Rabu, 14 Maret 2012

GUNS GUNS GUNS by Peter Nolan Smith

American boys loved guns in the 50s. Plastic weapons were gift-wrapped under the Christmas tree. Our movie heroes slaughtered the country’s enemies on the silver screen and TV cops performed gun ballets on prime time. Guns were good for the country and America was good to guns.

Armed with air rifles my older brother, our friends and I re-enacted World War II on the bluffs overlooking Portland harbor. Imaginary bullets tore holes through make-believe Nazis. Hitler was the last enemy to die, however none of us suffered a scratch during these battles.

"I wonder what it would be like to be hit by a real bullet," I said after our replay of D-Day.

"There's only one way to find out." My older brother stuck the muzzle of his air rifle into the soggy grass. He cocked the lever twice and pulled the trigger. A wad of dirt hit my chest. It stung a little.

"Now it's my turn." I was keen to hurt him and rammed my air rifle into the ground.

"I wasn't wondering nothing." My older brother backed away at a run. We broke into warring camps. Shooting the dirt was too slow and my side dropped our rifles in favor of throwing mud clods. My brother's side escalated to rocks. Blood flowed from our heads. One stone hit me in the head  and I keeled over out cold. Our enemies routed us and I woke to my brother and his allies standing over me.

"You give, you dirty Nazi?" My older brother was offering quarter.

"I surrender." Defeat tasted different this time. It tasted of mud and blood. I wasn't giving them the pleasure of seeing my tears and planned my revenge. The next time I would end up on top. I was seven. Time was on my side.

As the summer of 1959 approached Labor Day, my father packed our Ford station wagon for a week's vacation on Watchic Pond. We stopped at my grandmother’s house in Westbrook for lunch. My two brothers and two sisters ate their Italian sandwiches, as my parents argued with Edith about the Space Race with the Soviet Union.

My mother and father feared the communist domination of Space, while my grandmother defended the international pursuit of peace. Edith had served as a nurse in France during World War I. My father had spent World War II with the Army Air Force. None of them heard my request to go to the bathroom or noticed my leaving the kitchen table.

After doing my business I climbed up the stairs to the bedroom over the garage and pushed through a wall of military uniforms in the closet. A repeating rifle lay horizontal on a rack. Two shotguns shared its berth. I freed the Winchester from the pegs. The cold steel of the trigger had the feel of real. I levered open the chamber. The rifle was unloaded. I kneeled by the window and aimed the rifle at the cars on Main Street. The passing Cadillacs offered a big target and I imagined that Adolf Hitler was behind the wheel of one. My eye sighted a driver. He had a mustache. Before I pulled the trigger, my father ripped the weapon from my hands.

“What the hell are you doing?” His rage boiled beyond his skin.

“It isn’t loaded.” I backed away to the wall and guiltily put my hands behind my back.

“You never know.” My father levered open the chamber.

“I checked before.”

“By pulling the trigger?” His anger simmered below the boiling point, as if he understood my fascination. “Stay away from guns.”

“Yes, sir.”

That evening at the camp after we had gone to bed, my mother and father discussed guns. He said that even a toy gun was bad. A childhood friend had died playing with a real gun. My father was adamant on this issue and neither my older brother nor I received another toy gun from my parents.

Back on Falmouth Foresides we secretly borrowed broken plastic guns from my next-door neighbor to participate in the games of WAR. Fighting Nazis in the woods wasn’t the same without your own weapon. No one suggested a repeat of the mud fight. We were not cavemen.

Next June my family moved from Maine to the South Shore of Boston. My father had a better job with the phone company. Our house was painted pink.

In August my parents sent my older brother and me away to Boy Scout camp. We had two week’s to earn the five merit badges necessary to attain the rank of a Wolf Scout. Swimming, canoeing, basketry, and forestry required several days each and on the second-to-last day the camp counselor led our troop to a shooting range.

We were armed with .22s and positioned on the firing line. The rifle was lighter than the Winchester in my grandmother's closet. It wasn't a toy.

