Category Archives: Crime Wave

Mr. Moto Does His Thing

By Ed Staskus

   Even though Mr. Moto didn’t know how to think, he did a lot of thinking. There was no sense of getting on the wrong side of “I think, therefore I am.” It was a breezy sunny morning. He sat on the platform of the fire escape, looking out on Hell’s Kitchen and wondered, why is there something rather than nothing?

   There was a lot of everything in New York City, as far as he could see. It was true he slept more than not, sometimes sixteen hours a day, but between sitting around in windows on stoops on the roof and prowling the land, he saw enough. Where did it all come from? Where was it all going? What was it all about?

   “To be or not to be.” Where had he heard that? Was that what it was all about? Was it all just something and not nothing and never mind in between? It was the simplest explanation, and the one he liked the most, but there was something about it that nagged him. He never knew his dad, but he remembered his mom. That was where he came from. He came from her. Everything had to come from something, right?

   As far as he could tell, even though he couldn’t read, there were five No. 1 concepts that philosophy revolved around, language, knowledge, truth, being, and good. He couldn’t talk, so it got shot down to four in his world. The truth was always up for grabs, leaving three. There was no need wasting time arguing what was right and wrong. He knew good and evil when he saw it. 

   When it came to knowledge, he knew what he knew. “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” That left being, and being a cat, he was solid with that gospel truth. He was always being, no matter what he was doing. That’s what life was all about. Be true to yourself.

   It was about eating, too. He was a stickler for clean water in his bowl, refreshed every day. He got cross if it was stale. Stan gave him canned fish in the morning, he ate all of it every day, and the rest of the day nibbled on dry food. 

   Mr. Moto didn’t like “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates was full of bull. If what he said was true, most life of all kinds wasn’t worth living. Who had the time to look inward all the time? 

   He never examined his own life. He didn’t know a single other cat, nor had he ever heard of any, who did. He didn’t believe animals ever did. He didn’t think many people did, either, at least not in his neck of the woods. Who was Socrates to say their lives weren’t worth living? No wonder they poisoned him when they got the chance. He must have been a pain in the ass.

   Mr. Moto flopped down on the ground, stuck a hind leg up, and cleaned his butt.

   He didn’t like Kant, either. The man could never just come out and say what he meant. “A categorical imperative would be one which represented an action as objectively necessary in itself, without reference to any other purpose.” What did that even mean? If it meant what he though it meant, it was all hot air. One thing always led to another. He knew that for sure.

   He thought it might mean something like, it is never right to lie. Should that idea be universally applied? If everybody lied, trust would disappear, so lying is wrong in all cases. What a lot of more bull! Kant was worse than Socrates. Mr. Moto distrusted almost everybody, and it stood him in good stead. He was willing and able to lie to anybody he didn’t trust. Whatever works was his motto.

   His chief goal was survival. “We must all cultivate our own wisdom.” Voltaire was more like it, more to his liking.

   He was taking the air on the fire escape, the wrought iron stairs bolted to the front of the building. It was where he did his best thinking. It was also where he stayed abreast of the street’s comings and goings. The World Series, whatever that was, was on everybody’s lips. Everybody was saying it was the Subway Series. It was starting tomorrow. He heard Dottie saying she was going to be on the picture box, talking to one of the big men, although he was a small man, somebody by the name of Pee Wee Reese. Somebody sitting on the stoop next door was reading Sports Illustrated. Micky Mantle was on the cover.

   When he looked down at the sunlit pavement, watching Dottie come out the front door and start off to school, he didn’t like what he saw. A black 1955 Chevrolet panel truck was parked at the curb. Two men in dark suits, wearing fedoras pulled down over their eyes, were getting out of the truck. They weren’t in the trades, that was for sure. They were guinea gangsters.

   When they blocked Dottie’s way and reached for her, clamping a sweet-smelling wet handkerchief over her mouth, Mr. Moto ears pinned back sprang into action and raced down the steps of the fire escape. He whirled on the sidewalk and ran straight at the struggle. Dottie was kicking furiously at the men. Leaping from the second story he jumped over the back of the man holding her from behind, over Dottie’s head, and on to the face of the man facing him. The man screamed as Mr. Moto raked his face with his claws.

   “Hey, what’s going on?” Sports Illustrated on the stoop yelled, standing up.

   The hoodlum grabbed at the cat, got hold and flung him away. Blood gushed from his face and one eye. Mr. Moto pivoted and went at him again, coming up short landing on his chest, and grabbed with all his claws digging in at the man’s shirt. The goon flung him off again, bellowing. The cat landed on all fours and glared.

   Dottie went limp from the chloroform on the kerchief and the men dragged her to the back of the panel truck, tossing her inside, and slamming the doors shut. An empty bottle of Sneaky Pete rolled into the gutter. Mr. Moto went after them again but had to dodge bullets from the soon-to-be-Scarface, and dashed behind a trash can, more bullets ripping through the thin metal and ricocheting off concrete.

   The man on the stoop threw himself flat, cradling his head with his arms.

   When the truck started pulling away, heads appearing in windows, and shouts that it was gunfire, not backfire, he ran after it. When he jumped at one of the rear wheels, hoping to puncture it, all he got for his efforts was two ripped-out claws and bruised ribs when he was flung off the spinning steelbelt to the curb.

   He looked up at the disappearing truck and instantly memorized the license plate number. Back on the sidewalk he pulled a scrap of paper from the overturned trash can and wrote the letters and numbers on it in his own blood. Even though he didn’t know how to write, he could recreate symbols. He didn’t know what the symbols meant, but they had to mean something. Stan would know.

   He heard a whistle. A patrolman was running up the sidewalk. A woman yelled out her window, “They grabbed the Riddman girl!”

   “What happened?”

   “I don’t know, two guys were dragging her. She looked like she was knocked out. They threw her into their truck and raced away.”

   “Did you see their faces?”

   “No.”

   “How about the plates?”

   “No.”

   “Which way did they go?”

   “That way.”

   It wasn’t any better sledding with anybody else. Everybody had seen what happened, but nobody knew what the trail looked like. The patrolman wrote down what he heard and waited for the plainclothes car.

   On the sidewalk Mr. Moto felt bad. If he wanted to be honest with himself, he felt horrible. He had stanched the bleeding by licking his paw, but he was having a hard time breathing. His chest hurt like hell. When he tried to walk, he felt like he had strained a tendon or a ligament or some damned thing in his right back leg. He knew what he was made of. He was a mess. He limped when he got going. There wasn’t any way he was going to be able to scurry up the wood trim to the awning to the second-floor platform and back to the open window of the apartment. He waited at the front door until the woman in 1A came running out, slipped into the foyer, and through the quietly closing inner door.

   He dragged himself up to the fourth floor, to the hallway window, and gingerly hopped up on the sill. He went out to the fire escape and back into the apartment through the living room window. 

   The apartment was a living room dining room kitchen and two bedrooms. He went to his water bowl first, caught his breath, and lapped up enough to slake his dry mouth. He staggered to Dottie’s room, stopping inside the door to catch his breath again. His chest hurt bad. He clawed his way up onto the bed, let the scrap of paper fall from his mouth, and lay there until his wheezing tapered off.

   He fell into a dreamless one life gone sleep.

Excerpted from “Stickball” at http://www.stanriddman.com

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Seven in the Bag

By Ed Staskus

When Stan Riddman walked up from the guts of the Flatiron Building it wasn’t dark, not new dark yet. The sky was lemon and pale blue.  It was the first day of the second week of fall, but felt more like the middle of summer, except for the shorter autumn days. He wore a short sleeve shirt and linen trousers. The thin wallet in his back pocket was flush with more fives and tens than it was with one-spots. 

   He gave his wallet a friendly pat. The seven-card stud they played in the basement next to the furnace room had been good to him. I can buy the kid some new clothes, get up front on the office rent, and score tickets for the Series, he thought.

   The Socialist Labor Party used to have offices in the Flatiron Building, but not down in the underground. He wondered if they would have banned gambling, making it out like it was exploitive, if they had ever come to power. You took your chances at poker, but it was only exploitive if you had no skill at it. You deserved to be taken if you played dreamland cards.

   He walked down 22nd Street to Lexington Avenue, turned right, walked through Gramercy Park to Irving Place, and looked for a phone booth

   The Yankees were in and the Indians were out, that was for sure. The Redlegs were running on an outside track, but the Braves were neck and neck with the Dodgers. Sal the Barber had no-hit the Phils earlier in the week at Ebbets Field and the Cardinals were going hard at the Braves out in the boondocks. It was all going to come down to the weekend as to whether there was going to be a subway series, the same as last year, or not.

    Last year it went seven games, and the oddball thing was the Yankees won three at Ebbets Field and the Dodgers won their four at Yankee Stadium. Neither team won on their home field. Nobody won that bet. Nobody took the backside odds on the seventh game, win or go home, either, especially since Jackie Robinson wasn’t penciled in to play the deciding nine.

   Nobody but Stan and Ezra, and anybody else who flipped a coin.

   Who would have thought the Cuban would be the difference-maker when he took over right field in the sixth inning? Stan was in the upper deck with his sometime partner, Ezra Aronson. The Yankee dugout was on the first base side, so most of the Bum fans were on the third base side. A client who was a Yankees fan, after Stan had gotten him the black and white’s he needed to get his divorce done, gave a sudden pair of passes to him, so they were on the wrong side.

   “Beggars can’t be choosers,” Ezra said, sitting in a sea of Bronx Bomber fans.

   When Yogi Berra hit an opposite field sure double, Ezra sprang out of his seat, like everyone else, but the lightning fast Sandy Amoros caught it coming out of nowhere. He fired a pill to Pee Wee Reese, who relayed it to Gil Hodges, who doubled up the retreating Gil McDougald off first, ending the last threat Stengel’s Squad made that afternoon. 

   Casey Stengel managed the Yankees. Back in his day, when he still had legs, he had been a good but streaky ballplayer. Good glove, fair bat.

   “I was erratic,” he said. “Some days I was amazing, some days I wasn’t.” When he wasn’t, he played it for laughs, catching fly balls behind his back. One afternoon he doffed his cap to the crowd and a sparrow flew out of it. Another day, playing the outfield, he hid in a drainage hole and popped out of it just in time to snag a fly ball.

   When he stood leaning over the top rail of the dugout, he looked like a cross of the scowling Jimmy Durante and Santa Claus in pinstripes. He managed the Braves and Dodgers for nine years and chalked up nine straight losing seasons. But after the Bombers hired him in 1948, the only year he hadn’t taken them to the World Series was 1954.

   Stan and Ezra were the only men in their section who hadn’t fallen back into their seats, stunned, after Sandy Amoros snagged Yogi Berra’s liner. Stan had to pull Ezra down so there wouldn’t be any hard feelings. As it was, Ezra was so excited there were hard feelings, and Stan had to drag him away to a beer stand.

   “This beer is bitter,” Ezra scowled, looking down at the bottle of Ballantine in his hand. Ballantine Beer was on the Yankee Stadium scoreboard, its three-ring sign shining bright, flashing “Purity, Body, Flavor.” Whenever a Yankee hit a homer, Mel Allen, the broadcaster, hollered, “There’s a drive, hit deep, that ball is go-ing, go-ing, gonnne! How about that?! It’s a Ballantine Blast!” 

