Inspired by the Edward Hopper painting of the same name.
By Mike Somers.
My old man started this business when I was just a kid and he used to say to me that slinging hash was like standing at the bottom of those steps in Rome or wherever. If you did it for long enough you'd get to meet everyone you'd ever heard of. Thing is, when you're slinging hash in a crummy joint like this, somewhere in the middle hundreds, the chances of you meeting most of the people you ever heard of are not too high. The way things are the only people you do get to meet are two-bit hoodlums and two dollar hookers and somehow I don't think that's what the old man had in mind. Whatever. Anyway, that's the way I thought it was going to stay until the night I'm gonna tell you about.
It was kinda late. Any passing trade I might have got had hit the sack long ago and even if they hadn't the sight of Carmine Romano sitting at the counter nursing a cup of coffee would have ruined their appetite real quick. Carmine was an enforcer for the local boss and he was known on the street as the Concrete Tailor for obvious reasons. On the other side of the counter, making like they wasn't together, was his sidekick Gianni Rosso. Gianni could put the squeeze on most people just by looking at them he was so mean. He had empty black eyes and his face was so full of razor scars it looked like a route map for the Pacific Western. People used to reckon how Gianni whacked his old lady 'cause she was into his boss for some serious bucks but that was a lotta crap. He just roughed her up a little is all but you know how these things get talked up. Gianni was talking to Gloria Schultz who was laughing like a crazy woman at everything he said, which is probably the best thing to do. Gloria made out she was an actress who was "resting", which coulda been true 'cause she spent an awful lotta time on her back.
I'd guessed Carmine and Gianni were waiting on someone 'cause every time they heard something on the street they both looked around then looked at each other like they was talking but making no sound if you get my meaning. But nobody came and they just kept on sucking at their coffees and every so often waving their cups to show they wanted a refill.
It musta been after twelve when the door opens, kinda silent, and in walks this little guy in a tatty topcoat with the collar turned up against the cold. Carmine gives the old guy the once over then shakes his head at Gianni and the pair of them settle down again. The little guy mooches over to the counter and climbs up onto a stool alongside Carmine.
"What'll it be?" I asked when he looked over at me.
"A coffee would be fine," he says then looks round at Carmine. "Would you perhaps be Mr. Romano?"
For a minute there I thought Carmine was gonna fall off his stool but this guy's a real pro and he just gives the little guy one of his steely stares saying nothing for a coupla seconds.
"Who wants to know."
Now if he'd have said that to me I'da been looking round for a rock to crawl under but not the little guy. He just takes a pull at his coffee and without looking up he says,
" I was told that you would be expecting me. My name is Joshua, I represent the Federation of Jewish Businessmen."
Gianni got up and moved around the counter, sliding into the seat on the other side of the stranger with his hand deep in his pocket. So now they had him penned in and he was going nowhere except they wanted him to.
Carmine leaned into the little guy's face.
"What's happened to the other guy, the one that was supposed to be here? Lose his nerve, uh?" Carmine threw Gianni a grin.
"No. No, that would be me, Mr. Romano, I'm the one who telephoned your boss this afternoon and asked if we could meet."
Now Carmine looked really mixed up, like he believed the story but didn't if you get what I mean. He leans in real heavy and examines the stranger real close.
"Don't try fuckin' with me, ya dumb kike, you can't be that guy he threw one of the Boss's Shylocks down the synagogue steps; you don't look like you could throw a party."
"Look, Mr. Romano, I didn't come here tonight to trade insults with you. I came to tell you that we don't like the way your people are intimidating our people, bleeding them white with your demands for money. I know; this is America, the home of free enterprise butů"
"Listen, Hymie, I don't give a good Goddamn what you like or don't like; you or your people. If they don't wanna pay their insurance premiums, fine, but they shouldn't come crying to me if their places get torched or their garbage don't get emptied. Capiche?"
The little guy thinks about this for a minute then looks up at Carmine. He don't even look worried. It's like he doesn't get what Carmine's saying to him.
"We'll have to cross that bridge when we come to it," he says with a shrug.
"Or fall off of it," Gianni says leaning over his shoulder.
"Whatever. I have to insist, though, that you release the boy that you kidnapped. His parents are extremely worried about him and I gave them my word that you would return him."
"That so?" Carmine said. "Well it seems to me you got the wrong idea, pal. See, we got the kid 'cause his old man's the one who started all this crap about not paying up. Now if the boss rolls over for this, pretty soon people are gonna think he's gone soft and nobody's gonna want to pay. So someone's gotta be made an example and the kid just struck out, it ain't nothin' personal y'understand it's just business."
"Then take me instead."
"If it's just business you could take me and let the boy go."
"What are you, stupid? Why should the kid's old man care if we rub you out when he's got his son back?"
"You clearly don't understand the Jewish people, Mr. Romano. We are a very tightly knit community, the only thing that has helped sustain us through the troubles we have encountered throughout history. If you scratch one we all bleed, you might say."
Mentioning blood was probably not a good idea and Carmine laughed in that mean way that people like him do when they're thinking of the next thing they're gonna dump on you.
"Suppose I was to whack you then welch on you and still kill the kid?"
"You could do that," the little guy said, "but then people would know that you are not a man of honour and then what would your word be worth?"
Carmine didn't say nothing to this, he just stared at the little Jew for a real long time.
"Wait here," he said and hauled Gianni off into the corner. They was talking for a while then Gianni went over to the window and gave some sorta signal. A coupla minutes later some big gorilla I never seen before comes in with an armlock on this skinny Jewish kid he's got with him.
