Mark Zegarelli
Mark Zegarelli

Wifeswap, 1943

Chapter 1

Aproposito, this is not a young adult novel.

Every Friday evening, rain or blizzard notwithstanding, my father and his brother, my Uncle Angelo, would meet for dinner at a nearby restaurant we all called “Threezios.” This in an age when dining out was uncommon among our class of people – my father was a cop and his brother worked as a dress-cutter in a ladies’ garment factory. In fact, with the Great Depression abating but far from over (I recall this to be 1937), each was supporting multiple relatives and in no way had we money to spare. Furthermore, my mother and my Aunt Connie were both entirely capable of cooking and, incensed at this ritual, each equally capable of flying into a rage at the mention of mere pennies, let alone dollars, to be thrown into a ditch week in and week out.

Add to these one more fact about my father and my uncle worth mentioning: They hated each other.

You may think hatred is too strong a word for brothers who never lived more than a single block from each other until one of them was carted off in a casket and the other left to grieve, but you would be mistaken. I can vouch personally for the term from the early years of my childhood when, for lack of shelter, we lived with my uncle’s family, stuffed together like refugees under his small roof, miserable. It was only pride that fueled this hatred on my father's side. I see this now, but in those days pride was all a man with a family had in which to clothe himself. Even on the good days, which could last for weeks, they could sit at table together, sullen, scowling, incapable of exchanging the first kind word. What went without saying, of course, was that they were stuck together, we all were, trapped by cramped circumstance that sapped us for years.

My father would point, grunt, and my aunt would pass him down the olive oil. Then my uncle would sniff and stare and one of my brothers would send the gravy bowl his way. That’s how it was, and not just in our family, of course. But at six, seven, eight I thought that other situations nearby might be more idyllic until I learned, word by word, otherwise.

By the time I was 11 and welcomed into unexpected womanhood – first by a trickle between my thighs at last made plain to me in shocked hush by a pained and shamefaced nun; minutes later in a fumbling encounter with my cousin, Mario, in the old stables behind our houses – we’d been sprung from that pressure cooker. Papa had found work with the local police. This must have been a source of strain on him, recalling that in these times, the Irish who heaped disdain on our kind night and day were synonymous with this line of work, but he never showed it, at least not to me. It was such a source of pure relief to him, after years without work, to afford to move us out – and, after all that, it was only down the block! – that he never showed me the slightest harshness ever again. 

Our eternal springtime began that summer and, oddly, so did those suppers out.

Chapter 2

There were three restaurants all in a row, called Nunzio’s, Tuzzios, and the one we called “Threezios,” whose proper name is now forever lost in the folds of my senile brain. Despite how it may sound to you, they were all quite different establishments. Not that this mattered much, because it was not in the design of our Creator that our family might eat out, certainly not on Christmas or Easter, or even less likely on any other day you could suggest.

My Aunt Connie, who was always in the kitchen, could occasionally sell her home-baked goods to Tuzzios, but she barely made a dime because she was so meticulous with her ingredients and generous on portions that she inevitably had to spend more than she earned. I cooked alongside her for hours into the night and sweated while the boys played stickball and ringolivio and the lightning bugs beckoned from outside the screen door. She was a better cook than Mama, a point of contention throughout their lives, but there you have it. She may, in fact, have been an artist. She certainly never scrimped, not to save time, nor money, nor the effort of washing up a frying pan. 

That’s why – or so I thought – she was the only one sorry to see us go when we went. Because, I guessed as a child, she’d attained all she ever longed for: the upstairs master bedroom with half a double bed and a full dresser all to herself; a chef’s assistant in Mama, who was in no position to complain, whom she could lord over; and an audience of 13 open mouths to keep feeding. Not that she ever begged us to stay longer than our appetite required, but you could see in her moistening eyes that she would never be truly contented in life until the rest of us, like her, were too fat to fit through the back door any way but sideways.

Once the war was really on and the money started flowing, she found a few hours of work at one of the restaurants or another. It drained her, of course, because the restaurants, like everything else in town, were Irish run, and day after day indignities were heaped upon her: “Gimme summoradat Guinea shit,” was the most common way a customer requested seconds. This surely bothered her less than the sad truth that in this kitchen, which she didn’t run, olive oil was apportioned through an eye-dropper and macaroni boiled without end like a pot of English vegetables.

When a married woman worked outside the home, this was no longer our world. How long could it last?

Chapter 3

Their Friday-night suppers out at Threezios went on for months, then years, stacked one on top of another like the pay envelopes that had funded them, and just as easily discarded. Likely as not, Papa would come home red-faced with tears streaming down his face, not from overabundance of cheap wine or even sentiment; rather, consumed with a rage that defied expression. So he would recount, as Mama removed his shoes for him, how Angelo had abused or humiliated him in some unique and diabolical way. But it was always the same trivia – some offhand remark to the hat-check clerk or a failure to return munificence in proper proportion. Who knew what it all meant?

All weekend, with their faces caved in, they wouldn’t talk – not at all to each other, hardly to any of us. Uncle Angelo, who had a gift for all things mechanical, would tinker with the autos that had started trickling into town. Papa, more old-fashioned, spent his time prowling the police stables, tending horses which would sooner or later die off one by one, never to be replaced. 

By Sunday night, having reached some tentative détente, the brothers would gather with other men from the neighborhood and play Scoba, either in the dining room or during favorable weather out on the front porch. Alternatively, once the scrawny, high-voiced Portuguese known only to me as La Voge d'Ol (Chicken-Voice) had breached their circle, a strictly five-handed version of Briscola rose to ascendency. 

[more to come]