summer 2013

Jeff Lawenda                                      

Escaping the oppressive August
afternoon, I enter the glass, steel and stone structure. I’m instantly soothed
by cooled air while assaulted by anxiety.

The image of a Marine stepping off a
landing craft to confront the enemy on a Pacific beach comes to mind. My father
is certainly not the enemy, yet I’m afraid of what I’ll see and hear from a man
I barely know. Exiting the elevator on the fifteenth floor, I’m weighed down by
our complex history.

I feel death’s company as I walk
down the brightly lit hall toward his room, taking in disinfectant fumes, odors
from food carts and human stench. I pass the nurses’ station, an oasis of order
and nobility.

Lying in the only occupied bed in the
double room, my father, Jake Landau, appears a fraction of his former self. He’s
emaciated, ashen. His eyes are rheumy and sunken; what had been sturdy cheeks
have been reduced to facial valleys no longer resembling anything organic.  The full hair he enjoyed as a younger man has
been replaced by the same gray bristle dotting his face. He’s connected to tubes
and fully disconnected from the city outside his window that he spent a
lifetime protecting. With heavy, uncertain legs and a pounding heart I approach
him.

NYU Langone Medical Center is considered
one of the best hospitals in the New York metro. But it’s not good enough to
save my father. The truth is no hospital anywhere could save the life of this
seventy-three year old man who – in keeping with his stubborn, self-reliant,
cantankerous self – rarely saw a doctor. His tough, I’ll-be-okay stance might
have worked if the doctors who finally got a shot at examining him hadn’t found
cancer galloping through his body.  My
chance to get to truly know my father is dying with him.

“Well look who’s here.” His words come out fragile
and labored, filled with a history of all kinds of pain. He’d always been
soft-spoken, which often proved unnerving to those who sensed the power of his
body and the force it was capable of unleashing. But now, for the first time in
his life, his voice is in-sync with his feeble body.  

“Hey, Dad.” I brush his shoulder,
kiss his cheek, and pull a chair close to the bed.

“Nice suit,” he blurts out at the top
of his vocal capabilities.

“Just came from court.”

“What scumbag did you get off
today?” He gives off a strange blend of sarcasm, concern and intimacy. Still has
a punch.

“What difference does it make?”

“All the difference in the world.
Another skel back on the streets.”

“This guy’s really innocent.”

“Yeah … They all are.” Even now.

“How are you doing today?”

“How could I be doing?”

“How bad is it?”

“A
bitch.”

I need to remember him another way. I
grab his hand. It’s blue
and blotchy. “Squeeze hard, Dad.” He cannot do
this.

My father had been a physically
striking man. He was six feet and built like a linebacker, thick in the chest
and arms and narrow at the waist. He had dark wavy hair, hazel eyes and an open
smile. If he was angered enough, the smile would be replaced by a clenched
mouth and penetrating glare. I rarely saw that transition. He was someone you
could instantly like or fear, but only if you had reason to.

“The shit they give me keeps wearing
off.”

“I’ll get the nurse.”

“No. I told them to hold off. I
don’t want to be out of it. I need to say things.”

“I don’t want you in pain.”

“I want to be alert as long as I
have a choice. ”

I’m running out of things to say. “You’re
not going anywhere so soon.”

“Bullshit. You’re here because I
asked them to call since it’ll be over soon. Max two weeks. That’s what the
doctor says. And that’s why I want this now, before I’m too weak or too drugged
to say what I need to say.”

“Why didn’t you have them call me
sooner?” We see each other maybe three or four times a year. His doing at first,
but now the blame is up for grabs.

“What’s the difference? You’re here
now. How about your mother? Is she coming?”

“Yeah. I spoke to her and she said she’ll be
here.”

“Important I speak to you together.”

“You giving speeches today?” I try
to lower the tension.

“Call it what you want.”

“Alright, Dad.”

“You’re lying about your mother,” he
says with about seventy percent conviction, thirty per cent fishing.

“Still on the Job?”  

“Been reading eyes, expressions too
long to miss bullshit.”

“She said she’d be here.”

“Jimmy, cut it. She’ll be a no show.
Your mother won’t hear me out.”

Dammit. I wish she’d get here. Maybe
she changed her mind. “I’m betting Mom shows. A hundred bucks says so.”

“Wish I could be around to spend your
money,” he says with more exuberance than I thought possible.

“Then consider it motivation to beat
this thing.”

“Believe me, I’m motivated enough
without your money. But my wanting it won’t make it happen.”

“Doctors aren’t always right,” I say
with forced certainty. I’m pleading a case I know I’ll lose.

“Sure.
But cops don’t believe in miracles. Especially Jewish cops. Not with our
history.”

I don’t respond. No way to talk hope
to him, real or imagined. “Things happen. No one can prevent them from
happening. Or undo them afterward,” he says more to himself than me.

I ponder the ‘undo’ part. I hesitate,
and say, “Aside from Sandy’s death, are there other things you’d undo if you
could?”

