by Rachel Cann
“Now there’s a view,” said Paul, so smugly I felt like putting my hands around his neck and throttling. Easter Sunday and we were on the concrete deck at the Swampscott home of his best friend under house arrest with bail in excess of a million dollars. It would be the last time they would break bread, the two most feared men in the New England Cosa Nostra. The tide was low, the air charged with the rich, dank smell of home. As complaining seagulls swooped and soared above the deserted beach and the dark, gray Atlantic, I breathed deeply, tried to relax the muscles around my narcissistic heart. The family inside was in crisis. I was always in crisis. Would it never end? Adrenaline coursed through my veins like an out-of-control locomotive, clickety-clack, drowning out any voices of reason I might have heard had I been able to listen.
The John’s Pass Bay, where I used to live, before I was forced to lower my pride and come out of hiding was much more alive: aqua and blue, jumping with dolphin, roiling with mullet and dotted with sails. Unfortunately, the only time I could see this panorama was when I brushed my teeth from a bathroom window. You could fit Paul’s whole apartment in my master bedroom, but with the sundeck facing the street instead of the bay, I was somewhat of a joke. The whole house was built backwards.
Instead of selling the land, as Paul had advised, I’d decided to build. Now, he never missed the chance to rub it in. I’d bought the land even before I won my malpractice suit against the psychiatrist, I was so confident. Paid 18% interest on it for a whole year. Then it took another year to get construction financing; no one wanted to lend to a woman, even with the land free and clear. Friends told me to lie on my application so it would look as if I made more money that I did, but as a known associate of organized crime, I couldn’t afford to take any chances. Paul always wanted me to stay squeaky-clean. Whatever I did would reflect on him, so, much as I wanted to lie on the credit applications for the construction loan, I was forced to joint venture the project with a builder I found in the newspaper.
As soon as the footings were laid, I knew the builder had read the architectural drawings wrong, so the glorious sunsets I had wanted to view from a deck outside my bedroom would have to be seen through a tiny window way up on the third floor. When I brought the plans to a lawyer, hoping he could get me out of the contract, he took one look at the plans and said it was a lot of house for the money and I should kiss the builder’s feet. Hell of a thing to tell a feminist, wasn’t it?
Two of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made: not taking the lawyer’s advice and taking the lowest bid. As it turned out, I ended up firing the builder, building the house myself from the framework in, lugging tile grout and drywall in 110 degree heat, laying sod, drinking 8 or 9 Cokes a day, and dragging sub-contractors off bar stools to do the drywall. I even transplanted a twenty- foot palm tree that had been up for grabs. By the time the house was finished, I had put on 15 pounds and gone 20 thousand over predicted costs. Then, I had a nervous breakdown. If it weren’t for the pills they put me on, I think I would have killed the builder.
Twenty thousand dollars worth of cedar overlapped wrong. When it began to shrink and crinkle, the way cedar will when it’s wet, in some places the only thing between the inside and the outside world was tar-paper-covered plywood. If I’d used every pot and pan in the village, I wouldn’t have been able to catch all the drips. The rugs began to mildew. Every damn window leaked, too. I couldn’t afford to pay a lawyer, so when Paul took sick; I handed the keys to a girlfriend and walked away.
Paul disappeared with a bottle of Cutty Sark leaving me in the kitchen to get reacquainted. I knew it would be hours before I would see him again. He and Mr. X, as I’ll call him out of self-preservation, were both wearing nitro patches under their shirts. Serious stuff this Mafia business. I envied their camaraderie, a friendship spanning over 40 years, since they were both in Walpole in the fifties. Paul had been convicted of extortion, trying to collect money for someone else. The guy was wired, a mistake he wouldn’t talk about much.
Truth is I would have been sitting pretty if I’d never gone to court, if I’d just taken the million they offered to settle to protect the shrink, shove the whole nasty mess under the carpet. But I had to be a hero and expose him for being a charlatan. What good did it do? I would never be able to live down the shame. The shrink was still practicing under someone else’s shingle and everyone and their sister began to sue their shrink. I was virtually wiped out, penniless, but thanks to Paul’s generosity and the fact that his other best friend, Buster, had a wife who owned a clothing store in the heart of the financial district, I was wearing a new silk purple dress.
