River Woods

Excerpted from The Cuban Club, published October 2017.

River Woods

By Barry Gifford

Roy’s father drove as if his powder blue Cadillac were the only car on the road. In the fall of 1953 there wasn’t much traffic between Chicago and the western suburb of River Woods, where they were headed. It was mid-October, Roy’s favorite time of the year. Sunlight slithered through the trees and the air was comfortably cool; in a month they would have to keep the car windows closed and the heater on.

“Who are we going to see, Dad?”

“A business associate of mine, Jocko Mosca. He has a classy layout in River Woods.”

“Does he have kids?”

“Two sons, much older than you. They don’t live here.”

“Did you tell him tomorrow’s my birthday?”

“You can tell him.”

“Jocko is a funny name.”

“It’s short for Giacomo. He was born in Sicily, which is an island off the heel of Italy.”

The houses they passed were set far back from the road. Most of them had long, winding driveways leading to buildings you couldn’t see from a car, and some were behind iron fences with spikes on the top. Jocko Mosca’s house had an iron fence in front of it but the gates were open. Roy’s father drove in and stopped next to the house. Just as he and Roy got out of the car, a man came out and shook hands with Roy’s father.

“Rudy, good to see you,” he said. “This is your boy?”

“Hello, Lou. Roy, this is Lou Napoli. He works with Mr. Mosca.”

Lou Napoli was not a large man but he had very big hands. He shook hands with Roy and smiled at him.

“You’re fortunate to have a son, Rudy. And one handsome enough to be Italian. Quanti anni ha?” he asked Roy.

“He wants to know how old you are,” said Roy’s father.

“I’ll be seven tomorrow.”

“A lucky number,” said Lou. “Let’s go in.”

They descended three steps into an enormous living room. The ceiling was very high with little sparkling lights in it. The walls were made of stone. There were five or six couches, several armchairs, lots of tables and lamps and a stone fireplace that ran nearly the entire length of one wall. A swimming pool snaked under a glass door into the rear of the room.

“I’ve never seen a swimming pool in a living room before,” Roy said.

“This is only part of the pool,” said Lou. “The rest of it is outside, on the other side of that glass door. It’s heated. You want to take a dip?”

“I didn’t bring a bathing suit.”

“If you want to go in, let me know and we’ll find you one. I’ll tell Jocko you’re here.”

“Pretty swank, isn’t it, son?”

“Jocko must be really rich.”

“Call him Mr. Mosca. Yes, he’s done well for himself. When his family came to America, from Sicily, they had nothing.”

“Your parents didn’t have anything when they came to America, either, Dad, and you were ten years old. How old was Mr. Mosca when his family came?”

“Probably about the same age I was. None of that matters now. We’re Americans.”

“Jocko is here,” announced Lou Napoli.

Jocko Mosca was wearing a dark gray suit, a light blue shirt and a black tie. He was tall, had a big nose and full head of silver hair. He entered the room from a door behind a bend in the pool. Roy noticed that there was no knob on the door. Roy’s father waited for Jocko to walk over to him. They embraced, then shook hands, each man using both of their hands.

“It’s good of you to come all the way out here, Rudy,” Jocko said.

“We enjoyed the drive. This is my son, Roy.”

Jocko Mosca leaned down as he shook hands with Roy. His nose was covered with small holes and tiny red bumps.

“Benvenuto, Roy. That means welcome in Italian.”

“I know. Angelo taught me some Italian words.”

“Who is Angelo?”

“He’s an organ grinder. He has a monkey named Dopo. They come into my dad’s store and have coffee and Dopo dunks doughnuts in the cup with me. Dopo means after.”

Jocko stood up straight and said, “Rudy, you didn’t tell me your boy’s a paesan’.”

They laughed, then Jocko said to Roy, “I hope you’ll be comfortable in here while your father and I go into another room to talk.”

“I’ll be okay, Mr. Mosca.”

“Call me Jocko. We’re paesanos, after all.”

The two men left the room and Roy sat down on a couch. A pretty young woman with long black hair, wearing a maid’s uniform, came in carrying a tray, which she set down on a low table.

“This is a ham sandwich, sweet pickles and a Coca-Cola for you,” she said. “If you need something, press that button on the wall behind you.”

Roy felt sleepy, so he lay down and closed his eyes. When he reopened them, Lou Napoli was standing in front of him, holding a cake with eight candles on it.

“Did you have a nice nap, Roy?” he asked.

Jocko Mosca and Roy’s father were there, as was the maid.

“He must have been tired from the drive,” said Roy’s father. “We got up very early today.”

Lou passed the cake to the maid, who put it on a table and lit the candles. Lou, the maid, Jocko and Roy’s father sang “Happy Birthday”, then Lou said, “Make a wish and blow out the candles. The eighth one is for good luck.”

Roy silently wished that his father would come back to live with him and his mother. He blew out all of the candles with one try.

Later, while his father was putting what was left of the cake, which the maid had put into a blue box, in the trunk of the Cadillac, Jocko Mosca handed Roy a little white card.

“This is my telephone number, Roy,” he said. “If you ever have a problem, or anything you want to talk about, call me. Keep the card in a safe place, keep it for yourself. Don’t show it to anyone.”

“Can I show it to my dad?”

“He knows the number.”

Roy’s father started the car. Roy and Jocko shook hands, then Jocko opened the front passenger side door for him.

“Remember, Roy, I’m here for you, even just to talk. I like to talk.”

Jocko closed the door and waved. He and Lou Napoli watched as Roy’s father navigated the driveway.

“You all right, son? Wasn’t it a nice surprise that they had a cake for you?”

“Do you want to know my wish?”

“No. You should keep what you wish for to yourself. Remember that you can’t depend only on wishing for something to come true. It will always be up to you to make it happen.”



The gate in front of one of the houses had a metal sculpture of a fire-breathing dragon’s head on it.

“River Woods is a beautiful place, isn’t it, Roy? Would you rather live out here or in the city?”

“I don’t know, Dad. I like when we’re driving and we’re not anywhere yet.”

“So do I, son. Maybe, now that you’re older, we’re beginning to think alike.”