He would remember that day, always. He was with his mother. They were outside the New York Institute for Special Education, or as the people in the Bronx neighborhood called it——The School for the Blind.
There was a small building on the property at the corner of Williamsbridge and Astor where the Institute sold brooms and mops that the blind made there. His mother always bought extras and gave them to friends and neighbors in the apartment building. She was that kind of person.
They were standing in the shade of the Institute trees waiting for the streetlight to change when out of the clear blue the boy’s mother said, “Dean…I want you to remember…God is always working in your life…No matter what you think or what you’re feeling…No matter how troubled your world…God is always working in your life.”
That’s all. She took a drag on her cigarette and they crossed the street loaded down with brooms and mops. She did not press the subject. She did not elaborate. It was just a statement of fact like she was ordering off a luncheonette menu.
Statements like this usually die on the mind. A clarity experienced before the moment passes back into the obscurity of indifference. It was the same with him, except he would have reason to remember. Because within the week that ten year old would be arrested for murder.
“The crime…is life itself.”
Not exactly a saying for meek shoulders. But his life was not exactly the business of meek shoulders. In the spring of 1957, Peter Prince walked out of his attorney’s house on a warm Bronx night and into uncertainty. Would he ever see his son Guy again? Was he to be murdered?
He dare not look back. He knew Guy would be in the window watching him.
“The crime…is life itself.”
People ask God to forgive their transgressions, but to what end? It is the age old tale of the ultimate exit strategy. The ‘How to Guide’ to get away with everything that has finally caught up with you.
He, at least, was not that kind of man. He did not need to look in the mirror to know who he was.
His Continental was parked across the street in front of Saint Lucy’s Grotto. If you know the Bronx at all, especially the Allerton section, you’d have heard of the grotto. It was right off Boston Road and home to Lourdes of America. Yeah, that’s right…it was an actual replica of the Lourdes shrine in France.
They had a huge mock cave and a statuary Madonna where water poured forth at her bare feet and there for the taking. There were benches facing the cave where the desperate, the lost, and needy, or those who just wanted to be one in prayer with the sainted woman come to shed themselves of the world.
Before he got into his car, Peter stood at the iron fencing and looked into the silent cave. There were rows of candles in their blood red holders where people would drop coins into a metal box and buy the right to light one. From his pocket he took out a coin and flicked it through the fencing.
He had come here with his wife often after they were married. She’d had a number of miscarriages and was told she would never have children. She would fill a coffee can with shrine water and each night dip her finger into the water and make a cross upon her stomach while she prayed.
A boy had been born, and the woman had died. It was as simple as that.
Peter got into his Lincoln. He turned over the ignition and reached under the seat where he kept a 9mm pistol.
He swung onto Boston Road heading toward Williamsbridge. He remained intent on the steam of headlights behind him. He changed lanes a few times to see if he were being followed.
When he passed the Melba Theatre a hard dose of reality cut through him, burning against the night sky. This was the
neighborhood of his youth. He had lived in that theatre. And these were the blocks he’d roamed. The old dime store, the corner luncheonette. They were still there, the same drab, tired storefronts. The same front stoops, the alleys where he played stickball and feasted on cigarettes and beer. There for a few precious moments in passing, then gone. His youth, gone. He was suddenly unnerved by the vicious hand of mortality.
At 222nd Street he turned. He was making for the Thruway. In his rearview he caught sight of a Fairlane taking the corner.
The streetlights strobing off its candy blue roof. It moved with such power he knew this was a muscle car, and if it was them, they could eat his Lincoln alive. He could feel his adrenalin taking over. He had his gun at the ready in his lap.
He passed under a sign: NEW ENGLAND THRUWAY—GEORGE WASHINGTON BRIDGE. He held to the left lanes. The Fairlane was a few cars back. It wasn’t opening up it was just following.
Coming up was the sign for the Orchard Beach exit. He waited until the last moment, then he cut that Lincoln across three lanes. In a blare of headlights and car horns he remained intent on the rearview, but the Fairlane didn’t follow. It sped past the exit and on into a gallery of taillights.
He was on Shore Road now heading toward City Island and New Rochelle. He kept watch, but the traffic had thinned out and there was nothing that aroused his suspicion. Once he crossed the Pelham Bay Bridge, Shore Road was mostly two lanes flanking the Long Island Sound, both sides of the road were heavily wooded.
He had about a mile to go before he’d be out of that Lincoln and gone. He had to slow down when he came to Bartow Circle. It was very dark there. He cruised along, passing the turn for City Island, and kept on Shore Road toward New Rochelle.
