Rain drips from the awning, the constant patter, late December up north you get snow, late December down south you get rain. Strings of red and green bulbs hang zig-zagged over the dark and puddled road. Think fog and mist and shadows. Think gaseous orange sky and shrill nameless voices and the strange feeling, because it’s a feeling after all, not a thought nor a string of contemplation, but a feeling of imminence cast out by the damp air and prickling the skin’s hairs; a foreboding, more welcomed than dreaded and less crippling than empowering, which shows between the two men standing outside the dull wooden structure through their faces, glazed and pale with eyes marbled and unblinking; – something important is building.
“Alls I’m saying is I’m not living with a cat. She wants the cat, not me. It’s what I’d call an irreconcilable difference.”
The other man spits out the side of his mouth, a practiced gesture, precise with no lingering spittle, one of the countless benign expressions learned from years of waiting outside in the cold and dark for bigger men to arrive.
“If a cat’s an irreconcilable difference,” he says. “I’d hate to see what you’d call being Jewish.”
The first man shrugs but in his shapeless whipcord sport suit, it looks as though he’s having a back spasm.
Again with the spitting. “You hurt?”
A hand to his lower back and he says, “From the war. 22nd Infantry. Took some shrapnel.”
“You mean bullet fragments. Common mistake.”
“Only hurts when it rains.” He looks down the smoky road, and there’s a figure on the adjacent corner who he notes in his mind’s filing cabinet, part of the job, total awareness. “Ed, isn’t it? Ed Partin?” Total awareness, he thinks, that and money laundering.
“My father used to say, ‘If you’ve got two names you don’t have one.’”
Edward Grady has the tall lengthy demeanor associated with the term weasel. He pulls out a pack of Kent cigarettes and puts one in his mouth but doesn’t light it. Don’t mix frugality with reason. Only thirty-five cents yet why waste one in the rain.
“I have a feeling,” he says.
The shadowed figure on the corner strikes a match and before the flame gets washed away by great-gray clouds of smoke that plume and roll like the fog crawling up the road, Partin catches a clean jawline and smooth cheeks – a man of grooming.
“Should be back soon,” rolling up his sleeve and checking his watch, a Gruen by the looks of it, same one Bond wore this year. “But back to the cat.”
“I can only call it that – a feeling.”
The man, whose name Partin doesn’t know and who he couldn’t pick out from a lineup he’s that bland looking, a man most closely modeled after Gregory Peck, snatches the unlit cigarette from his lips and in the same sweeping motion rolls the wheel of his Bower’s lighter and inhales. “Everyone’s got a feeling. Except for cats, of course. They’re without souls.”
“I’d call it something else if there was something else to call it.”
“Half the country’s still mourning Marilyn Monroe and you’re whining about a feeling. We’re in Nashville and it’s cold and wet and tomorrow’s Christmas eve but you wouldn’t know that here. Forget the Nativity, forget the Wise Men, forget the gold and myrrh and the what-do-you-call-it.”
“Right, frankincense, forget it all. Because here it’s Hoffa and Kennedy in round 5, and no one, not Jimmy, not Bobby, not even the ole wunderkind Jimmy, knows how many rounds are left. So you say you’ve got a feeling. You’re goddamn right you’ve got a feeling. You ain’t special here, Partin. We’ve all got a feeling.”
Edward Grady sucks on his teeth. He says nothing. Perhaps it’s true, perhaps he knew it the first day he arrived in Nashville with an agenda not unto the Union but unto himself. When he’d walked into Jimmy’s room at the Jackson Hotel and listened to the Teamster leader ramble about rats and moles while going from phone to phone frantically yanking out the cords and tossing them into a tangled heap, and isn’t there a lesson there, thinks Partin, that the country’s most powerful man, always fearful of outside forces, never once suspected his demise could possibly come through his own admission to a fellow Teamster, to a trusted underling – a lesson indeed.
Gregory flicks away the cigarette and Partin waits for the flurry of sparks against the pavement but none come.
“I don’t know. Maybe a cat’s not too bad.”
Nearly a fourth of the country kneels on padded foam each Sunday while the other three-quarter’s fear over a Catholic in the oval office has begun to curtail, and the hearty collective of Teamsters who now gather inside the dull wooden structure that someone says was once a bowling alley but where the hell are the lanes then, these men are believers in not just Christ and eternal salvation but a worldly mystique recommending of avoiding black cats and spilling salt and anything related to the number thirteen, and among these highly ineffable beliefs is a reverence for the retarded.
David from Local 107 claims to have grown up with a boy who ate chalk and chased squirrels with sticks that once warned him to beware of red-haired women. His first two wives were both red-headed.
“Well, Ed, what do you know about that? Hoffa wins again.”
Paulie from Local 5 tells often of the day his slobbery big-chinned cousin wore all black and how later that evening his father’s heart burst.
“Don’t know if I’d call it a win.”
Ronald from Local 299 has a younger brother who can’t read or write or sit still for longer than a minute but who sometimes utters digits at random which Ronald has proceeded to play in the weekly numbers three times this year. Last week he bought a condo in Boca Raton.
No one knows where He came from. How Hoffa’s managed to hide him from the media for as long as he has is thought by many to be more impressive than his progress on the National Master Freight Agreement.
Teamsters know him by simple and fitting nickname – The Kid.
Gregory sits on a stool to Partin’s right, his square head lolling with that special ease which comes after the third beer. “You heard the judge, Nashville is contaminated beyond repair. If you don’t call that a win, then what?”
Edward Grady sips his whiskey and tastes soap residue from the tumbler’s previous washing. Behind his closed eyes he sees the image of his mother shoving the chunky pink bar into his boyish mouth.
“Irreconcilable differences,” he says.
Gregory smiles but suppresses his laugh at the arrival of an unsettling stillness in the room. Faces in the wide mirror behind the bar seem to freeze, how many there are he doesn’t know, too many to count, and how grateful he is to be part of it all, a union man to the core, before his family, before himself, a Teamster.
Tonight The Kid sits at the end of the bar with his dark ratty head hunched over a glass of cranberry juice. Since his arrival some months ago, Jimmy has refused to eat at restaurants that don’t serve cranberry juice, an adamancy which now persists regardless of whether The Kid’s with him or not.
Partin’s trying hard to not pick at his chin’s mole and says: “Still got the feeling.”
