A man was pushed through the doorway; he was hunched and whimpering like a beaten dog. His left eye was swollen shut, and his mangled and protruding lower lip was reddened by a mix of blood and saliva. The smell of stale beer and dried urine followed him into the small office in the back room of the pool hall. He was guided in by a large man who had two big handfuls of the back of his blood-spattered jacket.
The dimly lit room was yellowed from years of cigarette smoke, and the desk was adorned with a large overfull ashtray. The grizzled old man behind the desk stubbed out his last butt and lit another. He still held the match to the end of the cigarette when he spoke. “Tony, did you do this to him?” His words were a soft growl.
With a puzzled look on his face the large man began sheepishly, “Boss, you…”
“Shut up!” The force of the old man’s words sent a cloud of smoke across the room, and the obscenities that followed shook the room like artillery fire. Yet, the cigarette never moved from the corner of his mouth.
The old man regained his composure and faced the bloodied man. “Johnny, you are family, and I assure you that this was a terrible mix-up.” The blood drained from Tony’s face, and his skin matched the pale yellowed color of the wall like a chameleon trying to hide from a predator.
Johnny was emboldened by the mention of his name and his face became a grotesque caricature as he bared his cracked and bloody teeth in an attempted smile. His shoulders straightened as his lungs filled with air, and his mind swirled as he tried to come up with the perfect words to strike fear into the heart of the man who just beat him senseless.
The old man’s years loansharking had imparted a certain amount of understanding of the impulses of desperate people and he intervened. “Don’t say anything that you are going to regret, Johnny. Tony, here, was just doing what he does to all the deadbeats that refuse to repay their debts. He is a little thick in the head. Had he realized that you were married to my niece, I’m sure he would have treated you with much better care.” The old man flicked the growing ashes off the end of his cigarette into the ashtray and shot a withering glance at Tony. Tony knew that now is a great time to stay quiet and listen. “In fact,” the old man returned the cigarette to the right corner of his mouth and continued. ”I can’t help but feel responsible for this, so I’ll tell you what. I am going to forgive your debt. And to tell you just how sorry he is for what he’s done, Tony is going to give you a little something too.”
“Pull out your cash,” the old man commanded. Tony reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a wad of twenties. “What is that four, five hundred bucks? Johnny, that money is yours.” The old man’s breath caused the long ash to fall from the cigarette in his mouth. The ash crumbled upon impact. The old man slowly wiped at the ash and left a long grey smudge on his sweat-stained shirt. “If you need more money to get your teeth fixed, don’t hesitate to ask. Now, go wash up and go home. And if anybody asks, you tell them you fell down the stairs. I don’t need my niece being upset at me. Understand?”
Johnny nodded as he pocketed the money. “I understand, Mr. Contadino,” he said, and he shuffled out the door toward the restroom at the end of the hall.
“Lock the door and sit down,” the old man said to Tony. The old man’s cigarette now threatened to singe his lips.
“Did I screw up, Boss?”
The old man smashed out the butt and retrieved two more from the pack in his shirt pocket. He handed one to Tony, lit it for him, and then lit the one for himself. “Relax. You did just what I wanted.” He produced a bottle of Scotch and two glasses from the desk drawer. “Remember when I said I was going to teach you how to run this business yourself?”
“Well,” the old man drawled, “consider this lesson one…”