Deacon King Kong (13. The Country Girl)
Elefante and the Governor sat in the living room of the Governor’s modest two-family brick house in the Morris Heights section of the Bronx, a calm enclave of apartment buildings dotted with a few leafy trees amid coming urban decay, when the door burst open and a mop swept into the room, followed by an attractive woman pulling a wheeled bucket full of soapy water. Her head was down and she mopped at the floor with such speed and intensity that at first she didn’t notice the two men sitting in the room. Elefante was in the rocking chair with his back to the door. The old man was on the couch. The woman swept from left to right and then hit the leg of the rocking chair and saw a foot. She looked up in surprise at Elefante, her face flushed a deep red, and at that moment Elefante saw his future.
She was a heavyset woman, getting on in years but with a sweet face that could not bridle the shyness that emanated from it, with wide brown eyes that, at the moment, blinked in surprise. Her brown hair was pulled back to a bun, and a long, cute, dimpled chin lived beneath a pleasant mouth. Though heavy, she had the frame of a tall, thin woman, her neck was long, and she hung her head a bit, as if to deemphasize her height. She wore a green dress and her feet were bare.
“Whoops. I was just coming in to clean.” She backed out of the room quickly and slammed the door. Elefante heard her footsteps retreating to the back of the apartment.
“Sorry,” the Governor said. “That’s my lass, Melissa. She lives downstairs.”
Elefante nodded. He had not seen Melissa long but he had seen her long enough. It was the barefoot part, Elefante thought later, that did it. The no shoes. What a beauty. A country beauty. The type he’d always dreamed about. He liked heavy women. And she was deeply shy. He saw that immediately. It was the way she moved, with slight clumsiness, her head down, that long neck swinging that pretty face away from what was happening. In that moment, he felt an inside part of his tightly wound heart loosen, and understood, with certainty, the Governor’s problem. He doubted that shy beauty had the guile to run a bagel shop, much less take care of whatever business the Governor had with this piece that he wanted to dump for dollars, whatever it was. That type ought to be running a country store someplace, he thought dreamily. Running it with me.
He shook the thought as he saw the Governor watching him, a slight smile on his lined face. They had spent the afternoon together. The old man had been cordial. He’d greeted Elefante like they were old friends. The bagel shop was just two blocks away, and despite the Governor’s wheezing and poor health, he insisted they walk over. He proudly showed Elefante the entire operation, the large eating area, the display cases, the store crowded with customers. He showed him the back garage area where he kept his two delivery trucks, and finally the kitchen, which he saved for last, where the two Puerto Rican cooks were finishing up. “We start at two a.m.,” the Governor explained. “By four thirty the bagels are hot and rolling out the door. By nine we’ve moved eight hundred bagels. Sometimes we move a couple thousand a day,” he said proudly. “Not just for us. We sell to shops all over the Bronx.”
Elefante was impressed. It wasn’t so much a bagel shop as it was a factory. But now the two men were back in the Governor’s two-family house, in the upper apartment where he stayed, and with the pretty daughter apparently safely down in her apartment below he was eager for the real talk. One look at the daughter told Elefante all he needed to know: if the Governor was telling the truth, he had no real plan.
“It’s not my business,” Elefante said, “but does your daughter know anything about . . . what I’m here to discuss?”
“Don’t you have a son-in-law?”
The Governor shrugged. “I can’t tell you the ways of the young. In the old days, Irish legend had it that the seals on the beach in Ireland were really dashing young princes who slipped out of their skin to become seals and marry the merry mermaids. I think she’s looking for a seal.”
Elefante said nothing.
The Governor suddenly appeared tired, and he leaned back into the couch, his head tilted up toward the ceiling. “I’ve no son. She’s my heir, that one. She’d give it the full shilling if I told her about this business, but she’d make bags of it. I want her out of it.”
He seemed by nature a lighthearted man, but the tone of that statement let Elefante know that the door was open to his taking full charge of the affair and negotiating a better price for himself, if there was indeed anything to the old man’s story at all. The man was exhausted. That small bit of walking to his shop and the tour of it had worn him out completely. “I’m a bit jaded and might have to rest my head on me couch in a while,” he said. “But I can still talk. We can get started now.”
“Good, ’cause I’m not sure what you’re selling.”
“You’ll know now.”
“Talk then. It’s your party. I already asked around. My poppa had some friends who remember you. My mother says my poppa trusted you and that you two did talk. So I know you’re okay. But you have a good operation here. This isn’t a bagel shop. It’s a factory. It’s clean. It makes money. Why get flashy and monkey with trouble when you’re making good guineas now? How much dough do you need?”
