The Pinochle Players
(excerpt from Looking for the Jersey State Trooper)
“Frank,” called Elisa to her husband. “It’s Sal on the phone. He has one more baby to deliver; he said that you should start without him. He’ll be here as soon as he’s done.”
“If Sal would just learn to sew up a little faster, he wouldn’t hold up our pinochle game,” said Charlie, grinning. “That’s why I like Pediatrics – no long deliveries.”
“Elisa, is my car going to be OK out there? I mean the kids aren’t going to scratch it, are they?” said Chinny, looking out at his shiny new black Continental parked in front of the house. “I should have gone on to a specialty,” he said to no one in particular. “This family doctor stuff is for the birds.”
“Don’t worry, Chinny. The rain will keep the kids in,” said Elisa. “Anyway, what’s the worst that can happen? A ball bounces on the hood and leaves a little mark. It isn’t going to break anything.” Elisa tried to suppress a laugh, then turned away.
“Maybe I should move it,” said Chinny, rising from the table.
“Chinny, don’t be crazy. It’s raining. No one’s playing ball tonight. Sit down and we’ll play some three-handed till Sal gets here,” said Frank, easing Chinny back into his chair.
The three men took the seats as they did every Tuesday. Frankie slid quietly into Sal’s vacant seat, but kept his hands in his lap. He knew that he would be tolerated if he just watched. This was a man’s game, to be observed but not disrupted by an eleven year old.
Two decks of cards sat face down on the table. Frank shuffled one while Charlie dealt the other, three cards at a time. The dealt cards remained face down until they had all been distributed.
When Frank picked up his cards, he did so one at a time, either smiling at the way his hand was filling in or frowning at another gegutsa (a term usually reserved for rotten melons).
Chinny had less patience. He gathered his cards all at once, sorted them in his hand without speaking and without giving a hint of their contents, then placed them face down.
Charlie usually told stories or just chatted, generally annoying Chinny, as he slowly assembled his cards.
This night, Frankie watched his father’s hands as he expertly shuffled the deck.
“See, Frankie,” said Charlie. “What you don’t know about your dad here is that he didn’t have much money when he was in college, so he improved his financial status, shall we say, by first teaching our classmates how to play pinochle and then inviting them to play for money. See, that’s the Siciliano in him.” Charlie grinned as he examined his hand.
“The truth,” Frankie’s dad countered, “is that your Neapolitan Uncle Charlie thought up this little scheme for making some extra money even though he didn’t need it like I did. We only played for pennies though, none of the others had much money either.”
“Yeah, all the poor Italians and Jews who were locked out of the Ivy League schools were with us at City College. None of us had much in those years,” said Charlie.
“How about when we got to med school? That’s when we met all the rich kids whose folks had paid for everything. Then we really cleaned up,” said Frank. He put the shuffled deck to the side.
Chinny, who had been quiet while this banter was going on said, “My people would never cheat anyone. We’re from the North. We don’t do those kinds of things.”
“North? Chinny, you were born in Sicily,” said Charlie, gesturing with his extended left hand.
“But my grandparents came from Milan. We’re Northerners.”
“Palermo, you were born in Palermo,” said Charlie, gesturing again with his free hand. “And look at you now. You make more money than any of us. I think you know how to, let’s say ‘trump’ your patients.”
“Basta,” said Frank. “Let’s play cards. I bid three hundred.”
Around the third hand, movement outside the kitchen window distracted Frankie from the game. The rain had slowed to a drizzle and Minnie, the family cat, was delicately stepping around puddles exploring the backyard as she headed towards the street. Chinny’s back was to the window so that he couldn’t see her taking sight of the shiny surface of the hood of his new car, relatively dry since it was parked under a leafy maple. Minnie flexed her rear legs briefly then effortlessly sprang up onto the still warm surface. Frankie was just about to say something when his mother’s hand covered his mouth.
“Frankie,” she said, “why don’t you come with me for a minute?” She guided him quickly out the back door and towards the car, hoping to surprise their crafty cat. But Minnie saw them when they got within a few feet of the car. She rose up on all fours and stretched, claws extended. Elisa gasped. Then Minnie turned onto her back and was just about to roll over when Elisa scooped her up and put her in Frankie’s arms. She wiped the car hood with her apron, inspected it, then directed Frankie and Minnie back towards the house.
“No harm done,” she whispered to Frankie.
“Nice car, Chinny,” Elisa said, as she deposited Minnie in the house and gave her a bowl of milk. “You must be overcharging your patients again,” she teased. Frank’s father smiled at her.
“You too, Elisa? Everyone’s against me.”
“Don’t be silly, Chinny,” she said. “I’m just kidding. It is a beautiful car, though.”
“Yeah, thanks. I did get a few new patients from Newark. It’s nice not always treating these poor immigrants who can’t pay. Frank, you know you should go for a better clientele, not always these old country Italians.”