Mrs. X, a handsome woman, not brassy as one might expect, was still in her bathrobe, a fuzzy, chenille thing that had seen better days. She apologized and I told her it didn’t matter. She seemed able to transcend the chaos of a house full of people and if she was worried about her husband, I couldn’t see it, though the bathrobe spoke volumes. I knew a little bit about what she was enduring. Your whole miserable life laid bare. You hope and pray that the lawyers can pull off a miracle and you brace yourself for the inevitable, the married, but alone existence, the going-on- as- usual of your life. You can’t let anyone see your pain because you’re supposed to be as strong as your man, and everyone is watching you and waiting to see if you sleep alone, where you’ve hidden the money, how you comport yourself in public. It was a close community where the men gossiped as much as the women.
At least I had the consolation, years before, of saying Paul was in Atlanta for the ‘white collar crime’ of stocks and bonds and he didn’t leave me any money. ‘College,’ we used to call it. Sentenced to 12 years, he did almost five. In Mr. X’s case, the government had thousands of hours of his voice on tape, mayhem, dead bodies in trunks, drugs, prostitution, things I felt certain Paul was incapable of. Then there was grand larceny, bribery, fraud, numbers running. You name it. It was all coming out. Mr. X would, in essence, be convicting himself when the trial came up. Everyone was trying hard not to be maudlin.
The youngest daughter introduced me to her fiancée. He shook my hand and I noticed that his skin was chafed from shaving and his eye sockets were deep sunken, as if he didn’t sleep well. The daughter was beautiful, with pixie-like features, glowing with good health. She was dressed in high heels and a lilac-colored suit. The wedding was to be in June, with no reception. “We wouldn’t want the government to think my father isn’t really sick,” she said, with her boyfriend looking on adoringly. She had no desire for a diamond.
I looked at my naked ring finger and remembered how thrilled I was when Paul gave me an engagement ring. Six perfect diamonds and a blood red ruby in a very unusual setting lying in the bottom of a glass of champagne. “How romantic!” I’d said, after I’d fished it out. “Did you think that up yourself?” Paul gave credit for the idea to Howard Hughes. When the gold in the ring had lost its hold, the stones kept popping out. I brought it to our jeweler without consulting Paul. The jeweler never said a word except that he would fix it. Then Paul told me I would most probably never see the ring again, because he’d never paid for it and because he’d ripped the jeweler off for a couple of hundred thousand dollars! How was I to know?
If I’d wanted to go into the jewelry store in Brookline and pick out whatever I fancied, I could have. The jeweler was a well-known fence, but I was as fussy as the princess and the pea. Legitimate stuff too. “Too small, too big; I don’t wear pearls or cameos.” I didn’t want to appear greedy. Paul got so aggravated he said he’d never get me any more jewelry, even if he could afford it. Little did I know what hard times would lie ahead.
How many times had I thought of coming to Swampscott and begging for help, never having the courage? An entire duplex was on the line, a nest egg for my old age, maybe, but Paul’s pride had always been more important than my poverty. If I couldn’t be proud of myself, at least I never shamed him by asking any of his friends for money. They were mostly all millionaires. And what if I’d asked them for a handout and they’d said no? In any event, I never did and I always held a legitimate job, when I could work, that is, and somehow we’d made it without going hungry, the telephone never disconnected for non-payment, enough money in the kitty to fly back for summer court-ordered visitations when the weather got really hot in Florida or when Paul needed us. My child support came regular.
The young couple was due for prenuptial counseling, which got us talking about God. An uncle, passing through the kitchen, with a hooked nose and sallow skin, reminding me of a vulture, stopped to show us a picture of his patron saint on a prayer card. Another uncle took a string of rosary beads out of his pocket. I was not religious, per se, but I had much to be grateful for when I woke each day with all my faculties intact and love in my heart, ancient grievances mollified if not forgotten. The sharing of faiths seemed to bring us closer, but not close enough to talk about what’s on everyone’s mind: the upcoming trial, which would turn out to be the longest in New England’s history.
Blithely, the soon-to-be married daughter changed the subject. “How did you meet Paul,” she asked, with a womanly sort of curiosity. My heart was pumping wildly, I’d drunk so much coffee, and I was afraid I’d say something stupid or talk too much. My mind was whirling like a roulette wheel. I was surprised they’d never asked before.
