Copyright © 2015 Nicholas Nigro
This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
Tony Testa is on a safari and I’m his prey. The prospect of being in this fiend’s crosshairs scares the living daylights out of me. You see, camouflaging myself on the streets of Kingsbridge is just not an option, and Testa is heavyweight champion—literally—of the neighborhood’s bully set. Were it one hundred years ago, I’m certain he’d be a gunslinger roaming the Wild, Wild West with a fawning gang of outlaws at his side to do his bidding. But it’s not 1878 in Dodge City. It’s 1978 in the Bronx, and the behemoth lives just up the hill from me on the more heavily traveled Kingsbridge Avenue, a street lined with pre-war, walkup apartment buildings. Testa is the main muscle and brains—for lack of a better description—of a band of not especially sharp-witted punks that he lords over with beastly zeal.
Anthony Testa, Jr. is just a year older than me. If you saw the two of us together—which I’ve taken great pains to avoid—you would presume a few more years than that separates us. For starters, Testa stands about four or five inches taller than me and is at least twice my body mass. This bruiser boy is a high school junior—I’m kind of surprised he’s made it that far—and I’m a sophomore. While he attends the local John F. Kennedy High School, I receive my secondary education in a Catholic institution of learning on the other side of the Bronx. I really like when there’s that much distance between Tony Testa and me. A few years ago, we were both students at St. John’s grammar school in the neighborhood. There, I got to observe Testa and his malevolent entourage up close and personal, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. The DeTestables were notorious troublemakers who bullied everyone and anyone whom they deemed bully-able, and that amounted to a fair share of us.
I could never abide the sight of Tony Testa—his picture should be in the dictionary alongside the word “gruesome”—and always feared even the chance encounter. Now this monster’s got his sights set on me. I am the hunted and rue the instant that got me entangled in such an intimate way in this unsavory character’s web. If I could only turn back the clock twenty-four hours, I would do things differently. But such do-overs happen in The Twilight Zone, not on the streets of the Bronx. There is no “signpost up ahead” that will show me a way out of my precarious predicament. I’m on one of Tony Testa’s “wanted posters”—end of story—and that’s a Kingsbridge kid’s worst nightmare.
The seventeen-year-old tough guy who has designs on rearranging my face—and whatever else he has in mind—resembles a porcine marshmallow. Really, that’s what he looks like. Take a super-sized marshmallow and add a pair of beady eyes, some curly locks, and a porker’s nose to it and—voila—Tony Testa in living color. My father knows Anthony Testa, Sr.—ironically a New York City police detective in the Organized Crime Unit—from a nearby watering hole called the Liffy. He once told me that the Testa family surname translates into “head” or some such thing in Italian. Although my younger sister, Terry, insists he’s a dead-ringer for the Incredible Hulk, I disagree. Mr. Marshmallow Head or the Incredible Hulk, take your pick, is just plain mean—rotten to the core. I’ve always wondered why. What makes Tony Testa so diabolical? Why does he do the things that he does? And what—I shudder to think—will he be like as an adult?
My immediate dilemma is that Testa believes, rightly so, that I’m the guilty party who hit his little brother with an icy snowball—the one that triggered a faucet-spigot nosebleed. Of course, it matters nil under Testa’s “Marshmallow Law” that his younger sibling—a prepubescent twerp and bullyboy in training—first tossed moon-rock snowballs of equal load at my friend Johnny B and me, who were minding our own business as we navigated our way home along Kingsbridge’s business hub, West 23lst Street. We were carrying Sam’s Pizza take-out bags when, without fair warning, all hell broke loose. A pack of grade school-aged delinquents launched a polar onslaught against us from the sidewalk across the street—the one that flanks the Episcopalian Church of the Mediator. Johnny B and I gave serious thought to ducking for cover in Pat Mitchell’s Irish Food Center, a mom-and-pop grocery store at ground zero, but decided to stand up for ourselves—and go against type for a change—despite one of the snowball-throwing perpetrators being an abominable Testa.
In the ensuing skirmish, I got socked in the head with a snowball that could have easily doubled as a cue ball. I went home with both a couple of slices of pizza and an excruciating headache. Little Vittorio Testa may have been momentarily bloodied—his nose wasn’t broken, I’ve since learned—but I didn’t come away unscathed either. Johnny B even fretted that I might have a concussion and wanted me to check into a hospital for observation. But he was more concerned, I think, about the potential repercussions of that bloody nose—the one with my snowball’s signature on it—and probably figured the hospital was as good a place as any to ride out the impending storm. For the Testa tadpole left us with a shrill but chilling parting salvo: “We’re gonna get you for this, Casale! We’re gonna get you! Count on it!” He knew my name and that didn’t bode well for me. While Kingsbridge is a gritty urban enclave in so many ways, it’s like a small town, too, where everybody seems to know everybody else. And Johnny B and I knew all too well who the “We” people were who were going to get me.
What were we thinking? Honestly, it was never my intention to give little Vic Testa a bloody nose or to harm him in any way. I wish I could say the same for him and his weasel-faced, potty-mouthed, juvenile cohorts in crime, who had different ideas entirely. They were out for more than blood as they hurled snowball after snowball at Johnny B and me with what seemed sometimes like Nolan Ryan-velocity and the intensity of the Allied bombing of Dresden. I now understand what it’s like to be caught between a rock and a hard place.
My given name is Matt, but most of my friends call me “Bean”—a nickname bestowed on me years ago courtesy of my slight build—and I’ll confess to having this uncanny knack for getting myself in sticky situations. Fortunately, I have an older brother, Mike, who looks out for me when the going gets tough, which it does on more occasions than I’d care to admit. He’s gotten me out of hot water a time or two or three. Perhaps then I should cut Tony Testa some slack for seeking vengeance on behalf of little Vic. You know, the big brother-little brother bond at play. But if you knew the Testa boys, young or old—even casually—you would fast appreciate that there is no comparison whatsoever between “Mighty Mike” Casale, my big brother, and the incredibly awful Tony Testa. The way I see it, Testa’s protecting and mentoring of Vic is more like Bullyboy Academy training than expressions of Brotherly Love.
