Some days just start upside down. I ain’t talkin’ about a jackleg at the drive-thru skimpin’ on the scalded milk in your white-chocolate mocha. More a life-style that leaves you wakin’ up at the bottom of a dumpster every morning, hands and feet bound. There’s an undetermined amount of garbage between you and fresh air, and as much as it turns your stomach you know the only way to get there is to start eatin’. Makes you wanna hurl most days, but don’t let anyone tell ya being a detective in the South Bronx ain’t without its perks.
A junk-yard dog ain’t much for paradin’ around at a show—prefers to run at his own pace, bites at the leash that binds him to another’s will. White-gloved ladies with floppy-brimmed hats know the only way he’s takin’ home ‘Best of Breed’ is if he eats the competition. A dog like that does what he knows to do in order to see another sunset. Granny Donatelli taught me about the kind of tenacity that boils from within—that it’s OK to be that kind of dog.
In nursery-rhyme terms ninety-three pounds of sugar and spice ain’t nothin’ to fear but it’s a game changer when you’re ten years old and that gnarled thumb and forefinger latches onto your cheek like a pair of dollar-bin vice-grips. Survivin’ the clench meant you done only half the work. The shake that followed consisted of a painful and vigorous thrashing that in some perverted way brought her great pleasure. But come to think of it, wouldn’t the world be a better place if all ten year old boys understood the importance of bringing their grannies pleasure?
Professional wrestlin’ was the steak and taters of grannies television diet. Even as a young boy I figured if two half-dressed fat dudes wanted to slither around pressin’ private parts it shoulda happened behind closed doors, but I came to appreciate what wrestlin’ done for her. While nobody was lookin’ she climbed out of the shell the world saw and become as real to me as my young psyche could handle. After you seen it once you learned to recognize the warnin’ signs. Things was headed south when her eyes went glassy and the corners of her mouth got shiny. Only once had I seen such a display of raw aggression, but had trouble reconciling the two. Comparing your granny to the neighbors Rottweiler bordered on sacrilege of the highest order. Let’s call it an early brush with reality; the day I stood in my bedroom window and watched Moses display in convincing fashion why a three-legged cat should never venture far from home. Granny and the most feared dog in the neighborhood bore undeniable similarities. Both had jowls that quivered with anticipation and a mindset that left reason two blocks back. Like the spring-loaded hips of Moses, Granny would lean forward in her rocker and outta nowhere would loose a string of curse words that would make a Turret sufferer blush six shades of red. As profound and disturbing as the episodes were the whole thing lasted no more than a few moments. Once the referee accepted the submission Granny fell limp in her chair, like an expressionless shell of a human body after an alien abduction. In those eerie moments before granny came back to me completely, I knew exactly how the priest in the Exorcist felt. I too wanted to do somethin’ to help, but the thought of her head spinnin’ around 360 and spewing pea-soup left me frozen in time.
Some people might frown on a young boy learnin’ to curse and spit tobacco from his paternal grandmother, but if you wanna learn to read you gotta go to the library. Granny was real—no pretenses—right down to the ability to fart like a three-hundred pound man with an unholy penchant for chili dogs. Even today her bits of wisdom live on. She reminded me there’s at least a dozen ways to skin a cat. It was her way of tellin’ me there’s always more than one path to a destination.
Cops are a strange breed, believin’ justice comes in all forms. So long as it comes timely, ain’t any of ‘em bad. Not one standin’ on the dock was frettin’ over the prospect that justice arrived in the form of an extended nap in the East river. Alfonzo “The Bull” Luchesse was stiff and lifeless as we fished him out of the sludge, and all I could hear is Ganny’s voice sayin’, “Dead is dead ain’t it?”
The Bronx white-pages had fewer names than those who legitimately wanted to see “The Bull” on a one-way trip outta this world. Business owners tired of being shaken down, rivals lookin’ for a cut of the drug traffic, and jilted women. Alfonzo showed no prejudice when it came to the ladies; he loved them all equally lousy.
After floatin’ a few questions around the neighborhood I decided to pay a visit to a particularly buxom brunette named Bridget Bardello. With a name like that you’d think she’d scratch out a livin’ doing somethin’ pretty—a florist or somethin’. Fact was she did work with arrangements; choreographed all her own dance moves. Bridget hit the stage hungry-like from start to finish. Straddling a shiny pole running from floor to ceiling she doled out her magic in small, tantalizing doses. There were other dancers in the place, but Bridgette was the roller-coaster that kept ‘em standin’ in line.
Nothin’ says classy like a flashin’ neon arrow, but I suppose the clientele slithering around the Rumpus Room weren’t as much into ambiance as amenities. The night was all played out with the exception of a couple lizards staring at leftovers through blood-shot eyes. I approached the corner table and slapped a bottle of Thunderbird down between the old dog and his bone. Bridgette looked surprised a guy could drop her mid-sentence and split for the door. Did I mention the fact I ain’t much on ice-breakers?
