Title: Ninety Nine
Genre: Literary Novel
Author: Rocco Lo Bosco
Publisher: Letters at 3am Press
Purchase on Amazon
About the Book:
During the summer of 1963 in Brooklyn, Dante’s family falls into financial ruin after his stepfather borrows money from loan sharks to start his own trucking business. Young Dante has his first love affair, with an older woman, while his stepbrother Bo struggles with murderous impulses over his mother’s abandonment. The brothers become part of the Decatur Street Angels, a wolf pack led by their brilliant cousin who engages them in progressively more dangerous thrills. Four event streams—the problem with the loan sharks, Dante’s affair, Bo’s quest for closure, and the daring exploits of the Angels—converge at summer’s end and result in a haunting tragedy.
Ninety Nine is a fierce coming-of-age story, with tight plotting, interesting characters, and the timeless ingredients of any good piece of fiction—the anguish of change, the agony and ambivalence of love, the exuberance and craziness of youth, and a tragic ending with the whisper of redemption.
- Bed on Fire
Even through the curtain of cold rain Bo clearly saw her watching him from the window. Why was she crying anyway? Falling to his knees, he clasped his hands together and sobbed, “Mama! Please! Let me back in. Please!”
She put her hands over her eyes. Then she shut the window.
He was a bad kid, everyone said so: his aunts and uncles; his fat little grandmother with her tight, white bun and her support stockings rolled down to her swollen ankles; his thick-armed, ugly grandfather who stank of cigars and had the eyes of a snake.
He screamed and yelled and threw things, not because he was mad, but because it was so much fun. He liked to scale the refrigerator like a mountain climber and then leap off the top and land onto the counter. He liked to race through the rooms while pretending he was The Flash, a comic book hero who dressed in a tight red suit and yellow boots and ran so fast he couldn’t even be seen. The Flash had tiny wings on his ears and a yellow lightning bolt wrapped around his waist. Bo once tried to paint a lightning bolt across his chest with black oil paint, but the thick blobs of paint smeared and ran in black rivulets down his body. When he saw the mess he made, he decided to paint his whole body black. His mother became hysterical when she saw what he had done, and it took her hours to remove the paint with olive oil.
He liked to tease his sister, pulling her hair and taking her dollies away, throwing them up into high places where she couldn’t reach them. He stayed up at all hours of the night, turning on the television and watching old movies that he didn’t understand while eating Italian bread and leaving crumbs all over the living room. He sometimes broke stuff for spite and dropped water balloons on people’s heads from the second-story window where he and his sister lived with their mother and grandparents. He’d fling his cereal bowl against the wall when its contents weren’t to his liking. He could howl at the moon like a wolf. But the thing that got him tossed out, it was really bad.
His grandfather had been eating goat cheese and his little sister Angelina wanted a piece of it. She called it “ticky.” “I want some ticky,” she said, reaching up her small dark hand. The old man said she could have it only with bread. But she didn’t want the bread, only the cheese. She became insistent, saying “Give me ticky!” over and over, and she started crying, but that fat slob just kept eating his bread and cheese, drinking his sandy, homemade wine like she wasn’t even in the room. When Angelina grabbed for the cheese, he slapped her so hard she fell down. Then he picked her up and slammed her into a chair, offering her some cheese he had spread on the bread. When she threw the bread and cheese on the floor, he beat her across her arms, shoulders, and face with his thick, meaty hands. Bo jumped on the old man’s back, and the beating turned on him, much harder, the old man knocking him to the floor and wailing on him with closed fists. His mother ran into the room to save him, and she and her father began screaming at each other in Sicilian. Bo had a bloody nose and a swollen lip.
About an hour later, when everyone was gathered in the kitchen, he used the big, wooden matches he had stashed in his dresser drawer to set his grandparents’ bed on fire. The fire looked surprisingly beautiful, the flames leaping up from the mattress like hungry tongues, spreading across the bed as if they had been spilled from a bucket of pure fire, long intertwined ropes of flame the color of bright autumn leaves twisting and dancing in the air. Completely entranced, he watched as the fire billowed across the bed, its outer edges licking the air like something alive. He could see shapes forming in it, faces and beasts and landscapes made of flame momentarily appearing before being sucked back into the roiling blaze. He had turned the bed in which his two rotten grandparents slept into a blazing barge of light, an altar of shimmering incandescence.
When his mother ran into the bedroom and saw the spreading inferno, she yanked at her hair and began screaming incoherently. His grandfather came in behind her and, cursing in Sicilian, pushed his daughter aside and flipped the mattress onto the floor and stomped on the flip side, quickly putting the fire out. Nonetheless, besides the ruined bed, the parquet floor was burned, and the walls of the room were partially covered in black soot. Within the hour his aunt was called to pick up Angelina, and Bobby was put out in a pouring autumn rain with his suitcase to wait for his father.
