What happens when idealists and visionaries confront dissemblers and criminals over control of a new economy? Idealists start a manufacturing venture in Buffalo, NY, building hybrid cars, just when the Democratic Party nominates a progressive as its can- didate for mayor. The crime family takes interest in new money in town at the very moment that a younger criminal crew, fresh out of prison, decides to unseat that established family and return Crime to the Street. The hero of this esteemed new novel is the son of the first member of that family to abandon the life of crime—hope and history merge in him.
In the soup kitchen
In Buffalo NY, Tasio Pecoranera skipped down the stairs of a church that rose above the trees where Forest crossed Elmwood Avenue. In the basement, in a soup kitchen called Loaves & Fishes, he tuned an ancient radio to the oldies station. He liked songs from the ’60s, and he slipped his apron over his head and tied it around his waist.
Two volunteers carried trays toward the swinging doors into the dining room. Tasio waved to them. He loved it. He was forty years old, the child of a reformed Mafia guy, and he’d been washing dishes in a soup kitchen for two weeks.
He inhaled the smell of chicken and rice with green beans. He bougalooed a bit to a Petula Clark tune, Downtown. He was a fool for an oldie, and he shook his behind. On their way back, the volunteers stopped to chat.
In a fetching yellow apron over a plain white blouse and a clean pair of jeans, the first was lovely Annie Czalapenko. She was sixty- five years old, and her hair was silvery gray. She was tall and clever. She’d known Tasio since his mom worked with the clientele here. He cranked up his washer and dryer.
Annie had asked him to fill in for the usual dishwasher, a sweet old guy who’d left a box sitting on the drain and slipped on the puddle that resulted, dislocating a shoulder and cracking two ribs.
Of course he’d help out. Why not? Washing dishes was important work, and this morning Annie giggled. “I love to watch him dance.” Then she laughed gaily.
Her companion stood shorter under brown hair. She bore her round middle with a waddle. Named Gertrude by her mom, she went by Gertie and endured the inevitable Dirty Gert.
“For such a yuppie,” she cracked, “you sure boogie like a black kid.” Then she cried, “Ouch!” She scowled at Annie. “Why’d you pinch me?” She rubbed her arm. “What d’they call ‘em? Preppies?”
Annie closed her eyes, laughing. “Don’t you remember that black psychologist?” She opened her eyes, leering. “Worked with our clients?”
Intrigued, Gertie asked, “Who?”
“Me Mum.” A gallant, Tasio smiled. “Taught me all her moves.” The happy song ended. The next, Jimmy Mack, jumped on the upbeat.
“Well, gracious!” cried Gertie. “I thought he was Eye-talian.” Tasio wiped his hands on a towel. “I’m both, you lovely Dirty Gert. I’m a mixed-up mulatto.” Then he combed his wiry black hair with his fingers. “My dad is Italian.”
“Well,” said Gertie, “Italian men are adorable. Like those scamps in the dining room.”
“What scamps?” Annie murmured, laughing. She pushed her stout pal back toward the stoves to load more trays, and Tasio felt the pinch of his past, but the tune was beautiful. He shook his be- hind and danced.
He pulled silverware out of the washer, burned his fingers, and muttered, “Fuck!” Gertie trotted by again, and Tasio smiled for his sweetie. Music stirred humid air, and she smiled back.
“Your dark eyes must break a heart every day.” She lifted the hem of her skirt, and Annie materialized. “So where’s his mother now?”
Tasio watched Annie set her jaw and nod with her head, and he smiled because she was often stern in these moments. Gert toddled back to the dining room, testy and confused, and Annie strode along behind her.
Squinting through a mist of scalding water, Tasio sprayed detritus off silverware and pushed the tray into his dryer. He didn’t mind flirting with these gals, and he loved hot tunes and liked to hip-hop around his sink, obviously, but often he wished he were at home in- stead, a book in hand and Bach soft in the room. Stevie Wonder sang then, Living For The City.
