This story isn’t about me, although I have a kind of curiosity inside my personality that my friends tell me I had even when I was a little boy.
And that’s what this story is about, really. Little boys and the bad things that can happen to them later in life.
Of more concern to this tale is one particular little boy who grew up to become in most ways a stylish man, but who killed his mother in a manner that I’d describe as a murder, but that a judge and jury decided was some kind of manslaughter by “reason of insanity.” Which makes no sense to me, not if you look close at the facts of the case.
And because I’m the curious sort, I always look real close at people and their problems. We all of us have our problems. That sure was true of this boy turned into a cold-blooded killer. And even more true, of course, of his dead mother.
I don’t mean that last remark, by the way, to sound like a joke, either. The boy’s mother, Mrs. Connie Varello was her name, had serious mental issues — as they say nowadays — way before things came to blows between her and her son and her husband.
But now I’m going on ahead of myself; and when I do that I become judgmental and surrender to my prejudices before I consider the black-and-white description of things as they are.
So let me back up just a bit.
What started me looking into this matter — I’d come right out and call it a crime, truth be told — was the fact that all of this tragedy occurred just two doors down from where I live here in Cedarville. And said tragedy began to take root more than half a century ago, back when me and the boy — Johnnie Varello — were mates at Linden Avenue Grammar School.
Back then Johnnie was the smart kid in class, the one who always had his hand waving in the air, because he always knew the right answer, or at least he thought he did.
Johnnie, he’d grab a crayon from the box at drawing time and say something strange like, “This is oily wax.” The rest of us, of course, would look at him and wink at each other and tell him it was just a crayon and he could stick it up his nose if he wanted to. Well, not up his nose exactly, but then I don’t want to put dirty words in this story, because it’s sad enough without them.
In any event, Johnnie didn’t seem to get our jokes anyway, or maybe he chose to ignore them. Because he’d just answer us with more of his intellectual approach to life’s simple objects and say something like, “No, the word crayon means chalk and earth. Really. I looked it up last night.”
Crazy kid, Johnnie was, even way back then, although none of us could actually see what was building inside that house where he and his parents lived, all squeezed up together with no room to breathe, much less express their disagreements in a respectful manner.
Always squawking and screeching and banging away at each other, they were. These arguments — I guess you’d call them arguments, if you want to be polite about it — showed up most clearly in summertime, when in Cedarville the air was hot and sticky and so windows were wide open and people’s voices traveled back and forth from one place to another. Heck, during summers in our town you could all but make out the details of conversations mosquitoes were having with each other, if you were the curious type and cared to listen real close.
Now to be fair to Johnnie Varello, the evidence I heard with my own ears during those prosperous years of the 1950s tells me that his mom beat him up real good and often, maybe especially in summertime, what with the pressure that heat tends to build inside a human being. Many were the evenings when I’d be riding my Schwinn ten-speed up and down the block, chasing after girls or just following the cloud of white smoke wooshing out from the back of a mosquito truck, and I’d hear Johnnie yelling things like, “Please, no, Mother! I promise I won’t do it again.” Or some such desperate plea.
Still, in those days most parents hit their kids when they were being bad. And I’m of the opinion that if more of that were true today, in Cedarville and in the nation proper, blacks and Puerto Ricans and low-life white trailer trash wouldn’t rule the streets they way they do.
But that’s going off track again; and I want to make my point and finish this story, and maybe even submit a summary of it to the Cedarville Gazette’s opinion section for the public’s approval, or not.
I attended most every session of the trial, as is my rightful duty as a citizen of this great country. And the way Johnnie Varello told it inside the courtroom . . . well, he wanted all of us attending to believe that he lost his mind that hot summer night just by staring at a cluster of cut flowers that were sitting in a vase on his mother’s dining room table. Now don’t that beat all? Doesn’t feel like a logical sequence of cause and effect events to me. Not at all.
