King of the Wild Frontier

By John Romano

This story originally appeared in our June 2014 fiction issue.

Photos by Martin Parr

The thing that made the difference in the life of the Ausonia Country Club, where my best friend, Johnny Buschi, and I caddied every summer in high school, was its nearness to the Outerbridge Crossing, only ten minutes by wide-bodied Buick once you touched down on the Jersey side. Because of that, it was the perfect place for the members from Staten Island to get together on the weekends, play golf, and enjoy one another’s company unharassed. I should say at once, as unemphatically as possible, that these men were members of another organization as well. They were mobsters. Literally. They were “made men.” Although this was rarely talked about at the club, it was no secret to the other members, mostly Italian American family-types like my father who owned small, legitimate businesses around Middlesex or Union County.

Though the Staten Island crew counted for little more than a third of the club’s membership, the importance they wielded was much greater in proportion, not only because of what we knew or thought we knew about their weekday activities but also because of the quiet way they carried themselves, the not-easily-ruffled manner that passed, without much trouble, for dignity. Simply, they were there to play golf. While they were at it, they might stick around to have a meal in the 50s-built white-brick clubhouse or, on a Sunday, to watch the NFL games on the TV in the carpeted area of the men’s locker room after they’d showered and shaved. Seated at separate card tables, the two camps looked a lot alike in their snow-white underwear, drinks in hand, giving off a light cloud of talc and aftershave. Sometimes, too, the mob guys would bring their families—who looked a lot like our families. Their wives and kids would swim or sit by the pool while the men golfed, then meet afterward to have a dressy dinner in the dining room—again, at tables separate from ours. In all that they did, they passed among the rest of us like sightless, deep-swimming fish.

But despite the separation, there was one area in which relations between the two groups of men were better than cordial—in which they behaved, even, like friends—and that was on the golf course. Routinely, the foursomes were mixed, probably because getting out at the desired time trumped the whole question of whom you were playing with. But here, too, a strict prohibition was in force: There was never any discussion of business, legitimate or otherwise. The talk was like that of men’s foursomes everywhere. It ran freely—to the delight of us caddies—on the subjects of sports, women, where to go for steak and lobster tails, how the jadrools in Washington had gotten us into another war, and, especially, the deplorable condition of the greens. In other words, there was always enough to brag or complain about without treading on the forbidden turf. The only trespasser, in fact, and only for a short period of time, was my father’s friend Bobby Altieri, the owner of a liquor store in Manhattan and one of the legitimates. It is his breach of the club’s one great rule that I want to tell you about.

Bobby Altieri was a scratch golfer: Four over par was for him a bad day. For that reason my father would rather play golf with Bobby than with anyone, not excepting his best friend, Carmen Desirio. Carmen was genuinely rich, a rarity in the club. Rarer still was the fact that he had grown up with money, as the son of the biggest builder of schools and churches in the state. When my father’s modest electroplating business had begun to grow, Carmen took him under his wing to show him how to live on a slightly larger scale. It was help my father needed: Coming from Newark’s immigrant ghetto, he had the sort of background that often means that pleasures don’t come easily to you. He wanted to be challenged and couldn’t really enjoy playing golf with someone who wasn’t better than he was; and Bobby Altieri, long game and short, was superior to anyone around. My father would watch him with the same concentration he’d used in the Army to teach himself to be an engineer. He would study the way Bobby stood at the tee, hanging loose and long-armed over the ball, with an air peculiar to himself of judicious melancholy, and a cigar fixed tightly in his teeth the whole time, so that he’d have to squint through its wisp of smoke in order to keep the ball in hyper-focus. Then he’d whack it. They called him DiMaggio for a reason.

