Ralph and I were born on exactly the same day—March 1, 1942. What are the odds? Couple years after his mother died, we officially became stepbrothers. His father Walter and my mother Betty decided to make it legal.
Before I left for the service I saw Ralph a few times. Once he told me all about his big brother, Wally Junior. Wally was a straight arrow and Ralph was exactly the opposite. Wally got good grades. Ralph got suspended, then expelled. Wally graduated high school and got a slot in the police academy, and they made him a uniformed patrolman. A fucking cop. Jesus. Unbelievable. Ralph’s father always told him, “Hey, moron! How come you can’t be more like Wally?”
One morning I take a look at the newspaper and there is Ralph’s picture on the front page. The headline says: “Boy Foils Robbery” The story is this: Ralph is downtown, walking along Federal Street, when he hears an alarm bell ringing. He turns, sees some guy running toward him, carrying a bag. A skinny, scared-looking little fuck, Ralph tells me later. Down the street people are yelling, “Stop that thief!”
So what the hell. Ralph tackles him. The guy goes down, hits his head hard on the pavement, and is knocked out cold. Half a minute later the cops catch up, slap on the cuffs, and dump the guy in the back seat of the cruiser. The bag was from McKelvey’s jewelry store. Something like $3,000 in cash plus a lot of gold rings and necklaces.
At a ceremony in City Hall, the Mayor himself gave Ralph a framed certificate for heroism, plus a $25 US savings bond. Ralph was interviewed by a bunch of reporters, and so he was on the radio and in the papers for a while. Couple weeks later the prosecuting attorney tells him he’s gotta testify at the trial. Ralph doesn’t want to. But the attorney says, “Hey, how would that look? Boy Hero suddenly gets cold feet.”
So Ralph testifies. They find the guy guilty of armed robbery, and give him the max. Something like 15 or 20 years in Ohio State. As they’re taking him away, he stares hard at Ralph. Ralph knows exactly what that look says. “I’ll get you someday, motherfucker,” the guy is telling him. “You can count on it.”
* * *
I joined the service two months after I graduated from high school. August 18, 1959. The biggest surprise of boot camp for me was all the bitching the guys in my outfit did every day. They hated the drill sergeants yelling at them. They hated the Texas climate—hot, dusty, lonely. They got homesick. They bawled when their girlfriends sent them Dear John letters. Me, I loved it. Clean clothes, plenty to eat, and you always knew exactly where you stood.
After boot camp and tech school I got a 30-day leave and caught a ride on a C-47 to an Air Force base near Columbus, then got a Greyhound to Youngstown. I was in Class A blues, spit-shined low quarters, and a service cap with a circled burnished silver eagle on its front.
Ralph fingered my single red and yellow ribbon. “You look like a friggin’ bus driver,” he said.
“Up yours,” I said.
Toward the end of the conversation Ralph said: “Nobody is going to fuck with me, ever again.”
He lifted his sweatshirt. Stuck in his belt against his caved-in belly was a big, blue-black Smith & Wesson .38 revolver. He patted the brown handle. “Just watch what happens to the next motherfucker who tries to give me a hard time.”
“Oh, man,” I said, shaking my head. “What’s wrong with you?”
“There ain’t nothing wrong with me, Tommy.”
“Get rid of that thing, Ralph.”
“Uh-huh. Sure. Right away.”
“Don’t worry about me. I know exactly what I’m doing.”
The way he looked I knew that nothing I could say would change his mind. We had a few beers, then he took off. He said he had a lot of stuff he had to do.
* * *
I learned much later that after our encounter Ralph went to the Starlight Motel, out near the Interstate. He knocked and a woman opened the door. He pushed his way inside, waving that Smith & Wesson .38 he’d shown me that time we met on the street.
He told her that he wanted everything she had. That woman didn’t hesitate a second. She kicked Ralph in the balls, hard. He went down. She picked up the gun, cocked the hammer, and kept it aimed while she called the cops.
Armed robbery. Ohio State. Hard time.
* * *
After the service and college things started going really well for me. I found a great job, made some good investments in the stock market. Fell in love with and got married to a tall, slim girl named Alice. Her parents in Newport threw an elegant wedding in a house that once was owned by a Kennedy cousin. Two years later Alice and I were blessed with a daughter, and we named her Diana.
We lived in big rent-controlled Riverside Drive apartment, on the upper west side of Manhattan. Very nice neighborhood. In our building were lots of sophisticated people like theater actors, professors, and musicians with the New York Philharmonic.
I guess we were on a long-term lucky streak. Every year I got a promotion, and a raise. Alice went back to college, got her MFA from Columbia, and started up a freelance graphic design business, and she worked at home. She landed a couple high-paying and steady clients.
We bought a few rental properties. Continued to invest in the market. We took two-week vacations to Europe each year, a different country each time. Our little Diana was bright, and beautiful, and all the old ladies outside Zabar’s on Broadway stopped and said things like, “Oh, my God! This little cutie going to break a lot of hearts!”