What else can I say? I’ve made my bed and have to lie down in it. Tony Testa and his toadies—the pint-sized Timmy McCleary, baby-faced Pat McGovern, sleepy-eyed Tommy Gentile, and freckled-faced Brandon O’Hare—want a piece of me. Or so I’ve been warned through the grapevine. Were I dealing with human beings rather than Neanderthal brutes, I might attempt to reason with them. I’d even apologize if it would spare me a pasting. But they’re just not the types to, heaven forbid, accept an apology or to permit somebody to get off with, say, a warning. The DeTestables derive pleasure in roughing up people they know they can rough up with impunity. In their bullyboy pea brains they always believe, too, that the punishment meted out is justified. Tony Testa lives by a code, I’ll grant him that—the “Marshmallow Code”—and it says in unmistakable bully English that I’ve got to pay for my transgression.
My good pal, snowball-tossing comrade-in-arms, and inveterate worrywart “Johnny B” Bauer, who lives just up the street from me on Tibbett Avenue, has cautioned me not to set foot out of the house without a bodyguard—like Mike or my dad—until this Tony Testa thing blows over. But like most of Johnny B’s plans, it doesn’t hold water. First of all, in Testa’s Marshmallow World, things don’t blow over. Sooner or later, I’m going to have to confront him and his goons and take my lumps, whatever they might be. I don’t see any way around it.
My next-door neighbor and old friend, Richie Ragusa—who has always been more intrepid than either Johnny B or me—wants to take on Testa and his bully brigade. How exactly he expects on doing that—with Johnny B and me as his only soldiers, and for all intents and purposes AWOL—is the $64,000 Question. If there is a silver lining to cling to in this ominous cloud hanging over me, it’s that my school’s mid-winter recess has just begun, which translates into a whole week off. I can at least cast aside my predictable routine for a spell and stick close to home. No venturing to the bus on Broadway in the morning—and returning in the afternoon—at more or less the same times. That would be the equivalent of walking around with a bully’s bulls-eye on my back.
I’ve contemplated telling Mike the sorry details that have gotten me in this confounding pickle, but I know he’d do something about it. It’s the what he would do that concerns me. I just don’t think my present troubles are worth a big to-do—not yet anyway. Besides, I’m almost sixteen now and shouldn’t be relying on my big brother to save my bacon every time the skillet gets hot. For the time being, I’ll just float like a butterfly as best that I can, and hope that I don’t get stung like a bee when that day of reckoning arrives.
I normally go to an early Sunday Mass—7:00 or 8:45 a.m.—at St. John’s Church on Kingsbridge Avenue. Usually, I fulfill this obligation of mine by myself and, on occasion, with my pain-in-the-butt little sister in tow. Mike is a college man now—a Manhattan College Jasper—and doesn’t attend Mass anymore, nor is he compelled to like I am. I’ve always approached this weekly duty—and solemn practice of my faith—this way: Get it over and done with as quickly as is humanly possible, so that I can get on with my earthly life. This Sunday, though, my earthly life felt as if it was in a state of suspended animation. I waited until eleven o’ clock so that I could accompany my parents to Mass—a chicken move on my part, I acknowledge, because the likelihood of Testa and company being on the prowl in the early morning of a Sunday was slim. The DeTestables do most of their missionary work during the afternoon and evening hours. They need sufficient shut-eye—reenergizing nighttime dreams of torturing small animals, I suppose—to sustain them during their high-octane waking hours. I just didn’t feel like taking any chances.
Newly ordained Father McHugh officiated at the Mass and delivered a long-winded and uninspiring homily that coincidentally touched on—in some roundabout way—bullying. I wasn’t really paying attention, so I missed the moral of the sermon, but I suspect he came down on the side of the bullied. I momentarily pondered speaking with Father McHugh about the fix I was in, but promptly disabused myself of the notion. For starters, I couldn’t muster up the courage to do so. And, too, I wouldn’t know what to say to him. Regarding some neighborhood bullies, Father, is there any chance for some divine intervention on my behalf? Perhaps the biggest downside to my schedule change was that I failed to execute a sacred chore entrusted to me: the purchase of donuts and fresh rolls from Pat Mitchell’s store, a Sunday morning breakfast tradition in the Casale house.
Having seen neither hide nor hair of Tony Testa or any member of his creepy clique in my travels, I arrived home from Mass safe and sound at around the noon hour. As I dashed up my front stoop’s steps, I encountered Richie chopping ice off the steps of his conjoined front stoop. The icy patches were tenacious remnants from the paralyzing blizzard we had experienced a couple of weeks earlier. With seventeen inches of snow and three days off from school, it was the perfect storm.
I patiently awaited what I knew was in the offing: a lecture from my buddy next-door concerning how I should handle the potentially perilous Testa matter. In keeping with his personality, I anticipated, too, that it would be chock-full of jabs at my alleged cowardice. But then if shaking in my Timberland construction boots at the likelihood of coming face-to-face with Tony Testa makes me a coward, I plead guilty as charged and throw myself at the mercy of the court.
“Over sleep this morning, Bean?” Richie asked sarcastically as he placed down his ice chopper.
“Yeah, that’s right, Richie, over-slept.”
“You know…you could have gone to an earlier Mass with your little sister. You could have gotten your jelly donuts and crumb buns at Patty Mitchell’s, too. Terry would have protected you. Sometimes I think she’s got more moxie than you do.”
“Give it a rest, okay? I’m not in the mood.”
“Hey, I’ve got an idea. Why not travel from here on out with Terry at your side? The DeTestables might go a little easier on you with her as an eyewitness.”
“Yeah, right. They’d probably kick it up a notch for a young, impressionable audience—kind of like I was being fed to the lions in the Roman Coliseum.”
“Really, Bean,” Richie said. “We’ve got to do something.”
“We’ve got to do something. Like what pray tell?”
“Take a stand.”
“How do you suppose we take a stand? This isn’t the Sharks versus the Jets we’re talking about, or President Carter meeting Brezhnev at a summit meeting. The way I see it is that in arm-to-arm combat, we lose, and détente with Testa, McCleary, McGovern, Gentile, and O’Hare isn’t in the cards either.”
“Okay, Bean, then get used to cowering in fear of Tony the Tiger for the rest of your life.”
“Richie, I still haven’t heard a sensible plan coming from you that will help me avoid looking like Rocky Balboa after his fight with Apollo Creed. I keep imagining getting put in the same burlap sack the DeTestables used when they rounded up all those stray cats a few years ago.”
