Issue Twenty-Six - Summer 2015

A Loan to God

By Robert Wexelblatt

In the old days Italians must have had a lot of fun insulting each other. I don’t doubt they still do, but the difference is that many of the medieval jibes turned into family names. Before I married I was a Calvo (“Baldie”). When I was growing up we had neighbors named Nasato (“Big Nose”) and a street over was a family called Sanna (“Buck Tooth”). My third-grade teacher was a sweet woman but her name was Moschella, which means “house fly,” as in that annoying.

My married name is Gina Lagorio (“Green Lizard”). I wed Francis Lagorio twenty-one and a half years ago. Frank is that rare and precious specimen, a man both prosperous and good. I love him to death. And so, I think, do our two children, Robert and Evie, even if they don’t often say so. After a year of negative self-definition, Robert started at Oberlin last year; at sixteen, Evie sulks less than I did at her age.

Frank’s father immigrated from Naples after the war and, with some saved and more borrowed money, opened the first pizzeria in Haddington. Once he’d gotten the business up and going and paid off his debt, he proposed to Frank’s mother, the oldest of three daughters of the contractor he hired to fix up the restaurant. Maria’s younger sisters were already married and, at twenty-six, she’d been pegged as an old maid. Maybe that’s why she said yes to the partnership, but I prefer to think she appreciated the big immigrant. Why was Maria on the shelf? She was pretty enough but men thought she had too sharp a tongue; her nickname was La Sferza (“The Lash”). In my experience, it wasn’t my mother-in-law’s tongue that was sharp but her mind. My father-in-law was simple in his ideas and sure of them all, a God-and-Country kind of guy, thoroughly honest. If he wasn’t open-minded, he was certainly open-hearted. His wife was a born skeptic and critic, an empathetic ironist and skeptic. Frank adored both his parents and has somehow contrived to resemble both of them. He sometimes tells me stories about them and about Lagorio’s Pizzeria to which, he says, we owe our fortune.

“Back then they were called pizza pies, remember?” he said to me one Sunday when we were driving to my sister’s place. “Pizza was a novelty in the 50s. I think they called them pies to put Americans at ease. Dad said the teenagers took to pizza right away and they sure haven’t let go. He used to love talking about how his high-school customers dragged their parents to Lagorio’s for their first taste of Neapolitan fast food.” Then he did his father’s voice, accent and all: “‘In America, the old learn from the young,’ he’d declare. Then Mom would answer in this way she had of pricking his balloon without bursting it.”

I got the impression that Frank, their beloved only child, found it amusing to listen to his parents go at it. Apparently, their spats were never scary. I imagine they were like their calzones, hot stuff wrapped up in a shell of love.

I asked if he could remember what his mother said about the old learning from the young.

“Oh, Mom. The social critic. I think it was something like, ‘That’s why this country has so many machines and so little wisdom.’” He laughed at the returning memory. “Dad was one of those grateful patriotic immigrants so he got hot and said, ‘In America, the wisdom is in the machines.’ It was funny back then, but now we’ve all got these know-it-all telephones, and it’s only the kids who really master them. Robert taught me how to use the contraption.”

“Me too.”

Then Frank told me how much he loved me, but that he was content to dispense with the sort of arguments his parents had. How many husbands talk to their wives like that, especially in the car, especially after a couple of decades?

Time passed. Lagorio’s held on to the faithful Haddingtonians who’d had their first pizzas there and for whom all others fell short, people who now brought their children instead of their parents. Lagorio’s was a fixture with an excellent reputation but it soon had competition. Still, the place was still a going concern when Frank’s father had his fatal heart attack. It was a tidy, predictable business that, Frank figured out, could afford a manager and still support him and his mother. So, when Frank graduated from high school and won a scholarship, he was able to go to the local college.

When my husband says he owes his fortune to the pizzeria what he means is the capital he got by selling it after his mother died. It was with that capital that he got into real estate, then construction, and then all the rest of his empire. Frank sold the business to Al Mazzo (“Maul”), a high-school classmate. Turns out there was a bit more to their relationship, though. Mazzo loved the pizzeria but he also loved Bonnie Boyce. Frank didn’t tell me about Bonnie until recently, but then he told me everything.

I guess I was aware that Frank kept an eye on the old pizzeria, though I didn’t think about it. Sentimentality, I figured, that does him credit. I recall him telling me that Al had renamed it Mazzo’s. I said that made sense to me but Frank pointed out that giving up the Lagorio name was going to cost Al a lot of “good will,” which is a term of art for the warm feelings people have about a business.