The ostensible Gregory Peck stands only to sit back down a second later. “Still got your feeling, yeah, I bet you do.” He crooks his neck, rubbing the back with a special intensity as if working out a cramp.
“Something wrong?” asks Partin.
“From the war. 33rd Air Force Division. Crashed in the Ardennes Forest and got whip-smack.”
“You mean whiplash. And didn’t you say you were in the Infantry?”
The Kid’s glass of cranberry juice never empties despite his constant drinks.
“What’re we talking about here, Ed? Look around. See the faces. Go on, I’ll wait.”
Partin’s green eyes sift through the room but he’s still thinking about his mother and the bar of soap and how it always hurt him more than his father’s belt lashings because it was from his mother and she wouldn’t do it unless he’d seriously provoked her unlike his father who he didn’t just suspect beat him out of personal anger but knew it to be the truth.
“Finished?” says Gregory.
He nods and avoids picking the mole while reaching for his smokes – nothing more tiring than reminiscing.
“Good. Remember this, Ed. Remember this moment right here because my question to you is what are we celebrating?”
He hates that his first response to any nerves is to chew his cheek. “We’re celebrating Jimmy’s win and let me say I still feel wrong calling it a win because this is different.”
Cheek-chewing looks queer and nothing screams traitor like queer.
“Right you are, but for the wrong reasons. Different, yes, very different, different because what you see has nothing to do with winning and everything to do with the fight. The joy is in the fight, it’s in the trenches. Winning, losing, it’s all the same to them.”
The bar’s conversation quiets. Yet another childhood memory arises for Partin, this one more vivid than the last and occurring with his eyes still open, the white pools which encompass the green irises glinting against the yellow bulbs swaying high above. Ever since making the deal following his own October trial he’s been having memories like this one. Why this is, exactly, is something he refuses to investigate. Edward Grady is a man who insists on forgetting the why, the why prevents progress, delays action; leave behind intentions and survive.
Gregory saying, “Don’t laugh now.”
“Don’t laugh when I say this because it’s going to sound funny.”
“I assure you I’m not laughing.”
“I’d die for these men. There, I said it. I’d give my heart for them.” A bottle smashes across the room, the splintering of glass, slivers scattering, best keep your shoes on. “Speaking of hearts, read that’s how that writer, what’s-his-name, died.”
An aggressive finger-snap. “Faulkner. That’s right. You read, Partin? Smart guy like you must read.”
Partin’s mouth tastes like soap. “Makes you say that?”
“Man who gets out of manslaughter is one thing, but a man who beats embezzlement, well, there lies the smarts.”
Ed almost stands and walks away, but where would he go? A packed room, Teamsters everywhere, Jimmy in the back with his lawyers, and forget about the hotel room and its creaking plumbing. He’ll leave when they want him to and no sooner.
“Faulkner said winning is for philosophers and fools.”
Gregory pauses for a burp that doesn’t come, the bubble inflating in his chest and rising to his throat —should’ve taken off the peppers. “Yeah, well, he never knew Jimmy Hoffa.”
Another silent stillness sweeps over the sedentary crowd and this time the door opens but Partin’s long gone on a rooftop decades in the past cradling his boxed radio his father bought him for Christmas in the year of the perpetual runny nose, a radio he’s preciously preserved over the decades, a radio that endured not only his time in the Marines, but his dishonorable discharge too, one of those common house gifts whose personal value seems to increase with the paint scratches and slight dents, sentiment and solitude and the comfort of being alone on a rooftop listening to a stranger’s voice ramble about world’s so distant they only exist through thought. He hasn’t blinked in over a minute. He smells the salty bayou and his father’s Chesterfields and hears the echoed roar of scattered voices.
His father used to say things like One More and No Ice.
Gregory’s now slapping his chest with the back of his hand. The slaps are weak and somehow dazed and Partin would usually laugh because what a womanly gesture, as if he’s just trying to get a better feel of Partin’s barreled pecs, like man, must do your pushups.
His mother used to say things like No More and Need Ice.
Smoke trails his breath. He stands in the door’s opened frame with water dripping from the brim of his black Stetson, the same hat his brother will decline to wear mere hours before his brain splatters across Jackie’s coat. He’s holding something in his hand that even Partin’s blurred eyes can tell isn’t a gun. Ed’s still partially in his memory. Someone sneezes, but besides this the faces remain locked on the shadowy figure who has yet to move. Smoke floats, drifts below the ceiling. The hanging yellow lights look like the remote beacons of steamers along the blackened horizon. Gregory saying My God My God. Partin doesn’t register the dry searing sting of not blinking for consecutive minutes.
He tracks the black Stetson’s movements amongst the crowd.
And isn’t this what Gregory was talking about? Because Partin’s glad to be here, not necessarily in Nashville nor the dull wooden structure, but fighting his own fight while witnessing something this large, an indomitable force so much bigger than any one man, except the moment’s becoming just that, a stand-off between two men, only it’d take someone far blinder than himself to think that’s all this is. Impossible, he thinks, to not see the cogs and gears of history’s momentum, driving and relentless and indelible.
Hoffa’s voice matches his frowning face. “Booby,” he says.
“Hoffa doesn’t like surprises.”
Bobby flashes the smile seen by millions in newspapers and magazines nationwide, everywhere save New York where the unions are striking, a massive roadblock of information, clogged and piling.
And even if The Kid did speak no one would understand him. He thinks in colors and subsequently speaks in them too. Right now he’s the only face not turned and ogling Kennedy’s slow approach to the table. Right now he’s drinking purple juice without ice because silver ice hurts his white teeth.
Gregory begins to speak and stops as Bobby’s right arm swings back then forward, the house-hold gesture, here catch, and through the smoky air sails a toy soldier bundled in a white parachute, thrown not to Hoffa but Bufalino. No one here is naïve enough to see this as a token of respect and yet that’s how it feels, this transferring of a children’s toy done with such ease and whimsy that those who’ve left behind families to join the fight here in Nashville all go blank for a moment thinking about their sons and daughters tucked snuggly into bed. And there is a certain playfulness about it, an undeniable endearment, some darker quality, gangsteresque, the grazing of a thing not permitted but admired, a deep envy – the realm of lawlessness.
The Kid sometimes swishes the cranberry juice between his white teeth in his pink mouth because he likes the red sound.
