shite you'd be hard pressed to meet, but he's ok if you don't mind that kind of thing, which personally I sort of do. He's a bloody thief, too, and he robs me blind behind my back, and if I wasn't the new boy on the block I'd say something but I am and I'm not going to.
Our man, our fearless leader for one night only, thank God. Typical that it would be this night Scotchy was running the show. For, of course, I wasn't to know, but tonight was going to be a night that helped set off a whole wonderful series of violent and unpleasant events. Indeed, the only caveat you'll get is right now when I say that if someone grows up in the civil war of Belfast in the seventies and eighties, perhaps violence is his only form of meaningful expression. Perhaps.
The train ride was uneventful. I brought a book with me about a Russian who never gets out of bed. Everyone was upset with him, but you could see his point of view. I got off at the end of the line and walked up the steps. It was this walk every day that was the only thing at all keeping me in shape. These steps that separated Riverdale from the rest of the Bronx. Hundreds of the buggers. When the Bronx rises up to kill us, at least we'll have the high ground, Darkey says.
I was nearly up, hyperventilating, almost at the Four P., when one of the old stagers grabbed me. It was dark and he scared the shite out of me. Mr. Berenson was in his seventies, very frail, and was hard pressed to frighten anyone, but I suppose I was feeling jumpy. I didn't really know Mr. Berenson and only found out his name later. Much later, when it had all started to go pear-shaped and I felt bad and he was topped and I did some research and discovered he wasn't really called Berenson at all, but was actually some East German geezer who'd changed his name because probably he worked for Himmler in Poland or something. Anyway, he's not at all important in the big picture, so I'll just say that he was stooped, with one of those vague East European accents that you think only exist in the movies. His fingers were stained with nicotine; he was waving them in my face and he was in a mood.
You wor for Scoshy? he said.
No, I work with him. I work for Mr. White, I said.
I tell him, mons ago someone bray in house, prow around.
Someone broke in your house? I said.
Yes, I'm telling you, I get up, I frighten him, he go.
When was this?
Maybe it was Santa Claus.
He was a bit pissed off at that.
Now you lissen to me, young man. Some nigger bray in house, steal nothing, no come back. I thin to myself, why? Why do this? Time passes, I forget. Two neiss ago, he comes back. I am out. But I know he has been.
He take anything?
What's your problem?
He bray in.
Go to the peelers.
Cops, go to the cops. Or get a locksmith. Aye, a locksmith.
He wasn't too happy at what I considered to be a sensible solution. But I wasn't too happy either. You're a sort of social worker when you come up here, especially with the old timers. There's never really anything wrong or anything they want. They just want to peg you down and chat away their loneliness for a while. Scotchy's better at deflecting them than me. I'm too new, look too understanding.
I was going to say something comforting and bland but just then Fergal saw me at the top of the steps and shouted down:
Hey, Michael, get your arse up here pronto.
I excused myself and went up the stairs. It's diverting to think that if Fergal hadn't picked that particular moment to see if I was off the train yet I might have investigated Mr. Berenson's claim a little more carefully and maybe he wouldn't have gotten killed by some character looking for a hidden stash a week or two later. But Fergal did so intervene and I went up. (The final burglar, incidentally, was one of Ramón's lieutenants, and if you think this is a coincidence you don't know Ramón, for even back then, clearly, he was making stealthy incursions into Darkey's territory, testing its limits, finding its boundaries, plundering its goodies.)
What's the craic, Fergal boy? I asked him, using the Gaelic word for fun or happening, which is pronounced the same as "crack," so you could see how it could lead to confusion in some circles.
The craic, Michael, is all bad, he said sadly.
Fergal shook his big head at me. Fergal was tall and brown-haired, with a disastrous russet beard covering cadaverous cheeks. He wore tweed jackets in an attempt to appear sophisticated. It was a look that he just might have carried off at, say, a Swiss tuberculosis clinic circa 1912, but it was hardly appropriate for a hot summer in New York eight decades later.
I said it was a shame about young Andy, and Fergal nodded glumly and we went across to the Four Provinces. Clearly, he wasn't in the mood to speak tonight, which was good because when he did it only annoyed people.
