By Liam Musumeci
After sipping his usual three shots of espresso, Frankie headed to the nearby smoke shop.This was his morning routine, as he took precisely five minutes slurping from his piping hot to-go cup before walking over to 9th Ave Tobacco.
Frankie enjoyed the feeling from cigarettes after an ample amount of caffeine which radiated a sharp buzz from temple to temple. He dreamed about puffing out small clouds of smoke,but realized it wouldn’t be as satisfying watching them because of the fog of his breath colliding with the freezing temperature – it was the type of New York day where you wish it would snow in order to distract you from the frigid cold.
Frankie’s large Roman nose began to drip when a gust of wind wafted down the block,causing him to stop and shield his face from the cold.He ran his hands through his thick hair. Heal ways combed his wavy hair back to form a duck tail,but it would fold over when the loose curls decided to wake up from his steamy morning shower.When he finally persisted through the wind, he reached the shop at the end of the corner,longing for a fresh pack of Marlboros.
“Son of a bitch! Are you fucking kidding me? C’mon, what the hell is this shit?” he declared, banging on the entrance door. “Since when the fuck are you closed on Mondays!?” he yelled aimlessly at the door. “What the fuck, man,”he mumbled under his breath, turning around to find another smoke shop.
He ventured down a few streets to find a narrow block,where he had seen a shop before.He remembered the time he saw an older woman getting mugged on this exact block. He dismissed this thought rather quickly because he knew he’d start feeling light-headed if he didn’t get his smokes. He picked up a bit of a jog and hustled his way to the shop, salivating for the light brown filter on the side of his lip.
“At least this one’s open,” he said, standing across the street from the entrance, scoping out the shop: Why the hell are the windows covered up with blinds? There’s no way another smoke shop is closed right now, just no way. Fuck it, might as well try and walk in.
Frankie made his way to the door, starting to smile,anticipating the smell of ash and nicotine. He tugged on the door, which sprang open,and immediately felt something press against the side of his head. The door planted shut.
“Are you Frankie?” a deep voice sternly questioned,jamming the pistol harder into his skull.“Yeah… I mean, who’s asking? I’m not… I’m not Frankie,by the way,” he nervously replied. “Who are you?”
“Answer the fuckin’ question!” the stranger yelled. “Amir, get out here!”
“Amir? Your shop was closed. Why are you at this store?” Frankie asked, watching a familiar short man dressed in a baggy gray sweat suit stand up from under the counter.
“I own this shop too, my friend,” Amir replied with his passive soft-spoken voice, then pointing a finger at the gun holder, “He offered me money, and I told him about you – the most common customer. I’m sorry.”
The stranger kept his pistol pinned against Frankie’s head: “Have you sold any drugs to a kid recently. Think he’s a teenager?”
“I sell to a number of clients. I don’t ask them for their names,” Frankie said, now sweating profusely.
“He looks like this,” the stranger said, managing to slip a black and white photograph into Frankie’s right hand. The kid was far too skinny for his age, hunching over like he had a spinal problem, and always had a pepperoni-pimpled array of acne overwhelming his chin that Frankie saw vividly in the head shot portrait displayed in front of him.
“Actually, I think so,” Frankie said. “What about him?”
“He’s the boss’s son, and now he’s dead. Your shit had to be laced with something.”
Frankie thought about turning back towards the door to run but knew he wouldn’t even make it two steps.
The deep-voiced stranger led Frankie out of the shop,gripping his arm with a tightness that resembled a snake’s fangs on a rodent’s dead body. He walked down the block until he signaled Frankie to step into his burnt-umber 1970Lincoln Continental.
The stranger, now the driver, took off his sunglasses and nested them down in the backseat before revving up the loud engine and zooming off. Frankie’s body jerked forward from the sudden movement of the car causing him to hit his head on the front windshield. He then hurled a few racial profanities at the driver who seemed to have a slight accent, mispronouncing some words peculiarly in Frankie’s mind.
“What the fuck, man! You made me hit my fucking head.No need to be a dick!” Frankie yelled, pressing his fingers against his forehead to rub the soreness out.