Hitting the target five out of ten times fulfilled the requirement for the rifle merit badge. I accomplished this task on the seventh shot with three bullets to spare. I loaded one into the .22 and and aimed the sight at a treetop beyond the sand bunker. The thin metal of the trigger disguised the rifle's power. My finger twitched in a spasm. The recoil drove the butt into my shoulder. The bullet nicked a distant branch and I aimed the barrel on a passing bird.

"Nice shot," my older brother whispered with a smile.

I didn't have time to enjoy his accolade.

“What you think you’re doing?” My counselor seized the rifle out of my hands.

“Nothing.” The woods behind the bunker went on for miles.

“You shot that last one in the air.” His face was swollen with outrage. He had lectured us  two hours on gun safety.

“No, I didn’t, it slipped from my hand.” I wasn't admitting anything.

The rest of the scouts had stopped shooting. Another counselor acted as back-up. A young boy with a gun in his hand was a danger to himself and others.

“You have any idea how far a bullet travels. Maybe a mile.” The counselor wagged his finger in my face. “You could have killed someone and maybe you did.”

“Sorry.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say, even though I wasn’t sorry.

“Guns aren’t toys,” he pronounced with the authority backed by the Boy Scouts of the America and exiled me from the shooting range. My new nickname at camp was Charles Starkweather. The Nebraskan had murdered his way across the Midwest in the late-50s. I didn't look like him.  

That evening I waited in my tent for the police. My arrest wouldn't please my parents. My brother returned from the cafeteria with a plate of food and a cup of bug juice.

“No one died.” He placed the instant mashed potatoes and hamburger on my bunk. "No one hurt. I told them that you had sweaty hands and the gun slipped out of your grip."

“Thanks.” This news cured my lack of appetite. “You going to tell Mom and Dad?”

“No.” He was a good brother.

My new nickname was 'wet palms'. I could live with that.

The errant shot was not mentioned to my parents. I had learned a lesson. Guns were an unnecessary complication for a young boy in the early 60s. Society was losing control on its people. Things were going bad. My parents sent us to a Catholic school hoping for the best. The nuns at Our Lady of he Foothills excelled at discipline. My mother loved the uniforms.

JFK was assassinated in Dallas. The Viet-Nam War grew in size. The inner cities burned every summer. A lone sniper shot over forty-three people from the Texas U Tower. The Mafia dumped their victims in the Blue Hills. My next-door neighbor found a man with a hole in his head. Chuckie didn't tell the police. All the teenagers of my hometown knew how the Mob dealt with snitches.

Two bigger boys bullied me in 7th Grade. I bore the beatings in silence. The shotguns in my grandmother's attic had shells. I tried to bring the over-under home after our Christmas visit.

My father found it in my bag and accused me of theft. My punishment was twenty lashes with a belt. I refused to cry, because I was dedicated to breaking the 5th Commandment. In the Spring I nearly drowned one of the bullies in the Neponset River to protect a girl.

Her name was Kyla.

In 1968 America took a turn for the worst. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and RFK were cut down in their prime. The country was awash with guns. I wanted to leave this country and there was only one place for a teenage boy to go.

Two days after my birthday I returned home with enlistment papers for the Marines. I had lied to the recruiting officer about my age. I was big for sixteen.

“What’s this?” My mother read the papers and stared at her second son in horror.

“I want to join the Marines?” The sergeant in Lower Mills guaranteed an overseas tour.

"There's a war." America had hundreds of thousands of soldiers in Viet-Nam. All of them had guns.

"I know." I envisioned fighting the commie hordes with an M-16. After victory my girlfriend would greet the killer transformed into a hero with kisses. I hadn't told Kyla about my fantasy. The cheerleader was a peacenik. "I want to serve my country."

"You'll serve your country better by studying harder." My mother was a big believer in education. College was the only viable option for her children after high school, but she was very religious and I said, “I want to fight the godless communists in Vietnam.”

“You’re 16 years old. You’re not going to war.” She called the recruiter and blasted his attempt to shanghai her son. I was angry at her refusal. Her patriotism excluded her son’s going to war.

“See how you feel when you graduate from high school.” My father was of a different mind. He had served in WWII. We had watched the Tet Offensive on TV.

