- Prison and Justice Writing
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- PEN America Prison Writing Award Winners: 2022
The Reinvention of Lenny Primo
Ryan M. Moser was awarded 3rd Place in Fiction in the 2022 Prison Writing Contest.
Every year, hundreds of imprisoned people from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population.
The first thing I heard when I walked into the musky kitchenette was the continuous drip-drip-drip from the faucet. Stained yellow wallpaper peeled down like the skin from an apple, and the refrigerator didn’t work. A palmetto bug scurried under the greasy stove.
“Nice place,” I told the obese landlady waiting impatiently. “Can you fix the fridge?”
“Ninety bucks a week as is, honey. Do you want it or not?” She picked her nose as I pulled out a hundred and handed it to her.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
The dirty efficiency apartment in Little Havana was a lifetime away from the beachfront condo I’d left eight years and two months ago, but this was my new reality after prison. What could I do? When she left, I locked the door and plopped down on the sofa, and a cloud of dust puffed up. I sighed, waved my hand in front of my face, and grabbed the remote to click the TV on. Nothing happened. Fuck me. I leaned back and closed my eyes, meditating on my options.
You can do this. You’re Lenny fucking Primo–businessman extaordinaire. There’s no deal you can’t make. No girl you can’t get. Be a winner.
I was starting over with nothing. What was that Brad Pitt line from Fight Club? When you lose everything…you can do anything. Well, I didn’t feel so goddamn Zen. All that I’d worked for was gone. The Benz, the Gucci clothes, the elite social circle. The trophy girlfriend. The bling. The connections…God, the connections. Walking into Capital Grille on a busy Saturday night and getting a table. Tee time at Mar-a-Lago. Courtside Heat seats. It was good to be a shady businessman living on the Gold Coast of Miami.
But all that’s gone now. What my live-in girlfriend, Lacey, didn’t take when I was arrested, the courts did. My bank accounts were frozen to pay fines, and I still owe $240,000 in restitution. My assets were taken and sold at auction. When Lacey had showed up at the county jail for my bail bond hearing, the ex-stripper informed me she was taking the thirty-eight grand in cash from our wall safe–and there was legally nothing I could do about it. Not unless I wanted more questions and the IRS up my pass. The only reason she came at all was to break up with me.
“Fine. Go ahead, Lacey. You’ll be twirling on a pole within a year, you ingrate.”
Once the charges were filed, I became persona non grata in the city of Miami, and nobody knew me anymore. Every business contact flaked out on me. All my “friends” disappeared as quickly as they came. After I’d moved down from Philly, it had taken six years to build up my reputation in a new town; then it vanished in an instant, and I spent eight years in a Florida correctional institution to serve penance for my sins.
I lit a cigarette and tried to enjoy my new freedom, but it was hard not to think about the past. I knew I was in for a long haul–the hundred bucks the prison gave me before my release was gone, and I had to figure out an immediate plan. I had a roof, albeit a leaky one, over my head for a week, and then it was Trouble Town. The sun was setting outside, poking through the ripped curtains and casting beams of fixed light onto the chipped tile floor; its warmth penetrated my malaise and beckoned me outdoors. After a few deep breaths on the balcony, and some serious swallowing of my pride, I walked down the two flights of stairs to a lonely payphone next to the vending machines–their shatterproof Plexiglass scratched and dented by would-be thieves. I couldn’t believe I found a payphone in 2020. I picked up the receiver and dialed zero, asking the operator to make a collect call, and leaned back for the inevitable battle.
“Hello? Hello…is that you, Leonard?”
I exhaled. “Yeah, Ma. It’s me.”
A strange cawing sound came from the background on the other end, like squeaking brakes or a gang call. “Well good, I wanted to make sure it was you before I hung up!”
I was too stubborn to call back. Twilight was waning as I headed down the street towards the restaurant district, trying to get as far away from my efficiency as I could. After walking an hour and over twenty blocks, I stopped inside a small neighborhood joint and ordered a pressed Cuban sandwich with rice and beans and two margaritas…hastily making my way out the front door later when my server was in the kitchen. I hadn’t eaten in fifteen hours and had no money–the desperation of the poor. Before today, I couldn’t imagine stiffing a restaurant in my wildest dreams. Lenny Primo was the man who tipped like royalty, not stole like a peasant.
I guess the king is dead.
I felt lousy on the walk back to the room, but my survival instinct was stronger than the guilt. It was a Friday night and the sun was down in Little Havana. Musicians serenaded throngs of pedestrians with traditional Cuban songs; bongo beats reverberated off the pastel stucco of the tightly packed buildings, floating into the humid summer air. Gray-haired domino players sat at card tables and laughed loudly while smoking fat cigars. Strings of big bulbs hung from awnings, illuminating the crowds. I patted by state-issued khaki shorts pockets out of habit, attempting to check for my smartphone that didn’t exist–I had no belongings. As I got back to the efficiency and shuffled up the stairs to my disgusting digs, all I wanted to do was sleep.
When I woke up the next morning, I felt refreshed for the first time in almost a decade. The lumpy mattress was better than my old, hard meal bunk, and I slept with the peace of mind that comes with feeling safe. I opened the curtain and figured it was about nine or ten, then reached for my crushed pack of Parliaments and cursed.
Only three smokes left.
My mind needed coffee. My body needed food. But I had neither one. Nobody prepares you for what it’s like to get out of prison and be alone. Really alone. I rolled off my bed and did fifty push-ups, brushed my teeth withe the small hygiene pack in the bathroom (compliments of the Everglades Correctional Institution), and drank a glass of yellow-ish water from the tap. I went outside and stood on the balcony overlooking the parking lot, watching a presumable prostitute talk to a probable homeless man animatedly. I reasoned that I was out of options.
“Listen Ma, don’t hang up! Just hear me out.”
Click. Un-fucking-believable. I slammed the black receiver into the cradle and picked it up again, dialing zero and tapping my foot in frustration.
It took me a second to recognize the voice. “Maria? Hey, baby sis, what are you doing at Ma’s house?”
