Robbie Shumstein ended the call and, teary-eyed, sank into his overstuffed chair.
The King of Kreskin Avenue dead?
His mother had not intended to upset him. Their twice-weekly conversations were snatched from a treasure trove of her evergreen gossip, full of minutiae and banter, most of which would be unintelligible to outsiders. Somewhere between disclosure of another ailment of her elderly friends, a request for updates about the grand kids, curiosity about what was happening with the latest book, the tale of her doctor’s appointment, and the new recipe for kugel she got from Helen Shapiro, she casually mentioned that The King had died, sitting in his lawn chair in the middle of his driveway.
She was aware that Robbie had a close relationship with Mario Colucci, The King of Kreskin Avenue, but not why. Even her treasure trove yielded no clues. Robbie and the Coluccis had accomplished a masterful job of protecting their secrets, now for over fifty years.
To Esther Shumstein, even though she lived less than five houses down the block from him for all her married and widowed life, The King was just an oddball neighbor who at best merited a wave hello or goodbye, but to Robbie Shumstein The King was and would forever be a hero of the highest order.
Her disclosure took Robbie back to a time and place of unwelcome deaths, now grown distant and hazy.
Tearful, he made a few phone calls: to Mario’s wife, Mattie Colucci; to his cousin Ben, the first beneficiary of Mario’s compassion; and to Donald MacIntyre, an old friend and an original collaborator. He made a request that Don spread the news of Mario’s death. Don knew what to do.
The news was shared and passed and parsed across the United States and Canada. Thousands of people in extended families that had become the beneficiaries of Mario’s selflessness learned that a hero had passed on.
Robbie quickly made travel arrangements, and in less than eight hours, together with his wife, Susan, he worked his way through one massive parking lot, two connecting flights, three magazines, and a surly car rental agent at the Greater Buffalo International Airport.
Robbie was only fifteen in 1968, when he, Mario, Don, and Ben broke the law and committed treason. A few years later, it was off to college for Robbie, then law school and a stint in corporate law, then ownership of a small but respectable publishing company in Roanoke, Virginia. Although he returned to Buffalo and his childhood home with less and less frequency, his trips home always included a stop at the Colucci house at 77 Kreskin Avenue.
No matter how hard she pressed for an explanation or for the reasons he seemed so much more upbeat and less stressed after seeing the Coluccis, Robbie’s mother had to be content with his typical response: “because I like seeing them.”
The last time he had seen Mario was earlier in the year, when Robbie and Susan, who was one of the very few people who knew the entire story, brought their one-year-old granddaughter for her first visit to Buffalo. Robbie strollered over to Mario’s house, where he and his wife, Mattie, cooed and cuddled with her. Mario sat in the decrepit lawn chair in the driveway where Robbie usually saw him, wearing the same battered checkered pork pie hat that he had parked—tipped slightly back—on his balding pate every day of his life for the last jillion or so years.
As old neighbors moved away and new ones moved in, Mario Colucci was always called The King of Kreskin Avenue, sometimes behind his back and sometimes to his face. Through the years he handled the insult with the same indifference and nonchalance—although you might call it grace—he had exhibited since the 1950s. He never challenged or saw a reason to correct the neighborhood’s superficial perceptions, and over time he became the oddity that every neighborhood needs when conversations run dry or it’s time to have a mass speculation.
Kreskin Avenue residents were smug in their self-assurance that the Mario they saw was exactly and precisely an oddball, a caricature, a kind-of-king who used a lawn chair as a throne and a dirty hat as a crown.
They were wrong.
Robbie turned the rental car left onto Kreskin from Delaware Avenue and parked it in front of his mother’s flat. After an hour or so with his mother, he left, walked down the familiar street, and knocked on the door of number 77.
A tall, thin woman with silvery white hair and a pinched, wrinkled face answered his knock. Robbie gathered her into his arms.
“Hello, Robbie,” whispered Mattie. “Welcome home.”