Story by Bruce Harris / Illustration by L.A.Spooner
Bertha hesitated. “There’s no mistake,” she said, closing the file.
Abe Meyer balled a fist and relaxed it. He didn’t look up. “You’re sure.” It wasn’t a question.
Nevertheless, Bertha felt compelled to answer. “People lie…”
Meyer stopped her and finished the sentence. “I know. Numbers don’t. Take the rest of the day. Make it a long weekend. Go to the ice rink, a movie, something fun. Thank you.” Meyer sighed. He checked his wristwatch. “Where are those two?” he asked no one.
Ronnie and Donnie were twins. That wasn’t the only thing they had in common. They were both as dumb as their thick-stumped necks. The kind of necks barbers enjoyed shaving – wide, sturdy, hairy and meaty. They were special twins, these two. Not identical. Bats could see that. They shared a love of the New York Yankees and a common, Jewish mother. Which by birth made them Jewish. But, each had a different father. Both Italian. They didn’t share a last name. Ronnie Rizzo. Donnie Esposito. Crazy stuff happens. The two walked into Abe Meyer’s second floor downtown New York office. Ronnie wheezed. Donnie coughed, had trouble catching his breath. It was February. As they stood before Meyer, both wore too-long camel hair coats, Ronnie’s a darker shade of brown, scarves, and each nervously turned their hats by the brims in choreographed fashion. Known respectfully as “The Meat King”, Abe Meyer appeared older than the last time the twins had seen him. Ronnie couldn’t put a pudgy finger on it. Donnie noticed a grey-white blend at the boss’s temples and a line or two around his almond-shaped eyes. Meyer had reason. There was talk about the government ending prohibition. He’d heard it before, but this time, even
the city’s nine daily newspapers were covering it. Those rumors, and the fact that his trusted accountant Wolfe “Shrimp” Sugarman had come to him with evidence of what the diminutive, bespectacled bean counter had called, “finance irregularities.” Donnie tried in vain to remember how long it had been since he had last seen Meyer. Six months? Two years? Donnie wasn’t very good remembering things. That was another common trait he shared with Ronnie. Meyer didn’t get up from behind a big oak desk. He gestured with an open palm, an indication for the two men to be seated. As Meyer’s midnight blue suit sleeve rose up, Donnie caught a quick glimpse of a heavily starched French cuff clamped secure by a ruby-eyed sturgeon cufflink. After plopping his tail into the soft leather chair, Donnie couldn’t resist.
“Hey, boss. What’s with the fish cufflink? Being you in the meat business,” he stopped, laughed, continued. “Yeah, that’s right, meat business, how come you don’t have a cow or a t-bone or a king with a crown or something like that cufflink? Huh?” He was pleased with himself, but only for a second, because Meyer’s expression changed. He said nothing. Ronnie looked over at his brother with a look that read, “What was that about? Are you dumb or something?”
Meyer squeezed the inside corners of his eyes against his upper nose with lean fingers. Satisfied, he pointed at Donnie. Shine from a highly polished manicured nail reflected off the gooseneck lamp on Meyer’s desk and into Donnie’s vacuous stare. Meyer calmly asked Donnie, “How many fingers can you hold up on one hand?”
Donnie actually glanced down at his hand and then held it up, fingers extended. “Five.” He glanced at Ronnie who didn’t return the look. The speed in which Ronnie rotated his hat increased.
“Good,” said Meyer, “Now, how many fingers can that wasted pug Two-Fisted Peterson hold up?”
Donnie dropped his hand. He looked like a kid shafted on Christmas morning.
Donnie’s Adams apple did a bunny hop. “None.”
Meyer smiled. “Very good. You know why? He asked too many stupid waste of time questions to his busy boss. Now, the jerk off can’t…never mind. But he’s lucky. He’s alive. In other words, shut the hell up! I talk and you speak after I ask questions. Got it?” He looked at both of them, both nodded in unison.
