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Excerpt

Excerpt

Al Capone Shines My Shoes

1. THE CREAM OF THE CRIMINAL CROP

Monday, August 5, 1935

Nothing is the way it’s supposed to be when you live on an island with a billion birds, a ton of bird crap, a few dozen rifles, machine guns, and automatics, and 278 of America’s worst criminals—“the cream of the criminal crop” as one of our felons likes to say. The convicts on Alcatraz are rotten to the core, crazy in the head, and as slippery as eels in axle grease.

And then there’s me. Moose Flanagan. I live on Alcatraz along with twenty-four other kids and one more on the way. My father works as a prison guard and an electrician in the cell house up top. I live where most of us “civilians” do, in 64 building, which is dockside on the east side of Alcatraz—a base hit from the mobster Al Capone.

Not many twelve-year-old boys can say that. Not many kids can say that when their toilet is stopped up, they get Seven Fingers, the ax murderer, to help them out, either. Even simple things are upside down and backwards here. Take getting my socks washed. Every Wednesday we put out our dirty laundry in big white bags marked with our name: flanagan. Every Monday our clothes come back starched, pressed, folded, and smelling of soap and flour. They look like my mom washed them for me.

Except she didn’t.

My laundry man is Alcatraz #85: Al Capone. He has help, of course. Machine Gun Kelly works right alongside him in the laundry along with thirty other no-name hit men, con men, mad dog murderers, and a handful of bank robbers too. They do a good job washing the clothes for us and most everyone else on the island. But sometimes they do a little extra.

The cons don’t care for Officer Trixle, so his laundry doesn’t return the same way as everyone else’s. His shirts are missing buttons, underwear is stiff with starch or dyed pansy pink, pants are missing a cuff or the fly is sewn shut so the guy can’t even take a leak unless he pulls his pants down like a little girl.

I can’t say the cons are wrong about Officer Trixle. Darby Trixle is the kind of guy who only his wife likes—and not that much either. Last Saturday my best friend Jimmy Mattaman and I were looking for a barrel for Jimmy’s fly menagerie, and Janet Trixle, Darby’s seven-year-old daughter, just happened to see we were walking by the Black Mariah, the Alcatraz paddy wagon. That was all we were doing—walking by it. But when Darby saw the Mariah had a flat tire, who do you think got the blame?

Yours truly.

It couldn’t have been Darby drove over a nail. Oh no. It had to have been us. We had to go with him to San Francisco and carry a new tire down Van Ness Avenue, to the ferry and up the switchback, to where the Mariah was parked up top. Darby wouldn’t even let us roll it on the road. Didn’t want it to get dirty. It’s a tire! Where does he think it usually goes?

My father wouldn’t help us with Darby either. “I know you had nothing to do with that flat tire, but it won’t hurt you to give Darby a hand, Moose,” is what he said.

When I first moved here, I thought all the bad guys were on one side of the bars and all the good guys were on the other. But lately, I’ve begun to wonder if there isn’t at least one officer on the free side who ought to be locked up and maybe a convict who isn’t half as bad as he’s cracked up to be. I’m thinking about Al Capone—the most notorious gangster in America, the worst guy we have up top. How could it be that he did me a good turn?

It doesn’t make sense, does it? But Al Capone got my sister, Natalie, into a school called the Esther P. Marinoff where she’d been turned down twice already. It’s a boarding school for kids who have their wires crossed up. It’s a school and not a school . . . a place to make her normal.

I don’t know for certain it was Capone who helped us. I mean the guy is locked up in a five-by-nine-foot cell. He’s not allowed to make a phone call or write a letter that isn’t censored word for word. It doesn’t seem possible he could have done anything to help us, even if he wanted to.

But out of desperation, I sent a letter asking Capone for help and Natalie got accepted. Then I got a note in the pocket of my newly laundered shirt: Done, it said.

I haven’t told anyone about this. It’s something I try not to think about, but today, the day Nat’s finally leaving for school, I can’t keep my mind from going over the details again and again.

