A Mystery by Paul Perilli
It often feels like we’re living in an age of identity obfuscation. People choose alias, noms de plume, stage names, nicknames . . . sometimes it must be hard to remember exactly who you are. Or, in the case of Ben, whom this story is about, how you ever got yourself into such a mess that you had to change your name and . . .. But let’s let author Paul Perilli open the creaking door to tell us Ben’s story.
THE STREETS OF NEW YORK CHANGE as often as the seasons. Each year businesses come and go. For the most part their opening and closing have little effect on me. The Mexican restaurant on Manhattan Ave. I ordered from once or twice a year is now an empty storefront next to a fresh juice joint that opened last month. Out on a walk the other day I went past a shoe store I never bought anything from to see it was having a closeout sale. Then there are those other places I frequent that I expect will continue to be there. The ones that create a stable sense of place for me. Thus, I was saddened to be told a certain small brewhouse in Long Island City had shut down for good.
It was a favorite spot of mine when I lived over that way some years ago. Once a week I met friends there to drink IPAs, pilsners, and now and then a sour. Every so often I sat by myself with a pint and read the news on my phone while listening to the sounds streaming out of the overhead speakers. Much of the music was good, though I preferred the blues and jazz played the nights Ben worked. To me, Ben was more than just one of the employees who described the tastes and quality of the drafts he poured. He was in his late twenties, a bit hyper, with tattoos on both arms. I might have been ten years older, but we were both from Boston and so had a lot to talk about. When I was there alone he would stop by my table to chat about music or sports. One snowy winter night as I was on my way out and he was closing up early, he wondered if I wanted to stick around a while? He flicked a hand at his mouth, and said, “On the house.”
The door locked, we took fresh pints back to a table by the wood stove. We were there fifteen minutes when he confided a story I feel is okay to divulge since so much time has passed. Its unfolding started when he mentioned he was leaving New York soon. Of course, I was sorry to hear that. As I said, I become attached to certain establishments and the people in them.
“On to something interesting?” I said.
“I suppose so,” Ben said, though the look he sent my way had more in it than that.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
In a casual voice, he said, “Once I feel settled somewhere I know it’s time to move on.”
“Not a bad way to live,” I said. “I don’t leave a place until it doesn’t want me anymore.”
“If I tell you something you have to promise not to mention it to anyone.”
“You put it like that, I’m not sure I want to hear it. But now that you did, you have to tell me.”
He shook his head, looked at me, and said, “You know the part of Boston I grew up in was pretty rough. Lot of bars and trouble. The Irish and Italian gangs controlled the streets. If you wanted to survive you had to hook on to one or you were doomed. I got in with a pretty wild group. We did a lot of petty crimes. Breaking into stores, shoplifting, selling pot. We got into fights. I never stabbed anyone like a couple of guys I knew did. I was good at hot-wiring cars. We’d pick one out. Nothing fancy or conspicuous. I took out my trusty screwdriver and got it started. We’d ride around a few hours. Sometimes all night. After that we left it someplace dark. Usually over by Logan. A few we took to a chop shop. If it was any good we might get a hundred bucks. What I’m getting at is, the older guys in the gang had connections to a mob boss. They didn’t work for him, but they knew guys in his sphere. I won’t tell you his name. I don’t want to put it in your head.”
I held out a hand as if to stop him. “I don’t want it in there.”
“Well, he was notorious. Feared. Not just in my neighborhood. All over town. I think I was fifteen the first time I saw him. We were playing baseball at our park. He and three of his guys got out of their cars, walked our way and sat on the third base stands. I didn’t know who they were. It was obvious one of them was the center of attention. After they left one of my friends pointed in the direction they drove off. ‘You know who that was? It’s…’ I won’t say his name. Though I’m pretty sure you have an idea who I’m talking about.”
I nodded my head. “Maybe I do.”
“I knew of him by then. The rumor was he killed ten people in his teens. He made money the old-fashioned way, stealing, gambling, protection. Anyway, not long after that I saw him and his guys coming out of a pool hall. I was across the street. I stood there staring at him. I couldn’t help it. What got me most was he looked like a regular dude. He didn’t dress in sharp clothes. If you didn’t know who he was you’d walk by him without thinking anything. When we were eighteen my gang and I started hanging around a bar a couple of his guys went to. A joint called The Plaza. If you were from around there no one asked if you were twenty-one. We didn’t need fake IDs. The cops never bothered us. That’s the way it was. The guys before you did it, so you did it.”
In the time it took Ben to take a sip, I said, “Your parents know any of this?”
“They knew something. They lived there. They knew what went on. I never got arrested. Never had to go to court. They must have figured I wasn’t into anything too bad. Plus, I did okay in school. I had a solid B average. Every report card I got an A or two. I promised them I’d go to college. I think I told you I studied business at Suffolk. What I didn’t tell you was, I did that until something happened.” Ben stared into my eyes.
I said, “Something not good, I take it.”
