A long time ago I made a promise to myself not to worry about things out of my control. My father would come back from work and sit down with my mother, arguing with each other about whose day was worse. Dad ran a pizza shop called "Mangia" on the boardwalk in Long Branch, with an ideal view of the beach. I always figured the biggest draw to the place, aside from the food, was the outdoor patio that we had which let our patrons have a clear view of the scantily clad tourists soaking in the sunlight with their glistening, perfect skin. At night, bonfires and the lights of New York City to the north flickering off the water illuminated the area, keeping business flowing well into the late hours of the day.
This meant that my father wasn't really around much, especially during the summer months. The only times I ever really got to see him growing up were early in the morning, late at night, or if I happened to stop by and see him with my friends after school looking to get a slice or two of margarita pie. We used to love going in with the smell of the bread, tomato and basil filling the little shop. To me, it meant home and a sense of security. If I ever got in trouble, I'd always think back to that little shop and the feeling I got when my senses overloaded with the smell of freshly baked pizza.
My father always complained that there were too many other restaurants around, and that none of them could cook a pizza like he could. He was always so proud of the way he did things, using what he claimed to be the freshest ingredients, trusting only local gardens to produce his vegetables and sometimes bringing in his own. We had a very modest garden outside of our house down the street, but it was just big enough for a few tomato vines and herbs to grow without complication during the summer months. Anything less than the absolute finest was unacceptable for his customers, something which he constantly complained other establishments wouldn't aspire to and how that hurt the integrity of Italian cooks.
The weeks slowly dragged on through the end of the year; all the while I cruised through the rest of high school and made as many trips to the beach as I could before we got swarmed by the tourists that were to come in May. Working in the shop then would almost become a full time job; even with the seasonal help that Dad was bound to pick up. But that summer wouldn't be typical for anyone in my family, as I found out when I walked into the store one late April morning.
"What the hell is this!?" Dad said as he shook a piece of paper in his hand. Phil and Carmen were looking over his narrow shoulders and past his round belly, trying to view what was on the paper as it fluttered about in midair like a hurricane was tossing it around with his stubby, yet powerful arms.
"What's going on, Dad?" I asked, setting down my books from school, about to put on an apron to get ready working.
"Damn eminent domain, that's what!" he replied, slamming the paper down on the table and storming off towards the kitchen, hands held firmly on his balding head. I'd never heard the term before so I was desperately looking at Carmen and Phil to try and get some sort of answer from them.
"They're shutting us down, Frank. The government is going to buy us out and put us out on the street," Carmen said, her gaze dropping down to the floor, as was her voice. She was normally a real fiery woman in her early 30s. She was a fitness freak, known for coming to work smelling like a gym bag, causing my Father to tell her to go home and take a shower before coming back to work. But she was a beautiful woman, jet black hair, dark skin, and these unusual green eyes hidden behind a pair of thin rectangular glasses she wore now and again. Dad treated her like the daughter he never had, always did what he could to help her through. I can't say I never got jealous with how much attention he gave her.
"What do you mean? The government can't do that!"
"Of course they can!" my father came back from the kitchen. "And they're going to build some damn chain instead of giving the little guy a chance, and throw on some condos to boot. You know how they make those pizzas? Pre-made dough! From factories! And the sauce is always too sweet and they don't use real cheese!" Phil had gotten up at this point and led my father out of the dining area of the restaurant back into the kitchen, yet I could still hear him going off on fast-food pizza. Phil Sistitto had known my father since they were in high school together. After Phil came back from Vietnam, he started working with my father in the shop and they'd been together ever since. Every once in a while Frank would let me in on some of my Father's secrets to cooking, but made me promise not to let him know. So I would just go back to preparing the dough and shaping the pizzas for the numerous orders we'd get when my dad was around.
"So what are we gonna do? We can't just up and leave can we?"
"I don't know, Frank," Carmen said. " Listen, I'm going to go in the back to check on your dad. You know he can't handle this much excitement with his blood pressure, and throwing this on top of that missing money, I just don't think he can handle it. Just mind the counter until we calm him down."
