Jimmy Beans and the Black WidowsSugarmule
"Lou,” I asked, "where you going all dressed up?"
"To say good-bye to Jimmy Beans, Doc. Want to go?"
"Jimmy Beans? What kind of name is Jimmy Beans and where's he going that you have to get all dressed up like that?"
Lou answered in his fake number four sandpaper voice, the one that sounded like the hoods in the movies. "Jimmy Beans is a street name and he's not going nowhere. He's getting planted in the morning. I'm going to his wake, and why do you always have to ask two-part questions?"
I once asked my friend and patient, Lou, when he was sitting in my chair getting a filling, how come so many of his people had voices like sandpaper and grabbed their crotches for punctuation. He told me that when they were young — ten, maybe eleven, they wanted to be like the wise guys in the neighborhood. They would stand in front of the mirror for hours speaking from the back of their throats, all the while grabbing their jewels. After a year or so of practicing it just became their natural way to speak.
"How come so many of your kind are lawyers and accountants?" He asked back showing that having twenty years on me didn’t slow him down.
"Toilet training," I told him.
We walked together for a silent while. What started out years earlier as a Doctor/patient relationship turned into a long-lasting friendship. It began with our making his appointments the last one before lunch so we could go together. Once when I needed a body for my monthly poker game he happened to be in the chair and overheard the conversation. “I played poker one time,” he said. “Want me to fill in?” and soon he became a regular at our card games, sporting events and even family picnics—my family. He became friends with my friends and ended up being the only non-Jew in the crowd. He integrated himself into our life while keeping his own world to himself.
"Isn't it strange?" I asked, but Lou didn't respond to my question.
"Isn't it strange?" I asked, again to no response.
"Don't you find it strange, Lou?" I asked again, only this time I was playing his game. His game was to treat any question as a rhetorical one unless his name was used. "You want to talk to me let me know. Use my name. Otherwise how do I know it's me you're talking to and not some other guy or yourself?"
Lou knew. He'd been living in the burbs for years, but this was one of his holds on the past. Street tough. It was his way and he wouldn't change for anyone. You want to talk to Lou you have to use his name.
"Ain't what strange?" he asked, looking up.
He was a half-foot shorter than my six-two and I could see the beginnings of a bald spot but chose not to share this information with him at this time.
"Isn't it strange," I began again, "how when they put Italians’ names in the paper for something, they always put their alias’?"
"What alias? What are you talking about?"
"Alias. Like here in the morning paper it says that Anthony “Big Tony” Onofrio was elected to the school board."
"You call that an alias?"
"Sure. What do you call it?"
"It's a nickname. Don't you know the difference between an alias and a nickname? If Fat Tony used the name Michael Farnsworth lll, that would be an alias. Get it?"
"Well how come all Italians have nicknames and how come they have to put the nicknames in the paper all the time and make them all sound like Mafioso and how come you don't have a nickname?"
"Great, Doc. A three-parter. First of all, not just Italians have nicknames," he said.
"But you never see Murray “The Over-achiever” Schwartz in the paper. You see Mr. Murray Schwartz, partner in the firm of etc.,etc.,etc...," I said.
"The newspapers use the nicknames so people will know who they are talking about. Nobody in New Haven knows Anthony Onofrio, but everyone knows who Fat Tony is, and thirdly, I do have a nickname and have had one since I've been a kid. What is all this ethnic stuff all of a sudden?"
"Just my natural curiosity. What's your nickname?"
"You'll have to wait for the obits on that one," he laughed."
"How does a guy get to be called Jimmy Beans?"
"Most of the time no one remembers how a nickname came to be, but this one I remember. When he was young, nine or so, his mother would send him shopping to the Progressive Market on the corner. Each time he went, he would steal a can of Jimmy brand pinto beans and pocket the quarter. Every family ate pinto beans. He was stealing from the store and from his mother and finally got caught. His punishment, besides a beating, was to stand all day Saturday in front of Progressive Market with a sign that read, “I STOLE JIMMY PINTO BEANS.” Jimmy Beans became the name he lived with and will be buried with."
"Good thing he wasn't stealing Kotex “.
Lou waited while I changed and together we went to the wake. He asked me if I had any money. I had some cash, but Lou had to stop at the ATM en route. He carded out two hundred dollars and we left and drove to the funeral parlor, parking two blocks away. Approaching the funeral parlor, I could see the parking lot was half empty.
Just as we got there a car drove in and stopped. "Ten dollar parking. For the widow, please," a large bouncer type guy asked the driver very politely. He passed the ten to a lady dressed in black sitting nearby.
"Once you get that far it's impolite to turn back, so that's why the street is filled with cars," explained Lou as we entered the funeral home and met another elderly lady dressed in black sitting next to a basket of carnations in the foyer. Following Lou's lead as instructed, I dropped a five in the basket and took a carnation and pinned it on my lapel.