Meyer began reaching for a cigar from a finely grained wooden humidor, followed Ronnie and Donnie’s eyes toward the perfectly rolled rotund brown sticks and changed his mind.
“Here’s what I have in mind for you two. Go down to my place, Knickerbocker’s Gansevoort Meats. You know where it is on West 14th Street? Before you go in, I’d like for you both to get some nourishment. Stop into Pyle’s Luncheonette, on me. It’s only a few doors down. All of their meats come from Knickerbocker’s. Tell Charlie I sent you. He’s the best. I’m sure you’re familiar with that famous weeklong Irish stew blue-plate special Charlie had about a year ago? Remember? Make sure you two idiots wash your hands before eating.”
Ronnie and Donnie turned a sickly yellowish puss-white. Knickerbocker’s Irish stew had its own unique reputation. A number of cops, seven to be exact, who weren’t the political ball-playing type, mysteriously disappeared during a one-week stretch. They were never found.
“After you finish your meals, go back to Knickerbocker’s and ask for Solly Levitsky. I need to have a talk with him. You know, he’s the one running Knickerbocker’s. Seems as if some of the gambling money on the lower west side that Levitsky is supposed to be watching for me has made like Houdini. I don’t like it when my money turns itself loose.”
A side door opened. All three men turned. The accountant, Wolfe Sugarman, nicknamed “Shrimp” due to his childlike stature, looked in. As he approached, his size-six shoes made soft tapping sounds against the hardwood floor. “Excuse me, gentlemen.” He opened a large notebook on Meyer’s desk, pointed to a few rows and columns of small handwritten numbers, and then whispered into Meyer’s ear. The man in charge nodded. “Thank you, Wolfie.” The Shrimp adjusted his wire frame glasses and exited, his shoes again with the tapping sound.
“I want you two to make sure nothing happens to Levitsky. No rough stuff. Nothing. Kid gloves. Am I clear?”
Again, the twins nodded in unison.
“Good.” I’ll give you a couple of days. Early next week is fine.”
It was Ronnie’s turn to speak up. “That’s okay. We’ll bring him in tonight, if you like, that is.”
Meyer shook his head. “Really? What’s today?”
“Right,” said Meyer, “So what’s tonight?”
The brothers looked at each other. Donnie was going to say, “Friday night,” but flexed his fingers and thought better of it.
After a few moments silence, Meyer spoke. “It’s Shabbat. Friday night. Shabbat. Jeezuz. Aren’t you two schmucks Jewish?”
Again, Donnie was afraid to speak. Ronnie said in a low voice, “Well, yes, sort of. We’re half Jewish, I guess.”
“You guess? Even half a Moses was a learned man.”
The brothers looked flummoxed. In unison, they responded, “Who?”
Meyer’s jaw dropped.
Ronnie licked dry lips. “No problem, Mr. Meyer, we’ll bring him in to you first thing tomorrow morning.”
Shrill laughter frightened the brothers. “Are you two kidding me? Tomorrow is the Sabbath as well. You two schmucks don’t know anything. Listen to me. Just bring him to me early next week. Unharmed. Don’t even lay an ignorant finger on him. Got it?” He didn’t wait for a response. “I don’t want Knickerbocker’s meat grinding machine getting clogged up with half kosher chopped meat. Understand? Now get out of my sight.”
On their way down the stairs, Donnie turned to Ronnie. “Do you think it’d be okay if we picked up this Levitsky on Sunday, or is still some kind of Shabbat, or whatever he called it for Chrissake?”
Ronnie placed a battered fedora, a present to himself following Babe Ruth’s 60th homerun in 1927, on his head before heading out into the cold air. “How the hell should I know? Do I look like one of those Jewish Popes?”
