Household Saints Online - Francine Prose

Sausage and Pinochle

IT HAPPENED BY THE grace of God that Joseph Santangelo won his wife in a card game. This fateful game of pinochle took place in the back room of Santangelo’s Sausage Shop, on Mulberry Street, in New York City, on the last night of the record-breaking heat wave of September 1949.

That summer, each day dawned hotter than the day before, and the nights were worse than the days. All night, pregnant women draped wet washcloths over their faces, begged the Madonna for a good night’s sleep, and thought how lucky Mary was that her baby was born in December. Children, three and four to a bed, squirmed to escape each other’s sweaty skin until their fathers’ curses hissed through the dark and they dozed off only to wake, moments later, stuck together like jelly apples.

Downstairs, the streets belonged to the young men who gathered on the corners, smoking, tapping their feet as if the sidewalk were too hot for them to stand still, and especially to the sort of old people who claimed they never slept anyway. From the doorsteps and fire escapes, they kept watch through the humid night—grandmothers cooing like pigeons and picking their black cotton stockings, grandfathers with their eyes shut, their chairs tipped back, dreaming out loud of that legendary summer in the old country when all the grapes shriveled on the vine, when the trout boiled alive in Lake Maggiore and floated belly up so that the whole lake shone in the moonlight like this: And here the old men would reach in their pockets for a nickel or a shiny dime.

This summer, they said, was a hundred times worse. Compared to Mulberry Street, Lake Maggiore smelled like a rose garden. At this, their wives nodded, even the ones who could usually be counted on to remember another time, in another place, when everything was bigger and better and more extreme.

Each morning, the papers ran photos of pretty girls in bathing suits frying eggs on midtown sidewalks. Each morning, some desperate mother asked her children: If I cooked on the pavement, would you eat? But her grumpy children only shook their heads, and even the best eaters would touch nothing but a slice of melon, a glass of milk, a peach. By noon, the bakeries were like steam baths, the bread like hot towels. Frank Manzone, the vegetable man, took to burying his wilted spinach beneath the last fresh leaves and stuffing it into paper bags, quick, so the housewives wouldn’t see. The women knew that the spinach was wilted and bought it anyhow, because it was so hot that no one could stand to eat meat.

No one knew this better than Joseph Santangelo, the butcher, whose cash register hadn’t rung since early June. Beads of oily sweat collected on the sausage, and the beef began to shine with the delicate fluorescence of butterfly wings. Eventually Santangelo transferred his stock to the refrigerator room at the back of the store, and spent August alone in his shop. Tired of staring at the empty cases, he’d make quick trips to the meat locker, like dips into a cool pond.

Labor Day came, summer’s end, but the only thing that stopped was the air, which simply quit moving and would not budge no matter how the grandmothers fanned it with rolled-up newspaper and prayed to the Virgin for a breeze. Well into September, the temperature rose so steadily that even the young men got worried and repeated the solemn rumor that all this had something to do with the A-bomb. Among the old women, alarmists were predicting the end of the world: Hadn’t God promised the fire next time? What if He’d meant this low steady roasting? So saying, the women fell silent and, from the habits of a lifetime, waited for their husbands to tease them out of their fears.

“Lord, turn me over!” cried the husbands, as the martyr San Lorenzo was supposed to have screamed from his agony on the hot griddle. “Cook me on the other side!”

Nervous joking, because it was the kind of heat wave which made the most sensible people think about doom. Even Joseph Santangelo began to wonder how his life would change if it just got hotter and hotter, and no one ever bought sausage again.

The night that Joseph won his wife at pinochle was the final night of the feast of San Gennaro. But for the first time that anyone could remember, it was too hot to celebrate. All