If someone ever asks me how I felt at that moment all I’ll ever be able to tell them is numb. Numb doesn’t exactly describe how I was feeling but it’s as close as any word in the human language will ever come. There isn’t a word big enough to describe how I was feeling.
Mentally fighting to process what I’d just heard I said, “So … here you are.”
Leo nodded, “Yep.”
“And?” I asked.
“And … and in a way what was good enough to get us here ain’t good enough to keep us here.” Uh oh, I could feel yet another layer of situation forming. “Now, since Tony ain’t himself, but knowing how he feels about you, I feel obligated to give you some advice. You ain’t gonna like it but you need to think on it.”
My brain felt stupid. All I could do was look at him and say, “Advice?”
“Yeah. If Tony could he’d explain how Moretti is off his rocker, popped his cork, Bellevue bound. Call it whatever you wanna but he’s a dangerous man right now. Maybe he was always this way and the way he used to act was just a disguise he wore. Maybe this stuff going on cracked him or something. Don’t matter; result’s still the same. Whichever way you cut it, he ain’t a man to trust. I seen and heard some of the things he promised to do to Tony when he wasn’t lookin’.”
Still talking he said, “Now, I saw your face when Tony slid to the ground. I’m thinkin’ that maybe you feel the same way for Tony as he feels for you … or maybe Tony has a good chance to make you feel that way. And if I saw it you can bet Moretti saw it. Right now they ain’t thinkin’ too clear but you give him a chance and he’ll start making plans … see you’re the enemy now too. You can bank on that. You give him time to start thinkin’ and plannin’ and maybe he’ll see Tony wasn’t so wrong about needin’ to get away from the city and maybe he’ll see this place and think your ol’ man was his friend and maybe start thinking who better to run this place since your ol’ man is dead.”
I flinched at the word but if Leo noticed it didn’t stop him from continuing.
“I’d … encourage his delusion about leaving and ‘goin’ home.’ If I was you I’d tell him that he can have the van – after it gets emptied of yours and Tony’s stuff – and that we can have all the fuel left in the two vehicles, and some food, so that we can get where we’re going.”
Catching the pronoun I said, “We?”
His eyebrow cocked up and he gave me a considering look. “You definitely ain’t stupid. Didn’t figure anyone that could hold Tony’s attention the way you have would be.” He kept looking until he’d given me the creeps. “Yeah ‘we’. Tony said I could have some cash and one of the vehicles and that Vinnie, Carlo, and I could head where ever we wanted to after we helped to get him here. Tony ain’t dead yet so I figure the deal is still in motion.”
Carefully I said, “I don’t have any cash.”
“Didn’t figure you did. ‘Sides I know where Tony stashed it. I’ll just take my share … and Carlo and Vinnie’s since they ain’t needin’ it no more.”
Leo had more than a bit of snake in him I realized; I could see it in his eyes. But I had me some backbone and gave the deal some thought before answering. “If that is what Tony agreed to then that is the way it is going to play out. And you get the other two cuts on one condition; you make sure Bennie gets a bit of that cash so Mr. Moretti can’t leave him high and dry with no options. You also make sure that Tony’s ‘stuff’ and my … my family’s things are left on the porch, that Mr. Moretti doesn’t trash them or take them with him … er … accidentally shall we say.”
The snake look suddenly got real strong on Leo’s face and he whispered, “No, you ain’t stupid.” He smiled and I wanted to vomit but the look got tucked away and he stuck out his hand and said, “Deal.”
It took a lot of courage for me to calmly place my hand in his and shake on it. Once done Leo went back to being his formerly semi-charming self. “I’ll go tell the others. And you’re figuring that Lucia and Bennie are going to go with us?”
“Lucia will go with her mom and sisters even if she is scared of her dad; and Bennie won’t leave Lucia.”
“Good. Bennie’ll help with Moretti in case he starts giving me too much trouble. Now if we are doing this let’s get it done.”
I looked at Tony and after I brushed the hair out of his eyes and felt the roughness of his unshaven face I directed Leo ahead of me and we both went out onto the porch.
I will not record what came out of Mr. Moretti’s mouth when I unlocked the door and stepped out. Basically he started in with wanting to know why I had locked the door, what I thought I was doing keeping him out, that I better not be planning anything with Tony, and he even went so far as to wonder if I wasn’t doing something clandestine and/or sexual with Tony on the side to have my way … or with Leo too.