“So, now you’re a shrink and lawyer,
huh?” I’ve struck a nerve hiding behind the sarcasm.

“I’ve lived long enough to want to
undo some things.”

“Things you were responsible for?” I
ask before catching myself.

“Now you’re back to being a lawyer. I’m not on
trial here.”  

He grimaces and tears, balls of pain
work their way out of his shut eyes. I wait until his suffering subsides, wondering
if it will. My father always appeared resistant to pain and sorrow; I never saw
him cry. I believed what my mother once told me. “He cries inside.” As a boy, I
thought he was capable of doing anything and took her comment to mean he could make
his tears flow inward unlike the rest of us.

When Sandy, my older brother, was
killed in a hit-and-run, my father’s eyes were dry at the cemetery. When his
arms weren’t around my mother’s shoulders, they lay tense at his sides, hands
curled into fists. I was devastated, in an unworldly state, but I put my arm
around my mother’s other side, wanting to be strong like him while choking on
my sobs. I was convinced he had to be the toughest person I knew. He didn’t say
anything for hours that day.  

During shiva at our house in Forest
Hills, my father only spoke at length when his cop friends came to pay their respects.
After saying all the right things to my mother along with the rest of us – my
grandparents, uncles, aunts – the cops went to the table set up as a bar, and
made themselves drinks. My father took them into the kitchen where they talked
in low tones, almost whispers. Since the kitchen door wasn’t fully shut and my eleven-year
old curiosity was on fire, I managed to overhear part of what Kevin Feeney, my
father’s partner, said. “Yeah, Jake, we got a lead. A bookie, who owes a friend
of mine at the one-one-two, was in the neighborhood making a collection. Said
he saw a late model powder blue Eldorado hardtop with large white walls make a much
too fast turn onto … ”

That’s all I heard. But, with my
face wedged between the door and the jam, I could see my father’s face, a
distortion of what it had been. It scared me. The rage in his eyes will always
be indelible in my mind’s album of family photos.    

Now from the hospital bed, recovering
from his bout with pain, he says, “That was a rough one. Sorry, Jimmy.”

“Sorry?  What are you crazy? You’re not Superman.”

“I guess not. You know, I’ve been
shot, knifed. And dealt with the pain. This is something else.”

“It must be brutal, Dad.”

“Just goes to show you … I used
to think people inflict the worst pain.” He reflects on this and adds, “Well, maybe
we do. That other kind of pain.”

With personal history as my
reference, I add, “Sometimes that other kind of pain can be brutal too … ”

“Yeah. It can. I guess we both know
about that.” He looks down at his hands and withdraws into himself.

“I guess we do.”

“So how’s Michelle? The kids?”

“They’re all fine.” He probably
forgets the names of my children. “They send their love. Meeting them later for
dinner. My …  ”  

“Oh, happy birthday, Jimmy.
Forty-eight, right?”

My God, he remembers. “Yeah. Thanks.”

“Sorry, no card. Haven’t been able
to get to Hallmark.” He smiles.

I haven’t received a card from my
father since he and my mother split thirty years ago.  While they were together, she had always
signed the cards for both of them. My father’s phone call track record,
however, has been stellar. His first birthday call, made from a noisy bar, came
when I turned eighteen. From that year on, I’d get a call – never on the actual
day – but within a week. He never missed one.

“Seeing you is better than a card .
. . or a call.” I say this not as a polite throw away.

“There’s the bullshit again.” He grins
again.

“What if I told you that you’re dead
… wrong.” What an idiot.

His laugh is weak but welcome. “So
counselor, I know you’re better than this in court.  I mean telling a man who’s about to die that
he’s dead … ”

“You know what I mean. You’re just wrong.
I want to see you. I just wish it wasn’t this.”

“Me too. Big time. Tell you what,
Jimmy, why don’t you pull all this shit out of me, get a wheelchair and roll me
over to Twenty-third Street and let’s have a birthday drink at Ned’s. After
that we can cross the street and sit in the park.”

“There’s nothing that would make me
happier.” I wish we had done just that when he was well. And not just once.

“Not as happy as me. Come on. Do it.
You and me at Ned’s. I’m tired of this place.” His gallows humor is getting to
me. Not in a bad way, not irritated by it, moved. Without the pain medication, he’s
still clever. His sarcastic wit is all he’s got left to protect the dignity he
always valued. I’d rather see him like this than drugged. But when the pain
hits, the trade-off is unbearable. For both of us.

“Tell me about Ned’s.”

“Been there forever. Our watering
hole when I worked out of the One-o on Twentieth Street. We’d go after a shift.
Drank Johnnie Walker Red back then. Most of us did.” He smiles, possibly
relishing the idea of a Scotch on the rocks. “Mickey, the bartender, would take
care of us. Nothing out of line. Every few, he’d buy one back. We never thought
of going anywhere else.”