“I’m fine, thanks for askin’ after all these years. And don’t you baby sis me, you didn’t answer any of my letters. We were worried sick and you ignored your own family and–”
“Hold on, Maria. Please…just relax for a second, okay? I didn’t want you to worry.”
“Worry? Jesus Christ, Lenny! The only time you spoke to us after your trial was on the phone at the chaplain’s office when Dad died. Ma’s pissed.” Maria kept shushing our Italian mother as she lectured loudly from the other room.
“Tell him his father would be ashamed. Go ahead, tell him.”
“Ma, I can’t hear Lenny!”
I took out my last smoke and inhaled strongly, exhaling even harder. You knew this was going to be a tough call.
“I’m sorry I didn’t keep in touch when I was locked up. I was just…I was embarrassed, sis. Can’t you understand that? I let everybody fucking down, and I knew I couldn’t deal with Pop.”
“Dad woulda forgiven you.”
“Are you kidding? He wouldn’t even speak to me because I was on the six o’clock news. Told Ma I was a wanna-be Nicky Scarfo. Which is bullshit ‘cause Little Nicky was a gangster, not a businessman like me.” There was a long silence on the line before a loud squawking began. “What is that awful sound?” I asked, annoyed.
“That’s just Mojo. I have to tell you something. Dylan’s livin’ at my house now…with my family. He’s in school and he’s doing great and–”
“What? Who’s Mojo? And why is my son living with you?”
“Krista took off a couple years ago…when Dylan was fourteen.”
What. The. Fuck. It took my a second to register what she’d said. I dropped my cigarette and leaned my head against the grimy concrete wall. “What do you mean took off?”
“She just…left. She dropped Dylan off for a birthday party and never came back. We figured she couldn’t take being a single mother anymore.” Maria’s mouth was closer to the phone as she spoke softer. “Ma’s not well, too. She’s been diagnosed with late onset Alzheimer’s, Lenny. That’s why I’m over here right now…I come by every day to take care of her.”
I lowered the receiver away from my ear and stared out across the busy road, squinting into the sunshine of another scorching morning and shaking my head. When I put the phone to my ear again, I tried to stay calm. “Any other bombshells, baby sis? Did you win the lottery? Did my dog get run over?”
“Don’t be a wiseass. You’re forty now. You’re the oldest, but I have to take care of all these problems by myself. Me and Anthony love your son like our own, and it’s good for Tony Junior to have his cousin around, but I’m overwhelmed. Dylan’s seventeen, and Ma’s seventy…I need help.”
I looked around the empty parking lot. “I’m sorry. I really am. Maria…look…I need some cash. Like, yesterday.”
She sighed loudly. “I’ll wire you a thousand bucks from your inheritance, but you’re coming home. I want you on a plane tomorrow.”
I laughed out loud. “Demanding, huh? I left Pennsylvania for a reason.”
“Yeah, well, that reason left town with a new boyfriend and never returned. You need to come home, I’m not kidding. You have a responsibility to your family. You can live at mom’s and –”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. I’m not living at Ma’s place like a college dropout! I rented a damn Lambo just to drive to Key Largo. I ran a successful operation with twenty guys. I’m–”
“Where are you going to stay, Lenny? What are you gonna do for work? You’re penniless and an ex-felon. Besides…Dylan needs to see you. He needs his father.”
The Southwest 747 taxied onto the steamy runway, following a line of other commercial planes leaving Miami International Airport that day. I looked out the window and saw a cream-colored cowbird pecking for bugs on the grass beside us. I felt stylish for the first time in years wearing Ray-Bans, Sperry’s, tan chinos and fedora, and a Polo shirt from Macy’s. he prepaid smartphone in my pocket fit warmly against my thigh like a gunslinger’s long-lost Smith and Wesson.
“Howdy partner. Rex Logan from Tulsa, Oklahoma.”
I hesitated before turning towards my smiling seatmate. “Hey, Rex from Tulsa. Lenny from South Philly.”
The very large mid-westerner squeezed my arm like a lug, then slapped his knee while still grinning. “I hear y’all got some pretty good cheesesteaks–nohin’ on a thick ole T-bone though. I’m down here on business for my auto parts store. How ‘bout you, Lenny?”
Our plane turned onto runway six and started to throttle forward as I heaved out an audible sigh. God damnit. I knew one way to quickly silence the Oakie. “I just got out of prison.”
His smile wavered slightly. “What for, partner?”
Whacking an annoying passenger on a plane. “White collar. I ran an import/export business near the Port of Miami…got caught fencing some goods, a little bookmaking. The Feds dropped the wire fraud so the Sunshine State charged me with dealing in stolen property.”
I remembered the Assistant District Attorney–who I’d played golf with once–distancing himself from me at my arraignment, calling “illegitimate” business people like me a “scourge on society.” Con-artists who used fake weights in the village market and shorted stocks. Snake-oil salesman. “Next time obey the law, Mr. Primo,” the scrupulous prosecutor had advised across the table. At my sentencing hearing, he recommended the maximum penalty, and I told the attorney I saw him cheat on his score sheet. What an asshole.
“Jeez. That sounds…that’s somethin’ else.” Rex turned forward as the behemoth airplane lifted into the air and the wings moved up and down to stabilize the nervous flyers. He gripped the arms of the seat and quieted down for the rest of the two-hour flight, leaving me to think.
After my divorce, when Dylan was three and my ex-wife’s sole purpose in life was to send me to jail for falling behind on my steep child support, I decided it was time for a change. Tired of being judged and scared of jail, I ran from my problems, leaving my young son and wife to fend for themselves. I was twenty-six and selfish, I’ll give you that; I’ve always put myself first, but that was a new low. I moved to South Beach to live in the fast lane and forget about my past, leaving everyone behind. I’d visit my parents and friends and son a couple times a year, but the trips grew less and less frequent, and eventually I didn’t see Dylan at all. Ma called me a “phantom father.” Pop said I was a disappointment.
“A man doesn’t leave his family, son. Ever.”
