He sat and smoked and gazed out of the murky window at Coney Island. The boardwalk. The beach. The ocean. He had been holed up in the hotel room for days now and it felt as though the room was gradually expanding as he felt himself diminish. It felt as though he was being slowly consumed by the very walls and the furniture. A glass ashtray flooded cigarette butts onto the stained blue carpet and a half empty bottle of rye sat on the bedside table. He hadn’t slept the night before and the breakfast they’d brought him sat untouched on the chrome service trolley. A radiator next to the window hummed and clicked, clicked, clicked. The ocean outside moved like the blood in his veins. He’d sat on the end of the bed and watched the sunrise over the whole of Brooklyn. Watched the colors on the hotel room walls change softly from a dark purple to a cold orange to a dull yellow. Now he smoked and looked out as the early morning took a choking grasp of the boardwalk.
Abe remembered the way the summer sun had warmed the worn wooden planks many years before. A lifetime ago. He remembered the crowds that had swayed like the waves of the tide and he remembered the scent of the deep-fried knishes his father had hawked from a little stand at the bottom of the boardwalk. He remembered it had gotten to the point where he could no longer stand the smell or the taste of the doughy snacks. When times were hard, he and his siblings had eaten the fucking things for breakfast, lunch and supper. He almost grinned at the memory but didn’t. His father, a wraith of the boardwalk, an awful and desperate look on his face as he bellowed out into the masses like a broken record, “knishes. We gotta knishes here. We gotta kasha. We gotta potato. We gotta cheese. Knishes. We gotta knishes here.” Even now, many years later Abe’s stomach rolled with disgust at his father’s desperation to make a buck for the family. He bitterly remembered the embarrassment that had scorched his face when some of the kids from the tenement had spotted him there with him. His father. The old man had been a sucker. Even worse, he had been a nobody. A schmo, somebody to be pitied even. Abe blinked heavily a few times, frowned down at the boardwalk, gripping at the curtain and then looked at something else. Anything else.
He could hear the shamus coppers yammering softly in the room next door. He looked at his wristwatch and lit another cigarette. The G-men would come for him soon. One more big fish. One more hit for the home run. Abe ‘Kid Twist’ Reles walks away, free and clear. He’d beat the rap. He had beat the machine. He had played the government and won. Abe ‘Kid Twist’ Reles, who done put the murder into Murder Inc walks away scot-free. Sure, he’d given up everyone that was worth a damn. He’d had to. Any of those cocksuckers would’ve done the very same thing put in his shoes. Lepke. Louis. Mendy. The two Harrys. The Plug. Frankie. Hell, he’d even given up his oldest pal Buggsy Goldstein. Marty ‘Buggsy’ Goldstein. They’d just been two little pishers from Brownsville and they’d come so far from the pool halls and candy stores. So fucking far. Not far enough. How many summers had they shared along the boardwalk? How many stick ball games had they played together? Nah, you couldn’t beat a pal who’d grown up with you in Brownsville. But Abe stared at the clinking radiator and knew that it wasn’t for all the killing and all the stealing and all the robbing and all the fucking that he’d finally burn for. He didn’t give a fuck about those other fellas, but Marty was different. Marty had been mishpocheh. He’d been like a brother even. It had been Marty who’d first teased him about his love for twist candies, coining the nickname ‘Kid Twist’. He wanted to tell Marty that it wasn’t his fault. The G-men had put the screws to him good. He didn’t have a choice. He didn’t know they were gonna give Marty ‘The Chair’ in Sing Sing. How the fuck could he have known that? The G-men had said Marty’d just do a little time. Cool his heels for a while. He didn’t know they’d give Marty death. He fingered at the crease in his slacks, glared at the radiator and wondered if Marty would understand any of that. He doubted it. He listened to the cops shuffling around in the room next door and just stared at the radiator. Something warm and wet trickled from his eyes and caught in the stubble of his cheeks. He wiped his face in the crook of his arm and looked behind him at the trolley of food. He felt like he was being watched. He felt hinky. He stood up and walked over to the trolley of food and picked up a soggy piece of toast, looked at it for a moment in his fingers and then tossed it back down on the plate. He grimaced, wiped his fingers on his shirtsleeve and went back to the chair by the window, sat down and lit another cigarette. The fingers on his right hand were trembling, he put his hand inside his damp armpit and smoked with his left hand awkwardly.
