Louis Cortese and Tina Somers meet as children and are united in friendship by a drunken – if well meaning – pronouncement by Lou’s father, someone who would become their only adult friend, if only for a short time. They are united by something more serious – the abuse Tina suffers at the hands of her adoptive mother, the possessive attentions of her adoptive brother, and her genius for mathematics that only her adoptive father recognizes before he succumbs to polio and makes Louis promise to help foster. For Louis, Tina is a tower of strength when he loses his own father under mysterious circumstances, for how can he feel sorry for himself for losing one parent, when she has lost three? His uncle and mother are trying to bully him into the family business (and possible criminal activities) when all he wants to be is a teacher. They want him to marry into the right family when all he wants is Tina.
It is the early sixties, and there is nowhere for Tina to go to for help. Whenever she tells someone what is happening, whether it is a teacher, doctor, or adoption official, the story gets back to her mother, and the punishments are even more severe. She has only the friendship of Louis to give her comfort and hope. While the prejudices and bigotry of their respective families threaten to keep them apart, as they grow older and closer, they have to hide their true feelings for each other.
For eight years, these two manage to hide the truth from their families, but it all falls apart. Was Louis’s hatred of the woman who had mistreated his love for years finally boiling over? Or was it the way Tina’s prosecutor painted it in 1969 – a gullible young boy used by a dissatisfied adoptee jealous enough of someone else’s family security, and weary enough of abuse to plan and plot a heinous crime over the course of several years?
Talking to Crayfish is complete and soon will be available as an E-book, download, or trade-sized paperback book. Hardbound editions are not planned to be available to the public, but if one is desired, let me know and I can arrange it.
Copyright © 2010 by Ronald De Torre
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without the written permission of the publisher except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages.
(Please forgive the formatting – some gets lost between the publishable copy and here.)
The reporter already knew the teacher was in his fifties, a refugee from the Vietnam era – maybe even a walking, talking sixties cliché, constantly seeking a windmill at which to tilt. That’s what had brought him there – such a large and powerful windmill to challenge… Well, that was news, wasn’t it?
Norbert waited in the hallway. After the rush of college students filing out of the classroom passed him, he stepped through the door and leaned back quietly against the wall. The teacher had his back to him, erasing some kind of diagram from the blackboard – triangles and arcs and such. There was nothing special about the look of him – wearing a corduroy sport jacket over a collarless shirt and jeans. He was average height, broad in the shoulders, with salt-and-pepper brown hair hanging to his shoulders and a short gray beard decorating his face.
Clearing his throat, the reporter said, “Sir?”
The teacher turned and appraised him in turn, “Ashley Norbert I assume? The political columnist?” His smile was warm, yet a bit regretful and resigned, the reporter thought.
“The very same,” the reporter admitted, and showed him his picture ID.
The teacher studied it, then the reporter’s face. “It’s starting again now, isn’t?” he asked as he crossed his arms across his chest and sat on the corner of his desk, “Someone always keeps picking at it – won’t let it rest. The life of two kids a long time ago has no bearing on what is happening now.”
“Many people disagree, and I hope you’re not surprised. What you’re getting into is unprecedented, to say the least.”
The teacher shook his head sadly, surrendering to the inevitability of what was coming.
“But tell me, how do you like teaching at a small university like this one? Wouldn’t a more prestigious position give you more…leverage? You’ve declined some fairly impressive offers from much bigger institutions,” Norbert asked, hoping to take a roundabout course into the meat of the issue.
The teacher looked up at the ceiling for a moment and bit his lower lip before answering, “I’m just a man who likes to talk about the things that interest him. I’ve always been like that, I suppose. Those students you just saw leaving – they were liberal arts kids. This is a required class for them. Basically, this class is general science for poets and actors. I try not to bore them too much.”
The reporter had to smile, “I’m a bit of a poet myself. I remember these classes.”
“I also teach Geology, Meteorology, and Astronomy,” the teacher went on, “But the students in those classes sometimes are almost as hard to reach. They view it as a means to an end. They take what I give them – squirrel it away in a sense – for what they feel is a higher purpose. After they leave here, they plan to make lots of money with it. If knowledge is power, all I can do is hope they don’t hurt anyone with it.” He chuckled at his own joke. “I have taught high school and junior high students, and if you can get an elective class, sometimes it’s much more rewarding.”
“I would think it doesn’t pay as well, so I’m sure you’re not talking about money.”
“In my position, given my…interests…sometimes I have to take what I can get. But what you say is all too true,” the teacher admitted, “But sometimes money isn’t everything. I trust the wisdom of children, Mr. Norbert. I’ve had a lot of experience with the wisdom of children. Do you have any?”
“Children or wisdom?”
The teacher’s easy laughter echoed in the room, “Children.”
“I hope to soon,” the reporter admitted. He knew the teacher did not, so he did not ask. As to the question of why he did not, that could wait until later. Whatever wisdom of children he had would have come from first-hand experience as well as his many years of teaching. Those experiences were at the crux of the reporter’s investigation.
“Then watch their eyes when they discover something new. Ask them what they think of things, and then remember their point of view, and value it. Teaching those junior high kids in an elective class is great because – at least those who aren’t attending because their parents insisted – they are there because they’re curious. They really do want to know things. And the light in their eyes when you can show them something new – something that opens up a whole new world of possibilities…” his voice trailed off and his gaze went to the floor, seemingly examining his shoe. The reporter noted they were hiking shoes…and had seen a good deal of use…
“Sir?” the reporter prompted when the teacher continued his silent woolgathering, “Why don’t you tell me about that night?”
“Ah, yes,” the teacher looked up and nodded, “That night. Everybody wants to know about that night, but that’s only the beginning of the end, you know. It’s never what anyone expects.”
“‘Cinderella Complex’ I recall from the court records – and Adopted Child Syndrome. She was even a step-child of a sort?”
The teacher sighed, shaking his head. “A step-child only in the sense that she was not the ‘chosen one.’ The Cinderella Complex? No. That’s usually associated with women with low self-esteem – women who are waiting for their Prince Charming to rescue them. That is one thing she was not guilty of having. All of the Somers children were orphaned and adopted. Her older brother was the chosen one, then her younger sister the back up when it became…” His attention turned toward the ceiling for a moment, and then returned to the reporter. “Adopted Child Syndrome I would agree with partly.”
The reporter began ticking them off on his fingers: “Conflict with authority.”
“Her mother’s, certainly,” the teacher nodded, “But, she was never truant.”
“Preoccupation with excessive fantasy?” was the reporter’s second finger.
The teacher impatiently looked toward the ceiling, “A fantasy that I shared – a fantasy that most of us share.”
The third finger: “Pathological lying?”
The teacher contemplated that for a moment. “Perhaps – if you consider the necessity of living a lie pathological. She showed symptoms of several of the indicators certainly. But, many non-adoptees do, too – something the prosecution took great pains to fail to point out. The trial took place in the late sixties while the first serious research into the syndrome began in the mid-fifties. There wasn’t much consensus on the subject, and little enough verifiable research. The only things I can tell you about are the things I saw, heard, and experienced. And, I can tell you how I felt about them. She never stole anything, never set any fires had no learning difficulties – quite the opposite, as a matter of fact – and her impulse control had to be impeccable or else she never would have survived.”
“Promiscuity could be considered lack of impulse control,” the reported noted.
“If you want to call that promiscuity, then…” the teacher shook his head and shrugged, “Well, then, you are a card-carrying, reactionary, right-wing Puritan quite out of step with your own generation. No, you have to turn it around. Put yourself back in the proper time and the proper situation – her adoptive parent’s situation. Think of it this way: what if you lived with a precocious child who always seemed to be two steps ahead of you – almost as if they were reading your mind. And, what if your paranoia told you they were judging you somehow? What if people had let it be known that she’d been accused of manipulating adults. And, what if that person was a child with a striking physical presence you never had and could never match? Not only that, what if the one thing you did well, she did better?”
The reporter chuckled, “Something like living in a cross between two movies: ‘The Bad Seed,’ and, ‘Village of the Damned?’”
“Ah,” the teacher smiled, “You might have it. Would you mind if I used that myself? You’re a movie buff are you?”
“Yes, and you may use it, but what about the newspaper headlines? ‘Lakeside Lolita or Limnological Lothario?’”
The teacher’s smile was a sad one. “I particularly liked the latter, though I suspect only I, the writer, and the editor who allowed it, knew what it meant. I thought, ‘Teenage Svengali,’ was pretty lame.”
“Somebody remembered their General Science for Poets 101, apparently. But, back to your story – maybe you can start on the night of the incident.”
“Yes, I can start there, but in order to get to the penthouse we’re going to have to climb some stairs. Perhaps we should go to my office where we will be more comfortable.”
The office was a cramped but very neat little room that contained his desk, bookshelves, surprisingly few books, a small office chair behind the desk and one in front. A short sofa – more the size of a love seat – sat along one wall next to the door. To the reporter’s surprise, the teacher appropriated the sofa, stretching out on it, resting his head on one bolster and his ankles on the other – almost as if the reporter was a psychiatrist and he the patient. Later, the reporter would reflect that perhaps that was appropriate…
When I heard the rumble of that big V8 and saw the headlights wash over us, the first thing I thought about was Tina’s brother and that Pontiac GTO he’d been driving. God knows where he got it – I never believed he could afford to buy it. Perhaps he’d borrowed it, but who would have lent it to him was a mystery. If he had pilfered it, he was never caught nor punished for the crime.
“Oh, God! It’s your brother, Tina!” In a flash, we both had our hands out of the other’s underpants, me clumsy enough to pop the button on her skirt. But by the time we were sitting up on the opposite ends of the front seat in my mom’s Malibu, I realized the truth was even worse. It was a police cruiser, and my first thought was that Mom had reported the car stolen – that wouldn’t have surprised me in spite of her lack of interest in owning it. She would have done it if Uncle Bruno told her to – but it turned out to be not the case. Bruno had something else up his sleeve. He was waiting for something, and he would get it soon.
The good news was it was a Seneca County cruiser.
The bad news was it was a Seneca County cruiser.
The beam of the flashlight stabbed into our eyes after the cop used the butt end of it to pound on the roof. “This is a private road! Wind down the window and let me see your license!” By then, Tina had her face in her hands, her long blonde hair hanging down, and appeared to be sobbing quietly from shock and surprise. It was a sound my conscience did not want to hear – it was a sound I had sworn I would never be responsible for causing. Barking my knuckles on the armrest, I cranked the window down furiously and handed my driver’s license out. The cop took it, but instead of studying it, his flashlight beam zeroed in on Tina.
“Out of the car, boy!” When I turned the latch, the door handle exploded out of my hand, and I was grabbed by the arm, dragged out and thrown against the side of the car. “Hands on the roof! Spread your legs.” He kicked my feet backward so my weight was on my hands and arms. “Don’t you move, boy!”
Then the hulking figure leaned down and spoke gently to Tina. “You okay, sweetie?”
“Yes, sir,” Tina sniffed, her voice recovering to a thin waver. “I’m fine.”
“He do that to you?”
“No, sir…” another sniff, “I was surprised when you pulled up. I did it myself.”
“What’s your name?”
“Angie. Angelina Somers.”
“Where do you live, Angie?”
