Salvatore Giambaressi, Numbers Runner, Reader
by Tom Sheehan
The first time I saw Salvatore Giambaressi, in jeans, a Celtics windbreaker, a Red Sox cap later could have belonged to right fielder Trot Nixon with the telltale sweat stains, he was slipping a book of poetry under his belt at the back side of well-worn dungarees. It was personal secrecy at the neighborhood level. It may seem strange and outlandish that I should be the one to tell this story, inasmuch as I was not there when it ended… and maybe it’s not over yet… but be sure, the beginning fell broadly within my view. That I was tolerated in the area, the North End of Boston, came about because my mother was born there, gave birth to me there, took me when she left, brought me back later when my father died. Some thought me a displaced person, but I was tolerated, even if I was at times too curious about most things abounding in the neighborhood.
We, Salvatore and I, along with those few other people who had come in from the nasty spring rain, were drying out in a branch of the Boston Public Library, the branch at the North End’s Parmenter Street. The North End’s where Columbus still reigns as much as anybody, which is about all year long. Appearances said Sal had done the same secretive deed before of tucking away a volume of poetry, with no confoundment, no uncertainty in his moves. He employed a casual look about, a quick sleight of hand, and an uncompromising swift recovery from a slight hindrance when a corner of the book snagged on the windbreaker. The kid was cool.
To say the least, I was on my toes, privy to a hidden desire that ought, for obvious reasons, remain hidden.
A few moments earlier, walking behind him in the stacks, I had glimpsed the title of the slim volume, one of shy Emily’s collections. The maid from Amherst had surely lured him with her words. In some unknown depth of reading and understanding, with his back to normal stack walkers, Salvatore was smiling, a wide unconscious smile. We had, I realized, similar leanings. I saw him nod a few times, eagerly, with pronouncement, as though prodding himself over one more verse or couplet, committing it to memory, to spend the day or the night with it. The touch of that diminutive lady with the far reach was on him. Without doubt, joy and swift elation flooded his face.
I found the strictly Roman face faintly brick red under his cap. Depth of intelligence filled his eyes, dark as Sicilian alleys, perhaps moody might be a better description, and a cut on his nose stating, at least to me, that he had recently been in a scrape of one sort or another, that he knew reality too. I could not see his knuckles, or the accompanying bruised remnants that might have existed there. Street survival, I surmised, knowing a bit about the terrain, the adjoining neighborhoods, and the no-nonsense lines of demarcation that city kids draw for themselves. Those lines, be it known, sometimes passed down one side of an alley, crossed the middle of a vacant lot, and leaped a broad thoroughfare, but make no mistake… they were set in cement.
About this poetic young man, broad in the shoulders yet a casual litheness to him, flowed a surprising aura, one of interest, of passion and compassion, and a ready but indeterminate amount of confidence that said he could sport in more than one venue.
There was, for the moment, a host of wide contradictions; the teeming North End of Boston with its Mediterranean connection, the lonely and strange and sweet belle of Amherst, and a street kid, a poetry lover. It was a broadside of education you don’t get very often. I had heard the old whispers.
Down the street or just across it, in the mild confusion of emigrant settlements tossed everywhere around Boston, might be a numbers parlor, or a house whose occasional tenants streamed in and out at all hours of short visitations. A bakery might stand where an aged couple first baked bread and rolls, then made pizza, and then went to visit on Sundays their only son in prison.
The Celtics jacket, for one moment, caught an edge of the metered book, caused the young man a bit of a problem at his secret. About him, in a quick survey, he checked out everybody in his immediate area.
From his actions, and reactions, I was sure he was not stealing the precious volume. I just knew he was hiding it; the whole matter being that poetry, out in the streets of the North End of Boston, had few openly declared supporters, and eager lovers of poetry would suffer egregious harm once exposed. Out of all the foggy relationships I could enumerate, came the gross thought of the book being discovered in a place even young Emily had not dreamed of, and then came the view of her staunch adherent being pummeled by coarse comrades. A fifteen year-older would ordinarily be an easy target for neighborhood toughs.
When I followed him outside, I knew he was currently employed; I saw what turned out to be his first pick-up of the day, at a small numbers parlor at the rear of a three-decker clearly slung between taller structures. Stuffing a small packet down inside a sweater inside the Celtics jacket, he sprinted down the sidewalk, crossed a busy street bearing converging street cars, and was gone down an alley on the other side of the thoroughfare.
