Authors: Eric Dezenhall
Claudine and I retreated into the hallway. I turned around once and saw Mickey and Deedee shrinking behind me, their little hands, not to mention a few feathers, waving me good-bye.
“Behind every official history is another history that no one wants you to know.”
“If they're not the cutest people I've ever seen,” Claudine said as we approached the Boardwalk past the zinging harassment of Donna Summer's menacing disco anthem, “I Feel Love.” “I'd just like to wrap 'em up and take 'em home with me.”
“I'm sure we can come to an agreement,” I said.
Donna Summer's wrath synthesized through the crowd. Mickey never understood why contemporary patrons liked the loud music. “You can't hear anybody!” he said. “This is 1980,” Deedee told him: “Look. Like. Leave. Nobody talks anymore.”
I took Claudine past several guards near the theater, who admitted us immediately. I had seen many acts from backstage. Claudine and I wound around the rear of the platform. I let her peek around a curtain to watch Barry Manilow sing “Bandstand Boogie.”
“They used to film
near here, in Philly,” I told her. “I remember my mom and her friends talking about how they would stand in line for hours and jump in front of the cameras so people would see them on TV. It was a real big deal.”
“Uh-huh,” she responded. She must have thought Manilow was as corny as I did, but I found it hard not to like the guy. He was like President Carter: no killer, but you knew his heart was good.
Claudine held my shoulder as I opened the door to the Boardwalk. The breeze was strong and it blew her hair back, fanning it upward like rays around her face. Yellow ribbons, which had been placed on every other light pole in honor of the hostages in Iran, blew toward the Atlantic.
I must have looked pained, because she took my wrist and asked me what was wrong. I glanced away without answering, and guided her toward the old Steel Pier.
“They used to have the best rides here,” I said, pointing out rusted amusements that sat like gargoyles. “They shut it down around the Bicentennial. They'll probably open it up again someday, but it won't be the same.”
“Why not? They may make it even better.”
“It'll be new and jazzy like the casinos, not like the way it was.”
I stood against the railing that faced the Atlantic.
“Did I say something wrong?” Claudine asked.
The vision of the strand of hair in her mouth knocked me off balance. I wanted to bite her upper lip. I felt in my joints that the planets would never align the same way they did before that strand of hair blew across Claudine's teeth. My earlier hostility toward her had gone away.
“I just think God took a lot of extra time when he made you is what I think.” I glanced across the sea.
“That's a sweet thing to say.”
“Well, I didn't mean it!”
“Oh, you are a creepy boy! You've learned nothing from your nice grandparents about treating a lady.”
I couldn't maintain my attack.
“I actually did mean what I said about God making you.”
“I thought you did.”
“You don't think it's stupid?”
“No. Not at all.”
“You make me hungry,” I confessed.
“That's a strange thing to say to a girl.”
“It's a strange thing to feel. Do you like saltwater taffy?”
“I've never had it.”
For the next two hours, we walked along the Boardwalk, where the disco song “Funkytown” throbbed from every T-shirt shop and amusement pier, and finished a small box of saltwater taffy. When I asked about her family, she said matter-of-factly that her father had been killed in the Khe Sanh Valley in Vietnam. So much for Bruce Dern on a polo pony. I told her about my parents' sicknesses. I mentioned that I had lived abroad for a few years with my grandparents, but left the criminal catalyst unaddressed. I exploited our tragedies by taking hold of her hand, something I never would have had the courage to do absent our misfortunes.
“Atlantic City must have an incredible story behind it. I can sense the bandit's version,” Claudine said as she took in the skyline.
“The bandit's version?”
“Yes,” she snickered.
. “My grandfather says that behind every official history is another history that no one wants you to know about. He calls it the bandit's version. He says I've been sheltered. He says he was, too, and that we never saw the side of America that the old Polks did.”
She had my interest piqued. “I'd like to meet him. I love historical stuff.”
“It sounds like your grandfather, Moses, talks about events, too, from the way he went off on the Ayatollah up there.”
“Yeah, Claudine, but nobody ever accused Mickey of being sheltered. Sometimes I get jealous of my friends who don't know what it's like to lose parents, or to live away from home.”
“It's not their fault, though.”
“Still, it gets me ticked.”
Claudine and I had talked so much that we lost our bearings and wandered off into the surf, drenching our riding boots. At one point, she yanked me back toward the beach. I was surprised and intimidated by her strength. She was slender, but her grip was supernatural.
When we climbed the four steps back onto the Boardwalk, a sharp voice cut into my ears. “College,” the voice cracked. I turned around and saw Carvin' Marvin approaching us. He had called me College for as long as I can remember. His shoes and cuffs were sandy. He was one of Mickey's men. Carvin' Marvin was so named because of his notorious skill with a knife. He avoided guns. “They're dangerous,” he had said. I could see in the swell of his ankle, however, that he was carrying today. Claudine's expression upon seeing him was that of the babysitter in horror films when she first sees the psychopath with the goalie's mask.
