Mary Beth never doubted for a moment that a hex—the Harry Agganis hex she called it—accounted for the misfortunes and setbacks I had experienced throughout my business career. The Harry Agganis she was referring to was a popular college athlete in the early l950's, an All-American quarterback at Boston University and a first baseman talented enough to attract the interest of major league scouts. Harry Agganis, the youngest son in a Greek immigrant family, was handsome, personable and blessed with a classic v-shaped torso. In an era when sports writers still used ethnic labels as nicknames for star athletes, Harry Agganis was known as The Golden Greek.
I was two years younger than Harry Agganis, and like him, I was a two-sport athlete of renown, at least in Boston. I was the captain and leading goal scorer on the Harvard hockey team, and as a catcher, both in high school and at Harvard, I, too, had been scouted by major league teams. The parallels didn’t end there. I had the same dark, wavy hair as Harry Agganis, an engaging smile and my parents had emigrated from Ireland, all of which made me, at least in the eyes of an editor at the Hearst paper in Boston, an athlete on par with Harry Agganis. Well aware that Boston was more Irish than Greek, the Hearst editor decreed that, in his paper at least, I would always be referred to as The Golden Gael.
Hearst sportswriters, on cue, then began turning out columns and feature stories in which they predicted that the Boston Red Sox would become a championship dynasty once the two local boys, Harry Agganis and Chet Mullaney, became team mates. The sports cartoonist at the Hearst paper once celebrated this possible pairing with a full-page drawing in which he depicted both of us standing on either side of home plate at Fenway Park, Harry Agganis in his football uniform but with a bat in his hand, ready to swing at a pitch, and me, in my hockey uniform, also with a bat in my hand, the mirror image of Harry Agganis, except that I batted from the right side of the plate, he from the left.
Alas, this Hearstian fantasy never came to fruition, which wasn’t surprising since year after year some unforeseen event, a base running blunder or inept managerial move, always seemed to come between the Red Sox and a championship banner. But none of the quirks of fate that were so costly to the Red Sox ever equaled the sad tale of Harry Agganis. A year after he finished college, Harry Agganis became the regular first baseman for the Red Sox, but midway through the next season, well on his way to stardom, he came down with pneumonia. Six weeks later, at age 25, he died of a pulmonary embolism.
My athletic career had an ending less tragic than that, but it was not without an element of heartbreak. After my junior year—Mary Beth and I were engaged by then—I went off to play semipro baseball in Canada, and there, on a dismal, godforsaken diamond in Nova Scotia, I fractured my right shoulder in a collision at home plate. The Red Sox, having already expressed an interest in signing me to a contract, waited patiently for my shoulder to heal, but they eventually decided against signing a catcher who ended up throwing a ball like a l0-year-old girl. The Red Sox informed me of their decision a week before Harry Agganis died.
And so, when all of New England was grieving for Harry Agganis, Mary Beth, for the first time, claimed that I, too, was a victim of the mysterious force that robbed the Red Sox of pennants and struck down young athletes in their prime. Mary Beth was undoubtedly influenced by those Boston sportswriters who tended to treat my fractured shoulder and Harry Agganis’s death as events of similar magnitude when they wrote, as they so often did, of the hard luck that afflicted the Red Sox.
To be fair, the first time Mary Beth blamed one of my business reverses on the Harry Agganis hex, it came out sounding like a nervous laugh, almost as though she knew how silly she sounded. Soon enough, though, Mary Beth, was not at all hesitant in claiming that a connection existed between the problems I encountered, post Harvard, and the tribulations that bedeviled the Red Sox.
Mary Beth has a thin, boyish figure, and with her horn-rimmed glasses, she was often taken for a college sophomore until her hair became more gray than blonde. Her voice, however, is deep and gravelly, so much so that everything she says sounds slightly offbeat, almost as though it’s part of a comic routine. Mary Beth is enamored—there is no other word for it—with the smiles and goodwill evoked by this imbalance between her voice and her overall appearance. She is extremely intelligent, a gifted teacher of high school English, but she will come out with remarks that make no sense whatsoever (hexes not excluded) if there is the slightest chance that such tomfoolery will make someone, including herself, feel better.
Mary Beth’s method for raising the spirits of everyone around her depends in great part on her knack for staring directly at some calamity and failing to notice that anything is amiss. Even when I try to correct her—as I do, whenever she stretched the parallel between me and Harry Agganis—Mary Beth will pause for a second and perhaps clear her throat, but she then proceeds, unimpeded, to repeat herself.
As my setbacks mounted, and my own culpability for these disasters was harder and harder to deny, there was a slight difference in the way Mary Beth invoked the name of Harry Agganis. She still believed in the power of that hex, but her tone of voice when she mentioned it was softer, almost wistful. It was as though she wanted it noted, simply for the record, that this other-worldly hex could not be discounted as an underlying cause for whatever setback I had just suffered.
