Local Boy Makes Good

A Moe Minsky Tale
Written By Al Geto


    What struck a lot of people dumb were the dozen or so long, glowing obituaries in the Times extolling Kayo Kaplan paid for by churches, synagogues, cancer research institutions, elite universities, hospitals, and even a few loan sharks under the guise of friends of the family. There were no stories, no photographs, no nothing. Sometimes you have to be dead before anybody says anything nice about you. And even then...

    His brother Eddie, a tubby kid seven years younger, worshiped him. When he was ten, Eddie took cello lessons and showed early signs of real talent.

   Later, when times became hard and food got scarce and their father lost his job, they could no longer afford a first class teacher. It was Kayo who found work in odd places and restored the lessons and brought home the food.

   "Only jerks stand in bread lines," he said. Watching Eddie sawing away at his instrument, Kayo felt justified at his efforts and breathed a deep sigh of satisfaction. He learned early that if you want something you have to go and get it. Nobody's going to give it to you.

   Eddie used to haul his cello case on to the bus and ride way over to Flatbush to make music with his schoolmate, Tony. Tony lived in a big house, had four brothers and a Baldwin baby grand. His father, Mr. Lazzaro, a manufacturer, loved opera. Short, square, olive-skinned, with the head of a Roman emperor, he wore wire-rimmed glasses, and suits intended to make him appear taller, but didn't. But the Cuban heels on his shoes gave him about an inch and a half. He was always pulling his shoulders back and winding his neck around to get height. As his struggling business hung on precariously during the depression he brought his sons into it one by one, except Tony, the youngest. Eddie thought Tony Lazzaro could become a great classical pianist, but Tony preferred jazz.

   "I'm gonna be the Italian Duke Ellington," Tony said.

   "Better you be the Italian Tony Lazzaro," his father advised. "One Duke Ellington e basta." Mr. Lazzaro believed jazz had sprung from voodoo and should be exorcised. "Eddie never plays the jazz, do you?" he asked.

   "Well, jazz isn't for the cello, Mr.Lazzaro. But once when I played Smoke Gets In Your Eyes my mother cried."

   Mr.Lazzaro took both boys to the opera where they sat in box seats to hear "The Magic Flute." The fantastic tale, tantalizing music and strange characters held them spellbound. Mr. Lazzaro kept them abreast of the story, sometimes unable to restrain himself from accompanying the singers sotto voce. An occasional jaundiced glance from the tenor closest to their box gave him the tic of recognition he had always craved.

   "So what was the opera like?" Kayo asked Eddie the next day. Eddie began to describe it as Kayo, in his undershirt, his powerful biceps flexing, did pushups on an old carpet in the basement.

   "Sounds like a lotta bullshit about fairies. Stay away from fairies, that's my advice, kid." He jumped up and began shadow boxing. "Come on!" he called. "Ya wanna put on the gloves and go a round with me, kid?" He always took great care not to hurt Eddie while giving him boxing pointers. "Keep yer left up, keep yer left up, kid!" he kept shouting as he danced around and finally ended the match by hugging Eddie and towsling his hair. "Stick to the cello, kid," he said. "You box like a cat!"

   Kayo had always been his protector. He never forgot the afternoon when an older gang from Cropsey Avenue invaded their street during a stickball game and began to pick a fight. Kayo was just coming out of the house. From the top of the stoop he saw what was going on, came down in his rolling stride, brawny, of medium height, his black, staring eyes fixed on the sixteen year old muscular tough, obviously the leader.

   "Scram!" Kayo ordered. "And take your bums with you before I bust your balls!"

   "Oh, yeah?" barked the punk, approaching, having measured Kayo and found him undersized and without allies. "Put up your dukes, kike!" Suddenly, before anyone knew what had happened, Kayo delivered a hammering one-two punch with such ferocity the gang leader was lifted off his feet and collapsed to the gutter. Blood trickled from his mouth. After a moment of tense silence his friends ran to him, picked him up, and fled around the corner.