“Then who will take care of them, Chinny?” said Frank’s father.
“What do you think of the new oral polio vaccine, Charlie? Are you going to recommend it to your patients?” asked Frank a few minutes later.
“They don’t know what they’re doing. We’ll have another epidemic like they had in the ‘30s, before Salk, when the polio vaccine killed people? I’m not recommending it to my patients,” said Chinny. This was not unusual. Frank would ask a question of Charlie and Chinny would answer it.
“Not so fast,” said Charlie. “I think we have to give it a try. The scientists seem pretty excited about it and an oral vaccine would make controlling the disease a lot easier.”
“I think you’re right,” said Frank.
“Three fifty,” said Chinny, staring blankly at his cards.
“Oh, boy,” said Charlie, “Chinny’s got a big one.”
“Four hundred,” said Frank, placing the cards face down on the table. “I think we should give it a chance. I’m recommending it to my patients,” he said emphatically. Charlie nodded.
Frankie’s father won that bid and the next four hands.
“Here,” said Charlie as Frank was collecting his winnings. Charlie pulled his wallet from his back pocket and tossed it onto the middle of the table.
“You might as well take the whole thing, Frank. The way the cards are falling tonight I’ll be lucky to leave with my car keys.”
“Who wants your old Caddy, Charlie,” said Frank. “I’m going after Chinny’s Continental.”
“Just don’t lose our ’56 Ford,” called Elisa from the kitchen. Everyone laughed, but Chinny, He looked out the window to check on his car. Minnie was nowhere in sight.
“Hey Frankie,” Charlie said a few hands later. “I can’t win a hand tonight. Come here, stand with me and bring me luck.” Frankie looked to his father, who nodded, OK. Frankie got up from Sal’s seat and moved behind his Uncle Charlie.
A few minutes later, Elisa brought in a tray filled with provolone cheese, Genoa salami and rimmed with tomatoes, and red peppers. Sesame seeded bread, warmed from the oven, was in a separate basket. The men mainly drank water, but Chinny had a small glass of red wine.
“Elisa, you make a pretty good spread for someone who’s not a Guinea,” said Charlie.
“Yeah. Hey, Elisa, what’s a typical snack in Holland?” asked Chinny.
“I’m not Dutch, Chinny. Belgium, my family is from Belgium. You never get it straight,” she said annoyed, hands on hips. The men smiled at each other.
“Don’t get her started, Chinny,” said Frank. He looked at his watch. “I’m worried about Sal.”
“Do you want me to call the hospital?” asked Elisa, her hands resting on her husband’s shoulders.
“Let’s give him another ten minutes,” said Frank. “Maybe he’s cleaning up slower with that new student nurse we just got.” They all smiled, except for Elisa.
“You’re all still such boys,” she said.
“Ah Elisa,” said Charlie. “You’re just remembering when you were that young nurse and we were all after you.”
“My point exactly,” said Elisa. “You might recall that was more than 20 years ago. You guys are now the senior staff. The student nurses want interns, not old …” She stopped, smiled and ruffled Frankie’s hair. “Let’s see if we can find that devilish cat of ours,” she said, “and let these boys play their game and talk their silly talk.”
An hour later, the men decided to wrap it up. They still had not heard from Sal.
“I just couldn’t get the cards. Nothing fell my way tonight,” Chinny said to Elisa as she helped him on with his raincoat.
“Don’t worry, Chinny. You know you usually win. One off night doesn’t mean a thing.” She straightened his collar and smoothed his lapels, then looked towards the street. “Next time though, don’t park under that Maple. There’s a couple of sparrows nesting toward the top and in the evening they sort of sit on the branches, and well you know.”
Chinny quickly pulled on his coat.
“Elisa, I wish you had told me sooner. Did you see? Did any of them go on my car?” He hurried out the door and into the street. Elisa clasped her hands in front of her and laughed. Frank’s father slipped his arm around her waist and she leaned against him.
“You know, your jokes on Chinny border on sadism,” he said, smiling.
“Yeah,” said Charlie. “I don’t know if I like the way this Belgian makes fun of us Wops. Why’d you ever marry her, Frank?”
“I’ll tell you when Frankie here is not around,” said Frank.
“No details,” said Elisa, and they all laughed. Then looking up at the clock, she said, “poor Sal. He must have really gotten tied up tonight.”
“Well, you know he had that woman in labor. Maybe it was a difficult delivery,” said Charlie. He turned to leave. Frank walked behind him and casually put a hand on his shoulder.
“Do you have much tomorrow, Charlie?’
“No, just a couple of kids with summer croup. You know, Elisa, the only thing wrong with being a pediatrician is the mothers. They drive me craaazy,” he said, extending his arms over his head. Frankie laughed at his Uncle’s antic. Half way out the door, Charlie turned and said to Frankie.
“Hey, Frankie. You brought me luck tonight. You stand by me next week too. OK?”