At that point I was ready to puke at how much the man in front of me had changed. I could see Lucia looking at her father like she was realizing he was a few fries short of a happy meal and she was getting scared. I saw how Bennie put himself between her, her mom and sisters, and the man they were supposed to be able to count on.
It wasn’t getting done any faster with me letting him run his mouth so I broke in and tried to act like I wasn’t dealing with a crazy person. “Mr. Moretti as you can see Leo – Bennie too if he’ll lend a hand – are emptying the van …”
“You don’t have no right!!”
I shook my head, “Mr. Moretti it’s not going to work with me. I love you like an uncle but Leo’s told me a few things – things you have not given me any reason to doubt the truth of because of the way you are acting – and those things make me believe that you’ll really not be happy until you leave here.”
“Don’t tell me girl …”
The numbness was wearing off. Grief hadn’t struck but anger was beginning to. “E … nough,” I ground out both syllables. “You wanna leave so freakin’ bad I’m makin’ it possible. And you will. Leave that is. Just as soon as we get the van unloaded and the gas tank filled.”
Mr. Moretti tried a different attack. “Your father …”
“... isn’t here Mr. Moretti,” I finished quietly as something in me finally acknowledged that fact. “And if he was he’d tell you the same thing I am.” Turning I looked at Lucia and she at me. I saw her take a small step closer to her mother and sisters. A confirmation. Bennie who was still torn between standing guard over Lucia and helping Leo sighed and I knew I’d said it all true; Lucia would stay with her mother and Bennie would follow Lucia.
Feeling defeated and alone I said, “Bennie, please help Leo. The faster things finish up the sooner they’ll smooth out for everyone.” That got him moving.
Snarling like a rabid dog Mr. Moretti ordered, “I’m in charge here girl, not you. You’ll leave the supplies right where they are and give us whatever else we need to get out of this dung heap!”
Snapping him a look I spat, “You’ll take what I choose to give you and be grateful. I heard about your fight with my dad and the things you said to him and my family. I know you cowered in your car for hours rather than help them. The only man who tried to help them is lying inside near death himself.”
Striking a superior pose and tone he responded, “Nothing could help them girl. It was God’s will and no one, certainly not that spawn of satan you seem to be so fond of, could go against that.”
I wanted to say something so badly my head shook with the force of trying to hold the words back; but I refused to be drawn into his self delusion. I felt like I had palsy. It was Leo’s call that saved me from exploding. “Done!”
Mrs. Moretti whimpered, “So quickly?”
Back to snarling Mr. Moretti turned to his wife and daughters and roared, “See how fast she turns us out? With nothing but the clothes on our backs? If that’s how she treats those she calls family I’d hate to be her enemy … but maybe that’s what she thinks we are now. Maybe Tony has gotten to her too … or had her all along.”
Lucia looked at me and I could see her father had managed to touch a nerve. I shook my head at them all but it was Mr. Moretti I addressed. “Wrong again. Leo and Bennie will be your security and drivers. Both are slick enough to be sure they can survive the trip back and that includes having enough food and fuel. Tony and Leo had a deal; I’m abiding by it. You’ve already said you don’t want to stay and I’m sure not going to try and convince you. You’ll be riding away on their coat tails so I’d treat ‘em nice if I were you.”
Looking at me with spiteful hate he said, “The day the Balducci family moved to the neighborhood was a black day that I wish had never happened.”
It hurt. I admit it. But I could see what he said was hurting not just me. The twins were shocked, Mrs. Moretti grieving hard but whether for my mother or her own self I don’t know for sure. And Lucia was confused but was at the same time trying to hide the shame her father was causing her.
Knowing for my own peace of mind I had to make one last appeal I said, “Lucia, while Leo and Bennie help your father move your family’s stuff out of the truck and into the van why don’t you grab your luggage.” She was slow to respond but she eventually came inside with me. I flipped the door bolt behind me again and the sound made her jump.
I went from slow deliberateness to frantic speed in a blink. “Come on,” I said dragging her to see the condition Tony was in and so I could check on him too. He was still only half conscious and muttering under his breath words that even if they had been strung together a half dozen different ways wouldn’t have made sense.
“Oh god Joey …”
“Yeah. I had to make sure you saw this. Tony might not be a choir boy but he sure ain’t no spawn of satan. He’s hurtin’ and he might die … he might die Lucia … because he tried to save my family. You don’t forget that … don’t forget it no matter what your father says. For all his faults Tony still put the family before his own safety and needs.”
When she nodded I could see some of her confusion had gone away. “Are you sure you want to leave Lucia? Are you really sure?”
