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The Hustle

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Angie's cousin Tito is a hustler. The best shot at pool in all of Brooklyn, maybe even the five boroughs.  It drives her ma mad with worry, her eyes cast towards the cross on the wall and the picture of the Virgin beside it.  Keep him safe, she'd whisper, kissing her rosary when he'd slip out late at night.

On those nights, even Angie prays he'll stay safe.  His father died in the war, his mother of the flu when they could scarce afford rent, let alone a doctor. Tito's the closest thing that Angie has to a brother.

When he starts hustlin' the wrong crowd, the crowd that Angie's other uncles - the ones that survived the war - run with, Angie starts to get worried.  Her mother worries too, the rosary beads clutched in her hand at the front of the church.  The priest won't see Angie any more, and the nuns give her dirty looks when she comes in to sit with her mother, hands folded in her lap as her mother kneels before the cross.  She doesn't fit here. The good pious girl is gone to the big bands and flashing lights of Broadway.

She was gone long before that, though. Gone when she'd confessed to Father Bosco that something wasn't quite right about her.  Her mother doesn't talk about that day when Angie was fifteen when she'd come home to find Tito sitting with her mother. He'd heard her confession, he said, and it wasn't right. She doesn't talk about how her mother went to the church and the the priest had recommended an institution, or how Angie had spent three months shut away there when her family could scarcely afford food and there was no work for her mother. They told her it was to fix her, but she'd never felt broken.

Silences fill the space between them, punctuated with stiff conversation in two languages.  Angie refuses to coddle her mother, and only speaks English to her, her mother refuses to acknowledge that Angie is losing her heritage and is becoming more American.

Her uncles crack their knuckles and say things that cut her deeply. Tito is the only one who cares about her, but even he doesn't like it. She knows she could sent away again, if the wrong person found out, but she's better now.  She doesn't think about it, and goes dancing with navy men at fleet week and lets them kiss her because that is what she's supposed to want.  She channels her anger and her confusion into her acting, she wins bit parts and wants more than her crap job at the Automat, serving coffee to ghoulish men who can't respect a dame even if she's their own mother.

Tito's hunched over the counter one morning in June, a cup of coffee steaming before him, reading the race results when it happens.  It's after the breakfast rush, in the lull of late-awaking wives and old folks who want to gather over nickel coffee and talk about the war or politics.  Angie's humming to herself, reading over Tito's shoulder as she passes, noting the baseball score from yesterday.

"Didn't you say you went to the game?" She glanced down at Tito as his dark hair fell into his eyes.  It was frizzing, the day was cool but humid, mist blowing in off the river sticking to everything and leaving Angie with lasting feeling of miserable dampness that even being indoors could not chase away.  "How'd they do?"

He shook his head and folded the paper.  "Didn't get there, had things to do."

"Things?" she questioned.

He looked up at her, brown eyes a warning.  "Yeah, Ang, things."

"I was only askin'."  Angie shakes her head and turns away. "She cute?"

Tito scowls.  "Your ma know you been askin' fellas about girls?"

Angie wants to pour her pot of coffee over his head.  The threat is there in his voice, and he'll make good on it, same as her uncles.  He does care about Angie, more than anyone else, but he's every bit as bad as the rest of them. He rubs Angie's face in her wrongness and snidely points out her flaws while standing in front of her to protect her from her uncle's belt or her grandfather's admonishment.

A family secret, that's all she is, the dirty little secret.

"It ain’t about no girl, since you wanna know." Tito continues.  "I was playin' Angie. Won three hundred bucks offa some suit with a mustache down at Lenny's."  Lenny's Pool Hall was one of Tito's favorite places to play.  It was close enough to the docks that it attracted all sorts, and was easy pickings for someone as good as Tito.  “Got another game tonight. A real big fish.”

Angie shakes her head. "Don't get your thumbs broke."

"I won't."

He gets up and leaves a few minutes later, Angie wandering over, a smile that's too wide plastered onto her face.  The bell rings as he saunters off, cap perched on his head and queue case tucked under his arm.  Angie wants to hate him, watching him walk away like that, but he's family and family sticks together.  She can't pick 'em, and they're certainly not going anywhere.  She's got to grit her teeth, grin and bear it.

There’s one of those pregnant pauses that Angie always gets caught up in, her fingers preforming the same medial task over and over again.  Today it’s folding paper napkins. She doesn’t even hear the bell ring at the door until the cook clears his throat loudly and Angie looks up.  Her breath catches and she has to swallow down her blush.  Her hands still, she forces on her best smile.

“English,” she whispers.  It comes out a hoarse croak.  Peggy Carter’s right eye is a livid black and blue, and she’s got a bandage around her hand that looks nasty and is still a bit stained with blood. She hasn’t been home the past few days, telephone conference in DC, she’d explained loading up her suitcase while Angie leaned against her open door and watched her movements with the lazy appreciation that a gal sometimes has for a friend.  “What happened to you?”