The Governor smiled, then coughed again and grabbed a handkerchief and spat in it. The glob he spat into that handkerchief, Elefante saw, was big enough that the Governor had to fold the handkerchief in half to use it again. This Irish paisan, he thought, is sicker than he’s letting on.
Instead of answering the question, the old man tilted his head back again and said, “I got this place and the bagel shop in forty-seven. Well, my wife got the shop, actually. I was in jail that year with your father.
“Here’s how we got it. I had some money put up. How I got that money doesn’t matter, but it was a good amount of chips. I made the mistake of telling my wife where it was while I was in prison. She came to visit one day and said, ‘Guess what? Remember the old Jewish couple on the Grand Concourse with the bagel shop? They sold it to me cheap. They wanted out fast.’ She said she couldn’t reach me to make a decision. She just went for it. Bought the whole fecking building. With my stash.”
He smiled at the memory. “She told me about it in the visitors’ room. I ate her head off. I blew my top so bad the prison guards had to collar me to keep me from wringing her neck. It was weeks before she even wrote to me. What could I do? I was in the slammer. She burned up every penny we had—on bagels. I was shook. Mad as a box of frogs.”
He stared at the ceiling, his face wistful.
“Your father thought that was funny. He said, ‘Is it losing money?’ I said, ‘How the hell would I know? There’s niggers and spics all over.’
“He said, ‘They eat bagels too. Write to your wife and tell her you’re sorry.’
“I did, blessed God, and she forgave me. And now I thank her every day for buying that place. Or would. If she was here.”
“When did she pass away?”
“Oh, it’s been . . . I don’t keep track.” He sighed, then sang softly,
Twenty years a-growing,
Twenty years in blossom,
Twenty years a-stooping,
Twenty years declining.
Elefante found himself softening, the inside part of him, the part that he never let the world see, the part that had loosened when the man’s daughter swept her mop into the room. “Does that mean you have a clear conscience on the whole bit? Or just a bad memory?”
The Governor stared at the ceiling a bit longer. His eyes seemed fixed on something far distant. “She lived long enough to see me come out of prison. She and my Melissa, they built the business while I was in jail. Three years after I came out, my wife took ill, and now I’m a little under the weather myself.”
A little under the weather? Elefante thought. He looked ready to keel over.
“Luckily Melissa’s ready to take it over,” the Governor said. “She’s a good lass. She can fly the business. I am lucky she’s so good.”
“All the more reason to keep her out of trouble.”
“That’s where you come in, Cecil.”
The Elephant nodded, uncomfortable. The reference took him by surprise. He hadn’t been called that in years. “Cecil” was a childhood nickname his father had given him. His real name was Tomaso, or Thomas. He bore his father’s name as a middle name. Cecil was his father’s creation. Where it came from, and why his father chose it, he never knew. It was more than a name of adoration; it was a sign between father and son that they needed to talk privately. His poppa was bedridden in his last year, still running the business, and there were often other people about his bedroom, men who worked in the boxcar, in construction, and in the storage house. When Poppa said “Cecil,” there was important business, private business about, and they needed to discuss it when the room cleared. The Governor’s knowledge of the name was a further sign of credibility—and also, Elefante thought glumly, responsibility. He didn’t want to be responsible for this guy. He had enough responsibility.
The Governor eyed him a long moment, then gave in to his fatigue. He shifted and pulled his legs on the couch and lay down, stretching out, an arm on his forehead. He raised his other arm and pointed a finger to a desk behind Elefante. “Hand me a pen and paper from that desk, would ya? They’re right on top.”
Elefante did as he was told. The Governor scratched something on the paper, folded it tightly, and handed the paper to Elefante. “Don’t open it yet,” he said.
“You want I should stuff ballot boxes for you too?”
The old man smiled. “That’s not a bad thing to know, considering what happens to old codgers like me in our game. You get tired, y’know. Your father understood that.”
“Tell me about my poppa,” Elefante said. “What’d he like to talk about?”
“You’re trying to trick me,” the Irishman said with a low chuckle. “Your father played checkers and said six words a day. But if he said six words, five of them were about you.”
“He didn’t show me that side much,” Elefante said. “After he came back from prison, he’d already had the stroke. So talking was hard. He was in bed a lot. He was about survival in those days. Keeping the boxcar busy, working for the fami—” He paused. “Working for our customers.”
The Governor nodded. “I’ve never worked for the Five Families,” he said.
