While my little arsonist tags behind me on the nighttime deck of the SS Lily, I recall the words, offered for my comfort, written in Abraham’s final letter: “There is nothing natural about protecting oneself. All homicides, even later construed as not immoral, necessitate a living soul either to execute or to allow to be executed in one decisive moment some obviously concrete criminal action, which reveals the lexicon of self-defense, coercion and even incapacity serves no other purpose than judicial artifice.”
I enter a private room on this gambling ship remade from an old, mediocre barge, which Anthony Cornero-Stralla has begun marketing on half-page advertisements in the Long Beach Press-Telegram and the Los Angeles Times as “All the Thrills of Riviera, Biarritz, Monte Carlo and Cannes Surpassed.” Sitting at a large, round table, directly across from where I stand like a lifeguard, Cornero smiles confidently. Though he has been subverting Prohibition for years now, expanding his operations to include Santa Monica, Culver City, and Las Vegas, he conducts himself as would any sea captain. He acts vain because he has built a successful reputation offering entertainment legal as it can be and has bragged, for years now, that he is prepared to offer one-hundred-thousand dollars to anyone who can prove that any of the games played on any of his ships are rigged. The more folks play for ten and twenty dollar payouts on the up and up, he reasons, then the faster and more secure his business will grow. To keep the gossipy Long Beach public at ease, and to conduct a portion of his politics in this part of Los Angeles County, he asked a few of us to invite one friend each to observe a casual, private seven-card stud game, played with a five-hundred-dollar minimum, on board the SS Lily. A special, one-time event, invitation only, secretly repeated every now and then, also on boats out past Santa Monica, too. They are already playing cards, when Solstice and I arrive a half-hour past the time of the game’s start.
“Gentlemen…” Cornero interjects, standing and pointing his open hand in my direction. “This is Anthony Camarrata, as some of you may know.”
It is clear to me, from his weathered grin, Cornero appreciates the obvious risks he has taken in the past and will likely to continue taking in the future. I have heard, since first meeting him, that he was once sentenced to prison and is known to repeat his famous tale of his escape to Canada and eventually Europe, where he lived for a couple of years, before returning, to turn himself in and serve his sentence. Later, Nevada taught him both to evade the law as much as evade east coast competitors, like Charles “Lucky” Luciano, who burned Cornero’s Vegas casinos during Prohibition and threatened him with worse. So, he settled, making peace with certain bosses running things along the Los Angeles coastline, from Santa Monica to Long Beach, now with an eye on Baja California, and ever always, the Las Vegas come back.
Although he never openly displays it, the gun Cornero carries often shows itself through its outline pushing against the fabric of his fashionable clothes and slick-backed hair.
Remaining on shore himself, my former employer, Don, has sponsored me for this game, covering my chips worth up to one thousand dollars, if necessary, by private agreement with Cornero. If I lose his money, Don has promised to take me out of Cornero’s corner and to force me into living straight, probably by enlisting in the Navy, if I can pass examination at my age, and if not, then junior college, “whatever my age,” he demands. But I am not interested in losing. And to some extent, I am only slightly more interested in winning. Rather, Cornero previously instructed me that my main purpose is merely to stay in this game and show smarts, make nice with Jim Bonner, Long Beach’s City Manager, appointed only last month, and now public enemy of Jack Yancy, Chief of Police.
“Anthony, this is Jim Bonner,” Cornero introduces. The politician and I shake hands. “Jim, Anthony’s a city lifeguard.”
Bonner is a long-time Democrat rumored to have ambitions for statewide office to be secured by turning Long Beach into southern California’s premier gambling capital on-shore. Cornero believes the key to success can be found by catching some of the dirt that Bonner may be willing to uncover about Yancy – a cop for over twenty years, former president of the California Peace Officer’s Association, and a long-time opponent to legal gambling and drinking. “Poker on lifeguard wages?” Bonner chides me, then turns around to introduce his southern belle, smoking tobacco cigarettes from a long ebony, ivory-tipped holder and drinking bourbon and lemonade from a wine glass. “The missus,” he says. “You bring anybody, Camarrata?”
I gesture for Solstice Meridian to come out from the shadows in the room. “Just my niece,” I reveal, which sparks laughter and jokes about nannies, except for Cornero, who keeps calm.
“J.D. Watkins, to the right of Bonner,” Cornero butts in. I doubt Watkins recalls meeting me, but I certainly remember him working as the foreman on the Signal Hill oil fields. He brags he now runs paving operations in Wilmington, which is expanding quickly, exploiting even greater reserves and creating bigger opportunities for oil men earning wages easily spent gambling and drinking. “He brought one of his lieutenants,” Cornero adds, pointing to the stocky man standing behind Watkins.
