The Snake, the Mobster, and the GSP
A Short Story about a Mobster’s last days during the Coronavirus Pandemic
Room 1304 at City Central should hold at two patients, especially during a pandemic, but today there was but one; Victor Dominico, a seventy-five-year-old career mobster. Vic the Brick, as he is called because his fists feel like bricks when they hit something, usually a jaw, was just two days ago sitting in jail with a hacking cough and a fever. Doctors say in two days he’ll be six feet under, but right now, he’s cranky. He can barely breathe, and he’s being guarded by a police officer suited up in a hazmat suit.
The woman in the room is Yvonne, an orderly, who immigrated to the United States eight years ago from Peru when her son was a baby. On an average day, her job is taxing, but working in a virus hot zone, her hours and responsibilities have doubled. You’ll never hear her complain; everyone from the orderly to the president of the hospital is feeling new pressures.
Dressed in a white hazmat suit, Yvonne cleaned the room like it was a supercar getting ready for auction. The germs were no match for her work ethic. She was one of the hospital’s best workers, even if few knew it.
She sometimes added duties only a nurse should do, such as giving medicine to a pained patient or delivering advice. She knew medicine by observation and her calm, motherly demeanor and soft Spanish accent soothed an anxious mind. The only thing standing in her way of going to nursing school was time and money, so basically, everything. Therefore, she had mostly let the dream of being a nurse wither away.
“I hope you make it, Mister Victor,” Yvonne says as she changes out the trash bags. She has heard the rumors about Victor. He went to jail for murder, but he looks so old and feeble she feels bad for him, although his hands are oversized and strong. “You need a ventilator.”
“Yvonne, please.” A nurse supervisor overhearing Yvonne’s advice scolds when entering the room. “It’s hard enough without the orderlies getting the patients worked up. We’re trying, Mr. Dominico. Believe me.”
“Am I gonna need to send someone to knock over a truck to get the stuff or what,” Victor jokes to no one’s amusement. “Gimme a phone. I’ll get it done.”
“That won’t be necessary Mister Dominico,” the nurse says.
The orderly quietly continues her work, while the nurse helps Victor before eventually leaving.
“Yvonne,” Victor called out after hearing Yvonne corrected by the nurse. “Listen, hon. keep doing what you do. I’ll take any help I can get.”
“She’s right. I get carried away pretending to be a nurse.”
“So why ain’t you one? You’d be good,” Victor comments. He looks over to the cop in the corner reading a magazine. “Ain’t that right, Charlie?”
“Yeah, real good,” Charlie, says without as much as a glance up.
“Charlie’s over there because his bosses think this old man’s gonna try to escape or maybe they think I’m gonna confess to where I hid my gambling winnings. Fat chance, suckers. I ain’t confessing to anything when I only got two months left on my sentence,” Victor exclaims before he has a fit of coughs. After recovering, he continues, “Prison couldn’t bring me down. My enemies? Fuhgeddaboutit. Up to today and this dumb germ, the closest I ever got to dying was from a snake in the desert. Wanna hear about it? Ya got time, right?”
“Sure, Mr. Dominico,” Yvonne says, scrubbing down the bed; she doesn’t have the time but who’s gonna deny a dying man’s request?
“We were stuck without a car in the middle of Death Valley. Don’t ask why we were there. We’ll call it a business trip,” He nods over to Charlie. “The police are real familiar with the story. So, it was me and this palooka, Clark Westfield. Clark moved to Vegas to be a magician but ended up working as a house painter. He’s been dead a long time. Half of my sixth-grade class had dreams bigger than their talents. My neighbor Linden, Lindy, wasted ten years on singing lessons. There was a girl who moved to our school from Korea, Roselle Park. Rosie’s parents owned a take-out joint in New Brunswick. We took-out a lot. Rosie wanted to be a writer and wrote a book about a Secret. Nobody bought it. Somebody stole her idea and cashed in. But for me, I always knew what I wanted. I wanted to be a gangster.”
“Yeah, maybe that wasn’t the smartest career choice,” Charlie interjects.
“Ah, wuddah you know? I admit Yvonne, it ain’t for everyone. Gangsters got bad days too. Like this day in the desert when my Cadillac spit the bit, me and my pal were meandering through Death Valley shirts wrapped around our heads like we were Lawrence of Arabia. Evah hear of it? It’s a heckuva movie. We came upon an expanse of flowers. A bloom field farther than the eye could see. That’s where the sucker got me. Hidden in the beautiful wildflowers, a rattlesnake stalked me.” Victor stops his story. “Yo, Yvonne can you do something for me? I need another pillow under my head.”
Yvonne helps Victor. He’s old, but Yvonne is still a little too intimidated to say no.