   The Brooklyn Dodgers, Ezra’s home borough baseball team, played at Ebbets Field. Their scoreboard boasted a Schaefer Beer sign, with the ‘h’ and the ‘e’ lighting up whenever there was a hit or an error. Below the Schaefer Beer sign was an Abe Stark advertisement. 

   “Hit Sign Win Suit”.

   “That’s some super beer, that Schaeffer’s,” said Ezra, polishing off his bottle of Ballantine and spitting. 

   Stan Riddman didn’t have a home borough, even though he favored the Bums. He had an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, up from Times Square and down from the Central Park Zoo. He wasn’t from New York or New York City. He was from Chicago, although he wasn’t from there, either. He had been born in Chicago, but when his mother died two years later, in 1922, his father moved the family, himself a new Polish wife two boys two girls two dogs and all their belongings a year later to a small house behind St. Stanislaus Church in Cleveland, Ohio, in the Warszawa neighborhood south of the steel mills, where his father worked the rest of his life.

   Stan wasn’t working on anything he thought would bring him free Series passes this year. As long as I put most of this away, he thought to himself, walking down Irving Place, thinking of the jackpot in his pocket, I can blow some of it tonight, and still have enough for ballgames and more card games.

   Dottie was at Marie’s for the weekend. That happened about as often as the Series. It wasn’t too early or too late, and if Vicki hasn’t taken any work home, and is at home, and picks up the phone, maybe she could meet him for dinner.

   He found the phone booth he’d been looking for and called her. It rang once almost twice before Vicki answered. That’s a good sign, he thought.

   “Hello.”

   “Hey, Vee, it’s Stan.”

   “Stan, my man,” she laughed.

   “How’s Stuy Town tonight?” he asked.

   “Hot, quiet, lonely,” she said.

  “How about meeting me at Luchow’s for dinner?” he asked. “I’m buying.”

   “Stan, I love you for the dear German or Polack or whatever you are, but the food at Luchow’s is not so good, even if you can ever get though that insanely long menu of theirs.” 

   “That’s what I’m here for,” he said. “Only a dog-eared investigator like me will look into everything the kitchen’s got to offer.”

   “All right, but the other thing is, since they seat more than a thousand people, how am I going to find you? And if I do, with that strolling oompah band of theirs, if we do bump into each other and maybe get a table in that goulash and Wiener schnitzel palace, we’ll only be able to make ourselves heard some of the time and not the rest of the time.”

   “We can always take our coffee and their pancakes with lingonberry over to the square after dinner and chew the fat, it’ll be quiet there,” he said.

   “Chew the fat? What it is I like about you, sometimes I just don’t know.”

   “I’ll take that for a yes.”

   “Yes, give me a few minutes to change into something fun,” she said gaily. “I hope there’s no goose fest or beer festival going on.”

   “Meet me at the far end of Frank’s bar, he’ll find a low-pitched spot in the back for us. Frank says the new herring salad is out of this world.”

   “Don’t push your luck, Stan, don’t push your luck,” she said.

   Luchow’s was a three-story six-bay building with stone window surrounds, pilasters, and a balustrated parapet on top, while below a red awning led to the front door. The restaurant was near Union Square. It looked like the 19th century, or some more earlier century, heavy Teutonic, North German. A titanic painting of potato gatherers covered most of a wall in one of the seven dining rooms. Another of the rooms was lined with animal heads, their offspring being eaten at the tables below them, while another room was a temple of colorful beer steins. 

   There was a beer garden in the back.

   “Welcome back to the Citadel of Pilsner,” said Frank. He gestured Stan to the side.  “Did anybody tell you Hugo died?”

  “No, I hadn’t heard, although I heard he wasn’t feeling well,” said Stan. Hugo Schemke had been a waiter at Luchow’s for 50 years. He often said he wasn’t afraid of death. He had firmly no ifs ands or buts believed in reincarnation.

   “Did he say he was coming back?”

   “He did say that, but I haven’t seen him, yet,” said Frank. 

   “How’s Ernst doing?” asked Stan. Ernst Seute was the floor manager, a short stout man both friendly and cold-hearted. He had been at Luchow’s a long time, too, since World War One.

   “He took a couple days off,” said Frank. “Remember that parade back in April over in Queens, they’ve got some kind of committee now, he’s over there with them trying to make it an annual thing here in Little Germany, calling it the Steuben Parade.”

    “You going to be carrying the cornflower flag?’

   “Not me, Stan, not me.” Frank was from Czechoslovakia. “I’m an American now.”

   Frank led Vicki and Stan to a small round table at the far end of the bar. He brought them glass mugs of Wurzburger Beer and a plate of sardines. Vicki ordered noodle soup and salad. “Hold the herring,” she commanded. Stan asked for a broiled steak sirloin with roasted potatoes and horseradish sauce on the side.

   “I saw Barney the other day,” she said, cocking her head. “He told me you’ve made progress.”

  “I didn’t think there was anything to it the first day I saw him, that day you brought him over to the office,” said Stan. “I didn’t think there was much to it all that first week the top of the month. But then there was all that action, and Bettina finally got it worked out, that it was the shrink. So, I know who did the thing to get Pollack to drive himself into that tree. I know how they did it. What I don’t know is why they did it.”

   “Do you know who they are?’

   “No, I don’t, even though one of the two, a psychotic by the name of Ratso Moretti, who roughed up Ezra, is being held at the 17th. He doesn’t seem to know much, but what he does know says a lot. The shrink is going to tell me all about it. He doesn’t know about the talk we’re going to have, yet, but that doesn’t matter.”

   “You don’t think Jackson Pollack had anything to do with it?”

   “He was the wrong man, that’s all, if you look at it from his point of view. Bettina and I think he was a test run. We think they’re up to something bigger. It’s hard to figure. We can’t see the pay-off in it. You know Betty, though. She’ll piece it together.”

   After dinner they looked at the dessert menu, but it was only a peek. Vicki shook her head no.

   “How about coffee at my place?” asked Stan. “We can stop and get pastry at that Puerto Rican shop on the corner, sit up on the roof.” It was a clear sky night.

   “I can’t pass up that pass,” said Vicki.

   They hailed a Checker Cab. 

   “Take us up 5th to 59th, the corner of the park,” said Stan.

   The cabbie dropped them off at the Grand Army Plaza and they walked into the park, following the path below the pond towards the Central Park Driveway and Columbus Circle. He liked her loose breezy walk. They didn’t notice the two greasers, as they strolled on a quiet wooded path south of Center Drive, until the two of them were in front of them, blocking their way.

   One was taller and older, the other younger and thinner, their oiled hair combed back. Both of the dagos were wearing high tops, jeans, and white t-shirts, one of them dirtier than the other. The younger boy, he might have been fifteen, had a half-dozen inflamed pencil-thick pencil-long scratches down one side of his face and more of them on his forehead. Small capital SS’s topped with a halo drawn in red ink adorned the left sleeve of his t-shirt. The older dirtier dago had LAMF tattooed on his neck above the collar line to below his right ear.

   Stan knew what it meant. It meant ‘Like a Mother Fucker.’  He kept his attention on LAMF.

   “Hey, mister, got a double we can have for the subway, so we can make it back home,” he asked, smiling, his teeth big and white as Chiclets.

   They were part of the Seven Saints, thieves whose favorite easy pickings was holding back the door of a subway car just before it was ready to leave the station, one of them grabbing and running off with a passenger’s pocketbook, while the other released the door so the woman would be shut tight in the train.

   “Where’s home?” asked Stan, stepping forward a half step, nudging Vicki behind him with his left hand on her left hip. 

   “You writing a book?”

   Stan asked again, looking straight at the older boy.

   “East Harlem, where you think?”

   “Why do you need twenty dollars? The fare’s only some cents.”

   “The extra is for in case we get lost.” 

   “It’d be best if you got lost starting now. “

   “I mean to get my twenty, and maybe more,” he said, smiling smirking mean, reaching into his back pocket.

   Stan took a fast step forward, his right foot coming down on the forefoot of the boy’s sneaker, grabbing his left wrist as it came out of the back pocket a flash of steel, and broke his nose with a short hard jab using his right elbow. Stepping away he let him fall backward and turned toward the younger boy, flipping the switchblade its business side face front.

   “Go,” he said. “Go right now.”

   The boy hesitated, looked down at the other Seven Saint on the ground, splattered with blood, and ran away like a squid on roller skates.

   Stan let the switchblade fall to the ground and broke the blade off the knife, stepping on it with his heel and pulling until it cracked at the hinge, and threw it at the older boy getting up. It hit him in the chest and bounced away. 

   “The next time I see you,” he spluttered, on his feet, choking, his mouth half-full of blood.

   “The next time I see you, you fill your hand with a knife, I’ll break your face again,” said Stan. 

   He took a step up to the boy and spoke softly to him. “Actually, it won’t matter what you do, nosebleed, what you’re doing, who you’re with, where you are. The minute I see you is when I’ll stack you up. Make sure you never see me again, make sure I never see you.”

   He took Vicki by the arm, shoved the teenager to the side, and they walked away.

   “You didn’t have to do that,” said Vicki. “You won plenty of hands. You might have tossed them a dollar-or-two.”

   “I know,” said Stan. “But they were working themselves up to be dangerous and that had to stop. The sooner the better.”

   “They were just kids.”

   “You saw the scratches on the face of the kid who ran away.”

   “Of course, the whole side of his face was gruesome.”

   “The Seven Saints have an initiation to get into the club,” Stan said. “They find a stray cat and tie him to a telephone pole, about head high, and leave the cat’s four feet free. The kid getting initiated has his hands tied behind his back and he gets to become a Seven Saint if he can kill the cat, using his head as a club.”

   “Oh, my God!” Vicki gasped, stopping dead in her tracks. “How do you even know that?”

   “I make it my business to know, so I don’t get taken by surprise.”

   Stan paused, then said, “I didn’t want them near me. I don’t give a damn about them. I care about you, Dottie, Ezra, Betty, the crew, what we do, not who we do it for or whatever they think it’s all about. I care about getting it done and getting paid. I like playing cards. Throw in a dinner, a dance, a drink with you, I’m all done. I don’t need anymore.”

   They passed the USS Maine Monument.

   “I don’t want greaser punks in my face.”

   They walked out of the park under a quarter moon, crossing Columbus Circle and strolling down Ninth Avenue. At West 56th Street they turned towards the river, stopping in front of a four-floor walk-up with a twin set of fire escapes bolted to the front of the flat face of the brick building.

   “Anyway, maybe it will do them some good,” said Stan, fitting his key into the door lock. “Not everyone is as nice as I am. Someday somebody will go ballistic on them.”

   “Ballistic?” she asked.

   “Like a rocket, a missile that goes haywire.”

   “I wish we had a rocket to take us upstairs” she said, as they took the stairs up to the fourth floor. “We forgot our pastry.”

   “Another time,” he said.

   At the door of the apartment Stan fitted his key into the lock, opened the door, reached for the light switch, and let Vicki go around him as he did. In the shadow of the back of the front room there was a low menacing growl and a sudden movement. It was Mr. Moto. He crossed the room fast. He lunged at Vicki’s lead leg as she stepped across the threshold.

   Hey, watch out for my stockings,” she cried out. Vicki was wearing Dancing Daters. “I’ll smack you right on your pink nose if you make them run.”

   Mr. Moto skidded to a sudden stop a whisker from her leg.

