Another crazy-ass day humping Speedy’s deliveries through the grinding heat of a sizzling New York summer grinds to an end. I’m wearing the city’s exhaust like a second skin, and I’m desperate to gulp the strangled flow of cool air squirting out of my geriatric air conditioner. As I drag my tired ass up the stairs, five flights of threadbare carpeted steps, I’m thinking about the new kid, Jaime.
He was lingering in front of the shop, angrily pulling on a cigarette when I hit the street. He slumped against the wall like a man facing execution. His eyes were glued to the pavement, where he had created a small pond of spit. Studying it as if it held the answers—who knew to what? I stopped, even though I make a point of not hanging after the bell rings. Maybe because I like Jaime. He comes across strong with that Puerto Rican swagger sometimes, but mostly he hustles hard and he’s willing to cover me when some fucked up delivery has me spinning circles in Tribeca.
“What’s good?” I asked.
“Nada.” Jaime is a man of few words. When he first signed on at Speedy I thought maybe it was a language problem. Now I know it is, just not the Spanglish kind. It’s that words are a second language to him.
“My old man.” Enough said. The details hardly matter. Triple A. Abuse, abandonment, alcohol. “Hang in there,” I said, hoping that the sentiment outlasted the words.
“Yeah, right,” Jaime mumbled as he sucked on the cigarette. “Fucker beat the shit out of my mother. Again. If I find him, fuck that, when I find him, I’m going to kill him,” Jaime replied, his eyes glued to the spit pond.
“You and every wannabe gangster up in Harlem,” I said. “And then you can join the rest of your boys up at Rikers, swapping stories about how bad you were out on the street, hoping that someone doesn’t test your realness with a blade in the shower. Let it go. . . anyway, I’m guessing your ma has already made up with him and sworn to Jesus not to do whatever lame-ass shit he accused her of that set him off in the first place.”
Jaime eyed me through a cloud of smoke. “You know some shit. Leave it? Is that what you’d do? If you were me?”
“I ain’t you, Jaime. But if I was, I’d walk on the whole situation. Look around you, man. Nobody gets even. Ever. Getting even is just a loser’s way of jerking off. Can’t fix something you didn’t break.” I gave Jaime a fist bump and turned to leave.
“Thanks, man,” Jaime said to my back as I made it down the street. Thanks for what, I thought. I hoped he hadn’t mistaken observation for advice.
At the threshold of my fifth-floor walkup, I find a note jammed under the door. When has a note under a door ever been good news? It’s probably from Jaime. He’s probably magically managed to do something stupid in the hour it took me to subway home. Note probably says: Need the name of a good lawyer. I jam it in my back pocket as I fumble with the keys.
I head straight to the kitchen of my tired, beat-up apartment and grab a beer from the fridge. I hold the bottle to my forehead, savoring the cooling sweat rolling down my brow.
Slumping onto the ratty sofa, I flick on the television. The chica-choca beat from the Dominicans’ beat box down the hallway vibrates into my living room. I’ve actually gotten to the point where I like the noise, if not the music. Makes me feel a little less alone. Been here five years and not much has changed. Mostly I’m good with that.
I retrieve the note stuffed in my back pocket. The paper is cheap, thin, lined, ripped out of a notebook. Tattered edges. Handwriting a mess, letters leaning this way and that. It terminates in big block letters, patience suddenly lost. It shouts:
Hi James. I’m out. Let’s bury the hatchet. Meet? You call the time and place. No cell phone yet. The number at the halfway house is 477-2333. Leave a message if I’m not there.
Sixteen years since our last contact. I was sitting in the first row of the courtroom the day he was sentenced. That was when the “after” of my life detached from the “before.”
The Bee Line bus to Sing Sing prison leaves every other hour from Grand Central. I know this even though I’ve never made the trip. Not once. For sixteen years, since I was a teenager, I’ve ignored every phone call, every letter, every request, every admonition, every bribe, every pressure.
My father was a junkie back then, a small-time lawyer with a failing practice and an even smaller-time dope dealer. At first he sold to support his own habit, but then, when office work began interfering with getting high and his short sleeves no longer hid the needle bruises, he turned pro. He wasn’t moving enough product to justify the penalty, but the mandatory sentencing machine spit out a twenty-year ticket. Paroled after sixteen. Didn’t even manage to fulfill that commitment.
Before everything went down, we had the whole suburban, middle-class thing: glass coffee table, flat screen TV, new clothes in the fall, sports after school. Some people’s lives explode. Ours just seemed to dissolve, piece by piece, like a leper losing fingers. Junked-out most of the time, Dad spent the majority of his day at home, looking at the television with glazed eyes, falling asleep in his lounger, or measuring out the night’s deliveries on the triple beam. I’d hear him dope-sniffling like an allergic kid in a hayfield. Mom stashed herself in the bedroom, shades drawn, lights out, like she was waiting out a power outage.
My older sister, Renee, escaped to Queens. My future got put on hold the day the DEA swooped in and swallowed my dad, perp-walked him out of the living room and down the walkway, neighbors watching, just like television. “Someone rolled on me,” he whined as the cop did that thing where he put his hand on the top of his head, folded him over, and deposited him in the backseat. He stared straight ahead as the car pulled away, like a dog avoiding eye contact after he has taken a shit in the living room.
