From 1905 to 1930, when this town was the mineral bath capitol of the world I was an elite prostitute and madame…”
by ed markowski
Last week I get a call from Vince Bommarito. Vince and I grew up together on Peoria Street on the east side of Detroit. Vince and I went to Assumption Grotto Catholic School together. We made our first holy confession and Communion together. We both played defensive end on the football team at Denby High. We guzzled our first beers together in the alley behind the Tel-Star Lounge. We stood up and got knocked down protecting each other. Our grandfathers were from the same village in central Italy, and our mothers baked the best Italian bread in the city. Vince and I were the Lone Ranger and Tonto. We were Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. We were the shoe and the sock. And we were the trigger and the trigger finger until Vince moved in with my girlfriend Amy a week after he helped me get the things I left at her house when she told me to get the fuck out two weeks before Amy and Vince became Bonnie and Clyde. We had always operated by a code that explicitly stated that in the event of a break up you didn’t make a move on your buddy’s girl until the stitches were removed from every emotional laceration, the scars had faded to invisible, and the break up was final and the odds of a reconciliation were worse than winning a world wide lottery.
Amy and I met at a beer keg beneath a Sugar Maple during a Fourth of July bar-b-que her sister and brother in law threw in the backyard of their mint green reconstruction era home. At ninety-four with humidity to match the Michigan weather was Mississippi Delta all the way. Amy was wearing a thin black Viva Libras t-shirt, frayed cut off denim shorts, and zircon studded black flip flops. Amy’s black t-shirt highlighted a river of powder blue glitter that sparkled in her waist length blonde hair. She asked me to fill her cup. I did. She introduced herself as a spiritual astrologer. Then she asked if I believed in reincarnation. Before I could answer Amy said, “I was born Mae McKenna on October 3rd, 1887. I had my first drink the day after my fifteenth birthday. From 1905 to 1930, when this town was the mineral bath capitol of the world I was an elite prostitute and madame. I worked out of the Murphy Hotel’s Clementine Bath House. Eddie Cantor, Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Ernest Hemingway, Reggie Vanderbilt, and Henry Ford were my regular customers. Mae West and the Unsinkable Molly Brown were my drinking pals. On the night of August 8th, 1930, I was in the bar at the Riverside Hotel. I was caught in the crossfire of a poker game gone bad, and that was it. Everybody carries sediment from their past lives. It’s unavoidable. Who are you? Who were you?” I told Amy I was a psychologist, “But in my previous life I was Ernest Hemingway. That’s why you look so familiar to me.” Amy offered to chart my stars in exchange for a ride home. After she did my astrology chart and told me I was star crossed she said, “Now I’m going to prove that I was Mae McKenna.” I left her house ten days later and moved in on the first day of Autumn 1980.
Amy had two boys. Jake was six and Josh was four when Amy and I got together three years before. According to Amy as soon as she and her ex walked out of divorce court he took off to tour the truck-stops of the desert southwest in a cola black Peterbilt semi and never looked back. Jake and Josh were three and one when Big Al took off. Other than an annual Christmas postcard that usually showed up in mid January, the boys never heard a word from him. On my days off I took the boys to the batting cages at Metropolitan Park, bowling, to baseball games, basketball games, the movies, and museums. Every Sunday I took Amy and the boys on rides up along the Lake Huron shoreline. Amy and Big Al’s boys were a joy and a two-way ticket to gratitude.
I worked at a Psychiatric hospital when the whole thing blew up. I counseled the depressed. I thrived calmly in the midst of mania. I provided the psychotic with reality screeds. I told drunks to quit drinking. I figured the junkies were way beyond reach so I prayed for them. I conducted group therapy. I deloused street people. And I gave the love lorn an ear they could fill with all the tears, threats, hatred and misery that fell from their tongues. Focusing on helping others seemed to be the therapy I needed to clear the ruins of love from my mind. Three weeks after Vince moved in with Amy, the ward clerk told me a call had come in and the guy was threatening to guzzle a quart of anti freeze. The ward clerk forwarded the call, I picked up the phone.
“I still love you,” Amy said.
“I still love you too man,” Vince said.
“We miss you and we want you to come over for dinner,” they said in unison.
