Gus Busbi slowly opened his eyes to the new day’s morning light streaming in through the bedroom window and muttered, “Shit.”
Gus hadn’t always felt this way in his life, but he went to bed each evening hoping he wouldn’t have to face another day. Another day of routine, emptiness, and lack of purpose. Why did he have to face another day without meaning or joy? Why did his wife have to die before he was ready? Gus and his wife Julia were married for forty-three years and it was three years ago this very day she had died of a failed heart, and he knew a broken one that had never mended.
Gus slid both legs over the side of the bed and onto the floor. With elbows resting on his knees, his hands rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and he stood feeling the early morning arthritic stiffness in his bones adjust to the new day. His six-foot-two lanky frame was tall for his Italian heritage and while the lines and character of his masculine face showed a life of many joys and tragedies, it now seemed as vacant as an old abandoned home that once housed the life of those deep relationships.
Gus began his routine of washing his face, shaving, combing his short salt and pepper hair, and finally pulling on his gray pants, red flannel shirt, and sports jacket. After locking the old door of his upstairs apartment, he made his way down the stairs and out the back door of his two-family house. It was early March and the modest South End neighborhood in Boston was yearning to thaw out from a long cold winter as the spring sun melted the ice on the roofs and the sidewalks Gus walked several blocks to the Eastside Café, his regular breakfast spot for the past thirty years. Every Monday and Thursday, he would meet with a group of seven other men to share breakfast, stories, company, and to give Linda, the cranky waitress, a hard time. Most of the men were retired from the factory where Gus had worked since coming back from the Korean War and others had joined the group over the years.
When Gus’s silhouette entered the front door of the café, Mike looked up and smiled, waving him over to the table of men already engaged in talk of spring and the upcoming Red Sox season. For years, Gus had normally been one of the more outgoing talkers at the table, but a distant quietness had settled into his presence after Julia passed away. Mike made sure Gus continued to come to breakfast and would often find himself looking across the table to find Gus drifting off. The show started when Linda came to their table with pencil, order pad and a sarcastic greeting for her favorite breakfast crew.
“I spent all morning wishing—I mean worried, that my favorite table of admirers wouldn’t show up. Let’s see if we can get through this before the kitchen closes.”
Andy said, “Since I’m your number one fan, I’ll order first.” Linda shook her head and looked straight at Mike for his order as Andy sat with opened mouth and raised his open palms in the air until he got a chuckle from the rest of the guys.
Mike quickly replied, “I’ll have two eggs over easy, rye toast and some of those sweet Italian sausages.” Just as Linda started to turn, Mike reached out, “Never mind. I’ll have my usual instead.”
Linda looked up, and rolled her eyes. “That is your usual, Mike.”
Mike started to say, “Linda, that’s my usual usual but—.” She just turned to the next wise guy. After several of the guys kept changing their minds until they finally ordered their usual breakfast to get a rise out of her—she never disappointed as she grabbed menu out of their hands and could be seen shaking her head as she headed back to the kitchen to place their orders.
Mike knew that today was the anniversary of Julia’s death and made a point to sit next to Gus to see how he was doing. The rest of the table entertained with their usual banter, laughs, and stories that had been repeated more times than anyone of them could count. When they finally left the Eastside, each man was sure to wish their favorite waitress a happy day as her thin frame stood by the register with her arms crossed and a priceless expression on her face. The group continued to talk for a while outside the café on this sunny but brisk morning and then Mike walked with Gus back towards Gus’s home. Gus was quiet during the handful of blocks past the office buildings, storefronts, and apartments until they approached Gus’s street with its few remaining two-family homes rarely seen in this part of the city.
Mike Carbone served with Gus during the Korean War, been best man at his wedding, and worked with him for forty-five years at Dennis Corporation, a manufacturer of jet engine parts located in the South End. Mike was shorter and stockier than Gus and still had jet black hair despite being only a year younger. He stopped for a moment and put his hand on Gus’s shoulder. “Gus, I’m glad you came this morning. I know it isn’t an easy day for you. How are you doing?”
Gus’s eyes stayed fixed on the cracks in the cement sidewalk and no words came in response. Mike’s voice choked as he uttered, “I missed her too.” Mike was Julia’s brother and a steadfast friend and brother-in-law to Gus. “I miss both of them.” Gus’s eyes closed, and he felt as if a bullet had torn through his own chest as his son’s short seventeen years of life flashed before him. Mike was Danny’s godfather, and he had spent many days with Gus and Danny remodeling the house, working on cars, fishing, or just sitting on the front porch on a summer night chatting and listening to the Red Sox on the radio. Mike was as close to his nephew and sister as an uncle and brother could be, so the pain of their absence was no stranger to him.
Gus continued to walk and was in no mood to talk about Julia or Danny, not now and probably not ever. He knew Mike deserved some response to his reaching out, but once they were in sight of the front porch of the house he had lived so much of his life in, anger was the only emotion he could feel at the moment. When Julia had died, Gus moved to the smaller upstairs apartment of the Victorian house and put the main part of the house up for rent. He had left the renting up to a friend who ran a local real estate agency around the corner and was more than upset when he rented the apartment out to a black mother, Celia, and her teenaged son. Celia couldn’t have been a more hardworking and devoted mother, nor a more respectful and gracious neighbor. She kept the inside and outside the apartment impeccable and was determined in her efforts to connect with Gus, leaving him gifts of homemade bread, cards on the holidays and thank-you notes for letting them rent in a neighborhood that was safer for her son and closer to a better school. All Gus could see in front of him now was a sight that angered him. Celia’s son was on the front porch with a gang of six other black youths in their teens and early twenties wearing their hooded sweatshirts, baggy jeans hanging from their hips, flat-brimmed baseball hats, oversized shoes, and an attitude of nothing good that emanated from the scene.
Despite Celia including it on their many notes, Gus didn’t even know the boy’s name nor care to. He and this group of thugs represented everything that took his own son’s life away and broke Julia’s heart. Danny was only one victim of many hundreds over the years, but the vast majority of the tragedies seemed to be caused by hoods like the ones now at his own very home. Gus turned with a look that Mike had become familiar with over the past seventeen years since Danny’s death. That look had once been filled with rage, but was now resigned to resentment and despondency. Gus’s competitive, self-giving and energetic personality was buried with his family and as he now merely existed, old, cranky and detached from the world before his time. With some urgency in his voice, Gus said, “Mike, I gotta go. Some other time.”
The emotions of the day were enough, but Mike knew that the sight of this crew on the porch where Gus shared so many family moments had pushed him over the edge and he didn’t try to argue with him. “Make sure you’re taking care of yourself and let me know when you’re ready to work on that roof.” Gus just disappeared around the back of the house and neither he nor the young men made any sign of acknowledging the existence of the other.
In his apartment, his emotions were still running high and he wrote a note that he left on the door for his downstairs tenants.
If you can’t get your son to keep those gangsters from hanging around my porch like a brood of vipers, I’m going to have to ask you to think about renting elsewhere.