“The war will be over by then.” Humphrey and Nixon were campaigning for peace. The troops were coming home according to both candidates.

“Probably not.” My father had missed three Christmas for his country. "Wars don't end fast."

A family friend of Kyla came home on leave. We went up to the Quincy Quarries for a swim. He had smuggled an M16 back from DaNang. The pasty skinned teenager loaded a clip into the weapon and sprayed a cliff face with bullets. This was a real gun and Johnny let me hold it. This was a killing machine.

"Cool." I pulled the trigger. The clip was empty.

"There's nothing cool about it," Johnny told us about the War. It was not going good. He had done things. "If you don't have to go, don't."

He sold the M16 in Southie and went AWOL to Canada. America was split down the middle by the war. San Francisco was a city of love. Hippies flocked to the Boston Common. My hair ran over my collar and I skipped school with Kyla to ate end peace rallies. My love of guns withered with a bong in my hands.

Kyla and I broke up before her senior prom. College saved me from the Draft. Guns were for cops and revolutionaries.

My older brother carried .38 as a summer cop on the Cape. He brought the revolver home at the end of the season. My father didn't like it in the house.

Two months later my older brother heard someone messing with the back door to my parents' house. He got his gun from the bedroom closet. The intruder was coming up the stairs. My older brother jumped off the couch and assumed the pose taught by his gun instructor.

"Freeze or I'll shoot." My older brother pulled the trigger like his finger was itching to beat the odds at Russian Roulette.

"It's me. It's me." My baby brother was sneaking back home from seeing his girlfriend.

"You're lucky you didn't get shot." Both of them were had escaped a tragedy, because the .38 wasn't loaded. The story was told at many family gatherings. My father didn't laugh at the punch line. He hated guns.

America came off the rails in the early 70s.

Nixon was thrown out of the White House. Gas stations were besieged by thirsty cars. Defeat in Viet-Nam left a bad taste in the country's craw. The wrong direction was the only course left to America.

The recession had created a job drought in Boston and I was lucky to be hired as a substitute teacher at South Boston High School upon my graduation from college.

In 1975 desegregation by bussing bitterly divided the city. Whites and blacks carried guns for protection. They shot at each other for paybacks. It was not the best of all worlds.

Two years of apartheid education tested my loyalties. My own kind regarded me as a race traitor. All whites were the enemy in Roxbury. The wrong place at the wrong time was an easy place to find in Boston during the Bussing Riots and I moved to New York City at the end term in 1976.

The thinned ranks of NYPD were overwhelmed by the epidemic of crime. The five boroughs hit rich and poor in the five borouSquare was the epicenter of My first job was at a gay restaurant on East 60th Street in Manhattan. I shared an apartment with a silver-haired con artist on Park Slope. Jim liked rough trade with tough boys. The elegantly dressed forty-year old carried a derringer for protection. One trick stole it from him twice.

"You should get one too." Jim worried about my coming home late. My unemployment checks paid the half the rent.

"If I had a gun, I'd empty it before I reached the subway." The streets were dark and dangerous. The subways were plagued by thieves. The later I came home after work the better and I hung out at CBGBs until closing

My friends from Serendipity 3 introduced me to a budding actress from West Virginia. The twenty-one year-old's soft eyes were two different colors and her flawless skin was whiter than powdered sugar. Alice’s favorite film was Goddard’s BREATHLESS. Mine was OUTLAW JOSEY WALES. We both loved The New York Dolls and Merle Haggard.

After her graduation I moved out of Brooklyn and we signed a lease on a three-room apartment on East 10th Street. The monthly rent was $180. No one normal wanted to live in the East Village. The dealers on 1st Avenue were contesting the Blue Door gang down the block for control of the profitable corner. This war was replicated all over New York and a call to 911 was a waste of a dime. Our neighborhoods were unofficial no-go zones for the  NYPD. We were on our own.

One night gunshots echoed down the alley.

"They're firecrackers." The staccato volley was followed by a scream.

"Yeah, every day in the East Village is the 4th of July." Alice hailed from the hillbilly hollows outside of Charleston. Her clan shot guns at bigger targets than possums. She could name the caliber of each report.

