Abandoned by her husband, Joanie Mucherino and her eleven-year-old son, Todd, struggle to cope while dealing with their comically tactless and intrusive Italian family. Further complicating things, Joanie now seems available to Bruno Minea, an old family friend whose two-decade passion for her has been unwavering and faintly frightening. When Joanie and Todd kill an acquaintance in a hit-and-run accident, they soon discover—to their horror—that they’re keeping it a secret. But as the weight of their lies becomes more than they can can bear, their crime connects them to something even more sinister, as the victim had powerful, dangerous friends who will go to great lengths to avenge his death.
Part family drama, part thriller, Kiss of the Wolf exemplifies the talents of National Book Award finalist Jim Shepard, author of 2015 favorite The Book of Aron, who crafts hilarious, spot-on dialogue with the same mastery he lends to the ingenious, page-turning plot, in which a loving mother is forced to confront her role as the architect of her son’s anguished guilt.
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Kiss of the Wolf
By Jim Shepard
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1994 Jim Shepard
All rights reserved.
I was going to give Joanie a ride to her mother's for her kid's confirmation party, I couldn't, I had to show this Korean every single fucking thing about a Dodge Dart we had on the lot, a trade-in from 1901. He wants to see all the paperwork, he wants to climb underneath it, he wants to go through the buyer's manual like he's prepping for a space shot. The manual's so old it's coming apart in our hands. It's six-forty-five and he's not buying today, we can see that, but he's not going anywhere, either.
This is a Buick dealership. I'm wearing a Buick pin. We're surrounded by Buicks. Showroom floor is wall to wall with them. The guy goes, Do you sell Buicks here? I go, No, we give 'em away. That's how we stay in business: giving away free Buicks.
This guy couldn't decide on a shitbox Dodge Dart, there's no chance in the world he's going to spring for a full-ticket Buick.
He goes, Are they dependable cars?
I go, Look, Boulder Dam shut down a few times last year. You want me to guarantee a lousy six-thousand-dollar car?
He's taking all this in, giving it some hard thought. The minute hand's going around. He wants to know, Do they come with automatic transmission and air at no extra charge? I tell him, You bet they do. Not only that, but we throw in a free dinner and tickets to a Broadway show. What's he think we're running here, a raffle?
We're standing around talking afterwards in the office, and Cifulo's giving me this look, and I'm watching the clock while this guy sips his coffee and stares into space. The missus is sitting there with him and clearly has veto power but doesn't say boo. I'm making conversation, so I ask him if he's Japanese. Big mistake: turns out he's Korean. The missus is miffed.
Afterward Cifulo gives me grief about it, so I tell him, What, that's better? Far as I'm concerned, they're boat people with an attitude. They got here earlier, they're better? I say no. They run dink grocery stores, three dollars for a banana. There's one guy on Barnum Avenue, I still don't know his name, SHIMSI, the sign says. What is that? Two names? His name? BUY OUR FOOD? One thing's for sure: you want to get some service, don't ask Kato behind the counter.
Cifulo tells me afterward I was rude to them. This imbecile moving two units a month, if he's lucky and his family comes in, is telling me how to run my business. I told him, What are you talking to me for? You watch Steven Seagal movies. Out for Violence, Revenge Is Mine — whatever they're called. I told him, Steven Sea gal? The man wears a ponytail? Is this the Revolution? And Sea-gal: what is that? The guy's not a Jew anymore? And what are you, what are you, Bishop Sheehan? Mother Teresa?
So it turns out I couldn't give Joanie this ride.
They talk about ups and downs in the car business, but we been down a while. I'm always high man for monthly sales, but what is that? Every day we stand around the showroom like CYO kids waiting for the party to begin.
Now on toppa that I gotta worry about this Monteleone thing.
Things are gonna go wrong. It's not like things are always gonna go right. The key is how we deal with it. How do we act? I say, I can't control everything. But I have to deal with it.
Joanie, for example. I coulda pushed it the other night, after that kiss. I wanted to push it. But it's not right.
You got to have a little class, a little understanding of the way to do things. In Italy, the old gentlemen, they cultivate tratto, you know, a elegance, a way you handle yourself, conduct your affairs.
She's coming around. She doesn't know it, her mother doesn't know it, nobody probably knows it. But she's coming around.
There will be setbacks. I understand that. Remember: if it isn't one thing, it will surely be another. What's important? Your attitude.CHAPTER 2
The church was very big for my mother. She came over when she must've been thirty-one, thirty-two, four kids in tow and one on the way. I think the Church was a big help. It was a place she could trust, she had the priest she could talk to. Plus it was a big connection to Strangolagalli, to what she knew. Right before we came over, one of my little brothers died; he was just a baby. Our priest there, Father Picarazzi, was a big help. She was still sad when she got here, so naturally she went to the priest here, too.
She prayed a lot at home, usually early early in the morning, before we all were up. She had all the little statues in her bedroom. And the pictures with the palms still behind them from whenever the last Palm Sunday was.