   “That’s better,” said Vicki, bending down to rub his head.

   The big cat arched his back and purred.

Excerpted from the crime thriller “Stickball” at http://www.stanriddman.com.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Three Blind Mice

By Ed Staskus

   Monday morning, the 1st day of October, the weather was good, in the high 50s, with no rain predicted the rest of the week in the Ohio Valley or on the East Coast. In two weeks to the day, it would be Dwight Eisenhower’s birthday. In six weeks to the day, it would be Mamie Eisenhower’s birthday. The presidential election was coming up next month. The cake was in the oven.

   By the time the sun was up and running Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower had been awake more than two hours. They arrived at the underground Union Terminal Station in Cleveland, Ohio, riding a 12-car campaign train on an overnight run from Washington. The Terminal Tower office complex foundations were 250 feet deep. More than a thousand buildings were demolished finding space for it in 1924.  When it was done in 1927 it was the tallest building in the world outside of New York City. The first Nickel Plate Railroad train pulled into the station two years later to hurrahs.

   The station was in the prime of its life, but President Eisenhower was putting intercity train travel and the Cleveland Union Terminal, and all its kind, slowly but surely out of business by federally subsidizing a network of interstate highways.

   “Neither a wise man nor a brave man lies down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him,” he explained, without a doubt in his mind about the right-of-way of his road project. It had been in the back of his mind since the Louisiana Maneuvers before the war. It was when his U. S. Army trucks got stuck all over the place because of the country’s bad roads that he said to himself, “We need better roads.”

   The Soldiers and Sailors Monument on Public Square, across the street, glistened in the early autumn sun. The fire department had spray cleaned the monument over the weekend, showering it with hundreds of gallons of white vinegar, and then hosing off the bird droppings and grime. The hometown vermin didn’t appreciate it, but what could they do?

   The monument was built thirty years after the Civil War, a 125-foot granite shaft on top of a square base housing a memorial hall, larger than life bronzes lining the outside, and marble tablets inside with all the names of the more than nine thousand Union soldiers from Cuyahoga County, the county in which the city lay, who were shot dead during the war by Johnny Reb.

   “Good morning, Mr. President,” said Robert Bridle, manager of the hotel. “Good morning, Mr. Mayor,” he said again, turning to Anthony Celebrezze, the city’s mayor. The Hotel Cleveland was shaped like an “E” opening onto Superior Avenue. Mr. Brindle’s mouth puckered like an “O” when he said “morning.” The one thousand rooms were built in 1918 by the Van Sweringen brothers, who built the Union Terminal Station ten years later.

   Anthony Celebrezze was a Democrat, mayor of the fifth-largest city in the United States. He knew how to get things done. Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, meant the keys to the federal purse-strings to him. He was going to try to loosen those strings. He knew how to roll with the punches if he had to. He knew it was a rat race.

   The mayor’s father had been a shepherd in Italy, and then a track laborer on the Wheeling and Lake Erie after he emigrated to the United States. Tony Celebrezze put himself through John Carroll College by working as a freight truck driver and a boxer, fighting it out for peanuts in bitter undercards.

   Dwight Eisenhower was giving a speech in the hotel to the faithful, taking a short break, and then giving a speech in front of Higbee’s beside the monument to friends enemies passersby loafers and the lunch crowd. Downtown Cleveland was spic and span. Ike liked what he saw.

   It was noon on the dot when he greeted more than nine hundred invited guests to the Sales Executive Group Luncheon in the Main Ballroom. He spoke briefly, walked out of the hotel, and tossed at look at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. He strode up some stairs to the speaker’s platform. He was giving his speech at twelve-thirty.

   He was in the middle of two months of pressing the flesh kissing babies and giving the same stump speech. His mouth had gone dry, and palms rubbed chapped. Flecks of baby spit littered his suits. He rubbed somebody’s dandruff out of his eyes. When he looked, a dozen black and white Cleveland Police cars blocked off Euclid Avenue, Superior Avenue, Ontario Street, and Rockwell Avenue.

   Bert Mert and Luke scampered out of the Memorial Room of the monument to the roof and to the base of the polished black stone column. The three rats could have climbed to the top, one hundred and twenty-five feet to the top, wending up the six foliated bronze bands listing the names of the thirty battles in which soldiers from Cuyahoga County fought, if they wanted to. Their eyesight wasn’t the best, not like their sense of smell, but their perch was more than view enough. 

   Since it was only a month to the election, President Eisenhower got right to the point.

   “The opposition say that they alone truly care for the working men and women of America, and that the Republican party is a vague kind of political conspiracy by big business to destroy organized labor and bring hunger and torment to every worker in America,” he told the overflow crowd. 

   “That’s right!” a loudmouth yelled from the crowd.

   Secret Service agents watched from the roofs of the May Company and Higbee’s, and from inside the twin steeples of the Old Stone Church. The Berea sandstone of the church had long since turned black from air pollution floating up from the Flats, the nearby industrial valley that sprawled on both sides of the Cuyahoga River. The sun gleamed on the terra cotta façade of the May Company. The faces of shoppers were pressed against upper story windows of the two department stores. 

   The pastor of the Presbyterian church sat in a lawn chair outside his front doors, his sleeves rolled up, warm in the warm October day. He had a ploughman’s sandwich, cheese and pickle, wrapped in wax paper in his lap. He unwrapped his sandwich. He took a bite and chewed, slowly, methodically. The sky above Public Square was dappled with small passing clouds. He stretched his legs out. 

   His father had been a pastor. He grew up in the church. He served on all the church committees, was a volunteer at all the events, and made all the hospital and home care visits. Thank God for Dwight D. Eisenhower, he thought, basking on a day off.

   Bert and Mert were Tremont twins. Luke was an orphan. He didn’t know where he came from. All his friends called him Eaka Mouse, even though he was a rat. They usually slept during the day and foraged at night, avoiding birds, but this was a special occasion. They had never seen the top man of the Grand Old Party up close. The birds were staying away because of the hullaballoo, but the rodents couldn’t contain their curiosity.

   “This is more than political bunk,” said President Eisenhower. “Those men are fretting fear and worried doubt. It is wicked nonsense. We have given to our nation the kind of government that is living witness to a basic virtue in a democracy, public morality, public service, and public trust. There is no special favoritism, cronyism, or laxity in our administration.”

   “That’s what they all say, “somebody bellowed.

   Luke had the best sense of smell of the three of them. He led the way when they went searching for food, which was fifteen, twenty times a day. Their favorite foods were seeds and grains, which made the monument an all-day dream diner for rats. It was visited by hundreds, sometimes thousands of people, many of whom left behind crumbs of whatever they were snacking on.

   The pickings today were going to be out of this world.

   In the wild they were vegetarians, but city life was different. They ate almost anything they could get. None of them liked cheese. No rat they knew liked cheese. They laughed at the traps filled with shavings of it. They weren’t looney tunes. Besides, they could smell the hand of the craft of man on carefully prepared cheese and knew to beware.

   “The men of the opposition know perfectly well that one of the main reasons they were thrown out of office four years ago was their tolerance of the fire of inflation,” said President Eisenhower. “Just in the final seven years of their tenure of office this economic fever had cut the value of the dollar by almost one-third, damaging the livelihood of the aged, the pensioned, all salaried workers.”

   “What about the Bonus Army?” a harsh voice called out. “Whadda ya got to say about that?”

   Luke had recently chewed up a front page of the Cleveland Press for bedding. He noticed a feature article about last month’s government index showing living costs had gone up to a record high point.

   “The cost of living has been remarkably stabilized,” the trim balding man in a brown suit below them earnestly proclaimed “During the previous Democratic administration, the cost-of-living increase was twenty times as great.”

   Mert gave Bert and Luke the high sign. They had heard the lying grift of the campaign trail wash over them before. They couldn’t go down to look for food, but the speechifying was making them sleepy. It was a lot of cutting corners and trying to corner the other guy. The three rats stretched, groomed themselves briefly, efficiently, curled up together, and were soon napping.

   President Eisenhower wrapped up his speech, stepped down from the platform, and was in his limo in his motorcade on its way to Cleveland Hopkins Airport by one o’clock. He and Mamie boarded the Columbine and were airborne to Lexington, Kentucky by one-thirty. In two days, at about the same time of day, Dwight Eisenhower would be tossing out the first pitch of the 1956 World Series at Ebbets Field instead of tossing out half-truths.

   The rodents ate almost anything but avoided ice cream. They loved Canadian bacon more than anything. Most days, Monday through Saturday, as long as the weather was good, they looked forward to the nut lady, the woman who looked more-or-less like Doris Day and Mammy Two Shoes all rolled up in one, a middle-aged Slovenian woman with dark skin dark hair dark eyes, taking their mid-day break on the steps of the monument. She worked across the square, at Morrow’s Nut House, near the revolving doors of the May Company. 

   She brought them bits of bacon mixed together with nuts.

   The nut lady worked behind the glass counter display case, selling fresh warm lightly salted cashews and redskin peanuts, Spanish peanuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pecans and oily rich walnuts. Morrow’s Nut House was on the corner, on the intersection, at a CTS bus stop where passengers lingered waiting for their ride. The shop pumped the smell of roasting nuts out onto the sidewalk all day long.

   Bert Mert and Luke weren’t waiting for her today. There was a horn of plenty waiting for them on all sides of the Sailors and Soldiers Monument. Who said the GOP never did anything for the little man? They were ready to vote for Ike at a minute’s notice.

   But they had better things to do with their time. They were their own men. The three rats had girlfriends, Mary, Suzy, and Perla waiting in the wings ready to make nice.

   “Hey guys, let’s rake it in, and go to the submarine races,” said Bert.

   The crowd had dispersed. The lunch time crowd went back to work. The shoppers went back to the stores. The loafers went back to loafing.

   Eaka Mouse knew exactly what Bert meant. It was juice it up and hanky-panky time. They weren’t three blind mice.

   “Come on, snake, let’s rattle.”

Excerpted from “Stickball” at http://www.stanriddman.com.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com. Click “Follow” on a site to get its monthly feature in your in-box.

Head Over Heels

By Ed Staskus

   Mr. Moto knew a straight cat when he saw one so when he saw Bumpy Williams stepping out of a cab and walking up to the house, he didn’t sweat it. He could see black and white and blue colors best, like all cats. He wasn’t good with reds and greens. Bumpy looked like a blues man to him. Mr. Moto could feel boneyard blues in his bones when he heard 12 bars thrumming.

   He didn’t know a thing about baseball but knew he could steal home plate faster than Jackie Robinson could blink. He knew Dottie was big on stickball. He didn’t know she was going to Ebbets Field this afternoon for the first game of the World Series between the Bums and the Bombers.

   Dottie was waiting downstairs on the inside stairs. When she saw Bumpy reaching for the door, the cab tail piping smoke, she jumped up and barged outside.

   “I’m ready!”

   She was wearing a Brooklyn Dodgers pinback button on her shirt, had Pee Wee Reese’s 1956 Topps baseball card in her hand, and a blue cap with Chief Wahoo inside a red wishbone “C” on top of her head.

   “You got buck teeth on your head,” Bumpy said.

   “My dad is from Cleveland,” Dottie said. “He gave it to me. He said we have to stay true to our roots. I don’t let anybody say anything about it when I’m wearing it.” She gave Bumpy a pointed look.

   “Yes, ma’am,” he said, and pushed the brim down.