“A blind date in Miami,” I told her. “I used to be a gangster groupie. Do you know about Arthur’s Farm?”
The youngest daughter shook her head.
“Before your time, I guess.” Arthur was the biggest fence in New England. All the wise guys, including Raymond Patriarca, used to hang there, playing gin in his fruit and vegetable stand. He weighed over 300 pounds and I guess you could say he was my first mentor. “I loved going to Arthur’s Farm because you’d never know what you’d find to buy and somebody’s cat was always having kittens.”
Gangsters were coolest people I knew, a stark contrast to the strait-laced teachers I worked with and I loved how they talked with their hands. Their ‘dese, dem and dose,’ the pleasure they seemed to share for the simple things. How they seemed to love each other unconditionally. Arthur had two brothers who worked alongside of him. Junior, the youngest, had a thatch of premature white hair. He died early. Ollie, the oldest, lived long after the other two died. He’d often just doze in the sun waiting for people to stop on the highway to buy produce.
They called me “The Schoolteacher.” I would hitch up the Italian knits over my knees, sitting out of the way on a milk crate, watching them play gin rummy or poker for hours, absorbing the ambience, and listening. Some day I would be another Damon Runyon or a female Jimmy Breslin. Maybe even a Pulitzer Prize winner like E. L. Doctorow who wrote about Dutch Schultz. I might even have found out what happened to Jimmy Hoffa and JFK or where the missing Brink’s money was stashed. Some men didn’t take women seriously. Little did they know how determined a woman like me could be.
What I liked best was the feeling of belonging. I’d never had a real family what with a mother who was always out in left field, so-to-speak, disinheriting me every other week for some fool thing. She believed everything she read in the papers about my bedroom door swinging open night and day, never letting me explain. Sex was something we never discussed let alone have it plastered all over the front of the hometown newspaper. The Globe and the Herald, at least, let Von Bulow dominate the headlines. My mom’s phone must have been ringing off the hook. It would take her 20 years and the threat of dying of cancer before she would even talk to me. The cost of nursing homes being what they were, and both of my grandparents living well past a hundred, her money was hers. I knew better than to ask her help in saving the house.
I glanced at the mother at the stove to be sure I wasn’t treading in dangerous waters. Surely she knew about Arthur’s Farm, but if she did, she wasn’t letting on, totally involved with her cooking, her face a bit pinkish from the heat of the stove. I imagined she’d read all about me, like everyone else, and she was waiting to see how crazy I really was. /span>
“Arthur used to sing Italian opera and taught me how to tell poisoned mushrooms from good ones with a silver dollar,” I continued. According to Arthur, Uncle Sam didn’t care what business you were in as long as you made him a partner. He wasn’t going to pay taxes so the U.S. could send his son to be killed in another war. Prostitutes had to pay taxes and the Red Cross charged for coffee on the front lines during his stint in World War II! Arthur was a character who would give produce to the needy, deal in truckloads of stolen merchandise, X-rated films, counterfeit quarters, fake Chanel perfume. If someone had their legs broken, or worse, I figured it was because they had borrowed money and wouldn’t make it good. Innocent people didn’t get their legs broken. When the IRS would call Arthur in, he’d empty his pockets of quarters and laugh in their faces. Every time he was supposed to go before a judge, he’d fake a heart attack, but, eventually, he died from a real heart attack.
I missed Arthur a lot. Though we were never lovers, there were no secrets between us. Unlike Paul, Arthur told me everything, especially about which cops and politicians he was paying off. Life magazine in the sixties ran a spread about The Farm and after that, it was all downhill. “Anyway, a friend of Arthur’s, Bobby C., was in Miami and his wife told me to look him up so he could take me out to dinner. It was spring break and I was visiting an old girlfriend I’d known since junior high.”
“Were you married then?” asked the oldest daughter, the one the press describes as ‘sick.’ Sharp as a tack, as far as I could see, and out of all of them, she was the one who made me feel the most comfortable. I’d seen her grow from innocent schoolgirl to a young woman with special needs.
“I was,” I admitted. “But… I also was paying all the bills. The only thing my husband bought was a color T.V. so he could watch the football games on Sundays.” On Saturday nights when he would give me the choice of sex or going out to dinner, I always let my stomach win.
