Cutty, One Rock

August Kleinzahler

They didn’t look like hoods, more like mid-career bureaucrats, fortyish, chubby, thick glasses. But they’d brought two good-looking molls with them; I can’t imagine they were even 18: blonds, Marty and Will. It fell to me to keep the boys entertained while my brother retired to his bedroom with the two Mafiosi for what was to be a very, very serious conversation. My brother had warned me that there was a good chance they’d kill him, and, without spelling it out, that if I was on hand my own health might be in jeopardy. We were very close at that stage. I loved my brother, more than anyone in the world, and didn’t have anywhere else to go.

I wasn’t all that much older than the blondie boys: 21. But these were two very silly, giggly kids, and dumb as posts. They didn’t find me terribly amusing either, and made something of a show of it, joking between themselves. But they liked their soda and nuts, so I kept all that going on: my brother was always long on ginger ale and pistachios.

From a distance of more than thirty years, it feels, in the writing, like fiction, hard-boiled fiction some of it. But it isn’t, none of it is. My brother would be dead inside six months, but not that night. The three of them were in the bedroom a long time. I had no idea what I’d do if they killed him. I was there to give what’s called moral support. I would have said then, and now, that my brother was a nice man through and through, truly decent, and wouldn’t hurt anyone on purpose, unless they weren’t nice or provoked him. But he sure did get himself into some shit.

My brother always had unsavoury friends. His nickname in high school was ‘Gangster’, mostly because he was from north Jersey and we had gangster neighbours. ‘Gangster from Gangsterland’, they’d tease him. But he also carried the tag because he was tough and found his way into all kinds of fights when you’d never have guessed there was any fighting to be done.

He wasn’t a big man; he was short and square-built. But he was powerful and fast and he learned to get the most out of that body, in the street, and wrestling competitively, first in high school then at college. Once when he was at high school and hanging around Central Park, he learned of a boy his own age, a bully boy, reputed to be the toughest kid in the park, and with a title to boot, something like ‘king’ or ‘prince’, along those lines. My brother went out of his way to find the boy, who was sitting against a tree surrounded by admirers, and said something provocative to him, and as the kid made ready to stand up, my brother hammered him, snapping the boy’s head back against the tree trunk. Fight over. Gangster from Gangsterland.

He was much admired by his peers, for such feats involving recklessness and pluck, but also for his good humour, his sense of fun and his kindness. It may not seem very kind to insult a stranger then smack him in the head with all your might, but the other boy was most assuredly not a nice boy and my brother had probably heard ill of him somewhere along the line.

Also, he was clever. He knew that if the other boy managed to get up and make it a fair fight the result might well be different. It was a calculated gamble. A dangerous gamble. Above and beyond anything else, my brother was a gambler. A professional gambler until his death at 27. Poker. High-low was his action. He was a major leaguer in that line and regrettably there’s a formidable attrition rate as regards high stakes and its lifestyle equivalent.

But it was high stakes from the start with my brother: 48 or 72-hour marathons with thousands of dollars changing hands; all before he was 20. He played a lot of poker during his time at the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce in Philadelphia during the early 1960s: he played usually with an older crowd that included Sonny Liston’s and Joey Giardello’s handlers and associates. How a 19-year-old at Wharton wound up playing with these thugs is beyond me, but my brother never lied about these things. If anything he soft-pedalled his more outré associations or simply neglected to mention them.

He did manage to get his degree. Also, he escaped Philadelphia without being killed or killing anyone else, a narrow escape on both fronts. On one occasion he threw some big palooka who was beating up his girlfriend through the plate-glass window of a shop. Then the girl came after my brother; and then the palooka, shaking the glass off. But my brother was a speedy guy, too. Another time, he somehow got into it with several greasers late one night at a restaurant-dive. He took care of a couple of them but the third one got behind him and cracked him on the noggin with a piece of crockery. I forget how he got out of that one without a knife in his back, but he did find himself struggling with his statistics homework for a while.

Another time when he was home from college on a spring or winter break he called my father from a White Castle hamburger joint and told the old man he’d got himself into a situation with a dozen or so greasers and could my father maybe drive over and rescue him. Of course, my father loved shit like this and dragged me along, aged 14 or so. Well, we get there and it’s looking pretty tense inside the restaurant. North Bergen certainly had, and probably still has, its rough edges. So my father starts honking his horn and making violent hand gestures, sticking his finger in his teeth, flashing the V sign, the cuckold sign, bouncing up and down in the driver’s seat, looking like a crazy person. As the greasers took in this spectacle, pie-eyed and with some concern, my brother made his exit. On the drive home, my father gave forth with some extreme editorialising about my brother’s predisposition to trouble. But the old man got a thrill out of it. He and my brother had their problems, not least because they resembled each other in their belligerent behaviour, but they loved each other even more on account of it, I think.

It could get a bit primal around the house, before my brother eventually left for college in order to devote himself full-time to trouble. The difference between them when they’d go off was that my father had an unmanageable temper and my brother, when he was fighting, was very cool. By the time he was 16 he was already a champion wrestler and seasoned street-fighter, and could handle my father pretty well. Oh, the old man would knee him in the balls and pull all manner of Jersey City stunts, but my brother would prevail and not take it out too badly on the old man.

My brother was not only tough and self-destructive, he was handsome. He was fit as hell – hundreds of push-ups and the rest – and he had a good-looking mug: good bones, a nicely shaped head, straight nose, brown eyes, full mouth. A bit like the young Marlon Brando, in fact, especially around the eyes. In this good fortune, he took after the men on my mother’s side of the family. Me, I got stuck with the other.

