Authors: Richard Russo
Until she made the point about my father and Mr. Marconi not being in a contest, it hadn’t occurred to me that he might have seen it like that, but of course when I thought about it, it made sense. Weren’t our families on parallel tracks, having both recently moved from the West End to a better part of town? Weren’t the Lynches and the Marconis, despite our differences, both determined to take advantage of what America offered, a chance to prove our worth, to get ahead, to secure our future? Of course in Thomaston, as elsewhere, the Irish and the Italians often judged their progress against each other. So there was all of this, as well as one other potent comparison. Now that Mr. Marconi was a full-time letter carrier at the post office, they were both “route men” who owned a territory and were responsible for things getting done, for making sure people in their territory got what they needed. Men who moved throughout their world and became men of that world. This, I think, was what made my father even more interested in Mr. Marconi now than he had been before, and much more than he was in our other East End neighbors. They were both men of motion, of movement. Who would grab the brass ring?
Mr. Marconi had some advantages—not unfair advantages, my father never went that far. But in certain respects, he had to admit, the other man had it made. For one thing, the post office paid better than the dairy, and postal workers had government benefits that wouldn’t quit. Also, letter carriers didn’t have to get up nearly as early as milkmen. Except for the long summer days in June and July, my father always rose in the dark, and in winter he’d complete half his route before sunrise. Still, he confided to me more than once that he wasn’t sure he’d have swapped jobs with Mr. Marconi even if he’d had the chance, not when you considered their respective routes. Mr. Marconi delivered his letters in the Gut, the very worst part of the West End, whereas my father worked the Borough, the plum route, proof of the high esteem in which his employers held him. He worried out loud about Mr. Macaroni’s place in the post office hierarchy if the Gut was the route they gave him.
My father had begun referring to Bobby’s father as “Mr. Macaroni” shortly after he’d promised to leave him alone, and he always nudged me to make sure I got the joke. I don’t think he was aware of my mixed feelings. The joke was gentle enough, but since kindergarten I’d been called a name I wasn’t fond of, so I was sensitive about nicknames. Of course with my father it was different. He wasn’t calling the man a name to his face, and there was no ill will intended in any event, so I supposed it was all right for him and me to have a small private joke. My real fear was that he’d slip up someday when Bobby was around. And I suspect this was his response to the fact that my mother’s injunction not to talk to Mr. Marconi had gradually broadened. By “leave the man alone” she apparently meant not just that my father shouldn’t talk
the man but also that he shouldn’t talk
him—that is, to quit bringing his name up in conversations. This extra weight, added to his already solemn promise, must have seemed particularly unfair, so he was glad to discover that he could expect a little more latitude if he referred to Mr. Macaroni, which occasioned a more benign, pained reaction. If I reported that the Marconis had purchased a television—they had, according to Bobby—my father was able to interrogate me by making the whole thing into a joke. Mr. Macaroni bought a TV? What kind of TV did Mr. Macaroni buy, new or used? Did Mrs. Macaroni like the new Macaroni TV?
The questions were jokes and not jokes. Back when we’d all lived in Berman Court, my father had had a pretty good idea of our relative circumstances, but what had happened since we’d been separated? What had the Marconis acquired? How big were the economic strides they’d taken? How much had those strides been offset by two more little Macaronis? They were still renting, which meant something, but maybe they were saving for a down payment on a house. Were they close or still years away? My father had an inquiring mind, which he was now cruelly prohibited from using.
Therefore he had to rely on me for information. Did the Macaronis drink Coca-Cola or the off brands that Tommy Flynn and Ikey Lubin stocked in their coolers and sold cheap? I never went into the Marconis’ flat either, so I knew little more than my father did, and I told him so. “Ask him sometime,” he’d suggest, meaning Bobby. “He’ll do no such thing,” my mother would reply. “It’s none of our business.”
