THE TURNING OF CALIFORNIA TONY
Shortly after Nicky Lustig moved into the 3-story walk-up on West 39th, he married Lucille. Everyone knew Lucille: you couldn’t possibly miss the clinging skirts sheathing a length of leg. But none of the old gang had dared approach her as they stood daily at their corner post.
“She thinks who she is”.
But as disturbed as the boys were by getting nowhere with the vexing looker, nothing fueled their ire more than the knowledge that Nicky, the newsstand owner’s son, had landed her. Nicky. Goddamned Nicky. “Frickin’ little shit”, they’d say. When Nicky would come home from work, they tried to stare him down, but he never gave it a second thought.
“Fuck you, Nicky, and every shit that looks like you”.
Much to the chagrin of the corner boys, it wasn’t long before Lucille’s figure had changed considerably, and she’d traded in tight skirts for maternity dresses. Soon, Nicky was giving out cigars and buying rounds of beer for the old gang. After that, all was well on 11th Avenue, particularly once the children, cigars and rounds began arriving quite regularly. Besides, none could even recall when Lucille hadn’t been pregnant.
IT WAS ALWAYS KNOWN AS AN INORDINATELY QUIET BUILDING. Finster, the landlord, lived on the first floor. He hit the sack early every night, right after turning down his hearing aid. When Nicky first took the apartment, he’d only run into his upstairs neighbor, known as California Tony, on rare occasions on the staircase or by the mailboxes in the lobby. Older than the neighborhood guys, employed on the night-shift at the bottle factory, California spent little time socializing. He had a thing for silence. In daylight, he only ventured out for coffee or over to Nicky’s father’s newsstand on 41st to buy a pack of Chesterfields. His salt-and-pepper hair, slicked into a tall DA, carried the scent of hair lacquer down the stairs and out the door, along with very stale smoke.
Working the 11-to-7 shift nightly, California slept during the day—or tried to. As the noise level grew just beneath him, it was matched by a stewing anger. The din, multiplying every nine months or so, swirled into his exhausted daytime dream state. Nothing helped.
When Andrea, the third, was born, he’d simply had enough. Babies wailing, toddlers running and fighting, children’s singalong records on the hi-fi, Captain Kangaroo and cartoons blaring on the damned set. All of this just as he was trying to get to sleep. Stories spread of California in boxer shorts, sleep mask hanging loosely about his neck, screaming out of his window, “Lady, I gotta get ta sleep!”, he’d shout. “I wuyk nights!”
“Nicky, that guy’s crazy, I tell ya”, Lucille increasingly warned her husband. Attempts to work things out with just California went bad, then the two began to argue horribly. Even old Finster heard bits of the commotion, just before he’d turn down his hearing aid. It got ugly from there.
SO WRONGED DID CALIFORNIA TONY FEEL by the trebly, troubling voices beneath, that he took to rolling his bowling ball back and forth on his hardwood living room floor each evening, over the young family’s heads.
This rumbling torment went on during dinner and continued into the night. Whenever there was nothing good on TV, California persisted three, four hours at a stretch. Over and over, the old 16-pound Brunswick was unleashed over uncarpeted walkways like it was taking down a spare in alley 9 of the Bowl-a-Rama. He was only inspired more by Nicky’s hysterical poking at his ceiling with a broom or the showers of screamed curses. This nightly ritual usually ended with California, about 10:45, dropping the bowling ball hard onto his floor, a bellow of ungodly thunder. The crack and quake of it tickled him, but he reveled in the muffled shouts rising upward.
Any notion of armistice was now futile. The fighting continued through the birth of the twins, during which time, Nicky decided they needed to move. He packed up Lucille, little Debbie, Gerard and Andrea along with Mikey and Ikey, and drove off to their new home, a nice set of rooms over on 6th Avenue. But Nicky remained unable to forget the torment.
With the old gang helping to unload the truck, Nicky knew he must make right the wrong. “I’ll be home in a minute, hon”, he shouted to Lucille as he was getting into his car. “Just going out for cigarettes”, he said slipping a jack-handle up his denim sleeve.
Arriving in front of the old walk-up, Nicky parked off the corner and quietly entered the small lobby. The building was hushed,
asleep in the absence of the flurry
that had been.
He carefully ascended the creaky staircase, soft-shoeing beyond Finster’s apartment (he was by now out like a light) and then his old vacant flat. Nicky moved upward, beyond the landing and up to the third-floor front. Where his nemesis lay sound asleep.
It was hot and California Tony’s apartment door was slightly ajar, the way he’d often kept it before the fights began. “Now I have him, the bastard”, Nicky thought from his perch, crouching at the top of the stairs. He slipped the jack-handle out of his sleeve, gripping it in both fists, and crept toward California’s lair. The smell of cigarettes clung to everything. And through it, there remained the scent of spray-freeze hair lacquer.
Nicky elbowed the door open and, holding his breath, leapt into the apartment. As his feet landed on the mildly scarred hardwood, the reverberation of an empty apartment couldn’t be mistaken for any other sound. A pair of keys sat on the kitchen counter with a forwarding address in Encino.
He was alone but for the billowing smoke.
JOHN PIETARO, writer, poet and performer from Brooklyn NY. Columnist/critic of the NYC Jazz Record, he’s currently engaged in photo-journalism project Beneath the Underground and a first novel. Pietaro recently published poetry chapbook Smoke Rings and is in the final stage of On the Creative Front: Essays on the Culture of Liberation. Other credits include short fiction collection Night People and a chapter in Paul Buhle/Harvey Pekar’s SDS: A Graphic History and numerous published articles.