Every day begins the same for Uncle Nunzio.
A quick, careful shave with a straight razor and a splash of Lilac Vegitalis to wake him up, the alcohol sting is his personal sign that another day has begun. He dresses slowly, working the arthritic kinks out in the process, and takes a pair of either brown or dark-blue slacks out of the closet. The slacks need a good pressing, but they are clean, and Uncle seems not to notice. He puts on a white short-sleeved dress shirt — one of five or six that are hanging in the closet — and then selects a tie that is large enough to double as a bib. He knots it carefully.
Downstairs he brews a small pot of Italian espresso that delivers just the right amount of caffeine to his system, and if he’s feeling hungry, opens a small can of peas and eats right out of it. At precisely 6:30 a.m., he walks to the corner and waits for a bus that will take him to the food center. If it’s going to be a good day, he will wait less than five minutes for the bus to arrive.
At the food center, he spends a couple of hours walking among the vendors, examining the fruit almost lovingly. Uncle used to drive here or over the bridge to one of the Jersey roadside stands, but in one of the few concessions he has made to the onslaught of time, he doesn’t drive anymore. His car still gleams brightly, but never moves from the spot in front of his house.
Without a car, he can’t buy the bushels of tomatoes, string beans or ears of corn as was his habit as recently as three or four years ago. He knows there really is no need for him to shop here anymore. He can just as easily buy what he needs from the fruit stand a couple of blocks from his home. But he has become comfortable with this routine, and won’t allow himself to think of it as the empty ritual of an old man.
When he returns home, he changes into an old baggy pair of knee-length shorts. His legs are the color of old ivory, despite the hours he spends outdoors in the summer. He remembers hearing tales of the old cowboys out West whose skin became the permanent color of burnished gold from the sun and the wind, but in Uncle’s case, the skin has become stark white. And with his thinning snow-white hair and neatly trimmed mustache, he imagines that he is becoming almost invisible in the stark sunlight of summer.
He turns the hose on his pavement, watching the dirt and grime of the city wash away in rivulets, along with some dog mess that is inevitably deposited on his pavement in the course of the day. He often casts dark glances at the dog owners who walk their animals unleashed across his pavement, and they defiantly stare back. Uncle knows there was a time when he could have taken one of these youths by the scruff of the neck for showing disrespect, but their muscles ripple beneath their T-shirts and he is no longer up to the challenge. That is one of the aspects of growing old that he hates the most.
Come 4:30 as the sun grows stronger, Uncle retires to his kitchen and prepares a small tomato salad with some sprigs of basil: He was ill when it came time to plant his tomatoes this season, so these are from the food center, but at least the basil is from his garden, and he is feeling well again, so the hell with the tomatoes. A couple of ears of corn — the tougher, the better — and a generous helping of string beans and, last but not least, some homemade wine from what was once a bottle that held prune juice, and what could be better?
The bread is fresh, although the humidity has taken its toll on the crustiness that he prefers. The feast is complete. Uncle normally does not eat meat at dinner except when he eats pasta. He does keep a chunk of soppressata in the refrigerator, which serves as lunch for at least a week.
After dinner, in the cooler temperature of early evening, he sits outside on his beach chair with a large battery-operated radio that’s tuned to either the all-news or the talk station. The radio stations don’t play the kind of music that Uncle likes. As the kids ride by on their bikes or play up the side street, he dozes off, awakened only by a mischievous fly landing on his nose. By that time, it’s time to go inside, and by 9 o’clock, he is in bed.
He will awake the same time the next morning and do it all over again.
Tonight he is dreaming that he is 5 years old and sitting in his mother’s lap. She is stroking his hair and he can feel the roughness of her hands.
It is not a bad life he leads at age 82. All that is missing is love.