Freedom Lane: Paulie and Tony
“So you got busted?” Da’Quarius asked. “Dude, that sucks.”
“Yeah,” Tony said, wearing his usual white tank top and jeans with his apron over it. “I’m on the database. So friggin’ what? Do something!”
“What database are you talking about?” Paulie asked. “Not that sex offender list I hope. Madon, Tony. I swear.”
“Nothing like that,” Tony replied, “It’s the list of names released from that website to bang married broads; Ashley Madison. Turns out my name was on there. So fuckin’ what I said!”
“Who’s looking for you anyway?” Paulie asked. “You’re a single guy. You can do what and who you want!”
“That’s what I’m saying!” Tony said. “Someone should tell my cousin Claudette. She’s been nagging me like crazy since she found this list and looked up my name.”
Paulie rolled his eyes. He’d rather not get into another argument about Tony banging his cousin. Besides, Tony would never follow his advice anyway.
“You wanna hear somethin’ really weird?” Da’Quarius asked. “I keep gettin’ dese tweets from dis chick named Tyler Quick, talkin’ ’bout how we soul mates and shit. Real creepy shit too.”
“Be careful kid,” Tony said. “You never know who you’re talking to on that internet shit.”
“Yeah,” Paulie said. “It could always be Tony posing as a woman.”
“Hey!” Tony said. “You know I’m not into that drag queen nonsense! I just wanted to bang some married broads! There’s nothing wrong with that. The guy that owns the website says it himself.”
The phone on the wall rang, and Paulie picked it up on his way to the office. “Paulie’s Pizza,” he said. He listened, and the smile drained from his face. “Alright, Mrs. Baloni,” Paulie said. “I’ll talk to him for you.”
“Was that my mother?” Tony asked, approaching Paulie with a serious look on his face.
“You’re name is Tony Baloney?” Da’Quarius asked, chuckling.
“It’s Baloni,” Tony said. “Bah-lon-ee.”
“I like Tony Baloney better,” Da’Quarius said.
“Why were you talking to my mother?” Tony asked, ignoring Da’Quarius.
“Tony,” Paulie said. “Why didn’t you tell me about your father?”
Tony shrugged. “It’s not a big deal,” he said. “Shit happens.”
“Not a big deal?” Paulie said, getting angry. “Your father is sick, and you haven’t even gone to see him in over a year?! That’s a pretty big deal!”
“Fuck you,” Tony said. “You don’t know shit.” He tossed his apron aside and walked back to the stairway towards his apartment.
“Holy shit,” Da’Quarius said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him dat serious before.”
“He’ll calm down, kid,” Paulie said with a look that said otherwise. “I’ve known that mook since we were kids. He just needs some time to process.”
“You want me to stick around?” Da’Quarius asked.
“No,” Paulie replied. “Head on home for the day. Him and I have to have this out.”
Created, written, & directed by Budgerigar Orville Bigelow
Season 6 Finale: Paulie and Tony
48 Years Earlier
Fifteen year old Paulie sat on a lawn chair in his backyard. It was Labor Day, and his family was throwing a picnic for their family and friends. This also meant that his father’s ‘business associates’ would be around as well, but Paulie didn’t talk about his father’s business. He wasn’t old enough to know what went on (even though he did). Besides, Paulie’s pop didn’t speak much to him unless it was shouting an order or telling him to shut the hell up.
“Have you visited your sister?” Paulie’s Aunt Rita asked. She was older than his mother by twelve years or so, and it showed. “It must be so hard for her up there in prison.”
Paulie didn’t know how to reply. He was instructed harshly by his parents not to speak about his older sister Helen or her current stint in Havenville Penitentiary upstate. She went in when he was eight, and she’d likely be there until he was an adult. The truth was that his father wouldn’t let Paulie or his mother visit. On the rare occasions his father went; he went alone. The only time Paulie would hear from Helen is when she’d send him a letter once every few months. Paulie couldn’t help but think his sister was having a blast behind bars.
“Paulie!” his father shouted from across the lawn. “Get over here!”
“Gotta go, Aunt Rita,” Paulie said, silently thanking his father for stopping him from thinking of a lie to tell Aunt Rita as to why he hadn’t seen Helen in seven years. He ran across the yard towards his father, who more than likely wanted Paulie to go buy him a pack of smokes or bring him a whiskey and water.
“I’m here, Pop,” Paulie said.
“Good boy,” Paulie’s father, Anthony Ventriglio, said. “This here is Tony.”
Paulie’s father motioned to an eight year old boy that was standing next to his father. He had short, black hair and wore a white tee shirt and jeans that looked like he had scuffed up quite often. He had the look of a kid who had fought like crazy to stay home, and was forced to come to the picnic anyway.
“You and Tony are going to go off and play,” Anthony said. “Capice?”
“Yeah,” Paulie said, trying not to say it in a tone that would get him a hand across his mouth. He knew what that statement meant. It meant that Tony’s father was one of Paulie’s father’s associates, and they needed to talk business without a kid nipping at their heels for a bit. Paulie had just been given babysitting duty for the rest of the afternoon. Still, it could have been worse.
“Show him your room, and then you guys can play bocci ball or something,” Anthony said.
“I don’t know how to play,” Tony said in a mousey voice.
“He’ll teach you, kid,” Anthony said.
“Go on with Paulie,” Tony’s father, Jimmy Baloni, said. He was shorter than Paulie’s dad by six inches, and had a crook in his nose. He wore khakis and plaid button down shirt, and had light brown hair. Paulie could tell that Tony got all of his characteristics from his mother. “I will be right out here. Uncle Anthony will light the grill soon, and you can have a hotdog.”
