When he smiled I thought it was a good omen. He ordered a scotch and then broke the news that his appeal for a new trial had been denied. We were in the lounge of the Thunderbird Hotel in Miami, the baby upstairs in the room, asleep.
“Twelve years. The judge threw the book at me. I did my best to charm him, but it didn’t do any good.”
His eyes took on a faraway look, and he shrugged his broad shoulders as if it didn’t matter. They’d used everything they could against him, including the time during the Depression when, at the age of five, he’d rapped another kid in the mouth with his shoe-shining kit for taking over his corner. Every speeding ticket, every arrest that hadn’t ended up with a conviction.
“Twelve years,” he muttered again. “We might as well check out tomorrow.”
We flew back to Boston and waited for the days and nights to pass until the time came for him to deliver himself to the marshals. On the last night, we went to the Combat Zone, to the Intermission. We matched each other drink for drink, but we couldn’t keep up with the sweaty little glasses sitting before us. Black-coated men with funeral faces kept coming to shake his hand or kiss him on the cheek. Omerta. The Brotherhood. No walls could ever contain it. Even when these few were gone,
others would take their place, younger ones with less compassion, high on coke, getting their thrills by killing. Rappers and Russians, Vietnamese and Irish.
It was business as usual at the Intermission. A garish red light lit the bar under the stage where the girls performed vulgar grindings against cheap-painted poles. The music blared in our ears but in between records there would come a somber silence into which I would not be able to escape the awful reality that he had less than this night to be free.
This man commanded more respect than I, as a woman, would ever know. The only time I saw anyone speak disrespectfully of Paul was at a gas station, behind his back. A man pumping gas made a snide remark asking if Paul was my father. I mistakenly repeated this to Paul. He drove me up a few blocks and told me to wait. Then he went back to the gas station to flatten the jerk. I thought the man had it coming. Anyone could see we were in love.
From Intermission we went to a restaurant in the South End. We crammed together at a small table in the back room, surrounded by men, all trying to have one last word with Paul. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, lost in my drunken stupor. Defense attorneys, legal fees, the endless battle to stay on the street. Depositions were dragged out of someone’s brief case. They begin to discuss a point of the Fifth Amendment was being discussed.
“Can you explain that?” I asked.
“Excuse me,” said Paul, as if he were asking me to pass the salt. “But why don’t you mind your own fucking business?”
I tore from the table, stumbled blindly through the crowd and went into the ladies’ room. I’d forgotten how easily his suave manner could turn to nastiness. How could he be so cruel? How could I go back to him, sit there and make small talk when my heart was breaking? Paul’s friend Buster met me outside the bathroom door to play the role of peacemaker.
“You have to understand,” he said. “He didn’t mean to take it out on you. Dry your eyes and go back to the table as if it never happened.”
Paul’s dear face swam before my eyes. Booze always made me weepy, but that night, I pulled myself together, put the argument out of my mind, and went on with the charade that we were above pity while all around us people tried not to be patronizing. I drank in what strength I could by memorizing the grain of his skin, his honest and noble brow (contributing to his success as a con man), the slightly glassy-eyed way he welcomed me back to the table that told me that the liquor had finally done its job. A stranger had his arm wrapped around Paul’s shoulders. Buster was soon lost in conversation at the bar.
“Leo,” said Paul. “Meet my girl. Leo’s a producer. I got you a job filming a movie with Robert Mitchum. The Friends of Eddie Coyle. You’ll be an extra. Union rates.”
Leo slapped Paul on the back, his fingers lingering on the soft cashmere.
“Take care, buddy. Tomorrow morning, bright and early. We’ll start shooting the Boston Garden scene at 7 a.m. Don’t worry, Paul. I’ll take good care of her,” said Leo.
Just as Leo melted into the crowd of cardigan sweaters, Robert Mitchum came up to our table. Paul introduced us.
“Tough luck, buddy,” Mitchum said. “Ah, shit, what can you do?” He gave Paul a commiserating look, then a slow roguish grin, as if going to jail were a necessary rite of passage. He spread his mammoth fingers. “See the splinters under my fingernails? I still remember when they took me off the front porch for smoking marijuana.”
Mitchum took a sip of beer, leaned closer and said, “It’s a damn shame you have to go. I have a ranch where you could hide out, but I suppose they’d catch up with you. I don’t give a shit.”
“Thanks for the offer,” said Paul, no doubt chalking this up to idle barroom chatter. “Nice to see you.”
I wanted to ask him how he knew Mitchum, but I was too afraid he’d turn on me the way he had when I’d asked about the Fifth Amendment. Whenever I asked him anything he’d growl, “What’re ‘ya writing a book?”
“There’s always a farm in Czechoslovakia,” I said, for the hundredth time, wondering if he was taking me seriously. As well as I knew him I could never imagine what he was thinking. “I’d wash dishes or teach English to support us. They would never find you. You could lay low until we got you a passport. I could leave the baby for a while and send for him after we got settled. I mean it. You have to make up your mind. Tonight. Tomorrow will be too late.”
“You know how long I’d last?” he asked. “Don’t talk rag-time. Haven’t you ever heard of Interpol? I’d never make it out of the airport.”
We spent that night with the baby between us, not sleeping a wink until dawn. We had one last cup of coffee on the corner of Canal Street at Hayes and Bickford’s. As I lifted the sturdy porcelain cup, my hands shook, and the steam warmed the tip of my nose. All around us was the clatter of silverware, solitary men sitting at tables. The pungent fumes of toast and bacon on an empty stomach. Every now and then someone shuffled through the door and the cold hit the back of my legs.
“Take care of yourself,” said Paul, as if saying it could make it happen. Hadn’t I always taken care of myself, always found a way to pay my bills? Wouldn’t he always just be a letter or a visit away if I needed advice or cheering up? “I guess this is it.”
“Are you sure there’s no other way?” I asked, still hoping he had some grand get-away scheme that he’d been keeping to himself, tickets to some faraway place, money enough to hide. At his age, twelve years was tantamount to a life sentence. If only I had known when we’d first met that he was under indictment, I could have just walked away.
“Just walk away,” said Paul. “Don’t look back.”
I stood buttoning the collar’s hard-to-do top button on the leather coat he’d given me. I always felt classy wearing that coat. The leather belt around my waist gave me a comfortable, protected feeling. The sleeves, flaring from my shoulder, were made of fox, as was the collar. Years later when the skins began to separate and dry, I wouldn’t be able to throw the coat away because it reminded me of the moment when I had turned, following his instructions and lifted the collar around my cheeks. The cold November wind lifted whirling dirt and debris, pelting my body, until I, resolved not to cry, crossed the street and the Boston Garden swallowed me up.
 The Combat Zone was the name given to Boston’s adult entertainment district in the 60s.