from TRUE NOBLE, a novel
Angela. Princeton. January 2005.
Dad died two months ago; yesterday Cees called.
Out of the blue, after over thirty years. He’d just gotten into New York, for a conference at Columbia.
He said, “Angela, are you married?” His voice hadn’t changed.
I said, “Yes, Cees, almost twenty-five years. We have a daughter. She’s a musician, a violinist. What about you?”
He said he never married. He asked about my work.
I said, “I’m a librarian. I work at The Firestone.”
“The library at Princeton.”
“Oh. What about your writing? You’re still writing, yes?”
“Not like before. Mostly technical writing. Rare book authentication, that sort of thing. What about you?”
He recited his list. Three novels, a book of essays. A teaching post. A weekly column in what’s apparently a major Dutch newspaper.
He said, “Angela, could we get together? Maybe you could come up to New York? Or I could take the train down to Princeton?”
I said, “No, no, Cees, that’s not a good idea. Listen, why don’t you give me your number and I’ll call you back. I need to go. I’m due at a meeting in five minutes.”
It was as if someone had told him about what I’d been trying to do.
I’d been busy packing when Dad came to the bedroom door. He said, “Angela, let’s take a short drive—we’ll buy a six-pack, then watch the news.”
On the front lawn the cherry trees were in bloom. We turned down the windows and drove around and out of the cul-de-sac we’d called home for the past four years. Children on bicycles. Everywhere, the sounds of human voices; storm doors banging shut; the buzz of insects. First stop: the liquor store, for the beer; then to a small grocery for the next morning’s grapefruit. Back at home he poured two glasses and turned on the television, to the rerun of that day’s Watergate hearings.
Dad said, “Just look at that John Dean—just listen to him. Sonna’bitches, all of ‘em. I waited a long time for this. Now we’ll see who pays.”
But we’d seen it all earlier that day, so after ten minutes Dad reached over and turned off the set. He said, “Angela, we need to talk.” He walked over to the china cabinet. He reached up top to where several family portraits sat, and brought one down. It was the portrait of his father.
Certain words and images self-imprint on hair and skin, enmesh in the body’s cells, circulate night and day within the currents of inner fluids. For me these are the strongest: Dad, that evening, standing against the kitchen sink, his eyes focused on the silver-framed portrait in his hand; and the story he’s about to tell me, the one he’s held back for over twenty years. That he tells me on the day I’m leaving home perhaps for good, which of course he doesn’t know, but senses. I’m about to leave for Amsterdam, this he knows. I’m going there to meet Cees, my Dutch boyfriend, this he does not know, far from it, he and Mom think I’m meeting a girlfriend and it’s a major lie, a necessity if I’m ever going to break away from them; more on that later. Cees and I plan to fly from Amsterdam to India. From there who knows. I have no idea how long I’ll be away, or if and when I’m coming back.
The basic facts of my grandfather’s story: Fabio Gemini was a falconer and a farmer in Sicily. He came to Trenton in 1912 with his brother-in-law Giacomo, Jack, my grandmother’s brother. Fabio’s wife, Nonni Innocent, followed in 1913. Fabio found work in an iron foundry, and Jack, with his voice and guitar, started making radio commercials in New York and Philadelphia. In 1913 Fabio bought a house on Mercy Street, one of the many streets of worker housing built at the turn of the last century. He worked six days a week, Dad used to say, and left the house before the sun was up, and came home after the sun went down and the streets were dark. A big sign with red lights over the Delaware River—Trenton Makes The World Takes—celebrated his labor and that of hundreds of immigrants just like him.
Dad had said, when I was a small child and asked what had happened to Nonnu Fabio, that his father had died in 1933 from a disease that none of the doctors understood. Later, he said his father died from something like pneumonia. That night in June he told a different story. One Saturday evening, at the end of the work week, as Fabio Gemini stood in line at the door of the foundry to pick up his paycheck, he learned it was his last. This was during The Great Depression. Orders were down. The foundry owners were letting go half their workers, even the best. Dad’s father never came home that night and went missing for three days. When on Tuesday morning he finally reappeared, he asked my grandmother to go to the store to buy him a steak for lunch. When she left, he walked upstairs to the bedroom they shared, put a revolver to his head, and pulled the trigger. My father was in school at the time; he was thirteen.
“We never understood what made him do such a thing,” Dad said. “My mother’s friend, Mrs. Gola, saw him early Monday morning up on Strawberry Street, by the canal, near the Olden Avenue bridge. She went out to the porch at six in the morning to bring the milk bottles in, and there was a heavy fog, so thick that she couldn’t even see the houses across the street. Then all of a sudden, a shadow runs out and it’s Pop, looking white as a sheet, and she calls out to him but he doesn’t answer, he keeps right on running.
