If Only

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COLE SALADINO/THRILLIST

 

Johnny Harris was no truth teller. He wasn’t a compulsive liar, it was just that he stretched the facts and embellished the details. He was a storyteller. Maybe a few generations earlier he’d be right at home, sitting on the front porch of a dry-goods store, shooting the breeze with his friends. In those days there was no harm in exaggeration. But now, inflating his importance to the whole world had consequences.

“How would you describe me, Kelley?” He stepped back and let his best friend since sixth grade take a better look at him.

“You’re a guy, whatta you mean, J? You look just like everybody else we know.”

“Yeah, but what makes me different, different than everyone else?”

“Don’t go all metro on me, J. What do you want me to say? What’s this for?”

“I need an edge for my profile. Just to say that I’m five feet ten and weigh one hundred seventy-five, or that I have black hair—that’s boring. I don’t want average.”

“You can’t change the facts, J.”

Johnny’s phone played his ringtone All Day. “It’s my mom.”

“What? She can’t yell down the stairs?”

“Gotta go to work, Kelley. Walk me to the subway.”

“Didn’t you tell me you quit your job two weeks ago?”

“Yeah, I quit, but I didn’t tell her: she’ll go nuts.”

“I’ll say. Mrs. Harris wants her baby boy out of the basement,” Kelley laughed.

“It’s a family room, I don’t live in a cellar.”

“Well, thanks for letting me crash last night in whatever this is.” Kelley glanced across the remnants of cold pizza that Johnny’s golden lab was finishing off. “I have a class at ten, so I’ll walk you to the station. Is your mom still making your breakfast, or is she on strike this week?”

Johnny looked at his phone. “She’s pissed. Let’s stop at Starbucks.”

“Yeah, metro for sure. Sign number two: when Dunkin is no longer good enough. So let me get this straight: you have been pretending to go to work for two weeks?”

“Outside.” Johnny whispered.

“How’s my favorite guy doing at Brooklyn Law School?” Johnny’s Mom looked past her son and walked over to Kelley to give him a hug hello.

“Not bad, Mrs. Harris, and you?”

Mrs. Harris took a deep breath and launched into a list of ‘if onlys’: If only Johnny had studied more in high school. If only Johnny didn’t get caught shoplifting. There were at least twenty ‘if onlys’. Without them Johnny would be at Harvard Law, where his father had graduated.

“Going to be late, Mom,” he pushed Kelley toward the front door.

“At least you have a job,” Mrs. Harris called after him as the two young men left the room.

When they got onto Remsen Street, they joined a dog walker, three nannies with carriages, and a stream of people who looked intent on getting someplace.

“She also has a list of at leasts,” Johnny laughed. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a well-worn paperback. “You see this, Kelley,” he tapped the cover with his left hand, “what do you think it is?”

Kelley kept walking. He was trying to check out the girl who had just passed them. She was wearing a blue sleeveless mini dress.

“Aphrodisiac,” Johnny said as he continued to tap the book.

The girl turned right and they were going left on Hicks.

“What?” Kelley said.

“Fly paper.”

“What do you mean?” Kelley looked at the title. “What’s it about?”

“I didn’t read it, but the cover says…” Johnny read the cover review and then flipped inside and read the rest of the quotes while they waited for the light to turn green. “You know, you don’t really need to read anymore.”

“What?”

Johnny pulled the door to Starbucks open and got in line to place his order. “Yeah, do you think anyone wants to listen to a regurgitation of every twist and turn in a plot?”

“Well, don’t you want to get something out of the book for yourself, J?”

“Grande ice.” Johnny laughed. “I get something out of it all right. How’d you think I met that girl from the DR on the subway last month?”

“Small black.” Kelley turned toward his friend. “You’ve got to be kidding, man.”

“No, they think I’m a real intellectual. And in this case,” he pointed to the cover, “sensitive and understanding.”

“Well there you are: your profile.” Kelley started to laugh and the coffee almost came out of his nose.

