AMATO IN A GRAY SUIT with a muted red stripe, textured pink shirt with his initials on the left French cuff, a maroon and gold tie, sat at the kidney-shaped, walnut veneer desk and stared. “I got to give it to you,” he said, “you’re a great-looking couple of guys. Come in here about four hours late, you look like shit and you stink. The fuck, you looklike you just got out of jailor something.”
“His fault,” the first one said. “He was late. I stood around there and I waited for him.”
Both of them wore black boots with red suede inserts. The first one wore an army-green poncho, a frayed gray sweater and faded blue jeans. He had long hair, dirty-blond, and mutton-chop sideburns. The second one wore an army-green poncho, a gray sweatshirt and dirty white jeans. He had long black hair that reached his shoulders. He had the beginnings of a black beard.
“I hadda get my dogs in,” the second one said. “I got fourteen dogs, there. Takes me a while. I can’t, I can’t just go. off some place, leave them dogs out.”
“You’re all covered with hair, too,” Amato said. “You been backing them dogs up to you, I guess.”
“Comes from beating off, Squirrel,” the second one said. “I come out, I haven’t got your advantages, nice business waiting for me, all that. good shit. I got to hustle.”
“ ‘Johnny’ around here,” Amato said, “you can call me ‘Johnny’ here. Most of the help calls me ‘Mister,’ but you can call me ‘Johnny.’ That’ll be all right.”
“I’ll work on that, Squirrel, I really will,” the second one said. “You got to make allowances for me, you know? I, like I just got out of fuckin’ jail. My head’s all fucked up. I got to read just to society, is what I got to do.”
“You couldn’t’ve got somebody else,” Amato said to the first one. “This item looks like shit and he don’t have no manners. I got to put up with shit like this?”
“I could’ve,” the first one said, “but you asked me, you know, get somebody that was all right. Russell, here, he’s maybe kind of a wise ass, but he’s all right if you can stand him.”
“Sure,” Russell said, “and a guy like you, he wants something done, hasn’t got the stones, do it himself, I think he oughta try pretty hard, too.”
“I really don’t like this prick,” Amato said to the first one. “He’s too fuckin’ fresh for my blood. How about going out and getting me a nice tough nigger? I don’t think I can stand this cocksucker long enough to tell him what I want.”
“Russell, for Christ sake,” the first one said, “willya shut the fuck up and stop jerking the guy’s chain? He’s tryin’ to do us a favor.”
“I didn’t know that,” Russell said. “I thought he wanted us to do him a favor. That the straight shit, Squirrel? You tryin’, do nle a favor?”
“Get the fuck out of here,” Amato said.
“Hey,” Russell said, “that’s no fuckin’ way, talk to a guy. The fuck you sell driving lessons to people, you go around talking to a guy like that?”
“This thing I got in mind,” Amato said, “the two guys I get to do it’re gonna cut up about thirty, I figure. Thirty K. Shitbirds like him, Frankie, shitbirds like him I can buy for eighty cellts a dozen, they throw in another free. Get me somebody else, Frankie. I’m not gonna put up with this kinda shit.”
“Remember them habes we had?” Frankie said.
“Habes,” Amato said, “what habes? We had about nine hundred habes. Every time I turn around that monkey’s pulling out something else I got to sign. What habes?”
“They, the ones they bring us down for,” Frankie said. “The federal ones.”
“On the line-up thing,” Amato said, “yeah. The time that big coon come after me.”
“Long Tall Sally,” Frankie said.
“I dunno what his name was,” Amato said. “We didn’t have no nice conversation or anything. He was just trying to get my pants off and I was just trying to stop him from getting my pants off, is all. ‘Jes hold still there a minute, white boy, I’m gonna shove all my good time right up your sugah ass.’ Fuckin’ guy. He had white lipstick on.”
“The next night he wasn’t there,” Frankie said.
“The next night I wasn’t there,” Amato said. “If I had’ve been that fuckin’ nigger wouldn’t’ve, boy. I got Billy Dunn a wood chisel for that fucker, he was gonna grab him in the yard if I was there. Fuckin’ dumb screws, can’t always depend on them guys showin’ up when you need them like that, guy’s liable to learn a new way, he’s not careful.”
