Johnny Rosso’s lighter is an old school Zippo from someone’s tour in Vietnam. I noticed it one other time before, years ago when I was sitting in the back room that served as the bar’s office during one of my mom’s day shifts. I had the flu and I was in Jr. High, probably old enough to stay home alone, but after the trial, at least up until recently, everything my mom did with regards to me had an overprotective sheen, like a layer of oil on a dirty pan that won’t rinse away. So when the thermometer read 98.8 the morning I’d confessed to feelings of nausea, staring reluctantly at my bowl of Lucky Charms as the milk turned pink, purple, and mint green, there was no discussion involved in my mom’s making the decision for me to stay home from school, despite the fact that try-outs for The Music Man were that day and that day only and I had perfected not only every scooping, rollicking bar of “Marian the Librarian” but also blocked a coy, swaggering bit of stage work in order to present my theatre director with the suavest, charmingest Harold Hill the greater Chicago area had ever seen for my audition and that this would all be lost, and, then, to follow her to work, which is how I ended up sitting in the “office” wrapped in a dark purple fleece blanket my grandmother gave my mom for Christmas, because it was “the warmest blanket we’ve got in the house” and I needed to “sweat the fever out,” reading To Kill a Mockingbird for my English class, and surrounded by such flu paraphernalia as Gatorade, gummi vitamins, and the digital thermometer with a special “fever alert” beep that had gotten me there when Johnny Rosso opened the door in an expensive suit and shiny shoes looking not unlike a confidence man himself.
“What, you got cancer or something?” he asked, gesturing broadly over my spread of medications.
I felt like the biggest wuss ever.
“I have the flu,” I said. “My mom wouldn’t let me stay home.”
That was when he leaned like Marlon Brando in the door frame and pulled out the Zippo to light up. I had never seen one before. Of course I didn’t ask, just sat there trying to scare up the least bit of interest in Scout and what she was scooping out of her tree and mind my own business to the point of invisibility like I knew I should in the presence of powerful men, but Rosso must have seen me eyeing the lighter because he leaned towards me and held it out so that I could see the monogrammed gold cuff links in his diamond-weave shirt and read its inscription:
“LET ME WIN YOUR HEART AND MIND OR I’LL BURN YOUR GOD DAMN HUT DOWN.”
He flipped it open about five inches from my face and I flinched from the heat.
His cologne smelled like cedarwood, ylang ylang, jasmine, cardamom, vetyver and bergamot.
Rosso’s almost ten years older now and his hair has turned from the robust copper it was then to a dignified silver, but he’s still as handsome.
He looked me up and down.
“Kids nearly grown,” he said to my mom.
She, too, looked me up and down, as if she hadn’t considered.
“Almost a man,” Rosso continued.
My mom, though full of care for me, was still pretty pissed about the mess I’d gotten us into, running my mouth after she’d spent all of those years getting clean and keeping us under the radar and out of trouble, and pursed her lips around her cigarette.
“Not quite yet,” she said.
Rosso had what writers would call “piercing” blue eyes, blue like the cold Atlantic ocean. I felt like a deer in the headlights knowing he was looking me over in consideration of my manliness, like a deer once in the headlights and now stuffed, mounted by his gaze to the wall. In my chest, my heart pounded.
Rosso ended his long look at me with a long drag on his cigarette, which he exhaled with a name,
The way that the dentist became completely and irrevocably evil, demented, bad, and basically Rosso’s archnemesis, Rosso told me, was like this:
Back when Rosso was not much older than me, before he was big-time, he and the dentist were partners, not like Lenny and Stan, sharing jobs, splitting the money, going nowhere, but more like business partners. They were both of them as ambitious as they were talented, both “up and coming.” They met at a poker game, at a place where there was always a table and they were both regulars but somehow, for months until the night it happened, they had avoided meeting, two ships in the night. At the table, they both had a reputation for being unbeatable. The girls in the place called the dentist “Little Rosso,” because they so resembled each other in the game, but the dentist, compared to the bulk of Johnny Rosso, built like a line-backer, was finer boned. On the night they finally did meet, the game was one everyone crowded around to see, and after hours of intense play, Rosso won.
Later on in the story, on the night when things went permanently bad between Rosso and the dentist, the dentist told Rosso that he let him win because he knew he could never be on his side if he didn’t act as if Rosso were on top. Be that as it may, Rosso and the dentist shook hands and it wasn’t long after that they were dreaming up a plan to really take over the town together. They spent most nights together drinking fine scotch and scheming and after they’d made a good-sized haul they decided that they got along so well that they bought a penthouse downtown together which they fitted out into the ultimate “bachelor pad.”
“We worked together for years,” Rosso said. “Needless to say, he has information that I can’t have anyone getting a hold of.”
Years went by, cool as ice cream, until Rosso and the dentist had a disagreement one Thanksgiving regarding how to invest a particular haul they’d brought in.
“It’s family around the holidays that makes people a little crazy,” Rosso said.
But apparently the dentist crossed the line when he took out the Zippo that was all he had of his brother who’d died in An Khe and a large bottle of surprisingly flammable Pam and started burning down the bachelor pad, at which point Rosso had no other option than to shoot the dentist in the bicep. The dentist had started sobbing, saying “I’m sorry, Johnny, I’m sorry” over and over but, having nothing to say to a partner who’d try to burn down their house with both of them in it, Rosso stomped out the flames, pocketed the lighter, and stormed out without a word, left all of his stuff and never went back. And the dentist hadn’t said anything after either, had laid low and basically gotten out of the game. Until recently, that is, when he seemed to think it was time to collect interest on the investments he’d left behind when the two of them split.
“And now I have to kill him,” Rosso concluded.
So that’s also the story of how Johnny Rosso got his Zippo, and how, after years of distant longing that felt as futile as praying for a million dollars, a little bit of hope crept into my heart that my love for Johnny Rosso might have not much more than a snowball’s chance in hell, but at least a real hell after so much dreaming, because it wasn’t just Johnny Rosso’s career that I wanted, and I didn’t believe for a second that the word “business” preceded every secret of Rosso’s that the dentist had or every way in which he had been his “partner.”