It was in the early Spring in 1961, when Theresa's father, Big Tony Contino, started acting strangely. He was a big man, running to fat and hairy all over. He was a baker out at Electic Boat and had been a close neighbor to my parents for many years. Close in the sense that he lived fifty feet from our front door, not because he socialized with my parents at all, because he didn't. Having said that, there was never any bad feelings between the two families either. The Contino's even became shirt-tail relatives when Theresa married Cousin Billy. Tony did like me pretty well because I had helped Theresa a couple times when she was feeling bad or needed someone to talk to. He would sometimes stop me, when I was a kid, as I was walking by his house, and go inside and bring me out one of the pies he brought home from work each day. I loved his lemon meringue pies, the best I'd ever eaten.
I guess it was late March when I came over to visit my parents and found Tony beating the hell out of his car with a big sledge hammer. All the windows were already broken out and he was pounding away on the hood and on the front fenders. I parked my truck and walked over to see what the problem was.
"Hi Mr. Contino, straightening out those dents are you? Nice day for it, not too cold, good weather to work on a car." He stopped, laying that hammer on the hood, and looked at me like I was some kind of nut.
"It looks to you like I'm fixing this fucking piece of pigshit?" He was screaming at me at the top of his lungs. He had a crazy look to him and spittle was all over his face. I decided that maybe I'd take it a little easy on the attempted humor for right now.
"So what happened that set you off on the car, it wouldn't start or something?" I was up on my toes, ready to run like hell if he made the slightest move in my direction.
"Naw, it ran beautiful, I never had a problem with this car, never. It's Maria's the fucking problem, not the goddamned car." Maria was Tony's wife. She worked at Electric Boat too. She had just gotten a big promotion a month or so earlier and was now some kind of executive and, for the first time, made more money than Tony did. She had also had to switch to the day shift with her promotion and Tony worked nights. For years the two of them worked the night shift together up until the promotion.
"I always thought you and your wife got along good, I'm sorry for your troubles." I was ready to leave and go in and see the folks. Hell, it was Tony's car, if he wanted to beat the shit out of it, it was no business of mine.
"Who the fuck said we weren't getting along? Did I say we weren't getting along?" This was getting too weird for me, I was ready to just take off, maybe even skip the visit with my parents, I saw them pretty often anyway. I was trying to make up my mind when Tony put his head in his hands and slumped down near the front tire where he'd been standing. "What the fuck am I going to do now?" I decided that was a rhetorical question, so I told him I'd see him later and walked quickly over to the folks front door and let myself in. My mother was in the kitchen, peeking through the curtains at Tony. My father was sitting in the living room, telling my mom about every ten or fifteen seconds to get her nosy ass away from the curtains, that whatever was going on out there wasn't none of her business.
"That man's out there destroying an expensive car, for no good reason, and you're worried that I'm standing here, in my own kitchen, looking out my own window?" My mother always had to keep her finger on the pulse of the neighborhood. She and my Aunt Margaret could spend hours at a time over in the kitchen filling each other in on all the local gossip. My Aunt Margaret hated to iron but didn't mind other housework. My mother didn't mind ironing but didn't care that much for the other stuff. My aunt would bring over her clean laundry and she'd do all our house cleaning while my mom ironed everything and put it up on hangers for her. My mother even ironed my dad's skivvies, but Margaret drew the line at that.
I gave my mom a kiss and went in and sat down and said hi to my dad. " I just spoke with Big Tony, he's really doing a number on his car out there."
"It's Maria's promotion, its eating at him something fierce. Does something to a man's pride when his wife takes home a bigger pay envelope than he does."
"You don't think it might have something to do with what Maria is supposed to have done to get that promotion?" My mother had a conspiracy theory about women who rose up in the outside business world. In short, she was convinced that all such promotions were not based on merit but on sexual favors given and received. She wasn't alone in this belief either. I would estimate that it was shared by a majority of married women in our neighborhood, especially the lucky ones who stayed at home and had nothing better to do than worry about what mischief their husbands were getting into at their jobs. The facts that Maria was forty eight years old, had a huge mole on her face, with a dozen long black hairs growing out of it, and had to weigh two hundred thirty pounds or more seemingly never entered into anybody's calculations when they started their gossip about her.