Frankie didn’t get a chance to answer because just then Sal’s car pulled around the corner and stopped in front of the house.
“Sorry I missed the game tonight, fellows,” said Sal as he came up the front steps. He smiled, kissed Frankie on the cheek and ruffled his hair. But, Frankie knew something was wrong.
“Charlie,” Sal said. “We delivered the Califano baby.” Then he spoke in Italian and suddenly burst into tears.
“What could I do? What could I do?” said Sal, cradling his face in his hands. Frankie’s dad quickly went to his side. Charlie moved in closer and the three men huddling together, came back up the stoop towards the house.
Frankie’s mother took her son by the arm. She led him inside and up the stairs toward his room. He protested. He struggled to get free, to be allowed to go to his father, to be with the men. But his mother’s grip was firm and she continued to coax him up the stairs. Half way up, Frankie turned and stretched his neck, trying to get a view of what was happening below. Elisa relaxed her hold slightly, then took him in her arms and hugged him.
“If I could, I’d carry you to bed. But you’re too big for that,” she said. “Soon you’ll be too big to hug.”
“Please, Mom. What’s wrong? Why is Uncle Sal crying? What happened?”
“Come with me, get into bed, and I’ll tell you what they said. I’ll tell you what happened. I promise. I won’t leave your room till you fall asleep.”
Before entering his room Frankie took one last look down the stairs. The three men were crowded around the table, the pinochle decks and food discarded to the side. Sal’s head was in his hands and Frankie’s father and Charlie each had an arm draped on his shoulder.
“You’re getting so big, Frankie, ” said his mom, trying to distract him.
Frankie laid his head on the pillow and rolled onto his stomach, hands clasped beneath him. His mother gently stroked his back.
“Mom, what did Uncle Sal say?” asked Frankie.
“Your Uncle Sal delivered a baby tonight, Frankie. But the baby died.”
“It died. But why did it die?” he asked.
“It was sick. You know, like Grandpa, just sick.”
“But it was a baby!”
“Yes, but sometimes babies die too,” she said. Frankie didn’t say anything for a moment.
“Did I almost die?” he asked.
She gently rubbed his head. “No you didn’t almost die. You were OK.”
Frankie had no more questions. He was satisfied for now. The baby was sick and died. He understood. His mother continued to stroke his back and gradually, unable to keep his eyes open any longer, he fell asleep.
Less than an hour later, he was wakened by the slam of a car door. He went to the window rubbing crusts of sleep from his eyes. His Uncle Charlie’s Cadillac was pulling away from the curb, and his father was walking Sal to his car. They stopped just below Frankie’s bedroom window. The night was still after the storm, only the sounds of crickets and trucks running though their gears in the distance interrupted the silence. The men talked in hushed voices. Frankie strained to hear, pressing his ear against the screen of his bedroom window.
“Try not to think about it, Sal. You did the right thing. You did the only thing you could,” said Frankie’s father.
“Frank, I know. I tell myself over and over. The resident, the nurse, we all know it was the right thing. But it doesn’t help. I stood there and watched that baby die, take his first breath and his last in the space of a few minutes. Then I lied to the mother and the father, stillbirth, I told them. Everyone in that room felt that we did the right thing and we all know too that we can never talk about this, and now I blurt this out to you and Charlie. I feel bad that I put this on you. I should have kept it to myself.”
“No, no, Sal,” said Frank. “We need to be able to talk about this together.”
They stood for a few moments in silence. Frankie watched from his window perch as Sal fished in his coat pocket, found his keys and reached for the door. Then he began to weep again.
“No one prepared us for this, Frank? This is what they whisper about but never put in textbooks,” said Sal.
“Sal, a faulty, an undeveloped brain. What could you do? You acted the way any of us would have. No matter what you or anyone else in that room did, the child couldn’t have lived for more than 24 hours. You spared the parents a horrible decision. They will mourn him as they should. You did the right thing.”
“But, Frank. We could have kept him alive. We just let him die there. I keep thinking we should have done something…”
“Sal, you did the family a favor. You did the right thing.”
Frankie stood transfixed, his ear pressed into the screen. A few minutes later Sal got into his car, quietly closed the door and drove away into the night.
Now Frankie was wide-awake and stood at the window, staring out into the warm summer night. In the years to come he would remember little of this conversation. It was the image of that baby on the table in a hospital that would haunt him. He pictured the baby kicking, arms and legs thrown out in all directions as he had seen with other infants, he pictured the doctors and nurses standing around the infant doing nothing as he gasped for air and struggled for life and then he pictured the baby stop moving.
Frankie’s father walked slowly back towards the house, where his wife was waiting. When he got close, she took his hand and they spoke in whispers Frankie could not hear no matter how hard he tried. And when they sat on the still damp steps, they sat so close that not even a summer’s night breeze could have passed between them.
about 3000 words