“Are you Heller? Albert Jackson Heller?”
I was used to being questioned by the police. If it wasn’t for the constant truancy, fighting, or alleged petty crimes, then it was for some car that had gone missing somewhere within the city limits. But I learned how not to answer them.
“You know who I am, Officer Bolton, as would anyone who’s been on the force more than a week. What about it?” I was already bored with the conversation.
He pointed to the suit next to him. “This is Detective Robinson.”
I smiled, and thought, Yeah. Like no one would know he’s a cop. “How may I be of assistance to two of this fair city’s finest?”
The detective wasted no time setting the tone of the meeting. “Now that we’ve established who the fuck you are, we can either have a friendly chat here and now, or we can have a not-so-friendly chat in my office. Choose wisely, Heller.”
When will this shit end? But I already knew the answer. I took a swig of my beer and put it down, lit another Camel, and sat on top of the splintered, weather-beaten, wood picnic table. It was as worn as my jeans. This table looks and feels like my life.
Officer Bolton slapped the cigarette out of my mouth with his left hand, and then smashed my beer bottle with his baton and said, “You shouldn’t be smoking, asshole. It’s bad for your health. And the legal age for consuming alcohol is twenty-one. You’re only eighteen. I should run you in for underage drinking.” But you won’t, Bolton, because you’ve never done it before. Why are you playing the hard-ass cop?
Detective Robinson casually lit up a Lucky Strike, and said, “Now, where were we, Heller?” and paused. “Ah yes, I remember. You were deciding where you wanted to chat.” He opened his hands in a questioning manner, and cocked his head like the RCA dog.
“Well, it is Saturday, and movie night,” I said. Those were the days when twice a month, during the summer—weather permitting—the city playgrounds would show an open-air movie on a large screen. The Recreation Department reasoned it was a good way to keep us street urchins occupied, so we wouldn’t be roaming the streets looking for targets of opportunity. It worked—sort of. Most of the older kids—like me—took advantage of the opportunity to find a quiet spot behind the rec building to get drunk, or laid, or both.
“And they’re going to be showing Bullitt in about an hour. How appropriate. Don’t you think so, officers?” Without looking at him, Detective Robinson grabbed Officer Bolton’s right arm with his left hand. Thank God for restraint.
Detective Robinson decided to play the good cop. “Why don’t you take a seat on the bench, on the opposite side. I’ll just sit on this side, and then we can have that friendly chat and get you back in time for the movie.”
He added, “You don’t want to miss it, Heller. I’ve seen that flick. It’s a real thriller.”
The detective turned his head toward Officer Bolton. “Officer Bolton. Would you be good enough to stand back a few feet?”
“And holster your baton,” I chimed in.
“And holster your baton, officer. No need for violence.” The detective looked at me. “Right, Heller?” Detective Robinson sat, and grabbed a beer from my six-pack and handed it to me, and then took one for himself. “You don’t mind if I help myself? I could use a cold one after today.”
“Not at all, Detective,” I said with a smirk. “But why this sudden act of generosity?”
“Well, although I agree with Officer Bolton’s assessment of the law, he was a bit hasty in his reaction. And I just want you to be more…at ease.”
“Thanks, Detective. And are you going to offer one to Officer Bolton?”
“No. He’s on duty.”
“And you’re not?” I asked, laughing.
“I am. But rank has its privileges,” he said, not cracking a smile. “Smoke if you want. I will.”
I looked at Officer Bolton and, with a shit-eating grin, said, “Only if Officer Bolton approves.”
Officer Bolton just looked straight ahead, and then tapped his baton with his fingertips.
“I’ll take that as a ‘yes.’” I lit up another cigarette. There was an awkward moment of silence and stares all around. So, I took the initiative. “What’s on your mind, Detective?”
“Did you read today’s newspaper?”
“I didn’t, Detective. I was too busy getting my affairs in order before I leave for college.”
“That’s right! I heard you were accepted at some fancy Ivy League school, Heller. Part of the arrangement your Jew lawyer made with the judge. Congratulations.”
I felt slighted. Where were the congratulations when I graduated from high school, or the numerous stints in reform school?
I started stealing cars when I was sixteen, but was treated as a juvi when caught. That summer I boosted another one. Of course I was caught. The difference was that I was now eighteen, and would be treated as an adult.
My attorney struck a deal with the judge—the very same one who had dealt with me as a juvenile: If I graduated from a four-year college, or served honorably for four years in the military, my sealed record would be expunged. It was either that or four years in the county prison. I briefly thought about taking the prison option. It was, after all, the height of the Vietnam War, and I didn’t have a death wish. But the prospect of sharing a cell for four years with ‘Big Bob’ wasn’t appealing either. I chose college, and was accepted because of my attorney’s influence. He never mentioned my youthful indiscretions.
“That’s correct, Detective. And thank you for your well wishes. But there’s no need to bring my attorney’s religion into this.”
“What-the fuck-ever, Heller. You belong behind bars. But the judge is still the judge.” He took a long swig of his beer, finishing off the bottle, and then finished his smoke. “Don’t mind if I do,” and helped himself to another beer.