“Now that’s something worth remembering, Bean, when you freed one of Tiny’s kittens from their feline refuge behind the pancake house.” Tiny was an outdoor cat—eternally an expectant mother—who belonged to a neighbor up the street.
“Yeah, that was the cat named ‘Goldy.’”
“You were uncharacteristically brave going into Testa Country like that. And Johnny B went along with you, which is pretty hard to believe. Let that be your inspiration that you can actually show a little courage when the situation warrants it.”
“Showing a lot of stupidity was more like it. But we really loved that cat…and hated those rats. Love conquers all…I guess. The DeTestables sure came down here fast looking for the catnappers. Toot sweet. They never did discover that Johnny B and I were the ones—something to be thankful for.”
“They took the cat back as I remember.”
“Oh yeah…and Testa called her ‘Judy.’ Great name for a cat! I can still hear his stupid-sounding voice saying, ‘You’re going home, Judy…you’re going home.’ Anyway…she wasn’t the same cat after living in the refuge. Scratched me big time on the sides of the head. Where is it written that every five years or so I’ve got to have Tony Testa after my hide?”
“What are you Red Buttons, Bean? I always assumed the Testa gang were gathering up the cats for Miss Farina,” Richie said. “She asked us to bring her strays for science experimentation. I think it had something to do with her getting a master’s degree.”
“That’s right, she did…I forgot all about that. That was Weird City coming from a grammar school teacher. She said something like they’d be better off with her—better dead—than out on the mean streets. That gal was all heart—St. John’s Dr. Mengele. But I doubt the DeTestables were working on her behalf. I’d rather not think about what they were really up to…because it couldn’t have been pleasant. Nothing they ever do is.”
“What does your brother, Mike, have to say about all of this?” Richie interrupted, changing the subject matter altogether.
“He doesn’t know anything about it.”
“He doesn’t know anything about it?”
“What are you a Mynah bird, Richie? No, he doesn’t. Why does that shock you so?”
“Because, Bean, you’re always running to him to get you out of a jam.”
“Oh, yeah, well this time I’m not running to him. I’m tired of running.”
“May I ask, ‘Why not?’”
“I just don’t want him involved with anything in Tony Testa’s Marshmallow World. Whatever happens to me happens to me…period and end of story…okay?”
“Bean, you never cease to amaze me. This is one time I think you should tell Mike everything. In fact, my plan that you’re so interested in is that we get together Mike, T. Sauce, and some of their friends. They’re older than Testa, McCleary, and the rest of that slime. Let’s shake ‘em up! I think we can enlist Benjy Thomas, maybe Zap, Johnny S, and a few others to join in the defense.”
“Join in the defense of what?”
“Of you, Bean Brain! It’s time to confront Testa once and for all—put the whole lot of them out of the bullying business.”
“Right…let’s just march up to their block, plant our anti-bully flag, and fight the Kingsbridge equivalent of the Battle of Gettysburg. Get real!”
“Bean, it’s time we let them know that we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.”
“Kingsbridge’s Howard Beale strikes again. Just forget about your plan, Richie, okay?”
“Okay, Bean, if you want to be cowed for the rest of your life.”
“I don’t want to be cowed or castrated.”
“Bean, I think you’re a little too late with respect to the latter.”
“I don’t know what I’d do without a friend like you, Richie.”
“You’d be a lost boy at the zoo. Come to think of it, you are anyway.”
“And don’t say anything about this to your brother, T. Sauce, okay? Difficult as it may be, keep your old lady’s wagging tongue silent for once. He’ll just go and tell Mike.”
“Take a chill pill, Bean. So what if he does?”
“Richie, if I want to tell Mike, I’ll do it on my terms when I’m good and ready…if I do it at all.”
“All right…all right…let’s talk more about this some other time. I’m going over to the Ragusa cousins in Morris Park for Sunday dinner. You want to go up Central Avenue and see a movie tomorrow? It’ll get you out of Testaville for a few hours. My mom’s planning a shopping spree up the line for the big Presidents’ Day sales. She can drop us off.”
“High Anxiety with Mel Brooks.”
“Apropos. Sounds like a plan of yours that I can embrace without reservation for a change.”
“Okay, then, I’ll see you tomorrow at, say, one o’clock. I’ll call you if there’s a change of plans. Give Johnny B a buzz and ask him if he wants to tag along…if, of course, his mommy will permit him to come out in the cold. And, Bean, one last thing…”
I resolved for what was left of my Sunday to remain securely indoors. It was a bitter, gray day outside anyway, and I had no other plans. I mostly paced back and forth in my bedroom, which I share with my big brother, listening to a familiar winter symphony—the warm and reassuring hissing and clanking of radiators in the Casale apartment. Mike was working his weekend job at Kelton’s ice-skating rink on Broadway, so I was alone with my thoughts. Although my hand was a bit unsteady, I eventually calmed down enough to chronicle the disconcerting events of the past couple of days in my journal, a record of my life and times that I’ve been faithfully keeping since Mr. Roccanova’s sixth-grade Language Arts class.
Without fair warning, my serene despair in the toasty confines of my bedroom was cast asunder by an exceptionally loud noise, one that sounded to me like the slamming of our front storm door. Every so often during really windy days, a powerful gust blows the door open—usually after someone neglects to shut it tightly—and it smashes with fury into the solid-brick wall that separates the Casale stoop from the Ragusa stoop. But this particular bang was more earsplitting than the others, and there wasn’t even a whisper of a breeze to speak of on this desolate winter’s day.
Just as soon as my ears registered the big bang, I instinctively tossed my pen and journal aside, leaped off the bed where I had been contentedly sprawled, and made a beeline toward the front windows of the bedroom. The Casale’s reside on the top floor of a three-family brick home, with my grandmother and bachelor Uncle Paul directly beneath us. I took full advantage of the panoramic view afforded me of the street below, and what I spied from this catbird seat of mine gave me pause. I sincerely wished that my eyes were deceiving me, but they weren’t. It was Brandon O’Hare all right, darting off our front stoop and veering left towards the corner of W232nd Street, where, lo and behold, Tony Testa stood like a brawny sentinel. My mom and dad had likewise heard the thunderous crash, but I chose not to tell them what I had just seen. Instead, I volunteered to investigate the source of the hullabaloo and to assess the damage, if any, to our storm door.
