Acclaimed author Charlie Carillo revisits Shepherd Avenue, the novel that sparked his career, in a witty, moving story about growing older and (sometimes) growing up . . .
For the second time in a few weeks, Joey Ambrosio has done something reckless. The first incident-climbing to the top of the Brooklyn Bridge to scatter his father's remains-earned him newspaper headlines and court-ordered therapy. This time, he's doing something arguably even more dangerous: buying his grandparents' old house in the rough Brooklyn neighborhood where he spent an idyllic summer half a century ago.
With boarded up stores and bars on every window, Shepherd Avenue sure isn't the way it used to be. Then again, neither is Joey. In 1961, he was a newly motherless kid trying to find his way. Now a successful children's book author estranged from his grown daughter, he's viewed with suspicion by his new neighbors-and with amusement by the beautiful Puerto Rican laundress across the street. Amongst the colorful misfits of his past and present he's hoping to heal old wounds, forge new bonds, and figure out what exactly brought him back here . . . and how, at last, to move on.
Praise for Charlie Carillo and Shepherd Avenue
An American Library Association Notable Book of the Year
"An excellent writer and a marvelous storyteller. . . . He creates a special world on Shepherd Avenue that I loved to enter and hated to leave." -Ferrol Sams
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.58(d)|
Read an Excerpt
Return to Shepherd Avenue
By CHARLIE CARILLO
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Charles Carillo
All rights reserved.
The elevated train ride into Brooklyn was as rickety as hell, and I hadn't been this way for nearly half a century.
But my instincts told me I was on the right path, like an old dog returning to dig up a bone he'd buried when he was a puppy.
I was the only white person getting off by the time it reached the Cleveland Street station in East New York, walking down those worn steel steps into a much different world than the one I'd known in 1961.
The Italian grocery stores were long gone. The shops in the shadow of the elevated train tracks now had gaudy signs in Spanish. Latin music and rap boomed from the windows of passing cars. I made my way on timid feet, feeling suspicious eyes from all around.
Who was I, this sixty-year-old guy with gray hair and a thick middle? A welfare inspector? An undercover cop? What business did someone like me have on these streets?
I walked fast, lest anyone stop me to ask questions, making the turn down Shepherd Avenue like a man on a mission. Which is exactly what I was.
My heart raced and my legs trembled. This was the street that haunted my dreams, a street I thought I'd never see again, even though it was just a forty-minute subway ride from my home in Manhattan.
Once upon a time, I knew the people who lived in these houses. They were all gone. It was as if God had shaken an invisible blanket on the street and sent everybody flying — to Long Island, to New Jersey, to the cemetery.
The houses looked smaller, and seemed to be hunching with the strain of the years. Metal bars covered the windows, and some of the porches were enclosed in protective cages. People had become their own jailers, and as I reached 207 Shepherd I stopped for a long look at the red brick house I'd once called home.
"Still standing," I said out loud. Not that this surprised me. My grandfather had built it, and he knew what he was doing. The only changes were protective ones. A locked metal gate sealed the once wide-open driveway, and there were bars over the windows.
I climbed the three steps to the front door, and here was another change — the dark wooden door I remembered had been replaced by a white metal door without a window on it. There was no knocker, either — the doorbell to the left of the door was another new addition.
I pushed the bell and was jolted by the sound it made, a jangly noise you'd expect to hear during a prison break. I wanted to run, but it was too late. The lock snapped — two or three of them, actually — then the door opened halfway and I was looking into the face of a Puerto Rican man about my age, standing there in jeans and a sleeveless undershirt.
"What," he said flatly, clearly expecting bad news.
I couldn't speak for a few moments. I stared into his inky eyes, wondering how he was going to react to what I was about to say.
"Is this your house?" I began.
He actually chuckled, revealing a smoker's teeth beneath a fierce black moustache. "If it ain't, I'm in big trouble."
"So you do own this house."
His smile morphed into a scowl. "Hey. Buddy. What the hell do you want?"
"Well, I used to live here, a long time ago. May I show you something?"
