Thursday, September 17, 2015

Cream Sam Summer: the Novel

A Novel by Nicholas Nigro

The year is 1978, a simpler snapshot in time, when New York City neighborhoods had both character and characters—lots of them in fact. At once gritty and charming, the Bronx’s Kingsbridge supplies the vivid backdrop for Matt “Bean” Casale and his pals, who unwittingly find themselves entangled in the lives of their most eccentric neighbors. A hot and humid summer in the city adds further intrigue by simultaneously thawing out a police cold case and sorely testing the bonds of old friendships. Uncovering the real truth doesn’t come easy for the police and for the boys, too, who get swept up in both a Byzantine local soap opera and the rough-and-tumble of merely growing up.

Suffice it to say that the boys will never be quite the same, nor the neighborhood and world that they live in, after the Cream Sam Summer.

Cream Sam Summer ​is based on real people, places, and events from the past.

Sample Chapter 1 

A few weeks ago, Jimmy Kern went ballistic in his front driveway—a fist- pounding, foaming at the mouth eruption that was downright scary to witness. Known to most of us around here as “Red,” the man’s a certifiable neighborhood oddball. Somebody once told me that he received the nickname because he was a card-carrying communist, and that it had absolutely nothing to do with his redder than red hair and heavily freckled complexion. Honestly, I suspect my leg was being pulled and sincerely doubt that Red even knows what a communist is. I’m not very good at divining ages, but he’s considerably younger than my mother and father, who are in their mid-forties, and a lot older than me, a sixteen-year-old high school student. I’d wager that he’s somewhere in between and has celebrated his thirtieth birthday, and probably a few more than that, in the not-too-distant past.

The local consensus is that Red is simple—a “bit off” and not the brightest bulb in the chandelier—but he’s no a simpleton. I’ve heard through the grapevine that his childhood was anything but idyllic. For starters: Both his parents drank like fish. Mama Kern was something of a recluse, too. She came out only at night to run errands, which included picking up her regular whiskey stash and preferred smokes—Lucky Strikes, I’ve been told—but that was the long and short of her public appearances. My grandmother recalls her tying young Red and his older brother Peter to a sycamore tree in their backyard. Presumably, this was the oft-intoxicated mother’s foolproof method of keeping an eye on her two boys. Verbal interchange between this strange and solitary woman and her Kingsbridge neighbors—even basic hellos—just didn’t happen.

The reports are that Papa Kern was a tad more sociable. He would on occasion acknowledge his neighbors with the barest of nods, but he never, ever had anything to say. Sadly, the man met a tragic end. On his way home from work one summer’s eve almost two decades ago, the Kern family’s breadwinner fell in front of an oncoming subway train at the 181st Street station near the George Washington Bridge. The lingering scuttlebutt is that his blood alcohol level was off the charts. My Uncle Paul says Mr. Kern was a “tortured soul”—somebody who might very well have jumped in front of the train. Since the Kern patriarch shuffled off this mortal coil in such a dramatic fashion—accident or no accident—his surviving widow has seldom been spotted, even under the cloak of darkness.

Fast-forward to the present and the Kern house on Tibbett Avenue is an unsightly blot on the neighborhood landscape—a ramshackle eyesore. The family actually purchased the house brand new in the late 1930s—they were Kingsbridge denizens even before my grandparents, who moved into the neighborhood several years later. But forty years of utter neglect have rendered the place a complete shambles. There are broken windows in the front of the house, on the sides, and out back, too. Peeling paint is the rule. It’s late July now and the Kern’s front grounds are smothered in tall weeds. Sprouting up through countless cracks and crevices, a slate-tiles pathway leading to steps and the front door is also overrun with them. Our cigar-chomping mailman, Louie, no longer attempts to access the Kern’s rusty old mailbox attached to the house. Instead, he drops the mail into a thick patch of weeds, just beyond a corroded wrought iron gate along the sidewalk’s edge, which he says are the homeowner’s explicit instructions. I often notice uncollected letters and assorted junk mail in this urban jungle for weeks at a time—rain or shine. God only knows what the place’s interior looks like.

Four summers ago, I laid eyes on the old lady for the first and only time in my life. Spying this ghostly pale apparition standing on her front porch—dressed in all black with a long shock of unruly white hair—sent shivers up my twelve-year-old spine. No exaggeration here: She was a dead ringer for Grandmama Addams. Nowadays, her reclusiveness is the stuff of legend. Seeing her in the light of day, or dark of night for that matter, is the Kingsbridge equivalent of a Big Foot or Loch Ness Monster sighting.

Red Kern, on the other hand, is a familiar face in this sliver of the Northwest Bronx. Just about everybody knows him. A notorious packrat, the concrete sidewalls of the family’s sloping front driveway are perpetually lined with his most recent street finds. He once amassed a diverse assortment of discarded glass containers—everything from beer and soda bottles to mayonnaise and cold cream jars. Red envisioned making “piggybanks” out of them someday. On another occasion, the man gathered together wood scraps of every conceivable shape and size that he plucked from neighbors’ garbage cans. He spoke often of his grand plans to build an extra room to the house—his room—in the driveway. Construction hasn’t begun.

When we were much younger, Richie Ragusa, “Johnny B” Bauer, and I christened Red “Cream Sam”—a sub-nickname of sorts to his more popularly known one. The three of us had gotten into the habit of parking our bicycles in his driveway during the warm months of summer. Red was always ready with a good yarn, opinion, or outlandish philosophical discourse on the meaning of life. He frequently spoke of the existence of these rare culinary delights—at least that’s what I think they were supposed to be—called “Cream Sams.” Red said time and again that we would just love these “Kingsbridge Caviars,” and he always promised to get us some real soon.

On numerous occasions, my parents have instructed me to keep my distance from Red and his combination driveway-junkyard. Richie’s ex-Marine father has laid down the law concerning contact with anybody named Kern. I have no doubt that Johnny B’s over-protective mother would lock him in his room, and throw away the key, if she knew what he was up to. But Red has just fascinated us too much, with both his never-ending stories and ever-evolving collections of rubbish, to stay completely away. And since our parents don’t have us under constant surveillance while in the great outdoors—this is 1978, not 1984—these decrees from on high amount to little more than a hill of beans.

Admittedly, there has always been a feeling of trepidation—an intoxicating whiff of danger—when standing in the Kern’s driveway, on the periphery of the open garage, or even when passing by the house on the front sidewalk. The mere possibility that a crazy old lady could, at any moment, materialize—brandishing an ax, sharp kitchen knife, or ice pick—is enough to make my blood run cold. The decidedly more visible and real specter of Peter Kern has long been part of the equation as well. While Red’s big brother doesn’t officially reside at the house anymore, he nonetheless keeps a watchful eye on the place and his kinfolk. The brutish Peter’s got an unsavory reputation in these parts for being perpetually drunk, habitually mean, and sometimes violent.

But there’s more to the Kern family mystique than a colorful cast of characters on a dilapidated urban stage. It encompasses, too, the unsolved mystery of a neighborhood boy from the past—a playmate of little Red and Peter—who one day just vanished never to be heard from again. My mom and dad remember Mr. and Mrs. Kern being questioned by the police, but so were many others on the block—men and women who were not considered suspects in the disappearance, or guilty of any wrongdoing. Still, bizarre and unfounded rumors persist to this day that the boy’s body is buried somewhere in the Kern’s backyard, and that Mr. Kern may have done himself in because he knew what really happened.

For further reading, click on this link: Cream Sam Summer

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