Uncle Florio’s face was all lumps, his purple left eye half shut. His swollen lips barely moved as he spoke. “I’m gonna kill him,” he said. “I’m gonna kill that prick.”
My mother, his kid sister, poured him a shot of anisette. He sipped it and grimaced with pain, gently touching his lips. A dark stain splotched the collar of his red plaid shirt. I wondered if it was blood.
“I swear to God, he’s a dead man,” he said.
The other sister, Aunt Celeste, sat at our kitchen table with her arms crossed, her face tense. “Everyone’s dying at your hands,” she said.
“Aw, shut up,” Uncle Florio said, tonguing his lower lip. “What do you know?”
My mother glared at her sister. Aunt Celeste and Uncle Florio often quarreled. I rarely understood the nature of the arguments, but they always concerned money or something Uncle Florio had messed up. A year younger than Uncle Florio, Aunt Celeste, with her stiff back, stiff clothes, hair-bun and measured way of speaking, seemed older. My mother, blue-eyed baby of the family, vainly tried to keep the peace; it clearly troubled her to see them sparring, but it was nothing new. Uncle Florio’s erratic and sometimes violent behaviour had often raised questions. A drunken brawl explained his face. Apparently he and a paisan, after six or seven beers in a local tavern, began to argue vehemently about an inconsequential matter and, finally, came to blows—I didn’t catch the name of the guy and I wondered what his face looked like, though I hoped it looked worse than Uncle Florio’s.
“What are you staring at?” he barked at me.
“Do you blame him?” Aunt Celestina snapped. “You look like a monster.”
“Enough,” my mother said, raising her hands and shutting her eyes. “I won’t have this bickering in my house.”
Both Uncle Florio and Aunt Celeste bit their tongues. A moment of silence passed thick as concrete. I thought of saying something smart but checked myself as it might have been an invitation for a backhand. All three siblings were capable slappers. Finally, my mother urged my uncle to have another anisette.
“I haven’t finished this one,” he said, holding up the shot glass.
“What did they say at the hospital?” she asked him.
He touched the side of his head. “Nothing broken, thank God. Thought that bastard cracked my skull.”
“Are you kidding?” Aunt Celeste said. “You’d need a sledgehammer to crack a skull that hard.”
“Haw haw, very funny. Did you hear that kid, your aunt is a comedienne? She’s Sicily’s answer to Lucille Ball. How about that?”
I laughed. I didn’t think Aunt Celeste was funny at all.
“What did the police say?” my mother asked.
“They said because it was something between guineas and didn’t want to deal with the paperwork over the weekend, they were gonna let us off with a warning.”
“You’re lucky they didn’t throw you in jail like last time,” Aunt Celeste said.
“Well, they didn’t. And I’m sitting here.”
“What did Teresa say?” my mother asked.
Aunt Teresa was his wife. He shrugged. What was she going to say? They’d been married a long time, she knew what he was all about. One thing, he never beat her—as far as I knew, he never beat Aunt Teresa. My father, who died the year before, liked Uncle Florio but said he didn’t trust him as far as he could throw him, something that always bothered my mother, who forgave Uncle Florio for what she considered were mere peccadilloes. “He’s pazzo,” I recall my father saying on more than one occasion.
It was true, to some extent. Uncle Florio had spent time at Chedoke Psychiatric on two occasions. I was never told exactly why, only that he was sick and had scared Aunt Teresa with some things he was saying and doing—like inexplicably wandering around outside in the middle of the night, ranting and raving about who knows what, and waking up the whole neighbourhood. I recall visiting him the second time he went in. They had shaved his head and he looked like a war prisoner in his loose blue hospital gown. He started crying and hugged me hard when he saw me. He smelled of rubbing alcohol and body odour.
“Promise me you won’t do anything stupid,” my mother said.
“I ain’t promising nothing,” he said.
“It was a fight. You took your lumps, he took his.”
“Never mind that. He threw the first punch.”
“You didn’t provoke him?”
“Blame me, go ahead.”
“I’m not blaming you, Florio.”
“No, don’t blame the poor guy,” Aunt Celeste piped in. “He’s innocent.”
“I’m glad everyone in my friggin family has my back,” Uncle Florio said, shaking his head in disgust. “Hey, kid. Wanna go for a ride?”
“It’s almost lunchtime,” my mother said.
