Part I: The Good War
Thomas Cantata was only 20 when he came to the Western Electric. An immigrant’s son in a land full immigrants. Still a boy, really. Burnished by wild, inchoate dreams, an unspoken faith in the rude potency of youth, the promises of a country still young, still flushed with victory and ascendance, still drunk on bootleg whiskey and its own triumph. A boundless land of excess and contradiction.
They called him “Tarzan,” back before the War, the good war, WWII, back before the BUST, the Depression. Hoover was still President and he, Thomas Cantata, was just home from Nicaragua, just out of the Marines. A kid, but big: a 48” chest, a thick bull neck, “Mr. Hudson County.” He lifted weights, boxed, was a member of the Milo AC’s, played catcher on their baseball team, fullback on the Stapleton Indians. He tried very hard to be “American.” And he believed in the future, that limitless and linear future, with a blind and infinite faith as if it were a sacrament of the Church. “Ah-meddy-ga,” his immigrant father pronounced it, as if the word itself—Ah-meddy-ga—were promise enough.
But in the summer of 1951, Thomas Cantata needed more than promises.
Promises didn’t get him out of that stinking apartment next to Jooche’s Candy Store on Avenue B, didn’t pay doctor bills, car payments, didn’t put new shoes on his kid’s feet, buy him a baseball glove. He wasn’t a quitter. And he wasn’t greedy. He was willing to take his time. Work his way up. Patience, he believed, was as important as action. But he was stuck, trapped somewhere between blue collar and white, desperate to take the next step: a green lawn, open space, a place of his own, out, away from the heat of the city; away from the shouting, the blue exhaust, the daily assault. He worked hard. Deserved it. This day, he told himself as he flashed his I.D. and walked through the North Gate of the Western, would be a day of chances.
Maybe his last.
The Western was a subsidiary of Bell. Plants all over the country. Building more. Diversifying. Haverhill had just gone on line and plans were drawn for others to follow.
The Kearny Works was the oldest, purchased from Henry Ford during the 1920’s. Western’s flagship. They produced telephones, telephone bays, switchboards; supplied Bell with all the copper wire they could use, even had a contract for top-secret missile components. Weekly shipments of apparatus, equipment, and cable averaged over 1,500 tons carried by 15 rail cars, nine piggyback trailers, and 92 trucks. Their engineers were working on a “picture phone,” a problem they were certain to solve in five or six years.
Tom worked on the third floor, Section C, of Twenty-four Building. Section C was long and narrow, windowless. Two rows of desks flanked a center aisle. The desks toward the front were larger, smaller toward the back. At the top right corner of Section C was John Wagner’s office. Tom’s desk was directly behind Wagner’s secretary, Marge Prehodka,.
Wagner sat at his desk with the door open. He looked up when the whistle blew, walked to the door, and closed it. Tom searched his face for a hint. There was none. The meeting was set for three. Their decision final. That would be it.
Tom was a Program Planner. There were ten. It was their job to keep inventory moving, coordinate production and assembly with sales. When the demand could not be met, Tom knew if people were dragging their feet or not. They couldn’t bull him like the others. He knew each foreman by name, knew just what button to push. He connived, flattered, cajoled, intimidated when necessary. It was not unknown to see him stalking the wire mill or the floors of a production building, cornering a startled, white-faced foreman as he went to lunch or loafed in the tiny cubicle of his office. If it was clear Kearny couldn’t handle the order, Tom revised the production schedule or used his considerable skills of persuasion to make deals with Merrimac or Kansas City. He wheeled and dealed them over the phone, became known as the man to see if there was an emergency or a problem. Even the engineers called from time to time, and so did the people in KC or Connecticut. For all this Tom was paid $6240 before taxes. That was all right. A kind of test. Paying his dues. Now, the time had come. Nate Flemming’s supervisor job in Manual Apparatus was opening up. Perfect for Tom. He’d put in 5 years there as an assembler, knew the staff, was liked and respected by them. A natural. From there, who knows? Section Chief? Department Head? It was not out of the question.
Time collapsed and expanded.
Once the phone rang and Tom started to deal, time accelerated as it always did. But during the lulls, the minutes and seconds passed slowly. He’d catch himself staring out into space. It was an effort to concentrate.
At lunch, Tom stared at the salami and cheese Madeline made. He’d take a bite, but taste nothing. Might as well have chewed on paper. At times he felt driven and couldn’t sit still. In other moments, he experienced a strange sense of paralysis, a kind of psychic displacement. He was afraid to be confident.
He’d had one promotion after another. Nothing spectacular. Often horizontal. The prize he wanted most, however, a job in management, supervision, had been withheld. Twice applied, twice denied. A brick wall. He fought very hard. He always fought hard, but he couldn’t seem to make the leap. Before the war, line supervisors were hired from within. Art Pierson down in Key Equipment was the last to make it from the ranks. A good natured guy with a friendly smile, but he didn’t have Tom’s acuity, his ability to cut through the static and clutter to get at the center of things. Had Tom not re-enlisted at the outbreak of WWII, he probably would have made supervisor by sheer attrition. He didn’t have to go. The company was a defense contractor. But he went because it was the right thing to do. After the war, the supervisory jobs went to “Manager-Trainees.” College boys. Snot-nosed and wet behind the ears. Maybe this once an exception could be made.
