Tale as old as time
True as it can be
Barely even friends
Then somebody bends
Just a little change
Small to say the least
Both a little scared
Neither one prepared . . .
Disney’s Beauty and the Beast - Music by Alan Menken
Early October put a nip in the air and stole away daylight in bits and pieces. That meant less freedom. More homework. Davey knew he was supposed to head home when the streetlights came on, but his team was winning the stickball game and he couldn’t just leave. By the time he scored the winning run, it was at least half an hour past curfew.
A pack of cigarettes passed around set him behind even more. But the hard-fought win and daring celebration was worth the lecture - or worse - he'd get when he got home. When the cigarettes had burned down to ashes, his teammates scattered like cockroaches.
Davey had kicked a can half-way to King’s Theatre when he saw the black and white coming down the street toward him.
Damn. His pop or even someone else from his department must be out looking for him. In all likelihood, his mom had reported that he was late coming home. Davey wished she’d stop treating him like he was Nicky’s age. He was practically thirteen after all. Being a cop’s kid, he could rarely get away with anything.
He ducked behind a garbage can set out on a nearby curb for the morning’s pickup. The beams from the patrol car’s headlights cut through the falling night like cat’s eyes. As the car cruised past, Davey let go of the breath he’d been holding. He needed more time to come up with a sympathetic story for being late and for the tobacco scent that clung to his jacket to fade.
Davey waited until he figured the car was several blocks down Albemarle before he stood up. He sniffed his collar and wondered if his mother would believe that Sammy Katz had twisted his ankle and Davey’d helped him home. Just then, two explosions in quick succession came from the direction of Albemarle, making him jump. They were followed by the slam of metal on metal and sound of glass breaking. A car horn began to wail.
An over-active curiosity overcame his fear of being discovered out past curfew. He took off at a sprint toward Albemarle. Two blocks down, the squad car that had passed him had run up a curb and into a light post. The hood had compressed into the front seat like his cousin’s accordion.
Out of the corner of his eye, Davey saw a man in a long dark coat disappear into an alley. Everyone else on the block seemed to have gone into hiding.
Davey ran up to the car and stopped short a few feet away. Steam rose from what was once the engine compartment. The horn continued to blare. Through the side window he could see an officer hunched over the steering wheel, motionless. Blood seeped through the back of his uniform, forming a dark, wet splotch between his shoulder blades. Dave couldn't see the man’s face but he couldn’t mistake the dark hair that curled above the collar.
Suddenly, above the plaintive horn, the night erupted with the scream of sirens. Three black and whites careened down the street, squealing to a stop in a semi-circle around Davey’s father’s car. Officers Davey recognized from departmental picnics and occasional dinners at his family’s house jumped out of their cars. Two went to pull his father out from behind the wheel as another grabbed Davey and shook him.
“What happened?” A man he knew as Officer Grendel, asked.
“I . . . I don’t know,” Davey stammered. “I was around the corner when I heard something like gun fire. I just ran over here to see. Is pop gonna be okay?”
Officer Grendel looked over at Sargent Starsky now laying on the ground, his fellow officers hovering over him and checking his vital signs, then turned back to Davey. His lips were as tight as the head of a drum. Rather than answer the boy’s question, he instead put his hands on his shoulders and turned him away.
“You okay, kid?” the officer asked.
Davey nodded. He stretched his neck to look around to where his father lay but Grendel maneuvered him to his squad car. He called dispatch for an ambulance, speaking tersely about a hit and an officer down. And something more. Something about the threat to take out a policeman that had apparently been carried out.
That's when Davey knew. He'd often been told he was too sharp for his own good. Pop was gone. He'd been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Davey felt hot and cold at the same time. But there was something else Davey felt all the way through to his bones – the knowledge that his father would still be alive if he hadn't been there looking for Davey.
If only Davey had gone home on time . . .
Twelve years later.
Dave Starsky handed the envelope thick with cash to his boss, Big Joe Durniak. Joe gave him a smile. Over the years, they’d become more like family than employer and employee. Everyone on the block liked Big Joe. He had a knack of showing up just when someone needed a hand. Spare tires to replace treads worn dangerously thin, a bag of groceries when the union went on strike, a teddy bear for a new baby. Flowers for a funeral.
Joe Durniak had been giving Dave errands to earn extra money since even before he was old enough to drive. He’d approached him shortly after his father had been buried. Dave was happy to have the extra money in his pocket. Even more, he liked the excuse to be away from home. To escape from the pain - and blame - he saw in his mother’s eyes whenever she looked at him.