"Isn't five bucks a little steep for a cover charge?" I whispered as we entered. A tuxedo guy stood behind a portable bar with gallon bottles of Dago Red and plastic glasses. Next to the bar sat another lady in black holding a glass bowl partially filled with dollar bills. As each person got his glass of wine he dropped a bill in the bowl and nodded a few words to the old lady. We walked to the end of the line and waited our turn. Many words passed in Italian between Lou and other mourners — some sandpaper, some not— a few laughs, and lots of hand and arm movements.
Across the room in the dimmed light, six or seven men stood around the closed end of the casket. Lou kept angling us in that direction. A dozen or so feet away were rows of chairs that were mostly filled with women and children and, in back, a few older men.
Suddenly a woman in the front row jumped up screaming and walked over to the casket waving her arms sobbing. "Esci dalla barra, bastardo, cosi` ti uccido io con le mie mani e poi ti rimetto dentro!" I looked at Lou. "The widow." He shrugged as he got his glass of red and tossed his dollar in the bowl with a few soft words of Italian to the old lady.
Her ranting over the casket continued, and the men around the closed end hardly seemed to notice. "She must have loved him very much," I said.
"She hated his guts," Lou side-mouthed. "She's screaming 'cause he cashed in his life insurance policy last month to play a sure-win pony."
"What's she saying?"
"Come out of the box, you bastard, so I can kill you with my bare hands and put you back!"
A few children were sitting in the front row where the lady had left. They were sobbing and being comforted by other ladies dressed in black. These ladies looked at each other with angry expressions. Several of the old men were nodding and smiling. I saw another patient of mine across the room but she was leaving and didn’t see me. The widow sat down.
We moved around the room circling towards the coffin. Every so often one of the men would reach over and put something inside the coffin. I turned and looked for Lou but he was gone. Then I spotted him with the guys. I weaved my way through the mourners and heard Lou say, "Split tens. One for me and one for Beans."
They were playing blackjack on the coffin. I vowed to hang out with him more often. This was much more exotic than a bris. I looked overLou's shoulder and saw that he had two tens face up with a twenty dollar bill next to each. There were six other blackjack hands, including the dealer's. The dealer gave Lou another ten on one card and a five on the other. He stayed on the twenty and hit the fifteen, got a picture and busted. "Sorry, Beans," he said. "That one was yours. Same old bad luck. Maybe next hand."
The dealer showed twenty, and there were two pushes and three more losers. He took half the money and dropped the other half in the casket. I looked in and saw Jimmy Beans for the first time. He was lying in a sea of bills. Lou said, "Change," and threw a bill in and counted out a hundred in tens and fives and then threw a five back in. "For the widow," he said.
Someone dropped out of the game and Lou pulled me in. The dealer took "ten for the widow" for entry. I lost another eighty in five minutes. I left the game and sat down near the old men in back. They ignored me until I offered to buy them a glass of wine and then they became my best friends,
The door opened and in came six well dressed men. A quiet settled over the hall. It was broken only by the widow, who began screaming again. She hugged the casket, falling to her knees. "Mio Amore. Mio Amore. Ritorna a me."
The leader of this group walked over and helped her to her feet. They stood apart holding hands, she with tears streaming down her face and he nodding as he spoke. The other men moved around the room holding their hats, collecting, "for the widow." I gave ten dollars and the collector looked into my eyes and without moving said again, "For the widow." Uncomfortably I gave him another ten as Lou walked over and said to him, "Ho perso tutti i miei soldi a la vendova e gia` che tu hai vinto un po`, tu li metti per me," and reached across, snatched a twenty from my roll, and dropped it into the hat. "Grazia," the man dead panned and moved on.
"Let's get out of here," I said.
“Shhh,” he said.
The boys brought their collections up to the boss, who let go of the widow's hands. He directed the boys to drop the money into the coffin, and he reached into his breast pocket, pulled out an envelope and handed it to her. He touched her cheek gently and turned to go. Immediately the widow returned to the coffin and began her routine. She stopped after the men were gone, and one of the ladies in black led her back to her chair.
Lou nodded and we left. We walked briskly back to the car in total silence and once inside he broke out into a big smile and yelled, "All Right!" and held his hand up for a high five which I ignored.
"What the hell are you so happy about? A dead man I never knew just cost me a hundred and twenty dollars—Mr. Crime and his Crime-ettes shake me down for forty more, and we just spent an hour in a loony bin. If you're All Righting because we're out of there alive, I'm with you."
Lou pulls out a bankroll a lot larger than what he went in with and peels off ten twenties and slaps them into my hand. "I'm ahead over five hundred." he laughs. "Alive or dead, Jimmy Beans is a mark."
"You won over five hundred dollars!"
"I didn't say that."
