Friday, May 17, 2013

The Amerigo

This is a short story I wrote that's going to be part of a longer piece I'm working on.
“The Amerigo was the big time,” Randy said.  “The Dorsey Brothers, Duke Ellington, Glen Miller, everybody played there.”  He arched his rough, scarred hands across the wheel, one over the other, easing the truck into a turn, shifting the cab’s three occupants leftward.  Each man braced just a little, to avoid too much physical contact.
“I never heard of it,” Chris said.  Sitting in the middle, he had the fresh, tousled look of somebody who hadn’t heard of a lot of things.  The truck rumbled down an empty two-lane highway, winding through the morning mist and green hillside dense with green oaks and sycamores, and pines and walnut trees, the sun just poking through the leaves.
“They turned it into a rock club when I was growing up,” Bruno said from the passenger seat.  A good 35 years Chris’s senior, he sat with one hand slung out the window, already warm from the July sun, the other holding a styrofoam cup of coffee.  He had smooth hands, office hands.  “The Amerigo-go, they called it.  Just local bands, nobody very good.  But I saw Springsteen there in ’72.”
“You don’t say,” Randy said.  He was a burly man, with deep-set dark eyes, a heavily creased face and a thick black and gray beard.  Wiry hair escaped from under a rumbled, blue-striped seer sucker baseball cap on his head that looked completely out of place up there.

“I say,” Bruno said, sipping his coffee.  “Maybe a hundred people there.  Great show.  He autographed my ticket stub.”  Randy, given the dearth of oncoming traffic, took liberties with the truck, taking wide turns that pulled them onto the other lane.  The truck was battered, dented, with a deep gash running along the right side; “Randy Rattner,” it said on the sides. “Masonry, Contracting, Roofing,” and next to that, in a slightly different color and font, “Salvage, Resale.”  They passed an old ramshackle red house, half the house’s contents seemingly spilled out onto the front yard.  Randy eyed the yard, looking for anything of particular value.  It was a habit.
“Who’d come out here for a show?” Chris asked.  “It’s creepy.”
“That’s what made it great,” Randy said, eyeballing the road as he looked for something specific.  “You could do anything out here.”  He found what he was looking for, and turned the truck onto an even narrower, windier, tree-lined road.  They drove in silence through shafts of sunlight.
“Pick a major yet?” Randy asked.
“No. I was leaning toward economics, but the way things are, I don’t know.”
“Doesn’t matter the major, doesn’t matter what school you go to,” Randy said.  “All that matters is you get the degree.  Then you can do whatever you want.”
“Even with a degree, they say it’s like the worst job market in a generation.”
“That doesn’t matter either,” Randy said, waving a hand in the air.  “You just gotta hustle, work harder than the next guy.”  Chris glanced at Bruno and quickly turned away.  “I seen guys with Harvard degrees can’t tie their shoelaces.”
“Where are you now?” Bruno asked.
“Rutgers’s a good school,” Randy said.  “Get your degree, and then it’s just hustle, man.  I started doing this salvage stuff just to pick up some extra cash.  But I worked at at, and it’s practically turned into a full-time thing.”
“Doesn’t hurt that the economy crashed,” Bruno said.
“Hey, what’s Cramer say?  It’s always a bull market somewhere.  Anyhow, it’s going so well, it’s turned into a full-time thing, gonna fund my golden years.”  Again Chris glanced quickly at Bruno, and Bruno looked back at Chris.
“I’ll be happy to have gold-plated years,” he deadpanned.  He was overweight, it was something he’d given up on long ago, and his hair was gray and thinning, a fact marginally concealed by careful combing.  A week’s worth of beard stubble telegraphed what he’d been up to recently.  He took a big sip of coffee.  Randy craned his head again, looking for yet again another obscure sign.  He abruptly turned onto an unmarked road, lurching the truck right and sending the three men again uncomfortably close to each other.
“The sign’s gone,” Bruno said.
“Somebody lifted it,” Randy said.
