Okay, so I’m sitting there at this Formica table in Pin-Money Paulie’s Casino Bowling Alley, Christmas-flippin’-Eve, 1979, nursing a bruised ego with a double-ice water, when my name comes blaring over the speaker in the false ceiling.
Ice water’s all I can afford, see—and that’s part of why the bruised ego. Lucky Frankie Irish was tapped out. Both fortune and fluke.
No positive happenstance.
No happy stance, period.
For the first time in my nearly 50 years of life, I’m alone for the holidays, and it’s 90-plus degrees outside.
Not like the old days, growing up with my pal Will Tesh in Hell’s Kitchen. Man, we had some holidays to remember. Complete with snow. Now Tesh was a big man with the Feds out east and, as things sometimes go, we ended up on opposite sides of the game.
Anyway, I’m sitting there moping when just like a snap of the fingers, here’s everybody looking at me as my name goes bouncing over their eardrums. And by everybody, I mean Tiny Mick Minelli and Dave the Mechanic who got no family either and are over at the polished wood lanes knocking down a few greasy pins before going home by themselves.
“Francis Carol Brady,” the speaker squawks again, “report to the pit boss immediately.”
Which is dumb because Dave’s brother, Jack, is the pit boss, and I can see him ten steps across the shag carpet past the deserted Blackjack table and the silent wheel, sitting in the cage behind the counter with his curly hairpiece and porno mustache coughing cigar smoke into the mike. He sees me too and crooks a knobby finger at me to get on the stick.
Paulie’s got the place decorated up nice for the holidays, and yeah, it’s Vegas, but no, he ain’t exactly prime real-estate on the Strip. The place used to be nice.
Vegas ain’t what it was twenty years ago either.
So up front there’s this horse and carriage setup straight outta Cinderella. Paulie’s kid made the thing. Two white paper-mache stallions standing about eight feet high parked in front of an equally tall pumpkin on iron wagon wheels. Everything on the carriage is gold spray paint and tinsel and glitter and the entire lobby smells like airplane glue.
Which beats the alternative of the rest of the place. Padding across the rug in tasseled loafers to see Jack, I swear I can see the sour fumes of old cigarettes, spilt booze, and the nervous sweat of a thousand players shimmering up like heat waves on the desert highway.
On the plus side, if I’m gonna be in the limelight, at least I’m not dressed too god-awful shabby. I’ve got my tan slacks, white button shirt with Playboy rabbit cufflinks and a crisp blue tie. A little wider than some of the kids are wearing them these days. And I’ve got my navy blazer.
“What’s the big idea, you gotta announce to the whole world I’m here?” I say to Jack when I get within spitting distance. “You can’t just come over and buy me a drink?”
“You’re the one buying drinks tonight, my friend,” said Jack—nicer than he’s got a right to be.
“Not sure what that’s supposed to mean,” I say.
“It means you’re a winner, and we got to announce it over the mike. Keep it official.”
Before I can say another word, Jack clears his throat and belches across the electronic system. “Francis Carol Brady, you’re tonight’s winner in our Christmas Eve drawing. From all of us here at Paulie’s Pin-Money, congratulations on your prize.”
“An all-expense paid voyage to St. Thomas Isle on the Contessa Cruise Lines.”
Tiny Mick and Dave drop their balls to give me a couple claps and the new gal behind the bar, Tina, flashes me a polite smile with nothing extra.
“Plus $100 cash spending money,” says Jack.
With a crack of thick static, Jack turns the speaker back over to the elevator music.
“Winner, winner, chicken dinner,” he says, and holds up a slip of white paper. “Take this over to Neva Navada’s Travel on 23rd, and she’ll set you up for your cruise.”
“I never registered for no drawing,” I say.
“It’s random. From a pool of customers who sign the guest book.”
“I never signed the guest book.”
“Then I guess what they say about you is true. You really are Lucky Frankie Irish.”
That’s when I impart some hard-earned wisdom on ol’ Jack. “You know why I’m lucky, pal? I’m lucky because I’m careful. Because I plan ahead. What they say is true. You make your own luck.”