“Yeah, much better. So, this stupid reptile bites me on the ankle and you’d think that’s the end of the story. It ain’t. The ugly thing got a taste of Vic the Brick and wanted more. It chased me and Clark for miles. I’d swear, my ankle swelled to the size of Hoover Avenue, but we couldn’t stop, as much as I wanted to. The venom made me see weird things, like the oranges, but we pushed on.
“My pal Ken Worth said on the drive out that the only thing the beach has in common with the desert is sand and sunshine. Compared to where we were, the Jersey shore is the real treasure. Poor Kenny.
“I found some shade from the bones of some elm wood and maple wood trees leftover from another time. But that’s not where we wanted to be. Darn vultures were waiting for us, their mouths drooling like how I watch my wife’s cannolis bake in the oven.
“No matter how far we got, all we could hear was this haunting echo of the friggin’ rattler following us. I kept thinking that if our car didn’t break down, we’d be at the Irvington Diner with their rotating pie display eating their famous Newark nuggets. My brother-in-law Wayne Clifton owns it. Go see him. Tell ’em I sent ya. Tell ’em you saved my life. He’ll hook you up.”
Yvonne listens to the story but wonders where it’s going. Victor can’t stay on track. She’s been in the room for a few minutes and really hopes her supervisor doesn’t find her dawdling, but she feels compelled to stay just a little longer.
“Back to me and my story; so yeah, I thought I was gonna die out there in the desert. Almost did. Scampi for the scavengers, but we came to a road and a family vacationing in an RV. Same place, different experience for us.
“The mother was a nurse from Jersey. I’ll never forget her name – Elizabeth Cranford. You know her? Guess not. But she saved me. She picked up the rattlesnake. Swung the thing around her head like a lasso, tossed it aside before getting to work on my ankle which looked like a balloon full of honey.
“When I was laying there getting treated, I kept thinking of this place. Not here at the hospital but this place where my parents are buried in Elmwood Park. Right next to them is President Garfield’s second cousin, Paterson Passaic Garfield. Her gravestone doesn’t look like much, but the view of Secaucus from the highest point is alright. Spend time there, and you’ll see what Montclair Nutley saw when he first settled the land. A fresh start. A better life. That’s where I’d be if I wasn’t at this joint.”
Yvonne listens to the story as she works, wondering what the heck this old mobster is even talking about. She’s just grateful to get on with her shift and say “adios” to Victor and his police protector. She continues cleaning and disinfecting the third floor of the hospital, eventually forgetting about the old mob man and his story about the snake.
Twelve hours later, Yvonne is in her fifteen-year-old Honda. She prays it’ll get her home. Her drive home is a long one, forty minutes down the Garden State Parkway. Typically, there’s already heavy traffic, but it’s quiet today. People are staying at home. Everywhere but work is a ghost town. The sun rises under a beautiful soft pink sky. Her music plays quietly in the background as she tries to put her long day behind her and looks forward to breakfast with her son.
It’s the same thing every day. Pray the car will make it. It almost always does. Breakfast at dawn is worth the worry. This morning, as Yvonne nears her exit on the parkway, she sees the sign for the next one, exit 137. Her heart stops for a few beats, and she forgets to breathe.
You see, exit 137 takes you to the towns of Elizabeth and Cranford; and thus the sign reads Elizabeth Cranford. New Jersey has plenty of towns named for people, but she never looked at the sign the way she did right now. She quickly recalled something Victor had said.
“The mother, Elizabeth Cranford, was a nurse. I’ll never forget her name. She saved me.”
What an odd coincidence. Instead of turning off the highway and heading home, she continues on the parkway. The coincidences end when she comes to the next sign—Kenilworth. Yvonne thinks of Victor’s pal Ken Worth.
“The only thing the beach has in common with the desert is sand and sunshine.”
Victor was speaking to her in code the entire time. Was there a snake? Probably not. Now, she can guess the next sign. That’s where her kid’s doctor is—Roselle Park.
“Yah gotta be kidding me,” Yvonne says out loud, imitating Victor’s accent. Yvonne’s heart races faster than her car. Each road sign on the parkway, from The Oranges and Elmwood to Bloomfield and Maplewood, were characters in Victor’s story.
Next, she sees the sign for Wayne Clifton and pulls off at the exit. The sound of the snake’s rattle was a drum beating within her.
“My brother-in-law, Wayne Clifton, owns it. Go see him. Tell ’em I sent ya. He’ll hook you up with some free stuff.”
There is a cemetery sign, at the bottom of the exit ramp. Not far now. Yvonne’s driving on Hoover Avenue. She recalls Victor saying his leg swelled up to the size of Hoover Ave.
With everyone home waiting out the virus, the ordinarily bustling roads are calm. The apartment buildings lining the street are filled with people. Yvonne feels their eyes watching. At the end of the road, she finds the cemetery. Like most things in New Jersey, it is crowded, but only with folks who have already passed. Tombstones are lined up like skyscrapers in a crowded city.