Hoffa now crosses his legs, always the right over left, ankle on thigh. It’s not a stance of comfort nor relaxation. For a man who lives and dies in glass-walled offices, it’s the closest he gets to balling his fists. Except for the times he does, of course, ball his fists.
“You know, Bill, I hate to say it, but I think you were right.”
Bufalino smiles in the way that makes even his friends shiver. “And what’s that, Jim?”
“I think Booby here wants to fuck me.”
A toilet flushes and out of the bathroom comes a man Partin doesn’t recognize. The nameless Teamster holds in the inlet with his hands laced atop an old Brooklyn Dodger’s hat which shakes from side to side like Please not this dream again.
“Let’s hear it,” says Hoffa.
“Nothing to say, James.”
“Is that right?”
“Well then. Someone get the board.”
The bartender places a fresh beer before Gregory who scoops it to his lips, takes three resounding gulps, then sets it back on the bar with foamy dendrites oozing down the sides.
Then come the stomps. Right, left, right right, left. Clap. And again. Beatle boots, Chelsea boots, buckled Oxfords, all the same, booming and uniform, right left right right left, clap. And again. A low humming builds. Someone brings Kennedy a short stool. When he sits his pearly blue eyes hardly reach over the dark oaken table.
“Call it in the air,” says Hoffa. He straightens in his chair and with a quick sling of his thumb sends up a quarter, the silver ding grabbing The Kid’s attention for all of a second, the quarter tumbling, spinning, Bufalino standing removed from the table and still grinning, Partin’s green eyes tracing the silver circle in the way children scan the sky for airplanes. Someone burps. Bobby snatches the quarter before it has a chance to clatter off the table.
“I’ll go first,” he says.
One in every five of the present men will remember Hoffa catching the quarter, not Booby, the exact ratio as people present in Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963, who claimed to hear a second shooter.
Hoffa reclines in his chair as Bufalino hands him the box. He pulls out the familiar board, the crowd finally ceasing their stomps and humming at the sight of the red emblazoned lettering and bright yellow logo-head. Who doesn’t enjoy a game of Scrabble? Edward Grady hasn’t played since the summer of his first armpit hair during a time when Lucy Vaudeville lived next door and could easily sneak into the Partin’s heavily shag-surfaced basement.
Gregory Peck’s vision is currently in the process of doubling.
Hoffa pulls loose the maroon sac then dumps loose the letters. Kennedy only watches, not entirely grinning, but certainly amused, and begins to roll up his sleeves – time for work.
“Want me to put in a request to allow a board in your cell? Can’t do the tiles, though – choking hazard.”
“I ever tell you about the time I played quixotic?”
“No, James, I would’ve remembered that.”
“Must be tough being an idiot.”
Both men begin flipping over the tiles. Partin looks down the bar and notices the empty seat where The Kid was sitting, and the dark ring of condensation from the cranberry juice, also gone. For once in his life, he’s thankful for the crowd because although he’s sure Bobby wouldn’t break, he’s far more uncertain about himself, not so easy to remain calm when staring at a man with impeccable bone structure.
Lucy Vaudeville had a clumping of freckles on her chin shaped like the Jewish star.
“Played quixotic against Jasper Carlotti back in ’26. I remember this because it was my 13th birthday and my father died that morning. Those things happened in that order.”
“You know at Harvard we used to play only 5 tiles, not 7.”
“And I’m sure those 5 tiles got a lot of use, if you know what I mean.”
Hoffa selects his tiles by pressing them down with his index finger, blinking three times as if he were testing the plastic square for some psychic energy, and if acceptable, then sliding it to his corner. Tiles he doesn’t like he gently nudges Booby’s way.
Partin spots a man in the crowd with a soda bottle half-filled with cigarette butts.
“Do you know what Jasper Carlotti said when I played quixotic?”
Kennedy’s already lining up his tiles in the red plastic tray. His face has lengthened, paled, the blue eyes like half-ovals flickering up from the tray at Hoffa then back to the letters.
Lucy Vaudeville had freckles in the shape of David’s star and her tongue tasted like pennies.
“He said, ‘What the fuck is quixotic.’”
“Did you know?”
“I was 13.”
“But I won, Booby, that’s the point.”
“Even Art Carney won a game of Scrabble.”
“One word, Booby. Highest score wins.”
Kennedy nods. “One word.”
By the time the two men have submerged themselves into the game’s hypnotic concentration, which all the onlookers not only recognize but take pride in, the look of strained eyes and sagging skin, the lower lip just a tad detached, a look they’ve seen in their rearview mirrors thousands of times – the workingman’s weariness. By this time Partin’s exhausted. He’s in the process of reaching for a cigarette when Gregory puts a lit one in his mouth. Being a Teamster doesn’t change the way you sleep or wash your face or chew your food. It changes nothing but your life.
Hoffa saying, “Waiting on you.”
And Kennedy using his front teeth to rake away a dead flake of skin from his lip, rearranging his tiles in the tray, leaning back, contemplating, seeing the letters come together and disband in his head, adding the digits then erasing them, never a minute passing without glancing up at Hoffa whose cheeks aren’t even red, who looks as if he could be sitting poolside at his Florida condo sipping toddies while Josephine applies Coppertone to his back.
Kennedy now has a tile in his fist and collects another to join it when Jimmy raises his hands like Stop.
“What’s the matter, want to redraw?”
“I want you to take out the bugs,” says Hoffa. “If I win, you remove all the wires.”
“Your phones are fine.”
“Booby I swear to God I’ll flip this table.”
The first lie Edward Grady can remember telling his wife was on their wedding night. They’d been undressing each other, a mass tangle of limbs and statically charged hair, and she’d asked who was his first ever, and he’d kissed her neck and whispered that it’d been her, not because he wanted his marriage to start off with a lie, but because what other choice did he have.
“Alright, James. If you win I’ll remove the bugs. But if I win I want – “
“If you win,” interrupts Hoffa. “I’ll go to jail tonight.”
Not the expected hush from the crowd that Partin expects, but mirthful grins and chuffs of air. And not the anticipated glee from Kennedy either, a sort of sly grin instead, like what’s the catch. It’s a strange thing seeing a man of power look unnerved. What’s the point of having a tailor living in a small dusty basement somewhere on 14th street whose life’s top priority is stitching specially fitted heavy chalk-stripe suits which form around your body the way skin does to an adolescent. Why clasp the Swiss LeCoultre Manual around your wrist, why straighten your back and comb your hair and practice smiling in the bathroom mirror if not to appear prepared at all times?
