The snow is half-way up the spokes of Chuck's rickety bike. The bag of newspapers hanging around his neck doesn't make the peddling any easier. Chuck stops once again to rewrap the thread rags around his fingers, which are halfway to frostbit. The icy wind seems to blow in his face whichever way he turns. He points the bike in the general direction of the streetcar stop where Ford's workers huddle waiting for their ride to the new Rouge plant. Chuck is so focused on not face-planting into Warren Avenue he doesn't notice Gianni Bartoli's bike heading straight toward him, and accelerating.
As soon as he spies Chuck in the road ahead, struggling to stay upright, Gianni goes into full jousting mode. If Chuck doesn't see him, tough. Gianni lets out a war whoop that gives Chuck just enough time to throw himself and his bike out of Gianni's way and straight into a pile of gray snow under a lightpost. Two minutes later they're stashing their bikes in the alley behind Puzzuolli's Garage. Chuck pouts about his newly bent rim. Gianni snickers.
The paperboys round the corner of the red-brick garage and head for Schmidt's coffee shop. At a window table sits Gianni's big brother Gio. Chuck follows Gianni into Schmidt's and plops his canvas bag on the counter next to the cash register. He pulls a handful of change from his pocket and sets it next to the bag. Behind the cash register sits Mrs. Schmidt. She counts the unsold papers in the bag and sweeps up the coins, leaving Chuck three nickels. "What about your frient?" Mrs Schmidt asks. Chuck looks over at Gianni, who has joined his brother Gio at the table.
Gianni motions for Chuck to join them. Chuck takes a seat next to Gianni, across from Gio. "He doesn't believe you can drive," Gianni says.
"I can drive," Chuck says to Gio, who hasn't yet glanced up from his newspaper.
"You busy tonight?", Gio asks generally as he turns the page. Chuck shakes his head. Gio is far too well dressed for a nineteen year old from East Dogbone.
"What's that?" Gio says without looking up.
"Yeah, he's got a hot date," Gianni says. "He's in."
Chuck looks at Gianni, then at Gio. Gio looks Chuck over. "How much you weigh, kid?"
Chuck's father and two brothers sleep so deeply they are borderline comatose. Chuck can be as noisy as he wants as he "sneaks" out. Gio told him to bundle up, so on the way out he grabs his big brother's wool overcoat hanging in the vestibule to wear over his own. His brother's coat is so long Chuck struggles to pedal his bike to Puzzuolli's, where he is supposed to meet Gianni and Gio for the ride to Canada.
My first Cadillac, Chuck thinks as he gets into the back seat next to Gianni. Gio turns left out of the alley and heads south on Schaefer. Just as Chuck is admiring the Cadillac's smooth ride, Gio says, "Don't get too comfortable, boys. The trucks don't handle the river ice so good."
A half-hour later Gio leans his head in the window of the stripped-down truck that Chuck is set to commandeer across a frozen river to Canada. "Stay in the tire tracks and don't touch those brakes until we're back on land, got it?"
Chuck nods. Gio steps away and then steps back. "No sweat, kid. Just stay on Gianni's bumper and we'll all be home before the sun comes up."
The trucks are lined up at the shoreline, facing towards Canada a half-mile of river ice away. Gio inches the lead truck onto the makeshift ramp. A second later Gianni follows his brother in the middle truck. Chuck's fingers and toes are starting to go numb. Left foot up, right foot down. One big bounce off the makeshift ramp and the truck is rolling on the ice. Chuck sees the dark spot of Gianni's truck ahead and aims for it.
To reach the pedals Chuck has to sit on the edge of the truck seat. He hugs the wheel. The engine roars. Wind whips through the windowless cab. Full focus on the fresh tire tracks beyond his bumper, Chuck doesn't notice the gap growing between his truck and the two hazy blobs ahead. Chuck puts his faith in the tracks shining on the ice. Ten minutes later, he doesn't see the two figures signaling wildly from the shore for him to slow down.
Just yards from shore, Chuck finally notices Canada rising up in front of him like a waking mountain. He slams on the brake. The truck begins spinning, not slowing a bit. It spins half-way around when it reaches the bottom of the make-shift ramp up the riverbank. Suddenly Chuck is airborne, looking down at the icy river. He and the truck land with a thud in a pile of snow.