Watkins who is chewing a half-smoked cigar, mutters between his teeth, “He’s Alejandro.” I recognize Alejandro from working together on the roads on Signal Hill, and we nod to each other politely, quietly.
“Captain Stewart McKelvy, U.S. Navy, next to Watkins,” Cornero continues. McKelvy and I pretend not to know each other, so acknowledge each other by superficial glances. McKelvy introduces ’Olevaivai’olefe’e simply as “Fe’e.” In fact, ’Olevaivai’olefe’e and I agreed to find some way to get McKelvy invited to this game, after Cornero first invited me in July, in the middle of serving out Cornero’s summer lifeguard patronage. I doubt Cornero knows of my liaison with ’Olevaivai’olefe’e, although I cannot be sure, as I divulged its existence to the police, and so their snitches, on the morning after Dennis Carpenter’s murder. McKelvy succeeded meeting Cornero, privately on shore, by couriering word through me that the Navy tolerates gambling boats operating in international waters, beyond the impotent protests of state and local officials. Cornero, looking for more customers, sees sailors as business, and looks for the Navy’s tacit support, at the least. With this poker introduction, ’Olevaivai’olefe’e smiles in my direction, and I nod.
“Finally, Anthony, I believe you know Daryl Williams.”
Williams reluctantly stands at attention and approaches me, by going out of his way to walk around the table and shake my hand, which I offer after some hesitation. “And I didn’t bring anybody,” he admits, his eyes looking down to the floor. “Last time didn’t work out so well,” he mocks himself, causing everyone, including me, to laugh around the room.
Cornero finishes the introductions by saying about Williams, “He’s the Republican at the table,” a comment which sparks another round of chuckles.
“Anthony,” Cornero interrupts, gesturing. “Take this seat here, to my left.”
* * *
“Hitler?” McKelvy skeptically asks Watkins, who throws in the towel by taking a mighty drink from his whisky bottle and flipping down four upcards on top his short stack of chips. Then, he takes the cigar stub from a tray and tries to light it with a match.
“Fold,” grumbles Watkins. “Why… you don’t believe he had absolutely nothing to do with it, do you?” Watkins ribs the Navy captain, who hangs in the game with a couple hundred dollars after two hours of play. “You buy the communist angle?” the oilman doubts.
“Why not?” Williams yaps his big mouth. “They’re all over Long Beach, for crissakes, excuse my French.” Williams grabs my flask of tequila that I passed to McKelvy a couple hands ago.
Cornero, who deals this hand, draws attention back to the game. “Captain, it’s back to you.”
The Navy captain stares a long time at the two cards he holds in his hand, before returning them face down to the table. “Well,” he muses. “First I was in fifty, now I’m in another fifty.” If I discern any particular personality trait about McKelvy it is that he seems distracted easily, and pays as much attention to the conversation around the table as to the faces and gestures of others playing the game. He tosses in four ten dollar chips and two fives, showing a pair of sixes as among his upcards. “Call.”
Williams shows a possible mixed-suit straight among his up-cards of a four and five followed by a seven and three. He studies his hand carefully, perhaps contemplating a raise, prior to calling Bonner’s bet finally. “The hell do communists care about the Reichstag? They’d burn it first chance they’d get.” Williams looks at me directly, and I return the gaze, blowing reefer smoke in his direction, provoking him to cough.
Holding a pair of red queens, only one of which hides with the two against my chest, I think about whether I can win with two pair, because my four up-cards show two black jacks, plus a nine and one of the queens. Do I risk a full house?
Then, Williams bets cocky, which is probably why his stacks have grown a bit since the game started. Remembering Cornero’s warning for me to stay in the game, but seeing that my stacks have remained about as even as since I started, I make a dramatic move tossing towards the center a hundred dollars in chips, one of which is sullied by ash, then drawing extra attention to my bold gesture with a rejoinder to Williams, without looking at him directly, “It’s more like the Klan would burn the communists.”
’Olevaivai’olefe’e walks behind me, takes my smoke and returns it to my hand after a few enjoyable moments.
Cornero, who is about as much up in the game as Williams, quietly folds his unremarkable hand. Bonner, up on the night most of all, almost a thousand, doubles my raise, showing three hearts and one club. Immediately upon hearing the click of the chips hitting the table, McKelvy squints his eyes and studies his hand, then folds, keeping what he has and hoping for a better hand next time. Bonner and I study each other, while Williams calculates the deal, finally, without speaking, calling the raise, leaving me to put in at least another hundred. His wife places her wine glass in front of Bonner. He lifts it to sip.
