Jason Manganaro: The Village Thief
En homenaje a Gabriel García Márquez
Vera Domani, seven and a half months pregnant, sat upright on the sofa bed, fully dressed and wearing her good shoes. Near dawn, she heard her husband’s footsteps on the stairs, but the sound brought no relief, only another wave of dread. She’d been waiting this way for hours, ever since Carlo had left with a crazy notion to rob the Knights of Columbus register. Now, as he stepped through the door – right before her eyes – she felt as if she were waiting for him still.
Vera stared at the bulge under his red flannel shirt. She let out a gasp.
“Quiet,” he hissed, raising the back of his hand to her.
Without a flinch, she sprung from the bed and fell forward, pinning the hand to his shoulder in an awkward embrace. She snuffled into Carlo’s knuckles, barely resisting the urge to kiss his fingers, and a moment later, the urge to bite them. Something hard pressed lengthwise against her belly. She moaned, clutching at the worn fabric of her husband’s shirt, and managed to calm herself.
“I must’ve fell asleep sitting up,” she whispered. “I dreamed you come back all covered in blood.”
Carlo snickered. He freed his hand, placed it on Vera’s shoulder, and forced her back to a sitting position. He unrolled his shirt and something long and round dropped onto her knees. She caught it before it fell to the floor.
It was maybe a foot long, made of dark wood, smooth and warn. Two tapered segments, joined by a double ring in the middle. It reminded Vera of the dowel her mother had used to hold paper towels, and nearly as often, to threaten her for mouthing off.
She grabbed the pack of Newports from the kidney-shaped ashtray by the lamp. Carlo had left the bathroom door open, pissing like a firehose into the toilet she had just cleaned. She put down the dowel and lit a cigarette, still studying it with her eyes.
Carlo returned without flushing or washing his hands. He gestured towards her belly.
“You’re going to stunt its growth,” he said.
“What the hell is this?” she whispered.
“The spoke,” he whispered back. “The spoke they keep on display. From the steering wheel of the Santa Maria.”
Vera lifted it before her face, cigarette dangling. She could picture it now, one of ten or twelve spokes encircled by a gigantic wooden wheel. She rolled it around in her hands. With her thumb, she found the hole at the bottom, where it’d been held in place with a drywall screw.
“What else?” she asked.
Carlo plucked the cigarette from her lips and took a drag. He emptied his pants pockets onto the bed – penlight, jackknife, lock picking tools. It now seemed impossible that – a few hours earlier, when he’d come home drunk, babbling about a wedding reception, a cash bar, an easy haul – Vera had agreed to go along with it. But he’d sounded so sure, like he could really pull it off. And they did need the money.
Carlo sighed. “There was nothing. The register was empty. Even the cigarettes and the good liquor were cleared out.”
Heat rose behind Vera’s ears. Inside her, the baby rolled awkwardly.
“If Vesprini had caught you, he would’ve skinned you alive. And here I am, up all night, worried sick. Did you even think about that? Every noise in the street, I thought they was carrying you home in a body bag.”
Carlo let out a low growl, a sure sign Vera should back off. But the heat had spread to her cheeks now, spurring her on.
“All that risk,” she said, “all that worry. For a frigging dowel.” She lifted it with three fingers, like something rotten she’d found in the fridge.
Carlo snatched it away. Vera braced herself, expecting him to take a swing at her. Instead, he stepped around her, grabbed his lock picking tools, and knelt by the lamp. With his fingernails, he pried at a loose floorboard. He put the dowel and toolkit underneath it, then gently set it back in place.
“I told you,” he said calmly, “I was there over an hour. There was nothing.”
“Then you shouldn’t have taken nothing.”
“Getting in was the hard part,” he said, crawling into bed. “I had to come out with something.”
“But why take that?” Vera said. “Of all things.”
Her voice trailed off. She was exhausted, worn out with worry. Whatever Carlo’s answer, she knew it wouldn’t make sense to her. Instead of arguing, she took three deep, cleansing breaths. She slipped off her shoes, clicked the lamp, and lay so she was facing him in the early morning dimness. His eyes were closed, underlined by dark circles that made him look older. Nearly as old as her.
Carlo yawned. Vera yawned, too – she couldn’t help it. She scooted closer until her round belly pressed against his flat one. She tucked a leg between his knees.
“Were you scared?” she asked.
Vera smiled. “I would’ve been scared shitless.”
Carlo smiled back, his eyes still closed. “Maybe a little. I had to piss so bad, I thought I’d explode.”
She brushed the hair from his forehead. After a few minutes, his breathing became slow and rhythmic. She should’ve stopped him, should never have let him leave. Now, all that mattered was he was home in one piece. And that he hadn’t taken anything of real value.
Later that morning, Carlo awoke with a vise gripping his skull. His mouth tasted of bile. Vera was in the kitchen, opening and slamming cabinet doors. He dragged himself to his feet, stumbled to the bathroom, and bent his head low over the sink. He blasted the cold water, scooping it onto his face and the back of his neck. He took a long, satisfying drink from the tap. When he straightened up, Vera was behind him in the mirror, wringing her hands.
“A bunch of them are out front,” she said, “talking. For twenty minutes now.”
