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Chapter 3: Meet Punch (Excerpt from Back(stabbed) In Brooklyn)

“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.

“WHAT?”

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.

“WHAT?”

“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.

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Chapter 2 – Clear the Noise and Find Some Truth – from Back(stabbed) In Brooklyn

Ralphie and Howard went out after the tattoo and had dinner in a trendy fusion spot and then on to a club with velvet ropes and no signs outdoors. They were whisked inside through an unmarked door, and shown to Howard’s table, segregated away from everyone else. Howard sat there unimpressed with the scene, and felt out of place in the place he came on a weekly basis. He said his hellos, had a few drinks, tried to enjoy himself. Ralphie sent over so many women that Howard couldn’t keep track and it didn’t do a thing to distract him from the fact that Nancy left him just hours earlier, and he came to the realization that his career as he knew it was most likely coming to an end.

Howard left early and returned home. Of all the things, he couldn’t stop thinking about Punch. He called Ralphie to have him get in touch with the kid at the tattoo studio to see about getting Punch’s phone number.

*                     *                    *                    *

Alan made a personal visit to Howard’s home; quite a schlep from Beverly/Fairfax in West Hollywood to Malibu, but he was worried about his friend. He hadn’t seen him in weeks and though he knew that Howard wasn’t angry with him personally, just wanted reassurances that they were ok. He brought rugelah from a great Jewish bakery in L.A. hoping to warm Howard up and make him feel better. Howard answered the door with his usual greeting, a great hug and handshake.

“What the hell took you so long to come see me? I’m not a fucking leper.”

“Howie you know I love you. You said you wanted some time. Or some space. Whatever the hell you said you wanted I gave it to you. I always give you what you want,” Alan gratefully replied.

“I’m glad you’re here. We gotta talk.”

“No word from Nancy?”

“Nah, the slut. You know it’s not really a big deal she’s not here anymore. I don’t miss her. I don’t miss the company. I don’t mind having the quiet around here.”

“So what are you getting at?” Alan inquired cautiously.

“Nothing, I’m just…I’ve been thinking a lot. I think I’m going home.”

“What, home? Which one? The Island? Yacht in Amalfi? You wanna stay at my place in Maui for a while?”

“Alan I’m going back to Brooklyn.” Howard stood up and made the pronouncement resolutely.

“What the fuck is in Brooklyn? Of all the places, Howard…Are you going through some kind of crisis?”

They both laughed at the dramatic effect.

“You sound like a bad screenplay,” Howard joked. “I just thought I’d get the hell out of this town for a while. Get back to—“

“What? Get back to what? There’s nothing there. No one’s left. You know that,” Alan said, knowing that a trip home for all his clients and friends never meant anything good. They hadn’t even made good movies about the subject of going back home. It was trite. Going back home was a contrived context to too many bad stories. It was unlike Howard to fall for such sentimentality.

Howard sat back and basked in the imaginary sun in the enormous living room, soaking in every detail that his interior designer carefully planned, as if to look at it for the first and last time.

“I can’t say I have strong attachments here anymore,” Howard declared.

Alan stood up and appeared to take offense. He paced around a little bit. Howard didn’t look in his direction, but saw him from the corner of his eye and he knew his friend was planning a counterattack.

“Attachments? Howard Motherfucking Kessler, Attachments? Your whole life is here, your career, you were nothing without Hollywood and don’t pretend you would have made anything of yourself without your career in this town. You don’t attach well, if you hadn’t already noticed by now, you cold fuck,” he steamed. Alan inhaled and was about to continue the tirade but then Howard interrupted.

“I’m not saying that I don’t appreciate what you’ve done, or what I have. For chrissake, Alan, this is a $10 million house I’m in; you don’t think I know what I have? That’s not my point. I don’t know what the fuck my point is anymore. I just don’t—“

Alan knew exactly what Howard was getting at, even if he himself didn’t know. And nothing against Howard, Alan knew he couldn’t articulate it anyway. Here’s a guy who was shrewd enough to get where he is today, but by brute force, talent, and intensity, not book smarts.

“Fine then. Fine, how long do you want to take? I mean, you know what happens to people out here when they’re off the circuit for too long,” Alan tried to keep Howard focused.

“I don’t give a shit about the circuit. I’m 66 years old. 26 movies, countless TV shows, a fuckin musical, you think I give a shit about the circuit? What else is there for me here? Taking roles as a Grampa sitting on a porch reading stories to a snot-nosed ankle-biter in some schlocky period piece?”

He was right.

Howard was either too embarrassed or confused to admit what he was really thinking—if anything, Alan thought.

“You’re too old to have kids. They don’t even do that in Africa,” Alan said bluntly, angry that he couldn’t dissuade the headstrong Howard.

“It’s not kids. That ship left a long time ago. I don’t know, Alan, I just don’t have anything of my own. I keep playing these roles, they’re all the same, I’m tired and bored—“

“And those tired, boring roles are what’s gotten you this $10 million home,” Alan retorted.

“I have nothing of my own, is what I was going to say. I mean, I’ve made a living off of a caricature of myself, and I don’t have any identity.”

“Oh, so that’s what you think this is about? Your identity? Listen to me—I mean it, Howie—listen to every word I’m going to tell you, and not  just because I think Brooklyn is a useless piece of shit place, but because I know you better than anyone and I can see from a million miles away that you were about to hit this point—“

“I don’t want to hear it. Alan, thank you, really, I am thankful for your friendship. But I have to do this. I have to get out of here, and I just have to go back home and see what’s there for me.”

