I began planning my escape when I was seven. I didn’t know where I was going but I knew that I had to leave. I wanted to leave for the same reason that most boys do. My parents used me as a punching bag.
My father and most of my uncles were vets. Dad and some of my uncles were in WWII, others in Korea. Viet Nam would be my war. But, back there in the protection of my mother’s bosom, I learned about war and hell in a personal way. If my parents weren’t fighting with each other they were working out their frustrations with life in the form of violence on me. I knew it didn’t feel right even though it was all I ever knew.
One day, I asked, ‘How old do you have to be to join the army?’
I guess I thought my father and my uncles left their own hells by going into the military. I didn’t know then that real war was another form of hell. It was just a matter of time before I left and never looked back. My given name is Wilson but they call me Willy. I like girls and the girls like me. I don’t like being hit so I always avoided a fight when I could. Enlisting was the worst thing I could do but that’s another story.
After my part of Viet Nam had ended and I reemerged into life in the city, I met a guy named Frenchy. We did some things and made some money. I’m not sure if we were ever friends but we spent quite a bit of time together. This is how it happened.
Frenchy’s real name was Gerard. Nobody but his mom called him Gerard and got away with it. Everybody knew him as Frenchy because his parents were French Canadian. More than a few Canucks were backwoods goobers. Frenchy wasn’t. He wasn’t stupid. He was mean, vulgar, crude, unsophisticated and a lot of other things but, he was also smart. He wasn’t educated but, he filled the gaps with street smarts and native intelligence.
He was broad bodied, heavy browed with steely blue eyes and light brown hair. His lips were thick and full and women were attracted to his ruggedness. He had a tattoo on his wide right forearm that read ‘Hell is Good’. His philosophy was expressed in wiggly jailhouse ink.
He wasn’t much of a boxer but he was a demonic fighter. He won a fair number of bouts through brute effort, a complete disregard for rules and a dose of terrorism. By comparison, Mike Tyson is a pussy.
Frenchy saw the world as egocentric in the extreme. He was a sociopath with conviction. Once we were smoking a joint on the roof of a six story building. As we looked out over the town, he told me he’d like to live in New York, meaning New York City.
‘Why?’ I asked.
‘Cuz. There are so many people, you could blow someone away and get away with it.’
My skin crawled. He made my skin crawl often. He believed in vendettas. He was always going to get even with someone about something. His favorite phrase was ‘I’ll get that motherfucker.’
Frenchy never finished high school. On his first job after quitting school, he tried to rob a liquor store. The owner realized that he was bluffing about having a gun and grabbed him. Frenchy got an ass whipping and spent his seventeenth birthday in juvenile detention awaiting trial. The judge offered to drop the charges if Frenchy would enlist in the Marine Corps. His parents had to sign for him as he was still a minor.
Soon after graduation from boot camp, Frenchy beat a young lieutenant senseless for calling him a ‘psycho son of a bitch’. The officer might have gotten away with many other insults but not this one. This one-two combination was something Frenchy couldn’t abide. He said Frenchy was mentally ill and that his mother was a whore. No, no, no, these were the wrong things to say even if both were true . In fact, it was especially dangerous because they were true . Frenchy spent eighteen months in the United States Naval Prison in Portsmouth, Virginia. The efforts of juvenile judge that pushed him into the Marines were merely a detour on the path that Frenchy had chosen. During his time in the brig, Frenchy learned quite a few criminal behaviors that he hadn’t even considered until then. He left the Marines with a dishonorable discharge. He was not rehabilitated.
* * * *
Frenchy married a woman named Marge. Marge grew up in an orphanage and attended public school. That’s where they met. Frenchy and their two boys were the only family that Marge had ever known. She was obsessively loyal to him in spite of the occasional black eye or the shaking she’d get when he felt mean. Marge would try and often succeed to kick anyone’s ass for saying anything derogatory about Frenchy. A man or woman who insulted Frenchy in front of Marge got at least a tongue lashing and a promise that she or Frenchy would kick someone’s ass. I can’t say how many times she told him that there was some asshole looking at him. The unsuspecting voyeur rarely knew what hit him. Frenchy loved to use a sucker punch and looking at him or his family was justification.