With graceful alacrity he moved, like a wide receiver on his appointed route. Intrigued to the absolute end, caught in the most evident ironies, I sat on a stoop in the neighborhood, watching, waiting, feeling resolution had to make itself known, knowing that this area was his neighborhood, and that he would not stray far from its confines. From a distant point on the horizon, far on the western rim of the city, I heard the shy voice from Amherst say, “My little tippler leaning against the sun.”
My god, I thought, she always had a keen sense of timing.
Twenty minutes later Salvatore came out of an alley up the street about half a block on my right. Wary he was and alone, and the windbreaker, buttoned up to his neck, had added girth, which meant another bit of cargo had been added.
A quick wind with sea smells anchored in it, cursed at my ears, though it had apparently driven off the rain. April was being herself, playing games, bouncing between late winter and early summer, spring playing hide and seek. Between us were eight or ten front stoops of four-decker tenement houses, one three-decker, two small store fronts where large, smoky glass windows trapped the now-and-then streaks of sunshine at odd angles, a garage of a most suspicious nature, and a series of alleys that were street ligaments between buildings. I thought first of the bones of a skeleton connecting to the main body structure. Salvatore, on his return, closed down the distance between us, thoroughly oblivious, I thought, of my presence. My intentions, I hoped, had not been too open. Trying to convey the idea I was ignoring him, I looked over the top of my glasses, and stared at a point across the street.
That’s when I first heard the voice, coming from a recess, slightly better than a whisper.
“Salvi,” someone said from inside the stoop of the tenement next to me fronting on the street. Nicknames, in the North End, as in most places, carried a sense of trust in them in how they were used, and who used them. And Salvi or Sal, I assumed, were currently used in addressing my object of interest. I strained to listen. The lightness of the hidden voice, mixed with a remnant of darkness, floated out to me from the dim confine. The whisper, though soft, feminine but of some age, was clear as a Mass bell and I pictured the face of an older woman hidden away.
“Salvi,” I heard again. She could have been beseeching a favor from the young runner. Or expressing a warning.
Young Giambaressi stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, as if his ears were pinned back, though he did not turn around to peer into the doorway. His arrested progress was attention enough; he could not have said any plainer, “Yes, I’m listening.” He was looking across the street, away from the voice, and his raiment said he still carried some cargo of number transactions. The jacket was still puffy, and still buttoned to the neck.
“They’re going to give you up for a token arrest,” the older voice warned, at first in a conciliatory manner, and then it changed, instantly phlegmatic, like a hate pill had been swallowed. “That bastard, Bruno Marcante, gave it all away. You know how tight him and Mahoney the cop are, and Mahoney’s captain, that Palindropo skunk.”
The silky voice had gone completely granular, coming with an overtone full of understanding and warning at the same time. “He thinks you’re too different. That you’ll cause trouble later on. The dink fought Marco about it. Marco said he didn’t care about poems, that you’re faster than lightning. That’s what counts. That’s all that counts. But Bruno won’t let go. Some of the old ones call him a lazzarone. And he hates your father from long ago. I don’t know why. Maybe the old country. You must know the answer to that. I never knew your father in the old days.” There was a pause, a sudden inhalation, and to this day I thought I heard that informant say, ‘but your mother was che bella.’ “Tell me some other time about your father, when Bruno isn’t too close. He’s become a real pain in the ass! He can’t for a minute understand the things we like. Oh, he couldn’t in a hundred year, the little snot!”
So, there was a long-time connection with them. I couldn’t begin to guess what that connection was, but had to concentrate on who was hidden beyond the stoop, what personage or being, what mystery heard but not seen. I tried to picture the woman there in the recessed doorway, but none of the tenants I had noticed before fit any of the images moving on the surface of my mind, the flotation device that imagination constantly propels. The voice, in the meantime, was making full demands on my imagination. First, it brought out a kindly face, a gray-haired old woman, with a shawl discreetly in place, her chin low on a dark chest, and a ragtag, tattered ensemble of clothing capping it off; sub rosa, right from a Sicilian alley. She could be a hundred years old, or a hidden twenty. Disguises came and went, flitting away the way the mind plays eternal games. So awash in intrigue seemed her person that she could have been in the movies, had come right from the screen, off the stage from the Shubert or the Paramount. Then she changed, in a second coming disguised as a younger woman, svelte in the darkness, her voice silky and amorous, someone with a crush on young Giambaressi, feathers gathering in the loins, a beat of the frail heart, more real than I might have imagined.
I had to admire the runner and reader. Oh, smooth Salvatore Giambaressi! He pretended he was waving to someone across the street, perhaps up in a window of one of the tenements. “When?” he said, still staring across the street, still waving on high, the question tossed lightly over one shoulder, his eyes quickly scanning the full length of the street in both directions.
