The first bar I ever went to was The Tropics. It was and still is situated between the grocery store and the bank along Higbee Lane in West Islip. I was around five or six, and my old man would take me with him when he went there to watch the Giant games on Sunday afternoon. While the men were all at the bar, drinking, talking, giving Y.A. Tittle a piece of their minds, I'd roll the balls on the pool table or sit in one of the booths in the back and color. The juke box always seemed to be playing "Somewhere, Beyond the Sea" by Bobby Darin while I searched for figures, the way people do with clouds, in the swirling cigar and cigarette smoke. I didn't go there for the hard boiled eggs the bartender proffered after making them vanish and pulling them out of my ear, or for the time spent sitting on my father's lap at the bar, sipping a ginger ale with a cherry in it, although both were welcome. The glowing, bubbling beer signs were fascinating, the foul language was its own cool music, but the thing that drew me to The Tropics was a thirty-two foot vision of paradise.
Along the south wall of the place, stretching from the front door back to the entrance of the bathrooms was a continuous mural of a tropical beach. There were palm trees with coconuts and stretches of pale sand sloping down to a shoreline where the serene sea rolled in lazy wavelets. The sky was robin's egg blue, the ocean, six different shades of aquamarine. All down the beach, here and there, frozen forever in different poses, were island ladies wearing grass skirts but otherwise naked save the flowers in their hair. Their smooth brown skin, their breasts, their smiles, were ever-inviting. At the center of the painting, off at a distance on the horizon, was depicted an ocean liner with a central funnel issuing a smudgy trail of smoke. Between that ship and the shore, there bobbed a little row boat with one man at the oars.
I was entranced by that painting and could sit and look at it for long stretches at a time. I'd inspected every inch of it, noticing in the bend of the palm leaves, the sweep of the women's hair, the curling edges of the grass skirts, which way the breeze was blowing and at what rate. I could almost feel it against my face. The cool clear water, the warmth of the island light, lulled me into a trance. I noticed the tiny crabs, shells, star fish, on the beach, the monkey peering out from within the fronds of a palm. The most curious item, though, back in the shadows of the bar, just before paradise came to an end by the bathroom door, was a hand, pushing aside the wide leaf of some plant as if it was you standing at the edge of the jungle, spying on that man in the row boat.
Eventually, as time went on and life grew more chaotic, my father stopped going to The Tropics on Sundays. Supporting our family overtook the importance of the Giants, and until my mother passed away only a few years ago, he worked six days a week. When my own bar years began, I never went there as it was considered an old man's bar, but the memory of that mural stayed with me through the passing seasons. At different times in my life when things got hectic, its placid beauty would come back to me, and I'd contemplate living in paradise.
A couple of months ago, I was in West Islip, visiting my father, who still lives, alone now, in the same house I grew up in. After dinner we sat in the living room and talked about the old times and what had changed in town since I'd been there last. Eventually, he dosed off in his recliner, and I sat across from him contemplating his life. He seemed perfectly content, but all I could think about were those many years of hard work drawing to a close in an empty house, in a neighborhood where he knew no one. I found the prospect depressing, so as a means of trying to disperse it I decided to go out for a walk. It was a quarter after ten on a week night, and the town was very quiet. I traveled up onto Higbee Lane and turned down toward Montauk. As I passed The Tropics, I noticed the door was open and the old beer sign in the window was bubbling. No lie, the juke box was softly playing Bobby Darin. Through the window I could see that the year-round Christmas lights bordering the mirror behind the bar were lit. On a whim, I decided to go in and have a few, hoping that in the decades since I'd last been in there no one had painted over the mural.
There was only one patron, a guy sitting at the bar, who was so wrinkled, he looked like just a bag of skin with a wig, wearing shoes, pants and a cardigan. He had his eyes closed, but he nodded every now and then to the bartender, who towered over him, a huge, bloated hulk of a man in a t-shirt that only made it a little past the crest of his gut. The bartender was talking almost in whispers, smoking a cigarette. He looked up when I came in, waved and asked me what I wanted. I ordered a VO and water. When he laid my drink down on a coaster in front of me, he said, "Play much hoop lately?" and smirked. I'm no paragon of physical fitness, myself, these days, so I laughed. I took it as a joke on all three of us beat up castaways in The Tropics. After paying, I chose a table where I could get a good look at the south wall but sat facing the distant bathroom doors instead of rudely turning my back on my bar mates.
