Going to the mattresses
John Armstrong’s novel continues with a quick lesson in mob warfare and an ancient saying that prophecies a turbulent tomorrow
By John Armstrong
Vito Genovese is, like my uncle, one of the last of the originals, the men who founded the organization and saved the country when it was ready to go up in flames. Maranzano, Lansky, Siegel, Costello, Anastasia – they were giants, let’s face it. And a good thing they were there, too, or we might all be speaking Russian or Chinese. Personally, I find English hard enough.
I found Frank in his office, on the phone, with a dozen soldiers scattered throughout the foyer and gunmen posted around the mezzanine. There were more outside the front doors, young, tight-jawed men with black eyes, hard as stones from the river bottom. For them, this was an opportunity to shine, to be noticed by the higher-ups. It’s hard for a gunsel to make an impression when there’s no shooting going on. Frank motioned for me to sit and kept talking.
“Tell him I’ll lend him all the muscle he needs for protection and guarantee his safety but we need to have a sit down, now. Everyone.” He listened for bit, impatient. “ All right. I’ll be here.” He put the phone down and for the first time I could remember he looked his age. “These guys are sitting there in their wet panties, shivering. What happened to them? They turned into old women. Nah, I can think of some old women I’d rather have backing me up.”
“What happened to Vito?”
“He was leaving his comare’s place and someone in a car went by, sprayed them with a grease gun. Vito took a couple of slugs but he’s okay. Tough old bastard. One of his boys wasn’t so lucky. Charlie, close the door from the outside, will you?” When we were alone, he said, “After we got shot at I had my suspicions that Vito was behind it. I don’t know why now instead of some other time in the last 30 years, but you know, old wounds fester and build up. He never did forgive Charlie promoting me to succeed him, not that we ever much liked each other to begin with. That’s why I always tried to treat him as an equal, so far as I could. It was either that or … whssssst.” He made the ancient motion with the blade of his hand across his throat. “That’s the only two real choices you have with an enemy.”
“But if he’s getting shot at, too – actually hit …”
“Yeah, that kind of blows that whole idea up, doesn’t it? He might arrange a fake hit to throw us off the trail, after they muffed the one on us, but for Christ’s sake he’s a 70-year-old man – he’s not going to tell his guy ‘okay, just wing me with the tommygun so it looks good.’ So it ain’t Vito.
“They had a saying in Chicago – once is happenstance, but twice is someone trying to tell you something. So, someone is after us and I got damn few options who, and the ones I have got don’t make sense.” He lifted his cup, saw it was empty and pushed the buzzer on his desk.
Almost immediately the door opened and one of the shooters stuck his head through.
“More coffee, and tell them get Meyer on long distance.”
If he was bringing Meyer Lansky into this he was even more worried than he let on. When the Families first split the territories up, Lansky was the other majority shareholder in Luciano-Costello but instead of asking for one of the boroughs he renounced his interest in favor of his partners – provided they gave him complete rights to an island off the Florida coast that almost nobody had ever heard of. People thought he was oobatz – crazy – but Cuba worked out nicely for him. I don’t think being the king of a tropical island would be such a bad way to retire.
I had a real feeling of uselessness, which I didn’t much like. I had no bright ideas to offer and this was all well outside my area of expertise. My whole life I’d been groomed for an executive, administrative position, not a place on a war council. But I did know about delegation and time management.
“What can I do to help, Uncle Frank?” I usually just call him Frank but for some reason that’s how it came out this time. “What can I take off your plate so you can concentrate on what you need to be doing?”
He looked down at his desk and then back at me. “Can you organize a schedule so all of our people are protected? Draft whoever you need, use associates if there aren’t enough made guys. And I need to know how many men we can count on if we have to go to the mattresses. If that happens, we’ll be opening the books. Dangle that and you should be able to pick and choose.”
