It had been almost two years since JFK was shot dead on a warm and sunny morning in Dallas. Away down south in Dixie, an uppity black reverend and 49 other marchers had hell beaten out of them by the cops as they tried to cross a bridge. And even farther away, northwest of Saigon, the 173rd Airborne Brigade was mixing things up in War Zone D. But nothing particularly awful happened in New Jersey, at least not at my great uncle’s house in Englewood Cliffs as the summer of 1965 drew to a close.
We were moving from an apartment into our own house, and my parents were only too glad to leave me and my younger sister in the capable hands of Uncle Joe and Aunt Annie for a few days as they packed away our lives in cardboard boxes. Not that the screened-in porch of my childhood hadn’t already developed a hole or two. I had seen my first-grade teacher cry at her desk the day Kennedy died before she sent us all home. I had watched Lee Harvey Oswald get it on live TV—it was on all six channels. I had had my appendix cut out after a day at the circus. And I had stood by helplessly as my prized blue fighter fish was sucked up the filter tube in our dingy little aquarium. Still, things were relatively serene on the whole, and that summer really was lazy and hazy, if not crazy, just like the Nat King Cole song said.
“We loved visiting New Jersey when we were kids,” chirped my mother as our aging, fin-tailed Dodge lumbered through the Saturday-morning traffic on the George Washington bridge like some road-going B-52 with one of its engines gone. “It was just like being in the country, with fresh waffles in the morning and homemade pie at night,” she added as my father taxied the Dodge into the driveway of the modest beige cape my great uncle and aunt called home.
“Hi-ya!” Uncle Joe yelled over the whine of the lawnmower before choking it off. He was short and balding, with a comb-over that surrendered to the gentlest breeze, but well muscled after a lifetime of physical work. His arms and chest were a mass of sun-browned skin and coarse black hair against the white of his sleeveless T-shirt—we didn’t call them muscle shirts or wife-beaters yet.
“How’s the boy?” he roared before grabbing my hand in a vise-like grip and wiggling the bones together. This was Uncle Joe’s standard greeting. Despite never getting past the fourth grade, he seemed to know precisely how hard to squeeze without crushing the bones in my hand to powder.
Aunt Annie emerged from the house and made a beeline for my sister, who hadn’t started kindergarten and its introduction to a lifetime of assignments and due dates. “Look, Joe, isn’t she just like a little doll! A little baby doll!” my aunt gushed as she smothered her in kisses. My aunt was small, with sharp features, her freshly dyed hair done up in a kerchief. And she was always in motion, cooking, baking, or yelling at my uncle to lift, paint, nail, or carry something somewhere. “Stop hollering, Anne” was his usual response as he set to work. Once I had asked her why she and Uncle Joe had no children. “They’re up in heaven,” she said quietly as she tended the endless stream of donuts, pies, and honey-drenched strufoli that browned in the old gas oven or cooled aromatically nearby. “Stillborn,” Uncle Joe had added before my aunt chased us out of the downstairs kitchen.
As in all Italian-American households, the upstairs kitchen and living room were reserved for a chance visit by Frank Sinatra or the Pope. Life was lived in the basement, where pasta and meatballs were cooked and eaten, pinochle and poker played, beer and coffee consumed, and arguments loudly argued at a long table my uncle had made out of plywood and my aunt had covered with a yellowed plastic tablecloth. “Waste not, want not” was Aunt Annie’s mantra. Uncle Joe had sealed the basement’s fieldstone walls behind fake knotty-pine paneling, but saved a few dollars by leaving out most of the support strips so that the entire wall buckled noisily if you so much as touched it.
Just off from the kitchen was a long, narrow room that included a full bar Uncle Joe had transplanted from a defunct nightclub and a workbench hidden behind a rattan curtain. Both were guarded watchfully by a stuffed deer head on the wall and a distempered gray cat named Dusty on the windowsill. “Dusty’s in heat, so stay away from her!” yelled my aunt over the sizzle of her cooking. (My father had confided that Uncle Joe and Aunt Annie were too cheap to get the cat ‘fixed’.) There was also an attic, which my sister and I were forbidden to enter.
