“So what’s wrong now?” Johnny grunted as he cut into his sirloin steak that evening.
“Frank has AIDS.”
Johnny set his fork and knife down softly on his plate and stared down at it for a long time. Isabel watched tearfully as he dealt with the impact.
"When did you find out?" he asked tersely.
Johnny clenched his fists, then suddenly grabbed the plate on both sides.
He eventually released the plate and returned his fists to either side of the plate, staring at a spot somewhere between his water glass and infinity.
“So what happens now?” he managed.
“We have an appointment with a specialist Monday,” Isabel managed. “There’s some different therapies they want to discuss with us. They want us to consider our options before we decide what’s best for him.”
“What’s best?” Johnny demanded, tears welling in his eyes. “Best for who? There’s no cure for that shit. They’re gonna take all your money so you don’t got a dime for the funeral.”
“So what now?” she flared. “Are you going to give up on our son? Again?”
“Don’t you try and dump that shit on me, Issy!” he yelled as she dissolved into tears.
“Okay,” he came up behind her, wrapping his arms gently around her waist before turning her so she could bury her face against his chest. “Okay. We got to clear the table, put everything aside and take care of this. I’ll tell Roth, he can mind the gym while I deal with this.”
“You don’t have to do that,” she hugged him back. “All I want you to do is make peace with your son. Don’t end up thinking there was something left unsaid one day.”
“What should I do? Take him on a trip? Hang out with him? After all these years, where do I start?” Johnny gently released her and wandered towards the window.
“Why don’t you buy him a beer?”
Johnny took the short drive down to Tampa Beach where he met Frank at a small lounge overlooking the shore. He made sure that it was a college hangout that would be less discerning of their clientele. He did not want to wind up in a bar brawl and expose Frank to any more danger.
“Frank,” Johnny spotted him at the end of the bar. He walked over to him and hugged him for a long moment. “How you feeling?”
“What’re you drinking?”
“Whatever you’re having.”
Johnny ordered two Crown Royals on the rocks. He felt like Frank was testing him to see if he remembered Frank’s drink. It began to irritate him but he checked himself. At once he began to realize how testy he got around the kid, and it loosened him up somewhat. He liked to sit at the bar by the jukebox but decided it would be best if they got a booth.
“Want anything to eat?”
“Nah, I’m okay.”
He searched the kid’s face as he had not for a long time. He could see his own rugged jawline, his piercing eyes and his pouting lips. He had more of Isabel’s smooth tawny skin and her thick mane. He also had the slight Cabales build that precluded him from indulging in contact sports. Not that it mattered now. Not that anything mattered now.
“So what do you got going?”
“What, with the doctor?”
“Yeah, you know,” Johnny shrugged.
“They’re doing tests, you know how that goes. Kinda like curing a cold. Once you got it, you got it.”
“You need anything?”
“Yeah,” Frank leaned forward slightly. “I need you to know something.”
“What’s that, Frank?”
“Suppose like, before I was born, you went into a fight and did the Million Dollar Baby thing,” Frank narrowed his eyes. “Suppose you took a cheap shot and fell and bumped your head, and you wound up in a wheelchair. Suppose you and Mom weren’t able to have kids. Do you think she would’ve blamed you for the path you chose instead of being a rock star?”
“Rock star? Hah!” Johnny snorted, looking away scornfully. “Rock star. David Diamond got me in the band to cover his ass. Neither one of us could carry a tune in a bucket. I’m a fighter, kid, that’s all I’m good for. Was good for. Did your Mom ever tell you how we ended up in Palestine?”
“Not everything,” Frank tapped his fingers on his glass. “She has problems talking about it, just like you.”
“Smart kid,” Johnny sniggered. “Well, then. I had problems with the Mob. They controlled the game then, always have, always will. I owed them money, and when James Lincoln and Stu put the project together, they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. They tied a boxing promo on my tail and stuck a couple of wiseguys in the entourage. I got my career back together and a good friend got killed.”
“Why are you telling me all this?”
“I don’t know,” Johnny cleared his throat. “So, what’s your point with the alternate ending? I crack my head, I can’t have kids, stuff happens. It didn’t happen like that.”
“Suppose it did,” Frank probed.
“What’s your point?” Johnny snapped.
“You chose your path through life,” Frank stared at him. “You knew there were risks, but you followed your heart. You did what you had to do.”
“Well, then,” Frank stirred his drink, then dropped the straw. “So did I.”
There was a deathly silence as Johnny struggled to control his emotions.
“Okay,” he relented. “No use in crying over spilled milk.”
“Do you think you would’ve been happier? Not to have wound up crippled, but…” his voice trailed off.
“That’s stupid,” Johnny scowled at him. “You’re my son. I don’t care what you’ve done. It doesn’t change that.”
“It’s not what I’ve done, Dad. It’s who I am.”
“Okay,” Johnny said huskily. “Fuck that. You’re my son. That’s all that matters.”
“I know this has been hard for you. It wasn’t about hurting you. It was about being who I am,” Frank said quietly. He always resented his father not being able to accept that part of him. Yet at the same time he knew what a dagger in the heart it was for this man.
“Yeah, well. It is what it is. So what’s the story with this thing? How are you feeling? What are we gonna be looking at?”
“I think Mom’s probably got literature on it. It knocks out your immune system so your body can’t fight infections and diseases. You end up dealing with everything that comes your way, basically. A common cold can turn into pneumonia.”
“But they’re working on cures, aren’t they?” Johnny insisted. “How much does it cost?”
“Yeah, that…” Johnny began, then checked himself as his voice trailed off. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s who you are,” Frank grew bitter, his emotions surging. “You’ll never change.”
“Look, no more bullshit. No more gay, anti-gay, political, philosophy, whatever kind of bullshit,” Johnny wiped a tear from his eye. “It’s you and me and your mother. We can’t change the past but we can face this thing together, as a family. We can’t let any differences steal what time we have to change this thing, to turn this thing around.”
“I don’t believe in miracles. But I love my mother, and I love you. I agree, we’ll spend a lot more time together, we’ll share what’s left. I want you two to have a lot of happy memories.”
At once Johnny’s head dropped and his shoulders began shaking. Frank watched with a small sense of satisfaction before his heart went out to his grieving father.
He got up from his seat and slid into the booth alongside him, putting his arm around him and hugging him close. He considered the irony of being able to do what he wished his father had done for him throughout the course of his soon-to-be-shortened life.