THE COUGH-UP GUY - MICHAEL KECHULA
Originally published in the April 24, 2008 issue of Thieves Jargon
I remember when he ran into our apartment without knocking. Had a gun. Held his index finger to his lips. Rosa and me were smart enough to point to a closet. And even smarter to keep our mouths shut.
Cops’ whistles blew. Sirens screamed everywhere. Then cops started knocking on doors down the hall.
Right before they got to ours, I pinched the baby. He screamed bloody murder. Rosa’s eyes called me a bastard. But she was a street-smart woman from Palermo. Even she pinched tiny Salvatore’s rump to make him scream louder, right before the knock came.
Between the baby, Rosa raving in double-time Sicilian, and me yelling back at the top of my lungs about her rotten Sidgie family, the dumb Irish cop saw it was useless to ask me anything. He tried. But who could hear him? He turned on his heels to escape the insanity.
Rosa slipped a salami sandwich to our guest. I gave him a jug of Dago Red and a pee bottle. Figured it might be hours until the cops realized it was hopeless.
“Joseph Gogostanza never forgets a favor,” he said, handing me a twenty. In ’45 that fed a family of three for over a month. “You’re a smart man. What’s your name?”
“Snuffy,” I said. Then I started hacking. Spit blood into a handkerchief.
“Looks bad,” he said. Handing me another three dollars, he added, “Go see Doctor Ferrante.”
Then he left.
The doctor said it was TB. He wanted to send me to a special hospital an hour’s drive from Philly. Yeah, sure. Go there for a couple years to recover. What about Rosa and the baby?
Gogostanza musta heard. Some guys came by and took me to see him.
“Hospital for two years? Well, you go there. Right away. You gotta get better for that beautiful wife and kid of yours. Hey, family comes first. Don’t you worry about nothing. Joey Gogo’s gonna take care of you.”
And he did. Paid for everything. Even gave Rosa a wad of cash to live on, every month.
Even when I was released, it was a year before I felt good enough to walk down the block for cannoli. But Gogo’s money still showed up every month.
“Hey, Joey. Cough-Up’s here.”
“Don’t mind him, Snuffy. That’s what they call you around here. You know, from when you useta cough up blood.”
“It’s OK. I like it better than Snuffy,” I said.
“They know what you done for me. When the cops coulda caught me. When they didn’t know it was me who shot that two-bit hood from Baltimore. All they knew was that a shooter was on the run. If they’d of found me that day in your place, I woulda been fried in the electric chair by now. Anyway, to show my appreciation, I got a good paying job for you.”
The job was to go around the city and collect protection money. Easy work. Nobody’d touch a little guy like me. If they did, Joey Gogo would blow up their business, or maybe their house.
The guys we squeezed every week called me Cough-Up, too. But for a different reason. When I walked in, they coughed up cash.
One Friday, when I went into Pasquale DiNicola’s pharmacy, the money wasn’t ready. Neither was the free, double-decker tuna sandwich and chocolate milk he used to have ready for me at the soda fountain counter.
“Hey, Patsy. Whadda ya nuts? Where’s the dough? And my sandwich?”
“Ain’t paying today, or ever again.”
“Cripes, Patsy. You better see a head doctor. You know what Joey Gogo will do?”
“He ain’t gonna do anything.”
“Oh, yeah sure. And the Pope ain’t Italian, either.”
“Joey’s dead,” Patsy said. “Heard it on the radio. Now get the hell out of here. If you come back again, it better be with a prescription.”
I’ll never forget that day in 1949. The radio said Joey Gogo got blasted while getting a haircut. Over on the other side of town. Somebody threw a hand grenade into the barbershop. Nasty mess. Even the State offered $100,000 reward for information. Far as I know, the money’s still sitting there.
Suddenly, I was out of a job. While waiting to hear from the new capo, I made a few bucks fixing tickets for neighborhood jerks. Sold beer, Benzedrine tablets, and hot books to high school kids. Hawked hotdogs and cokes at the ballpark.
When the smoke cleared, the new guys offered a job to Dumbo, a mathematical genius. Dumbo’s brain stored detailed records for two decades worth of illegal transactions. Pick any day, and he could rattle off every damn thing bought, sold, won, lost, paid, stolen. No books, no evidence.
Guys like him never go hungry.
They also hired Madman Mancuso. He was twice the size of Frankenstein and a hundred times meaner.
Guys like him never go hungry, either.
But me? Nothing. They said they already had a collector. A leg breaker. I didn’t have muscles enough to break a kid’s little finger, they said. Nor the guts.
“Tell your boss he has a short memory,” I said.
“He got a long memory, so you better keep your freakin’ mouth shut. Take what you get and light candles in thanksgiving.”
They sent small checks every month.
I don’t know why I started to cough up blood again. Maybe it was from the sleazy gossip the old guys whispered in my ear while we played bocce ball. Maybe it was from tossing a grenade into the barbershop when Joey was there. Maybe it was from slitting Rosa’s throat while she slept the day he was blown to smithereens.
Rosa had slipped hard salami to Joey Gogo with bread. In return, he slipped Rosa his hard salami without bread. Every damn day for the two years I was hospitalized.
BIO: Michael A. Kechula is a retired tech writer. His fiction has won first place in 8 contests and placed in 7 others. He’s also won Editor’s Choice awards 4 times. His stories have been published by 116 magazines and 32 anthologies in Australia, Canada, England, India, Scotland, and US. He’s authored two books of flash and micro-fiction stories: “A Full Deck of Zombies--61 Speculative Fiction Tales” and “The Area 51 Option and 70 More Speculative Fiction Tales.” eBook versions available at www.BooksForABuck.com and www.fictionwise.com. Paperback available at www.amazon.com.