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.
.... There is more of this story ...