A Poor Player
Rain had threatened through the morning and early afternoon, and now it has begun to rain. A hard, cold, November rain. I'm with Eddie in the lobby of the J&M Funeral Parlor on Bath Avenue in Brooklyn. His sister-in-law, my wife's first cousin, Iris, has died and we're at the wake. Neither of us wants to be in the Viewing Room, where grief mingles with the heavy scent of flowers.
I don't know how Eddie feels about wakes and funerals, but I have no patience with them. Never did, and I have less now that I'm nearer to my own end. As for Eddie, I am sure that he has more on his own mind than the death of his sister-in-law, from whom he and his wife, Arleen, whose nickname is Bunny, have been estranged for several years. But wakes and funerals tend to become social occasions, even occasions for a tacit truce, whatever the reasons for the war, and perhaps an opportunity for reconciliation.
When my time comes, I have left explicit directions: cremation and into the sea with my cremains and those of my dog, Dimitri, whose cremains I have kept for that purpose. But each person must choose, or it will be chosen for him or her by those who are left, no matter how much or how little fanfare he or she wants at their going. I want none, which brings me back to the reason why I'm in the lobby of the funeral parlor with Eddie, rather than in the Viewing Room.
# # #
My wife, Alicia, and I learned from Bunny that Eddie is in trouble with the Feds. So much trouble that he will be going away for a while. In her gravelly smoker's voice, she told us that the FBI invaded their appartment, arrested Eddie, and took all of his records. He has been charged with: dealing in stolen property, possession of drugs, and running an illegal gambling operation. The latter, I knew, was a family business. Some people run service businesses such as cleaning stores or barbershops. The family ran a business for those addicted to the pasteboards. As for the other charges, I would not swear one way or another.
Bunny wept, telling us that they didn't have enough money for a lawyer. Not a good choice, especially when federal charges are involved. Usually the government prosecutor is an old pro, while the public defender is just cutting his teeth. At best it's an uneven duel, at worst a disaster for the accused.
"Everyone copped a plea," she said. " Now most of them are awaiting sentencing. Already one got fifteen years."
All of this information came before Eddie arrived, and it left me more depressed than the wake. Though I haven't seen Eddie for several years, I always thought of him as a colorful character--someone out of GUYS AND DOLLS.
# # #
When Eddie comes, I wait about fifteen minutes, enough time for him to say hello to various members of the family, before I go up to him and say, "In the lobby."
"Sure," he answers.
I leave the Viewing Room and he follows me.
For several moments we stand silently at the window and look at out at the rain, the pizza parlor on the corner directly across the street, and the fruit and vegetable store on the opposite corner. Then he says, "Bunny told you."
"Yeah," he sighs. "She won't even let me touch her, know what I mean?" He didn't expect me to answer. "See," he continues, "I'm little stuff, a little fish. They want the big guys."
"You have three counts against," I say.
"Yeah. Yeah. But they got it all wrong. I ain't never, never dealt drugs. I done some stupid stuff, but nothin' like that."
I let that slide by without commenting.
"Like the drug thin', they got it all fucked up," he says. "See--" He stops and looks at me for several moments as if he's seeing me for the first time, or has just made a remarkable discovery about me.
Both of our reflections are caught in the glass of the window, as is the length of the lobby behind us. Eddie is a short man with a slight paunch and a pronounced jaw. He's wearing a dark suit, white shirt with French cuffs, and a simple black tie. He looks very much the successful businessman. I'm tall, broad-shouldered, and wear gray slacks, a blue shirt open at the neck, and a white long-sleeved sweater. My raincoat is in the Viewing Room. I think I look more like the stereotypical truck driver than a college professor.
"See," he says beginning the conversation again, "I know a lot of people. Some good an' some bad. I'm like a Maitres--"
"Yeah. Yeah. Like one of those guys in a high-class restaurant. Know what I mean?"
Because I 'm not sure what he means, I give what could pass for half a nod.
"People give me things to hold for them," he says.
"Like coke and--"
"Yeah. Like that. But I don't deal an' I never, never roughed up anyone or carried a gun. Never."
"So, tell me where does drug charge comes from?"
"Guys I know. I had their names and addresses. They're the dealers."
"Guilt by association," I say.
"That's whole rap, except for the gambling. That'll stick."
"What does it mean in terms of time?" I ask.
His lips pucker and he rubs his hand over his chin before he says, "Five max. But it depends on the judge. See, I got no rap sheet except for the stuff I done when was a kid. That makes me a nine."
"In the Fed. Guidelines for sentencing," he says. "But the judge could look at the other stuff, an' though they're not supposed to take it in account if the charges are dropped--well, they're human beings. Know what I mean?"
"But five is the maximum?" I ask.
"On the gambling rap," he answers, adding after a moment, "With good behavior I'd be out in two and half years."
Before I can stop myself, I say, "That's still a long time."
Suddenly he looks like a small, lost boy. A child who has wandered into this life and realizes that he's in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"You know," he says quietly, "I read a few of Shakespeare's plays and I even went to an opera." He forces a laugh. "I never told Bunny. She 'd have said I was too dumb to understan' Shakespeare or an opera." He shrugs. "I never even graduated high school."
"Doesn't matter," I say. "If you enjoyed--"
"You know, if thin's were different, maybe I wouldn't have wound up facin' time?"
"I guess most people think that way. If it's not prison, then it's something else. In a very real way, everyone does time."
"Yeah, I guess you're right about that," he says.
I thought he was going to ask me about my time, and then I'd have to explain the reason for the estrangement between my oldest and me. But he doesn't. Instead, he says angrily, "An' Bunny she's got an attitude about this whole thin'."
"So, who isn't?"
What I said is considerably off the mark. Eddie is scared stiff, and has every reason to be. I know the feeling of fear. It was there with me and fifteen thousand other men more than fifty years ago when he were caught at the Frozen Chosen--the Changjin Reservoir in North Korea--and had to fight our way through the Chinese lines to safety. You lived with it. You could feel it, they way you could feel passion and hate. It was a living thing. A cancer inside of you that gripped every part of your body.
Eddie says, "I guess we better go back inside."
"We're not missing much."
"You see what Iris looks like?" he asks.
"Not the way she looked."
"No way. I don't even recognize the face." We start to walk back into the Viewing Room. "Come wit' me up to the body."
I follow him.
When we reach the casket, he kneels, crosses himself, and when he stands, he takes something out of his pocket. "I had it made for her," he says showing me a gold pin with an odd design. "Her initials," he explains, and leaning over the body he attaches it to her dress over her right breast.
"Something to take with her," he says, stepping away.
To my surprise, he turns to me and hugs me. "I love you, your wife--everyone in your family."
I hug him. "We love you too, Eddie."
"Maybe we'll get to see each other when I get out and we'll have a couple of beers." His eyes are glossy with tears.
"Sure, Eddie. Sure," I say, knowing, no doubt as he does, that we'll never meet again.
We separate and he walks quickly away, melting into a group of people.
"What was that all about?" Alicia asks, coming up to me.
"A man thing," I answer, clearing my throat.
Because I seldom say things like that, she raises her eyebrows and asks, "Are you all right?"
I nod and say, "Let's go home."
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