The Off Track Betting parlor on the corner of Brooklyn’s 12th Street and 5th Avenue didn’t attract many local shoppers. But it had its loyal contingent of pensioners, laid-off truck drivers and a small but active fellowship that convened there for something other than the action at Belmont and Hialeah.
The OTB especially came in handy for Billy Conover when he wanted to cop an ounce of pot or a handful of Black Beauties. This morning he had a hangover which only a mega-dose of ups could cure. Coffee did little more than make him mobile, and his mother’s carping merely drove him out of the house in search of relief.
"Tito around?" he asked a methadone junkie who had been a dope fiend when Billy was still sucking his thumb. Fat now and permanently stoned on the legal dose he picked up at his clinic, chased down with a pint of cheap wine, the meth-head held court at the OTB like a veteran warrior, one of few survivors of a generation decimated by overdoses, gunshot wounds and AIDS.
Billy noted with satisfaction the quiver of apprehension in the man’s eyes. He had been causing that reaction ever since people realized he was crazy enough to do anything. "Hey, Billy, jump off the roof!" And he would do it, usually landing on his feet but sometimes not, it seemed to make little difference to him. The other kids had made fun of his recklessness, but over the years his willingness to take any dare-"Swallow this pill, Billy" "I bet you can’t drink a whole quart of booze"-gained him a useful reputation. If your enemies thought you were crazy they left you alone. He had had few fights in his twenty-three years, and those were mostly of his own choosing.
Fifth Avenue was awash in sunlight. Having little in common with its namesake in Manhattan, no Tiffany’s or Brentano’s, no Sachs or Lord & Taylor, it was a shopper’s avenue nonetheless, albeit one of discount clothing stores, cheap furniture outlets and mom-and-pop luncheonettes. For better-quality merchandise, locals shopped the malls in Jersey and Long Island where they could find bedroom sets that didn’t fall apart before the last payment was made and suits and dresses they could wear to a wake or wedding without anyone snickering behind their backs. Everyone else, especially those getting by on a laborer’s or welfare check, had to make do with whatever the discount stores had to offer. When Billy’s father was alive, before the blacks took over downtown Brooklyn, his mother did her shopping at A&S and Martin’s. Now, thanks to a heart condition, she was lucky to get down to Fifth Avenue a couple times a year to pick up a new pair of slippers or drainboard for the kitchen sink.
Manny lived on Fourth Avenue, the major traffic artery through that part of Brooklyn. The only stores there were auto-parts outlets and bodegas. The tenements above them were occupied by Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and other Latinos. Billy had been to Manny’s before, had even made it with Manny’s sister on one of the family’s sweet-and-sour-smelling cots. That was more than a year ago, and although the girl who was only fourteen at the time promised not to tell, he was concerned what Manny’s reaction might be if she hadn’t kept her word.
A note scribbled in magic marker on the mailboxes indicated the bells were out of order. The main entrance door was ajar. He pushed it open and entered a dark hallway smelling of last night’s rice and beans and the morning Bustelo. Dark halls were hangouts for junkies and other ne’er-do-wells, but this one looked empty, so he headed up the gloomy stairway.
The climb made his head throb more insistently. His evening had started out innocently enough, a few beers on the sidewalk outside Scully’s, the major social institution in his neighborhood, not excepting the busy church two blocks away. He was a rare visitor to either anymore, unwelcome at the bar because of his bent for provoking dissension just for the fun of it, and he hadn’t seen the inside of Holy Family since Father Tim was curate back during Billy’s brief career as a Boy Scout.
When his money had run out and nobody in Scully’s was willing to stand him to another quart container, he decided to take matters into his own hands at the twenty-four-hour grocery across the street. The store was run by Pakistanis-a dry cleaner had stood there until the neighborhood began gentrifying a few years back-and they kept a sharp eye out for thieves. But after midnight there was only one man on duty, the theory being no one would try to rob the place with Scully’s right across the street. The theory was sound except it didn’t account for people like Billy whose skills as a shoplifter were mediocre but whose nerve made up for any lack of talent. After sending the clerk off to find a box of extra-strength tampons, he filled the inside of his jacket with cans of beer and walked out of the store. By the time the clerk realized what had happened, Billy was three blocks away and already consuming his ill-gotten gains.