A closed gate nearly twenty feet tall greets her. She pulls in, and the car sputters to a halt. Yvonne takes a moment, disbelieving her own instincts. What exactly did the career criminal confess to in front of a curious police officer?
After she exits the car, she’s confronted by the question of where in this massive cemetery should she go?
“I kept thinking of this place. The place where my parents are buried in Elmwood Park. Right next to them is where President Garfield’s cousin Paterson Passaic Garfield sleeps. Her gravestone doesn’t look like much, but the view of Secaucus from the highest point is alright. Spend time there, and you’ll see what Montclair Nutley saw when he first settled the land.”
Montclair Nutley was not a person. It’s two towns named for two people. There’s an exit on the Garden State Parkway that says just that. How did the cop not notice this fact? Isn’t he from here?
Yvonne wonders what she will see at the top of the cemetery’s largest hill. Her feet feel like she was walking on fire from standing on them for twelve hours but she powers on. Walking the gravel path, she thinks about her eight-year-old son, Abe. Obsessed with mysteries and puzzles, he’d be proud of his mom for figuring out the mobster’s riddle, even if it may not come with a satisfying outcome.
The tombstones are more massive at the top of the hill. It’s the neighborhood with the most prominent homes. Some families even built large mausoleums made of granite and marble for themselves to spend eternity. Those homes at the very top overlook a big chunk of New Jersey. The view is mostly highway, byway, and stacks of shipping containers, but she could see how it would have looked pretty two hundred years ago.
Then she sees it. A gravestone engraved “Dominico” with a statue of an angel on top. There is a vase containing some dead flowers leaning against it. To the right, there is a stone engraved “Pat Garfield 1891-1923”. Above the title, instead of an engraving of a cross or angel or something personal or religious, there’s a reptile, a rattlesnake.
The vase beside this grave contains flowers not more than a couple weeks old. Yvonne recognizes the flower immediately—alstroemeria. Otherwise known as Lily of the Incas. The flower is a symbol of wealth and prosperity from her homeland. Things are lining up like a dream.
She leans down to smell the flower, holding herself up with a hand on the Garfield tombstone when it slides. The monument is not made of granite, like the others. It is solid but not nearly as heavy as it should be. She continues to slide it back, and beneath it is a narrow hole filled with plastic-wrapped money. This has got to be a trap, but when she looks and waits, she only heard doves.
Yvonne thinks she is about to go to jail, but no one comes. She thinks she may get killed for taking a mob man’s money, but no one comes. It takes more than one trip to the car to carry the cash, but she empties it and sets the tombstone back to where it was. Before leaving, Yvonne moves the flower from the Garfield plot to Victor’s parents’ stone.
There would be no sleeping today. Before she’d go to work again this night, Yvonne would know she has the money to go back to school. Enough to focus on her son and a new life. She wonders how she is going to thank Victor for his life-altering gift without alerting the police officer.
She rehearses her code in her head, but when she makes it his room she is gutted to find the room empty. Yvonne is too late, Victor is gone, but she admits there is relief in knowing a dead man can’t change his mind.
The room is being switched over for a new patient and it is Yvonne’s job to make it happen. When she goes to get the materials for the room, she marches light-footed with the knowledge that when the Covid-19 business was behind them, she’d be quitting. Her smile quickly fades when she turns the corner to come face-to-face with Charlie the cop, the one charged with guarding the mobster, at the intake desk filling out paperwork. He’s wearing a face shield and smiles broadly.
“Remember your social distance requirements, Yvonne,” Charlie jokes as they are both geared up from head to toe.
Yvonne returns a smile, but it’s forced. She’s unable to get out any words at first, but eventually asks, “Don’t you ever rest?”
“Nope. The police never sleep,” He points behind her to a man in a wheelchair. “Not with Vic the Brick in our custody.”
Yvonne instinctively spins her head and recognizes the man behind the medical mask in the wheelchair—Victor Dominico. Her stomach tightens. He didn’t die. Victor looks sad and pathetic at the moment, sitting slumped over in his chair, mask over his mouth and head resting on his shoulder. He’s asleep in a medicated kinda way that’s all too familiar to hospital employees.
“Heckuva hospital you have here to bring the brick back from the brink. The Governor is gonna let him out of prison a few days early.” Charlie says. “Some guys have all the luck. Take care now and watch out for those rattlers. Weird, right?”
Charlie laughs, and Yvonne watches in horror as the suddenly chatty officer wheels Vic the Brick down the hallway. Her stomach churns, reflecting on the dying wish of a soon-to-be-released mobster and his money parked under her bed. She grabs fresh bed linens from the supply room and gets back to work.