She seemed to understand that eventually my father’s curiosity would overpower his promise, so she kept a watchful eye on him those first few months after the move, especially if he found occasion to go out onto the front porch about the time Mr. Marconi finished his mail route and returned home. If she saw him start to sidle over and attempt to engage Bobby’s father in friendly conversation, she’d fling the window open and call out that she needed something, and he’d have no choice but to return, hangdog, caught doing or about to do what he’d promised not to. “What do you need?” he’d grumble when he was back in the kitchen. “I need you to work on your memory,” my mother would tell him. “What did you promise me if we moved here?” To which he’d shrug his big shoulders. “Saying hello to somebody ain’t the same as bothering him, Tessa. We’re neighbors, them and us. You can’t not speak to people.”
All still might have been well except that shortly after we moved to Third Street Mr. Marconi bought a used Pontiac station wagon big enough to accommodate the entire clan, though they seldom used it except on Saturday afternoons to go to the supermarket. “What’d he buy it
is what I don’t understand. They don’t go for no drives. They never go to the lake or nothing.” These were things my father himself had always said we’d do as soon as we could afford a car. “It just sits there.”
to understand,” my mother would remind him. “Guess why.”
“I ain’t sayin’ it’s my business,” he replied, knowing where she was headed. “It just don’t make sense, is what I’m sayin’.”
One Saturday afternoon my mother was downtown doing errands when my father must have decided he’d lived with these Macaroni mysteries long enough. He’d seen the whole family pile into the Pontiac and head out to the A&P an hour earlier, so when the Spinnarkle sisters came out to sit on their front porch, he told me he was going over to see “the ladies” for a while, though I knew the Spinnarkles were a pretext, in case my mother came home unexpectedly.
He’d been sitting there for a half hour or so when the Pontiac pulled up at the curb. Pretending not to notice, my father stood and stretched and told the sisters that he’d better go back home and do some chores before his wife showed up and accused him of loafing. When Mr. Marconi got out of the station wagon and saw my father pausing on the steps to say hello, he just smiled knowingly and sent Mrs. Marconi on ahead with the children while he and Bobby unloaded the groceries.
“How’s that wagon worked out for you?” my father wondered.
“Just fine,” said Mr. Marconi, his tone suggesting that those two syllables conveyed the entire length and breadth of his thoughts on the subject, and perhaps all other subjects as well. Bobby saw me on our porch and waved. His father handed him a grocery bag.
“Price of gas and all…,” my father ventured, and getting no response to this, he continued. “I was thinking about a car myself,” he said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully, “but then I figured what for? I can use the truck for free, so I decided against it.”
Loaded down with grocery bags, Mr. Marconi and Bobby headed for the porch. “The dairy allows you to use their truck for personal business?”
My father shrugged. “You ain’t really supposed to,” he conceded, “but I know the old man real good, and he don’t mind, as long as I stay around here. I give you a hand with them bags?” The station wagon’s tailgate was down, two more bags standing right there.
“We can manage,” Mr. Marconi said, brushing past my father and up the porch steps.
“I don’t mind,” my father said. “I ain’t doing nothin’.”
“We can manage,” he repeated over his shoulder, and then disappeared inside with Bobby, the outer door swinging shut behind them. Alone on the terrace, my father regarded the last two bags with what seemed to me genuine longing. Had he been given permission to pick them up, he’d have been able to peer inside and see whether the groceries they’d bought were name brands or bottom shelf, cheap cuts of meat or expensive. Had he been allowed to help, the Marconis would’ve had to let him, however briefly, inside their flat, where he could’ve taken inventory. I could see he was seriously considering picking up those bags without permission, but just then my mother came around the corner and caught him.
“I was visiting the ladies, is all,” he said when we were back inside our house. “Ask Louie.”
My mother glanced at me, saw I was prepared to take my father’s side as usual and went back to glaring at him.
“Or ain’t I allowed to talk to them either?”
“Keep it up, Lou,” she warned him. “Just keep it up and see what happens.”
