This was the year we moved back to Queens.
One night in April, during spring break, Uncle Vinny called and said, “Be ready by seven. Tomorrow, you have a man’s day ahead of you.”
Uncle Vinny is Mamma’s oldest brother. He’d taken to speaking to me that way, with directives, ever since my family and I returned from Italy. While we were away his Pork Store had expanded into a miniature supermarket. Without asking for the job, I’d become his assistant.
“We’re going to the wholesale meat mercato,” he informed me. “Lots and lots of work.”
I hardly slept. I’d accompanied Uncle Vinny to a lot of places that year, but I only knew the wholesale market through his conversations with other adults. I was hoping to see a farm, I guess. Mostly, though, I was excited by the prospect of being a man.
I woke up at five, the same time Pop got up for work. As Pop maneuvered through the kitchen, clanking doors and making espresso, I hid in bed, feigning sleep. (Pop’s smacking me around always seemed a possibility those days; I avoided him at all costs.) When I heard the shower running I got dressed and went out to the kitchen. I opened the window, made chocolate milk and ate a lone Chips Ahoy cookie from the pack in the bottom cabinet next to the fridge. This was no small feat—I was a chunky kid—but working with Uncle Vinny meant a free meal, on top of being paid. I wanted as much room in my belly as possible.
By the time Mamma came into the kitchen, bleary eyed and somber, I was sitting at the table watching T.V. We didn’t speak. We weren’t the type of family that said Good Morning or had breakfast together. Mamma made Pop’s lunch, and brewed American coffee, while I watched Tom and Jerry, conscious of Pop’s silence in the bathroom. Was a time he’d sing his heart out in there—he had a real good voice—but those times, like dreams come morning, were gone. Mamma put the finishing touches on Pop’s lunch; she washed an apple, tossed it into his paper sack, and sat down across from me. As an afterthought, she smoothed the front of her nightgown and asked if I wanted anything to eat. I resisted the urge to nod.
Scrubbed and pale, Pop waddled out of the bathroom in his tattered robe and disheveled hair, like some sort of haggard ghost. After a failed year abroad, we were back in our old house—a two-family brick-face with a cement backyard—but he refused to completely inhabit it. He alternated between being invisible and haunting us. Mamma and I sat in silence as Pop moved past us to the backdoor entrance, where he kept his work clothes. I made eye contact, but he kept moving. Not even a grunt.
When he was fully dressed, Pop came out and lit a cigarette. He leaned his paint splattered pants against the sink and blew smoke out the window.
“Where’s he going?” he asked.
Mamma looked up. “With my brother,” she said. “To the mercato.”
Pop released a cloud into the air and turned around. The kitchen light threw an eerie glow across his bald spot. “You wanna be a butcher?”
Pop shook his head and let out a chuckle. “A butcher.” The word just sat there. “You wanna be like your uncle? Some kind of businessman?”
When I shrugged again he waved his hand, dismissively, the red tip of his cigarette dancing. “Might as well be something,” he said. “It’s not like you can work with your hands.”
Not that I wanted to be a contractor, like him, but this hurt me. He’d been honing his ability to drive distance between us. To the point where his words crept into my head even when he wasn’t around, at the oddest moments—in class, at lunch, when I was falling asleep at night.
“You’re wasting your time with your uncle, though,” Pop went on, looking at Mamma now as he spoke. “He can’t teach you anything worth knowing. He’s been riding idiots’ luck his whole life. Nothing more.”
Mamma refused to bite. She brushed a strand of highlighted hair from her forehead and stared blankly into her I♥NY mug.
“What?” Pop asked flipping his cigarette into the sink. “I’m wrong?”
Mamma had hit a deep bottom during our time in Napoli, but more and more there were times like these where she actually seemed worse. Her demeanor, cold and vacant, said, Va fangulo!
Pop gave the table a quick pound. “Answer me!”
Mamma stood up, pushed her seat in, and walked back toward her bedroom.
Pop’s eyes bulged. He dumped what was left of her coffee into the sink, then threw the mug against the far wall. I ducked and covered my head as the ceramic burst into a jagged collage of shards.