To my relief, the mural was still there, almost completely intact. Its colors had faded and grown dimmer with the build up of tobacco smoke through the years, but I beheld paradise once again. Someone had drawn a mustache on one of the hoola ladies, and the sight of the indiscretion momentarily made my heart sink. Otherwise, I just sat there, reminiscing and digging the breeze in the palms, the beautiful ocean, the distant ship, that poor bastard still trying to reach the shore. It came to me that the town should declare the mural a historic treasure or something. My reverie was interrupted when the old guy pushed back his bar stool and slouched toward the door. I watched him as he passed; his eyes glassy, his hand in the air, trembling. "OK, Bobby," he barked, and then he was out the door.
"Bobby," I said to myself and looked over at the bartender as he started wiping down the bar. When he looked back at me, he smiled, but I turned quickly away and concentrated on the mural again. A couple of seconds later, I snuck another look at him because it was beginning to dawn on me that I knew the guy. He was definitely somebody from the old days, but time had disguised him. I went back to paradise for a few seconds, and there, in the sun and the ocean breeze, I remembered.
Bobby Lennin had been what my mother called a hood. He was a couple years ahead of me in school and light years ahead of me in life experience. I'm sure by the time he was in the sixth grade; he'd gotten laid, gotten drunk and gotten arrested. By high school, he was big, and though always in kind of sloppy shape, with a gut, his biceps were massive and the insatiable look in his eyes left no doubt that he could easily kill you with little remorse. His hair was long and stringy, never washed, and he wore, even in summer, a black leather jacket, jeans, a beer stained white t-shirt and thick, steel toed black boots that could kick a hole in a car door.
I'd seen him fight guys after school by the bridge, guys who were bigger than him, cut with muscles, athletes from the football team. He wasn't even a good boxer, all his swings were these wild, roundhouse haymakers. He could be bleeding out of his eye and been kicked in the stomach, but he was relentlessly fierce, and wouldn't stop till his opponent was on the ground unconscious. He had a patented throat punch that put the school's quarterback in the hospital. Lennin fought someone almost every day; sometimes he'd even take a swing at a teacher or the principal.
He had a gang, three other misfits in leather jackets, nearly as mean but minus their leader's brains. Whereas Lennin had a wicked sense of humor and a kind of sly intelligence, his followers were confused lunk heads who needed his power and guidance in order to be anyone at all. His constant companion was Cho-cho, who, when a kid in Brooklyn, had been hung by a rival gang to his older brother's. His sister had found him before he died and cut him down. Ever since, he wore the scar, a melted flesh necklace he tried to hide with the chain of a crucifix. The lack of oxygen to his brain had made him crazy, and when he spoke, in a harsh whisper, usually no one understood him except Lennin.
The second accomplice was Mike Wolfe, whose favorite past time was huffing paint remover in his grandfather's shed. He actually had a lupine look to his face, and with his pencil mustache and sort of pointed ears, reminded me of Oil Can Harry. Then there was Johnny Mars, a thin, wiry guy with a high pitched, annoying laugh you could light a match on and a strong streak of paranoia. One night, because of some perceived slight by a teacher, he shot out all of the windows on one side of the high school with his old man's twenty-two rifle.
Lennin and his gang scared the shit out of me, but I was lucky, because he liked me. My connection to him went back to when he was younger and played little league football, before he fell totally down the chute into delinquency. He was trouble even back then, but he was a good tackle and played hard. His problem was he didn't take direction all too well and would tell the coaches to fuck off. This was back in the days when saying Fuck meant something, and it didn't endear him to the folks in charge.
One day when he was in seventh grade, he threw a rock at a passing car up on Higbee and broke the side window. The cops caught him and had him on the side of the road. My father happened to be passing by at the time, and he saw what was going on and pulled over. He knew Bobby because he had been a ref for a lot of the games in the football league. The cops told him they were going to book Lennin, and somehow my father worked it out with them to let him go. He paid the driver of the car to get his window fixed, and then drove Bobby home.
