Like A Son
Giovanni Verde squinted down at his wristwatch again. It read forty-minutes past eleven, as did the polished mantel clock resting atop the illuminated Sylvania console in front of him. He assured himself he wasn’t up late that Saturday night because he was worried. He’d be up watching wrestling anyway, especially tonight. Tonight was the big match between Bruno and Zbyszko. Giovanni leaned back into the sofa cushions, took a deep breath, and exhaled. No, he wasn’t worried, not at all. Michal Pryzbyski was a good boy. Italian, no — but still a good boy. Yosef had no worries that the boy would return his fourteen year-old only child, Teresa, to him in the same pristine condition as she’d been in when they’d left several hours prior for the Church’s winter dance.
Teresa had told her parents, several weeks prior as the holidays drew near, that the theme of the dance would be “the future” in celebration of the oncoming new decade, the eighties. Teresa pleaded with her parents for a glossy, metallic silver dress she’d seen at the mall to fit the theme. At the mall, Giovanni’s wife, Sylvia, scowled at the dress. Teresa already owned several black dresses Sylvia deemed much more appropriate. Giovanni regarded the dress. Despite the dazzling sheen of the fabric, it had a modest neckline, half-sleeves, and was cut just below the knees. Giovanni smiled wide that Christmas morning watching his beloved daughter open her surprise gift. Sylvia didn’t.
That same wide smile flashed across Giovanni’s face just a few hours ago as he watched his beautiful Teresa, in her shiny new dress, peek anxiously through the curtains of the front window waiting for Michal to arrive.
“Whatta you wait by the window for?” he’d teased. “You can hear his front door slam from right here.” Giovanni pointed to the empty space beside him on the sofa, the space his daughter vacated to keep vigil by the window. It so happened that the Pryzbyskis and Verdes were next-door neighbors. Their row houses sat side by side on one of the many Bensonhurst blocks lined with row houses. Michal did arrive, exactly on-time, plastic-sealed wrist corsage in hand. He looked to Giovanni for a sign of permission that came in a curt nod, and nervously slid the white satin flowers onto Teresa’s thin wrist and off they went. Giovanni had offered to drive but it was a surprisingly mild January night and the young couple wished to walk. The Church and sister-elementary school they attended were just a few short blocks down the avenue. It was a safe walk in a safe neighborhood.
The commentator on television suddenly barked in a deep voice, “Patera has Williams locked in the Swinging Neckbreaker. It’s gonna be all over for Williams.” Giovanni flinched watching the immensely muscled Patera lock the much smaller man in a full-nelson, lift him effortlessly and fling him from side to side the way a dog might a loose sock it its muzzle. Williams, arms flailing, quickly submitted and the referee called for the timekeeper to ring the bell. The big match had to be next.
“Bru-no Sam-mar-ti-no,” Giovanni spoke the name aloud, alone in his living room, slowly accentuating each syllable as if it was an invocation and not just a name. He smiled and nodded reverently. Sinatra, DiMaggio, Marciano, Sammartino— if there existed a Mount Rushmore of Italian Americans, these would be the names and faces etched into it. Tonight would be truly special, as Bruno hadn’t wrestled on television for several years now, since he’d traded his wrestling trunks for a canary-yellow sports coat to become a TV commentator. Good for Bruno, Giovanni and many other Italian-Americans had thought upon hearing the news. Bruno had done enough, bled enough. He had been their champion for almost two decades. Let him have his nice cushy job now. Prego, si accomodi, Bruno. Rest. You earned it.
Though retired from wrestling in the ring, Bruno still served as mentor to another nice young Polish boy, Larry Zbyszko, his opponent for tonight’s wrestling match. During the commercial break, Giovanni recalled the specifics of their relationship: Zbyszko lived in Pittsburgh, like Bruno, and years earlier while still in high school, would drive to the Sammartino house, sneak behind the hedges and trees and peek over the fence and hedges to watch him train. Bruno spotted the boy one day. He took a liking to Zbyszko, trained him, even fed him from his own table. Most importantly, Bruno got him into the wrestling business, gave him his big break. Zbyszko was a good enough wrestler, sure, Giovanni thought. But, he was no Bruno. Who could be? Over the past several weeks’ episodes of Championship Wrestling, Giovanni had listened to Zbyszko plead with Bruno to come out of retirement and wrestle him in a match. Zbyszko complained that Bruno had cast too long a shadow; all the fans still cared about was Bruno. Bruno, Bruno, Bruno. The only way Zbyszko could ever be his own man, be a contender for the world championship belt, was to wrestle Bruno and pin him 1-2-3 in the middle of the ring. After refusing for weeks: “Please, Larry, no;” “I don’t want to wrestle you;” “You don’t need to do this, Larry;” Bruno finally and reluctantly agreed.