I would have liked nothing better than to blame my troubles on a hex, but it was my abysmal timing, I maintained, that accounted for my lackluster career. I was on the wrong side of the boom/bust cycle both when I worked for a large mutual fund company, and after that, when I was sales manager for a developer of suburban office parks. I seemed a visionary of sorts with my next venture, solar panels, but the prevalence of cloudy days in greater Boston proved to be more of a problem than I ever anticipated. I then became the distributor for a line of high-priced German appliances, but that business, iffy from the start, collapsed completely when a recession destroyed the limited market that existed for such items.
I also had a propensity for associating with people whose luck was even worse than mine. For a brief period—between solar panels and the German appliances—I was part owner of a steak house that appeared to be quite successful since it was always filled with diners, but it was my misfortune to have a business partner who dipped into the restaurant’s receipts to finance his heavy betting on professional sports.
Salvation seemed to have arrived for me when I became an account executive at the ad agency owned by John Houlihan, my oldest boyhood friend. Houlihan, modest and self-effacing, was the rare business owner who felt that the success of his firm was due almost entirely to the hard work of his employees. So firmly did Houlihan hold to this principal that he routinely handed out pay raises and generous bonuses in that decade or so when Houlihan and Associates was Boston’s dominant ad agency.
Ah, the Houlihan years, a time when Mary Beth and I no longer worried about whether our checks would bounce and we could forego the tricks we sometimes used—Mary Beth answering the phone with a Japanese accent, for instance—to keep our creditors at bay. That’s when we bought a weekend cottage on Cape Cod and carried out extensive renovations on our roomy house in Brookline. Mary Beth and I even had the satisfaction of seeing our only child, Kate, graduate from Pine Hill, the same private school where my father had earned his living by tending to steam boilers in winter and mowing lawns in summer.
Then came that terrible day when Houlihan and I were walking back to our offices after lunch. It was one of the first warm days of spring and Houlihan, an avid gardener, lagged behind because he stopped to look at a display stand of seeds outside a garden store on Massachusetts Avenue, near Symphony Hall. I waited for a moment for Houlihan, but then walked on ahead, assuming that he would soon catch up with me. When he didn’t, I turned and beckoned to him, waving with my right arm for him to pick up the pace. I was almost a block ahead of him by then.
There was something comical (and eerie) in my gesture. Here I was, the undisputed champ of long lunches, encouraging Houlihan, who often ate lunch at his desk, to get back to the office in time for a meeting with one of our principal clients. Houlihan, on the verge of entering the store to purchase some seeds, thought better of it and stopped to put the seeds back into the display rack.
Always, in my memory of that day, I watch Houlihan replace the packets of seeds and then turn away from the display stand, and each time I hope that a new variety of tomato will catch his eye and hold him in place for another moment or so. But no, Houlihan is moving in my direction just as that car, tires squealing, engine racing, a drunken wretch at the wheel, hurtles through an intersection, jumps the curb and heads right at Houlihan. He tries to flee, almost succeeds in evading the car, but he is a scant second too late.
Soon after Houlihan's death, his ad agency was acquired by a rival, and overnight the Houlihan people were out of favor. Within weeks the agency lost its two largest accounts, giving the new owner the reason he needed to get rid of anyone who had ever been hired by Houlihan.
Mary Beth, either out of consideration for me, or because she was so grief-stricken herself, avoided any allusions to the Harry Agganis hex after Houlihan’s tragic death. But that was the first time I began to feel—without ever admitting it to Mary Beth—that I was, in fact, jinxed. Was there any better evidence of that than the circumstances leading to Houlihan’s death? Each time I thought about that day—and I thought about it constantly—I saw myself as the culprit who urged Houlihan to take the fateful steps that literally brought him into the path of the runaway car. That led me to wonder, in all seriousness, if the hex hadn’t become contagious, affecting not only me, but anyone who was unfortunate enough to come in contact with me.
Then there were the problems I encountered in finding a new job. Until then, the goodwill available to former captains of Harvard athletic teams had always helped me find some new opportunity, but now my phone calls were returned slowly, if at all. Luncheon engagements I made were canceled at the last minute, and even when they were rescheduled, the new date was set weeks into the future. I began to sense that a good number of people I knew didn't really mean it when they promised to call me the moment they heard of an opening that was suitable for me.
I was having lunch (one that had not been rescheduled) with a Harvard classmate, Ray Harrold, when I found myself for the first time openly admitting that Mary Beth may have been right all these years with her talk about the Harry Agganis hex. I went on to say that Mary Beth probably had a point when she said that our luck would never change unless we left Boston. New location, new karma was how Mary Beth put it, I said.
Mary Beth, I told Harrold, was echoing a notion promoted by our daughter. Having attended college in Colorado, and now employed by a group dedicated to the preservation of wilderness areas, Kate didn’t think anything good could happen to people who chose to live in a crowded city in the northeast.
