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The story so far: During the Great Depression, mobster Jerry Goldman approaches his former best friend Forty Dollar to offer him a job. Goldman wants Forty to build him something “like a radio, but different.” Working with Forty on the job are Albert Einstein and a mysterious someone named Lisa.
The next morning, I went to the address Jerry gave me. It was a storefront with boarded-up windows. Looked deserted, but the door was unlocked. When I entered, Jerry and Rebecca were already there, talking in low voices. Standing side-by-side the way they were, the difference in their ages was apparent. Rebecca was young, not yet twenty, while Jerry had just turned thirty-one. Anyone who didn’t know their history might wonder how they’d gotten together, what she saw in him. Pretty young girl with a prosperous older man, they might assume she was just using him for his money. It was more than that. It wasn’t love, but it was more than just money.
Lisa was sitting at a table in the corner, rocking back and forth and muttering to herself. She shifted and twisted her head, as if a ghost were tickling the side of her neck.
Jerry looked up as I came in. “Forty. Glad you could make it. The professor will be in later.”
“Morning, Jerry, Rebecca. I’m going to say ‘hi’ to Lisa.”
I took an empty seat next to her at the table. She didn’t look great. Didn’t smell great either, but you get used to it. She was in her early thirties, just a couple of years older than Jerry, but looked both older and younger at the same time. Her hair had been black when she was younger, but now it was over half gone to gray, stringy and wild. Her slack face had that smooth youthful look of the retarded, but wrinkles had started to creep in. She was mumbling numbers under her breath. “Four-one-four-six-nine-five-one-nine-four-one-five…”
“Hey, Lisa,” I said quietly as I sat down. “How are you doing?”
She stopped mumbling, and after a moment, her head turned slightly toward me. Through that haze of hair, her eyes met mine, just for a second, and then she looked away again. “Forty,” she said. “Forty Dollar. Three. Three dot one. Forty Dollar. Three dot one four. Three dot one four one…”
Lisa was Rebecca’s mother. She’d been living in Serbia when the Great War started, got caught right in the middle when the Austrians invaded. She turned up pregnant a few months later, at the age of thirteen. Rumor was the poor retarded girl had been raped by a soldier, maybe more than one (after she was born, Rebecca’s light hair and blue eyes got people saying that her daddy had been an Austrian, and it’s probably true). Lisa was easy prey for any of them, and it was feared she’d suffer the same fate over and over until the war ended, if she lived that long.
Jerry and his mother had been living with some Serbian Jews before coming to America, and somehow word of Lisa’s plight reached them in New York. Immigration had been suspended because of the war, but Mama Goldman had been dating a local big shot in the neighborhood, Isaac Mandelheim, who ran protection rackets and faro games in Brownsville and Canarsie. He talked to a few people, spread around a little cash, and next thing you know, pregnant little Lisa’s living in Brooklyn with the Goldmans, with papers saying she was born in Jersey, even though she didn’t speak a word of English. Rebecca was born a few weeks after Lisa arrived in New York.
Mandelheim ended up getting shot in the street. They hit him as he was coming out of a chophouse on 6th Avenue eight years ago, three of them with shotguns. Mandelheim was a big man, and they say he made a big mess. Jerry’s mother was inconsolable. She moved to Florida shortly after. By that time, though, Jerry was in the rackets himself and moving up, making good money. He’d been supporting Lisa and her daughter ever since.
He married Rebecca just after she turned 17. He was 28. Whatever they had seemed to work. I mean, they always seemed cheerful enough whenever I saw them. It wasn’t love, at least not the kind of love they write songs about, or the kind you see in the pictures, but it wasn’t just money, either. He was good to Lisa, and Rebecca was good to him.
Jerry came over with a battered notebook in his hands. “Here’s what we’re building. Look it over while we’re waiting for the professor. The page is marked.”
I thumbed through the notebook to the marked page. It was like a catalog of dreams, dreams of the future: navigation beacons for airplanes traveling through fog, electronic telescopes that could see in the dark, beams for tracking airplanes and ships.
