The plot thickens, as they say!
You always know when something is a bad idea. But often you do it anyway.
You do it because you have to. Because you can't think of any other alternative.
And because you're an idiot. A stupid fucking idiot.
His voice was dark and rich, like an opera singer's. And he had a name like an opera singer, too. Marcello. A name that melted off the tongue like tiramisu. Marcello Barbuto. Of the Cleveland Barbutos. Ask the FBI. They know the entire family. Or should I say "Family."
"Please sit down."
I sat down. It wouldn't have been healthy to do otherwise.
The office was on the second floor of an old building in Murray Hill, the Little Italy section of Cleveland. The university was around the corner. So was Severance Hall, where the Cleveland Orchestra plays. And the Art Museum. And the Cleveland Clinic, where the old man had his cancer treatments, was five minutes away. Right across the street was a world-class Italian restaurant owned by a famous chef I'd seen on the Food Network. Directly below was a laundromat. The hot, wet smell of freshly washed sheets seeped up through the floorboards, which made the room uncomfortably warm on an early September day.
I was sweating like a proverbial pig. My host and two colleagues who flanked him were not; they were as cool and sure of themselves as only successful businessmen can be when faced with someone like me: a terrified little queer about to ask them to forgive my father's $70,000 debt.
I stumbled my way through a long explanation of how my old man had lost the money gambling and come to owe Mr. Barbuto such a large sum. I told them about his illnesses -- a bad heart, prostate cancer, who the hell knows what else. About my mother and her house. About how I had just come home to live and discovered the situation. I babbled on about everything except the new season on Broadway. And Mr. Barbuto and his two colleagues -- who never introduced themselves -- listened politely.
Finally, Marcello Barbuto put up his left hand to shut me up. There was a gold ring with a star sapphire on his pinkie. "Mr. Desmond, you don't have to tell me this story. I know it by heart because I've heard it a hundred times. And I'm sorry for your family's difficulties. Family is dear to my heart. I respect that you are trying to do the right thing by your father. Many sons have no such respect for the honor of their families. They have no love. They think only of themselves. You are obviously not one of those men."
I swallowed. "Thank you." Maybe he was going to give me a break. Maybe he'd see that it had all been a huge mistake. And maybe Superman would fly though the window and punch everyone out and save my ass.
"Unfortunately, Mr. Desmond, your father make a promise when he signed this note." Barbuto held up a piece of paper. It looked dishearteningly official. "Debts must be paid, otherwise how can we do business?"
"But... sometimes there are circumstances..." I began.
He stopped me. "There are always circumstances. Which is why I make sure everything is on the up-and-up. Why I have lawyers." He gestured to the colleague standing on his left, a short, thin man with piercing eyes, who smiled tightly at me. "And also why I have other associates." He gestured to the man standing on his right, a bulky gentleman whose face never changed expression the whole time I was in the room. "When I do business I like to have all bases covered." He picked up another sheet of paper. "Your father hasn't made a payment to me in over six months. That concerns me. Men who don't make payments are very bad for business. Plus, the debt grows. Interest grows."
I was afraid to ask, but I had to. "What's the total... right now?"
Marcello Barbuto looked directly at me. "$76, 745. In a month it will be more. And yet your father isn't paying even the interest. In fact, I won't see any more payments from him, will I?"
I took a deep breath. There was no use lying. "He's sick. He can't work and he has medical bills. His insurance barely covers his treatment. There's no money."
"That's why I want my money now," Barbuto said calmly. "Or as soon as possible. If your father dies, then it's an even worse situation trying to collect. But I will collect, Mr. Desmond. I will get my money. Because I have this." He held up another piece of paper. But I already knew what it was.
"My parents' house," I breathed. "You wouldn't really take it, would you?"
"Do they have anything else of value?" he asked flatly.
"No," I replied.
"Then I have no choice. A house is of little use to me, Mr. Desmond, especially some little house in a piddling neighborhood on the West Side. I would rather have cash. Do you know any way to get that cash?"
"No," I repeated.
He raised his dark eyebrows. "No one who might give you the money? Or lend it to you?"
I thought of Aaron. His parents. Rich Sharpe. Dr. Kumar. No. I couldn't ask any of them. Jackie Desmond was my father. And I was his only son. It was my responsibility.
"I can work off the debt," I said. "Give you something every week."
Barbuto smiled. "Do you have a job?"
"Not at the moment. But I'm looking."
He nodded. "Looking. You're a teacher, right?"
How the hell did he know that? "I teach college."
"Ever made $75,000 in a year?" he asked bluntly.
I shook my head. "No. Not even close."
"Then how do you expect to pay me from this non-existent, non-well-paying job, professor?" He said the word 'professor' mockingly.
