HE CALLED on a Friday, on a day it seemed that they all were calling. They were calling about husbands who beat them and wives who deserved to be beaten, and they called asking for money and they called, mostly because there is no one they can talk to. Tony was one of them. He called to say that he was dying and that no one cared. He was right.
I mean, I care and you care and we all care when people die, but we have a job to do and a family to worry about, and of course, troubles of our own. We all give at the office. But Tony just kept talking - this mobsterlike voice, coming in low and deep over the phone, using lots of doubl-negatives and curse words, and of course, the universal adjective. He said he was just 25 years of age and a dope addict and dying. I nodded. He went on. He went on about the drugs he used and about his crimes and about how the world was full of people who said they cared, but no one really cared. I nodded.
He kept saying I had to write something, only he wouldn't say what, and so I beat time with my pencil and tried to get him off the phone. Then when I stopped taking notes, he mentioned his son and how he was going to lose him. He and his wife had split and they were going to go to court and no judge in his right mind was going to let an unemployed junkiw near an 11-month-old baby. He was never going to see his kid again. All he wanted was something like a weekened a month.
"If I am half the man I think I am, I would like to leave an impression on my kid," he said.
That stopped me. I was intending to write something about fatherhood and how it had come as something of a surprise to me - the feeling, I mean. There isn't much said or written about it and you go through life meeting fathers who see their kids on the weekend the court set aside for them, and they say nothing about it - no mention of pain or sorrow or anything like that. But one time years ago, there was a picnic in the mountains and a guy I knew brought his daughter. She was a pretty kid who lived with her mother, and now as the sun was setting and the air was getting cool, the man talked about how their time together was up. There was a look in his eye - an ache - and he took her by the hand and walked her down the mountain to the car. It was my first hint.
So Tony and I planned to meet later that day. First, he had to meet his wife at a downtown bar, near where she worked as a waitress. He was going to try to talk her our of going to court. She would tell the judge that her husbanc was a certified drug addict who had never done an honest day's work in his life and could only stay away from drugs by turning to booze. It was all true, Tony said. He had to talk to her.
So now it was after the meeting and now Tony and I were talking in the bar. In my mind I had expected this junkie to be from the movies - skinny and small, shaking and pathetic. But Tony turns out to be a bruiser - well over 6 feet tall, maybe 250 pounds. Intimidating. We had gone to a table and he had taken his suit jacket off with car, laying it gently on the seat next to him. "This is my first suit since my communion," he explained. The suit was part of his act. He had shaved his beared and tied back his long hair so he could face the judge. His wife had said no deal.
"I'm going to lose all rights to my son," he said. "I'm a registered drug addict. My wife trusted me once but she don't trust me no more. I'm so torn up inside I can't eat. You can't eat nothing at all. I can't hold down a good meal." He talked on going into his marriage and the split and the birth of the kid. Someone put monry in the machine and the music came on. The music played and the woman in the other both got loud and the waitresses came by asking for drink orders. Tony's eyes reddened and his face puffed and big tears came rolling down his cheeks. Suddenly, he reached across the table and grabbed my hands, squeezing tight. I got scared.
He went on talking, looking down suddenly and pulling back his hands. We ordered another drink and he told me about his father, who died a drunk when Tony was still a kid. He told me how he felt all alone; how there was nobody who really cared about him; how this big, powerful body of his was dying from a diet of junk made in the lab of the underworld.
"Who you got in his life? Who you got? Nobody." I nodded. He was mad again. Yes, nobody. "Who do you got but your own flesh blood. Your kid. You raise them up until the age you and me are and you don't trust no person. No sir. What you got besides your kid? Nothing! That's what you got. Nobody listen! Nobody cares!"
His eyes were swollen and red, and it was late on a Friday afternoon. I paid the bill and left him sitting there and I walked out with my confusion. It would be good for him to see the kid, I thought, but it also could be bad. Either way, it was a problem, but it was someone else's problem, not mine.
I called Tony anyway to see how it had come out, and he told me that the judge had been good. He had given him one afternoon a month. He was thrilled and he had gone down to the recruiter and tried to enlist - you know, make something of himself. Maybe he will and maybe he won't, but one thing's for sure. He's still got his kid.
His kid will care.