Lost causes are the ones we pray for the hardest. Throughout Mom’s Alzheimer’s, I prayed every day. A year after her death, I was done praying. I didn’t need God. I needed a drink. When I left a Westchester bar stewed, it was 2 a.m. and pouring rain. Despite the nasty weather, I lowered my passenger window and hoped the howling night air would keep me alert.
Through my Buick’s slapping windshield wipers, I squinted at the flatbed truck paused ahead of me at the stop sign. Not completely plastered, I slowed up and pulled behind it. I didn’t spot the red flag attached to the 12-foot pipes that extended past the end of the truck’s bed.
The steel exploded through my windshield, rocketed an inch from both my ears and blew out the rear window. I sat frozen. The silence became palpable and merciless in its depths. The only sound came from my car’s radio. The Temptations towed me to tears.
“People get ready, there’s a train a coming. You don’t need no ticket. You just get on board.”
With decapitation two inches from both ears, covered in broken glass and as frightened as a lost child, my sodden fingers formed the sign of the cross, but I refused to bless myself. Instead, I sat alone in this windowless wreck with nowhere to turn, nowhere to go and watched a gambler’s life flick before me like a deck of cards.
* * *
“Wait, Hank. Don’t hang up. Wait for your repeat.
You got Pittsburgh minus four, 400 times. That’s $2,000 on Pittsburgh minus 4.”
To take illegal action, the three of us needed aliases. Steve’s was Red. Carmine’s was Gobbo, and mine was Mars. As soon as I cradled the phone, it rang again. All four phones were singing. Before I grabbed one, I barked frantically,
“Red, that makes over $18,000 on the Steelers. We better bump that price to four and a half.”
“It’s only five minutes before kick off. Calm the fuck down. What difference does it make now?” Red said.
Annoyed, I shook my head. Ever since my other partner Carmine left, Steve had been off the chain. To Red, the business wasn’t as important as getting his own action in. This thick, Polish prick was only worried about his own bets.
In truth, I was almost as bad. Because we both gambled heavy, our bookmaking business suffered. I shrugged and lifted the nearest phone. A sharp, calm voice said,
“This is Brian for Mars.” My heart fluttered. I focused.
“What are you using on the Steelers – Raiders?” he asked.
Even though I needed Raider action for $18,000, I couldn’t give Brian a four and a half. He was a bookmaker and a big one. Although all he’d get from me was $2,000, his games were smoking hot.
This guy hit at an 80 percent rate. The only reason our office gave him a price on a game at all was so we could get down on that game ourselves. I couldn’t let him rob me.
“Four,” I said.
“Let me have the Raiders plus the four for two dimes,” he said.
“Brian, you’ve got Oakland plus the four 400 times, $2,000. Is that it?”
“Yeah,” he said. The phone died. Elated, I yelled,
“Red, Brian just bet $2,000 on the Raiders.”
My partner leapt to his feet.
“I gotta get me some of that,” he said.
Red’s shoulders were as broad as ax handles and attached to a short-neck that struggled to support his keg-sized head. He wore his cropped-blonde hair close, like a drill instructor.
Red screamed, “I can’t get out.”
Every time Red picked up a phone to place his bet, a customer was already on it.
“These fucken customers are screwing up our business,” he said.
I laughed at the irony of that sentence, but I knew where he was coming from. I had the same problem. I wanted to bet $20,000 on Brian’s hot side too.
Even though our office already needed the Raiders for $18,000, I couldn’t get enough of a sure thing. With only four minutes left til kickoff, I was afraid I’d get shut out. I answered one of our four phones and tried to write the ticket quickly, but my mind was on two things. Get this mook off the phone and get $20,000 down on the Raiders.
Frantic, I said, “Yeah, Artie for Red, you got it. Dallas minus the 11 for a nickel.”
My index finger pressed the cradle button, and I heard a dial tone. The other phones hummed, but I didn’t answer them. With a free phone at last, I scrambled to dial out. I was stuck $18,800 for the week. If Oakland won, I could bail out. I dialed one of my outlets.
Busy. I redialed.