* * * *
Frenchy had a girlfriend named Tina that lived in the same orphanage that Marge had graduated from. Tina at a mere 16 passed for 25. She had a body that screamed SEX! She walked, dressed, wore her hair and makeup like a woman. She had a way of moving that spoke of her dark moist secrets. Her smile was like a heat seeking missile. The batting of her long lashes had caused the moral downfall of more than one man and quite a few boys. Tina, like Marge, feared abandonment. She used her body to feel desirable and loved. Frenchy exploited her fears and manipulated her emotions. He had a sixth sense for girls like her.
* * * *
I met him one day in a milk store. The manager, a guy named Sal knew us both. He bought drugs from both of us. He knew that I was looking for a day job. He knew that Frenchy worked for a furniture store that needed a mover. For about a week, Sal kept saying; ‘Willy, you got to meet my man Frenchy.’ The job, in truth, offered something to Frenchy and something to me. I could make a little cash and have time to pursue other things. My new coworker was a ‘head’, a drug user. No credentials or references were required. Frenchy needed a partner he could trust. It was fun and it was a little scary. We drove around the city smoking pot, delivering furniture and taking care of our ‘personal business’.
* * * *
The store was called Tony’s Furniture. Tony the three hundred eighty pound giant that wore tailor made, sharkskin suits ran things. He was a licensed big game hunter in Africa and India. He wore an elephant hair bracelet in a time that guys who wore suits didn’t wear bracelets, at all. His hair was shiny with some sort of dressing. He always looked as if he had a permanent, blue five o’clock shadow and smelled of expensive cologne. Although Tony was more polished than Frenchy, he had the same ugly, mean core. Tony expressed his ugliness by bating the salesmen in the store. He’d choose some young guy who had a family and no other options for work. He’d attack in a public place with plenty of others around to witness the ‘fun’. We didn’t find Tony’s antics amusing. It was always in your mind that you could be the next victim. Tony and Frenchy hated each other but they recognized each other as bullies and there was a kind of truce.
Tony was a junior. The store was named for Tony senior who was essentially retired. He kept a hand in the business, albeit a light one. Big Tony didn’t weigh more than 150 pounds and stood about five feet, four. When ‘Big Tony’ was around, ‘Little Tony’ was on his best behavior. The irony of their nicknames was lost on no one. The staff loved Big Tony as much for his calming effect on Little Tony as for their memories of the way things used to be.
Big Tony had a brother named Constanzo. Constanzo was not the brightest bulb in the box. He was the dispatcher and the warehouse supervisor, at least in name. Constanzo’s success was assured by an undocumented Polish immigrant named Stanley. Stanley had done just this kind of work in Poland. He kept the operation running and organized, always allowing Constanzo to take the credit. It was an obvious joke and no one believed that Constanzo ran the warehouse except Constanzo. In exchange for cash wages and perceived protection from the government, Stanley kept the illusion alive. I say perceived because in those days, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the INS, didn’t put a lot of energy into tracking down one D.P. The term ‘D.P.’ meant a displaced person. People used the phrase derogatorily. Stanley believed that the two Tonys were protecting him. They did nothing to dispel the myth. Constanzo spent his days indulging in his favorite pastimes; looking at porn, sipping sweet wine and taking naps on the sofas and mattresses in the more remote corners of the warehouse.
Stanley wore a three-quarter length black leather coat and a WWII, military surplus, leather aviator’s helmet when he rode his WWII, military surplus Harley Davidson. He constantly cursed the machine as too big.
‘In Poland ve haf Jawa from Czechoslovakia. Moch bedder motorbike.’ he would say. ‘Lighter and more mahnoovrable.’