The girls hooted and began taking turns asking me questions. “You paid all the bills? Boy, you were some kind of stupid.”
“You’re right,” I said. “Until I met Paul, my husband was the only one.”
“Was it love at first sight? And did you know he was from Boston?”
“Not at first. The husband was busy the night I dropped by the Thunderbird Motel with my girlfriend, so he fixed us up with Paul and another guy with diamonds in his belt buckle. My friend was poor, with two little babies, a waitress at Lum’s hot dog place and I wanted to do right by her. I’ll take the short, bald one, and you can have the one with the diamonds, I said.”
“Listen to this, Ma! This is funny: ‘the short, bald one.’ I’ve known Paul since I was a baby and I can’t imagine him on a blind date with anyone.” Both girls convulsed with laughter pounding the table with their fists. I loved to make people laugh. Paul had a way of cracking me up. If he was a sociopath, you couldn’t prove it by me. The only time I’d ever seen him lose it was the Thanksgiving he tried to carve the turkey; and it went flying, skidding across the floor like a bald Wiley Coyote.
“Go on,” said Mrs. X, still stirring at the stove. “I’m listening. When did you decide you really liked him?”
“Well, you have to understand, we were at the Top of the Home Building, fettuccini and champagne. I was young and pretty, full of what they called back then ‘piss and vinegar.’ I noticed he could pick up right where I’d leave off in the conversation and that his nails were manicured. We laughed a lot and on the way down in the elevator, I decided to give him a test.”
By then, the middle daughter, as thin as a stiletto, with long black hair had joined us. She was dressed in black and her nails were long and painted. “What test?” she asked. Of all the children, she was the one who most closely resembled her father. She had an intrinsic air of mystery about her and a boldness of spirit. I would guess, also, a will of iron.
Here, even Mrs. X came over to the table. Behind me, I could hear the television and I wondered if I shouldn’t just shut up. But it was like verbal diarrhea. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. They were all looking at me and I felt overwhelmed with all that attention, too flustered to feel embarrassed. “If you’re my kind of guy, I told him, you’ll make love to me right here on the floor of the elevator.”
In any other kitchen, this confession would have brought out a roar, but in the house of the Mafia chieftain, hands flew to mouths and black eyes peeked through the dining room to make sure we weren’t being overheard.
“What happened then?” The mother was back at the stove, unlipsticked lips pursed, blowing a bit of the gravy in a wooden spoon to cool it before she tasted.
“He pushed the STOP button and then I knew I had met my match. Of course, there wasn’t anything romantic about it. A siren went off and a maintenance man had to be called to get us out.” I tried to explain how anyone as reserved as I generally was, could have been so ballsy. “You have to understand that I was crocked to the gills the way he threw that champagne into me. I was in a miserable marriage and I’d never been in such a fancy place. Red velour wallpaper, gold faucets in the bathroom….”
Mrs. X did not seem amused. I began to squirm in my seat. “What did you do then?” she asked. What could I do but finish the story?
“We went parking. All very innocent. A cruiser comes along, flashing its lights, so he takes me to my girlfriend’s house and when he sees how small the house is, he offers to let me spend the rest of my vacation with him.”
“How long ago was this?” asked the middle daughter.
“A long, long time ago. Sean hadn’t been born yet.”
I had shown up the next day with two suitcases. Both him and the guy we’d gone to dinner with had these shocked looks on their faces, at first, then happy, like maybe I was going to be the middle of some kind of kinky sandwich. I had no intentions of sleeping with either one of them and made that clear about halfway up the steps to his room, carrying my own luggage. Why I had no fear, I’ll never know. I guess I thought nothing bad could ever happen to me. I knew from past experience that Arthur wouldn’t let anyone badmouth me, let alone take advantage. I was wearing this brown dress with a hood, which gave me the idea of telling him I was a defrocked nun, just out of the convent. He lied and told me he was a doctor.
“You mean you didn’t know who he was? Had no idea?”
“None whatsoever. But on the second day, when I looked in the glove compartment of his car and found a Boston registration, I thought maybe it could lead to something. But then, he tells me he has to leave on business. I spent the whole week by myself and the only good thing was charging my lunch to room service.” The business turned out to be the biggest funeral in Massachusetts for Jerry Angiulo’s daughter, a well-respected nurse. Twenty limousines loaded with flowers, another twenty for people who didn’t own cars so they could get to the cemetery. State Police escorts on motorcycles. Tributes from everywhere and everyone. Hanover Street was blocked off for the cortege and the official who ordered it was demoted.