She never said anything about it, of course. Only to remind Davey how he was man of the house. To tell him that he needed to look out for his little brother. But mostly, she warned him to stay clear of the trouble that was too easy to find on the street without a father to guide him. It didn’t matter. She might have well have painted it on a fucking billboard.
Little Davey Starsky was responsible for his father’s death.
But now little Davey Starsky had grown into a man. He could tell Joe Durniak liked him. It felt good to be seen for something other than a monster. He knew his mother wouldn’t have approved of most of the errands he did. The deliveries made to back alley doors, or standing guard when one of Joe’s partners talked to a customer. He learned to ignore the shouts and sounds of broken glass that came from inside, the same way he’d learned to block out of his feelings.
Slowly but surely he took on ever riskier jobs as though he had nothing to lose.
Then came a stint in the army after high school. It did nothing to temper Dave Starsky. If anything, living through the brutality of war made him even harder. He internalized its ugliness, pushing out what was left of his humanity.
“You’ve done good, Davey,” Joe told him as he tucked the envelope in his overcoat. Dave winced at the childish name even as the simple compliment warmed the chill in his heart. “I have something special for you. I think you’re ready to move up.”
“Sure, Joe.” Dave answered. Anything was better than staying where he was. Sometimes it felt like his whole body itched. He wondered if a snake felt this way when its skin was molting.
“I have an associate out in Los Angeles who says he could use a man like you. Someone capable and trustworthy. Someone who doesn’t ask too many questions.”
“California?” A world away from the concrete cage of New York. Somewhere it was always warm and sunny. The thought took Dave’s breath away.
“What do ya say?”
Joe took Dave’s silence as a yes. Besides, no one said ‘no’ to Big Joe Durniak.
Joe made the arrangements, all Dave had to do was tell his mother and Nicky he was leaving. Nick fumed with jealousy and Dave ached to tell him he was nothing to be jealous of. Mrs. Starsky patted his cheek sadly. He could still feel the warmth of her hand as he stepped off the plane and into foreign territory. Sprawling where New York was condensed. Lush where New York was barren. But he’d been in foreign lands before. It wasn’t as if he felt he really belonged anywhere. So he stiffened his spine, schooled the features of his face and buried any trepidation deep in his chest.
A driver picked him up and took him to a nondescript, two-story building that looked like it should apologize for its appearance in a town known for its glitter and glamour. Inside, he was introduced to his new boss, Gus Stone.
Gus held court behind a large walnut desk. He combed ringed fingers through heavy, dark hair. Some might have considered him good looking but Starsky only saw a man driven to a hard edge. “Joe says you can be trusted,” Gus said, eyeing Starsky up and down like a prize stallion. He must have liked what he saw since he bestowed Starsky with a toothy smile.
“That’s what Joe says.” Starsky replied simply, the itchy sensation returning. His jeans felt too thin, his sweater too prickly. Outside, the California sun poured out its warmth, but inside Gus’ office Starsky shivered.
Gus reached into the top drawer of his imposing desk and pulled out a black notebook. He handed it to Starsky. Starsky flipped the numerous pages that were set up like a accounting statement, with names, amounts, dates and running totals. Vinnie’s hardware, June 22 - $1,000. May paid $1,250. balance due - $500. Black check marks indicated accounts that were up to date. Red stars indicated accounts that had fallen behind.
“This is a list of all my accounts. What I’ve lent out and what I’m owed. I run an important operation. Everybody here has a lot on the line. I do my clients a favor by lending them money they can't get anywhere else. I expect loyalty in return.”
In Gus’ world, loyalty wasn't earned. It was bought and paid for. Unlike Big Joe, it wasn’t Gus’ style to check up on a neighbor or visit a friend in the hospital to win over hearts and minds. In fact, Starsky was pretty sure Gus didn't have friends. That was okay with Starsky, he thought, since neither did he.
“It'll be your job to make sure I get a return on my investment,” Gus said.
“Sure thing,” Starsky nodded. He could read between the lines as well as anyone and better than most. The notebook’s little red stars might well have been written in blood. But Big Joe had sent him here. Had recommended him for this job. The man who’d been like a second father to him must have realized this kind of work was the only thing Starsky was good for. He wasn’t surprised that Joe just might have known him better than he knew himself.
Starsky wondered how far he'd go to see that Gus’ accounts were paid. Break a window, break a finger or worse? But what could be worse than what he'd already done? He was irredeemable, not fit for polite society. A freak.
