“The Forest for the Trees” by Thomas Pluck

Sirens echoed off the towering oaks of Branch Brook Park. Paulie ignored them. They’d find the wreck soon enough. Cherry blossoms made a white belt across the rolling green. He slid under a bough. The petals left confetti in his hair.

Was it this one? He ran his sticky, stained fingers over the bark.

No.

Stumbled to the next.

Dusk dulled the light. He fingered a set of initials carved in the smooth black surface.

They weren’t his. Or hers. Too old.

Some of the Japanese trees were ninety years old. Paulie learned that on a field trip. Long before he met Maritza. Who was his crush back then? Dawn. Fifth grade. The girl everyone said had cooties. “Stay out of jumping range,” they said.

Paul never got cooties from holding her hand. He got a belting from his old man.

“Italian girls aren’t good enough for you? You gotta go with some ‘Merigon? Your mother’s spinning in her grave! Is that what you want?”

“No,” Paulie said. He took it without tears. Never let the old man see him cry.

“Blood is everything. It’s what separates us from the animale.”

Paulie was the only son of Pasquale “The Boot” Torreno. With Mom gone, his uncles kept watch over him. Coal black eyes under bushy eyebrows. Behind the wheel of public works trucks as he walked home from school, through the park, to the stony homes of Forest Hill.

Paulie always had a girl. Loved how they looked. How one toss of their head, one glare, made a man fall to his knees.

He dated Rosemarie Graziano to keep the old man happy. A good Catholic girl. Her white panties came off fast. Had to, if they were gonna stay clean. She was easy, but Paulie didn’t want easy. He didn’t break her heart when he took back his ring. She found another one to hang around her neck a week later.

* * *

He met Maritza the last time he’d raced his black cherry Mustang.

Branch Brook Park separated Forest Hill’s money from Belleville’s working class. A dark road snaked through the trees. It made for a good race. Only two ways out. You weren’t fast enough, the cops got you with a road block, took you home to your old man.

The cop got a wad of bills, and you got a beating.

Paulie’s Boss 351 was fast. Four on the floor. Glasspack mufflers. Lakewood traction bars. Beside him at the light, Ernie Voss revved his Dad’s green Jaguar XKE. It had more muscle than Ernie had balls. A heartbeat before the light changed, tires screamed in the hot summer night.

Throaty pipes roared. The Jag ate up the straightaway. They swung hard through the curves. Paulie slammed into third, broke the tires loose. Swung the ass end out on the wide curve, and punched it under the concrete railroad bridge, riding Ernie’s bumper.

Lights exploded behind. A cop’s black and white Dodge. Hiding in a new spot. The Jaguar’s tires shimmied left and right. Ernie shitting bricks. Paulie gripped the vinyl wheel and floored it. Overtook the Jag, heard rubber squeal. Heart dropped at the whump of a crash behind him.

He kept going. Had to get out of the park. Blew through a light and headed for Valley, the low part of Belleville where the Puerto Ricans lived. He could pick up McCarter Highway and get the car in the garage.

Sweat trickled between his shoulder blades, down his sideburns. He unbuttoned his silk paisley shirt one more notch, fanned himself. Never had a crash before. Felt bad for Ernie, but they both knew the risks.

The back streets were a maze of crowded row houses. He took a parallel street, eyes out for the on ramp. The stoops were packed with Rican families sitting on the steps. Men in shirts with no sleeves sipped quarts of beer and stared him down.

That’s when Paulie saw her.

Big eyes. Hair tied up, shining black like polished lacquer. Almond skin and lips pouting  defiance. She wore heels and tight capris, a man’s shirt with the sleeves rolled. Arms folded across her chest.

Their eyes meshed like gears in a power shift. She sneered and sent his heart into redline.

“The hell you want, rich boy?” A beer can sailed over the hood.

Paulie drove out of there. Found the ramp and got the ’stang in the garage before the cops cruised by, flashing lights up the driveways. The old man was out cold.