"What was I supposed to think then, Mary Kathryn, when they made you the head nurse over at the poor house seven years ago? I certainly don't recall you telling me that you'd done anything but work hard in order to get that promotion." My mother sniffed at him when he said that and, taking the bait, left her window on the world and came into the living room to give battle.
I spent an hour with them, enjoying the way my father worked her up until she was fit to be tied, and then let her marshall a compelling list of examples about why he could never doubt her absolute commitment and faithfulness to him, and only him. After she was done he told her that he'd never, not for a single second, ever entertained any idea to the contrary, and then went back to reading his paper, satisfied that he'd gotten her out of the kitchen, and away from snooping on her neighbor, which was all he'd wanted in the first place. When I went out to drive back home, Big Tony was nowhere to be seen and his car looked totalled out.
Three days later my mother called me at home to tell me that people from the State Mental Hospital in Norwich had been called over to take Big Tony away. He had set his house on fire. Luckily, the places where he'd poured the gasoline were slate and concrete and fairly impervious to fire. He did manage to burn down the steps to his front door though as they were made of wood. I just shook my head, sad to hear that it had all come to this. A shame and totally unnecessary, I thought.
The same week as Big Tony went over to Norwich, Maria moved over to New London and started shacking up with her big boss, and then tried to file for divorce from Big Tony. I say tried, because in Connecticut, at that time, there was some kind of delay spouses had to go through when trying to divorce anyone confined to a mental hospital. The neighborhood was full of smug faced housewives waving their fingers around and saying their 'I told you so's'.
That would have been the end of it, at least as far as I was concerned, if Cousin Billy hadn't asked me to take Theresa over to visit Big Tony in the nut house. It had been about a month since they'd carted him away, and they had given him a couple doses of electro-shock therapy by then. I couldn't believe how bad he looked. He had dropped about twenty pounds and his face just sagged in defeat. He was the picture of sadness and despair. They were getting ready to let him come home for weekend visits but Theresa was having a hard time explaining to him that his home wasn't his any more. The state agency had evicted the Contino's after Tony tried to burn the house down. Tony had no place to go.
Theresa and Billy had taken in April and Tony, Theresa's younger brother and sister, but Billy refused to let Big Tony come stay there too until he was "back on his rocker". I knew then that Cousin Billy had set me up. Theresa asked me, pleaded with me really, and I just had a hard time telling her no. I made arrangements at the hospital to take Big Tony home with me and return him on Sunday night before six PM. One of the attendants went and packed a small suitcase for Tony and the three of us went out to my truck and drove away.
Theresa held her father's hand the whole time we drove back to Billy's place. Theresa ran in after we got there and brought her brother and sister out to say hi to Big Tony. Seeing his kids just seemed to Make Big Tony sadder, so after a few minutes I suggested that I'd see them all later and drove home. All the way home, I'm wondering what exactly I can say to Ellen, about how I had agreed to be doing this without even asking her first. Ellen took it a lot better than I would have if she'd sprung something like that on me.
She made Tony welcome and actually took him out with her to the kitchen and the two of them made supper together. She even let him handle sharp knives. I never told her that the attendant had specifically told me not to let him have access to sharp objects. I went out to the kitchen to fetch myself a beer and the two of them are talking away, something even Theresa hadn't been able to get her father to do. Tony was explaining to her that he wasn't nuts, he was pissed and they shouldn't lock people up for being pissed. We had a good supper, Tony had shown Ellen a better way to baste the chicken and it was moister and more flavorful. He squirted sauce under the skin before roasting.
After supper, Tony helped out with the dishes and then he and Ellen went out to get some things Tony needed for baking. He told her that it drove him crazy not being able to make pies and things. I went to bed at ten, because I needed to take a load of wood over to Providence R.I. in the morning. I got up at about five and shook Tony awake and the two of us had breakfast before heading out to Billy's again to get the wood loaded. My whole kitchen table was full of pies and breakfast sweet rolls that he'd baked the night before. Ellen told me they'd stayed up until three, baking and talking. I had some mince pie and two pieces of lemon meringue. I told Tony that he sure hadn't lost his touch as a baker, and that really seemed to please him a lot.