The darkened interior of the stoop answered: “It’s going to be now, or today some time. Keep watch. Always know who’s around. All the time, know who’s around. Mahoney and Palindropo have a few weird friends. Real tattletales, scum they are. Like rats, they are, the bunch of them.” The voice paused, a deep breath taken home. “They’d sell their mothers for hot tips at Suffolk Downs or Wonderland. I don’t know who all of them are, but they’re here, right on this street. You know every one of them.” Another pause and another deep breath. “The best thing I can do for you now is to take the load from you. I will deliver it for you. They’re probably up the street or around the corner right now. They’re watching you. Don’t be foolish and do anything that’s crazy.”
In the distance, thin, frail, but leveled on the air like the slap of a ruler on one’s hand, came a siren’s wail, as Boston, and the North End in particular, carried on its endless survival, its way of life, the street having a choreography all its own. Dust swirled and fled, cloud-borne, formless. The wind whispered renewal and the air regained a chill. For me, contrast was everywhere. From behind a small cloud, the sun leaped off windows and store fronts. Everything seemed memorial, frozen in place, yet able to be carried off in the mind, to be remembered… the sight of it, the sound of it, the smell of it, the touch of it. I was mesmerized. The wail of the siren was stiletto thin.
That frozen scene has been remembered to this moment.
And then, as though a signal had been loosed, a shot rang out, thunderous in its own way yet handgun light, a caliber quickly guessed; .22, I said to myself, pocket gun, handbag gun, a pistol a woman’d use or a tyro to the awful ranks. A window across the street was shattered. Salvatore Giambaressi dropped to his knees. I was flat on my back, clawing for cover in the doorway.
The voice in the other doorway yelled, “In here, quick, Salvi.” That’s when the handgun fell onto the sidewalk from somewhere above. It clattered, almost like a piece of iron pipe from a long fall. It resonated deadly echoes. Then, as an accompanying instrument, the siren’s wail came closer and lost itself in other sounds. Immediately, a door slammed overhead, then another. A scream came from behind the broken window across the street, on the third floor. A few buildings down the street, three men and a woman with a big shopping bag leaped into doorways. The brakes on two automobiles jammed tight, the drivers fleeing their vehicles.
“Don’t touch the gun,” the hidden voice said, then filled its tone with urgency. “Get in here quick. Quick! The cop’s’ll be here in minutes. Quick!”
Salvatore leaped into the dark doorway. Speed, it seemed assured, never left him, and he was out of sight in a second. A door slammed that sounded as though it was behind him and his ally. Another door slammed, either overhead or deeper in the building, a sucker punch of a sound. Then another door caused reverberations still deeper in the tenement. Apartments echoed. The cold water flats gave off misgiving sounds that came hollow and mournful. Moments later a car engine kicked once, coughed a second time, and started. Then with a squeal the car sped off on the back side of the building and up a side street just as the police car pulled up in front of the building. O’Malley leaped out ahead of two other blue coats.
“Cover the back,” O’Malley yelled. In his hand was a pistol, dark as death but light as a wand. He waved it at one comrade, the pistol for now his simple baton. The comrade sped down an alley. Seconds later, the way a cloud moves with a brisk wind, a sense of darkness within it, a coterie of pigeons soared off the roof of the next building, their leap into flight a wide union, and headed toward the elevated tracks. The shadow of the flight moved across the street’s pavement and climbed the building opposite swift as a shot.
“They’re on the roof!” O’Malley screamed. “They’re on the roof!” The winged shadow had passed directly over his head, the flap of wings and the rush of air as loud as a big fan.
When Salvatore slipped into the doorway, I had slipped into the opening behind me. Garcy the crab man was coming down the stairs. “I heard a gun. You a shooter?” he said to me before he recognized me. In the dim light his glasses showed their thickness. Three times a week he pushed his two-wheeled cart loaded with cooked crabs, a nickel a piece. On the streets he would yell out a cadence; “Squisito granchio!” or “Delizioso granchio!” as if he was calling out to different people.
“If I were you, I wouldn’t go out there,” I said. “There’s a gun in the street, and cops all over.”
“They coming in here?”
“No. I think they were after Sal Giambaressi, the young runner.”
“A set-up? O’Malley in it? He’s a rat from way back. From the old days. Lots of people think the kid’s funny because he likes poetry and nice words, but he’s got balls. He ought to go to Harvard or BC sometime, somewhere on the El route. That’d be his cup of tea. Did they go next door?”
