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Be careful how you live. Not thoughtlessly but thoughtfully. Make the most of your opportunities for the times are evil.
This is entirely a work of fiction, completely based on imagination. All incidents, characters, names are fictional and not intended to represent any real persons or situations.
Doc was stretched out on the cot, fooling with his .38 Police Special. It was an old canvas army cot like mine and soiled by I hate to think what. And of course minus sheets or blankets. Not that we needed them in the muggy room: What we needed was a little clean air.
I watched Doc for a moment. Doc the sharp dresser, Mister Dapper himself. Now he looked seedy. That wasn't like Doc. His suit was wrinkled and tacky, and he had a three-day grayish stubble on his lean face. Even his face was dirty, and his hair seemed ragged. This wasn't like Doc at all. Me, I'm a slob. But at least I was washing every day—using laundry soap for shaving cream. Doc had said he didn't want to use the razor we'd found in the house. But it was a new razor. I don't know; Doc's being so sloppy was beginning to make me uneasy.
Or perhaps it was the waiting. The room itself. The room was so small and crummy it was starting to spook me. Two cots, one broken chair, cracked walls, one naked light bulb. Of course no windows. And bugs. (If this was such and old and unused hideout, what the devil had the damn bugs been feeding on all this tune?) It all reminded me of a cell. Though the only cells I'd ever seen were the detention cells in the precinct houses—and they were luxury rooms compared to this joint.
I turned on my cot and picked up the magazine again. I'd found it under the bed. Dated March, 1951. It was full of coffee stains. Must have been good Java, the color held up for all these years. Of course, maybe it wasn't coffee. For two days I'd been trying to read the dumb stories, rereading the same lines over and over, my mind racing and thinking of a million other things—and I mean one million other things, all of them green. My brain seemed to be jumping around in my head. For no reason I thought of my kid days, of my folks, the Army time I did, when I first became a cop. All the thoughts a way of killing time, I guess: racing around the main idea sticking in my mind like a lump—a million bucks. It's hard to realize what a million dollars is. Okay, that's a corny crack, but it's true. It's simple enough to say you'd do this and that if you had the dough—dream stuff—but when you really have a million, it's like trying to explain the sky, Sputnik: It's too big to understand, too far away to believe you really have it in hand.
When I found myself reading the same silly line, How could I tell my saintly husband what had happened to me, explain about the coming child?, for the third time, I put the magazine down. A couple of fat roaches were walking across the ceiling. How did they keep from falling down? Out of the corners of my eyes I stared at Doc for a second. He looked too much at ease. Nothing ever bothered the old fox. Folding the magazine, I threw it up at the roaches, missing them. At least it made Doc sit up with a start. He asked, “What's the matter, Bucky?”
“Trying to knock down a few of our friends.” He stretched out again; he said, “They're not bothering us.”
“You look like a bum. Why don't you wash, shave?”
“What for?” he asked softly. “Anybody sees me, a shave will be the last thing they will be thinking about.”
Doc always talked softly. With his slight, slim build, the soft voice, the gray hair, you'd never take Doc for tough. But he could be a cage of apes when he had to. Once we were sent out on a vandalism case; some kids were seen busting the windows of a small church. Doc sat in the squad car while I went out to investigate: Doc was very busy with his paper work—figuring his horses for the next day. The “kids” turned out to be half a dozen teen-agers, all of them over six feet and hopped up on beer. They dropped on me like a swarm of monkeys. Before I could get my fists working I was on the ground, the punks sitting all over me, one of them using my head for a yo-yo. I blacked out for a few seconds. When I opened my eyes again Doc was moving among them very gingerly, his sap in his left hand. He'd bat a kid, clout another with his right fist, kick one in the belly, all the time moving daintily as if afraid to wrinkle his suit. I worked the slobs over myself, and then was examined at the hospital for a possible concussion. We almost got hung on a brutality rap, of all things. Seems they were a basketball team celebrating a win, and their dumb parents sobbed about their “poor boys.” They should have seen them dribbling my noggin around. Anyway, because a church was involved, nothing came of the beef.