“Got it. I’ll assign them all and let you know when they’re in place.” Opening the books meant a chance for full membership in the family and profit participation, something rarely offered. I had barely squeaked in. You can work for the family and even get very wealthy, you just can’t actually get in unless you’re very lucky or have the right relatives, like I did. And even though the “Sicilian blood only” rule has long since been scrapped – Frank and Luciano teaming up with Lansky kicked that door open – people still believe that claiming some Italian heritage is the ticket, no matter how unlikely the connection. Coriolano – Charley – is about as Italian as a plate of corned beef and boiled potatoes, a big, red-haired Irishman with a face like a catcher’s mitt; our accountant is Dominic Wong & Sons – the sons are Alfonso and Vittorio.
Frank called to me as I got to the door: “You’re a good kid, Jackie. Your father would be proud.” Him mentioning my father was about as common as me calling him Uncle.
Abby supplied me with names and numbers for our caporegimes and I took it to my office and started dialing. Each of them got a list of names and addresses of our most important executives and instructions to have their homes protected and an armed personal guard with them any time they left it.
“Uh huh,” a captain named Alfonso asked after I’d dictated his assignments. “What about wives and kids? Do we need to worry there? You know, school, shopping, beauty parlor?” That was a good question. Historically, no one would ever harm a family member, even in the most heated vendetta but when people were taking potshots at family Dons willy-nilly and spraying sidewalks with machine guns the rules of engagement appeared a little murky.
“Families too,” I said. “If you don’t have the men, go outside the ranks. There’ll be guys you trust, you’ve got a good opinion of? This is a chance to reward them. We’ll be opening the books when this is done.”
I heard him whistle softly at the other end. “It’s that serious? All right, I know some very good guys who’ve been waiting for this. Awright. Ciao – in bocca al lupo.”
I replied automatically: “Crepi il lupo. Ciao, e buona fortuna.”
“Into the mouth of the wolf.”
“I will eat the wolf” … brave words, but first we had to figure out who the wolf was.
By six p.m. I had verification calls back from every captain and a long list, several single-spaced pages, of every man they suggested we should recruit if the situation escalated. “Going to the mattresses” – I’d heard it said many times in books and movies but never imagined it really happening. Some people say it goes back centuries, to when people hung mattresses on churches and towers to protect them from cannon fire (and I have a hard time believing it would help much. Would you feel safer with a straw mattress between you and a cannonball?) Others say it’s from the pre-council days when families were at war constantly and set their soldiers up in temporary apartments, mattresses spread out all around on the floors while they sat around, waiting for the order to attack. Or it may have simply come from hiding spare weapons under beds. They all came to the same thing – war, the first in almost two generations.
I found that I was not all that excited by the idea. I’m no coward, but after nearly thirty years of peace and prosperity –longer than I’d been alive – it was hard to imagine anything else.
Abby put her head in as I was straightening up the papers.
“Your uncle wants you to come eat with him. His office.”
I handed her the papers, asked her to copy them for Frank and followed my nose. I had eaten sparingly at lunch, a tomato and onion salad and some stuffed calamaro. My goombah, Joey, always says to watch the calories, which is not easy with Italian cooking. I was standing in his kitchen once, watching him chop vegetables from Chinatown into a big round skillet and I asked him why he ate that way. He gave the stuff a toss and a dollop of something from a jar with the disturbing label Fermented Bean Sauce, and wiped his hands on a towel.
“Next time you’re at a big meeting, take a look around and count the fat guys. Home cooking killed more of our guys than Smith & Wesson.”
Like our Roman ancestors it’s customary to water the wine, and in a situation like this, three to one or more would be right. It’s funny that people think of Italians as big drinkers when you rarely see an Italian drunk.
Joey would not have approved the spread Frank had ordered in. Two tables had been set up against the inside wall of his office and they were loaded down with feast dishes– sour cream and three-cheese baked ziti, codfish in tomato sauce, braised oysters, plump scungilli (water snails) in marinara, spicy sausages roasted with potatoes, veal chops parmagiana, insalata di mare (a seafood salad we normally only have at Christmas), tubs of pasta and polenta, grilled eggplants, asparagus, and artichokes, sliced cheeses and baskets of bread and toasted bruschettas and crostinis. At the end of one table was a crate of wine and several large pitchers of water next to the glasses. Like our Roman ancestors it’s customary to water the wine, and in a situation like this, three to one or more would be right. It’s funny that people think of Italians as big drinkers when you rarely see an Italian drunk. Mancia di sanu e vivi di malatu, the Sicilians say: eat with both hands but drink moderately. The Irish, well – that’s not a sentiment you hear expressed much. The Irish are everything people think Italians are but times about 10 – more stubborn, more vengeful, more emotional, more sentimental. About they only thing the Italians exceed them at is loudness. No-one can outdo an Italian family argument.