Carlo paused, then brushed past her. He found his pants on the floor.
“Where you going?” she asked.
“Out front,” he said, pulling on a t-shirt. He passed Vera again, wet his hands, and combed his fingers through his hair.
“Wait,” Vera said.
Carlo froze still. “It’ll be worse if I stay inside. Suspicious.”
Vera seemed to consider this, her forehead scrunched like a pug’s. He hated when she made that face. She looked like somebody’s mother.
“I’m coming with you,” she said.
Outside, a dozen people were milling around. Half of them, the women, formed a semicircle on the sidewalk, chattering like hens. The rest were kids in church clothes, chasing each other in the street, plus two old men arguing in Italian. A typical Sunday scene in the Village, the bisnonno of Hale’s old-world neighborhoods. Only today, something was up.
“Theresa,” Carlo called. The tallest girl came towards them.
“Careful,” Vera whispered.
Theresa was the youngest of five sisters. The father, an Irishman, had run off when she was still in diapers. The oldest sister, Angie, sometimes made eyes at Carlo, though he hadn’t seen her around the neighborhood in months.
“What’s going on?” he asked, flipping his chin towards the women.
“Somebody broke into the Knights of Columbus,” Theresa said.
She seemed to know the whole story. How they’d picked the lock on the back door, then cleaned out the place, walking off with everything that wasn’t nailed down – the barstools, the dart boards, even the vending machine. Throughout her account, she fiddled with the hem of her dress, speaking so matter-of-factly that Carlo started to believe her. He pictured a gang of thugs, three or four of them, ransacking the joint.
Mrs. Rostoni, in a worn but colorful housedress, waddled over from the group.
“Can you believe it, Carlo?” she asked, hands lifted to heaven. The girl Theresa returned to her friends. “What kind of a world, I ask you!”
“Unbelievable,” Carlo said. Vera clung to his arm, hiding herself behind him like a child.
“There was a wedding reception last night at the hall,” Mrs. Rostoni said. “Honey Giunta’s nephew, Robie. You know him? Anyways, they had a cash bar, and it cleared out maybe two in the morning. Vesprini went over to lock up, of course. But it was so late, he didn’t think to empty the register.”
Carlo almost corrected her – the register had been empty – but he caught himself.
Mrs. Rostoni rolled her eyes. “Those bastards come in sometime after. Made off with two or three grand, the way they figure it.”
“Who was it?” Vera asked.
“Nobody knows who,” Mrs. Rostoni said to Carlo. “But I’ll tell you one thing. It wasn’t nobody from this neighborhood. First of all,” she said, extending a bony finger, “there are no thieves in the Village. Everybody knows each other.” She shot a sideways look at Vera, who came from Chelsea.
“Second,” she said, another finger, “on the way out the door, you know what they stole? You know the display when you first walk in? The piece they had from the ship’s wheel of the Santa Maria?” She crossed herself. “That was a gift from Chickie Matteo, when they first opened the hall. His own father brought it back years ago, from that Haiti.”
The bile taste returned to Carlo’s throat. Chickie Matteo was the Grand Knight of the main Knights of Columbus in Hale. Like Carlo, he’d grown up in the Village. But now, he lived in a mansion on the North Shore. His whole family was connected. Carlo had forgotten that the spoke had anything to do with him.
“Word is,” Mrs. Rostoni said, “they ain’t even going to tell the police. Chickie will find them, God bless him.”
“Did anybody get a look at them?” Vera asked. “The robbers.”
For the first time, Mrs. Rostoni looked directly at her, eyes tracking down towards her belly, then slowly back to her face. After what seemed like an eternity, she turned back to Carlo.
“All the men are at the Knights of Columbus,” she told him in Italian. “You should go. See if you can help.”
Back inside, Carlo shot up the stairs two at a time. Vera couldn’t keep up. When she reached the apartment, he was already inside, buzzing from room to room. He reminded her of a housefly – small and underestimated. Determined to keep moving or die trying.
Vera turned the deadbolt. “What’d she say to you? At the end?”
“To go down the Knights of Columbus.”
“Good idea,” Vera said, still catching her breath. “Take the dowel with you.”
Carlo flashed her a hateful look.
“If it’d just been the money,” she said, “they’d probably let it go.”
“There wasn’t any money.”
“But no,” Vera went on. “You had to take the dowel, too. That the mobster’s father got in Haiti.”
“I never heard that story.”
“Well, I never heard it either. But I ain’t the one who’s from here. How am I supposed to know when a piece of wood from the goddamn Santa Maria – which is bullshit, by the way – how am I supposed to know it’s got sentimental value to the goddamn Godfather?”
Carlo grabbed her by the wrist, twisting so hard she thought her arm would snap in two.
“Lower your voice,” he said through his teeth.
Vera tried, with one great effort, to wrench herself free. But Carlo twisted even harder.
“Okay,” she whimpered, almost in tears. “I’m sorry.”
Carlo held the wrist another few seconds, then let go. She shouldn’t have pushed him, she told herself. Sometimes, he forgot his own strength.
