FEBRUARY 2008

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Heckle
By Michael Frissore, Jan 05, 2008

Part I - Carole Lombard Is Dead

“Heckle, you were a mistake,” my father said to me. He was dressed as a Klingon and completely drunk, but I was the mistake.

“You were an accident,” he continued. “You were the Hindenbergh, the Exxon Valdez, and Thurman Munson’s death in one stinky package.” This from the man who named me after a cartoon magpie and made me sleep in a chicken coop the first six years of my life.

Dad would dress up and go to his Star Trek meetings, or the occasional convention on weekends, and remain dressed this way and drunk the rest of the week. I hated Star Trek. I hated Dad’s commemorative plates, and that he would beat me if he caught me eating off of them. I hated it when he made me go into a women’s public restroom so I could, “boldly go where no man has gone before.” Then he’d come and get me, checking every stall, thinking he looked like a hero because he was frantically looking for his son.

“Woah,” he continued, adjusting his headpiece. “I notice you’re a little bit dry. Let me fill you up.” He had been serving me cocktails all evening. Luckily my grandmother was together enough to at least attempt to nip my inevitable alcoholism in the bud.

“Leave the boy alone,” she said. “Why are you behaving this way in front of your son? And why are you still dressed like that?”

Star Trek is the twentieth century mythology,” Father said. “And my anaconda don't want none unless you've got buns, hon! Now, where’s that shot girl?”

“Steven, you’re not in a bar.”

Dad was celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of his alcoholism by going on what had thus far been a two-week bender. Not his record (that came two years before when he gave up sobriety for Lent), but still a problem in my grandmother’s eyes.

“What kind of father are you?” Grandma asked him.

“A better one than mine.”

“Your father loved you.”

“He was never around.”

“Because he died in the Great War.”

“The war that killed Carole Lombard was not great,” he said, then he paused for a couple of seconds. “Wait, killed in the Great War? How is that even possible?”

“Anne Sexton!” Grandma yelled, trying to change the subject. Dad looked around the room, belched, and continued drinking.

You could say Dad was my better parent. I never knew my mother. Dad’s stories ranged from her being the Black Dahlia or Amelia Earhart (both of which were impossible) to he himself birthing me via a “really immaculate conception.”

I once asked if the Dahlia could be my mother, why couldn’t Carole Lombard? He told me because Carole Lombard wasn’t a whore. I then asked if Amelia Earhart was a whore and he said she was. “A flyin’, disappearin’ whore.”

But my dad, determined to be a better father than his was, did his best to raise me. And, when he couldn’t, my grandmother was there. Grandma stayed with me much of the time. We’d play canasta, read The Weekly World News, bake cookies and muffins, go for walks, and watch her “stories,” the seemingly endless string of soap operas she consumed in the afternoons. She was the sanity in my life, as she often reminded me. “Your parents,” she once wrote in one of my birthday cards, “the coke whore and the drunken disappointment, may not care, but I love you, Grandson.”

“Answer me,” Grandma said, waking up my father, who had briefly passed out. “What kind of father are you?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Jeckle?”

“It's Heckle,” I said.

“Really? Are you sure?”

“I don't even know anymore.”

“Am I a bad father?”

Star Trek sucks.”

“What?!?”

What happened next was what I have heard referred to as spontaneous human combustion. Grandma and I stood covered in remnants of my father’s booze-filled body. I started crying. Grandma hugged me as she too started crying. It was a crazy scene.

For about a year after this my grandmother and I lived together, just the two of us. We got rid of all the booze in the house and sold my dad’s Star Trek memorabilia. Grandma had jobs at a department store and the library to help pay for things. We got a small amount of money from my dad’s life insurance policy, but it wasn’t going to last. For a while it was nice, my grandmother and I minus my father’s drunken screaming and destruction of property.

But, after a while, Grandma started getting really mean, and suddenly didn’t recognize me most of the time. She was acting really crazy. She started watching her stories on the microwave. One time, when a burrito she was heating exploded, she complained that soap operas were getting too violent. She’d play bingo with the ducks that would come into our backyard, and even once fired my dad’s shotgun at the mailman, thinking it was a home invasion.

