Reprinted from At Home In The Dark
The flames danced in Vito Ferro’s rheumy eyes as the intense heat blistered the skin black. The brick beehive of the Neapolitan pizza oven at full fire was as hot as a crematorium, and cooked a pie to perfection in under seven minutes. This gave the crust a crispness on the teeth but left chew in the dough, and melted the sliced rounds of bone-white mozzarella without boiling the bright acidity out of the tomato sauce, like a steel oven would.
“Looks about done, right Uncle Veet?” His grandnephew Peter worked runnels into his soft knuckles with his thumbs, kneading invisible worry beads.
Peter was smart, a college boy—unlike Vito’s stronzo sons—but he chattered when outside of his element.
Vito snapped callused fingers, and Peter slid the wooden paddle, the pizza peel, beneath the pie and brought it to the work counter, where he cut it into uneven eighths with jerky, hesitant thrusts of the roller.
Vito studied the pie solemnly.
His family proudly called themselves Catholics, but their true religion was food. Pizza, in particular. Vito had made a covenant with the god of the oven paid for in toil. In the oven he had built with his own hands, a transfiguration occurred, turning a little flour and water topped with tomato sauce and cheese into a meal that made customers line down the block for hours, and his family lived like barons had in the old country.
Vito slapped Peter on the shoulder. “Bene. Mangia.”
The kid pulled off a slice and bit into it with pride. “It’s good!”
Vito remembered when he’d made his first pie back in Napoli, and felt a little twinge in his chest. He took a slice and noted the droop of the the triangle. The center was the hardest to get right. Too often they were soft and watery. He closed his eyes and chewed slow.
The burning began as a small pill of pain at the back of his throat, then blossomed into fiery agony, as if he’d eaten a spoonful of hot coals from the oven. He ran for the galvanized sink and drank from the faucet like a dog to quench the grease fire in his mouth. Sweat ran down his face and he collapsed to the floor.
He woke to Peter fanning him with an apron. When he could talk without agony, he dialed the phone. Hoping he would get no answer. Vito didn’t know what frightened him more—the curse or Aldo Quattrocchi, the mafiosi who’d lent him thirty thousand dollars to open the restaurant, even though he was of an age where he shouldn’t buy green bananas.
“Calm down,” The voice chilled his ear like he’d opened the deep freeze. “I’ll send the Gagootza.”
# # #
Stately, tanned Joey Cucuzza, resplendent in a tailored slate suit, pink shirt with its collar open to frame a red Italian horn pendant shaped like a dog dick, listened while the ancient pizza-man beseeched him.
Vito scratched his sunken, gray-haired chest through a sweat-soaked white undershirt.
“You burnt your tongue on a slice of pizza?” Joey fixed things for Aldo Quattrocchi, a captain in the broken family of northern Jersey crime. He had come directly from his no-work job at Port Newark, where he read the newspapers and day-traded when he wasn’t at the gym, out to lunch with the dock boss, or enjoying a nooner in the apartment he kept in Ironbound.
Or visiting Aldo’s Newark subjects, who expected protection for their payments of street tax.
“I explain.” Vito took a grayed rag from the pocket of his chinos and mopped his face.
Vito Ferro was a northern New Jersey institution, the first to make Neapolitan style pies, and had paid street tax on his first shop in Hoboken long before Joey and Aldo were born. Aldo could be sentimental when he wasn’t telling you to tack someone’s fingertips to a table with finishing nails.
He wouldn’t send Joey for that kind of job. They had apes for that. Joey was here because he knew people, and he knew people. Now touching forty, he had come up as a runner for an uncle who ran gay bars for the Jewish mob in Manhattan. He had a reputation as a reasonable if foppish good earner with an even temper, respected by men of violence and friendly enough to be a face with the citizens.
“Got any coffee?” Joey nodded toward the shiny pipeworks of the espresso machine.
“It’s not hooked up yet.” The nephew swallowed spit. College boy had locks of brown curls like a Greek shepherd, no ring, and a nice physique. Eyebrows tweezed, with intelligent eyes above a slack jaw. Hands too soft for labor.
Joey wondered how the kid wound up here.
“How exactly are you spending Mister Quattrocchi’s money?” They’d had the thirty grand for six weeks. You paid your first month on receipt, but they would be late for the next unless business picked up soon.
“I had the oven brought brick by brick from Napoli,” Peter said. “It’s the same one Uncle Veet used in his first pizzeria. It took me a week to find the place. They don’t speak the Italian I learned in school.”
Vito winced and sipped milk like he was nursing an ulcer.
Joey had visited Napoli to broker a deal with the Camorra for containers half-filled with fake Gucci handbags and half with young Slovenian women, and the mangled street Italian he’d learned growing up served him well. He’d also picked up a snobbery for classic Neapolitan pizza, and after Vito retired, no one else came close. His sons were clowns in comparison.
“They put up a wall around the oven, turned the place into some Irish pub.”
