Mid-November, 2017, Sandy Hook, NJ - Newburgh, NY
On my way back to Newburgh I stop by my mom and sister’s house. The place hadn’t changed much in all my years away.
I’d been by there only a few times in the past three and a half decades. I was happy that Ma and Sister had managed to keep the place. My mother had the foresight to have a small life insurance policy on my father. At least he was good for something, I suppose. Worth more dead than alive.
Off in the far back corner of the property was an old barn, now half collapsed into itself. Inside the barn sat my Mustang - my now mud and moss covered - fire engine red 1968 fastback Mustang, buried under the dust of all those years.
Walking slowly, hands in pockets, I look into the deep woods that border Ma’s property. Woods thick with saplings and tight underbrush and older, taller trees.
The summer grasses bordering the woods, dead now and dried and turned the color of wheat, entangled with a mat of fallen leaves. The air is filled with that unique scent of another autumn rotting into the soil.
The old trees are maples and pines.
As I walk, I’m remembering the tallest ones I’d run to and hide in to escape my father's beatings. Climbing up high into the leaves and thinning twigs to survive another day of my boyhood.
Way up top I’d hold on tight to the smaller branches, swaying in the breeze; twenty, thirty feet in the air. Far above my father down below, wooden switch in his hand, as he waited to beat my ass. I’d hold on tight with one hand, flipping my old man the finger with the other, yelling, “Fuck you, you drunken bastard, you can’t get me, you are too drunk and stupid to climb up here.”
I’d get a beating after when I came down, but it was worth it. For those moments in the tree, I had power over him. It was that desire to have power over that bastard that led me to kill him. Strange to some, I look back on the day I killed my father as the best day of my life. That was the day I sent that fucker packing. Sent him off to some other universe. Hell, I’d hoped. It didn’t matter, as long as he was gone from mine.
Maybe someday I’ll talk to a shrink and I’ll get to tell her my best day, my shining moment was the day I killed my father.
I stop and look at an apple tree that has survived the passage of time. I remember sitting in that tree, too, as a boy.
Inside the collapsing barn some birds scatter up in the weather rotted and exposed rafters. They cause an explosion of dirt and dust and grasses they’ve collected for nesting to rain down on me and my car.
I opened the red Ford’s muddy door and sit behind the wheel. The field mice and squirrels had not been kind to my once beautiful car. The keys are still in the ignition, where I had left them in 1978. I reached over to the glove box and pulled out some papers. In the dry and cracked leather case of the owner’s manual, I found a photograph. It was Juan and my cousin Cathy, Jacinda and me. We were up at Unk’s Farm. It was the summer before our families were killed. We all looked so fresh and happy and young.
Holding back tears I said to the photo, “After all these years, after all this time, after all this death and violence, I think I have found the killer. Nothing I can do and nothing I am going to do will ever make that right...”
I place the old photo almost reverently on the seat. I turn the key, for the hell of it. My car is deader than dead, long past dead.
I played with the silent radio remembering fighting with Juan. When all he wanted to listen to that obnoxious, loud Spanish music. What would I give to ride in this car with him one more time? “You can be the DJ, I won’t bitch, bro...”
Tears again run down my face.
I reach into my pocket and grab my burner phone, calling the cemetery in Jersey. The main office answers and transfers me to the crematorium.
Dog picks up. He starts in with a bunch of small talk and bullshit. I’m not listening.
I break into the middle of his stream of consciousness. “Bob, I’m coming down. Let’s get dinner. We need to talk.”
He replies, “Richie, yes, I’m glad you called. I didn’t want to say too much the other day with Eddie but watch your ass with Charles. He has too much on all of us.”
“Dog, I’ve long ago lost sight of anyone I can trust. Meet me at that Italian joint down the road from the cemetery. I’ll be there at six.”
Waiting in his car in the parking lot on a cold, rainy November night was Bob, “The White Dog.” He saw me walking up in the drizzle, I’d parked a few blocks away. He climbed from his car and motioned to a black cast iron bench. We sat in what was once a bright and colorful summer a garden, now we were encircled with old dead flowers and plants and some rotten Jack-O-Lanterns.
