You find meaning where you make it, I thought, polishing off my second bourbon and getting up to leave. I’d stopped by Puffy’s after an early piano gig, hoping to take the edge off before heading home. I couldn’t stop thinking about the old man —always worrying about him, continually reframing the narrative in my mind. I’m grateful for the time I have left with him was the best I could come up with.
The streets were deserted as I walked to my car a couple of blocks away on Fulton. Now hungry, I briefly entertained the idea of stopping at a diner but decided against it.
Feeling pleasantly toasted on the drive home, ‘Kind of Blue’ drifted out of the radio as I pulled into the driveway. I sat in the car for a few minutes listening to Mile’s plaintive trumpet, lost in my thoughts when something triggered my lizard brain.
The lights were out.
As I approached the front of the house, my mind went on high alert — the door was cracked and appeared to have been forced open with a crowbar. A jolt of adrenaline ended my reverie in a heartbeat.
I walked in, and not ten feet from the door, a body was lying on the living room floor. A very dead body, having arrived at that state as a result of a shotgun blast to the face. A ski mask doesn’t offer much in the way of protection against a 12-gauge. Sitting on the sofa, smoking a cigarette, was Dad. The gun lay on the cushion next to him.
“Don’t get mad,” he said.
“Jesus, Pop. How many times have I asked you not to smoke in the house?”
I loved my Dad. He’d been a good father, always there for my sister and me. Quick to smile, he was kind and attentive — our happiness seemed like the most important thing in the world to him. His face would always light up when he saw us as if our mere presence was the best thing that happened to him all day.
Pop’s love made us feel safe and protected.
He didn’t have any friends I knew of, but once a week or so, a man with a gruff voice would call and say, Lemme speak to Frank.
It wasn’t long after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s that I discovered he had murdered people for a living. I found out one day when he was confused and couldn’t find his socks.
“I did it for you kids,” he said.
“What’s that?” I replied, handing him a clean pair.
“Killed people. It’s how I put food on the table.”
Looking at the body on the floor, I shut the door and didn’t say anything. This was out of my wheelhouse — I’m a musician for Christ’s sake.
“I heard someone trying to break in, so I grabbed the shotgun and turned out the lights. This fucking guy comes in with a piece, so I shot him.”
Made sense to me, but now what do I do? Call the cops? Who knows what other murders Dad might confess to? After a couple of minutes standing there like a dummy, Pop looks at me, eyes placid, and says, “Call Jerry.”
Jerry is his friend from the adult daycare center.
“Just call him; he’ll know what to do.”
Dad had always been organized. I found Jerry’s number in his phone book and dialed it, waiting for someone to pick up. After ringing for several minutes, I was about to hang up when a man with a gravelly voice answered.
“This is Marcus, Frank Nicholas’s son. I’m looking for Jerry.”
After a brief pause, the voice said, “This is Jerry. How can I help you?”
“We have a, uh, situation here. Dad asked me to call you.”
The line went silent. I had no idea whether Jerry had dementia too. Starting to feel panicked and foolish, before I could speak the man said, “Don’t do anything. I’ll be right over.”
I hung up and turned to Pop as he stood, sighed, and announced, “I’m pouring us both a drink.”
He didn’t ask what Jerry said, but I got the sense they knew where this was headed. I figured if anyone had called the cops, they would have been here already.
The old man came in with two shots of Wild Turkey. We drank in silence and waited.
Mom was always fiercely protective of our family; we never doubted her love for us. Although she was quick to laugh at our jokes and had a well-developed sense of humor, unlike Dad, her demeanor could turn on a dime from friendly to intimidating. Whenever something went south, she closed ranks with a steely reserve. I never understood what caused her to behave this way — they were matters that concerned adults — I was only a kid. Whatever had gone wrong, I trusted them to take care of it.
I still remember being embarrassed the first time someone asked me what my father did and realizing I didn’t know the answer. As soon as I got home, I asked her.
“He’s a private contractor, dear,” she said casually while washing dishes. “How was your day in school?”
So from that moment on, whenever anyone asked, that’s what I told them. And no one, including me, ever questioned it.
It couldn’t have been more than fifteen minutes after I hung up when Jerry walked in, his overcoat unbuttoned, still in his pajamas.
“Jesus, Frank, I guess it wasn’t his night.”
Pop raised his eyebrows and sighed.
After surveying the scene, he turned to me. “You must be Marcus. Nice to meet you.”
Nobody spoke as he stood there thinking.
After a moment, he broke the silence. “There’s cleaning supplies and a plastic tarp in the trunk of my car.”
Figuring I could ask questions later, I was just grateful he had a plan. After a few trips, I had everything laid out on the dining room floor.
By the time I finished, Jerry was sitting in Dad’s chair nursing a drink. Legs crossed, one knee over the other, he still had his bedroom slippers on and appeared to be watching TV. On at a low volume, Pop had tuned it to the Turner Classic Movies channel. I looked at the screen long enough to see Richard Widmark push an old lady in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs, giggling like a lunatic.
“Check his pockets for car keys and his wallet.” Jerry wasn’t addressing anyone in particular, but I knew he was talking to me.
