Lately I’ve been thinking about a character, Adam, from CLEAN BREAK. He suffered from a gambling addiction, ended up in a rehab center, lost his family, was now living with his parents and trying to get his life in order. But it was hard. He relapsed. He was in debt and in trouble and heartbroken. I had so much empathy for him. I knew him, this figment from my imagination.
From CLEAN BREAK:
His old room had been preserved like a shrine. Two shelves were crammed with his trophies and plaques from basketball, football, and baseball. On one wall, framed photographs of every team he’d played on, from Little League through college. On another wall, his signed poster of Larry Bird. A bin of balls still sat in one corner of the room: basketballs, footballs, soccer balls, tennis balls, baseballs, golf balls—every ball you could think of; Adam hadn’t even played half the sports, but he loved balls, holding them, tossing them, kicking them, squeezing them. A quilt stitched in a football-field pattern covered his bed. When he was a high school sophomore, his father removed the bed’s footboard so his feet could hang over the end of the mattress.
Adam was afraid he was one of those guys who had peaked during high school, and the next fifty or sixty years would be nothing but a slow slide off the throne, marked by disappointments and fuck-ups—if he lived that long. In high school he’d been Mr. Varsity, tons of friends, girlfriends, vice-president on the student council, grades good enough that he didn’t fall into the dumb jock group but was considered one of the elite, one of the chosen. An alpha male. A ruler.
He’d grown up a king, the oldest of Joseph and Eva Vanek’s three children. His sister, Cori, was an accountant living in Philadelphia with a husband and three kids; his little brother Ben was single and lived in some experimental urban community in Arizona. Ben was the one his parents had worried about, without interests or friends, the one caught smoking pot in high school, who switched his major three times in college; now he was an urban planner with expertise in environmental impact and had found his brethren out West. Adam’s father still commuted to JP Morgan on Wall Street and his mother taught writing classes at Westchester Community College now that the children were grown and gone.
Except Adam. He was back, although he wished he wasn’t. He missed the Glendale Wellness Center. He had forged a tight bond with the others in his group therapy, eight guys, all of them demented gamblers like himself. The days had been soothing at Glendale, sitting in a circle in those comfortable chairs and talking about the sickness, rallying each other, examining your behavior and believing you could make a change. Taking walks in the long meadow behind the building, stopping by the fountain, watching the carp swim around the pond. It was obvious that when you got back home you would be healthy again, you would maintain control. It was easy to say you would employ your wait ten minutes strategy when you got out, you wouldn’t carry cash, you would call one of the counselors if you needed support. But then you do get out and discover you’re back in the world you left, only worse. You forget to bring with you all the confidence and skills you gained at Glendale. There’s your bookie and his game-fixing scheme, there’s the Lotto machines and there’s a sporting contest somewhere every day and most of all there’s your wife who abandoned you and your son who’s afraid of you and you can’t contain or control your own damn weakness and rage and you want to hurt somebody, you really do, you want someone to suffer. Mostly you want to hurt yourself, but you end up hurting your wife.
Adam brooded on his bed until his mother called him down for dinner. He helped her set the table, putting out plates and pouring three glasses of water from the pitcher. His father emerged from his study in his wool cardigan and cords and took his place at the head. He didn’t look at his son and Adam could almost see the anger shimmering off his head like heat waves off the hood of a car.
Uh-oh. How was Adam going to go ask him now?
His mother put the brisket and potatoes on the table. They passed the serving bowls silently, filling their plates, and just as Adam was about to take his first bite, his father spoke. “I had a call from Bernie Cornwall today. I had gotten in touch with him to ask what was going on at GeoPol, why the company was trimming its workforce. He was actually surprised to hear that news. As far as he knew, the company had just gotten a big contract with the NYPD.”
Adam’s appetite vanished—poof!—and brisket was one of his favorites.
“Bernie should know, right?” his father said. “He’s on the company’s board of directors. I would have thought his name would be enough to protect you from any layoffs.”
“They always get rid of the newer employees first,” Adam said. Stupid. His father already knew what happened, or he wouldn’t be bringing up the subject.
“What’s this about?” said Eva.
“Your son can tell you.”
“The brisket’s good, Mom.” He forced down a few forkfuls of meat and carrots.
“Adam wasn’t laid off—he was fired for fighting on company premises. Even Bernie couldn’t help turn that one around.”
The meat lodged halfway to his stomach.
“Fighting? Fighting who? Did you get hurt?” His mother set down her fork. Her forehead contracted into its wrinkle of disbelief, an expression Adam had seen too often directed at him. He hated hurting his mother, especially given what she’d endured with the cancer.
“It was just an argument, it got a little out of hand,” Adam said.
“How do you expect to get back on the right track when you act this way?” his father said. “You think you’re some kind of child, not accountable for your behavior?”
“I’ll find another job. I’ve already started looking.”
“You act like a kid . . . fighting. Do you need anger management treatment as well?” His father raised his glass and hid his disgust behind a long drink of water.
“What did Celeste have to say? Does she know the real reason you lost your job?”
Adam groaned inside. “She knows.”
“And that’s going to help you reconcile with her?”