Peggy slumps down into Tito’s vacated stool and Angie turns and collects the tea things without a word.  She sets the milk and sugar that Peggy usually turns away down before her and gives her a look, the kind that Angie’s got to remember for auditions.  The one that brooks no argument at all.  “Thank you,” Peggy says weakly.

Tea softens her.  It makes her seem less brittle, less like she’ll fall apart if Angie touches her.  Peggy’s shoulders hunch forward and she holds the tea before her, two sugar cubes deposited in when she thought Angie wasn’t looking and far more milky than it usually is.  Angie fists her hands in her apron so she doesn’t reach out and press her fingers to Peggy’s temple and smooth her hair into something less bedraggled looking.  Anything to make her look less like she hasn’t lived through a war and a half, and that she’s still fighting.

“You gonna tell me what happened?”

“You know I can’t.” Peggy replies, her eyes shifting down, guilty. 

“Won’t here or you ain’t gonna?”

“At home, Angie, please.”

Angie’s missed her. 

“You want a sandwich?”  Angie asks.  She has to back away to keep herself from reaching out, pressing her hand onto Peggy’s clenched fist.  “You look half starved.”

“That would be lovely,” Peggy’s voice is as brittle as she looks.

Angie busies herself with putting the order in, with refilling the coffee of those who are still lingering.  She busies herself thinking about Tito’s visit and how she just knows if he goes down to Lenny’s that he’s going to get his thumbs broke and then her ma will be in a state for weeks over it.  She turns as the farthest end of the counter and catches Peggy watching her, her face a stormy mask of bruised skin and half-described worry.  She puts her best smile and saunters back over, her fingers brushing Peggy’s shoulder and pretending that she doesn’t feel Peggy flinch away from the contact.

-

Their living arrangements are such that they’re just sitting down to a dinner of fresh green beans and potatoes that Angie bought off the back of a farmer’s truck on her way home. The silence between them is pleasant and comfortable. Angie’s grateful that Peggy understands her need for silence sometimes.

The phone rings.  Angie moves to get up, but Peggy just shakes her head.  “It’s probably Howard,” she says.  “I should--” 

She takes the call in the sitting room that they don’t often use.  The sofa in there is overstuffed and Angie is worried that if she sits on it wrong, it’ll get dirty.  Mr. Stark seems nice enough, but she doesn’t want to ruin his furniture.  She dully moves a bean around on the plate, making a point not to listen in to Peggy’s conversation.  It would be so easy too; she could get up and pick up the telephone in here, cup her hand over the receiver and just listen. 

Angie has to know that Peggy is alright.

“Angie!” Peggy calls. Angie starts, turns around to face the half-open door from the kitchen.  “It’s for you.”

“Me?” Angie sets down her napkin and heads into the sitting room.  Peggy’s eye, up close and all personal like, is even worse than it was at a distance.  She smells like expensive perfume and her lipstick’s a bit smudged. She’s disheveled in the best possible way, the kind of way that Angie would very much like to make her, if the world wasn’t cruel and if Peggy wasn’t cut by the hurts of a thousand losses.  “Did they say who it was?”

The receiver pressed to her chest, Peggy shakes her head. “It’s a man’s voice. He seemed a little alarmed that you didn’t answer.” She holds out the receiver and Angie takes it, trying to keep the curiosity from showing in her face.

“You should get a steak out for your eye, Peggy, seriously. It looks awful.”  Angie smiles as sympathetically as she can, watching as Peggy slips from the room, shaking her head.  The war never ended her for her, and it’s written clear as day across her face when Angie suggests such a luxury as a frozen block of meat to keep the swelling down.  Peggy would never waste such a precious commodity.  She sighs quietly and brings the phone to her ear.  “This is Angie.”

The man on the other line is breathing heavily.  It rattles in his chest, hollow and echoing. At first Angie thinks it’s the connection, but then she remembers that this is Howard Stark’s apartment, and he’s got the best everything. The connection would not be bad.  “Ang?” Angie’s eyes flutter closed.  It’s Tito. “Ang you gotta to come get me.”  He’s speaking Italian, his breath fast and labored. It sounds wet, like it’s coming from underwater.  “I think – I think—” Tito trails off, his breath shudders in this chest.

Angie’s knuckles are white on the phone receiver.

“Where are you?”

“Where d’ya think?” 

She closes her eyes and mentally calculates how long it will take to take a cab across the river and over to the harbor at this hour. The train isn’t safe this late. “Give me forty-five minutes.” 

Tito’s breath shudders in Angie’s ear. It sounds wet, like he’s got a mouth full of water.  Angie’s stomach turns sour. It’s blood.  “Don’ call Ma.”

