My mom said, “What happened to your leg?”
Wendell said, “Can I get the bread zucchini?” Changing the subject was his way of concealing the truth.
My mom said, “What are you not telling me?”
Before Wendell could answer, Nunzio Venchenzo waved to my mom. A buffed would be Antonio Banderas, Nunzio was one of Coach Matthias’s senior shining stars on the offensive line. Flashing his pearly whites he said, “Hi Mrs. Brucker. You are looking beautiful today.”
My mom smiled, “Why thank you, Nunzio.”
Nunzio said, “Well I have some news to make you feel swell. My dad offered to cater the pre-season banquet free of charge.” His dad, Fabrizio owned a pizza parlor on the edge of town aptly named Fabrizio. The pizza rivaled Sal’s Italian Too.
My mom said, “Great. We will discuss it at the next booster meeting.”
Nunzio said, “Oh, and if you ever want a slice it’s always on the house for your family, especially Wendell.”
“You are so very sweet, Nunzio. God bless you.” Then my mom rolled her window down and drove away.
When we were out of the parking lot Skipper raised her hand. Despite being out of school the ten year old was always studious, “Didn’t Sal agree to do it and isnt he signing the paperwork tonight?”
I said, “Yup. And dad also said there’s no way in hell Fabrizio will cater a Blackhawk dinner ever.” Earlier in the year, Fabrizio had come under fire for refusing to serve a biracial couple. Many in the community, my family included, responded by refusing to patronize Fabrizio’s.
Wendell said, “Mom, the next time you see Nunzio dont talk to him. He put a dirty hit on me.”
Skipper said, “Maybe it was an accident.” While book smart, she always saw the best in people.
Wendell said, “No, it was a dirty hit. I’m next in line for his position and I am benching as much as he is. My speed just needs work Coach says.”
We pulled into Sal’s. My mom said, “Next time I see him, I’ll just run him over.”
Two days later, my father, home from Harrisburg and informed Fabrizio that Sal was catering the event. Fabrizio responded by trying to cuss my dad out, to which my dad responded by hanging up the phone. Nunzio reupped his campaign against Wendell by putting a dirty hit on him attempting to reinjure his leg. The bad behavior didn’t go unnoticed though.
Coach Link, a longtime fixture in the Whiskey Rebellion Blackhawks, saw what Nunzio was doing. Warning him to stop, Nunzio ignored Coach Link. In response, Coach Link benched Nunzio for the rest of the practice and told him that he would suggest it was Wendell, not he, who should be starting. When Nunzio tried to say it was an accident Coach Link responded with, “Bullshit, Pal. Save your Eddie Haskell routine for another sucker.”
That Saturday was the first scrimmage against Penn Forest, a mostly black team we would again face off with later in the season. Nunzio’s parents sat away from the rest of the fans, possibly because anyone else would punch them. Fabrizio shouted, “C’mon Hawks! Get those ink blots!” Next to Fabrizio sat Nunzio’s mother, who wore a black funeral veil and prayed the rosary, never looking up to speak otherwise. Most people looked at the odd couple, rolled their eyes and looked away. The show was free but after two seconds you saw the whole thing.
Skipper said pointing to Nunzio’s mom, “April, who died?”
I said, “No one just her hopes and dreams.”
Wendell played well, getting some varsity time and the whole JV scrimmage. While he executed a good campaign, he got a concussion which meant Skipper and I would have to retrieve him from the trainer while our mother waited in the car. As we approached the training room, we saw we saw Coach Link and Nunzio shouting at each other. Coach Link said, “Nunzio, give back Jason’s money. NOW!” Both of Coach Link’s sons played for the district. Jason, the youngest, was the fastest running back coming up.
Nunzio said, “Coach Link, c’mon. That’s not true and we both know it. I would never do that. Jason’s confused. He knows how much I looked up to JT.” Link’s older son, JT, was the most fearsome center to ever play for The Whiskey Rebellion Blackhawks. He was currently in his third year at US Naval Academy where he was a starter.
Coach Link said, “Son, we all make mistakes and lying only makes it worse. Give it to me now and this ends. You hear?”
Nunzio laughed, “Man, your bookie must have hit you extra hard. Or did your latest girlfriend from the Jefferson Lodge stick you with something that’s eating your brain? This is nuts and we both know it. Even for you.” Coach Link had a horrible gambling problem that cost him his marriage to his kid’s mother. He had two other ex wives, both who were strippers that he met on the job at The Jefferson Lodge. Coach Link was currently dating Bambi, dancer of the month, who had actually been JT’s high school sweetheart.
Coach Link grabbed Nunzio and said, “Listen here you smug sonvabitch! You steal from Jason, you steal from both JT and me!” His trademark cigar flew out of his mouth as Coach Link swung at Nunzio barely missing him.
Nunzio laughed again, “Pops, lay off the cigars. Smoking kills.”