Nervous energy fueled my charge down the steep flight of stairs in our front hallway. When I reached the bottom landing, I came upon a piece of paper resting beneath the front door’s mail slot. Since it was a Sunday, I deduced that Louie, our trusty mailman, did not deliver what my eyes beheld—a sheet of loose-leaf paper with incoherent sentiment—“Been, YOUR NEXT!!”—scrawled across it in purple crayon. Unfortunately, I understood a second language and it wasn’t the Spanish I was taking in high school. It was the language of the dim-witted bully. “Been, YOUR NEXT!!” effortlessly translated to “Bean, you’re next!”
My heart galloped in sync with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich lunch violently churning in my stomach. To complete my inspection, I yanked open our front door. The bottom half of the storm door had been violently kicked in and was mangled beyond repair. I knew that the DeTestables were aware of where I lived. Everybody pretty much knows where everybody else lives in the neighborhood, and it’s not too difficult to find out. But, honestly, I didn’t think they would venture down into the “back streets”—that’s what some apartment dwellers on Kingsbridge Avenue and east toward Broadway have dubbed Irwin, Tibbett, and Corlear Avenues, where there are mostly private homes. Tony Testa and associate’s modus operandi is typically to surprise their quarry on their home turf or—better yet—neutral territory like Ewen Park, Van Cortlandt Park, or the P.S. 7 playground. I never felt more frightened than I did as I ambled back up the stairs to report my findings. Before materializing in the flesh to describe in detail the door’s damage, I folded over several times Testa and O’Hare’s illiterate but alarming loose-leaf communiqué and tucked it in my back pocket. In an attempt to compose myself and not let on that I was the real target of the storm-door massacre, I took a deep breath, another, and one for good luck, which I sorely needed.
“Did you think somebody kicked it in?” my mother asked after I spoke my piece.
“It could have been the wind,” I replied unconvincingly.
“There’s hardly any wind out there today. That boom I heard sounded like something else entirely,” my father interjected.
“I really don’t know. Yeah…I guess…somebody probably kicked it in…”
“But who would do such a thing?” my mother wondered.
“Who would smash our Halloween pumpkin or steal the Christmas wreath off our door? Some demented punk with nothing better to do.” I said.
“What a crying shame.”
My father decided to review the damage done for himself, which I knew he would. I felt doubly cursed now—in fear for my health and well-being on one hand, and guilt-ridden for the major snow job I had just laid on my mom and dad, which was the biggest blizzard to date in 1978. I knew exactly what transpired, who the responsible parties were, and why they did it. I saw Brandon O’Hare fleeing the crime scene with my own two eyes. He is instantly recognizable with his abundant head of red hair and densely freckled visage. There are so many of them on his mug that they’ve become one big freckle. O’Hare’s the Orange Man.
After the storm-door storm abated, I returned to my bedroom to ruminate on what the future held for me—and it didn’t look very promising. My pessimistic musings were running amok when my mother barged into the room without the courtesy of a knock on the door. It’s her way. She doesn’t believe either of her two sons merits even an ounce of privacy.
“Matt, will you run to the store for some milk and orange juice?”
“Run to store? Now?” I answered with dread in my voice.
“To Pat’s…we’ll need milk for the morning. What’s the big deal? I’m not asking you to go to Timbuktu. You’re not doing anything important right now, are you?”
“Well, no…I’m not. But why not ask Terry to go?”
“Matt, I’m not sending your little sister out alone when you’re here and doing nothing.”
“All right, Mom…I’ll go…I’ll go.”
“You seem overly anxious, Matt. Is it because of the storm-door business?”
“I’m not overly anxious, Mom. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Okay, then…get a move on.”
My mother handed me a five-dollar bill and counseled me to “bundle up” and to wear my gloves, too, because it was cold outside, which I already knew. I slipped on my Timberlands and gave some thought to adding Mike’s old chest protector—from his high school baseball days as the team’s catcher—to my sartorial bundle, but decided against it. Before I stepped outside, I carefully considered my route to Pat Mitchell’s, settling upon the one I reasoned least likely to run into Tony Testa and friends—but, really, there are no “roads less traveled” in Kingsbridge. After trashing the Casale storm door, I hoped and prayed that Testa and O’Hare had moved on to some other DeTestable mission in another quadrant of the neighborhood.
Walking south down Tibbett Avenue in my warmest winter apparel, which included my light green snorkel jacket with the hood pulled over my head, I nervously looked to and fro and pirouetted on occasion to see if anybody was on my heels. Circumventing Kingsbridge Avenue altogether, I hung a left on W231st Street and, without incident, strolled up the hill to Pat Mitchell’s. I exited the store with a paper bag containing half gallons of both milk and orange juice pressed firmly against my chest. Compounding my uneasiness were the streets, which were starkly quiet and virtually people-free on this winter’s Sunday in February. I appreciably picked up the pace for my return trip home and was in sprint-mode by the time I reached the corner of W231st Street and Corlear Avenue, just outside of Robert E. Hill, a real estate business. It was there that I came face-to-face with the unholy trinity of Tony Testa, Brandon O’ Hare, and Tommy Gentile. Their well-honed bully choreography found them first blocking my path and then menacingly surrounding me.
“Would you mind getting out of my way?” I said in a noble attempt to keep a stiff upper lip.
“So, you get your jollies firing ice rockets at little kids, Casale?” Testa asked. His tone of voice was exactly what one would expect from a burly bullyboy named Tony Testa—at once dumb-sounding and hair-raising, a toxic vocal cocktail.
“I was just defending myself against your brother and his friends,” I weakly replied in my defense. “They started the whole thing.”
O’Hare then reached for my paper bag and we engaged in a brief tug-of-war that he won, but only with the assistance of Testa and Gentile. He promptly plucked the carton of milk and then the orange juice out of the bag and lobbed them into the middle of the W231st Street traffic, where they burst open with loud splats. The three DeTestables howled heartily at the spectacle.
“You’re one sick puppy, O’Hare, you know that!” I cried out. I was so scared now that I had lost control of my inner monologue.
“We are going to show you what sick puppies do to stupid, little nothings like you, Casale,” Testa said as he forcefully shoved me into an alcove housing the glass door entrance to Robert E. Hill. The place was closed, which worked well for what this loathsome threesome had in mind, but not so well for me, who was cornered like a trapped animal.
