By: Jack Bristow
Jimmy “Wheels” O’Flanagan was a beast of a man. He weighed only 150 pounds; he wore a scally cap. He rolled everywhere. He could have taken the subway, he could have taken the taxi, but he liked to roll. He had the rolling down to an art form, although he was small in stature and had a skinny frame, his arms were tough and sinewy. He could crack walnuts with his bare hands, O’Flanagan’s strength was so impressive due to his rolling prowess.
He had made a little name for himself in Hell’s Kitchen. Anybody who knew anybody in the Kitchen knew not to borrow money from O’Flanagan, a half Irish, half Scottish loan shark whose legs no longer worked but whose eyes were fiery and whose temperament was incredibly volatile. If somebody ever did borrow money from O’Flanagan, they were always degenerate gamblers, the bottom feeders: The guys who could no longer borrow from anybody anymore. The guys who were so badly in debt with everyone else, that they had no alternative. They had already had their legs broken, their noses, their jaws. They had nothing else to lose so they went to borrow from O’Flanagan. Who knows? Maybe a miracle’d happen, maybe they’d score so high they could pay off all their debts–the lenders who had beaten them to a pulp earlier and Jimmy O’Flanagan, of course.
I’m one of those guys. Now, I’m not saying I had my legs, neck or jaw broken. I didn’t have any of that happen to me. All that happened to me was I lost a pinkie. Hey, big deal: I’ve still got one of ’em. I was in hawk twenty grand with Russian shylock Sergey Järvinen. I had bet that the San Francisco 49ers would pulverize the Kansas City Chiefs at Super Bowl 2020. All I can remember is lying on the floor of my condo, groaning in agony, and this Russian cutting into my appendage with a pair of stainless steel Igan wire-cutters. “This is what happens, Mr. Byrne when you don’t pay your dues,” the Russian said to me, applying pressure. I woke a few hours later. There was blood everywhere: All over my floor, the carpets, my Ralph Lauren shirt.
In the Bellevue waiting room I told the receptionist I had a nasty accident with a woodsaw. The nurse brought out a cup of ice to apply to my stub. “Apply pressure, you’ve got a long night ahead of you,” she said to me, chewing bubblegum.
As I sat there in the waiting room, I mulled over how I was going to pay off this crafty immigrant. I had no home to sell. All the legitimate money-lending places in the Five Boroughs would have nothing to do with me. None of the illegitimate street guys would touch me with a ten-foot pole, either: Certainly not Marvin the Mallet McEnroe; nor Hank the Hammer Mckenzie; or James The Muzzle Malone? Forget about it. As far as these guys were concerned I, Patrick Byrne, was persona non grata.
Only one guy didn’t refuse to loan to me: James O’Flanagan, AKA Jimmy Wheels.
“What did you ask to see me for, Pat?”
There he was sitting in my condo, the legendary paraplegic of Hell’s Kitchen. His face had a perpetual scowl as he sat there in his wheelchair, smoking a cigarette.
“I need to borrow twenty K from you.”
O’Flanagan laughed. “What makes you think I would loan that much money to a piss ant like you?”
“Don’t worry about it. I’m good for it, Jimmy.”
“What do you do for a living?”
“I’m unemployed, collecting unemployment.”
He sneered. “Do you own this condo?”
“Yeah,” I lied.
O’Flanagan rolled around the condo. He checked out the kitchen, and my own single bedroom. “This place is a pigsty,” he said on returning. “You’re a disgusting slob. But I don’t care; I’ll loan you the 15 K.”
I was starting to get nervous, but I had to clarify how much money I needed. “That’s nice, Jimmy. But what I really need is twenty K.”
James O’Flanagan wheeled up to me quickly, like he was going to take a swing at me. He grabbed my arm and sunk his fingernails into my arms. “Listen to me you little piss ant. I don’t have twenty grand, and even if I did, I wouldn’t be wasting it on the likes of you. Fifteen grand is the deal. And if you don’t pay back, your place is my place.” He took those barbwire fingernails of his out of my forearm.
“But how am I going to make the rest of the nut?” I asked, nursing my bleeding forearm.
“Not my problem,” O’Flanagan said as he wheeled over to the living room window and looked out of it. “Rob a bank. Invest in the stock market. Go to the races.” O’Flanagan wheeled back to me. “I don’t care. But you’re going to pay me back with twenty five percent vig. Or else.” He pointed his hand at the bulge in his pants. “I’m packing some serious hardware, and I’m not afraid to use it.” O’Flanagan chuckled, as he blew more smoke into my face. “One thing you gotta remember Pat is this: I’m not a poser. I ain’t like that Russian that cuts off pinkies. You try any funny stuff–say you can’t make the nut, you try to sell the condo and run off without me knowing it–I will track you down and I’ll pump two in your head myself. Missing pinkie ain’t as bad as a missing brains, don’t you think Pat?”