When I stepped out of the cab and knocked on the front door of 131 Tutor Street, a bag of soft pretzels and a new carry-on in my hands, it had been years since I’d walked through the faded green door of the row home I grew up in. I’d ignored Ma’s requests to visit before I got locked up, and I felt guilty about it. Seeing my childhood home off Passyunk Avenue brought a flood of memories racing back: sledding on the hill by the corner lot; block parties with my buddies; fist fights at the bus stop; drinking beers and working on my Monte Carlo in the alley with Pop. So many good times, growing up without a care in the world. Before the lawyers and the underground clubs. Before the snitches and loan sharks making my life miserable. Just boys gettin’ in trouble and having fun.
“Hi, Lenny. Come in.”
I threw my bag down on the lime-green shag carpet and grabbed my younger sister in a bear hug, kissing her cheek and holding her by the shoulders. “Look at you, Maria! You look amazing!” Her black hair was much shorter and thinner than when I’d seen her las, and she’d added a lot of weight to her tiny frame, but whaddaya gonna do. Her face looked older than her thirty-five years…depressingly older.
Is this what raising kids and working a sucker’s job does to you?
“I mean it, sis…you haven’t aged a day! Where the rugrats at?”
“Stop it, liar. Anthony took the kids and Ma to McDonalds…that way we can have some time to talk.”
I was immediately hit in the face by a noxious fume. “It smells like an old folk’s home screwed a dumpster in here and had a baby.”
Maria grimaced and leaned against the paisley sofa along the wall. “That smell is Ma’s pet parrot, Mojo. She adopted it after Dad died and the previous owner only taught it curse words. He’s not amusing. I clean up after him, but it always stinks. Sit down…do you want a drink or somethin’?”
Mojo heard his name and protested from the other room. Shut up, stupid…squawk…shut up, stupid.
It turned out that the sound I’d heard over the phone was an obnoxious gray parrot with a dirty mouth and a smelly perch right next to the dinner table. “Nice pe. Yeah, get me a Coke.” I looked around as she went to the kitchen, unsurprised to see that nothing had changed since we were kids. A large crucifix hung from the wall of Ma’s living room and nothing else–the quintessentially stern Roman Catholic wanted everyone to know they were entering a holy refuge of bullshit. “Man, it’s good to see you, baby sis.”
Maria put the soda on the coffee table and lit a long Virginia Slim, tapping the ashtray compulsively with her fake Lee Press-On nails. “You too, Lenny, but we need to have a serious talk.”
I pulled two soft pretzels from the brown bag and handed her one. “Can we just relax for a minute? Christ’s sake, I just got here.”
“You’ve been relaxin’ for eight years, Lenny,” she answered abruptly.
I lit a smoke and shook my head. “You could give a guy a break, sis. I wasn’t exactly at the fuckin’ Waldorf-Astoria spa. What’s botherin’ you?”
“What’s botherin’ me is I work eight hours at the Franklin Mills Mall everyday and take care of Ma morning and night and look after your incredible son, who by the way is a brat teenager now like my Tony Junior. Two cousins raisin’ hell in my house while Anthony is too tired to help after his shift at the plant. I mean…I’m overwhelmed, Lenny. I have no help. So I want to tell you what’s gonna happen now.”
“Hold up. Put the brakes on, missy. You’re telling your older brother, the one who kicked ass for you growing up, what to do now?”
“That’s exactly what I’m doing, Leonard.”
“Don’t call me that, Maria. You know I hate that.”
“What’s happening is you’re moving in here with Ma so I can stop paying a part-time nurse. She’s somewhat functional and independent still because Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, but she still needs regular care. She forgets everything. We have money that Pop left, but I won’t put her in a home. Ma needs family, Lenny…our mother deserves someone who loves her to be here when she’s not well.”
I put my cigarette in the ashtray and walked into the kitchen, hoping that some of Pop’s beer was still sitting in the fridge, orphaned but still hanging around. I shut the door empty-handed and walked back through the dining room past the ornery parrot.
I stopped in my tracks and scowled at the avian monster. “You’re a jackass.” I went into the living room, pacing as I thought about taking care of my elderly mother and the work that it involved. “Okay. Sure, sis…I’ll take care of Ma. But I need money for things. And a car.”
Maria hid a crooked smile and smoked nervously. “There’s somethin’ else, Lenny. You’re not gonna like it, but it’s the right thing to do.”
I sat back down and looked out the bay window to the street. A group of little pipsqueaks had talked a teenager ino opening the fire hydrant up to cool off. He put a wrench on the ground as the kids shouted and ran under the stream of city water, shimmering in the sunlight as it sprayed in an arch over the sidewalk. “Remember doin’ that when we were kids?”
“Yeah. Simpler times back then.”
“So…what else?” I asked.
My stressed younger sister sighed and took a drag of her Virginia Slim as she looked away. “Dylan is gonna move in here with you for his senior year. Your son will live with you.”
“What? You gotta be kiddin’ me. I can’t–I don’t know how to–what do I know about taking care of a teenage boy?”
“Take it easy. It’s not like you’re doing it alone…you still got Ma and me and he’s seventeen, not three. Dylan takes care of himself very well–”
“I haven’t seen my boy since he was like eight, now you want me to raise him? And be Ma’s friggin purse, which by the way I know nothing about. You want me to look after two human beings when I can’t even take care of myself right now?!”
“Well, you’re Lenny Primo, I’m sure you can handle it. Besides…ya got no choice. I need a break and you need to learn some responsibility.”
I took a drag from my cigarette and leaned back against the 1970’s-era couch, brushing lint off my chinos and smirking at my sister’s candor. The list of things I needed to know in order to pull this off was long, but I had resources. I had cash to burn. I had my life experiences. My wits. I was used to managing difficult people and impossible situations. All I had to do was supervise a seventy-year-old dementia patient and school a seventeen-year-old hormone machine.
How hard could it be?
The reunion was more bitter, less sweet. By the time Anthony pulled up to the curb in his sedan later that day, after I’d listened to hours of instructions from my methodical sister, I was ready for a drink. I stood on the stoop and watched our near-strangers exit the car–my new brother-in-law helped Mas as Tony Jr. and my son jumped out in front. Dylan had grown at least a foot since I’d seen him at Christmas ages ago, and he filled out his six-foot frame like an athlete. Tony Jr. was much shorter and wore sunglasses and a gold chain; the younger cousin was latched onto my kid like a feeder fish. As they reached the steps, I tried to hug them both, but the boys walked right past me into the house.