For whatever reason, maybe because he never knew his own father, that incident stuck with Lennin, and although he couldn't follow the advice my old man gave him that day and would continue to screw up, he took it upon himself to watch out for me as repayment for the kindness shown. The first time I had an inkling that this was the case; I was riding my bike through the grade school grounds on my way to the basketball courts. To get there, I had to pass by a spot where the hoods played handball against the tall brick wall of the gym. I was always relieved when they weren't there, but that day they were.
Mike Wolfe, eyes red, snarling like his namesake, ran out and grabbed my bike by the handlebars. I didn't say anything; I was too scared. Joey Missoula and Stinky Steinmuller, hood hangers-on, were ambling over to join him in torturing me. Just then Lennin appeared from somewhere with a quart bottle of beer in his hand, and he bellowed, "Leave him alone." They backed off. Then he said, "Come over here, Ford." He asked me if I wanted any beer, which I turned down, and then told me to hang out if I wanted to.
I didn't want to seem scared or ungrateful, so I stayed for a while sitting on the curb, watching them play handball while Johnny Mars explained how if you jerked off into a syringe and then gave yourself a shot with it and then fucked your wife, your kid would come out a genius. When I finally rode away, Lennin told me to say hello to my father, and when I was well across the field, he yelled after me, "Have a fucking nice summer."
Lennin's interest in protecting me made it possible for me and my brother to pass through the school field after dark, whereas anyone else would have had their asses beaten. One night we ran into Lennin and his gang there down by the woods, where Minerva Street led to the school grounds, and he had a silver hand gun in his belt. He told us he was waiting for a guy from Brightwaters to show up and they were going to have a duel. "For my honor," he said and then drained his beer, smashed the bottle against the concrete opening of the sewer pipe, and belched. When a car pulled up on Minerva and blinked its lights on and off twice, he told us we better get going home. We were almost around the block to our house, when in the distance, we heard a gun shot.
Occasionally, Lennin would surface and either save me from some dire situation, like the time I almost got mixed up in a bad dope deal at this party, and he came out of the dark, smacked me in the side of the head, and told me to go home, or I'd hear about him through gossip. He and his gang were forever in trouble with the cops - knife fights, joy rides in hot wired cars, breaking and entering. I know each of them did some time in the juvenile lock up out in Central Islip before I graduated. Finally, I finished high school, moved away from home to go to college, and lost track of him.
Now I was in The Tropics, just coming out of a day dream of paradise and the past, and there he was, standing at my table, holding a bottle of VO, a bucket of ice and a tumbler, looking like someone had taken him down to the gas station and put the air hose in his mouth.
"You don't remember me, do you?" he asked.
"I thought it was you," I said and smiled. "Bobby Lennin." I stuck my hand out to shake.
He laid the bottle and bucket on the table and then reached out and shook my hand. His grip didn't have any trace of the old power. He sat down across from me and filled my glass before pouring himself one.
"What are you doin' here?" he asked.
"I came in to see the mural," I said.
He smiled and nodded wistfully, as if he completely understood. "You visiting your old man?" he asked.
"Yeah, just for an overnight."
"I saw him in the grocery store a couple of weeks ago," said Bobby. "I said hi but he just nodded and smiled. I don't think he remembers me."
"You never know," I said. "He does the same thing with me half the time now."
He laughed and then asked about my brother and sisters. I told him my mother had passed away, and he said his mother had also died quite a while back. He lit a cigarette and then reached over to another table to get an ashtray. "What are you up to?" he asked.
I told him I was teaching college and was a writer. Then I asked if he still saw Cho-cho and the other guys. He blew out a stream of smoke and shook his head. "Nah," he said, looking kind of sad, and we sat there quietly for a time. I didn't know what to say.
"You're a writer?" he asked. "What do you write?"
"Stories and novels - you know, fiction," I said.
His eyes lit up a little and he poured another drink for each of us. "I got a story for you," he told me. "You asked about Cho-cho and the gang? I got a wild fuckin' story for you."
"Let's hear it," I said.