“My sons, they do this,” Vito sneered. “I retire, give them my business, and they do this to me. Disgraciata!” He drew into himself with shame, then curled back two fingers of his right hand and spat between the horns of pointer and pinky finger. “It is the mal occhio.”
The evil eye.
Joey touched the cornuto, the Italian horn at his throat.
His family was only three generations from the old country, where people were still killed over such things.
“I tell Aldo that, and he’s gonna say ‘Old Vito is pazzo,’ and you know what they do to mad dogs, Mister Vito.”
Vito spread the dollop of saliva into the black and white tiles with the sole of his black loafer. “I bite into the pizza from that oven, it burns me. Tell him, Pietro.”
Peter shrugged helplessly. “He looked like he was dying, Mister Cucuzza.”
Joey buffed manicured nails on his slacks. “Why don’t you make me a pie while you tell me the history of the world part one.”
Vito took a risen ball of dough from a tray in the refrigerator. The short old man was bent and his skin was crepe paper, but his forearms flexed as he tossed the dough. He made quick work of it, then sat to tell the story in the seven minutes of baking.
He wringed his apron in his hands. Embarrassed and afraid, sure of his fate.
Joey listened to the story, even though he’d read it in the newspaper. One son had sued the other over use of the name Original Vito’s Neapolitan Pizza. A reality show was pitched. It became a joke. Vito had enough, coming out of retirement to save his good name.
Except he didn’t have any money.
Like many who came over, Vito had no papers, never applied for a social security number. Everything legit was in his wife’s name, and when she succumbed to cancer, it went to their sons, Sal and Nunzio. When he retired, his boys took everything but the house he lived in, left him squeaking by on his wife’s social security check. No more new Cadillacs every year for Vito.
“Scumbari,” the old man said.
So he went to Aldo, who like most guys his age from Hoboken, loved Frank Sinatra, Fiore’s mozzarella, and Vito Ferro’s Neapolitan pizza.
Vito slid out the pie and cut it with quick swipes of the roller.
Joey folded a slice and took a bite. No fires of hell. Only fresh marinara, the tart milky taste of Fiore’s handmade mozzarella cheese, and Vito’s perfect crust. He grunted in appreciation.
“Have one, Mister Vito.”
Vito looked at the pie as if it were a rattlesnake coiled on the wooden pizza peel. “No, Giuseppe. I have the mal occhio on me. And it comes from my own sons.” He gripped his chest to remove the invisible knife from his heart.
Protection was protection. “We’ll help you, Mister Vito.”
# # #
In the air conditioned leather confines of his red Alfa Romeo sedan, Joey called his mother.
“Joseph.” Kitchen sounds and Animal Planet in the background. “To what do I owe the honor?”
He’d missed two Sundays in a row. She was probably getting ready to put a mal occhio on him. “Ma. I told you, the port’s open Sundays this month.”
It was, but Joey had been in Provincetown, eating littleneck clams and working on his tan.
“You could come Wednesdays. Your uncle comes over for pasta.”
They were both at the age where old stories played on repeat. Once a week more than enough. “Hey Ma, you remember the crier at great-grandpa Nick’s funeral? Witch Nose.”
His great-grandfather had raised goats. All Joey remembered besides the funeral was that he both looked and smelled like a billy goat, and from the family gossip, he was hornier than one.
“Angelina. She always liked you.”
“She still crying, or did she shuffle off to Buffalo?” Their family euphemism for death.
“No one uses criers any more.”
True. They’d hired them for her grandfather because he’d been a nasty old prick who gelded billy goats with knife and a pair of pliers, and beat his sons for growing bigger than him.
The criers had been unnecessary. All his mistresses showed up, a half dozen of the heftiest Italian widows of Nutley, crying like six operas going on at once. His mother had been mortified.
“She made the best pignoli until she got the arthritis. She’s still on the old street. Next to where Raffiola lived.” Old person directions. He knew the house.
“You got her number?”
“No, but where’s she gonna go? She’s all alone. Like how I’m gonna be when a crane falls on you.”
“Thanks, Ma. I’ll be there Sunday. Unless a crane falls on me.”
“Don’t talk like that.” She clucked her tongue. He could see her make the sign of the cross.
Joey’s old neighborhood of Avondale had been handed down by the Italians to the next generation of immigrants. The two-story, green or white siding homes were so close together that you could climb out one window into your neighbor’s for surreptitious infidelity. After his old man copped a croak, his mother sold the creaky hand-built house and bought a condo.
Instead of Bon Jovi blaring from the stereo of an IROC Camaro, “Despacito” warbled from an open window, but little else had changed. The men were away at work, the kids were in school, and the women worked side hustles in the kitchens, watched toddlers, ran a sewing machine. He parked on the sidewalk in front of a house with ancient grapevines strangling a trellis over the backyard.
The wooden front door was painted shut and dead-bolted. It had probably never been opened except to move in furniture generations ago. The skinny driveway held a lemon-colored K-car on four flat tires, cardboard boxes stuffed to the windows. Behind it, three cracked concrete steps with a railing made of lead plumbing pipe led to a storm door that left white powder on his knuckles when he rapped on it. He heard a voice, then steps.