“Want one of my smokes, too, Detective?” I asked.
He squared his look on me, and said, “You really should keep your fucking mouth shut, Heller, other than when you’re answering my questions. Do I need to reintroduce you to Officer Bolton?” Officer Bolton wrapped his right hand around the handle of the baton, and took two steps forward.
I looked up at Officer Bolton, and he looked at me. Detective Robinson took a few gulps of his beer, and lit yet another cigarette. “No. I’m good. Please continue, Detective. What was in The Daily Rag that caught your attention?”
“Funny you should ask. It seems that the Dutch Restaurant burned to the ground last night.”
“Sorry to hear that,” I said. “Fine eating establishment.”
“What do you know about it?”
“The fire, or the dining experience at the Dutch Restaurant?
“The fire, Heller. What do you know about it?
“I don’t know shit about it. And why would you ask me about a fire, Detective?”
“Because I understand, Heller, that you worked there briefly—for about two weeks, if I’m correct—and were fired for stealing money two days ago. Now that didn’t surprise me.”
“Which part, Detective?”
“Which part didn’t surprise you? My getting fired, or allegedly stealing the money? Which part?”
The detective was now clearly agitated. “Just answer the question, Heller. Did you work there or not, and were you fired for stealing money?”
It sounded more like a statement of fact, than a question. But for the sake of the conversation, I answered, “You wouldn’t ask any question you didn’t already know the answer to. But yeah, I worked there, Detective. I was just trying to earn some extra cash before going to college.”
“What? Your grandfather isn’t paying you well enough?” My grandfather did pay me well enough. My best friend Mikey and I had worked for my Russian-born, bookie grandfather since we were ten years old. We became his collection agency at sixteen.
I took the restaurant job to appease the judge and my parents, and they knew it. I made more in one day with my grandfather than I did in two weeks at that lousy restaurant. They probably knew that, too.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. As I said, I was just trying to put aside a few more bucks for school.”
“Why would you need the extra money, Heller? I thought the college was giving you a free ride—hardship case and all.”
A hardship case I am. But money was what the college was thinking of. “They are, but it doesn’t include money for beer, cigarettes, and whores.”
The detective just shook his head in disbelief. Then, he continued: “Is that why you stole the money?”
“I didn’t steal shit. What’s your beef?”
“My beef is that you were fired, for allegedly stealing money, and that looks like a motive for you to torch the place.”
“Fuck you, Detective!” Surprisingly, the detective didn’t react. I fully expected Officer Goon to rap me across the mouth with his stick. But he didn’t. So I continued. “I was a busboy and the waitresses were supposed to split their tips with me. All of them did, except one bitch who decided she wasn’t going to play by the same rules as the others. I complained to the manager, but he just laughed and said, ‘Suck it up, convict!’”
“And that’s when you stole the money?”
“I already told you, Detective, I stole nothing. Take the shit out of your ears.”
He leaned into me. “One more smart-ass remark like that, Heller, and I’m going to have Officer Bolton rip off your head. Then, I’m going to take the shit from my ears and shove it down your neck!”
It wouldn’t have been the first time someone tried to take off my head. And I have over a dozen stitches on the left side of my skull to prove it. That was the result of a baseball bat wielded by a deadbeat customer I was trying to collect from.
We glared at each other for a few moments. Then he asked, matter-of-factly, “So why would they fire you if you didn’t steal the money?”
“It was my last night. I asked the waitress in question, again, for the money she owed me for the past two weeks. I figured it was about a hundred bucks or so. The bitch just walked away. So at the end of the evening, I went to her tip jar and took what was in it. I just took what was rightfully mine, Detective. Simple as that.”
“And how much was that?”
“Fifty bucks. That’s it. A lousy fifty dollars. That’s all she had.”
“What happened then?”
“She saw me take the money and told me to put it back. I told her to go fuck herself—which, given her looks, was probably the only way she was going to get any.” Officer Bolton turned away. He strained not to laugh. Detective Robinson lowered his head. But I saw him crack an ever-so-slight smile.
“Then, she ratted me out to the manager. He came over and told me to give him the money. I told him the same thing I told her. He said he was going to call the cops, and that I shouldn’t go anywhere.”
“Did you wait?”
“The police, dipshit. Did you wait for the police?”
“Yes, I did. I poured myself a cup of coffee, sat down and ate a ham sandwich I made, and then had a piece of apple pie for dessert while I waited for the police.”
I paused, expecting a comment. None came.
“What the fuck did you think I did, Detective? I split. So, are you here to arrest me for taking what was mine?”
“No. I don’t give a shit about the money, Heller. But I do give a shit about the fire, and your possible involvement.”
“I had nothing to do with the fire! The place was a fire trap. Everyone knew it. I’m amazed it didn’t burn down long ago. Why don’t you question the owner about how the fire started?”
“Why would I do that?”
“Because business has been slow for years. Everyone knew that, too. Maybe he lit it up to get the insurance money.”
“That crossed our minds, and the investigation is still ongoing. But given your rap sheet—and the firing—you seemed a likely suspect.”
