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Authors: Frank Lentricchia

The Accidental Pallbearer

BOOK: The Accidental Pallbearer
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Praise for THE ACCIDENTAL PALLBEARER

“Frank Lentricchia’s new novel ranks as entertainment of a high order – funny, fast-moving and hot-blooded. It’s also the kind of novel that will appeal to readers who like their fiction to carry depth and range.”


DON D
E
LILLO


The Accidental Pallbearer
is a brilliant piece of fiction, and a page turner to boot, able to stand shoulder to shoulder with the best writing in America today.”


JAY PARINI

“The Accidental Pallbearer
deserves to be read alongside the best literary detective fiction of our time. Lentricchia’s protagonist is the anti-hero par excellence – you can’t put him down, either physically or emotionally – whose only equal is Fabio Montale from the great Marseilles trilogy by Jean-Claude Izzo.”

–JOHN R. M
AC
ARTHUR, PUBLISHER
,
HARPER’S

Praise for THE EDGE OF NIGHT

“Brutal and uncompromising, brilliant and desperate.”

–ROLLING STONE

Praise for JOHNNY CRITELLI and THE KNIFEMEN

“Scenes are somber or funny or lose-your-lunch ugly … The sabotage and sadness are real, and the language out of the streets and kitchens and bedrooms is obscenely authentic.”

–ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY

“Original and lively … Frank Lentricchia is that rare thing, a professor of English with writing talent.”


FRANK KERMODE

“Lentricchia has fashioned two short novels that display a rousing capacity for language and a gritty sense of the contemporary male mind.”


PUBLISHER’S WEEKLY

Praise for THE MUSIC OF THE INFERNO

“This unmetaphorical tour of the underworld plunges into the deep history and foundational crimes of the city of Utica, New York … a confrontation with class and race which also offers the pleasures of magnificent sentences, loathsome objects and events, and grotesque as well as enigmatic characters.”

–FREDRIC JAMESON

FICTION BY FRANK LENTRICCHIA

The Sadness of Antonioni

The Italian Actress

The Book of Ruth

Lucchesi and The Whale

The Music of the Inferno

Johnny Critelli
and
The Knifemen
(two novels)

The Edge of Night
(memoir/fiction)

THE ACCIDENTAL PALLBEARER
© 2013 Frank Lentricchia
Lyrics from “Mrs. Robinson” are copyright © 1968 Paul Simon
Used by permission of the Publisher: Paul Simon Music

First Melville House printing: December 2012

Melville House Publishing
145 Plymouth Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201

www.mhpbooks.com

eISBN: 978-1-61219-172-0

A catalog record for this book is available from the Library of Congress

v3.1

For Richard MacBriar

and

Pam Terterian

Contents
CHAPTER 1

There they are – two elegantly dressed big men in a half-empty movie theater with a sticky floor – in Troy, New York, nine miles north of Albany – Albany, the asshole of America, a ninety-mile drive south-southeast from Utica, down the Thruway whose right hand lanes in either direction approach Third World conditions. Nine miles up America’s hole, Eliot Conte and Antonio Robinson await in Troy the start of the Metropolitan Opera’s high-definition live telecast of the Saturday afternoon presentation. They sit there eating sandwiches made by Robinson’s startling wife – salami, onions, provolone, spicy mustard. They take turns swigging from a wineskin heavy with expensive Chianti, bought by Conte – a tip of the hat, he called it, to Papa Hemingway and the macho tradition of American literature. Eliot knows his American literature. They both know their opera, like a couple of old homosexuals, lifelong companions – these two heteros who sometimes, deliberately, just to bust balls, in the company of tough and disgusted men who feared to mock them, called each other handsome.

Conte stares right, away from Robinson, seeing nothing as he falls fast inside himself – as his nails, with a will of their own, dig deep into his cuticles. He speaks without affect:

“ ‘I’ll get you through the kids,’ Nancy says. ‘Mark my words, Eliot, before this is over, I will kill our kids.’ ”

Robinson with a mouthful, “You go to Ricky’s? You get the cookies from Ricky?”

“I will kill our kids.”

“The imminent ex-to-be lamenting the imminent loss of your erotic power – nothing more.”

Conte, barely audible, staring vacantly ahead: “We were doing it maybe twice a year.”

“I have to say my wife would be unhappy at that pace.”

“Millicent surely requires more.”

“Less.”

“So I say to Nancy, how old are you, Nancy? She goes, Okay, Eliot, I get it, you cocksucker. She’s younger than me? Huh? She’s better-looking than me?
This
is why you’re leaving me and the kids? You asshole. I say, She’s twelve years older than you. She’s forty-one, Nancy, and not as attractive as you, either.”

“Wait a minute, Eliot. You tell her you’re leaving her for what? A better
person
? Not a better piece of ass? You tell her you’re leaving her for some older plain Jane of superior
character
?”

“Who said plain Jane?”