“And what about the park?” He doesn’t
respond but takes a break, closes his eyes and rests a minute. “Well, Madison
Square Park wasn’t always like it is today. It was rotten in the eighties, nineties.
We used to make busts there. Dealers. Users. Scum. But they beautified it about
twelve years ago.”  

He pauses to catch another breath
and to locate some energy. His eagerness to talk lacks the strength to make it
happen. I feel his frustration and am pained to see him battle to accept the
reality.  

He refuses to give in. “So I went
afterward to see what they’d done. I became attached to it and, living in Stuy Town,
made it easy. After I retired from the Job, my security work sometimes took me
back to the area. So, I’d spend time there. Bottom line, it became a sanctuary.
What a park should be. Beautiful. Safe. A place to go to relax, solve problems.
Geez, listen to me … ” He shakes his head. End of that discussion.

I am struck by his words, his sentiments.
They represent a side of him of which I have a vague recollection. It would
have been from before ‘76, the year Sandy was killed and I turned eleven. Thirty-seven
lost years for my father and me. And yet, now I can see myself having a drink
or two with him at his bar, sharing, confiding. Later, we’re sitting together
on a bench feeding squirrels and talking like old friends. I feel a profound
loss for an unshared past.

Before Sandy died, my family was
impenetrable, indestructible. No one could touch or hurt or separate us. We may
have come at things differently but, when it counted, we were one voice. The
love we all had for each other permeated every room of our house.

My mother was our heart and soul, my
father our brains and muscle, but on any given day they could switch roles as
fast as Sandy and I could swap positions in stickball. Until my life became undone
between eleven and twelve, I had two male idols and lived with both. My father
was my wise, strong role model; Sandy was my super athletic, protective hero. The
three of us would go to Forest Hills High on 110th Street with a broomstick
and a bag of spaldeens. I thought we were rich because we had so many of those
pink rubber balls that we put in a large off-white canvas bag. There must have
been fifty balls. My father held a broken stick of white chalk in his meaty
fingers and marked two strike zones of different heights next to each other on a
brick wall. He’d pitch to each of us at different speeds at our respective locations.
Sandy hit first while I stood in the makeshift outfield eager to catch his
frequent blasts, which had me running all over the paved schoolyard. He was a
natural: big for his age, strong, fluid and full of physical grace.

Although we lived in Queens, home of
the Mets, my father, who grew up in the Bronx, was a serious Yankee fan. He saw
something Mantleish in Sandy. Just knew it and wanted him to be a switch-hitter
like number seven. He’d tell him to move to the right side of the plate and reverse
his swing. “Use your right arm to guide the bat, Sandy. Use your left arm for power
and remember your legs. Rotate your center body. You can do it.” And he did do
it. By the time Sandy turned thirteen, he could hit equally as good from either
side of the plate and was the best young switch hitter in the neighborhood. Or,
from my perspective, any neighborhood.

After Sandy hit a bagful deep to
both sides of the playground, we’d switch positions. I was a decent right hand
hitter but lacked Sandy’s extra something. I received the same encouragement as
him but not solely from my father. Sandy would yell from the outfield, “Stay
focused, Jimmy. You can do it.” I’ll never forget their you-can-do-its, words I
stopped hearing from both after 1976. My mother replaced them as mentor, but with
all her intelligence and caring she could only try – and that she did in spades
– to fill the emptiness they left behind.

The day Sandy died, my family began
to unravel. But right up to that day, we were still high from Sandy’s bar
mitzvah. One month before, he stood at the pulpit next to the rabbi with our beaming
father and mother nearby and made us proud. When he wasn’t reading from the
torah, he’d look at me and offer a wink and a big grin as if to say in a couple
of years you’ll be up here Jimmy. He was the big deal that day, and he picked
me – not one of his friends – to single out with his wink and smile.

By some standards, Sandy’s bar
mitzvah was a modest affair. Held at a local catering hall, it was wonderful
and tasteful and everyone talked about it for weeks. The exuberant display of love
and celebration in the smartly decorated banquet room was a profound expression
of life and tradition. It will always stay with me.

The tone and spirit were set by my parents
who laughed, hugged and engaged each guest. They made it a party to remember. I
was filled with pride watching them in elegant clothes glide across the dance
floor like movie stars. I’m struck by a sepia image of my mother and father in
each other’s arms emitting soulful love to one another as they danced to the
sounds of the live band.  

That show of affection was not
visible at my own bar mitzvah two years later. Also missing on my big day was unadulterated
joy. It had been replaced by subdued happiness, weighted down by tragedy. The only
similarities between the two affairs were the venues and most of the guests.

By the time the chatter about
Sandy’s bar mitzvah began to subside, our horrific loss worked its way through
windows and doors and presided over kitchen tables and NYPD locker rooms. It
didn’t stop there. For the next year and a half, my family, one way or another,
was the subject of conversation, whispers and knowing nods.

