Commentary Magazine


Out of Action

It was a pretty good night at Gamblers Anonymous. Eddie Rothman had been coming to these meetings, held in the basement of the Methodist Church on Lawrence Avenue every Tuesday night save holidays for more than three years now. Most of the meetings were excruciatingly boring, but Rothman kept coming to them for the simple reason that his doing so seemed to work. He had been out of action, as the gamblers say, for the full time, and so he had to conclude that GA worked—at least for him, at least thus far.

Rothman had told his own story over the first month or so that he had begun attending GA meetings. His problem was sports betting, especially college football, but other sports, too.

After his father’s death, Rothman had taken over the family business, the manufacture and importing of novelties: We’re-Number-One gloves, miniature cameras, dream catchers, fuzzy dice, cellphone cases, junk jewelry. He was then 37 with two kids. He’d been a gambler what seemed like all his life, beginning with betting parley cards in high school: Pick three teams on the point spread and win six dollars on a dollar bet. He and his pals played lots of poker after school and on weekends; also blackjack and games called in-between and potluck and gin rummy, Hollywood Oklahoma, spades double, for half a cent a point.

Rothman, who had good card sense, more than held his own in these games. Once, though, at the age of sixteen, he lost $130 in an after-school potluck game, which took the edge off his appetite for dinner that evening. His friend Bobby Lekachman’s older brother Ted had a bookie, and he could place a $25 bet on a ballgame through him. Eddie won more of these bets than he lost. After dropping out of Roosevelt College in his second year and going to work for his father, Rothman acquired a bookie of his own, a guy named Lou Rappaport, and began to up his bets on ballgames to $100 a shot. He came out ahead, though not by much.

He liked to have a bet going at all times. Life in action was better. The action made him feel, somehow, more alive. He probably gave more thought to the sports pages than to the novelty business. There were lots of what his father used to call “green deals” in Rothman’s business, deals made for cash and off the books. When his father died and Rothman took over the business, he used a fair amount of this extra “green” to step up his bets, to $200 and sometimes $500 a game. He started betting basketball and baseball games; in baseball, he bet pitchers, of course, but also the streak system, betting on the teams that won the day before, against those who lost the day before. His craving for action grew stronger, and he was beginning to lose a lot more than he won. This was probably because he needed the action, couldn’t lay off, no longer betting only on those games about which he felt confident.

Winston Churchill, Rothman read somewhere, claimed he got a lot more out of alcohol than it got out of him. Rothman used to think the same of his own gambling, but eventually he recognized this wasn’t so. He knew he was in trouble the weekend he bet two grand on a Friday night PAC Ten game in Arizona, lost, doubled down on Saturday, taking Ohio State over Indiana giving 14 points, and lost again, and doubled down yet again on Sunday on the Bears–Lions game, where the point spread beat him, making for a twelve-grand trouncing for the weekend. He did the same thing the following weekend, only at twice the stakes. He lost $4,000 on Arizona versus Oregon State, lost $8,000 on Notre Dame over Pittsburgh on Saturday, and then $16,000 on the 49ers over the Rams, putting him down $28,000, which called for just about all the money from green deals that he had stowed away in his vault at Midcity Bank.

Rothman knew he had to slow things down. He went two weeks in the middle of football season without placing a bet. Naturally, every bet he would have made but didn’t during this drying-out period turned out to have been a winner. The third week he went back into action and won on Michigan State over Purdue, but lost twice the sum he’d won on the Packers–Colts game, putting him five grand down.

Fortunately, Debbie, Rothman’s wife, was not a woman at all interested in business, or in where Rothman’s money came from. So at least he didn’t have to worry about hiding his losses from her—not yet anyway. He tried not going cold turkey on gambling, but on tamping things down; betting hundreds instead of thousands. But the same thrill wasn’t there for hundreds, and he felt especially foolish when a slew of hundred-dollar bets came in for him and he thought how much money it would have been if they had been bets in the thousands.

The weekend of the college-bowl games Rothman lost $45,000, and he didn’t have it to pay his bookie, a cheerful man in his late sixties named Ike Goldstein. When he told Ike he would need some time to get the money, Ike, over the phone, in a voice in which Rothman heard menace, said, “If I were you, I wouldn’t take too long to get it.”

