A long black hair was floating in Charlie Squillaci’s bourbon. He stared at it for a minute, honing his disgust. It was powerful. Tender music whining over the speakers—a Roy Orbison love song—angered him. He summoned the waitress, who was dressed in red velveteen to the upper thighs. It was well into May; he tried to puzzle out the reasons for this bizarre fashion choice—the other staff wore other costumes, none red, none velveteen—but nothing came to mind.
When he told her that he had found a hair in his drink, she smiled. “A hair?”
“That’s right. May I get another drink?”
“Ew. Sure thing. Your friend is late.”
“Yes, he is. Observant of you. When he comes, please bring him a vodka martini with two olives.”
“I can do that.”
“And please, take this away.”
She grabbed the defiled drink and moved on with small but quick steps, as though her ankles were bound together. A person’s walk says so much. What did hers say? Charlie didn’t like this cocktail bar, not really. The Tiffany lamps grated, as did all the old wood and threadbare bordello broadloom. The hair in his drink punctuated the dated, dirty vibe. But it was convenient and quiet. A place that drew little attention.
By the time he had finished his second bourbon, his shoulders had relaxed and he felt a nice buzz. Sinatra came over the speakers with “The Best Is Yet to Come,” and it was fine. The liquor bottles lined up behind the bar glinted and whispered in their secret tongues. A throbbing green magnum held his eye until the waitress brought another drink and stood by his table, as if waiting for him to comment on his friend’s tardiness. Maybe she suspected that he was one of those people who say they’re waiting for a friend when actually they’re simply too embarrassed to admit they’re drinking alone. Charlie had been guilty of this in the past. Not this time, though he wasn’t waiting for a friend per se. To call Ricky Carbone a friend was to denigrate the people who were his friends, not that there were many.
A couple argued at a booth across from his table, a blonde woman and an older man with silver sideburns. Charlie tried to ignore what they were saying, but sometimes that’s impossible. Sometimes people insist that you acknowledge their drama, validate it. The woman scored good points. The man had cheated on her numerous times. He’d made promises. He’d been verbally abusive. Three strikes, as far as Charlie could tell. The man defended himself by talking about his insecurities, his money troubles, his work problems, his ex-wife and kids.
“You never see them!”
“But I pay for their damn private schools, don’t I?”
“I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
“Then don’t talk about it anymore.”
The woman covered her face with her hands and burst into tears. Charlie was hoping that she wouldn’t, that she’d stay strong and tell this idiot to go fuck himself; then again, weeping can’t always be avoided.
His cell-phone buzzed, and he checked the message. Ricky was here. Where was he? Charlie swung his head around too quickly, setting off a momentary swirl of vertigo that made him grab the edges of the table. This happened now and then, when he moved his head too quickly or when he stood up abruptly. Maybe it had something to do with blood pressure. He shut his eyes and took a moment to regain his equilibrium. When he opened his eyes, Ricky stood by his table in a full-length black leather coat.
“You could have found a better table,” he said.
“The booths were occupied.”
Ricky snapped his fingers. “No clout here?”
“It’s not like the old days, paisan.”
“I hear you, Squid. I need a beverage pronto. Got stuck in traffic. This city’s gone to the dogs. You can’t make a move without some dickhead up your ass. I was telling Julie—you know Julie from Darrigo’s—I was telling him he better not get too comfortable this summer. It’s gonna be a hot one. It’s gonna be a heat wave like you’ve never seen before. You’ll be frying eggs on your Cadillac hood, I told him.”
“We talking global warming?”
“Global warming, ha.” Ricky rolled his eyes. He shouldered off his coat and draped it on the chair back. “Global warming my ass. Global warming.” He snapped his fingers for service.
Charlie noticed with annoyance Ricky’s freshly manicured fingernails, shining like polished shells. The lengths people went to satisfy their vanity.
“She’ll be here shortly. I ordered you a martini.”
“You know me too well, Squid,” Ricky said with a gap-toothed smile.