The thing that stumps me is why. I never even met Al Capone . . . why would he help me?

I watch Nat as she sits on the living room floor going through our books one by one. She looks almost like a regular sixteen-year-old this morning, if her mouth wasn’t twitching right and right and right again and her shoulders were just down where they’re supposed to be. She opens a book, fans her face with the pages, then sets the book back on the shelf, just exactly as it was. She has been through one entire shelf this way. Now she’s working on the second.

Normally, my mom wouldn’t let her do this, but today she doesn’t want to take the chance of upsetting her.

“You ready to go, Natalie?” my mother asks.

Nat moves faster. She fans the pages so quickly each book sounds like one quick ffffrrrt. All I hear is ffffrrrt ffffrrrt ffffrrrt as I look out our front window down to the dock. Sure enough there’s Officer Trixle. He’s supposed to be off today, but Trixle can’t keep his nose out of our business. He’s almost as much trouble as Piper, the warden’s daughter—only not half as pretty. When you look like Piper does, people forgive a whole lot of things, but never mind about that. What I think about Piper is kind of embarrassing, to tell you the truth.

My father comes out of the bathroom. The toilet is running again. The plumbing in 64 building is held together with bubble gum and last year’s oatmeal stuck hard and solid. But luckily for us, Seven Fingers, our very own felon plumber, fixes it for free.

Not exactly for free actually. We pay him a chocolate bar every time, but no one is supposed to know that.

“Time to go, Natalie,” my mom says.

Natalie is wearing a new yellow dress today. My mother cut the pattern, but the convicts in the tailor shop sewed it. The cons did a pretty good job. Only the belt is bugging Nat. She pulls at it, weaving it in and out of the loops. In and out. In and out. Nat’s mouth puckers to one side. “Moose school. Natalie home,” she says.

“Not today,” my mother says brightly. “Today is your big day. Today you’re going to school.”

Not today,” Nat tells her. “Not today. Not today.”

I can’t help smiling at this. Natalie likes to repeat what you say and here she’s repeating my mom’s exact words with a change of inflection that makes them say what Natalie wants them to say and not at all what my mother meant. I love when Natalie outsmarts Mom this way. Sometimes Nat is smarter than we are. Other times, she doesn’t understand the first thing about anything. That’s the trouble with Natalie—you never know which way she’ll go.

The first time Nat went to the Esther P. Marinoff School she pitched a fit the size of Oklahoma and they kicked her out, but I don’t think that will happen this time. She’s getting better in her own weird way. I used to say Nat’s like a human adding machine without the human part, but now she’s touching down human more days than not. And each time she does it feels as if the sun has come out after sixty straight days of rain.

“Tell her, Moose. Tell her how wonderful it’s going to be,” my mother says.

“Tell her, Moose. Tell her how wonderful it’s going to be,” Nat repeats, picking up her button box and holding it tight against her chest.

“You get to take your buttons, Nat. Mom said,” I say.

I almost think I see her smile then—as much of a smile as you ever get from Natalie anyway. She peeks inside her button box, checking to make sure all of her precious buttons are exactly where they’re supposed to be.

When we head down to the dock, my mom’s step is light on the stairs. She’s so sure that the Esther P. Marinoff will be the thing that fixes Natalie. My dad’s feet are moving to the beat of an Irish jig. Natalie is taking each step carefully and methodically as if she wants each foot to make a lasting impression on the stairs.

When we get down to the water’s edge I see Trixle walking across the dock, bullhorn in hand.

Two hundred yards back please! All boats must stay two hundred yards off the shore! ” Officer Trixle booms through his bullhornto a tour boat that has come too close to the island.

“Warned him before, that one. Mac’ll put a bead on him. Fix ’em good,” Trixle tells my father.

Natalie hates loud noises. Once they shot a warning blast into the water when we were in our apartment and she curled up in a ball in the middle of the living room and stayed that way for the better part of the afternoon. Another time she didn’t seem to hear a gun go off ten feet away. It’s impossible to predict what Natalie will do.

