he night my grandfather tried to kill us, I was five years old, the age I stopped believing in Santa Claus, started kindergarten, and made real rather than imaginary friends.
Because Grandpa was one of two grandfathers in their family, my cousins called him Grandpa Jerry. For me, he was simply Grandpa. I had only one. The other--my father's father, the Polish grandpa we called Dziadzia (pronounced Jaja)--was hit over the head during a burglary in his front hallway seven years before I was born and died after slipping into a coma.
Everyone in Jersey City knew Grandpa--Italian Grandpa--as Beansie, because when he was young, he stole a crate of beans from the back of a truck. Details about his life started to bubble into my consciousness during the summer of 1970, the year my memory kicked in full force. There were stories about Grandpa "going away" to Trenton for murder. Being arrested for armed robbery. Beating my mother, her sister, and her three brothers.
Grandpa was a well-known neighborhood bully and crook, though the only stolen objects I knew of firsthand were the ones he swiped while working as a security guard at the Jersey City Public Library and Museum in the late 1960s. The fact that Grandpa was able to get a city job as a security guard--through an uncle, who knew a local judge, who was connected to the mayor--says a lot about Jersey City's patronage system and general reputation. Everybody stole. It was no big deal.
My brother inherited most of the objects Grandpa stole from the library and museum--the shiny, shellacked coins with Indian feathered heads; a photograph of Abraham Lincoln; small, black Indian arrowheads; a set of encyclopedias. I always wondered if Grandpa stole them book by book or had one of his friends with a car pull up to the library and help him load them in.
The only stolen object of Grandpa's that I possess is a dictionary, a Webster's Seventh New Collegiate edition, which he inscribed to my sister the year I was born: "From Grandpa. Hi Ya Paula. Year--1965." The call numbers on the spine and the blue stamp on a back page, which reads FREE PUBLIC LIBRARY JERSEY CITY, N.J., have been crossed out in blue indelible marker, his attempt to legitimize the gift. Grandpa obviously had his own interpretation of the phrase free public library.
Before I started school, my grandma Pauline baby-sat for me while my mother worked as a clerk at the Jersey City Division of Motor Vehicles office, three blocks away. When Grandma died in February of 1970, my mother had no one to baby-sit, so she quit her job. Though I'm sure I missed my grandma--a saintly woman with a halo of white hair and small, pretty hands--my world changed for the better. I was suddenly the center of my mother's attention. With Grandma gone, Grandpa was at the center of no one's.
Because my grandmother had stayed married to Grandpa for four decades, she died fairly young. She was only sixty. She died on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. By then Grandma hated Grandpa so much that on her deathbed, with the smudge of ashes on her forehead, she made my mother promise that Grandpa wouldn't be buried on top of her when he died. She couldn't stand the thought of his ashes mingling with hers.
During her lifetime, Grandma quietly threatened to poison Grandpa, but she never did. She never even got up enough courage to leave him. I couldn't understand why she stayed with him for so long. Or why she was even with him to begin with.
Maybe it was because Grandpa was so handsome. Like my mother, he had delicate features, thin lips, and olive skin. His hairless body was covered in tattoos, like a bloom of fresh blue and purple bruises, which he'd gotten when he was in the army, which he joined, illegally, at age fourteen. On his leg was tattooed a hula girl, which, in his lighter, happier moments Grandpa would make dance for me by rippling his calf muscle. A blue chain was tattooed around one wrist. A snake slithered up his arm, past a cross and a red-and-blue heart. On his other arm was my grandmother's name--Pauline--underneath the profile of Evelyn Nesbit, the famous girl in the red velvet swing, a popular tattoo subject in 1906. It was a sign that Grandpa adored Grandma. Though he was known to beat his children, he never laid a hand on his wife. He loved her and even had a pet name for her--Boobie.
But Grandpa's rage was so potent that it could be contagious. My aunt Mary Ann had moved to Florida just to get away from Grandpa after almost hitting him over the head with a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Uncle Robby, my mother's youngest brother, was once chased by Grandpa with a broken bottle in front of his own children. Uncle Robby, pushed to the brink of insanity during one of their fights, went at Grandpa with a five iron, then smashed his picture window.
The violent streak hadn't been passed down to my mother so much. She cursed a lot, though. Whenever she let loose a particularly nasty string of obscenities, my quiet father would yell from two rooms away, "Shut your trap." When she was going through menopause, she ripped a phone out of the wall. But that was the only time I ever saw her do something violent.
Right after Grandma died, Grandpa turned his rage on himself, since he had no one at home to terrorize anymore. He tried to kill himself three times. He jumped out the first-floor window of his apartment but did little damage. If Grandpa had lived in a high-rise, our troubles that year would have just ended there.
Excerpted from Five-Finger Discount by Helene Stapinski. Copyright © 2001 by Helene Stapinski. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.