The trees hung low over the road, and the branches brushed against the cab’s roof.  The road soon opened up onto a wide clearing, at the far end of which was a long, low building, The Amerigo.  Plain stucco covered the exterior.  A long, wide porch ran the length of the front facade.  Two massive doors were set in the center, with a series of arched window running out in each direction.  There wasn’t any marquee; there weren’t any signs.  The building sat in the dusty clearing static, inert.
They drove toward it, only the engine and the tires crunching dirt breaking the deathly silence.  Their approach drove a flock of birds out of the trees; they hurriedly fluttered away.  Randy swerved around a bare, stone pedestal in the middle of the lot.
“That’s where the Garibaldi statue used to be,” Randy said.  “I’ve seen pictures of this place from back in the day.  Very ornate.  Very high end.  Some Italian immigrant built it.  Finials, columns, long, arching windows, the Vespucci mural, the Garibaldi statue, it was a real show place.”  He parked the truck in front of the steps leading up to a long, wide porch. “I’ll let you in the front, swing the truck around the back.  Just check out the inside before we get to work.”  He left the truck running, and the three men got out and walked up the porch’s wooden, creaky stairs.
The façade was covered in graffiti.  Broken bottles, old newspapers, food wrappers, a condom and other bits of garbage were strewn across the porch; The Amerigo still had patrons.  “Shiv” somebody’d written, in big, elaborate, red and black block letters. “Edem,” another said. “Lost,” said yet another, a cartoonish, astonished face comprising the “O.”
“You can’t bullshit GOD,” somebody spray painted simply within a big, block “M” on top of a big, block “G.”
A padlocked chain secured the front doors.  Randy unlocked the padlock, then a dead bolt, then the lock on the door knob.  He pulled the doors open.
“Kitchen’s on the far side of the ballroom, to the left,” he said. “You remember?”
“Sort of,” Bruno said.
“I’ll meet you in the kitchen.”  He went back to the truck, and drove off around the side of the building.  The crunch of the tires once again wracked the silence.  Chris and Bruno walked through the doors and into a wide, dark foyer.
The walls were covered in red and green velvet wallpaper – torn, faded and discolored, peeling off in places, revealing the water-stained plaster walls – separated by half columns with brass light fixtures and bas relief statues of mermaids. There was a ticket booth on the right hand side, greasy steel bars protecting the cramped room inside.  There were a series of Baroque crystal chandeliers overhead.
“I feel like we’re grave robbers,” Chris said.
Opposite the ticket booth, filling the space between two columns, was the mural of the Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci.  Vespucci stood at the bow of an old Renaissance ship as it approached the shore of the New World, leaning forward heroically and scanning the coastline, where natives came streaming out excitedly from the forest, massing at the water’s edge to greet the visitor.  It was all very romantically rendered.
“God, it stinks in here,” Chris said.
“Got that right,” Bruno said. They walked through the foyer toward a set of six double doors, covered in cracked leather, pinned down with brass tacks, vacant, dark round circles marking where many of the tacks used to be.  “But at this point, this ain’t the worst way to make a dollar.”
“When you’d lose you job?” Chris asked sheepishly.
“Year ago.  Thought I’d find something quick.  I guess everybody thinks they’ll find something quick.”  Bruno grabbed one of the wide, long brass handles, the sides worn black by decades of hands grabbing them.  He added to the wear, and pulled.
There was more light than they expected, and it surprised them both.  They stood at the edge of the vast ballroom, its smooth parquet floor worn by generations of jitterbuggers, Lindy hoppers, shaggers, twisters, jivers and rockers. To the right was the raised stage, under a sharply curved proscenium. On the left was a long, dark wooden bar, a dingy mirror running across the wall behind it.  The dance floor was littered in debris, soda cans, wrappers, colored streamers, a few chairs, newspaper pages and dirt, just a fine layer of gritty dirt you could feel underfoot.
“What a mess,” Bruno said.
“Jesus,” Chris said, looking up. The vaulted ceiling curved upward, toward a massive, circular stained-glass window, images of the heavens and stars and planets and angels swirling around in it.  A series of smaller, yellowish triangular windows surrounded it and pointed outward, like rays of sunlight.
“I never saw that before,” Bruno said.
“I thought you said you’d been here.”