Finally, he says, “I trust your word.”
“Hoffa wasn’t born with nothing.”
“A double negative.”
“Fuck your face.”
“Hoffa wasn’t given nothing.”
“Another double negative.”
“Hoffa quit school at 14 because someone has to provide.”
A jarring sneeze in the crowd and the cigarette smoke continues to lower.
“No bonuses?” asks Bobby, his eyebrows, threaded twice weekly, rising only slightly.
“Where was Booby at 14? With his brother and a priest in a backroom.”
A few laughs pepper the room; no such thing as a Catholic in a crowd.
Lucy Vaudeville had been his first, and he wonders where she is at this moment, if she still has her freckles, if her tongue is still made of metal, if she could in anyway remind him of the boy who lay with her beside the Scrabble board all those years ago.
When you get your picture taken as much as Bobby does, when you’re in the public eye, you can’t have too bushy of eyebrows, it’s the kind of small thing that disenchants voters.
Partin can hear Gregory muttering to himself and he imagines this being the sound which initiated ancient sacrifices.
Then Kennedy empties his tray, all seven tiles wrapped secretly in his eerily dry palm. He sets the first tile down, an S, with his gaze anchored on Jimmy’s. The men are grinning at each other beneath the gray smoke and white dust and it’s quiet save the hiss and pop of smoking cigarettes.
Later years will discover the extremely rare genetic disorder of Ichthyosis, a disease which causes consistently dry and scaly skin, to be prevalent amongst the Kennedy lineage.
Gregory Peck leans over and cups a hand around Partin’s ear and says: “Do you see now?” Gregory’s breath is warm against his ear, sends uncontrollable shivers down his back. “This is the Cold War. The Soviets, the Cubans. Just places. Just names. But this? Something bigger, something real.”
Kennedy drops a Q with a snap and thump.
“John and Khrushchev, Jimmy and Bobby. All the same. One doesn’t exist without the other. How do you think Jimmy gets up in the morning? Because he doesn’t, not without Booby he doesn’t.”
Kennedy sets down a U, rises to the table’s height, and blows it into position.
Ichthyosis affects less than 200,000 Americans but what would you expect from a Kennedy, almost as if those of already slim margins inherit other slim qualities, or perhaps the other way.
Partin can hear Gregory’s tongue dryly clacking against the roof of his mouth, not a sound more sensual, more arousing. “What do you think happens, Ed, after one of them goes? I’ll tell you what happens. Faex. That’s what.”
And don’t look now but movement below the belt, little Eddy, stiffening and stretching, how one wakes from a long sleep.
Kennedy’s got down two E’s in consecutive order and there’s no chance in Hell he has the Z, no way, not a shot, but there it is, another 10-pointer, and here’s Hoffa, separated only by the few feet of Oakwood, still calmly seated, knowing eyes and dirty grin.
Gregory pulls away just in time too. Another clack and little Eddy would’ve had his tent pitched and firmed. “A balance, Ed,” says the ostensible Gregory Peck. “Why you need to remain a soldier. Soldiers don’t need a balance, only the fight.”
There’s the sort of stillness which follows the first raindrop as the final letter is played, an E. A 25-point word. Partin would say this is what a Harvard education gets you except fuck that because he could’ve played that word and he never even went to college. How appropriate, though, squeeze, Kennedy’s been squeezing Hoffa for half a decade and now he’s got him. Ripened and juiced and oozing.
The Teamster standing alone in the small inlet wearing the Brooklyn Dodger’s cap giving his best Russell Hodges impersonation: “I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it. I do not believe it.”
Partin watches as Hoffa mouths something to Bufalino. Maybe he’s asking for the Irishman to shoot Kennedy right here right now, paint the house of the United States Attorney General and chop up the limbs and head and dispose of them in the Everglades. Let the parts digest in the belly of a gator whose anonymity won’t stop it from being regarded as a hero to thousands nationwide.
Bufalino pushes out from the table and disappears into the back room.
The crowd has left, not physically, but emotionally, drained and defeated and dour. They’ll go back to their rooms for a nightcap, maybe more than a nightcap, maybe they stay in the hotel lobby, to each man his own bottle, and tell stories of the Good Old Days until either the police arrive or they pass out. Tomorrow they’ll be fine, recharged and ready to continue the fight, whatever fight’s closest, just don’t let it stop. But now they want to rest and drink and call their mothers.
“Where’s the nearest payphone?” says Kennedy, no longer smiling, not even smirking, what’s there to smile about, thinks Gregory Peck, he’s just committed suicide.
Hoffa, still wearing the shit-eating grin, saying: “Ask me if I’m worried. Do it. I dare you.”
“Are you worried, James?”
“I double-dog dare you. Go ahead. Ask me.”
“Think Hoffa’s never been down before? Think this is the first time Hoffa’s had his back against the wall? Wanna know something, Booby? Say you want to. I need to hear it.”
Kennedy looking more tired than anything. He says Sure, not because he wants to hear what Jimmy’s got to say, but because his father always said the only thing more important than learning how to deal with losing is learning how to deal with winning.
“I sleep against a wall. Hoffa hasn’t slept in a bed since the time Mrs. Shepard was licking peanut butter off his prick.”
“Your phones are fine. No bugs. Nothing.”
“Fuck your face.”
Out from the back office comes Bufalino. He emerges alone and doesn’t close the door behind him. He lifts his chair and sets it next to Jimmy’s but doesn’t sit because it’s not for him. If the chair was for him he would sit but it’s not.
The Teamster in the Brooklyn Dodger’s hat’s arms have fallen asleep, they’ve been on his head for that long.
Partin recalls Lucy Vaudeville doing this thing where she’d bite his lip and once she bit it so hard he started bleeding and he’s never told any of this to his wife and he thinks, fuck it all, and begins picking his chin’s mole.
When The Kid walks in and sits down, the Teamster finally drops his hands. He’s had enough. First Kennedy, then the board, now the retard. He does not believe it.
“Shit is this?”
“No table talk, please.”
“Who the shit is this?”
