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Chapter 5: Howard (Excerpt from Back(stabbed) In Brooklyn)

Alan drove by Howard’s house every couple of days; and in between he had someone from his office drive by and make sure Howard was still in town. He didn’t want to keep calling him. Alan’s plans for Howard were up in the air. He’s had clients who claim to make decisions to leave the business; or have been driven out of the business—only to have circumstances change overnight. So he never counted anyone out until they were actually out of the picture. He did not think Howard would actually follow through—especially with the extended stay in the Malibu home. The only thing different this time was that Howard didn’t seclude himself or exile himself to a vacation destination such as his private island. He was just being Howard, but without the entourage. Alan had no idea what to do next.

Howard spent three weeks holed up in his cavernous house, piled with boxes, nothing on the walls, half the furniture gone. He lived on the couch in front of the 60” flat screen mounted on the wall, adjacent to the 14 foot glass windows overlooking the Pacific.  Shirtless and wearing Adidas athletic pants, his aging body was toned and tanned well—a Hollywood torso. He kept active and ran up and down the beach for miles each day. He didn’t read books. He went out each day to pick up the Daily Racing Form and kept up with the races, but didn’t place many bets. By all accounts, Howard wasn’t depressed; just disconnected.

He kept busy and didn’t let himself become bored. He was not relaxed, but he rarely ever is. Howard felt edgy. He was waiting for something and he didn’t know what. His ability to mask his thoughts and feelings was worthy of the Golden Globes he won. He dodges emotional probes with his abrasive reproach, so he has never been able to achieve a truly healthy relationship with a woman, or even with close friends, unless they can read him—a rare skill. Alan read him. Nancy didn’t read him, but she didn’t care. The only people in his life who could read him were the old gang and his mother.

Mrs. Rebecca Kessler passed away before Howard really touched stardom. He had been in a few small films and had done some stage work, but in 1975 Howard wasn’t exactly a household name. His breakout film was in 1977 when he received national attention for the Oscar-winning Kiss & Tell. Howard’s mother couldn’t understand Howard’s move to Hollywood. She recognized there were movies and actors and a whole industry, but it was absolutely inconceivable to her that her son would be a part of it. And since his films and his work never made it to Brooklyn by the time she died, she never actually believed he was at work to achieve the greatness that he did. He flew her out to Los Angeles in 1974 for a premiere of one of his films; but she wouldn’t leave the motel. She took the bus back to New York after three days on the West Coast. They never saw each other again.

Howard was a no-bullshit guy, but he had Hollywood wrapped around his finger for a good stretch throughout his career. Whether he played the Brooklyn tough-guy for the accolades, or if he actually was the Brooklyn tough-guy was unimportant, because in this town you are what you appear to be, and that’s that.

One morning on the way back from picking up the DRF, he stopped in at a Starbucks and sat down to read through the picks for the day. With dark glasses on and a baseball cap, Howard was still quite recognizable; but this time, he wasn’t looking to be recognized. Losing focus on the horses and wondering what the hell he was doing with himself, his eyes drifted toward a couple of very young kids with their mother and grandfather, sitting in one of the cozy seats by the window. Howard caught the older gentleman’s eye for a brief moment. In the man’s face, Howard saw contentment that he himself felt that had never experienced. He watched as the family left the coffee place, with the kids holding on to their special drinks with large straws and colorful cups. Mom hoisted each kid into their car seat, and Gramps helped to buckle each one in. He kissed each kid on the forehead and handed a little toy to each from his pocket before shutting each door. He walked back around the car to Mom’s side and kissed her and spoke for a few moments. Laughing and holding hands, he stepped back while Mom backed the car out of the spot slowly. As the wheels slowly turned and the car straightened out of the spot, Gramps waved and made faces at the kids who made silly faces and waved back at him.

Howard thought about what this whole scene would look like on screen—his character is seized with enormous thoughts of regret, dread, mortality. It was trite. Confused and with no patience for it, he tried to focus back on the racing picks for the day. He couldn’t. He felt compelled to return to Brooklyn to recapture the connection and the identity he felt he’d lost all these years spent in Hollywood, in a life he never he expected he could have. The questions he felt he was avoiding for the past several weeks he was in this funk flooded his mind.

