Tony Leone came to visit my grandmother one afternoon in August. My mother was at work, my sister at Kiwanis camp. Stretched out in the living room on the plastic-covered couch, I watched a Twilight Zone episode on television—the one where a tiny spaceship encounters a haggard old woman played by Agnes Moorehead, of Bewitched fame.
Tony, who had the demeanor of a cartoon bulldog, lived down the street and worked steady nights at Stelco. But despite a 30 year age difference, and divergent temperaments, he and my grandmother got along like old chums, something that puzzled family and neighbours alike as Tony was known to be antisocial. You never know what draws people together.
They both came from towns in western Sicily, and gabbed away in the warm, but often incomprehensible dialect of that region. Tony admitted that my grandmother reminded him of his own long-deceased mother—with whom he must have had a close and voluble relationship. My grandmother, never short of friends, both Sicilian and Canadian—enjoyed talking in the antique dialect, which almost no one spoke anymore, and was tolerant enough of Tony’s uglier traits, such as his use of profanity and his constant disparagement of his wife Angelina—a browbeaten woman whom my grandmother found tedious—that they rarely conflicted during his visits.
My father, who had died the year before, never had much truck for Tony. He was respectful enough but had rarely engaged the man. Maybe my father, something of a bully himself, recognized one of his own tribe and thought better than to butt heads with him.
On this one occasion, Tony entered the house and embraced my grandmother warmly, as he always did. My grandmother’s toothless face lit up.
Tony greeted me with a grunt as my grandmother led him into the kitchen. Ambivalent, eyes riveted to the television, I half-waved. Tony had never bothered me, but enough people had bad-mouthed him that I was somewhat leery of his presence in my house. Then again, my grandmother saw enough redeeming qualities in the man to befriend him.
They always sat at the kitchen table to conduct their communion. My grandmother would put out a plate of almond biscotti and immediately start grinding coffee beans with her hand-cranked wooden mill.
As the two started up, just out of earshot, I paid little mind to them, enjoying a tour de force performance by Agnes Moorhead—manic, tortured, sad, and wordless if I’m not mistaken. And the tiny astronauts, zapping and harassing her, represented some wicked, state of the art puppetry. The episode weirded me out as only The Twilight Zone could.
I smelled cigar smoke; Tony often lit up on his visits. This was one thing my grandmother detested about him, his cigar-smoking, the same way she had hated my father’s incessant cigarette smoking. Judging from the stench, Tony didn’t favour a premium brand.
During a commercial break I got up from the couch and went in to the kitchen for a drink. Tony sat at the table puffing his wretched cigar and blathering about something in dialect. My grandmother’s face, already weather-beaten, reacted to the smoke like one of those apple face dolls. This concerned me.
I wanted to tell Tony to kill the cigar, but he was smoking the hell out of that thing, his eyes half-shut, lips pursed, fat fingers tapping the tip-end over a crystal ashtray that had belonged to my father. I resented him for using my father’s ashtray. It had only been a year. I stared at Tony. His fat stomach pushed against the table edge. His bulldog eyes gazed abstractly at the ceiling as he drew on the cigar, the fat on the back of his neck bunching up in moist folds.
“What are you doing?” my grandmother asked, covering her nose with a hanky.
“I want a drink,” I said, staring at the ashtray, nostrils twitching. I imagined burning dung reeked like that cigar.
“Well, get your drink,” my grandmother said with a little cough.
When Tony’s eyes fell on me, I reacted without thinking. Instead of going to the fridge for a soda or some juice, I snatched the ashtray off the table, from under Tony’s cigar and bolted to the front door. I flew out of the house and down the porch steps.
I ran to the end of the street, where my friend Patrick lived. He sat on his porch, playing with his dog, Rex.
“Whatcha got there?” he asked as I mounted the porch steps.
Patrick squinted at me as Rex sniffed my sneakers.
“It was my dad’s.”
“We don’t need no ashtray.”
“I wasn’t offering it.”
“Then why’d you come here with the ashtray?”
Rex, some kind of shepherd mix, sat by my feet and studied me with a tilted head.
I sat on the bucket chair next to Patrick’s. A little table between us held a bottle of Orange Crush. I set the ashtray down beside it. Some ashes still clung to its edges.
“Well, it’s a nice ashtray,” Patrick said, handling a red dog toy. “But my pa don’t smoke.”
“Saw ‘The Invaders’ again,” I said.
“No kidding” Patrick said. “I like that one. With the witch.”
“I dunno if she’s a witch.”
“Sure looks like one. Yeah, that was a good one. With the tiny astronauts, haha. Yeah.” He waved the dog toy. “I like the episode with the dollhouse, too.”
“Yeah that’s a good one, too.”
“She’s not a witch?”
“It’s only been a year.”
"I don’t think she’s a witch, Patrick.”
Salvatore Difalco's short fiction has appeared in many print and
online formats. He is the author of Black Rabbit and The Mountie At
Niagara Falls (Anvil Press), two short story collections.