By Mickey S
Steve went to the store with me Sunday morning. He brought along a briefcase full of school papers but I was sure he wouldn't get around to working on them. He was too fascinated by my life with Richie. We hadn't done much all week except talk about it. It had been years since I'd allowed myself to think much about Richie and I was enjoying it, trying not to think about the reason for this walk down memory lane.
"So Richie not only bought the house for you but he set you up in this shop?" Steve asked as we opened the store.
"That makes me sound like a total boy-toy. It really wasn't like that. Richie bought the house so he could have a place to get away from everything else in his life and be with me at the same time. And while he found the shop and gave me a small loan to get started, most of the financing came from the bank. I worked my tail off learning the business and getting started."
"I didn't mean to imply you were a lazy princess being handed the world on a silver platter. I know the long hours you put into the business even today."
"The deal with Mrs. Martin included all of her stock, a mailing list of customers and a list of contacts for finding more merchandise, including a couple of local estate auctions and flea markets all over the Northeast, plus a small reference library. I went through Sol's store and he gave me a good price on every piece he had that qualified as an antique so I was able to start slowly, learning how to replenish my stock."
"And all the while things continued the same with Richie? This was really a long relationship you two had."
"Yeah, by the time I went into business we'd been together four years. While I'd always known deep down there couldn't be a future for us due to his marriage and work, things seemed to keep getting better and better. But over the course of the next year, reality got in the way."
* * * * *
I spent most of the summer of '75 learning the business, traveling to flea markets on my days off and studying the reference books Mrs. Martin had left me. At home, my relationship with Richie continued to get better. We were almost like an old married couple, very comfortable with one another but still passionate when it mattered, except that it was only part-time.
Now that I was out of school and starting my adult life, I made a number of other moves. I decided to come out to my parents. They weren't as surprised as I thought they'd be. I wondered what that meant about me, but I was glad they took it well. The only stumbling block was Richie. They immediately asked if he was my lover. I felt bad that I had to lie and say no, especially now that I was trying to be honest with them about my life. But I didn't want them to get to know him any better than they did. Aside from that first meeting, they'd only run into him twice while visiting me at the house. He hadn't used his real name when they'd met and I wanted to keep them in the dark as far as he was concerned.
I also joined a local gay organization and started to make friends in the area. Up until then all of my friends had been at school and that was so far away I really was leading two separate lives, but keeping everything local meant making it more complicated. I explained to my new friends that I had a boyfriend who was married so that explained why I never introduced them. And I had to make sure I cleared it with Richie when I had friends visit me at the house so he wouldn't pop in unexpectedly. It wasn't the best arrangement but it wasn't as complicated and secretive as it sounds.
While things were continuing to go well between Richie and me, the same couldn't be said for the rest of his life. It seemed like every time he came to the house he looked more stressed. As usual, he didn't get very specific about his problems, but I was aware that there was even worse conflict among his associates and the other `families', mostly over the issue of drugs.
Richie had never told me exactly what had happened the night he was shot or what was done about it afterward, except to say that appropriate measures had been taken and the responsible parties got the message.
Richie was also having trouble with his son, Tony. He was a little more willing to talk to me about that. Tony was a freshman at Monmouth College, down near the shore, and was continuing his wild ways. Late in the fall the cops raided a party at Richie's summer house and found underage drinking and plenty of marijuana and hashish. Several kids were arrested on various minor charges but the authorities came down hardest on Tony, because it was his house and because of who his father was. Richie got him a good lawyer and eventually the charges were reduced and Tony pled guilty and got probation, Even so, Richie was off the wall about it for a while, angry with the authorities for picking on his son and angry with Tony for being out of control.
There wasn't much I could say or do to make things better for Richie so I just tried to be there for him when he needed someone to talk to. It was during this time I found out a little about his wife, Marie. Apparently she had a congenital heart defect that wasn't life-threatening but sapped her energy. She was able to perform most normal daily activities, but only for short periods of time before she needed to rest. Stress also tired her out and I couldn't imagine how she dealt with being Richie's wife. He took very good care of her, however, and she returned the favor by not questioning what he was up to while she `rested.'
By spring my life was going great. I was comfortable in the business and it was making enough money so I was able to make the loan payments both to the bank and Richie, although he was reluctant to take my money. It was important to me that I pay him back, however. Unfortunately, things didn't seem to be going any better for him. He had aged over the past year, with lines appearing in his face.
