“In the space, the pause between this breath and the one that follows, you have made a home inside me.”
― Tyler Knott Gregson
The January afternoon was sunny and warm, perfect California winter weather. Families were picnicking and children playing and having fun. One collection of younger children was playing a raucous game of tag, another few playing catch. A group of older girls had a double-dutch competition going. And down by the pond several children were playing with their little toy boats, some racing and some just sailing.
With the families choosing to spread their blankets over the grass, the picnic tables set back from the pond were empty.
Except for one.
Sitting atop one table set slightly off from the rest was a young man, smoking a cigarette. Dressed in an Army jacket and jeans, with combat boots and a knit cap on his almost hairless head, he could see the entire area from his position.
He continually scanned the zone and he watched.
David Michael Starsky was just five months removed from his life as a soldier, being mustered out the previous September. As he sat here, watching the kids, his thoughts wandered, recounting the events that led him here.
I just wanted to go home, he thought. Just survive the jungle and make it back home. But now…
He shook his head as he knocked the ash off his cigarette, pinching the end of the butt and slipping it into his jacket pocket. His head snapped around at the sound of a child’s scream, but then he relaxed and smiled when it turned out to be a sound of excitement.
Continuing to watch the group of children chasing one another, he absently reached into his pocket for another cigarette, lighting it and sliding the matches — used and unused — back into his pocket.
As he took a drag, his mind returned to his contemplations.
I had a good life. There were ups and downs but it was mostly good. I mean, it started out perfect. It was me and Nicky and Ma and Pop. Pop was my hero. He was a cop and I was so proud of him. He worked hard but he always made time for me. Time to play catch, to take me to ball games, time to teach me so many special things. He made me feel like the most important person in the world. And Ma, she loved Nicky and me like nothin’ else. Life was perfect…until it wasn’t. Until, in a hail of bullets, everything changed.
Pop was dead. Mom cried and Nicky — he didn’t know what was happenin’. Me, I was just angry. So angry that I started getting into trouble. Fightin’ in school, with the kids on the street. I didn’t know how to NOT be angry, and Ma — she didn’t know what to do. So she sent me away.
I thought she hated me. I know now that wasn’t true but then, I thought she didn’t love me, that she blamed me for Pop gettin’ killed.
But Uncle Al and Aunt Rosie, they treated me like their own kid. They loved me and tried to convince me that Ma did, too.
So I had another family, I made friends, and my life became good again. And, when I had a chance to go back to Brooklyn for a visit, I realized Ma still loved me. I still didn’t understand why I couldn’t stay but at least I knew she loved me.
Back here in California, life was everything I wanted. Me and my friends, we had fun, we had adventures, and we stayed out of trouble, mostly. I did well in school, even played on the football team.
Then, when I graduated, I joined the army. I didn’t wait to be drafted. I thought it would be good training, that it would help me get on the police force, to become a cop.
I thought I’d be sent to Germany or stay stateside. At least that’s what the recruiter told me. I never believed I’d wind up fighting in Vietnam.
But I found out differently.
I found out what evil men can do to each other and what it’s like to depend on someone else to watch your back. I found security in a group of buddies. And I found out what it’s like to be frightened every minute of every day.
I just kept tellin’ myself that if I made it through the day, I would make it home. One day at a time, every day the same thought…just survive the day and make it home.
And I managed to make it through that crazy war unharmed. I thought I’d come back and my life would be perfect. That it would all fall back into place.
But it’s all wrong. Seems it doesn’t matter where I go or what I do, I’m just…out of step. I don’t fit and I…I don’t know why.
He checked his watch; the friend he was waiting for still had a bit of time. Disposing of one cigarette and lighting another, he continued reminiscing.
When I got out, I decided to go back to New York, back to my family. I thought I could pick up my life and start something new there. I didn’t realize…
Five months earlier – New York
It was close to noon on a warm, sunny Fall day in Brooklyn. He stood on the sidewalk with a smile on his face, looking up at the three-story brownstone building. He’d spent the first ten years of his life here. He’d come back for visits a couple of times and, although he hadn’t been back in years, he had good memories of this place. There were some not-so- good ones too, but that didn’t matter. This was home!