“Frontage Road. Sir – we weren’t doing anything. Louis was just driving me home. We had Thanksgiving dinner at his uncle’s and I asked him if we could stop for a minute… This was all my idea.” I never loved her more than that moment – her house was a fifteen-minute walk from Uncle Gianni’s, and we were miles in the opposite direction.
“How old are you, Angie?”
“Seventeen.” She just had a couple months to go yet.
“Slide out this side.” The cop held his hand out. Tina reached with one hand and let him help her, while her other hand clenched her skirt together. She stood in the beam of his flashlight and the wash of the cruiser’s headlights with her head down, the blonde hair that hid her shame nearly white in the harsh glare. “Wait here.” I heard his door open, then close. “Take this. It’s a safety pin.”
“Get back in the car.” I felt Tina’s hand touch me gently on the back, reassuring me as she passed by. “Now, let’s see who you are…” by the angle of his flashlight, I could tell the cop was looking over my license. “You Louis Cortese?” He knew the name, pronouncing it correctly – Cor-tay-say. Most people assumed either it was Spanish and said, Cor-tez, or if they thought it derived from some other nationality, pronounced it, Cor-tee-zee.
“Any relation to Bruno Cortese?”
“He’s my uncle.”
A long pause followed. He lowered the flashlight. “You one of Luigi Cortese’s boys?”
Another long pause followed. “We all respected your old man. I knew him. He was always true to his word, and that’s not something I can say for everybody on my side of the line. Whatever happened to him, we didn’t do it. Stand up. Turn around.” I pulled myself off the car and faced him. “You tell your uncle, that Officer Ben Jones…” He paused, thinking something over. “Hell, you’re not going to tell anyone what happened here are you?” He didn’t seem to expect an answer. As he handed my license back to me he asked, “You eighteen?”
“Got a job?”
“Yes, part time.”
“Go to school?”
“You there to dodge the draft?” It was 1970, and the Vietnam War was still in full swing. In May, the Ohio National Guard would shoot down four Kent State University students during a demonstration protesting a step-up in the bombing of Laos and Cambodia.
“No, sir. Studying Geology. I have a student deferment, but, if I’m drafted when I get out, I’ll go.” I knew this wasn’t a lie – in my case, it would take more courage to run than go and fight. All my friends hoped the war would end soon, yet it had been dragging on far too long. I wouldn’t have to worry, though – when they changed the draft to a lottery, I’d get a number in the high two hundreds.
“You just remember I let you go tonight, because I know damn well she ain’t seventeen, and if I went by the letter of the law you’d be in big trouble. You should know better. You take that little girl home, you kiss her goodnight, and you learn how to take care of her better, you hear?”
“Yes, sir,” I nodded into the darkness.
Not needing any more motivation, I slid behind the wheel, fumbled with my seatbelt, ground the starter motor in my haste, backed out onto Jones Mine Road, and went as fast as I thought prudent down to the state highway. Tina had belted herself into the passenger side instead of her accustomed middle spot on the bench seat. I sensed her hand reaching out, and I reached back. She squeezed me tightly.
“I’m sorry, Tina…”
“No need, Boo… Oh, your hand is bleeding.” I leaned toward the steering wheel and sucked the blood from my knuckle without letting go of Tina with the other. Boo was her pet name for me. She was Angie to everyone but me. Tina was short for Augustina, the name her mother had given her. That was her real mother – her dead mother. “Stopping was my suggestion, wasn’t it?”
“I know we’re close, but we shouldn’t let down our guard yet. I should have been stronger,” I answered, not wanting her to accept the blame, “And you seemed to be ashamed…”
She snorted, “Don’t you dare try to take responsibility for me. Don’t you know by now I would never be ashamed of anything I do with you? I need to stop someplace before I get home, though.”
Before we reached the town of Seneca Lake, I pulled off at a gas station I knew had decent bathrooms. When Tina got out, I told the attendant, a kid I knew from high school, to give me five dollars worth. The fueling was finished before Tina returned, so I pulled the car away from the pumps and off to the side of the parking lot. Getting out of the car, I moved to the front and leaned back against the grill and hood, letting the warmth of the engine relax the tenseness in my spine. My heart had stopped pounding, but I hadn’t fully recovered yet. I watched as Tina came out of the Ladies’ room, returned the key to the office, and crossed the pavement, past the gas pumps and under the waving triangular plastic flags that cheerfully beckoned to passing motorists to come in and fill up.
The attendant and the guy behind the cash register watched her, too – they couldn’t take her eyes off her. I couldn’t blame them – she was beautiful. Not in the Marilyn Monroe voluptuous kind of way, but she had a regal, tall and willowy, Audrey Hepburn kind of beauty. She was slim, but I knew she was strong. She could have been a good athlete if her mother had allowed her to compete. We bicycled, walked, and swam together, so I knew she could keep up with me, and I knew her strength and firmness from holding her close so often. She could dribble a basketball like a champion, and I couldn’t touch her at miniature golf or billiards.
She walked with her head held high – defiant and almost arrogant – but that was only when she was away from Mother Somers. At home, she was careful to keep her head down and her gaze respectful at all times, lest her “rebelliousness” bring a beating.
However, it was neither her beauty, nor her athleticism that was so amazing – it was her genius at math and physics that her mother refused to recognize or acknowledge. From the time we’d met she’d astonished me. At first, in her own way, she explained ballistics to me and helped me to throw a stone farther than the one my cousin Nicky had tossed. Then, it was conservation of momentum so I could be a better bocce ball player. Later, as we studied together, superficially, I was helping her, but she was the one explaining math to me – and she’d been in grade school while I’d been in junior high.
She stepped up to me and hugged me tightly, the top of her head fitting under my nose if I lifted my face a tad. I could smell her hair, the herbal perfume of her shampoo, and I kissed the top of her head. If those newspaper reporters who referred to her later as, “Lakeside Lolita,” and me as the, “Teenage Svengali,” and my favorite, “The Limnological Lothario,” had seen us at that moment… Would it have made any difference? What was going to happen to us in the next few months would be bizarre at the very least. Who can blame the press for thinking the worst? But, of course, they didn’t know Tina as I did – no one knew her as I did.
“I love you, Boo,” she said into my shoulder.
“I love you, too Tina, and I’m really sorry. Off the side of the road? In a car? And I’d never be ashamed of anything I did with you either…” After what we’d already done, a little heavy petting hadn’t seemed so dangerous, but we shouldn’t have let our guard down. I should have kept a better watch.
Chuckling, she looked up at me and grinned. If it had been daylight, I would have been looking into her ice-blue eyes. “It did kind of spice up the evening, didn’t it, though? I’ll forgive you this time, but only if you promise me you won’t do what you told the policeman. Promise me you’ll never go to war.”
I sighed. “I can’t promise you that. If I have to go, I have to go.”
“Your brother went to Canada.”
“His whole band went to Canada. Besides…” I paused as my eyes searched the night sky, my mind reaching for the right words, “Mick is…different,” was the best I could do, “But, maybe I won’t have to. My student deferment is good as long as I’m in school. Maybe by the time I graduate the war will be over.”
“You wouldn’t make a good soldier anyway. I can’t imagine you hurting anybody.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that. I’m a manly kind of guy.” I smiled. Nobody knew me better than Tina did.
“I can’t imagine a nicer man than you, but you’re different than anybody I know. You don’t even go fishing anymore because you can’t stick a hook in a worm or a crayfish.” She was right, but not strictly because of me. From the first time I saw her, I knew she disapproved of hurting anything or anybody, and it hadn’t taken long for her outlook to take root deep inside of me. In my soul, if you will. However, within the hour I was going to hurt somebody – hurt someone very badly and it would be because of my love for her.
If we would have known what was going to happen to us, would Tina have let me throw everything away – college, my share of the family business, her genius, all our plans, all our hiding, scheming, and lying so we could stay together – and allow me to risk getting arrested for theft and kidnapping and drive us both to Canada to look for my brother and his friends so we could join them, even if all I could do was be a roadie for the band?
“Still,” I had to say, “If I run, who knows when I’ll be able to come back to you?”
It was her turn to sigh, and she laid the side of her face against my chest. “I suppose I’ll have to be satisfied for now, but I don’t want you shot at. I won’t allow it.” There was a tone of finality in that – as if a decision had been made, from which she would never turn away. But, that was Tina – when she turned her mind to something, it took an act of God to turn her away from it. Rotating her face back up to smile at me, she said, “Now better get me home before my brother comes after me for sure.” Letting go of me, she reached up and made a “V” from her index and second finger. I countered by putting the same fingers together and sliding them inside hers. With practiced precision that required a quick scissoring motion with the fingers and subtle wrist movements, we switched positions, alternating closed, open, inside, and outside. The repetition made us both smile. I can’t explain why we did it – we started it when we were just kids as it grew out of Tina’s claim to be able to talk to crayfish. It was something we did because we were Boo and Tina.
“Did you look at the list of dates I gave you?” as I walked her around to her side of the car.
“Yes. Are the college boards hard?”
“Not for you. You’ll see. But we’ll have to be just as careful as when we – we…”
“We fool around?”
“Yes, when we fool around,” I agreed as I opened the door for her. We never called it sex or fucking. It was always just, “fooling around.” Was that caution or embarrassment?
“Except – I can’t get pregnant from taking a test. Or can I?” She slid into the seat and looked back at me with a sarcastic cocked eyebrow.
“Depends on what kind of test it is,” I retorted dryly, “You just pick a date, and I’ll get you there. I’ll take care of the application and the testing fee – the money your dad gave me before he…died, earned enough interest that you could take the boards any number of times plus. Your good scores, and the letter your father was able to write before he…”
“Father Somers,” she said quietly, making the distinction between him and her natural father as she looked down at her hands. “But it still might not be enough,” she said and looked up at me quickly, the distress on her face plain to see, “Not enough for her to let me go.”
“We’ll just have to deal with it. She won’t be able to ignore your test scores. You’re sure to get scholarship offers – you’re already a straight A student. She’ll have to admit you can be more than just somebody’s wife and housekeeper. And once you turn eighteen, she has to let you go, anyway – we’re just paving the way.”
Sighing, Tina shook her head, “Mother Somers never has to do anything. And what about Lisa? She hasn’t laid a hand on her yet –” No, she just abused Tina. “What if I’m not there? Even when I’m eighteen, will Mother Myrt expect me to stay around and take care of Lisa until she gets married? Then take care of her in her old age? If she has her way, I won’t have any education to speak of, and no money. Everything I’ve earned has gone into her bank account, and probably spent…”
“Lisa’s a big girl – she’ll understand,” I pointed out, “We’ve got to do the best we can for you first. Once you’re on your way, then, if Lisa needs help…” I had no real answers – I could never explain why some people went to all the trouble to adopt children, and then were hell-bent to break down their self-respect and hide their talents. I hoped that there was only one, and Tina had the bad luck to get her. All I could do was what I’d promised her father Somers so many years ago – help her take the college boards, find scholarships, and get her accepted into school. I knelt down and kissed her forehead. She clasped my hands tightly.
And, I could love her the best way I knew how.
