Uncle Ray! Uncle Ray! The Bonaventura brothers, Louie and Tony, ages nine and seven, abandon play, leave their friend Dave in his neighboring yard, drop bats and balls and toy guns on the grass and pavement, and run toward the blue Lincoln Continental suddenly parked in their driveway.
Like an off-season Santa, Uncle Ray is guaranteed to have gifts for them in his backseat. Standing beside the car, arms down but spread slightly with palms open — as if showing the cops he is unarmed — Uncle Ray waits for their embrace. As always, he looks sharp in a creamy beige suit, white button-down shirt, fancy marinara-red tie, and brown and white two-tone shoes.
The boys don’t notice his Old Spice cologne — that’s just how Uncle Ray smells. He doesn’t wear the cologne for them anyway. They are dirty and sweaty from play but not enough to soil his suit, nor are their hugs long enough to wrinkle his jacket as he guides them around the open door of the backseat. They clamber into the car, which smells of pine air freshener — tree dangling from the rear view mirror — and cigarettes, and plunge their hands into the deep mysteries of the shopping bags.
Ray steps back and smooths his tie. He twists his diamond pinky ring.
Mike Bonaventura’s Plymouth Duster is not parked in the driveway, and Ray has not moved his own car up to make room.
That kid — that towheaded friend of theirs — is looking at him from his position on the lawn. Take a picture, kid, it’ll last longer.
Often the boys’ shouts bring her out, herald his arrival. Today she is a little late, or maybe she decided to make him wait. As the boys withdraw water pistols, candy cigarettes, comic books, Ray strolls to the front corner of the house. He removes a silver cigarette case from inside his jacket and takes out a smoke, tapping the tip on the closed lid. As he strikes a match and holds in a breath, she appears up the concrete steps, which clearly have been recently repaired — a patch job, sloppy masonry — her slender hand on the black railing, as if to steady herself for the delightful surprise of his appearance.
“Buona sera, Bella.” He greets her by the shortened form of her name in his raspy voice and in so doing compliments her.
“I was just about to start dinner,” Annabella Bonaventura says. Her brown hair is pulled back but loose, limp strands hang over the sides of her face. A smile is starting to break through her tired countenance. A gold cross rests in the hollow of her neck.
“I’m taking you out to dinner.”
“Ma, look what Uncle Ray bought us.” The boys have come around the corner of the house, fists full of treasures.
“Did you say thank you?” Her tone shifts to strict maternal.
“Thank you, Uncle Ray!”
“Go inside, change your shirts. We’re going out to dinner.”
“Jack in the Box?”
There is one just under the railroad tracks, in Garden Park.
“No.” Ray puts a hand on Louie’s shoulder. “A real dinner. Go get dressed.”
“Wash you faces,” Annabella tells them as she holds open the front door. “I have to get ready too,” she says more gently to him. “You want to come in?”
“I’ll wait out here.”
Alone, he savors his smoke and the late afternoon breeze that ruffles not a strand of his salt-and-pepper hair, wet-combed back with Vitalis.
Mike Bonaventura has tight black curls, and Ray has never seen him in anything but a white T-shirt. He doesn’t know if Mike owns a suit. But he does own this house—or at least is paying down the mortgage. Ray presses a hand on the stucco wall, rough on his palm. Rough like Mike. He has imagined their lovemaking—brutish and brief. Ray does not like to sit on the furniture inside, see the bowling trophies on the shelf above the TV, the crucifixes on the wall, and be reminded of all that Mike Bonaventura possesses.
They are not brothers. Far from it. Once they were rivals. By blood, Ray is no uncle to anyone. An only child, he was the prince of immigrant parents from Napoli. Adored and overfed by his mama, toughened by his father’s belt when he needed it. The old man dropped dead playing bocce three years ago. Mama still lives by the railroad tracks dividing Rosebud and Garden Park, grows tomatoes in the sunshine and plucks grapes from the arbor while trains rattle past. She won’t move. But she wants for nothing, Ray sees to that.
At the first stoplight, Ray pushes the eight-track cartridge into the car stereo and the strings of “Malafemmina” fill the car, followed by Jimmy Roselli’s voice, aching with longing.
“Aw, Uncle Ray, play the radio!” From the backseat.
“The radio? Forget the radio. This is your heritage.”
“Who is this?” Louie asks. “Jerry Vale?”
“Marone, Jerry Vale! This is Jimmy Roselli, Hoboken’s own.”
“I thought Sinatra was from Hoboken.” Louie again.
“They’re both from Hoboken.”
“Old Blue Eyes,” Tony contributes.
“Never mind Old Blue Eyes. Jimmy Roselli is the real thing.”
“He always sing in Italian?”
“You don’t like it? Let me ask you something. Is this your car? Are you paying for dinner tonight? If you’re paying, you can choose the music. Otherwise, silenzio, capish? Your mother likes this music.”
“You heard Uncle Ray,” she says but doesn’t turn around. Chin cupped in her palm, elbow resting on the open window, she gazes out.
“They talk to their father that way?” Ray says to her. He points his chin over his right shoulder. “You talk to your father that way?”
“No,” Tony says. “He’d give us a bungala-bungala on the coolie.” He drums his hands on the seat.
Ray looks at Bella, who’s turned to him, and he raises an eyebrow. She shrugs and smiles a little, one corner. Those blue eyes of hers.
Jimmy Roselli sings his heart out.