As I was reading, I could feel a tentative pressure on my arm. Lisa was leaning against me just the slightest little bit. I acted like I didn’t notice, so she leaned a little harder and pretty soon, she was all cuddled up against my side. “Three dot one four one five nine two six. Forty acres and a mule. Three dot one…”
I got to the marked page. It was covered with equations and scribbles and drawings of something that looked like a cross between a rifle and a zeppelin. The heading read, “Stimulated Radiation Weapon.”
“Where did you get this?” I asked Jerry.
He smiled, but it wasn’t his usual charming grin. It was the kind of sly, cruel smile that the guys in my neighborhood would wear when they’d brag about talking some virgin out of her panties by promising her the moon and leaving her with nothing if she was lucky, crabs or the clap if she wasn’t.
“This guy named Farnsworth,” he said. “He’s got this invention he’s trying to peddle, this radio with pictures, calls it television. He needs backers, so I told him I would give him money, but only if he proved to me that this invention couldn’t be used as a weapon.
“Three weeks later, he comes to me all down in the mouth, cause once he started thinking about it, he filled a whole notebook with different ideas for turning the technology to war. He understood if I didn’t want to invest. But I was Mister Magnanimous. I bought a few shares in his company, but only if I could have the notebook, to keep it from falling into the wrong hands, you understand.”
“There must be millions of dollars worth of ideas here,” I said. “But if we got the plans, what do we need Professor Einstein for?”
“He’s a genius, Forty,” Jerry said. “You’re gonna’ build a death ray, you want a genius, right? And I figured, it might be a good excuse to get Lisa out of the house for a while. When I showed the professor some of her notebooks, he just went ga-ga over them.”
That’s the thing about Lisa. She can’t wipe her own ass, but she’s like some kind of whiz with numbers. She used to be in the room when I would help Becca with her homework, including math. She didn’t look like she was paying attention; she never does. But later on, she started writing numbers on whatever she could. They started giving her notebooks so she’d ease up on the walls, and she would just fill them, notebook after notebook with little scribbled numbers and equations, with these weird notations that looked like doodles.
One day I got curious, so I opened up one of her notebooks, and the whole thing, every page, is a solid block of numbers. All except the first page. The first page had this doodle, a cross with the arms curving down, like a scarecrow, then an equals sign, then the numbers started, “3.14159…” That looked familiar to me, so I checked Rebecca’s geometry textbook, and sure enough, it was pi. Thing was, we hadn’t studied pi yet. Lisa figured it out on her own, had made up her own symbol and figured pi to who knows how many decimal places–we never counted, but it was thousands, at least–all in her head, just scribbling it down in her notebook as fast as she could write.
“So I figure why not let her help out, too?” Jerry said. “It’s not like I have to pay her, and she likes you. It’ll be good for her.”
“Does the professor think he’s doing this to stop war, too?” I asked.
“No,” Jerry said. “The professor lost a lot of money in the Crash. I mean, a lot. He was leveraged out to his eyeballs, and a few of us helped him out when everything went south. He owes us a favor, and he’s not too happy about it. The only thing he’s got in common with Farnsworth is, they’re both geniuses, but they’re not necessarily all that bright.”
“Well, that’s life,” I said. “Some people aren’t nearly as smart as they look, and some people are a lot smarter.”
I nudged Lisa with my shoulder as I said it, felt her push back in return. “Forty Dollar had a mule,” she sang. “Ee-eye-ee-eye-oh. Three dot one four one five…”
And so we started working on the gadget. After Jerry had gotten us settled in, gotten me the tools and parts I needed to get started, he mostly disappeared to run his rackets, leaving Professor Einstein, Lisa and me to do our work unsupervised. It did not go entirely smoothly.
The notebook didn’t contain any real plans, you see, which is why Farnsworth was willing to part with it, I guess. There were sketches of parts, with scribbled notes explaining how the pieces were supposed to work, and references to other pieces I guess he was already using in his television thing. But I was kind of on my own when it came to figuring out how to actually build it.
Einstein was not as much help as you might imagine. Turns out, a theoretical physicist may not be your best choice to build a working gadget from scribbles in some inventor’s notebook. Not that he didn’t help, it’s just that he didn’t help much. There were some equations written in the margins, so he could check the math, and he explained some of the theory to me, which helped, I guess, but translating it into working parts was another thing altogether.
