I went to the Cambridgeport Saloon when I got really lonely. It was only a few blocks from my quiet, leafy corner of the city, but it was a different planet. Lunatics and malcontents sat at stools and in seedy neon corners. It was a dive bar. Not a pretend dive bar, but a real dive bar.
The drinks were cheap and the lights were bright and it smelled always of vomit and old smoke. I never once left the place sober. It wasn’t the kind of bar where you sat to read a novel, or the paper. You didn’t stare off into space and mind your own business. You took sides, and jumped into conversations. I talked to a man who was fresh out of prison for shooting another man with a flare gun, and once heard a shaggy down-and-outer sing a version of Let’s Stay Together so beautiful that it brought an unusual silence with it.
Things went on in the restrooms that you wouldn’t believe. The pool table was crooked and covered in cigarette burns. I remember a woman. She had enormous fake breasts and painted-blonde hair. Jagged horrible scars puffed out on both of her wrists. She told me about the horrors of her life as a part-time stripper and full-time hooker, and I listened. I walked home alone and wobbly-drunk, through the shadows of early morning and back to earth. I am certain that woman is not alive today.
One day, years and years ago, the doors were pad-locked. It’s a hot section of the city, ripe for business. Fancy restaurants and cocktail bars open up right and left. The old candy factory is modern glass and steel now. It’s home to an upscale bakery and wine shop, and infinite rows of expensive condos. For some reason, though, the old yellow-green sign of the Cambridgeport Saloon still stares out dumbly at Massachusetts Avenue like a bad neighbor. No one seems to know who owns it or why they don’t snip the pad-locks and make room for some clever thing or other. No one can tell me why the rats and roaches, and all the ghosts that madhouses harbor, are still in charge.
[Photos: Cambridgeport Saloon by Elliot Foxprince]
The thick black wires that bring Internet and TV into our home bounced up and down. There was something large using the cables as a walkway. They slapped together like jump ropes on blacktop where they slip through crotches in the maple tree trunks. It was just after 4am. All the lights of the world were off and the rows of houses behind ours were visible only in moving blackness and sound. I couldn’t see the animal, but I could hear it in heaving grunts that sounded like wild boar or small bear. A shallow breathing and snorting. Huge sections of tree branches bent in the dark, exposing streetlights and sending shadows recoiling in a rush of swooshing leaves. The slamming of heavy garbage can lids and the angry rattle of tree branches left me wondering if beasts are out every night, squealing through the neighborhood alleys in a frenzy, hunting for a meal. Our maniac neighbor’s horrid rendition of Fever on the piano was the only other sound. I pulled the window down, leaving just enough open for the cool breeze to get in. But some of the rustle of brush, and a madness of misplayed notes, got in too.
[Painting: The Abbey in the Oak Wood by Caspar David Friedrich, 1808]
My grandfather didn’t eat much fruit. But every evening of summer, after dinner, with the sunlight passing slowly at diagonals through the trees, he sliced a peach into a wide tumbler and poured in his red wine. But Bruno, they’re not ripe yet my Nonna protested, knowing the peaches might need a day or two in a paper bag on the countertop. Doesn’t matter he’d say. The wine ripened and plumped the fruit, whose sugars softened the sting and fizz of the homemade wine. I remember the parties of late summer, the Labor Days when smoke from a cinderblock grill whirled in the air, and there was always a glass bowl of someone’s red wine with slices of perfect soft summer peaches bobbing in it. Young kids would ladle cups full of the wine and peaches, in full view of their parents, because it wasn’t a drink. It was a dessert.
[Photo: Summer Peaches by Nina MacLaughlin, 2014]
Tomatoes are alive for three weeks in August. They absorb the rays and warmth of the sun at its hottest, and taste like the last two hours of light on a summer day. They bloom and blush a deep red. In these few days we know that the tomato is as much a fruit as a peach or a plum. It is no longer a half-formed thing in costume, a pale sponge leaking an embryo-slush of seed and flavorless water. These weeks are all sleepy Sundays. We have adapted and changed and the heat no longer stings our skin or melts our brains. Our freckles and tans have blossomed on our skin and the sun has melted into our veins and our flesh and our hair. It has changed us. We know how to move now. We drink our afternoon drinks more slowly, having found a lurid pace. This all comes just in time for passage into something windier, a moment of longer shadows and rising breezes. Wind chimes will become alarm bells and green-alive leaves turn to paper, scratching at the pavement. The tomatoes, a fine dust on their skin, are alive only in these last days of summer. Their lives are short. My mother gathers bushels to boil and peel and cook in oil with onion, freezing it all against the white-blank of coming winter. She will stir pasta into a remnant of the hot, steaming sun in the center of a table when the world outside is blanketed in snow and bathed in false light. She sends frozen packets of the last summer’s plump fullness to me and my sister to help our own bleak times. The rays are only frozen, suspended. They are still alive and will, with luck, survive to the next August when slices of tomato, raw and fully themselves, are lunch and dinner again.