The Four P. is such a prominent place in all our lives that it deserves description. Alas, though, if you've seen one faux Irish theme bar you've seen them all. The original Four Provinces burned down in a mysterious fire a few years back and the reconceived version lost the snugs and the back bar and sawdust floor and instead took on an open-plan Cheers look with vintage Bushmills whiskey posters, Guinness mirrors, pictures of aged Galway men on bicycles, a "leprechaun in a jar" next to the dartboard, and above the bar, in a glass display case, a large stringed harp that undoubtedly was made in China. It was normally unobservant Andy who noticed that the shamrock carvings on the wood paneling had four leaves, which made them four-leafed clovers and not shamrocks at all -- Saint Patrick having used the three-leafed shamrock to explain the Trinity. The best you could say about the place was that at least Pat and Mrs. Callaghan kept it clean.
I nodded to Pat tending bar and followed Fergal up the stairs. Scotchy was there waiting for me, eating a bun, cream all over his nose. Andy was lying in the bed. He looked all right. Bridget was bathing his forehead with water like I suppose she'd seen Florence Nightingale do in some picture. She looked at me and I tried to make it sseem as if it was just a casual look, which of course made everything much more suspicious.
There's cream all over your big nose, I said, under my breath, to Scotchy.
He wiped it on his sleeve and looked at me, irritated.
How is he? I asked Bridget kindly.
A little better, she said, and her breast heaved after she stopped speaking. She was wearing a tight T-shirt that said on it a bit confusingly: Cheerleader Leader '89. It was very distracting and I would have asked her what the T-shirt meant to cover the fact that I was staring at her breasts, but in the circumstances of Andy being at death's door and all, it seemed inappropriate.
Fucking finally arrived. Right, we're going right now, Scotchy said.
Here I should point out that every time you hear Scotchy speak you must remember that each time I put in the word fuck there are at least three or four that I've left out. You'll have to take my word for it that it would begin to get very tedious hearing Scotchy the way he actually speaks; for instance, a sentence such as the one above in reality was much like:
Fucking finally arrived, fuck. Fucksake. Right, we're fucking going, right fucking now.
Shouldn't I pay my respects or something? I asked.
Bugger can't hear you, can he? Scotchy said, tense, and tight all around the edges. He had that wee-man syndrome though he was only a couple of inches shorter than me and I'm nearly six foot.
Shouldn't we get a doctor at least? I suggested.
Fucksake, Michael, would you shut the fuck up and come on, we're taking care of it, Scotchy said.
I looked at Bridget but the wee girl was lost in the high drama of it all. She was clueless about anything medical. I knew that for a fact from when she tried to take a tiny wood skelf out of my finger with a hot knitting needle. I still have the fantastically large scar. Poor oul Andy could have a goddamn hemorrhage or anything, she wouldn't know. Still, it was Scotchy's call.
Ok, I said, and went downstairs with Fergal and Scotchy.
Scotchy began: So the plan is --
I interrupted him with a hand.
Scotchy, listen, before we go and do anything stupid, shouldn't we talk to Darkey? I asked gently.
Aye, Scotchy, really we should talk to Darkey, Fergal said, for once erring on the side of sensible.
Scotchy was angry.
Jesus Christ, youse boys would ask Darkey if it's ok to take a shite and ok afterwards to wipe your fucking arse. Didn't you see Andy up there?
As a matter of fact, both Fergal and I probably would have asked permission to take a shite if Darkey were around. Darkey White didn't get to be Darkey White by putting up with kids thinking they could run the show when he was off the stage. Don't think of Darkey as Brando in The Godfather, think of him as Brando slumming it as Jor-el in Superman, all full of himself, overacting, clever, pretentious, and clearly a bit fucking bonkers. But still a heavy presence, distorting the well of gravity around him. Even when, like now, he was off the screen.
Scotchy, look, I began, I just don't want us to get in trouble. Sunshine told me everything was off for today and --
Fucking Sunshine, are you afeared of him, too, 'fraid of your own shadow, Bruce? Now come on.
Fergal looked at me and shrugged. I sighed and followed them outside.
