Mimmo Rotella, Cinemascope 1962
Nick the Greek was Italian but because he worked out of the Valley Diner on Summit Avenue that was owned by Greeks, he became Nick, the bookie who worked out of the Greek place. Then, with time, the title was merged to Nick the Greek.
He took numbers and covered the odds out of the Diner five days a week, usually in the very early morning hours when the place was filled with tradesmen, his primary clients. He operated from his favorite table in the rear of the Diner, where he was comfortable and isolated and could conduct his business in private and the solitude gave him a sort of dignity.
He paid passing attention to the song on the juke box Time of the Season. He liked the song. It was a hit when he was leaving high school.
“Do you know how this works?” Nick asked with his hands pointing at the plumber’s apprentice, who was just a kid.
“Yeah sure,” the kid answered, causing Nick to put up his open palm in a stop motion.
“No, you don’t,” he said sharply. “So listen to me.”
He paused to let the words sink in and when he was sure he had the kid’s attention he continued. “I don’t want any misunderstanding between us son, you understand?”
The kid looked to the right and nodded causing Nick to knock on the Formica tabletop with his index finger. “Look at me when you answer me and when you answer me use words, got it? That’s how misunderstandings start.”
The kid was getting nervous and shifted in his seat to face Nick the Greek.
“I understand,” he said respectfully.
“Okay,” Nick continued. “I give you a loan. You pay me back a set amount every week.”
“How much?” he asked quickly.
“See?” Nick said pointing at him. “You said you knew how this worked...so listen, and I’m here to help you, because an informed customer is a happy customer. How much? A hundred a week on the principle and interest.”
“The vig,” the kid interrupted.
“The what?” Nick asked sarcastically.
“The vig,” the kid replied a little too smugly. “The vigorish on the note.”
“I know what vig is. I watch the cop’s shows on TV too,” Nick replied with a tired sigh. “In real life nobody not ever says “vig” or vigorish or whatever. It’s interest on the principle of the loan. This isn’t a movie kid. This is real life.”
He stopped talking and allowed the kid time to nod in agreement before he continued. “Anyway, the interest...” he stopped and said, “Notice I used the word interest...the interest is 15% on the whole. If you’re late with a payment, the interest goes up, first to 17 percent and then 18 and 19 and so on. If you’re late all the time, I’ll either call in the loan, which means you have to pay me all at once, or I can call the loan off which means you don’t have to pay me but you got no credit anywhere with anybody over anything. If that happens, if you stiff me, I won’t sell your note to one of the Gumba’s down in New Haven. I know what people say about me, and that’s just crap. I never sold a note in my life. But you stiff me, nobody you know now, and nobody you will know in the future, gets to lay a bet with me. When they ask me why, I’ll tell them, You’re friends with a man who stiffs people and you can’t be trusted because you know him, and you don’t want that. I don’t want that.”
No one had ever stiffed Nick the Greek. Most people pay. They pay late, they rarely pay in full, but eventually they pay.
“So you want the cash or not, kid?”
The young man’s face had gone flush. He was in over his head and wanted out. “Can I think about it?” he asked softly.
Nick sat back quickly, pressed himself into the bright red plastic seat covering, and stared at the boy for several seconds. “What kind of stupid question is that?” he asked but as soon as the words came out, he regretted using them. He knew he intimidated people and he didn’t like it.
“Of course you can think about it,” he said gently. “Nobody got a gun to your head kid.”
The young man assumed he had been dismissed and slid silently to his feet and walked away. Nick called after him, “Hey!”
The kid spun around quickly, his mouth formed into an O shape.
Sounding slightly wounded, Nick asked, “You don’t say goodbye or anything? You just walk away?”
“Well you just did,” Nick sighed.
“Um,” the boy stammered as he searched his tiny vocabulary for the correct salutation. Nick waved him off with a spoon and stared blankly into his coffee.
