The Silent Partner

The gates won’t open until the track does, which isn’t for another hour, but still some cars pull up around us. I’m in the back seat, and suddenly I don’t like this. Two-door car, three guys. If something happens, I’m in for deep trouble, no question, because I have no exit. Why the fact that our arrangement is a perfect setup didn’t occur to me on the drive over I can’t answer. I suppose excitement, the newness of this. Plus I trusted these guys. All I could see was the rest of my money covering a dark red Oriental carpet, very sophisticated, very expensive, and me kneeling in the middle of it. There’s a blue station wagon up in front, a blue van behind us, so we couldn’t pull out now if we wanted to. I’m not saying we want to, but suppose whoever’s in the wagon or the van decides to give us what they’ve got, and it’s not what we came for. Suppose they’re not just waiting for the races. Suppose they’re waiting for the signal to come crackling over the radio. It’s been arranged. We’ve been arranged. They’ve been arranged. They make a special guest appearance as our killers. They wait until they hear the signal, which they both hear at the same time, and they know, no question, what that sound means. It’s been arranged, the way these things must be. Plus they’re not amateurs. They knew enough to trap us in place, didn’t they? We’re like a cornered mouse keeping an eye on both paws. If the word comes, from headquarters, from somewhere, if they open fire, what happens? What happens, the way I see it, depends on two things: the speed of their follow-through and where we sit. If it’s a hit, and if they see it coming, Max and Theo could escape. Their doors are unlocked. That was smart. They’re a couple of bright boys, all right, very smooth, the way they invited me to take the back seat, keeping the doors for themselves. That move was very well executed. I suspected nothing but, being in their own car, they wanted to sit together. Meanwhile I could sit in the lap of luxury, let Theo occupy the death seat. Maybe I wasn’t thinking straight, all that fat I had to eat. We met at their favorite joint, The River Rat, on the west side, over on Hurley Street. You know the place, right? Max said. Sure I know, I said, past the cannery. I wasn’t sure. Maybe I went there once, I couldn’t remember. We were sitting in this car, just like this, but in a different place. I could hardly breathe from Max’s cigarette smoke, the sulfur from his match, the onion soup Theo uses for aftershave. Past the asylum, Max said, maybe two doors down. Got it, I told him. Nobody said anything for a long time, then Theo asked, You ever been to Reno? I thought about faking it, but I had to say no. Suppose he asked me something. Suppose he wanted facts about the place, such as where did I stay, and I couldn’t answer. He’d peg me as a liar then. He’d see through every word I said. Looks just like a place in Reno, he told me, a real greasy stool. Max laughed and added, Unpleasant. Why pick a place that’s unpleasant? I wanted to know, but they have their reasons. Even if they don’t, I’m the silent partner, and if I’m smart I’ll stay that way. Even then, though, when we were still making plans, I started losing sleep. All I could see, eyes open, eyes closed, was me holding my share, my one-way ticket to a better view of the world. Me buying a car like this, maybe, me wearing a finely tailored suit. Something simple like me ordering drinks for everybody or kneeling on that dark red Oriental carpet, like the one old man Merz had spread out in front of his fake fireplace. Know how many girls got banged on that rug? he asked and laughed and coughed up blood on his deathbed. Say what you will, that man knew what he wanted and got it. Unpleasant. After a week of not sleeping, you forget how, find out you’re more than one person, meet stumbling in the dark another guy doing time in your brain with ideas of his own, like one of you wants nothing but sleep, he’ll give up the racket, he’ll go back to work at the pawnshop or start hawking watches on the street to get the secret back, to flip that switch and fall asleep, only the other guy won’t let it happen. The other guy wants something worth more than sleep, and he can’t stop planning. I fought that battle for weeks. In the end, I took pills. Pills work, they just leave you hung over and a little stupid, in other words like the rest of the guys at Ma Barker’s Boarding House. This morning I came downstairs and nearly cried. They were all sitting around, staring at the TV, all wearing their coffee-stained bathrobes, and they all looked like me: long, lean, clean-shaven, no chin, age unknown, hair cut by a blind man, no visible scars or means of support, and bloodshot eyes that belong on a raccoon. What a scene, what a pitiful sight first thing, just sitting around, a bunch of lonely, lonely men. All their feet, in holey old socks, were propped up on the coffee table, all their pointed heads facing in the same direction. So what’s on the agenda? Sid said. These days he acts like their spokesman. Big doings, I told him. I shot a look I learned from my old man that shut Sid up but quick. Two things I got from my old man. One was that look, and the other was a piece of advice. He told me once, A man wears a belt. True enough. Otherwise he was some piece of work, my old man, one hundred and one percent worthless. Clueless, I’d say, like