Simple Hearts

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Foul-mouthed Marna Copparelli, who waitresses at Guido's Pizza on Federal Hill, wouldn't know a semicolon from a large intestine. Luther Buttafuoco writes books that get reviewed in the New York Times literary section. He wants a date with Marna Copparelli. Good luck, Luther!

Submitted: September 01, 2010

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Submitted: September 01, 2010

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"A a dark-haired girl with a nice figure waitresses over at Guido's Pizza." Luther Buttafuoco was standing in his pajamas, an unwaxed strand of dental floss dangling from his left hand.
"Marna Copparelli," his brother replied. Drake, who baked, did deliveries and sometimes managed the counter at Guido's House of Pizza, had been sleeping on the couch at Luther's apartment since his wife caught him cheating and threw him out. That was a week ago last Tuesday. Drake had called Lois every day since then, but she left the answering machine on and refused to return his whiny calls.
"Is Marna seeing anyone?"
"Sort of," he hedged, "but it's a long-distance relationship.
"How long-distance?"
"The chump got picked up by the feds for loan sharking." Drake chuckled at his own, dry humor. "It was a second offense, so he's at a minimum security facility in Upstate New York. Three to five."
"I want you to fix me up on a date with the woman." Luther stood five feet six. In his early thirties, he was a skinny wisp of a man with a pencil moustache that never quite filled out no matter how long he left it untrimmed. His brown hair hung limp like a third-rate toupee, a bad joke of a hairpiece. Luther wasn't so much ugly as nondescript; he had a reasonably pleasant personality that no one outside the immediate family ever benefited from due to crippling shyness. "I've got feelings for the woman," Luther confessed.
"What feelings?" Drake exploded. "You don't even know Marna, for god's sake!"
There was a tense silence. "I misspoke."
"You misspoke." The tone was derisive, ridiculing. "What the hell does that mean?" Drake didn't know which was worse: being separated from his wife or living with his nutty brother. He needed a drink, but Luther never kept anything stronger than that sicky-sweet Manishewitz concord wine.
"What I meant to say," Luther corrected, "was that I have a very strong feeling about the woman."
"For, about… what's the difference?"
Luther waved a hand, a placating gesture. "It's not important. What matters is that I know the difference. Will you talk to Marna… see if she'll go out with me?"
Drake reached for the TV clicker. The screen blipped on just as the New England Patriots were kicking off. Gillette Stadium up the road in Foxboro, Massachusetts was filled to the rafters. "You wanna watch the NFL game?"
"I want a date with Marna Copparelli."
"Why do I always feel like I'm playing Oskar Madison to your Felix Unger?" Drake rose from the sofa, went and stood by the window. His brother had bought the condo in an upscale section Johnston, a twenty minute drive from downtown Providence, Rhode Island. Unlike Drake’s ratty neighborhood, all the homeowners paid lawn care services to spray the grass with heavy-duty fertilizers and weed killer. Dandelions and crabgrass were considered extremely tacky. Drake wanted to take a ride to the city. Drop by one of the social clubs on Federal Hill to watch the Patriots take on the Colts. Or maybe stop by the Foxy Lady - throw down a few Heinekens in the VIP lounge. But then, he was trying to avoid temptation, mend his errant ways.
Drake could just as easily watch the football game here at Luther's apartment while his brother corrected term papers, wrote book reviews or whatever literary scholars did on a Monday night. But watching the game with his brother was no fun. Luther didn't know a nickel defense from a split end, a linebacker from a wide receiver. Grabbing his cell phone, he dialed a programmed number. After listening to the recorded massage, he mumbled, "Look, Lois, I know I'm an asshole. Just call me. We can work this out." Drake was still considering options when his brother's nasally monotone brought him up short.
"I want a date with Marna Copparelli."
First and ten. Tom Brady, the Patriot quarterback, was hunched over in the huddle. "I'll see what I can do."
 