Our church was St. Anthony's on North Avenue. Not St. Anthony of Padua, who helped people find lost things — the other St. Anthony. The one in the desert who was always resisting the temptations of the devil. The devil showed up at his hut in the form of a pig. Just what the temptation was involving the pig, we didn't know. Maybe the devil was tempting him with bacon. But how big a temptation was that? It seemed like a lot of work. He had to kill the pig, etc. Anyway, the pig was in the stained-glass windows above the confessionals on the right side of the church. I prayed on that side. I was a little girl, twelve years old, just about Todd's age. It sounds terrible now, but I used to pray sometimes to the pig. He was small and they did him cute. I guess I didn't believe it was really the devil. I think I figured everybody pictured in church had to be good.
The confessionals on the other side didn't get any light. They were much darker. They were used by visiting priests. You'd go in there, it'd be like a cave. You couldn't see the priest and you didn't know him anyway. So you went there if you had serious sins to confess or you hadn't been to confession in a long time. It was good for gossip: we'd watch who went over there. Oh, Mr. Motz: what's he doing over there? So it kind of backfired on you.
It was a very Italian church. Father Favale was the priest for thirty, thirty-five years. He joked every Pentecost Sunday that our sins were committed in Italian, confessed in English, and pardoned in Latin.
There was one sister always used to joke with me that because of me she prayed to St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes. She thought I was a hopeless case because I wasn't religious enough.
She'd make notes when I was bad, like in the middle of the winter, and she wouldn't punish me then. When it was spring and beautiful out, then she'd keep me after school. I could hear all the kids running around and having a great time, and she'd say, Nina, remember when you did this? And when you did that?
But I was good kid for the most part.
My mother was worried about my lying. I lied, you know, like kids do. I wasn't a big liar. My mother believed as long as you never told a lie you were always on God's side. The most important thing was to tell the truth. You did something wrong, okay. But it was worse to lie about it. And if you lied, that was bad enough. It was worse to pretend that you hadn't lied, and to keep going: every second you lived the lie was another sin.
They'd hit us when we got caught. But not so often; it wasn't like other schools. It was funny: when you were getting hit, you thought the world was like that. Then afterwards when you met other people who weren't Catholic or didn't get hit in school, you thought: it isn't like that. And then, sometime after that, you realized the world was like that, after all. So then you thought maybe you were better off knowing early.CHAPTER 3
The worst thing up to now I ever did was commit a sacrilege. The way we were taught, a sacrilege was this huge thing, and really rare. It didn't seem so rare to us. The sisters made it a big thing and then they didn't. You couldn't tell. For instance, in fifth grade these two guys got into a fight. Sister Amalia tried to break it up and got punched in the chest. She was upset. She sat there on the floor holding herself and said it was a sacrilege. The kid who did it was scared. But we didn't believe her. We didn't think she was that holy. Also, it was an accident, and we didn't think you could get a sacrilege that way. We made the kid feel better. Later he was coming back from Communion at Easter and he held up his arm for us, right there in church. The sisters didn't know what he meant, but we did: he was going, Here's my arm; it hasn't fallen off yet.
But there was another kind that wasn't accidental. One year our parish priest went away and the guy who replaced him was mean. In confession he'd go, "C'mon, c'mon," if you stopped to think. And if you said something he didn't like, he'd say, "You did what?" You heard it all the time. It was embarrassing. Kids would come out of the booth bright red, or crying.
You couldn't predict what would set him off. Once, I told him I stole some books from the local bookstore — nothing big, two little things on dinosaurs I put under my sweater — and it must've been the nineteenth case of that, that day, or he must've just been sick of it or something. He blew up. He said, "What did you do that for? What were you thinking?" And then he said, "You could afford to buy something like that. Your parents could afford it." So everybody out in church knew I must've stolen something. And I said without thinking, "Don't shout it," and then he got seriously mad. He kept me in there longer than he was supposed to, just yelling at me. He kept his voice down for that. Then he gave me fifty Hail Marys and fifty Our Fathers. Fifty is a huge amount. I had to go to the altar rail and kneel there, and no matter how fast I said them — and after the first ten I was flying — it still looked to everyone in the church like I must've killed my mother.
The worst part was I was so scared of confession after that that I didn't go. I kept not wanting to go to Communion. I had all these mortal sins on my soul. The sisters were like, Why aren't you going to Communion? What could I tell them? So finally I went. The whole way up in the line I was telling myself, Go back, go back, you're going to commit sacrilege. Because it's sacrilege to receive with a mortal sin on your soul and you know it.
I stood there in line feeling like such a hypocrite, such a liar, the sisters thinking I was being a good Catholic while I was doing this.
After I received, I went back to my row and put my head on the pew in front of me. I looked up and there was Sister Amalia, and she gave me this smile, like she was happy I was so good. I thought, You committed a sacrilege just so you wouldn't be embarrassed.
