A young man, whose legs stretched long and lanky, slipped out of the front seat of a 1939 LaSalle, slammed the Buick’s door and leaned against its dented frame. Arms folded tight under the gray of the New Jersey sky, he propped a heel on the running board. Of all people, why’d I let Iggy convince me to chip in and buy this wreck? His foot dropped to the ground. Ought to have my head examined. Spinning on the soles of his loafers, he tapped an impatient rhythm on the roof of the jalopy as he stared at the entrance of the Motor Vehicle Building. How much longer? The time necessary to register a vehicle was more than he expected.
He glared at the yellow paint lining the curb where the auto was parked in a tow away zone. Damn Iggy! Took off with the keys. Worried that he’d be the one to get the ticket if a cop stopped, he began to pace back and forth in the brisk breeze. Sure cool for June. Despite the wind, a fly successfully circled his thick head of brown hair, skied three inches down the length of his nose and ricocheted off its tip to land on the sleeve of his varsity sweater. Smelling salami and provolone, the insect tried to dive into his pocket. Finally realizing what the bug was after, the fellow swatted at the pest but, refusing to leave, it circled his head several times before it took off in search of another target. I wish Mamma would ask before she sticks food in my pockets. His stomach growling, he retrieved the sandwich, removed its wrapper and devoured it in two bites. Instead of satiating him, the appetizer-sized panino left him craving even more food. Crumpling the waxed paper, he tossed it into a nearby trashcan and then resumed his vigil by the car.
An army jeep, whose headlights and grillwork sneered at the LaSalle’s lackluster finish, halted parallel to the jalopy and the soldier behind the wheel called out to him, “Hey, Mack Matteo…long time no see.”
Mack squinted, recognizing the bully that had tortured him for four years at Benton High School. Just my luck. “Is that you Freddie Brutto? What brings you here? I thought your family moved out of this town.”
“Did,” Freddie verified. “Just passin’ tru on my way back ta da base. Re-enlisted.”
Incredulous, Mack pulled in his chin. “No kidding?”
“Yeah, well somebody has ta keep an eye on all dem damn Nazis.” Freddie pushed his army cap further back on the crown of his head. “What about yer puny ass, Mack? Where’d dey station it durin’ da war?”
Though wanting to give a nasty comeback, Mack hesitated. “Well, I…uh…never made it into the service. Graduated from Boston University, though. Earned a degree in accounting.” He hoped Freddie didn’t question the reason for his military exemption. Hate to lie but... Mack refused to admit, to this high school adversary of all people, that his epileptic condition was what kept him out of the war. Fortunately, Freddie didn’t ask for he was distracted by Mack’s varsity sweater.
Acting shocked, Freddie pointed a finger at Mack. “Skinny Matteo made letters? Don’t tell me college can turn a bookworm inta a jock.”
“No,” Mack hated to admit. “Worked part-time as the P.E. Department’s statistical analyst.”
“Sound’s excitin’,” Freddie spoofed.
“Saved enough to buy this car.” Mack smacked the hood of the LaSalle.
“A real beauty!” Freddie mocked. “What ya gonna do wit dat degree now, Mister Accountant?”
“The family business…just started at the bakery. I’m supervising the storefront for now.” Mack was expected to eventually assume management of its finances, but he didn’t want to boast anymore than he already had.
Freddie wrinkled his nose. “Now tell me, Mack. Did all da Matteos skip out on der patriotic duty?”
Mack clicked his tongue in annoyance. “No, Freddie. For your information, all my brothers enlisted.” His voice dropped an octave. “Romi was killed in action.”
“Humph.” Freddie pressed on, “So what happen ta da udder two?”
“What’s it to you?” Mack spat back.
“Canna guy ask?” Freddie blinked his eyes with innocent curiosity.
Resenting Freddie’s nosiness, Mack expelled an exasperated breath. “Well, if you must know, Frank came home with a purple heart for a leg injury and, after my dad died, he took over as general manager of the bakery.” Mack failed to mention that, a few months later, Frank eloped with Geneva Tazzoni, his high school sweetheart. “But Iggy served until the war ended.” Frank had been furious that Iggy had toured all of Northern Italy with his war bride instead of rushing home to help him with the business. “Enough information for you, Freddie?”
Freddie ignored Mack’s sarcasm. “Lucky guys…got handed a business on a silver platter. Well, gotta go. Too bad der’s no time ta buy ya a beer. I’m due back at base in a hour. Shippin’out tomorrow.” Freddie drove off with a wave and a beep.
