Authors: Richard Russo
Evangeline turned away from the painting and regarded him through narrowed eyes. “Either we drape that,” she said, “or we drape me.”
Noonan kissed her bare breast. “I was supposed to stop by the gallery, wasn’t I.”
“I’m a shit.”
“But you love me anyway.”
“I wouldn’t go that far.”
“How far would you go?”
“Downstairs. One flight.”
As they started down to the bedroom, Noonan said, “I have a bone to pick with your husband. He witnessed one of my crying jags, and he’s been telling people about it.”
“Yeah, well, if he had clue one, he’d have a bone to pick with you, too.”
THE ROUTE MEN
my parents purchased on Third Street in the East End was plain and gray shingled. The residents of our new neighborhood were all working people, mostly Irish but with a healthy smattering of Italians and Poles and Slavs. Third Street was seven blocks long, anchored by Tommy Flynn’s corner market at the lower end and Ikey Lubin’s at the upper. Its single-family homes were modest and built close together on small lots, each with a thin grass terrace between the sidewalk and the street. Upstairs, typically, were two small bedrooms and a bath, downstairs the kitchen, dining room and living room, though, after the advent of television, most families wedged a dinette into one corner of the kitchen, thus converting the dining room into a TV-centered family room. The living room generally went unused, except when company came.
For each single-family home, however, there were two or three larger houses divided into upstairs and downstairs flats. Often, in terms of square footage, they were as large as the single-family homes, but after Berman Court we felt privileged not to be sharing our dwelling. My father liked to remark to our new neighbors that he couldn’t live with somebody underfoot or overhead, though that was precisely what we’d
doing. My mother would scold him for such comments, but too gently to make much of an impression, so great was the pleasure he took in our change of fortune.
Of the three of us, I think he was the one most deeply affected by our move. My mother was glad to be out of the West End but wary, too, afraid of how much money she’d had to take from my grandparents, afraid that our little house on the corner of Third and Rawley might have come at too high a cost. The responsibility of ownership, of mortgage payments, of not having a landlord, frightened her, I’m sure, at least at the beginning. A leaky faucet or a running toilet worried her unduly, because they represented what just might turn out to be the tip of some terrible iceberg, or perhaps the first in a series of small but unrelenting expenses that couldn’t be anticipated or, therefore, budgeted. Often I’d find her in the cellar worrying over a puddle of water that had formed after a hard rain, or up in the attic studying the roof for telltale signs that she’d done a foolish thing by putting every egg we had in this particular basket.
My father, having no such misgivings, couldn’t get over how good luck had found us out so suddenly. His experience had been that houses were something people lost, as his parents had lost their farm, and the notion that he himself might own one someday hadn’t occurred to him until it happened. That first year on Third Street, every minute he wasn’t on his milk route he spent scraping and painting the trim, shoring up the collapsing garage (even though at that time we still had no car to put in it), or encircling the porch with bushes, adding small, inexpensive and, according to my mother, garish touches to the property. He’d have filled our tiny terrace with lawn ornaments had she allowed him.
He was in good spirits not just about us and our prospects but also about our country. Here, he reminded me proudly, anybody could become anything, and we ourselves were living examples of how America worked. Though I wasn’t sure what we’d “become” by moving out of Berman Court and into the East End, I liked our new neighborhood and could see that while we weren’t rich, we were better off. And I was especially comforted by my father’s belief that we were living a story whose ending couldn’t be anything but happy.
Interestingly, the nature and moral of that story began almost immediately to evolve. As we settled into the East End, our sudden good fortune seemed rooted less in luck than in the sober industry that I was being taught in school was the key to success in a free society. And for my father hard work and virtue were two sides of the same coin. The only families who were truly stuck in the West End, he now believed, were headed by dissolute men who couldn’t manage to find their way past the gin mills after their shifts, gave their money to the bookies who haunted the tannery and spent their weekends at the racetrack while their wives and children went hungry. In America, he maintained, if you kept your nose clean, good things were eventually bound to happen to you.
