Authors: Ottavio Cappellani
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He was sitting by the cast-iron stove, in the old armchair that had taken on his shape, toying with his grafting knife. Poor hopeless innocent that you were, you thought for a moment that with a thin blade like that he couldn't even stab a dog. But your grandpa could peel a man like a potato, then leave him lying there, skinned alive, reflecting on his sins.
“Better an innocent man on the inside than a guilty man on the outside,” he was saying. Grandpa had been inside several times, and had never complained, he went in and out of the can like he was going to an opening at the Met, with that elegant air of his that seemed to say,
Better I take the rap than someone elseÂ â¦
So you were still a kid when you realized that someone who'd never done time couldn't possibly be innocent, that there was no point in whining when you went in, whiners were fools, and if you made a mistake and smashed somebody's face who had nothing to do with anything, wellÂ â¦ it wasn't the end of the world.
The cast-iron stove sat there waiting for you every day, warming the clothes on your back, steaming the damp out of your jacket. And the old man tempting you, drilling it into you: You gotta get respect, but you don't boast about it, and if you gotta use force, act like you had no choice. “That's the difference between a man and a backslapper, Lou.”
So you went around looking sad and fatalistic, and you gave the other kids that look, like you were saying,
One of these days, I might be forced to hurt you real bad, even if you're a good guy at heart.
And the neighborhood boys got to thinking you meant business.
Until circumstance, call it destiny, call it chance, made you mean business for real.
It was one thing to earn respect from the guys from around the way, like that
Goldstein, who paid you to play in
pool hall. It was quite another to challenge the bosses for control.
Of course, there wasn't anything to control yet, but you knew control was what you had to have, even if you didn't yet know what the word meant. When you were kids, all you had to do was take over a bar or a pool hall and lay down the law: decide who could come in and who couldn't. Every now and then you had to smash somebody's face, just to show you could.
One day, though, they smashed
faceÂ â¦ over some shitty little luncheonette downtown! You came home with blood caked on your lips, and the old man smiled and said, “That asshole, that fucking dickbrain”âhe was repeating himself, but Grandpa liked to repeat himselfâ“now you gotta kill him.”
He walked to his armchair, like a priest to the altar. “Oh, you don't
to kill himÂ â¦ You should, but it's not down to you, times are changingÂ â¦ Still, it's time you saw how the world works. See, Lou, it's a dog-eat-dog world, but once upon a time they invented something beautiful. That something's called money.”
He sat down. “When they invented this thing, they thought it would help everyone to get along. But you see, the world is divided into people who can get along and people who can't. That son of a bitch didn't come to you to suggest an arrangement, he came and smashed your face. You can't do anything with people like that except kill them. Sure, it's not a pleasant thing: when you kill people like that, you gotta do it with a sad look on your face, somewhere public, so everybody can see how sad you are.
You had a sudden coughing fit.
“Can't you fucking let me finish before you start puking your guts out?”
With that deadpan look he assumed on special occasions, the old man explained the meaning of control. Control meant just one thing: not paying, but getting paid, protection.
“You see, Lou, if I don't get paid protection, someone else will, and if someone else gets paid, in the end they're gonna want to get paid by me, and I couldn't stand for that. I'd have to go all up and down the neighborhood killing every last faggot who wanted me to pay. So, in order to kill the smallest possible number of people, I'm forced to make
So Grandpa killed only the people who got in the way of his control. Then he reinvested the money, business boomed, and everyone in the neighborhood was happy. You understood, Lou, even if the FBI and the faggotass cops in the police didn't get it: they thought the money he made from control was dirty, and Grandpa couldn't make the neighborhood happy until he cleaned it off.
Now, in Los Angeles they'd invented something else: the movies. And there was a lot of money in movies. Grandpa thought it would be a good idea to make the money even cleaner.