I made it through my shift, but even when I got home and laid my head down to rest I couldn't get the idea of losing the shop out of my mind. Why was this happening? The question plagued my mind during that restless night and the next morning I was still wide-eyed as the sun pierced its way through my window and attacked my dry eyes. My general malaise continued through the day as I walked around the halls trying to wrap my head around the idea of not working for Dad. Could I really stand for that?
"Well you look like you just rose from the dead," a voice came from beside my locker where I was retrieving my books for my second class of the afternoon. I closed the door and was met with the deep blue eyes and rosy smile of Steph Dibling. She was one of the few people in high school I really identified with. And moving past the obvious jokes regarding my sexuality, I guess you could say she was my girlfriend, though neither one of us really admitted anything. Everything between us was mostly unspoken, but felt as real as her warm breath against my cheek as she hugged me. "Is your dad still pushing you too hard at the shop? I told you, you really need to slow it down over there and come surfing with me again."
"He really needs me though," I replied with a sigh. "You know I'd love to go but I just can't. There's just too much going on right now and my family is going to need the money."
"I know; the whole school does. It's no secret that the government's been trying to buy up land around the area to build some new tourist trap. I just never thought they'd try to take away local businesses like your dad's. But that's just more reason why you should come out with me."
"How do you figure? Waste my time when I could be helping my dad keep the shop? Just accept that I won't have a job when I graduate and I won't be able to take over my family's business?"
"That's not what I meant, and you know it. You're always so caught up in the business. You're 19, Frank! Why are you so worried about work? Just be a kid for once."
"It's easy for you to say, you've had everything handed to you while I've actually had to work for what I've got." I'd never really been in a position where I knew what came out of my mouth isn't what I meant, or wanted to say, but as the last word came out of my mouth, I realized that I might have been the biggest idiot on the planet. That thought was driven home by the smell of strawberries being driven into my face like a piston, delivered by an open-handed slap across my cheek.
"Screw yourself, Frank Donato," Steph said, retracting herself. The sting of fresh fruit still burned on my face. "How dare you think I don't know what it means to work for something. All I wanted to do was cheer you up, but now you can forget it. I don't want to see you again if this is how you're going to act."
I stepped back from Steph, feeling a force field repelling me from her as she spoke to me. "What do you mean you don't want to be around me?"
"Isn't it obvious? You've changed, Frank. When I met you, you were a sweet boy and I felt sorry that nobody tried to get to know you. You used to be fun, but ever since you started working in your dad's shop you've changed. I thought maybe there was something deeper between us, and I thought you felt it too. But you don't even want to go out with me."
"What are you talking about? I took you out to dinner!"
"To your dad's pizzeria! Don't you get it? You're so consumed with working for your dad and making sure everything goes right by him. You don't think for yourself. All you ever do is try to please him, it's never about you and your needs. Do you really want to be a chef, or is it just something that your dad told you to do? Are you only going out with me because your dad said it was okay?" Steph shook her head, the sparkling diamonds that were her eyes beginning to gloss over in preparation for the coming flood. "I can't keep waiting for you to be done working for your dad. I know it's selfish, but I would think even just one time you can make some time to be with me instead of being your dad's lap dog. Unless you really don't care about us and I'm just a convenience for you."
My mouth remained silent and the only saving grace I had was the sound of the school bell ringing to mark the beginning of the next period. Though I wanted to have something come to my lips, anything to rectify the mistake I had made, nothing came. With one last glare through her tears, Steph walked off to class and left me to wonder how my life could be spiraling out of control like this.
For weeks she ignored me. I felt like a leper walking the halls at school with no one to talk to. I was essentially as dead to her as everyone else already saw me. By mid-May, Dad finally took notice of my situation as I was lazily washing pots and pans in the back of the kitchen of the shop.
"Alright, boy, let's have it," Dad said looking up at me. His forehead glistened in the fluorescent light with a thin layer of sweat.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean tell me what's going on. I haven't seen you this morose since the Mets missed the playoffs last season."