Nine weeks after Sandy was killed, an
arrest was made. I learned something about the solidarity of cops at an early
age. The effort to arrest the perpetrator became an NYPD priority. Just before
Sandy’s bar mitzvah, my father had been made detective first grade. He was
well-liked and respected. Just prior to his promotion, he was awarded the NYPD
Medal for Valor after risking his life to save another cop in a drug-related
shootout. So, when Sandy was killed, no one had to give an order to locate the
driver of the Caddy. Cracking this case became an unspoken commitment whereby
friends of my father and relative strangers on the Job used off-duty time to
follow up leads. Get the perp who killed
Jake Landau’s boy
.

“Dad, how’s the staff treating you?”

“They’re fine, actually nice. Small
world. One of the nurses, Angie Simone, is Nick Simone’s granddaughter.”

I knew who Nick was since he had
come to our home while we were sitting shiva. “Who figured out the connection,
you or she?”

“I’m a cop remember,” he says
kiddingly. “No big deal. It was simple. Saw her nametag and just took a shot.
Nick died a few years ago. He was about twelve years older than me and taught
me a ton about detective work. Retired a Sergeant in ’82. He’d had it … But
we stayed in touch.” A darkness rapidly spreads across his face and settles in
his eyes, which he lowers.

“What is it, Dad?”

“Oh, nothing. Just old memories.”

“Do you want to talk about them?”

“No.”

If my father had turned inward and
become a different man after losing Sandy, he became unrecognizable after the
jury acquitted Carlos Santiago. The case had hinged on the jury believing
Santiago when he claimed he didn’t know he’d hit anyone. The judge ruled that his
drug dealing convictions could be prejudicial to the jury and were not
admissible. Not able to use Santiago’s criminal record to damage his
credibility, the prosecution – without an eyewitness at the actual scene –
couldn’t convince the jury that he knew what he’d done. Santiago was an
exceptional actor and his attorney was good, very good. He was court appointed
and, with this case under his belt, he went on to become one of the city’s top
criminal defense lawyers.  

My father went on to become one of
the city’s top cops as well as the victim of a ravaged soul. The poison he kept
bottled up seeped into his blood stream and changed him forever. My mother went
for counseling; my father, characteristically, refused help. His therapy was
the Job. He worked tirelessly, and his home appearances became sporadic. He
disappeared as a husband, father and complete human being. How he functioned so
magnificently as a cop still eludes me. But he did, and received promotions and
awards, retiring ten years ago as a decorated Deputy Inspector.

I let him remain in his reverie about
Nick Simone and the ugliness they saw. He closes his eyes again, clearly in
excruciating pain.  

“Dad, let me get the nurse.”

“Get her when you leave. After I’ve
said what I have to.”

           “Then
tell me now. I can’t take seeing you in this kind of pain. If for some reason Mom
doesn’t come, I’ll tell her later whatever you want her to know.”

My
father ponders this and says, “No. If I can take it, you can take watching it. I
don’t want to be dulled by drugs. Believe me, no one wants to see Angie or the
other nurse come in here with that pain potion more than me, but … ” He
grimaces and stays quiet, waiting for my mother who I now doubt will show.

I never questioned why my father
didn’t remarry. The NYPD became his wife and family. And, if my mother – with
whom he had a deep, loving history – couldn’t handle being with the new Jake, I
couldn’t imagine any other woman putting up with his intense silences.

But I always did wonder why my mother
never found another man. She was an extremely attractive forty-one year old
when they divorced. She’d always feel the pain of Sandy’s death, but with counseling,
she managed to move forward. Retrieving her warm, funny personality, she lit up
every room. Friends fixed her up, but she never saw the same man more than two
or three times. My sense is she never stopped loving my father. But the new
Jake held no interest for her and she ultimately considered the old Jake dead. My
mother came to mourn her husband as well as her eldest son.  

They had met at NYU and, as my mother
once told me, “We both knew it would be for keeps.” She wanted to teach English,
and he was obsessed with being a cop. A straight A student, majoring in Poli
Sci, my father could have easily gotten into the law school of his choice. But
he knew what he wanted to do with his life from the day he witnessed two armed
robbers attempting to hold up my grandfather’s hardware store in the Bronx. They
were stalled by my grandfather’s refusal to give them anything. Before they
could shoot or pistol-whip my Grandpa Mo, a neighborhood cop who’d seen them
enter, stormed in, his .38 drawn. Projecting total confidence, he convinced the
gunmen that other cops were on their way and might just come in shooting. They
dropped their weapons, and he arrested them.

My father was fourteen at the time and
behind the counter with my grandfather. He told Sandy and me the story. “That
cop, his name was Al Bobrow. He’d become a friend of Grandpa’s, came in
everyday and they’d talk Yankees, politics, life. Well, Al saw these guys enter
the store and – knowing that Grandpa was headstrong and fearless – didn’t wait
for backup and came in solo. All I can tell you is that in ten seconds he owned
that situation, took control away from the bad guys. Al was the man. He used
his head and his guts. Who knows, I might not be here today if it weren’t for
him.” My father had chuckled and added, “Because no way was Grandpa Mo going to
give them a dime.”  

