There were no signs of wasps. So, Johnny March reached up between the rafters, the second and third from the shed's southwest corner, and felt around. As he probed blindly without success, he wondered how many other people had known about this secret hiding place. Somebody else could have easily beaten him there. Cousin Walter. Then, he found them - the keys. They were right where Jesse said they would be.
As he made his way to the trailer, he spotted the garbage can, one of the things Jesse had been concerned about. He gave it a little kick and could tell it was full. Knowing better than to remove the lid, he carried it out to the road.
"They won't pick up trash again 'til Tuesday," a woman called from the trailer across the lane. He could barely make her out through her screen door.
"Thanks, ma'am, but I probably won't be here Tuesday."
"Then, who's going to put the can away?" she asked.
He thought about that for a moment. "I'll make arrangements," he called back, though he really didn't give a shit.
Jesse Ruggiano and I grew up together in the small town of Putney, New Jersey, located 40 miles west of NYC just off Interstate 80. Though the general sentiment in our working-class neighborhood had probably been sympathetic to Jesse and his mother, Mathilda, as far as I can remember, no one ever thought it their place to step forward and intervene.
Renaldo Ruggiano, Jesse's old man, was a vicious little bastard with an ugly disposition. He worked for the Erie-Lackawanna railroad replacing ties and laying track and, each night, the whistle signaling the approach of the eastbound train from Netcong served as a warning that he would soon come charging up the hill. It probably wasn't a coincidence that my mother would use the whistle as a signal to call me in from play. And, if Jesse was close by, she'd admonish him, "You better head home, now, Jesse. It's getting late."
When he appeared, it was as if a black cloud had descended on the neighborhood. Conversations ceased, children took cover - all eyes watched warily as the evil monster with the determined stride bore down on the big double-house on the corner. With a pissed-off scowl darkening his face, it was certain that someone was going to pay. Someone always did.
According to the police, the doors had been wide open when they got there. Jesse knew who was coming; what was coming. Johnny hadn't. When Jesse had emailed asking him to contact the police if two days went by without his hearing from him, Johnny had no way of knowing that he had been two weeks without dialysis.
Someone must have locked up, maybe one of the cops, or one of the EMT's, after they removed his body. Johnny used one of the keys to unlock the door to the enclosed porch. It was like an oven inside, a hundred and twenty degrees or higher. There were no chairs or furniture of any kind, just a vast concrete floor, painted gray. To the right were three steps leading up to the trailer's front door. To the left was a silver bicycle. Johnny lifted it off the floor. It weighed next to nothing. He could use a bike like that but there was no way he was going to load it into his car and haul it all the way back to Jersey. Maybe, he'd give it to Fitness Girl, if he ever found her.
Most evenings, Jesse made it a point to be seated at the table when the old man arrived home for supper. Not being there would have earned him a merciless two-fisted pummeling. Not that being there meant he was home free. It didn't. His father didn't need a specific reason to haul off and hit him. Most times, he did it just for the hell of it. Still, Jesse's strategy was to put the beatings off as long as possible.
Not long after Renaldo entered the house the screaming would begin. His voice was powerful - it carried throughout the neighborhood. Though I was safely removed from the battle zone, it struck me with fear. I can only imagine what it was like for Jesse and his mom. It was fairly common for him to throw his wife down the cellar stairs - we could actually hear her falling - and then lock the door. For hours we could hear Mattie pleading with him, ""Rennie, please open the door. Rennie? Rennie? Please." Jesse told me once that he would wait for his father to fall asleep, then sneak down and unlatch the door.
It wasn't unusual for Jesse's arms and back to be covered with bruises. He told me, once, he was happy to take a beating if it meant his mother would be spared a punch or two. Yet, in all those years, I never once heard her intercede on his behalf. It was always, "Please, Rennie. No. No. Don't hit me. Don't hit me."
Most people on High Street kept their distance from the Ruggianos. I was the only local kid who was allowed to play with Jesse and, even so, my mother never once allowed him into our house.
I can't help thinking that in today's world, a situation like that would attract more agencies and social workers than a truckload of dead babies.
