Luca Brasi Sleeps with the Fishes
by Lisa DeAngelis
Mothers are like cops. They always believe the worst.
Marlene Malatesta loved her six-year-old son, Dominic, more than life. Since he had come into the world when she was sixteen, he was everything to her, her reason to get up in the morning, or in her case, to get up at midnight and walk the four blocks to the Melrose Diner where she waitressed until seven a.m.
Angie, an old lady with a basement apartment in the same building supplemented her social security checks making 75 cents an hour watching Dominic overnight. Angie thought it was easy money, as she never slept much anyway. And the kid was usually asleep when she was with him. She didn’t even have to give him breakfast or dinner, and Marlene never asked her to so much as wash a dish. All under the table, no taxes. And for what? Watching television or reading. Angie liked to read Harlequin Romances mostly, but right now she was in the middle of The Godfather, and Lucy Mancini had just had intercourse with Sonny Corleone when Angie began to nod off and the book dropped from her hand to the floor. If anyone had tried to make conversation the next morning and asked if she had slept well, Angie would swear to God she hadn’t slept a wink.
Dominic waited until Angie’s snoring became very regular. Then he crept out of his room and took The Godfather back to bed with him. He turned on his flashlight. Waiting since last night to find out what happened to Luca Brasi was excruciating. He had left off knowing that Sollozzo, the rat bastard, was laying a trap for Luca at Tattaglia’s nightclub. He wanted to scream Don’t go, Luca! It’s a trap! But in the end could only read helplessly as Sollozzo drove the knife into Luca’s hand, pinning him to the bar, and another killer stepped from behind and strangled him. For a moment Dominic felt like he was being strangled himself, so intense was his reading experience, and he gasped struggling for breath as Luca expired—Then—no, no! He heard a sharp snort. Angie! Something had woken her. Instinctively, he shoved the book between his mattress and box spring. He heard her moving around, lifting things from the coffee table, searching he supposed for the missing book. He heard her approaching and pulled the covers up to his chin and forced himself to breathe evenly. He had had some acting experience as tree #3 in the school play a few months prior which made him part his lips slightly to make his portrayal of unconsciousness more authentic. He stayed like that all night hoping Angie would fall back asleep. When she did, he would take the book and put it under a chair in the living room and she would think she kicked it there inadvertently. But she didn’t fall back asleep.
He heard his mother come home and he listened in suspense for Angie to tell that her Godfather book was missing. But when Mama said, “Everything all right?” Angie just said “Fine,” and left.
If Dominic had known why Angie hadn’t said anything about the missing book, he would have felt himself responsible and obliged to confess it to Father Schlett. The reason why Angie hadn’t pursued the loss was that at 72, she doubted herself constantly. Her son was always telling her that she was forgetful, mostly because her daughter-in-law was always telling him his mother was senile. They had never liked each other, had always conducted a covert war to test which of them had primary rights to his time and attention, the woman who had given him life or the woman who had merely married him to keep herself from being an unwed mother, which was what Angie guessed Marlene was when she was in the mood to speculate what a 22-year-old girl was doing with a six year-old-son. In the end, she hadn’t mentioned the book because she wondered if she had brought it with her to Marlene’s at all. Or had she left it home? Last week, she had taken it from her doctor’s waiting room, where she considered magazines and books to be fair game for carting off. Finders keepers. But when she got back to her apartment, she looked high and low to no avail. It was not there. Maybe she had dropped it somewhere between her own apartment and Marlene’s and someone had found it and kept it, considering anything in the hallways to be fair game for carting off. What did not occur to her was a six-year-old now had it stashed between his mattress and box spring and was reading it every chance he got.
Marlene did not understand the idea of recreational reading and could not understand why anyone would do this voluntarily and not as a means to something else, like reading a recipe or a traffic sign. She had always hated to read, and it was only one of the reasons she had dropped out of high school, the other being that in 1963, a girl did not walk the halls pregnant with aplomb. Her thoughts about reading changed after Dominic was born, not that she liked it suddenly, but she had observed that smart people seemed to read a lot, and she wanted Dominic to be smart, so she made a habit of buying him Little Golden Books and reading them to him every night before he went to sleep. He listened to the stories without exhibiting any real attentiveness, until the night shortly after he turned three when he took The Ugly Dachshund from her hand and read it to her cover to cover. She was dumbfounded, and when he was finished, she convinced herself he had memorized the text from her frequent readings to him. She could not seriously entertain the possibility that a three-year-old could read. It was too disturbing. It would make the kid weird, and the last thing, she figured, she needed was a weird kid to raise alone.