“I was.  They must’ve had some kind of drop ceiling back then.”  It was the source of the sunlight, the window painting a tapestry of color onto the floor.  The window itself was flat, which was why they couldn’t see it from the outside.
“I can’t believe anybody’d ever cover that up,” Chris said, awestruck.
“It was probably collapsing,” Bruno said, staring up at it.  “Imagine the lawsuits if a thousand people got torn apart by shattered glass.  Still,” he said, trailing off.  They stood there for a moment, heads arched up, admiring it.
“Where’s the kitchen?” Chris said.
“That it over there?”  They walked across the floor, kicking their way through the debris.  There were two swinging doors on the far side.  One swung open suddenly, as if a ghost of the old club had come back for a haunting.  Bruno jerked back, before he saw Randy come through it.
“This way boys.”
“Alright, if it’s not nailed down, take it.”  The kitchen was wide, with a row of soot covered gas ranges along the back wall, back-to-back rows of stainless steel prep tables and a lot of battered industrial-grade equipment crammed everywhere, stuff that used to gleam.  Cockroaches scurried over, under and around it all.  “Bruno, let’s grab this,” he said, pointing to a squat convection oven resting on a table.  “Chris, see those pan racks? Start with those.”
“I don’t remember that stained glass,” Bruno said as the two men lifted the oven.
“They had to secure it and put in a drop ceiling in the ‘60s.  It was collapsing.  Can you imagine the lawsuits?  The bank didn’t even know it was up there.”
“The bank?”
“Bank owns the place now. Old owners defaulted, and after a buttload of lawsuits, the bank got it.”
“What’re they gonna do with it?”
“Tear it down, sell the land to this developer who wants to put up condos.”
“Condos?” Chris said, surprised.
“ ‘Course, this pain in the ass historical society wants to save it.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“It’d cost three times what it’s worth to fix it,” Randy said. “Bank’s not gonna spend that. Nobody is.  Bruno, grab that end.”  They lifted the oven and carried it toward the back door.  “Bank comes in, tears it down, and sells it to a developer who puts up condos and makes a mint.  Creative destruction, that’s what the Wall Street boys call it.”
“The Wall Street boys,” Bruno huffed.  Something scurried past his leg, something he didn’t clearly see.  “What was that?”
“Anybody got a problem with rats?” Randy said aloud.  Chris stopped in his tracks and turned pale.
“Of course!”
“Well, get over it.  Ignore them, they’ll ignore you.”
“That doesn’t sound like good advice,” Chris said glumly.  Bruno and Randy struggled to carry the oven.  It was heavy, its sharp metal edges not suited for handling.  They huffed it through the back door, out into the hot summer sun and up the truck’s ramp, where they deposited it as far back as it would go.  Chris came behind with two pan racks.
“Good thing we got here early,” Randy said.  “It’s gonna be a real scorcher today.”
Once they got to work, there wasn’t much talking, apart from Bruno’s instructions.  They kitchen was full of equipment, most of it old, dirty and heavy, beat-up stuff.  Apart from the rats, and the cockroaches, and the heavy smell of grease in the air, it wasn’t so bad.  They spent the morning hauling out tables and racks and refrigerators, pots and pans  and spatulas and ladles.  There was a long steel sink that required Randy to get underneath to unscrew it from the wall.
“What should I do with this?” Chris asked Randy, holding up a scratched and dented, battered mixer. Randy eyed it, assessing its value.  Bruno came back in from the outside, breathing heavily, sweating, passed them without a look and and grabbed a small side table.  His shirt was soaked; sweat slicked back his already thinning hair, it dripped off his face.  His belly hanging over his shorts.  He grabbed the table wordlessly and carried to the truck.
“Keep it,” Randy said. “It’s got resale value.”
They sat around the back of the open truck, Chris sitting in the truck, his feet dangling over the edge, and Bruno and Randy in chairs they’d pulled from inside the club.  Blue jays flew overhead, darting in and out of the trees that loomed over the back of the building.  The sky gleamed crystal blue and cloudless, the sun beating down on them.  Randy reached into the cooler at his side, pulled out a sandwich, and threw it at Chris; he pulled out another and tossed it at Bruno.