THE WATCHMAN BRIDGE
When I was twelve years old, my father disappeared. There was talk about another woman, but Mom dismissed that kind of idle chatter almost cheerfully. If he’d run off, he did it without his car – a 1957 Chevy Bel-Aire sport coupe in two-tone, white and turquoise paint. He left it in the parking lot of the Alpine Resort and Yacht Club. Uncle Bruno publicly blamed the Weissman family, the owners of the Alpine – but that brought him nothing but a lawsuit that was quickly settled out of court. The Seneca County Sheriff came up with nothing. The Pennsylvania State Police the same. It wasn’t until years later that we accidentally discovered the truth.
We did okay financially, because Uncle Bruno gave my mom a job at the Silver Palomino, a dinner- and night-club started by Granddad Cortese, and run by the three sons, Bruno, Luigi, and Gianni, when he retired, then died only months later. (I know, palominos aren’t silver, but Granddad didn’t seem to care, and Uncle Bruno, the oldest son and thus the next person in charge, ignored many truths, including that one.) With Dad’s disappearance, and Uncle Gianni’s apparent indifference, that left the place all to Uncle Bruno. One might think it strange that no one ever wondered if he’d had something to do with Dad’s disappearance, but to the best of my knowledge, no one even questioned him.
On the other hand, maybe they did wonder, and just decided not to press the matter…
Mom’s job paid well, but was easy. She was a hostess – she greeted people and showed them to their tables. Somebody else kept track of the tables and told her where to take them – all she had to do was smile, and treat the diners as if they were the most important people in the world. Uncle Bruno also would have given jobs to my brothers, but Dante (Danny) got work at the hated Alpine with the Weissmans before moving out and going to college, and Michael (Mick), worked in local folk and rock bands that Uncle Bruno would never have stooped to hire. The Palomino saw singing acts like Frankie Valle, Jerry Vale, Al Martino, Vic Damone, and comics like Jackie Leonard, Don Rickles, Totie Fields, and Phyllis Diller. Once, for New Years, they featured Frank Sinatra. Liberace was also a regular, and at those times, Uncle Gianni would spend much more time around the club than he normally would.
Some in the family thought Mom’s job should have gone to Uncle Bruno’s wife, Aunt Sophia, but my aunt seemed happier staying home and organizing garden parties and bridge clubs. Besides, Mom always said Aunt Sophia wasn’t wound very tight, or she, “Wasn’t quite right.”
The night in September when I turned thirteen, I was on my own, as usual. Mom went in to work at four, and left me some dinner to heat up. There was no birthday cake – Mom said we’d do something the next weekend, maybe. That was fine with me. Tina had already told me to come over to her house because she had a present for me, so I finished my leftovers and washed the dishes quickly. It wasn’t quite dark yet when I started the short walk to the Somers’ place.
I hadn’t even gotten to the first cross street when Uncle Bruno’s Cadillac eased up beside me and the back window hissed down.
“Evening, Louis. Where you off to?”
I stopped and faced his hawk-like face and intense stare. Mick said once that his eyes were so close together they were almost single-file. You didn’t walk away while Uncle Bruno was talking to you. You gave him your undivided attention, or suffered the consequences. Up until then it might have been my mother reading me the riot act for not respecting the head of our family. Later, it might be the dirtiest, smelly jobs at the club. “Over to the Somers place. They asked me to come over for my birthday.”
“Get in. I need to talk to you. We’ll drop you off in time.” I slid into the back seat with him and greeted my cousin Leo, the driver, as I felt myself sinking into the soft leather seat. The smell of leather, cigars, and cologne enfolded me, but there also was an undertone of perfume. It wasn’t Mom’s or Aunt Sophie’s, but something much sweeter – cloying, yet somehow tawdry and inviting. “You still have your little pooka girlfriend, huh?” I don’t know where that word came from – it wasn’t Italian as far as I knew. Uncle Bruno always had an unkind word for someone. When Grandma and Granddad Cortese came over to this country, they were determined to raise their children as Americans. That meant no Italian – they spoke only English. I had no idea what pooka meant, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t good. He said it the same way he would have said, kike, hebe, spic, micks, nigger, wop, hunky, or polack: with the connotation they were not as good as we were – not as good as he was.
He was staring out the window into the dark alongside the road. “She’d be a good one to have fun with,” he went on with that gravelly, croaking, base voice of his – he’d had his larynx crushed playing sandlot football when he was a kid. Dad said he could have died, but wouldn’t let anyone stop the game until time ran out. Dad couldn’t remember who won, but Uncle Bruno claimed his team had. Dad said his brother was trying to prove his toughness, but to me it just sounds stupid. “But you want to be careful not to knock her up,” he went on, “Those Fritz Jews aren’t the kind you want to get tied to, you know?” I didn’t know. Ralph Somers had been German, yes – Somerstein, before it was anglicized – but who knew what Tina was? She was an adoptee, as were her brother, Eldon, and her little sister, Lisa. If not for Tina, I don’t know how I would have gotten through the thing about my father. After all, she’d lost two fathers – her biological one in the train wreck with her mom, and her adopted father from a long battle with polio. She’d known what happened to them, but still, she’d lost three parents to my one, so how could I whine about it if she didn’t? Besides, Dad had been one of the few adults we could actually say was on our side, so she lost him, too. “You can bang her, but you want to keep a hat on your soldier, you know?” Bruno gripped my shoulder and squeezed, digging his bony fingers deep into my skin. It was one of his favorite tactics to get your undivided attention. You didn’t want to flinch. That would make you a pansy – a limp-wrist girly-boy.
I had no idea what he was talking about, but I soon would – Tina would be responsible for that – but for the moment, I could only nod in agreement. Up until that time what little I knew about sex had come from the magazines I’d found hidden around Mick’s bedroom. Mom would never have talked to me about those kinds of things, and Dad was gone. I had information, words, pictures, and lurid stories, but very little of it could I stick together to make sense.
“Now if you want to knock somebody up, that Gina Marie Giamarelli is the one you want. Her grandmother would probably give you a house for a wedding present.”
What did knocking on someone have to do with getting married? Suddenly, a couple of things came together in my head and I realized he was talking about making babies. I blinked. No way could I have sex with Tina. No way. She’d never let me do that to her anyway…would she?
But – I was thirteen that day, and things were stirring around in my body about which I had no clue. The idea stuck, no matter how much I tried to get rid of it.
Through these puzzling thoughts, I noticed we were driving out to Seneca Lake. Up ahead I could make out the recently finished Watchman Bridge. Uncle Bruno’s driver pulled off at the picnic area at the near end. The bridge had been completed only a few weeks before, and had been plagued for years with delays, lawsuits over illegal contracts, and political wrangling. It was built out of concrete, and it replaced the old, wooden, single-lane one that crossed the lake on the county route. It also happened to be the dividing line between the town of Seneca Lake and Seneca County. The new bridge had picnic areas on either end and walkways on either side of the roadway so tourists could stroll out and appreciate the beauty of Seneca Lake or the humped Allegheny Mountains that surrounded us.
Uncle Bruno opened his door and said, “Let’s take a walk, Louis.” After opening up the door on my side, I followed him, still wondering what hats on soldiers had to do with making babies. He was dressed in one of his double-breasted suits that he seemed to have one of every dark color. He was tall, a little stoop-shouldered, almost skeletal, but he was hard as an old oak. Those crisp suites and the fedora he usually wore gave him a sinister, gangster-like look that he prized.
“People respect you when you take pride in your appearance,” he was fond of saying. “A man’s choice of wardrobe says something about his character. I might see a man with a dirty shirt and trousers, but if his shoes are shined, I know he has pride and character.” I always wondered why, that if I had to choose between having clean clothes or shiny shoes, I wouldn’t rather have clean clothes so at least I wouldn’t smell bad. When I’d asked my father about that, he’d laughed and agreed with me.
“Now women are different,” Uncle Bruno was also fond of saying, “They dress to attract men. They don’t enjoy or appreciate sex as much as men do. All they care about is security and power. They’re all puttanas in that sense – all whores. They use what’s between their legs for power and security. Any woman will naturally try to attract the most powerful man they can. The weak, poor, handsome man has no chance against the rich, powerful, ugly man.
“Women are like flowers attracting bees. They dress up in colors and revealing dresses, splash themselves with smelly oils, and wear their sparkling jewelry to attract the most powerful men.”
Those bony fingers dug into my shoulder again as led me out along the sidewalk on the west side of the bridge. A sluggish breeze tugged at his slicked-back hair.
“You’re thirteen, now, Louis. You going to get a job this year?”
“Would you want to work at the Silver Palomino with the rest of the family?”
The rest of the family didn’t include my brothers, but working with my cousins had a certain appeal. “Sure,” I said, “That would be great.”
“We’ll start you off bussing tables and cleaning up. Does that sound acceptable?”
“Yes, sir. That would be fine.” Suddenly, something else clicked in my brain and I realized what the soldier was and what a hat might be. As I pondered that, we continued along the bridge. Dusk was moving into full night, and the red and green lights on the arch supports reflected off the water. The Watchman Bridge had four arches, putting three supports into the water, and two on each shoreline. The red and green lights showed the pilots of boats at night or in a fog on which side to pass. When finally we reached the center of the bridge, Uncle Bruno stopped. I was starting to get anxious about getting to Tina’s on time. He turned me so we were looking out over the lake. On the right, after a space of private cabins, was the dark shore of the state park, and on the left, probably about two miles away as the lake bordered the rocky shore along the highway, the gaily lit commercial section, boasting motels, bars, and restaurants. The Silver Palomino was between the lake and the town of Seneca Lake: not as tawdry, Uncle Bruno liked to say. In between, we could make out the red, green, and white running lights of boats as they and their occupants scurried from one party to another or from their cabins to dinner, or back.
“Of course, your mother will get all your pay – she’ll give you a proper allowance, I’m sure. She’ll be putting most of it away for your college fund. You trust your mother to do right by you, don’t you?”
“Your daddy was as good man,” Uncle Bruno whispered as best he could in that odd croaking voice of his, “But he was too blunt – too honest. He was never shy to share his opinions on what should, and ought not to be done, but his ideas were too liberal – too radical. He made too many enemies. He said one too many things that others didn’t like.”
I didn’t want to point out that he was talking like Daddy was dead, and he wasn’t officially legally dead yet, so I said nothing, waiting for my uncle to get to his point so I could go to Tina’s and get my birthday present. “That last day,” he went on, “Your daddy went to the Alpine to talk to the Weissmans. They’d accused us of stealing banquet business. That’s not something that’s illegal, but your daddy wanted to talk to them and explain what happened. He wanted to explain that it wasn’t our idea – those people came to us. They said your dad was drinking. They said whatever happened to him must have happened later, after he left the Alpine.
“You are a man today, Louis Cortese. You should know about your father.” He paused.
“Yes, sir?” I said, hoping to hurry him – I was anxious to see Tina.
“Your father is below you – buried in the concrete – about twenty feet down.”
∫ CHAPTER 2 ∫
It was 1961 when Tina first walked into my life – or “talked” herself into it. The world seemed both bigger and smaller then. Far away places seemed farther away because they took longer to reach, but everything you needed seemed right there close by when you needed it. Schools, the corner grocery store, and even the place you worked seemed to be within walking distance. Dad could have walked to the Palomino, except he worked at night, and sometimes had to run errands. Kids could walk to school and nobody worried about them being murdered, molested, or abused. That’s not to say things like that didn’t happen, but it seemed like we all watched out for each other better – we cared more about each other than minding our own business.