The two decided to play it safe and wait until Monday. They arrived in the icy dawn. The sun was not yet up, not that it would provide much if any relief from the frozen tundra that gripped the city. Ronnie parked the Oakland off Pier 52. They could hear the wind howl as they rushed across the deserted and aptly dubbed, Death Avenue, looked for any building that would provide relief from the cutting winds off the icy waters. “I can’t breath with this wind,” choked Donnie, his hand clutched to his scarf, pressed tightly against his neck.
“C’mon, just a couple more blocks,” croaked Ronnie, his voice wended its way up West 14th Street toward the East River.
The two-story brick structure housing Knickerbocker’s Gansevoort Meats was built in the latter half of the nineteenth century. It was an architectural bore, surrounded by similarly designed ho-hum but functional structures. A weather-beaten aluminum overhang covered the building’s wide entrance and the sidewalk. Employees, like ants, moved quickly and changed directions as if randomly knocked off course, hauled carcasses over worn out, often-arthritic shoulders. Layers of cutaway fat in all shapes and sizes lined the walkway. Built into the brick façade
were a series of windows so caked with grease and dirt they appeared opaque. The pigeons didn’t mind. They rested, slept, and mostly relieved themselves in the recessed ledges.
“Wait,” huffed Ronnie. “We’re supposed to go to Pyle’s first, then here. That’s what the boss said.”
Donnie shivered. “Screw him. I’m frozen. Besides, I’m not hungry. Let’s just get this guy and get this done with.”
The brothers finally entered Knickerbocker’s Gansevoort Meats. Despite it being a refrigerated environment, the cooled air provided much needed warmth to the twins. “How the hell does anyone work in here? It’s freezing! I mean, it’s better than outside, but it’s still freezing,” bitched Ronnie. A worker in a bloodied apron with thick gloves and a woolen hat pushed a hand-jack supporting a wooden pallet of what appeared to be animal fat. He brushed past Ronnie and Donnie, ignored both. “Merry Christmas to you, too,” shouted Donnie to the back of the worker’s head. The sound of handsaw against bone screeched to the twins’ left. A tall, thin employee with a black and red woolen hat and fur earflaps tossed fat remnants into a large cardboard box. Every few minutes, he handed freshly cut steaks to another, who temporarily wrapped them in brown butcher paper, weighed them, and with black crayon, scribbled the weight of each prior to stacking on a flat aluminum tray.
“C’mon, let’s find the office,” said Donnie. “It’s gotta be around here somewhere. I’m freezing my sausage off.” The two men, their shoes leaving prints in the sawdust, headed toward the rear of the place before Donnie stopped and pointed to a small printed “Office” sign hanging unevenly over a doorway. “There it is. Let’s go.”
They found themselves in a small, sparsely furnished office, but at least they were out of the refrigerated air. The office heater was turned up full blast. It must have been a 50-degree swing. Ronnie and Donnie couldn’t remove their gloves, hats, and coats fast enough.
“Can I help you?” asked the 50-ish bespectacled woman with hair wrapped in a tight bun centered on top of her head. She didn’t bother looking up from a messy desk. She was rubber-stamping invoices with a force more suited to someone trying to kill a stubborn roach.
Ronnie spoke. “Yup. Um, yes, that is. Me and Mr. Esposito here, we are looking for Mr. Levitsky. We’d like to…”
“Solly!” she screamed, “Two clowns want a word with you.”
Before either brother could speak, the woman corrected Ronnie. “It’s, ‘Mr. Esposito and I.’ Not, ‘me and Mr. Esposito.’ Speak properly.”
Donnie was about to ask the woman if she was his damn English teacher, but stopped himself. Solly Levitsky, all six-feet of him appeared from a back room. He was well dressed, suit, tie, and vest. His shoes shined. “I’m Solly Levitsky. How can I help you two?” His smile revealed bright white and even teeth. Donnie figured Levitsky might have just come from a dentist visit. Donnie couldn’t remember the last time he had his teeth checked. He caught himself again and focused.
