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Laurence Shames

Florida straits

Part I

1

People go to Key West for lots of different reasons. Joey Goldman went there to be a gangster.

His best friend Sal Giordano tried to talk him out of it. 'Fuck is down there for you?'

They were sitting in a green vinyl booth in Perretti's luncheonette on Astoria Boulevard in Queens. It was January. Outside, torn newspapers were stuck in dirty ice at the bottom of dented wire garbage cans. People walked past holding their hats, their coat collars pulled up to their ears. Skinny dogs squatted on the pavement and steam came out from under them. Joey turned the question around. 'Fuck is there for me up here?'

'Up here?' Sal seemed dumbfounded by the remark and gestured toward the grimy window as if pointing out what was obviously paradise. 'Up here? Up here is everything, Joey. Up here you got friends, you know the ropes. You need money, you know where to get it. You want sausage, calamari, braciole, you know where to find it, eh? Down there? Down there it's like a little pissant desert island.'

'Sounds good to me,' Joey said, but Sal kept right on going.

He rubbed a thick hand over his blue-black jowls, then counted on his fingers the things that would be lacking. 'There's no unions. There's no casinos. There's nothin' to fence, 'cause the spicks already stole it all. Drugs? You don't wanna fuck with drugs, Joey. The Colombians'll whack your ass. So fuck is in Key West? Fucking palm trees. Fucking coconuts. Joey, listen, you feeling down, you want a vacation, take a vacation. I'll front ya the cash if ya need it. But don't move there. I'm telling you, it is not for you.'

'I'm not feeling down,' Joey said. 'I feel terrific. And I like palm trees.' He took a sip of his espresso and his dark blue eyes went out of focus, like he was already picturing the beach, the green water, the curled shrimps with their heads buried in cocktail sauce. 'I like to be warm, Sal. I hate the fucking cold. All winter, that coughing, blowing your nose, your feet all frozen. Fingers like you can't even hold the god-damn steering wheel-'

'Joey,' Sal cut in, 'I don't like freezing my ass off any more than the next guy. But I'm not asking for the weather report. I'm asking what you're gonna do down there.'

'I'm gonna, like, take over.'

Joey was twenty-seven, something below average height, and had almost finished the eleventh grade. He'd had two jobs in his life, neither for very long, none since his mother died and he cut out any pretense of being a citizen. Once he sold shoes, but quit because he didn't care for the sour smell of feet and the crusty feel of second-day Ban-Lon socks. The other time he was a greeter-seater at a seafood joint in Sheepshead Bay, but quit when he realized it made as much sense to do absolutely nothing as to show fat families to their tables on Sunday afternoons.

'Take over what, Joey? This is what I'm asking you.'

'I guess I won't know that till I get there, will I, Sal?'

Sal picked up his little espresso spoon and frowned at it. He was four years older than Joey and had long ago started being a kind of, older brother to him, 'mainly because Joey's own brother-half brother, really-didn't seem to want the job.

It was a complicated situation. Joey's mother had been Jewish, but they lived in an Italian neighborhood. Everybody knew who Joey's father was, but only certain people were allowed to say so, because Vincente Delgatto was a powerful man with a proper Sicilian wife and a legitimate black-eyed heir. Joey's mother, a slender redhead, had been a beautician at the neighborhood funeral home and had met Joey's father during a period of local unrest, when he'd been something of a regular there. Theirs was said to have been an affair of unusual intensity-though people may have said that simply because of the unusual intensity of Thelma Goldman's gaze. She had turquoise eyes that were always stretched open under thin arched brows, and when she looked at someone, she seemed to be not just seeing that person but fixing him in some idealized, final form.

This could be disconcerting, and some people thought Thelma Goldman was a little crazy. Sometimes, it was true, she did unkind things without meaning to. When Joey was ten, eleven, she made him wear a suit on Jewish holidays, which was confusing to Joey because he didn't feel the least bit Jewish, he felt Sicilian like his friends. Also, the suit always got him beat up. As far as Sal could remember, Jewish holidays were the only times Joey got into fights, and he always lost. That's when Sal started looking out for him. He felt sorry for the runty kid with the knees scraped out of his suit pants and snotty blood coming out of his nose.

'You talk to your old man about this, Joey?'

It was a question Sal hated to ask, because he knew it would make Joey mad. Not that Joey had much of a temper. He didn't. This was one of his worst professional shortcomings. Some guys had a great gift for getting mad; they'd get mad over anything and could instantly puff up into a terrifying display. Joey only got mad when he was mad, and there were only a few topics that got him going. His father was one of them. 'Fuck for?' he answered.

'Maybe he's got something for you. Something worth staying for.'

'All of a sudden?' Joey said. He splayed his hands out on the Formica table and examined them. 'All of a sudden he's gonna gimme something good? Come on, Sal, you know the kinda bullshit work I get. Errand boy. Gofer. Maybe now and then I get to hold a bagga money and pass it to the next jerk down the line. Let's not kid ourselves. I know where I stand. My old man's gonna be consigliere any day, my half brother Gino struts around like he's God's fucking gift, and I'm a mutt who's never even gonna get a button.'

'Cut it out with that mutt stuff,' Sal scolded. 'No one gives a shit about that but you.'

'Why should they?' Joey said. 'But Sal, it's facts. I'm not full Italian, I can't get made. Simple as that.'

'O.K. But Joey, you know and I know that plenty of guys make damn good livings without a button.'

This was the wrong thing to say. Joey leaned forward over his wrists and blanched between the eyebrows. 'Right, Sal, and that's exactly my fucking point. Am I one of those guys? Not hardly. Doesn't that tell you something? I got a father who's a big shot, a brother who thinks he's a big shot, and I gotta scrape for nickels and dimes? Who's lookin' out for little Joey, huh?'

Sal sipped espresso and tried a different tack. 'It ever dawn on you that maybe the old man's tryin' to protect you?'

The question made Joey swallow. He didn't try to answer it. 'Sal, listen,' he said. 'My mind's made up. It's not like I'm storming off in a huff. I've thought it over. A lot. I stay around here, I can't be anything but like a third- string guy. I go someplace new, O.K., maybe I fall on my face, but at least I take my shot.'

A bus went by outside, belching black steam and rattling the front window of Perretti's. Sal narrowed his eyes and tried to picture the far end of the New Jersey Turnpike and the long road that came after it. All he could conjure up was a vague idea of Trenton, followed by an endlessness of dashed lines snaking away to nowhere. Suddenly it felt to him like he was the one going far away from everything he knew. The thought scared him like a shriek in the night. He reached across the table, grabbed Joey by the back of the neck, and pulled his face close.

'Joey, man, you're gonna be like all alone down there.'

Joey Goldman had black hair that was curlier than most and wouldn't hold a part very well. The skin of his lean face was stretched taut between high cheekbones and a square chin with just a hint of a cleft. 'Sal,' he said, 'I love ya, so no offense. But did it ever dawn on you that maybe I like that idea?'

2

Joey's girlfriend Sandra Dugan didn't want to go.

'Jeez, Joey,' she said, 'you spring this on me now, just when things are going right for me?'

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