“You were in Norfolk,” Frankie said.
“I was in Norfolk,” Amato said. “Sit there all day listening to some kid make a fuckin’ asshole outa my goddamned lawyer, all I can think about’s what Billy’s gonna do to that coon, I get back there, and then it turns out, I’m going to Norfolk. Only thing I see that night, there’s this nun in a gray thing, there, wants to know, do I wanna learn the fuckin’ guitar.”
“I know her,” Russell said. “She’s allover the place. She was up to Concord once. I said to her, I said: ‘Sister, I wanted to play the guitar, I would’ve grabbed a fuckin’ guitar.’ After that she left me alone. Lot of the guys liked her, though.”
“That night the nigger was in the hospital,” Frankie said.
“Good,” Amato said. “I hope he fuckin’ died.”
“Nope,” Frankie said, “but I seen him. He was missing about three feet of skin off his fuckin’ head.”
“Hey,” Amato said.
“Him,” Frankie said, nodding his head toward Russell.
“No shit,” Amato said.
“Peeled him like a fuckin’ orange,” Frankie said.
“More like pulling bark off a fuckin’ tree,” Russell said. “Guy had skin like nothing I ever seen.”
“He came after you?” Amato said.
“Somebody sure did,” Russell said, “somebody looked to me like he hadda be the biggest chungo bunny inna world, come after me. I had this blade there, another guy I meet onna way over, he told me, I give him a hundred out of my thing there and he had this blade for me. Said I was probably gonna need it. I bet I wasn’t in there ten minutes and that nigger’s coming after me. Didn’t do it again, though.”
“That’s how come,” Frankie said. “He’s a prick but he’s got all the moves.”
“He clean?” Amato said. “Both you guys clean?”
“Frankie,” Russell said, “you been using something?”
“Shut the fuck up, all right, Russell?” Frankie said.
“Yeah. I haven’t had anything but booze since I get out. Not that much booze, either. Mostly beer. I been waiting for payday, I start in on the VO and other stuff.”
“You’re on pills,” Amato said. “You’re in, you’re on pills. I seen you, don’t forget. You were beating the hell out of them yellowjackets.”
“John,” Frankie said, “the yellowjackets were there. I didn’t see nobody serving no beer. I took what there was. I haven’t had none of that stuff since I was out.”
“How about him?” Amato said.
“Gee, Squirrel,” Russell said, “I wouldn’t take nothing. I, ah, I probably had a couple quarts of Ripple and some grass, and I might’ve had one or two dime bags once or twice, but I just snort them, you know? It’s not like I was using something. I go to Cub Scouts, you know? And they pat you down, there, they start teaching you how to tie them knots and everything.”
“Smack,” Amato said to Frankie. Frankie shrugged. “I ask you to find a guy for me and I got this thing, and all I got to do is do it and we get some very nice money. All I got to do is find two guys that can do a fairly simple thing without fucking it up, and this is the best you can do for me. A fuckin’ junkie. And I’m supposed to just let you guys go in there and you’re gonna go in and once and for all you’re gonna fuck it up, a job that’s never gonna come around again in a million years. I don’t want to have a whole lot of fun with this thing, you know, because I hadda go out and get a guy that looked all right when I got him and then he goes in and he’s on the fuckin’ nod or something. I want the goddamned money. That’s what I need.”
“Squirrel,” Russell said, “when I was a little kid I used to take off on Cheracol. I didn’t have any trouble. When I was working for my Uncle, I used to have to go down in holes for him, you know? The carbon black on my face and go down in them holes with a forty-five in my hand and a knife in my fuckin’ teeth and I went into them tunnels. Every day I went in them tunnels. If there wasn’t anything in the tunnel, that was a good day. Not so good days, there’s probably only a big fuckin’ snake in there or something that wants to eat you. Kinda bad days, there’s some skinny dink in there with a gun, tryin’ to kill you. Bad days was when the dink did it, or there was a piece of wire in there and you didn’t happen, you weren’t paying attention or something and it’s rigged up to something that blows up pretty quick, or else there’s a punji stick in there with a whole lot of dink shit on it under your hand and you go into your basic blood poisoning extra quick.