Coach Link swung again, but then Coach Matthias grabbed his hand. In his thick West Virginia accent, Matthias said, “Both of you, my office. NOW!”
I looked at Skipper and said, “Now this is cinematic gold.”
Skipper said, “You mean this very disappointing adult behavior?” Wendell then walked out of the training room with a hell of a headache but was even more bummed that he had missed the action.
That Monday the news over the wire was Nunzio had turned on his Eddie Haskell charm and got Coach Matthias to believe the alleged theft was just a simple misunderstanding. Because he had tried to punch a player, Coach Matthias suspended Coach Link for two weeks. Over the weekend Coach Link interviewed and accepted the equipment coach job at Clairsville, our most bitter rival. While the position was a significant pay decrease, the carrot on the stick was that Jason, who wanted to join his brother at Navy, would be a part of the starting squad. The news stung, but anyone close to the situation knew that if “The Nunzio Problem” was addressed this all could have been avoided.
The Nunzio problem continued to flourish with Nunzio bending the rules and Coach Matthias being a sucker for the Eddie Haskell routine. Able to get away with it once, Nunzio continued to steal from underclassmen. Using his size and strength to intimidate them, they feared speaking up because either they would get beaten up or Coach Matthias wouldn’t believe them anyway. Unchecked by Coach Link who despite his faults operated out of fairness, Nunzio continued to put dirty hits on players he saw as competition, especially Wendell. While he didn’t say it, whenever I saw Wendell limping I knew why. When my mom bought it up he just changed the subject because there was nothing anyone could do really. The reality was, Wendell’s speed and strength were improving, two things that didn’t sit well with the team bully.
In the middle of the season, Nunzio began what he referred to as “lucrative side hustle.” Moonlighting for a local drug dealer, Nunzio served as muscle if a recalcitrant customer refused to pay. Using Fabrizio’s as a front, Nunzio pushed weed and mushrooms, but as he explained, “My real goal is coke and heroin because that is the future.”
The law and Nunzio’s entrepreneurial spirit soon clashed. While cruising in his best friend Kyle Latham’s car, the two were pulled over for having a broken taillight. Kyle, who’s dad was head of the math department and who’s mom was head of remedial reading, was clueless that his friend was on his way to drop off vicadin that had been ripped off from a local pharmacy to a dealer. When the cops searched the car, Nunzio, who had dropped the bag turned on his Eddie Haskell charm and claimed the drugs were Kyle’s and he was drug free. The act worked and a confused and shocked Kyle was booked, cuffed and taken to the station. Panicked, Mr. and Mrs. Latham called my dad at 2 AM to get their son, who had never even gotten so much as a detention, out of trouble.
Kyle was a good kid with no record, so my dad was able to work his magic to get probation with the charges getting espouged after a year. But the Latham’s wanted blood. One night at a game, they kvetched about but their Nunzio fatigue. As usual, Skipper and I sat there attentively pretending not to listen.
Mr. Latham said, “He sleeps at our house. A LOT. I don’t like to see a kid put out, but Coach Matthias is now treating us like his freaking answering service.”
Mrs. Latham said, “I told Kyle to just quit. He doesn’t want to play in college anyway. That way it’s less time with Nunzio and that enabling jagoff Matthias. But his girlfriend Lexi wants him to play and you know how that goes.” Lexi McCandless, Kyle’s girlfriend, was a cheerleader and they were the quintessential Whiskey Rebellion Blackhawk couple.
Mr. Latham laughed, “I don’t know what kind of power Nunzio has over him. He’s a dufus. And I know he’s a dufus because I had him as a student!”
My mom said, “It’s the Eddie Haskell thing.”
Mrs. Latham said, “Eddie Haskell was charming. Nunzio is just a pig. He eats the whole container of ice cream and puts it back in the refrigerator. We said help yourself but come on.”
My dad motioned his head towards Nunzio’s mom, “Women stopped wearing those to church in the 1960s. That’s just weird.”
Mrs. Latham said, “So much good God is doing here. Her son’s a thug and her husband starts spouting his racist garbage in my house. I told him to get out. We don’t talk like that and we don’t tolerate that. And he told us we couldn’t handle a joke. I told him we can, hate just isn’t funny.”
Mr. Latham said, “Speaking of veils, we told Kyle that that we are putting the Nun in Nunzio as in no more of that jagoff in our son’s life. I follow him between classes to make sure Kyle isn’t hanging out with him. Sometimes I’m late to mine. But let me tell you, I can get another job but I can’t get another kid.”
Mrs. Latham said, “And I am eating lunch with him which he hates, but it keeps Nunzio away because it’s uncool.”
My mom laughed, “Good for you.”
The ref blew the whistle. My dad looked at Mr. and Mrs. Latham, “The law is going to catch up with him and that charm’s about to run out. It always does.”
