“I was a tremendous bocci player back in the day, tremendous.”
Pauly looked at Ugo, who had just uttered the statement. They were in the dining hall, post-lunch, sipping espresso. Ugo’s slumped shoulders, ashen complexion, and depressive personality inspired little confidence.
“Why are you staring at me?” Ugo said, tilting his head slightly.
“Look,” Pauly said, “you’ve been at the Villa for what, a month. A month. You’ve avoided all the social events, bingo, even the August gala. And now you say you want to play in the bocci tournament. On my team?”
“Your team represents Sicily. I wanna play with the Sicilians against those northern assholes. That loudmouth Tucci, he’s from Milan.”
Pauly didn’t see how this broken-down old man could help his team in the big tournament.
“I’m telling you,” Ugo said, his lips blue from whatever drugs they had him on. “I have trophies. My kids still have the trophies somewhere.”
“But can you still play? I see you walking with the cane. I see you walking like you got a fucked up back—”
“And your back isn’t fucked up?”
Pauly finished his espresso. At least they made a good espresso at the Villa, full marks for that. The food was tolerable. On the other hand, some of the Villa residents, and a few of the staff, left much to be desired. Ugo was an annoying man. He wasn’t even Sicilian.
“You’re not even Sicilian.”
“Eh, I’m from Calabria,” Ugo said. “We’re southerners, compari. We southerners should stick together.”
As far as Pauly was concerned, Calabria was north of Sicily.
“I’ll think about it,” he told Ugo.
Pauly went up to his room and slowly undressed for a nap. He rubbed his aching thighs. The replacement knees had never felt right. He was in constant pain. If not for the pills.
He spread himself out on the bed. He’d been napping with Celestina, an 80-year-old beauty, for a few months. But she’d broken her hip last week and was in hospital. Folks at the Villa rarely recovered from broken hips. Pauly had developed a real affection for her. She reminded him of his dead wife, Concetta. They shared the same fierce, black eyes and waspish demeanour. He liked those things. They kept him on his toes. He had even accidentally called Celestina Concetta a number of times—an honest mistake that Celestina barely noticed, touched as she was with dementia. He put on his silver pajamas and crawled into bed. Without a nap, he was useless in the evenings. He was a man who had never napped as an adult. Now he couldn’t go without one.
He awoke an hour later bathed in sweat. He had been dreaming. He couldn’t remember the dream, but he was anxious in it. He still felt anxious as he washed his face with cold water in the bathroom.
He went down to the recreation hall for a game of cards and an afternoon espresso. That would set him right. The usuals were there, D’Onofrio, Tony, and Jimmy. Jimmy was wearing a party hat.
“Your birthday or something?” Pauly asked.
“Every day is my birthday,” Jimmy chirped. He was always chirping.
Pauly went to the automatic espresso machine and made himself a long one. The machine was from Italy. It made an espresso better than a barista, go figure. The world was changing too fast. Pauly was almost glad he wouldn’t be around to see it completely transformed. He had maybe two—three years left, he figured. His cancer was in remission, but at eighty-five, he’d just about had enough. His life had been fine. He could move on to the next thing without too many regrets. He tried not thinking about that at length. What was the point? All would be revealed in time.
He returned to the table. They played for quarters just to make it interesting—but winning was winning no matter how small the prize. Beating these clowns, even for quarters, made Pauly feel superb.
D’Onofrio dealt out the cards. The men studied them with serious expressions. Tony played a card, and Jimmy followed suit.
“That new guy, Ugo,” Pauly said, “he wants to join the bocci team.”
“He’s not Sicilian,” Jimmy said decisively.
“Besides,” Tony said, sliding a toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other, “we have a team.”
“So I’ll tell him,” Pauly said.
After a moment, D’Onofrio, who still dyed his hair black, leaned in and said, “He was a made guy with la ‘Ndràngheta.”
Everyone stopped playing.
“No shit,” Pauly said. He’d only met a handful of wise guys in his day, scumbags for the most part.
“Would I joke about that?” D’Onofrio said. “He was a friggin capo.”
Jimmy quickly crossed himself and pressed his hands together. Then he burst out laughing. Jimmy used to run with toughs back in his day.
Tony also laughed, removing the toothpick from his mouth as he did.
Pauly and D’Onofrio weren’t laughing.
“So what are you gonna do?” D’Onofrio asked Pauly.
“You gonna let him play?” Jimmy said.
“Nah,” Tony said. “If he ain’t Sicilian, he can’t play.”
D’Onofrio was skeptical.
“What,” Jimmy said, “is he gonna put a hit on him if he says no? Minchia, they’d be doing him a favour, haha. Right, Pauly?”
“Right,” Pauly said, but he wasn’t laughing. Jimmy could be a real stronz at times.
They finished their game, and Pauly went to his room again to wash up before dinner. A real stronz, he thought. As he toweled his face dry, he felt a chill go through him. He started shaking uncontrollably. What the hell? He had to lie under the duvet for a few minutes until the shaking ceased.
Just before he went to the dining hall, he stopped by Ugo’s room.
The old man was sitting in the dark.
“What do you want?” he said.
“You can play,” Pauly told him, hating himself a little for doing it.
Salvatore Difalco’s work has appeared in print and online. He lives in Toronto. You can find out more about him and his work here.