December 10, 1978
That December brought a bitter cold, the taste of snow lingering in the air. I felt the icy wind ripping through my jacket as I pumped gas into my car: a '68 fastback, red Mustang. Juan called it an old piece of shit. I assured him this car was a classic, and he didn't understand or appreciate anything about fine American automobiles. It probably had a lot to do with the fact that he came from a backward, Third World country. One where goats and sheep were revered, eaten, and possibly fucked.
I finished pumping the gas, grabbed some coffee at the convenience store, and drove to Juan’s family's apartment. I banged on the door a couple of times before walking right in. Juan was dressed and ready to go, standing there with a cup of coffee in his hand.
His sister Jacinda slinked down the stairs. I walked up to her, put my arm around her neck, and kissed her deeply. I slid my hand inside her pajama bottoms reaching my fingers beneath the silk of her panties. As I ended the kiss, I pulled my hand out and brought my middle finger to my tongue. She tasted sweet. I stared into Juan’s eyes watching as they turned from dark brown to cool black. You could feel Juan's rage from a mile away. It didn't matter what fired it up on that particular day; the rage was always burning, waiting. I think Juan was always in an endless circle of cool to incensed to insane and then back to some semblance of calm.
I dealt with angry people every day, but Juan was different. His rage was intrinsic, as vital to him as breathing. Cops, a botched drug deal, liars, me fondling his sister, or any of a thousand injustices were fuel for the rage of Juan Carlos.
Juan said goodbye to his family, and I waved as we walked down the cracked front steps of the apartment.
"The day will come asshole,” said Juan, “your day. Stop fucking with my sister before I have to kill you."
I put my arm around his neck and told him I loved him.
“Fuck you,” muttered Juan. I laughed.
We drove toward New York City. We had a guy to meet, Vinny, at a diner at midnight.
We pulled into the parking lot. Vinny recognized my Mustang. He and two other guys climbed out of a Ford Econoline van. No pleasantries were exchanged. I made a comment about a "tough crowd." No one made eye contact. I was not impressed.
Vinny lit a cigarette and laid out the plan like it was a typical business meeting. "This middle eastern fuck, money up the ass, lands in about an hour in JFK,” he said. “With him on the plane is about five million in gold, US coin, bars, and cash.” He held up a finger for each of these items and took a long drag from his cigarette. “We take him and his money to New Rochelle. We play this up like obedient, shithead servants until we get to the bank." Vinny looked at all of us but lingered on me. His eyes were as cold as the wind blowing off the bay.
"We take his money and the fifty million waiting for us,” he continued. “We let this asshole go, and the rest of us take off into Connecticut. We’ll pay off who we owe, and everyone goes home happy."
It sounded like a simple enough plan. We all went into the diner for coffee and food. The place screamed Jersey: yellow lighting, lazy patriotic decor, a constant smell of fried eggs and burnt coffee, sticky tables, and good food. The pie, in particular, was one-of-a-kind. Pie this big, this sweet and savory, you could only get at the Jersey shore.
As we sat down, my eyes wandered to the young waitress carrying three plates of eggs, ham, bacon, and home fries. How did she do it? I ordered coffee, eggs, and blueberry pie and watched the sway of her tiny hips as she walked away to brew a fresh pot.
We were near the Verrazano Bridge. Looking out the greasy, frosted windows I saw the NY skyline. I hoped tonight went well: let everyone do their job, and nobody be a wise-ass.
I didn’t want to kill anyone that night.
I ate my eggs and listened to the BeeGees or something play in the background. No, that wouldn’t do. I slid out of the sagging booth and made my way over to the jukebox. I rifled through the cards on the machine, spinning the wheel on the top. I slipped in a quarter and Springsteen’s "Jungleland" replaced, "Stayin' Alive."