“Leave me alone!” I said rather plaintively, feeling on the verge of crying, but endeavoring as best that I could to keep the waterworks at bay.
In the exceedingly cramped quarters the DeTestables and I cohabited, jostling ruled. Positioned properly at long last, Gentile grabbed hold of me and pulled my two arms behind my back. This maneuver, which he seemed to have down to a science, permitted Testa to use me as a punching bag—once, twice, and then a third time, he punched me hard in the abdomen. I had never before been struck like that and found myself gasping for my next breath and on the verge of vomiting. I began weeping, too, and silently wished that Mike were on hand to turn the tables and extricate me from my dire straits. To maintain a shred of dignity, I made an internal vow then and there not to beg for mercy under any circumstances.
“Oh, the little, baby boy is crying. Do you want us to call your mommy to come get you? I hope you didn’t soil your diaper.”
“Did anyone ever tell you, Testa, that you look like a porcine marshmallow,” I exclaimed through my veil of tears. I felt especially light-headed and oddly liberated to spew whatever popped into my head. What did I have to lose? Testa appeared momentarily stunned by my outburst but quickly got back to the business at hand. He invited O’Hare to have a shot at me, which he took with sadistic relish.
“You are the world’s biggest loser, Orange Man,” I said. “You owe us for a new storm door and for a half gallon of milk and orange juice, too. And I hope all of you worms don’t live long and don’t prosper.” O’Hare punched me a second and then a third time.
“I hear they call you ‘Bean,’ Casale. Well, we’re going to twist your pod into a pretzel,” Testa said.
“Mixing your metaphors again, Mr. Marshmallow Head,” I replied in a veritable haze. I was on the outside looking in now—a spectator of my own undoing.
“You don’t know when to shut your trap, do you, Casale? So, I think we’ll just have to shut it for you!” Testa proclaimed with malicious glee. “I hope you have dental insurance!”
My teardrops had circuitously traveled down my cheeks and reached my lips. I could taste their saltiness on my tongue as I braced for the worst. My wandering mind even took me back home. For a nanosecond, I found myself comfortably reclining on my bed, TV set switched on, and looking forward to the school-free week ahead. I was having An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge experience, I concluded, and then remembered its unhappy denouement.
“I was the one who took ‘Goldy’ the cat away from you bozos…I just want you oafs to know that. And her name wasn’t ‘Judy,’ Testa. What a stupid name to give a cat! Took her right out from under all your noses, you stupid buffoons.”
“You’re dead, Casale! You’re dead!” Testa cried. He seemed a bit befuddled as he processed what I just laid on him. But I, too, was taken aback at how my mouth was working so much faster than my brain—and not improving my situation.
My saving grace came in the person of neighbor and nearby Corlear resident, George Bamberger, who stumbled upon us just as the DeTestables were about to kick it up a notch. They don’t generally perform for an adult audience and immediately took flight after Mr. Bamberger called out, “Hey, what are you guys up to over there?”
“We are not through with you, Casale…not by a long shot. I’d watch your back if I were you! No place you go will be a safe place!” Testa said in parting as he and his unctuous underlings scurried away up W231st Street toward Kingsbridge Avenue. I profusely thanked Mr. Bamberger for saving my skin or, to be more accurate, my face. He insisted on walking me part of the way home. Despite a badly bruised and aching mid-section, I assured him that I was okay. When I arrived home, I removed my footwear straight away upon entering the front hallway and then gently scaled the steps leading to our apartment. Via its entrance at the top of the stairwell, I tiptoed into my bedroom. Because I had some unfinished business to attend to, I didn’t want anyone in the house to know that I had returned. Job one was concealing my black-and-blue chest and the pain and discomfort that accompanied it. And then there was that matter of milk and orange juice.
To retain my cover, I had no choice but to retrace my steps all the way to Pat Mitchell’s store and back. While this repeat performance was admittedly stressful on my mind and body alike, there was no outside interference this go-round. The DeTestables had taken their sideshow elsewhere. Pat Mitchell’s brother, Mike, appeared genuinely confused as to why I had returned so soon to purchase the same things. I told him that while en route home, I had clumsily slipped on the ice and dropped my bag. To make up for the cost of the milk and orange juice that Brandon O’Hare tossed into the ether like javelins, I had to dip into my paltry savings, too. My mom expected the correct change back and doesn’t tip. When I handed over the groceries to her, she was none the wiser how eventful the previous hour of my life had been. While I was in bona fide pain—physically and emotionally—I kept both my composure and my shirt on.
It was almost time for Sunday evening dinner at Grandma’s, a weekly ritual in the Casale household. Happily for me, we only have to descend a flight of stairs to enjoy this mouthwatering pasta repast that she’s taken to a level that nobody can or will ever duplicate. My grandmother makes homemade raviolis that are otherworldly—so huge that two or three are a meal’s worth. Her secret recipe includes a hint of cinnamon in the Ricotta cheese filling. But tonight, I doubted very much that even her fine fare would reconcile with my battered torso and nervous stomach. Big brother Mike was expected home at around the dinner hour, and I deliberated as to whether or not I should tell him about my Sunday escapades.
I was prescient regarding my grandmother’s dinner not agreeing with me. I think it was the first time in recorded history that ever happened. My lack of enthusiasm for the feed—spaghetti, meatballs, and braciole—didn’t go unnoticed, either, by all in attendance. Not going to town at my grandmother’s dinner table is a cardinal sin. I informed the restless natives that I wasn’t feeling very well—had a “sour stomach”—and that was the God’s honest truth. I merely neglected to furnish them with the reasons for it. And as she is wont to do at the mere suggestion of ill health, my mom placed her hand on my forehead. I didn’t have a fever. This gave her some comfort, but it didn’t do much for me! In fact, I would have welcomed a fever—even the mumps, measles, or chicken pox—in exchange for what really ailed me.
Mike was a no-show for dinner—a not-so-unusual state of affairs. He phoned just before the dinner bell rang and said that he was going out with friends after work. Translation: He more than likely ended up at the Pinewood, the favorite saloon of Manhattan College Jaspers and his home away from home. With its W242nd Street address under the El on Broadway—where the Number 1 subway line to Midtown Manhattan begins its journey into Fun City—the place has got some serious New York City ambiance
I called Johnny B after my less-than-satisfying dining experience to invite him to tomorrow’s movie. As he is predisposed to hysterics and over-reaction, I may have erred in chronicling in vivid detail my action-packed Sunday afternoon to him, but felt I had to tell someone.
