THE DISAPPEARANCE OF AN ORDINARY MAN
By Clare Ultimo
He crushed three small white pills with the bottom of a dirty teaspoon. Using the same spoon, he scooped out some vanilla ice cream from a small black box that came out of the freezer, the cheapest kind he could buy from the deli up the block, the packaging meant to appear like the name-brand kind only at a fraction of the cost. Mixing the mostly crushed powder until it blended with the ice cream, he fed the contents to his mother from a delicate floral tea cup, the golden handle worn away with use.
It was the evening of July Fourth, 2002 and Josie's son John had begun to regularly sedate her so she would sleep through the night. He would use prescription drugs he could get through his street contacts, none of them suitable for her, all of them effective. The sedatives clouded her speech and her logic, but she would be safely out of the way this particular evening. John needed her to be quiet through the noise of the crack-cocaine party he was planning to have. She lay on a second-hand hospital bed in her wood-paneled bedroom behind the kitchen on the first floor of her home, lights out, door open. Used syringes, small empty glass vials, condoms (in and out of their packages) and a silver pot with fossilized spaghetti were left on the yellow-plaid kitchen tablecloth a few steps away from where she slept. The used spoon and a cup of melted ice cream sat on the kitchen windowsill beside empty beer bottles and a dirty glass half filled with what smelled like whisky. The party had already begun.
As the night became noisier, Josie was no longer capable of reprimanding her son in the ways the neighbors had heard just a few months before – "Get your damn whores and addicts out of my house!"– her familiar scream in the night as Antoinette and Sadie sat drinking coffee on their front porches nearby, feeling sorry for Josie but powerless to help. After her emotional outbursts, the offending whores and addicts would eventually leave but Josie sometimes would stay up spying to make sure they wouldn't come back. John would brag to Antionette that he was often able to fool his mother; these patchy friends would return later but enter through a second floor window instead of the front door. Josie would claim she knew this but no longer had the energy to confront them. She was certain all the neighbors were talking about her son and his questionable friends – but she wanted it to be perfectly clear that he wasn't pulling the wool over her eyes! She was a very proud woman, after all. Proud of the well-pressed curtains in her home; of her shining silverware and her manicured lawn. And she was stubborn – stubborn enough to repeat her loud protests over and over even though John somehow always won out in the end.
Josie's son John loved the Fourth of July. All during the years he spent as a photographer, film technician, poet, musician, ladies man and loyal Italian American son, he spent the Fourth of July with her. John was Josie's only child, a charming and articulate boy with curly blonde hair and brown eyes, the center of her universe who quickly became the doting pride of a huge extended family. Affectionately nicknamed "Johnny Boy", cousins and aunts continued to refer to him this way long into his adult life.
John married his childhood sweetheart against the wishes of his parents. Annie Doyle wore granny glasses, long flowing flowered skirts and had burned her bra by the time she was sixteen. They had dated for six long years by the time John had almost completed college and they eloped to North Carolina where they were allowed to be married even though she was still a minor and he was not yet 21. Josie always said John married too early; if he had only listened to her and her husband, and married after he graduated (which he did with honors) he would have had a much better life. She was sure of this and repeated to him often.
John and Annie divorced by the time he was 24. John's father died later that year on a beautiful Sunday morning; it was Father's Day. Ann blamed their breakup on John's insatiable appetite for hallucinogens and speed, as well her youthful inexperience with the free sexuality of the times. She had "accidentally" gotten pregnant with one of John's buddies while they were still married and for a while afterwards, no matter how high John could get on drugs, he couldn't get high enough. He was stoned at family holidays, at family funerals, at family weddings. It seemed as though he was stoned all the time, but he managed to work regularly at three different jobs and buy a white Corvette with the license plate "Star Trek" on it, after he split up with Ann. Before cocaine became his drug of choice, he managed to maintain the appearance of the good son, despite whatever he was hiding inside.
