Home Charlie Farrell
It is evening and Charlie takes the A train to the ever-evolving Washington Heights in uptown Manhattan, an area occupied over decades, first by Jews, Irish and Italians when Harlem ended on its north border at the 155th Street Bridge, followed by Puerto Ricans and African Americans, and finally by Dominicans witnessing the next evolutionary step known as gentrification. Sonny had told him to take the number 1, not the A, because "The number 1 don't have as many crazies on it as the A train, man." Not that he thought Charlie couldn't handle himself: "You don't need the hassle, man, when you comin' to a new hood. You never been, right?"
No, Charlie had never been, but he had been offended on auto by the mere suggestion that maybe he wasn't up to dealing with crazies; so being Charlie, he does the opposite and rides uptown with one who speaks in tongues, presumably to God. He gets off at 168th Street near the Columbia Presbyterian Hospital and walks underground. He is on his way to being up-to-no-good and is therefore somewhat edgy. Additionally he is a young man who always feels unaccountably guilty when he approaches the man in blue, so as he passes a policeman monitoring passengers changing from the A train to the number 1, a subtle thrill traces a path from his stomach to his heart, said thrill prompting a touch of silly bravado, meaning he smiles at the policeman who doesn't smile back—his cop's glare reading: what the fuck you smiling at, asshole?
Keep moving, Charlie tells himself, you stupid shit, though he does add, fuck you, officer.
Aboveground it is mild and clear, the dusk stage of a flawless day. Charlie examines the north-heading traffic as he waits near a musically noisy corner of St Nicholas Avenue, a boulevard that is lined with colorful Dominican bodegas. Exotica always vaguely troubles a mistrustful Charlie and he snaps his fingers impatiently to distract himself from a subterranean stir of apprehension. Two old men playing dominos on the sidewalk a few feet away by the light of a music shop window, glance his way, one of them catching his eye. "Gringo, they think," comes to Charlie's mind as he is looked at, but quickly decides, Naw, chiding himself, that's Mexican, you moron, as the old man gives him a friendly grin and returns to his game.
He relaxes. He is part of the scene. Just another dude wearing shorts and a tee shirt. He pops a chicklet into his mouth and chews. In his mind he swaggers as he thinks of himself as moving in a new direction, Sonny being just one small item in this elaborate life-altering change that on the one hand scares the shit out of him, while on the other it expands the image of himself as daring and hazardous to the health of anyone standing in his way. He's not just a dumb-ass porter, he's somebody to reckon with, man. "Don't get in my fucking way, man," he actually whispers into the warm Caribbean air that is laced with the music of merengue and bachata, and the tantalizing scents of fried stuffed empanadas and sweet bean soup wafting his way from the vendor a few doors north of him.
His impatience is growing as he shifts from foot to foot at the curb and snaps his fingers, unaware he has altered his movements to the beat of reggaeton pulsing from the music store to his rear. Waiting twenty damn minutes, checking his watch as many times. Where is he? His brain can't connect to what he feels in his bones, that he lacks friends, that bravado and ardor can fade 'til a man loses visibility, becomes a mere shadow to the world; that there are those like himself who need to be awakened and brought forth into light by someone like Joe, who promises to return, and assisted by others like Sonny—who is fucking late.
Is he, Charlie, being abandoned?
He feels like an athlete who, having been inspired to achieve greatness by his coach's pep talk, finds the game has been postponed. Charlie, as if now deaf to the world's music, ceases to move; and little by little his enthusiasm, like the hoked-up flavor of his chewing gum, begins to wane… Well, for the moment.
A shiny brown car, thirty odd years old and in mint condition, pulls up smartly in front of him. The windows are open and a pounding bass blots out the world and threatens to explode the car, the music obscured and less than secondary to the ear-pummeling blast. Sonny has arrived.
The radio quits, restoring the sanity of the Caribbean world, and Sonny leans across the front seat to show his face at the passenger window. "Hey, Charlie! Climb in, man!"
Charlie slides in and says, "Nice car, Sonny," while it idles with perfection and he listens to its throaty rumble. "Sounds powerful."
"Mother's eight rebuilt cylinders, man, ready to fly. A seventy-three Grand Torino."
"A Ford, Charlie. You don't know shit, man. Built like a tank! Could outrun them cop's Dodge Chargers and Crown Vics anytime, if it had to."
Charlie hopes it doesn't have to while he's in it.