It was all downhill at Mazzo’s. Al screwed up the business not only by changing its name, but by economizing on ingredients—using frozen and not fresh—replacing the old Blodgett oven with something cheaper, refusing to offer free delivery because he’d have to hire a teenager. Al Mazzo just ran the place into the ground. Frank was heart-sick about it.

And all that while, Frank kept rising—Midas touch and all that. We moved three times in five years, always to a place that was larger, grander, with more old trees. News got to Frank that Al Mazzo was envious and bitter and was telling people he’d been cheated by Lagorio, that crafty lizard. He took to alcohol, lost the pizzeria, then his life. Driving drunk, he took one teenager with him and left another with a lifelong limp and a memory that isn’t likely to go away.

So, we come to Bonnie Mazzo, née Boyce, who, after her feckless and violent husband died, retook her maiden name Boyce, which is just what I’d have done. Two kids, no money, plenty of shame, and a hardened heart—hardened especially against Francis Lagorio.

Frank did a lot of squirming while he was telling me about Bonnie Boyce. We’d taken our coffee out on the deck after dinner; I thought it was just to watch that evening sun go down. I would have preferred it if he’d squirmed less, but at least he told me. That was the important thing.

“I was nuts about her back in high school,” he said with exceeding seriousness and without blushing. “My first love, Gina.” He waited a couple of beats before he added, “Unrequited.” He crossed his legs, then stretched them out again. “It was Al she went for. He was big and good-looking. Athletic too—three letters.”

I struggled to take this in, fit it into my world-view, my tidy, tiny world. My darling Frank had always had a thing for this Irish girl and he probably still did. I was jealous but not childish. I might be prepared to be indulgent but I wasn’t happy.

He told me about her current circumstances, which were dire. She was waitressing and hardly making it, stuffed into a studio apartment with the two kids and in a dodgy neighborhood. Then he told me that he’d tried to give her money.

“You saw her?”

“Once. Only the once. She believes everything Al said about me. She blames me, Gina.” He groaned the way he does when he has lower-back pain. “I guess that makes everything easier.”

Frank was suffering. But so was I which made it hard to comfort him. But then, of course, Bonnie Boyce was suffering too, suffering more.

I was chilly with Frank that night. I was thinking things over. Over breakfast I said to him, “Okay. Help her, but do it so she won’t know. And so I won’t eat my heart out.”

He gave me a big, relieved kiss, as if I’d just let him off some sharp hook.

The following Wednesday the same item ended every evening newscast. It was irresistible material for those final three minutes when the station managers want something humane and upbeat—animals saving children, for instance, or being saved by firemen. This piece, however, was about a waiter who had been left a thousand-dollar tip. The young fellow was so bewildered and ecstatic that he could hardly describe the customer who’d left it. “I think he was about average height, brown hair. I’m pretty sure he was wearing a suit. We were really busy.”

The next Friday night it was a waitress in a diner—two thousand this time—and the next Sunday, a bartender who found six five-hundred dollar bills folded tightly under a shot glass. He was pretty cool about it. He asked the reporter who William McKinley was. Tuesday brought two cases, each a tip of $5000. “And it was only a twenty-five buck order,” said a stunned and tearful nineteen-year-old. “Now I can go back to school. This is going to change my life. Thank you, thank you, my guardian angel.”

The anchors nearing retirement made John Beresford Tipton, Jr. allusions nobody under sixty understood. Younger reporters started using all the most predictable nicknames for the mysterious benefactor, except for one, probably an English major, who dubbed him “Magwitch”.

And it continued. Huge tips were being left, apparently at random, all over the country. The media stuck with the story. Why not? Psychiatrists were interviewed and clergymen. The sums kept rising. Who was doing it and why?

“She looked like a businesswoman; you know, professional?” “There were these three guys at the table, all in leather jackets, bandanas. I thought they were, like, you know, bikers.” “An older gentleman with a much younger woman. So polite.”

I said nothing. Neither did Frank.

Then, last Thursday, the local news wound up with the story of Bonnie Boyce, hard-working, hard-luck widow, mother of two growing kids. Bonnie Boyce was still pretty, photogenic, especially when she smiled, something she looked like she hadn’t done in a couple of years. She was working shifts in an Italian bistro named Scommessa’s (“Miser”).

“It was a frantic night,” she said. “I can’t even tell you who I served at table eight.” She looked at the camera. “But whoever you are, God bless you.”

Whoever it was had left her a tip of one hundred bills rolled up tight with a plain rubber band around them, and every one had a picture of Grover Cleveland on it.

Copyright Wexelblatt 2015