Now in the hospital room, he says, “So
how’s the practice, Jimmy? I hope things are good. But, you know, I’m rooting
that you lose the right cases.”

“Well, since I left the prosecutor’s
office I can afford to take the family to McDonalds.  Just kidding. The practice is good. And I’m
happy to report that everyone I’ve gotten acquitted deserves to be walking the
streets.”

“Are you sure? Absolutely positive?”
His eyes seemed to have forgotten they were soon to be closed forever and
glared at me as intensely as only a cop’s can.

“Yes, I am.” The door to his room abruptly
opens and my mother enters. “It’s Mom.”
Thank God.  

I had thought my delight in seeing
her enter this room would be based upon her helping me deal with my father. But
my pleasure is more layered. I’m glad we can end our acquittal conversation; I’m
happy my father can fulfill his essential final mission; and I’m tickled over something
primal, what a child feels watching divorced parents suddenly appear together in
a small room. At forty-eight and after all these years, I’m stunned by my
contentment, fleeting and unjustified as it is, as if my world is once again properly
aligned.

“Norma, you came.” There was no sarcasm
or bitterness in his tone. He was glad to see her.

“Hi, Jake.” She walks in looking elegant
and at least a decade younger than her seventy-two years. Wearing a smart navy
pants suit, white blouse, heels and a subtle yet noticeable floral fragrance, she
projects an active, contemporary life. Her freshness is in complete contrast to
the stale gloom of the room.

“Hi, honey, happy birthday,” she says to me. I
stand and we hug and kiss. She walks to the bed and kisses his cheek. “So I
guess I won’t be getting that monthly check anymore, huh?”

“You stopped getting them twenty
years ago. Remember?” His broad smile lightens the room.

“I forgot. Must be premature
senility,” she says.

“What do you mean premature?” he
says, their past banter cutting through three decades.

“Oh, Jake. Are they taking good care
of you here?”

I motion for my mother to sit in my
chair and bring one over for myself, placing it next to hers. The three of us
are physically closer than we’ve been for ages. She pats my knee.

“Yeah. The nurses are great. I told
Jimmy, Nick Simone’s granddaughter is one of them.  Angie’s her name. A doll. Nick would be
proud.” He looks away.  

“That’s nice. Someone with a
connection to you. You’re not just another patient.”

“You look good, Norma. Been a long
time, but you still look like your old self.”

“Thanks, Jake. It has been a long
time.”

I feel like an intruder, as if I’ve
walked into their bedroom. “Maybe you two should catch up. I’ll go get a cup of
coffee … ”

“I think we’re beyond chitchat,
secrets. What I have to say is for both of you.” He seems pleased yet uneasy
that the moment has finally come for him to unload.

“Sure, Dad.”

“Well, now that you’re both here,
I’m not sure how to start.” He looks at his bluish hands for inspiration.

My mother and I wait in silence,
anticipating an unsurprising explanation for what happened to him thirty-seven
years ago. Our attentiveness is more courtesy than curiosity.  Although, I sense my reaction to what he’ll
say will be less jaded than my mother’s.

“Alright. Here goes … ” My
father – who faced down soulless, violent men – is clearly nervous about opening
up to his former wife and his son. He takes a deep breath. “I’ll make it brief.
I begin with an apology. From the heart. You can accept it or not … I’m sorry
for wrecking this family. I’m sorry, Norma, for not being there to help you
with all your pain … I’m sorry for not taking your advice about seeing
someone. If I had, we’d have worked through it together. And I apologize … for
giving you no choice but to get a divorce.” A lump that I never imagined
possible seems to settle in his throat. His eyes are wet and not just from
pain. “And Jimmy, we missed a lifetime together. I’m very sorry.”  

He pauses for a while, gathers
strength and says, “When Sandy was killed, I felt I had failed him. Sounds
ridiculous. But in a way – not a literal way – I believed it. I was a cop,
protecting strangers, but unable to protect the people I loved.”

“I understand, Jake. But, obviously
there was no way you could have prevented it,” my mother says, as if consoling
a child who blames himself for a sibling getting sick because of an argument
they had.

“I said not literal. For some
reason, I was taken over by guilt. I know – now I know – I should have gotten
help. It made no sense. But it was like how a fireman might have felt if his
own house burned down and one of his children died. Anyway, it consumed me.” He
stops to deal with pain while we remain silent.

“My cure for the guilt was to put
everything, absolutely everything, into the Job. I worked around the clock,
obsessed with making collars. The more I made, the better I felt.  Taking animals off the street made me feel as
if I was making both of you safer.” He pauses, digging deep for the strength to
continue. “I felt some relief after the arrest. At least there’d be justice.
And I figured everything had been by the book. So, when Santiago was released,
I went off the cliff.”

I look to my mother now as a collaborator
in letting him off the hook. She picks up on it and says, “Speaking for both of
us, Jake, you’re forgiven. Though, nothing you said is a surprise.  My therapist figured you out a long time ago.
But there was no way I could help you. You wouldn’t let me in. But, as they
say, that’s history.” She began to get up to walk over to him.