"Used to have a cool Mercedes. Then a BMW, man. All mint. Both 'previously owned.' Don't you love that B.S. hustle, man? Stead a 'used car? Like a dollar ninety-nine, stead a two? But I ditched them mothers 'cause to cops they like signals, man, an' I got tired a bein' stopped. There be less attraction with this ol' thing. Less a that 'driving black' in expensive cars shit, to problem my ass with white-bread cops who say 'we never fucking profile, you honor.' Know what I'm sayin'?
"Grannie long gone now an' I ain't a porter no mo, an' got to keep ol' Sonny Jefferson under the radar, you see, so there be no cops wantin' me to pop the trunk, man—right?"
"Right." This cop stuff is up close and Charlie doesn't like sitting there with Sonny acting like he's gonna be a magnet for trouble. "What now?" he says.
"Man, what's up you ass Charlie, huh? I mean, you cut to the chase, don't you. No how you been, no how you mommy, no how you fucking canary?"
This tickles Charlie as he recalls that Sonny once mentioned he took in his grandmother's bird when she died, and he says, "How's your canary?"
Sonny chuckles and his shaved head catches light as he nods and says, "Found po little dicky bird lyin' dead in his cage, old age, you know; feet up like a dead cockroach."
Charlie laughs genuinely, but after a polite interval of seconds he says, "So, we're goin' where?"
Sonny, tirelessly up by nature, is surprisingly patient. He has a generous mouth decorated with a mustache that is drawn down at the sides, not quite Fu Manchu, which he now tugs on one end as he gazes at Charlie with an amused raising of eyebrows that are arched to begin with, and so thin they appear tweezed. The cast of this once-over suggests the mildest superiority, and he says, "Well, you did laugh, eh? See you ain't one a them robots needs to oil his jaw so it don't stick. Though you still somethin' like that Mona the Lisa bitch, ain't you."
Charlie smiles at this, knows that he is a puzzle.
Sonny abruptly shifts gears and pulls the Torino away from the curb and says, "Off to see my man, Eduardo."
A few blocks north and they turn east in the upper one-hundred-seventies and Sonny parks on Audubon Avenue. He switches off the ignition, leaves his left hand on top of the wheel and raps Charlie's shoulder lightly with the knuckles of his right, and says, "So what you want a piece for, bro? Protection? You got some baddies after you ass? I mean how much trouble can you make jus' moppin' an' polishin'? You miss a spot on that cracker's floor—that Tucker prick?"
"For me to know…" says Charlie, trying not to show he's taking offense.
"Oooo, scary fuck. You the mystery man, now, huh?"
"That's me…as much as you, asshole."
"Fuck you, Charlie," Sonny says without serious anger. "You so full of it, man. You know eveythin' 'bout this gangsta life a mine, an' you ain't tol' me shit. I tooken you on faith, motherfucker."
"Bullshit. You know all about me. And you let me know you got a business dealin' guns. After that—diddly. I don't even know where you live."
"I lives up here…the Heights…somewhere," he confesses, smiling, then altering direction he raps Charlie's shoulder again and says, "So how come you want this thing, man?"
"So how come you're dealin' them?"
"Shit," Sonny says as he turns away to gaze through the windshield, a reflective pose. "Well…ain't that a subject," he says before turning back to Charlie: "This like you new school major, man. You talkin' philosophy, Charlie boy. It ain't jus' profit, my man. Though, yeah, they's good money bein' made. But truth, Charlie, it be a matter a bein' cool. Know what I'm sayin'?"
"Cool? No. You're talkin' riddles."
"Mmmm… look like I be the mentor; meanin' you be the student. What I'm sayin'—I mean cool stead a passion, man, 'cause the chief's are cool."
"What chiefs? Indians?"
"Shit, listen up! I'm not talkin' feathers. I'm talkin' whitebread, honky, cracker motheruckers who run the fuckin' world! You think I'm talkin' Apaches?" He shakes his head. "Oh, man, wake that honky noodle a yours. This about how smart the chiefs are, man. Peasants like you rattle you chains and yell e-qual-i-ty! An' the chiefs get this much nervous." He displays a quarter inch between his index and thumb. "See, not too nervous 'cause they always cool as ice. They throw y'all some bones, when they need electin,' you see, then make out like they eatin' nothin' but burgers an' drinkin Bud. Like them Appalachia folks my grannie once tol' me about, were doin' so bad an' the chiefs were givin' they word o' honor with they fingers crossed, man, that they goin' to deliver them to the fuckin' promised land, which don't exist outside a chiefdom. An' don't you know them mountain folk's were still livin' on government-surplus peanut butter."
