It’s never as simple as it sounds. I know that. I know it like I know up from down, left from right, right from wrong. Yeah, right from wrong.
In school I heard all about Peter and his letters, his sermons on paper trying to keep those early Christians on the path, stop them shitting bricks when dawn came around again regular as clockwork. They were waiting for it all to end, fucking begging and praying for the ride to stop so they could get off and collect their tickets at the big pearly gates. Can you believe that? They wanted it to end, true crazies if ever there was and I know, like I know the rest. Anyway Peter told them that we were all born dirty, conceived in sin, raised in sin and living in sin, a fact that every teenager in the world can attest to. He said our souls, our very spirits were clouded by the sin of the first people those original gangster’s Adam and Eve, the Bonnie and Clyde of the Old Testament. Can I get a Hallelujah brother? He said our first mother, the nasty Eve, cursed us all when she convinced poor idle brained honest Adam to take a bite of that big old Granny Smith. Now you and I know that that’s a lot of crap. Adam didn’t need convincing, a hot Arab girl in nothing but a fig leaf offers you some fruit with a shake and a smile and she may as well be handing you cyanide for all you’d notice. Peter insisted it was the finer sex that started the shit rolling down hill and we’ve been praying and paying ever since. That’s why we confess our sins and seek absolution. That’s why babies, barely a hot minute in the world need blessing, cause old Pete says they are guilty as sin.
That’s why on the worst fucking night of my life I’m cradling a small gold cross and staring into space like a junky. I should be paying attention but I’m not. I’m thinking of absolution instead of what I’m supposed to be thinking. I’m supposed to be thinking about running. I’ve got enough strikes on my card to fill a hammer with envy and I’m thinking about hell instead of the gun. I can smell the oil it was rubbed down with and I can almost taste the metallic tang of the thing. I should be listening to Juno’s last words but all I can think about is the fact that the games rigged from day one. We are all sinners before we take our first breath, gurgle our first words, take our first crap or tell our first lie. Now if that doesn’t take the cake, eat it and then vomit it back up into your lap I don’t know what does.
‘You hear about Saul?’
Did I hear about Saul, that simple dumb bastard? We both know what’s going to happen here and he’s asking me about a dwarf Jew with hookers on speed dial. Some people have no respect for the big picture. Two men sit in an area of Brooklyn nicknamed “Stiff’s Alley” and both know that only one of them is going home to a hot woman and cold beers while the other chills in purgatory before burning in hell. I want to be mad but I can’t. Juno’s big docile cow’s eyes are all glazed and moist looking at me with complete sincerity, his hair parted and hanging over his left eyebrow like a guinea Hitler. I can almost imagine him with that weird little ball jockey moustache. I want to be mad but I just can’t get there. This isn’t the time or the night for it.
‘Nah’ I answer before wiping the sweat from my upper lip, ‘what he do this time?’
Saul Manmunchyre -I shit you not, that’s the guys real name- was known far and wide for the kind of shenanigans you read about in dime store rags, the kind of guy who makes millions by just being himself, a low life. He has no talent, no skills, not even a catchy catchphrase, unless “fuck me I’m stoned” has had a resurgence since the mid seventies. He’s a local celebrity though, the guy who can get you dope or blow or a clean piece of tail at four in the morning. A couple of years ago a paper did an article about the seedy side of pop music and the little prick got a mention. From living in a basement to the penthouse in less than a year and a paragraph because that’s all it takes to become famous, to become a celebrity.
Juno licked his lips and took a drag on one of his ever lit Pall Malls before continuing. He sighed, a nasal drone that allowed the grey wisps of cigarette smoke escape his mouth and start their journey to the stained ceiling of the car.
‘You know about his thing?’
I gave Juno a wide eyed look, the kind southern belles give dudes like Rhett Butler when he asks, side saddle or bareback. It took Juno a moment to understand and when he did he started to splutter and laugh. He sounded like a small out board motor on a fishing boat starting up, smoke and all.
‘You filthy shit kicker’ Juno wheezed clutching his chest, ‘you know that’s not what I meant, I’m not talking ‘bout some midgets fucking junk. I mean his thing, you know, with the all year round fucking tan. That thing,’
Yeah, I knew about that thing. Saul looked like a pumpkin in December. It could be minus fifteen outside and he would still look like a cabana boy.
‘Okay I’ll bite, what about his thing?’