Bonner says to me, before he drinks, “You resurrecting that cross burning incident last November on Third Street. Is that right, Anthony?”
“What was it?” I ask him. “Seven people, two women, beaten inside their own homes for being Jews and communists, by Klansmen?”
Bonner smiles, passing the glass of wine to his spouse. “Anthony, I bet you don’t know why the Los Angeles District Attorney had to get involved in that one.”
Challenged, I call his raise. “‘Cause Yancy’s lackeys were forbidden to do it or just wouldn’t,” I reply. Before Bonner bets, he studies me smoking a long while, furling his brow, likely wondering how it is I come to know what I know. I continue, “But what I can’t figure out is how Anaheim and Santa Ana boys know where communists live in Long Beach.” Williams fidgets in his seat.
At this point over the final call of the penultimate bet, Cornero deals the last card for the showdown, without speaking. Bonner casually picks up his last downcard, reads it without moving any muscles in his face, and returns it to the table. I take up my last card, see the black queen, and add it to the weapons resting against my heart. Full house.
Bonner, having started the last round of betting, opens wide the whole game, tossing up two hundred. My eyes ignore Williams, who grabs his mouth, thinking about what to do, then I look to Bonner, whose cold stillness reveals no useful information. Finally, Williams folds.
“To you, Anthony,” Cornero says.
I pick up a stack of chips in my hand, when Bonner speaks, “You said it.”
“Said what?” I ask him, keeping my fingers calm, letting the demon smoke snake about.
“The crux of it,” he says.
Williams stands up, “This is crazy talk. I ain’t listening to this.”
Cornero calmly asks him, “You out?”
“No, but the hell does this bunch care a lick about Reds?” Williams asks. While Williams makes his show, I reach across the table and retrieve my flask, tossing back a gulp before I put it down.
Captain McKelvy orders Williams, “Sit down, Daryl, for crying out loud.”
Impatient, Williams complies and folds his arms.
I almost call Bonner’s bet.
“You want to know how I know,” he teases. “Before I take this hand.”
Upon his last words, I throw in another two hundred on top of my call. “Sure,” I tell him.
Bonner snortles, “Yancy used to spend time with them. It’s like they’re in snowy white heaven, when they all float together. He lets them off easy, move about the city and the port easy. He thinks they’re just good Americans, fighting for the America they love, the same one he loves. Angels.”
Looking in Bonner’s eyes, I point to everyone in the room, “So, they need to know.”
Bonner replies, “So, Yancy needs to go.”
I puff, throwing in another two hundred. Tired of the escalation, he calls my raise and shows the nine of clubs and the seven of spades, and a flush of hearts: ace, two, eight, ten, king. Near the pile of chips in the center of the table, on top of my cards — the two black jacks, the nine and red queen — I throw down with a cocky smirk the three beauties held against my chest. Queens over jacks.
Pleasantly surprised, Cornero chortles, grabs his empty drinking glass, stands from the table and walks behind me, patting me on the back as I gather my chips. He walks towards the bar near us and fills his glass with more gin, while I talk confidently, catching Solstice smiling in my direction. “You know,” I say, as though such intelligence is my own, “in the French Revolution, what helped bring down a king turned out to be a rather simple solution.”
Williams butts in, “The guillotine?”
“Well, that, too,” I respond, popping my cherry ember to the floor, stomping once, and pocketing the remainder. “But something more insidious, revolutionary, simple and far less bloody.” At this point, I have the entire table enraptured by my speaking. Bonner, who has lost, hardly seems sore, as I simply had the better hand. He listens respectfully. “Pornography,” I say.
Cornero returns to his seat, quietly, and turns to me, repeating silently the word he just heard. “Did I hear you right? Pornography…” he snickers. “What exactly do you got in mind?”
“Gentlemen,” I begin, “and ladies,” I add, nodding individually, acknowledging Bonner’s wife, ’Olevaivai’olefe’e and Solstice. “I am in possession of five reams of what they call these days a ‘comic book’, except this isn’t Betty Boop. The thousands of copies of this book I have are the illustrated story of a marijuana-smoking wrestler from old Mexico who dons a mysterious savage mask imbuing him with super sexual and athletic powers, of both genders, beyond anything anyone else can summon, on a mission to avenge the sufferings caused by the police department in the City of Long Beach, sufferings in the name of sobriety, in the name of sound money, in the name of America.”
Bonner cackles, “A comic book?”
McKelvy, who previously conferred with me about the books which Glamour had taken with her to New York, adds, “I understand they’re called ‘Tijuana Bibles’ out east. Very popular genre.”
