Dear Sonny Jr.,
Last time you wrote you said you wanted to hear some of the old stories back when we had the bar up in Beacon. Your mother won’t be too happy I’m telling you, but you’re old enough, and I’m sure you could use a good laugh with all the tests and essays you have. Also, use some of that money I sent with this to take a nice girl out some time. I know cash is hard to come by for you poor college kids. Anyway here goes!
It was three in the afternoon on a Sunday and the wood chips on the floor were stained with stale beer. The tap had been pouring all afternoon since Mass had let out at noon. Much busier than my morning.
As usual I had gotten up at ten, made my espresso with a lemon slice and touch of sambuca, and read the paper. At eleven your grandmother took your father and aunts to mass, along with everyone else in Beacon (Beacon was mostly all Irish and Italian Catholics back in those days). When everyone left, I started the peppers and eggs. The crackling of frying olive oil, and the tang of halved hot peppers meant peace for the next hour.
I threw the pan and the cutting board in the sink for the dishwasher to clean when he came in, and took my plate to the back office. I brushed the papers aside, sat down on the leather chair, and plopped my boots on the desk, steel clanging. I leaned back on the chair and sighed with relief that I didn’t have to do the books until tomorrow—counting money, paying salary, paying bills.
I had about two more forkfuls of scrambled eggs left when I heard the screen door hiss open, then thud shut. Must be Juan and Ramon. “Hola capo!” Yep, it was them. When I had first hired them years before, they had called me jefe, which was Mexican for “boss.” When I had found that out, I made them call me capo, the Italian for “boss,” of course. On that condition, I wouldn’t ask them where they came from, and I’d pay them off the books. Best two employees I ever had. Juan, the older and fatter one, would wear the same chef’s coat and apron every day. Ground beef and grease were ingrained in the stitching, and no amount of scrubbing or bleach could get out those red-brown blotches. Ramon would take food orders from the bar, and wash dishes. He was a skinny bastard, with a thick mustache that he never shaved in the 10 to 15 years I knew him.
But they stayed out of my way and I stayed out of theirs, they were the best employees I could have asked for. Certainly better than Cousin Johnny, who was always coming to ask me for a job, which really just meant he needed some money to go to the OTB for the day.
But one day he didn’t come back. About three years ago, he came in every day for a week and asked me for money. “Hey, Sonny, listen I’m hurtin’ right now, but don’t worry. You’ll get every cent back I guarantee it. I did my research on these horses, and Aphrodite’ll take it, I know it.”
You can still smell the bullshit now. I felt bad too, you know. His wife had left him only three months before, and he had a 6-month-old little girl, but I didn’t have money for his habit. The bar didn’t bring in great business because we were all friends, me and the clientele, so tabs would run unpaid, and I just didn’t have the cash to have it disappear at the track.
It was really pouring on this Saturday afternoon, and I still feel bad about what I did, it was humiliating for him. But I grabbed him with two hands by his collar, picked him up and threw him in the mud gravel of the parking lot. It was a bit of a ruckus, but I told everyone to get back to their drinks. And they did. I never did see him again.
But rarely did we have these kinds of problems at the bar. Like I said, we were all friendly, mostly Italians, most of us had fought in Korea, so we were famiglia.
So back to that one Sunday afternoon just a few years back. My old partner Leo was up visiting from Florida that weekend, but he was leaving that night after dinner. After the war, we had come back to the States and joined the NYPD (I opened up the bar about five years after I retired), and back in those days, they were hurtin’ for anyone to sign up, and two ex-private first classes were exactly what they needed. But once we graduated the academy we got screwed over. We originally had wanted to find a nice patrol on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and ease our way onto the job, but as the new guys, we were re-assigned immediately to the eight-one as we called it. By the way, next time you get pulled over by a cop because you’re speeding like some stunad guinea—you pull out that PBA card I gave you with your gift at Christmas, and you say “I’m sorry officer, what seems to be the problem?” and then you hand him your license and registration with the PBA card. Then when he asks you “What’s this?” you say, “My grandfather was on the job for twenty years at the 81 precinct in Bed-Sty” just like that. All courteous. And if they don’t let you go, I’ll bring you to your court date, not to worry. I know you hate these life lessons I’m giving you, it’s all boring and old for you young guys, but trust me on this one. And I know, I keep interrupting myself, I’ll get back to the story.
So me and Leo were old pals and had been through a lotta stuff together, so it was good to see him again. But Leo was this prankster. He was always pulling shit back at headquarters, taking Sgt.’s donuts, hiding people’s badges and guns, he was still just a kid. He never lost that in him though. He must be ‘bout seventy-one seventy-two by now, and he’ll still make you piss yourself laughing, you’ll see when you meet him soon. So anyway this one day, Mike had come into the bar and ordered his usual whiskey sour. Mike had been a trombone player in a pretty successful big band back in the forties, but because he always stood right in front of the drummer he was going deaf pretty badly. So Leo came in with some of the other Beacon regulars after mass and sat at the bar. Leo had on this smirk like he was up to no good like back when we were cops. Once I poured them all beers, Leo got up right behind Mike where he couldn’t see Leo, and Leo signaled to the whole bar to be quiet. I just stood back behind the bar re-filling drinks and watched what happened next.
Leo and the rest of the regulars at the bar started gesturing and moving their mouths without making a sound. They all crowded around Mike, tapping him on the shoulder and patting him on the back, getting his attention to have fake conversations. After a while Mike seemed pretty disturbed, and he kept shouting, “Say again, I can’t hear you, what?” He must’ve thought the voice he heard was inside his head and no one else could hear him. Leo slipped away while everyone was messing with Mike, and got his old snubnose that he had used on the job. He snuck up right behind Mike, held the gun right by his ear, and fired a round into the ceiling. Mike was so startled that he fell right off the barstool. But he wasn’t a young guy you know, and he fell pretty hard right on his arm. He just lied there on the beer-soaked wood chips for a bit, clutching his arm, grimacing, in pain. He eventually got up and then he screamed, “You shithead, you broke my goddamn arm!” and he went to punch Leo with his good arm. Leo wasn’t thinking and he just reacted.
He shot Mike in the leg. The bar went silent. Half the people crowded around Mike—rather, they crowded around his pool of blood, moving back bit by bit, so they wouldn’t stain their Sunday shoes. The other half stared at me that said tell us what to do, or that it was going to be ok. But I’ll always remember this one little boy who couldn’t take his eyes off of Mike. You could tell he didn’t want to look, but he’d never seen so much red in his life. His father picked him up to carry him outside, but the little boy’s eyes were glued to Mike’s writhing and bleeding body. He stared over his father’s shoulder ‘til the door closed behind them.
Leo was all quiet. He gave me this look that had the same fear of that little boy, but without the curiosity. He was ashamed. The last time I had seen him like that was when his first wife said he was a bad father. I told him I was sorry, but I would have to call an ambulance. I wasn’t gonna have Mike bleed to death at my bar and all.
Not to worry though, he gets out of prison in May and I’ll bring him to your birthday party. Memorial Day right? You can meet him then. I think you’ll like him. He’s a good guy, but bad shit happens fast, as I’m sure you’re finding out for yourself.
Take care and stay out of trouble, love