He always absently left the keys to the bike on workbench where we kept touch up color and other tools for salvaging mishandled furniture. The use of these chemicals and powders was the one thing Constanzo was good for. With a little lacquer thinner and a jar of walnut colored powder, he was something of an artist.
Whenever Frenchy and I went out on a delivery, Stanley always gave us plenty of time to complete the task. He explained to anyone who asked ‘you nevahr know what gung hoppin’.
Stanley spoke out of both sides of his mouth. He kept an appearance of a church going square while he quietly admired the less than legal aspects of business conducted by the two Tonys. He took a small kick back from Frenchy and me for keeping our schedule loose. He had his own little rackets with Constanzo. Yet, he said that he didn’t believe anyone should steal anything in America, all the while benefiting from such crimes.
‘You haf so moch! Vy take?’
He was a weasel.
* * * *
Frenchy and I worked pretty well together. It wasn’t always that way. When I first started working there he had to get through his bullying thing. Frenchy, like most bullies, needed to find an opportunity first. My reputation preceded me. I had a weight lifter’s build and wasn’t afraid to bust up my knuckles on someone’s chin as a last resort. I think that kept him at bay… for awhile.
One day we had been in Gary’s Clothiers, a men’s shop that primarily catered to black men. The store offered suits in bright, nontraditional colors as well as shoes and accessories that you wouldn’t find in a Wasp department store. We were both drawn to these goods. Frenchy tried on a pimp hat with a big feather. Man, he looked silly.
‘You’re nuts!’ I laughed.
After a little bit of looking we left the store. We went out onto the clammy, July, hot and deserted sidewalks. Frenchy moved into a fighting crouch and said ‘Put ‘em up.’
I thought he was screwing around and assumed a similar pose with my hands raised in fists. I expected some feinting at each other. Frenchy’s right connected with my chin and I dropped like an elevator with a severed cable. I saw stars. On my back with my shoulder in some sticky, discarded chewing gum, I began to recover my thinking and vision. Frenchy was standing over me in the fighter’s posture daring me to get up. I knew if I did, he’d hit me again. I didn’t know why. I was just glad that he hadn’t kicked me.
‘What is your problem?’ was all I could manage.
He was spraying spit as he spoke.
‘In there, in the store, you said I was crazy. Nobody calls me crazy!’
‘I never called you crazy and I don’t think you’re crazy! Where did you get this idea?’
Slowly, Frenchy’s hands dropped to his sides and a sheepish look came over his face.
‘You said I was nuts.’ he pouted.
‘Frenchy, it’s a figure of speech. It doesn’t mean I really think that you’re crazy! I meant that you were doing something different, out of the ordinary. Capisce? Help me up you asshole.’
He reached for my hand and pulled me to my feet.
‘I hit you Willy, because you said I was nuts. Don’t call me crazy.’ he whined. That was as close as he was able to get to an apology.
I remembered the Marine Lieutenant that had received the brunt of Frenchy’s uncontrolled rage. I smoothed things over but I knew in my heart that his mental state wasn’t normal and healthy. I knew then that if I didn’t have his trust and loyalty, the fate of the Marine officer would have been mine as well. I had no interest in experiencing that. I’m a lover not a fighter. I knew that sooner or later violence would erupt around Frenchy. It had happened before, it would happen again. I didn’t want to be there when it did.
‘I won’t do it again.’ I lied. ‘But if you ever hit me again, this partnership is history. Understand?’
He nodded with a grin. The look in his eyes told me that he felt as if he had won something. I knew that before long I’d be moving on.
Afterwards, Frenchy treated me like a brother. I gave him to believe that I felt the same way. My inner feelings weren’t reciprocal. He trusted me and gave sincere loyalty as well. He liked having a confidant that he believed he had an edge over.
