#4 BE IN THE MOB
Fritz was a black, short hair, standard size Dachshund, hailing from a puppy farm in downstate Illinois. As a puppy he was often left alone between the hours of noon and seven o’clock. Those were the hours my father was at work. Well, if you want to call it work, most people would call it going to the track.
As a result, Fritz had an abandonment complex. He was insecure. Even the cat he shared the house with, Eight Ball, bullied Fritz even though she weighed half as much.
The first time I took Fritz to the dog park to meet other dogs, he peed himself and stayed next to my leg, or the fence, “nerves” we called it. We always teased Fritz about his weight - he could put on extra pounds rather quickly. We’d always joke, right in front of him, too: “This dog is not an Alpha!”
Then something changed; something extraordinary. Around age five, or thirty five human years, Fritz, also known as “Little Pup,” returned from a road trip to Vegas with my father, a different dog. No longer did he let the cat bully him, no longer did he cry for my father during the hours of the racetrack. If he wanted to take a dump on the kitchen floor, he would. He’d give you a look, too, across the room, after you caught him; it said “You gotta problem with that?” There was no leg, nor species he wasn’t afraid to hump.
“What’s going on with your dog, Pops?” I ask my Dad, as Fritz gives me a once over while watching Jeopardy on the couch.
“He got made” my Dad answers, not even turning his head to speak to me, still shouting answers toward the projection TV on the wall and a giant Alex Trybek.
“What?” I ask, confused. This is one of those times when I am faced with
something unbelievable as a Pool Hustler’s Daughter; so unbelievable, my friends will never understand. No wonder it is so easy for me to live in a fantasy world.
“He’s a made dog – now leave him alone,” my father finishes, still looking ahead at the TV and not at me.
“What happened on that trip?” I ask, frustrated.
“What is The Battle of the Bulge!” My father answers, correctly, of course, clapping his hands. Fritz barks beside him in approval.
The perks of being “made” included double cheeseburgers and chili fries from Steak and Shake, and a permit to enter any building in the U.S. No, he wasn’t a Seeing Eye dog; Fritz was short and nearly drown trying to swim with his extra long body and tiny legs. He barely weighed thirty pounds.
All of a sudden, after being "made," Fritz starts understanding orders my Old Man barks at him – in Italian.
I wanted to be like Fritz. I, too, wanted that control, that power, that confidence; a “Take Me As I Am” attitude. I wanted my abandonment complex to go away. I was jealous. I had been bullied my whole life and enough was enough. If I didn't fix things now, and set my life on a new course, like Fritz had, I never would. If Fritzie, aka “Little Pup,” a Weiner dog, could get made, then so could I.
I show up to the cigar shop on the south side of Chicago with a Sicilian anchovy pizza, a lime Jello mold and some Peronis.
“For Vito” I say and am waved toward a bald guy with a potbelly reading the sports section wearing alligator shoes.
I walk into a backroom filled with fat, hairy guys with pinky rings smoking cigars.
“What do you want, kid?” the Capo, Vito asks. He is secretly grateful for the interruption as he is losing this hand.
“I want to get made” I say handing over lunch to Vito’s crew.
“Shut your mouth! You’re glad we just did a sweep this morning!” Vito yells.
“She wants to get made?” Mikey, a younger, muscle type in an Addidas track suit asks, laughing. I think we’re fifth or sixth cousins, distant.
“Get the fuck outta here!” Vito jokes, and the rest of his crew, follow suit.
“I’m completely serious, Vito. I am about to turn 40 soon and I need to know what the power of being made feels like. My father’s dog got made a few years back and he gets everything he wants now. Filet mignon, Halloween costumes, and he never hears the word no from anyone. It’s ridiculous! I can’t compete for my father’s attention anymore…”
“Wait, you mean to tell me, your Dad’s got a made dog?”
“Yes.” I answer
“That’s…cool” my sorta cousin Mikey answers.
“It’s a Doberman, a German Shepherd?” Vito asks.
“Well, it is German….a Dachshund…” I start to answer.
“You mean a Weiner Dog? A fuckin’ hot dog?” Vito asks.
All the guys at the table start laughing. Vito is actually pissed.
“Some people do refer to the breed as a hot dog, but it didn’t happen in
Chicago, it was in Vegas. And I know better to ever question what happens in Vegas.” I say.
“What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” Mikey jokes.
“Exactly!” I concur.
“Just because a dog got made, doesn’t mean I’m going to let a broad get made.
It’s not what we do. A woman can’t get made.” Vito explains.
