Memoir of the Bookie's Son
| In this slim, elegant memoir, Sidney Offit -- novelist, teacher, and
curator of one of the nation's most prestigious journalism awards --
explores with warmth and humor, the complexities of this
extraordinary father-son relationship. As moving s it is unique,
Memoir of the Bookie's Son is a family portrait that will make you
think, make you laugh, make you cry.
CHAPTER ONE: Take Me, Take Me Dead
Baltimore, Maryland Spring 1934
I am waiting for my father. It is 5:30. The mellifluous voice from the Philco announces, "Terry and the Pi-rates." From behind the furls of drapes in the front room of our house, I see a dark sedan stationed on the street directly in front of the entrance to our building. Across the island of green that traverses the avenue, the familiar figure in the double-breasted suit and grey hat approaches. My heart leaps in expectation of the gruff voice and reassuring greeting, "What d'ya say, Sid? Hit any long shots today?"
My father walks with the rolling gait of an athlete. His hands hang loosely at his sides as if prepared to catch a ball or curl quickly to throw a punch. He is passing the hedges and aluminum garbage cans when two men rush from the sedan. The more imposing of them is much taller than my father. He wears a long overcoat that reaches to his ankles, and a broad-brimmed hat. As he approaches my father, I see that he's wearing gloves. His partner seems dressed for another season. He has no coat. The sleeves of his shirt are rolled up. His black hair is slicked back and shiny. One of his pockets bulges.
They approach my father. I can't hear what they're saying but I see my father shake his head no. The tall man raises his hands, but before he touches my father a sudden, swift fist to the jaw knocks him off balance.
My father pivots and brings his other hand around, connecting with the smaller man. The man in the overcoat locks his arms around my father's neck. They struggle and trip. From the sidewalk I hear my father's voice: "I ain't going no place with nobody." The man in shirtsleeves takes the gun from his pocket and jabs it at my father's ribs.
My eyes fill with tears. I am unable to make any sound other than a whimper.
As they struggle on the sidewalk a third man emerges from the car. He stands with one foot on the running board and shouts directions. "Get that bastard moving. Now." The figures blur but I am aware of my father kicking and swinging and finally coming up with the lid to the garbage can. There is the metallic sound of the aluminum can rolling on the pavement and my father's voice, "You take me, you take me dead." They try to pull my father into their car, but he kicks and twists and breaks away from their grasp.
Later my father returns home with his head swaddled in bandages and dark bruises under his eyes. His left arm is in a sling and he limps slightly. From the kitchen I see police officers sitting with our parents. I hear my father say, "That's right, gentlemen, I take bets. That's the way I make my living. But I never seen them punks before, and I got no idea who would've done a thing like that to me."
My father never talked about his injuries. He stayed home for several days, working from the family telephone. The calls were brief. Standing by the phone, my father would repeat names and numbers and scratch the information on small slips of note paper. It was the only period of our childhood that I recall my father at home when I came back from school at midday. He always greeted us with a smile and a hug and the same question: "How'd it go at yer office today?" So as not to disturb him, our mother shuffled us into our room or out to play on the small porch that overlooked the back alley. When he took calls or sat at the dining room table to do his tabulations (which he referred to as "figuring up") he never expressed annoyance or seemed inhibited by our presence.
My parents didn't discuss the attempted kidnapping. It was such a startling moment of violence in what I considered a peaceful childhood that for years I erased it from my memory. Violence seemed so inconsistent with my father's behavior at home; it was difficult to identify the gentle hands that stroked our foreheads before we went to bed at night, or lightly frogged our arms to express approval, as the same ones that flailed at enemies so precisely and with such ease.
My father never hit me and only once went after my brother. Benson couldn't have been more than two years old when he woke my dad from a deep sleep on the couch by tapping him on the head with a miniature baseball bat. I recall my father rising in a fury and chasing my brother down the hall. But Benson reached my mother's arms. After a cautionary speech from her, my dad calmed down. Still, I remembered the expression of anger and the suggestion that the quiet, warm man who spoke from the corners of his mouth with the diction of the underworld was capable of physical rage.