[Photo: Farm Stand on Rt. 2, Mass by Jonah James Fontela, 2014]
The Bottles of Autumn: Part Four
A car pulled into the driveway, bouncing on its shocks in front of the open garage doors. Bruno knew the sound of the motor before he looked. All the way up the road he knew it. He knew what everyone’s car in his life sounded like. He knew it like he knew a voice or a face. The way Mike Nero’s old bummer truck choked and coughed. Romolo’s flashy Lincoln squeaked when it turned left into the driveway. The little Spider Gigi used to impress the girls was forever breaking down. Bruno’s son-in-law up the street had the big Volkswagen camper van; the wobbly belt in its air-cooled engine put-put-putted like a toy.
Pete opened the door of his big gray sedan. He looked out at the yard and all the glass bottles dangling like strange fruit from the trees. “It’s not Christmas for a while, Bruno,” he laughed, walking over to his friend. He sat down on a short cinder-block wall, admiring, a paper bag on his lap.
“You want a drink, Pete? Bruno asked his friend. They were the first words he said all day. The first words he said since he sat in the church getting nauseous off incense fumes and listening to strangers talk about his wife. They wiped away tears from their faces. They blew their noses like trumpets.
“Pope shit in the woods?” Pete replied with a happy smile, hopping up the walkway. “I’ll get my own glass,” he said. “Don’t get up, I swear, I got it.”
Bruno laughed a little through his nose as Pete bundled into the house, through the screened-in porch leading to the kitchen. Pete opened the fridge and there was nothing but sadness, emptiness in it. Piles of casseroles and disposable tins of pasta brought by other peoples’ wives and mothers. They were all unopened.
He pulled a glass down from the cabinet over the sink and opened the paper sack he’d brought along. It was full of dark brown chestnuts, an X carved into each one before they were boiled to make them easier to peel. They were Bruno’s favorite. Balotoli he called them, and he told stories at The Club of men pushing carts down the street full of them, when he was a boy in Italy, in the green hills of Toscana. Pete poured them into a bowl.
“Look what I got, Bruno,” he said, sitting down next to his friend. “Balotoli,” Bruno whispered, blowing smoke through his nose. “It’s early for those.”
“Early, late, who gives a shit?” Pete said, putting the bowl down on a small table. “Tell me again, Bruno, how do you like your chestnuts?” Bruno smiled on one side of his mouth. “With red wine,” he said.
“I thought so.” Pete said. “So should we have some red wine then?” Bruno nodded, finishing off his scotch and handing the glass to Pete, who rinsed it off at the garden hose snaked by the surviving green beans in vegetable garden. “You still got any left from last year, Bruno?” Pete asked, pulling open the squeaky cellar doors that were rust-proofed a bright green. Pete shuffled down the steep steps to the cellar. “In that crack in the wall you call a wine cellar?” Bruno didn’t answer. He didn’t need to. Pete knew where he kept the wine he made every year.
Pete came back up with a gallon jug. He screwed off the top and poured a little for Bruno and a little for himself. “Salute,” Pete said and Bruno lifted his glass. They took a sip that fizzed in their mouths the way wine made by amateurs in unreliable climates does. “It’s getting better,” Pete said with a straight face.
Bruno laughed from deep down in his chest, from deeper than he had in a long time and from deeper than he wanted to or even knew he could. “Let’s have a few more and it’ll get even better too,” he said to Pete, peeling a chestnut with his thumbnail.
The two sat until the sun went away, and the wine did get better as they finished the chestnuts and listened to the wind and the clinking of glass. The pears had begun to grow already, Bruno told Pete. He told Pete if he listened close he could hear them coming together, becoming, assembling inside the bottles.
