Tony the Horse was a hit man, and he wore a size 13 ring. His bride, Frances, was a plain woman—very shy, Italian, just off the boat. When she ordered their wedding rings, the man at the jewelry store said, “Please, lady, what kind of a man are you marrying?” Frances wouldn’t go back. When the rings were ready, my mother had to pick them up.
Tony was very gentle, really, very soft-spoken; he started me on my stamp collection. “Every girl should have a collection,” he’d say. “Something worth money later on.” He was only my father’s second cousin, but Frances was barren; Tony thought of me as his own kid. He used to stop by our house two, three times a week, and he’d bring stamps from England, Brazil, Portugal, Switzerland—all over the world. Stamps with princes’ faces and houses tucked away into hillsides—not little dirt hills with weeds and billboards and railroad tracks, but mountains—green mountains with mansions, sometimes castles, tucked right into their sides. He used to tell me that he’d take me there—to those houses, to any place I wanted—when I was old enough. He never spoke above a whisper; still, his throat was often sore and he always carried a box of Vicks cough drops.
Tony threw his girlfriend out a window once—but this was years before I met him, years before I was born—and he used to curse, holler, throw things: a big temper; you never knew what he would do. But these were just stories I heard, things my aunt Delia brought up when she fought with my mother: “How could you spend time with that man? Let him near your daughter? He threw his girlfriend right out the window.”
“Did you know her?” my mother would say. “Did you know her; did I know her? Worry about your own goddamned house.”
A man once stabbed Tony with an ice pick—at least that’s what Aunt Delia told me. “Twelve times, right in the chest,” she said (my parents tried to keep this from me), “so Tony threw him out the window too. That’s what sent him to prison!”
But I knew none of this when I met him. And I never even met him until I was seven.
He just showed up at our doorstep one night. The bell rang while we were about to eat dinner, and my father ran down the stairs (we lived on the second floor), came back up with a stranger.
“Look, Lena,” he said to my mother. “Look who it is.”
To me, Tony looked like a professor. He wore round wire-framed glasses and a brown suit that matched his hat. And I must have just seen a movie about a professor—my mother was always taking me to the Loew’s Theatre on Journal Square—because that’s the first thing I thought when I saw him: a pro- fessor.
He was a tall man, much taller than my father (my father was handsome, but stout), and when I think about it now, he was probably only six feet—but that was rare back then.
He was wide, too. We had a skinny hallway—the whole house was narrow—but from where I sat, Tony filled it from side to side.
Tony stayed for dinner that night and he and I became friends. Fast friends. He told me about his stamp collection, a little hobby he’d picked up while he was “away.” (I was just learning to address and mail an envelope at school.) After that, he’d show up twice a week with a white cloth bag. It looked like a mailbag, the kind you see stuffed under a mailbox—canvas, I think. He would pull out a black leather book. It had blank pages with plastic covers and boxes drawn on them. On the top of each page was the name of a country, so you could match up the right stamps with the right places.
The first time Tony brought his stamps over, it was springtime. My father and his band played a lot of weddings, so he wasn’t there when Tony arrived. My father walked in while we were still sorting through the stamps, though—almost three hours had passed. He said a quick “hello” and then he whispered something to my mother. He walked off into their bedroom—it was right off the kitchen, like mine (every room led to the kitchen—every one but the living room)—and he kept himself busy. About a half hour later, though, when I went into the bathroom, he pulled his cousin aside.
“Listen,” he said (I overheard all of this; I stayed by the bathroom door), “you know you can visit any time you want.”
“Thanks, Dom, that means a lot to me.”
“You can eat, keep company, play with my daughter—she seems to like you.”
“I like her, too,” Tony said.
“So long as you stay on the straight and narrow.”
“You’re the only real family I have,” Tony answered. “You think I’d make trouble for you?”
“I don’t want you to make trouble for anybody,” my father said. “Especially not in this neighborhood.” Then, as an afterthought: “I don’t even cut card games anymore.”
This was the first I heard about card games.
“Not even that, Dom?”
“She’s getting big, Tony—she’s in the second grade. That’s not how I want her to see me.”
“I see,” Tony answered.
“And I mean what I’m saying!”
“I mean straight,” my father told him.
Tony came over twice a week—sometimes more, like I said—and he always had new stamps. God knows where he got them—I don’t remember that part. I remember that I’d run to meet him and we’d dump out the envelopes (the postmark sections; the rest were cut off) on the kitchen floor, sift through for the rare stamps, the interesting places—Australia, India—hold them over my mother’s tea kettle—sometimes she’d help us—and steam them off.
And people in the neighborhood started talking, saying, “Tony the Horse is back,” watching him, while we sat on the porch, while we took a walk to the corner for some lemon ice (we only did this once, really, then my mother put a stop to it). So my mother made us stay inside when he visited, even if it was hot.
“I don’t want a spectacle,” she said.
“What are they talking about?” I asked her.
But she wouldn’t say.
And it wasn’t long before I got tired of this—the stares from neighbors, the comments from Aunt Delia in the hallway . . . my mother avoiding my questions. I could see that my mother liked him. Sometimes I thought she liked him better than my father. Between the band and the days my father worked on the trucks, he was hardly home, anyway. She wore her hair in two big swirls that met in the middle back then, and she made sure to set it with two rollers the size of beer cans on the nights before Tony came. She even fixed Tony up with Frances—a friend of her cousin in New York. She didn’t just get the ring; she helped plan the whole wedding (for all I know, she picked a plain girl on purpose).
And Tony was coming all the way from New York to see us—my mother and me. He lived on Cherry Street in Manhattan, so it wasn’t such a quick trip. That seemed very nice.
But still people talked. People seemed afraid of him. I was looking out my front window once as he walked down Mallory Avenue, and two old men crossed the street just because they saw him coming.
So one day I decided to ask my mother my mother flat-out: “Did my uncle Tony go to jail?”
She never lied, my mother—not directly—so she sat me down in the living room on her new green chair with the blue leaves. “Mary, don’t tell your father . . . but, yes, your uncle made a terrible mistake. He made it, he paid his debt to society, and now that’s all done.”
“What kind of mistake?” I asked her.
“You asked a question and I answered it. Now, that’s all I’m saying—you’re too young.”
“Is what Aunt Delia says true?”
“What did your aunt Delia tell you?”
“She says Uncle Tony’s dangerous.”
“That Delia better watch I don’t get my hands on her,” she said.
“Is my uncle Tony dangerous?” I asked her.
“No, Mary,” she told me. “He’s not dangerous to you.”
In the third grade I had trouble with my math teacher, Mr. Bauer. I was never very good with numbers—I’m still not—and this Mr. Bauer was making things worse. We were learning the multiplication tables and if I asked him a question he’d pretend he didn’t hear me. But then he’d call on me. He wouldn’t answer my questions, but he’d pick me out for his own. And then, when I’d answer wrong, he would laugh. Right out loud. And the other kids would laugh with him. He was even threatening to fail me, leave me back.
It had been a whole year, now, since I’d met Tony, and besides that one night when he showed up drunk, sloppy, knocking things over (my mother had to feed him two pots of coffee), he’d kept his promise to my father.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Mary After All by Bill Gordon. Copyright © 2004 by Bill Gordon. Excerpted by permission of The Dial Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.