I II III IV V
I hardly felt like singing.
So far, the morning had been just as lousy or worse than the prophet Provini had warned it would be, for traveling at least. "Because the planets were out of whack," he said, or something to that effect. That's why he hadn't bothered to get dressed and came floating out of his humble abode at 5 a.m. wearing nothing but his wife's yellow silk kimono.
"Nize," I said to myself as he hopped off the porch, pirouetted around the rose bushes, and broke into a jog. His fat rolls were bulging and bouncing up and down like the rings on a Slinky. "Real freakin' nize."
"Nize" was the Ranzierian way of saying "nice," and it didn't strike me as odd that I was using it, sarcastic flare of the upper lip and all, considering the amount of time I'd been spending around Larry's newest waitress, Diane "Niane" Ranzier McNalley Ruiz.
Called "Niane" because she had been born ni-nth of the seventeen Ranzier children, she had survived marriages to Fast Philly McNalley and Sergio "Kid Aguada" Ruiz, both of whom, coincidentally, were now serving time for the sale and distribution of a Controlled Dangerous Substance, to wit, smack, though in different locations, and both having been served up by Diane Niane who could accept a lot of deficiencies in her men but disliked very much having the shit beaten out of her. Word was that, despite the partialities of her former spouses, Niane had never developed a craving for the cooker, and her only vices were smoking dope before sex, and farting bad behind onions.
That's not to say, as some of the mentally depleted were quick to conclude, that we had something going, Niane and me, because we didn't. I just happened to drink a lot of coffee, and it was part of her job to pour.
Of course, I couldn't convince Loyal Robinson otherwise. He had heard of our budding romance via the Ranzier family grapevine, a network of fantasies and fabrications he was privy to because of his long-term, off-again off-again, association with Niane's big sister, Dorothea "Diedee" Ranzier Adamson Todd ("Adamson" being all that remained of her first and only husband, Pfc. Montague Adamson, known affectionately by most as Monty, and "Todd" something she tacked on later for effect.)
Later that morning, when after my second trip I made my usual stop to cop smokes and lottery tickets, Loyal was laying for me outside Raji's.
1. Press a coin firmly against the top knuckle of the index finger with the thumb of the same hand. (Curling the index finger is helpful in this regard.)
2. Maintain pressure as you lower the coin to the surface of the ticket.
3. Scrape like a mother!
"Two two four, two two four, two two four," Loyal chanted from across the street. Who knows how long he'd been waiting there. "Two two four, two two four."
I knew exactly what he was talkin' about, and what he wanted to talk about some more, but I was otherwise involved at the moment scratching my $2,000 a week for life, "Here Comes the Millennium Sweepstakes" instant lottery ticket. All I had to do to win was uncover the words "$2,000 a week for life," in three of the six windows provided. There were shit prizes, too -- $2, $5, $25, $50, one free ticket, and two free tickets. Me and Larry had just split fifty yesterday on a ticket we'd gone down on together. But, now, with two grand prize windows already staring up at me, I wasn't thinkin' shit prizes, I was thinkin' two large a week for life.
"Two two four, two two four."
Just one more window and I'd stroll across the street -- maybe do a little moon walk on the center line -- then, I'd stick the friggin' ticket in Loyal's face and say, "Read it and weep, mother fucker!" But, alas, the god's were dumpin' on me good this day, and I didn't even win shit.
"Two two four, two two four." Loyal, as always, was persistent. Thumping his fist on the hood of his taxi, he was trying to imitate the "We will, we will, rock you" cadence the fans at the stadium pound out between batters. "Two two four, two two four."
The significance of "two two four," or two twenty-four, or February 24th, is that that just happens to be Diane Niane's birthday, which I had discovered a few days back, on Tuesday to be exact, when, strapped for a number to play in the daily three digit game, I said over the counter, "What's your birthday, Niane? Think I'll play it today." Then, when quite fortuitously, the number comes in paying $260, me having it five times straight for 1300, I give Niane 224, which is, more or less, what you'd give anybody under the circumstances who provided you with a winning inspiration.
"A token of my depreciation," is how I graciously put it to spare the single step-mother of two any unnecessary embarrassment. I knew she could use the money, even if she didn't (I later learned she had spent the money at a Tupperware party she went to at a sisters' house.) And that's all there was to it, really, despite all the Ranziers' twistin'.
"Two two four, two two four."
Things weren't going well, today, though -- I was riding a losing wave. And, as I looked up at the Clinton Street overpass, I couldn't help wondering what Provini would look like dangling from the arch by his ankles.
Though it might not sound like it, I guess, officially, I would have to list Loyal Robinson among my best friends. Still, when he wanted to, he could be a human hemorrhoid, which is why, just then, I decided to avoid him and go straight up the road to Larry's. I'd gone as far as the five and dime when he caught me.
"Hey, Willie," he said, walking at my side. Most folks had been calling me that since my pool playing days.
"Two two four, two two four."
I gave him a shot in the shoulder. "Get out'a here, Dickhead, with that dumb shit."
He laughed. So did I, not meaning it.
