Read an Excerpt
By R.A. Comunale
Safehaven BooksCopyright © 2011 R.A.Comunale
All rights reserved.
I was eight years old when I had my first date.
No, I wasn't strange or precocious, at least not that way.
But she was dead.
It was one of those Indian-summer late-September Saturdays: no school, breezes warm yet crisp, with the feel of impending seasonal change lurking behind each gust. Angie and I — my best friend Angelo — as all normal, eight-year-old boys are wont to do, hung out and tried to stay out of trouble at the same time.
We often wandered away from our tenement neighborhood. That weekend we were explorers seeking the mysteries beyond our little, multiethnic, low-income ghetto. It really wasn't that far — two blocks past the grammar school run by nuns who dressed like penguins, turn left at the cemetery, then go another six blocks past the central business district. And there we were.
It might as well have been another planet, another universe.
There were houses, big houses. Almost as big as the multifamily buildings we were crowded into in numbers too large to count. But, wonder of wonders, these houses held only one family, and often that family was just two people.
We stared up from our eight-year-old vantages at the brick and wood-sided edifices with their expanses of green grass and shrub-filled lawns, and their semicircular, concrete driveways leading up to side attachments that were larger than the little apartment Mama, Papa, and I lived in. They held no people; they were garages, homes for the automobiles that the teeming masses we belonged to could only dream of obtaining.
It's funny, the bittersweet memories of that walk on the bright side. We were children who would easily have fit into Dickens's London as chimney sweeps: runny noses, uncombed hair, torn corduroy pants our mamas had found at the church's basement thrift shop, worn brown shoes and pullover sweaters that had served former owners until they no longer filled their fashion needs. In another time and place we would have been called ragamuffins.
Even in the early fall weather there were things that attracted us just as they did the bees and colorful birds smart enough to survive there. We saw the multihued heads of summer- and fall-blooming flowers.
The frost would not carry them off for weeks.
It wasn't until I was much older that I learned their names: marigolds, geraniums, impatiens, and pansies. Climbing roses filled out trellises along the front windows. In our own little tenement world, the nearest thing we had were the ever-present weeds and unstoppable dandelions that the old nannas would pluck and turn into ethnic salads — unless the men decided to ferment them. It wasn't just grapes or potato skins that could produce Lethean drinks, imbibed to forget what one did or where one lived.
I was eight years old, and I was bold. I dared tempt the Fates by taking off my shoes and patched socks. I wanted to feel the tingle of grass under my feet.
Angelo laughed as he flipped off his shoes and socks, too
Berto, siete pazzesch!
"You're crazy, Berto!"
In modo da siete voi, Angie!
"So are you, Angie!"
Yes, we were both crazy. We ran back and forth across that lawn and the ones next to it, the green blades tickling the bottoms of our feet, our toes taking on the hue of string beans. I bent over and picked a golden marigold. The curiosity that in later life brought me pleasure and grief made me start to chew on it. It was like the spinach Mama would make, a mixture of bitter and sweet.
"Hey, you two, get outta here! You don't belong here! Go back to your own place!"
We stopped in mid-step and turned to see two ladies, one older and one younger, standing at the front door of the big brick house. The girl couldn't have been more than a teenager. She seemed strangely out of proportion with her long, slender legs and arms. Her dress, a walking kaleidoscope of floral print, seemed ill-fitting around her waist. Her head bent forward, and the occasional wisp of wind stirred the long blonde hair about her face.
We were only eight, but even then we could tell she was pretty. I liked her in an innocent, youthful way. She was crying. She looked up at me and our eyes locked, her grass-green irises a counterpoint to her marigold hair.
"I'll call the police if you don't leave!"
The older woman's voice was shrill and penetrating.
I looked at Angie. He shrugged and picked up his shoes and socks, and I did the same. We walked barefoot down the slate sidewalk, our heads half-turned toward that house of flowers, where we saw a man come out and raise the garage door. We stopped and watched as a big black car pulled out, and the two women got into the back seat. It drove off in the opposite direction.
I looked at Angie and he looked at me. We grinned and ran back to that forbidden lawn and let it tickle our feet and our fancy once more. We sat on it, rolled on it, then lay down and stared at the sky. I can understand why Eve ate the apple.
Strange, even now I can see that cloudless blue sky, a clear blue I have beheld only in the eyes of girls I dated at university. I can also recall the fear in that young girl's green eyes, as she climbed awkwardly into that big black car.
We must have dozed off. Suddenly the growl of an engine brought us back to reality, before the car rolled into view. We jumped up and ran behind one of the large maple trees lining the street. We watched as the great sedan pulled into the driveway and stopped. Only the man and the older woman got out and walked into the house.
Angie and I put our socks and shoes on and trudged back to our own world.
The following weekend was still warm — warm enough for the two of us to go hunting for soda-pop bottles and coins thrown into the nearby river. The deposits on the bottles were our only source of spending money at that stage of life. The coins paid by the local butcher/grocery-store owner were gifts from heaven, responses to our prayers as we knelt in the pews of the Catholic church attached to the grammar school we attended.
