Issue 35, Final Fringe

Fresh Bread

by Tom Bonfiglio Issue 29 01.09.2012

My Old Man’s brother, Joe, comes visits us with his kids only they leave Aunt Didi at home, which is unfortunate because she doesn’t wear bras and sits with her legs wide open no matter how short her skirt, and she likes them short in winter and summer— but we hardly notice she’s gone because all the attention’s on my 16-year-old cousin Jade, who waddles into the house hugely pregnant and suddenly gorgeous. She’s two years younger than me, my brother Joey’s age, and was always chubby and flat-chested, her teeth too big for her mouth, but now even though her teeth are still big and white, it always looks like she’s smiling even when she isn’t; the rest of her face has no longer decided to fight it and now all the parts fit together perfectly, her lips grown full and pouty, like a cartoon caricature of a moolie, her straight black hair hanging down, hiding the fact that she has tiny ears. If she wasn’t my cousin and she wasn’t pregnant I might be in love, although the fact that she is pregnant is actually a big part of it, knowing that she’s been fucking and isn’t so innocent anymore. Even though she was chubby she was always kind of cute, and last time I saw her a couple of winters back I do confess to getting stoned and drunk and making out with her, holding one of those warm little globs of fat that passed back then as her boobs in my cold hand. She let Joey feel her up too and we let her touch our dicks.

“Too bad your wife couldn’t come,” the Old Man says, piling slices of salami onto a buttered roll and then adding hot red peppers and lettuce.

I notice Jade and her old man give each other a quick look. “You know Didi,” Uncle Joe says “Busy getting the house ready for the baby.” He’s bald, like my Old Man, only doesn’t make an elaborate attempt to hide it via a comb-over. He’s building a sandwich of prosciutto and olives and onions and cheese. It’ll turn into an eating contest between the two of them before the night is out. That’s how it works with dagos.“The work’s never done,” Ma says, and she knows, having squeezed out nine of us. “I haven’t talked to her in so long. Not since . . .” her voice trails off.

Jade’s wearing a wrinkled black dress with no stockings, her feet bare and folded up under her on the couch. Her eyes are blue, a rarity in our family, and perfectly round and hollow. “You got big,” I say.

“So did you,” she says. “Not as big as me. Remember the last time I was here?”

“Yeah,” I say. “I remember that.” Joey and Jade’s brother, Max, are outside somewhere, I’m assuming getting stoned, I don’t know what else they’d be doing, it’s all there is to do in this town though I have a feeling it’s all there is to do in most places, and some of the Old Man’s other brothers come by the house and pretty soon the place is filled with loud voices and cigarette smoke and ladies with too much make-up, and I take Jade’s wrist and lead her upstairs to me and Joey’s room.

“Who’s the kid’s old man?” I say. I’m lying back on my bed and instead of taking Joey’s, she’s laying right next to me. She smells of a long flight but also like flowers, flowers that have been crumpled and thrown away and just have a hint of scent left.

“I’m not saying,” she says. “I haven’t told anybody and that’s my policy.”

“Your old man let you get away with that?”

“What can he do? Beat me?”

“My Old Man sure as hell would beat it out of you; he’ll beat anything out of anybody. You know who the father is?”

“I’m not a slut,” she says. “There’s only the one. He knows it’s his.”

I light a joint and she’s miffed when I don’t offer her any. “You’re not allowed to smoke,” I say.

“Everybody treats me like I’m walking around with the crown fucking jewels,” she says. “It’s a baby. Women were having them in caves. It isn’t that big of a deal. Give me that. Jesus, your mother had nine. Just because my mother lost one they think I’m prone, like it runs in the family.” She takes a long and deep hit, holds it in for far longer than I ever manage to do, and blows it out in a thick rope of pure gray. I like getting high with girls; it’s different than smoking with guys. “You gonna still go to school when it comes? It being the baby,” I say.

“Of course. It’s not like I have to drop out. We’ll figure out a schedule. My dad thinks my mom will be home by then and she can carry the load but it isn’t gonna work like that.”

“Your mom home? Where’s your ma?”

“My father will fucking kill me if he knows I said anything. My mom’s back in the hospital. Do not say anything. He’s all ashamed, figures everybody will think it’s his fault he drove her crazy and not understand that she was actually crazy all on her own. The thing is, it is his fault. He’s an asshole.”

“My Ma’s come close twice now to ending up in Gowanda, our version of the nuthouse,” I say. “You don’t know what asshole is until you live with my Old Man. You’re living on easy street. Your old man is the runt of that litter.”