My dad called it. A week later, Nunzio graduated to armed robbery. With a ski mask and a gun, Nunzio camped out late at night after a game at The Whiskey Rebellion Shops, our local strip mall. He held an old woman at gunpoint. Frail and afraid, she handed Nunzio the money to save her life, but slipped and fell as she hurried away, breaking her hip. From her hospital bed, she was able to give a description of the assailant as wearing a Whiskey Rebellion Blackhawk football letter jacket.
Ever the criminal mastermind, Nunzio bragged to anyone who would listen. Lexi McCandless, who was angered Nunzio had jammed her boyfriend Kyle up but was also the granddaughter of the old woman he robbed, called the police and gave them the hot tip. Nunzio was promptly arrested and identified by the old woman in the lineup. Coach Matthias could no longer ignore the Nunzio problem and kicked him off the team. Fabrizio began an aggressive campaign to get Nunzio reinstated. After phone calls failed, he made a visit to Coach with his disgraced offspring by his side.
Skipper and I saw it in person one Thursday as we ran into the high school to fetch Wendell from practice. Standing beside his son, Fabrizio made his pitch, “ Coach, this is a misunderstanding. Nunzio is a good boy. He was just playing a joke.”
Coach Matthias said, “Well the old lady and the cops ain’t laughin. My players understand they are to behave like warriors on the field and gentlemen off. Son you are a disgrace to your team, your community and your letter jacket.”
Nunzio hung his head as his father continued to plead his case, “Nunzio ain’t like those blacks from the city who are destined for jail. He made a mistake. He’s from a good family. Coach, you were young once. You gotta understand, boys will be boys.”
Coach Matthias said, “No, punks will be punks. And I don’t care what color he is. You are livin’ proof that if you plant rotten corn you get rotten corn. And if I had a belt, I would put you both over my knee right now.”
As Wendell rounded the corner, Coach Matthias said, “Son, tonight is Thursday. I want you in by 8 PM cause I need you rested for tomorrow night because you are starting. Don’t study too late, y’hear?!”
Wendell’s eyes flashed with excitement, “You got it, Coach!”
Nunzio said, “Coach, you can’t have that runt replace me?”
Wendell said as he walked off, “Nunzio, he just did and that’s Starter Runt to you.”
Nunzio screamed and kicked a trash can. The mask had finally dropped and Nunzio was showing his true self. When we got outside, Skipper, Wendell and I burst out laughing. Then Wendell looked at his watch, “Ohmigod! We need to get home. It’s six already and I have to eat dinner and have a big chemistry test to study for!” The three of us then sprinted to our mom’s van. Of course, she reveled in this latest development and regretted missing Nunzio’s meltdown.
That Friday, Wendell made his debut on the offensive line as a starter. Impressing the coaches and teammates, Wendell not only secured the spot for the rest of the season but for the remainder of his career at Whiskey Rebellion. Starting in the last four games, he earned the coveted Blackhawk letter jacket and would go on to become a fan favorite and was eventually elected team captain.
Nunzio had his day in court. Once again, Fabrizio argued that it was “a joke” and “boys will be boys.” In pleading his son’s cause, Fabrizio also informed the court that his son was “not a problem black.” As usual, his mother prayed the rosary complete with funeral veil. Unfortunately the judge, who during sentencing revealed she was part black, did not share their sense of humor and sentenced Nunzio to five years in prison. When Coach Matthias learned of his fate, he cut Nunzio’s face out of the team picture and made it a rule that Nunzio was never to be spoken of again.
From prison, Nunzio earned his GED, earned an associates in business and became the shining star of Western Penitentary’s Intermural Football Team. Using his Antonio Banderas good looks, he began a prison pen pal relationship with Bambi, who gone through a tumultuous breakup with Coach Link. Sick of her job at The Jefferson Lodge, she was now working part time as a Reikki Practitioner and Wiccan Tarot Card Reader. The day he was released, Nunzio and Bambi married at the same magistrate where he was first arraigned for armed robbery.
Putting his prison business degree to good use, Nunzio took over Fabrizio’s and managed it for years with Bambi. The two lived and worked quietly for years until COVID-19 when Nunzio took to the business’s facebook page and called Black Lives Matter a terrorist organization and referred to Dr. Rachael Levine as an ugly man in a wig. He also refused to close for the pandemic because Bambi’s tarot cards told him it was a hoax.
Locals, appalled by the racism, transphobia, and COVID denial organized a boycott. Health officials hit them with fines and sanctions. Fabrizio’s was forced to close it’s doors. Shocked, Nunzio protested on facebook that his community was “a bunch of pussies that couldn’t handle a joke.” While the home audience is always the hardest, Nunzio is still determined to hone his comedy routine. He now has a youtube channel where he makes racist, sexist, transphobic, homophobic and otherwise cringeworthy videos. The upside is he has ten subscribers. Sigh, he finally found some people who share his sense or humor.
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