Prologue (1931) The last time Edward Alter saw his father, he was at the speakeasy. James had abandoned his family and disappeared down the Hudson River years ago. Now he had finally returned, and Edward was not going to let him skip out on them again.
Edward was sixteen, too young to remember when the speakeasy had been a humble Methodist church on the side of the road to Corbin-on-Hudson. What he did remember was getting sent to fetch his father from the bar: a room full of rough, sloppy men drinking bootleg whiskey supplied by the Coxsackie Syndicate. As a child, Edward would pull on his father’s wrist and beg him to come home, until James hoisted him onto his lap to shut him up. Once there, Edward was content to sit and watch his father’s thick, dirty hands tap out aimless rhythms against the bar. His fingers were always moving, if not across the wood surface then around the cloudy glass of his whiskey, to his face, and back. He would hear his father talking over his head to whatever poor soul sat on the stool next to him that day.
“So I told him, what are you gonna do about it? Are you some kind of cop? And the guy looks straight at me, pulls out his badge, and goes ‘Yeah!’” They both laughed, James Alter the hardest, his nose whistling in Edward’s ear. Eventually the bartender, uncomfortable with having a child in such an inappropriate setting, would ask “Shouldn’t you go home, James?”
James always disagreed, and every few minutes the bartender would repeat himself. “Don’t you think it’s time you went home?” until James finally slammed down his glass and snapped “I’ll go home when I’m damn well ready!”
Edward pulled open the cellar doors and descended the stairs. He’d grown since he’d last been to the speakeasy, and for the first time he had to duck his head under the crossbeams.
The basement used to be the rectory. The ceiling was low, and all the architecture was done in dark, somber wood. There were fading outlines where the new owners had ripped the crucifixes off the walls. A half-dozen customers were scattered around the tables, the kind of men who drank without purpose.
James Alter had been on his way out of town, to the train station, where the money he’d stolen could have taken him all the way to Tupelo with room to spare. Instead he stopped by his favorite bar for one last drink. That drink became two, then three, then a round for everyone in the joint, and by the time Edward stood in the stairwell, James was already floating in booze up to the backs of his eyeballs.
“It’s a sonofabitch world, and don’t you forget it!”
Edward watched his father salute the bartender with his glass raised high, and take a mighty swig. No matter how often his mother insisted that they were better off without that worthless drunk, Edward still dreamed of his father coming back. Then at midnight he’d heard the pebbles plink against his basement window, and for a brief moment, his dream had come true.
“How could you?” Edward wanted to say. But the real question was how could he have believed him? Saying that he would change, after all these years. Saying Edward was all he had. On his way to the speakeasy, Edward had been angry. Now his anger gave way to a hot embarrassment. What a naïve child he’d been. He hid in the shadows of the stairwell, watching his father drink, wondering if he should confront his father at the bar or if he should just leave. Edward arrived at the speakeasy only a minute before the bootleggers. They shoved him out of the way as they barged down the stairs.
“That one,” the leader pointed at Edward’s father.
Before James knew what hit him two Coxsackie thugs were pinning his shoulders to the wall, and another three were hovering in a tight circle around him. Ever the consummate alcoholic—even through this surprise roughing, even though he was almost falling off his barstool a minute before—James kept a solid grip on his glass. It was still half full. Two Eyes, the muscle of the operation, reached out and wrapped his huge hand over James’s, settling his fingers into the grooves of the poor man’s knuckles. He gave it a little squeeze hello.
“This one, Lou?” “That’s the one.”
When the Coxsackie gang came in, the rest of the speakeasy patrons made a study of pretending they didn’t notice. Trouble was the last thing they wanted. A few left their money on the table and quietly departed, sneaking up the stairs past Edward.
Lou, on the other hand, very much liked trouble. “Look at this guy,” he said, eyeing James up and down. “Buyin’ some drinks tonight, are you Jameski?”
Two Eyes tightened his grip on James’ glass. James nodded, and stifled a quiet burp.
“That’s interesting, considering you owe us.” “I know. I’ve got it, I swear.” “You’ve got it? Then I suggest you give it to me, and we can all go about our business.” “I mean, I’m getting it,” he conceded. “And why should I believe you?” James was ready with the story. “My old man. He just died. Left it all to me.”
“Your inheritance!” The Coxsackie boys exclaimed to each other. “Howddaya like that? What fortune!” James smiled, unsure whether they were buying it, but he had to play it out. “He’s in Albany. Was. I have to go get it. The lawyers and all.”
Lou was getting angry. “So you can skip out on us? Do you think I’m fucking stupid?” he asked. “No, no! I’ll come right back, I swear.”
Edward felt sick. He closed his eyes for just a second and in the darkness he heard one of the bootleggers deck James in the face. When he opened them again James was wincing and stretching his jaw.
“You stole from us, Jameski. Now you owe us. Simple.” Lou was pacing, with his hands tented in front of him. “Sixty. Six zero.” “You’ll get it, I swear. My old man—”
Two Eyes’ biceps bulged, and James Alter’s hand strained under the pressure. “No. No, I—ahhhh,” he groaned. “Wait! Wait I have twenty!” “Oh you have twenty do you? Where you get twenty, Jameski? You steal that too?”
Edward was crying now, with his mouth screwed down, trying not to make a sound.
“I have twenty, and I can get you the rest later. It’s in my pocket, I swear.”
Lou nodded to the gang, and the three of them ripped through James’ pockets. Out fell his matches, his playing cards, thin pieces of metal for picking locks, and $14.91 in small bills and coins.
“Not quite fifteen,” one of the boys counted. “Lied again,” Lou said, right in James’ ear. “Don’t matter. I knew you didn’t have it. You know why?” James shook his head. “Because you’re a worthless. Thieving. Drunk.”
Two Eyes wrapped his other hand around James’ now, and held his grip tighter and tighter, until both their arms were shaking.
Edward pressed his back against the wall. He held his breath.
“Oh god,” James said to a silent bar.
His hand gave way and the glass exploded inside it. Crystal shrapnel tore into his palm, and a wave of whiskey soaked his pants. The bottom of the glass hit the floor with a heavy thunk. He cradled his injured hand in front of him, whimpering.
Two Eyes was still admiring his handiwork when James’ legendary moonshine tolerance finally failed him. A great flood of brown vomit came pouring out of his mouth and onto the dirt floor. All the bootleggers jumped back, and in the stairwell Edward covered his mouth, trying not to vomit at the sight of it. James’ hand dripped spots of blood into the spreading pool.
Lou had had enough. “Get him out of here!” he demanded. Edward stayed long enough to see two of the goons grab his father by the arms and haul him to his feet. Then he turned and ran back up the passageway just ahead of the Coxsackie boys.