Thursday, January 26th, 2012
The room is dark; a large queen-sized bed sits in its center. The Old Man who occupies it is propped up on a pile of pillows, the skin on his cheeks sagging like so many yards of curtain valance; his eyelids lowered to half-mast; his mouth yapping up and down like a marionette puppet whose strings have been pulled by too many hands. Even with the curtains drawn tightly against the grey sky beyond the window, it’s obvious to everyone in the room. The man is dying.
Tuesday, January 24th, 2012
When the Old Man’s messenger arrives at the boxing center to deliver the invitation, the Boxer and his buddies laugh at the guy, joking that his visit could just as well have been lifted from a Francis Ford Coppola film, but then, so could the politics and underbelly of this upstate rust belt city. Everyone who knows its streets knows they’re littered by more than cigarette butts and empty bottles; no one knows, though, that the messenger’s boss is a chimera and the Boxer, his reluctant shadow. They call the Boxer, “The Godfather,” an ex-con who’d graduated from one of New York’s finer educational institutions, Attica Prison, to become a lifetime legend on our city’s segregated streets, even though he’d done little to earn the distinction, most especially, not the crimes he was convicted of and sentenced for. That’s right. Attica, of the infamous riots. New York State’s 1971 version of racial cleansing. Attica. The hellhole turned slaughterhouse that destroyed what little faith the Boxer had in our judicial system or our law enforcement agencies.
As he looks at the note he holds in his hands, he realizes that it’s just another example of American irony. Where else would some old Eastern European white guy lie dying in a room surrounded by admiring henchmen as he privately, belatedly confesses that he’s the head of our city’s local crime syndicate in a clichéd attempt to redeem himself for having pointed the finger elsewhere, at a lost young man sentenced for a crime he didn’t commit.
Not that the Boxer wouldn’t have tried. Let’s be honest. He admits that he’s no saint. He’s seen enough inequality and racism in this community to know that opportunities don’t come easily to those who look like him or who have his criminal record, earned or not. And clearing his name is more grueling than going nine rounds as the underdog against a champion contender in a fight where you lack the money or the political connections to assure a fair match, especially when so many of the referees have been bought and paid for, as is common in our city’s justice system, where the thin blue line is more about brotherhood and loyalty than it is about honor and service. These are the same uniforms hired by some of the so-called elected officials that both run our systems of justice and arrogantly defy them without consequence.
Now, coming out of his reverie, he glances once more at the note hastily scrawled on the back of a restaurant receipt for a meal its author probably could no longer digest. What is it he’s heard the old guy has contracted? Is it stomach cancer? Now that would be Divine Justice – the old guy is no longer able to stomach the truth of who he is and what he’s done, especially now that he knows his time on Earth is running out and his next stop beyond it is not likely to be as comfortable.
The Boxer snorts, then begins to crumble the note in his hand, mumbling to himself that he owes this guy nothing, certainly not the opportunity to explain why he’s framed a stranger. He already knows the answer to this. The Old Man did so because he could. With friends like his, he’s been able to do whatever he wants in this town because he’s got a fat pocket and because many of our local civic leaders are sitting right inside of it, suffocating from the stench of all that collective greed, but unwilling or unable to take the leap of courage that going clean would entail. Never. Not when faced with the likely jail sentences that would follow, sentences that might place them in the uncomfortable positions of having to share a cell with some of the so-called pollutants that they’ve cleared from our streets, even while their own slime crawls along its underbelly, wreaking havoc on the poor, usually black families they’ve left behind.
Tired and a bit down on himself for contributing to his own family’s pain, even if all he’s done is to slam a few heads and to shout a few curses at those in charge, he’s ready to close up the gym for the night and head home when one of his buddies bumps hips against him and issues the damning words, “You gonna just throw aside this opportunity and walk away from a chance to fight for your name and your reputation? You gotta be kidding? Tell this gimp that you’ll be there on Friday, and tell him that his boss had better be ready to deal with some painful truths, dying or not.”
Shaking his head slowly, he lifts his eyes to his friend’s, then looks at the mirror that is his broken past; determined to reclaim it, he turns back to his uninvited guest. “Tell your boss we’ll be there. 1:00 sharp.” Then, he opens the gym door to let the stench out and watches as the grunt walks across the yard toward his deluxe Cadillac that’s parked in the old church’s side-lot across the street. “What an arrogant asshole,” he mutters, not sure if he’s talking about the messenger or the dying man who pays his bills.
Two days later, the Boxer’s friend Ron taxis the two of them in his old Cherokee headed for the North Side to meet with the soon-to-be-dead man who, along with his buddies in high places, has robbed his friend of most of his adult life. Listening to his friend’s ruminations along the way, he has to admit that this is turning out to be the setting for a B crime movie, complete with grey winter storm clouds, mob messengers and possible deathbed testimonies, or perhaps the opposite, deathbed tirades. They’d soon know which.