Frankie remained sitting in the passenger seat pondering what was going to happen to him. Thoughts collided and dispersed in and out of his usually frivolous mind. He had suddenly become reflective in this uncertain time. He displayed a nervous tic, clawing away at his left inner thigh to possibly scratch himself out of the situation. His nails slid up and down his thigh,now starting to make a piece of chalk to the green board sort of sound. Somehow it wasn’t a surprise that his life would come to an end like this:it was fitting considering the “profession” that Frankie had found himself in over the last half-decade. Whether he was selling smack to street junkies or dabbling in and out of some small organized crime operations, Frankie’s life had been stable enough for him to live just how his parents had envisioned. No, Frankie’s parents did not buy into the American Dream of yesteryear with the perception of a movie-like estate on the Gold Coast out on the eastern waterfront. They just wanted to have a life that guaranteed three meals a day and a bed big enough for feet to dangle off the edge, that’s all. And that’s exactly the lifestyle that Frankie had, saving his money with the exception of the occasional filles de joie down at the north end of Bleecker on Mulberry – he couldn’t resist.
“You mind turning the AC off? It’s the middle of fucking winter,” Frankie said, waiting for the driver to acknowledge that he was shivering.“You spoke English when you had a gun to my fucking head. What’s wrong with you now?” Frankie couldn’t do much with his frustration.
He continued to shake relentlessly while the driver ignored his exasperation, which angered Frankie even more than usual – and that was saying much since he’d always been hotheaded.
“Eh, dumb ass, do you still not fucking hear me?!”Frankie heightened his tone, grabbing a hold of the steering wheel, “Listen up, turn off the AC, or I’ll make sure we’re both dead when I swing this piece of shit car into traffic.”
The driver finally complied with Frankie’s demands and flicked off the AC. Frankie kept his hand on the tan leather steering wheel. “You want me to fucking take it off, huh? Tell me where the fuck we’re going.” The driver rotated his head over to Frankie, taking his eyes off of the road to plant an unforeseen jab right under Frankie’s chapped lips; this deterred Frankie from asking another hostile question the remainder of the ride. Instead, he sat back and didn’t bat an eye when they drove over a bridge to the Garden State.
“That was a good ole’ punch you got there. It’s still stinging after fifteen minutes,”Frankie said, feigning a laugh.
He thought by trying to lighten up the mood so that the driver, undeniably a killer in Frankie’s mind, would perhaps take it easy on him when the dirty deed needed to be committed.The driver, calm and collected, had no response for Frankie. He grabbed his sunglasses from the backseat and slipped them on again – directly proving to Frankie that this moment didn’t warrant any ounce of conversation. But Frankie couldn’t give up there. He wasn’t the type to submit so easily.
“Are you uhhhh… Are you one of those people?” Frankie asked and waited hesitantly.“You know… Those people. C’mon, you know what I mean,right?”
“What people?” the driver unexpectedly responded –the gruffness of his voice harsher than before, almost like the roar of a grizzly bear.
“You have an accent.”
“What about it?”
“Dominican, Cuban, Mexican – where are you from?”
“Exactly. I knew you were Spanish or something.”
“I’m not Spanish, I’m Puerto Rican,” the driver said aggressively, keeping his eyes on the road. “Are you deaf? I said Puerto Rican.”
“You mean Hispanic?”
“It doesn’t matter, baddabing-baddaboom, same fucking thing. You kinda look like my older brother, a little bit –my fratello, my paisan,my big brother. Handsome guy, I’m telling you. Well… before he got shot in the fucking face,” Frankie simmered down for a second,reflecting on the somber topic, “Ever think about doing some modeling?” The driver ignored Frankie’s comment and began fiddling with his shades to adjust the frames on his blubbery face.“I’m serious, you’re a good-looking guy. You could do some magazine shoots and stuff. There are always some thirsty photographers down in Greenwich who could use people like you, just saying. Always filled with those hippies and eccentric types down in the village.”
Although it looked like Frankie’s remarks slipped in and out of the driver’s broad-lobed ears, deep down the driver was flattered from the admiration, even if he could remotely tell that Frankie was bluffing. He’d never been told he could be a model, or even was good-looking for that matter. He’d always been considered too big and dull to do any normal work, so he settled for this kind of job – locked and loaded with his beloved sleek silver pistol tucked into his belt buckle.
