WHAT THEY'VE DONE
Isaac spit gravel from between his teeth. The driveway ground against his face. This was the third beating his father had dished out this week. The jewelry store wasn’t doing well and his father took it out on him. Here, out on their hedge-lined drive, no one could see or hear what happened. His father liked the sound of the gravel scouring away his skin. Mother never helped. The stupid yenta was too afraid. Father had never hit her, not that Isaac knew, but other things happened behind closed doors that Isaac heard. Things that stayed in his mind like flash-bulb shadows.
A hatred foreign to most eight-year-olds flooded his veins. His father kicked him over and Isaac spit blood on the old man’s leather loafers. It would only worsen the beating, but the blind indignation on his father’s face was worth it. Overhead, above the manicured oaks and maples, a blue sky bore silent, single witness.
“Why don’t you go talk to her?” Isaac’s mother asked.
“She’s a girl. Why would she want to talk to me?” Isaac responded. Father was still at work and wouldn’t be back for several hours. Sometimes he and his mother would sit on the bench by the street when Father wasn’t home. She could put her arm around Isaac without being berated for the show of affection. A new family was moving in across the way. They were Russian. Their heavy, Slavic accent carried across the street easily.
“She’s pretty,” his mother said.
“I know,” Isaac mumbled. She was right. The little girl, maybe a year younger than Isaac, had raven-black hair and danced gracefully between the boxes littering the drive way. A ragged doll dragged in her wake.
“Talk to her.”
He wanted to, but the unique, awkward fear of early adolescence immobilized him.
“Dirty Jew. Dirty Jew. You’re a filthy, dirty Jew!”
The boys, blond and ginger, pranced around him in a circle. One punched him in the shoulder. Another kicked his shin. The biggest boy, Angus, pushed him to the ground. They all spit on him. “Stay where you belong, you fucking kyke,” Angus said. The curse did not sound as foreign on fourteen-year-old lips as it should have. They scuffed a farewell cloud of dust over him, picked up their bikes, and rode off.
Alone, Isaac finally cried. He was beaten at home. He was beat by the meshuggah goyim at his school. Wherever he went, fists rained down.
A light touch brushed his shoulder. He jerked and pulled away. It was the girl from down the street. Alexa. “Are you okay?”
“Fine,” he said.
She shifted and rummaged through the pink plastic purse hanging from her knobby shoulder. She produced a Band-Aid. “Here.”
He took it, noticing only then the blood dripping from his forearm. She shrugged, smiled, and ran back towards her house.
How had he let Alexa talk him into this? He hated school dances and it was certain that Angus and his gang were lurking somewhere. It was better than home though. Father drank on Friday nights.
A slow song floated from the D.J.’s speakers. Alexa smiled and grabbed his hand. He grimaced, made a show of dragging his feet, but his heart raced and a flush warmed his skin. Holding Alexa close, even to dance, always pushed the bad stuff away. Turning fifteen had graced her with gentle curves and a small, firm chest. Father always berated him for spending time with her. How could a bupkes boy know what love is, and why waste his time on a Russian half-breed? A beating typically followed the lectures.
Isaac set that aside. Alexa had rested her head against his shoulder and her perfume flooded his senses. He set his hands a little lower on her hips, his fingers pressing into the top of her bottom. She pressed closer and Isaac’s heart beat even faster. Despite every ounce of his willpower his pants tightened. The dress slacks did nothing to hide it, and he tried to shift away so Alexa wouldn’t feel it. She tightened her grip, smiled up at him, and said, “Don’t worry. It’s okay. Stay close.”
Adrenaline powered Isaac down the alley. Hot iron fingers scrapped the walls of his lungs and sweat plastered his shirt to a skinny torso. If he stopped running, fists would find him again. Angus was right behind him. Vicious as a beaten dog, the Irish boy had chased him for the last twelve blocks. The bruises from last week, a mixture of Angus’s and his father’s, still hadn’t faded.
The city-worn brick walls penned him in. The only way to move was forward. Brown water soaked his shoes and wicked up his jeans. The grime closed in around him. He couldn’t run any more. He was tired.
