Cousins

Photo by Samuel Rios@ Unsplash

After thirty years of a cliché blood sweat and tears singer-songwriter career, Vincent’s live shows were finally gaining public attention and economic momentum once again, when all venue doors literally closed because of the worldwide COVID-19 virus. With the looks of an older John Stamos, the storytelling lyrics of a Billy Joel, and the angelic tones of a Frankie Valli, he still somehow, could not break through to “mainstream popularity,” and he and his family were now facing financial abyss! After staring at his computer screen for over an hour, feeling a numb resistance through his entire being, he began to compose an email to seek assistance from his cousin Patrick, a CFO with Sony Music and someone with whom he shared the dark knowledge of the seven-year affair between their parents. His cousin Patrick, once more of a brother, had the power to take Vincent from the life of the financially essential and seemingly endless Honky Tonks into a recording studio with a record label deal.

At 4:00 am, Tony lifted his five-year-old son from the bed, where he lay sleeping. Gently carrying him to lie down in the backseat of his car, they drove off from the ranch-style home of the little boy’s (Vincent) divorced aunt, Madeline, in Long Island, New York. They would have to beat the rush hour traffic if Tony were to first bring his only son to his mother, Sophia, in Staten Island, New York, and then make his way to his office in downtown Brooklyn, New York and still be on time. “The trucks don’t move til’ you pay off the rest of the contract,” Tony hollered, slamming down the phone receiver. “Thanks,” the Teamsters union business agent said as he smiled at Madeline as she placed a cup of coffee on his desk. She smiled back, pulling on her blouse top collar, and performing a quick shimmy shake.

That same morning, Sophia, Tony’s wife, sat on the couch while Vincent slept with his head on his mother’s lap and cartoons played on the television. She was classic Mediterranean beautiful, with dark features, olive skin, a beauty mark between her nose and upper lip, and a shapelier figure than that of her younger sister, Madeline. Stroking her little boy’s hair, as he began to awaken, Sophia asked, “How was the weekend?” “Good,” Vincent groggily replied. “What did you do?” Sitting up now, the cute little boy, often referred to as the spit out of his mothers’ mouth (because of their similar physical features), responded, “Me and Patrick (he yawned) put on a singin’ show for Daddy and Aunt Maddie, and we went for ice cream … and … oh,” Vincent recalled, “I beat up Patrick’s neighbor on the front lawn.” “Ooh, how come?”, partially concerned, his mother questioned. Rubbing his eyes, he adorably but plainly stated, “He’s been picking on Patrick and Patrick doesn’t know how to fight, so Daddy told me to take care of it, so I did.” Sophia pulled her son close and said, “You shouldn’t fight other people’s battles.” Then, with her eyes closed tightly, she fought off the tears that were surging inside of her.

After graduating high school, Vincent became the head waiter at a busy Italian restaurant in Staten Island, New York, where he’d worked weekends during his school years. He traveled into Manhattan often for gigs in the Village, as well as for vocal lessons. Patrick, two years older than his first cousin, graduated from Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, New York (where he now resided in a two-bedroom apartment with his mother and sister), achieving a bachelor’s degree in three years. He then procured a paid internship with a growing independent record label company in New York City. Within two short years, he had become a vice president, in charge of (amongst other tasks) talent acquisition. Vincent’s pursuit of his dream to become a professional singer was consistent in the effort — but stagnate in its progress. The two young men socialized often, sharing a purposefully unspoken bond. Even as adults, the emotionally driven, street-savvy Vincent still stood up for his older cousin if confrontations arose. Possessing more confidence (on the surface) and obviously more handsome, he dated beautiful women regularly. Patrick, who was somewhat withdrawn and seemingly insecure, could be labeled as an unintegral opportunist, despite his bland demeanor. Regardless of the closeness the pair maintained, coupled with their parallel professional paths, Patrick never offered his cousin career assistance, and Vincent never asked for it.

