CASTLE POINT, N. J.
Acknowledging a rare, simultaneous appearance of the pestilent trio, Richie detected a trace of insecticide that had escaped through the trap door in the floor where a tiny, browbeaten Vietnamese man artfully balanced a case of Genesee Cream Ale on his head until the burly bartender was good and ready to take it.
“Whadda ya mean by that?” the Black Irishman asked.
“Yeah, never-mind is right. Whadda you, a Smart Guy? Shouldn’t you be in school?” he asked, flipping a filthy towel from his left shoulder to his right as a sign of disapproval.
He was at Finnegan’s Wake Pub on New York City’s West 46th Street. In the center of that block was the home of an internationally renowned, flamenco dancing troupe. Richie’s fourth year, high school Spanish class was taking in an afternoon performance; the highlight of a cultural field trip.
He glanced towards a beer promotion display clock and saw that he had stayed too long. He felt like he had squandered precious moments, but his whole methodology was flawed. He thought he could bury his doubts with forty-five minutes of mental effort, but the forces which were about to emerge could not be so easily suppressed.
Richie scanned the area, did not see Vello, and felt relieved. Across the street, he spotted Reggie and the rest of the class walking slowly toward the bus. Reggie sauntered about ten steps behind the others, wearing a short, blue print dress, which had a ruffled effect around the chest and fit snugly around her waist and hips. Her hair was pinned up on top of her head, but several strands fell forward and shielded her eyes.
“A penny to eat. A goddamn penny to eat!” the old man angrily demanded.
“Bless you, bless you, my son,” the man said before moving on.
“Ohhh, shit…” he said, turning around.
"Ricardo, I am highly disappointed in you," quipped Vello sternly.
Vello leaned his face in close to Richie’s and sniffed for the smell of alcohol. Shaking his head with contempt, he continued.
Vello paused. He was as accomplished at cultivating guilt in his students as he was at teaching them. Finally, he stated the lines that Richie knew he was building to from the start: "I am very distressed that my one of my very best students is the one who has betrayed me. I am truly heartbroken."
“Please have your father meet Mr. Capalupo at 8:30 sharp tomorrow morning.”
While the deck seemed stacked against him, he calmed himself by thinking about the one thing he knew was in his favor: his father’s friendship with the Vice Principal, Mr. Capalupo. Capalupo and Richie’s dad, Sal, had grown up together in the Italian corner of Castle Point’s "Iron-Bound" section and had been drinking wine since the age of seven. Although in his official role, Capalupo might have to make an example of Richie, Richie didn’t think Capalupo personally objected to a seventeen-year-old drinking a couple of beers. With neighborhood bars on most Castle Point street corners, many of the taverns were gathering places for adults and teenagers alike. Richie also took solace in the well-known fact that Capalupo disliked Vello.
"You’re busted now," Reggie whispered in a husky voice. "I tried to warn you, but you were dodging cabs."
"Don’t worry, Reg. My dad will bail me out. He and Capalupo go way back."
Richie smiled but she could tell he was worried.
"I think your dad’ll be cool about this, but what about your mom, Nexy?”
"I don’t want to freak you out or anything but this could really screw you up with some of those snooty colleges you applied to, and your mom is really serious about that stuff. I mean, she’s been pushing you forever to go away to school." She saw an opportunity to possibly unearth some sacred ground.
"Oh yeah? As cool as the night you drove me home in your dad’s car and you ran out of gas?”
"Yeah, well, that didn’t stop her from blaming me. I didn’t see you for two weeks.”
"Uh-huh,” she said, with disbelief. "Well, you took a big chance for a few beers. I’ll bet they were Old Milwaukee Big Boys, too. You could’ve at least had two Heinekens and gone out in style."
“Yeah, pretty Spanish guitar and fluid dancing are like fingernails on a blackboard to you. You’d rather listen over and over to a guy from Freehold sing howling songs about Nebraska,” she retorted, making him laugh a little.
"You didn’t, Nexy. I’m just busting your chops."
"You are going to tell your mother, aren’t you?" she blurted out, testing her theory that he hid certain things, including the nature of his relationship with Reggie.
He hoped that he sounded convincing. His mother was the only thing he had ever lied to Reggie about. Rose would go berserk if she found out he had jeopardized his chances of being accepted at an Ivy League college. She had pushed him to be the first person in either hers or Sal’s family to make it to college. More than that, it was going to be a top college that would take Richie away from the smoke stacks of Castle Point, and ensure he could stay away. She had repeatedly warned him about protecting his academic record by paying attention to little things, like not letting his grades drop during his senior year or not getting on an influential faculty member’s bad side. At that moment, he didn’t think it was an exaggeration to conclude that things might never be the same between him and his mother if he got expelled.
"I’m gonna go talk to Kelli," she said, and then added, "It’ll be okay, Nexy. What’s the big deal? You’re almost legal. Besides, it’s not the first time one of us has been in a bar.” She kissed him on the cheek. He watched her move five seats forward, and yank on the back of Kelli Green’s hair.
"Gotcha!" Reggie exclaimed, with genuine joy.
Fifteen minutes later, the school bus pulled into Central High School’s parking lot and Reggie’s lightly freckled face broke his concentration once again. "Your dad’s here early today. Tell him I said ‘hi’ okay?" she said in a sweet voice. "I’m gonna see you at D’Angelo’s tonight, right?" she continued. “We haven’t had any time to talk lately."
"I said," Reggie repeated, waving her hand in front of his face, "call me tonight or come find me at D’Angelo’s so I know what your parents said about Vello, and so we can talk about some other things. You know. Upcoming events?" She hopped off the bus and caught up with some of the other girls. She waved to Mr. Cavelli as she ran by his car.