Thank God! Too soon if I never lay eyes on him again. Mack shoved his hands into his pockets and kicked a stone across the sidewalk. Lucky all right. He had always dreamed he’d work for a large public accounting firm and rack up enough experience to start his own one day. But since the bakery’s funds financed his degree, his mother had insisted that it was his turn to lift some of the load off his brothers’ shoulders. Now he was saddled with the bakery too…at least until he paid back the tuition…not quite what he’d planned.
To start out, Frank had asked Mack to check the bakery’s financial records, to become familiar with the accounting operations and evaluate how smoothly they were running. Complying with the request, Mack had looked over the bakery books first chance he got. What a shambles!
When the bakery’s longstanding accounting clerk, an Italian hired by their father decades earlier, died several months back, Frank had been frantic for a replacement. Taking advantage of the situation, Iggy recommended a Hungarian bookkeeper, a man who wasn’t as experienced as Iggy claimed, nor as respectable, but who was willing to do whatever Iggy requested of him. Desperate and overwhelmed by management of the baking and storefront operations, Frank dispensed with the usual background check and hired the Hungarian.
After spending some time sifting through the sloppy ledgers, Mack had his suspicions that Frank would regret his decision to rely on Iggy’s recommendation for he’d already found several obvious errors. Mack didn’t look forward to straightening out the mess. It’ll take me forever.
Mack turned toward the Motor Vehicle Building and glanced up at the sturdy figure of a man who jogged down its steps, his hair slick but for the haughty swell in the front. Midpoint on the stairs, the fellow paused, adjusted his crotch and hiked his trousers higher above his waistline then boosted the collar of his jacket up against his muscular neck. With shoulders squared, he continued down to the bottom. Mack grimaced. Iggy even dresses like a thug. As his brother approached, Mack ran a hand over his own more conservative haircut while he evaluated Iggy’s rugged features. What do women find so appealing about him?
Iggy smacked his hands together. “It’s official. Car’s registered in my name.”
“What do you mean: your name? The car belongs to both of us. If anything, it’s more mine than yours,” Mack complained. “I put up the bulk of the money.”
“Form called for the owner to sign it. What else did ja want me to do? You weren’t there.” Iggy held up a palm. “No difference anyway. We both know who owns the car.” He turned his face to the left to conceal a smirk. “Sides, I’m the one served with the best mechanics in the army, not you.” Iggy ran a hand along the body of the LaSalle, circled to its driver’s side and kicked one of the wheels. “You ain’t got no knack for fixin’ it, do you?
“Well, no.” Mack shrugged. “But I get priority use of the car. That was the deal. Right?”
“Sure. Take it easy,” Iggy scoffed. “You don’t wanna get too cranked up or you’ll fall down in one of your ugly-ass fits.” He flipped his wrist in an effeminate mock and raised the pitch of his voice, “If Motor Vehicles gets wind of your delicate condition, they’ll rip that driver’s license outta your back pocket, roll it up and…,” he switched to a deeper and ominous tone, “shove it up your tight ass.”
Color rose up Mack’s neck as he clenched his fists. Just like Iggy to hit a guy below the belt. Iggy was well aware that, for years, Mack’s seizures had been controlled by medication.
Iggy snickered until his stomach growled. “Hey, I’m starved.”
“Then let’s go right home or we’ll be late for dinner again.”
Licking his lips, Iggy rubbed his abdomen. “Boy, I’d love to sink my teeth into a juicy-ass steak tonight.” He shifted his stance and, with arms folded tight, brooded. “But no doubt Mamma cooked up a meatless dish like she does every stinkin’ Friday. If not, she’d hop a boat to Rome and confess the mortal sin right to the damn Pope.” Before Mack had a chance to make his way over to the driver’s side, Iggy slipped behind the wheel and revved the engine. “Get in. Hope Frank doesn’t spend the whole fuckin’ meal talkin’ business.”
Flipping up his hands in defeat, Mack sulked back to the passenger-side door and grudgingly slid into the sedan. As he slammed the door shut, Iggy zipped the jalopy out of the parking space and floored the gas pedal.
Mack cringed at the deafening grind of the engine and pressed a hand against the dashboard. “Slow down, Iggy!”
“What a pussy-assed chicken!” Iggy threw back his head and laughed. “No wonder the army didn’t want you.”