“I gotta get you outta here, College,” Carvin' Marvin said.
My heart dropped. I saw the pistol nosing its way out of his cuff.
“Is it Mickey?” I asked. “Is Mickey all right?”
“He's fine,” Marv said. “They just got Ange in Philly. Mickey says we gotta take you to that place, you know, where things'll be safe.”
A rotten part of me was disappointed that Mickey was all right. Then I was relieved. Mickey was always extorting me to do what he wanted with feigned heart attacks. I turned my attentions back toward Claudine.
“I need to take you back to the hotel,” I said.
“No, College,” Carvin' Marvin said. “Mickey wants you at that place.”
“Because of Mr. Bruno?”
“No names, kid. Let's go.” He put his hand on my shoulder, gripping it. I wanted to kill him.
“Give me one second. Please.” I stepped decisively toward Claudine.
“I have to go,” I told her.
“Because of this Ange?” she asked, scared, or maybe intrigued.
“Yes, because of this Ange,” I said to her thigh.
“What happened to her?”
“Ange isâwasâa man. A friend of my grandfather's. He was killed.”
“Did they arrest the guy who did it?”
I instinctively laughed. “No, no, they don't arrest these guys.”
She tilted her head, as if I had been speaking Samoan.
“Jonah!” Carvin' Marvin bellowed.
“I'll be right thereâ¦. Claudine, do you want the horse?”
“For that price, of course.”
“Good, where will I find you? I can call and we can make arrangements to get the horse to you.”
Claudine pulled a card from her pocket and gave it to me. It was rumpled and moist from both the sweat and sea air on her riding pants. The embossing read “Rattle & Snap, Mount Pleasant, Tennessee,” along with a telephone number.
I sank my fingers into her hair and kissed her, probably too hard.
As I tracked her disappearance into the casino, my mind whirred. On what cul-de-sac of our galaxy was Mount Pleasant, Tennessee?
“Everything in life is in the hands of its enemies.”
On the road to “that place,” I thought for the first time about the insanity of selling a horse that I didn't own to Claudine. I hadn't the slightest authority from the stables to do so. But I made the deal anyway. In the course of an evening, I had gone from being a smart kid with a great future to a huckster-fugitive.
I sat in the passenger seat of Carvin' Marvin's Caddy holding up Claudine's calling card to the moonlight, as if new information would emerge if I held the card in the precise way intended by Eros. I brought it up to my nose and vaguely detected flowers.
“Do you have a pen and paper?” I asked.
Carvin' Marvin rummaged around the front seat of the Caddy and tossed over a
“It's all I got, College. And here's a pen,” Marv added, agitated.
I wrote the name Claudine Polk in the margin and tore it off. I was afraid to write on her card, viewing it as an act of romantic defilement.
“This is serious business with Ange, Jonah,” Marv said.
“I know it is.”
“Listen to that,” Marv said. “Jonah knows it's serious.” Normally, a quip like this would have upset me, but Darwin had ranked Claudine Polk's life infinitely higher than Angelo Bruno's death.
“Well,” he added, “Mickey'll be happy once you're safe at that place.”
“That place” was a refuge near Medford, New Jersey, that Mickey had named, in a fit of biblical pique, Masada. I had never been there, but Mickey told me years agoâeven before we left the country when I was thirteenâthat he “had” the place.
We pulled into the dirt path of Masada shortly before midnight. It took ten minutes to drive up the path before I saw the torches burning outside of the cabins. If the situation hadn't been so serious, it would have been funny watching Marv's head bobble as the Caddy rumbled over the muddy hills.
At the top of the hill, two men on horseback with shotguns waited. One of them held his hand out. Marv stopped the car, rolled down his window, and barked, “We got the kid.” The Kid. Like Billy The. We were waved on.
There were about a half-dozen stark wooden cabins with porches. They were built simply and were practically identical. Armed shadows slid across the earth. When the men spoke, puffs of breath escaped and vanished into the moonlight. Everyone appeared to be distorted because of the way the wind and light from torches caught their figures. A quarter horse was bobbing its head frantically by a stone well. The only things that were missing were gallows and a saloon.
On the porch of the smallest cabin, a tiny shadow stood in waiting, shivering. Deedee ran toward me, her red hair appearing to be burning from the reflection of the torches. She hugged me hard, stepping on my feet with alligator boots. She was wearing a sweatsuit with her boots, indicating that they had left the Golden Prospect in a hurry. My peripheral vision picked up a few other men on horses and a dozen or so on foot with shotguns. I recognized none of them, but knew they weren't my familiar Italians.
“Welcome to our
meant “smelly” in Yiddish. “Your grandfather and his cowboy friends, shooting with guns. I could strangle every one of them.”