He glanced over at Dad and grinned.
“Just like old times, eh, Frank?”
Pop didn’t reply, but I thought I noticed a slight smile as he raised his glass.
“Got ‘em,” I said. Looking in the billfold, I read the name on his driver’s license: “Manuel Ortega.”
“Not anymore,” Jerry said. “Now let’s get to work.”
“Remember that Father’s Day?” Dad was still sitting on the sofa with a far-away look in his eyes as I unrolled the tarp.
“Which one, Pop?”
“You couldn’t have been much more than seven; you gave me a card and signed it, To the best Dad in the world.”
Nobody said anything as I struggled to roll the body up like a grotesque burrito.
“I cut out the part you wrote and carried it in my wallet for years.”
Jerry spoke, still watching the TV. “Find the stiff’s car and pull it up front.”
I walked outside and hit the ‘horn’ button on the key fob. Manuel had parked it one block down. I backed the car into the driveway and went inside — every house on the street was dark.
The day after my tenth birthday, Mom was diagnosed with cancer. At the time, I didn’t understand what that meant, but the sicker she got, the clearer everything became. She died a year later. I watched Pop struggle to care for her, never wavering in his devotion. He tried to hide the horror of the situation from my sister and me, being careful not to disrupt our routines.
One night I woke up and found him quietly sobbing in her room as she lay on the bed, lost in a netherworld somewhere between life and death, shut off from us by the painkillers and her disease.
I had never seen him cry.
Dad was dozing on the sofa as I scraped the last of the blood, bone, and brains off the walls. I was too scared to be sick. “You’re Frank’s kid alright,” Jerry said approvingly. Manuel’s body was snug in the trunk of his Buick, wrapped up like a 200 lb. slab of tuna. Following instructions, I placed all the dirty cleaning supplies in two large, heavy-duty garbage bags. Together, they must have weighed close to a hundred pounds.
“Put ‘em in the backseat of his car, along with the gun — and cover ‘em up with a blanket,” Jerry said, not looking away from the TV. It must’ve been Noir night on TCM because William Holden was now floating face down in a pool, arms outstretched, dead but still somehow able to speak from beyond the grave.
Once I had everything in the car, Jerry turned to me and laconically ordered, “Get a shower and put your dirty clothes in a bag.”
“What about Pop?”
“I’ll clean him up — he’s going with us.”
When I got out of the shower, Dad was in fresh clothes and awake. It was a few minutes after six; Jerry was on the phone with someone.
“We’ll be there in twenty minutes,” was all I heard before he hung up.
Pop appeared confused. “Where’re we going?”
“Out for breakfast, but first we’ve gotta take care of some business.”
Tossing me Manuel’s keys, he said, “You drive the genius who thought it was a good idea to stage a home invasion at Frank Nicholas’s house. Just follow me.”
In for a penny, in for a pound, I thought, getting into the Buick and starting it. Jerry pulled out first with Dad in the passenger seat and me following close behind. I tried not to think about the body in the trunk or the bloody remains that were now in the back seat covered by a blanket Mom knit years ago.
I was now on autopilot, too tired to be scared. Watching their car intently so I didn’t lose them, they appeared to be talking and laughing. The whole thing was beginning to seem surreal. The sun rose, revealing a beautiful summer morning, with men walking out of their houses to pick up the morning paper before breakfast.
As I drove, I remembered coming home from school with my sister the day Mom died. We found Dad sitting in the kitchen, his eyes red and moist. Flashing a sad smile when we came in, he hugged us tight as if we might somehow slip away. How could a man who had been so loving to his family murder people for a living?
Now he had killed some poor bastard who made the mistake of robbing the wrong house, a house occupied by an old man with Alzheimer’s who happened to be a retired contract killer. And who the fuck was Jerry? It was apparent their relationship extended further back than the last year.
Just as I wondered if Jerry had been the gruff voice that used to call Dad when I was a kid, his car turned into ‘Joe Clark’s Auto Salvage.’ The sign at the entrance declared, ‘We Buy Junk Cars — Free Towing.’ You couldn’t tell from the road, but the place was massive; it must’ve covered hundreds of acres. I pulled in and watched Jerry get out of his car and greet a man who seemed to know him. They talked for a few minutes before the man approached.
“Pull over there behind the garage,” he said, motioning where to go.
I did as I was told, got out of Manuel’s car, and stood there unsure what to do next. As soon as I saw a crane with a giant magnet pick up a vehicle and drop it into a massive hydraulic press, everything became clear. Dad still sat in the car as Jerry walked over to me.
“By the time you’ve compressed a Buick into a three-foot cube and loaded it on a barge hauling scrap metal, there’s not much left for the boys at the crime lab to play with.”
Marveling at the simplicity of the plan, the crane swiveled and picked up Manuel’s car like a toy. Into the crusher the vehicle went, and instead of revulsion, all I felt was relief.
Jerry and I got in his car. Dad startled and appeared confused. Speaking to no one in particular, he said, “Where’re we going?”
“Getting breakfast,” Jerry replied.
Pop turned around and looked at me in the back seat, his eyes crinkling.
“Remember that Father’s Day?”
Image: IFCAR, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons