We heard that my father’s friend, Mel Metfessel, was buying Palestri’s market on the corner of Yonkers Avenue, across from the racetrack and next door to my grandfather’s hardware store, where my father worked as the assistant manager.
My grandfather owned the business and he said that made him the manager. From opening the store at nine until he locked the door at five, he sat beside the counter while my father stood behind it all day running the cash register.
Customers would walk all the way back to the counter, passing the washing machines, lawn mowers, hammers, screw drivers, nail barrels, and paint to talk to my grandfather, who they called Benny, sitting in the wooden fold-up chair with one leg crossed over the other, and ask him for what they wanted to buy.
“So, Benny, I’m looking for a fah.”
“What kind of fah?” my grandfather would say.
“A metal fah,” the man would say.
“Rasp or double cut?”
“I don’t know.”
“Whadaya mean you don’t know? Whadah you need it for?” my grandfather would ask him.
My grandfather would sit looking off at the wall on the opposite side of the store. He always did that when he was working. He never looked at the customers when he was talking to them, just at where the fahs or hammers might be, but not right at them.
“I gotta fah down the end of the spindle where it fits into the hole in the sta in Millie’s rocking chair,” said the man.
“Nahhhhh, you don’t need it!,” my grandfather would inevitably respond.
“Whadaya mean, I don’t need it. The spindle won’t fit the hole the way it is.”
“You don’t need a file for that,” my grandfather would tell him and then he’d turn to Dave, my father, and say, “Give him two sheets of thirty-six and two of the eighty sandpaper and charge him forty-nine cents, no tax, and put them in a bag.”
Benny never looked at my father either when he talked to him. Only after he’d say something and then only for a quick second and then he’d look away at something else again.
Metfessel, tall and beefy looking, missing one tooth, used to work for my grandfather. He made deliveries, unloaded inventory into the storeroom, and swept up before closing. He always covered his mouth with the back of his hand when he talked to you.
One day, Metfessel didn’t come to work. My grandfather said he’d got another job. “He don’t work here no more,” he said. That was all he said. That’s when we found out that Metfessel was going to work in Palestri’s grocery.
Palestri did a good business in dry goods, kitchen utensils, and grocery items. There was a Coca-Cola cooler across from the counter filled with ice. He taped a “No leaning” sign on the side by the crate for empties. Candy bars and cigarettes were on the shelves behind the counter. You had to ask Palestri for whatever you wanted, and he would reach behind him for it without taking his eyes off you and slap it down on the counter with a pack of matches on top, if you were buying cigarettes.
Every afternoon my mother sent me down for Chesterfields and told me to tell Palestri they were for her, not to forget the two cents change or matches and I could keep the two cents.
My father had gotten Metfessel a job working for Palestri as a stock clerk. He was working there for about two years when Palestri decided to sell the store to him and move to Florida. Metfessel told my father that he’d set Palestri up with a friend in Miami who’d get him a stake in the Dania jai alai fronton and maybe he might work his way into a piece of the greyhound action in Palm Beach. My father says that Metfessel knows all the right people.
My mother told my father, he shouldn’t get involved with Metfessel. “He’s a slick one,” she said.
“Slick?” my father said. He was smoking in the TV room.
“Turn the TV down,” my mother told him. “I can’t hear you.”
“Slick, I said.”
“No, Dave, you said, ‘slick?’ to me like a question. As if all of a sudden you didn’t know what slick means. And where does Metfessel get the kind money to buy a store in the first place?”
“What kind money?”
“What do you mean, Dave, ‘what kind of money?’ The kind of money you need to buy a store on the hottest real estate corner in the whole city.”
“Dave, cut it out. I know what you’re doing.”
“What’s he doing, ma?” I said.
“Yeah, Shirl, what’s he doing?”
“Go to bed, Ruthie.”
“Why do I have to go to bed?”
“It’s late. There’s school tomorrow.”
“School?” I said.
“Dave, tell her to go to bed.”
“Go to bed, Ruthie, and say goodnight to your mother.”
I lived upstairs, then. We all lived in apartments above the hardware store. My parents lived on the second floor. I lived with my grandparents and older brother up on the third floor.
“David, did you have anything to do with this?”
“Answer me, are you involved with Metfessel in this deal? Did you give Metfessel any money again? Did you ask my father for money? And don’t answer me with another question.”
“It’s a sure thing, Shirl. We could make an easy ten percent of the profits he makes over and above what he would owe us.”
“There is no sure thing, Dave. Here or anywhere. The hardware store was supposed to be a sure thing. The property in Florida was a sure thing. Look at us. We have nothing. Less than nothing. We live with my parents. I’m forty-seven years old. You’re fifty-six. We share a phone line with them. You work for my father. If he loses anything we lose everything, it’s over for us. All of us.
“Don’t ‘Shirl’ me. Did you ask my father for money? The truth. The absolute truthy, truthy, truth.”
“The truthy truth… no, not yet.
“Honest truth. I swear to you on my mother’s soul, wherever she is.”
“Please don’t ask him. He hates Metfessel for selling Ralphie and Ernestine that pool for the roof over their garage. Dave, look at me. We have a kid in college. We own nothing. You know Metfessel would sell Ruthie and her dog for gas money if we ever took our eyes off them.”
“Ruthie, honey,” my mother called up to me, “I know you’re listening, I didn’t mean to say that about anyone selling you and Sinclair. I was kidding.”
“Stop laughing and stop calling me Shirl baby, Dave. I hate that.”
“My mother calls you ‘The Prince.’ She reveres you. We eat Chinese at their dinner table every Sunday night. She’d cut up your vegetables and spoon your soup into your open mouth if you’d let her. And all that matters to my father is that you married his only daughter.
“David. What kind of store is Metfessel planning to open? … David?”
“What kind of store?”
“Christ, Dave, you do the right thing! Stay out of this. Metfessel is trouble in a tee shirt. We don’t need his kind of trouble. We have plenty of other kinds.
“He has a head for business.”
“Yes, he has a head for business, and he has contacts and friends, and one day he’ll end up either in Sing Sing or in the river. Guaranteed. I need you, Dave. Please stay out of this.”
Metfessel got the store. But not with our money. Nobody ever heard from Palestri again. My grandparents moved to a condo in Lake Worth and gave both the store and the business to my mother. She told my father he should be the manager and she would do the bookkeeping. They changed the name to Dave’s Hardware and hired Ralphie to run the cash register.