Deep in the heart of darkest December, it was a cold Saturday afternoon. The tavern was empty. The one room was about forty feet long, with maybe eight feet from the bar to the wall. Originally there were two windows. Late one night a belligerent wino, upset with the tavern owner’s “attitude,” threw a brick through one of the panes of glass. The hole was boarded over and — since the glass was never replaced — remained so. In an attempt to prevent burglary, metal bars from a scrap yard were bolted behind the intact glass in the one window and behind the plywood covering the space left by the other. After decades of cigarette smoke, a layer of yellow tar covered everything except for the rows of shiny bottles on the counter behind the bar.
With the door closed, the only sounds were the grunts and screams of a Kung-Fu movie on TV.
A man entered. He was a little shorter than medium height and a little older than middle-aged, dressed in a well-worn suit, jacket not buttoned, tie loose. You didn’t have to notice the walkie-talkie that he was carrying to realize the obvious; he was a detective. As the door closed behind him, he stopped for a moment and looked down the bar.
Walking over to the bartender and showing his badge, “Do you work here? Regular, I mean.”
The young man answered, “Seven days a week.”
The detective took a black and white photograph out of a manila envelope.
“Recognize him? Has this guy ever been in here?”
In the picture a man lay on garbage-strewn concrete. By the expression on his face, he seemed to be transfixed by a bad dream.
“Yeah, I’ve seen him before.”
Out came a little pad.
Looking down at the paper and starting to write, “Good. What’s his name?”
“I’ve got no idea.”
The pad slammed on the bar. The detective looked up and right into the bartender’s eyes.
“What are you, some kinda clever bastard?!”
“Look, right now it’s Saturday and the place is empty; this ain’t no neighborhood hang out. Truck drivers, warehousemen, people traveling through the Holland Tunnel stop here. In a place like this, do you know how many people come by once a week, only on the full moon, every day one month and then you don’t see ‘em for three, four months? Yeah, the guy’s been in here, but, yeah, I don’t know who he is.”
Walking away, “OK, OK. It’s not like it really matters anyhow.”
“Geez, you was ready to fight World War III and now you’re tellin’ me that it don’t matter?”
“Well, it’s not like it’s an emergency or anything. We found him hanging in the old Sioux Pork warehouse. It’s still under investigation, but we’re pretty sure it was suicide.”
— — — — — — —
Frankie had worked as a bartender for Salvatore Senior in a saloon he then owned at the other end of town. Frankie lived in a rooming house just a few doors down the block. He’d sleep for entire days at a stretch. Every afternoon, Salvatore Senior would have to phone Frankie’s landlady and ask her to wake him up. Monday and Tuesday were Frankie’s days off. He’d sleep from right after he closed up late Sunday night until early Wednesday afternoon. Even when he was working tending bar, Frankie was so sedate, rarely talking, shuffling slowly through the swirling smoke-filled air, face blank without a trace of expression, that it was almost as if he was sleep-walking.
Supposedly Frankie came from Canada. After one day finding his wife in bed with another man, Frankie fell south all the way to Jersey City. Hitting bottom, he went no further.
— — — — — — —
That was just about twenty years ago. Now Frankie, smiling from here to tomorrow, was getting out of a cab, and almost running into Salvatore Senior’s “new” (at this point in time in Jersey City, new did not mean “just built,” but, rather, something more akin to “different”) bar, the Tunnel Bar, just outside the Holland Tunnel in Jersey City.
Frankie was so energetic it was almost like having Richard Simmons in the joint. He ran up and down the bar, arms wildly gesticulating, greeting the other customers, shaking hands, and buying drinks. Everybody seemed to know him.
Salvatore Junior didn’t recognize Frankie. He got Ondy, a big guy who worked in the warehouse across the street and who knew everybody, off to the side.
“Who is this guy? Is he running for mayor, or what?”
“He used to tend bar at Eddy’s place — before it got closed down with the construction and all. As far as that goes, years back, he used to work for your old man.”
Salvatore Junior looked over at Frankie. All at once he recognized the face, if not the personality.