 
At two in the morning, Drake woke from a fitful sleep. He checked his phone for messages. Nothing. He ate a bowl of granola infused with alfalfa and wheat germ - Luther didn't stock any 'normal' cereals – then went and sat on the lumpy sofa that was his bed now. His ankles hung off the far end and his back ached from early in the morning. His brother, who had never screwed anybody over and, subsequently, suffered no remorse, always slept peacefully through the night.  
On the coffee table was a well-thumbed paperback, Under Western Skies by Joseph Conrad. Drake skimmed the introduction and slogged through a chapter and a half of turgid prose before abandoning the moldy text. Nothing made any sense - neither the book about bomb-throwing, Russian anarchists nor his pathetic life. And Luther, who devoured Joseph Conrad like a light repast, wanted Drake to fix him up with Marna Copparelli, the foul-mouthed, Italian love goddess from Guido's Pizza!
 
* * * * *
 
"How are the spinach calzones?" The businessman leaned his elbows on the counter studying the menu.
At eleven-thirty, diners were already straggling into Guido’s House of Pizza. "Real good," Marna shot back. "They're stuffed with fresh, hand-cut pepperoni, provolone cheese and vegetables, in a flaky crust."
"It's not too spicy, is it?"
"No not at all."
The middle-aged man, who wore an expensive looking tweed sports jacket and wire-rimmed glasses, rubbed his jaw. "Pigs in a blanket… that looks good, too." A line was forming behind the fellow who couldn't make up his mind.
"I'd go with the calzone," Marna replied curtly. Leaning over the counter, she whispered in the man's ear.
The fellow shook his head emphatically. "Yes, the calzone with a diet Coke.” Marna wrote the order on a slip and turned to the next customer.
 
 If that's not the best goddamn spinach pie you ever ate, come back and see me personally, and I'll refund your money twice over!
Drake didn't bother asking Marna what she whispered to the customer. All procrastinators got the same preferential hogwash. Only one customer ever asked for a refund. "You ate the whole thing! I wouldn't give you the right time of day much less a refund," Marna hissed. Whipping around with a dramatic flourish, she disappeared into the rear of the restaurant. The disgruntled customer was too embarrassed to ask to see the manager.
 
Around two in the afternoon, a cell phone twittered and Drake reflexively reached into his pocket. "That's mine," Marna brought him up short. She placed a hand over her left ear and crooked her head to one side. "Yeah, six o'clock, Friday. It's no problem." Finishing the call, Marna announced, "I need a favor, Romeo."
"What favor?"
Friday night, my sister's going out with her devoted husband, who doesn't cheat on her and always honors the sanctity of the marriage bed, and she needs me to watch the kids."
Drake winced inwardly. Marna never let him forget what a troll he was. He glanced at her and looked away. Marna had a fleshy, compact body. The skin was flawless with dusky, Mediterranean features, the jet black hair trimmed short. She wasn't cute or pretty in the traditional sense. Several younger girls who worked at Guido's were noticeably more fashionable, sexier even. But Marna exuded a refined classiness of a deeper order, a haughty, maternal good looks that left the others, so to speak, in the dust. "Yeah, I'll cover, but I need a favor of my own." Drake pulled a single sheet of newspaper from his breast pocket and slid it across the counter to Marna.
"What's this?"
"It’s a page from the New York Times literary review." He tapped the middle column a third of the way down. "That's my brother. He's an author."
Imagism and post-modern literary trends by Luther Buttafuoco. "Swell." Marna folded the article neatly without bothering to read beyond the title.
"You remember when my car wouldn't start last Thursday?" Marna nodded. "That was my brother who stopped with the battery cables."
"Short guy with the weird hair?"
Drake's eyes brightened. "Yeah, that's Luther. He wants a date with you."
"Aw, for Christ's sakes! I swore off men since Donny got sent away… took a vow of celibacy." Marna's features cycled through a series of unflattering contortions. "All men are shits. I got my nieces and nephew… that's all I need."
I got my nieces and nephew… Marna's sister dropped by for lunch earlier in the week. "My little angels!" She ran to greet the children, smothering them with sloppy kisses. "Bobby, you want Auntie should get you a slice of mushroom pizza?" She always infantilized the chubby, rosy-cheeked little boy. "Pigs in a blanket for Gina…a spaghetti and meatballs dinner for Denise." Marna became manic every time her sister stopped by with the children. Still beaming like a crazy woman, she ran off to place the order.
 
