Black Mask

Precision Thinking

by Jim Fusilli

Delmenhorst Flooring had its warehouse on Observer Road in Narrows Gate, across from the clanging Erie-Lackawanna switching yard. Founded in 1921 by Hans-Josef Bamberg, a German immigrant, Delmenhorst was, for many years, northern New Jersey’s largest dealer of Armstrong printed and molded inlaid linoleum. Prior to World War II, it was a prosperous enterprise. It sold and installed quality flooring at a fair price.

Operating out of a candy store a short walk from the warehouse, Mimmo and the crew took notice. Delmenhorst trucks came and went without interference, and its salesmen called on customers throughout the county and as far west as the Pennsylvania border. To the crew, this meant its trucks could cart cigarets, liquor, auto supplies, and whatever else they boosted, and its salesmen could case homes for jewelry, silver, and furs. Since Delmenhorst also put down linoleum in the bars and clubs the crew owned, in a sense, they were already partners. The German had his hands in Sicilian pockets.

Bamberg lived on the other side of the Hudson on Riverside Drive, a big house. He took the Narrows Gate ferry twice a day. Shortly after Germany declared war on the U.S. in late ’41, he made a one-way trip, going head over heels into the icy, choppy river. By the time his frozen body bobbed up under the West Side piers, nobody gave a damn.

The bosses put Santo Rizzato in charge of the linoleum business. From a desk in the Buchanan Bus Lines maintenance shop at the north end of the mile-square city, Rizzato managed the soldiers who ran the whores and the card games in the flophouses under the viaduct, plus he had every bus driver and mechanic paying down in slow motion what they borrowed to bet prizefighting, horse races, football, and whatnot. Rizzato carried a clipboard, which gave the crew the illusion that he was some sort of businessman. He went to work immediately, moving downtown to an office above Delmenhorst’s warehouse.

Rizzato replaced Delmenhorst’s German salesmen with locals, most Sicilians and Italians who couldn’t spell linoleum on a bet but had a genius for theft. They began to tool around the county in the company’s long Buick wagons so roomy a pair of sofas could ride in back. Those Buicks, like the trucks with Delmenhorst Flooring painted on the sides, made the crew invisible to the cops’ eyes. What they pilfered rode in broad daylight under not much more than flimsy tarps.

Soon, though, the cops started fielding complaints even from the people who hadn’t been robbed: the linoleum didn’t fit, curled at the edges, was mismatched; the whole apartment smelled like glue for weeks. The Narrows Gate cops picked up one guy, a ciuccio two years off the boat, after his Buick rolled backwards down the yellow-brick hill at Sybil’s Point and crash-landed in a park filled with mothers and baby strollers; it knocked the Good Humor man into a flower bed. In back of the Buick, the cops found a four-burner stove and two bowling balls. In a big display at the precinct, Rizzato fired the thief and promised to make good for damages to public and private property. Later at Buchanan Bus, the ciuccio was hung feet-first from an engine hoist. As the muscle went about their work, Rizzato informed them that the word piñada had its roots in Italy, a pignatta being a terra-cotta pot that breaks when smacked just so.

Rizzato had no choice but to go see the Armstrong regional team in Newark. He told them his best salesmen had gone to war, but he could handle installation and maintenance if they did the selling. Noting their business in northern New Jersey was now running close to zero, the company agreed.

Rizzato called down to Buchanan Bus and told them to send Mickey Gagliano to the Grotto, a clam bar by the Tubes. Rizzato was halfway through a pot of mussels in red gravy when Gagliano walked in, his expression as blank as a full moon.

*   *   *

Rizzato told him.

“Except I don’t know nothing about linoleum,” said Gagliano, who had wavy black hair and green eyes, a combination that made no sense except that he was half Irish.

“You can patch a tire, right?”

“I can.” Gagliano nodded.

“So what’s the difference? Somebody got a hole in the floor, you fix it. They need a new floor, you take up the old one, you throw down some glue, you give them what they want.”

“I don’t know what they want.”

“Armstrong will tell you.”

“Who’s Armstrong?”

Rizzato stopped, a gravy-filled mussel shell halfway toward his mouth. “You get one more stupid question, Mick.”

