Read an Excerpt
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question . . .
Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
Let us go and make our visit.
t. s. eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
My earliest memory is of blindness. I was four years old when I woke up in a hospital crib with patches over my eyes, darkness all around, utterly alone. Confused and disoriented, for a moment I could not understand where I was or why my parents had left me there alone. Then I remembered: I'd had an operation to fix my crossed eye. Fear and loneliness whispered in the invisible room where I lay, and I cried out for my mother and father. When the bandages came off a few days later, the first image to emerge from the blur was my father's worried face. Looking back, it seems fitting. I have spent more than thirty years since then struggling to bring him into focus.
I was born in a quiet residential Brooklyn neighborhood in 1966, the second child of parents barely out of their teens. I had an older sister named Debra and a teenage stepbrother in my Uncle Joe. My grandfather DeMeo had died when Joe was a baby, and when Grandma DeMeo returned to her native Italy without Joe, my parents took him in as their own. The five of us formed a happy, traditional Italian-American family. A year later we moved to suburban Massapequa, where my younger sister Lisa was born. Grandma returned to Brooklyn shortly before Lisa was born and moved in with her closest friend, Mrs. Profaci"Mrs. P," as I called her. Once again, the family was complete.
Mrs. P lived just down the street from the two-story brick duplex where my father had grown up. It was a green neighborhood in the springtime, with tall, well-established foliage and small shrines to the Virgin Mary in nearly every front yard. The Profacis' towering brick mansion dominated the quiet street. Twice a year until I was five or six, my father took me there to spend the night with my grandmother, down Flatbush Avenue, through a maze of side streets, and up to the corner lot where Mrs. Profaci's house stood. The Profaci home was like another world, a realm of elegant timelessness. The living room was filled with delicately curved gilt French furniture, always perfectly maintained. Pale satin drapes and lace panels covered the windows. Mrs. P was equally elegant in her high heels and pearls. The scent of Chanel No. 5 would wisp into my nostrils whenever she bent to kiss me. With her silver blond hair swept into a French twist, she seemed a human embodiment of the golden furniture that filled her home.
Mrs. P didn't own a television, so our evenings there were spent in quiet conversation in the kitchen after dinner. Grandma and Mrs. P spoke Italian to each other, but they spoke English to me. Grandma loved to talk about Mrs. P's brother-in-law, Joseph Profaci.Grandma admired everything about himhis custom-made clothing; his luxurious car; the lavish gifts he made to his family; and most of all, the way everyone looked up to him. "Your grandfather was just an ordinary working man, Albert," she would tell me. "But Joseph Profacihe was something special. I pray God your father is half the man someday." One time I asked Mrs. P how her brother-in-law got so rich, but she changed the subject. Mrs. P didn't seem to like talking about him.
I lived in Massapequa, Long Island, for ten of my first eleven years. It was a wonderful place to grow up. The streets of our neighborhood were wide and clean, the sidewalks lined with children's bikes. It was the kind of place where you could sleep outside on a summer night and feel perfectly safe. My early years there were filled with joy and contentment. At the core of my sense of security was my father.
No one could have asked for a better father than mine. He was a husky man with dark hair and kind brown eyes, and though he was only five feet, nine inches tall, he was a giant to me. He could pick me up and toss me around as effortlessly as a cotton ball, and he often did. I loved to ride on his shoulders. He spent more time with me than any of the other fathers in the neighborhood spent with their kids. Most of the other fathers were firemen, policemen, teachers, or small business owners who worked on the island and had to be at work by nine o'clock every morning. My dad was different; he was home in the mornings, so he walked me to school while my mother cleaned the house and started lunch. When the other kids were kissing their moms good-bye, I was hugging my dad. Sometimes he brought me a doughnut when he came to pick me up a couple of hours later. I wasn't exactly sure what my father did for a living, and I didn't care. I just liked being with him.
