“Tough, was it?”
“Tough!” snorted Henry Fink.
“I walked my beat at night, between the water and the dead.”
“Gives me chills,” Fink chimed in again.
“Believe me, the dead was the least of my concerns. I don’t know how I woulda made it out of there without the Old Man.”
“That’s where you met?” Tom asked.
“Sure, an’ thank God. It was Jack McGrath, the Old Man, who helped me survive. He was a legend out there. They were already tellin’ the story about how he drove the child molestors out of Brooklyn. He’d go around to t’other station houses on his days off, an’ get the names of all the known perverts in the neighborhood. Then he’d go to their homes and give them a beating, tell ’em they had twenty-four hours to leave the borough. Cleared every last child molestor out of Brooklyn, like St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland!
“The Old Man got me through down there,” Charlie went on, shaking his head. “There were some hard men on the waterfront then. The Kilduffs. The Kid Cheese gang. They used to terrorize the night watchmen, cut their throats an’ throw their bodies in the water, just for the fun of it.
“They wouldn’t hesitate to do the same to a cop. Early on, they got it in for me because I had the effrontery to arrest a couple of ’em for cleanin’ out a boxcar. They lured me into an apartment hallway with the oldest trick in the book, pretendin’ there was a mugging goin’ on.
“I walked right into it. They’d smashed the hall light bulb, it was pitch black inside. Before I even knew what it was about, they had me down on the floor. It was a narrow space and I was helpless. I woulda taken a terrible beating, been stamped an’ kicked an’ punched senseless at the very least, an’ maybe even thrown in the harbor to drown. There was other cops down there, went out on their beat an’ never came back, an’ nobody ever found what happened to them.”
Charlie spoke calmly, with a gentle smile on his face, but Tom could imagine what it must have been like: The terrifying feeling of being trapped, unable even to extend his arms. Flailing about helplessly, while blow after blow rained down on him.
“But God’s grace, the Old Man was out, lookin’ after his pups. Didn’t bother to whistle up reinforcements, or bang on the manhole covers to spread the word. No, he just ran to the sound of the battle, with nothin’ but his pocket billy in those close quarters. By the time I was back on my feet he had ’em all spread out in the snow. Eight members of the Kid Cheese gang, lyin’ there out cold. An’ Jack McGrath, the Old Man, lookin’ at ’em with a rare smile of satisfaction, sayin’, ‘That’ll teach ’em to respect an officer of the law!’
“He saved my life more than once out there in Red Hook. I told you about the docks, Tommy: Nothing is as it seems.
“Those days, after the Great War, men were comin’ back from the fighting, but they couldn’t leave the war behind ’em. There were housebreakings all over the precinct. I don’t mean cat burglars, or second-storey men. It was gangs of veterans. Somebody got in their way, they’d just cut their throat. We worked hard to keep it out of the paper, how many times we found an army bayonet at the scene of the crime.
“That’s how we got Jimmy, y’know. The poor fella, his parents gone from one war, an’ him in the next.”
“I didn’t know that,” Tom said. “I mean, I know the story, but—”
“But not that part of it. I know. It was a house up along Thirty-ninth Street, by the BMT Yards. One of those old wooden doubledeckers that used to grow like toadstools in Brooklyn. One or t’other of us was always in there, tryna keep the man of the house from bashing his wife’s head against a wall.
“She was a sweet woman, too,” he reflected, staring out at the black nullity of the pool. “Hair the color of Jimmy’s, that’s where he got it—that sort of ginger shade. A little thing, always cheerful. The mister quiet as a parson most of the time, workin’ the docks with his crew. But he’d get into the growler on a Saturday night, and then the whiskey, an’ everything would change.
“He’d blacken her eye for her, put out a tooth. Broke her nose until it was tilted over permanent, like some cheap pug’s. That sweet woman! He’d hit her until the neighbors couldn’t stand it anymore, an’ they were not a squeamish lot, believe me. We’d get him settled with the tap of a nightstick if need be, an’ somebody would send for the priest to talk to him. But the priest never told him anything but to mind his temper, and he never told her anything but to stay with her husband, an’ so there you were.”
Charlie put his big, red drink up on the table, and stared out at the pool.
