VigilApril 13, 2012
The room looked sterile, smelled sterile. It had that piney sent of disinfectant. The light strained through the window, stale and yellow as the old man’s skin. John looked at his grandfather and felt nothing; he barely knew the man—what was left of the man.
John’s grandfather lay with his head back and his mouth open, feeding tubes snaked up each nostril. There were wires and more tubes fitted to an obsolete looking piece of medical machinery that beeped softly every few seconds. There was an awful wheeze coming from his mouth, an awful dry oval that housed his stained teeth and a swollen tongue thickly coated with white. It was the sound of, what John knew to be, a dying man.
John hadn’t seen his grandfather face to face in three years. He’d been off biding his time at some boarding school his mother had stuck him in. Out of sight, out of mind. John didn’t even recognize him when he first entered the hospital room. He thought the frail, withered shell in front of him bore no resemblance to the man that he’d known to be the strong patriarch of his family, the hero of his mother’s stories.
John spied an uncomfortable looking chair in the corner near the window and decided that, if he could sit quietly, the hour his mother had designated for him to bond with the old man would tick by painlessly. He sat down. The chair creaked loudly and the old man stirred.
At first there was just a raspy groan and John hoped he was still asleep, lost in some lusty memory from yesteryear. But then he heard the old man’s voice.
“Who’s there?” the old man said, barely audible.
“It’s me grandpa, Johnny.”
“Giovanni? Is that you?”
“Yeah, it’s me.”
“Come here, boy. Let me see you.”
As Johnny got up the chair squeaked again. He stood between the window and the bed, casting a shadow over the old man like death itself.
“Christ, Giovanni, I can’t see you. Come closer.”
He leaned over the old man and let his grandfather’s eyes adjust to the light.
“Sit down, boy,” he said, patting a brown-spotted hand on the hospital blanket beside him. “Sit down and let me talk with you.”
John sat down and got a closer look at the old man. A Sunday dinner never went by without some kind of talk about Grampa Joe. No matter what his family was doing, how well, how poorly, no subject was ever passed without some comment on what grandpa Joe might think. A new job, a move from the city, a marriage or divorce, the first thought in all their minds was, What was Grampa Joe going to say?
“Gio, you look good. What are you now, twenty-four, twenty-five?”
“Nineteen,” said John.
“Nineteen? What an age. What I wouldn’t give to be nineteen again.”
“It’s overrated,” said John.
“Bullshit. I didn’t know shit when I was nineteen. Thought I knew everything, but I didn’t know shit.”
“Mom would agree with you,” said John.
“Your mother? You kiddin’? She still doesn’t know shit.”
John smiled but the old man just stared straight ahead, his eyes watery and opaque.
“Kid, lemme ask you something.”
John waited a moment; when nothing came he said, “What, Grampa?”
“You got any money?”
John didn’t know how to answer. Money in his pocket? In life, savings? Was the old man asking for a loan?
“No, Grampa, not really.”
“Never use your own money kid. Investment-wise, doesn’t matter if it’s legit or not, don’t use your own dough.”
John didn’t really know where this was going.
“I made myself a lot of scratch, kid. You know how? Using other people’s dough. I still got buckets, too. Buckets. You know what else? Those vultures in the waiting room out there? They ain’t gonna get it. None of it. You’ll see. Fuck ‘em. That’s a promise.”
This made John smile too. He’d never heard his grandfather talk this way. He thought of his mother out there with her cousins, two Aunts, and other assorted fringe family members, all hunkered down in a somber vigil. Each and every one of them with dollar signs in their eyes.
“Okay, Grampa.” John smiled, but the old man didn’t. He’d looked angry, mean. John wondered if maybe some of the rumors he’d heard were true.
“And another thing, Gio …” The old man paused to catch his breath, there was a quiet gurgling sound in the feeder tubes. “Don’t ever let nothin’ walk past.”
John was confused. He looked at his grandfather and their eyes met.
“I’m talking about broads, kid. If you can lay it, then lay it down. No point in looking back on lost opportunities with just your dick in your hand. I passed on too many. Forget what kinda trouble it coulda caused, I shoulda tasted them all.”
The door to the room opened and a young Asian nurse walked into the room. She smiled.
“How are we doing, Mr. Carbone? It’s time for your medicine.”
The old man ignored the nurse and reached out and grabbed John’s wrist. “See, Gio, this is what I’m talking about.”
The nurse produced a syringe and stuck it into the I.V. leading to the old man’s right arm. She was smiling, beautiful, and very professional. Her gleaming white grin practiced and well used. It’d probably extended more lives than the chemotherapy she administered.
“This may make you a little drowsy, Mr. Carbone. Is your visitor staying much longer?”
“As long as he goddamn wants, sweetheart. This is my grandson, Giovanni. He’s gonna be a welterweight champ someday. Say hello, Gio.”
John nodded to the young nurse, sure he was blushing. He’d never been inside of a boxing ring in his life.
The nurse ignored John and playfully shook her head at the old man. Instead of checking the data on the machine in the corner, she took Grampa Joe by the wrist to check his heart rate and then pressed her fingers lightly on his forehead. Grampa Joe seemed to like the personal touch.
