The three regulars sat on the bench outside the Eastwood Tavern waiting for Sal to open at noon. Sal bought the bench out of sympathy for the guys because even though they knew the bar opened at noon they still showed up at 11:30 to make sure they were the first ones in and that they got “their” seats. “The Wood” as the tavern was known, had gone through many permutations since it opened as the Syracuse Room in 1933, when the original owner gutted the ground floor of the building to take advantage of the end of Prohibition. The building had one additional level that contained six apartments, three of which were rented by the occupants of the bench.

The Wood was just a neighborhood joint, there were ten stools at the bar, six booths along the front wall, a dozen or so tables squeezed in between. There was a pool table in an alcove off the bar, along with a juke box right next to the doors to the small kitchen. Even after nearly twenty years since the State outlawed indoor smoking, you could still smell cigarettes, especially on a rainy day.

“Dusty Pete” Stoyvanich took the stool at the end of the bar, Bill Middleton was in the middle, per his name and Benny C took the seat closest to where Sal stood behind the bar. The patronage of the bar had turned over a couple times since anyone knew what the “C” stood for, he had been just Benny C for so long. The guys did not pay for anything out of their pockets, the cost of their daily imbibing and dining was built into the rent for their apartments. The kind taxpayers of the great State of New York picked up the tab through the Section 8 money the three received each month.

To keep the guys from just sitting there and drinking all day and all night, Sal would write a topic of conversation on the chalk board behind the bar and not serve another round until each one of the three contributed one thought to the topic, fleetingly meager as the day and rounds wore on.

All three had worked in a tool and die works that had long since closed. None of them had ever married and since it took Sal writing on the blackboard to get them to say anything, no one knew much more than their names and their thoughts on Sal’s topics.

Even though Dusty Pete, Bill and Benny C were kind of sad to Sal, they were easy and they didn’t cause any trouble. They ordered the same beer and ate whatever the special was for lunch and dinner. Occasionally some kid would try to tease or pick on the guys but Sal would put a swift end to that with a whack on the bar with the baseball bat he kept near the register.

This is the way it went, year after year until “The Day” as it became known later.

It was the Sunday before Memorial Day, Sal parked his car in his usual spot and unlocked the back door about a half hour before he would open. At noon when he unlocked the front door as he always did.

“C’mon in fellas,” he said without looking outside.

He turned and walked back to the bar. It took him a few seconds to realize that the guys had not come in. He went back to the door and stuck his head outside, the bench was empty.

He locked the front door and went upstairs to the apartments and knocked on all three doors, one after the other and waited for at least one of them to open, but nothing happened.

He went back down to the bar and called his cousin Tony, a city policeman, and asked him if he had heard anything about any trouble in the area. Tony hadn’t, but he would make a few calls.

Sal went back to work and asked each person that came in if they knew anything about why the three weren’t in the bar. No one had a clue.

Around 4PM Sal still hadn’t heard anything about where the guys could be, so when his nephew showed up for his shift behind the bar, Sal dug out the master key for the apartments and went back upstairs. He had forgotten who lived in which one, not that it mattered, and unlocked the first apartment. There were no signs of any problems or what had caused their disappearance until he opened the closet and it was empty. He walked over to the dresser and it was empty also.

Sal opened the next apartment with the same results, no clothes in either the closet or the dresser. The last apartment was the same. The guys had taken all of their clothes but none of their belongings. He called Tony again and told him what he had found.

“I’ll have a patrol car come over,” Tony said, “I’m sure there’s an explanation.”

Sal let the two cops who showed up into the apartments but they couldn’t find anything other than an outline of dust in one apartment that may have been a suitcase that was moved after many years.

“We’ll keep an eye out for anything unusual in the area, let us know if you hear anything new,” the first cop told Sal.

“Sure, this is the strangest thing I’ve ever seen. Those three rummies haven’t changed a thing in twenty years and they just disappear?” Sal said, shaking his head as he locked the apartment.

The rest of the day was busy because of the holiday weekend. Sal got tired of being asked about the three by everyone that came in. He finally wrote on the chalkboard “Don’t ask, I don’t know where they are.”

Sal was surprised that the three men that had been invisible to everyone but him, were now the only topic of conversation.

“If you had that painting hanging in the bar of three dogs playing poker for twenty years and then took it down, people are going to ask. Those guys are the three dogs,” Tony said when he came in to tell Sal that nothing had turned up. Nothing at the hospitals, no dead bodies, nothing. Tony even checked a few other bars in the neighborhood to see if they finally decided to try something new.

It rained on Memorial Day so the bar smelled like cigarettes and was packed with people who cancelled picnics. Sal wrote on the chalkboard, “Still Nothing”.

Tony added, “Reward – $5 for information leading to anything”.

Sal was exhausted after a long day at the bar and was looking forward to his one day off. He finally got home after closing up around 3AM and fell into bed after taking off only his shoes.

He was soon asleep and dreaming about the three missing patrons. There was a wake at the bar. Instead of the tables there were three coffins covered in flowers. On the chalkboard was written “Wake 1-3, Happy Hour 4-5”.