There were few cars, nothing that threw out a warning. There were no lights but this way, no homes really, just the dark structures of the Split Rock Golf Course.
Prince was cooling out, figuring he’d licked it, when he suddenly heard a car come roaring up alongside him.
It had no headlights on. It was a big, dark painted Packard. It was in the oncoming lane. He could just make out the shadow of a man leaning out the car window with a shotgun.
He saw the weapon and his instincts for survival kicked in. He hit the brakes and spun the wheel. There was a flash of light from the gun barrel and the windows of the Lincoln exploded.
Blood is the ultimate fix.
Saw that graffitied on the IRT platform at White Plains Road. Really speaks to the heart, doesn’t it? Nothing like waiting for the train in the predawn light and getting an eyeful of that. Of course, you can read that sentence about any which way, and it all comes out right every time.
You ever hear of the Pirates of Pelham Parkway? They were a headline once. Front page stuff for about five minutes in the Bronx newspapers of the day. Murder and death, death and murder. The eternal Playland carousel in all its burning colors, rising up over the boardwalk with its cavalcade of park rides. That glow of amusement is always with us. Death and murder, murder and death.
Mister Dean Teranova gonna tell you a tale from his own special estate of mind. A very private place where there is no dental, no medical, no room and board, and where one is always decked out in their very best moldering clothes.
Back in ‘57 there was a pack of four kids who called themselves the Pirates of Pelham Parkway. Very creative, in a tragic, pathetic way. They were all about ten years old, and real shitasses who thought the world revolved around their own special brand of stupidity. You know that type of crowd. Every era has them. Every decade, every country, city, every corporate boardroom and school, every street corner for Christ’s sake.
That kind of ratpack is and will always be with us…like Christmas and cancer.
Pelham Parkway literally cuts across the heart of the Bronx, if you believe the Bronx has a heart. It runs about two miles from Pelham Bay out past White Plains Road. It’s a divided Parkway, the lanes of traffic separated by wide swaths of lawn and trees that had been planted back in the thirties.
No trains were allowed to cross it. Everything there went underground or swung out along the Esplanade. In an attempt to approximate class, no hotel or bar was allowed to front the parkway. By the late fifties, this was the last bastion of the white man before he fled to Westchester with his family from a plague of “spics” and “niggers”, as he called them, who were spidering their way up from the Bronx River.
On the northwest corner of Pelham Parkway and Eastchester Road was the huge white edifice of the Bronx Municipal Hospital. On the southwest corner there were vast open lots and a lone six story apartment building——1540. That’s where the Pirates lived and plotted out their petty acts of manhood.
In one of the lots behind the apartment there was an excavation pit for a planned building where the dirt had been bulldozed up onto the sides framing it in like a bull ring. The pit was about three feet deep in water, filthy and stinking water, as a matter of fact. When they dug down, they’d hit a natural spring, but what gave the water its special odor was runoff from the machinery across the street at Bronx Municipal.
The Pirates had constructed themselves a raft from scrap wood and hammered up a flagpole of sorts where they hung a strip of white sheet with a not exactly stylish skull and crossbones. It was from there they ruled their filthy pond, kicking the ass of any transgressors who defied their domination.
Except, of course, teenagers who happened along and rained rocks down on them. For them, all they had in response were the venomous promises of revenge.
The four were lazing on the raft, listening to their transistor radios all cued up to WABC and blasting away as they smoked. Think telling portrait of American youth on a perfect summer day. One of them suddenly said, “Who’s that punk up there watching us?” The one who’d spoken was Wayne DiGiacomo, but everyone called him Jockstrap. The others looked to where Jockstrap was aiming a finger gun.
There was a scruffy haired, skinny sort of kid with hands wedged down in pockets standing on one of those hills of bulldozed earth. Calling him a lonely looking silhouette was an understatement.
“That’s the kid what just moved into the building,” said Bill Mercurio. “His name is Duane…or Dean…something with a D, anyway.”
“How about dipshit?” said Donny Gerundo.
“His family just moved up here from Florida,” said Mercurio.
“Where did you pick up all that?” said Gerundo.
“The mouth,” said Jockstrap.
Which meant Mercurio’s mother.
His name ain’t Duane or Dean or Dopey or fuckin’ Dipstick,” said John Lombardi. He was lying on his back staring up at the sky. He started blowing funky smoke rings into the dead Bronx air. Lombardi was pretty big for his age, with a formidable head, so that everyone called him Pluto. When he was pretty much played out putting on his half-assed show he went on, “I saw the kid this morning in the lobby with his mother. He’s black.”