“I feel better, shaving every day.”
“The Englishman in the tropics?” Doc asked, smiling faintly, still working on his gun. He was always saying things I didn't understand, as if I didn't know which end was up. “I'll shave when we're ready to bust out of this dump, Bucky. Tough turn, the firing pin breaking on me now.”
I reached out and touched my own gun in its shoulder holster. I was always fondling it. “What's the difference? If we're collared it would be dumb to shoot it out anyway.”
And while I was talking I suddenly turned—out of habit—and looked at the three bulky, old-fashioned suitcases against one dirty wall. Innocent-looking bags, used and worn: You'd never suspect what they carried. I never let the bags out of sight for long. Even while sleeping I'm always waking up to glance at them fondly. But then, you see, I was kind of an underprivileged kid—I never had the opportunity of looking at a million bucks before.
Doc said gently, “You're wrong, Bucky. If we're ever caught the smartest and best move will be to shoot it out, and hope to stop a slug. Prison isn't exactly a gay place for cops. I should say, for ex-cops.”
“You're full of happy thoughts. This damn room reminds me of a cell as it is.”
Doc grinned, showing all those small, sharp teeth he usually took such good care of. “Son, never try to kid the kidder. You're getting nervous. It's understandable. We're gambling with a million dollars. I imagine the odds are at least two to one we won't carry it off. But the bundle is worth the gamble. Or isn't it?” He looked up from his broken gun, hard eyes on me.
I wasn't exactly unhappy about his gun breaking. Not that I didn't trust Doc, but he was a many-sided joker, and most of his sides I didn't understand. I said, “Stop selling me. I'm in.” And how silly it was to talk about being “in.” There wasn't any way out—now.
Doc smiled, turned his attention back to his gun. “Just unwind, Bucky boy. We're in the clear, doing fine.” He pulled a crumpled cigarette out of his pocket, said, “Give me some fire.”
“What's the matter with your lighter?” I tossed a pack of matches over to him.
“Out of fuel.” Doc lit his cigarette, grinned as he tossed the matches back—a looping toss. The matches landed smack in the middle of my face.
Doc reminded me a lot of Nate—always telling me to take it easy when he was showing me how to swim, or fish, or box. Doc had the same competence about him; he was able to do so many little things, just like Dad, although he was not as warm as Dad was.... Now, why was I calling Nate “Dad”? The sonofabitch wasn't my real father.
I guess it was comical. I mean all the street fights I was in because I thought my name was Laspiza and somebody would crack smart about Italians. It was only when I finished high school, was going into the Army, that I really learned I wasn't Nate Laspiza's son. I'd had kind of a hint several years before that he wasn't my real father. But when I went into the service there was the little matter of a birth certificate, and then I found out I wasn't even his adopted son.
Both times hit me pretty hard, but on the last one I nearly blew my deal. To this day I don't know how Mom worked it in grade school, but I was always registered as Bucklin Laspiza, which was certainly a fancy handle. But I was damn proud of it. You see how it was. Mom wasn't much of anything around the house. That is, she was just a mama, kind of sloppy and plain-looking, who did the cooking and washing, nibbled on a bottle in secret, or split a few bottles of beer listening to the radio at nights with Nate. I don't want to give you the wrong impression—Daisy was a good mother to me, the best. When I say she hit the bottle, I don't mean she was a lush, but I knew she was taking a secret nip now and then; and looking back on anything, I suppose it's always the bad things that stand out.
Daisy was good and considerate, and I loved her, but I was crazy about Nate, that sonofabitch. In a way, he was about the greatest father a kid could have. I haven't seen him now in years, never hear from him except for the usual Christmas or birthday cards. But in those days, when I was about ten, Nate was my hero—different from the other men in our neighborhood. In this semi-tenement block, most of the men lived in overalls, but Nate was a receptionist for a big oil company downtown and he always wore a pressed suit. He was like Doc, always a snappy dresser, shaving a second time in the evening, even if he was only going to the movies. Why, he wore gloves and sometimes even spats.