Friday, January 27th, 2012
The room is dark; the Old Man’s ashen face glistens with perspiration. He raises his veiny arm to wipe his brow and to block what little light defies the drawn curtains that stand as sentinels protecting him from the blinding truth: he’s as good as dead. The man nods to one of his cronies seated nearby and the so-called bodyguard jumps up to reach for the water glass sitting on a nightstand and raises it to the dead man’s cracked lips. For a few minutes, we hear only the gurgling of water as it tries to make its way down a shrunken throat that barely serves as a portal to the man’s emaciated body and the diseased organs encased there.
Diseased. That’s what the air smells like. Musky, stale and putrid, like the man lying in the bed; like the dried-up dreams he’s robbed from the Boxer and his kind. Trying not to think about this, the Boxer instinctively shrugs his shoulders and waits. He waits to hear why he’s been summoned here, to this dying man’s bed. To this absurd rite-of-passage where middle-aged men sit vigil on folding chairs while eating Italian subs from a nearby restaurant their boss frequented, even after his diving accident left him a wheel-chair bound quadriplegic. Rumor has it that this location, a favorite in our city’s Italian neighborhood, is where he’d purchased politicians for the price of a prize racehorse; where bets had been taken and fortunes had been won or lost.
Now, all bets are off. Even the boss has to pay up sometime and his friends know it, so today, they sit and eat; drink the plentiful wine; whisper and murmur among themselves; but most of all, they wait. They wait for word of what’s to come, of who’ll be advanced and who’ll be abandoned. And they wonder. They wonder why a notorious black man and his buddy wait among them, wondering too. And watching. Watching the way the room seems to whirl like an old carousel, its pipe organ churning out circus tunes as the horses rise and fall with their riders.
“No way,” claims the Boxer. “No way am I joining this circus of fools. Can’t they see this guy is already half underground?” With this, he nods to Ron who glances once again at the old circus barker, the wizened impression ado who once sat in his wheelchair like a king on his throne, his weapon of choice, an online, offshore bookie business; his capital, a remarkable Mathematical aptitude, a large pair of cogliones and the men in his pocket.
The Boxer turns toward his friend and they both stand, ready to pay their hasty respects and make their exit when the Old Man once again nods impatiently to the steward sitting closest to his bed, who then quickly leans over and lifts his boss’s head so that he’s able to make direct eye contact with his guests. Speaking in Italian, a language that has served him well while living on our city’s North Side, he commands, “Come here,” while his bedside companion tilts his head to indicate that the two retreating visitors should come closer.
“Your call,” Ron murmurs.
The Boxer just shrugs, then laughs. “Hell,” he whispers, “What have we got to lose?”
“How about our sorry asses?” Ron quips, before joining his friend near the bed. He recovers quickly, though, and is the first to speak once they arrive. “I’m sorry to hear about your situation, Sir,” he states, and it’s the truth. No one should have to leave this Earth so painfully after a lifetime of challenges like this guy has suffered. But then he thinks about the words swirling in his head and realizes that the man has probably lived better than he has; than his children have, and most certainly, better than his buddy has. And all because of two undeniable features: he’s white, and he comes from financial security, if not privilege. After all, wasn’t he enrolled in college when the accident that ruined his body occurred? And wasn’t it a foolhardy leap over a cliff that had caused it? Wasn’t that leap a choice that defied his good fortune and tempted fate? And hadn’t the old guy robbed destiny of its desired outcome by defying the odds and becoming a multi-millionaire while sitting at home in front of a computer screen?
Gearing himself up for whatever is now to come, he knows that what matters most is to leave with answers; answers about why his close friend has lived his post-prison adult life harassed by the law, even while he’s redeemed himself and chosen public service over financial security; even while he’s saved the lives of hundreds of young boys from all parts of our city; while he’s trained them not only to use their fists instead of knives or guns, but to use their hearts and minds, as well. To choose education over street smarts and respect over defiance. To choose patience over the quick fix. To watch, and to wait for opportunity. Just as the two are doing at this present moment.
Until the Old Man impatiently waves them forward, closer to his bed, then waves again, beckoning them even closer still before he looks directly at Ron and raises one hand, palm out, like a crossing guard signaling stop. “Basta,” he grunts. “Enough.” And to the Boxer, pointing to his pillow edge. “Come closer.” The Boxer hesitates, then approaches the man’s bedside, sits in the chair next to its headboard and cautiously leans into the Boss’s breath until he can smell its rusty odor and feel its ragged movements.
“Yea?” he says, hoping he sounds more confident than he feels. “What do you want, Old Man?”
The Boss just points his curved index finger into the pillow. “Here. I want you here, where it’s just you and me, with no space between us. I have something to tell you and it’s for your ears only. Come,” he urges, now anxious and agitated. “Time is short. Come now.”
What can the Boxer do? The guy is clearly dying. It would be cruel to deny his request over unproven suspicions and lingering resentment, so he inches forward and leans into the pillow until his head is resting right next to the dying one, nose to nose, breath to breath, as if he could place his mouth over the old man’s and breathe him back to life. Ah, the irony! All these years, he’s been shadow boxing, uncertain of who his next contender might be, when now, he’s lying next to him, still not certain whether the old man had long ago stolen the Boxer’s soul, right after he’d robbed him of his reputation and his most cherished livelihood, the ring.