“What’s yours called, Anthony?” Bonner asks.
“I didn’t make it,” I answer, arranging my newly won booty into three neat stacks. “But I know who did, and I’m happy to take the fall for making them, if they get distributed and help take down Yancy, who appears in them. By name.”
Pressing for an answer, Cornero breaks his silence, “What’s the comic title?”
“Fierce Stranger,” I answer.
“You got an author name on them?” Cornero checks, gathering the cards on the table and shuffling them into a tidy deck.
“‘Clingy’,” I respond.
Williams shouts, exasperated, “No… that’s it! I’m out.”
Watkins scowls at him, “What?”
“Pornography? Featuring the President of the California Peace Officers Association?” Williams adds.
I remind him, “Former… president.”
Cornero addresses Williams sternly, “First, Daryl, you were never ‘in’, so you can’t be ‘out’. Second, why not pornography? What’s the cost, especially if it’s already made? If a public official like Yancy can’t take the heat, then he shouldn’t have his fucking job. Third, you say anything about this to anyone, Williams, and you can forget about coming on any my boats again, at the least.”
I study Bonner’s reaction, which shows interest and concern. “Bonner?” I say, asking for his participation.
The Long Beach City Manager takes a deep breath, and addresses everyone seated at the table. “Well, to be honest, some of us are planning to get Yancy out by October, and if we were to get these out now, in early August, that should be enough time to hit his reputation in terms of public opinion, enough time to give us a chance to build deeper voter support to get him out of there, and discredit his politics. But, Anthony…” he looks me squarely in the eyes. “What about you? Can you take the heat if everyone knows you’re the author? You could get the California AG… maybe G-men, even… involved in this matter. It could get out of your control.”
I look at McKelvy, who had been paying attention to Bonner. McKelvy shows me a disappointed face and nods his head, reluctantly agreeing with the politician. ’Olevaivai’olefe’e places her hands on McKelvy’s shoulders, her face showing me concern, too.
“Well, if they call this genre ‘Tijuana Bibles,’ then the author should live in Tijuana, BC instead of Long Beach, USA.” Watkins stares deeply into my gaze.
Instantly, Cornero and Bonner exchange knowing glances. Corner hands me the deck of playing cards. “Deal,” Cornero tells me, as I catch out of the corner of my eye Solstice’s fist sticking her thumb into the air.
* * *
In one corner of the same private poker room, following the conclusion of the game, Bonner and Cornero conference with me, privately. Bonner grabs my attention, “Hey tagman… so, really. Who wrote this book of yours?”
“Can’t say,” I reply honestly, as Cornero pulls out several fifty dollar bills, having counted my chips at the table and found that I came out nearly five hundred dollars ahead of my buy-in, doubling Don’s sponsorship, and allowing me to make good on some debts I owe. Impressed with this one display of my poker skills, he rounds up his count and evens his pay-out. “Let me just say that my going to Tijuana would be appropriate, if you follow?”
“Is that so…” Bonner muses, letting his words drift into quiet self-reflection. “About that,” he turns to Cornero double-counting the bills before handing the whole stash to Bonner, who takes his cut before handing the rest to me. “It would probably be wisest if you left sooner rather than later. Are the actual printing presses here in Long Beach?”
“Not exactly… not too far out of town, either.”
Cornero hands me the bills, smiling. “Congratulations,” he offers warmly.
I accept. If the game we just finished, or at least just a few hands of it, had been rigged, I never noticed, not that I was paying close attention. So, feeling fairly confident, I take my evening’s last chance. “Listen, fellas. There’s another matter I have to ask you guys. About a year ago, last Valentine’s Day…”
Bonner checks, “Would that be ‘32?”
“Yeah, that’s about right. Back then, there was a murder of a man… black. His name was Dennis Carpenter. Out in Wilmington.”
Cornero looks skeptically at me. “What about him?”
“I think, now that you mention it, I might have heard something. It wasn’t in the papers much,” Bonner recalls.
I respond, “That’s right. But it was two men who killed him. Any chance that any of them also happened to join the cross burning back in November here in Long Beach?”
Bonner and Cornero back up. Cornero starts, “Now wait a minute, Anthony. What’s this got to do with you?”
They wait for my answer. “I was there, at the scene. Later, Williams tried to frame me as the suspect for it.” They look over at the table to see that everyone is standing up, ready to leave, although Williams appears to have left the room already, by now probably sitting inside a water taxi headed for shore. “I want to find out who did it.”
Bonner explains, “You’re asking quite a bit about an old murder case. How did this Carpenter fellow die?”