The next morning was marred by two puddles of blood on the sidewalk. The teenage boys slinging sinse on the corner were plotting revenge on the Blue Door. Their aim was as pitiful as THE A TEAM. Stray bullets tended to find the wrong targets. None of them had won their marksmen merit badge and my hand itched for a gun. The vigilantism portrayed in Charles Bronson's DEATH WISH was a daydream shared by millions of New Yorkers. People got away with murder all the time.

Later that summer I quit Serendipity 3 to run the door at Hurrah’s on West 62nd Street. The second-floor nightclub had been converted from a failing disco to a successful punk rock venue to serve as an antithesis to the phenomena of Studio 54. Blonde, the Ramones, and the Gang of Four played to sell-out crowds. My friends handled the cash at the bar and ticket booth. Our security staff consisted of an off-duty cop named seymour and two black bouncers from Harlem.

Jack Flood and his nephew, Marvin didn’t look family, but I wasn’t questioning the bloodlines of someone Jack’s size. Conked hair framed a face plastered over his bones like beaten putty and his midnight-blue suit blanketed a retired heavyweight's frame like a circus tent constructed for wooly mammoths instead of puny elephants.

When we shook hands for the first time, his thick middle finger tickled my palm. Half the staff of Hurrah was gay and the old boxer wanted to know if I went with men. A scarred eyebrow arched over a yellowed eye in anticipation in answer to his prison question. I guessed I was his type

“Someone said you were a punk.” Jack’s hand was bigger than a catcher’s mitt. Big hands meant big shoes. The slab of his tongue flicked over good thing lips.

“Punk doesn’t mean that now.” Punks in prison were stick pussy. A grainy porno movie flashed in my head and I informed him, “Punk is the music they play here.”

“So that’s what they called it.” He turned to his nephew. “Hey, they call this music ‘punk’.”

"Punk?" Marvin nodded with a misunderstanding of its meaning. His shifting gaze surveyed his surroundings for a threat. He was one month out of Attica.

“I thought it was rock and roll.” Jack released my hand and whispered a favor. “You keep that between you and me. You know that thing with my finger.”

"I'll take it to your grave." The only safe secret were those untold.

“I know you.” Seymour the cop had been studying Jack for several minutes. “You a fighter?”

“I fought Joe Louis in Seattle.”

“1951?” Seymour narrowed his eyes like his memory wasn’t working right.

“Uncle Jack went down three times like a Times Square hooker.” Marvin joked from the door.

“Louis never knocked me out." Jack squared up to his nephew. He had Marvin by 2 inches and 50 pounds.

"No one ever done that." The younger man dropped his eyes in submission. He knew his place.

“To tell the truth Louis was past his prime and weighed 30 pounds more than me. I gave the folks a show and made enough to buy my first Lincoln and I got a shot at Harry Matthews. Now that white boy stood toe-to-toe for 10 rounds in Seattle, giving away 10 pounds. I lost on points.”

"What happened to you? You should of vanished." Seymour was asking the wrong questions, but he was a white off-duty cop. They could do whatever they liked to anyone who wasn't rich.

"A little of this and too much of that." The ex-fighter winked to indicate that he wasn’t telling all the truth. I later learned that Jack had retired with a record of 20-14-2 before entering prison for several long stretches. He never said for what.

“Harry Matthews was a good fighter.” Seymour nodded wordlessly to indicate the two men had an understanding.

The three of them carried guns.

One slow evening it was show and tell. Suicide was the headliner. The electronic duo drew a small crowd.

"I'm not a kid." Seymour lifted his shirt. A snub-nosed .38 was clipped to his belt. The sightless revolver was not NYPD regulation. "Any punk wants trouble, they'll get it."

".38 is for pussies." Marvin opened his leather jacket. A .357 Magnum was packed in a shoulder holster. Clint Eastwood carried the same gun in DIRTY HARRY. 

“Pussies?” Seymour came from Brownsville. He had played with the sons of Murder Incorporated. He was no punk.

“Sorry, if I said it the wrong way, but a .38 won’t kill someone as quick as a 357.”

“And you think that not killing someone is being a pussy?” Seymour stepped closer to Marvin. At 6-2 they were the same height, but the off-duty cop had the edge.