“I'm okay, Deedee.”
you are not!” she shouted, glaring at Mickey, who had his hand on the shoulder of a long-haired man I had never seen before. If I had not just been poisoned by Claudine Polk, I would have sworn that Mickey was talking to a hippie. The long-haired man soon slipped into the night. Mickey's silhouette against the cabin gave off the aura of a floating hobbit. As he drew closer, he appeared smaller, but his shadow danced large in the torchlight.
“Grown men playing cowboys and Indians,” Deedee said. “That poor Susie Bruno. Did you see the TV yet? “Ange's sitting in the front of the car with his mouth open and blood all over the windshield. Like he's shocked. You play with guns, this is what happens. What's to be shocked?”
“Deedee, it's not like he opened his mouth because he was shockedâ”
“If somebody shot your grandfather, I'd tell him not to look so shocked.”
Mickey grabbed my face. At first I thought he was dressed entirely in white, but it was khaki. The torches deepened the crevasses of his tanned face and accentuated the cottony whiteness of his hair.
“So,” Deedee said, “Welcome your grandson to
“Shush a minute, Miss Kitty,” Mickey barked back, setting down a suitcase. “Like I'm happy about this? We should tie a yellow ribbon around every tree in the Pine Barrens. We're hostages. My crew's in play.”
“Do you know who did this, Pop?” I asked. The goal of my inquiry was to get the discussion over with, not learn anything.
“If I knew, Jonah, I wouldn't be here. When I know, I stay home. When I don't know, I hide out.”
“Like Jesse James,” Deedee added gratuitously.
We stepped into the sparsely decorated cabin. There were two bedrooms, both visible from the central living and dining area that was built around a small stone hearth. The kitchen was wedged into the cabin's corner. Deedee proceeded toward the smaller bedroom and set out some of my clothes on a wooden chair.
Mickey fell back into the chair closest to the fireplace. I sat on the sofa across from him. I couldn't get comfortable, which I attributed to the sound of murderers pacing on the porch.
“Who are these guys, Pop?”
“Some of them are my guys. Some of them are Israelis. The real deal.”
“Where are the Italians? Fuzzy? Blue?”
Mickey rubbed his temples.
“There's always a skunk under the sofa with you, huh? Smart question. They're not here.”
“Because we haven't found the skunk.”
“What do you mean?”
“We don't know what this is all about with Ange. Nobody saw this coming. Since Prohibition ended, I've seen these things coming. This one I didn't. That worries me.”
I felt momentarily nauseous. Mickey was fine when he saw murders coming but was uncomfortable when he
“It's me, Ma Barker. Are you hungry, Jonah?” she asked.
“Fine, I'll make you a sandwich. I have some tuna in the pantry. Which is right next to your grandfather, Bat Masterson's, shotgun I might add.”
Deedee walked away into the kitchen.
“Honest to God, Jonah, sometimes I think your grandmother's working for the bad guys. She's probably behind the Ayatollah.” Mickey sighed. “Everything in life is in the hands of its enemies. So what's with Ava Gardner?”
“Claudine.” I removed Claudine's card from my pocket and handed it to Mickey.
“Rattle & Snap,” Mickey chuckled as he read it.
“What's so funny?”
“It's a gambling game they used to play in olden times. Goes back to the Revolution.”
“How do you know this?”
“How do I know this? Who do you think you're talking to here? That newspaperman calls me the âWizard of Odds' and you don't know how I know this?”
“C'mon, do you know how it's played?”
Mickey's eyes widened. Talking about gambling kept him alive, even evangelical. Everything about it excited him. Talking about it. Watching it. Even fighting for it. The hit on Mr. Bruno was probably tied to gambling. I didn't know this because of any inside knowledge; I knew it because Mickey wasn't grabbing his chest or making Shakespearean allusions to his time running out. He was combative, alive. I had long accepted it as gospel that Moses Price was at his best when he was under siege and would do whatever he had to do to avoid tranquillity.
“It was played in the fields with dried beans, or dice made from goat bones. They'd rattle 'em around in their hands”âMickey made a shaking gesture with his fistâ“and snapped them free. They landed where they landed.”
“I never figured shooting dice went back that far.”
“Are you kidding? It goes back to the Bible. The ancient rabbis carried dice around the temple. Urim and Thummim they were called. Call 'em whatever, they were dice. They glowed, too.”
“What did they bet on in the Temple?”
“When the dice rolled a certain way, it showed God's will.”
“Is that what you've been doing in Atlantic City, God's will?”
“In a way,” Mickey winked. “Gamblers believe God wants them to be rich. My job is to teach them that this is a false belief.”
“But casinos are set up to make people think they can get rich, so you just tell them what they want to hear. You don't teach them.”
“Don't be an Ivy League smart guy.”
“You wanted me to be an Ivy League smart guy. I just don't think you're helping God, that's all.”
Mickey shook his head like Yosemite Sam. “Let's not argue about who I'm helping right now.”
Despite the tension, Mickey's knowledge of something associated with Claudine momentarily made me love him. Murder, schmurder. He who moved me south was my redeemer.