“Come sit here, Jackie. One of you, make him up a plate.” Frank already had his in front of him on the desk, piled unsteadily with this and that, but he was doing more drinking than eating. There was a bottle with only a couple of inches left in it and he poured me a glass, killing it. He shook the bottle for the last drops and put it down clumsily.
“ – Another dead soldier, another mother in tears. Hey, che ne dici qualche servizio?” I had never seen Frank this close to drunk before.
“Not for me, Frank. Can we get some coffee here?” I gave Abby a wave and when she came over and bent down I whispered, “Get the food and wine out of here, feed everyone out in the foyer.”
“And send in some brandy and cigars with the coffee, eh? And cookies or something.” Frank was smiling at us. “How drunk do you think I am anyway? Okay, you bring that while this boy and I talk business.”
I filled him in on what I’d accomplished and while I did, my food arrived and I made a sandwich that fell apart as soon as I tried to lift it. Abby was back in short order with a fresh pot of coffee and a plate of cheeses, biscotti and fruit. She had the cigars as well, but not the brandy.
“Thank you – siete la più bella ragazza che ho visto”, he said as she put the tray down, which made her dimple, then added – “ and don’t forget that brandy.”
“You’re a wicked old man, Mr. Costello”, she said over her shoulder as she went out the door. She was back seconds later with a bottle of Pomace, the strong peasant brew made from grape pulp and blood oranges. It’s like kerosene mixed with fruit cordial. She set it down with a thump and flounced out. I had never actually seen anyone flounce before. It was all I’d hoped it would be.
Frank watched her go and said, “I should have told you to go ahead and marry that one, Jackie. Eh …” He pulled the cork and poured brandy.
“All right, Meyer is coming in LaGuardia tomorrow morning. I want you and Gallo should pick him up and bring him straight here. Take some men with you. I want to take no chances while we’re waiting for the shoe to drop, if it does. Did you order protection for yourself?”
I realized sheepishly I hadn’t.
“I’ve got Charlie – I’ll be fine.”
He gave me the eyeball.
“First thing you got to learn about being a boss is, you are the most important person to protect. It’s not vanity or ego, it’s necessary. How long does this family last if I let myself get killed, right when I’m needed? You have to protect yourself not for your own sake but for the people who depend on you, capisce? You’re my underboss. If you get hurt, who do I have that I can trust like you? So get a proper crew of praetorians before you do anything else.” He dipped one of the cigars into his glass of brandy and soaked the end, then handed it to me. I put the wet end in my mouth. He fixed one for himself then struck a match.
“Right now we don’t know anything except we’re in danger. Is it one of the five families here in the city, or someone looking to come in from St. Louis, or Detroit. Or out West? Or further away, out of the country? Is it the Chinamen up in Vancouver? Not in million years, my opinion, but we have to look at everything.”
He puffed and rotated the cigar to get it going to his satisfaction, then held a new match out to me and I imitated what he’d done. The sharp, sweet taste of the brandy joined with the smoke to make something that felt like you could chew it. I knew enough not to try to swallow any of it and just let it envelop me.
“Back when we took over everyone was sick and tired of all the blood and the noise. It was a relief to just get back to earning. But that was a long time ago, and nothing lasts forever. No war, and no peace. Of the old guys who are left, how many are even really running their own families and how many are figureheads?
“So we hope for the best and prepare for the worst, and if it comes down to cases –” he lifted his two hands up, palms up and clenched them hard – “then rompiamo le palle cazzo. We break their fucking balls.
“Now you take some of these guys with you and go home, and I’ll see you after you pick up Meyer. I sleep here tonight. Buona fortuna, mio figlia.”
I was halfway home before it hit me. He’d never called me ‘son’ before.
Mob Rule continues in The Ex-Press…