The small package was too carefully wrapped for Ornello to ignore, and so before the hydraulic press could drag it under, he reached a hand in and plucked it from the maw of the garbage truck. The black plastic covering stunk of rotten vegetables and spoiled meat, like everything else in the North End of Boston on trash day. He’d gotten used to the smell over his first year on the job—so much so that after wiping a layer of slime from the bag against his thigh, he unzipped the top of his Carhartt jacket and stuffed the package inside, tight against his chest. Opening himself up to the wind off the sea felt like dumping ice down his shirt. Still, his cheeks blushed and his scalp underneath his hat dampened with sweat at the thought of the object.
The March air was bitter cold, city streets decorated with gray icebergs of melting snow that made it difficult for the truck to maneuver around cars parked at odd angles. He held tight to the grip on the back of the truck, snapping a thumb against the metal while the hydraulic system compacted the block’s waste. Loud and painfully slow, the whine finally cut off, replaced by the rumble of the diesel engine and a thick cloud of exhaust beneath Ornello’s feet as he stepped onto the back. Carmine took them through a tight intersection with a wide turn that missed a light pole by less than a foot, jumped the sidewalk and reversed down a cobblestone alley. His thirty years of experience at the wheel made driving half-blind and hung-over look easy.
Only then in the alley did Ornello relax. The North End housed an alarming number of retired full-blooded Italians—including his grandparents—with nothing to do except sip espresso, read the paper, and watch the happenings on the street below from their high-rise apartments. Heckling from the old-timers was a daily occurrence. Fluency had stopped in his family with his father’s generation, but Ornello understood enough to know his reputation as a fuck-up had made the rounds. From day one, after his father pulled strings to land him the gig, they’d watched for him. Given a play-by-play of trash bags that ripped as he tossed them toward the truck, showering the street in filth. The embarrassment of losing his breakfast in the aftermath. For a week he tried giving it back to them, slamming their trash cans until they cracked and tossing their lids into the compactor.
Until his father caught wind.
And true to his old man’s reputation as a delegator, Carmine sent Ornello home nursing a black eye and busted lip. Carmine, pissed off in his own right at Ornello for making the truck look bad and bringing heat on them both. For a guy pushing sixty he sure could throw a punch.
Ornello had shrugged off the lesson on neighborhood justice, but memories of the events afterward made his heart race against the package snug against his chest.
The dumpster in the alley was full as usual, but Ornello got through the bags in half the time, eager for a peek at his prize. At last he slapped the red button to compact and pulled out the package. It had a weight to it, heavier than before when he’d rescued it from the truck. The black plastic bag was tied closed with tight knots, so he ripped into the side to find a stained gray shirt, balled up and smelling of oil and something else. He pinned his right hand in his armpit and tugged off his thick glove. Gently pried away the folded layers, avoiding the curious blotches of dark red, until the dim light in the alley caught on the cylinder of a revolver. The whine of the compactor stalled, and without thinking Ornello slapped the button down again to buy more time. He spread away more of the shirt to get a full look at the pistol. It was small, no bigger than his hand, with a stubby barrel like the tip had been sawed off. The cylinder, by comparison, was large, almost disproportionally so. He held it gently, caressed it from nose to grip with more care than he’d given his newborn nephew.
A blast of the truck’s horn gave him a start and he dropped the bundle. He clapped his hands together to catch it at his waist before it hit the alley floor. Tossed the ripped plastic to the ground and stuffed the hurriedly wrapped bundle back inside his jacket. It didn’t look as good as when he’d first found it, but it would do. He slipped his glove on and hopped on the side as Carmine began to pull away without him. Wind whipped down the street stinging, his eyes as they made the turn, but at his core he felt a warmth he’d been missing.
Home was a few blocks off Hanover Avenue, nestled in the middle of the North End. A studio the size of a large walk-in closet, the steep price kept him and Flora together more than anything else. The strong, stubborn Italian blood that ran deep in them both made for a rare day without a scuffle over something they knew ultimately meant little to either of them. But the heartache was worth it, as his Grandma Noni made a point to remind him every other Sunday during family dinners. Once you’ve got a hold on a bella ragazza you don’t let her out of your sight. The struggle is good for the soul, she’d say and thump her chest with a gnarled fist.