We piled into Scotchy's brand-new brown Oldsmobile Somethingshite, which was very uncomfortable and extremely uncool besides. The window wipers would come on every time you put on the left turn signal, but this was never a problem for Scotchy because he never used the turn signals. We drove for about ten minutes, up into some winding streets in Riverdale, into not a bad area but not a great one either. None of us said anything except for Scotchy, who was busy muttering to himself.
We were nearly there. Like I say, if it were me I wouldn't have done anything until I'd talked to Darkey or at least Sunshine, but Scotchy wasn't built that way. He wanted to show that he could handle things. He couldn't but he wanted to show that he could. That was why we were the lowest members of the totem pole. That was how we ended up with the rubbish jobs and Bob's crew ended up with the money jobs.
We stopped outside Shovel's apartment building. This was the point for me to make a final plea for a quick wee phone call to Darkey, a minute, that's all it would take. One of us had to be the grown-up and if it meant me, the youngest, taking on that role then so be it. I was going to do it too, but Scotchy got out of the car too fast and by the time I'd caught up to him, the moment was gone and I'd lost my nerve.
Got your pieces? Scotchy asked us. I nodded.
Ach, shite, I left it at home, Fergal said.
Dumb-ass fucker, Scotchy said, furious. See if there's one in the glove compartment.
We all went back to the car. Fergal looked in the glove compartment, but there wasn't anything useful there.
Hey, your lights are on, I said to Scotchy, but he made as if he didn't hear me.
Your lights are on, I said again.
They're on on purpose, he said angrily.
Oh yeah, what purpose is that? I persisted.
Jesus, Bruce. Look, it's just a fucking purpose, ok? I don't have to fill you in on every fucking detail, do I? Scotchy said, really boiling.
No, you don't have to fill me in on every fucking detail, but you would inspire my confidence better, and Fergal's too, no doubt, if you admitted that you made a mistake by leaving the fucking lights on rather than trying to bullshit me with some line about having them on on fucking purpose. A good leader, Scotchy, admits his bloody mistakes.
All right, all fucking right, I fucking left them on by fucking accident, ok. Fucking, you fucking bastard, I'm not fucking Alexander the fucking Great but I would like you to do what I fucking tell you for once in your miserable fucking life.
Scotchy screamed all this at me, pretty near apoplexy.
Well, there goes the bloody element of surprise, I thought but didn't mention.
Ok, fine, Scotchy, fine, I said.
Scotchy composed himself and looked daggers at me.
Do your deep breathing, Fergal suggested.
Shut up, Fergal, Scotchy said.
Aye, shut up, Fergal. You don't know the burdens of command like Rommel over here, I said.
Scotchy untucked his black rayon shirt, seethed, scratched his arse, and said nothing. I grinned at Fergal.
Ok, Michael, Scotchy said, pulling me close. Let's just get on with this, you and me first, Fergal behind us.
Fergal shook his head.
I don't want to go if you two are fighting, he said.
Jesus, we're not fighting, Fergal, I said.
Scotchy was rolling his eyes, but even he saw that he had to placate him.
It's all over, Fergal, ok? he said.
Fergal was unconvinced. I put my arm around Scotchy.
Look, Fergal, we're mates, me and Scotch, I said.
W-what if he has a dog? Fergal asked me.
Fergal, I remembered, had a phobia about dogs. He probably got bitten as a kid or something.
Fergal, relax. Shovel doesn't have a dog, I said.
He smiled, contented, and walked ahead of us into the building.
You think we can rely on Fergal? Seems a bit off, Scotchy whispered to me.
Ach, he's ok, I whispered back.
The building door was locked, so Scotchy pressed several apartment buttons until someone buzzed us in.
Third floor, Scotchy said. He was tense. He was giving off a ton of sweat and a stink of fear. I was feeling fine. I had a .22, Scotchy had a .38, and lanky Fergal was not, despite appearances, a complete idiot. We'd be ok. Probably. We went up the stairs and stopped outside the apartment. Number 34.
rdRing the bell or break it down? Fergal asked.
Scotchy was thinking.
Make a lot of noise breaking it down, I said.
Aye, you're right there, Bruce, Scotchy said, fumbling for his pack of Tareyton. We all waited while he lit one.
Ok, you ring it, Fergal, we'll keep out of sight, Scotchy said finally.
Fergal rang the bell.
Who is it? a woman's voice asked.