It was summer, still, so I was nine, just about to turn ten, and she was eight years old. The Palomino had a place near the State Park that special customers could rent, or headliners could rest in privacy. Dad liked to go there and fish. Naturally, he took me. My older brothers, Danny and Mick, had developed interests of their own, but I still liked to hang around with Dad. He told me, though, that if I wanted to fish, I needed to learn to clean my own catch, and get my own bait. Worms I could dig up, but it was more fun to catch the little crayfish that lived under rocks along the shoreline. They looked like miniature lobsters, and the fish, like humans, preferred the tails and avoided the claws. So, if you wanted to use them as bait, you were more successful if you hooked them through the tails and pulled off the pincers before offering them to the gods of the sport.
Catching them involved a bit of stealth, a quick hand, and an understanding that they preferred to escape going backwards because of their strong tails. It also came in handy to be able to guess what kind of rocks they liked to hide under. Once you located them in the water (they were usually anywhere from an inch to three inches long), you slowly waded up to them – any sudden movement and they’d flick that tail and be gone in a heartbeat – until they raised their claws in warning. Then you bent over as far as you could, reached your hand around behind them, and grabbed them behind the head by their hard shell. That way, if they did spook, chances are they’d scoot right into your hand.
At night, it was easier because you used a flashlight and they came out from under their rocks. During the day, you had to find a spot that was relatively calm – where the boats hadn’t kicked up too much mud with their wakes – and you had to turn over rocks to find them. Once you turned a rock over, you had to watch carefully, because they would shoot off with a flick of their tails. If they weren’t quick enough to avoid your eyes, then you had a chance.
I was standing thigh-deep in the lake having just snagged a big three-inch cray. My shorts were getting soaked at the end of the pant leg, and when I turned around to toss the little bugger into the coffee can I’d placed on the shore, I saw her: a skinny blonde-haired girl dressed in sandals, shorts and a blouse, squatting beside my coffee can, with one fist up to her head and waving her index and second fingers at my can.
For a moment I just stared at her, a girl with her attention totally focused on the contents of my coffee can. I’d already caught three cray. Then, my captive still squeezed between my fingers, I waded toward her. When she looked up at my approach, I could see her eyes were so light blue they were almost gray. Her face was oval, with high cheekbones.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Talking to your lobbies – your little lobsters.”
“I call them cray,” I said, not bothering to mention that they couldn’t talk. “What are you saying to them?”
“Oh,” she dropped her hand and stared back down into the can, “They were just telling me they were really too big for you to fish with – there’s not enough fish in this lake big enough to eat them. They like the rocks. They said to tell you, thanks.”
Knowing exactly what was in the can, I still couldn’t resist looking down myself. I’d caught a couple of big ones, but fish are stupid… They might be wily, but they’re not very smart.
“Why do you bother to put rocks in the can?” she asked.
Shrugging, I told her, “They like to hide under rocks.”
“But you’re just going to stick a hook in them and throw them back in the lake so a fish can bite them.”
I dropped my latest catch in the can and backed up as it frantically flapped its tail in an attempt to escape, splashing drops of water high into the air. “I don’t know. I guess I just wanted them to feel at home until…”
“Until you yank their arms off and spear them with a hook?”
“They can’t feel it. They don’t have any nerves back there. Besides, they grow back – their claws do.”
“Who told you they don’t feel anything? How do you know? How can they grow their claws back if a fish eats them?”
How did I know? “Everybody knows that,” I answered defensively.
The girl stood up and pointed down at the can. “They don’t.”
“They’re crayfish. They don’t know anything,” I pointed out – quite wisely in my opinion.
She raised her eyebrows and speared me with those eyes of ice. “They know more than you think.”
I frowned. Suddenly I didn’t want to fish much anymore. “What’s your name?”
“Angelina Somers,” she said and stuck out a hand. “I’m adopted. My mom and dad were killed when their train crashed.” Taking her hand, I shook it solemnly. She’d just given me more information than I wanted or thought I needed. Still, I was honored she’d decided to trust me with it.
“Do they call you Angie?”
“Everybody calls me Angie now…” She frowned and gazed down at my captives again. Squatting, and leaning over my captives, she put her hand back up to her forehead and waved her fingers once more, then looked back at me, frowning, and stood. “But you can call me Tina. My real mommy named me Augustina, after my grandmother. She used to call me Tina. When I was adopted, they changed my name. The lobbies said you should call me Tina. But just you, and only when we’re alone.”
“Louis Cortese. You can call me Lou.”
“No, Lou. With an L.”
“Boo?” she smiled. When she did so, it seemed as if those ice-blue eyes sparkled.
“I’m not a ghost. Just call me, Louis.”
“Are you a fisherman?”
Frowning, I reached down and picked up my coffee can. “Maybe not today. Where are you staying?”
“Oh, I live here. Down on Frontage Road with my mom and dad and brother. Pretty soon, I’ll have a little sister – we’re going to call her Lisa. My dad has polio. He uses crutches and braces. We’re here having a picnic at the State Park. Where are you staying?”
“I live here, too.”
“There?” She pointed to the huge, cedar-paneled cabin up behind the tree line.
“Oh, no. That place is for rent and for the entertainers that come to the Silver Palomino. My dad works there. We live on Stuart Street. That’s not far from you.”
“Is there anybody staying there now?” she pointed toward the cabin.
“No,” I shook my head, “Would you like to see it?”
“Sure. I’ll just get the key from my dad.” I started to fling the contents of my coffee can back into the lake, but after catching a disapproving glance from the girl named Angie that I could call Tina, I stopped. Instead, I stepped down to the edge of the water and squatted down to lift my captives out.
“What’s going on here?” Both Tina and I looked up to see my father approaching along the rocky shoreline.
Tina beat me to the punch. “Oh, Louis was just telling me these lobbies he caught – I call them lobbies because they look like little lobsters – are really too big for catching the fish in this inlet, so he’s letting them go so they can find mates and make more little lobbies.”
Dad blinked from Tina to me, then raised an eyebrow. He had a half-empty beer bottle in his right hand, and it looked as if it was the latest in a long line of them. Dad wasn’t as tall as Uncle Bruno was, but he was bigger across at the chest, and his biceps and thighs were big and powerful. He was dressed in chinos and a sleeveless undershirt. In his belt was his curved fishing knife. His hair was black and curly and his chin strong and prominent. I’ve been told I looked like him, but I know the features I’d inherited from Dad had been softened by my mother’s genetic material. My chin and nose were less prominent, not as strong and masculine, and my brown hair did not curl – it just kind of bent when the weather was humid or when I went swimming.
At Tina’s explanation, Dad just nodded blearily. “Sounds good. Who’s your friend, Lou?”
“This is Angie, Dad. Angie, this is my dad.”
“Pleased to meet you, sir.”
“Yeah. Me, too.”
“Dad? Tina – I mean, Angie – asked me if she could see the cabin. Would it be okay?”
“Yeah. Sure.” He reached into his pocket and tossed me the key. I snatched it out of the air before it could be lost in the lake. “Just don’t mess anything up. Frank Gorshin wants to stay here next week.” With that, he turned and wandered off along the shoreline.
“Where’s he going?” Tina asked.
“Fishing,” I said as I gently tipped the can over and let my crayfish drop out.
“I’m surprised he has enough time to fish,” she said seriously.
“He does like his beer.” I straightened, tossed the empty can off to the side and looked around for my sneakers. “He’s funny when he’s drunk.”
“Here,” Tina said as she held my shoes out to me. Thanking her, I took them and sat down on the rocks to squeeze my feet back into them. Getting sneakers on over wet feet always gave me trouble. “Who’s Frank Gorshin?” Tina squatted down beside me.
“He’s an impressionist. He’ll be headlining at the Palomino next weekend.”
“What does an impressionist do?”
“He makes fun of people – other entertainers, politicians, and movie stars and stuff – by imitating them.”
“That’s not very nice.”
“It is the way he does it. Even the people he imitates think he’s funny. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Haven’t you ever seen him on TV?” Tina shook her head. “Well, maybe your parents could bring you to and see him.”
Nodding, she said, “Maybe,” but she didn’t sound as if it was likely.
“Well,” I said as I finished lacing my shoes, “Maybe we can work something out.” Jumping up, I held out my hand and helped Tina to her feet. “Let’s go see the house. I know where the cookies are. They won’t miss just a couple.”
After the tour, I found Dad near the boat dock, sitting in his folding chair next to his cooler. As we neared, we saw him open the lid and reach for another Duquesne beer. Deftly, he removed the cap on the opener riveted to the side of the cooler and took a long swig. The bottle cap joined a pile already on the rocks. “Hey, Dad,” I said to announce our presence as we came up beside him. I held out the key. “Thanks.”
Taking it back, he stuffed it into his pocket. “Did you mess anything up?”
“How many cookies did you eat?” At that question, I felt Tina’s hand slip into mine.
“Three, Dad. I had two, Tina had one.”
Nodding, he said, “Next time, don’t eat more than the girl does.” Catching sight of our hands entwined, he smiled, winked at Tina and said to me, “You watch her. I think she’s a heartbreaker.”
Tina suddenly shook my hand loose. When I looked at her, her eyebrows were drawn down in apparent anger. With a swift movement, she snatched Dad’s fishing knife from the sheath on his belt.
“Hey!” Dad grunted.
Stepping out of reach, Tina drew the blade across the palm of her hand, drawing a tiny drop of blood. “I swear on my own blood,” she stated, “That I will never break Lou’s heart.” She gave us both a challenging stare.
Astonished, Dad stared at her open-mouthed. “Why…” he started, but nothing more came out. He turned his gaze toward me and said, “Well, boy, you have to do the chivalrous thing now.”
Puzzled, I stared from Dad to Tina to the knife to the tiny drop of blood. I did the only thing I could think of. I reached for the knife and drew the blade across my own palm. Hissing, I drew more blood than Tina had – much more than I intended. Imitating her, I said, “I swear on my own blood, I will never break Tina’s heart.” Turning to her, our eyes locked, and we nodded to each other in unison.
“Well,” Dad sighed as he pushed himself out of his seat, too drunk perhaps to have caught the change in names, “There’s only one thing left for me to do.” He stepped over to me, took the knife from my hand, and slipped it back into its sheath. Then he grasped our wounded hands and pressed them together palm to palm. “With the power vested in me by absolutely no one,” he intoned regally, “I pronounce you friends for life.” Chuckling, he walked away, completely unaware of what he’d just done.
Here we were, two kids who’d known each other for mere minutes, linked together by blood vows and an adult’s solemn pronouncement.
What do you do at a time like that? Tina and I took a walk along the shore.
Southwestern Pennsylvania Power technically owned Seneca Lake, it being a man-made lake created for hydroelectric power. The adjacent shoreline could not be purchased by individuals and was open to everyone. Theoretically, we were free to walk along the entire lake without being challenged or stopped. The major exception was the dam and spillway complex, which was fenced off. Practical limitations, though, were the areas where the small streams that fed the lake came across the private land. Depending on the owner, a fence of some kind commonly restricted access, and if you didn’t want to either wade across the stream or the mud flat, that’s where you were stopped. Heading away from the park and the Palomino’s cabin, I knew we would reach one of those streams, and the accompanying mud flat, after about a mile.
