He was starting the practice of criminal defense. The place was Arizona. It was 1962. Three years in Air Force Jag had provided a degree of trial experience, but now he had to earn a living. Scary for a rookie. He was a romantic, a dreamer, and this challenge was no exception. He had a goal. And that was to get to the top. This would be realized by ultimately representing the highest tier of potential clients: organized crime. But credentials were required. A rookie the Big Boys did not seek out. He got a break. The most illustrious, successful criminal defense attorney in Tucson had taken a liking to him and offered a partnership. He was taken by the hand and introduced to the essential players: the cops, sheriffs, A.D.A's, with the powerful preface of "he's with me." An education far beyond the reach of any law school. Finally, he met the local members of La Cosa Nostra. His foot was in the door. His to validate or screw-up. His senior partner allowed him to sit in on meetings, whenever appropriate, and his mind edited every word before his mouth was allowed to pronounce. His acceptance gradually took root. His participation in office meetings increased and, eventually, he was dining or having drinks with them. It was all very exciting. The public fawning juiced him. Hero worship? Not precisely, but very close. He was young, ambitious and he dug it. Time passed and one night, he was to meet them for drinks, alone, without his mentor. He felt elevated from the ranks of freshmen. And he was still in awe of it all.
The best thing about the Tidelands was that, in the West, it was the closest thing to the East. A plush, dimly lit cocktail lounge with thick carpeting, a long bar, personnel who were surprisingly hip and a musical group providing cool sounds as a perfect backdrop for just about anything. The red brick walls were lined with red leather cushioned booths, serving as an enclosing perimeter of the tables which protruded from the many barstools. An atmosphere inviting you to forget and relax.
When he arrived, he spotted the client, John, sitting at the bar with another man whom he had not met.
"Hey, Gerry, right on time. Vodka and tonic, isn't it?"
"That'll be fine, John, and thank you."
The bartender, forever standing nearby, immediately mixed the drink as if John was his only customer which, for practical purposes, was true. This special attention preceded John in all public places. The attorney always picked up on this and, yes, it provoked envy. They tapped glasses and he took a long swallow. Into the mouth and over the gums, watch out stomach, here it comes.
"I want you to meet a personal friend of mine," John said, referring to the man at his left, "say hello to Carl (redacted). Carl, this is one of my lawyers." The ensuing handshake threatened to fracture his knuckles.
Carl's looks were unique. He was dark skinned, with closely cropped grey hair, muscles which would bulge through a sheepskin coat, and an unlit cigar butt which would forever be clenched between his side teeth. He was a man of very few words, each one of which would speak volumes, who would ignore anyone he didn't know or trust. Until and unless that status was achieved, Carl would simply not acknowledge your existence. He wore a perpetual scowl as if angry was his mood of every day. A pleasant expression rivaled the sunrise and a smile was the equivalent of a Papal blessing. He was, in short, a genuine tough guy and a man with whom you did not f-ck around. You missed this message at your peril.
The lounge was crowded to capacity, with the music from a quintet barely audible above the conversational commotion, like a party which had captured that elusive intangible of spontaneous excitement. John did not tolerate empty glasses and, before long, the young lawyer was enjoying the positive benefits of booze, that relaxing glow which delineates the boundary between pleasure and the toxic pain of overindulgence. He made a mental note of downshifting to the slower pace of sipping as a fresh drink was placed before him. Drinking too much would be disqualification from a world in which he was on probation.
He was aware of frequent glances at John and whispers of "do you know who he is?", a notoriety to which both John and Carl had long since been accustomed, but it was still exciting to him and he wanted this scene not to end. Even Carl was beginning to occasionally grunt his way, making the evening all the more magical.
From the time of the attorney's arrival, a large man wearing a ten gallon hat and cowboy boots, had been sitting at the bar to John's right. He now rose from his stool and began winding his way around the tables on the crowded floor and joined two other men similarly dressed in western garb. He was a dead ringer for the Marlboro Man: rugged, tanned, well over six feet tall, epitomizing the "western" look. His companions were of the same mold---buckeroos with buckles and muscles---but they were loud and boisterous, hell-bent on serious drinking. Rhinestone cowboys, refusing to be fenced in.