“Okay, so The Plaza became our main meetup place. One night a few of us were at a table when the mob boss came in with some of his buddies. It was the first time I’d seen him in there. One of our guys knew one of his guys and they stopped by to say hello. Pretty soon we were telling each other our names. Saying what we did. When I mentioned I was in college the boss’s boys laughed like I’d said something funny. Like it was a big joke. The boss took notice. He looked at me. Right into my eyes. It made me nervous. It was like he was taking in all of your being and deciding what value you had for him. ‘What’s your name?’ I’d just said it, but I told him again. He said, ‘Don’t listen to them. You’re doing good things. Keep it up.’ Thing is, I think he meant it. Maybe he decided on the spot he liked me. Maybe he thought I might be able to help him someday. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. In a while he and his guys took the table next to ours. They lowered their voices. Something was up. Whatever it was, we figured they were always plotting their next move.
“After that, I saw them now and then. Not often. On the street. In The Plaza. If they recognized me, they didn’t show it. They didn’t say hello. I didn’t mind. Like I said, they intimidated me. I didn’t want to get close. I had other plans for myself. Let me freshen up our beers.”
Ben took our glasses, went to the taps and topped off our pints. When he was back, he said, “Where was I?”
“Oh yeah, right. So one night I was heading back to my parents’ place after some heavy drinking. We lived on the top floor of a three-decker. A Boston classic. It was late. Around one. All was quiet until I came to that park where I played ball. I heard a conversation going on. A loud one. When I got near the entrance I realized a guy was pleading for his life. ‘No, don’t. Don’t do it. Don’t.’ Then I heard a creepy grunting sound. It took a while for me to focus on what was going on. It was them. The mob boss and his guys were over by the stands beating the crap out of someone. One of them kicked him. Another punched him in the head. I was by the gate watching. It was like a scene out of Goodfellas. Only it was happening a hundred feet from me. It was a shortcut, but no way I was going through there. I was about to head for the side streets when I heard BAP. One shot. It startled me. I blurted ‘what the hell?‘ I didn’t mean to. It just came out. Loud enough to get the boss’s attention. He looked my way. Then one of his guys yelled. ‘Hey you, come here.’ I shook my head. I wasn’t going to do that. He made a move to come at me. A couple of steps. The boss still staring at me. I swear I could feel his eyes burning into my skin. The other guy showed me the gun, so I took off. Maybe I shouldn’t have. I’d committed. There was no going back.
“By the time I got home I was shaking like a leaf. No one was up. I was the last kid living there. My parents were used to me coming in late, so I didn’t have to talk to them. Anyway, I stayed up all night going over what happened. Did they know who it was, the kid in college? I had the idea boss man recognized me. I was in a tough spot. Do I go on pretending I didn’t see them? Thinking they didn’t know it was me? The next day it was a big story in the papers. Not one but two guys were murdered. The poor sucker in the park. Probably shot in the head. Another a few blocks from there. Same thing. Ka-boom in the brain. The cops were looking for witnesses to come forward. That was me.
“The only thing I could think of was to lay low. I didn’t answer my phone. I didn’t meet up with my friends. I avoided The Plaza. I had no intention of getting cornered in there. I went to my job. That was it. After a week I started thinking I was in the clear. Then a friend left me a message. One of the boss’s guys was in The Plaza asking about me. Wanted to know my name. My friend gave it to him. He didn’t know what it was about, and I didn’t tell him. If they knew who I was they could find out where I lived. It was a just matter of time before they looked for me there. I didn’t know what they’d do. I didn’t know what to do. I knew I didn’t want my parents to have to deal with it. Whatever it was.
“I thought the best thing I could do was tell the cops. Not about me. I wasn’t going to give them my name. I wasn’t going to go to the station to have a chat. I thought the boss might have a relationship with them. I didn’t want to use my cell phone to call. I didn’t even want to make a call from a payphone in the ‘hood in case it could be traced. I called from one on a shitty side street off Harrison Ave. I disguised my voice. I told a sergeant what I saw. He knew what was going on. He wanted me to go in to give a statement. After I hung up I wondered, had I done the right thing? I was scared shitless. Would he tell the boss man and his guys? Would he arrest them?
“That weekend I told my parents I was going to Vermont with a friend from school. I took most of my money out of the bank and went by myself. That’s when I called them to say I wasn’t coming back anytime soon. My father told me a guy was hanging around the front of their place that morning.”
“He told you that?”
“He knew something was up. Maybe something not good.”
“We had a talk. I told him everything. I said if anyone asked, to say I went to live in Maine. Fortunately, no one bothered them. I got a bartending job in a dive in Burlington. I set up a new life. That went okay until I got spooked. I was sure I was being followed. It might have been in my head. I didn’t know. I didn’t want to chance it. A week later, I was out of there. That’s how it’s been since. I’m still not sure they’re looking for me. But I have to think they are. I know I can never go back to my old ‘hood. You understand it’s not something I want to find out.”
“What about your family?”
“They’re okay. I see them a few of times a year. Just not at their place. And one more thing. You can’t tell this to anyone. No one. Not even when I’m gone.” He stared at me.
“Trust me, I won’t.”
“Ben Ryan’s not my real name, even if my driver’s license says it is.”
I live in Brooklyn, New York. My fiction, articles, and essays have been published in The European, Baltimore Magazine, Poets & Writers Magazine, New Observations Magazine, Thema, Overland, and many other places. My recent fiction appears in The Write Launch (a novelette, “Roman Days”), Zin Daily (speculative fiction, “Vacation Time”), and Fairlight Books (a forthcoming long story, “Vino, Vino”). I’ve also published 4 chapbooks and been included in several anthologies.