“Can we see the snakes?” my sister asked Uncle Joe. He had killed them and the deer decades earlier, before Aunt Annie made him give up hunting, and interred the intricately camouflaged rattlesnakes, copperheads, and water moccasins above his workbench in old Hellman’s jars filled with formaldehyde. “Here, have a look. Just be sure you don’t wake any of them up,” he said as he unscrewed the top of one of the jars. What followed was a loud hiss as Uncle Joe mimicked a striking snake and roared with laughter. I saw it coming and laughed too; I knew the drill.
For those who don’t know, Italian food always tastes better the second day or even the third. Aunt Annie had stretched some of her leftover meatballs into sandwiches and wrapped them in waxed paper for our trip into the woods to pick blackberries for one of her famous pies. The rows of prefab split-levels and raised ranches that would shoot up and spread like toadstools—and eventually displace my uncle’s and aunt’s house after they died—were still in the future, so the thicket of ancient box elders, silver maples, white ashes, and pitch pines my uncle proudly pointed out began at the end of the block. Uncle Joe had his ever-ready “Hi-ya” for the neighbors who were out mowing or pruning, including Mr. Kunnig next door. He was a stooped, white-haired man with a pipe who smiled a brief, tobacco-stained smile as he clipped a few errant shoots from the privet hedge that separated his property from my uncle’s.
Everyone called him George, but my uncle told us his real name was Emmerich and he had fought in World War One on the other side “with the krauts.”
“Didn’t they have enough sauerkraut of their own to eat?” I asked. My growing repository of world history came mostly from old movies and newsreels on TV and was essentially words and images without explanations.
“They got plenty of sauerkraut, and wieners, and liverwurst—and zoop!” my uncle answered with a hoot as he gave me his Ten Finger Rib Tickler before snatching up my sister and twirling her overhead like a baton so she wouldn’t feel left out. “George was with the Germans in the First War, but he gave up his son who died in the Second War for our side. He’s a real American now and don’t none of you kids forget it.”
“Are we going to have a third war?” I asked, wondering if my parents would eventually give me up for our side.
“No sir,” answered Uncle Joe. “We dropped the A-Bomb on the Japs and set them and all their houses on fire at the same time, and everyone knows we can do it again if anyone tries anything.” My uncle had himself served in the army during World War II, though his service was literal: He spent the war dishing out chow in the mess hall at Fort Dix, where new recruits arrived for basic training before they shipped out.
Where the pavement ended and the woods began was at most a quarter mile from my uncle’s driveway. Yet it felt as if we had crossed a threshold to some faraway place as the treetops blotted out most of the morning sun, and the smell of fresh-cut grass and Uncle Joe’s Aqua Velva gave way to lavender, damp soil, and tree bark. “Stay by me or you’ll get lost like Hansel and Gretel and be eaten by a witch,” he said as he led us down a path only he could see, occasionally chewing on leaves he called poor man’s bread and butter. Soon enough we came upon a low shrub dense with small, bright-red berries.
“Chokeberries,” Uncle Joe announced as my sister grabbed off a handful and stuck them in her mouth before wrinkling up her face and spitting them out. “Good thing you didn’t swallow any, or your windpipe would close off like a spigot,” he said, knitting his brows with concern before grinning slyly to show us we had been had.
We finally found a cluster of blackberry bushes just after an old air-raid siren sounded noon. We had our orders: Pick only the ripe berries and leave the red and green ones on the bush until it was their time. I had eaten a few of the firm, unripe berries, savored their unready sourness, and sneaked a few more into the paper bag my sister and I filled with the soft, purplish-black ones that would fill my aunt’s pie. We were on our third bag of berries when I noticed the first of the headstones a few feet beyond the blackberry bushes. Most of them were small, some barely high enough to clear the tangle of weeds and woodbine that covered this forgotten hamlet of the dead. And even the taller, spired monuments to storied local families like Coyte, Lydecker, and Nungesser were held fast to the earth by creeping vines that had nearly covered the names, dates, and epitaphs.
“Doesn’t anyone visit anymore and lay flowers?” I asked. I had remembered seeing someone do that near President Kennedy’s grave during his funeral, which, like Oswald’s shooting, was on every channel no matter where you clicked the dial.