"So, what about black politicians?" Charlie interrupts him.
"They in the lily white business, so they jus' the same, man. What was I sayin'? Oh, yeah:
"The chiefs. This important, man. They know y'all get tired a rattlin' chains, so they jus' hold on, an' hold on some more, an' wring those lily whites an' groan empathetic like an' eat a few chitins to show they jus' folks. But all the while, Charlie boy—all the while they really stone-wallin' it; 'cause inside, man, they cool an' mean as tomcats. Important to remember that. Mean as fuckin' tomcats"
"Yeah, right," says Charlie, excitement welling up, lifting his mood. "You're absolutely right on, man. That's my beef, too. It's us against them, the fuckin' chiefs. I was sayin' the same fuckin' thing to a friend a mine the other day. But what's this got to do with guns?"
"Eveythin', man. Who's the friend?"
"Just a friend from work," he replies, thinking of Joe Masood. "Nobody you need to know about. But about the guns."
"Mm, okay, but you got to be careful, man, who y'all spoutin' this stuff to; right?"
"Right. The guns, man."
"Yeah. Well, guns be our equalizers, Charlie boy. An' remember what I said? Cool stead a passion?" He raps Charlie's forehead gently with his knuckles. "Empty out all the shit, man. You got this mystery itch, you got to watch, man. You got to cool it, whatever it be. It ain't cool to go runnin' amuck with an' itch, 'cause that be exactly what the chief's want you to do. Want you to look like shit, man, want you a pale-face nigger, want you to make them look righteous, don't you know. They don't want nothin' in between. They want you either uncle-tommin' it, or they want you goin off the deep end. Either way they got you balls in they lily whites, Charlie boy. An' they got army armies, an' they got private armies, an' they not ony got most a the guns, they got most a the ammo, too. So you got to avoid the extremes an' work the in-betweens, man, so you not visible to them when you decide to fuckin' whack the mothers.
"I once had a dream, you know, where all the chiefs were lined up in a row in front a the American flag, an shit if they didn't each a them have four hands. One hand was holdin' they peckers, one saluting' the flag, one was on they bibles, an' the fourth was in this big till. I woke an' come to the conclusion this a true thing I dreamed. They all got fo' hands, 'cept they tricky as hell an' move 'em so fast, man, you can't see but two at a time. White bread chiefs be the real gangstas, man, dickin' everybody an' preachin' flag an' God an' gun control while sellin tons an' tons a motherfuckin' guns an' ammo round the world. An' that give me a terrible handicap I been workin' overtime to make up fo,' an since I never seen any a that affirmative action shit I be creatin' my own. . My big ambition, Charlie boy—to be tricky as the chiefs. To be cool, up here, man," pointing to his temple, "an' to keep my itch down here," pointing to his groin, "where it belong. That be you lesson fo' the day, Charlie boy, knowin' where to keep you itch."
As he slides out of the Torino, and Charlie follows suit, Sonny looks across the car's roof and advises: "This be fuckin' important to yours truly, bro, knowin' maybe you jus like the heft an' the power a piece give you in the head, man. Or maybe you need to take care a private business, like revenge shit. But this be the most important—knowin' you ain't goin' to shoot up a post office or one a them shoppin' malls, or any other crazy motherfuckin' thing. This be serious shit. Know what I'm sayin'?"
Charlie nods with appropriate gravity while his mind is hustling for a motive, never having gone beyond the pleasurable notion of ownership. Liking Sonny's word: "heft," he adopts his reasoning and says, "I just want a gun—want what your chiefs have. Having guns make them feel good, right? Well me too. A level playing field, right?"
"Right, man. Good. What I figured. We—you— got the same right as the chiefs. Second fuckin' amendment, man. The right to bear arms, yeah. What it be all about, man. But this ever turn out to be you scammin' yours truly, that you gonna run amuck, that the piece I sell you be traced back to Sonny Jefferson—friendship turn to shit fast, Charlie. Somebody goin' to blood you quick like a fuckin' wink. Yeah?"
"Yeah." says Charlie as Sonny comes around to the curb.
Sonny, a couple of inches taller than Charlie, places his arm paternally across Charlie's shoulders and says, "Okay, bro, we talkin' the common language here. Now Eduardo and company—which be part my company, too—don't like this small potato kind a deal. It ain't usual to sell singles to unknown goin'-it-aloners, unless they absolute pro shooters or trusted associates. No profit fo' the risk, you see. But you be my trusted cracker, right? Unless you fuck me an' we have to kill you.