I later learned that Grandma had Alzheimer’s. I didn’t know what it was, but I did some research and, with the help of some of her church friends, we placed her in a home and I was put in foster care.

Part II - The Organ Grinder's Song

“If you do that again, I’ll cancel the wedding,” the organ grinder said to Frances, his monkey, and companion of three years. There were bananas and feces all over the apartment.

“Why do you throw your bananas at me, Frances?”

“You started it,” Frances replied. “Why do you throw your feces everywhere, you Jezebel?”

“Don’t talk back to me, Frances. I’m still your boss. I’ll fire you.”

“Yeah? And who is going to do the bookkeeping?” Frances had him backed into a corner. “Now kiss me, you fool.”

They embraced and kissed passionately. The wedding was still on, and a lovely one it would be.

This is the story Frances and Giuseppe always tell when they talk about the moment they made the decision. They were fighting, really screaming at each other, and suddenly everything was great. They wanted to not only get married, but to adopt a child. And that child would be me.

I was eleven years old and my parents were now a dim Italian and a performing monkey.

It was a seemingly impossible match – a boy who was really too old to be good adoption material, and a couple who wanted a child, but couldn’t have them, and needed one old enough to handle Frances when Giuseppe was out at his Knights of Columbus and Sons of Italy functions.

And quite the couple they were.

Organ grinders were plentiful in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I say “plentiful” because they surely weren’t “popular,” according to Giuseppe. People hated them. A grinder would find a nice, public place to stand with his barrel organ in front of him, strapped around his neck, one hand holding the organ, the other turning the crank that played the monotonous music – the six or so songs the barrel came with.

Because they were such pests, organ grinding was slowly banned entirely in the 1930s. But, for some reason, with the turn of a new century, it was making a comeback. Giuseppe stood, all mustachioed and barrel-chested, cranking out his songs, sometimes in tune and rhythm, as Frances, his little White-headed Capuchin, ran around with a cup collecting money and performing tricks.

Giuseppe made quite a bit of money, mainly because Frances could talk. Not only did she talk, she degraded Giuseppe every chance she got, yelling, “Hey, everyone! Come see the monkey!” and pointing at her husband. She even developed her own catch phrase: “Go stir the sauce, you greasy dago!” Frances was a hit.

As parents, the organ grinding team weren’t much better than my biological ones. But, how could they have been? Neither had much time for anything other than “the Show.” I missed my grandmother, and was never taken to see her at the home. I got to spend a little one-on-one time with Frances when Giuseppe was at his, “Guinea meetings,” as she called them, but those nights were often devoted to “monkey business,” Frances swinging around the apartment, throwing dishes, and doing racist impressions of Giuseppe.

About the only bit of parenting either of them did was renaming me. Giuseppe decided that Heckle was not a suitable name for a boy, and started calling me Fiorello, a nice Italian name, and also a reminder of the past, as it was the first name of “that bastard LaGuardia,” who banned organ grinding in New York City in 1936.

“Do you know who else banned organ grinding?” Giuseppe would say. “Hitler!” This led to an “organ holocaust,” in which hundreds of organs were destroyed.

Why name me after someone who had banned my father’s passion? Well, this was one of Frances’ ideas, many of which he came up with simply to annoy Giuseppe, who called Frances a cross between Curious George and Hitler. Everything was like or worse than Hitler with Giuseppe: “Saddam Hussein is worse than Hitler!” “This soup is worse than Hitler!” And, in a way, like Hitler Frances was becoming.

More and more Frances became what Giuseppe called, “a power hungry little monkey.” Frances wanted to not only be the leader of the act, but to expand the business. She was obsessed with starting a sideshow on Coney Island, because, after all, she was a talking monkey. Who better to gather and present the area’s finest freaks?