“There was no money,” he said calmly. “That’s just a rumor. Second of all, with the Santa Maria, I never heard nothing about Chickie Matteo. But by the fact they want it back so bad, maybe it is worth something.”
Vera rubbed her wrist. “So you really believe,” she whispered, struggling to match his calm, “that a piece of the real Santa Maria, instead of being in some museum, wound up at a Knights of Columbus in Hale, Massachusetts? Held in place with a screw?”
Carlo slanted his eyebrows like an angry child. Despite her aching wrist, a feeling of pity rose in Vera’s chest. He hadn’t always been so rough with her. Things would get better once the baby came. Once he got his license back and settled into a job.
“Who would you sell it to?” she asked, reaching for her cigarettes. “How many pieces of the Santa Maria can there be, floating around? They’d figure out –”
“They ain’t going to report it,” Carlo said, as if this had been part of the plan all along. “Anyways, all that comes later. First, I got to get down there.”
Vera blew smoke towards the ceiling. “You’re shitting me.”
“It’ll be okay,” he said, unconvincingly. “They think it was a whole crew, working together. And if I know that place, they’re talking about anybody who isn’t there.”
“What if they’re waiting for you?” Vera said, surprised by the panic in her own voice. “What if that old witch is setting you up?”
“If they had any idea, they’d be down here already.”
“Yeah,” she said, “with pitchforks.” Vera thought a second. “What if I go and – ”
But her husband raised a hand, cutting her short. “We both know this is the only way. I’ve got to find out what they know.” He lifted his red shirt from the floor.
Vera shook her head. “Get one from the closet. In case anybody saw you.”
“I just told you, if anybody –”
“We don’t know yet,” she said.
Carlo put on a different shirt. Vera watched closely as he buttoned it. She was fifteen years older than him, but at the moment, felt old enough to be his mother. They’d met at Revere Beach, him tooling around with his pack of friends, her finally comfortable being alone after so many bad relationships. She hadn’t been looking for someone. In fact, she’d all but given up on marriage, motherhood. But the timing had been perfect – her turning heads like never before in a bikini, him bold enough to hit on an older woman. What balls, she’d thought at the time, half-amused, already half in love.
Carlo fixed the last button.
“Be careful,” Vera said, fighting the urge to clutch at him. “Good thing I paid your dues for the year.”
Carlo entered the Knights of Columbus hall by the front door this time, a little light-headed, as if in a dream. Once inside, he was yanked back to reality by loud voices and the stench of cigar smoke.
“And another thing,” Vesprini was telling a group of ten or twelve men, “Hale ain’t that way no more either. It used to be, seventy, eighty percent of the people you seen was Italian. The rest was Irish, with maybe a few Pollacks thrown in. Nowadays you got everything under the sun.” The men grunted their agreement.
Vesprini puffed on his cigar, running a hand over his balding scalp. “Now in the Village, it ain’t so different from when we was younger. Most of the families’ve been here for generations. Carlo here is still living in the house him and his brother grew up in.”
They all looked to Carlo, the youngest in the room by thirty years. His heart jumped. He imagined his Corvette, all fixed up and roaring down the road, blowing this tomato stand forever.
“The same with you, Victor,” Vesprini said. “The same with my cousin Al. For years, we left this place unlocked at night and never thought twice about it. And I can’t remember the last time I seen a nigger or a spic so much as set foot in the Village. Main Street, on the other hand…”
A murmur of joyless laughter, followed by nodding. Two side conversations broke out and Vesprini made his way towards Carlo.
“It’s good you come,” Vesprini said, shaking hands.
“I just heard,” said Carlo. “I had no idea.”
“Naturally. I didn’t know myself until they come to set up for Sunday school, and the door was half-open.”
Carlo shook his head – he’d meant to pull it closed. “What’d they take?”
“Everything. They cleaned out the register. They even took the spoke we had from the ship’s wheel of the Santa Maria. Can you believe that?”
Carlo gazed into the high ceiling. The Knights hall had once been a chapel for Saint Agatha’s church. Under the glitter of daylight, it was hard to believe anyone having the nerve to steal from this place, as he himself had planned to do.
“How much did they get?” Carlo asked.
“Who knows?” Vesprini said, waving the question from the air with his cigar. “The register was still full from the wedding reception last night. Usually, I clear it out when I come in the morning.” He puffed on the cigar – nervously, Carlo thought.
“What can you do?” Vesprini added. “Money’s money, you know what I’m saying? The real problem is the spoke. All the little kids used to rub it when they come in the door, you remember? And the newlyweds, they’d rub it for luck. It was something small, but it meant a lot to people. You can’t replace a thing like that.”
“It was him,” Carlo told Vera a few hours later.
She was folding laundry on the sofa bed when he rolled in, stinking of cigar smoke.
“That son of a bitch Vesprini took the money for himself,” he said. “I’d bet anything on it.”
“Keep your voice down,” Vera whispered. “What makes you so sure?”
“Because he was the one who locked up last night. He was the last one alone with the register. And it sure as hell wasn’t there when I come along.”
Vera could tell that her husband had been drinking – to keep himself quiet, until he could share his suspicions with no one but her. At moments like this, she knew exactly what kept them together: Carlo needed her in more ways than he could imagine.
