THE GREAT ST. CASIMIR HARD LIQUOR THEFT - KARL KOWESKI
“Hey, man,” Milsap cocked his head at the Mexican approaching the entrance of Hideout Liquors.
The Mexican stopped and raised a bushy eyebrow. “Que pasa?”
Milsap stepped away from the wall flanked by his buddy, Brian. They both held sweaty bills clenched in their fists.
“I hope to fuck you speak English,” Milsap said.
The Mexican said nothing.
Milsap continued. “While you’re in there stocking up on Corona, how about you take this money and get us a fifth of kiwi/lime Mad Dog 20/20 and a fifth of Wild Irish Rose? White preferably.”
The Mexican said nothing.
“Fucking hell,” Brian muttered.
“Comprende?” Milsap said. “Wino de Bottlo si Loco Muttismo! And some Wild Irish Rose for our deniro. Que?”
The Mexican stood there a moment before his gigantic mustache curtained away from his brown teeth. “Shit,” he said and walked inside without so much as a backward glance.
“Goddammit,” Brian sputtered.
“I don’t think that motherfucker understood a single fucking word I said.”
“He understood just fine,” Brian said. “He just ain’t gonna buy any booze for a coupla thirteen year olds. That’s all.”
“Well, what the fuck we gonna do now? I promised Kirsten and Michelle we’d have some booze for them.”
“Guess you’ll have to break your promise.”
“Then Kristen will break her promise. And who suffers? My dick, that’s who.”
“I’ve seen Kristen. That Mexican did you a favor.”
“Yeah, well, Michelle won’t be too happy with you, either.”
Brian looked up and down the empty side street. “We’re wasting our time here, Milsap. Let’s go to Skiba’s. His mom might have a bottle stashed. She’s usually good for a pint of brandy.”
“Shit, he’ll wanna go with us.”
“So? Let him come. Having him around makes us look like a couple champs.”
Milsap couldn’t argue the logic.
Twenty minutes later they sat at the kitchen table in Skiba’s dingy two bedroom apartment. Milsap traced his finger from one cigarette burn to the next across the formica table top. Brian glowered from the other end of the table, arms crossed. Skiba stood at the kitchen sink piled high with dishes filthy with dried smears of ketchup and tv dinner remains. He presented a kitchen cabinet, empty except for the desiccated corpse of a mouse stuck to a glue trap.
“Mom ain’t had a bottle all week.”
“Bullshit,” Brian immediately called. “How long we known you, Skiba? First grade? I ain’t never known her not to have a bottle. Or a man with a bottle. Which bar she cadging drinks at tonight? I’ll ask her myself. And hopefully I won’t have to knock any dicks out of her mouth to hear the answer.”
“Fuck you, Brian.”
“Shut the fuck up, the both of you. You can slap each other’s mouths all night, it ain’t gonna put any booze in our hands. And it ain’t gonna help us snake the puss.”
“Snake the puss? Where you guys going?”
“Why, motherfucker?” Brian hissed. “You know where your ma keeps her hooch stashed all of the sudden?”
“No. But I know where we can get some.”
“Where? The liquor store? We stood out there a fucking hour trying to get someone to buy for us.”
“I was gonna say St. Casimir School. Down in the basement between the chapel and the gym where they do the Thursday night bingo and spaghetti dinners. They got a liquor cabinet full of all kinds of liquor. They keep it padlocked, but it’s nothing we can’t knock off with a claw hammer.”
Twin smiles surfaced on Milsap and Brian’s lips.
“Skiba, you just earned yourself an invitation to the party, pal.”
St Casimir Church rose up on Hammond’s north side like a lighthouse offering safe passage to the afterlife for all the ancient Polish ladies shuffling through the remains of their lives. Walking out the front doors, the first sight one is greeted with is the Dombrowski Funeral Home across the street, which is why most of the old Polish ladies lined the length of the stations of the cross to leave out the side door after mass. Across from the funeral home, the St Casimir rectory where the priests lived and masturbated to kiddie porn. Across the parking lot from the church, St Casimir School, looking no different than it did when it was built back in 1954, right down to its utter lack of air conditioning.
