Frankie Vic owned The Club Milano, a place where the union rank and file had wedding receptions, first communions, wakes, and boxing matches. Architecturally speaking, the Club Milano was a confusion of Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns, giving a very approximate appearance of the Roman Coliseum. On the inside were brick arches, and a water fountain resembling an aqueduct. In one corner was a fig leafed statue of David, in the opposite corner, a suit of armor. In the center was a boxing ring.
Tonight was Fight Night, and I was Frankie's guest.
I saw him leaning against the apron of the boxing ring. He wore a well-tailored, black Armani suit, white shirt, gold cuff links, and the mother of pearl Rolex. He was lean, with large forearms, broad shoulders, and a narrow waist. His grey-white hair was cropped like Julius Caesar's. He had a flat boxer's nose. Scar tissue narrowed his eyes. If not for the large surgically created vein in his left forearm, you would have thought him to be in excellent health. The vein looked like a thick snake that curled around his arm. It was a tough vessel that could be punctured for kidney dialysis treatments. I was one of the few who knew it was there: I was his doctor.
He came to the dialysis clinic three times a week for four hours, to have his blood cleaned and his life saved. He was dependent on me, and I could tell it bothered him.
He was recently in hospital with chest pains, and I rushed him to the cardiac cath lab, where he was found to have a vital artery near closing. He had triple by-pass and he gave me credit for saving his life. He was deeper in debt. I explained that it was just my job and he didn't owe me anything. Frankie was happy, and pissed at me. He couldn't hide it.
Most men get depressed and introspective after cardiac surgery: not Frankie. Death did not intimidate him. As soon as his heart surgeon permitted, he put on a boxing card as a celebration and a sign that it would be business as usual. Don't anybody get smart.
Frankie had been a professional boxer, I an amateur. He won twenty-four and lost one; and I'd lost two and had one dubious victory. His career ended with a detached retina, though at one point he faked an eye exam by memorizing the word sequence of the eye chart, then had ten more fights with one eye. He won nine of those ten, but his career ended when his father, who was connected, learned he was still fighting. Promoters were afraid of his father.
“There's the doc,” I heard Frankie now, “Doc, Doc over here.”
I went over.
Frankie left ringside to sit at the center of geriatric toughs. They were the reason I would never be a sucker to road rage. They had fought for a living and somehow managed to live into their seventies. They all had the look that would make a bouncer think twice. They squinted at you. They kept their mouths open because they couldn't breathe through a smashed nose.
“I want you to meet the boys,” said Frankie. “Boys, here's the doc who saved my life, Dr. Larco. I owe him big.”
“Call me David. The heart doctor saved his life. Frank owes me nothing.”
“Frankie's stand up. If he says he owes you, he owes you. You shall receive,” said the thinnest of them. He had short fuzzy hair, dyed the color of black shoe polish. He was fit and looked like he could still hit hard.
Frankie pointed to him. “Doc, meet Joey Palowski, Joey Pal. Joey saved my life once, too.”
“How did you do that?” I asked.
“That was nothing,” said Joey.
“It was in the early fifties,” Frankie said. “We're getting a reputation for being pretty good fighters. Guys like to challenge you. We're sitting in this bar on the East Side, and this guy comes up to me and says, 'You Frankie Vic?' 'Yeah, so what?' I said. 'They say you hit pretty hard. Let's see how tough you are.' 'Hey can't you see we're out with these two ladies? Go away.'” Frankie took a drink of his Scotch and water, and continued, “The guy starts shoving me. I look out my good eye and see Joey's doing the slow burn. I can't see the guy too well because he's sitting on the side of my blind eye. Now, this guy that's bothering me is a heavyweight, and Joey, maybe, 135 tops, fought as a lightweight. But he had long arms, and he brings up a left hook that started, I swear, off the bar room floor, and hits this bastard square on the jaw. Blood squirts out both ears. I never seen anything like that before, and I've seen guys pounded. The guy goes straight down, bounces up a few times, and when he comes to rest, out cold, Joey stands over the guy, points to me, and says, 'Frankie hits harder than me.'” Joey and Frankie laughed.
“Every time Frankie tells that story I laugh like it just happened,” Joey said.
“Sounds like a basilar skull fracture,” I said. “Did the guy live?”
“He was all right.”
I wanted to tell him about severe head trauma. The victim's feels okay for a few hours and then blood fills the space between the skull and the brain. Pressure builds up then the brain crashes down on the medulla and the victim stops breathing. It probably went down as a sudden death with no autopsy. These guys, I told myself, were bad news.