"Ha, ha, ha. So, what's new with Grella?" I was trying to change the subject. Grella owned the taxi company where Loyal was working and, being something of a transportation magnate myself, I liked keeping tabs on the slimy little turd. "Still tryin' to blow me out of the water?"
How To Blow That Bastard, Willie, Out of the Water
by Harvey "The Worm" Grella
1. Instruct all drivers to bad mouth the sonova bitch at every opportunity. For example, make up stories about clients missing flights to Hawaii or being stranded at JFK at two in the morning because Willie forgot about them or else was too drunk to drive.
2. Vandalize his cars using any of the traditional methods, i.e., slashing tires, sweetening the gas tank, flipping lit cigarettes through opened windows, scratching the paint with any available metal object, such as car keys, church keys or any kind of keys at all, and, at the very least, by gobbing on the windshield.
3. Have drivers report all sightings and, when possible, identify passengers by name, address, or both.
4. Bombard identified passengers with coupons and other direct mail propaganda.
5. Dial up Willie's answering machine several times daily in order to get up to the minute reports on his comings and goings.
(This brainstorm of Grella's was designed to take advantage of my practice of recording detailed itineraries on my voice-mail so that customers calling for last minute confirmations would know I hadn't forgotten them. For example, my message this day was: 'Willie's Un-limo-ted, Willie speakin'. Well, while I'm on the road this morning, first with Mr. Provini, then with the guy from Envirotronics, my machine'll do my answerin'. So , if you need some information, or wanna reserve a car, you can leave your name and number and I'll get back to ya, or, ya can try callin' again later, at about, say, one o'clock. Remember -- I'm less than a limo!' Grella viewed this technique as a flaw in my armor and he'd been trying hard to take advantage of it.)
6. Dispatch cabs to customers or addresses alluded to on answering machine on the off chance you might be able to snag a fare.
"Two two four, two two four." Now, he was sneering at me. As I studied his face, I caught a whiff of his eau de bar rag breath. He'd been out drinking last night which meant he and Diedee were off-again, again.
"Aw," I whined. "Does Woyal gotta headache?"
"The spirit was willin', so, Loyal went swillin'. He promised Diedee 'no more,' now, his butt's out the door." He lowered his eyes. "C'mon over Larry's, pal. I'll buy ya coffee."
"Don't think I oughta."
Larry's was the unofficial meeting place of the Ranzier clan which is why Loyal wasn't about to go there. By now, they would've heard all about his fall and would be waiting, one and all, with nostrils aimed at the door, and their upper lips flared, in preparation for a crushing and collective, "Nize." They didn't like Loyal, didn't think he quite measured up to their regal standards, didn't think he was a suitable companion for Diedee, and they never tired of comparing him with his predecessor beneath the Ranzierian sheets, Monty Adamson.
They worshiped Monty with cult-like fervor. Each year, usually in August, around the 14th, Monty's birthday, the Ranziers would travel en masse down to Washington, DC, where they'd lay a banquet of wreathes at the foot of The Wall, and take turns making tracings of his name. The tearful ceremony would end with a traditional joining of hands and bowing of heads while one of their members recited the following verse:
Loved by one and all,I hear the overall effect is quite touching.
We treasured him like a dad.
He answered his country's call,
And gave everything he had.
Unfortunately, the truth of the matter (and I do believe that every once in a while we should consider the truth) is that while he was alive, the Ranziers didn't have much use for Monty, either. I can still remember Sonny Ranzier, the eldest of the Ranzier boys, leaning towards me at the funeral, all those years ago, and proclaiming so that everyone within twenty feet could hear, "You know, Willie, the friggin' Girl Scout was three C..." They'd been calling him either "The Girl Scout" or "Captain Zit" ever since he returned home from basic with his proud, "look at me in my uniform" swagger. "...He shouldn't even've been the fuck over there." And for the longest time, the family's version of Monty's short and tragic life was always punctuated by that ironic kicker. Then, of course, came Rambo.
"So, Willie, uh, how's Provini?" Loyal was so eager to change the subject he didn't realize he had just tipped me off to the fact that Team Grella had already made contact with my machine. I was working on a counter-plan, which I'll tell you about later, so I decided to let his lapse pass without comment.
"Funny you should ask," I began, then I laid down in detail, right down to the yellow silk kimono and undulating walk across the lawn, my latest encounter with Provini. This is when I inadvertently summed the whole deal up as "nize." It was a meaningless slip of the tongue, but Loyal took issue and pounced all over my unsuspecting ass.
"Look who's speaking Ranzierese. Look who's crawling on his knees!" he spat. Loyal was what a psycholinguist might refer to as a "rhymer." He followed that ditty with another.
"He throws two twenty-four to Lady Ni,
Now, he's the apple of her big brown eye.
The Ranziers ask, 'Will more he toss?'
Then they urge Niane to come across."
Now, there was nothing wrong with Diane "Niane" Ranzier McNally Ruiz. Honestly, she was a "nize" kid. But, she had more problems than Yugoslavia and was hardly a candidate for romantic entanglement. "I hope you're kidding!" I said.
