To look at Uncle Enzo you’d be hard pressed to believe that this short mild-mannered fellow who liked to make pasta sauce in the middle of the night dressed only in his underwear had already killed three wives. That’s what some family members believed.
Kith and kin were sympathetic enough at the first wife’s demise, fittingly surprised and shocked with the passing of the second. But they grew suspicious and gossipy after the third so obligingly croaked, leaving Enzo the sole beneficiary of her estate: a run-down house by the lake and a secret recipe for shredded sweetbreads. The police, for their part, were convinced that Aunts Carmella and Philomena had shuffled off in ways that allayed suspicion.
Carmella, Number 1, had slipped in the bathtub and smashed her skull – the coroner reported no water in her lungs and noted that the skull was correctly crushed according to the physical laws of gravity regarding immovable objects like the hot and cold faucets; observing also that the science of forensics offered indubitable proof that the skull and faucets were a perfect match.
She had been his wife for a mere 67 days.
As for Philomena, she was run over by a grocery truck driven by an illegal alien from Korea who spoke no English and whined hysterically at the thought that his cargo of tofu, bean curd and bok choi would spoil, bringing disgrace upon him, along with the wrath of Wong Fu, his esteemed employer.
She left Enzo a bereaved widower after only 105 days, thirteen hours.
Number 3, even by the reckoning of the police, was an unusual case. Sadie perished at the circus when Flying Buster Snood miscalculated his trajectory and came aground, cannonball and all, squarely atop of her.
She and Enzo were on their honeymoon.
A select and influential segment of the family insisted privately that Uncle Enzo, if not a murderer, was certainly unlucky in his choice of partners. Such bad luck made him partly responsible; he should have known better, they said, after the second try at matrimony.
Still another contingent, headed by Rose, a spinster godmother to a distant cousin, was convinced that Enzo’s surname was the real cause of his misfortunes. “La Morte,” after all, was an accursed name which could harvest only grief. The name itself bred disaster, a malevolent force waiting to pounce on some poor bimbo, foolish enough to defy the gods of destiny and become another Mrs. La Morte.
Rose had even written to him suggesting he change his name to Mortimer, perhaps, a classy wasp moniker that was as harmless as it was dull. But Uncle Enzo would have none of it. He insisted that La Morte was a perfectly good name; in his hometown back in the old country there were dozens of La Mortes – all happy, hardy and hale, some living well into their nineties. And besides, his three wives were not born La Morte. They had no La Morte blood; whereas he was 100 percent La Morte and hadn’t died yet, and didn’t intend to die for many years.
You can imagine the chagrin, not to say despair, when Uncle Enzo announced he was getting married again. Number 4 was a thrifty, blue-haired widow who openly admitted to marrying Enzo for his money. She had first met Enzo at his place of business, impudently strolling into his junk yard in quest of a side view mirror for a ‘61 Ford Falcon. Ordinarily, Enzo would have consigned the oddball customer into the incapable hands of cousin Cosmo, an addled young man whose hobby was collecting paper cups. In this instance he urged Cosmo to escort the little lady to the “Ford Falcon Aisle” – part of Uncle Enzo’s charm was his sense of humour.
His charm, now, had little effect.
“Cut the crap,” she said. “Do you have it or not?”
Enzo was taken aback by her brusque attitude, fascinated by her verve, her confidence, her slick vulgarity, which he found so homey.
“This is a junk yard, ain’t it?”
“I call it a salvage emporium,” Uncle Enzo said.
“Junk. Salvage. What’s the diff?”
“Let me show you, Sweetie.”
Enzo went over to a wooden crate, marked “California Oranges,” against the far wall. From under a pile of rusted gear he pulled out a car door handle.
“Take this, for instance,” he said. “In a junk yard this is ten bucks. In a salvage emporium it’s a hundred. I deal in salvage, not junk.”
“Hey, hey, hey!” she smiled. “You’re my kind of guy.”
This was the spark that set him afire.