“The next day, Tuesday, at eleven o’clock, I’m in school, in shop. The door opens and in walks the principal. He walks over and says something to the teacher, Mr. McBride. I had just finished cutting some wood to make a tray, it was going to be a Christmas present for Mom, for bringing drinks from the kitchen into the living room when we had company. Mr. McBride comes over to me, says I should follow him out to the hall. I feel like a giant, walking up to the front of the room, with everyone staring, not saying a word. I knew it was Pop, and I knew it was bad, ‘cause if he came home okay there’d be no reason to take me out of shop.
“As I said, we never understood. He was a good man, Angela. He worked hard, he did everything he could to give us what we needed. He used to walk through the front door at night so tired. Who knows. Maybe that was part of it.”
We were quiet a long time. Dad sat down at the table with me at some point, the portrait still in his hand. I took it from him and set it on the table; I placed my hands on top of his. I don’t remember much of what we said though at one point I know I said, “Tell me again why he kept a gun.”
“Everybody had a gun back then, Angela. You needed one—for protection.”
Nine months earlier, the previous August, Dad helped me move up to New York one hot August afternoon. This was the summer after I’d graduated from college. We unloaded the van and went for a beer. He was upset with my move. We’d hardly spoken the entire trip and we hardly spoke over the beers. Whenever I opened a conversation he shut it down with an abrupt comment. Back at the van he turned to me and said, “What a dirty, filthy place this is, I can’t believe you want to live here. Well, let me know if you change your mind.” He crammed a one-hundred-dollar bill into the open end of my purse and drove off.
I worked in an antiquarian bookstore by day and at night I attended lectures and readings at Columbia, and NYU, and the 92nd Street Y. I was writing, and studying acting, and reading parts for friends who were aspiring playwrights. Early that September Octavio Paz gave a reading at the New York Public Library. The man next to me turned and said, “I admire his poetry but not his politics. I prefer Neruda, in both ways. What do you think?” We met the next night for dinner at one of the Cuban-Chinese restaurants that once lined the upper reaches of Amsterdam and Broadway, and again the next night, and many nights afterwards. Cees was a journalism student at Columbia. He was smart, funny, and self-deprecating. We went to readings or movies twice or three times a week. He’d show up unexpectedly with a single rose he’d bought at a grocery store, or later that winter, with a small bottle of sherry, and we’d drink the sherry from juice glasses, and sit by the large window overlooking Amsterdam Avenue, and watch the snow fall on the slow-moving cars below. He hated his student’s poverty, his shabby clothes. His overcoat, for instance, a drab navy Chesterton he’d picked up second-hand. His one pair of functional brown shoes. Sometimes at our cheap restaurants, or at the large table in my apartment kitchen, he’d lean over, his auburn curls falling over his tortoise-shell glasses, and say, “Angela, I want to take you to fine restaurants some day.” He thought that my thinner, polio leg was an unnecessary scar on my psyche. He’d say, “Angela, I love you with all your imperfections—don’t try to hide them.” I’d had lovers before but Cees was different, his sexual energy a revelation. Plus, we both wanted to be writers. Whatever I wrote he read with utmost attention, whether I thought it was good work or not. “Angela, why do you visit home so much? You need to break away from your family, you need to take yourself seriously. In June I go to India for one month, come. If we put our savings together we have enough. After India I return to The Netherlands. Come.”
Dad had wanted to drive me to Kennedy Airport but I said, “No, Dad, Dave will drive me, you stay here with Mom, it’ll be better that way.” Because Mom was a mess whenever one of us left home, such as the summer Alice and I took an intensive course in Italian, in Siena. She was not someone you wanted with you in a public space when it was time to say good-bye. That previous time in Kennedy she held one of my arms so tight, and wouldn’t let go, no matter that people were staring, that Dad had to pry her fingers off me one by one.
So I said Good-bye to Mom and Dad and left with my old friend Dave. He was a big Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix fan. We listened to Stuck in Mobile and Don’t Think Twice, and All Along the Watchtower over and over, all the way up to New York. Dave left me at the airport and I checked in. I continued to think about the story Dad had told me and I believe, even now, that it was not the guilt of the lie I was feeling, but the power of his story.
Not quite one hour later I went back to check-in and gave up my seat. I waited for almost two hours to reclaim my bags. Then I took the train to Manhattan. I stayed at my old apartment, since the other women I once lived with still lived there. Late that night I called Cees in Amsterdam but he wasn’t at home so I left a message on his answering machine. He didn’t find it until the following afternoon (his time) and by then I was on the train, on my way back to Trenton.