The waitress showed up just as he seemed about to start barking like a dog. He snatched the martini and downed it in one swig. “Bring another,” he said, chewing the olives. “Please.”
“Nice to see your friend arrived safely,” she said to Charlie with a sparkle in her eye.
“We’re touched by your concern,” Ricky said.
Clearly he resented the implied conversation that had taken place before he arrived. He wiped his lips with his hand, then wiped his hand on his trouser leg. He looked mean even when he was happy. It was just one of those faces.
“So what is it you wanted to talk to me about?” Charlie asked.
“Easy, Squid. Let me have another drink and relax a little. You in a fucking hurry? I haven’t seen you since Martino’s stag, and you’re itching to split? Don’t insult me, man.”
They drank. The place got busier and louder than normal. Someone celebrated a birthday at a big central table, surrounded by back-slapping well-wishers in sporting paper party hats, all imbibing to excess. A cake with hissing sparklers arrived to broken applause and slurred cheers. People sang “Happy Birthday” in widely varying registers, at different tempos, swaying left and right. Charlie’s head started spinning, and he had a hard time hearing Ricky, who was telling him that an uncle of his had two families, one here and one in the old country.
“How the fuck did he manage it?”
“What’s that?” Ricky said, cupping his ear.
“How did he manage it!”
“Lots of lying. Uncle Frank could lie to anyone without batting an eye.”
“That goes without saying.”
“He had three kids here, younger, and four older kids back in Sicily. He’d fly back and forth every few months. For work, he’d say. He was importing cheeses from Italy. And he was running numbers in Buffalo, so he had a few bucks.”
“Did his wives ever catch on? What about his kids?”
“Yeah, he got charged with bigamy, sentenced to a nickel in upstate New York. The kids eventually all met up and still connect at reunions and such. Uncle Frank, God rest his soul, died in the joint. Some skinhead shanked him in the showers just a few months before his release. He’d been put up to it. Which brings me to the situation, Squid.”
The couple in the opposite booth had been quiet for some time. But now the woman, recovered from her crying jag, had more to say to the man with silver sideburns.
“You know what you can do with your apology?”
“Simmer down? You fucking prick!”
The man said something under his breath.
“What did you say? Repeat that! I dare you to repeat it!”
The man mumbled something else, and a crashing of glasses and scuffling ensued, fleshy slapping sounds, grunting. Then the woman violently bolted from the booth, a purse under her arm, a camel shawl flailing from her hand.
After a lengthy pause, the man with the silver sideburns followed her out, head bowed.
Ricky munched some ice cubes, a quirk of his Charlie had always disliked. It made him shiver watching him.
“These people,” Ricky said, “these people don’t know how good they got it. Takes nothing for it all to go south, know what I’m saying? Take your eye off the ball for a second, and poof, up in smoke. You gotta maintain, know what I’m saying? You gotta stay sharp, watch your back and so on. Never know when the bogie man’s coming for you, haha.”
Charlie gave him nothing. He didn’t want Ricky to think he was his yes man. He didn’t want to pump up his tires. He let him ramble on, munching his ice.
“Like when an animal gets slaughtered,” Ricky said, in the middle of one of his digressions. “You can be cruel about it and you’ll taste the stress in the meat, or you can be humane, and then you’re eating tender, know what I’m saying?”
The waitress stood by their table, smiling with small white teeth. It must have been difficult to keep smiling so relentlessly, a real test of one’s mettle. Then again, something happens to the face muscles after a time; they set like a mask, freezing into the expression.
“Buddy-boy,” Ricky said, “another drink?”
“I’m good, but you go ahead.”
“What I want is a porterhouse steak Chicago-style with a side of rapini.”
The waitress said, “Can’t help you there. We only serve finger foods.”
“If I wanted fingers,” Ricky said, popping an ice cube, “I know where to get the real things, know what I’m saying? None of those processed jobs. I’m talking flesh and bone. You know what you can do with those processed jobs.”
“Very funny,” the waitress said, maintaining the smile.
“He does stand-up part time,” Charlie said. “Makes the people laugh.”
“That’s when I don’t make them cry,” Ricky added.