All the time this is going on the little guy don't say nothing, he just sits at the counter drinking his coffee. I don't get this at all, he don't even seem scared and the cold way he made the deal with Carmine about his life for the kid's gave me the heebies. You'da thought he was selling him a car or something. And there was this look on his face, as though there was no other way; like this was a game and the rules said he had to die and that was it.
The gorilla shoved the kid in front of Carmine who was grinning all over his mug, you could see he was loving every minute.
"You're in luck, kid," he said hooking a thumb at the little guy. "This jerk here says he's gonna take your place. You're not gonna die after all, ain't that something?"
The kid was real scared, you could see that. They musta been giving it to him all night about how he was gonna die and all if his old man didn't play ball. So by the time they pull this one on him he so shit scared that he won't believe anything. He looks at Carmine like he's real scared of him but not as much as he hates him, see. Boy I woulda hated to be in that kid's shoes 'cause right then even I thought Carmine was gonna kill them both, and who knows he mighta been thinking the same.
"It's not enough to kill me, you gotta torture me already. Why don't you just get it over with, meshuggeneh!"
"Button it, kid," Carmine said and grabbed the kids chin between his finger and thumb. "Keep your rap shut and you go home to poppa. Keep with the smart talk and you'll be sleeping with the fishes."
Th little guy speaks to the kid in Yiddish and the kid answered him in the same stuff and for a minute there I thought they was gonna start a conversation but Carmine slaps the kid alongside his head and points at the little guy.
"You wanna talk, keep it in American so's we can all understand."
"Fine, fine," the little guy says. " I was just telling Simon that he should be quiet and let me do the talking. Now tell me, Mr.Romano, do we have a deal?"
"You sure you wanna go through with this?"
"I would never have made the offer except that I intended to honour it. Will you let Simon go now?"
"Whaddya think I am, Hymie, crazy? The minute the kid's outa here you start jerking us around. Not a chance, the kid stays until you're on your way to the Promised Land. Gianni, you and Tony take him out back into the alley. You, kid, you go nowhere until I give the word, capiche?"
I couldn't believe this. These guys were actually gonna whack the guy in the alley in back of my place. If I didn't already have trouble getting customers into the place I sure would after this.
"Com'on, Carmine, gimme a break willya. What am I supposed to say when the law gets here?"
"You'll tell 'em that you didn't see nothin' and so will that dumb broad over there if she knows what's good for her."
In all the excitement I'd forgotten about Gloria. She was standing by the counter, a kinda sick grin on her face as though she was wishing she'd stayed home and washed her hair or something.
"Okay, Phillie, open the door into the alley, and don't start busting my balls or you might be joining the kike."
When Carmine says something like this you better believe him 'cause the guy ain't known for his sense of humour. So I opened the door. Gianni and the other hood, Tony, dragged the little guy outside into the square of light from the doorway and pinned him against the wall. All the while this is going on the little guy don't say nothing, it's like he just don't care what's gonna happen to him.
"Spread out, boys," Carmine says and you can almost hear the evil in his voice. "I wouldn't wanna hit one of you guys by accident. That's it, hold his arms and pull his arms tight between you. The boss says this has to be painful and there's gotta be a lot of blood."
The little guy's like the rope in a tug of war, stretched out across the wall. Carmine takes a heater outta his inside pocket, pumps a shell into the chamber and points it slowly, first at the little guy's head then down at his guts.
"Like the boss said, painful and lots of blood."
His arm jerks up and shoots the little guy through the wrist on his left hand then across and through the right. Blood starts to spurt and the hood called Tony has to dodge to keep it off of his shoes. The little guy though he doesn't do nothing, his head jerks as the slugs hit him and then it sorta lolls over to one side onto his shoulder like he was dead. 'Cept he wasn't, you could tell from his eyes. Carmine ain't finished yet though. Next he shoots him in the guts, which is a real son of a bitch; you gut shoot someone and they take an age to die, in pain for every second. Like Carmine said, he needed an example and when the story hit the morning papers them guys in the Federation of Jewish Businessmen would be forming a line to pay Carmine's boss what they owed.
Carmine shoved the heater back into his coat and waved at Tony and Gianni to let go of the little guy's arms. Strange thing was he didn't fall, he just stood there as though they was still holding him, arms outstretched, head on one side. Then he spoke in Jewish, just mumbled a few words and fell over into the trash on the alley floor.
Somewhere back towards midtown a siren started up. Inside the diner Gloria was screaming fit to crack the windows. Outside Carmine and his two hoods were gone and there was just me, the kid and the dead guy in the alley.
"Shuddup!" I yelled at Gloria. "And I mean shuddup if you know what's good for ya. These guys do not play games so if the police ask, you saw nothin'. Understand? That goes for you too, kid. It won't do you any good to say who did it 'cause he'll have been in a poker game uptown all night. Besides, what would be the point in your friend dying to save your neck if you just go and shove it right back on the block."
"He wasn't my friend, I don't even know him, he must have been a friend of my father's or something. It's crazy! Why'd he want to do a thing like that anyway?"
"Who knows, kid, just be glad he did is all. Say, what was that he said just before he checked out, something in Yiddish?"
"Nothing much. He just asked God to forgive them, he said they didn't know what they were doing. But they did, they did know. They said they were going to kill him in the most painful way."
"It don't matter, kid, not any more. Lookit, here comes the law. Now remember what I said. Ya didn't see nothing, ya didn't hear nothing, ya don't know nothing. Ya don't even know the guy!"