“No siree,” Uncle Joe answered with the gravitas of someone sharing a vital secret. “Because after you die, then your wife dies, and then your kids and their kids until there’s no one left to remember you.” As it happened, my aunt would die several years before my uncle, leaving him free to return to his hunting.
It was late afternoon when we got back to the house and stepped through the creaky aluminum side door that led into the bar room. “Don’t let the cat out!” yelled Aunt Annie from the downstairs kitchen as the door slammed shut behind us and the heavy, garlicky smell of her cooking mingled with the faint mustiness of the bar and the remains of the beer that had flowed through its taps. Uncle Joe turned on a Miller High Life sign against the gathering dusk, and my sister and I watched as a plastic pilsner glass filled eternally with The Champaign of Bottled Beers. In the kitchen, my aunt washed the blackberries we had picked, tucked them into a piecrust, and covered them with a sheet of dough before they went into the oven.
Dinner included the last of Aunt Annie’s meatballs, al dente spaghetti, a spicy Fra Diavolo sauce that tasted different each time she made it, and—thanks to rusty water from the pipes that day—my first beer. “Hey Mabel, Another Black Label!” read the bottle. “Won’t hurt the boy,” my uncle assured my aunt as the icy, illicit flavors of bitter hops and bready malt lingered in my mouth. The pie arrived shortly afterward, and my aunt commented on how it tasted a little more tart than usual, despite the heaping cup of sugar she had thrown in with the blackberries.
After dinner came The Jackie Gleason Show, with what seemed like interminable routines by The June Taylor Dancers, followed by a half hour of The Hollywood Palace before my uncle could finally flip the channel to Gunsmoke and my aunt hustled us off to bed. But I stayed awake for some time after Marshall Matt Dillon had saved Miss Kitty from certain ruin and my aunt had finished her prayer to the Blessed Virgin in the small bedroom next door, where my sister also slept.
From the attic above, I could hear the ghost of an old Big Band number and the soft drumbeat of the rubber pad my aunt made my uncle practice on. While Uncle Joe swept the floors and worked the boilers at the local elementary school during the week, on weekends, he led a small band that memorialized Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, and the era’s other late greats at weddings and VFW hall gatherings when he could get a gig. I sneaked up the narrow stairs that led to the attic. The glimmer of yellow light in the stairway barely brightened when I reached the top, where my uncle hunched over his practice pad, eyes closed, reining in the wild horn riffs of Glenn Miller’s “String of Pearls” with his regimented one-two, one-two, one-two beat. But it was the collage on the wall that I saw first.
It stretched almost from floor to ceiling and was filled with women—pinup girls, in the parlance of the 1950s, when my uncle must have cut them out of Playboy and spliced them into place. All of them were naked, flaunting impossibly large breasts and beckoning through a veil of shellac that had darkened to amber and cracked in spots. I don’t remember how long I stood staring at the collage before Uncle Joe stopped his drumming and pulled the needle off the old 78 with a screech. His expression shifted from surprise to embarrassment to guilt before locking into a conspiratorial smirk.
“You don’t want your aunt to know you was up here, or she’ll holler at the both of us,” he said, his eyes darting between me and the women who smiled at us from what might have passed for the next room in the dim light.
“You won’t tell her, will you?” I asked.
“Not if you get back to bed,” he answered, his sly grin widening as his eyes narrowed. “Now get downstairs before I change my mind!”
I could smell the sweet, honeysuckle scent of the night air from the little foldout bed by the open window. The world outside was alive with the golden flickers of ten thousand lightning bugs and the steady thrum of the crickets. Creek-creek, creek-creek, creek-creek, they sang. It would not be long before school started and the first cold morning froze summer insects in place on car hoods and telephone poles. I thought about what women looked like without their dresses. I also thought about Mr. Kunnig’s dead son and wondered if his stone were among the ones we had seen that afternoon. Beneath the tangle and the twine of the weeds and the vines in the cemetery in the woods answered the crickets as I prayed the Lord my soul to take, should I die before I wake, and finally fell asleep.
Robert Markovich was auto editor of the former Mechanix Illustrated magazine before reluctantly segueing into the home and appliance arena so that he could continue to eat. He recently retired after years of captivity at Consumer Reports.
© 2015, Robert Markovich