Written By Jim Norman
Illustration by John Waltrip
As they did nearly every day, six of the most dangerous and violent hoodlums in Brooklyn had lunch at the Ginsberg and Gold Delicatessen. They sat in a booth reserved for their exclusive use. They talked sports gambling, movies, women, anything but business. Their business was murder and mayhem for hire.
It was 1925 and these were the men who “took care of things” for mob bosses when price was no object and the need for success was absolute.
Max Kalb, the short, stocky counterman at G & G, as it was known, looked over at his regulars. They were paying rapt attention to their leader, Anthony Massari, better known as Big Tony, even at five-two, one hundred-twenty seven pounds.
Johnny Carpinelli, Moe Levinstein, Marco Cavilleri and Benny Reznik were laughing at one of the “not so funny” jokes Big Tony was telling for the umpteenth time, and Harry “The Hunk” Novitch was smiling and making his trademark “hitchhiker’s thumb” gesture of approval at Massari.
Max smiled as he put together one of G & G Deli’s famous pastrami sandwiches. He hadn’t heard what Big Tony said, but things were better, at least for the moment, and people were safer when “The Boys,” as they were known in the neighborhood, were laughing and eating.
Max turned back to his station behind the glass cases that formed the counter at G & G. He was working on a big “to go” order of sandwiches for the neighborhood police precinct. G & G was well known for its odd mix of cops and criminals. The food was so good that the deli was considered neutral territory. No crime, no arrests. It was about the corned beef, pastrami, kosher hot dogs, knishes, tongue, pickled herring in cream sauce and chopped liver. Some poor rookie cop would be dispatched to pick up the order, which was often so big that it took two trips to get the food and drinks back to the station house.
Max heard two throat clearing coughs and then his name. It could only be one guy, Benny Reznik. Benny always cleared his throat twice before he spoke.
“Max, talk to you for a minute?” Benny said.
“You or the guys need something, Benny?”
Benny repeated the double throat clearing. “Nah, nuttin’ like that.” His accent was a mix of eastern European and Yiddish. It hadn’t changed from the time he’d come to America with his family at age six. He was now twenty-three and sounded like he was an old man just off the boat. His voice didn’t fit a guy with a thin, angry, acne-scarred face who would kill a man by shooting him from two feet away and then go home to his wife and two kids for dinner.
Benny was leaning over the counter to get as close to Max as he could. At six-four, he was far and away the tallest of The Boys. He towered over Max’s five-six.
Concerned, Max did his best to lean toward Benny, who tried to make every conversation confidential.
When Benny didn’t say anything, Max’s chronic curiosity took over. Seeing Benny looking down at the glass counter, Max asked, “Something wrong, Benny?”
Benny did his throat clearing, but instead of talking, he nodded.
“What?” Max asked.
“I can’t say it,” Benny said.
“You came over to tell me that you couldn’t tell me?”
“It’s not your food, is it?”
Two more coughs. “Nah. Personal.”
“And you don’t want to share it with Harry and the others?”
“But you want to tell me.”
“Yeah. ‘Cause I think youse could help.”
“Me? Help you when The Boys can’t?”
“Yeah. Embarrassing, ya know.”
“What?” Max asked.
Benny ignored Max’s question.
“You got duh talent, see. I mean you found Johnny that time and all.”
Benny was referring to when Max went looking for Johnny Carpinelli and found him hanging naked by his wrists and ankles in his father-in-law’s auto repair shop.
“That was dumb luck, Benny. I’m no detective. Hey, maybe you should take this to the cops. I’m doing up this order for them now. You could talk to the cop what comes in to pick up.”
“You think I should talk to duh fuzz? I got problems now enough. I talk to dem and my problem is I’m dead. C’mon, Max. You can’t do me a favor? I know how to repay favors.”
Max stood straight up. Benny was leaning over the counter on his forearms.
“Didn’t you and the other guys tell me never to get involved, to make sure I never knew nothing?” Max asked.
“This is different, Maxie.”
Benny waited two beats before clearing his throat. He neurotically dusted imaginary dandruff off the left shoulder of his suit coat.
“I tink my wife is cheating on me,” Benny said.
“Rosalie?” Max said, his voice louder than he intended.
“Shush. The guys could hear.”
Max looked over at the booth. Food, not gossip, was what interested The Boys.
“None of your wives would cheat on you. No guy in his right mind would go near a, a, a . . .” Max struggled to find the right word.
Benny took him off the hook. “Yeah, I know. But still.”
“I’m not saying I could help, but what would you want me to do?” Max asked.
“Thanks, Max. I’ll owe you. I mean it.”