Through the natural order of such beings, Vincent married a female attendee from one of his gigs. Five years his senior, she was sexy, nurturing, and pregnant in the sixth month of their courting. Patrick followed suit, marrying his younger assistant, an intern. She was intelligent and quiet, but prone to outbursts, and had an elongated face, which brought that of a horse to mind. They divorced after a few short years, but not before he honored Vincent with the role of godfather to his first-born son. By the ages of thirty and thirty-two, respectively, Vincent had achieved the goal of making a meager living as a touring singer with a band under his stage name, Vinny Martin (from the surname Martino), and Patrick had become a music producer with #Sony Music. The improper and well-known secret relationship between Vincent’s father, Tony, and his aunt, Madeline (Patrick’s mother), had long been over, but the wounds were more agape now than during the existence of this dysfunctional love triangle. Sophia, in some unfathomable European traditionalist value, stayed together with her husband, yet never spoke of the affair with anyone. Tony, although a man who clearly loved his family, including his wife, showed no signs of guilt or remorse and resumed his marriage in this manner. The two fought often and wildly, as shadows never fade without light. The singer-songwriter had also come to blows with his father frequently, over many differences. However, the underlying factor, which was always the unacknowledged circumstances of his upbringing, was never addressed in any of their arguments.

Vincent was sitting in his kitchen having coffee and watching The TODAY show while his three-year-old daughter sat on his lap eating his signature French Toast, which he had made for her. Matt Lauer introduces his interviewee: “This morning’s guest is the esteemed Executive Record Producer from #Sony Music, Patrick McCloud. Good morning Patrick, it’s a pleasure to have you on the show. So, we’re all curious — what’s new in the music industry?” “Good morning, Matt,” Patrick began, “Sony is a top label with the biggest and the best artists; I think that’s common knowledge. But these days, I am especially focused on finding talent … extremely gifted talent … that are just not getting the exposure and the recognition they warrant. Anyone can sign an act that’s already broken through the ceiling and take them into the stratosphere … if you know what I mean.” As if the volume had been lowered on the television, Vincent stopped listening. He had heard enough! “It’s time,” he whispered to himself. “What Daddy?”, Giovanna’s sweet voice asked. “How’s that French Toast?”, Vincent excitedly responded, caressing the child.

On Vincent’s invitation, he and Patrick met for lunch near his cousin’s Madison Avenue office in New York City. While each shared a glass of #Johnny Walker Black Scotch Whisky on the rocks, they exchanged pleasantries, such as How is the family? and how is work going? After making their meal choices and handing the menus off to the waitress, Patrick placed his hands on each corner of the small table of the crowded restaurant and, leaning in, asked, “So what did you want to see me about?” “This isn’t easy for me,” Vincent began, “but I saw you on #the Today show. Congratulations, by the way -great interview. And it got me to thinking.” The Bus Boy refilled their water glasses, as both men froze silently, smiled, and nodded politely at the employee. “I hate that,” Patrick stated. “Me too,” said Vincent, taking a courage-building breath. “Patrick, I’ve never asked you for anything, even though we’re both in the music business.” Immediately, Patrick sat up rigidly, squirming as if in slow motion, and the man across the table (Vincent), who spent nearly every weekend of his formative years living with his first cousin in the unholiest of habitats, yet accepted arrangements, already wished that he had never asked for this meeting. “Well … I just think … with your connections … the people that you know — the people who won’t take my calls or listen to my demos — you could connect us, ya’ know.” Patrick sat up even taller now (any further from the table would have landed him in the laundromat next door), looking over his cousin’s shoulder, as opposed to in this confidant’s eyes, he began to search his thoughts for an evasive retort when Vincent boldly interceded the awkwardness. “I am not asking you to do any favors for me. Just … like … when you go to a party or an event, let me know. Let me tag along and I’ll make my own connections.” Raising his volume to be clearer amidst the noisy establishment, he continued, “At least I’ll be in the room with these fucks,” I can sell myself, instead of waiting on hold for a person who’s always in some bullshit meeting or sending some piece of mail that sits along with fifty thousand other tapes that never gets opened.” Like a life preserver thrown to a drowning victim, the waitress arrived with two plates of bruschetta, saving Patrick from the metaphoric spot in which he felt he had been placed. Shifting his focus — from the one person (outside of family and some of Tony’s coworkers) who knew this executive’s darkest secret — to his toasted bread loaded with onions and tomatoes, Patrick timidly mumbled with his mouthful, “Ok, Cuz, let me think on this.” Then, rocking his head from side to side continued, “I don’t really deal with the agents or promoters as such anymore … but … let me see what I can do.” They parted uncomfortably on the bustling afternoon streets of Manhattan as if they had just sold each other overpriced used cars with serious-unrevealed mechanical issues; “I have a meeting” … “Yeah, I have an audition.” Darting away from each other, Vincent soon stopped on the side of the first building that offered an alley for shelter, muttering profane aspersions at himself. He felt physically ill, dirty, and violated. Anger towards that forgetful prick, and frustration for his own career shortcomings.