He wasn’t a mobster. People just assumed that about him. The fact was, in his years of bookmaking, he had never met a real gangster. He took bets on sports and occasionally loaned out money but he was no gangster.
The police left him alone largely because he kept a low profile and because his business was instrumental to the city’s economy. If Nick the Greek didn’t make the loans someone else would, perhaps someone not as reasonable as Nick the Greek, perhaps someone with a higher profile who would cause problems for everyone, and nobody wanted a problem.
The sixty-two years that made up his life had been good. He had never really known any sort of adversity. His parents, both immigrants from the old country, had made a comfortable life for their only son. Although modestly educated, he had a number of intellectual pursuits from a consuming interest in Roman history to astronomy.
He made as much money as any doctor or lawyer in the Valley. More, probably, since taxes weren’t a primary concern in his line of work. He lived modestly in a nondescript ranch house on the hilltop, the same neighborhood where he had grown up. His biggest extravagance was cable TV and a yearly vacation to Vegas and Miami.
He had his wife, but no extended family. He stirred his coffee and stared blankly at the table. He regretted never having had any children although he guessed that he would have made a fine father. A daughter would have been nice although he was certain there were distant cousins in Italy and he planned to go there some day and find them.
He knew clothes. His father worked as a tailor for sixty years and he taught Nick the trade and every now and then they talked about opening a men’s clothing store, Angelo Cunina and Son, Men’s Fine Clothing.” But that never came to be. Running a handbook brought him more money in a day than his father made in a week and then time slipped by and all those things, all those fine things, those oldest and best dreams, got put aside. He still knew clothes. Once, on a trip to Vegas, he overheard a waitress refer to him as “that elegant gentleman” and he basked in the compliment for weeks. He enjoyed that image of himself, an elegant gentleman.
He looked around the vast dining room and noticed for the first time that it was empty and he felt lonely, hollow. He had felt that way often these days and he found himself questioning the resolution in his life. More than once during the course of the week, he found himself recalling his oldest best dreams and wondered why he had never done those things like travel, and open that men’s store. He felt a deep and a vast emptiness inside him. It was a void that followed him everywhere like an unrelenting, nagging ghost reminding him of the self-imposed stillness of his life, surrounded by the deafening silence the emptiness brought with it.
He wondered if he was depressed. He had no friends, not really. Bookies don’t have friends. They have people who need them. Once, a few weeks back, in the middle of the day, he had gone over to the church. He sat there on the gleaming mahogany bench and waited but he didn’t know what he was waiting for. He didn’t know why he was there, except that he felt lonely and vulnerable. He hadn’t come to pray and he had nothing for God to consider, so after a while, he left not feeling any more fulfilled than when he arrived.
That night, when he went home he told Angerona, his adoring wife, what he had done at the church, and how he felt these days. He asked her, “Is this it? Is this all there is? Didn’t you think that at the end there would be more?” and she had no answer except to gently touch his arm.
He sensed someone looking at him and there, at the edge of the dining room was the new waitress, tall and thin with dark hair. He didn’t know her name, or maybe he did but he had forgotten it.
He watched as she approached him with great trepidation, her delicate white lips closed tightly. He judged her to be no more than twenty-five years old but he knew he could no longer rely on his judgment where age was concerned because these days, virtually everyone he saw seemed young or at least younger than him.
She stopped several tables away and stood there, looking around the empty room.
“Did you need to speak to me, dear?” he asked as kindly as he could.
“Yes,” she said and then clearing her throat repeated herself. “Yes.”
“You can come closer, honey” he said with a friendly smile. “I don’t know what you heard, but I don’t bite.”
She put her head down and staring at the grey carpet walked to his table.
“Sit down dear,” he said softly and waved her towards the empty chair across from him.
She sat down.
“You want some coffee?” he asked and looked around the room for the waitress.
“No thank you,” she replied.
“How about something to eat?” he asked. “My treat, go ahead.”
“No,” she smiled, “but thank you.”
“The pie here is very good,” he offered.