“They really can grow their arms and legs back,” I told Tina as we picked our way across the flat sandstone rocks that seemed to poke up chaotically, “My dad told me that.” These stones were one of the things that had gotten me interested in geology: how the rock layers formed, hardened, shattered, and why some of them jutted out of the earth at such crazy angles. “Who taught you to talk to them?”
“The lobbies?” she asked, and I nodded. “No one. I just saw you there, and I looked into the can and they started talking to me.” Looking at my hand, I noticed that the bleeding had stopped.
“How’s your hand?” I asked.
“Okay,” she said.
“I’m going to stop here and wash the blood off.” Stepping up to the lake, I got my feet close enough so the water was lapping up against the toes of my Keds. Swishing my hand around, I watched as the dried blood flaked away. Tina squatted beside me and copied my motion. “They can grow up to five inches long,” I lectured, and as I did, I noticed Tina was giving me all her rapt attention.
“Do you know how you can tell the boys from the girls?” she asked.
“On the males, their first set of legs has kind of a hook. Do they all talk to you?”
Thinking, Tina sat back on her heels. “I think just the girls. The boys aren’t very talkative. Maybe they’re too busy finding food for the mommy lobbies and the baby lobbies. What else to you catch around here?”
“Around the corner there,” I pointed to where the shoreline curved out of sight, “Where it gets shallow and muddy, there’s some grass. We can catch newts there.”
“There like little lizards.” I held up my hand with a space of about three inches between my thumb and forefinger, indicating how long they were. “They’re green with orange spots.” Tina stood up, and shaking the water from her hands, she started walking that way. I caught up, wiping my hands on my shorts. “When they’re young they live on land and are red with green spots.”
“Can they talk, do you think?”
Frowning, I thought about it. “Well, they don’t have antennae, but I used to have a couple in a fish bowl, and I used to hear them sigh.”
“Yeah. Sometimes when they came up to breathe – they breathe air, by the way, they don’t have gills – they kind of make a noise like, ‘Ahhh…’”
“Nah. They’re kind of cool. Like little tiny dinosaurs. Sometimes they’ll just climb up on the rocks I put in the fishbowl, and sit there and look around.”
“What do you feed them?”
“Well, they didn’t like fish food, so I remembered you could catch them by just hanging a worm in front of them. They’ll grab on and won’t let go, so you just pull up the line. You don’t have to hook them or anything. So, when it rained, I found some worms and put them in the bowl. I think they only eat things that move, like frogs do.”
“Did they eat the worms?”
“Yeah, they did, but you know they swallow them whole. It was funny sometimes, when one would start swallowing a worm from one end and another newt would start swallowing the same one from the other end, and when they met in the middle, they would wiggle and twist around trying to shake the other loose. It was just like a cheap dinosaur movie.”
Tina giggled at the image. “Maybe you could catch me a couple to put in a fish bowl.”
“Sure, no problem. I didn’t bring my can, though.”
“Could we just hold them in our hands until we get back?”
“We might have to wet them down every once in a while, but that might work. You really have to keep them wet or you could pull the skin off them.” Tina wrinkled her nose in disgust when she heard that. We rounded the point and could see the mud and grass deep at the back of the inlet. I stopped when the ground began to get soft, and began to pull off my shoes again. “You stay here. It’s real easy to sink into the mud. How many do you want?”
“Two. Can you get a boy and a girl?”
I remember scrunching up my face when I thought about that. “I think the boys have bigger tails, but I won’t be able to see that until I catch ‘em.”
“I just want a boy and a girl.”
“Okay.” I went carefully over the soft ground. The mud washed down and deposited in the spring when the water was higher, so there were still sharp rocks underneath. If you weren’t careful, you could sink and land on top of a rock sticking up in the wrong direction, and get a nice bruise on your foot. It took a certain technique: keep your feet wide apart, and try to step on rocks that were laying flat. Soon enough I reached the grass. The walking was softer and easier on your feet, but the danger of sinking still threatened if you broke through the grass.
There was another danger, and I ran afoul of it when I stepped into the water: the submerged grass was very slippery. After I went down on my ass with a splash, I heard a suppressed giggle from behind. When I turned my head, I saw that Tina had taken her sandals off and followed my steps to the grass herself. She was standing on the shoreline above me with her hands over her mouth.
“Be careful,” I said as I rolled over on my hands and knees to get up.
Tina dropped her hands, and trying not to laugh again said, “I’m sorry. It’s not funny.”
“Just be careful you don’t sink in the mud,” I repeated, but wasn’t really worried because she was smaller and weighed less than I did. As long as she stepped where I’d been I was sure she’d be okay. Back on my feet, I shuffled into the water. When I got knee-deep, I bent over and peered down into the gently waving blades. Concentrating on looking for the tiny lizard-shapes, I forgot about Tina until I heard her quiet, “Oh,” and the splash.
I turned to see her splashing and sputtering as she floundered in the shallow water. She’d tried to follow me. I couldn’t understand why she couldn’t keep her head out of the water. Rushing back to her, I found my speed severely limited by sinking up to my ankles in grass and mud. Going down to my knees and up to my waist in water, I managed to avoid her flailing arms, grabbed her around the chest, and pulled her face into the air.
She alternated between coughing and yelling, “Ow! Ow!” I held onto her until she stopped coughing and only laid there in the water saying, “Ow, ow, ow.”
“What’s wrong? Can you get up?” I asked, but she only repeated her ows. Assuming she was stuck, I slid myself underneath of her to keep her head out of the water, and then ran my hand back down her leg to where it disappeared into the mud. When I tried to pull it out, she only cried the louder.
Taking a deep breath, I ducked under the water and started digging through the grass and mud until I found what was holding her: one of those oddly protruding sharp stones. Her ankle seemed to have slid underneath of it somehow.
When I came up for another breath, she had stopped her owing. “You’re stuck under a rock,” I said.
“I know that!” she hissed painfully.
“Okay. I’m going to dig you out. I’m going to go under. You stay on top of me and keep your head up, but if it feels like I have to come up, you let me, okay?”
“Okay. Hurry. It hurts.”
Back under water, I could only work by feel. Gradually I got my fingers under that rock and started to wiggle it. I figured that if I could break the suction of the mud, I’d be able to move it enough to pull Tina’s foot out. It really didn’t take long. With a loud sucking noise, I pulled out a foot-long flat rock, six to eight inches wide, an inch thick, with a wicked point on the top end. When I came up with my prize, Tina was sitting up, the tears streaming from her eyes obvious even though her face had been in the water.
“There’s the little bugger,” I said as I held it up, mud sloughing from it and plopping into the lake. Tina frowned mightily and took a healthy swat at it with an open hand, knocking it out of my grasp. “That’ll teach it.” Gradually, her lips began to quiver and turned from that frown into an uneasy smile, and she laughed nervously, hiccupped, and then laughed some more.
“It’ll never do that again, huh?” Her voice quavered a little, and she reached up to wipe her face with her muddy hands. I stopped her.
“Close your eyes.” I wiped the mud off her face. “Okay.”
Eyes open again, she looked me over. “You’re a mess.”
“And you look like the Queen of England. Are you okay?”
“It hurts,” she admitted.
“Let’s see.” She lifted her leg and I could see a ragged scratch just beneath her anklebone. The rest of her ankle looked red and she was beginning to swell. “Here,” I said and rolled over on my hands and knees. “Get on my back and I’ll get us up out of the mud.” On all fours, I crawled up the slope until I got us to drier and firmer ground. I let Tina slide off until she was sitting.
“My ankle’s still bleeding,” she observed, neither alarmed nor surprised.
“Well, I’ve only got one thing that might help.” From my back pocket I pulled my red paisley handkerchief, wrung as much water out of it as I could, and then tied it around her left ankle.
“You didn’t blow your nose in that did you?” she asked, concerned now.
“No. I was thinking about carrying our newts back in it, though.” After looking around, I located her sandals, got to my feet and retrieved them and my sneakers. “Here.” I handed them to her. “Put these on and see if you can walk.” Once again, I put my shoes on over wet feet.
“It hurts to put this one on,” she said as she fiddled with her left foot. When she tried to stand and put weight on her left leg, she cried out and fell against me. Catching her, I lowered her down on the grass.
“I’ll see if I can get some help,” I said as I studied the trees above the shoreline. There were no cabins back in that muddy inlet, so I jogged off to the nearest one. Knocking on the doors, I found it unoccupied and locked up. Not wanting to leave Tina alone any longer than necessary, I decided not to try the next one down. Instead, I ran back to where she waited patiently.
“Nobody’s home,” I told her, “But I think I can carry you down as far as the next place. We might find someone there. Want to try?”
She looked me over doubtfully. “Are you sure? You won’t drop me, will you?”
“Nah. I’ll be fine.”
I wasn’t though. I picked her up like I’d seen it done in the movies with one arm under her knees and the other under her arms. My arms began to ache almost immediately, and I was unbalanced and had a hard time keeping from stumbling over the rocks on the shore. I decided not to go above the tree line because I’d have to weave around the trees and underbrush. There still would be roots over which I could trip.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” she asked about halfway there, “You’re not going to drop me?”
“No,” I wheezed, “I won’t drop you.” I was determined to die before I dropped her, and I did make it to the second cabin and managed to set her on a bench by the boat dock before I collapsed. For a few moments, I sat next to her to catch my breath before running up to the cabin to find that one unoccupied also. Just my luck it was a slow weekend for summer people. Squinting through the trees, I could barely make out the next place. It was a long way.
“Piggy-back,” Tina suggested when I returned to her, so I tried it.
“Don’t choke me,” I told her as she wrapped her arms around my neck. She repositioned herself so she was gripping my chest. With her legs wrapped around my waist, and my hands supporting her thighs, I found the going much easier. So much easier, I decided just to keep going until I got to the Palomino’s place so I could get Dad’s help.
Unfortunately, somewhere along the line I zoned out. My gaze focused only scant feet in front of me, I could only think about my aching legs and arms, and the need not to drop Tina. I just kept putting one foot in front of the other, and in my daze, I walked her right past the Palomino’s place. Dad never even saw me. He was probably up on the cabin’s deck taking a nap. I remember stumbling a couple of times, going down to my knees, but never coming close to dropping Tina or letting her feet hit the ground. My arms hurt, my legs were burning with fatigue, but I was not going to drop Tina. I stopped paying attention to how I was stepping on the stones and managed to bark my ankles several times.
When at last her agitated brother found us, he chastised her for running off without telling anyone. As he grabbed her arm to pull her off me, she snapped her elbow away from him.
“You’ll drop me,” she said, “Louis is taking care of me,” she told him.
“You dummy, Angie!” he snapped right back, “Who is this kid?”
Not wanting to waste time listening to an argument, I was able to say through my labored breathing, “Get…a lifeguard…at the park. She’s hurt.” Her brother blinked once or twice before that got through to him. He took one look at her ankle and ran off.
“That was my brother, Eldon,” Tina told me.
“He’s a creep.”
“Are you sure you’re okay, Lou?”