“I haven’t seen her much,” Adam said. Except from afar. He would drive past the house, he’d watch Spencer walk to school. One afternoon he spotted Celeste on her porch talking with her neighbors and he circled the block again but she’d gone back inside. He was stalking his own family—and his heart contracted in pain every time he caught a glimpse of them.
“I thought you were spending time with Spencer on a regular basis,” his mother said.
“I was, but—” But I lost $25,000, blew off my son’s birthday, and almost strangled my wife. “Celeste won’t let me see him,” Adam said.
“That doesn’t seem like Celeste,” his mother said. “She’s been fair to you about seeing Spencer. Has that changed?”
“She won’t let me see him at all now, and she won’t talk to me, either. She has an attorney and said she’s divorcing me.”
“Because of the fight at your job?” his mother said.
“I told you it wasn’t a fight. It was a misunderstanding.”
“One that got you fired,” his father said, lips barely moving.
“Even if you don’t have your job, you should still be allowed to see Spencer,” his mother said. “And so should we. I haven’t seen him since before his birthday.”
“If Celeste has an attorney, you need one, too,” his father said. “I know just the one. His name is Howard Jasper.”
“Dad, I don’t want lawyers involved. Celeste and I need to work this out on our own. ”
“Not if she’s serious about getting a divorce. You’ll need an attorney if that’s the case.”
“Doesn’t she know you’re better now?” his mother said. “That all the gambling is in the past? Can’t she see that? Can’t she forgive your mistakes?”
Adam pushed his plate away and put his elbows on the table. He buried his fists in his eyes. He made a moaning sound in his throat and when he looked up his parents were both staring back at him, anxious and waiting.
He finally said it, barely above a whisper: “I need money.” He didn’t say how much. He couldn’t get those words out yet.
His father cleared his throat. “If it’s for Celeste, I can write a check directly to her. Our offer to help her still holds, of course.”
Adam noticed the gravy beginning to congeal in the serving bowl of brisket. He started to speak and stopped. How could he admit it? He couldn’t. But he was backed into a corner. There was no other way out.
“What is it?” his mother said.
No one moved. Adam forced himself to meet his father’s eyes. “I need $25,000.” He grimaced when he said the words. His father’s gaze turned flinty.
His mother said, “Twenty-five—”
His father raised his voice. “And next time you’ll need $50,000!”
“Oh, no. No, Adam. When did you start again?” his mother said.
His father gaveled the table, his fist striking a single blow to the tablecloth. “Enough!”
The man should have been a judge. In fact, he was a judge—over his family. Countless nights at the dinner table his father would hear the issues and the arguments, then pound his pronouncement with his fist. Ben’s not getting his homework done? Pound! No TV during the week. Cori came home two hours past her curfew? Pound! Grounded for two weeks. Adam overheard yelling at his girlfriend? Over what? Her spaghetti straps. Adam didn’t like the thin straps on her top, thought she looked slutty. Pound! You don’t yell at a girl. If you can’t get along, break it off.
To his father’s credit, he never yelled at Adam’s mother. In fact, he only raised his voice when holding court at the dinner table. The rest of the time he was a mild banker and steady husband, father, and provider. Never made mistakes of his own, never a stupid decision—it was one of the things Adam couldn’t stand about him.
“I will not give you the money,” his father said. “It’s pretty clear to us where that money will go and I will not be an enabler of your gambling.”
“You don’t understand. It’s not to place a bet, it’s to pay off a debt. If I don’t pay him . . . I have to pay, I have no choice.” He started to shake, his jaw trembling as if he were out in the cold without a coat.
“Joseph, we need to do something,” his mother said.
“Is this the reason why Celeste won’t see you, or let you see Spencer?” his father said.
“She found out.”
“She found out,” his father echoed, as if mumbling a curse. “So three months at Glendale and all the counseling didn’t help? The Gamblers Anonymous meetings don’t help? What else can be done for you? Tell us, Adam. Tell us how to help you. Tell us what you need.”
“Nothing. There’s nothing you can do.” Then he tried again. “You can lend me the money.”
“Where is your willpower? Where is your spine? Are you even a Vanek!”
“I don’t know.” The tears came now, his throat and nose clogging with mucus. “I don’t know,” he repeated.
“Who do you owe this money to? Who is this?”
Adam blew his nose into his napkin, waited a few seconds to compose himself. “It’s someone I placed a bet with.”
“For $25,000! Are you out of your mind?”
Adam stared at his plate. It would be easier to forget this and let Canto come after him.
“What’s his name?” his father asked.
“Dad, I can’t—”
“You don’t want to get involved. This guy means business.”
His father nodded, as if he understood perfectly. “He means business, does he? Fine, I can conduct business,” he said. “You give this person my card and tell him to come see me at my office. If he wants his money, he can meet me and I will pay him.”
“Dad, you can’t just—”
“That’s how it is. I can’t trust you enough to give you the money. You can tell him that.”
Court adjourned. Joseph Vanek pushed his chair back from the table, got up and went down the hall and into his study. He closed the door.
His mother rose from the table and began to stack the dinner plates, keeping her eyes away from her son.
Another Scene: “Wanna Bet? Wait Ten Minutes.”