The Grand Poobah
by Jerry Guarino
a megabucks ticket, said Joey.
Only one said the kid behind the
You only need one Joey said and
a pack of lights motioning to the cigarette
picture on the counter. 3, 7, 10, 19, 58
and 83. Good numbers, he thought as he
pushed the ticket into his wallet and lit up
before he got to the car. Joeys life had
been reduced to hoping he could win the lottery,
after decades of wasted opportunities and bad
Joeys parents came from Italy during the
great wave of immigrants in the 1920s, opening a
grocery store in Newark. Good Catholic boys, they
attended Mass twice a week. Joey did whatever his
parents asked and did well in school. He was a
happy and bright boy. But his father favored Nick,
the first-born. Poppa, why does Nickie get
a new suit for church? he asked.
Joeys father smiled and patted him on the
head. Nickie needs a new suit because hes
going to be an altar boy. Youll be one in a
few years and then well get you a new suit.
But Joey knew it was more than that. Nick got
better toys at Christmas and more attention from
his parents. Even though he was a better student,
Joey would be criticized if he didnt get
all As. Nick would be praised
for getting Bs.
Fourth grade is harder than first grade
Joey, his father explained. Well
see how you do then.
Now in his late 50s, Joey looked like Ernest
Borgnine, another first generation Italian-American,
but without his talent or work ethic. His life
more closely resembled Ralph Kramden, the poor
bus driver on The Honeymooners, wearing
a raccoon hat at the lodge. He walked into the
Italian-American club and sat down at the card
table. Ciao, come stai, said Joey.
Bene, bene replied the other players.
Give me $300 pulling most of the cash
from his wallet and taking his chips.
Feeling lucky today Joey? said Mike.
I gotta believe, Mike, you know that,
gambling now his religion.
Joey and his brother Nick worked at the grocery.
Nick would be at the cash register while Joey
bagged food. One time a tomato slipped from the
top of the bag to the bottom, breaking when the
customer put it in his car. He returned to
complain. His father stared at Joey. Tomatoes
go on top. Give the man a new one and its
coming out of your allowance.
He had joined the Masonic order to make
connections for sales. In 1983, the church had
reiterated their denouncement of Freemasonry.
Rejected by his faith, Joey believed that he was
in a state of grave sin, thus justifying the
downward spiral his life had taken. His younger
son was brain damaged at birth and given up to an
institution for life, a common practice in the
1950s; his other son had a compromised pulmonary
system, probably related to the smoking addiction
he and his wife shared.
Poppa, I made this for you in art class.
Joey handed his father the watercolor with a
picture of them both standing in front of the
Wheres Nickie and your mother?
his father said. This is just me and you.
Just. Joey held back tears.
Eventually, Joey stopped trying to please his
father. This led to his smoking, gambling and
Joey thumbed his cards, a 4, 7, jack, queen and
king. He looked around the table. Two cards
he said, then took another cigarette out. In high
school, Joey was an all-state lineman. But today,
at 510 and 300 pounds, Joey was
closer to a heart attack than a running attack.
Cmon, give me picture cards he
thought to himself as he looked at his hand.
Catching an ace and ten, he now held a straight.
I raise and he threw $40 in the pot.
Two players threw in their cards, not with
this hand said one.
Mike glanced over his hand to Joey. All
right. Ill play and he raised him to
Joey blew some smoke out, looked at his chips;
realizing most of his paycheck was on the table.
All in and he pushed $300 in chips
into the middle.
Mike looked at his cards again, checked his
wallet, and then gave Joey a smile. Call.
Joey smiled back, laid down his cards and reached
for the pot.
A natural talker, Joey had passed up an offer to
become the first salesman for a new business
venture, frozen orange juice. His gambling
addiction and progressive depression kept his
wife and son in poverty, even losing a house that
his father had bought him years before.
All hearts said Mike as he laid down
A little embarrassed now, Joey finished his
cigarette, strained to push away from the table
and turned to walk out. You beat me again
Walking back to his car, his legs were knocked
under him. A punk kid held a knife to his back
and took his wallet. Move and Ill
stick you, old man. Old man. The youth
disappeared down an alley. Trembling, Joey got in
his car and drove home.
His wife could tell something was wrong when he
came into the kitchen. What happened?
I was mugged. They got my paycheck for the
week. Dejected from the theft but glad that
he didnt have to tell her about the loss at
cards, Joey sat quietly and ate his pasta, then
left to watch television. His wife came in from
the kitchen. Joey fell asleep, partly from his
smoking, obesity and depression, partly from the
trauma of being held up. His wife changed the
channel, as her show was about to come on when
she saw the blonde model reading the numbers for
3, 7, 10, 19, 58 and 83.