“What up, Uncle Lenny?”
“Yo, Lenny.” Dylan sneaked a peak at me and then dropped his head down.
“Yo, Lenny? Is that what I get from my flesh and blood after all this time?”
“They’re just moody kids,” Anthony said. “They’ll get over it.”
I held out a hand to my childhood classmate. “Good to see you, Ant. Welcome to the family.”
“I married Maria six years ago, Primo, but thanks. Look who it is Ma.”
My mother didn’t look unwell or sick or broken like I’d imagined. She stood there examining me for a moment, her dark eyes piercing my smile. “Hey Ma…you look fantastic. It’s good to see you.”
“The prodigal fool returns, I see.” She hiked up the hem of her skirt and came up the steps, kissing me on both cheeks. Her black hair was graying softly and matted to her large forehead. “We’ll see if you learned anything when you were gone. Come on Anthony, it’s hot.”
The teenagers shot up to the third floor to play video games and the adults sat down around the dining room table, barely making small talk. It was awkward, so I broke the ice first. “I know you all have reasons to be pissed at me right now, but please…I just got out of a hell hole and all I want to do is get my life back together. So just yell at me and get it outta the way so we can friggin’ move on.” I looked straight at our matriarch and then to Anthony and Maria.
My ailing mother shook her head confused. “Where have you been all this time, Leonard?”
“You remember, Ma. Lenny was in a correctional facility.”
“How do you shut that goddamn bird up?”
“Leonard! Mojo is family,” Ma scolded. “I remember now…I just need some gentle reminders, cupcake. Leonard abandoned his family. Who’s hungry?” She stood up inch by inch and went into the kitchen to stir the red sauce on the stove.
“That happens constantly now,” Maria lamented as Anthony put his arm around my sister. “She forgets a lot.”
Anthony cleared his throat. “I’ve known ya since we were kids, Primo. We raised your son while you were locked up because it was only right…after Krista left and with you in prison, we thought Dylan had been through enough.”
“And that means a lot to me, Ant. I won’t forget it.”
“Yeah well, it costs a lot of money to take care of another kid, too. And time and energy.”
Maria rubbed her husband’s back. “What Anthony’s saying is that it takes real sacrifice and effort to raise a child, and we just hope you’ve matured.”
I folded my arms and leaned back in the dining room chair. “Look…up until twenty-four hours ago, I didn’t even plan on being a full-time parent, let alone a live-in nurse. Can you guys just work with me and gimme some help? I’m dyin’ here.”
“Of course we’ll help, we’re family.”
“Are you fuckin’ kidding me? Does he do this all the time?”
Anthony laughed. “Yep.”
“I hope you choke on a peanut.” I glared at the cage, then lit a cigarette and pulled the ashtray closer. “Have you told Dylan he’s living with me yet?”
“We planned on talking about it tonight at dinner,” Maria explained. “The boys are very close, so we want them to spend a lot of time together here. I told Ma you’re gonna be staying too, but I’ll tell you, Lenny, she ain’t happy about it.”
“What?! My daughter has gone crazy, everyone! There is no way that Leonard is living in my house!” She grabbed the empty pasta bowl and refilled it in the kitchen, hollering away while she worked. “He couldn’t take care of a turtle. I thought you said that Dylan was going to be staying here to help me, cupcake?”
“Ma,” my sister said gently, “we talked about this all morning…don’t you remember? Lenny and Dylan are moving in. Lenny’s gonna help you instead of Nurse Randy.”
She placed a bowl of linguini on the table and cut more garlic bread. I noticed my mother had lost a step since I’d seen her last, and her hands were shaking. “Well, do I even get a say in this? I like Nurse Randy…he’s handsome and charming, not like my cocky son.”
Damn, that stings.
The night went about as bad as it could–the teenagers were bitching, Ma was complaining, Maria tried to sell it, and Ant watched it all from the sidelines. Dylan ended up running out the door with his cousin before we’d even cleared the dinner table; neither of them were happy about the new living situation at grandma’s. I couldn’t blame the kid though. After dessert, Maria took Ma upstairs to get ready for bed, and I needed a drink. I felt like it was my first day in state prison all over again–I was a fish outta water, completely unsure of how to navigate my surroundings. It bothered me because I don’t get flustered. Shot-callers don’t lose the upper hand…ever. I came up confident and that served me well. But this, being home again, was just like my jailhouse orientation on Cellblock D.
Back then, I was a little naive about the joint, but I wasn’t new to trouble. I grew up with kids whose fathers were enforcers for the mob, who had uncles running numbers and doin’ insurance scams for Skinny Joey Merlino and his crew. Real deal motherfuckers–the kinda guys you want to have your back if shit went south. But in prison, I learned how to survive real quick…so I figured I could do the same thing now.
I brought an old bottle of scotch up from a case in Pop’s basement rec room–his version of a man cave–and sat it on the coffee table in the living room, then grabbed two glasses for me and Anthony. We sat on the couch and relaxed, listening to Billy Joel belt “New York State of Mind” from the speaker on my smartphone.
“The ping-pong table in the rec room is covered in dust–it looks like nothin’s been touched since Pop passed three years ago.” I pictured him bent over the table with a large magnifying glass, painting the cockpit of an F-14 Tomcat or gluing pinstripes on a ‘69 Mustang convertible. He loved those damn plastic models…used to say working on those brought him peace. When Pop went into that rec room, it was his sanctuary–his priest was a case of Scotland’s finest whiskey.
“No one’s touched anything down there, Primo. Your Ma won’t clean it up and Maria doesn’t like to disturb where your dad spent his free time. Ma asked me to store some of his stuff down there though, if you need to go through it or anything.” He took a sip of the single-malt and shook his head. “Pop was a tough son-of-a-bitch. Fought the cancer till the end.”
I raised a glass to toast my father. “Salute to Pop. What am I gonna do, Ant? Dylan won’t talk to me and Ma can’t stand me. I don’t know where to begin.”