“Vito, first off, I appreciate you referring to me a woman,” I say
“You’re welcome,” Vito answers happily like he just French kissed Gloria
“But, you have failed to acknowledge the character “Lucky” Jackie Collins’s Mob Boss Heroine in her book entitled Lucky” I add.
I throw the Jackie Collins paperback on the poker table.
“Sorry, I don’t care, for soft porn without pictures,” Vito says, throwing the book back at me.
“Wait, you mean to tell me you’ll let a Dog get made?” I scream.
“It is a boy dog” Mikey adds.
“A dog get made, but not a woman?” I scream louder.
“Why do you think the Mafia even came into existence? To get away from
Italian women are fuckin’ nut jobs if you hadn’t noticed.” Vito begins.
“Italian women are the most wonderful, caring, giving, sexy women on the
planet!’ I yell.
“Okay, I will agree with the sexy part, but they are also the most dangerous,” Vito adds, “I brought a stray cat home one day and my mother smothered it to death in its sleep. You know how Italian women are about Cats…” Vito says, almost crying.
“They think they are witches” I answer Vito, softly.
“It was just a cat!” Vito mourns, tearing up.
“You should have known better” I say softly.
“That’s what I’m talkin’ about. You’re all friggin crazy! My wife, my daughter, my sister, my cousins, my nieces; all crazy! The only pleasure I get out of life is here at the Cigar shop hiding from them.” Vito yells, slamming his hand down, hard.
“Fine, I feel your pain. But you’ve got to satisfy my request. My Gram babysat you when you were a kid. She wiped your ass, Vito.” I finish.
“You’re not even from the neighborhood; you’re not even one hundred percent Italian.” Vito remarks.
“So?” I say, shrugging my shoulders.
“You talk funny” Mikey says.
“What you see before you if the result of a Lincoln Park address, three
scholarships, ten Jewish mothers and elocution lessons from Blair Warner from the TV show The Facts of Life." I instruct, smiling.
"You ever threaten anyone?" Vito asks seriously.
"Well, I did send my first boyfriend a dead fish." I answer.
"That's good, I like that. You've got balls. You inherited something from your grandmother" Vito says smiling.
"But did you whack him?" My cousin asks.
"Whack off? Yes, many times." I answer, thinking back, lovingly, and smiling.
"No, did you kill him?" my cousin asks again, louder.
"No, unfortunately, he retaliated with a dead gerbil and we made up" I say.
“Fine, fine,” Vito starts, “You want to feel like a made man,"
"Woman" I correct.
"Woman," Vito finishes "Then I’ll give you the hardest job on my docket.”
“Do I have to kill anyone with an ice pick?” I ask.
“No, and Ice picks went out of fashion after the failure of the film Basic Instinct 2. It will be challenging, though. You need to collect the till from the Bingo Hall.” Vito says.
“The Bingo Hall? What’s so hard about that?” I ask
All the guys at the table laugh loudly.
“The last guy we sent there hasn’t been heard from in months.” Vito says.
“Why do they pay you?” I ask.
“Well, who do you think hangs curtains, fixes leaky pipes, gets new sidewalks made. Gets the best date at the wedding hall? We do.” Mikey says.
“Well, how much do they owe?” I ask.
“Two grand” Vito answers.
“Okay, I can do this, my Gram was the Queen of the Bingo Hall, she was a
legend. Should be a walk in the park.” I tell the guys.
“Walk in the Park,” Mikey laughs, “wait til you meet Bertha.”
“Who’s Bertha?” I ask
“She’s in charge. Everything goes through her.” Vito adds.
“Bertha can count cards. Don’t ever play poker with her.” Mikey adds.
“Fine, done.” I say. “I will get the money tonight.”
“Good Luck” Vito says. The rest of the guys all laugh.
“Bring brass knuckles” Mikey yells before I slam the door.
I arrive at the church bingo hall at 7:00 sharp. There are bifocals and walkers everywhere. Wow, I wish my Gram was here. It’s been nearly fifteen years since I was last here - with her – my Gram - the toughest Broad I ever knew.
“I am here to see Bertha” I tell an old lady with trifocals on, grey polyester pants pulled up to her neck.
“Which one?” she answers me, still popping out her gambling tabs, hoping for a winner.
“How many Bertha’s are there?” I ask
“Three. Big Bertha, Little Bertha and just Bert” Just Pat answers.
“Who’s in charge here?” I ask
“That would be Little Bertha, and she’s in her office by the furnace, behind the cafeteria. Is she expecting you? She’s very busy.” I am told.