Gagliano, who had no feel for irony, said, “This Armstrong. He’s gonna tell me if the floor is big, not big?”

Rizzato slurped and tossed the shell aside. It landed on the sawdust on the terrazzo floor.

“Look. They make the sale. You come in, you look at the specs, you take a ruler, you take a knife. Boom. Off you go.”

Gagliano tried to avoid staring at Rizzato’s pockmarks, but it was impossible. Sandy looked like he slept facedown on dry rice. “What if I—”

“Go practice,” Rizzato instructed.

Gagliano set off along Observer Road toward Delmenhorst’s warehouse, which was loaded with Emerson radios and bicycle parts the crew hijacked. As sparks flew in the switching yard, once again Gagliano was wishing he wasn’t born missing a kidney that had turned him 4-F, plus he accidentally perforated an ear-drum as a kid, the reason being he used a pencil instead of a Q-tip. Cracked concrete and weeds under each step, he saw himself a failure at flooring and hanging from an engine hoist, Rizzato’s boys tuning him up good.

*   *   *

Incredibly, though, Gagliano demonstrated an aptitude for the task. The Armstrong salesmen gave him exact dimensions. The tools he had worked right, especially the steel blade that was shaped like a hawk’s talon. It cut through the linoleum like butter in the summer sun. The tape measure became his friend, and the glue pot too. It was easy once you knew how. Crawling like a crab, whistling some kind of tune, Gagliano could do a kitchen in under an hour.

His success confirmed his long-held suspicion that, though he was slow on the uptake, he was not dumb, no matter who said otherwise. Achievement made him feel warm and cozy. Up and down Narrows Gate, Mickey Gagliano walked like a man.

“Mickey,” said Rizzato, “you are in demand.”

They were in Rizzato’s office. His in-box overflowed with invoices, his sister-in-law Lucille having yet to arrive to do the paperwork. Rizzato spent the mornings on the crossword puzzle he took from the Jersey Observer and placed on his clipboard. He used a mechanical pencil, which made him feel like he was doing it in ink.

“Spot anything useful?” he asked.

Gagliano was so engrossed in his new career that he forgot he was a thief. He was the guy who’d boosted the armored car outside the Mirco Brothers Clam Bar when the driver stopped for a pepper-and-egg sandwich, the crew netting forty-seven K. He was fifteen back then.

“‘Useful’?” asked Gagliano, tilting his head in confusion.

Rizzato looked up at Gagliano, who was standing in his carpenter’s pants with his hands clasped behind his back. “Jewelry? Sundries?”

Sundries?

“A new coat?”

“Sandy, I don’t leave the kitchen,” Gagliano explained.

“Maybe there’s a silver set.”

He was going to mention the Del Marinos got a new toaster. “Ain’t we making money on the job, though?” Gagliano asked. “I mean, I’m doing two, three kitchens a day. The Yellow Flats uptown? I heard they want linoleum in the halls in every building. That’s what? Twelve buildings, five floors, the lobbies. I was thinking if Armstrong gets that, we’re—”

“We’re what? We don’t need to go look for armored cars? You think the crew is content with what I’m pulling down here?”

Gagliano held his tongue. As far as he knew, Delmenhorst was doing what it was supposed to: putting in flooring at a fair price. The Germans made a good living when they ran it.

“You need to be precise in your thinking,” Rizzato said, hoisting out of the creaking chair. “What is the point of your assignment?”

To satisfy the customer. She tells everybody in the neighborhood that Mickey Gagliano does the job right and new business comes knocking. “To case the joints?”

“To case the joints,” Rizzato repeated. “See? You’re not a dimwit after all.”

Gagliano drew up, offended. He had half a mind to tell Rizzato that letting the Armstrong guys go into the homes and pitch the business took away most of their chances to see who had what worth boosting.

“So . . . ?” said Rizzato impatiently.

Stung, Gagliano heard himself reply: “The Finnegans. I heard he hit the trifecta at Freehold.”

“What Finnegans?”

“The lawyer. Tommy.” Gagliano gave him an address. Uptown in the Irish section, it was a nice brownstone with stained-glass windows and lace curtains. “He likes the ponies.”

“You go in,” Rizzato told him.

“I can’t. My mother lives around the corner. Plus,” Gagliano added, “I got five jobs tomorrow and Thursday. I’m up and down the county.”