“If you mean dedicated, you bet,” said Enzo, waxing poetic. “I even keep my salvage in a salvaged box. Everything in my emporium is of salvage, by salvage, for salvage. I eat, sleep, think salvage. Salvage keeps the world clean.”
“Sort of like buzzards,” she observed.
“I feel I perform a real service to humanity. Suppose everybody just threw everything away? ‘Drop your load at the end of the road.’ That sort of thing.”
“You have a way with words,” she said. “I like that.”
“Look at it this way, I’m really in public service. The environment people love me. Average people who want to save money love me. I’ve furnished my whole house from salvage.
“I’ve had three wives and they all loved me.”
“I can see that you’re a lovable guy. You do public service, while making lots of money. You can’t beat that. My name’s Mona. What’s yours?”
“La Morte,” said Uncle Enzo, narrowing his eyes. “My name’s La Morte. Does that scare you?”
“Why should it?”
“It means death.”
“Bull!” she said.
Uncle Enzo was no fool. He realized that this fabulous woman was playing with him, disarming the bomb of opinion, dismissing as nonsense the notion of his fatal name. He respected her tremendously for her wisdom.
“My first name’s Enzo.”
“Enzo La Morte. It doesn’t scare me one bit. It’s a real good name.”
“I think so,” said Uncle Enzo. “It’s better than Capostrunzo.”
“A man in the salvage trade shouldn’t have to worry about what name he carries. It would certainly suit me, I can tell you. Mind you, I’m not proposing or nothing like that. You certainly look harmless enough to me. Besides, I’m naturally immune to curses. So-called evil names, that’s a bunch of crap.” She laughed. “So don’t worry about it.”
And that, as they say, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Enzo did his best to acquire Mona’s mirror, even paying what he regarded as an obscene sum for it from a competitor whom he despised. This rival entrepreneur operated not out of a second-hand trailer, as did Uncle Enzo, but from a temperature controlled steel building in which his secretary, seated at a computer, was able to locate in seconds even something like a side view mirror for a 1961 Ford Falcon.
“You ought to get one of those for the business,” Mona observed one day.
“Why should I?” Enzo said. “Too complicated.” Here he took Mona’s hand.
“What I really need is an assistant, a helper. Someone with brains as well as beauty.” Now he looked into her eyes. “Someone to walk beside me in a life-long search for the ideal salvage.”
“You’re so romantic,” Mona cooed. “Such a way with words. But I don’t love you, you know that, right?”
“So what? I’m asking you to help me run the business.”
“There’d have to be some changes,” she warned.
“Name them.” It was now Uncle Enzo’s turn to coo.
“Only two,” she said. “If you can get a hundred bucks for something today you could easily get a hundred twenty tomorrow.
“Things are tough all over these days. Raise your prices twenty percent.”
“Yes, dear,” said Uncle Enzo.
“Also,” she said. “I want full partnership. None of that ‘dutiful wife’ or ‘the little missus’ crap.”
“Anything you say, dear.”
Aside from those demands, Mona was an obliging, generally tolerant spouse. Enzo couldn’t have been happier, euphorically remarking to her on the morning after their wedding that his life-long search had truly come to an end, for she, indeed, was the ideal Salvage. Mona smiled indulgently and patted her new husband on the head while she tallied the day’s receipts. Never did she complain when Enzo rose at 3 a.m. to make his “gravy,” as he called it. Once she even got up with him to chop the onions, mushrooms and garlic. As for the relatives, their shock soon wore off, watching with jealousy and awe as Enzo’s business became the envy of every scrap dealer in the land.
Meanwhile, Godmother Rose had been ticking off the days after their marriage, estimating that it would be only a matter of weeks now before Number 4 would fall victim to the La Morte curse.
Things were going so well that one day, four years and eight months into their marriage, Enzo spoke to Mona about closing the emporium for a week and taking, at last, that long deferred honeymoon.
“Where do you want to go?” said Mona.
Enzo was emboldened by her reticence. “How about Muncie?” he said.
“Muncie, Indiana,” said Enzo. “The Salvage Dealers of America are having their convention there. We could check out the new power equipment and magnets. There’s a real classy compactor I want to see.”