“Fuck you, Frankie,” she says, and shoves her body over and playfully pushes at me. “Fuck you.” I like when pretty girls swear. “I don’t think my mom’s coming home anytime soon,” she says. “She’s pretty much full-on crazy. Don’t even ask me what she did. It’s like not having a mom anymore.” She suddenly has a handful of stray tears running down her cheeks and instead of pretending not to notice, like I usually do when a girl cries, I grab her a few tissues from the box on my nightstand.

“You sure you’re gonna have enough to clean up after you play with yourself?” she says. “Please don’t do it when I’m in the next bed. Or if you do, at least tell me you’re doing it, so I won’t have to wonder,” she says. We’re sharing a room for the next four nights, me and Jade. Joey and Max are gonna be sleeping on couches downstairs and Jade’s getting Joey’s bed.

She won’t tell me who it was she fucked. Instead she wants to know all about everything I’ve been doing. Am I still all in love with Lena Gustafson? No, I say. Have I ever taken acid? Yes. What was it like? Like peeling back the world and discovering what’s underneath, the control room, all the switches and buttons and colorful wires. I open the windows next to my bed and the smoke drifts out.

There’s a whole ruckus going on downstairs and I assume the uncles will head out to The Hideaway soon enough. It belongs to Uncle Sammy, another brother, and it’s where they always end up while the aunts clean the mess left behind. “You’re lucky,” she says, “to have so much family here. We have nobody near us. Everybody seems so happy here.”

I’m speechless. Happy we’re not. Ma teeters on the brink of hearing voices and earning herself a trip to the Shock Room like her two sisters did before her. That doesn’t seem bad compared to having a mother already actually in the Shock Room, but that’s just the surface of what we have going on here.

Then next day Jade insists I take her to Caruso’s for an Italian beef. She has a craving and remembers it from her other trips here. There’s no talking a pretty girl out of anything when it comes to me. She brought some weed with her, actually hid it up inside herself for the plane ride, rightly thinking nobody wants to give a gynecological exam to a pregnant teen just in the name of national security. The bud is bomb bomb, as Jade calls it. Another difference between here and out West. Not only is the weather better there, the people more relaxed, the girls prettier, the smoke is much better, way fucking better, and I’m baked to the gills when we push the double glass doors in and grab a front booth, sitting right under a massive vintage poster advertising a visit to Chautauqua by the great tenor himself. Not that it matters but my Nana saw both Carsuo and Mario Lanza in her lifetime and said Caruso was a piker compared to Lanza. Thought I’d throw that in just in case you had any interest. It’s all I know about opera. I already got a bellyful of fat Italians screeching anytime I step out of my bedroom so it’s not like I’d pay any money to see or listen to it. The Old Man and the crew are golfing so there’s no way I’ll run into him here, though most times there’s a good chance he’ll be holding court in a back booth, his jesters paying fealty by laughing when nothing he says is actually funny.

We get the pretty waitress. She remembers me from the last time we saw each other. She doesn’t say anything but I can tell. She borders on icy but it might also be I’m so stoned I’m getting paranoid.

“You gonna marry the guy?” I ask, just trying to start some conversation. I’m getting nervous. Hearing her breathe in the bed next to me all night. Girls breathe deeper than guys when they sleep. They give off warmth that fills the entire room. It just comes off their bodies. It isn’t anything they can help. This morning when she came back from the shower I pretended to still be asleep, but I doubt it mattered to her whether I was or wasn’t. She just went ahead and took her towel off and went prancing about putting her panties and bra on, and throwing another wrinkled dress over the top of her like I wasn’t even there. I kept my eyes closed for most of it, but only for most.

“Do I look Mormon or Mexican to you? Maybe when I’m eighteen but I’m not getting married before then. He said he will, that he’ll marry me then.”

“People change their minds.”

“It’s not up to him,” she says. “He’ll marry me if I want.” She tells me the whole story, even tells me who it is. Josh, which is a douche name. “You’re the only person other than him in the whole world who knows,” she says. “I don’t even have any friends left because I won’t tell any of them.” He’s one of her teachers at school. Her English teacher. She goes over to babysit his kid or to get tutoring and they fuck. She threatens to tell anytime he loses any interest.

“You’re blackmailing him?” I say.

“I’m protecting my interests,” she says.

“I don’t get wanting to be with someone you have to blackmail to get to stay. That you have to blackmail to be with you. I can still fuck Lena,” I say, “but I have no interest because she’s fucking another dozen guys too,” I say.

