My kid sister's husband, Tony, is what you might call there's a big word for it, I just can't remember it, but basically it means shyster. Tony, he's a plumber, and like all plumbers, bein' a shyster comes with the territory, I mean, he's the first to admit it. He's constantly braggin' about how he negotiates with his customers, this while a geyser is sprayin' inside their walls or a river runnin' through their livin' room. He gets the poor suckers to sign on the dotted line while they are scared outta their minds with visions of the Johnstown flood. Tony knows how to tap into their fears, says it's an artform. He calls it puttin' the caboozle on 'em. I swear to God, his own grandmother Tony would put the caboozle on!
Anyway, shyster or no, he does okay by Theresa, my kid sister. Tee Tee, (that's what family calls her), has got a mink stole, a full length leopard-skin, and drives a candy-apple red Caddy which gets traded-in every year for a newer one. I mean, there really ain't much more that Tee Tee could ask for.
So as I was tellin' ya, my brother-in-law may be a little shady in the business department, but this I've got to say for 'em. Tony ain't no bullshitter. One time he tells me that he's ripped off Brother Ed, that holy-roller preacher who's always on T.V. beggin' money. Tony says he dinged him two grand for a simple drain cleanout. I didn't believe 'em. "Nobody," I said, "takes a screwin' that bad!" So then Tony not only shows me the bill, but the check from the little scuzball as well! It had Praise the Lord printed on it.
And then there was the time he told me he'd kicked the shit outta Lenny Vitale for makin' some punk remark about Tee Tee. Again I didn't believe 'em I mean Lenny "The Fists" Vitale is one bad-ass. Ain't no big secret he's connected you know, to the mob!. So next day, who do I see? It's Lenny, sittin' at the bar, with two huge shiners, his face beaten to a pulp. He comes limpin' over to me with an outstretched arm, which has a cast on it, and apologizes for insultin' Tee Tee! I said to him, "Sure sure Lenny, no offense taken." So now whenever Tony tells me somethin', my first inclination is to believe him, shyster or no.
This brings me to what I was gonna tell ya. Somethin' happened last week that keeps buggin' me. I don't know why, but it just keeps rollin' over an' over in my head. Somethin' Tony said to me. It was last Sunday. I was over at Tee Tee and Tony's place. We was watchin' the Super Bowl. All of us had had a few brews and after the game Tee Tee decides to take the kids out to a movie Rocky 15 or somethin'. Me and Tony decides here was an opportunity to do some serious drinkin', so we retired to his bar which is located at one end of the den. While Tony was busy mixin' a couple killer drinks, I was admiring the huge new painting they have hangin' over their bar. It's a picture of a matador fightin' this bull. It's all done in golds and blacks and reds. I mean, it's a piece a work. You can really feel the power an' the glory in that thing. It was a present to Tony from Tee Tee on their anniversary. My little sista, classy taste, all the way.
Anyway, Tony notices me lookin' at the paintin' and he asks if I like art. I said, "Sure Tony, I like art. Maybe I don't understand it like Tee Tee does, but I like it." Then he asks me if I know who Norman Rockwell is. I tell him, "Sure I know who Norman Rockwell is. He's the guy who painted all the Saturday Evenin' Post covers when I was a kid." I told him "Everybody knows who Norman Rockwell is." Then he asks me, real hush-hush like, if he's ever told me about the time he was called out to Norman Rockwell's house on a plumbin' job. Now I could tell by the way he was askin' that he knew he'd never told me this before. Anyhow, I plays along with 'em. I say, "No, Tony, I don't think I recall you mentionin' it."
He said it was true, that it happened back in the early 60's. A call came in one night saying that a major plumbin' catastrophe was happenin'. When they gave him the address he noticed on the job-slip that the name was Norman Rockwell. Tony said that he wondered all the way over there if this might be the Norman Rockwell the painter guy. Then sure enough when he arrives, who greets him at the door but Mister Norman Rockwell, famous artist! Tony said he looked just like he did in the magazine pictures, a skinny old guy with a long pipe stickin' outta his mouth. Right away, he says, he notices little specks of different colored paint all over his shirt and pants; figures he must of been paintin' when the plumbin' problem occurred. Tony said that he was a real gentleman, real polite an' all, but even so, you could tell he was pretty uptight about the emergency happenin' inside his house." No doubt, I thinks to myself, he had that Johnstown flood look in his eyes. So's he takes Tony around to a side entrance that leads down into the basement. From the stairs they could see that everything inside was in deep shit. I mean literally. The furnace, the boxes and stuff which is stored down there, I mean everything, is soaked and floatin' in some pretty nasty muck. Right away, Tony realizes that a major sewage line was backin' up so he goes to his truck and gets the proper equipment to do the repair. He puts on his rubber hip-boots and begins snakin' out the line, which is normal procedure. All the while, here's Norman Rockwell, standin' there nervously puffin' on his pipe, watchin' 'em from the stairs.
