The helper was a stand-up guy. Bianco was happy to have good help. He'd had some winners in his twenty-two years at United Parcel Services. Old guys who couldn't lift themselves, let alone a package. College students who smelled like pot and were always giving you tips on how to do your job better. Even ladies, some of them lazy, others who could haul boxes out of the truck like halfbacks. But this guy could lift fine, follow directions, and was fast.
It was the holiday season, and the truck was packed to the roof every morning. They would double-team—park the truck, each take a side of the street, and get a block covered in no time. Maybe this guy was a bit of a complainer, but, Bianco figured, you can't have everything.
"I just think it's stupid, Frank," the helper said. "How come you can't just pick me up at my house?"
"The rules," Bianco said.
"And do I have to go through their Homeland Security shit at the garage every day? They should know by now I'm not coming in with a bomb."
Bianco laughed at that. "Jeez."
"I have to go all the way to Queens, which takes fucking forever, and then they pass the wand over me, and then you drive me all the way back to Brooklyn, right near where I live. It's just stupid."
Metropolitan Avenue was jammed with cars, buses, and trucks, as usual at eight in the morning. Bianco noticed a Toyota in front of them that obviously did not know how to signal. "This ass don't know how to drive," he said.
"I live, literally, two blocks from here," said James, the helper. Who did not like to be called Jimmy. A whole other morning's conversation.
The sky was steel gray, filled with clouds. The weatherman called for icy rain later, and Bianco didn't want to think about running back and forth under it, making a long day longer. He needed to be home before nine that night. He'd promised.
"Right here," the helper was saying. "I live on Lorimer Street, right there."
"Yeah, two blocks in."
"That's funny," Bianco said.
James was in his twenties or thirties. Bianco couldn't figure exactly, what with the mangy beard and all. The helper looked like a student but smelled more like sweat than pot. He was a big guy, curly hair, glasses.
"Why is that funny?"
"I grew up on Lorimer."
Bianco was 54, born and raised in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and he considered himself lucky to be a driver in the neighborhood he knew well. Now, with a wife, three kids grown, he was happy to have his own house in Long Island, what with all the rent in Williamsburg going through the roof. If only his wife was happy about all that, too, maybe he could live in peace.
"Isn't that incredible?" the helper said.
"Yeah, it's funny," Bianco said.
The Toyota finally turned on Union Avenue, and Bianco stared ahead at a long series of red lights.
James had come to Brooklyn from Seattle for a girl he'd met a friend's wedding. Open bar, slow dance, coatcheck room. He followed her to New York then lived with her. Things were good for a while, but she was always on his back to get a job. Lucky, he had a couple of buddies in town, so he moved in with them. Now they lived in a tiny apartment on Lorimer. No heat, no bathroom sink, five million roaches. But he'd gotten a job.
Seasonal helpers at UPS made eight dollars an hour. That covered his share of rent and beer, which kept his roommates quiet. But he hated traveling to the garage, the daily security check, and having to wear the company uniform. Worse, they gave him only one shirt and one pair of pants. His roommates, Aaron and Ryan, said that it wouldn't be too long before the uniform could walk around and deliver packages by itself.
But he didn't mind the work. It felt good, physical. Much better than his job at the record store. More than anything, James was happy he got along with the driver, that they could talk like real people. They'd been working together two weeks already, and James was fascinated to know somebody who was actually from Brooklyn. He loved the way the driver spoke and looked and gestured. It was like watching a movie from the '70s.
"So what was it like when you were growing up?" James said.
Bianco looked straight out at the traffic. "It was different."
"I bet it was," James said.
The driver continued on Metropolitan, under the overpass of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, toward the river.
"We're going to see the Hasidim first?" James said. "The Amish of Brooklyn."
"Yep," the driver said.
They got to Berry Street then turned onto Division Avenue. They would deliver around the old Navy Yard first, where the Hasidim, in their long beards and dark clothes, lived.
James looked out the window and bit the meat above the nail on his right thumb. "After this, we're doing the regular route down Bedford?"
"Yep. Ass Canyon."
James laughed and said, "Assss Canyon."
The helper leaned back and put his feet on the dashboard. Bianco didn't like that, not in his truck. This was his baby. It had a picture of his kids and a holder for his cell phone on the dash, a place for his water bottle, his DIAD—the electronic signature device, and lunch right by the seat. The truck had his memories and his smell and his DNA in it.
"Hey, James, do me a favor, put your feet down," Bianco said.
"Just put 'em down."
"Sure, sure, sorry, Frank."
