Early September 2017, Newburgh, NY
My name is Jesse, but it didn't use to be. I had another name once, but I don't even say it to myself anymore. It makes me miss who I was. One day, completely against my wishes, the guy I’d been for the first twenty-five years of my life could no longer exist. That day, I became someone else. All it took was few grand for some paperwork, and some dead guy got a new life. Who I was, died.
Looking back over the past thirty-five or forty years, it was not such a bad choice. I got used to being gone after a time. No one knows whatever happened to me; I disappeared. It was far better for everyone concerned.
For too many years I was a social engineer. I twisted and manipulated everyone so they would fit into my game. Perhaps I still do. I have people who want to be my friends, but friends get you killed. Many of my old friends are dead now, so I closed my circle years ago. I no longer have any need for companions. I have a need for quiet, not silence, quiet.
I have a need to not look over my shoulder anymore.
Now I find myself plagued with this new-found hunger for the truth. I fear this craving may somehow ruin everything. Just this morning, I was shaving, looking in the mirror, and it popped into my head: my life is a lie. I guess you could call it conscience if you must give it a name. It's been many years since it reared his ugly head, an unwelcome visitor into this cesspool of thoughts.
I've had a nice home here, a small apartment that overlooks the Hudson River, in Newburgh, NY. A funny little town, it used to be an All-American City. The streets were full of 1950's Chevys and Fords and squeaky clean, middle-class, white families. Everyone came out for July Fourth parades and fireworks on summer days. They took ferryboat rides across a mile-wide river, and everyone was happy. Life was perfect. I could never tell if "All-American" was about illusion or delusion. It doesn't matter because mired deep in reality is where I’ve lived. I found this place because I wanted to help tear down the lie. As long as someone like me was allowed to live here, it could never be a clean or safe place for anyone. I felt, at times, a bit like that dark shadow in every corner, silent and staring.
Today, Newburgh is a dirty and violent city, situated only twenty-five miles from where I was born. I've spent my life hiding in plain sight. This may be ironic, and it may be plain stupid.
Across the river sits Mt. Beacon. It’s not a huge mountain, by anyone's standards, but remains a trusted companion to the river. The mountain runs down to a rocky shore. Gentle waves from tiny boats to huge oil tankers lap at the coast. The sound is calming, relaxing, more like that quiet I need in my life. I find very little else to calm me.
The river and the mountain are always alive and changing. I sit here and look out of my large, grimy window. I watch the mountain change colors, from winter’s gray to summers greens, to the explosion of autumn’s reds and oranges. Then the color fades to sad and lonely gray again, and the river’s rage slows its flow and freezes. The mountain stands stoic. They never say a word, but they drive home the passage of time. They demand I face how many years I've been on the run all while sitting still in this one place.
How many years has it been since I've been home, to my real home and family – to myself? The years tend to blend together. It’s as if each one has its own unique and vibrant color, but as the years go on, they become mixed. Each color loses its luster. Now I am left with nothing but an ugly stew of gray.
I stare at that mountain and question if anyone even remembers me at all. My family – do they remember? Could I take off this disguise and come back? Back to warmth and family and friendship? Does that world even exist outside of my memories?
From what little I've gleaned, many of them are still alive and happy. Could I slide back into that lost world, my sins of the flesh and the soul forgiven? Could I once again walk in that old, back door of my mother’s house? I can see its peeling white paint, its loose doorknob, and its cracked windowpane – evidence of an errant fly ball of my youth. Would she allow me back into the kitchen of that old stone house? Would they all come up to me and put their arms around me? Allow me to feel the warmth of those hugs, feel a familiar hand slapping my back?
The mountain outside my window is gone. Instead, I see someone pulling out a chair and welcoming me back at the family table. My sister brings me a cold beer in a tall, iced glass. I’m sitting at that table, drinking that cold beer, feeling my family, feeling home. I’m home. I've climbed from that rubble and once again returned, like the past three or four decades never happened. The avalanche of years past is quiet. No, not quiet. Silent. Screaming. No.
