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Jack might have reacted differently if he'd seen the punch coming. He might have been able to hold back a little. But he was caught off guard, and what followed shocked everyone. Jack most of all.
No surprise where it came from. Rico had been riding him since the summer, and pushing especially hard today.
The morning had started as usual. Giovanni Pastorelli, boss and owner of Two Paisanos Landscaping, had picked him up at a predesignated subway stop in Brooklyn—Jack lived in Manhattan and trained out—and then picked up the four Dominicans who made up the rest of the crew. The Dominicans all lived together in a crowded apartment in Bushwick but Giovanni refused to drive through there. He made the "wetbacks"—his not-unaffectionate term for them when they weren't around—train to a safer neighborhood.
Jack had arrived in the city in June and came across the Two Paisanos boss in July at a nursery. His landscaping business had started with two paisanos but now had only one, Giovanni, who almost laughed Jack off when he'd asked if he needed an extra hand. He was a twenty-one-year-old who looked younger. But he'd worked with a number of landscapers in high school and college, and ten minutes of talk convinced the boss he'd be taking on experienced help.
But Jack's knowledge of Spanish, rudimentary though it was, clinched the hire. The boss had come over from Sicily with his folks at age eight and had lived in Bath Beach forever. He spoke Italian and English but little Spanish. Jack had taken Spanish in high school and some at Rutgers. The Dominicans who made up the rest of Giovanni's crew spoke next to no English.
Giovanni worked them all like dogs seven days a week but no harder than he worked himself. He liked to say, "You'll get plenty of days off—in the winter." He paid cash, four bucks an hour—twenty cents above minimum wage—with no overtime but also no deductions.
Though a newcomer, Jack quickly became Giovanni's go-to guy. He could understand the Dominicans if they spoke slowly, and was able to relay the boss's work orders to them.
Before Jack, that had been Rico's job. He spoke little English, but enough to act as go-between. He probably felt demoted. Plus, Giovanni loved to talk and would launch long, rambling monologues about wine, women, and Italy at Jack, something never possible with Rico. That had to gall him. He'd been with Giovanni—or jefe, as he called him—for years, then Jack strolls in and becomes right-hand man within weeks of his arrival.
Jack had come to like Giovanni. He was something of a peacock with his pompadour hair and waxed mustache, and could be a harsh taskmaster when they were running late or weather put him behind schedule. But he was unfailingly fair, paying on time and to the dime.
He liked his "wetbacks" and respected how hard they worked. But his old-country values didn't allow much respect for his clients.
"A man who won't work his own land don't deserve it."
Jack had lost count of how many times he'd heard him mutter that as they'd unload the mowers and blowers and weed whackers from the trailer. Giovanni charged jaw-dropping lawn maintenance fees, but people paid him. He had the quality homeowners wanted most in their gardener: He showed up. On top of that, he and his crew did good work.
On this otherwise unremarkable late October day, the Two Paisanos crew was in Forest Hills performing a fall cleanup around a two-story Tudor in the shadow of the West Side Tennis Club stadium. Last month they'd worked at the club itself, planting mums for the fall. His dad was a big tennis fan and Jack remembered seeing the place on TV when the US Open was held here.
Carlos, Juan, and Ramon were happy-go-lucky sorts who loved having a job and money to spend in the midst of a recession. But Rico had a chip on his shoulder. Today he'd started in the moment he got in the truck. Childish stuff. He was seated behind Jack so he began jabbing his knees against Jack's seat back. Jack seethed. The months of bad 'tude and verbal abuse were getting to him. But he did his best to ignore the guy. Rico never seemed to be playing with a full deck anyway, and appeared to be missing more cards than usual today.
When they reached the work site Rico started with the name-calling in Spanish. One thing lacking in his Spanish classes in Rutgers had been vernacular obscenities. But Jack had picked up quite a few since July. Rico was using them all. Usually the comments were directed at Jack, but today Rico had expanded into Jack's ancestry, particularly his parents. With Jack's mother buried less than a year now, the guy was stomping on hallowed ground. But he didn't know that. Jack set his jaw, tamped the fire rising within, and put on his headphones. He started UB40's latest spinning in his Discman. The easy, mid-tempo reggae of Labour of Love II offered a peaceful break from Rico's rants.
Rico must have become royally pissed that he couldn't get a rise. So pissed he hauled off and sucker-punched Jack in the face.
As his headphones went flying and pain exploded in his cheek, Jack felt something snap. Not physically, but mentally, emotionally. A darkness enveloped him. He'd felt it surge up in him before, but never like this. He took martial arts classes but whatever he'd learned was lost in an explosive rush of uncontrollable rage. Usually he fought it, but this time he embraced it. A dark joy filled him as he leaped at Rico with an animal howl.
He pounded his face, feeling his nose snap beneath his knuckles, his lips shred against his teeth. Rico reeled back, and Jack quarter-spun his body as he aimed a kick at his left knee. His boot heel connected with the outside of the knee, caving it inward. Even over the roaring in his ears he could hear the ligaments snap. As Rico went down, Jack stomped on the knee, then kicked him in the ribs, once, twice. As Rico clutched his chest and rolled onto his side, Jack picked up a bowling-ball-size rock from the garden border and raised it to smash his head.
A pair of powerful arms encircled him and wrenched him around. He lost his grip on the rock and it landed on the grass, denting the turf. Giovanni's voice was shouting close behind his left ear.
"Enough! He's down! He's finished! Stop it, for fuck's sake!"
The darkness receded, Jack's vision cleared, and he saw Rico on the ground, his face bloodied, wailing as one arm clutched his ribs and another his knee.
"All right," Jack said, relaxing as he stared in wonder at Rico. "All right."
What just happened?
Maybe five seconds had passed. So little time, so much damage.
Carlos, Juan, and Ramon stood in a semicircle behind Rico, their gazes shifting from Jack to their fallen roommate, their expressions alternating between fear and anger.
Giovanni released him from behind and spun him around. He looked frightened, upset.
"What were you gonna do? Kill him?"
"I don't know. I mean, no. I guess I lost it."
"Lost it! Damn right, you lost it!" He looked over Jack's shoulder at where Rico lay. "Christ, I never seen anything like it." His expression darkened. "You better get outta here."
"You can catch an E or an F back into the city over on Seventy-first Avenue."
Jack felt a new surge of anger, but nothing like before. "Hey, aren't we forgetting something here? I was the guy who was minding his own business when he—"
"I know all about it, but you're still upright and moving. He ain't walking anywhere after the way you fucked up his knee."
"So nothing. I know these guys. They're thick like brothers. You stick around you're gonna find some hedge trimmers chewing up your face. Or a shovel flattening the back of your head. Git. They'll cool down if you're not around."
The heat surged again. He was ready to take on the remaining three right now.
"They'll cool down? What about me?"
"Don't be a jerk. You're outnumbered. Move. I'll call you later."
"Yeah?" Jack said, resisting the urge to take a swing at Giovanni. "Don't bother."
Railing silently at the unfairness of it all, he picked up his Discman and started walking.
Copyright © 2012 by F. Paul Wilson