See what you think...
"Shea, we need to talk about something."
Those words are always trouble. Trouble whenever I've said them and trouble whenever I've heard them.
And the last person I wanted to hear them from was my old man.
"Can't this wait?" The truth was that after a day of shopping with Mom and Danny I was all family-ed out.
"No," he said, his face grim. "It can't."
But then the phone rang. Literally saved by the bell. "Uncle Shea!" Danny screeched as only a six-year-old can and ran out from the kitchen. He jumped at me, grabbing my arm. "You got a call!"
"Is it Uncle Aaron?" I asked, half dreading and half-hoping.
Danny shook his head. "Nana says it's your friend."
That meant Rich. I took the call.
"Sorry, Shea, but there's nothing in town. At least not for this semester."
Rich had been calling around to people he knew in various English Departments and Writing Centers in the Cleveland area, trying to see if they needed a fill-in instructor. Or an extra tutor. Anything. But the job market was tight, especially in English. Not to mention that I had just blown off my contract at Eastern Indiana, which meant I wouldn't be getting a stellar recommendation from them any time soon.
"I appreciate it, Rich." And I did, although I hadn't had any illusions that he'd find anything for me.
"Have you looked into subbing in the public schools? At least temporarily?"
I'd already thought of that. "I have a Ph.D., but I don't have a Teaching Certificate, which means they won't even consider me. I went to a few parochial schools on the West Side and talked to some people, but the most they could promise was that they'd take my vita and keep it on file for the future. What else can I do? The school year has started. Monday is Labor Day -- that's already too late for this term."
"Something will turn up -- eventually," said Rich, trying to sound upbeat.
"Yeah," I laughed. "As soon as the ten bucks I have in my pocket runs out, I'll try to get a waiter job."
Rich sniffed as if he wasn't sure if I was kidding or not. "Have you ever worked as a waiter?"
"No." Which was true. I never had to. Once I started living with the Blumenthals, they paid my way. After that Aaron supported me while I finished my degree. Then I started teaching at the university. I'd only ever had two jobs in my life -- hustling and teaching. "But I can learn. I'm good at learning things. Or I can sign up at a temp agency until I can find a teaching job. But I may have to go back to school and get that Teaching Certificate. Won't that be a bitch?"
"You should ask your partner for some money. Have you talked to him?"
I took a deep breath. "I not ready for that yet. He keeps calling here... but I can't. I need a little distance before I start asking him to help me."
"Shea, he owes you for all the years you were together! It's not his money -- it's your money, too. You contributed to the relationship. You were partners. Why should you walk away with nothing?"
"Because I did walk away," I said. "I gave up. I left him. How can I go back now and ask him for anything? And if I tell him it's to go back to school to get a certificate to teach high school, he'll blow a fucking gasket! He thinks anything but a major university position is beneath contempt."
"Something will turn up. Next semester there should be some part-time slots available in the area."
I rolled my eyes. Rich had no clue. He never had to deal with scraping by at the bottom of the academic barrel. Just like Aaron, he's been a star from the beginning. "I can't live on a couple of sections of Freshman Composition a year, Rich. If I can't get a tenure-track job in my field, I'm going to have to find something else to do with my life."
"Don't panic, Shea," he urged. "When you finish your book, you can go on the market. The MLA Convention is coming up in December. We can go together. Start sending out your vita now."
But it seemed hopeless. "I'm nowhere near finished! And I don't have a publisher! Who the hell is going to hire me?"
"Shea, stop it!" Rich ordered. "You're stressed out! Come out to dinner with me tonight. We can talk things over."
"I already ate here. My mother's 'Good Housekeeping' meatloaf is burning a hole in my stomach as we speak. So can I take a rain check? Maybe we can do something this weekend instead? Maybe see a movie?" A movie is safe. Neutral. That's it, Shea, keep it friends-only.
"What about a drink?" he suggested. "If you don't want to go to a bar, you can come over here this evening and I'll open a bottle of wine. Talk things over. It's a beautiful night."