“Way I hear it, your luck hasn’t been too good lately,” says Jack. He hold out the slip. “Here’s another old saying. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”
That winning paper was as much a gift horse as Paulie’s Christmas decoration was a real stallion. I wave Jack off. “I got better things to do,” I say.
“Don’t you want the hundred bucks?” he says.
Before I know it, he’s got his drawer open and he’s counting out five crisp Andrew Jacksons to the marble counter top, and he’s pushing them through the cage door.
“I shouldn’t have to tell you, I don’t trust any of this,” I say.
Sweeping up the bills and stuffing them into my pants pocket.
Jack shrugs. “You’re lucky,” he says. “You’ve got the reputation, after all.” He flips open a notepad and shoves it in front of me. “Sign for the money, please.”
The elevator music is Christmas carols and suddenly the air inside Paulie’s place is thick and even more stale than usual.
But I sign.
And then I’m hustlin’ out the front door, the afternoon sun blinding me enough that I don’t see the blue van until after I hear the pop, pop, pop of three shots and realize I’ve gone down to the cement, completely by instinct.
Soon as I realize I’m not hit, I’m climbing to my feet.
Soon as the van realizes it, they’re squealing out of the parking lot, just about crashing into this blonde gal’s red Camaro.
That incident sorta changes my entire outlook on the day. See, I recognize the driver of the van as Ronnie DeLuca who I hear just got out of jail and has a whole list of imagined transgressions against him. Apparently, I’m on the list.
Suddenly, a cruise to St. Thomas sounds pretty good.
Maybe my luck was turning around after all.
“What do you mean, I have to pay my own way to Florida?” I say to Nevah Nevada that afternoon through a purple haze of perfume and grape-flavored chewing gum. “Over at Paulie’s they told me this was an all-expense paid trip.”
So much for luck.
Nevah’s got her big red hair piled up in an old-fashioned bee-hive and the makeup on her face is honey-thick. Her eyelids are plastered with gold glitter, and she’s wearing a red felt halter-top lined with white Santa Claus fur. A pair of green elf shorts show off her stockinged candy canes.
This end of Vegas, there’s only one real season.
I politely tap my finger on the Contessa Boat Lines ticket I’d received in exchange for Jack’s slip of paper. Nevah’s office speakers are pounding out the Little Drummer Boy.
“I ain’t really got time for this, Mr. Brady,” she says around the wet, smacking wad of gum in her cheek “It’s almost three-thirty and we’re closing up early for Christmas eve.”
“According to this, the cruise leaves from Ft. Lauderdale on the evening of the 27th.”
“Yeah, so?” Smack. Smack. Chomp.
“So that’s in three days. Even if I spend a hundred bucks on a car, I can barely make it. I mean, I’ll cross two time zones getting to the dock.”
“Listen, buddy, even if the casino paid for it, good luck getting a flight,” says Nevah. “It’s Christmas, right? You shoulda won this a month ago.”
“Maybe you and Paulie’s place need to get your contest details ironed out a little better,” I say.
Nevah peers at me from under her sparkling eyelids. “You want to rent a car or not?”
“Yeah. Gimme an economy car if you’ve got it,” I say.
From a bottom drawer, she hefts a tabloid sized hardcover book to the desk and flips it open. Runs her finger down the listings.
“Sorry. We’ve got a three year old Lincoln four-door,” she says.
So I give her the Andrew Jacksons, she gives me hardly any change, then hands me the keys and the boat ticket. I tuck it all away in my jacket and I’m back on the sidewalk even as Nevah locks her door behind me.
This time there’s nobody there to shoot at me, so I take a leisurely walk to where my car is supposed to be parked in this lot a few blocks down.
It looks like I’m gonna be doing a lot of sitting the next day or so.
Naturally, when I get there, the Lincoln has a flat tire.
Anyway, I get that fixed and I’m back home just before dark. After I throw a few things in a suitcase, unplug the tube and the toaster, I’m on the road, checking the Lincoln’s rear-view mirror for blue vans, listening to the 460 V8 under the hood gulp down barrels of gas, and wondering about the whole set-up.