Rothman had to tell Debbie as well as his older brother Mel, an orthodontist with a successful practice. A family meeting was called. Everyone agreed it was best to keep it from Rothman’s mother, who was suffering from early signs of dementia. Mel’s wife, Laurie, was also present. Rothman felt as if he had been called down to the principal’s office for writing obscenities on the walls. His brother lent him the $45,000, and a schedule for repayment was set up. The loan was given on condition of Rothman’s pledge to attend Gamblers Anonymous meetings, which Rothman promised to do.

He put himself on a strict mental diet. He stopped watching ball games on television, ceased reading the sports pages. Immediately he realized how large a part of his life these things had taken up. He often found himself with nothing to say when customers and other men brought up the Bears or the Cubs, or asked him how he enjoyed the Series or the Super Bowl. He had to find other interests, subjects for conversation, damn well nearly had to revise his personality.

Out of action, with no bets going, his life at first seemed flat, stale. The withdrawal, he assumed, wasn’t near so rough as that from drugs or alcohol, because the addiction didn’t have a physiological basis. But it was rough enough. Was gambling, he wondered, the alcoholism of Jews?

So every Tuesday night Rothman dragged himself off to Lawrence Avenue for the 7:00 p.m. meeting of Gamblers Anonymous. He worked until six on Tuesdays, stopped along the way at Wendy’s for a spicy chicken sandwich and small order of fries and a large Coke, which he ate in his Audi. He took the Coke into the meetings with him.

Tonight’s meeting had four new members. One, a guy in his late twenties, his hair in a ponytail, tattoos on his forearms, got up to announce that we were looking at the man who personally stopped the Miami Heat’s twenty-seven-game winning streak. “I did it of course,” he said, “by betting on them against the Bulls. That’s all I want to say right now, but you’ll hear more about my past adventures in future.”

Another of the new members, a man in his middle fifties, dressed in a velour Fila running suit, said that he woke up a week ago after his wife had gone to work, and, while having his coffee in the living room, thought how shabby the furniture in their apartment had become. So he called in a used-furniture dealer, sold the living-room furniture and the dinning-room set, and took the money—$1,200—to the track at Arlington. His thought was that when he returned home he would surprise his wife by telling her that the next day they would go off with his winnings and buy all new furniture. “Surprise, surprise,” he said. “Didn’t happen. I lost the twelve hundred. We’ve been eating in the kitchen ever since.” After a pause, he added, “I’m here among other reasons to save my marriage.”

The third new member announced that his name was Les Erhlich. He had a layered haircut, hair combed over his ears, an expensive suit. He told how he had blown his family’s roofing business and two marriages through gambling. He was now selling household improvements, and on his third marriage. Unless he was in action, he said, he failed to see the point of life. He had had a number of bad weeks in a row, and instead of explaining to his wife how he had really lost his money, he began putting bits of lipstick on his shirt collars, so that she would think he was having a love affair and spending the money on a woman rather than gambling it away. “Sick stuff, I realized,” he said, “and that’s why I’m here tonight.”

The fourth new guy stood up to say that his name was Lenny Adler and that if it was all right he’d prefer not to speak this evening, or until he had the lay of the land on how things worked. He added that his gambling had put him on the edge of suicide and that he was grateful for the existence of a place like GA where he could meet and talk with people who knew something about what he had been through.

This Lenny Adler was short, on the pudgy side, with thin sandy-colored hair, much receded, with a touch of mousse added, giving it a wet look. He wore a grey suit, a light blue shirt, no necktie. He had an almost too clean look about him, as if he just stepped out of the shower. He appeared to be in his early forties, around Rothman’s age. He had a manicure and a blue sapphire ring on the little finger of his right hand. He looked prosperous, or at least as if he might once have had some serious money.

At coffee after the meeting, Adler approached Rothman. “Did you by any chance go to Von Steuben High School?” he asked.

“I did,” Rothman replied.

“I thought so. You looked familiar.”

They discovered that they had been there at the same time, though Adler was two years older. Would he, Adler wanted to know, be interested in ducking out for a drink to talk about old times? Maybe Rothman could fill him in on how things worked at GA.

Driving in Adler’s white Porsche, a Boxter, they found an Irish pub on Ashland Avenue called Burke’s. The place wasn’t crowded, though seven or eight thin-screen television sets around the room were all silently playing ball games. They took a booth.