After lunch Chuck Rawlins had a problem out in Kansas City. Merrimac was giving him the stall on a shipment of conductors. He needed that shipment to meet a deadline. Tom was on the phone with both of them for most of the afternoon.
At three Wagner locked his office, looked over at Tom, winked, then walked quickly from Section C, briefcase under his arm. Tom watched him go, his phone cradled in his left shoulder as he wrote down the specs that Chuck Rawlins was giving.
At ten to four, he could stand it no longer. As others packed up, he took his phone off the hook and waited. He was thinking about going home that night, announcing his victory. Madeline would dry her hands on her apron. Tears would be in her eyes. They’d dance in circles in the kitchen. Tom was at the top of the pay scale for an hourly employee, but still, they couldn’t make ends meet. First came the kids, one after another, then Madeline’s operations. Always one bill away from being out of debt, living without worry.
Marge Prehodka looked at Tom and smiled. A big woman, in her mid-forties, sturdy, with peasant good looks. “Don’t worry,” she said, “they’ve got to give it to you.”
Tom smiled. He sat up straight, shoulders square, chin tucked.
“This time is it,” Marge said, “I know it.” She patted him softly on the back.
Four o’clock, four-ten, four-fifteen.
Long after the whistle had blown and the others gone, Wagner walked into Section C. Tom came to attention. Wagner walked past without even glancing at Tom. He put the key in his door, opened it, and went in. He left the door ajar.
Seconds passed. Minutes maybe.
The two men sat without speaking.
Tom didn’t have to ask, he already knew. He drew himself up like the top sergeant that he was, chin tucked, chest out, shoulders back, and walked through the open door.
The two exchanged a look.
“Ah, hell,” Wagner said, and turned to stare out his grease-smudged window.
Only a few years older than Tom, Wagner looked mid-to-late fifties. Physically incongruous. Tall, with an unusually large bulldog head that communicated power, authority, but the overwhelming impression of his body was weakness. Clearly, he’d never had a day of physical labor in his life. Thinning grey hair brushed straight back. Wire rim glasses. A sour schoolmarmish look. The heavy head, massive, drooped down into thin, sloping shoulders, wide hips, and a bovine paunch. His skin was pale, soft, almost adolescently effeminate. It gathered into delicate pouches around his eyes and nose, dolloped into jowls. Beneath his chin were particularly supple folds that he nervously caressed while in thought or conversation. Tom had the distinct impression that if he thrust his forefinger into Wagner’s belly, he could, without much pressure at all, puncture it as though it were a bladder full of dough.
“You should be proud,” John Wagner said. “What would I do without you? ” He lowered his voice to sound paternal. “Six months, who knows, maybe something will open up.” He patted Tom on the shoulder and closed the office door. That was it. Clean and efficient. The blade delivered. The wound bloodless.
The elevator doors closed into a tight little box.
Tom stood alone in the elevator. Swift and noiseless, antiseptic, it carried him down. Like the quiet of the confessional. He took a deep breath and relinquished the last fleeting remanence of hope. He knew, and knew with a certainty, it was over, done, and he floated effortlessly down.
Part II: The long way home
The bus lurched, surged, stopped, and surged again. Arms and legs and shoulders intruded. Diesel fumes and human musk pressed close. Smothered by proximity. Air. Space: he needed space. He pulled the cord and got off at Avenue A.
Down the sidewalk full of murderous intent, dangerous, wanting to throw a punch, but at what, at whom? He looked from face to face, watching for a smirk, a dare, anything to set him off. His insides rotten. All the years nullified by a “policy. " Who were they kidding? The rich boys wanted to keep the club to themselves. How could a piece of paper, nothing but dried ink, be more important than the pumping blood, the loyalty and sacrifice, the hard, clean native intelligence of a man who never quit, never gave less than it all. The Western had changed. Once the warm center of the universe.
Down E 25th Street, he decided not to tell Madeline. Why tell her? What was the point? Not enough bad news to go around? Besides, with each year she became more and more like her mother. Hard, unsympathetic. “The hell with her,” he thought, “the hell with all of them, everybody.” He caught and held a breath in his chest and fought back the fury and pain. He was forty-two years old and it wasn’t turning out like he thought.
“You’re late,” Madeline said as he opened the screen door.
She had her back to him, hands in the sink peeling potatoes. He could tell by the hunch of her back that she was angry. “Did you stop at the Greek’s?”
“Let me get in the door.”
“Did you stop at the Greek’s?”
“No,” he answered.
“I suppose you forgot the milk?”
There were times when the tone of her voice could drive him crazy, make him feel murderous. If she’d just shut up, he’d say, then I’d be all right. But usually, he was not all right.
“Thank you very much,” she added, drying her hands on a towel.