"Eduardo, he know you not a gangsta, so he know you slightly green. But he don't know, even though you got this hard feelin' inside you, that you greener than grass an' trees, man. That you so green the birds start singin' when you go by. Now I'm not tellin' you—not to say shit, man; or to play dumb. Fuck no. I'm jus' sayin,' you be cool. Like you one a the chiefs, man."
While Charlie enjoys Sonny's attention, all he wants is to own a gun, to have Sonny sell it to him in secret; yet he is being swept along into this whole other shit and he doesn't like it, doesn't trust it. But now to hide his worry he says, "Mmm, oh, yeah, that's me, yeah, like the chiefs. I'm this big fuckin' power guy."
"Good, hold onto that, man."
But then more soberly, Charlie says, "But there's these two important things, Sonny. Why not just sell me a gun without this Eduardo guy? An' with me bein' so risky green, how come you're doin' this humongous favor for me?"
Sonny grins, says, "You got a teeny paranoia thing creepin' up you ass?"
"No," he lies. But yes, ordinary skepticism, rational mistrust, in others, would never measure up to Charlie's paranoia that in addition to creeping up his ass, invades all his unreadable bones; a condition, when it rises to the surface, lurks as a peripheral shadow menacing his life. "Just curious, is all. How come?"
"Simple. I want Eduardo to meet you 'cause I might need a honky dude with balls someday. A guy the cops don't know shit about. Like so under the radar, man, he don't exist. Like you. An' I'm gettin' you a gun 'cause you never know when you can do me back. It like all tied together. Know what I'm sayin'?"
"Yeah…" he says while still not getting it, grinning, hoping not to have to do him back anytime soon. But not letting it go: "Can you spell that out for me? Do you back how?"
"Don't pin me down, man. Just thinkin' ahead, like I might want a crew a my own, someday. Without Eduardo an' company. An' equal opportunity crew, you know. All that racial equality shit.
"An' this Eduardo—be warned, man—he got this quiet-like mean streak a mile an' a half long, who like to pull you chain evey chance he get. And he don't like no surprises. So I figure let him see you honky face fo' future reference-like. So keep you fire way down, man, an' if you worried don't fuckin' show it.
"Now, the other people in this buildin' be nice law abidin' types looking' fo' the usual American dream, you know, like eveybody else, and don't hardly know shit about what we doin.' An' we want to keep it that way. Eduardo has his hand in blow an' weed, but there be no dealin' shit in this buildin', or any buildin' on this block. Don't want buyers an' sellers attractin' attention of the cops, you see. A course, the world bein' a dangerous mother, we stay super well-armed fo' protection, you understand, but we don't do gun business here, either. This Eduardo's place, where we jus' do our talkin,' an' we stay all quiet an' friendly-like, which give a good impression. Know what I'm sayin'?" he finishes, raising his voice to compete with shouts and laughter suddenly erupting from an apartment above them, followed by music abruptly turned to full volume, requiring Charlie to yell back, "Yeah, got it!"
They walk north of the noise and turn east into a side street where Spanish with a sprinkle of English intermingle pleasantly in the night air, where both grownups and kids ignore the lure of indoors with the telly to hang on to this perfect day. Adults sit on stoops, some on fire escapes, keeping an eye on their kids while catching the soft breeze coming from the Bronx across the Harlem River and Amsterdam Avenue. With Charlie following, Sonny gives fists-bumps and hi-fives to a few sidewalk friendlies sitting on folding chairs, before entering the six story walkup. Charlie likes the communal density of the street, has an outsider's envy of this ease of belonging, the security of it.
They climb five flights to a front sixth-floor apartment, where Sonny raps the door and stands away so as to be seen through the peephole. Locks unsnap, the door swings open and Sonny hi-fives a smiling man with a gold incisor whose sleeveless undershirt reveals that he is precisely muscled and is decorated with a well-executed dragon that climbs his left arm to his shoulder, while his right hand lightly encloses the stock of a sawed-off shotgun. "This here's Ernesto," Sonny tells Charlie who returns Ernesto's nod with his own.
Some hellos in Spanish and English arrive along with the odor of recently broiled steak, the greetings coming from unseen parties beyond a short foyer, unknown 'til Charlie enters the main room and spies three other men, two of them watching television while casually draped on ornate well-stuffed Victorian style furniture, expensively upholstered in red damask. "Marco and Rafael," Sonny says of the two, with curt nods all around.