I walked around for months like an empty husk the slightest wind could have swept into oblivion. I lost weight. I slept poorly. I lived with my parents and started library school in New York, traveling up by train. I threw myself into my studies. Cees sent me letters; I tossed them in the trash unopened. This continued for one year. Then he stopped writing. Gradually I adopted a new life, a new rhythm.
Five years later I married. I have a wonderful husband and a young and talented daughter; I have an interesting professional life. I’ve thought about my decision to abandon Cees, and whatever sort of life we might have made together, many times. I have no illusions that life with Cees would have been wonderful, necessarily. He might have supported my ambitions, but then, after a period, things between us might have changed. One always hears about married artists and writers competing. At each other’s throats all the time.
One day two months ago, Dad called. He lived nearby, in an apartment. If I didn’t call him every day, he called me. On that particular day, I found him sitting in the new faux-leather, remote-controlled armchair I’d just bought. He was pointing to a stack of cardboard boxes piled high in a corner of the living room. I’d hired a housekeeper to come in twice a week, and he had her pack away all his photographs and all the greeting cards and letters he’d ever received and saved, and all the newspaper and magazine articles he’d ever clipped. And there were hundreds. Of everything. He waved an arm at the small hill of boxes and said, “Angela, do me a favor—find some time soon, would you?—get rid of all those things.” A far cry from what he used to say. He used to say, “Angela, someday I’d like you to organize all my pictures and letters, maybe somebody would be interested. After all, you’re an archivist.” And I’d say, “Technically, Dad, I’m a librarian, not an archivist, there’s a difference.” Though after a point I stopped saying such things because it didn’t matter, he never listened. I stopped saying lots of things. But that day I said, “Dad, are you sure? Are you sure you don’t want them?” He’d had Parkinson’s for several years and was depressed. But long before the Parkinson’s had set in, he’d stopped seeing his old friends and talking as much as he once did. He said, “Angela, listen—you’re the one who cares about words, I shouldn’t have to repeat—I don’t want anything—that means nothing—nothing at all.”
I carried the boxes to my car and brought them home and there they are, under the window in my study, three feet from where I now sit.
One week later Dad died.
A few weeks after Dad died I opened one of the boxes and found Nonnu Fabio’s portrait, in a large envelope with photos of his falcons, all of them damaged, as if someone had tried to destroy them.
When Alice and I were small we never saw Nonnu Fabio’s portrait. Nonni Innocent kept it hidden. After she died my father went looking for it. One Saturday morning he came home all in a glow. I was coming down the stairs. He walked through the front door and into the living room, as if he were walking on air, his arms stretched out like a priest’s, holding the portrait up with two hands as if it were a monstrance. He said, “Angela, Alice, come down here, I have something to show you.” Mom was washing Alice’s hair so she didn’t come down right away. He said, “Angela, I want you to see what your grandfather looked like.”
He was wearing a suit with a narrow tie and a starched upright collar. His moustache was waxed. His right hand was resting on a side table. Between the second and third fingers was a large cigar. He seemed stiff, and very foreign, and I didn’t know what to say other than “How old was he then?” Dad said, “Oh I don’t know, maybe twenty-two or twenty-three.”
One week later Dad came home from the frame shop with two copies of the portrait wrapped in brown paper. He said, “Angela, why don’t you come with me to deliver these?” First we went to Uncle John’s. Then to Aunt Pia’s.
Dad gave Uncle John the package not saying what it was. Uncle John unwrapped it and said, “Oh boy, where’d you find this?” Dad said, “In that bedroom she kept locked up.” “Man oh man,” Uncle John said. He propped the picture up on the kitchen table and started to make coffee. He poured a glass of milk for me. He took a package of Stella d’Oro cookies down from a cabinet and opened it and put a half-dozen hard anisette cookies on a plate. When the coffee was ready he poured two cups, and he and Dad put their milk and sugar in, and all this time they weren’t talking. They sat side by side at the table and I sat across from them. They stared at the picture a long time, and stirred and stirred their coffee still not saying anything. Dad put his wet spoon down on the table and picked up a napkin, and picked up the spoon again, and wiped up the drips, moving the napkin slowly back and forth across the table surface. Finally Dad said, “And to think he could have been here today and known our kids. And our kids could have known him.” Dad took a cookie and dipped it in his coffee and ate it. And after a while they started to talk about things at work, since they worked together in the same factory.
