Deacon King Kong (11. Pokeweed)
Four blocks from the Silver Street station, the Elephant sat at his mother’s kitchen table griping about a plant. “Pokeweed,” he said to his mother. “Didn’t you say it was poisonous?”
His mother, a diminutive, olive-complexioned woman, was standing at the countertop, her gray hair in wild tousles about her head, slicing at several plants he had pulled out of her garden that morning: fiddleheads, rootberry blossom, and skunk cabbage.
“It’s not poison,” she said. “Just the root. The shoots are good. They’re good for the blood.”
“Get some blood thinners,” he said.
“Doctor’s medicine is wasted money,” she scoffed. “Pokeweed cleans you out—and it’s free. It grows near the harbor.”
“Don’t plan on me digging around in the mud near the harbor today,” Elefante grumbled. “I gotta go to the Bronx.” He was going to see the Governor.
“Go ahead,” his mother said defiantly. “I got the colored man from the church coming by.”
“What colored man?”
“That old scooch? The way he drinks, solid food makes a splash in his stomach when he eats it. You keep him out of the house.”
“Leave it alone,” she snapped. “He knows more about plants than anybody around here,” she added. “More’n you, that’s for sure.”
“Just keep him outside.”
“Stop worrying. He’s a deacon at the colored church there, the Four Ends or Deep Ends or whatever it’s called.”
“Well, he’s there. A deacon.” She chopped away.
Elefante shrugged. He had no idea what deacons did. He remembered the old guy faintly as one of the coloreds who came and went from the church a block from his boxcar. A drinker. Harmless. The church was on the far side of the street, while the boxcar was on the harbor side. Close as they were, separated by a weeded lot that ran the block’s length, they were strangers to one another. But Elefante considered coloreds perfect neighbors. They minded their own business. Never asked questions. That’s the reason his guys pulled that poor lady from the harbor when she came floating into the dock a few years ago. He’d watched her come and go from the church for years, waving hello to him, and he waved back. That was the extent of their conversation, which in the Cause, where the Italians and blacks lived side by side but rarely connected, was a lot. He never knew or heard the story of how she landed in the harbor—that wasn’t his business—but he had a faint recollection she might be related to one or the other of the coloreds. He left his headman to keep up with details of folks like her, not him. He didn’t have time. He only knew that every Christmas since his guys pulled that lady out of the water, the church coloreds had dropped off two sweet potato pies and a cooked chicken outside his railroad boxcar. Why couldn’t more people get along that way?
He regarded his mother as she chopped. She had on his father’s old construction boots, which meant she planned to go plant digging today too. With the boots, the housedress, the apron, and her wild hair, she looked, he knew, like something from the outer limits. But at eighty-nine, she could do what she wanted. Still, he fretted about her health. He noticed the difficulty she had chopping, her arthritic hands curled and gnarled. Rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, and a leaking heart were taking their toll. She had fallen several times in the past few weeks, and the doctor’s murmurings about heart trouble were no longer murmurings, they were explicit warnings, outlined in red pen on her prescriptions, which she ignored, of course, in favor of the plants she swore fostered good health or simply needed to be had for the sake of having them, the names of which he’d memorized from childhood: black cherry, Hercules’ club, spicebush, and now, pokeweed.
He watched as she struggled with the knife. He suspected the old colored gardener did all the chopping once he left. He could tell by the neat cut of the plants, their stems tied tightly with rubber bands, others with stems and roots cut just so. He was secretly glad she ignored his disapproval of allowing someone inside the house. Someone was better than no one. She was near the end, they both knew it. Three months ago, she’d paid Joe Peck, whose family ran the last Italian funeral home in the Cause District, to send a man to disinter his dad’s body over at Woodlawn Cemetery and bury it deeper. The overcrowded cemetery had no more space for new graves, so her plan was to be buried atop his father in the same plot. That required his father’s casket be reburied eight feet down instead of the usual six. Peck had assured her he had done the job himself. But the Elephant was suspicious. Anything Joe Peck said could be a lie.