During the days that follow the lunch between the two, Vincent replays every word, emotion, and visual image that transpired in his head, on a non-ceasing loop. After one week, he decides that the only way to stop the rumination and accompanying disgust/shame that he is feeling towards himself is to call Patrick’s bluff and make a follow-up. His phone call, unsurprisingly, goes straight into Patrick’s voice mail, so he sends a brief email query. Patrick writes back:

Hey, Cuz,

Sorry I have not gotten back to you sooner. I have really been racking my brain over how I can help. Reach out to my friend, Lana. She owns a record company and might be more knowledgeable than I about how to guide you.

Vincent performs a quick Google search, and, learning that her record company creates children’s music, is assured now, for some unknown reasons, that his blood relative, despite their ties, history, professions, and psychologically internal locked black boxes, will, under no circumstances, ever provide access to the opportunities that he has. Upon phoning Lana, Vincent finds her to be receptive to his needs, requesting that he email some song samples to her. Talking to Lana reveals that she is more than Patrick’s friend, but, rather, his current girlfriend. The whole situation reeks of a “brush off” — simply a woman appeasing the artist at the behest of her mate. Shortly after hearing the songs, Lana courteously responds with a reply, stating how the lyrics, which speak of romance, the feelings of the soul, and the challenges of life itself, are not right for her company’s format. Vincent bows out respectively, thanking her for her time, already knowing how it was going to turn out. He makes a solemn vow to forever separate himself, personally and professionally, from his cousin and make his own way in the business, but not without the bitter taste of insult in his throat and hurt in his heart.

By the time Patrick and Vincent had reached their early 40s, Vincent had made amends with his father, Tony, during the last years of his life. Patrick moved from the entertainment faction of #Sony into the corporate side of the organization as CFO (chief financial officer). Although he did not marry Lana, they still shared in each other’s lives. Vincent’s peace with his father was one born of introspection, not conversation. Though the affair that his father had between the two sisters was still never addressed, Vincent came to realize that the experience of disillusioned marital desires could push a husband away. He did not arrive at a place of approving the unscrupulous relationship. Rather, he saw his father and mother as just people and not his definition of what parents (or fathers, as it were) should be. For Vincent, there was another layer to the resolve. Tony had aged rapidly, and it was clear that the end of his days might be approaching. The reconciliation of a father with his only son, during those days, brought joy to his mother’s heart — a woman whose happiness had always been hinged on that of her children’s. One time, amid his own relationship troubles, Vincent was venting to his father, complaining how, if she only would treat me as such, I would not react in this way. The specifics of the argument are less important here than is how telling, of his own mind-boggling choices, the wisdom that Tony offered was. His father replied, “People don’t change just because you love them or want them to. But you’ve made a commitment and you have children. Now, do whatever it takes to be happy, or else you’ll live your life on earth in a hellish existence!” Vincent could easily read between the lines of the advice, and it made him so very angry. For what Tony and his aunt did, in the name of their own happiness, was selfish and wrong. He so wanted to fire back at the old man, but it dawned on him that there were obviously many things that he did not know about all three of the subjects involved. It was hardly justification for him (Vincent), but the lack of information he now realized that he had lent way to the adage, “There are three sides to every story — yours, mine, and the truth.” He never forgot, but he was able to forgive, focusing on the positives of his father and holding his hand until he stopped breathing.

At the age of 48, Vincent had survived a near-death auto accident while working on the road. He fired his manager, who had procured zero venues for him during his multiple surgeries and rehabs. He was now making less money at his craft than twenty years earlier. In that same year, his mother passed away on a Friday afternoon in the summer. While his cousin struggled to regroup during the most challenging year of his life, Patrick purchased a twenty-million-dollar home in the affluent area of the Hamptons, New York. On Sunday evening, just thirty minutes before the funeral viewing services were ending, marking the last minutes' Vincent would see his beloved mother’s face, Patrick arrived at the parlor wearing open-toed sandals, a tank top, and shorts. Appearing mournful, he approached his cousin, who stood at the casket, staring at Sophia and sobbing. Placing a hand on the back of Vincent’s shoulder, he quietly began, “I’m sorry …” Vincent, realizing who was speaking, shrugged off the hand and walked quickly from the room. Patrick knelt beside the casket, made a silent prayer, and then rose and made his way towards the vestibule where Vincent was seated.