Dinner with Rich. Talking things over with Rich. Going to Rich's apartment for a bottle of wine and a little encouragement. But I wasn't ready for the kind of encouragement Rich wanted. At least not with Rich. I felt a dull ache in my stomach that definitely wasn't the meatloaf. An ache for Aaron. But I pushed it away.
"Please, Rich, I'm exhausted. Hey, I spent the whole day at the mall with my mother and nephew! Have pity on me!"
Rich laughed. "That's the only excuse I'll accept. Saturday night, then. My treat."
Which was a good thing, because I had no money to treat him. Rich was right. I should be talking to Aaron about my situation, but it killed me to leave him and then ask for money, even if I deserved something out of our account. Something for all the years we'd been together.
I signed off with Rich and considered calling Aaron. I wanted to talk to him so badly I could taste it. Wanted him so badly. It was worse at night, when things got quiet and I started thinking about things. About how I could get in the car and drive to Indiana in a few hours.
Yeah, and find that fucking Lowell in my bed with Aaron.
"Danny! Come on!" my mother called. Then I heard the two of them walk upstairs to put Danny to bed, Gorcey at their heels.
I walked out to the living room, forgetting that the old man was lying in wait there.
"Shea, sit down," he said, turning down the sound on the television. "This is important."
There was no getting away from listening to him now. I sat down.
"I need to talk to you. Your mother will up there with the kid for a while. He takes forever to get to sleep. He always wants a story or a song or something." My father almost smiled. "Just like you used to."
"Yeah, I guess," I said. "I was afraid of the dark. I didn't want her to turn out the light."
He nodded. "I know what you mean. I never used to be afraid of the dark, but now..." His voice trailed off and he stared into space.
He was looking at a darkness I couldn't imagine, but I didn't want to think about that. I didn't want to empathize with him, when I'd hated him for so long. But it was hard when I saw how small he was now. Not just smaller in size, although he had a withered look, like a dying oak. He was smaller in my mind, no longer someone to fear. No longer the towering, fearful presence that had driven me from home so long ago.
"I... I've got a problem," he stated.
"So what else is new?" I snorted.
"No, not my health. It's something worse."
I looked at him closely. "You have cancer and a bad heart. What could be worse? Did you get Mrs. Nunzio pregnant?"
Mrs. Nunzio had lived across the street for thirty years. She was a busybody who went to our church and had once been the bane of the old man's existence, always checking up on him, peering from her window to see what time he came home after a night out -- and making sure she told my mother the time, right down to the minute. Now she was in her eighties and housebound, but I'd still see her bird-like eyes peeking out that window at all hours of the day and night, our own personal Neighborhood Watch.
But he didn't crack a smile. "I'm serious. This is bad. And I don't know what the hell to do about it."
I sat and waited.
He licked his lips nervously. "Remember when I used to take you to Northfield? We'd have a couple of hot dogs and bet on the trotters?"
"That was fun, right?" He waited for me to agree, then shrugged and went on. "So I'd drop a couple of bucks at the track. No harm done. I never bet more than I could lose. But a couple of years ago some of the guys at the plant started betting on other things. First there was a football pool. Then basketball. Even a little betting on baseball. The World Series. I even won -- occasionally. Once I won $500 bucks on some college game! It was a lucky pick, but I've always been a lucky bastard."
"Anyway, after a while one of the guys, Al, he said that he knew a guy who would take our bets and make it more worth our while. We could bet with him and get bigger payouts." The old man's eye twitched. "The guy was a bookie, but he seemed okay. So we started betting. All the guys were doing it."
"How much did you lose?" I asked, sitting very still.
"Not a lot at first. I was always able to keep my wins and losses pretty equal. Even steven, you know? But then... I got sick. I'd had a couple of wins and thought I could make some money and sock it away for a rainy day. In case I got worse. But I kept losing. First it was basketball that killed me. But then football, too. I kept trying to make up the difference, but every week I was falling behind."