Later in the evening he returned to Scully’s and found a couple old schoolmates willing to buy him a quart just to keep him quiet. He drained it on the sidewalk in full view of the grocery he had robbed earlier. When the clerk spotted him and then began cursing him in vigorous Urdu, Billy waved back cheerfully and called out that he didn’t need the tampons after all, it had been a false alarm.
The stairs creaked irritably under his year-old sneakers. This was actually a more solid building than the one in which the Conovers lived, had lived for Billy’s entire life. But the mere fact it was inhabited by Latinos, smelled of their cooking and other alien habits, made him feel like he was in a slum. There were no Spanish surnames on the broken mailbox in his own building on 16th Street, and just one Italian. The other tenants were old-time Irish or new people-musicians, office workers-doubling and tripling up in the rundown railroad floor-throughs. The new people came and went, paying top dollar for the same apartment Billy and his mother and sister lived in at a fraction of their rent. The dirty oilcloth was peeling off the crooked stairway and the Conover apartment hadn’t been painted for more than a decade. But it never occurred to him that he lived in the same conditions as these Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, for the simple reason he was white and they were not.
He knocked gently at a door on the top floor, waited a few seconds and knocked again harder. There was no radio playing-a sure sign someone was home. He knocked again, then pounded with his fist until the door shook. He could easily have kicked it in, but if he was right about somebody being home they might not take kindly to a stranger busting down their front door, especially if they had a gun.
"Shit," he said loud enough to be heard through the thin wood. His head felt even worse than it had earlier. Even more important, he was slipping into the deep gloom that had stalked him ever since he was a kid. It had been to keep that dark cloud at bay that he set off on last night’s drinking bout. Now only ups would dispel it.
He started back down the stairs. The only option left him was to return to the OTB and try to cop off one of the regulars who were usually unwilling to deal to him. Lost to these concerns, he didn’t notice the three young men heading up the stairs until he had come face-to-face with them on the second landing. They eyed him with the cautious looks of predators sizing up a tasty but possibly dangerous prey. He suppressed an urge to simply push his way past them. Then a better idea occurred.
"Up against the wall!"
He grabbed the first, a thin Latino, and spun him around against the peeling plaster.
"Now! Or I blow your heads off."
The other two didn’t hesitate.
He frisked them quickly, found three switchblade knives and some loose joints, then edged toward the stairs.
"I see you fuckers on my beat again, I haul your asses down the precinct. You got that?"
Three heads nodded reluctantly. By the time they dared look around, Billy was half a block away.
Rosemary Grady, known to her various paramours and clients as Rosy-O, Sweet Rosy O’Grady and Rosy O’Blowjob, was on the phone to her former classmate Cathy Conover. Her older child was taking a bath in the old tub you could only reach by walking out onto the top-floor landing of the brownstone where she lived. The baby was snoring in a Port-a-Crib nearby.
"Danny Matthews says he saw Jinny just half an hour before it happened," she said, her voice hoarse from crying. "He says she looked a little high, but not that bad. Not, you know, like she was gonna O-D or anything. I talked to her mom this morning. She says Jinny had a heart condition. A murmur or something. I never heard nothing like that, did you? I mean, everybody knows Jinny was using crack. Even I knew it, and I hardly get out of the house anymore."
Cathleen replied that Jinny’s death was such a shock she didn’t know what to think yet. But in reality she was only surprised her childhood friend had survived as long as she did. Jinny started using drugs in seventh grade. By the time she was fifteen she was turning tricks on Bartel Pritchard Square just two blocks from her home. By then Cathleen was a sophomore at St. Saviour and had more friends in upscale Park Slope than she did in her own neighborhood. But she wasn’t going to risk Rosy’s ire by telling her Jinny McCormick only got what she had so long been asking for. In a few years Cathleen would be free of 16th Street, just as soon as she could afford a share in a Manhattan apartment and still have a few dollars left over to give to her mother. Till then, though, she had to pretend she was still one of the girls.