“Wait, Benny, you haven’t—“
Benny walked back to the booth, leaving Max to wonder what he’d agreed to do for one of the coldest contract killers in the greater New York/New Jersey area.
— ### —
“Officer MacSweeney, your order is ready. Looks like two trips for you today,” Max said.
“I’m still the newest rookie,” the young cop said. He was in full uniform, his dark blue coat buttoned all the way to his neck, and a cap that prominently displayed a police badge. “Looks like I’ll be seeing you every day, Max. At least they feel sorry enough for me to pay for my lunch.”
“I didn’t know that, Seamus.”
“Rookie cops don’t make enough to live on, and I’m still living with the folks.” His accent was first generation Irish, even though he’d been four years old when his family moved to the section of Brooklyn known as Irishtown.
Seamus MacSweeney’s father was a cop, too. The two men looked like twins from different generations, with the same red-blond hair, green eyes and muscular build. They were proud cops with crisp wool uniforms and devotion to their careers. For Seamus, becoming a cop was going into the family business.
“You cops never have to worry about not having enough business. You have pensions, we have tsuris.”
“Turis, trouble. Problems all the time,” Max explained. “You gonna work Brooklyn, you better learn some Yiddish, Boychick.”
“That one I knew.” Seamus looked around, paying obvious attention to the booth with the hoodlums, who paid no attention to him. “Thanks, Max. I’ll be back for the drinks.”
“One day you’ll be the captain running this precinct, a detective at least, a real shamus, get it.” Max shouted at the young cop as he reached the door.
Seamus turned and smiled at Max. “That’s a fret.”
Max frowned. “Huh?”
“One for you to learn if you want Irish customers for your fine kosher fare. Means I’m not quite believin’ ya.”
— ### —
The Boys finished lunch. They’d waited for Officer MacSweeney to leave before they left. Cops were avoided, period. Benny was last in the line of hoodlums. On the way out, he stopped at the counter. Max thought Benny had more to say, but Benny reached over, punched Max’s upper arm and winked. Benny adjusted his fedora and followed the others out of the deli and into the early Brooklyn spring.
The pain in his arm kept Max from obsessing over what Benny expected of him. Benny hadn’t said and Max hadn’t agreed to help. If it didn’t involve Benny, Max might have confided in Harry The Hunk or Big Tony. Max was a nosy guy, but this could be something that could get something broken, like his nose—or worse.
The busy lunchtime was over. G & G was nearly empty. Max was hungry. He needed food for his stomach and food for thought, so he made himself a special sandwich—pastrami and chopped liver on rye with Gulden’s mustard and a very sour pickle from the pickle barrel. That heartburn-inducing sandwich would be washed down with an egg cream, that unique concoction of cold milk, sweet chocolate syrup and seltzer, but despite the name, no eggs.
After eating, followed by one good belch, Max was alone with his thoughts. This, he knew, could be dangerous, because the heart dominated the brain, creating a blueprint for disaster.
— ### —
“Hey, Abe, where’s Max?” Big Tony asked at lunch the next day in his unique voice that sounded like he’d recently been punched in the throat. “He running around with his goomah instead of making us lunch? A guy puts out food like him gonna attract women like flies on honey. Maybe he’s busy making some poor guy a becco, you know, a cuckold.”
All the other hoods, except one, laughed uproariously. Benny Reznik sat stone-faced. No one noticed or cared.
“He called in sick today,” another of the G & G countermen said. “Something about allergies.”
“You gonna take care of us today, Abe?” Harry Novitch asked, but his question came out more like a command.
“Sure, Harry, sure,” Abe Siegel said, intimidated by having to wait on Max’s “special” customers.
— ### —
He should have been at the deli, but Max found himself outside Benny Reznik’s modest Brownsville home, thanks to a call at home from Benny. He’d made two poor decisions on his way to Benny’s block. The first was wearing a lined trench coat that was too warm for the day, accompanied by a fedora a half-size too big that he planned to pull down to hide his face. The second was more immediate. Max had two cups of coffee with breakfast and badly needed to use a bathroom.
He was across the street and one house over from Benny’s brick row house that shared an entrance with another home. Black iron railings and a three-foot high gate led to the eight steps to the front door.
Max looked at his watch and then the front door. It was already a quarter past noon. No one had come out or gone in. Max felt his bladder begging for relief. He didn’t want to leave his position behind a thick-trunked tree and fire hydrant, but nature gave him no choice. Two blocks over was a commercial area with alleys, and that’s where Max hurried, moving as fast as he could with his upper thighs pressed together.