“Why would he risk it?” she asked, smiling a little. “With the money that runs through that place, I’m sure he could get his hands on more than one night’s bar receipts.”
“That’s exactly why,” Carlo said. “It’s nothing to them. Easy money. That’s why he thinks he can get away with it, the thieving bastard.”
Vera creased a bath towel. “You’re funny.”
“What?” Carlo said, clenching his fists.
“Think about it,” she said gently.
Soon, Carlo was laughing. He sat beside her and leaned back. “You should’ve heard him going on about the other thing.” With his chin, he pointed at the floor under the lamp.
Vera dropped what she was folding. “The dowel? What’d he say?”
“You’d think the goddamn ‘Last Supper’ had been stolen. He’s sly, Vesprini. He’s got everybody talking about the spoke instead of the money.”
A hollow feeling rose in Vera’s chest. She put a hand on her belly.
“Don’t worry,” Carlo said, placing his hand over hers. “We’ll lay low for a few weeks.”
Vera felt a stirring inside. She pulled her hand free and put it on top of her husband’s.
“Wait,” she said. “Did you feel that?”
Carlo looked at her blankly.
“There,” Vera said. “You feel it? The baby’s kicking.”
He waited a few seconds, then shrugged his shoulders and pulled his hand away.
Slowpoke, Vera said in her head, scolding the baby. You’ll learn.
“Anyways,” Carlo said, “when the dowel doesn’t turn up, they’ll remember about the money. And believe you me, if I can figure out it was Vesprini, so will Chickie.”
Over the next week, life returned to normal. Vera went to work at the drycleaners each morning and was home each afternoon by four-thirty. She’d quit her night job cleaning offices at the start of her third trimester. Carlo hung around the house, sleeping in and staying up late. On Wednesday, when the Hale Gazette came out, he went through the want ads, circling a few jobs he might apply for, though he never did.
On Thursday night, Carlo headed to the Towne Line Tavern to play pool with his friends.
“You need money?” Vera asked.
“Nah, I’m rich,” Carlo said. “I’ve got the three grand.”
Vera gave him a tired smile, then handed over a ten and a few ones.
Carlo came home that night after two, a little drunk. Vera was already asleep on the sofa bed. She’d left the bathroom light on for him, and caught in its soft glow, her face looked young and angelic. Before they’d gotten married, he’d never even seen her without makeup. These days, she only dressed up for work. But now she looked like his Vera again, the girl he’d fallen in love with. If he stared at her from the right angle, he could even ignore her belly, focus on the curve of her newly enormous breasts.
Carlo wondered if Vera was really asleep or just faking. He undressed loudly – dropping his shoes, clanking his belt buckle. But she kept still, even snoring a little. He crawled into bed and ran a hand up and down her leg – gently, he hoped. Before he could take it further, he passed out cold.
The next afternoon, Vera burst through the door out of breath. “They caught somebody.”
Carlo lowered the book he’d been reading, something about the life of a pool hustler. He put his beer can on the table by the lamp and reached for the empty pack of cigarettes. Vera pulled a fresh pack from her pocketbook, tossed it over.
“Well?” he asked. “Who is it?”
“A black guy,” she said. “A kid, really. They saw him wandering around the neighborhood on Saturday, just after dawn.” She paused so Carlo could grasp this – how easily he himself could’ve been spotted at that odd hour.
“They say Chickie’s got him, locked in a basement someplace. The poor bastard.”
“Poor bastard?” Carlo snapped. “You’d rather they had me?”
Vera knew better than to answer. She lit a cigarette, unpacked her pocketbook, tidied up the kitchen. After fifteen minutes, she felt ready to burst.
“They was searching houses,” she said, drying a bowl. “Knocking on doors, muscling their way in. Even Vesprini’s place, I heard.”
Carlo leapt to his feet. Vera stopped wiping.
“I’m going out tonight,” he said. “See what I can find out for myself.”
“You went out last night,” she said. “You didn’t hear nothing then.”
Without answering, he disappeared into the bathroom. After a minute, Vera heard the shower turn on, and let out the breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding.
They ate supper in silence, sitting far from one another at the tiny kitchen table. Carlo’s hair was still wet. When he tipped forward, Vera could make out the start of a bald spot.
While she was doing the dishes, she couldn’t help thinking, what if he does have the money? Could he really keep a thing like that from her? She wanted to trust him, to believe in him. But in so many ways, he could be as selfish and shortsighted as a teenager.
While she was drying, she heard his footsteps. He’d put on cologne and a fresh shirt – handsome again, like a young Dean Martin.
“You have any money on you?” he asked.
“Nothing extra,” Vera said.
“I thought you got paid today.”
“I did. But the rent is due.”
Carlo snickered. “Big deal. We’ll pay it next week.”
“It’s due Monday,” she said. “I don’t like for it to be late.”
“Vera,” he said. He spoke her name so rarely, the sound of it made her wince. “The landlord is my brother, okay? He ain’t going to evict us.”
“All the more reason to pay it on time.”
Carlo stormed from the room. Vera followed.
“Why don’t you stay home for once?” she said – shrilly, even to her ears.
