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Joan MooneyDel Vecchio makes no secret of the fact that his hero...plans to kill himself....The downward spiral of his life is convincingly horrific...
— The New York Times Book Review
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The Panuzio Home, East Lake, Monday, 19 September, 5:47 A.M.
Johnny's jaw was clamped. His molars ground. The muscles of his face were in such spasm his ears hurt. On the trail before him there was an immense stone block. He could not see over it, around it. He pushed. He strained with all his might. He could not budge it. He cursed. He rolled, caught himself, opened his mouth, stretched his jaw. Again he cursed. He brought his arms in tight to his chest, curled, tucked his head. Then he startled, straightened, gasped.
Quietly Johnny Panuzio rolled to the edge of the bed, squinted at the clock. In three minutes the alarm would sound. He glared. He wanted to doze for the last three, wanted to reconstruct, resolve the stone image; but wanted more to catch the alarm before it broke, before it woke Julia. He settled back, took a deep breath. The room was dark; the windows opaque, silver-black, streaked and dotted with rain. He could hear the rhythmic hush of waves from the lake, the drone of cars on Route 86, the creaking of stairs--Jason descending from his attic bed/computer room. Johnny listened as the boy quietly opened the attic door, stepped into the hall, shut and latched the attic, descended toward the kitchen.
Again Johnny rolled. His right shoulder popped, his spine crackled. He closed the alarm button, pushed back the sheet. Behind him Julia moaned. He twisted, looked at her, at her face, her lightened shoulder-length hair on the peach satin pillow. At forty-five there were creases at her eyes, at the corners of her mouth, but instead of detracting from her beauty they added character and power. Panuzio studied her face. He wanted to kiss her but knew she'd grouch; wanted to touch her but dared not. He looked at her form beneath the sheet. To him she was beautiful, still better-looking than any woman he'd ever dated. As if she could feel his eyes she rolled away, grasped the down pillow, clutched it over her head. Quietly Panuzio sighed, dropped his feet to the hardwood floor, stood, wobbled, shuffled to the tiled bath, closed the door.
Johnny Panuzio was approaching fifty yet, like his wife, he looked ten years younger. Or so he told himself. He was of average height, five ten; perhaps a bit stocky, 180 pounds, yet not fat but strong from having lifted weights and having played football in his youth, and from having retrained for fitness in his thirties and throughout his forties. His arms and legs were muscular; his abs hard, defined, though not as supple as they'd once been. He was balding at the temples. If he didn't spread his thick, deep brown curls from center to sides, his hair looked like a Mohawk. He kept his face clean-shaven, sometimes using an electric razor at midday to remove the continuously emerging dark stubble. His most distinguishing characteristic was his eyes, golden-brown, unusually direct. To others they appeared darker, more intense, because of their set beneath a heavy brow, astride a healthy nose. Despite all, he still retained a cherub countenance--a look that, as a toddler, had garnered him the nickname Gianni-pane or Johnny-panni, a moniker he'd never fully been able to shake. Little Johnny-Panni. He had been baptized Giovanni Baptiste Michelangelo Panuzio--for his father's father, and for his father's oldest brother (though, in the family, the latter was always referred to as Uncle John).
Panuzio twisted the porcelain and gold shower handles. The old pipes clanked. He flinched, glanced to the door. The water coursing became steady, the spray against the curtain roared, steam billowed. If she'd come to bed at a decent hour...he thought, but he knew, as usual, she'd had clients on the West Coast. She did much of her business between noon and eight or nine. Often she read in her office until eleven. How could he expect her to make her schedule coincide with his? Especially with the new uncertainties.
Under the hot water Johnny stretched his back, flexed one knee, the other, felt the grind of arthritic bone, winced. Night thoughts, images, concerns faded. At forty, Johnny had reached his dream. He had a lovely wife, three beautiful children, an interesting and well-paying job, an elegant home on The Point on Lake Shore Drive in the perfect town of East Lake. At almost fifty, he was finding it difficult to maintain his lifestyle, his achievements. His dream seemed to be unraveling. He put his face to the shower spray, let the water beat on his forehead. Perhaps it was not his dream, he thought. Perhaps it was Julia's. He stepped back, shook his head to clear it. He had to plan the day, get everyone going, talk to Mitch, figure out how to handle that pip-squeak Brad Tripps.
JOHNNY TAPPED ON Jenny's door, descended the narrow stairs of the Queen Anne. In the kitchen he nodded to Jason, quietly said, "Good morning."
"What time is it?" Jason stuffed a packet of papers into his physics book, closed it, chomped on a toaster waffle.
"Damn. I gotta go. Who's coming to Mrs. DeLauro's with me?"
"We haven't talked about it yet."
"I think Mom's got a meeting. Can you make it?"
"Probably. Life skills...?"
"Life Directions Workshop. I gotta go or I'll miss the bus."
"You wouldn't have to rush so much if you hadn't crashed--"
"It wasn't my fault."
"Yeah. That's why the insurance company bumped your premium to twenty-two hundred."
"It still wasn't..." Jason turned from his father, flicked his fist in front of his chest, angrily, quietly grunted, turned back. "The workshop?" His tone was demanding, cold. "All juniors and their parents are required--"
"I know. I went with Todd."
"Yeah. Same thing."
"Hey." Johnny wanted to lighten the mood. "Who's this Sanchez girl?"
"Ah..." Jason glanced up, away. "They pronounce it San-shay. Like in French. House of Saints."
"Ah...her name's Kim."
Johnny smiled. "Mitch says she likes you."
"Dad, I gotta go." Jason did not smile. "I'll miss the bus."
"Did you feed Dog Corleone?"
"YES! He's in Grandpa's room. I gotta go."
Johnny spewed questions as if that would keep his son from departing. "Did you look in on your grandfather? Check his dressing?"
"How's his leg look?"
"Like a pizza."
"I mean better or worse?"
"It always looks better in the morning."
"Did he take his meds?"
"He took em before I went in."
"I hope he took the right ones."
"I don't know. He knows."