Seemingly just as casual in their placement about the room are a few weapons: two more shotguns, not shortened; an M10 machine pistol next to a small fridge atop a wet bar; an M4 carbine and a Tech 9 machine gun with a silencer attached; some of which the novice Charlie recognizes from surfing gun sites online. Scout's motto, he thinks—be prepared; and while not nearly as attention-grabbing, one wall sports a crucifix, and on another an illustration of Christ displaying his thorn-encased heart dripping blood; and Charlie wonders what Jesus would think of all the menacing hardware.
A few mismatched chairs, end tables with lamps of no discernable style, the shades of which are still encased in plastic; and at the far end of the room a second couch matching the first, with a coffee table holding two empty Presidente beer bottles, a third half full, a Glock nine millimeter pistol, a large plate with one piece of steak remaining which is neatly forked and taken into the mouth of a fortyish man sitting on the couch behind the coffee table. He wears tinted glasses with silver wire frames, the lenses darker at the top than at the bottom, and he has a cell phone pressed against his ear as he looks up and says "Hey, Sonny, how's my junior partner?"
"Partner's doin' good, Eduardo."
Charlie strolls into the room, stiff and un-cool, recalling Sonny's robot comment and feeling as if he needs oiling; and picking up on Eduardo's use of 'junior' alongside 'partner,' he suddenly views Sonny's power as somewhat diminished, and he therefore feels his self-confidence reduced in kind.
"Ernesto, pull them up a couple a chairs, here," says Eduardo, and then quietly but firmly into his cell: "Mamame La Ñema you moronic little shit," before snapping it shut and saying to the air as lightly as a prayer, "Asshole," clearly a man who knows how to reign in his anger; while even more composed he says to Ernesto: "I want you to visit our friend tomorrow"—waving his cell phone as if it contains his friend—and show him how much he upsets me, please."
'Please' impresses Charlie, though he is not for a second fooled by the politeness of the word as he studies this gangster who then stands, tall and broad shouldered, and reaches across the table to embrace Sonny, and act which restores some of Charlie's faith in the status of the junior partner. "Everything is going good, no?" He says to Sonny who responds with a smile and a nod and reassures him, "On all eight cylinders, man."
Reseating himself, Eduardo shoots a lukewarm glance at Charlie and enquires: "This your friend wants a gun, huh?" But before Sonny can reply he says, "Marco, turn down the fuckin' telly," his voice deep but soft, appearing to Charlie to be much cooler than Sonny.
"Yeah. Charlie's his name," says Sonny as the room quiets down and Charlie, responding to Sonny's beckoning index, marches up to the coffee table.
Charlie observes a fussiness in Eduardo as he takes a swallow of Presidente and pats his lips with a cloth napkin. He feels a chair pressing aggressively against the backs of his legs and turns to see the tattooed Ernesto, who nods at the chair and says, "Sit, man," and he does so, along with Sonny, his knees inches from the coffee table. It has always unnerved him to have to sit across from anyone without having the convenient distractions of the rest of the room to draw his eyes away for brief respites; and seated this way without mirrors to reflect what transpires behind him, he feels thoroughly assailable.
"So, like I said, this here's Charlie," Sonny tells his partner.
"Charlie says, "Hi." He considers smiling but not feeling encouraged, doesn't.
Eduardo nods at him blankly. "What're you drinkin'?" he says to both.
"Presidente like you," Sonny says.
"Me, too," says Charlie.
Eduardo says, "Hey Marco, three beers from the fridge. And Rafael, make yourself useful an' get me a cigar." He wears a tapered white shirt that seems to Charlie to be whiter than white, with thick black chest-hair growing up and out from the V of the open collar. His sleeve-cuffs are turned up once, with one hairy wrist displaying a gold Rolex and the other a gold I.D. bracelet, and he sports a fat gold ring on his left pinky. His dark beard, although closely-shaved, appears as abrasive as emory, and his wide black sideburns are so carefully trimmed, Charlie would be afraid to be his barber. He says, "What'd you say your name was?" as Rafael hands him a fat cigar, places an ashtray on the table and removes the dinner plate.
"Yeah…Charlie. Got a last name, Charlie?"
"Farrell." Superior, just like the fuckin' Russian, Charlie thinks, not liking this man.
Marco brings three beers and Eduardo finishes the beer he's been working in one long gulp, without spilling a drop, then pats his lips with his napkin, not prissy, just precise and always moving with economy. He clips his cigar and asks: "Who are you?" his voice toneless, not accusing, just curious.
