Shallow Basements

Angelo was a big man. Tall as an F-250. Wide as the door frame he rested against. Like it was a light pole in some zany musical and he was the other-side-of-the-tracks bruiser, hitting heavy on the straight-and-narrow blonde. 

“Every house here has gotta sump pump. Some even have two. Whatya gonna do.” A statement; a fact. “We’re below the water table. Right?” Now with the confession. 

His face stretched with an enhanced youthfulness. His eyes told other stories. The miles and years added a tarnish to that initial twinkle.

Some storms can tear up pavement as trees are uprooted. Others can bring a street together. This one accomplished both in style. The late summer, later afternoon band of orange and red roared west to east. The eighty-seven year-old sycamore didn’t stand a chance. Fainted right into the neighbor’s pool. The displaced water, no longer in its cool concrete container, rushed everywhere looking for a new body. A majority of it now resting in Nic’s backyard. Across his stonework patio. Into his half-finished basement. Homeowners streetwide congregating once the gray skies gave way to blue. Communing. Consoling. Even whispering. The buzzsaw whirrs would not burrow into everyone’s eardrums until tomorrow.

From the basement, the pump snapped on. Drained. Clunked off. 

Nic rolling his eyes at the now-accustomed sound not-yet absorbing into the background din. 

Angelo, if he heard, paid no mind. His attention was elsewhere. He was holding court. Performing. Even if his stage was Nic and Ashley’s portico. 

Nic met Angelo the day he and Ashley moved to Yorktowne Heights. The upper-middle class township that was more upper than middle. Philly was a quick drive west. AC and other Jersey shore points an hour east. New York could be hit within the runtime of a typical Scorcese movie. Angelo, both a divorcee and widower, lived in the late-century two-storey across the street with his girlfriend and her three teen daughters. The moving truck was still on the street when he and Cecilia carried over a hot lasagna and cold salad, gooey chocolate chip muffins and dry Spanish wine, boxed alongside their welcome-to-the-neighborhood smiles. 

That was in April. Nic was more interested in getting the cable working. Broadcasting the Phillies game on that new 62” Samsung rather than playing the meet-and-greet game. 

Recently? He’s come to enjoy Angelo’s casual strolls across the street. The status check-ins. The impromptu history lessons of McKinley Lane.

“Now Clarence,” Angleo taking a breath. Motioning with his index finger. “Right next to you? You meet Clarence yet?”

“Oh yeah,” Nic responded. “Clarence. He’s a character.” Waited a beat before the lie. “Quiet.” 

Clarence was retired. Nic often saw the older man outside in his yard. Wearing boxer shorts and a wife beater. A white casino hotel robe draped over those wide shoulders. Untied and open across his beer gut. Dark socks on white shins. Tan Reeboks. Also untied. 

Clarence swatting at mosquitoes. Clarence watering his ranunculi at one in the morning. 

Clarence screaming into his Android at his cousin in Italian. Nic picking up cugino and innato and a shitload of exclamatory slurs. 

Clarence only leaving his house for Saturday evening mass in his Buick Riviera. Or the occasional grocery pickup from that old Italian market on Marlton Pike. 

Yeah. Good old Clarence.

Back in the eighties Clarence was quite the house painter. According to Angelo. The accidental confession coming on a gorgeous summer night with Ang already heavy in a second bottle of red. Wink-wink, hush-hush, and on the QT, he added.

“One time we had this storm. Right?” Angelo getting deep with his storytelling. “You know, I think it was Sandy. Right in the middle a’ all that nonsense Clarence’s pump went whack. Burnt. Whatevva. The water in his basement up past his balls. Pardon my French, Ashley.”

“No problem, Ang,” Ashley smiled back. Appreciating their neighbor’s forthrightness. 

“Never thinks to come to me.” Almost a sigh. A shrug later, “All a’ our houses have direct feeds into a stormwater drain. Every one of ‘em. I could’a gone over and ran a hose from the basement into the drain. Nope. Clarence waits until the storm is over then sends his cousin’s kid out for a new pump. The kicker. Ready for the kicker?”

Nic and Ash were ready for the kicker.

“ ‘Cause of the storm? No one had pumps in stock. This kid’s driving up and down both Pikes hitting every Depot and Lowes from here to Pleasantville. Finally decides to cross the bridge. Scores a pump at the Depot on Oregon Ave. By then? Clarence has tadpoles swimming around! Like the goddam Everglades down in his basement! Ah… what a mess!”

