Fairytales of New York: St. Peter of Brooklyn (or The Trembling Leaves that were my Father's Fists) Part I
Sun, 09 Jul 2017
Every argument at the dinner table between my parents was ended, punctually, with a plate of food being hurled and shattered, by my father, against the wall above my mother's head. Spaghetti seemed to punctuate his point the most profoundly. Sometimes, if he were in an exceptionally foul mood then my plate would be snatched from before me, often as I gawked on gormlessly with linguine hanging from my cracked, hungry lips, and thrown against the wall, as well. In these situations I would be immediately excused from the table; my father would leave the house; and my mother would get to work picking up the shattered fragments of plate (and piecemeal scraps) and sponging the sauce-stains from the wall.
Despite the fact that my mother was Polish, my father always insisted that we were a Sicilian family. He, himself, was rather pale-skinned for the pure-bred Italian he claimed to be and this, combined with his ardent Catholicism and job as an NYPD officer led most of the neighborhood to believe he was Irish - much to his absolute revulsion. My mother never took a beating so bad as the day she allowed me to attend the ninth birthday party of my classmate at Catholic school, Aoife Dunne. After the batterings had been handed out, the Micks had been cursed to hell (as well as the Kikes for no good reason other than good measure), and my father had passed out drunk, I sought comfort from my mother. I sneaked past my parent's bedroom, from which I could hear my father's thunderous snores, and made my way to the kitchen. My mother was sitting at the table, drinking coffee and holding a glass of ice against her swollen eye. She beckoned me silently, and began the ritual examination of my battle-wounds. As always she comforted me, belittling her own bruises and soothing mine. The physical pain never ailed me all that bad; just the fear. Ordinarily, my mother would reassure me that I did nothing wrong; that my father was wrong. However, on that night she'd had enough. "You stay away from Aoife Dunne, Valentino. You promise me, now, that you won't play with her no more; or her kind. We're Di Mauros, remember". Indeed, I never will forget that I'm a Di Mauro, and all the heartache that carries. I didn't, however, keet that promise to my mother and, in fact, soon after her death I married Aoife Dunne. My father never made it to the wedding - claiming to be unable to make the journey from Park Slope to St. Patrick's Old Cathedral, in Lower Manhattan. I don't know if, after all those years, it was his bigotry or his shame that kept him away or perhaps he simply didn't care.
My mother, as I mentioned, was already dead by the time I started courting Aoife, and - I'm certain - that if she had lived to see it she would have been happy for me, despite my broken promise. She just didn't want to see me getting beat no more. I recall the first time I fought back against my father. It was in the summer of 1972, when I was aged fifteen. I returned home from my summer-job as a dish-washer. It was a Friday and I had $27 in my pocket - my wages for the week. I left $5 on the kitchen-table for my mother, paying her back for a loan she had given me the previous week. I sat and ate re-heated hot dogs, alone, until my father staggered through the door. He had spent all his wages in the bar and at the bookie's and had came home to replenish his funds from my mother's purse. Immediately he spotted the five-dollars on the table. I slammed my hand upon the bills, saying nothing and avoiding eye contact. Though, still, I could feel his eyes burning into me. I, with my free hand, continued eating in silence. I stared at the wall, above where my mother ordinarily sat at the table. The wall had a damp spot upon in - telling me that my father had experienced another outburst at supper, in my absence. As if he could tell my thoughts, precisely, he tried to grab my plate. Each of us said nothing as I shielded my cold supper, whilst still holding onto the money, and he wrestled around my shoulder. How absurd it must sound; and how much more ridiculous it must have looked - were you not familiar with my father's capacity for easily provoked violence. My mother came down into the kitchen in her slip and saw what was happening. My father ordered her back to bed, but she refused - provoking him to pull a kitchen-knife from the sink. It wasn't unusual for him to make threats with a blade but, as my mother and I both knew, he almost never used it and surely wouldn't over five-dollars. Again, he bellowed at my mother to go to bed and she, in turn, ordered me to go to bed, so as she could speak to my father.
"Valentino, go upstairs and let your father and I talk", she said to me, before turning to my father, "Peter, please!"
"No," my father countered "you go to bed, Alicja!"
I interjected, "Why don't you just get out, Pa'?"
And, so it went on for some time; each of us demanding the leave of another. My father wanted my mother gone so he could rob me without her intervention; my mother wanted me to leave to get me out of harm's way; and I wanted my father to get out because... well, it just always made life easier.
"What have you got in your hand, Valentino?" my mother asked
"It's your money, ma'. The money I owe you"
"When did you give him money, Alicja?" my father demanded
"It doesn't matter, Pete. Valentino, just give your father the money"
"It's your money, ma'!"
