Penne for My Thoughts: A Short Fiction

The other day, as I waited next to the maître d’ station in Maria’s Restaurant on Emmons Avenue in Sheepshead Bay for the penne puttanesca my wife hankered for but didn’t feel up to cooking, a short, white-haired man and his shorter, plumper wife got up from a table to leave. I recognized them immediately, though it had been fifteen years since I had seen either.

She and her daughter had studied the harp with my mother and he was a lawyer who handled the estates of a range of rather shadowy figures in Dyker Heights, the neighborhood where they lived. They had found my mother through the Regina Opera, whose performances are held in the hall across the street from Basilica of Regina Pacis.

The little girl—this was in the 1970s—had fallen in love with the harp during a performance of “Lucia di Lammermoor” and had insisted on dragging her parents to see the instrument up close afterwards. My mother was packing up, about to slip the blue cover over the instrument, but stopped and demonstrated a few things, as she always did. Loraine, for that was the girl’s name, watched in awe as my mother plucked a few strings and shifted a pedal then demonstrated a harmonic. Merely the harp carrier, I stood patiently by as the parents, to Loraine’s delight, arranged for a lesson—just one, mind you—on learning that my mother lived quite close by, in Bensonhurst. I took the cover from my mother, slid it over the top of the gold post, tightened it, slipped the lip of the cart I had wheeled from the back under the rear two feet of the harp and pulled the strap around, securing harp to cart. The Giuffridas—for that, I overheard, was their name—paid no attention to me. My mother gave me an apologetic smile as I stood waiting while she exchanged phone numbers with them.

At that time, I was still living at home. My father had died a year or so before and I was taking courses at Kingsborough Community College and working as a driver for a fuel-oil company in Borough Park. My mother couldn’t move the harp on her own, so I had stepped into the role my father used to play. My brother was living in the other apartment in the house, but he was disabled so couldn’t help.

In addition to performing at weddings, bar mitzvahs and other events (and, of course, for the opera), my mother had a number of private students. These included one precocious boy name Salvatore who would prove to be the star pupil of her career.

On the day of Loraine’s first lesson, I happened to be home, talking to Dom, Sal’s father, a man about ten years my senior, something of a roustabout and someone I had taken an immediate liking to. He was packing up his son’s new Troubadour lever harp after a lesson when the bell rang and my mother let the Giuffridas in. Loraine circled the room, quickly examining the instruments but stopping before Dom and the Troubadour.

“Whose is that?” It was the only brown harp in a room of gold.

“It belongs to my son.” Dom let the cover fall over it and began tying the cloth belts.

“Where is he?”

“Upstairs. In the bathroom.”

“Can I have his harp?”

Dom laughed and Mrs. Giuffrida pulled her daughter away, “Loraine!”

Mr. Giuffrida left quickly, soon followed by Dom and Sal, who had finally appeared. As I turned to go back upstairs, my mother was placing Loraine on the stool behind the smaller of her two concert harps, Mrs. Guiffrida comfortably snug in an easy chair in the corner.

Dom had bought the Troubadour during one of the rare times he was flush, had bought it new from Lyon & Healy in Chicago. Up to that time, he had rented a harp from my mother, as most of her students did. Aside from her two large harps, she generally had eight or nine for students, of varying quality and size. Sal’s Troubadour turned out to be a very nice instance of the model, much better than the one he had been renting. He fell madly in love with it and was devastated when, less than a year later, his father’s fortunes had fallen to the point where the harp had to be sold.

Not only had Dom and I become good friends by then, but my mother was beginning to serve in a mother’s role for him, too, his own having died long before and his wife having escaped to Florida with an ex-con. When he told my mother how desperate he was, she offered to buy the harp and rent it to him, promising Sal that he could have the harp for his own when she died.

In the meantime, Loraine had continued with lessons, progressing reasonably. After a few months of watching, her mother—whose first name, I finally discovered, was Leslie—asked if she could, too. Mr. Giuffrida, Michael, quickly bought them two harps, both pedal harps, on the theory that they would quickly grow beyond the lever harp they were currently renting.

Soon, I got on with Sanitation and bought a house in Marine Park, where I met and married an Irish girl with a passion for Italian cooking. My brother was more and more house-bound, our mother even taking him down meals and doing the shopping for him, so I was over there often, still the primary harp mover for my mother’s performances and general dogsbody around the house. A few years after that, Sal won a scholarship to the Oberlin School of Music and, by 1990, was principal harpist for the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, DC. Dom died in an automobile accident soon after but, fortunately, he had been able to see Sal’s first performance at the Kennedy Center. Leslie still took lessons from my mother though her daughter had moved on to a music program at Hunter College. Sometimes she substituted for my mother when she couldn’t give her lessons.

Michael had become a confidant of my mother, to the point where she now relied on him for her own legal advice. He rewrote her will for her, putting in a lifetime occupancy clause for my brother so that I could not sell the house out from under him as executor in the case of her death. I was fine with that—and had, in fact, suggested it.