He offers me a cigarette and lights his own. We sit down and he begins to speak. “Richie, they seem to be closing in around us. I’ve got some ties. We need to talk business. The drug business is well established and a young man’s game.”
He sucks on the cigarette and inhales and goes into a coughing fit. He points the cigarette down the road as if I’m supposed to follow where the story I’m about the hear is planning to take me.
“Richie, you were always in on the short con. You never had the balls or patience or time for the long con.”
“I was in on the long con from day one. Everything you see now, everything that happens or has happened, for the past forty years, I had a hand in that. We manufactured everything, Richie.
I manufactured individual reality based on what you want and what you need and what you fear. We stole your identity, everyone’s identity. We manufactured the good guys and bad guys, manufacturing both sides of every fight.”
“The plan made the bad guys just strong enough to justify the war machine
, and we made the good guys weak enough that they need us. They need our guns. Jesus do we sell fucking guns. We’ve got two guns for every man, woman, and child in this country, and you know what we tell them? They need MORE guns. Then we sell them a little more bullshit, based on their own fears that we exploit from the information they freely gave away to us, and we sell then some more guns. But it gets better. We convince them they NEED the shit we sell them. We tell them they need to arm themselves from each other... and the cash registers ring.”
“Hell, remember back in Columbia when we were burying bags of money in the woods? There was so much fucking cash it was a pain in the ass. Bags of that shit. The Felipe family were minor players yet one day I took a pickup loaded with cash to the jungle and had two guys bury it. Then I killed them, of course. Yeah, buddy, that’s how we rolled. Those were good times.”
“Today we sell the drugs through the doctors and hospitals and dentist offices. We get people hooked on the legal drugs and; we cut them off turn them on to the heroin and fentanyl.”
“Then we cycle them in and out of the prison system. I told you back in the ’80’s about the for-profit prisons. It's a money machine today. We have more young men in prison than any other nation in the world, by a factor of five!. Then we sell the public the need for tougher laws and more prisons. The families of these young imprisoned men, have no support so we give them heroin to sell and you know what? We bust them and process them through the system too.”
“Don't get me started on the patriots. Jesus, what a fucking crew...”
“We cull personal information from them and use it to create a twisted personal reality, profiting from their fears and insecurities and feeding them lies. Idiots act on these lies and make some bad decisions. Decisions that work to their detriment and our benefit”.
“It's actually creepier and more terrifying than even George Orwell predicted.”
“Information is the gold, Richie. It always was. We take that information and use it and twist it and shape it to work on their deepest darkest fears. When you are scared, when we know your fears, then we can get you to do anything we want. It’s that simple.”
“The guns and drugs, fast cars, private boats and jets, and hookers are all tools to a larger and more profitable end. In the end, we own you, and you simple fuckers never even saw it coming. I remember selling you, way back in Columbia, that you were ‘Saving America’, what a goddamn rube you were, Richie. Some days I think I, we, owned you since birth. It was never personal, Richie, you were a cog in a gear of a machine so massive none of us understand how it all works.”
“You were smarter than most, Richie, you embraced the information. It will save you. The information you’ve collected, what I sent your way, what you know, what you have on these high-level pigs; it’s more valuable than gold. It will save you.”
“I have my own boxes of information, Richard, and my own conduits to get this information out. Simple warning, if you try to take me out you will be painted a criminal mastermind, a terrorist, a psycho lone-wolf.” Laughing out loud Dog said, “Now THAT is fucking ironic!”
“But now, my good friend, now, I’ve met someone, a woman, a good woman. Her name is Mary. A good, solid Christian woman. To her, I’ve confessed my sins. She tells me when two or more are gathered in the name of The Lord he is with us. Richie, I’ve confessed my sins to The Lord and the FBI.”
I feel like I’ve taken a hard shot to the balls. Sitting stone-like, shaking an anger deep in my guts.
I jump in, “Dog, you remind me of the Blonde when we met. She used to get very drunk and do some very perverted and twisted shit. The next day, hung over and clothed only in her sin she’d search the sky, looking for someone to forgive her. She wanted no forgiveness. She loved the weird shit.”