At Aunt Pia’s it was different. She didn’t have a clue either but when she undid the wrapping paper and saw what it was, she dropped it on the floor of the living room and let out something between a sob and a scream. She ran upstairs. Uncle Bill heard her from the back yard, where he’d been gardening, and ran in, brushing the dirt from his hands. When he saw the picture on the floor he figured it out right away and ran upstairs after Aunt Pia. Dad picked up the large pieces of broken glass, and found the broom, and swept the fragments into a dustpan. When Uncle Bill finally came down Dad said, “Bill, I’ll bring Pia another one as soon as I can.” And Uncle Bill said, “You might wanna wait on that.”
Henry stays late at school every night, it’s either Debate Team or AP History. I don’t mind because I don’t want to cook, I don’t want to talk, I just want to keep working. I stay at the library and eat take-out.
The library has a 1939 English translation of De arte venandi cum avibus—On the Art of Hunting with Birds, a compendium on the handling of raptors by Frederick II, including: bird anatomy; habitats; discussions of prey and habits; methods for capturing, training and care. He drew from Aristotle, and Moamyn, but he apparently rewrote, or charged assistants with re-writing, all the information he inherited based on his own astute observation and direct experience. He almost certainly exchanged information with Arab falconers during his travels in the East; he had up to fifty falconers in his court at any one time and regularly built falconries as part of his castles. This is what he had to say on what it takes to be a falconer:
“He who wants to learn this art should be of medium height, for if he is too tall he will tire easily and be less agile; if too short his movements will be too quick and abrupt, both on foot and in the saddle; he should be of medium build, because if excessively thin he won’t tolerate the work and the cold, while if too large and fat he won’t want to work, but be slow and lazy. And then he must be clever, and have a good memory, and sharp eyesight and hearing, and a good carrying voice, so that his falcons can hear his signals. He must be of a daring spirit, and not a heavy sleeper, nor a slave of his stomach. A bad temper is a significant failing. He should not be too young because youth makes maintaining discipline difficult. If he values his art and techniques and is of a persevering nature, he’ll continue this practice with passion even in old age.” (Chapter XLVII)
Last week I spent every night at the central library in Trenton, in microfilm, looking for a news story about Nonnu Fabio. I knew there had to be one; I knew the year of his death, but not the month or day, so I had to begin my search in January and move snail-like, shifting the viewer from left to right, top to bottom, section by section. Finally, there it was, in the Trenton Evening Times, October 17, 1933. Proceeding down a column on the front page:
FRANCE PREPARED FOR WAR DALADIER WARNS GERMANY
In a stinging, if indirect, reply to Chancellor Adolf Hitler’s broadcast of last Saturday, Premier Eduoard Daladier today declared that France “is assured of her defenses of territory and liberty.” His speech, received with wild enthusiasm by the Chamber of Deputies, brought a test vote of confidence in the Cabinet, which was upheld by the overwhelming majority of 470 to 120 . . .
INQUIRY REVEALS $100,000 YEARLY PENSION FOR FORMER CHAIRMAN OF CHASE BANK
Senate investigators learned today that the Chase National Bank has voted its former chairman, Albert H. Wiggin, $100,000 a year for life, despite severe losses in recent years. Wiggin, a heavy set and deep voiced man of 65, said his salary exclusive of bonuses prior to his retirement was $202,000 a year. He readily agreed the bank’s losses in recent years were “very large” . . .
EINSTEIN ARRIVES; MOVES SECRETLY
Dr. Albert Einstein arrived in New York yesterday via the Westernland from Europe to take up his scientific duties at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Accompanied by Mrs. Elsa Einstein, his assistant, Dr. Walter Mayer, and his secretary, he was immediately driven by car to Princeton, shielding his face from the assembled photographers with his violin. He let it be known that he would give no interviews and would confine his activities entirely to teaching and research . . .
CITIZEN WITNESSES SHOOTING; STEPS FORWARD
An unidentified man was shot and killed early this morning one block north of the Olden Avenue bridge. An inhabitant of the same block, whose name and address have been protectively withheld, witnessed the shooting and is working with the police to construct investigative profiles of the attackers. Said witness reported the presence of a second witness, a man who walked onto the scene of the crime and then fled, chased by the attackers. Anyone with further informa . . .
MAN SENDS WIFE TO STORE, THEN SHOOTS SELF
Brooding over unemployment and ill health, Gemini Fabio, 47, today committed suicide by shooting himself with a revolver, police said. The victim died at McKinley Hospital where physicians had operated on him in an effort to save his life. Fabio, according to police, carefully planned the deed. He sent his wife to the store, then he went to his bedroom and fired one shot . . .
I noticed that Nonnu Fabio’s name had been transposed: Gemini Fabio instead of Fabio Gemini. Nonni Innocent, or a neighbor, must have given the police Nonnu’s name in the Italian fashion—surname precedes given name—a convention the reporter didn’t understand.