So was that it, identity? All he had to go on was his acting career, since he had nothing else to look back and judge his life. He broke it down: the successful roles he’s played have been those characters he knows well. The unsuccessful ones were characters he didn’t know and had never encountered. What does that say about his life experience? Is he limited? Is he not as worldly as he thought he was? Is he still the Brooklyn schlub he’s been trying to escape his whole life?

Sitting in the coffee shop, Howard refused to be a captive of his own depressing questions. As always, when he is faced with questions or at a crossroads, he makes a decision and sees it through.

He drove back to the house with resolve, aiming to pack up some things and just drive back to New York. As he pulled into the circular driveway, his phone rang.

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Chapter 4 – Art, The Next Gay Baseball Commissioner

“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 didn’t want to tell Yuri about the conversation I had with Punch about Howie calling him, and all the memories it brought back. But when I heard Punch’s message, I couldn’t keep it from Yuri. Yuri and I have been together for 10 years. It’s what precipitated my divorce from my wife. No one knows about our relationship. I’m going to be the next commissioner of baseball. How many commissioners are gay? No one even knows I’m gay. I didn’t even know I was gay. Alright, I guess I did. I think the only one who might have a clue would be Howie, so there’s a reason I don’t want him in my life again.

At a late dinner ending a hectic week of travelling and work, I thought I would drop this whole thing on Yuri and get it over with.

“I thought we could hang around this weekend and check out some exhibits downtown. Are you working or can we relax for a while; we haven’t had a real day in the city together for a while,” Yuri asked.

“I guess now’s as good a time as any to tell you what I had planned for tomorrow—“

“Oh, Art, I don’t like this,” Yuri said as he plunked down his fork.

“No, it’s not bad. Listen, the high school reunion I went to a while back, with Karol Plotkin, we got to thinking, see—“

Yuri stopped me there. He got up from the table and turned his back, “You can’t go back, Art. Look at you. You can’t go back,” Yuri said, with a sense of defeat and pessimism in his voice.

“It’s Howie Kessler. I think he’s in trouble or something. He called Punch, but didn’t leave a message. It’s been decades.”

“So why don’t you ignore it? What’s this all of a sudden you’re interested in your past—an inglorious one at that?Howie can’t be getting in touch for altruism. He must need something.”

“You don’t know Howie—“

“Art, you don’t know Howie. Have you even counted how many years it’s been? You have no idea who this guy is. You ran around as kids and that was 50 years ago. FIFTY years, old man.”

I stopped for a moment. I was remembering Howie as a smooth-talking hustler in high school; I hadn’t even thought about his aging and career—and adulthood. Then I thought about how much I resented the guy.

“I don’t know. You’re right. Maybe I’m just curious.”

“That kind of curious can only get you in trouble. Let’s talk about my day.”

But because I’m a stubborn old bastard, I went out to Punch’s house the next morning anyway. Yuri sulked and warned me he would told-ya-so me when I get disappointed by digging up the past. He couldn’t be more correct in his assessment of my approach and the situation. There’s a reason why I am successful though, and part of it is in pursuing ideas until I am certain they are dead. Once dead, then I move on to the next one. I couldn’t let this one die without exploring it further.

I’m a busy guy. I have a lot going on. I work 80 hour weeks because I like to. Keeping busy is the key to my success and I intend on keeping it that way. But Howie had re-entered my mind, and all these years I had wondered what I would say to him when I saw him once again. Now I could have my chance.

* * *

I knocked on the door and waited a while, realizing I should use the doorbell for someone in Art’s house to hear me. It was very early on this Saturday morning. I wake up around 5:30am and start my day early. I paced around the apartment before calling the garage for the car at 7:15am and rushed out to New Jersey. There was zero traffic and I made it there in record time. A few more knocks and a ding, and finally, a young man came to the door, must be Punch’s older son.