We hit the road and Tony thanked me for putting him up and for trusting him enough to let him loose in our kitchen. He was real impressed with Ellen too. He sure seemed better to me than when I'd first seen him on Friday. More energetic and alive. It took less than a half hour to load the wood as Billy had a forklift now and had rigged up a kind of pallet that kept the wood in four by four by eight foot sections. He did all the work by himself, which was surprising, since this was the first time I'd seen the forklift in action. He said the price of wood would have to go up to pay for his outlay on the new machinery. I told him with all the money he saved by not needing a three man crew to load up the wood, that I should get a discount. We both laughed and agreed to keep the price the same.
Just before we took off, Billy walked over to the cab where Theresa was talking to her father and shook Tony's hand and told him to get better because his kids and grandkids were really missing him. It was exactly the right thing for Billy to have said, and totally unlike him to have said it, and I could see that Tony was moved by Billy having made the gesture. We got our wood delivered and got back home before dark. Tony slept a good part of the time we were on the road.
When I got home my Aunt Betty was sitting in the kitchen talking to Ellen. I smelled matchmaking and I wasn't too happy about it. Tony was about fifty, I'd guess, and my aunt had to be somewhere in her early fifties too. She got married in 1929. She had been a widow for about seventeen years, and I'd never heard of her ever going out after Uncle Ray died. I guess it didn't seem right to me that Ellen wanted to fix up my favorite aunt with a guy who was still married and having about a million volts of electricity shot into his brain once a week or so. I had heard that electro-shock fried the brain cells and affected the memory. I didn't say anything though because I was in a can't win situation and I knew it.
Ellen introduced the two of them and it turned out they'd gone to the same school together as kids. Betty even remembered one of Tony's sisters from back then. When the conversation turned to food and baking, I tuned out and went in to read the newspaper. By the time they called me into supper the two oldsters had caught up with all the things that had happened to them since fourth grade or something. We had a good dinner, with Ellen and Aunt Betty carrying most of the conversation load.
When Ellen made a point of inviting Aunt Betty over for a picnic the following Saturday, I knew that I had been right about what she was up to. Aunt Betty and her started planning all the things that each of them would bring. When Aunt Betty leaned over and tapped Tony on the arm and told him that he could provide the desserts, I looked over at Ellen and caught her with a huge grin on her puss, until she noticed me looking right at her and stopped grinning immediately.
Ellen went with us when I took Tony back to Norwich. We sat in the truck and listened to Amos N' Andy on the radio before he had to go check back in. Ellen walked in with Tony and went over to the head man in charge and told him that Tony had a good home visit and to have him ready for next Friday at five when I'd be there to pick him up for another visit. Then she tells the guy not to give Tony any more shock treatments during the week because her lawyer needed him to be able to sign some legal documents and his mind needed to be clear. Even more amazing, the guy makes a note on Tony's treatment chart and tells her it's all taken care of.
"What the hell was that all about, the lawyers and the shock treatments and all?" This is while we're walking from the nut house over to my truck.
"Tony hates the shock treatments, and I told him I'd try to get them to stop them. I just made up that stuff about the lawyer. Don't you think Tony and Betty make a cute couple?"
"Oh yeah, real cute. Make sure we bring plenty of gasoline to the picnic so that Tony can show my aunt how to burn down the Ranger's station."
"Jackie, if you found out that your wife was sleeping with her boss and was planning to walk out on you and your children, what would you do?"
"First off, you don't work, don't have a boss, and last time I checked, I don't have any children for you to walk out on. I can tell you though, I wouldn't take a sledge hammer to my car and I wouldn't try to burn down my house."
"No, Jackie, you'd go over to where my boss lived and you'd kill him, and then probably kill me too." She started crying as she said it. I pulled off to the side of the road and cut the engine.I took a deep breath and tried to control my anger.
"Ellen, I promise you, no matter what, I'd never lay a finger on you, it wouldn't make a difference what you did. I love you. I've never hit someone I loved, except maybe Ray, and maybe Dale, but I didn't love Dale when I hit him. I don't go around killing people just for the hell of it, you know. It's not like I've made a habit of doing it anyway. If you and some guy decided to fuck each other, I don't think I'd kill him, but I won't deny there's a small possibility that I might. If he hurt you or if he forced you, I'd probably kill him then. What I told you about before was so we wouldn't have a big secret between us when we got married. I never expected that you'd bring it up like this, just to win an argument. I'm disappointed in you, Ellen. I thought you were better than that." I started the truck back up and drove back home. Ellen cried softly the whole way there.