As the lawyer slid onto the vacant bar stool, he noticed that the Lone Ranger had left four dollars and change on the bar. He moved the money a bit to the left and forward, nearer to the edge of the counter. It had either been forgotten or meant as a tip, but, in any event, it was neither his money nor his business and he had merely relocated it a few inches.
Suddenly, in the midst of conversing with John, four words exploded within inches of his ear.
"You took my seat!"
An apprehensive hush enveloped the bar area and beyond, as all heads turned in the direction of the shout. It was the Marlboro Man whose seat he had taken. He was standing directly behind John and his non-focusing eyes told his story. Thoroughly and belligerently plastered, his tone unmistakably threatened violence.
John glanced at the man, one time, turned back to his glass, said nothing and made no move whatsoever. Carl's jaw muscles were pulsating furiously as his teeth clenched to a steady beat. His body lurched ever so slightly, as if coiled to attack, but John said,"Not now, Carl," and there was no movement.
"Maybe you didn't hear me, fella, so I'll tell you again. You took my seat!"
The cowboy's voice was even louder than before, menacingly demanding trouble. The cigar butt dropped from Carl's mouth onto the bar, bitten clean through. His teeth must have ground into powder. With stoic determination, he put down his drink in readiness to respond, but John, again, softly said, "Not now, Carl," causing self-control to just barely prevail over animal instinct.
Since John's first backward glance, neither he nor Carl had looked at the cowboy. The tension in the lounge had mounted and become tangible. The jerk pressed it.
"You dirty son sonofabitch, you even stole my money!"
As he shouted this accusation, his right hand grasped firmly onto John's left shoulder. Big mistake. Bye-bye, point of no return. John, still outwardly calm and composed, very slowly shifted his gaze to the hand on his shoulder, negatively shook his head as if surrendering to fate, sighed deeply and whispered, "O.K., now, Carl."
For years to come, the lawyer would swear that Carl never left his seat as he made his move. Like a shot, his right fist smashed into the cowboy's nose with devastating impact, propelling him backward, summersaulting over two tables and hitting the floor with the thud heard 'round the world. He was out cold, with John and Carl seemingly oblivious to anything unusual having happened at all.
But the two other musketeers were not so inclined to ignore the incident. They rose from their table, in unison, and began to make their way to the bar, seeking to avenge their unconscious colleague. Because the floor tables were positioned so close to each other, for maximum seating capacity, they could approach in single file only, and accordingly, arrived one at a time.
John moved not at all, while Carl, consistent with his devotion to energy conservation, stood only when the whites of number one's eyes were in plain view. He greeted this first oncoming chin squarely on the button with a perfectly timed, ferocious right hand punch, endowed with every ounce of his strength. The sound was that of tearing flesh as number one fell as if yanked downward by a neck chain of iron. This demolition accomplished two things: it gave the Marlboro Man a companion in dreamland, and, to Carl, unimpaired access to charging buckeroo number two. Carl's expertise was truly magnificent. His feet shifted in synchronization with his bloodied right fist which was drawn back and again launched forward. The fracture of bone was heard as number two flew back and down with his head fortunately landing on the shoes of a retreating onlooker. A momentary silence was broken by Carl muttering "f-ck!" as he examined a split or broken knuckle. This commentary, on the way things were, served as a cue to the Maitre d' who directed security, with haughty finesse, to get rid of of the fallen three while he showered John with profuse apologies, ordered drinks on the house for everyone, and inquired if all was right with Carl, vowing that such an inconvenience would never happen again. Chairs and tables were rearranged, the quintet began another set, the patrons tried to remember what they had been doing so they could get back to it, and only the the constant crowd murmur attested to Carl's demonstration of Italian martial arts. The young lawyer, disregarding a prior pledge, consumed a fresh drink, completely bypassing the function of swallowing.
John and Carl conversed as if there had been no interruption, while the attorney vowed never to cause so much as a hint of a furrow on Carl's brow and mentally memorialized him at the top of a list called "Who Not to Piss Off In Order To Live."
Some memories not only never die, they never even begin to fade away.