Wife two was a stripper. And sweet, too. He traded her in for me, wife number three. To people I don’t know, I say she was a dancer. I watch them, puzzled, wonder how anyone could not love a ballerina. And you have to question a guy like that: trading in a sweet stripper for me. Not a homemaker. Not home much at all. Not sweet. More like my grandfather, Jimmy Grieco. Mean. My mother likes to describe the blue-sky day when she bought me a helium balloon and I let it go. I was six. I begged for another. She said, okay, but, if you let this one go, I’m really going to be mad. I nodded, took the string in my hand, held tight, and then opened my hand flat so the balloon lifted and its string slipped up and away. You were never sweet, my mother says.
In Vegas, a few weeks ago, Jimmy and I sorted photographs in his double wide just off Boulder Highway. My mother stood on the sidelines. She hates how I ask Jimmy for the hard stories. Tell me about the moonshine. Tell me about the dead kids. Tell me how your mother saved the family by burning down the farm. Jimmy’s crooked finger points to a picture of the family. That was Leonard. He was deaf and dumb. Died at twelve. That was Vincent. The baby who fell off the staircase without a rail. Dead at two. Then there’s his mother, surrounded by her children. She was tough, he says. Tough. When Chicago’s Black Hand demanded ten thousand dollars, she stuffed five grand in her apron, grabbed my grandfather – then five – and took him to deliver the money and tell them what she thought. That’s all you’ll ever get, she said, and don’t touch my kids or I’ll kill you.
My grandfather never asks about the first or second wife. I don’t have to tell him that ballerina-fable. He knows I’m three and mean. He knows it for his whole life. His first, my grandmother, was like sugar. He burned her, abandoned her in LA, raced to Mexico, paved road turning to dirt; he ate prickly pear on the way to his quick divorce. And, though he won’t tell this story, his own father lived, first, with sweet woman on a wheat farm, far south in Craco, Italy. He boarded a ship, told his wife he’d send for her, and then fled to New York. And in an apartment at 91 Mulberry Street, he met up with the new girlfriend and they disappeared into their new world. She wasn’t pretty. She was tough. She got busted twice for making moonshine. Her sons loved her. She was mean.