“No, but I’m from the neighborhood. “ I say.
“Um, your not. You sound like you are from England or something.” She
answers. “No, I’m not from England, I’m from forty blocks away, it’s called the North side.” I answer.
“But you don’t live here?” she says, laughing at me.
“No, I haven’t. But three generations before me did; were baptized in this church, on the books and everything.” I plead.
“Fine, go see Little Bertha, but don’t tell her I sent you.” She says and walks off, pulling out a long Moore cigarette out of her blue pleather cigarette case, and lighting it with a Zippo.
As I walk through the Bingo Hall to get to the cafeteria and get to Bertha, I wave and kiss numerous cousins, Aunts and Uncles. They always think I talk funny, too.
I walk through the hall behind the cafeteria. I remember my grandmother’s barked order at Bingo every Wednesday – coffee.
Keep pouring the sugar in, til the stirrer stands straight up
Once I get to the dark, dank, furnace room, I start to get a little nervous. I have never asked anyone to give me money before, much less an old lady from the Bingo Hall at church. What really happened to the last Mob guy they sent here? Why is her office next to the Furnace?
I walk into the furnace room and size things up. There is a fold up coffee table filled with cash. A raging fire within the furnace, which makes me start sweating upon entry. There is a light bulb hanging from the ceiling in the dimly lit room like I’m at Guantanamo about to be interrogated. The church calendar hangs on a cement wall from
1979. There is a framed picture of the seventies TV Detective Baretta. Perry Como is playing on an eight track tape. It is, nearly Christmas.
There is an eightyish woman in a wheel chair watching the Carol Burnett
Show under a Kaftan, drinking an Ensure vitamin supplement shake out of a straw.
There is a shorter woman, as tall as she is wide, in a navy pantsuit counting money in white high top Reeboks.
"What do you want?" She says.
"Hi, I'm her to see Bertha - Little Bertha."
"Who's asking?" the woman with beady black eyes asks.
"I'm here on behalf of Vito...from the cigar shop." I say.
"Vito sent you? Oh, he is getting soft. What does he want? His till? I told him already I expect more for my money. I've got a lot of old ladies to support in this community. They require insulin, support hose and free cable. It's not like I spend it on myself." She finishes.
"Well, you sound like a nice person, Bertha. If you don't mind my calling you that, but it is important that I bring the money to Vito so he will let me be made at least for a day – before I turn 40." I tell Little Bertha.
"Why do you want to get made and why do you talk so funny?" Little Bertha
"Well, my Dad's dog recently got made and I've noticed no one bullies him
anymore. I’m tired of being a pushover. I...want..."
"Balls?" Bertha answers for me.
"Well, more than just balls, I mean I think I do have - balls - I have taken some great risks in my lifetime - just not in those crucial moments - like when it could have changed my life. It’s just that my..." I say.
"Bark is bigger than your bite?" Little Bertha finishes.
"Exactly." I answer,
"Nobody takes you seriously?" little Bertha adds.
"God, Bertha, how did you know?" I ask.
"You can scream all you like, Italians are good at that, but if you don't act on your threats... If you don't make someone afraid of what you might do - what they might lose without you - you will get nowhere, and they won't respect you. Your boss, your girlfriend, your boyfriend, some bitch that cut in front of you in the check out line." Little Bertha continues.
"Well, how do I fix this? I can't imagine entering the second half of my life still being a pushover. When I think of all the times I sold myself short, I really want to hurt someone. I mean, I'm carrying around a lot of anger. Its...not good...for my complexion." I finish, looking down on the floor, feeling my blood begin to boil, but putting a lid on it, like I normally do.
"Nine times out of ten, a person who jumps off a building wouldn't, if they could push somebody else off." Little Bertha tells me.
"That’s so weird, my Dad used to tell me that all the time." I say.
"What you need is to even the score with all of these people who screwed you over. Even the score and then you can have healthy relationships with them and anyone new who comes into your life." Little Bertha offers.
"How do I even the score? I started being bullied at age three on the bus to Temple Sholom, I mean, this might be a long list." I ask.
"Wait, you talk funny, but, what's your maiden name?" Little Bertha inquires.
I tell her my maiden name.
"You're Katie B's granddaughter?" Little Bertha asks, excited.
"Yep, that was my Gram" I say.
"You know she was like my hero? She literally saved my mother's life - Big Bertha." Little Bertha tells me.
Big Bertha, now identified as the mute old lady in the wheel chair nods.