Stopping short and planting his feet, he raised his left elbow and drove it backward. Angus was too close behind Isaac to stop. The snapping of the boy’s nose was startlingly loud and satisfying. Isaac spun on his heels and, as the boy who had harassed him for all these years clutched his bleeding nose, drove a fist into Angus’s stomach and another against the side of his head. Pain erupted across Isaac’s knuckles. He may have broken them. It didn’t matter. Every blow laid against him, every insult, every moment of neglect boiled over. He yelled and cried as he kicked, hit, and drove Angus to the cold pavement. The Irish boy, the captain of the senior football team, cried like a whipped dog. Joy, a strange emotion for Isaac, flooded through him. He grinned, a white-toothed, stretched-lip grin, grabbed Angus by the curly hair on the back of his head, and slammed the stupid goy’s face into the concrete. No more movement. No more cries. Just blood clouding into dank, street-tainted water.
“You fight well, my young friend.”
Isaac snapped around to face the voice. Standing in a sagging doorway, propped up against the snot-green frame, a large man smoked and studied Isaac over round shades. His clothing was mostly black, but well-kempt. Tattoos covered the man’s hands, forearms, and even crept up his neck to the bottom of his jaw. Isaac identified a number of Cyrillic letters.
“What does it matter to you?” he asked.
“I was certain the red-headed one would catch and beat you. You surprised me. He is much bigger, and stronger. But you have anger. Anger is good,” the Russian said. He clamped his cigarette between cracked, thin lips and stepped into the alley. He looked Isaac up and down, went over to Angus. Pressing his fingers against the lad’s neck, he smirked. “The boy will live. He won’t be pretty, but he is lucky. You could have killed him.”
“What’s it to you?” asked Isaac. An aura of subdued violence haloed the man. Isaac stepped back, clenching his fists.
“I need young men. Strong, fast, resourceful. You would do well, I think. Lots of money to be made. Girls to meet. Make your own life.”
The Russian stood, his half-ashed cigarette hanging from his cracked lips. He approached Isaac and pointed at the yellowed bruises checker-coating the boy’s neck and arms. “You didn’t get those just at school. My father beat me when I was boy. I have two sons. I will never lay a hand on them. My anger is great, like yours. But I have avenues of release. People who are not my family, who genuinely wrong me, suffer. Not those I love. The Bratva protects me. I protect it. Show it love, and it shows you love.”
“Bratva? Father says you’re a bunch of dirty schleps from the old world. Too lazy to make an honest living.”
“This, coming from a Jew who beats his son. Don’t look so surprised. The nose gives it away. There are many Jews in my family. No one will hate you for your race. Think about it.”
“I’m not a criminal.”
“Neither am I. I am a man making my own way, by my own rules. If you’re interested, come down to the docks. Find an old bar called the Iron Sledge. Ask for Yuri. They’ll know why you’re there.”
The Russian flicked his ash on Angus’s stirring form and disappeared into the sagging doorway. Isaac studied the bruises on his arms. He couldn’t remember his skin without them.
The blood was crusted under his fingernails and spattered his shirt. No matter how he scrubbed, the stuff would not come out. Below, the din of the Iron Sledge’s patrons vibrated the floorboards and filled the shadowed air with an unceasing white noise. He and Yuri had come up the back stairs. Only one day after earning promotion from running drugs to enforcement, he’d killed a man. The junkie chink had owed the Bratva money for too long. He’d kept dodging and stalling until time ran out. With every strike of his brass knuckles against the Asian’s face, Isaac pictured his father. They’d strung the gook’s body off his own balcony, for all the slum to see.
“You’ll want to burn that shirt,” Yuri said, handing him a new black button-down.
“Thank you.” Isaac’s hands shook as he accepted the shirt.
“You did well, Isaac. The new mark will look good on your skin.”
A number of tattoos already scrawled over his pale skin. A milestone, his first kill would garner increased respect. Yuri was constantly assuring Isaac he had a bright future in the Bratva.