Now I could relax or at least try. I returned to my food, mopping up the egg yolks with my toast. My tongue turned it all to ash. I couldn’t taste anything. So, I tried to drown out my thoughts in the song. I finished my coffee as Clarence Clemons broke into his solo. For a moment – for one short moment – sitting in that diner, surrounded by stainless steel, spotted glass, and gigantic pie, I felt normal. The heist about to go down in the next few hours wasn’t normal. But for the next ten seconds, I wondered what life must be like to be sane and even peaceful. I could have been a trucker, stopping in Bayonne before hitting the city, or a dock worker, a cab driver, maybe even a cop. I could have been a guy with a job that got to eat in diners, flirt with the sexy Jersey waitresses, and go home to a safe, warm bed. I realized in that diner that I’d never known normal. My life was already polluted by my violence and my love – or need – for crime. I was an outsider, and I would never understand peace.
Vinny grabbed the check and threw some twenties on the table: a hefty tip for the sweet, attentive waitress. We picked up our coats and headed out into the wind blowing in off Raritan Bay.
Juan and I followed the van in my Mustang. We were to leave it in a parking garage at JFK. Juan bitched again about my "piece of shit car." For some reason, his complaining bothered me that night. I told him to shut up, and we drove the rest of the way in silence.
We pulled into the parking garage at the airport and locked the car. I made a quick note of the parking spot before we jogged to the van. The van’s door slid open as we approached, and I climbed in, moving to the back. The same older men from the diner were already inside. They looked like actors with ties and thick raincoats and shit. Clean cut. We drove slowly to the parking area for incoming flights. The older gentlemen got out. I didn’t get their names – couldn’t be bothered. Those two would go into the terminal and wait for the sheik or prince or whatever. Juan and I would ride to the cargo area with Vinny.
Vinny parked the van and told Juan and me to wait. He was going to pick up some crates that belonged to this guy. From here, this all looked completely legit. Juan and I sat in the back seat of the van in the dark. It smelled like mothballs. I broke the quiet. "Did I ever tell you how much I love fucking your sister?"
Juan swore in Spanish, "Not now, you fucking asshole..."
So we waited in silence.
The rear door opened, and Vinny asked us for a hand. Juan and I jumped out to help Vinny and a guy from the airport load four wooden crates into the van. I waited until the airport employee walked away.
“What’s in the crates?” I asked Vinny.
“Some gold, hopefully,” he responded. “A couple of boxes too heavy for cash. Whatever it is, it's ours. This load doesn't get delivered. This is our little Christmas bonus.”
We all laughed and climbed into the van, driving back to the JFK arriving flight, waiting area.
The same two gentlemen from before walked out about fifteen minutes later. They were escorting a skinny guy with a thick beard. Vinny motioned for me to move, so I hopped out of the van and took the seat up front next to Vinny. The prince – or whatever – took my place next to Juan. I learned the two gentlemen’s names were Freddie and Stevie. They sat in the middle seat and never smiled.
Vinny drove out of the city toward New Rochelle taking his time to stay within the speed limit and signal every turn. We were all quiet because the wrong word could blow the entire operation. Silence was safe. The prince looked at Juan with suspicion. Freddie told him Juan and I were there for protection as armed guards. Juan flashed him a glimpse of his .40, and we returned to the silence.
Forty-five minutes later, were we in New Rochelle and pulling into the bank parking lot.
It was 3:30 in the morning. Vinny backed the van up near the bank, and I saw three guys silhouetted in the streetlight. Vinny and I sat tight in the van as the side door opened. Freddie and Stevie escorted the prince from the van and...
All Hell broke loose. One of the silhouettes opened fire on us as Freddie and Stevie grabbed the prince and shoved him into the bank. Lead was in the air like fireflies. Bullets were hitting the concrete buildings surrounding us, each one creating a small explosion of dust as they embedded into the walls. Streetlights exploded, the hot, flying metal thick as mosquitoes.
I ducked behind my seat, as the back window was blown out. I had my .40, and Juan had his. I threw my pistol to him as I grabbed the Browning Automatic Vinny had stashed under an old coat between the seats. Vinny crouched low behind his seat too as the van was ripped apart by the gunfire.