Everyone admired Bobby’s game, even the Staten Islanders. One day no less a figure than Vincent (never Vinny) Nola, who occupied the highest standing among the mob guys, crossed the locker room in his skivvies to congratulate Bobby on going two under par. The onlookers on both sides grew quiet. When the pair shook hands, Nola noticed the bracelet of woven gold on the other’s wrist, and said he used to have one just like it but he’d given it away, he forgot to whom. Bobby said that, yeah, it had been given to him by a girl who used to work for him, and you should’ve seen what he’d given her. Vincent laughed (actually chuckled, in plain fact) and said he’d look for Bobby for a game next Saturday. What time d’you go out, anyway?

It was an exchange of few words, but it made an epoch. Buschi promptly created a verse about it for the song he was making up, to the tune of “Davy Crockett,” cataloguing Bobby Altieri’s adventures. Bobby had no greater admirer than Buschi. So it was fitting that it was from Buschi I first heard that Bobby Altieri was having trouble with his liquor business. It had started affecting his game. The thoughtful pause he would always take before addressing the ball had disappeared, and the sadness or melancholy, if that is what it had been in the first place, was now replaced by a visible anxiety. As things got worse, he began to drop in a few remarks between strokes, bringing up his problems aloud in a half-kidding way—first to his friends, but then also to the mob guys, with whom he’d been making up foursomes more and more often since Nola’s fabled approach. I don’t know, he’d say, I got this problem, this bad problem that I don’t know what to do about. Or, more particularly: I got this partner, maybe I should talk to you guys about him, maybe you can help me out a little… The only thing more alarming than Bobby crossing the line in this way was the silence with which his words were greeted.

***

Soon the remarks became more and more regular, and he all but abandoned the kidding tone, not only on the golf course but also on the 19th hole, where he’d rarely been seen before. According to club lore, he’d played basketball for Seton Hall when he was young but had been thrown out for drinking in his junior year. Since then he was known for hardly drinking at all, even though “spirits” were his business. As near as I can tell at this remove, he did know a good deal about wine. One day—I suppose because he picked up, somewhere, that I was or wanted to be aware of a world beyond the one we lived in, bounded on one side by the Parkway and on the other by the Turnpike—he told me a story about my father and his friends. He said that once, as a treat, he brought a world-class bottle of wine from his store in New York to their regular Friday-night poker game—just to show the guys what was what, he said, even though he himself would be having no more than a taste. Big mistake. Who sliced the peaches for it? he said. Who poured in the ginger ale? Who did this with the sparkling water? (Here he turned his big hand upside down.) Never again, he concluded. I think this was the only time Bobby Altieri ever spoke to me except to ask for a club on the golf course, and even then he preferred a caddy who really knew something about the game: Julius Hankey, an African American and the only adult among us, who lived in the shack in the summer and taught the rest of us all we knew about carrying a bag. In any event, Bobby wasn’t a drinker by any stretch—but now here he was, starting in again. And the more he drank, the more he said things he shouldn’t have.

At the bar, at least, his friends had a chance to control him, to peel him away and keep him from getting in trouble. Carmen, as the group’s unacknowledged leader, tried giving him a talking-to in the parking lot. So you have problems; who doesn’t have problems? Carmen began. You don’t, said Bobby. The ones I do, said Carmen, I talk to my friends about, not to people I’m not supposed to. Bobby looked around and appealed to my father and the others, who by now were forming a half circle around him. What’s this? he said. All of a sudden we gotta check with Carmen who we talk to? When this didn’t get him any support he took another tack: Besides, who said anything to anybody? I’m just out there playing golf and having a good time. That’s exactly what you should be, said Carmen. Exactly what you should be doing. Right, said Bobby. Right, said Carmen. Who asked you? said Bobby. Which finished up their conversation, which had accomplished absolutely nothing.

There was a story about Carmen Desirio, about the first time his father let him oversee construction on a building, a small storage annex for a factory in Avenel that manufactured aluminum siding. On the day when they were supposed to pour the foundation, which was to be eight and a half feet deep, Carmen was out there running around the site from before the sun came up, telling the men to do this, move that, get the other thing ready—just as he’d seen his father do all his life. Then, just past dawn, he gave the men the signal and the cement was poured, until it filled the hole, which went about fifteen feet by twenty on the surface. By noon the foundation was nearly firm; by five it was as snug and tight as an ice cube in a tray. It was then that Carmen Sr. rolled up in his big Lincoln.