Giovanni checked his watch again— Teresa and Michal were a little late, but he was sure everything was fine. He trusted his daughter — he’d raised her right. And he trusted Michal — he was a good boy. Giovanni expected to hear the key turn in the lock of the front door any minute. Sylvia would then immediately emerge from their second floor bedroom where she now pretended to sleep, come barreling down the steps, and shepherd Teresa upstairs for questioning and removal of the thin patina of make-up she’d been allowed to apply. Giovanni considered inviting the boy to sit with him and watch the match, but knew that Yosef, Michal’s father, was definitely watching on the opposite side of the common wall they shared. The son should watch with his father. Still, he’d offer. Giovanni turned and reached behind to peel back the front window curtain for a quick peek outside. The sky was dark and clear. The sidewalk streetlight cast a pale glow over the front gate. Not a soul to be seen. They’d be home any moment, he was sure. He wasn’t worried at all.
It occurred to Giovanni that he had first glimpsed Michal along with the entire Pryzbyski clan from this same vantage point. It was the year of the Bicentennial and Giovanni was one of many suspicious neighbors watching several burly men that he assumed were movers unload the long rental truck that had lurched to a stop that cold winter morning. The three squat, stocky men insulated in flannel jackets and knit caps, emerged from the front carriage. They looked almost identical from a distance. Giovanni watched them effortlessly carry large pieces of furniture wrapped in pale blue quilts into the house. Esther Pantanglia, the former owner, had reluctantly disclosed weeks before, after repeated interrogations by Sylvia, that the buyers were not Italian. “They’re Catholic, at least,” she assured in her raspy voice between drags of a Pall Mall. “I had to sell,” she noted, “gonna go live in Phoenix with my sister. The doctor said it would be good for my asthma.” The men eventually finished unloading, climbed back in their truck and drove off. An hour later, one of them reappeared in a dark green Dodge Imperial along with a wife, also short and stocky, and a young boy whose face was cloaked beneath the fuzzy hood of his parka.
Giovanni shook his head now, somewhat embarrassed. He wished he had behaved in a more neighborly manner, had been less suspicious. Not that he acted impolite. Upon the first occasion the two kings of their castles found themselves standing within their respective front gates at the same time, Giovanni offered his hand and introduced himself. “Yosef Pryzbyski,” his new neighbor replied. “Call me Joe.” This immediately irked Giovanni. He had long resisted the temptation to Americanize his name into “John.” If anyone called him by that name, they were quickly corrected. But, it wasn’t his place to tell other people what to do, so he maintained his wide smile as he shook “Joe’s” hand. They exchanged a few more pleasantries and life notes— Joe was an ironworker with his three brothers, his wife was named Paula, his boy, Michal. Giovanni shared that he owned a pizza parlor with his one brother and spoke of Sylvia and Teresa.
“You like pizza?” Giovanni asked.
“Sure,” Yosef replied, shrugging his shoulders. “Who doesn’t like pizza?” Giovanni offered to bring him home a free pie one night to which Yosef, with one eyebrow arched, replied, “You better not. My wife will think I told you that I don’t like her cooking.” Giovanni couldn’t tell if his new neighbor was joking. He discussed it with Sylvia later that night. She pursed her lips and wrinkled her nose in deep contemplation. Finally, she shook her head and said, “Who knows what the Polish eat?”
The new neighbors would pass each other only for brief moments during the remainder of what turned out to be a particularly long and frigid winter, though the Pryzbyskis did seem to be ideal neighbors. Would the Verdes have preferred the familiarity of Italians living next door? Were they somewhat puzzled some evenings by the smell of onions frying in melted butter wafting through the backyard-facing windows instead of the familiar aroma of garlic sautéing in extra virgin olive oil? Yes, but Yosef was quick to shovel his sidewalk when snow fell and to restack his garbage pails after sanitation had emptied them and carelessly tossed them to the ground. That’s pretty much all Giovanni asked. He minded his own business, as did they.
However, spring would soon bring about change. What arrived alongside the usual and welcome harbingers of the new season— the tiny green buds sprouting on the branches above, the first caress of the spring sun across the cheek, the return of the sparrows and their morning song, was something terrible and unthinkable. Its name was Stan Hansen and it broke Bruno’s neck. Bruno — World Wide Wrestling Federation champion, Bruno Sammartino, the Living Legend. Indestructible Bruno, unbeatable Bruno, beloved Bruno — his neck snapped like a twig by that Texas lunatic. Hansen, huge, snarling, tobacco chew-stained spit dripping from his moustache and chin, snorting, had charged, like a modern day Minotaur, into Madison Square Garden late one April night, and with a powerful clothesline across Bruno’s neck had cut the mighty Sicilian in two.