“Did you get someone to sound that plot Joe Peck said he dug out?” he asked.
“I told you already. I can take care of my business,” she said.
“You know Joe says one thing and does another.”
“I’ll get my colored man to check it.”
“He can’t poke around the cemetery. He’ll get arrested.”
“He knows what to do.”
Elefante gave up. At least there would be a set of eyes in the house while he ran up to the Bronx to check out the Governor’s tip.
He sighed, rose from the kitchen table, reached for his tie on a nearby doorknob, placed it around his neck, and then stepped to the parlor mirror to tie it, feeling a blend of relief and, despite himself, a small bit of excitement. He’d already decided that the Governor’s story about this so-called hidden loot, this great treasure that his father had somehow hidden someplace in his boxcar or in his storage warehouse, was a fable. Yet a few discreet phone calls and a query to his mother proved that the Governor’s story was, at least, partly true. Elefante had confirmed that the Governor had been his dad’s sole friend and cellmate for two years in Sing Sing. His dad had also mentioned the Governor to his mother several times as he drifted toward death, but she swore she’d paid little attention. “He said he was holding something for a friend and it was in God’s hands,” she told him. “I paid it no mind.”
“Did he say in God’s hand, or the palm of His hand?” Elefante asked, remembering the poem the Governor cited.
“You were there!” she snapped. “Don’t you remember?”
But Elefante did not. He had been nineteen, about to inherit a business that was beholden to the Gorvino family. His father was dying. He had to take over. There was a lot to think about. He was drowning in his own confused, bottled-up emotions at the time. God was the last thing on his mind.
“No I don’t,” he said.
“He was talking out of his head at the end there,” his mother said. “Poppa hadn’t been in church since he was out of prison, so I paid it no mind.”
Elefante had checked all his storage places—the ones he had access to, which was more than he cared to let his customers know about—and come up empty. He raked through his own memories as well, but they played tricks on him. As a boy, he remembered his father saying to him several times . . . Look out for the Governor. He’s got that crazy poem! Pay attention. But what teenager paid attention to his dad? His father didn’t speak in detail anyway. He spoke in nods and grunts. Giving words to ideas was too dangerous in their world. When Poppa did give words to something, though, it was for a reason. It had weight. So Poppa must have been giving him a message. But what? The more Elefante considered the matter, the more confused he became. Driscoll Sturgess, he decided, the Governor himself, might have the answer—if there was one at all. So he’d called and made arrangements to see him, to maybe get some peace on the question.
Elefante grabbed his jacket and car keys, feeling anxious and a little excited. The trip to the Bronx was more of a break for him than anything else. He paused one last time at the mirror in the front hall to straighten his tie and unrumple his suit, checking himself out sideways. He still looked good. A little heavy maybe, but his face was still tight, no wrinkles, no crow’s-feet around the eyes, no kids, no cousins he trusted, no wife who cared for him, no one to take care of his mother either, he thought bitterly. At forty, Elefante was lonely. Wouldn’t it be nice, he thought, as he straightened his tie one last time, if there was a real big score in it. Just once, something that would get him off that pier, out of that hot boxcar, out of the squeeze between Joe Peck and the Gorvinos, who controlled every dock in Brooklyn, and get him to an island in the Bahamas where he could spend the rest of his life sipping grape and watching the ocean. The stress of the job was beginning to wear at him. The Gorvinos were losing faith in him. He knew it. He could tell they were increasingly irritated by his resistance to drugs, a prejudice he’d inherited from his father. But that had been a different time, and they were different men. The old man had kept the Gorvinos satisfied by renting them cheap storage space, doing quick under-the-table construction jobs for them, and moving anything they wanted outside of dope. But that was before, in the age of graft, numbers, smuggling, and booze. Dope was the thing