The Iron Will Of Shoeshine Cats by Hesh Kestin

The Iron Will Of Shoeshine Cats - book cover

“The Godfather on laughing gas, or Catch-22 with guns.”
Stephen King

Read a Short Extract



His own hand was small, smaller than my own, but it seemed to be made of some sort of warm steel, with no fat on it, just sinew. He held mine in his, trapped. “Russy”, he said. “I’m going to deal only with you, because you got a set of balls on you could ink a battleship. You’re my man in the Bhotke group, okay?”
    My hand wasn’t going anywhere. “Okay.”
    “I’m a member, right?”
    “Yes, Mr. Cats. Paid up for five years.” Most members were in arrears. The treasurer complained about it at every meeting.
    “So I got a spot?”
    I looked down at his hand. A spot? A dot? A freckle? “A spot?”
    “In Queens?”
    I still didn’t get it.
    “Where the dead go.”
    “A cemetery plot? A spot in the cemetery?” Was this gangster preparing for the next world – would other gangsters or maybe the police burst in with guns blazing to rub him out right here in some settlement of accounts? Like everyone else in New York, I fancied myself an expert on the underworld, not least because the tabloids pushed the Mafia in front of our eyes every morning. For my consternation, my hand was gripped even more tightly.
    “What are you, a wise guy?” Cats said. It wasn’t a question. “A minute ago I thought you was smart, now you don’t know one thing from the other? Yeah, a cemetery plot. What do you think I’m here for, the social life? The booze? The broads?”
    “I don’t know, sir.”
    “Sir? How old are you?”
    “Twenty-one,” I said, adding only a year.
    “Friggin’ old enough to vote and you can’t tell when a guy is in mourning? My mama died last night. She’s laying on a slab in Maimonides Hospital, in a frigerator, because we ain’t got nowhere to lay her for her internal rest.”
    “Sir, I –“
    “Don’t call me sir. You call me Shushan, not Shoeshine like in the papers. Shu-shan.” He turned to the rest of the membership. “Everybody else, you can call me Mr. Cats.” He turned back to me. “You’re a smart kid. I got a good feeling about you.”
    “Thank you…Shushan.”
    Goddamn right,” the gangster said, giving my hand a further squeeze, tenderly now, as though it were a tomato being tested for ripeness. “So all the details, the arrangements, the hearse, the flowers, the invites, the rabbi, the gravediggers, all that shit, I’m leaving to you. I’m trusting you, Russy.” He released my hand – then grabbed it again, and pumped it like a well-handle. “You take care of my mama, Shushan Cats’ll take care of you.”


My life at this point hardly left a lot of time for arranging funerals, or anything else. To put it mildly, I fancied myself as something of a Jewish Casanova, which some might say was only to be expected, since that’s how Newhouse comes out in Italian. How I myself came to Italian was simple: English I learned on the street, Yiddish from my father, Hebrew I absorbed from after-school religious lessons I suffered through until I was thirteen, but when I had a choice of languages at Thomas Jefferson High School on Pennsylvania Avenue in East New York, I didn’t take French or Spanish or German but was drawn, if not magnetised, by the language of Dante Alighieri, Giovanni Boccaccio, Niccolo Machiavelli, Giusepe di Lampedusa, Luigi Pirandello and Marie-Antonetta Provenzano. The writers I knew, more or less, but Marie-Antonetta I wished to know, intensely, deliriously, repeatedly. She had thick black hair usually piled on top of her head in a teased beehive like a crown, tiny feet, wet brown eyes and nipples so prominent behind the tight pastel sweaters she wore to school they might have been light switches. She was fifteen. Little wonder that at fourteen I was in love with everything Italian, and even more so in the way of unrequited love when six months later her family moved to Long Island and I never saw her again. All I was left with was Boccaccio and company, in truth not such a bad deal, because when I read the classics, which is pretty much all I read, I neither risked catching a disease nor had second thought as I smoked a cigarette and looked up at the ceiling while some female, a perfect stranger in all ways but the flesh, insisted on making conversation; Pirandello never let me down. The fact is, I spent most of my non-reading time with the fair sex, with whom I dealt on a non-exclusive basis. Maybe it was because I lost my mother when I was still little more than a toddler there was a void in my life that literature could not fill: in love for a day, a week, a month, and then on to the next. By the time I was sixteen I was living on my own in a single-room ground-floor apartment on Eastern Parkway in the same building where I had once lived with my father. Sometimes one girl would walk in as another left. On top of this I made my living for a while as a sperm donor, which tied economics to physiology. Condoms were more or less the birth control of the day, and I was usually able to slip one off, pour the contents into a vial, call a cab and send it to a doctor on Park Avenue who paid me for every drop. Even today sometimes I’ll spot a young man or woman with a nose that looks too much like mine.
    At the time Shushan Cats came into my life I was seeing a girl named Celeste Callinan whom I’d met in advanced-Italian class at Brooklyn College. Celeste was one of those sweet-tempered outer-borough girls Henry Miller liked to write about: pliant of will, strawberry of hair, and so loudly orgasmic she must have frightened the neighbors, Hasidic Jews so modest about things sexual that, despite spawning dozens of kids, husbands and wives never saw each other in the nude. Celeste had no such hang-ups , possibly because unlike the Hasidim she could neutralize her sins at the nearest corner church for the price of a mea culpa and three Hail Marys, ten if the priest was gay. Celeste was so active I barely had to do anything but show up, and she had the delightful habit of bringing food, usually pizza or lo mein, Brooklyn’s two major food groups. That I was circumcised probably added to her love for me, and love it was. I discovered this, first to my gratification(who doesn’t want to inspire love?) and then to my utright horror (who wants a woman who won’t go away?) when I was ready to move on. I was twenty years old and male, for crying out loud, and half the population of the five boroughs was demonstratively female. It wasn’t so much that I wasn’t ready to settle down – it was that I wasn’t ready for anything but the most extreme variety. Keeping Celeste at bay while I continued my gynaecological researches had become a full-time job. At first I found her waiting on my stoop. Then she graduated from Stalking 101: she had stolen a copy of my key, so she could get into my apartment at any time unless I used the iron security bar to double-lock the door when I was home. When I wasn’t I kept finding someone waiting for me, which is just what occurred when I walked down Eastern Parkway with a funeral on my mind, and let myself in.
    Maybe I was too much involved with figuring out how to arrange for the eternal rest of Shushan Cats’ mother. As soon as I closed the door behind me I tried immediately to open it again. A large foot attached to a policeman pushed it shut. I wasn’t really afraid of the police, no more than any other white kid in New York at the time, but I had reason to fear this particular cop.
    Like the other two men in the room, he had Celeste’s strawberry hair, brightly freckled skin and, it turned out, the same enthusiasm for robust physical activity. All of them were big – and bigger together.
    The cop didn’t speak first. in fact, I don’t remember him speaking at all. It was the priest, whose words were soft, unthreatening, understated and cut off by the fireman, who got in the first punch. After that it was every New York Casanova’s nightmare: three Irish brothers taking turns. By the time they left I not only hated myself for having banged their sister, but personally regretted the entire Irish potato famine that had sent the United States of America an emigration that really, really hurt.