I tune the radio to an AM frequency I hope I can carry through the night. After dark they amp up the power on a lot of these little stations and, just like a gal, if you have a strong first impression they’ll go with you for a while.
This late-night jockey starts laying down some old R&B and I settle back into the ride.
Driving out of the desert, the mind starts to wander. You start to make connections where they might not exist. You start to see things that maybe aren’t’ there.
One mirage after another.
With Ronnie DeLuca taking pot shots at me, it’s obviously a good deal to get out of town. Lay low for a while. Figure out my next move.
On the other hand, it’s just a little too convenient that I’d win a Virgin Islands getaway at the precise time I’d need one. I ain’t had much to do with virgin anything, even olive oil, for a couple decades. Why now all of a sudden?
Ronnie DeLuca, he knows olive oil. His uncle is Capo di capie of the Jersey DeLuca’s. The family runs a chain of restaurants, the newest one opening this winter in Vegas. Ronnie’s got the money and the connections to set up something like this.
To set meup.
But that doesn’t really make sense either. He’s in Vegas. I’m in Vegas. If the goal is to take me out, why put me in Florida, or on a boat out to sea? Just so they can say, “Franky Irish, he swims with the fishes?”
I don’t think the DeLuca’s care if the phrase is figurative or literal.
They aren’t exactly known for their honesty.
There’s something there though. Something in the back of my mind that’s been bugging me since leaving town. If only I could figure out what it is, but my brain’s not finished chewing on it yet. Like Nevah and that ugly, smelly hunk of grape.
Smack, smack. Chomp, chomp.
The big Lincoln carries me into Utah. Big Joe Turner, Eddie Vinson, and Nancy Wilson on the radio carry me back to better times. Sitting on the fire escape with Tesh and a six-pack of beer, listening to my friend’s transistor radio.
I drive past a filling station and the sign says “Last gas for 100 miles.”
The fuel gauge reads just a tad under full.
I press on, and three miles down the road, the engine sputters and dies, the headlights picking out a lonely ball of sagebrush and a brown lizard that scurries under a pile of rocks, then peeks back out at me.
I tap the gauge and the needle falls to E.
In the trunk, I find the three-gallon can I’d made sure to bring along and, making double sure that I’ve turned off the lights and have the key in my pocket, I turn my back on the Lincoln and start walking back to the station.
The night sky is breathtaking. With no city lights and not a car for miles ahead or behind, the canopy above is ablaze with a spatter of stars, like silver glitter or tinsel. I’m reminded that it’s Christmas Eve, so I look for a star to lead me back to the station. But of course it’s not there. I turn around and walk backwards. That famous star was in the East.
Can’t find it there either.
All this thinking makes me realize I brought nothing along to read.
In my younger days, when I worked as a wheelman, I had a book with me at all times, like the kids nowadays carry that Walkman ™ gadget. Back then, paperbacks fit snug in jeans pockets. I’m not talking that lurid one-handed pulp stuff. But Shakespeare. And Melville and Dickens and Orwell. If I had a few minutes here or there, maybe waiting on one guy or another, I’d grab a few pages, catch up on a story or study somebody’s new idea.
I keep walking, and the station eventually comes into view, a one room shack with a shingled roof. One metal pump out front, its top crowned with a lighted globe.
As I congratulate myself on making sure I had the empty can along for the trip, I remember something from a play.
All’s well that ends well.
“Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, which we ascribe to heaven: the fated sky.”
We make our own luck.
Then that thing that’s been bugging me, that pesky something that’s been buzzing around the back of my head—it comes into full bloom. Even before I get the gas, I’m digging in my pocket for change so I can use the filling station pay phone.
In the dim blue-green light of a security lamp, I make a call to Pin-Money Paulie’s Casino. It’s the middle of Paulie’s Christmas party so Jack sounds a little stewed when he picks up the phone.
“Jack? Yeah, Jack, it’s me, Frankie. Francis Brady?”
“What-dya know, Frankie, Frankie? You off on that cruise yet?”