Most nights I stay late at the library, reading Frederick’s treatise. Other nights I don’t go home when I leave, at least not right away. I get into the car and drive to nowhere in particular. I get on 295 and head south. Something inside me just wants to drive and drive fast.
“That’s a heavy foot you have, Angela,” Dad used to say. “Back off. You make me worry.”
He had a governor installed in the car that he bought for Alice and me when we graduated from high school. He didn’t think we knew but Alice’s boyfriend figured it out. It’s the reason I could never go over sixty, no matter how hard I floored it.
Driving fast is something I still do. When I’m feeling frustrated. Or caged in. I’m a very good driver so I tell myself it’s okay as long as I’m careful. And Laura never sees or finds out.
That caged-in feeling comes and goes. Like a bell descending over me. For years it’s been that way. One-half of me normal—I made my daughter’s lunches, looked over homework, shopped for dresses, drove her to hockey games and music lessons; made love to my husband, we cooked meals, went to movies, went to restaurants with friends, took vacations—the other half of me quiet. Still. In the dark. Always hungry, always thirsty, nothing fills me.
Yesterday I was at my desk, reviewing a set of terms for a loan of manuscripts, when I felt a pall descend. The text I was reading began to fade, and a thin film of perspiration broke out on my neck and forehead. I stood up and felt dizzy. I must have stood there, frozen, more than just momentarily because Jeanette, the new intern, said “Ms. Gemini, are you all right?” I said, “I think I should go home.” The walk across campus to the parking lot had a bracing effect; once in my car I felt more like myself. But I didn’t go home. I drove up to Nassau Street and turned left instead of right, and went south on 206, instead of north. I drove to Mercy Street, to our old home, for the first time in years.
Twenty-four small brick houses, each with a wooden porch in front, and a small yard in back, with enough space for a flowerbed or a small vegetable plot, a dog house or swing set. All the houses now disfigured. The facades need paint, several porches are caved in, and discarded sofas and refrigerators sit on the sidewalks and in the alleys. Once my entire world, Mercy Street now seemed truncated and insignificant, like the planner’s afterthought it most probably was, one end bound by the alternate to Route 1, the other by a lot where one of the old potteries once sat, a public housing project now in its place. I drove past where Aunt Pia used to live; past Nonni Innocent’s old house.
I remembered walking up her steps one day with Dad: The sun is bright. Inside Nonni’s sitting where she always sits, at the window where she waits for Uncle John to come home at night, and puts pomegranates in our shoes at Halloween. She’s not feeling well, so Dad stops in not once a day, his usual, but twice. Dad makes coffee for himself, and tea for her, and pours a glass of milk for me. We sit at the kitchen table. While Dad and Nonni talk I work in the Children’s Activity Book that’s kept there for Alice and me. When it’s time to leave Nonni pulls me close and reaches into a pocket. She wraps a bracelet around my wrist, one I still have and wear often. Gold filigree with blue stones.
Early the next morning, Alice and I are just waking up, and Dad walks into the room. He’s crying. It’s the first time we see him that way. He sits on the bed and says through his tears, “Nonni died last night.”
I’m infused with vast feelings of incomprehension: my father’s grief; and the fact that, as the grownups instruct us, we will never see Nonni again. When Aunt Pia comes over to sit at the table and talk with Dad I wait until there’s a lull, then I ask them to figure out a way to keep her body in the house. I promise that I’ll wash it in the bathtub every morning, and that I’ll brush Nonni’s hair and change her clothes. Aunt Pia, weeping, says, “No, Angela, no, that’s not possible.”
The time it takes for me to pass through this disconsolation I no longer recall. For Dad, life’s never the same. Most of his thick dark wavy hair falls out and what’s left turns white, almost overnight. One day I’m with him in the supermarket. We’re standing in the checkout line, by the racks of magazines and chewing gum. Our basket’s filled to the top. All of a sudden he faints and falls, and a rack of gum and candy falls on top of him. Someone yells for smelling salts, everyone gathers to see. I remember straw purses and sandals and clouds of perfume. One of the basket wheels is only inches from his face. Packages of Wrigley’s Spearmint gum scatter across the floor. Light green packages with dark green arrows.
That day back on Mercy Street I drove away from Nonni’s and parked in front of the house that used to be ours. Despite the winter chill I opened the windows. The sky grew luminous. The air became heavy with summer, and I understood, yet again, that time does not exist, not really, not in any way that lends sense to the brief course of our lives. I saw Mom in the kitchen, at the sink. I saw Dad at the table with his friends. I saw myself get out of the car and walk up the porch steps and through the front door. I walked through the living room, past the sofa, past the piano that cost all of seven hundred dollars back then and, though the money was in the bank, saved for that purpose, Dad insisted that Mom write the check, because large amounts frightened him. I walked past the armchair where Dad used to sit and read the paper; past the door to the basement.