‘Guy had more money than sense friend’ Juno started, ‘guy was a genius for the green and white and pink but that dumb fucker couldn’t tell the time on a digital clock. He stepped into his mini me tanning machine and got ready for the blitz. He did all the usual shit, and that was his mistake.’ Juno said wagging a finger, ‘As it turns out, one of his girls used the machine before him and broke it. She tried to fix it but you know how it is. All done up and shit with her five fucking inch fake nails and coke mushed brains, she just made it worse.’ Juno paused and took another drag on his cigarette.
‘And the moral of the story is . . .’ I said twirling my hand for him to finish.
‘The moral of the story friend is never let a hooker with five inch nails play Handy Manny with your shit if you ever intend on using it. That poor dumb midget stepped into a machine that had a broken door and broken timer. The maid smelled that shit and asked who making bacon before someone was sent to check on old cooked Saul, as easy as that my friend, dope dealer to pot roast.’
Juno stubbed out the cigarette on the cars dash and let the butt fall to the floor. He looked younger somehow beneath the yellow fluorescents of the street light. He could pass as thirty right here and now and no one would question it. The lights colour hid the taint of dirty flaxen skin around his fingers from three packs of Pall Malls a day and covered the red and blue snarls of veins that marked his nostrils from Wild Turkey and bourbon binges. Yeah at a glance he could pass as someone else but I can still smell the gun oil with its lemony bite. I can still feel the weight of a revolver against my chest and every now and then I consider going for it, but it’s not the time for that. Executions have a ritual all of their own, especially when it’s between friends.
I think he’s nervous. He hides it well but I can tell, everyone has their tell, and I know Juno’s. It comes with knowing a cat, working with a cat.
When I met James Phelps Junior he was eleven years younger and twenty five pounds lighter. He was a son of a bitch then as now but that was fine. I was a son of a bitch. It was just one of a number of things we had in common. For example, we shared a fondness for fried food, Monday night football, cold beers, chicks in short shorts and fuck me boots, beers, Pall Malls, horse racing, beers, college girls looking to make a few bucks and don’t mind wearing their old high school cheerleader outfits, bourbon and of course, beers. Do you see a pattern emerging from times murky past friend? I wouldn’t call us degenerates but others might.
It was the boredom you see. That’s what the life is like. Its early mornings and late nights and the space between filled with obnoxious malcontents griping about how nothing in life is how they expected it would be. Sure, sure, I get it. You want a bigger house, or a better car. You want that promotion at work you didn’t earn and why is it wrong to have sticky thoughts about your neighbour’s daughter. Because she’s a kid fucko, that’s why. You don’t deserve the promotion because you are a lazy slob, ditto the house and car. We never say it. It’s not part of our job description to be that honest, if you can call it a job. Being a member of the big man’s special family is not supposed to be about work, it’s supposed to be an honour. Winning the lottery is an honour; subservience is a major fucking drag.
Juno cleared his throat. Eleven years and it all comes down to this.
‘You outta smokes?’ I say trying to fill in the quiet but my mouth is dry. The words are so final it makes the fat guy quiver slightly. His foreheads sweaty, shiny like a fairy sprinkled it with magic dust. He shakes his head and produces the cigarette packet but he doesn’t light one. Maybe he is ready. He’s psyched up for the big moment and ready to rocket into action with a bang, a thump and the acrid cordite smell of gunpowder.
‘Who you fancy in the playoffs?’ he wrinkles his discoloured nose; ‘I like Miami. It’s just my opinion but fuck it; their times gotta come around sometime’
Jesus, Miami, seriously, Miami? Are they even in the fucking playoffs? I try not to look annoyed but I can see it in his big dumb eyes. I don’t want to make it hard on him but fuck, his parts the easy part. And we’ve all got to play our part.
‘Football or basketball?’
‘Does it matter?’ Juno replies raising his large hands.
‘Yeah, kinda, Juno old buddy old pal, I mean, it’s not rocket science but the devils in the detail you know what I mean. One’s a yes and the others a who gives a damn’
‘Right, fine’ Juno starts, but with a sigh he leaves it.
He looks like he’s going to have a heart attack before the trigger is even pulled, a big fat juicy coronary before the magic moment. Fuck. Now I can’t get the idea of a vast porter house out of my head, thick and red with all the fixings and a pitcher, gold and cold. Now that would make a fine last meal. I consider asking him if he wants to hit an eatery one last time for old times’ sake but I don’t. His hands are shaking. That’s why he didn’t try and pull out a smoke, he couldn’t. Now in the yellow light on a deserted street my friend changes. Rather than looking younger, he ages, he sickens. Parkinson shakes twist his strong bold frame and time spreads its grey fingers across his skin. I wish for a moment I could take it all back and save him but that’s not my job either. It all boils down to sin and who’s got to suffer it. Saint Peter and the angels demand vengeance. What a swell bunch they all are, really.