A car horn sounded outside somewhere on the street below and it made him startle, shaking ash into the air and floating down onto his legs. He quickly looked around the empty hotel room to make sure no one had witnessed it. The car horn yelped again. He didn’t startle the second time but he remembered the little schmuck kid parking attendant from the club. The way the kid would always bring the car out front the club and sound the horn twice. Sure, he’d been a little jazzed coming out of the place, Abe didn’t drink often, but he’d never liked that kid’s face or the tone of his voice anyhow. Everything about the kid had been too smooth. All smooth edges. A face and a voice like a piece of sanded glass. Nah, he’d never liked the look of that kid. Never. He hated the way the kid’s face was unlined, unblemished and unmarked. He had hated the way the kid’s unworked palm had always slid out for a tip after parking the car, like he was doing Abe a favor. Working his way through college, the kid had said. Fucking college. Untouched and unsoiled by the world, grinning like everyone owed him something for nothing. Truth be told, he’d always wanted to get rid of the kid. If he had brought the car around front quickly, it would have been too quick, too reckless. Just so happened the kid had swung it out front slow that night. Too slow. He wanted to tell the kid now that it wouldn’t have made any difference what he did. The kid’s cards were marked. He just hated the kids undamaged, pretty fucking face. He’d shown the kid that the world was a broken place, it had shards that gouged and scarred. Yeah, it had been a mistake to leave the kid like that at the side of the road, but he didn’t regret it. The G-men had collared him on that and then everything else, but no, he didn’t regret it none. It had all been worth it for that last shocked and confused look on the kid’s face as Abe slid the ice pick home. Yeah, life was unfair. Now the kid knew that and only that. Nothing else. Bubkes.
Abe stood up again slowly and brushed the flakes of grey ash from his dark slacks. He walked to the wall and placed his ear to the cool flaking wallpaper. The flow of the cops’ voices was soft and hummed in tandem with the coppery insides of the hotel, a sleeping beast. They were doing something in there, but he didn’t know what it was. They were supposed to be watching his fucking door. Not schmoozing it up and eating the room service. It made his stomach cramp up like he needed to take a shit.
Abe glanced at his wristwatch again and went to the window to gaze out at the boardwalk again. He watched a man and woman walking hand in hand. He couldn’t make out their features, but he guessed they were smiling. He remembered bringing Katherine here a couple of times when they’d first started courting. They’d fucked more than a few times under the boardwalk. She was a swell girl, Katherine. Eager to please him always. Hell, she might’ve loved him even. He might’ve loved her. He didn’t know. He’d won her a goldfish on the shooting range at the top of the pier one summer and they’d let it go in the ocean waves not knowing that it was a freshwater fish. He wondered if it was still out there somewhere. In the ocean, grown larger and swimming free in the currents and the froth. Maybe it’d just given up and died like everything else finally does. They’d laughed about it at the time, Katherine and him. She’d had a beautiful kind of laughter. Not a lot of things had made him smile then, but Katherine’s laughter always did. It always rang out into the world self-assured, unchecked and uncaring. There was something almost supernatural about it. Sacred. He remembered once kissing her mouth trying to catch her laughter between his lips. He had tasted her happiness on his tongue. It had been a sweet and pure flavor that had lingered long after the kiss had ended. Abe slid the tip of his tongue over his lips at the recollection but all he could taste now was tobacco, rye and exhaustion.
Katherine had stopped laughing after the rape. He’d tried to bring it back. The laughter. But after they had beaten her and used her, they’d stolen the laughter from inside her somewhere. From somewhere deep. Abe had sat next to her soiled bed looking at the broken girl who had been his woman and he knew the men had done it because she was something that had belonged to him. Her rape had been revenge for Abe expanding his slot machine business into other people’s territory. The fucking Shapiro Brothers territory. He remembered her hair had felt like dead grass between his fingertips and her tears had tasted brackish like the ocean mist that drifted over the boardwalk in the winter. He’d finally caught up with the last of the Shapiro Brothers on the street outside a candy store and plugged him right through the fucking face. But nothing had brought Katherine’s laughter back. It had bled out long before he killed the guy that had snatched the joy from out of her lungs.
He sat down heavily in the chair again, blew smoke towards the ceiling, ground the cigarette into the ashtray and tried to hold an image of Katherine in his mind. That soft, blue cotton dress that was tight on her body in all the places that had seemed so important then. Her pale, bare feet treading on the surf like a blanket that was spread out over the ocean just for her. She really had been a swell girl. Maybe his life could’ve been different if he had stayed with her. But she wasn’t the same woman after what had happened to her and he had become frustrated and tired of trying to fix something that he was too much of a klutz to mend. The pieces hadn’t fit together the way they’d used to. She had screamed at him through tears to stay as he had softly closed the door of her apartment for the last time. He still sometimes heard that scream. All the screams he’d heard in his life and hers was the only one that haunted him. He had heard through the grapevine years later that she’d gotten married to a dentist from Manhattan. He didn’t know how he felt about that. Even now. Maybe he should have been happy for her, but he wasn’t. He had married a newer woman with a newer kind of laughter soon after, anyhow. Still, he couldn’t forgive Katherine for finding that laughter again for someone else and just leaving him with the sounds of ghosts.