“Yeah, see, that’s what I wanted to ask you about. That cruise.”
“What’s about it? What’s about it?”
“How well you know that new gal behind the bar?”
“Tina? I dunno. I mean, how well do you know her? She’s been on the job about three days is all. I mean, why you askin’ me?”
“Listen, Jackie. I got a problem with the thing. It’s been bugging me all the way out here across the desert.”
“Desert? Where you calling from, Frankie-frankie?”
“Doesn’t matter,” I say. “What matters is this. I walk out of your place today, you happen to hear a few pops?”
“Nah, I didn’t hear nothin’.”
“Ronnie DeLuca took a few shots at me.”
“It’s Christmas Eve, for Christ’s sake,” he says.
“Yeah, well. Somebody must’ve let him know I was in the place.”
“I swear on the Nativity scene, buddy. I din’t tell a blessed soul. And you know Mick and Davey. They were busy on the lanes. Neither one of them came close to the phone.”
“I dunno, Frankie. Jesus, man. It’s a party here. I gotta get the third degree?”
“Okay, Jack. Okay. So, listen carefully. I want you to find out if there’s a connection between Tina and Ronnie DeLuca. Like maybe they’re related or in love or some such. Can you find that out for me?”
“You c’n count on me, Captain!” says Jack, and he’s really slurring his words now.
“I mean it, Jack. Find out, and I’ll call you when I get to Florida.”
“Aye, aye, Captain!”
I hang up the phone and the temperature drops about ten degrees around me.
Brushing off the chill, I quick fill my can with gas, and pay the attendant. All the while, the wheels are turning in my head.
If nobody knew I was in the place, how did Ronnie and his crew know where to find me?
Because I absolutely wasn’t followed there by the blue van.
Being a wheel man for Tony Olivetti for ten years and you know when you got a tail and when you don’t. And I didn’t. Not that afternoon.
And not now, either.
How did Ronnie know I would be at Paulie’s place? He didn’t follow me there.
If Jack played straight we me, then that only left Tina. She had been on the phone when I walked in. Could be she dropped a dime?
All of that gives me something to chew on while I drive, and pretty soon I switch radio stations as the oldies guy fades out over the mountains.
What else is there to say?
It’s a long, freakin’ drive from Vegas to Fort Lauderdale.
Even on the Eisenhauer Interstate System with lots of truck stops and convenience motels along the way.
The first time I stop, I sleep in my car with my .38 in my lap.
Later, I stop at a nice place and grab a meal, a shower, and six hours of shut-eye.
The Lincoln doesn’t give me a bit of trouble except for that fuel gauge that I gotta tap every hour or so to make sure it’s reading right.
And thanks mother Mary and Joseph, it didn’t snow in the Midwest.
I get to Florida and pull up to the port hotel with three hours to spare.
Once I crawl out of the car and quit smelling my own B.O. and suck in that salty sea air, feel the cool breeze in my hair, I’m feeling a thousand times better. I can see the Contessa Cruise ship in the harbor. It almost don’t look real, baking there in the sun, white and shining ten times prettier than the sweetheart’s boat on that TV show. Standing there on the baking asphalt, I’m reminded of those big ass paper mache horses at Pin-Money Paulie’s Casino.
This time of year, Dino’s gonna tell you it’s a marshmallow world we live in.
Here in Florida, it’s paper mache.
Speaking of phony setups, I realize I need to call my pal, Jack. See what he knows about Tina the snitch.
The hotel lobby is swank. Big enough I think they could fit that whole goddamn Contessa boat right there in front of the line of closeted phone booths running parallel with the desk. Gold and walnut trim everywhere. Potted plants. A plush white couch and chair. If I decide not to take the cruise, I can make love to the lobby furniture.
“Tina is Ronnie’s gal Friday,” says Jack, ten minutes later and almost 3,000 miles away. “I swear to god, I didn’t know it. Paulie didn’t know it. Guess she was his pen pal in prison, and now that he’s out of stir the two of ‘em are hot and heavy. She told him all about the contest. He knows you’re in Florida, Frankie. You hear me, buddy. He knows where you are. Frankie? Frankie, you there?”