He opened the door to the trailer. The a/c was on full blast, thank Buddha. He'd been worried that there might be a lingering odor, but there wasn't. Straight ahead was the sofa. "We found him dead on the sofa," the sergeant had told him. "Looked like he went in his sleep." Two pillows, one deep red in color and cylindrical, the other an ordinary bed pillow, were at the foot of the sofa, the foot being the end closest to the TV. Two blankets, one blue, one cream colored, had been thrown over the back. On the floor were a half glass of water and the TV remote. This is where Jesse had made his last stand.
Just to the left of the sofa, facing the wall, was a desk with a monitor on it. The Microsoft logo was floating around the screen. "Where you wrote those emails from, huh, Jesse?" he thought as he pulled the door shut behind him. He looked around, quickly, taking in the rest of the space. Just beyond the foot of the sofa was a big-screen TV. At least forty inches, he figured. To the right of the doorway, facing the TV, was a pea green vinyl recliner. Alongside it was a brass pole lamp.
Johnny entered and moved to the left, beyond the PC, to a small round kitchen table that obviously hadn't been used as a place to sit down and eat. The table's surface was dominated by medicine and pill bottles, a 14 day pill holder and three stacks of papers. One, it appeared, was for bills. One was medically related - appointment notices, blood work results and like that. The last looked like junk mail.
The rest of the kitchen appeared remarkably well kept when you considered Jesse was a bachelor who had lived alone. There were no dirty dishes in the sink, no mess on the counters. The floor was clean. He was, however, detecting an odor which seemed to be coming from under the sink. He pulled open the cabinet and found a sack of potatoes and another of onions. Holding his breath, he grabbed them up, one in each hand, and, holding them away from his body, carried them outside.
Back inside, he peeked into the refrigerator. "Oh, brother!" There wasn't much in there, just eggs, milk, butter, a plate of something crawling with mold, maybe it was chicken... maybe it was ribs, but the smell was enough to turn his stomach. He slammed the door and made a mental note to take care of that later.
There had been a time, when we were eleven and twelve, that me and Jesse had been inseparable. Together, every day, we would walk to and from school through the woods that surrounded Baker's Pond. And most afternoons, after school, we would head down to the Y where we amused ourselves playing ping pong, pool, checkers, chess and basketball and snacked on root beer and frozen Reese Cups and Milky Ways. I would head home around 4:30; my family ate supper at five o'clock. But, Jesse, who avoided going home as long as he could, would stay by himself till 5:30. Then, he would tear ass up the hill to his house arriving just in time to beat Renaldo.
One day, when I was walking home through one of the downtown neighborhoods, a Fuller Brush man stopped me and asked if I wanted a job. He needed someone to deliver catalogs to the areas he'd be canvassing later in the week. It was a chance to make some real money. I told him I'd like to do it, but I would first have to check with my mom, which I did that night. Next day, I went to work. Jesse and I didn't see as much of each other after that. I often wondered if things might have turned out different for him had that Fuller Brush man not crossed my path.
Johnny made his way down the narrow hallway, past a small bathroom, to the bedroom. He wondered if Jesse had been habitually neat, or if he had straightened everything out just for his benefit. It bothered him that he didn't know. A true friend would know, should know. Jesse had invited him down several times, saying they could go to the Hard Rock Casino, or the track, or take the Casino cruise out of Port Richey, but Johnny, not being much of a gambler, had always bowed out. He chided himself, now. What would it have cost him to come down for a few lousy days? Absolutely nothing.
Standing in the corner were a couple black leather cue cases. An avid pool player, Jesse had been very concerned about the fate of his favorite sticks. "My fuckin' cousin, Walter, from Winter Haven has his eyes on them," he had emailed. But, Walter, apparently hadn't been interested enough to make the trip. Tied to the straps of each case were tags bearing Jesse's scrawl. "Johnny, Top of the line Predator!" read one. "Johnny, the Vintage McDermott. An antique," read the other. Like he hadn't been told so many times it was etched in his brain.
At the foot of the bed was a bureau, painted white. Johnny opened the top drawer. Behind the socks, right where he said it would be, was the checkbook. The account was in Jesse's name and Johnny's. Jesse had gone out of his way to keep things simple. Johnny sincerely hoped they stayed that way.
