Saturday, September 17, 2011

Uncle Leo's Garden

I made sure to arrive at my Uncle Leo's well after lunch and well before dinner. Despite the off hour, Uncle Leo would still invite me to eat with he and my step aunt, Madeline, but I'd have a graceful way of declining; an afternoon meeting in Manhattan, picking up a friend at JFK, rushing back to work, etc. I had a number of reasonable excuses in my hip pocket.

I loved my uncle and made a point of stopping in for a visit when I was in New York, but Madeline -- Maddie, as Leo called her -- was a terrible cook, if you could call warming fish sticks in the microwave cooking. Maddie also wore so much perfume that she moved in a kind of blue-green haze that roared up my sinuses and stung my eyes when she leaned in to kiss my cheek.

I rang the bell and waited and then rang again. I was beginning to wonder if anyone was home. Finally, Uncle Leo opened the door a crack and peered out. "Oh, it's you, Roberto," he said. Leo insisted on calling me Roberto, although my name was Robert. He enjoyed rolling the "R" and adding the Italian inflection.

Leo motioned me in and told me he had company.
"Come on back to the porch and I'll introduce you to Gus. So, how have you been," Uncle Leo asked, as we walked out to the back porch.
"Good," I said, but Leo was already thinking about something else.
Gus was a balding, bowling ball-shaped man, with surprisingly small hands, and a weak handshake.
"How're ya," he said.
"Gus is an officer with the boilermaker's union," Leo said.
"I'm a steward in the local IBB," Gus said.
"Sit, sit," directed Leo, pointing to a mixed assortment of chairs on the back porch. "I'm gonna get us something to drink," and he disappeared back into the kitchen.
We sat looking out at Leo's small, fenced backyard, where he grew swisschard, egg plants, bell peppers, tomatoes, and various Italian herbs.
"So, you're Leo's nephew?" Gus said.
"Yeah. My dad was Leo's big brother."
"Was?" Gus said, leaning forward and looking at me with clear, blue eyes.
"Yes, he was killed in Vietnam. Leo was like a second father to me."
"That right? He's got a kind of father complex, or someting, that uncle of yours."
"How's that?"
"Knows all the kids in the neighborhood. Fixes their bikes. Gives 'em advice, Even gives 'em lunch money." Gus moved his shoulders and neck as he talked in an odd dance of gestures that didn't involve his hands, which he kept clasped together. I wondered if he was self conscious about them.
"You got kids?" Gus asked me.
"Two. A boy and a girl."
Leo came out of the kitchen with three beers in his hands, letting the screen door bang behind him.
"Bobby's in his senior year at St. Christopher. He plays ball there; second base. Like his dad," Leo said, handing us a beer.
Leo sat down opposite Gus and I and raised his bottle.
Gus took a sip of his beer, and then asked me about my son.
"Your boy is at some Catholic school?"
"St. Christopher's," I said.
"And he was second?" Gus said.
"He plays second," I said.
"How's Jennifer?" Leo asked.
"She's doing great, Uncle Leo. Sends her love."
"You got two kids; did I hear that right?" Gus said.
"Yes. Boy and a girl. Jennifer is eighteen months younger than Bobby," I said, taking a sip of my beer.
"She play sports, too?" Gus asked. He leaned over and set his empty bottle on the floor beside his chair.
"No," I said. "Jennifer is artistic."
Gus grimaced and shook his head.
"That's gotta be hard."
Leo looked at Gus with raised eyebrows.
I smiled. "Not really. She's taken up the guitar and really loves it."
"That's amazing," Gus said. "A kid with that kind of problem."
"Problem?" I said.
"Autism," Gus said.
"Ar - tis - tic," Leo said, raising his voice and leaning towards Gus. "She's artistic, not autistic."
Gus picked up his empty beer bottle and shook it at Leo.

Leo jumped up and started towards the kitchen, but stopped and asked if I wanted another beer. I shook my head and Leo went into the kitchen, letting the screen door slam.
"Leo, fer chrissake!" I heard Maddie shout.
"Sorry about my mistake," Gus said. "I don't hear so good."
"That's alright. I'm starting to have problems myself. It runs in the family."
Maddie came out, preceded by a wave of jasmine scent, and leaned over and kissed my cheek.
"Hi, Robert," she said, squeezing my shoulder.
"Hey, Maddie," Gus said.
"Hey yourself, Augustus."
"Robert, you'll stay for dinner?"
"Thanks, Maddie. Can't do it. Big meeting this afternoon."
Leo came out of the kitchen with two beers, looked at Maddie, and closed the screen door without letting it bang.
"Robert, how about staying for dinner?" Leo asked, handing Gus his beer.
"He's got one of his meetings," Maddie said.
"Pasta alla Campidaneses," Leo said.
"I love that stuff," Gus said, draining half his beer.
"Gus is staying," Maddie said, looking at me.
"I'd love to, Maddie, but duty calls."
"Hey, did you guys hear what happened to Dominick Ciccioni?" Gus said. "I'm telling ya, it was bizarre."

1 comment:

  1. You can find the recipe for Pasta alla Campidanese here


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