CONNED AND BRUISED - PETER ANDERSON
Again I was knocked out of deep sleep, for the fourth night in a row, by the clanging of the ameche, but when I answered there was no one on the line. Hanging up, I scratched my gut, absently at first but then aware of how much it had grown over the last few years. But it was still no alderman, I told myself - it didn’t slow me down any, and I could get around both the streets and the dames just like always. Awake for good, I decided to ankle out to those streets and whatever alcohol and Annie I could find.
But as thirsty as I was, and pretty lonely too, I didn’t have much dough for either booze or broads. I had just dropped three hundred berries - four months rent for the rat trap I bunked in - to win on a bangtail nag named Bindle Stiff, who lost at the wire by a beezer. Should’ve known, with a name like that. By the time Bendetti’s bruno was done collecting, I’d be on the nut again, behind the eight-ball. And Bendetti’s heavies meant business - if I didn’t pay up, I’d get the Broderick for sure.
Chiseling being what it was then, I just didn’t have that kind of cabbage on me. I was a decent enough can-opener, but offices that wouldn't spend the clams for a decent safe never had much cash locked away anyway. Clouting silverware and nylons from Caldwell’s Five & Dime wasn’t choice business either. So I relied on the occasional con, which when successful brought me a few C’s and when unsuccessful ended, if I was lucky, with a clean sneak. But the three centuries I owed Bendetti was more than I had, so until I could crab a solution I thought I better clear out of there. Better to cuddle some chippy instead of getting chilled off.
Daunted by the draining August heat and not wanting to get daylighted by some dropper, it dawned on me that being out on D Street wasn't silk or safe, so I ducked into the nearest dive. Right away I saw this dish sitting at the bar, halfway drunk, so I strolled up, dashed off my best line and offered her a Lucky from my deck. “I’d rather see you dance,” was all she said, dismissing me, and knowing she meant the scaffold and not the samba I moved to the far end of the bar, down by the dope fiends. Instead of the dame, I’d just dip the bill with someone friendlier, even if it was just a doper waiting for his next dose.
Easing onto a stool, I ordered an Edgerton Green Label. The eel juice in that dive was especially vile, watered down with turpentine or something worse, but I forced it down, knowing I needed the edge. The fiend next to me looked like an easy mark - he exposed a stack of twenties when he opened his jacket, and I knew that taking him would be eggs in the coffee. Earning me a payday with almost no chance of getting the old elbows checked by some bull.
Fade, he gestured, giving me a brushaway motion with his hand. The fiend must have had me fingered for a fakealoo artist. “Easy, friend,” I purred. “I’m just here to get out of the flat and away from the frail.” He said nothing, but watched furtively as I flipped a fin onto the bar and flagged down the bartender to set us up.
“Gosh, that girlie up front sure has a set of gams on her,” I gushed, gesturing toward the dame. “And those glad rags are tight in all the right places. But she already gave me the gate. Oh well - her loss." The guy still said nothing as he guzzled down his giggle juice. But he wasn’t at all giggly, and only a little gowed-up - not nearly enough to get grifted yet. Maybe he was onto me, took me for a gumshoe or guessed I’d pull a gat on him. I had to ease his mind, make him believe I could get the gum he was looking for. “No matter. Gin mills are full up to the girders with girlies like that.”
How he had all that cash on him, all those twenties, I just couldn’t figure. I guessed he was a fiend, pegged him for a hophead who went for the heroin he could get around Alphabetsville. But not any of that hellhound opium - I couldn’t see him hitting the pipe down in Chinatown, where getting in hock might get the highbinders after you, and you’d end up dumped in some alley, heading for heaven with a Harlem sunset. He was a cagey hombre, though - he may have been hopped up, but he wasn’t taking the hook I was dangling. He kept quiet, all nervous and hinky.