“I’m alright,” she replied.
They sat in silence for a moment. He waited and when she looked at him, he purposefully tried to look encouraging and understanding. She smiled at him.
Finally he said, “What can I do for you dear?” and showed her his open palms.
“Well,” she said slowly in a voice that was just above a whisper, “I would like to borrow some money and I understand that you lend people money, like a bank.”
He sat back in his chair. Watching her from afar these past few weeks, he expected her to be more assertive. He would not lend her any money but he was curious.
“And how much money do you need dear?” he asked as he stared into his coffee cup.
“A couple of thousand,” she answered while looking at the table. They all looked at the table when they asked.
“A couple of thousand?” he repeated.
“Like,” she said “like three thousand.”
“You know,” he said trying to turn her off the idea. “You have to pay all that money back.”
“And then there’s the vig right?” she said with great interest and then added, “the vigorish...vig means vigorish.” She was suddenly aware of the sound of her own voice but kept talking anyway because she was so nervous. “Vigorish means the interest on the money you borrow.”
“Yes,” he smiled and nodded. “There’s the vigorish. We, people in my profession, prefer the word interest.”
“Then who calls it vig?” she asked absent-mindedly.
“Actors on TV,” he answered.
“That was a dumb question,” she laughed nervously.
“No, it’s not dumb, you’re just nervous and you’re young that’s all,” he said. “This is new to you.” She smiled at his patience and kindness. He wasn’t a mean man, she thought, but he was a shy man.
“I can’t make you the loan,” he said directly and dryly.
He was a cold-hearted bastard, she thought. She was positive he would give her the money. After all, that was his job. That’s what he did for a living. Day in and day out, she had seen one hapless bricklayer, carpenter, or plumber drag their feet out of the Diner, happily counting the loan he had just made them.
“I’ll pay you back,” she said, trying not to sound indignant. “I don’t cheat people.”
“I know you will,” he answered with a smile.
“You can ask Mister Khronos. He’ll tell you I’m good for the money. I haven’t missed a single day here, not one.”
He nodded his head in agreement. “I don’t have to ask him. You seem like a fine person.”
Nick the Greek may have intimidated others but he didn’t move her in the least.
“Then why won’t you make the loan?” she said, allowing her disappointment and anger to come through in her words.
“I won’t make you the loan and for two reasons,” he said and continued by counting off the reasons on his fingers. “Number one, I operate out of this joint. This place is like my office, and excuse my French honey, but you don’t crap where you eat. Again, excuse my French. Number two, you work for Alexandros Khronos. I loan you money, one of his employees, in his place of business, he loses face, and I got a new problem I don’t need.”
She stood up from her chair. She was angry and humiliated and it showed in her face. He watched her and shook his head in dismay. He didn’t need anyone who worked at the Diner angry at him. It could lead to difficulties. She clenched her fists and then her eyes welled up.
“Oh Jees,” Nick sighed and looked around the room for an escape route.
“All right, all right,” he said using his hand to signal her to sit down. “Let’s talk. Sit down.”
She kept standing and folded her arms across her chest. He waited and after several seconds, she sat down but looked across the room, away from him.
“What’s your name?” he asked. “My name is Nick, Nick Cunina.”
“Dolores,” she answered. “Kearney.”
“All right Dolores Kearney, what do you need the money for?” he asked.
“My daughter’s tuition at Eternal Lady of the Assumption.”
“What does your husband do?” Nick asked. “Does he work?”
She was still looking away from him. “Don’t have a husband, it’s just me and her.”
“Well,” he said shifting in his chair, “it’s none of my affair, but a single mother, small income, maybe you should consider public schools.”
“Next year,” she answered. “I have to send her to a special school for children like her next year, but I still got to pay off this year.”
“What do you mean special school?” Nick asked.
She turned and looked at him and answered, “She’s slow, like retarded, but not retarded, but almost.”