Both the New York Post and Daily News reported the tragic results of the match the following day along with a grainy black and white photo of a dejected Bruno lying in a hospital bed, head and chin immobilized. The headline: IS BRUNO FINISHED? Grown men, Giovanni included, wiped tears from their eyes. Giovanni’s mother, then just a spry, toothless ninety-two, had clipped out the newspaper article, carried it into her bedroom, and taped it to the vanity mirror just above the religious candle she lit nightly and prayed her Novenas to. While Bruno convalesced, the fans demanded vendetta. But who? Who would pick up the sword? Giovanni would learn the answer alongside hordes of wrestling fans as he watched Championship Wrestling the following Saturday night. Hansen snorted and spat through an in-ring interview, bragging (bragging!) about breaking Bruno’s neck, demanding the championship belt immediately be forfeited to him. Enter Ivan Putski—the Polish Hammer (both his nickname and signature move). The short, but brawny, bearded Putski rushed into and chased the yellow Texan from the ring. Putski grabbed the microphone, screamed, “Polish Power!” Putski could barely be heard over the roar of the fans as he went on to explain that Bruno, his friend, had called him to his hospital bedside to personally ask him to defend the championship belt in his place. Not Italian wrestlers like Dominic DeNucci or Tony Parisi. Bruno chose Putski. “Hmmmm,” Giovanni hummed to himself and scratched his chin.
A few weeks later, Giovanni knelt in the dark soil of his backyard planting tomato and basil plants. Giovanni had no hobbies save for his small garden, a narrow rectangle along the rear of his property bricked off from the rest of his concrete backyard. He could lose himself for hours tending to his plants and vegetables on alternate Sundays when it was his brother’s turn to run the pizzeria. As he patted down the soil around the last transplanted shoot, Giovanni heard more voices than usual coming from the Pryzbyski side of the fence. Initially he paid it little mind, wasn’t his business. But he soon heard Yosef’s voice growing louder, more animated. Not angry-sounding, no, it was infused with thrill and excitement. He heard children giggling and other men laughing and finally, Yosef shouting, “Polish Power!” Giovanni turned from his plants and through the thin slots of the wooden fence observed Yosef stomping across his backyard, the skinny legs of young children scrambling away from him. Slowly, Giovanni climbed to his feet.
There was Yosef, in worn gray worker’s pants and a tight short sleeved plaid shirt, pivoting from side to side then running in a circle as he pantomimed a wrestling match for his two brothers, whom Giovanni recognized from the day the Pryzbyskis had moved into their new home. Several children ran about, maybe five or six boys and girls all visibly younger than his Teresa. Yosef’s son was also there nodding and laughing in step to his father’s performance. Giovanni immediately spotted Yosef mimicking Putski’s signature move, the thick fingers of both hands interlocked together, arms raised threateningly high overhead — the Polish Hammer. The children gathered closest all screamed and leapt back as Yosef shouted again, “Polish Power,” and snapped his raised arms down like a mousetrap. As everyone laughed louder and clapped their hands, one of the brothers noticed Giovanni standing and enjoying the spectacle. The brother gestured with his eyebrows to Yosef, who had paused to catch his breath. Yosef turned, saw Giovanni, and waved hello. Giovanni returned the greeting and began to apologize for eavesdropping on them. After Yosef shook his head and casually waved off the apology, Giovanni felts emboldened to ask, “You like wrestling?” Yosef laughed vigorously and said, “My whole family loves wrestling.” Yosef’s son nodded respectfully and his brothers smiled politely. Yosef drifted closer to the fence and Giovanni did the same. Yosef shared, “I took Michal to Madison Square Garden last week.” Giovanni’s eyes grew wide. He hadn’t attended a live wrestling match since Teresa had been born.
“No kidding? You saw the Putski match?” Giovanni asked. Yosef nodded.
“You know Putski is from Krakow,” Yosef said, “like me,” and he jabbed his thumb into his wide chest. He smiled, raised a thick, clenched fist, “Putski. Polish Power.”