Adler told Rothman that he was a salesman at Loeber Porsche in Lincolnwood. He was currently separated from his second wife, who lived with his fifteen-year-old daughter, Jennifer, in Morton Grove. He was living in a furnished apartment in the Somerset Hotel, on Sheridan at Argyle.

“A beautiful girl, my daughter, but a handful,” Adler said. “Someday she’ll make some unlucky man completely miserable, I’m sure.” 

“What’s your weakness, your gambling jones?” Rothman asked. “Mine was sports betting.”

“Casinos,” said Adler. “Craps and blackjack. Fifteen or so years ago, I had to travel out to Vegas or Atlantic City to get into action. Now the goddamn things are everywhere. What’s that line about the lottery? It’s the tax the state charges people who don’t understand basic arithmetic. There ought to be something similar said about casinos. It’s the tax the state charges guys dumb enough to think they can beat the house.”

“What makes you think GA is going to do you any good?”

“I’m counting—I guess I better not say betting —on it, though who knows? At least the stories are better than I imagine those at Alcoholics Anonymous must be.”

“Some are pretty wild,” Rothman said.

“The guy who got up tonight and talked about putting lipstick on his shirt collars? I think I can top that one, though I’m only going to tell it to you. Toward the end of my second marriage, I used to put a dab of lipstick on the fly of my boxer shorts to try to establish the same thing. Who knows, I figured it might even encourage my wife to outdo her rival.”

“Did it work?”

“No. But I figured it was worth a try. No matter, though. One of the nice things about gambling is that it takes your mind off sex, as you may have noticed.”

“Sex and everything else,” Rothman said.

“It can be a problem, that everything else, no doubt about it,” Adler said. “But when it’s going well, gambling gives a high like no other I’ve known.”

“No argument.”

“How long you been out of action?” Adler asked.

“It’ll be three years, four months in May,” said Rothman, “but who’s counting.”

“Impressive. You ever feel the ache?”

“Less and less,” Rothman said. “But it can still creep up on me.”

“Is that why you keep going to these GA meetings?”

“I go,” said Rothman, “because I’m nervous about not going. Besides, I used to be a streak system bettor, and I don’t want to break my own streak. Might change my luck.”

“Luck,” Adler said. “I remember using that word a lot before it had the adjective shitty before it.”

They stayed at Burke’s until nearly midnight. Rothman called Debbie at ten to let her know he would be home late, lest she think he had fallen off the wagon and was in a poker game. They talked about their boyhoods in Albany Park, which Adler referred to as the Old Country. They talked about their similar boredom with school, about there being nothing in the classroom—any classroom—for either of them. They talked about marriage and how gambling didn’t go with marriage. Rothman said he once heard someone say that a married philosopher was a joke, but a married gambler was even more ridiculous.

But mostly they talked about their adventures in the life: the big scores each had made gambling, and the even bigger losses they had taken. They discovered that they were a lot alike. The major difference between them, at least for now, was that Rothman had money, was “holding,” in the term they used at the track, and Adler was tapped out, and with his alimony and child-support payments figured to be for the foreseeable future.

The following Tuesday, attendance at Gamblers Anonymous was skimpy (it had been raining all day). Rothman counted nine people at the meeting, where usually there were twenty or so. Two of the four new guys of the previous week failed to show up, and never would again. Soon after the meeting opened, Lenny Adler, who sat across the large conference table from Rothman, stood up to speak.

“I’m pleased to be here among people who know all the pleasures and horrors of the gambling life,” Adler began. “Yet for all we have in common, each of us has his own story, I’m sure. Mine is fear of being a loser, which is, of course what, thanks to gambling, I’ve become. A big-time loser.

“But to start at the beginning, I was, or at least felt myself, a loser right out of the gate. My father came out of Korea and drove a cab. Veteran’s Cab was the name of the company. He planned for it to be a temporary thing, but he did it for the rest of his life. He played the ponies, my old man, nothing serious, a two-buck bettor. Gambling didn’t bring him down. The ambition gene, I guess, was missing from his make-up. My mother, who was a kind and good-hearted lady, was early afflicted with macular degeneration, which made her practically blind by the time she was thirty. I had two sisters, both older than me, each full of temperament and unhappiness. We lived above a drugstore on Wilson near St. Louis Avenue. I grew up in a home that, from the time I was maybe seven or eight years old, I knew I wanted to get the hell away from, pronto.