 
"Look," Drake reached out and grabbed Marna's wrist, "I'm not asking for a lifetime commitment. Just one crummy date, that's all."
"I dunno." She blew out her cheeks and screwed her pretty lips in a pouty frown. "All men are shits," she repeated with renewed vigor.
Drake leaned closer. "I'm a shit - guilty as charged. I'm a selfish, two-timing, worthless louse. But Luther's kind... a real decent guy. He don’'t gamble, or drink to excess. He eats healthy." Drake squirmed uncomfortably. "He's just painfully shy… doesn't know how to act around women."
"And that's my problem?"
"His experience with the opposite sex," Drake pawed the air fitfully, "is rather limited."
"How limited?" When there was no reply, Marna exploded, "Aw, for crying out loud! Give me a break!" The woman extended her hands and fluttered the fingertips suggestively. "This highly-educated brother of yours, who writes hoity-toity books that get reviewed in the New York Times, has he ever …"
"I dunno."
"So he's a goddamn virgin?" The straightforward question was met with profound silence. "I hope you're not expecting - "
"One crummy date - that's all I'm asking."
"What do you hear from Lois," she said sourly, deflecting the conversation elsewhere.
"She won't return my calls," Drake replied morosely.
"That's because you're a shit. All men, with the exception of my nephew, Bobby, who is too young to know any better, are rotten shits."
"Thanks for reminding me. What about Luther?"
"Yeah, I'll go out with him. Once." She held up a finger - the middle one - in a rather impertinent gesture. "One fucking date."
 
* * * * *
 
Drake told Luther about Marna's decision later that evening. "Don't wear argyle socks or those stupid Rockford shoes."
"What's wrong with them?"
"They look like a pair of gondolas." Drake began rummaging in his brother's closet. "Got any snazzy, casual shirts - something with a little pizzazz… style?" "No, I guess not," he answered his own question after surveying the wardrobe. "Maybe we could make a quick run to the Emerald Square Mall and pick something up. Remember, Marna is one fashionable chick."
"We'll go to the mall then." Luther shifted uncomfortably on the balls of his feet. He seemed to grow smaller, more fragile and inconsequential, by the minute. "I'm not so good with small talk. Since you know the woman, I was wondering…"
Drake thought a moment. "Two things you gotta remember. First, Marna's a nonstop talkaholic; once she starts blabbering, the bitch never comes up for air." He put a reassuring hand on his brother's shoulder. "But you're the world's best listener, right?" Luther blinked and cleared his throat but didn't say anything. "All you gotta do is get Marna jibber-jabbering about some dumb-ass topic and the rest will take care of itself.
"Like what?"
"Oh, that's the easy part! Just mention you heard how devoted she is to her sister's kids." Drake waved a fist in the air for dramatic effect. "You see, here's the thing: the woman's gorgeous, voluptuous... a regular Italian sex goddess, right?"
"Yeah, I guess so."
"The only thing Marna Copparelli really cares about is finding a mate so she can copulate and bear children. The male of the species is sort of incidental,… nothing more than an anatomical means to an end. She wants a dozen babies of her own to cuddle and spoil rotten. So you talk about Marna being a doting auntie and motherhood and all that sappy bullshit and everything will be peachy keen."
Luther reached for the car keys. "Maybe we should go pick out a shirt… something trendy."
"Yeah, yeah…" Drake gave his brother the once over. "We should also do something with your hair."
Luther reached up and patted the top of his head as though the scalp was hot to the touch. "What's wrong with my hair?"
"Well, nothing. Not really. It just sort of lies there." Drake tried to assume a more upbeat tone. "Maybe an hour before the big date, wash it with a good shampoo and conditioner. Then blow dry it and try to fluff up the front."
"Details," Luther picked up on the thread of his brother’s previous remark. "Everything in life is about getting the details right."
Ever so gently, Drake felt his spirits lifting. "That's a good way to put it."
 