They called Bedford Avenue "Ass Canyon" because it was a skinny crevasse of sushi restaurants, computer stores, record shops, art galleries, and fancy stores that priced their goods like they were in Manhattan. At the busiest time of year, delivering along Bedford's busiest strip—about five blocks—could take six hours. Years ago, when Bianco was a kid running with his buddies on those same streets, it was a bunch of small storefronts, a butcher here, a pet store there.
"When I was growing up," Bianco said, "four guys could get high on a quart of beer and that was enough, you know. We mostly got along with the Germans and Irish guys from around McCaren Park, as long as they stayed away from our girls."
The helper laughed at that.
"We had self-respect, you know. Took care of our own. Back then, a woman could walk the streets any hour of the day."
"Yeah," James said. "Safe."
"Then came Puerto Ricans and the blacks, you know, with their guns and their knives and their drugs. Then the whole neighborhood went to shit."
The helper nodded.
"One time we caught a Spanish guy holding hands with my sister Theresa. We followed him for a while, then we took care of him."
"You beat the shit out of him?" James said.
"The living crap," Bianco said, and parked for a delivery at a Hasidic clothing store. "But now everything has changed, you know. You can see the change. What they call gentrification. You have your artists and yuppies moving in, nice people. Good, clean people. Like you, James, you know," Bianco said.
James laughed into his fingers. He was picking on a tiny piece of skin on his right pinky. They came up took Wythe Avenue, which skirted the East River. There was little to no traffic.
"Maybe you should chew some gum," the driver said.
"Whaddya mean?" said James.
"You chew your finger like a dog with a bone. Jeez."
James said nothing. He was looking up at the next turn, when two black SUVs coming turned right and screeched to a stop right in front the truck. James heard the packages behind him jump.
The driver was pissed. "Assholes!"
A guy, with a black wool mask covering his face and dark shades wrapped around his head on top of the mask, came out of the passenger side of the smaller SUV with a gun. He pointed it right at the driver. Another guy in a wool mask came out of the same SUV and ran around to Bianco's side.
"Get out of the truck," he said.
"What the fuck is this?" said the driver.
Bianco was pissed. They duct-taped his hands behind him and duct-taped his mouth. The last thing he saw before they put a big paper bag over his eyes was James, staring at him, a gun to the back of his head. They prodded Bianco into the one of the SUVs.
"Stay still and be quiet," one of the robbers said. "Chillax."
His wife had told him to retire. Had gotten tired on working late every night during the holiday season, even on Christmas Eve sometimes. But he could make several grand in year-end tips. That was too good to pass up.
In the car, he heard the door on the other side open, to his right, felt the cold, outside air come in. The seat shifted weight. The door slammed. He figured it was James, trussed up like he was. Two turkeys.
The front doors opened. People got in. The car started moving. From behind him, Bianco heard the engine of his truck rev up, then move. A sound as familiar to him as his kids' voices.
The SUV stopped. He heard his truck behind him screech then make a turn. Whoever was driving it had a lead foot. Then the engine faded, like it was going inside a building.
Shit like this happened all the time, he knew. Last year robbers held a Fed Ex guy for 12 hours. The year before that they shot and killed a UPS driver during a robbery attempt. That's why the company had been hiring security guards to ride with some drivers—but only for bad neighborhoods, and Williamsburg wasn't considered a bad neighborhood anymore. Now he was probably going to end up on the news. He could see his wife shaking her finger at him now. It was going to be a merry fucking Christmas.
Bianco could've signaled the company with his DIAD, which had a wireless connection. He had reached for it as soon as he'd seen the second guy with a mask and a gun. But it wasn't by his side, where it usually was. James must've had it, from the last delivery.
The UPS office wouldn't be looking for him till way later, when they'd see he hadn't made a delivery in hours, or the owner of that electronics store called the office to bitch about his shipment.
Then he remembered—his cell phone. Did he leave it on the dash? He leaned back. He felt its pressure on his left hip. It was under his shirt, which in 22 years, he could never stand to tuck in.
He slid forward, giving his fat hands room, pulled up his shirt, got the phone, flipped it open.
"Frank, what are you doing?" It was James. Bianco wondered why they didn't gag him too? What kind of robbers are these?
Bianco felt around the keypad and punched in 911. If he got through, all he had to do was leave it on and they would find them, soon enough. Before these bastards emptied his truck, he hoped.
"I can't let you do that, Frank," the helper said.
They had been planning since the night James got back from his first day of work. They were sitting around, drinking beers and watching porn.
"You should've seen all that stuff we delivered today. Like $500,000 worth," James said. "All the money people spend on Christmas. It's sick."
"I hate Christmas," Aaron said. He was a big man, with a thick beard, and a skunk streak of white through his brown, greasy hair.