“You go,” said Mona. “I’ll stay at the yard. I don’t like the way that moron Cosmo is screwing things up.”
“He’s family, Mona.”
“Listen, Enzo. Anybody ever warn you about never doing business with family? I don’t care if he’s the pope. I don’t want no moron ruining my business.”
“Yes, dear,” said Enzo.
In the end they compromised. They would close the emporium for a few days and spend a weekend at the lake, staying in the run-down house left to Enzo by his third wife.
While Mona sunned herself, Enzo thumbed through back issues of Scrap Metal Quarterly and drank neat whiskey. In the evenings he took Mona to the local Bocce festival.
On the last day of their honeymoon trip – a Sunday – the subject of Enzo’s family name came up. All this time Godmother Rose had been burning with curiosity. She was aggrieved at having lost the family pool in which all the relatives paid a ten spot to guess the time span between the marriage and anticipated demise of Number 4. Only Cosmo was left, but by a mere technicality. He had predicted the marriage would last 113 years, five months. In the meantime, Mona had already outlasted all previous wives combined, and Rose suspected that something was rotten in the state of Sicily.
On this Sunday morning Mona was getting the last of the sun when she noticed a green 1979 Volvo pulling up to the house. She watched as a frail-looking bespectacled woman came out from behind the wheel and walked carefully across the outcropping rocks. As she walked she waved her arm, half in greeting, half as in alarm.
“My God, if it isn’t Mona La Morte. How are you?”
“Do I know you?” said Mona.
“I’m Godmother Rose. I’m sorry, by the way, that I never came to your wedding.”
“I don’t remember inviting you.”
“That’s all right. I know you two had a million things to do. I never sent a present, anyway. What a small world, running into you this way.”
“Cut the crap, Rose. What brings you here? We’re on our way back to the yard.”
“Cosmo told me you were on vacation, and I really didn’t want to bother you.”
“So, bother,” said Mona, fetching up a modicum of civility.
“As long as you’re here, come in.” She had already risen and was shaking out the blanket. Now she made for the house, Godmother Rose following.
Sitting at the table watching Mona pack (Enzo had taken the truck for gas), Godmother Rose decided to take Mona’s advice to cut the crap and come to the point.
“Something’s been bothering me,” she began.
Mona continued packing.
“I won’t pretend that we’re not surprised.”
“Who is not surprised and about what?”
“You must’ve heard the talk. You know about Enzo’s other wives.”
“What about them?
“How they…, how do I put it?”
“Kicked off? What of it?”
“Didn’t Enzo tell you what his last name means?”
“So what’s the big deal?”
“La Morte is a curse. Anyone connected with him takes his name and dies suddenly. Poor Philomena! Poor Carmella! Poor What’s-her-name. The family has urged him to get rid of La Morte, but he won’t listen. Don’t you realize the danger?”
“Bull!” said Mona.
Just then a truck pulled up. The women heard the door slam and Enzo call.
“Whose car is that?” He was rushing into the room. His shoulders drooped when he saw Rose.
“Don’t tell me,” he said.
“Yes, you poor man, it’s Godmother Rose.”
She kissed him, weeping openly.
“She thinks I’m going to die,” said Mona.
Godmother Rose began to sob.
“It’s not happening,” said Mona. “Your theory’s all wet, Rose. I’ve told Enzo a million times that I’m immune from such crap.”
Rose looked up. “So you’re not going to die?”
“Mona is safe,” said Enzo. “ Her maiden name cancels out the curse.”
“What is her maiden name?” said Godmother Rose.
Enzo held Mona’s hand. “It’s Della Vita.” he said. “Mona Della Vita.”
“That’s it in a nutshell,” said Mona. “I’m going to outlive all of you bastards. As I keep telling Enzo, life is always stronger than death. Always. Isn’t that right, Enzo?”
First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 10.
Edward Fiorelli lives in New York. His short story “How an Emperor Helped Lorenzo Da Ponte Get to America” was published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 4.