I sighed and stopped washing to look at him. "I don't know, it's just everything I guess. I don't know why everything's happening like it is. Why can't everything just be like it was, ya' know?"
"By everything you mean that Dibling girl?" he said with a smirk and a gentle prodding of my stomach with hard elbow.
"She's just part of it. The shop is the other. I'd probably be able to get over Steph, but the shop's a whole different story. Ever since you brought me in here to work all I've ever wanted to do was make you proud of me and take over the family business, and now I don't know if I'll be able to do that."
"Frank, I am proud of you, more than you know," he said wiping the ever increasing sweat from his brow. "You've been a tremendous help to the shop and I know I can trust you. But don't think for a second that-" he was cut off by the sound of a loud knock at the counter. Phil wasn't due for another few hours, leaving either my dad or myself to answer the knock. "Stay back here, I'll go see who it is."
I returned the dishes for but only a moment before I heard my dad yelling about something. Overcome with curiosity, a walked out into the dining area to see what was going on. In front of Dad was an older, well-dressed man with graying slicked back hair and beard. He seemed stone-faced as my dad pointed his finger at the door. "Out you go! I'm in no mood to talk to you."
"Sir, I haven't even told you who I am yet," the man said, reaching into his jacket to retrieve a business card. "My name is Barry Mullen and I'm with the Casino Development Board. You received a letter not too long ago regarding my visit. I've come to discuss our offer for your establishment."
"And I can tell you what to do with that offer, pal," Dad said his arm trembling as he pointed out the door. "I know you're going to try and lowball me into selling this place cheap, and I ain't having it. I'm staying right where I am and no bureaucrat's going to tell me otherwise."
"Listen, you don't really have a choice or another. One way or another this place is going to the public. Now I'm willing to negotiate based on expected income for the next year as well as overall worth of this property. I'll just need you to look over these forms first."
"No, you listen. I know what you did to the surrounding houses around here. I ain't looking at any of these forms until I can be guaranteed I won't b-be-" at once my father's hand reached down and grabbed at his chest. Barry's eyes lit up instantly and looked over at me.
"Son, you better take a look at your father here. I'm going to get some help," he said before stepping outside and quickly getting on his cell phone. As I looked back to my father I saw he was on the ground, his face contorted in pain as he clutched his chest, sweat still pouring from his body like a geyser. Another geyser began, this time in my eyes as I knelt down next to him and prayed to God that He wouldn't take my dad away from me.
By nightfall the ambulance had left and I was left in the care of Phil who patted me on my shoulder as we walked back into the shop. I was relieved that there wasn't too much business that night, seeing as how I was barely in a state of mind to do much of anything. As I flipped our "Open" sign to "Closed" I could feel Phil giving me yet another reassuring tap on the shoulder and turned around to see him smile through his yellow, misaligned teeth. "It's all going to be alright kid," he said to me in his usual reassuring voice.
For a man who'd been through as much hell has he had, I thought, Phil certainly had a pleasant disposition about him. Then again, he was always there for me when my dad wasn't, constantly trying to pay back my dad for everything he'd done for him. Phil had a notorious gambling problem when he got back from the war which he supposedly got over once my Dad took him off the streets and helped pay off his debts. Since then he'd been a part of the family and took to me as if I were his nephew. Even with what had happened that day, I was grateful that at least he was there to keep my spirits up.
I went making the final few strokes of the mop on the floor of the kitchen before dumping the gnarly mash of cloth back into its brown-stained bath to soak as we were closing up shop for the night. The heat from the stove and pizza ovens still hadn't dissipated, making my chores that much more demanding of my every ounce of determination I had. I sometimes think this is what hell is like, constantly cleaning a dirty kitchen with the ovens cooking me from the outside in. It's a good thing we don't use microwaves. After taking in one last brief scan of the kitchen I finally determined that it was clean enough even to eat off of the floors, until I looked over at the putrid brown liquid where I'd thrown the mop and decided not to test my theory. Phil was in the back in my dad's office, counting the money from the day. I really didn't mind personally; cleaning the shop seemed a bit less dreary than sitting at a desk counting money over and over again to make sure you had it right. Besides, it better helped to keep my mind occupied and not drift back to Dad.