He thought about saying, “I’m sorry” but there was nothing to be sorry for. A child, he thought, no matter what, is God’s gift in life.
“It must be difficult,” he said and then added “for both of yous.”
A smile, a good smile, came across her pretty face and she said, “But she’s a happy kid. She’s kind and gentle and she says the damnedest things.” She laughed and it brought a smile to his face.
“I suppose I could take her out of there now,” she said, “but it would confuse her.”
She lowered her head and added, “It would hurt her,” and looking at Nick she said, “and I will never allow that to happen.”
A comfortable silence fell between them.
“I went to the Eternal Assumption,” he said with a fondness.
“Did you?” she asked.
“How much do you owe them?” he asked.
“Fifteen hundred,” she answered.
“You asked me for three grand,” he said, pointing his spoon at her to make the point.
“I gotta get some other things,” she answered.
“Like what?” he asked.
“I want to get my own place,” she said. “I need the first and last month’s rent up front.”
“What’s your girl’s name?” he asked.
“Phoebe,” she said with a smile.
“I like the name Phoebe.”
He leaned back in his chair and said, “I can’t give you the money.”
She stood and silently nodded her head and returned to her station, resigned to defeat.
It was raining and although it was still noon, it was overcast and dark when Nick left the Diner and drove his Saturn across the Division Street Bridge to the Eternal Assumption School.
He rang the bell to the convent door and waited. He looked up at the silver metal cross above the doors and then over to the faded and chipped putty around the window casing. The building was starting to show its years, although he remembered when it was built, and he remembered the dilapidated Victorian that stood there before the convent was there.
A Nun opened the door and stared up at him. He looked down at her face. It was a good face, pale and ruddy and Irish that revealed her every emotion.
“Sister,” he said with a slight nod of respect and slipped a fat white envelope into her small hands. “This is some tuition for the Kearney girl...you know her?”
“Yeah,” he replied. “This should cover her school for a while, okay?”
The Nun opened the envelope. It was bursting with cash, tens, and twenties.” How much is in here?” she asked, her eyes not leaving the money.
“Three thousand,” he answered. “How much is the tuition?”
“Two thousand a year.”
“Well that should cover what they owe you and then some, huh?” he asked.
“Easily,” the Nun said.
“Take the rest as a donation,” he said. “Do what you can to go easy on the kid.”
Nick turned and started to stroll away and then turned and asked her, “How is Father Flynn these days, Sister?”
“Still dead,” she answered.
“Too bad,” Nick said. “He was sort of a mentor to me.”
“Don’t you want a receipt?” she called after him, causing Nick to stop and turn and look at her. “No, not in my business, unless you plan on stiffing me Sister. You gonna stiff me Sister?” he asked with a grin.
The Nun stuck out her lower lip and pretended to consider the notion and then said, “Naw, I guess not.”
“When that runs out Sister, come and see me. You know who I am?”
“Yes,” she nodded knowingly. “You work over at the Valley Diner don’t you?”
“Yeah. Just let me know what you need.” He waved and walked back to his car with a bounce in his step.
Parking in his long, black neatly tarred driveway, he took a second to look over the large house. Most of it was dark. There was a light on in the kitchen and in the foyer. He thought again that maybe it was time to sell the place for something smaller. As if feeling the hard rain for the first time, he ran into the house.
He was smiling when he entered the living room, which surprised his wife, who was there to greet him. He was a serious man who didn’t smile often, although she knew he was trying to soften his approach to life these days.
“I want to tell you what I did today,” he said, which surprised her. He never discussed his day with her. Not because he didn’t want to or because she wasn’t interested, but because the nature of his work didn’t lend itself to general conversation.
They sat in the living room and he told her what happened. How Dolores had approached him so wearily, and what he said to her and what she said to him and how he turned her down and how he drove to the convent and paid the Nun.
When he was finished with his tale he asked, “You’re not angry or anything are you?”
“You mean jealous?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said.
“No,” she said. “What you did was kind and decent.”
