Serafina (an Excerpt)

By Joe Smith

My neighbor's out walking her dogs when she happens across my daughter singing to a cluster of iris blooms down in the cow pastures on the cliffs overlooking the sea.

How precious, thinks my neighbor, until she listens more attentively and learns the song is about the catastrophes and mutilations which will soon befall the little girls -- twin sisters -- who live in the white house by the pond. Apparently my daughter's had a tiff with them while playing some game, and she's gone off to sing up a host of sweet, juicy tortures for those brats, those snots, those horse-poop, monkey-face, screechy twins.

Revenge, my daughter informs her when she asks about the song, is a dish best served cold.

My neighbor stops by on her way home to tell me about the encounter. I'm sitting in front of the rickety tin palace of an old garage where I live, watching birds build nests in the steeple of the church across the road. Eight year olds, she says, while her dogs sniff around my geraniums, don't come up with ideas like that on their own.

I nod. These old saws are, of course, handed down from generation to generation. The saying about revenge I got from my great-aunt Serafina. She brought it with her from Italy, from the village she left one afternoon as a teenager. Carrying her shoes in her hands so they wouldn't get worn out along the way, she walked to the city of Pescara to make a prayer to the Virgin in the big church there.

A tomato sauce you cook two minutes or two days, nothing in between. That's another idea Serafina passed on to me. I was a child then, and the aroma in Serafina's kitchen always made me feel sleepy, and very safe. A smell can be like a lullaby sometimes. And any kitchen she stepped into was immediately hers.

Later, when I was older, I visited Serafina in her dingy room at the edge of a decrepit seaside amusement park. I was on my way to my new girlfriend's place near the beach for dinner that evening, and she warned me to pay close attention to the food because a woman who's all thumbs in the kitchen is all thumbs in bed, too.

This, says my neighbor, sitting down on the bench beside me, is starting to get interesting.

She wonders out loud if the stuff about thumbs and bedrooms is equally true of men in the kitchen. I can sense her testing the hypothesis, running memories of various men and meals through her mind. Myself, I'm thinking about the tasteless, rubbery lasagna she brought over for me to sample a couple of months ago.

To tell the truth, it wasn't Serafina, but her husband who captured my imagination as a child. He was a gangster and went by the curious nickname of Porky, which could've referred either to his build or the natty pork-pie hats he favored. In any event, Serafina lived in his shadow, in the shadow of the enormous brick mansion he built in his hey-day, a fairy tale palace full of silver and imported crystal and marble.

I'm not sure how he got his start in the rackets, if he was a gunsel or one of those collection guys who bends fingers with pliers and shatters knee caps with baseball bats. But he rose to the top, by accident, it appears, through a process of elimination, when several other members of his gang were massacred in a hotel lobby during a wedding reception. According to the most popular version of the story, Porky survived the hail of machine gun bullets by leaping into the big tub of a potted palm. He hid there until the gunplay was over. Afterwards, he crawled out, dusted himself off and caught a train to New York where he cut a deal with the boss of the waterfront and returned to his home turf with carloads of trigger-happy heavies. Within a few months, Porky's rivals were at the bottom of sundry rivers and he was asking Serafina to pick out wallpaper for the brick mansion going up on the hill out by the beach.

I've seen the place from the highway. It's a chic resort now, with swimming pools and tennis courts and a supposedly breathtaking view of the sea. But I've never actually been up there, never gone inside. Porky and Serafina moved out a few years before I was born, selling it for a rock-bottom price to pay off his gambling debts.

Though perhaps you wouldn't have guessed it from the shiny black Cadillac Porky was driving the first time I met him, by then he was already headed downhill, being muscled out of the action. I remember I was in the middle of a rock fight with the other kids on the block when a sleek car with tinted windows that rolled up and down when you pushed a button on the dash stopped in front of my building. The couple who climbed out of the snappy car looked pretty snappy, too. And when they headed inside the building, I called times out, no king's crosses count and ran home to find out what was going on.

So this was the rich great-uncle Porky I'd heard so many tales about, this dark man with a hat pulled halfway down to his smile, with the hairy knuckles that chucked me under the chin when I said hi. And his wife, Serafina.

That afternoon he took me out to the racetrack to play the ponies. He bought me boxes of chocolate non-pareils. Before each race he asked me to pick a name from the list of nags he read off the turf sheet and slapped a pile of bills down on the counter at the betting window. That was my horse. Whatever it happened to win was mine.

My horses mostly didn't win. Neither did his. By the time we left the track, the money belt around his waist was noticeably thinner. There was also a parking ticket stuck under the windshield wiper of the Cadillac.

Beautiful day for a ride, he said, lifting the wiper to remove the ticket, which he spindled and set on fire with a match, using it to light the cigar clenched in his teeth. What you say, kid, what to come along?

Several hours later we were wheeling into the parking garage of a fancy department store in downtown Boston. Porky led me by the hand down the aisles and up the escalators to the men's wear section.

You got nice silk shirts? I'll take a gross.

A gross? stammered the clerk. He wanted to know what color, what size -- twelve dozen? -- with button pockets, without?

Whatever he had was fine with Porky, who hauled out a wad of fifties and peeled them off one by one. Red, green, blue, black, all sizes.

The clerk rang up the purchase and disappeared into a stock room to get the shirts. He came back pushing a hand cart heaped with boxes. The three of us rode the freight elevator down to the parking garage and loaded the boxes into the trunk and back seat of the Cadillac. Then Porky and I made our way through a maze of streets and over a bridge to a neighborhood of squat brick buildings where people sat out on the stoops listening to the ball game on the radio and hung around on corners by the doors of store fronts, smoking, talking, jingling loose change.

