Chapter 1: Mario Party
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“Surprise!”  

The sudden cacophony of voices and noise-makers nearly gave me a heart attack.  I should have let Mario open the door. Sure, it was our birthday. And a milestone one at that.  The big four-oh. But as we pulled our run down van up to the drab, brick office of Mario Brothers Plumbing after a long, hard day of work under the sinks and in the toilets of Brooklyn, New York, there was no indication that several dozen people were congregating inside, waiting to challenge my cardiac health.  There was no more than the usual amount of vehicles parked along the road. And the office had no windows - just a door, a high-bay, and a fading sign with our company name and an embarrassing crude cartoon of me and Mario on it - too short and too fat.

I let Mario enter first.  Everyone was wearing overalls and fake mustaches.  The overalls had become part of the identity of the Mario Brothers after we started making those terrible local TV commercials.  Sure, the commercials had boosted our brand but only because they were so bad people started sharing them on social media as a joke.  Making the overalls from the commercials part of our uniform had made us more recognizable out in the real world. As much as I dread being recognized as “that guy from those commercials”, I actually do like the overalls.  They’re comfortable, practical, and sturdy. Mario suggested getting hats to match. Maybe even putting the first letter of our names on them. That’s not going to happen!

As I looked around Party Central, I realized I didn’t know most of these people.  I recognized a few though. Some usual customers. Our former secretary, Nancy. But really these were all Mario’s friends.  The ones I didn’t recognize must be as well. This was really a surprise party for Mario. My heart sank when I looked up and saw the Happy Birthday banner that confirmed my suspicions.  The actual purchased banner said HAPPY BIRTHDAY MARIO but a couple sheets of plain white paper were stapled together and attached to the end of the banner and had written upon it in black marker, AND LUIGI.   I was an afterthought. It had never occurred to me until that very moment that maybe I always was just an afterthought.  

I scanned the crowd to see if Chuck was here.  Chuck and his wife, Beth, offered to treat me to Buffalo Wild Wings for my birthday.  Chicken wings and a Jets game on the TV sounded like a fine 40th birthday party to me.  But maybe that was just a distraction. Maybe Chuck was in on this whole party. I could only hope.  My phone vibrated in my pocket. It was a text from Chuck. “So, how’s 6:30?” it said. Nope. Chuck wasn’t here. 

“Hey Louie,” This was Guillermo, my barber for the last five years, shaking my hand.  He obviously didn’t remember my name. “Happy birthday, man! Tell your friends that if they come by the barber shop any time this month and say the Mario Bros sent them, they’ll get ten percent off.”

“But what if they want more than ten percent off,” I said.  “What if they got like this Bob Ross fro thing going on and they’re trying to impress a girl who’s into bald dudes?  Are you only going to cut ten percent?”

“Louie, you think I’m made of money?  I can’t afford to take off more than ten percent!  Ten percent is a steal!”

“It’s a joke.  I meant cutting only ten percent of the person’s hair.”

“Why would I only cut ten percent of someone’s hair”?

“Never mind.  It was just a joke.  Thanks for coming to the party.”  

I patted his shoulder and moved on.

Mario was being heartily greeted by everyone.  They were laughing and sharing inside jokes. Mario made friends easily.  He was outgoing, positive, friendly, and carried himself with a sort of pride that can’t be called arrogance - as if he knew he was more than just a chubby plumber from Brooklyn like me.  What did he know that I didn’t?

I sidled up to Nancy.  It was always fun to talk to her.  She was a happy-go-lucky, heavy-set woman in her 60s.  And about as gullible as Guillermo was dense. It was a shame we had to let her go.  As much as she lightened the mood around the office, we just couldn’t afford her. Not to mention she was terrible at her job.  Right now, she looked ridiculous in that fake mustache.

“Hey Luigi, guess who I am?” she asked.  “It’s-a me-a. I’m-a Mario!” She was imitating the strong Italian accent my brother and I shared.  Born in Italy and raised in New York by a man who spoke Italian in the house, the accent was hard to shake.  

“Wait, don’t tell me,” I said.  “You’re one of the Blues Brothers, right?”

“What?  No. I’m Mario!”

“Oh, I get it!  Because of the accent and the mustache!  That’s great! Are there any more mustaches?  Could I have one?”  

“Sure.  I’ll be right back.” She couldn’t have been more excited to oblige.

Mario came by and put a Solo cup in my hand.  “Happy birthday, Little Bro,” he said.

“Who you calling little, Shorty?”

“You, Baby Bro.”

“Just because you think you have a memory of Mama saying you were born a few minutes earlier, does not and cannot mean that we were conceived at different times.  You are not older than me. But I will always be taller than you, Little Bro.”