Not surprisingly, my mother’s take on our better life, as well as her estimation of America, was more complex and, to my way of thinking, far less satisfying. She never publicly contradicted my father’s joyous outbursts, though later, when they were alone, she’d remind him that what got us out of Berman Court was not virtue but a loan from her parents, nor had hard work been much of a factor. True, he always worked hard, she’d grant him this much, yet that was no excuse to go around talking nonsense about good things happening to good people, because bad things happened to good people all the time. In fact, the bad thing that had happened to me was more responsible for our move to the East End than our industry and virtue combined.
On those rare occasions when she took my father to task, he always hung his head woefully and claimed she hadn’t understood what he meant. “All I’m saying is, what if this was Russia? Over there you got no chance. You just gotta take what they give you.” To which my mother would roll her eyes. “How much do you really know about Russia, Lou? Did you go to Russia once and not tell me?” Which would make him even more sheepish. “It’s what they say,” he’d reply lamely, which would elicit, predictably, my mother’s trump observation, that she couldn’t care less what “they” said. It was what
said that was giving her a headache.
None of which is to suggest that she was a pessimist. She would concede that both our family and our nation were making progress. In large part that was due—speaking of bad things—to the war, which she said had made us all Americans first, Catholics or Protestants or Italians or Irish second. Much of the ethnic rigidity that had been common to Thomaston’s neighborhoods when she and my father were children had begun to break down. Take St. Francis Elementary. Though still predominantly Irish, there were also kids with Polish and Italian last names, some of them, like me, the products of what were then referred to as mixed marriages. Thomaston was indeed the melting pot we were taught to be proud of in school, and its East End neighborhoods in particular were organized more by people’s occupations and economic status than where they came from. If the West End was still primarily made up of more recent immigrants, that was because they happened to hold the poorest paying jobs in the tannery and nearby leather shops. More important, they
work their way out of the West End, as the Wilsons and the Lubins and the Gunthers and so many other East Enders had done.
As I say, my mother conceded this much. But about other things she wasn’t so optimistic. At the economic extremes of Thomaston, she gave me to understand, there was little fluidity. If you were a Negro, of course, you’d remain in the two square blocks of the Hill, and if you lived in the Borough, that’s where you’d probably stay. In America, my mother claimed, the very luckiest were insulated against failure, just as it was the unavoidable destiny of the luckless to remain thwarted. When I asked if we’d ever get to the point where we’d be one of the lucky ones, she said we already were. The middle, she said, was the real America, the America that mattered, the America that was worth fighting wars to defend. There was just the one problem with being in the fluid middle. You could move up, as we had done, but you could also move down.
I don’t know why it troubled me so much that my parents disagreed about how the world operated, but it did, and when I intimated as much to my mother, she replied, “Really, Louie? Which of us should think differently? Your father or me?” I had thought that went without saying. My father’s was a more reassuring interpretation of the known facts of our lives and a more elegant, satisfying story to boot. If you believed in America, then we would continue our ascent, and I wanted for all of us to agree that this was what would happen. From my vehemence on this point, my mother must have concluded that I was concerned about my own future, and she quickly conceded that after college I’d likely continue to rise even further, if that’s what I wanted, as a doctor or maybe a lawyer (my relentless cross-examinations of everything she said may have suggested this latter profession). But in her opinion, she and my father were done moving up in the world. Getting out of the West End was about as much as you could hope for in one generation.
I still remember how much this upset me. It was our
I wanted to succeed, not me. There wasn’t supposed to
any limit to the benefits of hard work and honesty, and her saying there
limits implied that she didn’t believe in America, or, worse, in us.
And I was particularly troubled by my mother’s notion of downward mobility. I wanted her to assure me that nothing of the sort would happen to us, not if we continued to do things right and follow the rules. “Oh, Louie,” she said, giving me a hug I didn’t want. “What am I going to
HE HOUSE NEXT DOOR
was one of those divided into upstairs and downstairs flats. The downstairs was occupied by spinster sisters, the Spinnarkles, both of whom worked at Montgomery Ward. They left the house together in the morning and returned together in the late afternoon. On Saturday nights they went to the movies. Neither, as far as we could tell, ever entertained a male visitor. They were fond of children, though, and seemed genuinely to welcome the opportunity to look after me on those rare occasions when my parents needed to be someplace else. When it was time to return me next door, they wished out loud that I was
little boy. I fear I must have conveyed in countless unsubtle ways how glad I was that this was not the case.
