A Christmas Racket
(With apologies to Charles Dickens)
I hate Christmas.
Not just because everybody goes soft this time of year Ė even the hoods (pretending for a few days that we all really like each other when we donít and we wonít rip each otherís hearts out until after New Yearís when we will)
But I also hate Christmas because all those so called legitimate business people hop on the rip-off bandwagon and pick the publicís pockets so clear thereís nothing left for hoods like me to rip off.
So when I get to my downtown social club and find the heat turned up, and left hand-Louie (we naturally call Lefty) putting up reindeer, I flip my lid
Maybe I got a lot of money from all the rackets I got going, but that donít mean I want to give it all to the utility company.
Lefty tells me the kids will catch cold if I donít turn up the heat.
What kids, I ask?
And he says the ones heís invited in for a Christmas party.
Which explains the reindeer.
I tell him, NO WAY.
What respectable mobster has kidsí Christmas parties in his social club anyway?
Not John Gotti, I can tell you that.
Lefty pleads, telling me heís already promised the kids.
I tell him to take back the promise or heís fired.
That shut his trap.
He gets that look in his eyes that I REALLY hate, the look comes with his usual sob tale about how little I pay him as it is and how hard off his family has it, especially his youngest brat whoís been sick.
I tell him to go home and come back tomorrow so he can do the collections.
He reminds me that tomorrow is Christmas, and Iím just about to ball him out again when Mugzie and The Hook come through the front door, all decked out in their finest clothes as if they was going to a wake.
Mugzie says theyíve come to collect for the poor crooks Christmas fund to help our less fortunate brothers.
I ask him whatís wrong with the jails?
If a mug isnít smart enough to make a living in this racket, heís certainly incompetent enough to get himself locked up.
The Hook asks me if maybe my partner, Big Jim might want to contribute.
I tell him Big Jim got rubbed out last year, and he ainít in no position to help nobody anymore.
When everybodyís gone, I lock the place up, figuring to go home and get some sleep since Iím going to be doing collecting for myself in the morning.
A bum spots me on the street and asks me for a buck for a cup of coffee.
I tell him to get a job and get into my Lincoln.
On my way home, I spot Molly the hooker and pull over to ask for my cut.
She says she hasnít had much business being the holiday and all, and that she needs all sheís got so she can feed her kids.
I tell her sheíd not feeding nobody on my cut, and Iíll be over to her place in the morning to collect Ė and sheíd better have it, too, or else.
I see Limpy the junkie, too, but heís so out of it I donít bother to stop.
I figure with him I have to wait until morning because heís so high he wouldnít feel it if I had to break his legs.
This leaves me plenty peeved when I get to my door.
Maybe Iím tired, too, because I think I see Big Jim standing there for a moment.
But I blink and heís gone. So I get inside quick to get myself a drink.
I think maybe itís the feds playing with my head again, some trick to get back at me because theyíve never been able to make a bust stick.
The last thing I need on Christmas Eve is a jolly FBI agent playing games.
I feel better after my first drink, and almost cheery after my second.
Thatís when I break out the veal parmesan I bought at the old deli on my way home. Nothing like a little of the old neighborhood to calm a man down.
After that I got to bed and Iím just drifting off when a clatter of metal like a moving junk yard rattles me awake, and I see Big Jim again this time by my bedroom door. Heís wrapped up in chains on which heís got a hundred concrete blocks Ė the kind we use to help send deadbeats to the fishes with, only one does the job for the deadbeat, and here Big Jim has a couple of hundred.
He says these blocks are punishment for all the crimes he committed in life, and that the one waiting for me when I die is already twice as long and heavy as his, and that heís come back to warn me to change my ways while I still can Ė and that three spirits are gonna visit me to help show me the errors of my ways.
I grab a revolver out of my night stand and blast away. But Big Jimís gone and the bullets shatter plaster.
After yet another drink, Iím lights out, until I find some weasel-nosed little rat guy shaking my shoulder and telling me itís time to go.
I grab for my gun again, but itís not there.
I blink Ė and me and the weasel are standing in the street.
In the old neighborhood.
Not how it is today, but how it was when I grew up there.
And if that ainít strange enough, I see myself there as a kid.
Back then, I ran for a local numbers guy, earning spending money the way kids in the suburbs did delivering newspapers.
He was the sweetest little Jew I ever met.
He even gave us kids a bonus for Christmas and it wasnít even his Goddamn holiday.
I remember how broken up I was when the organization rubbed him out, and vowed to never let them do that to me.
Then, the weasel tugs my sleeve and we end up someplace else.
Still in the old hood, but later in time. Iím older, a young man talking to the daughter of a local merchant. Sheís begging me to give up the rackets, saying I should go to college and make a real life for myself.