"Look, Charlie Farrell, this is fuckin' business. Dangerous, yeah, but just like any other, man. An' you always wanna know who the fuck you're dealin' with. Nothin' personal, man. You may be a standup guy or you might be a piece a shit."
Silence. A physically strong Charlie, glancing at Sonny who looks straight ahead, nervously wastes precious seconds fantasizing that in another life he could take on this Eduardo toe to toe. But right now he's embarrassed and this scary reality is telling him he can't be describing mopping and polishing to this unimpressed fuck, this man who quietly exudes a ton of testosterone and sits on a keg of violence as he observes Charlie through his tinted glasses, as if Charlie were an interesting specimen; this guy sitting there like a prince and rolling his expensive cigar in the O of his mouth. Shit!
Sonny nudges his foot with his own and Charlie, a lot more pissed than he is afraid, gathers his reserves of cool and says, "Well…who I am is private."
"He got no record," Sonny casually puts in. "Not even a Juvy offender. Like me, whistle clean, man."
"Yeah, an' his mommy loves him," sneers Ernesto.
Sonny chuckles and says amiably, "Uh-huh, that be funny, man." And then advises him, "But Ernesto—shut the fuck up."
Ernesto, not being a junior partner, does just that.
Unfazed by this exchange, Eduardo says, "You ever own a gun, Charlie Farrell?"
"No," Charlie replies, simple and direct, while thinking, so make something of It and fuck you.
Eduardo, making something of it, his voice calm and merely observing, goes on to no one in particular: "An' so," mister 'who I am is private,' here, wants a fuckin' gun while he sits there knowin' more about me than I know about him.;" his theatrically widening eyes telling his audience, can you believe this shit?
"He work at the bank, like I did," says the junior partner. "An' he got balls, same as me. Good enough to maybe ride shotgun fo' me down the line, if I want. Now you fuckin' know him." He picks up his beer and takes a swallow.
Charlie's mouth is dry, would like some beer, but is afraid he'll swallow it wrong, dribble it along his cheek, look like a fool.
Eduardo grins widely, showing good teeth, a handsome man who knows it. "A fuckin' porter. What's he gonna do—they don't give 'im a raise—shoot the bank?" While the others laugh he lights his cigar and sucks, sucks, then tilting his head back he blows out a perfect smoke ring toward the ceiling, watches it admiringly.
"Now just to remind you," says Sonny, his voice quiet with no real anger in it. "This be my rep you messin' with." Just explaining, with care, so there is no misunderstanding: "I bring my man here an' you disrespect him, which mean you disrespectin' me. You see that, right?"
"Meant no disrespect, partner," Eduardo says blandly about this small issue, then going on with: "But you know ridin' shotgun don't mean Charlie's sittin' up on top a stagecoach waitin' for the fuckin' Indians to come outa the hills. Maybe he's got the biggest balls an' the smallest brains. How do I know? I don't. That's the trouble with this business, man. "
"True," Sonny says, one businessman to another, as Charlie's face reddens slightly.
"You don't know nothin' for certain. That's why the doc says I'm about to have a fuckin' ulcer. 'Cause I worry all the time. But Sonny, here, never seems to get sick over anything. Differences, right? Makes the world go round. But I'm a worrier, man. I also got a wife whose a worrier. An' I got three kids in parochial school. I'm not out seven nights a week like Sonny, here, who's gettin' his rocks off so often it's impossible for him to stay tense for more than thirty seconds. An' I got a lot a nasty motherfuckers to answer to. People who respect me, which is important, man. An' you don't fuck with that. Not ever. People don't wanna do business with guys they don't respect. You know, you make a product, an' you're doin' okay. An' you hire some little-shit yahoo for the production line to do a little-shit job. An' everything's goin' okay 'til he screws somethin' into somethin' else the wrong way an' messes up the product. An' there goes you're reputation, man. So who the fuck knows? Maybe the guy you take on's got the biggest brains but the smallest balls. Or worse—both brains and balls small as the tip of my pinky. And we had a guy like that, once—name of Jose—who turned out to be less than dogshit." He shrugs. "Who knows, man?"
Sonny shrugs empathetically as Eduardo's eyes come to rest on the one who feels trifled with, whose very being is daily packed from his bones out with his unyielding sense of being wronged, which produces a rage
never to be surgically viewed, yet to him is as evident as swelling flesh about to burst, like now, as he feels Sonny's foot pressing down hard on his, a warning to be cool. And he thinks, fuck cool, and fights the need to rocket across the coffee table to kill this gangster, and fuck the men and guns behind him, and Fuck you an' your fuckin' gun an' shove it, he doesn't say to Eduardo as he sits there, rigid and red-faced.