"Umm." Johnny paused, rubbed his chin. "Game this afternoon?"
"No." Jason's words were quick, dismissive. "Tomorrow. At Jefferson. The workshop's tonight."
Johnny watched his son rush out, jacket half on, books in one arm, waffle between lips. When the door crashed shut he flinched, gritted his teeth.
Johnny worried about Jason--not the way he'd worried about Todd, Jason's older brother, still worried about Todd, Julia's child, her looks, her mannerisms, floundering as much now, out on his own, as if $19,800 per year tuition were out on his own, as he always had--but different worries. To Johnny, watching Jason was like watching a younger image of himself. He was doing well, had made honors the last two marking periods of his freshman year and throughout his sophomore. And he was a good athlete. In Johnny's mind Jason was one of the better juniors on the high school's soccer team--not flashy, not intense, not much of a scoring threat, not like Aaron, Mitch's son, who was a senior anyway--but a fairly solid defensive player, as quick on the field as he was slow about the house. Like he himself had been, Johnny thought. Except Johnny's game had been football, and he had been flashy. To Johnny, Jason and his friends seemed pretty typical of the better element of East Lake's teens, exactly as he and Mitch had been in Lakeport, except...Johnny bit his lower lip. Except...His head shook imperceptibly. Something's missing. Something we haven't instilled.
His mind skipped. He checked the microwave clock: 6:44. He moved to the hallway, hummed a show tune that he could not identify, checked himself in Julia's full-length mirror, leaned in, searched his face for new wrinkles. Johnny leaned back, adjusted his silk tie, straightened his shoulders. He filled his chest with air, flexed, winked at himself. "Eh, good-lookin." He chuckled. "Not so bad, eh? Not so bad for an old fart. You look good in suits."
Johnny paced to the bottom of the stairs, quietly called up to Jennifer. She didn't need to be up yet, the middle-school bus didn't come until eight-fifteen, but he liked to have her up before he left.
In the hall Johnny paused. He glanced at the family picture wall. In the center, in a heavy gold filigree frame, was a large photograph of his father's father, Giovanni Baptiste Michelangelo Panuzio--Nonno or Grandpa to Johnny's generation, Il Padrone to his own and to Rocco's. Johnny studied the face, brushed a tiny web from the filigree frame, wiped a finger smudge from the old glass. The photograph of his grandfather had been touched up with pastel chalks. The facial details were clear but the paper, nearly a century old, was fragile, and the edges, even in the heavy frame and under glass, were flaking. For years Johnny had thought he should have it hermetically sealed to stop the deterioration but he'd never gotten around to it. He checked the edge for further deterioration, gritted his teeth, grasped both sides of the frame, leaned in. "Nonno," he whispered, "how would you handle Tripps? With all you faced, where did you find the strength?"
Johnny squeezed his eyes shut, then slowly relaxed, stood perfectly still. His eyelids lay lightly closed, his mind floated back to Nonno, to the house, to his cousins, young, mischievous, to Aunt Tina, glaring, stern...Images jumble--dark, precise, random, lucid. They flash, roll forward like a film with all frames shown simultaneously on thousands of screens within the sphere of his mind. He is tiny, minute, at the center of his own screening--seeing, hearing, sensing it all simultaneously, as if it...as if he is almost seven and it is the summer of 1954. They are at Nonno's. Sylvia has been taunting him in her shrill singsong.
Nah nah nah-nah nah.
Nah nah, n'gazz.
He's so weak, he's a freak...
It is as if...as if...He sees him. He is him. It is more than forty years earlier. It is now. Jumbled. Jumping back and forth. To Johnny, a new sensation--jumping to him, to I, to me, without cognition, to Little Johnny-panni, to then, to now, without reason. N'gazz. A thousand simultaneous screens upon which to impose order. N'gazz. He is, was, already, a little n'gazz.
Darkness. He crouches, places a hand on the butler pantry door. The white enamel paint feels cool. He glances back toward the kitchen expecting Santo or Henry to sneak in with him. Neither appear. He hears Sylvia call out, "Ready or not, here I come."
Sylvia is eight. Normally she would not play with her little brother, or with the cousins his age--seven--but only half the family is at Nonno's. Lena, Connie and Regina, cousins her age, girls, they aren't coming.
Johnny-panni pushes the swinging door, opening it just a crack, just enough to peer into the dining room. The room is dark except for a yellowish glow from one dim sidelight softly swaddling the heavy wood furniture. He listens. There is noise in the kitchen, in the front rooms, in the yard--adult noises, not Santo or Henry or Sylvia. No sound comes from the dining room. He pushes the door another inch, then two, three. Still nothing. The door swings back. He reopens it, four inches, five, six--enough to stick his head through to look. He jerks back. Not from something seen. But...but...if someone slams it! Shoves it! He shudders, feels his neck, feels the guillotine, feels the snap, the pain. He hears Tessa's scream, sees Rocco's anger.
Again he pushes the door but now he jams his shoulders in, crawls through, carefully lets it close. He scoots beneath the draping tablecloth and into the dark cavern under the dining room table. He is smiling, laughing, a mischievous gleam comes from his face but...without an accomplice... the smile fades. He creeps to the far end of the cavern where the legs of Nonno's and Nonna's chairs intrude. The wood looks black. Is black. Is gnarled. He runs a hand over one leg. The wood feels warm and smooth until he reaches the foot. He feds the carving, lowers his face to the carpet, lays his head beside the foot of Nonno's chair and sees...sees the eyes, the snarling mouth, the horrible nose. I...He starts, bangs the back of his head on Nonna's chair, flinches, bangs the side of his head on the table frame. Johnny-panni freezes. His eyes adjust to the dimness. He sees the table legs and the legs of the great chairs and he sees they are all shod with gargoyles and monsters and he slithers from beneath the table and escapes to the edge of the door which leads to the front hall and foyer, to the main staircase to the second floor.