Abe’s face felt wet again and he walked slumped shouldered to the bathroom and splashed cold water over his face without catching his eyes in the mirror. He walked to the window again and stared out at the boardwalk hoping to see the couple, but they had gone. The boardwalk lay cold and lifeless below him. He lit another cigarette and stared at a fine crack in the wall. He looked at his wristwatch and he waited for the G-men to arrive to take him to the courtroom to testify for the final time. To testify about Albert Anastasia.
He picked at a hangnail and smoked and thought about him. Albert. He had never really liked that wop. They had called him the ‘The One-Man Army’ because he’d pushed the button on more people than death itself. Abe sneered and checked his wristwatch again. He had never trusted Albert or any of those other dagos. They would have slit your throat for a nickel. He had always preferred to deal with his own people but once the Italians had started giving the Jews more work it was tough to turn down the big money. Abe had been the one who’d made the telephone call to Pete asking him for a meeting the night he’d disappeared. Abe remembered it had been one of Pete’s kids that had picked up the telephone. He still remembered the little boychik’s voice. Couldn’t really forget about it either. It was a voice that was full of energy and life just like it’s father’s voice had been. Meshuggeneh Pete Panto fighting the good fight against the corrupt unions down on the waterfront. A fight he couldn’t have won. He might have well as put a .38 in his mouth and pulled the trigger, click, click, click. Albert and his brother had snatched the poor schmuck down by the very same waterfront he’d been fighting for, strangled him slowly with copper wire and then dumped his body in a lime pit over in shithole New Jersey. Albert had giggled excitedly about it after. Pete’s face had looked like an eggplant when they’d finished with him, Albert had said. Abe didn’t feel bad about it. He felt something like relief now and was actually happy that he’d been involved. He was grateful. Once he testified about that putz Albert he was free and clear. The G-men didn’t give a shit about anything other than the front page hubbub they’d score from netting one of the Italians controlling the unions down on the waterfront.
Abe stood up and walked over to the toilet, dropped his cigarette butt into the bowl, unzipped and took a piss. His urine was a dark yellow and he wondered if he should drink more water. He shook himself off, zipped and walked over to the chair to light another cigarette but the pack was empty. He crumpled it up and let it fall to the floor. His eyes caught on an old bible laying on the bedside table next to the rye and a flash of vertigo made his head swim. He couldn’t remember placing it there. Who’d put it there. Had he done it himself? He couldn’t remember. He slumped down on the bed and put his head in his hands. He wondered what Katherine was doing now. Was she laughing somewhere out there in Manhattan? He felt too hot. He unbuttoned his shirt and lay down on the bed. He wondered if he should make a telephone call to his wife, sat up quickly and walked over to the telephone, picked up the receiver but put it back down slowly on the cradle when he heard the operators voice buzzing down the line. There was something about the sound of it that made his stomach clamp up. He looked at his wristwatch and wiped the sweat from his brow on the back of his shaking hand. He glanced at the Bible again. Why was it so fucking hot in the hotel room? It was winter for crying out loud. He went over to the window and pushed it up. The November wind that whipped into the room felt cool and soft on his face. The curtains flapped and danced in the draft like ghosts and he gazed down on the empty morning boardwalk again. He thought he could smell knishes wafting into the room carried by the breeze. He could see the lovers down there again, they were embracing each other and gazing out across the grey and white of the sea. He called out to them and waved. They turned softly together, peered up at the hotel window and waved back. Abe barked out laughter and he felt hot teardrops fall from his eyes, down six stories to the hotel’s outdoor concrete landing. He waved and wept. Then there was the sound of the room door opening behind him, he turned quickly wiping the tears from his face expecting to see the somber faces of the somber G-men there to escort him to the courtroom, but it was three of the cops that were supposed to be guarding him standing there. One of them brandishing sheets tied together like a rope or a white cotton noose. Their faces were very sharp and deeply, darkly lined. They smiled a little like small razor blades. They grinned the same way the kids from the tenement had when they’d witnessed his father plying his trade. Knishes. We gotta knishes here. Then the cops had a hold of him. Abe wanted to struggle but he couldn’t. His body felt very heavy and tired, like he’d been treading water for days. Exhausted. Then he was at the window and he was falling. He felt the boardwalk rushing towards him to embrace him like a lover for the last time and he smiled.
Stephen J. Golds was born in London, U.K, but has lived in Japan for most of his adult life. He enjoys spending time with his daughters, reading books, traveling, boxing and listening to old Soul LPs. Glamour Girl Gone his debut novel will be released by Close to The Bone Press January 29th, 2021.
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