· * * * * *
 
At the mall, Drake rejected every shirt Luther showed him. Finally, he went off by himself, collected an armload of designer originals and stood outside the dressing room. On the fifth try Drake said, "That's the shirt."
"You don’t think it's a bit loud… garish?" The wine-colored shirt featured coppery stripes zigzagging diagonally across the chest. The collar was done in a slightly darker, crimson shade.
"Remember who you're going out with," Drake counseled. "No, that's the perfect shirt - most definitely!" For good measure, Drake bought his brother a new leather belt with a wide buckle in the shape of a horseshoe. Afterwards, they went to the food court for supper. "My treat," Luther reached for his wallet. Luther, all five foot six of him, was grinning foolishly. His lumpy features that no one ever paid any attention to seemed more relaxed, though, now that his wardrobe was complete
"Flaubert," Luther blurted the solitary word as though in response to an ongoing conversation. They were sitting in the food court at the mall. Drake was nursing a cup of coffee and jelly donut.
"Flow what?"
"Flaubert," Luther clarified. "He wrote Madam Bovary. I don't suppose -"
Drake waved him off. "Now don't go talking crazy when you're out on the town with Marna, or it's gonna be a very short night."
"Flaubert was a nineteenth century writer." Luther's expression had altered noticeably. The excitement having ebbed, he seemed more pensive, grim. "He wrote a short piece of fiction, A Simple Heart, about a French peasant woman, Félicité... a very kind and decent soul."
"Yes, okay." Drake was only half-listening. He had called Lois five times since six-thirty in the morning. No luck! Should he try again? Did it make a difference?
"I'm a nice guy, don't you think?"
Again, there it was - that twisted doughy smile. Luther, the brainiacwith an IQ of one hundred and twenty-four - it wasn't exactly genius level, but way the hell up there. He sure had the goofiest smile on the goddamn planet! "Yeah, yeah. You're one swell sonofabitch."
"She had a nephew who died travelling to America."
"Who did?"
" Félicité."
"The peasant woman in the stupid story from two hundred goddamn years ago?"
"Her mistress' young daughter caught pneumonia and passed while away at boarding school. Then Félicité. found a lover but that didn't work out so well either." Luther cleared his throat. "Later still, she adopted a parrot named Loulou. The parrot caught a chill during the winter and keeled over in its cage so Félicité had the bird stuffed and kept, like a religious relic, in a place of honor in her cluttered room."
"Jesus, Mary and Joseph! What the hell are you talking about now?"
"Félicité was one saintly sonofabitch, but. I don't want to end up like her." Luther crooked his head to one side. His hair that he had just washed the night before already looked dull and greasy "I don't want to end up like the heroine in Flaubert's masterpiece."
"Aw shit, Luther,” Drake blustered, gulping down the last of his coffee. “I might be one pathetic loser, what with my philandering, but you run a close second."
 