With a little laugh, he grabbed the duffle containing all his possessions, climbed the steps, and pushed the button for the second floor apartment.
“Yes?” came the tinny voice through the speaker.
“Hey, Ma? Let me in.”
There was a pause. “Who is this? What do you want?”
He chuckled. “It’s me, Ma…David. You gonna let me in?”
He heard a gasp then, after a moment, the window on the second floor flew open and a small dark-haired women stuck her head out. “David?!?”
He looked up at the window, smiling. “Hi, Ma.”
“Oh, my goodness! David! What are you doing here?”
“I thought I’d surprise you.”
“Oh, my…well, don’t just stand there. Come in.”
He laughed. “You gotta buzz me in.”
“Oh, right.” She disappeared from the window and soon the buzzer sounded. He pushed open the door and climbed the stairs, moving to the familiar door. Suddenly, that door flew open and there she stood, all five feet of her, tears welling up in her eyes.
“Come in, come in,” she said as she grabbed his arm and pulled him into the apartment. She closed the door and immediately wrapped her arms around him, squeezing tightly. “You’re here. You’re finally here.”
Dave laughed as he returned her hug. “Yeah, Ma, I’m here.”
She stepped back, not letting go of his hands. “Let me see. Let me look at you.” She ran her hands up his arms and over his chest, trailing down to his waist. “Too skinny…you’re too skinny. Didn’t they feed you in that army?”
“Yes, Ma. They fed me, but their food wasn’t nearly as good as yours.”
She placed her hand on his face. “Well, we’ll take care of that. But…” She moved her hands to his head, pulling off his knit cap and running her hands over his nearly shaven hair. “Oh, my goodness. Your curls! They cut off all your beautiful curls!”
Grabbing her hands, he gently kissed them as he looked into her tear-filled eyes. “It’s okay, Ma. My curls’ll grow back. And you’ll feed me so I won’t be skinny anymore.” He engulfed her in his arms. “Everything is gonna be okay. I’m here and I’m gonna stay. I’m home.”
He thought he noticed a look of concern crossing her face as she pushed out of his hug.
“Well,” she said as she wiped her face, frantically looking around the living room. “There’s no place to put you in your old room. Nicky’s all grown up now and taken over the place. You’ll have to sleep on the sofa until we figure something else out.”
“The sofa is fine. Don’t worry, we’ll work it out.” He looked around the apartment. “Where is Nicky, anyway?”
“Nicky’s in school. Then he has a part-time job. At Martinelli’s Shipping. You know the place. He’ll be home for dinner around five. But what about you? Are you hungry? I can make you a sandwich. I just made a fresh pitcher of iced tea.” She looked at him expectantly.
“Iced tea and a sandwich sounds good.” He smiled at her, trying to hide his concern. If he remembered correctly, Martinelli was a big name in local mob circles. For Nicky’s sake, he hoped the shipping company was a legal business and not a front for criminal activities.
“Good.” She took him by the hand and led him to the kitchen table. “You sit here and I’ll get you something.”
Dave sat at the table, watching his mother prepare his sandwich. Finally she placed it and a glass of iced tea in front of him then sat at the table, placing her hand on his arm.
“So tell me, David. Tell me how you are.”
He told her. Not everything, though. Not about the war, that would only upset her. But he did tell her of his plans to live here, to find a job, to reclaim his home.
Then he asked her a few questions and suddenly he was getting an update on everyone and everything in the neighborhood. He sat and listened, watching her talk, taking in her voice and her smile, and he began to relax.
This is it, he thought. I’m home.
After finishing his lunch, Dave unpacked his duffle, folding his clothes and placing them on the shelves in the living room closet. When that was finished, he pulled out his pack of cigarettes, placing one in his mouth.
“Not in the house, David,” his mother said, as she walked into the room.
“Oh, okay, Ma,” he answered. “I’ll go outside on the stoop. Hey, do you need anything at the store?”
She did and so, with list in hand, Dave walked down to the corner store, smoking his cigarette, checking out the neighborhood as he went. Things had changed since he’d last been here yet some things stayed the same. Like Angelo’s. Still the same shelves, still the same counter. Even the glass case filled with penny candy was the same, although now Dave was tall enough to see over the top.
