by Salvatore Difalco

My father and I arrived at Nicola Cino’s house around seven. His daughter Maria, a few years older than me, greeted us at the door with less than her usual cheer.

‘What’s going on?’ my father asked.

‘It’s Charlie,’ she said, nodding her head.

‘Where’s your father?’

‘He’s in the kitchen.’

We entered the dark, spartan house. A smell of burnt garlic smacked me in the nose. The Cinos had seen better days. Nicola had been out of work for a year with a bad back and a problem with his nerves. His wife Pina, my father’s first cousin, worked as a seamstress at a local sweatshop but made peanuts.

Nicola sat at the kitchen table in his undershirt with his head in hands.

Beh,’ my father said, ‘we came at a bad time.’

Nicola looked at my father with tortured, bloodshot eyes. Either he’s been drinking or crying, I thought.

‘Pep,’ he said, ‘nice of you to visit. Sammy, you’re taller every time I see you.’

‘He’s going to be taller than me soon,’ my father said.

‘Maria!’ Nicola shouted. ‘Come put some coffee on! The wife’s working overtime tonight till midnight. Maria!’

‘Coming, coming,’ she said, entering the kitchen with a mournful expression, arms crossed on her chest. She ran water at the sink and took out the coffee pot.

‘So what’s going on?’ my father asked. ‘Where’s Charlie?’

‘He’s in his room,’ Maria said.

Nicola shook his head. He was on the verge of tears.

‘Get the anisette out,’ he ordered Maria.

‘We won’t stay long,’ my father said.

‘What difference does it make?’ Nicola said. ‘The worst has happened.’

‘What do you mean, the worst has happened?’ my father asked.

Maria shot a glance at me as she loaded the coffee pot. Charlie was seventeen. He had grown his hair out that winter. I knew he hung out with stoners, so I assumed he smoked pot at the very least. My father used to say he was a bum, on his way to the gutter, and used him as a cautionary example of how not to behave. But I liked Charlie. He was cool. He smoked cigarettes and listened to bands like Spirit and the Grateful Dead. I liked his long, unkempt hair, and the neat way he spoke. He would use words like man and cool a lot, and had a way of swearing I almost envied. Of course my father had always warned me against the use of foul language. One time when I let the word fuck slip out during a hockey game, he rapped my teeth so hard with his knuckles I thought twice about swearing from then on.

‘What did he do?’ my father asked.

Maria brought out a bottle of anisette and two small glasses. Nicola poured shots and gulped his down without toasting or clinking. My father touched his glass to his lips and put it down.

‘The idiot was arrested for possession of drugs,’ Nicola admitted.

My father started.

‘That’s right. He’s out on bail. I had to bail him out. I had borrow money from Musitano to bail him out. He’s ruined himself. He’s ruined us.’ Nicola lowered his head and wept.

‘But what drugs?’ my father asked.

‘It was a kilo of hashish,’ Maria said.

My father blanched and crossed himself. A kilo of hashish? What was Charlie doing with a kilo of hashish? The news disturbed him deeply.

‘What are you gonna do?’ he asked.

‘What am I gonna do?’ Nicola said. ‘You tell me, Pep. What am I gonna do? He’s on the hook for the hashish, too. To some bikers. Understand?’

My father nodded solemnly. He understood. Charlie had royally fucked his family. No wonder Nicola was crying. Charlie was probably going to wind up in juvenile detention unless they tried him as an adult. But dealing with the confiscated hash was a whole other ball game. Bikers? Any way you looked at it, his life was fucked.

I felt awful as Maria served the coffee. She and I had grown up together—she was like a big sister. I could feel her distress; she looked as if someone had died, and someone might as well have died, that’s how fucked the Cinos were.

Charlie never did come down. I’m sure my father, unafraid to speak his mind, would have had some choice words for him. We left Nicola sobbing at the kitchen table with Maria unable to console him.

On the drive home my father was quiet, his jaw clenched, knuckles white on the steering wheel. I had a lot of questions, but I knew not to ask any. When my father went quiet like that he could be touchy.

We came to a red light and I unconsciously turned on the radio, perhaps hoping to fill in the almost painful silence with some music or DJ chatter. My father glanced at me sideways as I fiddled with the knobs. When I found a local rock station—playing Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song—I turned it up a notch. Before I could pull my fingers away from the dash my father cracked me across the lips with a backhand that almost broke my teeth.

I didn’t cry. I was too stunned. My ears rang. I could taste blood. I touched my lips. I looked at my fingers, then looked at my father. He continued driving with his jaw set. He said nothing for the rest of the trip.

Later, when my mother asked about my bloodied mouth, I blamed Charlie Cino.

Salvatore Difalco is the author of two story collections, Black Rabbit (Anvil) and The Mountie At Niagara Falls (Anvil). His work has appeared in journals worldwide. He currently resides in Toronto, Canada.