In a few weeks Bruno would cut the bottles down, most with a pear grown to full size behind the glass. Some wouldn’t grow and he’d throw them away. Some would be lumpy and some would be rotten from the bugs. Maybe an early frost would cause problems. He’d fill each bottle with clear liquor, a grappa he made every year with the seeds, stems and stalks left from making his bad wine. The pears would flavor the strong clear booze over time. The more time, the more flavor.
[Painting: The Chestnut Gatherers by Georges Lacomb, 1896]
The Bottles of Autumn: Part Three
The Club bustled decades before. They had to turn people away, so many wanted to pay their cash dues to be members. Prospectives had to prove they were from Viareggio, a tiny part of Italy the size of a postage stamp, to be official. Most had to be content with just being invited guests. The place was always full of men back then, bursting with their fantasies. You could smell the lunches cooked there on weekdays and Sundays for miles in every direction. But the kitchen was covered in cobwebs now. Some of the afternoon drunks who wandered in weren’t even Italian.
There were cigarette burns in the floor boards from ancient times when men in sharp cuffs and pressed pants streamed in to watch Rocky Marciano bang hell out of some pile of black muscles. He always gave away ten pounds in flesh and a few inches at least in reach. He hit like a mule, Rocky did. Anyone at The Club could tell you. He practiced on a 200-pound heavy bag made of greasy leather. The men twitched their feet under the bar with every punch on the TV, hissing through their teeth when Rocky got into trouble. He was undefeated, Marciano, the only heavyweight to do it. It’s all anyone could talk about. All of the men at The Club knew about defeat. They were all defeated.
The Club only stayed open now because of the rent they made off their parking lot. The mill up the road was condos now and the university ate up more and more of the neighborhood every day. There were new people. They came to the city from somewhere else, and they needed somewhere to park their car for the day. The cracked and cratered lot behind the Viareggiano Club was perfect.
These men and their card games held the brick building up like crooked scaffolding. Their sons all moved away. They drank Coca-Cola instead of scotch and wine, and they all had degrees from colleges. Their wives didn’t cook, or, if they did, they cooked badly. They celebrated the happy moments of their lives in restaurants. The men at The Club, all laborers and some business owners, were proud of the progress but they were bitter too.
Bruno was one of them. He wasn’t a large man, and he looked even smaller slumped outside by himself in his chair. His shoulders were wide and covered with gray fur. His hair was gray and receding. Half the teeth in his head were missing. When he forgot to put in his false set, like now, he looked twenty years older. He shuffled his feet when he walked and had a curve in his back from years spent leaning over an engine or crawling under a car, hammering out dents and forcing crooked things straight.
He worked hard, but never too hard, to get Bruno’s Garage up and running. It was out on Congress Avenue, made of cinder blocks, in a stretch of the neighborhood they now call The Congo. You don’t go near it today if you’re white. He sold his garage in the knick of time to his right-hand man Jerry, who was without rival on this earth for loyalty or physical ugliness. Jerry, who kept the name Bruno’s Garage on the sign, went under in a few years. Now the place is empty and boarded up like everything else in The Congo, and poor Jerry took a bath.
Bruno kept two cars at his house, in a garage he built in his yard. He clunked around on them when we felt like bringing something to life. The cars were a hedge against boredom. One was a powder blue Volkswagen Beetle, a 1968 with holes in the floorboards from the sand and snow on the roads. The other was a magnificent relic. A 1932 Buick. A gleaming black machine with running boards and round headlamps like the swiveling spotlights of old jailbird films.
Bruno kept a photograph of that car in the kitchen. It was taken the day he bought it. He parked in front of a stretch of woods off the old Post Road, which ran from New York to Boston before the big concrete ramps and heavy gray highways were built. He and his first boss in America, Jimmy the Jip, posed in front of it with one foot each up on the running board. They wore their biggest smiles. Their hair was slicked back clean and cigarettes burned in their fingers, smelling up their shirts. Jimmy’s been long dead. Cancer too. In his lungs.
Bruno sometimes stared into that photo like he was looking through a window. “Where did you go?” his wife would whisper when she caught him drifting away through it. She knew he daydreamed and she knew he was geloso, a jealous man. She knew he was petty and he could be small. She knew about all the bad things he was. The closest she ever came to leaving him was when he gambled away their money at poker. The money she made driving needles through dresses, sometimes through the meat of her thumb; the money he made hammering on other peoples’ cars, breathing in the smell of motor oil and old dust.