   “I’m hungry,” Dottie said, looking up.

   “So am I. How are you with waffles?”

   “I love waffles.”  

   “Me too. Let’s go.”

   When they drove past the Socony Mobil building, built that year at 42nd Street between Lexington and Third Avenue, Dottie pointed out the window of the cab.

   “It’s a shiny waffle building.”

   The world’s first stainless steel skyscraper was sheathed in thousands of panels studded with pyramid designs. The architectural critic Lewis Mumford from Flushing, Queens, wrote that the building looked like it had the measles. He thought the ideal city was the medieval city. He didn’t say what living in a medieval city without indoor plumbing and running water and power at the push of a button might be like. If she knew who he was, Dottie would have told him to go back to Flushing.

   “You said the ballpark, right?” the hook-nosed cabbie asked, the toothpick in his mouth staying still as a crack in cement, stuck between two close-set teeth.

   “Close enough but drop us off at Flatbush and Lincoln.”

   “Can do.”

   Childs Restaurant on the northwest corner was a two-story building with a grimy fish window featuring an urn facing Flatbush Avenue. A red-faced grill cook was in the window flap-jacking.

   “That’s where he’s going to make our waffles,” Bumpy said, swinging the front door open for Dottie. They sat in a booth. It was purple vinyl with an upside-down white triangle on the back rest. The table was pale green flecked with small white slashes.

   “No need for a bill of fare,” Bumpy said to the waitress. “Two big plates of waffles, butter and syrup, joe for me and lemonade for the young lady.”

   “I don’t want lemonade.” Dottie said.

   “What do you want?”

   “Squirt.”

   “That’s the same as lemonade.”

   “No, it’s not, it’s grapefruit, and it’s carbonated. And one more thing, please make mine a Belgian waffle.”

   The waitress slid away, smoothing her white apron, which matched her white collar and white trim around the sleeves. She looked like a maid in a big house. She checked her no-nonsense non-slip work shoes for coffee stains.

   “Well cut my legs off and call me Shorty if it isn’t Bumpy Williams,” a tall handsome more-or-less Negro man said stopping at their table.

   Bumpy and Dottie looked up.

   “If it isn’t my man Adam who still has never done nothing for me,” Bumpy said. “How are you?”

   “Keeping the faith, baby, keeping the faith,” said Adam Clayton Powell.

   “How’s Hazel?” Bumpy asked, looking the leggy lady standing next to the congressman up and down and up again.

   “My secretary,” Adam Powell said, nodding at the curves next to him.

   “Hazel?”

   “She’s better.”

   “See her much?”

   “Here and there,” he said.

   Adam Powell’s wife Hazel Scott was summoned and appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee six years earlier. She was a classical and jazz piano player and singer and hosted a variety show on TV. She denied “ever knowingly being connected with the Communist Party or any of its front organizations.” She admitted being associated with socialists, a group she said that “has hated Communists longer and more fiercely than any other.” When the Red Scare in Congress leaned on her, she shot back that they should try “democratic methods to eliminate a good many irresponsible charges.” 

   They didn’t like that and started huffing and puffing. Hazel lamented that entertainers were already “covered with the mud of slander and the filth of scandal” by congressional goons trying to prove their loyalty to the United States. 

   Her TV show “The Hazel Scott Show” was cancelled the next week. She suffered a nervous breakdown. The next three four years she played on and off with Charles Mingus and Max Roach, more often in Europe than the United States. 

   “I think she might be on her way to France, maybe for good,” Adam Powell said.

   “Are you a Negro like Bumpy,” Dottie asked him, looking into his hazel eyes.

   “No, honey, I’m a man who is part African, part German, and part American Indian.”

   “What part of you are you today?”

   “The Bums part of me,” he laughed.

   Dottie pointed to the button on her shirt.

   “You and me both, sister,” he said.

   “I hear you came out for Ike,” Bumpy said.

   “I did, and I’ve been taking a lot of heat for it, but I got some great seats.”

Bumpy could have told him to stay as far away from the president as possible but he didn’t. He wasn’t loose-lipped when it came to business, especially when business was a bomb that might blow Ike up. His job was to look out for Dottie, not for politicians, who were always looking out for themselves, anyway. He liked Ike, which made him different. He looked and saw waffles coming their way.

   “See you at the ballpark, then.”

   “How’s that? One of your numbers hit to pay for the ticket?”

   “No, that’s for chumps. Dottie here is going to be on the Happy Felton TV show before the game. I’m her escort.”

   “Good for you, Dottie, and put a good word in for your congressman.”

   “She lives in Hell’s Kitchen, not Harlem,” Bumpy said.

   “Close enough,” the congressman said, and wrapping his arm around the waist of his secretary, walked to his table, where a table tent “Reserved” sign sat.

   “Why did he want me to say something about him?” Dottie asked.

   “He’s a politician, a Washington politician. He never spends his own money except by accident, so a good word free of charge on TV is like gold to him.”

   “Oh, he’s a government man. Dad gets sour when anybody talks about the government.”

   “Honey just be glad we aren’t getting all the government we’re paying for,” Bumpy said, and dug into his stack of waffles, topped with fried eggs and bacon. Dottie pushed butter into the pockets of her plate-sized Belgian waffle and poured Sleepy Hollow syrup on it, spreading it with her knife and licking the blade clean.

   “Hey, don’t lick that off your knife, you’ll cut your tongue,” Bumpy said. “How are you going to be able to talk to Pee Wee if that happens?”

   “Oh my gosh!” Dottie exclaimed, putting the knife down in a flash.

   After their late breakfast they walked up Flatbush to Empire Blvd to Ebbets Field. The streets were full of cars and the sidewalks were full of fans. Vendors were everywhere. Scalpers were peddling tickets. The Mounted Police Unit was out in force, their horses leaving piles of shit behind them. The ballpark stood on one square block. It was surrounded on all four sides by shops and apartments and parking lots. 

   “Did you know Bugs Bunny was born in Ebbets Field down the left field foul line?” Bumpy asked Dottie.

   “He was not! Was he? Who says so?”

   “Warner Brothers says so, the outfit he works for. He was born there just before his first cartoon in 1940.”

   “He was born on the field, out in the open?”

   “That’s the way rabbits do it,” Bumpy said. “They build their nests out in the open, in plain sight, the last place anybody would expect, and that keeps them safe.”

   “So, they are right there but nobody can see them?”

   “That’s right, it’s like they’re invisible.”

   “But Bugs always pops up out of a hole.”

   “That’s just in the movies.”

   The stadium was named after Charlie Ebbets, who started out as a ticket taker for the team and grew up to become its owner. He laid the foundation for the new diamond by buying land in secret starting in 1905, more than a thousand small parcels of it, finally accumulating enough ground to build the ballpark eight years later.

   Fans bought tickets at gilded ticket windows, went into the marble rotunda through gilded turnstiles, and if they looked up saw a colossal chandelier with twelve baseball bats holding twelve baseball look-a-like lamps. 

   Dottie flashed her Happy Felton pass at one of the turnstiles.

   “Who’s he?” the ticket taker, flanked by a policeman, asked, pointing at Bumpy.

   “That’s my Uncle Bumpy,” Dottie said.

   “Your uncle?”

   “I work for Duluc Detective, and the boss asked me to watch his kid while she was here, seeing as she was going to be alone.”

   “All right, just don’t let the TV camera see you. You aren’t any Dark Destroyer, not on my beat,” the policeman said.

   “Yes, boss,” Bumpy said.

   “That policeman sounded mean to you,” Dottie said as they walked towards the field.

   “A happy raisin in the sun is a field of dreams, honey, a field of dreams.”

   Happy Felton was glad to see them, especially since they were on time. He explained the skit, where Dottie would stand, and where the camera and microphone would be. He showed her the certificate Pee Wee Reese would be handing her. “Hey, somebody roust Pee Wee, tell him we’re almost ready to go with the girl.” He told Dottie her time in the spotlight would last five minutes and to not be nervous.

   “I’m not nervous,” she said. “But I can’t wait to meet him.”

   He was more, not less what she thought he was going to be. He was taller.

   “You’re not a pee wee,” she said.

   “Not me, kid,” he said.

   Harold Henry Reese was five-foot-ten in his bare feet and pushing nearly 170-pounds. He played small ball, bunting, slashing singles, and stealing bases but he wasn’t a small man. He played the hole, shortstop, was the team captain, and wore number one on the back of his uniform shirt. 

   “He takes charge out there in a way to help all of us, especially the pitchers,” said Jackie Robinson, the team’s second baseman. “When Pee Wee tells us where to play or gives some of us the devil, somehow it is easy to take. He just has a way about him of saying the right thing,”

   Pee Wee and Jackie were the aces in the hole, the men who plugged the gaps between the bags. Not many balls got by them. They played shoulder to shoulder turning double plays. They ignored the catcalls on the road. They made their stand ending innings.

   “I like your button, but I don’t know about that cap,” said Pee Wee.

   “My dad is from Cleveland.” 

   “Well, that makes it all right then. It seems to fit you A-OK.”

   “I took a hot bath in it and wore it until it dried. Then I curved the bill and stuck it in one of my dad’s favorite coffee mugs overnight. The next morning, he was mad about it, and made me wash it out twice.”

   Happy Felton introduced the baseball player and the stickball player to each other and to the TV audience.

   “Your name is Dottie?”

   “Yes.”

   “That’s my wife’s name. Not only that you look a lot like her.”

   Dottie beamed, happy as could be.

   “Would you sign my baseball card?”

   “I sure will.”

   When he did, he congratulated her on her ball skills, she said she was rooting heart and soul for the Dodgers, he presented her with an official Dodger’s Certificate of Achievement, she held it up for the camera, and he pulled a big marble out of his pants pocket, handing it to her.

   “I played marbles when I was your age. This one is a shooter. The smaller ones we called ducks. You’ve heard about playing for keeps.”

   “That’s what my dad always says to do.”

   “That’s what you always do playing marbles, and baseball, and everything else. This one is yours to keep. You never know when it might come in handy.”

   Her five minutes were over in the blink of an eye. Pee Wee Reese glided away, Happy Felton eased her to the side, and Bumpy waved for her to come with him. As they walked down the right field foul line Dottie looked toward the opposite dugout.

   “Look, there’s dad,” Dottie said suddenly, pointing past Bumpy, who was on the inside track. 

   Stan and Ezra were in front of the third base home team dugout talking to a short thickset man smoking a fat cigar. The man pointed down the left field line. Another man, who had been leaning over the dugout, waved, and shouted something, and the cigar waggled him onto the field. The man stepped on the roof of the dugout and jumped down to the field. Stan Ezra the Cigar Man and the jumper huddled, and then went running up the foul line.

   “You stay here,” Bumpy said, starting to go around home plate. Dottie hesitated, but then ran straight across the field, cutting the corner in front of the pitcher’s mound.

   “Oh hell, “Bumpy swore under his breath, and broke into a sprint after her.

Excerpted from “Stickball” at http://www.stanriddman.com.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

The Last Splatter

4755909_orig

By Ed Staskus

“What the hell am I doing?” Jackson Pollack asked himself, giving the once over to the rise of the road, driving up too fast toward the top of it for what was on the other side. He couldn’t dope it out. He was driving like a crazy man, like what all the shrinks he had ever gone to always told him he wasn’t.

Not crazy, not exactly.