Amy said, “Bring a couple of bottles of wine. We’ll have a party.”
“And a twelve pack of High Life,” Vince said.
“My boys really miss you,” Amy said.
“And,” Vince said, “If you’re seeing someone bring her along too.”
“Fuck you Vince,” Amy said laughing.
I hung up. The phone calls continued at the rate of once a week for seven months.
Their bullshit ran consistent. “We love you.” “We never meant to hurt you.” “Forgive us.” “You’re the best friend both of us have.” “There’s a hole in our hearts.” I listened in silence and hung up every time.
Two months passed phone call free. I went to visit my mother. I took her to her favorite Chinese restaurant. Over tea and broken fortune cookies my mother says, ” I forgot to tell you, Amy called yesterday. She said Jake needed some help with a school project. I gave her your new phone number.” That evening the phone rang at six sharp. Jake and Josh screamed, “Hi! We miss you!”
They took turns telling me how much they missed me. Then Amy got on the line. “I just want you to know that your asshole buddy Vince took off last week. I wish you would have told me that he wasn’t a man. He ran up and left me with an eighteen – hundred dollar phone bill that I can’t possibly pay. He left three High Lifes in the refrigerator, six hot dogs, two slices of Oliver’s pizza, and three hot dog buns. And let me tell you another thing, every time Vince sneezed or sniffled he ran straight to his mother’s house for a bowl of soup and a pat on the back. She’d call me and ask me why I wasn’t taking better care of her son. I finally told the bitch off. I said, ‘He may be your son but he’s not even close to being a man. You should come over tonight, tuck him in, and read him a fucking bed time story.’
Amy yelled, “Jake bring me a Coke,” then she went on. “And, while you were avoiding us and licking your wounds, Jake and Jimmy tortured Vince. They threw you in his face every day. ‘Dan took us to to baseball games, Dan took us to the beach, Dan took us bowling, Dan took us to the Dairy Queen, Dan bought groceries. Dan Dan Dan Dan Dan’ I got sick of hearing your name, then I started to miss you. I told Vince the boys might forget about you if he got a fucking job. He got one . . . Sweeping up hair and doing general maintenance with perks at Delilah’s Beauty Salon. The perks attached to his three dollar an hour wage amounted to a free haircut or styling every other month. When I pointed out to him that he had a degree in literature and a teaching certificate he said, ‘Well I couldn’t have done it without Dan’s help. He pretty much wrote the papers that lifted my GPA from a 1.9 to a 3.4.’ I said, ‘I should call Delilah and let her know that you and your long hair bear no fucking resemblance to Samson.’ He left later that day.”
While I was listening to Amy I made myself a pepperoni and hot pepper cheese sandwich, then I opened a can of Starkist Albacore for my cat. Amy heard the electric can opener whine. “What’s for dinner? We’re all hungry,” Amy said. “Tuna casserole. I’m eating dinner with my cat tonight. Where’d Vince go?”
“His brother bought a restaurant in Lovelock, Nevada. He went out there to cook even though he can’t make toast. Your cooking’s another thing we missed about you. You know Dan, this whole mess wouldn’t have happened if you would have told me Vince was a little boy. It sure wouldn’t have killed you to pick up the phone when we called you at the hospital. That’s the one thing I’ll never be able to forgive. If you were driving toward a cliff and didn’t know it I’d tell you. I can’t believe you knowingly let me get involved with that fucking little boy.”
“Amy, you always said experience was the only way to learn.”
“Fuck you Dan. The phone bill he left were all calls to his brother. I need eighteen-hundred dollars. Can you help us? Getting involved with him was a big mistake. You can come back anytime. There, I said it.” I twisted the cap off of a High Life and said goodbye. In the morning I had my phone number changed and asked that it be unlisted, then I took my mother to lunch.
On a Monday in August of 1995 two men in blue suits knocked on our front door. I was in back weeding the garden. My wife opened the kitchen window, “Two FBI agents want to talk to you. they’re standing on the front porch.” “Tell them to come to the backyard.” Curiosity washed over me. I hadn’t done anything remotely criminal in years. One tall, one short, both wearing Ray Ban Wayfarers, the agents flashed their badges. They introduced themselves as agents Wilson and Ross. Agent Wilson complimented my Beefsteak Tomatoes. He told me they were conducting a security clearance on behalf of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
“Do you know an individual named Vincent Bommarito?” Agent Ross asked.