Suddenly the crowds returned. Partin can feel it. Not sure about Gregory, hard to feel much after the tenth or so pint, except heartburn, of course, always the heartburn. Those near the back test the craftsmanship of various tables and chairs by standing on them for a better view. Partin spots a scraggly bearded man hoisting the midget from local 13 onto his shoulders.
Midgets aren’t viewed as sacred by Teamsters so much as they’re considered good luck.
Gregory studies the drawn expression on Kennedy’s face. The only way to explain it, he thinks, catching the Dodger’s hat in his peripheries, is from the perspective of a fan who’s spent tedious hours preparing for the World Series, listening to recorded broadcasts and studying box scores, studying opponent box scores, the type of fan who sleeps cuddling a mitt and ball, the type of fan who feels a genuine twinge of honor whenever donning the ball-club’s cap, the sprinkled chill of hairs standing straight. And finally the gruelingly long days end, the first pitch’s thrown, Game One, time to set the tone, only they come out too strong, play too well, every throw crisp, every swing swift, and it’s only the third but they’re up ten whole runs. The game’s over. Play the final six as a formality only. And it’s after the enormous lead’s initial jubilation that it finally hits, the sadness, for the goal is to of course win, but not like this, not without some dramatics, and so begins the undisclosed rooting for the other team, subtle fist-pumps at waist level after each hit, feigning disappointment following the first opposing runs yet secretly deep down beginning to feel better, writing tomorrow’s headlines in his head, creating talking points absent-mindedly all until he checks the scoreboard again and My God we’re losing? That’s what it’s like, thinks Gregory. Either that or gas.
“Someone get Booby a drink.”
“Go ahead. Cheat. Up 25 points.”
Hoffa saying, “Baby’s thirsty. Baby wants milk.”
Who else but the local 13 midget to place a whiskey sour in front of Kennedy who actually returns several bills in the discreet hand-off akin to drug deals and valets which the midget tucks away in his shoe, only the wash can claim it now.
Partin lights a cigarette. He watches The Kid. Feathery black hair and blue eyes, his jaw jutting out an inch too far, tongue roundly poking at his cheek. He doesn’t touch the tiles, his fingers twitching, claw-shaped, white pincher plucking nothing.
Hoffa saying, “Booby wants mommy’s booby.”
Kennedy reaching into his suit coat for a pad and pen then scribbling like mad. “Adding kidnapping to the list.”
“Kidnapping, says Booby. Go ahead. See if I care.”
Kennedy writes exactly how everyone suspects him to, flashy wrist movements, the eccentric dotting of i’s and crossing of t’s. “Another thirty years. Wave goodbye to the Master Freight.”
And the crowd’s revival isn’t exclusively emotional, it’s not just the revival of high-voiced chatter or that the rosy tints have returned to faces sagging from alcohol and exhaustion. What Partin notices, with his attention still mainly on The Kid who has taken a brief intermission from studying the tiles for a haste glug of cranberry juice, is that the crowd’s drawn closer to the table. When Kennedy first sat down he had a good twenty yards of space to all sides but if he ever looks up from his paper he’ll see the mass exodus of bodies required for him to just stand.
The Teamster in the Brooklyn Dodger’s hat speaks into a bottle of PBR: “Kennedy scribbling, scribbling, Hoffa now reaching for his drink. And The Kid, do you believe it, the god- damned Kid inhaling the tiles. What a scene, folks.”
Kennedy saying, “And a minor, too. That’s going to hurt.”
“See if I care. Go right ahead, Booby boy.’
“Another ten, maybe twenty.”
“I don’t care. See if I do.”
Bufalino stands behind Hoffa, popping his scabrous knuckles and lighting a cigar long enough to be registered as a lethal weapon, a slight sway to his stance. His daughter called him this morning, engaged, imagine that, two-chinned Russell escorting his girl down the aisle, all the faces watching, smiling, senators and congressman and he’ll have to invite Tony Pro too. Russell Bufalino, a grandfather, imagine that, bouncing a little boy on his leg. Out of nowhere, he drops the nearly foot-long cigar and steps on it. Can’t have smoke around a baby.
Brooklyn Dodger’s hat saying, “And here goes The Kid. Standing at about five feet, six inches. Date of birth, unknown. The ringer, the closer, the card up Hoffa’s tailored sleeve. Annnnd it’s an M!”
Guzzling down what’s either his eleventh or twelfth beer, the ostensible Gregory Peck, his stomach loaded and bubbling, should probably go for a run soon, always feel better after a run, tired, but better, drinks and reclines in his stool so that he can see the room’s entirety. He thinks this some type of religious gathering, can picture a mural similar to what-do-you-call-it in Rome, Hoffa and Kennedy wearing priestly robes, The Kid with a white halo glowing around his misshapen head, and can’t forget the speck of spittle clinging to Jimmy’s chin.
Hoffa halfway out of his seat and reaching for Kennedy’s pad and pen, saying, “Put it away. Respect the game.”
“Looking at almost two lifetimes.”
“Seriously. Proper Scrabble etiquette. Put the damn pad down.”
The ice has melted in Bobby’s whiskey sour. “Do you have two lifetimes?”
“Fine. Don’t put it down. See if I care.”
Partin’s tired and sad. The mole on his chin is what dermatologists call a fried-egg mole. This happens anytime he’s around large crowds, something about the collective breathing gives him headaches. Not to mention the throbbing in his gut, what could that be, tumor maybe, everyone’s getting them. Tumors are trending. Just last year his uncle passed away from a stomach tumor the size of a cinderblock. Everyone’s getting tumors, why not him?
And the Brooklyn Dodgers hat saying, “The Kid’s dropped a tile! The Kid’s dropped a tile!”
Kennedy finishes his now watered-down drink in two gulps. “Sure. Pick it up. Who cares. Not like there are rules or anything.”
Partin catches The Kid’s eyes flicker almost bashfully as he places a U then a Z on the board.
The workingman’s religion and a dying one at that, thinks Gregory. He reaches for a napkin behind the bar and luckily finds one of those short sawed-off yellow pencils too. He still can’t remember whether the beer he just finished was his eleventh or twelfth.
“An asterisk, regardless. You’ve broken the competitive seal.”
Hoffa saying, “Is that what the priest did to you?”