He placed his items on the counter, asked for another pack of smokes, then paid the clerk. Now, walking back home, he looked around. Yeah, the place still looked the same. But, Dave recognized, it didn’t feel quite the same. He felt…out of place.
A few hours later Nicky arrived home from work, surprised and thrilled to find his big brother there. The three of them sat down to dinner; Mom had made his favorite, pot roast.
Dave asked Nicky about school and his job. Nicky told him everything: about school, his job, his friends. After dinner, Rachael chased the boys outside while she cleaned up.
Dave and Nicky sat on the steps. Dave lit a cigarette, offering one to Nicky.
“No, thanks,” Nicky said, shaking his head. “I don’t smoke, not tobacco, anyway.”
“Good, don’t start,” Dave said, “It’s a really nasty habit.”
“Then why don’t you stop?”
Dave chuckled. “Some things just ain’t that easy, Nicky.” He pointed a finger at his brother. “And don’t get caught smokin’ those funny cigarettes, either.”
Nicky laughed. “Don’t worry. I’m good.” Just then Nicky spotted a friend coming down the street. “Stevie! Yo, Stevie!” He jumped up and ran to meet him. Grabbing his arm, he led him over to the steps. “Stevie, this is my big brother, David. Davey, this is my best friend, Stevie DiNardo.”
Dave shook Stevie’s hand, sizing up his brother’s friend. He was a good looking kid, about Nicky’s height. His hair was a lighter brown, and so were his eyes. He seemed a bit shy but Dave’s first impression was that he was a good kid.
The three sat on the steps talking, telling stories and laughing until another young kid, smaller than Nicky and Stevie, with bright red hair and freckles, quietly walked by.
“Hey, Pox! Chicken Pox!” When the kid put his head down and began walking faster, Nicky jumped up and went after him, stopping the kid by dancing circles around him, laughing. “Hey, kid, you sick? You got spots all over your face!” Nicky poked his finger at the smaller kid’s face. “Wait, I think your hair is on fire!” He laughed, ruffling the kid’s hair with both his hands.
The kid tried unsuccessfully to duck around Nicky, to get away from him, but Nicky continued his tormenting until he heard his brother’s voice.
Still laughing, Nicky let the kid go and returned to the stoop to find Dave standing, his body ridged in anger.
“What the hell was that?” Dave demanded.
“What?” Nicky looked around, surprised by his brother’s anger. “That?” He pointed back over his shoulder at the kid who was again walking down the street. “That’s just Red Head Andy.”
Dave stepped up to Nicky, getting right in his face. “Don’t every let me catch you bullying anybody…ANYBODY…like that again! Do you understand?”
“What? I didn’t hit him or nothin’. I was just havin’ a little fun.”
“Fun? You think it’s fun to torment a kid who’s smaller than you? Weaker than you? You think he thinks it’s funny, havin’ you pokin’ in his face, pullin’ at his hair?”
“Ya know, it don’t take any kind of balls to pick on somebody weaker than you. That’s just being a bully and a bully is the worst kind of coward!”
“I didn’t mean nothin’ by it. Everybody does it.”
“That doesn’t make it right, Nicky.”
Dave turned back to the steps and sat down, quietly lighting another cigarette. Nicky moved over to stand next to Stevie.
“Put yourself in his place, Nicky,“ Dave said quietly, the anger gone from his voice. “You’re just walkin’ down the street, mindin’ your own business and people start teasin’ you, shoutin’ at you, poking you. Just for a laugh. You wouldn’t think it was funny, would you?”
“Well, no, but…”
“And everybody does it, you say?”
Nick slowly nodded.
“Don’t you think he’s got enough trouble in his life without you pilin’ on top of it?”
“What do you want, Davey? You want I should be his friend?”
“I’m not sayin’ you have to be his friend, Nicky. But you don’t have to be his enemy, either. He’s another human being. He’s small and weaker than you. We’re supposed to look out for people like that, to protect those who can’t protect themselves. That’s what this country is all about, Nicky. That’s what this family has always been about. Protecting those who can’t protect themselves.”
Dave took another drag of his cigarette and slowly let out the smoke, his anger bleeding off with it.
