The Devil Knows You're Dead Page 12

 I walked over and greeted him by name and he looked up at me, his mouth smiling easily even as his eyes labored to place me. “I know you,” he said. “Your name’ll come to me.”

 “It’s Matt,” I said.

 “See? Came to me by special delivery. Sit down, Matt. You play chess?”

 “I know how the pieces move.”

 “Then you know the game. That’s all it is, you just move the pieces till somebody wins.” He snatched up a pawn in each hand, held his hands behind his back, then presented me with both fists. I tapped one and he opened it to disclose a white pawn.

 “See?” he said. “You’re a winner already, you get to make the first move. Set ’em up and we’ll play. No stakes, just to pass the time.”

 There was another plastic milk crate on the opposite side of the table from him. I perched on it and set up my men, studied them, then advanced the king’s pawn two spaces. He answered in kind and we both made a few unsurprising opening moves. When I brought out my bishop to menace his knight he said, “Ah, the old Ruy Lopez.”

 “If you say so,” I said. “Someone tried to teach me the names of the standard openings once, but it didn’t stick. I’m afraid I’ve got no head for the game.”

 “I don’t know,” he said. “Way you keep badmouthing yourself, seems like you’re trying to hustle me.”

 “Dream on,” I said.

 At first we both made our moves rapidly, but as the game developed I found it harder to come up with something and began spending more time studying the board. Ten or a dozen moves into the game we exchanged knights, and somehow I wound up a pawn down. A little further along he forced an exchange of his remaining knight for one of my rooks. With each move he was mobilizing his forces for an attack, and all I could do was await it. My position felt cramped, awkward, indefensible.

 “I don’t know,” I said, trying to find a move that did me some good. “I suppose I could resign.”

 “You could,” he agreed.

 I extended a forefinger and toppled my king. He looked sad, lying there on his side.

 Barry said, “We wasn’t playin’ for stakes, but that doesn’t mean you couldn’t duck across the street for a quart of Eight Hundred.”

 “I’m not drinking these days, Barry.”

 “Think I don’t know that, man? But when did you hear me say anything about drinking? Drinking’s one thing. Buy-ing’s another.”

 “That’s a point.”

 “Basement of St. Paul’s,” he said. “That’s where I know you from, am I right?”

 “That’s right.”

 “I don’t hardly get there. Used to come around for the cof-fee, and just to sit with folks. Drinking’s no problem for me.”

 “You’re fortunate.”

 “Long as I stay with the beer I seem to be all right. Was a time it was tending to make me sick.” He laid a hand on his right side, just beneath the rib cage. “Was hurting me some right about here.”

 “The liver,” I said.

 “I guess. What I think it was, I think it was the Night Train. That sweet wine’s a killer. But the beer, she seems to agree with me.” He grinned, showing a little gold at the corners of his smile. “For now, anyway. Beer’ll pro’ly kill me herself someday, but a man has got to die of something. Live long enough, sooner or later you die of too much liv-ing. If it’s not one thing it’s another. Isn’t that what they say?”

 “That’s what they say.”

 “And what do you say, then? You want to spring for a quart of OE and we’ll play another game?”

 I found a five and gave it to him. He touched his index fin-ger to his eyebrow in a mock salute and headed for the Ko-rean grocery across the street. I watched him move in a loose-limbed, effortless gait, his long arms swinging easily at his sides. He was wearing a navy pea jacket and faded jeans and high-top sneakers, and he had to be sixty years old at a minimum, and he loped across Ninth Avenue like a man who had it all together.

 I caught myself thinking that maybe Barry had the right idea. Stick to beer and ale, go to an occasional meeting for the coffee and the company, work on your chess game, and hustle a buck now and then when you get thirsty.

 Yeah, right. And get through life sitting on milk crates. And what kind of shape was I in, pray tell, if Barry was starting to look like a role model? I had to laugh at myself, recognizing the thought for what it was, just one more note in the siren’s song of the booze. Its lure was endless, and in-finitely resourceful, and whatever street you walked down it would be waiting around the next corner, ready to pop out and take you by surprise. You could make a million dollars and win two Nobel prizes and the Miss Congeniality award, and next thing you knew you’d walk past a Blarney Stone and find yourself wondering if the stew bums in the back booth knew something you didn’t. Because they got to drink and you didn’t, so how wrong could they be?

 Barry came back with a quart of Olde English 800 in a pa-per bag. He twisted off the cap and drank without removing the bottle from the bag. He said I could have the black pieces this time or I could stay with white, whichever I’d rather. I said I figured that was enough chess for one day.

 “Guess you don’t have a real feel for the game,” he said. “You’d think you would, though.”


 “Well, the figuring-out aspect of it. Must be a lot like po-lice work, scoping out the moves, calculating you’ll do this if I do that. You was a cop, right?”

 “You have a good memory.”

 “Well, the both of us has been around the neighborhood enough years now. Be a surprise if we didn’t reckanize each other. Guess I’d figure you for a cop anyway, on the basis of how you present and represent. This be about George?”

 I nodded. “I saw you on television,” I said.

 “Man,” he said, “is there anybody in this city didn’t see me on television?” He sighed and shook his head, treated himself to another long pull on the Olde English bottle. “How many channels now? Sixty, seventy if you got cable? Must be everybody watches Channel Seven, because every-body seen Barry on television. Everybody but me. I swear I must be the only person in New York didn’t see the damn program.”