Dad says, “Angela, go down to the basement, bring up a jug of wine and a few extra glasses.”
I never argue with him or make excuses, even though my deepest fears live down there, among the tools and musty corners, and hanging pots and pans that we carry up for New Year’s Eve, when we march around the house banging and singing with Aunt Pia and Uncle Bill and our cousins.
I turn and walk up the stairs. To the old bedrooms, the old windows. I see the old neighbors having parties, working their gardens, walking the alleys. I see them carry out their dead, damp with frustration, heavy with dread and the scent of lilies. I see the husbands who are never home and the wives who drink.
There’s a window in the bedroom that Alice and I share, where I sit to read. Where in summer, as I read, I can hear the sounds of my aunts and uncles working their gardens, gardens lush with zucchini, tomatoes, and eggplants. I dream of traveling someday to Europe, to Africa and Asia. I make mental lists of all the languages I intend to learn.
By now, Alice and I are ten, eleven, twelve . . . and Mercy Street has begun to feel small. Summers in particular are difficult, long summers of waiting, summers of Backgammon, Crazy Eights, Monopoly. Waiting for the library to open, waiting for music lessons. Alice and I are always waiting, waiting for something to happen, something to carry us away. And other reasons.
When I hear Dad’s car in the alley, when I hear the tires on the stones and see the car’s hood just beyond the corner of my book, I begin to count. Three seconds for the car door to open, three to shut; seven for his steps to cross the sidewalk, climb the steps, cross the porch; two for the key to turn in the lock.
He has large feet, a size twelve shoe. He taps the floor with his toe and whistles loud and clear. Soon he starts to sing. Fly me to the moon, Let me play among the stars. The windows are open; all the neighbors will hear. Let me see what spring is like on a-Jupiter and Mars. His joy fills the house and charges the air. Maybe he’ll drive us to Asbury Park, Alice and I think, to buy ice cream and go on the rides. He’ll tell jokes and funny stories all the way, and sing like Frank Sinatra, or Perry Como.
Some days, however, his step can be slow and heavy. From the top of the stairs I hear the tap run at the sink; the feet of a chair scrape against the kitchen linoleum. Is he sitting? Drinking a glass of water? What’s the look on his face? Pensive? Dark?
Mom says something; it’s not clear what.
Dad says, “You think you know more than you do — you know nothing of the real world!”
Five minutes, ten, sometimes twenty, the beast confronts the wall of its own fury. A firestorm—a hurricane—a tsunami—there’s no one to blame and no one to tell. Again, the wound and its terrible howl. The beast revolves in its cage, alone and furious.
Why is he angry? What did Mom say? Or is it something I did? Or Alice?
Hopefully this time he won’t break too much.
At last when the storm is over, and it’s calm and quiet, and the drapes brush against the window sill in the breeze, and I hear the cars in the street, and the other kids playing hopscotch on the sidewalk if it’s daytime, or absolutely nothing at all if it’s night, he sits with his head in his hands at the kitchen table.
Mom comes up and says, “Angela, come down and ask him if he needs anything—you’re the only one he’ll talk to when he’s like this.”
In the living room, scattered papers and magazines. In the kitchen, shards of cups and plates.
He’s sitting at the table. His face is like ash, his eyes red. He stares at the empty doorway as if waiting for someone. He’s developed a twitch, a tic at the corners of his mouth, and it goes off unexpectedly, as if governed by an alarm, pulling his lips down and to the side in small disfiguring quirks. He hasn’t shaved. He looks like an outsider. Outsider to whom? To Mom. To Alice and me. Normal people don’t act that way. What’s wrong with him?
This happens not infrequently. We can’t predict.
I make him a cup of tea. I think: I will leave him someday, despite the fact that everything about our family and Mercy Street says that children must stay. No matter where children may wander they must come back to stay, to live near their parents, and care for them. But I won’t do it, that’s my secret. The only person who knows my secret is Alice, and she feels the same way. I want to leave Dad and I want to leave Mercy Street. I want to leave Trenton, with all its small houses with large television sets and no books. I don’t know enough to imagine what kind of life I prefer but I know it will be one of relative peace, and learning, and beautiful things. I have no idea how to achieve this. Neither does Alice. Alice says, “Let’s not worry about that now. We’ll figure out a way.”