“All you can do is be here, man. Just be here and everything else will fall into place.”
I looked at the classmate we’d bullied when I was young with newfound respect. “You know Ant…me and the boys didn’t treat you so good growin’ up…and I’m sorry for that. You really are a stand-up guy. I can’t thank you enough.”
He looked tired after a long day’s work. “No problem, Primo. Look, I gotta go home and get some sleep.” He walked to the foot of the stairs and yelled upstairs for Maria. “Let’s go, sweetheart…we’ll pick the boys up at the basketball court on the way home.”
My sister came down the steps just like I’d seen her do a million times when we were kids. You know when you see something that brings back a vivid memory from the past? Well, when I saw my baby sis grabbing the banister at the bottom step, I saw her as a ten-year-old kid again. I was in such a hurry to move out of the house back then, but it felt so good to be home now. Maria handed me a Wachovia bank card and car keys, along with a handwritten list.
“Me and the boys will be here at lunch tomorrow. I have off so we’ll move all of Dylan’s stuff in. This account is in your name and has plenty of money in it…the keys are to Pop’s Caddy out in the alley under the tarp. Anthony starts it regularly so it runs. This list is what Ma needs when she wakes…usually at seven. I also made a list of things you need to know about the house.”
“Don’t worry,” she said, kissing me on the cheek as I shook Ant’s hand. “You’ll be fine.”
- No smoking upstairs
- Cover Mojo’s cage every night
- Keep the thermostat at 72°
- Do all the laundry and cleaning
- Don’t upset Ma
You gotta be kidding me. Goddamn house rules? It felt like I was back in the penitentiary. It took me two more drinks to work up the courage to go back to the basement and look through Pop’s things–I spent a lot of time with him in the rec room growing up, being lectured about the finer points of being a real man. But without him here now, his private quarters seemed off limits to me. Like a secret I wasn’t supposed to hear. I didn’t tell my little sister, but when I found out he died, I took it really hard. I didn’t talk to anyone in my cellblock for weeks; I beat the piss out of a guy who laughed when he saw me crying in my cell. I was forced to mourn for Pop from behind bars, in a place where weakness can get you killed. Now, standing here at the entrance to his lair, seeing his life packed away in boxes, I decided I wasn’t ready to poke around. I walked out of the rec room and down a narrow hallway that led to the street-level backdoor, going to the alley running along the backside of our block of middle-class row homes. Outside, a long, white Cadillac Seville sat waiting under a tarp for its new driver, passed down a generation and ready to chauffeur the same genes. We may have had the same DNA, but my father and I were total opposites: him–honest and hardworking, me–ambitious and disreputable. He made his money from smart investments and a robust Teamsters pension; me, from questionable businesses of ill repute. I lifted the edge of the cover and looked inside the driver’s side window. The overhead light illuminated the glass and I saw my reflection, and for a split second, I thought it was my father staring back at me.
Maybe we weren’t so different.
After going back inside, I walked upstairs and Googled “Alzheimer’s Disease” while I sat at the dining room table, reading a couple of articles before bed. This ain’t gonna be easy. I passed the petulant parrot, throwing the ratty blanket over his cage before making my way up to my old childhood bedroom (currently a sewing room with a twin mattress in the corner).
I stopped dead in my tracks and yelled back at the cage. “Shut up, asshole!”
Brick row homes sprung up in crowded cities like New York and Philly a long time ago, and they all had the same problem–there was absolutely no freakin’ privacy inside the house or from your neighbors. In South Philly, the price you pay for building three stories on top of a shallow basement in a narrow home with shotgun bedrooms squished together above small kitchens and miniature dining rooms. Our row home on Tutor street was only twenty-feet across, and with all of us moving around in there growing up, it was suffocating. It was almost impossible to sneak out at night as teens, and god forbid your parents did the nasty just a bit too loud…you wanted to poke out your eardrums with a pair of scissors.
When I woke up that first morning, nursing a mild hangover, the first thing I heard was Ma snoring from the other room. Right then I knew I was home. The alarm clock on my cell chimed 6:45 and I got out of bed, ready to attend to Ma’s needs to start the day: blood-pressure pill and vitamin, B-12, acetyl cholinesterase inhibitors, Ginkgo biloba, Philadelphia Intelligencer crossword from the front step, and Earl Gray tea…bedside. The life of leisure, well-earned by a 70-year-old who’d worked on her feet in retail her entire life, then came home and took care of her family and all the neighborhood kids like it was her second job. After Ma had her tea and took her pills, there was nothing stopping her from cooking…she still made three meals a day, even if no one else was there to eat them. She fed the neighbors, their kids, the mailman…you name it and they’ve had Ma’s spaghetti alla bolognese or veal piccata. I sat at the dining room table while she prepared a nut-and-berry gruel for her parrot, placing it in his cage before starting omelets.
Squawk…love Mojo…squawk…love Mojo.
“I guess he only disrespects me, huh?” I joked. She walked into the kitchen in silence as I sipped my espresso. “Ma…you haven’t said more than two words to me since you woke up. How long you gonna be mad at me for?”
She took some capicola ham and peppers from the fridge without looking my way. “As long as it takes.”
We ate breakfast in relative quiet, Ma answering my questions with annoyingly short responses. “I haven’t seen you in ages, Ma. It’s good to be here.”
She looked up from her veggie omelet and smiled slightly. “Where were you again, Leonard? I haven’t talked to you in years.”
For a split second I thought about lying, before realizing how cruel it would be. “Don’t worry about where I been, I’m here now.”
Maria told me that Ma was fine at home alone for short periods, even overnight, so I got her settled in for a morning of watching TV and knitting, then got showered and dressed in a polo and slacks. I grabbed my fedora and the keys from the table and kissed my mother on the cheek. “Ma, I’m going to the mall to pick up some things. I’m gonna be a couple hours…do you need anything?”
She dismissed me with a wave. “If I need anything, Nurse Randy will get it for me.”
I sighed. “Ma…your nurse isn’t coming back anymore.”
She fidgeted in her worn recliner and scoffed. “Of course he isn’t. What do you thinking I am, a forgetful old lady? I’m stuck with you…I know.”