“Let’s go downstairs. I’m thirsty,” said Isaac.
Through a claustrophobic hallway and down a groaning stair the two men traveled. The Iron Sledge was Isaac’s home. Its chipped plaster and stained ceiling were more welcoming than the hardwood and marble of his parent’s house. The entire bar had celebrated his twenty-first birthday last week.
The Friday night crowd filled the main room. Dock workers and shop owners sat next to men inked with tattoos far more elaborate than Isaac’s. Women, most looking to be paid for the evening’s company, floated from man to man. A few eyed Isaac. Never did he meet their gaze. He wasn’t in a hurry for his pecker to fall off. Ordering a bourbon, neat, he tried to relax against the bar. Everyone around him drank vodka. The shit tore out his insides. A hand brushed his shoulder. He jolted and turned fast. A girl, beautiful with white skin and raven hair, smiled at him. Something about the lines of her face stirred memories long neglected.
“Do I know you?”
“You used to,” the girl said as she sipped her vodka. Her Russian accent was light and refined. “It’s been a long time, Isaac. I’m hearing good things about you.”
“I still don’t know you,” he said. What was it about her face?
She looked him up and down, her eyes lingering just below his waistline. “You will. Quite the man you’ve grown into.”
“Still don’t know your name.”
“We used to play in the dirt together. I hope to again soon.”
Their sweat and scent saturated the cramped air of Isaac’s room. His mind reeled from what had just happened. He’d been with girls before, and had been with Alexa for several months now, but no girl had ever done what she just had. His body quivered with the tail end of pleasure. He felt a little dirty.
“Not bad, huh?” Alexa asked.
“No. Not at all. Where did you learn that?”
She slipped from the bed, unconcerned with her nakedness. She lit a cigarette, poured a fresh vodka, and sniffed a line of coke off the nightstand. “I’ve had plenty of opportunity for practice. I learned it for extra money. For you, I do it because I like you. You’re gentle. Sure you don’t want any?” She pointed to the other two lines of cocaine.
“I sell it, not take it. I’ve seen what that shit does. It worries me you use.”
“I’m a big girl, Zac. I know how to control myself.” She sprawled back on the bed, drink in one hand, cigarette in the other. Isaac lit one for himself and sipped his bourbon. Everyone made fun of him for it. What Jew, and one that belonged to the Bratva, drank American whiskey? He’d just shrug. It tasted good. “We’ve drank and fucked for six months now. I told you how I ended up here. You haven’t held up your end of the bargain.”
Smoke drifted from her lips. She downed the last of her vodka. Poured another. Another line of coke disappeared up her nose. “Is it important? We’re here now.”
“You had a good family. You’re parents took care of you. Loved you. Why are you here?”
“They died, not long after you left the neighborhood. Car accident. Father had drank too much, got themselves killed. My uncle came to take care of me. He cared especially for young girls. At sixteen, he paid me extra attention. After two years of his touch, I stabbed him in the groin and ran. Ran and didn’t stop. Found a nice, old woman down here at the docks, and disappeared into the concrete.”
Alexa shrugged. “Don’t be. It is what it is.”
“Things like that shouldn’t happen. Men shouldn’t touch little girls.”
“And fathers shouldn’t beat their sons. It’s always happened. Forever will it happen.”
Her cigarette was only a filter. Her drink was gone again. The last line vanished. She sat next to him, kissed his neck, kissed his chest and stomach, put her mouth between his legs. He moaned, closing his eyes and wrapping his fingers in her hair. She paused, looked up, and said, “Leave the past be. Enjoy the present.”
Yuri’s hand shook as he set the empty shot glass on the table. A half-full bottle of vodka stood guard beside him. Several agents from the Yakuza had been making probes on the fringe of the Bratva’s turf. Word had reached Isaac from several of his pushers. He’d organized his best men and tracked the intruders down to a two-level motel in the worst part of town. Their AK-47s had torn the Japs apart. The whole encounter took only two minutes. Isaac was proud of his boys. “Yuri, are you okay? You seem nervous. I thought the news would please you.”