"My father, he used to drink. He beat my mother up so bad one time her eye literally came out of her head. Your grandmother popped it back in and nursed her back to health. She taught me to never let anyone mess with you - ever." Little Bertha announces, proudly.
"My Gram taught you - that? I'm jealous. I didn't grow up on the south side so I didn't hang out with her too much, until I was out of college actually, and she made me take her to Bingo every week. I was in my twenties and very lonely. She made me feel better about myself." I say.
"Then you've got to know the story about her and your Aunt? The one who got picked on in grade school? The other girls called her fat?" Little Bertha asks.
"Yeah, Gram escorted my Aunt to school that day and walked into the classroom and told her to lock the door. The teacher tried to intervene but my Gram told her to sit her ass down. Then she had my Aunt to point out the girl who picked on her. Then she told my Aunt to hit that girl as hard as she could but only once. My Aunt told her she
was too scared to do it. My Gram told her if she didn't hit the bully then she better not come home, because at home she would be waiting to give her - my Aunt - a beating twice as bad. So, my Aunt bravely hit this bully in front of the class, and sat back down in her chair. My Gram unlocked the classroom door, left and my Aunt was never picked on again." I conclude, kind of in awe.
"That’s what I want for you" Little Bertha tells me.
"You want me to hit a bully from the third grade?" I ask.
"I want you to get back at every person who ever hurt you. I am only returning the favor your Gram gave to me - to stick up for yourself. Now write down a list of every single person who fucked you over." Bertha yells at me.
"But Bertha, these people only screwed me over, because I let them. I
know that." I try and reason.
"And if you leave anybody out - if I catch you lying - I'll actually whack
somebody and set it up to look like you did it." Little Bertha adds, scaring me.
"Jesus, please don't do that. I'll make the list, I'll make the list!" I tell her.
"Gas up the Impala!" Bertha tells one of her underlings. "And throw some Ensures in a tote bag for Big Bertha."
I leave the Bingo Hall that night with a hit list. I climb into the Chevy Impala, scared but exhilarated. The two Berthas - Big and Little - and I were going on a crime spree across the continental U.S. Bonnie and Clyde had nothing on us.
Little Bertha was bored in her semi-retirement from the Sanitation Department.
Kicking some ass would be fun for her. She was addicted to Red Bull and other various stimulants, since quitting smoking and gaining one hundred pounds a few years back.
She was an adrenaline junkie now. Her biggest regret was that she never got a chance to be a cage fighter. Her favorite TV show growing up was Baretta. It was a show about an Italian-American detective in New Jersey who also drove a Chevy Impala and had an exotic bird. What made Baretta special was his use of disguise. Little Bertha took disguises very seriously when she went on crime sprees like this one.
First we ransack the Chicagoland Area, Little Bertha dressed as a man in an FBI suit, with her hair in a short wig. You would swear to God you were standing next to Chaz Bono, if you didn’t blink.
We find the boys who teased me on the bus to nursery school every day, throwing water balloons at their heads from a roof when they walk out of their houses in the morning. One of the greatest assets to our operation is Big Bertha as she has the coveted Handicapped Parking sign. We move in and out of any parking lot, very easily.
Next we find the short girl in Catholic school from third grade who stepped on my feet every day when we were dismissed, just as we crossed the threshold of the front door of school, so the nuns would miss it. We spike her morning Java Mocha Chip Frappucino with Ex Lax.
Next we break into my old office, where I had worked for fifteen years. When I tell Bertha I am afraid of the police showing up, she tells me “I own this town” and downloads a virus onto the company computer sending a double penetration porno video to every client, vendor and personal email. The tag is “X Company – we like to fuck you, big time.”
The West Coast is a big blur, as I am subsisting on mixed nuts as I don’t eat fast food. Little Bertha drives in 4-5 hour stints until the car tank is nearly empty, so I barely drink anything, bathroom breaks being out of the question. We place a mirror under Big Bertha's mouth every so often to check if she is still breathing.
The South flies by rather quickly. Little Bertha is nothing but efficient, but does
allow me a Cajun burger at Port of Call restaurant on Esplanade when we hit New Orleans. Jimmy Buffet plays on the speakers. It always does. I put up with it for the food.
I suck down two thirty ounce Monsoons filled with seven types of Rum and start to see stars. Then I throw up on the bartender. Bertha asks me what’s wrong.
“I made my biggest mistakes here,” I tell Little Bertha, dressed as an obese cowboy lawman Lone Ranger, putting a cold compress on my forehead. “College was supposed to be a fresh start for me, but it wasn’t. Or, at least I didn’t let it be. I made some great friends, but people still didn’t take me seriously.” I finish and then black out.