He threw his Adidas® gym bag filled with books into the back seat. Moving into the driver’s seat, Richie listened to Sal sigh as he slid over to the passenger’s side.
As the Chevy slowly picked up speed climbing the entrance ramp, Richie thought about his high school, crammed so close to a highway overpass and near the banks of a polluted river. He wondered what a traveler barreling down Route 9 thought as she caught sight of the ugly brick building surrounded by chain-link fences. He wondered if it was even identifiable as a school or if the building was mistaken for a sewage plant. He speculated that suburban kids passing through Castle Point on their way to New York City would appreciate their high schools more after getting a look at Central. "Well, at least our school isn’t down the block from an Exxon refinery," they might say.
"You know, Rich, it doesn’t look like it now, but at one time that river was home to the busiest port in the country," Sal began, looking out over the river.
"Houston, dad. I think it’s Houston,” Richie offered, halfheartedly, not listening closely but attempting to participate in the conversation anyway. He was trying to remember what Reggie had said. Was she gonna call him or was he supposed to call her?
"What?" Richie asked. "I’m not talking about the old mayor, dad. I mean, I think Houston is the busiest port in the country."
Richie felt bad that he wasn’t paying attention, so he decided to bring up politics. As a young man, Sal had worked on a few campaigns for the local ward bosses in Castle Point, spreading street money to get people to the polls. Sal always had some eye opening insight into a corrupt local politician or knew the inside story about some event in Washington, D.C. that hadn’t been widely reported in the media.
"He’s not for the working man, Rich, I’ll tell ya that much. He’s giving Big Business free reign."
"Nope," Sal said, shaking his head. "He was governor of California, you know, and he left it in a shambles."
"’Cause of the hostages," Sal added. "If they had gotten out before the election, Carter would’ve won."
Sal looked over at Richie, noticing his ripped jeans. Richie was dressed in a familiar outfit – torn Levi’s, black T-shirt, wrestling top and white, hi-top Chuck Taylor sneakers with purple laces.
"That’s all right, dad. This is the style now.”
"That’s okay, dad. I like the colored ones."
"Oh yeah? Where’d everybody go all dressed up?”
"C’mon dad. That can’t be right. The bars would go outta business in a week."
"That sounds pretty good,” Richie agreed, "but there aren’t any places like that any more."
"What? C’mon, dad. A nickel?”
"Well, there certainly aren’t any places like that any more, dad."
"Trust me, dad. A nickel nowadays gets you half a March of Dimes gumball from a rusted dispenser."
"So what’s happening at home?" Richie offered, knowing that his dad called his mother every day.
The Cavelli family had recently moved from their house of eleven years into a new home. Although Sal was just four years shy of paying off the fifteen year mortgage, he acquiesced to purchasing the new one in the way he gave in to many of his wife’s recent requests – with outward acceptance but some inner resentment.
Richie examined his father’s physical appearance. Sal’s black hair had turned partially gray and his shoulders had curved inward – as if the weight of the new thirty year mortgage was too much to carry.
Changing moods sharply, Sal grumbled: "This better be important. I won’t get paid for the hours I miss at work, you know."
As their house came into sight, Sal grew angrier.
Richie wasn’t sure why Tony, his twelve-year-old brother, hadn’t taken the garbage cans in. Tony was a well-behaved kid and very mature for his age. It was unusual for him to neglect one of his father’s requests. Richie also thought it was peculiar that Pudge, his seven-year-old brother, wasn’t outside playing.
The Cavelli’s new house – a split-level colonial with a brown brick front and living room bay window – looked much nicer than their old World War II era, two-family row house. Unfortunately, Richie could not say the same about the new house’s front lawn. Brown dirt patches had sprouted, in a checkerboard pattern, from within what had originally been a healthy, green lawn.
An image of Reggie in her stylish dress from earlier that day flooded Richie’s frontal lobe; a memory fighting to stay alive. Seeing her in such feminine attire made him realize how easily she made the transition from athlete to aspiring fashion model. Just the afternoon before, he had witnessed Reggie the jock demonstrating the strength that made her Captain of the Central Gymnastics Team. He had been feeling down and kinda lost all day and went to find her after school. Central had a sandbox-sized gym, bounded by a wooden stage at one end and a cinder block wall at the other. He had found her working out on a punching bag left over from when local Golden Glove boxers trained at the school. She hadn’t noticed him approaching because she was concentrating on kicking the bag.
She had her hair tied in one thick braid that fell down the back of her head; her signature athletic tape was wrapped around her wrists and ankles.
"Isn’t that great?" she had asked, looking at the muscles herself.
"Oh, no. That’s okay. What’s up?”
She had smiled widely, noticing his facial expression turn, frankly, from sad to happy. “How nice! I need to work on the apparatus some now but let’s do something after I’m done."
She had laughed at his impersonation and he instantly felt better. For the next fifteen minutes, he had silently watched her flip and twist on the uneven bars, and when she had finished, everything was fine.
Looking at one of the upstairs windows, Richie no longer saw Reggie but a grinning Tony, poking his head out of his bedroom window.
He opened the front door and heard the whispers teasing him to come in. He peered into the foyer and saw his mother glaring in front of him, looking quite different from the images that figured so prominently in his favorite childhood memories. He often relied on such cherished memories to get through the more trying times of high school. Two that he always returned to involved major religious holidays. One was being dressed up in red and gold wrapping paper as he ripped open present after present on Christmas morning; the other was tearing through cellophane-wrapped baskets, and searching for chocolate bunnies that Rose had secreted throughout the house, on Easter Sunday morning.
END OF CHAPTER 1