Nancy came back.

“Lucky you,” she said.  “We had just one more. Here you go.”

I peeled back the sticker from the adhesive backing and placed the faux mustache over my real mustache.  “How do I look? Do I look like Mario?”

“You wish you looked like me,” said Mario.

“Hey, Mario,” I said, all joking aside.  “I’m gonna head out in a few minutes. Chuck invited me to watch the game and have dinner.”

“Luigi, you can’t leave a surprise birthday party people threw for you.  Tell Chuck to come over here, if he wants.”

“Mario, they didn’t throw this party for me.”

“They did too.  They threw it for both of us.  At least stay for the cake.”

I sighed.  “I’ll stay for the cake - if we do that soon.  But I’m leaving after that.”

“Ok, Ok.  That’s fine.  We’ll do the cake soon, I’m sure.  Did you see the cake? It’s got a go-cart on it.”

“It’s got a go-cart on it because they all know how much you love go-carting.”  

“But you love go-carting too.”

“But do they know that?”

“Why so glum?  It’s your birthday.  You can have your cake and eat it too, Little Bro!”

“You’re right.”  I sighed again. “I’m sorry...Little Bro.”

Mario turned back to the others who were vying for his attention.  

“You like go-carts too?” asked Nancy.  I just chuckled.  

“Hey Nancy,” I asked, “did you ever turn in your key after you left?”

“No.  I’m sorry.  I didn’t realize it at first but when I did, I knew we could use it for this.”

“I thought as much.  So, you organized this party?”

“Well, sorta?”

“I don’t know what that means.  Is that a question?”

“Well, I helped.  It was actually Pauline’s idea.  But don’t tell Mario.” She suddenly seemed very concerned about that.

“I won’t.  Is Pauline here?”  I admit, I was kind of excited about the prospect.

“No way!  How awkward would that be?!  Their break-up was horrible for both of them!”

“But she helped plan this?”

“Just ‘cuz they broke up doesn’t mean she doesn't care.”

Just then, I happened to back up into a small table we kept against the wall.  I turned around to make sure nothing fell off the table. I steadied the paper weight that was wobbling and noticed a letter from the company that owned the office space we rented.  It had already been opened. I took the letter out and read it. Apparently we were late on the rent. So late, in fact, that if we didn’t pay up in the next two weeks we were to be evicted.  I quickly put the letter back in the envelope. I didn’t want Mario to see that I had read it. This was not the time to discuss the matter.  

I glanced his direction to see if he noticed me.  He was on the phone. Why would he take a call on the work cell after hours, during his own birthday party?  After ending the call, he called for everyone’s attention.

“Thank you all so much for coming out to celebrate with Luigi and I on our 40th birthday,” he began.

“To the Mario Brothers!” someone shouted.  Everyone else shouted their agreement and lifted their cups.  

“But unfortunately,” continued Mario, “I just received a call from Delvecio’s
Ristorante.  Some famous food critic is coming by tonight to do a review but the plumbing is all backed up and they’re having to shut the restaurant down until the problem can be resolved.  If you know the Mario Brothers, you know we can’t leave someone hanging when we can actually do something about it. Stay. Enjoy the pizza. Carlos says it’s on its way. But me and Luigi gotta run.  We’ll be back as soon as we can.”

There was a unanimous, disappointed, “awww” from the crowd. 

I approached Mario and spoke to him so that only he could hear.  

“Mario, what are you doing?  Rocco Delvecio is a gangster,” I said.

“Those are just rumors.”

“You know as much as I do they are more than rumors.  He makes friends easy. Especially with Italians. And once he makes friends, he starts asking favors.  And you know how the mob feels when you can’t return a favor. They don’t like it! And they let you know it!”

“Do you know anyone that that’s actually happened to?” asked Mario.

“Chuck said one of his steel workers got mixed up with him.  The next thing you know, he takes a vacation to Miami and dies in a boat accident.”

“Luigi, maybe he’s a gangster.  Maybe he’s not. That’s the thing about rumors.  You just don’t know. But I do know for a fact he’s a legitimate cook in a legitimate restaurant and he needs our help.”

“But you just told me I couldn’t leave the party.  And now we’re both leaving?”

“Leaving a party to help someone in need is a lot different than leaving a party thrown for you because you prefer other people’s company.”

It was no use talking to Mario.  Once he saw a need, he had a compulsion to help.  It’s just who he was. Most would probably say it’s a good thing.  But living with it my whole life, I could see the down-side to it.   

 

*****

Back in the van and on our way to Little Italy, I found an opportunity to talk about the letter.  “What are we going to do?” I asked.