When I wake up, seventeen hours later, we are almost in the Garden State. Little Bertha is dressed up as a cross between Charlie Chan and Mr. Yunioshi from the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s embarrassing to look at, but, strangely makes me crave dumplings at Joe's Shanghai in NYC's Chinatown.
“Why does everyone hate New Jersey?” I ask Bertha, as I chug a bottle of water, irritable and famished.
“In every TV show, movie that is written, a birthplace and/or rearing in New Jersey is supposed to account for why some one is a child molester, homicidal maniac, drug addict, corrupt politician, divorced, or just an overall asshole. As if the state of New Jersey is accountable. Like there will be a line of dialog that says “Well, you know, he is
from New Jersey” and like that alone is supposed to give you the character’s complete background. We don’t have to know anything else about this guy – I mean he could be a National Merit Scholar for Christ Sake, but once you say he’s from New Jersey – that’s it, the audience knows there’s a body in the basement. I mean, why is that? Who allowed this to happen? New Jersey needs to pay some marketing firm to fix what Hollywood has done to the state of New Jersey. It’s a travesty. I mean, I love the Jersey Shore, the beach, not the show; my friends from New Jersey are some of the greatest, most loyal, generous people in the world. I mean, Queen Latifah, John Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, Kelly Ripa, they’re all from New Jersey and they're not child molesters! They’re not serial killers!” I yell, dry heaving out the Impala front window,
breathing in New Jersey’s power plant fumes as we cross the bridge from Philly.
“You’re in the middle of your catharsis, is all? Just like Stephen Dedalus from James Joyce’s Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man.” Little Bertha instructs me.
“You’ve read James Joyce? You know that’s one of my favorite books. That and Ulysses. When I read Portrait I just thought, this is me. An overeating, sexually repressed Catholic needing to get as far away as possible from my family so that I can be an artist.” I tell her.
“The first step of the catharsis is facing the truth. The second step is forgiving yourself. You’ve been taking your anger out on yourself for forty years. Stop that immediately and let it go. I’m all for being responsible for yourself and not playing the victim, but you take it to another level entirely. Don’t gloss over this stuff anymore. Your friendships will suffer. Friends will be mad at you for letting it go. They can’t bear the guilt of screwing you over, either.” Little Bertha finishes.
“I did gloss a lot over; I just never wanted anyone to hate me. You know I’ve never broken up with someone or ended a friendship, ever?” I tell her.
“The writer William Faulkner talks about every person having a debt book at the General Store, or something to that effect. Inside this debt book is stamped every injustice begot from your family line. Yours is stamped full because your family has murderers, thieves, hustlers in it..”
“and you can’t bear it.”
“My parents raised me far away from all of that, in the best neighborhoods, sent me to the best schools…”
“But at the end of the day, your father is still a pool hustler, not a Doctor. He lives in the underworld. He is a character. He embarrasses you. He is original, unique. There are no references for a guy like him.”
“No, there are not.”
“You feel you will never be able to do enough to undo or overcome your family. And therefore, you are always too nice. You need to get a little mean, and selfish. And be just like Stephen Dedalus in Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man and free yourself from this guilt, this shame, this burden you feel. It’s not up to you to pay your family’s debt. It is an impossible task and will keep you from being the artist you have always wanted to be, the person you always wanted to be.” Little Bertha finishes.
“Still want to be” I say.
“If you are a writer, than what do you write?”
“Well, I only started writing again a year ago. When I was laid off from my corporate job and had to decide if I still liked myself. My goal was to have ideas again, thoughts. I wanted to feel something, anything, I had become so numb and hopeless. Every time I drove on the highway visiting clients for work, I would start to ask myself, if my car hit a viaduct and I crashed, what would I be remembered for? Working in
corporate America, for hitting my number?”
“I would wake up feeling so empty every morning. No desire, whatsoever.
Everything Downtown, if you understand what I mean, was shut down, permanently. I mean I couldn’t even watch a romantic comedy, I watched science fiction instead, thrillers. I used to be known as the most romantic girl in the world, Bertha! I read the Classics! I could not face my own cold disillusioned heart. I sought the help of doctors,
asked them how I could lose all of my desire at such a young age and they all told me I was perfectly healthy. I literally asked them if it was possible that I had so much unfulfilled desire, in my twenties that it dissolved? That I had used it all up? That because I couldn’t satisfy my sexual needs that my body readjusted itself and took desire
away from me, rather than to see me tortured by it?”