He put his arm over her shoulder and said, “And I feel good, I feel pretty good.”
The next morning Dolores poured Nick’s coffee and said, “That was a nice thing you did,” and then looking up at him she said, “I thought you said you wouldn’t give me the money.”
“I didn’t give you the money,” he answered without looking at her. “I gave it to some Nun.”
“Well thank you anyway,” Dolores said. “I’ll start paying you back first paycheck I get.”
He waved it off and stared down at his coffee. “Don’t worry about it, forget about it,” he said. “Apparently I can write school tuition off my taxes.”
It worried her that he didn’t want her money. “Thank you,” she said and started to leave but she turned and said, “Look, Nick, I appreciate it and all, but I’d rather pay you back all the same.”
“Why?” he asked looking up at her. “Buy your girl…what’s her name?”
“Buy Phoebe something nice with the cash you save and,” he said but she cut him off.
“Look, let’s just keep it business,” she whispered. “I got a man, and I don’t even want him in my life. So if that’s what you’re after…”
“Hold up,” he said in a voice that was louder than he had ever used with her. “I got a wife of thirty years that I love. She’s a good woman. I don’t do that kind of thing, you understand?”
She could see that he was angry but he was sincere. His jaw was clenched tightly.
“You want to take this outside old man,” she snarled and smiled, “cause I’ll slap the hell out you.”
A broad smile came over his face. “Yeah,” he said with a grin. “You probably could too.”
A few days later, Dolores brought her daughter Phoebe to work because the school was closed for All Saints Day, a Holy Day of Obligation. She had no one to mind her and couldn’t leave her home by herself.
Nick spied the girl staring at her from the far end of the Diner. She was round and chubby from too many starches and too much cheap food. She was close to cross-eyed and kept her mouth open. Her clothes were old, unkempt, and inexpensive. He fell in love with her immediately in that way that only Italians can do.
“I know who you are,” Nick told her in a calm and lyrical voice. “You’re Phoebe.”
“Yes I am,” Phoebe replied factually.
There was a brief silence.
“Don’t you want to know how I know your name?” Nick asked.
“No,” Phoebe said.
“Well my name is Nick. You can call me Nick.”
“No I can’t,” Phoebe replied.
“Why not?” he asked.
“Because Nick,” Phoebe said in a way that was ever so slightly condescending, “I’m a child and children are not supposed to call adults by their first name…..Nick.”
“Well I’m sorry,” he replied.
“Well there is no need to be sorry Nick,” she said. “It doesn’t mean you’re stupid, it just means you didn’t know….Nick.”
He made a conscious effort to smile at her. “Why don’t you come closer?” he asked. “So I don’t have to shout across the room.”
She walked across the room to him, arms swinging in step. When she stood before him he said, “You’re very pretty.”
“I know,” she replied.
“You know?” he asked masking a grin. “And how do you know?”
“People tell me that all the time…..Nick,” she said rather dismissively.
She looked Nick over from top to bottom and approving of what she saw said, “You are very handsome.”
“Well thank you,” he replied.
“We would make a fine couple,” she declared offhandedly.
“I agree,” he added.
“Are you married Nick?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“Well forget it then,” she said with a flip of her hand, dismissing any marital notion Nick may have held for her.
“That’s a shame,” he said gravely.
“Yes Nick,” she answered. “Yes it is.”
“But it’s the right thing to do,” he added solemnly.
When Nick saw Dolores again a few days later, her right eye was closed and there was a large black and blue mark across the right side of her face.
“My God, what happened to you?” he asked leaning back quickly in his seat.
“Boyfriend,” she said looking down at the worn grey carpet.
“Holy mother of God,” Nick said, his face contorted in disbelief.
“I need to get out of there,” she said more to herself then to him. “He’s going to hurt us both.”
“What?” Nick asked. “You think he’ll hurt your kid, the little girl?”