The driver had dealt with some models previously. Technically, they weren’t “models”but close enough. Prior to his current gig, the driver procured younger women and stationed them in various locations along 10th Avenue. He made a meager unguaranteed salary from that work, so he’d doop clients into working with his women before robbing them at gunpoint. There was no other way to make ends meet, until one night he encountered some greasy-looking guy from around the corner. The driver suspected this guy had been stalking him for a while. He admired the driver’s tactics of extortion and said he had “better” work for him. The driver took up the offer, without much thought, and here he was a few years later, riding around in a sweet ride, body-bagging goons, and moving up in the world.
“My God, you have a beautiful fucking face,” Frankie didn’t stop, “I don’t mean that in a sexual way. You’re just a good-looking fuck, I tell you. A perfect face for modeling.”
His bulging folded-over eyes filled with an eeriness of death matched his mopey facial features which were complemented by a thick neck attached to his brawny frame.
Complementing his Frankenstein-like stature was a sleeveless cotton wife beater that partially covered his poorly detailed chest tattoo of Mother Mary holding her post-crucified son. There was even a tiny star tattoo on the driver’s forehead that merged with his jet black slicked-back hair.
“I’m not blowing smoke up your ass,” Frankie pleaded,clearly blowing smoke up his ass.“Really think about it, you should model,” he concluded with a touch of sarcasm. Hopefully,that’ll cheer him up. Can’t tell if this guy can actually be buttered up – what a fucking stooge.Marone. Goddamn headache dealing with this motherfucker.
“I tell you to be a pretty boy model and all of a sudden you can’t stop looking at yourself in the fucking mirror,” Frankie said, laughing for real this time as he watched the driver spend more time in the mirror than have his eyes on the highway. “Yeah, run your hand through your fucking hair, pretty boy.”
The driver wanted to dangle a smile off his face fora second, amused with Frankie’s commentary, but decided otherwise and shifted his eyes back on the road. He placed his left hand on a button that let down the window slowly on his side, causing the wind to cascade through his hair. He looked like Hank Moody driving in his Porsche convertible during a promo for Californication. Even Frankie thought this looked really cool, taking his mind away from his dire circumstances.
“Will you do me a favor?” Frankie asked, expecting the driver to be silent. “Let me get some food. If this is going to be my last meal, why don’t we grab some grub? I’m starving, only had some coffee this morning. I could go for anything really.”
A long sniff-in and sniff-out broke the silence from the driver. Five minutes later he took a sharp turn off the highway into an empty parking lot situated in front of a diner. The driver himself was pretty hungry, but wouldn’t admit that Frankie’s proposal was a clever one,considering that the two had been on the road fora while.
“Let’s make it quick,” he told Frankie, unlocking and opening the car door.
The two made their way inside the bleak-looking diner,somewhat drowsy from sitting in a car for that long. Frankie stretched his limbs in front of a short ginger hostess who told a waiter to set up a small table near the front of the restaurant.Meanwhile, the driver kept a dog on a leash distance away from Frankie, just in case he tried to make a run for it – he didn’t though.Frankie was genuinely hungry. His stomach growled and churned for anything at this point.
When the two sat down at the walnut-colored circular table, plumping down on the cushioned wooden chairs, they simultaneously grabbed the same menu, tugging on it like little children until the waiter dropped another one on the table. Frankie briefly thought that perhaps the best time to escape would be while the driver was peering down at the comprehensive menu.
Instead, he came up with a better idea and planned to make his way to the bathroom, where he could run out the front door unexpectedly, but after he took a piss.
“I’m going to go to the bathroom, real quick.”
“Bathroom. I need to use it. I don’t know how you say that in Spanish –bathroomcíto, elbathroomó. I don’t fucking know.”
“No, sit your ass down.”
“Excuse me?” Frankie furrowed his eyebrows as he stood up. “Why can’t I use the fucking bathroom? I gotta take a shit.”
“I’ll come with you then.”
“Do you want to wipe my ass or something? If you’re going to fucking kill me later, let me use the bathroom by myself. Where are your fucking manners!” Frankie snapped, alerting the few customers in the vicinity.
“Get the fuck out of here,” Frankie finished, leaving the table to follow a sign that directed him to the bathroom.