“Oh, shit, that’s where the Nest Egg is. Even O’Malley doesn’t know that.” Garcy stopped dead in the middle of the stairs. It was apparent he was not getting into the mix. “I think I’ll go back and get another cup of tea. Want one? C’mon.”
“The Nest Egg?” I said, never having heard the expression in the neighborhood. But I went back up the stairs with him.
“Yuh, where they count and move the money. You might as well know now.” He talked as he climbed back to his flat. “I haven’t been in that building for over five years. I don’t dare to. How come your mother came back here? Why’d you come?” He had crossed some familiar years in a matter of two steps, but he didn’t wait for answers to all his questions.
The door was not locked and he let me into his flat. It was austere, neat, as though nobody lived there. There was no dust, no dirty dishes or clothes hanging about in the small kitchen. A single arrow of sunlight fell down through a window and dropped across the table. One cup, without saucer, sat on the table. A blue and red oil cloth, shiny by the one window, had a single burn mark on one edge. Two kitchen chairs with high backs sat against the table like sentinels, as though they didn’t belong in the room. I caught up to a fading essence of tea on the air, then I caught a sense of something missing as I looked at an easy chair filling one corner. He fired up the stove and set the kettle atop the flame. Instantly it began to sing of steam. A calendar of the current month was pinned on the back of the door and three days each week were marked with Xs. I figured them to be his crab days.
“That was Miriam’s chair,” he said, noting my interest. “I guess it still is, but she’s not here any more. Her and Salvi’s mother were great pals. They both read to the kid all the time. There are a few punks around here who don’t know a noun from a verb, not that I’d know them all. But they did, and Salvi does. I wish to hell he’d do something he likes with his learning, not spend his life running numbers for a few guys, them getting fancy with the money.”
“Is he stuck here?”
“I can’t drag him away. I talked to him. He knows what he loves, but the money comes now, the few dollars he makes. He takes care of his mother with it. That’s what keeps him here. He’s her son, but now he doubles as her angel.” The gears shifted in his voice. “You hear that car going off out back?” He pointed out the kitchen window. “It’s been there maybe for two hours, never been there before. I knew something was up, but didn’t figure Salvi’d be in it.”
“Somebody, a lady, maybe a girl, was hiding in the doorway and I heard her telling Salvi that O’Malley had a set-up in the works, him and Bruno Marcante. But he’s such small peanuts, Salvi.”
“Makes no difference to Bruno. He likes to shape people, make them his way, thinks he’s an Underboss and he’s only a shitpoke.” The pause came, a deep breath, a secret weighed before it was spilled. “That’s gotta be Donna Liberoni you heard. She’s Salvi’s godmother, teacher in the lower grades for a couple of years. She says Salvi’s the one true student she ever had, him having this poetry thing. I don’t think he grew into it. I think he’s had it practically always, like a gift. Remembers everything. Knows hundreds of poems right at his tongue, so much and so quick it kind of scares me a bit. Super stuff, you know, the way it bounces. Donna found it in a hurry. She knew he was special. Probably Salvi remembers all the numbers too, the ones he carries. But I think Donna’s more watchdog than teacher. And she’s got a little muscle of her own, has a lot of respect out in these alleys, on these crooked little streets where breathing’s tough enough as it is at any hour. But it’s like Salvi’s her only hope of ever getting something done, of moving on. She dreams of separation, for her choice student, being out of here, going beyond.”
I’d been around the area for a while and knew a little of Donna Liberoni. “She always hang as tight as she did today, like part of his shadow? And I didn’t even see her, the way she hung back in the entryway next door, a regular will o’ the wisp.”
“She’s all the shadow she wants to be, and just for him. Dedicated she is. Maybe not fanatic, but dedicated. She doesn’t hound him, but ten’ll get you one she knew something was coming off today, was ready for it.”
Garcy had caught my full attention. “You spin a yarn pretty good,” I said.
At the kettle he said, as it began singing its steam. “Always remember, you pay for a story. It takes from you. Try to find what it gives back, if it ever does.”
They had me again, Garcy the crabman, along with Salvi the numbers runner and poetry lover. I could see my mother nodding at me, smiling, as I sat in the corner of a distant winter kitchen, reading a book, absorbed, oblivious to all but her and the words spinning in front of me.
We had separated from the noises, from Salvi and Donna Liberoni, from O’Malley the cop, and were ever distant from the Nest Egg. But there came, as if from a deep canyon, from the guts of the building next door with a four foot alley between structures, loud banging, harsh demands mostly inarticulate in their threats. Then a gunshot was heard.