I didn’t tell any of this to Jerry, however. The professor practically begged me not to, because this was his one chance to work off his debt, and he wanted to get it over with. So I played along, made it seem to Jerry as if the professor was an invaluable help, rather than an old man with crazy hair and a funny accent standing around while I did all the work.
Actually, Lisa ended up being more helpful with the building than Einstein. Back when I was helping Rebecca with her homework, I would sometimes have to wait by myself for her to finish some chore or girl-stuff or something, so I would study circuit diagrams and things while I waited. And Lisa was usually in the room. It was easy to forget she was there sometimes; after a while, her quiet mumbling just blended in with the normal room noise.
But I guess she must have been reading over my shoulder or something, because when I started trying to translate Farnsworth’s notes into full circuit diagrams, Lisa would sometimes correct me. I missed it the first few times, because as usual, the corrections were just stuck into her constant stream of babble.
For instance, one day she was sitting by me, leaning against me like she liked to do, and she’s going on with all kinds of gossip about different women I’d never met. Like how one lady’s stepping out on her husband, and another one was pregnant but lost the baby and now denies she was ever even expecting. Stuff she’d probably overheard Rebecca talking about. And she starts talking about Judy Portnoy’s nose.
“Judy Portnoy has a big nose,” Lisa said. “Big nose. Can’t imagine what anyone would see in her, assuming they could see anything past that big nose. Can’t imagine what they’d see. See three. See four. He needs a see-four. See-three’s not enough. Got to have a see-four. Everyone knows that. Judy Portnoy knows. Judy Portnoy’s nose is a big see-four.”
Which may not sound too obvious, but at the time, I had just drawn in three capacitors in sequence–labeled C-1, C-2, and C-3–which wouldn’t be enough for the working voltage I needed. When I double-checked, sure enough, I needed four.
It wasn’t always easy, but I was better at panning out the gold from her speech than anyone else, even Rebecca, and once I figured out what she was saying, I started listening more intently. And the gadget slowly took shape.
Even though Jerry wasn’t there very much, Rebecca was. She was there with us for at least an hour or two every day, some days longer if she didn’t have a luncheon or a hair appointment or something. She would sit and joke with the professor while I assembled pieces or studied my diagrams, trying to figure out if I had everything drawn in right.
One day after I’d finished most of the drawings, I was slaving with a drill press, drilling wire holes in a piece of wood. Rebecca was watching me while the professor read in a corner. Lisa sat in her usual place by my side, scribbling in one of her notebooks. “Isn’t this boring for you?” I asked Rebecca as I lined up my next hole.
She shook her head. “It’s nice, sometimes, just to get Mother out of the house and spend time with people who are actually doing something instead of sitting around, chattering and gossiping.”
“Like Judy Portnoy and her big nose?”
Rebecca laughed and blushed at the same time. It was charming. “Forty, you’re awful. Where did you ever hear that?”
“Word gets around. It’s all over the lower east side.”
Rebecca laughed again, then said, “So what have you been doing with yourself? We hardly ever see you anymore.”
Which was true. I had mostly steered clear of Jerry and Rebecca since they’d gotten married. I shrugged. “Oh, you know, this and that. Odd jobs here and there. I hit the track when I’ve got a couple of dollars in my pocket, pretend I’m a big shot until I find out that my horse escaped from a glue factory. But what the hell, if I didn’t lose it on horses, I’d just drink it, right?”
“You’re so cynical,” Rebecca said over the whine of the drill. “You know, Forty, what your life needs is a woman’s touch.”
Something in her voice made me look up from the drill press. The professor must’ve heard it, too, because he looked up from the book he was reading in the corner. I shook my head and bent over my work again.
“Hey, my mother, God rest her soul, blessed me with three sisters. If there’s one thing my life does not need, it’s more women. I got my hands full with Lisa here, ain’t that right?”
Lisa didn’t pause in her mumbling, but the pressure against my side increased for just a moment. Professor Einstein resumed his reading.
“Well, tonight you’re having dinner with us, and I don’t want to hear a word about it, is that clear?” Rebecca said. I knew better than to argue.