“No offense, Baby, but I think he found you coutin’ ones from last night’s take a turn-off. Didn’t look like a math major, but between the two, he figured the Thunderbird was the guaranteed ride.”
I expected her to be upset over the prospect of lost business, but Bridgette was a pro. She worked men like Charlie Daniels eats up a fiddle on a Saturday night.
“So Bridget, word on the street is you and The Bull had a public fallin’ out the night he went for a swim. There anything you need to get off your chest?”
“Just these pasties—you offerin’ to help?”
Her response came between drags on a Virginia Slim, accompanied by a giggle. She stood and saddled up close figurin’ the odds were slim I could resist those babies waggin’ in my face like two-dollar lollipops. There I was in the middle of a gentlemen’s club after hours, pressed against a firecracker like Bridgette. A man could get lost with no chance of findin’ his way back to sensible ‘til sunrise, but I had a job to do.
“Sugar, I’m not opposed to a girl short on brains making her livin’ by horizontal means, but if you’re fishin’ tonight you got the wrong bait for this cat. Don’t tell me the fragrance you’re wearin’, let me guess. I’m desperately torn between Dumpster Diva and Heavenly-Ho. And as far as your pasties go, I’m like the hometown grocery…don’t do plastic.”
I glanced in the men’s room mirror and again at the photo. Provoking Bridgette into slapping me across the face was easy, and although the pattern did match the bruised cheek of Alfonzo Luchesse it wasn’t enough. So like many a gent gone before I left the Rumpus Room unfilled—but not without a piece of evidence I hoped to be substantial. Four-inch stiletto heels brought Bridgette to five foot nothin’, but man did she pack a wallop—enough force to break the clasp on her bracelet.
I suppose he noticed the hand-print on my cheek and the crooked smile that accompanies a jacked-jaw, but good friend don’t ask those kinda questions. Virgil Valvano adjusted the jewelers loop for a closer look.
“Sloppy craftsmanship…nothin’ I’d want my name attached to, but the rocks are quality. I’m certain I sold ‘em. Let me check my files.”
The prospect of Virgil keepin’ records made me smile like a homely girl standin’ at the punch bowl eyein’ the last geek plastered to the wall. In the ten years since our initial introduction Virgil had done good for himself. As an undercover agent I had arranged a rendezvous in a dark alley off 142nd to buy a 100 grand worth of illegal diamonds. With both of us bloody and bruised our dance ended with Virgil sporting some shiny new wrist-ware. Like any good date I introduced him to the back seat of my car—face-first with my boot planted in his backside for leverage. In exchange for rolling over on his supplier in Angola the prosecutor cut him a break. I had to admit, reformed look good on Virgil.
He returned to the counter grinnin’ like a shit-eating dog waiting to teach his pup a new trick.
“You’re a bold man—flashin’ around fifty-grand worth of ice like it was CZ.”
Dropping the hardware into the inside pocket of my jacket I spent a solid minute prayin’ I hadn’t done an injustice to my favorite pair of boxers.
“You sold a house-worth of diamonds to someone and don’t recall that off the top of your head?”
I allowed the cold steel of steel of my sidearm jammed against his cheek to signal the deterioration of my mood.
“Don’t play with me, Virgil!”
“I ain’t playin’. Fifty-grand ain’t nothin’ to sneeze at but business is real good these days.”
I nodded toward the security camera in the corner.
“Virgil, tell me you got a popcorn maker in the back and can’t wait to show me some video.”
Granny always said, ‘You can’t make chicken-salad outta chicken shit.’ The buyer in the video was dolled up like the Queen of England, but the stiletto heels had enough bling to make a blind man beg for a second pair of shades. Bridgette Bardello and I definitely needed to have a more intimate chat so as I could wrap my mind around just how much disposable income a stripper has these days.
A few hours of shut-eye proved costly—it always does. Over a couple of drinks the owner of the Rumpus Room told me Bridgette didn’t show for her shift. Her dressing room was as empty as Monday morning church.
I spent the next two days trackin’ down extravagant purchases with no common theme. Other than the fact Bridgette and the ‘Bull’ had a butt-load of cash and didn’t mind spillin’ it in all corners of the city. On day three I woke feelin’ like an old tom cat humpin’ a ball of yarn—I was getting’ chafed.
Midmorning I got a phone call from the coroner. DNA results showed the body we pulled from the river was not Alfonso, but his twin brother Arnold. Talk about night and day. I can only imagine the scrappin’ that went on in their poor mother’s womb; the indigestion caused by a gangster and priest rentin’ the same space. None of it made sense.