“That’s not the only reason he stays, moron. He stays because he likes fucking me. He’s in it too deep to just stop so he might as well enjoy it. As far as letting him go, who else would have me? He’s the only person outside of my mom who’s ever even come close to making me feel a little loved. Who would have a person like me, with a baby?”

I remember what she looked like when my eyes were open this morning, wet black hair hanging half-way down her bare back, the curve of her womanly ass, cheeks still bright red from the hot shower, like she just got spanked, what I could see of her front peering back at me when she bent over, how she stood looking at herself in the mirror, legs hip length’s apart, applying lipstick before getting dressed. “Pretty much anybody,” I say. “Anybody would want to have you.”

“It’s pretty cute still having somebody trying to get into my panties when I’m this pregnant,” she says. “Even if they are my relative. It’s really sweet how nice you keep being to me.”

She catches me with a mouth full of sandwich otherwise I might protest. It’s just easier to say the right things to girls who look and act like Jade. Her teacher friend must be powerless around her. He’s in his late 20’s, married but separated, his wife a fat blob maybe ten years older than him. Then along comes Jade. She’s the kind of girl who if she was in one of my classes I’d stare at while teasing my dick with the end of a ruler. I wouldn’t care if anybody saw. With some food in me and a cherry shake, I’m feeling a little more relaxed and so I tell her, I tell her the kind of girl I think she is.

“You’d play with yourself looking at me? That’s creepy. But a little hot. I think I just got a little wet.” She actually reaches under the table and checks herself with a finger. “I am,” she says. “You’re a bad cousin.”

“I’ll tell you my secret now,” I say. “One of them. You know how I said I was staying here for college? I lied. My Ma doesn’t know it yet but I’m coming to your part of the country. One state over. The Old Man says we should wait until the very last minute to tell her so she doesn’t start the worrying yet. I can visit you.”

She’s lost in a trail of thought and I’m not sure she even heard me. Girls have a way of doing that, suddenly not being there right in the middle of a conversation, leaving me alone with just their bodies and none of the rest of them. Then she comes back again when I’m not expecting it. “You really think I’m worthwhile?” she says. “I’d rather be with someone who doesn’t want to be with me than be alone. I’m terrified of being alone.”

“That’s where you and me are different. I got eight siblings. Alone is my desired location.”

“You and me can be alone together,” she says.

“The baby too,” I say.

“Oh,” she says. “That.”

The pretty waitress slaps the bill on the table, doesn’t even ask how the food was. “She’s in a snit,” I say.

“That’s because she’s preggers,” Jade says. “She’s in that really tired first part, where all you ever want to do is sleep. I wanted to die then. If you wanted to look at me, she says, if you wanted to look at me while, you know, you did it, I’d let you.”

“What’d you say?”

“You know,” she says. “I’ll take my clothes off for you. If you wanted.”

“No,” I say. “About the waitress? She’s pregnant?”

“Why do you care about her so much? Yeah, it’s easy to tell. She’s probably closing in on three months. I feel embarrassed now. I thought you’d be excited by what I said, what I offered. Now I feel like an idiot.”

The pretty waitress is pregnant. I feel very sober. Not clearheaded but sober. Jade is pregnant, the pretty waitress is pregnant. Thanks be to god Ma isn’t pregnant again. “We’re cousins,” I say. “Is there something wrong with you? We’re blood. Plus, Jesus, you’re knocked up. Like I can jack off looking at someone pregnant. Big pregnant like you, not like her.” I point over at the waitress who scowls at me. “I’m not a pervert. Jesus, we’re fucking cousins. Leave the tip and let’s get out of here.”

Joey’s back in his bed that night and the next. Jade refuses to talk to me or even look at me, for that matter. She spends a lot of the time on the phone and even more time sitting in a chair out back, staring off at something only she can see. It must be mighty interesting because she hardly ever looks away. “Don’t worry about her,” Uncle Joe says. “She gets moody like this. It’s the hormones. She was always moody to start with.” He launches off into a story about how the best thing about the pregnancy is that she doesn’t look fat anymore and that when he told her that she didn’t talk to him for two days. “I complimented her, for crissakes, and she was still pissed off at me.”

The night before they leave, after dinner I’m in my room when there’s a knock. “I need to pack up my stuff,” Jade says. “I can come back later.” She’s wearing her white dress.

“Stay,” I say. “Close the door. Just close the door. You wanna get high?”

“You don’t expect me to pretend you didn’t say those things to me, I hope. You looked like my father when you said it. If I closed my eyes I’d have sworn it was him.”

