was what my father renamed his business after it became clear
his Slavic last name was hurting his bottom line.
That summer, we started getting calls from “Good Looking” Matt
who wanted him to hang crown molding
for his mother on The Hill, and Buckles who needed
someone down the shore to frame garden beds
at the vacation home he’d just bought for his Goomah.
Always, they’d gotten my dad’s name
from another name, Cheeseman or Blackjack
had said he could do the job. On the phone,
my father perfected his Vito-ness. His sentences
brindled with the perfect amount of silence,
punctuated by the occasional wise-guy maxim, a marone
or figurati, assuring the caller he’d get it done.
The Don of Providence, Prince of Providence, Mayor Vincent
A. Cianci Jr. was always called Buddy
by his loving constituents. He beat twenty-six of twenty-seven charges
the second time the Feds came at him
with the RICO when they claimed bribery, extortion, witness tampering,
and more. But whatever crimes he committed,
it didn’t stop the people of Providence from loving their Buddy,
our unopposed mayor for life, namesake
of his own gravy. Buddy who built the park, Buddy who saved
our city, Buddy who pleaded Nolo Contendre
to assaulting Ray DeLeo with a lit cigarette, telling him no one
would find him in the river. But what would you do,
we all asked, if you were convinced someone slept with your wife?
And we answered by electing him again. Even after
the Feds finally got him, and he was sentenced to four
white collar years at Fort Dix, everyone knew Buddy,
or at least a version of him, walking free through the city.
The summer before 8th grade
I told all the girls I knew
to call me Trent because
I didn’t think Keith sounded
exotic enough for the woods
behind the Quick Mart,
where I’d work any angle
to rub my crotch against
an offered thigh.
And it was easier as Trent
to set myself on this goal without fear
of rejection. Every time a girl unfastened
her lips from mine just long enough
to whisper, Trent, you’re such a good kisser,
I would hear myself reply, I know I am.
My dad says that in 1957 he and his buddy Tony,
who everyone called Slink, were challenged
by Slink’s uncle to dig the biggest hole they could
in his backyard tomato garden with the promise
they’d each get two dollars and could use
the leftover dirt to build a fort.
My dad’s telling me this because
I’ve been staying out past curfew,
and I’ve already been picked up once
for vandalism. He’s decided I need a lesson
in what happens when you trust
the wrong people. He tells me it turns out
Slink’s uncle was the personal plumber
of Ray “The Father” Patriarca. But it wasn’t
until years later, watching the Marfeo trial,
that my dad again saw the two men
who backed their Mark II Lincoln to the very end
of Slink’s driveway that day,
suited from toe to hat even in the baking
afternoon. They weren’t going to pay us,
my father tells me, so I argued.
This is when, according to my dad, one of them shot
a smile at the other, and game, no doubt
recognizing game, peeled through his billfold
handing Slink and him each 5 dollars.
Two bucks for the labor, the hitman explained,
and three more to buy back the dirt their job required.
Do you see what I’m trying to tell you? he asks,
and I nod thinking I do.
By the time I was old enough to wander the city,
I idolized every man in a shiny suit
or animal skin shoes. There was Baby Shacks Louie,
Ray “Il Padrone” Patriarca Jr., and Joseph “Evil Eye”
Magliocco, not to be confused with Crazy Joe,
who some people called Joe The Blond.
I knew all about Bobo who enforced policy games
with Chippy down the pier, and that Dee Dee did collections.
That after The Padrone got set up, Cadillac Frank
took the business back to Boston until he got caught
for extortion, so Carrozza, a.k.a. Bobby Russo,
(whose stepbrother killed Joe “The Animal” Barboza
after the guy dimed on Patriarca) took control of the family.
My father made sure I never met a single one of these men,
but they were as clear as the characters in the mob movies
I’d sneak into. Nicky Santoro, beaten close to death
and buried alive with his brother in a cornfield, was no different
from Gaetano taking out Wild Guy Grasso during the war
over the Providence territory. But Patriarca, Il Padrone,
(whose other nickname was Rubber Lips), one night
in bed with his girlfriend, died, peacefully, from a heart attack.
The man hangs as a trophy fish would hang
off the edge of the second story deck frame
like it’s a dock scale. Vito Bambino, a.k.a. my father,
is coming up the driveway, too soon returned
from his lunch break, unannounced even
by his truck engine. The upside-down man is pleading,
says he has the money, but he’s got to get it
from his partner Toucan. When my father gets to the top
of the turnaround, level with the scene, everyone
goes silent. Even the welcher, still suspended,
peers though my father’s passenger window
like he’s interrupted his wedding.
My dad keeps the truck in gear, tiptoes it
around the rest of the horseshoe driveway,
and back out to the street. He drives the exact speed limit
all the way home. The next day, on the same deck,
the trophy fish is gone, but the two men “allegedly” responsible
for his disappearance loom over my dad just as
the compressor for his nail gun clicks on. For your lunch, Vito,
one yells over the tank’s shrill hammering, “Knacky” told us you’re alright,
each of them handing him a hundred-dollar bill.
My close friends sometimes call me Beefy
as a term of endearment, but I didn’t earn
the nickname in any way that isn’t circumstantial
to the sonics of my actual name. The name my parents fought over
when my dad wanted to call me Zoroaster.
And when that wouldn’t fly, he suggested the more literary
mouthful of Enkidu.
The FBI claims the Providence Mafia is all but dead,
the syndicate disbanded, and since Buddy
was brought to justice the Renaissance City
is no longer run by powers mythically renamed.
I am my father’s son no matter what my name is,
but I’m also the son of Vito Bambino.
A lineage I was taught to deny, if asked.
Most people born and raised in Rhode Island
never leave for much longer than two weeks of vacation each year.
I am one of few traitors that left but never came back,
at least not permanently. And when I visit, friends and family
look at me with suspicion. Why don’t you come home?
You can work for Piggy at the DMV. Don’t you want to be with family
Toucan’s son works at the school board. He can get you whatever classes you want.
They mean well, but when I protest, reminding them that I don’t know
Toucan or his son, they get frustrated. Sure, you do, Beefy. You do.
Vito Bambino hung up his hammer
after only two seasons of work,
but my dad made enough
to take the family down south
to the beach where I’d wake up
before sun to the sound of fat
in the pan, and my dad humming
like a cricket that baited his hook.
Sometimes, I’d tag along, call out the bait balls,
as he cast from the pier for position.
We never caught much, and it only got worse
when the water filled with tourists.
But on the occasion we hooked one
the old salts would all shout
and crowd around for inspection.
Too small at best, but we’d still name each fish
before throwing it back in the ocean.
The city I now call home is big enough to be anonymous,
and I revel in it. I don’t know any of my neighbors and never plan to.
But that hasn’t stopped me from naming them.
Car Wash and Yorkie I only see on weekends,
but Stroller Dad comes by at 6 every night, turns down Huntingdon
where Heavy Handshake stoops it with his dog,
performing the Sisyphean ballet of exchange that is
dope boy purgatory. When I nod at Heavy
he only sometimes nods back. This bothers me
more than it should. I want him to know that I get it—
there’s the you who does what you have to,
and the you who never heard of him.
Keith Kopka received the 2019 Tampa Review Prize for his collection of poems, Count Four (University of Tampa Press, 2020). His poetry and criticism have recently appeared in American Poetry Review, New Ohio Review, Best New Poets, The International Journal of the Book, and many others. He is also the author of the critical text, Asking a Shadow to Dance: An Introduction to the Practice of Poetry (GRL 2018). Kopka is a Senior Editor at Narrative and the Director of the low-res MFA at Holy Family University in Philadelphia.
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