One of them once said, “You’re just in search of a nervous breakdown.” He didn’t tell that one about 1938. It didn’t matter. He knew he was raw on the inside. That’s why the work on the floor worked. He wasn’t a nutcase because he saw psychiatrists. But in the last five minutes he had twice caught himself steering the car straight at the soft shoulder.

He was the next-best driver in Springs, next to Harry Cullum, who told him he was second best on a late afternoon one day in mid-winter when the two of them were having beers at Jungle Pete’s.

“You’ll have the last laugh, just wait and see, Jack,” he said, clapping him on the back. “Maybe not on the road, but you’ll get ‘er done.”

Jackson Pollock’s convertible didn’t have seat belts, even though Harry, the best driver in town, had outfitted his family car with lap belts. He told everyone it was for his wife’s sake. “In stock car racing we never used seat belts if there wasn’t a roll bar, suicide if you do,” said Harry. “Family life is different, different kind of suicide, need a belt.”

The girl in the middle of the front seat, between Ruth and him, was screaming. “Stop the car, let me out, let me out!” He wasn’t going to stop the car, he knew that, but he had a bad feeling. It was a clear, starry night, splashed no moon dark, hot and muggy. The road felt spongy. He felt queer, not himself, not yours truly.

It was August 11, 1956. The car was an Oldsmobile 88. It was a big open-air carriage.

He got his first convertible, a Cadillac, when his action paintings started to get some action, after Life Magazine put him on the cover almost exactly seven years ago. He was wearing denim pants and a denim jacket in the photograph. The jacket was dirty and spattered. It was his high-octane light-of-day look at me now ma year of success. They said he was the new phenomenon of American art.

“He looks like some guy who works at a service station pumping gas,” said Willem de Kooning.

When 1950 got good and done, the next month Art News published a list of the best exhibitions of the year. The top three shows belonged to him. It wasn’t bad for somebody who never graduated from high school.

Even though he purposely used to throw his car keys in the bushes when he was getting drunk at parties, he smashed the Caddy into a tree. He got off light, a citation and no broken bones.

Action painting, he thought, and snorted, spraying spit on the steering wheel. What the hell did that mean? There wasn’t any action, just headlines.

What critics didn’t know wasn’t worth a pot to piss in.  “If people would just look at my paintings, I don’t think they would have any trouble enjoying them. It’s like looking at a bed of flowers, you don’t tear your hair out over what it means.” He had meant it when he said it. He’d say it again.

Who needs a critic to find out what art is, or isn’t? Most of them, these days, if they saw him walking on water, crossing the Hudson River at Canal Street, would scribble something about him not being able to swim. All they wanted was to see you drown. The only time he met Man Ray, at the Cedar Tavern when the born-again Frenchman was on his way back to Paris, he told Jackson, over a boatload of drinks, he hated critics.

Franz Kline laughed across the table. “Manny, tell us what you really think.”

“All critics should be assassinated,” he said.

Lee called his work all over painting because he got it all over the flat canvases nailed down on the floor, the hard floor, and his boots and jeans and hands. Bugs and bits of litter and blackened shag from his cigarettes fell into the paint.

“Is Jackson Pollock the greatest living painter in the United States?” is what Life Magazine said, blowing the balloon up, with a picture of him slouching against a wall with a smoke dangling from his mouth, and a couple of pictures of his paintings. He looked good, like he didn’t have a care in the world, didn’t give a damn, like he had the world by the balls. Now it was different. He hadn’t made a painting in more than a year. The ball was over.

He was washed up. He didn’t have anything to say anymore. He was almost sure of it.

“She started to scream,” said Clement Greenberg. “He took it out on this pathetic girl by going even faster. Then he lost control on the curve. The screaming is what did the killing, finally.”

What was her name? He chewed it over in his mind, tossing a glance sideways at her. He couldn’t remember. They were on the Fireplace Road in East Hampton, not far from home. It couldn’t be more than a mile. Not much of a home anymore, though. Lee was in Paris with her friends. She said she was coming back, but he had his fears. He wanted her back, but it had all gone to hell.

Hell-bent in his Olds with two broads in the car and his wife in Europe wasn’t going to get it done, wasn’t going to get it all back. He had to get back on track. Maybe the last analyst he’d seen was right, maybe there was something gumming up the works. He was going to try a fresh approach, the shrink said, calling it hypnotherapy.

He was one of the new downtown brain doctors. “It’s not hypnosis, at least not how most people think of it,” said Dr. Sam Baird. “We’re not going to try to alter or correct your behavior. We’ll try to seed some ideas, sure, but we’ll talk those out before we go ahead.”

He told Lee he was going to get his mind clear this time. “He isn’t full of old-time shit,” he said about the new man.

If any of his neighbors saw his car fast and sloppy staggering down the road they would laugh and say it was like his paintings. Most of them still thought he was nuts, even though they didn’t say so anymore to his face, now that he was in galleries and museums. When he was a nobody, they looked down on him like he was a nobody.

“I could see right away he wasn’t from here,” said Frank Dayton. “I asked a fellow later who he was. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘that’s just a loony artist.’”

“To some goody-goody people he was a bum, just someone to laugh at,” said Sid Miller. “They didn’t think much of his work. They didn’t think he was doing anything.”

“Folks said he painted with a broom,” said Ed Cook. “Near everybody made jokes about his paintings, never thought they’d amount to anything.”

“To hell with them,” he said to Ruth, her elbow laying careless on the shelf of the door. She was a looker, that’s for sure, the juice he needed to get him going again. He had gone dead inside. He knew he had. She was the kind of girl who could crank him up. What’s-her-name in the back seat kept screaming.

“What?” asked Ruth, loud, twisting towards him.

“To hell with them,” he muttered to himself. “What do they know?”

“Slow down a little bit, the car’s a little out of control, take it easy,” she said.

The joke was on them. When he was painting, straddling a canvas, it was when he was most in control. It was when he didn’t have any doubts about himself or what he was doing. He knew exactly what he was doing. He told anybody interested in listening to him, I can control the idea, the flow of paint. There is no accident in the end, not by my hand.

“He picked up can and paint brush and started to move around the canvas,” said Hans Namuth. “It was as if he suddenly realized the painting was not finished, His movements, slow at first, gradually became faster and more dance like as he flung black, white and rust-colored paint onto the canvas. He completely forgot that Lee and I were there. Finally, he said, ‘This is it.’”

I work from the inside out, he told Hans. That’s when I’m in the painting, in the middle of life, but outside of it at the same time. I can see the whole picture. Someone told him his pictures didn’t have any beginning or any end. He didn’t mean it as a compliment, more like a sneer, but it was fine by him. It was a fine compliment. Only twisted lip didn’t know it.

He was good driving his Olds, too, even when he was as drunk as could be, which was what he was now.

“He came in for his eye-opener, a double, about 10:30 before train time, that day.” said Al Cavagnaro. “Start your day the way he did sometimes, you’d be in the same fix he was. If you said he was half bagged up, you’d be about right.”

Doc Klein said it was OK for him to drink and drive. Jack liked that. He knew trees never hit cars except in self-defense. “But stay on the road,” said Doc Klein, a big man laughing a big laugh.

“Goddamn right, I always stay on the road,” said Jackson Pollack. “Except when I’m pulling into Al’s or Pete’s, then I get off the road. I have to. Anyway, there’s no trees in those parking lots.”

“It was continual, almost nightly drunken large parties,” said Patsy Southgate. “Everyone was totally drunk all the time and driving around in cars.”

He wasn’t driving right. He was driving wrong. The screaming girl grabbing his right arm was right. He lived it up driving. But tonight, instead of fluid with the steering wheel, like he was with free-flowing paint out of a can, he was going clumsy, as though he was at cross-purposes, herky-jerky. The quiet precise gestures he used to stream paint from a stick when he was working were usually the same when he drove his car. Tonight, they were too big around, whiplash gestures, like they had a life of their own.

“He had to be moving fast, 85 to 90, anyway,” said Harry Cullum. “There was one hell of a crown where the town tar road begins at the beginning of the left curve. Jeez, I almost lost my car a couple of times there when I was a kid, but finally you smarten up and ride that crown, the one they fixed after Pollock got killed.”

It was after the fact, like an empty bottle of beer thrown out a car window at a stop sign that wasn’t there.

“Jackson’s death is he died of drink and the Town of East Hampton Highway Department,” said Wayne Barker.

It was three years ago, the first week of November, when he stormed over the crown of the road like a firecracker. He came back from the city on Friday, on the train. It snowed all morning and it was still snowing at the end of the day when he found his car in the lot, brushing a mound of snow off the front window with his hands, rubbing the cold out of them at the car’s dashboard heating vent. When he finally got on the road to Springs, he was one of a handful of cars. The storm was blowing off the ocean. The car trembled whenever the road flattened out and he was sideways to the coast.

“I crawled up there, could barely see, and stopped when I saw the pile of snow,” he told Lee later at home, the windows in their sash frames rattling in the wind gusts. “There was a snowdrift, five feet, six feet high, down the other side blocking the way. I backed up a little, to where my rear tires could get a grip on a stretch of clear road and hit the gas as hard as I could. I went as fast as I could, hit the snow head on, everything went white, everything disappeared, no color, just white. By the time I came out the other side the Olds was barely moving, just crawling.”

They laughed about it all night, over dinner, and later in bed again, curling close together under a pile of blankets.

The girl beside him was still screaming. How long could she keep it up? She was driving him nuts. He was driving wrong, all wrong. There was a reason. He knew it, but he also thought, how could there be a reason? What was it?  He could feel it. Where was it? He knew it was right there, right at the edge of the front of his brain. It was like the images behind the abstractions in his paintings, right there. But when he tried to think of why he was driving wrong his brain hurt like the next day’s hangover, before getting his hands on some hair of the dog.

He had a hangover all the time now, more than five years-worth of hangovers, but it wasn’t from gin. It was from having rocketed to fame, putting everything he had into it, until he didn’t have anymore, and he quit pouring liquid paint cold turkey. It was all over. After that he couldn’t make a painting that anybody wanted. When he finished his black paintings, he couldn’t give them away. Even his fame couldn’t prime the pump. Nobody thought it was any good.

He knew they weren’t any good.

“An artist is a person who has invented an artist,” Rosenberg burst out with something that meant something one night near the tail end of a long night of poker and drinking.

Rosie always thought he was right, Jackson thought. He got it wrong on the train, though, the day we were riding into the city together. When I said the canvas was an arena, I meant it like it was a living thing, not a dead thing. I didn’t mean slugging it out in the ring. He thought I meant it literally, even though both of us were dead sober at the time, and the next thing I knew I was an action painter.

At least he finally got it right at the card game. Not like Hans. He was like all the others.

When Lee brought her teacher, Hans Hoffman, over to meet Jackson, he saw the sour look on the great man’s face right away. Hans was a neat freak, everything in its place, clean and orderly. His own studio was a mess. There wasn’t a sign of a still life or a life model anywhere.

“You do not work from nature,” said Hans. “You work by heart, not from nature This is no good, you will repeat yourself.”

“I am nature,” said Jackson Pollack.

There wasn’t a drop of a map left in the sky or anywhere on the other side of his windshield. It surprised the breath out of him when he got to the curve at the dip, where the concrete stopped and the town’s blacktop started, and he suddenly veered off the road, aiming for the trees. The car skidded in the sand. He let it slide, its big front-end dead set on the big oak tree to their left.

