The new number rolled out precisely as Angelo dictated: one electric guitar playing real slow, an open E chord strummed with feeling for two bars, then barred up to a B for two soulful bars, followed with a C-sharp minor, then down to an A-flat minor with a shiver of tremolo bar. Just that until the drummer joined, softly with brushes on the snare and high-hat. Then an electric organ crept in on feline feet with a quiet chord wash before a sax added sizzle and a hint of sleaze after the bass lumbered in. A solemn momentum was built, the Pacific anticipating a tsunami. That pattern set, Angelo stepped up with majestic deep-twang lead guitar, plucking the three lowest strings, rarely past the sixth fret, before it all landed on an E-major 7th pillow.
While they'd been pacing through "Stiletto," Broadway Maxie, in pointy shoes, waltzed into the practice space, his eyebrows raised in approval. Nodding, he lit a cig, and nodded some more. Sitting on a turned-around folding chair, Maxie tugged his vest into place, all the while nodding, as one pointy shoe tapped perfect time.
When The Roamin' Gods took five, Broadway Maxie said to Angelo, "Nice. Did I detect a touch of 'Pachelbel's Canon'?"
Angelo stared at the floor, grunted, had no idea what the fairy was talking about. What's a pocket bell cannon? Some kinda zip gun? And what 36-year-old with a budding paunch, hair thinning, wears pointy shoes? And never takes off his sunglasses? Maxie is who. Regardless, Broadway Maxie Epstein delivered the goods, secured solid gigs for The Roamin' Gods. Ah, Maxie ain't so bad. As long as he keeps his hands to himself, we're square.
Angelo lit a Lucky and said, "Got some jobs for us, pally?"
"You bet, kid. A wedding in Jersey City, big bucks! And a dance joint in Queens. Again the grass is green! Even after I take my, shall we say, generous cut!" Maxie exited, nodding, singing to himself, "Good night, baby. Good night, the milkman's on his way..."
Post-practice session, standing on a corner, guitar case in his hand, smoking, Angelo thought back to the inspiration for "Stiletto," back to that night, back to Chico.
The Esquires, Angelo's gang, had been minding their own business; no one was looking for trouble. But trouble found them. The Latin Viscounts crossed into no man's land at the same time as The Esquires. In the empty lot, lit only by a flickering street lamp, The Esquires found themselves surrounded by the enemy, switchblades gleaming. The Latin Viscounts were high, no doubt about it, on H. "Couldn't just stick to weed or wine or bennies. No class, right off the boat," Angelo thought.
It was a portrait in concrete, denim, tarmac, black leather, and glinting stainless steel. The Latin Viscounts were loose, goofy, laughing. The Esquires, on the other hand, taut with the electricity of fear. The Esquires formed a circle within the circle, stilettos in hand, ready. Then Angelo heard a warning shout, glanced to his left, saw a kid lunging at him, knife first. No time to think, working on instinct and adrenalin, Angelo pirouetted aside as his opponent pitched. Angelo planted his blade deep into the kid's belly, to the hilt, jagged it straight up until it hit breastbone, and a little into the bone, then withdrew, all in a flash. The stabbed punk's eyes bugged. He gurgled, vomited blood, staggered forward, teetered, fell, landing flat on his dead face, felt no pain when his nose smashed on impact. Both gangs stood there, stunned, for a heartbeat or two in the midnight dark, then scattered like cockroaches when a kitchen light is flicked on at three in the morning.
In the moment before he sprinted, Angelo, suddenly alone with the corpse, said, "I... I didn't mean to... do this... I... I'm sorry..." He knelt beside the body, reached to touch a shoulder, but pulled back, spooked. He noticed that both of them wore the same exact shoes: black, side-laced with brass clips, pointy, Cuban heels. Same exact shoes, probably bought at the same shop, six bucks.
Guitar case in front of him, shoving loiterers aside, Angelo entered Buddy's Records, his ears assaulted by a racket that'd grown ubiquitous. Initially it had lurked in the background in January, easy to brush off. Picked up speed in February. Now going gangbusters in March. Everywhere it was "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "She Loves You." Sickening.
Angelo steamed, thought for the umpteenth time, "This is not rock and roll! Rock and roll is The Ventures and The Kingsmen! The Kingsmen and The Ventures! Elvis Presley. Sam Cooke. And Dion, cannot forget Dion! And Duane Eddy! Duane Eddy is rock and roll. Not this British bull! England ain't rock and roll, these punks cannot get the beat done correctly! England is Big Ben and that Churchill cat, stiff upper lip, pip-pip, cheerio, and all that tommy rot."