O’Flanagan’s face looked like the surface of the moon, filled with all kinds of pits and craters. He looked mad to be there. Then again, he looked mad 24/7.
“No sir,” I said finally. “It’s nowhere near as bad.”
Contrary to what you might think, it’s no big deal to lose a pinkie. Sure, I would rather still have it than not, but it’s not like it’s a necessity. I only miss having it sometimes: Like when I’m bowling and holding the ball, readying for the push; or when I’m doing curls, sometimes the weights will drop out of my hand; or when I’m trying to hold a Margarita in my hand but the bugger keeps slipping out, like I was doing that day at the Three Summits Casino in Newark, New Jersey. I was standing there in front of the Roulette Table, watching this wide fellow in a large Stetson cowboy hat, probably a rich oilman from Texas, two blondes on each side of him, betting one hundred grand a pop. The crowd was cheering at first, but he was a loser now, not hitting any of the numbers, and about half a million in debt within twenty minutes of playing.
The onlookers weren’t that excited anymore. They were mostly just standing around to watch the rest of the train wreck.
“Seven,” the large guy shouted to the croupier. The croupier nodded, spun the wheel in one direction, then the little ball in the other. “Sorry sir,” the croupier said, “Twenty two,” and then he raked the money up and shoved it into his little bag.
The big Texan slunk away, the two call girls by his side.
Well, they can’t all be losers, I thought to myself.
I looked at the croupier with the bald shiny head a second, admiring how good of a job he had been doing today, and guessing how many days a week he had to put a shaver to the head to get that spic-and-span look. Then I handed him the chips, all the chips, fifteen thousand dollars worth of those green little monsters. “Call your number, sir,” the dealer barked at me, sounding like a Drill Sergeant. I used my daughter’s age, my beloved daughter who wants nothing to do with me, Rosie. “Twenty eight,” I shouted, my eyes wide, as the croupier spun the ball in the wheel in two opposing directions. In that moment, time stood still, my friends. I could see my life flashing in front of my eyes: My first fire hydrant red Schwinn bicycle as a little tyke; my first girlfriend Suzy Collins and her braces and mine locking together during our first kiss; my wife Ruth running off with my attorney, Ben Sigmund. This was it: Life or death. The moment of truth. A million to one shot, or a one in thirty-six, I thought.
My eyes clamped shut as the wheel finally began to wind down. I couldn’t take the suspense any longer, my friends.
“Twenty eight,” the croupier shouted, unexcited about my newfound gains. The crowd, still craving blood after the Rich Texan’s fall from grace, clapped for me like I were royalty or something. For once in my life, I felt like a champion. You see: I had no skills, there was nothing I was good at, except for drinking and gambling, and really I was only good at one of those things: Drinking. The gambling I sucked at, but it still was a chance for a loser, a deadbeat such as myself to maybe make good. I get high off the idea of maybe making good. The casino is the loser’s paradise, the deadbeat’s version of the American dream. There’s always that chance, that illusion for success in these places, but we never usually make good. This time I came out a winner. This time things were different. I was so overjoyed, I nearly kissed that emotionless croupier right on his cue ball forehead. But I didn’t.
The next thing I know this pit boss — a stocky older gentleman with salt and pepper hair — walked over to me, shaking my hand over and over again. He asked me my name. He announced it loudly, so everybody within earshot could hear that it’s possible to be a winner at the Three Summits Casino in Newark, New Jersey.
“Congratulations Mr, Bryne, you have just won yourself five hundred thousand dollars!”
We all got together for the picture: Me, the pit boss, the croupier who still wasn’t cracking a smile and the big, Publisher’s Clearing House size check. As the flash hit our faces, I thought gladly, giddily, At least I get to keep my other pinkie, brain, and four hundred thousand dollars.
I was the happiest man in the world that day. Set for life. Okay, maybe not set for life. Four hundred grand wasn’t really enough of a 401 (k) plan. Clearly, I’d have to do some more hustling, investing, sports betting. The last few months had been a terrible slump for me, funneling my unemployment checks on teams I shouldn’t have been betting on. Obviously, old Jack Daniels had been clouding my judgment. That would never happen again. I was a brand-new creation that day, my friends, transformed, rebirthed.
And, if worst comes to worst, I could always borrow from Sergey Järvinen and Jimmy “Wheels” O’Flanagan again.