The crowd laughs because there’s no wrong time for a priest joke. The local 13 midget returns with another whiskey sour and after setting down the drink, remains by Kennedy’s side for a good minute until Bobby gives out another bill.
“You’ve stripped away the borders. A free for all, is what you’ve made this. Let me ask you, James, what do you think happens once John Jacob Jingleheimer realizes there’s nothing stopping him from moving up, what then?”
Hoffa imitating the reading of a list with his hands out-held and eyes lowered, “Looking, looking, but not seeing it. We got a John in local 285, Russell, what’s John’s last name?”
The Kid places an upside-down I.
“You know what happens? Tell you what happens.” For each syllable, Bobby jabs his pointer finger onto the table. “What happens is un-fath-o-ma-ble. Hear me? Total collapse. The death of the working class.”
Russell Bufalino standing behind Hoffa, yet not behind Hoffa, not mentally, mentally in the chapel with Marie, his daughter, their arms interlocked and her smelling of is that honeysuckle?
“Russell, damnit, what’s his last name?”
Imagine that, a grandfather. “Donagee. John Donagee.”
A hand flies up in the crowd. “Pre-sent.”
And the Brooklyn Dodgers hat saying, “I don’t believe it. The Kid with only two tiles to go. M-U-Z-J-I, as it stands. I don’t believe it. What it means, who the hell knows, but it’s a tight one, nearly deadlocked, so light up a Chesterfield and stay right here.”
The ostensible Gregory Peck has his head tilted and is slapping the side as if he’s got water plugging an ear. “Can’t get this song out,” he says.
“Getting late,” says Partin.
Gregory straightens in the stool. “Late? Where do you have to go? I have a wife, I have kids, but I’m here, look around, everyone’s here. Late?”
Partin’s face has no light, no feel. Peck’s humming and snapping his fingers. The exhaustion has passed, and for the second time tonight the man’s right, where is he going to go, got nowhere to go. But he can’t stay here any longer. Is this what he felt earlier, guilt? Seeing the men, seeing their faces. Only Gregory’s got his wrist and is yanking him back down to his stool while saying through a thick smile, “Late? Right. Bastard, you.”
The Kid nibbles on a tile with his front teeth. Kennedy looks almost drowsy, hard to be an Attorney General, harder to be a younger brother. Bufalino reaches for the tile when Hoffa slaps his outstretched hand and flashes a stern look like Don’t be a cunt, Bill, and Bufalino with innocent eyes because he’s only worried about The Kid choking.
Peck still humming, still snapping the fat sausages he calls fingers. “Can’t get this damn song out of my head.”
And Partin listening, tapering his gaze and really listening because it’s helping ease the guilt, giving him something to focus on besides the men, fellow Teamsters, as if any one of them wouldn’t have done the same thing. “What song?”
“I’m not sure. It’s like many songs into one.”
The local 13 midget is on both knees and slowly reaching for Kennedy’s wallet. A small pot has been collected by Teamsters in the back wagering on either side.
Kennedy saying, “Big ole asterisk.”
“You know the Chattanooga Choo Choo?”
“Not worried. Twenty-five points. No chance.”
“I’ll teach you, but I get to lead.”
Maybe they wouldn’t, thinks Partin, maybe this is the whole point, the group over the self, sacrificing for a higher ideal, things he’d typically scoff at as what bullshit but he’s learning suddenly and painfully how hard it is to scoff at the things of relentless reoccurrence.
And the sixth tile’s down. It’s been down and The Kid’s already left the table. Partin looks to his right and if he didn’t know any better he may think the past hour to have all been a dream, as there’s The Kid, alone at the end of the bar, hunched over a mystical glass of cranberry juice.
“I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it. I do not believe.” Brooklyn Dodger’s hat blindly tosses his PBR bottle and pins his hands against his head because he’s afraid if he doesn’t there’s a chance he might tip over. “Muszjik. The Kid has played Muszjik Twenty-nine points. We await a proper ruling, but as it stands, Hoffa wins, Hoffa wins!”
Jimmy flops from his chair and rolls on the floor that’s littered with torn papers and cigarette butts and empty matchbooks. He’s rolling around like a boy, a child. His hands clutch his stomach and he’s laughing as if he’s back in the Paramount on 15th street, watching Abbot and Costello run from Frankenstein.
The hoard of Teamsters throws back drinks and passes around cigars and most feel overweight. Only natural after this many beers. A deck of cards appears. The local 13 midget has blacked out on the bed of money he’s won, the wallet snug between his pudgy hands.
Kennedy pushes out from the table and when Bufalino tosses something his way he reacts as if he were playing catch with junior in the backyard. Bufalino stays long enough to see the acknowledgment wash over Bobby’s face before turning, stepping over the rolling Hoffa, and retiring to the back room. It’s the toy soldier wrapped in his parachute.
Someone in the back says, “Not sleeping on the couch again.”
Partin doesn’t stand when Kennedy leaves. What a curious thing to depart a room without any eyes on you. He doesn’t stand when Kennedy leaves and he doesn’t stand when the other Teamsters begin filing out and all he gets from Gregory Peck, the man he’s spent the night with, is a firm pat on the shoulder and the lingering potency of his beer breath. Then they’re all gone.
His fried-egg mole has scabbed over from all the picking.
Sometimes he feels this at airports, other times at train stations. An odd wonder, an appreciation, maybe, because how strange for a crowd to disperse and how awful to be alone at a bar with a retard drinking cranberry juice, and how much worse to try to justify saving yourself at the expense of those around you.
On his way out he checks The Kid’s tray for the final tile, and it’s empty, a blank piece, a wildcard, could’ve played it whenever, could’ve added it to the end but left it in the tray, a sacrifice, alone and forlorn, and it’s empty.
The thing about mole hairs is they never stop coming. Pluck one Monday, wake up Tuesday to another. Why moles sprout hairs no one knows, least of all the ostensible Gregory Peck, who in preparation for the winter months has let his appearance get away from him and now resembles less of a clean-cut Gregory Peck than a patchy bearded Jonathan Winters.
He hums a light tune while walking.
“What’s that song?”
“Hear the latest rumor?” he says.
“Didn’t know there were any rumors.”
“People saying he got shot but didn’t die,” he says.
“Union men don’t have rumors. You’re saying we do and I didn’t know this.”
“Rumor is he took two bullets to the back and didn’t even fall. They’re saying he’ll live forever.”