To them I am dead.
The mountain returns to my window, burying the dream. Reality slapping me hard, I realize there is and never will be a softening of my crimes, my sins. My sins are here to stay, buried deep in the ground. They’ve made wives and mothers weep, and sons scream for revenge. They’ve left daughters without strong arms to raise them, and their broken eyes haunt me the most – their grief always turns to vengeance. My crimes will never be forgotten or forgiven as long as there is someone alive who loves someone I stole. For me, there is no pardon.
Last night, I heard gunshots from the streets a few blocks away. The Bloods and The Crips run this town now. Somebody was bustin' a cap in somebody's ass. Police cars and ambulances chased the noise, but I didn’t. Those were the sounds of my youth. A lullaby of chaos and violence much better than the silence.
Every day, like today, I am up before the sunrise. Sleep is a luxury I don’t have. I'm always waiting for something. I’m not sure what, but I know it’s coming. So, I simply wait, right here. Will it come today? The unknown?
I make a cup of coffee and sit on my comfortable couch to watch the news. The pretty anchorwoman, with dark eyes and dark hair, is wearing a blue dress today. I don't watch the news; I watch the reporter. She stares into my eyes, and her painted lips curl into a smile that betrays gentle creases around her eyes. Would she run too if she met me, her soft curves twisting in that blue dress as she tried to get away? What would it be like to talk to her and have her like me, to enjoy my company? What would it be like for her to know me without fear?
The anchor’s voice deepens, her tone husky and dark as the smile fades from her delicate face. She talks of shootings on the street in Brooklyn: police tape, lights flashing, eyewitness accounts, idiots with pointing fingers, screaming. Chaos. I smile. I fucking love eyewitness accounts. That line between what people see and what they allow themselves to believe, that’s my work.
I pour another cup of coffee, black, and listen to the rest of the news. The weather is hot, a heat wave for mid-September. A car fire on the Major Deegan has traffic backed up to Yonkers. The Red Sox win – fuck the Red Sox. The Yankees lose – fuck the Yankees, The Mets lose – fuck baseball.
A commercial break comes on. Someone tries to sell me a car and then car insurance. There’s a song about pills for my dick and then some more tablets for shit I didn't even know I had. Restless Leg Syndrome? What the Hell is that?
Out of nowhere, I see a face on TV I haven't seen in forty years. He's walking out of a courtroom in the Bronx with two or three lawyers and cameras in his face. I drop my coffee, and it clatters to the floor.
“Vinny. Where did the years go?”
I can’t pry my eyes from the TV. Why are they breaking this old man’s balls now? We did that job forty years ago. I thought he was dead. He looks like he might be dead, or near death. I forgot about those days. No, I tried to forget. Some days and jobs got buried so deep they will never resurface. Vinny, that job, that life, and those guys were never intended to resurface.
We were friends, old friends, lost over the years. I was a kid with an attitude and chip on my shoulder. I wore a stolen leather jacket and I had a desire to rule those dirty back streets. Vinny was older than me, a brother of sorts, and a guy who knew how to dress, how to impress, and how to score. Booze, coke, gold watches and pussy. That's all I’ll ever think of when I remember Vinny. That man could score some serious pussy. I was the thug, the mechanic, but Vinny, he was impeccable.
I grew up, we all did. Crimes became less innocent, and Vinny's loyalty commanded a higher cost. To belong to his club, you had to pay some heavy dues.
I stare at the TV watching the old man in chains. The words of the dark-haired anchor fade into the background. I say out loud, "You boys, you young dudes don't know gangsters. That's gangsters, not ‘gangsta.’ Fuck you ‘gangstas.’ You boys strut and talk. Good Lord, do you talk. We never talked. Never. There were rules. That was one of the rules. We never talked."