I lit a smoke and walked through the dining room towards the basement steps. “Alright Ma, I’ll be back before Maria and the boys get here–”
The cantankerous bird was looking right at me with his head cocked, and even though I knew he didn’t understand, I felt great satisfaction flipping him the middle finger on my way past. I walked through the basement and out to the alley, pulling the tarp off the Caddy and opening the door to a blast of stale heat. I rolled the windows down and cranked the A.C. up before adjusting the seats and mirrors of the luxury ride.
“Thanks, Pop,” I muttered as I inched out of the alley and onto the street, remembering the days when I used to steal whatever model Caddy he was driving that year for a joyride with my thug friends. “Best carmaker in America,” he used to say. As I rolled into traffic and drove towards the Gallery Mall, I couldn’t help checking the rearview to see if his face was there.
Remember the scene in Shawshank Redemption when the prison bus pulled up and Andy Dufraine stepped off, head down and shuffling towards the gate? Well, that’s what my lanky son looked like as he loped across the sidewalk from Maria’s SUV, box in hand like he was heading to death row. Tony Jr. followed behind with my baby sis in tow, all three carrying crates filled with Dylan’s belongings–some things I recognized and some things I’d never seen before. I wondered if he still had the seashells we scavenged at the Jersey Shore when he was three. Or the baseball mitt I got him when he was six. The boxing gloves I made him practice with–even when my gentle boy protested. I was a little shorter and stockier than the other boys I grew up with, so I learned early on that a hard punch to the nose can solve a lot of life’s problems. I wanted my youngster to stand up for himself too.
“You gotta be tough, kid. We live in a tough neighborhood, and you’re gonna be tough too.”
Dylan wasn’t speaking to me; to be fair, I hadn’t really been around since he was young, and even then, it was only on visits for weekends and holidays. I’d moved to Florida when he was three and Tony Jr. was a newborn, and the boys had grown up without me. I felt like a piece of roadkill for that. I took the box of books out of my son’s arms as he walked up the stoop and hit him on the shoulder.
“Heya, bud. We didn’t really get to talk last night. After we get your stuff moved in, I was thinking we could go somewhere to catch up.”
“I’m pretty busy today, Lenny.”
If your seventeen-year-old calls you by your first name, you’ve fucked up as a parent. “Look, Dylan, I’m askin’ for a couple hours. You can give your old man a couple of hours. We’ll go to the horse track…my treat.”
He turned to go back for another box and I heard a sarcastic: “Yep…whatever you say, Dad.”
My baby sis giggled under her breath. “He’ll come around, Lenny…don’t worry.” I took the laundry basket from her and kissed her chubby cheek as Tony Jr. skipped up the stairs with a bag of sports equipment. “It’ll just take time.”
After the last of Dylan’s things were inside and Ma fed us all, I cornered my son on his way to the bathroom, surreptitiously planning our way out.
“Listen, I don’t want your grandmother to know we’re going to the track, alright kiddo? I don’t wanna hear her…well, let’s just keep it between us. Get ready and I’m gonna ask your aunt to hang around for a little while.”
“Are you scared of Ma-ma?”
“You’re damn right I am…you should be too.”
Maria followed me into the living room as Ma washed the dishes with Tony Jr., and I heard my mother’s laugh echo through the house from the kitchen–a sweet, mellifluous angel’s voice that I hadn’t heard in years. When Maria started to talk, she saw the tear in my eye and rubbed my shoulder. “What’s wrong, Lenny?”
“I just…I missed her, that’s all. And I’m pissed off that she’s sick, Maria.”
My baby sis pulled out her cell and gave me a number. “She’s having a good day today, but not every day is like this. You should call the Alzheimer’s Association and talk to someone on the hotline. You can learn a lot, Lenny…I did. Ma is in the middle stages of the disease right now, but they said as she digresses, caregiving becomes a 36-hour-a-day job.” She lit a smoke and leaned on the banister. “Obviously when she reaches that point we’ll have to look at the option of moving her to a residential hospital. How’d it go this morning?”
“Okay, I guess…nothing too hard. She keeps forgetting where I’ve been and I don’t want to keep reminding her.”
“Humph. Probably a good thing. Did you rub her feet and–”
“Hold on, what?”
“Did you read the whole list? You didn’t read the list.”
I took a drag from her cigarette and pulled the folded up instructions from my back pocket. “Yeah, but I stopped after I felt like I was reading a novel.”
“Ma needs circulation in her feet and toes because she doesn’t walk enough anymore. Nurse Randy said we have to do it every morning. It’s on the list–”
“Alright, alright. I’ll follow all of your instructions to the tee…promise.”
Maria agreed to hang around the house for the afternoon and unpack while I got some quality time with Dylan without his cousin hanging on, giving us a chance to try to reconnect a little. The thing was though…I didn’t even know my own kid. We didn’t make it ten minutes before bickering, and I could tell it was going to be a long day. Philadelphia Park was the top horse track in the Tristate area, and it was crowded for a Tuesday.
“Pop used to bring me here,” I told him, sitting on the mezzanine overlooking the finish line with a beer and a cigar. Crumpled, white, losing tickets were scattered around the concrete ground like disposed dreams. “That ticket in your hand, your bet…Pop started letting me pick the ponies when I was five. I remember feeling so grown up. I never won, but those days hanging out here with my dad were priceless because he worked so much on the road.”
Dylan shook his head as a trumpet blared; a rally call for the start of another race. “I know what you’re trying to do, Lenny, and it won’t work. This isn’t a father-son outing. Do you understand?” His voice wavered. “You’ve never raised me. You spent half my life in state prison. You left us.”
I took my glasses off and looked at my son. Dylan looked just like me: thick, dark hair, Roman nose, short ears. His demeanor was the same. His attitude the same. I felt like a proud father watching my progeny sitting here give me hell because that’s exactly what I would do. It’s what I’ve always done. He was a miniature me and didn’t even know it. “I’m sorry for everything. I can’t change the past, D, but I’m here now.”
“Don’t call me ‘D.’ Can we go soon?”