I had worked for the Fuller Brush man for two years, delivering catalogs for a penny and a half a piece, through rain and snow, sweltering heat and freezing cold, when one of the neighbors, Mr. Archangel, the produce manager at our local A&P;, informed me they were looking for someone to help out after school a couple hours a day. The pay was minimum wage, a huge step-up for me.
The Fuller Brush man, who for years afterward whenever he called on my mother, never failed to assure her that I was the best helper he had ever had, asked if I knew anyone who might want to take my place. I set him up with Jesse who lasted about two weeks before he got fired for disposing of large chunks of his daily quota of catalogs by throwing them in sewers, dumpsters, vacant lots, the woods and even the river. During my two years, it had never once occurred to me not to deliver every last booklet. I often wondered, was I honest? Or, just dimwitted?
Jesse and I drifted farther apart. I had heard he was hanging out with the Nickerson brothers, two boys who were virtual strangers to school though they were familiar faces around the police station, and wasn't too surprised when he was busted for his part in a string of B&E;'s. Because an elderly man had been assaulted during one of them, Jesse, a first-time offender, didn't get off with probation and was sent away to the juvenile detention facility in Menlo Park for twelve months.
One day, when I was marching up the hill from the A&P;, Jesse's mother came running out into the street waving a slip of paper." Jesse wants you to write to him," she said, handing me his address. "He misses home awful." So, we started to write back and forth. Over the next several years, I would be addressing my letters to places like Jamesburg, Annandale, Bordentown and Leesburg. Jesse was spending a lot of time away from home.
It was a short walk, through Jillie's parking lot and across Main to the pool room. Chalky's sat at the west end of a little shopping plaza, next to a Thai restaurant which made, according to Jesse, "dynamite eggrolls." Johnny walked in, noting it was cool, but not freezing. Jesse had complained repeatedly about one particular barmaid who kept the a/c so low he couldn't stand it. On days she worked, he stayed away and went instead to another pool room down the road in Holiday. "She's always hot," Jesse had deduced, "because she's fat. She's got an ass like an elephant." Understandably, it wasn't Elephant Ass Johnny was looking for.
The pool room opened up to the right; only one table was going - an old man sporting thick glasses and a squinty scowl was playing alone in the corner. Proceeding along the left wall and up a short ramp, Johnny made his way to the counter. On duty was a young woman with curly reddish hair tied back in a ponytail. She was chatting and blowing smoke at a lanky well-inked young fellow with a clean shaven head.
"Can I help you?" she asked, smiling. Her dazzling blue eyes knocked him off stride.
"Judy?" he inquired.
"That's me," she said.
"Hi," he said, extending his hand, "I'm Johnny. I'm... I was a friend of Jesse Ruggiano ."
"Oh, hi," she said. Genuine sadness washed over her features. "We were sorry to hear about him... dying."
"Yeah," echoed the tattoo, "That was fucked up."
"Guess it was," agreed Johnny. "You knew him?"
"Jerry used to help Jesse," said Judy, Jerry being the tattoo laden young fellow.
"I drove him around and that."
"Ah, Jerry." Johnny extended his hand. "Jesse told me about you. He appreciated all you did for him."
Jesse, had, in fact, directed him to give his car to Jerry. But, that wasn't his first order of business. "And you work at the restaurant, right?"
"And, you used to bring him egg rolls."
"He loved them fuckin' things. Used to buy four or five at a time."
"Are they open, yet?" asked Johnny, nodding his head toward the restaurant.
Jerry said they were.
Johnny drew a twenty from his wallet and held it out toward Jerry. "How 'bout running over and getting us four or five of those world famous egg rolls." When the kid hesitated, he added, "C'mon, I have to talk to Judy in private."
Jesse stayed out of jail, once, for about 18 months. That's when he hooked up with that barmaid, Myra, with whom he had a little girl. Jessica. I was going to college in Greeneville, Tennessee... Tusculum, at the time and stayed there mostly, but I did manage to run into Jesse once when I came home for Christmas. His father was dead by then, and he, Myra and Jessica were living up the street with his mother. He called to me one day when he saw me and motioned for me to stay put. Then, he set down his beer and ran into the house and came out with the baby. As he introduced us, he was beaming. With her sitting on his shoulders, he looked so proud I really thought for a moment that this could be the point where he turns his life around. Just wishful thinking, I'm afraid.
