Jeff Nazzaro, 10/21/2019
Current Occupation: University English instructor, copy editor, copywriter
Former Occupation: Journalist, photographer
Contact Information: In addition to WORK, Jeff Nazzaro's work-themed prose and poetry has appeared in several literary venues, including Down in the Dirt, Terror House Magazine, and Avatar Review. firstname.lastname@example.org
When Vinny LoPietro was in the second grade, his class was asked by their teacher, Ms. Barton, who was very artsy and always had them doing little seasonal art projects—like in the fall tearing red, orange, and yellow construction paper into “leaves” and pasting them onto a brown background—to draw a picture of their fathers for Father’s Day over a caption that read, “My father is a(n) ________.”
The parenthetical N was key. Vinny, who was as glad he didn’t have to tear paper for this project as he was that school was just about out for the summer, wrote in block letters at the bottom of a large sheet of white paper, “MY FATHER IS A(N) A ,” then he crossed out the A and wrote an E. Then he raised his hand, and when Ms. Barton came over he asked her how to spell “engineer.” She spelled it out slowly while he completed the word. Vinny then took his crayons and drew a picture of a man with dark hair wearing a striped cap and overalls, standing tall in front of a big, black locomotive.
On the last day of school, Ms. Barton let the students take their pictures home. Vinny showed his picture to his mother that afternoon. She held the paper with both hands and looked it over. She read the caption out loud. Then she laughed. She laughed out loud and said, “Oh, Vinny” in the voice she used whenever he did or said something she thought was cute, like the time he’d asked her in all seriousness if she used Joy dishwashing liquid because it was lemony fresh. She looked at the picture again, patted him on the head, and said, “It’s very, very good.” Then she picked up the phone, called her sister, and told her about the picture. Vinny heard his aunt laugh through the phone. She was a loud laugher, too. His mother laughed again. Then she started talking about the dog.
That spring, the LoPietro’s had been given Vanessa, a three-year-old purebred Shih Tzu, by their neighbor Mrs. O’Halloran, who’d had to move with her two kids into an apartment where you couldn’t have dogs. Mr. O’Halloran, Vinny’s father joked one Sunday morning, was moving into a place where you couldn’t have Vanessa. Vinny didn’t get it, but his mother assured him it wasn’t funny. The O’Hallorans, to everyone’s great shock, had gotten a divorce. It was the first one on the street. The first one Vinny had ever heard of. It wouldn’t be the last. Vinny worried his parents were next. They fought, sometimes bad. Mr. LoPietro worked all the time, even on the weekends. He often came home after Vinny had gone to bed, and was back at work before he woke up. Once he heard his mother talking to his aunt on the phone. His father had run out of gas the night before and called her from a payphone at ten o’clock. He heard her say, “I told him this is the last time. He runs out of gas once more I’m leaving him wherever the hell he is for the night. He can check in to a motel. He can walk home for all I care.”
Vinny’s mother loved Vanessa. She was always giving her baths, brushing her long fur, putting little red ribbons on her head or her ears, and telling anyone who’d listen how Vanessa was purebred Shih Tsu and she was going to enter her in shows.
“She’s show-quality pedigreed, but also a good little watch dog,” she told Vinny one day. “Shih Tsus used to guard the palace in Tibet and the monasteries. Inside. That’s why they’re so little. They used to sleep in the monks’ chambers and alert them to intruders.”
“What could a little dog like Vanessa do to anyone?” Vinny asked.
“Alert the monks. Alert the guards.”
Vinny stood and listened as his mother talked to his aunt about Vanessa. She held his picture in one hand. He turned and went down the hall to his room, closing the door behind him. Under his bed was a hockey-skate box half filled with baseball cards. On top of the cards were stereo hi-fi brochures he’d collected from the electronics department at Lechmere Sales. He had the latest brochures for Sony, Technics, Onkyo, and Akai. He’d already written a letter, filling both sides of the paper, to Santa Claus, saying that all he wanted for Christmas that year was a hi-fi stereo system with a turntable and tape deck because Gary Ross—who lived across the street and was his best friend, even though he hadn’t invited Vinny to his birthday slumber party that spring because Vinny was only nine and all Gary’s other friends were twelve, or even thirteen—had this excellent stereo system in his bedroom and a bunch of records from wicked cool bands with weird names, like Jethro Tull, even though there wasn’t a guy named Jethro Tull in the band, and Molly Hatchet, even though there weren’t any girls in the band. Gary even played him a song about a girl called Lola who was really a boy, or something like that, from a record that had this really long name and was part one, only there never was a part two. Gary assured Vinny the whole thing was hilarious. Vinny didn’t really get why any of it was funny, but he liked the music, the guitars and the singing, even if Gary did play it a little too loud. In his letter, Vinny told Santa he didn’t know what records he wanted just yet, maybe Lola Somethinorother Part One, but until he figured it out he’d be okay borrowing some of his mother’s records, like Boz Scaggs and Billy Joel. Those guys were the real singers, anyway.