“Why don’t you mind your own business?” Carlo said.
He grabbed his keys from the table. For a moment, he lingered by the door. He was waiting for her to give in, to hand over a twenty. Instead, she folded her arms across her chest.
Carlo leaned towards her. “I’m never coming back.”
“Good,” Vera said. He slammed the door so hard, the walls rattled. “Have a nice life!”
But once she was alone, she began to tremble. Her eyes welled up and she let out a croaky gasp. Somewhere deep inside – behind the baby, behind her heart – a clock began to tick, counting down the minutes until his return.
Carlo didn’t make it far. With no real plans, he stopped dead on the sidewalk in front of the house. He couldn’t call his friends for a lift, not without a dime in his pocket. He should’ve forced the money from Vera. But going back for it now would feel like a defeat. So he started walking, leisurely at first, until he settled on someplace to go.
Two blocks away, he unlocked a garage door, first on the left among a row of four. Parking was at a premium in the Village, especially for houses like his with no driveway or alley. This spot had been in his family since his father’s first new car, a Delta 88. He remembered bouncing around its gigantic backseat, dying for the day he could take the wheel.
Carlo lifted the door with a great rattle and there it was, gleaming silver, his 1982 Corvette Collectors Edition. He paced back and forth near the hood, trying to block out the dull maroon of the rear-end, the only repair he’d managed since the accident. With a decent paint job and nine hundred dollars in exhaust work, it’d be good as new.
Outside, the sun was setting, gleaming over a smudge on the right fender. He untucked his shirt and carefully rubbed at it. Owning a vette had always been his dream, a dream he’d realized when he’d let his brother buy out his half of their parents’ house. What did Carlo need with property? His brother owned three or four rentals. He’d always have someplace to live.
Carlo kept working at the smudge. The day he’d bought the car, in cash, the entire Chevy dealership had kissed his ass, kicking off the happiest summer of his life. Cruising Revere Beach with his buddies, money to burn. Hooking up with Vera, her body tight and tan as anything in the pages of Hustler. Then he’d stopped short and that old geezer had plowed into him. At the time, Carlo had been on such a good run – plus, so wasted – he’d literally burst out laughing. But when the cops had come, the laugh had been on him. He’d blown the breathalyzer, lost his license, plus his job running parts for Tecce’s Garage.
He rubbed the fender harder. His suspension would end soon, but who could afford a new license, plates, insurance, let alone repairs? Where all that cash from the house had gone was hard to figure. Like it was hard to imagine Vera – looking older and more swollen by the hour – ever squeezing into a bikini again.
Carlo heard voices. He quickly tucked in his shirt. Four or five girls passed the garage, one by one, each peaking at the Corvette. The last one slowed to a stop, staring right at Carlo.
“Hey,” she said. “What’s up?”
“Not much,” he said.
She stepped inside and he recognized her – Angie from the neighborhood, Theresa’s older sister. Short and slender as ever, cute but not pretty.
“I love this car,” she said, sliding two fingers along the hood.
Carlo nodded, fighting the urge to wipe away the prints.
Outside, the other girls circled back. “Angie?” said a bleach blonde, squinting into the garage. “Angie, let’s go.”
“Hold up,” Angie said. “I know this guy.”
“Oh yeah?” the other girl said. “Maybe he can give us a lift.”
“Two seater,” Carlo said, pointing at the car with his chin.
“Too bad,” said Blondie. “C’mon, Ange.”
“Wait,” Angie said. Then, to Carlo: “Come with us?”
He paused, but only for effect. “Why not?”
They left the Village on foot, crossed Main Street, and eventually reached a place called Sinagra’s that Carlo had never been to. It was packed. By the time they wormed their way to the bar, he understood why: he was probably the only one there with a legitimate ID.
“What’s our poison?” Angie asked.
“Nothing,” Carlo said.
She pouted. “Come on. You ain’t driving. Live a little.” She stared into his eyes, then looked away. “My treat, okay?”
“It’s not that,” Carlo said. “I’m hungry.”
They ordered appetizers – chicken fingers, potato skins, mozzarella sticks, all barely warm. Angie’s friends descended like vultures, then scattered when the plate was empty. She ordered two rum and Cokes. As the bartender handed back her ID, Carlo snatched it away. The girl in the picture – Madeline Sacco, age 22 – had similar hair, but a fuller, rounder face.
“Looking good, Maddie,” he said. Angie blushed.
By their sixth round, she was practically sharing his barstool, clutching his forearm whenever she spoke. “You have pretty eyes,” she said.
Despite her attentions, Carlo felt bored, unable to get a good buzz going.
“You belong to the Knights, right?” Angie said. “You must be happy they caught somebody. Even if it is the wrong guy.”
He stared at her. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
She looked over her shoulder, then leaned in closer. “The kid they grabbed, Damaso? He hangs out here sometimes. Spanish, a real smoothie.”
“Spanish,” Carlo asked, “or black?”
Angie snickered. “What’s the difference? Anyways, last Saturday, this friend of mine, her parents were in Atlantic City. She took Damaso home with her. He was still there when the Knights got broken into.”
Carlo took a long drink, trying in vain to wash down the lump in his throat.