Me? Give up this life?
Her leaving hurt me more than even when my mother died.
I never saw her again.
The weasel tugs my sleeve again and weíre in some back alley, my younger self holding a gun on the man who rubbed out the Jew.
I remember feeling like crap for months after that Ė my first kill.
But like everything else, I got over it.
I wake up in a sweat in my bed.
What a freakiní nightmare.
I take my fourth drink just to stop my hands from shaking.
Iím not sure if I fall asleep again or wasnít awake in the first place.
A fat man speaks to me with his mouth full from the half a sandwich heís stuffed into it.
He tells me weíre going for a little ride.
I tell him I donít want to go back to the old neighborhood.
The fat man says weíre not going far.
Now weíre on the street again, but the street of today, not yesterday.
I see the bum I saw earlier huddled in a door way against the cold, his lips are turning blue.
The fat man tugs my sleeve with his greasy fingers and weíre on a fire escape looking into Molly the hookerís window.
Her two kids are bawling away in one room. Sheís in the bathroom with a bottle of pills.
A moment later, weíre in shooting ally a few blocks away. Limpy is fixing his evening cocktail, but when he pokes the needle into his bloody arm, something goes wrong, he starts shaking.
Itís what happens when you take bad dope.
I try to say something to the fat man, but he pops us to some place else Ė some place Iíve never been before.
I see a pretty woman through a big window and a batch of kids running around her, and one small sickly kid in the corner trying to look cheerful as the woman and the other kids put up Christmas stuff.
Then, I left walks in with that stupid reindeer from my club. He puts it up near the sickly kid and says heís sorry he canít give the kid much else.
I tell the fat man to take me back. The last thing I need is to have the sick kid die before my eyes.
Then Iím in bed again.
This time a real dark character is standing over me, his hat down over his forehead and his collar up, so all I see are his glowing eyes.
He doesnít talk. He just motions for me to follow and I follow.
But as I do, something changes.
Not the room. Weíre still standing in my bedroom. But it seems different.
I hear two guys whispering in the corner, one saying they shouldnít be here, the other one telling him to relax, the old manís dead, and that they might as well get something out of the old goatís things before the feds seize everything as evidence.
Then in a blink, weíre on the street again.
Mugzie and The Hook from the poor crookís Christmas fund are talking about some fool they knew and how glad everybody is now that heís dead, somebody who never cared about anybody but himself, not even the family.
A moment later, weíre standing in front of a church, and out comes Left and his wife, and that batch of kids Ė except for the sick one.
Instead, I see men carrying a very small coffin.
No mobsterís funeral touches me as much as this one does.
I tell the dark man to take me away, figuring Iíll wind up back in my bed with no more ghosts to haunt me.
But he waves his arms and Iím not in bed, Iím in a graveyard, standing next to Big Jimís grave, and a new dug grave with my name on the headstone.
I fall to my knees.
Iíve never begged for anything in my life, yet I hear my voice pleasing with this spirit for another chance.
I donít want to end up like Big Jim did, the Imelda Marcos of concrete shoes.
When I wake up in bed, I think Iím still dead. I hear church bells.
It takes me a moment to realize Iím still alive, and with a hangover only a sledge hammer can cure.
I stagger to the window.
Snow covers the old neighborhood making it glitter.
People are walking down the block carrying presents, and I realize only one night has passed.
It is Christmas Day.
Itís not too late.
I hurry outside, looking in doorway after doorway until I find the bum.
Heís covered in snow, but alive.
I stuff him into a cab with the order to take him to one of my hotels.
I donít stop to see the cab off, I go to the deli.
The deli man asks if I want more veal, I tell him I want turkey Ė not two turkeys† -- and all the trimmings, and I give him two places to send the stuff: Molly the hookerís place and Leftyís.
I tell the deli man to send food to both places every day, then I run over to the hospital, where I ask about Limpy, who somehow survived. I tell the doctors to give him the best of care and send the bill to me, and then Iím gone again.
When I get to Leftyís place, I donít ring the bell.
I just stand on the sidewalk as if I still have a ghost beside me and stare in.
I hear laughter inside, even the weak laughter of Leftyís sick kid.
Then, Lefty sees me and comes out to see what I want, saying I promised him the day off.
I ask if I can spend Christmas with him and his family, and Leftyí looks at me odd, saying finally that they donít have much, but theyíll share it with me.
At which point, the deli delivery arrives, and I tell Lefty he has to take his kid to specialists in the morning. He says he canít afford those kinds of doctors on his salary. I tell a partner can, and he looks again very strange.
I tell him when have a couple of good businesses downtown he can run for me, and who knows, we might even go legit?