July 6, 2018

Fiction by Joe Giordano: "You Came Out Ahead"

Joe Giordano was born in Brooklyn. He and his wife, Jane, now live in Texas.
Joe's stories have appeared in more than one-hundred magazines including The Saturday Evening Post and Shenandoah. His novel, Birds of Passage, An Italian Immigrant Coming of Age Story, was published by Harvard Square Editions October 2015. His second novel, Appointment with ISIL, an Anthony Provati Thriller was published by HSE in June 2017.

Joe was among one-hundred Italian-American authors honored by Barnes & Noble Chairman Len Riggio to march in the 2017 Manhattan, Columbus Day Parade.
Read the first chapters of Joe's novels and sign up for his blog at http://joe-giordano.com/

You Came Out Ahead

Obnoxious pudge Skepper Mangano owed me money. I held a steel garbage can cover, about to make a pancake of Mangano’s double-chin puss, when Detective Louie Klusinski appeared in the alley with his revolver raised.
"Drop it, Anthony, or I’ll shoot."
"Shit." I blew out a breath and dropped the cover.
Mangano shouted accusations against me, but Klusinski said, "Shut up. You’re both going to jail."
Red-faced, Mangano cursed Klusinski as he was being cuffed. I wallowed in Mangano’s frustration. In the courtroom, Klusinski's testimony against Skepper was harsh, but the detective said that I'd cooperated. The judge gave Mangano thirty days. I got community service.
When Mangano was released, he approached the local thug boss, Pazzo Rizzo. "Crazy" Rizzo's scowl loosened sphincters. He earned the nickname after he axed a previous gang leader into chum and dropped him into Sheepshead Bay.
Pazzo’s woman was Angelica, long black hair, with a butt that beckoned. She’d flirt, but I never responded. If Rizzo caught me smiling at Angelica, he’d skin my pecker and use it as a windsock on his car aerial.
I was summoned to Rizzo’s headquarters. The room smelled of marijuana and stale beer. Pazzo sat amidst his crew on a tattered brown armchair like a king of kings. He sported a Special Forces beret and a neck tattoo with the words, "Veni Vidi Vici." Angelica perched on the chair’s arm. She wore a pink lace bra under a white blouse and jean short-shorts. She flashed me a pixie's smile. Looking like a squatting orangutan, Mangano plopped onto a dilapidated orange couch.
The stench of fear on opponents gave Rizzo an erection. I opted to project an air of confidence that wasn’t confrontational.
Rizzo looked me up and down. "Mangano tells me that the judge didn’t give you jail time because you’re Klusinski's rat."
Snitch was a capital crime in Pazzo's world. My gut soured.
I said, "Bullshit. Mangano disrespected Klusinski, so he got the tougher sentence. I’m pissed at Klusinski for having me pick up dog shit on Euclid Avenue."
Mangano said, "Don’t believe this prick. Pazzo, you always say that when there’s a doubt, kill it. Right?"
Rizzo ignored Mangano. He said, "Klusinski gives me agita. I’d consider it a favor if he disappeared from the neighborhood."
Mangano said, "Pazzo, let me do you the favor."
Rizzo said, "Take the opportunity to prove yourself innocent, and do me a solid. Otherwise, I begin to think that Skepper has a point about you."
"Sure," I murmured.
Rizzo sat back. "Now, you can go."
I tried not to rush from the house.
Outside, my pulse galloped. Nice choice. Kill Klusinski, or have Pazzo and his crew bury me in a New Jersey swamp. Why do I always plunge myself into shit? I sighed. I was surprised that I still had an appetite, but Rosa Di Stephano’s spaghetti frutti di mare would corrupt an Imam during Ramadan. I stopped at her tratoria and contemplated my options over a large plate washed down with a bottle of Verdicchio.
The consequences for killing a cop were dire. The police were just another gang, and if you killed one of them, Marquis of Queensberry rules were screwed into a cocked hat. The cops used ball-cracking coercion to get information. Suspects in cop-killing investigations always "resisted," and were killed trying to escape. I shook my head. Rizzo was a whack-job, but should I thrust my nuts into a cop-guillotine?
On the other hand, Pazzo’s death-threats were as reliable as getting the clap from a ten-dollar whore. If I didn’t kill Klusinski, I’d need to knock-off Rizzo and take control of his gang. The idea was appetizing, but also bat-shit-what-the-hell-were-you-thinking dangerous to execute.
The last choice was to disappear into a non-Italian community, deep into the bowels of the nation. A place where they thought tomato sauce from a can was tasty, and where paisano-grapevine inquiries about me would be greeted with, "Huh?" and a dumb stare.
Before I finished the Verdicchio, eureka. I’d mug Klusinski. Put him into the hospital. The cops would be livid but far less intense in their inquiries than for a murder. Klusinski would be laid up for months and might retire. I’d tell Rizzo that I thought I'd beat him to death. "A" for effort. My digestion of Rosa's pasta improved. I leaned back, sipped the last of my wine, and contemplated a fantasy-romp with Angelica.
I followed Klusinski to learn his evening routine. He always stopped for an espresso at Faustino’s, a small coffee shop on an ill-lit side street in Red Hook. I’d need to be silent and quick, crack Klusinski's skull and disappear over backyard fences.
I acquired a length of plumber’s pipe, took a position on the street, and waited in the shadows. My heart raced as I strained for sight of Klusinski’s car. I talked myself out of the plan three times, but Pazzo’s specter steeled me.  
Finally, Klusinski’s car rolled into view. Pulling to the curb, his tires snapped twigs on the tree-lined street. Klusinski emerged and walked toward Faustino's. I crouched behind a large maple. As he passed, I silently strode toward the detective. Simultaneously, a shadowy figure appeared from behind nearby hedges. In the dim light, I recognized the plump silhouette of Mangano, with pistol in hand. We spotted each other at the same moment. The barrel of his weapon turned from Klusinski toward me. I lunged at Mangano, but he was too far away. He attempted to pull the trigger. Fortunately, the stupid bastard had forgotten to release the safety on the Smith and Wesson 38. Mangano cursed and flailed at me with the weapon like a club. Klusinski saw the danger and rushed at Mangano. Skepper's pistol struck me on the temple, and I blacked out.
I awoke to red flashing lights. Cop cars were everywhere. I felt like a blacksmith pounded my forehead with a hammer.
A short, brown-haired, EMT bent over me. He said, "Easy, man. You probably have a concussion."
I realized that I lay on a stretcher. The EMT shouted to Klusinski that I was awake.
The detective had a pained look on his face. He said, "Anthony, are you all right? You saved my life." He squeezed my shoulder.  "Thanks."
I opened and closed my mouth.
He said, "Don’t say anything. You did a brave thing. I’m recommending you for a civilian commendation."
Through my headache, I managed a small smile.
"Anthony, I always knew that you had potential. You need to use this recognition to make a new start. Get off the treadmill to Rikers Island."
I nodded.
Klusinski patted my arm. "Good." He straightened and looked toward the car where Mangano sat inside, cuffed. "Now, I need to take in the garbage.  We’ll talk soon." The detective left.
Terrific, I thought, a commendation from the cops. I closed my eyes. Pazzo will be so pleased.