A gust of wind rose up and rushed through the trees in the yard. A clinking filled the air. Bruno had been waiting for this moment. The wine bottles he’d hung from his pear trees clanked together gently, like a room full of people toasting. It was a wedding. It was, suddenly, a Hollywood New Year’s Eve.
He took a sip of his drink and sat back, lighting a Camel Filter. There were only a few vegetables left in his garden. The winter was coming fast. He’d picked all the late summer’s tomatoes, eager to have their redness, their plump ripeness, gone from his life. They reminded him too much of his dead wife. He put them in a plastic shopping bag along with the never-ending zucchini and overgrown cucumbers. He tied the bag closed on itself and put the key in his green John Deere riding mower. The machine turned over with a straining and a wheeze and he backed it out of the garage between the Beetle and the Buick. He pulled a lever to make sure the blades were up.
He drove the quarter-mile up the road to his daughter’s house with the bag of vegetables in his lap. He left it outside the front door without knocking, because he didn’t want to see her hold back her tears.
There were still a few string beans on the plants that ran up the chain-link fence in his garden. He left them there because he had to eat something – that’s what everyone said since the funeral – and his daughter’s kids didn’t like them. He didn’t know why they didn’t like green beans. It was all just food and you weren’t supposed to not like any food.
He shook his head when his grandkids, a boy and a girl, refused to eat something. He threatened to make sausage of their pet cat and they laughed. Bruno wondered what they would have done with only dry white beans, starchy pasta e fagioli, for months, for years, virtually forever, every meal, every day, like when he was a boy in the hills between the two wars. Then there was only sorrow. Old ladies in doorways wove baskets from strips of olive tree bark. They sold the baskets to no one, because no one had any money to buy them. The village was full of empty baskets with nothing to put in them.
Your garden was your life and your vineyard your joy and your olive grove your fat for staying alive in winter. One bad season, one wrong turn or too much rain and it was silence and horror for the year. You begged or hoped for help or kindness. Family was important, even the loose ends, in those times. So you never cut them.
Kids in America poured milk onto cereal from bright boxes and spooned on mountains of white sugar. Bruno mourned in impotence for how different the world was, and how far away from most things he felt.
He poured himself another drink from the bottle of Dewars and listened to the rush of rising wind through the bottles on the trees. The wind rose the foliage like a boat sail, and it was so different from the usual rustle of the papery leaves.
A screen door slammed. Bruno’s neighbor, an unfriendly German, stepped onto his back porch. The neighbor said nothing to Bruno. He grimaced at the bottles and rubbed his forehead with the heel of his hand. The bottles threw light across the trees, magnifying the sideways shafts that only come in fall in this part of the world. It was a light Bruno loved as much as he hated the winter that followed it. The blues and greens, eventually the reds and yellows, were perfect and new to Bruno. The monochrome whites and grays that followed turned him sullen and quiet.
Bruno said nothing to his neighbor, who didn’t like him because he was a WOP, he heard him whisper the word under his breath a million times. Dago too. He didn’t like his chickens and the pile of rusting tools in the corner of his yard. He complained all the time about the raccoons that prowled the neighborhood, trying to get at the chickens Bruno kept in his coop. He complained about the noise Bruno made with his friends. He complained about the card games that went late and the smells of cooking and burning leaves and every other god damned thing on earth. The German never offered a drink or any friendship; all he had was scorn. And he had plenty of that. He scowled and passed judgment at all hours. He brought only sorrow with him.
Bruno nodded his head slowly, pulling smoke from the fading stub of his cigarette, when the German’s screen door slammed a second time. He was alone again with his trees, the bottles, and the breeze.
The final part (Four) of The Bottles of Autumn will appear here tomorrow.
[Photo: Rocky Marciano courtesy of The New York Daily News, 1954]
The Bottles of Autumn: Part Two
“He’s going crazy, you know?” Mike Nero shouted his first words through the door of the Viareggiano Club. He was like a piece of heavy farm machinery blasting through the dim barroom, filled in with hard blue neon. “Who?” asked Pete, practiced in the art of ignoring Mike Nero.
