Confessions of a Soldier

I tell you: I've clipped a lot of guys. I have done a lot of things--things I am not proud of--throughout the years: Murder, extortion, tax evasion. Things that would make your blood curdle and your skin crawl. I've been shot, stabbed, had my left eye gouged out when I was a young upstart, working the streets in the five boroughs. I've whacked best friends. I've done years behind bars for racketeering. I've been the triggerman on many unfortunate an SOB: some of them guys I loved like brothers--like brothers!--others I knew of as strictly acquaintances. All times I pulled the trigger unflinchingly, remorselessly.


"The word remorse doesn't belong in the lexicon of any genuine wiseguy," said Curtis Fratino, my former and now very dead mentor in La Cosa Nostra. "Remorse achieves no purposes, Johnny. What's done is done." 


Fratino was a capo in the Spirochete family--a bloodthirsty clan operating autonomously apart from the five-well known families--Gambino, Luchese, Columbo, Genovese, Bonanno.


Fratino's advice was incredibly prescient and helpful. And I adhered to it unwaveringly every day after I had heard it--especially after I whacked Fratino. What could I do? Fratino was dealing junk. He had broken the golden rule he had always cautioned me with: "Never, under any circumstances whatsoever Johnny Sunglasses, deal in dope. Dope sends people away longer than even murder. True, the profits are incredible, but so are the prison sentences." Fratino would then always wave his forefinger at me--usually while stuffing his face with a spoonful of Spaghetti--"never, ever sell that, Johnny. That's a no-no."


I garroted Fratino in Salvatore's Clam House in upstate New York. We were ostensibly going up there to see a man about a pony I was going to buy for my daughter, Celia. 


After disposing of the evidence in the Pine Barrens, I felt no remorse whatsoever. Sure, I wished things had not gone that way. I had wished Fratino hadn't profited from horse. But rules are rules. And at the end of the day Curtis Fratino should have known better. He had no illusions what he had signed up for. He understood the risks coming into the game and played Russian Roulette with himself.


All these years later Fratino's words still ring true: No remorse.


But even though I have no remorse in my vocation, it doesn't mean I'm a psychopath or something in my real life. I donate to Save the Children. I tithe more than generously to Father O'Doyle than most congregants. When someone is whacked in my crew--either by me, or another occupational hazard or cruel twist of fate--I pay for his funeral. I swerve for pigeons daily enroute to the Ace of Hearts social club. I recycle and even drive a Chevrolet Spark EV because I'm mindful of global warming. 


I don't think of myself as a monster. I think about myself as a soldier. Make no mistake about it: All the people I clipped were as bad as me.


I've seen plenty hairy and grisly things--things most men and women would need to undergo lifelong therapy just to sleep soundly at night.


I'm fine with that. Like Curtis Fratino, I understood the procedure of this life.


The only thing that makes me toss and turn at night is the idea of nuclear war.


I mean, could you understand it? What kind of a twisted mind would consider using those things? In La Cosa Nostra, I clipped people the world would never miss--extortioners, heroin dealers, defectors--but I could never in a million years launch a nuclear bomb at civilian populations. I could never press "the little red button." Forget about it. And ever since this Russia and Ukraine war broke out, I broach the subject to Cindy a lot. Usually when we're lying in bed, getting ready to sleep, I give my wife an earful, while frantically searching Google News about the conflict via the iphone.


"Russia has 6000 nuclear weapons," I tell Cindy soberly. "We have 5,500." I read that last particularly frightening paragraph again. "Could you imagine? That's enough to destroy all humanity. What kind of a person would do such a thing, even consider inflicting so much pain and misery on people?"


Cindy, usually rubbing her eyes, will always say: "Honey, don't you have an important meeting next week?"


"I have a sit down with Mr. Spirochete."


"Go to sleep," she always says, closing her eyes and yawning. "And on your day off go see Father O'Doyle. You haven't gone to confession in years. It will be a humongous weight off your chest. Trust me."


I kept putting off going to confession. Why I had, I don't know. Maybe because the last time I had confessed my sins to a priest I was a freshman in high school, I had just gotten into a fight with Louis Caldwell--the chesty quarterback at Vanderbilt High--and even back then, that was done under compulsion. My incredibly devout mother Maggie had given me an ultimatum: "Either you apologize to Louis and his family, or you confess your sins to Father McHenry." I wasn't about to apologize to that arrogant jock, so I settled for the latter.


