1956 and his name is Danny, ten years old and short for his age but street smart without the attitude. What does he know? Eisenhower and Mickey Mantle, nuns in the schoolyard and guys in fedoras but also Jayne Mansfield, Marilyn Monroe and forty million people watching Elvis on TV. Curiosity raised to a national obsession. Elvis is okay but Eddie Cochran is his favorite, jump-twitching wild like a wind-up doll, singing Twenty Flight Rock, going one flight two flight three flight four, working hard but never quite making it to the twentieth floor. Twenty is high. Danny’s building has only three floors, two apartments to a floor, four rooms to an apartment all of them cold-water flats without a bath or a shower. Not that he minds. It’s the same for the rest of the neighborhood. Except that it’s not really a neighborhood but the confluence of three different tribes: Irish, Polish, and Italian-American, everyone crowded into a quarter-mile elbow of Jersey City just south of the Holland Tunnel. Tonight after dinner they’ll all be out: the women on the stoops talking about movies, the guys discussing Marciano’s retirement, the kids playing board games then switching to whiffle ball.
Danny never plays whiffle ball, considers it a girls’ game. Instead, at the end of the street there’s a tree, the only one on the block, its branches thick like a wrestler’s forearms. What he does is climb up in the evening, lean back, close his eyes and listen to the distant murmur of the traffic. This is his place, where he and his brother Sonny were born, where his parents were married and lived for twenty-five years until one day his mother took off with a truck driver from Weehawken and it all went to shit. At least that’s what Sonny says. He’s been waiting for Sonny most of the morning, standing by the candy store, a sixteen-ounce bottle of coke in his hand, wanting to say goodbye to Tommy Doyle and the rest of his friends except they’re all still in catechism class learning about redemption and the seven deadly sins. Sonny says that seven are just the start, that if you want to be exact there are a dozen, maybe more.
Danny tries to think what the others might be when Sonny pulls up and waves for him to get into the car. Danny doesn’t want to get in, wants to spend the summer with his friends but what can he do. Sonny says they need a new start. He’s been saying this ever since he lost his job loading trucks down on Route 9. Then he gets a letter from this old Marine buddy, a guy named Earl who lives out west and tells Sonny about Las Vegas. “Plenty of women and plenty of work,” is how Earl puts it. And so they head out that morning in a new Cadillac Convertible, neon blue with a V8 engine, automatic trans and four-barrel carburetors that hum like Jesus on a Saturday night. How Sonny can afford such a machine is a mystery to everyone including his brother.
They leave the first week of June, in the middle of a heat wave. Three days later, they roll through Chicago and turn west onto Route 66, the wind wrapped tight in their hair, joking and feeling good, gliding past wheat fields and power lines and empty grain silos, the clouds crashing flat across the hood of their car like crystal blue waves at the Jersey Shore. By the time they hit Wheeler County, Texas, the optimism’s been traded out for a dreary expanse of dirt and wind and scattered scrub brush. Instead of a new start it looks depressingly familiar. Sonny tries to cheer Danny up with a game they’ve invented, their version of The $64,000 Question. Sonny tells Danny to pick a category. Danny always picks history. It's what he’s best at, especially the dates. Magna Carta: 1215 … The Fall of Constantinople: 1453 … The Treaty of Versailles: 1918. Then historical figures: Julius Caesar, Napoleon, the King of Siam. And that’s how it goes hour after hour one question then another. Eventually they cross over from Winslow, Arizona and into Nevada and drive up to a stainless steel diner that looks like a spaceship dropped dead in the sand. The diner is topped by a weather-beaten sign shaped like a rattlesnake. The curling letters read: Hot Food Today! Except for a yellow-and-white Ford Fairlane sitting out front, the place looks deserted. Sonny pulls in and parks the car.
Inside, the diner is bare, ten stools to the counter, six booths at the window, no photos or calendars or little league trophies, just menus, a jukebox, the dank smell of sweat and onions on the grill. Two guys sit in a red-leather booth over in the corner, heads down, quietly talking. The diner is hot, cooled only by a small metal fan, yet both men are fully dressed in iridescent suits, with starched white shirts and floral patterned ties.
Danny and Sonny sit at the counter. Sonny wears slacks and an old bowling shirt; Danny is dressed in dungarees and a tee-shirt. After about a minute, the owner steps out from inside the kitchen, a slump shouldered man in a soiled white apron. He introduces himself as Roy.
“Sonny Carson. This is my brother Danny.”
Roy nods and offers them a weary smile, as if he’s been expecting the brothers and is relieved to know they’ve finally arrived. Sonny leans forward and scans the menu, tells Roy they’ll each have a hamburger and a coke. Roy yells the order back to the cook, a full-blooded Paiute with braided hair and a sun-creased face the color of tobacco.