“Don’t worry. I have to drive out to Darrigo’s to grab two demijohns he was saving me for my new wine. We’ll stop at Valentino’s on the way back and pick up some veal sandwiches. How’s that sound, kid?”
“Sounds good,” I said.
My mother turned to me, but I wanted to go and avoided her gaze.
We went out to my uncle’s old Ford pickup truck that once was red and now more like a lumpy blend of mud and rust. For some reason he couldn’t start it with a key, and fiddled under the dash—essentially hot-wiring it—until the engine turned over.
“Whatever works, right?” he said, smiling then not smiling as it appeared painful to do so. “Lucky that prick didn’t knock out any teeth.”
“Who was it, Uncle Florio?”
“Doesn’t matter,” he said, slipping on his blue-tinted sunglasses. “But he’s gonna get his, lemme tell you. If I let him get away with this, who’s to say he won’t do it again.”
“It wasn’t a fair fight?”
He glanced at me darkly as he shifted the truck into drive and pulled away from the curb. We drove in silence—my uncle gently rocking from side to side as he steered—until we were out of my neighbourhood. We continued along the harbourfront, past the soybean factory and the abandoned brewery, until we hit a stretch of newish orange-roofed storage units. Beyond them smoldered the steel mills.
“Let me tell you something, kid,” he said. “I don’t take shit from anyone, okay? If I have one lesson to teach you in this life, it’s don’t take shit from anyone. Was it a fair fight? Maybe, maybe. But he kicked me when I was down, okay. You don’t kick a man when he’s down. It’s just not done. He could have seriously injured me. We weren’t fighting for love or honour or anything like that. We were drunk. Two drunks scrapping. It should be like a hockey game. Two players scrap and then it’s over. No one gets kicked in the head with a skate. It’s not right.”
“You really going to kill this guy, Uncle Florio? Wouldn’t you go to jail for that?”
“Not if I don’t get caught.”
I said nothing, letting the idea of my uncle actually killing a man—was he going to shoot him, stab him, or kill him some other awful way?—fully sink in to my ten-year-old mind. I knew Uncle Florio had a temper, and he was probably angry as hell about getting beaten up. But I didn’t think he was the killing type. At least I hoped he wasn’t.
Maintaining the steering wheel with his left hand, he grabbed a serviette off the console and spat a clot of bloody phlegm into it. He rolled down the window and tossed out the serviette, cursing under his breath. He pressed down the truck lighter and when it popped he lit a cigarette, obviously suffering as he put it between his lips and pulled. I hated the smell of cigarette smoke. My father, a two-pack a day man, had died of lung cancer. I rolled down my window. An early fall day, some leaves were turning red and yellow; the air smelled musty, edged with the essence of rotten-eggs spewing from the foundry smokestacks.
“Smoke bothering you, kid? Sorry.” He glanced at me. “You want one?”
I laughed. Very funny, Uncle Florio.
“Ugh,” he grunted, tossing the partially smoked cigarette out the window. “Hurts too much anyway. I’m telling you, kid. Some people got it coming big time. I can’t wait to catch up to that piece of shit, pardon the French. You curse, don’t you, kid? Your ma says you’re a good Catholic boy, but I think you run a little wild behind her back, no? Am I right or am I right?”
“I don’t think so,” I said, enjoying his teasing. Whatever his flaws, I loved my uncle.
“You don’t fool me for a second, haha. Not for one second. Just don’t smoke, kid. It’s a disgusting habit. I know your dad smoked a lot. Probably why he got sick. So don’t smoke, kid. Really, do it for me if nothing else. Do it for your Uncle Florio.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I don’t think that’ll be a problem for me.”
“You like the girls? Ah, not yet, not yet, you’re still a little young. But in a couple of years, boy oh boy. Look out. You’ll be like your uncle was. I knew how to talk to the ladies when I was young. And I had all the moves. You gotta learn a few moves, if you’re gonna be successful with the ladies.”
He was right, I wasn’t really interested in girls yet. But I had no idea what he meant by a few moves. Did he mean dancing moves? Before he could clarify, we arrived at Darrigo’s wine supply store. The owners—Danny and Tony Darrigo and their brother-in-law Vin Mercanti—were rumored to be connected, and my uncle often hinted that they were and that he was tight with them. He had done a few favours for the younger brother Danny in the past and considered him a close friend.
