(Story from Freeze Tag.)
L & S was a candy store and newsstand located on the corner of 60th St. and 18th Ave. L & S, which stood for Louie & Son, was owned by Louie Varinella: a burly, slightly balding man with chipmunk cheeks, bushy brown moustache, and distrustful eyes.
His son, Louie, Jr., was in my class, we were both in the fifth grade, and had been classmates since kindergarten. Louie, Jr., was a tall solidly-built kid with a scar just above his right eye that looked like a tissue-textured music clef. Louie got into a lot of fights and was fearfully regarded as one of the school’s genuine tough guys. Louie might run his mouth a lot but he would always back up his words. Same with sports: Louie was a natural athlete and would often brag about how good he was, but it was true . . . he was that good. Whether it was baseball, basketball, football, dodgeball, Louie was tops, but his best sport was football, and later on, as a sophomore in high school, Louie would be named All-City as a Defensive End. In his junior year he would blow out his knee, and come back in his senior year only to blow it out again, officially ending his promising football future.
My Uncle Eddie lived with his mother, my grandmother, Maime, down the block from L & S. He worked as a fruit vendor in the city, his cart usually stationed somewhere in Chinatown or City Hall. Before going to work he would pit-stop at a methadone clinic just off Dekalb Avenue to get his morning medicine. After work he would pit-stop at his dealer’s house somewhere on Prospect Avenue to get his nightly fix. I had worked with my uncle on several occasions to earn pocket money and knew his rituals, which also included bringing home a bag of mixed fruit every night.
It was a warm spring evening and I was in the schoolyard, located directly across the street from my grandmother’s house, throwing a blue ball against the wall. This was one of my favorite solitary past-times: picking two teams, usually the Yankees and Red Sox, and playing a full nine innings, throwing the ball against the wall and fielding grounders and flyers as if batters were hitting the ball to me. I’d keep track of each player’s stats for the game, and later on write them down in a notebook. I had compiled several seasons worth of notebooks.
A Red Sock, I can’t remember who, flied out to end the game, and the Yankees won 7-6. I went to sit on the schoolyard steps to conduct the post-game commentary and interviews. I had been talking to Mattingly, one of the game’s heroes, when I saw my Uncle Eddie walking across the street. I was about to call out to him then saw Louie, Sr., and a fat man tear around the corner and they were quickly upon my uncle. Louie grabbed him by the shoulder and spun him around. The fat man hit him in the head several times with a closed fist. Skinny and junk-filled as my uncle was, he went down right away, and the brown bag that was tucked under his left arm fell to the sidewalk, several plums rolling out of the bag. My uncle covered his face with his hands and drew his legs up toward his chest, trying to protect himself. Louie snatched the bag from the sidewalk, and with the fruit as his ammo, pelted my uncle in the head, one piece at a time. When there was no more fruit in the bag Louie threw the empty bag at my uncle then kicked him in the side. The fat man spit on my uncle. Then Louie and the fat man left.
My uncle stayed down on the ground for a while and I stayed on the steps, afraid to move a muscle. When my uncle finally got up, he walked home unsteadily, holding the side of his head. I waited fifteen minutes before heading to my grandmother’s house, where I was eating dinner that night.
When I got in the house I saw my grandmother half-leaning over the kitchen table, one hand pressed against the edge, seeming to prop up her diminutive frame. My uncle stood by the kitchen sink, a wad of blood-dark cotton plugging his ear. When I came in he looked at me with glassy eyes, weakly said hello, then looked away and cupped a hand over the cotton-stuffed ear. My grandmother didn’t acknowledge me at all: at first she seemed to be in a state of shock or recovery, then she came alive and alternated between screaming and cursing at my uncle for what he put her through, and asking him, in a soft fuzzy voice, how his head was feeling.
Fine, Ma, my head’s fine, he would say whenever she asked, mostly looking at the floor. I hadn’t moved from the doorway and tried to stay as still as possible, hoping to perpetuate my invisibility. Then, as if my presence had suddenly registered on my grandmother’s radar, she held out her brown liver-spotted hands, which were trembling, and said: Look, Alex . . . look at my hands. Do you see what he does to me? I can’t take this anymore. My nerves can’t take this.
Ma, please, my Uncle started, but my grandmother’s voice raised a fiery octave and cracked—Well I can’t. It’s true. I can’t take this anymore.
I looked at my uncle then at my grandmother.
Why don’t you sit down, I told her.
How can I sit down when I’m like this?
My uncle stared out the kitchen window, a sullen look on his face. My grandmother started muttering—That sonofabitch, that sonofabitch—and as if those words cued her next move, she went over to the phone, which was posted on the wall, and began dialing.
Who you calling, Ma, my Uncle asked—Ma, who ya calling?
My grandmother didn’t answer my uncle, continuing to mutter—That sonofabitch, that sonofabitch—the phone pressed hard against her ear.
Louie? Louie, this is Maime . . . what did you do to my son Louie? What did you to him? He’s sick, Louie, and that’s what you do to him. He’s sick, you sonofabitch. What? You’ll get your money, you sonofabitch. You’ll get it.
My grandmother slammed the phone on the receiver. Then she held out her trembling hands—Look at my hands. Look at them.
My uncle shook his head, went to his room, and closed the bedroom door.
That night my grandmother and I ate dinner and my uncle stayed in his room. Except for my grandmother’s occasional outbursts concerning the state of her nerves, we ate in silence.
I went home right after dinner. When I got there I saw my mother on the phone in the kitchen and knew that she was talking to my grandmother because of the dramatic look in her eyes and the charge in her voice.
I went to my room, closed the door, and watched the Yankees game, which kept my mind off what had happened. After the game was over, though, I started thinking about how my uncle was a fruit peddler and a junkie, and how Louie Varinella was a store owner and a loan shark, and felt weak and small and ashamed, as if Louie and his son were better and stronger than my uncle and me, and they would always be better and stronger than us.
I wanted to take pride in something, find secret strength somewhere, but I kept on seeing my grandmother’s trembling hands, the wad of blood-dark cotton in my uncle’s ear, Louie firing fruit at my uncle’s head . . . again and again, those images came to me . . . and not knowing what to do or make of them, I catalogued them under Fiction and let silence do the rest.