I remember the day I first became aware of the pervasiveness of my father's gambling in our lives. I was eight years old and just beginning my love affair with baseball, which was encouraged by my parents. We were Italian-Americans and my mother loved the Yankees—DiMaggio, Rizzuto, Crosetti, Lazzeri, Berra, Raschi. She hated only Eddie Lopat and, later, Whitey Ford (my secret idol) with their pink, freckled Irish faces. (Today, approaching 80, my mother has a photograph of Dave Righetti taped to the mirror in her kitchen.)
My father was a Yankee fan, too. Only for him they were less a team he could point to with ethnic pride than one he could confidently lay 9 to 5 on.
One Sunday afternoon in July, my father invited three of my "aunts" and "uncles" to the backyard of our suburban house for a cookout. None of them was, in fact, my real aunt or uncle—they were my father's gambling cronies—and, even more significantly, my father was not a cookout kind of guy. He took no pleasure in neatly mowed suburban lawns, especially if he had to mow them.
Nor was he the kind of father who took his son to the Maine woods to catch trout by a rushing stream and cook them over an open fire underneath a perfect moon. He always refused my request for such a trip with the same cryptic comment: "There are no telephones in the woods." It was years before I deciphered his refusal, before I learned that a gambler can live without women, without liquor, without food even, but never without access to a telephone.
The afternoon of my father's cookout was hot and sunny. My "uncles" stood around the barbecue fireplace under the shade of a maple tree and sipped Scotch. They made nervous small talk while simultaneously listening to a Yankee-Red Sox game coming from a radio propped on the kitchen windowsill. My father was bent over the barbecue, lighting match after match and cursing the briquettes he was unable to ignite. He was a dapper little man who dressed conservatively—gray flannel slacks, navy blazer—and he always wore a tie, even around the house. He was very handsome, too, in spite of his baldness. He had pinkish skin, youthful eyes and a neatly trimmed silver mustache. He truly fit the part, at least in his dress, of a suburbanite entertaining guests. Even if those guests did look as if they had just stepped out of the cast of Guys and Dolls.
My "uncles" began to laugh at his discomfort and then fell uniformly silent as a crucial play was broadcast over the radio. They resumed their small talk. My "uncles" still lived in the Italian ghetto in Bridgeport and hung out at the Venice Athletic Club. They called my father Patsy, much to his annoyance. One was a bookie. Another a card shark.
My "uncles" had no interest in me, their "nephew," except on rare occasions when they showed me how to palm the ace of spades or how to spot shaved dice. They were somber, dark, manicured little men with nicknames like Chickie, Freddie the Welch, and Tommy the Blond, who was not really blond but was just not so dark as the others. On this quiet Sunday afternoon in July, they stood beneath the maple tree in our little suburban backyard looking ill at ease in their sharkskin suits.
My mother, a dark, fierce little birdlike woman, and my "aunts" sat around a circular lawn table that was shaded by a fringed umbrella. They were sipping Scotch, as well, while playing penny-ante poker—deuces and one-eyed jacks wild—and chatting. I stood behind them and followed their play of cards.
Soon I got bored with the adults and I lost myself in the baseball game. When DiMaggio hit a home run for the Yankees, I shouted, "Yaa!" and clapped my hands. Suddenly, I was aware that everyone was looking at me. My father's face was flushed. I caught my mother's eye. Her lips were pursed in a threatening smile. She called out sweetly, "We musn't root for the Yankees today, Sweetheart! Uncle Freddie is down 50 times on the Red Sox."
I was too young then to be embarrassed by the garishness of my "aunts" and "uncles," so out of place in our suburban, WASP neighborhood. Nor was I embarrassed by my father's gambling. To me it was just what he did for a living. But what did bother me about my father's gambling were his strange hours, his constant preoccupation with odds, his anxiety over a game in progress and his bad humor when he lost. It prevented him from being the kind of father my friends had. His mind seemed always to be involved with gambling, with his wins and losses, and he had little time for me. Davey Perkins's father, for instance, was a plumber who came home from work each day and immediately took his sons to the park to play ball. How I wished my father would take me to the park to hit grounders to me. When my father rebuffed my umpteenth request to go to the park with me one day, I said, without thinking, "I wish you were like Davey Perkins's father." I knew I had said something hurtful when I saw that there were tears in his eyes.