Far in the distance, the starting gates crashed open onto the mile-long oval track and seven thoroughbreds rushed out of their pen like thunderbolts, hugging the low railing of the concourse almost magnetically and speeding. I’d picked the same ticket as Dylan’s random guess: #6 Mister Mister to Show; #3 Sanguine Days to Place; #9 Crystal Ball to Win. As we sat in silence watching our horses hit the halfway point, I leaned back with my cigar and sighed as everyone around us cheered.
“Well, we’re already here…you may as well enjoy yourself.” I lifted my mini-binoculars and moved to the edge of my plastic seat. “This is a three-quarter-mile stakes race. Look at the green and white silks…our number nine if making a play for the outside lane. He looks pretty fast.” Dylan stopped sulking for a moment to look out at the dirt track as my adrenaline started pumping and I handed him the glasses.
“That’s it, Crystal Ball! Come on! Come on, baby!” he screamed.
Yeah…he’s definitely my boy.
I inched closer to his face to shout over the unruly crowd. “Watch the jockey’s ass…if he sits low on the saddle, he’s gonna follow the outside to the finish. See him?! See that?! We’re in front! Come on, you son-of-a-bitch, ride! RIDE!!!”
Dylan looked a little embarrassed by my yelling. “You’re so loud.”
“You’re damn right I’m loud, I put a hundred on each of our tickets. That charger is running at 6-1 odds to win!”
It took him a second to do the math, and as Crystal Ball rounded the last turn in first place, coming down the homestretch with a sheen of sweat on his rump, my son jumped up and down on the guardrail screaming wildly and smiling, making me the happiest man in the grandstands. The drive back to South Philly was the first time I’d really talked to my son in many years, and as I pulled the Caddy into the alley to park, I grinned at Dylan’s buzzing excitement.
“I still can’t believe we won over a thousand dollars. That’s so much money. Can we go back next week?”
I opened the back door and let him in. “Sure, but slow down, kid. You got the bug, but remember most people don’t hit big…the House always wins.” I glanced into Pop’s rec room as we walked towards the steps; for some reason, I thought about how he taught me to work on engines, and how much we bonded over my beat up Monte Carlo.
“Hey, why don’t you drive yet?”
Dylan shrugged. “Aunt Maria let me take my driver’s test, but I just use the bus and subway to get around.”
“I’ll make you a deal…you help me out with Grammy, maybe give me a hand around the house, and we’ll use that twelve-hundred towards your first car. Whaddaya say?”
My lanky teenager spun around like I’d just told him Megan Fox was naked upstairs. “For real, dad? I can get a car?”
Eight years in the penitentiary will make a man as hard as steel and turn him into a stone wall that can’t be broken through, but when I heard my boy call me dad for the first time since he was a toddler–I choked up. “Yeah…yeah…you can. It ain’t gonna be a 2020 model though…you get a shitkicker just like me and all my friends started out with.”
The next several days were hard; Ma was needy and filled with animus, asking the same questions every day. Dylan was moody and combative after school, never telling me anything about his day or his life. It was like the moment we’d had was gone; or maybe he was just being a bratty teenager. We did have something to agree over each night in the living room–we’d make fun of people on TV while Ma scolded us from her worn recliner. And we both hated Mojo.
“You boys be nicer to people, you never know who you meet that might be an angel.”
Against my will, I learned how to administer medication, tutor algebra, research a mysterious disease, talk shit to a gray parrot, comfort the woman who’d comforted me for so many years, explain my past to my child while feeling ashamed, apologize more than I ever had before, and ask for help for maybe the first time in my life. Late at night, after acquiescing to everyone’s demands, after my pep talk on the phone with my baby sis and a lot of emotional heavies, I’d go down into the rec room and sit quietly with my scotch, conjuring up my father’s ghost through his words of wisdom that I never heeded:
“If you make a mistake in life, just admit it and move on, son.”
“Never mistreat a woman.”
“Have respect for law and order, Lenny. We are a law-abiding family. Just because we live around a bunch of mobsters doesn’t mean my kids will be involved in those shenanigans.”
“Character is what you do when nobody is looking.”
I’d sit on the workbench and glance around the room at Pop’s things, seeing all the knick-knacks that brought back memories of him. A rusted toolbox. An old pair of reading glasses. A Philadelphia Eagles cheerleaders calendar with his driving schedule penciled in. I’d breath in deeply, smelling model glue, paint chips, and balsa wood carvings. The room was filled with the essence of Pop and his life’s passion. On Friday night, as I sat reading a tattered reference book on building World War Two ships, flipping the pages and drinking Pop’s liquor, I heard a loud commotion from the upstairs kitchen and bolted to the steps. When I reached the top, Ma was standing in her robe in front of the stove, beating a teapot on the burner with a wooden spoon and hollering.
“Why won’t you boil? Why won’t you work?”
“Ma! What are you doing? It’s after midnight.”
“Sweet Jesus…who are you? Get out of my house! Get out!”
She limply tossed the spoon at me with the strength of a seventy-year-old and screamed in a cracking voice that held fear and confusion at once. The kitchen was only dimly lit by the stove vent light, so I walked over to the wall switch and turned on the overhead light, illuminating a very scared, old lady.
“Ma…” I gently moved her away from the stovetop. “Ma…it’s me…your son, Leonard.”
“Leonard? Why are you–”
“I live here, Ma. Please tell me you remember. I live here now.”
My mother straightened out her robe and walked into the dining room to sit down. “Yes, of course I know you live here. I’m not dense, Leonard. You just scared me. What are you doing coming up from the basement so late?”
“I’m in Pop’s rec room. What are you doing making tea this late?” As I sat down and looked at her confused face, I could see her eyes glaze over, unable to answer my question. I recalled reading that some patients experience immense fear and frustration as they struggle with once commonplace tasks and slowly lose their independence, and will try to perform everyday tasks at the inappropriate time. My heart sank seeing this once proud and confident and witty person look so…feeble. It was as if she’d aged far beyond her years right in front of me, and I shook my head sympathetically. Right at that moment, I heard a rattling inside the cage from under the blanket and my nemesis spoke up.