Closing the washer and pushing the Start button, Tasio leaned away from billows of hot steam as other volunteers passed by with trays of dishes well in hand. He grinned for them, too.
Both his parents were gone, and Tasio slid to his left, feet slipping across rubber mats in time to the music, spoons clanging in a canister. His father had left town. Tasio took a quick step.
Would Gertie like that story? He grabbed a new canister, stopped, spun to the tune on the box, and snatched a handful of silverware, isolating knives, baby. His mother had died.
The refrain came on, and Tasio circled his ass like he was making love. He dumped knives in a canister all their own.
Tasio turned a shoulder to the beat, tapping his toes, and arranged his canisters on a tray, waiting patiently for the machine to hurry up. What a story, Dirty Gert! Don’t you want to share my pain?
He was interrupted by a commercial for Pulp Fiction. Yes! He wanted to see that movie. Then came another pitch for PlayStation, the hottest techno-fad of 1995. Tasio waited for an oldie.
Volunteers hustled by carrying generous trays, and the washing cycle ended with a commercial for Lite Beer. Carol King asked everyone who listened to WKBW, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? Tasio swooned. In his day, he’d spent hours with hippie girls to the sweet ache of that song.
“Did Gertie hurt your feelings?”
He jumped a bit, and fair Annie smiled at him. He shrugged bravely. “Gertie’s a Buffalo girl.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
A weird quietus grabbed him. “For what?” Life had left him alone, and in the calm of his apartment, Tasio listened to a lot of Bach.
Gertie bustled through the door, eyes wide. “There’s something bad in the dining room!” She hustled past, and Annie watched her go.
“You don’t have to think about your parents.”
“I think about them all the time.” Tasio saw the light go out, raised the sliding door, and pulled out the tray. “My mother’s dead, Annie. I don’t know how, and I don’t know why.”
“Your father never replied?”
Separating forks, Tasio stared into bubbling steam as into mists of his past. Then he laughed softly. “He sent a birthday card.”
Steam condensed on his washer, where large bubbles dribbled down and smaller ones retained their shapes, and Tasio craned to examine them. Annie leaned over his shoulder. “What are you doing?”
Disjointed sounds clattered outside the kitchen. The noise grew louder. Annie turned. The Miracles crooned about the Tears Of A Clown. Tasio glanced over his stacking counters, confused. This place was never loud. He stopped to focus. He wiped his forehead on his arm.
The door swung open to the right of his washing machine, and he craned his neck around his station, kind of like his office if he’d been a lawyer. He peered through the two open doors. Once a gym, the dining room held twenty-four long tables now, twelve chairs at each. On bright days, amber sunshine flowed through high windows. From inside, voices rose.
Towel in hand, Tasio paused at the doorframe. The room was crowded, but tables were empty. Women backed away from some- thing, and kids huddled behind them. A chair bounced off the floor, and other chairs scraped as they were pushed. Shouting arose in fits.
Someone cursed, which never happened in Loaves & Fishes. Several dark brothers pointed, rigid and mumbling. Tasio followed their fingers to Louie Strunz, and he thought, as he did every time, an Italian in a soup kitchen—these days?
Cocky, white, and literally crazy, Louie swaggered across the room, nearly walking over a smaller, very black man, and Tasio grit his teeth. Louie wore a baseball cap, a day’s beard, and a Metallica tee shirt. He’d bloused his camouflaged pants in camouflaged boots.
Tasio saw that Louie was hallucinating again. Louie forgot to take his meds all the time. He slept on the street as often as not. His family was in Detroit and they couldn’t pay their bills, much less help Louie.
A regular, and a loon, he forgot his medication. That’s all, and Tasio dried his hands, trying to feel better, but that wasn’t all.
Three white males were advancing. People scurried to get out of their way. They were coming after Louie Strunz, while Louie conversed with nobody at all.