But the defense lawyer, Arthur J. Schultz, a man I know sort of well because he was in that same grammar school class with Johnnie and me, called a psychiatrist to the stand to bear witness to the effects of what the medical professionals call something like Traumatic Stress Repressed Memories. Try saying that one real fast. Sounds poetic, sure enough, but kind of silly, too.
Still, Artie Schultz — that’s what we called him before he got educated up to university — well, I trust the fact that he knows things I don’t quite comprehend.
The specific memory in question was all about, according to Johnnie Varello, that is — and confirmed by the psychiatrist of record — a long ago summer day and night back in 1956.
Seems like the Varellos were making a day trip to visit Mrs. Varello’s mom, who at the time lived down in Cape Point, which is still to this day a beach town tourist type destination at the southern tip of the state, where the map let’s off deep into the Atlantic Ocean and people like to play miniature golf, and eat some blue-point crab, and just plain enjoy their families while the getting’s good.
The way Johnnie told it, he was sitting in the back seat of the ’49 Chevy Deluxe, staring through the rear window, when all of a sudden he noticed one of those flower stands that were so popular at the time along Route 53.
From that point on, if my memory serves me as well as it usually does after I’ve listened close and careful to a back and forth exchange between a lawyer and a witness, Johnnie’s recollection of that day sounded something like a short story buried inside a longer book, a book I’d place on a shelf with the rest of the mystery novels I prefer to read and even try to write whenever the creative urge fires up inside me.
“Can we go there, Dad?” Johnnie said.
Mr. Martin Varello tapped the brake pedal, eased in the clutch and put her in reverse. In most ways, Martin was a darned good father who always wanted to please his boy. He was just afraid of his wife, a coward as it turns out, if you believe what most folks say looking back on it all. But aren’t we all afraid of our wives from time to time, what with a woman’s scorn and some such?
“You’re going to kill us all, the way you drive!” screamed the boy’s mother. Johnnie was used to hearing his mother screaming at his dad, especially when the family took the day-long trip to Cape Point.
“Look here, Connie,” said Martin. He just wants to bring your mom a bunch of her favorite blossoms.”
“She’s not my mom. Now if you’re going to do this, hurry up. We haven’t got forever, you know.”
“I know. No one does.”
Martin opened the Chevrolet’s heavy passenger-side door. He tilted his wife’s seat forward gently against her back to let the boy out. Connie wouldn’t budge a bit, however, not until her pocketbook fell to the floor and spilled its contents, which in turn caused her to bend down and gather all her beautifying paraphernalia and her prescription medications.
Johnnie slipped outside the car real quick, before his mother had time enough to catch her breath and start yelling again.
“Let’s get the pink ones,” said Johnnie. “Mama Mary likes pink. She drinks out of pink glasses, and she paints her toenails the same color as those gladiolas over there.”
“Show me where the pink ones are, son. Fast now. You know how your mother is about waiting.”
Johnnie saw his dad smiling, and being the intuitional kind of kid he was, he wondered how his dad could do so inside the circumstance that was his life with Connie.
In spite of his dad’s warning, the boy dawdled. He liked the sound of gravel crunching underneath his feet as they walked the road’s shoulder. That and the sweet smell of the surrounding farmland.
Route 53 was a two-lane highway that ran north and south, all the way from New York City at its top to Cape Point at its final tip. Martin had just moments earlier steered the Chevy across the Ridley Bay Bridge — a narrow, wooden structure that featured a shack midway that served as a toll booth. The old man who collected twenty-five cents a pop — for cars or trucks, the difference didn’t matter in those days — wore a dark-blue cap and gave the kids candy and a wink of his eye. Sometimes Johnnie wished that man were his mother, even though he understood that mothers had to be women by definition of their role in the scheme of things.
“Why doesn’t Mother like Mama Mary, Dad?” Johnnie stared straight ahead when he asked the question.
“She likes her well enough. It’s just that Mary’s her step-mom; and I think she misses her real one.”