“She ain’t your ma,” Angie replies. She is breathless too, agitated. She hates Tito and yet she loves him all the same. He’s no better than any of the men in her family, but at least he doesn’t go out of his way to make her cry. “And she’ll be worried sick when she sees the end of whatever beatin’ you brought on yourself.”

“Just—”

Angie hangs up. Her fingers tighten into a fist, shaking, shaking. She whispers words that aren’t proper for a gal to know, especially one like her. Over and over again.  Her nails bite at her palm. The pain is sharp, cutting. Her mother’s slaps when she found out, Tito’s gleeful face as she cried into her rosary at church the next day. He was the one who told her ma. She has to forget it daily, for the dreams of it keep her up long into the night.

The priest had told her to repent, but that the only place she was going was hell.

It doesn’t matter. Tito is family.

Peggy is in the doorway, the steak from the freezer is pressed to her eye. Angie has been saving for a night when they’re both home and Mr. Fancy and his lovely wife are able to come over for dinner. A double date, she joked with Mr. Fancy when he came by with the laundry earlier that week.  He looked at her oddly then, and then smiled sadly. “That’s a hard road, Ms. Martinelli.”

He said it as if Angie wasn’t haunted by that fact every day of her life.

“I need to go,” Angie says.

Peggy lowers the steak, her mascara has run under it and it gives her a wild look. “What’s happened?”

“Nothing.” Angie shakes her head. “My cousin hustles pool sometimes, when he’s not running for whatever scumbag my uncles are working for at the moment. He bet the wrong guy, and they beat him up. I have to go get him.”

Peggy’s expression hardens from polite concern to determination. She looks like she could go off to war and come back with Hitler himself on his knees. Angie wishes she could have seen Peggy in uniform. “I’m coming with you.”

The tone allows for no argument.

-

“I lost three thousand dollars, Ang.” Tito is halfway to sobbing, tears running down his sweaty, grime-covered face. Angie is bending over him where he sits, slumped against the pay telephone outside the pool hall.  His lip is split and bleeding, and he keeps squinting up at Peggy, who is standing a few paces away, silent and menacing, like she’s about to hit him. “Three thousand lousy dollars.”

Angie wants to slap him. Instead she sits back on her heels and stares at him, a little dumbfounded at that much money just gone. “Three thousand dollars? Tito, what were you thinking?”

His eyes are glazed, his head’s all rattled.

“He probably has a concussion,” Peggy says. She is eying the pool hall, her lip curling in disdain. In the dim light from the windows, her face is awash with shadows. She looks like a girl from the movies, cast in darkness and full of mystery. “We should take him to a hospital.”

Tito coughs and then starts to laugh. He winces. “The bird’s a Brit?” His breath hisses painfully from his clenched teeth. Blood starts to dribble from the corner of his mouth. They have to get him out of here. Angie dips her head to start to look for his injurie. His face seems mostly alright, a glancing blow at the most and a bloody cut on his forehead, but something else is wrong. “I gotta say, for a queer you got good taste.”

“She doesn’t go to my church,” Angie mutters in a low voice. “Shut up, Tito. She doesn’t—” She presses her handkerchief to the bloody wound on his forehead and helps him get unsteadily to his feet. Its then that she sees why his breath sounds so watery.  The pool cue is embedded in his side, broken off and stuck in like Tito was made of butter not flesh and blood.  Angie recoils, bile rising in her throat.

Peggy sweeps forward and catches Tito as he falls awkwardly forward. He grins rakishly at her, the blood loss pulling the delirium and politeness from his voice as he leans heavily on Peggy’s shoulder.  “That’s some shiner… did she give it to you? Always had a temper, jus’ like her ol’ man.” He sways and Angie swallows down the vomit that surges into her mouth, her face as carefully neutral as she can make it.  Peggy is inspecting the cue and shaking her head, not really listening to Tito. “Didja know my cousin’s—”

The strangest thing happens.  Peggy’s hand slips and bumps the cue, and Tito lets out a sharp bark of pain. “We should get you to a hospital,” she says, and her face is a wash of contempt.

Angie’s heart hammers in her chest.

-

Tito was hustlin’ with someone else’s money. Angie can see the strangled panic in his eyes as he lays back and listens to the doctor lecture him about getting involved with the kind of men who’ll break his cue and jab him with it like he’s some sort of fancy restaurant entrée served up and freshly charbroiled. He’ll be in surgery for hours. He might not pull through. The doctors think that the only reason he hasn’t died yet is because the cue was keeping most of the blood in him.

They’re going to take him into surgery soon. She doesn’t have to wait, it’ll be hours and they’ll call.  Angie is grateful, she hates hospitals. She hates what they remind her of, long days staring at pictures of men and knowing that she should like them but hating herself every moment that she could not even bring herself to look at them.  Getting out of that place so quickly is probably the greatest achievement of her acting career.