“What are we going to do about what?” implored Mario, who was driving.

“About getting evicted if we can’t pay the rent in the next couple weeks.”

Mario looked at me.  Looked back at the road.  Then back at me. 

“You saw that?”

No need to answer.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said.

“No?  Ok. I won’t worry about.  It’s nice to not to have to worry about things.  But, if you don’t mind me asking, why shouldn’t I worry about it?”

“Cuz I’ll take care of it.”

“Ok. Ok.  That’s a good answer.  You’ll take care of it.  That’s good to know. But how are you going to take care of it?  Is it because you’re spending all our money on those dumb commercials?  Is that why we couldn’t afford to keep Nancy?”

“Luigi,” he said, “look at me.  You know how you can know I’ll take care of it?  Because it’s me. I’m Mario.”

“That’s supposed to reassure me?  That doesn’t even mean anything! You’ve been saying that since Mama left us in the airport.  What does it even mean? It’s not your catchphrase anyway. It’s Batman’s.”

“Batman’s catchphrase is not ‘I’m Mario’”.  

“No.  But it’s, ‘I’m Batman’.  And he uses it the same way you do,” I pointed out.

“Yeah, but you know why it means more when I say it?”

“Why?”

“Because I’m Mario.”

“I think I’m going to be sick.”

 

*****

 

Showing up at a job site and suiting up with all the preliminary gear was always my favorite part.  As we slipped on our gloves, tool belts, and headlamps, and grabbed the hand-snake, I felt like we were Ghostbusters strapping on Proton Packs.  After all, we were heroes in our own way. Mario was right about that. Somebody was in need and we had the power to save the day. No, there were no ghosts to catch but there might be a giant, stuck turd only the Mario Brothers could set free.  Suddenly, the heroism I felt evaporated.  

“Mario Brothers!  Thank God!” Rocco Delvecio came rushing out the door when he saw our van.  He was a balding Italian in a nice suit. Actually, he kind of reminded me of the late British actor, Bob Hoskins.  “Everything’s backing up,” he said. “There’s sewage coming up from the floor drains! We can’t even drain the water from the sinks.  Bastien Clement is supposed to be here in a half hour!”

“Don’t you worry about a thing, Mr. Delvecio,” I said.  “We got this. You know how you can know that we got this?”  I pointed to Mario. “Because he’s Mario.”

“Oh, shut up and get the shopvac,” replied Mario.

“Hey, what’s with the mustache?”  Delvecio was asking me.  

“What about it?” I questioned as I felt to see if there was something wrong.  That stupid fake mustache was still there! I tried to pull it off but it wasn’t gonna go without taking my real mustache with it.  Dang! And no clever quip to hide my embarrassment. Moving on.

Clogged lines can be cleared a variety of ways.  But we tried a variety of ways and they still wouldn’t clear.  Even using the long, electric snake in the cleanout, we hit some serious resistance.  

“We’re gonna have to check it from the sewer,” Mario suggested.  

“That’s what I was afraid of.”

Minutes later, we had the manhole coned off and were sloshing our way through New York City’s intestines.  It took us no time to find the main coming from Delvecio’s. We are professionals, after all. The clog was right here at the opening.  We could see it. Something about as large as the pipe itself was lodged in the main. Toilet paper and other waste were slowly excreting from around the blockage.  I could only imagine how much blockage had built up since whatever it was got lodged in there.  

But then something else caught my eye.  Something luminescent on the ground. I turned my face toward it but my headlamp outshone the luminescence and I couldn’t tell what it was that was glowing.  Or was it just my imagination? I lifted my head up and turned my eyes down. Something was there, alright.  

“Hey Mario, turn your lamp off,” I said.  

“Why?  What’s up?”

“Just do it.  Check this out.  What is it?”

We both clicked off our lamps.  There, on the floor, below the clogged line, was something small that glowed slightly red and yellow.  We both moved in closer. It was a flower. A little flower growing out of some nasty sludge. And it was glowing!  It’s outer pedals were red but it had inner pedals of orange and yellow. Even the green stem had a slight glow to it.  

“That’s so weird!” he said.

“Ever seen anything like that before?” I asked.  

I took off my glove and reached out to see if it felt any different from a normal flower.  As soon as I touched it, the light dimmed a little and then strengthened again. But nothing about its texture or temperature felt out of the ordinary.  I plucked it out of the sludge. Immediately the light died out. We both stood dumbstruck for a second. Mario clicked his lamp back on and tapped the flower out of curiosity.  There was now no way anyone would know this was ever anything more than common flower. How odd! I stuffed the flower into the pocket of my overalls, clicked my lamp on, returned my glove, and turned my attention back to the clog. 

