As you head into the weekend—many of you exhausted by the California Legislature’s first-house deadline—how about a brief, amusing morsel from my short story collection, MATTERS FAMILIAR, to tempt you to read it in its entirety? You can do that in paperback or eBook or purchase a digital version of the story by itself. Your choice; instructions at the end.
Today’s excerpt is from “Robbin’ Hood.” Back in the dark ages, when I was advising a criminal justice committee in the Congress, I learned from my own research that Trenton, New Jersey was a venerable hub of minor-league mob activity. I decided to locate my own gang there earlier this century. As this scene opens, Pettirosso “Petey” DiCappello—good-hearted and dim, but with a gift for numbers—returns from his breakfast “gofer” chore with the too-typical mixed results.
Petey lifted his project, exhaled, and headed for the door of the Ereditare di Italia (Sons of Italy) Social Club, a storefront that grew more anachronistic daily as Butler Avenue and the rest of Chambersburg—known with affection to its denizens as “The ‘Burg”—was dragged by gentrification toward that REALTOR® kind of respectability that typifies 21st-Century urban renewal. The Club’s ugly, squat elevation could illustrate “eyesore” in Webster’s on the natural; nearby pastel-oak-and-fern renovations and re-openings just made matters worse. It was anchored to the sidewalk by four courses of the blond brick last popular when Buicks were classified by the number of fender “holes.” The shin-to-hairline plate glass and aluminum-frame door were sheathed inside by vertically-applied rolls of contact vinyl that looked less like the intended stained glass than a blizzard of Technicolor confetti. One small corner offered the only promise of a glimpse inside but most of it was taken up by an old duochrome of John Paul II, which by now—being outside the beaten awning’s daytime penumbra—looked more frail than its subject. Up above, the paint-starved basso-rilievo featuring Jupiter, Juno, and a gaggle of lesser deities might still have lent a modicum of dignity, had time and perching pigeons been kinder.
Petey put his beefy shoulder to the door and stumbled inside, underestimating as always the spring’s degree of exhaustion. The Club’s dim interior was consistent with its public face. Light came from sputtering fluorescence, beer signs, and the clanging glare of macchine del pinball. Sludge from generations of grease, grime, and tobacco smoke had paralyzed the beaten-tin cherubim in the ceiling tiles. Even a trained eye could produce at best a guess as to what color they—or the walls or the floor, for that matter—were. The kitchen, bar, and corner stage had long ago ceased to pique or satisfy gustatory and carnal appetites; about the only evidence they ever had were the odd bottle of Grappa or Galliano and the few remaining dingy portraits of regional headliners and ecdysiasts. The place’s ambience had fallen so far below its own traditions or bare potential that it seemed to magnify the suffering of the occupant of the Crucifix in the far corner. A brand-new, imported brass espresso machine stood as sole evidence of the Club’s present utility—a day room where mob soldati congregated for morning roll-call and family business assignments. Like its possible users, all it lacked for efficient performance was the proper connections—but who was to call the plumber was an assignment that always seemed to fall between the stools. So, after the ritual of accusations and throwing up of hands, Petey was pushed into traffic every morning to fetch breakfast for those without domestic resources.
The cascade of light punctured Giovanni Nonnula’s concentration as he pounded his hip into the Star Trek machine, featuring a ridiculously top-heavy Lieutenant Uhuru. He turned, the ball dove between the flippers, and the machine mocked his latest failure to break into the top ten scores with spiraling cartoon sounds. His bloodhound face fell further when he saw that Petey had muffed his simple task again. As his closest—well, only—friend, Giovanni broke noiselessly toward Biglietta “Billy” Scarlattino, who’d spotted the carnage and was halfway out of his chair with his mouth fully open.
“F’Chrissakes, Petey! Not again!”
Billy allowed Petey to set the goods down one-handed before he snagged his other arm above the elbow and spun him while hooking his foot behind Petey’s nearer ankle. Petey hit hard on one buttock and splayed as far backward as Billy’s grip permitted. Billy cocked his free fist and an eyebrow. “Sorry, Petey; you’re outta luck. Maybe a simple beatin’ makes an impression…”
Billy’s focus was interrupted by the sudden ascension of a manicured right pinkie that he recognized as Giovanni’s, which promptly disappeared up his right nostril, up to the gold-and-onyx Knights of Columbus ring. (It was merely a keepsake, a token from his Zio Sal—not a talisman. Giovanni owed his own fealty to but one liege.) Giovanni stepped into his swing and raised Billy, whose hands were now welded to the bigger man’s forearms, to the balls of his feet. Petey slumped onto his back and covered his head. Billy remained on the hook while Giovanni paused to allow the rest of the fight to fall out of him and helped Petey up. After his center of gravity and breath came back, Billy crouched and tented his fingers over his nose, checking its integrity and position. He opened his hands as carefully as a missalette, relieved at the absence of tissue and non-mucosal fluid. Only then did something between a squeak and a nasal sigh find its way out of him, as prologue.
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