In 1999, my mother suffered a massive coronary, dropping dead on the spot. My brother, waiting downstairs for his breakfast, kept calling her. Getting no answer, he called me and 911. I got there after the fire department and the EMTs and spent most of the day trying to console my brother, who really had relied on her. Later, I started calling people, including the Giuffridas and, of course, Sal. Michael told me, for I had power-of-attorney, to run to the bank and cash a $40,000 check on her account (he knew how much money she had, almost to the penny) before the bank discovered she was dead. Next day, he said, I should let them know she was dead and begin arrangements for an estate account, putting that money in it. Grateful, I asked him to serve as the lawyer for the estate and he told me to bring my brother to his office, in a few days, to get things started.

Sal, devastated at the news, said he would be in Brooklyn the next day; I told him he should stay at the house. When I hung up with him, I called the priest at Regina and began to make the necessary arrangements.

As I had been kept informed about my mother’s finances and knew where all of her papers were, I had everything needed when we got to Michael’s office. He did a quick look at what I brought him, told us there should be no problems and asked for a $25,000 retainer. That seemed a bit stiff, but he was a friend of the family so I didn’t question it, simply got out the new checkbook for the estate and gave him what he wanted. He promised to look after everything and my brother and I left.

My biggest headache in the weeks after the funeral was locating all of my mother’s rented harps. Only her big, gilded “26” was in the house when she died. I found her other large harp where I expected, at a music school where she gave lessons, but the second music school where she taught said the only harp there belonged to someone else. Eventually, I tracked down—and retrieved—all but one of the wayward instruments.

That one, much to my dismay, was the Troubadour promised to Sal. He and I had talked about it when he was staying in the house at the time of the funeral. He still wanted it and my brother and I agreed he should have it, though it had not been mentioned in the will. I had to find it.

But I couldn’t.

All of the others were put up for sale (you don’t keep a harp as a decoration; if they are not used and cared for, they quickly deteriorate) and I was waiting for them to be carted off, one place or another, for I had offers for each though only a couple of finalized sales. I asked the music school once more to check the harp there. No, they said, it definitely belonged to someone else, and they even told me who. It was, they admitted, a Troubadour. Just a different one. I told Sal I was at wit’s end. He promised to see what he could do. That, I assumed, would prove to be little.  What could he find out from Washington?

At about the same time I had talked with Sal, my wife and I had dinner with an old friend of hers, a lawyer named Steve O’Brien who I had never met but who practiced on Quentin Road, not far from Marine Parkway and quite close to our house. After eating, she and he caught up and then he asked me how things were going with my mother’s estate, which had come up earlier. I told him not much was happening but that the lawyer had things under control and would tell me when I needed to do anything.

“How long is it since she died?”

I counted up and told him.

“You know, of course, that state taxes on the estate, then, are due next week.”

“My lawyer,” I said, “hasn’t mentioned that.”

“You’d better call him tomorrow,” he said.

I did, and Michael said he wanted to see me face-to-face and alone rather than talking on the phone. I went over to his Bay Ridge office next morning. He calculated the taxes owed, which came to around $50,000.

“Why didn’t you tell me about this before?” My brother had been in dire need of money and I, too, had been in debt, so I had distributed the estate’s cash—with Michael’s knowledge. There was no way I was going to be able to come up with the money in time.

He shrugged. “Look, this is why I wanted you here and alone rather than with your wife.” He paused. “Frankly, I don’t think you should bother to file. No one will ever notice.”

I stared at him.

“Hey, this is in your best interest. You and your brother both needed the money.”

I drove home in something of a daze.

As I started to tell my wife that Michael had just saved us $50,000, the words stopped making sense. As they came out, she looked at me like I was crazy and, at the same time, I realized that was exactly how I was acting. I had let the idea of all that money cloud my senses.

“No, I can’t do it,” I said.

“You had better not,” threatened she. “Call Steve and see if he has any suggestions.”

I did, and outlined the entire situation to him. He gasped when I told him how much the retainer was, saying it was at least five times too large. When I told him Michael had suggested I not file, he stopped me.

“Fire him. Tomorrow. He will try not to return the retainer, but there are things we can do about that. Hire me right now, giving me a $3000 retainer and I will file for an extension. We’ll have to send some money, however.” He was all business. “How much cash do you have left in the estate account?” I told him. He asked me to walk over to his office, bringing whatever papers I had.

He went through them. “We can do this, but it will take a little time. You want to keep the house for your brother, fine. That’s the biggest asset. The money from the harps still unsold should cover the rest of the taxes, but there won’t be anything left after that.”

A little saddened, I nodded, that Italian vacation disappearing as he spoke.

“Just make sure the harps are all sold before the extension for the taxes is up.”