It wasn't long after that he got into a fight with one Darryl Cloitre behind Rollie's Jukebox. From what he wrote me afterwards, Darryl Cloitre, a complete stranger, had approached him inside the bar, introducing himself as the nephew of Leonard Holtzman, an old drinking buddy of Jesse's father. Cloitre confided to Jesse that Uncle Lenny was "queer as a three dollar bill." Then, he added, "What the hell do you think him and your old man were doing out to all hours of the morning? You can bet your ass they weren't chasing pussy."
Lord knows, there was no love loss between Jesse and his old man, but, still, this was a matter of family honor. Jesse hauled Darryl Cloitre out back of the Jukebox, kicked the living shit out of him and, in the process, knocked him down the river bank. Unfortunately, it had been raining heavy seven days straight and the river was raging. Mr. Cloitre slipped into the current and was swept downstream. Three days later his body was found in the vicinity of Dead Man's Curve tangled in the branches of a fallen willow. The police immediately drove up the hill to his mother's house and collected Jesse. Without much ado, he was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to twenty years to be served in that plush penal resort known as Rahway State Prison.
"Jesse left something for you and your daughter," Johnny volunteered.
"You're kidding, right?"
"No, I don't know you well enough to kid you. He wanted me to give you a check."
"Why would he do that?"
"Because he liked you, I guess."
She considered that prospect, then suddenly she was on the brink of tears. "I thought he was mad at me."
"What made you think that?"
"He stopped coming around, for one thing."
"I'm sure that had nothing to do with you. The dialysis was rough on him. He didn't feel very good toward the end." No need to mention Elephant Ass, he thought.
Johnny gave her a moment, then asked her to write her full name on a slip of paper. He'd come back later, he said, with a check.
"How much is it?" she asked.
"Ten thousand dollars," he said.
She brought her hand to her chest. Thankfully, it was just a reflex action. "Ten. Thousand. Dollars!"
"Like I said, he liked you."
Jerry returned with the egg rolls and change.
"You going to be here later, Jerry?"
"Good, I have to talk to you." He pivoted toward the door, then turned back. "Jesse said you used to poke him?"
Judy nodded. "On facebook," she said, smiling through her tears. "We poked each other back and forth."
"Ohhhh," said Johnny, not knowing what the hell she was talking about.
The incident with Darryl Cloitre revealed not only Jesse's penchant for violence but also a basic insensitivity when it came to the subject of homosexuality. These points were brought home when, one day, a fellow inmate made unsolicited advances toward him in the kitchen. Jesse responded to the amorous attention by beating the inmate into a coma which resulted in another seven years being tacked onto his sentence. When he wrote me about it, he said only, "I'll probably never get out of this fucking hole."
Soon after, Myra divorced him and ran off to California with a drug dealing pimp and little Jessica. He asked me to look them up if I ever got out that way and I told him I would, though I never made it west of Pennsylvania.
The letters and cards slowed down after that, but never stopped, and every time I got one, I sent one back.
I even went down to Rahway to visit him once. The visit ended badly when he asked if I might be willing to smuggle in some drugs next time I came. Not for his use, he said, but for bartering. The plan was for me to stick a balloon full of blow up my ass, pardon my french, then remove it in the visiting room lavatory. I was married by then and not criminally inclined. I would never have put my happy life on the line just so he and his friends could get high and I told him so. He understood and said he wasn't mad. But, that was the last time I visited, though, like I said, we kept on writing.
Things were moving along - as thrilled as Judy had been to receive her check, Jerry was off-the-meter ecstatic over getting the bill of sale for Jesse's beat up red jeep, along with the thousand dollars for expenses. He insisted on giving Johnny a "man hug" for his part of the deal.
Basically, all he had left to do was deliver the balance of Jesse's savings to "Fitness Girl." Of course, first he had to find her.
Jesse avoided parole by serving his entire sentence. When he was released, he was 53 years old. "I can't believe it," he wrote. "I'm free."