“Oh, Bean, we are toast…we…are…toast!” Johnny B bemoaned after I furnished him with a blow-by-blow accounting of what went down only hours before.
“Why do you say, ‘we,’ Johnny B? Nobody’s after you!”
“They’ll come for me…eventually. You know that, Bean! I was a snowball bombardier, too. After they’re through with you, I’m mincemeat for sure.”
“Relax, will you? You’re not even on their radar…trust me.”
“What are you going to do about this, Bean? You did tell your parents the whole story…didn’t you?”
“As a matter of fact…no…I didn’t.”
“Are you out of your gourd, Bean? Why not? O’Hare kicked in your door for Christ’s sake. They beat you to a pulp. Let them go after the Testa bunch and put a stop to this before it’s too late.”
“Yeah, right, Mom and Dad Casale will first go knock on the O’Hare’s door for restitution and…while they’re there…tell Brandon to stop picking on their helpless and hapless son. That would work out well for me.”
“Mike’s not going to take this lying down, I know that.”
“If he knew, Johnny B, if he knew.”
“You mean to tell me, Bean, that you haven’t told him either?”
“He’s not even home yet. Keep your shirt on, okay? I’m keeping mine on.”
“Well, you’re going to tell him when you see him…first thing…aren’t you?”
“I don’t know…probably now…after all this…I guess.”
“Oh, Bean, I’m so nervous…”
“Johnny B, how about coming to movies with Richie and me tomorrow…up Central Avenue. Leave your troubles behind for a few hours.”
“Are you out of your freakin’ mind, Bean, going to the movies when they’re after you like this?”
“The DeTestables don’t know anything about our plans. If the movie were playing at the Dale Theater, I wouldn’t go…believe me. But were talking about Yonkers here. And as far as I know they don’t have a tail on me.”
“No way I’m going with you guys…no way. I don’t want to get flattened into a pancake.”
“Come on, Johnny B, breath in now…breath out. You’re not going to be turned into toast, mincemeat, or a pancake!”
“If you do go, Bean, at least disguise yourself or something. Really, they could be around…lurking…just waiting for a chance to pick you off…you don’t know.”
“Johnny B, Tony Testa is not Lee Harvey Oswald with a sniper’s nest in the building across the street from me. He’s a porcine marshmallow who plans on wrecking my face when he gets another chance. But he’s not going to do it while I’m getting into Mrs. Ragusa’s Dart Swinger. And I’m not going to wear a fake nose, mustache, and glasses around the neighborhood either.”
“They could follow you up there, Bean. Then what. You and Richie will be sitting ducks in a foreign land.”
“Yonkers isn’t Bangladesh, Johnny B. And what are they going to follow us with? Their bicycles?”
“Bean, aren’t you scared?”
“Yes, I’m scared…petrified…and you’re making me more so with all your doomsday scenarios.”
“I’m really worried…that’s all.”
“That makes two of us. Tell you what…I’ll feed Mike all the details tonight and hear what he has to say. It’s a promise that you can take to the bank.”
“Now that’s the first rational idea I’ve heard from you today. He’ll know what to do.”
“Oh, by the way, Richie wants us to take on Testa. Are you game for that?” I asked, knowing the answer.
“Richie’s totally flipped his raspberry, Bean, to be talking like that. Mr. Tough Guy! Don’t even think about entering Danger City.”
“Trust me, I’m not inclined to inhabit Danger City, especially after what happened this afternoon. Tell you what…I’ll call you tomorrow night. That is…if my jaw isn’t wired.”
“Don’t make jokes at a time like this, Bean. You’re always doing that!”
“What time is that, Johnny B? Doomsday?”
“Are you all right, Bean?”
“I wouldn’t be talking to you if I weren’t.”
“Well, I’m just scared for you…”
“I’m scared for me, too. One last chance…are you sure you don’t want to come with us tomorrow?”
“No way, José!”
While I restlessly awaited Mike’s homecoming from the saloon scene, I watched my favorite detective show, Kojak, alone on the small black-and-white TV in our bedroom. It’s been a Sunday night staple for me since my schooldays at St. John’s on Godwin Terrace. I could certainly use Kojak’s help—lollipop and all—in bringing down the DeTestables for what they did to me and, too, what they have in store for me. It’s Mike, though, whom I’ve determined will have to be my knight in shining armor—again. And just after midnight, my big brother at long last turned up. His breath told me straight off that he had had a snoot full—a copious amount of Schaefer Beer, “the one beer to have when you’re having more than one.” Mike was feeling pretty good as a result.
“What happened to our door?” he asked upon entering the bedroom.
“Somebody kicked it in.”
“Somebody kicked it in? Did you see who it was?
“I did as a matter of fact.”
“Are you telling me that you know the perpetrator’s identity, Bean?”
“That’s what I’m telling you, Mike…it was none other than Brandon O’Hare, the Orange Man of Naples Terrace.”
“Why in the hell would that low-life kick in our door?”
“He did it on behalf of Tony Testa.”
“Oh, no…stop the presses…what has my little brother done this time? Okay, Bean, come clean…you’ve gotten yourself into another fine mess, haven’t you?”
“Well, sort of…”
I filled Mike in on the particulars that have turned my life upside down and inside out. As he patiently listened to my labyrinthine tale of woe, he wore an exasperated expression that oddly harmonized with his bleary state of mind. When I told him about round two and lifted up my shirt as Exhibit A, Mike’s groggy eyes widened. I knew right then and there that making sure I wasn’t the recipient of further “storm-door treatment” would be his top priority.
“Bean,” Mike said with palpable angst in his voice, “they did this to you?”
“Yeah, but Mike, I don’t want you getting involved in any…you know?”
“In any what, Bean? They are going to pay for what they did to you…mark my word. They are going to pay for a new door, too.”
“I should never have returned fire on that stupid kid and his even stupider friends…then none of this would have happened.”
“Bean, you didn’t do anything wrong. What were you and Johnny B supposed to do? Get bombarded with a fusillade of snowballs and take it lying down? I mean…you got hit in the head, too. You could have lost an eye or something worse than that.”
“What could be worse than that, Mike? Instantaneous death?”