One evening I was reading in the living room when I heard a tapping sound I couldn`t identify. I'd been expecting Richie to drop by earlier but there'd been no word from him. The tapping resumed and I finally traced it to the sliding glass doors from the kitchen out to a small patio. Richie was standing there, knocking on the glass. I unlocked the door and let him in.
"What the hell? What are you doing out there?" I asked as he looked over his shoulder before coming in.
"I'm being followed. I've spent the past hour trying to lose my tail. I think I succeeded. I parked my car at the hospital, went in the front and out the back and grabbed a taxi."
"You have any idea who it is?" I asked as he poured a drink and sat down on the couch.
"The feds, probably. If my business rivals were after me they probably wouldn't be interested in just following me."
"Are you in trouble?"
"Apparently. Things haven't been going well lately, lots of friction both in and out of the family. But until today I didn't think the authorities had any more interest than usual in me. I don't know what this is all about and I hate to get you involved, but the time may come when I'll need your help."
"You know I'll do anything I can to help you." I was hoping he wouldn't ask too much. I wasn't the most daring or courageous guy and wasn't sure what I was actually up to doing.
"Like I said, I don't want you involved, and this isn't really all that much. Come with me."
He led the way into his den. He took a dictionary from the bookshelf and put his hand in the space left, pulling out a small key. Sitting down at his desk he used the key to unlock it and slid open the lower left drawer. In it was a green metal box, slightly larger than a shoe box.
"If I call you and give you the word, I want you to get this box out of here. Hide it someplace safe. Not in the house or the store. You got that? It's important."
"Yeah, sure." I couldn't imagine where I'd put it that was safe but knew I'd have to figure something out.
Richie opened the top left drawer and pulled out a thick file.
"Before you do that, though, you'll have to burn everything in this file in the fireplace. Everything, you got that? I don't want even a scrap of paper left. And don't read any of it first. It's important to you that you not know any of this information."
"You think you're in real trouble?"
"I don't know. I'm going to be real careful coming here from now on. Of course, if they've been tailing me for a while they may already know about this place." A shiver went down my spine. "That's why you've got to know what to do with this stuff."
We went upstairs, undressed and got into bed but we didn't make love. Neither of us was in the mood. We just lay pressed together, arms around each other. I felt like I was comforting him. It was odd, since he had always been the one taking care of me. But it helped us both. After about an hour he got up and began to get dressed.
"Thanks for being here for me, Tommy. You have no idea how much this means to me."
"I love you, Richie. You know I'll always be here for you."
"I know. I can't believe how I lucked out finding someone like you. You know I'll keep you out of this, whatever it is, as much as I can."
"I know. You've always have kept me out of that part of your life. I appreciate it."
"If the worst happens and they find out about this place and question you, I want you to be honest with them. You don't know anything that could hurt me so tell them whatever they want to know, although I`d prefer they not know about the sexual aspect of our relationship. And don't tell them about that folder and box. I don't want you to get into any trouble."
I nodded. "Don't worry, neither do I."
I drove Richie back to his car. Well, not exactly to his car. I dropped him off in an apartment complex across from the hospital, well out of sight of the car. He assumed they'd have the parking lot staked out, waiting for his return.
Over the next few weeks my only contact with Richie was an occasional brief call from a pay phone. He tried to sound casual but I could hear the stress in his voice. One day I'd been home from work maybe ten minutes when the phone rang.
"This is it, babe. Destroy those papers and get that box out of there." That was all he said. No hello or goodbye, no indication of where he was.
I raced into his den and got the stuff from his desk. While I carefully burned each paper I thought about how to best handle the box. I couldn't be sure I wasn't being watched, so I had to figure out a way to get the box into my parents' house without suspicion. Once I was sure every paper was destroyed, I cleaned up the ashes and disposed of them in the ash can out on the patio, Then I put the box in a supermarket bag and went into the garage, putting the bag in the trunk of my car. I stopped at the supermarket and bought a few random items. When I left the store I made a show of putting the bag in the trunk. It was the tail end of rush hour so with all the traffic I couldn't tell if I was being followed. When I got to my parents' house in Livingston I took the bag with the box in with me.
