Charles wore his Sunday best, a cheap baggy polyester suit. He was sat with Gloria on his left, and on his right were Peter along with his wife and two children who would not stop pestering each other. Peter donned a button down Oxford shirt but given the size of him, it looked as if the buttons down by his belly will not hold up for much longer, Charlie thought they might shoot out any moment during the service. Charles stared up to the ceiling; the church was assembled from old stone bricks and colourful stained glass windows that allowed the morning sun to flood its light ever so gracefully into the church. Like most wiseguys, Charles was raised a Catholic and so, was accustomed to attending weekly mass, Church provided him a sense of escapism, a safe haven from the chaos of the week. It was perhaps the only place where his mind was at peace and he was able to reflect upon his life. He observed the choir children who were stood messing around and talking in whispers throughout the entire service and Charles could not help but scowl at them for their misbehaviour. However, when their angelic voices echoed through the church walls and they sung gracefully with one another he was quick to forgive them and was reminded of their innocence. Church was not just a safe haven for Charles; it also served as a bitter reminder of his sin. The ceremony left him alone with his thoughts, the sun disappeared and darkness flooded the church, the stone walls that reminded him of the Italian immigrants who built the church, suddenly appeared menacing and caved in on him like the four walls of a prison cell, statues appear to bleed and weep and all eyes were glaring through to his soul. Memories pierced his head and he felt like he was drowning, he saw Arthur cowering in a corner pleading for mercy, he saw his friends Peter and Nicholas laughing hysterically as they closed in on him and Anthony Gigante towered over him in his visions. He snapped out of it as soon as the rustle of people getting up from the benches sounded off.
The doors of the church swung open and the winter breeze took a peck at Charles’s skin. A New Year may have arrived but the weather remained unhindered. January in New York was brutal; the street outside had been bathed in a blanket of polar white snow and its naked winter trees looked more depressing than ever, Charles stared at them and longed for the summer months to come and for the trees to sprout emerald green leaves, which for the moment seemed impossible. The unfortunate ones who were outside stamped their feet to keep warm, their gloves did not prevent their fingers from going numb and their teeth chattered and clattered the entire time. Charles recalled how just weeks ago before Christmas the snow had begun to melt and the green tips of the grass had begun to poke out around the church, but it seems Mother Nature was just warming up and had now returned with darker, more sinister looking clouds followed by a wave of heavy snowfall. The snowfall was accompanied by a sense of darkness and sadness and it hovered over Charlie during the winter months like a hawk, it reduced his happiness and joy to zero, rendering him an almost lifeless man and not even the face of his beloved Gloria could lift his spirits. There was no escaping this depression, it was a silent killer that ate him up from the inside and followed him like a dark shadow. The church bells rang out, sending a flock of pigeons hurrying away. It also served as a reminder for Charles of his next visit: the hospital. But before he could depart Peter had stopped him. “Let me know by tonight if you’re up for the job, Nicky’s counting on you” Peter said with a pat on the back before Charles and Gloria drove to the hospital in a car that was barely surviving in the snow.
A child sits in a wheelchair screaming while a nurse assists him, an elderly woman with a cane struggles to walk, with a bang the double doors swing open and a man with a neck brace is wheeled through the corridor, people crying their eyes out are heard in other rooms and the heroic doctors are seen running frantically from one end of the hospital to the other. It was certainly busier than usual; Charles thought it was perhaps due to the hectic weather conditions. The corridor walls were scraped in a thousand places from the gurneys that had bumped into them over the years, framed printed pictures and paintings hung on the walls showing uplifting and heart warming scenes, the tranquil ebb and flow of the sea, birds chirping away in the morning hours and a picture of an orange sun resembling a lollipop as it descended and a glistening starry night took over. Not a single painting reflected his state of being. Charles’s frequent visits to the hospital meant that the smells of bleach and sanitizer no longer registered, but the pounding of his footsteps, as he got closer to the oncology ward, always did. He would never grow accustomed to the sound of his footsteps echoing in the corridor, as it was as an unwelcome reminder that with each passing step he got closer to his mother who may not be there to greet him. Diana Calamia lay in bed, her hair no longer a shimmering black curtain but a bundle of frosty grey hair. Her face had been withered away and wrinkles covered her like a map of her life, she stretched out her hand that had veins snaking up her arm and gave a gentle smile to her son. “Oh Charlie! And you brought Gloria too, how lovely!” Diana said with a weak voice as she struggled to sit up. “Woah, don’t sit up mom, you should be resting. Doctors orders” he grabbed her arm and felt her fragility, he gently rested it or else it could have shattered into a hundred pieces like antique china. Once a plump spirited woman, old age had reduced her to skin and bones and time sucked every little bit of energy out of her, she was already confined to her deathbed. The hospital room was utterly lacking beauty, as he was of hope for his mother’s health. The room was devoid of decoration or colour, dull gloomy curtains hung by the windows may have once given hope to patients with its floral patterns but its colours had now faded away just like the countless souls that had stayed in Diana’s bed before her. A bouquet of dying flowers stood on the bedside table, its petals slowly wilting away and its stems grasped for life by the last few drops of water in the vase, and the cold breeze from the open window littered the decaying petals across the grey tiled floor.