Nic smiled at Ashley. She ran her fingers through her dark, silken hair. Away from her eyes. Behind her ear. Smiling and nodding at Angelo’s tale. Ashley and Nic? Married for three years. Three years of un- or underemployment, and tight apartments with ridiculous neighbors and their close-proximity odors. Three years under the belt before a change was needed. They moved from North Jersey to South. Both scoring new jobs and saving enough to get their names on a mortgage and the leases on new Beamers. Both coming from proud New York families. His the DiFiores. Hers the Olizis. Nic with an IT firm specializing in cloud management and cyber security. Ashley a Center City paralegal by day; Rutgers law student by night.

Their modern, dual-storey, single family was spacious; would be perfect once kids entered the equation. Neither ready to pull the goalie on that particular play yet. Both acknowledging that timer would  eventually start its inevitable countdown. For now it was sangria and beers on the patio and silent, naked snuggles on the deck once the skeeters went to bed. 

 

Earlier in the summer Angelo walked around their perimeter giving advice on clipping weeds. Angelo, you see, was an authority on everything. The proper grilling time for prime rib. DIY oil changes. Keeping squirrels off the bird feeder. Insect repellent. Where to park in Old City. He was never pushy. Never bragging. His advice was smooth. Conversational. 

“Took the girls shopping at the new Fashion District. You ever have to go there, park on Cherry Street. Used it one time for this totally off the record job. Always spaces. Offa Eighth.”

Or.

“Cecilia and I ate over at Vellacuittio’s. South of Lombard. Had the Rosa di Parma. Whew. Tenderloin with prosciutto and cheese. Wine selection ain’t bad either. What’s cool about the place is it’s built over this old 18th century church. The wine cellar? Their freezer? All worked into this ancient stone basement. Had their main chef Marco take me on a tour. Was there with a party. Marco took us all for the tour. Huge walk-in freezer. Rows and rows of pork. Dead little piggies all in a row. Marco, man, he’ll take care’a you.”

Angelo Carchicci, to which Nic and Ash could attest, knew everyone. Rarely would a conversation end before Ang muttered, “I know a guy.” 

Once upon a time? Owned a roofing business. Served as president of the roofer’s union. 

Nowadays? Sold the biz to Clarence’s cousin. Stepped down as president. Splits time between duties as Yorktowne City Council President and chief manager of the town’s recycling and waste management facilities. 

Angelo keeps active. Knows a lot of guys. 

He’d always be out in his front yard. Mulching the flower beds. Working under the hood of his Explorer. Consumed with a project in his garage. Tools and parts and open boxes laid out on the driveway like a coroner performing an autopsy. Waving. Smiling. Watching. Everytime Nic or Ash returned home. Their New York paranoia kicking in. Asking why was he enterally in his yard. Was he keeping tabs on the neighborhood? 

Angelo would maneuver around at odd hours. Nic and Ash hearing the distinct clumpf of the Explorer’s door through their bedroom window. The bass of the engine kickstarting into life; rumbling in idle. 

After the witching hour. Before dawn’s first light. 

Angelo already deep in suds washing his truck by the time Nic starts his daily commute and Starbucks run. 

For all his talk – and the neighbor could talk – he never discussed his own day-to-day. Controlling the convo. Asking about their day. How was the commute? I heard about the accident on 76; bridge traffic must’a been a mutha. Pardon my French. Please, take some tomatoes from the garden. Side-stepping questions about his day with other pointed questions. “Work. Eh, whaddya gonna do? Hey, how was the bread I dropped off the other day?” The next quarter hour full of sourdough lies and flax seed misdirections.  

 

Angelo shaking his head against the humidity. The storm brought rain, pain, and damage. Zero relief. Raindrops plopping off the maple. Landing on the pavement in loud, fat splats. All three enveloped in the quiet that stalks the ravaging storm. 

Angelo looking up and down the wet, empty street.

Angelo changing the topic. 

Again.

“How’s the office, Ash?” he asked, almost cautiously. “Things starting to resume? Life, ya know, back to living?”

“Been a rough two weeks. Luckily Jack’s death, I mean, God, it’s terrible, but luckily his… passing… does not affect my workload.” Ashley sighed. Shrugged. Her eyes as gray as the passing clouds. “My cases are with the other partners.”