No sooner did I finish my inspection of the kitchen, Phil walked out of the office with an envelope in his hand. "Alright, that's it," he said, flicking the envelope in his hand. "Ya did good today, kid. I'll see ya tomorrow." After placing a ball cap on his head, he made his way to the door to leave.
I was about to give a soft wave to him before my eyes caught the image of a small wallet in my peripheral. "Wait! You forgot this," I said, quickly picking it up, causing it to fly open. The floor instantly became littered with several scraps of paper and credit cards which had floated and danced down from the confines of the wallet. Acting quickly after my fumble I moved to pick up the various pieces of paper and plastic.
Before I could even crouch down it seemed as though Phil was already all over me. "Oh, no, don't worry about it. No trouble at all. Just you go on and head home, I can take of this." He said, his hands quickly trying to snake their way around the entire pile and shovel them over to himself.
I had already picked up several pieces of paper when my eyes trailed down to watch his almost desperate actions. "Are you sure? I mean it's no big deal and-" I trailed off as my eyes narrowed in on one of the pieces of paper like a hawk targeting its prey. It was a receipt from Monmouth Park Racetrack, not more than a ten minute drive away from the restaurant.
My eyes continued to trail down the receipt, and Phil, perhaps sensing that I was on the verge of opening up Pandora's Box, made a lunging dive to take the paper from him. My youth assisted my quick reaction to pull the receipt out of his reach as I continued to scroll through its contents until I found the information I had prayed wouldn't be revealed to me. I stood up and he quickly followed after me, launching like a rocket back to his feet.
"How long, Phil?" I asked, slamming the piece of paper onto the table.
"Frank, I honestly don't know what you're talking about," he replied, his eyes darting away from mine like a gazelle, unable to face the evidence I produced.
"Don't lie to me! You know damn well what I'm talking about! My father's treated you like a brother. You've been like an uncle to me, and now I find this!" I threw the piece of paper in his face, causing a wince as if I'd just stabbed him with a hypodermic needle, drawing out the secrets he'd kept from me and my father.
"Look, I've tried to stop, really I have. You know I wouldn't want to hurt you or your dad. I just had a good feeling about this horse today at the track."
"So you stole from us? You took all of our hard earned money and lost it on a stupid race just because you 'had a good feeling?' What the hell were you thinking?"
"I was going to pay it all back. Look, you're too young to understand what it's like and if you're smart you will never understand. I never claimed that I was a perfect guy. And now the shop's on the chopping block, I figured I might as well try to make some extra dough."
"With my dad's money at risk, my family's livelihood. I can't believe you'd do something like this."
"It's like I said, you don't understand. I don't expect sympathy from you or your old man. I know what I did was wrong, but when you're this old, you just can't make changes. Be happy you're still young and got your life ahead of you." Phil grabbed what few things he had with him and walked out the back door leaving me once more alone, once more questioning why my life was spiraling out of control.
The next day I called Carmen and told her not to bother opening up the shop. I told her about what had happened to Dad and said that we all needed a break from work. I didn't mention anything about Phil. As for myself, I didn't bother going to school that day. Drifting along the west wind down the not yet crowded streets in West End, I shuffled my way towards the beach. With a small huff I began jogging northbound up towards the Moss Mile, a stretch of boardwalk just south of the pizza shop. The soft crashing of the waves mixed with the screams of the seagulls engulfed my ears, mixing together into a melody greater than any orchestra I'd ever heard. I was running now. For what reason, I still can't say. Perhaps I was running from my troubles, or from the delusion that I'd be able to fix everything. By the time I reached the end of the boardwalk before the shop, I had already flung myself down onto the sand below me and laid out in the late-spring sun, staring up into the cloudless sky wondering why in such a beautiful world was there such adversity.