We walked down Fulton Street with its eponymous Fulton's Tavern and numerous, decaying, antebellum clapboard houses, places that made our tenements look like luxury apartments. They flanked the banks of the river and, so I was told, it was not unusual for the entire bottom floors of those places to flood. Even now the lesson remains: There is always someone worse off, someone a rung higher on the pain ladder.
The warm weather had brought out the old folks in the neighborhood.
Angie stopped me.
"Berto, look at the Mustache Petes!"
We watched as the old men pretended to be boys like us, twisting and pirouetting like grotesque ballerinas, as they cast balls playing boccie. We giggled then laughed out loud, and some of them turned and directed evil eyes at us for being rude and, probably, for being young.
So we walked quickly past the men and headed down the alleyway between the tavern and its neighboring house. I looked at the window of the tavern and saw the incongruous ROOMS TO LET sign. Who lived in a tavern? It was one of those later-teen-year epiphanies when I learned who — and what. But when you are eight, "red-light ladies" and "back-room abortionists" mean nothing.
The riverbank was slightly muddy from the previous night's shower. We slid and stumbled and finally arrived at a spot low enough to walk on the stones sticking up from the shallow water. It was a banner harvest, as we pulled out the casually discarded bottles, mentally adding up the two cents each would bring at the little shop run by the man everyone in the neighborhood called the Mad Russian.
Angie saw it first. I had bent over to pull out a buffalo nickel wedged in-between two river rocks. I was excited. A nickel went a long way then. I got ready to yell out my find, when Angie's cry startled me into silence.
"Berto, look, over there!"
He was shaking and pointing, even forgetting to stand on the flat stone that had kept him relatively dry. I turned to where he was pointing — one of the pylons under the Central River Bridge — and saw it.
At first it seemed to be just a bundle of rags. Not unusual around here, something saved to clean or mend or fix other things with. Who would be so foolish as to discard something useful in the river?
Then I saw the arm sticking out.
I moved toward it, even as I heard Angie running away, the splashes of his panicked flight casting a spray. He reached the bank and scrambled up. From the corner of my eye I saw his wet and muddied pants disappear back into the alleyway.
The bundle lay there, river water covering and uncovering it with silt. As some of the mud washed away I saw the floral-print dress. I moved closer.
My lady stared at me with sunken, vacant, green eyes. Her blond tresses, waterlogged, swayed with the river current. Her long arms and slender legs looked like some mishandled rag doll, twisted in ways I did not think possible. The light-pink lipstick failed to conceal the blue-black discoloration of her lips and half-protruding tongue.
She was dead.
In some respects death was no stranger to our neighborhood. There was the dog hit by a car lying in the gutter, its hind legs stiffened and spread. There was the drunk who fell into that final, cheap, alcohol-induced coma and never woke up — lying in his own urine, feces, and vomit. There was the common-law wife choked and thrown out the window of a third-story walk-up, sprawled on the street like a distorted pretzel, while the police led her drunken, half-naked husband away. And, often, there was the young male killed in an ethnic clash down on Hamilton Street.
My lady was different.
She didn't belong in the river. She shouldn't be here, discarded. She shouldn't have died. Someone like her belonged in a place of green and rainbow colors, running barefoot and letting the grass caress her toes.
Damn! I never realized that even as a kid I was a romantic.
I stared at her, taking in the cyans, fuscias, and browns of her hands and feet. I looked once more into those green eyes and thought, "I'm sorry, lady."
Don't leave me!
Yes, I heard it — no, not with my ears, in my mind.
Don't leave me! I want to go home!
I heard myself reply out loud, "Okay, lady."
I turned and walked back to the riverbank, the treasure trove of soda pop bottles Angie and I had collected splayed nearby. I left them. Maybe they would still be there later, maybe not. There were other enterprising kids in the neighborhood.
Papa went to the police station. I saw the wagon and heard the siren, as it headed toward the river. And then I waited.
I told Mama I was going out to play again. She patted my head. I could see she was worried about my experience.
I snuck in by the side door. In those days they took the accidentally and deliberately dead to the police station. The big door at the end of the ground floor beckoned me forward with its mysterious letters: MORGUE.
I opened that heavy oak door, and the odors from within caressed my olfactory nerves for the first time. The mixed perfumes of formaldehyde and decaying flesh became old friends in later years, as I made my way through medical school.
On that day my lady lay there in repose, her floral-print dress and undergarments resting in a box on the floor next to the table that had become her bedroom suite. She was the center of attention to the two men dressed in long, priest-like gowns and dark-brown, elbow- length gloves, their faces masked and their heads skull-capped.
I was eight years old and I was bold.
"Why did she die?"
They looked up, and one yelled for me to get out. The other paused then asked me the question that opened up the door to the rest of my life.
"Why do you want to know, kid?"
I didn't hesitate. The answer was already within me — I just didn't know it until then.
"I want to be like you."
In the few seconds of silence that followed, I walked over to where my lady — my human marigold — lay. I looked at her, eyes now closed, face in sleep-like calm. No, she didn't smile — she couldn't. But my mind heard her once more.
Thank you!CHAPTER 2
The Mad Russian
They call it the Widow Maker, but I've been a widower twice, so it's a moot point for me.