“Yeah, you’re right. That was a long time ago. Now, I remember him. His name’s Frankie, right?”
“Yeah, that’s him.”
After saying hello to everybody in the place three or four more times, playing a couple dozen songs on the jute box, and buying the whole house a couple of rounds of drinks, Frankie started up a conversation with Salvatore Junior.
“You live uptown, right?”
“Yeah, basically all my life. Right off of Central Avenue, why?”
“I live uptown now, too. On Ferry Street. Do you know the bar on Central by Ferry?”
“Yeah, … are you gonna start working there?”
The bar on Central Avenue by Ferry Street in Jersey City — the Colonial — had always been known as a wino dive. Salvatore Junior was wondering why Frankie had mentioned it.
“Hell, no. I’m in a feud with the whole joint. Whenever I walk by, I can hear them inside laughing and talking about me…. Does Hal still drop by here? I was hoping to run into him.”
Hal was a notorious local outlaw. He could talk for hours on end about his days in prison with Hurricane Carter and Harold Konigsberg. He had many funny stories. One of the more amusing involved removing a body in broad daylight from a Congressman’s house by wrapping the corpse up in a rug. As a young man, Hal’s specialty was armed robbery. Growing older, he settled into enforcer work for loan sharks and bookies with — basically a hobby, mind you — a little gun running on the side.
All at once, it struck Salvatore Junior that the day was beginning to go from different to unpleasant.
“Yeah, Hal bounces in now and then.”
“Will he be in today?”
“Like there’s no telling. He comes and goes.”
As luck would have it, just then, Hal walked in the door. Frankie ran over to Hal and wrapped his arms around the six-foot-four, 280 lb. yellow-bearded giant. Frankie was so much shorter, it was like watching somebody attempting to hug a good-sized tree.
“Give him a drink! What ever he wants!”
“Just a beer. Schaefer. He knows.”
“You gotta have a shot with that!”
“No Frankie. I’m only here for a minute. I’m headed over to my mom’s for dinner.”
“Then let’s go outside for a minute. I got something to talk to you about.”
When they came back in, Hal drank his beer and got up to leave.
“Can you help me out with that?”
“I told you Frankie, I’ll have to look around. I’ll be getting back to you.”
Hal came back a couple of hours later. Frankie had left. The place was empty. Salvatore Junior was washing glasses, getting ready to close up for the night.
“You know what Frankie was looking for?”
Hal’s eyebrows tensed, “He told you?”
“No, he told me about everybody in a bar uptown plotting against him.”
“Yeah, he told me that, too. He said they threw a rock in his apartment window one night. He’s looking for something for protection. Frankie showed me two grand cash. He says that he’s ready to buy.”
“I don’t like it. This is going to be one of those things like in the newspapers: ‘Man Shoots Twelve Then Kills Self.’”
Hal’s eyes flickered like coals glowing bright blue instead of red, “Where’s the problem with that?”
“What if Frankie doesn’t finish the job? “What if — after all’s said and done — there’s enough of him left over to get arrested? The police will never give up on something like this. Everybody involved’s gonna get hauled off but good.”
“Maybe, I can get Vinnie or one of the other bompies to hand over some old timey piece of shit… something that’ll blow up the first time Frankie pulls the trigger… Two grand’s hard to turn down.”
“Do whatever you want to do, but don’t do it here. This thing’s starting off bad — and it’s only gonna get worse.”
“Yeah, you’re right. I’ll just tell Frankie that I looked around but I couldn’t find nothin’.”
“Well anyhow, Wednesday’s usually a dead day. At least today Frankie breathed a little life into it.”
— — — — — — —
A couple of hours after the detective left, Danny, a truck driver’s helper and self-appointed town crier, came into the bar.
“Guess what?! Just now, the police pulled that crazy Frankie out of the Sioux Pork warehouse. He went and hung himself. One of the winos saw him just before sneaking in with the rope and called the cops. But by time they got there it was all over. I saw the ambulance crew carrying out the body.”
“What do you know… A detective was here a little while ago with a photo asking me to ID him. Funny thing, I didn’t recognize Frankie in the picture.”