Beyond the Western
Mount Carmel Road was a quiet dead end in the north section of town. And in the middle of the night when the war in the Far East was over and the radios blared out the news, all the lights went on in all the houses on that blind street, except where the card game was being played. Many of the neighbors were solidly indignant about that turn of events on VJ Night, two Mount Carmel boys among those who would not be coming back from the mad Pacific, which most of us had only seen in Saturday newsreels at the theater.
This house was a dark house on a dark street in my town that, with some lesions and scars, hangs on to a place in my memory and will not let go. Not ever. The family that lives there now most likely is unaware of its past. Tenants and landlords hardly leave scribed notations of a dwelling, thinking all things will ferment, dissipate, and eventually pass on. Fifty years or more of recall usually get dulled, terribly pockmarked, or fade into the twilight the way one ages, a dimming of the eyes, a bending at the knees, a slow turn at mortality. But this one rides endlessly in place, a benchmark, a mooring place. It resides as a point of time, a small moment of history colored up by characterization of one incident.
Some houses have peculiar histories. This one did. For a full fifteen years at the gray house at the end of the road the big weekly poker game had been going on, and during the war it had been conducted behind thick black curtains that let out no light. “They’ll be no beacon trail markers from this game to the Navy Yard,” a few miles distant, said Mountain Ben Capri. Mountain Ben, once an expert trapper and fishing guide, owned the house, ran the game, and his wife, the Blackfoot named Dread Child Lovey, made sandwiches on occasion, poured drinks, and picked up loose change. That loose change would have paid some mortgages, it was said, for the stakes in the game were sometimes monumental if not momentous, all according to those said neighbors on that dark cul-de-sac and other parties around town. Some few people in town could remember when Mother Shannon had a shady place of business in the same abode, most of them elderly men, perhaps a few elderly wives or widows.
The only outsider allowed inside that oft-coveted and dark setting was the young and pesky Frankie Pike, high school football hero of some renown, who tried to sit in one night, showed his money when demanded, had not enough, so finally he asked to simply look on. Subsequently, because of good humor and an abundance of energy, Frankie became the company runner, getting special orders from the half dozen classy restaurants out on the turnpike, hitting the package store for beer, wine and hard stuff when necessary (ordinarily through the back door), collaring the best cigars in town, and not leastwise directing unwanted players away from the game site. After a few games and seeing all the opportunities around him, Frankie with no flies hovering cut a deal with Smokey Carlton of Smokey’s Diner that they should get a supply of bags, wrappers and boxes from the big restaurants and provide their own specials, as if the biggies had done the service. Smokey was glad to oblige, even though some of the town’s big spenders and known tough guys took part in the game. “They’re all probably playing with somebody else’s money any way,” Smokey would say if caught up for a reason. Frankie, to up the kitty, even went to work at Gargan’s Texan Hilltop Restaurant for two days, time enough to stash a supply of purloined imprinted bags and napkins out in the woods. Flies stayed off Frankie like he’d been sprayed with killer juice.
Frankie and Smokey had made a good deal, and they smoked the players with substitute foodstuffs prepared right in the back of the small chintzy diner rather than in one of the popular restaurants. “I got so much booze in there, Smokey, they’re half drunk half the time and well into it the other half. That old lobster boater Cal Landers wants Hilltop sandwiches all the time and now yours are as good as theirs are, only Cal don’t know it seeing the Hilltop wrappers all the time. Some nights they can’t tell Grade A from swill. And I see DC Lovey scooping a bit of change every now and then, too. She puts the wet tray with booze and stuff right on the pot or on someone’s stash and lets that old green paper stick to the bottom. There ain’t no pesky bugs setting on that old mountain man either, way he goes through jacket pockets when no one’s looking. Moves so easy for such a big man. Hate to have him tracking me down. I’ve seen him go outside and go through some of the cars more than a few times. Smooth he does it, like a ghost in the night, like maybe he heard special information during the game.”
So, the game had been going on, and in one quick night the war was over. The whole town celebrated, lights flashing on and off, a few stored-up firecrackers or bottle rockets set off, a lot of horns and sirens cutting loose from long silences. Except the house on Mount Carmel. Nobody went in and pulled a shade back, nobody came out on the porch to see what was going on. The game was the thing. Only the game.
And that didn’t sit well with a lot of people. “Tell me, Frankie,” Clint Wardley the undertaker said one night around the cracker barrel in the back of the package store, “what the hell makes you think they’re such sacred cows in there?” Clint was always in a starched collar, a white one, and locked into his trade. They said his father had died in the same stiff collar. “They all come my way sooner or later.” You never knew if Clint’s words were promise or threat.