Dog crushes his cigarette with his shoe, “The system now no longer needs us, Richie. We have created the perfect perpetual motion machine.”
“We liked it. You liked it. We could have handled things cleanly, we could have worked buried deep down within the law. Hell, we own the people who write the laws! But men like you, me, we always chose criminality. Some of us couldn’t handle the lie and turned to the streets and lived there and died. Some of us turned all this into massive profits. A few, like you, walked away and hoped the world would forget. It can’t forget, Richie. The reality we are living today is the world men like you and I created.”
“I don’t know about you, but I always liked how the bodies danced as they collapsed and fell to the ground. That pretty Columbian girl and her son. What was her name? Carmen?”
Through clenched teeth I spit out her name, “Her name was fucking Carmella. Her son's name was Rodrigo, you gaping asshole!”
Dog continues, “Yes, Carmella, that’s right, yes, what a great ass! Yes, that day on the bus. Such a beautiful girl, handsome boy. It was so pretty as the bullets plunged into them.... the way they danced.”
I’m shaking inside. It takes me a full minute of silence before I can even begin to put together words. “So, Dog, it was you. It was always you!”
“Yes, of course, it was me. I couldn’t trust those fucking local mopes. It was a complex operation. Dress those Columbia’s up like Soviets and kick-start our war into high gear. We really started some shit, didn’t we?”
“But, now... now it’s time to come clean. I don’t know if I’ll be forgiven my sins, Mary says if I confess I will. I need to give up my sins to The Lord before it is my time to pass. You should too Richie. It’s like the drunks and drug addicts say, you need to make a fearless and searching moral inventory. Do it before it’s too late!”
It sit on the damp bench in silence. I can hear Bob, the White Dog, breathing heavily. I hear the faint chirp of one of autumns last birds up in a tree.
I stand, “Let’s get some spaghetti, Bob, I’m starving.”
The restaurant is a nice pretty place. It is buried somewhere in north jersey, near Sandy Hook, up in the Atlantic Highlands, overlooking the ocean and New York City. Quiet, Italian, red bricks and flowers. I question if we are properly dressed. A pretty, pudgy lady, the owner, smiles and says, “If you are hungry, you boys are welcome.”
Still digesting his words from only minutes before I look across the table at him, “Dog, I hate you. Thirty to forty years of hatred, surfacing today, right here, right now, among these bright red tablecloths and the checked red and white napkins. This huge basket of breads, a vase of flowers and the bottle of wine you ordered with such care, they all set up this beautiful scene, Dog.”
“We both know you don't know shit about wine, but you sold the waitress, in her tight black slacks and her crisp white blouse, you sold her as she waited breathlessly for your approval of that first sip. You sold her like you've sold everyone. Everyone you ever met.”
“You never sold me White Dog, I was never in all the way. I had those nagging doubts from day one. I stuffed them away. You gave me information. You mentored me. You made me believe we were soldiers for the good. I saw through your game on that first day, but I didn’t want to believe the doubts.”
“Juan... Juan hated you the moment he met you. I should have listened to Juan. He was always a better judge of character than me. He was smarter than me.”
“The truth of who you are is all out there now, raw and unbridled and incontrovertible. Outside there, on the bench, fifteen minutes ago it all came crashing home. The reality rolled over me like a big Atlantic wave, Now, I sit here in the rip current, being beaten by the force and torn to shreds... “
Dog listens to me as he sips his wine.
“This all should have ended long ago. You were broken at birth, your brand of crazy, your own personal brand of madness, White Dog, it has deepened into you. It has molded and shaped you. It used to be subtle, only evident in your eyes. Now it radiates from inside you, like a lava flow of craziness.”
“Back in the day, you could turn it on and off - selective crazy. Now, after all this time the insanity runs too deep. It drips from you like a fever's sweat.”
“I’ve have become my violence, Dog and you, long, long ago became your insanity.”
“Here comes the food, White Dog. Put down your fork!” I slam my palm on the blood red tablecloth!
I look him in the eye, “How do we know they didn't poison your food. Look at the pretty waitress. She could be with them. Do you still wonder? They don't know we are here, a random stop by the shore, right? Who would know to do it?”