“Darby, hey Darby . . .” my father wheedles. “Please—not today, okay, buddy?”

“Got to learn to straighten up and fly right,” Darby mutters, “if she’s coming back, that is.” His eyes are bright with the unasked question.

Before the tower guard can get the boat in his gun sights, it turns starboard and hightails back to the city, and the tick in my mom’s cheek relaxes.

Officer Trixle gets a happy little bounce to his step. He motions to the guard tower anyway, and the guard tower officer pelts the bay with a showy spray of firepower that pounds like fireworks exploding inside your head.

Natalie shrieks high and piercing like the escape siren. She closes her eyes, wraps her arms around her head, and begins to rock.

The bullets don’t get anywhere near the tour boat, but it roars forward, sinking low behind as it struggles to gain speed.

“Natalie, it’s all done now. It’s all over. No more guns, okay? No more,” I tell her as my mother digs in her bag for the emergency lemon cake.

“They were leaving already,” my mom whispers to my father.

“That was completely unnecessary.”

“He’s just doing his job, Helen,” my father says, but his face is pinched like his belt is a notch too tight.

Nat’s arms stay wrapped around her head like a bandage. She rocks from foot to foot, still making her little shrieks.

Trixle hitches up his trousers and walks toward us. He stares at Natalie. “Got a problem here, Cam?”

“No problem. We got it under control.” My father’s voice is confident and commanding like a Boy Scout leader’s.

Trixle sucks on his lip. “Don’t look that way to me.”

“Just scared her is all,” my father tells him.

Trixle clears his throat. “Gonna have to do an incident report on this, Cam. Warden’s orders.”

My father frowns and lowers his voice as if he’s letting Trixle in on a secret. “Nothing to worry about here, Darby.”

Darby makes a juicy noise with his spit. “Anything out of the ordinary, I got to report.”

My mom picks up Nat’s suitcase, hoping to distract her and get her away from Darby. “Let’s go, Nat,” she says.

“But what about Jimmy and Theresa?” I ask. “They wanted to say goodbye. Couldn’t you wait? I can run get them. It will only take a minute.” Theresa is Jimmy’s little sister and she’s really good with Natalie.

My mom shakes her head. Nat’s shrieking has subsided. Now it’s more like the hum of a radio gone haywire. But my mom clearly wants to get her out of here.

I don’t think Nat will go, but she does. She’s still humming, still holding her head, but she’s walking along behind my mother, yes she is.

“Bye, Nat.” I wave stiffly.

“Moose bye. Moose bye,” she says as she toe-walks across the gangplank.

I take a step forward. I know better than to try to hug her. Nat hates to be touched, but I want to go get the Mattamans at least. I promised I’d let them know when she was leaving.

My father puts his hand on my arm. “She can’t take much more hullabaloo,” he murmurs, his eyes on Darby Trixle, who is deep in conversation with the buck sergeant.

My mom waves to us from the starboard side, scooting Nat’s suitcase under the seat. Nat sits down, her eyes trained on her lap. The motor roars to a start and the Frank M. Coxe pulls out fast, carving a white wake in the stirred-up brown water.

We watch until the boat is so small it could fit in the finger of my baseball glove. And then it’s gone.

2. THE SECRET PASSAGEWAY

Same day—Monday, August 5, 1935

There’s nothing like baseball to get your mind off of things you’d rather not think about. The smell of the glove, the feel of the ball, that thwack the bat makes when you crush the ball. . . . It’s enough to cure anything bad that could ever happen. And today is a baseball day, because my friend Scout from school is coming to Alcatraz this afternoon. Scout is Mr. Baseball. He has his own team and he can really play.

I tell Jimmy all about this inside the crawlspace under 64 building that runs beneath apartment 1D, a vacant apartment, to 1E, Mrs. Caconi’s place. The crawlspace is in what we like to call Chinatown because it looks like the alleyways in Chinatown in San Francisco. Normally, the crawlspace is locked, but last week Jimmy saw the screws in the door hinge were loose, so he took off the hinge and we opened the door. When we leave, we put the hinges back and the door seals up tight like no one has ever been inside.