Going into a skid in the dirt off the road didn’t surprise him. Besides, he was going too fast. He was going fast, that’s all. It didn’t mean anything. The girl next to him stopped screaming. She got small and slowed down. She was squeezing her handbag in her hands with all her might. His hands felt dry and relaxed on the steering wheel. He didn’t squeeze the steering wheel even when he smashed into the tree head-on.

The Oldsmobile broke every bone in its chassis when it hit the one-hundred-year-old tree. Jackson Pollack was catapulted over the windshield and into the woods. The front end flipped over, tossing Ruth to the side. When the car landed upside down, crushing the frame of the windshield, the girl with the handbag tight in her hands suddenly stopped gripping it. The car horn blared, stuck, crazed. Gasoline poured out of the punctured gas tank. The taillights blinked on and off and on and off.

“I’m going to be one of my paintings,” Jackson Pollack realized in mid-air, midway to the future, rocketing his way to forever. “I’m going to splatter all over. I’m going to be in nature, be nature, once and for all.”

He hit the oak tree hard. When he careened back, he landed with a mortal thud, even though it was soft ground. There was a just barely jutting out of the ground bump of rock mottled with luminous moss waiting there a lifetime for him.

His neck hit the rock like a falling star. Gravity had been the heaven-sent hand that gave life to the paint and flotsam that dripped splashed flowed down onto his canvasses. It was now the hand that dealt him a death blow. He broke his neck.

He lay there like a tree branch, cracked in the stick, shoeless, arms and legs haphazard.

Excerpted from the crime thriller “Stickball” at http://www.stanriddman.com.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

My Aim Is True

By Ed Staskus

  “For you,” said Bettina, frowning, putting her hand over the handset. “He said it was about Dottie and you would want to talk to him.”

   “Police? Hospital?”

   “I don’t think so, didn’t say, doesn’t sound like it.”

   “Young or old?”

   “Younger.”

   Stan glanced at his watch and noted the time. “Listen in Betty.” He waited a second and picked up his receiver.

   “This is Stan Riddman,” he said cold flat indifferent.

   “We’ve got the girl,” the voice on the other end said. 

   “What girl?”

   “Your girl.”

   “Why do you want her?”

   “We want you to take the cure for the next couple of days, put everything on hold, don’t do nothing about nothing. You do that you get your girl back. You don’t do that you don’t ever see her again.”

   “Where is she?”

   The phone went dead.

   “Somebody’s got Dottie.”

   “I heard. Why? What we’re doing?”

   “They didn’t say, not exactly. They want me to sit on my hands for a few days, don’t do anything, and I’ll get her back. Or else. It’s got to be the small man. Nothing else is going on except the Jackson Pollack business. Goddamn it!”

   “What are you going to do?”

   Stan stood up and went into the utility room. He spun the combination on the office safe and removed two handguns. They were Colt Commander models, aluminum framed, with a short barrel and rounded hammers. The plastic grips were brown. The guns were unloaded. He put four 7-round magazines in his pockets. He reached into the safe a second time.

   “Get hold of Ezra, tell him what’s going on, that I’ve got our .45’s, and to meet me at the house. If I’m not there, I’ll be talking to the neighbors, tell him to find me, the sooner the better.”

   “Be careful.”

   “Here,” he said, handing Betty a snub-nosed .32 and six rounds. “Shoot first, never mind the questions.”

   She didn’t ask if she should call the police. She knew better than that. This had nothing to do with them, even though they would probably have to clean up the consequences afterwards.

   “Somebody’s a dead man,” Stan said.

   There were two beat cops, a radio car, and a plainclothes car on the street when Stan’s taxi eased up to his walk-up.

   “We don’t know much,” one of the dicks said. “Lots of people saw it happen, but nobody saw anything useful, except that there were two of them and they drove a black panel truck.”

   “Thanks,” Stan said, and walked up to the apartment. It was neat and clean, the windows open, fresh autumn air cooling the rooms. He walked into Dottie’s room and saw Mr. Moto lying in a heap on the bed. There was blood on the bedspread. The cat lifted his head and Stan saw the blood was from his paw. When he touched the cat, he hissed. Stan could see his breathing was wheezy fast. Then he saw the scrap of paper and the letters and numbers scrawled in it. When he picked it up, he knew Mr. Moto had scratched out the message with his paw and it was the license plate number of the black truck.

   Stan got a bowl of milk and crumbled up a chunk of tuna, put it in the milk, and placed the bowl on the bed.

   “Ezra and I will take it from here,” he said to Mr. Moto. “You stay here and take care of yourself.”

   The cat eased himself over to the bowl and lapped up the milk, nibbled at the tuna, and went back to sleep, curling up into a ball.

   By the time Ezra came through the front door, Stan had the address the truck was registered to and was sitting in an armchair waiting for him. They talked it over for a minute and five minutes later were in a cab. Stan gave the cabbie an address in Gravesend three blocks away from where they were going. 

   It was a single-family house that had been converted into a two-family house. There were unkempt bushes on both sides of the concrete front porch. The only anything in the drive was a black panel truck. There were closed blinds in every window.

   “I make them on the ground floor, in case they have to leave quick,” Ezra said. “If they were upstairs, they might get stuck.”

   “You take the back door,” Stan said. “I’ll go in through the front. The doors will be locked, maybe chained. When you hear me shoot into the lock, you do the same, kick out the chain, go head over heels.”

   The two men, one of them his face gauzed and red slathered in iodine, barely had time to lunge up from the card table they were sitting at, reaching for their guns, when Stan and Ezra stopped them breakneck.

“Throw the heat on the floor in front of you and kick slide them to me.”

   The men did as they were told. One of the guns was an Orbea Hermanos, a Spanish handgun, a Smith & Wesson copycat. It was a piece of junk. The other one was a real Smith & Wesson Centennial. Stan kicked the Orbea under the sofa. He picked up the Centennial, opened the cylinder, saw it was loaded, put his own gun away, and trained the Smith & Wesson on the men.

   “Both of you on your knees, hands behind your backs,” Stan said. “Where is she?” 

   “Who the fuck is where fuckface” iodine face asked.

   Stan whirled and shot him twice in the chest, the two shots following so fast upon the other it sounded like one gunshot. The man toppled over backward, surprised astonished the sneer still on his lips, three of four seconds from dying, which he did when he hit the floor, a puddle of blood forming under him, the two holes in his chest slowly steadily leaking

   “Jesus Christ!” the other man blurted, jumping to his feet, crazy to run, a stain forming at his crotch.

   Ezra clubbed him on the back of the head with the butt of his Colt .45 and the man went down moaning, still conscious, with a concussion in the making.

   “I said, where is she?” 

   Stan jerked the moaning man’s head up by a handful of slicked-back hair. He held tight, shaking the man’s head, tearing out a tuft of greasy hair. Red and brown spittle ran down the man’s chin. His eyes started to focus.

   “Last time, or you join your friend,” Stan said. 

   “Not my friend,” he mumbled.

   “I’m not asking for explanations. Where is she?”

   “At Luca’s place.”

   “What place is that?”

   “The house, next to the mattress shop.”

   “Where?”

   “I don’t know the address.”

   “Let’s go, you can show us.”

   “Luca will kill me if he sees me.”

   “You’ve got the brain of a crayon. You’re halfway to the boneyard right now.”

   “My head hurts bad.”

   Stan wiped the handle of the Smith & Wesson clean and threw it to the side.

   “Where are the keys?”

   “On him.”

   Ezra felt for the keys with the toe of his shoe probing the dead man’s pockets.

   “I’ve got them,” he said.

   Ezra drove the panel truck, the hoodlum in the passenger seat, and Stan crouching behind the passenger seat, the barrel of his Commander pressing into the back of the man’s neck. The man was tied up at the wrists and ankles.

   “Slow down and don’t slam into any potholes,” Stan said to Ezra.

   “Business is booming,” Mario Pugo at Always Tire Service on Atlantic Avenue always said. “The roads are good for my business but they’re bad for my customers. I repair blown tires and bent rims daily. One customer, he picked up his repaired car and drove straight into another pothole. He was back in five minutes.”

   “You know how this gun is, loose as a goose. It could go off any second.”

   The man in the passenger seat stiffened. The truck hit a pothole and shuddered. Stan kept a grip on the man, his hand tight on his shoulder. The Colt .45 stayed quiet. The man told them the store was a front, there was a lion in the basement, a steel door at the side led into the house, the brothers might or might not be there, but the mother was always there. 

   “She’s more them than all of them,” he said.

   When Ezra drove past the Murphy Bed store across the street, up tight against a three-story brick house, Stan threw it a glance. Ezra shifted into third, turned the corner, and found an alley. He parked and Stan dragged the bad man into the back of the truck, found a pile of oily rags, stuffed one into the man’s mouth, gagged him to make sure, blindfolded him, and tied two rags together to tie him tight to a u-bolt.

   “He might have trouble breathing,” Ezra said.

   “That’s not my problem,” Stan said.

   Going towards the door of the store Stan and Ezra had their handguns in their hands their arms down at their sides. They moved slowly, but once they stepped across the threshold, they moved fast. Ezra flipped the open sign the other way, stayed at the door, his back to it, and Stan strode straight to the only man in the store, sitting behind a desk at the back of the store. 

   He was a big man. It was Big Paulie.

   “Don’t,” Stan said. “I won’t stand for it.” 

   Big Paulie eased the top drawer he had been sliding open back closed.

   “Get up, come around to the front of the desk, rest your ass on it, and talk to me like I’m looking for a better night’s sleep.”

   “The big sleep is what you’ll be getting,” Luca hissed.

   “Shut up. I would just as soon finish you and walk away, but I want my girl back. Where is she?”

   “You don’t know what you’re getting mixed up in.”

   “I don’t know, and I don’t care. I want my girl. Where is she?”

   When Kid Blast came through the side door briskly confident smug, he saw the two guns first, then the two men, and could have killed himself for not bringing a gun with him. He could have killed himself for not whirling and running, although that would have gotten him killed.

   “Next to the fat man, junior,” Ezra said. “Same rules.”

   Kid Blast joined Big Paulie, the young man’s face twisted, hate in the front of his eyes. There was a roar behind the back door, underneath them, followed by a loud yawn. It was Big Paulie’s lion, the beast he kept in the basement to preserve order in his world. Nobody moved, nobody looked anywhere else but where they had been looking. Stan took a few steps back, the better to train his sidearm on both gangsters.

   “Check the cat out,” he said. “Be careful.”

   Ezra opened the back door gently and immediately stepped back, forced back by the rancid smell. He flipped the light switch and looked into the gloom, trying not to breath too much.  There was hay all over, a large cage, and a skinny-looking tired-looking sad-looking lion in the cage. 

   “She doesn’t look like much, like she needs a few square meals and some fresh air. They’ve got a wire contraption beside the light switch, so they can open and close the cage from up here.”

   Stan stepped up to Kid Blast and hit him hard in the face with the butt of his Colt. It broke the young man’s jaw, some teeth, and laid him flat. Stan grabbed him by the scruff and threw him down the stairs. He sprang the cage door open and slammed the basement door shut, locking it with the skeleton key that was in the lock. 

   “Last time big man or you’re next. Where’s my girl?”

   “Upstairs,” said Big Paulie.