“Don't look at me. I'm trying to make peace with you, maybe. Do you trust me, Dog?”
Bob looks slightly confused and nervous.
I take a mouthful of my spaghetti and continue, “You should have never fucked them, I told you that. You fucked and double fucked everyone. Now, they want to hear your side of the story. You’ve been talking to the feds? The fucking federales? That is fucking hilarious. You’ll probably sell it!”
“Now, some suit and tie who was born long after we were covered in filth decided you are a credible source, you are worthy of trust, you hold the answers?”
“Some kid in a tie who wants a promotion, busting old stories wide open. Stories that should have died with the characters.”
“A lot of people died, Dog, your hands are as bloody as anyone's.”
Dog listens to me as he swirls his spaghetti with a fork and spoon.
“Remember that night I put all that acid in your tequila, I've seen a lot of crazy motherfuckers tripping, none compared to you. I don't think you even noticed. You'd downed the quart and did not act any different than when we sat down to drink.”
“How many times did I face your gun, when you were so wrecked you couldn't stand? I never backed away. That's what you wanted. I'd never give you the power.”
“I should have put in enough acid to kill you. No one would have cared. No one. How much acid would it take to kill a man, Dog? Would it kill you or just fry every synapsis in your brain until you never came back; or would it all be a waste. You never did come back, did you, Dog? You left this place a long time ago. What did they do to you? I don't really care, I'm only curious. You are and have always been, nothing to me but a deadly oddity, but now, in these waning and darkening days, your desire to share your truth threatens me and all I have managed to salvage.”
“You were abandoned to us, like a stray, that's how you got your name. When the company realized you were too broken and twisted to work for them, they just left you with us. You were too broken for those guys, White Dog, ponder that. Let that sink in. You were too fucked up and crazy for the CI fucking A in the 1980’s. The group that made the cartels look calm and pragmatic.”
“Juan wanted to kill you. He had a plan, we discussed it at length. I talked him out of it. So, today, now, you have found some old, white-haired woman who is going to hold your hand as your purge your soul of your sins, while the handful of us who remain wait to burn in the fire of your Hell. I should have listened to that goddamned, Colombian, but I didn't. Now here you sit.”
“I guess I have to tell my story too? Is that how we are going to play this. Maybe it’s time to call the people who have my boxes of truth and tell them to release it now?”
Dog looks at me over the rim of his still - always present - sunglasses, not saying a word.
“The spaghetti is good, Dog, the sauce has a hint of being burned, a sweet bitterness, exactly how I like it. It only could have been better, more pleasant, if I could have watched you choke on yours. I’d watch smiling as your eyes bulge and froth runs from your mouth as you choke to death and I sit and watch... but, Dog, old buddy, that would be involuntary. That’s not a fitting end is it, Bob?”
I push my empty plate to the side and watch Dog wipe up the last of the good, thick red sauce with a piece of crusty bread. I empty the last of the wine bottle into his glass.
Reaching into my shirt pocket I pull out my Marlboros. Shaking the soft pack until two smokes pop out for us. I offer him one.
“Richie, smoking in restaurants is not allowed in Jersey. It’s the law.”
“I’d not be too worried about such minor crimes, my friend. How much cash do you have on you, Bob? You still like to carry fat stacks of cash?”
“A couple of grand, why Richie, am I paying?”
“Yeah, Dog, you are. You are paying tonight. Hand me your wallet.”
Dog reaches behind his back and hands me his thick worn leather wallet. The waitress approaches the table, “Sir, you can’t smoke in here!”
I smile at her, “It looks quiet in here tonight. Just that one young couple over in the corner. I’ll bet you that young boy is going to get himself laid! Nice fancy dinner for his date and some nice wine! Did they finish their desert?”
Nervously the waitress says, “Yes sir, they are finishing up right now, but you really can’t smoke in here. You need to stop or I’ll have to call the police!”
I reach into Dog’s wallet and remove the thick wad of hundred dollar bills. I touch her hand and place the cash in her palm. “Please tell that young couple dinner is on us, but they should leave very soon, ok?”