Busy. I checked the big clock above our long metal desk.
Two minutes till kick off. Panicked, I redialed . . . Busy. I had a twisted feeling high up in my chest, as if something heavy was pushing against my lungs. Our phones rang off the hook. No one answered. Red already had 20 dimes on the Raiders but wanted more. He wasn’t answering any phones. Neither was I. I dialed again . . . at last,
“Hello this is Mars for the Pimp. Whatta ya got onthe Pittsburgh game?” I said. “Four? Great. Let me have the Raiders plus four for 20 dimes.”
I listened to slight murmurs of protest. “He’ll only take 10 dimes?”
Too late to call another bookie and I needed more.
“Listen, tell the Pimp to do me a favor,” I said. “We’re loaded up on the Raiders. We need to layoff some of this.” I lied. “Tell him if he takes this that in future we’ll use him exclusively to lay off all our excess.”
Seconds seemed like hours.
“OK, man. Tell him thanks. Yeah, tell him, no problem. We’ll settle up Tuesday. See ya,” I said. I pointed my index finger and extended thumb at Red and slowly squeezed my forefinger in the gangster’s salute.
“I got 20 dimes. How about you?”
“I’ve got 40 dimes so far, but I’m looking for more than just $40,000.”
The hard part done, the butterflies fled. Now I could relax, write the last few tickets, watch the game and collect my winnings.
* * *
“Red, I can’t believe it. Why the fuck didn’t they run the ball into the end zone instead of throwing two passes on the two-yard line?”
Oakland lost by six. I was fucked.
Besides the office taking a beating, I was down over $40,000 for the week. I didn’t have dollar one. Making it worse, Tuesday was only two days away. I had to come up with the bread.These guys were “serious” people.
If we had a chance in hell of digging out, Red and I had to pay the customers first. We had to stay in action. To leash the both of us that night, I posted a sign above the phones.
Suckers bet. Winners write.
“I don’t give a fuck if the game was played already, and I know the score,” I told Red. “No way I’m making another bet.”
He agreed, but his eyes hedged.
I knew this hump. No way he’d just shut it down. I wasn’t honestly sure I could either. Fuck it. I needed to call a hooker.
* * *
I was so busy trying to raise cash that I barely had time to ignore my creditors. I had to make something work and fast. If not drunk, which wasn’t often, I was at the gym — anything to get rid of stress.
While pushing weights one morning, I spotted my 17-year-old niece punishing a Stairmaster by the gym’s plate-glass window. I strolled over, and we swapped hellos. I resumed my zombie-like workout. My cheeks dented and puffed during sets.
After 12 repetitions, I dropped the barbell onto the bench-rack and sat up. I noticed a middle-aged, 300-pound black man talking to my niece.
Neither racist nor paranoid, I knew that watching her wouldn’t help me get in shape. I methodically added 10-pound plates to both sides of the bar and decreasedthe number of repetitions. On my fourth set, I noticed the black giant and my niece were still at it.
Finishing my bench presses, I headed to the floor- mats to do some stomach work. After three sets, their conversation hadn’t faded.
What’s this guy all about? I’ll just slide over. Make him aware he hasn’t gone unnoticed. I closed in.
“Hey Jill, how’s your Mom doing?”
Both turned. Jill said fine and smiled. The giant black man stared soundless with a stoic expression. He was barrel-chested with large eyes and carelessly shaved dark jowls. His baleful look helped deliver a monotone warning that slapped me senseless,
“Brother, the Holy Spirit needs to reach you. Someone is praying for you very, very hard.”
This wasn’t the first time I had heard that alarming sentence. It shocked and segued me to another prophet who had told me the same thing years earlier in a Bronx Protestant Church.
The black giant, Elijah, continued,
“The Holy Spirit compels me to talk to you.”
My eyes fell to my shoes. I thought,
Holy shit. Not again.
The black prophet’s next line cut to the chase.
“You’re a dissolute gambler, womanizer and alcoholic.”
What the fuck did he just say? Again with this shit, I thought?