“I’m just out of the hoosegow, friend,” I said, shifting gears like I was steering a Straight-8 piece of iron. “Two years just for having an itchy hand down at Irv’s Jewelers. Itched that hand was all I did, but next thing I knew they had me collared for copping ten carats worth of ice. In stir two years. Before I got out of there I thought sure I’d go crazy, maybe throw an ing-bing or something.”
Just talking about being in the jug seemed to get him interested. The joint was full of hopheads like him, jaspers who stole somebody’s jack to get out of a jam, maybe with some dealer over junk or a loan shark over juice they couldn’t come up with. Maybe he had been in the joint, too - a Johnson brother like me. “Have a juju on you, friend?” I jawed on. “Could really use a jolt.” To my surprise, he reached into his jacket, showing those twenties again, and brought out a fat juju from his shirt pocket.
Kind of him, I thought, not worrying what it would do to me. It was only reefer, I said to myself - not like I was kicking the gong around with the Chinatown kids. “But I’ve got no kick with that,” I said, continuing my joint jive. “They got me, felony theft over 10K, for my so-called knockover. Honest, though, if it was a real knockover I’d have gotten away clean. Those Keystone cops never would have laid a finger on me.”
Looking back later, I should’ve lammed off while I could. But this guy was lousy with loot, and I had to lighten his pockets before he went off to La-La Land for his next fix. “Thanks much, friend. Got a light?” He reached in again, lifted out a match and flicked it into flame. Still he stayed tight-lipped, but looked at me with interest as I lit up, as if he liked what I was saying. So I kept running my lip, even while the sweet smoke made me lightheaded.
“My, that’s some mighty good muggles.” I felt my head start to drift, but forced myself to stick to my message. “And if I was really knocking over Irv’s I would've gone for those marbles of his instead. Beautiful things, made by real oysters, not manufactured. Those would have brought in some real mazuma, not like that cheap paste Irv was selling off as ice.” I didn’t realize then, though maybe I should’ve, that I couldn’t make this guy out. I couldn’t even see his mug - he had his fedora pulled way down over his eyes. If I had, I might have known who the real mark was. But that mesca was strong, and I was flying higher and higher, miles above my common sense.
“Nibble another one?” I said, nodding for the bartender. No, he shook his head, nixing the offer. This time I ordered a Nickerson’s - not nearly as rotgut as the Edgerton - and saw I was down to my last two notes. I needed to move fast on this noodle. “Neighborhood’s changing, dontcha think?” I nattered on, trying not to slur. “Nobody’s dealing these days, nobody can get on the nod.”
“Okay, look here, friend,” I went on. “I’m no operative, no dick, if that’s what you’re wondering. I just thought I oughta help you out. I gotta make a living. I can’t keep passing orphan paper around - bounce a few of those here and you’re over - or waiting for Irv to leave some oyster fruit out on the counter. Neighborhood’s dying out, and I don’t want to die out with it.”
Personally, I still thought this guy was a palooka, a real rube, and I figured I could puff him. I wasn’t packing, but didn’t even think I needed the firepower. But I couldn’t keep my thoughts pinned down. “Tell you what, pal, I’d like to pitch some woo to that Priscilla up there, the one with the great pins. She’s probably a pro, but I hope not.” My words pattered on and on, the pot firmly taking hold.
“Queer, that’s what this neighborhood is,” I said, drifting off in yet another direction, my mind a thirst that couldn’t be quenched. “Alphabetsville - what kind of name is that? Trying to sound like the place in Manhattan, just because they both have streets named for letters? This is no Manhattan, I’ll tell you that. It’s Quincy, for Christ’s sake.” Still nothing from him. How long could he stay quiet? Maybe I had to be quicker, move in for the kill, but the whiskey and weed had me quivering. Maybe I just had to quit talking so much. No nonsense now - in for the kill. “If you know anyone who needs the quill, I’m your man.”