"Me, too," Ryan said. Ryan was Aaron's brother who, for some reason, couldn't grow a beard. "Imagine if we, like, hijacked the truck and took all the stuff."
"Yeah, but what would we do with it?" James said.
"Keep it. Or sell it on eBay."
"There's even porn in there," James said. "Frank, the driver, told me some guy gets all this porn stuff delivered to his house from Chatsworth, California."
"Porn Valley, USA," said Aaron.
"What's this driver like?
"Old Italian guy."
"Mafia, you think?"
James laughed, but he had wondered.
"Do you think you could take him?" said Ryan.
"Who needs to take him if we had a gun?" said Aaron.
"Like we have a gun."
Their friend Hamilton, who never took off his wraparound shades, came out of the bathroom then. "Gun? Who needs a gun?"
They kidded about it for a few days. Then James told them that the driver had said big shipments for all the stores on Bedford would be coming in the following week.
"It'd be the sweetest Christmas shopping ever," said Ryan.
"I love Christmas," said Aaron.
And then Hamilton showed up with a gun the next day. Then they all wanted one.
The helper lifted the bag off of Bianco's face.
"I can't let you do that," James said. He had no bag or duct tape anywhere on him. The helper was in on it. Bianco's eyes popped open in anger. He cursed into the duct tape across his mouth.
"Did the call go through?" James said, peering at the open phone. Bianco leaned forward, trying to head-butt James. Instead, he butted the passenger side headrest, but the bulk of his body had pushed the younger man down, almost to the floor.
"What the fuck are you doing?"
Bianco realized he'd be able to kick it he slid back, so he did. He kicked James in the chest, then in the stomach. Then he realized with more room he could stomp.
But James slid loose and back, quickly, against the other side of the SUV.
"Shit," James yelled. "You can't kick a man when you have boots on!"
The plan had been to hijack the truck, take the packages, put James and the driver back in there. No one hurt. Hamilton kidded that maybe they should give James a flesh wound for authenticity. James didn't laugh.
Now things were started to do south. Bianco lunged at James again, and James turned and slipped out of the SUV, slamming the door behind him.
He ran down a ramp to where his friends were unloading the truck. He looked at the cell phone. It looked like the call had gone through, but the phone was off. How long did it take for 911 to trace you? How long had they struggled in the car?
"Guys! Guys! Guys!"
"What the fuck are you doing here?" Hamilton's shaded face peeked out from behind he stack of laptop boxes he was carrying.
"He called 911. The driver called 911."
Ryan came out from inside the truck. "What's going on?"
"What the fuck?" said Aaron, who was loading up the second SUV. "Ryan, I thought you took his phone!"
"I thought you did."
The four of them said, "Fuck!"
"We gotta get moving," Hamilton said.
They all ran up the ramp.
"James, gimme the keys to the car," Hamilton said.
"I thought you had the keys."
With the bag off, Bianco saw a seat buckle he could use to wedge off the duct tape. He was in the smaller SUV, parked outside on the river-facing side of an old warehouse. Smart of these bastards. Only someone with a telescope on the Manhattan maybe could have seen him in there, peeling the duct tape off his hands and face. He ripped a long strip of skin off his lower lip. He sucked on it, tasted blood.
Outside the SUV, a concrete driveway led into the belly of what looked like an abandoned warehouse. Where they'd taken his truck probably. Icy rain began to fall. He heard it pelting the roof of the car.
He figured he could just run out of there, call the cops from some pay phone—there were still some pay phones left. But these fellas might catch up on him. He was strong, but not fast‹that was 30 pounds ago. Then he looked down and saw the car keys in the ignition. Now he could easily get to a phone. Or—
James remembered later that he kind of expected it. The SUV barreling down the ramp. Ryan was the slowest. They all turned as soon as they saw the van, and James knew that thump he heard was Ryan.
James ran. He could see his breath in a cloud in front of him. He veered off to the right, but the SUV was right behind him. The driver was aiming for him.
Later, in the hospital, he told the detective who arrested him that he didn't know why Frank had singled him out and crushed his leg. "I thought we were friends," he said.
Bianco had been promising his wife for years that he'd come home before it got too late. It was like a running joke with them now. She yelled. He promised.
But now these assholes. For the first time, he saw their faces without masks on. Yuppies. Robber yuppies. It didn't make sense.
He would miss the rest of his deliveries for the day. All those snotty business owners would probably bitch and cut back on his holidays tips. He'd been lying to his wife when he said he was going to retire after this season. But maybe she was right.
They shot at the windshield. Bianco stepped on the gas, heading for the helper, and knew he was going to be late getting home that night.