"Angelo! I got that Paris Sisters single you was lookin' for!"
"Hey, Buddy! That's good. I need some good news, what with all this Beatlemania crapola! Mingia! They can’t even play their instruments! And they look like mushrooms with that hair. And the bass player! Maricon." Angelo shook his Vitalised head and shuddered, shoulders raised then slumped.
"Ha ha! Relax, Angelo! It'll pass like gas. A flash in the pan, man! In th' meantime, I'm cashin' in, making th' do re mi, cryin' all th' way to th' bank! Beatle wigs are sellin' like hotcakes at 99 cents a pop! Ninety-nine cents! Highway robbery! I'm gonna be rich! I'm doin' so good that I'll let a pisano have th' 45 onna th' house!"
"Geez, thanks, Buddy! I appreciate it!" In a corner, away from the swarm of Beatlemaniacs, Angelo placed the record safely in the imitation-alligator case of his Mosrite Mark I. He stood up, looked over at three giddy girls and one skinny four-eyes singing along to the loudspeaker, "She says loves you and you know that can't be bad! Yes, she loves you and you know you should be glad. Wooo!" He muttered, "Idiots. The Beatles are not rock and roll!" He had an urge to punch the glasses off the snot-nosed kid. Instead, Angelo slunk out of the shop, waving goodbye to Buddy at the cash register, but Buddy was too busy ringing up sales to notice the exit.
After the rumble, The Esquires lost steam, decided to ixnay the gang life. Some of them were getting too old for it, anyway. Angelo offered the notion that they reform as a rock and roll combo. Who knows? Maybe they could record a hit and become millionaires? Stranger things had happened. Chubby Checker was a nobody. Look at him now! They put the gang coffers toward down payments on guitars, an electric bass, an organ, a saxophone, and a drum kit. Angelo assumed charge, segued from gang boss to a sort of art director as well as musical compass. It was his idea for them to play Mosrite guitars, just like The Ventures, all in Ink Blue, and to use Fender amps with a heapin' helpin' of reverb.
In matching Continental suits and blue suede shoes they looked as sharp as they sounded. Pros.
Angelo composed original material, stuff they wove between popular hits: greasy R&B, sleek surf instrumentals, Twist tunes. It didn't take them long to learn the basic chords, a few snappy beats, and they were on their way, playing school dances, honing their craft on the fly, when they caught the ear of Broadway Maxie Epstein. Now they were close to signing with Kapp Records. Maxie assured them it was a good as done, just an i to dot, a t to cross. Next stop, American Bandstand and Dick Clark's Caravan of Stars!
"Y'know, kid, when you're in the Top 10, some people will be able to say they saw you when you played at their sock hop. You'll be legendary."
Surreptitiously, Maxie was working on a scheme to actually sign the combo as Bobby Bang & The Boomerangs, spotlight on Angelo as a singer, then deftly and legally ditch the other clods, use session musicians and chick back-up singers, an echo chamber will disguise the lack of vocal range, kids don't know from Caruso. Angelo's cute, has long eyelashes. As Bobby Bang the chicks will go for him. Hey, squeeze a few hits out of the shebang, maybe land the kid a minor movie role. Anyway, as of yesterday, Maxie had an eye on a freshly minted quintet in Philly, Lord Cornish & The Wellingtons. New Year's Eve was their final gig as Sunny & The Surfers. They'd spent the last month or two faking a British accent, learning songs by The Beatles and The Dave Clark Five, boycotting barbershops, and writing some fresh tunes: "I Want to Love You" and "Liverpool Luv." In addition, they reworked "Pipeline," made it all minor chords, junked parts of it, ended it on a 6th chord, and dubbed it "Brit Beat." Turtlenecks and tweed sport coats replaced their candy-striped shirts. A tour of Midwest states, the yokels will believe they're Liverpudlians. Gotta talk to Tollie and Vee-Jay, could score a regional hit or two, mebbe something that breaks national...
“TEEN GANG MURDER” screamed the tabloids. A handwringing social worker was quoted, agonizing over the teenage gangster epidemic, "Our slums are the breeding ground for this disease of senseless violence as surely as a swamp is for malaria-laced mosquitoes!" City officials spoke of tearing down the antiquated tenements, replacing them with modern high-rise apartments. Angelo read about Alberto "Chico" Esposito, 12, former altar boy. "I had to kill you. You were gonna kill me. But I didn't want to kill you. Hell, I know you didn't wanna kill me. You were just 12! What the hell did you know, other than you wanted to show the gang you were a big man, not a punk?"