(In my day dreams I yearned for A Church of Latter Day Saints moment. I sometimes imagined Pop taking me to a Yankee game and putting his arm around me, muffing my hair and calling me something corny and American, like slugger. In Italy, he took me to soccer games. But when I didn’t show the enthusiasm he wanted, for his sport or his country, he acted like he forgot who I was.)
Alone with Pop, I nearly crapped my pants. Then I thought of Mamma and my fear turned to anger. As far as I knew that mug was older than me.
“Vuoi dire qualcosa?” Pop asked. But I had nothing to say. I stared at him, jaw clenched, hands trembling. “Good,” he said.
He lit another smoke and made for the backdoor just as my little sister shuffled into the kitchen. Her long brown hair was tangled. There was a mark across the bridge of her nose from having fallen asleep with her glasses on.
“What happened?” Aia asked sleepily.
The bathroom fan whirred in the background, sucking up the last traces of steam from Pop’s shower. Pop turned around briefly as he twisted the doorknob. “Lock the door,” he said. It was barely six o’clock.
Uncle Vinny and his family lived up the block. His front yard and driveway were visible from our front porch if you focused, which is what I’d been doing for nearly fifteen minutes. My skin bristled at the sight of his new royal blue van pulling out and turning its nose toward our end of the block. My pulse spiked as Uncle Vinny gunned it. And the smile on my face reached Kool-Aid proportions when he screeched to a halt in front of the house, practically burning the rubber off his tires. Mamma watched from her bedroom window as I waved and bounded off the stoop and over the waist high railing that enclosed our lawn.
“Jeckie, baby,” Uncle Vinny said as I climbed in. “You ready to work?”
Uncle Vinny had just gotten his van the week before and it didn’t fail to deliver. It was like being in a cockpit, at least how I imagined it would be. There was a digital am/fm cassette stereo, a digital odometer, and a series of knobs and buttons I hadn’t the slightest idea what to do with. It was in stark contrast to Pop’s rusty green van, which barely ran legally. I used to love riding in that van, though. The way it smelled of paint, Pop’s deodorant, cigarettes and coffee. Before Pop moved us to Napoli, he would take me on contracting bids with him. There were crumpled napkins, sandpaper, and empty paint cans scattered everywhere, but there was something liberating about the lack of tidiness. Mamma kept an immaculate house. Living there was like living in a museum. I guess what I’m trying to say is I really missed my father. Uncle Vinny smiled as I pushed buttons and made a couple of stupid noises. But when I reached for one of the knobs and gave it a twist, he slapped my hand.
“That’s for the fridge,” he said, pointing over his shoulder. The back of the van was sectioned off completely by a white metal wall that looked like Styrofoam. I trusted him. “That’s where the meat goes.”
We turned onto 89th Avenue, took it to Woodhaven Boulevard and headed south toward the Belt Parkway. It felt like a summer day. The neighborhood, gray and drowsy, slipped by, hidden behind a whir of field maple trees.
“You hungry?” Uncle Vinny asked.
There was pride in my yes.
We stopped at a Dunkin’ Donuts on the boulevard. Uncle Vinny put a ten-dollar bill in my hand. He told me to get him two glazed crullers and a small coffee. I came out with a dozen donuts, his coffee, a bottle of Yoo-hoo and a quarter’s change. And in that voice he showed his employees, the one that made you jump even when he was on the opposite end of the store, he said, “It’s coming out of your pay!” But he smiled right after saying it and I barely flinched.
He was still smiling when he pulled the van back out onto the boulevard without looking. There was a sharp squeal behind us, followed by a rumbling wail that made the van shake. I nearly jumped out of my seat. Uncle Vinny opened his window as a huge delivery truck pulled up beside us. The driver pointed down and shook his fist, then flashed his middle finger as he blew his horn again and plowed past. “Learn how to drive,” Uncle Vinny called after him. And turning to me: “Some people are born to be idiots, Jeckie.”
My heart was still unhinged. I caught my breath and stared at the box in my lap. Without thinking, I reached in and grabbed a jelly donut. Scarfing it down, I asked, “Where are we going?”
“What are you sleeping? We’re going to the mercato.”
“I know,” I said. “But where’s that?”
Which immediately made the trip spectacular. Our excursions, to that point, had all been within Queens. Brooklyn was unfamiliar territory to me, exotic even. As we merged onto the westbound Belt Parkway I settled in for the ride—windows open, no seatbelt, six more donuts in front of me—determined to be attentive, to not feel lost and childish when we arrived.
