Gangster Nation

Tod Goldberg

September 22, 2017 
The following is from Tod Goldberg’s novel, Gangster Nation. In this novel, Goldberg traces how the things we most value in our lives—home, health, even our spiritual lives—have been built on the enterprises of criminals. Tod Goldberg is a New York Times bestselling writer. He runs the popular podcast Literary Disco and directs the Low Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts at the University of California, Riverside.

Now Naomi and Michael were exchanging a series of vows that David was pretty sure were cribbed from a pop song. The three of them stood under a chuppah in the Rosens’ backyard . . . if you could call anything with an acre of grass with an outdoor wine bar surrounding a private lake a yard. The Rosens lived in the Vineyards at Summerlin, a few doors down from Bennie Savone and his family, in an exclusive development that was supposed to evoke the Italian countryside except with German cars and Mexican domestic staff. David had never been to Italy, never even made it to the Venetian on the Strip to ride in a gondola, on account of the facial recognition cameras all the casinos had—they weren’t looking for average bad guys, by and large, but Bennie told him it was a no-go zone—but he couldn’t help wondering if there were housing developments being built on the Amalfi Coast modeled after Las Vegas, Italians living in peach-colored tract homes with brown lawns.

David viewed weddings as sacred affairs and took his role seriously—of all the vows he’d taken in his own life, it was the only one that had actually stuck—and if Naomi and Michael wanted to seal their love by quoting Kid Rock in front of a few hundred of their closest friends and family members, who was he to judge? Those were just words. A vow was something you believed in, and that didn’t require spoken words. Besides, it was David’s job to give them the true blessing, the sense that what they were doing had some continuity with history, so even though they weren’t particularly faithful Jews, and they exchanged bullshit vows, at least David was doing his part.

Which was the problem.

There was going to come a time, pretty soon if David had his way, when Rabbi David Cohen would be replaced again by Sal Cupertine, and by no fault of their own, Naomi and Michael’s marriage would be a sham: David’s blessings upon them little more than a minor fraud perpetuated by a professional Mob killer, this otherwise mild summer day a footnote in a series of criminal acts, and no matter how much David wanted Naomi and Michael to have a good life, free of the shit and violence and deception he’d been party to since he was ten years old . . . man, one day? There they would be, right in it, forever.

David could see the Dateline episode already: Keith Morrison sitting across from Naomi and Michael, asking them if they’d ever noticed anything . . . odd . . . about Rabbi David Cohen, a man they’d trusted to bless their union, bless their unborn child. Hadn’t he seemed . . . different? Though, of course, it wasn’t as if Naomi’s father would want anyone poking too far into his life, what with his business relationship with Bennie. A couple years earlier, Jordan had become infatuated with a dancer at Bennie’s club, the Wild Horse, and ended up owing a hundred thousand dollars, plus an increasing vig, for lap dances and VIP-room hand jobs, which wasn’t exactly a check he could write without his wife noticing. So now Bennie was a silent partner in some of Jordan’s real estate holdings out on what used to be the butthole end of North Las Vegas, down on Craig Road, but which was suddenly a hot property. Trilogy and a dozen other developers were talking about building their own master-planned communities out there, 2002 promising to be the year that everyone moved into supermax prison complexes in the desert, replete with open-concept floor plans, travertine floors, and armed rent-a-cops patrolling 24/7.

So . . . maybe it wouldn’t be Naomi and Michael on camera. Maybe it would be Rochelle and Lee.
Andrea and Brent.
Tara and Neil.

How many couples had he married in the last three years? Twenty? Thirty? Which didn’t make David feel any better. His entire life as Sal Cupertine had been lived as a ghost, and now here he was, rolled up in the lives of common civilians.

“That was beautiful,” Rabbi Cohen said when Michael finished his vows, something about Naomi’s smile making him think of brighter days ahead. David was pretty sure Michael was high. His eyes were almost entirely black, nothing but pupils staring back. Probably did a couple bumps before the ceremony, or chopped up his little brother’s Ritalin, maybe stole a prescription pad from his father’s office and got himself and his best men Adderall for the big day, since all six of them were fidgeting messes.

Or maybe it was just that Michael was shit-scared. David had seen that look once or twice before in people, back in his old line of work. This kid is fucked, David thought, but wasn’t absolutely certain who he was thinking of: Michael, Naomi, or the unborn child in Naomi’s belly, who was already named Dakota, even though they didn’t yet know the sex.

David poured two glasses of wine and set them between the bride and groom, along with a third empty glass.

“In our tradition,” he said, “wine is a symbol of the transformations we go through as people. From the dirt grows the vine, which grows the grape, which is picked and goes through the sour period of fermentation, and then becomes the wine itself, which becomes the warmth of your body when you drink, which creates a sense of euphoria in your mind.” David paused then, as he always did during this portion of the ceremony, and made a point to look directly at both the bride and groom, as Rabbi Kales had taught him: Tilt your head, smile, but not with too much joy. Think of something sad at the same time, so that there is also something slightly mournful in your face. Sigh before you begin again. Lower your voice an octave. It will sound like you’re quoting something even if you are not.

“Such is the beautiful journey we make as people, and, together, Michael and Naomi, you’ll make as husband and wife.” David poured both glasses of wine into the third glass, then held it up. “From many, we have one.”

He handed the glass to Naomi and she took a tiny sip, barely enough to wet her lips. Naomi gave the wine to Michael, who downed it like he was doing a shot, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and pumped his fist. In that moment, David saw Michael’s entire life unfold in front of him. It was a future of SUV payments he couldn’t afford, tight black short-sleeved V-necks under sport coats, and vague notions that maybe having someone knock off his physician father would alleviate some of his financial burdens. Thing was, a few years ago, Sal Cupertine would have taken that job.