I’ve rehearsed the confrontation with my father so many times I can recite it by heart. I’ve burst from sleep in the middle of the night, slippery with sweat, a sour taste riding the back of my tongue. Same dream. I grab my father by the throat and squeeze, watch him gasp for air. His face turns purple. His eyes bulge. I tighten my grip. I feel the ridges of his windpipe. You can put your anger on ice for a while, but when you remove it, it’s still too hot to touch.
Two days later, I pop out of the subway and head down Broadway to Omar’s café. The heat bouncing off the sidewalk roasts my shins like hot dogs on a spit. Approaching Omar’s I slow and then stop. I peep through the window. He’s sitting in the front booth reading the newspaper. His head hangs like an anchor. The weighty folds in his face give him a softer, feminine look. He’s pale, doughy. His skin pasty. His prison-barbershop hair is gray. He wears glasses now. Take away the T-shirt, put him in a suit, and he’s a librarian instead of an ex-con dope dealer, the kind of guy who wouldn’t stand out on the subway.
In Omar’s the air conditioning is blasting. I shiver as I walk over to his booth. He doesn’t notice me. He’s absorbed in his paper.
“Hello?” It’s a question. I try to swallow the word before it hits his ears.
He pops his head up and squints through his glasses. “James. Great to see ya.”
My heart bangs hard.
“I was worried you wouldn’t come. Let me take a look at you.”
He stands and holds out his arms. I leave them grasping air. He takes a step forward. I backpedal. We’re dancing.
“Damn, you’ve gotten tall. Let’s see. What’s it been—”
“Sixteen years,” I say. I know the number as well as he does.
I slip into the booth across from him. He drops back onto his seat. A scraping sound catches my attention, and I see a bracelet on his wrist, and it’s dragging on the tabletop. He follows my gaze to the shiny loop with the red heart. A medic-alert bracelet.
“Oh, this? Heart condition. Nothing major. Doc says to wear it in case . . .” His voice drifts off. “You want something? Hungry? Cup of coffee?” He turns his head looking for the waitress.
“Nah, I’m good,” I lie. “I gotta make this short. Gotta work in an hour,” I lie again.
“So, James, how ya doin? Sixteen years is a long time. I get updates from your ma, from Renee. Working here in the city? It’s good?”
I remember trying to shake him awake after he’d fallen on the nod in the living room, drag-carrying him to his room and dumping him like a load of dirty laundry on top of his bed.
“It’s okay. It’s a job. Bike messenger for Speedy. I like working outside. Riding my bike. It’s a job, not a career.”
“You always did like riding your bike. That’s good. Job? Career? Hey, you got time. Enjoy it while you can. Years pass. You don’t get them back. Believe me, I know about that.”
So now he’s the wise man from Sing Sing. He talks to me like I’m still that sixteen-year-old kid, the one with that magic called potential—potential to go to college, have a profession, be a doctor maybe. Speedy is a pit stop on a highway to nowhere.
“What about the rest?”
I stare blankly. What rest?
“I mean, how are you doing? Like, in general? You got a girlfriend?”
I notice he’s deftly avoiding talking about the “rest” himself. The rest of what he did, what happened. The rest of the shit he left behind.
I counter, “No, no girl. I just take it day by day. Getting by. Mostly.” Enough chit-chat. “You wanted to meet? About what?” My eyes drift upward to the slowly rotating ceiling fan. If I concentrate on it, I feel safer.
“Okay.” He sighs. “Here we are.” He extends his hands toward me, flat, as if wants me to fill them. “Sixteen years. You never came to visit. Not once. Which hurt. Your ma, she made it up there. Even your sister, every now and then, not that it was always nice. But you? Not once. I’d like to know—”
“Yeah, I thought about coming up. I did. But, school, and then I took some jobs and, well, to be honest, visiting a prison—not exactly something I wanted to do.”
“James, it wasn’t ‘visiting a prison.’ It was visiting your father. Who sat for sixteen years, wondering, asking himself, what kind of hole did my son have in his heart that kept him from showing up? We got lots of unfinished business.”
“Some business never gets finished.” Silence. I don’t want to bite on the “unfinished business” bait. Time to go on the offensive. “Am I a dick for not visiting you in prison? Yeah. You think you were the only one who suffered? Hell, you fucked all of us. Ma, Renee, me. What was I supposed to do? Suddenly I’m the kid with the junkie dad who got popped. What were we supposed to do with a house we could hardly hold onto, and lawyers bills on the daily?”
He’s like fucking Buddha, his face a cloud absorbing the wind. Eyes empty. I’m looking through them straight to the back of his head. Finally he answers. “No argument. I left a mess. I’m sorry. Nothing I can do about it now. Water under the bridge.”
“‘Water under the bridge?’” My sweaty palm slaps the top of the table. “Cool. You say you’re sorry, I say ‘okay,’ and we’re all good again?” My jaw aches. “Save the junkie, prison-rap bullshit for your group sessions at the halfway house.”