“Get back here!” the driver growled, yanking himself out of the chair to follow Frankie who had reached the bathroom, slamming the door shut.“I’m coming in there!”
Frankie dismissed the driver’s rage and unzipped his jeans to take a leak. What a fucking piece of shit – trying to fucking follow me into a bathroom. Who do I look like? If he weren’t so Goddamn big, I’d throw a punch or two at his ugly fucking face. Marone.
Halfway into his relieving stream, the bathroom door burst open. The driver ripped off the door handle in the process, thumping his way over to the urinals. Frankie saw him and didn’t know whether to pee in his attacker’s direction or pull up his pants. The driver tried to snatch Frankie, who zipped up quickly and backed his way into a stall. Frankie jumped up on the open toilet seat but slipped when the driver kicked his knee, sending Frankie plummeting into the slimy tile floor. The driver grasped Frankie’s skinny neck and raised him up in the air. He then tilted Frankie the other way to send him face-first into the mucky water. The driver swirled his head around in the grimy toilet until Frankie couldn’t produce any more air bubbles.
“Get up!” the driver held Frankie’s head up.
“I… I… I almost drowned, you fucking idiot!” Frankie gasped for air, smelling like urine and covered in remnants of feces. “Why would you do that?!”
The driver helped Frankie up and shoved him against the side wall of the stall, letting goof him when he saw goop dripping down his face: “My God, you smell like shit!” he covered uphis nose, backing away from Frankie.
“No shit, Sherlock! You almost drowned me in a fucking public restroom, you psychopathic fuck!”
“Listen up,” the driver said, still pinching his nose,“I’m not trying to kill you. That’s not why I picked you up today.”
“What?” Frankie’s eyes shot open. “Are you serious?”
“What about the boss’s son being dead?” Frankie reminded the driver, in awe of what he had just heard.
“Don’t worry about that. I’ll tell you back in the car.”
Frankie was more than delighted with this new information,attempting to contain the gleeful smile that he wanted to squeeze out. Starting to realize the fetid smell disseminating from his wet face, Frankie splashed water all over himself from the sink, using some hand soap to scrub the stains off his swarthy skin.
When the two gathered back at their table, they ordered half of the menu celebrating the momentous occasion of Frankie’s life being spared.At least Frankie celebrated; the driver was just a big guy who had an affinity towards any sit down meal. He wasn’t fat, more like muscular on the verge of bulky.
The remainder of the meal consisted of pointless small talk between the two until they paid the bill, splitting it down the middle, and then waited outside the diner to smoke some cigarettes that they had nicked off the hostess.
“So, what did you want to tell me? About why you aren’t killing me and shit,” Frankie said, leaning against the pole that held up the diner sign.
“I need help with something,” the driver replied,standing directly across from Frankie.He wanted to make sure his car in the distance was still in the parking lot. “Actually, I’ll tell you about it when we get there.”
“Where are we going?”
“A gas station about ten minutes from here. No biggie,”the driver stated, puffing out a thicker than usual cloud for a cigarette. “You chain-smoke these things?” he asked Frankie,handing him a pack after he’d thrown a filter down and squashed it with his foot.
“Guess so. I got addicted back in the day when I first entered the business. Keeps me on my feet and relieves some stress, you know?”
“By the way,” Frankie switched the topic, “Did I ever get your name?”
“Call me Zee.”
“Zee? That’s your full fucking name? Stop being a wiseguy, what’s your real name?”
“Yeah, Nuña fucking business.”
“Oh okay, smart ass. Thanks for that,” Frankie sarcastically applauded, pacing behind Zeeto the car. “Ten-minute drive you said, right?”
The drive over to the local gas station was smooth sailing for the two. They had enjoyed a fulfilling meal that settled their stomachs to the point where a food coma clouded over them.
Despite the sluggishness from the carbs and processed cheeses of the greasy diner food, Frankie felt rejuvenated simply from the fact that he had finally had a couple of cigarettes today. He’d never gone a day without his smokes in the last five years, and he thanked Zee in the car for the pack, while thinking about lighting one up in the car. Ultimately, Frankie didn’t want to anger Zee who could unknowingly flip a switch and end up killing him regardless – so, he decided to sit back in the passenger seat and soak in the evening sunset off in the distance.