Paulie splashed his face with cold water. That night, the girl filled his dreams.

* * *

The next night he cruised the valley looking for her. Old Chevies lined the streets. Eyes tracked his cherry ride.

Boy in a t-shirt ran alongside. Paulie reached between the seats for his tire iron.

“Looking for a nickelbag, rich boy?”

Paulie shook his head, tried the next street.

Three blocks later he found her. Venus with windmilling arms. Sharp words for the boy in front of her.

“You’re not the man of the house, Hector. I don’t gotta tell you everything.” Fire in her eyes.

“I tell Papi, we see about that.”

“You gonna rat on me? What Papi think about the dirty magazines you got in the coal chute, hermano?”

The boys on the stoop hooted. Then their eyes went hard as they caught Paulie watching the girl’s moves from his sleek pony.

“Rich boy came back for me, Hector.”

“Cuz you dress like a puta!

She strutted to Paulie’s window.

“You like what you see, huh? You came back.”

“You’re gorgeous.” His heart thumped hard. He wanted to make those big red lips smile.

“He’s cool, he’s my ride,” she said to the boys, then turned back to him. “You wanna take me to Jackie’s for Italian ices? Get me back by ten. All right?”

“You got it.”

She slid around the hood and hopped in the black vinyl bucket. Her brothers rushed the car as Paulie peeled away, leaving smoke.

She squealed and curled up in her seat. Kicked her shoes off, put her feet on the dash. Toenails ruby red.

At the stop light, he reached for her hand. “My name’s Paulie.”

She blushed and smiled. “I’m Maritza.” Gave his hand a squeeze.

He knew she was the one when she tried to hide her smile.

* * *

Parked behind Jackie’s white hut, they licked lemon ice in paper cups.

“What you doing in the valley? Only time we see you Forest Hill boys is when you come to buy grass.”

“Cops were looking for me. Racing.”

“You win?”

“You know it.” He licked his melting ice.

“Got some on your chin.” She reached over and wiped it. He caught her hand and kissed it.

She bit her lip. Turned it to a sneer, and launched herself into his seat.

Their ices melted on the floor mats. They made out all night.

Ten o’clock, the Mustang idled in front of her row house. Four shadows on the stoop.

“I better go,” she said, heels clicking on asphalt.

Paulie got out, fixed his shirt. He snagged her wrist as she came around the back.

“You crazy? My papi got a baseball bat!”

He walked her to the stoop, fighting down the shivers in his belly.

The bat tapped against the concrete steps. The man was broad across the chest. Short and stocky. Full beard. Hair in a ponytail, beret on top. Badges on it. ’Nam vet.

“Gimme one reason not to knock your head in, you guinea bastard.”

“Sir.” Paulie coughed. “I have no excuse for taking your daughter on a date without uh, your permission. You wanna take it out on me, I deserve it.”

He raised the bat. Maritza moved to step in between. Paulie held her hand tight.

“We had lemon ice. We talked about school,” Paulie said. “It’s all my fault. I shoulda knocked on your door and asked you first, like a man.”

A meaty hand slapped Paulie across the face. He clutched his head and stumbled, but held his ground.

“Papi, no!”

“Go inside, Maritza!”

She obeyed. Gave one wet-eyed look back.

The boys laughed. “That’s what you get—”

“Inside, Hector. All of you.”

“Aw—”

“Now.”

Paulie bowed his head. Guy hit hard, but he’d had worse.

“That’s for what you did. But you took it like a man. You coulda pushed her out, drove away. I woulda found you. But you took it. That takes cojones.” He lifted Paulie up by the scruff of his neck. “What they call you?”

“Paulie, sir.”

“You call me Mr. Hernandez. My Maritza, she’s a smart girl. Top of her class. Not some puta to take for rides in your car. You wanna see her again, you be here for dinner next Saturday. Five o’clock. She’s grounded. I see her with you, I take this bat to your carro, then to you. Comprende?”