“I’ll say this for those boyos,” Frankie Pike said, “they’re not afraid of anybody or anything ‘cepting that game not getting its place of a Friday night. That storm a couple of years ago that shut down the power for nearly a week, they had Mountain get Coleman lanterns and fired them all up. Mountain knows about white gas and them little wicks he calls mantles, like butterfly wings almost. Had three or four of them going he did, almost boiling the room away. Way I hear it, they talk about the game all week long, who did what last game, who can make the big fake and pull it off, who’s getting shit luck with his cards and when it began. I think they have a pool on when it runs out, each having some kind of turn at it, it appears. They heard the war was over and that was it. They wasn’t in it and wasn’t getting away from it.”
Frankie’s sense of timing was as good as an actor, the stage set, pronouncements being made, his hunk of reality coming down on the conversation. His eyes collected and measured the audience. “Jake Crews said he ain’t celebrating people getting killed or not killed. His daddy came home from the Great Stink in France back in ‘18 all gassed up and not much of a father from then on. Said he never got laid again, even though his old lady was a laundry bag. Life just became one big sour ball for him. Jake ought to know, him wearing the scars of it all, him being the only boy in that big house with that bad ass bastard. ‘Cept for the game, he’s been a loner most his whole life. I’ll tell you this,” Frankie added, bringing football right back into the balance, putting it all in his true perspective, handling the crutch of it with aplomb, “I’d be comfortable with him across the huddle from me in a big game. He has that fire in his eye you don’t always get, if you know what I mean.” Frankie’d get them nodding as though they had the privy inside on certain players that “didn’t bring it with them all the time the way Frankie did.”
Frankie liked to sit in the back of McGarrihan’s Package Store, around the wood stove puffing on a winter day, a dozen pair of boots hoisted on the rim of that iron monger’s stove and hold forth with the other gabbers. They were the pseudo-historians, gossips, ward-heelers and petty politicians looking for the grip on someone, for rich gossip or a shared bottle they didn’t have to pay for, you name the front and they come out of it. Frankie had shine here because of his football exploits, being, as many of them would say, “the best damn money player to come down the pike since Harmony Hiltz worked his magic at the stadium in the early Thirties, and then went up country and played for Dartmouth College.”
The players in the Mount Carmel game on the other hand seemed a cut from another life; few of them appeared to be daily employed, always having a “piece” of one operation or another. Oftentimes an office was an inner coat or jacket pocket. For most of them money was practically spilling its green out of their pockets like some kind of algae growing down inside with the lint. None of them carried their money in a wallet, rather doled it out of thick clusters kept in the inner breast pocket of a jacket or in a shirt pocket under a sweater lying like a protective cover over the big bulge of paper. “They buy their chips with a wad of bills, ever last one of them, taking it out of an iron clip.” Frankie said “iron” as if it were “eye-ron,” bringing the boys deeper into the fold, getting real up-country homey with them. It was true old Yankee stuff he could get at when he had a mind to.
“How much money you think been showed in that room, Frankie, best lot?” Andy Tolliver was a member of the school committee who never went to college, never could spell curriculum, but had a magic for trading off “one for you and one for me” when things got tight. He was never without a bow tie, feeling undressed in his station of life if he were caught so. For twenty-six years he had been on the school committee. It was said Andy could get anything in the system for those who wanted it bad enough, including himself, with the mix of teachers.
Now he wanted to know how much money was in that room at one time. Frankie had seen Andy pick up the new history teacher as she walked home late at night. Had seen it four or five times, once waiting for two hours by her house before Andy dropped her off.
“Well,” said Frankie, thinking Andy was at least twice as old as the new teacher and having a sudden admiration for him, curriculum or no curriculum, “one night, and this is the truth because I was able to count it out, there was over twelve thousand dollars in that room. Course,” he added, the sparkle in his eyes, “some of that was loose change.” The laughter was pleasant and a few of the listeners elbowed the guy beside them.
“Andy eyes lit up. “Twelve thousand dollars! My, God, that’s almost the budget on raises for the next two-three years.”
“Hell,” Frankie said, “one night, Mountain came back in from sniffing through the cars and leaned over Jud Duvall and whispered in his ear. They say Mountain told him someone had been fooling around his car, he has that Pierce Arrow with the big lights up on the fenders. So, Jud went out and came back in with his sweater wrapped around something and kept it under his chair and Mountain was real nervous. I heard later Mountain had come across a stash of twenty-five thousand bucks and was scared to death of touching it but had to tell Jud some way. He didn’t want to be pegged for grabbing it. Mountain knows Jud would have him dropped in the river for less.”