Yet, despite our combined determination, something tells me that may not be possible. Something tugs at me. Because even then, it seems, I know something inside him is broken, the glass ball we all have, like an elaborate Christmas ornament where everything has its place, the stars and animals. Upside down it snows. Right side up the snows recede. Something is broken that might never be fixed. That demands love. Unconditional. Regardless.
Sometimes Alice and I talk about these things; sometimes we ponder our family’s situation separately. Sometimes we understand each other; sometimes we’re on different planets. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, we begin to go our different ways.
Alice stays upstairs through all the storms. Mom keeps the vacuum cleaner in a large square box made of wood and faux leather in our bedroom, and that’s where she hides, and dresses and undresses her dolls ad nauseum when we’re small, and sings to herself and to them, and where she reads her silly teenage idol magazines when we’re older, again ad nauseum. She never hears a thing, not from outside, not from inside, not from Dad, not from TV, not from radio, not from anything. She never loses that ability to lock herself away. We could all drop dead right in front of her and she wouldn’t notice. When we’re older she’s out as much as possible. Dad says, “Stay away from the end of the street, those girls are fast.” But when he isn’t home she goes there anyway, down to the lot and the abandoned pottery, to smoke cigarettes, and talk about boys.
But I admire Alice, overall. She’s got guts.
His letter said the house was nice and he was satisfied but to me it seemed small. Here in New Jersey the houses are small and they all look the same. Rows of tiny houses. One just like the other. Just like boxes lined up on shelves at the store. I don’t know where he stayed before when he came with Jack at first. And if it was different though I doubt it. And to think all these years and not once did he show me.
Caterina and Nedda came up to get us in New York. I knew Fabio might not come cause the letter said maybe the foundry boss wouldn’t let him. From the big building we took a ferry. Then we took a train. Then another train. Then another train then the trolley. At Hardy we got off and walked the rest of the way. I was never so tired. I carried Isabella and if she wasn’t sleeping she was crying. Caterina and Nedda took turns with the suitcase.
I thought we’d never stop walking. Just like now, I think this will never end but this is different. It will be this way til I die. I do the same things just like before but I think about it all the time. I wash the clothes. I clean the house. But when I mop the floor I see it again the wet and the red. I stick the mop in the bucket. I move it around. I pick it up. I twist the cords. I spread the mop on the floor and I see his face. Sometimes I stop I close my eyes. I talk out loud. As if someone was standing here as if someone was listening. The boys are in school at three they’ll be home. Pia works at the candy store now not the coat factory that closed. Now she makes less.
I used to say: Fabio what should we do? Where should we go? How will we ever get married?
I was in love. I looked up to him. He always knew what to do he knew the way.
He used to come to the wall when my parents were sleeping. I always knew it was him when he came to the wall I could tell by his voice. Small stones against the wall when he came at night and his voice deep like a well with an echo. We wanted to get married but they were against it.
One night I said: Fabio what’s that you’re hiding? What’s under your shirt? Did you bring flowers? Is it a rabbit? Did you go hunting?
Then he unbuttoned his shirt and they fell to the ground long dark shiny pods like black snakes in the moonlight.
He said Look Innocent—they’re carobs Innocent carobs. There’s a carob tree next to the house we’re going to live in. Yes—I found a house I paid the first rent this morning. We’ll live there one year maybe two. Then we’ll leave we’ll go to New Jersey.
I went down the stairs in bare feet. I held my breath as I undid the latch. I left with my shoes in my hands and just the dress I was wearing.
He used to breed horses he used to keep falcons. I used to watch him on his black horse the stallion the one he called Notti. Sometimes he rode out to the fields and took one of the falcons. He tied it to his wrist and held it high. The children in the village ran after them screaming Falco! Falco!
Before I knew him I used to watch him and pretend I was sewing. He knew it. He told me later.
Most nights Dad goes to the union office after dinner. Or to work on someone’s campaign, or to lobby for a bill at the State House. He’s always volunteering for Democratic candidates for mayor, state senator or county rep. We follow the campaign trail in the papers and clip out the photographs. We arrange them on the bulletin board he bought for that purpose and hung in the kitchen. Saturday mornings we host rallies. Dad assigns jobs to Alice and me. We set up wooden folding chairs in the living room, four to a row, and arrange plates of doughnuts in the kitchen, then we sit on the front porch and wait. Men from the factory come in clouds of after-shave, wearing nylon shirts colored pastel yellow, green and blue, with packs of Camels and Lucky Strikes in front pockets that we can see through. We encourage the neighbors to come in but they don’t, instead they sit on their porches and stare, the way they do when we don’t have rallies but the men from the shop come anyway, white and black—just to shoot the breeze, Dad says. Those days they wear shirts made of flannel. They bring the odor of a full day’s work inside with them, so that even now I feel at home with the smell of men who work with their hands, and like to linger in such places. The car mechanic’s shop. The hardware store.