Jack Flannery was a partner at the firm of Gruenwald, Goodwin, and Cooke. Specialized in estate and property contracts. Jack had a sharp eye for fine print. A love for two-hour, billed-time conference calls. And shallow pockets that couldn’t fill that black hole of Texas hold’em. There were plenty of bets around the office that Jackie would never make partner. Jack should have taken those odds. Moved in with the partners quicker than a hand with pocket kings. Didn’t make it to his one-year anniversary though. Heart attack hit while waiting at the casino’s red light. A late night at Parx now stretched to infinity. 

“I’m glad you are doin’ well. What a way to go. Getting shot like that?” Angelo observed the couple. Waited for a response. Continued. “Must’a been a… what? Carjacking gone wrong? You know I keep a crowbar in my door? Anyone tries any funny stuff with me? I crack their head open like a ripe antelope.” Angelo chuckled. Trying to lighten the suddenly-dark mood with their inside joke. 

 

One late spring evening all four were crowded around Ang’s fire pit drinking a pinot grigio bottled at a time from before the housing crisis. Angelo already a soldier down before the neighbors joined. Passed the bottle around for refills and dropped it on the brickwork.

“Shit!” Angelo yelped, jumping back to avoid the splash and glass. “See that?” his exclamation mixed with a laughter of relief. “That busted open like a ripe antelope!”

Laughter drew from others as Ashley responded with confusion. “An… antelope?”

“Yeah! C’mon,” Angelo’s slurring words betraying the intoxication. “You know… those bowling ball… whatchamacallits…”

Genuine laughter followed the realization. “Cantaloupe? You mean cantaloupe. Right?” From then on, “antelope” was the choice word for any and all substitutions. Usually followed with a smile. A nod of acknowledgement and remembrance of that fun night. 

 

Tonight, following the storm, Ashley wasn’t smiling. But she did nod. 

She understood. 

And that realization hit her with more power than that sycamore slapping into the pool. 

Angelo caught her nod. Threw it back. “Ah, whatya gonna do? I’ve spent too much time here. I need to get back to Cecilia. I’m glad you two are alright. Stay safe. Come running if you need me.”

The couple lingered on their wide, top step. Watching the large man wade across the avenue until he was eventually swallowed up in the shadows behind his garage halogens. They remained still. Hands entwined. Taking notice of the clear sky once again getting dark. Recognizing the encroaching night. 

Nic turned to go in. Ashley behind him, locking the door. They silently walked through their house. Turning on lights. Heading to the basement.

The carpet squished with every footfall. Plastic tubs packed memories sitting in puddles. High school yearbooks. DVDs. Tupperware and flatware and a badminton set. Crystal gifts from their wedding. Winter clothes from seasons past. The unfinished side of the cellar faring better. The concrete moist but the pool water receding. 

Nic snapping on the dehumidifier. 

The sump pump cycling. 

Draining. 

Gurgling as it refilled. 

He turned to his wife. “You know what this means.”

Ashley’s face expressionless as plywood. “Angelo Carchicci is definitely involved with the Family.”

Barely half-a-dozen people knew about Jackie Flannery’s true death. Most of his family – and a large Irish-Catholic one at that – believed the lie. 

Heart attack. The silent killer. 

His true death? A little louder. Three shots. Center mass. Face untouched for the good graces of the funeral. 

Cause of death? Owing Little Anthony Capuano a hundred large. His I.O.U.s drafted into an D.O.A. ASAP. Anthony Capuano, an underboss in the Sabella crime family. Philly’s oldest, deepest, and dirtiest. 

Capuano’s public activities had been silent recently. Word on the street? He was reaching out to the ‘burbs. Looking outside of the Family to solidify his power base. Surrounding himself with strong, loyal unknowns. Clean sheets. 

“Carchicci has to be Capuano’s Number One,” Nic keeping his voice down, standing between the duelling hums of pump and extractor. “We know it’s him. And now we know how to keep tabs.”

Ashley Olizi-DiFiore stroked back her long, perfect hair, what her mother constantly referred to as a “gift from God.” Carla Badalamenti-Olizi was a strong if impatient woman. Both characteristics necessary as a daughter and wife of the Bonanno family, one of New York’s Five Families. Maybe that’s why Ash rebelled, at least as much as she could. Denying her Italian princess heritage by jumping into extreme activities. Hang gliding instead of violin lessons. Strausberg acting workshops rather than nail salon gossip. Dorm room poker tourneys while others focused on varsity sports. The one family activity she did take to? Sharpshooting target practice with her ex-Marine daddy. Ironically, her daddy’s rules, and an instilled love of challenges, ultimately had her pursue a career in law. 