I lay out there for several hours, not budging at all. I thought maybe I could just become one with the sand and just be able to rest there on such a wonderful day without a care in the world. My trance was broken by the sound of Steph's voice yelling at me from what seemed like miles away, yet she was but a few feet in front of me. "Frank? My God, are you alright?" she asked shaking me from my shoulder.
"What? Oh, yeah, I'm fine," I said, forcing myself to sit up. "What are you doing here? I thought you never wanted to see me again."
"Well, you weren't in school today and rumors were going around school about what happened with your dad. I tried looking for you at the shop and I saw it was closed. Then I saw you out here and thought something awful had happened to you. Is your dad really in the hospital?"
"Heart attack," I said bluntly.
"Oh my God." She hugged my neck and rested my head on her shoulder, prompting my arms to instinctively reach around her and pull her into my body. "I never thought this all would happen to you. Frank, I'm really sorry about what I said at school the other day. I had no clue what you and your family were going through."
"It's alright. I wasn't exactly being fair either. Let's just try to put it behind us, okay? I don't like seeing you unhappy like you've been the past few weeks," I said with a smile on my face.
She returned the grin and helped me up from my sand bed. "I'm sure your mom's worried about you. Maybe we should head back to your house."
I agreed and we walked our way back inland towards my house, a small two-story building that seemed more like an extravagant garage than a house from the outside, wedged between two larger buildings on either side. The siding and roof were in general disrepair, though my mom tried her best to keep flowers blooming outside to try and offset the otherwise dreary nature of our beige hut. Inside the house was much cozier, our house going with a slight nautical theme with wood paneling covering nearly everything mixed with pictures of the ocean, model ships, and fake fish mounted on the walls.
By the phone I saw my mom, just as small as my dad, but still with all her hair and a healthy tan skin about her. Her hair fell to her shoulders, jet black like that of the background of a jolly roger. When she saw me and Steph, she quickly said goodbye to whoever was calling her to address us.
"Oh, Frank, I'm glad you're safe," she said, getting up and wrapping her arms around me in a tight bear hug, one which no woman of her size should be able to pull off with as much strength as she displayed.
"Of course I am. Listen, have you gotten any news from Dad?"
My mother's face quickly dropped. "Your father is ok. He's responsive but still needs his rest. But there's bad news, hun." Steph gripped my arm tight in preparation for what Mom had to say. "Your father has apparently signed with the man from the C.D.B. The shop's belongs to them now."
"What? How could he sign? He's in the hospital!"
"Apparently some man with a gray beard and a business suit walked in had him sign over the property. Carmen walked in just as he was leaving and your father must have fallen back asleep from the excitement."
"No, I can't believe he'd sign over the shop!" I said. "That guy Mullen must have forced him to sign. That scum, picking on a sick old man."
"Carmen's apparently trying to organize a protest in the next couple of days to keep them from destroying the building. Frank, I don't want you to be a part of that. Just stay here, you shouldn't have to watch them."
Watch them, I thought, I'm going to join them. I looked over at Steph and she seemed to have the same thing on her mind as she gave me an approving nod with a look of determination on her face. "Don't worry about it, Mom. Let's just try to figure out what we'll do if the place comes down."
I nearly choked, the mix of gasoline and sweat coagulated in the back of my throat as I stood arm and arm with my comrades merely three days after the news of my dad signing over the shop broke. We were mere ants under the shadow of the large yellow backhoe loaders and bulldozers which had parked themselves in front of our human blockade. I was still in shock by the sheer number of people who had turned out in support of fighting off the demolition crew; fellow shopkeepers, local residents, students, and everything in between made up our multi-layer wall of people blocking off access to the beach and boardwalk. Everyone's eyes seemed to glare in unison at the harbingers of destruction for everything we had known and loved on the shore for all of our lives. Somewhere, deep in my heart, I actually thought we could stop what in my mind I knew was inevitable.
"We have to try," I remember Steph telling me. I looked into her eyes and saw the remorseful and disappointed girl I knew before had been replaced by an Amazonian spirit, fueled with the desire to protect what she felt was her home. My smile couldn't have grown any wider if I had a second pair of cheeks.