“A true Irishman knows the world will one day break your heart.”
“What’s that mean?”
“I like breathing, son. Most people I knew who worked for the families ended up getting dragged across the quit line in pieces. Your father was one of the few who died in bed.”
“He never trusted them completely,” Elefante said.
“Lots of reasons. We’re northern Italian. They’re southern Italian. I was young and stupid. He didn’t think I’d live long when I got made. He kept me busy running that dock. He gave orders. I followed them. That’s how it was. Before he went to jail and after. He was the puppet master, I was the puppet. Work the boxcar, move the stuff, ship it here, there, store this, pay this guy, pay that guy. Pay your men well. Say nothing. That was the gig. But he always kept a foot in other things: construction, a little loan business, even a gardening business for a while. We always had other interests.”
“You had other interests because your father did not trust.”
“He did trust. He was just careful about the people he trusted.”
“Because . . . ?”
“Because a man who doesn’t trust cannot be trusted.”
The Governor smiled. “That’s why you’re the right lad for the job.”
He looked so satisfied Elefante blurted, “If you feel a song coming on, don’t bother. I had Cousin Brucie on the radio in the car all the way over. He played Frankie Valli. Nobody sings better than him.”
The old man chuckled, then raised a frail hand and pointed at the piece of paper in Elefante’s closed fist. “Read it.”
Elefante unfolded the paper and read: “A man who does not trust cannot be trusted.”
“I knew your father well,” the Governor said gravely. “As good as I knew any man in this world.”
Elefante didn’t know what to say.
“Now I am gonna sing,” the Governor said brightly. “And it’s gonna be better than Frankie Valli.”
And he proceeded to talk.
As Elefante drove his Lincoln down the Major Deegan heading home that evening, the note still folded in his shirt pocket, his mind was spinning. He thought not of the story the governor told him, but of the country-looking farm girl who’d come into the room and backed out the door apologizing, excusing herself. A shy, pretty Irish girl. Fresh as spring. She was a little younger than him, thirty-five or so he guessed, which was old not to be married. She seemed so shy, he wondered how someone so meek could run a business. Then again, he thought, I’ve never seen her in action. Maybe she’s like me, he thought. All show business at work, gruff and bitter, but at home, at night, crowing to the stars for love and company.
Or maybe I’m a moron, he thought bitterly. Just an aching heart—in a city full of them. Geez.
He gunned onto a ramp that exited to the FDR Drive, then zipped down the east side of Manhattan toward the Brooklyn Bridge. He was glad to be driving. It allowed his mind to roam and the confusion to quell. It was just past four thirty p.m. and traffic was still moving smoothly. He turned on the radio and the music jarred him back to reality. He scanned the East River, checking the line of barges moving along. Some of them he knew. A few were run by honest captains who refused hot items. They wouldn’t move a stolen tire if you paid them a thousand bucks. Others were captained by blithering idiots who would kick their scruples out the window for the price of a cup of coffee. The first type were honest to a fault. They just couldn’t help it. The second type were born crooks.
Which one am I? he wondered.
Am I good or bad? he thought as he maneuvered the Lincoln through traffic. He thought about getting out of the game altogether. It was an old dream. He had plenty saved up. He’d made enough to live. That’s what Poppa wanted, right? He could sell his two rental houses in Bensonhurst, sell the boxcar to Ray out in Coney Island, and step out once and for all. To do what? Work in a bagel shop? He couldn’t believe the thought entered his mind. The Governor’s daughter didn’t even know who he was and he was already putting himself in her kitchen. He pictured himself ten years from now, a fat husband in a cook’s outfit, slinging dough and slamming it into an oven at three a.m.
On the other hand, what was life all about? Family. Love. That woman was concerned about her father. She was loyal to family. He understood that feeling. It said a lot about her.
He’d talked to her briefly before he left. The Governor had fallen asleep on his couch after their conversation, and Elefante went to the door to let himself out. She was coming up the stairs to check on her father and caught him. He’d guessed she heard him leaving and wanted to make sure her father was okay. That’s what he would have done. Check that her father was breathing, maybe make sure the stranger wasn’t some goombah from years past who showed up wanting to even things. That said a lot about her too. She was shy, but clearly not that shy, and not stupid. And not afraid.
They’d met in the hallway by the front door. They’d talked maybe twenty minutes. She was immediately open and candid. He was someone her father trusted. So she trusted him.
“I can handle things,” she said when he asked her about running the bagel shop on her own. He had joked about her tearing into the room, mop first, holding the bucket and using the mop as a spear. She laughed and said, “Oh, that. My poppa cleans like a kindergartner.”