The waitress nods her head. She walks over to the table. I hear a commotion behind me. The young man and his date walk past us quickly. I turn and look around the room. It is empty except for the young, scared waitress. I look her way, “Nothing for you to fear here, sweetie. Let us finish our wine and smokes and we will be on our way!”
She smiles, fear on her pretty face. All this time Dog sits in silence, smoking down his Marlboro and sipping his wine. He says to me, “Expensive dinner...”
“Why didn’t you kill my mom, Dog? You killed Unk and my aunt and cousin. You killed Juan’s family. Why didn’t you kill my mom?”
“Pain, Richie, just pain. I saw the misery in that poor woman and realized killing her would have been a favor. Remember, this was always about sending a message, even if you and your spic friend were too stupid to understand the message. I don’t do favors. I fucked her instead and told her I loved her. To me, that was better than the sexiness of watching her body dance. Your uncle, now that man, he was genuine, North American bad-ass. I remembered hearing about him when I was first coming up. Yeah, it was an honor to kill that man, and you aunt! Wow, she was hot. I wanted to fuck her before I killed her, but she was a fighter. I really regret that. Not fucking her...”
“THAT’S YOUR REGRET?” I scream at him! “THAT’S YOUR FUCKING REGRET! THAT YOU DIDN’T FUCK MY AUNT BEFORE YOU KILLED HER!”
Dog looks back at me, confused…
I reach across the table and pull a pen from Dog’s shirt pocket. I place the pen on a napkin and push both to his side of the table, across the blood red tablecloth. “Dog, write down the number and names of the safe deposit boxes where you stashed your cash and gold and stock certificates. Don’t fuck with me Dog. If you do, how long do you think it will take me to find this woman who is saving your soul? I’ll kill her and it will not be kind and clean and painless.”
Dog lights another Marlboro from my pack, I’d left on the table, and begins to write without saying a word. It’s a long and complex list of accounts and safe deposit boxes. All in the New York City, North Jersey area. He pushes the napkin back at me and begins to explain in detail what I need to know about each box and each account. He reaches in his pocket, staring me in the eye. My hand goes behind me reaching for my .38 stuffed in my pants. Dog pulls out his keyring. He removes four keys and explains what key goes to what boxes. “There are overseas accounts too, Richie. Too complex for you to access. The contents of these boxes will make you set for life. I can’t believe after all this time you think you can rob me and get away with it. Pretty weak and amateur move, my old friend, but hey, whatever gets you hard, right?”
“Why are you pulling this amateur shit, Richie, are you that hard up for money, did you blow too much on hookers and booze? This is a chump move, my friend. You won’t get away with this. You are forgetting who you are fucking with!’
The nervous waitress approaches our table, “Sirs, I really need to ask you to stop smoking or I’ll have to call the police”
I reach behind my back feeling Unk’s revolver in my pants. I pull it out with my right hand. Squinting my left eye I unload five shots into the White Dog’s heart.
Five loud rounds echoed off the walls, drowning out Vic Damone singing, “Ebb Tide,” on the jukebox in the corner, near the kitchen door.
Always five in the chamber, never six.
Dog’s white shirt begins to soak up his blood. Still sitting across from me, his face now on the empty plate and spattered with a bit of the remaining sauce. His sunglasses broken from the impact of his head on the porcelain.
White Dog is dead.
“Of all the death I’ve seen, Dog, of all the death I’ve been a party too, Dog, of them all, yours is the best, the most justified. Now I see the beauty in death. The world is free of you, Robert Pearlman, the White Dog. That is a beautiful thing.”
I stand and walk quickly to the door. In the kitchen, I see the waitress on the phone. I wave goodbye.
I walk at a brisk pace the block or so to where I parked my car.
Climbing into the soul-crushing champagne-colored Toyota and slowly driving out of Sandy Hook, NJ. Finding the Garden State Parkway, I head north and home toward Newburgh. Turning on the news radio station I hear of a shooting at the Jersey shore. A witness says it was a mob type hit and the shooter ran away on foot toward the seawall… I smile, that’s good, perfect, please, lady, please keep talking.
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