He stood up and looked out at the ocean, then turned back around and stretched his arms out to his side, clasping them behind his neck—pulling rather than hanging his arms.

“I’ve got nothing to lose,” Howard said, almost in a whisper, trying to convince himself that it was true.

“Fine. I have strong opinions about this, Howard, I’m just telling you then. Just one last question though. Are you in trouble? I mean, you know, the numbers? I don’t wanna get another fucking knock on the door at 3am by a bunch of animals,” Alan asked, referring to the time a few years back when Howard owed every bookie west of the Hudson.

“No, I’m good.”

And with that, they bid goodbye.

*                     *                    *                    *

Alan left the house and sulked back to his car up the steep driveway. He was losing his friend. Even if he came back, which he doubted he would, things wouldn’t be the same. Once you’ve turned on L.A., you can’t come back the same person who left. Alan couldn’t see anything good out of Howard’s decision to go back home. It had been 50 years and there was nothing for him there. A couple of altakaka’s who used to be hoodlums. Alan’s worst fear is that going back home would resuscitate the old feuds, or bring out the parasites who would suck everything out of his friend that there is to give–money, first and foremost, and the pathetic requests to be set up on dates.

A few quiet days passed. Howard’s phone rang and it was Ralphie with the phone number he wanted from Ben, the tattoo artist. Howard wrote it down on the back of last week’s copy of Variety in thick, black marker. Howard didn’t use pen and paper much for anything, so when he did, Sharpies were his choice writing tool.

He thought he should be clear with Alan, and gave him a call.

“Alan, buddy, listen, I don’t think we had a straight conversation the other day,” Howard said sheepishly.

“What the hell are you talking about now?”

“About going home. Me, when I said I’m going back to Brooklyn—“

“Were you shittin’ me? Because if you were that’s a terrible trick, really, Howie—“

“No, I know you have problems with my decision. But honestly, the first time I thought about it was when we talked.”

There was a long silence. Alan didn’t know whether to laugh or hang up. He had to clarify, since Howie wasn’t a big talker on the phone.

“Wait, are you going back or no?”

“Yeah, I’m probably going back. The whole thing started because I just heard about a guy I knew, one of my closest friends before I left, he’s still around and I just, uh—“

“Alright, I get it, you’re curious. It happens to the best of us.”

“I don’t know if it’s just curious, you know, it’s like, I don’t know, I just want to get back to something I know,” Howard said, though wavering.

“I’m not trying to talk you out of it, but you already know my feeling about this. But I can’t help but tell you that it’s a stupid fucking idea,” Alan rebuked.

“I don’t know if it’s stupid. I have to get the hell out of here. I have to go learn something, find some new things, come up with a new project for myself.”

“Uh, Brooklyn isn’t where you go to learn stuff and find new things, you know, it’s a dead-end.”

“I’m just talking about digging up a couple of guys. Finding out what they’ve been doing.”

Alan had no response.

Losing patience, Howie said, “Forget it, forget I called, I’ll be in touch.”

He hung up. Alan couldn’t change his friend’s mind, even if he knew that Howard’s mind wasn’t exactly resolute.

Several days passed before Howard had the gumption to call Punch. He didn’t even know what he would say. He didn’t obsess over it, though. He spent a few days packing some clothing, arranging for the artwork to be sold or sent back to the galleries from which he borrowed them. He had a cleaning service come in, his decorator arranged for much of the furniture to be packed away, and the management agency to come assess the property for an extended separation. Howard didn’t even know where he was going. His phone used to ring all day—now only a few calls a day from friends or his publicist. Things were winding down on their own, which is just the way Howard likes it.

Howard wasn’t going to stick around town to hear gawkers whispering that he’s a has-been.

Ralphie, who was much less of a mensch than Alan, called Howard out on Ben’s frantic search for Punch’s phone number. “What, you going back home to be a big star there, you don’t get enough of that here?”

“I don’t really know what the fuck you’re talking about Ralphie, so you can fuck off.”

But Howard felt he had to think about Ralphie’s inartfully-said message. Was that really why he was going home? Because he knew that he would get the fawning attention of a New York audience, his home-town? He tried it once before about 25 years ago and it went over well for a while until he overstayed his welcome. He owed money, was wrapped up in a horse-fixing scandal, landed a few punches at one of New York’s 3-star restaurants, smashed a borrowed Ferrari and never repaid the owner.  He was also accosted by everyone who ever came through Brooklyn, claiming to be his best friend and in need of money. But most of all, his old friends always wanted him to hook him up with girls. Most of those guys were so desperate for women that they felt Howie was a silver bullet for dates. It was pathetic.

This time it will be different. He’s not going back as a star. He’s going back as Howie Kessler, to find his friends, clear the noise, and find some truth.

He picked up the phone and dialed Punch’s number.

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Howie Is Too Old For The Part – Chapter 1 – Back(stabbed) In Brooklyn

“Donnie, I understand what you’re saying, it’s totally clear. But what I’m trying to get you to understand is what I’m dealing with here on my end—” pleaded Alan Shiner into a tiny mobile phone, with the other hand covering his ear. His whole body motioned when he emphasized a point on the phone, because he couldn’t use his hands as in a personal conversation.

“Donnie, Donnie, you don’t even have to explain to me anymore. You think I don’t know? Of course I know. I’ve worked with this guy for 40 years. I know like you have no idea I know. You see where I’m going with this?”

And that ended his plea with the big-time director of the new film that Alan’s oldest client, Howard Kessler, was being kicked off and replaced with a younger lead actor. At least younger was the excuse they used. And in Hollywood, that’s a viable excuse. Continue reading

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