Harrold, an attorney of some distinction, dressed as always in an impeccably tailored pinstriped suit, was too well mannered to laugh out loud at my mention of the hex and how I might escape its influence by moving to a different city. Instead, he said that it didn’t make any sense for me and Mary Beth to move away from a place where both of us were well liked and well thought of.
Harrold then provided me, at no cost, the kind of service that earned him enormous fees from his clients. While Harrold was the head of his own law firm, and employed a number of attorneys who handled conventional legal work, he himself functioned as a behind-the-scenes fixer whose skill at raising funds for political candidates gave him as much influence as most elected officials. He was the confidante—and conspirator, some would say—of leading legislators, but because he was on a first name basis with judges and court clerks and district attorneys, he could be as invaluable in assisting a client whose teen-age son had been arrested for drunken driving,
In my case, Harrold suggested that I contact one of his clients, someone named Eddie Lally. I didn't recognize the name, but Harrold, while writing Eddie Lally’s phone number on the back of a business card, quickly explained who Eddie was and why he might be of help to me.
"Eddie's a very bright guy, much brighter than most people think," Harrold said. "A lot of people worked for Jerry Scanlon, but only Eddie was smart enough to notice that Jerry's daughter, who could never be mistaken for a beauty queen, happened to be an only child. Now, all those concrete trucks you see with the Scanlon name on them belong to Eddie, who’s become the concrete supplier of choice for most contractors around here. Eddie’s a bit rough around the edges, but he’s a guy who should be able to line something up for you. When you call him, make sure to tell him I’m an old buddy of yours. And whatever you do, forget all that crap about greener pastures in Colorado."
The next morning I reached Eddie Lally and listened patiently while he talked at length about how much he admired Ray Harrold. It was obvious that Harrold had been of immense help to Eddie, and that Eddie, in turn, was more than willing to reciprocate by doing whatever he could do for anyone who was an old friend of Harrold’s. After asking me only a few questions about my background, Eddie arranged for me to meet Leo Brisbane, the owner of a company that leased out scaffolding and heavy construction equipment. Brisbane, Eddie said, was in the process of expanding his sales force.
Two days later, after a brief interview and then a lunch at which Brisbane drank four martinis—and complained endlessly about his daughter, who had married a rock and roll musician—I was launched on yet another career, one that turned out to be extremely lucrative.
I could never get over how Eddie seemed to have adopted me. He called constantly to find out how I was doing in my new job and regularly passed on information that helped me bring new business into Brisbane’s firm. At the same time, Eddie was extremely secretive. He would never leave a message if I was out the office, and even when he provided me with "leads," he warned me not to tell anyone, not even Brisbane.
Only once did I persuade Eddie to have lunch with me, and even then, Eddie looked as if he was ready at any second to dive under the table if someone he knew entered the restaurant. Eddie was even more ill at ease when Mary Beth, shortly after that, called and invited him and his wife to dinner. Eddie’s reply to Mary Beth—that he had a strict policy of keeping his social life separate from his business affairs—was so gruffly delivered that Mary Beth told me she didn’t care if she ever got to meet the mysterious Eddie Lally.
This is a funny business I'm in was the only explanation Eddie ever gave me for his need to be so circumspect. I came finally to understand better what Eddie was getting at six months after I first met him, when Eddie called me one morning and asked if I would drop by his office. An hour later, I was sitting in Eddie’s office, drinking a lukewarm cup of coffee, when Eddie asked me if I would run an errand. But before explaining to me what the errand entailed, Eddie suddenly remarked on how I looked like a man who could use a new briefcase. As he did so, Eddie, with just the trace of a smile on his face, reached under his desk for an expensive looking briefcase, one that had a combination locking device next to its latch.
When I hesitated at reaching out for the briefcase. Eddie, somewhat insistently, thrust it at me, and said, "Here. You got something against carrying a nice briefcase?"
I had no choice but to accept the briefcase, placing it on my lap while Eddie, obviously enjoying my puzzlement, took a moment to take a sip from his coffee. Eddie was my age, but he looked older because his hair, and even his eye brows, were completely white. He had also been quite heavy at one time, but a strict diet, imposed on him by his doctor, had caused him to lose so much weight that there was a noticeable gap between his shirt collar and his neck.
Finally, leaning forward in his chair, and also lowering his voice a notch, Eddie elaborated on the reason for the briefcase.
"What I’m looking for is something really simple. In fact, all you have to do is stop in for a drink on your way home from the office. When you do, you see someone you know, an old friend. You join him for a drink, but when you leave, you mistakenly pick up your friend's briefcase and leave behind the one I gave you. That's it."
"I don't get it," I said. "Or maybe I do, and I think there’s more to this than an innocent mistake."
