Trouble in Little Italy

By Ed Staskus

   Before Maggie Campbell’s husband Steve de Luca stopped blazing, he turned the younger of their two cats, whose name was Mittens, into a deadhead. They started calling him Stones because when he and Steve were in the bedroom together and the man was smoking weed, whenever Steve exhaled, the cat inhaled.

   He would lean up on his haunches and sniff for the smoke. He was a candy-colored longhair boy, in more ways than one. The look Stones gave Maggie, whenever she caught them together, was the “Are you looking at me?” look. He thought he was the hepcat. Afterwards, after Steve gave up drugs, they changed his name back to Mittens and he went back to using and abusing catnip.

  They called Sebastian, their older cat, Big Black, until he got even bigger. He had a different take on life. He ran out into the backyard whenever he could and hunted, at least when he was young. Later, in middle age, he spent most of his time eating in the basement. Stones was always looking high and low for his missing munchies. Eating non-stop didn’t work out too well for Sebastian. As he got older, they started calling him Fatbastian. He didn’t seem to mind. He kept eating and getting bigger.

   Steve’s dad wasn’t a gangster, but his dad’s friends and his uncles and their friends were all gangsters. His dad was an attorney for the Mob. He was the lawyer for the guy who killed Danny Greene with a car bomb in Lyndhurst. But, at the same time, he was a good friend of the Irishman for many years. Their house in Little Italy was a gift from Danny Greene and the Celtic Club. He never told the dagos about that. It was a secret.

   Steve’s family had wads of money when he was growing up. Whenever he smashed up a car his dad had a new one for him the next day. Speeding tickets got taken care of. There was no need to slow down. Steve was using at eleven and selling at thirteen. His uncles were addicts and used to run and hide their stashes from the police under his bed. When Steve was older, he ran errands for his dad. When his dad was on the verge of going to jail once when he wouldn’t give something up to a judge, he told Steve he absolutely needed him to go to Columbus that day.

   “These papers must be to be in the state court system by 5 o’clock. Make sure you get there.”

   Steve hauled ass down to Columbus, delivered the papers, and proceeded to get trashed, tequila trashed, to the degree he was swinging at and spitting at policemen who had been called to get him out of the bar he was a making a mess of it. He was Steve-o-mess wobbling on two feet when they got done with him.

   They hauled him outside and slapped cuffs on him. They pushed him into the back of a squad car. They allowed him one phone call. He called his dad.

   “I’m in jail,” he said.

   “I have one question for you.”

   “What?”

   “Did you deliver the papers?”

   “Yeah.”

   “OK, sit tight, you’ll be out in one hour.”

   He was out in fifty-five minutes.

   Steve’s brother, Fat Freddie, had a used car lot on Carnegie Ave. on the east side of Cleveland. Little Italy was a short walk south of University Circle, where bluebloods went to Case Western Reserve University and where all the museums were. The ghetto was a short walk north of University Circle. That’s where Steve and his brother got started rescuing dogs. The mean-spirited dumped animals in that neighborhood, behind abandoned houses and warehouses. 

   When Steve worked with Fat Freddie at the car lot, they found dogs on the street, picked them up, and brought them back to the car lot. They took care of them and tried to find them homes. Once his brother and he were looking at a used car and saw a mistreated dog chained to a tree in the back yard. He was on his last legs, with barely a leg to stand on.

   “What’s with the dog?” asked Steve, keeping his eyes on the man whose dog it was.

   “Oh, he’s a bad dog, got to keep him tied up,” said the man.

   Steve looked at the dog. He looked at the man and then at the dog again.

   “I’ll tell you what, mister,” he said. “You keep your car, and we’ll take the dog. To make it an even trade we won’t say anything to anybody about you abusing animals.” 

   “No sir, you can’t have that dog.”

   Fat Freddie put his right hand in his pocket and kept it there. He always carried a handgun. The man looked at the pocket. “Oh, hell, just take it,” he spit out.

   They untied the dog and took it with them.

   There was a pack of wild dogs living in a wooded field behind the car lot. Fat Freddie and Steve put bowls of food out at the tree line for them. They didn’t like going too far into the copse. One day Steve heard screaming and howling, so he went into the woods. He found a blind dog whose litter of puppies had been mauled and some of them eaten by other dogs.

   “Dogs will eat other dogs if they’re that hungry,” Maggie said. “They will. They’ll eat anything.”

   Steve grabbed the puppies that were still alive and ran. The blind dog howled for three days in the woods. There was nothing anybody could do. When the bitch stopped howling everybody knew what had happened.

   Steve’s dad died the same year Maggie’s dad died. Afterwards, Steve was living with Fat Freddie when he met his wife-to-be. It was rocky at first, but they smoothed it out. After they got married, they shared the house with Steve’s older brother for almost a year, until Maggie couldn’t take it anymore.

   “He loves us living here because I grocery shop, cook, and clean. I am a clean freak. My vacuum never gets put away. That’s how much I love to vacuum.”

   Fat Freddie and Steve had the same eyes, although Fat Freddie was shorter and thicker than Steve, had curlier hair, and was a deviler. Maggie had OCD, putting her at odds with all devilers. “Everybody knows you don’t fuck with someone who has OCD,” she said. “You just don’t do that! Except for Freddie, who thinks it’s funny to mess with me, even though I always get mad. That fat bastard doesn’t seem to care.”

   There was no good place to do her make-up in the Little Italy house. The rooms were weirdly cut and sectioned and there wasn’t any good lighting, so she had to do it downstairs. “I keep my make-up bag there. Your brother stuffs banana peels and old food wrappers into my bag when I’m sleeping. Do you know how dirty and disgusting that is?”

   Fat Freddie would just laugh. He thought he was funny, although he wasn’t. His funny bone was bent. But Maggie did not cry. It took everything she had to not punch him in the face. Her father was somebody who always said, “Someone’s pissed you off? Go beat the shit out of them.”

   “You think you want to hit me?” Fat Freddie would say. “Go ahead, try it, girlie, try it.”

   She got so upset that her fists balled up. More than anything else in the world she wanted to punch him in the face.

   “I’m not going to lower myself to who you are,” she said. “I’m not going to do it. I’m still a good person.”

   Fat Freddie wasn’t all bad, though. In the morning he’d say to Maggie, “Pack some extra lunch meat for if I find a dog on the streets today.” She would pack their lunches, for them and anything that needed a square meal. If man’s best friend was in bad shape and had to be saved from bad men that day, and said to them, ‘You better cut that hunk of baloney into two pieces because I’m hungry enough to eat six of them,” they always had something to offer in their resealable plastic bags.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

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