Magic Eight Ball







Chapter 1, Scene 1

Deep breath, Rinaldi. Okay. Here goes.
         The double doors of The Rock Bottom swung closed behind me, shutting out the lazy light of a mid-June afternoon. Even in the gloom, the smoke-hazed saloon seemed smaller than I remembered. But then again, the last time I’d been in here I was in chaps, a holster and a ten-gallon hat.
     It was Halloween, I was eleven and Mickey Giamonte had double-dared me to go inside the neighborhood tavern, promising me first dibs from his trick-or-treat bag if I did. So, with my courage fueled by a six-shooter loaded with blasting caps and a sugar high from two packs of SweetTarts, I’d made the play. I even scored some Slim Jims from Ted, the bartender with the scar on his cheek that spelled out his name. But Mickey hadn’t delivered.
     That was nearly twenty-five years ago. Maybe today we would settle the score.
     I had taken only a few steps when I was lifted off my feet from behind by a pair of full-grown anacondas. Or so it felt. I looked up over a set of beefy forearms and into two chaffed, damp nostrils.
     "Andie!" Then the watery sniffling started.
     I recognized the sound before I placed the face. "Georgie?"
     He released the hug, blushed to match his auburn hair, then swiped at his nose with callused knuckles.
     "You remember me?" Excited as an Irish setter. "Mickey said you’d be coming, but I didn’t believe it for shit! I would’ve known you anywhere."
     "You too. I see your cold hasn’t cleared up." I shifted my focus to the nearly life-size image of Saint Christopher around his neck.
     It had always been hard for me to look Georgie in the face. He’d suffered from a seriously runny nose for the eight years we were in the same grade at Holy Mother Little Academy, known to its student body as "Holy Moly." The nuns had taken this personally, especially our principal, Sister Constance Patiens. (Never had a convent name suited a nun less.) "George Aloysius Mara," Sister Connie would scold him almost every morning, "are you the patron saint of Niagara Falls? Wipe your faucet!"
     It must have been reflexive by this time because Georgie was now dabbing at his upper lip with the corner of his bartender’s apron.
     "So." My eyes stayed on St. Chris. "You work here."
     "Naw, fer chrissake! Well, yeah, part time, when I’m not on the roster." He jerked a thumb in the direction of the firehouse across the street. "Need the extra money. Got two kids now. Plus I’m saving for a sinus operation."
     "It’ll change your life." I felt like I had entered The Time Tunnel, or worse, The Twilight Zone. "Where’s Mickey?"
     George tilted his head toward the back of the bar. "What can I bring ya? My treat."
     "A Yoo-Hoo."
     He laughed. "Still your drink? Closest we got is créme de cacao."
     "Yoo-Hoo for grownups."
     "I’ll make you a Fudgsicle. Cacao, Kahlua and milk."
     As I headed toward the rear of the tavern, my brain continued its U-turn into the past. I could still recite the names of all fifty-two of my grammar-school classmates, even though I’d moved away from this tiny riverside town after seventh grade. Though none of my friends could have been more than four-foot-ten when I saw them last, in my mind’s eye I always pictured them as adult size, with adult personalities. Somehow, my preteen memory had transformed their faces into the celebrities of the day. Georgie became a redheaded Jethro from The Beverly Hillbillies (not far off the mark, I saw now). Brian Coffey was a pint-sized Jack Paar right down to the receding hairline. Mickey’s buddy Jimmy O’Shea was a more fidgety Barney Fife of Mayberry. And poor Grace Kelly. Her parents must have had no idea what cruelty they had inflicted on their offspring at birth. Grace looked nothing like her glamorous blond namesake, but more like mousy, lantern-jawed Ruth Buzzi on Laugh-In.
     I had somehow frozen them all in some kind of 1960s sitcom innocence. But now it was 1992. They must have changed, right? I sure knew I wasn’t the same.
     Michelangelo Giamonte proved me wrong. Rounding the corner of a curved leatherette booth, I found Mickey engrossed in a fan of playing cards he held in his left fist. Across from him, his much smaller opponent frowned at a similar splay, bit a lip, twirled a strand of hair around an index finger, then laid down the hand. She looked to be about five years old, with a nest of wiry red hair.
     "Gin!" The cherub wasted no time scooping up the pile of wagered pretzel sticks in the center of the table.
     So Mickey was still betting with little girls. And still losing.
     Mickey stifled a curse, then sighed noisily. "Well, that’s enough humiliation for one day, Megan darlin’. Now, be a good girl and go and tell your Da to bring me something to drown me sorrows."
     As Megan scooted around the table, Mickey turned and saw me.
     We looked hard at each other. His hair was the same, curly and full, but less of it covered his forehead. Its nearly white blondness was still startling against his swarthy skin and deep brown eyes. A Tony Curtis in negative. The struggle for genetic dominance, between his overbearing Italian father and his stubborn Irish mother, had ended in a draw. Bridget Giamonte even managed to stick an Old Sod nickname on her only son, to counteract the ginzo tradition of naming the first-born male after the paternal grandfather.
     I searched for the mischievous boy in this man’s slightly fleshy features and found him easily. Neither of us moved or spoke. An old game.
     After a good two minutes, I said, "Where’s my Nestlè’s Crunch?"
     "Ha! I won! As always. And you, you still hold a grudge like it was your last breath on earth."
     I sat without invitation. Georgie appeared, set down our drinks, patted me on the head, and loped off. Mickey watched me reach for my glass.
     "No ring, Rinaldi." It was a statement not a question, and I automatically slid my left hand under the table and switched to my right. "Andrealisa, my love, you’ve waited for me." I nearly dislocated my eyeballs, rolling them as far up and around as they would go. "You’re in luck. Only recently the second Mrs. Giamonte decided it was time to move on. I wish her well."
     "So do I. I imagine she was long-suffering."