I pick up my cup from the floor and ignore the spilled coffee on the carpet – it’s going to leave a stain – and I start my day. I'm old, and my body hurts, everything hurts. Well, I'm not that old, but I am beat up. I don’t mind getting older, though. Some days I miss me but never my youth. Fuck my youth.
I get dressed, eat breakfast, and head to work. I work in a flower shop. I don’t know a damn thing about flowers, but it’s for my girlfriend. Sometimes I make deliveries, but mostly I am just the guard dog. I scare people – I guess it’s a habit – but I don’t want to scare people anymore. I try to live a simple life, a safe life: no guns, no late nights, just TV and soft drinks. I want life humble and under the radar. I'm the guy no one notices, ever. I'm the most boring guy on the block. That is by design.
An hour later, I’m with my girlfriend. She's blonde and looks like Marilyn Monroe. She's too pretty for me, and I'm too old for her. I think she needs glasses, maybe a therapist. We are talking about what I saw on TV earlier. She’s so young. She doesn't understand some things about me, a lot about me. Okay, most things about me. She never will understand me. That, too, is by design.
I need more coffee. She doesn't understand why I'm upset. I could really use a hard drink, but I'll settle for coffee, this time with lots of cream and lots of sugar. I need the sugar buzz. Before I can finish explaining to her about Vinny, my phone rings. The woman’s voice is frantic.
“Slow down! What? Who?” My voice stumbles as she tells me he is dying. First Vinny on the news and now him? “What the fuck?” I scream, and my girlfriend’s eyes widen. I hang up the call and rub a hand over my face, finding it soaked in sweat.
His name is Juan, Juan Carlos. No one needs to know his last name. Even I made myself forget it. Juan Carlos, that’s it. That’s enough.
In a handful of minutes, forty years of my life has resurfaced. I look at my girlfriend, her blonde hair hanging just over her eyes. She is afraid of me. They all eventually are.
"I'll explain later, an old friend, a heart attack. I have to go. I'll be back." I move my hand to brush a strand of gold from her eyes, but she recoils. I blow out a sigh and leave.
An extreme urgency overtakes me as I walk to my car. A million memories come crashing to the surface like a whale breaching. Big, looming, loud. Ripples cascade out in all directions drowning my tranquil morning. Juan and I have lived within ten to twenty miles of each other for the past few decades. A safe distance as we both hid in plain sight. I saw him once at a movie theater with a very pretty Hispanic woman. We both looked the other way. We had nothing to say. We reminded each other of our crimes, of our sins. I wonder if she was the woman who called. At first, I thought she had dialed the wrong number. I wish it had been the wrong number.
Memories with Juan are hard to recall, hard to even acknowledge. When I think of my friend, my oldest both closest and distant friend, I recall blood and violence. I remember why, one day, for our safety and the safety of others, our friendship had to end. The day we parted, I felt like a balloon pricked by a pin. All the air, the life, the madness, left. I found myself a shallow caricature of who I’d been.
Why, at the end, would he not call me? I must assume that if roles were reversed, I would’ve done the same. A shock comes over me. This guy, my friend, my partner, could soon be leaving this world. He would be dead, like the many we sent to early and undeserved graves.
I climb in my car. Long gone are the fast Cobra Mustangs. Long gone are the daily jeers of, “Piece of shit car!” I laughed at the memory and wonder if Juan would approve of the champagne colored Toyota Camry. Such a sad and ordinary color. My Mustang was fire engine red, and it inhaled gasoline and blacktop at an alarming rate. This Camry is quiet, safe, and soul-robbing. It’s the perfect car for the quietest guy on the block, for the OG.
The hospital is a blur: lights, ambulances, nurses, hushed tones, tubes and bags of fluid. Ugly gray walls and yellow lit hallways form a maze of death. Beeping monitors and ringing phones crowd my ears, and I hear doctors in ties offer meaningless words of assurance while priests offer meaningless prayers. I pass a cute nurse in a tight blue uniform and ask her for directions. She smiles, her teeth straight and white, and points me down another endless hallway. A guy on a gurney yells, "What is this shit?" as a male nurse tries to change his catheter. I shudder, close my eyes, and remind myself to never die in a hospital.