That night I realized people were going to Hell not only because they were bad but also because they were weak.
I didn't do anything about it for six weeks. Every time I got Communion — because I had to get Communion, otherwise, why wasn't I getting it? — I was committing sacrilege. Sacrilege, sacrilege, sacrilege. All my friends were ahead of me and behind me in line, getting Communion like it was no big deal. Because it wasn't for them. And I kept it all from everyone. Who could I tell? It was like a nightmare; it was so easy to stop, and I wasn't stopping. It was like I thought, What difference did it make? My soul was so black it couldn't get blacker. But it was getting blacker. I thought I was setting sacrilege records. I thought somewhere God was thinking that this was all too bad. He knew everything, so he knew I wasn't evil, but that that wasn't going to make things any better. People were going to Hell for stealing a car or for missing Mass. I was going to get off the hook?
Then I found out you had to go to confession before confirmation. We went as a group; there was no getting out of it. And I had to confess it, because the bishop would be giving us Communion at the ceremony, and I thought, Even I can't do that sacrilege.
So every night the week before, I was up, praying, crying, I didn't know what. I found myself under the bed one night. Finally, the day of the confession, I was the second one in line, the whole class and Sister Amalia out there in the pews, waiting. I was so miserable by then I just gave up. I just went in and said, "Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been six weeks since my last confession." And he asked why it took me six weeks. I told him because I'd committed this sacrilege. He said, "You did what?" I thought, Here we go. But when I explained it, he said, "That's not a sacrilege," like that was obvious. I was so relieved to hear anybody say that that I didn't argue with him. He gave me like fifteen Hail Marys for penance. I was so happy I was all teary-eyed. I still thought it was a sacrilege, but now it was like I had special dispensation; I had a priest tell me not to worry about it.
That was the worst thing I'd done until now.
The other night when I was up with my mother, I remembered all that, remembered being up all night worried about the sacrilege.
This is worse, now, than then. It's like there are two of me wandering around at once. I'm someone else from the person everyone thinks I am.
If I was God, I'd be harder on me than her. She's scared and doesn't believe in everything, anyway. But I learned every day in catechism what the right thing to do was. I was an altar boy. I helped serve Communion. It's like when I had the sacrilege: like every day I'm slapping God in the face, over and over and over.CHAPTER 4
Services on good Friday, Stations of the Cross — my mother was one of those Catholics who excused herself from a lot of the duties because she had a hard life. That's what she said. The idea was that God let her off on that.
I think her mother always had the harder life. My father's always been good to her, and they've never been poor. Her mother had to come over from Italy with her husband and four kids, start up from nothing. When I remind my mother of that, she says, Yeah, but she didn't have to put up with being me.
By that I think she means that her mother expected a lot of unhappiness.
My mother had this thing she would say to herself to cheer herself up: It could always get worse than this. She'd say it in this tough way, like she'd taken somebody's best shot. I remember her saying it once when she'd taken me shopping with her at Read's. I was six years old. I hadn't even known she was unhappy.
She said that to me when Gary left. I said to her, "How could it get worse than this?" — even though even then I could think of ways. She said, "It just could."
Now I say to myself, It could always get worse than this. I repeat it.
My mother's got no patience for unhappiness. She says she has less now even than she used to. Which means she has less patience for anything that might be adding to the problem, like my father or the Church. She was secretary of the Rosary Society for two weeks, they started busting her rocks about the way she wrote up the reports, that was the end of that.
So she joked that God let her off on stuff like that. It was like going to the eleven-o'clock Mass: the really great Catholics, they were there on the dot for the seven-o'clock. My mother and I figured God appreciated that, but he also had the later one for the rest of us. If you spent Saturday night hiding bottles from your husband or bailing your kid out of juvenile detention, or you just felt so bad you wanted to lie there in bed an extra three hours, there was still that last Mass. It was like Mass for the shirkers and the exhausted.
It wasn't that she didn't believe, even in the Church. She just picked the rules she thought were important, for her sake and ours. Lent she never went for, for example.
She tried to bring me up right. She sent me to Blessed Sacrament. The building was falling apart; the building should have been condemned. There was a hole in the floor of the seventh-grade classroom near the heating vent: the seventh-graders could spit down onto the third-graders.
I had a sister there, Sister St. John of the Cross. I had these Martian cards then, cards about Mars invading the Earth — the whole story took up fifty-something cards. A boy I liked, Lawrence Harrigan, gave me his doubles. I was amazed by them. They had things like frost rays and heat rays: skin coming off the bone while the guy looked down and watched, these Martians grinning. Giant insects that picked guys out of cars. There was one gave me nightmares of a woman with hair like my mother on a web with a huge black-and-red spider. Lawrence said it was like Hell. Lawrence was always looking for ways to bring his problems in line with the Church.
Excerpted from Kiss of the Wolf by Jim Shepard. Copyright © 1994 Jim Shepard. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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