Spring 1990 – Milwaukee, WI
Chance thought it was the start of a joke. He studied the old man, saw the truth of it. The sheen of wealth and power his uncle wore like an armored suit had faded. His skin rusted from neglect, was a roadmap of broken capillaries across his nose and cheeks. Chance leaned back in his chair, breathed in slowly, paused, and exhaled with exaggerated drama.
“Stage four lung cancer. Both lungs and there’s nothing they can do except try to make me comfortable…at the end.” Uncle Vinnie brought his oxygen mask to his face, and with every breath, particles of disease condensed into fog on the plastic, his wheezing audible from across the table. Two cigarette-stained, rheumy eyes watched Chance’s reaction.
Chance ran through his choices like a grocery list, deciding on reserved empathy. “I’m sorry to hear that, uncle. Kinda thought you’d live forever.” He picked up his wineglass and swirled the Sangiovese around the leaded crystal; its deep crimson shining in the candlelight reminded him of blood, passed down through generations, coming with obligations he didn’t want.
Chance gazed around the private dining room of the hole-in-the-wall Italian joint his uncle frequented. He noticed a buildup of dust on one of the ceiling vents, which only reaffirmed his decision to never eat the food here. Giorgio, his uncle’s muscle, nurse, and secretary rolled into one large package, stood at his usual post by the door.
“Well, who knows, probably would’ve had a couple-two-three years extra if I’d quit smoking. If I showed you my X-ray, you’d quit today.” His uncle’s Italian accent mixed with Wisconsin slang made even stupid phrases sound eloquent.
“I don’t doubt it.” Chance reached into his pocket for his pack of cigarettes, eyed the oxygen tank, and stayed his hand. “Is there anything I can do for you?”
“As a matter of fact, Charles, there is.”
Chance bristled at the use of his given name.
“I want you to take over the family.” Uncle Vinnie said it casually, like the thought had just occurred to him.
Chance flinched backward in his chair. Now he understood why Uncle Vinnie had moved up their monthly dinner by two weeks. This wasn’t a confession or a lifetime of wrongs needing to be fixed. This was a recruitment.
Vampire-pale, with a dark suit that hung off his diminutive frame like gravity on old skin, Uncle Vinnie looked like an undertaker in an old Western. His slicked-back hair, plastered to his head with a Brylcreem shine, was an inch longer than normal. As if to compensate for impending death, he chose to let whatever could grow, grow.
“I’m not sure what to say. I’ve never even considered it and wouldn’t know the first thing about running your…business.”
“You’ve run a successful business for years. It’s not that different.”
Chance shook his head thinking about his own restaurant, Bella’s. “Uncle, when a cook messes up on a meal, or a server gets a complaint, I don’t have their legs broken. I’d say it’s as different as different gets.” He finished his wine in two gulps then grabbed the bottle and poured the rest into his glass, splashing some onto the checkered vinyl tablecloth.
“Yes, sometimes you have to use different methods to keep people in line. But not as often as you’d think.”
Chance glared at Uncle Vinnie, knowing full well this was a lie.
“Charles, when a man comes to the end, he looks over what he’s created, what he’s sacrificed and built with blood, sweat, and tears.”
“Don’t forget murder.”
“He doesn’t want to let it go, give it to some stranger or someone who isn’t family. Family is everything. Blood is everything.”
“I wouldn’t say Frank is a stranger. You’ve known him his entire life.”
“Frank is old school. He’s in love with the romance of violence. Every problem can be fixed with a gun. That won’t work for much longer. The world is getting smaller.” Uncle Vinnie took a sip of his water.
“Frank and his wife eat at my restaurant all the time. We usually avoid each other.”
“Ahh, Sloan. A charming woman. Forty years too late for me, I’m afraid.” His uncle started to pant into his mask, and the wine in Chance’s stomach began to turn. After a few uncomfortable seconds, his uncle pulled the mask from his face, all traces of creepy old man lust gone.
“You’re the only one left with my blood, Charles.” The force of this statement brought about a coughing fit in which some of that prized DNA ended up in a linen napkin. Chance looked away.
“I’m not going to bullshit you. I promised your mother I’d keep you out of the business. I’ve honored that promise. But let’s be honest. Someone’s going to take over. Soon. I won’t be here to protect you anymore. You have decades of animus with Frank. The only thing that’s kept him in check is his fear of me.”
Chance, considering the proposal, unconsciously shook his head. Moral issues notwithstanding, he never wanted that lifestyle.
“Yes, there will be sacrifices. But I’m the most powerful man in the state. There are benefits, as well.” Uncle Vinnie shook his hand holding the oxygen mask to accentuate his point.
“Maybe the most powerful, but you also have the largest bull’s-eye on your back,” said Chance.
“Well, with great power comes all the little people who want to take it from you.”
“Uncle, I don’t want that. I’ve never wanted that. All I ever wanted to do was play music.”
“Thankfully life taught you the foolishness of that dream.”
Chance still felt the needle prick of a long-dead argument.
“It’s simple. Either you take over the family before I’m dead, or Frank will have you killed before my body’s cold.” His uncle put his mask on the table, picked up his fork, and started in on his primavera.
Chance scowled, brought his fingers up to his temples and massaged. “I’ve always hated that term you use. Family. A collection of thieves and murderers. It’s a dressed-up way of saying gang. And your top gang leader is a sociopath with a large chip on his shoulder.” Chance saw by the expression on the old man’s face he had pushed him right up to the line. Vinnie dropped his fork on the plate.
“You are the only person in the world who I allow speak to me that way. Be careful. Especially when you have no idea what you’re talking about. I’m not going to debate with you the things I had to do to survive, or even thrive, in this country.” He picked up the oxygen mask and took a couple of deep breaths. “Powerful men all use the Franks of this world to do what needs to be done. You think the government doesn’t have a collection of Franks. You think the police don’t?”
Chance closed his eyes. A string of bad memories flashed through his brain.
“Does he hate me that much, uncle? Really, it was twenty years ago.”
“Yes. He does. You humiliated him, and he’ll never forgive you.”
Chance glanced around the private room of this shitty little cliché. Red and white checkered tablecloths, straw covered wine bottles, each with a candle coming out of the top. An Americanized rendition of how Italians dined, straight out of Lady and the Tramp. He never understood why his uncle ate here. The emergency exit caught his eye, as if it would solve his problem.
“I don’t want to be a mob boss.”
His uncle put down his fork and wiped his blue-tinged lips with a napkin. “Charles, when did you ever get what you want?”