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Tough Luckby Jason Starr
WHEN THE BIG Italian-looking guy in the pin-striped suit came into Vincent's Fish Market on Flatbush Avenue and Avenue J, Mickey Prada put down the copy of the Daily News he'd been reading and said, "The usual, right?"
"You got it, kid," the big guy said, smiling.
As Mickey filled the order--a pound of cooked shrimp and a small container of cocktail sauce--the guy took out a piece of paper and held it up for Mickey to see.
"Can you believe this shit?" the guy said. "I gotta go into fuckin' court today."
The paper had a lot of writing on it, but all Mickey saw before the guy put it away were the big letters OC written in red in the corner.
"I can't believe they waste my time with this shit," the guy went on, shaking his head. "But I'll get off. I always do."
Mickey rang up the order. After he gave the guy his change from a fifty, the guy stuck out his hand and said, "By the way, name's Angelo. Angelo Santoro."
Mickey wiped his hand clean on his dirty white apron and shook Angelo's big hand.
"Mickey. Mickey Prada."
THAT NIGHT, MICKEY was at his friend Chris's, watching the Islanders-Flyers game on the new color set in Chris's bedroom. During a commercial, Mickey told Chris about Angelo Santoro and the court papers.
"Don't fuck with that guy, whatever you do," Chris said.
"What do you mean?" Mickey asked.
"OC, dickhead. You know what OC stands for, don't you?"
Mickey shook his head.
"Organized crime, moron. Your friend Angelo's a wiseguy."
"Come on," Mickey said.
"Trust me," Chris said. "I know what I'm talking about."
The next time Angelo came into the fish store, a couple of days later, Mickey took a closer look at him. It was hard to tell how old Angelo was because his hair was jet-black, probably colored with Brylcreem, but he looked forty, or maybe a couple of years older. And he definitely had a Mafia way about him. It wasn't just the slicked-back hair and the snazzy clothes--it was the way he acted, always half-smiling and walking with a strut.
Mickey was nicer than usual to Angelo--smiling, asking him how his day was, adding some extra shrimp to his container. Angelo was friendly too, talking about the election next month, predicting that Reagan would kick Mondale's ass.
At the register, while Mickey was ringing up the order, Angelo said, "So you're a football fan, huh, kid?"
"Yeah," Mickey said. "How'd you know?"
"Heard you talking the other day with the black kid who works here. So you think the Jets're gonna do it this year?"
"Hope so," Mickey said.
"It'll be tough," Angelo said, "the way the Fish're playing--seven and oh--but that O'Brien kid looks pretty good out there, and they got that great D. I got season tix you know."
"Really?" Mickey said.
"Yeah, had 'em since sixty-eight."
"You saw the Jets the year they won the Super Bowl?"
"Was at every game, including the big one."
"You were there?"
"January 12, 1969. The Orange Bowl, Miami, Florida. Fifth row, forty-yard line."
"Holy shit," Mickey said.
"Shoulda seen Namath that day, kid, hookin' up with Maynard and Sauer." Angelo pretended to throw a football. "Too bad his fuckin' knees went or he'd still be QBin'. Hey, I don't know if you're interested, but I can't use my tickets for the Jets-Giants game in December. If you wanna use 'em, you can."
"I don't know," Mickey said. "I mean I'd love to go, but I don't think I can afford it."
"Afford? Who said anything about afford? I'm giving you the tickets." Angelo grinned.
"That's okay," Mickey said. "I mean you don't have to do that."
"Hey, don't insult me," Angelo said, suddenly serious. "I said I want to give you the tickets, and I'm giving you the tickets. It's the least I could do for my favorite fish man."
"Okay," Mickey said. "I mean if you really wanna do that."
Angelo smiled widely again. "The game's not till December--I'm sure I'll see you a lot before then. I'll bring the tickets in with me one of these days."
"Thanks," Mickey said.
"You take it easy, now," Angelo said.
THE FOLLOWING MONDAY afternoon Mickey was working at the countertop behind the fish stands, cutting flounder fillets. After he scraped off the scales, he made one short cut under the front fin, just behind the gills, then a longer cut down to the tail. He did the same thing to the other side of the fish, then he scooped out the carcass, pushed the fillets off to the side, and started on the next one.
As Mickey was cutting flounder, Mrs. Ruiz came into the store.
"How are you today, Mrs. Ruiz?"
"Very good, Mickey."
"What can I get for you?"
"You got mussels?"
