Boy Makes Good
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
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
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
"I'm gonna be the Italian Duke Ellington," Tony said.
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.
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
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
"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.
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
"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
"Myra said they were enforcers." Eddie said. Kayo flashed a
split second glance at her then laughed.
"What the hell is that?" he
"I don't know," Eddie said. "Neither do I. What are you tryin'
to tell the kidŠ?"
"I'm not a kid, Kayo. What's it all about?"
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?"
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?"
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
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?"
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
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?"
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
"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.
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