“We bring greetings from Abe Meyer.” Donnie hesitated, waited for a reaction, but discerned none.
Ronnie jumped in. “Abe Meyer wants a few words with you. He asked me and Mr. Esposito here…”
The woman cleared her throat loudly and stared at Ronnie.
“Um, I mean, Mr. Esposito and I will drive you to Mr. Meyer’s office.”
The woman said nothing, returned to her rubber-stamping.
“Now?” questioned Levitsky. I’m in the middle of some important work.”
Ronnie looked at Donnie. Donnie straightened. “I think it best for all concerned if you come along with us now. Mr. Rizzo here will bring the car around, so you don’t have to walk too far in this damn…um, very cold weather.” Donnie smiled. Ronnie clenched his fists, straightened up, but then relaxed himself.
“Fine,” said Levitsky. “Give me five minutes to wrap things up and I’ll meet you both at the entrance to the front door.”
The brothers were perplexed, a familiar state. They expected some sort of pushback or a fight of some kind from Levitsky. Why else would Meyer have hired them to bring the guy back? Donnie felt bossy. “Good. Ronnie, go get the car,” and he gestured with this thumb toward the outside. Ronnie couldn’t think of a response, so he bundled up and headed back toward the pier.
It was a 35-minute drive from Knickerbocker’s to Abe Meyer. Ronnie drove. Donnie and Solly sat in back. The three engaged in very little talk. Actually, it was mostly Ronnie and Donnie who did the talking. Levitsky stared out the window for the most part. He rested his head against a thin back cushion and shut his eyes. When the Oakland pulled up by Abe Meyer’s office, Ronnie broke the silence. “We’re
here. Let’s go.” The two brothers got out of the vehicle, but Levitsky didn’t move. Donnie banged on the car’s roof. “Let’s go! We’re here! Out!” Again, nothing. Then, Ronnie wrapped on the window. “Hey, you okay? Time to go.” The brothers looked at each other. Ronnie grabbed the door handle, opened it. Out slid the body of Solly Levitsky. He hit the ground softly in a fetal position, and stayed.
“What the hell did you do to him?” asked Ronnie.
Donnie gently nudged Levitsky with his shoe. “Me? Nothin’. Whaddya mean what did I do to him? I didn’t do nothin’ to him.”
“You killed him you idiot!”
Despite the cold, perspiration beads formed on Donnie’s forehead. “I’m telling you, I didn’t do anything. I didn’t touch the guy. I swear it”
“Tell it to Meyer. How the hell do you explain this?” Ronnie pointed toward the body.
“I don’t know. I don’t know. Maybe he had a heart attack or something?”
“In the backseat of our car?”
“Why not? Why couldn’t he have a heart attack in our car? I’m pretty sure you can have a heart attack any place. Besides, didn’t Uncle Giuseppe die in the backseat of a car? It’s not so unusual.”
Ronnie frowned. “That’s different.”
“Why is that any different?”
“Because Giuseppe was shot in the head.”
“So? He was in a backseat, right?”
“What are we going to do? Meyer told us not to lay a finger on the guy.”
“We didn’t. I didn’t,” swore Donnie. He spread his fingers and looked at his gloved hand.
Sarcastically, “Okay, I’m sure Meyer will believe you.”
The two glanced up. A street vendor shoving a pushcart loaded with baked sweet potatoes slowed down and saw Levitsky curled up in the street. He stopped. Ronnie took in the honey-like aroma, bit down on the tip of his gloved middle finger and yanked the glove off. He shoved a bare hand in his pocket and fingered a buffalo. He didn’t get a chance to pull the nickel out. The vendor sped off without a word.
Donnie came up with the first idea. “Let’s make a run for it.”
“And, what? Leave him here in the street?” Asked Ronnie, pointing to Levitsky.
“Why not? Because Meyer will have us killed in less than a day is why not. Where the hell are we going to go?” Donnie answered with a blank expression. “We tell him the truth. I can’t believe I’m saying that, but we ain’t got no choice. Can you pick him up?”