Vinny’s door opened. It was his mother. She’d hung up with his aunt. She wasn’t laughing. She held his picture with both hands, looking at it, then she turned it around and showed him.
“It really is a very good drawing, Vin,” she said. “You know what your father does, don’t you?”
“Works all the time.”
“That’s right, but not the kind who drives trains. You knew that, didn’t you?”
“I don’t know, I guess so.” He put his brochures back in the skate box. He took out a stack of new baseball cards and started flipping through them—Richie Zisk, Manny Trillo, Rick Reuschel, Ron LeFlore—putting any doubles into a separate pile. He’d try trading them to Jason Vadnais for ones he needed. “Doing what, then?” he said.
“He designs stuff. Electronic stuff.” She bent down and picked up one of the brochures. “Sort of like this.”
“He makes stereos?” Vinny said, looking up from his cards.
“Designs. He makes diagrams, sort of like pictures, that other people use to make stuff. Not stereos, though. Much more important than that—really fancy medical equipment so doctors can see inside of people.”
“Like X-rays but newer, fancier.”
“Can I see one?”
“I’ll tell you what. I’ll talk to your father and maybe he can take you into work with him one day. Then you can see.”
Vinny kept his letter to Santa Claus in the hockey-skate box all summer. He hardly bothered with the cards, spending most of his time working on the letter, rereading it, crossing stuff out, tacking stuff onto the end in smaller and smaller letters. By the time school started, he thought he had it perfect, and, though it was still just September, he gave it to his mother so she could mail it to the North Pole.
That fall, his mother encouraged him to spend more time playing with Jason Vadnais, who lived up the street and was the same age as Vinny. He liked Jason, and they always had fun playing, but with Gary Ross it was different. Vinny always felt like he learned something new, a song or a board game Gary had, or just hearing things like how watching college football was better than watching the pros because the pros were just playing for paychecks and changed teams all the time. “You’re just rooting for laundry,” he said.
Jason Vadnais didn’t know any of that stuff, and Vinny felt like he spent half the time they played together telling him stuff Gary had told him. They still had fun, though, and Vinny’s mother seemed happier. But why did she care? Maybe she’d secretly read his letter to Santa before mailing it. But it didn’t matter so long as she’d mailed it, did it? Someone else reading your letter to Santa wouldn’t cancel it out like telling someone what you’d wished for before blowing the candles out on your birthday cake. Or would it?
November was warm that year. Vinny’s mother kept calling it Indian summer, but all Vinny knew was that he was still wearing his warm-up jacket, not his parka, to school. At lunch one day, Jennifer Keane said that if it didn’t get cold pretty soon, Santa’s reindeer would need extra magic flying beans to make it through the usual Christmas deliveries, and that touched off the Great Santa Debate of the third grade at Wamesit North Elementary School.
The Great Santa Debate consumed lunch period all the way up to Christmas vacation that year, the class split between St. Nick believers and infidels. Though no official poll was taken, it seemed as if the believers held a slim but impassioned edge. There were kids, mostly boys, usually tough, who folded their arms, hands tucked under little biceps, shook their heads, and said, “It’s your parents.” When pressed, they said things like, “I just know” or “it’s obvious.” When really pressed, they admitted, “My father told me.” There were other kids, mostly girls, mostly honor-roll students, who crossed their arms, hands on shoulders, and said, “He’s real. I know he’s real.” When pressed, they said things like, “I just know in my heart Santa Claus is real.” When really pressed, they confessed, “My mother swore to me.”
Vinny took a middle position. He believed in Santa Claus but didn’t think St. Nick could deliver all those presents to all those boys and girls all over the world in the course of one long winter’s night using just a sleigh and eight flying reindeer. No way, even with Rudolph. Even with magic powers like putting a finger to his nose and zipping up and down chimneys. Not everyone even had a chimney. He’d visited the O’Halloran’s new apartment that summer. No chimney. What were they going to do, leave a window open? They’d freeze to death. And where would they hang their stockings?
It didn’t add up. Vinny’s house alone, between his sister and him, would take at least an hour. Plus, there was no way Santa’s elves made all the stuff they got in some little workshop, like in the TV specials. That was fine for dollhouses and wooden trains and all that, but Vinny was expecting a state-of-the-art Japanese stereo system. They didn’t make those at the North Pole. Sony and Akai were in Tokyo. Onkyo and Technics were in Osaka. It said so on the back of the brochures.