The trio stood in the shadow of the gymnasium, backs against the brick wall. They took furtive hits off their cigarettes, palms cupped around the cherries. Within a two block radius of the church, every home housed at least one elderly Polack who stayed perched at the window twenty-four hours a day making sure no punk kids were trampling their grass. Hell, anyone walking along the sidewalk after sunset got the cops called on them. Made it difficult to do anything illegal around here.
“Can’t believe it’s been a year since we graduated this dump,” Brian said.
“Can’t believe we graduated at all.”
“Shit,” Brian sneered at Skiba. “You could’ve taken a shit on the chapel altar on Easter Sunday and still graduated. After Father Francis put that big ass scar on your forehead with the bumper of his Buick.”
Skiba turned his head, feeling the scar pulsate like a Scarlet Letter. A giant letter “I” bisecting his forehead. It wasn’t a question of what crime he committed, but which crime he was being punished for.
Milsap pushed himself off the wall and flicked his cigarette away in disgust. “Brian, your brother’s a fucking idiot.”
“I thought you told him to be careful and keep to the shadows. That kind of shit.”
Brian’s younger brother, Harley, walked along the sidewalk toward the gymnasium as though he were going to shoot some hoops. The backpack over his shoulder contained the sort of tools that might have looked inconspicuous on a workbench, but altogether suspect gathered in a bag this time of night. The streetlights illuminated the stupid grin on his face for all the old Polacks to see.
“He ain’t no thief, is he?” Milsap concluded.
“Fuck you, Milsap. I’d just as soon have let him stay home and watch The Simpsons than come here.”
Milsap rolled his eyes, nudged Skiba. “Go get him, will ya?”
With Skiba gone, Brian leaned into Milsap. “We get the backpack off him, we’ll let him get on his way. He’s still in the seventh grade here. He don’t need to get involved.”
“He’s already involved, Brian. Might as well let him get his hands dirty. I don’t want him telling his friends tomorrow he saw us come in here last night.”
“He wouldn’t sell us out.”
“Not purposefully. If we bring him in, let him realize what’s at stake, he won’t talk out of turn. He’ll be just as guilty as the rest of us.”
“I don’t want him to be like the rest of us.”
“Then you shouldn’t have been lazy, man. You shoulda just gone home and got the tools yourself.”
“You’ve got an answer for everything, don’t you?”
“And your answers don’t mean shit. He’s my brother. It’s my choice to make.”
“Sure, it is, Brian.”
Skiba returned with Harley. Harley handed the backpack to Milsap. Standing there, it occurred to Milsap they were all wearing Metallica T-shirts. Harley wore his “Kill ‘Em All” shirt, a hand-me-down from his brother. Brian, the “Damage Inc.” shirt. Skiba wore a five dollar flea market knock-off of “Ride the Lightning”, fraying at the seams. Milsap wore a T-shirt featuring the cover of his all-time favorite LP “Master of Puppets”.
“Everything there?” Brian asked.
“Everything you told me to bring.” He glanced around. “You guys breaking into the school?”
“No, we’re just meeting here.”
“Yeah,” Milsap interrupted. “We’re gonna slip in here and liberate all the hooch. You wanna join our crusade? Once we get the shit, we’re going over by Kristin’s. Get her and her friends liquored up, see if we can’t get them to show us the Promised Land.”
“Hell, yeah,” Skiba said.
Brian did a slow burn. Milsap wouldn’t look at him. Fucking coward. The grin on Harley’s face was as superficial as the Metallica T-shirt on his back. Harley wasn’t a metal head. He had George Michael’s “Faith” in his walkman. His hair was buzzed around the ears. He went to confession once a month, still firmly enmeshed in junior high Catholicism.
Milsap didn’t realize this because Milsap was a fucking idiot.
Milsap withdrew the crowbar and handed the backpack to Skiba, who slung it over his bony shoulder.
“You know how to keep your mouth shut, right?” Milsap asked Harley. “No telling your little boyfriends at school tomorrow. No matter what we do in here. No saying shit to nobody. Got it?”
“No. Yeah. C’mon, it’s me. I ain’t gonna say anything, guys.”
“Good enough for me. Let’s go.”
“You gonna pry open the gym door?” Harley asked.