“I saw him about a month later,” Frankie said. “I bought him drinks. He wasn't a bad guy. I dated his sister.”
“Yeah, good guy, no jaw,” added Joey.
“Damn I'm hungry,” Frankie said. “You'll love the food. Bring me another Scotch, please.”
A fat waiter with a cheap toupee brought Frankie a drink. “Doc, what'll you have?”
The waitresses brought the food. The time of day and the alcohol made me hungry.
“Food smells great,” I said.
The line formed at the buffet, Frankie and I went to the front. Men slapped him on the back, “Frankie, how ya doing? Great party, Frank.”
“You have a lot of friends,” I said.
“These guys have to be nice to me. They're on the payroll.”
“What do they do?”
“Various things. I do most of the construction work for your hospital, they help, and everyone gets paid, provided we kick back to your hospital's board of directors.”
“But it's a not-for-profit hospital.”
“Only for the doctors and nurses and patients. Not for the suppliers and the board.”
The bell sounded, and a local radio personality stepped up into the ring. The house lights dimmed, and the ring light lit up. The illuminated announcer gave Frankie credit for putting on the event, then, using his best Michael Buffer impersonation, introduced the fighters for the first bout, light heavyweights. One was tall, lanky, built like a swimmer, with more sinew than bulk. He was white and fair. The other was Chaldean, about six inches shorter, stocky, with muscular arms, and hair all over his body, and little on his head. The tall kid moved fast, jabbed, and kept the short guy at bay. When the fighting would get in close, and the tall kid's reach was negated, he would tie things up. The strategy worked until the short guy timed a jab and hit the kid in the stomach, lifting him off the canvass, then down.
“Let's see how much heart he has,” Frankie said.
The referee counted. The kid stopped writhing, took deep breaths, got to his feet, took the eight count, and went back to his plan of jabbing and moving.
The round ended. The crowd applauded. The ring girl appeared and the crowd went nuts, when she bent over to climb into the ring and her breasts nearly bubbled out her top.
“When I was boxing, we didn't have ring girls,” I said.
“The boys like it.”
The second round started. The tall kid watched the short guy's right hand. The jabs kept landing in the shorter man's face and his nose started to bleed.
The referee stepped in between the fighters and waved his latex-gloved hands and said, “That's it, fight's over.”
The audience stood and applauded.
“Why did they stop it?” I asked.
“First sign of blood, they stop,” said Joey. “These kids are amateurs, no HIV test beforehand. So, if they see blood, they stop.”
Another round of drinks came, and the men at the table stared digging into their food. They ate and talked fast; food flew from partially closed mouths through which they had to breathe and caused me to lose my appetite. The others, undeterred, kept eating and washing their words and food down with beer, Chianti, and cocktails.
“Doc used to fight amateurs, light heavyweight.”
“Yeah, a few fights,” I said. “I wasn't any good.”
“Yeah, but you got into the ring, takes guts.”
“I followed the game. Do you remember a fighter named Blue Hawkins?”
“You mean Blue Hutchins, he's still around.” He pointed at the man sitting opposite me. “Schultzie and Blue fought each other in prison. That's where they learned to fight.”
“Man, I wouldn't want to go to prison,” I said.
“Doc, you're not the type of guy who goes. Prison's okay for certain guys.”
Frankie surveyed the table and said, “Prison's not so bad.” Three guys at the table nodded in agreement.
“I wouldn't want to go to the hospital,” Shultzie said. “The prison docs try to do experiments on you.”
“That's not true,” I said.
Schultz got red. “You calling me a liar, doc?”
“Relax,” Frankie said. “Tell the doc what happened.”
“I was doing time in Oregon, of all places, and they had me working in the forests and along the road picking up trash. I have allergies and I can't breathe well on a good day. I'm miserable. I see the doctor who tells me I can get off the work detail if I go into a medical study. I jump at the chance. I get to stay in the prison hospital. Food's better and you can watch T.V. all day. Then they tell me about the study. They want to x-ray my balls and then stick needles in them and look at specimens under a microscope. I tell them no way. I saw other guys and they told me about sores and pain, so I say no. The doc says I can't quit the study once I enrolled. So I punched the doc in the nose, and end up in Terre Haute. That's a nice place. I've always avoided doctors after that.”
“Why were you in prison?” I asked.
When I made that statement Schultzie shook his head and left the table. The action was in abeyance, the food stopped flying, the drinks stayed on the table, and the old fighters looked at each other. Coughed, cleared their throats, flicked off cigars ashes. Frankie led me away from the table.