Charlie observes this man, the coolest of cool, who now blows a luxurious rope of smoke at the ceiling, then turns to see Sonny offer a brief smile, his smile an intervention, a message that says to all, everything for the moment is still okay. He tries to numb his brain, to be like this gangster who blows another perfect ring of smoke before he continues:
"I Know a guy invests in the markets,. Graduated from G.W. High, up here in the Heights. Went to college. Specs like crazy, the way most guys'd be afraid to, you know. Makes a fortune, man. Know why? 'Cause he's got the balls to spec in the first place, an' 'cause he's got the brains to know what he's doin. He's a worrier, too. Got hemorrhoids. Same as any other business. Same as ours. Greater the fuckin' risk, man, the more you need upstairs an' downstairs. To be the opposite of this loser, this Jose I mentioned. When the pressure was on, this Jose folded in every fuckin' way possible, man. Remember Jose, guys?"
"Yeah, he was fleashit," says Ernesto. "We had to do the fuck."
Sonny's foot is pressing so hard on his, Charlie thinks his toes will crack, and when it finally eases and lifts he doesn't run amuck—he smiles, smiles because he is thinking pleasurably that someday he will kill this man, a calming thought. He will do what Sonny was afraid to do. He will walk right up to Eduardo in front of others and shoot him. He will empty his gun into the prick. He sees it happening and so he accepts that it will, a necessary dream because it is difficult for Charlie to endure being put upon, or even just being ordinary, and so he often resorts to reinforcing fantasies, might conjure them film noir black-and-white in which he sees himself performing heroically or taking aggressive revenge, scenarios evoking admiration or fear with either reaction satisfying in its ability to soothe him; reviewing some of these self-enhancing stories so often he verges on believing them.
And so, for the moment inspired, he says to Eduardo with absolute conviction: "Well, poor ol' Jose. You had to do the fucker. Tough shit. But now about me—I lied about ever havin' a gun."
A surprised Sonny looks at Charlie, then back at Eduardo who is paying careful attention; who says, "No shit?"
"I shit you not. I had one an' used it an 'lied 'cause it was nobody's business. Still isn't. But since you're makin' such a big deal outa nothin, which is fuckin' annoyin,' I'm lettin' you know Charlie Farrell is no Jose what-sis-face. So lets get onto another fuckin' topic!"
"No, this is a good topic," Eduardo says, interested, leaning a few inches toward Charlie while tapping an inch long ash from his cigar. "Where'd you get this piece, you had?"
"How'd you feel about me lettin' on to somebody, I bought a gun from you?"
"Good point," says Sonny the mediator, nodding at Eduardo who persists with: "Mmm…okay, you ever use it?"
"I did a guy, like you did Jose."
Sonny looks at him again as Eduardo asks, "Why?"
"He dissed me."
"Who dissed you, an' when"
Charlie, deeply and happily immersed in his story, smiles and shakes his head. Foolish question, mister cool's reaction implies.
"Okay, where's the gun?"
Without hesitation: "I dropped the mother off the Macombs Dam Bridge at a hundred fifty-fifth, at night," Charlie replies, seeing himself strolling the bridge on a mild summer night, a few stars overhead, the river smell rising up to mix with the exhaust of late night traffic, with him pausing near the middle and looking over the railing to make sure there are no boats, then glancing around before releasing the weapon and walking on; this vivid scene reinforcing his conviction in spite of his racing heart.
"Uh-huh. What was the make?"
"A sub-compact Berretta, nine millimeter," he says, describing what he has seen on the internet. "That's the whole thing."
Appearing bored with Charlie's story, not impressed one way or the other, Eduardo rests back, shrugs and says, "Yeah…well, didn't think my homey here would pick a fuckin' Jose. Like I said, nothin' personal."
Sonny puts in: "Nothin' personal takin.' man." And not wasting time, says, "I promised Charlie a Glock. That the piece there, the one I brought in?" raising an index to indicate the pistol on the coffee table. Eduardo nods yes and says, "That's the baby, a nice piece for Charlie boy, here. It ain't loaded; check anyway." To Rafael, he says, "Charlie ain't dressed for concealment. Get 'im the shopping bag my wife left, an' the box a ammo."