Tony was telling him that Bill Middleton was in the middle coffin. “Of course, he is,” Sal was saying when the phone began ringing behind the bar. It took him a while to leave the dream and realize it was his phone ringing. It stopped then a couple seconds later it started again.

“That can only be my ex calling for money,” he thought as he finally was awake.

She would call Sal early in the morning knowing that she would wake him up. She had been hounding Sal for weeks that she needed more money or else she would get a lawyer and try to take his business. The problem was that she was right and if she got a lawyer he did stand a chance to lose the Wood.

“What do you want now Lois?” he snapped.

“Sal, it’s me, Jimmy.”

Sal went through the long list of people he knew named Jimmy until he finally realized it was Jimmy DiNapoli at the dry cleaners across the street from the bar.

“What’s wrong?” Sal asked now worried as a sense of foreboding filled his gut.

“You need to get down to the bar right away,” Jimmy continued, “the whole street is covered in cop cars.”

“What happened?”

“I don’t know but you should get down here right away.”

“Thanks, Jimmy, I’ll be right there.”

Sal hung up the phone and found his shoes that he flipped off a few hours ago and was out the door. He couldn’t get into the parking lot because the street was blocked off by police cars. He parked down the block and walked up to the police tape looking for a cop he knew. He finally saw his cousin Tony talking to a clean-cut man in an FBI windbreaker.

“FBI?” Sal thought as he waved to Tony trying to get his attention.

Tony put up his hand to signal him to wait, listened to the FBI agent for a minute longer and finally walked over to Sal.

“What the hell is going on?” Sal asked. “Did someone get killed? Why are the Feds here?”

“The FBI always shows up when there is a major bank robbery and the suspects have probably left the state or the country. They are going to need to talk to you so don’t go anywhere.”

“Me? Why the hell would the FBI want to talk to me? Who robbed the bank?”

“I can’t say right now, just be patient.”

Sal couldn’t wait and found Jimmy standing in front of the cleaners.

“What is going on, Jimmy?”

“I don’t know, all I’ve heard so far is that the bank was robbed over the weekend and something about a tunnel.”

Just as Sal was about to ask Jimmy another question he was tapped on his shoulder by the FBI agent that Tony was talking with a few minutes ago.

“Are you Salvatore Gualtieri? Do you own the Eastwood Tavern and the apartments above?”

“Yes, what is this all about?”

“Come with me, please.”

Sal followed the FBI agent into the stairwell going up to the apartments and into one of the guy’s apartments. A FBI crime scene technician was taking pictures of the closet and stopped when the first FBI agent asked him to wait.

Sal saw what he had been photographing: the back of the closet was gone and a ladder leading into the crawl space behind the wall.

“Mr. Gualtieri, this is the apartment of Benjamin Cannizarro. That ladder leads to the basement of this building between the walls and then to a tunnel leading to the Merchants Bank vault next door. Over the weekend while the bank was closed we believe that the two gentlemen that lived in the two adjacent apartments along with Mr. Cannizarro entered the vault through this tunnel and stole an undetermined amount of money.”

Sal was dumbstruck, he could not process what he was telling him.

“Mr. Gualtieri we are going to take you down to the Federal Building and we are going to need to take a statement from you.”

“Sure, whatever you need,” Sal stammered as he stared at the entrance of the tunnel.

It took months for the entire story to come out but Dusty Pete, Bill Middleton and Benny C. had tunneled under the bank from Sal’s building right into the vault. The FBI wouldn’t say exactly how much money they took but since that was the main branch of the bank in the city it was likely in the millions. The guys had fled the country and the FBI stated they did not know where they went but it was most likely a country that did not have an extradition treaty with the United States.

The bar finally returned to normal as the summer was winding down and the FBI still hadn’t tracked down the fugitives. The bar had been crowded for weeks following the heist as people wanted to be near the scene of the crime and Sal was constantly fielding questions about what had happened. He was happy when the bar returned to normal with just the people from the neighborhood, who left the three barstools empty out of respect for the outlaws that pulled off the perfect crime and had built a flawless cover that kept them out of suspicion for anything illicit for decades.

Right before Christmas, Sal was bringing some boxes out of his office that contained the decorations that he put up every year. He pulled out the three-foot-tall Santa that played “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” every time someone triggered the motion sensor. He hated that Santa but the guys had loved him, showing the only unprompted response in the entire time they had been in the bar when Sal threatened to throw him in the trash after hearing the song for the hundredth time and they protested in unison that they loved Santa.

As he unpacked him, Sal saw a small piece of paper stuck inside Santa’s coat. It was a note:

“Thanks Sal – The Guys.”

Sal studied the note for a few minutes, turning it over in his hand.

“No way. It can’t be. They didn’t.”

Sal ran into the kitchen and got a knife and plunged it into Santa’s chest. He cut open Santa’s clothes and stood in disbelief.

Santa was crammed from head to toe with rolls of $100-dollar bills.

“Merry Christmas,” Sal said as he unstuffed Santa’s hidden gift.


Photos by pasa47 bwats2