“I’m thinking of trading this one in at the library today, that’s where I’m headed.”

“Got any bigger plans, like a job interview?”

“Thanks for reminding me, Mom. Hey, I’m not worried. I’ve got some great references from that job. Really. “ He could see that Kelley wasn’t buying it. “It was a political shoot out. I lost. I quit. No hard feelings, that’s what they told me at my exit interview. Reilly told me he would definitely write something good,” Johnny smirked. “He doesn’t want to mess with my Dad.”

“Yeah, but your Dad, when he finds out…?” Kelley took a sip of coffee.

“I’ll have something else down by then for sure. I have connections. Going to the Harvard Club later.”

Johnny kept walking, but Kelley stopped. “You’re a piece of work, you know that?”

“How else you think I’m going to find a job.” Johnny raised his hand for a high-five. “Later.” He turned toward the Borough Hall subway entrance, tossed his empty cup in the trash and picked up speed to match the rest of the pedestrians.

The crowd heading for downtown Brooklyn exited and Johnny stepped into the subway car. At 4th Street he pulled out his paperback and followed a young woman off the train and into the Number One going uptown. He couldn’t catch her eye; she was staring at a pregnant woman sitting in front of her.   The girl maneuvered around him and got off the train ahead of him at Forty-second Street.

 

The main branch of the public library was an enormous limestone building filling an entire square block of Fifth Avenue. Two stone lions stood guarding the steps leading to the main door.  Johnny pulled one of the doors open and headed for the information desk.

“Got any recommendations this week, Emily? Anything new on the bestseller list? I’m looking for something for my sister.” Johnny grinned at the young woman behind the desk. Emily the librarian, Johnny thought, could she be anymore of a cliché? Her brown shirt matched her hair and helped to make her disappear into the woodwork: invisible until spoken to.

“How did she like the one I suggested to you last week?”

Johnny did have an older sister, but not one he gave books to. His sister had pretty much ignored him for most of his life. She was still useful to him though.

“Very moving,” Johnny quoted the inside flap to Emily. “The writer really understands the female psyche.”

“So true,” Emily sighed. “You read it too?”

“I’m meeting my sister at the Harvard Club for lunch, promised her I would bring her something new to read,” Johnny ignored Emily’s question.

She adjusted her glasses and sat up straight. “You went to Harvard?”

“Loved Cambridge and Boston. Fantastic experience.”

“Well,” Emily cleared her throat, “I know of something she might like.” Emily wrote on the small pad in front of her and gave the top sheet to Johnny. “Take this to the circulation desk. I’ll be curious to see what your sister thinks of this one.”

 

“Here’s the book.” The man behind the desk pushed a thick hard cover volume across the desk. “This number here, the one you put on your request,” he pointed to the slip Johnny had filled in for the book Emily suggested, “ this is a telephone number.”

Johnny started to laugh as he picked up the book. “Sorry, I think I made a mistake. Is this available in paperback?”

“No.”

“I guess it’s not the one I want.” He pushed the book away, turned around and went back to the table he had staked out for the morning.

 

Johnny had bounced around a few private schools before he graduated from high school; he managed to get through Hunter College. His father had gotten him the job as a para-legal with the hopes he would some day “snap out of it”.

Johnny had his laptop open and was staring at his resume. They don’t make it easy for anyone these days. There are too many ways of checking this information, he thought. Searching Google for “what do employers look for in background checks?” he found a list of items on “good-hire.com”.

He went into the lobby and used his cell phone to call the records office of his alma mater.

“We will send you a copy of your candidates dates of attendance and degrees once you send us the required form.”

“I’m interested in the clubs and extra curricular activity during his time at school,” said Johnny.

“Oh, we don’t provide that information, sir. You would have to contact those organizations individually. Is there anything else?”

“No, I’ll fill out the request. Thanks for your help.” Johnny hung up the phone. “Bingo!” he said and went back to the table.