We got off at Coney Island Avenue. The exit ramp twisted around like a pretzel, leaving us on an unmarked gray road that reminded me of old movies. This took us to Ocean Avenue, which we followed toward Avenue U, away from Sheepshead Bay. A thick haze hovered in the air. I could smell the oily bay, though I couldn’t see it. It lay behind us; an un-flushed toilet hidden by blocks of row houses. I pinched my nose shut and Uncle Vinny laughed. Before long we were bouncing up side streets. Pot holes exploded beneath us as we moved past decrepit buildings and warehouses. Signs were posted for Live Chickens and Fresh Goat. I looked in earnest for hidden farms.
When we get there,” Uncle Vinny said pointing at his eye. “I want you to watch how I do business.” I nodded, hanging on his words. “Uncle Vinny always gets the best deals.”
A moment later, he turned in to a rundown lot that fronted a horseshoe shaped one-story building. The sign out front read, Welcome to Kosciusko Farms.
As we rumbled over cracked asphalt, towards an elevated platform, another terrible stench wafted in through the open windows. A cross between ammonia, bubble gum and burnt toast. My insides went sour. This time, I covered my nose and mouth with both hands.
“It’s the slaughterhouse,” Uncle Vinny said.
I rolled up the window, unsure of what that meant, but I didn’t pursue it. I was afraid of sounding like an idiot. Instead, I held my breath.
Uncle Vinny made a U-turn and backed the van into an open space before the platform—it was a loading dock, I’d soon learn—and through the side mirror I watched a small group of large men pushing dull metal carts. The carts resembled suit racks in department stores. The men wore bloodstained white smocks. Bloodstained from what, had yet to dawn on me. It wasn’t until I climbed out of the van that I understood what went on there.
At the back end of the dock there were a series of makeshift doorways. Rubber slats hung in place of doors. Through one of these came a man wearing rubber gloves and a yellow hard hat; he carried a four legged body across his shoulders. The body, of a calf I guessed, was stripped down to its flaky white hide. The man wore the legs like a necklace, but it was the eyes that got me. With no fur to conceal them, no outer shell to give the appearance of depth, they seemed to be flying forward, determined to escape their own body.
That was the end of the good times. I leaned up against the passenger side door and gagged.
Uncle Vinny put his hand on my shoulder. He was laughing. “What’s the matter with you? You too sensitive for a butcher’s work?”
My gut caught fire. I hated being thought of as someone who didn’t know what it was like to earn something. I was eleven years old. I had been shuttled to and from a foreign country. I’d watched my father become a specter and I’d seen my mother cry—more than once. My little sister got so confused sometimes she spoke the wrong language to her teachers and was abused by her classmates. In retrospect, did it really matter that there were no calluses on my hands? If nothing else, I’d already earned the right to say life wasn’t fair.
“I think I ate too much,” I complained.
Uncle Vinny continued laughing. “So you don’t want a hamburger for lunch?”
I threw up on the space of concrete between us. Mostly, though, I threw up all over Uncle Vinny’s polished brown shoes. He blasphemed, but unlike Pop, I didn’t think Uncle Vinny was willing me out of existence or anything. I certainly wasn’t afraid of him hitting me.
Uncle Vinny found a rag in the van and cleaned his shoes. He waited for me to get it together, then patted me on the back when I did. “If you think about something you like to eat,” he said, “it’s easier to ignore the smell. I think about fresh sauce and basil.”
As I followed Uncle Vinny toward the main entrance, I thought of pizza, the kind you could only get in Napoli.
Inside the building that was Kosciusko Farms, Uncle Vinny took me to an office. The walls were plastered with faded pictures of cows and horses, outdated advertisements for Thanksgiving turkey and Christmas duck. A trace of the smell I’d gotten sick to lingered; it was mixed with a floral aroma that made me think of older women and air freshener.
Uncle Vinny pulled up his pants, adjusted his shirt and combed his fingers through his graying hair. He knocked his knuckles against one of the two desks in the room. “Hello,” he called.
I could hear a running faucet nearby. “Just a minute,” a female voice responded.