now. Big money, and Joe Peck, the only other made member of the Gorvino family in the Cause District, had jumped into the dope game with both feet, becoming a major distributor, pulling Elefante in by the nose. There were plenty of docking points in Brooklyn, but Elefante was under constant pressure to keep his dock active because Peck was in his area, and Joe moved dope from water to shore in whatever stupid form he could dream up: in cement bags, in gasoline tanks, in the back of refrigerators, stuffed into TV sets, even in car parts. It was risky. He hated the whole tuna. Drugs were a damn stinking fish, the smell of it taking over everything. Gambling, construction, cigarettes, booze were all second-rate now. Ironically, the Gorvinos weren’t wild about dope or Joe Peck either—they knew how stupid and impulsive Peck was—but they lived in Bensonhurst and not in the Cause. That might as well have been the moon as far as Elefante was concerned. They never got to see Joe’s stupidity up close, which always complicated matters. Peck had his head so far up his ass he couldn’t see the order of things. He made deals with the colored, the Spanish, and every two-bit crooked cop who could put two nickels together—without one bit of trust between them. That was a recipe for disaster and a ten-year stretch in the workhouse. To make it worse, Victor Gorvino, head of the Gorvino family, was old as the hills and half-demented, fucked up in his head. Gorvino was under a lot of heat from the cops now. Getting in to see him to explain Joe Peck’s stupidity was difficult. To top it off, Gorvino and Peck were Sicilian. The Elefantes were from Genoa, northern Italy, which fell right into his father’s admonition. “Remember,” he’d remind his son, “we’re just a bunch of Genoans.” They were always on the outside.
When his father was alive, that difference between the northern and southern Italians didn’t matter as much. His father and Gorvino were old-school. They went back to the days of Murder, Inc., Brooklyn’s enforcement arm of the Mafia, where silence was the golden rule and cooperation was the key to a long life. But as far as Gorvino was concerned, the son was not the father, and now that Gorvino was half-cocked and not able to pull up his pants without help from his lieutenant Vinny Tognerelli—a Gorvino underling Elefante didn’t know well—the tight space that Elefante lived in had gotten even tighter.
At the front door, he turned to his mother, who was still busy whacking away at the plants on her countertop, and said in Italian, “What time is the colored coming?”
“He’ll be here. He’s always late.”
“What’s his name again?”
“Deacon something or other. They call him something else too. Suit Jacket, or something.”
Elefante nodded. “What does a deacon do?” he asked.
“How should I know?” she said. “They’re probably like priests, but make less money.”
Elefante exited the wrought-iron fence surrounding his yard, stepped to his Lincoln at the curb, and had placed his key in the door when he heard the sound of Joe Peck’s GTO turn the corner and roar up the street toward him. Elefante frowned as the GTO slowed and stopped as the passenger window rolled down.
“Take me with you, Tommy,” Peck said.
Peck, seated in the driver’s seat, was clad in his usual dark open-collared shirt and cleanly pressed pants, his handsome blond features curled into his usual queer smile. The crazy pretty boy. Elefante ducked his head inside the car so the two couldn’t be heard from the street.
“I’m going to mix business with business, Joe. No pleasure in it. You don’t wanna come.”
“Wherever you go, there’s money in it.”
“See ya, Joe.” Elefante turned away and Peck called out, “Gimme a minute, will ya, Tommy? It’s important.”
Elefante frowned and stuck his head inside the cab again, the two men’s faces close together as the GTO rumbled. “What?” he said.
“Change of plans,” Peck said.
“What plans? We going to the prom? We got no plans.”
“About that shipment from Lebanon,” Peck said.
Elefante felt the blood rush to his face. “I already told you. I ain’t doing that.”
“C’mon, Tommy!” Peck pleaded. “I need you on this one. Just this one.”
“Get Herbie over in the Watch Houses. Or Ray out in Coney Island. Ray’s got a whole crew now. He’s got new trucks and everything. He’ll take care of it for you.”
“I can’t use them. I don’t like those guys.”
“Why not? That’s two guys. If you put ’em together, they’d make one man.”