On sunny weekends my father took my sisters and me for hikes in the nearby nature conservancy. Dad loved being outdoors with us. Dad; our German shepherd, Major; my sisters; and I would all head out after breakfast carrying bags of stale bread my mother packed for us. The path behind our neighbors' house led to a trail through the trees and about half a mile down to a preserve with woods and a small lake. The lake was filled with ducks and swans, and my sisters and I would crouch down near the water's edge and coax the birds with pieces of stale bread. Afterward we would hike through the woods until we got tired. When we were ready to rest, we headed for the big log near our favorite tree to sit down. My father always carried a switchblade. One afternoon my father took the knife from his pocket and carved all of our names on the tree, along with the date. After that we thought of it as our tree, and we visited it whenever we could. It was a DeMeo family secret, our special place in the woods.
Sometimes my dad took me for rides in the car with him on the weekends. One Saturday he told me he was taking me to the airport to meet someone named Uncle Vinny. "Uncle Vinny isn't a blood relation, Allie, just a friend of mine," he told me when we pulled into the terminal. I was too interested in watching the planes take off and land to pay much attention when my father introduced me to Vinny.
"How ya doin', Albert?" Vinny asked as he bent to shake my hand. He had on a blue uniform with his name embroidered on his shirt. We went back into the cargo section with Vinny so my father could talk to him, but I couldn't hear a word they said over the roar of the planes. I explored the dusty cargo area while Dad and Uncle Vinny talked. Vinny looked very earnest and waved his hands around a lot while my father shook his head the way he did when I was naughty. Finally Uncle Vinny gave my father an envelope, and we left.
It wasn't long until I saw Uncle Vinny again. Early the next Saturday morning Vinny drove up in a station wagon filled with crates of fresh fruit. My sisters and I lined up on the curb to watch as he carried the wooden crates into our house. We had never seen so much fruit. Along with the ordinary bananas and oranges, there were exotic fruits like guava that not even my mother had ever seen. My mother shook her head as she sorted through the crates, murmuring that there was enough here for half the neighborhood. Uncle Vinny smiled sweetly and murmured, "A little gift for you and the children, Mrs. DeMeo." The following Sunday he brought us boxes of imported chocolate. The weekend after that he brought beautiful London Fog raincoats for us kids. Trailing behind him back out to the car that afternoon, I asked him where he got all this stuff.
"They're F-O-T, Albert," he told me. When I looked blank, he winked at me and said, "You know, F-O-T. Fallen off trucks." I was amazed. How could the truck drivers be so stupid? This was a lot of stuff. It must be worth an awful lot of money. Uncle Vinny had brought more coats than we needed, so my mom gave the extras to Barbara and Jim, my parents' best friends on the block, for their kids. Jim was a policeman who didn't make much money, so Barbara was really excited to get the coats. Vinny continued dropping things off for us at least once a week, and after a while I started wondering why the truck drivers didn't just pick this stuff up if it wasn't damaged.
Finally I asked my father about it. He eyed me for a moment, then smiled and said, "Son, can you keep a secret? Man to man?"
Of course, I could. I was proud that my father trusted me.
"Your uncle Vinny steals things. He's a nice guy, but he steals just about anything he can lay his hands on. And he bets on horses a lot, so I loaned him some money, and he can't pay it back because he keeps betting. This is his way of repaying me. I don't ask him where the stuff comes from. I don't want to know."
Uncle Vinny was a thief? But he seemed so nice, and I could tell my father liked him. If my father liked him, he must be all right.
Saturdays were good, but Sunday was the best day of the week. My father got up early on Sundays to cook us breakfast. My Sunday alarm was the sound of the juice machine as my father squeezed fresh orange juice to go with the meal. I piled into the kitchen with my sisters one late spring morning to find the table loaded down with stacks of pancakes, butter and warm syrup, homemade hash browns, eggs to order, and bacon and sausage. We ate until our stomachs hurt as my father sat and watched, smiling to see our enjoyment. Afterward my mother chased us upstairs to get ready for church.