Eddie, ignoring what I had said, told me the person he wanted me to bring the briefcase to was a member of the state senate.
"A friend of mine has some information he wants to pass on to the senator, some research," he said. That, too, brought a smile to Eddie’s face.
"I have a feeling this is information spelled, c-a-s-h," I said, "Who's it coming from and why am I supposed to bring it?" I also tried just then to open the briefcase, but just as I suspected, it was locked.
Without ever answering me directly, Eddie told me I should learn to relax.
"All I'm asking you to do is to deliver a briefcase," he said. "You're perfect for this job. In a thousand years nobody would expect this from you. It's like the CIA hiring all those bright kids from Ivy League schools to be spies."
"I guess I should take that as a compliment of sorts," I said, "but I can’t say—"
"Look," Eddie said, cutting me off, "when you needed a boost, I put in a good word for you with Brisbane. Now, it's your turn to do me a favor. Besides, the kind of thing I’m asking you to do could work wonders for a guy in your business. You get the picture yet or do you want me to draw it for you?"
Before I ever had a chance to say yes or no to Eddie’s request, Eddie said he had arranged for me to meet the senator at 6:30 that night, in the cocktail lounge of a motor inn in a suburb north of Boston.
"The senator’s bald and fat and likes to hear himself talk," Eddie said. "You’ll know who he is the minute you walk into the lounge."
At that very moment, I realized how right Harrold had been when he told me what a smart guy Eddie was. Eddie, for instance, seemed to understand quite well that a man newly accustomed to prosperity is unlikely to reject a benefactor who asks him to run an errand.
I swapped briefcases for the first time in a dimly-lit cocktail lounge that had a glass tank filled with brightly colored fish. At a table, just to the right of the glass tank, sat Senator Round-face. As soon as I introduced myself to the senator—acting, as Eddie suggested, as if I had run into an old friend—I stooped down and slid my briefcase under the table. When I did so, I saw that the senator’s briefcase was already there.
The moment I reached over to shake the senator’s hand, the senator, grinning broadly, said, "Well, I’ll be—the original, the one and only Golden Gael. You know, Chet, guys I grew up with still talk of what might have been if things had gone differently."
I wanted nothing more just then than to take the briefcase that wasn’t mine and flee. I had convinced myself that the briefcase swap would be a cut and dried affair, as much a chance encounter as Eddie said it would be. But now, with the senator recounting the time he saw me, still in high school, hit a home run that traveled 420 feet on the fly, I began to wonder why I had given in so easily to Eddie. I could even feel driblets of sweat trickling down my back when I tried to imagine what I would say if someone I knew—a real old friend—happened to enter the cocktail lounge.
A few moments later, however, when my eyes had adjusted to the dark, I saw that the cocktail lounge was empty. That made me feel a bit more at ease and a bit more confident with Eddie’s ability to pick meeting places where I was unlikely to run into anyone I knew. All I had to contend with now was Senator Round-face’s forced camaraderie and the obnoxious odor of his cologne.
Having recalled my association with Harry Agganis, the senator turned to the subject of heroes who had died young and then to his account of how he had worked, starting as a boy, in all of John F. Kennedy's political campaigns. I listened politely at first, but in l0 minutes or so, having heard quite enough from the senator of how he had helped put John F. Kennedy in the White House, I finished off my drink and said I had to leave. I was on my way to meet my wife for dinner, I said, in explaining my hasty departure.
As I began to get up from my chair, the senator, who was still yapping about his affection for the Kennedy family, slowly shifted his weight so that he turned away from the table. Then—still chattering on about the Kennedys—the senator used the toe of his shoe to push forward the briefcase he had brought with him. When I reached down to take the senator’s briefcase, I saw that it was an exact replica of the one I was leaving behind.
As soon as I got back to my car, I opened the briefcase and found, as I expected from the feel of it, that it was empty. Eddie hadn’t said what I was supposed to do with the briefcase, but I thought it best, given the circumstances under which I received it, to dispose of it as soon as possible. That night, I hid it behind the golf clubs in the trunk of my car, but early the next day I tossed it into a dumpster in the alley behind my office.
The day after I delivered the briefcase, Eddie called to congratulate me on how well I had done in carrying out my assignment. Eddie never said another word about the errand he had asked me to run until two months later, when he once again summoned me to his office and handed me another briefcase. This time he sent me to the cocktail lounge of a hotel in Cambridge, where I was to meet with a senior engineer in the state highway department.
The exchange of briefcases with the engineer was more business like, but a bit more awkward than my encounter with the state senator. The entire transaction took less than ten minutes and about half of that time was taken up with the engineer going to the men’s room. The engineer, obviously quite nervous, had no intention of chatting with me. As soon as he came out of the men’s room, he downed his drink in one swallow, and then grabbing the briefcase I had brought him, he abruptly left the lounge. Nevertheless, the next day, when Eddie called, he said, "On time, on target, good job."