The steep, rounded slope of his massive shoulders made his body seem conical. Elijah caught his breath and stared at me calmly,
“For a deep tragedy in your life, you blamed God. You disavowed your Creator and disregarded the sanctity of your immortal soul.”
Not again, no, no, no—just like that first warning by that other seer, Trudy. I thought this shit was behind me. A half a decade without warnings, I don’t need this shit now, I thought.
I stared at the black rubber floor-mat and mumbled, “Yeah, something like that.”
Elijah couldn’t know these things about me. My niece couldn’t have told him. She didn’t know anything about my personal life. These aren’t things I discussed with Jill. Our conversations were banal. We talked about her Mom and Dad’s health or the weather.
Besides, I saw it in Elijah’s face. This guy was on a mission.
* * *
The seven-footer spilled his story.
A football player at Grambling University, the black giant dreamed of turning pro. Sports were all he thought about. Elijah’s fiancé told him to spend more time on his knees and less time in a three-point stance—to be thankful for God’s gifts and not ask for more.
Then the enormous prophet told me his kicker.
During senior year, doctors found bone cancer in one of his huge legs. To save his life, he’d have to lose the limb. Weeks before the operation, like Christ in Gethsemane, he sweated blood.
He promised that if Godsaved his leg, he would devote his life to the Lord. Mystifying the doctors, the day before the operation all signs of cancer miraculously disappeared.
Making good on his vow, Elijah preached. At the moment, I was sitting in his pew. He gave me a blow-by-blow account of things he had no business knowing, along with things that I had barely remembered.
As he continued, I got more and more uncomfortable. When silent, Elijah searched skyward for divine intervention, or revelation, or maybe his next startling sentence. Throughout my ordeal, he praised God, thanked God and meditated.
Then his praying stopped. In a hushed, calm tone,
“God gave you a gift, the ability to connect with other people, and you used it immorally. Your creator’s disappointed. I am a warning,” he said. “And I may be your last warning. The Lord saved your life in Asia, plucked you from disaster in Florida, and again in New York. Why do you ignore your Savior?”
This got my attention and how.
Once more, he praised Jesus skyward.
“Yes Jesus. Thank you Jesus. I’ll tell him, Jesus—The Holy Spirit wants you to read the Bible, Jeremiah, Chapter 1.5.”
“Jeremiah Chapter 1.5,” he continued, “God wants you to stop the drugs, the drinking and the gambling. Fulfill what He planned for you before your birth. Thankyou Jesus. Praise Jesus.”
I got the message, thanked Elijah for his time, and motored my legs toward the lockers as fast as they would carry me. In the shower, I reflected on this earth-shattering revelation.
God gave me a gift. God is pissed off. This guy’s my last chance. Holy shit.
The shower’s hot water calmed me. My mind meandered to the many times that guys came up to me and reminded me of advice that I had given them years before, advice that I had long forgotten. God gave me a gift?
Elijah’s warning got my attention, shook me up. This was twice now, no accident and no coincidence. Wait until I tell my girlfriend, Colleen, about this.
This is “my last warning.”
That doesn’t sound good.
I went from the gym to a bar and had a few pops. When I saw Colleen, I told her the whole story.
Colleen reacted unexpectedly.
“You can’t ignore this warning. You know how strong your mother’s prayers are. You’ve got to get to the bottom of this. God wants to reach you.”
Colleen’s an academic, a lifelong student, and a brilliant girl who when focused could memorize a book during a nuclear attack. Nothing normally shook her.
I told her to calm down. I’d check it out when I got around to it.
This happened Monday.I had to see a knee doctor in Manhattan Wednesday. I called Colleen,
“I have a 2 p.m. appointment in the city. How about dinner after?”
* * *
We met in an Indian restaurant. All went well. Now it was late afternoon and rush hour had started. I dreaded the trip upstate so I suggested a movie.
Wednesday was a slow night at the office. Red could handle the action.
At the curb, I spied a newsstand. Colleen jumped out to buy a paper and check the movie listings. Back immediately,
“No more papers,” she said.
This guy ran out of papers in Manhattan? I spotted a candy store, shot through the green light, and pulled over to the curb. Two minutes later, she said,
“No papers. He’s all out.”