“It does. It does. Forgive me. You did well, Isaac. You make me proud. I just know the Yakuza too well. They will be back, and we’ll lose men. A war is coming.”
“And we’ll fight it. Isn’t that what the Bratva does? Hold its ground? Stand as firm as iron? Fight off all invaders?”
“You are right, my friend. I am just tired, and perhaps too old. No matter. Let us drink to your success.”
Isaac watched Yuri’s hand shake as it raised the glass again.
Blood stained Isaac’s shoes. He’d washed the soles in a puddle, but dark splotches still marked the leather over his toes. Carpeted hallways and soft music muffled his progress down the wood-paneled hall. The Bratva had moved Alexa and him into the apartments nine months ago. He now oversaw his own team of enforcers and runners. The Iron Sledge was still his Friday night haunt, but it was now more to meet and plan with other mid-level bosses in the Bratva than to get drunk. He wasn’t home much. The business didn’t run itself, and after last night he would have even more to do. After his shower he’d make time for Alexa. She was unhappy more often than not lately.
The door clicked open under his key. European metal blasted from the stereo in the living room. Winter-morning sun streamed in the kitchen windows and reflected off his mother’s menorah. He hadn’t even gone to the funeral. His aunt had shipped it to him, enclosing a note that his mother had asked specifically for this to be sent to him. Hanukah had always seemed pointless to him. Alexa had put the candles in it and lit a new one each night. She’d asked him to light the first one, but he’d refused. Last he’d heard, his father still lived.
He found her in the living room, sitting on the couch and starring at the dancing stereo light. On the glass coffee table lay a section of surgical tubing, an empty balloon, a syringe, and a revolver. “What are you doing?”
In slow motion, she turned and said, “I was bored. Decided to have fun. Some drugs to make me feel good, and a game to make me feel alive.”
“What the fuck do you mean?”
Alexa picked up the revolver, spun the cylinder, pulled back the hammer, placed it to her temple and pulled the trigger. Click. “Appropriate, don’t you think?”
“Alexa, you’ve lost your mind. Heroine? You said you’d quit a year ago.”
“I had. But I needed you here to keep me strong. You were too busy, though. Had to build your little fucking empire. Here’s to the czar!” she slurred. A shot of vodka slammed into the back of her throat. She spun the cylinder again, pulled back the hammer, placed it to her temple and pulled the trigger. Click.
“Are you scared? Is the Jew gangster scared of the little, Russian whore? Where were you last night?”
“Business? Was it business with a pair of tits and a pussy?” Click.
“My God, Alexa! Cut the shit. I’ve built a good life for us. We have everything we’ll ever need, and I’ll get us more. I’ve never hurt you. Never hit you. Why are you doing this?”
“Answer me. Where were you last night?” Click.
Isaac put his hands on his hips and looked down at the blood stained shoes. “Yuri had become soft. Disorganized. He was losing control of his territory. A change was needed.”
“That was the man who brought you in. Mentored you.” Click.
Isaac rubbed his forehead. Maybe the gun was empty. He didn’t know where it had come from. He preferred pistols over revolvers. “That’s why I pulled the trigger myself. It was quick and painless. He can rest now.”
“So charitable. Is that what you’ll do to me when I become too much trouble? A quick bullet to the back of the head? Eternal sleep?”
“I want you to be happy, you crazy bitch. Stop being so damned dramatic.”
“I will be what I want to. Why don’t you play? They must have a tattoo for that.”
“Fuck you. I don’t need this,” Isaac said and turned on his heel.
“Where are you going?”
“The Iron Sledge. To get drunk.”
“Please, don’t go.”
He spun back towards her. “Get you head on straight, and then we can talk. I’ve no time for your over-the-top bullshit.”
“Fuck you.” She spun the cylinder and pulled back the hammer.
“I’ll be home later.”
He walked back through the kitchen, made sure he had his keys, and slammed the door shut. Halfway down the hall, Isaac heard the creaking of an opening door. A gunshot echoed off the wood paneling.