E. G. Fabricant
|From Matters Familiar. Worried about his sickly nephew’s future, a dutiful mob soldier finds inspiration an ocean and an age away.
Adult situations, language.
The furrows above Pettirosso “Petey” DiCappello’s mono-brow plotted his meager concentration, intent on the fiberboard tray between his porcine hands. His lips formed unuttered words as he left Italian People’s to cross Butler.
Lemmesee—two milk, one sugar; one cream, no sugar; one double-mocha, half-caf… He blinked. That Billy. What a fessacchione—coffee is coffee, right?
“Madre del Dio!”
The red SUV’s glancing pass caused a comic bullfighter’s pirouette. Panic forced Petey to collapse his grip, sandwiching the tray and crushing the bagged baked goods in the middle. Only one lid popped, but half that cup sloshed onto his left hand.
He faltered in pain, but the insistent rush hour restored his grip and he waddled to safety through the remaining maelstrom of cars and curses. He laid the tray on a trash can, dug out his handkerchief, and pressed the throb out of his wet flesh. He picked the errant lid off a mummified rodent corpse in the gutter, cleaned it deliberately with his handkerchief, and replaced it. He mopped vainly at the cups, their ochre stains already preserved in the absorbent Styrofoam, and turned his attention to the crumpled bag. It was stained through and clung to its gelatinous inner mass like clothing to a burn victim. He tried a careful separation, tearing one seam top to bottom. He poked at the amorphous mess but managed only to separate the Danish shale into an approximate number of indistinct units. Rearranging a few raisins and relocating some jelly at random helped, he thought.
Petey exhaled and headed for the door of the Ereditare di Italia (Sons of Italy) Social Club, a storefront that grew more anachronistic by the day, as Butler Avenue and the rest of Chambersburg—known with affection to its citizens 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 was magnified by nearby pastel-oak-and-fern renovations and re-openings. 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 naked 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—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 dieties 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 couldn’t guess their—or the walls’ or the floor’s—original color. 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 bottles 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 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 needed to put to use was the proper connections—but who was to call the plumber was an assignment that always seemed to fall between the stools. So, every weekday, after the ritual accusations and throwing up of hands, Petey was pushed into morning traffic 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 Trekmachine, 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 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, hooking his foot behind Petey’s nearer ankle. Petey hit hard on one buttock and splayed as far backward as Billy’s grip allowed. 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 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. 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 to help Petey up. Petey sat and Giovanni relented.
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. “Jeezus Christ, Loot! Goddamn it! Fuck! OW!”
Giovanni’s nickname had double significance. It referred, first, to his facility for keeping his assigned clients off the tab, making for a large and reliable weekly take. This, his other physical skills, and mute loyalty had put him on the fast track to being made among men. The other reference was to his frequent and most favorite adverb.
Alain “Frankie” Valle, the club’s self-anointed musician-historian, pitched a perfect low whistle.
“Holy shit, Loot! Where’d you learn that—Bruce Lee?”
“Naw—close, but no cheroot. Sun-Tzu. Art of Warfare.”
Ricky Necroforo weighed in. “Art’s son—who?”
Frankie was annoyed but undeterred. “Who’s he?”
“Chinese warlord and philosopher,” said Loot.
“Where’s he from? Upstate?”
Loot sighed. “It’s a book, Frankie. Centuries old. About strategies—like surprise.”
Shock and awe—brought on whenever it was suspected that someone had scratched into something more deeply literary than the New York Post (“‘Trick ‘Em to Win!’/Says Gook Guru”)—smothered that line of conversation.
“Still,” Frankie managed, “That was fuckin’ impressive.”
“Abs’loot’ly,” said Loot.
Loot adjusted his hand slightly on the nape of Billy’s neck. He’d raised him up by the collar originally to get him to stop shuddering and whimpering; now he was patting him gently, to relieve Billy’s embarrassment and replace it with a little respect. Loot was that kind of leader. He kicked a chair out and pointed; Billy sat. Loot bent from the waist and rocked on his knuckles until there was regular order—which wasn’t long. “Petey, give out what you got to those that ordered so’s we can do some business.”
Petey circled the table and did so as best he and they remembered, deflecting the sidelong glares of disappointment. There was no public protest, other than slightly nettled slurping and munching.
“Awright. Rev, where are we?”
Roberto Tucca already had a sheaf of spreadsheets out of his briefcase and on the table. He smoothed his retreating salt-and-pepper hair and adjusted his squarish reading glasses. His devotion to dark semiformal attire, his canonical intonation, and his ramrod posture were enough to justify the honorific “Rev.” His glancing affair with the seminary, with the unpleasantness about lending to classmates at usurious rates and his inscrutable accounts that lent little in the way of actual proof, nailed it for him. Oh, he eschewed the title’s use personally and discouraged it generally, remaining close enough to Holy Mother Church to fear the fires of Hell for such casual blasphemy. Nonetheless, he understood it was born out of admiration. His mastery of the entire Intuit suite and associated techno-jargon only reinforced his image in this subculture of the ‘Burg as a mystic, a higher order of life.
“Right—third quarter results. We’re 14 percent up on the pension fund skim, probably due to high-season day labor, and the take on the hockey and miscellaneous arena event tickets was up as well—even over better attendance numbers this summer—”
Loot dropped his hand on the ledger and pointed toward the corner. “Good job, Petey. Abs’loot’ly. You’ll make it go on the baseball and the rock and highbrow stuff this season, too, right?”
Petey edged into the light a little and smiled. “Entertainment”—scalping and counterfeiting ducats—was his turf. Loot checked around for any sign of mockery. Satisfied, he lifted his hand.
“The construction and waste pads are holding their own. Documents are still depressed; the Chinese have really stepped it up, bringing the illegals in, in cans—
“Fuckin’ Chinks,” said Billy.
Rev cleared his throat. “‘Miscellaneous’—broads; booze; drugs; loans; simple protection—we’re still losing ground to the Cubans and crackheads. That’s the overview.”
“Ain’t like it was, is it?” asked Gil Manobianco, their armorer and enforcer. They all paused to reflect briefly on changing times and tides, each according to his ability. Gil stubbed out his Camel. “Time was, anybody cut in on us like that, they got moved on—like, yesterday!”
Billy pounded down a fist. “AB-so-fuckin’—”
Loot’s eyebrows twitched.
Billy caught himself in time. “—Ay!”
“What’s the total, Rev?”
Rev flipped the page back and forth. “Goddamn it—I forgot to sum the last column! Little help, Petey?”
Petey slipped over and glanced at the pages. “Three million, six-ninety-nine, seven-forty-two—and change,” he said indifferently.
“How much, EXACTLY?” demanded Billy, grinning like a yawning horse.
“Sixty-three cents.” Petey smiled back. Loot blinked. Billy cursed.
It was Petey’s only gift, other than his good and guileless heart. As Mama used to say, he was behind the door when God gave out everything else.
Loot banged his meat-and-bone gavel to adjourn. “Good—everybody outta this merdiao and on the street. Stay busy. ‘A rubar poco si va in galera, a rubar tanto si fa cariera.'” (It was his favorite proverb, with which he ended every meeting at the Sons’: “Steal a little, go to jail; steal a lot, make a career.”)
Petey hung back. “Can I take a little time to go check on Richey, Loot?”
“Abs’loot’ly. My best to Maria and her giovane. And, Petey—” Loot caught his arm, looking grave, but patted his cheek tenderly. “Don’t get behind again. Yes?”
Petey turned the hand, kissed the ring, and disappeared.
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