Johnny typed into the search engine: Core skills for being research assistant in publishing.

 When he finished adding those skills to his resume, along with various clubs and activities that would indicate his personality and interest in publishing, he closed the laptop.

 

The Harvard Club had changed their rules a few years ago. There were too many non-Crimson types wandering in off the street. They now required people to have an ID and to sign in at the front desk. Johnny had taken his father’s card, made a copy and erased Class of ’65. He inserted ‘12 and added his own photo. It was a good enough facsimile of the ID to flash to the attendant at the front desk.

“Nice day.” Johnny ran up the steps with his gym bag slung over his shoulder. He had been coming to the Harvard Club for over a year; everyone recognized him.

“Too hot for me, the summer uniform is still not cool enough. Have a good work-out,” the doorman said.

 

The locker-room was empty. Johnny changed into his shorts and a tee shirt and went into the gym. Bending over to change the weights on the press, he straddled the pole, squatted and took a deep breath before pushing eighty pounds to his shoulder and then over his head. He did twelve reps and took a break to work on his legs.

“I’ve been watching you lift.” An older man approached him.

Johnny didn’t say anything.

“You have a great routine. Yeah, I use to be able to do a drill myself. Then I tore my shoulder and, well, you know how that goes: first one thing and then the other.” He made a deep laugh and stared at Johnny.

Johnny didn’t say anything.

“I’ve seen you here before, a few times. Great facilities, no?”

Now he was waiting for an answer.

“Crimson’s the best,” Johnny said.

The man looked as old as his father, thick grey hair that was matted with sweat. For someone who wasn’t lifting he was trim and chiseled, Johnny thought. He looked away hoping the man would leave him alone.

“How long is your work-out?” the man continued.

“Got another hour at least, just started.”

“I noticed,” he smiled. “What house were you in?”

Johnny didn’t register that he was asking where he lived at Harvard. “…South House,” he said after a pause.

“You mean Cabot, don’t you? It hasn’t been South House since ’85.”

Johnny started to laugh nervously. “Gee, I am turning into my dad. He called Cabot, South House the entire time I was an undergraduate.”

“Got ya.” the man laughed. I won’t interrupt your routine. I’m off to the treadmill. My name is Wallace Merritt, Class of ’65, South House,” he smiled and put out his hand.

Johnny shook his hand. He starting coughing and raised his hand to his mouth as he said John Harris. Then clearly: “Class of ‘2012”.

“Hmmm. My son would have been 2012, but he never made it.” The man turned and walked away.

Johnny went over to the leg press machine and set it for 200 pounds. As he pressed, he knew he would have to avoid Wallace Merritt.

 

“I thought you might end up in here,” a voice said from the bench on the other side of the steam room.

Johnny couldn’t see who it was, but he got a cold chill as he entered the one hundred degree room. He started to turn around.

“Don’t leave, I want to talk to you,” Wallace Merritt said.

“I…” Johnny started.

“I could get you thrown out of here.” The man snapped his fingers. “But I won’t, I know your dad.” Wallace patted the bench and motioned through the steam for Johnny to sit next to him. “I should say, I knew your dad. How is he? Still alive? Still senior partner at White and Case?” He didn’t let Johnny answer. “Sure he is, and I bet he is still a liar too?”

“What do you mean, liar?”

“Your father got away with a lot when he was in school. That’s what I’m saying. I bet you get away with a lot too. Chip off the old block, right?”

Johnny didn’t answer. His eyes had adjusted to the room. They were alone and he could see Wallace looking at him.

“I won’t bite you, not yet anyway,” he patted the bench next to him.

“Why didn’t your son graduate Harvard?”

“He died.”

“Sorry, I…”

“Save it, kid. He died in a car accident on his nineteenth birthday. We could go for a drink and I could tell you all about it, if you really are interested in anything but yourself.”

Johnny turned and faced the door.

“What, I hurt your feelings? Well that’s  different. You could never hurt Jack Harris’ feelings, if your Dad had any that is. Don’t go.”