No, the way Vinny saw it, Santa had to have some kind of turbocharged helicopter with robotic arms that clutched presents in adjustable claws and extended down chimneys into stockings and under trees, like something out of The Cat in the Hat. He probably had a whole fleet of them, and any given Christmas you only got some senior elf in red shorts to deliver your loot.
It was a reasonable compromise, Vinny thought, but he didn’t get much support for his turbocharged helicopter theory. Jennifer Keane shook her head and said, “He has a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer—everyone knows that,” and Robert Nichols, who would punch you in the arm so hard your fingers would tingle if you called him Bob, or, God help you, Bobby, clapped Vinny on the shoulder and said, “It’s your father, kid. I found out last year when I wanted a dirt bike and got a football instead.”
Vinny didn’t know and neither did Jennifer Keane in her frilly dresses or Robert Nichols in his plain white T-shirts. Bobby, ha ha. Whoever heard of getting one present from Santa, anyway? He probably gave him a stupid football because he went around punching kids in the arm all the time and making them call him Robert and say he was the strongest kid in the school. No wonder he was like that, with a father who’d just out and tell him there was no Santa Claus.
Well, this Christmas would prove it, one way or the other. Vinny’s mother had already said, “What do you need a stereo in your bedroom for when we have a perfectly good one in the living room?”
“Gary Ross has one in his room,” Vinny had said.
“Gary Ross’s father is a pharmacist. He owns the Rexall drug store on Main Street.”
“Gary got his stereo for Christmas. Santa doesn’t care whose father owns a Rexall drug store, does he?”
“Not everything on Christmas comes from Santa. Some stuff you get every year comes from your father and I.”
“Like my skates last year.”
“That’s right, and they’re nicer than half the kids on your team. I just don’t think Santa will get a nine-year-old boy, no matter how good he’s been, an expensive hi-fi system nicer than most adults have.”
Vinny’s lower lip started to pout out like it did when he was trying not to cry, but before any tears came his mother said, “But he’d probably bring something pretty close.”
When Christmas finally arrived that year, Vinny’s internal Santa alarm woke him up at five o’clock, his stomach churning with butterflies. Outside it was still dark. Santa had come; Vinny could feel it. He knew the stockings were filled and the presents were under the tree. He also knew he couldn’t open anything. He’d be in real trouble if he did that. But he could look. Except it was still so early. He’d wait until his sister woke up. She’d come and get him. He closed his eyes. They snapped right back open.
Vinny got out of bed as quietly as he could. His room was at one end of a long hallway, at the other end of which, with its newly supplemented Christmas tree, gleamed the living room. In between was first his parents’ bedroom, then his sister’s.
He crept across the floor, felt in the dark for the knob and, slowly turning it, opened the door just enough for his thin frame to squeeze through. He only had to tiptoe down the carpeted hallway to where Santa had stashed all the loot.
His parents’ door was closed. That made it easy. As he went past, he saw that his sister’s door was open. It didn’t matter. Even if she woke up, she’d be on his side. Christmas! He crept past her door. Then, with a sharp eruption of noise, something—Vanessa!—sprang off the bed at him. He jumped, shrieked, and ran. Palace guard dog instincts activated, she chased him down the hallway into the living room, where he flung himself onto the sofa, just out of reach of the Shih Tsu’s nip, clipping the tree with his foot on the way by, sending a shower of ornaments, tinsel, and lights crashing down.
“Vincent Michael!” his mother shouted down the hallway. “Get back in bed this instant or there will be no Christmas for you this year!”
There was, eventually, Christmas for everyone that morning. Vinny received some clothes and a hockey stick from his parents and from Santa Claus toys, games, and, for his final, big present, a Fisher-Price phonograph. As Vinny tore the paper from the box, the image of the portable record player brought him an immediate burst of excitement, that feeling of getting exactly what you’d worked all year for—imagining, writing, remembering to be good—before the familiar blue-and-red of the Fisher-Price box, the large yellow lettering, the image on the front—made him stop. His lower lip quivered, threatening a pout. He looked at his mother.
“Isn’t it great?” she said.
“This is a toy,” he said.
“It’s a record player, like you wanted,” she said. “It’s portable. Wait’ll you try it out. You can play it in your room. You can bring it up to Jason Vadnais’ house.”
Vinny looked at the box, his lower lip slowly jutting past his upper.
“Vin, you’re nine,” his mother said. “Santa brings toys for little boys. When you’re bigger you’ll get a bigger one.” She looked at him for a moment. “But, if you don’t like this one, we can always send it back to the North Pole.”