“It don't matter. He paid his debt, the score is settled. And doc, never ask why somebody went to prison. If he tells you, okay, but never ask,” Frankie said. “It's bad etiquette.”
“Oh,” I said, “I'm sorry.”
“Don't feel sorry, you just have a rough time fitting in with this crowd. I'll settle it with Schultzie, he's a good guy, he'll understand. And by the way, he went in for manslaughter, but never ask, and always pay your bookmaker. Then you'll be okay.”
“I know about paying your bookmaker.”
“Doc, you deal with bookies?”
“A little. They make me nervous.”
“If you pay you shouldn't be nervous. What do you like to play?”
“Sports of all kinds, mostly college.”
“Doc, don't bet the blood sports, you can't win. Stick with poker and craps.”
“I learned the hard way.”
“Stick with me. Be careful about picking a bookmaker, it's like picking a doctor or a lawyer. It's an important decision. They can ruin your life. Especially if you're addicted to the action.”
“Doc,” Joey said, “I didn't pick you for the type of guy that gambles, especially with a bookie.”
“Well I have a problem. Not with booze or women, I just like to bet. I inherited it from my grandfather. His problem was the horses.”
“Frankie and I love the ponies.”
“Shit,” said Frankie. As he scanned the room. “Here comes Tucker, who invited him?”
“Word is, Tucker's looking to buy a fighter. One of his prospects is fighting tonight,” Joey said.
“I thought Tucker just ruined horses. When did he start ruining boxers?”
“When he found out you were looking for a contender. Tucker hates you,” Joey said.
“Oh shit,” I said. “I got to get out of here.”
“Why, what's the matter?” Frankie asked.
“Tucker,” I said.
“You know Tucker? He's your patient.”
“He's your bookmaker?”
“Not Tucker? He's from the old days. Bookies don't rough you up anymore. Too much heat. But Tucker's different, he's mean. How deep are you in?”
“I lost fifteen thousand over the winter and with the vig I owe thirty.”
“Do you have it?”
Tucker saw me and approached the table. He was dressed in black pants, a black sport shirt and a camel hair sport coat. His hair was creamy white, the same shade as the lab rats I used for experiments in medical school. I had to get out of the club.
“Frankie, Frankie how the hell you been?”
“I've been fine Tuck, how have you been?”
“Good, making a living.”
Tucker looked at me. “Hello, Doc” he said.
“You guys know each other?” Joey asked.
“The doc and I are business partners, right doc?”
“Sort of,” I said.
“Oh doc, you're dropping in class,” Joey said. “Say, Tuck, you ever clean up that Florida race track mess?”
“That was no mess. It was just dropping in class. Just like the doc's doing. You can make a lot of money when someone's dropping in class.”
“You ruined a good horse.”
“It was business. I bought Kentucky Moon for fifty grand. Put him in a twenty five thousand dollar claimer. I could have lost everything if he gets claimed. I have the jockey hold him back and he loses for twenty-five, I do it again for twenty grand, the jockey holds him back, then fifteen grand, same thing, and finally he goes off for seventy five hundred and I bet large. Moon runs all out, but someone's fixing the race same as me, and it's a photo finish. I started having chest pains. Moon wins. I made seven hundred and fifty thousand on that race.”
“Then Moon gets sick and dies,” Frankie said. “And, you get the insurance money. How much?”
“Half a million.”
“You should have cut Moon some slack.”
“They're dumb animals. Moon put me in the hospital. You can't grow attached to your investments, business is business. Horse dies, I make more money. My kid's fighting tonight.”
“You already bought his contract.”
“Yes, it's the only way your boys would let me in here. I needed to see the doc. I thought I would kill two birds with one stone.”
Tucker looked at me.
“Do you like to bet the fights too? Frankie, your doc's got it bad. He needs to call the gambler's anonymous hotline.”
Frankie stood up, and glared at Tucker. The two men were the same size and build. Both had the look of old boxers, and could have been twins. Frankie spoke, “Stay away from him. He's my guest.” I could see the blood pumping in his dialysis artery through the sleeve of his shirt. Frankie's blood pressure was up. “You shouldn't have turned on Harry like that.”
“Harry was a deadbeat.”
“Was?” asked Frankie. “What did you do?”
“What do you think? Tell the doc about Harry.” Tucker left and went to the next table.
“Tucker's the second biggest gambler in the city next to me,” Frankie said. “Doc, you're jammed up. We got a chance tonight. Tucker's fighter is boxing Henry Curtis, who used to be pretty good, but now won't stay in shape, got into reefer, and eats all the time,” said Frankie. “Henry's a nice guy, but fights in the clubs now. I had to put him on the payroll. He delivers the produce and laundry to your hospital.”