Other visitors see me and turn away. Am I still that scary? I must be. I point to one old man lying on a bed in the hall. A priest is praying with him. I smile and say, "He ain't fucking ready." The priest shakes his head, but I laugh. I like to keep holy men guessing.
I find Juan’s room, take a deep breath, and walk in, pushing the green curtain aside. He is awake, alive! Our eyes meet. Juan is an old friend, an older enemy. We were enemies years before we were friends. Then we were friends with a healthy dose of mistrust. Then we were brothers.
Juan’s wife, Melanie, stands and shakes my hand. I cannot tell by the look in her eyes if she feels she’s met a legend, like Elvis or Satan. She says in a quiet voice, “I’ve heard a few stories. It nice to finally meet you. I’m going to go and grab a cup of coffee.”
She leaves, and I sit down on the end of Juan’s bed. Our journey together has been an old meandering stream, loaded with twists and turns. Sometimes raging, flooding, and pouring over the banks, and at other times, dried up and dead.
"Juan Carlos, you look like Hell. What's with all those tubes?" He smiles at me, and my voice cracks, "How many years has it been?"
Juan replies, in a barely audible voice, "Many... too many. We were just boys, new to the world, new to these wars. My friend,” he swallows, his face creasing with pain, “I am going to die very soon."
It is the truth. He looks like he is dying. "I believe you,” I say. “Broken old men, like ourselves, have run out of reasons to lie.”
Juan chuckles, and I pull up a chair sitting close to the bed of my best friend, my brother.
I look him in the eye and continue, "I think if I'm going to die, I want it cleaner, Juan. I want something purer, more violent and dirty, like the life we lived. You can’t die with machines and bags of blood and mean, ugly nurses. One of your nurses is a man for God’s sake.” I turn my head and bellow past the curtain. “Get this man a girl nurse! A hot, young one! Can’t you see he’s dying?"
We both laugh.
I reach behind my back and find my wallet. It flips open in my hand. In the middle, buried in between driver’s licenses and IDs of the guy I’ve become, a small stack of old pictures slips out. Each photo is tucked away in a plastic sleeve. Once crystal clear, they’ve turned foggy and opaque. The edges are brown from a collection of dust and dirt: the general grime of the past thirty years in my back pocket. I slide one photo out of the sheath, exposing it to daylight and the air for the first-time in decades.
For a moment, I sit in that hospital room completely alone and in silence, as if in a cocoon. The years peel away, like an onion. Each year more bitter, hot and acidic. I stare at the photo: two boys, me skinny and tall with curly, reddish-brown hair. A scruffy beard covers my face on this day. I never wore a beard back then, except when we’d been out on some kind of run or in hiding.
I recall the day in the picture well. Juan and I had taken to boats and spent our days and nights smuggling caches of drugs from coast to island, the Narcos Islands, off Panama. Juan stood to my right: shorter than me, stocky, bare-chested, and built like a bull. His brown skin was even darker than usual from our months at sea. Jet black hair, grown long and pulled back in a ponytail, a thick black mustache covered his upper lip. Through the many years, and the wrinkled, ancient photo paper, I could still see his jet-black eyes. The iris and the pupil were the same color. When you looked in Juan’s eyes, it was as if you were looking directly into his soul, and the sight of that place would chill any man to the bone. Few people ever looked Juan in the eye twice.
In our hands, we held Kalashnikov, Soviet-made, assault rifles. I laugh at the thought that there is a story in those guns alone. I extend my arm to Juan. He takes the photo with a shaky hand. Like I had moments before, Juan looks at the photo with a silent reverence.
“This can't be how our story ends, Juan.” I break the silence with a whisper. “We were strong, young men, not patients. We were never victims. We were the victors."