— ### —
He felt much better after relieving himself, but worried about having missed Rosalie Reznik and her paramour. What would he tell Benny? See, I really had to take a leak and that’s how come I missed her. He started to sweat from head to toe. As he left the alley, he concluded he’d been stupid.
What sane guy would agree to spy on a mobster’s wife by dressing up like a Halloween sleuth and then blowing it. Benny probably had more kills than pitcher Dazzy Vance had wins for the Brooklyn Robins last year. Benny’s temper was legendary, and Max knew Benny didn’t take disappointment well.
He walked with his head down, feeling like a total failure. Something made him look up, and there she was—Rosalie Reznik walking with a tall man wearing a dark trench coat and a plaid cap. Max followed at a discrete distance; the streets weren’t filled with bustling people. The pair was heading towards the Reznik domicile. His pulse started pounding with excitement.
Rosalie, he was pretty sure it was Rosalie, and the man were in front of Max, preventing him from getting a look at the man.
Max’s mind started playing tricks on him. Suppose it wasn’t Rosalie? Who could be sure when all you see is a woman with a cloche hat and a long, black pleated skirt. Ooh, if I’m wrong.
He was dying to know what they were saying. If they’d been walking towards him, Max would’ve had a shot, since he’d learned to read lips from his deaf uncle, Asher Rubin, the haberdasher.
As the couple climbed the steps to the Reznik home, Max got in closer. If they talked as Rosalie worked the key in the lock, he might see their lips reflected in the window.
Rosalie fumbled with the key and Max moved into position to read their reflected lips.
“Hey, Mister. Grab that ball before it rolls down the sewer,” yelled a teenager, who pronounced sewer as “soo-uh”.
Max turned to chase the spaldeen, a pink Spalding High-Bounce Ball, out of street instinct. He got the ball and tossed it back to the boy, who thanked him. The opportunity to see the man’s face or read lips was lost.
Max was running through possible curses to utter that would capture his level of frustration when he spotted her.
Veronica Kobza was known in the neighborhood as a street photographer. Max ran over to where she was photographing the kids playing stickball.
“Miss Kobza,” Max said, struggling to get his breathing under control.
The tall, thin lady with her hair pulled back in a bun turned to face him.
“Do I know you?”
“I don’t think so, unless you eat at the G & G Deli.”
“You’re one of the countermen. I’ve been meaning to ask if I could make some photographs at the deli.”
“Max Kalb, counterman and part owner. Nice camera, by the way.”
“It’s a Leica 1. Newest thirty-five millimeter from Leitz.”
“I need a favor and it’s kind of a rush,” Max said.
“Oh, what that might be?” Veronica looked dubious.
Max pointed to the door to Benny’s house. “A tall man is going to come out of that house. I’d like to surprise him with a street portrait of himself.”
“And it’s a rush, you say.”
“His birthday is coming up. Tell you what, Miss Kobza. You do a street portrait of him, bring me an eight by ten glossy, and you get the lunch of your choice, on the house, at G & G.”
The stern look evaporated from Veronica Kobza’s face.
“Mr. Kalb, you have a deal. Give me two days, three at the most.” She stuck out her hand and Max shook it.
— ### —
Max’s nerves had the best of him the next day as he anticipated the arrival of The Boys. Benny would be looking for information. The problem was that Max didn’t have much, and what little he’d found out couldn’t come to the attention of the other thugs.
If G & G depended on Max for cooking, there’d be a big problem. His mind was elsewhere and he’d made more mistakes serving breakfast today than in the last two years. He kept glancing up at the Hebrew National clock in its wire cover. He’d already gone through a couple of hand towels, not using them to clean his station, but to wipe nervous sweat off his face and neck.
Benny arrived at 11:45, half an hour earlier than usual, and for the first time Max could remember, Benny arrived before any of the others. The tall man’s strides were even longer than usual, and the stern expression on his face looked carved from stone. Benny motioned Max to the very back of the counter.
“Nu?” Benny asked in Yiddish.
Max looked around to see if anyone might be able to listen to his conversation with Benny. No one was close enough.
“I saw Rosalie.”
“She with somebody?”
Max hesitated. “Yes.”
“Who? He’s gonna be gehargeter.”
“I don’t know. Shouldn’t you know what’s going on before you make him a dead man?”
“I know enough. He’s messing with Rosalie.”
“He was walking with Rosalie, that’s all.”
“You sure you don’t know him? What’d he look like?”
Max was about to tell Benny that he hadn’t gotten a good look at the man’s face, when Harry Novitch and Anthony Massari walked into the deli.
“Something wrong with our booth, Benny?” Big Tony asked.
“Nah, I was kibitzing with Max here.”
Harry looked at Benny, who was never good at hiding his feelings. “Let’s go sit,” Harry said.