When the lifeguards ran up to us, we were already on the fine white sand of the swimming area. They took Tina off my back and gave her to her parents. I remember her mother was a tall woman with broad shoulders and narrow hips. Her father wore leg braces and struggled through the uncertain footing with crutches. While one of the lifeguards took Tina to the first aid station, the other picked me up with what seemed like very little effort. “Is… her ankle… broken?” I asked.
“No,” he told me, “Bruised, a nice deep cut, and maybe sprained, but not broken. I think you’re in worse shape than she is, kid. Too bad the both of you aren’t about ten years older. You’d have something really good to look forward to later.” As it turned out, I only had to wait about six years.
I saw her one more time as her mother loaded her into their car – an old De Soto. She waved to me, and I put my hand to my forehead and waved two fingers at her. Laughing, she asked me, “Do you have any idea what you just said?”
Shaking my head, I said, “No.”
“We’ll work on that.”
∫ CHAPTER 3 ∫
TINA AT THE PALOMINO
A few days after our escapade at the State Park, Tina’s mom stopped by the house with her. They brought with them a big platter of brownies – baked by Tina. Mom laid a couple on a plate for each of us, poured two tall glasses of milk, and left us alone in the kitchen while she went to get to know Myrtle Somers.
From my chair, I could see Tina’s ankle wrapped in an elastic bandage. “How’s your ankle?” I asked around a mouthful of brownie.
“It’s good,” she said and wiped milk from her upper lip with the back of her hand. “How about you? The lifeguards said you were banged up pretty good.”
I stood up. While she was wearing shorts, I had on jeans. Rolling up my cuffs, I showed her the scabs on my ankles and knees.
“Do they hurt?” she asked.
“No. I get ‘em all the time.”
“Me, too,” she said and chewed on her brownie for a couple of seconds, then went on, “Mom says I should tell everyone I’m always hurting myself.”
I almost asked why her mother would want her to tell people that, but I remembered a promise I’d made – perhaps not literally to Tina, but to myself. “Hey. I have something for you.”
“What is it?” she sat up straight in her chair.
“Wait here. I’ll get it for you.” I heard her chair scrape the floor as she ignored me again and followed me down the short flight of steps that led from the kitchen to the game room. Our house was a tri-level. As you entered, you came into the living room, where Mom and Myrtle were having their “girl” talk. Then you could either take a right up another short flight of steps to the three bedrooms upstairs – Mom and Dad’s, Mick’s, and Danny’s – or go straight into the kitchen. Downstairs from the kitchen through the game room was my bedroom, next to the laundry.
As I threaded my way through the room, Tina stood warily in the open doorway, eyeing up the confusion of model trains, slot car tracks, model cars, airplanes, baseball cards, a football, a first-baseman’s mitt, and shirts, pants, and socks (thankfully no obvious underwear) thrown into previously unoccupied corners. Next to the doorway stood a stack of Hardy Boys, Rick Brant, and Tom Swift Junior books.
“Here we go,” I said as I hefted the fish bowl and carefully tiptoed my way back to the doorway.
“Oh!” she covered up her mouth for a moment, “You got me newts!”
“Yeah. I went back. I had to catch five before I was sure I had a boy and a girl, and then I let the rest go.”
“I’ll call them…Sky and Penny. Where did you get the seashell?” she asked as she studied my waterscape of colored gravel, flat sandstone lake rocks, and what looked like a miniature conch shell.
“A couple of years ago we went to Atlantic City. I found it in the sand. It looks like a conch shell but it’s actually from what they call a knobbed whelk. That’s a gastropod. It’s like a big snail that lives in the ocean. These things live anywhere from Cape Cod to Florida.”
“What happened to the…gas-tro-pod?”
“I don’t know. I guess a fish ate him – or her – and the shell washed up on the beach.”
“Wow. Thank, you, Boo. Thank you for carrying me all the way to the park, too. I never did say that.”
“Ah, that’s okay,” her look of gratitude made me blush, so I tried my impression of John Wayne, “Wa-ell, think nothin’ of it, pilgrim.”
She grinned and chuckled, “That was John Wayne, right?”
“Yeah,” I smiled back and then reminded myself of something else. “Did you want to see that impressionist I told you about?”
“If you want, I can ask my mom if we can sneak you in. I get to watch the shows from the kitchen, where the waitresses watch.”
“Sure, but I might not be allowed.”
“It won’t hurt to ask.”
Her brow creased and she looked as if she wanted to contradict that, but instead my stacks of books caught her attention. “What are these?”
“Oh, just mystery books. Some are science adventures. These are mostly for boys.”
Tina ran her hand over one of garish, slick paper covers. It was a picture of Rick Brant hiding from some evil character wearing a turban and holding a wicked sword. “Do you like them?” she asked.
“Oh, yeah. Would you like to try one?”
Looking up at me with her eyes wide just made me want to give her the whole stack. “Sure. They look exciting!”
“Well, pick one and take it home.” She lifted the one on top – the one with the guy in the turban and sword. Pausing in the kitchen, we wolfed down the rest of our brownies, then Tina, carrying her book, and I with the fishbowl, stood beside the entry into the living room, waiting for a break in the conversation.
“I was so upset when Kennedy won the election,” I could hear Mrs. Somers talking, “So many people who didn’t vote wanted to vote for Nixon. All those people just voted for a pretty face. They said Nixon sweated too much during the debate. Well, of course he did! He was excited! He was winning on every point! Only people as ignorant as my little girl would say Nixon looked as if he were lying! You can be sure she was severely corrected for saying that!”
“I agree, Myrt. Please forgive me for backtracking to something you said a few minutes ago, though,” my mom was saying, “But, why wouldn’t the aunt take her?” Myrt must have been the nickname Tina’s mom wanted to be called. She was on the sofa while my mom was sitting on a stuffed chair directly across the coffee table from her. The only things about Myrtle Somers that made her look like a girl was her smooth, blemish-free face, prim, tiny mouth, doe-like eyes, and her upturned nose. Otherwise, she was broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped, with a tangle of black and prematurely gray hair that might have been a good candidate for an Afro in a few years when they came into style. Put a Montana-style cowboy hat on her, draw in a handle-bar mustache on her face, and her raw-boned lankiness would not have been out of place on a cattle drive in the late 1890s. She could have easily been mistaken for an underdeveloped teenager, but in the way of tall women, she tended to walk with hunched shoulders.
“She claimed she had enough problems with her own children – and her husband… Well, there were rumors, you know… Let’s just say he and Angie liked each other just too darn much, if you know what I mean.”
“Mmm… I think I do,” Mom said as she rubbed her chin and studied the ceiling, “I can see how she could be the little temptress. And her name – why change from Augustina?”
“We changed it. Her mother was…different. She actually had a college degree, and probably had much too much freedom as a girl, if you know what I mean. She may even have been, you know, in a family way, before she was married. She called her Tina – don’t you think that’s a name for a…” she lowered her eyes and gave my mom a significant look, “A…hussy? Her name is Angelina, now, so we always make a point to call her Angie – and ask that everyone else do, too.”
“Hey, Mom?” I broke in timidly as I stepped inside the room and up beside her chair.
Looking up with a warm smile, she reached over and put her arm around my waist. Physically, she was a woman and couldn’t be mistaken for anything else. She was proud of her Jayne Mansfield figure – everything Tina’s mom was not. I wouldn’t call her face cute, but beautiful with a handsome stateliness. “You kids done with your brownies and milk already? What do you have here?”
“Well, it’s what…Angie and I were doing in the inlet in the first place. I was catching her some newts – a boy and a girl. Male and female, I mean. I’d like to give these to her.”
“How sweet,” Mom said, and then turned to Myrtle for her approval, “What about it, Myrt? Can Angie have a couple of pets?”
It was clear Myrt did not approve, as her tiny little mouth almost disappeared in a pucker. However, there was another emotion on her face that was hard to read. Clearly, she did not want to turn down my offer, but clearly also, she also didn’t want what I was giving in her house. “We don’t have that kind of container in the house,” she protested, her nervousness showing in her quivering lip.
“That’s okay,” I said, “She can have the fishbowl, too. I don’t need it anymore.”
“Well, we can’t afford special fish food…”
“Oh, they just eat bugs and worms,” I said, “I can take care of that. They don’t need fed very often, and they don’t need special water. All…Angie has to do is put in new tap water every couple of days.” In 1961, Seneca Lake’s water was untreated, and as pure – or impure – as the lake itself.
After studying Mrs. Somers reactions, Mom jumped wholeheartedly onto my side of the argument. “Of course, Myrt! It will be fine! It’ll teach her some responsibility. We let all our boys have pets.”
“Is this what you want, Angie?” she looked sternly at her daughter, “Are you ready for this responsibility?”
Nodding seriously, Tina said, “Yes Mommy. I wouldn’t want to turn down such a nice present, seeing that Louis and his family went to all the trouble to get them for me.”
“Little temptress,” Mom chuckled so quietly she probably didn’t think anyone had heard. I spared a quick glance at her, and I saw she seemed to be enjoying this give and take for no reason I could see.
“Yes. Well,” Myrt acquiesced reluctantly, her nervousness still apparent, “I really don’t think you can yet. I suspect we’ll be bringing back the bowl in a few days after you kill the poor things…” she stared into the bowl and its tiny mini-dinosaurs with obvious distaste, “But you are right – we can’t really turn down such a gracious offer.”
Since I had an opening, I struck fast. “And Mom, can we take Angie to see Frank Gorshin? She’s never seen an impressionist before.”
“What is this?” Myrtle asked, her gaze snapping up from the fishbowl to me. “What have you been cooking up, Angie?”
“Oh, we let the kids come and see some of the acts, if they’re appropriate,” Mom told her, “I think that would be very nice. I’m sure it was my boy’s idea.” She leaned closer to Mrs. Somers. “Mr. Gorshin has a very nice family-oriented first show. He’s one of Lou’s favorites. I can pick Angie up myself, take her to the show, and have her back well before ten.”
Again, there was that look on Myrt’s face. She wanted to say, no, but she was reluctant to turn down Mom’s offer. I suddenly realized she was afraid. Why was she afraid of my mother? And, why did my mother seem to enjoy it so much?
“I wouldn’t want to put you to an imposition –”
“Oh, it wouldn’t be an imposition at all! I’m taking Louis anyway.” She tightened her grip on my waist. I hadn’t been aware she was planning to take me to see the act again, and I was pleasantly surprised.
“Well, if you don’t mind…”
“Good. I insist. It’s settled, then. What else do you have, Angie?”
“Louis said I could read one of his books,” Tina spoke up hopefully.
“Let me see that!” Tina’s mom said sharply, and my friend held up the book so her mother could see the garish cover. “Oh, that looks much too violent. These kinds of books are for teenagers – she’s only eight yet, you know – it’s probably over her head…”
“Oh, nonsense,” Mom said, again seeming to relish her domination of the other woman, “Louis has been reading them for years. They’re an excellent morality play – the good guys always win, and they never have to cheat. It may be too boy-oriented for her liking, though. Why not let her try it? There’s always Nancy Drew if she likes the style but not the male-oriented outlook.” Mom was winging it – as far as I knew she’d never read one of my books. She probably was repeating something Dad had told her.