Peck’s temple’s bulged and he grimaced, a look that Elefante knew spelled anger. That was Joe’s problem. His temper. He’d known Joe Peck since high school. Three thousand kids at Bay Ridge High and the only one stupid enough to pull out an X-Acto knife in auto shop and use it over a lost wrench was Joe Peck, the small, scrappy kid from the Cause District with a girly face and a brain the size of a full-grown pea. Elefante had been forced to beat Joe down himself four or five times at Bay Ridge High, but Peck had an amazingly short memory for losses. When he blew his top he didn’t care what happened, who was involved, or why. It made him a bold gangster but a prime candidate to land in an urn in his own family’s funeral parlor one day, Elefante was certain. Amazingly, the years had not mellowed him.
“The niggers at the Cause Houses are crapping on my business,” Peck said. “They shot a kid. Great kid. Negro. He turned over a lot of stuff for one of my customers. They say he’s a real whiz kid, just a great kid. Doing great, till he got shot.”
“If he’s so great, why not give him one of those Negro scholarships, Joe?”
Peck’s face flushed and Elefante watched, half-amused, as Peck beat back the rage, ignoring the insult. “Thing is . . .” Peck glanced through the front windshield, then through the rear one, to make sure no one was nearby listening. “The kid was shot by some old geezer. So my customer in Bed-Stuy sends one of his guys to even things out. He’s tracking the old gunner to squeeze him. But the old bum don’t wanna get caught.”
“Maybe he’s a humble man who don’t like attention.”
“Can’t you fucking listen for a minute?”
Elefante felt his pulse racing. He resisted the urge to reach across the seat, yank Peck out by his shirt collar, and part his pretty, girly face with his fist. “Get your blockers outta the backfield and get moving downfield, would ya, Joe?”
“Just tell me what you want. I got stuff to do.”
“The guy they sent out to even things, he screwed up. The cops got hold of him. Now he’s singing to the Seven-Six. A bird I know over there tells me the guy is singing like a robin—telling the cops everything. So before they cut him loose this snitch tells the cops that my main colored customer up in Bed-Stuy wants to cut me out. The coloreds don’t want me supplying them no more. How do you like that? Ungrateful niggers! I set them up and now they wanna double-cross me. They’re gonna start a race war.”
Elefante listened in silence. This is what happens when you deal with people you don’t trust, he thought bitterly. It doesn’t matter if it’s drugs or cereal. Same problem.
“I ain’t involved,” he said.
“Gorvino won’t like it.”
“Did you talk to him?”
“Yeah . . . well, not yet. I talked to his guy, Vincent. He says Gorvino will get back to me, but Bed-Stuy is our area, that’s what Vincent says. He says we got to deal with it.”
“It’s your area, Joe. Not mine.”
“It’s our dock.”
“But it’s your dope.”
He saw Peck’s face darken; he was fighting back his boiling temper, just a string away from busting loose. With great effort, Peck checked himself again.
“Would you roll with me just this one time, Tommy?” he said. “Just this once? Please? Move this Lebanon shipment for me and I won’t ask you ever again. Just this one fucking time. With this one shipment, I’ll make enough to muscle them niggers off and tell them to fuck off forever. And I can clean up things with Gorvino too.”
“Clean up things?”
“I’m into him for a few thousand,” Joe said, adding hastily, “but I get this shipment and I can clean that up easy and I’m outta dope forever. You’re right, by the way. You’ve always been right about the dope. It’s too risky. This is my last job. I’ll clean things up and I’m out of it.”
Elefante stared at Peck in silence for a long moment.
“C’mon, Tommy,” Peck pleaded. “For old times’ sake. You haven’t taken one goddamn shipment in six months. Not one. I’ll give ya eight grand. It’ll take an hour. One fucking hour. Straight off a freighter, to the dock, and out. No unloading tires or nothing fancy. Just grab the stuff and get it to me. One hour. That’s how long it’ll take to get it outta your hair. One hour. You can’t make that much slinging cigarettes in a month.”