But of all the guys who talked shop and whatever around the stove, it was Wolf Stearns who kept alive the VJ Night ignorance of the game players, going back to that dark and bright night every chance he had. One of the guys not coming back was Wolf’s cousin, Edwin Talbot, a Marine fighter pilot lost in the Solomon Seas on the day of his eleventh kill. “Guess whose birthday is next Wednesday, guys? You couldn’t guess in a hundred years, now could you? It’s Eddie Talbot’s birthday. The kid would be twenty-five years old next Wednesday. Do you think those dinks at the game give a shit? Not in a hundred years. They played all through the war and when it came stand up time they stayed behind the damn curtains. Never even came out on the porch to see what was going on, never mind saluting someone for a change.”
His eyes would darken as if he were measuring an infinitesimal edge, like a wave of heat off the stove top or another space uncounted for, and he’d drop cautious tidbits like, “Somebody ought to teach them a lesson or two. ‘S’all I got to say about it.”
Then Wolf would look again at a point in space none of the others could hope to find. Truth was, Wolf had been around a lot and never left much trail about what he was at or after. He had scars here and there, Wolf did, on his cheeks, one wrist like it had been ripped by barb wire, I’d bet on his back the way he scowled so much of the time, bitter angry, the world to be pissed on occasionally. Some guys said he was as dangerous as an animal caught in a trap.
A few other guys seemed to side up with Wolf but never got too vocal about it. So, under the layers it was apparent that a means of revenge was swilling in the thicker cloth, probably dark and mean, and naturally would have the backing of the whole town who loved its heroes to the death.
When it happened, it was clean and quick. It was just after midnight, Mountain getting sleepy in one corner, Dread Child Lovey about done with her work and smoking a cigar, Frankie Pike’s errands long over and him ready to go home, when the door burst open and four masked gunsmiths stood aiming their sawed-off shotguns at the table. Mountain rose from his seat and one of the gunsmiths hit him with a crow bar. Mountain hit the floor like a pallet of concrete blocks. Dread Child Lovey continued to smoke her cigar, ignoring all the men in the room.
Jud Duval, pivoting idly in his chair, said, “If I were you guys, I’d…. He said no more as the barrel of the shotgun was stuck in his mouth. “There’ll be no talking but us,” said one of the masked men. “Rake it up, Three,” he said, pointing to the players. "Empty their pockets, their money belts, their wallets. Clean out their jackets. Look under the chairs.”
He heard Mountain groan and nodded to another gunsmith. “Hit him, Two.” The man popped Mountain on the head again with the crow bar. Dread Child Lovey kept on smoking. Jud noted the men were all in sweat suits of a kind, with sneakers on. He recognized the use of coded names and put that away for future reference.
The sweep down was complete in every sense. Every coin, every bit of currency in the room, including the entire cash drawer kept by Mountain and Dread Child Lovey, was scooped up and placed in a black bag looking much like a doctor’s bag.
Frankie started to move once, looking to get to a door, but was jabbed in the backside by one of the gun wielders. “Uh, uh, kid, we need you. You’re going to be a bit of security for us. Hostage stuff. You’re gonna earn your keep this night, hero.”
The guy turned to the others and said, “One frigging bad word outta any you guys, we knock off the kid. We’re taking him with us. Don’t nobody move around or scream until the big guy wakes up, and then I’d be real gentle about that. That’s gonna be one pissed-off man.”
One of the gunsmiths opened a door to a small pantry and motioned all the players and Dread Child Lovey into the soon-crowded space. The door was slammed on them and a couple of spikes were knocked into the door and the jamb. Silence came. Darkness set about everything, falling like enveloping clouds on top of Mountain who’d be out of it for almost another hour. Later we heard a couple of guys copped a few feels of Dread Child Lovey who never batted an eyelash or said a word in that crowd. And later Mountain was really pissed because when he finally woke up and freed the players and his wife from the pantry, he found her underpants on the floor.
Mountain, they said, was like old Mountain, ranting and raving and carrying on like a wounded bear. Said he marked every one of the players with his dread eye, cowed them right out of his house like a curse was placed on them.
The cops gave up the search for the kidnapped Frankie Pike two days later when he walked back into town, a few marks on his face, but healthy as ever otherwise. There never was another game at Mountain’s place. The players, after a few weeks, found another place to play, at Tal Rumson’s boathouse. It was said that Frankie walked with a jingle and a tingle and was never out of coin for the next year. But nobody did anything about it, figuring the players had finally paid their real dues.