I could hear my parents in the kitchen having supper so I called out to them and ran upstairs to my old room. Fortunately as a closeted teenager I had created a hiding place under the floor in my room, a place to hide pictures of sexy men I cut out of magazines and catalogues plus a couple of muscle magazines I'd somehow had the courage to buy. The box just fit in the hiding spot. I looked around the room, picked up my high school yearbook and took it with me when I went downstairs to see Mom and Dad.
In spite of the fact that I was freaking out on the inside, I tried to appear as casual as possible as I sat at the table. Mom insisted that I have something to eat and it was all I could do to force enough mouthfuls of food down to satisfy her. When I thought I'd been there long enough to convince whoever was watching, if anyone was watching at all, that I'd merely dropped in on the parents for dinner, I left, taking the yearbook with me. Once I was safe and sound alone in my garage, I took the bag of groceries from the trunk of the car and into the house.
We didn't keep much booze in the house except for an ample supply of Glenfiddich, Richie's favorite scotch. While I didn't much like the taste of scotch, I desperately needed something to drink to calm my nerves, so I filled a glass with ice and poured a good amount into it. I brought some firewood in from the patio and built a fire to hide the remnants of paper ash in the fireplace and have some wood ash to mix into the can outside. Then I plopped myself down in front of the TV. I was too stressed to read and couldn't even focus on what I was watching. After a couple of hours of channel surfing, I turned on the news at ten. By then I was on my third drink and starting to relax. Unfortunately, the lead story was on the arrest of Mafia don John "Uncle Johnny" D'Angelo and two of his captains, one of them Richard "Big Dick" Palermo, on racketeering charges. The station didn't have any footage of the arrests but showed clips of all of the men from their archives. I'd seen news stories like this all my life and in spite of all I knew about Richie, it was surreal to think that I was watching my lover in one of them.
I changed channels and watched the news again at eleven but they didn't have much more information. I continued to drink and at some point passed out on the couch, awaking with a pounding headache and a ringing in my ears. It was several seconds before I realized the ringing was the doorbell. I managed to get to my feet and went to the door, checking the peephole. Two middle-aged men in suits, one white and one black, were standing there.
"Just a minute!" I called out, my head immediately making me wish I hadn't. I went upstairs to the bathroom, swallowed a couple of aspirins, splashed some water on my face and gargled some mouthwash before going back down and opening the door.
Both men held up small leather folders open to show badges of some sort. The black man spoke.
"I'm Special Agent Forbes of the FBI. This is Special Agent Foster. Are you Thomas Webber?"
"Um, yeah. Look, I just woke up and can't think clearly. Can you come back later?"
"Sorry, we're going to do this now."
"Well, what do you want?"
"I think you know. We have a search warrant for this house." He held out a folded document. I took a look at it but had no idea what I was looking at. I sighed, stepped back and motioned to them.
"C'mon in. Look around all you like but please try to be quiet about it. I've got a monstrous headache."
Of course they didn't leave me alone to do whatever searching they wanted. They followed me into the kitchen where I put on some coffee and then asked me about my relationship with Richie while I waited for it to brew. I was petrified and felt like I was going to be sick, but I managed to get through my story of meeting Richie at the hospital and becoming friends. I tried to explain how he'd helped me through college and the time we'd spent together and I gave them a tour of the house, sipping my coffee and trying to recover from the night before. They checked out every little nook and cranny of every room, opening every drawer and rifling through them all.
"You mean Palermo spends all his free time here but you're not involved in his illegal operations? You expect us to buy that?" Agent Foster seemed skeptical.
"I told you, he came here to get away from all of that."
"And why would you want to be associated with scum like him if you weren't involved in the same stuff he was?" Agent Forbes wasn't any more believing.
"Look, I know he's probably involved in lots of bad things..."
"Probably?" Forbes interrupted. "You don't look stupid, Mr. Webber."
"All right, I assume he was involved in all kinds of illegal activities, but he never spoke about them and that's not who he was when he was here. The Richie I know is a good guy, at least when he's here."
"Believe me, he's not a good guy, anytime, any place. You sure you don't know any of his associates?"
"No, as I said, he wanted to be able to get away from all that now and then so he didn't want them to know about me or this place. I did meet that Uncle Johnny guy once in a restaurant though. And I worked part-time for Sol Abrams when I was in college."