They finished their drinks and paid the bill. Charlie left the waitress a huge tip, hoping she’d find her way out of the darkness.
Charlie removed his shoes and socks and relaxed on the sofa. Sometimes you needed context. You needed details to fill in what by necessity had been left blank. Then the bigger picture presented itself as a natural extension of the details, however bare. You filled in the rest with your imagination. That went without saying. But with zero details, one was left thrashing like a fish on a dock.
He listened to Bach fugues, soothing in the evenings. He’d first discovered Bach in Kingston Penitentiary, of all places. A lifer had turned him onto the Brandenburg Concertos. Later the same guy had tried to shank him in the showers.
His cell-phone buzzed. Tina. He’d been avoiding her. Not that they had anything going on. A few drunken wrangles. But she’d been calling him every few hours for two days. Maybe it was important. Most likely it was nothing, though, so he ignored it. She left a few garbled messages. Something about how “they” were going to get him with the numbers, or at the numbers. He had no idea what she meant. The numbers. What numbers?
He went to his bedroom, opened the closet door, and searched for a locked wooden case among his shoeboxes. He kept the tools of his trade in this case. They’d gone untouched for several months. He had been semi-retired, gently refusing gigs. He didn’t need the money. He had no debts, no wife, no kids. He was free of entanglements—at least most of them.
His cell-phone buzzed again. Ricky had sent a text. It was simply a name: Iggy Macaluso. Iggy, or Ignazio, had once been a regular at the poker games staged at the Benvenuti Social Club, a real donkey and blabbermouth. For a guy from Palermo, Sicily, where reticence was the ultimate mark of character and manly virtue, this Iggy babbled like a village gossip. Names, places, scores, nothing was sacred with him. He had the earmarks of someone with a limited lifespan. At least in Charlie’s circles.
But that was beside the point. If Charlie were to act on all of his disgruntlements and petty beefs, global overpopulation would be solved. The idea that we’ll all get along one day as we march arm in arm toward a glittering future is stupid. There will always be bad men and women, annoying men and women, and there will always be people solicited to quiet them. One separates vocation from inclination or preference. Charlie Squillaci was a professional. People throw that term around lightly these days—professional this, professional that. But Charlie was the picture of professionalism.
Another text arrived from Rick: Seven and Seven Lounge. An east-end joint, near the city limits, but Charlie had never been there before.
He got in his dark gray Buick and set off. It was a mild May evening, dusk slowly purpling the city, neighbors out enjoying their freedom. He envied them to a degree, strolling with loved ones. He had no partner, no siblings, no steadfast friends—just a few cousins scattered far and wide. Perhaps a handful of people would attend his funeral, when that day came. And it could come at any time, such was his lot. Did he despair about this? Not really. Very little is needed for a happy life. It’s all in your way of thinking. Perhaps he’d missed out on some of life’s beautiful things. On the other hand, he had found his true calling and pursued it with passion. Not many people can say that.
He drove east, and within minutes darkness fell. The glare of oncoming headlights blinded him. He turned his head too quickly and felt a tickle of vertigo. He pulled over to the side of the road, put the car in park, and tried to regulate his breathing. He had to get this thing checked out before it became a serious problem.
He must have dozed off. When he opened his eyes a man was peering into his passenger window. He started. Then, when he saw the fingerless gloves and filthy face, he understood that it was a homeless man begging for alms.
“Get the fuck away from my car,” he said.
The bum gestured and made a sad clown face.
Charlie reached toward his console.
The guy backed away from the car, hands splayed at his chest. A bright flash lit up the car windows.
Charlie shut his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, the homeless man was gone. His temples throbbed. This wasn’t good; he’d never passed out in his car before without being shit-faced. He’d heard of inner-ear infections fucking with a person’s equilibrium. Maybe that was it. Or maybe he was getting too old for this life.
Continuing east, he drove for some time in a daze, then he realized he’d forgotten his destination. Odd. What was it? He never brought his cell-phone on jobs, so he couldn’t check the message. And he never wrote anything down. It was all in his head.