“Jimmy come out to me of a Saturday evenin’ in the summer. It was a hot night, but not the hottest. That’s the worst, as the Old Man warned me it would be. When it gets too hot, nobody has the energy to do anything. But when it’s just hot enough to prick an’ itch at ya, when it turns the beer sour in yer stomach—that’s when it’s bad. We’d have half the women in the neighborhood walkin’ around claimin’ they run into doors.
“This evenin’ Jimmy come out to see me, so I knew it was somethin’ very wrong. He was about seven then, as fair a little boy as you’d want to look at. When we had to come into his place, he’d just stay down the hall, peekin’ out at what was happenin’ with those big brown eyes of his wide as two moons, but never sayin’ a thing.
“This night he come out into the street, dressed in his pajamas, an’ asked me would I please come, his Ma was in trouble. We tried to go into family fights at least two at a time, that’s how dangerous they were, but I knew from the look on his face there was no time for me to find a partner.”
“She was in a corner of the kitchen, a mass of blood. The long hair covered her face, it spared her son that, at least. But she wasn’t movin’ an’ she wasn’t breathin’. The brute standin’ over her in his undershirt an’ suspenders, an’ his army-issue pants. The blood coating his hands, but still standin’ over her, his fists cocked like he was just darin’ her to get up again.”
When he came into the narrow kitchen the raging man turned on him at once. Moving across the room in two quick strides, without bothering to say a word. He hadn’t had time to even get his nightstick up—just able to push Jimmy back behind him.
The raging man shoving him stumbling back down the hall, knocking him over. His strength a force like nothing else Charlie had ever felt in his life. His eyes like two pools of tar, black and impenetrable, inured to all reason and care.
He tried to get to his feet, watching as the man grabbed up a bayonet from the kitchen table, the blade as stained as his hands, and came back at him. Fumbling for the pistol in his belt holster, knowing that if he did not get it out he was going to die--
“I shot him in the chest, dead center. He didn’t even drop the bayonet. So I shot him again, right over the heart this time, an’ he fell close enough for me to smell his breath, an’ damn if I didn’t shoot him again in the head, just to make sure the son of a bitch was finally dead.
“I turned around an’ there was Jimmy standin’ there, with those big eyes of his. He’d seen the whole thing, I killed the boy’s father right in front of him.
“I walked out on the porch and the neighbors were already there, wantin’ to know what happened. Keenin’ like idiots, an’ goin’ on about what a good man he was, an’ how could I a shot him—the same lot that heard him bangin’ his wife’s skull off the woodwork every Saturday night! But little Jimmy, he just took me hand, an’ led me over to the porch bench, lookin’ up at me as if to see if I was all right.
Charlie stabbed idly at the few piece of fruit remaining in the daiquiri.
“They said in the papers he’d been buried alive for ten whole minutes over there when a shell hit his trench. They said he was always a well-tempered man before he went over, but I didn’t care.
“To me, he never seemed human. He seemed like the wrath of God itself, Tommy. He was all the chaos an’ bloodlust he’d brought back from the war, all that we released into this world, and have kept spewin’ out ever since. I knew then I had to get out, that this was not the work I was cut out for.”
“I know, Charlie.”
“But the Old Man, that was just what he was built for. Makin’ order out of chaos, like the hand of God itself. He made sure to get the bodies out without me or Jimmy havin’ to look at them again, and he threatened the gabbling neighbors within an inch of their lives if they dared to come into court an’ make up lies, and he got me back to
“The day before I left the Seventy-deuce, he brought in Jimmy to see me, and he told me, ‘Take him and raise him as your own.’ He told me, ‘There is no next a kin, not in this world, an’ he’s already been forgotten, far as this city is concerned. So take him home an’ give him a good life, an’ ease the pain for the both a you.’
“An’ so I did. And so Claire took him in just like the fine mother I always knew she could be, and he was everything you’d want in a son. But what I always remember is that day in Sunset Park. The dear boy. Walkin’ off with me hand-in-hand, a little packet of his things clutched to his chest. Headin’ with me to the subway, an’ the ride back to his new home. That was the greatest blessing of my life, Tommy. That was the best of it, and it was the Old Man who set it up, just as he always put everything to rights.”
* Kevin Baker is a novelist, historian, and journalist, who has written extensively about New York’s past. This is an excerpt from his latest novel.