* * *
My secretary told me it was Alice. Not exactly an emergency, but nevertheless rather important. “What’s up?” I said.
“There’s a guy sitting in our living room right now who claims to be your step-brother,” she said quietly. Her voice was ever so slightly quaking. “I think you need to come home right now.”
I caught a cab, gave the driver a fifty to hurry up.
Ralph was nothing like I remembered him. And it wasn’t just his shaved head and the crude tattoos, it was the look in his eyes. He didn’t get up from the chair when I came into the room. He just smiled, and stared at me. “Hey, Tommy.”
Alice was sitting on the couch, little Diana on her lap. Alice was frightened, but she was trying hard to disguise it.
“So you two have already met,” I said.
“Yep,” Ralph said.
“How about another beer?” I said.
“Sounds good to me, bro,” he said.
Ralph explained that he’d gotten out of Ohio State on parole, and he was in New York City on business. He’d heard from some people back home that I’d been living here for quite a while, so he thought that since he was in the neighborhood he ought to look me up, drop by and say hello.
“Maybe you’d like to know what kind of business I’m here on,” he said, smiling.
“Sure,” I said.
“Welfare, bro. I collect welfare here in New York, and in Pennsylvania, and in Ohio. My cellmate taught me how to do it. But I have to show up in person to pick up the checks. That’s the big drawback.”
I didn’t know what to say. I wondered: should I congratulate him on his resourcefulness? Or give him a lecture on how defrauding three separate states will surely get him thrown back into prison?
“Interesting,” I said.
“Yeah, ain’t it? Anyway, you’re doing OK for yourself, Tommy.”
He looked at the original oil paintings on the wall. The book shelves. The high-end stereo with Bose column speakers. The record and CD collection. The big TV set. The $3,000 Persian that we got from the antique shop on the East side, an intricate rug with a deliberate flaw put into it by the ancient weavers, in acknowledgement of the fact that only God can make a perfect thing.
Ralph’s eyes wandered over every part of the room, as if he were taking inventory. Then he looked at little Diana. “Very pretty girl,” Ralph said. “I mean really pretty. Hey, sweetie! Come to yer uncle Ralph!”
Diana looked up from her coloring book. She shook her head, no. Alice looked pale.
Ralph laughed. “Yeah, well. I understand.”
“She’s shy,” I said.
“No, bro. She’s smart. Which I ain’t!” He got up. “Mind if I use your bathroom?”
“Down the hall, two doors on the right,” I said.
When he left the room Alice looked up at the ceiling. Diana squirmed, reached for more crayons from the big box on the coffee table. Alice shook her head.
“Take it easy,” I said quietly. “I don’t think he’s going to do anything.”
“I’m glad you think so,” Alice said. “You never told me you had a brother.”
“But you never told me, Tom.”
Ralph returned. With his fingers he wiped his lips, his nostrils. He smiled, and said, “This has been great, but I gotta run. Nice meeting you Mrs. Quinn.”
“Nice meeting you little princess.”
Diana kept her eyes fastened on her coloring book.
“I’ll walk you down to the lobby,” I said.
“Sure,” Ralph said.
On the way down in the elevator, Ralph said, “Sorry, man. I scared the living shit out of your wife.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“I’m one scary dude. A totally fucked up dude. But you know that, bro.”
We stood on the sidewalk. Ralph’s bald head caught the sunlight. He had a pale, stubbly beard and moustache. An intricate spider’s web tattoo covered his elbow. A small, dark blue swastika was on the flesh between his thumb and forefinger.
“When I got to prison,” Ralph said, “my cell mate told me that I had to let them all know that I was crazy. Know what I mean?”
“I think so.”
“So I’m in the serving line, and some asshole bumps me. I take the metal tray and smash it into the cocksuckers face. I beat him with that tray, until they pulled me off. You gotta show them that you’re ready to kill anyone who fucks with you.”
“Well, it didn’t matter, bro. There was a guy waiting for me. He had a lot of friends. Know what I mean?”
“I think so.”
“Don’t ever go to prison, OK? Just don’t go there.”
“All right, I won’t.”
“So take care. Be good, Tommy.”
“I will. You too.”
He laughed. “Yeah, right.”
That’s the last time I saw him.
* * *
Pretty soon they promoted me to senior vice president. Alice and I had another baby, a boy. We named him James. My mother died. A couple weeks later her husband, Walter, Ralph’s father, died too. I went to his funeral. At the cemetery, I talked to Ralph's brother, Wally, the Youngstown cop. Wally told me the bad—but hardly unexpected—news.
They found Ralph dead a year ago, sitting up against a brick wall in a garbage-filled alley, with a hypodermic needle stuck between the toes of his left foot. Wally explained that after a while junkies can’t find veins in their arms and legs anymore. So they go down there between the toes.
That’s how Ralph ended up. He’d already used up the space between the toes of his right foot, and had gone over to the left. "Ralphie must have gotten some bad shit," Wally said. "That happens. All the time."