"Whoa-ho-ho-ho-ho," he laughed, grabbing his crotch. "Whoa-ho-ho-ho-ho!"
"Whoa-ho-ho-ho-ho" was a Ranzierian way of feigning laughter that hailed back to Kosmo, a landlord Talon, one of the famed Ranzier zipper twins, had had whose annoying habit it was to laugh that way loudly, at all hours, night and day. It was very irritating.
"Whoa-ho-ho-ho-ho!" I sneered, emphatically, grabbing my crotch like I was gripping a salami.
"Whoa-ho-ho-ho-ho!" he growled. I knew that behind booze and a hangover about all you could expect from Loyal Robinson was venom. But, what I didn't realize at the time was that much of his hostility sprang from his illusions concerning me and Luscious, the youngest and, in many ways, most desirable of the Ranzier women. Oh, sure, I was aware of her mouth-watering charms, and I had, more than once, tried to imagine what it might be like to play tongue tag with the little wench, but who hadn't? Anyway, I'd had enough of his whoa-ho-hoing, so, without even glancing at my watch, I bid him adieu, saying, "I think I'm late for something." Then I started again for Larry's.
"Willie!" he shouted. "Wait!" But, I didn't. "Niane," he screamed after me, determined to be heard. "Niane, he's not that bad looking." He was speaking in a high-pitched nasal wail that was universally recognizable as the call of the Ranzierian female. "That's right, Ni. He's a pretty good catch. Oh, and Willie--"
Mercifully, one of our local degenerates, hell-bent on sharing his taste in music, or lack thereof, with the thinking world, cruised by just then with his car radio blaring and drowned out the rest of Loyal's reenactment. I recognized the gentleman, the bucket of bolts he was driving, and his greasy t-shirt from a recent visit to Albie's Junkyard where I had picked up a rim for $10. He had cornered me that day inside Albie's shack and demanded I take a stance on the hot topic of the moment, his daughter's penmanship. From what I could understand, the child's teacher had not applied a happy face sticker to one of her assignments because of a perceived flaw in the girl's construction of the eleventh letter of the alphabet. Holding the girl's paper in my face (Yes, it was upside down), this fellow had ardently declared, "Now, ain't dat a purfickly grood kray?" "Looks purfickly grood to me," I agreed, thereby establishing myself in his eyes as a person of remarkable mental capacity. Recognizing me now, he tossed his head toward the good-looking red-head who was sweeping the walk outside The Finery Shop, made a sucking sound, and shouted, "Oo-oo whee, baby! Lookee dere!"
Revulsed, the girl shot him a pukey look, then turned away.
"C'mon, Darlene," I said, trying to lighten the moment, "he's not that bad looking."
"And, he's a pretty good catch!" Loyal shouted from behind. "Whoa-ho-ho-ho-ho."
But, I digress, while Provini sweats. Doo-dah, doo-dah. A quick recap:
First comes Provini
Who plays with his weenie.
Next, it's Niane
Who can't keep a man.
Then, enter Loyal,
The cankerous boil.
And last, join the fray
Over the dubious "kray."
Is it too late to make a dedication? "Just write, Willie," said the guy from Envirotronics. "Don't worry if it's right or wrong." Oh doo-dah dey.
I dedicate this story to the guy from Envirotronics. It was all his idea. He caught me scribbling in my notebook once while I was sitting in the airport waiting for his flight to land, which it had already without "arrived" flashing up on the screen, and asked if he might read it. "Sure," I said, "you might," and I gave him my spiral bound figurin' he'd give it a skim while we bounced down the road, but he hung onto it instead till the next time he traveled which was a Thursday of the following week.
He was real encouraging and likened my "chronic meandering" to traveling through back streets and alleyways. "It's a much more interesting route," he said, using language he figured I'd understand, "than a ride straight down the freeway." Of course, the "guy" didn't know anything about cab drivers or what's interesting to them. He'd grown up in the midwest somewhere, in the shade of the spreading corn flake tree, and the only hack he'd ever known was a dude named Ike who made grocery runs on Friday and Saturday by appointment only and never went anyplace without his fishing rod. I tried to explain that for a "real" hack the best route anywhere -- to the grocery store, the airport, or the end of a friggin' story -- was usually the fastest, unless you were on the meter or unless you happened to land a fare fatale who liked to wear her hem up around her ear lobes, in which case, a detour might be in order.
Which reminds me of this chick, Rachel, the one with the big German Shepherd, who used to live up on Thomas Hill. I picked her up one hot night and was running her someplace, some gin mill up in Mine Hill, I think -- the pooch was patrollin'' the back seat, she was up with me -- when he starts lappin' the sweat off the top of my bald head. "Jack!" she wailed. "Stop that! Quit lickin' the man's head!" At which time, I turned and casually suggested that, maybe, since the night seemed right for lickin' heads...
Oops, there I go again -- hookin' left when I oughta stay straight. They call me the meanderer, yeah the meanderer. I meander round 'n' round 'n' round 'n' round 'n' round.