“And I did, even as a little kid. I found my refuge on the streets. I hung out in the schoolyard at Peterson Grammar School. My first gambling took place there—marbles, mibs, we called them. I practiced very hard at mibs, because for me they were more than a game. I needed to win. I needed to think about myself as a winner because I knew that, in my family, I had drawn a loser’s hand.

“My next gambling was lagging pennies, then nickels, and quarters, the kid’s game of trying to pitch coins as close as possible to a line in the sidewalk. I worked hard to be good at this, too. As I grew older, I used to sucker guys into games of Horse on the half-court basket set up in the schoolyard. I wasn’t a great basketball player, but I trained myself to shoot left-handed, which was usually all I needed to win at Horse. Other kids may have found fun at the playground, but for me a lot more than fun was involved. It was where I went to work.

“In high school I hung around with a bunch that modeled themselves on Syndicate guys. From the age of fourteen we smoked, shot craps, played nickel-dime-and-quarter poker, went to the harness races at night at Maywood, drove out to the cathouses in Braidwood and Kankakee. Gambling was at the center of everything.

“I sat in classrooms bored out of my gourd. The only way I could have been a good student would have been if someone bet me I couldn’t get A’s. I graduated somewhere in the lower quarter of my class and then lasted a single semester at Wright Junior College.

“I began selling cars at the age of nineteen. I had an Uncle Earle, my mother’s brother, who had a used-car lot. Lots of down time on a car lot. I used mine to study the sports pages and call in bets. By now the need to stay in action was second among my priorities only behind the need to breathe. Baseball, football, college and pro basketball, I had a bet going every day.

“Las Vegas killed me. I went out there when I was twenty-three with two other guys I was working with at the time at Z. Frank Chevrolet. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. The glitz, the glamour, the show biz, it all blew me away. I went away from that first trip an eight-grand-and-change winner, most of it from the blackjack tables. A bad omen, my good luck my first time in Vegas. I was hooked.

“I started making trips every eight weeks or so. The time when I wasn’t there I didn’t quite feel alive. Soon I was down as a high-roller, which meant they comped my room at the Mirage.

“Was I a sucker, a chump, a loser? Of course I was, but I scarcely noticed. The question I would ask myself during those days was not how much did I lose but when would I have enough to go back. This was action to the highest power, around the clock, every day. I loved it.

“Of course when the local casinos started up, I was done for. I used to stop off at them the way another guy might have stopped at a 7-Eleven to pick up a quart of milk. It didn’t take me long to wrack up debts of more than two hundred grand. They just built a casino in Desplaines, the Rivers it’s called, a fifteen-minute drive from where I lived with my ex-wife.

“I neglected to mention that I was married and have a teenage daughter. You want to talk about rotten luck, my wife’s first husband was an alcoholic, then she marries me, a guy hooked on gambling. The night she discovered that I had put a second mortgage on our house and had loans out on both our cars, she said, in a voice so calm that it spooked me, she said, ‘You know, Lenny, the nice thing about alcoholics is that at least they pass out.’

“I’ve probably already gone on too long to say ‘to make a long story short,’ but the fact is that I’m up that famous creek without a paddle, and the bottom of the boat is starting to leak pretty badly. I’ve got to find a way to get out of action and stay out. The last thing I wanted to be in life was a loser, and I realize that this is what I’ve become, in spades. That’s why I’ve come here for help. I’ll shut up now. Apologies for going on so long.”

Rothman couldn’t recall a better talk in his three years of coming to GA meetings. He sensed everyone else at the table was impressed. Rothman got up to say that if Adler ever needed any help, ever felt himself slipping, he hoped he’d call him. Lenny Adler smiled and said he appreciated the offer, and would no doubt one day take him up on it. The meeting was a fairly brief one. After it was over, Rothman came up to Lenny Adler to tell him that he meant his offer in all seriousness. He gave him his cell and business and home phone numbers.

“The first few months are the toughest,” he said.

“I’ll hang in there,” Adler said.

_____________

At next Tuesday’s meeting a new member named Arnie Berman got up to say that he thought he might be unusual in this company for he thought of himself as an unusual breed, a conservative, a cautious gambler.

“I’ve been cautious all my life,” he said. “I suppose I got this from my parents. My father was in his middle fifties when I was born, and he’d lived through the Depression. He was full of advice about saving and being careful generally about money. Maybe it was in reaction to him that I took up gambling.