   Stan didn’t bother asking if anybody else was in the house.

   “Sit back down, hands on the desk,” Ezra said, seating himself at a table to the side, his gun nonchalant in his lap. “I don’t like what you did to me, so don’t tempt me with any monkey business.”

   Stan stepped into the house, up three steps, and into a dining room. To his left was a kitchen, to his right a living room, foyer, and stairs leading to the second floor. He knew the mother was in the house, maybe some more of her sons, and for sure somebody keeping the clamps on Dottie. He went up the stairs soundlessly. He smelled garlic seeping out from under one of the bedroom doors. A brown house spider made his way up the edge of the door frame. He watched the spider until it stopped. They both waited. 

   Stan took a step, took a deep breath, and burst into the room.

   A middle-aged woman in a black apron was feeding soup to Dottie, whose hands were free, but not free enough to throw hot soup in anybody’s face. The hand on the spoon was Raffaella Gravano’s hand. The gunman was Italian, like the woman, but not one of the sons. He had the face of a ferret, not the face of the family. He was sitting in a chair next to the bed, and the instant he saw Stan he grabbed Dottie. The bowl of soup tipped and spilled all over the mattress. He lunged to his feet, Dottie held in front of him, a gun at her temple.

   “Drop the piece or the girl dies.”

   Stan lifted his gun, sighting it.

   “Put the gun down, or you go down.”

   “No, I’ve got the upper hand, you lay your hand down.”

   The stand-off lasted another second before Stan fed the facts of life to the man.

   “You’ve got a losing hand. I can make another girl, but nobody is ever making another one of you,” Stan said, his firearm pointed at the man’s forehead. The only way you stay alive is the girl and I walk away together.”

   “Is that some kind of weird joke?”

   When Stan shot and the bullet zipped fast whooshing past the man’s face so close he could feel the heat of it smell the burnt powder, and slammed into the plaster wall, everyone in the room stopped hearing anything the next instant except the echo of the boom. The gunman didn’t blink. He kept his head, but his hand gripped tense sweaty on the gun handle.

   “And you,” Stan said to the woman, “sit down on the bed, don’t move.” She sat down. “Turn so I can see your hands.” She turned slightly, her hands in her lap.

   “Whatever you’re thinking, stop thinking it.”

   He jabbed his eyes back at the man.

   “Make up your mind.”

   The man hesitated.

   “Never get into a card game with the devil,” Stan said. “He will always deal you a bad hand.”

   The man wavered, but lowered his gun, Dottie ran to Stan, grabbing at him, crying.

   “Dad, dad!”

   “You should be ashamed of yourself, taking a kid for a hostage,” he said to Rafaella Gravano. “Tear that bed sheet into strips.”

   They waited while the woman did what she was told.

   “Stand outside the door, honey,” he said to Dottie prying her off of him. He hog-tied the gunman and Ma Gravano. He kicked the gunman as hard as he could, breaking three ribs. He spat on the floor an inch away from Ma Gravano’s face. He left them on the ground, slamming the door behind him.

   Down the stairs and through the house, keeping his daughter behind him, when he and Dottie stepped past the open steel door into the mattress shop, Ezra was alone. 

   “When I asked the big man who it was that we threw down into the basement, he said it was his younger brother. I thought he wouldn’t mind being his brother’s keeper, so I sent him down to join the family. The cat is harmless, anyway. It’s missing most of its teeth.”

   They left the store by the front door, shutting the lights off, walked to the alley, and rolled the tied-up man out the back door of the panel truck. Ezra found a scrap of paper in the glove box. He wrote “I KIDNAP CHILDREN” on the paper and thumb-tacked it to the man’s chest. When they drove away a mongrel dog trotted up and sniffed at him. When they spotted another alley, they abandoned the truck, wiping it clean, and hailed a cab on the street. 

   Dottie curled up in Stan’s warm embrace, Ezra fast on her other side.

   “How did you find me so fast?”

    “Mr. Moto got the license plate number of the guys who grabbed you, and the rest was easy enough, once we knew where to go to find you.”

   “I saw him try to get at them, but it was two against one, and then they were shooting at him, and I was being gassed, and that’s all I remember. I woke up in that bed and the old lady came in with soup and then there you were. Dad, dad, I’m so glad, so happy you found me,” she said, squeezing him tight, crying again, a flood of tears.

   Stan let her cry, stroking her hair.

   When they got back to Hell’s Kitchen, wending up to the apartment, Dottie ran into her bedroom, and threw herself on her bed next to Mr. Moto. She reached for him. Startled, the cat jumped to the floor, looked at the girl, arched his back, yawned, and walked out of the room his tail held high.

Excerpted from “Stickball” at http://www.stanriddman.com.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Bad Man on Vinegar Hill

By Ed Staskus

Egidijus and Rokas watched the ensigns, young men strutting between lieutenant and chief warrant officer, step into Connor’s Public House. The navy stood framed in the doorway, the long evening going slowly dark over their shoulders. They both wore white pants, a white shirt over a white t-shirt, a white belt, and a white cap with a black bill. They wore black shoes. There was a single gold bar on their shoulder boards.

“Hey, shut that door, you live in a barn,” someone yelled out.

In the next minute, their eyes spotting primetime, they took stools on both sides of a curvy redhead at the bar. They each gave her a smile. She looked them over sparingly scornfully.

“Drift,” she said to the one on her left.

“We just want to buy you a drink,” the one on the other side of her said.

“You, too,” she said.

“Butterbar boys,” said Egidijus. “Nieku nezino.”

“Yeah, they probably do the dishes in the guardhouse,” said Rokas.

“As close to water as they’re going to get,” Giles said.

Egidijus became Giles the minute he landed on Ellis Island.

Sam Ellis never meant his island to be a welcoming place, unless it was the last welcome. Before the first immigrant ever landed there, it was where criminals and pirates were hung. New Yorkers called it Gibbet island, for the wooden hanging post where the dead were left on display as a warning to others.

“She’s got a classy chassis, though,” said Rocky, eyeing the redhead. “Our man is not going to like us snatching him, ruining his night in more ways than one.”

Rokas had been in line behind Egidijus and became Rocky on the spot.

A longshoreman walked in, glanced at the sailors, and parked himself midway down the bar. The bartender poured a draft without asking. The longshoreman took a swig.

“Did you say something to that guy I just saw outside?” he asked the bartender.

“The guy with the feather in his hat?”

“Yeah, that one, who said this joint stinks.”

“That one comes in, wants a glass of water, and asks me what the quickest way is to Mount Kisco,” said the bartender. “I ask him if he’s walking, or does he have a car? He says, of course I have a car. So, I tell him, that would be the quickest way.”

“He was chunky about it, that’s sure. Hey, isn’t that Ratso’s girl?”

“Yeah.”

“Didn’t she tell them the gate is closed?”

“Yeah, but they didn’t give it any mind.”

“Oh boy, they don’t know from nothing.”

“Keep your head chicky,” said the bartender, tapping his temple with two fingers.

“You said it, brother.”

The Public House was on the corner of Pearl Street and Plymouth Street. The Manhattan Bridge over the East River was a stone’s throw away. The Brooklyn Navy Yard was a cannon shot away. The new Con Edison Hudson Avenue substation, north of John Street facing the river between Jay Street and the Navy Yard, was a light switch away.

“Did you see the game on TV Friday?” asked Giles.

“The TV’s were working, and I saw the problem in black and white,” said Rocky. “No matter that Mickey is going to win the Triple Crown, no matter how many runs they score, if they keep giving up a dozen, they is not going anywhere in October, no matter who they play.”

The Yankees had been in Boston for the weekend, for their last season series at Fenway Park. On Friday night Mickey Mantle hit a home run that tape measured more than five hundred feet. The Bronx Bombers, though, set a dubious club record by stranding twenty runners on base.

The Mick had three hits. Bill Skowron had five hits. The only time the Moose failed to reach base was when Ted Williams made an all-out running diving catch of a screaming line drive in left field.

“He was running like a bunny with his tail on fire,” said Red Barber, after the outfielder got up, checking all his parts.

Yogi Berra threw a man out at the plate. Mickey Mantle threw a man out at the plate. The Yankees crossed the plate plenty enough themselves. But the Red Sox still beat the Yankees, sending almost twice as many runners safely across the plate, 13-7 at the final count.

Mel Allen and Red Barber called the night game on WPIX, the station’s transmitter on top of the Empire State Building spreading the play-by-play out to the five boroughs. The next morning it would be Officer Joe’s turn. The year before weather forecaster Joe Bolton had put on a policeman’s uniform and started hosting shows based around the Little Rascals and Three Stooges. The kids loved Officer Joe’s taste in comedy.

“That ball is go-ing, go-ing, gonnne!” Mel Allen blared when Mickey Mantle hit his soaring blast. “It’s got to be one of the longest home runs I’ve ever seen! How about that!”

Rocky watched the game at the Public House, on Friday night two nights earlier, at the far end of the bar, where one of the bar’s two RCA Victor portable TV’s squinted down on him from high up on the wall.

“Did you say something?” one of the sailors said, turning to Giles and Rocky in the booth opposite them.

“Hello there everybody,” Mel Allen said to start the televised live baseball game broadcast.

“This is Red Barber speaking,” said Red Barber. “Let me say hello to you all. Mel and I are here in the catbird seats.”

“Three and two. What’ll he do?” Mel asked as the game neared its end and the last Yankee hitter squared up in the batter’s box.

“He took a good cut!” he exclaimed when the pinstriped slugger struck out to finish the game. “Tonight’s game was yet another reminder that baseball is dull only to dull minds,” said Red. “Signing off for WPIX, this is Red Barber and Mel Allen.”

“Hey, you, did you say something about washing dishes?” the sailor said again, standing up, his friend standing up, too, and Ratso Moretti in the meantime walking down the length of the bar from the men’s room towards them, having spotted the sailors buzzing his queen bee.

The redhead swung her stool around to the bar, crossed her legs, and played with the swivel stick lolling in her gin martini glass.

“Who the fuck are you two rags?” Ratso barked at the sailors, glaring up at them from under the brim of his black felt pork pie hat, baring his sharp front teeth. “Why are you sitting with my lady?”

Giles and Rocky leaned back on their seat cushions, their backs against the wall. Rocky stretched his legs out. Giles popped a toothpick into his mouth.

“What do you plan on doing about it, little man?” asked the bigger of the two sailors. Ratso was short. The sailors were both tall.

Ratso took one step back, reached down for his fly, unzipped it, and flashed the handle of a Smith & Wesson .38 Chiefs Special revolver. It was the kind of gun carried by plainclothes and off-duty policemen. He kept his hand on the gun while looking straight at the two sailors.

“Hit the road, Clyde,” he said. “You, too, whatever your name is.”

The sailors backed down and backed out of the bar.  Nobody paid any attention, everybody focused on the back-out out of the corner of their eyes. When the white uniforms were gone, and he had zipped back up, Ratso sat down next to his squeeze and wrapped his arm around her waist.

“Meanwhile, back at the ranch,” said Rocky.

“At least now we know where he hides it,” said Giles.

Bartek and Karol were at the far end of the bar. They didn’t want anything to happen just right now. They wanted Ratso Moretti to stay snug with his girl, drinking on an empty stomach, stretching the night out. There were four of them and only one of him, but he was a psycho crazy man. Karol knew it for sure, and told the others, and it was the number one thing, he said, they had to remember. There was no sense in letting it go down the drain.

