Moses Prison, Upstate New York 1998
“Hit me,” Ronaldo the convict, El Joven, the gangster, says without even pondering what’s in his hands.
Dayroom as usual with the Italians, it was SuperMax, Federal, experimental, institutionalized country club. No dominoes, no grimy street cats with shanks ready to bang you, no Mexicans, no neo nazis. Just isolated celebrity crooks. Leo ”Eddie” Mancuso, a foot soldier turned car dealership owner, sucked on a wet cigarette with Vincent “Cheech” Taglia, a capo in the Ricano family next to him. Two other Italian wackos Ronaldo doesn’t know second Mancuso and Taglia like parrots but must be important otherwise they wouldn’t be in the V.I.P. room, the dayroom, playing the the fourth game of 21 for commissary or book money. That’s credits for purchasing goods and even services from the cafeteria, depot and yes a small Wal-Mart like convenience store in this post-modern paradise where they had those valour sweatsuits Mancuso and Taglia have on now. Ronaldo gets a kick out of it. These fat jerks don’t work out. He’s starting to pay attention before the men realized he’s casing them. Something ain’t right. That dark instinct, intiutions of someone who has been shot and shot at, who has shot back and shot other people, that foresight you can’t be taught.
Before the hit, he has two cards in his hand, an ace and a king. Perfect.
He looked at Leo whose face is redder than usual and whose body rocks back and forth uneasily. Right then it’s apparent that Leo is not paying attention to the game anymore than Joven is.
So he studies the old men for the same signs. The two who never speak their own mind are always dead give aways, drones, button pushers, killing at the drop of a hat.
Taglia, in contrast, is hard to pick apart though—giving credence to the term ‘poker face.’
Mancuso seems to be the only one actually concentrating. On what, who knows?
“I’m staying,” says Joven blowing out smoke and almost choking in the process.
“I’m stayin’ too,” Mancuso says with a look of triumph.
The three other men—Leo included—all signaled that they needed a hit.
Taglia is the dealer. Figures, thinks Ronaldo.
When the reality of what is going down hits Joven, his body becomes paralyzed and his sweat, which is forming beads right below his manicured hairline, turn chillingly cold.
In the casino, the dealer always lets a person win the first few hands as Mancuso has done. Then comes the complimentary drinks maybe even a soft hooker to route you on. No soft hookers here, just prison, just smiles. And then the losing streak, as the dealer expects it will, starts.
“What you guys got?” asks Taglia sternly.
The two old fat men and Leo’s hands all exceed the limit and they know it and Joven knows it.
Joven grins and slaps his cards on the table aggressively, more to ease his own mind then to show any machismo. Twenty-one Mothafuckas, he says, soon asking himself silently ‘why did I say that.’
Mancuso laughs so hard he almost choked.
“Two aces, and a king,” Mancuso bellowed while wheezing comical laugh. That’s, I believe 21 what’dya, how did you say it mothafuckas. I love this kid, can’t get much better than that Joeven!
Joeven. They used the “J,” mockingly, trying to bring the ghetto out.
“You’re on a roll,” Taglia shouts obviously leveling fake adulation.
Suddenly Joven feels depressed but cheers up when one of the old men asks him what makes him so special, meaning why was he worth all this attention.
Attention? You dumb sun-tanned old men, that’s a dead give away. You want to kill someone, you make them think there you’re best friend. The pencil on Joven’s ear - he’s the score keeper - is now the heaviest thing he’s ever worn. He’s thinking about putting it in someone’s neck.
“Yeah what’s your story, were you a fuckin’ boy in the hood or what,” Taglia, says while dealing again and eliciting laughs from everybody including Ronaldo.
What a fucked up game this is, he thinks, but he’d play storyteller so he can take command of the real game.
After lighting up another cigarette, Taglia gives even more away, “You know these things’ll kill ya,” the leather-faced, dark-eyed capo said.
“Yeah, someone who once pointed a gun at me told me the same thing. I was actually smokin’ a joint when they cocked that shit and put it to my head,” Ronaldo retorts non-chalantly.
Akward silence, water drips somewhere on a steel sink in some domicline down the hall, the buzz from the white lights above hums. No one looks at anyone.
Dead give away. Dead.
Just as suddenly, the table erupts in laughter and then grows silent when Joven starts in on how he came up as a youngster in the streets. Tells them about Sharkie, whom one of the strong silent types suprisingly knows, remembers the “dapper eggplant,” as a stand up guy, a hustler and master gambler.
One of the henchmen is suddenly impressed, “That’s your guy?”
The world never tires of these types of stories. That’s why Joven knew from age six he wanted to be an outlaw. He knows now though nothing can prepare him for moments like this. Smiling at people who want you dead.
The new silence halts his conversation but then a go ahead nod from Taglia and a gesture of the hands from Mancuso endorses his anecdote.
“Ronny D, this is your life,” Mancuso yelled out.
Another slip of the tongue. The old-school hitters would say, never gloat before the job, they hear you, smell you, see you from a mile off.
The table again roared in laughter. It wasn’t that funny. And everyone knows it.
Talking is the only thing that can prolong the inevitable now and Joven decides he won’t be a coward even though everything in him tells him to retire for the night, it’s the sensible thing. But then again, it would be his dead giveaway. They can’t know that he knows. He must give them room, space, let them believe he’s obvlious, let them gloat, let them feel secure.
So he takes a long drag of cancerous gray mist, it stings the throat. He looks down, then looks up. He stares up at the ceiling, leaning back and rattling off senseless gibberish about the poorest neighborhood in New York City. It was like he is trapped inside of a bad movie that only comes on once every two years at 4 a.m. on a Tuesday morning.
So much of a cliché it’s pathetic. One of the white cylinders on the double-pronged rectangle above them blinks and flashes out. Now the only light in the room is the light directly over the card table.
In the near distance, he hears the echoes in the hall made by the quiet footsteps of guards. At midnight it was lights out. But the clock only says ten.
He would babble until the guards came instead of leaving, which would be a sure sign of extreme cowardice even though all the logic his mind could muster told him to do just that.
“So you wanna know about my barrio? About me? Oh barrio, yeah that’s neighborhood for the Spanish impaired,” he says to more laughter. “What’s you’re about to hear is a true story some of the names have been kept the fuckin’ same to keep it as real as humanly fuckin’ possible. This is for mature audiences only so I guess you guys gotta go right?”
Again, more artificial and patronizing laughter.
They are going to try to kill him. He knows it, he laughs and puffs, puffs and laughs and waits.
TO BE CONTINUED