“Marvin don’t think nothing.” Jack rumbled from his seat.

“What kind of gun do you carry?” I asked to break the tension.

“None of your business.” Jack was dead serious. “Only time a gun should show his gun is to pull it out and shoot whoever he wants to be shooting. Ain’t that right, Seymour?”

“And not talk about it later either.” Seymour nodded with a smile. Cops and criminals had more in common than the rest of us and I reminded myself that despite our friendship Seymour and Jack lived by different rules.

Overall working with Jack was easy. One look from the old fighter stopped most trouble from becoming a problem. Our slack time at the door was consumed by stories.

Seymour spun arcane tales of gambling at the track.

“One time I bet on a fixed house. Ring of Darkness at Belmont. It was a rainy day. The horse took off from the gate and everyone in the stands had bet on #7. The other jockeys were in the fix too, but rounding the last turn Ring of Darkness slipped in the mud and fell. Never heard a groan like that.”

According to his tally, Seymour’s wins outnumbered his losses, although the heels of his shoes were round as a baseball.

Marvin extolled his girlfriends’ virtues. Each one was beautiful than the last.

“You don’t know nuttin’ ’bout women.” Jack offered from the chair behind the desk. He occupied a lot of space no matter where he sat or stood. “You ever been married.”

“What’s the difference?” Marvin played straight man for Jack’s pontifications.

“Married women kill you if you leave ‘em and single women if you don’t go.”

Marvin, Seymour, and I looked at each other in confusion.

“If I have to explain, then you don’t need explaining.” Jack pointed out the door at his battered 1968 Lincoln Continental. “I always keep the tank full. Never know when a woman might be after you.”

A Lincoln, a full tank of gas, and Jack Flood was a movie without a screenplay. Only one of Jack’s women came to the club.

"I come to see The Specials do MESSAGE TO YOU RUDY." Nadine was high-yellow Jamaican. Her spread hips were built for the Continental's wide seat. She kissed Jack with all her soul and he kissed her back with all his heart.
“I think I’ll take my break.” Jack disappeared upstairs with Nadine. We watched the ex-fighter follow the big woman like a schoolboy in love with his teacher. Marvin whistled in admiration.

“Jack likes them built for comfort.”

“I like all kinds.” Jack turned around with a broad grin. “And I like them best when they like me.”

He was telling the truth.

Every girl entering Hurrah was surveyed by the old boxer’s eyes like he was casting the teenagers for a remake of THE MACK. The older white women were greeted with a polite hello. They shivered with the fear of desire. Jack cast a long shadow.

He treated Alice with respect, until she entered the club wearing a white plastic mini skirt and matching shirt. Jack smacked his lips and said, “Fried chicken.”

Alice ran up the stairs. She didn’t speak to me during the show by the Damned. Back at home she said, “I don’t like the way your friend looks at me.”

“Who are you talking about?” It had been a long night. The Damned had packed the club to the rafters.

“Jack.” Alice was beautiful enough to be in movies, but an angry scowl aged her twenty years.

“A lot of men look at you.” After a year in the city she should have been used to men staring at her, as if she was naked.

“Not like a killer.” Alice told me to speak with Jack and I said yes.

We were in love.

The next night the Dead Boys filled the club beyond fire capacity. After the headliners took the stage, I pulled Jack into the side hallway.

“What’s up?” Jack cracked his beefy knuckles.

“Do me a favor and don’t look at my girlfriend like she’s jail bait.”

“That’s all. I thought you were goin’ to have me fired.”

“Why would I do that?” Only the manager could dismiss staff.

“You don’t know.”

“Know what?”

“Nuttin’, that’s good.” His broad face broke into a guilty smile. “So we’re good.”

“Sure.” He was doing something underhanded at the door. I was to turn a blind eye. “As long as you ignore my girlfriend.”

“Sure thing, but you know the closer to the bone, the sweeter the meat.”

Alice hated my working nights. The girls at Hurrah were free as the wind. I tried my best to be faithful.

“Can’t you get a regular job?”

“I could.”

I promised to look for a 9-5, except the money from Hurrah was good.