He drove on, struggling to fill this sudden gap in his memory. Nothing came. It felt as if the part of his brain storing the location had been surgically removed. Driving wasn’t helping, so he pulled into a gas station. He sat there and replayed the day in his mind. Iggy Macaluso—yes, he remembered that name from the first message. But the location—a blank. This was ridiculous.
He exited the car, hoping the cool air would clear his head. He walked without direction, passing darkened storefronts and shuttered rowhouses. He didn’t see a soul. He kept walking. His thoughts narrowed in scope, focusing on the pavement in front of him and nothing else.
Finally he passed a diner, dully illuminated, the windows thick with grime, the sign—Three Square Eats—aslant. He opened the door to a jingle of bells and stepped inside. A few drab men sat at the counter, hunched over coffees. The waitress, in a species of nurse’s whites, grimaced when she saw him. He sat at a booth across from the counter. She hurried over with a glass pot of coffee and filled the cup on his table without asking if he wanted it. She was young, maybe twenty-something, and thin. Her hair looked like charred straw.
“We’ve met before,” she said.
“Yeah, at the Exhibition, back a few years.”
He looked into her eyes—a dullness there disqualified any ill intent. “Yeah,” he said, “maybe.”
She stood there with the coffee pot for a time. Evidently she wanted him to say something to validate her remembrance, but he was having issues in that department.
“So, you remember me?” she said.
“Sort of. I meet a lot of people in my line of work.”
“And I don’t?” she said, rolling her eyes.
“I’m just saying.”
One of the men at the counter laughed to himself, his shoulders shaking. It alarmed Charlie for some reason. What did he not know or understand about this joint and his place in it? His head swirled: he needed nourishment.
“A piece of pie, please.”
“We have apple and blueberry.”
“Blueberry, à la mode.”
The waitress walked away, clutching the small of her back. For a moment Charlie thought he saw something jabbing out of her spine, a metal rod perhaps. She turned and caught him looking. He averted his eyes, pretending to gaze out the filthy windows into the lifeless street. He figured a bite of pie might get his blood sugar back up and improve his cognitive functions. He couldn’t remember the last thing he’d eaten.
He was in difficulty. It wasn’t just a state of nerves. An overpowering dread fell upon him like a black cloak. He considered calling Ricky on a pay phone, but if he admitted that he’d forgotten the location, word would spread like wildfire. He’d be ostracized, or worse. He knew too much.
The waitress brought the pie with a scoop of beige ice-cream. “Enjoy,” she said.
One of the men at the counter looked over. Charlie couldn’t see his eyes. Either they were set very deeply in his head or the dim lighting explained it, but he couldn’t see the man’s eyes. The pie tasted of nothing, and as he forked it up he noticed that his hand was a pale shade of blue. He put down the fork and studied his hands: blue. He looked around to see if a colored light was shining somewhere. Except for the slabs of dark red defining the upholstered booths and stools, the place was black and white, with infinite shades of gray.
He finished the pie. The waitress poured him more coffee. Her arms were like bleached sticks. He pitied but also feared her.
“Finding yourself in the ranks of the insane,” she said, leaning close, “do you stay put and make the best of the company given, or do you escape?”
“Escape,” Charlie said. “People rarely change.”
“Do you think you can change?”
“I think I have changed.”
“I agree. I think you have changed. I think you are changed.”
But all of this was making Charlie’s head heavy. He wanted to rest it on the table but resisted that impulse. He needed to get back on the road. “Is there a pay phone? I forgot my cell.”
“Nah. But you can use ours. No long-distance.”
Ricky wasn’t happy. He started yelling at Charlie. He had never yelled at him. It was too late, he said. Iggy was gone.
“What do you mean gone?”
“He left town.”
“When did he leave town?”
“Couple hours ago.”
“Then I would have missed him anyway.”
“Wrong,” Ricky said. “The timing was planned. It was perfect. Now—now it’s too late. Something wrong with your head, man? Tell the truth, Squid. You didn’t look right to me. Your eyes, I could see it in your eyes. Unsteady.”