His heart is pounding. Monsters under the table! I...He...He is scared. He is scared of being scared. He is scared Santo or Henry will tease him. Or Sylvia. She always--
Johnny hears Rocco and Uncle John in the front parlour; Tessa, Nonna, and Aunt Fran in the kitchen. There is noise in the back parlour, adult noise, perhaps Aunt Millie or Aunt Tina or Zi Carmela. Johnny thinks, is sure, Santo and Henry wouldn't hide there, and Sylvia wouldn't seek there. He scrunches beneath the china hutch, feels exposed: feels the heads, the eyes from beneath the table moving, glaring at him. He sidles to the door to the hall. Quickly, quietly, he slips out, rounds the spiral newel, then on all fours scrambles up the stairs to the landing. There he...I look into the back of the house, look down the narrow servant stairs, look up into the upper back hall between the room that had been Rocco's and Uncle Carlo's, and the one that had been Aunts Tina's, Sylvia's and Carmela's when they'd all been little.
Johnny-panni sees...I...I see Sylvia's rump! She is bent, searching under the bed in Rocco's old room. Quickly he retreats, still on all fours, down to the landing, leaping up to the open upper hall between Tina's room, Nonno and Nonna's room, and the upstairs den. He scurries into the den, opens the closet, backs in between hanging garments, pulls the door all but a finger's width shut, smiles. No one will find me here.
He waits motionlessly. I...He waits long. He is hot. It is midsummer. The closet is stuffy, smells of old shoes and of an old woman's powders. He does not want to hide anymore. Why, he thinks, isn't Sylvia searching for me? Did she catch Santo? Henry? Henry always gets caught first because he doesn't like to hide because he is afraid. Ha! He's a scaredy-cat. Not like me. I'm going to go to home base, call in Santo and Henry, tell Sylvia we quit so we can play something more fun than hide-'n'-seek where the seeker's a girl who can't find anyone anyway!
I slip from between the smelly garments. My neck is itchy. I sit on the bench in the den, my back to the window, my face to the door, my legs swinging. Ha! Sylvia's so stupid she wouldn't even see me if she walked through the upper hall with her eyes open.
I lean back. I am still thinking I should go...I'm going to home base. But I don't want to quit. I don't quit. I'm not a quitter. Hot like...Ooo! Mama'd spank me if I said who. If I...She doesn't spank us. She never spanks me. Sometimes she hits me with her hairbrush. If you cry before she hits, she doesn't hit you. If you cry after she starts, she hits you harder. Johnny, he doesn't want to lose. His neck itches and he pivots his head back and turns it side to side and makes believe he's...
On the closet wall, high up, in a heavy gold frame...a picture of a man in a blue uniform with gold arm braids; a thin man with a small mustache, high boots, and a sword. A real sword. I stand, step closer to get a better look, but at that angle the glint on the glass blocks the picture. I drag the bench over, stand on it. I know the man in the picture. I've seen him...in newsreels, in books...but without the sword. The sword is long, curved.
"Ah, Little Johnny-panni! There you are."
"Your mother and father have been looking for you." Aunt Tina's voice is high, sharp. "They want to go home."
Johnny doesn't answer her. He glances up at the large photo then jumps from the bench, starts for the door.
"Whoa!" Aunt Tina halts him. He sees her waggle a long, bony finger. "How about the bench?" She begins to move the seat. Johnny helps with the other side. "Do you know who that is?" Aunt Tina asks.
Johnny looks up. Without hesitation, his voice booming, proud, he announces, "Adolf Hitler."
"Adolf Hit...! No-oh?" Aunt Tina's voice cackles. She is a horse neighing. A know-it-all horse. "That's my father."
Johnny doesn't understand.
"That's Nonno," Aunt Tina says. "That's Nonno more than fifty years ago. When he was in the army."
"Granpa?!" He is ashamed. "Granpa had a sword?" He is astounded. He can feel it...in my hand.
"Oh. Yes. That was taken in 1900. Maybe 1899. He was drafted into the cavalry after he had already come to America. He had to go back to Italy. Wasn't he handsome?"
Johnny-panni does not know what to say. Nonno with a sword. Nonno, maybe chopping someone. Nonno looks like Hit...With a sword. Like in the movies.
He hears Aunt Tina's voice running on, she seemingly talking to herself or to the photograph, but letting Johnny...letting Little Johnny-panni overhear. "It was a mistake. They were supposed to draft his brother, my uncle Nicole, because he wasn't the oldest...They never take the first son. But they drafted my father because they didn't have their records straight. When he was let out he went back to his hometown and he told the Scarpettis..."
Johnny is lost. It shows on his face. Aunt Tina thinks he is retarded. He can see it on her face. She thinks I'm retarded. Or slow. Slow anyway. She sits on the bench, pulls me toward her like I am a pet, a puppy...no...a stuffed animal. A lamb. Johnny sits politely. He does not like the way she smells. She looks up at the photograph and her words rise and descend and rise as if an aria. "Mr. Scarpetti--" Johnny can see into her nose; her nostrils are big and he can see up her nose as she gabs at the photo "--was the padrone of the village. He was a very kindly man but to my father, well...when my father...when he went back to his village before he was put into the army...Just like that they order him back from America, snatch him up. Like a slave! Like...Ah, but he saw my mother...She was so beautiful...They called her pacca bel because...Oh, you're too young to know. When you're a man you'll know. But she was so very pretty and Papa told Mr. Scarpetti that he was going to marry his daughter. And Mr. Scarpetti was so angry, he forbade my father from seeing her. And Mrs. Scarpetti, she hit Papa with a pot." Aunt Tina swings her arm. "Bang!" She explodes, laughs, continues.
"But all the time he was in the army my mother wrote to my father and my father wrote to my mother, and when he came home to his village...he was so handsome...My father was the most handsome man in the paese. And the strongest. No matter what they did to him. And Mama, she was almost sixteen..."
Johnny-panni interrupts. He will show her. "Nonna was fifteen!" He doesn't really believe his aunt. She is old. She still lives with her mother and father. She has never married. She is the only woman Johnny knows who is old and who has never married. He has heard his mother whisper that her real name is Santina. To him it sounds like Satan. A girl Satan. That's what his mother means when she whispers, "There's something wrong with that one. It's nothing to do with the family but she..."