We parked under a street lamp and began passing out shirts from the open trunk of the Cadillac. Porky seemed to know everybody on the street and he had a smile for everybody who passed by in the deepening twilight.

Hey Luigi. Hey Sal, hey Tony, you want a silk shirt? A yellow? See if we got one, kid, in the right size. My great-nephew, you know, up from Baltimore, smart kid. Maybe in the back seat there's a yellow. An extra large for my old paisano, Vinny. He never met a ravioli he didn't like. Black all right? Black looks good on you. How's the wife, Dominic? Another in the pot already? I thought she just had one. You better take a red one for good luck. Maybe you'll finally get a boy this time. You know what they say, Dom. Men make sons. But lovers, lovers make daughters. So let me know and I'll send you a box of stogies, Cubans, the best.

This was Porky in his salad days, the tail end of them. Porky singing his swan song, picking out shirts for the boys in the old neighborhood, joking with them, draping an arm around their shoulders, trading mock punches, asking about their families. Nobody could wander by without getting a shirt. Women with babies in their arms had to have one to take home to their husbands. The cop on the beat got an extra for his cousin, who was away on vacation. A sister needed green for her brother, the barber. He was in the hospital having an operation. Porky promised to visit as soon as he had a chance.

A couple of years passed after the shirt give-away before I saw him again. He and Serafina arrived at the bus station in the middle of the night and stayed with my family for a few weeks. They never went outside the apartment, which was filled with sky-blue plastic radios one day when I came home from school. The radios were still there when boxes of silverware arrived, then toasters, blenders and other small appliances. Finally, a large, black poodle appeared. The adults pretended not to hear the questions I asked. They warned me not to talk, handed me a leash and told me I should take the poodle out for a walk. I named him Jet.

It was a good thing I didn't become too attached to Jet, because it wasn't long before a man came and hauled him away. Then the radios disappeared, the silverware and other stuff. And then, a few months after Porky and Serafina left, I heard that Porky had passed away.

Hot, Serafina told me the evening I stopped by to see her on my way to my new girlfriend's for dinner. I hadn't seen her in years, and we were reminiscing about the old days. All that merchandise was hot. Porky was fencing for a two-bit thief after the syndicate squeezed him out. It was the best he could do. He was on the lam. Not from the law, from the mob. Even the poodle was hot, a fancy kennel club show dog.

Easy come, easy go, says my neighbor, glancing at her watch.

She gets up to leave. I'm sure she figured the story is about over. Her husband will be home for supper soon, my daughter home from singing her song of revenge to the irises out on the bluffs, hungry as a horse. I watch her cross the road, her dogs at her heels. The sun is low, my shadow long. It reaches across the pot-holed pavement to the other side, across the scraggly lawn to the steps of the church.

It was about this time, when I was a kid, that we would tune in the Jack Benny Show on Sundays. We'd turn on the radio a bit early to make sure we didn't miss the beginning, and we'd often hear the last couple of minutes of the religious program which preceded Jack Benny -- a priest with a buttery voice. I can't recall anything he ever said, except for his catchy sign-off.

Remember, he would intone at the close of every broadcast, more things are wrought by prayer than this world ever dreamed of.

It's curious, the paths the mind takes from here to there, from revenge is a dish best served cold to the tag-line of a radio priest you haven't heard in more than thirty years.

Because I was still a kid, Serafina told me, they didn't want me to know the stuff was stolen. Same way they told me Porky passed away. He didn't pass away, he was blown away. Gunned down, by mistake.

She was living in a ratty room at the tattered edge of a decaying amusement park by the beach. The smell gave me claustrophobia. The glue which held the linoleum to the floor had given up sticking a generation ago. The wallpaper was buckled with the corpses of insects. The windows were grimy. If you opened them, the stale air trapped inside crept towards the place where glass used to be and sniffed at it like a caged animal. But the windows faced west. Through the opening you could see the ferris wheel and the exit to the tunnel of love. And, through the roller coaster's fretwork of white, wooden supports, the brick mansion Porky built on the hill near the sea.

They kept it from me, how after Porky got the dough for fencing that stuff he and Serafina went out to Los Angeles. He had a few connections in the film business who could land him walk-on parts in gangster movies. Like the one about Anastasia and Murder, Incorporated. Even with the thick make-up, you can tell it's Porky who's the bodyguard outside the barber shop where Anastasia finally gets his, wrapped in one of those white sheets barbers use, with shaving cream still all over his face. And then one day Porky's walking down the street in broad daylight and a couple of hit men mistake him for someone else. They can't believe their good luck. He's alone. It's a cinch. They pump him full of lead.

I was surprised to hear the truth after all these years. And very sorry.

What's to be sorry? said Serafina, shutting me up with a fierce glance. Sorry doesn't bring anybody back. Not any more than the flowers the gunsels sent to the funeral to say they were sorry about shooting Porky by mistake. So many flowers, they must've emptied half the florist shops in Los Angeles. Sorry's for suckers. Sorry's always too late.

My daughter comes skipping down the road, barefoot, carrying her shoes, soaked from splashing in puddles out in the cow pastures, in her hand. Her smile is quite devilish. I get the feeling she really believes the spells and charms she's cast upon the evil twins with her song to the irises are going to work.