They’re walking down the sidewalk, pseudo-Jonathan, something of a limp to his stride, a left leg that doesn’t want to bend, and to his side the local 13 midget whose name is either Rick or Dick and who carries a small red book in his hand.
Jonathon steadies his left thigh with his big meaty palm. “From the war. Part of Task Force 48 in Okinawa. Was on a destroyer that got hit by a kamiwhatsi.”
“You mean a kamikaze.”
“Can you stay focused? We’re talking about a man surviving two bullets at point-blank range.”
“Took two bullets. Sure. Why not? What’s two bullets to the president?”
“What do you mean what’s two bullets? Two bullets is two bullets. How’s a man’s job affect a moving bullet? Tell me that.”
“Well, what about Christ?” says Rick/Dick.
The humming only stops when he speaks. “What about him?”
The book’s red cover has a picture of a fat shirtless man sitting cross-legged and his face serenely expressed. “I’d say his job got him out of that tomb. Why can’t being the president get you out of two bullets?”
The pseudo-Jonathan Winters hasn’t seen Partin in nearly a year. No one has, in fact, the boys over at the 5th said they thought he was sick or something but seen him they had not. This is the type of mysterious disappearance that would have people questioning loyalties if it weren’t about a man who’d already invested twenty-five years. Doesn’t make sense. Jonathan remembers a time some years ago he’d eaten spoiled seafood and had then been shacked up in his room for what felt like a lifetime. So maybe it’s only seafood.
“Strange you say that.”
“I retract my statements. And what song are you humming?”
“Because you know why the man shot him?”
“I retract my statements because I don’t believe it. Mess with the short guy, you are. Joking, no doubt.”
“Man who shot him said God told him to do it.”
When Rick/Dick walks, his legs kick out to the side first before stepping forward. “Well what do you know about that.” The comedian voice, the upward twisting to end the sentence, a jokester.
“What do I know about that, is what you’re asking.”
“My mouth’s bleeding, Burt. My mouth’s bleeding!”
Late November and already the chilled bite to the air. Jonathan senses this, a foreboding tickling the back of his throat, stuck to the deep part of tongue that makes you wonder just how far back it goes, the tongue. When he was an infant he contracted the chicken pox accompanied with a deadly fever, a life-threatening fever, and his parents, God bless their souls, had filled the kitchen sink with ice cubes and packed the empty caverns with the freshly falling snow and into this his tiny body went.
The humming lasts for the song’s entirety only to begin again at the beginning.
“Tell me the song. Please. Just tell me the song.”
They walk past empty stores and abandoned buildings, the larger man’s limp suddenly smoothing out, a gentle easing, look at that bend. They pass high-rises and hotels where black bellhops hold the door for white women with powdered faces. The streets are quiet, the sidewalks even more so. Where everyone is he doesn’t know but guesses it has something to do with the cold foreboding.
A half sheet of newspaper drifting high above, framed by the dimming sky.
“Let’s go to the office,” he says.
“It’s Friday. The weekend and you want to work.”
“I feel it. Let’s go inside.”
“The man who shot him, the man shot Hoffa because God told him, I ask what do you know about that.”
“I know it was a pellet gun. Court was in recess and he charged the aisle with a pellet gun and fired two rounds before Jimmy turned.”
“And who else did God tell to kill? People forget this, don’t they. That God told Judas to kill his son. My Dad tried to kill me, but he wasn’t no God. Just a milkman with a reverence for the Spartans.”
On days he feels innately cold, arm-shivers and spinal-tickling and no amount of layering to calm the chittering teeth, he remembers the story of how he was put into an ice bath and wonders if this out-of-nowhere frigidness isn’t somehow related.
“Said God told him while he was reading a magazine. Ordered the pellet gun thinking it was a real gun. I’ve tried to put myself in his head. The feeling of storming up the aisle, all the eyes, the faces, people frozen by fear. Maybe some knew what was going to happen. Maybe some wanted it to happen. Then as he points the gun and fires, the feeling he must’ve felt. To kill Jimmy Hoffa, to kill the president of the Teamsters. Cemented in history. An eternal name, he’ll be. I’ve tried to imagine at what point he knew it was a pellet gun.”
Rick/Dick pays close attention to how his feet land because despite being hemmed his black pants are still too long, the bottom cuffs wrapping around the soles of his shoes.
“But let’s go inside,” says Winters. “I can feel it.”
The sky’s dimming in that early afternoon way which produces profound levels of melancholia.
“That’s heartburn. You feel gastric acid.”
Winters knows this isn’t true but pops a white tablet in his mouth anyway, the taste subtly cherry and always a moment or two where he believes he’ll suck his way through it before the urge to bite becomes too fantastic and then crunch.
“Of course, it would make sense, Hoffa getting blown away. Always thought big men have to die in big ways.” Rick/Dick lightly slaps Winter’s thigh. “Leave the deathbeds to guys like us, am I right?”
“Who carries a book around with a fat man on the cover?”
“Buddhists do. That’s Buddha.”
“And you have that backwards about big men. Some do, sure, go out big. Abe Lincoln went out big. But most go away quietly, almost secretly. How history moves is through this, important deaths in lonely rooms.”
Rick/Dick flicks the book’s cover. “Buddhists don’t do the past. No history. Live in the moment, what they say. History only brings suffering.”
“Does you being a Buddhist have anything to do with your dad trying to kill you?”
“I’m a Buddhist because I’m a midget. My Dad trying to kill me only made me an alcoholic.”
Jonathan feels an aching in his gut. He tosses a quarter into a plastic cup of a sleeping homeless man balled in an alleyway. They take a right and see the Teamster office at the end of the block. Farther down the road, they spot the first upright person they’ve seen since stepping out the door, a stranger running, frantically, frenzied, and above in the dimming sky floats the half sheet of newspaper.
“What’s his problem?”
“Needs a bathroom.”
“Let’s go inside,” says Winters. “Please.”
“Tell me the song and I’ll go inside.”
The stranger cuts into the street. He’s running in a complete zig-zag. Drugs, perhaps. Or maybe he ate seafood and really is searching for a restroom. Couldn’t blame him, if that’s the case. Couldn’t blame Partin either for a few days off, everyone needs a day here, a day there, but Ed’s been gone much longer, months now, no happy New Year, no happy Fourth, no can you help dispose of some files.
