Spring arrived and rivers flowed in the sewers under the city. The rats emerged from their frozen hideouts. We sat around, like we always did, at the Boiler, our neighborhood pub. It was a run-down joint with dim lighting and a wide variety of villains passing through. The place reeked of rotten beer and rotten souls. We were all criminals in one way or another, with nothing to be proud of, but spring had arrived and that was reason enough to celebrate.
Johnny was sitting across from me, taking silent sips from his beer. Al was sitting beside him, drumming with his thumb against the table. The sun outside had called it a day and the nighttime vultures were peeking their heads into the Boiler. Grime of all kinds; dealers, junkies, thugs and thieves…The Boiler was a den of criminal activity, full of cowboys looking for anything heavy. Every beer was a new scheme, every smile a farce.
“Yo, Ace,” said Johnny and added in a whisper, “You packin?”
I turned in my seat, but said nothing.
Johnny nodded his head and went on, “Down to run a grab?”
“What do you got in mind?” I said.
Johnny smiled and leaned forward, “Junior,” he whispered.
“We’re gonna rob Junior,” said Al, his voice cracking every which way.
“Keep your fucking voice down, you imbecile!” Johnny exclaimed.
I looked down the bar. Junior was sitting where he usually sat, at the table by the door. He was a giant human being, a mountain from every angle. We’d seen him around the neighborhood and in the Boiler for quite some time. He was always alone; a massive man, empty of words…I looked at him and the blankness in his eyes. I’d often wondered what his story was. None of us really knew, but we were all intimidated by him, by his size. Deep down inside, I knew he wasn’t a gangster. I knew he wasn’t hard, but I had no intention of being the one to test him. I was curious more than anything else. Also, I always tried not to mess with people from the neighborhood. I didn’t like to run into people I’d ripped off.
“We’re gonna need another five guys, at least,” I grinned.
“We can take him,” said Johnny, tapping the side of his leather jacket.
“Take him for what? He ain’t loaded,” I interrupted.
“How do you know?” said Al.
“C’mon,” I sighed, “You ever seen him with money?”
“I heard he’s an old school gangster, sleeping on a bed of cash,” said Al and continued, “I heard whoever he was working for retired him ‘cause Junior got a bit bent in the head.”
“Nice story,” I muttered, “You and your sewing circle sure are imaginative, Al.”
“So you ain’t down?” said Johnny.
“Hell no,” I replied, “You’re outta your mind. That guy will crush us…Are you gonna shoot him?”
“If I have to,” Johnny whispered and reached for his beer.
“Man, think of this moment when they send you up the river,” I said.
“Whoa!” he burst, “Who said anything about going away? Nobody’s going anywhere.”
“You’re talking about robbing a dude from the neighborhood,” I said, lowering my tone, my fingers spread and palms pressed on top of the table, “The man is ten times your size. You think he’s just gonna roll over and give it up? Are you gonna fight him, Mr. Poundforpound? He will eat you in an instant. You’re gonna have to shoot him. And then what?”
“At least I’m thinking,” said Johnny, “When was the last time we ran a grab? At least I’m brainstorming things…”
“Things..?” I chuckled, “You’re trying to get us all pinched.”
“You think he’s connected?” said Al.
“I don’t know,” I sighed, “Just leave the man alone.” I turned and cast my eyes down the bar again. I stared at Junior. He was holding something and running his thumb across it while he rocked back and forth in his seat. I couldn’t stop staring at him and I tried to see exactly what he was holding, but couldn’t tell. In front of him, on the table, there stood a tall, half-empty glass of what appeared to be milk. I laughed and turned to my beer. “You two are a rare breed of idiot,” I laughed and added, “How long have we been coming here?” I shrugged my shoulders and tilted my head, “You geniuses are talking about robbing a guy we’ve seen coming here for months now…You haven’t bothered to check him out, but you got your stories.” I turned back to Junior and continued, “I look at him and see someone who ain’t all there. I see a man who looks like he’s survived a hell of a lot more than me. He ain’t got anything I want.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” said Johnny.
“The man is drinking milk!” I exclaimed, “Why do you think we call him Junior?”
“Because he drinks milk..?”
“Yes, Al,” I cleared my throat, “Because he drinks milk, and he’s so fucking big.” Al laughed and snorted. “Yes, it’s funny.” I looked over at Johnny, “He’s got nothing, not even a real name,” I sighed.
The evening dragged on and the Boiler grew louder. I found myself outside, beer-buzzed and smiling, my lungs welcoming the mixture of light spring air and dense Du Maurier. I was tired. I knew they were probably conjuring up another scheme or cursing me to hell and making their own plans. I was tired of their voices. For a moment, I pondered where I would go. Could I find another home…? Live another life…? I tried to think of at least one place I could go to get away from it all. None came to mind.
All of a sudden, Junior emerged from inside the Boiler, like a rhinoceros, like some mysterious beast full of milk. He stood for a moment in front of the pub, scraping the soles of his shoes on the sidewalk. He kicked a pebble and laughed and started walking down the street. I watched him and wondered what jungle had been his home, what mountain he’d escaped from. He walked slowly, almost wobbling from side to side. I wondered if too much milk had something to do with that. I wondered who he really was and why he never spoke. He was about to disappear around the corner onto Doris Avenue, when I flicked my cigarette to the street and followed after him. I had nothing else going on, and I guess the beer in me nursed my curiosity.
I followed him down Doris Avenue, keeping my distance, and through the park, to a worn and withered white house on Horsham Drive. From afar, I watched his giant figure walking around the side of the house. By the time I got there, he was already inside. I stood on the sidewalk and lit another smoke.
Uneasy waves in my gut could’ve been hunger, could’ve been nerves…I clenched my fist a couple of times, my fingers sticking together in the clammy swamp of my palms. “What am I doing?” I thought, but the night was beyond such questions. I dropped the cigarette and reached to my back and pulled out the .38 caliber pistol I had tucked under my belt. I walked around the side of the house, my heavy breaths guiding me to the door. A couple of lights were on in the basement, but the rest of the house was dark. I walked to the back and crouched down by one of the lit basement windows. My heart rattled my rib cage and I tightened my grip around the pistol in my left hand. It was a simple precaution. I wasn’t there to rob him, or kill him. I guess I was just there to get to know him. I stared into the lit up room, which consisted of a mattress on the floor and a whole bunch of children’s toys scattered about. Junior barged in. He was wearing a giant diaper and nothing else. I watched him drop himself on the mattress as he picked up a toy from the floor that looked like some sort of rattle. He shook it and laughed. I was more than ever confused and curious. Who was he…? What was wrong with him…? I wondered to whom this humongous child belonged and how he’d found his way into the Boiler. I watched him for a while, fascinated by his infantile gaze. This was the monster we were all so intimidated of. This was Al’s ‘old school gangster, sleeping on a bed of cash…’ I wanted to laugh. I had so many questions, and I knew that for the most part, they would remain unanswered. I felt sorry for him and thought, “I will talk to you next time. I promise to protect you from the likes of me.”