“But the odd part is that I took it up, as I say, conservatively. I bet only favorites. I like the ponies, and I found myself betting favorites to place and sometimes even to show. A friend of mine, guy named Art Rosen, also big for the ponies, used to joke that instead of going to the track I should have bought Israeli Bonds—the return was about the same.

“Of course, it wasn’t the same. You can bet conservatively and still lose your ass. Which over the years I have done. I might get down big on a heavy favorite—the Patriots against the Jaguars, say—and when I lost, usually owing to the spread, I felt the need to make it back quick. I found myself doubling down a lot. Not so conservative anymore. Anyhow I figure that over the past decade I’m down maybe a quarter of a million dollars. I’m single. I’m not out on the street. But I’d like to learn how to quit, which is why I’m here tonight.”

After the meeting, Lenny came up to Rothman. “Takes all kinds, I guess,” he said, nodding his head in the direction of Arnie Berman. “But this guy ain’t my idea of a good time. Betting on a horse to show! I’d as soon bet on the Hancock Building to be still standing tomorrow morning. I’m more of a long-shot man myself. In fact, Eddie, I think of my entire life as a long shot.”

Lenny Adler missed the next GA meeting, but in the middle of the following week, at 6:30 p.m., in his car on his way home to Northbrook, Rothman got a call from him on his cell.

“Eddie,” he said. “I’m in my car and on the way to the Rivers Casino. Please tell me I’m a schmuck and to turn back.”

“Easy to do,” Rothman said. “You’re a schmuck, now turn back. Where are you anyhow?”

“I’m just about to get on the Kennedy at Foster.”

“Get off it,” Rothman said, “and meet me twenty minutes from now for dinner at an old Chinese restaurant called Kow-Kow on Cicero and Pratt. Got that?”

“Got it,” Adler said. “And thanks. You’re a friend.”

Kow-Kow was an old Cantonese restaurant, from a time when Cantonese was all that was known of Chinese food in Chicago. Rothman remembered it when it was on Devon Avenue. The patrons in the place tonight, most in their eighties, seemed to date from that time. He took a table in the center of the room and ordered a Tsingtao beer. He studied the menu, which still had Chop Suey and Chow Mein on it. Half an hour later, Adler hadn’t yet arrived.

Nor would he. Rothman waited a full hour for him, then called his wife to say he would be home for dinner after all. He thought about calling Adler back. On second thought, he said to himself, screw him.

Lenny Adler did show up for the next GA meeting. He came in ten or so minutes late, and did not greet Rothman. When his turn came to speak, he got to his feet and said:

“I missed the last meeting, for the disgraceful reason that I fell off the wagon. Last week I lost twelve hundred bucks, mostly at blackjack, at Rivers Casino. On my way out there I called my new friend Eddie Rothman, who is here with us tonight. Eddie told me to turn back and meet him for dinner at a Chinese restaurant. I was going to do so, then the thought hit me that the problem with Chinese food is that an hour later, you’re hungry to be back in action again. A bad joke, O.K. But what I do want to say is that after my Rivers Casino adventure I not only felt like a loser, but a guilty loser. Is this progress? I’m not sure. What I am sure about is that it’s a mistake for me to miss GA meetings, and I’ll try my best not to miss another.”

Listening to this, Rothman had his doubts. Lenny Adler was maybe a little too glib. When he suggested a drink to Rothman after the meeting, Rothman took a pass, saying that he had to be up early the next day.

“Another time?” Adler said.

“Right,” Rothman said. “Take care.”

Driving home, Rothman thought about Lenny Adler’s sincerity. Was he serious about coming to Gamblers Anonymous. Or was he just killing time. During his three plus years there, lots of guys, after telling their stories of defeat and heartache, never returned. Maybe the GA arrangement just wasn’t for them; they weren’t comfortable in it, with its confessional mode. Maybe they were able to straighten themselves out on their own. But most, Rothman thought, went back into action, with predictably disastrous results.

He recalled a young lawyer, guy named Jerry Feingold, a big guy, handsome, played basketball for New Trier, afterwards for Michigan. Went to law school, had a practice in the Loop. He broke down in tears his first night at GA. His father had twice bailed him out of heavy gambling debts, the second time for forty-odd grand. He never came back. A month or so later, Rothman read about his jumping from the window of his seventeenth floor LaSalle Street office. He’d heard from Marty Handler, the man who ran the Lawrence Avenue GA chapter, that Jerry Feingold had got into the Mob for more than fifty grand, and felt he couldn’t return to his father to ask for more help. He left a wife and two little kids, ten and eight.