"Told you he could drive," Gianni says to his big brother as they run to the truck sitting crookedly in a pile of snow. There's no sign of Chuck.
Gio reaches through the truck window and fishes around the cab. "If this truck's broke I'll break your face and leave you here."
Gianni gets to the truck's other door just as Gio's hand finds the collar of Chuck's coat and yanks it through the window, Chuck attached. Gio holds Chuck a foot off the ground for a second and then drops him onto the snow. Gianni hits the starter and the truck rumbles to life.
Gio looks from Chuck to the truck and back again. It's like he's disappointed the thing started, Chuck thinks. Gianni says, "Gio, let's go."
Two hours later the three trucks are liquored up and back at the river. A spotlight shines on the far shore. Gio leads them onto the ice. Chuck is now driving the middle truck. While the Canadians were loading the booze Gio told Gianni, "Three trucks get back across or it's your ass."
Chuck is sure they can hear the truck engines all the way to Dogbone. He's glad they're heading away from the spotlight, now dim in the haze. The overloaded trucks rumble along the crackling ice. Chuck wills the dark line of shore closer. He's just feet behind Gio's back bumper. Charcoal-gray Grosse Ile looms above the cloud-gray ice. Gio gradually turns the caravan parallel to the shore. Chuck inches even closer.
"Slow down, dummy!" Gianni yells through the windshield of the third truck. "You're gonna blow right by the ramp." He down-shifts anyway.
Chuck hasn't felt his fingers, toes, or nose since the trucks left Canada. He barely notices his truck smack Gio's back bumper. Again. And again. Just before another collision Gio turns his truck's wheel sharply, which sends both trucks spinning.
In a sedan parked on the shore, two figures watch the unlit trucks careen along the ice. "Those fools are gonna end up in Toledo," says one.
Gio gets his truck straightened out just in time to spot the boat ramp on his right. He angles for it and downshifts the truck. Ahead of him Chuck's truck pirouettes down the river.
Gianni watches the two trucks in front of him split apart. Without a thought he follows Chuck's as it spins toward the island's southern tip.
As soon as he negotiates his truck onto the island Gio starts calculating the time required to retrieve and stash the two wayward loads. He cusses under his breath when he realizes he'll probably have to ditch one of the trucks. He cusses out loud when a sedan suddenly blocks the road ahead of him.
Once his truck finally comes to a stop on the ice, Chuck guesses the dark patch in the gray haze in front of him is Grosse Ile. He hears the rumbling of Gianni's truck behind him. Gianni walks up to Chuck's cab. Chuck is staring at the island, his arms wrapped around the steering wheel.
"The way I figure it," Gianni says, "we stay on the ice and freeze or we get up there and thaw out by setting Gio's truck on fire."
Without saying a word, Chuck hits the starter and puts the truck in gear. "Follow me," Gianni tells him. "We'll be back home in an hour."
The two trucks make it off the ice but are stymied by a solid line of trees along the shore. Gianni spots a dark gap and steers toward it. The gap turns out to be a cart path. The trucks squeeze through the opening and are enveloped in darkness. Tree branches snap around them as they make their way down the path. Far ahead Gianni sees a faint pair of headlights.
"Nice truck. Mind if we borrow it?" Gio ignores the man with the gun outside his window trying to be funny. He stares ahead, motionless.
Gio looks past the other man with the machine gun standing between his truck and the sedan blocking the road. My damn whiskey, he thinks.
The two mugs with the guns and overcoats can't tell where the low rumbling is coming from. There's no sign of any vehicles traveling the road.
The cart path Gianni found leading off the beach widens into a bumpy one-lane road. The path curves, pointing them straight at the headlights.
Lights can't be good, Gianni thinks, but these don't look like cop lights. At fifty yards he spots two figures standing next to a dark vehicle. Gotta be, Gianni thinks. He knows the only way to get Gio, Chuck, and himself off the island is if that sedan goes nowhere. He floors it.
He's flipped his lid, Chuck thinks as Gianni's truck speeds up. Stay on my bumper he says, then tries to ditch me. Chuck hits the gas.