He studied Angelina’s yard while he waited. A rotting wine press, a wooden barrel topped with greasy rainwater. Ivy covered the chainlink fence, and pale green baseball bats of Italian squash dangled nearly four feet to the ground.
His phallic namesake squash, which had led to the playground taunts that tempered his mettle. The early battles taught him into a peacemaker until a growth spurt turned him into a rangy bloodier of noses.
A hunched form opened the inside door, and a wizened face jabbed a pointy chin his way.
“Buongiorn Guiseppe,” she said, and shuffled back into the kitchen. “Your mother say you come.”
So Ma had her number, but wanted him to visit the old broad.
With arthritic fingers like the tangled white roots of a pulled root, she stirred the heady contents of a pot with a wooden spoon. A translucent crescent of squash rose to the top.
Cucuzza. Of course.
His father had loved it cooked with potatoes, hot peppers, and tomato sauce in a peasant stew called giambotta. Joey would sop up the sauce with bread, ignoring the watery squash until he took a cuff to the ear.
He dusted a vinyl chair with his pocket square and sat while she poured black coffee from a glass percolator and set out a plate of pizzelle, delicate waffle-shaped cookies snow-dusted with confectioner’s sugar.
He went through the rituals of politeness, asked of family, listened to her aches and troubles. Her hand was cold when she touched his wrist, her eyes bright.
“Angelina, I need you to tell me how to free somebody from the evil eye.”
Her eyes turned steely serious. “I show you.”
He left with a Corning-ware dish of stewed cucuzza and half of a long Italian loaf from Vitiello’s bakery.
# # #
Back in the kitchen of Vito’s Original Classic Neapolitan Pizza Pies, Vito stared at a steel mixing bowl filled with water. The kid was up front working the sparse lunch crowd, stumbling occasionally but eager to prove himself. Joey set a green bottle of olive oil next to the bowl.
“Three drops in the water. One at a time.”
Angelina had told him that someone unburdened by the fascina, the hold of the evil eye, would create three separate drops. He tried it himself in her kitchen.
Vito scratched at his belly, then tilted the bottle over the water.
One drop. Then two, three golden pearls floated atop the water in a lazy spin.
They leaned in close.
Slowly, the drops found each other and made a single orb that resembled nothing less than the yellow eye of the devil himself.
They hadn’t waited for the water to settle, Joey thought. But it didn’t matter. Vito thought he was cursed, and the olive oil affirmed his belief.
And he’d believe in the cure.
Joey handed him a can of Morton’s salt.
“Shake some in, say an Our Father. Do that three times.”
Vito beseeched him with his pouchy eyes. Joey prayed with him in Italian, silently hoping that he wouldn’t burst into flames.
“Now we do the test again?”
“Don’t tempt fate, Vito.” He gripped the old man’s shoulder, still strong. “Angelina says you are free of the fascina.”
Vito winced at the word, then hugged him.
Joey wished such wards worked, but in his experience human nature was stronger than magic. He dropped his flour-speckled suit coat off at the dry cleaner, and brought Angelina’s dish to the office at the port, where the boys scarfed it down.
“It’s Cucuzza’s cucuzza!” one gavone bellowed around a mouthful.
Joey grabbed the crotch of his summer suit. “Eat this cucuzza.”
They laughed as he told them the story. One asked him to put the mal occhio on his mother in-law. He went to his office to finish reading the papers and trade stocks before closing.
# # #
Aldo called him the next morning, crabbier than usual. Joey talked him down. They hadn’t met this week, and Aldo had a sit-down that afternoon, which always gave him the agita.
“I feel like I got hit with the mal occhio. You wanna drizzle some olive oil and find out?”
“After the meet. You got this. You’re a golden god.”
“I don’t feel like one.”
“You will tonight.”
“Speaking of evil eyes, you gotta see Vito again. He’s busting my balls. Why’d I give that old fuck my number? He should be calling you.”
“You wanted the quick vig on thirty gees. Doing street work, when you’re the big capita cazzo.”
“It’s easy money. That vig paid for your new coat.”
“When do I see this coat?”
“The apartment. Wear it today. Ciao.”
Joey wore the two-button pale blue silk Isaia sport coat over faded gray jeans and a matching snug shirt.
Peter stoked the oven, raking the coals with a shovel.
Vito stared into a bowl of oil-dotted water. “I can’t cook anymore. Tell Mister Quattrocchi to take my business. I die soon.”
“Talk to me.”
The old man flicked his eyes toward his grandnephew.
“Wait outside kid,” Joey said. “Go play on your phone.”
He flinched, but left under the withering stare.
Vito told him, in stuttering broken English. “Today, I see the face of the dead.”
Joey held back the look that said he was pazzo.
“My family is from Bari. My uncles, they were fisherman who go to America, but my mother and father run a little restaurant by the water.”