I soon became accustomed to the calls from Eddie, the visits to his office, and then the instructions from him about the person I was supposed to meet and where. With each assignment—twelve in five years—I became more adept at seeming as if I had indeed run into an old friend. Each time, after completing the briefcase swap, I tossed the briefcase I had mistakenly taken into that same dumpster.
Aside from the state senator, the men I met, all of whom were involved in various ways at overseeing the construction of highways or public buildings, seemed not to know or care who I was. They were only interested in the briefcase I brought with me. The men did manage, mostly for appearance sake, to engage in brief conversations, but these were notable only for small talk about the weather or maybe some reference to the Celtics or Red Sox. Once, a man I brought the briefcase to was accompanied by two burly associates who made a point of sitting on either side of me and pinning me in so that I couldn't move. Their companion then took the briefcase I had delivered and went into the men's room. When he came back, he nodded to both of his friends and they then moved aside so that I could leave.
There was never a time when Eddie admitted outright that I was delivering cash, but he more or less admitted that was so in his allusions, some obscure, some quite candid, for the reasons behind the swap of briefcases. Contractors who were Eddie’s customers (and good friends) often encountered problems on certain public works projects. Payments due to them, for no good reason, were held up, or a project, without any explanation, was suddenly postponed. The contractors could usually tell which of these delays were legitimate and which were discreet (and sometimes not so discreet) requests for a payoff.
Even discounting some of Eddie’s hyperbole, it sounded to me as if all construction in the state was always in imminent danger of coming to a halt if Eddie’s contractor friends failed to provide these public officials with the bribes they were seeking. Eddie tended to abandon his usual discretion when he fulminated about corrupt politicians and the demands they made on people in the construction business. He was in the middle of one such tirade when he admitted that he himself had devised the system for facilitating the payments that contractors were required to make.
"The trick," Eddie said, "is to put some insulation between the guy with his hand out and the guy who’s expected to put something into that hand."
"So that’s me," I said, "the insulation."
"You’re only part of it," Eddie said, with a chuckle.
I didn’t press Eddie just then to expand on what he had said, but a few weeks later, I asked him if he was absolutely certain that the system he had come up with was foolproof.
"Of course it is," Eddie said, somewhat defensively. "You see, there’s no record anywhere of anything going from the guy who’s being held up to the son of a bitch on the receiving end. I handle the whole thing right from here. Then it’s just a matter of reimbursing myself by adding a little surcharge to the cost of concrete."
That allayed any doubts I had about my vulnerability in serving as a go-between for Eddie and his contractor friends. Any ethical concerns I ever had about what I was doing were more than made up for by the apparent benefits that came from being one of Eddie Lally’s close friends. I never knew for sure how much my own business benefited directly from the errands I ran for Eddie, but each year the amount of business I brought into Brisbane’s firm exceeded the previous year’s amount, and Brisbane, delighted with my performance, gave me a series of raises and then promoted me to sales manager.
Gone for good this time, it seemed, was the Harry Agganis hex. Oh, the Red Sox themselves still tormented their followers, even coming within one out and one strike of a world championship only to lose the game when a routine ground ball bounced between the legs of their first baseman. But once I had teamed up with Eddie, I appeared to have put myself beyond the influence of any hex, imagined or real.
I didn’t even feel as if I was at risk when the Commonwealth of Massachusetts embarked on one of its periodic campaigns to purge itself of political corruption. This is a ritual that usually begins with the governor appointing a special commission to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by public officials. Inevitably, a retired Episcopal bishop or a former university president is chosen to head the commission, but it is the commission's attorneys, with the power to subpoena witnesses, who take testimony in private and then proceed to take legal action if such steps are warranted.
I did notice that the delivery of briefcases seemed to tail off once the commission—unofficially referred to as the "crime commission"—opened its investigation, but when I mentioned that to Eddie, he heatedly denied my suggestion.
"What are you talking about?" Eddie said. "This is a commission that’s going after criminals, crooks. What’s that got to do with you and me?"
I became more concerned when the commission's investigation led to the indictment, on unrelated charges, of two people who had received briefcases from me. Again, however, Eddie assured me that I had nothing to fear.
"I told you before. You're not part of this," Eddie said. "There's no record that you gave anything to anyone. There's no record that you and these people even know each other. Please. Nobody has less to worry about than you."
Eddie sounded convincing enough, until one bright Indian summer afternoon—six months into the life of the commission—when Harrold called me with some disturbing news. One of his partners, Harrold said, had just found out that I was going to be subpoenaed by the commission. Harrold immediately assured me that a subpoena didn’t necessarily mean I was in any legal jeopardy. Then, while I was still trying to absorb the news, Harrold offered to call the commission to see what he could learn.
Fifteen minutes later, Harrold called back to inform me that it was official: I was being subpoenaed to testify before the commission in three days. The subpoena would not be served until the next day, Harrold said, but word about it had already leaked to the press.