“What about your girlfriend? Didn’t you have fun with her?”
“I don’t think I felt right about charging any lunches for her, though I do remember giving her a bunch of towels we stole from the laundry room. I figured it was going to a good cause and what with Paul paying for a double room and him not even being there….”
The oldest daughter has sat by my side throughout this whole story, hanging on every word. “I’m so lonely,” she said. “I want to get married and have a baby. I’ve had five doctors tell me I could die if I had a baby, or it might come out retarded or something. They keep calling me handicapped, but I have feelings, you know?” Her dark eyes melted into mine, showing no sign of tears. I could feel her pain almost the way you can hear magnolia blossoms opening in spring.
“I know, sweetie,” I answered. “Every young girl wants the same thing. But don’t you think you should get a boyfriend, first?”
“I had a boyfriend, once.” I’d heard all about that bum from Paul. “My father didn’t like him, you know? And then he called me handicapped. I might be a little handicapped,” she said, “But look at my leg. Remember how thin it used to be. I ride my bike and I built the muscle up so you’d hardly recognize the way it used to be. He had no right to call me handicapped. And then he slapped me around.”
“From what I hear, you’re well rid of him. If a man slaps you around before you’re married, imagine what he’ll do when the honeymoon is over.”
Paul slapped me only once in all our years together. We were down the Cape, staying at a Holiday Inn, having a few drinks in the lounge. When we got back to the room, he accused me of flirting with someone in the band while he had been on the other side of the room talking to someone else. I smacked him back and accused him of watching too many Humphrey Bogart movies. Then, I threatened to hitchhike home with the baby. I remember driving home the next day, how apologetic he was. And I knew that for someone as cool and self-contained, as he presented, he really, really loved me.
“It’s so good to talk to you,” said Mr. X’s daughter. “I know you understand. I’m with my mother and father all the time and here is my little sister getting married… and all I want is to find a nice guy and have a baby.”
“Maybe you can adopt,” I suggested. “If having a baby is too dangerous. Don’t be in such a hurry.”
“You think someone would want me?”
“Of course I do. There’s someone out there for everyone. All you have to do is be in the right place at the right time. When the right one comes along, he’ll find you beautiful.”
“You really believe that?”
“You have to pray. Didn’t you hear what we were saying about miracles? God can work miracles in your life if you have faith.”
“But I get so nervous. Sometimes I go walking on the beach and meet guys. I never know what to say.”
“See that? All you’re lacking is a little experience. I think you should meet a lot of different guys. That way you won’t be so nervous when the right one comes along. You could join the Y or you could go to the movies with a girlfriend. Do you have a girlfriend?”
“There’s a girl where I work, but she’s married.”
The youngest sister piped up to help me out. “Just because someone is married doesn’t mean they can’t go to the movies with you.”
“I’ll tell you what I will do,” I said. “I’m going to start finding you a boyfriend. I’ve got a long list of things I have to do, but I’m going to make it a priority.”
“You… you would do that for me? Are you sure you’re not kidding?”
I shook her hand to seal the bargain. “One boyfriend coming up. I swear.”
She looked at me with those big lonely eyes that would break your heart. “You have to tell him I’m handicapped. I don’t believe in lying. I wouldn’t want him to be disappointed. But he has to be Italian. My father wouldn’t let me accept someone who wasn’t Italian.”
I feigned indignance. “There’s nothing wrong with a nice Greek or Jewish boy. You never see them on the welfare lines. They make good husbands, I hear. Are you sure one of them wouldn’t do?”
“I have some money,” she said, smiling. “And as long as he is nice….”
“Wrong again,” I said. “You don’t want someone to want you for your money. Didn’t you learn your lesson from the first one?” The first one had been wanting to hock the little diamond she’d bought for herself.
“You make a lot of sense,” she said, slapping me on the back so that I almost spilled my coffee. Paul walked by with a Cutty Sark smile. Mrs. X excused herself. The girls and I set the table.