After that night, Dominic felt forced to lead a double life. His mother had looked so frightened when he began reading to her that he knew he must keep it a secret from now on. There were other things he realized he must keep secret. Chief among them, he must never let on if anyone was mean to him. He had realized this a couple of years ago when on her day off they had gone to a yard sale in the neighborhood. There’d been a box of toys for sale for a nickel. Dominic had never shown much interest in toys, but there was a red metal truck that caught his eye. His mother was nearby looking at a breadbasket. He had taken the truck out and was making vroom sounds when another child about his same age had come over and rudely ripped the truck out of his hands. He was about to cry when he had looked up and seen his mother’s eyes fixed on the boy who now had the truck. He had never seen that quality in eyes before, and it wouldn’t be till later while reading The Godfather when the right adjective would occur to him. Murderous. She bent down to the little thief’s level and covered his hand with hers and squeezed, or at least Dominic thought she must have squeezed because the child gave out a piercing scream and let go the truck. Marlene took it up, threw a nickel in the cash box, and gave it to Dominic. It sat on his dresser now reminding him that he must never let his mother know if someone wasn’t nice to him.
To Dominic it seemed starting first grade increased the need for secrecy because there, nuns were paid to treat you badly. If Saint Leonard’s Academy of the Holy Child had been a prisoner of war camp, the Geneva Convention would have afforded inmates some protection, but as it was, it seemed to Dominic, the nuns were pretty much free to do with you what they would. This was driven home to him one week in school when he failed to cover his reader. That had been the assignment: Cover your reader. He wasn’t sure what to cover it with, but Mama knew. She got a paper bag from the grocery store, turned it inside out to the plain side, and cut it a little larger than the book when laid open. He watched with fascination as she allowed for flexibility of the book being open and closed, and as she scotch-taped the corners.
The next morning, on the bus, he had seen his friend Anthony who had a father with his reader under his arm covered in printed gift paper, and it made him feel badly to have his own reader covered in a grocery bag, so he tore it off in frustration. This proved to be a bigger offense than he could have predicted because his nun, Sister Mary Margaret, sent him and two other boys to a special nun, Sister Agnes whose classroom was in the catacombs of Saint Leonard’s.
Sister Agnes’s function at the school had nothing to do with teaching. It was her job to wait at the door when school ended at 3:00 p.m., and as each child, entered, to give them three whacks, and move on to the next child, sort of like the assembly line of a factory. She had no idea what offense they had committed, and she didn’t need to know. They had done something that deserved punishment. All the children were afraid of her, except for Dominic who was afraid for her. He was afraid because that day, one of the other boys a year ahead of him who had taken the Lord’s name in vain and done impure things with his hands was getting whacked, and this boy’s mother worked at the Melrose with Marlene.
That night when the phone rang and his mother picked it up, he eavesdropped. His mother kept saying, “She did what?” and he knew that the actions of the disciplinary nun were being reported. He struggled to come up with some strategy that would not get him more deeply embroiled. From conversations with other boys, he knew that often if a kid told his mother or father that he’d been hit in school, he would get hit again, Catholic parents being loath to think badly of nuns or priests. But his mother wasn’t like other mothers. She hung up the phone and when she spoke it was with an ominous calm. “Did Sister hit you today?” He nodded hesitantly. “But it didn’t hurt,” he tried to mitigate. He watched as she dialed. He listened as she asked to speak to Mother Superior. A pause and then, “This is Marlene Malatesta. I was told my son Dominic had to stay after school today and Sister Agnes hit him. I want to know if that’s true…You do that.” A much longer pause and then: “I want to know if you hit my son this afternoon…No?...Did you touch him at all?...No?...I see.” She hung up. She looked at Dominic. “Sister says she never touched you.” Dominic was shocked. It was inconceivable that a nun could lie. He felt almost like possibly senile Angie with the book. Had he hallucinated Sister hitting him? The cognitive dissonance was too much, and he started to cry. He was convinced he had deserved that punishment and worse, not only for the uncovered reader but also for stealing The Godfather from his babysitter, and enjoying reading it so much, even the parts he couldn’t understand but sensed were probably dirty.
Marlene lifted him onto her lap. He felt so light, so insubstantial, it broke her heart, and for a moment mother and son resembled the Pieta. “Don’t cry. It will be all right. I promise you.” She carried him to bed, tucked him in, and kissed his forehead.