“No,” I say. “No. I don’t expect that. I just talk easier when I’m smoking.”

“You’ll have to do without your little crutch,” she says.

“Come one.”

“Nope.” She’s smiling, enjoying her little power over me. “You’ll have to relax some other way.”

“The only other way I have is jerking off.”

“You’ll have to do that with my clothes on,” she says. “Oh, alright,” she says, and pulls a baggy out of her purse. “Just because I’m smoking with you doesn’t mean I forgive you. I just don’t want to have to shove this inside my pussy again tomorrow and it’s either that or let it go to waste. I was going to give it to my cousin but then he acted like a douchebag to me.”

“That was the baggy that was inside of you?” I say.

“You wanna sniff it, go ahead.”

“Jade,” I say. “I’m gonna tell you something. Just like I’m the only person who knows about that teacher who, I think, is using you and you should fucking dump and have arrested, by the way, you’re the only one with this.”

“Frankie, are you gonna cry? You look like you might cry.” She hands me the tissues but I don’t need them. My eyes are watering from the smoke.

“I’m not gonna cry,” I say.

“Oh,” she says. “You’re one of them. No tears. They’re unmanly.”

The weed has brought us back to where we should have been all along. I pick up the baggie and draw in deeply through my nose. It smells more like pot and plastic than it does of her. “Women cry more than enough to make up for guys who don’t cry,” I say.

“Yeah,” she says. “Usually the women with those very guys.”

“My Ma was convinced my Old Man was up to no good,” I tell her.

“Isn’t that how he makes his living?” she says.

“Not that kind of no good. I think she must have thought he had a girlfriend.”

“He is very good looking,” she says.

I picture my Old Man, his intricate comb-over and big nose. “Whatever,” I say. “I personally think she’s bazzo. Me and Joey both do. But I go along and I follow him. He goes where he goes. The Hideaway, Caruso’s, home, back to The Hideaway.”

“People are boring,” she says. “Everybody could have so much fun if they just made an effort.”

“Oh, he’s efforting,” I say. “The Old Man is efforting.” I tell her the story, leaving out the unimportant details. How I saw him leave The Hideaway and get into a car and I followed it. How the pretty waitress from Caruso’s got out of the car, followed by the Old Man. How I watched as they kissed and then it looked like he fingered her, and then he took his cock out and she got on her knees and he put it into her mouth. Held her by the head. I told her how big it was, the size of it when he was trying to put it away in a hurry when they noticed the car. How in a panic trying to leave, I ran over the waitress’s cat three separate times. How they surely saw and recognized me. How while my college tuition may or may not be a bribe, it sure feels like one. And how if the pretty waitress from the place we had lunch is pregnant then I’m gonna have yet another brother or sister, this one most unwelcome. “I’m really sorry I said those things to you. None of them were true.”

“Holy fuck,” she says. “You killed her cat?”

“Splat,” I say.

“Was it really that big?”

“It looked like he was wrestling with an electric eel,” I say. “I must take after Ma’s side of the family, I think. You gonna let me see you naked? I did a little already, the other morning.”

“I fucking knew it!” she says. “I took forever getting dressed just so you’d wake up. I wanted you to wake up. You had a boner the entire night. I could see your sheets lifted. It’s not that bad, Frankie. Things are gonna happen no matter what. I’m gonna have a baby whether I want it or not; not that I ever considered not having and keeping it. I never considered anything but what I’m doing. But still, it’s out of my hands now. And all this is out of yours. Let’s be kissing cousins. That’s what you said to me when I was like twelve, you fucking perv.”

“You were fourteen,” I say.

“I might as well have been twelve,” she says. “I’d have done it then too. I had a crush on you then, too. Come here.”

Her mouth is softer than I remembered. Richer and deeper, as if pregnancy has expanded her entire invisible self and I’m licking at the entrance, plunging my tongue into the ever-expanding depths of this new space.

I’m not gonna give you the details. She’s my cousin and that’s different from another kind of girl. Not a sister. Definitely not a sister, but there’s still got to be some protective edge. Or only a couple of details. She’s not wearing any panties under her dress. She feels the need to breathe down there. Her breasts are no longer globs of fat but are fully formed, swollen to the point of veiny, the pink crowns strained and stretching, preparing themselves for their primary duty. When I slide into her the first time, her lying on her side and me behind her, it feels like suddenly rediscovering a piece of information I never even knew I had in the first place. I kiss the back of her white, white neck, nibble on her tiny ears and neck and my hands explore the slope of her belly, the rock hard solidity of it. It’s sudden and not very subtle and I put my hands on it, wrap one arm under her and the other over the top, envelop her, and my hands meet at the highest point, only it’s more like it’s holding me than me holding it, this place inside of her where I can feel the baby shift and kick, small dings against my hands.