Nothing at the Spinnarkles’ was even remotely interesting to a boy. They had no toys, no games, no books, no clue. There
a television set, but they always turned it off when company arrived, which struck me as downright rude. In our house, the TV we’d purchased shortly after moving to the East End was always on, at least when my father was home. He regarded this as one of the many fine things we had to offer visitors. He preferred a baseball game, if there was one, some other sporting event, if there wasn’t. He gave me to understand that professional wrestling was fake, but this in no way diminished his appreciation of it. He wasn’t much interested in the shows my mother liked—dramas like the
Philco Television Playhouse
—but offered no objection to her watching them, snoring peacefully in his armchair when she did.
That the Spinnarkle sisters should jump up and turn off their TV whenever anyone knocked at their door also struck my father as strange. “You ain’t gotta turn that off,” he’d say. “It don’t bother me.” To which the Spinnarkles, who always finished each other’s sentences, would reply that they “weren’t really watching” (Edith), “just passing the time” ( Janet). When left in their company, I quickly assured them that the TV didn’t bother me either, especially if
Tales of the Texas Rangers
was on, but the sisters had firm ideas about how guests should be entertained. “Let’s converse,” they’d suggest, smoothing their skirts down over their knees and looking at me hopefully. They rented their upstairs flat, coincidentally, to our old friends the Marconis.
Well, perhaps not coincidentally. When I discovered that one of the houses my parents were thinking about buying was next door to the Marconis, I lobbied hard for that one, and I could tell my father liked the Third Street neighborhood best. My mother had mixed feelings. She and Mrs. Marconi were friends, but she may have felt that having the Marconis so close by lessened the symbolic significance of our move. All-new neighbors were probably more what she had in mind. But she did feel sorry for Mrs. Marconi, who was pregnant again and seemingly every bit as trapped here in the East End as she’d been in Berman Court. “I’d forgotten how much I despised that man,” I overheard my mother tell my father. Mr. Marconi had apparently come out onto the porch the weekend my parents first looked at the house, and according to my mother his expression had clouded over when he saw who was looking at the house next door, the purple birthmark on his forehead darkening.
“We’re not buying that house unless you promise me to leave him alone,” my mother said when they got home. “Do you understand? Mind your own business. You aren’t in competition with him. He didn’t like you before and he doesn’t like you now. You’re just going to have to live with it.” My father opened his mouth to object, then saw the look on her face and shut it again. “I mean it, Lou,” she told him, then fixed me as a witness. “What did your father just promise me?” she said. “Not to bother Mr. Marconi,” I said, angry with her and not caring that she knew. I hated it when she made my father promise things, almost as much as I hated it when she made me promise things. She regarded us both dubiously, as if she knew better than to put much faith in either of us. “What’d I ever do to him, is what I’d like to know,” my father said when she was gone.
In the end we settled on the Third Street house, Marconis or no Marconis. Its owner, desperate to leave Thomaston, came down dramatically on his asking price, so that was that. But the real reason, I suspect, was me, since I’d overheard a conversation my mother had with Doctor Boyer, who convinced her that Third Street was the best place for the simple reason that I’d have a friend there.
wouldn’t have intentionally broken any promise to my mother, but I think even she knew he wouldn’t be able to honor the one she extorted from him as a condition for buying the house on Third Street. It was like asking him not to breathe, or to stop loving me so much. If that was what she wanted, he’d try, but it ran contrary to his nature. What she was probably hoping for was to modify his behavior by small degrees. To her way of thinking he was like a puppy that chewed shoes. You probably couldn’t break him of so rewarding a habit, but you could make him feel guilty, at least, keep him from doing it every time you turned your back, and that was something.