"Yes you did. You said that you were ahead over five hundred dollars."
"But you didn't win it? What did you do? Steal it?" I watch his smile broaden. "You stole from a corpse? How?" I ask thinking that my education was lacking.
"When I was playing blackjack and wanted to break a twenty or fifty I would say “Change,” and reach into the casket and pull out some bills — usually twice, sometimes three times what I put in. Then I'd always make a big show of throwing five back in saying, “This is for the widow.” "
"ALL RIGHT!" I high-fived him.
"How come the collector . . .?"
Lou cut me off mid sentence. "I told him in Italian that I lost all my money to the widow and that since you won, you'd put in for me."
"Doc, I had to. If he'd of seen my roll it would've cost us a hundred."
"What's with the ladies in black, the widow's outbursts, and all this stuff with the money?"
We drove to a diner.
"Jimmy Beans was the typical 'wise guy.' He left his family with nothing but debts and broken promises. When a wise guy dies all his debts but one are forgiven—and they hold this wake fund-raiser to give the widow a few bucks head start. She's usually a works anyway, since her husband's income is either nonexistent or gambled away. The take of the night becomes the family inheritance. Got it?"
"What about the ladies in black?"
"The widow brigade. They never leave the money and count it at the end of the night and report to the widow."
"All those guys that were his friends? Do they help?"
"The widow brigade is there basically to keep them away from the money. Remember. These are guys that lie and steal from their wives and mothers. Stealing from a corpse is nothing."
"You proved that."
"So the black widows don't leave until the next morning when the widow comes over to get her money. She has a real good idea about how much money she has coming."
"Every time she starts one of her screaming tirades you notice she ends up at either the casket or in front of one of the black widows. She's taking a count.
"Can she trust the widows?"
"Of course not. But they get ten percent for collecting and have been through this before, so they're not too greedy, and besides they are watched."
"The Boss! Right? I'm right. Tell me I'm right. The Boss is watching out for her."
"The Boss with his 'boys' come in to get a handle on the take. That, plus what they collect gives them a real good feel for the evening’s total. If it's too far out of line, the black widows have to answer for it and they certainly don't want to do that. Wasn't it nice of The Boss to not only collect for the widow but to give her an envelope afterwards?"
"I was impressed."
"I told you that all debts are forgiven except one. The Boss'. When he was holding the widow and talking softly, he was explaining Jimmy Beans’ debts to her and what percentage of the night's take he would get to satisfy them. The envelope held the record of money owed by Jimmy Beans. It wasn't a donation by The Boss."
"When the widow was screaming at Jimmy Beans in the coffin she probably meant a good deal of it," I said.
"She didn't mean any of the nice things," Lou said.
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Lou nodded and we left. We walked briskly back to the car in total , silence and once inside he broke out into a big smile and yelled, "All ' Right!" and held his hand up for a high five which I ignored.
"What the hell are you so happy about? A dead man I never knew l just cost me a hundred and twenty dollars—Mr. Crime and his Crime- ettes shake me down for forty more, and we just spent an hour in a loony bin. If you're All Righting because we're out of there alive, I'm i with you." :
Lou pulls out a bankroll a lot larger than what he went in with and ' peels off ten twenties and slaps them into my hand. "I'm ahead over l five hundred." he laughs. "Alive or dead, Jimmy Beans is a mark."
"You won over five hundred dollars! I'm astonished.
"I didn't say that."
"Yes you did. You said that you were ahead over ﬁve hundred l dollars." ''Right.'' I,
"But you didn't win it? What did you do? Steal it?" I watched his l smile broaden. "You stole from a corpse? How?" .
"When I was playing blackjack and wanted to break a twenty or ﬁfty I would say 'Change,' and reach into the casket and pull out some bills—usually twice, sometimes three times what I put in. Then I'd always make a big show of throwing ﬁve back in saying, 'This is for the widow."'
"ALL RIGHT!" I high-fived him.
"How come the collector . . .?" Lou cut me off mid sentence. "I told him in Italian that 1 lost all my money to the widow and that since you won a little, you'd put in for ' me."
"You bastard!" ''I had to. If he'd of seen my roll it would've cost us a hundred." "There's a few things I still don't understand. What's with the ladies in black, the widow's outbursts, and all this stuff with the money?" Lou extracted my promise to buy breakfast in exchange for the story, and we drove to the diner.
"Jimmy Beans was the typical 'wise guy.' He left his family with nothing but debts and broken promises. When a wise guy dies all his debts but one are forgiven—and they hold this wake fund-raiser to give the widow a few bucks head start. She's usually a working woman anyway since her husband's income is either nonexistent or gambled away. This way she'll be able to tell the kids that their father loved them and he left so many thousand dollars for their well-being. The take of the night becomes their inheritance and is spoken of forever and lovingly like that. Got it?"
"What about the ladies in black?"