Anyway, Loyal thought the guy from Envirotronics was a gay-rab and his interest in my writing was just part of a "you're-so-fascinating, let's do the two-boy boogie" scenario. I knew better, though, or thought I did, mainly because I'd seen the "guy" with the "woman." And she wasn't just a woman, she was like the Rolls Royce of femininity, a philly mignon, so to speak. Somewhere along the road that took me from her shortly coifed brown hair, through her big brown eyes, to her pouty lips, I got the impression she was a French fashion model; I found out later she was neither.
First time we met, she introduced herself as Gretchen and graciously placed her fine and delicate hand between these rough and knobby pecker holders of mine. It felt tingly, like when I touched my first tit. That night, I chauffeured her and the guy to the 47th Street Theater, then to Giordano's for dinner, and, after that, back to his place where everything pointed to her spending the night. No, the Guy didn't have wings on his wingtips, and I didn't think he was peddlin' the old bi-cycle either, if you know what I mean.
Last time I saw the guy from Envirotronics -- it was late one evening, long after the events described in this story, and we were speeding back from JFK -- he asked if I remembered this song I had sung for him back when I was still driving for Grella. It went to the tune of "The Wabash Cannonball." When I said I did, he asked if I'd sing it for him again. It goes like this:
Forget about three Summers
And your trips to Kennedy.
I'm sending you to Vict'ry Gardens --
Go pick up three-oh-three.
And, if that ain't to your liking,
Wait till you get the next address.
Don't you know you're ridin'
Grella's All Airball Express!
Do you remember Tuesday?
You were sittin' on your mike.
Grella heard you tell Miss Jane
He wasn't very bright.
There's a good one at the station,
And a stiff down on De Pew.
It won't be hard to figure out
Which one he's givin' you.
When I finished singing, things got a little strange-ja-vous because we replayed a conversation I was pretty sure we'd had already, years before. First, he asked about Three Summers.
"Nice lady, good tipper," I said. "Usually good for a deuce."
"Mae-ball the air ball."
"The good one at the station?"
"Sparta man -- lunch, two beers, and a five dollar bill."
"And the stiff down on De Pew."
"That, my man, was you. But, don't worry about that 'cause you've come a long way since then, a real long way."
"Hell, yeah! You hardly ever dip below fifteen percent anymore, and, even when you do, it's only by a point or two. Besides, that was before I knew ya."
That made him smile. "You're a good friend, Willie," he said, then he drifted off to sleep.
About a month later the guy died from AIDS. I picked up Gretchen at the bus terminal and drove her out to his place to get some things. That's when I found out she was his sister. She called him Phillip. He had told her I was a writer and she said she'd like to read something I wrote sometime. I said, "Sure" and thought about putting some moves on her, but she was acting sad and all, so I just told her what a nice guy Phil was and left it at that.
Talking about "strange"...
Provini had finished his little dance and was now sitting beside me yakking about the planets, in general, and Mercury, in particular.
"Reprobate?" I asked, seeking clarification of the planetary concept responsible for old Moon Ass's last minute cancellation.
"Retrograde!" he corrected.
"Retrofuck," I groaned.
It screwed up travel, he insisted.
"Which is nothing," I injected, "compared to what it's done to your fashion sense."
That made him self-conscious, so he pressed a sweaty, wadded-up ten dollar bill into my hand and said, "Here, for your trouble." Then he rolled out of the car and sashayed back to the house.
I hate sweaty money.
Mi amore, Ni, was huddled at the near end of the counter with her brother, Sonny. "Nize," she said. "Real freakin' nize." From the disgust that smeared their mugs, I figured they were talkin' about Loyal, and I was right, at least halfway.
"Hi," I said.
She almost smiled, carefully set her cigarette down in the ashtray admonishing Sonny not to smoke it, then slipped behind the counter and walked beside me, with the stools and the counter between us, back to my usual seat. "Coffee?" she asked.
There was no reason to ask -- I always had coffee, but five of her sisters were there sitting at the booth behind me and, with their eyes suddenly on us, I figured she didn't want to encourage more gossip by acting too cozy. "Yeah," I responded. "Black."
While I waited for her to draw my coffee, Sonny called from the far end. "Hey, Willie, seen Loyal?"
"He was just outside. Ya can probably catch 'im if ya hurry."
"He better hope I don't." Sonny was still acting like a bad ass, even though most people in town knew that Stevie Licinski, not known as a fighter, had recently knocked him flat with one punch.
"Sonny, shuddup," snapped Niane as she set down my cup. "Anything alse?" "Alse" was another uniquely Ranzierian utterance. It meant else.
I had an uncontrollable hankerin' for a lemon filled doughnut. Day before, Luscious had sneaked up behind me and snatched one, half eaten, out of my hand. Then, as she gazed into my eyes, she started dipping her hot little tongue into the creamy yellow flow where my mouth had just been. She even pressed against me and moaned a little, and ever since my hormones had been sizzling like piss on a campfire. But, the sisters were behind me watching and listening. "Better make it a hard roll," I said. "With booter."
I had picked up the "booter" line from Raji. It was how he ordered his rolls. Niane nodded with approval.
"You know, Ni, I blame her as much as I blame him," said one of the sisters, "Maybe more."
