A Charmed Life

Medford Leas, 2015, at three o’clock in the morning. I reach for the peanut butter. It’s either that or a banana because I’m too lazy to retrieve my partial upper denture. So I gnaw at the heaping spoonful of chilled peanut butter, scoring it lightly with my upper front teeth, like a beaver savoring a tender shoot. Peanut butter, eaten straight up, is astringent, it puckers my mouth and it constricts my throat. I drink milk, swishing it around to dislodge, to dissolve the tasty gunk..

I never knew peanut butter as a child. It wasn’t on the shelves of the neighborhood Italian grocery store. Can you imagine a childhood without peanut butter? Don’t feel sorry for me. We ate fresh fava beans, fresh ricotta. – my mother served ricotta and fava beans over rigatoni, with a dusting of grated Pecorino cheese –we ate fresh figs, zeppole, fennel, cardoons. We called them carduni. It grew wild along country roads. Joe Abbruzzo would gather carduni from the secret spots he knew on the road to his job in Chester, Pennsylvania. My mother would de-splinter the green staves, cut them down to four inch pieces and parboil them. Then she dipped the pieces into a batter of beaten eggs and ground Pecorino and she shaped them into hand-sized cutlets. She sauted them in olive oil, first embedding an anchovy filet in each cutlet.

We didn’t eat pasta on Saturdays. My mother, or my father, would make spezzato di vitello, a stew loaded with chunks of veal, potatoes, carrots, onions, and celery coddled in a broth which we sopped up with bread from Caltagirone’s corner bakery. Zu Peppe, the baker, was the husband of my mother’s Aunt Jennie. “Miserabile carogna!” (miserable bastard) my father used to growl. “He owns a bakery and he brings one loaf to the table!” Occasionally, rarely, we had dinner at the Caltagirones who lived above the bakery. After we had eaten up the one loaf – four of us and three of them – Zu Peppe would go down to the bakery and return with one loaf. “Carogna miserabile!” But blood is thicker than water. Aunt Jennie was a Spinelli, like my mother’s mother. When our furnace broke down and had to be replaced, Aunt Jennie lent us $1700 which she delivered in a brown paper bag.

Aunt Jennie, a touchy, embittered woman, was the unhappy wife of an insensitive, brutal man. She relied on my mother for sympathy and companionship. She knew English. Aunt Jennie and her daughter Pip (for Giuseppina) used to accompany my mother to the local movie house on Friday evenings. They would sit her between them, the better to explain the subtleties she might have missed. Hisses from those seated around them. My mother was fond of Giuseppe Cotone aka Joseph Cotten, but Clark Gable was her favorite. No subtleties there.

If the phone rang at our house, and if it ceased ringing after two rings, it was Aunt Jennie’s signal. The Caltagirones had the cheapest phone service, with a limited number of calls per month. We had unlimited service. “Carogne miserabili!” My mother, dutiful niece, would go to the phone and call Aunt Jennie. They would talk for hours it seemed. Sometimes my mother would sit there silently. Only her lips moved. She’d be relieving Aunt Jennie of the mal occhio, (the evil eye), to which Aunt Jennie was prey, beset, as she was by those whom she believed hated her. My mother had the power – such power that she could do it by phone – to dispel the evil eye. She was in great demand. My mother would hold their hands, intoning fragments of prayers and folklore gibberish. The secret had been passed down to her when she was a young girl, by a village ancient, a practitioner, who had recognized my mother’s latent powers. Her clients always felt better afterwards; they included fairly sophisticated people. My mother was a listener. My father was not a believer. Sardonic, he would leave the room, not trusting himself to hold his tongue. As Aunt Jennie unburdened herself on the phone, interminably, my father would cry out, softly, “Hasn’t she milked you dry yet?”

Here I stand in my pajama bottoms, at three o’clock in the morning, gnawing on peanut butter. I’m spared , at least, the indignity of hearing myself speak aloud without my teeth. In 1956, with a full set of teeth, I sat at Mrs. Mallet’s dinner table with seventeen others. The Mallet’s apartment was on the sixth floor of Harrod’s, on Hans Place in London. I was a guest at Hans Place for six weeks by virtue of having met Gina Mallet at the Universita per Stranieri di Perugia, Italy. Gina’s mother, Isabel, was a transplanted American who had lived in England since the mid-1930s. In the evening, after dinner, she and I would sit in the drawing room long after Gina and Mr. Mallet retired: He went off to business in the morning and Gina to secretarial school. Mrs. Mallet (call me Isabel) and I were unemployed so we could sleep late. We sipped sherry, South African sherry, because Mr. Mallet was on the board of directors of the company. Isabel unburdened herself to me of the slights, veiled and otherwise, she had suffered over the years as an American living in London society. However, barring her accent, she was indistinguishable from the English women I met in her home, except to me at one o’clock in the morning.