Mostly, I didn’t mind it. Although, I didn’t enjoy the endless sex tales and the boy gang history being recounted every day. There were advantages. I could usually trust him in our work and in our work we had time for crime.
* * * *
I took a day off for a dental appointment. The next day in the truck, Frenchy bragged about delivering a chair to an old fag. The customer offered to fellate Frenchy. He charged the guy $40 bucks to let him. Frenchy didn’t view hustling as homosexual behavior. I’m not judging, mind you. I really don’t care who does what to who. The thing that I found strange was that Frenchy believed that he could have sex with a man and still consider himself straight. This incident led to Frenchy relating a series of escapades with ‘faggots’. In each story, Frenchy felt that he’d gotten the best end of the deal and that made him feel as if he’d put something over on these men. He had an attitude, a perspective. He may have adopted it while in the joint. It may have always been part of him and it probably was. It was this; the predator wins.
* * * *
This is the way things worked. We’d get the furniture delivered as quickly as possible. Then, with the extra time Stanley built into our schedule we’d drive around. Some days we would visit a used furniture store. We’d sell sofas or tables or whatever our customers had discarded. It was against the law to resell mattresses but no one ever complained. Sometimes we’d steal from Tony. He owned a restaurant and a race track. We’d take whatever wasn’t attached; frozen hot dogs from the concession stand at the race track, kegs of beer, whole roasts of beef from the restaurant. There were days when we would just drive around looking for something to steal. Maybe Frenchy or I would need a lawnmower or some patio furniture. Once we got a bicycle for his kid. Most of the time, no one was around. People just left things out carelessly and we took advantage. On one occasion we found an open garage door. The lady looked out her window as we were loading her husband’s tool box into the back of the truck. When we saw her she closed the curtains and slipped back into the darkness of the house. Not a lot of people wanted to confront a couple of thugs. None of them wanted us coming back.
* * * *
Like a cat with a mouse, Little Tony abused a store salesman named Ricky. He made sure he had an audience. Frenchy and I were getting a sofa from the fourth floor for a delivery and Tony used the occasion to put on a show. Ricky was just the kind of guy that Tony liked to humiliate. The sadistic bastard cursed Ricky, called him names and threatened him with his job. Ricky really had no place else to go. He was 37 and had missed any chance of making the police or fire departments by a year. He probably wouldn’t have been able to cut the physical requirements anyway. He didn’t have much formal education. He had a stay-at-home wife and four young kids. Tony sweated Ricky for about five minutes but it felt like an hour. To Ricky, it must have felt like a year.
Afterwards, I was upset but Frenchy was in a purple rage. He cursed and yelled about Tony for half the rest of the day and revisited it some on each day after that. He was indignant about Little Tony’s treatment of Ricky and he couldn’t let it go. He wanted revenge. It wasn’t about Ricky. Frenchy could care less about Ricky. In fact, he probably would have bullied Ricky himself if he found an opportunity. He just needed someone to hate for something so he could plan to even a score. That it had nothing to do with him was irrelevant. It was how his mind worked.
* * * *
Frenchy and Tina were starting to get serious. At least, that’s how Frenchy saw things. In reality, I think Frenchy was a lot more serious than Tina. I believed that she was going along with his plans for something to do and as a means to escape the orphanage. What I do know for sure is that when the three of us went out for a drink or something, she always managed to give me a look or a touch on the arm, as if to say, ‘If things were different…’
Frenchy planned to get a gun, to stash away some money and to steal Stanley’s bike (he would leave the car for Marge and the kids). When everything was right he’d show up at the orphanage and he and Tina would ride off into the sunset… or to New York, or wherever he intended to go.