Each night a different punk band from NY, London, or LA played to full houses, and hanging with Jack was better than watching THE TONIGHT SHOW on TV. The only time we really had to do anything was when people tried to sneak inside for free.

Jack hated this.

“They’re stealin’ money from our mouths.”

“What you mean?”

“Nothing.”

The B52s played three nights. Each evening the crowd swelled in numbers. Our capacity was 600. I had never seen it so crowded and on the last night the manager told us not to let anyone else enter the club.

We shut the door.

Two Puerto Ricans jimmied open a side entrance. Jack dragged the trespassers to the front door and booted them onto the sidewalk with a size 14 shoe.

“We’ll be back.” The pair warned and walked off toward the projects.

“People always saying that.” Jack repositioned his gun from back to front. He liked to be prepared. “Never know when it’s gonna be true.”

Thirty minutes later the band hit the stage. Marvin and I went upstairs to watch the show. I got drinks from the bar and returned to the entrance. Jack was leaning against the wall. It was only the two of us.

“Where’s Seymour?”

“Outside calling his bookie.”

I handed Jack his cognac and coke.

He didn’t have time to drink it, because ten Puerto Ricans crowded into the hallway. Five of them held stilettos and my stomach shrank behind my spine. Jack coldcocked the first attacker. The second PR stuck a shiv into his side.

“Motherfuckah, you fucked up my suit.”

Jack hammered his assailant’s nose a short right. Another he mauled with a left. A knife slashed at my face. Jack caught the blade with his right hand and cracked the Puerto Rican’s skull with his elbow. Jack pulled out a .38 and threw it to me.

I caught the pistol by the grip

“Shoot the motherfuckahs.” Jack was bleeding from three places.

Seeing the gun the Puerto Ricans fled the hallway and I chased them onto the sidewalk.

Within seconds they were already 100 feet away.

I had been waiting for this moment since I was a kid.

I pulled the trigger and the front windows of a car shattered upon the bullet’s impact. My Boy Scout training hadn’t covered shooting at moving targets. The gang accelerated like a DJ had sped up a 45 to 78 rpm. There was no second shot.

“I’m goin’ to the hospital.” Jack hobbled up to me, blood seeping between his fingers. “You bettah get rid of that piece before the cops come.”

“I’ll do it right now.” I stuffed the .38 into my leather jacket.

“Good. Now flag me down taxi. Cab drivers don’t pick up bleedin’ brothers.” Jack leaned on a car and I stopped a taxi.

The driver protested about Jack’s messing up his seat.

I gave him an extra $10.

They drove away to Roosevelt Hospital on 8th Avenue and I went up on the roof of the nightclub. Another five bullets were in the chamber. The sight had been shaved off the barrel. Tape was wrapped around the handle. It was a gun for killing.

Pulling the trigger had been easy.

I aimed the gun at the building next door. The power was immense. The killer inside me was outside my flesh. Next time I wouldn’t miss and killing someone was too easy, so I dropped the gun down an airshaft. The pistol clanged twice on its ascent and I returned to the door, wondering whether Jack was alive.

The police were waiting on the sidewalk; ten uniformed cops from five patrol cars. Ten cops. Two more were plainclothes detectives.

“How’s Jack?”

“Three knife wounds aren’t gonna kill that old coon. I heard he fought Joe Louis.”

“Five rounds.”

“Tough old nigger.

The detective had a litany of questions. I told them 90% of the facts.

“What about the gun?” The detective sniffed at the air. The other cops surrounded me. I was suspect # 1 for a good reason. Marvin was still upstairs.

“What gun?” I played dumb.

“Someone reported a shot.” He stared at my hand.

“I didn’t hear any shot.” Seymour walked up to us.

“And you are?” The detective recognized his own kind.

Seymour showed his badge and backed up my story. He must have been waiting in the shadows for the right moment. The detective accepted his fellow cop’s explanation and dropped his ear to the radio.

“A couple of those boys stole a taxi. They crashed it in the park. We’ll show this ‘Jack Flood’ their pictures.”

They got into their cars and drove off into the night.