As we talk, my mind wanders. The most important thing I learned from years with Juan is this: there is a very narrow space that exists between reality and fantasy, truth and lies, good and bad, and the truly righteous and the truly evil.
It is within these narrow spaces, down below the horizon of reality, truth, goodness, and righteousness that men like Juan and me chose to live and do our business.
As we got older, the space between the opposing sides seemed to narrow. Situations became more complex, and the line between friend and enemy became blurred and undefined until it disappeared. Our crimes became more vicious and unforgivable until we lost all sense of right and wrong. Right and wrong could be and would be interchanged – daily even hourly – suiting the situation at hand.
As we evolved, our crimes got uglier and more elaborate. It was as if the realities of the two sides of the universe were somehow working to force us out into the light until we were exposed. Then, exposed to that light, the universe would rid itself of us. It worked against us until we had no place in the good, we had no place in the bad, we had no place in the righteous, or in the evil. We were squeezed into that space between light and dark. Not a twilight, not a sunrise, but the thin line between the two. In that nowhere we ceased to exist and faded away: a silent ending to such a violent and brutal life. The day came, all too fast, when we slid into the background and let the young studs pick up what we had laid down.
Now I am the most boring and quiet guy on the block, praying that no one ever again recognizes who I am.
Juan takes my hand and places it between his cool, shaking palms. He looks me in the eyes and says, "It’s the end days of my life.” The old man’s breathing is labored and shallow. “You and me, we are the Godless. They say their prayers for our innocent victims. The virtuous… they pray as if their God disavows my prayers. They think my prayers never reach the divine ear.” He coughs and grips my hand tighter. “Does the creator of the world only listen to the prayers of the good?”
“I don’t know,” I reply.
“I hope not. Because I'm preparing to leave here now, my friend. I want to be free of this, all of this.” He pulls my hand closer, and I lean in, his voice a hoarse whisper. “We need to retell the stories. We need to.” He coughs again, and I look for a glass of water, but his cup is empty. “You talk,” he continues. “I’m too weak, but I need to atone. I need you to forgive me, for then I will know there was at least one... Then I'll know that the sins of this life were not truly unforgivable. My confession. Will you, my friend… Richie?”
With those words, Juan's head tilts off to the side. No one has called me Richie in years. It is good and strange to hear. I am not sure if he has fallen asleep or fallen dead. I touch his face; it’s still warm and alive. He looks at me with very tired eyes, but eyes that do not want to be left alone with these thoughts.
I look at my watch; it’s only two in the afternoon. First Vinny and now Juan Carlos, like ghosts from a distant and forbidden past, coming back to haunt me now. I look at my watch again and say, “Let me get you some water. Yes, Juan Carlos, let us live those stories again, one last time together.”
Juan and I were boys who grew into delinquency together. After our first job, there was no innocence left in either of us. We became something we would never be able to come to terms with. Our ugliness broke through the surface, and we wore it like a badge of honor. That too wore thin as the years raged on. Now all that remains is a need to atone.
Juan is awake and listening as I begin to speak.
The mid-1970s, upstate New York
Juan was a refugee from the life of the Colombian drug cartels. I was a refugee from the boredom and bucolic life in an upstate, New York County. I was sixty miles from the big city and Hell bent to get in on anything to do with the mobs down there.
Some of the families of those city-mob guys moved upstate to quiet Orange County, my home. They were completely out of place and didn't care at all. Big pine trees lined cement driveways of huge mansions, and each garage was filled with expensive cars. Caddies or Buicks, they were always black and waxed until they shined. Stone, marble, copper, and bronze, the mansions stood out like castles against a backdrop of brick and wood frame, two and three-bedroom homes. Right in the middle of this working-class life came these robber barons with their platinum and gold. Was I jealous? Resentful? No. I wanted in. I wanted in all the way.