Two seconds before the collision, Gio's stopped in his truck but thinking a mile a minute. Who tipped off these damn hijackers? Albanni gets wind of this and they'll find me at the bottom of a slag heap.
One second before the first collision, the mug with the machine gun thinks, Where'd that truck come from?
Gianni slams on the brakes. His truck slows enough before it hits the sedan to keep him from going through the windshield. The sedan disappears into the woods. Gianni's truck disappears after it.
One second before the second collision, Chuck slams on his brakes. The impact of his truck pushes Gianni's truck in the same direction as the sedan. Chuck's truck skids to a stop in the exact spot the sedan had occupied two seconds earlier, but facing the opposite direction.
Gio watches the sequence unfold before him like he planned it. The sedan disappears, a truck flashes by, another stops sideways in the road.
Fifty feet into the woods, Gianni rolls out of his truck's cab. He stumbles back to Chuck's truck on the road and takes Chuck's place behind the wheel. "Hang on," he says.
The mugs have gone from surprised to confused but haven't yet made it to angry. By the time they manage to react, Gianni and Gio have their trucks heading down the road.
Gio drives around Gianni's truck and takes the lead. Gianni nearly loses his load as the truck he now shares with Chuck makes a wide loop to get back on the road. The mugs run after them for a couple of seconds but don't even bother to raise their guns. They soon start thinking about the money they'll make from the truckload of booze that just fell in their lap.
An hour later, the two trucks that made it off the island have been unloaded. Gianni and Chuck are asleep in the back of Gio's Cadillac. Gio's trying to decide whether he should be happy he got two loads across the ice or ticked he left one in the woods. He goes with ticked.
"Wake up." The Cadillac is idling in the alley behind Puzzuolli's. Gio says to Gianni, "Meet me at Schmidt's at 6," and to Chuck, "Get lost."
Gianni and Chuck watch Gio's Cadillac glide down the alley. The eastern horizon is a line of gray. "Let's go get our papers," Gianni says.
"The way I figure it, you owe me a truckload of Canadian whiskey." Gianni can usually tell when his brother is kidding, but not this time.
Mrs. Schmidt stops by the table to refill Gio's coffee cup. She gives Gianni a look that might pass for concern. Gianni pays her no mind.
"So tell ya what I'm gonna do," Gio says to Gianni once Mrs Schmidt is out of earshot. "I'm gonna set you up for another run. But not yet."
Deuce Laffingstock fidgets in the creaky wooden chair. Next to him, rigid as dogma, sits his 13-year-old son Chuck. They await Father Granger's arrival. On the wall behind Father Granger's desk is a portrait of Jesus in prayer, his sad eyes gazing skyward. Deuce wonders, Did Jesus ever laugh?
Right on cue, Father Granger rushes in, stands at his desk. "The Sisters and I have some concerns about Charles's scholastic career."
Something we can all agree on, Deuce thinks as he waits for Father Granger to elaborate. The priest regards Chuck, who regards his untied bootlaces.
"Charles, we know you're not the scholar your brothers are," Father Granger says apologetically, "but we expect you to make an honest effort. And we expect you to stay awake in class."
Chuck examines the scuff marks on his shoes. I wouldn't mind a short nap myself, thinks Deuce. After fifteen seconds of silence Deuce realizes Father Granger is waiting for him to respond. "Perhaps a little coffee in his cereal," he offers.
Father Granger frowns. "Boys Charles's age are susceptible to the influences of their friends." Chuck and Deuce both know what's coming next.
"Mind you, the Bartoli's are a fine Catholic family and valued members of the parish." Father Granger slowly takes his seat behind the desk. "Sad to say, the Lord has blessed Mr. and Mrs. Bartoli with a pair of sons whose upbringing would challenge Mary and Joseph themselves."
Father Granger considers the knuckles of his folded hands resting on the desk. "I understand there's a close connection between your families."
Connection, thinks Deuce. Father Granger's stern visage dissolves and is replaced with a memory of a young couple seated in a darkened church.
Copyright 2014-2018 - Dennis Richard O'Reilly - all rights reserved