Her eyes looked into mine and there were tears there. “It can’t be like it looks. It can’t be. Them people on the TV and radio have to be telling at least a little bit of truth. But even if … but even if it is I … I can’t leave Ma or the girls.”
I sighed in resignation and nodded. “I figured but I had to hear it from your own lips. Come on, let’s get your stuff.”
She and Bennie hadn’t unpacked because there really wasn’t anything to unpack into; no closet or dresser in the downstairs rooms. I grabbed Bennie’s bag and took it to the kitchen and Lucia went to the bathroom to gather their hygiene products. Quickly, knowing I only had a moment and not wanting Lucia to know, I unzipped Bennie’s bag and tucked in a couple of the guns and some of the ammo that he had spent so much time cleaning.
When Lucia came out she only found me putting apples into a plastic Dollar General bag. I looked at her with a watery smile and said, “For the road.”
“Don’t start Joey,” came her own watery response.
Suddenly we fell into each others’ arms. “Joey, I’m scared. Pop’s lost it.”
“You can stay.”
“No. No, because Ma won’t if Pop doesn’t.”
“Please Lucia …”
“Don’t ask Joey. I can’t. But we’ll send help as soon as we can find some.”
That stopped my tears and I pulled away. “No Lucia, don’t.”
“But Joey …”
“No. I … I don’t want … won’t have … strangers come here. Not for any reason.”
She looked at me and started to draw away but I grabbed her arm one last time. “Listen to me Lucia. If you need to come back then forget everything else and just come. But don’t send strangers here. Your family … even … even your father … Bennie too … but … but not Leo. Not strangers. Please. And if your dad threatens to send someone here, don’t let him.”
“Pop would never …” Then doubtfully she fell silent.
I patted her arm and let go. “I’m not sure I know what your dad would do anymore. I … I’m sorry Luce but I don’t trust him. I wish you’d stay … wish your mom would say something for Pete’s sake … but I know she won’t and you won’t so I won’t tease you about it no more. Just don’t forget what I’ve said.”
She asked quietly, “And you won’t come with us?”
“No. I’m staying with Tony. There’s no room for us where your father is going.”
“And if Tony dies? I mean look at him.”
Not wanting to believe it but forced to give her an answer I said, “Then … then I bury him and grieve for him and the rest of my family.”
There was nothing more to say. We both jumped when the door knob rattled and then fists and kicks began to pound the door. I rushed over and unlocked and opened it before it could be busted in. A fist caught me in the side of the head and then a kick caught the side of my leg as I turned to the other side. There was a scream as the beating continued for a few more solid hits.
“Pop! Stop! Don’t!”
Lucia and her sisters’ screams echoed Mrs. Moretti’s call to her husband. I used the doorframe to hold myself up and watched as Bennie and Leo drug Mr. Moretti off the porch. He continued to spew hatred as fast as he’d thrown punches. “I knew it! I knew it! You’re trying to pull a fast one, the same thing that rat bastard did! You’re tryin’ to keep me from my daughter!”
Lucia, trying to calm her father implored, “Pop! I’m right here. Joey didn’t do what you said she did. You shouldn’t a hit her!”
“Go on, stick up for her. She turning you into a traitor too?! When I’m done with her I’ll set you straight too! I’ll …”
A fast tap from one of Leo’s mammoth fists dropped Mr. Moretti hard. “OK, I’m done with this. He ain’t the boss, I am. Bennie here is my second. Get your butts in the van ‘cause I’m ready to go. Mrs. Moretti … your ol’ man wakes up and tries to bother me or anyone else again without my say so and I’ll leave him on the side of the road and he can walk back to your place so’s you make him understand that real good.”
Leo looked up at me and gave a hard nod but didn’t offer to help. He climbed into the passenger seat and conspicuously took out a pistol that looked dangerous even if I couldn’t identify the make and model. Bennie hustled everyone else into the van while he tried to fit Lucia’s unconscious father into one of van’s bench seats. Lucia had to be pushed into the van as well as she called back to me asking if I would be OK.
As Bennie climbed into the driver’s seat I nodded but called to her, “You remember what I said. And give Bennie his bag later on so he can change out of them rank clothes.”
The shadows began to lengthen and the bugs come out but still I stood there. In fact I must have stood there nearly an hour in a kind of daze. There were things I knew I needed to do but not even that niggling urgency could move me. Then I heard an odd scrape behind me and I come to myself and jerked around.