“No kidding?” Giovanni repeated. As Yosef smiled and nodded, Giovanni noticed from the corner of his eye that his wife and daughter, both visibly puzzled, were watching from behind the kitchen window. Giovanni waved for his family to join him in the backyard. Sylvia initially remained still, save for furrowing her eyebrows, but when Giovanni repeated the gesture, she emerged with Teresa and came to stand beside him. Giovanni eagerly pointed to his neighbor and exclaimed, “Yosef saw the wrestling— at the Garden.” When Mother and daughter both appeared initially unmoved by this revelation, Giovanni reminded them, “Putski wrestled…for Bruno,” and Sylvia and Teresa mouth’s simultaneously made the “O” shape. Giovanni urged Yosef to recap the match yet again to which he seemed more than happy to oblige. This time when Yosef cut through air with the Polish Hammer, demonstrating how Putski had sent the Texan scurrying back to the dressing room, it was Giovanni who raised his fist and shouted, “Polish Power!”
If you asked Giovanni now if he’d noticed how Michal and Teresa, that afternoon under the May sun, each took turns stealing glimpses of each other until they finally locked eyes and shared more than a smile, he’d nod with assurance. But, he’d be lying. He, and Yosef too, were much too busy laughing and sharing stories about their wrestling heroes to notice what had actually taken root in the backyard on that fateful day. Since then, Yosef and Giovanni had become like paisons. Close as any other two neighbors on the block. Giovanni always called Yosef by his true name, as he’d heard Yosef’s wife and brothers do. And as for Michal and Teresa, they became inseparable playmates and companions.
That remained the natural order of things between the Pryzbyskis and Verdes until one evening just a few short weeks ago; Giovanni and Sylvia sat at the kitchen table sipping espresso from gold leaf Demitasse, fine porcelain that had been passed down to Sylvia from her mother. Giovanni, as always, finished first and returned the empty cup to its matching saucer. As he began to push himself away from the table, Sylvia interjected, “Aspetta.” She then informed her husband that Paula had told her that Michal would like to ask Teresa to the winter dance. Sylvia watched Giovanni’s eyes widen, watched him gently bite his lip in thought. He stared down into the empty cup for just a moment, then he looked back up to his wife.
“Okay,” he said. Giovanni rose from his chair and walked out of the kitchen and down the hall to the living room to watch television. Sylvia was somewhat vexed to find her husband so quickly amenable. But why shouldn’t he be? Michal was a good boy from a good family, and while Giovanni would never admit this out loud, out of respect for Yosef, he had come to think of Michal almost as a son. Plus it was a just Church dance, priests and nuns everywhere. Though the thought did cross Giovanni’s mind that maybe, just maybe, one day many years from now, the two families were possibly destined to be joined in a bond deeper and more meaningful than just geographical proximity and professional wrestling. He smiled as he thought this.
The show returned from commercial break and Bruno and Zbyszko were introduced as they climbed into the ring. Giovanni checked his watch one last time. The kids were almost twenty-minutes late. He could hear his wife pacing upstairs. Maybe he’d go wait outside after the match was over, but he was positive they’d be home before then. Michal was a good boy, he assured himself, remembering the boy’s bright smile and firm handshake just before he and Teresa had strolled out the front door hand in hand. Giovanni seemed to linger on that last memory for an extra moment. Did Michal look back over his shoulder and smile at Giovanni once more as he strolled away with his daughter? He couldn’t quite remember. Giovanni focused his attention back on the match. What a joy to see Bruno in the ring again. Giovanni watched Bruno extend his hand to his young protégé and Zbyszko shake it. The referee called for the bell and the two men began the match circling each other in the ring, sizing each other up, as they must have done in training many times before. Bruno, in his forties by now, Giovanni was sure, still looked like he could lift an elephant up over his head. Not that Zbyszko was just any slouch. He’d been trained by Bruno, after all, and was once a tag team champion not long ago with Tony Garea (who despite his looks and vowel-laden name turned out, disappointingly, not to be Italian). Arm bars and headlocks were exchanged, reversed, and reversed again. The two contestants were putting on a wrestling clinic. Any time they drifted against the ring ropes, they separated immediately at the ref’s direction. The announcers commended both men for their athleticism, scientific acumen, and sportsmanship. Giovanni nodded and said to the empty room, “No funny business.” He hated the cheaters, like Hansen, or the bruti like George “the Animal” Steele who only punched and kicked. This was like watching two artists work their craft, two painters at dueling easels. Suddenly Zbyszko faked going for a headlock and instead crouched quickly and lifted Bruno overhead. He slammed him down into the mat; the ref slapped the mat once, twice but Bruno kicked out. A thrilled and relieved Giovanni raised a hand to his head. What a match!