“Vin?”, he posed as a question. Peering up at Patrick through violently tear-soaked eyes, Vincent rose from the chair and, posturing just inches from the nose of one who was a nemesis to him, angrily muttered, “Come with me.” Fighting the urge that he felt to just run towards the exit and speed away towards the Hamptons in his Lamborghini, Patrick instead followed his childhood companion into an empty room. Closing the door, Vincent paused holding the handle, looking towards the ceiling, and keeping his back to Patrick for a long tense moment. Still facing away, he abruptly blurted, “Nice of you to dress up!” Patrick began to flounder, “Yeah, sorry, Cuz … I got caught up on a conference call in the Hamptons, and I — ” “Shut-up!”, Vincent turned and shouted, loud enough that the remaining family could hear him from outside the closed doors. “Just shut up,” he repeated softer now while drawing nearer. “My father was a bad man,” Vincent’s voice crackled with sorrow, “who did a bad thing. He hurt that woman in there. But”, he paused in recognition, “she loved him unconditionally. That was their sick relationship and I’ve stopped trying to understand it.” He could feel his blood heating up and course through his body now. “But your mother … Aunt Maddie,” he said sarcastically, “she destroyed her. She destroyed her own sister’s life. We were never cousins; we were brothers. And, as wrong as it all was, Tony raised you, like another son.” Elevating his voice again Vincent stepped closer, pointing his finger at Patrick. “He was the father you never had! You know all of this, and yet” — Vincent placed his hand over his eyes and forehead and began to cry uncontrollably. Desperately struggling to say the next words, “Yet, you watched me suffer, for thirty years, knowing how talented I was … knowing what we’ve been through … and did nothing.” Sniffling, taking a deep breath in, and removing his hand from his face, he looked straight into his cousin’s eyes and proclaimed, “You did nothing to help me!”

Patrick is visibly remorseful. He begins making excuses about how he tried. Vincent grins dissonantly, cutting him off, “You’re dead to me. As dead as that beautiful saint in there … DEAD,” he shouts! Patrick drops his head in surrender and cautiously begins making his way out of the room. “Why?”, Vincent questions towards the back of his cousin’s head, which stops him at the door. After collecting himself, Patrick turns, his tone defensive now, “You wanna know? … I’ll tell you why. Because you bring Tony — and that whole other life — into the room with you, and I could not allow that into my professional life. I am different than you. I have a solid reputation, and this business is not for you, despite your talents. I couldn’t take the chance that you’d mess things up for me by being a reminder of something I worked so hard to distance myself from.” After a beat, Patrick adds, in a slightly condescending way, “You need to move on!” “Yeah”, Vincent taunts, his face puckered, and a fist clenched with the intention to knock Patrick out. Patrick turns the door handle, ready to make an exit. Vincent wipes the palms of his hands together as if cleaning off flour, then raises them to his shoulders in retreat. Patrick slowly leaves the room and then the funeral parlor, walking right past his other cousins and a few employees.

Vincent sat in front of his laptop, his cursor hovering over the Send button and his index finger paralyzed above the mouse. The professional, yet pleading email was well composed and re-read six times. Looking to the right, he closed his eyes, reflecting over his own five-decade-long documentary. Opening his eyes now, the following took place: Slowly, he slid the mouse across the pad and brought the cursor to the red X (exit button). There was another brief pause when faced with the options of Keep Writing, Save Draft, and Discard - when he finally clicked on discard. Furthermore, he went into his contacts and deleted Patrick’s information. The boy he knew as a stepbrother, the young man he shared a kinship with over the dark secret they endured, the person with the keys to the kingdom he sought so desperately, was for him, now invisible amongst the living. Rising from his chair, he walked from his home office, climbing the stairs to the hall outside of his children’s bedrooms, and belted out, “Who wants to go to the movies with Daddy?” Elated, his two great kids cheered, “I do!”

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Joseph Anthony

Joseph Anthony’s comedy delves into the evolution of the whole human experience. Though not always hysterical, these are his “Crooked Views!”