Little Albert

Al Billings

My adoptive cousin, Albert Mariorenzi, was a tough son of a bitch. He was built like his father, Albert senior, which is to say that despite his modest height, he possessed the girth and heft of a commercial refrigerator. As a child, he was fond of destroying things. He specialized in tearing up old furniture and wrestling large dogs, and he had a particular fondness for setting off fire alarms, just so he could watch the engines whizz by. I don’t know that he ever fully contained the ebullient fury that bubbled up from within his psyche.

To an extent, the fruit never falls far from the tree. Albert senior was himself a tough customer. In the summer of 1966, he owned a huge Mastiff named Ringo, who once snapped his chain, ran out into Phenix Avenue and bit a little girl in the leg so viciously that she nearly lost it. It seems that many of the men in my family have tended to own something only they could control. My cousin Gerald used to drive a Dodge pickup with a 440 cubic inch engine, and he’d once gotten a good deal on a wacky manual transmission for it that for some obscure reason needed to be installed backwards, so that “reverse” was actually first gear. And my older cousin Vincent unsuccessfully raced jalopies around an oval track in Sekonk, Massachusetts, with an unlit Guinea Stinker clamped between his teeth, and only he could monkey with the engine.

During the summers in Rhode Island, my father would rent a beach house a half-block away from the ocean, where we lived throughout the season, and various relatives would come to stay for a few days at a time. Little Albert would always make an appearance. By then, he was in his early teens, and positively bubbling with testosterone. Consequently, once the rest of us children had slipped into the shallow water, Little Albert would dive in, pop up beneath us, and nearly drown us by holding our heads underwater, or snatch our dangling legs like a great white shark that hadn’t eaten breakfast. Little Albert was a victim of his own innocent exuberance. So, whenever we’d hear that he was coming for a week’s visit, we would all unsuccessfully begin lobbying our parents to take us home early.

But there was a significant advantage to being Albert’s cousin. I spent the summer of 1966 in Rhode Island. My younger cousin Gerald hadn’t gotten a job yet, and I was successfully avoiding anything that resembled labor, and sponging off of my family, who generously allowed me to direct my attention toward becoming a better guitarist. We used to congregate under an old bridge built by the WPA back in the early 30’s to smoke Sweet Caporal cigarettes, tell each other tasteless pornographic jokes, and generally waste our lives away. Some of the local West Warwick tough guys who hung out on Phenix Avenue liked to congregate there, and they would often threaten us physically. At that point, all one needed to do was mention that our very close cousin was Little Albert Mariorenzi, and the blood would drain from their faces.

By then, Little Albert had established himself as one of the toughest fighters in the state. Guys came from Pawtucket and East Providence just to try and lick him, but he never lost a bout. And being little Albert, he’d conclude the slugfest by shaking hands with the loser and then buying him beer.

Both Alberts worked at Lippitt Mill. My mother first went to work there in 1921. When she came to visit me in Austin, in 1991, she told me that our entire family had been employed there, usually six days a week, and they all had pleurisy. On Sundays, a doctor would drop by my grandfather’s house, line the children up, insert a large needle into their lungs and suck out the fluid. Uncle Albert worked at Lippitt Mill for fifty years, and when he retired, they failed to provide him with a pension. Vacationers pass these mills and find themselves transfixed by their beautiful architecture, but the men and women who spent most of their adult lives working in those mills have an entirely different view of them.

The last time I saw Little Albert was in the fall of 1989. I’d been off to an arts residency in Western Massachusetts, and had planned to spend some time with my family in Rhode Island, where I would try to uncover the mystery of my birth and adoption. My cousin Gerald had loaned me his ass-backwards pickup truck so I could attend to my mission, and I found myself sitting in my Aunt Lucy’s kitchen one night, along with a gaggle of her children, nieces and nephews. They all knew what I was looking for, and I could see that it was making them uncomfortable. Little Albert was there, grown bulkier, bloated and rough, and none of us knew that I was only two days away from discovering my biological uncle. The conversation was stilted. Little Albert kept cracking jokes and guzzling beer, trying to dispel the tension in the room, and when he found out that I’d given up drinking alcohol, he was stunned, because what you did in that house was drink.

Albert starting laughing and yanked up his tee-shirt, revealing a mass of enormous scars slashed across his chest, the results of several open heart surgeries and coronary by-passes, and he kept chugging that beer like it was water. “Look at this!” he exclaimed. “Livin’ the good life, huh?” It didn’t help that my mother had been telling family members that I worked as a professional musician, and that I painted and kept an actual studio. No one in my family engaged in any of those endeavors. Now, I could probably pull it all together, but I was forty years old then, and bursting with creativity, and I shut down the entire evening just by being there.  It was the last time I ever saw Little Albert.

My older cousin Charlotte called when Little Albert died several years ago. She said that a fair portion of the town attended his funeral. That didn’t surprise me. After all, one could view Little Albert as the Mayor of Phenix Avenue. He was a generous and loving man, even if he did try to drown me.

On the day before I wrapped up my Rhode island visit and was preparing to head back to Austin, I decided to photograph a few more textile mills. I grew up in their shadows, and to this day, inky millraces course through my veins. A kid who worked at the gas station across the street walked over to me and asked me what I was doing. I explained to him that I was born near the mills, and that I still had a great love for them. At first, he didn’t understand what I was doing, so I mentioned that, no matter where he lived, he’d eventually take that place for granted, and that if he went away and returned much later, it would look entirely different to him. I could see that he truly understood what I was trying to tell him. This piece is dedicated to that kid.

August 19, 2011 7:41 pm

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