“I want two!” Tony exclaimed.
Jimmy laughed. “Alright, Tony,” he said, giving his son some light noogies on top if his head. “You can have two. Go play with Paulie and be a good boy.”
“Come on, Tony,” Paulie said. “Let me show you around.”
Paulie walked off towards his house with little Tony Baloni trotting behind him.
Paulie sat in front of the pizza he had made, waiting. It was a broccoli rabe and sausage with extra garlic, white. He sat with his hands folded until he heard the door open and close from the back hall of his pizzeria.
“You sent the kid home?” Tony asked, walking into the main area of the pizzeria.
“Got the closed sign up too,” Paulie said. “It’s just the two of us for a little bit.”
“You’ll miss the Saturday lunch rush,” Tony said.
“Then you better get your stubborn ass over here and talk,” Paulie said.
Tony walked to the booth where Paulie sat and sat across from him. He pulled a plate closer and put a a slice of the broccoli rabe pizza on it. “My favorite,” Tony said. “Nobody makes this better than you. Not even me.”
Paulie chuckled a bit. “I needed to get you back down here somehow,” he said. “I know you don’t want to talk about your father, but you need to.”
“So talk,” Tony said through a mouthful of pizza.
Paulie sighed. “You need to visit your father,” he said. “I know you don’t like going to the prison, but he’s sick, Tony. It’ll do him good to see you again. Maybe it’ll lift his spirits a bit if he knows you’re worried about him.”
“My father’s not sick,” Tony said, putting down his crust. “My ma didn’t tell you everything. He’s dying, Paulie. Cancer.”
Paulie sat, unspeaking. “That’s all the more reason to go,” he finally said. “Don’t lose the chance to speak with him one last time.”
“Am I going to get the lecture about how you missed your opportunity?” Tony asked.
“I missed two opportunities,” Paulie replied. “So my lecture is twice as long now.”
“It’s not a big deal,” Tony said. “Remember all of our fathers’ friends and associates? Vinny, Silvio Senior, Mikey A, Mikey T, Fat Dom, and the rest? They’re all dying. That whole generation’s time is over. Most of them that did time got out, but they still died. Even those who snitched and relocated like…” Tony stopped talking.
“Say it,” Paulie said. “It’s OK.”
“Like your father,” Tony finished. “Sorry, Paulie.”
“I’ll go with you if you want,” Paulie said. “To see your father. Just let me know, and I’ll be there.”
“I can’t ask you to do that,” Tony said. “It’s your father’s fault he’s there after all. That’s how he sees it anyway. That’s how they all saw it. If they got real jobs at a hardware store or a pizzeria, then your father would have nothing to snitch on. It’s not your father’s fault that they were all a bunch of crooks and murderers.
“My father’s been behind bars for most of my life, Paulie. He could’ve gotten out like some of the guys if he behaved himself, but he started running shit in there too. He even attacked the guard that caught him. Sometimes I wonder if he even wanted to get out.”
Paulie stayed silent again. He knew why Tony didn’t want to visit his father up at Havenville, but he knew he had to. From his own experiences, he knew that not going would keep him up at night, wondering what he would have said if he had the chance that Tony wanted to ignore.
“We’ll go up on Monday,” Paulie said. “I’ll look up the visiting hours, and we’ll go as soon as we can. You need to do this, Tony. You know I wouldn’t bug you about it if you didn’t.”
“Alright,” Tony said. “You know best, after all. You always do.”
48 Years Ago
“This is our rec room,” Paulie said, leading Tony down the small set of wooden stairs from the back door. “My father put some carpeting down in the basement, and brought all of our toys and stuff down here. I used to play down here all the time when I was a kid.”
“You don’t come down here anymore?” Tony asked, looking through a wooden toy box of Paulie’s old toys. “This place is great!”
“Not so much,” Paulie said. “I come down and read mostly. It’s a good place to get some peace and quiet.”
“Do you come down here when your dad’s friends come over?” Tony asked.
Paulie shrugged. “Sometimes,” he said, sitting on the small sofa. “When you get to high school you do a lot of homework. I mostly do that at the desk in my room. Maybe if I moved my desk and stuff down here, but there’s not enough room for all that stuff.”
“Have you ever heard them talking about what they do?” Tony asked.
“No,” Paulie answered quickly. It was a lie, but he had been well practiced in answering no whenever anyone asked about what his father or any of his associates did. He always tried his best not to hear, but you can’t always help it. Especially when your mother was screaming as she accused her husband of being a crook and a murderer.
“My dad hurts people,” Tony said. Paulie felt uncomfortable, and his stomach churned. “I heard them talking this one time. I don’t know if your dad was there too. Someone took something they shouldn’t have, and my dad cut off his hands. They laughed and said he’d have to jerk off with his foot from then on.”
Paulie didn’t say anything. He knew the story too. His father and his buddies were laughing about that stupid jerk off joke for months after they took Johnny the Nut’s hands off for stealing from them. Tony could have gotten a lot of people in trouble with what he had just said if the wrong person heard it. To make it worse, he didn’t even seem to grasp that concept.
“Paulie?” Tony asked.
“What?” Paulie replied, coming out of his thoughts.
“What does jerk off mean?” Tony asked.
Paulie laughed. “You’ll find out when you’re older,” he said. “Do you know how to play Monopoly?”
“No,” Tony replied.
“I’ll show you,” Paulie said, pulling the beat up box from the top shelf. “It’s a little hard to follow the rules, but you can pick it up unless you’re a complete stunad.”
Paulie drove to Tony’s mother’s house up in Hamden (just one town north of New Haven) on Monday morning. He had gone to Tony’s apartment at eight that Monday morning like they had planned, but he found a note from Tony that said he had gone up to stay with his mother for the night. Paulie tossed the note out and got back in his car.