“He’s not,” said Mercurio. “He’s from Florida.” Gerundo, the centerpiece of this genius squad, kicked Mercurio in the back. “They got spades in Florida.”
“You think I don’t know that,” Mercurio cried out, grabbing at where he’d been kicked. “He’s just real tan,” said Mercurio. “He’s Italian. I heard the mother say so.”
“They got spades in Italy. Jews, too,” said Jockstrap. “They came here on the Mayflower.”
Gerundo gave out with a grunt. “The Mayflower musta took a wrong turn somewhere unless the Pilgrims are all dagos.”
“You’re a fuckin’ imbecile,” said Mercurio.
“I was just making a joke,” said Jockstrap.
“The only joke about you,” said Gerundo, “is your fuckin’ birth certificate.”
“I think we call him Rochester,” said Lombardi. “He cocked his head to look at the others. “What do you think?”
That pack just lit up at the idea, Rochester being the name of the black character with the gravelly voice on the Jack Benny comedy show who played Benny’s valet and chauffeur.
“Rochester,” said Jockstrap, bobbing his head like a mule. “Does he have a shoeshine personality or what?”
“Second only to you, fool,” said Gerundo.
Gerundo told Jockstrap to get the kid out of there.
Jockstrap stood up on the raft and it listed a bit as he began to shout out as he thrust an arm in the boy’s direction. “Hey, you…Rochester…take a fuckin’ hike. Disappear.”
The kid with the scruffy hair and his hands in his pockets was, in fact, named Dean. He could hear that stocky kid shouting above the music. “Hey, Rochester…take a hike. You hear me, Rochester?”
Dean looked around for a moment like there should be somebody named Rochester. But he didn’t need a diploma to get the insults and barbs.
So much for stepping out to try and make friends. Nothing like being the unwelcome stranger. He wished they’d stayed in Florida instead of coming back to the Bronx.
He got the hint. Next time he was forced to go to church he’d light a candle for those kids. They should drown in that rat sump.
Anger doesn’t go away like bruises. It’s a poisonous presence lurking there on the borders of one’s existence that manages to touch the colors of everything that is the person. But kids don’t know that. They live it, but they don’t know it.Anger doesn’t go away like bruises. It’s a poisonous presence lurking there on the borders of one’s existence that manages to touch the colors of everything that is the person. But kids don’t know that. They live it, but they don’t know it.
The boy walked the neighborhood alone trying to find a place for himself. At the end of the street there was, of all things, a stable where they kept horses. It was right where Stillwell Avenue butted into the Parkway. Believe it or not, it was a stable and on weekends they even had horse rides around the corral for kids. He stood there watching a groom walk one of the horses. It all seemed so unreal, like his life at that very moment.
Dean was just entering the lobby when the stainless steel elevator door with its porthole window opened. Metal gears ratcheting, and here comes the four, loud and raucous, their radios blaring.
He wished he could just bleed into the bottle glass that framed the lobby because when they came upon Dean, he could see the crude and malicious joy on their faces.
They were calling him “Rochester” right off and swirling around him and he feared they might jump him, but after a rush of insults they were out the glass lobby doors.
He was hit with a sudden flash. One of those little epiphanies that if you don’t do something about this situation right now, you could become their personal whipping boy who they invent new and inspiring ways to shit on.
When Jockstrap saw Dean swinging out the lobby door he said, “We’re in trouble boys…Rochester is on us.”
When the others stopped and turned, Dean put up his hands, “I only just wanted to meet you guys. We moved here last week and—”
“You met us,” said Merc. That’s what his friends called him. “Now go meet someone else.”
“Hey…I don’t want trouble—”
“But we do,” said Gerundo.
Dean saw Gerundo’s eyes narrow as he smiled. The look was unmistakable. This guy carried an asskicking card around in his back pocket. They would have kept on, most probably, but another kid was passing by the front of the building who grabbed their attention.
“Hey, Jew boy,” shouted Lombardi. “How’s life over at the Kennedy home?”
Then Merc, “What you doin’ out on the street? You ‘scape out of your cage?”
The kid they were insulting was about their age. Maybe a year older. He kept pretty cool and collected to Dean’s way of thinking. He was a handsome kid. A real Ricky Nelson type with Brylcreem black hair and he wore those Italian cockroach killers and black pants.
“The cops find your old man, yet?” Jockstrap shouted. He was following after the boy. He put a hand to his ear. “I can’t hear you!”
The kid didn’t respond. If it was a rise the ratpack wanted out of him, they better not hold their fuckin’ breath.