But that was before I had become a made man. I was just a half-bright kid with no cardinal sins--such as racketeering, extortion, murder--under my belt. My worst sin back then was oogling my Farrah Fawcett bedroom poster and sneaking into the multiplex to see John Wayne's “The Shootist" and Marty Scorsese's "Taxi Driver." But now I believe confessing my sins--reaching into the bottom of my soul--would be a waste. Especially when I could never give full disclosure anyway, considering the seriousness of my crimes.


But one day I was knocking on a man's door to collect on a gambling debt. The poor mook had bet 5 thousand smackaroos that the Cincinnati Bengals would pulverize the Los Angeles Rams at Superbowl ‘22. The poor bastard had accumulated an additional two-thousand dollar debt in vigorish--and I was just trying to get him to cough up the loot before Mr. Spirochete would decide to take his house in lieu of payments. "You owe us seven grand," I said to the diminutive bank clerk/sometimes degenerate gambler. "For hell’s sake man, you work at a bank. Do something to get that money, before you get to deep in arrears."


"Like what, Johnny?" he asked, concern on his face, the horn-rimmed eyeglasses he wore slanted down crookedly.


"How am I supposed to know?" I exploded. "Try to see if you can get a loan. Sell your car. Sell your condo. Just make the nut before this whole thing accelerates."


What I heard next nearly gave me a heart attack. My Iphone came to life beeping with a special alert. "The nukes are coming," I shouted. "The nukes are coming." What else could it have been? Things weren't going the way Russia had planned in Ukraine. Tensions with America had not been this big since the Cuban Missile Crisis. 


Then I looked down at my Iphone. As it turns out, no nuclear weapons had been launched. It was an amber alert for some missing kid in Norwich.


What was wrong with me? I thought, standing in front of the mark's house. I was showing weakness. Clearly, my fears of nuclear war had been interfering with my work. How could I scare this milquetoast little accountant into paying off his debts when I was hollering about impending doom, clearly scared out of my wits? I had no other choice.


I would have to go see Father O'Doyle and confess my sins.




There I sat, inside the confessional, arms crossed. What am I doing here? Cindy had always told me, "I'm worried, John. Worried you're going to go to Hell, not Heaven." Now you must understand: She didn't know what I did for a living, but she knew. Call it a wife's intuition. She knew well all the unsavory characters I associated with: Jimmy "The Magnum" Carnegie, Mark "The Bullet" Stronzo; George "Brass Knuckles" Maroni. And let's not forget my very own stint at Lewisburg, Penitentiary. Cindy was no dope. She understood that, despite what my lawyer, Harry Hartfield had said in court, I hadn't gone to the Pennsylvania Big House due to a case of mistaken identity. I was guilty as sin for rigging a few college basketball games.


I crossed myself for good measure, racking my brain to remember proper confessional protocol.


Finally, came the gentle voice that I had heard before on those rare occasions when Cindy would drag me off to church on Sunday. It was light but tough. "Good morning my son," he said. "Might I ask when your last confession was?"


"About forty years ago, give or take."


"Forty years? Wow," he said. "A real Prodigal's Son you are."


What was he talking about here? "No, Father. I'm Johnny--Johnny Caliento. I don't know any Prodigal. What kind of nationality is that name anyway, German?"


Father O'Doyle chuckled. "You have a great sense of humor, Johnny. Oh yes, Caliento," he said, wrapping his knuckles anxiously on the other end. "Your wife Cindy--Cindy Caliento--she's the one who bakes that excellent Sweet Potato pie."


"Yes, sir--I mean father," I said. "You have got her number."


I could see Father O'Doyle's profile through the grille. A good-looking guy. If he hadn't taken a vow of celibacy, he could have had any lady here he wanted.


"Let me ask you something, my son," Father O'Doyle said. "What are the ingredients Cindy uses. I mean, that pie is to die for. It's like pumpkin pie but better."


"Are you kidding me? You know how many people have asked Cindy for that recipe? She never gives it away. Ancient family secret. Her secrecy has cost her friendships. She won't tell anyone what kind of spices she uses in that thing."


Then I heard Father O'Doyle clearing his throat. He sounded more businesslike now. 


"What can I help you with, Johnny?"