Sonny picks up the gun, says to Charlie, "Do it this way." He removes the magazine and racks the glide. "Safety shit to make sure no round in the chamber. Know what I'm sayin'? You do a visual, even feel in there—no round in the mother? Good. Now bring the slide back gentle with you hand, like you love it. Never slam the fucker. Next you aim it and squeeze off." He swings it around and points at Rafael with his bag and ammo, who ducks and says fuck! as the weapon clicks on empty. He tells Charlie, "This a Glock twenty-two, forty SW holdin' 15 rounds, an' retails at fo'-ninety-nine when registered. Now with an illegal piece like this that got no shootin' history to hang you with, the usual price be six to seven big ones. But fo' a stand-in homeboy like you, Charlie, like I tol' you, it be an even five. You can pay Eduardo; I'm already carryin' too much cash."
Prepared, Charlie removes five one-hundred-dollar bills from his wallet and passes them to Eduardo, and when Sonny gives him the weapon his hand dips fractionally as gravity tugs pleasurably at the heft of this neat, well-designed object; only the sum of its various parts, he sees, yet waiting to do harm and making him more than he is. While he feels pierced with the excitement of possession he refuses to smile—instead, merely nods his approval. Again, mister cool.
The shopping bag Rafael holds is elegantly scripted with Lord & Taylor and is generously stuffed with a mass of pink tissue. Rafael takes the Glock from Charlie and places it with the box of cartridges into the center of the pretty pink froth. He hands the bag to Charlie and says, "Nobody gonna guess you got a pistol in this faggy lookin' thing, man. But you might get a nice ass squeeze." Everyone but the always circumspect Eduardo laughs, while Charlie manages an uptight "heh-heh," deciding to do Ernesto when he does his boss. But the boss, as if having resolved a problem, surprises Charlie by reaching to shake his hand while a faint smile barely turns up the corners of his mouth; and so Charlie smiles back, his offering small and tight, not giving more than he got, cool, while his heart once again races as he thinks about Jose who folded in every way possible.
On the way downstairs Sonny says, "You did real good, Charlie. Real Good. You get an A for cool, man." And then doubtfully: "That a true story you tol' Eduardo?"
"No, I just made it up."
"Homey, you get a A plus for bein' a lyin' motherfucker. You been tellin' me any lies?"
"You lyin' now, bro?"
Charlie laughs, happy as he recall what's in the shopping bag.
"What say I call a coupla my chicks?"
"What for?" Charlie asks as they reach the street.
"What fo'? What fo,' the man say. Lordy, what fo' the flowers need the rain? What fo' the mashed potatoes need the gravy? Any mo' dumb questions?"
"Can't. Got some things to take care of," Charlie says as he backs away. "But thanks for this," he says, lifting the bag higher.
"Sure? My girl's got the best weed, man, not to mention some high-grade blow to tickle yo whitebread nose. Huh?"
"No way. Stuff make my head weird," Charlie says in a moment of utter truthfulness; having tried and failed to reach the advertised level of euphoria, instead having felt himself panicked and losing control of his world, fearing without understanding it the release of mysterious scaries that lurked within the deepest shadows beneath the safety of his everyday mind.
"Mmm…you is weird all right, Charlie boy. Anyway, got you number, bro. Be callin' you one a these days."
Riding south on the train there are few passengers. He is holding the shopping bag on his lap when two man-size black teenagers come up to him, hovering, grinning, looking at the bag. One wears a camouflage do-rag and the other is decorated with precise cornrows.
"What you got in that pretty bag, there, man?" cornrows asks him, not unfriendly, just interested.
A well dressed older back man, with a briefcase on his lap, is sitting nearby on the same bench as Charlie. He says to the teenagers, "Boys, leave the man be."
A little less friendly: "Fuckin' mind yo' business, ol' man," do-rag replies. But to Charlie, friendly like cornrows, do-rag says, "C'mon. man, jus' give us a peek, huh? Watcha got? Got a gift for you ho?"
"No," Charlie says, just as friendly, "But I'll let you have a peek." He reaches into the tissue and lifts up the unloaded Glock just enough for them, and the businessman next to him, to see that he has his finger on the trigger, points it at them without exposing it to the more distant passengers. "I got this for me," he says. "Pretty, aint it?"
Open mouthed, the boys back away. "Whoa, man," says cornrows.
"Jus' funnin', man," says do-rag, before they turn and move to the other end of the car.
The man who came to Charlie's defense turns to him and says, "Wow," softly, then smiles as he gives him a thumbs up.
"Most people like surprises," Charlie says to him, feeling bigger than he is, and they both laugh.