* * * *
Frenchy, Tina and I went to a place called Paradise Pizza for her birthday. They had a juke box and those song selector boxes at each table. You pumped it full of quarters and turned the hard pages inside the glass bubble to see the song titles and performers names. When you found what you liked, you punched the keys on the bottom of the box. On this occasion, I played J3, Gypsy Woman by Curtis Mayfield, B7, Just Like a Woman by Bob Dylan, R5, Sixteen Candles by the Crests and L9, Movin’ On by the Rascals. It was four for a quarter and it was Tina’s birthday. The songs played in reverse order. When the first one came on she just glowed. She kept looking into my eyes with something so intense, I was afraid Frenchy would catch on. But, he was distracted by a couple of hoods that he used to run with who now were cops and had come in to pick up a pie to go. I sang along with the Rascals, the Crests and then Bob Dylan trying to show her that I could harmonize and getting away with singing some great lyrics to her.
‘Like a branch on a tree, you keep reachin’ out to me. Movin’ on, movin’ on.’
‘Your only sixteen, but you’re my teenage queen…. Make your wish come true , for I’ll be wishing that you love me too.’
Man, I thought, these songs could melt a snowball!
‘She aches just like a woman and she makes love just like a woman but she breaks just like a little girl…’
Frenchy got up to talk to the cops and then Curtis Mayfield came on.
Tina said ‘Oh man, I dig this song so much! Oh, thank you for playing it and the others too.’
‘Glad to do it baby. What is it about Gypsy Woman that you like so much?’
‘I don’t know. I think it’s the idea. I just want to be that gypsy woman and travel everywhere and see everything and have somebody singing that they love me.’
Before I could move on that last line, Frenchy returned to the table effectively ending the conversation. We started talking about who was going to be on the Midnight Special on Saturday night with Wolfman Jack.
* * * *
The next day Frenchy and I were driving around looking for an opportunity. It might be something valuable left out in someone’s yard. It might be an empty building slated for destruction. We would enter those structures and gut the plumbing if it was copper tubing. That was by far our second biggest money maker. The copper we sold at a salvage yard and it brought a nice bit of change.
Our best money maker though was stealing goods and selling them to a bookie named Pat. Pat ran a skuzzy little candy store and fenced stolen goods out of his back room. He sold things that fell off the backs of trucks and he sold items that he ‘special ordered’ from us. If he wanted a color TV, we delivered. If he needed power tools for a customer, we could find them. Sports equipment was no problem. His requests were often seasonal in nature and Pat paid us very well for a custom order.
As we cruised among the rubble and deserted buildings Frenchy started telling me that he was ‘pulling things together.’ He was being smug about it and self satisfied. He wasn’t giving up much. He just made vague suggestions.
‘You asshole!’ I finally yelled
‘Why do you bother me with this bullshit if you don’t want to tell me what you’re talking about?’
He just grinned that little boy smile.
* * * *
One day during a slack sales period at the store, Little Tony asked Frenchy and me to drive out to his farm in Eureka to install an automatic watering machine for his dogs. There wasn’t much installation required. The thing hooked up with a length of garden hose and a few bolts. Tony would drive his own car. He was planning to stay at the farm for a few days. He probably had some chick meeting him. Living with Big Tony and Mrs. Big Tony cramped Little Tony’s style. Frenchy and I loaded the watering machine on the truck and headed out. All the way there, Frenchy worked himself into a lather. He became more riled by the minute. He couldn’t stand Tony. He hated the greasy wop. He was still chewing on the incident with Ricky the salesman even though it had been a month. As I said before, it really didn’t have anything to do with Ricky. It was an excuse for Frenchy to start something with someone. He had decided to confront Little Tony.
I said ‘Man, you’re going to lose your job!’
‘Fuck the job. That stupid guinea deserves a little attitude adjustment and I’m ready for him.’ he spat. ‘That fat prick has it coming. I’m gonna even things up a little, is all. I’ll get that motherfucker!’
‘What if he decides to kick your ass? I asked.
‘I’m no pussy and just in case…’ Frenchy withdrew a small pearl handled automatic from inside his jacket.
‘Fuck!’ I said. ‘Put that thing away. No! Give it to me. You’re in no mood to deal with Tony with that in your pocket!’