‘We should get going Juno’
‘Are you that eager? You just wanna get it done, right?’ he’s upset, and I can’t blame him. Eleven years man, eleven fucking years all boils down to a mistake and a muzzle flash.
‘There’s no point putting it off anymore. It’s gotta be done. It’s the right thing to do. We both know it.’ I squeeze the little gold cross praying for inspiration.
‘Maybe I’m not ready’ he wheezes, tears form in the corner of his eyes. ‘This is crazy. There’s got to be another way.’
I wish my friend. I really do.
I can remember that day. I see the blood. I smell the stink of it. Juno stands stock still but says nothing. He just reaches into his pocket and proceeds to free and light a smoke. I start to cry. What a waste, what a terrible violent waste.
‘It’s time’ I say focussing my eyes on a smashed phone box on the street ahead. Trying to escape the vision of past sins, but it doesn’t work. It never works. ‘I’m not belittling the seriousness of the situation. I get it; it’s hard, harder than almost anything but we made a promise. We swore on God and all his crummy little angels. There’s a sin and a punishment and its time.’
‘This is a sin too brother, murder is a sin’
I smile and believe it or not it’s genuine. ‘It’s the right thing Juno. Checks and balances, everything in the world needs it. If the roles were reversed, what would you do? All that blood man. I’m sorry, but it’s got to be done.’
‘Then why me?’ he asks.
He was there. That’s why. He knows about it. That’s why. He took on the job. That’s why.
‘You know why. Someone’s got to pay for the sin. It has to be made right.’
Seconds pass. A car horn on another block sounds like a ship calling to port in the silence. A breeze, nothing more, a ripple of air, tugs at a candy bar wrapper pulling its ward like a hangman taking the condemned to the gallows. I hold tight to the cross as the smell of the gun grows stronger.
We are all born with sin. That’s the truth. It’s not Pete’s sin, it’s not some fucking primordial thing that crawled from a swamp and latched itself onto us. It’s the sin of being human, the sin of mistakes. Absolution can be as easy as saying sorry, as easy as a friendly nod of the head to someone you argued with not long ago. Most human sins are piddling fucking things that show up on no radar and no one cares. Some however, they are whoppers, sharks in the paddling pool of human iniquity if you’ll pardon the philosophising. Murder is a sin. It doesn’t matter if it was planned or fell upon you. Murder is a sin, and for that I pity Juno. His sin will be the absolution of mine.
I pulled the old semi-automatic from beneath my coat. I studied it a second then drew back and released the slide. A shiny copper shell leapt toward the front window and tinkled against the glass before becoming lost among the cigarette butts on the floor.
‘Wait a minute’ Juno began to say but I cut him off.
‘It’s loaded, cocked and the safety is off. All you have to do now is point and pull.’ I turned the gun over and offered it to him.
‘I can’t, I won’t’ he spluttered throwing his hands back as if the gun was red hot, ‘you can’t make me do this. How many years have we served together? We put on the collar every day and preach about not doing this.’
‘We also preach about hell brother’ I say, ‘we let it be known that God can be an angry bastard and when its time, its time. I need you to do this my friend, a little sin for a big one.’
‘I can’t live like this Juno. I can’t be haunted like this for the rest of my life. What happened . . . it needs to be made right. You need to fix it for me because I can’t. I can’t add suicide to the cheque. No one’s gonna know about this. Later some overworked cop will note a call and a dead priest in a shitty neighbourhood where he should never have been and then the world moves on. You can be forgiven; you’re doing God’s work. You’re punishing the wicked and you’re saving him at the same time.’
It’s working. I can see it in his eyes. Those large hands of his still shake, but less, and his arms are returning to his sides. I deserve this. I truly fucking do.
‘But . . .’
‘Will you forget that day?’ I ask.
Juno closes his eyes. I can see the shiver. ‘No’ he whispers.
‘Take it’ I say pushing the gun forward, ‘for all that’s holy and pure just take it’ and he does.
I turn to look out the window. I can’t see him like this, my friend for so long looking so haggard, so drawn and empty. I deserve this but he doesn’t.
Finally, exhausted, I grin. A last meal would be grand, a last beer. I hope this won’t take long. I can hear the sizzle of onions; feel the heat of the grill. I think about the steak again, a big juicy heart stopping . . .