Vinny reached for the key, and the engine turned over. Still ducking below the dash, he gunned it, and we took off. I got up, raised the Browning, and fired through the broken window until my clip was empty. As each slug connected, I watched the unmistakable dance a body makes as the lead finds its way inside. Heads flew back, arms flailed, knees buckled, and two of the silhouettes went down. Vinny stopped the van in the street. The gunfire had subsided. I jumped out of the passenger door and ran back to the bank. Juan was screaming he could hear sirens. At the bank door, standing over the two bodies, not sure if they were dead or alive, I unloaded another clip into the two guys on the ground. Blood pooled around my shoes. The echo of sirens grew louder. The bodies of the two men looked like hamburger meat thrown on the butcher shop floor. Their corpses were unrecognizable: an ugly mix of torn, blood-soaked clothes, ripped flesh, broken bone, and gore.
It reminded me of a time at my uncle’s farm.
I'd run away from the Hell of my father’s home again. My uncle always took me in, but he was bent on making a man out of me. No matter the job we were doing, it was always a setup, a test of my inner strength. That particular day I had shown up just as he and five of his buddies were returning from a squirrel hunt. Each man carried four or five of the dead rodents strung together over their shoulders, their jackets stained with squirrel blood. It seemed to be some badge of honor.
My uncle and the men went into a small shed behind the big barn. They cracked open cold beers purchased in anticipation of the butchering about to take place. They proceeded to skin and gut their bounty. A big table in the center of the shed became a scene of unimaginable carnage. Heads, tails, and legs were all piled into the center, and squirrel fur covered the floor. I found myself staring at the dirt trying to imagine myself anywhere but in that shed. The sound of breaking bone and knife blades hitting the hard-wooden surface made my skin crawl. My uncles and his buddies laughed at their slaughter. They popped beer cans and swapped stories. One guy bitched about his wife. Another guy said he'd fuck her for him. Camaraderie and carnage – I think I learned to tie the two together at that farm.
That smell of beer, blood, and death, it was here too. It’s a stench appreciated only by a few: the smell of a fresh kill.
Vinny’s voice made me jump and snapped me out of my trance.
Vinny yelled again, and I saw the van begin to pull away. I ran alongside and jumped in as he mashed the gas. We screamed down Pelham drive, lights out until we came to a golf course. On the other side of the road was the ocean, Long Island Sound.
We stopped and surveyed the damage. No one was hurt, but the van was destroyed. Vinny looked at Juan. "We need a car. You need to steal us a car." He looked at me. "You need to unload these crates from the prince. Hide this shit!" Vinny pocketed the keys. "I'm going to steal gas. We need to torch this van. We can’t drive it."
We all had our jobs and took off to do them, not unlike soldiers. I unloaded the wooden crates. All four of the containers were about two-foot square and a foot deep. Some were quite heavy, and some were quite light. I was hoping the light ones were stuffed with hundred-dollar bills, but I wouldn’t open them until all three of us were back together. There was no way I was going to leave myself open to any suspicion with this crowd.
Juan returned first with some old Buick. Crosses and rosary beads dangled from the rear-view mirror. Not a bad score. I noticed a Virgin Mary statue on the dashboard.
"Who the fuck did you do steal this from? A nun?" I asked. Juan grinned.
"There’s a church about a half mile up the road. This was the first car I saw. I love these old Buick's; they're so easy to jack.”
Juan helped me move the crates into the cavernous trunk of the Buick. All four fit with ease and had room to spare.
Looking up Pelham Road, we saw headlights approaching. It was Vinny riding in some car full of stoned, young guys. He jumped out of the car, threw a one-hundred-dollar bill in the lap of the driver, and moved to the trunk. He had four, five-gallon gas cans filled to the brim. We took the cans, and the kids took off. After soaking the van with all twenty gallons of gas, I reached in between the front seats and grabbed the Browning automatic. I threw it toward Juan, and he grabbed it out of the air.
“Throw that in the Sound! We don't need to be caught with that,” Vinny said. Juan threw the gun into the water and got into the Buick to drive. I jumped in the back seat.
Vinny grabbed a cigarette, lit it, and took one long drag. Looking at the sky, he flicked the smoke onto the gas-soaked van. The night began to glow. He ran back to the Buick as the black Ford exploded. The fire lit up the sky and the grounds of the Split Rock Golf Course. Juan hit the gas, shooting a rooster tail of gravel into the air, and drove toward the Hutchinson River Parkway North. It was five am. The night had not gone as planned.
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