Mentor and protégé continued to trade holds and body slams. Zbyszko twice went for the pinfall, but Bruno kicked out. They locked up again and Bruno trapped his protégé in a painful-looking arm lock that Zbyszko struggled to escape. Bruno abruptly released the hold; just let him go. The ref looked puzzled, Zbyszko looked angry. They locked up again and this time Bruno seized Zbyszko in his might bear hug. “Oh boy!” Giovanni exclaimed. Barrel-chested Bruno had sent many a man to the showers after being squeezed inside his vise-like grip. Again, Bruno quickly released the hold. Young Zbyszko was incensed. He shouted something at Bruno. Even Giovanni was puzzled for a moment, until he remembered what Bruno had told the commentator when he’d finally, albeit reluctantly, accepted the match. Bruno had stated clearly he would release Zbyszko from any dangerous submission hold. “Larry’s been like a son to me,” Bruno said teary-eyed, “I couldn’t bear to hurt him.” Giovanni thought of Michal as he recalled Bruno’s heartfelt words. Giovanni’s attention snapped back to the match after glancing quickly at his watch once more.
Bruno and a flushed-faced Zbyszko locked up again. Zbyszko tried to spin around Bruno to trap him in a Full Nelson, but Bruno spun also, easily shrugging the smaller protégé off his back. Bruno must have underestimated his own strength as Zbyszko was flung, seemingly unintentionally, through the ring ropes and tumbled hard to ringside floor. Giovanni and Bruno simultaneously both reached one hand up to their forehead in concern. Zbyszko seemed unharmed, though frustrated. Bruno, ever the gentleman, held apart the top two ropes to facilitate his protégé’s climb back into the ring. As Giovanni smiled in appreciation of the good sportsmanship, it happened. While Bruno stood prone, Zbyszko climbed up to the ring apron and sucker-punched Bruno right in the face sending him crashing into the mat. A wide-eyed Giovanni sat stunned, dumbstruck. Zbyszko wasn’t done. He stomped on Bruno’s head, again and again, kicked him several times in his side. The fans went wild, leaping to their feet, hurling shouts and screams. The ref quickly stepped in front of Zbyszko and began to issue a warning, but Zbyszko grabbed him, a man twice his age and half his size, by his neck and tossed him out of the ring like he was a ragdoll. Giovanni pointed at and scolded his television; “Is that what Bruno taught you?” Zbyszko delivered another kick to Bruno’s head, shouted something down at his fallen mentor, then abruptly turned and exited the ring. The commentator pleaded in a broken voice, “Why, Larry, Why?” Giovanni shook his head as if the question had been put to him. Just when Giovanni thought the carnage was over, Zbyszko climbed back into the ring, clutching a wooden folding chair. He slammed it across Bruno’s head. Once! Twice! A horrified Giovanni winced, he bit hard into the knuckle of his bent index finger as Zbyszko slammed the chair a third time across Bruno’s skull. Bruno was down, quivering on the mat; the camera zoomed in on Bruno’s face, a crimson mask, blood gushed from his head into a sickening red pool beneath him. Medical personnel rushed into the ring as the show ended abruptly and a commercial began. Giovanni’s heart pounded, his face felt like it was aflame.
Like a son, like a son, was the mantra that Giovanni began to repeat to himself. First silently, as if to reset his brain, regain conscious thought. The he began to say the words aloud, initially, barely a whisper, “Like a son, like a son.” The chant grew louder and louder until Sylvia, hearing the shouts, came rushing down the stairs.
“Giovanni, Giovanni— what? What’s wrong?” she rushed to her husband. He pointed at the television, but could not gather the words, could not convey his shock and heartbreak. Sylvia assumed her husband gestured towards the mantel clock, upset that their daughter was late. Just then, they both heard the screen door open and a key turn in the front door lock. Sylvia smiled, relieved. “See,” she told Giovanni, “It’s okay, no worry. They home.” But it wasn’t okay. Giovanni pointed to the television once more, then at his wristwatch. He heard his Teresa’s voice, then Mical’s, laughing.
“That Polish Judas!” Giovanni shouted and rushed towards the front door.
Anthony Ausiello was born in raised in Brooklyn, New York and much of his fiction is inspired by the Italian-American experience. He is currently completing his MFA in Creative Writing-Fiction at Fairleigh Dickinson University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The East Bay Review, Berfrois, NonBinary Review, Gravel, NoiseMedium, Rat’s Ass Review, The Absurdist, Writer’s Digest, Rappahannock Review, and the anthology travelogue, Reaching Beyond the Saguaros.