“I can see you and your father celebrating Christmas up in Sing Sing,” said Merc. “Hey…Jew boy. You deaf?”
How long this would have gone on, how bad it would have gotten, came to an abrupt finish when a woman stepped out onto her apartment terrace and began to rail at the boys for their filthy language. The four took off, sprinting up to Eastchester Road. Shameless and laughing and already on the hunt for whatever next aroused their worst instincts.
The kid never looked back. Dean watched him cross the street, then that expanse of lawn before sprinting across the Parkway. He was fast. He was making for the Kennedy Home which you could just see beyond the trees.
It was an orphanage with a campus of maybe half a dozen well-built brick buildings that flanked the Central railroad tracks which swung under the Parkway then along the Esplanade toward West Farms.
A few hundred orphans resided there. Everyone in Pelham Parkway knew of the place. It was named after Joseph Kennedy, the flier who had died during the war and was the older brother of John Kennedy, the senator from Massachusetts. The Kennedys had lived in a mansion over on Independence Avenue.
The orphans weren’t allowed to go wandering off campus like that. And the remark about the kid’s father and Sing Sing Prison. What was that about? At least he was not alone in being hated.
When Dean entered the apartment his mother leaned out the kitchen door. She saw her boy looked pretty despondent.
“I wish we a stayed in Florida,” he said.
“You’ll make friends. You’ll see. It’ll just happen.”
“Yeah. Like getting’ pneumonia…or run over by a truck.”
“That is one creative way of looking at it.”
He kicked at the wall with a sneaker. “We wouldn’t have had to leave here if daddy hadn’t gambled away everyone’s money and people were after him and he had to sneak off to Florida like a stinkin’ coward.”
A moment later who should lean out the kitchen door. The boy looked suddenly petrified.
“Yeah,” said his father. “It’s the stinkin’ coward himself.”
It took one swing with a hard flat open hand right across the boy’s nose and mouth and the next he knew Dean could hear the thud of his body slam against the wall.
Then there he was sitting on the floor, spread-eagled and dazed and bleeding all down his shirt, his mother kneeling over him, cursing out her husband.
“What’s he supposed to learn for that?” she said. “Tell me, will you. I’d like to know.”
“To look around corners,” her husband said.
Dean sat in his room on the floor with his back to the bed, reading, as it was the purest form of escape that he knew from the hatred and unfairness he felt was aligned against him. He was facing the door with a lamp on the floor beside him to keep the darkness at bay and while he hid in the pages he read, the world was nothing more than an incidental mistake, unreal and untrue. It could not really hurt him.
The door to his room opened and there in the half-light his father just stood.
“What are you reading?”
Dean held the book cover up to the light.
“The Hunchback of…I’ve heard of that,” said his father. He took a few steps toward his son who pulled back. His father leaned down and slipped a twenty dollar bill into the boy’s shirt pocket.
“I’m sorry about tonight. Buy yourself a baseball glove…Or go up to Playland.”
As he turned away, Dean held out the money. “I don’t want it.”
His father stopped and he turned. The boy could not see if his father was infuriated or not. And as aghast as he was, Dean didn’t care. Then Dean heard the old man laugh it off.
“Forgiveness is pretty pricey where you’re concerned,” his father said.
Calling me a Jew…Real creative geniuses, Guy thought.
He lay in bed in the dark on his back in the same attic room that had been set up for him at the Kennedy Home in Weldon Hall.
He held a stiletto up to the moonlight, springing the blade then setting it back, over and over. He liked watching the moonlight flash on that reedy steel.
When the door opened suddenly the light flooded in and he quickly slipped the knife between his hands then cupped them behind his head.
“No,” Guy said to the ceiling… “I haven’t jumped out the window…yet.”
The priest approached. Saw the boy was lying on the covers and still in his street clothes.
“Would it be more comfortable sleeping in your pajamas?”
“You caught me, before I made my escape.”
“We do have rules here.”
“You keep disobeying us. You keep walking off campus, there’s no telling where this kind of attitude will end you up.”
“You’re stuck with me, padre. My lawyer says so. The court says so. As long as my old man stays missing——.”
“You won’t make us lose our compassion for you or your situation. If that is your aim.”
“I don’t aim that high.”
“Eleven years old and already going on too smart for your own good.”
The boy grinned.
The priest walked out, and the door closed, and the boy was in the dark again and he took out the knife and sprung the blade. But he kept thinking about one thing…the boy. The one out front of the apartment. He couldn’t shake the thought of him…or the feeling that came with it.