The next morning, I messengered a letter of dismissal over to Michael, including a request for a bill and the return of the rest of the retainer. He called the house, furious, but I was at work. He told my wife she was a meddler (I had asked that all material he might have be sent to Steve—and he suspected some sort of Irish conspiracy, I think). She finally hung up on him.

Steve wrapped up the estate quite quickly, leaving my brother and me co-owners of the house. He didn’t give any value to the lifetime occupancy—or, rather, didn’t try to have the house valued less because of it for tax purposes—for he knew it was a moot point. He had told me to bring him Michael’s statement as soon as it arrived, and I did. Oddly enough, it came to almost exactly $25,000. In fact, he billed me for a couple of hundred extra dollars. Steve laughed.

“Here’s what you do: You write a letter of complaint to the Brooklyn Bar Association and ask for a hearing. Before you go, talk to me, and I’ll tell you exactly what to say.” I did what I was told and awaited the response from the Bar Association.

In the meantime, though I didn’t know it, Sal was doing something rather smart. He had contacted Lyon & Healy—where he was known (the harp community is small)—and asked if he could have a bill of sale for the Troubadour his father had bought for him so many years earlier, neglecting to say, of course, that the harp had since been sold. Having no reason to believe he did not still own it (or that his father did not, for the bill was in his name), they sent him a copy.

Sal did not know about the problem I had been having with Michael. He had known the Giuffrida family since Loraine’s first lesson and was also aware that Loraine had taken over my mother’s teaching responsibilities at that second music school. I had not felt it made sense to involve him in my problems.

When he called the music school to ask that the serial number on the harp be checked, he was told by the school’s director that Michael Giuffrida, who was now on the school’s board of directors, had warned him not to give out any information about the harp. Perplexed, Sal called Loraine, wanting to ask her what was going on and to see if she wouldn’t check the number for him.

While he was on the phone with her, he could hear her parents in the background, asking who she was talking to about the harp. She told them, and Sal could hear them in the background shouting, “Get off the phone.” There was a click and a dead line. When he called back, he got a busy signal. Now really confused, he called me, gave me the serial number, and asked me to insist that the school check it against the harp.

When I called the school, I was told by the director in no uncertain terms that this was a different harp but that, out of respect for my mother, he would check.

A day later, I got a call from the receptionist at the school telling me that the harp was waiting for me in the lobby.

I had to take the day off to get it. That same receptionist was there, but she did not speak to me, simply pointed to the harp. I lifted it and carried it out to the car and heard the lobby door click locked behind me. When I rang to go back in and say thank you, I got no response.

The next time he was in New York, Sal came by for the harp. He told me he had called the director of the school to thank him but that the director, on discovering who was on the line, had hung up on him. I explained that it seemed that the Giuffridas were at war with me. He felt that they had been trying to steal the harp for the school in the first place and I couldn’t argue with him. Obviously, Michael had taken me for a patsy from the start. When I thought back on it, I realized he never had had much respect for me, anyway.

I didn’t want to be taken for a fool any longer.

When the hearing before the Bar Association was finally scheduled, I asked Steve for advice about how to conduct myself.

“The first thing is, be calm. The second is, don’t say anything except exactly what you need to in responding to question. Don’t explain; don’t embellish. The third thing is, don’t lie. And finally, never respond directly to Giuffrida. There will be a board of three lawyers; talk only to them and only when they ask you to.”

At the hearing, the chief of the board asked us, me and Michael, to step into another room and try to work this out between us.

“What would satisfy you?” Michael asked.

“All of it.”

He turned and walked back into the hearing room.

That hearing was quite surreal. Michael, I had thought, had courtroom experience. He certainly was cocky and sure of himself. A lot of his argument was that it took time to establish the value of my brother’s lifetime occupancy. “Why didn’t you do that when you wrote the will?” asked one member of the panel. He had no answer for that but blustered on to something else. He also claimed that Steve had been my mother’s lawyer before Michael and now resented him and was trying to get back at him. He hadn’t bothered, I realized, to look into that: Steve had never even heard of my mother before that night at dinner. My mother’s old lawyer, it is true, had also been named Steve and was also Irish, but there the resemblance ended.

When the hearing was over and I left the room, I knew I had won. The only question would be how much would I get back.

Which proved to be about $20,000. It came as a check two days after the Bar Association judgment. I split with my brother, of course, my part going to that delayed trip to Rome.

Fifteen years later, seeing Michael for the first time since the hearing and Leslie since my mother’s funeral, I wasn’t sure how I should react. Should I nod and smile… should I flip them off, there in the restaurant, the maître d’ hurrying behind them with my order? Nah, I remembered Steve: nothing was the best policy. So I simply looked over their heads at the approaching bag with penne puttanesca as they scurried by below my shoulder, never looking up though they certainly knew who I was.

[Featured image: By Thomas Then (Own work (selbst fotografiert)) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]

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