I heard O’Malley finally scream out, “Where’s that goddamn kid? I want him now!”
Another voice, at the backside of the building, yelled out, “He ain’t here, O’Malley. He’s gone!” A door slammed or was rammed. Even our building shook.
“A voice yelled out, “If I was you, O’Malley, I wouldn’t go in there.”
Garcy the crabman touched me on the arm. “Oh, Jeezus, O’Malley’s at the Nest Egg.” With a slight nod, a sparkle in his eyes, he said, “He just got himself screwed. It looks like a blind move to get in that room. He can take every dime he finds, but it won’t pay off in the long run. You can bet on that.”
That’s the way it went, of course. O’Malley toted off a box of money as evidence. It was said, bantered around the streets free as you like, that less than a third of it ended up at the police station. Salvi’s name was associated with the gun found in the street, O’Malley saying he most likely had fired it, that there wasn’t all that much money taken from the numbers room he had busted into, that Salvi was their only runner.
When Donna Liberoni stepped up and made her statement, O’Malley backed down, knowing what the odds were. The whole North End knew what her sole interest was, the kid who loved poetry, Salvi the numbers runner. So, ultimately, in spite of O’Malley’s first dictate, Salvi was not charged with anything, but he did stop running numbers. His patron saint had finally gotten into his soul, pointing out what was coming down the road to him, showing him how crooked even the beat cop was, insisting there were poems not yet written that someone had to write.
My report, though far from the finish, has come a long way now. Donna Liberoni, with persistence, got him into St. John’s Prep School well north of the North End. He was boarded in a private home in Danvers, became a stick-out wide receiver for their football team, graduated from Boston College out at the end of the Green Line. In his time there he gave up the football, found a few more words he had not seen together before, heard the voice working inside his head, wrote poems that still make Donna Liberoni cry with happiness.
Once in a while I bump into Garcy the crabman. He tells me that Salvi’s mother is still living in her old place, and that Salvi visits often. We talk about that day when things changed for Salvi, see some of his poems in magazines, and each of us holding dear his own copy of Salvi’s first book of poems, Donna’s Last Word on the Street.
Bio: Sheehan served in the 31st Infantry Regiment, Korea, 1951, and graduated from Boston College in 1956. His books are Epic Cures; Brief Cases, Short Spans; A Collection of Friends; From the Quickening; and This Rare Earth & Other Flights (poetry). He has 20 Pushcart nominations and 360 stories on Rope and Wire Magazine. His work has been published in Romania, France, Ireland, England, Scotland, Italy, Thailand, China, Mexico, Canada, etc. Recent eBooks from Milspeak Publishers include Korean Echoes, 2011, nominated for a Distinguished Military Award and The Westering, 2012, nominated for a National Book Award. His newest eBooks, from Danse Macabre, are Murder at the Forum, an NHL mystery novel, and Death of a Lottery Foe, with two more mysteries due for 2013 publication,Death by Punishment andAn Accountable Death.
Confessions of a Bohemian #2
by Daniel Clausen
I need more devil in my tea. Goat-head with hooves for feet, and then crushed into small shards like tea leaves--but this does not get me over the first bout of love sickness that sweeps over me when I see her, and then talk to her, and then make love to her, and sleep in her bed the next day. All this happens in the span of twelve hours, and all I have to go on is the steam from this one cup of tea, which has very little nutritional value, and I’ve already searched her refrigerator.
I was sitting in a coffee shop one day before I met her when a man told me the story of the devil and how there was a company in England that packaged him in little bags of tea, but that I could rest assured because it was diluted greatly once they saw it was catching on, and that they could make serious money off of it. The man was drunk, but the conversation was sobering, because for once in my life I had laughed until milk came out of my nose.
[The configuration of me, the man, and the milk was one more indication that Fate with a capital F existed, and that It had a rather shallow sense of humor.]
But the girl could not understand why this mattered, and why tea was the perfect fuel to carry on a twelve-hour love affair. And when I told her I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her she tried not to laugh too hard, and I knew that if a tea company in England hadn’t diluted the devil, my luck would not have run out.
Bio: Daniel Clausen is a graduate with a degree in English from the University of Miami. His fiction and essays have appeared in Slipstream Magazine, Leading Edge Science Fiction, Spindrift Literary Journal, and The Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies, among other venues. You can read sample chapters from his novel, The Ghosts of Nagasaki, at ghostsofnagasaki.com .