He had come to live alone with his mother soon after his father died and after his divorce. He wanted to fulfill his obligations as her only child and took on the male role as breadwinner. In the early days of their life together, he often set out piles of twenty dollar bills on the kitchen table with a handwritten "buy something nice for yourself" next to the cash. His mother would say "if it wasn't for the drugs, he was a good son to me".
By the time I was eleven years old, I wanted to marry John. He was a brilliant student, really handsome, wore denim and cowboy boots, loved the Beatles and Bob Dylan and was just totally cool. He had long curly hair to his shoulders, wrote music and really knew his way around an F Stop. John presented me with day-glo posters in black light, vegetarian pronouncements of purity and photographs of myself when I still had pimples. I talked about him incessantly with my sixth-grade girlfriends and carved his name next to mine on a wooden desk during math class. If we weren't first cousins, it was surely a match made in heaven. Our mothers were the two inseparable sisters of their ten siblings and we spent every Easter and Christmas together over strufoli and lasagna. He read me his poetry after holiday dinners where we would sneak up to his secret attic hideaway, lined with pictures of gurus and rock groups, once the adults would begin arguing and forget about us.
I began to wear my hair the way his girl Annie did, and despite my inexperience with marijuana and boys, I seemed to gain his respect over time, looking less like his "little cousin" as I came into my newly discovered sexuality. I had a recurrent dream during this time that John was returning after being at sea for a long time. I would be waiting on a dock for him, and he would run into my arms as though I was the only person in the world that mattered. It was the kind of embrace you only see in movies, but it led me to believe that he really loved me too. Once I would wake up, I would replay that embrace in my head over and over again. Before I found my own teenage boys to kiss, John remained my model of maleness; the one who could do anything; the beautiful boy who managed to turn everything he touched into gold.
John found freebase cocaine when he was thirty-two years old, before it hit the streets and became known as crack. Throughout a twenty year addiction, all the while living with his mother, he smoked, snorted and mainlined cocaine on a regular basis. One by one, he lost his job as a film projectionist in Manhattan, his job as film technician at Hunter College High School, finally his photography gigs. He sold his white Corvette, his camera equipment, his electric piano and most of his record collection to maintain his habit. His mother cried to me because she knew I loved him and hoped that I could get through to him. I regularly begged him, tried to reason with him, insulted him in frustrating conversations to the supermarket, walked him to places I would later find out were crack dens, screamed at him in his mother's living room, but he just couldn't quit. The night he threw a plate of pesto at me and threatened to kill me if I continued to try and "help" him, I finally let go. The veins popped from his neck. He was yelling at me so hard, drool came out of his mouth. It was as though he no longer knew me. When he went for a knife in the kitchen drawer, I was scared. Saving John was no longer an option.
The rest of my family had abandoned him and my aunt's health and safety became the sole reason for me to remain faithful. My own mother had already died and my aunt was growing old and frail. When he lunged at me in the kitchen that winter night, I realized that all I could do was bring my aunt groceries and Italian pastries on Saturday afternoons and hope that John would be asleep while I visited. Since he would get high all night on crack, this was often the case. The dream of the dock and the young man I welcomed with open arms became so far removed from what I came to know as my crack-addicted cousin, it seemed ridiculous to me.
Earlier in the spring of 2002, Josie had a minor fall and John managed to get her admitted to a hospital, claiming she might have broken her ankle. Fully able to take care of herself before this, hospital drugs, mismanagement, and John's inability to communicate sensibly with her doctors brought Josie down to incapacity entirely.
Finally, without the constant gaze and complaints of his mother, John was free in what he felt was "his" home. After two nursing home transfers for Josie, he now had a plan. He would take care of her himself in the house with the help of a new tenant living on the second floor and get her to re-mortgage the house, using the money for a home health aide, house renovations, even new eyeglasses. He proudly reported this to me while we waited for a bus together outside Josie's nursing home one Sunday night. I told him this was his chance to prove himself again and I would help him anyway I could. Visiting my aunt in a series of cold beige nursing home halls, brought me to tears at her bedside more than once. There was nothing I wanted more than for her to be in her own home, around familiar surroundings, even if the familiar was a cocaine addict.