"I'll try. What more can I say? You think I want my mother to be on the street? My old man and I don't always see eye-to-eye, but I don't want him to die on a fucking sidewalk!"
"That's a sentiment I can agree with," said Barbuto. "The street is a very bad place, especially in New York City. A hard, unforgiving place. But you already know that, don't you, Mr. Desmond?"
"New York City?" My heart skipped. "What do you mean?"
Barbuto leaned back in his chair, completely in command. "I mean that you know the streets very well. And you seem to have survived that experience. You've come a long way. You went to college. You're a professor with a fancy degree, even if you don't currently have a position. Not bad for a little hustler and junkie. Not bad at all."
In that hot, damp room I went completely cold.
"I don't know what you're talking about." That's what I said. However, my face was screaming, "Oh, my God -- shit!"
"Don't be coy, Mr. Desmond." Barbuto's mouth hardened. "I'm a businessman and I deal with people. To deal with people you need information. I collect information, especially on people who owe me money. Your father isn't only a gambler, he's also a drunk, as you well know. And drunks tend to talk when they've had too much. Irish drunks, unsurprisingly, talk the most. They talk about their regrets. Their disappointments. Daughters who have illegitimate children -- like your sister and her cute little boy. And sons who turn out to be faggots -- like you. And when the faggot son runs away and starts hustling his ass on the streets of the Big Apple to feed his smack habit, that's another big disappointment. So you confide in a friend. Or a couple of friends. And they are also gamblers and drunks. So when they come to owe me money, they're only too happy to spill a few of their pal's family secrets to me. And when the time comes, I use those secrets -- when I have to."
I felt like laughing -- or crying. Or choking my old man.
"What are you going to do with this fabulous information?" I said, trying to act like I didn't care what he knew about me. "I'm already unemployed. And if you threaten to tell any university that might want to hire me in the future, what good will that do? If I can't work, how can I pay you back? I want to pay you back! That's why I'm here! To do anything I can to pay you back!"
"Good," said Barbuto. "That's what I like to hear. A man of his word. A man who honors his father's debts. I like you, Mr. Desmond, even if you are a fudgepacker. But in this case, that's in your favor. Because I have a proposition to make to you."
I blinked. "What kind of proposition?"
"My cousin runs a business based in Las Vegas. It's a service that caters to wealthy gentlemen. Very exclusive. Very upscale. Only the finest ladies. Very well-dressed. Elegant. Educated. Ladies a gentleman can take anywhere and not be ashamed. Needless to say, this service charges top dollar. All clients are vetted and approved. They're high-rollers. He's doing very well."
"Lucky him," I said. But I could already see where this train was traveling.
"Yes, very lucky," said Barbuto. "Lately he's been expanding his business. Some of the wealthy gentleman aren't into ladies. Many of these men are in show business. Fashion. Even politics. You'd recognize their names if I told you. My cousin is a discreet man; these clients trust him to deliver the goods. He's always looking for new employees, but he's very fussy. It's hard to find male employees who are up to the standards of his ladies. Hard to find a guy who is smart and extremely good-looking and who also knows how to... um... service a client in a very particular way."
My whole body was numb. But my mouth was still working. "And you think I might have that particular skill?"
"I think exactly that, Mr. Desmond," Barbuto nodded. "Look, I'm not into guys by any means, but I can see you're hot. I know you're smart. And if you were hustling on the street in New York then I assume you know how to -- well, how to..."
"How to suck a cock?" I blurted out.
He made a face and his lawyer colleague mumbled a comment in Italian under his breath. What is the accepted Mafia term for fag?
"Yes," said Marcello Barbuto. "To cut to the fucking chase, you can make a lot of money working for my cousin. You can easily pay off your old man's debts in less than a year if you do what you have to do and play the game. You could even stay on and make more money after the debt is erased, make yourself a nice nest egg and no one would be the wiser."
I jumped to me feet. "You think it's as easy as that?" Now I was angry. "That simple to sell yourself?"
"No, I don't think it would be easy to sell myself," said Barbuto, his expression bland. "But I don't have to. You don't have to either -- if you can pay off the debt any other way. Personally, I don't give a good goddamn where you get the money. But you better get it soon. I'm offering you a way out. You can take it or leave it. I can have you on a plane to Vegas next week and in six or seven months your father will be free and clear. Or I can have my lawyer begin the eviction process. The ball is in your court, Mr. Desmond. It's your decision. But you better decide soon. And I mean very soon."
"But, what about..."
"Have a nice day." Barbuto flicked his finger and the thug on his right stepped forward to escort me out.
A moment later I was on the sidewalk, standing in front of the laundromat, blinking in the hard, hot sun.
Yeah, have a nice day.