Joey prepared for more ancient history.
“We fed the soldiers. Italian, then English and American. Then the Germans raid the harbor with screaming bomber planes. One ship was full of mustard gas. The Americans say no, but the gas rolled in and kill my family.”
He looked down. “My mother put a wet towel over my face, but she breath in too much.”
“I am orphan. The Americans put me on a train to Napoli. I apprentice in a pizzeria, make good money. So I come here.”
That morning, he came to make dough and sauce, and was met with a blast of heat and a glow from the oven.
“The oven was flaming like the fires of hell. A young girl stirring the coals. She screams at me, tears gold chains from her neck and throws them in the fire.” His eyes went away, like he was talking about the past.
“She scoop up the coals in her hand and throws them at me.”
He held up his apron. It was scorched with a black mark, burned with a scatter of pinholes like a shotgun blast.
“I drive home, pray the rosary. Peter calls me, asks why I leave the door unlocked. I come back, everything is clean. The oven is empty.”
“Who was she?”
Vito pulled a gold chain from his shirt and kissed the large pendant of Jesus wearing the crown of thorns. “The evil eye, showing me my family in hell. Lies, to hurt me.”
Joey looked into the bowl. The gleaming oil stared back as one big eye.
“Make your pies, Mister Vito. I’ll fix this.”
Outside, he found the kid leaning on the bricks, one knee bent like a flamingo as he thumbed his phone. He looked too much of a chooch to be pulling one over on anybody. And what motive? He was partners with the crazy old bastard. If they couldn’t pay the vig, one of Aldo’s apes would break his clean-shaven arms.
“You like slinging pizza dough for a living?”
Peter shrugged. “Uncle Veet put me through college after my father died from 9/11. He was a fireman. Took a ferry over to help dig for weeks. It got into his lungs.”
Joey nodded. They had watched the towers go down from Newark harbor, helpless.
“You see anything when you got here this morning?”
The kid shook his head, eyes rattling like dice. “The oven was empty.”
“Think maybe your uncle’s got oldtimer’s disease?” Joey switched gears to dockworker talk. He liked smart people thinking he was ignorant and easily fooled.
“You mean Alzheimer’s? He doesn’t forget a thing, Mister C. He’s as good with numbers as I am, and I have a degree in Finance. I took a little psych, too. He’s got a lot guilt. My uncles broke his heart.”
Family shit. The only think Joey hated more than eating cucuzza was dealing with other people’s family shit.
He thought about it in the privacy of the Alfa Romeo as the Beastie Boys rapped about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego on the stereo.
Guilt meant lies. He could lean on the old man, but vecchioni could be stubborn. What scared people of that age was more frightening than pain or death.
The sons would talk. They couldn’t want Vito’s competition. There were a thousand pizza joints in Jersey, but one more Original Vito’s Neapolitan Pizzas diluted the brand. And the old man had public sympathy.
Joey killed a few hours at the port listening to the dock boss complain, then drove over the black steel dinosaur skeleton of the Pulaski skyway into the lesser hell of late morning traffic. An hour later he emerged in the labyrinth of huddled four-story brick buildings that was Hoboken. The neighborhood had gentrified into a sixth borough of New York, a haven for frat boys and trust fund kids who skipped Williamsburg after draining it dry of cool.
He parked in front of a hydrant next to a beauty spa and walked the block. Four old men held court at a card table next to a stoop and watched the neighborhood. Ground down by life, sandpaper stubble chins defying their morning shaves. Two of them tightened up at his approach, another puffed a black cigar that smelled like feet.
“Joey C,” the last one said, with a respectful nod. A retired shipping man. “Good to see you.”
“Buon dia, Skippy.”
“What brings you here? Can’t be the ah’pizz.”
“That bad?” Joey nodded toward Vito’s first pizzeria, rechristened Gavones.
The smoker laughed. “Fiore won’t even sell him mozzarella no more.”
“He sells this thing called a Garbage Pie,” Skippy said. “The kids line up for it. Puffing the marijuan right on the corner with those vape pens, clouds like someone oughtta be playing ‘Harlem Nocturne.’”
The men shook their heads.
“I’ll talk to him.”
The new sign depicted a spike-haired guido caricature straight out of Jersey Shore, gripping a slice in a pumped fist dripping grease onto a muscle shirt. Joey pushed open the door, and heard the smoker mutter finocchio before it closed behind him.
Inside, the place did a brisk early lunch business, mostly young people on phones yammering over pies smothered with everything from chicken fingers and mozzarella sticks to pineapple rings and bacon slices. The menu on the wall listed myriad combinations that made Joey’s head hurt.
Worse, Lou Monte sang “Dominic the Italian Christmas Donkey” on the speakers. In September.
A spray-tanned guy with stretch marked shoulders worked the oven, a beehive of checkered ceramic tiles with the color baked out of them. Vito’s first.
Joey skipped the line. “Nunzio here?”
“In the back, bro.”