Two months before the party, Jason Treddici had moved in to the second floor of the house. A clean-cut, dark-haired 20-year old, who wore pristine white T-shirts and smoked menthols, he came from a Sicilian family out of this Bensonhurst neighborhood. He had been arrested for the possession of marijuana two years before and claimed he was on parole when he met John in the barber shop looking for a roommate, so living with Josie, an 83-year old woman, would look good on his police record. Jason, who had never finished high school, quickly gained John's trust and began to advise him about taking out a second mortgage on Josie's house, which John claimed was part of his plan to help his mother.
When I met Jason, John introduced him to me as his "financial advisor". Jason spoke slowly and deliberately when we would go outside on the front porch for cigarettes. His speech pattern seemed strange to me, only I attributed it to a lack of intelligence – a lack of brain power that forces people to think carefully before they speak. Since I didn't know a lot of criminals, I never thought he had something to hide. He was forthcoming about his parole and his fear that John would just someday kill himself with drugs. He spoke gently about my aunt and after dealing with nursing home attendants and hospital bureaucracy, I was relieved to find someone who seemed concerned and helpful living in the same house as her.
Jason had seemed to replace Danny O'Rourke in the lives of both Josie and John. Danny had been known as John's "assistant" because he was willing to help Josie for many years with household chores when John refused. Josie would pay him $5.00 for changing the dining room curtains, or shoveling the snow off the front steps. An ex-junkie with no front teeth, Danny was formally diagnosed as a trans-gendered lesbian. He would sometimes interrupt my Saturday afternoons with Josie and join us for expresso and cannolis in the kitchen dressed in spike heels, a black bustier and midnight blue eye shadow. "If he wants to dress like that, what's the harm?" Josie would say once he finally left. "His father took off when he was young...that's why he's crazy. But he always looks so nice and clean, always with that nice clean white shirt, not like my son."
Danny couldn't get John to calm down the night of July Fourth. He came by around 9 PM and wanted John to lower the music since he was sure it was disturbing Josie. John had put a set of stereo speakers on the lawn in front of the house; Danny tried to get him to lower the volume three times until he finally gave up. John played "Woolly Bully" by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs over and over, telling Danny he was entertaining the neighborhood and this was a party after all. "We're Americans, and this is an American liberation. I'm liberated. I'm an American, don't you get it?"
Antoinette, the next-door neighbor, called the police at midnight, before Danny left the party. The police came and went, the music resumed. Antoinette had been in the house helping with Josie a few days before, when John took Josie back from the nursing home. With two small kids, a husband and a mother to look after herself, she didn't have a lot of time to help but she did have a used hospital bed to donate. Once she worked with John set it up in Josie's bedroom, John put on a long blonde wig and his mother's white bathrobe so he would be able to "wash Josie down" in the bathroom. If she thought he was a nurse, and not her son, he said, she wouldn't care that he had to get her naked in the bathtub. "They didn't take care of her in that home, she's filthy. I have to really wash her up. I have to literally hose her down" he said.
"You're outa your mind!" Antoinette told him and quickly walked out before he took Josie's clothes off. "I was keeping an eye on him, you can be sure", she said. "I cared about Josie, that poor woman. I called the police because he had everyone all over the house that night, on the same floor as where Josie was sleeping. And I knew he was givin' her drugs to make her sleep...I was ready to report him for that. No matter what I did, you know John, he just did what he wanted to, but he had a lot of money now...he had already gotten some of the mortgage money and he was really throwing it around on the Fourth of July. He paid me back the money I loaned him earlier that week. He even asked me if I wanted more than he owed me. But I didn't want it."