When Rothman got home, Debbie told him he had a call from a man named Leonard Adler. She had written down the number.

“Are you ticked off at me for any reason, Eddie?” Adler wanted to know when Rothman called him back. “Did I do something to piss you off?”

“Don’t know why you’d think that. You call me for help, I offer it, and you don’t show up. Keep me waiting in a Chinese restaurant for an hour. Not so good.”

“I owe you an apology. I thought I already made it in public earlier tonight at the meeting.”

“What I wonder is whether you’re really serious about breaking your gambling fix. Fell off the wagon kinda early, I’d say. I mean, you’ll do what you want. But if you aren’t serious about this, then I would ask you not to come to me for help you don’t really want.”

“I am serious, Eddie, never been more serious about anything in my goddamn life. Give me another chance, another shot.”

“Sure,” said Rothman. He thought his voice sounded unconvincing. “Of course. Why not?”

“Thanks, pal. You won’t be sorry, I promise.”

“I hope not,” Rothman said, hoping that in his voice he had buried the doubt he strongly felt.

Lenny Adler showed up for the next four GA meetings. At each of them he sat next to Rothman. At each he spoke briefly, announcing that he had gone without action the week before and felt terrific about it but knew he still had a long ways to go.

After the last of these meetings, he invited Rothman for a drink. Rothman wasn’t eager to go, but felt it would be unkind to say no, so they agreed to meet at Burke’s. The bar was more crowded tonight than on their previous meeting there. The soundless television sets showed tennis matches, soccer games, night baseball. To Rothman, even after all this time, these games were little more than porno by other means, and he kept himself from looking at the screens.

They found a booth, ordered drinks—a martini for Adler, a vodka and tonic for Rothman.

“Any interest in going to the Bears season’s opener on Sunday,” Adler asked. “I’ve got seats on the forty.”

“None whatsoever.” Rothman said. “Watching a ballgame, any ballgame, without having a bet on it would be torture. It would be like a big-game hunter going on safari with a water pistol. I do better to stay away.”

“You really are a disciplinarian, Eddie.”

“I may not have many strengths,” Rothman said, “but at least I know my weaknesses.”

“You’re a philosopher.”

“Sure,” Rothman said, “right. Someone said the unexamined life isn’t worth living. The problem is that the examined life isn’t much fun.”

“Maybe you need a vice,” Adler said.

“What’d you have in mind? Drugs? Adultery? Child molestation?”

“I’ll need time to come up with the right vice for you. I’m sure it’s out there.”

“How about you? Was another week out of action tough on you?”

“Truth is, it was. They all are. I’m not as good at admitting to my weaknesses as you are.”

“Nothing to do but tough it out.”

“Sometimes I think a booze or drug problem might be easier.”

“More likely it would only be sloppier.”

“When did you know you had the gambling jones beat?”

“I don’t think of having beat it. I think of holding it off. I’m playing for a tie, a draw.”

“Not very glorious,” Adler said.

“It is if you consider the other possibility. My goal is to avoid humiliation, because, given my style as a gambler, that’s the only place gambling can end up for me. Probably a good idea to have a goal here yourself.”

“I’ll have to think about that,” Adler said. “Just now my only goal is not to give away all my money to strangers.”

“Not good enough, is my guess,” said Rothman. “Something a little more specific is needed.”

“I’ll think about it. Maybe you’ll help me on this one.”

“Anything you need,” said Rothman, “say the word.”

_____________

Adler came in late for the following week’s GA meeting, toward its close, looking harried. He barely greeted Rothman, then took off right after the meeting ended. The following week he didn’t show up at all; nor the two weeks after. Rothman assumed that he fell off the wagon, and was back in action, with the usual disastrous results.

Then, on a Saturday night, at 2:13 A.M., according to the digital clock beside Rothman’s bed, the phone rang and it was Lenny Adler.

“Eddie,” he said. “Lenny Adler. This is an outrageous time to call, I know, but I’m in deepest of deep shit, and need your help.”

“I’m in my bedroom,” Rothman said. “Let me take this downstairs.”