In retrospect, for someone that good-looking and wild, he didn’t have a lot of girlfriends at school. Yes, he got into trouble when he was 15 or so when my folks found out that he and a buddy had been visiting whores in some bad neighbourhood or other. But I suspect he liked the ambience and proximity of danger. He was also experimenting with heroin around this time and, not much later, found some of those very early LSD-laced sugarcubes. Quite the pioneer, my big brother. But there weren’t that many girls.

He was a great brother, if somewhat elusive: busy breaking noses, hitting home runs, building model airplanes, racing in the soapbox derby. Sometimes, when he was older and going into the city all the time, I’d climb into his bed and wait up until he got home. I remember the smell of his pillow. When he finally arrived I’d badger him with questions until he’d chase me back to my room. Then, if I was lucky, he’d play tap-tap with me, a sort of Morse Code game, on the common wall between our rooms, until he got bored.

He never hit me in anger, though he hit me plenty. Our relationship was physical from the time I was big enough for roughhouse. I did get hurt pretty often, but he didn’t do it on purpose: six and a half years older, he was simply bigger and stronger.

Verbally, too. When I was seven or eight he told me I was ‘obnoxious’. He’d called me all sorts of synonyms for ‘obnoxious’ in the past but this, for some reason, was devastating. I even remember where we were, what room. I didn’t know the meaning but I knew what he meant. It was such a grown-up word. It was as if he’d punched me in the stomach. That was the moment at which I resolved to become a man of letters. If there were words that could be as punishing as this, I wanted my quiver to be full of them. As with the physical roughhouse, he never played to wound. And he had affectionate names for me, too: one was ‘lover-boy’. He was physically affectionate, as well. He’d always give me a kiss, even if it was after bloodying my nose.

We engaged in all sorts of games and contests, but until I was grown up enough to give him some competition it must have been frustrating for him. We’d make bets: whoever lost would have to tickle the other’s back, the wager being in minutes of back-tickling. I’d usually lose, big-time, but he paid up when he had to. I was never particularly thrilled at having to tickle his back for 30 minutes but it was one way of being close to him and him not growing bored and running off after five or ten minutes.

One summer I grew up, filled out. My brother, who by that time had graduated from college and was working as a financial analyst for a New York firm, was at the house in Jersey, visiting. It was summer. We were eating dinner out on the porch and he was checking me out, appraising my arms and shoulders. ‘I think we need to get hold of some boxing-gloves,’ he announced. Of all the things on earth that my family didn’t need, it was boxing-gloves. No one in that household needed that sort of encouragement. My father, naturally, thought it was a perfect idea. My mother, quite sensibly, asked why we needed them, but it was a rhetorical question, and delivered in a resigned tone of voice.

The gloves arrived not long afterwards. It was warm still, a couple of hours until dark. After dinner my brother and I had our gloves laced up by what struck me as an over-eager father. I wasn’t especially keen, quite the contrary. As my parents sat watching from the screened-in porch, finishing their dessert, my brother and I marched down the back stairs and into the yard – the after-dinner entertainment.

It started well enough: I was in good shape then, 16 or 17, a wrestler like my brother, with a similar build, but nowhere close to what he had been in his prime. His deterioration had already begun, from the cigarettes and drink, the late nights, desk job, irregular life. We touched gloves and went at it. My butterflies (which had been more like chrome-plated bats) vanished. I’ve always enjoyed that about sport and fighting: the moment when the adrenalin kicks in. We were jabbing a bit, feeling each other out and then we began mixing it up. I had him on his heels, banging away as much out of fear as anything else; as long as I was hitting him, he wasn’t hitting me. And then I nailed him, with a left hook, a shot that stunned him and knocked him back a step. I waded in, emboldened, to see what further damage I could do.

The next thing I remember is my mother standing over me, screaming, ‘What did you do to your brother?’ while my father, with a jovial smirk, checked my brother’s split lip. ‘Look what you’ve done to your brother,’ my mother hollered. ‘How can he go to work on Monday looking like that?’ My brother looked down at me, most amused at my being reprimanded while prostrate and semi-conscious. Of the three of them he was the one most likely to have given me a hand up, but he was entangled in my mother’s frantic ministrations.

My brother had been living in the city for five years or so when he told me he was queer. He’d lived first in the London Terrace complex in Chelsea, then down at the bottom of the West Village, on Charlton Street, off Sixth Avenue. Over the years, I’d visit him and we’d get high, go out to dinner, goof around. It was always a thrill for me, a season’s highlight. He knew how to have fun, like a big kid with a fat wallet: a sweet, dangerous, hedonistic delinquent.

It would have been 1970, the fall, I think. A transitional time of year, at any rate. I had dropped out of college, and had been knocking around the continent pretending I was Jack Kerouac. My folks weren’t too thrilled with me, so when I came to town I stayed in the Village with my brother. He had begun to take more of an interest in me now that I showed signs of developing into a fully fledged fuck-up.

I remember the particular day and evening because I’d visited his doctor to be looked after for a venereal complaint, and he went along too to have a vitamin B12 injection, like JFK used to get. He had a cold and said he had a large evening planned, which, to my surprise, involved me.

The programme that evening was to drop some acid and go out, see what the night might hold in store. We’d gone this route before. You can imagine what fun it was tripping with someone like my brother: I mean, on top of everything else money was never any object (no matter how deep his gambling debts) and he knew all manner of charming sociopaths who couldn’t be nice enough to his baby brother.

When we dropped acid my brother liked to smoke a little weed first, and as the initial LSD rush was coming on, to enjoy a jolt of amyl nitrate. Well now, that was blasting off in style. The only downside was my brother’s taste in music: he’d insist on listening to Pink Floyd as these Mission-to-Control sessions came to a climax. I had my own ideas about an appropriate soundtrack, but he was the master of ceremonies, no questions asked.

The full text of this memoir is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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