The demo guys made the best of the situation and had long since decided to take an extended smoke and coffee break. They rested about lazily, a pack lions bathing in the sun biding their time before they were to pounce on their next prey. The hail of insults from our blockade didn't seem to bother them at all as they chatted amongst themselves like office workers around a water cooler.
"Go to hell you fascists!" I made out from one of the protesters. I couldn't really identify who it was among the following cheers and screaming which accompanied those words. Unfortunately for the ego of whoever said it, none of the demo guys seemed to notice, or even care. Their nonchalant attitude spoke volumes back at us as if they were watching a movie whose ending was already known.
After what seemed like an hour-long standstill, a black Lexus rolled up next to the machinery we had blocked off. The sun glistened off of the paint like the still waters of a lake, nearly blinding everyone surrounding it. From out of the driver's seat Barry Mullen stood up, wearing nothing but black clothing as if he was attending a funeral. I remember thinking that only Barry and the devil could stand being in that summer heat and not sweat. Out of the passenger door I could see my mother, causing my heart to drop faster than a hot potato. I could hear Steph whisper "Oh no," as the two walked up to our blockade, my mother's hands covering her mouth in a futile attempt to hide her emotions while Barry's cool confidence slow descended to annoyance, as if our presence was like that on an unwanted house guest.
"Mind telling me what you're trying to do here, son?" Barry said, folding his arms across his chest like a father scolding his child for having a hand in the cookie jar. "Your father's already caved and signed the papers. This entire area belongs to the public now; you have no right to be trespassing on a demolition site."
"Shove those papers up your ass!" I yelled, shoving my finger in his face. "You have no right to decide whose livelihoods to destroy because of you want to build condos for the rich!"
"Look, there's enormous potential in this area if used the correct way. In all fairness, people loved your pizza place. But the reality is the town isn't willing to continue taking large hits on their taxes because they want to enjoy a slice of pizza. You're being selfish here, kid."
"Frank, listen to him," my mom said trying to bottle up her emotions and succeeding as much as a tea kettle attempting to stop from whistling. "Please, I don't know what would happen if I lost you and your father! This isn't what he wants!"
"You're not losing anyone," I replied before turning my attention back to Barry. "Screwing over people in order to make other people's lives' easier isn't exactly what I'd call charitable either."
Barry groaned, his frustration building and compacting in on itself as it rolled over and over inside him. "What's it gonna take to move you?"
"I want the contract my father signed and I want it ripped to shreds. Otherwise I'm not moving!" A cheer of fellow protesters followed along with a new string of insults directed at Barry.
"You know that's not going to happen. Just think about it, Frank. You got nothing to negotiate with except my precious time. What you're doing is extremely childish and is keeping everyone here from making money. Now the way I see it, you have two options; either you can remove yourself from this area or I will have you removed."
"I'd like to see you try, old man."
As if on cue, the air was pierced with the sound of sirens which grew louder as the source got closer to our location. A line of police vehicles parked around the demolition equipment with officers dressed in light riot gear filing out and quickly taking positions around Barry. Not a word was spoken among the police, whose presence had incited the mouths of everyone behind me.
"Well it looks like the cavalry's here," Barry said with the grin of a hyena. "So what's it gonna be, kid?"
"The boy ain't going anywhere!" came a voice I hadn't heard for several days, but whose sound was like the words of the messiah himself to me.
"Oh for the love of God," Barry said, burying his face into his hand. "Sestito, what the hell are you doing here? Shouldn't you be off somewhere gambling away your soul or something?"
"Very funny," Phil replied with a glare hitting Barry directly between the eyes. "But we ain't moving. You'd have to run me over with one of your bulldozers before you get anywhere near those buildings!" The stoic stance Phil had taken was something I hadn't seen in the many years I'd known the man. From the groveling sinner I had seen him as before, he's suddenly made a transition into a soldier of righteousness before my eyes.