They looked Italian, too, and Tasio shook his head. Two of them were swarthy. One wore a brimmed hat and knit sweater, another, a suit. They were standard, wearing the uniforms that Tasio had learned to expect of gangsters, but the third was unique. The man was enormous.
This giant had on a luau shirt?
They looked like mobsters—they certainly weren’t poor or homeless—and Tasio’s arms and neck went cold. Volunteers spilled in from the kitchen. Tasio saw them arrive, knowing that anyone might guess where this was going. The volunteers saw dangerous men, sensing violence in their dining room, but Tasio didn’t recognize any of them.
He’d met every mobster in Buffalo throughout the insanity of his childhood, and he should have known these guys. His family had run the local crime family, for Christ sake. His father abandoned the Mafia when he realized that corporations were co-opting everything in America, including organized crime. He’d pursued a degree in Economics at the University of Buffalo, but he’d kept in touch with da boys, and Tasio knew them all.
Some of them were family, and Tasio’s mother had been abandoned to the mercy of such men. When his father left town in the ‘70s, Tasio ended up in a boarding school. It was incredible. Even there, he depended on gangsters sometimes. He blinked now, flabbergasted.
Why didn’t he know these guys, and what’d they want from a screw loose like Louie Strunz? He thought this kind of Mob had died. Tasio had watched the FBI gut them, corporations usurp their business, and Latino crews sneak inside their drug trade. The Mob hadn’t come back. Had it?
Tasio saw Christian volunteers comforting children. One wiped a boy’s mouth, held him back from danger. Annie Czalapenko knelt by a tiny beauty with straight black hair and frightened brown eyes, smiling at the child and patting her tummy. The girl was shaking, and Annie whispered to her. Moving on three strange men, Tasio grew frightened, too.
The short gangster snarled at a thin homeless woman. Tasio saw an elderly volunteer try to protect the client. When the short guy growled at her, too, the old Christian lady backed away in a hurry.
Staring and incredulous, Tasio recoiled when a behemoth in a blue island shirt locked eyes with him. The man wore a ponytail…The big man turned away, but the short one smiled. Do you know me? Tasio thought. Who are you?
Then Tasio heard a shout and saw Louie Strunz in the middle of the room, standing tall and manic, legs apart and gesturing with both hands. C’mon, said his grimy mitts. His psychotic eyes said, come get a piece o’ me. Daring them, challenging these guys!
More Christian ladies hurried to the trouble. Tasio rushed over and joined Dottie Graszek, who ran the operation with her mate, Stanley. Dottie was a round and jolly grandmother, brave and stout. She’d gripped Louie’s arms, trying to calm down a crazy, but wouldn’t you know? Louie Strunz defied her and Tasio, both.
Those goofball eyes were far away and zapping fast, and Tasio had to grin. He didn’t like Louie, but he smiled as if for a kindred soul. The guy felt like a familiar nightmare. The poor looney even bared his teeth.
Then a growl arose from the black folks. Tasio glanced over and stumbled into even wilder confusion. What was going on here?
One of the homeless patrons warned Louie to back off. A thin brown man, he stepped in front of his wife and son. His wife’s face was blank. Their child was scabbed. Pointing a threat at Louie, the father glared over words that Tasio couldn’t hear, and the contrast with three button men was surreal.
Tasio felt their presence when they stopped to look back at Louie, felt their power hovering across the room, their threat as they conferred for a terrifying moment and then apparently agreed on a plan.
The giant in the ponytail elbowed the smaller guy and signaled with his giant head. Then he gazed at Tasio, like a smooth dude from the hood, nodding.
But the small brown child drew Tasio, grasping his daddy’s pant leg, thumb in his mouth, shrinking into terror. That skinny little boy absorbed his love, and when he looked up, Tasio saw that the gunmen were gone. He stared at every corner of the dining room. Gone, he thought, gone where?