Relaxing his posture, he reclined on his stool while keeping his face hidden. He must have finally had me ranked, given me the once- and twice-over, because at last he rumbled low in his throat and spoke in a ragged rasp. “Yeah, buddy, I guess you rate. You’re a right gee, a redhot like me. Truth is, I do want to get ribbed up, really get routed. Reefer just doesn’t have enough rush for me - that’s why I gave you mine - and I need some of the rum instead. So tell you what - you help me out, and I’ll fix you up real nice with that roundheel.” He nodded at the dame up front, Priscilla or Ramona or whatever she called herself.
“Shirley will show you a good time. She skates around plenty, has lots of swift. Set her up with a snort and she’s yours - you don’t even have to get her snockered.” I got another slant at her, and though my eyes were blurry and couldn’t focus, she looked like one sweet sister. “And she’s no pro, either - no spondulix needed.” This guy was smooth - too smooth, I didn’t realize until too late. I should’ve realized that he was much too sharp to be some junkie out for a fix. “So I’ll set you up with her, but not until we’re back from my scatter, savvy? You deliver, then I deliver.” Seemed square enough to me, though it shouldn’t have.
The hophead - or so I thought he was - got up and trotted past the twist and out under the transom, with me tailing behind. But back out in the heat, the toddies and especially the tea finally got to me, and I tottered, almost out on my feet, and had to lean against the wall to keep from tumbling to the ground. Coming to again, from what felt like sleep, I thought nothing was wrong with him leading me down the alley, saying his scatter was that way, but when we traipsed around the rear corner he turned on me and teed off, bashing his fist into my trap so hard that I felt teeth knocked loose, and I went down like a heavyweight hitting the tarp. Trying to set someone up for the grift, I realized even in my numb haze, I had tooted the wrong ringer - he moved quickly, and was clearly no hophead. He reached into my coat, found nothing inside, then took my wallet from my trouser pocket and found that empty, too, other than the two notes I had left.
“Unbelievable. You’ve got nothing,” he uttered. “I’m down on my uppers, friend,” I gasped, spitting blood. “Have been ever since I was under glass.”
Viciously he cut me off, hissing like a viper. “I don’t want to hear about Vernon Yards. Just got out of the joint myself, on a vag charge. I’ve only gotten this stack -” he patted his vest pocket - “by vising Vivians like you.” I rolled onto my side, facing him, and in a feeble voice began, “Please, friend, I’m deep in the vigorish to Vince Bendetti -”
Wham came his boot to my chin, silencing me and throwing my face to the other side, away from him. “Should’ve been wise to you,” he growled, waffling my fingers into the concrete. I whimpered, curling into a ball and waiting for whatever he’d do to me next, hoping it wouldn’t mean getting fitted for a wooden kimono. I wanted to live, and hoped he wasn’t a wrong enough gee to whack me. Another kick came, a whaling wallop to the ribs.
Exclamation point. Excruciating pain, in my side and everywhere else. This guy was an expert at exacting hurt. But I got exactly what I deserved, for being such an exquisite sucker. I closed my eyes and prayed I’d live long enough to need x-rays.
Yet he suddenly stopped and disappeared back down the alley, leaving me there, battered and bleeding, and somehow I yelped loud enough from my busted yap to bring a yeoman running. Right away the cop recognized me as the yegg he’d spotted leaving that low-rent pawnshop the week before, running away from a cracked-open icebox. He yanked me away, first to the hospital and then the hoosegow, where I wound up yarded at Vernon for three more years. But get this - I never did pay Bendetti those three yards.
Zoot-suited bookie forgot all about it. So, amazing as it seems, spending three crazy years in Cell Three-Zero-Five was a good thing - far better than getting zotzed by Bendetti’s goons. And, it turned out, an easy way of escaping Alphabetsville.
BIO: Peter Anderson’s short stories have appeared in many fine publications besides this one, including Storyglossia, THE2NDHAND, RAGAD and Wheelhouse. A financial professional by trade, he writes fiction to ease the crushing monotony of corporate life. His musings, literary and otherwise, are on public display at www.petelit.com. He lives in Joliet, Illinois, with his lovely wife Julie, charming daughter Madeleine and two literature-averse cats.
HOW THE WEST WAS WRITTEN
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