“She should tell Vesprini,” he said calmly.
“Are you shitting me?” she said. “Her parents would kill her – literally kill her – before letting something like that get out.”
Carlo knew he should be relieved. Instead, he felt like he’d been swept out to sea, his chin just above the waves. He didn’t like knowing the kid’s name, or that he had a legitimate alibi. All at once, he felt tired enough to curl up on the barroom floor.
“I need to pee,” Angie said.
The crowd had thinned. Angie’s friends were long gone. If Carlo took off now, he could sneak away without a big scene. Vera would be asleep. If he was lucky, he wouldn’t need to deal with her until noon. He took a quick swig of his rum and Coke, then another.
A warm hand touched him on the shoulder.
“Okay,” Angie breathed into his ear. “Take me home.”
It was well past one when they reached Angie’s place, a typical Village three-family. She left Carlo standing outside for what seemed like an hour. He thought again about ditching her. He thought about the spoke – who he might sell it to, how much he might get. About the work his Corvette would need, every last detail. Anything but Vera. Or the kid Damaso.
Finally, Angie returned. She led him through a side door into the basement, to a colorful beaded curtain. Behind it was a dimly lit room, a space heater humming softly in one corner. There was a stereo, a TV, a twin bed, and in the corner diagonal to the heater, a baby’s crib.
Carlo straightened up.
“Don’t worry,” Angie whispered. “He’s a good sleeper. And as long as he’s in here, nobody will bother us.”
She took Carlo’s hand and led him to the bed. The room smelled of incense and sour milk. He couldn’t stop staring at the crib, expecting the baby to pop up any second, jack-in-the-box style. Eventually, he sat down.
Angie wiggled between his knees, swaying as she unbuttoned her blouse. Carlo watched the fabric fall from her shoulders, followed by a lacey bra. Her breasts looked swollen, too big for her body, capped by obscenely long nipples. He leaned over to click off the lamp. But Angie put her hand on his forearm, shook her head no. He closed his eyes.
A few hours later, the baby began to cry. Angie rustled around a minute, then whisked it from the room. Carlo rolled over, his throat dry enough to crack. He fell back asleep.
When he awoke, the sun was up and Angie’s warm body was nuzzled against his. He propped himself onto an elbow. The baby was gone.
Angie made a purring sound, groping for him under the covers.
“I have to go,” Carlo said.
“Stay,” she said, a little whiny. In the morning light, she looked even younger than he remembered.
Carlo fumbled to his feet. “I can’t.”
Angie sat up, covering herself with the sheet. “Come back later?” she asked.
“We’ll see.” He hustled into his clothes. He couldn’t head home, not yet. On mornings like this, it was best not to see Vera right away. Maybe he’d stop by the Knights, clean off a little in the bathroom, hear for himself what had gone down.
Angie let the sheet fall from her breasts. “Stay with me?” she asked.
Carlo held back a smirk. She really was very young. “Sure,” he said. “Forever.”
Angie gave him a helpless look. Her cheeks flushed and she covered up again. “Wise ass.”
Vera arrived at the Knights of Columbus hall around nine. She’d had trouble sleeping, even after convincing herself that Carlo had crashed for the night with one of his degenerate friends. She woke half-exhausted, but today was the spaghetti luncheon for the Jimmy Fund, to raise money for kids with cancer. Last summer, when she and Carlo had still been new to each other, she’d volunteered, mainly to show his neighbors what a good person she was. This year, she did it to spite them.
Vera was glad to be busy, to have something to keep her mind from her troubles. It wasn’t unusual for Carlo to stay away for a night, especially after a fight. But last night, he’d gone out alone, penniless as far as she knew. She imagined him wandering into some dive bar, some young skank shaking her ass in his face. Then it struck her like a premonition: what if he never comes back?
As if on cue, Carlo appeared, just inside the doorway to the main hall, talking with Vesprini. She could tell he had no idea what he’d walked into. Vesprini was convincing him to lend a hand. She crept closer, careful not to catch his eye.
“There you go,” Vesprini said, handing over a box, clapping Carlo on the back. “That’s a nice boy.”
She lingered nearby as Carlo set up folding chairs, then helped move a table. He looked ragged, like he’d slept in his clothes. But to Vera’s pride, he pitched in without complaint. At one point, Vesprini returned to his side.
“You hear we got him?”
“Yeah,” Carlo said. “Where?”
“Never mind where,” Vesprini said. “The point is, we’ll get it all back. Even the spoke.”
“Unless he sold it,” Carlo said. “Or threw it in the Mystic River.”
Vesprini gave him an odd look. “Why the hell would anybody do that?”
Vera got to her feet. As she started in their direction, the entire hall went quiet.
Chickie Mateo had arrived. Though she’d never seen him in person, she knew right away it was him – a tank of a man, with an oversized head and hands as wide as dinner plates.
Vesprini hustled over, the fastest she’d ever seen him move. He whispered something to Chickie, and Chickie raised both arms. Everyone in earshot froze still.
“I just want to say,” he boomed, in a voice deeper than Vera could have imagined, “that you done a good thing in coming. This here Jimmy Fund, I hold dear to my heart. We got a nice community in the Village, full of good-hearted people who do the right thing. And nobody…” he paused.