“Repeat after me.” Seymour recited a hundred words of less description of the attack. “Don’t vary from it no matter what anyone says. And what happened to the gun?”

“What gun?”

“That’s right.” Seymour clapped my shoulder. “And congratulations on breaking your cherry.”

“Break my cherry?” The expression was known for the loss of virginity.

“On shooting at someone.” The off-duty cop whispered in my ear. He was proud of me. I was one of them and I was proud of me too.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The less said the better the truth doesn’t sound like a a lie.

Alice said nothing about the incident, but slept on the other side of the bed. She was scared of me. I couldn’t blame her. I was scared of me too.

The next morning I called the club. The manager explained that no charges were pressed by either side.

“No charges?” We had been attacked by knives. Jack had almost been killed. I had shot a gun at one of the attackers.

“Jack has a record of violence long as your arm and not just in the ring.” The manager explained over the phomne and then read out some of Jack’s previous charges. All were felonies. Most of them involved guns. “Better for Jack drop it.”

Jack said the same thing in the hospital.

“They didn’t cut my face.” He touched his skin. We were the only two in the room. Marvin was acting scarce. The police wanted to ask him questions. “Don’t want to lose my looks.”

“Sorry I didn’t hit anyone.” I felt bad that I was untouched.

“Sorry? You hit someone and I’m coming to see you in Rikers Island and white boys don’t do good there. Besides them punks only scratched me.” The bandages covered his ebony arm and chest. “Good thing I wasn’t getting killed, because you shoot like shit and that’s a good thing, because you don’t want to be wounding people who are trying to kill you. You gotta have a killer instinct and you don’t got that.”

“How can you tell?” I had aimed the gun.

“If you wanted to kill them, then they’d be killed.” The monitor for his heart showed no change in his cold-blooded heart rate.

I had failed the test, but neither was I entirely a man of peace, which was why I got along with Jack.

After his discharge from the hospital I invited him to dinner in my neighborhood.

That night Alice left before he arrived at our apartment.

“You only like him, because he’s a gangster.” She was only partially right.

“No.” I liked Jack, because he was Jack Flood.

“And you want to be a murderer too.”

“No, I don’t.” TMy urge to murder had been killed by shooting Jack’s gun.

“When was the last time you wrote a poem? Not since you took that job.” She slammed the door after that sentence.

Jack liked the Italian restaurant on the corner of 1st Avenue and 10th Street. Lanza’s was empty and the food was mediocre. The wine was sour, but the prices were cheap. Jack liked it just fine.

“Ain’t nothin’ bad gonna happen to a black man in an Italian restaurant.Not like Harlem. I always got to watch my back in restaurants up there.”

After dinner we walked across the street to his Lincoln. It was parked next to a hydrant. The dealers on the corner stepped aside for Jack. Their respect had nothing to do with the two guns on him.

“They don’t know me, but they know me.” He grabbed the two parking tickets from under the wipers and tore them into shreds. “I’m old school. Not many of me left in this city. You wanna go see James Brown?”

“James Brown?” James Brown had saved Boston the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination by calling for calm from the stage of the Garden. “You know James Brown?”

“He’s an old friend.” Jack slipped behind the wheel. The Lincoln was the perfect fit for a man his size. “He’s playing at the Lone Star.”

“It’s on 5th Avenue.” Alice wasn’t going to be home for another three hours.

“Get in, I’ll introduce you to him.”

Jack drove cross-town on 9th and backed up 5th for several blocks. Cars blew their horns, as he burned a red light in reverse.

“Jack?”

“I know what I’m doin’.” He wrenched the wheel to the right to park right in front of the Lone Star.

“Good parking job.” His driving explained the many dents in the Lincoln.

“Always is when you don’t pay attention to the law.”

The tickets were $10.

Once inside Jack asked, “They take your ticket?”

“No.”

“They ain’t’ takin’ no one’s ticket.” Jack eyeballed the door. “Go up to everyone and ask them for their tickets and I’ll sell them outside for $5.”

“They cost $10.”

“We’re not retail.”

Jack and I overpacked the bar with a hundred extra people. The fourteen-piece band crowded onto a minuscule stage by the overflow. The horn section was lined up the stairs. James Brown barely had room to dance.