“Well, he’s worked hard enough.”
“Yes, but he leaves his place a mess, and he falls asleep so easily.”
“My feet fall asleep when I’m running for the bus.”
She laughed again, and opened up more, and in the ensuing chat showed that behind the gentle veneer lay qualities more like those of her father, lighthearted, funny, but with a firmness and cleverness he found alluring. They chatted easily together. She knew he was there for important business. She knew their fathers had been close friends. Yet he still sensed a tentativeness. He probed her gently. That was his job, he thought bitterly, as a goddamned smuggler working with lowlife drug dealers like Joe Peck and murderers like Vic Gorvino: to sense weakness in others. Standing there, he felt her probing him as well. He felt her size him up and squeeze him—gently—for information. Try as he might, he couldn’t block it, couldn’t prevent her from seeing the part that most never saw, that while he was firm and tight on the surface, all business, maybe a little too Italian in his manner and speech, beneath it he bore the heavy sense of responsibility for his mother and those he cared about with kindness that was safer to hide. He was the man her father trusted. But why him? Why not a cousin or an uncle? Or at least a fellow Irishman? Why an Italian? In those twenty minutes the war between the races, the Italians versus the Irish, was waged, the two representatives of the black souls of Europe, left in the dust by the English, the French, the Germans, and later in America by the big boys in Manhattan, the Jews who forgot they were Jews, the Irish who forgot they were Irish, the Anglos who forgot they were human, who got together to make money in their big power meetings about the future, paving over the nobodies in the Bronx and Brooklyn by building highways that gutted their neighborhoods, leaving them to suffer at the hands of whoever came along, the big boys who forgot the war and the pogroms and the lives of the people who survived World War I and World War II sacrificing blood and guts for their America, so they could work with the banks and the city and state to slap expressways in the middle of thriving neighborhoods and send the powerless suckers who believed in the American dream scrambling to the suburbs because they, the big boys, wanted a bigger percentage. He felt it, or thought he felt it, as they stood by the front door. There was a connection: a man whose father was dead and a woman whose father was about to die, a sense of wanting to belong, standing in the warm vestibule, she in her farm-girl dress, with a job that paid taxes and drew no cops, no Joe Pecks, no complicated phone calls from complicated people trying to pick your pocket with one hand while saluting the flag with the other, and he feeling a sense of belonging he hadn’t felt in years.
She laughed easily, asking questions, the shyness gone now, while he nodded silently. She talked the entire twenty minutes, which seemed to pass in seconds, and all the while he felt like shouting, “I’m the seal on the beach. If you only knew me.” But instead he was light and firm, halfheartedly trying to block her questions by pretending to be aloof and distrustful. She saw through it all, he could tell. She saw him clearly. He felt naked. She wanted to know why he was there. She wanted to know everything.
But she could never know.
That was part of the arrangement. He had agreed to the Governor’s harebrained scheme, of course. In part because he loved his father. The parts of his father that he knew ran deepest were all about trust. Any man his father trusted had to be a loving, good man. There was no doubt. Guido Elefante had never backed out on his word with a man he trusted. Neither did his father care what others thought of him. Poppa loved his mother, no doubt because Momma was anything but the typical Brooklyn Italian housewife like so many on his block, the women who chatted about nothing, tossing cannolis around, filing obediently into mass at St. Andrew’s every morning praying for their husband’s redemption and, by extension, their own, complaining about the niggers and the spics taking over the neighborhood while their husbands ran liquor and shot anyone who opened their mouth wrong about their gambling operations and horse-racing fixes and their running roughshod over the coloreds. His mother didn’t care about the coloreds. She saw them just as people. She cared about plants, and digging for them in the empty lots around their neighborhood—plants, she insisted, that had kept her husband alive long after most expected him to be gone. And as for their son, she never asked questions of Thomas; she respected Elefante when he was but a boy because she understood, instinctively, that her son would be different from most of the Italians in the neighborhood, had to be different just like she and her husband had to be different to survive. She never made apologies for her family. The Elefantes were what they were. That was all there was to it. Poppa had welcomed the Governor into his world. And so Elefante did as well. They were partners now. That was decided.
Also, there was the intrigue of the whole business.
And of course, the money.
Was it about the money? he asked himself.
He glanced at the folded paper on the car seat next to him. It was the paper that the Governor had placed in his fist when they spoke of Poppa.
“A man who does not trust cannot be trusted.”