Cash in palm gets them a table out on the terrace at Tre Fratelli. The orange flames of the torches dance in the gentle evening breeze and candles flicker atop Chianti bottles covered in dripping wax as the first pink hints of sunset paint the New Jersey sky. Beyond the smell of refineries and exhaust, the pungent scent of garlic permeates the open air. Crooners, mandolins, accordions waft from mounted speakers. They walk past tables, couples, to a corner of the terrace, and Ray steps smoothly before the mâitre d’ to push in Annabella’s chair.
“Al fresco, boys,” Rays says.
“What’s that mean?” Tony asks.
“Very nice,” Annabella says, unfolding her napkin.
Ray orders a bottle of red. For appetizers, the boys munch fried calamari while he and Annabella share the antipasto. Annabella chooses the chicken marsala, Ray has veal scaloppini, and both boys have chicken parm.
The sky darkens, and their faces are lit by candlelight.
When knives and forks are down, Ray says, “Boys, you want to watch TV?”
“Can we, Ma?”
He leads them inside to the bar, gets them a small table and two cokes from the bartender, tipping generously.
“Keep an eye on these boys,” he says across the bar.
“Bowling for Dollars” is on the black-and-white TV above the bar. Only a few barstools are taken.
“Okay, boys, you two behave like young men. Enjoy the show, and we’ll come get you. You stay put. Capish?”
They nod, and Ray claps each on the shoulder.
When Ray steps through the stone archway, he sees the patrons have been banished, the tables have been cleared… except their table, overturned to reveal itself as an enormous half scallop shell, on which stands Bella, gloriously nude, her long hair blowing to one side, a wavy waist-length tendril held loosely, almost absently, over the V of her smooth pelvis, her other hand pressed to her pale beautiful breasts. Cherubs flutter about her on white wings. But as he peers at the angels’ faces, he recognizes them — Louie and Tony!
And the vision falls away…
Clearing his throat and straightening his tie, Ray crosses the terrace, weaving around waiters to where Bella sits alone, gazing into the glow of the candlelight and picking at the dry, dripped wax on the bottle.
The wind has picked up and her hair is lifted by the breeze, too close — he thinks — to the leaping flames of the torch. Ray moves quickly and wraps his hands around the iron stem, lifting and carrying the torch away from their table.
“Sir.” A waiter is suddenly at his side. “Can I help you, sir?”
“She’s gonna get her hair set on fire.”
“It’s all right, Ray,” Bella says calmly. “Sit down.”
He twists his pinky ring as he watches the waiter retreat, then takes a seat next to her, so that their backs are to the terrace wall and they face the door. Still breathing heavily, he brushes some loose strands of hair back in place with his hand. The plates have been cleared and dessert menus lie on the white tablecloth. Ray looks at the array of tables and thinks, They really pack them in here.
“I wish I could take you dancing,” he says, looking straight ahead.
She pats his hand on the table. “I know.”
He looks at her.
“What can I give you?”
She points a finger at the menu. “I’d like cake.”
He calls for the waiter and orders a slice of chocolate cake for the lady and an espresso for himself.
“The boys all right?” she asks.
She touches his hand briefly once more.
“Then let’s relax.”
The cake arrives on a small white plate, drizzled with raspberry sauce.
Bella breaks off a piece with the side of her fork and scoops it into her mouth. She pulls the fork out slowly, lips together, savoring.
“Mmm. You have to taste.”
She slices again with her fork, a larger square with more frosting, and lifts the fork to Ray’s mouth. His lips part, and she slips the fork into his mouth, the underside of the cold steel tongs hard on the top of his soft, wet tongue, the moist cake sliding over his taste buds, as he too closes his lips so that as she withdraws the fork, he can lick the frosting and raspberry sauce, and after chewing, lick his lips.
“Mmm?” she says.
He takes the fork from her hand, dips the tongs in the sauce, then slices off a corner with frosting, and raises it to her lips, which part, showing him her tongue. She closes her eyes, and he slides the fork into her open mouth and holds it there as she closes her lips, curling her tongue — he imagines — over the cake.
“Mmm…” she murmurs.
He swallows and holds the fork until she is finished, parting her lips to release.
Her eyes open and she smiles.
“That is good cake.”
He reaches for the little cup, knocks back the espresso, and scoops another piece to feed her again.
After, Ray goes and brings the brothers back to the table. He calls for the check, being sure not to meet their eyes as the boys watch him expectantly. The waiter brings the check in a bound, black casing, and Ray looks once at the boys, gravely, to tease them. They squirm. He opens the case with one hand and grasps his chest with the other.
“Uncle Ray’s having a heart attack!” they exclaim with glee.
“We…can’t pay this.” Still clutching his chest. “You boys… will have to… wash dishes.”
Annabella rolls her eyes.
It’s quiet in the car after he drops off Bella and the boys. The driveway remains empty, Mike Bonaventura still on the late shift. Pulling from the curb, he leaves the music off and the windows down. As he drives out of town, he can hear the echo in the underpass as his tires roll over a metal plate. He passes the Jack in the Box, where a car of teenagers laugh and yell orders at the clown head. At the light, instead of heading toward his apartment, he turns left.
He parks across from her house. All the windows are dark, as they should be with Mama deep in slumber. A brief glow brightens the car as he lights a cigarette and slowly breathes in, wishing himself in the darkness of her backyard. He leans against a post of the arbor, smokes, maybe even lies on the grass and waits for a glimpse of the moon from behind the clouds. He wouldn’t want to scare her, though, a man in her backyard, so he stays in the car and listens as he hears a lonely whistle and a train rumbles by, while in her dreams Mama is again with the man she loves.
— Jeff Freiert’s stories have been published in StoryQuarterly, Best New Writing 2008, Joyland, Referential Magazine, and twice before in The American. His short fiction has been awarded the Eric Hoffer Prize for Prose and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.