The union leaders have crazy names. Dad’s The Governor. There’s The Bull and The Prince. Men whose jobs and status belie their aspirations. They can’t sit still when they see there’s work to be done. Like voter registration. “Some people are goin’ South but I’ll do what I can where I am,” Dad tells Alice and me. “We knock on doors and we say ‘We’re looking for a Macie Williams, or a John Collins, or a Lloyd Green,’ and they say ‘He don’t live here’ or ‘He in the hospital’ or ‘He left las’ year ‘n’ no one seen him since.’ So then we say to them loud and clear ‘Listen—We ain’t bill collectors and we ain’t the police. We’re here from the Democratic Party. We want you to vote and we’ll take you to register.’ ‘Oh yeah?’ they say—‘Okay!—he inside—we’ll go get ‘im—you wait here.’
Dad loves The Bull. He says The Bull always knows just how to set people straight. “We ain’t the Teamsters—Hell no!” The Bull says. “Sonnavabitch McCarthy! We work in a factory eight hours a day only to go home, eat, take a shower and shave, then jump in our cars and drive to some hotel so we can sit all night across the table from management and fight like hell—all that for no extra pay. A few rotten apples at the top and they say all labor’s bad.”
“Dirty bastards they are, the whole bunch of ‘em, and McCarthy’s the ringleader.”
“They’d fry us all if they could.”
“Listen—what they did to those Rosenbergs—now I ain’t saying I know who’s right and who’s wrong, or if they gave secrets away or they didn’t, but why in hell did they have to go and kill the mother too? With two little kids? Ain’t killing the father enough? I can’t get over that.”
When The Bull dies Dad’s lost a long time, the same way as with Nonni Innocent. After dinner he sits in the kitchen, at the table, and lays down his head. Mom washes the dishes and we do our homework. When it’s time for bed he’s still there. We’re afraid to say goodnight but we do it anyway. He lifts his head and gives us a weak smile. One night he says to me, “Angela, it’s because of you I’ll pull through this.”
At school Alice and I run in different crowds. We’re both honor students, at the top of the class, always alternating between first and second places, but starting in seventh grade her friends are the more popular kids; in high school Dad drives us to dances and basketball games together, but once there we go our separate ways. We do our homework across from each other at a large table that we use for a desk, in the bedroom, and that’s a source of some sharing. We wear each other’s clothes, we cover up for one another’s fibs. But she refuses to engage with Dad. She sees the same things I see—the daily tensions between him and Mom, the small indignities—and they disturb me profoundly but they don’t seem to bother her. If the mood at dinner is somber I’ll talk about something funny that happened at school, or that I saw on TV. She never contributes, never helps me out. She can’t wait to get up from the table and go upstairs to our room.
I was angry with Alice for years. We’d trade barbs and make up, but at the smallest perceived offense another flare-up would occur. Most of my anger evaporated around the time she got divorced. I understood she had her own set of issues related to Dad, related to men. I don’t think she’s happy. I’ve tried several times over the last few years to steer our conversations in this direction but she never lets me in. I think she’s made a fair bit of money but she works far too much. But I could be entirely wrong so I don’t force these issues.
In any event, I want her to come with me to Sicily this summer. I found a Christmas card in one of Dad’s boxes, from one of his Sicilian cousins now living in Piedmont. I wrote to her, and to several archivists in Sicily, with a list of questions. Dad never said anything to indicate that the Gemini family had wealth of any sort, but this is the response I received from his cousin: “. . . they owned a house in town, in V., and a large farmhouse—a ‘masseria’—in the country. They grew lentils, favas, and wheat. They had vineyards, they made cheese. They had tenant farmers and they hired extras for the harvest. One daughter married very young then died right after, that’s when they decided to sell the land and buy a plantation in Mexico. Or Brazil. Maybe bananas. Maybe coffee. Why? We don’t know. But they never went. There was the cholera and no ships were sailing so they went back and bought new land but they were swindled. Lost all their money. ‘Water,’ my father said, ‘there was water on that land and everyone wanted it.’ They rode for three days after that with everything they owned—a great humiliation—and settled in a town where no one knew them. That’s where your grandparents met. They worked and saved for five years. Then they came here. ‘Brigands walk the street like respectable men,’ my father always said about Sicily. Three years ago my daughter went back. She found the land and the house—all empty now. She took pictures, I’ll send you some. About the falcons I don’t know anything.”