John had ordered Chinese food for everyone at the party; his girlfriend Fran was over with her brother and two of her brother's friends. Fran had once been very beautiful. She supported her two children as an exotic stripper for fifteen years, and lived with her Italian mother a few blocks away because she never seemed to have enough money. John had promised to set her up with her own hair salon once the rest of the money cleared from the mortgage. He had naked pictures of her when she was younger under the glass table top in the living room, which had become John's bedroom once Jason moved upstairs. She was posing nude with a snake in one photo and always seemed especially proud of that.
Fran was HIV positive and John's "assistant" Danny confessed to having "been" with her a few times behind John's back. "John couldn't treat her right, but can you get AIDS from kissing someone?" he said. "Do you think I've got AIDS? I was only trying to make her feel better. She always liked me. It was kinda like an accident, the way it happened, but I liked her, I really did".
Danny left the party at 1 AM. He said he became angry at John for not paying attention to the neighbor's complaints about the noise and for inviting an escort service to the party while Fran was still in the house. Four women dressed in hot pants and garter belts piled out of a black minivan at midnight; a too-sweet smell of perfume behind them and while Fran ate her orange chicken with a plastic fork and got high in the living room near her nude photos, they laughed loudly on the front lawn. Another neighbor, not Antoinette, had called the police this time and Danny felt disgusted. He didn't think it was such a good idea for John to be spending his money like this. Even though he was John's "assistant" for many years, Danny was feeling left out – Jason had managed to help John get all this money – Danny didn't think he was as important to John as he used to be. When the police came this time, they just yelled out from their car to keep the noise down and drove by. Soon after that, Danny went home.
John was uncontrollable all night – no matter what Jason said or did to try and get him stop the noise and send the partygoers home, John ignored him. Jason finally had to go to bed, leaving the girls, the money and the drugs downstairs because it had all become "too much" for him. The party went on through the entire night, but it quieted down after 3am and Jason could somehow sleep despite the sound of laughing and talking on the floor below him.
At 9:15 the next morning, I received a phone call from Aunt Josie's home attendant. She was calling from the phone booth on the corner and told me she couldn't get into the house. No one was answering, she said, even though she tried the back door as well as the front several times, banging and banging. I panicked and began to plan a way to get there before I went to work. By 9:45, she had called me back to say she had gotten in, that my aunt was fine. It wasn't until the next day that she mentioned that all sorts of things were all over the house – rubber tubes, needles and small glass jars, things she didn't understand, things she figured had to do with drugs, or something like that.
Jason had finally come to open the door for her and told her he didn't hear her knocking; that John said to tell her he was sorry about the mess but he had left at around 7 that morning with one of the girls from the escort service to find a air-conditioned hotel room for a few hours so he could get some sleep. Jason told the attendant she should stay out of all the other rooms in the house, especially upstairs where he lived, just for the day. That she should just stay with Josie in her bedroom, use the kitchen and the bathroom and leave the rest of the house alone. He said that John had left a lot of money around and he wanted to find it for him.
By the time I got there on the morning of July sixth, John had not returned. Jason told me that he had gone off to get married. That I knew how impulsive John was...he went off with one of the girls from the escort service, the one with the black boots, he thought, and said he was going to get married or something. Maybe he went to Guatemala with the girl and all that house money – it was just like John to do something crazy like that.
I fed my aunt some breakfast, changed bed linens and ran out to the police station as soon as I could. "I want to file a missing person's report" I told a distracted police officer behind the desk. Explaining the whole story, the man in the blue uniform laughed at me. "It's a holiday weekend," he said, "maybe your cousin just took the weekend off. He's old enough to leave his house without having to tell anyone. He's not a missing person. He doesn't fit the missing person profile." I insisted on filing the report anyway, watching dust particles in the sunlight streaming through dirty windows while the officer got me the paperwork and ran back to my aunt once it was completed.
