Eggplant Alley (9781593731410)

Eggplant Alley

a novel

By D. M. Cataneo

www.bunkerhillpublishing.com
by Bunker Hill Publishing Inc.
285 River Road, Piermont
New Hampshire 03779, USA

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Copyright © 2013 by D.M.Cataneo
All rights reserved.

Library of Congress Control Number: 2013934778

ISBN 978-159373-1-465

Designed by Joe Lops
Printed in China

Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of the publisher of this book.

For Emily

Contents

Eggplant Alley 1

The Fifth Thing That Ruined Nicky's Childhood 2

The First Thing That Ruined Nicky's Childhood 3

Help 4

Nicky's Stupid Shenanigans 5

Hypnotizing Icky 6

The Creature from the Second Floor 7

File Clerk 8

Nicky's Fortune 9

Us and Them 10

A Big Sneeze 11

Lester Allnuts 12

The Second Thing That Ruined Nicky's Childhood 13

The Ropes 14

The Third Thing That Ruined Nicky's Childhood 15

Close, But No Cigar 16

Mysteries 17

The Horrid Hippie Margalo 18

Goombahs on the Beach 19

The Porcelain Monkey 20

True Confessions 21

Dominoes 22

Shoes 23

Cockroaches 24

The Moon and the Stars 25

Autumn 26

Familiar Faces 27

The Only House with Trees 28

Letters Unread 29

A Friend of Margalo 30

Barella the Barber 31

A Taste of Blue Castle 32

Hi-C in 2-C 33

Gifts 34

A Christmas Story 35

Promises 36

One Thing Leads to Another 37

Six O'Clock Sharp 38

Turning Blue 39

The First Day of Spring 40

Eggplant Alley
1

E
veryone said Eggplant Alley was a lovely place. In the old days.

Way back in the old days, Eggplant Alley was a clean apartment complex tucked into a happy corner of the Bronx. There were thick shade trees in the courtyard and kids everywhere. The kids played jump rope, hopscotch, tag, cowboys and Indians, stickball. Late in the afternoons, the courtyard was scented by suppers cooking. In the blue dusk, the fathers trudged home from work—tired men, carrying empty lunch boxes and afternoon newspapers. They climbed the hill, and they saw the trees and the three red-brick buildings, and they smelled the suppers, and the men knew they were at home in Eggplant Alley. They thought it was the finest place in the world.

All that was long ago, in the old days, in the black-and-white days before Nicky Martini was born.

Also known as the good old days. Nicky was too young to remember these good old days, but he heard an awful lot about them. He was practically an expert.

NICKY WAS a little kid when the changes fell on Eggplant Alley. This happened in the early 1960s. The changes plopped
down like water balloons from the heavens, practical jokes from the angels.

First went the trees. Nicky didn't know what kind of trees they were and he didn't catch the name of the disease that killed them. But he watched fascinated on the summer afternoon when the workmen came and sawed the trees down and cut them up. Nicky was just six years old at the time. So he waved bye-bye as the men hauled the pieces out to the trucks.

The landlords of Eggplant Alley replanted. But one night juvenile delinquents swarmed through and ripped the tender little replacements out of the ground and threw them into the street. Just for fun. That was the kind of neighborhood it was becoming. After that, the landlords of Eggplant Alley figured, why bother?

Grandma Martini had three favorite sayings, the third of which applies here:

1. Telling lies is like eating garlic.

2. Never sleep with an itchy dog, unless you intend to scratch.

3. One thing leads to another.

One thing led to another in Eggplant Alley.

A first-floor window was broken and the window was left unfixed. So another window was broken. Tires were slashed. A bike was stolen. The Fuller Brush man was robbed of his brushes. Parcel post packages went missing from welcome mats, and then the welcome mats themselves began to disappear. Someone took up peeing in the elevator. The Rotinos' hot new Pontiac Bonneville convertible was swiped from the parking garage beneath Building B, plucked straight out of the belly of Eggplant Alley.

And one cold February night, the McCarthys—residents of Building C, first floor rear—came home and found a hobo eating Cheez Doodles in Mr. McCarthy's recliner. The man was drunk and stinky, and when he fled, he took the new
TV Guide
with him. No one understood why he needed a
TV Guide
if he didn't have a television. Dad offered, “Maybe he wants to know what he's missing.” The incident inspired all first-floor residents to install window bars. And for a few months, Mom flatly refused to purchase snack foods. “They just attract bums,” she said.

One thing led to another and another, and before you knew it, nobody wanted to live in Eggplant Alley anymore.

The kids moved away. In one autumn alone, Jimmy Scarole, Bobby Sciatti, Paulie Capicola, and Iggy Schwartz took off with their families. They poured out of Eggplant Alley like refugees fleeing a war zone. They went north to Westchester, west to New Jersey, east to Long Island. Anywhere that wasn't Eggplant Alley.

The day after Nicky's twelfth birthday, the Abbananzos cleared out to California. This was particularly bad luck for Nicky, who had recently noticed Andrea Abbananzo's bluish black hair and the way it shimmered in the elevator light.

Nicky grew accustomed to good-byes. That was one good thing about growing up in Eggplant Alley. You learned how to say good-bye. You got plenty of practice. One day, you play GI Joes and Operation with a kid. Next day, you wave bye-bye at the taillights of his family's Chevrolet as it rolls away, gone forever, down Summit Avenue, Eggplant Alley in their rearview mirror. Everyone said “We'll stay in touch,” but no one ever stayed in
touch. They preferred to leave Eggplant Alley right where it was, where it belonged—in the rearview mirror.

Nicky was sad to lose playmates, but he did not cry during the good-byes. He'd wave so long, go upstairs, watch
The Soupy Sales Show
on television, eat a grilled cheese and chocolate milk lunch, get over it, move on. This was easy because as far as he was concerned, his best pal was and always would be his big brother, Roy.