“Yo, Flora, I’m home,” he called as he turned his key, opening the door. Inside the quiet apartment, a note on the fridge explained she’d gone in early to cover for a waitress who left sick—or pregnant, he could hear her say. She’d developed a habit of adding the phrase after everything. Not coming out for drinks? Waddaya, pregnant? Quit whining, you’re acting like you’re pregnant. It started when her sister announced she was carrying the family’s first grandchild and permanently vacuumed the attention from the room. Bets had been lost on when it would stop. He left the note beneath the photo magnet of the two of them at a wedding last fall. It was a silly shot—decked out in photo booth gear, large sunglasses and funny hats—but her personality leapt from the picture. Her long hair was pulled back in the photo revealing the olive skin of her neck. The slight cleavage formed by the tight dress taunted him. He let out an audible sigh. Such is the life of opposite schedules. A vacation was overdue.
Despite the odor that clung to him, he took advantage of her absence and postponed the usual order of immediate shower. Kicked off his boots and carried the bundle to the table, laying it beside a polished antique lamp. He considered the lamp to be one of his prized trophies from the job. He’d discovered it shortly after knocking heads with Carmine. A treasure merely in need of a good spit shine, left out between two trash bags on a rainy day. Despite the reprimands and the still swollen eye, he’d kept it, held it under his arm as the truck pulled away. Within seconds an elderly man had appeared on the sidewalk clutching a baseball bat thicker than his biceps. He’d chased after the truck at a slow jog, full of threats and curses. Ornello had frozen to the truck in shock at the sight, anxious for the inevitable next stop. The truck made a turn, stopping less than a car-length around the side of the building. He waited for the old man to show, but he never did. Thought about poking his head out and peering around the corner to make sure he didn’t drop dead in the street. But they were falling behind schedule. Never did see him again, but the lamp sure was a nice touch to the apartment. Flora even approved of the addition for a change.
He clicked on the lamp and repeated the process of unwrapping the revolver, though this time with the realization the stains were definitely blood. He disregarded the crimson mystery and lifted the gun, rotating it in his hand. He’d never handled one before, but he’d seen enough movies to know not to point the gun at himself, and to keep his finger away from the trigger. Tried spinning the cylinder and found it locked in place. After a bit of finagling he popped it open to find three rounds still chambered, 38 SPL stamped into the rear of the bullet’s casing. It smelled of smoke, and the insides of the empty chambers were dusted with gray flecks. He rotated the cylinder with his fingers to get a feel of it, then spun it against his palm and snapped it into place like he’d seen on television. It wasn’t a Glock like they carried on all the cop shows, but it was pretty damn cool. He tossed the bloodied shirt in the garbage can underneath the sink and carried the pistol to his dresser, where he swaddled it in a ratty Red Sox t-shirt from the 2004 World Series and stuffed it beneath a stack of clothing in the bottom drawer.
Snatched a Narragansett tallboy from the fridge. The Red Sox were finishing up their pre-season in Florida, beating up on a squad of Blue Jays already reduced to another “rebuilding year.” Turned the volume up so he could hear the game in the shower and carried the beer to the bathroom. If he spent another minute stinking up the tiny place, he knew Flora would let him hear about it when she got home. With her skin and hair thick with the smell of marinara and fried ravioli, though, he thought she might as well have been out with the truck all day. He’d said as much once and paid for it. He took a deep gulp of lager and let the hot water scald his skin.
Carmine splayed a copy of the morning’s Boston Globe across the small table at Dunks and took a sip of his coffee—regular, extra, extra sugar. All part of their early morning ritual. Ornello leaned back in his chair, bored. He’d caught the ball game and the post analysis, which left him with little to check on his phone. Celtics were a disaster, Bruins were on a hot streak per usual, and another five months until the Pats took the field. If it wasn’t sports it wasn’t news. He took a sip of too-sweet coffee—Carmine only ordered his way, but hell, he was buying—and cleared his throat to get the older man’s attention. When he cleared his throat for a second time, the man’s eyes briefly flicked up, then back to the paper.
“What? Can’t you see I’m reading here?”
“Itching to get goin’. Why don’t we knock it out early?”
“Because then we’d have nothing to do at the end of the day.”
“Plenty of things to do.”
“Like what? Watch a game and jack off?” Carmine took another sip. “There are things you can learn from the paper, you know. You should educate yourself, be a good citizen in your community.”
“I am a good citizen. I take out the trash.”