"Me, too. HARD ROLL WITH BUTTER, LARRY, FOR WILLIE."
Larry poked his head out of the kitchen. He'd been back there mixing slaw. "What's wrong, Willie? No lemon doughnut?"
"Not today, thanks," I said with a little flick of my tongue. Of course, the sisters were behind me and Niane was headed away back to her cigarette.
"You're sick," said Larry. Larry was engaged to this doll, Sherrie, who worked in the bank across the street, so I never stopped to think he might be jealous. Yet, I should've known he was because everybody loved Luscious -- everybody. It was impossible not to. When she came through the door, the men would break off their conversations and show her their lustiest smiles. And, she had a way with women, too, whose chrome shined all the brighter when parked next to her sweet chassis. As the hour approached 9, more than one pair of eyes would start covering the door, not because there were appointments to keep, but because Luscious was due to arrive.
"I tell ya one thing, Ni. I pity both of them when Diedee finds out?" said Boots, another of the sisters.
"Yeah," replied Ni. "So do I."
I was starting to suspect that Loyal had been up to more than just swilling, so I ducked into the kitchen to see how much Larry knew. Niane usually told him everything.
"Talon's knocked up again," said Larry, as he handed me my roll on a plate.
Tommy Ranzier, who had been washing dishes and singing "My Juanita" along with the little radio that sat on the shelf over the sink, swiveled his head around and added, "And Loyal did it."
Whoa ho-ho-ho-ho boy. We're talkin' major Ranzierian repercussions, here. Not that Talon screwin', or Loyal either for that matter, was news, but the fact that they'd been drilling each other -- that was special. And pregnant! Niane was already playin' mama to two of Talon's offspring, the latter displaying no interest in children beyond the launching pad.
I went back to my stool along with my roll and, trying not to stare too hard, glanced down at Ni to see if she was emitting a motherly glow.
"Fuck you," she said.
She seemed to be looking at me when she said it, but, thank God, she was talking to Sonny.
"Hey," he repeated, "all I said was 'least she ain't queer!' One queer in the family's enough. Right, Boots?"
"If she was queer," said Boots, "she probably wouldn't be pregnant again."
"That's what I say," said Ni.
Boots continued. "Who's gonna take care of this one, huh? You?"
"Don't look at me," said Sonny.
"Well, Ni's got her hands full already, and I'm sure as hell not gonna."
"Thank God Mama didn't live to see this," said another sister.
"Shuddup," said Niane. "Here comes Lush."
"She already knows," said Boots. "I called her last night."
In she came, true to her name. I'd've eaten a yard of her chunky puke just to lick off her lips. Sensing the sisters watching me drool, I turned away.
"Hey, Lush." "Hi, Lush." "Ho, Lush." Everybody took time to greet the fine, the sweet, the soft, the warm, the adorable, delectable, huggable, sqeezable, devourable, grabbable, grabbable, grabbable... She muscled her way in beside me, eyed my hard roll, and pouted. "Felt like something different," I lied.
We traded looks -- mine offering her a nibble, hers declining.
"What's new?" she inquired, and before I could formulate an answer she pivoted toward her sisters. As she spun, her breasts, each in its firm and joyous turn, rolled across my arm. Oh, what a wonderful thing an arm is! (Pretty poetic, eh? especially for a guy who once thought Walt Whitman was the discoverer of chocolate) Grab'er, grab'er, grab'er. I was in real danger of doing something loony, so I took a few deep breaths and closed my eyes. When I opened them again, Larry was staring me in the mug, snickering like he knew exactly what I was about. I gave him the finger.
"Same to you," he said. "Niane, you tell Willie Joey Pappas wanted 'im?"
"No," she sang, "I didn't."
"Well, your salf." (salf -- another Ranzierism)
Sonny, being cute, called out, "Willie, Joey Pappas's lookin' for ya," which by then I already knew. I hoped he didn't want a ride to el aeropuerto. As a rule, I didn't like to do business with old friends or even near misses like Joey -- they were never on time, they didn't tip, and they always expected a break. Plus, if he should happen to get on your nerves, you can't toss a pal out of the car.
Luck was with me. From what they were saying, Joey wasn't looking for a ride, he wanted to talk about his bar, formerly Freddy's, soon to be reopened as Joey P's Starlighter, a fifties dive. The Ranziers, it seemed, had been following Joey's progress pretty closely, all of them, with the exception of Sonny, saying it was coming along "nize". Sonny said the '55 Chevy Joey had assembled over where Freddy's pool tables used to be was "the stupidest fuckin' thing" he ever saw in his life because, instead of facing the windshield, the two seats were set sideways facing each other. "Because it's a booth, Asshole," explained Ni.
Of course, the only thing I was concerned with at that moment was whether or not Luscious was going to make another 180, and whether she intended to titillate my arm en route. All the time she'd been talking to the sisters about Talon, mapping out strategies to ensure she stayed clean and got the right kind of care, she'd been maintaining steady contact with my side. It was all I could do to keep from grabbing her, grabbing her, grabbing her, and dragging her back into Larry's shitter and locking the door.