When the car arrived at the gas station, a haunted house for a group of children would have been less frightening and certainly a better alternative. One glimmering light over the inoperative gas pumps soaked up the surrounding darkness that was perpetually pointing in every direction. Another source of light came from a large electronic billboard on an abandoned building across the street, glitching between its various beer company advertisements. It was funny to think that Zee and Frankie had driven this much in one day, clearly in unfamiliar territory, but they really hadn’t, considering they could see the city’s impressive skyline miles away to the east, hovering over the Hudson.
“Why are we at a closed gas station?” Frankie asked,moving over to join Zee who was leaning on the matte-textured hood of his car. “Don’t think this place sells gas anymore,smart guy.”
“Not here for gas. I told you we needed to come here.”
“For what? You still haven’t told me a lick about anything.”
“What stuff?” Frankie tensed up, watching Zee breathe in and out and broaden his shoulders. “Get to the fucking point.”
“I need you to sell some of those drugs that killed the teenager. That’s why we’re here.”
“Are you kidding me?” Frankie lashed out, rapidly gesticulating. “Is that a fucking joke?”he got off the hood, appearing face-to-face with Zee.
“Those drugs you sold killed the kid, didn’t they?I need you to sell them to some gang bangers meeting us here any minute. They’ve been out of line recently and the boss hasn’t been too pleased with them. He wants them gone. That’s why I brought you along, killing two birds with one stone, I suppose.”
“First of all, I didn’t know the drugs were laced.If I’d known, I wouldn’t have sold it to the boss’s fucking son!” Frankie exclaimed, turning his back away from Zee. “Second,” he turned back, “If you wanted me to bring drugs, you should have told me before we drove all the way out here to butt fuck nowhere!”
“Don’t raise your voice in front of me,” Zee snarled at Frankie, slowly hoisting himself off the hood of the car. “Raise your voice one more time. I dare you.”
“You’re not a very bright person, you fucking spi–”Frankie couldn’t finish his sentence.Zee clobbered his fist into Frankie’s midsection,forcing him to heave out some leftover pancakes that had been lodged between his throat and stomach. He’d overeaten for sure.
“You owe me a fucking pancake,” Frankie said, bending over and wiping his mouth with his shirt while looking down at the half-digested flapjack.
“I told you, I don’t have any drugs with me,” Frankie stood up, lessening the intensity of his tone. “Please don’t fucking hit me again,” he protected himself cowardly by throwing up a forearm, noticing Zee walking towards him.
“Where are the drugs? I don’t want to ask again,”Zee said, gripping Frankie’s nape.
“How many times do I need to tell you, I don’t have any on me. What do you want me to do, whip it out of my ass or something?” Frankie responded,clenching his teeth from Zee’s compressing grip.
“Here they come,” Zee blurted out, letting go of Frankie to squint his eyes. Oncoming neon blue headlights lasered in on them. “Straighten up,” he said to Frankie, picking him up from the pavement.
The black SUV approaching the two was only present through the strobing lights that reflected off Frankie and Zee’s weather-wrinkly faces.As the SUV inched closer and closer, the two of them straightened their slouched postures and felt a warm moisture soften their armpits.Beads of sweat rolled down both of their foreheads in random patterns. Fear was palpable but lessened briefly when one door from the SUV swung open after the latch inside the car sounded off.
“Throw it over here!” someone from the SUV yelled,still not physically visible to Frankie and Zee.
The sole sound of the SUV’s engine rumbled in the area, as the yeller waited for a response. Zee remained frozen, side by side with Frankie,pending some type of deus ex-machina divine intervention. Nothing occurred, and with panic presenting itself at an abnormal pace through his throbbing heartbeat, Zee lightly tapped Frankie on his shoulder.
“Run,” Zee whispered, already bolting in the opposite direction.
The sound of Zee’s low-toned voice didn’t echo over to Frankie like it was intended to.Frankie was instead met with a stray of bullets caving into his forehead. His body dropped down instantly.
(Bio: Liam Musumeci is a new writer who recently took a fiction-writing seminar and participated in a weekly workshop group during his junior year at Georgetown University. He is from New York City and plans to graduate in 2022 with an undergraduate degree in History as well as a minor in Film and Media Studies. In the past, Liam has interned at CNN from Cuomo Prime Time.)