Mario tried to squeeze a wrench between the stuck whatever-it-was and the pipe to loosen it but as soon as the wrench touched the mass, there was a terrible hiss and flailing of claws.  We both screamed and jumped back.

“What the heck is that thing!?” asked Mario.  We were both now too jumpy to act professional.  There was a flippin’ animal stuck in the drain! Mario used the wrench again to knock away some of the debris around the creature but with every swipe, Mario would jump back, afraid of being clawed or pounced upon.  

The thing was now making a steady unpleasant noise and scratching with its claws, probably trying to free itself.  We could see it better with some of the debris pulled away. But with the harsh shadows, it was still hard to identify.  

“Is it a turtle?” Mario asked.

“Is that like a bird head?” I asked.  

It’s backside was to us.  Yes, it did seem to have a shell like a turtle.  And it’s tail was reptilian. But I could swear it had a head like some kind of bird.  It turned it’s freaky head our way and it’s eyes reflected red in our headlamps. We both jumped back again.  

“What the heck is that thing?!”  I was yelling now.

“That’s what I just asked!”  So was Mario.

“Whoa!” I exclaimed.

“What?”
“Look!  Under the pipe.”  There were little holes like indents from claws leading up the wall to the drain.  

“You think it climbed up the wall?” asked Mario. 

“I don’t know!”

“Ok.  Calm down.  It’s just an animal.  I don’t know what kind of animal but it’s just an animal,” said Mario.

“Are you trying to reassure yourself?”

“What’s so wrong with that?”

We both took a moment to settle down and evaluate what we were dealing with.  

“Is it a turtle dove?”  I asked.

“What?”

“A turtle dove.  Like from the Christmas song.  Why are you looking at me like that?  I don’t know what a turtle dove is. But I’d imagine that might be one.”

“It’s not a turtle dove.”

Mario stood up straight, popped his neck, and shook himself out.  He was building up resolve.  

“Alright,” he said, “I think that if I grab its shell above the legs, it won’t be able to scratch me.  I might be able to pull it out.”

He looked to me as if waiting for me to offer a better suggestion or to offer to pull it out myself.  I was not about to put my hands anywhere near those claws! Be my guest, Mairo.

Since I had nothing to offer, he took a deep breath and shoved his hands into the pipe to grab the raccoon sized turtle bird thing.  I stepped back but kept my light on the pipe. Mario gritted his teeth and pulled with all he had. After a moment of heavy grunting, we could hear the sound of shell grinding against rusty pipe.  It was coming free. The thing was hissing again and flailing its clawed feet. The noise was absolutely awful! Finally the creature was yanked free and about a dozen feet of backed-up waste water exploded out of the pipe.  Mario dropped the creature but we lost sight of it due to the gushing sewage.  

“Where is it!?”  Mario yelled.

“Ahh!  There!”  I saw it suddenly come rushing my way.  I couldn’t say for certain what had happened but as I was scrambling back and pointing at the thing, there was a flash of fire between me and it.  I screamed and jumped onto the ladder that led out of the sewer as the beast hissed and scurried in the opposite direction. I’m pretty sure Mario screamed too.  We watched the creature run off down the sewer and out of site.  

“Did that thing just spit fire at me!?”  I was on the verge of hyperventilating.  

“I don’t know.  But there was fire.  And fire ain’t no good in a methane filled tube.  Let’s get out of here!”

I looked at my rubber glove.  The whole palm and fingers of it were melted off but I wasn’t burned.  I’d ponder on that later. For now, the priority was getting out of the sewer and far away from that little monster.  

Rocco was waiting at the top of the manhole.  “Good news,” he said. “Just got a call from Bastien Clement.  He’s running late. But he’ll be in here in fifteen. What’s the status?”

“I think we got it,” said Mario.  

“Oh, thank God!  Hurry up. Clean up your stuff and get out of here!  I’ve got to re-open my restaurant. Oh, and come back tomorrow.  After work, of coarse. You did a favor for me. I’ll do a favor for you.  Bring dates. Both of you. Have anything you want. It’s on the house. And I mean anything.  Truffles. A bottle of wine. It’s yours. I’ll have my staff call your office and set it up.” 

On the way home I suggested we ask Pauline about the creature.  Pauline had a PhD in zoology. But Mario said no way! We didn’t need to go bothering her as if there was nothing funny between her and the Mario Brothers.  I pointed out that there wasn’t anything funny between her and the Mario Brothers.  Only between her and him. But Mario’s Mario. He wouldn’t budge.  So I decided I’d talk to her anyway. And who knows, maybe I’d even invite her on a date to Delvecio’s Ristorante tomorrow.

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