“You control everything.”
Two black fighters entered the ring. One lean, about 230 pounds, and the other, obese.
“Your guy looks pretty good,” he said to Tucker.
“Ten grand says my guy beats fatso.”
“Make it thirty, and your kid's contract.”
Tucker opened up his sport coat showing the worn wooden handle of a gun. He took out an envelope of money and threw it on the table.
The announcer introduced the fighters for the main event, and shouted, “let's get ready to rumble,” and the fight commenced. Henry was getting the worst of it. The lean fighter moved and bobbed and weaved and snapped his jab into the other fighter's face. With each contact sweat showered us at ringside. The shower turned red as a cut opened over Henry's left eye.
“Shit,” Frankie said. “They better not stop this fight.”
The ref stopped the action, looked at the cut, looked at Frankie. Frankie shook his head, and the bell sounded.
The ref came to the neutral corner to talk to Frank.
“He's cut bad, over his eye. I can see bone. If it was under his eye I could let it go on. He's gonna be blind in one eye. He won't see the punches coming.”
“Henry can beat that guy with a blindfold on. Give him one more round.”
“Come with me, doc.” We went over to Henry's corner. The cut-man put the metal end-swell over his eye. When he took it off, blood spurted.
“Damn,” said the cut-man. “Frankie, how important is this fight?”
“It's a matter of life and death.”
“It better be. I can lose my license for this.” The cut-man looked at me and said, “Doc, you gotta help me. Frankie, you and Joey crowd around me.” He opened up a large black doctor's bag that contained scalpels, vials of medicines, insulin syringes and a chromed vaginal speculum; enough equipment for a minor operation.
I looked at the contents, and the cut-man said, “Relax doc, the abortion business has been dead for thirty years, but you never know what'll happen. Now draw up the epinephrine.”
“What are you going to do with the epinephrine?” I asked.
“Inject it into the artery, stop the bleeding.”
“His blood pressure will go through the roof. He could lose his eye or have a stroke.”
“Doc, it's diluted one to ten thousand, it'll be okay.” He handed me a pair of expensive surgical glasses to magnify the injured area.
“Do what he says,” Frankie said.
I put the glasses on, took the vial of epinephrine and drew it up into the syringe. I placed a small insulin needle on the tip.
“Now I'm going to remove the end-swell and open the cut, then you inject the epinephrine.”
The cut-man pried the wound open with his thumb and forefinger. I could see the artery pulsing and wiggling like a little worm. I put the needle in and injected. The artery collapsed, blood stopped flowing. The wound bed was dry.
Frankie slapped the fighter on the back and said “Now, Henry, drop this bum and let's go home.”
The fighter lisped through his mouth guard, “Right, Mr. Vic.”
Henry got up from his stool and class prevailed. He broke loose from the inertia of his fat and started punching. He threw three punches with speed that made them blur together. The first punch snapped his opponent's head to the right, then he hit him with his other hand, and the man's face turned left, then an upper cut popped his head straight up. The man went down, he tried to get up, but his eyes were glass and vacant, and it was over.
“Your guy sucks,” Frankie shouted at Tucker. “Henry just cost you thirty grand plus the kid's contract. Kentucky Moon is smiling down on us.”
Tucker came to the table, gave the money to Frankie, who gave it to me, and I gave it back to Tucker.
“You gotta watch guys who are dropping in class,” Frankie laughed. “Let's go to the casino. Doc, you gotta learn to shoot dice and play blackjack.”
“I'm through with gambling,” I said.
“Doc, you're hooked. You need the thrill and the terror. Now go sew up Henry's eye and let's get out of here.”
“I owe you Mr. Vic.”
“You saved my life, now I've saved yours. You and I will trade favors. Always keep it even. See you tomorrow.”
* * *
I was at the hospital at seven. I went to the dialysis unit and saw Mr. Vic's chair unoccupied. Mr. Vic and I would trade favors sooner than I had anticipated.
“Where's Mr. Vic?”
“Not coming today,” the dialysis nurse said.
“After what he ate and drank last night, he better get a treatment today or he'll be in the emergency room tonight, I better call him.”
I got his hospital chart, looked up his phone number, and called.
“Mr. Vic you can't skip treatments,” I told him.
“I'm sorry doc. Our boy Tucker's pissed. He thinks we cheated him.”
“We, as in me too?”
“You as in maybe. Me as in yes. I can't come to the clinic anymore. I need to vary my schedule. Got any ideas?”