In half an hour, we were all back downstairs in our Sunday best. My sisters had lovely dresses and patent leather shoes, and I wore a nice suit and tie, with my shoes polished and my nails manicured. While Dad cleaned up from the morning's cooking, my mother drove us to the local Lutheran church and walked us each to our respective classes. Then she left to do errands while my sisters and I attended Sunday school and mass. She never came with us. Mom had been raised Lutheran, and Dad had been raised Catholic. Neither of them practiced their religion anymore, but they wanted us to grow up with a belief in God and good morals: conscientious, well mannered, honest, and respectful. I was polite and well behaved in church, but I found most of the lessons boring. Afterward, my mother picked us all up in the Cadillac and took us home to prepare for dinner and company.
Uncle Joe drove up in his limo and pulled into the driveway shortly after we got back from church. Joe had salvaged the limo from a junkyard for a hundred dollars and had done the body work himself. I'd sat with my father and sisters at the junkyard every Saturday for weeks, watching Joe work on the car. He used a crane to flip it on one side, worked on it a while, then flipped it on the other side and continued. We kids thought it was the coolest thing we'd ever seen. The limo was a shiny black 1960 Fleetwood Cadillac with all the luxuries: leather seats, radio, intercom, and phone. When Uncle Joe finally got it done, he used it to chauffeur us kids around on Sunday afternoons. One Sunday he took us to Coney Island Joe's for the best burgers and hot dogs in town; the next Sunday he piled us in with a dozen neighborhood kids and took us for ice cream. We all argued over who got to ride shotgun. We had double-scoop cones and then rode back home to eat Sunday dinner. My sisters had each invited a friend to eat with us. I didn't want to invite anybody. I liked to hang out in the workshop or yard with Dad and Uncle Joe, chatting about guy things like cars. Barbara and Jim walked over later in the afternoon and brought their children with them. Jim never pulled Sunday patrol. He came downstairs with Dad and Joe and me while Barbara went inside to help my mother.
Sunday was "sauce" day for our extended Italian family. My mother had been cooking for hours in the big downstairs kitchen by the time we got back with Joe: chopping ingredients for marinara sauce, mixing flour for homemade pasta, and grinding sausage for Italian meatballs. Barbara washed and mixed the salad greens and sliced the bread. Uncle Vinny had delivered several baskets of fresh bread that morning. Mom had made desserts the day before while we were out with Dad: brownies, pie, and three kinds of cookies. Dad had also made his specialty while we were at churchzabaglione, an egg custard made with muscatel wine and served warm over fruit. I came in the house every hour or so to sample the goodies. The aromas surrounding me in the warm kitchen gave me a heady rush. Mikey Hammer and his wife walked into the kitchen at about four o'clock. Like Uncle Vinny, Mikey wasn't really a relative, but he seemed like one. My parents knew him from the old days in Brooklyn. Uncle Mikey was one of my favorite uncles. He was stout and strong, with gray hair and hands like slabs. He was also nearly deaf. I had to shout at him to say hello. Mikey's wife and my mom started talking about gardening, so Uncle Mikey headed down to the basement where the men were talking cars.
Everything was perfect until my grandmother got up from her nap. Grandma DeMeo had arrived in state the afternoon before while I was out with Dad. My first hint that she was spending the night had been the sight of her huge undergarment hanging on the bathroom door at bedtime. My grandmother always wore a large girdle-brassiere combination made up of whalebone stays that was strong enough to stand up on its own. I could not understand why anyone would wear such a torture device. Her entrance cast a gloom over the cheery kitchen. She sat ramrod straight on the Naugahyde chair, her hair perfectly arranged and her face fully made up. Grandma was a statuesque woman, full busted and vain to a fault. She seemed to fill the room. Suddenly stricken with claustrophobia, I went out into the backyard to see my dad.