Displeased, Rizzato sat and rubbed his forehead.

“You got half a dozen guys down the bus depot who could do it,” Gagliano offered. “In and out.”

Rizzato calculated. True, he had a roster of petty thieves who could break in with no notice. But if he didn’t send in the Armstrong guys first, Mimmo might not credit him with the score.

“Those pants,” Rizzato said. “Why?”

“Carpenter’s pants. They sell them at the Army-Navy store.”

“It’s a costume,” he said, unleashing his annoyance. “You look like a clown.”

Gagliano dipped into one pocket and pulled out a tape measure. Out of another pocket came a bubble level. He reached down near his knee and produced his blade for slicing through thick sheeting.

But Rizzato had turned away. Pencil in hand, he was looking at 14-Across.

*   *   *

Michael Gagliano’s mother Mary Alice Gagliano, nee McGrath, went to St. Matty’s with the Finnegan brothers. Tommy and Kenny were Irish twins, born nine months apart, and they were as close now as they were as kids. Tommy, the smarter of the two, was a lawyer—taxes, not criminal. Kenny, who was quicker than his older brother, was a cop. Not merely a cop. Kenny Finnegan was a New Jersey state trooper. Decorated.

Said Tommy, who called from his office across the river: “Kenny. Someone broke in.”

Kenny raced along the New Jersey Turnpike, lights flashing, sirens wailing; averaging eighty miles an hour, he arrived in Narrows Gate less than twenty minutes later. All of Cleveland Street watched as he slammed on the brakes, cut the screamer, and leaped up the stairs to his brother’s front door, where his sister-in-law Susan simpered.

Just in from St. Matty’s where she taught second grade, Susan Finnegan was in beige blouse, tweed skirt, and brown shoes.

Well over six feet tall and so fit he appeared carved from marble, Kenny was in full uniform: blue saucer-shaped hat, long-sleeved light-blue shirt, black necktie, navy riding breeches with a gold stripe along the side, a long-barreled Colt revolver on his hip.

“What did they get, Sooze?” Kenny said as he led her back into the house, much to the disappointment of the nosy onlookers.

“I was afraid to check.”

“You think he’s still here?”

Susan Finnegan, nee Lindemeyer, shrugged.

Kenny Finnegan snapped open his holster with his thumb. “You stay here,” he told her as he edged toward the patio and backyard. The door was open; a lawn chair lay on its side; there were footprints in the grass.

Soon he returned. “He’s gone,” he said. “The kitchen’s a mess.”

She gasped. “Your mother’s silver!”

Kenny wondered if Tommy had told his wife he hit the trifecta at Freehold. Pulled down $959 and change. That was sweet, even if it wasn’t a week’s salary for Tommy.

“You have any cash in the house?”

She sighed. “In the kitchen too.”

Not the household funds, thought Kenny, for the A&P, the dry cleaning, and so forth. “I’ll look upstairs. Maybe start a list, Sooze. What’s missing.”

The second Kenny Finnegan entered the bedroom he knew the thief had come for the cash. The mattress was at an angle as if it had been lifted and dropped. The nightstand drawer was open on his brother’s side, but not Sooze’s. His bureau was in chaos; hers was disturbed but not in shambles. Same thing with their closets: Tommy’s hats and clothes were on the floor.

“Sooze,” yelled Kenny, “where’s your fur?”

“In storage,” she replied from the bottom of the stairs. “Kenny, they took the steaks right out of the freezer.”

His big feet thudding down the stairs, Kenny returned to the first floor. He followed his sister-in-law into the kitchen.

She handed him the list he had requested.

“A can opener?” Kenny asked as he scanned.

“Electric. It doesn’t work.”

“Serves them right.” He nodded toward the table. “What’s this?”

“Samples,” she replied, lifting the leather-bound book about the size of Life magazine. “Linoleum.”

On the front, embossed in gold, was the word Armstrong.

“What do you need linoleum for?” He and Tommy had put in the parquet floor a week before Pearl Harbor.

“He said I’d made an appointment,” she replied, passing him the salesman’s business card. “But I didn’t.”

 

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Copyright © 2017. Precision Thinking by Jim Fusilli

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