“How do I make this right?”
“Like I said, Squid, it’s too late.”
He rang off.
As Charlie walked back to his table, the man who’d been laughing at the counter grabbed his wrist. He tried to wrest it free, but the man held on.
“Listen,” the man said, “I don’t belong here.”
“I don’t know you.”
“Tell them I want out of here. Tell them I don’t want to do this anymore.”
Charlie wrenched his arm away and returned to his table. He gestured for the check.
“Oh, that’s just Pernel,” said the waitress. “Harmless. But he knows the score.”
The waitress flared her nostrils and took a deep breath. “You should stay here,” she said. “This is a safe space.”
“Safe? Safe from what?”
“Isn’t it obvious?”
Nothing was obvious. Charlie’s head ached. He felt queasy. He rubbed his temples.
“Do I have to spell it out?”
“Stop it,” he said, anger welling in his chest.
“You forgot the numbers, Squid.”
“The numbers? What is it with these numbers? And why you calling me Squid?”
“You forgot the numbers.”
He’d had enough. Quickly he paid and exited. He thought he heard her calling behind him, but he didn’t turn around.
The streets were deserted. He stood there trying to situate himself. Everything looked unfamiliar—the storefronts, the street signs. He felt strange, detached from his body, from the experience of being there. He moved toward his car on unsteady legs. He was surprised that he remembered where he’d parked it.
Just as he reached it, a sudden bang startled him and he jerked his neck. The dizziness came on strong this time. The entire street wobbled and tilted. He had to hold onto a parking meter to gather himself.
Time was passing, its current fierce. He was caught in a whirlpool. He could feel himself being spun into its vortex, sucked into its frothing core. He staggered to the Buick, opened the door, and got in. He was exhausted. He could barely lift his arms. He leaned his head against the headrest. He could hear music. Where was it coming from? Was it Roy Orbison? Roy Orbison?
My initial idea for this story was simple: a hit man faces retirement, or senescence. I grew up in a Sicilian family in Hamilton, Ontario, an hour away from Buffalo, NY. We were not “connected” directly with North American mafioso figures; yet invariably, at weddings, funerals, baptisms and so forth, you bumped into folks who were said to run on the dark side. Back in the 1970s, one of these figures—an inelegant, silver-haired wise guy who had the first name Calogero but was called Charlie—showed up at my cousin Maria’s wedding in a ill-fitting pinstripe suit. Reputedly, Charlie had been a hit man for an upstate New York mobster. The key term here was “had been.” That is to say, he was “retired.”
As a youth I had little understanding of these matters—and the adults were reluctant to say anything—but what I did gather was that people didn’t really like this aging mobster or ex-mobster, Charlie. They were short with him, almost disrespectful, and not in the least afraid. Even an old, toothless lion can be dangerous, but no one flinched at this man. He sat, among couples and families, alone. Moreover, any menace he might have exuded, given his alleged history, was undermined by a general uncouthness and lack of grace, which—looking back now, after all these years, and with the experience of my own mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s—I realize might have been caused by a touch of dementia.
In the opening chapter of my projected novel, Enter Night, I wanted to establish that my protagonist, a semi-retired hit man, is facing a two-pronged assault on his existence. For one thing, he is aging poorly, his physical and mental capacities in rapid decline. Secondly, given his violent past and his connections with his former bosses, he cannot simply “retire” from that life and collect, say, a modest pension from the Cosa Nostra for decades of good work. That’s not how it works. Moreover, given his decline, errors are inevitable. And the bosses, whatever his excuses, will not be forgiving.
With this premise, with noirish aesthetics guiding my rhythms and color palette, and with nods to Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone, and Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco, I want to explore this story of a retired and slightly demented hit man facing his own decline and inevitable extermination.
Salvatore Difalco is the author of four books, including the novel Mean Streets (Mansfield Press) and Black Rabbit (Anvil), a collection of stories. His work has also appeared in a number of print and online journals. He splits his time between Toronto and Sicily.
Embark, Issue 7, January 2019