"Yeah, we know all about Sol. You want us to believe you don't know his sideline either?"
"I know it's not always possible to stay clean in that business but when I started working for him I believed he was trying. After a while I wasn't so sure but I kept my nose out of it because I needed the job. I didn't know anything for sure."
"You don't seem to have a very curious nature. Or maybe you don't have much of a sense of right and wrong. You really don't care what your friends do as long as they're nice to you, is that it?"
"No, that's not it at all. I know Richie has done some bad things but that doesn't make him all bad. There's good in him, too. He loves his wife and son and takes good care of them. He's helped me a lot and he's loyal to his friends. And while we haven't talked specifics, I know he has a sense of morality and follows the rules of the game he plays in life. I`m not defending what he does and he hasn't tried to do that either. He does some bad things but he isn't an evil person."
Both men shook their heads, but at least they seemed to finally believe that I didn`t know anything worthwhile. They continued their search of the house and weren`t happy that they only found a few of Richie's personal possessions but nothing incriminating. I tried to explain that since he deliberately kept me in the dark about his mob activities it made sense that he wouldn't keep evidence of them at the house and though they didn't like it they recognized the logic in that argument.
When they finally left it was after eleven. Forbes gave me his card and told me not to leave the area without notifying them. They said they might not be done with me. As soon as they were out of the door I collapsed on the couch. I was still horribly hung over and the tension hadn't helped my stomach any. It was more than an hour past opening time for the shop but the advantage to being my own boss was that I could be late for work if I wanted. I took a few minutes to pull myself together and then went upstairs for a shower.
I picked up a newspaper on the way to the store and read the article about Richie and the others over and over again. I had never been much on paying attention to the news but for the rest of the week I read a couple of papers a day, tuned into the all-news radio station at the shop and watched every television news broadcast I could, trying to get information about what was happening to Richie. Finally on Friday morning I heard they'd all been released on bail. I still didn't expect to hear from Richie since it was probably more important than ever that we keep our distance so I was surprised when he called me at the shop the next day.
"Tom, how's it hangin' bud?" He didn't sound like he usually did but it was so good to hear his voice.
"Hey, I didn't think I'd hear from you. How have you been?"
"I've been better but I've been lots worse, too. I hope I haven't caused you too much trouble over all of this. My lawyer told me you had visitors."
"Yeah, they didn't want to believe that I didn't know anything about your business but I think I convinced them."
"Assholes! We both know I never told you anything because you`re just not a part of that aspect of my life."
It finally dawned on me that Richie`s phone was probably tapped and this conversation was as much for the FBI`s benefit as it was for mine. I was glad I hadn`t said anything too affectionate.
"It was pretty intimidating being interrogated like that but I couldn't tell them what I didn't know so it wasn't too bad, I guess."
"Well, I owe you one for the inconvenience. I'm gonna take you out to eat sometime real soon."
"You don't owe me anything. You don't have to do that."
"Maybe it wouldn't be a good idea anyhow. I'm a bit of a celebrity right now and you probably wouldn't want to be seen with me. I'll figure something out and get back to you soon, okay?"
"Okay. You sure you're all right?"
"I'm fine, Tom. We'll talk soon."
And that was it. A very brief, impersonal call. Since the authorities knew we were friends it didn't matter if we were in contact, but with them watching and listening in it was going to be very frustrating having to be careful what we said and how we acted, at least on the phone. I was sure Richie was going to be pretty tied up with lawyers and his associates planning strategy for his defense so I probably wouldn't see him much anyway. I was surprised when he showed up at the house just before noon on Monday, my day off from work.
He parked out front instead of in the garage and rang the doorbell. As soon as he was in the door I threw my arms around him and held on tight. He returned the hug but after a minute he pushed me away and put a finger to his lips.
"I thought about our conversation on the phone the other day and decided lunch in the park might be a good way to repay you for your trouble, Tom. It may be public but there's less chance of someone recognizing me than in a crowded restaurant. I stopped at a deli and picked up some stuff. What do you say?"
"Sounds great. Give me a sec and I'll be ready to go."
I loved the idea of a romantic picnic in the park but it was so unlike Richie and unlike anything we'd ever done before. I tried to ask him about that in the car but he again put a finger to his lips and changed the subject. At a park a few miles out of town we carried a few bags of food to a table near a pond and sat down, surrounded by ducks expecting to be fed.