Past another kid working a deep fryer was an open door. Inside was a big refrigerator and a flour-scattered work table where the presumed Nunzio worked the dough. He flicked his eyes at Joey but kept rolling, setting softballs of pizza dough on wax paper-lined trays.
Joey watched for a minute. “How you doing, Nunzi?”
“You mind? Some of us gotta work for a living.” They were off Aldo’s turf, but the attitude took some balls. He admired it over the ass-kissing he usually got.
“You seem to be doing all right. But your father, something’s got him upset.”
Nunzio rolled his eyes. “When’s he not upset? He retired ten years ago. My mother, all she wanted was a vacation in the old country. She had to go alone on a Mario Perillo cruise. He wouldn’t leave the business alone for that long.”
He paused for a quick sign of the cross, dabbing himself with flour. “May she rest in peace, sixty years with that stubborn vecchione.”
Joey could smell the spite. A cheap, perfectionist father who hewed to tradition. He knew the sting well.
“So Vito’s cheap. He took care of you and your kids.”
“He’s tighter than a crab’s ass, and that’s waterproof.” He slapped a dough ball down.
“You gotta bust his balls with this stoner shit? Calling it a garbage pie? He thinks you put the evil eye on him.”
Nunzio laughed and started on a new bowl, mixing flour and water. “He’s always been superstitious. I heard he had the new place blessed by a priest. He cries the blues, but he wants for nothing. His problem is he’s got to run everything, and it’s not like the old days. We tried staying traditional, and almost sank like the Titanic. The ‘merigons want gluten-free crust, vegan cheese. Crazy toppings.
“He wanted money to open his own place, but it isn’t there. It all went into my brother’s fancy-ass place in Millburn and the grandkids’ college. My daughter and her husband make good money, but they can’t make that nut alone. Vito got to retire. Me, I’m gonna keel over in front of that oven before my day comes.”
Once the steam settled, Joey went in. “He owes Aldo thirty large. One of you is either playing games with him or he’s losing his marbles. Either way, when he can’t pay, you know who we hit up.” You inherited street debt from your parents, your children. It was a curse you couldn’t dispel using salt and olive oil.
“My little cousin couldn’t lend it to him?” He punched down the dough. “That’s who you should hit up. His partner?”
“The kid can’t even afford to dress right.”
“That’s how they all dress these days, like bums. He’s got cush, believe me. How you think he’s got time to make pizzas with Cheapo Vito?” He wiped flour off his hands, and Joey stepped back to avoid getting the dust on his new coat.
“Kid thinks his shit don’t stink, just like my brother with his villa out in the ‘burbs.” Nunzio carried a tray of dough to the icebox. “My son saw him with a hot broad all over him at the club. Me, I’m working seven days a week, I haven’t had my ashes hauled in a month.”
Joey left Nunzio to his dough. If he was too busy to get laid, he wouldn’t have time to prank his father over old grudges.
On the walk back to the car, he let the past creep in.
Joey’s uncle on his mother’s side came for coffee every morning once his father left for work. Weary-eyed after the New York bars closed, he walked Joey to school before heading home to sleep. Taught him to laugh at life, introduced him to Mel Brooks movies, gave them a VCR when they cost a grand and weighed fifty pounds.
After a bottle of red at Sunday dinner, his father would jab young Joey in the chest.
You turn into a finocchio like your uncle, and I’ll put a bullet in your head.
Joey thought the word had something to do with Pinocchio. His uncle did walk like he was on strings. When Joey grew older and his disinterest in girls became obvious, he took a beating from the old man. His uncle gave him the couch at his flat and a job as a runner. By then he learned that finocchio was Italian for fennel. The root looked like a man’s genitals, so the word served double duty as a slur toward gay men.
At the card table, the smoker grinned at him around the stub of his cigar. Joey slapped it out of his mouth and sprayed him with embers. The other men cringed and shouted in surprise. “Next time the lit end goes up your ass.”
Joey wiped the ashes off his jacket and squealed the Alfa’s tires up the street. He felt like hitting a heavy bag, taking a cold shower and a nooner. He headed towards the highway to brace the other son.
What Nunzio said about Peter bothered him. If the kid was loaded, why did Vito go to the street for money? Maybe he spent the loan on tail, and this was his way out of it.
The stereo played Boz Scaggs, and Joey smiled. His uncle called him Scuzz Baggs. He had a funny name for everybody. Barry Manilow was Barry Cantaloupe. He loved wordplay and old euphemisms, like getting your ashes hauled.
He called Aldo on the bluetooth. Before the sit-down, he would hit the sauna to steam himself of the poisons he drank to sleep. Alcoholism galloped Aldo’s family like a mudder at Monmouth racetrack.
Aldo picked up without a word. Just heavy breath.
“Babe. I’m sorry. I’m handling the Vito Ferro bullshit. Tell me who handles his trash?”
“Off the top of my head?”
“Save me a trip back.”
“Maybe you should be back at the apartment in an hour. Bring me a prosciutto and mozz from Fiore’s.”