“He’s rough with her,” she said. “He yells at her, and calls her names.” She pointed to her swollen face. “That’s what started this. It’s the dope too, he gets doped up, he gets high, and then it starts.”
“He does drugs in the house where there’s a kid inside?” Nick asked incredulously.
His stomach turned from the instant guilt he felt over not lending her the money she needed for the apartment.
“Is he the father?” Nick asked.
“No,” she answered and looked across the room at something only she could see. He waited for more of an answer that he sensed was coming, maybe not then, but someday. “I was raped by a person.”
He looked out the window into the parking lot and then back at her and in words that surprised him said, “We got a whole basement in my house, kitchen, everything, that’s not being used. We don’t even go down there anymore.”
“I” she stammered, “I don’t know…”
“It’s got a fireplace,” he said.
“What about your wife?” she asked.
“Two bathrooms,” he added. “It’s a big place. We got a yard too. I never go out there.”
“What about your wife?” she asked again.
“She never goes out there either,” he replied.
“No,” she said. “What I’m saying is, shouldn’t you talk to her about this first?”
“Yeah,” he said. “When we get there, we’ll talk to her about it.”
In the months that followed, a reign of happiness came over the home of Nick and Angerona Cunina.
Angerona, they called her Angie, gave up her daytime television programs and spent her days shopping for food and clothes and preparing meals and minding Phoebe while Dolores worked. Nick bought Dolores a used, but reliable car and with Phoebe’s assistance, he became something of an expert in the Saturday cartoon genre. There was a weeklong vacation to the Rhode Island beaches. In September, when they enrolled Phoebe into the Special Education program in the public school system there was a parent-teacher conference that they attended with all the weightiness of a Presidential Summit.
Dolores continued to see her boyfriend, his last name was Galanthis, and he continued to get drunk and high and to punch her. She would break it off and he would get sober and it would start over again.
Nick didn’t interfere although Angerona pushed him to say something.
“Best to stay out of it,” he told her.
“He’s gonna kill her one of these days,” she said.
“Over my dead body,” he replied. “Look Angie, Phoebe’s safe, that’s the important thing. Sooner or later, Dolores will wise up; they always do, watch and see.”
One day the boyfriend came to the house, drove his car up on the impeccable lawn and kicked open the front door, screaming for Dolores. Angerona phoned the police who arrested him as he sped away. He was released the next morning, a wet, cold, and overcast November morning that forced Nick to pull his raincoat collar up around his neck while he waited for the young man to answer his front door.
He shoved his right hand into the overcoat’s pocket and ran his thumb across the tops of the dozens of hundred dollar bills stuffed into the white envelope. He would give it to the kid if he promised to leave the area. It was the best way to handle it. Pay him off.
He could hear someone walking away from the door and rang the bell again. He waited another five minutes and rang it again. When it opened, he reached into the raincoat to retrieve the cash envelope.
The kid’s unshaven face poked near the door. His eyes were bloodshot. Nick could smell the beer. It wasn’t even noon yet and he was drunk or on his way to becoming drunk.
“Hi, I’m Nick Cunina,” he said.
“I know who you are,” the kid answered.
“You got a minute?” Nick asked overlooking the young man’s aggressive answer.
“Minute for what?” the kid answered in a mocking tone.
“I got somethin for you,” Nick said and reached deeper into his pocket.
The knife pierced Nick’s stomach and caused a sudden and violent loss of blood. He lost consciousness before he hit the ground. A neighbor had watched the stabbing from her window and called the ambulance that managed to save Nick the Greek’s life. The cops never caught the kid. He stepped over Nick’s dying body, climbed into his car, and drove away, never to be seen again.
It took Nick almost two years to recuperate from the stabbing. But he did recuperate and during those many months while he mended, he changed and he changed for the better. He stopped booking numbers, a job he had grown to hate, and that had a lot to do with that change. When he was well again, in the summer of that year, his 65th year, Nick the Greek opened a store downtown on Main Street, Angelo Coppola and Son, Men’s Fine Clothing.