Giuseppe would come home from one of his meetings to a contortionist and a bearded lady sitting in the living room, then go into the bathroom to find a live human torso in the tub. He wouldn’t have minded this, or that a fire eater Frances was interviewing burned his father’s old Italian ice stand to ashes, if not for France’s attempts to coax Giuseppe into what she started calling, “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

One morning, while Giuseppe was asleep, Frances glued a pizza to his face, dubbing him “Pizza Face Antonucci,” and charging neighborhood kids a quarter for a look. When Giuseppe awoke, he ripped the pizza off his face and shouted, “Mama Mia!” to the delight of those in attendance. He then got into a screaming match with Frances, who told him she was the boss and he was just “a sideshow wop.”

It was because of Giuseppe’s love for Frances that he gradually submitted to ideas such as “Live Donkey Kong.” Giuseppe was Mario, while Frances was Monkey Kong, throwing jars of pasta sauce and bottles of wine at Giuseppe to the amusement of onlookers. There was no end to Frances’s enjoyment, or the brands of sauce, as glass jars of Prego, Ragu and Francesco Rinaldi broke against Giuseppe’s head.

The last straw was when Frances began booking boxing matches, pitting Giuseppe as Rocky, “the Italian Rapscallion,” against large Russian and African men. What Giuseppe most hated was Frances, just thirty seconds into a match, but with Giuseppe already out on his feet, getting in the ring with a microphone and singing Joe Dolce’s “Shaddup a You Face,” with Giuseppe’s opponent getting a real good punch in with each “Hey!” and a double shot finally with, “Ah, Shaddup a You Face!”

      What’s a matter, you? (Hey!)
      Gotta no respect? (Hey!)
      Whaddaya think you do? (Hey!)
      Why you look a so sad? (Hey!)
      It’s a not so bad! (Hey!)
      It’s a nice a place!
      Ah, shaddup a you face!

After six or seven fights Giuseppe wasn’t taking it anymore and refused to partake in Frances’s shows. Frances responded by not merely ignoring Giuseppe, but pretending he was dead. Frances actually hired actor Tony Danza to take Giuseppe’s place cranking the tunes of the organ, all the while at home outwardly weeping, “Oh, Giuseppe! Why’d you have to die?”

Giuseppe protested, “I’m right here, Frances.”

But Frances only continued. “Oh, it’s so tragic!”

This went on for days until Giuseppe, knowing just how to get her attention, knocked all of Frances’s pickled punks onto the floor. A pickled punk, popular in carny circles, is a human fetus preserved in a jar of formaldehyde. Frances had been collecting these for the show. When Frances saw what Giuseppe was doing she freaked out, but as the glass jars broke, the punks bounced all over the floor.

“These punks aren’t real, Frances!” Giuseppe said.

“Of course they’re not, sicko!” she responded.

“That makes you a fraud! I’m telling everyone!”

“You do,” Frances said, “and I’ll give you monkey pox!”

“What’s the matter with you, Frances? Why you have to be like a this?” Giuseppe said as he stormed into another room. It was then that the phone rang. My parents stopped arguing long enough for me to answer. It was Connor Grove, the old age home my grandmother was in. She had passed away the night before in her sleep. I could only say “Thank you,” to the woman on the phone before I hung up and started crying. Giuseppe and Frances approached me and each held me in a firm embrace. They knew what was wrong.

As this was happening there was quite a commotion starting at the fruit stand across the street. A group of about a dozen or so people were screaming and taking fruit from the stand and throwing them into the store. It wasn’t an angry situation like in the end of Do The Right Thing, but a joyous, celebration of destruction of a man’s business. I don’t know if Italy had just won the World Cup or what. Frances said, “Come on!” and ran across the street to join the fun.

“Fiorello,” Giuseppe said. “Let’s go throw some fruit, eh? It a make a you happy.”

With that we each ran towards the fruit stand. I grabbed an orange, thought of my grandmother, and threw it as hard as I could into the store, hitting Luigi, the confused proprietor of the stand, right on the head.


Michael Frissore’s prose has appeared in Monkeybicycle, Flak Magazine, The WRIToracle, and elsewhere. He grew up in Massachusetts and now lives in Tucson, Arizona with his wife..

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