By noon the next day I managed to limp to the bathroom, survey the external damage, and piss blood. Standing in the grotty shower for a half hour, I let the hot water do its job while my mind slowly tried to crank like an engine that was all but seized. Little by little I came to realise the problem was not Celeste and her brothers – their work was done – but Shushan Cats, who was expecting a funeral. If he didn’t get his, I might very well get mine. It is amazing how fear can energize the exhausted.
    But it wasn’t just adrenalin that was flowing through me: it was, I was surprised to note, alacrity. By the time I was able to get down a cup of instant coffee with enough sugar in it to float a spoon – and then throw it up: more blood – I had formulated a plan. In the Yellow Pages I chose the largest ad. Even dialling hurt – this was a time when making a phone call was a physical activity. “I’m calling for Mr. Shushan Cats. His mother died yesterday and he wants you to make the arrangements.”
    “I’m sorry for your loss,” the man on the other end said. “Who?”
    “Shoeshine Cats, the gangster.”
    “The one in the papers?”
    “No, the one whose pointy-toe shoe is going to be buried up your ass if you don’t pay attention.”
    Then I called Feivel.
    “Russ,” he said. “I can’t talk to you now. I have a patient.”
    “Strangle him,” I said. “Feivel, Frank, whoever you are today, I need you to call Beth David, arrange for a plot with a sign on it that says Cats, and a hole big enough for Shushan’s mama, plus bring every member that can show up.”
    “I have a patient.”
    “Fine,” I said, and as I did noticed that one of my own teeth was a bit wobbly. “I’ll tell our grieving friend you’re too busy for his mother’s eternal rest, and I’ll give him your address.”
    “What are you talking, Russ? This is not something for a dentist.”
    “I’m not addressing you as a dentist. I’m addressing you as president of the Bhotke Young Men’s. You wanted the job?”
    “Yes, but –“
    “But nothing. You got it. Believe me, Rubashkin or Robinson or whatever, if you fuck with me Shushan Cats and company are going to fuck with you. If you’re lucky they’ll break your hands so you can’t make a living. If you’re less lucky you’ll have a new career–“
    “What kind of –“
    “As a soprano. You want Shushan to make you into Christine Jorgensen?”
    That did it. Christine Jorgensen was the first American male to have a sex change. An icon of the fifties, she was famous as “The man who went abroad and came back a broad.” Even the Daily Mirror, the most sensational tabloid of the day, did not have to exaggerate the headline on its front page: EX-GI BECOMES BLONDE BEAUTY. Instinctively I knew that when you make a threat,  it helps to provide a visual. And this hoodlum wisdom was only from shaking Shushan Cats’ hand. It was a hell of an intense shake.

Copyright © Hesh Kestin 2009