“Don’t ever be a bully, Nicky. Like I said, a bully is just the worst kind of coward.” He reached up and patted Nicky on the shoulder. “And that just ain’t my little brother. Okay?” Dave smiled as Nicky shyly nodded his head.
Stevie, who had been quietly standing next to Nicky, finally spoke. “I never thought of it that way, Davey. About how it would feel to be him. Where’d you learn about that? Did they teach ya that in the Army?”
Dave stood. “No, Stevie. I learned that from my father.” He watched as Nicky’s head snapped up, meeting his eyes. A moment of thought and a slight nod of acknowledgement told Dave that he understood.
With that, Dave crushed out his cigarette and, as always, placed the butt in his pocket. “It’s been a long day, guys. I’m headin’ in.” With a nod and a wave, Dave reentered the house, leaving the younger men standing on the sidewalk.
The days that followed fell into a pattern. Dave would start out helping his mother with her chores, like cleaning the apartment or going food shopping. Then he’d spend time walking the neighborhood, looking up old friends, checking out employment opportunities. After dinner, he and Nicky, and usually Stevie, would spend the evenings together. Sometimes they’d head down to the pool hall to shoot a few games; sometimes they’d walk around, with Nicky pointing out people of interest. Sometimes they’d just sit on the front stoop and talk. On occasion, Dave would spring for a six-pack and share it.
This night, Dave sat outside by himself. Nicky received a phone call right after dinner and said he needed to go somewhere. Now Dave was awaiting his return. As he lit yet another cigarette, Nicky — followed closely by Stevie — came jogging up.
“Davey! Hey, Davey! How’d you like to make fifty bucks?”
Dave looked up at Nicky, who was all smiles and out of breath. “And what would I have to do for the fifty bucks?” he asked cautiously.
“Help me and Stevie load a truck.” At Dave’s questioning look, Nicky continued. “Look, my boss, Paulie, he’s the manager down at Martinelli’s where I work. He’s got a truck comin’ in from cross country later tonight. The load has to be transferred to a different truck and be ready for local delivery for tomorrow morning. So he said he’d pay me and Stevie fifty bucks apiece if we’d work tonight and move the load. I asked if I could bring a third guy and he said sure.”
When Dave didn’t readily agree, Nicky tried to reassure him. “C’mon, Davey. It’ll be easy. This is what Stevie and me do every day, movin’ goods from one truck to another. It’s easy money.”
“What’s in the shipment?” Dave asked, watching Nicky and Stevie. If Martinelli’s was mob connected, as he suspected, he wanted to see if Nicky knew anything about it.
“I don’t know.” Nicky started to sound exasperated. “Stevie and me, we never know what’s in the trucks. We just have to load ‘em and unload ‘em.”
“Where do we have to go? The warehouse?”
“No. This truck is comin’ in down by the docks.” Nicky looked at his watch. “Paulie said we gotta be there by ten. C’mon, Davey. It’ll be easy.”
Dave didn’t really want to get involved with something he thought might be illegal but he didn’t want Nicky and Stevie getting caught up in anything, either.
“Okay,” he said, grinding out his cigarette and sticking the butt in his pocket before standing. “Let’s go.”
As much as he didn’t want to do this, he had to go along just to be sure Nicky and Stevie stayed out of trouble.
They arrived at the docks just before 10 PM. A truck was parked in the alley next to the shipping company’s warehouse, its back doors open wide, showing the empty cargo compartment. They walked into the alley and were met by Nicky’s boss, Paulie DiAngelo, and another man who was introduced simply as “Artie”.
Dave had never met either man before, although he knew that Paulie was the manager at the shipping company where Nicky worked. But everything about both men just screamed ‘mob’ in Dave’s mind. If he wasn’t on alert before, he was now. He just wanted to get this over with and get Nicky, Stevie, and himself, out of there.
After a few minutes, the sound of shifting gears caused everyone to turn to watch a large eighteen-wheeler turn into the alley and pull up right next to the empty truck.
As soon as the truck came to a stop, Artie was throwing open both back doors. “Alright,” he shouted. “I need half the load in here packed securely into this truck over here. Then Paulie will move it out and I’ll bring in a second truck. Then the other half of this load gets packed in there. Any questions?”