"Little old lady got mutilated late last night."
I awoke inside Brooklyn's Unity Hospital with Warren Zevon's voice rattling in my head.
Pazzo exploded like an A-bomb when he learned that Mangano was taken to Rikers Island for attempted murder. Rizzo concluded that I snitched, fatal as getting smeared with radioactive dog shit.
A team of coal miners drilled inside my head. I winced, turning right to discover Victor "Bananas" Giambotta in the next bed. Victor was a three-hundred-pound gambler. He had stomach bypass surgery as a weight-loss tactic and suffered a post-operative infection. His nickname derived from his lugging bunches of bananas to poker games and leaving the peels next to his chips. Victor played poker like my ass whistled, so the pile of skins soon towered over his money and the cigar-smoky room smelled like banana daiquiris. If you run out of cash during a poker hand, you continue playing by drawing chips from the pot in the amount of your wager, called betting "shy." On one occasion, Bananas threw his shy money back into the pot as if making a bet. When I confronted Victor on this slippery maneuver, he smiled through his coke-bottle glasses, apologized, and corrected his cheating. I wondered what other shenanigans I might've missed.
I milked my headaches for extra days in the hospital. Pazzo's minions were monitoring my stay, ready to slice me into carpaccio.
My life's options had narrowed to either kill Pazzo, or flee. Pazzo was surrounded by his boys, so getting to him would be like cutting into a frenzy of sharks, with a crazy great-white at the center. Changing my zip code became the plan.
Before I left Brooklyn, I had to know if Angelica's come-hither looks were just a tease. If Pazzo caught me in flagrante delectable with Angelica, he'd skewer my pecker like a kebab, slice off my nuts, and tie them to his rearview mirror like fuzzy dice. Pazzo could only kill me once, and I needed a treat. Late one evening, I dressed quietly intending to leave Unity Hospital without being released. Victor awoke. I ordered him not to call Pazzo. Victor would earn credit for squealing, so I didn't trust him. Outside, I kept off the streets, darting through backyards, over fences, rattling past trash cans and dodging dangling women's underthings hung from clothes' lines to Angelica's apartment building.
When I knocked, Angelica viewed me through the peep-hole before she opened the door. She wore an all-cleavage blouse and a tight mini-skirt. Her hair was teased into a beehive.
My mouth got dry, and I swallowed.
She clicked gum, looking me up and down, leaning on the door frame with hand on hip. "Anthony," she said, "I wasn't expecting you."
Her tongue ran over her lower lip.
"You gonna call Pazzo?"
She smirked. "You're in danger, but you don't look nervous."
"What do you want me to do? Learn to stammer?"
She chuckled. Her gum clicked faster.
"You gonna let me in?" I asked.
She left space. I entered brushing past her breasts. Her scent was blood orange. She closed the door. My heart raced.
I asked, "You're not afraid that Pazzo will find out?"
She moved close. "I can take care of myself."
I took her into my arms, and she shifted into overdrive. Like confetti at Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, our clothes littered the path to her bedroom. She stuck her gum to the bedpost.
Before dawn, I left with Angelica still asleep and arrived at the Greyhound Bus Terminal on Livingston Street.
Mid-westerners and southerners viewed Brooklyn as a rats' nest of the most arrogant trolls ever to scuff their just polished Florsheims. Never mind that they were manure-sodden hicks who couldn’t find Central Park with a map. Mid-westerner wing-tips had salt stains. I preferred warmer weather, and Texas was large enough for me to disappear. I opted for Rio Rojo, a town where guys in Stetsons drawl-mangled the pronunciation of my last name, and asked if I were an I-talian from I-taly. I figured that any goombahs Pazzo launched to ice me would stand out in Rio Rojo like gorilla toes.