I stopped him. "What do you mean, falling behind?"
"The guy was giving credit, so you could keep betting. Then when you hit a big payoff, you could pay him off, too. But... I got too sick to work. I kept betting, but I kept owing, too. And the interest... That's what was killing me, kid! The interest! Do you know what those guys charge on interest? I stopped betting, but I still owed the guy. It got to the point that I couldn't even cover the interest. What the hell could I do?"
"Why are you telling me this?" I asked carefully. Because I knew something really bad was coming.
"They're calling here," he said. "They want their money. The bookie... he was a connected guy."
"Connected? Connected to what?"
The old man winced. "The Mob. They aren't just in the movies, you know, especially not in this town. They still run gambling and prostitution and probably a lot of other shit in Cleveland. And they don't fool around about business. They probably think I'm going to die soon and they don't want to wait! They... they've been making threats."
"What kinds of threats? If they think you're going to die anyway, it wouldn't do them any good to threaten to kill you." I paused and a chill when through me. "They aren't threatening Mom are they? Or Danny?"
The old man squirmed. "Not directly. They don't work that way anymore. They don't have to. See, I... to cover my bets, I... I had to put up a surety. Like collateral for a loan."
"What do you have that anyone would want?" I scoffed.
He swallowed. "We're sitting in it."
I gaped at him. "This house? You put up this house to cover your fucking gambling debts?"
He was sweating. "I thought I could make the money back. Pay it off. I didn't know I was going to get sick!"
The house. "Jesus," I breathed. "How much do you owe them?"
"I don't know... exactly."
"Then how much un-exactly?" I wanted to shake the old bastard. "What's the general damage?"
"About $70,000," he whispered.
"Did you say $7000?" I was hoping.
"No." His voice was shaking. "$70,000. Maybe more. It gets more every week, with the interest."
I sat back on the sofa, stunned. Maybe to some people that wouldn't seem like a lot of money, but to me it was mind-boggling. And for the old man -- he'd never raise that kind of cash. Even if he died, I doubted his union insurance would cover much more than his funeral.
"Son of a bitch! And how do you expect to pay this off?"
He looked directly at me. "I thought you could ask Aaron's parents. I know they're rich. And they love you like you're their son. They'd give you the money if you asked for it."
I jumped to my feet. "You've got to be fucking kidding me!"
"Keep your voice down!" the old man barked. "Do you want your mother coming down here and asking questions?"
"No! But she'll have plenty of questions when a couple of guys named Sal and Guido come to the door to evict her and take the house!"
"You think this is funny?"
"No, I don't think it's funny!" I said, pacing the small living room. "I think it's tragic! I think you're fucking tragic! But if you think I'm going to ask Lily and Sam Blumenthal for $70,000 to bail out your sorry ass, then you're insane!"
The old man sank down in his broken-down chair. "Then they'll take the house. You don't understand, son! They have a note on it! They had one of their goddamn lawyers draw it up. It's legal. If I don't pay them off, they'll take it, just like the bank would take it if you can't pay your mortgage. Me and your mother -- we paid off our mortgage years ago. I never wanted to go through what my parents went through during the Depression when they almost lost everything they had. But I screwed up, Shea! I thought I was invincible. I thought I would live forever. Be lucky forever. Jackie Desmond, the big shot! But I was wrong."
"Why me?" I said. "Why are you telling this to me?"
Now he was pleading. "Because you're the only person who can figure out what to do. I was never a smart guy. I always got by like a lot of Micks of my generation -- with a strong arm and a strong back and a line of bullshit a mile wide. But you're smart, Shea. You know how to use your brain. You'll think of something. That's why I told you. You'll know what to do. Because there's nothing more I can do."
I stood there. I couldn't think. Couldn't say anything at all.
You'll know what to do, Shea. That's why I told you.
I walked out the front door, got into my car, and started driving.