They spoke little. Most of the visit was spent clutching her hand and looking into his mother’s eyes and reassuring her that she’s going to get better. He did not need to talk to her, his mother’s eyes were a window to her life and their glow told her entire story and that was enough for him. Once the twinkle in her eyes had been so bright they reflected warmth only comparable to that of a summers day but Charles noticed that same sparkle in her eye was slowly waning. Memories that had once been as clear as a summer’s sky were fading away like trees in winter as if they never existed. “Take a look at what I brought you,” Charles slipped out an audiocassette from his pocket and flashed it at his mother. “The Everly Brothers, you remember them mom? You would play their stuff so loud even the neighbours would complain, remember?” Charles flipped the cassette deck on as if it was his last attempt to revive some lost memories and for a split moment he thought he saw a glint in her eyes, somewhere deep down in her decaying soul she had remembered. A tear slithered from her eyes and ran down her cheeks, “my poor son” she sobbed, “first my dearest husband and now my only child!” she cried and a waterfall of tears followed. “Charlie’s here, Diana. Don’t you worry” Gloria tried comforting Diana but she remained distressed and her lips trembled as she spoke. “Charlie, I saw you!” Diana said and Gloria tried to calm her but the more tears that rolled by, the more hysterical she became. “I saw you on the television, you were in the news. I saw you with that John Dellacorce man in Little Italy, his Christmas party was all over the news!” she sobbed into Gloria’s chest and Gloria could feel her top getting wet, “you told me you would stay away and get a real job and become a hard-working man like your father” Charles felt his stomach swirl, he was unsure whether it was caused by the disappointment he saw in his mother’s wet eyes or a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment he felt knowing his face was in the press.
“Don’t worry about me. Who do you think John is anyway? He’s a legitimate businessman and I promise you that I’m sticking to my job as a furniture salesman. I was trying to make a sale over at the restaurant, that’s all” Charles thought his lies were smoother than a knife through butter, but a glint in his mother’s eyes said otherwise. More tears dripped down her cheeks and Charles’s dishonesty added rawness to her cries like his lies had opened up a new wound in her heart. “You’re going to lie to your own mother this way? Charlie, they’re not your friends, they never were and never will be” Diana plucked up more energy, “they’re bad people, I’ve seen people like John come and go over the years. You should be more like your fath—“ Diana persisted before Charles cut her off. “My father You want me to really become like him?” Charles noticed his mother’s bewildered face. “You don’t remember?” he questioned her and Diana gave a shake of the head. “He abused us, mom. He would snap every other day and beat us with whichever object was in his reach.” Diana was dazed and confused, “lies” she insisted. “No mom, he would beat us until we were lying on the floor, curled up together crying for him to leave us alone” Charles saw Gloria glare at him, clearly telling him to hush. “He was killed in a car accident while driving his cab. You tell me where being an honest hard-working man got him” the words quickly flew out of Charlie’s mouth, yet he remained calm. He was not the one to argue with his fists and be swayed by anger, but his words had nonetheless packed a powerful punch to his mother and tears sprayed from her eyes.
A moment later a knock was heard on the door and Anthony Gigante popped in and dragged Charles outside. The hallway seemed to have become busier as the day progressed and the issue of underfunded hospitals Charles had witnessed on the news last night became clear to him. People spilled out onto the hallways, some patients were sat on the floor and had their eyes glued to the flickering lights and gridded ceiling above them, nurses had to watch their step out of fear they may step on a patient and gurneys that were meant to racing through the hallway were coming to a halt. Anthony Gigante was a man who talked with his hands, whether he was flipping someone off or jabbing his fingers into someone, his hands would always be involved in the conversation. He had the swagger of a man who was untouchable, a man who could make any problem disappear within seconds. Although he may have always given off a hint of military discipline with his back always straight and his chest puffed out, he lacked such credentials but even then, Charles thought he always looked ready to feed his knuckles to someone and that was enough to terrify him. Had Charles not squinted he would not have noticed Joseph Carfano stood behind Anthony with his arms crossed and a cigarette in between his lips.