Pressing a pair of boxing gloves he’s brought as a peace offering into the old man’s veiny hands, the Boxer stares straight into his tired eyes. “Speak quickly, Old Man,” he whispers. “Your time is running out.”
“Don’t you think I know that?” the withered man replies. “Don’t you realize that this is why I brought you here, before it’s too late for me to make amends? It’s me!” he declares, almost gleefully, his mouth oozing spittle as he tries to speak forcefully. “Me, all this time! They all thought YOU were the Godfather,” he croaks, “but all along, it’s been me! And now, I’ve got to answer for this sin before a Power greater than my own; greater than my bank account; my reputation; my legacy!”
Even while the Boxer has suspected this all along, he sits back, stunned, then quickly leans forward again, not daring to come too close to the toxic waste lying before him. “But why?” he asks. “I know I’m not a saint; just a man who wanted to feed his family, but I’ve spent most of my adult life in and out of prison for crimes I didn’t commit, while the petty crimes I did commit went unnoticed! And all the while, you and your cronies have been sitting here, gorging yourselves off the myth you created. Why?”
The Old Man just shakes his head and wearily responds. “It was so easy. Simple, really. You’re black. I’m white. You’re a street fight who’s relied on your fists. I’m a paraplegic who’s relied on his brain. Both of us are cunning; both ambitious, but I own in the plantation and you never would have made a good house slave. You’re too proud. Too arrogant. Too clever for your own good.” He stops and takes a breath, tiring now. “Tell the truth. If our circumstances were reversed, would you have done it any differently?
The Boxer just shakes his head, unwilling to believe what he is hearing. “I don’t know,” he answers. “I honestly don’t know, but I do know that it’s a wasted question. Like you said, you’re white and I’m black. To ask the question you just asked, having lived in this segregated city is pointless. I can’t even imagine living in your world, Old Man, but I hope you can imagine what you’ve done to mine. And I hope you pay on the other side.”
“Wait,” the Old Man urges. “Don’t leave! I have an offer for you. A promise, if you will.”
The Boxer’s eyes grow wide and he laughs out loud, causing those in the outer ring of chairs to look up from the card game they’re playing. “You pathetic piece of shit! Now? Now you want to cut me a piece of the funding that’s been floating around?”
The Old Man affects what looks like a sneer, and says, “Why not? I’m not dead yet, am I? And you,” he continues, gazing at the strong physical features sitting before him, “you look like you have a long way to go before your time is up. What are you afraid of?” he taunts. “What do you have to lose?” The words make sense, so the Boxer leans forward and nods, encouraging his companion to continue.
“Come back here tomorrow,” the old man whispers. “Saturday at noon. I’ll make sure that our good public servant, the one who takes care of such matters, is in this room. I’ll make sure he understands that he’s got to treat you right; to make a place for you in our ring. You come. What do you say?”
The Boxer ponders his choices, thinks of all the years he’s spent shadow boxing with an unidentified pair of white fists, all the while, not knowing that he was sparring with a man who couldn’t lift his hands, let alone circle the ring. As the truth settles in, he nods, realizing that he’s been beaten with his own gloves. “I’ll be here.”
And he would have been, but the old man had an unavoidable appointment on Saturday that caused a change of plans.
And the Boxer? He’s still too busy chasing shadows to care.
Obituary, our fine city’s Post Standard newspaper
January 30th-31st, 2012
January 28, 2012, [The Old Man], 67, passed away Saturday at home surrounded by friends and family. He was a lifelong resident of [our city’s] North Side and graduated from North High School in 1962. He attended college and joined the Army Reserve. [He] was always very proud of his Armenian heritage. In 1956 he performed a trumpet solo on television on the Original Ted Mack Amateur Hour, the father of the reality talent show. In 1966 he suffered a tragic diving accident that left him a quadriplegic. Confronted by such a devastating condition, he was able, through force of will and the help of a great number of friends and family, to live a remarkably full and colorful life. Through the course of his life, he met an amazing number of people and became a well-known personality in the area. He counted among his friends people from the ordinary, to celebrities, such as Muhammad Ali. [He] possessed an extraordinary mental ability, with an encyclopedic body of information and near total recall. He became a very successful entrepreneur and was highly respected in that capacity. Over the years, he provided help and moral support to a great number of people. He contributed to many charitable causes around the area…. Throughout his life, his home served as a gathering point for his many friends and acquaintances. Countless hours were spent watching sports, solving the world's problems and dealing with what the day brought. He loved sports, restaurants (his table at … will always be reserved), traveling to Las Vegas and socializing. His passing is a sad day for all those who knew him, but it was not a sad day for him. He is finally at peace. The last several years, and particularly the last four months, were very difficult times for him. At last, he is no longer burdened by the vulnerability and helplessness of his handicap. What does remain for those who knew him are the personal and shared memories that will long survive his passing…