Tasio knew they’d have to slip away, remain invisible. He’d seen gangsters move on innocent people, and he admired the speed of these guys, but not among the homeless poor. Government had broken the Pecoranera family, although half of the larcenous bastards were still on the street, but not in soup kitchens.
Why would mobsters come to Loaves and Fishes? He’d never seen a gangster in here, but here they were! They’d violated his sanctuary, where he sought to heal the hole in his soul that their kind had scorched in him. His education felt useless, profoundly beside the point. What was the point of learning, at all?
Then he saw Dottie Graczek’s aged husband, Stanley, and Tasio relented. The gangsters were gone. People were eating more quietly. Children seemed easier. Like diminutive brawn in the soup kitchen, Stanley had collared Louie.
“G’mon,” Stanley growled, tugging Louie’s arm.
Louie grinned, chin high, but the danger in the room had subsided.
“G’mon, you.” Stanley was a regular Popeye, short and bald and seventy-five. He was showing tough love as his wife Dottie had taught him, and Tasio loved him.
But then he realized. “Dear God, Stanley, don’t let him go outside!”
“Why?” Stanley squeezed Louie’s arm. “Why not?” Stanley wanted to get the violence out of his dining room, and if he weren’t terrified, Tasio would have laughed. The sweet ancient hadn’t noticed three killers, but Louie had.
Louie strutted along his way as if he enjoyed bad guys, welcomed their presence in his life. The arrogance in his grin might have pissed Tasio off, but Louie removed Stanley’s hand as he’d brush a crumb off his sleeve, and Tasio bolted. When Louie swaggered out the side doors, Tasio raced forward, shouting over his shoulder, “Call a cop!”
“A cop?” “Yes!” Tasio cried, but he couldn’t know if Stanley heard him. The church sat on four uncrowded acres that spread into repose, lovely with trees, bushes and flowers. The surroundings touched him immediately, and Tasio slowed down. He found the madman strolling through the parking lot. Louie was at ease, jaunty his step, no threat anywhere, no danger, and Tasio stopped.
The parking lot was a broad, dusty rectangle, black asphalt broken in small black ridges. Two driveways led from the lot, the first to Forest Avenue and the second to Elmwood. Pine trees stood the length of the border with Forest, and Tasio reached to them as if for wisdom. They maintained their silence.
“Louie!” he called, and a thin middle finger arose on Louie’s grimy right hand, eloquent and insane. Tasio dropped his arms to his sides and opened his lips just enough to draw a painful breath. He pushed his black hair off his forehead. “Louie, don’t go!”
The neighborhood closed in on him. Houses were gracious. The very air was calm and tolerant and upper middle class. He almost whispered, “Louie, please?”
The schizoid turned on a toe. “You think I’m scared?” “Come inside!” “Why?” Louie gestured at the empty lot. “There’s nobody here. What’s that?” He pointed, strangely, at nothing.
“Louie,” Tasio said gently. “C’mon. Don’t walk around out here. You saw those bad people. Come back with me.”
“Ba-ad?” Louie pointed into nothingness. “He ain’t bad.”
“Who’s not bad, Louie? What d’you mean?”
Louie dismissed him with a wave, glancing weirdly again. “I’m ba-ad,” he said. He twisted a smile, but his smile wasn’t crooked so much as haunted, gleaming at something in his head. “I’m bad. I’m burnin’. I’m burning and ba-ad. And you,” he said pointing—crazy and certain. Then he walked away.
Tasio watched for a moment, smelling garbage from dumpsters behind the church. He noticed Stanley’s beat-up truck and four sedans, noble and loved and dented. Then he raised one poignantly useless hand as he watched Louie Strunz leave. Me? What did that mean?
He lifted his face to the church, Romanesque and grand. The bronze cross soared high. Colored glass windows glistened in sunlight. He knew that the nave inside reached to Heaven, and Heaven reached Tasio’s heart from a plain altar. There, quilts and bright paintings quoted Gospel for a congregation of kindness, who loved Christ far more than they tormented Him. What was he supposed to do?
