Tuesday, November 17, 2015

An Untrustworthy Woman

Peter Kouros, an immigrant, had a steady job at the Cambria Iron Company in Johnstown, Pennsylvania in 1922. He worked hard, and it was hot sweaty work in the Conemaugh River valley. In the muggy summers there was no relief from the heat of the blast furnaces. He came home dirty, but he made good money, and was healthy and strong.

His wife Mae was a lively, exciting woman. She liked to go out dancing when Peter wasn’t too tired after work. During the day, she liked to put on her red pumps and ride the incline plane downtown. She would take Marie, the couple’s younger daughter—Esther, the elder, had started school that fall. They shopped at Glosser Brothers Department store, Mae’s favorite of the many department stores in the prosperous steel town. After shopping they went to Gracciani’s Soda Shoppe. Mae bought Marie a sundae, and bantered over the counter with Sal Montana, the soda jerk. Gracciani’s was a family place, safe for kids, and no one thought twice if Mae left Marie alone at the counter to finish her treat while Mae powdered her nose.

Many afternoons, Peter stopped on his way home from work at Monastero’s Garden, a restaurant where a working man could get a beer, even at the height of prohibition. “What’s going on, Stefano?” he said to the owner’s son, who tended bar.

Stefano Monastero poured a draft beer and a shot of 25-cent whiskey and put them in front of Peter. “How’s everything, Peter?” he said.

“Fine, Stefano. Life is good. The girls are well. Esther started school.”

“That’s swell, Peter.” He put his palms on the bar and leaned in. “Listen, Pete. There’s something I have to tell you. It’s not easy, so I’ll just say it. It’s about Mae.”

Peter faced the bartender. He had never worried about Mae being unfaithful, but as soon as Stefano Monastero mentioned her name, he knew that must be it. He listened as the bartender talked about Sal Montana and Mae, out in the alley behind Gracciani’s Soda. Peter only caught about half the words, but the meaning was clear. He drank his shot, washed it down with the beer. “Why are you telling me this?” he said.

“Montana works for that Neapolitan, Gracciani. My dad’s Sicilian. He don’t see eye-to-eye with Gracciani. You tell your friends, Peter. Greeks are always welcome to drink beer at Monastero’s.”

Pete finished his draft, thanked Stefano and walked home the long way.

Mae looked up in surprise from the vegetables she was chopping in the kitchen when Peter walked in.

“Where’d you go today?”

“Downtown shopping.” Her answer was casual.

“Did you go to Gracciani’s?” he demanded.

“I bought Marie a sundae, yeah.” She stopped chopping vegetables, but held on to the knife. Her thumb traced the edge of the blade, measured its sharpness.

“Are you going out with Montana?”

“Sal?” She knew there was no point in lying. “Yeah. Sal’s a man. His hands are clean. He don’t smell like sweat or a coke furnace. He wants to take me dancing. He wants me to go away with him.”

“You’re banging him in the alley, aren’t you?”

“What if I am?”

“What about the girls? What’s the matter with you?”

Mae didn’t know what to say, but wanted to hurt Peter. “Marie’s not even yours, you Greek jackass. I been banging Sal five years.”

The next day, they found Sal Montana dead in the alley behind the Gracciani Shoppe. His penis was hacked off, stuffed in a red high-heeled shoe. The police knew the Graccianis, had been struggling with the more established Monasteros for a bigger share of the beer business in Johnstown, and they put it down as a gangland killing.

Mae didn’t go downtown for a while. She could only find one of her red shoes. How could you lose one shoe for God’s sake? But she had other worries. Mae had to raise Marie as a single mom.

She never saw Peter and Esther again.