“Did her real one scream all the time like her?”
“Let’s just get the flowers. We can talk about this another time. I can even show you pictures in the album we have at home.”
Johnnie approached the sales table and pointed to the fullest bunch of pink gladiolas he could find. “We’ll take those ones there,” he said to the lady who stood smiling underneath the canvas awning.
“They sure are a pretty shade of pink,” she said. “These for your mama sitting over there in that shiny Chevrolet?”
“No, they’re for my Mama Mary. She’s my grandma. My mother doesn’t especially like flowers.”
“Oh, I can’t hardly believe that. All mamas appreciate such jewels of nature. That’s what I call them — Jewels of Nature. And I’m someone’s mama, so I ought to know what mamas like. Isn’t that right, Mister?”
“You sure are on to something true enough for most,” said Martin. Then, real quick, he followed that remark by asking how much they owed.
“Seventy-five cents for the bouquet, and here’s a single stem of red ones for your mama, free of charge.”
Back inside the car, Johnnie laid the flowers on the seat beside him. He picked up the stem of red blossoms and held it over the top of the seat in front of him. His mother was busy reapplying her lipstick. She moved her arm backward and fast, like a person does when she’s swatting away a fly. The red gladiolas flew from Johnnie’s hand and fell to the floor.
“Not now, boy. Can’t you see I’m busy?” said Connie.
Johnnie didn’t bother answering. Instead, he slid his body far enough toward the edge of his seat so his foot would reach down to the floor, and he stomped that foot down hard on the red blossoms. He watched a red stain smear and spread its way into the carpet, and he smiled.
As the Chevy picked up speed, Johnnie stared out the window and allowed his mind to become as one with the scenery. Barns and silos. Peach orchards and yellow tractors. Railroad box car diners and two-pump gasoline stations. The entirety of this universe reminded him of the painted pictures he discovered inside the books he read while lying on the floor inside Cedarville Public Library on Saturday mornings when most of the kids from school were outside playing sports and talking tough.
Johnnie Varello knew he wasn’t tough. He couldn’t make a football spin as it flew through the air, and he was so afraid of a hardball that the Little League coach kept him sitting on the bench during eight innings out of every nine, and all nine if the game was tied near its end.
But Johnnie knew he was smart. And although he oftentimes cried when he curled himself up and buried his body inside his bed at night, he knew that someday he’d escape. Maybe, he thought, maybe I’ll even sneak out of bed one summer night and walk across Ridley Bay Bridge. Then I’ll wait till sunrise and begin my journey back to Mama Mary’s place. She’d take me in. She’d understand.
“Don’t you go doing too much for her. She’ll take advantage of you the way she always does.”
The sound of his mother’s angry voice startled Johnnie. He realized that he’d fallen asleep sometime ago. The fact that he’d missed the better part of the trip left him feeling irritable.
But at least they were there. Johnnie sat up, rubbed his eyes, and again looked through the window.
His mother most times criticized Mama Mary’s house. She spoke of so-called better days. Days when her father, Papa Dominic, owned a milk delivery company. Back then his milk trucks were Model T Fords, and in the darkness before dawn Papa Dominic changed the paper caps on each quart bottle to reflect a later date. Days that existed before what grownups called The Great Depression, when Papa Dominic — and his first wife and their daughter — lived in a richer part of the world known as Highland Crest.
Now Papa Dominic was many years dead, and Johnnie’s memories of the man were vague and faded, like the black-and-white photographs that sometimes looked as if they bled rust where they hung on Mama Mary’s walls.
Johnnie loved this house. Maybe, he thought, I love it especially because she hates the place.
Johnnie loved the peeling paint, the wide front windows, and the three crooked wooden steps that led up to a wraparound porch where two wicker rocking chairs sat waiting for him and his dad to make them creak.
But most of all Johnnie loved the sight of Mama Mary’s shadow when it appeared behind the front door’s lace curtain.
To be continued . . .