I probably should've been grateful to Joey Pappas for intervening just then; but I wasn't. Excusing himself, he nudged Lush out of the way, explaining how he had to talk to me about something important. "How's it goin', man," he said.
The Ranzier sisters shifted their asses to the left, fulfilling their part in the vicious conspiracy, and Luscious, safe for the time being, escaped into the booth. I looked up at Joey. Snot was dangling from his mustache. Whoa-ho-ho-ho-ho.
"Pappoose," I said. I called him that sometimes though I knew he didn't like it.
"I been lookin' for ya, man," he said. "Anybody tell ya?"
"Yeah, man," I said.
"No, man, Larry... and his motley crew." Niane was about to object, so I hastily added, "and crewette."
"Oh, because I was talkin' to Bobby the other day about this idea I've been playin' around with for the grand opening. Two weeks, man!"
Joey was charged up as usual. He had that way about him, like he'd just snorted a yard of crystal. Over the years he'd been through the recycler several times. When I met him he was a "Nicky Newark" greaser with a collection of high roll and long collar shirts that would've put Salney Brothers out of business. White on whites, blue on blues, pink on pinks -- there must of been a hundred of them hanging on three circular racks in his bedroom. Needless to say, this made quite an impression on a guy who had been trying to make do with five used and faded garmentos -- two white, two blue, one yellow.
Of course, when Joey went hippie a couple years later, the dipshit mysteriously lost all memory of his former well-shirted self, just like now when he was opening a gin mill, he'd forgotten about all those times when, flipped out on Jesus, he had toured the local nightspots hooting for patrons to throw down their drinks or burn in hell.
"He said he'd talk to you about it, see what you think. You haven't seen'im, though, huh?"
"No, Reverend Joey. Ain't seen 'im."
Bobby was an artist who also happened to be a cousin on my mother's side. Most days, he'd be up in his studio doing art stuff -- drawing, painting, and that. So sometimes, not all the time, when I had time to kill between trips, I'd stop by to see what he was doin' and shoot the shit. If he was working, and a lot of times he was, I'd just sit there for hours and watch without saying a friggin' word. But I'd been busy lately, real busy. I was sure he was thinkin' I was stayin' away 'cause my feelings were hurt the last time I went up there and his door was locked and there was a stupid fuckin' sign on it saying he didn't want to be disturbed because he had a deadline to meet. He was wrong, though.
"Been too busy," I added.
Joey fished a black t-shirt out of the plastic shopping bag he was carrying and handed it to me. "Check it out, man."
I lifted it up and let it unfurl. There were puffy white letters on it -- D-r-e-a-m beats. Dreambeats.
A brief bio.
Not much right, plenty wrong,
But how he loved them lahng lahng-lahngs.
"Yeah, a reunion, man. I wanna get the boys back together for the grand opening. Bobby said he's been dying to sing and I was talking to Groatsy..."
Singing a capella. For a time, nothing meant more to me -- not women, not drugs, not even shooting pool. There's nothing like a ride on a five part chord.
"Who's singin' second?" I asked. As I have already mentioned, Monty Adamson hit the ultimate sour note when he stepped on a land mine in Viet Nam. He'd been our second tenor.
"Bobby says he knows a guy who might wanna. Some artist I think."
The original Dreambeats -- Monty Adamson, Tommy Groats, Bobby Pachetti, and me -- appeared at the 1964 Morris County Republican Committee Banquet and sang five songs into a dead mike while the headliners, a polka band, took a break to eat. That was the highlight of our career. We didn't hook up with Joey till later when some idiot got the bright idea we could use some bottom.
Niane called down to us in Ranzierese. As she spoke, her cigarette danced up and down. "Tommy can sang. Can't he, Larry?"
Larry was mixing potato salad. "Huh?" he said.
"Can't Tommy sang? He knows all the oldies."
"Hey, Russian," summoned Sonny. Russian was Tommy's Ranzierian nickname. It probably had something to do with the red blotch on his forehead. "Get the hell out here."
Tommy appeared towel-in-hand.
"Sang somethin'," said Sonny.
"I'm serious, dorkhead, sang something."
"C'mon, Tommy," urged Ni.
"Go on," added Larry.
"Well, since the boss says so..." He thought a couple seconds, then belted out a pretty decent sounding, "My Juan-i-ta."
"Johnny Maestro!" said Joey.
"Look," I was quick to point out, "singin' lead and singin' second tenor are two different things. We don't need no lead -- we got Groats."
Not that I was or ever had been the greatest singer in the world. Fact was, and Joey would be glad to back me up on this, I was usually a few degrees to the flat side of top dead center and only occasionally square on my note.
"Hit the baritone, Willie," said Joey, "low though, so I can hit first without strainin' my noogies, man. Tommy, you come in over Willie, then I'll hit the top. Okay? Ready, man? My Juan-i-ta..." Going up the ladder, we blended into a pretty decent chord. "Right on!" said Joey. "Now, let's try a little background. Follow me."
Joey always wanted to run the show. That annoyed me. "Whatever you say, Shirt Man."
