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A New Year's Celebration
Christopher J. Brasel
"Mom, it's been twenty years since Dad died and I still don't know what happened that night." I'm leaning against the kitchen counter awaiting my next assignment in preparation for our New Year's dinner, I'm hoping Mom will give in and share her twenty year old secret. Not even close, she acts like she doesn't even hear me.
"Did you talk to your uncle James yet?"
"Did you tell him he has to bring wine?"
Mom pats me on the back sarcastically, "You're so smart honey. That's why I have you do everything when I need help." She has a smug grin on her face as she turns back to the stove.
"Whatever Mom. You do make me do everything. Why can't Mikey set the table?"
"Because I asked you to do it." Mom didn't turn, but I could tell she is smiling to herself. "What are you smiling for?"
"You whine about everything just like your father, it's amazing how much you two are alike"
The fact that I'm becoming more like Dad makes me proud but reminds me why I'm hanging around the kitchen. "That's great Mom, but at this rate I'll be dead just like my father and I still won't know how he died. This is bullshit Mom, don't you think I deserve to know?"
"John Alexander Grant, don't talk like that. You know, my house is so peaceful when your at school. Yes honey, I do think you deserve to know. You already know that James and I agreed that he should be the one to tell you, and only when you're mature enough. So shape up!" Mom winks at me. "Why don't you get out of my hair if you're not going help."
I sigh and rub my eyes, as if it would wipe away my frustration. "What do you need me to do?"
Mom made a big dinner for New Years Eve, 1998, my last year of college. Our whole family is together. Mikey, my older brother who will never outgrow his nickname, brought his girlfriend. Heather is the oldest, she, her husband, and their puppy all flew in from Pasadena.
Uncle James usually carved the meat but tonight he let me. I look at mom as I address James. "Hey James, since I'm mature enough to cut the meat, don't you think I'm mature enough to know what happened to Dad?"
"We'll see." James replies as he walks Mom's plate over to her. James looked at Mom questioningly as he set her plate down, as if to ask if she thought I could handle it.
"It's up to you James, I think you should tell him, after all it is bullshit -he deserves to know."
Heather about choked on her wine. "Mother! When did you start talking like that?"
Mikey looked at his girlfriend and laughed, "I told you things tend to get a little rowdy when we're all together."
I was laughing too, "You go Mom, It is bullshit." I turned to James. "What do ya' say James old boy, Mom always knows best."
James sits back down. "Maybe after the smoke clears around here we'll go out for a drink."
I rub my hands together with satisfaction. "Finally." I know this means he was going to tell me what happened.
Even Mom stayed up 'til midnight. We all have a glass of champagne to toast the new year. Heather and her husband kiss as Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve floats in from the next room. Mikey had been smoochin' on his girlfriend all night so the kiss at midnight wasn't anything special. "Spare us," I say, "why don't you guys go to bed."
Mikey looks up and smiles, "Shut up John, you know you'd be ten times worse if your little girlfriend was here." Mikey must have thought my idea was pretty good, he gets up from the couch, yawns and stretches. He pulls his girlfriend up by her hand, "Mom I think we're gonna' turn in."
"Mikey I hope your girlfriend's mother doesn't think I'm a bad person because I let you two sleep together."
Mikey shakes his head as he replies. "Mom, I'm twenty-three, she's twenty-four, we live together remember? I don't think her mom will mind" Mikey bends down and kisses Mom on the cheek, his girlfriend thanks her for a wonderful evening and they go upstairs.
Mom says jokingly, "It's way past my bed-time. Seriously though, I don't remember the last time I was up past midnight, I'd better cash in my chips too."
Mom walks towards the stairs, As she passes she kisses her hand and plants a kiss on each my sister's, her husband's, and their puppy's head. They don't pay any mind, because they're all asleep in a big pile on the couch.
"Good night Momma," I say as she kisses her hand and plants one on my head.
"Good night sweetheart, thanks for helpin' out today."
I smile and wrinkle my nose at her, knowing she's just trying to make me feel guilty for complaining. "Go to bed Mom."
"Ok, Happy New Year."
"Good night, Susan, everything was perfect as usual," James says.
"Well what did you expect James," mom questions as she walked up the stairs.
James turns towards me still chuckling about Mom's comment. "You ready for that drink John?"
"Hell Yes James, I've been ready for twenty years."
"Wait a minute. What do ya' mean twenty years, your still not old enough yet, are you?"
"Whatever James, you know how old I am. I know you saw how sick I was the morning after my twenty-first.
James says laughing, "You were quite a sight that morning. Your Mom thought you were gonna' croak."
"James, let's go."
* * *
James parks the car on the street, it was the bar that James and my father had always gone to. "This place has been around forever, huh James?"
"It sure has John, When we were growing up your Dad and I used to cut school and come up here to watch the guys play cards and watch the horse races, all the high rollers used to hang out here. The guys didn't seem to care that we weren't in school, actually they began to look forward to seeing us."
We sit at the corner of the bar, I imagine that this is where Dad and James used to sit talking over a beer and a cigarette. I take the liberty of ordering our drinks. James doesn't smoke anymore and he doesn't drink beer if he can help it, he always has the same. "Glenlivet on the rocks," I am feeling sophisticated, "Make that two please." James smiles approvingly.
James holds up his glass, "Cheers john."
"Cheers," I say as we touch glasses.