"This all happened a long time ago, after you left town but before Howie sold the pizza place, around the time Phil the barber's kid got knocked off at the track," he said.
"Yeah, I remember my mother telling me about that," I said.
"Well, anyway, none of us, me, Cho-cho, Wolfey, the Martian, ever graduated high school, and we were all hanging out doing the same old shit, only it was getting deeper all the time. We were all drinking and drugging and beginning to pull some serious capers, like once we broke into the grocery store and stole a couple of hundred dollars worth of cigarettes or we'd heist a car now and then and sell it to a chop shop one of Mars' relatives owned. Occasionally we'd get caught and do a little time, a couple of months here or there."
"We weren't pros by any means, and so we would have to get real jobs from time to time, and, of course, the jobs sucked. One night I was in here, having a few beers and this guy came in who I remembered from high school. Your brother would probably remember him. Anyway, he starts talking to the bartender. Remember old man Ryan?"
"Yeah," I said. "He served me my first drink - a Shirley Temple."
Lennin laughed and went on. "Well this guy was back in town, and he'd graduated from college with a degree in engineering, had a cushy job at Grumman, was getting married and had just bought a big house down by the bay. I overheard this, and I thought to myself, shit, I could go for some of that. But there was no way it was going to happen. And matter of fact, I was looking at the mural and thinking I was like that guy in the boat in the painting there, stuck forever outside the good life. In other words I was starting to see that the outlaw scene was going to get very old very soon."
"Now, I'm not crying in my beer, but let's face it, me and the group didn't have much help in life -- busted homes, alcoholic parents, head problems
were pretty fucked from word Go. It was easier for us to scare people into respecting us than it was ever going to be for them to just do it on their own. It seemed like everyone else was heading for the light and we were still down in the shadows munching crumbs. I wanted to be on the beach, so to speak. I wanted a home and a wife and kid and long quiet nights watching the tube and holidays. As for the other guys, I don't think they got it. Shit, if God would have let them, they'd still be muscling high school kids for pocket change."
"Since it was clear I wasn't going to get there by regular means, I decided what we needed was one big heist, one real job in order to get the cash necessary to live in the real world. After that, I'd part company with them and move on. So I spent a long time thinking about what kind of scam we could pull, but I was blank. We'd spent so many years nickel and diming, I couldn't get out of that head. Until, one night, we were sitting at that table right over there, drinking, and a ragged, hopped up Wolfey, eyes showing almost nothing but white, mentioned something, and I thought I felt the row boat move a few feet closer to shore."
"This old guy had just moved in on Wolfey's block. What is it, over there by Minerva, Alice Road? Anyway, this old guy, blind, in a wheel chair, moved in. Remember Willie Hart, the guy in high school with the plastic arm? Well, his younger sister, Maria, who, by the way, the Wolfeman was banging every once in a while back in his grandfather's shed in between hits of Zippoway, went to work for the old guy. She cleaned his house and would take him out for walks in his wheel chair and so forth."
"Maria told Wolfey that the old fart was super strange and although he knew English and could talk it, he spoke to himself in another language she thought was Spanish. Maria, if you remember her, was no genius, and for all she knew the guy could have been talking fucking Chinese. Anyway, she said he was kind of feeble in the head, because he had this chess set he would take out and play against himself. She asked him once if he was winning or losing, and he responded, 'Always losing. Always losing.'"
"What really caught her interest, though, were the pieces. She said they were beautiful, golden monsters. The guy didn't like to be disturbed in the middle of a game, but she had to ask him if they were real gold. He told her, 'Yes, solid gold. This set is very rare, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Very old - goes back to the 16th century.' The best part of Maria's story was that he kept the set in a drawer in his hutch - no lock."
"So we had a blind guy in a wheelchair with hundreds of thousands of dollars of gold without a lock. Of course, I made a plan to swipe it. I had Wolfe get Maria to tell him what time she walked the guy - Mr. Desnia was his name -- in the afternoon, so we could get a look at him. I thought about doing the job when they were out of the house, but in that neighborhood during daylight hours, I knew someone would see us. We drove by them slowly a couple of days later as she pushed him down the street."