Attending a funeral – a funeral of all places! – she accidentally saw Nic DiFiore, cousin of Michael Innocenzo of the Genovese family. Like Kay Adams, and probably Juliet, before her, she resigned her fate to the brown wavy hair and blue eyes of a made man. 

His broad shoulders sealed the deal. 

Nicodemus DiFiore’s father wanted him to go pre-med. Bribed him with a Porsche as a graduation prize. Nic was seduced by his always-in-action cousin. Any other scholastic prospect was dulled by video gaming. Until discovering he had an affinity for the programming behind the apps. Ditching pre-med and the 911, opted instead for a BS in computer science and an MBA from Hofstra. Jumped into cloud architecture when most people were still being introduced to an iPhone. 

Neither Nic nor Ashley could resist the generational pull of the family business. When rumblings of independence shot up outta Philly, the Five Families grew cautious. The Bonannos wanted an inside track on Capuano’s power play. Nic and Ash jumped at the chance to prove themselves. 

Young. Intelligent. Beautiful. Loyal.

The perfect moles. 

A realtor cousin within the Family got a lead on residence. Spitting distance from Capuano’s man. Made the former owners an offer they couldn’t refuse. As the saying goes. Nic and Ash quickly and suddenly became neighbors to Angelo Carchicci, Capuano’s new Number One. And Clarence DiVito, old school cleaner for Little Nicky Scarfo himself. 

They watched. They observed. They were friendly. They laughed. Now they were ready to attack.

“We have to amp up. Constant surveillance,” the answer stirred from her thoughts. “Bug his place?”

“Easy. We’re over there often enough. But it’s not the house I’m interested in. I’m sure he doesn’t do any dealings there. No, I want access to his garage. That’s where he works.”

“Transmitter?”

“I’m thinking we go a little old school.” Nic getting cocky. Getting aroused. Wanting to finish this convo and take his wife in their master shower.  “After all, he gave us an in. ‘Our houses have direct feeds into a stormwater drain.’ I can push a fiber optic line through that drain, which comes out directly into his garage pump. No signal, in case he sweeps for bugs.”

That final sentence whispered in Ashley’s ear like an erotic sweet nothing. 

And it worked.

Nic sealing the deal with a deep kiss.

They turned off the light and quickly departed. Their hearts full of lust. Their heads full of bravado. The basement pump full of water. The float hit its limit. The drain kicked in. Water emptied from the tub while overflow from its interior feeds rushed in to fill the void. 

Directly above the float sat a fiber optic eye. 

Its slender tail extracting from the water intake. 

Worming through the stormwater drain.  

Connecting to a laptop sitting in Clarence DiVito’s kitchen. A kitchen that, save for the occasional upgrade to fridge or microwave, hasn’t been remodeled since the 70s. 

Clarence sitting at his K-style table.

Under a round fluorescent light.

Clarence looking at the image of his neighbors whispering. Kissing. Plotting. 

Clarence saving the audio and video file. 

Clarence remembering those late-night drives with Angelo. The deals. The jobs. Clarence showing Angelo the steps of the Brotherhood. 

Angelo learning. Angelo proving. 

Angelo slamming an ice pick to the back of Frank Palumbo’s skull. A meat hook jabbed through his trapezius. Whacked, strung, and hung. A one-time corrupt cop who thought to get back in the good graces of Philly PD. Now hanging in Marco Vellacuittio’s freezer. All his regrets dead weight.  

Constantine Livenko, a Russian pimp and dealer. Looking to fast track through the Bratva ranks by cutting out tribute to Philly’s famiglia numero uno. A late night meeting on Cherry Street to discuss the error of that move was supposed to be an ambush. A Bratva strut. One that Angelo intercepted. A bullet to Livenko’s brain stopped that surprise uprising. Two more to center mass – just to make sure – before he was dropped like a CBS comedy into the trunk of Clarence’s Rivera.  

Angelo and Clarence speaking to each other in whispers. On long drives. Knowing the Bratva wasn’t alone. Anticipating push back from the Family. 

Clarence cautious. Clarence paranoid. New neighbors? Clarence asked around. Like Angelo, he too knows a lot of guys. 

Sets up a test. No one will miss Jack Flannery. Serve him up as McBait. Even if there’s no tugs? No one will miss Jackie.

Now?

Clarence looking over at his paint brush.

Retirement, he sighs. Whatya gonna do.

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