   By the time Eddie completed his scholarship at Juilliard, with honors, and was seeking work, Kayo, who had never finished high school, had been away from home to places like Chicago and Detroit, returning loaded with money and gifts, especially for Eddie, from whom he always demanded a private concert. Reclining on the sofa, his eyelids closed, his body relaxed, his tawny face calm, almost a death mask, it was as though he was in a dream and never wanted to look the world in the eye again. Then the war came and Eddie was designated undraftable. Kayo never was called. Eddie applied to the USO out of a feeling he had to take part in whatever way was open to him. He was sent, after months of waiting, along with a dance act, a comedian, and the Hi-De-Ho Duet to perform behind the lines in France. All of Kayo's not quite literate letters, never more than a few lines, always ended with the words, "Hey, kid, wanna go a round with me? Come home." But before he did, Eddie discovered in Italy a remarkable old teacher. He recognized Eddie's still-latent genius for the instrument and for very little money accepted him as a student. In a few months he brought Eddie's technique and tone to new heights. He knew he had a long road ahead of him but the great musicians were an inspiration: Elman, Heifitz, Isaac Stern, all carving careers out in America. He postponed coming home, studying with the maestro. When he returned, Kayo was waiting for him, a special pass having admitted him to the dock ahead of the crowd where he greeted Eddie as he came down the gangplank. He took him home to his new flat where Eddie remained for a gala week of reunion; the only interruption each day was a visit to see Tony Lazzaro. Tony had been badly wounded at Anzio, his future as a musician over.

   Kayo's long time sweetheart, Myra, lived with him now; an auburn-haired girl whose sparkling eyes and pixyish features piqued everyone. They had been lovers ever since high school and made no secret of it. Kayo's parents accepted it, for Kayo was their idol. Mr. Kaplan, a dispatcher at a trucking firm, and his wife Rosie, a diminutive woman were both proud of their sons, regarding Kayo as a hero, not only for his physical prowess but for his accomplishments in having saved them from disaster in the bitterest days. Kayo worked for people, who as he described them, revived failing businesses. The family had listened with awe to the success of these enterprises in the competitive and savage world of dog-eats-dog, the underdog invariably devoured. There were nights when Kayo had come home from work pale and shaken. His appearance had begun to develop a hard, even brutal imprint. His eloquent black eyes grew cold, his mouth tense, his manner impatient. He was given to fits of temper. Eddie, however, never saw his brother as anything but magical.

    In the jazzy new apartment Kayo and Myra had acquired, Eddie occasionally slept over. The night they celebrated Eddie's having won first prize at an international music festival, including an invitation to play at the symphony hall in the spring, they were enjoying one of Myra's daring shish kebabs. Kayo had come home with a violent migraine headache that was killing him and he was under heavy medication. But he recovered sufficiently in time for the meal when in answer to a knock at the door he admitted two men, both husky and wearing similar pork pie hats. One of them had a badly mauled ear and wore sunglasses. Kayo hustled them into the bedroom where a subdued but tense colloquy took place while Myra turned up the radio and danced with Eddie in the living room as the band played a cucaracha.

   "Who are they?" he asked her, stumbling through the steps in his bulky arkwardness.

   "Business friends," Myra said. "They're like enforcers. When people don't do what they're supposed to, they enforce it."

   Later he asked Kayo the same question. "Who were they?"

   "Couple of jerks," Kayo replied briefly. "Now, how's the cello business? Tell us how you won the first prize," he said over the baked Alaska.

   "Myra said they were enforcers." Eddie said. Kayo flashed a split second glance at her then laughed.

   "What the hell is that?" he asked.

   "I don't know," Eddie said. "Neither do I. What are you tryin' to tell the kid?"

   "I'm not a kid, Kayo. What's it all about?"

   "All right, I'll tell ya. Those guys said I owed them money for a job they did for me. They tried to force me to pay more but I didn't owe them nothin'. So what's the big deal? Now, how about a little music?"

   Instead of staying over at Kayo's, Eddie went home. The next morning as soon as he got up, he called Kayo to see how he was feeling. Myra answered.

   "Oh, Eddie?" There was an extended pause. "He's still asleep, Eddie. I think he'll be out today. Want him to call you back?"

   Vaguely troubled, Eddie fixed himself some coffee and toast, picked up the morning paper outside his apartment door, and leafing through it came upon a photograph on an inside page. Two bodies were sprawled out in an office, one over the desk the other on the floor beside it. The caption read, "Factory Owner and Son Killed, Mafia Takeover Gang Blamed." A recalcitrant owner had evidently been made an offer he couldn't refuse. A witness outside Lazzaro & Sons, a dress factory, described two of the fleeing killers, one of them having an ear like a potato pancake and both wearing pork pie hats.

   Eddie found Kayo at home just coming out of the shower. He had on a silk bathrobe and a towel around his neck. "Yeah, what is it, kid? Whatsa matter? Hey, cool it. Come on. What is it? Let's see." He took the newspaper Eddie handed to him and began to examine it. "What's this? Whattya showin' me this for?" he grunted, wetting his lips. "Channel Swimmer Quits," he read.