“Let me have a closer look at your battlefield wounds, Bean,” Mike said with a genuine look of concern on his face. I could tell, too, that he was resolute whereas Testa, O’Hare, and company were concerned, and nothing I could say would change that. “By the way, what did Dad have to say about this whole business?”
“I didn’t tell Dad or Mom about seeing O’Hare, the note they left for me, or getting waylaid…because…you know…then I’d have had to tell them the whole story.”
“Bean…this is not good.”
“Really, Mike, don’t do anything that’ll get you in deep with that crowd…it’s just not worth it.”
“For starters…I’m going to pay a call on the O’Hare residence.”
“Come on, Mike, don’t go over there. That whole family is a bunch of wild-eyed, whacked-out-of-their-mind Looney Tunes. Brandon sticks firecrackers up pigeons you know whats and blows them up. He’s a total psycho.”
“I know all about the O’Hare family and Tony Testa, too. And believe you me those escapees from Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom are going to get a taste of their own medicine…I’ll see to that.”
“Mike…no…just let it lay. I don’t want you getting hurt on my behalf. This is my fight.”
“Really, Bean Bag…your fight? You alone are going to wage war with the DeTestables as you so cleverly call them? Maybe Johnny B will lend a hand? Or the Almighty Richie, your fearless leader? Wait a minute…wait a minute…I got it. You can enlist the help of your buddy from up the street, Red Kern the ‘Cream Sam Man,’ or…better still…hire his brother, Peter, as a mercenary to take down Testa. You’re doing quite well in your fight so far.”
“Okay, Mike, you made your point. And believe me, I wouldn’t go near Peter Kern with a ten-foot pole. He’s Tony Testa times two—twice his age and twice as mean if that’s humanly possible. But I still don’t see how you are going to stop them from having at me again without a major confrontation of some kind?”
“Confrontation is sometimes necessary in life, Bean, to right wrongs…and to take care of the bad guys. I’ve got some ideas kicking around my brain.”
“Bean, stop all the worrying and let me have another gander at your black and blues,” Mike said as he brought over some stretch bandages from his dresser drawer. He’s a decorated Boy Scout—an Eagle Scout—and competently set to work in patching over my tender mid-section.
“You know, if Mom saw your chest right now she’d have a coronary.”
“I know, Mike, I know. Really, I feel kind of guilty keeping all this from her and Dad. But what choice did I have?”
“What choice did you have, Bean? None at all…like always…If you feel any pain that seems excessive or out of the ordinary, I want to know about it. They could have broken a rib or something and we don’t want to take any chances.”
“It’s just a whole lot of soreness, Mike, not to worry…tender to touch…that’s all. By the way, I was planning on going to the movies on Central Avenue with Richie tomorrow. Mrs. Ragusa’s supposed to drive us up. Do you think that’s a good idea?”
“You’re not concerned about the DeTestables following you up there?”
“You sound like Johnny B.”
“I wouldn’t put it past them, Bean. Those bullyboys are rather industrious and thorough in what they do. And with you calling Testa ‘Mr. Marshmallow Head’ and all those other things that tumbled out of your big mouth…well, they might have you under surveillance.”
“Come on, Mike…surveillance?”
“Tell you what. Before you make any outdoor moves tomorrow, I’ll have a look around. I wouldn’t want you bushwhacked at a Yonkers’ movie theater. Take my word for it…that wouldn’t be an unprecedented move by them. It’s not likely…but one never knows…”
“Right, Mike, I’ve got nothing to worry about. It’ll be pleasant dreams…good sleep…for me tonight.”
“Goodnight, Bean. Snuggle up under those covers. Nobody’s going to lay a hand on you, I can assure you that.”
“Goodnight, John-Boy…and thanks…”
I didn’t have a very good night’s sleep. Our bedroom smelled a little too much like the F.M. Schaefer Brewery. But the beer stink was inconsequential compared to Tony Testa and friends, who not only occupied my days, but nights as well. Entering the Land of Nod brought me no respite from my troubles. As I tossed and turned in my bed, I hurt all over—a physical and psychological one-two punch. The DeTestables had somehow managed to commandeer my Dreamland, and they were—believe it or not—even scarier there, the perfect ensemble to star in my nightmares. I don’t recall the dreamy minutia, but Tony Testa guest starred in one where he morphed into a walking-and-talking marshmallow—a colossal and nasty one naturally. It was all so weird and I awoke feeling tired, slightly disoriented, and not especially looking forward to the coming day. It felt reassuring, though, having Mighty Mike in my corner now, and I figured the odds had improved to better than 50/50 that I would get a stay of execution from the DeTestables and any Act Three. I guess it all depended on what “ideas” were kicking around Mike’s brain.
After eating a light breakfast of coffee and toast, which I could barely tolerate, I spent the preponderance of the morning gazing out the front windows. I still had Mike’s bandages wrapped around me and made certain that my mother and big-mouthed little sister didn’t catch wind of it. I tried to read a book at one point—The Red Badge of Courage, a school assignment—but my mind inevitably wandered off the pages. I just couldn’t concentrate on the exploits of any “tall soldier” when a certain “porcine marshmallow” was in my life. There were no signs of Tony Testa staking me out, though, nor did I uncover a Lee Harvey Oswald wannabe lying in wait for me in some nearby window. Mike slept to just past eleven o’clock and then took one of his patented prolonged and extremely wet showers, which never cease to steam—no pun intended—our harried mom.
Sometime after the clock struck twelve, Mike did as he promised he would. He scoped out the neighborhood for any sign of trouble and there was none to be found. Mike was on hand, too, when Richie and I got into the Ragusa family car. As we pulled away, he self-assuredly stood on the front sidewalk with T. Sauce alongside him. I got the distinct impression that this pair of old friends were going to work in tandem in confronting—first things first—Brandon O’Hare. “I’m going to see a man about a storm door,” Mike said to me as a parting salvo—and I knew he wasn’t just blowing smoke. Mighty Mike’s not only a man of his word, but also a man of action. In sharp contrast with his younger brother, he is undaunted in warding off life’s slings and arrows.
