On the edge of the parking lot, the man named Frankie was with them, just hanging out, scuffing the ground, grunting, laughing, putting the halfway house behind them for a moment and looking out through the trees at the river, dark with flecks of light. Frankie's a sea-dog type, all hunch and roll of shoulders. He tapped his watch cap with his index finger, making his habitual salute gesture. He's one of those who came lumbering out of the vapor, his sway and his sea-dog talk marking him as an anomaly. He claimed to have been unreadable to the punks up in Newburgh, saying: I bought and sold quick at a profit. Gangs all around me, I mean violence day to day with guys killing each other over corner turf, until I stepped into the void opened by the dead, found my business footing, and ran an operation until, a year later, they stopped killing each other, combined forces, and called my name in to the DEA tip line. That was all it took. Judge offered me a plea, so long as I fingered a few. I complied and he put me in the clink for a few months. As a matter of fact I was in Sing Sing, right across the river. I was lucky because that judge had a sense of my future potential. He read it in my eyes. I presented myself as sober and clean, and that's what he saw when he looked. Newburgh's one of those towns—the rest of the country don't give a shit so long as it stays out of sight, you see. He touched his watch cap whenever he paused. After I came East from Duluth, before I ended up in Newburgh, I worked a stint on a harbor tug, meeting big ships coming in. There's nothing like the tedium of waiting for the meet-and-greet to bring some tanker, loaded to the hilt, into the bosom of the harbor, he said. Those big container ships couldn't make a move into New York Harbor without our guidance, and that's what gave us so much power, you see, because until they unloaded their goods they were simply hauling potential profit, which is depressing as all hell and makes the heart sink. So we'd hang back and hide in the fog while they signaled like mad . . . He rambled on, while the others looked through the trees at the dark glint of water and maintained the studied, blasť posturing of men who'd been detoxed in local hospital wards, sent to the Blaisdell unit of Rockland Psychiatric or down to Bellevue and then out again, and were now sneaking smokes—against Open Embrace regulations—four days before Christmas. They listened with respect to Frankie, in part because his stories sounded reasonably truthful. Straight-up, truthful stories—they all knew and agreed silently—were a rare find. As Frankie said: You get intense heat at the bottom of a very large pile of bullshit, you see, and in the smithy of that heat a few of the words congeal and solidify and become diamonds of truth, bright enough to send shafts of light through the cracks.
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