Monday, June 4, 2018

The Third Jump of Frankie Buffalo, by Thomas Pluck

Frank drove the half-ton as fast as he dared up the rutted, snowy road. His breath plumed like a big shot’s cigar in the frozen air. So cold that they had shoved their booted feet into the campfires to keep toes from freezing solid and snapping off. Only thing colder than winter in Chosin was the fear deep in his gut. The two supply trucks sent before him hadn’t made it to the front. Artillery or ambush, no one knew. Frank held it in second gear and swerved around a bend. A moving target’s a hard target. A hard turn came up quick, one foot on the brake and one on the gas…

A horn blast broke Frank out of the reverie.

This wasn’t Korea. He was in a different truck, on a different run.

Nerves.

He didn’t wake up shivering anymore, but in a truck job, Chosin always came back to him.

He was stuck behind a stubby oil truck and a black new BMW at a railroad crossing. The traffic for the car wash and the flashing light ahead always made this a bottleneck, but it was the best way to get where he had to be. The tanker had stopped at the tracks, and the morning commuters were getting antsy.

Frank checked his Timex. Fifteen minutes, plenty of time to get the Mack cement mixer to Rifle Camp Road and hit the power pole. More than enough time to cut the fuel line and spill some diesel, shut down the intersection and keep Paterson’s finest occupied, waiting for the HazMat crew.

Honk.

It was the guy in the black BMW, one car ahead.

“He’s gotta stop,” Frank said to himself. “Law requires it.”

It was his job to know. The CDL in his wallet wasn’t in his name, and his no-work job at the port rarely got him behind the wheel anymore, but he knew all the rules and could drive anything over 10,000 GVW like nobody’s business. It was a safe job. Just another driver heading to the quarry who made the turn too tight. If he got cited it wasn’t even in his name, but the memories of the Frozen Chosin tickled in his gut.

Young Frank had never made it to the front. He could’ve made that turn, nothing for a fearless driver who’d cut his teeth bootlegging for Longy Zwillman, the Jewish giant who ran Newark. The cold inside moved his hands for him. The belly-cold had jerked the steering wheel, made him dive out the door with his rifle. All Frank could do was watch the half-ton spill its load of ammo and survival K-rations as it tumbled down the jagged stone cliffside. He connected with a new unit and told himself the two drivers before him had probably done the same thing.

Honk honk. This time it was the lady in the minivan behind him. Striped uniform, probably a waitress at some diner.

The tanker didn’t need to wait this long. Just pause, really. The fading paint on the back of the stubby little tanker read Hansen Fuel Oil, the kind a small business uses to fill up home tanks. It rumbled forward, then stalled out. Right on the tracks.

Now Frank got antsy, too.

The boys would hit the Loomis armored car in twenty minutes. All pros, longshoremen in name only. They’d stolen the cement mixer off a job site that had lost funding and sat dormant for months. They laughed when he signed on for the job. Old Frankie Buffalo wants in? When he could be collecting his pension?

The pension wasn’t enough. The job was barely enough. The medical plan’s pure gold but Dottie’s cancer cost platinum and diamonds, gutted his stake after putting their three kids through college. Now his grandchildren were near college age, and his kids had married for love, not money. For money there was always Poppy Frank.

To show the boys he could still motor, he got in a little yard hustler and spun it in donuts around their fancy German cars, parking it with a controlled skid. They kept their mouths shut after that.

Still plenty of time. All he had to do was get past the tanker. He checked the mirrors. The minivan was right on his ass. He cut the wheel hard left and eased forward. If the BMW gave him an inch he could squeeze by. He tapped the horn.

The BMW driver gave him the Jersey salute.

A decade ago he would have taken the breaker bar from under the seat and shattered this cafone’s windshield. Maybe taken the little snubbie he used to keep under the dash and rapped the guy on the head.

But he wasn’t what he once was.

The merciless Chosin winter had made his feet dead as bricks if the temperature dropped below fifty, like this morning. He could put on some speed when he wanted, but it looked funny.

Frankie’s gonna shuffle off to Buffalo, the dock boss had said. And it stuck, like those names always do.

Two guys got out of the tanker. Olive skin, clean-shaven. First thing he thought was trouble, then chided himself, remembering his grandfather telling him how the country hated Italians before he was born, because some were anarchists. They even lynched eleven Italians in New Orleans, after a Black Hand hitter whacked the police chief. So he didn’t like to judge. Even though he was Italian, and a crook.

Frank honked again.

The Beemer driver pointed at the tanker with his Starbuck’s cup. “Hello? I can’t go anywhere.”

Frank inched forward. The BMW disappeared under his hood, but he knew these Mack Granites like he’d known his wife Dottie’s body.

“You scratch my paint, I’m gonna—”

The lights of the railroad crossing blinked red. Train coming.

The BMW driver swore, then the car jerked back and forth, making no headway. He had pulled too close to the tanker in front of him, and now he was paying for it. Other drivers piled out of their cars.

