“Hon, the mail’s here,” I said.
“WHAT? I can’t hear you! You’re talking but I can’t hear you! What?” yelled Adele, my wife of too many years.
Adele always talks twice as much as I do, at twice the decibel. My kids always make fun of us, as if we orchestrate our discombobulated conversations solely for their entertainment.
“It’s alright. I’ll get it,” I said in a whisper, hoping she wouldn’t yell back.
It’s not easy for me to get up out of this chair. I have no left leg. The docs took it off because of some godawful circulation thing caused by diabetes. But it won’t kill me to get the mail. So I open the door and look in the box, but there’s no mail.
“Oh goddammit, it’s the phone,” I remembered.
“For CHRISSAKES, Adele, it’s the PHONE. The PHONE!”
The doorbell didn’t ring; it was the new cellphone.
“Karol the phone was ringing, I was in the back and couldn’t get it,” Adele said as she walked into the living room looking for me. “Where the hell are you?” she shouted as I rolled behind her.
“I thought it was the doorbell, the mail. So I got up and went to the door.”
“So who was on the phone? Who called?” she asked.
“I said I went to the GODDAMNED DOOR, not the phone. There’s no mail yet by the way, it’s 3pm.”
Adele left the room in a huff. She came back a moment later with the cellphone and handed it to me.
“I don’t have my glasses, so I can’t see. Why do they make these things so small? Who reads the numbers so small?”
I don’t know who she was asking. Adele asks questions all the time. It’s like she thinks God is listening and will provide her answer momentarily. She looks up and around to see if anyone has an answer, but she knows no one ever actually does.
“H. Kessler, it says. I have no idea. It’s a wrong number or something. No one ever calls us on this number anyway.”
Kessler. H. Kessler. Howie? It couldn’t be. Boy, that was a long time ago. I couldn’t stop thinking about the phone call. Something about it—I can’t put my finger on it. Would be quite a coincidence if the guy I grew up with who’s been a hugely successful Hollywood star for decades. I went to school with him, Howie Kessler. He was an old pal from Brooklyn. A long way back. Haven’t heard anything about the guy personally in 30 years. We used to tear things up as kids.
Adele and I ate a quiet dinner and resorted to our evening routine. Adele reading in the kitchen with a pot of decaf coffee; and I’m in the den watching Law & Order and other cop shows and doing the crossword. We went up to bed.
* * * *
“Oh for chrissake, Adele, it’s that cellphone again.”
“Well, what do you want from me? I’m not going downstairs, it’s 5:30am. If the kids need us they’ll call the regular phone. It’s probably a crazy person or something.”
It had to Howie; I knew it at this point. He’s on the West Coast. Too much of a coincidence not to be. I wonder if he’s in trouble? Why the hell would he call me, then? It’s been so many years. And how does he have our cellphone number? Only the kids have that number. We didn’t answer it and sure enough when I checked the phone later on there was that same number as a missed call.
And then to pour on the coincidence, I received an invitation to my high school 50th reunion in the mail the following day, for the few of us still around after this long. This had to be why Howie was calling, but I had no intention of attending it this year. I’m in the wheelchair with no leg. It’s become nearly impossible to go to see an opera at the Met a few times a year, so I don’t know how I’m going to maneuver around the city for this event. We don’t even see friends in the city anymore, it’s just too difficult. Both our kids have moved out as well.
Art Raimi emailed me later that day to see if I got the invitation. He plans on going. Art and I get together a couple times year. He’s done well for himself over the years, considering where we came from. He’s not without his foibles. The guy has had his run of bad luck. But I’m sure he’d say the same about me. Fact is, we both got out of Brooklyn and we’re proud to say we have. I have to be honest; it’s painful seeing him because it brings back rough memories. We had good times together. But we had it rough. Clawing our way out of poverty in an immigrant ghetto wasn’t easy. Most of the guys we knew either died of drug overdoses, went to prison, or both. Art and I are probably very unique creatures to come out of that environment. And Howie Kessler, but he was different.