Capisce. I mean, yes sir!”

He bunted Paulie on the ass with the bat as he hustled to his car.

* * *

Ernie Voss went through the windshield, Paulie’s friends told him. Said his face looked like Frankenstein. Paulie said his racing days were done. Told them how he met Maritza. How she was the one.

He was the perfect gentleman at the Hernandez family dinner. Yes, he was Catholic. His family went to Sacred Heart. He went to school at St. Benedict’s Prep. He wanted to be a lawyer. His father was a delegate for the longshoreman’s union.

It took five dates with chaperones before they could go for rides again.

They would park in a dead end, surrounded by cherry blossoms. Dark and quiet, cops never cruised it. They steamed the windows of the Mustang. Smoked grass under the cherry trees. Did everything but make love.

One night, Mari took a switchblade from her purse. “This is our tree, Paulie.”

She carved a heart, then a big P.

Passed him the black horn handle. He carved the plus sign, and the M.

They made love beneath the mark.

* * *

“Papi’s gonna kill us,” she cried.

Rain hammered the roof of the car. Steam rose off the hood.

“We’ll get married.”

“He’ll kill you. He has a rifle from the war. The way he looks at me. He knows.”

“We’ll run away, Mari. I got money. We’ll live in the city. I’ll work. I promise.”

Paulie had never worked a day in his life, but Maritza made him want to break rocks in the sun.

He kissed her soft, the rest of the night. Kissed away her tears. His father would get him, in the city or anywhere else. Mari slender arms squeezed any thoughts of it out of his chest.

* * *

At home, the old man and uncle Vito sat in the parlor with the lights out. They were on him soon as he walked in. Vito held him down while his father pounded.

“A Puerto Rican putana? What kind of son are you?”

“She’s Catholic, Dad!”

His father punched him in the mouth, then rubbed his sore hand.

Vito shook his head and spat, leaving him on the floor.

“That car? Gone. You piece of shit.”

His father ripped the keys from his pants pocket, lumbered to the den. Glass clinked. Liquor poured.

Paulie snuffled blood, wiped his hands on the white carpet. Waited an hour for the old man’s heavy glass to hit the floor.

He grabbed his father’s car keys from the counter. Packed a suitcase full of clothes. Took the cash rolls out of the coffee mug in the kitchen cabinet.

The steel blue Cadillac’s engine purred. He backed the boat out of the driveway. Looked at his red, swollen face in the rear view.

Steel tapped against the glass of his window.

Ernie’s face didn’t look as bad as they said. A ragged red centipede shot across his forehead.  His hair looked like a wig. His little black gun spat three times, shattering glass, burning Paulie’s elbow, searing fire into his gut.

* * *

The land yacht roared through the park. The valley first, then Clara Maass hospital. They could make it.

Ran the light. Hubcaps careened off the curb.

Lost a mirror at the railroad trestle.

Didn’t make the curve.

 

Paulie crawled through the snowflake blossoms in the dirt.

This was the tree. He was sure of it.

He fell to his belly, cheek to the bark. Put his arms around the trunk.

The tree felt warm and swollen with new life, as his own soaked into the cold ground below.


This story was originally published by The Flash Fiction Offensive.


Thomas Pluck has slung hash, worked on the docks, trained in martial arts in Japan, and even swept the Guggenheim museum (but not as part of a clever heist). He hails from Nutley, New Jersey, home to criminal masterminds Martha Stewart and Richard Blake, but has so far evaded capture. His latest is Life During Wartime, a story collection that made Out of the Gutter say “this man can write.” He is the author of Bad Boy Boogie, his first Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller, and Blade of Dishonor, an action adventure which MysteryPeople called “the Raiders of the Lost Ark of pulp paperbacks.”


Image courtesy of Pixabay, altered by Cartoonize.

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