He got out. Little Carmen greeted him with confidence. The old man didn’t say much, asked a few questions. Was this all right, was that all right? Yes, yes. How about the foundation, were you here when they poured? Was I here, I was here two hours before. Did you measure the hole? Carmen Sr. asked. Little Carmen said, It was eight and a half feet; I was standing right there. That’s not what I asked, said Carmen Sr. Did you climb in and measure for yourself?

According to the story, the old man went back to his car and got a folding chair out of the back, the plastic beach kind that costs two dollars, and opened it up and sat in it. He sat there while Little Carmen had the men hoist and remove the concrete foundation, in pieces, using two cranes that had to be brought over from other jobs. They went past midnight. The old man hardly moved. When the pieces had been lifted clear of the ground, he was helped by his son down into the hole, where he took out a retractable tape the size of your palm, the kind that tailors use.

When he measured he found the hole to be eight and a half feet deep. Good, he said. And got back in the car and drove away. I never heard whether the pieces could be put back in or had to be poured fresh. My father pointed out the building to me years later, when he was driving me back to my apartment in New York one night after I had had dinner at the house with him and my mother.

The point is that Carmen knew something about what you could and couldn’t get away with in life, and he knew that when someone drew a line you had to respect it, given who that someone was. Carmen may have known a lot about having a good time, but he also knew where the steel girders were that reinforced the fabric of things, and it was this knowledge that he was trying to impart to Bobby, if Bobby would only hear it. To which the answer was, No. The conversation in the parking lot that was meant to warn him went exactly nowhere. The way Bobby saw him—this was a point my father made to me to which I paid attention, because I knew that my father loved both these men and made sense about them—Carmen was just a guy who’d had a silver spoon up his ass from Day One and had never had the kind of problem that he, Bobby, was having: the problem with his partner, Sandy, in New York, the problem that was crushing Bobby and making him do what he did. I asked my father exactly what the problem was. And, I guess because he decided it was time that I learned what was what, he told me.

I remember the place we were in when we talked about it: a storefront luncheonette, wedged between a cleaner’s and a movie theater, diagonally across from the Newark Library. We were spending the day at the library together, which was an astonishing thing in itself, because as far as I knew it was the only time my father had ever been to the library, had ever been through its great wooden doors. The reason he’d come today had to do with the fact that he had worked out a new technique for plating aluminum. Aluminum could never really be plated; what you did instead was something known as dip brazing, which was tricky and expensive. My father had spent months “fooling around” with it, as he called it, in our garage at night, working on a way to make it less so. When he succeeded, it worked so well that a couple of engineers from the big outfits he worked with, such as Raytheon and Bell Labs, told him that he really had something there and that he should patent it. When he said he knew nothing about patents, they told him to go to the library, where the volumes published by the US Patent Office were kept, and check to see whether anyone had come up with anything similar. He brought me along, maybe because he was somehow aware that I knew my way around the library better than most of the paid staff, or maybe just to have company in what he figured was going to be an alien environment. Either reason would have been okay, as far as I was concerned. Just now we were taking a break, eating sandwiches stuffed with sausages and meatballs at a lunch place across the way, and he was feeling good, reminiscing about growing up in this city and remembering the days when the theater next door had been a music hall where he’d once heard Harry James. I knew he was in the kind of mood wherein I could ask him anything. The facts he told me were the following:

Bobby Altieri had a partner whose name was Sandy Grusskopf. It had been Sandy who, keeping half for himself, let Bobby buy into the liquor store in the first place—at a good price, too, which should have let Bobby know that something was up, then and there. It was a couple of blocks from Herald Square and was doing a good business at the time he bought in, so that Bobby, in his excitement, sold the place he’d had before, up near Columbus Circle, and expanded the new one right off the bat. But that was before he knew what he was dealing with, which was that his partner had a gambling habit and would always be needing cash. More and more, whatever money the store made, it went out the window. His partner was taking down the business. Bobby was going to lose the store, and he was going to lose his house in Iselin, which he put up against it when he did the expanding. Now he had to take his kid out of college; now he had to get rid of one of his cars; now there was even talk he couldn’t make his monthly bill at the club… Bobby’s partner was killing him. He had nowhere to turn.