“Good morning, Mrs. Baloni,” Paulie said, walking through the porch and into the kitchen where Tony’s mother sat. “I take it Tony’s here.”
“He’s finishing up his shower,” Mrs. Baloni said. Tony’s mother was short and had the same shape face and nose as her son. Her hair was black like his too (although it was dyed that way these days). She kept in good shape for a woman in her early eighties. She was still brown from her last trip to the tanning salon. “Sit down, Paulie. Can I make you some eggs or something?”
“No thank you,” Paulie said, sitting down across the kitchen table from Mrs. Baloni. “I ate breakfast at my place before I left to pick up Tony. I wouldn’t have if I knew I’d be coming by your house today. Your son must have come here after we closed up last night.”
“He wanted to tell me that he’s finally going up to see his father,” Mrs. Baloni said with a sigh. “I’ve been hounding him to do it for so long. I should have called you first. He always seems to listen to you.”
“Most of the time he doesn’t,” Paulie said. “But I guess he knows when it’s important.”
“You’re here,” Tony said, walking in the kitchen from the stairs. He was wearing a white tee-shirt (not his normal wife-beater as he called it) and old jeans with tears in the knees. “You ready to roll?”
“Is that how you’re dressing?” Tony’s mother asked. “Go put on your khakis and that button-down shirt that you keep here.”
“Come on, ma!” Tony said. “That’s my funeral shirt! Besides, I don’t want the prisoners looking at me like I’m a piece of meat.”
“There goes my only son!” Mrs. Baloni said, speaking to the cracks in the ceiling, shaking her folded hands. “Thinking every man who likes men wants to make him their boyfriend!”
“Ma!” Tony snapped. “I gotta go! Don’t make me change my mind.”
“OK, dear,” Mrs. Baloni said, kissing Tony on the cheek. “Tell your father that I send my love.”
“You sure?” Tony asked. “You were giving plenty to Giovanni when I showed up here last night.”
“Oh!” Mrs. Baloni said. “Get your ass out that door before I whack you upside your head with a rolling pin!”
“I’m going!” Tony said, waving a hand in the air as he walked out through the back porch. “Come on, Paulie. You’re driving.”
“AND KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT ABOUT GIOVANNI!” Mrs. Baloni shouted. “Madon! That son of mine.”
“Nice seeing you, Mrs. Baloni,” Pualie said.
“You too, Paulie,” Mrs. Baloni said. “Now make sure that stunad son of mine sees his father.”
48 Years Ago
“…Seven… Eight… Nine… Ten… Eleven,” Tony said, moving the silver thimble across the Monopoly board. “Marvin Gardens.”
“Tough break, kid,” Paulie said, lifting the yellow-topped card from his pile. “You’re staying at Hotel Paulie right now. That’ll be twelve hundred dollars.”
Tony counted the colored money in front of him, but he started to look angry. “How much is this?” he said, handing the unorganized wad of bills to Paulie. “Is it twelve hundred?”
“This ain’t twelve hundred, kid,” Paulie said. “Looks like you’re shit outta luck.”
“Are you going to break my legs if I can’t pay?” Tony asked. “My father said he broke Tommy the Jew’s legs when he couldn’t pay…”
“You kids down here?” a voice called from the top of the stairs, prematurely ending another tale that Tony shouldn’t have even started. Tony’s father, Jimmy Baloni, walked down the steps. “Ah. There you are. We haven’t seen you guys in over an hour. Have you been playing that game for that long.”
“I lost four times!” Tony said with a huge smile on his face.
“And you’re proud of that?!” Jimmy asked, giving Tony a wide smile. “You’re an odd egg, Tony.”
“I won second place in a beauty contest,” Tony said, beaming. He held up the chance card that Paulie let him hold for two whole games after he pulled it.
“It’s a good thing you got your mother’s looks then,” Jimmy said. “Come on, Uncle Anthony is about to take the hotdogs off the grill. You kids must be starving.”
“Hotdogs!” Tony shouted. He ran past his father and back out into the warm sun. Paulie tossed the contents of the game haphazardly into the box and turned to follow Tony outside. He was surprised to see Jimmy Baloni still standing there.
“Thank you,” Jimmy said.
“For what?” Paulie asked. “We just played Monopoly. It was fun.”
Jimmy put his hand on Paulie’s shoulder. “I know you don’t like hanging around with a little kid,” Jimmy said. “What teenager would? On top of it, Tony is a little… off.”
“I didn’t notice,” Paulie said, wondering what ‘off‘ meant. He thought Tony had acted like a normal eight year old should.
“Needless to say, Tony doesn’t keep many friends for too long,” Jimmy said. “And I appreciate you playing with him down here. It meant a lot to him, and it meant a lot to me. I won’t forget this.”
Jimmy gave Paulie’s shoulder a small squeeze and turned around to go outside too. Paulie put the Monopoly box back on the shelf and followed him outside. He grabbed a hamburger and an ear of corn from the trays of food and sat down at the picnic table to eat. Tony immediately filled the space on the bench next to him with two hotdogs covered in ketchup. Paulie smiled, and two ate their meal in silence while the grown-ups had their loud conversations all around them.
The ride to Havenville Penitentiary was a long and silent one. Paulie tried to start a few conversations with Tony, but most of what he got was one word responses. To Paulie’s surprise, it was Tony who broke the silence.
“You ever think about what our dads used to do?” Tony asked. “Before it fell apart around them I mean.”
“Of course I do,” Paulie said. “I thank God that I was smart enough to stay out of that business myself. My father rarely gave me the time of day, let alone tell me how to succeed in their little operation.”