I start to slide out of the booth. He reaches across the table and grabs my forearm. His hands are strong, his grip a vise.
“Hold on. Just wait. Five minutes. I’m not here just to apologize. I mean, I am sorry, but there’s more.”
He takes a deep breath and leans forward. His face closes the space between us. I can smell his last coffee. “When you first go to prison, you’re too fucked up to do anything but survive. But you do, and then you start to think about how you got there. I was small-time. Why me? Lots of guys in the joint go nuts asking ‘why me.’ But I’m a lawyer. I know how to work the system, to get answers. I file a discovery motion to see inside my jacket. See what the DA had. And there it is—‘search warrant issued on the basis of informant information.’ I always thought that someone must have ratted, but I could never figure out who, or why. But you know what I found?”
It’s not a question. I wait him out.
“Yeah, we both do. And James, you know what? I forgive you. You probably thought you were doing the right thing. The best thing for everyone,” he says like he’s reading a script.
For sixteen years I’ve carried that guilt. But it’s also a source of pride, maybe the last victory I had. Fuck his forgiveness.
“It needed to be done. You were sinking, and you were dragging us down with you. You remember asking me to make your junk deliveries and pickups for you? Remember that? Shit! I did what I did to stop it. So, yeah, I made the call. Honestly? I’d do it again just to make all the craziness stop.”
“To go to the cops though? On your old man?”
“You. Needed. To. Be. Stopped.” I jab each word into the table. Am I telling him or myself?
“So you say, and maybe you’re right. But listen, I tell you now, and it’s one hundred percent true, I’m over it. You were a kid. You did what you did, what you thought was right.”
I need to defend my sixteen-year-old self. “Maybe prison’s where you belonged.”
“Maybe.” He responds as if he’s lost interest in the argument. “Maybe. But that ain’t the end of it all.”
I stiffen. “What else you got on your mind?”
I laugh. “Me? You don’t know shit about me.”
“I know this. Nobody, let alone a kid who turns in his old man, walks away from a wreck like that without some damage.” He pauses to let it sink in. “Look, I’m no psychologist, but the kid I left behind back then was strong—strong enough to turn in his old man. Now? I don’t know. From what I hear, from your mother, from your sister, you’re a ghost. Humping packages around the city? And I saw the dive you call home.”
“I got a life. Do us both a favor, stay out of it.” The warning does a disservice to my anger, but it’s all I’ve got. “You got no right to judge. You’ve done enough damage, and I’m good with how things worked out. Really. So I don’t need you to forgive me.”
“Then forget me forgiving you. But I think it’s time you forgive yourself. I worry that you’re still carrying the weight. That’s all. I’m still your old man.”
“Don’t patronize me. I don’t need—”
Suddenly his eyes squint and his face contorts. He takes a sharp, quick breath, and the air seeps out of him like he’s a balloon leaking air through a knife cut. He clutches his chest. His spring-loaded eyes pop open, and then he slumps forward. His head bounces on the table.
“Dad! Dad!” I shake him, but I get nothing. His head rolls. He groans. His breaths are gasps, each shorter, more labored than the last. The waitress is going off in the background, “Oh, my God! He’s having a heart attack!” She’s machine-gunning directives: “Someone! Call 911! Hurry!”
I pop out of the booth. I eye the door. But my cell is in my hand.
I’m hitting the digits. Nine. One. I pause. If he were a stranger on the street, I’d hit that last number, wouldn’t give it a second thought. But what the fuck do I owe him? He’s already been dead to me for so long. I slide the phone back into my pocket and again eye the door.
The waitress is outside, yelling something in Spanish. I can’t make it out, but I hear sirens getting louder by the second. In a flash she’s outside frantically waving to the ambulance and pointing inside. “Rápido. In the booth!”
The EMTs leap on my father. They pull him out of the booth and lay him on the ground. One searches his neck for a pulse. The other rhythmically pumps his chest and blows into his mouth. The waitress is next to me now, her voice shaking. “He’s going to be okay?” Why should she care? Why should I?
As I leave Omar’s I see the EMTs roll the stretcher out the door. A sheet covers him from head to toe like fresh snow coating a hillside. Shabby gray sneakers poke out from the sheet. The lead EMT approaches me. He shakes his head. “Your old man?” I nod. “Sorry, kid.” Kid. It surprises me, but maybe, in this context, the word fits. “You want to ride down with us to the morgue? Need to sign some papers. Report. Details. Follow up.”
He holds out a clipboard and offers me a pen. My eyes follow the path of the stretcher as they load the body in the back. For next of kin, I put my mother. The EMT rips off the yellow copy and offers it to me. “Here’s the info. Where he’ll be, numbers to call. What you gotta do next.” What a comfort that simple sheet must be to most people.
“Nah, that’s okay,” I say, and I hold my hand up like I’m refusing a flyer from a fanatic on a street corner for some come-to-Jesus revival on the supposedly all-salvaging value of forgiveness.
# # #
Ross E. Goldstein, Ph.D., practiced as a psychologist before beginning his work as a writer. He has published both fiction and non-fiction books as well as popular press magazine articles.
Photo credit: Terri Malone