***

One morning in August Bobby Altieri arrived to open up his store, in New York City, only to find the windows broken, the door knocked from its hinges, and whole racks and cases of wines and liquors smashed on the floor. His partner, Sandy, was there to explain it to him, sitting on the one unbroken piece of furniture, a chair from the back office, and looking not quite as upset about it all as Bobby could have wished. Sandy said it was all just a message sent to him by his bookmaker, and it was really nothing more than a misunderstanding. He had actually had a good run of luck with the trotters up in Saratoga the day before and was confident that this was the turning point, that his losing streak was finally over. In the meantime, though, he had to ask Bobby for a loan. Bobby told him he could drop dead. Sandy said he understood entirely; he said it as if Bobby had just apologized for being unable to help. Sandy had a broad tolerance for catastrophe. He went on to say that repairs to the shop shouldn’t take more than a few days. Then maybe they could reopen with a big “Renovation Sale,” always good for a quick intake of cash—which he could use, he added, to take advantage of the way his luck had suddenly changed for the better. Bobby had by now calmed down, at least on the outside. He said Sandy should get some coffee; he could smell whiskey on his breath. Sandy smiled sheepishly and said it was a good idea.

Bobby went to the bank later that day and talked to the loan officer, a woman he was friendly with since she had been involved in his original purchase of the business. He told her how much money they were going to need to reopen after the random attack of vandalism the night before. She met him with a firm refusal. The bank was unwilling to extend any more credit to a business that seemed unable to right itself. She was sorry to tell him this. She liked Bobby, as most people did, especially most women—and probably she had a hunch, though she didn’t say so, that Bobby himself wasn’t the source of the problem.

The next day was a Saturday. Bobby had signed up for a seven o’clock tee-off time, but he gave it away and worked himself into a 9:30 with Vincent Nola and two others, associates of Nola’s. Bobby played a few holes without saying anything, trying hard to keep enough concentration to play the game, but then, having found what he considered the right moment, said to them something like, You probably know my store got broken up, or, Guess you guys heard about what happened to the store. At first, in the usual way, nobody said anything back. Bobby pressed a little further. I told you before, he said, I got this partner, this son-of-a-bitch Polack; he’s gonna ruin me if I don’t do something about it… This time one of them spoke to him, a red-headed guy named Nick something, his voice quiet but with a hint of admonition in it so that it sounded a little tired: What do you say we just play golf, Nick something said. And that’s exactly what Bobby tried to do again, though he succeeded only for a few minutes. Because at that point his feelings overcame him, and he couldn’t help adding, No, all’s I’m saying is, either he puts me under or I put him under, one way or the other... At which point Nola himself stopped on his way down the fairway with a club in his hand and turned toward Bobby. Nola had the kind of weight to him where he didn’t need to actually use words, and Bobby knew just from the way Nola looked at him that he had been heard. Not Yes, not No, not the slightest bit more, just that Vincent Nola had heard him, and that was all. This we got from Dick LaFave, who had caddied the round. And Bobby had really seemed to get the message, LaFave said, because he played the whole rest of the eighteen holes without bringing anything up. But on Sunday, the next day, Bobby again couldn’t contain himself and actually went out of his way to find red-headed Nick, the one who had tried telling him enough was enough. He took care to speak with him when Nola wasn’t around and said, before Nick could stop him, I know, I get it, but I’m not lyin’. I need a little help. This time Nick said nothing back and, turning from him a little sharply, walked away as if the very sound waves carrying Bobby’s voice had failed to reach him.