   "No. The picture. Look at it. It's Mr. Lazzaro and Tony. Those two guys who came to see you last night killed them," Eddie said. "Did you read it? Did you read the description? They killed Tony and Mr.Lazzaro."

   "Geez. Lemme look at that again," Kayo said. He shook his head. "I don't know anybody like that. There are plenty of guys with busted ears all over the place. But if you go around tellin' people you saw anyone like that here, in my house, they'll come lookin' for me. That's all we need in the family, somebody tossed in the tank even for a night, under suspicion. Your name goes right on the blotter, y'know. They don't fuck around, y'know. It's on your record, no matter if you didn't hurt a fly. I could be up shit creek. Cops don't care who they lay their hands on. They fake confessions. They beat it out of you until you got no brains left and you'll sign anything just to get them to stop."

   "My friend Tony Lazzaro, was killed. That's him lying on the floor."

   "Holy shit. What can I say? Geez, Eddie, I'm sorry. I'm really sorry. Is that the kid over in Flatbush, the piano player?"

   "He was my best friend! He wasn't just some piano player, Kayo. I want you to go the police. I want you to identify them, for Christ's sake! Tony and his father were murdered." Tears were running down Eddie's face and his eyes were wild. Kayo came over and put his arm around his shoulders. Eddie wiggled away.

   "Hey!" Kayo said. "Was it you? Did you kill him? Did you kill Tony and his father?"

   "No! I didn't! In fact I tried to stop the whole thing the minute I realized it was the Lazzaro place, but it was too late."

   Eddie gazed at his brother, as Kayo, rigid as a bullet, his black eyes staring, watched Eddie turn away and go out the door.

   He saw Kayo but once again, nearly fifty years later, when Kayo was dying. Kayo's ascension to power and affluence as he rose to become a major, if hidden, manipulator of certain deeds, brought him untold wealth. He kept his public face untarnished and invested in clean enterprises, backed political campaigns, and contributed vast sums to charitable causes, medical research, museums, the opera, until his celebrity status was unequaled.

   Eddie had left the country, having canceled his appearance at the symphony. His career did not prosper abroad. He managed to find jobs in small halls, out of the way venues, sometimes obtaining work with quartets in the major towns. Europe was cheap then and he was able to manage for a few years. When an unexpected break happened, on the occasion of the artistic director of an American symphony hearing one of his concerts, he grasped the opportunity as his last shot at a meaningful future in music. The man seemed too enthusiastic with his find, as he called it, but Eddie felt he could live up to his expectations, given the chance. Exploiting the opportunity, Eddie found an agent who agreed to represent him. The contract he received was, to his surprise, for a series of three appearances during the season with a major Boston orchestra. His name had some resonance from his long European experiences during which he had received a few excellent notices. The agent was able to launch him on the symphony circuit as a result and he began to establish a name for himself. The warmth of his personality together with the depth of feeling he brought to the performances drew widespread praise. He became a celebrity the audiences loved. He had never married, and as age caught up with him he thought of returning to Europe to spend his remaining days in Italy, where a less crass commercialism and more artistic atmosphere prevailed than now surrounded him everywhere. It was in fact barely a week before his projected trip that he received an urgent call. His brother was dying and wished to see him. Eddie's heart began to pulse as though he was on the edge of a stroke. He drank himself to sleep and awakened still in his clothes. Showering and dressing he still was unable to come to a decision. But he succumbed to the crushing pressure that gripped his soul, got a cab to the hospital where he found his brother in a suite overflowing with floral wreaths.

   Kayo lay high on a stack of puffed white pillows surrounded by opulence not associated with hospitals, silk embroidered blankets and three nurses assigned to him alone. His face was drawn, gaunt, his hair white and carefully combed. He could barely lift his hand and breathed with difficulty.

   "Hello, kid," he gasped. "Ya wanna go a round with me?"

    Eddie, paunchy and old, his cheeks puffed out like bowls, his watery eyes covered by shell-rimmed glasses, had altogether a changed appearance, while his brother looked much the same though ravished by illness, his face thin and gray.

   "How does it feel to be a world famous musician?" he asked. Eddie stared at him without replying. "Yeah. Well," his brother whispered, "at least I did one thing right. Made sure you got your first break. Glad you made out, kid. Thanks for coming." And he closed his eyes.

-Al Geto

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