“My son is my right hand man,” said Mr. X, solving the problem of whose place was where, his voice a bit forced. Everyone knew who the right hand man really was, but Paul graciously deferred that seat to the son. I grabbed the seat to Paul’s left so that no one else would take it. A platter of huge raviolis sat in the middle of the table and beside each dinner plate was a bowl of salad. When everyone started munching on salad with Mrs. X still scurrying in the kitchen, my face registered dismay. Since it was a holy day, I had expected a prayer.
Mr. X must have sensed my reluctance to eat before his wife was seated. He hollered for her and then began to talk about the religious movie on T.V. all week. “I still say the Jews have suffered more than any other people.” His skin color was so ashen it was almost gray; his lackluster eyes best described as steely. His shirtsleeves were rolled up once so the monogram showed inside out. Mrs. X brought a platter of sausages, meatballs, and pork chops. There was no wine.
“I’ll go along with that,” said Paul. I was remembering this couple’s twenty-fifth anniversary party in the Copley Plaza ballroom when Paul was introduced at the head table as ‘the only Jew in the Mafia.’ Straight out of Great Gatsby: two orchestras, a cocktail hour with hors d’euvres and champagne and a sit-down dinner. I was between two thugs whose names I’d never heard, wearing a silver lame dress I’d picked up in a consignment shop for twenty dollars. The evening was climaxed by the announcement that the cops were harassing them by ticketing and towing everybody’s car on their list.
The Easter meal passed without any undue incidents. Everyone got a chance to say something. Mr. X’s son’s eyes twinkled when he snuck in a Christ on the Cross joke. I had learned in the kitchen that his father was always riding him and that he worked for another friend of Paul’s. It must have been tough to be the son of a man like Mr. X, if he was anything like Paul, which I had the feeling he was. Everyone said they were like Damon and Pythias. One would lie and the other swear to it. But only one lived in a mansion. I couldn’t reconcile this disparity, then, but the more I thought about it, the more things crystallized.
After the meal, I helped clear the table. The men withdrew to the parlor to smoke cigars as I followed Mrs. X down to the cellar where she had an extra refrigerator for leftovers. I jabbered all the way through a load of dishes, about the problems with the backward house. She ran to get the tablecloth before the stains set in. Jabber, jabber, jabber, I followed.
At last, she was sitting across from me at the kitchen table. “For a smart girl, I don’t know how you could have let those men take advantage of you and your house,” she said. I got the feeling she thought I was going to ask her for a loan. My grandmother on my father’s side had been a gypsy. Prescience would appear of its own volition. Never when I needed it the most. Always when that train in my head was about to run off the track. Clickety-clack. “Take a bit of advice and don’t spoil your son the way we have. He has to learn the value of money.”
“It’s too late,” I said, wondering how she could possibly think too much money was one of our problems. Didn’t she know that Paul was a degenerate gambler? My son had never lacked chump change for the video games, expensive haircuts by the same barber Paul patronized in the North End, comic books by the carload, whatever mechanical toy his heart desired. When I picked Paul to be his surrogate father, the kid made a score. I was low maintenance.
“It’s never too late,” she answered. “Have him get a little job delivering newspapers to help you with expenses. I can see that you’re a nervous wreck and that’s not good for Paul.”
“And you,” I asked. “How are you coping?”
“One day at a time. I never go anywhere unless it’s to the store for half an hour. When they arrested him, they put me in jail too. I won’t have cable because I heard they can tune in to whatever you’re saying. We never know who’s listening.”
“There are bugs everywhere,” I said, feeling guilty that I’d been making mental notes all day. It was history, no? “Paul says it was like this just before the Nazis took over Germany.” No sooner did I say this than Paul came into the kitchen.
“Ready to go?” He had his suit jacket on. The wiretaps had been illegal, violating the Bill of Rights in the Constitution. Nobody seemed to care. I suspected the reason he was rushing me was so that I didn’t find out if there were any other women. There wasn’t a man born alive that I trusted. At least when you’re dealing with gangsters, they didn’t pretend to be what they weren’t … a kind of integrity. But Mafia men were still in the Stone Age when it came to women. When they speak, you’re supposed to jump. It was a tough concept to get used to. Mrs. X knew it and I knew it.