"He was bent over in the chair, his bald head like a shelled peanut, looking thin and haggard. His hands shook slightly. He wore dark glasses, no doubt to cover his fucked up eyes, and a black, tight fitting get up like what a priest would wear but with no white collar. 'That's the guy with our gold,' I said after we were past them. 'A blind guy in a wheelchair?' said Mars. 'Jesus, he might as well just hand it over now.' We decided not to wait but to do the job the next night."
"The cops had our prints, so we went and stole some plastic gloves from the grocery store, you know, the kind you could pick a dime up with. We told Maria we'd cut her in if she kept her mouth shut and left the back door unlocked on her way out on the night of the job. She agreed, I think because she was in love with Wolfe, which will show you where her head was at. I warned the other guys, whatever they did, not to speak each other's names during the job. The plan was to get in there, cut the phone wire, put a gag over the old guy's mouth, and swipe the gold. Plain and simple, no one had to get hurt."
"The big night came and we spent the early part of it here, in The Tropics, building up our courage with shots of Jack. When it got to be about midnight, we set out in Mars' Pontiac. We parked on the next street over, snuck through the yard there and scaled this ten foot stockade fence into Desnia's backyard. We were all a little high, and climbing over was rough. I didn't bother bringing a flashlight, cause I figured if the guy was blind, we could just put the lights on, but I did bring a pillow case to carry the gold in and a crowbar in case Maria was wrong about the lock."
"Maria had left the back door open as planned. We sent Cho-cho in first, as usual. Then, one at a time, we entered into the kitchen. The lights were out there and it was perfectly quiet in the house. All I remember was hearing the wall clock ticking off the seconds. A light was shining in the next room over, the living room. I peeked around the corner and saw Desnia sitting in his wheelchair, a big blanket covering his legs and mid-section, dark glasses on. If he could see, he would have been looking straight at me, which was a little nerve wracking. To his left was the hutch."
"'Let's go,' I whispered."
"The second I spoke, he called out, 'Who's there? Maria?'"
"Cho-cho moved around behind him with a piece of duct tape for his mouth. Mars said to him, 'Take it easy and you won't get hurt.' Wolfe stood there looking confused, as if he had just come off his high. I got down on my haunches and had to open two drawers before I found the board and pieces. It struck me as odd that he didn't keep them in a box or a bag or something, but the entire board was set up inside the drawer. It took only a second to swipe every one of them up and toss them in the pillow case. I didn't bother with the board."
"I was just going to tell the others, 'Let's get out of here,' when Desnia reached up and pulled the tape off his mouth. Cho-cho tried to lean over and stop him, but the old man drove his fist straight up, connected with Cho-cho under the chin, and sent him sprawling backward into the corner of the room where he knocked over a lamp and fell on his back."
"With his other hand, the old man flung something at Wolfe that moved through the air so fast I could hardly see it. A split second later, Mike had his hand to the side of his head and there was a sharp piece of metal sticking out of it, blood running down across his face. He went over like a ton of shit. Me and Mars were in shock, neither of us moving, when Desnia flung off the blanket and pulled out this big fucking sword. I'm not shitting you, this sword was like something out of a movie. Then he leaped out of the chair. That's when Johnny decided it was time to book. Too late, though, the old guy jumped forward into a crouch, swung that sword around and took a slice out of Mars' leg like you wouldn't believe. I mean the blood just sort of fell out all over the place and from the lower thigh down was hanging on by a piece of gristle. He hit the deck and started howling like a banshee."
"Desnia wasn't done yet, though. Following the slash on Johnny, like a god damn dancer, he twirled around toward me and swung the sword again. Luckily, I had the crow bar and held it up in front of me at the last second. It deflected the blow but the blade still cut me on the left side of my chest. I don't know where it came from, just an automatic reaction, I swung the crow bar and took him out at the ankles. As he went down, I looked up and saw Cho-cho crawling out through an open window. I dropped the crowbar, grabbed the bag tight, ran across the room, and dove, head first right behind him."
"Man, I wasn't even on my feet before Desnia was sticking his bald head out the window, getting ready to leap through after us. We ran into the backyard, to a corner where there was a shed with a light over it, but there was that damn ten foot fence. My first thought was to try to jump it, but forget it, he was already there behind us. He would have just slashed our asses. We backed against the fence and got ready to brawl."
