April 19, 2018 | Rome, Italy | °C

Buona Sera, Uncle Ray (Rosebud, New Jersey, 1969)

By Jeff Freiert
Published: 2017-10-29

"Candles flicker atop Chianti bottles covered in dripping wax…"

ncle Ray! Uncle Ray!" The Bonaventura brothers, Louie and Tony, ages nine and seven, abandon play, leave their friend Dave in his neighboring yard, drop bats and balls and toy guns on the grass and pavement, and run toward the blue Lincoln Continental suddenly parked in their driveway.

Like an off-season Santa, Uncle Ray is guaranteed to have gifts for them in his backseat. Standing beside the car, arms down but spread slightly with palms open — as if showing the cops he is unarmed — Uncle Ray waits for their embrace. As always, he looks sharp in a creamy beige suit, white button-down shirt, fancy marinara-red tie, and brown and white two-tone shoes.

The boys don't notice his Old Spice cologne — that's just how Uncle Ray smells. He doesn't wear the cologne for them anyway. They are dirty and sweaty from play but not enough to soil his suit, nor are their hugs long enough to wrinkle his jacket as he guides them around the open door of the backseat. They clamber into the car, which smells of pine air freshener — tree dangling from the rear view mirror — and cigarettes, and plunge their hands into the deep mysteries of the shopping bags.

Ray steps back and smooths his tie. He twists his diamond pinky ring.

Mike Bonaventura's Plymouth Duster is not parked in the driveway, and Ray has not moved his own car up to make room.

That kid — that towheaded friend of theirs — is looking at him from his position on the lawn. Take a picture, kid, it'll last longer.

Often the boys' shouts bring her out, herald his arrival. Today she is a little late, or maybe she decided to make him wait. As the boys withdraw water pistols, candy cigarettes, comic books, Ray strolls to the front corner of the house. He removes a silver cigarette case from inside his jacket and takes out a smoke, tapping the tip on the closed lid. As he strikes a match and holds in a breath, she appears up the concrete steps, which clearly have been recently repaired — a patch job, sloppy masonry — her slender hand on the black railing, as if to steady herself for the delightful surprise of his appearance.

"Buona sera, Bella." He greets her by the shortened form of her name in his raspy voice and in so doing compliments her.

"I was just about to start dinner," Annabella Bonaventura says. Her brown hair is pulled back but loose, limp strands hang over the sides of her face. A smile is starting to break through her tired countenance. A gold cross rests in the hollow of her neck.

"I'm taking you out to dinner."

"Ma, look what Uncle Ray bought us." The boys have come around the corner of the house, fists full of treasures.

"Did you say thank you?" Her tone shifts to strict maternal.

"Thank you, Uncle Ray!"

"Go inside, change your shirts. We're going out to dinner."

"Jack in the Box?"

There is one just under the railroad tracks, in Garden Park.

"No." Ray puts a hand on Louie's shoulder. "A real dinner. Go get dressed."

"Wash you faces," Annabella tells them as she holds open the front door. "I have to get ready too," she says more gently to him. "You want to come in?"

"I'll wait out here."

Alone, he savors his smoke and the late afternoon breeze that ruffles not a strand of his salt-and-pepper hair, wet-combed back with Vitalis.

Mike Bonaventura has tight black curls, and Ray has never seen him in anything but a white T-shirt. He doesn't know if Mike owns a suit. But he does own this house—or at least is paying down the mortgage. Ray presses a hand on the stucco wall, rough on his palm. Rough like Mike. He has imagined their lovemaking—brutish and brief. Ray does not like to sit on the furniture inside, see the bowling trophies on the shelf above the TV, the crucifixes on the wall, and be reminded of all that Mike Bonaventura possesses.

They are not brothers. Far from it. Once they were rivals. By blood, Ray is no uncle to anyone. An only child, he was the prince of immigrant parents from Napoli. Adored and overfed by his mama, toughened by his father's belt when he needed it. The old man dropped dead playing bocce three years ago. Mama still lives by the railroad tracks dividing Rosebud and Garden Park, grows tomatoes in the sunshine and plucks grapes from the arbor while trains rattle past. She won't move. But she wants for nothing, Ray sees to that.

At the first stoplight, Ray pushes the eight-track cartridge into the car stereo and the strings of "Malafemmina" fill the car, followed by Jimmy Roselli's voice, aching with longing.

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