“Love to, but I’m stuck on 280.” He wasn’t on the highway yet, but he was following a scent, however faint, and didn’t want to leave the trail.
Besides, he wanted Aldo hungry and sharp for the sit-down, not sated and logy.
“Tonight we’ll celebrate with a steak at Arthur’s on the water. I made reservations.”
Joey touched the cornuto at his throat. It was the anniversary of their trip to Capri, where Aldo bought him the pendant made from the local coral.
A low grumble as Aldo’s gears turned. He was no good with dates, but he’d know who hauled trash for the people who owed him money.
“Exo carting. Terry Peru’s thing.”
“Thanks babe. Pick you up at eight.”
He looked the number up on his phone, weaving a little on the road.
They had spent two weeks in Italy, including a trip to Sicily to find Aldo’s family village, where they learned Sicilian stiletto fighting from a ‘Ndrangheta knife master. Joey had bought them matching handmade stilettos as an anniversary present. Eleventh was steel. He fingered the abalone handle of the stiletto in the pocket of his new coat. Silk was twelfth. Aldo miscounted.
Joey smiled and tried to convince the gravelly-voiced receptionist of Exo Carting to put him through to her boss.
She said he’d call back.
# # #
Interstate 280 turned into a parking lot in the hills. He made his way to the shoulder and rode it a half a mile, ignoring the horns of cars in the right lane that he sprayed with kicked-up debris.
Angelina would be home. He wasn’t angry that her evil eye cure hadn’t worked, but he needed her to come up with a spell or something to keep Vito from giving himself a heart attack over globs of olive oil in a bowl.
He tailgated a bus in the afternoon idiot traffic, the road clogged with harried mothers in minivans and Q-tip-headed old fucks with boxes of tissues in their rear windows. He kneaded the wheel. His even temper took work.
His phone buzzed.
“Terry. Thank you for getting back so quickly.” His overly polite tone begged for discourtesy, so that he could retort.
“Anything for Joey C. What you need?”
“What days you pick up on Mulberry, down by the Rock?”
“Uhh….” Paper flipping. “This morning.”
Fuck. It was his own fault for not checking the trash after Vito said the oven was empty.
“I need to look in whatever truck picked up Vito Ferro’s dumpster this morning. They still out?”
Terry huffed, a laugh cut short. “No, they get done by noon.”
“I need you to get them on the radio before they dump.” Newark had a trash incinerator. Not everything got burned, but once it was in the system to be sorted, he’d have no way of finding their trash.
“I could try, but…”
“You think I’m asking ‘cause I like rooting through other people’s shit?”
A pause while Terry swallowed the response in his mouth.
“I’ll radio them right now. What you want them to do?”
“Have them meet me in the Meadowlands where you dump your hazmat trash when you’re short on the vig.”
Terry didn’t chuckle at that one. He was into Aldo for six figures for fantasy sports bets. “Can they just dump and go?”
A Lexus truck stopped to double park. Joey stomped the brake and the Alfa Romeo shuddered. “Your sister’s ass!”
“I’m sorry Joey. They’re on the clock.”
“Not you. Some bucciacca cut me off.” He swerved into the oncoming lane and gunned past. “Tell your guys to wait. You think I’m sifting through that shit?”
In the silence, he saw Terry lick his fat lips.
“Make ‘em punch out. They’ll get paid.”
“Gimme an hour.”
“Make it two.”
# # #
Joey hit the gym and took a hot shower before he rapped on Angelina’s door. She didn’t come. He flicked open his stiletto and popped the storm door’s lock. He found her sprawled on an easy chair, mouth open, eyes closed. Chest not rising.
He leaned in to listen for breath. She smelled like sharp provolone. He squinted at the fine gold chain below the marbled wattle of her neck.
A Star of David dangled on it.
Joey didn’t know until high school that it was possible to be both Italian and Jewish. He thought his paísans were all Catholics until his English teacher, Ms. Stolfi, mentioned celebrating Passover. He had been incredulous, insisting she couldn’t be both. She made him read Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi, and give an oral report to the class. He’d been so nervous.
The snort of a warthog interrupted his reverie.
Joey jumped back from Angelina, knocking an African violet from the window sill. He caught the pot before it hit the floor.
She squinted at him. “Joey? I fall asleep. I make coffee.” She heaved herself out of the chair and shuffled to the kitchen.
Over fresh coffee, he told her about Vito and the olive oil.
“That one? He cursed himself.” She sneered, her face a white prune. “How you think he come here with money?”
Joey sipped espresso from a tiny cup and let her talk.
“No one has money. Mussolini, he suck the land dry, sfachim!” She raised a bony fist. “My family, they make Aliyah to the Holy land after the war. Who want to live with ratti who sell you out to fascisti? Nothing to eat, but Vito Ferro, he come to America, build a pizzeria.”
“Maybe the mala vita?” The bad life.
Angelina pursed her lips and poked him with a finger. “You ask me?”