Roy stretches his arms with a yawn and looks past the door to the blistering landscape. “It’s a hot one today.” He says this in a slurry drawl, the words dripping across his tongue like lard on a skillet.
“It is,” Sonny replies.
“Gonna get even hotter before long.” Sonny nods and Roy continues. “Ever hear of the Nevada Proving Grounds.”
Sonny shakes his head. “Can’t say that I have.”
“That’s where the Department of Energy folks shoot off them atomic bombs. Gonna be shootin’ one off today.”
“Around here?” asks Danny, instantly concerned.
“Not a problem,” says Roy with a knowing smile. “Site’s over a hundred miles downwind. All perfectly safe. Says so in the flyers the government’s been handin’ out for the past two weeks.”
Sonny places a reassuring hand on Danny’s shoulder. “I wouldn’t worry. We’ll be long gone before any of that happens.”
“So where you fellas from?” says Roy lowering his elbows onto the counter.
“New Jersey,” answers Sonny deciding it’s best to say as little as possible with strangers.
Roy swats away a fly that’s settled on his cheek. “Got me a cousin lives in New York City,” he says. “Name of Laverne Stillwell. Don’t suppose you boys ever run into her.”
“We don’t get into New York too often,” Sonny answers politely.
Roy shakes his head, caught in a memory. “Haven’t seen her now for nearly eight years. She’s a good ol' girl but she sure does like to drink.”
Before Sonny can reply, one of the guys in the back booth calls out, “Woman drinks ain’t worth a shit.” From the way he says this, it’s obvious he’s talking from experience.
Without removing his elbows from the counter, Roy turns his head and says, “Now that may be true sir, but it’s my cousin we’re talkin’ about so I’d appreciate it if you showed a bit more respect.”
A dark cloud immediately settles over the guy’s face as he gets up from the booth and steps to the counter. He’s a big man, well over two hundred pounds with a beefy neck and hands the size of mallets.
“Respect?” says the big man, picking up an empty soda bottle from his booth. “You want me to show some respect? How’s this for respect,” he yells and smashes the bottle down on the counter. The bottle shatters, leaving a jagged grip of glass in his hand.
Sonny stands up and pushes Danny behind him. If the big man notices them, he gives no indication. His eyes are locked on Roy. “I hope you liked that,” says the big man with a maniacal smile. “Because there’s more.”
The big man comes forward then stops abruptly as the short-order cook thrusts a double-barreled shotgun through the kitchen window.
“Now mister, I have no idea what your problem is,” says Roy evenly. “But I can assure you that if you take one more step in my direction, Manuel will most certainly blow off your head.”
“Okay, okay, let’s not get carried away here.” It’s the big man’s friend walking toward them, hands in the air, gesturing for everyone to be calm.
“My name’s Paretti. Vincent Paretti. As you can probably see, my associate’s a little excitable.”
“A little?” says Roy with mock understatement.
“Okay, extremely excitable,” concedes Paretti, who is shorter than his friend by half a foot. “But I’m sure that now that he’s had a chance to compose himself, he realizes he made a mistake and wants to apologize. Isn’t that right,” says Paretti, turning to his friend.
The big man withers under Paretti’s glare. Reluctantly, he places the broken bottle onto the counter and mutters, “Like he says, I got carried away.” In response, Roy nods to the cook who pulls in the shotgun.
“So now we’re all buddies again,” says Paretti with a plastic smile. “Like those two guys in the story, you know Romulus and Raymus.”
“Romulus and Remus,” says Danny. “They weren’t friends, they were brothers. They founded Ancient Rome.”
Paretti stares at the boy, not used to being corrected. “What’s your name kid?”
At this, Paretti’s stare changes to a grudging appreciation. “I take it you like history.”
Danny looks to Sonny who nods that it’s okay to answer. “We have this game. It’s like The $64,000 Question. My brother asks a question and I give him the answer.”
Paretti laughs. “And I bet it’s always the right answer.”
Danny breaks into a wide grin and Paretti points toward the parking lot in front of the diner. “That your car?”
“It is,” says Sonny.
“What kind of color is that?”
“Really?” says Paretti an edge to his voice, not sure if Sonny is putting him on. “I didn’t know neon was a color.”
“Only in the dark,” answers Sonny, not about to back down.
Paretti stares hard at Sonny then back at the Cadillac. “How much you want for it?”
Sonny answers without hesitation. “The car’s not for sale.”
“Not for sale?” says Paretti who continues to eye the Cadillac. “Okay, so here’s what I’ll do. I’ll give you double whatever you paid, strictly cash, no questions asked. I’ll even throw in the Fairlane out front, how’s that sound?”