Immediately after the killing, Angelo trotted halfway across the bridge, tossed his bloody knife and jacket into the coursing river. Then he continued to the other side, scrambled down to the bank and washed his hands and arms and face in the filthy tide, trying to cleanse, trying to turn back the clock.
The cops had nothing. They grilled The Esquires, roughed them up in a windowless basement, but no one cracked. The Esquires were tough-built, not a fink in the batch. "We wasn't doin' nothin'!"
Other gangs were rounded up, got the same treatment. Everyone knew the score, but no one was spilling to lousy fuzz. Not even The Latin Viscounts coughed up a word. All were mum as mummies.
For days Angelo read about Chico in the papers, scoured for details, until the story went stale. One night he walked the length of the bridge again, his right hand running from the back of his neck to the top of his head, then to the back of his neck, over and over. "We weren't that different. Yeah, you was a lousy PR, but we're both Catholic, Roman Catholic. We were both Baptized in the Church, Confirmed, received Holy Communion, had our knuckles rapped by nuns, our heads smacked by priests. We were both... both altar boys."
On a bench Angelo moaned, "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me! Blessed Mother, please, I humbly beg of thee, pray for me! Dear God, please welcome Chico into Your heart! He didn't know what he was doing! He was just a kid! Dear God, I humbly beg Thee! I didn't know what I was doing..." He held his head in both hands and bent forward, rocking, as a river of traffic surged by: yellow cabs, an MG in need of a new muffler, Mack trucks, sedans, a panel van, station wagons, a VW Bug, all oblivious to the sobbing teen alone in the dark.
Wandering in the night, he stumbled upon a small church on a side street. The door was unlocked, he went in, lit a votive candle for Alberto "Chico" Esposito, dropped silver into the black box, clinking coins echoing in the empty church. At the altar railing, Angelo recited fervent prayers for the immortal soul of the kid he'd slain. Kneeling, praying, he thought about how if life was different, if circumstances were shifted, just a little, he could've been a pal to Chico, a kind of big brother, or something. "I've always been the little brother to Donny... It would've been swell to be a big brother to Chico..."
After Buddy's Records, Angelo beat feet to Tony's Grill for a plate of spaghetti and a beer before dinner. At Tony's, Angelo was carefree, could put his guitar down and not worry about anybody swiping it. If someone so much as looked at it cross-eyed they'd be shoveled into an ambulance. Angelo liked it here, his home away from home, a place to eat, drink, shoot the breeze, dig the jukebox, maybe find an easy gal. An hour later, when he stepped onto the sidewalk, darkness was gathering, the temperature had dropped precipitously. He ducked his head, and made tracks homeward. The city air was filled with the scents he knew and loved: bus exhaust, hot dogs grilling, a top-tier call girl's perfume, a crummy pizza joint, a cabbie's cigar smoke, peanuts roasting...
Bounding up the stairs to their tenement apartment, Angelo couldn't wait to spin The Paris Sisters disc. They were so blonde and perfect, so California. When he became a millionaire, Angelo planned to settle in California, in Los Angeles, where everything is clean and pure. Silky salt breezes... Movie stars... Custom cars... Orange groves... A place to be reborn. "When I'm a star, I'll send a million dollars cash, anonymously, to the Esposito family." He swore that on his grandmother's grave.
And he mused, "I'll buy a mansion in Beverly Hills. And one for my folks. And one for Donny and Delores. That'll be a kick, all of us in Beverly Hills! Our neighbors will be Doris Day and Rock Hudson! And Jack Benny, I love that guy, he cracks me up, the cheap bastid!"
"Oh, certainly Mr. Benny, I'll be happy to lend you a cup of sugar. Okay, I'll call you Jack! No more Mr. Benny, Mr. Benny. I mean, Jack!"
"And Cadillacs for all of us! Gold Cadillacs! Convertibles! With the tops down, we'll get brown as nuts in the California sun! Maybe I'll take up surfing? It'd be my chance to get at some beach bunnies!" He could almost reach out and touch one of the bikini-clad babies, her warm flesh glowing like a marshmallow roasted over a campfire with patience and care, not burnt, but a smooth succulent gold.
"Hey, Ma! When's dinner?"
"Is almost ready, sit down in a minute. You got a letter, from the government, Washington, DC. You must be big important man, Angelo! Washington, DC!"
Curiosity piqued, Angelo set his guitar aside, leaned it against a wall greasy with a patina of cooking, stood at the kitchen table, picked up the letter, opened it.
"GREETING: You are hereby ordered for induction into the Armed Forces of the United States..."