The next day, school started with Mass. They had to go every morning in May because May was the month of Jesus’ mother, who had been a very good mother by all accounts. The children knelt obediently in the pews of the church that was next door to the school. Dominic was feeling almost optimistic, when suddenly Sister Agnes’s mouth was so close to his ear, he could feel her hot breath. She hissed, “I touched this child, and I touched this child…” She touched the shoulder of the kneeling boy in front of him and of the kneeling girl in back. Both went rigid. “But I never touched you. Do you hear me?” Then she was gone like she had never been there at all, leaving him trembling. All that day, she did that to him, came up behind him at the water fountain and as he waited to use the boys’ room, and in the cafeteria line, a voice hissing in his ear, “I never touched you.” By the time the afternoon bell rang, he knew what he had to do. He had hoped to handle it on his own. He was the man of the house, after all and he didn’t like to make his mother worry. She seemed to have so much to worry about already without his adding to it. But this was just too big. It was like the Pope. He told his mother what had happened that evening while they ate dinner together. He told her about The Godfather too. That he hadn’t deliberately stolen it from Angie, that he had just wanted to borrow it to read. But now that he had finished it, he felt he couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t confess what he had done and give it back.
His mother hugged him. She said they would return the book together and she was sure Angie would forgive him. She was also sure that Jesus would forgive him. Hadn’t Jesus been a little boy once too? She said that while she had wanted to keep him in Catholic school long enough to make his First Holy Communion and Confirmation, maybe it was all bullshit anyway and he should be a public. Maybe Jesus while not as high profile in public schools was just as present there. But the prospect of being a public panicked him and he protested. It seemed too exotic, and he did not want to leave his friends. (He never mentioned the one little girl he also did not want to leave.) She sighed and said she would think about it, but he was not to worry. She would figure something out. He went to bed in total faith, not just in Jesus, but in his mother.
After Dominic went to bed, Marlene did something unusual for her. She called in sick to work. It was not a total lie. She was heartsick because she thought her son did not have as good a life as children with fathers, and that she would never be able to provide one for him without a husband. It wasn’t just money either. She was a very good waitress who made very good tips. And she had regulars, one of whom would call her sometimes when he was lonely, and tip her extra generously. If she could have gotten it clear in her mind, she would have said the problem was one of failure to intimidate. A 22-year-old woman without a man, a boyfriend, a husband, a father, a brother, was incapable of intimidating anyone, especially a nun. Nuns were master intimidators. Indeed, they had God backing them up. And God was a man.
She tried to sleep and couldn’t, so she read The Godfather, wanting to understand why Dominic liked it so much. Unexpectedly she found inspiration.
After putting Dominic on the school bus the next morning, Marlene went back inside, showered, set her hair in electric rollers, and put on the best dress she owned. She even put on white gloves so she would look especially ladylike. She took a bus to Saint Leonard’s and when she got there, she went to Mother Superior’s office and asked to speak to Sister Agnes. Ordinarily, Mother Superior would not have summoned Sister without prior arrangement, but there was something in Marlene Malatesta’s demeanor that precluded refusal. When Sister entered Mother’s office, Marlene asked to speak to Sister alone. This was highly irregular but again, Mother felt compelled to comply. The door closed and Marlene got right to the point.
She squared her feet and shoulders, came within inches of Sister, and said, “I want you to listen to me.” She took the nuns wimpled face in her hands. “If you ever touch my son again, or let any other penguins touch him, or do anything to make him unhappy, I’m going to come here and kill you. But before I kill you, I’m going to make you feel the pain of childbirth.”
The Sister tried to speak, but Marlene put a gloved finger to the nun’s lips. “But if you do all you can to make my Dominic a happy little boy, I’ll let you live and you can keep up this racket you have going with the other kids whose parents are too dumb to know what you broads have going on here in this expensive school.” She summed up. “I’m making you an offer you can’t refuse.”
Dominic never knew what his mother had done. He knew only things steadily improved for him after that. He graduated elementary school and went to a Catholic junior high. When he was 14, he developed a crush on a public, a girl who went to South Philadelphia High School, wore military surplus and smoked Marlboros. He transferred. Pray God the girl never breaks up with him.
Lisa DeAngelis's first novel, Angels Unaware, was published in 2021 by Regal House. This short story is part of an unpublished collection, In The Warm Dying Light. Lisa works as an English teacher at an adjudicated facility for juvenile male sex offenders.