A Friend is a Gift You Give Yourself - William Boyle


SUNDAY, JUNE 11, 2006

After Sunday morning Mass and her regular coffee date with her friend Jeanne at McDonald’s, Rena Ruggiero is back on her block, Bay Thirty-Fifth Street. So strange to be from a block, to feel at home on only your block while all the others, even the ones directly surrounding you, feel so foreign. Her whole life spent on this block. Growing up in the house, staying through her time at Brooklyn College, and then moving into the upstairs apartment with Vic when they got married. And when her parents died, taking over the whole place. It was big for three people. Even bigger for one. Sixty-eight years the house has been in her family, bought eight years before she was born.

She stands out front now, as she often does, and considers the house’s flaws. It needs new siding. That was a project Vic had been in the process of setting up before he was killed. Probably needs a new roof, too. The porch sags. Posts and railings need to be scraped and painted, a lot of the wood rotten. The windows are old. Too much cold seeps in. She could sell it—the Chinese are buying up houses in the neighborhood like crazy—but selling seems like such a hassle.

And the stoop. She still sees Vic slumped there, as he was on that awful day nine years before. She remembers the exact way the blood pooled on the steps. She looks hard enough, she can still see spots where it has browned the cement forever. Poor Vic. Probably watching the pigeons on the roof of the apartment building across the street, Zippo the landlord guiding his kit in formation with a big black flag. And then Little Sal approaching with his gun raised.

Rena had been inside at the stove, frying veal cutlets. She heard the shot, figured it for a car backfiring, maybe some dumb kids with an M-80. She didn’t come out until she heard screaming and sirens and tires screeching. Walking out of the kitchen, down the hallway, the way she remembers it, was all in slo-mo. She wasn’t thinking something had happened to Vic. He was just sitting there; he wasn’t off at work. The fear had always lingered in her, but it wasn’t there just then. They had a ballgame to listen to, cutlets to eat. Little Sal was long gone when she made it to Vic.

Rena remembers how she crouched over him in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, crying, holding her rosary. Vic, who was in a bad business but had a soft voice and thoughtful brown eyes. His associates called him Gentle Vic. He’d raked it in for the Brancaccios. A huge earner. What had gone wrong had nothing to do with his work, just a beef with a punk, a kid named Little Sal trying to make a name for himself by knocking off a made guy. Shot Vic as he sipped on espresso, squash flowers from Francesca up the block in a ziplock bag on the step next to him.

Everyone knows about Vic, what he did, how he died, but no one talks to her about it in specifics. No one asks her what it’s like to see your husband bleeding to death. Or what it’s like to hose dried blood off your front stoop after burying the only man you’ve ever loved. The Brancaccios took care of her after the fact, paid for the funeral, gave her some money, but no one comes around anymore. She was never very tight with any of the other wives.

Rena goes inside and turns off the alarm. The alarm was Vic’s idea, after some break-ins on the block back in the early nineties. He was gone a lot and wanted her to feel safe. She takes off her coat and puts on water for tea and then decides she doesn’t want tea and shuts the burner. The phone is right next to the stove, an old yellow rotary mounted to the wall. A picture of her parents is encased in the plastic center of the dial. They’re smiling. It’s their thirtieth-anniversary dinner. They’re younger in the picture than she is now.

Her friend Jeanne had to go and bring up Adrienne over coffee at McDonald’s. Adrienne is Rena’s daughter, who lives over in the Bronx. Rena hasn’t seen her since Vic’s funeral. Hasn’t seen her granddaughter, Lucia, either. Lucia’s fifteen now; she was six the last time Rena held her, in tears,