This story is by Craig W. Colbrook and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Why do you keep glancing at St. Alphons? You afraid god’s gonna catch you?”
Diane Lighthouse was right. I kept looking out the window of the Golden Apple Diner, across the wide intersection, and right at St. Alphonsus Church. I didn’t realize it until she said so.
I turned to her and smirked. “I just like the architecture, is all.”
Diane rubbed her eyes. “Just likes the architecture, he says. Look, Paulie, it’s late. If all you want to do is talk about flying buttresses and cantilevers and shit, I’d just as soon go home and go to bed. But you called me, so if you’ve got something to say, say it.”
I scanned the diner for eavesdroppers. There was a bored waitress grabbing some plates of food behind the counter. “You know what I’ve got to say.”
“I’m your lawyer. What I know is bullshit. All that matters is what I can prove.”
The waitress came to our booth. We stared at her. She couldn’t be bothered to look back. She put a French dip sandwich in front of me, and a slice of cherry pie in front of Diane. She left. Diane turned back to me.
“You gotta say the words, Paulie.”
I closed my eyes. “I want to get out of the Annuncio family.”
“They’re not a family,” Diane said.
“They’re not a family. Not your family. They’re a goddamn criminal syndicate, and they use words like ‘family’ to brainwash you.”
This was why I called Diane. She knew all the tricks. She wasn’t just a lawyer. She was also an ex-gangster. There’s plenty of gangsters who went to law school, but they all just end up as gangsters with bar cards. She was the only one I knew who had left it all behind.
Something to aspire to, right?
“Now, what happened?” Diane asked.
“What, something’s gotta happen for a guy to decide he doesn’t want to be a criminal anymore?”
“In your case, yes. You chose that life.”
I winced. I didn’t choose this life. I was gangster because my dad was a gangster. No one chooses that life.
I shrugged. “I’m just tired,” I said. “Tired of driving Al Annuncio around. Him calling me ‘Tiny Paulie’. Worrying about catching a beating or a bullet if I talk back.”
Diane put a forkful of pie in her mouth. She chewed it for a moment, like she was working out the math on something. Then she looked at me. “That story is like a dress without pockets.”
“I ain’t buying it.”
“Diane look, it’s the truth.”
“Maybe, but it’s not the whole truth and nothing but the truth, is it? When’s the last time you actually caught a beating? You know the rules. You know the code.”
“Yeah, and don’t you think that code is maybe a little bullshit? It’s all, ‘don’t piss off that Capo because his boss will come after you’ or ‘don’t say that to Nicky because it’ll remind him of some dipshit family feud from Cicero in the 1970s and he’ll beat you down for it’. God, who wants to live like that? I can’t keep track of it anymore. And then, every once in a while…”
I stopped. I got too close to saying too much.
Diane noticed. “‘Every once in a while’ what?”
I shifted in my seat. I lifted the bun off of my sandwich to look at the meat.
“Paulie, come on, quit acting like you’ve got a discerning fucking pallet, what happens every once in a while?”
I put the bun down. “I just want to get out, is all. Can you get me out? Hide me somewhere, protect me?”
Diane nodded. She flashed me a soft, lopsided smile. “Yeah, I can do that, Paulie.” She reached across the table and put her hands on mine. “The first thing we do is we sit you down with the U.S. Attorney and-”
I pulled my hands back. “Woah, woah, woah, hold on, I can’t do that. I can’t be a rat.”
Diane’s brow wrinkled. “How, exactly, did you think this was gonna go, Paulie?”
“I thought you could just get me away. Outta town. Outta the country, even.”
Diane shook her head. “You’re talking witness protection. For that, you gotta be a witness.”
“No,” I said. “You know what the code says about rats. I just want to walk away.”
“What does the code say about that, Paul? After whatever happened, whatever you won’t tell me about? You can’t just walk away.”
I leaned forward. I pointed. “You did it.”
Diane leaned forward, too. I noticed that I was smaller than her. “I was the only lesbian in the Torricelli crew,” she said. “They always had me with one foot out the door. And I spent my whole time there proving that I was the biggest, baddest, most don’t-fuck-with-me chick they ever knew. Have you proven that the Annuncios shouldn’t fuck with you?”
I hadn’t. All I’d proven was that I could keep my mouth shut while I drove Al around to cheat on his wife.
I leaned back.
“That’s what I thought,” Diane said, leaning back herself.
“What about Operation: Wide Awake?” I asked.
Diane shook her head. “Operation: Wide Awake is a joke,” Terry said. “The mayor just wants the cops to put on a show to embarrass the state’s attorney.”
“She hates him, it’s a whole thing.”
I frowned. Diane took another bite of pie and said, “What, you think the Annuncios are the only people in Chicago with dipshit feuds?”
I took a bite of my sandwich. It tasted like nothing.
“Look, Paul, there’s only one way to do this,” Diane said.
I shook my head. “I can’t. It’s the code.”
“You said yourself the code is bullshit.”
“Yeah, but I still lived my life by it.”
“You gonna die by it?”
“I don’t want to, so give me a way out!”
“This is it, this is the way out! You want out, you gotta testify!”
“Because we have a code out here, too, man! Jesus, did you think that was only in the underworld? Me, the U.S. attorney, the mayor, the cops, we’ve all got rules and bosses and rituals. And I’m sorry, Paulie, I really am, but none of us can ignore those things for Al Annuncio’s driver. You gotta say the words!”
I collapsed my head into my hands. I was just so scared.
Diane didn’t let me off the hook. She made me sit with my fear for a long time. Then she said, “Paul, I really think it’s time you told me what happened.”
The waitress returned, carrying a pot of coffee. Diane fixed her with the hairy eyeball. The waitress saw it and turned around.
I took a deep breath. “There was this kid, okay?” I said. “He pissed off Al somehow. Al sent Nick to whack him. I drove.
“We found the kid in some two-flat in Beverly. Nick went in. A few minutes later, the kid came running out. He was trying to rabbit, but Nick was right behind him, firing away. The kid was wearing a white dress shirt. God, Terry, he was so young. You talk about how we chose this life, but how could he choose it when he was that young?
“Nick finally hit the bullseye. That white shirt started oozing red. The kid fell right on the hood of my car. I could see him through the windshield. His face was twisted, like he was surprised at how much gunshots hurt. I guess I would be, too. I looked him right in the eye. You ever looked someone in the eye while they died?”
My eyebrows rose. “Is that why you got out?”
“I think you should tell that story to the U.S. Attorney,” Diane said.
“Yeah, and then he’ll send Nick after me, too.”
“There’s fates worse than death, Paul. This is one of them.” She held up her hand and started counting on her fingers. “You got your bullshit code, you got your constant threat of violence humming around like background radiation, and now every once in a while you gotta stare death in the face? Can you really go on like that? I couldn’t go on like that.”
“And you’re the biggest, baddest, most don’t-fuck-with-me chick I’ve ever known,” I said.
“That’s right,” Diane said. “And I’ll protect you. Paul, if you talk, you’ll be my client, and I’ll protect you. That’s my code.”
I looked out the window. I stared at the church. I wasn’t like Diane. But I was never hard enough for this life, either.
The waitress came by again. “You guys ready for the check?” she asked.
“Yeah, I’ll take it,” Diane said.
The waitress walked away. “You don’t have to,” I said.
“I know,” she said. “But I figure it’ll be your turn to pay soon enough.”