“How’s your mother?” asked Anthony but Charles sensed there was more to his visit. “She isn’t getting any better,” replied Charles. “I’m coming here as a friend, alright? And I should have said this sooner” Anthony waved his hands about and silenced Charles before he could say anything, “I don’t want to hear a peep out of you.” Charles stood stiff as a stone. “You’re beginning to add to my stress levels. Over at Carmine’s birthday you dropped a bombshell on me when you told me about Arthur. A week before that I heard all kinds of stories about you running around playing tough guy.” Anthony’s eyes were more fearsome than that of a lions and they had been glued to Charles as though he were his prey. “When we first met and I had you running minor errands I thought I made it clear to you that this is not the life for you. How many damn times do I have to tell you this until you understand?” Joseph Carfano walked over to the pair after noticing that blood had flushed to Charles’s cheeks and turned them cherry red. “Oh! Tony, take it easy on the poor kid, we got enough of them crying in the hallway” he said whilst almost chewing through the cigarette that sat in his mouth. Anthony adjusted his thick bulky spectacles before barking at Joseph, “Jesus Christ Joe, you’re fucking breathing down my neck here. I’ve had it up to here–” he pointed to his throat, “–with your bull shit, get the fuck back there.” Like a misbehaved dog, Joseph disappeared and with him, the rancid smell of tobacco.
“Ignore that schmuck, he’s run into some trouble with his union and the press so he hasn’t been himself” Anthony reassured Charles. “Tony, I appreciate everything you have done for me but I decided on this a while ago. I’ve looked up to you like some kind of mentor or a teacher, I want—“ Charles explained before Anthony interrupted. “You want what? You want the fancy suits, the flashy cars, and this fucking lifestyle? You’re not cut out for this. You want to be respected like I am, huh?” Anthony stabbed his finger into Charles’s chest. “Let me teach you something about respect” Anthony wagged his finger the way a teacher would, “it’s all just an illusion. You saw how Joe walked off after I told him to fuck off; you think he respects me?” “Of course he does” Charles said with a hint of uncertainty. “You’re right, he does. But that respect is conditional. You see respect here is built on two things,” Anthony raised two chunky fingers “fear and need. Joe respects me because he’s afraid of the shit storm I can unleash on him. He also respects me because he needs me to help him out here and there with his union troubles, I let him earn money and make a living for himself. As soon as Joe sees no need for me and no longer fears me, his respect for me disappears,” Anthony lectured Charles.
“In this game you can’t trust anybody and if you don’t play by the rules and keep everyone happy you could quickly disappear. It’s natural selection in its prime. You’ve seen it in the papers, there’s people being clipped all over the city – its the survival of the fittest out here” Anthony paused after noticing his words had gone in one of Charles’s ears and come out the other. “You still don’t understand, do you? I don’t want you to be a part of this. Just take a look at what you’re doing to your poor mother, Charlie!” The words were said with so penetrating a chill that Charles felt the hairs on his back rise and he felt like Anthony had forced a hot knife through his chest. He stood trembling with confusion; he tipped his chin up to Anthony and could not believe that he was stood in front of a man whom he trusted with his life, someone he had considered to be his mentor. He felt his legs start to wobble and thought they will fail him any second and feared Anthony will not be there to pick him up. He was speechless; words hung by the tip of his tongue but he could not find the strength to utter them. “I have your best interests at heart” Anthony placed his hand on Charles’s shoulder. “Remember when we first met and you told me if I ever needed anything, if I ever had any problems, I should come to you first?” Charles said, to which Anthony let out a deep sigh. “Well, I’m coming to you now – I need help and I have a problem. I’m barely standing on my own two feet, I need a kick start and you and the guys are the only people I know that can help” Charles pleaded with Anthony. It was no use, Charles could already see a small fire burning in Anthony’s eyes and it was spreading like wildfire by the second. Anthony also felt his blood begin to boil and he and Joseph left before the pot spilled. Everything seemed to come to a standstill, the hallway was suddenly devoid of all life and the only noise was that of his own voice in his head, which was shrouded with confusion and denial.
Later that evening Charles slouched into his couch and stared aimlessly through the window. His bite-sized apartment just about met the basic requirements for habitable living conditions. The wallpaper was torn at the corners and its colours were fading into a pale white and the once colourful bright flowers that sat in pots on the window sill had not seen water for weeks and transformed into a crisp brown. A feeling of claustrophobia had become commonplace and even the high ceilings did little to eliminate such discomfort. The coffee table by the couch was littered with half eaten boxes of pizza that had spent days rotting away and developing all kinds of bacteria, beer cans littered the table, some had tipped over and spilled out onto the table to a point where the table became sticky enough to act as its own fly trap. Gloria had gone berserk running around the flat and cleaning up after the mess her sloth of a boyfriend had left behind him, he seemed very little bothered by the mess though, his concentration was elsewhere. Every few minutes the rattle of steel train tracks sounded off nearby as the New York subway passed by and its occasional screeching was enough to keep the entire street awake at night. The view from the window was as disappointing as the apartment, a street paved with crumbling brownstone flats that had all been glued together, and the concrete pavement was not to be seen as it had been covered in a brown mess from the snow that had been trampled on throughout the day. Under a flickering street lamp stood a run down telephone box that had been covered in stickers of advertisements for escort services, car repairs and cabs.