Jack and I bought a bottle of champagne.

Once the show was over, he took me up to the dressing room. James Brown was signing autographs for his fans. The Godfather of Soul froze upon seeing Jack.

“I ain’t dead.” Jack hugged the smaller man.

“No one said you were.” James Brown wiped the sweat off his face.

“Liar.” Jack released James. “This is my friend.”

“I saw you at the Newport Jazz Festival. You blew Zeppelin off the stage.”

“Thanks.”

Jack lifted a finger to signal that the two needed time alone. He slipped the Godfather of Soul some money. The next night we racketed the door again and Jack confessed that he was doing the same at Hurrah.

“Those kids don’t wanna buy from a brother, but a white boy?” He let the sentence hang in the wind.

“We could make some money.” SRO shows packed the club with 700 people. Tickets were $10. 50 tickets a night split two ways was $250 each. “I’ll think about it.”

Thinking about it was one thing.

Doing it was another.

We had a good six month run, but the door had too many eyes.

The manager caught onto the scheme and demanded other names. I offered mine. He fired me without any severance pay. Jack kept his job and contacted the security at Madison Square Garden, the Palladium, and several other concert halls. I sold their excess tickets. Jack always got a cut.

Alice and I broke up that winter. I left her for a blonde model. Lisa didn’t like the way Jack looked at her either, but she never had any reason to socialize with him.

Jack, Marvin, and I watched the first Roberto Duran-Sugar Ray Leonard fight at Danceteria on West 19th Street. We had bet heavily on Duran. His unanimous victory paid 9-5. I shouted for drinks. We were big winners.

Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a face. It belonged to one of the Puerto Ricans from the stabbing. Jack slowly turned his head.

“Is that who I think it is?” Jack wasn’t expecting any lies.

“Yeah.”

“You don’t want a piece of this and you ain’t seen nothin’.” Jack snapped his fingers and his nephew trapped the Puerto Rican against the wall.

“Jack, we won money tonight.” I was pleading for a life.

“I win money all the time.” Jack’s hand slipped behind his jacket. He liked a gun in the small of his back, because he could feel it that way.

“Don’t do this.”

“Don’t do what? Ain’t nothin’ happen yet.” Jack walked across the room.

People avoided contact.

The young Puerto Rican boy prayed with quivering lips.

Jack whispered in his ear, then patted him on the cheek. He returned to the bar with Marvin. The Puerto Rican boy was gone.

“What you say to him?”

“Said it was his lucky day, but I’d see him again.”

“And what will you do then?”

“Depends on my mood and tonight my mood is good.”

A week later Jack and I were eating at Lanza’s. We washed down meatball and spaghetti two bottles of horrid wine. As we waited for the check, I asked, “Jack, would you have killed that kid the night of Duran fight?”

“Kill ‘em?” Jack scrunched his lips as if the next words were hard to say. “Nah, no reason for killin’. He ain’t killed me.”

“But you looked like you wanted to kill him.”

Lookin’ like and killin’ ain’t the same. You know why I threw that gun to you?”

“Because you were hurt.”

“Yeah, but the real reason is that I was scared to kill them. If I did, then I was going back inside and I’m too old for prison. “ This was a confession. One Jack really didn’t want to make, but he said, “It bothered me, forcing you to make that decision to shot or not. Everyone sees movies and thinks it’s easy pulling a trigger. Ain’t never easy pulling a trigger.”

“That’s true.” I had pulled the trigger without thinking.

“Good thing your shooting wasn’t worth shit.”

Jack and I parted ways as people do in the lives we led.

I heard Marvin was shot dead in a Harlem alley, but nothing about Jack.

I decided that he was still driving that big black Lincoln. It was better than thinking him dead, because men like Jack Flood don’t get to the heaven in the after-life, even though they understand the real value of ‘thou shalt not kill’.

Jack had taught me that lesson.

I’ve never owned a gun in my life. I shoot them only at gun ranges. I never think about killing anyone anymore, but I know what it’s like, because every bit of Jack was a little bit me.

At least I’d like to think it was. Not any more, not any less, but just enough.

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