“Nobody,” he said, even louder, “can take that away. God bless.”
He shook a few hands, nodded in several directions, then passed through the propped double-doors into the entry area. Every eye in the place seemed to stay on him. When Chickie reached the empty display for the dowel, he stopped. He looked to the ceiling, lips moving, then exited onto the street.
Vera found Carlo, lost among the hushed voices. She crept up behind him, extended two fingers, and jabbed him hard in the kidneys.
He whipped around. “Christ,” he said. “What are you doing here?”
“Jimmy Fund,” she said coldly.
Carlo patted at his empty pockets. Vera rolled her eyes, then produced a pack of Newports.
He smirked. “You’ll never learn.”
“Don’t I know it,” Vera said.
Before lunch was served, they headed home together. Carlo still felt tingling in his fingers and feet, like they’d fallen asleep. This had happened before: When his mother had died. After Vera had told him she was pregnant. A few weeks later, after the JP had pronounced them man and wife. And again today, while Chickie Mateo had lingered over the empty display.
Halfway home, Vera took his hand – all pins and needles.
“Carlo,” she said, glancing over her shoulder. “A few people mentioned the dowel to me. I think they really miss it.”
“I know it,” he said. All week, he’d been trying to figure out how to sell the spoke. And still, he had no idea where to start.
“Let’s give it back,” Vera said.
A group of teenagers came up on the other side of the street. They both went quiet.
“I guess so,” Carlo said, back in the apartment, as if no time had passed. “Only how?”
“We could leave it someplace,” she said. “Out in the open, where they’ll be sure to find it.”
“That depends who finds it,” he said.
Vera agreed. “Also, it wouldn’t clear the black kid.”
“Damaso,” Carlo said.
“You know him?”
“Yeah,” he said. “He looks like me, only darker.”
“Don’t be foolish,” Vera said. She sighed. “How did we ever get mixed up in all this?”
Without warning, Carlo felt drained again, grimy and exhausted. All he wanted was to take a shower.
“I can go back to two jobs, you know,” Vera said. “I’m happy to work, as long as I got the strength. Only promise me: after the baby comes, no more taking chances.”
Carlo was barely listening. “We’ll figure out something,” he said.
For the rest of the afternoon, they steered clear of one another. After showering, Carlo closed the sofa bed and planted himself in front of the TV. The only time he moved was to adjust the rabbit ears, or for another Miller High Life from the fridge.
Vera shuttled up and down from the basement, doing laundry. At one point, she scooped up Carlo’s clothes from the night before. They stunk of sweat and alcohol, which was no surprise. But underneath, she swore she smelled something else. Another woman, maybe. On the stairs, she rested the laundry basket against her hip and started to cry. But the baby gave her a sharp kick, jarring her from self-pity.
“You’re right,” she said, drying her eyes on one of Carlo’s clean shirts.
Around ten, Vera told Carlo she was tired. He opened the sofa bed for her. She turned off the light, trying to relax under the soft glow of the TV. The apartment stank like a brewery, but eventually, she nodded off. At one point, she woke up to find Carlo fiddling with the rabbit ears. She drifted off again.
The next time she awoke, the TV was off. She heard rustling in the pitch black, near the head of the bed. Her husband was not beside her. She clicked on the lamp.
“Carlo?” she said. He was squatted down, fully dressed and wearing his shoes. In one hand, he held the dowel. In the other, the lock picking kit.
Vera leapt from the bed, hurtling herself against the door. “Not now,” she said. “You’re too drunk. You don’t even know what you’re doing.”
“He’s driving me crazy,” Carlo said, the words slurring together. “Haunting me, the bastard.”
“They’ve kept him around this long,” Vera said. “Please, Carlo. We’ll leave it someplace tomorrow.”
“Tonight,” he said, shoving the toolkit deep into his pocket. “Now.”
She spread her arms, grabbing both sides of the doorjamb. “Over my dead body.”
“Move,” Carlo said, with a half-hearted swipe at her arm.
“You fucking moron,” Vera said through clenched teeth. “What you was born with in looks, you got shorted in brains.”
Carlo grabbed her by the hair, pulling until her head bent forward. For a moment, she felt she could stand it – forever, if need be – and her fingers stayed locked to the molding. But Carlo kept twisting at her hair until the tears began to choke her.
“You’re hurting the baby,” she said. “You’re killing it.”
Her fingers popped loose and Carlo dragged her to the sofa bed, flinging her onto the mattress like a sack of laundry. When he turned to go, Vera leapt onto his back, wrapping her arms and legs around him. They both fell backwards onto the mattress, huffing and puffing.
“I’ll scream,” she whispered in his ear. “Not one move. I’ll wake the whole goddamn house.”
Carlo growled, then hit her on the kneecap with the dowel. She yelped in pain. He hit the knee again, then rose to his feet. Vera tried to follow, but her injured leg burned and buckled. From her knees, she clutched him around the thighs, still pleading.
“Tomorrow. I’ll take it myself. No one will know.”
He inched towards the door, dragging Vera with him.
“I’ll tell them it was me,” she said.