“He’s happy,” she whispers.

“So am I,” I whisper back. It’s slow and gentle, the first time, I treat her like she’s something that can be broken, but the times after that are much more theatrical, like a performance involving gymnasts and contortionists. She greedily takes in every last drop I have to offer and I greedily give every last that I have.
The bedroom door’s unlocked. Anybody can walk in at anytime. In a house with nine kids and an Italian mother, you’re lucky if you can take a shit without someone hanging all over you, asking for help with a homework problem or being told to surrender your underwear for a load of whites that she’s just starting. What would they say if they walked in, saw me and Jade naked, the only light in the room coming from the streetlight outside my window, me inside of her, the way we’re kissing and tearing at each other, like there’s some big obstacle other than her belly standing in our way and we’re determined to tear it down and finally get to the truth of the matter, uncover the one goddamn secret that keeps us all bumping into each other every day?
If Ma walked in she would faint or start praying. Joey would storm away pissed that he got stuck playing nursemaid to the younger brother. The Old Man catching us would be ripe. He’s very big on respecting women and in his mind, or at least how he talks, not how he acts, fucking them is disrespectful, unless you’re trying to crank out babies, of course. Then fuck away.

“I love you, Frankie,” Jade says. I tell her I love her back. Neither of us believes it but it sure feels good to pretend we do.

Respect for women is the topic of a popular speech of his, of the Old Man’s. It’s a story about his parents, my Nana who died a couple of years ago and the Old Man’s old man. He died when Nana was still pregnant with the Old Man and none of us obviously ever met him and we don’t really even have a name for him. They owned a small grocery store and a bakery. This was when she was carrying the Old Man around in her, seven other kids at home in various stages of growth. They’d get to the store early together every morning, by four am, leaving the older ones in charge, and she’d fire up the stoves for the fresh bread they sold every day, and he’d lug barrels of olive oil around and unwrap the meats and cheeses and sweep, even though he probably swept six hours earlier when they closed.

One morning she was sick, Nana was. She had a rattling cough. A fever. Her tossing and turning kept the Old Man’s old man from sleeping. You stay home today, he told her, in Italian of course.

I make the bread, she said. Apparently she was the only one capable of operating the ovens.

We’ll use day old bread, he grunted. I assume he grunted. The men in this family grunt.

The story goes that he left her there in bed and walked to the store and was behind the meat counter when he heard a familiar noise, a hissing sound, the gas of the ovens. He stormed into the kitchen and there she was, holding an already wet tissue in her hand, wet from her constant cough, standing on a stool and peering into the highest oven, like she forgot something in there. She turned and looked at him. Fresh bread, is what she said. Fresh bread today. The Old Man’s old man, obviously now I know where the Old Man gets it, shut off the gas, took an axe from a wall in the back and began to hammer at the fronts of the stoves. He ripped their doors off. He pulled one clean out of the wall. At the end of it, covered in sweat, out of breath, he looked at her, she was standing there with her hands on her hips, giving him the evil eye, and he said, No fresh bread today. I personally think the old guy comes off as a slightly more psychotic version of the Old Man himself, but apparently the point is that the damage caused was a small price to pay to keep his wife well. A lot of good it did, being that he caught her cold and died three months later of pneumonia.

Jade’s hovering over me, her belly threatening to come tumbling down and crushing me in an avalanche. Her hair drapes my face. She moves her head and swishes it back and forth against my cheeks. I can’t say enough about the way she kisses, what she tastes like. I don’t know what respect is, but cheating on my Ma is not respect. He can tell all his little stories but the facts remain what they are. I’m not sure where in that tale he found the dispensation to knock up the pretty waitress at Caruso’s but then again, he never even did know his old man, he wasn’t even born yet, so he must have heard the story second hand and here I am giving it one more step removed from the original. For all that I know, there may very well have been fresh bread on that day.

Tom Bonfiglio

Tom Bonfiglio

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Tom Bonfiglios stories have appeared or are forthcoming in over a dozen publications, including, Fiction, Northwest Review, The Florida Review, Lake Effect, The Literary Review, Wag’s Revue, Mixer and Unlikely Stories. He won the Robert C. Martindale Prize in Long Fiction, and has received Special Mention in ThPushcart Prizes: Best of the Small Presses. He lives in Paradise Valley, Arizona.