Friday, June 20, 2008

The Clown Hit

Louie, who had been brought up in Hell's Kitchen, didn't think he could kill a clown, even if there was big money in it. And there would be, he knew, even though price had never come up. The clown was to be "done" while he was onstage, when a toy gun was used in his act, to make a statement, the money man said, but also to buy "the people involved" sometime to get outta there, before people realized it wasn't fake blood and the clown wasn't getting up. "What price can be put on anyone's head?" Louie said to his mother, who hated clowns.

"Why are you asking me?" Estelle La Farge said. "Do you think you can discuss hits with your own mother, you murderous bastard?"

That had been an inside joke for years -- a line you said with a wink, which used to crack everybody up, especially Louie, because he knew his mother didn't mean it. But a lot of people had died, and Louie's mama had white hair, and Louie's hair had acquired a new part, he having been grazed in a way that put a perfect straight line from front to back on the side of his head. To keep people from asking questions, because the hair never grew back, Louie went twice a week to the barber and got his head shaved. Only he stopped going, because the barber owed him money and his supervisor money, and it had begun to seem to Louie that the old days were back, but they weren't as much as they had been the first time, when he was a kid, when the country was a kid, and everything was new.

Now those things which looked new looked cheap, looked like a bad value, looked like someone had used shoddy materials, just to get by, just to make a buck, just to keep food on the table.

"I'm dying, ma," Louie said, pushing away his Scotch and soda, letting his forehead drop into his empty hand. "Maybe I'm already dead. You ever feel like that?"

"Go to hell, you bastard," Estelle La Farge said. "Get the hell out of my house."

Louie jumped to his feet and stuck both arms straight out, palms up, his face contorted with puzzlement. "I hope you're kiddin', ma. I got nowhere's else to go. If I die, who's gonna bury me?"

"Die doin' what ... killin' people? I said get outta my house."

Louie gave his mother a long, hard stare, not to intimidate her, but to try to imagine what she was thinking. Did she hate him? Was she about to laugh? Was she sick, and the one who was dying? Did she hold Louie responsible for the early deaths of two of his four brothers and a critically injured sister-in-law, who was only just barely alive in an intensive care center, which was draining Estelle's finances, at a time when the economy seemed to be going to hell, because the powers that be were making it so.

"I'm not leavin', ma," Louie said, carrying his big frame to the back door. "I got nowhere else to go ... it's you or the grave."

Estelle wiped her face with her apron, letting her hands linger around her face, her eyes, so that she could get in a few sobs before she let them drop. "You gonna bring me some money, Lou? Our back's are against the wall. What your father said is coming true. And everybody called him a fucking crackpot. He knew this crowd. He was a businessman ... these people are evil."

Louie shook his head. He couldn't tell whether Estelle was paying his father a compliment, God rest his soul, or busting his balls, which she, like no other person on the planet, could do, because he loved his mother. What did she know about evil? She'd never seen the things that Louie had seen which surely passed for evil. The mistreatment of women and children, used as prostitutes, by politicians, public servants, who would just as soon kill the children they were sleeping with as have sex with them. It was medieval, although Louie wasn't entirely sure what the word "medieval" meant. But he had heard the word now twice in three days in his mostly Italian community east of Chicago.

"You ever heard of medieval, ma?" Louie said, reaching for an old peppermint in a cracked jar, which one of his brothers had given her one year for Christmas, when people were still alive, and it didn't seem so tomblike wherever he went. When there had been plenty of money, too much money, money which had corrupted good strong young men and beautiful young girls who used to sing in the choir and sit on their daddies' knees while the other men complimented them, but only so much, because Louie's dad, though he was a straight businessman, didn't put up with any shit involving his daughters. None. But the shit had somehow seeped into their lives, carried no doubt by the money, and they were both on their third marriages, and one couldn't wait to get her third divorce. And all the kids were a mess, except one. Frankie. The runt no one ever thought would amount to jack squat, because he was always sick as a kid, and just wanted to be left alone. But now Frankie was a big wig. He had done well for himself, the hard way: college, two degrees, a job in Washington, D.C. working as a lobby something.

"Medieval means burning people at the stake, because they're a threat to the establishment," Estelle said. "You thinkin' about adopting some of the old approaches?"

Louie gave his mother another woeful, pleading look. "Why are you saying these things to me, ma? I'm lookin' for a real job. He good job. I've even put in a call to Frankie. He loves me. It's gonna be good. Hey, we still look out for one another. That will never change." Louie reached out to give his mother a hug, which she reluctantly received.

"Doin' what? What have you ever done that built something up? Your father built up things, but it didn't rub off. The whole string of you turned out to be bums. Killers. And I got three sons left, and the only one who talks to me ... is still in the fucking killing business!"

"Ya wanna eat, doncha ma!" Louie said, bellowing so loudly he shook the room. "I told you I'm lookin' for a job! I ain't a killer. I might have been, but I'm not anymore! I've been goin' to church, saying my Hail Marys and prayin'. I'm dyin' ma."

She started to go out of the room, but stopped herself, and turned with tears in her eyes. Her fists were clenched so that they were turning white, and Louie believed if his mother could do it with just one blow, she'd have hit him and killed him. They were both a mess ... and they were left with one another, both too messed up to do the other any good. All that was left was a slow death, maybe a quicker one than expected, funeral arrangements ... and whatever.

Estelle's eyes narrowed as she spoke, so that the pupils in her eyes were not visible behind her tears. "If you see Jesus out there ... anywhere! Tell him! ... tell him he makes it too damn hard to believe in him anymore. Tell him to go to hell. Tell him to leave me the fuck alone."

Louie was crushed by his mother's words. Words spoken against God and Jesus were ... evil, were guaranteed to get you killed and not forgiven for your sins. Besides his mother, and a hooker who now wanted just to be good friends, and Jesus ... and God ... there wasn't anything more, no more people to associate with, to talk to, to care when the world spit in your face and hoped you would die and meant it. Such cruelty in the world affected different people different ways. Louie, with the help of his girlfriend, was seeing a lot of things differently. And she had told Louie, that if Frankie was in Washington, where all the powerful politicians were, and if Louie went to see Frankie and got caught up in that, it would end his life. She knew it. She had a sick sense, at least that was how Louie had heard it. "Sixth sense? Oh, okay. What's what ... women's intuition without all those drugs you used to take?"

"Maybe," she'd said flicking her cigarette out the door out into the street from the booth where she was sitting. God knows I worked hard for ... something. It may as well be something that lets me know in advance what's gonna happen, so I can manage to stay alive for my little girl. And keep all of you people out of my pants."

Louie was sick, and he didn't know why. He wanted to throw up, and he also wanted to get drunk. But that combination hadn't been working lately. So Louie was thinking about something else to get him through the day. His girlfriend had said she had no more connections, and didn't want any. She was tired of being forced into bed by men who sold her drugs and always wanted to up the price. "I got tired of being stuck ... comin' and goin'. I promised my mother I would be a lady at some point in my life, and now, not being dead yet, is as good a time as any."

A lady. That was commendable, Louie thought. But he felt sorry for her. When you're a hooker, and you look it, and everybody has had a shot a you, who wanted it, and when you became a punching bag besides ... how does one get a lady outta that? Louie wondered. But he wasn't going to ask her, although maybe if he got mad enough, he would use that to wound her, to make her cry and break her down, so that she would keep him satisfied. Louie's girlfriend always gave better service when she was emotional and crying, and he would be the beneficiary of all that pent-up emotion, because she would punish herself, using extra vigor and gusto to finish him and get Louie away from her.