Me, I had a tough time. I was an only child out of an arranged marriage back in Poland. The way I understand it—only through whispers from my aunts after my mother died—is that my parents couldn’t conceive. Once they escaped to America just as things got really bad in Poland after the Germans invaded, they went their separate ways. My mother apparently got knocked up, but she wasn’t living with the guy, and he split. She tracks down my father—ok, not really my father, but for all intents and purposes here, let’s just call him my father—when I’m about three years old. He hadn’t remarried but was working in a pickling joint on the Lower East Side. He agreed to support her and me, but his heart was never in it. When I was 11 or 12 he split for good and moved to Baltimore and opened what was apparently one of the biggest pickling processing plants on the eastern seaboard. My mother got along by sewing, doing laundry and other errands for other poor people in the building. Later, when I could open the lock to our apartment by myself she got a factory job. She never married, never dated, and died an angry, poor, frustrated woman in her mid-50s.
So for me, family is most important. That’s why the first opportunity I had to get out of the city with my wife and raise our kids in a civilized environment with good schools and trees and nice people, I did. I did everything I could to make sure my own kids didn’t have to endure what I went through. They didn’t, and they turned out great. I learned that the environment really does have an impact on who you turn out to be as an adult. I recognize that sounds simple, or simple-minded. But escaping those roots is not easy.
Like with Howie, for example. Here’s a guy who acted out clearly because he got no attention at home. There were about 48 relatives in the Kessler clan living in what should have been a five-room apartment. I don’t even think Howie knew the difference between his cousins and brothers and sisters—they were all the same. This wasn’t a commune or a situation out of love; it was just a bunch of poor immigrants shacked up in tight quarters because they had to be. On the high holidays and for Passover Seders they actually pooled together some money and rented the basement of the Shuel, because otherwise they had to eat in shifts in the apartment. Howie couldn’t wait to get out of his apartment and create his own identity out in the world. Once he found acting—or, more accurately, once acting found him—he truly found his identity and thrived. But the guy had to be the center of attention during any social event. Even when we were engaging in illicit activities, Howie somehow made his voice prominently heard.
* * * *
Three weeks later, I met up with Art at the Marriott Millennium Hotel in New York City for the Lincoln High School alumni event. My wife dropped me off and she went dinner with friends and would pick me up. Since we only had one cellphone between us, she kept it and left me to borrow Art’s to tell her when to pick me up. I’m not hopeful, since she can’t hear the goddamned thing ring, and when it’s buried at the bottom of her gargantuan purse it can take a year to dig it out.
We’ve gone to these things before. Our high school, Lincoln in Coney Island, is huge. There were so many people who graduated that after 50 years, it’s hard to remember your friends, no less people you never really knew back then. But it’s nice to talk about the good times and see what people are doing. And now, after this long, it’s a matter of seeing what people have already done, since no one is doing much at our age any more.
I’ve spent my life trying to escape from Brooklyn. I didn’t even enjoy that reunion last week. All of a sudden we—my contemporaries and peers—are dropping like flies. We’re old, decrepit. What are we reunioning for? What the hell’s the point, anymore? If we don’t see these people on a regular basis, what could we possibly talk about after all these years? What, the sock-hops? The baseball games at Ebbets or the Polo Grounds? I don’t really give a shit about their grown-up kids now, and I could care even less about their grandkids. Unless they’re a quarterback for the NY Giants or sitting in the White House, nothing about anyone’s kids is remotely interesting to me. Who wants to hear more problems?
Art gratefully met me at the door, so he could help roll me into the ballroom. The last time we went to one of these things it was 10 years ago. I think Art made the one 5 years ago. I was having real health troubles then, so I didn’t go. The vestiges of our youth are indeed gone. We are all old, crumbling souls now. Ah, fuck it.
I hesitated to bring up the mystery call on the phone. I can’t keep my mouth shut, though.
“You know, I think Howie Kessler called me a little while back.”
“Howie Kessler? Our Howie? Are you kidding me? What in god’s name could he want?” How many years has it been?” Art asked.
What could I say after that? I didn’t want to make a big deal. But it was.
“What’d he call you for?” he asked again.
“I didn’t speak to him. I’m not sure it was him. Was a few missed calls on the cellphone.”
“Of course it was Howie. Why didn’t you call him back?”
“He didn’t leave a number.” I paused a while. “I don’t know how to check the messages anyway.”
“Let’s call him now. You have his number?” Art said. What I didn’t immediately realize was that Art had a few in him and wasn’t really himself. He’s a big guy, so you don’t notice it until he starts slurring his words.
“No, Adele has the phone. I have to call her with your phone to pick me up when we get out of here later.”
I regretted bringing it up altogether. It seemed to cast a pall on our table, and between Art and me. Everyone was thinking independently of their memories of Howie, converging with the media reports, his movie roles, and everything else you hear about famous people. It was just such a mystery, though, why someone who has been out of contact for so many years would pick up the phone now. And why me? Why not Frankie?