I landed a construction job off the books and labored in 100-degree heat. The town’s senoritas were devout Catholics, and their fathers had shotguns mounted in trucks. I had to check my bedclothes and shoes for scorpions, centipedes, and tarantulas. Two months away from Brooklyn felt like twenty. Like a heroin habit, I developed a craving for Rosa DiStephano's spaghetti frutti di mari. I longed to breathe in the bouquet of an Italian deli, feel the vitality of horn-honking traffic, and view the Verrazano Bridge's lights at night. I had flashbacks of my night with Angelica and wanted seconds. I decided that the time had come for me to settle with Rizzo on matters that had become deeply personal.
Multiple calls to Angelica from a phone box went unanswered. Had Pazzo learned about our tryst? I took a chance and phoned Victor "Bananas" Giambotta. He assured me that Angelica was fine. I offered him a C-note. He hemmed and hawed but finally agreed to contact her on my behalf. I wouldn't chance going to her apartment, so for another hundred bucks, Victor reluctantly offered his flat in Bensonhurst. I spoke only once with Angelica.
"I miss you," I said.
She said, "Me, too."
"Be careful."
She said, "I'd rather be bold."
I laughed.
She said, "I'll have you chewing the bedpost."
I gulped. We rang off.
I bought the Greyhound ticket for Brooklyn that afternoon.
The trip back was like root canal, changing buses three times from Rio Rojo to Brooklyn. I hadn't figured out how I'd get rid of Pazzo. Seeing Angelica was my focus.
Victor's brown-brick apartment building occupied a street with asphalt-shingled row houses. I reconnoitered for a half-hour before I decided that Pazzo's people weren't around. Bananas lived in 4G. I took the stairs. Giambotta opened his door looking like a myopic Orca; he hadn't lost much weight. His apartment must've been decorated by the Salvation Army; a single bed and scattered milk crates. The room smelled like bananas. Hung on his wall was a wooden plaque incised with the dictum, "Everything in Moderation."  
We plopped onto crates waiting for Angelica's knock. The deal was that when Angelica arrived, Victor would leave. My pulse pounded in anticipation. I handed Giambotta four fifty dollar bills. Victor's eyes darted.
I said, "Bananas, you look nervous."
Before he answered, the door was broken open with a bang. Pazzo Rizzo, in his Special Forces beret, and four of his thugs flew into the room. I backed to a wall, then dashed toward a window with a fire-escape. One of the henchmen, a pock-marked face, tackled me to the floor. Pazzo and the other three pricks pummeled me with fists and kicks. I drew my legs into a fetal position trying to abate the knife-in-the-balls pain. I tasted blood. The beating continued. My consciousness was almost gone.
In my haze, my brain registered a shouted word, "Police." Scuffling tumbled around me, and I realized that I was no longer being hit. Detective Louie Klusinski's face peered over me like a full moon.
He said, "Anthony, don't die."
I blacked out.
I awoke in Unity Hospital. New York State health officials had decided to close the facility and the nurses were near tears. Despite several broken ribs, multiple contusions, and a few cracked teeth, they kept me comfortable.
To my surprise, Victor's horn-rimmed glasses showed up one morning.
I opened one eye. My voice was a growl. "You sold me out."
Bananas spread his hands. "Anthony, no way. Not me."
I turned from him. He didn't leave.
I heard footsteps, and Detective Louie Klusinski entered the room. Victor shrunk from the cop.
I raised my hand. Klusinski took it and said, "Anthony, the doctors told me that you'll make a complete recovery."
I nodded.
Klusinski said, "Pazzo and his gang carried pistols. You were lucky. We got them for attempted murder and illegal weapons. They're going away for a long time."
"How did you know?" I asked.
Klusinski's eyebrows rose. "A tip. Female. Said that if we hurried, we could nail Pazzo Rizzo. Any idea who she could be?"
I sighed. "No."
Klusinski left. Victor stepped forward. "Anthony, you've got to believe me. I didn't tell Pazzo."
A nurse brought in a lunch tray with a banana for dessert.
Victor's eyes lit on the fruit.
I said, "Take it."
Victor gobbled the banana like a speed eater.
I said, "Giambotta, I believe you. Now, I need to rest." I closed my eyes.