"Oh, yes." Aunt Tina's enthusiasm speeds her on. "She was fifteen, but almost sixteen."
"But--" Johnny tries to catch her "--you can't get married when you're fifteen."
"Well...you...can't...now." He sees Tina snort, hears her add, "You can't do that today but back then, in Italy, a girl could marry...even at fourteen! And my father, he was already a man. He was twenty-two and he had saved his money, so he was of substance." She is rolling again. "But Mr. Scarpetti was going to kill my father. And Mama's brothers were going to kill him, too. And my father said, `Mr. Scarpetti, if you don't let me marry your daughter, I'm going to steal her and take her to America.' Oh, they had a big fight!"
"Did Grandpa use his sword?"
Aunt Tina's laugh is shrill. "Not a sword fight," she cackles. "But both families, the Panuzios and the Scarpettis, oh, they don't even talk for months. And my mother cried and cried and said to her father that she was going to run away to America, no matter what! So finally Mr. Scarpetti said, `Okay. You can get married. But only if you marry here. In Italy.' He wasn't going to let his daughter go to America unmarried. Oh, wouldn't that have been a scandal." Again he hears Tina's shrill laugh, and again it is to something he thinks that she thinks Johnny-panni doesn't understand because, he thinks, she thinks I am retarded.
Aunt Tina grabs his hand, leans closer. "That's when Mama and Papa came to America, Papa for the second time. That's how your family came to this country. Mr. and Mrs. Scarpetti, that's my grandfather and grandmother, they never came..."
I pull away. "Where's Nonno's sword?"
"Oh! Maybe he gave it to Mr. Scarpetti." Aunt Tina laughs.
"And Nonna's pocketbook?"
"Pocket...? Ah! Pacca bel." She holds the side of his face, pinches, laughs at him for being so stupid. "You're too young. Too young. But the padrones...You know the padrones?"
"Yes. In the old sense. Not like those here. In Castelfranc they were such gentlemen. Here, nothing but trouble. Oh...all the troubles...Ah, but look at Papa. Wasn't he handsome?"
Johnny pushed back, released the frame, let his eyes fall upon others. Beside the photo of his grandfather was one of Johnny's father's oldest brother, Giovanni Baptiste II, Uncle John, Johnny's godfather. In the photo Uncle John wore a double-breasted, natural linen suit--the kind of suit he'd worn most of his life, to work at the bank, to go to church on Sundays, even at home. After the death of his father in 1965, and until his own death ten years later, the family title Il Padrone passed respectfully, if somewhat whimsically, to Uncle John.
There were separate pictures of Johnny's father, Rocco and Johnny's mother, Tessa, from World War II, both wearing the uniform of the United States Army. Familiar and fluent with the dialects of southern Italy, Tessa Altieri had become an enlisted administrative assistant to General Mark W. Clark, commander of the American 5th Army. For ten months, from the landing at the Gulf of Salerno in September 1943 through the battles of Ponte Bruciato, Monte Cassino and Anzio, Tessa translated for the wild three-star. Someplace, during the cold, muddy, rainy campaign, she'd contracted hepatitis. Rocco had been an infantryman with the 34th Division, had been wounded, shot through the right calf, at Anzio. They'd met in the hospital in June 1944; had been, as far as both their families were concerned, foolishly married after a one-week engagement. In a double frame there were pictures of them cheek to cheek; one, in sepia, in uniform, on their wedding day, the other, in full color, on their fiftieth wedding anniversary.
To one side there was a very small, very old photograph of an uncle of Johnny's grandmother, the playwright, novelist and royal tutor Nicole Del Vecchio, on the day his first film opened in America at the Loew's Poli; to the other, in a matching frame, was a small, dark photo of Nicole Panuzio, Johnny's grandfather's youngest brother, on the day he was disinterned.
There was a very elegant photograph of Julia, on her and Johnny's wedding day, dressed in a flowing satin and lace gown trimmed with minute satin roses. In it she held a bouquet of red and white roses. The picture had been taken at The Bastille Restaurant and Marina in South Lake Village, and Julia's radiant image was surrounded by the blurred blue-green water of Lake Wampahwaug. Their wedding had been traditional, with tens of Barnums and a hundred Panuzios in attendance--perhaps more like the 1926 wedding of Uncle John and Aunt Francesca than the modish sixties and seventies weddings of many of their friends. "This is the woman," Johnny had often laughingly introduced her, "who turned me around. Before we met I was tuning in, turning on, dropping out. She's the best thing that ever happened to me." Difficulties or not--Johnny caught himself grinding his teeth--she still is.
Studding the wall were pictures of siblings and cousins and many, many of the kids--Todd, Jason and Jennifer--on horseback, in soccer uniforms, in canoes with largemouth bass dangling from their lines, Todd's high school graduation photo. Even pictures of Dog Corleone, the family's collie-shepherd mutt. To the far left, almost as an afterthought, there was a cluster of small framed newspaper photographs: one of John Panuzio and Mitch Williams, arms over each other's shoulders, in their Lakeport High School football jerseys, with the cutline 13-13: Scoring Leaders Ready for Turkey Day Final; one each of Johnny's cousins Richard and Louis, both in military uniforms, these with the stories folded back under; and one of Johnny's brother Nick, also in uniform, with the cutline Local Man Wins Bronze Star. Johnny's eyes lingered. An unpleasant thought shot through his mind. Goddamn militant family.
Johnny moved to the front room. He stood amid Julia's new Chippendale or Louis XIV--or whatever she'd told him it was--furniture, gazed across the road to The Point. In the crook of The Point and the shore, where half a dozen mallards glided effortlessly, large raindrops created expanding, interlocking rings.