“You felt passion before in your life. You want it back,”Bertha tells me.
“By chance I read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead on the train ride to and from work. It became my salvation. Have you ever found a piece of art to be your salvation? Well, this book, and the character Howard Roarke was it for me. He is an individual. He will not give up his artistic vision under the hardest of circumstances. He became
my savior. And of course, there is a love story in there. But it’s my kind of love story. Not romantic in any main stream way. I mean, he practically rapes Dominique Francon, the first night they are together. Rand does in fact use the word “rape.” But I’m okay with that because the two of them are so above the fray, they both seek pure energy and
the authenticity of their desire for one another. Dominique Francon, his lover, is like, I have been waiting my whole fucking life for somebody just like you, goddamit! They are both individualistic and only another individual could truly understand or appreciate the other. It’s about two people wanting to feel something real in a world where there are no real feelings, just that which people tell you to feel. Like on a Yahoo newsreel. Any way, it is romantic in only a way that would speak to me. Romantic because the couple believed and respected one another’s thoughts.”
“That’s so you,” Bertha tells me.
“They fall in love with one another over ideas. About the human need for true, authenticity. The romantic desire to be embedded in someone else’s head. They swoon over one another’s words…”
“Head first, then heart?” Little Bertha asks.
“Yes, I guess that’s how it works with me. The book, well, it made me feel like I wasn’t so alone in the world.”
“That’s how I felt after reading Rachael Ray’s cook book Thirty Minute Meals”
“And I would cry every single day – on the train ride to work, on the long trips in the car and mourn myself. No one I worked with knew the least bit about me other than who my clients were or my lunch order. I hand wrote a letter to every single person at that company when I left explaining individually how each one of them had helped me become successful at that job in one way or another, and I thanked them. This was like twenty people, half of which I had known for more than ten years. And you know what happened after I sent those letters? Nothing. Not one word from anyone. Even my boss, who had hired me when I was twenty two who had written me poetry for Christ Sake, who I had witnessed eat French fries out of a garbage can; even he wasn’t even there to
say goodbye to me, never called or emailed me, one single word. I
mean, my work singlehandedly helped these people buy houses, cars and I meant nothing. Those ten plus years just existed in a vacuum. I created nothing. It showed. I felt like nothing.”
“Jesus, that’s not how it is in Sanitation. They give you one hell of a send off – pizza party with cake! A keg even! Not only can I call any of those motherfuckers today for a favor, they call me, looking to do me a favor”
“That sounds wonderful, Bertha. I know that people like that exist, and I am not saying any of the people I worked with were particularly – bad – I thought they were nice - but they were just machines and how, how could they have any feelings toward me, when all I existed as was a machine, too, I had no feelings, no soul, no depth when I was there. I buried everything I ever knew about myself as a young woman to function in that environment. The person I remember and loved was gone. She was just gone. And for what? Money and the ability to forget? Because forgetting about love and forgetting about my dreams was the only way I could go into work every day. Getting laid off was the best thing to happen to
me. I have a heart again, I have feelings, I am definitely not a robot. I am bringing my younger self back, Bertha, I am trying. She’s…the key to all of this. That’s why I am on this quest. It is for my own survival”
“I only want to know her – that girl” Bertha tells me.
“That’s the person I want to be known as. The non-traditional romantic idealist. Passionate. A writer, funny. And…hopefully…a half way decent lay” I finish.
“What do you actually write about then?”
“Dead people, ghosts,” I tell her,” I am a victim of my birth date. I am a Gen X woman. My mind is constantly tuned into cultural references and memories. I am afraid I rely too heavily on the work of other artists’ before me, to tell my own story.”
“Like Mary Wollstencraft Shelley?” Bertha asks.
“Yes, the author of Frankenstein,” she, too, shared this fear. That all literature was just the piecing together of the work of other artists. That’s one of the many reasons she wrote Frankenstein. Her Dr. Frankenstein pieces together dead body parts to create a brand new, live body – that of Frankenstein’s monster.”
“Which is a metaphor for?” Little Bertha asks.
“A novel, of course.” I answer.
Little Bertha takes pity on me and lets me grab a Hoagie in New Jersey. The delicious mix of salted pork and olive oil comforts me in a multitude of ways. Goddam New Jersey haters. This state has the best Italian food I’ve ever had.
