By Dan Shiffman
Six months after Mrs. Civitelli died of cancer, Mr. Civitelli and Al moved across town into a big, two-story house in an unfinished neighborhood with kids much younger than us. Strands of hay covered steep, seeded lawns and newly planted spiky shrubs prevented the kind of epic touch football games we had played at Al’s old house. Back then Mr. Civitelli was often away on the road for his job as a food inspector, but he kept their lawn well watered–he even cut our backyard playing field at NFL regulation three-quarters of an inch height and lined chalk borders around the end zones and sidelines for us.
After they moved into their new house, Mr. Civitelli began acting strangely. He bought a waterbed, started wearing tight, swirly-patterned long-sleeved shirts, and applied Grecian Formula to cover up his greying sideburns. He also purchased an assortment of new LPs, including Chic, Peaches and Herb, Donna Summer, Eddie Money and one braggingly titled “The Best Disco Album in the World.” He read books about disco dancing and started taking lessons on Thursdays, which became Al’s regular night to have dinner at our house.
Although Mr. Civitelli’s album collection was expanding rapidly, everything else about Al’s new house felt empty. The antiseptic carpet smell, sparse modular furniture, and uncurtained windows in the dining room made it seem like they hadn’t completely moved in. What was most uncomfortable, however, was how Mr. Civitelli hovered when he heard Al and me talking about girls. “It’s legs, Al, legs,” he once said, breaking into a conversation he imagined that we were having. True, we were discussing “underrated” sophomores, as if our ability to sensitively observe friendly smiles and green eyes would make these not actually overlooked girls somehow drawn to us, but we were awkward fourteen-year-olds, not recently widowed forty-four-year- olds. Why couldn’t Mr. Civitelli rein it in a little?
Mr. Civitelli soon started dating a woman he had met while traveling for his job, and a few months later, she moved in with them. Amy, who was much younger than Mr. Civitelli, had strawberry shampoo-smelling brown hair that swooped around the back of her ears. She was small–exactly my height–and her voice was naturally soft, but when she spoke, she made very direct eye contact and raised her voice as if she were talking to someone across the room, not someone standing right in front of her. When Al introduced me to Amy, she held out her hand like she was about to interview me: “I’ve heard a lot about you, Brian.” That surprised me a little.
Amy was always raving about Boston where most of her family still lived. She talked about Boston so much that it felt like she was putting us down for the fact we were growing up in a Connecticut bedroom community, rather than the Athens of America, the city that indisputably had “the best hospitals and universities.” Amy was a Red Sox fanatic now living in a part of Connecticut that rooted for the Yankees. When our friends Nick and Mark came over to Al’s for a Friday night poker game, Amy reported that she was still stinging from what she called Bucky Dent’s “F-ing lucky homer” in the previous year’s World Series and predicted confidently that the Red Sox would capture the pennant again soon, if not this year, then next. Nick thought that Amy was quite funny. Mark asked how old she was, but Al didn’t know or wouldn’t say.
Amy had a long commute and didn’t get back from work until late, so Al spent a lot of time with her spastic Schnauzer-mix Pepper that she had rescued from a shelter, walking her around his empty neighborhood each evening before dinner. It didn’t make sense to me why Amy would get a dog that she didn’t have time for, and it definitely wasn’t fair that she dumped Pepper off on Al. Yes, Amy was smart, but she also did things without thinking much about them ahead of time.
I wondered if Amy would be showing up to our freshman parent-teacher conference night in October. She didn’t, but she did appear at the science fair where Al had a display about resting heart rates in athletes versus people who never exercised. Al himself had a resting heart rate of fifty-five and was very proud of that. Al reported that Amy, who was a junior loan officer at a Liberty Bank branch, was excellent at math and had helped him with the calculations for the exhibit. Mr. Civitelli nodded robotically and thunderously cleared his throat while Amy, wearing one of her cowl neck sweaters and a long skirt, asked the slightly startled student exhibitors more specific questions than they were expecting.
In April of our freshman year, Al decided to have a party on one of Mr. Civitelli and Amy’s disco nights out. “Why not?” Al asked, testing out the concept. If Mr. Civitelli could start partying in middle age, then why couldn’t he start as a high school freshman? Mr. Civitelli actually didn’t seem to have anything against the idea and at the time was preoccupied with planning a Bahamas cruise he and Amy were going to take together. Rather than expressing his approval or disapproval, Mr. Civitelli just set the boundaries: As long as the house was cleaned up completely, there was no smoking and all the kids were gone by 11:00 pm, Al had a green light. Part of me wished Mr. Civitelli had said no.
Al’s parties, which he was soon hosting about every three weeks, were basically warm-up events for more advanced partiers. Kids would hang out for a few hours and then move on to get more fully drunk behind the loading docks at Caldors or by the firepit at Clurfert’s Pond. Rather than drinking, talking and laughing with the rest of the kids very much, Al and I were like hyperactive den mothers. We remained sober and alert, patrolling the edges of the party, picking up empties, refilling bowls of chips, and making sure no one went upstairs or let Pepper up from the basement.