Many of the new arrivals thought they were slick and inconspicuous as if they could drive down these dirt roads unnoticed – hilarious. White-haired ladies gossiped in whispers about the "mobsters" who had moved in down the hill or out on some desolate lane. Newspapers began to fill with names unfamiliar to the fading, rural life. A healthy environment of suspicion and mistrust grew across the region. I don't know why, but I was drawn to this calamity like a moth to a flame. Its chaos fed my hunger.
The days of dairy farms, cows, and tractors had gone. Fields once filled with the sweet scent of bailed hay now hosted men in thousand-dollar suits. They drove fast cars and fucked fast women, adorning each accessory with diamonds. Finery rained where cow manure used to fester. The locals had never dreamed such excess could exist outside of a movie, let alone in their own backyards.
They brought all this with them plus attitude. Their temperament was louder than any car, any clothes, any diamond rings or bracelets. It looked you right in the eye and said, "Don’t fuck with me."
The day that attitude looked me in the eye, I was hooked. I started mowing their sprawling lawns and washing their expensive cars. Then I was dating their daughters and fucking their nieces; I became a part of the family. I was a strange, lanky, Irish kid who found himself deep in the belly of the mob. It happened so fast: one day you’re on the outside looking in. Then you blink, and the mob, it’s your life…my life. The years were a flash: gone before I realized I was an old man and needed to somehow make my peace with all that had transpired.
Juan was a poor kid in Medellin, Columbia. He found himself washing Pablo Escobar's cars, mowing his lawns, and fucking his, well, everything. He never talked much about his home, but in many ways, I think quiet, little Orange County, NY and Medellin, Columbia were a lot alike. Two worlds about to change in explosive ways: ways that could make you rich or a slave. To me, the choice was clear, and the potential limitless.
We would alternate sympathies with the NY City mobs, the cartels, and, at times, the US government. Our illustrious careers as independent contractors relied on our loyalty – which we sold to the highest bidder.
There was a ruthlessness, a brutality, in both of us. It was nurtured by each other’s presence, and over the years it morphed into something toxic and lethal. We grew to be a perfect team. Two young men who were more dangerous together than the world needed or deserved. But for reasons neither of us understood, we were here and ready to take from this world anything and everything it had to offer. We both had our reasons for our brutality. Juan never spoke of his. I tried to ignore mine, but it surfaced during moments of quiet. Moments when I only wanted peace, it would come.
Juan and I rarely talked, but we were always together; it was bizarre and twisted kinship. Juan brought his mother, father, sister and her son – little Juan Carlos – here to the states to escape the cartel life in Columbia. He knew the chances of reprisal on them were great if he were to fuck up, and fucking up was always a matter of perspective.
His old man was also Juan – what the fuck, did they run out of names in Columbia? – but we called him Poppy. He had a '64 Chevy Impala with a big block 409 engine. The car was immaculate. It was a burgundy red with a white stripe up the side, a snowy interior with crimson accents, and an aftermarket Hurst shifter on the floor. That car was sex on chrome mag wheels.
Poppy would pick us up after a long day of mowing the mob's lawns and fucking the mob’s nieces. We’d all ride to the beer store and buy a case of cold Carling Black Label. We'd sit in that car and shoot the shit, smoking Kool cigarettes and listening to flamboyant Spanish music as the summer sun set. Poppy hardly spoke any English at all, but somehow, we all knew when to laugh, or say, "Fuck that." We formed an unshakable bond sitting in that hot ‘64 Chevy.
I was a case or so deep when I got Juan's sister into the back of that Impala. Juan came storming out of their apartment and dragged me off his naked sister. He proceeded to beat me, what seemed at the time, nearly to death as I scrambled to pull on my shirt and find my pants. Juan punched like lightning, fast and sharp. I remember being tossed around like a rag doll while his sister, Jacinda, lit a cigarette and laughed.
