When he is put onto the street by his abusive father, fifteen-year-old Billy never dreams that he is embarking on a journey that will force him to choose his place in an intimidating world. Set in 1957, Billy’s story of fending for himself unfolds in letters to his younger sister. He speaks for a generation fascinated with UFOs and Elvis Presley. But his letters also record the clash of innocence and iniquity, including a first sexual skirmish, until a confrontation with a band of menacing hunters forces him to take a stand—a dangerous one.
My new novel, Billy of the Tulips, is scheduled for release by TouchPoint Press in two weeks. Its story has been called “...a realistic depiction of young adulthood and coming of age... it’s My Side of the Mountain meets Hoboken, New Jersey.”
I invite you to sample the first pages . . .
Nick gave up on his son before the newborn was brought home from the hospital. He wanted to name his first child after himself, just as his father had named him. Nick. A no-nonsense, four-letter word that claimed respect simply from its sound. The name had spit to it and fit him as snugly as his cop’s baton conformed to his grip. But Nick didn’t get his way.
He came from a family of rough-and-ready men. Four brothers, factory workers like their father, and a sister—the youngest. On days off from his patrolman’s job, Nick supplemented his salary with day labor as an ironworker, clambering among high girders at construction sites to weld seams or tighten bolts. When she met Nick, Anita Smetana was working the line at the cigar manufacturing plant that was a major employer of the city’s women. Nick liked that she was tall, pretty, and shy, and she fell hard for his good looks and two-fisted attitude. But when Nick and Anita married, he found his authority eclipsed by a seamless alliance of strong-willed women.
His willful mother-in-law started it.
“William,” she proclaimed in a thick Ukrainian accent. “Like his grandfather. This is what we do in our family.”
“That’s our tradition,” Anita agreed.
Her mother and sisters had him debating the child’s name for hours. They clustered around the hospital bed like bees at a honeycomb. Anita finally offered a suggestion to satisfy everyone, and Nick failed to recognize the deceit of her compromise. “Hon, it’s gonna’ be confusing to have two Nicks in one house,” she explained to him. “S’pose we give the baby two names—Nicholas William?”
In 1942, the children of blue-collar workers seldom had two names. Nick didn’t, and neither did his father or brothers. But Nicholas William Valenti it was. The name was formalized with a raised red seal on the child’s birth certificate and legitimized in the baptism records of Saint Mary’s parish. And that was it. But, from the get-go, when it came to the baby, it was Billy this and Billy that.
The boy was a burgeoning disappointment to Nick, a handyman who succeeded at just about any task: drive a truck, hang wallpaper, paint a house, repair a Studebaker, build a bookcase, sew slipcovers and match them with curtains, nail together a dog house, erect a fence. They called guys like him jacks-of-all-trades. But as Billy grew, Nick observed with a sinking heart that his firstborn was ungainly in sports, inept at hand-eye coordination, and anxious about spiders, deep water, and high places. He was even scared of the dark. As further mortification to his father, Billy didn’t outgrow a childhood speech impediment that left him pronouncing “r” as “w.” Something as simple as Billy buying a Popsicle from the Good Humor truck on a summer afternoon was painful for Nick to watch from the apartment above. As the pack of kids pressed around the ice cream man and shouted what they wanted, Billy held back and waited his turn. Without fail, he was the last to make his purchase.
Billy took after Nick’s mother, a pliant, pigeon-toed woman who bowed to the will of a harsh husband. She hadn’t gone beyond the eighth grade and married young. Five babies came every two years like clockwork until a series of miscarriages ruled out more pregnancies. If she wearied of a life circumscribed by kitchen, bedroom, and nursery, she kept it to herself, just as she remained close-mouthed about the growing lump in her breast. The cancer overtook her before she reached forty.
There was one sure way to set Billy on the right track, Nick was certain. One route to becoming a man.