Joey shrugged, sheepish. She was right. Vito paid his street tax, but never bought the olive oil the port boys jacked and sold by the truckload. He stayed clean.
“The mala vita make money from the war too,” she said. “Blood money. You no come to America with money. You come to make money. You have money, why you leave?” She pointed a gnarled finger and nodded over it, as if answering her own question.
# # #
Joey took the bridge over the dirty Passaic and weaved into the Meadowlands, a swamp so clogged with bodies and pollution that if zombies existed, they would have risen from its poisoned muck. He passed a tall radio tower with three blinking red lights, then cut down a rutted road hedged by reeds on both sides.
The Alfa bounced along, scraping on the grass, and stopped nose to nose with a Mack garbage truck. He stepped around the truck and found two men in sooty worksuits spreading the truck’s dumped load over the flattened reeds using long poles.
“We’re looking for ashes,” he said, and stood back to watch.
“That’s over here,” the squat bald one said, and jabbed at pile of trash bags that had melted and torn.
Between the reeds, he caught the afternoon sun sparkling on the water, and the SuperFund site looked beautiful if you ignored the fish and birdshit smell of the flats bared by low tide. The white underbelly of a dead crab raised its claws from the mud like a pair of praying hands.
His thoughts turned to his father.
After the beating ruined his Roman nose, Joey had learned to pass among straight men. They weren’t that different, but many would only freely express themselves through anger or desire. If you wanted something from them, you translated your needs into their pidgin.
He didn’t need to explain himself to the garbage men, they would dig because they feared him. But they would work harder if they imagined he was the devil-may-care, unfaithful piece of shit they wished they could be.
“We’re looking for my goomar’s chain,” Joey said. “Dumb broad threw it in the fireplace because I’m taking my wife to Punta Cana. Now she wants it back.” He rolled his eyes for the convincer.
They muttered about girlfriends and wives as they kicked through the ashes, and marsh birds cried and swooped overhead.
“I got something,” the tall one said, and bent to thrust his gloved hand into the ashes.
Joey walked closer. The worker brushed soot off the coil in his palm.
“Thought gold would melt into nothing.” He held up a blackened mess of burn spaghetti.
Joey took it in his handkerchief. “You think that bucciacca is worth gold?” He snickered.
The necklaces had melted. Any gold coating was long gone and the amulets were unrecognizable. Gimcrack for a parlor trick to scare an old man. He wrapped the mess into his pocket.
“Thank you fellas.” He gave them each a hundred.
# # #
He pulled into the radio station’s driveway and stared at the dead neon letters of the white WMCA hut and thought about who would want to torment Vito Ferro to death.
He had killed for business, and for personal reasons. Personal got messy. You wanted them to know why.
Do things like cut their hands off with bolt cutters and throw them, still zip-tied together, for the crabs to eat in the swamp. Hands that could never hit you again.
He called the pizza joint in Millburn that the other son had opened.
“Vito’s Neapolitan Pizza and Italian Specialties,” a young woman answered.
“Sal please. Tell him it’s Joey Cucuzza.”
He spent a minute listening to Mario Lanza. No corny Lou Monte for the rich ‘merigons.
“Sal here. Who is this?”
“Joe Cucuzza. I’m a business associate of your father’s. I need to find his partner, your nephew Peter. He still at home?”
“Why don’t you call him then?” Cocky.
“It would be a lot easier if you told me where he lives, Sal. I’m calling as a courtesy. If I drive out there, maybe those imports you sell get held up in customs until they rot.”
“Whoa, easy. I’m just protecting my family.”
“I understand, Sal. He’s not in trouble. He’s the finance wiz, right? He’s hooking me up with some hedge funds.”
“He’s got a condo in Jersey City,” Sal said. “With his fiancée.”
Joey committed the address to memory.
# # #
Vito’s Original Classic Neapolitan Pizza Pies was nearly abandoned by five o’clock, after the downtown Newark commuters fled and before the gentrifiers came out for dinner. Peter leaned on the counter, playing on his phone.
The scent of tomato sauce filled the restaurant like a siren song. Joey followed it, snapping his fingers for the kid to follow.
Vito stirred a huge pot of sauce, a bubbling blood red witch’s brew.
“Mister Vito,” Joey said, and spun a chair backwards to sit facing the old man. “I’ve found who’s giving you the evil eye. And they won’t be bothering you any more.”
Before Vito could talk, Joey said, “You have a ghost. And my strega says the only way to exorcise a ghost is to set them to rest. So tell me the real story of how you came to America.”
The kid put his phone down.
Vito frowned. “I tell you. I made money in Napoli, everyone know my pizza.”
“If you were flush, why’d you come here?”
“It is America. My family was dead.”
“The country was in ruins, but you were selling pies? Why don’t you tell me where you got the money.”
“I do not have to explain myself to mafiosi. You bleed us dry!” Vito stood and made a fist. The scarred skin of his forearms stretched over old muscle.