Tony said it was right about then when the thought first started occurrin' to 'em. Said he never had such a thought before in his entire life. Said while he was wadin' around workin' in all this crap, he couldn't help but compare his situation in life with this world-famous artist who was standin' no farther than ten feet away from 'em. He said that he started feelin' cheated that this old guy was makin' such good bread workin' in bright happy colors all day, paintin' all those wonderful scenes of America, while here he was, limited to workin' in this foul smellin' shit...for wages! It just didn't seem fair, he said. "Does that seem fair to you, Sully?" he asks me, all choked-up-like with emotion. I figured it must be the booze talkin'. Not carin' for the drift of this conversation, cause if there's one thing I can't take it's a whiner, I say, "So life ain't fair Tony, what the hell else is new? what say we talk about the Superbowl or somethin'."
But he keeps insistin'. Says he really wants to tell me this that he's never told it to anybody else, ever. He keeps lookin' at me, kinda like waitin' for my response. So I figure, hey, this is somethin' he's obviously needin' to get off his chest bigtime. So I say, "Sure, okay Tony, let's hear it." He pours us two monster double-shots before sittin' down next to me, still speakin' in that confidential tone of voice. He continued with his story and said that after awhile, when it became evident that the plumbin' situation was under control, as the shit was subsidin' so to speak, Norman Rockwell goes back upstairs into his house. This left Tony down there in the basement all alone. Seeing as how the main part of his job was completed, the line bein' unclogged and all, Tony had nothin' to do but to sit tight and make sure that everything drained out okay. This meant that he had some time to kill, so naturally he starts nosin' around.
Over in the corner, above all the mess, he notices a shelf filled with a row of artist's canvases. Said there must have been twenty or thirty of 'em racked in there. They was arranged so that he could only see the edges of 'em, not the pictures themselves. Tony says since day one he's always been a big fan of Norman Rockwell's. Says when he was a little kid he remembers seein' pictures by him on the covers of his Scout magazines. Says he remembers seein' all those different scenes of happy family life, with their American flags and apple pie, and always feeling kind of left out of the picture. He said he always wondered why his family couldn't be like those families, instead of the bunch of crazy assholes they were. "Yeah," I tell 'em, "I know what you mean Tony."
Anyway, he says he figures Norman Rockwell won't mind if he takes a peek at some of his originals, after all, didn't they they appear on millions of magazines? He figured it couldn't do any harm, so he slides one out of the rack. Tony says that right off the bat he thinks he's made some kinda mistake. The paintin' in front of 'em shows a bunch of hooded Klansmen, you know, K.K.K. guys, standin' around in front of some black dude they got strung-up in a tree. "It's a picture of a lynchin' Sully!" he tells me, "a goddamn lynchin'!"
I say, "Hey, then that for sure ain't no Norman Rockwell painting." But Tony says that it was, that the name was right there in the corner in big red letters,it said, "Norman Rockwell."
So then he pulls out another painting. This one shows a young soldier laid-up in a veteran's hospital. The kid is so horribly burned that he looks like some kinda monster. He's got no lips left, so his mouth is like a grinnin' skeleton's. There are other guys in the background of the picture. Some are screamin' wild-eyed in shell-shock, while others are strapped in wheelchairs, half-conscious with drool stringin' outta their mouths, the place is nothin' but a filthy hell-hole! But here's what's really weird, Tony tells me he recognized the kid in the painting even burned like he was! He says it was the same freckled face boy who appeared in that famous magazine cover where the young soldier is returnin' home from the war and all the neighborhood is jumpin' for joy welcomin' him back, except in that version he ain't gotta scratch!
"Christ, Tony," I say.
He says he went on down the line and every picture was one nightmare scene after another: Japanese-Americans gettin' kicked-off of their property and thrown into camps; Cops bustin' the heads of those dustbowl Okies out in California; Men mistreatin' their wives and kids; Old ladies livin' outta garbage cans. One paintin' showed a room full of big-shot executives from some armaments company, sittin' around, drinkin' champagne and celebratin', as one of 'em in the foreground holds up a newspaper with the headline, U.S. DECLARES WAR! Tony said he just stood there in his hip-boots, ankle deep in sewage in a state of disbelief.
"Damn!", I told him, "that sure as hell ain't the Norman Rockwell I know!"
We sat there quiet-like for a couple minutes before Tony finally spoke. "I've thought about this for a long time, Sully," he says, "and you know how I figure it?" But before he can finish his thought, the telephone rings. It's Tee Tee. She's left the Caddy's lights on while they is in the movies. Now the battery's dead, so Tony's got to go and get her and the kids right away.
He tells me to help myself to whatever I want as he's puttin' on his jacket to leave. I asked him to tell me what it was he was about to say when the telephone interrupted us. He had already opened the front door and was half-way out when he answered.
He said he thought the old guy knew what was comin' down all along said those paintings in the basement pretty much proved it. He says he thinks that the old artist was just a hired gun a contract man who workin' for the fat cats upstairs.
"If you ask me," Tony says, "Norman Rockwell was puttin' your basic caboozle on the American public."
After he left I poured myself another double shot and sat there for awhile lookin' up at that bullfighter and bull. I keep runnin' back and forth through my mind everything that Tony had told me, tryin' to make heads or tails out of it. It mighta been the booze doin' my thinkin', cause I did have a pretty good heat goin' at the time but after awhile what he said did start makin' some sense. But this shouldn't of surprised me, cause it's like I told you before my brother-in-law may be a shyster, but anyway you cut it, Tony ain't no bullshitter.
© Richard Benbrook This short story first appeared in The Mandala