“Please sit, Norma, there’s more.” He
pauses to look at the door that’s half closed. “Jimmy, make sure that’s shut
and no one’s hanging around.” I look at him with disbelief on my face. “Just
please do it.” I get up and act on his request. My mother looks down at her
lap. I return to my seat and nod to him.

He continues. “Half of me died when
Sandy did. The other half of me went a year later.”  

He stops and pushes himself up from
his pillow to sit upright. He looks at us with an intensity that belies his
condition and goes on. “It wasn’t when I watched Santiago walk out of the
courtroom wearing a smirk. Or when I heard that Santiago, juiced at a Corona
bar, had bragged about killing a cop’s kid and gotten away with it. No … It
was two weeks later … after I killed him.” He pauses to let the screaming
headline sink in. “That’s when I fully died. That’s when I became a robot.”  

While secure in my chair, I lose my balance
as if an earthquake has ripped open the foundation beneath me. My stomach is
invaded by something sharp. I look at him. My father, a decorated cop, now a
murderer. I glance at my mother, who is impassive.

He closes his eyes and rests for a
moment. He’s said it, and now his body can die. The details of where and how he
did it is academic. Regaining some strength, he tells us that no one, not even Kevin,
his partner, knew. Unsolicited, a Gambino capo had offered to do it for him. A favor, Jake. No strings. Santiago is scum.
It’ll be just between us
. My father had thought about it for two seconds
before turning it down, knowing favor is a misnomer with those people.

He covered his tracks and used his
network so well that word on the street after Santiago’s disappearance was that
he skipped town. The story evolving into fact was he’d left New York, afraid of
cops obsessed with nailing him for dealing or even jaywalking. He’d be haunted
by the NYPD. Since Santiago was a loner and without family, no one questioned it.
A body was never found and, with no filing of a missing person report, Carlos
Santiago became yesterday’s newspaper.

But not for my father who could
never forget his act of vengeance as a violation of everything for which he
stood. He never forgave himself. The secret ate at his insides and destroyed
his core long before the cancer could take his body.

Against everything for which I stand,
but propelled by a new, deeper love for this man as well as a hunger for the
same revenge that drove him to do what he did, I say “I guess justice was done.”
My father smiles like a child who has been forgiven and puts his hands out to me.
I go to him and we hug.  

Relieved, but with pleading eyes, he
looks at my mother. “My Jake … Yes, Jake, justice was done.” She joins the
hugs. He drops his body back and closes his eyes. I walk out of the room to
find Angie.

It’s October, two months after my
father’s funeral, and I leave Manhattan Court House on Centre Street late in
the afternoon. I’m in good spirits after securing a hard fought acquittal for
my client. The jury brought in its not guilty verdict earlier than I had
anticipated and, instead of going back to the paperwork waiting at my office, I
decide to celebrate. At least that’s what I tell myself. The truth is I’m off
to Ned’s to learn more about my father.

After getting off the subway at Twenty-third
Street and Park Avenue South, I walk one block west and open Ned’s old wooden
door. I follow the narrow walkway to the long bar. The place is dark, woody,
and welcoming. Draft beer and whiskey aromas fill the ancient saloon. By the
banter and familiarity of the patrons, I see this is largely a bar of regulars
who make it their post-work stop before heading home. I’m taken by the diversity.
A few businesspeople are gathered in a tight circle, three men in suits with
loosened ties and a couple of women also in business attire. There are
definitely cops here, a few detectives in sport jackets together with others
who might be uniforms out of uniform. At the end of the bar are what appear to
be tradesmen in work clothes.

I work my way over to a stool next
to the cops. The bartender who’s in his late twenties can’t be Mickey. When he
brings me a Stella on tap, I ask, “Does Mickey still work here?”

“Mickey. No. Don’t know a Mickey
here. There’s a Mike who works weekends, but he goes by Mike.”

“How old is he?” I ask.

“Oh, around forty.” Still too young.

The fiftyish cop to my left
overhears and says, “You mean Mickey O’Neil?”

“I don’t know his last name. But he
was a bartender when my father used to come here.”

“Well, Mickey O worked here for at
least thirty years and moved to Florida last fall. He was tending bar here when
I got out of the Academy. That’s why I say at least thirty years.”  “Too bad. I would have liked to meet him. My
father liked him and …”

“Say, you’re a lawyer aren’t you?
I’ve seen you in court,” he says, trying to pull it together while maybe losing
interest in me. The enemy.

“Yeah, I am. You look a little
familiar too. I take it you’re a cop. Out of the One-o?”

“Since leaving the Academy, when I
walked a beat. Now Detective First Class. Doesn’t get easier.” He says taking a
sip of his beer.

“My father was at the one-oh for
years. Jake Landau. Did you know him?”

“You gotta be kidding. He’s a
legend. Jeez. Just died. I was deep in a case and couldn’t make the funeral but
many of us did. Your dad was the best. Sorry for your loss.” He puts his hand
out. “Frank Calabrese.”