He wasn't a big man, never weighed over a hundred and fifty, but Nate was wiry and compactly built. He had a mild sort of face, not handsome but with an expression as if he found the world an amusing sort of place, a kind of secret joke of his own. It was a joy to watch Nate walking down the street among the grubby-looking men and drunks—the snap to his step. You know, I never saw Nate staggering drunk: Like everything else he did, he knew how to drink. Along about five thirty every afternoon I'd watch for him, his standout neatness, the smile on his lean face, his gloves. When I was eleven I used to sleep with Nate's pigskin gloves under my pillow whenever I could.
There was a big slob of a coal-truck driver who moved into one of the houses with his snot-nosed kids. He usually had a half a load on, was all covered with coal dust, and on paydays might pass out on the tenement steps. He had a bellowing voice, was over six feet tall and lardy—had to weigh about two hundred and fifty. He had a rep as a saloon brawler and looked it. One afternoon his oldest kid tried to say a ball I had was his. I wasn't lying or anything when I insisted it was mine.
You see, Nate paid a lot of attention to me. Most guys on the block had so many kids they treated them all as if they were pests. We were the only family with a single child and both Daisy and Nate gave me a lot of time. Especially Nate. He used to take me fishing and hunting, go to the beach with me, show me how to play ball, how to box, and on my tenth birthday he gave me a set of weights and we would work out together a few nights a week. What I'm trying to say is, with Nate's tutoring I was handy with my mitts, maybe even a bit of a bully, so I had to give this kid a bloody nose to convince him about the ball. It was late in the afternoon, and I'd forgotten about the whole damn thing, when this big slob, the kid's old man, came lumbering up to me. He was breathing whisky and suddenly deciding to play the Big Daddy. He said, “Give back that ball, you stealing little wop.”
“No sir. It's my ball. I'm sure because I got it cheap—there's a bump in the rubber and it bounces cockeyed.”
“Don't give me no Eye-tie lip, just the ball.”
“No, sir. That bump—that's how I'm positive it's mine,” I said, scared stiff but standing up to him. As Nate used to tell me, If you think you're right, never back down, Bucky. A beating isn't the worst thing in the world.
So he made a grab for me with one dirty mitt and I ducked under his arm, punched him as hard as I could in his big belly. I didn't hurt him but some of the other men began to snicker. He roared, “Now I'm going to wack your guinea ass, and wack it bare!”
I suppose I was too scared to run. I kept side-stepping his rushes, hitting his stomach—too dumb to smack him below the belt. Some of the women were telling him to stop it, and I remember Mom screaming out of the window to leave me alone. She had a bitch of a temper when she cut loose—even Nate respected it—and I'm sure if she had been able to dress and get down the five flights in time, she would have tore into this lump.
The exercise was sobering him up and when he finally caught me, he ripped my shirt down the back, tore my pants, pulling them down. Maybe he was a queer—he was licking his lips, and I felt his spit on my bare can before he walloped me. That spit hurt worse than the actual lick. Then Nate was pushing through the ring of people. He said in a mild voice, “Get your dirty hands off my kid!” Yeah, he said my kid.
The big jerk dropped me. He stood there with his hands down, roaring, “Look what we have here, the Eye-tie dude!”
Rolling out of the way as I pulled up my pants, I watched Nate step in and belt the guy. It was a hard punch and Nate neatly turned his gloved hand as it landed cutting the eyebrow.
His face bloody, this giant rushed at Nate. His idea of fighting was to come in bellowing and cursing, swinging like a gate. If he'd ever got to Nate he would have crippled him. But Nate knew what he was doing, dancing in and out like a cutie, those tan gloves slicing the big face. Why, Nate's pearl-gray Homburg never even came off! And in a matter of seconds he had the lump's eyes puffed shut, blood streaming from his nose and flabby mouth. Then Nate started working on the heaving belly, and after another minute the big slob was sitting on the street, puffing and actually crying with shame. Nate said, “If you ever lay a hand on my kid again, I'll give you the full treatment. Come, Bucky. Daisy has supper waiting.” And Nate without a mark on him, hardly breathing deeply.