Mickey rolled up the sleeve on his right arm, flexed his biceps, and said, "Yep."
When Mrs. Ruiz left the store with her usual two pounds of mussels and two pounds of clams for her paella, Charlie came in from the back, holding a big boom box up on his shoulder.
"Turn that shit off," Mickey said.
"Come on," Charlie said, "even white people like this music."
"I'm serious," Mickey said.
Charlie lowered the volume.
"I forgot--you Italian," Charlie said. "You like that John Travolta, Bee Gees shit. On weekends you probably dress up like Deney Terrio and start crankin' the Donna Summer. Come on, it's the truth. You can't hide it."
Mickey couldn't help smiling as Charlie sang along, "And don't ever come down . . . Freebase!"
Charlie continued to sing as Mickey cut into another flounder.
"Mickey Prada, how's it going?"
Mickey turned around and saw Angelo standing there on the other side of the fish stands, wearing one of his pin-striped suits. Angelo hadn't been to the fish store in about a week, and Mickey was surprised Angelo remembered his name.
"How's it goin'?" Mickey said. "Hey, Angelo, this is Charlie."
Charlie and Angelo said hi to each other, then Charlie lowered the music and went to help another customer who'd just come in.
"You know why I'm here," Angelo said to Mickey.
"Coming right up," Mickey said.
As Mickey was putting the cooked shrimp into a one-pound container, Angelo said, "Prada. That's not Sicilian, is it?"
"Nah, my grandfather was from up north," Mickey said.
"Somewhere around there."
"Eh, what's the difference?" Angelo said. "North, south, you're still from the old country, that's what counts. So tell me something else, kid. What do you want to do with your life?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean here you are, working at a fish store. You go to school?"
"I'm taking a year off, then I'm gonna go to college at Baruch in the city."
"College?" Angelo said like he'd never heard the word before. "What're you gonna learn there?"
"I want to be an accountant," Mickey said.
"Accountant?" Angelo said. "You're not gonna become an IRS agent, are you?"
Mickey laughed. "Nah, I'm just gonna get a job for a company. You know, Ernst and Young or someplace like that."
"Yeah, that sounds good," Angelo said, "I guess. But if you're ever lookin' for something else to do, you come talk to me, all right? If you're good with numbers I can set you up at something, you'll make a good living for yourself. You know anything about numbers?"
"You mean betting numbers?" Mickey said.
"I know a little," Mickey said. "I mean I don't play the numbers myself but--"
"That's okay," Angelo said, "better you don't. The odds of hitting the number are what, a thousand-somethin' to one? I got a better chance of dying today than I got of hitting the number. I'm talking about the other side of the business. You're good with math, you can work on the odds, that kind of thing, right?"
"Thanks," Mickey said. "But I think I'll probably just keep working here . . . until I start school again."
"Hey, it's up to you," Angelo said. "You do whatever you want to do. I'm just saying you're a good kid--I think you're gonna go places. I don't think you need school to get there, neither. I think you can get there right now if you wanted to. But you think about it, you let me know, okay?"
"I will," Mickey said.
Mickey weighed Angelo's shrimp then closed the container. At the register, Angelo said, "So who do you like in the game tonight?"
"The game?" Mickey said.
"Monday Night Football."
"Oh, the Seahawks," Mickey said.
"The Seahawks?" Angelo said. "Come on, Dan Fouts's got the best arm in football. The Chargers are a fuckin' lock tonight."
"I don't know," Mickey said. "The 'Hawks beat up the Chargers last time pretty good, and now they're getting a point. You gotta go with the 'Hawks."
"Oh, so you like to bet on football, huh?" Angelo said, smiling.
"I just bet a few dollars with a bookie every once in a while," Mickey said. "It's no big deal."
"You gotta be careful," Angelo said. "Don't get me wrong--I like a little action every now and then myself, but you don't wanna get in too deep. Guys I know lose their families, lose everything from gambling. One guy I know, old friend of mine, liked playing the numbers. Bet a few bucks a week, thought, What's the worst that could happen? Year later he's broke, his wife and kids're gone, he has nothing."
"That won't happen to me," Mickey said.
Angelo stared at Mickey for a few seconds, then said, "You're a smart kid, you know that? Got a good head on your shoulders is what I mean. Do me a favor, my bookie's out of town this week. Can you put in a little action for me tonight too?"
Mickey hesitated then he said, "I usually don't put in other people's bets. No offense but--"
"But in my case you'll make an exception, right?" Angelo smiled.