Fergal Dorey, Fergal said.
What was that?
Friend of Shovel's.
He's not here. He went out, the woman said.
Fergal hesitated and looked back at us.
You've got one of those new microwaves for him, Scotchy whispered.
Aye, I have his microwave for him, Fergal said.
His microwave? the woman asked.
There was a long pause and we could hear footsteps down the hall. There was a pause and footsteps coming back.
The door opened and Shovel was standing there grinning.
Fergal, you bastard, you finally brought -- Shovel started to say, but Scotchy was yelling at Fergal now:
Grab the fucker, grab him.
Fergal charged through the doorway and rugby-tackled Shovel to the ground. I bundled in behind Scotchy and closed the door.
* * *
Later that evening on the ride back on the IRT, when I thought, wrongly, that the night was all over and done with, I replayed everything that happened. The whole house of horrors. Bridget cleaning the blood out of my shirt, the food stop, the car ride, and most of all the feathers over Shovel. I wasn't a sadist, I wasn't enjoying it. But I wanted to remember. It was a lot to take in at once and I wanted to be sure I had it all. I needed to know that I was certain of what I was doing. I wasn't just being carried away by youth and emotion. Things were happening and I was part of them. But also occasionally I was stopping, analyzing events and saying to myself that it was all ok by me. And it was ok, too. Why? I don't know. That's another question entirely.
Mrs. Shovel, or whatever her real name was, had appeared in the hall. All four of us stood in the apartment's corridor. It was wallpapered in flowers, narrow. It was hard to move. She had to be in her early thirties, tough-looking, suntanned, surprisingly pretty. She had a black wig on, flip-flops, a nightie. She was yelling. Scotchy smacked her across the face with his gun. She went down like a doll, thumping into a picture frame, breaking it. Shovel screamed and tried to get up. but I had the .22 in his face.
One move, big guy, and I'll have to shoot you, I said, trying to bring an air of calm to the proceedings.
Scotchy had the opposite agenda. He bent down and started beating Shovel with the butt of his pistol. He was roaring. It wasn't entirely coherent. Spitting the words out:
Fucker, why did you do it, why, you fucking idiot? Are you stupid? Did you think we wouldn't know? Did you think we were such fucking pussies that we wouldn't do nothing? Huh? Is that what you thought?
Blood was pouring from Shovel's face. He was protesting. He was innocent. He had no idea what Scotchy was talking about. Fergal was still sitting on him. Scotchy took the pistol butt and smashed it into Shovel's mouth. He started to struggle wildly. I sat down on his legs and Fergal wedged himself on the torso. Scotchy stood up and started kicking him in the back and head. He exhausted himself after a few seconds. Blood was everywhere now. It was on our clothes and pooling dark and awful on the wood floor. Shovel had lost consciousness.
Get a pillow, get two, Scotchy barked at Fergal.
Fergal went off to find the bedroom.
Are you going to shoot him? I asked dispassionately.
Aye, I'm going to shoot him, Scotchy said.
I felt myself go a bit weak. This I hadn't signed on for. The teen rackets seldom came to this in the Cool or Greenisland or Carricktown. A chill went through me. I'd never seen a real murder before and I didn't want to now.
Fortunately, I was not to break my duck that night, for even Scotchy was not that big of an eejit.
Belfast six-pack, he said after a pause.
Harsh, I said.
With fucking Andy dying on us, probably brain-damaged for life, Scotchy yelled in my face, spittle landing on my cheeks.
I said nothing. He glared at me.
Fergal came back with the pillows.
Fergal, turn the TV on, loud, Scotchy said.
Fergal went off again. I looked at Scotchy and then at Shovel.
I'll do it, I said. Better the .22 for the noise.
Scotchy nodded. I was thinking more of Shovel than the noise. Me with a .22 was going to be a lot easier to get over than Scotchy with the .38. I put one pillow over his ankle and pushed the gun in deep. I waited until the TV got loud. I pulled the trigger. Feathers, blood. I did the other ankle. Same again. Cordite, the pillow caught fire. I put it out. I did the left knee and Shovel convulsed and woke and vomited. Scotchy knocked him out with a surprisingly deft kick to the temple. I did the other knee and gave the gun to Fergal to do the elbows. I couldn't hack it anymore. I stood and took a breath. Scotchy thought
I was just giving Fergal the weapon because he was in a better position. He didn't realize I was on the verge of fainting or puking. Fergal shot him in an elbow, messily. I should have done it myself. Not that I was any expert, but I'd more sense than him. I took a breath and grabbed the gun back.