The woman who came out at the back end of that voice was busty and blonde. She swayed across the room as if she was about to tip over. She wrapped her sleeveless arms around Uncle Vinny’s neck and kissed him on the cheek. Then she talked quietly into the crease between his collar and ear. They both laughed, and as she pulled away from Uncle Vinny’s embrace I watched his hand glide down the small of her back and gently graze her ass.
“And who’s this?” she finally wanted to know.
“That’s my nephew, Jeckie.”
“Well aren’t you cute?” she said approaching me. Her perfume, I decided, smelled like church flowers. “I’m Bonnie. It’s so nice to meet you.”
She ran her fingers down the side of my cheek as a form of affection, as a way to show me she was harmless. I took the opportunity to look down her shirt.
Not that I was capable—or perhaps willing—of making the kind of connection I’d make now, but it seemed a bit odd, the way that woman and Uncle Vinny were acting towards one another. (It reminded me of the way Mamma and Pop once acted.) Any chance of putting two and two together, however, quickly flew away the moment Bonnie offered me the pack of Yodels and the Ding-Dong that were in the top drawer of her desk. I caught a quick glimpse of Uncle Vinny. Mamma was always going on about my weight; she made it a point to not have me overindulge, and even when Pop was still taking me on job bids and letting me “cheat,” he made it clear we both knew I shouldn’t. My uncle had no reaction at all. He and Bonnie drifted off to the far end of the room. I put the Yodels in my pocket, but I unwrapped my Ding-Dong right there and then.
“Jeckie,” Uncle Vinny said. “Go to the van and make sure no one gives me a ticket.” He tossed me the keys. “Wait inside if you want, but don’t—”
“I know,” I interrupted. There was chocolate and cream covering my lips. “Don’t turn on the fridge.”
My uncle nodded, but I could tell he wasn’t really listening.
If there was any doubt before hand, right then it became official: the trip sucked.
Where was the man’s work? I was sitting in a parked car for Christ’s sake. I turned the ignition on and fiddled with the power windows. I entertained myself with their rising and falling, secretly tempted to smash one. The clatter of metal and voices drifted in and out of the car. “Is that the Italian’s van?” I overheard someone say.
I looked out the window towards the loading dock.
“I guess he can’t get enough of this place,” someone else shouted. A group of men started laughing, but I wasn’t sure why. I shut the window and threw my head back. The smells no longer bothered me, but I still felt nauseous. I couldn’t place it. At some point I dozed off.
I woke up to Uncle Vinny rapping on the window. He wore a toothy smile that warped his face, and he motioned for me to follow him.
I hopped out of the van. “Are we ready to leave yet?” I asked.
“C’mon, we still got work to do. Don’t you want to get paid?”
We returned to the room the woman was in before, which reminded me of the Yodels I’d stuffed into my pocket, but it was too late. They were inedible, nearly squashed flat. I looked around, thinking perhaps I could score some more, but the only person in the room now was an older man—skinny and strong looking, with pock marked skin. He and Uncle Vinny shook hands.
“Larry. What’s up, baby?” Uncle Vinny asked.
Larry didn’t answer. He let go of Uncle Vinny’s hand and walked back to one of the desks across the room, where he began to shuffle papers.
Uncle Vinny looked at me and winked. “What’s good today?” he asked. “And don’t try to rob me like last time.” He laughed at his own wisecrack, but Larry kept shuffling. “I got my nephew here and I told him I wouldn’t let you take advantage of me today.”
Larry finally looked up. “I just got a shipment of calves in,” he said. “If you buy three I’ll take a hundred off the top.”
“How ‘bout I take four and you give me one for free?”
Larry paused and smirked. “Make it five and you’ve got a deal.”
Outside, Uncle Vinny wore a shit-eating grin. He pinched my cheek so hard my eyes watered. “What did I tell you?” he said. He unlocked the back doors to the van, then motioned for me to follow him. We climbed onto the loading dock and walked in through the door the man with the calf came out of earlier. I hesitated briefly, but I was conscious of not wanting to look scared.
“What about the van?” I said, thinking of the men I’d heard laughing earlier, but I might as well have been talking to myself.