“How long have you known him.”
“We met in the first grade.”
“What was the name of the school?
Agent Wilson ducked a Dragonfly. My neighbor cruised by on his John Deer lawn tractor. “Did you and Mr. Bommarito attend the same high school?” Agent Wilson asked.
“Can you name the high school?
“To your knowledge did Mr. Bommarito belong to any radical political organizations? ‘ Agent Wilson asked.
“Vince is a Pat Boone fan. That’s as radical as he gets.”
“Would you characterize him as patriotic?”
“I told you, he’s a Pat Boone fan.”
The ball went back to Agent Ross. ” Was Mr. Bommarito ever involved with using or selling drugs?”
“When everyone was smoking dope, Vince was smoking Lake Trout.”
“How would you describe Mr. Bommarito’s loyalty to oath and commitment?”
“His honesty and integrity?”
“Like the Rock Of Gibraltar.”
“More dependable than Arctic ice.”
“Would you trust the well-being of your wife and children to Mr. Bommarito?”
“Thank you Mr. Minetta.”
“If Vince is a terrorist let me know when you arrest him.” I gave Wilson and Ross the three biggest Beefsteaks on the vine and off they walked to their black Chevy with one way windows.
Other than Vince’s indirect visit on that August day in 1996, I hadn’t heard a word from him in thirty-six years. I haven’t wanted to kill Vince in thirty-five years. My maddening obsession to lop off one of his ears Mafia style disappeared in 1984. And I haven’t thought of pushing him in front of a train since 1987. Yet, I’m tense, troubled, and angry when I hear his voice. . .
“Surprise Danny, it’s Vince. I’m calling you because I need you to do me a favor. A big favor.”
“So nothing’s changed in the thirty-six years you’ve been gone. I’m not surprised, Vince.”
“A lot’s changed. And things haven’t changed for the good.”
“You’re not aging like a fine bourbon.”
“No. But I need to know if you’ve forgiven me for 1983.”
“When things burn down Vince, all that’s left is ash. And ash is cold.”
“I’m relieved Danny. You know, none of that would’ve happened if you would have picked up the phone and told me what I was getting into. Amy was nuts. I came home from visiting my mother and I find four empty quart bottles of Mickey’s Malt Liquor. You know, High Life was my beer. I come home from cleaning Delilah’s Beauty Shop and Amy’s drinking with a guy named Barry she met at Kat’s Party Store. She tells me, ‘Barry was paroled from prison in Florida two days ago. We’re having a welcome home party.’ I came home from cutting my Ma’s lawn. I go to make myself a burger and the last half pound of ground chuck is missing. I asked Amy where it went and she tells me a guy named Keith rented a flat five houses down the street and she welcomed him to the neighborhood with a burger for lunch. I took a part time job at a plastics factory. I get home at midnight. Her kids were spending the night at Amy’s sister Kate’s house. I find a note taped to the TV. The note says, ‘I’m at the Waldorf Lounge. If you don’t show before 12:30 I’ll go home with whoever I meet.’ I get to the Waldorf and Amy’s entertaining a fucking circle of shit kicking hillbillies. If that wasn’t bad enough I had to listen to her kids talk about Dan Dan Dan Dan Dan Dan Dan every day and every night. And the worst thing of all was the way Amy belittled me for being close with my mother. She challenged my manhood and broke me down. My brother bought a restaurant here in Lovelock, Nevada. I saw an opening to put a whole lot of distance between us and I did. You were my best friend Dan. I can’t believe I let her ruin my friendship with you for absolutely nothing. Did you and Amy get back together after I left?”
“No, but I paid the phone bill you left her, and I’d take her boys out a couple times a week until I got married in 1988.”
“Are you happily married?” Vince coughs hard into the ear piece.
His cough turns into a phlegm clogged whistle. He wheezes through the phone, “You’re not?”
“No. I’m heavenly married.”
“You married an angel.”