More like this, Fergal, I said and shot him in the other elbow, aiming for the fleshy parts. His body convulsed and there was just the bleeding and the feathers and a low moan from the wife.
I remembered to breathe again.
It was a terrible thing. It had been ugly. Kicking someone, punching them, is one thing but shooting an unconscious man six times is something else. A mate, too.
All three of us got up. We stood there, stunned.
Six shots, Belfast six-pack, Scotchy said in a whisper, and a gurgle that apparently was laughter came into his mouth. Fergal nodded and broke into a smile.
Always wondered what that meant. Is that really how they do it, Michael? he asked, quietly awed.
That, Fergal, is how they do it, I said clinically, as if it was all second nature to me now, as if I'd maybe seen it dozens of times. Perhaps it was even a little tedious. Of course I'd never done it, seen it once and had been sick for a week. Fergal looked at me in a new light. I was quite the cold motherfucker. He would spread it around too. Even Scotchy, I could see, was a bit appalled by what we had accomplished. Last time in the Four P. Shovel had bought us all a round.
Their discomfort was an opportunity and I took it.
Let's go, I said and opened the door. The others followed. Scotchy was going to kick him on the way out but he felt bad now and didn't. We were spattered with blood, but it was night and the car was just outside. Scotchy was shaking and trying not to show it. He handed me the keys.
You drive, he said.
I wasn't used to driving on the right, but I took the keys and started her up. I headed back. There was a McDonald's drive-through and I saw this as another opportunity. I turned the wheel.
You boys want anything? I asked. I'm narving.
Scotchy was pale in the front seat. Fergal dry-heaving now in the back. Both shook their heads. I pulled in and ordered a Big Mac meal and ate it as I drove. Fergal would spread this around too. It would reach Sunshine. It would reach Darkey. It might even reach Mr. Duffy. We stopped outside the Four Provinces and went in to get cleaned up. Bridget took my clothes. Andy was no better.
I seriously think you should take him to the hospital, I said.
Scotchy was in no mood to argue now and Mrs. Callaghan dialed the number. I showered and waited until the paramedics came.
When we were alone, I found Bridget and kissed her.
I absolutely have to see you, I said.
She didn't say anything.
Tomorrow, I said.
I don't know, Michael, she said.
For God's sake, Bridget, we've both been through the mill. Tomorrow, please. Come on, we'll do something fun.
She nodded her head ambiguously and went downstairs.
I stood there for a moment. Was she tiring of me? Would she come? Who knew? I shook my head wearily and followed her down.
I had a free pint off Pat and drank it and chatted about the upcoming English football season, ate some Tayto crisps, and went down the steps and caught the train....
You got through.
You got through. Ugly, but it was Scotchy's fault, not yours. No.
You look for that paperback about the Russian guy but it's gone. You sit in the subway car and you think. Not your fault. Not your fault. The train rattles and it nearly rocks you off to sleep. It stops at the stop and doesn't move again. After a while a man comes with information. There's a problem on the line and you have to get off at 137th. You get out and they give you a useless transfer.
It's dark now in Harlem.
You walk down the hill from City College and St. Nicholas Park. The streets are empty. No junkies, no hookers, no undercover cops, no delivery boys, no workers, no nothing. Bodegas are shut and barricaded. The moon. The deserted avenue. The tremendous sleeping buildings and the rusted octopi of fire escapes. It is still warm and Harlem is all around and comforting. It's straight here. Simple. You know how things stand. You know who you are and who they are. You know your place. You know how things will be. You know everything. You can exist here without pressure, without history. You can be anonymous.
It's a pleasant walk down Amsterdam. A gypsy cab comes by and honks. You look at it and nod. It stops. You get in. Three bucks to 123rd and Amsterdam, you say.
The man nods, smiles.
Some day, huh, he says.
You don't reply. But in the silence you agree and look out of the window.
Copyright © 2003 by Adrian McKinty