The inside of the place was rinsed in shadow, dust particles swirling in the opaque light. Newspapers were stacked on the counter; a local rag trumpeting rape and murder and a smudged racetrack tip sheet lay nearby. On the wall, a mounted cigarette rack housed random packs of off-brands like Old Gold and True. The shelves were nearly bare. Had Uncle Frank actually been in the business of selling candy, his operation wouldn’t have lasted a month.
As we made our way in, my father introduced me to men with lacquered hair and unpronounceable last names, which he insisted I use to address them. Loud-talking men who helped themselves to the cigarettes and then disappeared behind the wall of black drapes that split the space in half, drapes that parted a moment later to reveal my Uncle Frank.
He was dressed like the others in a Ban-Lon pullover and slacks, but unlike the others his clothes clung to a trim mannequin build. His hair was swooped up and back in a modified ducktail. The lone hipster in this conclave of squares, he was sporting something—a ring, maybe, or a watchband or pair of shoes—with enough of a twist to draw a wisecrack. He answered it with a lopsided smile.
My father and his brother talked about whatever it was they needed to discuss. Meanwhile, I watched as Uncle Frank’s gaze drifted and then settled on a forlorn chunk of his paltry stock—an unopened box of bubble-gum cards. Not baseball, not football, but wax-papered packets of stills from the movie King Kong. It was a decade before the Dino DeLaurentis remake, the one that featured Jessica Lange. He handed me the entire untouched trove. Who cared that they were from a movie I had never seen, or that the moments were captured in fading black and white? So is the world of this memory.
The flipside of the cards were pieces of a picture puzzle—the iconic still of Kong straddling the dome of the Empire State Building, one hand cradling Faye Wray, the other swatting at a biplane. The same shot was on the frontside of one of the cards. Cheeks stuffed with bubble-gum, I used the card as a key to replicate the image across the grey of our living room rug.
* * *
Uncle Frank didn’t operate the place for long (I believe some “partners” were involved in his stepping aside). But a generation passed before I fully understood how the candy store had powered the imagination of the men with unpronounceable names who met there. How those black drapes functioned as a nexus between the plausible and the real.
My uncle was a gambler, and his candy store a front (as you’ve probably guessed) for the card room he ran out of the back. His customers went there to get away from their wives, play blackjack, flash their pinky rings, inhale the aroma of after-shave lotion—to revel in the company of men. In that low-rent Las Vegas, they were high rollers, men of leisure. They were sports.
He took a few pinches, my Uncle Frank did, that landed his name in the papers and left me to stonewall a schoolyard third-degree. Maybe I said it was some other guy who had the same name. But since the papers published his address too, and these nosy kids knew where he lived, the truth was bound to come out. And it did. But in the end, having this rogue relative lent me the aura of second-hand danger. Uncle Frank was one stone-cold cat. He brought me no shame; I was proud of him.
So, with the ink still drying on his rap sheet, one night during dinner I asked my father, “Is Uncle Frank in the Mafia?”
He finished chewing and dragged on the Kool 100 that typically burned through his meals, slanting my mother his trademark this-kid-never-ceases-to-amaze-me look. “What would make you ask a question like that?”
“That’s what the guys on the playground said.”
“Your Uncle Frank got arrested for bookmaking. Somebody asks you about it, you tell him to mind his own damn business. And don’t believe everything you read in the newspaper.”
That ended the discussion.
* * *
From the afternoon I first suspected something was going on behind those black drapes, I wanted in. When I was a teenager, I placed a ten-dollar-bet with my Uncle Frank on the Baltimore Colts. They covered the spread, and my ten paid twelve. I tried to collect. He laughed at me and hung up the phone.
By the time I was an adult, Uncle Frank had opened a restaurant that was a magnet for wise-guys. I ate up their stories. I swaddled myself in shimmering synthetics to go and get drunk in dives. I ordered cocktails in nightclubs where the top-shelf stuff was out of my price range. I crossed the divide into a hundred back rooms.
After some reflection (I’m a little slow), it dawned on me that the Cadillacs and the pinky rings were the candy-store front; the alcoholism and the mortgages the loud talkers couldn’t pay were the back-room reality. The guy buying rounds on Friday touched you for twenty bucks on Saturday. I know. I was that guy.
Uncle Frank eventually went down on a stolen-goods beef that, because of his record, was a more serious charge than it might have been otherwise. A deal for a second restaurant had fallen apart when he was denied a liquor license. He kited checks. He committed credit card fraud. He wrote more bad checks, then bounced in and out of jail behind a monstrous, late-breaking crack habit.
Years later, Uncle Frank showed up at his daughter’s wedding wearing skimpy terry-cloth shorts. The event was held outside, but still. He looked grey and wasted. I sought the essence of his cool, as a kid would, but in vain. He made it a point to let everybody know he was drinking soda pop (nobody asked) and then disappeared before the band had played a single note. I never loved him more than I did on that day.
Uncle Frank is gone now; the loud talkers and the pinky-ring flashers, they’re gone, too. But if every story is about an education, and this one is about mine, the moral always seems to be the same—things are not at all what they seem. The enthusiasms of a child’s world blow hot and cold. The King Kong cards received a second hour of my attention, maybe. But the memory of those black drapes is with me still, a singular reminder of the connection between the longed-for and the real.