“Hell, no. Too much work. Too noisy. By the time we get inside, every Polack between here and Warsaw is gonna be wanting to know what we’re doing. Ain’t that right, Brian?”
Brian ignored the question. He shook out a cigarette, lit it, slowly. Milsap didn’t try to bum one. Too bad. Brian would have relished telling him to fuck off.
Milsap took the crowbar and, like a bandleader directing a parade of fuck-ups, led the boys around the gym, over a chainlink fence and into an enclosure surrounded on three sides by the chapel, the school and the gym.
“Any sort of alarms or burglary systems been installed during the past year?” Milsap asked.
“I don’t think so,” Harley answered.
Milsap knew Harley would be hard pressed to remember if there was a crucifix in the goddamn chapel. Nonetheless, he nodded. “Good enough for me.”
He wedged the crowbar into the top of the window and cracked it open with a sharp pop. He leaned against the bar and reached down gripping the window and pulling up on it, grimacing against the tightness in his back. Brian was a fucking horse. He could have been holding this up for Milsap, but the lazy fucker leaned against the dumpster, smoking his cigarette.
“Get in there, Skiba,” Milsap grunted.
Skiba dropped the backpack, got down on his stomach and squirmed through the narrow opening. Once inside, Skiba cranked the window open as far as it would go.
Milsap hunkered down. “See anything down there, Skiba? Blinking red lights? Anything like that?”
“Nah, it looks clean. Spooky as hell, though.” Skiba’s voice receded into the darkened classroom.
“You want to, Harley,” Milsap said, “you can stay out here and keep your eyes open. Let us know if anyone comes around.”
“Hell, no. I’m coming down with you guys.”
Milsap shot Brian his patented “Well, it’s out of my hands, now” look. Brian said nothing as Harley crawled into the classroom. Milsap handed Harley the backpack and followed him inside. Brian entered last. He closed the window behind and used his shirt to wipe off the fingerprints.
Milsap withdrew a flashlight from the bag and flicked it on. He kept the beam low, playing it across the school desks lined up in their regimented rows. Second grade classroom, maybe? First through fourth were located on the ground floor, fifth through eighth on the second.
Poorly colored paper crucifixes hung from the bulletin board to the right of the door. Several spelling words on the chalkboard. Savior. Garden. Communion.
He felt a chill, couldn’t suppress the shudder. There was something inherently creepy about an empty classroom after dark.
“Hey, Brian. Remember back when we were like in third grade, we’d dare each other to go into the bathroom, look in the mirror and chant, ‘Bloody Mary, bloody murder’ three times?” Milsap asked.
“Oh, man,” Harley said. “Now ain’t the time to be bringing that shit up.”
The smile returned to Brian’s lips, but only for an instant. “I remember Sister Helene calling me a Satanist. I remember them taking the mirrors out of all the bathrooms cause all the kids were scared to take a piss by themselves.”
“So that’s why there ain’t any mirrors above the sinks,” Harley said.
“Yeah,” Brian said. “Somehow I got the blame for that.”
“Where’s Skiba?” Milsap asked. The beam shifted across their shoes.
“Must’ve gone on ahead.”
“He’s hungry for that booze. Thinks it’s gonna get him the chance to fuck,” Brian laughed.
“Maybe it will,” Milsap said. “We get the girls drunk enough, Skiba could fuck all them.”
“There ain’t enough liquor in the entire Vatican to get the girls drunk enough to spread for Skiba.”
“Hell, who gives a shit? Let’s get the booze. He’ll catch up.”
Though he attended the school for a large portion of his life, a year hiatus made the halls alien to Milsap. Nothing had changed during the time span except the names on the artwork Scotch-taped to the walls. The hallway still smelled strangely of tapioca. He’d never been inside the school without the prerequisite uniform of navy blue trousers and sky blue polo shirt.
“Seems wrong to be in here,” Milsap murmured as they walked the hallway toward the gymnasium.
“It’s because we broke in with the intent to rob,” Brian said.
“Yeah, that’s it.”
They stopped to admire the trophy case. Two lonely trophies. The 1983 seventh grade girls Diocesan championship and the 1984 eighth grade girls Diocesan championship. A legendary team led by star guard Tracey Novotony who went on to drop out of high school and then get plastered by the 2 AM freight train at the Cameron Street crossing.