***

One morning soon after, Bobby Altieri stepped out the front door of his house in Iselin— a pastel-colored split-level, like most of ours, with a lawn the size of a postage stamp. He had his keys in his hand. He was heading for his car to drive himself to the station in order to catch the commuter train into the city. He preferred to commute by train rather than drive because this way he could read the sports page on the way in and didn’t have to bother with parking and could sleep on the way home. It was still a few minutes before eight, and the day wasn’t hot yet. He didn’t make it all the way to the garage before a car drove up that he thought he recognized. It was a lime-green Buick Riviera, late model and top of the line, bright and shining for the most part but needing a wash just now: The doors and rear skirts were spattered with mud, as if it had just been driven through a field. It eased to a stop in front of the house. Vincent Nola rolled down the window on the passenger side. He was wearing a suit—not something Bobby had seen before, since they’d only been around each other on weekends, and this was a Thursday: two weeks to the day when Bobby’s store had been busted up. Nola gestured to him. Come over here, the gesture said. Bobby came. A look from Nola directed him to look in the backseat.

There was a body there, the body of a dead man, face down in a heap. Bobby no more than saw what it was before the car pulled away, leaving him alone on the sidewalk.

As he stood there he was suddenly sick to his stomach. He felt clammy and insane with fear. He didn’t think one moment could keep following another, in the state he was in; it all had to explode somehow. He’d had a man killed, and he thought that his life was over because of it, that he couldn’t stand or breathe or think anymore, and he kept saying, Oh God, but he wasn’t calling on God, but he heard himself saying it or yelling it and tried to pull the sound back in because he didn’t want anyone to come out and see him there and ask what happened, what was he shouting about. His groin hurt like he wanted to shit or urinate, but he was standing up and outdoors, outside his own house, which still looked like it always did, but he had the feeling that he was in a separate world from it entirely and there would be no way back into it, back into his home, into his life, he’d just shake to pieces and fall apart if he had to face anyone and try to be who he was in spite of what had happened and what he had done. He was too frightened to form a thought about what to do, and the keys in his hand felt heavy, and he saw them sway and rattle in his hand where he was clinging on to them, though it seemed like someone else’s hand holding them, he was that far out of himself and out of his own mind.

Then he heard the sound of the car coming back again. It had gone around the block and pulled up now just as it had done before. Bobby stared as, this time, Vincent Nola got out of the car, which he had not done the first time, and took a couple of steps toward Bobby, since Bobby was weak and shaking too much to come to him.

Relax, Vincent Nola said. Relax, that’s not your partner. Bobby didn’t react, so he said it again.

That’s not your partner. We just wanted you to know what it would feel like.

***

Bobby opened his mouth, but no sound came out, which was okay because he didn’t know what he would have said anyway. He glanced over at the car and could actually see a dark hump or lump where the body still was. There was still a dead body lying in there, but it was not his partner’s. Nola had just told him that.

Nola watched him and could read those thoughts going through his mind. He seemed to know exactly what thoughts they were.

Okay, Nola said, putting an end to a very long pause. Listen to me: It’s okay. Now shut up and play golf. He said it as if that were the whole thing, the whole purpose of what he had done and what he meant by it. Then he got back into his car and drove off.

Bobby said later that he didn’t remember how long he stood there. That’s what he told the two people, and two only, whom he chose to tell what had happened that morning: My father was one, and Carmen was the other. Bobby felt he owed Carmen the whole story because Carmen had been right in what he’d said to him in the parking lot that time.

My own thought, when the story reached me, was that I couldn’t get over the idea that you might just happen to have a body in the car that you were able to use in order to make a point.

John Romano wrote the screenplays for The Lincoln Lawyer and Nights in Rodanthe, and has written for and produced dozens of network TV shows.

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