The only problem is it’s dark in here—everything is coated with an inch of dust and you have to crawl on your hands and knees, avoid the ant holes, and watch the beams so you won’t clonk your head. The cobwebs alone could kill you the way they descend like gauze over your mouth and you breathe ’em in and hope you haven’t sucked a spider down your throat. Still, it’s a good place to talk things over. In our secret passageway, we say things we wouldn’t say anywhere else. I like that no one knows about this place except Jimmy and me.

I can’t imagine a better spot than underneath Mrs. Caconi’s apartment either. The moms on the island spend a lot of time at Mrs. Caconi’s the way the kids gravitate toward the parade grounds. I think it’s because Mrs. Caconi doesn’t have kids, so they get a break from us at her place—kind of like the teachers’ lounge at school.

Our best day last week we heard Mrs. Caconi and Officer Trixle’s wife, Bea, discussing hair that grows out of your ear hole. Apparently Darby Trixle has big bushes of ear hair Bea has to clip every week. We could hardly keep from laughing out loud when we heard this.

That’s the one thing we have to be wary of down here: noise. We’re pretty sure they can hear us in the apartments above, if we aren’t really quiet.

“Hey Jimmy, you working today?” I ask once we determine no one is in Mrs. Caconi’s apartment.

Jimmy’s been helping Bea Trixle, who runs the canteen, our island store. He doesn’t get paid for it, but whenever he works, Bea gives his mom a discount on whatever she buys. Sometimes Theresa helps too, but only if Janet Trixle isn’t around. Theresa is the same age as Janet, but she and Janet can’t stand each other. According to Theresa, Janet’s only real interests are rules and collecting stuff for her fairy jail.

“I’m off at two,” Jimmy says. “You gonna bring Scout to see the flies?”

Jimmy really likes flies. He knows a lot of unusual facts about them too. Flies puke when they land. Flies taste with their feet. Apparently they puke, then they lick the vomit up with their toes.

“Sure,” I say. “But Scout’s gonna want to play ball.”

In the last few weeks, Jimmy has become my best friend on Alcatraz, despite the fact that he stinks at baseball. If a baseball flew into Jimmy’s glove he wouldn’t know what to do with it. He’d probably use it to brush his teeth. Maybe he’d plant it in the ground to grow a big old baseball tree. The kid has no idea.

Jimmy’s nose lifts in the air—ah, ah, ah choo. He sprays me with snot and knocks his glasses off.

I wipe off my arm. “Thanks a lot, Jimmy,” I say.

Ah, ah, ah choo. He sneezes again, but this time he turns his head away and gives the ants a bath instead of me. “You want me to play?” he asks.

“Of course,” I say. “I always want you to play.”

Jim cocks his head as if he doesn’t quite believe this. “But Scout plays all the time. He’s good, right?”

“He’s not great or anything.”

Jimmy grins. “Oh, okay. Me neither.”

I don’t know what to say to this. Even in our secret place it seems better not to tell Jimmy that Scout’s “not great” is so much better than his “not great” that it isn’t fair to compare.

“C’mon, let’s go. I want to find Annie and get my arm warmed up before Scout gets here,” I say.

Crawling back, Jimmy picks his way slowly and carefully, stopping every time he has a question. “Think Scout’ll like my fly project?”

Jimmy’s latest project is to teach flies tricks. He wants to hold a circus and charge admission.

“Course,” I say.

Jimmy starts moving forward, then he stops again. “Think Scout will like me?”

“Sure. I told him all about you.”

Jimmy considers this. “Good, because I’ve got a new idea. I’m thinking the problem is quantity. I don’t have enough flies.”

I sit back on my haunches and wait while Jimmy launches into a technical explanation of his breeding plans. There is no stopping Jimmy Mattaman when he gets talking about his flies.

