It seemed like midnight would never come. I killed some time by sneaking into Rachel’s apartment. The door was unlocked; in fact the chain lock was broken. Soon as I walked in, I could see how she’d struggled—a chair was toppled over, a blanket strewn on the floor. They’d pulled her out of bed. Imagine being yanked from your bed by strangers in the dark. The pillow was still dented where her head lay; I put my face to it and smelled it, and the scent of her hair filled me up.
I gathered up a pair of her socks, her coat, and a scarf. I wasn’t going to carry her out of that place in just her nightgown. I rolled up the coat, with the socks inside, and used the scarf to tie up the whole package.
Later, at around 11 pm, I made one quick stop back at my own apartment.
Max jumped when he saw me. “I’ve been worried sick about you,” he said.
I filled him in on what I was doing. Of course he started to fret and fidget and ask questions: Why so soon, why is this necessary, etcetera. Finally he got round to the question uppermost in his mind the whole time: “What if you don’t come back? What then?”
I sat him down in the chair and put my hands on his shoulders.
“You think I would ever leave you behind?” I said.
He didn’t answer; he was looking down at the floor.
“There is nothing on this earth that could keep me from coming back,” I said.
I poured him a shot of whiskey and one for myself, and we drank a toast to our dead father. “I remember the way he used to hold you,” I told Max. “Like you were the most precious thing, like he never wanted to let go.” I saw a tear in Max’s eyes and I knew I better cut the sob stuff and get on my way.
As I was leaving, Max said, “Abie’s been by a couple of times, looking for you. He said he doesn’t know what you’re doing but he wants to be part of it. What should I tell him?”
“Tell him we’ll all meet for breakfast—steak and eggs.”
I ankled down to the Riopelle pier, arriving early. I looked out on the black river; moonlight glinted off its oily ripples. I paced back and forth on the wooden dock, Rachel’s balled-up coat under my arm like a football. At a quarter past midnight, the truck still hadn’t come. Then I heard footsteps.
In the dark I could make out three men, all wearing hats. I was pretty sure one of them was Baldy Klein.
“So where’s the truck?” I said.
“Change of plans,” one of them answered—yes it was Baldy’s voice. With him was a guy I recognized as Art Goldman; the third man was a stocky goon known as “Gottasmoke” (he got the nickname because he constantly bummed cigarettes by asking “Got a smoke?”). I didn’t know any of the three that well, but I knew all three were killers. Art was particularly known for his skill with a knife.
Art and Gottasmoke fanned out so that they were on either side of me; Baldy was dead ahead. Behind me was the river.
I dropped the balled-up coat to free my arms. After that, no one moved. I guess they were waiting for me to run, but I stood perfectly still. It wasn’t easy because I had so much juice pumping through me, but the best thing to do in such circumstances is wait, and then counteract. They must have been thinking the same thing, so we had a standoff.
In that long moment, I had a burning feeling inside and it wasn’t fear—it was anger. And whilst I had plenty of people to be mad at, I was mainly angry at one person and that was myself. I’ve never thought of myself as stupid, but it occurred to me now that it was stupid to believe that Weintraub could be trusted. And stupid to think it was possible to bully a DA who was, in fact, better connected to the gangs than I was. It was stupid not to realize that such a corrupt DA would no doubt be owed a favor by the likes of Weintraub; and that he would collect on that debt by calling Weintraub and saying, “There is a man in your employ who has threatened me and killed my dog and I want him taken care of.” All of this was crystal-clear to me now on this dock, but of course that is the mark of the stupid man: By the time he wises up, it’s too late.
Baldy Klein made the first move—stepping forward, drawing a silver blade from inside his coat. I lunged right at him and thrust the heel of my hand straight into his nose, whereupon I heard the bridge crack. Art was meanwhile coming at me from my right, in good position for a side-thrust elbow. The elbow hit his face at exactly the same time his blade penetrated my side, just under the ribs. Art staggered back, leaving the knife stuck in me. I should have left it—it had already done its damage—but instead I tried to delicately draw it out of me, and whilst doing that I felt a sharp point rake across my back, thanks to good old Gottasmoke. I spun to face him and grabbed his wrist but as I did I was slashed on the side again, this time by Baldy, whose nose was gushing. I reached for my newest wound and this freed up Gottasmoke’s hand, and he slashed me again across my chest. Then Art, coming from behind, grabbed the knife still embedded in my side and yanked it out, which set off a gusher—I tried to cover it with my hand, keep the blood from escaping. Then I got slashed again, in the shoulder, and this time I couldn’t even tell you who did it because I was starting to see less clearly now.
They took turns slicing me. They could’ve just run me through and ended it, but they didn’t. This was a conscious decision on their part, or maybe an order from Buster Weintraub. At some point I dropped to my knees but that didn’t stop the slashing—it only made it easier for them.
By this time, the three of them were blurs, circling me. The only thing sharp was the feeling of the blade each time it crossed my chest, back, shoulders—they were putting so many stripes on my body that I had a vision of myself as a tiger. I heard one of the voices above me say, “Baldy, let’s finish this.” And then I felt one last penetration, deep this time, through the middle of my back, and into my very core. After that I got smacked hard in the face and I thought maybe it was a baseball bat. But it was just the boards on the wooden dock, hitting me in the cheek as I landed face-first. I lay there with one eye open but seeing nothing, and what I heard with my ear to the dock sounded like gentle raindrops on a pond—which was almost comforting until I realized I was hearing my own blood dripping through the slats on the dock and into the shallows of the river below.