"He walked slowly up to us, with the blade at his side. In the light from over the shed, I could see he had lost his glasses, and I don't know how he could have swung that sword the way he did, because his eyes weren't just fucked up, he had none. No eyes, just two puckered little assholes in his head."
"When Desnia was no more than three feet away, Cho-cho held up the crucifix that hung around his neck, like in a vampire movie, to protect himself. The old guy laughed without hardly a sound. Then he lifted the sword slowly, brought it to Cho-cho's neck, and with a flick of the wrist just nicked him so he started to bleed. With that, Desnia dropped the sword and turned around. He took two steps away and his legs buckled. He went down like a sac of turnips. In the distance I could hear Johnny still screaming like mad, and above his racket the sound of the police siren. Cho-cho and I used the side of the shed to scrabble up over the fence, and we got away with the gold."
"Sounds crazy, right? The old man turning into fucking Zorro at the drop of a hat? But, I'm telling you it was serious. The Martian died that night on the old man's living room rug. The blade had sliced an artery and he bled out before the ambulance could get there. On top of that, the old man was found dead from a heart attack. But get this, Wolfey got away. While we were out in the backyard up against the fence, he came to, pulled the metal thing out of his head and split before the cops got there."
"We left Mars' car where it was and he took the rap for the whole caper. Maria kept her mouth shut. We all went into hiding, laying low for a while. I had the chess pieces stashed under a loose floorboard in my mother's bedroom. What was good was that I was pretty sure no one else even knew Desnia had had them to be stolen. I thought if we just chilled for a while, I could fence them and we'd be set. Still, I was spooked by what had happened, Johnny's death and the way it went down. I could feel something wasn't right."
"About two months after the heist, I got a call at like three in the morning from Cho-cho. He said he knew he wasn't supposed to call but he couldn't take it anymore. He was having these dreams that scared him so much he couldn't sleep. I asked him what he was dreaming about and he just said, 'Really evil shit.' A month after that, I heard from someone that he'd finished the job they started in Brooklyn when he was a kid. Yeah, he'd hung himself in his mother's attic."
"The year wasn't out before both Maria and Wolfe went down too. I'd heard that he'd taken to staying in his grandfather's shed all the time. She was joining him now on a regular basis, and they had begun taking pills, ludes and darvon, and drinking while huffing the Zippoway, and that just ate what little there was of their brains, melted that swiss cheese like acid one night. I should have been sadder at losing all my friends, but instead I was just scared to death and started living the clean life, laying off the booze and dope and getting to my crappy job at the metal shop every day on time. I never even went to Cho-cho's funeral."
"After that year ended, I let another six months go by before I started looking around for a fence. I knew it would have to be somebody high class, who dealt in antiques but was willing to look the other way when it came to how you acquired what you were selling. I did some studying up on the way it worked and spoke to a few connections. Eventually, I got the phone number of a guy in New York and the green light to give him a call. Nothing in person until he checked out you and the goods you claimed to have."
"I got the pieces out from under the floor boards and really looked at them for the first time. The bigger pieces were about four inches tall, and the smaller ones, which I guess were pawns -- I don't know gots about chess -- were three inches. They definitely seemed to be made of solid gold. Half of them were figures of monsters, each one different, the work on them really detailed. The other half, I don't know what they were, but I recognized one as being Christ. The smaller ones looked like angels. I couldn't make heads or tails of it."
"The day finally came when I was supposed to call the guy. I did, from the pay phone in the back of Phil's barber shop. I was nervous, you know, sweating how much I was gonna get and still scared at all the ill stuff that had gone down. Well, the phone rings, a guy answers, he tells me, 'No names. Describe what you have.' So I told him, 'Gold chess set from the 16th century.' But the minute I started describing the individual pieces, the line went dead. That was it. At first I thought it was just a bad connection, or I needed more change. I called back, but no one would pick up."