Elefante swung the big Lincoln to the off ramp of the FDR just past Houston Street. The silhouette of the Brooklyn Bridge loomed ahead. He thought of their conversation again, and the Governor’s story.
“I’m losing my mind,” he murmured.
It had been late afternoon and the Governor was nearly asleep when he told Elefante the story of the “soap” he’d given to the younger man’s father. Lying on the couch, he spoke to the ceiling while a fan overhead creaked ceaselessly:
“For almost a thousand years, the Church of the Visitation in Vienna, Austria, had these precious treasures,” he said. “Manuscripts, candleholders, altar cups. Most of it would be biscuits to a bear to you and me. Stuff used during mass, altar cup to drink our savior’s blood, candleholders, that sort of thing. Some gold coins. All of it was made to last. It’s hundreds of years old, this stuff. Passed down through generations. When World War II came, the church hid it from the Allies.
“That’s where my younger brother Macy was stationed. He was sent there in forty-five during the war. America kept troops there after the war and Macy stayed on. Macy was eight years younger than me, a lieutenant in the army, an odd fellow. He was, um . . .” The Governor thought a moment. “A ponce,” he said.
“A ponce?” Elefante repeated.
“Light as a feather. They’d call him a sissy today, I guess. He had a taste for the finer things in life. Always liked art. Even when he was little. He knew all about it. He read books on art. Just had a taste for it. Well, the city was all torn up after the war, patrolled by different armies here and there, and somehow Macy found this stash of stuff. It had been hidden by the Nazis. In a cave near a place called Altenburg.”
The Governor paused, thoughtful.
“How Macy found that cave, I never knew. But there was valuable stuff in there. A lot of it. And he helped himself to it: manuscripts, tiny little boxes decorated with diamonds, with little panels of ivory. And some reliquaries.”
“I had to look it up five times before I understood it,” the Governor said. “They’re tiny boxes like coffins, made of gold and silver. Some are trimmed with diamonds. The priests kept jewelry, art, relics, even old bones of saints in them. This stuff was heavy loot. The spoils of war, m’lad. Macy got hold of a good gob of it.”
“How do you know?”
“I saw it. He had them in his house.”
“How’d he get all of it home?”
The Governor smiled. “He used his noodle and shipped it to himself by the US Military Postal Service. Little by little. I guess that’s why he stayed in the service so long. The stuff was small. Then after the war, he got a job at the post office so he could move it when he wanted without nobody making a stink. Simple as that.”
He chuckled, and had to raise himself as he coughed a large amount of phlegm into his handkerchief. When he was done, he folded the handkerchief, put it back into his pocket, and continued.
“It always seemed odd to me that Macy lived too well to work at the post office,” the Governor admitted. “He had an apartment in the Village the size of a rugby field. Full of fancy things. I never asked. He had no kids, so I figured it wasn’t anything. My poppa couldn’t stand Macy. He used to say, ‘Macy likes boys.’ I told Poppa, ‘There was a priest at Saint Andrew’s who’s said to like boys.’ But he didn’t want to hear it. I was a young man back then, fast on my feet and a bit of a wanker, but even then I knew the difference between a sick man who likes children and a man sweet on men. I knew because Macy talked me out of killing that half-langered Rale Bulgarian priest at Saint Andrew’s who acted the maggot with a lot of kids in the parish. I found out about him when Macy grew up and we started adding up crib notes on him. But Macy said, ‘He’s a sick man. Don’t go to jail for him.’ He was my kid brother and he was smarter than me in a lot of ways. So I listened, and went to jail on my own! Even in prison, Macy’s smarts helped me. If you walk into the slammer not looking for a hop on, knowing that what a man does in his private time is his own damn business so long as he doesn’t make things worse for you, well, you’re all right. So I loved Macy for what he showed me. And he trusted me.”
The Governor sighed and rubbed his head as he plowed through the memory. “He didn’t live long after the war. First our mother died. Then a couple of years later, cancer got him. That and a broken heart, poor lad, because his father didn’t want him. Toward the end of his life, he came to me and confessed everything. He took me to a closet in his house and showed me what he had. He kept all those things from the cave in a closet, imagine that. Wonderful things: Bibles with solid-gold covers. Relics. Manuscripts rolled into tubes made of gold. Gold coins. Diamond reliquaries with the bones of old saints inside. He said, ‘This stuff is a thousand years old.’ I said, ‘You’re a millionaire.’
“He said, ‘I hardly sold any of it. I made a good living at the Postal Service.’
“I laughed at him. I said, ‘You’re a stock.’”
“A stock?” Elefante repeated.