Donnie looked down. “Me? No. He’s too big.”
“Let’s just go up and see Meyer. If this guy has been stealing from him, we did Meyer a favor. Saved him the trouble. Maybe he’ll up our pay a little?”
“Sure,” replied a forlorn and confused Donnie. “Don’t bet on it.”
Bertha looked up from her typewriter. “Can I help you two gentlemen?”
The twins stood meekly outside the threshold to Meyer’s office. “We’re here to see Abe….I mean, Mr. Meyer.”
“Is he expecting you?”
“No,” said Donnie at the same moment Ronnie said, “Yes.”
“Which is it?”
This time, Donnie said “Yes” and Ronnie said, “No.”
From inside his office, Meyer heard the scintillating conversation. “Show them in, Bertha,” he yelled through the door. “Well?” asked The Meat King.
Neither brother wanted to speak. They stood there like two mannequins. Meyer grabbed a cigar, clipped the tip, and lit up. “Where’s Levitsky?”
Both men swallowed hard, said nothing.
“I asked you idiots a question. Where’s Levitsky?” When neither moved nor responded, Meyer stood. “Ronnie. I asked you a question.”
Ronnie cleared his throat. “He’s outside, boss. Yeah. Outside.” He gestured with his head and hand. “You know, right outside the office here.”
Meyer gave them the evil eye. “So, why isn’t he in here with you two scholars? I asked you to bring him to me. Surely, you didn’t hurt him in any way?”
“No!” shouted Ronnie, and he caught himself, lowered his voice. “Absolutely not, boss. No. We did exactly as you said. We didn’t lay a hand on him. Isn’t that right, Donnie?”
The office smelled of rich tobacco leaves. The stuff was from Cuba, not that Ronnie or Donnie could tell the difference between a hand-rolled masterpiece and a five-cent magazine stand stogie. “Good. Where the hell is he?”
“Where’s who?” asked Donnie sheepishly. Ronnie wanted to slap him across the head.
Meyer gently placed the cigar into an onyx ashtray. “Are you two for real? Solly Levitsky!”
Donnie blurted it out. “He’s dead!’
Ronnie tried to intervene. “Well, wait a minutes. I’m not sure he’s actually….”
But Donnie interrupted. “He’s dead, Mr. Meyer. Solly Levitsky is on the sidewalk outside your office. Dead. I swear I didn’t touch him. Honest. We did as you said. But, he just croaked. On his own. Didn’t need no help from no one. Just keeled over and died in the backseat of the Oakland. Honest, boss. That’s it.”
With that, the door to Meyer’s office opened and in walked Solly Levitsky. His cheek was red and scratched and his coat stained, but overall, he looked pretty good. Ronnie and Donnie’s mouths formed wide “O’s.” Ronnie reached behind him, felt a chair, and sat down. Donnie rubbed his mouth and chin. He stood next to his seated brother, arm on Ronnie’s shoulder for support. Their faces resembled those plastered on horror magazine covers that hung on hooks at any number of downtown newsstands.
Solly broke the silence. “Sorry I’m late for the party.”
Abe Meyer’s grin lit up the office. “Good to see you, Solly. You’re looking great for a dead man.”
Meyer and Levitsky shook hands. “Glad to be here, Abe. These two,” he motioned toward Rizzo and Esposito, “said you wanted to see me about something?”
Ronnie rose slowly from his chair. “Wait a minute. Aren’t you dead? I mean, me and Donnie, um, I mean Donnie and me saw you dead on the sidewalk. What’s going on here?”
Meyer sucked his cigar. “It’s, ‘Donnie and I.’ You two are real winners. I hated for him to drive himself, so I had you two whiz kids bring him to me. Solly Levitsky suffers from severe narcolepsy.”
