It was 1921 and Vincenzo Castella wanted to expand his bootlegging business into Queens. In order to do that he needed to get the approval of the local Don. He had the support of the bosses in Brooklyn, his base.
O’Bannion, Castella’s driver, took him to a house just off Astoria Boulevard. Castella was told he would be visiting Don Taranno. He was told nothing else; the Don wanted it that way. O’Bannion pulled the car up to the curb and two large men appeared at the car door.
“What you want?” the older one growled. The younger one stood a step behind him, with his hand tucked inside his jacket. “I got an appointment with the Don.”
“What Don?” the older man grunted. The younger one looked sideways, up and down the sidewalk.
“Oh. Do I have the wrong address? Isn’t this where Don Taranno lives?”
“Shhhh! Don’t never use the Don’s name. Okay.”
The younger man opened the car door and said, “Follow me.”
They walked up the front stairs and the younger man knocked on the door. A small crack appeared and two eyes peeked out, then the door swung open and someone grabbed Castella by the lapels and jerked him inside. In one swift motion he was slammed up against the wall and frisked. Then he was spun around and faced a smiling, fresh young face dressed in a dapper double-breasted suit.
“Hello. My name is Harry. How are you? Vinny? Right?”
Harry pushed his hand out toward Castella in an attempt to shake. Castella looked aghast at this young man and his weird smile and his protruding hand.
“Yeah. Sure kid, Vinny. Whatever you say. Where’s the Don?” He took Harry’s hand and shook it. Harry smiled some more and pointed. “Go ahead into the dining room. Over there.”
Castella brushed off his suit and ran his hand over his hair. He walked from the foyer into a dimly lighted living room. From there he could see into what was the dining room. As he approached the dining room he saw a figure sitting at the table. He recognized the figure as a woman sitting there snapping the ends off string beans.
Except for the twinkle in her eyes, she looked to be about 60. She was stout, with short, curly gray hair. She wore a long black dress with a crucifix around her neck and black hose and stubby black shoes; appropriate clothes for a widow. She wore an apron and was picking up the fresh beans from the oilcloth cover on the table, snapping them, dropping the ends into her apron and placing the whole beans into a pot on the table. She looked up at Castella, smiled, and went back to her work. He stood there, awkwardly, nodded and rocked back and forth on his shoes, waiting for the Don.
“Fagolini. String beans,” Castella said to her after a few moments.
“Si. Fagolini. You like?” she asked.
“Si. Molto. Very much.”
“Buono,” she said, smiling and continuing her work.
Finally, at the end of his patience, Castella said, “Scusa signora, but —”
“Allore. Now then,” she said, interrupting him. She wiped her hands against each other, and placed the pile of snipped bean ends from her apron onto the table. As she began to get up two other younger women appeared from the kitchen. One helped her up and the other started cleaning off the table after her. She turned to Castella and spoke, in perfect, unaccented English. “Now then young man, let us go inside and sit down.”
“Oh, thank you signora, that’s nice of you, but I cannot. I am here to see the Don. I must wait for him,” Castella said, surprised at her ease with English.
“Ahh. But you see, young man, you just said two things that are impossible. Come.” She took him by the hand and led him into the living room. He was surprised at her agility and the strength she had in her hands as she held his hand and guided him. One of the younger women went ahead and turned on a lamp. The older woman sat down in a large upholstered chair and pointed for Castella to sit in the chair next to her. The younger woman leaned down and whispered something into the older woman’s ear.
“Si, Claudia. Subito. Right away.”
“Molto grazie, signora,” Castella said, “Thank you very much but I must not impose on the hospitality of my host. I’ll wait.”
“Signore Castella, I am your host . . . scusa, your hostess. You see, when you said ‘I am here to see the Don’ and ‘I must wait for him’ you were wrong. There is no him. I am the Don.”
Castella shook his head and raised his hands, palms up, in a gesture of incomprehension.
“I do not understand. I was told —”
“You were told to come here, to visit the Don, to seek the Don’s permission to engage in your business in this neighborhood.” She sounded impatient and annoyed.
“Yes, that’s true. But —”
“No buts . . . ,” she raised her voice, grasped the arms of her chair and leaned forward. Castella was momentarily intimidated. Then she smiled — a warm, friendly smile, relaxed.
“Now . . . sit, Vincenzo. Sit down here, near me,” she said, pointing to the chair next to hers. “Let me explain to you,” she said as she patted the arm of the chair. At that moment there was a noise from the kitchen door. The girl called Claudia came back into the living room holding a tray. She set the tray down on the coffee table and began pouring espresso for the two of them. Castella could see, out of the corner of his eye, Harry lurking around in the hallway to his right. Castella was beginning to believe that this old woman was actually the Don.
He sat, smiled at the old woman and looked at her more closely. He began to wonder how old she really was. She dressed like an elderly widow but he noticed now that her face was smooth and free of wrinkles. Although she wore no makeup and her hair was not stylish, she could be an attractive woman in the right setting, with the right clothes.
When Claudia left them the woman picked up her espresso and took a sip. Castella just stared at her, waiting for her to speak. She put the cup down, picked up her napkin, patted her lips, blinked her eyes, placed the napkin in her lap, and turned to Castella.
“Now then, I understand you want to do the distribution business in my neighborhood. Is that correct?”
Why didn’t anyone warn me about this? About the Don being a woman? Is this some sort of trick? Or are my friends playing a joke on me? Castella thought. In the meantime he just sat there, stunned and looking like an idiot.
“Are you going to answer me, Castella?”
“Oh. Yes. Of course. I’m sorry . . . so sorry.” With that he spilled the cup of espresso that he was trying to manipulate. She burst into laughter and he was embarrassed.
“Well, Mr. Castella, that’s the first time I’ve ever had that reaction to someone meeting me. Claudia? Come in here. Quickly. And bring a dish towel for Mr. Castella.”
Castella jumped up from his seat while she laughed. He took the towel from Claudia and wiped his hands and his pants while Claudia, grinning, cleaned up the mess he made.
“Oh. I’m sorry. Please excuse me. I’m so sorry.”
“Okay. Sit down now. I see you are very surprised. Let me explain. . . .”
Castella, speechless, sat down again, with his eyes glued to her.
“Back in the ’90s, when I was a teenager. . . .”
Castella coughed as he thought, she’s trying to tell me she’s in her 40s. He studied her more closely and realized that he could see beneath her disguise and recognize a woman who could be that young.
“Yes, I know, Mr. Castella. You thought I was older — ”
“No, it’s not that, signora. No, I didn’t think. . . .” Castella was falling all over himself to try to apologize for the perceived insult to her.
“It’s all right. Vincenzo. I understand. You see,” she said, holding her arms out, and pointing to herself with the furled fingers of her hands, “I have to work at this. I have to try to look older. The clothes. The hairdo. I couldn’t boss this gang around if I looked like a young woman. I have to look like an old bossy woman. It’s tradition. You know?”
Castella nodded and gulped. She continued. “Anyway, I was born Mary Margaret O’Brien —”
Again Castella gulped, leaned forward, and widened his eyes.
TO BE CONTINUED
Lewis Barton is a businessman and writer living in Wainscott. His work has been previously published in The Star. “The Astoria Don” is an excerpt from his unpublished novel, “The Iceman.”