Elefante nervously tapped one hand on the car roof. The GTO rumbled, shaking, and Elefante felt his resolve shaking with it. Just an hour, he thought, to risk everything. It sounded easy. But then his mind ran through the scenario quickly. If the crap came in from Lebanon, it’d be on a freighter, probably out of Brazil or Turkey. That meant getting a fast boat to retrieve it, because a freighter would not dock in the Cause. The waters were deep enough, but only barges came to Brooklyn, which meant probably taking the speedboat to the middle of the harbor from the Jersey side to be safe. That meant slipping past harbor patrol on that side, grabbing the loot in the middle of the harbor, racing back to shore, getting the stuff to an untraceable car that would likely have to be stolen, and then moving it to wherever Joe Peck wanted it. Knowing how the feds were everywhere now, it might be that Peck had the feds watching his front door and the Gorvino family watching the back door, since he owed the Gorvinos money. He didn’t like it.
“Get Ray out at Coney Island.”
Peck’s temper broke through. He banged the steering wheel furiously with his fist. “What kind of fucking friend are you?!”
Elefante’s top teeth met the bottom of his folded lip as he felt the dreadful silence descend on him. The day, once hopeful and full of promise, with a pleasurable trip to the Bronx ahead to sound out a possible treasure, was ruined. Even if that so-called treasure was the pipe dream of an old Irish con artist who was likely full of shit, the idea of tracking it down to zero was still a reprieve from the day-to-day of his own trapped, screwed-up life. Now the lightness of the day was gone. Instead, a familiar seething spread inside him, like a black oil slick sliding into place, and the silence took over. It wasn’t rage, uncontrolled and raw, but rather a cool anger that launched a terrible, unstoppable determination within him to squelch problems with a speed and dispatch that even the most hardened mobsters of the Gorvino family found unsettling. His ma said it was the Genoan in him, because Genoans learned to live unhappily and trudged forward no matter what, just finishing things up, dealing with it, bearing up doggedly till the job was finished. The Genoans had been doing that, she said, ever since the ancient days of Caesar. He’d been to Genoa with his parents, and he’d seen it himself, a city of dull, exhausting hills, the dreary, ancient, gray buildings, the solid stone walls, the bleak cold weather and miserable rain-soaked cobblestone and brick streets, the unhappy souls wandering about in tight circles, from home to work and back home again, grimly walking past one another, tight-lipped, pale, never smiling, marching stolidly down the small, drenched streets as the cold sea splashed over the sidewalks and even over them and them not noticing it, the smell of stinking sea and nearby fisheries climbing onto their clothing, into their miserable tiny houses, their drapes, and even into their food, the people ignoring it, plodding forward with grim determination like robots, having accepted their fate as unhappy sons of bitches living in the shadow of happy Nice, France, to the west and under the sunshine disdain of their poor dark cousins to the south, Florence and Sicily, who laughed like dancing Negroes, happy and content to be the black Ethiopians of Europe, while their smiling cousins on the Mediterranean Sea, the French, sunned themselves topless on the lovely beaches of the Riviera. All the while the hardworking, joyless Genoans marched on grimly, eating their fucking focaccia. No one appreciated Genoan focaccia except the Genoans. “Best bread in the world,” his father used to say. “It’s the cheese.” Elefante tried it once and understood then why Genoans were a miserable lot, because life was nothing compared to the delicious taste of Genoan food; once they got to the food, the business of life, whatever that business was—loving, sleeping, standing at the bus stop, shoving each other at the grocery store, killing each other—had to be done with speed so as to get to the food, and they did it with such silent grit, such determination and speed, that to get in the way of it was like stepping into a hurricane. Christopher Columbus, his mother pointed out, was a Genoan who wasn’t looking for America. He was looking for spices. For food. A real Genoan, she said, would hang themselves before they’d let anyone destroy the one or two things in life that gave them a little relief from the difficulties of the devil’s world.