“Home hemodialysis. I'll get you a dialysis machine and teach Joey how to do your treatments at home. You won't have to go out.”
He jumped at the chance. Joey Pal was his assistant and he proved to be an excellent dialysis nurse. It took then three days to catch on. With Frankie doing his dialysis at home I only saw him once a month.
Frankie missed his monthly appointment. I called his home. Joey Pal answered.
“Joey,” I said. “You're supposed to be here at the clinic with Mr. Vic.”
“Mr. Vic is dead.”
“What happened? You guys were good with the dialysis machine.”
“No they got him. He was caught going to the casino. I told him not to go, but he's got it as bad as you. Anyway they caught him and he was found in his car burned beyond recognition. Nothing left of him but ashes. They used jet fuel, burns hotter. The guys that did it were pros. You should come to the memorial service. It would mean a lot to Frankie.”
I went to the service. Several men form the boxing match were present, except Tucker. I thought he might show he'd prevailed, got even.
The old boxers were crying, shaking their heads,“Doc, Doc we're glad to see you. It means respect and respect meant everything to Frankie.”
“He was doing so well.”
“Well, when your number's up, it's up,” Joey said.
Joey was taking things too well. When we were alone I told Joey I would have to pick up the dialysis machine.
“Sure doc, next week. I'll get it cleaned and ready.”
I waited a month, which seemed enough time to show respect. I drove to Frankie's. I was leasing the machines and I couldn't afford to pay for a machine that was not in use. Joey was at the door.
“Doc, what do you want?”
“The dialysis machine.”
“The dialysis machine Frankie used before his accident.”
“It's gone. I lost it.”
“A dialysis machine is too big to lose.”
I could hear the sound of a dialysis machine. The hallmark sounds of the pump and the beeping of alarms.
“I hear the machine. Someone's using it.”
“Doc, you don't hear anything.”
“Yes, I do. He's in there on the dialysis…”
“Doc, you hear nothing. At least pretend you don't hear it. You and Frankie are even. You shouldn't get messed up with guys like us. You got too much to lose—nice wife, two kids, a great job. Don't get sucked into this.”
I heard Mr. Vic call out, “Joey, bring me Dr. Larco.”
Joey led me to the library. I surveyed the room and noticed thick wood paneling, Persian rugs, oil paintings and a Remington. Shelves contained leather bound books of the classics, Shakespeare, Dante, Plato, Joyce, Gibbons, and Wolfe.
Mr. Vic sat in a leather lounge chair with his arm lying on a mahogany chess table. Two red tubes came out of his arm. He was connected to the dialysis machine.
He looked at me.
“Like my books?”
“Yes, I like books.”
“You can have any one you'd like. See that wall. Those are first editions.”
I saw Hemingway, Bellow, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald.
One wall contained the works of Joyce Carol Oates.
“Ms. Oates signed those books for me. Joey and I like her the best. She's a big boxing fan.”
“Dr. Larco, your coming here today solves a big problem for me. It's hard to find a doctor who shares our philosophy and knows about kidney dialysis.”
“We don't share the same philosophy.”
“Oh, I think we do. At least we share the same concerns. I need a doctor. I will be leaving this house. I will let you know my location. Here's a cell phone, can't be traced. Keep it on at all times. You will visit once a month or whenever I need you. Don't tell anybody about our arrangement. Not even your wife. If you bring her or anybody else in this, they can't get out.”
“I don't want to do this,” I said.
“You have no choice. You will be fine. Your home dialysis business will be a success. The hospital will buy it. They'll promote you to chief of staff. The board of the hospital depends on me for their kickbacks; they'll do what I tell them. You will be rich, and powerful in the hospital. Doctors seem to like that.”
“But I can't do anything illegal.”
“I know, and I won't do anything but ask you to keep me alive. Once I'm dead or get a kidney transplant, you're free. I'm feeling dizzy. Joey, bring me some saline.”
Joey took out a plastic bag of saline and attached it to the dialysis machine.
“How much should I give him doc?”
“Half of it.”
The fluid went in and life returned to Mr. Vic's eyes. He was testing me with the saline. I passed.
“Thank you, I feel better now. David, see you next month.”
I looked at Mr. Vic. Joey was sitting at his feet like a dog. I was also one of Mr. Vic's dogs. I could remove a needle from his arm, turn the flow rate up, and pump out all his blood in three minutes. I would run to the police and tell all.
But it wasn't in me, at least not yet. I returned to my car and activated the cell phone. It would remain on at all times in case Mr. Vic needed me.