"Phil, you don't have to do this," I said, not understanding how he could even be bothered with helping the cause after he was essentially run out of my house like a dog that'd bit a child.
"I ain't letting you face this alone. I owe it to your family to stand beside you after everything you've done for me. And I swear to your Frank, I'm gonna change and I'm gonna be the guy you thought I was again."
"Touching, but do you really think that just because you're here that I'm all of a sudden going to stop myself from tearing down those buildings? I'm not going to stop my project just because a bunch of guineas tell me to."
As soon as his sentence was finished, Barry's nose was contorted back into his skull thanks to Phil's fist. I stood back with Steph, shocked at Phil's sudden outburst of aggression erupting like a volcano into Barry's face. The riot cops wasted no time as they swarmed over Phil like a group of bees, tackling him to the ground and placing handcuffs on him. As the cops engulfed Phil, the rest of the protestors, including me and Steph, began growing violent themselves, tossing their signs, shoes, and anything else they could grab their hands at the pile of bodies before them.
By the time the dust had settled I was in handcuffs in the back of a police van, my nose bloodied from an elbow to the face and my spirit ripped from my body. That night in the Monmouth Country Correctional Facility I wept silent tears, knowing that my life was officially over.
I didn't see anyone until the next afternoon. My cell wasn't as cramped as I thought it would be, as I shared it with several other people from the protest. I faintly remembered one of the cops telling us that the police station in Long Branch didn't have enough room for us, so they drove us all the way out to Freehold to be held here. Everyone in the cell for the almost twenty-four hours that we were held there was distraught, the looks on their faces ranging from confusion and anger to sadness and despair. The air was heavy with the stench of rotten eggs, no doubt the result of several of my larger cell mates' profuse sweating caused by the unforgiving summer heat.
My attention was diverted from my reeking brothers-in-arms by the clanging of metal by the cell door. It slowly opened, revealing two guards, both with faces chiseled from stone, with the sole imperfection between them was that one had stubble which must have built up over the past few days.
"Frank Donato?" the stubble-sporting guard said.
I slowly stepped forward towards the guards, unsure what these men could have possibly wanted from me. Where they sending me to a trial? I hadn't even seen a lawyer or gotten a phone call. When the hell was I getting that phone call? Better yet, who would I call? My parents? My dad would have another heart attack if he knew where I was. God only knew how much more he could take. The firm grasp of the clean-shaven guard's hand around my arm brought my thoughts back to the present as he led me down a hallway and into a small room. The walls were a dark grey color with the light of a barred window casting long shadows across them. In the middle of the room was a table with two chairs on either side. I was instructed to sit at the far side of the table by the stubble guard before the shut the door behind me. When I sat, I looked instinctively up at the ceiling and was met with a security camera, matching my curious gaze with a cold-metallic look in its lens.
I heard the door creak open squealing like a whale crying out for the sweet release of death and saw Barry Mullen walk in, a sight not much better than the noise accompanying his entrance. The sight of him caused me to immediately jump from my seat making him throw his arms up in defense. "Hey, hey," he said softly. "Calm down, kid. I'm just here to talk, that's all. Sit down before they come in here and haul you back off to the cell." It was then that I noticed the rather large bandage that covered a good portion of the arch of his nose which had swelled up something terrible since the last I saw him.
"And why the hell would I want to talk to you?" I said, plopping down in my seat and folding my arms tightly across my chest. It was the only thing I could do to keep myself from reaching across the table and giving him another shot to the face. "It's your fault I'm even here."
"I'm not here to argue with you, son," he replied, taking the seat across from me. "I'm here to apologize." My brow quirked. "I realize that I may have overstepped some boundaries with what I said yesterday and I'm sorry. Trust me; I just wanted to have you all peacefully removed from the premises. I didn't want to get the police involved."
"You have a funny way of showing that."
"I only wanted them there for show. I only wanted to intimidate, not respond to an actual disturbance."