 We talked some about George, and I sensed I was getting what everyone got who mentioned having seen the TV spot, a sort of reprise of The George Sadecki I Knew. I steered him to Holtzmann and asked him what he knew about the man who got shot.

 “You live here,” I said. “You keep your eyes open. You must have seen Glenn Holtzmann around the neighborhood.”

 “I don’t think so,” he said. “Don’t recall him if I did. I seen his picture in the paper and didn’t reckanize him. Terri-ble thing, wasn’t it? Bright young man, whole life ahead of him.”

 “What are they saying about him on the street?”

 “Like I just said. Saying what a fine young man he was and what a bad thing happened. What else they gone say?”

 “That would depend on what they knew.”

 “Man, how would they know him? He didn’t live here.”

 “Of course he did,” I said. “You can see his building from here.”

 He made a show of following my finger as I pointed at the top floors of Holtzmann’s apartment building. “Right,” he said. “That’s where he lived, up on the fortieth floor.”

 The twenty-eighth, I thought.

 “That’s another country up there,” he said. “Man com-muted from the fortieth floor over there to some other forti-eth floor where his office is at. Where you and me are is the street. Man like that, the street’s just a place he’s got to pass through twice a day, getting from one fortieth floor to an-other.”

 “He was on the street a week ago Thursday.”

 “To get some air, so they say.”


 “Oh, I ain’t signifying. Just seems to me there ought to be plenty of air up on the fortieth floor. Got nothing but air up there, wouldn’t you say?”

 “So what was he doing on the street?”

 “Could be Fate. You believe in Fate?”

 “I don’t know.”

 “Man’s got to believe in something,” Barry said. “What I believe, I believe I’ll have another drink.” He did, and all but smacked his lips. He said, “I’m hip that you don’t drink, but are you sure you won’t have a little taste?”

 “Not today. What was there besides Fate and fresh air that could have brought Holtzmann to Eleventh Avenue?”

 “Told you I didn’t know the man.”

 “I figured you might know the street.”

 “ ’Leventh Avenue? I know where it’s at.”

 “Did you ever go over to George’s room?”

 “Didn’t even know he had one until just this past week. Knew there was some place he kep’ his stuff but didn’t know where. Far as Eleventh Avenue’s concerned, nothing much to draw me there.”

 “You didn’t have to take your car in for a brake job?”

 He laughed richly. “No, the brakes is just fine. Maybe I take a run over there, let ’em rotate the tires.” He had another pull of Olde English, and this time he drew the bottle halfway out of the bag and squinted at the label over the tops of his glasses.

 “See,” he said, “beer and malt liquor’s just about the right speed for me. Wine an’ whiskey’s bad for me. Was a time they treated me decent, but those days is gone.”

 “So you said.”

 “ ’Course I’ll smoke a little herb once in a while if it hap-pens to come my way, but I won’t go looking for it. Man passes you a jay, offers you a taste, you want to be sociable, you follow me?”


 “An’ the last time they had me over to Roosevelt they cut me open an’ gave me this Percodan after they sewed me up. One every four hours, and I swear they was nicer than the pain was bad. They gave me some to take with me when they discharged me, but they run out pretty soon, and they wouldn’t refill the scrip. I went over to DeWitt Clinton Park and bought six pills off a skinny white boy with those mirror sunglasses, and they looked same as the ones they gave me at Roosevelt, same color, same markings on ’em, but they just didn’t do me the same kind of good. Maybe there’s such a thing as drug-company seconds, ones that don’t measure up an’ they sell ’em out the back door. What do you think?”

 “I suppose it’s possible.”

 “So I don’t get over to Eleventh Avenue much,” he said. “They ain’t got nothing I need.”

 His Percodan story had put me in mind of Jan’s decision to pass up painkillers rather than compromise her sobriety. My mind tracked that thought and I almost missed the impli-cations of what Barry was saying.

 Then my brain geared down and I said, “DeWitt Clinton Park. There’s a little park a block or two below the corner where Holtzmann was shot. The west side of Eleventh. Is that the park you’re talking about?”

 “Uh-huh. Clinton Park. You ever go there, don’t buy noth-ing off a white boy with mirror shades. Be wasting your money.”

 “That’s a little out of my range,” I said. “I didn’t even know the name of the park. They sell a lot of drugs there?”

 “Sell a lot of shit,” Barry said. “Pill’d have to do more’n that for me before I’d call it a drug. There’s always dealers there, if that’s your question. This here’s about the only park I know that don’t have dealers in it, and that’s on account of how small it is. No grass, no trees, just slabs for benches and tables. Call it a park, but it’s just a wide part of the sidewalk. A genuine park, you sure to have drug dealers.”

 “They can’t get much business over there.”

 “You selling what the people want, they come an’ find you.”

 “I guess that’s true.”

 “An’ at night you get the girls. You know the girls I mean. They just hang around in case somebody in a car or a truck calls them over to ask directions.”

 “That’s further downtown, isn’t it? It used to be just north of the Lincoln Tunnel that the girls would work the traffic.”

 “Don’t know about that,” he said. “Girls I know about is right here on Eleventh Avenue, strutting their stuff in the blond wigs and the hot pants. ’Cept they ain’t girls, if you take my meaning.”

 “You mean they’re transsexuals.”

 “Transvestites, transsexuals. There’s a difference, but I disremember which is which. Boys looking to be girls, and I must say there’s some of ’em look mighty fine. Wouldn’t you say?”

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