"You need a statement," Harrold said. "Something from someone like me, insisting that you’re innocent."
"Does this mean you’re willing to represent me on this?" I said.
"Why not," Harrold said. "There’s nothing I like better than taking a case when my client is irrefutably innocent. Now, here’s my first piece of advice. You don’t say a word to anyone. My statement takes care of that. You don’t take phone calls. You don’t call anyone. You just sit still for the time being. Also, it's a good idea if you get home and let Mary Beth know what’s going on."
I agreed to abide by Harrold’s wishes, but first I left word with Brisbane's secretary about the news I had received from Harrold. Then, I put in a call to Eddie, who reacted to the news of my subpoena by telling me once again that I had nothing to worry about.
"The most important thing you’ve already done," Eddie said, "which is to hire Harrold. Nothing bad ever happens if Harrold’s looking out for you. But remember what I said before. There's not a sliver of proof that you did anything wrong anyway."
"So why do they want me to testify?" I said.
"Because they're looking everywhere, trying to prove that money changed hands," said Eddie.
"What money? I never saw any money," I said.
"Now, you're talking. You tell them you don’t know what they’re looking for. How they gonna prove otherwise?"
Before I hung up, Eddie told me he would reimburse me for my legal costs, but for obvious reasons, Eddie said, I would first have to pay Harrold.
"I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to keep this thing a secret," Eddie said. "Nobody should ever know that I’m helping you, not even your wife, not even Harrold."
"Sure, nobody knows anything, except all those guys I brought briefcases to. They gonna be quiet too?"
"For chrissakes, how many times do I have to tell you? You can’t be held liable for something you didn’t even know about. Keep your mouth shut and everything’s going to be just fine."
After talking with Eddie, I drove home, getting there in the middle of the afternoon, just before Mary Beth usually returned from school. The first thing I did was to unplug the phone. Then, I busied myself with sweeping away dead leaves from the backyard patio and preparing to move tables and chairs from there into the basement for the winter. When Mary Beth arrived home, she agreed with me that it was too nice a day for to have stayed in my office. Moments later, she joined me in doing some yard work. Then, at my suggestion, we went to dinner at a restaurant near Harvard Square.
I thought that after a drink or two, and then a quiet dinner, it would be easier for me to talk with Mary Beth about the subpoena, but three times, just as I was about to tell her what she would be reading in the morning paper, I changed my mind. Finally, when we were home and preparing for bed, I told Mary Beth that I was being summoned to appear before the commission.
"They've made a mistake," she said, her reaction as quick and as sure as a hockey goalie who throws out a leg to kick a shot away.
Emboldened by Mary Beth's response, I said that the commission probably wanted to hear from me because several contractors I did business with were friendly with certain politicians. My only crime, I said, was having lunch now and then with clients of mine who may have come to the attention of the commission.
"That’s what’s wrong with these investigations," I said. "Something that looks suspicious is taken as proven fact. And people, unfortunately, will lie through their teeth to save their skin."
By the time she fell asleep, Mary Beth was so convinced of my innocence that a videotape of me handing over a cash bribe, complete with a play-by-play account of what I was doing, would not have changed her mind. Mary Beth was as steadfast even after she saw the next morning's Boston Globe with its story, "Former Harvard Star Called in Corruption Probe."
The story about me followed a predictable pattern, with a spokesman for the commission confirming that I was being called as a witness but refusing to comment on why I was being asked to testify. There was a statement from Harold; too, assuring the public that not only was I innocent of any wrongdoing but looked forward to cooperating in any way I could with the commission. The Globe reporter, however, had picked up enough information from three sources—two unnamed, and one a former legislator who seemed to be floating a theory—to conclude that I might be in a position to explain more fully some alleged bribes already uncovered by the commission. Mary Beth acted as if I was all but exonerated since the news story lacked any mention of sworn affidavits attesting to my complicity in delivering bribes. Or that at least is what Mary Beth seemed to be saying in the phone calls she made to my two sisters and three of her closest friends.
Mary Beth even tried to laugh off the idea that I was capable of breaking the law. Chet Maloney guilty of anything, she would ask, feigning disbelief at the thought. Was this the same Chet she knew, the guy who refused to cross a street unless the sign said Walk? But moments later, unable to contain her outrage, Mary Beth would explode in fury at the Globe reporter and the nameless, faceless people who were trying to sully my name. This was the Salem witch trials all over again, she cried, an outbreak of McCarthyism.
Somewhere Mary Beth had come across the saying, "Better to die on your feet than live on your knees," and in the next two days, she seemed to work that phrase into every conversation she had. I kept Mary Beth from talking with the press when they tried to reach me, but anyone else who talked to her heard that I was the one man brave enough to stand up to a commission gone berserk.