All three shook their heads.
“Okay, let’s get a move on!”
There was a moment of discussion then Nicky jumped up into the back of the eighteen-wheeler, while Stevie entered the empty truck. Within moments, they had an assembly line going, with Nicky handing the unlabeled cartons to Dave and Dave walking them over to Stevie.
About a half an hour later, with the first truck almost full, the sounds of cars screeching to a halt at the mouth of the alley had everyone stopping. Dave immediately recognized the police, even before they heard shouts of “Freeze!” and “Hands up!”
He immediately yelled for his brother and his friend. “Nicky! Stevie! Get under the truck!” As the two kids jumped to the ground, Dave grabbed them both, pushing them under the back of the larger truck. Crawling behind them, he shouted, “Move! Get out the other end! GO!”
As the police swarmed the alley, guns drawn, shouting orders, Dave, Nicky, and Stevie crawled quickly but cautiously to the front of the truck.
With the police concentrating on Paulie and Artie and the goods in the back of the trucks, Dave saw their opportunity. “Run!” he told the others in a loud whisper, pushing them out from under the front of the truck.
As they cleared the end of the alley, all three turned and ran as fast as they could, cutting through other alleys and around corners, putting as much distance between themselves and those trucks as they could.
Finally, they stopped. Dave leaned against a building while Nicky and Stevie bent over, hands on knees, gasping for breath. Dave looked around and recognized that they were down the street from Stevie’s house and a block away from his mother’s.
Standing up, he grabbed Nicky and Stevie by the shoulders, looking them both in the eye. “Listen to me!” When both kids met his eyes, he continued. “Stevie, I want you to go straight home. Don’t run, just walk calmly but don’t stop to talk to anyone. Understand?”
Dave continued. “Tomorrow, I want both of you to go to school, just like normal. If anyone asks, you don’t know nothin’ about what went down tonight, okay?” Both kids nodded. “After school, I’ll meet you both outside and we’ll walk over to the shipping company together, just like you’re reporting to work like normal. Do you understand?”
Again, both kids nodded. Then Nicky asked, “What will we do then, Davey?”
Dave looked around, scanning the area, then turned back to his brother. “It looked like the cops nabbed both Paulie and Artie. By the time you get to work, they’ll probably be out on bail. If they’re not, the warehouse may not even be open. But, if it is, we go in actin’ like we’re just happy that we got away. Okay?”
Both kids nodded again, their breathing finally returning to normal.
“But it’s really important that you don’t say anything…ANYTHING!”
“We won’t,” Nicky assured him. “I promise, Davey. We won’t say anything.”
“Won’t say nothing, Davey. Promise,” Stevie added.
Dave looked at both of them, trying to determine if they would really do as he said. Knowing there was nothing else he could do, he draped his arm around his brother’s shoulder.
“Okay, Stevie. Get on home. We’ll stay here and watch until you get in.” Stevie nodded and started towards his house. “And don’t forget what I said.”
Dave and Nicky watched as Stevie walked somewhat calmly down the street and, finally, entered his house. Then Dave turned Nicky and started walking home.
“What happened there tonight, Davey?”
“It was a police raid, Nicky. The cops seemed to think that something illegal was goin’ on. Are you sure you don’t know what was in that truck?”
“I swear, Davey. I don’t know. You saw the cartons! There wasn’t any way to tell what was in them.”
Dave agreed. “You’re right. No way to tell.”
As they got to the front of the house, Dave stopped, turning to look Nicky in the eyes. “And you don’t say anything to Ma, you hear? I don’t want her knowin’ about this.”
Nicky nodded. “I won’t say a thing. I promise.”
“Okay,” Dave said, patting Nicky on the shoulder. “Now get inside and go to bed.”
Nicky climbed the steps. Just as he opened the door, he turned back to his brother. “Davey?” When Dave looked up at him, Nicky smiled. “Thanks.” Then he went inside.
Dave sat down on the stoop and pulled a cigarette from his pocket. He didn’t know what the outcome of this would be but, there wasn’t anything else he could do right now. As he lit his cigarette, he had only one thought.
What the hell have you gotten yourself into now?