“Not this kind of trash,” said Carmine, tapping an article on the back of the front page. “Looks like the cops only got one of ‘em.”
“One of what?”
“Those creepers prowling the streets of the North End, you dunce.”
“Oh, that weirdo who’s been groping chicks or something?”
Carmine laid the paper down. “Groping chicks? We got a rapist on the loose in our backyard and all you got is ‘groping chicks?’ This brain of mine might be running half-speed, but if I remember correctly you got a lady friend working nights out there. Might want to give that some thought. Capisce?”
Ornello waved off the older man’s advice. Looked out the window while drinking his coffee to fill the silence and hide his shame. Little made him angrier than an attack on his pride. But the coffee shop was mostly empty, the few around them minding their own business, and so he swallowed his wounds with the last of the syrupy coffee.
“You know, this shit is disgusting.”
Carmine didn’t bother looking up. “Don’t like it? Buy your own.”
Ornello shrugged, grinned over a tight jaw. The man was right.
Carmine’s mention of the rapist stuck with Ornello as they made their rounds through Back Bay, haunting his every move. Did he know the man? Had he seen him on the streets? Police could say little about the suspect. He was a white male with dark, short hair and tall, maybe six feet—a general enough description that fit too many to count, including him. Could Flora be in real danger? He felt like an asshole for disregarding her safety. Couldn’t wait to get back to the North End to do his part, be more vigilant. He wouldn’t allow her to walk to and from the restaurant alone. Couldn’t trust any of those wimps working alongside her to protect her. Didn’t want them getting any bright ideas either, thinking they could muscle in on him. No, Ornello had to be in charge. He tossed another pair of bags in the compactor, glass shattering as he whipped them inside. The end of his route couldn’t come soon enough.
Ornello tore the note from the fridge, crumpled it in his palm and pitched it into the sink. Another early shift. Sorry xoxo. The release he’d been waiting for all day ballooned like a gas in his belly. Meeting her at the restaurant on a Friday night was off the table. Too many customers, and the stress would only cause a scene. He ripped open the fridge, cracked a fresh tallboy and sucked half of it down. Let out a deep belch that helped calm his nerves. Still, his stomach felt uneasy, his body tense. He set the beer on the table, stepped to the dresser and opened the drawer, fishing for the gun. Felt a moment of panic when his fingers came up empty, and then realized he must have shoved it further back in the drawer. He pulled it out by a corner of the t-shirt, unwrapped it on the floor and carried it to the table with both hands. The revolver looked good next to the lamp. Not perfect—it could use a stand of some kind to show it off, but it looked like it belonged. He finished the beer while admiring his newest treasure. Snagged another and headed for the shower.
He toweled off in front of the bathroom mirror. Struck a magazine cover pose, flexing his chest and biceps. Looked pretty damn good for a guy who hauled shit around all day.
Flora wasn’t big on surprises, but he planned to wait for her outside the restaurant when her shift ended around one. Hell, maybe he’d even bring her flowers. Really pour on the knight in shining armor shtick.
He slapped some cologne on his neck and chest and picked out a nice sweater and a clean pair of jeans. All he had to do was wait. No Sox, but the Bruins would do—home against the Blue Jackets, guaranteed entertainment. He set two beers out on the coffee table and put a bowl of Flora’s leftover pasta in the microwave. A horn blared on the television; the Bruins scoring their first goal less than a minute into the game. He smiled. It was going to be a good night.
He woke groggy, mouth tasting of sleep and flat beer. Shot upright when he recognized the late night talking heads on the screen. Rubbed his eyes and cursed himself and the six-pack of empties on the table. The clock on the wall read ten minutes till one. Just enough time for him to make it to the restaurant. He ran to the bathroom and gargled mouthwash while taking a quick piss. Threw on his coat, but slowed as he crossed the room, running a hand along the table, the revolver inches from his fingers. He’d been so focused on Flora walking home that he’d almost forgotten about the gun.
He picked it up, wrapping his right hand around the grip, weighing it in his hand. It felt good, secure. He slotted it in the right hand pocket of his coat. A quick glance in the mirror and he was out the door.
“What do you mean she took off early?” Ornello said to the manager. He stood outside in the cold, the gut of the older man wedged in the doorway, blocking Ornello’s path.
“Well, not really early I suppose. Just a few minutes ago. I let her go since the crowd had wound down.”