The hallway led to the cafeteria and the gym. In a locked closet between the two; more liquor than they could carry.
Milsap handed the flashlight to Harley. He withdrew a small sledge and chisel from the bag. After a moment’s consideration, he slid the chisel back. “Guess I’ll just knock the hell outta it with the mallet.”
“Need me to do it?” Brian asked.
“You think you can beat a knob better than me?”
“No. You are the knob-beating champion. I’m just tired of waiting.”
Milsap raised the sledge. Before he could bring the hammer down, an explosion of shattered glass echoed through the hallway. The flashlight jumped in Harley’s hands.
“The fuck was that?”
“Sounds like two kangaroos fucking in a Wicks N’ Sticks store.”
Several more glass panes splintered. On the second floor, receding. Tinkling glass and then what resembled a muffled dragon’s roar.
Brian grabbed the sledge from Milsap’s hand. “He’s your buddy, you go deal with him.”
“My buddy? I can’t stand him.”
“If I gotta go get him,” Brian said, shaking the sledge for emphasis, “it’ll be to give him another scar across his head.”
“All right. All right. Just don’t take off without me.”
By the time Milsap reached the stairwell, Brian was all ready clobbering the door with what sounded like detonating thermonuclear warheads. Somewhere on the second floor, the dragon’s roar muted to a whisper and the crashing glass returned to prominence.
Milsap took the darkened stairs two at a time.
“Skiba! Skiba! What the fuck are you doing?”
At the top of the stairs, Milsap saw Skiba all the way down the hall, silhouetted against the street light’s illumination pouring through the front windows and sparkling off all the broken glass. “Skiba, you’re gonna get us all busted, man.”
Three running steps and Milsap’s feet shot out from under him. There seemed to be a moment’s levitation before he landed, his upper back and shoulders taking the brunt of the impact. His head hit hard enough to disperse his thoughts, momentarily, nothing worse.
Fire retardant. Milsap leapt back to his feet, but the chemicals had all ready begun soaking into the ass and calves of his jeans. Milsap gritted his teeth. It was going to be difficult to impress upon the ladies his superior grooviness with his ass soaked in fire retardant, regardless of how much liquor he carried.
Milsap eased down the hallway. Skiba had sprayed down the floor and walls with several canisters, then used the empties to smash out the glass in every classroom door and knocked out the overhead fluorescent lights and several ceiling titles. Milsap kept close to the wall. Another fall here would likely earn him a skinful of broken glass.
Skiba held a fourth extinguisher. He busted the glass out of the eighth grade classroom door and reached his hand through, unlocking the knob. Inside, he pulled the pin and sprayed fire retardant foam across Mrs. Gordon’s desk, soaking her lesson planner, the catechism, the spinster sweater draped over her chair. He sprayed the bookcases, file cabinets and school desks.
Milsap crept behind him and waited for the extinguisher to peter out. As it spurted weakly, Milsap said, “What are you doing, Skiba?”
Skiba slouched forward, canister dangling from his hand. He turned slightly. He’d been sobbing. His face red and twisted, eyes swollen, snot bubbling from his nose. His scar was a livid white slash dividing his forehead. He swung the extinguisher and knocked over the podium Mrs. Gordon liked to hide her wide hips behind when reciting lessons. His rage spent, Skiba tossed the canister at the bookshelves, dislodging several volumes celebrating the lives and violent deaths of Christian saints and martyrs.
They stood silently a moment, surveying the room they spent two hellish semesters. Eighth grade had been especially torturous for Skiba. An unfortunate growth spurt had made his uniform pant legs too short by a couple inches, necessitating the nickname “Noah”. Of course, Skiba would have been golden if that was the worst of his worries during the year.
He wiped his nose on his shirt sleeve. “I hate this fucking place so much.”
Milsap, who originated the “Noah” nickname, nodded his head sympathetically. “I hear you, man. It’s amazing we made it out of here.”
Milsap grabbed a piece of chalk and drew a pentagram on the board. Beneath it, he wrote FUCK GOD. “There,” he said. “Now, they’ll think public school students did this shit. Now how ’bout we get a few bottles of scotch and see what we can do about getting you laid.”