They were running.

The Frozen Chosin cold spread through Frank’s belly. Run, it said. That thing’s gonna go off like a five hundred pound bomb.

Across the tracks at the car wash, Latino women stopped drying cars and stared.

Frank set the air brakes and got ready to shuffle. He jerked the door handle. Sorry boys, you’re on your own. They’d probably get cornered and mowed down before they made it five blocks with the money. There was no getting away from a betrayal like that. Frank would just wait for the hitter to come plug him in the head while he was home alone in the recliner, watching Wheeler Dealers.

The cold made a fist in his gut.

Then he saw the drivers, even the BMW jerk, shouldering the rear of the tanker. Like they could move it! If it’s got a full tank, good luck with that.

Then the diner woman pitched in.

Frank jabbed the horn. “Lemme push him,” he hollered. They used these trucks like tugboats in the yard all the time.

“You can’t get around the cars,” one shouted back.

Frank put the Mack in low gear. The cement mixer was spinning on an empty barrel, just for show. With no load, he could push the tanker and the car in front of him, no problem.

Frank the hero, not Frankie Buffalo. The woman in the diner uniform smiled and waved him on. She had a smile that took over her face, like Dottie had.

He eased the pedal down and they moved out of his way.

The BMW driver grimaced as Frank crunched his bumper and mashed the front end into the oil truck. For a second they all gasped, then the brake pins popped and the strange little train of tanker, crushed Beemer, and cement mixer began to inch forward.

The striped railroad gates slammed down on top of the tanker. Just a few more feet…

One of the oil men reached inside the cab and came out with something small and black, like the grease guns Frankie had seen at Chosin. It sounded the same, as a burst tore through the work shirts and the gal’s diner uniform and the BMW guy’s fancy suit.

The train horn drowned out their screams.

Frank ducked and the windshield blew out. Rounds peppered the cab and pocked the seat. What the hell were they doing? Nobody robs trains anymore. This was a commuter train, the double-decker diesel to Secaucus Junction. No freight worth a hijack.

They weren’t stealing. They were killing. Like the anarchists that Frank’s grandfather had told him about. Like the psychos who’d brought the Towers down.

Chosin ice gripped his bowels. Held off by the warmth that the diner girl’s face put in his heart. He’d seen the Towers built floor by floor, and like everyone else at the port that day, had watched helplessly from across the water as they crumbled into cigarette ash.

Nowhere to run, Frankie. Gonna shuffle off to Buffalo?

His feet were numb, but he would die standing on them.

No rifle. Not even the old snubbie. Just a breaker bar, two and a half feet of rusted iron. Blunt as a screwdriver, but sharp enough. He’d seen fights with them on the docks. Ugly ones.

He mashed the pedal to the floor with his elbow. The Mack ground its gears and shuddered. Two more bursts rattled through the engine compartment. Frank curled into himself, the cold moving his body for him again.

Steam hissed from a cut hose with the sweet stink of coolant, but the Mack kept nudging the tanker forward. The Mack’s front end rocked as it rolled over the tracks. Halfway there.

Between the short, imperative blasts of the train horn came shouting, then the clank of a boot on the step by the driver side door. He gripped the breaker bar like a short spear, waiting for a head to pop up.

Four fingers gripped the door. Then the black barrel of the gun, wisping smoke.

Frank stabbed for the root of the middle finger and shouted words his nonno reserved for the anarchisti. Frank rose up for another thrust, but the gunner fell back onto the tracks, blood sprinkling from his hand like a pinhole leak in a garden hose. The train bore down on them skyscraper huge and swallowed the gunman, its brakes in full scream.

Frank jerked the door handle and tumbled out as the world spun and flickered like an old home movie.. The detached barrel of the cement mixer rolled toward the car wash. The rest of the Mack truck was dragged along by the train like a Tonka toy.

The brakes hissed as the train screeched to a crawl. Commuters gawped out the windows. The washers peeked from behind cars.

Frank curled up in the weeds clutching the breaker bar, like he had cradled his rifle in the Korean winter.

The tanker had rolled ahead and butted into a wooden utility pole. Still close enough to the train to destroy it. The other oil man had the door open, bent over something.

Frank used the breaker bar as a cane and shoved himself to one knee. The killer swore to himself and jabbed at a little box behind the truck seat. Frank clubbed him in the knee, then brought the iron bar down until he lost his breath and the car washers covered their faces.

Frank saw what was behind the seat and dropped the bloody crowbar. Wires ran from a lockbox chained to the seat frame, out the door to the oil tank, which surely held something more volatile than heating oil.

Their backup plan.

Frank pulled himself into the cab and turned the ignition. Backed away from the pole and swerved, tires hopping, using the tank’s heavy load as ballast for the turn. Like he was running with Longy Zwillman again.

He would make it to the quarry on Rifle Camp Road in time. He had to.

The boys hitting the Loomis truck would get more distraction than they would ever need.

And Frankie Buffalo would jump one last time.

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