“My father wanted me to go into it,” Tony said. “He told me my brains were mush, so I’d have to be the muscle for someone smarter. He used to tell me that you were going to make it big when you were old enough to join the business, and I should stick by you. Could you imagine if we did that instead of the pizzeria?”
“Yeah,” Paulie said, chuckling. “Hey, Tony! I got a friggin’ wise guy over here! Come show him what we do with wise guys!”
“Coming, boss,” Tony said, mimicking walking as he sat in the passenger seat of Paulie’s Cadillac. “You want I should break his kneecaps or his ribs first?”
“Start with the ribs and move south,” Paulie said. “No sense in crippling this mook until we have to, capice?”
“Capice, boss,” Tony said. He started to look around him. “Where did I put the damn crowbar?”
Paulie and Tony both laughed as the trees whipped by them. The laughed until they couldn’t do it anymore. It was all they could do to keep from talking about the one thing they had in common despite the differences of their fathers’ ends: the business that tore their families apart.
“What do you think our fathers would have been if they weren’t in the business?” Tony asked.
“I don’t know,” Paulie said. “I always pictured him running a place like mine, but I’ve never seen him cook. Maybe I just wanted to assume that it was in my blood somehow.”
“I bet my dad would have been a handyman for hire,” Tony said. “He’d go around New Haven, making people’s day like Handy Manny.”
“Who the hell is Handy Manny?” Paulie asked.
“The Mexican handyman with talking tools on Disney Junior,” Tony replied.
“Madon,” Paulie groaned, turning off the road towards Havenville Penitentiary. “I don’t even want to know why you know that.”
“I’ve only come across it flipping channels,” Tony said. “It’s not as if I’ve watched a full episode or anything.”
“I don’t know,” Paulie said. “You sure know a lot about a kiddie show that you just flipped through.”
“My father was always good with people,” Tony said, changing the subject of Handy Manny. “Except those who crossed him. Those people didn’t like him much.”
Paulie drove. It was his turn not to respond. His father was likely one of the guys who didn’t like Jimmy Baloni once he was crossed. He never found any proof who whacked his father and put him the trunk of an impounded car, or even if it was one particular killer. The bottom line for Paulie was that he was driving his best friend to see his dying father; the man who may or may not have killed his father.
“You got quiet,” Tony said, not realizing why Paulie didn’t respond.
“My mind wandered,” Paulie said, keeping his eyes on the road. “Sorry.”
45 Years Ago
“Stop apologizin’, Paulie,” Shronda said, walking down the sidewalk after leaving Paulie’s house. She wore her light brown jacket and jeans. She had chocolate colored skin and a round puff of an afro on her head. “It’s not like I’ve never been around a racist before.”
“But this racist happens to be my father,” an eighteen year old Paulie said. “I really thought he was warming up to you. He went through a huge change when my sister got out of the slammer a couple of years back, but it’s like he’s going backwards now.”
“I love Helen,” Shronda said. “Did she really nail that many sisters in the joint?”
“I don’t know,” Paulie said. “I think she’s just trying to get pop mad at her for being a lesbian and not me for dating a black girl.”
“Either way, it was sweet of her,” Shronda said.
“Oh!” Paulie said. “Don’t go falling for my sister now!”
Shronda laughed. “You got nothin’ to worry about, baby,” she said. “Nutty family and all. What does your mother think about us bein’ together?”
“She doesn’t say anything if my pop’s around, obviously,” Paulie said. “But she tells me privately that I’m too young to be in love and planning my future.”
“She’s just tryin’ to protect you,” Shronda said, putting her head on his shoulder. “Not all sisters are a cool as I am.”
“I can’t wait to have enough dough to get our own place,” Paulie said. “Then we can start working towards our goal: Shronda’s Pizza.”
“Paulie’s Pizza,” Shronda corrected. “I love you for wanting to name it after me, but Paulie’s has a better ring to it than Shronda’s.”
“But the pizzeria is your idea!” Paulie said.
“Let’s save this argument for when we can actually buy the place,” Shronda said. “We have a lot of savin’ and beggin’ to do until then.”
“Paulie!” someone yelled, running down the street towards them.
“Who’s that kid?” Shronda asked as the boy caught up.
“That’s a friend of mine,” Paulie said. “His name is Tony.”
“Your friends with a kid?” Shronda asked. “How old is he?”
“He’s eleven,” Paulie said. “He’s more like a cousin. His dad and my dad are… associates.”
“Oh,” Shronda said. “I get’chu.”
“Paulie,” Tony said, catching his breath. “Are you hearing everything that’s going on?”
“What’s wrong, kid?” Paulie asked. “I hear a lot of things.”
“All the guys getting arrested lately,” Tony said. “The just pinned my Uncle Dominic. My dad thinks he’s next in line. Is your father as worried as mine is?”
Paulie didn’t say anything at first. The fact was that his father was on edge lately, but probably for a very different reason. It was probably what had made his father so agitated at anything and everything. “Of course he’s worried,” Paulie said. “But there’s no point in going crazy over it. I’m sure your dad will be fine once the dust settles.”
“You really think so?” Tony asked.
“Sure I do,” Paulie said, faking a large smile.
“Because he said if they got Dominic on cutting off stoolies’ ears, then they’ll get my dad on busting up….”
“Whoa!” Paulie said. “You keep that kind of thing to youserlf, ya dig?”
Tony looked over at Shronda, as if he didn’t realize he and Paulie weren’t alone. “Hi,” he said, looking a little embarrassed.
“Hi, sugar,” Shronda said. “Don’t worry about me. I didn’t hear a thing.”