I lay there on the table in the special-procedures room, while my cardiologist and former student Dr. Salvatore Crescenzi threaded the catheter up from my thigh and into my heart. I watched the screen above my head, blurred by the slight haze of medication, as the catheter tip entered the left coronary artery and Sal injected the dye.
I must have said something out loud, because he stopped and asked if anything was wrong.
Forgive me, dear reader, but I almost giggled — I did giggle.
"No, I just had three random thoughts run across my geriatric cortex."
"You goin' senile on me, Galen?"
"Hope not. I can still recognize a major blockage in my old friend, the LAD, when I see it. Right?"
"Damn, sure enough, old man. Looks like a ninety-five-percent stenosis of the left anterior descending coronary artery. Okay, hang on. You know what I gotta do."
I sure did. Even with the pain and twilight-sedation drugs in me, I felt myself tightening up a bit. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I knew he had to do balloon angioplasty, using an expanding, balloon- tipped catheter to break through the blockage, and then install a stent to keep the artery open.
Not bad for an almost-octogenarian retired doctor, eh?
"Do you feel anything, Galen?"
"Boy, if I had you back in my classroom you'd feel something about now. 'Course I feel something! Get on with it."
Soon he did, and I saw the dye course through the stent-widened, left anterior descending artery in my heart, carrying its river of life to my poor old myocardium.
"Ain't science wonderful, Crescenzi?"
"Yep! Now what were those other two thoughts crossing your non- existent neurons?"
I giggled again. The SOB must have given me more pain meds through my IV.
"Well," and then I knew for sure as my speech slurred slightly, "now I can attend the wedding of you and your lover."
Crescenzi was the best damned interventional cardiologist around. He also was gay. Back when he was my student it was all I could do to keep some Luddite profs from having him expelled for "unspecified reasons."
"And the other?"
As I drifted off I mumbled, "My first real haircut."
When you live hand to mouth, some of the niceties of the middle class are a luxury. Include haircuts in that category.
Papa and Mama would take turns putting a bowl over my head when my hair got too shaggy for them to tolerate, as well as the nuns at my grammar school. I didn't feel bad. All my friends got the same kind of haircut and, sometimes, those without a mama — like Salvatore — would come over, and my folks would do the honors.
Recipe: Take one pot or, more commonly, one soup bowl, and place over squirming kid's head.
Then take pair of scissors, better known as shears.
Cut whatever hair sticks out from under the mold.
Complete the process and voila! You get a very bad but functional, marine-style haircut — at no cost, except the other kids making fun of you. But usually they didn't. We all looked the same, and the nuns just ignored it as a fact of life in our neighborhood.
I had just turned seven that early spring day, and Papa was enjoying one of his rare days off. He must have been feeling exceptionally good. After I had blown out the candles on the three cupcakes — our substitute for a cake — he stood up, looked at me and Mama, and said, "Berto, we go for a walk."
I guess it was his old-country way of father-son bonding. It didn't matter to me. I was ecstatic. I would get to spend more time with Papa!
It was still chilly, so we put on our church-basement-sale jackets then headed down the stairs and out. We didn't wear hats or gloves. We were men.
I remember running to catch up with him as he strode down the street. He wasn't a tall man, but he could move like one, and I had to shout at him to slow down. He turned and saw me puffing to catch up, and he actually laughed out loud.
Papa almost never laughed.
We walked across the river bridge, and I saw the blinking red light in the window of the Western Union Telegraph office. I didn't know what it did until much later, when I went to medical school. Then I came to hate what it stood for.
That is another story.
We soon passed the tenements and entered our town's small- business district. As we walked on, Papa would point out the different shops and tell me what they did and who ran them. We passed Mr. Ruddy's shoe repairs and Mr. Huff's electric motors. I smelled the ripe aroma of provolone cheese emanating from Mr. Zuppa's grocery and the pungent smell of hanging salami from the butcher next door. Papa didn't say much except that the butcher shop was owned by the Mad Russian.
"But Papa, why is he mad?"
"Just because, Berto."
Papa pointed out the radio repair shop and told me that the man who fixed things there had actually worked for Mr. Marconi, the inventor of the radio, and his assistant was General Eisenhower's personal radio technician during the war that just ended.
We passed by the glazier (Are there still shops where you can get pieces of glass?), and then a storefront with a red-and-white-triped pole in front. A man even more stocky and muscular than Papa stood in the doorway.
As we moved on, a gruff, strangely accented voice called out, "Who cut kid's hair? I kill man who did that."
I saw Papa's fists ball up, and he turned and walked toward the man in the doorway. I yelled, "No, Papa," and the other man raised his arms, hands palm forward, and began to laugh.
Papa stopped and stared at him.
I got between them and looked up at the jowly-faced man wearing a short white jacket and dark pants. His solid-black hair was slicked down by pomade, and his eyes seemed peculiar in their shape. It wasn't until later when I studied anthropology that I learned about the tribes who had lived in the Steppes of Russia.
Excerpted from Berto's World by R.A. Comunale. Copyright © 2011 R.A.Comunale. Excerpted by permission of Safehaven Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.