Gina’s father, Arthur, was a god son of Queen Victoria., Once, when I made a joke about Edward VII, a shade of displeasure flickered over his face.. In the evening, Mr. Mallet would remove his business suit jacket and necktie, and replace them with a dark blue velvet dinner jacket. Occasionally, to please Gina, he’d wear a red velvet fez with a silky golden tassel, a gift she had given him for Christmas. As he began to carve a roast leg of lamb (prepared by Gina), he said, “What an extraordinary joint.”

I sat next to Lady Thorneycroft, wife of George Edward Peter, Baron Thorneycroft, the Chancellor of the Exchequer of Great Britain. On my right was Prudence Mallet, Mr. Mallet’s prickly spinster cousin, about sixty five years old — she who could not be excluded from important family gatherings. My job, at Mrs Mallet’s request, was to mollify Prudence. I was introduced to Prudence and Lady Thorneycroft five minutes before we sat down for dinner,. Earlier in the evening, I was among the younger guests who were now seated at a second table at the other end of the room

For a while I divided my attention between my partners. Lady Thorneycroft, an Italian contessa, had probably never sat next to a Sicilian peasant before. She was pleasant but glad, shortly, to give her full attention to her more suitable partner to the left, enabling my tete-a-tete with Prudence Mallet. Prudence was a large woman, with a fullness to her jowl, like her cousin, Mr. Mallet. She held her head erect and looked down her nose at me, not unpleasantly. It was habitual. We got along. She offered little of herself – “No, I have never been to Perugia” – and I didn’t probe. Prudence took an anthropological interest in me. I entertained her non-stop, I performed, like a plaza Navajo in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I looked down the table to find Mrs Mallet beaming happily at me. When we finished eating, I rejoined the young crowd at the other end of the room. Gina had started a craps game. In the morning, Mrs Mallet said she was proud of me and she promised to enlist me again the next time they had Prudence over. It never came about while I remained in London, but I returned to the Mallet table regularly because they knew, after I had moved out of Hans Place, that I was living on short rations in Notting Hill Gate. Notting Hill Gate was not yet a fashionable venue. I lived in a boarding house full of Arabs who thought I was one of them the first day. I apologized and it was OK: I was a Sicilian, a near-miss.

My tenure in London was doomed. It was difficult for the non-Briton to find work. Yes I had highly placed connections but I would never impose. Isabel bought my sleek Olivetti portable typewriter. She gave me more that I had paid for it in Italy, but much less than it cost in tax heavy England. I tried to accept less but she insisted. I sold my Air Force field jacket to a New Zealander I had met in Perugia. He, like all those from British Commonwealth countries, could find work easily in England. I fell in with a group of Australians who gathered weekly in a pub in Holborn that served chilled Australian beer. Among them were two nurses and three dentists who had come to England fresh out of university, to work in the British Health Service. English teeth were in poor shape after years of war and privation. The dentists worked their allotted hours weekly, but then they could see patients privately. In two or three year’s time they saved enough money to buy their dental equipment and their office furniture, tax free. They would ship it to Australia, tax free, along with a Jaguar. After I had jettisoned most of my belongings and after the University of London refused my application, I had to turn tale and return to Italy. I had some GI Bill left and the Universita per Stranieri would take me back.

In April I departed from Victoria Station for the long train ride back to Italy. It still seemed like winter in England, grim. It was cold, the earth was black and wet, and the foliage was darkly green. It was much the same as we trundled through France under overcast skies. I slept as we crossed the Alps, to awaken in bright sunshine: Italy. We skirted the beach towns north of Genoa with their apron of Mediterranean Sea. Young couples walked along the beach hand in hand. The charmed life had resumed. For two years, interesting people, interesting experiences washed over me effortlessly. It was seductive, short sighted of me not to have grabbed for it. I took it for granted; it seemed my due as a charmed man.

The first months back in New York City were exciting — Abstract Expressionist art in the galleries along Tenth Avenue, off-Broadway drama – but not engaging unless you grabbed for it. I took a nothing job at Pan American Airways, merely to get the free round trip to Italy after a year. Before long desertification set in, a barrenness that filled me with despair. Miraculously, I met Margie. I lived a charmed life for fifty four years.

I had come to Medford Leas to be with Margie the last weeks of her life. She wanted me to remain here after she was gone, a safe haven. “Marry XYZ,” she’d say.  XYZ was a widowed friend of ours. I’d make a wry face. “Marry ABC, she’s younger than you. Marry …” I’d stare at the floor.

We walked together arm in arm

That little skipping hop to get in step

Our coupled hands our surety

Your fingers always met my fingers’ touch

Your arm sought out my elbow’s crook.

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