“He said, ‘I didn’t want to sell them. I just liked looking at them.’
“I said, ‘Macy, it’s not good. These are things from the church.’
“‘The church doesn’t care for people like me,’ he said.
“Oh, it broke my heart when he said that. I said, ‘Macy, my boy. Our dear mother in heaven would fall to fever at God’s throne knowing you sit here with stolen things from her Lord and Savior. It would break her heart.’
“That brought a tear to his eye. He said, ‘I have to live. Maybe I’ll find a way to return a few things.’”
The Governor looked at Elefante. “And return them he did. Oh, he sold one or two more things in droves to keep his lifestyle before he died. But most of the things he returned. He got them back to Vienna the same way he got them here. He mailed them back little by little. He returned them in a way so he could never get caught. But there was one item he didn’t return.
“And what was that?”
“Well, it was something I wanted. A little statue.”
“Statue of what?”
“A fat girl. The Venus of Willendorf.”
Elefante wondered if he was dreaming. A statue of a fat girl? The Governor’s daughter was like that. A beautiful one. Could this be a trick? A coincidence?
“Is that the name of a soap?” he asked.
The Governor smirked at him, irritated.
“I’m just asking,” Elefante said.
“Macy said it was the most valuable piece in his collection.”
“Why was that?”
“I can’t say. Macy knew why but I don’t know those things. It’s reddish gold. It’s very small. Made of stone. No bigger than a bar of soap.”
“If it’s not gold, why is it worth so much?”
The Governor sighed. “I’m thicker than a bag of spuds when it comes to art, son. I don’t know. Like I said, I had to look up the word ‘reliquary’ five times before I understood it. This statue was in one of those reliquary things. A tiny container, like a coffin, the size of a bar of soap. It’s from thousands of years ago. Macy said the box alone was worth a fortune. He said the little fat girl, the Venus of Willendorf, was worth more than anything he had.”
“Then it likely lives in one of those big castles in Europe where the welcome mat’s printed in old English, and he was holding a fake. Or the real one’s living in a museum. How come it’s not in a museum? A museum would know if it’s a fake, by the way.”
“So what. Son, your pop and I were in prison with several sweet-tongued buncos who could sell ice to an Eskimo. These blokes could even out your bank account to a flat zero faster than a fly can mount shit. They knew more insurance swindles, bank diddles, and hand tricks than a Philadelphia bartender. Smooth as taffy, these fellas. And each one will tell you that most times the trout who gets hooked or bamboozled hushes up tight about it. They want that kind of news kept quiet. The fancy hoofers running your museums are no different. If they’re holding a fake, why would they blast it to the world? So long as a cad is paying a shilling to eyeball it, who’s to know the difference?”
Elefante was silent, taking this in.
“You think I’m having you on?” the Governor asked.
“Maybe. Did you ever ask your brother why it was worth so much?”
“No, I didn’t ask him. I took it before he changed his mind. Then he died.”
“The Venus of Willendorf. That sounds like the name of a soup.”
“It’s not a soup. It’s a fat girl,” the Governor insisted.
“I knew a fat girl in high school who was a real treasure. But nobody made a statue of her.”
“Well this one will fit in the palm of your hand. I stashed it before I went to prison. Your father got out two years before me. I was afraid someone would find it, so I told him to fetch it and hold it for me. He told me he did. So you have it someplace.”
Elefante held his hands out. “I swear on the Blessed Virgin, my poppa didn’t tell me where he put it.”
“He just told me about that stupid song you sing, about the palm of God’s hand.”
The Governor nodded in satisfaction. “Well, that’s something.”
“That’s nothing. How can I look for a thing if I don’t know where it is or what it looks like?”
“She’s a fat girl.”
“There must be a million statues of fat girls. Does she have a bump on her nose, or is she fat like a blob? Does she look like a horse if you turn her sideways? Are the head and stomach the only parts you want to go pokey at? Or is it like one of those crappy things where a guy throws paint on a canvas and art slobs cream all over it? Does she have one eye? What?”
“I don’t know what. It’s a fat girl. From thousands of years ago. And there’s a guy in Europe who will pay three million dollars cash for it.”
“You said that before. How do I know he’s the real deal?”