Which was how I ended up eating at Jerry and Rebecca’s most nights, which was its own kind of hell. I mean, on the one hand, spending time at their townhouse was much better than staying in my own flytrap, one tiny room with a Murphy bed and a hot plate and nothing to heat up on it.
But there was a reason I had mostly steered clear of Jerry since he’d gotten married, and it wasn’t that I didn’t like gangsters. It was Rebecca. I’d known her literally since she was born, changed her diapers a couple of times even. For most of the years since, she’d ranged from a pretty okay kid to an annoying brat. She had a big crush on me when she was fourteen, fifteen, and it was a huge pain in the ass, let me tell you.
But then one day, and I can’t say exactly when, all of a sudden, looking at her made my crotch go hard and my head go soft. And that was hard to come to grips with, because this was Rebecca. I’d known this kid forever and never thought of her that way, had just worked pretty hard to get her to stop feeling that way about me.
And by the time I finally decided to admit that, yeah, I did think of her that way, and perhaps I should see if I still maybe had a shot, Jerry told me they were getting married. So I smiled and congratulated him and stood by his side at the wedding, and every time I looked at Becca, my stomach turned over like I was still on that boat from Napoli.
After the wedding, I didn’t see them again when I could help it. And now here I was, seeing her almost every day. And maybe it was just wishful thinking, but when she’d said that thing about a woman’s touch, I could swear there was something in her eyes that said that maybe she had a particular woman in mind who should be touching me.
Professor Einstein left after two weeks. I didn’t really need him anymore (as if I ever had), and he insisted that if he was gone for more than two weeks, there would be too many questions back home.
Jerry waited for him with a car outside the workshop on his last day. We shook hands as he got ready to leave.
“Goodbye, Professor,” I said. “Thanks for all your help.”
“And thank you for yours, Forty,” he said with a wink. “If you’re ever in Princeton, you must look me up.”
I said I would, though we both knew that, one, he didn’t really mean it, and two, a guy like me would never go to a place like Princeton on purpose. He gave Rebecca a hug and kiss on the cheek, and tried to do the same with Lisa, but she shied away from him. He ended up giving her an awkward pat on the shoulder, then turned to walk out the door. “Such a waste,” he muttered to himself as he left.
Rebecca turned and smiled at me after the door had closed behind him. “I’ll miss him,” she said. “He’s a terrible flirt, but his accent makes it charming. If I were a little older, or he were a little younger…”
She fanned herself with her hand, then said, “Well, what shall we do with ourselves for the rest of the night?”
“I don’t know about you, but I figured I would go home and curl up with a good bottle of something. Try to get my hands to unclench.” I flexed my fingers to try to work some of the stiffness out. Hours of fine work with wire and soldering iron had left me with claws. The room stank of copper and melted tin. I’d started smelling it in my dreams.
Rebecca took my hand and rubbed at my fingers. Her hands were so soft. “Poor thing. Forty, come out with me. Jerry’s going to visit some business associates in Jersey after he drops off the professor. He’ll be out late, if he comes home tonight at all. I don’t want to spend another lonely night cooped up in that house with Mother.”
“Hey, pipe down a little. She’s right over there.”
“Oh, she never pays attention,” Rebecca said and jerked my hand closer. My fingertips were an inch away from her breasts. It took all the concentration I had not to watch them. “Take me to dinner, Forty. Take me dancing. Jerry never wants to dance anymore.”
I turned my head away to look at Lisa, sitting and rocking and mumbling by herself. Through her frizz of hair, I saw her eyes flick toward me and look away, flick toward me and look away. “Don’t worry about her, Forty,” Rebecca said. “She’ll be fine.”
“I’m just not sure it’s such a good idea, Bec,” I said. “You being married and all.”
“Please!” she said, jerking my hand again for emphasis.
My finger touched fabric. Fabric, with something soft underneath, and all of a sudden, I couldn’t breathe.
And yes, it’s silly to say that all that happened after, all the misery and death and doom, came about because of that one touch. The ghosts of all the men I’ve killed since would surely not be placated by hearing that it all happened because my finger accidentally (or maybe not so accidentally) brushed up against a boob.
But then again, maybe some of them would understand.