“Monster Mash by Bobby Picket.”
“Never heard it.”
“Been stuck in my head for almost a year. Wife leaves each night for a hotel because I hum it in my sleep. I lie down in a bed with more room than I know what to do with.”
“Now you know how it feels.”
“The cold sheets are no longer refreshing.”
They stop in front of the Teamsters office door.
“You’re clinging. Buddha doesn’t allow for clinging. That’s how I know it won’t get stuck in my head. I won’t allow it.”
“What else does Buddha say?”
“He says if you see him on the road, kill him.”
They watch the stranger. He’s moved back onto the sidewalk, only he’s not running anymore, he’s crawling. He’s on all fours like a fucking child, palms flat against the cold pavement, knees collecting dirt and cigarette butts and watch out for that piece of gum. They wait and watch and Rick/Dick lights a cigarette and by the time the stranger reaches them the cigarette’s just a charred stub.
“Howdy,” says the midget.
Winters hums and snaps and says, “I was working in the lab late one night…”
“Shot? Who’s shot?”
“When my eyes beheld an eerie sight…”
“Shot in the head.”
The ripped newspaper twirls in a soft wind. Buddha says if you see him, please kill him. Partin doesn’t say anything and you won’t ever see him.
Winters saying, “And suddenly, to my surprise…”
“The President. Right to the head.”
Rick/Dick bats the hand that holds the red book. “Believe this? Can’t kill a Kennedy with a single bullet.” Then he’s gone and into the office, followed soon by Winters who’s moved to the chorus, and the stranger tipping over onto his back where he lies staring up at the dimming melancholy sky and what lands on his chest besides the newspaper dated November 22, 1963.
They are drinking toddies and bourbon. They are chewing stale popcorn and belching freely. They are smoking cigars like a baby has been born.
Hoffa’s up on a table, saying, “Want the snakes to suck his skin.”
“How’d you know?” says the midget.
“Told you. Felt it.”
Hoffa saying, “Want the worms to be his friends.”
“But how’d you feel it?”
“Same reason you’ll remember while lying on your deathbed where you were today. You’ll remember me and the book with the fat man and you’ll remember the stranger crawling up the sidewalk.” Winters swivels in his stool. He drinks a glass of ice water and pokes the cubes with a red straw, watches it bob. “This, Rick, you’ll remember this.”
“Dick. My name’s Dick.”
Hoffa saying, “Want the birds to eat his eyes.”
“You’ll remember this because something’s ending and what it is I don’t know but once it ends everyone will know.”
“How didn’t you know my name?”
Hoffa leaping off the table and belting, “As here he lies!” He goes waltzing between the tables, grabbing hands and arms. He wants to dance, someone call the wife, hasn’t wanted to dance since his wedding but now he does, his cheeks going fat puffing on a thick cigar.
Winters can’t believe how bright the room is, even with the blinds pulled down over the front windows, such color.
Shadows prance and shift along the wood floor.
“You’re wrong,” says Dick. He’s standing against the bar, both hands cradling what looks like vodka but smells like oranges. “I’ll remember lots of unimportant things. Today will be just another day.”
Winters notices The Kid at the bar’s end. Cranberry juice, what else. Strange how it takes minutes in a room before realizing he’s there. What thoughts he has, wonders Winters. He pictures a life filled with objects. Windup toys and rubber balls, crayons and chalk and picture books. He closes his eyes to see all this.
Hoffa saying, “Just another lawyer, that Booby.”
Winters pictures a refrigerator whose shelves are filled with large pitchers of cranberry juice. He bets there’s a dog in the mix somewhere, a little fluffy white thing who dizzies The Kid’s head when scampering between his legs. A shifting in the room’s air, a cold tunneled rush like a sweeping breeze signals the door has opened and closed. Still he keeps his eyes shut. What’s there to see that’ll cure the sadness he feels?
This is how he mourns, by closing his eyes and envisioning the lives of those around him.
He hears a familiar voice, then Hoffa saying, “A Russian peasant.” And crowd noise, loose chatter, can’t pick out the voices because there’s too many, and why he doesn’t get the communal sense of belonging he doesn’t know, been a long time, is all, part of the crowd for a long time and maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to be like Partin, take a day or two off, spend time with the kids, with the wife, how she never complains but the sadness in her icy blue eyes.
The familiar voice saying, “Get the board.”
“Of course. You’ve got time. You’re unemployed. You’ve got so much time you need to kill some.”
“No Kid this time. Just you and me.”
“Get it, kill time.”
He doesn’t care whether anything he imagines is true. The lives and backstories, love interests and forgotten dreams and peanut allergies, all fictional yet not unreal, not to him. It’s an admiration, a remembrance – how he mourns. The voices go silent and he can sense a stillness in the room by the way his skin feels. Because you can pay your respects and you can talk about memories, you can kneel on the padded foam and look at the dead face, might even kiss the dead face, but none of that can replace the thinking, the space in your head which a person fills.
Dick and the Buddha say forget the past and live in the moment but the moment’s worth is the summation of the past.
He hears the cardboard and the plastic, senses the shifting of bodies. Dick asks softly if he should return the man’s wallet. Winters can’t remember where he was the day Kennedy was inaugurated. He can remember the way sunlight entered his childhood home’s living room, an insignificant memory, meaningless, remembers the way the light slanted off the curtains and addressed the far wall as if it were embarrassed, if that makes sense, but can’t remember the day from which this memory comes. What’d he have for breakfast?
Hoffa saying, “When’s the funeral?”
“Won’t be able to make it, of course. Busy, you know, running the country.”
“You sick bastard.”
There are voices as he stands and Dick’s pudgy hand reaching for his shoulder. What’s it matter? The President’s dead and he’s tired and lonely and wants his family, wants to leave the crowd. He could’ve foreseen a rematch, could’ve pictured Bobby’s boiling anger, his resentment pushing him to the edge of mania, but never could he have foreseen his own willingness to leave, to plant his feet on the sidewalk and say, My name’s Peter and I like my eggs scrambled.
But they’ll play their game, a winner, a loser. Maybe they’ll play best two-out-of-three. Let them. His name is Peter and he’s going to walk the empty streets, limp-less and injury-free, and he’ll mourn the loss of something he never knew he was missing. Then he’s going to go home.