Wah-wah shoo-shoo shoo-dooby-dooby doo,
Wah-wah shoo-shoo shoo-dooby-dooby doo,
Wah-wah shoo-shoo shoo-dooby-dooby doo,
Please be mine.
There was a smattering of applause, mostly from the Ranziers.
"Cookin'!" said Joey. "Way to burn."
It did sound good, though; I had to admit that. So we decided right then that Tommy Ranzier would be our new second tenor and that, if I happened to see Bobby, I could tell him to forget his artist friend.
Before going up the studio, I stopped by the apartment to check messages. Good thing, because besides one whining hang up ("Ida, it's a machine, a machine. He says he's away from the phone right now.") there was a call about Pat Giavanni coming into Newark at half past midnight on US Air flight 3410 from Charlotte. Pat Giavanni, a two or three times a month regular and a ten dollar tipper, was of the masculine gender. I mention that only because the first time I went to LaGuardia to pick him up, knowing only his name, figurin' he was a chick, I put a big PATTY GIAVANNI on my sign. There I was standing like a dummy waitin' for this chick to come wiggling down the chute, maybe even fantacizing a little about what might go down on the long ride home, when up walks this block of concrete in a Georgio Armani. "Listen, pal. My name is Pasquale Giavanni," he said, "but my friends call me Pat. Nobody, and I mean fuckin' nobody, calls me Patty. At least nobody livin'. Understand? I hope you do, because I'm gonna do you a big fuckin' favor now by not kickin' your skinny fuckin' ass all the way to Jersey. Understand?" I told him I got the general idea. "Lucky for you it's early. I get cranky when I'm tired."
Which is what I was counting on when I picked up the phone and called Grella explaining that I had this emergency and wondered if he could help me out by picking up this broad, Patty, who was coming into Newark at 12:30 a.m. He said he could, so I thanked him and made him promise to send his best driver on account of the girl being such a good tipper and all. That, I figured, would induce the old scumbag to gobble the trip up for himself.
"She must be a dog if you're giving her away," he chuckled.
"No, no, no," I swore. "Far from it."
Like I'd done with everybody I'd met that day, I told Bobby the story of fat fuckin' Provini, except this time I referred to old lard ass as Queen Kimonomono, like he was one of those blubbery Hawaiians. He laughed, probably thinking he had missed having me around the last couple weeks.
"Ya know," Bobby was saying as he loaded up his brush with green paint, "I never told you but I didn't like the idea at the time and I've always felt bad I went along with it."
The memory's a funny thing. Like the other day I was hangin' at the airport waiting for a flight that was held up in Atlanta because some movie star got stuck in traffic. Well, waiting for the same flight was this little boy and his mother (Mommy was one fine lookin' femalian, but she and the kid had this Norman Rockwell thing going, so I tried not to think about bonging her). Anyway, the kid couldn't wait to see his daddy. Every time a plane hit the runway, and they were landing every two or three minutes, he'd get all pumped up and start jabbering, "Is that his plane, Mommy? Is that his plane?" Usually, kids yakkin' like that annoy the hell out of me, but his yakkin' didn't. It just made me sad.
Then all of a sudden I remembered this time when I was a little boy and my old man had gone to the VA hospital to have his piles cut out. For some reason, I had been eager to see him too, probably because all friggin' morning my old lady had been serenading me with this wacky 'Daddy's coming home today, Daddy's coming home today' song, like it was something to celebrate. Of course, it wasn't, and when he did appear, later, charging up the street, dark, brooding, and muttering to himself like he always did when he was about to cause some serious pain, I forgot about the old lady's fantasy and took off for the attic where I hid out for a day and a half till things died down.
And what Bobby was apologizing for? I had completely forgotten about that stuff too. But as he spoke, it came back in detail, that Saturday afternoon, twenty years ago.
I was in the poolroom banging the balls around when Stevie Liscinki walks in and, knowing I'm the Dreambeats' baritone, asks me why I'm not up the bowling alleys blowin' notes with the guys. Well, I would never forget a practice (in fact, I was the guy who always made sure everybody else remembered), so I'm pretty sure Stevie's bustin' my balls and I tell him so. But he wasn't bull shittin' me, he says, his voice rising an octave. He swears on his mother he just came from the alleys and the guys were there. Now, I have to believe him. Maybe something came up, I figure. Sure, that was it, and the guys had been trying to get hold of me but couldn't because I was in the friggin' poolroom bangin' balls around. Dumb shits, I remember thinking, where else would I be on a Saturday.
I throw down some money and pay the time, then take off on foot uptown toward the shopping center which is where the bowling alleys were. I know it isn't cool to go running up Main Street in your wing-tips and pegged iridescents, but at that moment I don't care about being cool. Like I was saying, singing meant a lot to me.
Jogging along, I imagine the greeting I'm going to get. "Hey, Willie, where the hell you been? We tried to get a hold of ya but you weren't at home." "Shoulda known I was at the poolroom, ya fuckin' idiots," I was gonna say, then "Come on, let's burn," or something to that effect.