· * * * * *
 
Monday afternoon, Drake took Marna aside. "How'd things go the other night?"
"Good. My nephew, Ralphy, peed the bed but that was no big deal, because I found a set of clean sheets in the bedroom drawer."
 Drake stared at the woman incredulously. "My brother… I was referring to the date not you freakin' babysitting gig."
"Good. Real good." She went off to clean a mess left by table of DPW state workers that rushed off after wolfing down their lunch.
Well. That was a relief! Drake had this fantasy - more like a ghoulish nightmare - of a first date that that resembled a wake with open casket rather than a romantic soiree. "So you had a good time?"
Marna was refilling the napkin holders. "Your brother made dinner reservations over at the Blue Grotto. After the meal, he took me to a movie on the East Side."
"Which movie?"
"I dunno, some foreign flick?" She flashed a tepid smile. "The film was in subtitles… Mongolian or something. There was this baby camel. The mother wouldn't nurse it so the nomads, who lived in tents, had to feed the animal from a bottle."
"Then what?"
"Don't remember. I fell asleep after about the first ten minutes. Slept through the whole movie." "Afterwards we went over to the Pancake House for coffee and dessert." Finishing with the napkins, Marna grabbed a broom and began sweeping up the entryway. "Your brother's a swell guy. I bent his ear for a good half an hour about my sister's kids and he never interrupted once."
Drake knelt down and held a plastic dust tray while Marna steered the dirt up to the lip. "Luther isn't much of a talker."
"On the contrary, he held his own just fine."
"Is that so?"
"He was telling me all about this book he's giving a lecture on at some college gathering - Under Western Skies."
"The Conrad book?" Drake couldn't imagine Luther telling Marna Copparelli about bomb-throwing anarchists.
“This college student, Razumov, comes home one night from classes to find some guy who just assasinated a government minister in his room. He don't even hardly know the jerk but can’t toss him out in the cold because maybe the asshole will finger him as an accomplice.” She looked up. “You familiar with the plot?”
“Well, sort of.” Drake eyed Marna uneasily. The poor slob, Razumov, cooped up in his tiny apartment with the murderer - that’s how far as he got in the text before throwing the classic aside.
“The student runs to the authorities and tells them where they can find the shit-for-brains who threw the bomb that killed the official. But then, Razumov becomes a secret agent and travels to Switzerland where he meets the sister of the guy he just betrayed and they fall in love.”
“I didn’t read that far,” Drake decided to cut his losses.
“Luther says it’s not really one of Conrad’s better novels.”
“Really?”
“Yeah, he said the author should have cut the story short after the first hundred pages or so, because the ending was real draggy and dumb.”
Draggy and dumb... Drake couldn’t quite picture his brother using terms like that in an academic presentation but wasn’t about to argue the point.
“So you had a good time?”
“Yeah and I learned a thing or two about current events.”
“The story took place over a hundred years ago.”
"Whatever," Marna shot back dismissively. “Luther says that, when Conrad began writing the book, Razumov was gonna marry the bomb-throwing nutso’s sister, have a child and then confess to her years later, but changed his mind.”
“So there was no happy ending.”
“No,” Marna confirmed. “Just like in real life, everything ultimately turns to shit.”
“You got a succinct way of putting things.”
“I only got my GED,” Marna blurted, "but that don't make me no intellectual retard!" She leered at him as he stood up with the dust tray. "What's so funny?"
Drake didn't realize he was grinning. "You keep saying all men are shit. Maybe you'd like to reconsider."
Marna shook her head violently. "Nothing's changed. My nephew and you brother are the two exceptions that make the rule." She compressed her pretty lips in a pensive expression. "That sure was a smart looking shirt he had on and his hair didn't look quite so ratty."
 
· * * * * *
 
Back at the apartment, Drake found his thirty-two inch Pullman suitcase resting in the middle of the living room. The sofa bed was closed, the bedding heaped in a pile on the floor. "Since you weren't making any progress, I went over to plead your case with Lois," Luther said.
"And?"
"Your wife insists that you're still a deceitful, horny asshole, but the woman is letting you come back. Of course, you'll have to grovel and act the part of an indentured servant until you go on Medicare."
"Okay."
"And you only get one shot at the marital brass ring. Next time the one-eyed sailor goes missing in action, your marriage is caput."
Drake sat down and began to cry - a weepy, little-boy-lost-in-the-woods sobbing. "I learned my lesson," he blubbered, "I'll be good."
"I'm not finished," Luther spoke in a flat, business-like tone.
"What else?"
"I want another date with Marna Copparelli."
"The original arrangement was one date, no contingency plan."
"Yeah, well, I want to see her again."
"You don't need my permission, but it might help if you spoke directly to the party concerned." Drake wiped his eyes with a Kleenex. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a cell phone and dialed a number.
Luther took the phone and pressed it to his ear. "Hello, Marna? Luther Buttafuoco here… I had a real nice time the other night and was wondering…"
Drake cleared his clothing out of the hall closet then went and collected his shaving gear and toothbrush from the bathroom. He would have to stop by another time to recoup his cell phone as his brother was still gabbing away as he let himself out. Luther's hair had died again, gone totally flat and lifeless. But maybe it didn't matter. He could take the ravishing Marna Copparelli to Mongolian foreign flicks where the indigenous folk nursed baby camels; he could fill her head with nineteenth century Russian politics and that seemed to work just fine for the girl who loved her nieces and nephew to distraction. On the far side of the door, a burst of laughter was followed by a whispery-soft exchange. The last thing Drake remembered as he let himself out was the intricate filigree of wonder suffusing his brother's homely face.


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