The Million Dollar Case


Editor’s Note: Two of my closest writer-friends, Lowell B. Komie and Harry Mark Petrakis, are forever “Chicago Writers,” in my mind and heart, no matter if they left the city long ago. No matter where they may live or write about these days. Both men now in their 80’s, they remain “there” still telling their stories. Chicago is in their bones. It’s where I first read their work, where I first met them, where our long friendship developed, where I can continue to touch base with their sense of time and place and character. It’s an honor and pleasure to feature them, one of their stories, on this website devoted to the story: “Once Upon A Time.” First Komie. Followed, next week, by Petrakis. I hope you will read them, support them, enjoy each man’s ‘sample’ story as much as I have revered their work from the very beginning. They are classic Chicago storytellers.

The stories of Lowell B. Komie remain one of the best kept secrets on the Chicago scene—and far beyond. But that’s another whole issue I don’t have the time or space to devote to in this introduction. I can refer you, however, to a profile I once did on Lowell for After Hours, a Journal of Chicago Writing and Art (Readers interested in seeing that interview contact me and I will send it as an attachment). I can also direct you to his website: And I can mention that Lowell’s latest book, ITALIA, is sort of a novel comprised of six related stories, and that he’ll be doing a reading from this book on November 30th. Any reading by Lowell or Harry—NOT TO BE MISSED. Their presence. Their voice. The wonder they exude in telling the tale…the story in us all that needs to be written told, read, heard.

I need to stop myself from going on. I could tell Lowell Komie stories from now into tomorrow. I need to give you the peace and quiet of a few minutes to read and enjoy just this very short one of his about…something he overheard? Experienced? Imagined? Artfully rendered. And passed on. I would add that on my shelves of many books, many stories…when I’m in a particular mood, up or down, no mood at all, not sure what I want to read.…possibly feeling a longing for home, the old neighborhood, the city, the sense of ‘ethnic’ family…I reach for my old friends on the shelf, Komie and Petrakis…and I am in their hands, as they are in mine. They put me back in place, make me smile, make me feel all that is good and possible in the human heart. –Norbert Blei

The Million-Dollar Case

Lowell B. Komie

He was an old Italian man and on the first day of his new job with a landscaping company, a tree had fallen on his head.

Now, several weeks later, and after numerous whispered phone calls from his wife, I sat across from him at his kitchen table, a glass of his Chianti In my hand. She sat with us, nervously sipping coffee, and muttering between sips in some low Italian dialect. After all, I was her lawyer. For over a month she had pleaded with him to see me and now that at last the moment was upon her, she brimmed with anger, ready to let it flow at his least hesitancy to proceed with what she knew was a million-dollar case. I was her lawyer. Now he must talk. She had no tolerance for further delay. Over her shoulder, on the kitchen wall, a little plaster plaque of the Madonna looked down on the three of us. Occasionally, she’d glance threateningly up at the wall plaque. The implications of her gesture were not lost on her husband, but he countered by looking at me wistfully and shrugging, as if to say, “We men who have lived among women for many years know they are lunatics.”

I tried my best. Poppa had a good workmen’s compensation case, a triple skull fracture and broken collarbone. He owed it to her to file his claim. He could put something aside for them, a bank account for Momma. I explained the contingent fee arrangement to him. I told him about the short compensation docket, that there’d be a hearing set before an arbitrator in six months. I told him that in 90 percent of compensation cases there was a finding for the plaintiff. That the company was insured and had an insurance policy to cover any award he was given and that the money would come to him tax-free. I told him all this, but he was a very stubborn man.

When I finished, he looked up at me, stroked his chin thoughtfully and then said quietly, “You know something Mr. Lawyer…I tell you somethin’.. . .” He looked around the room for any witnesses who might be hiding. Then he smiled with his eyes and said, “That tree no hurt this old man.”

“See,” Momma said, turning her palms upward to the wall plaque, “What I tell you?”

“No… that tree no hurt me,” he rapped his head with his knuckles. “In fact…you want to know something? I feel better since it hit me. That’s a true.”

“See how crazy he is, Mr. Lawyer. That tree made him crazy.”

“I no crazy…you crazy.”

“Ah, you … you are an idiot.”

“I tell you I feel better now. Before the accident I have ringing in my ears. Now I have no ringing in my ears. The tree fall on my head and stop the ringing.”

Poppa sat back and folded his arms. He poured more wine and smacked his lips. “You see how she treats me, Mr. Lawyer? With a no respect, her mouth goes all a time, like a motor, buzz a buzz, but in her heart, nothing, just a money,” He pounded his heart with a gnarled hand. “She think only of money. Why I marry her. God only knows.”

“You make me sick. You know you really make me sick, For forty years I wonder why I marry you.”

“You marry me because I young and strong and work like a man, Because I no afraid and take you to America. Now you want me to lie down like a dog and pretend I sick and no work anymore. You want me to live a lie. That’s a what you want.” He pulled a thin, black, twisted cigar from his shirt pocket and then cut the tip off with his pocket knife. “And then when I’m dead, what they say? You tell me what they say? They say he no good. He quit. He no sick and take the money from the company and then he die. And they all spit on my grave.” His eyes glittered with contempt at the thought and then he leaned over and blew a puff of smoke past my face and spoke to me confidentially. “Mr. Lawyer, you tell her, tell her that I no can do this.”