“Forget about the luncheonettes downtown, tell that banana head who beat you up to go fuck himself, and go to Los Angeles, to our friends' film school, all right? Study hard, and maybe you won't have to kill anybody again.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
You packed your bags like Grandpa told you. The morning you left, while you were trying to say goodbye to your mother, who was crying in the kitchen, your grandpa came in with good news. “You know the guy who busted your face? They lifted him ninety feet in the air on the end of a crane and dropped him on the floor of a living room paved with tiles from CaltagironeÂ â¦ There wasn't a roof on the house yet, that's why the crane was there. Now,” he said, smiling, “they can't scrape the blood off because the guy's melted into the tiles.”
You coughed again.
“You gave him milk, didn't you?” your grandpa said to your mother. “You shouldn't give him milk in the morning. It's bad for the stomach.” Then he turned back to you. “Look, Lou,” he said, “it wasn't our fault, the guy was a dickhead, he should have asked your name before he hit you, sooner or later he was going to end up on a Caltagirone floor, if it hadn't been us, it would have been somebody elseâ¦”
Your grandpa looked at your mother like he was hoping she'd back him up, but your mother shook her head, as if to say,
That didn't come out right
Â â¦ so then your grandpa said, “I meanÂ â¦ if it hadn't been somebody else, it would have been usÂ â¦ how about that?” Your mother shook her head again, he still hadn't got it right, and your grandpa thought about it some more. “They're all fucking idiotsÂ â¦ anyhow it wasn't us. Did you pack your bags?”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Fucking film school! The first thing they did when you got to Los Angeles was give you the books and teach you how to launder money.
The safest way was to buy or build little theaters in the suburbs all over America, hundreds of little theaters. They didn't cost much because all you needed was a garage or a Quonset hut, sometimes not even that. You bought a piece of land, put a fence around it, put up a screen with a projector and a box office, and painted the words
on a wooden board. You made a few movies, showed them, and even if nobody went, you sent a courier with a briefcase full of money to buy all the tickets for a week, you paid taxes regularly on the take, the courier came back the next week, and “the fucking bacons”âthat's what the guy who showed you the ropes called the copsâ“can't do a fucking thing to you, because when you go to a movie nobody asks to see your IDÂ â¦ This is clean cash from decent people.”
“Clean cash from decent people”: the same words Leonard Trent used when he buttonholed you in your office one day a few years later.
Leonard TrentÂ â¦ that crazy cocksucker of a director who worked for Starship Pictures (“Sounds better than Sciortino Productions,” your grandpa had said, with admirable modesty), the idiot who'd found out how the family was laundering money because he had a spinster cousin in Pennsylvania and because he was banging his accountant's secretary!
His cousin had gone to see his movie seven days in a row because she considered it her duty, especially since the theater was always emptyÂ â¦ “It's not your fault,” she said, trying to reassure her cousin the director, “it's those turds in Pennsylvania: they're so provincial, they don't give a flying fuck about art.”
Leonard had moaned about it to Molly, one of his accountant's secretaries, while he was massaging her ankle, and Molly had told him, “That's impossible, your movies do very well in Pennsylvania. In fact, they do well everywhere.”
“So I said to myself, either my cousin is putting me on or my movies are part of a frontâ¦”
When Trent buttonholed you in your office, you thought how lucky he was he'd found you behind that desk, because if your grandpa had been there instead he would have taken a gun out of the middle drawer and shot him in the forehead, just for coming in without knocking. But you wanted to be a businessman. The guy was probably planning to blackmail you, and it was the first time something like this had happened, so you were curious to see how far this dickhead wanted to go. Besides, there was plenty of time to shoot him later.
“Go on, I'm listeningâ¦”
“Okay. Now, you don't know my cousin, but she adores me, right? She's not married, she lives in some one-horse town in Pennsylvania because she's got nothing else to do with her life, and I'm her cousin who makes movies, right? So when my cousin finally gets me on the phone, after she's been told twenty times I'm not there (I do it for my image), and tells me, with rage and indignation in her voice, that the theater was empty seven days in a row, well, you can be sure she's telling me the goddamn truth. You follow me?”