“I didn’t have no bad days,” Russell said. “I was in them tunnels almost two years and I didn’t have no bad days. I wasn’t buying up Mustangs and teaching little dumb shits to drive, but I didn’t have no bad days, either.
“The thing of it is, Squirrel,” Russell said, “when I was having them days, I didn’t know for sure at the time that I wasn’t gonna have a bad one, you know? I started out, I thought it was all just a matter of balls. I don’t wanna hurt your feelings or anything, but I always had the balls, you know? And I thought, I felt pretty good, because I thought that’s all it was and I had them so I was all right. Then I see, I seen them cart out a couple guys that went in there and put them in the green bags, you know? And a couple of them, they didn’t have no balls when they come out, on account they didn’t have no luck, they went in that time, and no cocks either, and that carbon black, don’t do a thing for cuts and stuff. Fuckin’ booby traps go right through it, like it wasn’t even there.
“So that gets me to thinking,” Russell said. “I’m no good at thinking. But that gets me to thinking, and I see, well, I’m in the shit, is what I am, and I can’t personally do nothing about it. All I can do is, I can have the balls and the luck, but the only thing I know about is the balls. I just can’t have no bad days. Only, I don’t know no way to do that. So, I used to come out, and I know, tomorrow I go in again, and the only thing I can think about is, I used up another day. That’s all. So I smoke something. And it helped.
“Then I start looking at them other guys,” Russell said. “I see them, I was still thinking, and they’re all, most of them, at least’re smoking. And them guys that’re doing the grass, you know? Very heavy on it, and they slow down some. I was, I was keeping track of things. I could see it happening to me, it was happening to them, I got it a little bit and I begin to see, that’s what, them other guys, they started on it, it was probably just a little bit for them, too, when they start. You start forgetting things. All you want, you don’t care about things, you know? Very funny thing. And then, some of the guys that’re older, they drink a lot. And pretty soon they’re sick a lot. And that’s bad. Their hands shake. They’re not paying attention either. And you get in there, there’s the wire or the dink or something, well, you’re gonna have to have a lot of time to think about it or else you’re not gonna have no time at all. You can’t let yourself get slow.
“So I try the horse,” Russell said. “You got to have something. So I some of that nice white shit, and what I did was, I used it after, right? After I come out again. I haven’t got to go back in tonight. First I snort it. Then, a couple times I did it the other way, but mostly I snort it. But I used it. And I liked it.
“Okay,” Russell said, “it don’t, it makes you feel great, but it don’t actually do nothing for you, you know that. When you’re in there, doesn’t protect you at all. But you been in, and you got out, and you got to go back in again and you don’t want to think about that, maybe you’re not gonna bring yourself out, you go in again, use up all your luck thinking. So then it’s very fuckin’ nice. Don’t slow you down. Just makes you feel good, and that’s what I was after.”
“Sure,” Amato said, “and that’s what you’re gonna be after when you’re getting ready to go in on this thing I got, and you’re gonna get it and you’re gonna be flying and you’re gonna go in stoned up to your ass and some poor bastard’s gonna start hollering or something and he’s gonna get shot, and a very good thing that a kid in his fuckin’ right mind couldn’t fuck up is gonna get fucked up. That’s exactly what I’m afraid of.”
“He’ll be all right, John,” Frankie said.
“Maybe he’ll be all right,” Amato said. “Maybe he won’t be all right. Maybe you won’t be. I don’t want nobody getting hurt on this. There’s nothing, there’s no reason why anybody oughta get hurt on this, the guys that go in or the guys that’re in there when the guys go in. This’s money, just money, nothing else. No fuckin’ shit and stuff that’s gonna get everybody all pissed off and everything. It was something that was gonna be around, it was something like that, all right, I could maybe take a chance. I could take a couple guys that I was afraid’d maybe cock off and wreck it, and take their word for it, they’re gonna be all right. So all right, they go in, and they cock off and wreck it, it was a bank or something, it’s gonna be there next week for two guys that’ve got more sense, all right. But this isn’t. It’s not like that. You fuck it up, it’s fuckin’ gone, it’s gonna disappear. I got to think about this. I got to be sure. I’m gonna talk to some people.”
Excerpted from Cogan's Trade by George V. Higgins
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