“Why should I stay, your just going to get me kicked out. What’s the point?”

Johnny thought the worst that could happen would be being thrown out of the club. Wallace would never call his father, not with the way he talked about him.

“Maybe we could be useful to each other.”

Johnny sat on the facing bench. “I am looking for a job,” he blurted out nervously.

Wallace got up and stood in front of Johnny. His towel slipped off and fell to the floor; he picked it up and put it around his waste.

“It’s me that is going to get the favor first, kid.” The drink offer still stands. I’ll see you at Twenty-One Club in thirty minutes if you’re curious.”

Johnny didn’t say anything.

“Think about it kid, take a shower and cool off before you go out in the heat…think about it.”

Of course Johnny was curious. Maybe the towel dropping to the floor was just an accident. Maybe he could get me a job. Just going to listen. What’s the harm? I can always leave, he thought.

The Twenty-One Club was eight blocks away, just far enough for Johnny to change his mind a few times. He stopped and checked his phone messages and saw that Kelley had left a text about their plans for later. So he told Kelley what he was doing.

“What do you mean your going for drinks?” Kelley texted.

“He wants to see my resume and talk about my future.”

“Sounds weird, man, gotta go into class.” Kelley ended.

Johnny stopped walking and turned toward Broadway. Maybe I can catch a movie. He looked at the time on his phone. What could I possibly do for this guy? He thought. But he could do something for me, yeah, maybe he’s lonely, maybe I remind him of his son.

He turned around and continued up Sixth Avenue.   When he reached the corner of 53th street he saw statues of little white jockeys holding rings, one on each step going up to and across the wrought iron railing that surrounded the second floor terrace of the Twenty-One Club.

He went down three steps to the entrance and opened the door to the restaurant. It took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust to the darkness and then he saw the maître-d in front of him.

“Wallace Merritt,” Johnny informed the small man.

Wallace was sitting at the bar with a drink. “Didn’t think you would show, kid.” He turned as Johnny said down next to him.

“Here,” he went into his jacket and pulled out his wallet. “My card, just so you know who I am.”

The card read: Wallace Merritt, CEO, Star Communications, 1200 Avenue of Americas, New York, NY 10019.

Johnny was impressed, but just nodded, and slipped the card into his back pocket.

The bartender approached them and smiled. “Sorry, got to check your ID,” he said to Johnny.

“Yeah, you can’t be too careful these days.” Johnny shot a look at Wallace as he took his driver’s license out and ordered a gin and tonic.

Wallace didn’t say anything for a while. He stirred the ice in his drink with a small plastic straw. Finally he looked at Johnny and said: “I’ve been thinking while I was sitting here nursing this drink. If only my son were alive, well, I wouldn’t have bothered you today.”

Johnny didn’t say anything. He took a deep breath and took another sip of his gin and tonic.

“Life is funny, you expect certain things to happen…” he paused, “you don’t expect your kid to die before you do. That’s not the way it supposed to happen.”

“How did it happen?” Johnny asked.

“You really want to know?” he continued, “late at night, fog, too much liquor, winding road, and a tree. In that order.”

“I am sorry, Mr. Merritt. You must miss him. What is it you want me to do for you?”

“Call me Wallace, son.”

Johnny flinched and waited for him to continue.

“My mother is dying.” He raised his hand to stop Johnny from talking. “Oh, it’s okay, she had a great life, she’s ninety-five. Patrician princess that’s what she is. Now she can’t remember anything,” Wallace took another sip and signaled the bartender for another round.

“Not for me Mr., I mean, Wallace, still working on this one.” Johnny looked at the drink in front of him.

“I want you to come for a ride with me.” He shook his head and made sure the bartender gave Johnny a second drink.

“I don’t know. I have plans tonight.”

“Well, we all have plans, don’t we,” he laughed. “Then life happens,” he kept laughing. “Break them, son. I need you to be by my side today. I want to visit my mother and I don’t want to go alone.”