On the other side of the slats, I followed Uncle Vinny closely down a long narrow hall lined with broad metal doors. We finally stopped at the last door on the left side of the corridor. Uncle Vinny lifted the handle and pulled it open, and a cloud of cold steam immediately engulfed us. When it cleared, hundreds of bulky chains appeared. A shiny hook was attached to each one, and impaled on every single hook was a skinned calf taller than two of me stacked high.
I swallowed a gag. “What are we gonna do now?”
Uncle Vinny didn’t answer. He walked into and among the bodies, surveying each carefully. I couldn’t have been more uninterested. He could have handed me an ax and said, “Hack away,” and it wouldn’t have made me feel any better. The notion was vague, at best, but he had disappointed me. Watching Uncle Vinny poke and prod like he was some sort of scientist made me think of Pop, the way he was always saying Uncle Vinny was more lucky than smart.
When he was done inspecting, Uncle Vinny pulled a pen and paper from his shirt pocket and handed them over. “If you don’t hear the letters and numbers I call out,” he said, “make sure you ask me to repeat them.” I scribbled his ramblings down, and then we were back in the hall, headed in the opposite direction.
Uncle Vinny collected the notes I’d taken as he opened the back door of the van. He told me to, “Jump inside and open the vents along the floor and ceiling.”
He asked me if I understood what he was talking about.
He said he’d be back.
I meandered around the dock. After a few minutes, several bloody smocks came out of the doorway draped with 200 pound neck braces. They made their way towards the van. I watched the same two men make several trips to load the van, but they didn’t notice me. On their last trip, one of the men dropped his blood bathed carcass onto the floor. The calf’s eyeballs exploded and a milky fluid oozed along the pavement. He hastily moved to retrieve it, but the calf slipped out of his hands, off the loading dock, and under the rear bumper. Its chin and front legs rested against the lip of the dock while the rest of the body appeared submerged. It reminded me of a kid who couldn’t swim hanging over the side of a pool. Uncle Vinny was nowhere in sight. Together, the two men got it up and loaded it onto the van.
“Thanks, Richie,” the guy who dropped the carcass said.
“That stupid guinea won’t know the difference,” the other said. “He thinks he’s getting a bargain.”
And for the second time in an hour a heated surge flowed through me. But this time I couldn’t tell if it was anger or embarrassment. I knew I’d somehow been insulted, but the terms of the offense were too abstract to grasp. My uncle came out as the two men closed up the van. He thanked them and handed each a folded bill.
The guy who called my uncle stupid said, “See you next time, chief. Take care.
“Uncle Vinny,” I said. I had to call him three times before he finally turned toward me.
“What is it?”
“I don’t think the meat is good,” I began to tell him. But he just smiled and patted my head.
“Now you can turn the knob for the fridge,” my uncle said as we pulled away. “But only halfway into the blue. We don’t want the meat to freeze.”
I turned the knob like he asked, but half-heartedly. I slunk into my seat and thought about how I should have stayed home to hang out with my friends. I felt empty inside. Actually, what I felt was like I’d swallowed a gas bubble and couldn’t burp. Again, I nodded off.
When we got back to the Pork Store Uncle Vinny shook me awake. He had parked at the bus stop fronting his store. “Wait here,” he said. “Don’t even get out.”
As I waited, Mamma came to the front of the store and waved. Then, three of my uncles, Vinny included, moved past her and came towards the back of the van. They were dressed like the men at the market. I hopped out and made to open the back doors for them, but Uncle Vinny told me to step aside. “Sometimes the bodies get tossed around,” he said. “I don’t want anything to fall on you.”
He opened both doors simultaneously and we were met by the smell of rot. Two of my uncles gagged. And they all cursed.
“Didn’t you open the vents?” Uncle Vinny shouted. “Didn’t I tell you to open them?”
I stared at him and he got angrier.
“It’s a hundred degrees back here. The meat’s ruined,” he said.
“I tried to—”
“What are you, half an idiot? Didn’t I tell you what to do?”
“Fuck you,” I said before realizing what was out of my mouth. It was the first time I’d ever cursed at someone.
Uncle Vinny took a quick swipe at me, connecting loudly with my cheek. Tears streamed out although I wasn’t in pain. I looked at him, but he was almost unrecognizable.
“Don’t touch me,” I shouted. “You’re not my father.”