I would have to come clean--or as clean as I could under these circumstances. "Father, I haven't come to confession since I was a teenager. I'm a much older man now and I'm depressed."


"Why haven't you come to confession in so long?"


"Why haven't I come to confession for so long?" I scoffed. "Father, do me a favor, all right? Forget the normalcies. You don't have to be nice just for my benefit." I took a deep breath. "You read the news. You grew up in Bensonhurst also. You know what I do for a living. You know how I got my nickname, Johnny Sunglasses, don't you? I had my left eye gouged out in a street fight. I don't like to spook the kids with the glass alternative, that's why I'm always wearing these Ray Bans -- hence my moniker."


"I see," Father O'Doyle said.


"Yeah," I responded. "You can put two and two together. A full confession for me would be quite incriminating."


The padre exhaled mightily. "So why have you come here if you do not want to confess?"


"Because I'm scared father," I said. "Not about my line of business. I could get whacked any day. That doesn't concern me. Occupational hazard," I shrugged my shoulders. "What concerns me is all this talk of nuclear warfare. You know, what's going on with Russia, Ukraine. Soaring gas prices. The homeless people starving in the street." I took another breath. "Sometimes I see all this going on and I think, a man reapeth what he soweth? You know? But back to those nukes," I continued. "I'm going to tell you something I have never told anyone before: They frighten me." I laid the truth on him. "I'm always searching Google news compulsively after a hard day's work."


"1 Peter 5:7," said the profile through the grille.


"Excuse me?" I said.


"Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for us."


"Oh, I do that all the time," I said.


"Any results?" asked Father O'Doyle.


"Not really," I said. "I'm the nervous wreck I have always been."


"Johnny, I'm going to be Frank--"


"But I thought your name was Patrick."


"I'm going to be totally honest with you, Johnny. You cannot be a gangster and a child of God. You must repent of your ways and ask the Sovereign  LORD for help."


"Yeah," I said, feeling whipped. "That's easy for you to say, Your Righteousness. But me, I've taken an oath. I have sworn to total loyalty to--you know, this lifestyle I am not really at liberty to speak about." Had I driven my point home to Father O'Doyle? "Let me put this another way. If you decide to retire from the priesthood, nothing happens to you, the only way I'm leaving my occupation is in a box--especially if I announce I'm leaving. There is no leaving. It's non-negotiable. I'm in this life forever."


"I see," he said.


"You know I have some grisly sh--stuff in my lifetime," I said. "I can't go into intimate detail. But let me just tell you, it'd give lesser men PTSD. But the thoughts of," I said, my voice choking with emotion. "The thoughts of," I continued, "Innocent and defenseless children being torn apart by nuclear radiation, the thoughts of innocent animals dying, the thoughts of civilians dying in the their homes–that's worse than, worse than–"


"Anything La Cosa Nostra has ever done?" injected Father O'Doyle.


"Yeah," I said. "You read my thoughts exactly."


Further silence on Father O'Doyle's end. Surely, he had met a lot of wayward souls: Hookers. Pimps. Drug addicts. But I was another matter entirely. Finally, he responded: "Johnny, The LORD understands your plight. He knows your situation"




"Matthew 6:34," he said. "Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own."


"So, about my sins, how can I be forgiven for them if I can't even confess them to you?"


"Ordinarily I always demand confession. But in your case Johnny, I will make an exception," he said. "You are absolved of all your sins. Now go home and sin no more."




Later that night I'm lying on the queen-sized bed with Cindy. She's reading another one of her religious books.


"What's that book about?" I asked her.


"Soteriology," came the response.




Cindy laughed, ever the patient muse. "Soteriology," she said. "The doctrine of salvation."


"Oh," I said. "Sweetie, let me ask you a question."


"Shoot," she said, never looking away from the tome.


"You know sometimes we got an expression on the streets whenever something bad happens. Say your beloved Uncle is dying in hospice, say a fireman charges into a burning building to rescue someone and doesn't make it out, say a good person gets mugged and murdered. For this we say, 'What kind of a God?'"


"Yes Johnny," Cindy replied, licking the page and then turning to the next. "I've heard that expression many times before."


"And I had said it a million times before, never really understanding that it wasn't God's fault. It's man's. Man's screwed everything up."


Cindy smiled and then kissed me on the forehead. "Yes Johnny, he has."


For the first time in weeks, I drifted off to sleep without worrying about the nukes.

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