Johnny stared at the birds, the water. He felt pulled by the lake, to the lake, his lake, his water. How he'd always loved the lake from childhood, growing up on the other side in the City of Lakeport. How he loved it on the day he and Julia married twenty years earlier, on the day they bought their spacious Queen Anne right there on The Point on Lake Shore Drive in the perfect town of East Lake; loved it every day after work, walking the rocky shoreline before going in; in those early years strolling hand in hand with Julia after dinner, or chasing her, catching her, there, here, on The Point in the dark; or loved it in the light, before leaving for NSC in Lakeport. How he loved this lake, mornings, evenings, summers, winters, fishing, boating, just staring, smelling, listening, breathing.
Johnny closed his eyes, sighed, reopened them. He checked the window thermometer. The temperature was a damp fifty-one. He pursed his lips, thought of the coolness not as normal climatic progression but as the start of the heating season, as fuel-oil bills. He did not want to think about money. He rethought the temperature, thought, If tomorrow it doesn't rise above eighty, perhaps Jason won't embarrass me, embarrass himself, by wilting in the second half. Then he thought he was being unfair, that Jason hadn't wilted against Hayestown but had taken a hard kick to the thigh and had played the last fifteen minutes with his quadriceps in spasm.
Johnny tried to close down his thoughts, to force away the indistinct grating ire oozing from within, to deflect the abrasive yet intangible dissatisfactions which seemed to be coming from all directions. His thoughts tumbled on. Something's missing. Something from his game...from his studies...from his life...good at everything, a natural--not a bad kid, loves, of all things, physics--but...it's like he's a passenger on a train... something typical of their entire generation, of the entire region...like that pip-squeak Tripps...enjoying the ride, the view...taking whatever they want...something typical of this family...enjoying the ride but without... the entire country...without...?
IN THE KITCHEN Johnny found Rocco at the Wolfe stove, hunched, concentrating on the dials.
"Hey, Pop." Johnny's voice was loud yet short. He didn't want to disturb Julia. "Pop. You want me to do that?"
The old man raised his eyes askance. Johnny stepped to his side. Rocco looked back to the stove, concentrated on the eggs and milk already in the small frying pan, swirled the mix with a silver fork in Julia's best Teflon-coated omelette cookware. Two shells drooled egg white onto the counter. The butter in its antique milk-glass dish sat on the range top, melting, dripping an oil slick onto the metal surface. Egg drippings were smoking on the hot unit.
"He can't hear you." Jenny pirouetted into the kitchen. She raised her arms dramatically. "He doesn't have his hearing aids in."
Johnny turned, chuckled. "Good morning, Sunshine."
"Hello, Daddy-oh. Mama's goina like bi-itch about her pan."
Johnny put a finger to his lips. "Don't talk like that, Sweet-ums."
Jenny popped four frozen waffles into the toaster oven, two for herself, two for her father. "You're running late, aren't you?"
He didn't answer but put a hand on Rocco's shoulder. The old man started, rasped, "You want me to make you some? You don't eat enough eggs in this house. Back home we ate eggs two, three times a week."
"No. Thanks. I wanted to know if you wanted me to make em. You shouldn't be standing."
"They're all done. Get a dish. Jenny can eat these. I'll make more."
"No, Pop. No. She doesn't like em. Sit down." He glanced at Jenny. He didn't worry about Jenny. At twelve she was tough, tougher than either of her brothers, maybe tough because of her brothers. She had pizzazz or as she like to call it, "Zazz."
Quickly Johnny slid the eggs from the pan onto a plate. "Jenny, make Grandpa some toast." He served the eggs, cleaned up the shell, sponged the counter and range. He checked the time, knew he didn't have time to wash the pan but didn't want Julia to find it when she came down. He stretched to arm's length, cooled the pan first in hot then cold water, did a perfunctory cleaning, careful not to splatter soap, water or egg on his suit. While he dried he called, "Pop, stay out of the basement today, huh?"
Again the old man did not respond.
"Pop! Stay out of the basement today. It's bad for your leg."
Rocco waved him off with his right hand, uttered harshly, "A." The sound was that of a short, clipped a, as in the word at, yet it was harder, contemptuous.
"Yer leg ulcer's not goina heal. You gotta keep off it."
"Yer house is falling down. Call Nick. He can help."
Nick! Johnny exhaled forcefully. Nick! Where the hell was he? He could help out more.
"He knows how," Rocco said.
"It's not a matter of knowing how. It's a matter of the edema. You want em to cut off yer foot? Go ahead. Ask Nick. He'll tell ya."
"Daddy-oh," Jenny interrupted, "can I have four dollars for the dance on Friday?"
"This Friday. At school. The student council dance."
"Did your mother say you could go?"
"Jason could help," Rocco broke in. He had not heard, had not seen, that his son and granddaughter were speaking. "I need to move the chair."
"He can't," Johnny said quickly. To Jenny he said, "See me tonight, Sunshine." Then again to Rocco, "Not with school and practice and games."
"He spends too much time with all these..." Rocco could not think of the word. "It's too much. It's no good for kids to do so much. He should spend more time here. I'll teach him how to do foundations."
"He's already made the commitment." Exasperation came through in Johnny's voice. They had had the same exchange a dozen times. Johnny wasn't sure if Rocco was being insistent or if he'd forgotten all the earlier ones.
"Call Nick," Rocco ordered. "He could send his boy."
God, Johnny thought, he's what, ten? Eleven? Don't bust my coglions, Pop. He ignored his father's command. "I gotta go pick up Mitch," he said.
"That colored," Rocco said. His voice was thinner, raspier, than usual.
"You know him." Johnny gritted his teeth. "He and I have been friends for over forty years."
"African," Johnny said. "Or black. I gotta see if he's heard anything more about Tripps. About the reorganization."
"You find my box?" Rocco asked.
"Huh? Oh. You mean from Uncle John's?"
Rocco glared. "I don't want anybody lookin in there."
"Ah..." Johnny stumbled. "We won't. It might be in the attic. In Jason's computer room. Or under the eaves. I'll see if I can find it tonight."
"YOU KNOW WHAT that ciuc of a brother of mine did?" Johnny raged as soon as Mitch settled himself into the car. Johnny used the dialect form of ciuco faccia: face of a donkey; dumb ass.