He was still scowling but he was also intrigued. I took a small black-and-white photograph from my shirt pocket and handed it to him. He cupped it in his hand, holding it gingerly around the edges.
"The fuck am I lookin' at, here?"
"That's me and my grandfather in front of your house."
My grandfather looked like an aging leopard, lean and graying but still vital, braced to spring at the photographer if necessary. His menacing looks were deceiving. He was the kindest, fairest man I ever knew. I stood beside him in baggy short pants and a T-shirt, skinny and knobby-kneed as a newborn calf.
Who the hell had taken the picture? Who even had a camera, back then? I couldn't remember. But somehow this image I'd treasured for so long had been captured in front of the house, the two of us looking at the camera as if someone had just stolen our lunch.
The Puerto Rican said, "This kid is you?" "Yup."
"They shoulda fed you more."
"I had plenty to eat. Burned it off fast back then."
"Man, I ain't callin' you a liar or nothin', but this don't look like my house."
"There were no bars on the windows back then. And the door was different. But look, you can see the two-oh-seven on the door."
He squinted at the picture before handing it back to me. "Yeah, okay, maybe that's my house. Maybe it ain't. So what's the big deal?"
"I want to buy it."
His brow loosened and his eyes widened. Clearly, I was a lunatic. He tightened his grip on the doorknob and pulled the door close to his hip, as if to prevent an attack dog within from getting to me.
"Are you nuts, man?"
"I hope not."
"Like I said, I used to live here when I was a kid. I want to come back."
A sad look washed over his face as he let it sink in. He rubbed his eyes, as if maybe I was a mirage that would be gone when he dropped his hands.
But I was still there, staring at him, trying to look as sincere as I could.
"Lemme see the picture again."
He examined it as if seeking clues that would explain my wild offer. Finding none, he gave it back to me, then made rubbing motions in midair with his hands, as if to erase a blackboard.
"So, lemme get this straight. You come here and ring my bell and say you wanna buy my house, just like that?"
"Just like that."
He sighed, shook his head. "This ain't the neighborhood you knew, buddy."
"I know that."
"No offense, man, but you don't look too tough."
"This is a tough neighborhood."
"I'm sure it is. It was pretty tough when I lived here."
He waved my words away. "Ain't nothing, compared to now."
"Are you interested in selling me your house?"
He hesitated, relaxed his grip on the doorknob. "You a crazy man, or what?"
"Probably. But I have money, which makes me a little less crazy."
"You on drugs?"
"Huh. Maybe you should be."
"Does my offer interest you in any way?"
"You ain't made no offer, man."
"Show me the house, and we'll talk."
He nodded at me, then rolled his head from side to side, ticktock, thinking it over. What did he have to lose?
The door swung open, and I was inside.
* * *
At first it was like a dream, like being under water, and then I realized it felt like that for a good reason: I wasn't breathing. I wasn't breathing because the experience seemed as delicate as a soap bubble, and I feared it would burst if I allowed myself to breathe.
But it was no dream. These were the walls, floors and ceilings of a very special summer from my childhood. I started breathing again as I followed the man down the narrow hallway to the kitchen where my grandmother had prepared innumerable meals and endless pots of coffee.
Could it be the same stove? I could have sworn I recognized the white porcelain knobs, veined with tiny cracks.
I swallowed. "Was this stove here when you moved in?"
"Oh my God. This must have been my grandmother's!"
"It's at least fifty years old!"
"Well, it still works good."
Down the hall we went to the bedrooms, three in all, including the one I'd shared with my Uncle Victor. They were all painted in flashy shades of orange, yellow, and blue, colors my grandmother would have dismissed as "real Puerto Rican."
I lingered in my old bedroom. It used to look out on a small dirt yard where my grandfather and I raised chickens. Now that yard had been paved over and painted green, as if to fool people into thinking it was a lawn.
I pointed at the green cement. "That used to be our chicken yard."
"No shit? It's illegal to have chickens now."
"It was illegal then. Why'd you pave the yard?"
"Nothin' grows out there, man. Too much shade. It was just dirt. Cement's cleaner."
"We grew tomatoes out there."