“Jim … Jimmy Landau. Nice to
meet you.”

Frank turns to his follow cops and
tells them whose son I am. Soon we’re all buddies and they’re buying me refills.
When I try to pick up a round, Frank says, “No way, Jimmy. I can’t begin to
remember how many tabs your father picked up here. But also, he taught me
everything I know. And not just me. Right guys?” The other three cops lift
their glasses. “The least we can do is buy his son a few beers. Even if he’s on
the other side of things.”

“I thought the perps were on the
other side?” I say with a smile.

“Okay, counselor. Just lose the
right cases, alright.” Frank says, not smiling but not hostile either.

“That’s exactly what my father told
me a week before he died.”

We continue to talk about my father,
and I’m blown away by stories that are all new to me. It turns out he truly was
the real thing, which I somehow knew. But to hear the specifics makes me glow
with pride. After an hour and a half, I thank Frank and the others and promise
to return to Ned’s when it’ll be my turn to buy drinks.

I walk out into the cool October
evening. It’s six and the light is fading fast. I turn right to walk east on Twenty-third
Street to the subway so I can get uptown to Michelle and fill her in on Ned’s
and her father-in-law – who she barely knew – and of course my victory in court.
But I realize I have to make one more stop.

I cross the street and enter Madison
Square Park at its southwest corner taking in the

statue of William Seward, nineteenth
century New York governor and U. S. Secretary of State. I walk the paths,
looking at the other statues and monuments and fountains through my father’s
eyes. I find a bench and sit, thinking how on one of these benches – maybe even
this one – he must have repeatedly gone over the details of his murder of
Carlos Santiago. A day probably didn’t go by when this essentially good man
didn’t lament over what he had done.

When
my father died, my mother notified Kevin Feeney, who got the word out. Before
you knew it, the funeral became a command performance for the NYPD. The mayor
and police commissioner showed up at the service and each talked about my
father’s commitment and valor. And what a shining example he was to younger
cops, many of whom he mentored. I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of envy. Frank
Calabrese got Jake Landau’s tutoring while Jimmy Landau got silence and
absence.

Well, he did apologize and I
accepted it. And during my last visit at the hospital, he told me he loved me
and was proud of me and my career, which he admitted to following closely. At
the time, I wondered if it was the pain medication talking, but came to
understand they were his sentiments.  

My mother visited him every day
until he died. She and I were sometimes there at the same time, and it once again
filled me with warmth to be alone in the same room with both of them. The day
before he died, my mother and I sat with cups of coffee in the hospital cafeteria
while my father slept, slipping away. She revealed to me why she’d been late
coming to the hospital that first day. She had deliberated about coming because,
while she still loved him very much – no surprise to me – she resented what he
had done to our family, again no surprise. But what shocked me was her
revelation that she was afraid to hear what she’d suspected for thirty-seven
years. As she put it, “I was a cop’s wife, Jimmy, and – while your father was in
the process of becoming another person – I still knew him deep down and had a
hunch he was responsible for Santiago’s disappearance. I didn’t want to
remember him having done that … as much as I also wanted Santiago dead.”

Sitting on this bench, I think about
how flawed we all are. We’re all guilty of something. Perhaps even my mother. Maybe
she should have taken the extra step to help him find his way back. Maybe I
should have made a greater effort to bring him into my life with Michelle and
my children.

Outside of a courtroom, we’re allowed
to let emotion play a large role in how we judge someone. Accordingly, I have
chosen to believe my father executed a heartless criminal who had slipped
through our superb yet imperfect judicial system. That is my right, not as a
counselor at law, but as a loving son.  

And, as I think upon what my mother
said about my father all those years ago, I believe that his tears did pour
inside of him and managed to work their way down to his heart.  

It’s dark now, and I leave the park
thinking that every once in a while I’ll get off the 6 train on my way home
from court to spend some time at Ned’s and the park. These were my father’s
places. I need them to become mine.

Jeff Lawenda

I tried to explain it.

“There’s a drop of you in Teddy,” I said. “And a drop of me in his lover. But you mustn’t take that too literally. It’s just a drop, Teddy’s not you, and his lover’s not me. It doesn’t mean anything. They’re fictional.”

Danny just looked at me. For once he wasn’t joking around. Shit, I thought. I’ve scared him. The silence stretched out between us, and I rushed in to fill it.

“I mean it’s just a drop, a little drop, but that drop colors the whole character, you know? It’s what makes Teddy pink and pulsing and real,” I said, trying to sound all writerly. Trying to take the heat out of it. “Pink, after all, is just a drop of blood red mixed into a big squeeze of sterile white.” I sounded like an idiot.

He looked at me, unreadable.

“C’mon. Say something?” I begged.

“Do you really think I’d be such a fuck as that Teddy?” He finally said. “That I’d leave you pregnant, leave you alone?”

