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Authors: Frank Lentricchia

The Dog Killer of Utica

BOOK: The Dog Killer of Utica
Praise for Frank Lentricchia and

“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.”




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


The Accidental Pallbearer
deserves to be read alongside the best literary detective fiction of our time. Lentricchia’s protagonist is the antihero par excellence—you can’t put him down, either physically or emotionally.”


“Gripping, complex … Utica here functions much as the Swedish town Ystad does for Henning Mankell in his books about Wallander … An excellent start for these Eliot Conte books. Can’t wait for the next one—and the cable-TV series.”


“Full of bits and pieces of authentic Utica history, altered and molded into a totally fictional story that is fast-paced and thrilling, scene after scene. It has the hard-bitten diction and action of ‘Film Noir.’ ”


“There’s a Quentin Tarantino masculinity to this story of a private investigator known for solving knotty problems in not-quite-lawful ways.”


“If you like your crime very noir, very hard-boiled and very American, then this is the novel for you.”


“Lentricchia captures the feel of upstate New York (Richard Russo territory) and of Italian American culture within a familiar genre, with predictable grit and wit.”


“The terrific writing, clever plots, bleak humor, and colorful characters recommend this to fans of gritty noir crime fiction.”



The Accidental Pallbearer

The Portable Lentricchia

The Sadness of Antonioni

The Italian Actress

The Book of Ruth

Lucchesi and The Whale

The Music of the Inferno

Johnny Critelli

The Knifemen

The Edge of Night



Copyright © 2014 by Frank Lentricchia
First Melville House Printing: April 2014

Melville House Publishing
8 Blackstock Mews
145 Plymouth Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
London N4 2BT


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


For Gene Nassar and Bob Cimbalo
With a salute to the guys at Toma’s
1160 Mohawk Street
Utica, New York

Special thanks to Jeff Jackson, for always-on-target advice, and a tip of the hat to John R. MacArthur for his reporting on the Utica Homeland Security pork barrel in his book
The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America


They appeared ten years ago in the dead of winter, next door to Eliot Conte on Mary Street—those vivid Mexican immigrants, Florencio and Elvira Moreno and their three-year-old son, whom they had named Angel. They came long after Conte had lost his children on the West Coast in a vicious divorce and moved back to Utica, New York—where, broke in spirit and in pocket, he was sustained by his politically powerful father’s unstinting generosity. Conte was living alone. He was well past fifty. He was pursuing with noteworthy success a career in alcoholism and working as a private investigator, the practice of which was yielding the usual paltry and repulsive business. And so it was that he had much time on his hands to sit at home, pale-skinned while the sun shone, reading literary classics and revising his thirty-year-old UCLA master’s thesis on Herman Melville, with unreasonable thoughts of publication. Melville—the writer whose vision seemed to tell Conte, the quietly godless Conte, that nothing had ever mattered in the long run, and nothing ever would. Just why godless Conte was drawn to the immigrants next door he could never have said. Perhaps the Moreno family was something, rather than nothing, for the long run. Perhaps the Moreno family would prove Melville to be wrong, though Eliot Conte—a big man of violent impulse—doubted it.

One warm Sunday morning late in their first American spring, Conte watched secretly from a back window as the burly and bare-chested Florencio Moreno collected the rags, the frying pan without a handle, the pieces of old iron, the shards of glass, and the deteriorated corpse of a cat before commencing to turn over the earth in his backyard and planting tomatoes, lettuce, pole beans, cucumbers, and herbs. Suddenly Conte found himself pulled irresistibly outdoors into the sun. From the other side of the fence in his yard he motioned to Florencio and said that he, who’d never planted anything, would like to tear down the fence that he had paid handsomely to install and would Florencio like to help? Together they could make one big son of a gun of a garden. Conte did not know what possessed him to make such a proposition. Florencio quickly agreed and they tore down the fence with manly exuberance, though in the beginning the plants on Florencio’s side did better by far than those on Conte’s side. Of course, Conte could not himself consume all that grew on his side and he encouraged Florencio to take whatever he wanted, whenever he felt the need. Even so, there was too much for both of them, so they decided to give away a portion of their great harvest to neighbors, who were stunned, but grateful.

There was a time, more than fifty years ago, when all the backyards of Mary Street bloomed with cultivated plenty, especially those on the 1300 block, where Conte and the Morenos lived, but many of the children of the original Mary Street immigrant Italians, not to mention the grandchildren, had no time for gardens and grapevines, as they worked assiduously on their American lives and dreamed of what they
called freedom, in California, while all gardens, all grapevines, disappeared.

Florencio soon cured the stunted earth on Conte’s side and the garden from one end to the other became uniformly rich and dense with good things, which nothing in the supermarkets could ever match. Conte’s gargantuan salads required neither salt nor pepper and only a hint of olive oil because under Florencio’s magical husbandry the earth itself had infused those flavors and in the third spring and summer of cooperative gardening, Conte—ruddy complected from outdoor labor—became almost as good as Florencio, who had taught him to coax abundance from begrudging backyard dirt.

Then one fateful evening in damp and drizzly November, as Conte reread
for the twelfth time, Elvira in distress knocked on his door. Her brother-in-law, who lived in Syracuse, had suffered a heart attack and was it possible that Señor Conte could watch their son, now six, while she and Florencio went to Syracuse for a few hours? He would go to sleep soon, angel that he was, and give no trouble, she promised. Conte said, Yes, of course, and took his
with him. While the child slept, he’d resume his peculiarly pleasurable meditation on Melville’s nameless terror.