“Come on,” he said. “You can help me with the demijohns, they’re not too heavy. Just keep your mouth shut.”
When we entered the store, a dank smell of wine must pinched my nostrils. A few customers stood around examining fermenting pails, grape-crushers, hoses and pumps. I had met Danny at a wedding once—a fat-necked, mouth-breathing and rather unpleasant guy—and he manned Darrigo’s cash register with half-glasses perched on the end of his pug nose and a yellow pencil wedged behind his ear. When he saw us he straightened up but showed no sign of welcome. Indeed, he looked coldly at my uncle, who instructed me to wait near the doors while he went and talked to him. Something told me things weren’t cool between them.
An elderly man with silver hair asked me to help him with some pails. I glanced over at my uncle but he seemed to be engaged in a heated conversation with Danny.
“My car’s just out front,” said the old man, who was wearing a beige poplin jacket and expensive-looking tasseled shoes. I almost felt like telling him to do it himself, but I grabbed the pails, which weren’t heavy, and walked them out to his Mercedes-Benz. I dropped the pails by his trunk and started back to the store before he could thank me.
When I reentered the store, Uncle Florio and Danny were in a full on shouting match, spraying spit and pointing at each other.
“You’re nothing but a fucking loser, Florio!” Danny cried. “No wonder people beat the shit out of you, no wonder.”
“Two weeks. Two weeks, that’s all I’m asking for, and you gotta make a big show about it and embarrass me in front of your customers and my nephew.”
“Fuck your nephew,” Danny said.
My uncle stared at him with his beaten up face, but said nothing.
“You got something to say?” Danny said. “Spit it out.”
“You’re a fucking bastard.”
Danny moved inches from my uncle and said, “What was that?”
I hated and feared where this was going so before my uncle could respond I cried out, “Uncle Florio! Uncle Florio!”
Both men turned to me. My uncle waved and nodded his head as if to reassure me that everything was okay. They were just talking. But when he turned and started to say something, Danny reached back and abruptly slapped him with a percussive open hand that knocked my uncle’s sunglasses flying. He spun around, clutching his face and groaning, but did not retaliate. This shocked me. I thought for sure he would defend himself. After all of his tough guy talk, I couldn’t believe he was going to turtle on this asshole. The other customers watched in silence, with a mixture of horror and barely restrained delight.
“Now, if you don’t want another one on your other cheek, grab your stupid nephew and don’t come back until you have my money. Okay, you miserable piece of shit? Don’t come within a mile of here unless you have my money.”
Holding his face with his right hand, my uncle paused a moment before walking to his sunglasses, lying broken by an aluminum grape-crusher. He picked them up and walked toward the doors, blood dripping from his mouth. I followed him out to the parking lot. We sat in the truck for a minute before he reached under the dash and started it up. He pressed a serviette to his lips and avoided looking at me, as if he didn’t want to address what had just happened. He put the truck in gear and we departed.
I wanted to say something to my uncle, but I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I felt enormous pity, even sadness, for him. Far from being a tough guy, my uncle was weak and vulnerable. On the other hand, it was hard to respect him now.
We continued driving in silence. No mention was made of stopping for veal sandwiches, though I had no appetite. Then my uncle chucked my arm. I looked at him.
“Do you believe that guy?” he said. “Embarrassing us like that? Do you friggin believe that shit, Sammy? Some people are nothing but animals. That’s poor education, that’s what that is. Poor education. If you weren’t there I would have slammed that fat pig’s head into one of those grape-crushers.”
“Sure, Uncle Florio.”
“I’m serious,” he said. “You do not want to see me get into it, kid. No way. Your mother wouldn’t forgive me, you know. And I … I don’t want you to see that side of me. It’s not, um, pretty. When I lose it, you know …”
His voice trailed off. He knew he wasn’t convincing me. We continued for a few more minutes in silence. He tried to switch on his radio but the knobs or something weren’t working and all he could get was static. He killed the radio, cursing under his breath, and hit the truck’s lighter. Meanwhile, uninterested in speaking, I watched the ugly scenery flash by, the drab row houses and abandoned buildings that defined this end of the city. The lighter popped and my uncle lit a cigarette, wincing as he drew on it. This time he didn’t stop smoking. Dabbing his blood and tears with the back of his hand, he smoked and smoked that cigarette down to the filter.