We get to New York City and are quick and witty. It doesn’t take much to ruin somebody’s day here. Bertha lets me sit in Bryant Park and watch the ice skaters while sipping hot chocolate. It is one of my favorite places in the city. I came here as a young woman, once or twice a year, and sat for hours, reading or writing, hoping to meet a like minded person coming out of the Library next door. I look into the white lights, it is the
holiday season after all, and drift off, for a little while, the list I had forcibly given Little Bertha, having finally been completed. If someone’s big ass happens to completely rip a pair of pants at work today…well….
I wake up from another nap in the Impala, at sunset, wondering how many more miles til we get back to Chicago. Revenge is exhausting. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve and I need to help clean my father’s house for our family Feast of the Seven Fishes. I turn to look at Little Bertha who is now disguised in black dreadlocks and gold teeth like Lil' Wayne. I am dressed in a French Maid costume – for no reason other than I always wanted to wear one.
“Sanitation Department is totally Gangsta!” Bertha yells at me, from behind her gold teeth. Then she puts on NWA's Gangsta! Gangsta! on the stereo and starts to rap like Ice Cube.
I focus on the poorly lit Country Road ahead and make out that we are not in fact on the Ohio turnpike. We are in a different state. One I prefer not to visit, try and drive around, avoid at all costs. Like Susan Sarandon’s Texas in the film Thelma and Louise. I start to get nervous. Oh no. Little Bertha knows…
“I worked the door at the Hangge Uppe on Elm, back when Rush Street was
rocking, 1981, 1982.” Bertha begins.
“You were a bouncer? At the Hangge Uppe?” I ask. I see signs for a particular city in this particular state. This is starting to get very bad. I see four empty Red Bulls on the floor.
“I prefer doorperson,” Little Bertha answers,“I was…big boned.”
“Me, too” I agree, seeing what I think are a carton of bullets.
“Well, the music, the people were out of this world. It was the greatest time of my life. It was when I met…him… Mario.” Bertha tells me.
“Mario?” I ask calmly looking out the window, estimating the distance between the car and the bushes if I jump out of the car onto the side of the road.
“The DJ. The greatest DJ in the city, the world for all I knew.” Bertha tells me.
NWA still on at full blast, while Big Bertha sleeps in the backseat.
“You, were friends? This Mario?” I ask, wondering how many miles an hour this car can go on a country road, if I jump out, without breaking my leg, or worse.
“We were friends. We used to drink Long Island Iced Teas together at the Zebra Lounge once the Hangge Uppe closed “ Bertha continues, “Well, one night, on a few nights, we became more than friends.”
“Woa. Really, Bertha. A nice Catholic Girl like you?” I ask, starting to sweat under my blonde wig.
“Yes, even a nice Catholic Girl like me.” Bertha says softly, “One Friday night I show up to work early, have a mix tape to give him and poof – he’s vanished. Got a gig at the Limelight in New York. Took a Greyhound that morning. He left me a note, on a cocktail napkin, after picking up his records, it said:
Bert – you’re one of the good ones. Don’t ever forget that. Every time I hear Lime’s Babe We’re Gonna Love Tonight I’ll think of you.
Little Bertha then pulls out her money clip to show me the cocktail napkin – 30 years old, lovingly kept on her person at all times. I see a Polaroid of the two of them – Bertha and Mario. Talk about Big and Little. Mario's frizzy hair and shiny short shorts could only be loved by Little Bertha, Richard Simmons or the comic Gallagher.
“We didn’t have the Internet back then. Someone was gone, they were gone. Forever.” Little Bertha tells me.
“And, you moved on? After that?” I say, being supportive.
“Well, I only lasted at the bar a few more weeks and then got a Union job in sanitation.” Little Bertha goes on ”Retired with my pension a few years ago and started running the Bingo Hall. Mario – well, he’s the only man I’ve ever been with.”
“Bertha, that was almost thirty years ago.” I ask.
“Yep, so it was.” She tells me.
“There was no secret other girlfriend, no “agreements” you had to make to be with him? He never humiliated you in public?” I ask, now just wanting to jump out of this speedy car rather than face my own mistakes.
“No, why would he? We were friends. Friends don’t do that to other friends.”
Little Bertha tells me, looking right at me, serious.
“Good point.” I tell her.
“You know you left someone off of your list” Little Bertha tells me.
“I know I did. I’m sorry. I forgot” I tell her.
"You didn't forget. A Sicilian never forgets!" Little Bertha shouts at me.
"I know," I concede.
“Don’t you want to get over this? Seriously? Move past this? The worst instance of you being a pushover?” Little Bertha asks me after belching a finished Red Bull in my face.