“Did you find a plumber this morning?” Rocky asked Giles.

“No, because not only does God rest on Sundays, so do all the plumbers in Brooklyn.”

“What did you do?

“I fixed it myself.”

One of the toilets in the women’s bathroom in the parish hall next door to St. George’s Church on York Street sprang a leak after mass. The Lithuanian Roman Catholic congregation was around the corner from the Irish Roman Catholic St. Ann’s Church on the corner of Front and Gold Streets. Lithuanians made up more than half of everybody who now lived in Vinegar Hill, but they had never been embraced by the Irish and their church, so they built their own.

St. George’s had three arched doorways, three arched second-story window assemblages, and a stepped façade with a cross on top. It looked first-class when the sun was shining on it. It looked first-class at midnight in a thunderstorm.

“What was the problem?”

The parish priest dragooned Giles on his way out of the parish hall.

“Prasome, galite padeti?” asked the priest.

“The wax ring, that’s all it was.”

“Where did you find a wax ring on a Sunday?”

“My old man. He’s always loaded for bear.”

“Did you miss breakfast?”

“No, mom warmed it back up for me, fried some more eggs, fresh coffee, and a torte.”

When Ratso Moretti hopped off his bar stool, and his girl slid off hers, and they walked out the front door, Karol and Bartek went out the back door, Giles and Rocky following Ratso out the front.

“Goddamn it!” Ratso cursed turning the corner into the quiet side street next to the Public House where he had parked his new car. He looked down at the driver’s side front tire Karol had flattened with his switchblade before going inside.

“Motherfucker!”

“What’s the matter mister?” asked Giles.

“Flat tire,” said Ratso.

He recognized the young man and the other one from the bar.

“Need a hand?”

“I’ve got all the hands I need,” said Ratso.

“Suit yourself.”

Giles fired up a cigarette, watching and waiting. Rocky leaned against a lamp pole. Ratso opened the trunk of the car, looking over his shoulder at them, and hunched at the tire to loosen the lug nuts.

“This ain’t a show,” he said.

“It is to us.”

“Suit yourself.”

When Ratso struggled with the last stubborn lug nut, Giles flicked his still lit cigarette butt at the redhead, who was standing in space, bouncing it off her midriff. She squealed in outrage, Ratso twisted toward her, and Giles, Rocky, Karol, and Bartek rushed him, two from the front and two from the back.

As Ratso started to stand up, Karol kicked him as hard as he could in the groin, the holstered gun Ratso trying to reach adding insult to injury. He doubled over, grabbed his stomach, fell over, and lay on the ground in a fetal position. His eyes ran rainwater and he threw up.

Bartek threw a muslin cloth bag over Ratso’s head and tightened the drawstring. Karol tied his hands behind his back with clothesline. Bartek reached into Ratso’s pants and pulled out the holster with the small revolver. He went to the passenger side front door and tossed the holster and gun into the glove box of the Chevy.

While Giles and Rocky hauled Ratso to Karol’s hunk of junk behind the Public House, Bartek turned to the redhead.

“Vamoose,” he said sharply. “And keep your mouth shut, or we’ll take you next.”

She backed away, smoothed her skirt, gave him a smile, cute cunning snaky light on her feet, and walked back into the Public House.

“Durna mergaite,” Giles said.

“Yeah, but steamy,” Rocky said.

“Going to be a hell-wife.”

At the mouth of the intersection they heard a bullhorn, “Get your hot knishes, I got to send my wife to the Catskills, get your knishes.”

The truck was light blue dented and dirty. It was three-wheeled, a cab pulling a cart, with a Saint Bernard-sized pretzel on top. A sign on the side said, “Hot knishes & pretzels, 10 cents, 3 for $.25.”

“Hey, what kind of knishes do you have?

“I have kasha or potato.”

“I’ll take three potato.”

“Sorry, all I have is kasha.”

There was a tin saltshaker tied by a string to the cart. The pastry was hot with buckwheat groats inside. The brown bag the street vendor put them into instantly became saturated with enough oil to deep fry three more knishes. He poured in a handful of salt.

“You’re out of your neighborhood, working late,” Giles said.

“It’s my wife,” the Jew said.

Giles and Rocky both got bottles of cold Orange Crush.

“Thanks, boys, we’ll settle up tomorrow,” said Karol when Ratso was safe and sound in the trunk, his feet tied together and hogged to his bound wrists so that he lay like a sad sack of potatoes on his side, still groaning.

Giles touched his forefinger to his thumb and pointed the remaining three fingers of his right hand straight up.

Karol and Bartek drove to Sunset Park, turned onto 53rd Street at 3rd Avenue, and finally pulled into and parked behind a three-story abandoned brick building. On the side of the building a painted billboard advertising “R. Moses & Son, Men’s Clothes” was fading away. The storefront’s windows were boarded up and the other windows on every floor were dark.

They manhandled Ratso through a back door and into a small featureless room. A table lamp on the floor tried to make sense of the dark with a 40-watt bulb. Stan was standing in a corner in the shadows smoking a cigarette. They dropped Ratso on the floor. Bartek stood sentry at the door.

“Let him loose, except for his hands,” said Stan.

Karol untied Ratso’s feet, yanked the bag off his head, and moved back to stand next to Bartek. Stan stayed where he was, in the gloom. Ratso stayed where he was, too. He felt better, but he still felt horrible. He had a weird stomachache.

“Tell me about Jackson Pollack,” said Stan.

“I don’t know no Polacks,” said Ratso.

“You know us now,” Karol said under his breath.

“Not Polacks. I said Pollack, as in Jackson Pollack, the painter.”

“I don’t know no painters.”

“Why did you jump my associate the other night?”

“I don’t know no associates. Who the fuck are you, anyway?”

“I don’t know how your sack is feeling, but if it was me, I wouldn’t want it to happen again, especially not now, not so soon,” said Stan.

“What do you want?”

“What were you doing in the middle of the night outside the shrink’s office? Why did you jump my man? What does Jackson Pollack have to do with Big Paulie?”

“You’re a dead man when Luca finds out about this,” Ratso said, terse vehement.

Stan stepped forward, bent down, and framed an inch with his fingers in Ratso’s red face.

“You’re this close to being a dead man,” he said.

He aimed a kick at Ratso’s nuts. The little man rolled over in a flash. Stan kicked him in the side, aiming for his kidney. Ratso gasped in pain and rage. Stan stepped over him, bent down again, nose to nose with the convulsing thug.

“You’re going to tell me what I want to know,” he said.

It didn’t take long. After Ratso Moretti ratted out Big Paulie and Park Avenue and they had hog-tied him again, Stan Rittman stopped at a phone booth on his way home, the cab driver waiting at the curb, and called the desk sergeant at the 17th Precinct. He told him where to find Ratso, told him he wanted to confess to assaulting Ezra Aronson four nights earlier, and wanted to be held in custody for his own protection.

“Does he need medical attention?” asked the sergeant.

“No, he’ll be fine, just a few bumps and bruises.”

“What do I tell the captain? Is anybody going to be looking for Morelli, trying to spring him?”

“Nobody except his bad girl knows anything, but she was a good girl the last we saw her and promised to stay quiet. Ratso’s car is just outside the Public House in Vinegar Hill. His gun is in the glove box. It’s a Chiefs Special.”

“You don’t say.”

“You might want to have that gun run up, ballistics might find it matches something.”

“OK, we’ll have a car there in five minutes-or-so.”

Ten minutes later three policemen and a plainclothes officer spilling out of two cars flash-lighted their way into the back of the building, hauled the left in the lurch Ratso Moretti out the door, untied him then handcuffed him, tossed him face first into the back of one of the radio cars, and drove him to the 17th Precinct, forcing him into a basement cell at the end of a hallway, and forgetting about him for the rest of the next week.

Thirty minutes later Stan Rittman was home in Hell’s Kitchen, in one of his two orange wingback armchairs, a bottle of Blatz on the coffee table, while Mr. Moto licked his chops on the sofa on the other side of the table. Stan took a pull on his bottle of beer and watched the cat. He thought about getting another one to keep him company, but Mr. Moto didn’t seem to mind his solitary life.

He slept and ate and slept some more. He went out on the prowl. Sometimes he sat on the fire escape, seeming to be thinking.

Mr. Moto liked Puss ’N Boots best, fish followed by chicken followed by beef followed by any other meat. He wasn’t picky. He didn’t think it did any harm to ask Stan for what he wanted, since the story of cats was the story of freeloaders. Stan kept Mr. Moto carnivorous with his poker winnings.

“Puss ‘N Boots adds the Plus!”

He wasn’t a mixed-up cat. He lived day-to-day, every day a new day, taking what came his way. He liked fresh water and food in the morning, a long nap from late morning into the late afternoon, and a clean supply of Kitty Litter when he couldn’t get down to the flowerbeds.

“Ask Kitty. She Knows. It absorbs and deodorizes. Takes the place of sand.”

Stan had stopped at Manganaro’s Grosseria Italiana, on his way home, a sandwich shop, restaurant, and grocery on 9th Avenue, for a slice of Hero-Boy. The entire six-foot hero, if you wanted it, was 22-pounds and cost $16.50. The wait staff was surly, but the sandwiches were worth the wait. He took a bite, chewed, and washed it down with his beer.

Ezra was out of the hospital. He would stop and see him tomorrow morning, tell him they had snatched Ratso, who had spilled his guts, but it still wasn’t clear what was going on. It looked like Dr. Baird had engineered Jackson Pollack’s death somehow, but why? Where was the pay-off in it? Vicki said that since Jackson Pollack had died unexpectedly, had died young, and had simply died, there weren’t going to be any more paintings by him. Since he was well known, by collectors and museums, prices for his art were going to go up.

“He was in demand, now he’s in big demand, especially the drip paintings,” she said. “But nobody kills a painter to make a profit on his art, not even in New York. It’s a long-term investment, not like kidnapping somebody for the ransom.”

He would sort it out next week. Stan finished his sandwich, finished his bottle of beer, and went to bed. Mr. Moto followed him, curling up just inches from Stan’s face, and was asleep fast faster fastest. He had never been bothered by insomnia. In the middle of the night, in the middle of a dream, he pricked up his ears.

Mr. Moto could smell a rat when he had to. When he went to the bedroom window, though, it was just a ladybug on the sill. It was red with black spots. He stretched up on his hind legs and sniffed the bug, which opened its wings, flew in circles, and landed on his nose.

“Ladybug! Ladybug! Fly away home. Your house is on fire. Your children shall burn!”

Mr. Moto believed ladybugs were lucky. He believed when a ladybug landed on you your wishes would be granted. He also believed it was unlucky to harm them. He licked the bug off his nose and spat it out through the open window. He jumped on the ledge, crouched, and watched the bug fly out into the big city.

In his jail cell at the bottom of nowhere, Ratso Morelli tried to stare down the big brown rat staring at him. The rat wasn’t having any of it. Nobody was going to stare him down in the rat homeland.

Four hours later, near the end of the night, near the onset of dawn, while a dead on his feet policeman watched, now that it was all over and the car had been searched and dusted for fingerprints, a tow truck hooked the new Chevrolet with a flat tire and dragged it off Vinegar Hill to the NYPD Tow Pound..

Excerpted from “Stickball” at http://www.stanriddman.com.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”