"Okay, we can talk here, baby. Sorry for the intrigue but I have to assume every place I go is bugged and someone is listening in."
"You mean you think they've bugged the house?" I was shocked to think my privacy had been invaded, that someone had been in my home and was now monitoring everything I said.
"Probably. They know I spend time there. Maybe even your shop, too, although that's much less likely. Anyway, I wanted to talk privately and didn't want to take any chances. Were you able to do what I asked?"
"Yeah, I burned the papers and hid the box. You want to know where it is?"
"No, I'd rather not know as long as it's safe."
"It is. Just say the word when you want it."
"That probably won't be for a while."
"So what's behind these charges? Are you in real danger of going to jail?"
"It all goes back to this infighting lately. We were set up."
"So you were framed?"
Richie smiled. "Not exactly framed. We're guilty, all right, of most of the charges anyway. We were just doing our regular business but someone was snitching, turning evidence over to the authorities and giving them leads on what to watch out for."
"You think you'll be convicted?" I was horrified at the idea of Richie going to prison.
"Maybe, but the important thing is to keep Uncle Johnny out. If all three of us go away the other side will take over the family. If Johnny stays out he can keep things under control. We realized a while back someone was onto us so we've been manipulating evidence, trying to point it away from him."
"What do the charges mean? What's racketeering?"
"It used to be conspiracy to commit extortion, but a few years back they expanded it to mean just about any illegal business we do."
"And if you're convicted?"
"Hard to say, but with my prior conviction I'm probably looking at 10 to 20 years."
"Shit! That's forever."
"Well, it's a pretty long time. But there's no point dwelling on it until it happens. Let's try to just enjoy what time we have, Tom."
When we got back to the house Richie looked it over for bugs and found one in the den and one in the living room. He didn't find anything in the bedroom but he said he didn't expect to. After all, they didn't know we were lovers so why would they think he'd be spending time in my bedroom? And surprisingly, he wasn't too concerned if they found out about our relationship. He said they didn't care who he was fucking; they were only interested in his criminal activities.
So until the trial began a couple of months later, things went back to the way they'd been before. Richie came to the house a few times a week. We refrained from being too affectionate downstairs, at least audibly, but were more passionate than ever in the bedroom. We both realized our relationship was facing a deadline and neither of us wanted it to end.
Even during the trial he was able to spend a few evenings with me. The night before the case went to the jury, he came over and we spent the whole evening in bed. There was a passionate sadness in our lovemaking. We both knew it was probably the last time. We spent forever in a 69 position, orally pleasing one another, and when Richie finally began to fuck me it was with a fervor that was greater than usual. He'd pound me long and hard and then stop, collapsing on top of me, kissing me deeply while still imbedded in me, then resume his lovemaking. He did this over and over, neither of us wanting to climax, knowing that would be the end. Eventually we couldn't hold out any longer and we exploded together. We lay together in silence for a long time afterward.
"You've got to move on with your life, Tommy."
"Don't say that. I love you, Richie."
"And I love you. But we've both always known this couldn't last forever."
"I know, but I wanted it to. I can't imagine not being with you."
"But you have to. Find a nice guy, one who will love you and take care of you." He gave a halfhearted smile. "One who won't run off to prison and leave you alone. You deserve to be happy."
"You've made me happy, Richie, happier than I ever thought I could be."
"Same here. Let's just be thankful for what we've had. It was more than I ever expected." He paused and then looked me in the eyes. "By the way, the house is yours. Do whatever you want with it."
"No way! You paid for it. It's yours."
"It's your home, Tommy. I have no need for it."
"But you have a wife and son to take care of."
"And they'll be taken care of, believe me. I want you to have this place. It's always been for you."
* * * * *
"Uncle Johnny was acquitted but Richie and the other guy were both found guilty. Richie was sentenced to 15 to 20 years. And that was that." A tear spilled from my eye as I remembered the horrible feeling of that day the jury rendered its verdict.
Steve hugged me, trying to comfort me. No one was in the store but I wouldn't have cared if someone was. Reliving that experience I needed to be held. No one had been around to hold me that day so long ago and it had been agony.
"So that's how you ended up with the house. Did you ever see Richie again?"
"Yeah, when they sent him away it felt like I'd never see him again, but it wasn't quite over between us."
To be continued.