Carlo reached for the knob. As his right hand swung forward, his left swung near Vera’s face. She released his legs and grabbed for the dowel, pulling it close. She bit her husband on the hand, hard, not letting up until she tasted blood.
“Son of a bitch,” he said. He seemed to pause, then punched her full force on the side of the head. Vera hit the floor with a thud. Carlo shot through the door.
Vera stayed on the floor, dizzy with pain, waiting for something to happen inside her belly. She could hear the muffled voices of the second floor tenants, arguing about whether to call the police this time. She bit her bottom lip, trying not to cry.
Soon, she struggled to her feet, slowly regaining her sense of balance. She closed the door and turned the deadbolt. It echoed with a sharp crack. Then, favoring her knee, she limped towards the closet and pulled out a battered suitcase. She couldn’t go on like this. She loved Carlo, loved him dearly, and she was sure he loved her, too. But she had to think of the baby.
She looked to the ceiling, wishing for the strength to pack, to leave. Wishing so hard, she might have been praying. But prayer was for people who believed. Vera knew there was nothing. Just you, alone in this world, bobbing on an angry sea. You and whoever you clung to.
She pushed the suitcase aside and sat next to it on the sofa bed. The fire in her had died out. She folded her hands, hung her head, and resumed her wait.
Half a flight down, Carlo stood with his back to the wall. Maybe Vera was right. Maybe he should hold off until morning. Any second now, she would burst from the apartment, plead with him to come back inside. Maybe, this one time, he would listen.
Instead, the door closed. The deadbolt clicked. There was no turning back now.
He continued downstairs, a little unsteady. He hadn’t meant to hurt Vera – not this time, not even a little. But something had happened to him since the night before. Hearing about Damaso was like a weight around his neck, digging into his shoulders, sinking him down. Being around Angie’s baby – screwing her with him in the room – had made it worse. And seeing Chickie Matteo in the flesh had made it unbearable.
He exited onto the dark street, stumbling towards the Knights of Columbus hall. Ready or not, he would be a father soon. Even if he did get his Corvette running, even if he took off for good – no better than Angie and Theresa’s deadbeat old man – he couldn’t let somebody else take the fall for him. At least if he returned the spoke, they’d see Damaso couldn’t have had it. Maybe then, Vesprini would stop bullshitting about the money. Maybe Chickie would show mercy.
Even without a flashlight and with his hand sore from Vera’s bite, the lock was easier to pick this time. For a fleeting moment, Carlo wondered why they hadn’t bothered to change it, to install a proper deadbolt. But he let it go, kept moving.
As he entered the main hall, unable to see two feet in front of his face, he was overwhelmed by a feeling of righteousness. Growing up, his parents had focused on his brother, never expecting much of Carlo. But despite his faults, his many mistakes, at least he was trying to put things right. That must count for something.
He took a few more steps and his thigh banged against a hard edge. Behind him, a scrambling sounded. Then a click and the entire room went bright.
“Okay,” said a nervous voice.
Carlo turned slowly to face Vesprini, who was holding a shotgun. Behind him, in the back corner of the hall, lay an army cot with a tangled blanket.
“You,” Vesprini said. He lowered the barrel a little. “What the hell are you doing here?”
Carlo, arms thrust wide from his body, tried to think up an excuse. Instead, he tilted his head towards his left hand, where the spoke dangled from his fingers.
“I see,” Vesprini said. “I see.” He returned the shotgun to its original level.
“I’m bringing it back,” Carlo said.
“Sure,” Vesprini said.
“You’ve got to believe me.”
“I do believe you, Carlo.” The barrel stayed fixed on a spot near his heart. “What about the money?”
“The register was empty,” Carlo said. “It was empty and you know it.”
Vesprini blinked a few times, then let out a snort. “Carlo,” he said. “Carlo, Carlo. There was at least twenty-six hundred dollars in that register. Mainly tens and twenties would be my guess.” His lips spread into a wide smile.
“It was already gone,” Carlo said. “You know it was.”
The numbness overtook him again – a tingling that started in his fingertips, traveled through his wrists, up his arms, and settled into his chest. The sensation of a curtain being lifted, unveiling all the ugly ways of the world.
“Alls I know,” Vesprini said, “is I’m gonna call Chickie Matteo, probably wake him up from a nice sound sleep. And pretty soon – either right here in this hall, or shoulder to shoulder with your nigger friend – you’ll get the chance to tell your side of the story. How there wasn’t no money to steal. How somebody’d beat you to it, maybe me. And Chickie’s gonna listen. Then him or one of his crew will explain to you that, when you steal from Chickie – spokes, cash, it don’t really matter – you pay it back times fifty. They’ll start by taking that shitbox Corvette of yours. The rest, they’ll take out of your ass. And you’ll deserve it, Carlo, you really will. Not only for being a thief. But for being a goddamn fool.”
Jason Manganaro is a graduate of the MFA program at The Ohio State University, where I worked extensively with Lee K. Abbott, Melanie Rae Thon, Michelle Herman, and Bill Roorbach. My fiction has most recently appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Washington Square, The Journal, Shadowgraph Quarterly and Red Rock Review, among others.