First thing he did was hop a bus to California. While he was still in the joint, someone had traced his daughter, Jessica, to Eureka, a city situated in the heart of Redwood country in northern California just south of the Oregon border. When he knocked on her apartment door, he rousted up a yapping dog and a young man who said he was her husband. The husband explained that Jessica was at work, but she'd be off the next day, which was Sunday, if he cared to come back. Jesse said he'd return and he did, but, when he got there, there was no yapping dog, no husband and no Jessica, just a note taped to the door. It read "Fuck off!" Figuring he deserved that and more, Jesse turned and walked away and hopped the first bus out of town.
The bus made a stop in Billings, Montana, and with no real plans he decided to stay for a while. He spent the next four years working as a welder, welding being one of several skills he had picked up in the "joint," and living in a rooming house at 1406 Mitchell Avenue. Then, he discovered he had liver problems. He didn't elaborate, but noted his problems were related to previous drug use. "The shit you do when you're a kid can come back some day and bite you in the ass." Next I heard, he was living in Florida. Best thing about being an ex-con, he told me, was that you automatically qualified for all kinds of freebies, including disability. I didn't investigate; I just took his word for it. Anyway, with his disability, plus money from his mother's estate, he bought himself a trailer in one of those 50-plus trailer parks on the gulf. Was there almost twelve years. He thought of taking up golf, but he found he didn't like the people who played golf very much, so he took up pool. He asked if I remembered playing with him at the Y all those years ago. Of course, I did.
"Guess what?" he wrote me one day. "I'm a diabetic. They've been choking me with all kinds of pills, none of which did much good. So, they put me on insulin. That seems to be working, but it's a real pain in the ass. You have to keep asking yourself 'Is this life really worth it?' For now, I guess it is."
Johnny sat on the bench watching the parade of passersby. He had a print out of a picture Jesse had emailed him a few weeks back. "This is Fitness Girl," he had written. "She has perfect posture when she walks. When she runs she runs with a fluid grace. But, above everything, you'll know her by her smile - it lights up the world.
It was the diabetes doctor who started him walking, every morning, through the park for a mile and a half. "The doc wants me to walk two or three, but a mile and a half is all I'm good for." He used to go on about the birds he saw during his walks - hawks, woodpeckers, parakeets, osprey and eagles, and the people - Mustang man, the hand holders, Fat Ass, Jogging Girl and, his favorite, Fitness Girl. He said you were like a daughter to him."
He said hi and she smiled.
It was a lot to absorb. She sat their silent for a while, leaning forward, her face buried in her hands. She turned to Johnny, her eyes still moist. "We used to talk, always about me. He'd ask about my kids, their school, their swim meets, my husband. He never talked about himself. And I never asked. Then, he'd say I shouldn't let him hold me up and send me on my way."
"Did you ever call him Pop?"
"The last time I saw him," she continued, "he was sitting on his bench, the bench where I usually met him. I asked if he was walking that day, but he said he wasn't. He said he was going away for a while and he wanted me to know. 'Don't forget me while I'm gone,' he said. I told him I wouldn't." He took a picture of me with his cell phone.
Johnny explained that Jesse hadn't forgotten her either and that he had left her the bulk of his estate - $250,000.
"And what am I supposed to do with $250,000," she asked.
"He had faith that, if I told you his story, you'd be able to figure something out."
She reflected a long moment. "You know, I could have been nicer to him."
"Believe me," said Johnny, "I know the feeling."
I thought you'd like to know that this past summer our fund, The Jesse Ruggiano Children's Assistance Fund, sponsored trips to the YMCA summer camp for ten inner city youths plus five from our local domestic violence safe haven. Not only were we able to coax the Y into giving us a special rate, but through various fund raisers, including our Jesse's Walk Through The Park, we more than made up for the cost. Also, our JRCAF vans are finally in operation shuttling kids to and from after school programs at the Y. Looks like we'll be helping kids for a good many years to come. I am currently in the process of developing a scholarship program, too. It looks promising. I hope this is the kind of legacy Mr. Ruggiano would have wanted.
I'm sure it is, thought Johnny. I'm sure it is.
© Copyright 2003- by Ace Toscano. All rights reserved.