     "Nice thing to say to the boy whose heart you broke." I might have thought he was blushing, but it was just the glow of the red exit sign behind me deflected off his cheekbones. "You know, I thought you’d at least write me or something."
     "What? Was your writing hand crippled in a nose-picking accident?"
     "After all we’d meant to each other—"
     "You mean the name-calling, the hair-pulling—" It was just like old times.
     "—the least you could’ve done was visit, even once."
     "How? Steal my father’s Barracuda? Besides, I didn’t know how to drive."
     "You still don’t. I saw you pull up. What took you so long to come inside?" He narrowed his eyes, and his lips slid into a smirk. The familiarity of his expression jolted me. "Figures you’d have an old Beetle."
     "His name is ‘Ringo.’ And you must be thrilled that the postal service just approved the young Elvis stamp. I take it the white Cadillac with the red leather seats in the parking lot is yours. Except for the ‘Mickey G’ plates, wasn’t that the same car in Love Me Tender?"
     "I like the classics. And you have a good memory."
     "How could I forget? Your parents thought he was the devil. Whenever one of his movies was on TV, my dad would let you watch it over at our house."
     "Hey, you couldn’t take your eyes off Elvis the Pelvis." Mickey’s smirk disappeared. "Sorry about your dad. He was a good guy. I heard Ma telling Jimmy O’s mother about it at the time, but what do kids know about condolence cards?"
     I shrugged. "Not your fault. Long time ago now."
     Twenty-three years this December. My father moved us just ninety miles but a lifetime away from my hometown on July 13, 1969. A year and 171 days later he was dead. I knew the exact number because I mentally counted off the time during the funeral service, as if it were the answer to a math problem that would help me make sense of what happened. I’d forgotten that Mickey’s parents had come to the Mass. Mom had only just learned to drive, and we hadn’t done much traveling after that, certainly not to the old neighborhood. Still, over the years my mother had kept in touch with a few of her old friends.
     "My mother’s gone too," I said. "Last August."
     "Jeez." Mickey looked stricken. "Ma said she hadn’t gotten a card this past Christmas and wondered."
     We both took a deep gulp from our glasses to get past the moment. I nearly gagged on my Fudgsicle. Not enough like Yoo-Hoo for my taste.
     "And how is your Ma?" I hoped this was an easier topic.
     "She and Pop just went into one of those over-55 communities down the shore, not far from where you moved."
     "I hope their hearts can stand the excitement," I said. "Man, I hated it there. Nothing to do once the boardwalk closes down at the end of the summer. I can’t believe Cat wanted to go back after college."
     "And how is your Evil Twin?"
     As happened whenever I thought of my sister, I smiled, even as my heart contracted. "Oh, she’s fine. Doing something with computers now. It’s all geek to me."
     "That sounds too tame for Cat. I figured to see her one of these days on America’s Most Wanted."
     "She’s full of surprises." Change the subject. "And you should talk. I figured you’d be doing ten to twenty by now yourself."
     Mickey didn’t bother looking insulted. "As they say, it takes one to know one." He had learned at his father’s knee that anything that wasn’t nailed down was up for grabs. He never did tell me how he managed to steal an entire swing set from the Lincoln Elementary School playground. "When my life of petty crime didn’t work out, I chose to use my knowledge for good instead of evil."
     "You mean it takes a thief to catch a thief. That’s where that TV show got its name. It Takes a Thief. Robert Wagner. Then there’s the movie To Catch a Thief. Cary Grant."
     "Really? How fascinating." The smirk was back. "You oughta come down to the bar on trivia night. You’d clean up." He raised his hand and almost immediately Georgie dropped off another beer. Mickey took a swallow before fixing me with a gaze meant to pin me against the booth, which it did. "But you didn’t just come down here to talk about old times or old flicks."
     I kept my gaze on my nearly full drink and spoke in a rush. "Listen, like I told you on the phone, I’m on assignment. My editor found out that I’d grown up with some of the principals in the Hartt case—Joel, of course, and you. So now, in addition to all the editing I do, I have to write a feature. Human interest, not an investigative piece. I’m no crime reporter. It’s supposed to be an insider’s point of view." I heard him snort. "Yeah, I thought that would make you laugh. Of course, I’m sure my editor is hoping I’ll get something new, maybe an exclusive from you. So I thought I’d get that over with first."
     I looked up then, at Mickey’s clenched jaw. "Believe me, I don’t want to be here, certainly not under these circumstances. Hardly the makings of a happy reunion."
     Mickey slid his glass on its coaster, back and forth, hand to hand. Not a drop sloshed over, though his eyes didn’t leave mine. "I used to see your name—whatchacallit, your byline?—almost every week in the city paper’s Health & Science section. Then nothing. Who are you working for now?"
     Deep breath, Rinaldi. "The Moon."
     His reaction wasn’t surprising. "You gotta be kidding! How could you go from the Paper of Record to the Paper of Rectum?" It was an old joke.
     "They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Plus free toilet paper."
     "This does not make me eager to talk to you."
     "We are mutually uneager, but the difference is that my rent is due. And I’m still a professional." More or less.
     "So I should be your Deep Throat, for old times’ sake, to be quoted in a rag I wouldn’t use to line a birdcage. If I still had a bird. The second ex-Mrs. Giamonte took that too."
     "Hey, you don’t have to tell me a thing. I’ll make it up—isn’t that what you think we do anyway? Trust me, better it comes directly from you."
     His eyes narrowed to slits. Suddenly they opened and he chuckled, without humor. "What am I being so touchy about? The whole world knows what I know. We’ve had reporters camped out here on and off for the six months since it happened. My name’s already been dragged through the shit and back again. How much more encrusted could it get?"


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