She is just turning to leave, to call her ma and explain what’s happened even though she has no words for this foolishness, when Tito gets her attention. His hand shoots out, wrapping around her wrist tight enough to bruise. “Angie, Angie… You gotta get Lorenzo the money.”

Angie’s jaw tightens. In the doorway, she sees Peggy’s hand clench into a fist. “I don’t got it, Tito.”

“You gotta get it, Angie.” He’s pulling her back now, his breath wet and labored.  “You gotta get it an’ tell ‘Zo tha’ I’m sorry. I didn’t know they were that good, I though’ -- I though’ I could play ‘em. You can. You’re better.”

He passes out. His fingers go slack on Angie’s wrist.  Lorenzo. Angie feels the color start to drain from her cheeks.

“Who is Lorenzo?” Peggy asks.

Angie inhales. Exhales. Inhales again.  “Bad news.” She shakes her head. “You should go home, English. Stay out of this.”

Peggy folds her arms over her chest. “I’m not going anywhere.”

She should have known better than to expect anything less from Peggy.  She’s a fighter, after all. Angie knows this. The little details of her life that Angie has been able to wheedle out of her are enough to tell Angie that it has been full of loss and suffering up until now. Peggy is so much better than the awful men she works for, better than Howard Stark and his fancy butler.  Better than this county could ever offer her.  She’s more an American patriot than Angie has ever been.

“Who is Lorenzo?” Peggy asks again.  She crosses into the room and stands right before Angie. She doesn’t touch her, doesn’t broach that barrier of personal space that Angie so wishes that she would.  She lingers just on the outskirts, her fingers relaxed, but twitching, reaching forward. She wants to reach out, but is unsure.

That makes two of them.

“He’s a lieutenant for the Sicilians.” Angie sucks in a slow, steadying breath. She needs a cigarette even though she quit when her acting teacher told her it would ruin her teeth. Her nerves are frayed. “Nasty guy. Likes to loan people money they can’t ever pay off.”

“Is that what he did to your cousin?” Peggy asks.

Angie shakes her head. “No, Tito an’ him, well, they’re tight.” She hangs her head. “There’s a reason I don’t really talk to my family, Peggy. It isn’t because they… don’t.”

“Don’t respect who you are?” Peggy tries. Her expression is warm, open. Angie wonders if it’s because she was in the service. She probably knew loads of girls like Angie. They all ran there when the war started, it was safer than trying to stay home.

“Keep your voice down,” Angie hisses.  She didn’t spend three months in that awful place to get sent back there again. She reaches forward and grabs Peggy’s hand, pulling her through the hospital room door and down the brightly lit hallway towards the stairs.  Once they’re there and Angie is sure they’re alone, she shakes her head once. “Don’t talk about that. Please Pegs. Don’t.”

Peggy frowns. “It’s who you are, Angie.” She says it with such conviction that Angie almost wants to believe her sincerity. “I won’t let you go around hating yourself for it.”

“You’re a decade too late for that.”  Christ, she needs a cigarette.  Angie runs her fingers through her hair, glad that there are no pins and that the hour is late. She’s off tomorrow. Her day was supposed to be spent palling around with Peggy, as she’s on leave until next Thursday while the doctors evaluate her eye.  Now though, now it’s all stupid Tito getting the bum’s rush out of a pool hall and three thousand missing dollars. It’s a problem she doesn’t know how to fix.  “It has nothing to do with that. Tito likes to make me feel awful about it, tells my ma all sorts of things he shouldn’t, but he’s family.”

“Sharing blood doesn’t mean that you’re family.”

“Tito is my blood, Peggy. I can’t just turn my back on him.”

“Three thousand dollars is a lot of money, Angie.” Peggy exhales steadily. She looks down and Angie realizes that she hasn’t let go of Peggy’s hand.  She doesn’t pull away now.  Instead she tightens her fingers.  “How are you going to get it?”

A smile tugs at the corners of Angie’s mouth.  “Who do you think taught Tito to shoot pool?”

Peggy raises an eyebrow. “You’re having me on.”

“Not at all, English. I jus' ain't stupid. I know a place where I can get the cash and I won’t get gutted by my cue in the process of doing it.” She tilts her head to one side, a plan forming in her mind. She’s not going in there alone. She’s not that brave. With Peggy, though, she could do anything. “You mind puttin’ on a pretty dress for me?”

“Angie, I—”

And Angie forgets herself and leans forward, pressing a kiss to Peggy’s cheek.  Her skin is soft, and cheeks are flushed when Angie pulls away.  Angie squeezes Peggy’s hand and Peggy squeezes back. “You’ll be aces.”