The brothers again looked at each other. They had no idea what Meyer was talking about. “What?” asked Donnie, his faced contorted as if he had just smelled something bad. “He’s not dead?”
“Obviously, not. Narcolepsy is… Well, never mind. The main thing is…”
Wolfe Sugarman interrupted. “Excuse me, I need to have a word with Mr. Meyer.” The Shrimp stopped short when he saw Levitsky. He collected himself. “Solly. Um, good to see you, I’m sure. What, um, brings you here?”
Meyer took control. “I asked him here, Shrimp.”
Sugarman took notice. He flushed. Meyer had never called him ‘Shrimp’ in public, in front of business associates. “Oh, sure, fine. In that case, I’ll just come back…” and he turned toward the inner door from where he had come.
“Nothing doing!” Meyer barked orders. “Ronnie! Don’t let him out!”
With alacrity defying his bulk, Ronnie Rizzo jumped from his spot near the chair and stood, arms folded, smug look on his face, in front of the inner door. There was no escape for Sugarman.
Donnie was dense, but he held a Ph.D. in messing someone up. He noticed Meyer’s subtle nod and approached the little accountant. Sugarman dropped a sheaf of papers. He had nowhere to turn. “What’s the meaning of this? There’s your man,” he pleaded, pointing to Levitsky.
Abe Meyer pounded a fist against his desk. “It’s you Wolfie, not Solly.”
Ronnie stepped forward. He grasped Sugarman by the inside elbows and locked his own fingers together, creating a human straightjacket. Donnie stood before Wolfe Sugarman, clenched his fists, and drooled.
“It’s me, what?” Sugarman sounded like a soprano.
“Do you really think you could get away with robbing me right under my nose? Really, Wolfie? You disappoint me.”
The little man nearly lost bladder control. He licked dry lips. His sleeve garters felt suddenly tight. “But, Levitsky’s the one who…”
“Save it,” interrupted Meyer. “I know you’re keeping two sets of books. I’ve seen them. And, speaking of two’s, I found two train tickets in your coat pocket for Miami Beach as well as Mr. and Mrs. Shrimp Sugarman boat tickets to Cuba. Planning on an unannounced trip? And, I happened to run into your lovely Esther a couple of days ago. She didn’t see me, but the fox fur with which she was wrapped in, or was it wolf hair, was still warm from the kill. Dear Wolfie, I know what kind of salary you make here, and it’s a good one, but not enough for secretive rail and ocean travel, let alone exotic skin coats. No?”
Meyer grabbed his outerwear and hat, turned to Levitsky. “Lets’ go, Solly.” He instructed Bertha to stop what she was doing, to get her coat and begin a week’s vacation. They were no more than a foot outside the office when Donnie began the vicious assault. The fist punch rendered Sugarman’s eyeglasses worthless, even to The Lions Club. Shortly thereafter, Wolfie gasped his last.
Pyle’s Luncheonette was open from 4:00am to 2:00pm. The clientele consisted mainly of the wholesale beef, poultry, pork and veal workers. Abe Meyer and Solly Levitsky sat at a corner booth toward the back of Pyle’s. They drank whiskey imported from somewhere down south, something Charlie had brought upstairs from his basement stash. The two perused the menu. “You think you can stay awake long enough for lunch?” asked Meyer. Levitsky answered with his middle finger. They looked up as Charlie approached. He blurted out, “I’ve got a beautifully marbled inch and a half thick porterhouse fit for a king.”
“I’m in the mood for something different. Any seafood today?” questioned Meyer.
Charlie looked surprised but quickly regained his professionalism. “Yes sir, Mr. Meyer. We have a nice plate of freshly caught and killed shrimp…” he stopped himself. Sheepishly, “I’m sorry Mr. Meyer, shrimp isn’t kosher.”
“I know, Charlie. Boy, do I know,” said Meyer.
“Intrique and Deciet At the C.E.R.” By Justin Peterson
Illustration by Cesar Valtierra