“Well, …yes” I say, shaking. It all starts coming back to me, the stomach ache, tying into knots. Just like every time I ever had to face a bully, every time I tried but failed to really stick up for myself. It was all coming back. I wished Bertha would just kill me now, like the last guy Vito sent to the Bingo Hall, rather than face this, and all of my embarrassments, surrounding it.
Little Bertha pulls up to a McMansion, turning the Impala off.
“Do you want to throw the first egg or should I?” Little Bertha asks.
I hesitate for a moment. Bertha may have been celibate for the past thirty years, but her memory of Mario is pure. He's a prince in her eyes. Why she carries the cocktail napkin. I’m ctually jealous of Bertha. She feels no guilt living in a fantasy world with a disco ball
hanging above, of remembering kisses and lines of coke in the bathroom of the Zebra Lounge at four am, drunk off sweet liquor. Bertha may have two hundred pounds on me and a hairy mole the size of Minnesota on her neck, but Bertha has self-respect, and integrity. Mario, the skinny, bisexual Chubby Chaser, was good to her.
“Me, I’ll do it!” Big Bertha says from what I thought was a stroke induced coma in the backseat of the Impala. It is the first time I hear the woman speak all week.
Big Bertha slides across the backseat, grabs her walker, then an egg, and blasts that house with yolk. She even laughs. She hands me the next egg.
“Once you make things even, you're free. You can’t be friends with someone unless things are even, they respect you. Take it from me. Your Gram told me this herself when she saved my life.” Big Bertha tells me.
"I want you to enjoy your memories, just like I do, but without feeling guilty because you feel like you were wronged. You were young and you had fun. You should only smile when you look back." Little Bertha tells me.
I hold the egg in my hand, and my knees start to buckle. I am freezing in this French Maid costume with nothing but fishnets covering my legs.
"I don't care about about looking back anymore. I don't enjoy it. I glossed over way too much and now its too late to undo my mistakes."
“BAM!” is all I hear next, nearly going deaf in my left ear.
"Bullshit!" Bertha yells at me, "Its never too late."
Little Bertha/Lil Wayne has a sawed off shot gun in her hand and just let off a round. There is a light switch on in the McMansion and a car alarm going off.
“Bertha! Put the gun down!” I yell.
“Egg that Mother Effers house or I swear to Christ I'll start shooting tires and windows!” Little Bertha demands.
“Fine!” I say throwing not one, but every single egg in the pack. Little Bertha breaks me. I boil over.
“That Mother Effer did take advantage of me. He broke my heart!” I scream, tears running down my eyes. So this is what catharsis feels like.
Little Bertha has to clock me with the butt end of the shot gun as I go totally Gangsta and try to grab it from her, ready to blow this Cul De Sac to Kingdom come.
The last thing I see on her face is a giant smile filled with shiny gold teeth before blacking out.
I wake up hours later with a throbbing forehead to see we are getting off at an exit on the Dan Ryan Expressway, nearly home. Little Bertha hands me a McDonald’s coffee. I do like their coffee. It’s comforting.
“My present to you, Katie B.’s granddaughter, for your fortieth birthday, is a clean slate," Bertha begins, "Score is officially even. It’s up to you how you handle the next forty years. The next time you come across an uncomfortable situation and the pushover in you is about to give in, think to yourself”
What would Little Bertha do?
Or, more importantly:
What would Katie B. do?
"I don't know if I have ever been this relaxed, like ever," I tell Little
Bertha, "Thank you."
Little Bertha puts in her cassette tape from the Hangge Uppe and Mario.
The Canadian disco supergroup Lime begins to play their hit song Babe We’re Gonna Love Tonight.“
I love this song” Little Bertha tells me, starting to daydream herself, leaving me on the sidewalk, still in my French Maid costume, blonde wig, and black mascara on my cheeks, freezing with the first snowfall of Christmas Eve morning with a lot less baggage.
A Pool Hustler's Daughter grows up in subterranean America. She dreams big, hustles daily and loves her Daddy. With empathy, fascination and grace she navigates and inhabits every tier of society; sees beauty and hope and magic in all things; respects and lives by the "mitzvah."
A Pool Hustler's Daughter calculates the trifecta payout at the racetrack, hides money on three parts of her body, has an arsenal of "Uncles," and keeps a baseball bat by the front door. She values friendship, loyalty and experiences over "things." Like her father, she seeks to learn "The secrets of the universe" and believes "Life ain't on the square." She applauds the self-made and those who learn to "overcome" their circumstances. Her door is always open for a sofa to sleep on, a hot meal, or an eager listener for a life story.