Vince taps out a staccato cough that sounds like Morse code. “Then you owe me a thank you for fucking things up between you and Amy. If it wasn’t for me Danny, you would’ve been stuck there. You owe me big, real big, for fucking things up between you and Amy. How’s she doing by the way, ever hear from her?”
I walk out on the patio. A cluster of birds lift off the clothesline. My wife brings out a pitcher of iced tea. Our four grandsons splash about in the pool. Little Charlie climbs the waterslide and tells the world he can fly with his silver water wings. Our dog Bea keeps her eyes glued to a black squirrel. I lay down in the sun, and our black cat Lucky stretches out beside me.
“Amy died the day after Thanksgiving 2010.”
Between booming coughs, Vince says, “Fuck man. C O D ?”
“Her sister Kate said it was sudden and unexpected. I left it at that.”
“How’d you find out?”
“Kate had a blog. I’d make comments on her political articles. She sent me an email.”
“Did you go to her funeral?”
“Only because Amy’s boys told Kate to tell me they hoped I’d be there.”
“They tortured me with their love for you.” Another coughing jag slams into my ear drum. “Amy in a casket. That must of been fucking weird.” Vinces says between coughs.
“She was the only one there who wasn’t a ghost.”
I take a long drink of iced tea. My grandsons assault me with their water cannons. I fend them off with the garden hose and an arsenal of nerf frisbees. Vince says, “Whatever’s going on at your place sounds like fun. I wish I was there.”
I ask Vince if he ever taught highs chool English. “Sorry Danny. You wrote those papers for nothing. I cracked eggs and flipped burgers for my brother for twelve years. I worked at a nuclear waste site for twenty-two years. You might know about that. I listed you as a reference. If the agents showed up at your place and if you painted a portrait of me as St. Vincent of Detroit, then you’re partially responsible for the cancer that’s turned my lungs into cobwebs. That should be enough revenge for two lifetimes. Anyway, I told you I need you to do me a big favor Danny. It’s the last favor I’ll ask of you.” I wrap my white t-shirt around a baseball bat and wave it in surrender to my grandsons. Thirty-one Summers have come and gone and my wife’s green thumb still produces Beefsteaks bigger than Lebron James’s hands. I watch a rabbit run and turn abruptly into a tangle of wild raspberry canes. Then I say, “Ok Vince, let’s hear it.”
“I’m dying Danny. I’ve got two months tops. I want to die where I was born. My brother’s gone. My sister lives in Madrid. And I’m broke. I need you to take me in and arrange a one day memorial just in case someone wants to say goodbye. In the casket Danny, surround me with an old copy of Rolling Stone, Crime and Punishment, a current New York Times, and a current Weekly World News. I want to be remembered as a modern day Renaissance Man. And Danny, for my journey to the crematorium and beyond I want to wear Levis. A white Berlusconi tuxedo shirt. Black silk bow tie. And a black double breasted Canali suit coat. By the way Danny, my care won’t cost you a dime. I’ve got federal government healthcare. They’ll pay for the hospital bed and hospice care. The memorial, casket rental, cremation, and urn should cost you about three-thousand dollars. This is your chance to redeem yourself for letting me get involved with Amy, which drove me to get as far away from her as possible, which led to your glowing reference and the job I got as a result of it, which unquestionably is the cause of my impending death. Everything’s connected Danny. It’s that simple man. Can you handle it?”
“And your ashes Vince?”
“Scatter them in the alley behind the old house on Peoria Street.”
After Vince’s cough spattered call I walk in the house. My wife is arranging watermelon wedges on four paper plates. She opens the kitchen window, blows four kisses to our grandsons and yells, ‘Watermelon time!” The boys jump out of the pool and run to the patio. Joey flaps his water wings and shouts, “I’m a flying fish.” I tell my wife I’ve decided to paint the guest room.
“What colors,” she asks.
“The colors of friendship,” I say.
“And those colors would be?”
“Black and blue Mary. Temporarily and eternally black and blue.”
(illustrations: john richen)
Ed Markowski lives and writes in Auburn Hills, Michigan. Many, many more of Ed’s fine stories can be found in the Vault of Smoke