“Who? You know who.” Mike wiped loose leaves from his flat gray head. “Fuck. Bruno. I just drove by his house,” he went on, more agitated. “And you know what he’s doing?”
There was no response. Pete, who looked like a cartoon pig with red and blue veins snaking through his pink cheeks, sat at a table with two old men. The three of them rearranged playing cards in their hands.
“He’s tying glass bottles to the trees in his yard,” Mike said, looking to each man for a reaction. Mike Nero was strong across the shoulders and his voice boomed from somewhere deep. But there was no answer from the table. Gigi Marchione raised an eyebrow in recognition, but he said nothing. “They’re hanging from the branches.”
“I never seen any shit like it in my life,” Mike Nero said, tugging off his coat. “Va Fredo,” he protested. “It’s cold already.” He objected to the changing temperatures, the coming cold. He rubbed his arms against the autumn. There was no season like this in Naples, where he was born, and no winter like the freezing misery of December and January and February that it preluded. Mike Nero made a lot of noise about it every year. No one paid him any attention.
“So he’s tying bottles to his trees, so what?” Danny Ragaino said, calling out his bid in the lazy game of pinochle. “One-fifty.” Pete opened his mouth. “One-sixty,” he said, poking a finger, white paint under his nails, at the brim of his paper painter’s cap. “He’s not crazy, Mike, he knows what he’s doing,” Pete said.
“Knows what he’s doing? It looks like he’s signaling aliens. UFOs or some shit,” Mike Nero bellowed, arms outstretched, a rumble in his throat. “Well, I got no fucking clue,” he said dejected, a little quieter, like a sad kid. “So what is else is new,” Pete replied, looking across the table to Romolo, who passed on the bid with a shrug of his shoulders, turning his mustache down around the edges at the state of another bad hand. “Miseria” he whispered, tugging the zipper of his puffy ski jacket.
“Mike, you in? We want to play teams,” Pete said, throwing his cards down in disgust. “Basta with this cut-throat bullshit. We need four for Pinochle. You in to make it four, so we can play a real game?”
Mike Nero looked at all three faces, with their low hanging flesh dangling from old bones. All retired early, all spending their pensions and Social Security checks in this dusty room. Afternoons spent playing cards and breaking balls.
“I give up,” Mike said with a theatrical sigh. He walked off to the bar in a huff. “I’m in,” he mumbled.
“OK. We’ll deal you in,” Romolo said, stroking his mustache and smiling like a devil at Pete first and then Danny. “But make sure you don’t just get one drink for yourself, you cheap Neapolitan son of a bitch.” The other two laughed, small bursts of noisy breath from their chests that came out through their noses. The smiles left as quickly as they came.
“Vafanculo to your drink,” Mike fired back across the room. “Maybe I’ll take a piss in it.” He grumbled and returned to the table with two small glasses – scotches and soda – with thin red straws poking out to stir the ice cubes. The bartender brought the other two drinks and Pete dealt the cards out three at a time.
“A hundred of them at least,” Mike Nero said after a few quiet seconds, his eyes down on the pile of cards growing in front of him.
“A hundred what?” Pete asked, annoyed.
“Bottles, fucking wine bottles. On the trees.” Mike said, his hands in front of him.
A roar of disapproval erupted from the table. “Are we talking about Bruno and his bottles and the UFOs, or are we playing cards?” Romolo asked. “Because I’ll fucking go home.”
Mike Nero let the matter rest. He pushed his reading glasses to the tip of his nose and fanned the cards out in his big hands.
“I’ll open. 170” Mike said and looked across the table at Pete, his partner. A jump-bid. Mike Nero was strong in meld, but he didn’t have a playing hand. Romolo passed, sensing the signals and Pete picked up the bid. It was an old routine and it wasn’t quite cheating, but just barely.
The bartender stood by quietly with his hands on the bar, watching a soap opera with the sound off on a small TV. On the screen was a man in a bed with wires sticking out of him; a doctor in a white coat talking to a crying woman. The bartender rubbed the wood down with his thin hands to pass the time between orders. No one was coming in and no one was going out. A pinball machine stood unplugged in the corner, covered in dust. The place was always empty. Ten at a time was considered a riot these days, and the ones that still came were yesterday’s men…
Part Three of The Bottles of Autumn will appear here tomorrow.
[Image: Old Men Playing Cards by James Guinevan Seymour, 2011]