As I lay bleeding and crumpled on that hot, dirty asphalt, I saw, for the first time, the chaos in Juan’s eyes. He was crazy. Not funny crazy, not pissed off crazy, but genuine, dangerous, savage crazy. Those eyes taught me a hard lesson about family and lines. I had been accepted into Juan's family, but I had taken advantage of that. I couldn’t be forgiven. There would be times in years to come, when we’d be lying low, hiding, with gunshots tracing through trees, or windows, or cement walls, that he would remind me of this. He vowed to kill me one day because of what I'd done. I swore to him fucking her was worth my life, and we agreed to disagree on the punishment.
Despite Juan’s attempt on my life, I respected his position. In a strange and bizarre way, that beating made us closer friends. As we became aggressive and violent young men, we developed a language few would ever understand. Sometimes a beating, a detonation of words and fists, bats and lead, was our language. We would beat each other nearly senseless and, about an hour later, have a beer and laugh about it. It was the same for Juan’s family, the way they’d fight with each other. Loud and violent, at times, the fights always ended the same. They were family, and family was all they had.
My own family story was not nearly so warm and tender. My father was a no-good bastard, and I watched my mother and sister abused at his hand when I was young.
My father’s home, an old stone house, was always cold and damp. It was bought from one of the bar owners in town before my father collapsed completely into his drunken rage. He owed his life and what little soul he had to the bars up and down the main street of that grimy, little city. Out in the back of the stone house was a shed, broken and rotten. My mother, sister, and I all paid for the sins of our existence in that terrible, wooden Hell.
I made many a forced march to that shed with my old man’s fingers wrapped tight around my neck. He was an evil drunk, a coward too afraid to face his sins. His vicious hatred of life would erupt on anyone else around him, poisoning anyone within arm’s length. As his family, his wrath burned us the most.
The shed always stank of death: a rotting combination of mold, mildew, and mouse turds. On the days I forgot my senses and returned home to his house, I would find myself gasping for air in this musk as my old man gave me scars that would never heal.
One day, I went out into that shed, alone, before he got home. I still don’t know what drove me there, but I’ve tried over the years to make sense of it. I'd found a broken shovel handle in a ditch on my walk back from school. The handle was about 4 feet long, and the one end was smooth from many years in hardworking hands. The other end was broken and jagged, like my father. I picked it up and shook off the mud, taking with me a weapon and conviction.
I saw my old man walking up the street from down in the village. Staggering and drunk, he found his way back home from another day at work, his lunchbox swinging in his left hand. His jobs usually lasted a month before he'd be fired and pour the rest of the money down his throat. Broke and sick, he’d hit the streets begging for work for more booze.
It was a hot, dry day. I could hear the screaming cicadas in the summer air. It was the kind of day where the dirt from the road dried out the inside of your nose, and your throat would cough and hack like you were choking. My skin felt like it was caked with the dust from the road, and the sweat from my forehead turned that powder into mud.
He saw me standing in the doorway. I shouted to him. I called him a drunken asshole and gave him the finger. Rage broke out across his face as he stumbled my way.
The door to the shed flew open, and I let all Hell loose with that shovel handle. The first blow connected right across his face. It hit him so hard, the wooden handle stung my hands. I pulled back, like Mickey Mantle going for a home run, and drove another crack hard into his skull. Blood trickled and then flowed from his ear as he stumbled and collapsed into the wall. His lunchbox flew open, and all the garbage inside scattered across the splintered floor. Sandwich wrappers, empty cigarette packs, and a half-eaten apple drowned red in a pool of his blood. His sweat stank of booze, and it mingled with the sweet smell of piss as it ran down his leg. He pushed himself from the ground, eyes rimmed red, death hissing from his throat. I raised the shovel handle again.
It wasn't my intention to kill him that day. After years of revisiting the shed in my nightmares, I know this to be true. I wanted to hurt him like he had hurt me and my mom and my sister. I didn’t mean to kill my old man, but I did. And it felt good.