"Then shit started to really slide. Dreams like Cho-cho described, and I took to drinking again, but drinking in a way I never did before. I lost my job, and on top of it all my mother got the cancer. I was reeling and it took me a while, like two years, to get it together to deal with the damn gold again. Just by luck, I guess, I ran into a guy who knew this guy, a Dominican, who fenced stuff from break-ins out in the Hamptons. I met him one winter afternoon over in the parking lot at Jones Beach. Thinking it might be a set up, I only took three pieces with me."
"The wind was blowing like a mother fucker that day. It was like a sand storm even in the parking lot. The guy was there when I pulled up, sitting in a shiny black Cadillac. We got out of the cars. He was short, dark skinned, wore sunglasses and a rain coat. We shook hands, and he asked to see what I had. I took two of the pieces out and held them up for him to see. He took one look at them and said, 'Isiaso,' and then made a face like I was holding a couple of turds. The guy didn't say anything else, he just turned around, got in his car and drove away."
"And that's the way it went in trying to fence them. I'd give it a shot, be turned down and then get swamped in a lot of bad circumstance. Then I just wanted to unload them and take whatever I could get. Even this guy, Bowes, who bought gold teeth down on Canal Street in the city wouldn't touch them. He called them La Ventoja del Demonio, and threatened to call the cops if I didn't leave his shop. It wasn't until after my mother passed away that I decided to try to find out about them."
"Imagine me, Bobby Lennin, failer of classes and king of detention, in the library. I don't think I'd ever been in the fucking place in my life. But I started there, and you know what? I discovered I wasn't as stupid as I looked. There was some real pleasure in researching them. It was the only thing that offset the depression of drinking. In the meantime, old man Ryan took pity on me and gave me a job bartending here at The Tropics. I barely managed to keep myself from getting too screwed up until he went home in the evening, so as to keep the job."
"Yeah, I scoured the library, got interlibrary loans, all that good stuff, and I started to crack the story on the chess set. Then, when the internet came in, I got with that too, and over a period of long years, I put it together. The set was known as The Demon's Advantage. Scholars talked about it like it was more a legend than anything that actually existed. It was supposedly crafted by this goldsmith in Italy, Dario Foresso, in 1533, commissioned by a strange cat who went by the name of Isiaso. The dude had no last name as far as anyone could tell."
"Anyway, this Isiaso was from Hispanola, now The Dominican Republic. In 1503, I think it was Pope Julius III, declared Santo Domingo an official city of Christendom. It was the jumping off place for European explorers who were headed to South and North America. Isiaso was born the year the Pope gave the two fingered salute to the city. Our boy's father was Spanish, an attaché the crown, there to oversee the money to be spent on expeditions. You know, basically an accountant. But his mother was a native, and, here's where it gets creepy, said to be from a long line of sorcerers. She was an adept of the island magic. Isiaso, who was supposed to be like a genius kid, learned the ways of both parents."
"When he's in his twenties, his old man ships him out to Rome to finish his education. He goes to the university and studies with the great philosophers and theologists of the time. It was during these years that he comes to see the battle between good and evil in terms of chess - the dark versus the light, etc, with the advantage going back and forth. Strategy was part of it and mathematics along with faith, but, to tell you the truth, I never really completely understood what he was supposed to be getting at."
"Somehow Isiaso gains wealth and power very quickly. Rises to the top of the heap. No one can figure out how he came by his wealth and those who cross him meet with weird and ugly deaths. Anyway, he has the funds to get Foresso to undertake the set. And Foresso is no slouch - an apprentice to Benvenuto Celini, greatest goldsmith who ever lived. 'Many thought Foresso was his master's equal,' was how one book put it."
"OK, you with me? Enter Pope Paul III, Julian's successor. He's this big patron of the arts. Michelangelo worked for him at one time. He hears tell of this incredible chess set being created by Foresso and goes to the guy's studio and checks it out. Later, he lets it be known to his underlings that he wants the chess set for himself. He sends someone to see Isiaso, and the guy tells him the Pope wants to buy it off him. Isiaso has other plans. He knows the Vatican's going to be funding a university in Santo Domingo, and he tells him what he wants in exchange is passage home and a professor job at the university. I got the idea from my reading that it might have been difficult for him to get the job because he was half-native."