“Basically you had the balls to tell her you were choosing a more vibrant personality, a truly complex mind, a finer sensibility – a woman with an impeccable taste for the performing arts, who would never call you a cocksucker. All the while, Nancy assumes, as anyone with the slightest knowledge of the male gender would assume, that you, Eliot Conte, were flushing her down the toilet for a new and juicy piece who
makes your cock explode. And you expected her to
what
? Applaud your admirable
values
?”

Eliot Conte, private investigator, B.A., M.A., UCLA. Antonio Robinson, Eliot’s childhood friend, his only friend, who’d been a storied athlete in their high school days at Proctor and then again as a thrilling All-American halfback at Syracuse University – now chief of police of their hometown, Utica, New York. Robinson, the city’s cuddly black teddy bear – cuddled even by that dying generation of Italian-American racists who control the city’s political structure.

It was, in fact, Eliot’s father, eighty-eight-year-old Silvio Conte, a legend across the state and a political king-maker, Silvio “Big Daddy” Conte, owner of the flourishing Utica Prosthetics, who had pulled the strings two years ago to get Robinson appointed Chief. Not out of the goodness of his heart. Much less based on a judgment of professional merit. And not out of fear, either, because Silvio Conte fears no one – this visionary political artist who could spot potential years in advance of its actualization, at which time he would seize it and twist it to his benefit. Hence, Antonio Robinson. Hence, “my special son,” Big Daddy had called him from the time his biological son and Antonio were children and Antonio took more meals at the Conte home than at his own. Eliot had never felt like a special son. Eliot understood, as everyone in Utica understood, in the absence of evidence – absence being the proof of truth – that strings had been pulled. How else could Antonio have vaulted year after year over higher-ranked men all the way to the office of Chief? Eliot didn’t want the details, Antonio never offered any, and
Eliot was grateful. After all, how clean was Eliot Conte? Hadn’t his father – it must have been his father who’d pulled strings on his own behalf when he’d returned from the West Coast? When he’d failed the state examination for a PI license, but a month after receiving the letter telling him he’d failed and could try again in six months, he’d received a second letter from the governor’s chief of staff, no less, saying with regret that a mistake had been made and please find enclosed a fully executed license and permit to carry a concealed weapon.

Robinson, picking his teeth with the edge of his ticket, “It’s been thirty years you dumped Nancy? What’s the point of raking up the past?”

“I was called last night from Laguna Beach, California.”

“And?”

“At three
A.M.

“Yeah?”

“Three in the morning, Robby.”

“Spit it out, Professor.”

“They’re holding her for questioning.”

“For what?”

“The murders of my two daughters.”

“You have dark comic talent.”

Eliot Conte stares at his friend.

Antonio Robinson drops the wineskin.

“Slaughtered in their sleep.”

Robinson cannot speak.

“Do you know what I feel, Robby?”

“Talk to me, El.”

“I feel now what I’ve felt for thirty years about the kids.
Nothing,” says Conte, at his cuticles again, needing to feel nothing.

“Nothing?”

“As I walk out the door, she says, When you least expect it, asshole.”

Robinson suggests they leave and find a full-service bar “because this is no time for –”

Conte cuts him off, putting his hand on Antonio’s arm, “Let’s stay and enjoy the performance.”

“You’re in shock, El. Let’s go.”

“No. I look forward to the last scene, when Don José plunges his knife into her breast, down to the heart – just after they sing with such ferocious passion that it’s impossible, handsome, for me to walk to the car without your assistance.” (The two elderly gentlemen sitting two rows behind them, who are hard of hearing, stiffen on “handsome,” though not in the right place.) “I anticipate the last scene and already my legs turn to jello.”

Robinson stands, brushes crumbs off his pants, spots a nice-sized fragment of provolone snagged by his breast pocket, pops it into his mouth – sucks, chews and swallows, sits again, fumbling in the brown paper bag and extremely irritated, “You go to Ricky’s. You have coffee with Ricky. You two cunts bullshit for an hour. And then you forget to buy the fuckin’ cookies. Listen: Whether you feel anything or not, or you’re repressing or not, you need to put this monster out of her misery. In cold blood.”

“I don’t do that.”

“Not yet.”

“You know I don’t do that.”

“Your UCLA exit, Eliot.”

“What about it?”

“Demonstrates potential.”

“That wasn’t me.”

“What they all say. Temporary insanity et cetera.”

“That really wasn’t me, Robby.”

“Who was it, Eliot?… Do her the way she did your kids. As she sleeps. Raise your game to the next level.”

“If she did it.”

“She did it.”

“She’s in custody.”

“She’ll walk. Trust me.”

“How can you be so sure, Robby?”

“This is what we know. The worst walk.”

“Like me. When I walked out on the kids. When they were babies.”

“I didn’t hear that. I never heard it. Man, your fuckin’ cuticles are bleedin’ on your pants. Listen: she walks, then you walk back in, propose marriage, and do the right thing on the first night of your second honeymoon. For twenty years, since you returned from the West Coast, you’ve been doing good and Utica is the better for it. Speaking of which, this Michael C thing we need to discuss at intermission is much worse than I let on. It’s bad, Eliot.”

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