Vinny finished unwrapping the present. He hugged the box to his chest, sucked in his lower lip, and shook his head.
His mother had a new Christmas album by the Carpenters (who were really singers) she’d bought the day after Thanksgiving, and it was the first record Vinny played on his new phonograph. He played it over and over that morning until his father said they better give the needle a break and turned on the radio.
The next day, Vinny carefully wound up the power cord, secured the lid on top, and carried his new portable record player up the street to Jason Vadnais’ house. Jason and his brother, Billy, got a computer they called a TR-80, and something called Tobor, which Vinny knew from TV commercials—it was “robot” spelled backwards. Big deal. Jason showed Vinny how to play Hunt the Wumpus on the computer while Billy kept ramming Tobor into their feet and laughing.
They didn’t listen to any records that day. On his way home, Vinny saw Gary Ross in the street. He had a radio-controlled car. He zoomed it right up to Vinny. Vinny jumped and the car went flying past him, then spun around and came back. Vinny whirled in the street and watched it whiz by back to Gary.
“Pretty cool, huh?” he said. “It’s got front-wheel drive. Made in Japan.”
“From Santa?” Vinny said.
Gary laughed. “Yeah, it was from Santa, all right. He give you that?” He pointed at Vinny’s record player.
“I asked for a hi-fi system, but he gave me this for now.”
“That’s the way to do it.”
Vinny wanted to try the radio-controlled car, but he was too shy to ask, and though he kept looking at the controller, Gary didn’t offer. Pretty soon, Vinny’s mother called him inside.
Two days before New Year’s that winter, Vinny, who’d forgotten all about it, went with his father to work. Like Vinny, his father was supposed to be off that week, but he ended up going in to the office almost every day, at least for a few hours, even on Sunday.
It was a Sunday when Vinny went with him. His father drove a little Toyota with a stick shift. Vinny was used to his mother’s car, a station wagon with an automatic gear shifter coming out of the steering column. He usually sat in the back seat, roaming around. Now, he was in the front, buckled up.
“Guess I have a copilot today,” his father said. “Usually I fly solo, but I guess today I have a copilot.”
Vinny thought, as copilot, he should watch the gauges in the car, especially the speedometer, since he knew his father had gotten two speeding tickets in the last year, and the gas gauge because of that time before when his father ran out of gas. He certainly didn’t want to have to walk home.
As soon as they were out of the driveway, Vinny noticed the fuel gauge stood just above E. There was a gas station very close to the house, right near the onramp to the highway. As copilot, he should say something. He didn’t want to say it.
“Dad, do we need gas?” he said.
“Nah,” said his father, without glancing at the gauge, and got on the ramp to the highway. At the end of the ramp he downshifted, then shot out into traffic, quickly working his way over to the far lane. He drove very fast until he was right on top of the car in front of him, then he hit the brakes. Sometimes after braking he downshifted and stamped on the gas. Vinny watched the speedometer, up to eighty, down to sixty, back up to eighty. Sometimes cars got out of the way, sometimes they sped up. Sometimes cars flew around their little car from behind. A couple of times headlights flashed, and once a guy honked. Vinny’s father didn’t seem to notice any of it. Vinny sometimes took his eyes off the gauges and watched his father’s hand on the gear shifter—his fingers would spread out off the knob and then make a slashing movement, like he did when he was talking to Vinny’s mother at the kitchen table, making a point about work, things Vinny never understood: his boss, Larry, or those stupid programmers. “What’s a programmer?” he asked his father once. “Someone who thinks good, better, best is really good, better, ah, the hell with it—good enough,” to which Vinny’s mother said, “Peter!” When they reached the parking lot of his father’s company, the gas needle rested right at the top of the gauge’s E.
There weren’t many cars in the lot. There weren’t many people in the building. There was a security guard. He said, “Hey, Pete,” to Vinny’s father.
Vinny’s father said, “Jerry.”
Jerry said, “It’s getting late. I was beginning to think a Sunday might actually go by without you coming in for the free coffee.”
“If you could say that, Jerry,” Pete said. “I have my son here with me today.”
“So I see,” Jerry said. To Vinny he said, “What’s your name, son?”
He hated when other men called him “son.” His father never did. “Vinny,” he said.
“Vinny. Great name. I know a couple of Vinnys from up the North End, but they live down in Walpole now, working for the commonwealth in the license plate business.” Jerry winked at Vinny’s father. Vinny didn’t know why. His father didn’t say anything back.
They took an elevator to the third floor. There was one other person there, a woman.
“Didn’t know if you were going to make it in today,” she said.