But I tried again for Momma. I told him about my experience in workmen’s compensation cases. I warned him about his health, asked him about the doctor he had seen, warned him about insurance companies and quick low-dollar settlements. I spoke about concussions and detailed the treachery of a severe concussion. I offered to send him to a specialist for confirmation of the company doctor’s opinion. I mentioned other Italian people I had represented in the same community, gave him names of men who trusted me, men he knew. He listened to me politely, but his mind was made up and I understood. It was a matter of honor with him. To file a claim would have impugned his honor, made a strong man seem weak. It would have been a cowardly act, an admission of his inability to care for himself. His belief in himself and in his own strength as a working man was a virtuous belief. He would do nothing that would lose him face in the community. To file a claim was a non-virtuous act, it offended his dignity. He was a simple man and he earned his living in a simple, time-honored way, with his back, with his strength. He was polite, but his blue eyes lost none of their initial expression of contempt and as I spoke he kept shaking his head negatively.

I looked at Momma. She was also shaking her head, her eyes filling with tears.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“You sorry,” she said. “It’s a me who’s sorry. That I gotta man like that who’s so dumb. So dumb.”

She was crying now, first softly and then unashamedly crying into her arms folded on the table. Then suddenly she lifted her head, and, with the comprehension that comes from over forty years of marriage, she went to her husband, stood behind him and put her arms around him.

“Such a dumbbell I got here,” she said quietly. “A head like a stone.” She ruffled his hair and clucked her tongue. “My man here, he’s got a head like a rock.”

“You bet,” he said, rubbing at his eyes. He reached his hand behind his chair and patted her rump, “It’s a true. That tree no hurt this old man.”

It was all over. I had pleaded her case and lost. Now she dried her tears and put the matter to rest. They became again the two children they had always been with each other, still in love, each full of pride for the other’s shortcomings. Poppa poured more wine and Momma brought cheese and bread and started coffee boiling. The business was done and nothing further was said about the claim. Poppa pulled his wallet out and carefully unfolded a worn piece of paper. He handed it to me. It was their immigration certificate with their photograph, A young Momma, with black, shining hair tightened into a bun at the back, a high collar buttoned at her throat. Poppa beside her, staring straight ahead in an old double-breasted suit, a shock of hair bristling up, shorn at the sides, a confident smile, and a broad black mustache. They laughed over the photograph and I laughed with them, warmed by the coffee and taking little sips of wine and bits of cheese.

Poppa talked about the old country. He had been a coal miner in Italy and had wandered all through Europe. Then he came back to their village and married Momma and they struck out for America. He talked about the Italian lake country, Como and Lecco and the hill country north of Milan. The lakes were so blue and in the night, rowing on the lakes, he had fished for hours, trolling for trout, calling to the other boatmen with whistles cut our of reeds, a lantern as a signal light in the prow. He told me about the hard life in the mines, the colors of the earth, and the sounds of the miners in their wooden shoes at dawn marching along the cobblestone streets. She listened to his stories, one hand resting lightly across the table. Just touching his, and I drank more of the wine and we finished the coffee.

It was time for me to leave. Poppa sighed and stood up and went ahead of me to see me to my car. I thanked Momma and she stood nervously at the door and pulled at her dress, looking down at the floor, and then when Poppa was out the door, she leaned over and kissed my cheek. “It was a million-dollar case, Mr. Lawyer, but so what?” she said. “It’s not worth losing my man. You know whatta I mean?”

“I know,” I said, and softly shut the door.

Then I went out into the backyard where my car was parked and I could see Poppa in the shadows by the garage. He was coming toward me and was carrying something.

“Hey, you, Mr. Lawyer, wait a minute. I got something for you,” he called to me.

I got into the car and held the door open.

“You got children, no?” he laughed in the darkness.

‘What is it, Poppa?’

“It’s a white rabbit.”

“A white rabbit?”

“Sure, Mr. Lawyer, for your kids.”

He dropped the rabbit onto my lap. “I got plenty more. I raise [hem in the garage. But this a one . . . it’s a my best white rabbit and I want you should have it. I no give you the case, but this a rabbit… I give it to your children.”

I thanked him and shook his hand. Then, holding the frightened rabbit with one arm, I backed out of his driveway. He waved to me and I could see him in the headlights, waving good night to me, pleased that, after all, I had left him with his virtue and, for that, he had given me his best white rabbit.



  1. Nancy

    Lovely story. This comment box doesn’t like short answers apparently, so I can repeat: lovely.

  2. Elizabeth

    True to the title Once Upon a Time, this tale whirled me back to a long ago kitchen table where I sat with my own Italian grandfather who had that same strong code of honor, and his home made wine … thanks for the story and the memories

  3. Julie

    I remember Lowell speaking at The Clearing once when I was there. I love this piece. What a great story. It touches on integrity, something this world seems to have lost its sense of. The ending was extremely poignant, one giving one’s best. As though it were a lost art.

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