“It’s him I feel bad for,” he said later, over dinner. “All them mouths to feed, another on the way.” He was picking at my mother’s hamburger casserole, normally one of his favorites. But I could tell by the look on his face that he was wondering what the Marconis were eating and that the food on his own fork had no taste.
ITH ALL THAT
comparing going on, I was glad my father wasn’t the sort of man to compare children, because Bobby Marconi had it all over me. Though half a head shorter, Bobby was a natural athlete, always first to be chosen when teams were picked, whereas I, despite my size, was among the last, at least on those rare occasions I allowed myself to be drawn into a game. My father enjoyed sports on television, but he’d grown up on a farm and had a farm boy’s awkwardness when it came to handling balls of any description. Those meant to be caught he fumbled, those meant to be dribbled he’d end up kicking, an ineptitude he passed down to me. He hoped I might play Pop Warner football, something he’d wanted to do himself when he was my age, and given my size I suppose I could have managed one of those interior line positions that didn’t require any ball handling. But my mother thought football was dangerous, so that was out, and in truth I was glad.
As an only child I was a voracious reader and did better in school than Bobby, but that didn’t count for much among boys our age. Besides, I went to St. Francis, which everyone knew was easier than Bridger, the East End elementary school that Bobby now attended, and while he didn’t distinguish himself, his teachers all agreed that he was one of their smartest students. When he felt like applying himself, they pointed out, he did fine. As I said, my father would never have compared me with Bobby. I doubt he would have known how, his devotion to me and pride in my accomplishments being as complete as mine toward him. But for some reason I felt certain that Mr. Marconi
the sort of man to compare sons and as a result didn’t think much of me. He never said anything, of course, but now that we were neighbors again, I had the impression he was just as happy that Bobby and I were going to different schools.
So the boundaries of our friendship, much to my disappointment, weren’t very different from what they were on Berman Court. When I again pressed to expand them, I met with the same resistance and was offered the same unsatisfactory explanations I’d been given before. The Marconis were different from us. (How?) They preferred to keep to themselves. (Why?) Bobby wasn’t allowed as much freedom as I was. (Why not?) Back then I’d had to content myself with a walk-to-and-from-school friendship. Now I had to be satisfied with a few hours on Saturdays. Even so, this might have been enough except for my vague sense that there was something I wasn’t being told. Bobby was forever getting grounded, allowed to leave the apartment only to go to school or deliver his newspapers, and for some reason I got it into my head that these punishments had something to do with me, perhaps because whenever I asked what he’d done wrong, he said he couldn’t talk about it. What could the reason be if it wasn’t me? “Lou, look at me,” my mother said when I floated this theory. “It doesn’t have anything to do with you, sweetie.”
“But what did I
?” I said plaintively, at the time unaware of how much I must have sounded like my father. (“What did I ever do to
is what I’d like to know.”)
She gave me a big hug. “Lou, sweetie. You’re not listening to me. It has
nothing…to do…with you.
” Then she added ominously, “There are things going on in that house that you know nothing about, but they have nothing to do with you—
What things, I asked, but she wouldn’t say any more, just that they weren’t any of our business. “And I don’t want you quizzing Bobby either, do you understand?”
But it wasn’t fair. Whatever was going on next door, my mother knew about it. If our families were estranged, this wasn’t true of my mother and Mrs. Marconi.
friendship, as far as I could tell, was exempted. True, it was largely clandestine. Mrs. Marconi was still supposed to stay in their flat and tend to Bobby’s little brothers, but once her husband and my father were off on their routes, she and my mother could meet secretly, and I was pretty sure they did. When I returned from school, my mother would sometimes be on the phone and hang up as soon as she saw me, and later, after I’d changed out of my school uniform, I’d find her staring abstractedly out the living room window, and if she saw Mr. Marconi returning from work, his empty mail bag over his shoulder, her face would darken, and I suppose mine did, too. If she could have a secret friend, why couldn’t I?