“Knifed and garrotted,” I answer.
Cornero sees I am serious. “Let it go, Anthony.”
Bonner answers, “I’ll see what I can do, but no promises.”
“If you ask me,” I speculate. “I’d start with those names mentioned in the papers about the cross burning. Who else would have the guts to pull off a murder, and successfully disappear, the incident not really talked about in the papers, unless they also were willing, possibly, to assault people inside their own house, believing they’d get away with? And, I might add, who exactly knows who, that the occupants of a private residence in Long Beach can be identified by police officers living in Orange County?”
“Hmm. We’ll see,” Bonner muses, scratching his chin, while Cornero departs the conversation to give his regards to his guests, anxious to leave the boat for shore.
* * *
Seated on a water taxi leaving the SS Lily, unaccompanied by friends or acquaintances, except for a sleeping Solstice, leaning slightly against me, I reflect upon the late night lights coloring the city coastline, while contemplating my life changed by following through and committing an actual murder, wondering what sort of motivations would suffice to put into motion a relevant chain of events.
If I were intellectual, logical, something not exactly unlike Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, perhaps I could let my intelligence guide me through a series of actions culminating, finally, in a simple exercise of finger muscles gripping the handle of a weapon and squeezing the trigger – and equally as important, later remembering the murder only as a chain of events, mere physical movements occupying the space of the universe, the residual of a consciousness flowing like a vast river surrounding me, liberating me from all responsibility yet also clarifying my actions as uniquely my own, like childhood tales about Abraham readied, under Yahweh’s command, to take his boy’s life, steadied.
If presented with the opportunity, if I create the opportunity, what would I do with it? I consider acting from motives of empathy: as if caring deeply for the life of Dennis Carpenter and risking my own by emphatically drawing a punctuation mark larger than a tiny period at the end of his short sentence, or as if I figure him, in my own imagination, as some tragic representative of Africa in the Americas requiring my rebellion against centuries of colonial adventures from ancient slavery to Somaliland under Mussolini’s Italy. Feeling empathetic, I am captured by a redemptive, heroic mood — a Race man — but such emotions soon evaporate as they lack a compelling, honest justification, leaving me to realize at that specific moment I am just superficially distracting myself.
“All homicides, even later construed as not immoral, necessitate a living soul either to execute or to allow to be executed in one decisive moment some obviously concrete criminal action,” Abraham wrote, I recall. At an unavoidable ignorant distance, across space and time, he communicates, I tell myself, the specific predicaments of my anarchic situation, lacking any morality of obvious context or simple sense. The significance ascribed to participating in the act of ending the life of another person, like orphan Joe, is, he seems to say, always imposed after the fact, while at the same time such action, in all cases and at all times, is inescapably criminal, as if criminality is a universal feeling with which all killers must cope while living among the dead. Meanwhile, my arsonist snores. Law, morality: edifice. Or at least, this is what I take from his words, at this precise instant.
If I could, I might deal death decisively and allow time to pass in anonymity, not merely to allow the murder to escape historical note, which it more likely could if it was believed it was impossible I had committed it, but most important to allow me to accept the consequences of my actions, to make peace with my past about which could never be spoken or remembered, and certainly not celebrated. If such were the conditions to my actions, then I might accept them, not so much as heroic but as merciful: bullets taking two lives to the same ethereal place at which I hovered, in the earthquake, but in their case, doing nothing to pull them back from the precipice — the opposite of that which Ensign Gregorio did to me, for me. I let them bleed into that abyssal vomitous cavern, showing them genuine compassion as they expire, as if their lives already no longer belonged to this world, confident that all that remains is my steadfast wit to erase my deed’s public memory and a diamond core of flawless will to tolerate its private consequences as long and as frequent as strategy dictates.
Visions of the planet. Late night hunches. The universe hurtling towards some violent direction. Repetitious apparitions. A global earthquake and tsunamis. Time’s trajectory. Perpetual apprehensions. That vaguely reminiscent priestly textured place where violence is piously renounced. I accept responsibility instead. Pick the good side. Distinguish an undistinguished solipsistic existence. Thieving competing human geographies. Mystified exercises of might.
May such a deadly deed dispel submerged feelings passive, inactive.
May a path, in time, both lead to some new life opening and yet move me beyond it, towards an honorable retirement of outstanding debts in old Brooklyn and the enjoyment of a self-congratulating pat on my own pocket, financing my advancing years passed in old Mexico.
May it be all of this, yet it may also be, despite everything, simply irreversible mortal error.
E ancora, Solstice respira involontariamente.