“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.”