"Well, good for you. I don't like tomatoes."
I turned to him. "By the way, I'm Joe Ambrosio."
"Rico Valdez." We shook hands. "You still wanna buy this house?"
"May I see the basement?"
He led the way down the echoey wooden steps to the basement, the only part of the house that retained an odor from my childhood, a burny, bread-like smell like no other I'd ever known.
I didn't like it and I didn't hate it. I just recognized it, with a sensation so powerful that I literally went weak at the knees.
Rico was suddenly worried about this crazy stranger he'd let into his home.
"Hey, man, you okay? Not gonna puke, are you?"
I was leaning over, my hands on my knees. I needed to catch my breath. I lifted my head as I scanned the basement, once the heart and hub of the Ambrosio family.
Now it was the starkest, saddest room I'd ever seen. The walls hadn't tasted paint in decades, and the sink and stove were gone. Bits of pipe jutting from the wall and floor looked twisted, as if those appliances had been ripped away by an angry giant. A rusty bicycle with two flat tires was leaning against one wall, surrounded by cardboard cartons stuffed with junk. The built-in wooden table and benches my grandfather had made to accommodate whoever might show up were gone, and the shadows on the floor from the two windows facing the driveway were striped, thanks to the bars over the windows.
It was like an underground prison cell. Rico could sense my sorrow.
"I was plannin' to fix it up down here, but my wife got sick. Hadda drop everything, and then she died ..." He hesitated and sighed, annoyed at me for raking up his sorrows with this impromptu real-estate showing.
"I'm sorry for your loss, Rico."
"Yeah, well, shit happens ... still wanna buy my house?"
"You got coffee?"
"Make me a cup, and let's talk."
* * *
We sat at the kitchen table, sipping black coffee. Once I had him relaxed, Rico was a talker. I learned that he'd recently retired after a career with the Department of Motor Vehicles, lost his wife the year before after a long illness, and that his two grown children lived in California.
"All of a sudden, I'm by myself," he said, as if the thought were just occurring to him as he spoke it. "Ain't like I planned it this way."
I shrugged. "Nobody really plans their life. It all just kind of happens to us, don't you think?"
He stared at me, a funny smile on his face. "What are you, a fuckin' philosopher?"
"No. I write children's books."
"No shit? You can make a livin', doin' that?"
"I get by."
"You know, man, you look familiar."
"Yeah, I get that a lot. Don't know why."
He rubbed his face, pulled on his moustache and suddenly slapped the table, making the coffee cups jump.
"Whoa, whoa, what's wrong with me?" He pointed to the ceiling. "You ain't even seen the upstairs! You want to see the upstairs?"
"I don't have to see it. My grandfather built it, I'm sure it's holding up." Truth is, the roof could have been missing and I still would have wanted the house.
But Rico couldn't stop selling. "It's a moneymaker, man! Two-bedroom apartment, rent it out, you get fifteen, sixteen hundred a month!"
"Is somebody living there now?"
"Couple just moved out. I was gonna look for a new tenant."
"Don't. I want the whole house for myself. Let's talk price."
He sank down in his chair, staring at me in wonder. "Are you for real?"
"That's a lotta rooms for one person."
"I like space."
He took a deep breath and held it with pursed lips, thinking things over. If I didn't plan to take on a tenant, it meant I had money. If I had money, he could gouge me on the price.
"Half a million!" he suddenly blurted.
I couldn't help laughing. At most, the house was worth something in the mid-threes, maybe four hundred thousand, tops. But not half a mill.
"Come on, Rico. My grandfather built this house for six thousand!"
"Yeah, and he had a pet dinosaur, didn't he?"
"Four hundred and fifty."
His eyes widened at my offer but he held strong.
"Half a million, buddy." He clearly enjoyed rolling that massive figure off his tongue, a rare experience for a retired civil servant. "That's my price, and I'm sittin' on it."
"Yeah, and then I gotta wait for you to get a mortgage, and by then it's summertime, and who the fuck wants to move into East New York when it's ninety-eight degrees out? Maybe you ain't so nostalgic when the street tar is melting. Maybe you wanna cool off in the Hamptons, think it over until September."
