BY LUIS PAREDES
VINCENT CAVALIERI SLOWLY WIPED a smear of ketchup from his lips. He didn’t want to scare the greasy brown cockroach scuttling between wedges of home fries on his plate. It paused on a large chunk and burrowed its tiny, triangular-shaped head through the crisp, golden skin.
Enjoy it while you can you disgusting, little freeloader, Vincent thought.
His amber-coloured eyes tracked the insect as it made its way off the plate and onto the diner’s white, Formica counter.
It froze in place, as if suddenly realizing it made a fatal mistake, exposing itself on such a visible surface. The bug’s long, whisker-thin antenna sniffed the air and stiffened.
Vincent slammed his palm onto the counter.
Silverware and ceramic coffee cups clattered from the percussive force. The geezer next to him leapt off his red, vinyl stool, sputtering coffee from his mouth and nostrils.
The line cook poked his head out from the kitchen pass-through. His sweaty, dark hair dangled over his forehead like limp octopus tentacles. “Porca miseria! Cosa stai facendo?”
“What am I doing?” Vincent glared at the cook. “I’m playing pattycake! What’s it look like I’m doing, Massimo?”
Vincent focused his attention back toward the counter. Half the cockroach squirmed within the meaty curve of his thumb and stubby forefinger. Three of its thorny, segmented legs paddled the air as a low hiss escaped its lolling head.
The lines around Vincent’s deep set eyes crinkled into deep furrows as his lips widened.
“Vincenzo!” Massimo said. “Why are you smiling?”
“I was just thinking about the last man I stabbed.”
Massimo’s jaw slackened.
“Relax, it was back in France. On my last trench raid, I killed a German officer with his own sword—put the pointy end right through that sausage eater’s ribs.” Vincent lifted his palm—strings of yellow goo stretched between his skin and the counter. He wiped the mess off with a cloth napkin. “The Kraut hissed at the end, just like this roach.”
A young, bespectacled waiter walking by doubled over and gagged.
Vincent shook his head. “Marone! If this is the calibre of soldier we’re sending to fight Hitler, we’re in trouble.” He tossed the napkin onto the counter and picked up his suitcase leaning against the stool. “I ain’t paying for breakfast, by the way.”
Not that he would ever have to pay.
Vincent worked for the Company, and today was collection day. Debtors in Yonkers, New York—especially line cooks with wives in the red—bent over backwards to stay on his good side.
Vincent shouldered through the diner’s frosted, double glass doors. His size twelve Oxfords crunched against the first fall leaves fluttering on the concrete. The commuters walking along Warburton Avenue flowed around him as if he was a granite slab dumped in the middle of a river.
Tall, muscular, and broad shouldered, Vincent did resemble a human mountain wrapped in a dark grey Brooks Brothers suit, topped with a dollop of slicked back, grey hair at his rounded peak.
A few men tipped their fedoras toward Vincent as they sped by, but mostly everyone tried to avoid his gaze. That was fine by him. His “presence” as his boss, Mr. Gladstone, liked to call it, helped him speed through the collections process each month.
Most of Vincent’s marks owed one dollar, but he would tack on an extra quarter—the Cavalieri tax—on any fool that gave him a hard time and pocket that well-earned coinage.
Of course, he wouldn’t be able to do that today, not with Mr. Gladstone sending a trainee out with Vincent. It was some kind of family favour.
“Show the kid the ropes,” Mr. Gladstone said, in between cigar puffs. “Give him a taste of that Cavalieri can-do attitude.”
He wondered if the poor mook being sent over even knew what he was getting into. Vincent didn’t when he started working for the Company.
His knuckles turned white as he gripped the suitcase’s handle tighter. Vincent hated working with a partner, but how could he say no to the boss?
No one said no to the boss.
Vincent rubbed his hands together.
His Cadillac’s heater was on the fritz again. He’d have to take it to the mechanic soon, but first he had to pick up… what was his name again?
He lifted the cocktail napkin pinched between his thumb and forefinger closer to his eyes and focused on the squiggles that spelled out the trainee’s name—Joe Caruso.
Besides that, all the boss’s secretary had written down was the time Joe’s train arrived and that he had brown hair. Vincent crumpled the napkin and tossed it out the window.
He stared at the station’s red-brick facade and admired how the October sun gleamed off the rectangular windows set within the entrance’s stone archway.
He imagined himself waiting on one of the tracks. Where would he even go if he had a ticket?
Vincent sighed as the scent of sea salt and the sound of palm leaves sashaying in the wind tickled his mind. He shook the phantom sensations away.
Forget about it, he told himself. As far as he knew, the New York Central Railroad didn’t make stops in Florida. Besides, who would he share the trip with? He was single and almost all of his family in Westchester and back in Italy were dead and gone.
“Fucking war,” he mumbled.
A steam train, one of those new Mercury locomotives, slowed to a crawl on the elevated platform snapping his attention back. The train’s chimney and whistle were all hidden beneath a smooth, metal cowl. It resembled an elongated bullet with decorative chrome piping, and an enormous faceted headlight at the centre of its rounded nose.
“That’s the future, I guess,” Vincent said, lighting a cigarette. He smoked it halfway down and flicked it toward the street as the station’s doors opened.
Commuters poured onto the street or hopped into waiting cabs, eager to get out of the chilly air. A young man towered over the crowd, hugging a canvas satchel to his chest. The ends of his frizzled, mousy-brown hair danced in the air as he hopped up and down.
Vincent sucked at his teeth. Kid’s cold. Serves him right for wearing a summer suit and no coat.
He leaned out the window. “You Joe?”
The young man nodded and hustled over.
“You can call me Vincent.” He nodded toward the passenger side door. “Get in, kid. We’ve got to make the rounds today and clear out our deck.”
Joe slid onto the cloth seat and closed the door. He sat and stared out the window, fingers tapping his satchel. “What’s a deck by the way?”
Vincent steepled his hands together and rocked them back and forth. “Minchia! Didn’t anyone tell you what you’re doing today?”
Joe’s eyes widened. “No, not really. Something about going door to door. My cousin’s Dad said that he talked to Mr. Gladstone and that I should show up to meet you here at the train station.”
Vincent waved his hands. “Okay, enough. Do me a favour and open the glove compartment there.”
“What am I looking for?”
Vincent jabbed his finger toward a small, leather-bound notebook. “That’s our deck. See that bookmark? Open it up.”
Joe’s jaw dropped. “There are so many names here!”
“Don’t worry, kid. I’ll ease you in with two stops this morning. We’ll break for lunch, and then…” Vincent cracked his knuckles. “We clear out our deck.”
“Oh, come on.” Joe narrowed his eyes. “All these names in one afternoon?”
Vincent killed the engine and stared out onto the road. “Do you want to tell the boss that we couldn’t get his money today?”
Joe shook his head.
“Good, because it’s this or you join up and start parachuting into Europe, kid.”
“No, I need a job.” Joe coughed. “This job, I mean. I really need it.”
Vincent looked at the worn patches keeping the boy’s suit together. “Yeah, sure looks like it. Alright, kid. Read off the first name on our list.”
Vincent shrugged his shoulders and started the car. “Gotta start somewhere.”