Naturally, the presence in his room of this giant American from next door who was said to eat giant salads excited the child, and deferred his sleep, and Conte didn’t know what to do. The boy, who’d learned English in a jiffy after only a year and a half of schooling, asked for a story. Conte replied, Where are your storybooks? The boy said, with an impish look, We have none. My parents make them up. So Conte tried to make one up, but this man who loved the stories of great writers
was himself no storyteller. At a loss, and afraid of failing the boy, he decided to tell a story that his own father had told him of a man who died before Conte was born. A man known as The King of Mary Street. The boy responded,
El Rey de Calle Maria!
Even at six, the boy had a presence, a bearing, an alertness that caused Conte to believe, absurdly, but inescapably, that he was in the company of an equal.

He started haltingly, unsure of himself, as he remembered his father telling it to him when he was the boy’s age. If only he could have recorded his father’s telling with its dramatic fluctuations of tone, its long seamless rhythms, and the rich detail of a world he’d never seen—the world of The King of Mary Street, who became known as The King only after death, Conte said, whose name was Tomaso, who lived at 1303 Mary—across the street and down the block almost to Bacon. (Bacon and eggs! shouts the boy.) When he was the same age as your father is now, in 1918, Tomaso planted a cherry tree in his backyard, a sapling of two feet, and all around that sapling he planted a garden. The sapling grew into a normal-sized cherry tree—it took fifteen years, until Tomaso was no longer young, in the heart of the Great Depression. Eighteen feet high, it was, and fruitful, as cherry trees are, every other year. Tomaso knew trees as well as he knew the body of his wife. (The boy grins.) He knew that he must not allow that tree to go beyond itself, because its boughs would become too heavy and peel off the trunk in a disaster and the tree would die a slow and terrible death, as it destroyed the garden beneath itself, but Tomaso let it grow anyway against all reason and saw it in his dreams producing at great height enough cherries to feed all of Mary Street should another time come, as surely it
would, when all of Mary Street would again be poor and hungry. Eighteen feet. Twenty. Twenty-five. By 1948, the Tree was forty-five feet high. It was higher than the house. It was wider than the backyard. The great boughs reached over into the neighbors’ yards, who did not mind. Some said that Tomaso’s youngest and most mischievous son (the boy claps his hands) walked the greatest of all the Tree’s boughs into a yard three blocks away in order to taunt that neighbor’s dog who barked all night and made Tomaso curse a curse so obscene that I will not translate it. (The boy is disappointed.) The Tree loomed over the block. The Tree loomed over lower East Utica. The Tree loomed over the city.

Then one winter night the Tree grew weary of its greatness and desired never again to awaken in spring, because the Tree did not want to face another July when Tomaso and his sons and sons-in-law picked all the cherries, as they cursed the robins who fought them for their fair share—the burly men all the while talking amongst themselves high up inside the Tree and disturbing the Tree’s peaceful inner life. Cherries big like golf balls. Cherries like baseballs. Cherries like soccer balls. Conte was on his own, now, adding to his father’s telling, having a good time as he forgot that in the long run nothing ever mattered, and that all good things must come to an end.

The great boughs began to slowly peel away, which is what they wanted to do, so Tomaso put two-by-sixteens up under their formidable asses to keep them from doing what they wanted to do, but they kept on peeling away and so he bought many long strong black belts and tied them one bough to the other, so that the Tree’s interior was elaborately
criss-crossed with black belts and couldn’t do what it wanted to do, which was to die. Terrible oozing gashes appeared where the great boughs joined the trunk and all along the trunk itself and so he, Tomaso, poured actual cement into the gashes to defeat bugs and disease, and suddenly the Tree changed its mind. It began to entertain ideas of an eternal life. It would suffer, it decided, the troubles of July and those fools, those burly men who picked.

And so it went, every other summer, Tomaso and sons and sons-in-law carrying their heavy sagging baskets in to Natalina, Tomaso’s small, fierce wife—pouring basket after basket into a golden bowl—pouring all through July—pouring to the brim—the golden bowl never overflowing no matter how much was poured and Natalina and her daughters and daughters-in-law cooked, preserved, and canned and gave hundreds of pounds to the family and the neighbors and the blessed golden bowl remained full of sweet cherries to the brim, no matter how much was taken out.

The Great Tree would not die a natural death, but Tomaso and Natalina did, and soon after the sons and sons-in-law and the daughters and daughters-in-law lost all interest in the Tree. The house at 1303 Mary Street was sold to a politician, who cut the Tree down and blacktopped the garden. The little Moreno boy, struggling now against The Sandman, wanted to know where Tomaso and Natalina were. He wanted to see them. He wanted to know what happened to the golden bowl. He wanted one for his mother. He wanted to see the Tree before it was cut down. Over and over he asked Conte, What was the name of that barking dog? Tell me the dog’s name or I’ll get mad at you. Conte, at a loss, but seeing that
sleep was at last capturing the boy, whispered, I don’t know, and the boy whispered, Who knows, señor, and fell fast asleep.

Then Conte arose from the side of the bed where he’d been sitting and walked out to the living room, where he picked up
and sat in a comfortable chair to resume his twelfth rereading, but he couldn’t do it. Instead, he looked for and found a piece of blank paper and a pencil and made a long list of names for the barking dog. He settled on:
Il Diavolo della Strada Maria
. The Devil of Mary Street. Then, recalling the little bit of Spanish he’d learned in his California days, he wrote:
El Diablo de Calle Maria
, which is what he would tell the boy when he saw him again. He hoped it would be soon—he hoped it would be very soon.

Years later, when the Moreno child is twelve, the two daughters that Conte had lost in a vicious divorce on the West Coast are murdered—to all appearances either by his ex-wife, Nancy, or her husband, Ralph, or both, but no charges were filed, and the long-absent father raced from his grief with legs of stone, while in the grip of his desire for revenge.

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