“But what’s going on?” Tony asked. “Why are they all getting busted?”
“These things happen,” Paulie said. “What our pops do is a big risk. This is why we’re opening a pizza place rather than me following in my old man’s footsteps. As if he’d let me.”
“But you don’t think they’ll get my father too?” Tony asked.
Paulie sighed. What was going on was too much for an eleven year old to comprehend. Especially one that thought beating and maiming were something normal adults did. “He just has to be careful,” Paulie said. “They all do right now. I’m sure your father knows that well.”
“OK,” Tony said.
“Can you get home?” Paulie asked. “You’re a long walk away from Hamden, kid.”
“I’m at my Aunt’s house with my mom,” Tony said. “She’s only a block over from you.”
“Good,” Paulie said. “Get back to your aunt’s. It’s getting late, and your mother is probably worried. I’ll see you again soon. I promise.”
“OK,” Tony said. “Bye, Paulie! Bye Paulie’s girlfriend!”
“Bye, sugar!” Shronda called as Tony ran off. “That was nice of you to ease his mind, baby.”
“Not really,” Paulie said, turning back towards his walk with his girlfriend. “His father is fucked. They all are.”
“Even your father?” Shronda asked.
“That’s the worst part,” Paulie said, looking down.
“What?” Shronda said, taking Paulie’s hand. “You can tell me. You’ll feel better if you get it off your chest.”
“I’m trusting you with my life here, doll,” Paulie said. “All that trouble that Tony mentioned is my father’s fault.”
“What do you mean?” Shronda said, looking more shocked than her voice was letting on.
“The one leaking information about the business,” Paulie said, finally meeting Shronda’s eyes. “It’s my pop.”
Paulie and Tony were led towards the infirmity of Havenville. The entire wing was blocked off so sick inmates (or inmates pretending to be sick) wouldn’t get the notion to make a run for it. Tony’s father was behind a thick, metal door with one reinforced glass window. Paulie looked inside before turning back to Tony. “This is it,” Paulie said. “Are you ready?”
“You coming in with me?” Tony asked.
“I can if you want me to,” Paulie replied, not really wanting to go. “But I think you need to do this yourself.”
“Bullshit,” Tony said. “Come in there with me. I can’t do it alone. These places make me nuts.”
“Alright,” Paulie said with a sigh. “I’ll go in with you, but you’re doing the talking. It’s your pop after all.” Paulie opened the door and let Tony in. He followed, giving one nod to the guard that had unlocked the door for them. Tony walked up to his father, who looked like he was napping.
Jimmy Baloni was not the same man that Paulie remembered. He had lost all of his weight, muscle, hair, and looked like he was nearly a skeleton with skin stretched across it. He took a long breath and opened his eyes. He smiled when he saw who was standing near his bed. “Tony!” he said. “I’ve missed you.”
Tony stared at this father. He didn’t say anything. His chest rose and fell with a deep breath.
“Come on, Tony,” Mr. Baloni said. “I haven’t seen you in a year! Say something for God’s sake!”
Tony stormed off, banging on the door for the guard to let him out. Paulie stayed as Tony walked quickly down the hall.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Baloni,” Paulie said, not enjoying the awkward tension. “I thought he’d be fine if I came in with him.”
“Thank you, Paulie,” Mr. Baloni said. “He’s been like this since he was a boy. Some things really don’t ever change.”
“I’ll go get him and see if I can talk some sense into him,” Paulie said, turning towards the door.
“Not yet,” Mr. Baloni said. “Let him cool off. He always needed time to cool down after he stormed off as a boy. I wanted to talk to you anyway.”
“Me?” Paulie asked.
“Yeah, you,” Mr. Baloni said. “I harbored resentment for you and your family while I sat behind bars. I actually told Tony I was proud of him when he told me that he beat the shit out of you. I deserve to be in here, though. I just want to ask for your forgiveness.”
“For what?” Paulie asked, already knowing the answer and regretting he asked.
“Your father’s murder,” Mr. Baloni said. “I was…” He broke out in a fit of coughing, and he turned his head to do it into a handkerchief by his bed.
Paulie turned back towards the door. “Let me get…”
“No!” Mr. Baloni croaked through the fit of coughing. He took a sip of water. “Let me finish. I was there when it happened. Anthony Ventriglio was asked if he was the snitch, and he admitted to it. Fuckin’ feds flipped him. When he told us he did it to save his baby girl from being killed in prison, it broke my heart. It really did, Paulie.
“He didn’t fight us or beg for his life like I’ve seen so many do when they were in the position he was. He just said what he had to say, and he closed his eyes, waiting for us to do what we did. I wish we let him go. I wish we just told him to get the fuck out of New Haven and leave him be, but that’s not the code we all swore to.
“A long time passed since that night and the day they finally caught up with me. My sorrow for what we did to Anthony passed as I saw friend and family being put away from information and tips he passed along. I was so mad when I got pinned, that I let Tony and everyone know who’s fault it was, and I’m sorry for that as well.
“I don’t expect you to forgive me right here and now. Maybe over time you’ll come to accept my apology, but you don’t have to say the words today. What we did was despicable, even if he knew we’d kill him for going to the feds, regardless of his intentions. I just hope he’s forgiving when I see him on the other side.”
“You done?” Paulie asked, keeping his anger in check.
“No,” Mr. Baloni replied. “I also want to thank you for looking after my only son. I’ve spent most of my life in here. My friends, brothers, and cousins all came through here at some point. Most got out, but they’d just come back later. After enough time, their sons started coming in and out of the system as well. A lot of the inmates still call me ‘Uncle Jimmy’ because of how many of them passed through here.