After we got home and I got undressed and into bed, Ellen came in and did her best to show me she loved me and that she was sorry for what she said. For the first time since we were married, I didn't want to make love to her. We went to sleep each on our own side of the mattress, not touching at all.
I got up and drove over to Billy's early the next morning. When I got there Lenny was just getting ready to leave with his load. Billy and I went inside and had a cup of coffee and Theresa made me some bacon and eggs for breakfast. While Billy was loading my truck I stayed in his house and spoke with Theresa about Big Tony. I told her that Ellen was trying to fix him up with Aunt Betty and Theresa thought that was funny. I told her that we were all going on a picnic on Saturday and asked her if she wanted to maybe meet us there with all the kids and make a day of it. She said that she'd be there even if Billy didn't come too. I felt a little better after talking with Theresa and letting her know about Ellen's machinations.
I got back about Midnight and Ellen was waiting up for me. We talked for a little bit and I told her that Theresa and the gang would be over Saturday for the picnic. I told her that Theresa had laughed when I told her about Aunt Betty and her dad. Ellen told me that she'd give almost anything to take back what she'd said yesterday in the truck. I told her that I'd remembered today while driving that we had a pact ever since we'd known each other that we could say anything to each other, and it was OK. She told me that she'd spent the whole day worrying that her big mouth had cost her my love and our marriage. I told her that could never happpen. We went to bed and made up properly. After we'd made love, all the tension of the past couple days seemed to leave my body and I got a decent nights sleep. It was nice to wake up all warm from having my little furnace to hold on to all night.
I went and picked up Tony on my way back from a delivery on Friday. I was an hour early, but they were happy to let me have him. The attendant told me that Tony was improved so much that he might be discharged the following week. Tony seemed happy to get away again, and in far better spirits than the previous Friday. He wanted to get over to my place to start baking desserts for the picnic. I told him what the attendant had told me about his possible imminent discharge, and that had him excited all the way back to Poquonnock Bridge. He and Ellen worked up a nice supper, working together smoothly again, and afterwards, the two spent the whole evening in the kitchen baking and talking. I knew I was in for another week of great pies and cookies, so I didn't mind a bit. Ellen told me early Saturday that Tony wanted to bake up a lot of pies to take back to Norwich with him on Sunday night. I told her that having enough room was the only problem I could see. She told me that she thought the truck could hold more pies than even Big Tony would want to make. I hadn't thought of putting them in the cargo area.
Saturday was a perfect May day. It wasn't too hot or too cold, just right. By the time everybody got there we had a houseful. Aunt Betty brought Lenny, Clara and little Jackie. Theresa had managed to talk Billy into coming along too, along with their two kids and April and Little Tony. I called my mom and told her where we'd be and told her to bring some clam buckets and forks and I'd stop for some watermelon and corn. Low tide would be at a perfect time for us to dig up some clams and steam them right on the beach. I made sure to bring a big block of butter.
We all had a great time. I was amazed how well everyone got along and meshed together. Big Tony had all the big kids helping him dig for clams and Lenny went over and showed all the kids just what to look for when digging for steamers. We had our buckets full and clams steaming over the fire in plenty of time for the next assault before the tide moved back in. I talked to Lenny and Clara about Aunt Betty and Tony. Clara thought it was wonderful, but Lenny wasn't as enthused. I think he had worries about where he'd live if his mom got married and Tony moved in with his two youngest kids.
We stayed at the beach until after dark. There was plenty of wood for the fire, Billy had taken care of that. By the time we left all the smaller kids were run down and asleep. I was getting ready to start moving everyone out and head for home when Tony and Betty took off walking away down the beach. They stayed away for half an hour, and when they got back they seemed a little guilty, like two kids who got caught with their hands in a cookie jar. I looked over at Ellen to see if she had noticed, but once again, she was way ahead of me.
