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Joe Ithaca

What’s in a name? Well, depends who’s asking, don’t it? 

Actually, around here, not really. In the Gutter, a name is only the stale bread around a “you're fucked”  sandwich.

Joe Ithaca by George Masters




The sun went away when Janet hung up the phone. She said, “That was my brother, he just got a call. He thinks they’re coming for Dad.”

Twenty minutes later Janet and I loaded the old man and his walker into the car. I brought out two suitcases.

Her father said, “You don’t have to stay here, Tom. Come with us.”

I said, “Someone’s got to take care of the pups.”

“It’s not your fight, kid.”

I put my hand on his shoulder. “This should finish it, Mr. Romero.” 

He touched my hand and I felt him tremble. In his gruff old voice he said, “Jesus, you jarheads are stubborn bastards.” 

Breathing rapidly, her eyes wide open, Janet said, “Please, just call the police—now.”

I said, “They’ll be time for that.”

Biting her bottom lip, she kept her shoulders squared.  “You going to be all right?” 

Sounding more confident than I felt, I said, “I’ll be fine, go.”

“Call me,” she said and leaned in with a kiss. 

Out the open window, the old man waved an arm as they drove away.

Wherever the two men came from, it took them five hours to find the apartment. When they arrived, I was sitting on the screened in porch with a beer and listening to the thunder get closer. No rain yet, the afternoon warm and still, the sky grey as a battleship.

One dog in my lap, one at my feet, I was enjoying the beer and the red and purple flowers beginning to blossom. The thunder rumbled like artillery. If you’ve heard the big guns in person, you don’t forget.

I didn’t recognize the white Suburban that pulled up in front. It didn’t park in one of the parking spaces, but just stopped in the middle of the driveway. Two men got out and looked up and down at the apartments. The driver pointed to the number on Mr. Romero’s door. 

The driver stood by the car, the other man came up the walk and knocked. A damp wind began moving through the tops of the trees.

I set the dog in my lap on the floor and walked to the edge of the porch. I said to the guy at the door, “May I help you?” The screen was black, and with the afternoon getting dark, he hadn’t seen me. Looking surprised he leaned forward to see who had spoken. When he took a couple of steps across the grass both dogs started barking.

He said, “Excuse me, do you live here?”

I said, “Who are you?”

He turned and waved to the driver. Leaving the Suburban running, the driver joined his partner. Both came a couple steps closer. The dogs barked harder and louder.

I gave them pats on the head and told them everything was fine.

The first one said, “I’m sorry, friend, an acquaintance of ours used to live here and we thought maybe he still did.” 

I said, “My uncle lives here.”

The driver said, “If you don’t mind, could you tell us if Mr. Romero has moved to another apartment?”

“I don’t know a Mr. Romero.”

“Has your uncle lived here a while?” asked the first man, and he took another step closer.

I said over the racket of two dogs barking, “You’ve got the wrong apartment.”

The driver said, “Would you mind telling us your uncle’s name?”

I said, “No, I don’t mind.” They waited and I waited. While we both waited, the sky opened up and the wind strengthened. 

“Is your uncle here?”

I said, “He’s in bed.”

With the rain running off their noses and chins, the driver said, “Would it be all right if we came in?”

“My uncle’s taking a nap and he’s not feeling well.”

The other one said, “And what’s your uncle’s name?”

I said, “Ithaca, Joe Ithaca.”

Getting drenched, they glanced at each other. The driver said, “Larry, why don’t you park the car?” Larry trotted over to the car; the driver stepped close so his nose was only a couple feet from the screen. He grinned. “Getting kind of wet out here, friend.”

“Why don’t you get in your car until it stops?”

“I was hoping you’d invite us in. I’d like to ask your uncle a few questions.”

“About what?”

“Maybe your uncle knew our friend, the previous tenant.”

“He might but he’s sleeping. I wake him, he’s going to be upset.”

“Joe Ithaca,” said the man trying out the name.

I said, “Right.”

Larry came back from parking the car to join his friend. His friend’s voice took on an edge. He said, “Listen, can we come in? We won’t take much of your uncle’s time. You’d be doing us a favor, just a couple quick questions.”

Their trousers and windbreakers were shining wet. Somewhere in their mid-forties, both men had size and height. Their confidence gave them the look of former professional football players or cops. Larry had a shaved head. The drivers black hair was getting plastered.

It grew cooler; the wind dropped off and the rain fell straight as nails. I picked up the barking dogs and said, “Tell you what, hold on and let me go ask my uncle.” 

Leaving them both in the rain, I went into the guest bedroom and deposited the dogs. I picked up the shotgun and closed the door behind me.

Heading back toward the darkened living room, I saw the two men climbing over the porch railing, coming through a big section of cut-out screening. Each one carried a large automatic pistol. Taking cover behind a leather recliner, I dropped into the prone position, thumbed off the safety and allowed them to take two maybe three steps into the living room.

*

Police cars, ambulances and a fire truck filled the parking spaces and the driveway. It was still raining. Neighbors stood in doorways and leaned out of windows.  

Mostly I told the police the truth. I made up the part where I said they were looking for a guy named Ralph Snyder.

“Who’s Ralph Snyder?” said the head cop.

“I have no idea.”

He said, “Do you live here?”

“My girlfriend’s father. He’s away on a trip and I’m babysitting the dogs.”

The cop pointed to the shotgun. “Whose Ithaca?”

I said, “Mr. Romero’s, I’m sure.”

“He kept it loaded?”

“And a good thing, I didn’t have much time.”

“Double ought buck. Was he expecting anyone?”

“You mean, why’d he keep it loaded? Probably the same reason you do.”

The cop scowled. He said, “Any more guns in the house?”

I looked at parts of Larry and the driver on the walls and across the living room floor. I said, “I don’t know.”

He said, “If you don’t mind, we’ll take a look around.”

I said, “Please do.”


George Masters served with the Marine Corps in Vietnam and after the war attended Georgetown. His crime novel, Concerto for Harp, is hunting for an agent/publisher.