I hang the phone up.
There’s a wood door with glass windows between me and the lobby.
At the front desk, I see Roscoe Tovich.
Hired gun for the DeLuca’s.
Six feet tall, six thousand pounds stuffed into a sharkskin suit that took three sharks to make.
There used to be a song called Mr. Five by Five. That’s Roscoe.
Bald as Telly Savalas with a scar on his neck from a New York bootlegger. He came up in Hell’s Kitchen, same as me and my G-man pal, Tesh.
So what’s he doing in Florida?
Gunning for me. What else?
My pits eat through my shirt sleeves. The sweat’s like a river down my back.
Me, talking about luck all the time. And here no matter how careful I’ve been, here I am less than twenty feet away from my own killer.
Yeah, I’m sure one lucky bastard ain’t I?
A lucky stiff.
Roscoe looks my way and it’s like the door isn’t there and he can see into the phone booth like Clark Kent and I’m claustrophobic as hell and I realize I left my gun out in the car and—
It’s all over.
Just like that.
Two plainclothes guys with brown coats and bell-bottom slacks that shout F.B.I. even before they vocalize it, grab Roscoe and push him against the counter, spin him around, and cuff him.
The breath goes out of me.
I’d been holding it ever since I hung up on Jack.
“You can come out now, Frankie.”
I’d recognize that voice if I live to be 100.
I bust out of the phone booth and he’s leaning against the wall beside me, characteristic smirk tilting up his square jaw, his hair a little longer in back than I remember, but wearing a fedora like he always did.
“Tesh, you sonuva bitch!”
“How you doing, Frankie?”
“We’ve got him, Mr. Tesh,” says one of the brown coats, talking about Roscoe.
The big fatty’s giving me the stink eyes, so I poke my middle finger at him. “Tell your boss to sit and spin, lardass.”
“Take him out to the van, boys,” says Tesh.
They do, and he turns to me.
“It’s good to see you, Frank,” he says, a hand on my shoulder. “You look well.”
“Don’t kid a kidder, Tesh. I spent the last three days driving across the country to make this boat trip that I don’t even want to make.”
“Boat trip?” says Tesh, like he’s surprised, but I can tell he isn’t. “When do you need to be on board?”
I glance at my watch. “Two hours.”
“Plenty of time for you and me to catch up. Let’s get a drink,” he says, leading me toward the hotel bar.
“Nothing doing,” I put my arm across his chest, pressing his knit tie into his tan cotton shirt. “Before I go anywhere, you need to tell me how it is that you’re here.”
“Here, meaning the Contessa Port hotel? Or here in Florida?”
“Let’s get that drink.”
“Tesh.” I hold his gaze, and he grins that awful grin.
“You’re not going to like it,” he says.
“You rigged the contest up for me, didn’t you?” I say, and the look on his face tells me I’m right.
“Here’s the thing, Frankie.”
“Let me guess,” I say. “There’s a warrant out on Mr. Five-by-Five out there. He’s holed up in Florida, but you guys—for all your resources—can’t find him. Am I warm?”
“So you know he’s Ronnie DeLuca’s man. And you know Ronnie DeLuca is out of jail and in Vegas reviewing his old man’s restaurant.”
“And Ronnie DeLuca has twelve-G’s out on you.”
I whistle and admit that’s news to me.
“But it sounds too cheap,” I add. “Back to the story, you figure if you could get me here in the Sunshine State, DeLuca would have Roscoe take care of me.”
Tesh shrugs. “All we had to do is watch the front desk for your arrival.”
I grip my old friend’s shoulder. “Hell, if you wanted me in Lauderdale, all you hadda do was call me up and invite me for Christmas dinner.”
“You’d drive three days for Christmas dinner at my house?”
“For old times’ sake, why the hell not?”
“With Ruth’s cooking? You must feel lucky.”
“We make our own luck,” I say. “Or sometimes, our friends do it for us.”
Tesh slaps me on the back, “Merry Christmas, Frankie.”
“Merry Christmas, Tesh.”