Between the Lines / Dean Martin sang in Italian
Dean Martin was singing in Italian on the radio in Uncle John's car as we drove. I didn't understand Italian, and I made up my own words so I could sing along with the jaunty melody. "Abracadabra, abracadabra," I sang. It was funny how other languages could sound like nonsense to a kid. We were on our way to a job at John's friend Al's house somewhere in Bridgeport.
Al Tutoli, my Uncle John's friend, could sing the same song in real Italian. Uncle John's wife was also Italian and made spaghetti and meatballs better than anyone else in the world.
"I brought the twins to help out today, Al." John jerked a thumb toward Brian and me. We had a reputation in the family for always being available for general lugging and other menial jobs.
"Hello, boys," Al said. Then he turned to Uncle John. "Are you sure they're any good? The television is very heavy. Marie will kill me if anything happens to it." He looked us over with a jaundiced eye. Together we barely weighed 150 pounds.
"My boys can pull a tree trunk right out of the ground," John said, slapping us on the back and mugging for Al. "And they work cheap, too."
Al was thin and balding with slicked back black hair. He grimaced, took one last drag on his Chesterfield and threw it on the ground, grinding it out with his foot. My Uncle John had a square fleshy face. His brown hair was slicked back like Al's making his high forehead even more prominent. John and Al were best friends.
We were standing in front of an old triple decker house in Bridgeport. Al and his wife lived on the third floor. "Well, let's get going," Al said, rolling up the shirt sleeves on his skinny arms. "Right you are," Uncle John said. "Come on, boys. Let's show Al what you can do." Johnnie hiked up his pants in preparation for the undertaking.
It was dark in the hallways and the three open flights of stairs had a brown wooden railing on each landing. The steps creaked as we followed the men up to the top floor. Al was whistling a Dean Martin tune. He lit another cigarette and wedged it in the corner of his mouth. The smell was awful like burnt rope.
Al and John went into the apartment while we waited outside. Soon they had dragged a big TV in a heavy console cabinet to the doorway. They were already winded from the effort. We joined them at the landing and Uncle John told us where to grab hold.
"Now, at the count of three, we all lift together." Our first attempt went badly. Al wasn't ready, the leg of the console slipped out of my hands and my brother Brian sneezed. Johnnie started to laugh. This was a bad sign. My Uncle John was like a big kid sometimes. Once he got laughing, it was contagious and then we would all get the giggles.
John counted to three again. This time we lifted the television, but not very far off the floor. The space between the door and the railing was too narrow for us to squeeze through. We would have to lift it higher to clear the railing and then maneuver it down the stairs. I threw my whole body into it. We raised the TV waist-high, but I knew I wouldn't be able to hold onto it for long. "Lift! Lift!" Uncle John urged us on. We were all straining and our faces turned beet red. With the TV in the air now, the four of us wobbled like a table with three legs about to collapse.
I staggered a step or two and fell down under the set. Uncle John tripped over me. By now we were all laughing like lunatics. Everyone but Al. "John, John! We're going to drop it! Hold on, hold on!" Just as he spoke, the three of them crumpled in a heap. There was dead silence. We all looked up from the floor and saw the TV precariously balanced on the wooden railing, three flights up. The railing creaked and began to sway under the heavy load.
"OH, MY GOD!" Al grabbed his head as if it might become detached from his body if he didn't hold tight to it. "Oh, my God, John. This is terrible." The rest of what he said was in rapid-fire Italian. I couldn't tell whether he was praying or cussing. He huddled in a corner and covered his eyes, moaning loudly.
Al's over the top operatic response quelled our laughing. Our adventures with Uncle John always skirted the edge of disaster, and when disaster threatened, humor was our typical response. Johnnie simply couldn't help himself. "Cut it out, boys, or I will pee my pants." Miraculously, the TV teetered there on the railing just long enough for us to act. We moved into position, held our breath and lifted it again. I remember looking down to the foyer and wondering if the TV would end up there in a pile of splintered glass and wood. Al didn't join us this time. He continued his sobbing and wailing there in the corner. The three of us got it off the railing just as it gave way and pieces of it plummeted down three flights. But we still had the TV safely in hand.
It took us a good half hour to ease it down the rest of the way. We scraped it and dinged it and jolted it, but we managed to get it outside in one piece and into the back of Al's truck. Al was mopping the sweat from his brow with a big white hanky. He thanked us profusely and gave us a dollar to split.
We got back into Uncle John's 1955 Chevy sedan. "I can't take you boys anywhere," Johnnie half scolded us. He smacked himself in the forehead and broke into laughter. "Don't get me started, boys. Just don't get me started..."
Barry Wallace writes a weekly column for the Fairfield Citizen.