“He’s real, all right. Macy sold him one or two pieces before he died. He told me how to reach the guy, but Macy died while I was in prison. I couldn’t call nobody from Sing Sing. So I left it alone. You can end up in an urn in somebody’s cemetery playing tricks with a fella you never seen before and done no business with. I never called him before I went to prison. After I got out, my wife got sick, I had to take care of her, and I didn’t want to go back to the joint. Then a couple months ago, when the doctor told me I had this . . . sickness, you see, I called the guy in Europe and he was still alive. I told him I was Macy’s brother and told him what I have. He didn’t believe me, so I sent him the one picture I had. I’m an old crook. I’m too stupid to keep copies. Saints be praised, he got the picture and got serious. He calls me almost every week now. He says he can move it. At first he offered four million dollars, and I said, ‘How can you get that much money?’ He said, ‘That’s my business. I’ll give you four, because I can sell it for twelve million. Or even fifteen. But you need to get it here.’ He said he’s in Vienna.
“I smelled a rat then. I almost backed out. I didn’t trust him. So I said, ‘If you’re the guy my brother said you are, wire me ten grand and tell me the name of one thing my brother sold you.’ He did. I ain’t daft. I didn’t tell the guy where I lived. He thinks I live in Staten Island. That’s the return address I put on the envelope with the picture I sent him. He wired the dough to the bank in Staten Island I told him to. I sent him the ten grand back and said okay.
“But I got no muscle to move this thing. I can’t get it to Europe now. Even if I could, I wouldn’t go all the way over there and have the guy lay boots on me or worse, then bag the thing and run off. So I says to him, ‘You come here and get it and I’ll let it go for three million dollars. You can keep the extra million for your troubles.’
“I was just talking,” the Governor said. “I thought he’d say ‘Get lost.’ I didn’t think he had the balls to do it. He said, ‘Let me think about it.’ After a week, he called back and said, ‘Okay. I’ll come get it.’ That’s when I come to you.”
“You’re throwing a pretty long pass here, mister. What makes you think I’d give it to you—or to him—if I found it?” Elefante said.
“Because you’re your father’s son. I ain’t just flying it, son. I asked around about you. See, your poppa and me, we knew who we were. We were always little guys. Moving guys. We never wanted muscle or trouble. We moved stuff. This guy from Europe I’m talking to, he’s a head guy. He talks smart. With an accent. Smooth. Head guys like that are always one step ahead of you. No matter how smart you think you are, they got a leg up on you. That’s why they’re head guys. You fool with a head guy, you better be the full shilling. Your poppa always said you were the full shilling.”
Elefante thought that one over and said softly, almost to himself, “I’m not really a head guy.”
“For three million chips you are.”
The Governor was silent a moment, then continued. “I took it as far as I could. I called the guy and said, ‘Let’s arrange a meet.’ He said, ‘Put it in a locker and let me come get it and I’ll leave your dough.’ That was the idea. We meet at Kennedy. Make the switch in a locker there, and go on. We didn’t talk about the exact switch, how we’d do it, but I agreed on the locker bit.”
“Then work out the last bit and go make your money, for Chrissakes.”
“How can I do that if I don’t know where the statue is?”
“You did know,” Elefante said. “You had it before my poppa did.”
“He stashed it!” The Governor paused. “Look, I had it before I went to prison. I couldn’t tell my wife about it. She’d already spent my dough on fuckin’ bagels. The statue wasn’t in a safe place. I told your poppa where it was when we were in Sing Sing. He got out two years ahead of me. He agreed to get it and hold it. I told him, ‘After I get out, when things cool off, I’ll come for it. And I’ll give you a piece of it.’ He said, ‘Okay.’ But he had that stroke in prison just before he got out, and I didn’t see him no more. I tried passing word to him when he was in the prison hospital, but he was gone before I could reach him. They released him after his stroke. He passed word to me after he got out. He sent a letter. It said, ‘Don’t worry. I got that little box of yours. It’s clean and safe and in the palm of God’s hand like that little song you used to sing.’ So I know he got it somehow. And I know he kept it someplace.”
“In God’s hand? What’s that mean?”
“I don’t know. He just said the palm of God’s hand.”
“You got the wrong guy then. My pop didn’t write that letter. He never went to church.”
“Weren’t you Catholic?”
“My mother dragged me to Saint Augustine till I was big enough to quit. But my father never went. Until he was dead, he never went into a church. We had his funeral. That’s when he went to church.”
“Maybe he left it in a church. Or in his coffin.”
Elefante thought for a moment. His mother did say she wanted his father’s coffin exhumed so she could get in the same grave. And Joe Peck had promised to do the job himself. The thought of that pea-brained idiot Joe Peck digging through his father’s remains, flipping his poppa’s corpse around, working through the pockets of his dad’s best suit, drilling through his poppa’s brains with a screwdriver, trying to find whatever the hell the fat girl’s name was that was worth three million dollars threw him, and for a moment Elefante felt out of breath. After a moment, he regained his composure and said: “He wouldn’t leave it in a church. He had no contact with churches. There’s no one in any church he’d trust. He wouldn’t be dumb enough to bury it with himself either. He wouldn’t do that to my mother.”
