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]