The deli was filling with lunchtime customers and Marco, Johnny and Moe had joined the other hoodlums. As soon as The Boys’ booth was filled and Marco had been given the bad news that as the last to arrive, he got the day’s lunch tab, Max came over to take orders, wiping his hands on his apron as he walked.
“Anybody want different today?” he asked through a forced smile.
“Usual for everybody,” Big Tony said, not giving anyone a chance to order anything different. Massari gave Max a “leave us alone” look, and Max hustled back to his counter station.
As he put the orders together, Max was tempted to look in the direction of the booth and read lips, but he was torn between “dying to know” and “best not to know” and the dying part didn’t sound so good to him.
Max could hear raised voices, but the six men were huddled together and he couldn’t make out a single word. He was afraid to look at them. Their lunches were almost ready to serve and he was going to have to make at least two trips to the booth.
Max loaded the plates up his arm in the practiced way that made him the talk of the countermen at G & G. He moved toward the booth more slowly than usual, because the last thing he needed today was to drop any of The Boys’ food.
Max placed each lunch in front of the correct hoodlum. None of them looked at him.
“Be right back with your drinks.”
Max returned with the tray of Cel-ray tonics, cream sodas and one egg cream.
“All set? More pickles, sour tomatoes?”
Max waited and then turned away to return to his counter station. He looked over at the booth. This time, Benny was looking at him, a strange expression on his acne-scarred face.
When they’d finished lunch, the hoods stood and walked out of G & G together. It resembled a fashion parade. Men in expensive suits, black except for Big Tony, who wore his signature brown suit. If Harry The Hunk looked like a movie star, Big Tony’s ensemble was right off the pages of a men’s fashion magazine, down to his patent leather, brogue shoes shined to perfection by an elderly black man who’d worked for as long as anyone could remember under an awning down the street from G & G.
Benny brought up the rear and looked over at Max. Benny’s expression was unreadable. No tip had been left for Max. Most days, Max’s tip was almost fifty percent of the tab. The Boys were unhappy with Max. This was a message. Questions kept popping up in Max’s mind. Had Benny said something, or did they find out something on the street? Would The Boys come back to G & G? Would he still be their guy? Was he in the kind of “one-way trip” trouble The Boys were known for?
It was like one of those mystery radio programs where the announcer, in a deep voice says, “You’ll never know how the case is solved unless you tune in tomorrow, same time, same station, when all will be revealed.” Max would have to wait another day.
— ### —
Sleep was a stranger to Max that night and the next. When he briefly dozed off, he suffered something akin to night terrors, imagining what Benny might do to him. Benny didn’t like disappointment or witnesses.
Max was only half awake when he arrived at G & G at 5:30 A.M. to prepare for the breakfast crowd. He kept looking at the clock, hoping it would somehow skip lunchtime. No such luck.
At 11:45, Veronica Kobza arrived carrying a large glassine envelope. She came up to the counter across from Max’s station and smiled at him. Max was too stressed to smile back.
“What’s good for lunch, Max?” she asked, waving the envelope.
A forced half smile was all Max managed. “Anything you want.”
“Want to see the pictures first?”
“I don’t know. Do I?”
“I think so.” She pulled two eight inch by ten inch prints from the envelope and held them up so that Max could see them.
“Oy vey. Got in himmel!”
“Put those away. God in heaven! Why me, God? Quick, before someone sees them.”
“You don’t want to see them? This is what you wanted.”
“Yes, but I didn’t want it to turn out to be him.”
“Whose face is that?” Veronica asked.
“Don’t ask. For God’s sake, for my sake, for your sake, don’t ask and whatever you do, don’t let anyone see those pictures.”
“I don’t understand,” Veronica said, handing the photographs to Max.
“Better you don’t,” Max said. “Why don’t I make your lunch to go? What’ll it be?”
She told him and in record time, Max put together a hot pastrami, very lean, on rye with “a lot of seeds,” potato salad, a kosher pickle and a Dr. Brown’s black cherry soda. She left with a brown bag, not understanding Max’s reaction to the photographs.
Less than ten minutes after Veronica left, Benny arrived, again the first of The Boys.
“Nu?” He asked Max. “Got anything for me?”
Max looked up at Benny, not sure what to do. Ideas raced through his mind so quickly that he couldn’t process them. Should he show Benny the pictures? Should he tell Benny who it was with Rosalie? Should he say nothing to Benny and ask Harry The Hunk or Big Tony to intercede?
When you’re dealing with a bunch of heartless thugs whose actions are driven by money or emotion, not necessarily in that order, there are no good options.