David began the chant of the Sheva Brachot, the Seven Blessings, first in Hebrew—Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha-olam, bo’rei p’ri ha-gafen—and then in English. David thought the blessings were fine, if a little generic—thanking God for creating everything, essentially—but it was the sixth one where he really had a beef: Blessed art Thou, O Lord, King of the universe, who has created joy and gladness, bridegroom and bride, mirth and exultation, pleasure and delight, love, brotherhood, peace, and fellowship. Soon may there be heard in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem the voice of joy and gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the jubilant voice of bridegrooms from their canopies, and of youths from their feasts of song. Blessed art Thou, O Lord, who makest the bridegroom to rejoice with the bride.

David didn’t believe God created joy and gladness any more than he thought God was responsible for pain and suffering. He’d dealt enough in those last two to know that God was very rarely involved. It wasn’t God who’d put Sal Cupertine on the streets of Chicago disposing of people for the Family. It wasn’t God who packed Sal Cupertine into a frozen meat truck and hustled him off to Las Vegas, sold him into this long con after he killed three feds and a CI. No, that was his cousin Ronnie.

However, if God was responsible for anything these days, David thought it was for moments like today—when there was a real spirit in the air, when love felt like a tangible thing, yet somehow otherworldly—and the fact was he felt pretty Jewish in those situations, since he was the one who was supposed to be keeping the candle lit, so to speak, and if there was one thing he did, it was his fucking job.

David finished the blessings. Took in the guests. What Rabbi Kales called “accounting”: See who is being moved. Add them to your list. Then, at a later date, make them account.

Jordan Rosen openly sobbed with joy, clutched his wife’s hand, kissed it.

Tricia Rosen, back from Berkeley with short hair now, dabbed at her eyes and nodded at Rabbi Cohen in that way young people do when they believe in something beyond their present emotional experience.

The flower girl was asleep across Mrs. Solomon’s lap, Mr. Solomon stroking her hair.

The grandparents, the aunts, the uncles, the cousins, the second cousins, the friends, the alter kockers who flew in from Portland and Seattle and New York and Toronto and Israel, everyone paying a debt for having shown up for some other distant cousin’s wedding or bris or funeral. Jews were pretty good about showing up, no matter the occasion. They all looked too much alike for David’s comfort. All brown hair, thick eyebrows, pale-to-light-olive complexion, too much hair on their forearms, too many gold necklaces, too many Coach handbags, too many of those pimp watches with gold bracelets young men seemed to be favoring of late, constantly spinning them around their wrists, the links catching hits off the sun. Not enough men in ties. Too many women in sandals. It just wasn’t right. You come to a wedding, you should dress with the dignity of a funeral, because who the fuck knows when you’ll ever see the couple again, and who the fuck knows when they’ll see you again. So you get your look right, you don’t glam it up, you don’t whore it up, even though it’s Las Vegas. No one ever got kicked out of a place in Las Vegas for dressing elegantly. If David was going to wear the tallith, the least everyone else could do was put on a fucking tie and some closed-toe shoes.

In the back were the professionals: the lawyers, the accountants, the doctors, the investment guys, the real estate team, the city councilmen, the casino executives, Andy from Summerlin Rolls-Royce, Carter from JetVegas, Kendra from Caesars Palace Forum Shops Private Shopping Concierge Services, the local ABC meteorologist—Ginger or Bianca or something in between those names—in a plunging red dress, all of them clustered near the bar, talking the whole fucking time, but pausing now, David’s eyes on them, sensing that the big moment was about to happen, when God left and the party started. Behind the professionals, the tuxedoed catering staff set up the elaborate dinner under pitched white tents. The three-piece wind ensemble unpacked their instruments.

And, watching from his lawn, stood Bennie Savone.

David wrapped the wineglass in a clean white towel and held it aloft for all the guests to see. “Talmud says the breaking of the glass is a symbol of the fall of the Temple of Jerusalem,” David said. “But I believe it is to remind us that there are sharp edges in life.” Pause. Chin tilted up half an inch. “Thus.” Pause. Octave down. “We must temper joy with the remembrance of and preparation for sorrow.” David found the oldest person in the audience—one of the Solomon clan, David had met him earlier, cousin Louis from New York, wearing a yarmulke made of fine silk, Louis telling David its entire provenance, which involved a tragic summer in Poland, a month stuck at Ellis Island, his mother dying at thirty-seven, and then, eventually, a very successful furniture business in upstate New York, where he was considered the Sleeper-Sofa King of Troy—and extended a hand in his general direction, everyone turning to look at the old codger, as if he were the living embodiment of the Exodus. “For we are the witnesses of history.” Pause. Raise the voice. Smile. Tilt the head back down half an inch. “Love needs no permission. For we are taught that ahev is a natural convergence of giving and being open to emotion. And so, Michael and Naomi, I tell you to make your own traditions, but keep, too, our shared history close, remembering, always, that your people are our people.”

Rabbi David Cohen set the wineglass down in front of Michael and Naomi and was just about to tell them they could kiss, but he didn’t get the chance. The couple both began to curb-stomp the living shit out of the wineglass. Then Michael swooped Naomi up into his arms and kissed her flush on the mouth, both of them wide-eyed and laughing through the kiss, everyone shouting Mazel tov! Mazel tov! even though Naomi had sliced her foot open on the glass and had stained the hem of her wedding dress with blood.



From GANGSTER NATION. Used with permission of Counterpoint. Copyright © 2017 by Tod Goldberg.

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