He’d volunteered in order to serve, and to serve he had to be in the kitchen. “Louie?” The sound of his voice was absurd.
Louie strolled off into … what? Tasio couldn’t possibly know, but he had to go back to his obligations, and he did.
Indoors, Tasio paused, wiping dry hands on his pants while poor folk and volunteers passed him. He frowned when something unpleasant happened in his stomach.
Killers had profaned this soup kitchen where good work was done, and Tasio felt connected to a beast that he believed he’d vanquished. He’d pored over Dante and I Promessi Sposi. He’d argued Levi and Gramsci in seminar. He believed in the Green Knight and revered Dostoevsky and Conrad. He spoke reverently of Akhmatova and Mandelstam, Pavese and Bonhoeffer, but he was happy to be a middleman to killers?
Of course, he was—not in this soup kitchen, but when opportunity arose and he could profit. He had to survive, and why should he worry about money any more than a kid from the suburbs? Criminals were his past, and the gangsters he knew were little more than corporate enforcers, anyway. He stroked their crippled egos with tawdry lies about a past that never existed. To him, they were a root system of capitalist weeds.
But not the three guys who’d come to this soup kitchen. This was different. Was this new? It didn’t feel like corporate business. It felt like action on the street, but he thought that world of Italians in crime was gone. Where, he thought? Gone where? Where the fuck did they go?
“I feel for that crazy devil.” When Tasio started, Stanley rounded his sunken eyes, tapping his temple. “He provokes the blacks, Tasio. He bullies the little guys and takes their food.” Then he turned quickly, fussing over a clean table.
“Stanley? What is it?”
“They caught him after lunch one day and giv’ him a real beatin’.” The old guy shook his head. “He don’ learn.” Then he gazed at Tasio through rheumy blue eyes and asked, “Are you okay?”
“Of course,” said Tasio. He swallowed. “I wonder if they know me, Stanley.”
“Cause of them people you used to know?”
“Of course,” said Tasio, almost whispering.
“Why’d they come after Louie?”
“I don’t know. I don’t have any idea.”
“You think Louie crossed them guys?”
Tasio nodded. “Louie did something to them.”
“He’s always doing somethin’ to somebody.”
“Did you call the police?” Tasio asked.
“I don’t like cops. Dottie did. They’ll get here when they could. I got to help the ladies clean the stoves.” The old man took a step. “Tasio?” He waited another moment. “You got chores, too.”
Tasio hurried out back. A wooden platform flaked tired green paint, spavined under broken refrigerators and useless stoves. Two wobbly stairs descended to the parking lot. This corner was his conference room, oily and wet, and Tasio conferred with reality. He shoveled up garbage and smashed empty boxes, happy chores that calmed his nerves. He scanned the perimeter of the grounds. Then he wandered along pine trees bordering this end of the lot, afraid of what he might find.
His Checker was parked among several old bombs. Girls strolled down Forest Avenue. A branch lay broken by the far border. When he noticed a gap in the underbrush, he poked his tongue in his cheek. He saw a brown and green boot protruding from forsythia, even though he was thirty feet away. Aware of his stomach again, he meandered toward the bushes.
Brambles twined among them, pricking his thinnest skin, and Tasio had to mind his language while he got a clear view of Louie. There he was, lying on his belly in weeds, and he wasn’t breathing. He already looked cold. He was probably delirious when he died. Trying to be a tough guy, Tasio wavered his head a bit, as Louie him- self had earlier done.
A thorn dug into Tasio’s neck, but he toed his Converse sneaker underneath and rolled Louie over. Then he grimaced, and his gri- mace became a ghastly stare, as old as iron weapons. He lost his breath. His stomach churned. His knees almost buckled.
Aghast at how iron magnifies our powers, Tasio shrank from the glint of an ice pick broken off in Louie’s heart.
Copyright© Robert Covelli. All rights reserved.