I thought about it for a bit. Art’s relationship with Howie was never all that great. They used to get in fights even though we were all a part of the same gang. It was always over girls. Howie dated someone and Art stole her away. Art was dating someone and Howie stole her away. Sometimes I think they used to date girls just to instigate one another.
Art had a serious look of concern, “I hope he’s not in trouble.”
“Let’s go get some shrimp before these fat old bastards eat them all,” I said to Art, hoping to change the subject.
* * * *
I’ll tell you now that I’m planning on calling Howie, but I won’t do it alone. The suspense is killing me, though I can’t possibly imagine why after all these years he would try and track me down. I owe it to Art to rope him in. I called Art and left a message.
“Art, uh, this is Punch, listen, I found Howie’s phone number, and I think we should call him. Together. Give me a call back, or come on by the house this weekend. You know me, I’m not going anywhere these days.”
I hoped he would call right back and give me all the reasons in the world not to call Howie back. I sat in my chair in the sunroom and thought of every single reason why not to call Howie. I sat there a long time thinking about the old days.
I was a big kid. I mean, I was tall, built, bigger than all our friends. Howie was shorter than us all—he was a real scrapper. Howie stole my bike when we were in grade school. When I went to his apartment building and threw a rock in his window with a note on it telling him to give my bike back, he came up and punched me in the face. That’s how I got the name Punch. You’d think that my nickname would be for throwing the punch, which I soon learned to do quite effectively. But from then on, somehow, we had a mutual respect for one another and that sustained our relationship.
Later on when we all got older and we’d start fights with other gangs, Howie would always throw the first punch and then run like hell. That would always leave me, the biggest kid around, to give and take the beat-downs. I never got to tell Howie that after a while, this wasn’t fun anymore, and it became kind of predictable. But then within minutes after high school graduation, I never saw Howie again.
I can’t believe he just ran out of there, just like that. How could he leave all of us after all we’d been through together? It’s been a question running through my mind for years and though I understand the desire to leave poverty, struggle, and the ghetto, keeping on with the relationships isn’t the worst thing in the world. You can’t escape your own life and identity—it’s always there, no matter how much you try to mask it. Howie may be a great actor and ashamed of his past enough to forget about his upbringing; but the few roles he’s taken that veer too far outside his realm of experience have been bombs. I mean, he tried to be a British ship captain in the 1700s in some movie and it was ridiculous. Literally a joke. In another artsy-fartsy piece he tried to play the role of a gay Canadian cellist and again, no one bought it. But he tried—sure as shit he tried to shed the Brooklyn hoodlum typecast.
After all these years of festering resentment that I had just realized was there after an afternoon of contemplation in the sunroom, I still decided to pursue the phone call along with Art.
Art, god bless him, has it better than most of us at this point after quite a dramatic breakup with his wife. His kids don’t even talk to him anymore. It’s heartbreaking. But the guy literally is the boss of baseball. He’s busted his ass all these years, traveling, negotiating, and knowing the game, players, owners and media inside and out like none other in history. He was a little younger than us guys, a year or two, so he was smart—with the books and on the streets. He got out of Brooklyn in a hurry after high school and broke his ass working for the New York Yankees. Started out cleaning up spit; now he’s slated to become the next commissioner of baseball, that sonofabitch.
When I think about what losers most of us were; how much trouble we caused; how little guidance we had, it’s amazing any of us got out of there alive. Come to think of it, a couple of us have done ok. I mean, there’s Howie, of course. I did well enough, worked as an engineer AT&T for nearly 40 years before they lopped off my leg. Well enough that I haven’t had to look back.
Frankie, well, I don’t know what Frankie’s up to, but I know he had a nice business going for a while in construction, until the mob found out he was skimming. Frankie wasn’t the smartest guy, but he was generally a good guy and likable. I don’t know what ever happened to Frankie.
And then there’s Mo, who, if he’s alive today, is a miracle. This guy was the biggest troublemaker of all of us. He never even intended on getting out of Brooklyn. Brooklyn gave him everything he needed—entertainment, girls, drugs, gambling, Coney Island. I don’t think Mo ever left Brooklyn, though I don’t know for sure. I heard he may have been in prison for a while, drugs or something. Mo’s a survivor.
We’re all survivors. It was a fucking jungle back then where we came from. A fucking jungle.