“The only ones that didn’t were you and Tony. You had enough common sense to make it for yourself without becoming a criminal, and I’m glad Tony followed my old advice and stuck by your side. I would have hated to share a cell block with my own son, and I have you to thank for that. After everything that happened, you took him under your wing, and I can never repay you for what you’ve done for him.”
Mr. Baloni started coughing through his tears. His handkerchief was back in his hands, and Paulie poured him some water from the plastic pitcher by his bedside with a shaking hand. “Thank you,” Mr. Baloni whispered after he took a short drink. “I don’t have much time left now.”
“I’m going to get Tony for you,” Paulie said. “He should’ve cooled off by now.”
Mr. Baloni nodded once as Paulie knocked on the door so the guard could let him out to find Tony. He didn’t look back or offer any other words.
41 Years Ago
Twenty-Two year old Paulie took the garbage out to the dumpster behind The Black Olive Italian Eatery. It was a shit job, but he was gaining experience in how to run a kitchen from his boss. He did any chore that was given to him, no matter how menial or disgusting. On some slow days, he would be allowed to toss the dough and make pizzas at the separate take-out counter. Those were the days he loved; tossing dough and imaging he was doing it in his very own pizzeria with Shronda smiling at him from the register. Paulie had a smile on his face as he tossed the garbage bags into the dumpster, letting the lid fall down with a thud. He nearly jumped out of his skin when he turned around.
“Tony,” Paulie said, startled. Tony wore his worn leather jacket and jeans. He had a very serious look on his face. “Is that you? I haven’t seen you in ages, and you decide to scare the piss outta me in a dark parking lot? What are you doing back here anyway?”
“I was waiting for you,” the fifteen year old Tony said. “I knew you’d come out here eventually.”
“You could have just stopped inside and asked for me,” Paulie said, becoming nervous about Tony’s demeanor.
“I wanted to talk to you alone,” Tony said, the look of anger not leaving his face as he closed the distance between the two. “Man to man.”
“So talk,” Paulie said. “I can give you a few minutes.”
“My father got booked today,” Tony said. “They gave him thirty-five to life. It’s your father’s fault that mine got put away. He was a rat, Paulie. A fuckin’ rat fuck.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Paulie said. “I really am, but there’s nothing I can do for you.”
“I’d beat the shit out of your father if I could,” Tony said, sneering.
“He’s already been beaten to death,” Paulie said. “I’m sorry it’s such an inconvenience to you.”
Tony’s fist flashed, socking Paulie in the jaw. Paulie fell backwards, surprised by the punch. He rose from the ground, wanting to lash out at Tony and pummel him within an inch of his life. He knew he’d be the laughing stock for letting a fifteen year old kid beat him up, but he let his fists lie at his sides, unmoving. “You want to beat the shit out of me instead?” Paulie asked. “Will that make you feel better?”
Tony threw another punch, this time hitting Paulie in the left side of his ribs. He was amazed by how hard he could hit. Paulie put his hand on his bruised ribs, willing himself not to double over from the hit. Tony swung again, hitting Paulie in the side of the head.
“Hit me back!” Tony exclaimed, holding his fist up. “I’ll beat the ever living shit out of you, Paulie!”
Paulie turned his head back to Tony. He didn’t make a move to hit Tony or defend himself. “Do what you think you gotta do,” he said. “I ain’t swinging.”
Tony’s face twisted into a mask of rage, and he swung at Paulie’s head and face over and over. Paulie fell to the ground, and Tony sent his boot into his ribs. “GET UP, RAT SON!”
Paulie crawled back to his feet with great effort. “You feeling better yet?” he asked.
Tony threw one more punch, nailing Paulie in the nose. He fell backwards on the ground, and the world swam away from him. He was able to hear Tony as if he were standing above the water, telling him to stay down. He took one more verbal jab at Paulie’s father before turning around and leaving the alley.
Paulie’s mom was worried sick about the random act of violence that befell her son. Paulie told his boss (who found him) and the police that he was jumped by two men. The only one that didn’t believe him was his sister, Helen.
“Who did this to you?” Helen asked with fire behind her eyes.
“Are you going to beat the piss out of whoever beat me up?” Paulie asked.
“That depends,” Helen said. “Who did this to you?”
“Don’t do anything to the kid,” Paulie said, knowing that he couldn’t lie to his sister. “Jimmy Baloni is going away thanks to the information pop gave up before he died. His son, Tony, did this to me. He’s only fifteen, Helen. Leave him be.”
“Did you let him do this to you?” Helen asked.
“Yeah,” Paulie said. “Hopefully he punched that anger out of himself, and he can move on with his life now.”
Helen watched Paulie for a moment. “I’ll leave the kid alone,” Helen said. “You did a good thing, Paulie. I would have put the little shit in traction if he came at me with that shit, but you did the right thing. You’re a good kid.”
“Better cut that out,” Paulie said. “You’re starting to sound like ma.”
Helen chuckled. “Get some rest, you stunad,” she said. She turned off the light and let Paulie sleep.
“Tony!” Paulie called as he found him sitting on an old wooden bench just outside the prison’s infirmary. “What’s the matter with you?”
“I can’t do it, Paulie,” Tony said, his voice quivering. “I’m fifty five years old, and I can’t even look at my father. He’s not even the same man. It’s like he’s twisted into some deformed monster.”
“That’s the cancer,” Paulie said. “It’s the monster. Your father isn’t one, and you know it.”
“Isn’t he though?” Tony asked. “The things he did. The things they all did.”
“That’s all in the past,” Paulie said, reassuring himself as much as he was doing for Tony. He wanted nothing more than to tell Tony that his father was a monster, but it wasn’t what he needed to hear. “You need to see your father. If only to say goodbye.”