"The wake’s tonight," Rosemary said, more than a trace of apprehension in her voice. Wakes weren’t her favorite social activity, at least not when the corpse was a close contemporary whose life style didn’t differ much from her own. "Ain’t that kind of quick? I mean, since she only died last night? But I guess we gotta go."
Cathleen pictured the scene at Roche’s Funeral Parlor: half a dozen weepy friends, themselves just a pipe or two from sharing Jinny’s fate; the usual pack of red-eyed aunts, uncles and cousins who were no more surprised by how Jinny’s life had ended than Cathleen herself was. But she had to make an appearance, even if it meant pretending she wasn’t revolted by all those half-stoned unwed mothers and ex-juvenile delinquents.
She got rid of Rosemary and took a quick look at the roasting chicken she had started for her mother. Mrs. Conover suffered from angina, which was why the apartment looked the way it did despite her daughter’s attempts to maintain some kind of order. A large living room at the front of the apartment doubled as her brother Billy’s bedroom. Cathleen’s own small room was located off a long narrow corridor which opened into a dining area. Her mother had set up a narrow cot for herself on the other side of the heavy, dark dining table which hadn’t been used since Jack Conover died several years earlier. The kitchen looked out on the gray backs of the buildings on 15th Street. Every other building on 16th Street, a dozen or more tenements, was laid out the same way. When she was a little girl spending most of her time at home or in one of her friend’s apartments, Cathleen assumed everyone lived in a similar arrangement.
There was no time to wait for the chicken. She hurriedly changed out of her work clothes and into the black dress she had bought three years ago for an uncle’s funeral but which had come in handy several times since.
"You’re off to the wake then?" her mother asked. An interior window that helped provide some ventilation on hot summer nights connected the two women’s sleeping areas and was left permanently open. After the lights were out it encouraged mother-daughter conversations, which could seem difficult under the glare of a lamp.
"I’ll be back in half an hour. The bird’ll be done at quarter-to."
"Tell Jinny’s mother I’m sorry for her trouble."
"I will," Cathleen said, pulling at the zipper of her dress. Narrowly built, she was a trim size six, with a small waist and long perfect legs, the only obvious legacy from her mother’s side of the family. The Donovans were big-bone, wide-hip people, but their women had the finest calves in Brooklyn.
"Your brother might turn up at Roche’s himself. See that he comes home with you."
"Do better than try. He was out all night again. I’m afraid he’s in with a bad crowd."
"Billy’s twenty-three years old," Cathleen said, trying to free the zipper from a snag. There was no use asking her mother to help. Apart from the angina, which kept her flat on her back most of the day, the woman was also nearsighted but too vain to wear glasses. "If you didn’t baby him so much we’d all be better off. Whatever happened to the job Uncle Pat was supposed to find him?"
"Your Uncle Pat talks big, but it’s mostly hot air."
"Maybe that’s where Billy got it from," Cathleen said, finally yanking the zipper free.
"The boy tries. He really does, Cath-a-leen. There’s just no jobs to be had. Look at the newspapers."
"It would help if he went back to school and got his diploma."
"He went down to John Jay just the other day. They told him he has to wait now for the next semester."
"I’ll believe it when I see it."
Cathleen emerged from the bedroom, where there was scarcely enough room for her twin bed and a chest of drawers, and presented herself for her mother’s inspection.
"How do I look?"
She did not ask from vanity but merely to find out if she had gotten her clothes on straight. But her mother was amazed as always by her daughter’s beauty. Try as she might, she could find little resemblance between the girl and herself. Yet she felt no resentment on that account. Her husband had not lived long enough to become a source of bitterness to her, as had the spouses of so many of her friends. She was grateful for this living remembrance of the man who, she acknowledged even when he was alive, was a better-looking man than she was a woman.
"Then, I’m off. Don’t forget the chicken."
"You took your medicine?"
"I did. I’m all set till bedtime."
Cathleen started down the long corridor, then did an abrupt about-face and deftly squeezed around the old Victorian table to give her mother a kiss.
"See you later, love."