Which is unfortunately what happened at the buzziest party so far on a foggy night in May, when Paul Cahill mistook the basement door for the bathroom door. “Hi little guy,” we heard and then Pepper was already darting across the living room and out through the front door as the gorgeous Jansen twins, their hair neatly feathered and lips moist and fragrant with Bonnie Bell Lip Smackers, entered looking puzzled as Al passed by them clutching Pepper’s leash. “She must have unlatched her cage somehow,” he said, starting to sound panicked. “Or maybe I didn’t actually latch it.” We both bolted after Pepper, but she was an uncatchable, flitting shadow. “Pepper, come. Pepper!” Al called to her, trailing the jangling of her tags down the already darkening street.
Al stopped suddenly and turned around to me as the street lights started to come on. We were both breathing hard. “You’ve gotta go back, Brian. Somebody needs to watch the party.” He lifted up a plastic bottle left by a dumpster in front of the construction site for one of the new houses. “Some of this stuff could be poisonous,” Al said. “Shit.” It was too dark to read the label.
“Pepper will come back,” I said.
“And how exactly do you know that, Brian? If she got into any of this stuff, it could kill her, you realize that?” Al’s face was red, his eyes were glassy, and his lips pressed tightly together. This was so unlike him; Al almost never overreacted or looked visibly upset. Even when he returned to school two days after Mrs. Civitelli died, Al answered at least one teacher’s question in each of our classes. This was a self-improvement goal had set for himself at the end of seventh grade and he was sticking with it. But at lunch, Al didn’t eat any of the Tuesday Sloppy Joes that he usually devoured. He just broke off the prongs of a white plastic fork and sat there staring down at his waxed green beans. Then Al blinked hard and touched each eye with the back of his right hand. When he walked away from the table, I thought about following, but I didn’t know what I would say to him.
“I don’t think it’s likely Pepper is going to poison herself,” I now offered unhelpfully.
“Just get the hell back Brian, OK?”
I jogged toward the house as it started to drizzle. What if Kelly Martone and Rick Montfort, who couldn’t keep their hands off of each other, were making out on Mr. Civitelli’s waterbed or ironic juniors were defacing his Bee Gees and Pointer Sisters albums. And then what? It was Al’s choice to have the parties, but it also seemed that Mr. Civitelli had mixed up everything with his disco urges. As I came closer to Al’s house, I could see groups of kids through the living room windows, laughing and pointing to each other. Walking up the driveway, I got a whiff of pot coming from somewhere.
Al walked through the door a few minutes later with Pepper wet, panting, and wriggling in his arms. He locked Pepper in her cage downstairs and taped a “Do Not Enter” sign scribbled on a piece of lined paper on the basement door.
The party continued its usual run of screeching laughter, flirting, mock arguments and someone, probably an eighth-grader outlier, throwing up in the woods behind Al’s house. I did notice Al accepting a beer from Rob Kwiatowski, a junior who had been described in our local paper as a “pure shooting guard.” As Al opened the beer and took a swig, Rob poked Al in the shoulder and nodded toward Jenny Salvatore who was standing with two other freshman girls examining Mr. Civitelli’s LP collection.
I wasn’t bothered by Al talking with Rob, but I didn’t want him to get sucked too far into the party, to let his guard down. So far, the worst things that had happened at Al’s party were a few beer spills and some broken glass, and I wanted to keep it this way. Al’s neighbors who seldom said hello to Mr. Civitelli and Amy, would surely call the police if the noise from the party got any louder. To my relief, Al walked away from Rob, cracked open a window, and blew out one of Amy’s nauseating Pepperidge Farms candles that someone had decided to light.
The pumpkin spice candle odor was still wafting when Mr. Civitelli and Amy came home earlier than usual. Almost everyone had already moved on by then. Stragglers set down their beers and quietly found the nearest exit. The Jansen twins said a quick, nervous hello as they passed by Mr. Civitelli and Amy. Mr. Civitelli was sighing a lot and seemed to be struggling with a hanger as he put away his jacket. Then he went upstairs.
“I’ll be right up Bob,” said Amy, not loud enough for him to hear her. She took a wine cooler from the refrigerator and sat down at the kitchen table still wearing her London Fog rain jacket. We could see her from where we were standing in the living room, but she hadn’t yet noticed us. “I don’t even like disco,” Amy slurred to no one. “Disco sucks,” she added, more audibly. This was the majority opinion at our school.
Amy yawned and put her head down on her hands. After a minute, she started to snore lightly. Al walked over and emptied her wine cooler in the sink. Then he tried unsuccessfully to gently nudge Amy awake. She did open up her eyes for a few seconds and looked up at Al, rubbing two fingers lightly across his chin, before slumping back down onto the table.
Al slid open the glass door to the backyard. A few seniors were still huddled together murmuring by Mr. Civitelli’s gas grill and listening to the Tubes on a small boombox. Al explained to the group that his father had returned and that he was sorry but they needed to leave. “OK, gotcha,” I heard from Andy Panza. After the seniors dispersed, Al took a large green garbage bag outside to pick up the scattered empties.