“Are you fucken kidding me? Forget it. Let’s get the hell out of Manhattan before it’s bumper to bumper. We’ll just catch a movie in Yonkers.”
Driving up the FDR Drive was predictable, two hours to go 10 or 20 miles. In Yonkers, I saw a multiplex and pulled over. I bought two tickets for Good Will Hunting” with an 8 p.m. start.
“Baby I’m not drinking. How you want to kill time until the movie begins?”
“Look, a Barnes and Noble,” she said. “Let’s browse the books.”
Walking through the parking lot, an afterthought,
“We should look up that Bible reference the blackpreacher told you about,” Colleen said.
“Yeah, why the hell not. What was it again, Jeremiah Chapter 1.5?”
Inside the bookstore, I said,
“Find the section marked Religion.”
I strolled through. I was shocked. Not one Bible. From the other aisle, Colleen shouted,
“Here’s a whole section with nothing but Bibles. Over here.”
I joined her among rows and rows of Bibles: King James, Webster, Young, Darby, Living, Good News and Hebrew. Bibles in German, French, Dutch, every language imaginable, hundreds overwhelmed me.
She said, “Grab any one.” I reached randomly for a Bible at eye level and paused. Looking down at the book’s roughly 3000 pages, I noticed one dog-eared page. I got a cold chill. My knees weakened. I hesitated to open the book.
I said, “Impossible, it can’t be. If this dog-ear is Jeremiah Chapter 1.5, I swear to God I’ll drop dead.”
Colleen’s emerald eyes turned eggshell-white. I turned to the marked page, before me like a neon warning sign, Jeremiah Chapter 1.5.
The print screamed the prophet’s words. My head pivoted in denial.
“What the hell is going on? I can’t fucken take this.”
My terrified girlfriend chanted,
“Oh my God. Oh my God. You can’t ignore this. You can’t. You can’t. You’ve got to do something. Do something.”
I did . . . I listened to my skin crawl.
God’s first words to Jeremiah read, “I knew you, before you were born.” God commanded Jeremiah to preach his message. The prophet would be the most unlikely of messengers.
As a temporal profligate, Jeremiah pleaded mistaken identity. He claimed he was the wrong man for the job. But the Lord used divine insistence, and Jeremiah finally relented
“Before I formed thee in the belly, I knew thee, and before thou camest forth out of the womb . . . I ordained thee a prophet. Do not fear them. I will put the words in your mouth.”
* * *
The following week, I spotted Elijah at the gym and rushed up.
“Hey man, wait until you hear this. You won’t believe it.”
I told him the whole tale. His visage made my anxiety worse. “Why are you surprised that the Holy Spirit contacted you?” He said smugly. “You think the Lord can’t show you signs?”
“Yeah, I know,” I said. “But you’ve got to admit what happened was pretty weird.”
He pointed his enormous finger into my skeptical face.
“Don’t you dare let the Lord down.” For emphasis, he moved inches from my face and tightened his cheek. Even the teeth on the right side of his lip were exposed.
“Not again. Don’t you dare let the Lord down, again,” he repeated.
* * *
I couldn’t believe it. This incident really shook me up.
Don’t you dare let the Lord down, again? How did he know about my past warning?
Then he had stuck a finger as big as a cucumber in my face.
What was that a curse or something? Sonofabitch might just as well have said,
“Let it be on your head.”
Jeremiah’s passage had gone on to read that God sometimes chooses unlikely orators to deliver his message. God warned Jeremiah that he had no choice. If the chosen prophet ignored God’s command, he and his descendents would be severely punished.
I didn’t need God’s punishment and neither did my son. So, if the Lord demanded an unlikely orator, maybe I could be his boy. No one had ever accused me of sainthood, but I couldn’t see this marriage of God and man working.
Not with Connor Kelly as the groom anyway.
Another hedonistic Irishman, Oscar Wilde, once famously said,
“Nothing succeeds like excess.”
I had spent the better part of my life trying to prove him right.
So let me start my story on more empirical ground . . . The day I called that hooker in Myrtle Beach.