“Easy, Uncle Veet,” Peter said.
“I spoke to my strega, Vito. She’s Jewish, you know? We had a lot more Jewish Italians before the war than after it. Their neighbors ratted them out. Took everything they owned. And when the war was over and Mussolini was strung up by his balls, people took revenge on those no-good rat fucks. That ring any bells?”
Vito shuddered, fists at his sides. “They do not belong there!”
Peter gasped. “Uncle Vito.”
Joey shrugged. “Your uncle’s not the nice guy you thought. But you know that already, don’t you kid?”
Peter let his jaw go slack.
“Don’t play dumb. Make us a pie. Margherita. And no hot sauce this time.” Joey took a bottle from his pocket and set it on the table.
Peter stammered. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Houshmand’s NastyVicious Hot Sauce. They make this at Rowan college.” Joey turned the bottle around. “You went to Rowan, didn’t you?”
“Pietro?” Vito stared.
“Uncle Veet, he wants to turn us against each other. Take over your business.”
“Aldo owns the building. It’s in his interest for you to make lots of money, so he can jack up your rent. Try again, kid.”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“You two talk this out. That pie had better make me lie back and think of Napoli.” Joey walked to his car and returned holding a young lady by the nape of her neck. “Good of you not to run, bella donna.”
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
The pie was in the oven, Peter cowering as Uncle Vito jabbed his finger and swore. “Vaffanculo! You do this to me?”
Vito screamed and grabbed his chest when he saw the girl.
“Meet Peter’s wife-to-be,” Joey said. “I found her in the Jersey City condo she shares with your nephew.”
Vito scrunched his face. “Peter, you said you live at home, you have no money.”
“She’s a stage manager. She used Peter’s father’s fireman gloves to scoop the coals. They’re rated for twelve hundred degrees.” A fireman told Joey that once on a date. He nudged her forward. “Give him your best vengeful ghost act, honey.”
She grabbed a pizza slicer. “I don’t need to act, this Nazi motherfucker robbed my family and sent them to the camps! My nonna remembers you.”
Vito held up his hands in shock.
The girl was a ringer for her grandmother. She’d shown Joey the photo while she begged for her life at stiletto point.
Peter exchanged his dumbstruck act for a sneer of loathing. “Valeria’s grandmother told me everything. How could you do that?”
“You don’t know what it’s like to starve!” Vito snarled. “None of you.”
“My nonna does,” Valeria said. “You took her gold necklace. From a little girl! You made them hide in your oven from the secret police. Was that some sick joke? Then you turned them in. She saw a picture in the paper of you arguing with your sons, and she nearly had a heart attack.”
Joey rapped the hot sauce bottle on the counter. “My pizza is burning.”
Peter quickly scooped it onto the peel. The cheese bubbled, the edges of the crust were a little dark.
“It’s all right, I like it blistery,” Joey said, and turned to Peter and Valeria. “Now, what do I do with you? You tried to kill a man under our protection.”
Joey flicked open his stiletto. The seven inch blade gleamed with the oven’s fire. He waved the tip at Valeria, who set down the pizza slicer.
Peter held up his hands. “Technically, we’re the ones under your protection, Mister Cucuzza.”
“We’ve been paying the street tax,” Valeria said. “Our money. Not his. He’s broke as fuck.”
Joey slowly closed his stiletto. “This is between you, then.” He took the roller and cut the pizza, folding a slice, taking a bite. “Not bad, kid.”
Vito growled, “Kill them. He is not my blood, marrying a Jew. We are Italian, Guiseppe!”
“This is for my nonna!” Valeria snatched the pizza slicer and lunged at Vito.
He stumbled back. Valeria gave chase, with Peter trying hold her back in vain.
Joey ate his slice while the tree of them disappeared into the kitchen. A loud crash gonged and a scream gargled out.
More screams. Then the crying gave Angelina a run for her money.
His phone buzzed. Aldo.
“How’s my Apollo?” he answered.
“I hope you liked Napoli,” Aldo huffed. Excited. “You’re going back. They asked for you, said you’re ingamba….”
Ingambatissimo, probably. It meant he knew his shit. Which he did.
“In Gabbadone!” Aldo laughed.
Hung like a horse. That was correct, too.
“Can’t wait. See you for dinner, babe.” Joey finished his slice to the crust and walked into the kitchen.
Sauce covered the floor, the stove, and Vito. He twitched and bubbled, mouth open and filled with his famous sauce, face unrecognizable with the skin boiled off.
“We should have stuffed him in the oven,” Valeria cried, hugged to her fiancé’s chest. Peter looked relieved and exhausted, now that the man he’d once idolized had paid for his crimes.
Joey felt a pang, recalling the feeling.
“Ciao for now,” he said, and boxed the pizza, took it to his car. The port boys would be grateful. On the drive back, he wondered if the kids could make it work with a death between them.
Joey patted the gift box with the matching stiletto, and thought of his man using it to cut into a juicy rare steak.
It took a strong love, but you could do it.