Elefante found the whole business of his own anger frightening, because that’s what his great furious silences were. Relief. A pressure cooker blown open. To his utter disgust, he’d found himself liking when the great silences came upon him. He hated himself later for those moments. He’d done some terrible things during those times. Many times afterward, in his darkest hours, in the late nights when Brooklyn slept and the harbor was dark, lying in bed in his lonely, empty brownstone with no wife and no children snoring in another room, with his widowed mother clomping around the house in her late husband’s construction boots, the things he did during the spells when the silence came upon him tortured him with a searing brutality that caused him to sit up in the dark and check his pajamas for blood, feeling like his soul had been sliced into quarters, sweat bursting out of his pores and tears running down his face. But there was nothing to do then. The moment was over. The rage had already poured out of him like lava, unrelenting and merciless, steaming over whoever or whatever was in the way, and the sorry soul on the receiving end saw nothing more than a blank stare of cold clarity. Were they seeing the eyes of Tommy Elefante, the lonely man with the kind heart who ordered his obedient crew to pull poor old colored women out of the harbor who had landed there for one reason or other, and why shouldn’t they, since New York was shit? Or were they seeing the eyes of Tommy Elefante, the shy Brooklyn bachelor who dreamed of escaping Brooklyn to move to a farm in New Hampshire and marry a fat country girl and even had the looks and charm to find one, but was too kind to drag any woman into his life of brutality and stealth, which had made his mother a prison widow and half-mad eccentric, a life that had diced his father’s kindness into bits? Perhaps they saw neither; perhaps they saw only the outer shell: the silent, cold, brutal Elephant, whose calculating calm and mum stare said, “You are finished,” and who dispatched them with the matter-of-fact speed and brutality of a Category 5 hurricane, ripping everything apart as he went. The Elephant’s stare reduced the hardest men to terror. He’d seen the fright explode across their faces when his silent business face emerged, and try as he could, he could not wipe those expressions of fright from his own memory, the most recent being the colored kid Mark Bumpus and his two hooligans at the abandoned factory on Vitali Pier three years ago, when he’d caught them red-handed trying to steal fourteen grand from him. I’ll help you, Bumpus had pleaded. I’ll help you fix things, he wailed. But it was too late.
Peck found himself staring at Elefante’s silence at that moment, a silence so palpable that to Joe, it was almost like hearing it and seeing it at the same time, for Peck had experienced it several times when they were teenagers, and his own inner alarm sounded off as loud as the blaring of a ship’s bullhorn. Peck realized he’d gone too far. His angry facial features twisted into blinking alarm as Elefante’s blank stare combed his face, the interior of the car, and Joe’s hands, which, they both noted, remained on the steering wheel—where they should be, Joe noted ruefully—and had better stay.
“Don’t come at me like that again, Joe. Find somebody else.”
Elefante withdrew from the GTO and stood with his hands at his sides as Joe threw the GTO in gear and roared off. Then he placed his hands in his pockets and stood in the middle of the street alone, giving the silent roaring rage inside him time to ease down and out, and after several long minutes he once again became who he was, a solitary middle-aged man in the August of life looking for a few more Aprils, an aging bachelor in a floppy suit standing on a tired, worn Brooklyn street in the shadow of a giant housing project built by a Jewish reformer named Robert Moses who forgot he was a reformer, building projects like this all over, which destroyed neighborhoods, chasing out the working Italians, Irish, and Jews, gutting all the pretty things from them, displacing them with Negroes and Spanish and other desperate souls clambering to climb into the attic of New York life, hoping that the bedroom and kitchen below would open up so they could drop in, and at minimum join the club that to them included this man, an overweight bachelor in an ill-fitting suit, watching a shiny car roaring away, the car driven by a handsome young man who was pretty and drove away as if he were barreling into a bright future, while the dowdy heavyset man watched him jealously, believing the man so pretty and handsome had places to go and women to meet and things to do, and the older heavyset man standing behind eating his fumes on a sorry, dreary, crowded old Brooklyn street of storefronts and tired brownstones had nothing left but the fumes of the pretty sports car in his face. A dreamless, friendless, futureless, sorry-ass New York guy.
Elefante watched the GTO turn the corner. He sighed and headed back to his Lincoln. He slowly slid his key into the lock, entered the car, and sat behind the steering wheel in silence, staring. He sat in the soft leather of the car for several long moments. Finally, he spoke aloud.
“I wish,” he said softly, “somebody would love me.”