He wouldn’t listen, no matter how much I pleaded and demanded. He convinced himself that he had the high ground. He put the pistol back in his pocket.
When we got to the farm, Tony was already there. He waved and pointed at a squat gray building. It was a former livestock barn that now housed his kennel. I backed the truck as close as I could get and jumped out. We started unloading the watering equipment. As we did, I tried to think of every way I could to keep Frenchy and Tony separated. We took the machine into the building and we were surrounded by fourteen tail wagging Dalmatians. Tony bred them and gave the pups to girlfriends, special business associates and favored relatives.
Tony showed us where he wanted the machine. We needed tools. I tried to get Frenchy to go to the truck for them. He made a big deal about needing to talk to Tony with lots of smiles and good humor. I was scared silly.
Finally, Tony said ‘Willy, go get the fuckin’ tools and let us talk.’
Reluctantly, I headed for the truck. The tools weren’t behind the seat where we normally kept them. I fumbled around looking for them. I heard shouting coming from the kennel. I climbed into the back of the truck thinking we might have left the tools there when I heard a muffled crack and then two more. It wasn’t loud. It was just sort of like a stick snapping… and again, and again. I froze. I wasn’t sure what to do next. I stood there on the tailgate feeling sick for what seemed like a very long time.
Tony came out of the building with a tear in the left shoulder of his jacket that was oozing red. He was grinning.
‘The asshole shot at me. Ruined my fuckin’ suit. You’re my witness, it was self defense.’
‘Shit!’ was all I could muster. This wasn’t what I expected. It wasn’t how I thought things would go down. I didn’t know what to do. I knew I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to be a witness to anything. I sure as hell didn’t want to be a witness to Little Tony killing Frenchy in self defense. My mind was reeling.
Finally, something inside pushed me to survive and I found words.
I said ‘O.K. Let me go back to the warehouse so I can return the truck and get my stuff out of there before Constanzo locks up for the weekend. I’ll come back in my car.’
I don’t know where that crap came from and I don’t know why Tony bought it but he did.
He looked at me kind of funny and just said ‘Sure.’
Then he told me that he planned to call a State Trooper that he was friendly with. He figured that it would be much easier if the right kind of cop were on the scene.
‘Hurry the fuck up. I’ll wait a little while before I call him.’ he said.
Apparently, Tony had his own agenda.
* * * *
When I left, my thoughts were running like a deer. I was rattled but I knew what I wanted to do next. Frenchy and I had a place where we hid contraband until we could unload it. The place was up in the hills just outside of town. It had once been an Army Nike missile installation. During the cold war fifties, the government had missiles near communities all over the country. We’d found a small shed that still had its iron door. We just put a lock on it and piled brush and debris in front of it. Aside from us, the only visitors to the area were local kids looking for a place to try cigarettes, drugs and sex away from the prying eyes of their parents and neighbors. No one ever bothered with our shed.
That’s where I was headed. I wasn’t sure why but I knew that I should go to the shed first. I moved the brush and junk away from the door and unlocked it. When the sunlight struck the flat, olive green paint ofStanley’s Harley, I laughed out loud. I dug a little in a spot where we had made a cache and found the box. It had thirteen thousand, eight hundred and fifty three dollars in it. I knew the amount as I had been keeping the books to keep my partner honest. It wasn't a fortune but it wasn't bad either.
* * * *
When I showed up at the orphanage, Tina was waiting. She was wearing a fringed suede jacket that I recognized as one that belonged to Frenchy’s wife Marge. Tina had a small knapsack slung over her shoulder.
She asked me where Frenchy was.
I said, ‘Frenchy ain’t coming baby.’
‘Are we meeting him?’ she asked.
‘Nope.’ was all I said.
She looked at me a little funny and grinned as she climbed onto the back of the bike.
‘Where are we going?’ she asked.
I revved the bike’s engine and said;
‘I’ve never been to Montana.’