“Thanks a lot, pal. Bunch of creeps prowling the street and you just let her walk off.” He stabbed a finger in the man’s direction and turned to leave. The man called after him, but Ornello was already across the street, hustling back to the apartment.
How could he have missed her? He’d been vigilant, looking at every face he passed, especially the men, committing them to memory should the need arise. He retraced his steps, leaving the last of the late-nighters on Hanover. He stuffed his hands in his coat pockets, clutched the cold metal. His gut felt off—something was wrong.
A sudden yelp stopped him in his tracks, tensed his muscles in a quick, painless spasm. From up ahead in a shadowed alcove came a deep chuckle of bass—a man’s voice—followed by another high-pitched yelp, cut off and muffled to a moan.
Ornello crept in a wide angle around the corner. The scene slammed into him in slow motion, almost causing him to trip over his own feet.
“Hey!” he yelled.
A woman—Flora—ripped herself from the man’s grasp.
“Oh my god, Ornello!” she screamed as she pushed off the man, throwing him further into the shadows, and ran away in the direction of their apartment.
“What the hell was that?” said the man, stepping into the light. White male, short dark hair… before he could take more than two steps, Ornello was on him, slamming him into the brick wall.
“Teach you to—” Ornello managed to get out before the man caught him in the throat with a forearm, shoving him back into a parked car.
“Fuck off, kid,” he said, hocking spit across the brick sidewalk as Ornello coughed, grasping at his bruised throat. The man adjusted his tie, turned in the direction Flora had fled. Ornello lunged for him, fingers snagging the back of his collar. Ornello fumbled for the pistol in his jacket. The man spun to face him as he pulled it loose, finger on the trigger.
The man’s forehead smashed into the bridge of Ornello’s nose. His vision blurred. Finger still on the trigger.
The concussive blast forced hot air against his chest and face. The sound deafening, and yet so far away. The man fell against him, leaking warmth like smoke from his chest. Ornello staggered back in shock. He watched the man as he fell still then looked down at gun in his hand. Nearby trash cans seemed to glow with purpose.
Trash cans. He grabbed a lid—think, damn it, too close to the scene. Ran to the end of the block, cut right then left. Ripped the top off a plastic can and slipped the gun beside a foul mix of small bags repurposed for trash. Covered the can and sprinted home in a daze. When he slammed the door and slumped down against it, he recalled nothing from the trip. There was no sign of Flora, her phone rang straight to voice-mail. Unable to see straight, he fell asleep to the sound of sirens.
The morning smell of garbage was almost sweet. He hadn’t been able to eat anything, nor drink the coffee that turned cold in his hand. Flora hadn’t shown up, but he knew he had to get out of the apartment and go about his day. He stared out the window of the coffee shop, trying to ignore Carmine as he read aloud the details of the murder of a wealthy accountant gunned down in the North End. “Creepers one day, murderers the next. What is this world coming to? In my day, we took care of our own. Not like you kids.”
His hand hurt from holding tight to the side of the truck. Tried to calm his anxiety by working the route slow and methodical, but the pace picked up with each block, waiting to round the corner and reach the cans that held his secret.
Finally, late in the morning, Carmine hit the brakes, dropping Ornello beside the dreaded cans. Slowly, unable to control his shaking limbs, he stepped from the truck. Recognized the guilty party, separate from the other two. Tossed those in first before returning to the third. Held his breath as he removed the lid. Let it dangle from his fingertips as he stared into the can at the cluster of small bags, the crevice where he had tucked the gun. Dragged the can to the truck, angled it into the compactor and watched for the revolver as each bag toppled into the trash heap. One by one they fell without a hint of the weapon until there were none left. He shook the can to be sure. Stuck a hand inside, groping around the cylinder. His body broke out in a sweat.
He threw the can toward the sidewalk, toppling its cousins. Tore into the bags in the back of the truck, opening one after the other. Spilled orange peels, spoiled meat covered in maggots and chunks of something green all over and into the street. Felt the eyes of the city fall on him, staring into his soul, tearing at his guilty conscious. Fast and faster he tore, finding nothing again and again until the blare of the horn made him jump, jolting him from his frantic searching. He straightened and looked from window to window, to shop fronts and passersby. No one giving him a second of their day. He was invisible.
Impatient, Carmine sounded the horn again. Ornello slapped the compact button and held on as they pulled away, watching trash disappear beneath the stained metal.