“Just one or two things to take care of. This guy tagged along. Maybe you can, you know, find something to occupy him for a couple of hours.”
“I think we should be able to come up with something. I’ll make a fresh pot of coffee, too.”
Vinny walked with his father to his office. It looked just like his office at home, only bigger. There was a desk, lots of books, tables that slanted up towards the ceiling, stacks and stacks of paper, lots of pencils and rulers of all sizes shaped like triangles and L’s. His father started leafing through some papers. The woman returned. She had a cup of coffee and a cup of juice. She placed the cup of coffee on a bare spot on Vinny’s father’s desk and took the cup of juice and Vinny out onto the main floor.
The woman sat Vinny in front of a large machine. It had buttons and levers and knobs. Vinny sat and drank his juice, and after a while he started pushing buttons on the machine. Nothing happened. There was a little screen, but it stayed dark. There was some paper in a part of the machine that was off to the side. The paper had green-and-white stripes. There was a knob on the end of the machine. He turned the knob and the paper moved. He turned it some more, and the paper started coming out of the machine, more and more until it bunched up into a pile. He tried turning the knob back the other way, but it wouldn’t move the paper. It just made a clicking sound. Vinny panicked. He’d broken the machine and didn’t know how to fix it. His father would be angry with him, like that time with his mother: “Bertie, I’m angry. I’m very angry with you.” He couldn’t remember what his mother said, but then his father swore and swore, louder and louder, until he pounded his fist on the kitchen table and she cried out and ran from the room.
There was a lever. Vinny found the lever, and when he pulled it, he was able to turn the knob back the other way and all the paper very slowly turned back into the machine. He turned it very slowly and methodically, and by doing it that way it returned neatly into the machine, as if it had never been out. The paper was crinkled in places, but he made himself not look closely enough to see it.
Vinny didn’t know how long he had been sitting there, but the juice was long gone and he had to pee. He didn’t want to bother his father, and he didn’t know where the woman had gone. He went back to the buttons and knobs and levers on the main part of the machine, inventing a game. The game was simple: if he pushed the right buttons, turned the right knobs, pulled the right levers all in the right order, the machine would transmit a signal alerting his father that he had to pee and was ready to go home. He had no idea how many combinations he tried, but finally Vinny typed in his father’s first name, pushed the row of buttons at the back of the machine in order to the right and then back, typed in his phone number, pulled three levers, typed “L-O-P-I-E-T-R-O,” and … it worked. His father was at his shoulder saying, “Come on, Vin, let’s get going.”
They stopped at the men’s room, then they rode the elevator down to the first floor. On the way out, Jerry the security guard asked Vinny if Santa had brought him everything he’d asked for on Christmas. Vinny beamed and said he had.
Jerry made a sad face. “Santa didn’t bring me anything this year. How come?”
Vinny thought for a second. He looked at Jerry’s face. Probably he hadn’t been very good. He’d said that stuff about guys named Vinny and gave that wink, whatever it meant, and he just looked like he hadn’t been very good. But Vinny couldn’t say that. He felt bad for Jerry. Besides, he hadn’t been so good himself that year. In the fall he’d smashed one of the garage windows with a hockey puck, then told his father it had deflected off a bump in the driveway, which was a lie. He’d aimed for the window with a wrist shot and, to his surprise, nailed it. Sometime over the summer he’d dumped a pail of cold water on his sister when she was lying out in the backyard in her bathing suit—though she pretty much got him back for that. Just a few weeks before Christmas he’d trapped Vanessa in that old Mayflower box his mother kept all the Christmas junk in, by propping it up with a stick attached to a string and baiting it with a piece of cheese. When Vanessa went to get the cheese, Vinny pulled the string, then cackled as the little Shih Tsu bumped around inside. After all that and a bunch of stuff he couldn’t really remember, he still got his record player and pretty much everything else he wanted.
“I don’t know,” Vinny told Jerry. “I don’t think Santa would ever want to let anyone down.”
Jerry just chuckled and told Pete good night.
It was dark and very cold when Vinny and his father walked across the parking lot and got into the little Toyota. When his father started the engine, the gas needle barely budged. Vinny didn’t say anything. They approached and passed three gas stations before getting on the highway, and Vinny said nothing.
On the highway, his father spoke to him. He said, “Hey, Vin, you knew that about Santa Claus, right? That it’s your mother and me?”
“I guess so, yeah,” Vinny said.
“That’s right, yeah, it’s your mother and me.”
They were silent the rest of the way home. There wasn’t much traffic. Vinny’s father kept his feet working the pedals and his hand on the gearshift knob, making those slashing gestures. Vinny watched the gas gauge. It sank lower and lower, hovering just below E.