“It’s so quiet out here,” Chris said.  Randy reached back into the cooler, and pulled out three bottles of beer.  He got up and handed one to Chris.
“I’m not twenty-one.”
“I’m not going to ID you.”
“Bruno,” Randy said, handing him a bottle, “you free Tuesday?”
“Tuesday? No good, I got an interview.”
“I can make Tuesday.”
“Where’s your interview?”
“Census Bureau.”
“You’re gonna be a poll taker?”
“Maybe.  All I know is they’re hiring accountants.”
“Well, good luck with that.  How about Friday?”
“Friday should be good.”  Bruno twisted off the beer cap, and took a swig, and savored it.  “I’ll tell you, sometimes, there’s nothing tastes better than a beer.”  They sat eating amid the quiet, the birds making music up in the trees.
“Mr. Maggiore?” Chris said.
“You can call me Bruno.”
“Bruno.  You’ve been on a lot of interviews, right?”
“Too many.”
“Can you give me any advice?” Bruno thought about it.
“Treat it like a first date.  Be on your best behavior, but remember, you’re interviewing them as well as they are you.  And for Christ sake, I don’t care if it’s a job at a video store, wear a tie.”
“Don’t give him all your good tips,” Randy joked, “you may be competing with him for a job some day.”
“Some day,” Bruno said.  He took a long swig of beer, as if somehow that would hide the fact that there was no humor in the comment.
There were three, six-burner stoves against a grease-covered tile wall.
“We’re taking that one and that one,” Randy said, pointing to two that were scarred but seemed serviceable.  “Leave that one,” he pointed at the third, with the hard lines typical of the ‘50s and ‘60s, black from use, most of the hot plates missing.  They stood around the first stove, and Randy reached his big hands over the top of it.
“Now pull,” he said, and the three of them pulled, Randy over the top, Chris and Bruno on the sides.  It came forward, with some effort.  “Again,” Randy said, and they pulled again.  “Again,”  and they pulled again.  A rat scurried out from under it, gray and filthy, with a long, nasty fleshy tail.  It jumped right over Chris’s foot.  He let out a trebling cry.
“Did it bite you?” Randy asked.
“I don’t think so,” he said, panting, staring at his feet.
“Good, ‘cause we’re not stopping to drive you to the hospital.”
“This place must’ve been awesome,” Chris said, sticking his head out beyond Bruno’s face to get another look at the restaurant before they left.  The three of them were filthy and sweaty, and it was only because each of them were so dirty they didn’t notice the rank smell of the other two.  Chris’ hair was slicked back like he’d taken a shower.  Bruno’s t-shirt was soaked gray and smeared with big black grease stains.  Randy didn’t look that different.
“It was,” Bruno said.
“I can’t believe they’d just tear it down.  I can’t believe the state’d let ‘em.”
“That’s the way it goes,” Randy said.  “Everything gets torn down eventually.  They’ll tear the Coliseum down some day.”
“Why doesn’t the bank just sell it to that historical society?” Chris replied.  “They could save it.”
“It’s a shitheap,” Randy said.  “There’s a reason we emptied it out.”
“Too bad,” Bruno said.  “It’s still got some great architecture.”
“That glass ceiling is so cool,” Chris said.
“That glass ceiling will kill somebody,” Randy said.  He looked at the two of them.  “You’ll probably form a Save The Americo group.”
“Americo?” Chris said.  Randy cleared his throat.
“America, Amerigo.  Whatever.”
“You sure you’re cool to drive?” Bruno asked; he cupped his hand in front of his face and tipped it in the air.
“I’m fine.”
“Somebody could rebuild it,” Chris said.
“No way,” Randy said.
“They can rebuild anything,” Bruno said.
“I’d do it,” Chris said.
“There’s an entrepreneur born,” Bruno said.
“There’s a bankrupt ‘entrepreneu’ born right behind him,” Randy said.
“What about all the crap you said this morning about hustle?” Bruno asked.
“I guess you gotta be smart, too.  Alright,” he grabbed the gear shift on the steering column, pulled it down, “let’s get the hell outta here.”

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