Gus tossed out a set of keys and Starsky snatched it out of the air with a ‘snick.’ His fingers curled around the small pieces of metal without further examination. “Keys to an apartment,” Gus said. “A car will be dropped off tomorrow. It should suit a macho guy like you.”
“Sure thing,” Starsky said. A bird in a gilded cage.
At first, the job was easier than Starsky thought it would be. When people saw him coming, they straightened up their work spaces, licked their lips, called him “Mister Starsky.” They handed over their hard-earned money with shaky hands.
He did nothing to dispel the notion that he was something to be feared. Gus’ clients had risked a deal with a devil in order to chase the American Dream. He had no desire to break boundaries or become personally involved. They reminded him too much of the life, and the people, he’d left behind.
Nicco who made Baklava that could melt in your mouth, Marie with the flower stand he could smell half a block away. “Something for your girlfriend?” She said one time, offering up a perfect rose after he’d taken enough money from her to feed her small family for a week. He turned his head and hurried away.
No rose, no lover. Not ever.
The last stop of the week was at a bar called “Huggy Bear’s.” Rough around the edges but somehow homey, too. It was popular with the locals without the bells and whistles - apart from a pinball machine and jukebox - preferred by the higher class crowd.
Starsky slid into a dimly lit back booth. As he drank the cold beer the waitress had brought, he watched cozy couples and small groups of friends unwind from a long week. For a minute he tried to imagine what it would be like to have people want to be with him, rather than fear him. To share a drink in friendship rather than supplication.
Starsky watched as a lanky African-American man, apparently the proprietor, made his rounds. His clothes were bright and flamboyant and seemed a reflection of his personality. With the energy of a well-aimed cue ball, the man bounced around the room. He helped the waitress hand out drinks and wiped down tables as he exchanged words with nearly everyone. Eventually, he made his way over to Starsky’s corner.
“Greetings, friend. I haven't seen you in here before.” He flipped the rag he'd been carrying over his shoulder and stuck out a long-fingered hand. “Huggy’s the name and service with a smile is my game.”
At first, Starsky just stared at the hand, then let his gaze travel the arm up to Huggy’s face, taking in his wide smile and bright eyes. “This isn't a social call,” he said.
Huggy withdrew his hand. “Then just why are you here?”
“Gus Stone sent me.”
“I see.” Huggy’s warm expression frosted over. “Excuse me for a minute.”
He walked away and Starsky’s eyes followed him as he opened a door to a room just past the bar. He didn’t have to wait long. Huggy emerged a few minutes later and came back over to take a seat across from Starsky. He slid an envelope to him under the table.
“It's all there,” Huggy told him.
Starsky nodded. “It better be. Or else.”
“Or else what? You’ll come back and smash a few bottles? Break a few heads? Look man, I borrowed money from your boss because I couldn't get it any other way. No bank was going to lend money to someone like me. Young, black, and with no references. But I got big dreams. This place,” he gestured around him, “is just the start.”
“Good for you,” Starsky said unenthusiastically as he took another swig of beer. It helped to sooth the tightness in his throat.
Huggy leaned his forearms in the table. “So what's your story?” He asked.
“What?” The question, asked in such a straightforward manner, took Starsky by surprise.
“How'd you come to work for a scum like Gus Stone? You seem like a smart guy.”
“You know nothin’ about me.” Starsky tipped back his beer, wanting nothing more than to finish it off and get out of the place.
“I know that everybody has a past. But you can't let your past keep you from moving on.”
Starsky slammed the now empty glass mug down on the table and stood up. “Maybe you should have been a shrink instead of a bar keep.”
Huggy just shrugged. “Sometimes they're the same thing,” he said as Starsky walked passed him.
Starsky strode to the door and nearly bumped into a tall blond man who was just walking in. The man quickly sidestepped him with athletic grace and looked to Starsky for an apology. Instead, Starsky sent him a dark glare. The other man remained uncowed, however. He just looked back at him with clear blue eyes. That’s when Starsky felt a spark between them, as if the friction of their encounter had lit a match in some other dimension. But then the moment passed and Starsky continued on his way.
Once out in the street, Starsky looked back into the window of the bar. He saw Huggy greet the newcomer warmly and show him to a center table. He watched the waitress hurry over to him. The man said something to her, perhaps asking for a drink. Or even a date, by the way the waitress fawned.
Starsky suppressed a sigh. Blond hair and blue eyes went a long way in this world. But Starsky was ugly through to his soul.