“Hi, can I help you?” he said.

“ I’m Art Raimi, an old friend of your father’s–”

“Oh, right! You guys went to the reunion together last week! I remember. Gosh, you guys were friends when you were kids, right?”

“Yeah, yeah, part of the old gang. Your dad asked me to come by this weekend, I hope now’s not a bad time?”

“No, of course not, come on in. We were just doing some physical therapy. It’s great to finally meet you, I mean,you know, I’ve heard about you for years.”

He must have seen my quizzical look. I’m not very good at hiding my expressions, so I try not to put myself in situations where my vulnerabilities will be read by someone.

“For his amputation, you know, there’s still therapy he has to do in order to maintain healthy circulation and blood pressure, maintenance of the stump, prosthesis—“

I couldn’t listen to the rest.

“Right, of course, sure. The leg.” My eyes darted away, even though I’m more than aware of physical therapy and its uncanny presence throughout baseball.

Art was the athletic one in high school. He played for the Lincoln High School basketball team before he was kicked off in his senior year. I can’t remember why. He would have had a good chance at going to college for his ball playing, I think. He got into too much trouble with us. I wanted to be the athlete, but I just didn’t have it. So I helped our little gang earn some money running numbers and taking bets. I followed all the sports around, professional down to our high school. I loved being around sports. Later I learned that I loved being around the athletes, too.

Art’s kid brought me into the exercise room. He was laying on the floor on a mat wearing gym shorts holding one of those giant gym balls. There was only one leg. It underscored the fact that he didn’t have a leg. It sounds ridiculous, but seeing him in the wheelchair was easier than seeing him helpless—legless—on the floor that day. Art realized how awkward it was for me to see him like that. He tried not to scowl at his son, who was his physical therapist as well.

“I’m sorry, let me come back later, I didn’t realize you were in the middle of—I should have called—“

“No, not at all. Just give me a minute. Josh, are we through?” Art asked, somewhat feebly.

“Sure Dad, we can get to the other stuff later. I’ll be around all day. Mom asked me to help her hang some curtains or something upstairs. Stacy’s coming by with the kids at 5.” He hoisted his father back into the wheelchair, rolled up the mat, and dutifully left the room.

“I’m sorry you had to see me like this,” Art said, looking at the floor.

I had nothing to say. My oldest friend in the world whom I cared for deeply was suffering terribly, I could see it.

“It would have been worse if the diabetes got you before they got the leg off,” I said, authoritatively.

“I dunno. This is bullshit. I don’t want to talk about it.”

He wheeled out of the room into the den, where I followed him and sat down. Art picked up his cellphone and fumbled with it for a bit.

“I’m calling him right now. Might as well just do it.”

“Yep,” I agreed.

I hoped he wouldn’t answer. I hoped the number would be wrong. I hoped Punch would have lost the gumption to call him back.

Punch’s hand was shaking. I couldn’t imagine he was this nervous or apprehensive about calling Howie on the telephone. Before I could even ask if he was alright, Punch dropped the phone and looked at me with a blank stare. He started to collapse forward out of his chair. I shouted for help as I supported him from falling from the chair while holding up his head. I had no idea what I was doing, and was terrified for my sick friend.
Hours later and a trip to the E.R., Punch was better and it was just a minor scare from an insulin imbalance. Everyone around him knew and understood what was happening, but I had never seen such an episode and it scared the shit out of me.

“Is this getting old?” I said to Punch in the car on the way back to his home, trying some attempt at levity.

“No, actually, it’s the fucking disease and my goddamned years of eating sour cream for breakfast, borscht and blintzes for lunch and dinner and that’s killing me now. Old? I don’t worry about old. We’re already older than our parents were when they died.”

Punch had a beautiful way of breaking down the world into easy, digestible parts. To Punch, nothing seemed complicated or insurmountable. Even though he attributes this cool demeanor to years as an engineer, I reminded him that he’s always been this way.