"I don't have a house in the Hamptons. Four seventy-five, and remember, this is just you and me, so you won't be losing six percent to an agent."
"Goddam bloodsuckers! And I still want half a million."
"Four-eighty, and you won't be waiting for my mortgage. I'm paying cash, Rico."
He forced a chuckle. He was trying to be cool about it, but he was impressed — I could tell by the flash in his eyes. "You sayin' you got four-hundred-and-eighty grand in the bank, ready to go?"
"The check won't bounce."
He smiled, oh-so slyly. "If you say you got four-eighty, then I know you got half a million. Which is still my price."
He held up a hand to silence me. "You say four-eighty one more time, my price goes to five-fifty. Think hard, my man, if those coupla words comin' outta your mouth are worth an extra fifty G's to you."
We stared at each other, not blinking, for a full minute or so. This wild scheme I'd cooked up when I boarded the train in Manhattan an hour earlier was actually coming together, unless I blew it now.
"We got a deal, Joe?" Rico calmly asked.
"Look, I —"
"All I wanna hear from you now is 'yes' or 'no' for half a million."
I sighed, shrugged. He had me, and he knew it.
Rico smiled like a poker player whose bluff has paid off. We shook hands, long and hard.
"Congratulations, bro. You got yourself a house!" We arranged to get together for the paperwork, figure out my move-in date. It was more real to me than it was to Rico, who sat there like a stunned boxer.
It was just now hitting him: He was selling his house! He started talking about moving to California to be near his children. Suddenly he was crying, and doing nothing to try and hide it.
"You okay, Rico?"
He nodded, wiped his eyes. "My poor wife always wanted to see California. She ran outta time."
"I'm sorry, man."
"You got a wife?"
"No. Just unlucky."
He walked me to the door, assuring me that the roof was sound, the boiler powerful, the walls solid, the plumbing first-rate.
"I know all that," I assured him. "My grandfather knew what he was doing."
It was beginning to dawn on me — 207 Shepherd Avenue was all mine! Unless this was all a dream, or maybe Rico didn't actually own the house ... could that be? He'd answered the door, but had he shown me the deed?
"You okay there, Joe?"
"Yeah ... we just made a deal here, didn't we? I mean, we have to draw up the papers and all that, but you did just sell me your house, right?" "Hey, man, if you got half-a-million bucks, you got a house." He crossed his heart, then held up a hand. "Scout's honor ... listen, you want a little free advice?"
Rico looked left and right before speaking, even though we were the only ones there. "Never tell a Puerto Rican how much cash you got, 'cause he's gonna know you got a little more." A sly wink sealed this proclamation, which would have done me some real good about ten minutes earlier.
"I'll remember that, Rico."
I went out the front door and down the brick steps. Rico watched me go, then called for me to come back.
Jesus, had he changed his mind about the house already? Was this slam-bam deal we'd made in less than an hour too good to be true? Reluctantly, I returned to the front door, where Rico stood jabbing his finger toward my face.
"I know you, man," he said. "Don't I know you? Why the fuck do I know you?"
"I don't know."
Suddenly it came to him, his eyes widening as he shook his finger at my face.
"Holy shit, I got it!" he cried. "You're the crazy guy on the bridge, right?"
My stupid smile told him he was right.
Yeah, that was me. The crazy guy on the bridge.CHAPTER 2
It was too easy, and that's pretty amazing, considering how little planning went into my admittedly crazy mission.
It was a beautiful spring day, perfect for a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, something I'd done a dozen times before. I was wearing shorts, a black T-shirt and green Keds sneakers. The small backpack I shouldered had the silver canister in it, and nothing else.
Nothing especially odd about a just-turned-sixty-year-old man crossing the bridge that way. I was dressed a little young for my years, maybe, but the city is full of characters, and I looked like just one more, walking from Manhattan to Brooklyn across that glorious span.
Excerpted from Return to Shepherd Avenue by CHARLIE CARILLO. Copyright © 2017 Charles Carillo. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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