The Fifth Thing That Ruined Nicky's Childhood
2

A
nd wouldn't you know it, on a sunny morning in the spring of 1970, when he was thirteen years old, Nicky waved byebye to Roy.

That morning Nicky awoke and looked over at Roy's duffel bag, stuffed, lumpy, and zipped on the mussed bed. He inhaled a whiff of Old Spice aftershave, and it all came back to him from the night before.

The shouts. The sobs. The porcelain monkey.

The big argument over the big decision.

Nicky groggily wondered who won the big argument and what was the big decision. Roy was going somewhere. He knew that much. Nicky wanted to know where.

Roy clomped into their room. He wore clunky, shiny black shoes. Army shoes. And now Nicky knew that Roy was going to Vietnam, after all that fuss.

Roy said, “Hey numbskull, you're awake. I thought you were dead. You sleep like a piece of veal.”

“You going?”

“I'm a-going.”

“Not to Canada?”

“Numbskull. To the airport.”

“You going to Vietnam?”

Roy touched his tie and said softly, “No, 'course not. I'm going to the moon. I had a change of orders.”

Roy and Mom and Dad and Nicky and their beloved mutt Checkers bunched up at the apartment door. Roy hugged Mom. Roy shook hands with Dad. Roy patted Checkers. Roy scruffled Nicky's hair.

“Stay out of my stuff, numbskull,” Roy said, playfully bashing Nicky's backside with the duffel bag.

Nicky wanted to tell Roy how much he would miss him; that Roy was the best friend of his whole life; that he looked up to Roy the way some kids look up to Batman and Mickey Mantle; that Roy was the greatest big brother in the history of the world; that he was afraid of what was happening.

Nicky said, “Okay, Roy.”

Nicky pressed his head against the window screen and watched Roy stride across the silent courtyard. From five stories up, Roy looked like one of those plastic army men, the kind they used to buy at the five-and-dime, a hundred to a package.

Roy's duffel bag bounced on his shoulder. His shoes clonked on the cement. Pigeons flapped across the rooftops. The air felt cool and pleasant on Nicky's face. It was a lovely Sunday morning in springtime.

Five stories down, Roy stopped and lifted his face to the sun. He squinted toward the rooftops of Eggplant Alley. He pointed to the sky and shouted, “Hey, numbskull. Great day for stickball!”

Roy's face glowed in the sunshine and he said, “When I get back!”

A hoarse voice bellowed from Building C, “For the love of Mike, put a sock in it!”

Mom touched Nicky's shoulder and said, “Did Roy ask for socks?”

“No, he said it would be a great day for stickball.”

Mom made a face and said, “He knows nobody plays stickball around here anymore.” She squinted. “Is he smoking?”

A yellow cab rolled to the curb. Roy flicked away his cigarette, opened the back door, pushed in his duffel bag, and climbed in. The cab hesitated, then motored away.

Mom silently drifted out of the room. Nicky dropped onto his bed, across from Roy's tangled blankets and sheets. He looked at the two beds with matching white bedspreads. He looked at the matching yellow oak bureaus, the matching alarm clocks, the matching lamps. He was alone in a room meant for two. He sniffed the air and caught a trace of Roy's aftershave. He counted on his fingers. One, two, three, four, five.

Five.

This was the fifth thing that ruined his childhood.

The First Thing That Ruined Nicky's Childhood
3

T
hat was Nicky's view, that his childhood was a ruin. A wreck. A hole in the ground. He came along, and the good stuff ended. He showed up to play ball, and the ball went down the sewer. He walked into the party, and the ice cream melted.

Have you ever run to catch a bus, and just as you reached the curb, the bus pulled away? There you are, gagging on smelly blue exhaust. That was Nicky's feeling. He missed the bus.

“Stop your whining,” Mom said when Nicky whined. “There's always another bus.”

Nicky missed the good old days, as described by the lucky ones on hand to witness them. In the good old days, the streets were safe. Eggplant Alley was paradise. Men wore crew cuts. Everyone saluted the flag. The Yankees won the World Series, every year.

“Before you were born,” Dad noted.

Instead, Nicky got Eggplant Alley on the slide. Riots in the streets. Revolution in the air. Men with long hair and beards. Cold wars. Hot wars. The Yankees in last place, every stinking year.

“Be thankful you still have a team,” Mom said when he complained. “The Dodgers moved clear out of Brooklyn. Broke your grandfather's heart.”

In the autumn of seventh grade, while Roy was away in boot camp, Nicky discovered a beautiful new word in Language Arts class. The word was
nostalgic
. The vocabulary workbook said it meant “an abnormal yearning for days gone by.” The word touched Nicky deeply, like a love poem, like a new box of crayons, like the smell of garlic frying. Except for the abnormal part, he thought the word described him perfectly.

One rainy, gloomy afternoon, Nicky made the grave mistake of sighing to Mom and Dad, “I sure picked a lousy time to be a kid.”

“Are you nuts?” Mom said, flopping a hissing iron onto Roy's school shirt. “You think this is bad? I grew up in the Depression. We didn't have two nickels to rub together. Mrs. Moscowitz! She grew up in Germany, with the Nazis breathing down her neck. Count your blessings.”

From his easy chair, from behind the
Daily News
, Dad tossed in, “Don't talk to me about hard times. When I was a kid, my mother would slug me in the mouth so one of my teeth would fall out, so we could leave it under my pillow. We needed the dime from the Tooth Fairy. To buy milk.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Nicky said. But his true thoughts were: “You forget. The Depression ended. The Nazis are gone. You and Mrs. Moscowitz had happy endings. There were a lot of them in the good old days. Happy endings. I've never seen one of those.”

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