"There wouldn't have been one if you had just left us alone!" I yelled, slamming my hands on the table. "If this is your idea of an apology, it isn't working. Now if you don't have anything worth telling me then you should just have the guards throw me back in my cell."
Barry let out a soft sigh. "Calm down, son. I'm getting you and your friends out of here."
My expression switched from anger to confusion faster than a gator attacks its prey by a water bank. "Why in the world would you do that?"
"This is all just a misfortunate circumstance of my tight scheduling. If I had more time to assess the situation, I would have been a bit more compassionate. But my bosses wanted those buildings knocked down so we could open up the new Shore Village complex by next summer. I was running out of time and I needed you out of there."
"So why let us out then? You know we're just going to go back and protest. I could go to the papers about this very conversation."
"You're not going to do that, Frank. You need to move on. I realize you might not be old enough to understand this, but sometimes change needs to happen and there's nothing you can do to stop it."
"If change means forcing people to sign their lives away like you did to my dad, then I don't want to be a part of it."
"Is that what you think happened? Frank, that's not what happened at all."
"How should you know?" tears began rolling down my cheeks. "Do you know what you've caused my family? My dad's in the hospital right now because you gave him a heart attack! And then you had the nerve to force papers in front of him to sign, you son of a bitch!"
"In all fairness, your family's been dealing with a lot more than just my interference, and I'm sure those issues were weighing just as heavily on your dad's mind." Barry said, clearing his throat. "I didn't go to the hospital to force your dad to sign over the property to the state. He asked me to come."
"He would never do that! He'd never sign away the shop!"
"You have to understand, he couldn't take the stress anymore. Do you realize how long he worked in that shop? He averaged over sixteen hours a day, rarely took vacations off, all the while trying to raise a family. An old man like him could only take so much stress."
"So what's that got to do with anything? I could still run the shop for him. He knows I can cook and clean. And we still have Carmen; I could get more workers like her."
"As much as he loved the shop, he loved his family more, son." Barry reached over a put his hands on my shoulders. "He worked as hard as he did to give you the kind of life he never had as a kid. He wanted to send you to college to make something of yourself. Working in a pizza shop isn't the kind of life he wanted for you."
"No, you're lying," I said, shaking my head.
"When he had the heart attack, he realized he couldn't take the stress anymore and had me come down to the hospital to sign away the shop. I made him a more than generous offer for the property so he can pay off his debts and still have enough to take care of his family. The government is even willing to subsidize your college tuition to help compensate for the loss of your business."
The waterworks were in full effect at this point, my head planted firmly in my arms on the table as my body quaked from my silent tears. "I don't want any of that. I just want the shop back."
"You have to learn to move on, Frank. Nothing lasts forever. You have to grow up and be your own man. That's what your dad wants from you." He let go of my shoulders and stood up, walking to the door. "I'm dropping the charges against Phil and I'm having him released as well. There's a car outside waiting for you both to take you both home. Take as much time as you need." After that day, I never saw Barry again.
It was around five in the afternoon when I finally returned to the scene of my defeat. Flimsy chain-link fencing had been haphazardly thrown up to surround the remains of my childhood. The pizza shop lay in front of me, a twisted pile of wood and metal surrounded by unmanned machinery. Steph insisted that she come with me to see what was left of what my life had amounted to for the past nineteen years of my life. I stood in silence, my heart shattered into fragments of what once was. That vacant lot stood there, mocking me as a symbol of what I could never have again.
"Life sucks," I said, breaking the silence.
"Yeah, it kinda does," Steph said, leaning into me and wrapping an arm around my waste. "How's your dad doing?"
"The doctors just want to observe him one more night before they release him. He mentioned something about Monmouth University needing a chef for their cafeteria that he might take. If he gets the job, I could go there for half the tuition for the first year."
"That's good. Are you going to go?"
"I guess. It seems like that's really the only option I have at this point."
"But is it something you want to do?" Steph said, moving in front of me and wrapping her arms around me, giving at me with those big brown eyes of hers.
"Well it couldn't hurt to try something new, right?" I pulled Steph in close and we walked down the boardwalk into the evening.