Max should have said “no” to Benny, but he couldn’t say “no” to Benny. Max knew and Benny would find out, somehow, that Max knew. Max would have to go. Max was a witness; a threat to Benny’s reputation. Benny’s reputation was why he was hired for contract maiming and murder.
The envelope with the photographs was sitting on Max’s station. Benny didn’t notice it. Max was about to reach back and hand Benny the pictures when Harry Novitch arrived.
“You two planning something?” Harry asked. “Every time I come in, Benny is hanging over the counter, like he’s interested in a job here. Lookin’ to make a little extra cabbage, Benny? Get it?” Harry laughed at his own joke.
“Me and Max was just shmoozing.”
“Yeah, I don’t get the stupid trades the Robins are doing. They trying to wreck a baseball team?” Max couldn’t know it, but in 1932 the team would become the Dodgers.
“Who cares,” Harry said. “Money in baseball goes to the bookies, not the team. “The bet pays or it don’t. Win, shwinn, it don’t matter. The spread, the vig, they matters.”
“I like baseball. Great game,” Marco, who’d just arrived said.
“Somebody ask you?” Harry said. “Let’s break up this coffee klatch and sit.”
In minutes, the booth was full. As the last to arrive, Moe would get the bill today.
Big Tony looked over at Max and nodded. It was the signal to bring pickles and sour tomatoes to the booth.
“Usual all around,” Big Tony said, and five heads nodded their agreement.
“Sure thing,” Max said, and turned to hustle back to his station.
“Hey, Max,” Harry called.
Max turned back to the booth. Big Tony gestured for him to come closer.
“Are you effing nuts?” Big Tony said, his tone angrier and and higher-pitched than usual.
“We didn’t tell you enough times not to never see nothing, hear nothing and know nothing?” Harry asked.
“What?” Max asked.
“Don’t treat us like we’re a bunch of stunods,” Marco said. “Benny told us.”
“Benny,” Max said, drawing out the name, “you asked me to do you a favor, and I did. It was just between us.”
Benny looked down at the table. “They asked me what was wrong, so I said.”
“Who is it?” Harry demanded.
Max walked away to get the photographs.
“Don’t you dare walk away from us,” Moe said through clenched teeth.
Max ignored them, picked up the envelope, brought it to the booth and handed it to Benny, who pulled out Veronica Kobza’s photographs.
“Holy shit,” Benny said. “You sure this is the guy?”
“What do we do?” Marco asked.
“I’ll do him,” Moe said.
“Not so fast,” Harry said. “This could be big trouble.”
“Ah, we could do it. Careful, neat, you know,” Big Tony said.
“He’s mine,” Benny said, his voice colder than G & G’s walk-in freezer. He hadn’t cleared his throat. Benny stared at the photographs without blinking. “I’ll find him right now. My hand to God, he’s a dead man.”
Before anyone could tell Benny to sit down and stop drawing attention to himself, Officer Seamus MacSweeney walked into the deli to pick up the precinct lunch.
“This I don’t believe,” Big Tony said, looking alternatively at Officer MacSweeney and the photographs.
“Rosalie and a cop?” Moe said. “Who’da thunk it.”
“Me and him, right now,” Benny said, struggling against the hands that kept him from going after the young cop right in the deli.
Officer MacSweeney came over to the booth. “I got a written list today, Max,” MacSweeney said, his Irish lilt and red-blond hair a perfect match.
“I know everything, you no good—“ Benny sneered, interrupted before he could finish his profane threats.
“Oh, darn i’tall. It was supposed to be a surprise. Your missus wanted it as an anniversary present,” MacSweeney said.
This confused everyone, especially Benny.
“What!” was all Benny could say.
“The library shelves in the spare room. We even picked out the wood at Slager Lumber. I’m a pretty fair carpenter, you know, not just a beat cop, and I could use a few extra bucks on a cop’s pay. I done a lot of carpentry work in the neighborhood. Word gets around doncha see. They all know I’m real good at it.”
“This is what this is all about?” Harry asked Benny, who sheepishly nodded.
“And you were going to—“ Big Tony began.
“Don’t say it,” Max said.
Big Tony held up his hands in surrender. Everyone let go of Benny.
Benny spoke slowly, his eyes beginning to tear. “I don’t want my kids to go into our business. I want they should go to college, be doctors or lawyers. Rosalie knows I want to surround them with books, so they learn everything they can, that’s all.”
“I better get going on the lunches,” Max said.
“Gimme the tab for the cops’ lunch today. I got it,” Benny said.
Everyone looked at Benny. No one knew what to say.
“Clipping the Songbird’s Wings” by John Dromey
Featuring an Illustration by Luke Spooner of Carrion House.