Still, the notion of Mike and T. Sauce calling on the O’Hare’s—who live on Naples Terrace in an apartment that overlooks the W231st Street subway station—sent chills up my spine. It didn’t make me feel any better knowing that I was the person responsible for this debacle. I worried, too, that Mrs. Ragusa, Richie, and I were being followed on our expedition north up I-95 and then onto the heavily trafficked Central Avenue in Yonkers. Both Johnny B and Mike had planted that seed of possibility the night before. And maybe I’ve seen one too many TV detective shows, because I couldn’t refrain from turning around time and again while wondering if this car or the next one was shadowing us to our intended destination.
Despite being fully apprised of the thumping I had suffered at the hands of the DeTestables, Richie—it seemed to me—took a measure of delight in my discomfort. It bolstered his self-esteem in some strange way, I assumed. When all was said and done, the movie, High Anxiety, was worth the price of admission, and Richie and I weren’t ambushed when we exited the theater. I particularly enjoyed the bird-pooping scene and prayed that—if there were justice in this life—Brandon O’Hare would one day be chased by flock of pigeons and similarly rained upon.
Armed with several bag loads from her shopping spree, Mrs. Ragusa got Richie and me back home by the dinner hour. As I ascended the stairs in the front hallway, I smelled my mom’s chicken roasting in the oven and concluded that my appetite had made a sudden and complete comeback. I still felt pretty sore, but suspected no irreparable damage had been done to me. Upon entering our bedroom, I was greeted by Mike, who sported a wide grin.
“Made it home in one piece, I see.”
“No runs, no hits, and no errors, Mike.”
“Enjoy the feature film?”
“It was a laugh riot, Mike. I would highly recommend it.”
“Bean, I’ve got a news flash that might be of interest to you.”
“I’m all ears.”
“Brandon O’Hare is going to pay in full for our new storm door.”
“You spoke with him about it, I presume?”
“You presume right, Bean. Let’s just say that T. Sauce and I were very persuasive.”
“You sound like Don Corleone. What did you guys do to him?”
“‘Do,’ Bean? We didn’t do anything worse to him than he did to you. T. Sauce and I just let him know that eyewitnesses saw him commit his brazen act of vandalism, and that if he didn’t make good on the new door, we would go to police and file a complaint.”
“Come on…how many times has he been in trouble with the cops? He practically lives at the 50th precinct. I can’t imagine that would put the fear of God in him.”
“We left him with a little footnote to mull over…that we just might…just might someday…do to him what he’s done to so many of our neighborhood’s pigeons. He saw things a little more clearly after that.”
“After the footnote?”
“Yes, Bean, footnotes are very important in life. You can’t write a term paper without them.”
“That’s all well and good, Mike…but any word on my fate?”
“Bean, let’s just say that you’ve been given a reprieve.”
“Tony Testa has called off his dogs.”
“Orange Man told you that?”
“More or less.”
“I don’t understand. What do you mean ‘more or less?’ Did he or didn’t he?”
“Poetic justice, Bean. Tony Testa got socked in the head with an icy projectile dropped off his building’s roof yesterday. Probably just after he worked you over.”
“You mean…somebody was gunning for Mr. Marshmallow Head?”
“Not just any somebody…but little Vittorio.”
“Come off it…what?”
“That’s how I heard it. The little turd and his friends were throwing stuff at passersby and Tony just happened to be a passerby. Let’s just say that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“The right place at the right time as far as I’m concerned! Was he hurt?”
“Heard he had difficulty remembering who he was at first.”
“Like Professor McElroy becoming King Tut after getting clocked in the head.”
“In Testa’s case, you’d have to hope it would work in reverse—turn him into a good guy. But no such luck, Bean. He’s doing better, it is reported, and knows he’s Tony Testa.”
“Rats! But how does all this help me?”
“O’Hare…your Orange Man…ensured me that Tony is not interested in avenging little Vic anymore, that’s how. In fact, that pipsqueak is the one who better watch his back now.”
“That’ll be pretty difficult considering they live in the same apartment.”
“True enough…but it’s not your concern.”
“Wow, that’s a lot to swallow. But can we be sure they’re not after me anymore?”
“There are no certainties in life, Bean. But I wouldn’t worry about Tony Testa. Enjoy your winter vacation. If something comes up that says otherwise, I’ll deploy Plan B.”
“Bean, Testa and the DeTestables aren’t going to hurt you…this week or any other week. So, get on with your life and stay out of trouble.”
“Okay, Mike, if you say so. Do you think I should I send Tony a get well card?”
“If it’ll make you feel better.”
“Mike, I promise this is the last time you’ll have to bail me out of a fix…the last time.”
“Bean, haven’t I told you before: ‘Don’t make promises that you can’t keep.’”
“Promises…promises…I’m all through with promises,” I sang in concert with heaving a huge sigh of relief. Mike laughed.
“Remember, Bean, that sometimes silence is golden. Don’t poke a wild animal with a stick.”
“I know…but I’m kind of glad I called Testa ‘Mr. Marshmallow Head’ to his face—one small victory for me. Oh…by the way, Mike, will you add to O’Hare’s tab the price of a half-gallon of milk and orange juice?”
“You can count on it, Bean, plus a little something extra for your pain and suffering.”
“So, Mike, you don’t have to confront Testa after all…that takes a load off my mind.”
“Let’s eat, Bean,” Mike answered with a peculiar expression on his face.
“Mike, if he’s not after me anymore, he’s not after me. Forget about him using me as a punching bag. That’s yesterday’s news. I’m okay.”
“Bean, it’s suppertime.”
“Roasted chicken oregano…a favorite of yours.”
If you enjoyed The DeTestables, you might be interested in Cream Sam Summer, a full-length novel that further chronicles the adventures of “Bean” Casale and his pals in that intriguing snapshot in time, 1978, and equally intriguing neighborhood, Kingsbridge in the Bronx. Cream Sam Summer is available on Shakespir, barnesandnoble.com, and other e-book retailers.
The last thing in the world that fifteen-year-old Matt “Bean” Casale wants is to be on Tony Testa’s hit list. A bully of renown and heft—he is a real bruiser-boy—Testa and his entourage invariably mean business on the streets of Kingsbridge in the Bronx. With “The DeTestables”—as they have been so aptly dubbed—on the warpath, the winter of 1978 will prove to be more than just a cold and snowy one for Bean and the myriad players—wanted and unwanted—in his life. The DeTestables is an intriguing short story from a colorful snapshot in time. It is a prequel to the author’s first novel: Cream Sam Summer.