By the time I got back, Aunt Josie had fallen out of the second-hand hospital bed, and was laying crunched up on a neglected maroon rug, with Jason and a neighbor trying to pick her up. The neighbor called an ambulance and while I rode in the back on a vinyl seat, I told myself that this was some kind of gift. Now it seemed that having her in a hospital was better that having her in that house. I didn't know when John was coming back. It seemed entirely possible that he had gone to South America exactly because he knew his mother was dying. I figured that his "plan" included leaving me alone to take care of her while he enjoyed himself. I got a coffee while I waited for my aunt to be admitted and pretended to read a copy of the "Daily News" I found in the waiting room. I cried very quietly with my head buried in the paper. No one could see me.
Josie died two months and fifteen days after John went off to "get married". I was with her the night before she passed and she barely recognized me. I put my walkman in her ears, which seemed to make her smile. The music was a tape of Sanskrit chants to the Mother goddess, something she would never enjoy if she was "in her right mind". Being a Catholic and all, she didn't think much of the Hindus, even though she claimed that if John only found God, any God for that matter, he would change, he would give up drugs. "He doesn't believe in God" she said, "and that's the whole problem with my son."
Antoinette would later tell me that Jason was outside my aunt's house early in the morning of July sixth around 3 AM. He was carrying out what looked like a large black garbage bag with the help of a beefy looking guy. The bag seemed to require two men to carry it and they brought it out to a black minivan in front. "I don't know what they were carrying, but it looked heavy", she said. Jason left me a number that was disconnected the second time I called him. He said he was pissed off that John left since now had to move out of the house unexpectedly. Antoinette said Jason had John's banking card. She saw it once when John was still around; John wanted him to keep it for safety, since he said he was so distracted with taking care of his mother.
All the mortgage money was withdrawn from John's bank account within 2 months of his disappearance. It was roughly $75,000. I brought the ATM records that had come in the mail to the police but the withdrawals could be explained, they said. "What if John had given someone else permission to take out the money?" they told me. "He's a grown man, he is allowed to do that." I begged to look at the camera in the ATM to see if John was actually withdrawing the money himself but they insisted that the videotape was long gone and the bank no longer would have the records.
When I went to return his social security check that November, I was told that someone had already called in to cancel his benefits. "We're not at liberty to tell you who that was," the chubby face reported from behind the glass. I immediately responded, "Why would a known drug addict cancel free government money...getting a thousand dollars a month without having to do anything?...it makes no sense. What was the name of the person who called in to cancel it?"
"I can't tell you who called in to cancel his checks. It's confidential and cousins are not considered next-of-kin", she replied, walking awkwardly towards the back of the office.
"A lot of people hated John," Danny said. "He had it all...he had a home and he had women; his mother to look after him and he had all the drugs he wanted, a lot of people would have liked to see him dead. They were jealous of him, ya know? I don't wanna say who left with him that morning, but...what would you do if I told you, what would it matter? Would you go after the person or somethin'? Why do you wanna know? He left in a car service with Fran's brother, OK? They went to a strip joint on Second Avenue, "The Wild Wild West", the one near the factories on 39th Street. Somethin' must have happened to him there. Well, yeah, Fran's brother came back, but anything coulda happened. You won't tell no one I said that, will ya?
"Look, I don't know nothin', just that he left in a car service, that's all. All I know is that he had a lot of enemies, people that would have liked him dead. That's all I know but I left the party at 1 AM...I feel bad, ya know. He was crazy and all but he was my friend. I mean, I miss him, hey, I knew him a long time. It's like he fooled everybody...yeah, like he just disappeared into thin air, like he got the last laugh or somethin'... I guess that was John, that was one helluva exit...Hey, I don't wanna lose touch with you. We should get together and have a barbecue or somethin', whaddya think?"
(As of this date, John Anthony Console is still missing. Even though he was to inherit his mother's house and entire estate – valued at $750,000, he has not surfaced to claim his inheritance. The house Josie had maintained so impeccably has become the community garbage dump; an eyesore on the block. The police remain uninterested. In their words, "He's a grown man. He didn't have to tell anyone where he was going." And after all, he was just another drug addict living with his mother.)