"He's surprised when the Pope's go-between says, 'Cool, we'll cut the deal.' What he doesn't know is that the Vatican has had their eye on him as a trouble maker, and they want him out of Rome anyway. On the voyage home, the ship drops anchor for a day off a small, uninhabited island. Isiaso is asked if he would like to go ashore and witness a true paradise on earth. Being a curious guy, he says yes. He and a sailor go to the island in a row boat. They explore the place, but in the middle of them looking around, Isiaso notices all of a sudden that he's alone. When he makes it back to the beach, he sees the other guy in the row boat heading back to the ship."
"The ship pulls up anchor and splits, stranding him there. It was the plan all along. They wanted him out of Rome, but they were too afraid of his supposed magic to come right out and boot his ass. So they got the chess set and got rid of him, and the legend has it that he put a curse on the chess set. Legend also has it that if you play the demon side of the board, you can never lose. You could play fucking Gary Kasporov and not lose. But at the same time, the person who owns it is doomed, cursed, screwed, blued and tattooed, and you can't give it away, you can't throw it away. Believe me, I've tried and it's a shit storm of misery and the dreams just get too intense. The only way to unload it is to have it stolen from you, and in the process blood must be drawn. Die with it in your possession, and you ain't going to be seeing paradise."
"Now," said Lennin, "what do you think of that? I swear on my mother's grave that it's all completely true." He lifted the bottle and filled each of our glasses. "And the biggest kicker of all is that I dug all this up on my own. Man, I could have gotten through high school and college, for Christ sake."
"So, you believe in the curse?" I asked.
"I'm not gonna bore you with how many times I tried to dump the pieces," he said.
"You don't seem cursed, though," I said.
"Well, there's cursed and then there's cursed. Look at me. I'm a wreck. My liver is shot. I've been in and out of the hospital five times in the last year. They told me if I don't quit drinking, I'm gonna die very soon."
"What about some kind of addiction center where they can treat you?" I asked.
"I've tried it," he said. "I just can't stop. It's my part of the curse. I'm in here everyday, throwing back the booze, it doesn't matter what kind it is, and staring at that mural, a castaway like Isiaso. It doesn't make any sense, but I swear that's his hand in the picture, down in the corner by the bathroom. All my attempts at relationships went south, all my plans to better myself dried up and blew away. I'm slowly killing myself. You see," he said, lifting his shirt to show me his sagging chest, "the scar is right here, over my heart, and my heart is poisoned."
"I don't know what to say," I told him. "You were always kind to me when I was a kid."
"Thanks," he said. "Maybe if I can unload the set eventually that'll be at least one thing on the scale in my favor." He got up then and went behind the bar. When he came back, he was carrying a chess board and on it were the golden pieces. He laid it down on the table between us.
"Man, they're beautiful," I told him.
"Listen, you gotta get going home now," he said, the same as he had so many years ago. "I had a couple of rough looking characters in here the other day, and I showed them the set, told them how much it was worth and that I kept it behind the bar all the time. It's getting past midnight, and there's a chance they'll show up. I know the old man let Maria see it and told her about it for the same reason I've been flaunting it lately. Maybe when they come for it, I'll get some of the old juice back like Desnia did, and we'll have a good brawl."
I stood up, a little wobbly from the bottle of VO we'd finished. "There's no other way?" I asked.
He shook his head.
I turned and took in the mural one last time, because I knew I would never come back again. Bobby looked it over too.
"You know," he said, "I bet you always thought that guy in the boat was trying to get to the island, right?"
"Yeah," I said.
"The truth is, he's been trying to escape all these years. Those women look like women to you, but count 'em, there are as many as pieces in a chess set."
"I hope he makes it," I said, and then reached out and shook his hand.
Leaving The Tropics behind, I stepped onto the sidewalk and stood there for a minute to get my bearings. The night was cold, and I realized autumn was only a week away. I turned my collar up and walked along, searching my mind, without success, for the warmth from that painted vision of paradise. Instead, all I could think of was my old man, sitting in his recliner, smiling like the Buddha, while the world he once knew slowly disintegrated. I turned off Higbee onto my block and was nearly home, when from somewhere away in the distance, I heard a gun shot.