“I agree,” the Governor said. “But you have a storage place. You move stuff.”
“I looked through every single storage rental we have. The ones I have access to.”
“What about the ones you don’t have access to?”
“I guess I could get in them,” Elefante admitted. “But that’ll take time.”
“Time I ain’t got,” the Governor said. “The guy who wants to buy, he won’t deal with nobody else. You don’t call this type of guy. He calls you. I’m stalling him. I told him I had to think about the deal. He’s skittish. He won’t like it if there’s a second person involved. As it is, I’m thinking he might make a move on me regardless. Which is the other reason I’m hoping you’ll dig it up.”
And there it was, Elefante thought bitterly. He’s got nobody. If a big shot in Europe wants a fucking artifact worth an arm and a leg and the only stumbling block between him and that dough is a bagel maker and his daughter . . . well there it is.
“I thought you told him you’re in Staten Island,” Elefante said.
“People like that can find you,” the Governor said. “On the other hand, he’s like my brother Macy. These guys are fanatics. We got a little maneuvering room. I let him know that the minute I smell a rat, the statue is gone forever. Flushed down the toilet. Peeled to pieces. Tossed in the river. But I still think of Melissa here. So when I came to you . . . well, with you, knowing how your father was, I know I have at least one guy on my team who won’t cut and run.”
Elefante was silent. “My team,” he thought. How the hell did I get on his team?
The Governor sat up on the couch a moment, arched his back awkwardly, then reached under the couch and pulled out an envelope. “One more thing,” he said.
He handed the envelope to Elefante, who instantly recognized the painful scrawls of his father’s handwriting, which toward the end of his life was shaky and big. The envelope was addressed to the Governor.
“Where’d you get this?”
“Your poppa sent this to me when I was in prison.”
Elefante opened the envelope. Inside was a simple greeting card, with a picture of the old Cause docks, taken perhaps in the 1940s, the familiar Statue of Liberty in the distance. On the back was taped the traditional Irish blessing, obviously clipped from a book or a newspaper:
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.
Next to that was a sketch, in his father’s hand, of a tiny box. Inside the box was a wooden stove, with small bits of firewood, crudely drawn, and a cross above it. The box had five sides; on one of the sides was a circle with a stick figure drawn in the middle, its arms outstretched.
“If this weren’t his handwriting, I wouldn’t believe he’d drawn it,” Elefante said.
“Do you recognize anything?”
“It’s an Irish blessing,” the Governor said.
“I figured that much,” Elefante said. “But what’s with the firebox and the firewood?”
“Do you have a storage locker with something like that in it?” the Governor asked.
“No. That box could be anything. A garage. A house. A milk crate. A cabin in the woods. It could be anywhere.”
“Yes, it could,” the Governor said. “But where would Guido Elefante go?”
Elefante thought a long moment before he answered.
“My father,” he said dryly, “never went anywhere. He never went three blocks outside the Cause District. Hardly ever. He couldn’t walk very well. Even if he could, he wouldn’t go far. Maybe to the store in Bay Ridge once in a while that sold food from Genoa. There was a place on Third Avenue that sold Genoese stuff, focaccia, cheese mostly from the old country, but he hardly went there.”
“How do you know?”
“He never went anywhere, I tell you. He went to the boxcar every once in a while. He went to the storage place hardly ever. Maybe three times my whole life I saw him walk in there. I took care of the storage place, not him.”
“What else is around you?”
“Nothing. Just the housing projects. The subway. Some abandoned buildings. That’s it.”
The Governor looked at him oddly. “You sure?”
“That box is somewhere. Sure as I’m living, it’s sticking out like a blind cobbler’s thumb someplace. Somewhere your poppa put it.”
“How would I know where?”
The Governor yawned. “He’s your father,” he said sleepily. “A son knows his father.”
Elefante stared at the paper in his hands a long time. He wanted to say, “But you weren’t my father’s son. You don’t know how difficult he was. He was impossible to talk to.” But instead he said, “That’s not gonna be easy.”
He looked over at the Governor. He was talking to himself. The old man had fallen asleep. As quietly as he could, he rose from the rocker, stepped out the door, and slipped silently out into the hallway just as Melissa was coming up the stairs.