Skiba smiled a rictus. “C’mon, Milsap, you think I don’t know Kristen and her bitch friends? You think I ain’t heard some of the things they’ve said about me? It’s not like they wait until my back is turned.”
“Well, we’ll get them drunk.”
“Stop it. I don’t care when you say ugly things about me. I know what I look like. I know I live like a fucking roach. It’s not my fault. But quit acting like I’m stupid. I’m not stupid.”
“I know. I’m just saying, you’ve done a lot of damage, here. I’m thinking we should probably get the hell outta here before the cops show up.”
“Go ahead and go then.”
“I ain’t gonna leave you here to take the fall.”
“You mean you ain’t gonna leave me here cause you’re afraid I’m gonna rat you out. You don’t give a fuck what happens to me so long as you’re in the clear.”
Milsap gave Skiba a sharp slap across the mouth and pushed him back against the desk. “Fuck you. Every fucking second I’m here, I’m risking getting my ass sent up to juvie hall. If it was a question of watching my own back, I’d already be half way to Kristen’s with a bottle of Jack in my hand.”
Skiba’s bottom lip trembled. “I ain’t gonna get in trouble. I could burn this fucking school to the ground and get away with it. After what Father Francis did to me, I could do anything.”
Here we go again, Milsap thought. “Father Francis running you over with his Buick can only take you so far, champ.”
“I’m not talking about the accident, asshole. I’m talking about the things he did to me after. The things he did to me at the rectory. Why do you think I always got pulled out of class to altar boy all those mid-day funerals?”
“Did he fuck you in the ass? Or make you suck him off? Or both... or... did he go down on you? Goddamn. He kinda had that look to him. No wonder you walked funny. I thought it was because your pants were so tight. Holy shit. You know you could get some money off that sick bastard. Take his pedophile ass to the cleaners.”
Skiba’s face collapsed in on itself, leaving only a red pool of humiliation. His shoulders lurched. He reached out, but Milsap ducked his touch. Instantly, he regretted his movement. They both did.
“It’s not my fault. I didn’t do nothing.”
“I know. I know.” Milsap tried a more sympathetic tone of voice. He reached out and patted Skiba’s shoulder in what he hoped would be construed as a compassionate gesture. “Still, though, you probably should’ve turned the cock down when he offered it to you.”
“Relax, man. It’s not worth crying over. What’s one dick? Let’s grab some whiskey and get going, all right?”
Skiba nodded, depleted. Milsap led him downstairs, keeping a step behind him. Back in the hallway between the cafeteria and the gymnasium, there was no sign of Harley and Brian, only their handiwork.
A misshapen doorknob laid on the floor like a lumpy shrunken head. Milsap got a sick feeling in his gut before he even reached the beaten door. He knew what he’d find. Bare shelves. Not so much as a Captain Morgan shooter.
“Goddamn,” Milsap said. “Looks like a another night of sniffing airplane glue for me.” He felt around the shelves just in case his eyes were deceiving him. “Yep, nothing.”
“Brian took off with it all?”
“Yeah. Either that or you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.”
“This is where they used to keep it.”
“Really? Is this where Father Francis useta take you to get you drunk before playing Hide The Crucifix?”
Skiba stood there, head down. Silent.
“I’m just playing, man. Hell, I kinda envy you. I’d take a shot of dick from a man in a dress if it meant I could sue the diocese for thirty million dollars.”
Skiba’s voice was a void. “You’re not going to tell anybody about this, are you?”
“I don’t honestly see how I can keep this to myself. But don’t worry, you can always deny it. Let’s get the fuck outta here. See if we can’t catch up with Brian, that buddy fucker. Then you can do to him what you did to the school’s second floor. And I can go to Kristen’s and do to her what Father Francis did to you.”
BIO: Karl Koweski escaped the shadow of the steel mills thirteen years ago. He's been running in place ever since. He writes the monthly column Observations of a Dumb Polack for www.zygoteinmycoffee.com. His stories and poems have been published across the small press. His first full length collection of short stories will be out by the end of the year from Epic Rites press.
Irish Times Crime Fiction column, February 2018
13 hours ago