When he finally gets to the door, I scamper after him, covering the same ground in one-third the time. “You’re fast,” he observes.

“You’re slow,” I tell him as we press our ears against the frame to listen for unusual sounds, but it’s all quiet. We crack open the door a few inches; still nothing. We push it the rest of the way and Jimmy—because he’s smaller—pokes his head out.

“All clear,” he whispers, and we jump down.

Just as Jimmy finishes replacing the screws in the hinge, we hear footsteps on the old cement stairwell. “Uh-oh,” I whisper as I spot shiny black guard shoes coming down.

“Thought you was working this morning, Jimmy?” Darby bellows through his ever present bullhorn.

“Yes, sir,” Jimmy says.

Darby peers over the railing, but he can’t see me because I’m getting the baseball gear I stashed in one of the storage rooms.

“What you doing down there?” he asks Jimmy.

“Nothing, sir,” Jimmy answers.

“Nothing, huh? Do I look like I was born yesterday, Jimmy?” Darby asks.

“No sir,” Jimmy replies, skedaddling up the stairs. Jimmy doesn’t say anything about me. He knows it’s better if Darby doesn’t see me. Darby hates me on account of I’m Natalie’s brother. Natalie really bugs him.

I stand quietly, waiting for them to leave. When they’re gone, I climb up to apartment 3H, Annie Bomini’s place. Annie’s the only kid on the whole island who’s any good at baseball. What a shame she’s a girl.

I peer through the screen door, focusing on the wooden table in the Bominis’ living room. It was made by the cons in the furniture shop that Annie’s father runs. The Bominis have a lot of wood stuff plus needlepoint everywhere. Needlepoint pillows, tablecloths, tissue holders, seat covers. Mrs. Bomini has a needlepoint toilet cover for every day of the week. I don’t know why you need a Monday toilet seat cover on Mondays. Is it that important to know what day it is when you do your business?

“Annie, c’mon,” I call, hoping Mrs. Bomini isn’t around. Mrs. Bomini is a one-woman talking machine. Once she gets you cornered you pretty much have to have a heart attack and be carried away on a stretcher before she’ll stop.

Annie’s skin is pale, and her hair is so blond it’s almost white. She looks twelve but kind of old too, like forty-two. She’s squarish from head to foot, like God used a T-square to assemble her.

Annie props open the screen door with her foot. “Moose.” She gulps, her big flat face looking pinched today. “You won’t believe what happened.”

Uh-oh, what if she doesn’t want to play? That’s the trouble with girls. They have to actually feel like playing.

“What happened?” I ask.

“We got the wrong laundry. We got yours,” she whispers.

Laundry . . . that is the one word I don’t feel like hearing right now. Ever since I got that note from Al Capone, I’ve been very careful to be the first person to get my laundry in case he decides to send another note. My mom has even noticed. “Why, you’re taking care of your own laundry now, Moose, isn’t that nice,” my mom said.

“So? Just give it back.” I try to keep my voice from sounding as panicky as I feel.

“I didn’t realize it was your laundry. I started putting it away and . . . Moose, there was a note in the pocket of your shirt.”

“A-a note?” My voice breaks high like a girl’s.

My hands shake as she gives me a scrap of paper folded twice. My mind floods with things I don’t want to think about. Al Capone, the warden’s office, Natalie being thrown out of school.

The note is written on the same paper in the same handwriting as the other one. Your turn, it says.

My face feels hot and sweaty, then cold and clammy. I check the back and then the front again for any other words and stuff the note in my pocket.

Annie’s blue eyes bulge. “Your turn? What’s it your turn for, Moose?”

Excerpted from AL CAPONE SHINES MY SHOES © Copyright 2012 by Gennifer Choldenko. Reprinted with permission by Dial Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group. All rights reserved.

Al Capone Shines My Shoes
(Tales from Alcatraz #2)
by by Gennifer Choldenko

  • paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Puffin
  • ISBN-10: 0142417181
  • ISBN-13: 9780142417188