Rothman picked up the kitchen phone. He opened and stared into the refrigerator as Lenny Adler continued.

“Here’s the thing, Eddie. I’m into the Baretta family for sixty grand. You know about the Barettas?”

“No,” said Rothman, taking a pint of Häagen-Dazs peach sorbet out of the freezer. “Who are the Barettas?”

“They’re the Mob in Oak Forest, and they’re real brutes, killers.”

“So,” said Rothman, taking a spoon out of the silverware drawer.

“So they showed me a photograph of another guy who owed them roughly the same amount I do. Actually, they showed me a photograph of his hands. They’d cut off his thumbs.”

“Why are you telling me this?” Rothman asked, though he already knew the answer.

“Because if I don’t have twenty grand, a third of what I owe them, by Tuesday, I’m going to be in the same condition, fuckin’ thumbless. I need to borrow the twenty from you, Eddie. There’s no one else I can turn to.”

“Any guarantee I would get it back?” Rothman asked. “You haven’t exactly proved yourself the most reliable guy in the world.” Rothman tried to penetrate the peach sorbet holding the spoon without using his thumbs. It couldn’t be done.

“If I wasn’t scared shitless, Eddie, I’d never have made this call. I’ve never been so terrified in my life.”

“Look, Lenny, it’s past two in the morning. I’ll call you when I get into work tomorrow.”

“Thanks, Eddie, thanks. I’ll wait to hear from you.”

When Rothman arrived at his place on Washington, a block west of Halsted, he saw Lenny Adler’s Porsche out front. He had already decided to lend him the twenty grand. Not because he thought he would get it back; he doubted he would. He was stuck, Rothman was, with a conscience. He couldn’t allow another human being to be brutalized if he could help it. Rothman recalled the threat in his old bookie Ike Goldstein’s voice, and the fear it had put into him. Besides, in the more than three years out of action, he had accumulated more than eighty grand in green deals that sat doing nothing in his Midcity Bank vault. 

Lenny Adler emerged from his car when Rothman appeared. They walked up the flight of stairs to the door marked Rothman Enterprises. Rothman changed nothing in his father’s simple office after his father died; there was still the metal desk, the small chair on wheels, the four metal file cabinets, the plastic chaise longue in which his father, in his last years, used to take twenty-minute naps.

“All right, Lenny, I’ve decided to loan you the money. How about your car as collateral?

“The car isn’t mine,” Adler said. “It belongs to the dealership. But I’m not going to let you down, Eddie. How could I? You’re saving my life. I’m never going to forget it.”

“I’m going to make out an IOU for you to sign. I’d also like to know how you plan to schedule your repayments on the twenty grand.”

“First I’ll have to repay the Barettas back the other forty I owe them. Then I’ll pay you, how about at the rate of two grand a month, beginning six months from now? Does that sound reasonable?”

“It does if it’s also realistic.”

Adler signed the IOU. Rothman wrote out a personal check for the twenty grand, walked around his desk, and handed it to Adler, who glimpsed it, folded it, and put it in his shirt pocket. Rothman held out his hand. Adler took it, but drew Rothman to him and hugged him.

“You’re the real thing,” Adler said, “a true mensch. I’m more grateful than I can say.”

When Lenny Adler didn’t show up for the next night’s Gamblers Anonymous meeting, Rothman was disappointed but not shocked. Adler also missed the next two GA meetings. Rothman began checking the papers and watching local television news for any word about a man having been the victim of a Mob murder, but there was nothing. He tried calling Adler on his cellphone, but the number was out of service.

After Adler missed the next, his fourth, GA meeting, Rothman called him at Loeber Porsche. He was told that there was no Lenny Adler working as a salesman there, nor had there ever been. They never heard of Leonard Adler at the Somerset Hotel either. He asked his friend Stan Margolis, who fancied himself an amateur expert in local mafia matters, what he knew about the Baretta family. Stan said he never heard of them. When his cancelled check was returned from the bank, it was signed Leonard Adler and then signed below that with the name Ira Lerner.

Rothman realized that he had been conned, and took not the smallest pleasure in the fact that it had been done by a real artist. He had unconsciously slipped back into action. He had backed a long shot, and lost. This was not a story, he decided, that he would ever stand up to tell at Gamblers Anonymous.

About the Author

Joseph Epstein last wrote “I Dream of Genius” for our September issue. He has written for the magazine for 50 years.




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