While Al gathered beer cans, I dialed my mother on the kitchen phone, pulling the cord into the next room so Amy wouldn’t hear me if she woke up. My mother had a lot of questions about the party and said she would come to pick me up at 11:30pm. That wasn’t too late for my mother; she had always been kind of a night owl or an insomniac, depending on how you looked at it. Also, she liked the idea of me going to parties, of being social, and she wanted to know if I was currently “tipsy.”
When I came back into the kitchen to hang up the phone, Amy had disappeared. I rinsed off a few bowls and put them in the dishwasher. Then I heard bursts of giggling coming from outside, not from the backyard but from in front of the house. I looked out of the living room window and saw the tips of cigarettes glowing at the bottom of the driveway. As I stepped onto the front porch, I could make out three or four girls waiting for their rides home or, more likely, onward to further, crazier partying. The Marshall Tucker Band’s “Can’t You See” blasted from Jenny Salvatore’s older brother’s approaching Gremlin. One of the girls pulled away from the group, handing her cigarette back to Jenny–I could tell it was Jenny because of her silver wind jacket–and started walking in my direction.
The London Fog jacket didn’t completely register with me until Amy had walked up to the top at the top of the driveway. She came toward me, stepping up onto the front porch step, wobbling, and grabbing onto my elbow. “Jenny has a crush on Al,” said Amy, looking directly into my eyes, raising her voice over the music. Amy stepped closer, the music stopped, and a car door opened. “She told me so, Brian.” Amy opened her eyes widely and nodded. Her breath smelled like sourcream and onion chips mixed with cigarette smoke. I didn’t know what to say. When Amy realized that I wasn’t going to share her delight about Al and Jenny, she smiled, patted me on the shoulder like my condescending older sister, then went inside and upstairs. I watched Jenny pull away in the Gremlin and went back inside.
After Al and I were finished sweeping and wiping down countertops, we put on a David Gates and Bread album, dimmed the lights, and began our post-party debriefing. This was usually my favorite and least stressful part of the party evenings. Al and I covered who had been trying the hardest to act cool and failing, who wouldn’t stop being annoying, who didn’t show up despite promising they would be there. We reviewed the highlights of the party, backed by Gates’ high-pitched singing about breakups and heartache.
If I told her see you later
Then I might be wrong
‘Cause this voice inside is driving me to find where I belong
I know I must leave her now but everytime I try
Don’t know why,
I can’t find the words to say goodbye
Al now seemed more pulled inward by the sad music than interested in listening to me scrutinize our classmates. He brushed a few potato chips off of Mr. Civitell’s new fake leather couch. There was a faint beer stain from an earlier party just in front of one of the legs of the couch. Al said he couldn’t even really see it when I first pointed it out to him. We were four or five tracks into Gates’ melancholic B side, when my mother tapped on the front door. I hadn’t realized it was already after 11:30pm.
Al opened the door and my mother handed him his history book that he had left at our house the day before. After she had invited Al over for cornflake chicken the next day, we said goodnight and got in the station wagon. One of my mother’s late night call-in shows came back on the radio as soon as she turned on the ignition. My mother liked listening to people share their painful experiences, bad luck, or regrettable decisions–sad, distraught people, who were stirred up enough to call a complete stranger and talk about what they should or shouldn’t do next. It was clear to me that some of these people were about to make huge mistakes, often for the second time or more, despite the reasonable advice of the radio psychologist. My mother didn’t seem interested in the advice, just the people.
As we pulled away from Al’s neighborhood, passing buckets of sidewalk chalk and a bike left at the bottom of a driveway of one of the still empty houses, I started to tell my mother that Amy had been smoking with teenagers.
“She was smoking with Jenny Salvatore. Right next to her.”
“Oh, that’s the girl Al likes,” my mother observed.
“I guess,” I said, already regretting bringing this up.
“Do you think he will ask her out?”
“I really don’t know, and that’s not the point, Mom.”
“Ok, so what is the point?”
My mother wasn’t trying to be critical; she just wanted to know, but her question still bugged me and I didn’t have an answer other than I didn’t like how everything seemed to be rearranging itself. I reached down and pushed aside my mother’s copy of Self that was spread open and crinkling under my feet. If Al wanted to go out with Jenny Salvatore, so what? She was nice.
A few weeks before the start of our sophomore year, Amy moved back to Boston with Pepper to begin an MBA. Al said nothing about a break up; the reason Amy was going back to Boston, he explained, was so that she could get in-state tuition. Al was going to visit her in the fall and they had plans to go to a Red Sox game.
We had a few more parties but the numbers dwindled, and we were soon back to our small-stakes weekend poker nights. Al kept saying he was going to ask Jenny out, but that had not yet happened. I did see him talking to her at school by the trophy display case.
Not long after Amy left, Mr. Civitelli put the most blatantly disco items in his record collection in a box for a yard sale, making room for an old family photo album on the shelf. According to Al, his father was fed up with his food inspection job. Mr. Civitelli now spent a lot of time reading about computers and corporate espionage. I didn’t know exactly what he had in mind, but Mr. Civitelli was again gearing up to make some kind of change. We could hear him clearing his throat, getting ready for what might come next.
Copyright Shiffman 2022