Mary Beth's bravado was dampened only once, when she called Kate to tell her about the subpoena. Kate had recently been married and she and her husband owned a dog kennel outside Colorado Springs. Her husband shared Kate’s dislike for anything that was urban and located on the east coast and both had let me know, much too often in my opinion, that I was complicit in the construction of condominiums and shopping malls and every other type of development they so despised.
Since I didn't care that evening to be lectured to by Kate, I didn't get on the phone, but I had a sense of what was going on because Mary Beth was so busy trying to answer Kate's questions that she was never able to finish reading her the Globe article. I also noticed that Mary Beth, had twice turned her head away from the receiver, took a deep breath, and then slowly exhaled, a sign that she was trying to calm herself.
"Oh, Daddy isn't cut out for that sort of thing," Mary Beth said. "You know that. There isn't a devious bone in his body."
A moment later, Mary Beth tried a new tack: "This is a commission trying to justify its existence. They cast a wide net and they think every minnow they bring up is some kind of whale."
That explanation didn't seem to work any better in persuading Kate of my innocence, and so Mary Beth tried once again.
"Oh, they're just a bunch of eager-beaver little lawyers trying to throw their weight around," she said, exasperation evident in every syllable. "Targeting somebody like Daddy makes these little twerps feel important."
Seconds later, Mary Beth, without saying good-bye, abruptly hung up, slamming the phone down with some force.
She didn't say anything at first, but then, with one word—"Wise ass"—she let me know what she thought of the talk she had had with Kate. A moment later, a bit more composed, she said, "Here, word for word, is what made me hang up on her. Quote, 'Did he or didn't he have anything to do with the payment of bribes? If he didn't, no problem. If he did, big problem.' Unquote."
The next day I called Kate. I wanted to apologize for Mary Beth hanging up on her, but Kate was still interested in getting an answer to the question she had asked Mary Beth.
"So what's the story?" she asked, "You going to give the commission what they’re looking for?"
"It's scapegoat time in Massachusetts," I replied. "And once everyone decides to have a lynching party, they have to find someone to string up."
Apparently that explanation made little headway since the only sound on the other end of the line was the barking I often heard in the background when talking to Kate.
"If you have a commission investigating political corruption," I continued, "you must find corruption, or something that looks like it. A lot of people are mentioning names, trying to save themselves by blaming other people. You could have met so and so for lunch and suddenly you're a coconspirator."
The barking in the background grew louder just then and Kate excused herself because she needed to tend to the disturbance. I told her I was sorry for bothering her when she was so busy.
As for Mary Beth, I wasn’t at all surprised with what she was saying, but I was bewildered by the way Harrold downplayed the subpoena.
"My guess is that someone the commission has interviewed probably mentioned your name," Harrold said, "and therefore the commission wants to talk to you. That’s the way these things usually go. They’ll follow any lead, no matter how vague, in the hope that they might hit pay dirt. Think of this whole thing as a minor inconvenience, something like running into a traffic jam while driving to work."
"My name doesn’t usually end up on the front page of the Globe when I get stuck in traffic," I said.
"No, it doesn’t, but don’t try to make this into something bigger than it is," Harrold said. "The last thing you want to do is act as if you’re guilty of something. That’s exactly what these guys are looking for."
"I don’t know what it’s like to act guilty, but it pisses me off to think that they’re putting me through this simply because my name may have come up in some conversation."
"Ah, ah, but pissed off is exactly what you don’t want to be," Harrold said. "In fact, you’ll go out of your way to be courteous—courteous but uncooperative. Confirm certain facts. Yes, you know so and so. Yes, you met him, but just once, and you can't really remember what was said. It was a brief meeting. There was a lot of noise. Apologize for being forgetful. Whatever you do, don't sound defiant. Get these two-bit lawyers upset with you and they’re likely to march into court, seeking a contempt citation. Get the wrong judge and he could decide that a few days in jail might refresh your memory."
I shuddered at the mention of jail, and Harrold just as quickly assured me that jail was a remote possibility. A moment later, he went back to explaining what I could expect from the commission.
"They’ll give you a tough time, no doubt about that," Harrold said. "Bullying witnesses is their specialty, particularly in the private sessions. They can also cozy up to you, acting as if they're on your side and making you think they'll go easy on you if you cooperate. The trick is not to let them call the shots. You're a law-abiding citizen who would like nothing more than to help them. Unfortunately, you know nothing that’s of any value to them."
"So my entire defense is to say nothing, but to do so in such a way that nobody gets mad at me."
"It may not sound terribly clever," Harrold said, "but clever doesn't always work with these people."
Right then, I was about to tell Harrold about the briefcases, but I decided, instead, to make it a hypothetical question. What happens, I asked him, if I walk into the hearing and, bang, they hit me with something, no matter how false, that sounds as if I had indeed done something wrong?"
