Excerpted from It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Murder
Thursday morning, Tommy awoke alone, in his studio apartment and listened to his telephone ring. He was dreaming that the phone was ringing and then gradually he realized that it really was ringing. It was a cheap phone, with a cheap ring, more buzz than ring, and it was persistent. He swatted at the phone and cursed, knowing that she would not give up. It would not be his girlfriend on the line (thank god for that). His girlfriend Bobbie was angry and no longer talking to him. Tommy had no doubt who was on the line. Weary, after too few hours of sleep, Tommy picked up the receiver.
“What do you want Greta?”
“How do you know it’s me?” Greta growled in his ear.
“Am I wrong?” Tommy sighed. “What do you want?”
Greta’s laugh was throaty and phlegmatic, too many cigarettes, too many meds. “What do I – grr - want? What I want is – grr – a vacation in Maui, a Lexus, a...”
Tommy interrupted Greta’s wish list. “My bad Greta. I shouldn’t have asked. We both know I don’t give a damn what you want. But that’s not why you called. Right?”
“No, that’s – grr – not why I called.”
“So why did you call me at...” Tommy looked at his alarm clock and groaned, “7:30? Surely not to wish me a Happy Thanksgiving.”
Greta got to the point. “You’re way behind in your damn child support payments.”
“I’m doing the best I...”
Greta was not in the mood. “Grr - you’re not doing shit and you know it.”
“Okay Greta. Let’s say you’re right. I’m a deadbeat Dad. I’m not gonna argue the point. So what do you say we skip over the general bullshit and you tell me why you’ve chosen this particular morning to bust my balls, okay?”
“Tommy Junior is marching in the parade today,” Greta said. “I called – grr - to remind you to turn on your television.”
“Shit Greta. I know that. I’ll be watching.” Looking for a piece of paper, Tommy scribbled a reminder on the palm of his right hand.
“And if they get a shot of his feet on TV, I want you to notice he’s the only kid in the band wearing sneakers. You got that Tommy? Your son needs band shoes. Send me a damn check.” Greta slammed the receiver back in its cradle.
Tommy hung up the phone just in time to hear the knocking at his front door. Neither especially loud nor insistent, Tommy recognized the deliberate style of the Macks. Opening the door slowly, two men stood just outside the door, crowding out Tommy’s view of the world beyond. The men were big. Huge. Refrigerators in blue pinstripes and Italian sunglasses. Tommy had fallen behind in his payments.
The Macks were a family business, father and son loan sharks and freelance enforcers. Big Mack was approaching sixty from the wrong side. Part Irishman, part Choctaw Indian, at six foot tall, two eighty, he was built like the proverbial brick shithouse and, even now, approaching retirement, remained the muscle of the team. Big Mack loved to hit.
Little Mack was his youngest, and only living son. The three older boys all died in combat – Ernie in Nam, Billy in Iraq and Eddie in a hooker’s bed in the Ironbound section of Newark. Little Mack had outgrown his father by the time he was fifteen. In his early thirties, he was six-six and weighed three forty-five. Despite his size, Little Mack’s role, until his father retired, was to be the mouthpiece.
Tommy understood why the Macks were at his door early on a Thanksgiving morning. Without waiting, Tommy rolled into action.
“Heh, heh it’s the Macks. My two favorite all-beef Paddies. Long time no see boys. How the hell are ya? Still hittin’ the special sauce?”
Little Mack stepped inside and grunted a terse, “Fuck you Tommy.” Big Mack merely nodded and rubbed his knuckles.
“Look boys,” Tommy said, “it’s great to see ya and I’d love to shoot the shit with a coupla sparkling wits like yourselves, but it’s Thanksgiving. I ain’t got time for a Mack attack today.”
“Hold your water Tommy. This ain’t gonna take long.” Little Mack spoke softly, his voice a hoarse whisper. His father, standing in the doorway, filling the doorway, rubbed his hands impatiently.
“My dad ain’t real happy with you, Tommy. You let him down. You let us down. You were supposed to make a payment last week. Here it is Thursday and you still ain’t made good on the debt.”
Tommy was ready with an answer. He only hoped the Macks were in a Thanksgiving sort of mood. “Here’s the thing boys. I got a job.” Big Mack barely moved, but Tommy saw, in the tilt of his head, that Big Mack was impressed.
“Yeah, I start work tomorrow.”
Little Mack asked, “Who’s the numbnuts what hired you Tommy?”
And Tommy said, “I got a job at the mall.” When Little Mack made no comment Tommy explained. “Startin’ next week, I can make a payment every week. Every week,” he repeated for emphasis.
Little Mack barely moved his lips. “We’ll be in touch.” Big Mack nodded and with that, the Macks were gone.
Tommy closed the door.
Tommy mentally made a list of the things he was thankful for this year.
His ex-wife was hassling him for money he did not have, but she would just have to wait her turn. Tommy owed money all over town. Greta was annoying, but she wasn’t especially dangerous. On the other hand, Tommy’s bookie was less annoying than Greta, but capable of causing him real pain. And as bad as the Macks could be, neither measured up to the danger that was his current girlfriend. Bobbie was withholding sex until he completed anger management class. And how does that make you feel?, they asked him that first night in class. Like hittin’ something, he told them. His health was bad in indeterminate ways and his medical coverage had been cancelled. His bank account was a joke. Tommy was six months behind in child support. The state of New Jersey had suspended his driver’s license. At least he had a job at the mall, now that the holiday was here.
Tommy looked at the bottle of turkey and gravy soda in the fridge and shuddered at the possibilities. He put a Swanson Hungry Man turkey dinner in the microwave and turned on the television, flipping back and forth between the parade and ESPN. He tried to put a bet down on the Detroit Lion game, but his bookie had cut him off. Happy Thanksgiving.
His boy, Tommy Junior, fifteen and a sophomore in high school was somewhere in the long line of marching bands in the Macy’s parade. Tommy had forgotten about the parade until his ex-wife called. A trombone should be easy to spot, he told himself, but Tommy could not find Tommy Junior on TV that morning. He did, however, see a couple of decent marching bands and all the really good balloons... Kermit the Frog, SpongeBob SquarePants, Garfield, Al Roker.
And, of course, at the end of the parade, Tommy watched Santa Claus arrive at Herald Square. Santa’s arrival marked the official start of the Christmas season, a month of peace, of brotherhood, of good will and for Tommy, a month to show his girlfriend he could manage his anger, to show the Macks he could pay his debts, working as a department store Santa at the Mall of New Jersey.
Tommy watched the football games. With no action on the games, he found that football did not hold his interest anymore. He re-considered the bottle of turkey and gravy soda, mixing it, one part soda and two parts Jack Daniels. Tommy lit a Newport and fell asleep in front of the television.