"Probably nothing as dumb as what Vernon did," Mitch answered.
Panuzio had driven his leased, deep green Infinity Q-45 north on Lake Shore Drive. He'd left late yet still he'd lingered to gaze at the water, to take strength from the view. The rain had abated; a dreary overcast remained, reducing visibility over the lake to less than five hundred feet. He'd sighed, turned from the water, turned right, onto Third Street, then passed under Route 86, the Lakeport Turnpike, skirted downtown and headed into The Hills. He'd been slowed by a school bus which threw a mud-infested mist onto his windshield; had been grossed out by a fat kid in the rear seat who'd jammed a chubby finger into his nose then withdrawn it and...Johnny had lowered the visor so as not to bear witness. Still, in his sour mood, he'd vividly imagined the consummation, felt his stomach churn. At Red Apple Hill Johnny had again turned right, then followed the curving pavement up past the elementary school and down into Cottage Glen. The Glen, once a summer resort area, was now East Lake's shabbiest neighborhood. Under the somber sky, under high, scraggly trees with blotches of dense overhang, the trailers and small dwellings surrounded by dozens of dented and rusting vehicles had increased Johnny's feeling of eeriness, of gloom. He'd checked mailboxes for names: Thompson, Watts, Otto. He'd expected to see Sanchez, hadn't, hadn't dismissed the thought--most of the boxes didn't have names. Quickly he'd pulled back uphill into a newer tract of small, nicely maintained capes.
Along the way he'd turned on the front and rear window defoggers, the intermittent wipers, the surround-sound stereo-radio--Dr. Dave McNichols, WLAK AM & FM; news, weather, commuter reports, light chatter and inflammatory sound bytes. He'd felt irritated, antsy, unfocused, unsettled. His thinking had been continuous yet fragmented: Tripps, Rocco, the kids, Julia, Nick. As he'd pulled up behind Laurie's eleven-year-old Toyota Corolla, he realized he'd driven across town totally unaware of his driving. On the Toyota's bumper he'd spotted a new sticker: Fight Crime/Shoot Back. Johnny had chuckled. Aaron! he thought. I wonder if Laurie or Mitch has seen it.
"Nick's a ciuc." Johnny momentarily ignored Mitch's opening. "A jerk. He calls me Friday at work. Right in the middle of the afternoon. Tripps is there in my office, sitting on the edge of my desk, and Nick says, `Hey, Johnny, guess what! Your number hit big. I got five big ones here for you.' I couldn't believe it. Right there. Tripps staring down on me. Lisa--my receptionist..."
"Uh-huh." With a handkerchief Mitch wiped raindrops from his smoothly balding pate.
"She hadn't even put the phone down yet. You know the way that keeps the speaker on, right? Christ! In front of little Mr. Moral Majority."
"What'd he say?" Mitch patted his closely cropped, salt-'n'-pepper beard.
"Nothin. You know he wouldn't. But he's like his old man, like a video camera recording everything you say and do. He's sitting there on the corner of my desk, recording me for his old man. You know, he's there in his eight-hundred-dollar suit and his gootsie-bootsie loafers. Mr. Impeccable. Even his nose hairs have been shaved."
"Probably waxed." Mitch chuckled.
"Yeah, probably," Johnny said. "Anyway, goddamn Nick doesn't even ask, you know, `Hey, gotta minute?' or `Can you talk?'"
Again Mitch chuckled. "Yeah."
"I'm like this. `Ooo! Hey! Aaah...look, this isn't my phone.' That's what I said. `This isn't my phone.' With Tripps right there, in my office, on my desk. I'm fumbling like a jerk. So I hung up on him. Maybe I said something like, `See me tonight.'"
"Ya hit for five hundred, though, huh?"
Johnny smiled. "Yeah. About time, huh?" Mitch didn't respond. Johnny knew that his friend didn't approve of his gaming, of gaming in general, or of Johnny and Julia's spend-all lifestyle. It was a frequent topic of their commute conversation. After the mortgage, the car leases, the credit card charges, all the insurances and incidentals and dining out, and after Todd's tuition, there was little discretionary capital for a side toot. Johnny switched the topic. "Vernon take your car again?"
"Yeah. Thanks for coming by."
"Ah, no biggie." Johnny chuckled, added, "You can't do it all by yourself and neither can I."
Mitch smiled. "And neither can I," he repeated. It had been their tie, their mantra, their permanent bond for three decades. "You'd think," Mitch said, "Vern'd be able to keep one car running. He got me just before I left. Asked if he could drive me home and use the car for the weekend. I said, `Vern, where's you car?' He says, `You don't need one when you live in the city. It's a liability.' That's his way of saying it's out of gas, or's got a flat he hasn't fixed. Or maybe's been towed."
"So what did he need yours for?"
"He wanted to take Elisse to the Indian casino for their anniversary."
They meandered back toward the highway, stopped at the Shell station to gas up, grab coffee and a Lakeport Ledger, and so Johnny could get his daily five Lotto tickets. They continued on, driving to work in a tired, rainy Monday morning funk, talking intermittently about family, friends, the town--everything except the situation at Continental General Chemical--ContGenChem. Blankly Johnny eyed the surrounding traffic. Mitch skimmed the paper.
Route 86 curved to the southwest, skirted the Village of South Lake. Between elegant homes Johnny caught glimpses of the lake, the posh shoreline restaurants with their private beaches and marinas, the few remaining unexpanded cottages.
"See it?" Mitch asked.
Mitch turned the page, snapped the paper to flatten it, continued reading. Johnny, as was his habit, squinted to find his uncle John and aunt Fran's old home, to see...to...
"She was another one," Mama says.
Johnny-panni doesn't understand.