It felt better than fucking the mob nieces. It felt better than Juan's fist in my face after fucking his sister. Years of pain were exorcised when that wood connected with my old man’s head. It only took three: one for my mother, one for my sister, and one for me. The last blow sunk deep, no longer like home runs blasting out of Yankee Stadium, but the action of a lumberjack chopping away at a log.
I was startled to see the carnage I had caused. I stumbled out of the shed, my shirt soaked in sweat, my hands burning from the wooden shovel handle.
A neighbor opened her front door. I saw her from across the small, weed-covered lot that separated our houses. She came outside; she must have heard his screams. I looked at her and pointed back at the shed with the bloody weapon still in my hand. I said, "You'd better call the cops. No need for an ambulance. The fucking bastard is dead."
The wooden door slammed shut behind me. I turned and went back in the shed, letting the door again slap the frame behind me.
I found a half-empty, five gallon gas can. After pouring it all over my father’s mangled body, I reached into his shirt pocket, pulled out a book of matches, and lit one. I stood there as the flames swallowed that old building and my father whole. I walked away from the smoke with the putrid stench of that burning shed and my burning father. I waited as the fire trucks and police cars arrived. Even now, I can see my mother and sister standing on the front porch of the old stone house, watching the flames. The police went to speak to them first, and I saw their bitter smiles. When the cold steel of handcuffs wrapped around my wrists, I knew it wouldn't be the last time.
I stop and listen to the beeping of Juan’s heart monitor, the steady cadence bringing me back to the present. Violence is a winding dirt path up the side of a steep, dark mountain. We never knew where the path led. We never knew what we would encounter around the next bend. Our crimes, Juan's and mine, only became more dangerous and more violent. We found ourselves getting recognition for our brutality and the cold, disconnected way we operated. Within the mobs, we built a name for ourselves every time we slipped away unscathed. Even killing my old man, I walked away clean. It didn’t even go to trial. From that moment, I became above the law: too smart to get caught, too brutal for anyone to fuck with. Still, if someone mentioned that I was dangerous, I'd laugh and say, "Oh, you've not met my friend Juan." We were a team, sought after for the dirtiest jobs, the highest paying jobs. Soon we would be drowning in money and pussy, coke and fast cars. We were unstoppable.
Until the night it all got very real, the night we barely escaped with our lives. Lessons were learned that night. We were crossed and double-crossed. Our enemies and allies blurred into one. It was supposed to be a simple heist, an armed robbery, an in-and-out job. Grab the money, get the Hell out, and nobody gets hurt. The insurance company would eat the loss.
Simple, perfect, like a well-oiled machine...
I shake my head. That was years ago. That night... that was the night everything changed. I cannot go there right now, not yet.
I look at Juan, my brother and friend, dying an old man with tubes running in and out of his body. He wants a revelation, and I reminisce about better times instead. I cannot tell him there will never be atonement for men like us. We simply run until time runs out. This confession feels like an exercise in futility, but I guess it’s not a bad way to say goodbye to an old friend. When Juan is silent, when his last words are spoken, his last breath exhaled, then I will be the lone keeper of the secrets.
We have outlived many... too many.
Juan has fallen asleep. I reach out my left hand and touch his wrist. The picture from my wallet is still in his hand.
I push my chair back to the wall. It’s a miserable contraption of hard plastic and chrome and uncomfortable as Hell. Reaching up, I turn off the silent TV mounted on the wall. I pull the curtains, shutting out the late afternoon sunlight that shines through the barred windows. Going back to my seat, I lean my head against the wall. The memories come back, a flash-flood, unleashed from years kept bottled up. I can’t help it; it’s all as if the years we were separated have faded away, like we were never apart. I’m recalling and reliving each moment of the years before we split, like I’m watching a movie on fast forward. Every detail, every death, every dirty game. I see it all, I suffer it all. I feel sick to my stomach.
I decide to sit here and keep an eye on Juan as he sleeps. It’s my job to recall these moments, to try to make some peace with them, for both of us.
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