“No,” I said.  “I told you, it’s not you.” But except for the betrayal, Teddy was Danny. Unmistakably. I’d painted myself into a corner, hadn’t I?

Teddy was drawn just like Danny, down to the barbed-wire tattoo on his bicep. Teddy even talked like Danny, with his Beacon Hill tinge, his deep voice. Teddy smelled like Danny’s juniper-scented shave cream, ran his fingers through curly hair and drank Schnapps. And his lover was me through and through – a messy-haired, pencil-chewing writer, a preacher’s daughter who smoked and sinned.

A drop, no, it wasn’t just a drop.  I’d used the whole damned tube of red. I should have disguised us thoroughly, transported us to World War I or put us in outer space, or China maybe. Made him corpulent and me a French waif.  But the story had written itself, blazed forth like the sun bursting through a cloudy sky, and in a fever of stupidity, I had submitted it without pausing to think. When it made the contest semi-finals, I should have withdrawn it. I didn’t.

When the story won the Blakely Fiction Prize from River Review, when my agent sent out the tweet announcing it, I knew I had run out of time. I had to tell him. Before he read it, read about him and me twined together. And I had fooled myself into believing that he would believe me. Until this moment, I had believed me.

“Do you really think about me like his lover does in the story? Lie awake and imagine me…and you… Imagine us…” Danny’s blue eyes met mine, latched on. I wanted to look away, because it is hard to lie while your best friend is watching – your friend who can read your expressions like he reads computer code, effortlessly and accurately.

I lied anyway. “No, Danny. I don’t want you. Not like that.” But I felt my skin flame. “Once, just once,” I blurted. “In a dream. We were together in the dream. But I’m with Elizabeth. I’m gay, for God’s sake. Of course I don’t want you like that.” I was selling the lie, selling it hard. Trying to make myself buy it, too. His eyes searched mine. I looked away, stared at his sneakered feet.

“And what does Elizabeth think,” Danny went on. “About our drops of blood? About me sucking on your neck, about me making you–”

I cut him off.  “You know she doesn’t read a thing I write.”

I felt a rushing in my head. Felt panic rising. I’d just lost my best friend. In some rational part of my brain, I knew I should be worried about Elizabeth but all I could think was that I’d fucked up my friendship with Danny. “She doesn’t read a thing I write,” I repeated in a small voice.

Danny took my always-cold hand in his always-warm one.

He does that when he’s going to tell me something important. He’s done that since we were fifteen, when we met at camp and became best friends after ditching the endurance race together.

It had never meant anything. It meant everything.

“Maybe,” Danny said slowly, squeezing my hand, “Maybe she should read this one?”

Elaine Olund

 

*

Row after row
–it’s your usual vineyard
overrun the way mourners

will always lean too far
are already in clusters
holding on to a stone

as if a sharper knife
could fall through
and deep inside each vine

leave no one to walk past
though you come for work
with wobbling fingers

that no longer make you sad
–you pluck each pebble
trying not to touch the dead

show up as if they
would never let you leave
with nothing in your mouth

except as some seedling
just planted and on your lips
the dirt is somehow sweeter

growing itself into arms
and legs and kisses, by now
even in winter the stars.

*

Mouth to mouth this rock
takes back that light
the sun grew fat on

though birds gag in it
still part their wings
not yet the ashes

that run through you
let their last breath
reach under you, hold on

till nothing’s left
except the shadow
the dirt counts on

–you don’t dig anymore
afraid more darkness
will escape, unfold

as in midair
the slow wide climbing turn
into mountainside

unaware how long it’s been
–you sift, lean over
the way this tiny rock

is pulling you closer
wingtip to wingtip
is swallowing you

as if one by one
its feathers had opened
–in time, in time.

*

Already weightless these steps
don’t need the morning
back away as that emptiness

stars are used to
–you can hear them narrowing
creaking and from behind

wait for the sun to open fire
flash past your forehead
though you can’t make out

the week or year or the cloud
that knows you’re there
comes for you between more rain

and mountainside still standing
no longer growing grass
can’t love or remember

–you hide the way this attic
opens inside a door
that is not a flower

–an iron knob
that turns away nothing
and in your arms nothing, nothing.

*

With its feeble hold this hillside
–a simple bond though your shadow
is pulling loose -–this dirt

won’t keep its promise
as if nearness means nothing
even when you expect the sun

handful by handful, back
to warm itself
yet you still come here alone

can almost make out the breasts
the eyebrows and on this mound
the forehead you long for, the eyes

that rise from this leftover darkness
as two mornings and at night
two nights, closer and closer.

*

From habit, burnt
as if every morning now
the sun has to be reheated

still frightened by the cold
more than coming alone
–it’s your usual meal

two slices, made stale
broken open the way coffee
just by boiling

turns your mouth black
–you’ve learned to open bread
till it reeks with ashes

and smoke already rising
to become another mouth
and on its lips

the small blister, resting
though there’s no moon
only this side by side

lowered slowly, no longer
empty, your arms cramped
calling for each other.

Simon Perchik