“Yeah,” I said, and sighed, “it’s always my fault.” When will this shit end? “No matter what happens in or around the city, you guys eye me. It’s true—I wouldn’t have pissed on the fire to put it out. And had I known about it, I probably would have used the money I took from that shit hole to buy hotdogs and marshmallows, and had a good ol’-fashioned cookout. But I had nothing to do with it. NOTHING!”
“Excuse me while I wipe the tears from my eyes, Heller. You always bring this shit down on yourself with your criminal behavior. And just for the record—where were you last night?”
“I was playing cards with my grandfather right here at the playground. Go ask him.”
The detective rolled his eyes. “And I’m sure he’ll tell me the truth.” He glanced over his shoulder at Officer Bolton, then looked back at me. “You know,” he said with a big grin, “I think it’s time you took a ride with us,” and winked.
A ‘ride’ didn’t necessarily mean downtown to police headquarters. Many times it meant you were going to be taken to an isolated location, and if the police didn’t get the right answers, you were beaten to within an inch of your life. Jail was usually safer. The phrase ‘police brutality,’ wasn’t yet part of the lexicon—at least not when referring to what happened to guys like me. It was just considered: “restraining an uncooperative detainee.”
“Officer Bolton. Place Heller under arrest for the arson of the Dutch Restaurant.”
Then suddenly, out of nowhere, as the playground moved from dusk to dark, there he was—my grandfather, right on cue. The man always had impeccable timing.
He strode forward with three of his associates in tow—the same three men he had played cards with for as long as I can remember. “What’s going on officers?” he said, in his now-faint Russian accent.
Detective Robinson snapped back, “None of your business, pops.”
“Everything that happens around here is my business, Detective,” my grandfather responded coolly.
The detective turned toward the officer. “Officer Bolton. Get on with it!”
My grandfather and his associates moved between me and Officer Bolton.
As a young man, my grandfather had been a bare-knuckled prize fighter. He stood six-three. Even in his seventies he still had an athletic build, and no one challenged him. He was his own sole authority, and he was the king. “You’re not taking my grandson anywhere, gentlemen.”
I smiled inwardly. At least my grandfather loves me. Then, again, he always did protect his investments.
“Step back, old man,” said Detective Robinson, “or I’ll have you arrested for interfering with a police officer’s official duties.”
“That won’t happen, Detective. Do you know who I am?”
“Yeah. You’re Solomon Jackson, the alleged bookie king of my city. So what?”
“How long have you been on the force, Detective?”
“About a year. What about it?”
“And you, Officer?”
“Fifteen years. You know that, Sol. And we don’t want any trouble here. Just step aside. Please?”
“You’re pretty close to retirement, Bolton. Is that right?”
“Yeah. I have five more years and then I intend to retire.”
“Congratulations. You’ve served this city well. But if either of you ever hope to see your retirement, I suggest you step aside.”
Detective Robinson shouted, “Bolton. Call for backup.”
“Stay where you are, Bolton!” commanded my grandfather. And then he turned toward the detective. “And what exactly do you think backup will do, Detective?”
“They’ll haul all of your criminal asses to jail.”
“If you truly know who I am, Detective, then you must know that will never happen either.”
“And why is that, you commie bastard?”
My grandfather showed no reaction to that comment. Instead, he explained in a measured tone, “Because half of the force does business with me,” and turned toward Officer Bolton, “just as you do, Bolton, as do most of the judges. And the other half protects me. That’s why, Detective. Now, I’m willing to forget this…unfortunate incident,” and again turned to Officer Bolton, “and that tidy sum of money you owe me, Bolton. Go find the real culprit of that tragic fire, and leave Jaks alone.”
Without another word, my grandfather put his right arm around me. “Come, Jackson, the movie is about to start. I understand it’s about a policeman just doing his best to perform his duties. How appropriate.”
As we were walking away, my grandfather stopped and turned toward both Detective Robinson and Officer Bolton—who just stood there looking like two kids after they had been dressed down by the principal—and calmly proclaimed to the world: “And if either of you ever lay a hand on my grandson, or his friends, again, I will have them cut off and shoved up your asses, and the real police will find you floating facedown in the river. You will never see your retirement…gentlemen…except in Hell.”
I wonder who he’d designate for that job?
And then, as a goodwill gesture, he said, “You can take the rest of the beer, Detective,” and finally smiled.
Officer Bolton and Detective Robinson left as quietly as they arrived. They didn’t take the beer. I went back and finished it—along with another six-pack—while I watched the movie. Detective Robinson was right. It was a real thriller.
Later that night, I drove to the smoldering carcass of the Dutch Restaurant. I was wrong when I told the detective I wouldn’t have pissed on it.
Allen Heisler, in his words, “I served seven years in the Navy, which included a combat tour in Vietnam on river boats, and five years aboard nuclear-powered, Fast Attack submarines. At 65, my life is quieter now. I live in a small town in southeastern Pennsylvania, and I’m a member of The Bold Writers. I write under the pen name L.D. Zane”