Leaving the hospital, a nurse kissed my cheek. I was one of the last patients before the State shuttered the place.
I felt strong enough to go to Pazzo's old headquarters, a house off Euclid Avenue.
When I entered the living room, Angelica sat in Pazzo's easy chair, leaning on an elbow, bare legs hung over the armrest. Around her were guys I recognized as formerly being with Pazzo, now with her.
I said, "You're the new boss."
She flashed her pixie smile.
I said, "You told Pazzo where to find me."
She smirked.
Heat flashed up my neck. My fists balled, and I took a step toward Angelica.
The crew around her rose like thunderheads.
I stopped and took a breath. "I could've been killed. Why did you do it?"
Angelica's chin rose. "Pazzo was too well protected. Why take a risk when the cops will solve a problem? You were tempting bait."
My face flushed bright red.
Angelica said, "Don't be mad. I called the cops, too."
I turned to leave. Angelica said to my back. "When you calm down, come and see me."

A few nights later, I invited Victor to Rosa DiStephano's trattoria as a sort of apology. I ordered spaghetti frutti di mare. He ate like a pregnant Hippo. He had a Margherita pizza to start, then a double portion of the pasta, before a generous helping of Rosa's banana pudding. I expected his stomach to explode. We drank two bottles of Gavi di Gavi. The bill came to almost a week's construction pay.
We discussed what had happened over dinner.
Victor burped, offering his assessment. "Anthony, you were a suspected snitch. That was bad." He chuckled. "Now, you're Angelica's bitch." He sat back. "You came out ahead."
~Joe Giordano

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