Son of a bitch. That goddamn bird made me want to choke him out and put him in the oven for dinner. I couldn’t believe that he knew when I was in the room..but he did. He was sweet to his adoptive mother, but cussed me out like a sailor. “Go fuck yourself, Mojo!” I grabbed Ma gently under the arm and started towards the stairs.
“I love you, Ma…let me take you back to bed now please.”
The following Saturday was a good morning for Ma, but it would turn out to be one of the last. Her Alzheimer’s was deteriorating her cognitive thinking at a rapid speed, and we would be getting close to bi-weekly doctor appointments and stronger meds. But that morning, she was a charming Italian mom at home in her favorite kitchen. While she made breakfast, Dylan and I sat at the dining room table talking, waiting for our pancakes and joking around. It felt like we were vibing more, especially after I let him pick out his car from my old buddies’ used lot near the Phillies stadium. The Ford Taurus wasn’t a beauty, but it ran reliable.
“I’m going to show you how to fix a flat tire tomorrow, but only once. You have to learn by doing it on your own. We’ll change the oil next weekend.”
“Sounds good, dad,”
“Now…when we get to the cemetery, I don’t know how Ma’s gonna act, so let’s be patient. Her and Pop were married for fifty years, and she’s lonely.”
“Who wants banana and who wants syrup, boys?”
“We want both, Ma-ma,” Dylan answered. “And some orange juice, please.”
Ma seemed to float on air coming out of the kitchen, smiling and acting like a matriarch again. She pinched Dylan’s cheek. “Your father always liked peaches on his pancakes…peaches! Can you believe that?”
I laughed. “I like them…so what.”
Ma left and came back from the kitchen again with a small bowl filled with canned peaches, then kissed me on the forehead. “I didn’t forget.”
We drove Pop’s Caddy up Passyunk to 5th and crossed over to Washington, finding a spot to park in the Italian Market before following Ma around the food stalls. I watched her skirt swish and flip as she weaved in and out of different vendor spaces, grabbing a container of sticky ricotta here and a satchel of fresh basil there. She smelled and squeezed and tasted her way through an entire row of vegetables and meats and spices, all while Dylan and I carried her bags like dutiful sons. I saw Ma again as the woman who’d raised all of the children in the neighborhood; the Ma who played gin with her girlfriends and took cruises with her high school sweetheart. Who loved life with a true passion, and enjoyed eggplant lasagna as much as her hair salon. She just looked tranquil, and that brought me peace. Her brain had betrayed her, but for that day, we were having fun.
“Leonard, do you remember that place over there? I don’t know why I recognize it.”
Ma was pointing at the front steps of a large civic hall–the center of the Italian-American community in South Philly–and where me and Maria would sit as kids, watching the parades and summertime street festivals honoring patron saints. Real old school Catholic shit. Maria and I would race around trying to catch the candy being thrown from the fire trucks as Ma and Pop sat in their lawn chairs, laughing and chatting with friends. Ma had been there a hundred times. It hurt that she forgot, but I knew it wasn’t her fault. Looking at the worn steps, I wanted to give Dylan those memories to hold just like I’d been given. Her reminder was a call to action for me as a father.
“Yeah, Ma. I do.” I walked over and put my arm around her. Her whimsy had turned to aubergine confusion. “Come on, let’s go visit Pop.”
We pulled into Lawndale Memorial slowly, morose under the now overcast skies and from seeing the many crooked headstones sticking up from the flattened grass. Many generations of Philadelphians had been buried side by side in the local graveyard, and the eerie history of the plots felt overpowering.
“I didn’t get to bury Pop,” I said out loud to no one.
No one answered. I steered down the winding lane towards our section of the cemetery, gazing at the flowers placed precisely at each loved one’s grave. A backhoe sat idle to my left. Do you know those things that happen in life that hurt so bad they never heal? Like Pauly disowning Henry in Goodfellas? Or when the Count of Monte Cristo was betrayed? Well, not being able to say goodbye to my father the right way would no doubt haunt me forever; I was crushed by not being at his funeral. It made me mad for a long time…until I became conscious that it was my own fault. If I would have chosen an honest profession–like a plumber or a cop–I never woulda went to the joint. Never woulda missed Pop’s last days on Earth. Never woulda lost my son to relatives. Never woulda turned to stone like those marble and granite crypts.
Dylan showed me where to park as Ma sat silent, handkerchief in hand and eyes lowered. “You would have enjoyed his funeral, Leonard. The priest’s ritual was solemn, and we had just a small gathering of family and friends.”
I opened the door for my mother and took her by the arm as a light drizzle began. Dylan looked in the trunk for an umbrella while I escorted Ma across the grass, walking to Pop’s final resting place. When we got to it, I looked down in disbelief. My mind raced for a familiarity; my brain tried to make a connection to what I saw. Next to the flowers, next to a Catholic rosary, in front of the wreath Ma had probably left on his birthday, I saw a bright red pick-up truck resting against the headstone–the very first model Pop and I had ever painted together.
“Is that…where did that come from? Ma?”
“It was in your father’s chest downstairs.”
I opened my mouth to speak, but no words came out. I let out a whimper and fell to my knees, clinging onto Ma’s leg as she rubbed my head. All of the pain and grief and regret that I’d held in came flooding out, the tears mixing with the gentle rain on my red cheeks. Dylan, now crying himself, stood on the other side of me and put his hand on my shoulder, letting me know he was there for me. He held the umbrella over everyone like a gentleman, raised by a good family. A family I had left behind. I was surrounded by the two people I’d let down the most, and now they were the two strongest people in my life. As I reached out and touched the model car, remembering the way Pop used the fine brush to fix my mistakes, I was transported back to when I was five, and engrossed with his faithful hobby.
“Pay attention to detail, Len. Small things matter.”
“Don’t get paint on the floor. Respect people and things.”
“Take your time and everything will turn out okay.”
After a few moments of quietude, a conversation between me and my only dad, I was able to let go of all the pain, of all the shame I’d carried since his death. I’d gotten to say my goodbyes to a man I’d loved, and stood up to hold the mother and son I’d never leave again.
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