After Tina and her mother left, Tina carefully balancing the fishbowl on her lap in the back seat of the Somers’s sedan, Mom seemed very pleased with herself. So pleased was she, in fact, that she let me have two more brownies.
* * *
Kind-of, sort-of, true to her word, Mom had Dad drive us to the Palomino. At the Somers front door, Dad and Ralph Somers exchanged greetings and pleasantries while Mrs. Somers fussed unnecessarily over Tina. Once we got into our 1957 Chevy, Dad’s pride and joy, Tina handed me the book I’d lent her as we both settled into the back seat.
“Mom said I should give this back to you if I was finished with it or not.”
I took it from her hand. It had only been a couple of days. “Did you finish it?”
“Yes,” she smiled smugly. “Mom makes me use a night light when I go to bed. I laid on the floor and read it while I was supposed to be sleeping.”
“Did you like it?”
“Yes!” she said, her eyes flashing in the dark, “May I read another?”
Of course, my father couldn’t have missed our conversation. “Sure, kiddo. We’ll stop by the house on the way home.” Dad’s hands on the wheel were firm and easy as he drove us through the early evening. The Palomino sat on the side of a ridge that formed one of the valleys where Seneca Lake rested. It sprawled across more than an acre like a string of blocks – one the main dining room, another the attached kitchen, another holding the smaller banquet rooms, and sprawling behind as the slope rose to the ridge, the motel rooms. Dinner was already being served when Dad pulled into the parking lot. Underneath the entry, Dad had his own parking space next to the others marked with the names of Bruno Cortese and Gianni Cortese.
As Dad led us through the kitchen at the Palomino, almost everyone greeted him either with a, “Mr. Cortese,” or by his nickname, “Gee.” Dad always answered with a hearty, “Hello,” a slap on the back, a handshake, or if it was a woman, a warm clasp of her hand. The atmosphere of the kitchen wrapped us in the smells of barbequed beef, boiling chicken broth, tomato sauce, and the not quite dirty-foot smell of expensive cheeses.
The entrance to the kitchen, shielded though it was from the dinner guests, had a great view of the stage. During the show, the lights were normally dimmed so as not to distract the performers. The waitresses and bus boys were still cleaning up after dinner, and were bustling in and out of the door when Dad got us there.
“Hey, what have we got here, Mr. Gee?” Jamie Clark was my favorite waitress, and she stood back from the opening wiping her hands on a cotton napkin.
“Hi, Jamie,” Dad greeted the little chubby woman. “Got room for a couple of VIPs?”
“I certainly do,” she nodded with a huge grin on her wide face. “Front and center.” Dad pushed us both toward her, and Jamie put her hands on our shoulders. Tina looked a little bemused by all the treatment, but seemed pleased at the attention nonetheless.
“Here, Lou,” Dad stuffed a couple of bills in my hand, “Get your pictures taken – two copies.”
“Come on, kids,” Jamie told us and ushered us out into the restaurant.
The kitchen entrance was halfway between the stage and the main entrance. The Palomino’s main dining room could accommodate 800 people on three levels. The upper level’s floor (the kitchen level) was even, or just slightly higher than the stage, and swept around the circumference of the room in a U shape, the stage forming the open end. The dinner tables could usually sit three deep. The second level sat a few feet lower than the first, and followed its shape, but was only wide enough for a single row of tables. The main floor sat below the stage, so while sitting, a diner’s head would be slightly higher than the platform. The main floor, normally used for large parties (meaning large tables that would start at the edge of the stage and run back toward the room entrance at the bottom of the U), wedding receptions, and banquets, still had a flexible enough layout so the tables could be separated for smaller groups. Dinner was over, yet there was already a blue haze of cigarette smoke beginning to obscure the diners on the main floor.
“I thought we were just going to watch from the kitchen,” Tina whispered to me, but Jamie overheard and answered.
“No, my little one. No kitchen watching for you two – not tonight.” She led us past the tables with diners dressed in suits and ties and fancy gowns and furs, all the way to the closest table to the stage – stage right, smack dab on the railing. It was a tiny table, meant for an intimate dinner for two. Once Jamie settled us in, my cousin Stella came by with her camera.
“Picture, kids?” she asked with a huge grin.
“Sure, Stella,” I said, and handed her the cash Dad had slipped me, “Two copies.” Normally all Stella did was to take photos of the people at the table, then after the show, would bring the developed items back. Instead of snapping a shot of us right away, she waited with an expectant smile. In a moment, a thin, distinguished-looking man in a tuxedo came out from behind the curtains on the stage and knelt down next to Tina and me. I gasped. Tina looked confused. It was Frank Gorshin himself.
“Smile, kids,” Stella said. I guess we did, because she laughed and snapped the shot. Mr. Gorshin stood up and placed a hand on both of our shoulders.
“It’s not every day I get to meet a hero and the lovely damsel who inspired him,” Mr. Gorshin said, as Stella snapped another picture, “It’s an honor.”
“Who was that?” Tina asked after he’d left.
“Wait. You’ll see,” I whispered, anxiously anticipating her reaction. When the band began to play and Mr. Gorshin came out, she gasped with pleasure. She laughed heartily through the whole show, and I think I enjoyed that more than Mr. Gorshin’s jokes, which I’d heard before. When his show concluded, and he came back on the stage for a curtain call, he leaned over the railing, took Tina’s hand and gave it a light kiss.
As Jamie led us back toward the kitchen, she could only smile at Tina’s exuberance and the way she clutched her two photos to her breast.
Dad’s car was as two-door sport coupe. To get in the back seat, the front seat had to be tilted forward to make room for us to crawl in the back. As we got in, Tina’s long skirt caught briefly on the seat, and it rose up to her thigh. I noticed a large bruise. So did Dad – he was holding the seat for us.
“Angie? What happened to your leg?” he asked.
“Oh, nothing,” she said, smiling and still bemused from the evening, “Mom says I should tell people I’m always hurting myself.” When I glanced at Dad, he had one eyebrow raised as he always did when he thought something was not quite right.
LABOR DAY LESSONS
“Look out on that lake,” Uncle Bruno’s voice boomed despite the cheese-grater quality as he lectured and pointed dramatically, his fingers aimed at the lake visible through the trees that surrounded the Palomino’s cabin. “How many black faces do you see out there? How many coons?”
“President Kennedy and Senator Humphrey are going to take care of that,” my dad said just before he brought the bottle of Iron City Beer to his lips and drained it, “And, please don’t call them that around the kids.” It was Labor Day weekend, just a few weeks after I’d met my Tina, and we were enjoying the Cortese/Della Rosa/Abruzzi family cookout and picnic. She and I were hanging around the big brick barbeque where Dad and his brothers were holding court while the steaks, Italian sausage, and burgers cooked.
“Oh, and demonstrations and sit-ins are going to make Mr. Cracker – Jim Crow – open up his arms and unlock his daughters?” Uncle Bruno countered my father’s remark as Uncle Gianni poked the Labor Day picnic steaks with a fork. “Drive around this lake and tell me how many Italian names you see on signs,” he challenged. He and dad were standing toe-to-toe while Uncle Gianni looked bored with the whole thing while he flipped the steaks.
“There are plenty of Italian names,” Dad pointed out.
“Sure,” Bruno nodded sarcastically, “Falco is now Falk. Rossilini is now Rose. Sambuco is Samson. We’re losing our heritage. Discrimination, prejudice, and bigotry are real, and they’re not going to go away. We have to do whatever we have to do to protect our family and what’s ours – not run away from it by anglicizing ourselves. These White Wops lack the courage to stand up and be themselves. Instead, they try and insinuate themselves into someone else’s world, and that leads to subjugation, not respect.”
“Didn’t Mom and Dad want us to become Americans? They wouldn’t have wanted us to live a lie just to stay with the old ways.”
“Being American doesn’t mean we have to forget where we came from, and nobody else is, either. Fear of others is something we’re born with. So why not use that to our advantage? Didn’t those Hebes and Jock Limeys back in Dummansk teach you that? Didn’t they all try to break our spirit? Take away everything from us that makes us who we are?”
“Born with?” Dad repeated, “We’re not born with anything. Bigotry is learned. You think those Jewish and Scottish mine owners wanted to subjugate us because of our backgrounds? That had more to do with money and greed than who we were and where we came from.”
“That may be partly true – Hebes and Jocks sure know how to squeeze a nickel until it bleeds. No, Gee, bigotry is a racial memory.”
“Ask the boy,” Dad said suddenly, and turned to me where I sat on a bench with Tina. “Louie. If a black man and a white man do the same job, shouldn’t they get paid the same amount of money?”
It was one thing to sit at the edge of a group of adults and watch and listen. It was altogether something else when we suddenly became the center of attention. I unexpectedly felt Tina clutch my hand. I could see her eyes were wide with fright or surprise. Yet, Dad was apt to do this – ask me a question out of the blue – and I was used to it. The only thing I could do – the thing that Dad wanted me to do – was answer honestly, in a way that made sense with the information I had. I said the first thing that popped into my head.
“Sure,” I said.
“Out of the mouths of babes…” Dad shrugged.
“Oh, Gee, he’s only a kid – and yours to boot – he gets to listen to your liberal bleeding-heart trash all the time, at least,” Uncle Bruno complained. His eyes brightened for a moment. “Ask the girl.” Significantly, he would not address Tina himself – she was not one of us.
Tina’s death grip on my hand increased. Dad smiled at her. “What about you, Angie? What do you think? If a woman and a man did the same work, should they get paid the same?” Dad squatted to make himself less threatening. Tina and I glanced at each other, her look questioning. I nodded, hoping she would feel comforted by that.
“Of course,” she said, as she turned to look my dad in the face.
“You changed the question,” Bruno complained, “Besides, it’s obvious she adores the boy – she wouldn’t go against him.”
“It still proves my point exactly, Bru,” Dad stood up, “When you don’t have an opinion of your own – or at least a strong opinion – you look towards the one whose approval you want, whether it be a friend or parent. As you get older you find excuses to support yourself, not so much in the search for truth, but to reinforce that approval, or your own self-worth.”
“I think Bruno’s right,” my mom chimed in as she moved into the group to check the corn-on-the-cob buried beneath the coals. Dad’s expression suddenly turned dark. With an abrupt motion, he raised the lid of the beer cooler, reached in and brought out three more bottles, then snapped the lid shut. As he turned toward Tina and me, his expression softened.
“Why don’t you two go off and play?” he said to us in a way that made it plain that we should not be listening to the dealings of adults. Without a word, Tina and I rose from the bench and wandered off, hand-in-hand. We found a group of my cousins and a couple of my aunts gathered around Perry Como, who was performing at the Palomino that week, and had agreed to come out to the cabin for a steak before returning to the club for rehearsal. Being the nice guy he was he was happily signing autographs.
“Do you want an autograph?” I asked.
“No, thanks. Why is your dad so mad at your mom?”
“Ah, she always takes Uncle Bruno’s side in things. How are Penny and Sky getting along?”
“I hope they’re fine. Mom flushed them down the toilet. She said they looked dead.”
“They looked okay the last time I saw them.”
“Yeah. Me, too,” she nodded sadly, “Maybe they’ll find their way back to the lake.”
“Yeah. They know what to do,” I agreed, but without much confidence.