I took Tony back on Sunday, only to get a phone call the next afternoon telling me that he was being released and wanting to know if I could come pick him up. I called Billy to see if he wanted me to bring Tony by his house, but he asked me if I could put him up until he figured out a place he could fit him. I spoke with Ellen and she insisted he would be perfectly fine in our guest room for as long as necessary. I went to Norwich and fetched him home and things went OK for a week or so. He was pretty quiet, and after a week, he started back up on the night shift again at Electric Boat. I was out on the road overnight and made it home at about eleven the next morning. I was supposed to call Ellen over at her folks house before I went home, but I forgot to do it. And that's the reason I walked in on Aunt Betty and Big Tony fucking like two teenagers on the big rug in front of my fireplace. Once I saw it was Aunt Betty under him and not my Ellen, I could see the humor in the situation.
Edited by G. Clement (thanks George)
"I really hate to disturb you two, but this isn't really what I had in mind when I told you to make yourself to home, Tony. Jesus H. Christ, Aunt Betty, aren't you a little too old to be cavorting naked on a rug? Look at the two of you, I'll never be able to look at my fireplace again without getting a picture of Tony's big hairy ass in my mind. At least have the decency to get up and take it into the guest room." They scrambled up and were gone in just a couple seconds. I heard Aunt Betty giving Tony hell as they got to his room and shut the door behind them. I got on the horn quick and dialed Ellen's folks house, to tell her I was at home and had discovered Papa Bear fucking Goldilocks on our living room bearskin rug. She had some nerve trying to pin any of this on me, just because I forgot to call her when I was coming home.
Five minutes after I hung up the phone, Ellen ran in the house and was knocking at Tony's bedroom door. It took her ten minutes to coax Aunt Betty out of the room and into our bedroom for a talk. A minute after those two began talking, Tony comes out of his room and starts reading me the riot act. I let him get out what he had to say, mostly it was about how I didn't have to make Aunt Betty so embarrassed and ashamed. I took it for awhile, then I just stopped him and told him that it was my house, and he had to satisfy my standards of conduct, and that I didn't need to satisfy his. I also told him that he could just get his fat ass out of my house if he didn't like it. He looked at me for a couple minutes, then turned and walked back into his bedroom. I thought it was pretty well over and that he had seen that he was in the wrong there, not me. Five minutes later, Tony comes out of the room with his two suitcases of stuff, flips me the bird, and walks out of my house. His choice, but I was OK with it too. I liked it better when it was just Ellen and I anyway. I'd miss the pastry, but not the rest of it.
I was in the living room, reading the paper from the night before when Ellen finally comes out with Aunt Betty and the two of them walk outside to Betty's car. I hear her car leaving and then Ellen comes back in.
"Is Tony in his room?"
"No, Tony decided he didn't want to stay here any more. Last I saw he was carrying his stuff and giving me the finger as he walked out the front door. If I never see him again, it's OK with me."
"Jackie, I love you, but you can be such an asshole at times!" She turns right around and walks out the front door again. A minute later, I hear her tires squealing as she pulls out of the front yard. Not all bad, I think. At least now I'll have some time to get the paperwork done for the week's business transactions while it's quiet and I can concentrate. I'd no more than gotten all the things I'd need to get started when Tony and Ellen come banging back through my front door. Ellen is pulling Tony with her, one of his suitcases in her free hand. "You sit down Tony, right there. Give me that other bag, and you just sit down, I'll be back in a minute. Not a word out of you Jackie, until I get back, you hear me?" I nodded to her, but I put on an unhappy face when I did it. You can't let the women think you're just going to rollover and take it all the time, it just emboldens them and makes it harder when you finally have to rein them in. She comes back from Tony's room and sits down, next to Tony, not next to me like a normal wife would do.
"Jackie, I want you to apologize to Tony. First for coming in when you weren't supposed to, second for what you said when Aunt Betty was already so embarrassed, and last, for asking him to get his fat ass out if he didn't like it."
"No, I didn't do anything wrong, and I'm not going to do it."
"If you don't do it, Tony and I are both leaving."
"Well, don't let the door hit you in the ass on your way out. I'm fucked if I'm going to let anybody tell me what I can or can't do in my own house. That goes for Tony, that goes for you, and any other sons of bitches too. Leave if you want to, but don't expect me to be welcoming you back if you do. You may think you wear the pants in this family, but if you do think that, well you're mistaken. So go on, get the hell out if that's what you want!" I never did react well to threats or any type of coercion.