"Well," Mama says, "they were the first to leave Lakeport. They moved onto that quiet little street with those expensive shops. That was in forty-six or forty-seven. Just before you were born. So now--" Mama's tone imitates a grande dame "--they are `Villagers.'" Mama pushes up the tip of her nose with her index finger. "Particularly Francesca," she says. "Of course, they were the oldest and that somewhat justifies their superior airs. But Fran, she looked down on everybody. Especially your father." Mama flutters her hand as if she is shooing away a fly. "Old World," she says. "You know, a cafone. Rough. Crude." She pronounces it cah-voh'nn. "And then because your father was an infantryman in the war. And because he became a contractor. How that hurt your father. You know, to her we were low class. Uncle John knew how she was. He was aloof too but he always respected his brothers. All of his brothers. Just like you do Nicky. John respected them and he protected them and he was kind to them. Especially after Il Padrone...Nonno, after he died. But John always loved you. You were named after him. He always made sure Ricky and Louis loved you, too. You were their favorite. You were John's first godson. Maybe his only godson. I don't know."
"Mama!" I am angry. "You don't know!"
Between glances at the roadway, Johnny squinted harder, deeper into the mist. No matter that the day was raw and overcast, to him the lake was warm, inviting. He thought of cars he'd owned before he'd become a successful corporate officer, cars in which the windows would all be open and he'd feel the wind and smell the lake, instead of the perfectly controlled climate within the passenger cell of this Infiniti.
"There." Johnny gestured. He'd spied his uncle's old home; caught a glimpse of a woman descending the porch stairs with a child in hand. A smile came to his face. He thought of a time when he was five or six and he'd spent three nights with cousins Ricky and Louis in their bedroom, and he'd first learned the word cugino, cousin. They'd called him cuginino, their own word (they could make up their own words!) for little cousin. On the following days they'd collected frogs and turtles, and swum in the lake, three boys together without adults.
Johnny searched the water. The lake was fifteen miles long, five miles at its widest point. Throughout the fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties it had insulated, if not isolated, the Town of East Lake and the village of South Lake from the urban sprawl and the less desirable elements of the opposite shore. If it were clearer...Johnny thought. He did not think in words but sensed, imagined, the far side, The City of Lakeport, the six-lane interstate, the tower of National Solvents and Chemicals (NSC) where he'd worked for the past twelve years. NSC was the region's last major industry, its biggest employer. Rumors had flitted for years that the parent corporation, Bowen and Company, was in financial trouble, but nothing had changed until mid-August. Then in quick succession, Saudi-based Contentinal General Chemical had offered to and then did purchase NSC from Bowen. On Thursday, only five days earlier, the Ledger headline story read:
700 of 4,000 to Lose Jobs
Continental General Chemical leaked its plan, late last night, to consolidate manufacturing operations in plants in Atlanta, Georgia, and Mexico City. Industry analysts expect the announcement to be made formally later today by ContGenChem's CEO, Nelson Tripps.
If the plan goes into effect, ContGenChem will close part of its Lakeport manufacturing division and move much of its administrative and marketing departments.
News of the "restructuring for increased profitability" sent ContGenChem's stock soaring, as company officials estimated the consolidation will save $47 million per year...
Friday morning, Brad Tripps, sitting, as was his habit, on the corner of Johnny Panuzio's desk, had told Panuzio, who had risen to be NSC's director of marketing, to prepare his staff for personnel cuts. At lunch Johnny and Mitch had talked themselves hoarse but to no conclusion. ContGenChem had yet to make an assault on Mitch's engineering department.
Johnny and Mitch continued their drive in. Thoughts, images tumbled in Johnny's mind. They spoke sporadically. Johnny talked about the city, about their old Misty Bottom neighborhood. When he and Mitch had been boys, Lakeport had been a proud industrial city; and East Lake and South Lake Village were just beginning the transition from summer retreats for factory workers and their bosses to year-around exurban living. The term suburbia was seldom used--North Lakeport and South Lakeport were outskirts. Images flashed. They talked about the old--now defunct many years--tassel-topped summer ferry which made the cross-lake run four times daily, more on Independence Day; the hot, itchy sensations of riding to "the country" in Rocco's old Ford, dust and wind and heat saturating the backseat, the unpaved roads bouncing them until they were queasy and quiet and praying they'd reach whatever the destination might be before they became overtly sick in the backseat of the old Ford while Rocco sang quietly or talked about the smell of the pines and the purity of the water and of the times when he was a Boy Scout and he'd camped on the beaches, which were now private property.
"You know," Johnny's voice erupted. Mitch closed the paper, glanced over. "I just thought about that Thanksgiving."
Mitch chuckled. "Still bothers ya, huh?"
"It was my grandfather's funeral..."
"My father made the decision. I would've played."
"Or maybe Uncle John. He probably told Rocco. I mean, after Ricky was killed, they were pretty sensitive."
"Still bothers ya," Mitch repeated.
"Not bothers me," Johnny said. "I just flashed on it. Like what would be different? You know, would we be in this mess with Tripps if...?"
"Yeah. Different roads go to different places," Mitch said. Then he added, "Still, sometimes different roads lead to the same place."
"Umm." Johnny paused, then asked, "Forgive me?"
"No." Mitch smiled. "Not in a million years. Nor would my old man. He'd leveraged a hundred dollars into a thousand-dollar bet. He was sure we couldn't lose. That's why I never gamble more than's in my pocket. Usually not even that."
"How bout for not going...you know...?"
Mitch guffawed, let Johnny squirm. "Not for that, either," he said. "You should've been there."
"Maybe." Johnny was serious. "Sometimes I think I missed something."
Mitch chuckled, gestured, a flick of his hand--don't mean nothin. Again they rode in silence. Amid heavier traffic they crossed the dam that created Lake Wampahwaug. They entered South Lakeport--now virtually a borough of the city with combined fire, snow and highway departments, and with established student exchange, magnet school and distant learning programs hammered out while the state courts still wrestled with mandated regional solutions. On the left they passed the first high-rise overlooking Route 86 where it merged with the interstate. A minute farther, on the right below the roadway, appeared the puddled, tarred roofs of the first project. A quarter mile farther, a single beam of sunlight split the clouds, glistened on wet concrete, brick and glass.