“Let me finish my coffee,” I said to Paul, asserting myself, as if it would make any difference. “This is the first time we’ve had a chance to chat.”
I loved him, but he was a bully. Picture a lone skier in front of an avalanche. Now picture that skier as the handsome but bald Sean Connery. That was the power he had. I’d learned from experience not to question. That time in a burlesque show when I’d laughed out loud when it wasn’t supposed to be funny. Paul jabbed my side hard with his elbow. “Let’s go,” he’d said, rising from his seat, so that I had no choice but to follow, barely beating the irate entertainer to the car. How did Paul know she’d be wielding a knife? “When I tell you something,” he’d said. “Don’t stop to ask why. It could mean your life.”
“We’ll talk again some other time. The girlscertainly enjoyed having you,” Mrs. X. said, pointedly, sending my heart sinking to the bottom of my lavender-covered soles. I was incredibly sensitive. I could still see the purple petunia on the corner of the two by four card alerting my mother I needed work on my times tables. I tried so hard at everything, even then. My brain suffered from some kind of math dyslexia. If I added a row of numbers, I could get three different answers. Dates, forget it. World history was my Waterloo. I had to take it twice and when the professor flunked me on my final and called it cheating, I was too much of a ninny to tell him to give me another test. What I lacked on one side of the brain was on the other side, in aces. Dialogue was my forte.
On the way home, I knew though Paul was feeling mortally wounded, he would never let on. This was his very best friend and he would never see him again. The government wouldn’t allow it. “Why doesn’t he just leave the country?”
“He couldn’t do that to his family. The house is up for collateral,” Paul answered, glancing sidelong for its full import.
They had restaurants and laundromats, cigarette machines and what-all. I couldn’t understand how a house could be so important. I let the matter rest, seized by a severe depression, which always followed a manic-attack. By the time we reached Paul’s simple, government-subsidized apartment, I was barely uplifted at the sight of my son, sprawled in front of the television. He’d wanted to spend the day on Beacon Hill playing basketball instead of coming with us, probably for the best. Every time he went out with Paul, his youthful imagination held sway. He’d be kidnapped for ransom or caught in the middle of a gang war. In his milieu, kids could be killed for their Nikes.
Why Paul and I were soul mates was a labyrinthine mystery I would ruminate upon for years. Unlike others in the life, I had every chance to get out. Only with Paul did I feel protected from a world ripe with professional fruitcakes. Was flirting with danger endemic only to Boston? Was that Mecca of civility, no better than the Wild West when everyone was out to best the biggest gunman? My mind was like a pendulum, a bit fried, perhaps swinging forward as well as back. The things I wanted to remember, I couldn’t, and the things that I wanted to forget would come in bits and pieces like broken shards of glass.
The following morning Paul gave me the high sign to follow him into the kitchen. Something in his voice told me he was nervous, that he didn’t want Sean to overhear. “A friend of mine gave me some money. I want you to take it and go back to Florida. Fix up your house.”
I looked at him the way someone would just after they’d been stabbed. The son-of-a-bitch! Whenever he took an attack, he would call for me to come. And now that he was up and about…. It was more money than I’d ever seen in one place. He fanned the green out so I could see it. A bribe. But my decision had been made. I wasn’t going back. One more day in that leaky house would have been unbearable, a one way ticket to some institution. They had an armed guard at Sean’s school and the kids were snorting cocaine in the art room. If we stayed there, he was destined to be a beach bum or worse. Drug dealing in my little fishing village was a cottage industry. Bales of what they called ‘square grouper’ would wash up on the shores; pot was so plentiful. I was sick of tithing to Delta, paying for long distance calls.
“I’m not going back,” I said, defiantly, bracing myself for an explosion. “I don’t care how high the rents are. I’ll find something.” Then, as unaccustomed as I was to feminine wiles, I struggled to explain what had been rattling around in the theatre of my mind. “You’re not getting any younger and well… I love you.”
The look on his face surprised me, fleeting, as if he’d been wearing a mask up until then and dropped it for a second. I must have taken him off guard. He seemed to be pleased. And there I’d been thinking he could hardly wait to be rid of us. The extra mouths to feed, the tiny apartment, overcrowded with luggage, my computer, Sean’s boom box, my incessant chattering. We were incompatible, but attached. A strange liaison to some, but not for me. I have no regrets.