I thought the men were gone but they weren’t. I could feel tugging on my jacket, and hands reaching in my pants pockets. I assumed the bastards were robbing a dead man, but no, what they were doing was jamming heavy rocks in all my pockets. Then my body seemed to levitate, like something in a magic show—I was up in the air, and would have thought maybe my spirit was rising up to heaven, except I do not believe in such garbage. After rising up, I felt my body swinging from side to side. And then I went sailing through the air and that, I tell you, was a thrill, even in my sorry condition. But that was followed by a splash and a descent into the cold—a cold I had never felt before. Down in the water I was like a baby in the womb, the only difference being that a baby in the womb is headed one way and I was headed the other.
For some crazy reason I thought of my dead father and had the distinct feeling I was about to run into him. And I thought, How will he recognize me? He has not seen me since I was five.
You may wonder what it’s like to find yourself at the bottom of the Detroit River with rocks in your pockets. Not many who’ve been in that position are able to tell of the experience. But I can.
First off, I never did see a light at the end of that tunnel everyone talks about. Probably because there was no tunnel at the bottom of the Detroit River (though in later years, we would do our damnedest to build one). Down in that water, I saw nothing and felt only that I was in limbo, waiting for someone or something. As I said, my father was foremost in my thoughts for some reason. So I was not surprised when I felt his big hands take hold of me under my arms.
I was facedown in the muddy floor of the river and couldn’t see him but I could feel his strength as he started to lift me out of the in-between world. Of course I welcomed this—at first. But then it occurred to me that if I went with my father, I would be leaving behind Max, who needed me, and Rachel, who needed me even more. I struggled in his grasp, twisting my shoulders. But he wouldn’t let go and kept pulling and I started to feel myself rising up out of the muck.
Then I had the distinct feeling I wasn’t in water anymore—but there was no air, either. I was not breathing, and I was blind and deaf. I was still in limbo, though it now seemed like a drier one. Suddenly I felt a tremendous force pressing down on my chest, which caused water to surge through my lungs and out my mouth. The water must’ve gone straight up and come right back down in a splash on my face. In that instant, all my senses returned to me. I was breathing, and could hear my own gasps. My eyes popped open and I could see again. And what I saw was a face looking down at me from above. Not my father, no—it was Abie.
“You’re alive,” he informed me. He had a smile on his big face.
Then everything went black, for a good long time.
The next time I opened my eyes, I was surrounded by dead meat—bloody carcasses hanging on all sides of me, whilst I was laid out on a chopping block. If I didn’t know better I’d have thought I was in some stage of hell, but of course I knew very well I was in the Zussman family’s butcher shop, or more precisely in the rear of it, in that so-called abattoir.
Abie took my body there because he didn’t know where else to bring it. Whilst I was out cold, they sewed and bandaged me up right there on the chopping block—Abie, his butcher father, and a neighborhood woman with training as a nurse. They were all out of the room when I woke up but Abie was the first to return.
“You pulled me out of the river?” I asked, and he nodded with his head down as if embarrassed.
“But how did you know I was in the river?”
“Max told me you’d gone down to the pier alone, on a mission,” he said. “I had a bad feeling so I went down right away. When I got there I saw the blood on the dock—I touched it and it was still warm. Then I jumped down into the water and started wading. I almost tripped over you.”
He leaned in a little closer to me now, as if to share a secret. “When I pulled you out, your face was blue—I was sure you were a goner. I pushed down on your chest. Then I said a prayer over you, and pushed once more. And just like that, you came spitting back to life. God saved you, Joe.”
I was not buying any of that. Some people suddenly discover God when they’re close to death, but not me.
“No, you were the one who saved me, Abie,” I said. “You did it with your own two hands.”
“But how did I know just where to step in the water so I’d stumble on you? And how’d I know enough to push that water out of your lungs—I never did anything like that before. Maybe I was God’s instrument. His agent, sent to save you.”
I smiled. “Abie the Agent,” I said.
This would become my name for him forever more. People would hear the name and not get what it meant. Some thought he was named after a Jewish comic strip hero from that era, others figured he got the name because he was stealthy (which he sure was). But the truth was that Abie was an agent of God, destiny, or whatever you wish to call it. He could give life, as he did for me, or quietly take it away, as he did for so many others.
I had trouble staying awake the next couple of days. It was touch and go because I’d left a lot of blood in the river. The only reason I survived at all was because of the good work of a former war nurse named Myra. She was a mother of four living on Hastings who risked a lot to help me, just because her friend and butcher, Mr. Z, knocked on her door and asked. (I would never see the woman again, but in later times she would open her mail to find a mysterious unmarked package containing a large sum of money.)
She closed and stitched every one of those openings all over my torso, working for hours on end. Abie’s father stood beside her, in his butcher’s apron, helping to seal the wounds and tend them. I should have been in a hospital, but if they took me to one, people would have known I was alive—and that the job of getting rid of me still needed finishing.
They had to be careful to keep me a secret. When my brother Max came to the butcher shop to see me, he did so in dead of night, because the Sugars were watching by day to see how he’d respond to his brother’s disappearance. When Max first laid eyes on me, all bandaged and breathing funny, he got very upset. Right off, he started breathing funny, and I said, “There’s only room for one sick person in this so-called abattoir, and I got here first.”
He smiled a little but then all of a sudden he broke down and started crying. He was embarrassed and tried to hold it back, but couldn’t; he just sat in the chair next to me and buried his face. “I thought you were gone,” he said into his hands.
“You didn’t listen,” I said. “I told you I was coming back.”
When Max stopped crying, I asked about Rachel. “Any news?”
He looked down whilst shaking his head. But then he looked up at me with eyes still bleary though also a little hopeful. “One good thing—you’ll never guess who’s trying to help us,” he said.
“You mean the gimp?”