“Like a good deal,” answers Sonny knowing he’s being measured. “But maybe another time. Not today.”
Paretti turns from the window, all semblance of fraternity gone, his face tight, making sure the two brothers understand who’s in control of the situation until finally he shoots Danny a reluctant smile.
“Like the man says, another time.”
After the brothers leave the diner they drive down the highway and don’t look back. For the next hour Sonny listens to the radio, mostly steel-pedal harmonies and cowboy twangs. Danny works at a crossword puzzle: Janet Leigh’s husband, six letters across. This is an easy one but the name eludes him. He’s about to ask Sonny when he feels the car slow down. About two hundred yards up ahead they see the Fairlane parked on the side of the road. Vincent Paretti stands next to the car, hands above his head waving. Sonny pulls over and stops. “Stay here,” he tells his brother, gets out and walks over to Paretti. Normally Danny does what Sonny tells him but this time he waits a beat then jumps out of the Cadillac and walks up behind the two men, softly so they don’t notice him.
“I got a little problem,” says Paretti his tone aggressive, same as back in the diner. “I could use some help.”
“What about your partner,” asks Sonny looking around for the big man.
Paretti answers by reaching inside his suit jacket and pulling out a handgun, a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum. Paretti gestures with the gun toward the side of the road and they see him, the big man, two bullets in the chest, a third in the back of his head.
“He’s my problem,” says Paretti. “What happened back at the diner, I can’t have shit like that. Calls too much attention to itself. People start to take notice. He used to be a reliable guy, then his wife takes off and … anyway, I tried to move him but he weighs a ton.”
“Why not just leave him there,” asks Sonny.
Paretti raises his eyes, amused. “And what happens when some wise ass cop comes along and finds him? There’s a shovel in the trunk. I need him in a hole and I need you to dig it.”
“And if I don’t?”
Paretti answers by pointing the gun at the boy. “Then I dig it, and you and the kid go in the hole with him.”
“Listen,” Sonny explains. “Even if we get rid of your friend there’s still Roy and the cook back at the diner. They’ll remember the two of you being there.”
“Dead men remember nothing,” says Paretti and the look on Sonny’s face changes. He hadn’t considered this.
Paretti thinks for a moment. “Tell you what I’ll do. The kid’s a whiz at history. I ask him a question, he gets it right, you drive away no harm done. I stump him, you dig the hole.”
Danny touches Sonny’s hand and nods yes. He doubts there’s anything Paretti knows that he doesn’t.
“Ask your question,” Sonny tells Paretti.
Paretti responds by placing his index finger to his forehead as if he’s thinking. “Everybody knows Julius Caesar, a pretty good general, right. But can you tell me the name of the guy that knocked him off?”
Danny stares at Paretti in disbelief. Not because it’s a hard question. The answer is Brutus. What confuses him is why Paretti would ask something so easy. And then he realizes that Paretti doesn’t care what Danny says, that he’s just talking, wanting to let Danny and Sonny off the hook but needing an excuse so he doesn’t look soft. Danny considers this and is about to give Paretti the answer but then he can’t because suddenly there’s an invisible hand around his throat choking the name back in.
Paretti doesn’t understand. He thought this would be simple. “You need a little more time?” he asks, ready to give the boy all that he needs.
Danny shakes his head, tears in his eyes and Sonny subtly motions for his brother to step away. “If I dig the hole, what happens then?”
Paretti shrugs. “We’ll see.”
“That’s not good enough.”
“Right now that’s the best I can offer.”
“Then you got nothing to offer,” answers Sonny, who surprises Paretti by lunging out and grabbing his hand. The gun fires and a thousand stars suddenly explode into a single illuminating flash. It’s the A-Bomb Roy talked about back at the diner, 100 miles away but still close enough to envelope them in its deadly radiance. Paretti drops his gun and turns to the light and the two men watch as a malignant flower of yellow and gold rises soundlessly above them. Neither notices Danny lying on the desert floor, a bullet in his side, staring vacantly at the neon colors reflected across the side of the Cadillac. The pain is intense yet Danny says nothing, no longer concerned with Vincent Paretti or Sonny or the vagaries of time because he’s no longer looking at an atomic bomb but into the face of god and the siren call of death.
The air vibrates with an electric buzz and Danny’s mind wanders. He hears the radio playing, its music synchronized with the spiraling rhythm of the roiling cloud. The beat folds up and over and into itself as the words drift slowly across the horizon. Eddie Cochran singing Twenty Flight Rock, going one flight two flight three flights four, knowing nobody makes it to the twentieth floor.