"Go to bed, Alicja. We'll talk about the money later"
Again, we went around in these circles until my father became so overcome with rage that he stabbed the knife down toward my hand - the hand covering the money. I, naturally, recoiled my hand and he picked up the five-dollars: smug, satisfied, like the cat who got the cream. I made to stand up, so furious with his recklessness and violence but he nailed me with a firm, leathery fist in the soft tissue of my nose before I could even get eye-level with him. My mother squealed and tried to put herself between us but my father pushed her frail body aside, with no effort, and sent her clattering into the china-cabinet. As I tried to stem the flow of blood from my nostrils my father, as if to punctuate his point, grabbed the plate of hot dogs and smashed it against the wall.
"You should both be God-damn ashamed of yourselves. Acting like a pair of dumb Polak animals" he exclaimed, before pounding his chest and cursing us in Italian
That was when I finally stood up and landed a swampy, wild punch on his throat. He splurted and stumbled back, more in shock than in pain. After assessing my bloody face for a few beats he made to grab my collar and I pulled back my fist, ready to plant another one on his red, drinker's face. None of this came to fruition, though, as my mother stepped between us once more but, this time unusually, she had her back to my father and stared at me. My father made to grab her neck, presumably to toss her aside. I opened my mouth to warm her but, before I could turn the lumps in my throat into any sort of message she slapped me across the face. I'll never forget that. I had never felt so alone in my life and probably never will. I left the house that night, and didn't return for a year, until a familial matter so serious occurred as to force me home: my mother's suicide.
I soon came to refer to that year's absence as the 'lost year', although my father would have no doubt dismissed this label, entirely, stating that he and my mother were, throughout that time (until her passing, at least), exactly where I had left them and, thus, how could I possibly be lost? During my absence, I moved around the Tri-State area, moving hot cars for a crook Jew named Moe Vos. He was arrested for public indecency a few months into my wandering period after a porn-theatre was raided. As it goes, they had been looking for Moe already. They threw him in the tank, awaiting process, with a group of skinheads who had been picked up after throwing Molotovs around like rice and bitter congratulations at a wedding somewhere Uptown. Poor Moe took a beating so bad that he went insane - screaming at shadows; wailing in the night for his dead mother. At the time of his beating he was still whacked-out on crack-cocaine. Whether the skinheads knew he was a Jew or whether they simply saw a strange, sweating little junkie trying to masturbate, still, after his incarceration is unclear. All I know is that they cared none too much for him. I dared not visit him in hospital in case I was recognized by the uniform, who was guarding his room, from any of my previous follies. To this day, I reckon, if Moe is alive at all, he's still in that madhouse over on Long Island. After that debacle, I started stealing medical supplies for an Eastern-European fellow. The money was good, and the pickings were easy. I mostly dealt in morphine, syringes - basic junk stuff. I had always assumed the guy - who never disclosed his name to me - was just dealing the stuff: cutting it and selling it on. Although, occasionally, he would ask me to get surgical equipment: clamps, scalpels, bone-cutters. I later learned that he was a real psycho. He was arrested seven years later and charged with the rape, torture and murder of thirteen children. He had, as a young man, aspired to become a doctor in the U. S, but couldn't qualify for medical school. Likewise, he was turned down for veterinary school. So, instead, he performed his own, sickly innovative, experiments and surgeries on abducted children - mentally handicapped and black kids, mostly. I'll always remember the absolute gray apathy I felt when I recognized him in the newspaper. It was a strange moment. I stared blankly at the page, knowing I should feel something: dread, guild, misery. Nothing, though. The only thought I had remembered vividly having was how content I was to finally know his name.
I was asleep in a room above Fat Lenny's pool-hall on Mott Street when I was visited by Aoife Dunne. She had been searching me out for a few days around Lower Manhattan. Her cousin Saoirse had spotted me, she said, fighting with a taxi-driver at midnight on Kenmare Street the previous weekend. The reason she searched me out was to tell me about my mother's death. I couldn't help but feel ashamed when she knocked upon my door that afternoon. The room was, essentially, a storage cupboard, with a stained mattress on the floor, in which Lenny allowed me to sleep off my hangovers or lie low after a job, for the price of $5 a night.
"It's nice to see you, Aoife. How are you?"
"Your mother's dead, Valentino"
I really couldn't muster anything much of a reply. I let out a knowing grunt. Truth be told, I had suspected bad news as soon as I saw her standing in that door frame and had, in that fleeting moment, hoped that it were good ol' Papa who had taken his dirt nap. I asked her to wait downstairs with Leonardo, and Leonardo only. The afternoon patrons downstairs were renowned for their grabbing hands and leering eyes in the presence of a solitary woman. Lenny could be trusted, though. How he reconciled his prudish, old-fashioned Catholicism with the debauchery he enabled in his establishment has always been unclear to me. Nonetheless, Lenny was to be trusted. I washed-up in the little metal sink as best I could and went down to meet Aoife.
"It really is nice to see you, Aoife, even under such circumstances"
"You too, Valentino"