Johnny scanned the city buildings, the projects, the highway ramp circling the Clara Barton Soup Kitchen, the burned-out and boarded-up homes, entire blocks. He pointed to the old ferry terminal, vacant, covered with grafitti, the piers dilapidated, the pilings askew. "My grandfather," Johnny said self-consciously--he'd said it to Mitch many times before--"worked there as a shovel man for a dollar ten a day." Johnny shook his head. He thought about the old "hood," about its vitality, its "mixed-ethnic" energy, about it today, mostly black and Hispanic, on the front page of the Lakeport Ledger virtually every day of the year. They can't do it all...he thought. Then he thought about the vibrance and the vitality that he did not feel in his tidy Queen Anne on Lake Shore Drive in serene--insulated if not isolated--East Lake; in his chosen middle-class enclave separated from this landscape of slums, of violence, drugs, crime, hopelessness, despair.
Johnny eased off the gas as a semi squeezed in from the right. Mitch turned up the volume on the radio. Dr. Dave McNichols was yapping about taxes being so high that dollars taken from families had forced both husbands and wives to work outside the home, which in turn had fostered a community of unsupervised kids, which required more tax dollars and more government because the system was failing. "Now they're escalating it again," McNichols blurted. "Telling us only more tax dollars will make it all work!"
"And they're telling us," McNichols scoffed, "the problem is, we don't have enough government! The governor and the courts want to control the racial balance of the entire region. One more socialized master plan drawn up by the elite, by the people who believe they know better than anyone else what's right and what's wrong--then shoved down our throats by their police-state tactics. Hey, I'm sorry! Tell the governor...tell the state courts...maybe there are inequities. No doubt about it. There ARE imbalances. That's a given. And they DO need correction. That's a given. But governmental tyranny is not the solution. Everything they touch turns to..."
Johnny sighed. Traffic slowed, slowed, stopped. Lightly he tapped his wedding ring against the padded steering wheel. "I told Nicky we were buying Lotto tickets," Johnny said.
"You mean you're buyin."
"Yeah. He says, `Ciuc! Ciuco faccia! You're nuts!' I said, `Yeah. Maybe.' He says, `They don't even have a fifty percent payout. Play the numbers. It's eighty percent.'"
"Is it really?"
"Well, according to Nick. He calls the state Lotto `legal organized crime.'"
"Seems right to me," Mitch said. "If you or I did it, we'd be thrown in jail. They make it easy, though, don't they?"
"Yeah. Too easy. I gotta stop doin this. I gave Nick that five hundred because I owed him from the casino last month. And I think from one of the card games. You know, Julia spends every penny she makes. Except she throws in a lot for Todd's tuition. But the household bills come out of my salary."
"Sometimes Laurie pisses me off," Mitch said. "You know how frugal she is. But when something like this reorganization hits, I know I'm a lucky man. She always says, `Don't get us overextended. We don't want to be overextended in unsettled times.'"
"Um. That's what Tessa used to say. Now I got Rocco over my shoulder. `How much did you spend on this? How much was that?' You know, always with a little smile. A little smirk. Like he's apologizing. `What's this cost? Is it necessary?' Thing is, it costs to have him in the house, too. I mean, I know he's right. But I resent it. Hell, I'm a nearly fifty-year-old boomer--"
"Boy! You are getting old!"
"Well--" Johnny chuckled "--thank God I'm not as old as you. What's it like actually being fifty?"
"I don't know. I won't know for months."
"That's...ah, you mean weeks."
"Ha! So you are counting."
"You're not far behind."
"I'm just a baby."
"What do you have, ten weeks?"
"Better than thirteen."
"You better enjoy it. Dagos don't age gracefully."
"Oh, like you boys from southern Italy age better."
They both laughed. Traffic edged forward. The NSC tower, now ContGenChem, came into view. On the radio McNichols was now screaming. "Why don't you all go home? Go home, people! I'm giving everybody the day off. You don't get anything done on Mondays. Tell your boss, Doctor Dave says it's okay.' Then we won't have this five-mile-long parking lot. Or why don't you come in when I come in? Road's empty at four-thirty. Even the shooters have gone home. Hey, people! Use your fax machines. `Do business by e-mail. Surf the Net. You don't need to be here. Go back to the damn burbs." McNichols tittered. "Watch TV, pay your bills, rake your leaves, go to bed. Say hi to your wife." Again the small, lewd laugh. "Do things to her. I'm tired of being her entertainment. AND GET THE HELL OUT OF MY CITY!"
"A whole bunch of us are going to get the hell out," Johnny answered the radio. "Just as soon as ContGenChem cans us."
"They won't can us," Mitch said.
"I don't know," Johnny said. "Seems, for most of my life, maybe ever since Ricky's funeral, like I've had this need to self-destruct at critical junctures. Like Friday with Tripps."
"Well you haven't," Mitch said. "Look at us. We're both reasonably successful; both married smart women, got good jobs, nice homes, great kids. We moved away from all that crap McNichols is always babbling about."
"Yeah, but there's always something trying to undermine it. I feel like...with Brad Tripps and that bastone of an old man of his. It's a family trait. Theirs and mine. And I'm passing mine on. You shoulda seen Jason this morn--"
Mitch shook his head, interrupted. "I don't know, Johnny. I mean, I know what it's like taking two steps forward and being knocked back one. But you...you gotta stop living day to day, paycheck to paycheck. Your old man taught me that. That's your real family trait."
"Shit, yeah. And Tessa, too. I'll always owe you that."
"Me. You don't owe me any--"
"Sure as hell do!"
"How do you figure?"
"It was that Panuzio attitude that rubbed off."
"That you could do anything. Studies. School. That came from me being with you. Not from my family. My folks were great, but I never would have gone on if you hadn't. And I think Tessa would have killed me if I'd failed."
Johnny laughed. "Yeah. Ma always liked you better."
"I'll always owe you that," Mitch repeated. "You and your family. Those traits. That's where Aaron--"
"Yeah," Johnny spurted. "I guess you will, huh? Hey, can I borrow twenty bucks until payday?"