“I guess I could change my plans. I need to tell my friend what I’m doing.”

“Make it up.”

“Why would you say that?” Johnny asked.

“Why does it matter where you are going, you’ll be with me…and my mother,” Wallace added. “She is in a nursing home near Tarrytown in Westchester, really nice place, about an hour north of here in the country. It has a view of the Hudson.” Wallace continued to talk about his mother and describe the bucolic location of where she lived.

“I don’t know, seems like a long way from here. I live in Brooklyn Heights.”

“The sun sets at eight, you’ll be home before it gets dark if we leave soon.”

“What’s the name of the place, Wallace?”

“Sleepy-Hollow Meadows. Sounds nice and cool on such a hot day, doesn’t it?”

“Well, I guess.” Not such a big favor after all, Johnny thought. I can talk about what kind of job I want on the drive. “Are we leaving now?”

“Sure thing, let me call my driver. Meet me in a few minuets the lobby.”

 

Johnny went to the men’s room and texted Kelley that he was close to getting a job. “Yeah, the guy I met at the Harvard Club. Right. And guess where I am now? THE—Twenty–One Club. We are talking about my career.”

“Get real, Johnny. Where the hell are you? We’re meeting up with the guys tonight,” Kelley texted back.

“Really. It’s true, I’m not making this up,” Johnny wrote. The second drink kicked in harder than usual and all of a sudden he was dizzy. “LTR” was all he could type back.

When Johnny walked into the bar to get his gym bag, the bartender motioned to him closer.

“I didn’t want to say anything in front of Mr. Merritt, since your one of his boys, right?

Who?

Well, your license it’s no good, not real, but you know that. “

“Wha? Johnny asked holding on tight to the back a bar chair so he wouldn’t fall.

“Yeah, the guy who has been buying your drinks, sonny. Your friend.” He winked.

“What?”

 

“The car is here, kid. Let’s get going if you want get home tonight.” Wallace had come back into the bar to look for him.”

“I’m not feeling well. I haven’t eaten today. I shouldn’t have had that second drink; it’s really hitting me hard. Don’t think I can make it.”

Wallace took Johnny’s elbow and led him out of the bar. “The fresh air will do you good. You can take a nap on our way there.”

“The bartender was telling me your….” Johnny couldn’t remember what he wanted to say. His legs felt so heavy he had a hard time lifting them.

 

#

 

When Johnny woke up in the back seat of a limo, Wallace was gone. The sun was setting across the river and they were speeding south on the Westside Highway.

“What time is it?” he yelled to the driver. “Where’s the man I was with?”

“It’s seven-thirty, beats me where he is now. Got out of the car a half an hour ago and told me to take you home. Don’t you remember?”

“What’s his name? “

“You don’t know and you expect me to? I pick up people all day and night, never ask questions, just take them where they want to go?”

“Aren’t you his driver?”

“Nah. This is a limo service kid, we pick people up and deliver them.”

“Didn’t you drive us to Westcester earlier today?” Johnny’s head felt as if it were going to explode.

“Nah, just got a call to pick someone up in Tarrytown and drive them to Brooklyn Heights.”

“I think I’m going to be sick.”

“I don’t pass any judgment either.” The diver let the windows down in the rear of the car. “Don’t mess up the car.”

Johnny was looking at him in driver’s rear view mirror. All he could see were his eyes staring ahead at the traffic.

“Did the man say anything aside from to take me home?”

The driver looked up at him in the mirror. “Yeah, he said you were smart kid, you went to Harvard and…”

“And?” Johnny asked.

“And if only you could have seen your grandmother before she died.”

—————————————————————————————————————————————–

 

If Only  is part of a linked short story collection: Getting There – The Claudia Stories five of the stories have been published in various journals.

The above photo is from a post “Writers You Should Absolutely Never Read On The Subway on Thrillist” by James Chrisman @james_chrisman2

 

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