From a block away, I can see Bobby's car parked on a slant in front of the alleys and Joey's beside it. Then, I hear singing. The reason we liked singing in that stairwell that led up to the lanes was the acoustics, and, now, drawing near, chords bouncing around the entranceway resonate in my chest like blasts from a church organ. Trickle trickle, splash splash, tell me how long will this rain last. Rain keeps droppin', sure ain't stoppin', tell me how long will this rain last.
Out of breath, I push open the door and for no good reason, just screwing around, yell out angry like, "What the hell's goin' on here?" Bad choice of words, though, because the boys start acting like I really am mad about something and have a right to be. While I try to make sense of their screwed up faces and wonder why they're acting so guilty, I notice Bucko Dorlon. Bucko used to sing baritone for the McCray Brothers. Right away, he holds up his hands and starts backin' away. "Hey, I don't need any of this, man," he says, like I'm about to kick the livin' shit out of him. Well, I ain't the brightest light on the strip, but finally it dawns on me. The reason everybody's acting so guilty is because I just caught my buds in the act of goin' behind my back to give Bucko Dorlon my slot. Seems Willie wasn't good enough anymore. When the truth of what was going down starts welling up in my eyes, naturally, I share my thoughts on the matter. "Fuck you mother fuckers," I yell. Then, before they can see me bawl, I charge out. Dreambeats -- dirty fuckin' Dreambeats.
"You went straight to the shootin' gallery, didn't you?"
"How the fuck would I know, Bobby -- that was twenty years ago!" He was right, but he didn't need to know. Besides, I didn't pick up the germ till much later.
"Well, it didn't last long. People started missin' practice..."
"Everybody, I think. We just lost interest."
He'd been painting on this picture of a little pond we used to pass on Rt. 94 on our way fishing up the Paulinskill. There was a farmhouse and a barn in the distance and some sweetflag growing on the bank. He sprayed his paints with water, then covered them. That meant he was going to break.
"And to tell ya the truth," he said. "I don't think he sang any better than you did."
"Whose idea was it to dump me, anyway?"
"No, not Mont. I don't think he liked Bucko very much."
"Well... you know Joey."
"I knew there was a reason I hated his ass."
Bobby went down the hall to wash out his brushes. When he came back, he popped the question. "So, you gonna sing with us or what?"
The big picture:
Twas cool at pool --
Taught sucker school.
Ran fifty balls.
Fouled my vision.
Couldn't hit the wall.
All that's left
is Stormy Weather,
Lahng lahng lahng,
And my black leather.
It would've been easy to say, "Screw Joey," or, "Go get Bucko," or, "I wouldn't sing with you fuckin' bastards in a million fuckin' years," but I wasn't mad anymore, and I really did want to hit some chords.
"Llam a lulu," I replied.
Practices went pretty good (Joey had worked out some new arrangements that would've been impossible for me to sing but the guys told him to screw himself) and by the night of the opening we had seven songs down solid.
Everybody was bringing someone, and since my stock was soaring with the Ranzier clan (Sonny told me Loyal's face looked like a rotten tomato. It seems Grella didn't snatch Pat Giavanni, after all; he sent his boy wonder, Loyal, instead), I said 'what the hell' and asked Lady Ni.
We arrived at The Starlighter around seven joining Sonny, Luscious, and Boots who were already sitting sideways in the '55 Chevy. It was a cozy arrangement which allowed Lush to play footsy with me while she yakked with her sisters. Sonny, meanwhile, disappeared into the rest room for a half hour, then came back suddenly obsessed with finding a Ranzierian euphemism for going to the toilet. Most notable of his inspirations were 'blowing mud' and 'freeing an eel.'
By nine o'clock, people were standing four and five deep around Freddy's old horseshoe bar, and everybody was pretty well sloshed when Sonny took the stage to introduce us. He'd been lobbying for the honor all week and got the gig only after promising to read the script Joey had written. Of course, no one the least bit familiar with Ranzierian babble expected him to do that. Generally well liked, Sonny was greeted by a thunderous roar which continued for several minutes. Then he quit bowing and signaled for silence. "And, now, ladies and gentlemen," he began, "the high point of the evening. Joey P's Starlighter is proud to present, for your listening pleasure, five super-cool, super-talented, super-tastic blasts-from-the-past. Here they are: the great... the groovy... the bad... the beautiful... that lean, mean, doo-wop machine -- Bobby, Willie, Joey, Groatsy, and Tom -- The Fabulous Ranziers!"
We brought the house down, and, doo-wah-diddy, I was one popular dude. A couple chippies down front who couldn't tell harmony from a fart in the face obviously had designs on my boney baloney because they kept leering at me from under their sky blue eyelids and shouting things like, "That Willie's real cool," "You're real cool, Willie," and "He's a dynamite singer." But, I remained true to me lady. When the set was over, I worked my way back through the crowd to the '55 Chevy and Ni. We made small talk and downed a few peach margaritas. Then she bummed a jay off Sonny and invited herself back to my digs for what she promised would be a real 'nize' time.
And it was; but that's another story.
© Copyright 2003- by Ace Toscano. All rights reserved.