“Okay, Mr. Carbone, you need to get some rest. You two should wrap it up. Twenty more minutes, then I’ll come back to check on you.” Without another word she left the room, taking all that sexual energy with her.
“What I wouldn’t give to be nineteen again,” said the old man while he stared at the pale green door she’d exited through. A silence filled the void.
“How are you feeling, Grampa?”
“Fuck how I’m feeling. You kiddin’ me? I’m dying, kid. I feel like shit.”
John didn’t know what to say. It wasn’t his fault the old man was sick.
“I’m sorry, kid. I’m just pissed that it’s gonna end.” There was more gurgling through the tubes. The old man’s head fell back onto the pillow. Whatever the nurse had given him was taking effect. “Ooh, that tingles,” he said and shut his eyes for a moment.
“Gio,” he said with his eyes still closed, “promise me. Don’t ever be ashamed. No regrets. That’s the key, no regrets.”
“Okay, Grampa,” said John. He looked at the old man for a minute, then said, “You ever have regrets, Grampa?”
The old man’s eyes opened just a crack. “Like the song says, kid. Regrets, I’ve had a few.”
John played along. “Too few too mention?”
“A few, kid, a few.” He seemed to drift off again. John thought it was a good time to sneak out of the room. Just as he began to get up off the bed the old man reached out and once again grabbed his wrist.
“The Mexicans, I don’t feel too good about that. You know we used to run this town, kid. You couldn’t snort a line of blow without me gettin’ a nickel. Those were the days.”
“But the shit fucked up our boys, couldn’t keep their hands out of the cookie jar. Turned them into women.”
John didn’t say anything.
The old man was still talking with his eyes closed.
“So we switched to smack. Nobody was fucking with smack. Easier to keep the guys in line. But then, it too, got so heavy. A lotta heat, believe me. So we let those fucking Mexicans in. Dumb, dumb. Now look where we are. They’re the ones earning.”
John couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Most of his life he was afraid of his family finding out that he smoked a joint, and, now, here was Grampa Joe confessing to being a drug dealer. His mother never told him any of this shit. No one did. His aunts and cousins had to have known. Restaurateur, my ass.
“Maybe you should get some rest, Grampa.”
The old man ignored the boy.
“Fucking Joey Tang, fuck him. He deserved everything he got. Bobby Ciro, too. Fuck them. I’ll see ‘em in hell.”
John was getting more and more uncomfortable. The beeping from the machine picked up its tempo. The old man opened his eyes.
“Did you know I used to be a mortician? Had a parlor on 7th Ave. Yeah, didn’t know that, did you? Cremated motherfuckers, put their ashes out with the trash. Nobody ever knew. Beautiful. We’d charge friends. Disposal service. Made a lot of dough that way.”
John was starting to flash on all those TV shows he’d watched where knowledge alone could make you an accessory to the crime. Why was Grampa Joe telling him all this?
“Oh, I know what you’re thinking, kid, but it was another time. No DNA, no big brother. There was a lot more room to wiggle, you know what I mean?”
John definitely did not know what he meant.
“After Blakey’s RICO thing, I got wise, started stacking my cash, thinking I could get out. But you gotta keep a hand in, understand, otherwise the sharks keep circling.”
The old man stopped to cough.
“But, you know, it’s a temperament. You can’t hide from what you are. You know what I mean, right, kid?”
John shook his head.
“Fuck the good-times. Those were the good-times, damn it.”
The old man started to laugh. It quickly degenerated into another coughing fit.
John grabbed a glass of water from the stand beside the bed and offered it to the old man. The old man shook his head.
“Sometimes you can’t let go,” he said to the boy. “You are what you are.”
“Why are you telling me this, Grampa?”
The old man started to sing with a voice that sounded like a car that wouldn’t start.
“Regrets, I’ve had a few …”
John felt like he was being teased.
“Grampa, really, why are you telling me this?”
“Your father, Gio. I thought he was no good. I thought he wasn’t good enough for your mom. Honestly, I thought he was a piece of shit from the get-go, but I was wrong. It was your mother that wasn’t worth a damn. I never should have done what I done.”
“What, Grampa? What did you do?”
“I did the poor bastard. I had him taken out at the parking lot outside that furniture joint where he worked. Two friends of mine grabbed him and beat him till he wasn’t never coming back. Then we took him to 7th Ave and sent him on his way.”
“Grampa,” John repeated, his eyes starting to tear up. “Why are you telling me this?”
“I was wrong about him. He was only trying to do right by your mother and you. I just couldn’t let go of my own … my own shit. I thought she deserved better—she didn’t deserve shit.”
John sat silent, stupefied. He was hurt. It felt like someone had punched him in the stomach. Everything he knew about his life had been turned upside down. The old man let go of John’s wrist and the young man stood up to face his grandfather.
“Why? How? How could you do something like that?”
His grandfather had drifted off again, swept away in the arms of Morpheus.
“Grampa? Grampa?” said John.
The old man opened his eyes, looking irritated that the boy was still there.
“Smarten up, boy, don’t ask questions that you don’t wanna hear the answer to.”
Grampa Joe’s head fell backward onto his pillow and he was out like a light.