“You have no idea how lucky you are,” Tony said. “You didn’t have to go through watching your pop deteriorate as he was eaten from the inside by some fuckin’ bullshit cancer. He was just gone. There was no long death sentence. There was no fucking eighteen-month long death sentence, Paulie.”
“You think I’m lucky?” Paulie asked. “The man I was raised to believe was my father was killed and found in the trunk of a car in an impound lot. We all knew it was coming for what he had done, but none of us acknowledged it. I didn’t meet my real father until days before he died, and I was a complete asshole to the man when he tried to make amends for not being part of my life. That’s twice I missed the opportunity to say my goodbyes, and I regret it every time I think about either one of them.”
“What do I do?” Tony asked. “Just go in there and say goodbye? Just like that?”
“No,” Paulie said. “Talk to the man. I’m sure he has something he wants to say to you, and I’m sure there’s something you’d like to say to him too.”
“I want to call him an asshole for getting locked up and leaving us high and dry all these years,” Tony said.
“Then call him an asshole,” Paulie said. “He might like to hear it.”
“Fine,” Tony said, standing up. “I’m going to march right in there and call my dying father an asshole right to his face.”
“There you go,” Paulie said, patting Tony on the back. “I’ll wait outside for you. I think you need to do this alone.”
“OK,” Tony said. “By the way, what did you and him talk about after I left you guys? You took a while to come out.”
“Nothing really,” Paulie said after a brief pause. “Just shooting the shit, waiting for your head to cool down.”
“Oh,” Tony said. “I though he’d want too…. Never mind.” He walked through the infirmary door to see his father. Paulie walked back to the bench here he found Tony, sat down, and waited. The only thing that kept him company were his own thoughts.
40 Years Ago
Paulie stood alongside Shronda’s parents at her wake. His face was still bandaged up from the drunk-driving accident that tragically cut Shronda’s life short along with Paulie’s unborn child. He felt strange when Shronda’s parents insisted that he stand with them, but the two were engaged to be married and expecting their first child. He stood by the people that would never become his in-laws, and accepted condolences from their friends and family.
Paulie knew some of Shronda’s family, but not many of them. He was greeted and hugged by them all after they gave their tearful condolences to her mother and father. Paulie’s mother and sister showed up early to show their support. Helen pulled Paulie in close for a hug that nearly broke his spine, and he was shocked when she sobbed into his shoulder. “I’ll kill the bastard that did this,” she whispered. “He’s a dead man.” Helen and their mother had stayed, sitting in the row behind Paulie to offer him support. They didn’t speak, but he was glad that they were there.
Aside from Helen and his mother, nobody from Paulie’s family or any of the families they had counted as friends had shown up. The wounds his father inflicted when he went to the feds must have still been too fresh for any of them to show up for a Ventriglio’s fiancé’s funeral. His friends growing up had all be sons or nephews of those his father’s snitching had put away, so none of them had even reached out to Paulie after the accident or even stopped the wake.
Paulie looked towards the door to see a white face in a sea of brown ones. It took him a moment to realize who was now walking towards him from the outside. It was Tony Baloni, who Paulie hadn’t seen since he beat him down behind The Black Olive a year before. He was wearing khakis that looked like they had been ironed by his mother and a dark blue button down shirt. Paulie almost laughed at this mismatch of clothing that Tony had chosen to wear to someone’s wake.
“Hi, Paulie,” Tony said, looking into Paulie’s face and looking away quickly.
“Hi, Tony,” Paulie said.
“I’m sorry about Shronda,” Tony said, still looking away. “I only met her that one time, but she seemed really nice.”
“Thank you,” Paulie said, wondering if Tony knew he was supposed to offer his condolences to Shronda’s parents first. “It means a lot to me that you came today.”
“About the last time I saw you….”
“It’s in the past,” Paulie said. “Seems stupid to worry about something like getting my face busted in behind an old restaurant.”
“It looks to me like you didn’t need me to do that right now,” Tony said. “Your face looks pretty busted from where I’m standing.” Shronda’s parents turned suddenly, offended by the comment. Tony noticed and backed up a step. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to make light of the accident. If I…”
“It’s OK,” Paulie said, stopping what would probably be an unending stream of apologies that would do more damage than anything else. “You’re still that little stunad that lost four games of Monopoly and was exicited to win that beauty contest chance card.”
Tony laughed a bit as Shronda’s parents turned back away from him to greet some more family members. “I can’t believe you still remember that,” he said. “That was eight years ago.”
“How can I forget?” Paulie said.
“Look,” Tony said, rubbing the back of his neck. “If you need anything… You know.”
“Thanks, kid,” Paulie said. “I appreciate it.”
Tony turned and walked back out through the same door everyone was trying to enter through instead of going through the back like he was supposed to. Paulie smiled as two old ladies shifted aside to let him through, giving him a dirty look apiece. Tony offered a stuttered apology.
“Is there something wrong with that boy?” Shronda’s mother asked.
“Not at all,” Paulie said, still smiling. “He’s a bit of a gagootz, but he’s a good kid.”
Tony emerged from his father’s infirmary room a little over an hour later. Paulie had waited patiently, and didn’t complain about the wait when Tony walked up to him. He could tell from Tony’s red eyes that he had been crying. “He fell asleep,” he said.
Paulie nodded. He didn’t want to ask how long ago Jimmy Baloni fell asleep, but he was sure that Tony had stayed a bit after he did. “You ready to head back to New Haven?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Tony said, taking one look through the thick glass towards his sleeping father. “We can go.”