James takes a sip and swallows hard. "John I always intended to tell you about the night your father died, I just had to wait until we were both ready. I was worried that you might blame me, your mother had a hard time talking to me for a while."
"James just tell me, if Mom doesn't hold anything against you now, why would I?"
"I guess you're right, regardless you do deserve to know."
James takes another sip and sets his glass down. "The guys up here got your father and I started on the horses. It was fun for a long time. Sometimes we were up, sometimes we were down. By the time you kids were around it had gotten bad. Your father was having a hard time making ends meet and I was just nuts. We started betting big. We got in over are heads and had to start borrowing money to cover our losses. The money we borrowed wasn't clean, it was the mob's money. The guy who loaned us the money was connected. He acted like he was doing us a friendly favor but the mob made a killing on the vig."
"Vigorish John, it's a term the mob uses for interest on a loan."
"So you guys ran with the Mafia?"
"No, not at all, they just used us to make money like they did everyone. Anyhow, like I said we got in over our heads, way over. Our debts got bigger and bigger, finally it got to the point where we couldn't come up with the money. We were always late on payments. We were warned several times, and eventually started getting threatened. We kept bettin' the horses, though, thinking we'd win a big one and be able to settle up. One night we were supposed to meet up here and make a payment, we didn't have the money, in fact we had lost everything on a long shot that day. We came up here anyhow, knowing we had to, hoping they'd cut us even more slack. We were scared as hell but we had to come."
It all starts to clear up for me, I could see where James' story was headed. No wonder Mom had always been so strict, so worried that we were headed down the right path. I'm glad she was, Mikey and I had come across many forks in the road but had always managed somehow to choose the right direction. I don't know if I want to hear about that night that Dad and James had crossed the mafia, I suspect for the last time. I pick my glass off the bar, look to the bottom and jiggle the last sip around. I finish my drink and order two more. I have to know, "Go on James."
It is a different bartender, he brings us two bottles of Bud, not the scotch we had been drinking.
"Thanks for the beer Charlie," James says.
"Forget about it." Wait, Charlie was my fathers name. As I look up to question James I notice my reflection in the mirror behind the bottles, I see my father's face. I look at James shaking my head to clear away the confusion.
"What are we gonna' tell them Charlie, we gotta' tell 'em something."
The memories of my life rush from my head, I am seeing through my father's eyes. I have visions of my three children and of my wife Susan. I'm scared more for them than for myself. I hated myself for doing this to them. I had to find away to get out of this and clean up my act.
"I don't know James, I'm scared."
I pick up my beer and take a long sip. I set my glass down and reach into my breast pocket for my smokes.
"Can I get one Charlie, I'm out."
"Yeah sure." I give James a cigarette and light it for him. I put the pack and the lighter on the bar and finish my beer. I sense someone standing behind us but I don't turn around, I was hoping this moment would never come, Maybe if I ignore him he'll go away. He doesn't.
"How's it goin' fellas, havin' a good night?"
James and I look at each other and slowly turn around. Neither of us speak. James takes a hard drag on his cigarette and tosses it on the floor.
"You shouldn't smoke, it'll kill ya'," the man said mockingly as he lights up.
I had never seen the guy before but I knew why he was here. I play stupid, "Who are you?"
"It matters to us," James says in an overconfident voice."
"Shut up you. Don't make me smack you in front of all these people. The boss wants to see you two out back."
"What's wrong with in here?" I ask nervously.
"Hey smart guy, I don't call the shots. If Boss says he wants to talk out back then I gotta' take you out back."
James and I follow him slowly to the back door and down the alley a ways. There is a black Caddy parked, still running. We approach the car reluctantly. The back window rolls down. Inside there was another man I had never seen before. I want to run, but don't. It wouldn't matter anyway, I knew I couldn't hide from these guys, and I didn't want to put my wife and kids in danger.
The man speaks from inside the car. "You guys have something that belongs to me."
James speaks, I can tell he's scared by how his voice is wavering, "We don't have the money, not yet, we're workin' on it. Give us a week and we'll have it."
The man in the car replied, "I'm a business man. If I cut everyone the slack I've already cut you jerk-offs, I wouldn't be where I am today -in this shiny Cadillac, in these fancy clothes, drinking expensive booze. That's not good business, I'm sorry boys".
The window rolls up as the man is apologizing to us, for what I knew we would soon find out. I'm hoping we'd get a good beating and still have a chance to repay or debts, it's the best we can hope for. I sense movement behind us. I grab James' arm and spin him around. The man who had approached us in the bar is standing there, his hand beneath his coat. We freeze. The man withdraws a shiny pistol, he looks at the gun then at us. "Yup, boss is real sorry, he doesn't enjoy this kinda' stuff. I guess that's why he pays me." The man laughs as he calmly raises the pistol towards James. He fires. The shot hits James, I cry out and dive on top of my brother as if my body can protect him from the bullets. Two quick shots ring out, the pain seers through my body but I never let go of James.
I lay there as James and my blood pools around us, I can't breath. I can hear the car's engine running. I can barely make out the last words I would ever hear. "You bums just gambled your lives away. Charlie I hope the wife and kiddies will be ok."
I'd cry if I could, I'm dying. I Can feel my body giving up the fight. As the Cadillac drove by my last thoughts were of my family, I prayed to God that one of us would make it so they wouldn't be alone.
Thanks to my writing class for helping me make better choices, to Terry for his expertise, and to my family for modeling for the first half of the story.
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