Every few minutes his mother would come to the closed window and look at him through the blurry glass. The rain became heavier, beginning to flood the streets. She looked like a shadow standing behind the window, her face a dark blurry thing to which he silently mouthed the word “Mommy” each time he saw her. His suitcase and its contents were thoroughly soaked by the time Valentino pulled up in his blue Ford, breaks screaming and tail lights glowing like red eyes peering through the watery veil. When he saw his Papa, Bo began to wail, half in fear, half in sheer relief. But Papa’s face was a boiling blur of rage as he tore out of the car. “Get in the car! Hurry! Get in!” he told his teary-eyed son.
Papa ran toward the building and screamed up at the window. “You wretched Butana! How do you throw your own son out in the rain? He’s seven years old! You pig! You whore! You should be slaughtered like a cow!”
She pushed up the window, stuck out her head, and with a face twisted in fury, began shouting back at him in Sicilian. “You take him, you bastard, you pimp, you take him! And Angelina, too! She’s at your sister’s house if you want her. They won’t take your son. Nobody wants any part of him! He set my parents’ bed on fire! On fire! He’s a criminal, just like you! I don’t want either of them! I’m starting a new life! Without you! Without them!”
In the same dialect he screamed back up at her. “It’s a shame you and your filthy parents weren’t in the bed when it was burning. The three of you aren’t worth the bones and ash that would be left, you ugly disgraciata. If I come up there, I’ll kill you all. I’ll pull your heads off like chickens. You’ll burn in hell for what you’ve done, you whore, you filthy pig, you soulless bitch! You should be gutted, you rotten stronza!”
She leaned halfway out the window, shaking her fists in the air. “Come up here and I’ll stab you to death, you stinking piece of shit! I never wanted you! I never loved you! I hate you. If I go to hell, I’m sure to meet you there, bending over for Lucifer!”
Her voice pierced the rain like a siren. Bo had not gotten in the car. He stood next to it, his soggy suitcase beside him with his mouth opened and his eyes pinned to his mother. His father whirled around and screamed, “Didn’t I tell you to get in the car? Get in the goddamn car right now!”
When his father turned back to face his mother, she threw a potted plant out the window. It missed Val’s head by inches and smashed against the rain soaked sidewalk, scattering its dirt like ash among the broken shards and sodden green leaves. Val bit the middle knuckle of his forefinger so hard that he drew blood, and then he kicked at her front door, over and over, splintering it and stopping only after he had really hurt his foot. Still exploding in volcanic fury and hopping around like a madman, he punched the garbage pails, knocking them over and scattering trash in the downpour. He ran in circles, punching the air and howling while she screamed down curses from the window and threatened to call the cops. It looked to Bo like Papa was dancing barefoot on thumbtacks.
“Even a dog doesn’t abandon its puppies!” Val screamed hoarsely, throwing pieces of garbage up at the window. “I’ll kill you, I’ll kill you, you miserable bitch! Your asshole should be sewn to your mouth, you filthy porka disgraziata!”
Bo’s mother spat out the window, “And I hope they find you someday with your cock and balls stuffed in your mouth! Get lost you bum, and take your bastard son with you! You and your rotten kids should drop dead.” His grandfather finally came to the window and rained down a few curses of his own before he pulled his daughter away.
When Papa got back into the car, he was soaking wet and shaking with such rage that it looked like he was being electrocuted. The whites of his eyes had become red, and when he turned those terrifying, bloodshot peepers on his son, Bo cringed against the door and put his hands over his face.
“What did you do!” he screamed so loudly it hurt Bo’s ears. “Just what did you do this time, you bad, bad boy!”
Bo clenched his eyes shut and waited for the rain of blows. He heard the sound of the rain pounding against the car and the streets outside. Nothing else. Finally he opened his eyes and saw his father with his hands clenching the steering wheel and his head down between them. It was the first time he saw his Papa cry.
Val told Bo he had to put him in a place for a little while, a good place, where sisters and brothers watched over little boys until their parents could take them back. He told Bo not to cry, gently chiding him for starting the fire. “If you didn’t burn your grandparents’ bed, I’d have more time. But don’t cry, it’s only for a little while. Everything will be okay. Don’t be afraid.”
“What kind of place is it, Papa?’
“I told you, it’s a place for boys. It’s a Catholic place, Saint Joseph’s Home.”
The name sent a small ray of heat into the ice spreading in Bo’s gut. However large or small, every statue of Saint Joseph that he’d ever seen in a church or on a house altar depicted a kindly man. Saint Joseph was a good saint and so the home had to be good too.
“Where is it?”
“It’s in Watertown.”
Watertown. He was going to a place with lots of water. “Where’s Angelina going?”
Papa glanced at him, then looked away. “Staying with Aunt Alba and Uncle Santos.”
“Why can’t I stay with them too?”
“Bobby, people don’t like taking care of someone else’s kids. You and Angelina together would just be too much.”
“What about Aunt Conchetta and Uncle Carmine?”
“We hardly talk. I can’t really ask them for a favor.”
“Why can’t I live with you, Papa?”
The old man hissed out a long sigh. “I work all day. Who would take care of you? I’ve got to get a new life. It’ll take some time. But eventually we’ll all be together, the three of us. You have to be patient.”
“When can I come back?”
“I don’t know, Bobby. Maybe several months.
“How much is several?
“Roberto, please! Not now, okay?”