Sid, Ned, and the rest. Regular guys without skills. Babies is what they looked like, stretched out in the nursery, waiting for the wet nurse, too close to comatose to bawl. Is that life? Is that worth the effort it takes to fall out of bed, pull on socks and a robe? I shook my head, grabbed my hat and coat, caught Sid keeping one eye peeled. He is itching bad to find out what I’ve got in the works, which puts him at least six brain cells over the rest of that crew, who wouldn’t know a good deal if it shout out of the television set and kissed them on the mouth. It’s the tragic truth. Off to some shindig? Sid said, very sarcastic. Hey, I told him, stay clean. Best advice I had. I was out of the house and on the move, moving on foot, beating my retreat. The streets were empty. I thought maybe it’s a holiday, or everybody knows something nobody told me. Maybe the word about stay inside, the end is near, it’s martial law, went out over the television, only I wasn’t watching. Trust the boys at the boarding house to say nothing. Those guys would skin a dog to get a laugh. So maybe I should bark. I barked. It helped. I kept my skin. I ran into the whole crowd, cops and all, faces facing up, down on Durbin, across from the old emporium. One guy, glasses, goatee, and a chin, I thought I recognized. I asked him, What’s up? When I got close I knew I’d never seen him before. Two things, he said. We’re on line for jobs, and we’re waiting for that man to jump. He pointed at a guy sitting on a ledge up thirty stories or more, reading a book. He finishes a page, he rips that page right out of the book and lets it drop, making a big show of this thing for these people, like he’s worth watching, when who is he but another suicidal sucker with a gimmick, just what the world does not need, and I am with the world on that one. I kept moving, downtown toward The River Rat, and apart from a bunch of big-booted kids kicking each other in the behind and an old guy crying and hugging the neck of a hansom-cab horse, things stayed quiet, which I thought could be good, could be bad. Finally, I found The Rat, this rusted metal diner with nothing but nothing to say for itself. Inside the air is hot and greasy, “My Funny Valentine” is playing on the jukebox, and the cook is chasing the waiter around the counter, waving a carving knife and shouting, How many times? How many times? I find no sign of Max or Theo, so I duck into a booth at the back and wait. Minute I sit down, the music stops. The two jokers in white aprons run through swinging doors into the kitchen. I get the feeling I’ve been expected, which I think is good. I don’t have to wait long. The waiter, big guy¸ red face, watery eyes, wheels out a serving cart piled high with every type of eggs—scrambled, over-easy, sunny-side-up, poached, creamed, Benedict, fried, popeyed, hardboiled—on silver trays. I look at them, then look at him. He’s looking down on me. Coffee, I say. Coming up, he answers. Black, I tell him and look away. He doesn’t leave. I look back and say, I didn’t order this. Compliments of the house, he tells me. The house? I say. Max and Theo? They own this place? He shrugs, then starts scooping scrambled eggs onto a little plate. Over-easy, give me over-easy, I order. If I have to eat eggs, I say, I might as well have what I like. After dishing out over-easy he leaves, then he comes back pushing a cart piled high with toast, muffins, biscuits, bagels, waffles, pancakes, homefries. I take a biscuit and say again, Max and Theo? You know them? He keeps shrugging, keeps coming back pushing carts piled high with meats, fruits, juices, cereals, followed by coffee, tea, or cocoa. This is some feast, I say. I change my mind and take cocoa, being so wired already I can hardly hold a fork. The waiter bows, he’s about to leave, but I have to know, I can’t go on guessing, so I grab the cart to keep him from moving and ask, Are they coming? Please, I say, you know who I mean. He says, Yes. When you’re finished. When you’re finished! I think, This is either a joke or a test. Suppose this is part of the deal. Suppose they want to show me, no, they want a show of faith. Suppose they need to see how I handle myself under the gun. They’re killing time in the back, they’ve set this up, I’m on the line. So I get a grip and manage to eat everything, like a guy who knows what he wants. What he wants is on the other side of what he has, which is what they gave him, which he needs to make it through. When he does, when I do, maybe two minutes after I polish off the cocoa, Max, or maybe it’s Theo, knocks on the window. I can hardly see past the dust, grease, and steam, but the colors, which are gray and gray, tell me it’s them, and I know rapping knuckles mean it’s time. It’s time. The cook and the waiter are watching from the kitchen. I’m hearing “My Funny Valentine” again, in my head, as Max pulls up in front of the track, and as we park, and as we get trapped. When I start to hum, Theo turns and tells me, Last guy whistled in this car lost the one thing he loved most in the world. I don’t need to hear that twice, so I sit back and try to think about nothing as a black stretch limousine drives up on our left. A mirrored window at the back rolls down, and a blue pinstriped arm hands Max a brown paper bag. Suddenly I picture old man Merz as a young man. He is clean, unscarred, and kneeling on his carpet for the first time.