The two left the infirmary together and got back into Paulie’s cadillac. Once they were cleared to exit, they drove back towards the highway that would take them southeast to New Haven. The two stayed quiet as they did on the way up. It was Tony that broke the silence again.
“It’s weird,” Tony said. “He said the doctors tell him its day by day now. I guess I got here right on time. He’s still alive in that prison infirmary, but that’s the last time I’ll probably see him.”
“I’m sorry,” Paulie said. “I know it must have been hard to go in there again.”
“I’m glad you made me do it,” Tony said. “I actually called him an asshole, by the way.”
“Oh yeah?” Paulie asked. “How’d he react?”
“He laughed until it turned into a coughing fit,” Tony said. “I thought he was going to turn over and die right there. All I could think was: ‘Holy shit. I called my dad and asshole, and it killed him.'”
Paulie laughed. “At least you gave him a good laugh,” he said.
“Yeah,” Tony said, looking out the window as the trees whipped by the passenger window. Paulie looked over at him for a moment before putting his eyes back on the road. He was sure more was said between father and son after the laughing and coughing fit, but he was content in not knowing. There were just some things you didn’t have to know.
“Thank you for dragging me all the way up here,” Tony said. “I probably wouldn’t have come without you.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Paulie said. “I could use a little scenery change. The trees and stuff I mean.”
“You ever wonder what we’d be like if we were in prison instead of at the pizzeria?” Tony asked.
“Hey, Tony!” Paulie exclaimed. “Get off the back of that bitch, and bring me my shiv!”
“Right away, boss,” Tony said, mimicking walking. “Let me pull it out of this stooley’s back first.”
“Hurry it up, will ya?!” Paulie said. “I’m late for my lunch date with the Neo-Nazis from block A for crying out loud!” Tony started laughing, and Paulie joined in seconds after. The two kept laughing and swapping jokes as the cadillac sped down the highway, heading home to New Haven.
Tony got the call two days later from his mother, telling him that his father had passed away. He drove up to Havenville with her to collect James “Uncle Jimmy” Baloni’s ashes and finally bring him home after more than four decades imprisoned. They held a small wake in their backyard in Hamden. Paulie showed up, despite the sons of his father’s old associates coming by to pay their respects to Uncle Jimmy. Paulie found that time healed the wound his father created, and he found himself able to offer a silent forgiveness to Jimmy Baloni.
32 Years Ago
Paulie handed the young couple their box with the medium mushroom pizza inside. “Thank you for coming to Paulie’s,” Paulie said with a wide smile. “Come again.” The couple smiled back, thanked him in return, and left.
The pizzeria business had been good to Paulie since he opened a few years back. He had a good product that people genuinely enjoyed, and word of mouth travelled quickly. He had a small staff working under him, and he loved every minute of it. Every night after the place closed, he’d thank the picture of Shronda for putting the idea to open his own pizzeria in his head.
Paulie turned to to get his counters cleaned before the next customer came in. He had just started wiping down the counter next to the register when the bells next to the main door rang. “Welcome to Paulie’s,” Paulie said, coming back to the counter. “What can I get for you?”
“Hey, Paulie,” Tony said from the other side of the counter. He looked nervous as he stood in the middle of pizzeria. “I heard you opened your own place on State Street. I figured this was the one.”
“What gave me away?” Paulie asked. “The big sign out front that says ‘Paulie’s Pizza’?”
“Maybe,” Tony said, smiling. “So what do you do? You just hang around and make pizzas all day?”
“No,” Paulie replied. “I make subs and apps too.”
“That’s the life,” Tony said. “I’d love to work in a classy joint like this someday. Right now I’m sweeping floors at the old folks’ home for a living. I’ve been looking for another job, but there ain’t much out there for a guy like me.”
“A little,” Tony replied. “My ma’s been showing me how to cook for nights when she’s out. I haven’t burned the kitchen down yet, so I got that going for me.”
“You sound pretty qualified to me,” Paulie said. “You’re hired.”
“Really?!” Tony said, looking shocked. “Just like that?”
“Yeah,” Paulie said. “I really need the help around here, and I can use someone I can trust. Besides, you saved me money from not having to post an employment ad in the paper.”
“When do I start?” Tony asked.
“You got anything going on right this second?” Paulie asked.
“No,” Tony replied.
“Then you just started,” Paulie said. “It’s slow today, so how about I show you around the place.”
“Sure,” Tony said, walking behind the counter. “When can I toss the dough?”
“As soon as you wash your hands, you mook,” Paulie said, leading the way towards the kitchen area. “Let’s get you an apron. You better lose that shirt too. It gets hot back here with these ovens. You got a tee shirt or something?”
“I got a white tank top on under my shirt,” Tony said, removing his button-down shirt. “Is that OK?”
“That’ll do for now,” Paulie said, handing Tony the apron. “But you probably don’t want to hang around here for too long in just a tank top, jeans, and an apron. People will wonder about you, if you catch my drift.”
“OK,” Tony said, looking over the metal tins of pizza ingredients as Paulie opened the lid of the long trough.
“Alright,” Paulie said, rolling up his sleeves and washing his hands. “Let me make us a little lunch and show you how it’s done.” Paulie began kneading the dough and showing Tony how to toss to widen it out. He then put it down and started adding the sauce and cheese. “This really takes practice to get your muscle memory used to the rhythm. Today you can watch me do it, and you can make a practice pie tomorrow.”
“Paulie,” Tony said.
“Yeah?” Paulie asked, generously sprinkling mozzarella over the top of the pie.
“Thank you,” Tony replied.
“Don’t mention it,” Paulie said, flinging pepperoni onto the top of the pizza like little round playing cards. “It’s my pleasure.”
Freedom Lane: The Movie