As kids, Punch would never get riled up the way we would. He would dissect the situation and come out with options for us. When we knew a rival gang would be coming into our neighborhood—say, for a girl, or just to instigate—we would leave it to Punch to devise a plan. And when it looked like we would be getting our asses kicked, Punch would always come out straight and tell us we need to be prepared; and to put some extra heavy rocks in socks.

So to see him teeter on the edge like I just did frightened the hell out of me. How am I going to react when my body starts breaking down? I can most definitely say not as calmly as Punch just did. It infuriates me if I can’t control a situation. For Punch, he takes it all in and deals with it one step at a time. He’s always been that way; even when faced with such enormous adversity, like the wheelchair and the disease now.

“Alright, we’re back, let’s get this thing over with and find out what the hell’s going on with Howie. I’m curious as hell.”

“Punch, really, you should rest. I’m just going to head out and we’ll do this another time.” By this point, I had actually gotten excited about calling Howie, but I didn’t want to admit it.

“Nah, you kidding? You schlep all the way out here to take me to the goddamned ER? Hand me the phone. We’re calling this bastard right now. Howie Kessler, you’re on the list.”

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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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Filed under Back(stabbed) In Brooklyn, Fiction - Book Excerpt

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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Filed under Back(stabbed) In Brooklyn, Fiction - Book Excerpt, Uncategorized

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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Shameless Self Promotion Starts NOW! New Book Title and Synopsis

Here it is, drumroll, please:

Back(stabbed) In Brooklyn

Below is the synopsis. I trust you’ll lay on the commentary as appropriate. Really all I want to know is, does this make you want to read the book? BETTER, does it make you want to watch the MOVIE?

Next I’ll have a contest on who you think the main character is modeled on. You’ll get a free book. But first I need a cover design. Damn.

So I may just serialize this thing right here on Eat My Book.

Howard Kessler has lived the fast life of a Hollywood star. What could Howard possibly need after a lifetime filled with everything anyone could ever want? When he gets fired from the set of a film which was supposed to resurrect his status and details come out about a sordid, drunken affair with a possibly underage groupie, his long time girlfriend leaves him and Howard embarks on soul-searching expedition that takes him right back to Brooklyn, against the will of his trusted friend and agent. His expectations of finding fulfillment and vindication were high as he left Los Angeles city limits. He envisioned a big welcome, warm embraces, and the nostalgia of the fun of the past. As he travels east, he realizes he has a better opportunity to reinvent himself and changes his objective.

The reunion provides the painful details of the past, and reminds Howard why he left Coney Island and never turned back. He seizes the opportunity to exploit the guys and the put the old—and not so pretty—stories in a screenplay. While he holes up in a condo in Brighton Beach to write it, the untrusting daughter and journalist of one of his pals writes a scathing expose in a high profile, glossy magazine of Howard using interviews given by members of the old gang and others.

Meanwhile, Howard’s agent and close friend begins to lose confidence—not to mention his main source of commissions—in him and wavers in his loyalty. And the old gang was never as tight as they would like to remember and the reunion opens wounds incurred by old girlfriends, gambling debts, petty crimes and grand larceny, and enough secrets to fill a book.

As a two-time Oscar nominee, Emmy winner, and even a Tony nomination, Howard’s time in the spotlight had been sustained and well-deserved. His runs with women, alcohol, and dice have also earned him the notorious reputation as the Brooklyn tough-guy in Hollywood.  A kid from Brooklyn with no education and no positive role-models, Howard’s fame, fortune, and grandiosity earned him a reputation throughout the entertainment industry as big-spender with a gritty personality, but also as an appealing and straightforward celebrity.

Howard found success once he left Brooklyn, but at a cost that he may regret: leaving so quickly and cutting those ties for almost 50 years had enabled trivial resentments to turn into lifelong grudges.

Back(stabbed) In Brooklyn is written through the multiple perspectives of the old gang, Howard’s agent, and the expose writer. Meet the old gang and see for yourself who comes out on top in the end.

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Filed under Fiction - Book Excerpt, Shameless Self Promotion