Harrold's office had a panoramic view of Boston harbor and before he answered me, he turned his chair around and looked out his window while apparently collecting his thoughts. A moment later, he slowly turned back so that he was again facing me.
"Chester, not many people, even politicians of limited intelligence, ever confess to wrongdoing. That's why this commission is calling you in. They're stymied. They're looking for any break they can get, even if it means dragging in some poor soul who's never done anything wrong. That's their game, putting people like you on the defensive. They're hoping that will make you say something from which they can infer something else. Often that works for them, especially if someone's done something wrong and is looking for a deal. But with you, they've made a mistake. You haven't any reason to make a deal. So you deny, deny, deny. In between times, you tell them you can’t recall what they’re asking you about. In other words, if they’re so fucking sure of themselves, let them prove it."
For the first time I began to wonder if Harrold’s readiness to defend me was nothing more than his way of protecting his old friend, Eddie, from any harm. I suddenly thought of that day when Eddie said I was a perfect candidate for delivering the briefcases because nobody would suspect me of such a thing. Was it far-fetched to conclude from that that Harrold might have recruited me to be Eddie’s bag man? And were both of them chortling now about how I had no choice, in defending myself, to defend them also?
In view of all this, I thought it best to prepare Mary Beth for what might happen by telling her what Harrold had said about the possibility of jail if a judge found be in contempt. Mary Beth, of course, refused to believe me.
"They can't put people in jail unless they've been convicted of a crime," she said.
"Mary Beth, please. Harrold’s a lawyer, a sharp one. He knows this stuff inside out and backwards. So I worry when he says that jail, while not likely, is a possibility if they decide I’m refusing to give them what they’re looking for."
I can’t say for sure whether Mary Beth had a smile on her face when I said that, but she didn’t look like someone who would be displeased if I ended up going to jail on a matter of principle.
The day before I testified, I was home alone when Eddie called to repeat the advice he had previously given me, but this time, I snapped back when Eddie said that nobody, not even Mary Beth, should know about our arrangement.
"Eddie, as far as Mary Beth's concerned, my business dealings were always on the up and up."
"Who ever said they weren’t?" Eddie said. "Just do what Harrold tells you. You'll be all right."
"Oh sure, no problem," I said. "Let's just forget that this is sworn testimony, you know, the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth, my hand resting on the bible—"
"Fuck the bible," Eddie said. "You were an errand boy. Nothing more. For all you know this was some old Irish custom. Yeah, you happen to have these friends, Irish guys who like send each other briefcases. You did them a favor. You were the guy who delivered the briefcases. What was in the briefcases, you don’t know. Why they did it, you have no idea. In other words, my friend, you couldn’t tell this asshole commission anything about bribes even if you wanted to."
The next day, with Harrold as our point man, Mary Beth and I pushed our way through the small cluster of reporters and cameramen waiting outside the building where the commission had its offices, Their entrance into the building would have gone more smoothly, except that Mary Beth, falling a step or two behind me, was telling the reporters how much I welcomed this chance to clear my name.
Harrold and I, neither of us saying a word, kept inching ahead, but Mary Beth came to a complete stop when a reporter asked her if I was ready to testify fully about everything I knew.
"Why not?" she replied. She was midway through elaborating on that answer, explaining to the reporter what a law abiding citizen Chet Mullaney was when Harrold reached back and gently took Mary Beth by the arm. Simultaneously, while pulling Mary Beth forward, he turned himself around so that he now stood between Mary Beth and the reporter.
"I’m sorry, but we’ll have no further comment," Harrold told the reporters. At the same time, he eased Mary Beth through the door of the building.
The reporters tried to keep up with Harrold and me and Mary Beth, and one television cameraman, walking backwards, managed to keep his lens focused tightly on us until we reached the elevators, but there, a security guard prevented anyone from following us any farther. Mary Beth, in the few seconds before the elevator doors closed, leaned forward so that she was staring directly into the television camera when she raised both her hands above her head and flashed a V-for-Victory sign.
Moments later, having arrived at the commission’s office, Mary Beth was told by the guard that she could wait in a small anteroom off the lobby while Harrold and I met with attorneys from the commission. Mary Beth acknowledged the instructions from the guard, but she nevertheless accompanied us down the corridor towards the hearing, one of her arms wrapped around my waist. As we got closer to the hearing room, I stopped, and leaning over, gave Mary Beth a quick kiss.
After the kiss, I walked on, with Harrold by my side, but we hadn’t gone another ten feet or so, when Mary Beth called out to me. When I looked back, I saw that Mary Beth, standing on her tiptoes, had brought both hands up to her lips. She then flung her arms out wide and sent a kiss flying in my direction. In a more circumscribed manner, I returned Mary Beth’s kiss with a wave of my hand.
Dear, dear Mary Beth, please try to understand—it wasn’t the Harry Agganis hex that caused me to deliver briefcases filled with cash.