“I have to give the fishbowl back to you, too. She says she doesn’t want that stinky thing in the house.”
The adults had set up two tables on the cabin’s wrap-around deck – one for adults and one for the kids. Since I had brought a guest, Tina and I were granted the honor of eating with the adults; though we didn’t get steaks the adults were served. We ate the kids fare: hamburgers. Since Mr. Como had to attend rehearsal, he’d already been served, so all we had to deal with was family. There were good-natured questions to Tina about school, and her family, but mostly everyone concentrated on our own family – who was expecting, getting married, or getting a job – and on what was happening at the Palomino.
After stuffing our faces and bellies, Tina and I wandered down to the shoreline. Taking off our shoes, we sat on the boat dock’s catwalk and dangled our feet in the water.
“You have a lot of people in your family,” Tina commented.
“That we do,” I admitted. “They come in from Pittsburgh, Trenton, and Baltimore, for the most part. I’m not sure what everybody does, but some will come and work at the club – the Palomino – for a while. This weekend, though, we usually clear out the rooms at the club – we’ve got thirty rooms we can rent out – so everyone can come if they want.”
“Why aren’t your brothers here – Mick and Danny?”
“Danny stays home. He’s seventeen. He and Uncle Bruno don’t get along. Danny got a job at the Alpine.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
I shrugged. “I’m not sure. It was something that happened between the Weissmans and my uncle. Dad still is a friend to them, though. Bernie Weissman – he’s my age – he probably was my best friend next to my cousin Nicky.”
“Sure, you’re my best friend – now. They come in second and third.” That seemed to please Tina.
“What about Mick?” she asked, “He’s…what? Fifteen?”
“He’s in a garage band. Plays guitar and sings. Uncle Bruno doesn’t think much of that, either. He hates Mick’s nickname – he says it’s a bad word for an Irish person.”
“Is Uncle Bruno the boss of the family?”
That one brought me up short. I didn’t even notice I’d stopped wiggling my feet in the water. Bruno did seem to get his way a lot, and Aunt Sophia was the one who bossed around all the women folk. The whole Labor Day picnic was her grand production – she was the conductor of the orchestra. But Uncle Bruno? I really didn’t know what he was.
“Well,” I said slowly as I tried to pick the right and correct words, “Since Grandma and Granddad died, I guess he’s the oldest one in the family. Maybe everyone just looks up to him.”
“Which of the kids are his and Sophie’s?”
“The one girl who was making the potato salad – that’s Nicola. She’s seventeen. Ellie – Eleanor – is fourteen. She mashed the potatoes and cleaned and wrapped the corn.”
“No boys? It’s always nice to have boys and girls.”
“Well, that’s kind of the funny part. I remember Aunt Sophie being, like…expecting? I mean, she had a big belly and all, at least two other times, but something happened…”
Tina nodded deliberately. “I think they call that, ‘Losing the baby.’ It just dies, I guess. My mom – my now mom – lost babies. That’s why she has us. Me and Eldon and Lisa – she’s coming soon. She’ll be brand new.” At that point, I hadn’t seen the infant at the Somers’s house, but I had seen baby stuff in boxes in my brief visits: rattles, blankets, and things like that.
Just then, we turned as we heard my name called. It was my cousin Nicky – Nicky Abruzzi. They lived in Altoona, and his dad, Uncle Al, commuted to the Palomino every day. “Hey, Louie, we’re getting a game of badminton together. Want to play?”
Turning to Tina I asked if she played. “I did once,” she said.
By the time Nicky reached the catwalk, we were putting on our shoes and socks. “Hey, Nicky,” I said, “Angie and I will play.”
“Uh…” Nicky hung his mouth open and gave Tina a misgiving glance. “It’s just the guys, Louie.”
“Oh,” I sat back down. Tina was my guest. “Then I can’t.”
“Come on, Lou! I don’t want to play with Raymond.” Raymond was his little brother – eight years old, and he still cried if he lost. He frowned and stared at Tina as he put a finger to his mouth. “Hey, Aunt Sophie has got the girls together to talk about soap operas or something. She can sit in with them.”
Pulling my knees in with my arms, I looked at Tina. “Would that be okay?”
I could tell by the look in her eyes that it wasn’t, but she bravely said, “Sure. It might be nice to get to know the girls.”
“Great!” Nicky said, and we followed him up the path. We found Aunt Sophie and a bunch of the girls gathered in the big game room in front of the stone fireplace.
“Aunt Sophie?” I asked, and she turned a vacuous smile toward me, very patient in spite of my interruption. She was proudly wearing her new Jackie Kennedy hairstyle. “Can Angie sit in with you guys while I play some badminton?”
Sophie leaned her head down and peered under her brows at the girls at her feet. She covered up her lips as if hiding a giggle, while her retinue smiled knowingly. “We’d love to have her here,” she said as she turned back to us and held out a gloved hand. “Come here dear, and sit right at the foot of my chair.”
Tina gazed back at me with a raised eyebrow. I smiled and nodded reassuringly. As I stepped out the door, I looked back just in time to see her looking back at me. She stayed there just long enough for us to pick up sides and fight over the best racquets. As we were warming up in preparation to start keeping score, I noticed Tina wandering across the grass toward us. She sat down on the lawn, pushing her skirt up from behind, and demurely curled her feet under herself. She watched the game for a while until I decided to turn my racquet over to Raymond, much to Nicky’s dismay.
Plopping down next to Tina in the grass I asked, “How did it go?”
She never did tell me what happened, but what she did say told me more than I realized at the time, “Don’t ever do that to me again, okay?”
“I’m sorry. What happened?”
“What’s wrong with your aunt?”
“Mom just says she’s not quite right.”
After ending his game prematurely, Nicky sauntered over to us and asked, “Want to skip some stones in the lake?”
Turning to Tina I raised a questioning eyebrow. She nodded and took my hand and we helped each other to our feet. “You’ll show me how?” she asked.
“Sure,” I said, “It’s easy,” I assured her as we followed Nicky to the shore. I showed her how to find the nice flat stones and whip them sidearm while putting a spin on them so they’d skip effortlessly across the water. The afternoon was wearing on, and the wind was quieting, so there was just a nice little ripple on the water that helped the stones hop along nicely. At first, Tina threw like a girl, leading with her shoulder instead of letting it rotate and lead with her elbow until it was time to spin the stone, but she caught on quickly. I usually got more skips on my stones than Nicky, so it was only a matter of time before he turned an artistic occupation into a competition in an area in which he knew he excelled.
“Let’s see which one of us can throw the farthest!” he cried, and over-handed a rock out into the water. I mimicked him, throwing rounded rocks like a baseball now. Mine, as usual, fell a few feet short. Tina’s even more so. As always, I nearly threw my arm out of its socket trying to outdo my cousin, but before that happened, I noticed Tina was no longer beside us. Turning about myself I found her above the high water mark where she’d found a spot of sandy soil. She was on her knees, scratching in the dirt with a stick. Nicky went on tossing triumphantly while I wandered over to her.
“What’s that you’re doing? Drawing pictures?” Her tongue was sticking out of the corner of her mouth, and she’d scratched in a series of triangles and arches.
“I’m trying to figure out how you can beat him,” she said, then sat back on her heels and smiled up at me. “Throw it up in the air – not straight up, halfway.”
“Like forty-five degrees?” I asked skeptically.
“Yes, and you can throw it sidearm if you like. Throw it like you were skipping a stone, just up in the air.”
“Sure,” I said, “It won’t work – he’s just better than me.”
“Try it,” Tina urged, not dismayed by my doubt – I had not dislodged her smile.
“Okay.” We scrambled back to the lake edge where Nicky was still heaving his rocks as far as he could, grunting as he let them go. Tina picked up a nicely shaped flat one and handed it to me, nodding encouragement, and stepped back.
Raring back, I threw it sidearm at what I thought was a forty-five degree angle (it was probably more like thirty, but good enough) and watched it sail.
It sailed. It sailed out and out, and then down with a plop into water.
“Whoa,” Nicky gasped, “How’d you do that?” I’d beaten him by a good twenty feet.
“Like this,” I said, “Watch,” and I repeated my effort, this time a little bit farther. Nicky tried to imitate me, but could not match my distance. In a few minutes, he said he had to see what his brother was up to, and walked back up toward the cabin.
“Thank you, Tina,” I said as I watched his receding back, “How did you figure that out?”
“It was easy,” she said in a matter-of-fact voice, “Once you realize that it takes just as long for a stone to hit the ground if you drop it as when you throw it, it’s easy.”
“That can’t be,” I protested skeptically, “The one you throw has got to take longer to come down.”
“It’s true. Gravity works the same on everything,” she said, still very pleased with herself. “Watch, we’ll try it.” She picked up two stones close in size, but pointed out, “I don’t think it makes any difference what size they are, but we’ll use these. You throw this one straight out into the lake…” and she handed me one, “And I’ll drop this one the same time you let that one go. Show me how you’re going to throw it…”
So I did. It never worked perfectly because we couldn’t synchronize ourselves perfectly, but we tried it enough times that she convinced me. “So once you see that…” she went on, “…then you can figure that the longer time you can keep it in the air, the farther it will go…”
Before we left the shore, I noticed she made sure to rub out her triangles and arcs.
* * *
But, that wasn’t the only lesson she taught me. To listen to Uncle Bruno, one might think that Romulus and Remus invented the game of bocce ball. In reality, many similar games in the “boules” family played around the world and in Europe can be traced back to a common Italian ancestry – including even horseshoes, which uses an immovable stake instead of a little ball – the pallino. Forms of the game can be found in Australia, South America (bochas, bolas criollas, and bocha), Slovenia, and Croatia. In France, the game is known as Boule Lyonnaise. Evidence of similar games has also been traced back to ancient Mesopotamia.
Uncle had a court built in the cabin’s back lot, as well as one in the basement of the Palomino. That one was built to one of the many sets of “official” rules, and was used for unofficial tournaments during Uncle’s several attempts to get an Italian club started in Seneca Lake. There was always plenty of (hopefully) good-natured hand waving and yelling over obscure points no one thought to make clear before the competition.
The basic rules are simple: one team (two to four members) throws a small ball (the pallino, jack, or boccino) toward one end of a court that could be as much as seventy feet long and twelve feet wide, depending on available space. The object of the game then, is to score points by tossing larger balls as close to the pallino as possible. The team throwing the closest ball gets points. The game frequently involves knocking an opponent’s balls out of the way – something that in some corners is considered bad form, but usually not illegal. The game is over when one team gathers a pre-agreed number of points. A typical arguing point is whether the winning team simply has to reach that amount or needs to win by more than one point (as in volleyball).
After studying our games, Tina made the remark that at times it seemed to be the game was more for arguing over rules and rules interpretation than anything else – but, she did explain a few things to me that I eventually learned to be conservation of momentum, inertia, and Newton’s Laws of Motion. These were all explained to me with little drawings with measurements of force resembling little arrows all meticulously measured with her fingers, a toothpick, pebble, or whatever she had handy, illustrating to me how energy applied to an object at a certain angle would be distributed after a collision.
Did the lessons sink in to my brain? All I can say is that, afterward, when Dad and I would compete as a bocce ball two-man team, we were unbeatable, much to Uncle Bruno’s dismay and consternation.