"Sure," Mickey said. "I mean I don't see why not. What do you want?"
"What'd you say the line was?"
"San Diego minus one."
"What're they, giving money tonight? Gimme ten times Chargers."
"That's fifty dollars," Mickey said.
"I know what it is," Angelo said. "It's not a problem, is it?"
"I guess not," Mickey said. "I mean I usually don't bet that much. . . ."
"Like I said, I'd call my own bookie but he's away this week on vacation--West Palm Beach. So you'll put the bet in for me, right? Just as a favor."
Mickey hesitated, remembering what Chris told him about not getting involved with the mob, but he couldn't think of a way to say no. Besides, this wasn't really getting involved.
"Yeah, sure," he said. "No problem."
"Good," Angelo said.
"But the thing is," Mickey said, "I don't know what my bookie's line is. I mean, the Chargers might be laying more than one point or--"
"It don't matter," Angelo said, smiling. "I trust you, kid."
ABOUT HALF AN hour before kickoff, Mickey called his bookie and put in Angelo's bet. The line had drifted to one and a half points, but it didn't matter because the Seahawks crushed the Chargers 24-zip. Mickey won his own "five time," or twenty-five-dollar bet, but Angelo lost fifty-five bucks--fifty for the bet and five for the bookie's vig.
When Angelo came into the store the next day, he didn't mention football. He just bullshitted with Mickey about the cold weather in New York and how he wanted to move to Miami someday.
Ringing up Angelo's order, Mickey said, "So, did you see the game last night?" hoping Angelo would hand over the fifty-five bucks.
"Yeah, I saw it," Angelo said. "Tough loss, huh, kid?" Then he said, "So long," and left the store with his shrimp.
AT AROUND NOON on Wednesday Angelo came into the fish store, wearing a black sweater, black pants, and shiny black shoes.
"Mickey Prada," he said, smiling. "How's my favorite fish man?"
As Mickey filled Angelo's order, Angelo talked about how they should put Reagan's picture on the dollar bill someday and how the city needed to get Koch out of office. He didn't mention anything about football until right before he left when he said, "Don't forget, I'm giving you those Jets-Giants tickets, kid."
Angelo didn't come to the store on Thursday, but he showed up on Friday at his usual time. After he ordered his pound of cooked shrimp, he said to Mickey, "Oh, I meant to ask you, you got the lines on Sunday's games?"
"I didn't call yet," Mickey said, hoping Angelo wouldn't want to bet again.
"Yeah? Well, when you do call, put this in for me." Angelo slid a folded-up piece of paper across the counter.
"I was gonna say something to you about that," Mickey said. "I need to pay off my bookie before I can put in any more action for you."
"But the Chargers lost," Angelo said.
"I know," Mickey said.
"So what're you telling me?" Angelo said. "You saying you won't give me a chance to get even?"
"It's not me," Mickey said.
"Look, I don't have time for a headache right now, all right?" Angelo said. "I'm in the middle of taking care of some trouble with this landscaping company. They moved in on our turf and now I have to go and straighten things out. So you can imagine I got more important shit on my mind than some fucking fifty-dollar football bet. So just be a good kid and put this action in for me before you start to get me upset."
Mickey didn't look at the paper until Angelo was gone. Angelo had written down bets for four different games. All together the new bets came to $138.
Charlie, who had been working at the other end of the store, came over to Mickey and said, "What was that all about?"
"Nothing," Mickey said, and he walked through the doors to the back of the store to be alone.
Mickey didn't know what to do. He didn't want to put in any more action for Angelo, but he didn't want to get stuck for the money, either. If he didn't place the bets and the teams won, Angelo would expect his winnings, and Mickey didn't want to have to pay him out of his own pocket.
Finally, Mickey decided to put the bets in. It was only $138 and Angelo was probably good for it.
On Sunday, Mickey rooted for Angelo's teams, but it didn't help. Only one of Angelo's teams won, and he now owed a total of $140.
Monday afternoon, Angelo came into the store while Charlie was on his lunch break, and there were no other customers around. He told Mickey a story about a friend of his, "another made guy," but he didn't mention anything about the bets. Then, when Mickey was checking out Angelo at the register, Angelo said, "Jesus, I almost forgot," and he reached into the inside pocket of his suit jacket, and Mickey saw the handle of a black handgun sticking out. From behind the gun Angelo removed a folded-up piece of paper.
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