She was a small woman, maybe five feet tall, but generated tremendous energy. Since the war, she learned to do for herself, learned what it was to have money of her own. Even as they spoke, she had an application in at Glenco. If Tom knew, he’d be furious. But Glenco was nearby. Walking distance. She could leave after Tom left in the morning and be back before he got home at night.
“So what’s the big deal?” Tom asked.
“Nothing,” she said.
She banged around in a cabinet, withdrew a large black skillet, and thrust it on the stove.
“What do you mean, nothing?”
“I mean nothing,” she answered.
Her voice choked a little. Her eyes began to fill.
“What ‘s going on?” Tom asked.
She sniffled. There were gurgling sounds in her throat.
“Christ! So I forgot milk.”
Madeline spun around. The word “Christ” scalded her. She was Baptist. Profanity always produced some sort of physical reaction. It was one more thing she held against him. Standing with her hands on hips, blue eyes cold and narrow, she said, “And meat from the Greek’s.”
“Yeah, meat from the Greek’s. Big deal. I’ll pick it up tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow will be too late!” She turned from him to face the counter.
Jesus, he thought, is she going to cry? He hated it when she cried. It wasn’t fair. She’d come on tough, then resort to tears. Can’t I ever have a rational discussion with you, he’d say.
“Late? What difference does it make?”
“Never mind. It doesn’t matter now.” She rinsed and peeled potatoes and dropped them into a pot of boiling water.
“What’re you giving me?” he said. “What’s the big deal?”
“You probably forgot that, too,” she said.
“For Christ’s sakes, forgot what?”
“My MOTHER!” she said, turning towards him triumphantly, “coming for dinner.”
“Ah,” Tom remembered, it was Friday.
“I guess you’re just too busy.”
“I’ve had a tough day.”
He knew then, he’d never tell her.
“My mother’s not important enough.”
“All right, all right, I forgot.”
“When it comes to her, you always forget.”
“I’ll pick something up now.”
“Too late. I already called. She’s not coming.”
“So I forgot.”
“Because it was my MOTHER you forgot.”
“I shoulda’ figured she was behind this.”
“Christ,” he said, “half the time I can’t even get a decent meal around here, but let the old battleaxe show up . . . and I’m supposed to pick up a roast! You think we’re made out of money? She wants a roast, let her chip in for it.”
“Maybe if you made more . . .” Madeline cried.
There was a pause.
They faced each other.
She stared at him, feet wide apart, a sneer on her face. Her whole body expressed defiance.
“I told you,” he said evenly, “this month things are a little tight.”
“Tight? You can’t put food on the table,” she told him, “then I will.”
Tom’s expression changed.
She turned to the counter, began slicing beans for another pot that was boiling.
“You heard what I said,” she said, knowing that she’d gone too far, knowing that she wanted to go too far.
In one deft movement, Tom shoved the chopping block aside, scattering beans in the air, sending the block into the pots of boiling water, knocking them off their burners. The water sputtered and hissed. Standing perpendicular to her, one arm braced against the counter to block escape, he stared in silence, his face only inches from hers.
She flinched, then froze.
After she acknowledged the supremacy of his gaze, he nodded and said, “All right, then.” Marine tough, the top sergeant. He stalked from the kitchen, down the hall to their bedroom.
For a long while, Madeline didn’t move.
“Let him try and pull that again,” she said as she retrieved beans from the floor. “Let him lay a hand on me. He’ll rot in jail before he can bat an eye. Him and that filthy temper.” She’d been prepared to move out for the last six months. Just waiting for that application down at Glenco. “Let him swagger and bully all he wants,” she thought, “he’ll find out when he comes home to an empty apartment.”
They wouldn’t speak for days.
At six-thirty, Tom sulked in the living room, reading the evening paper.
Madeline rolled blood-brown liver in white flour, then tossed it into a skillet. The liver snapped and sizzled. She went to the screen door and called, “Joseph, Joo-seph.”
She checked the liver and returned to the door. “Joseph, Joo-seph,” a musical lilt in her voice
Joseph was eight, born nine months after Tom enlisted and went off to war. Tom was thirty-two, older than most recruits, and had a deferment from the Western. He had to pull strings in the front office to make sure those deferment papers weren’t sent. He thought it was the right thing to do. Madeline, pregnant and left alone with two other children, never forgave him.
“Joseph,” she called as Tom brooded.
Where the hell is that kid? Tom wondered. He ought to come when he’s called.
“Joo-seph,” she called sweetly, “Joo-seph.”
Babies him too much, Tom thought. She’ll make a pansy out of him.
Joseph was a late baby. The others, Tom Jr. and Joan, were already out of the house. Madeline let Tom think that Joseph was a mistake. A love child. Actually, she lied about her diaphragm.
“Joo-seph, Joseph,” she called, first a high note, then a low.
Still no answer.
He’s got to learn respect, Tom thought.
He was already angry when he pushed his way past her out on the porch. Before him was a clapboard maze of fences and a wide alley that separated the back of one apartment row from the other.
“Joseph,” he yelled, a deep male voice.
There was no answer.
“Joseph!” he yelled more loudly, anger beginning to build. “JOSEPH!”
There was no sign of the boy.
It was one thing to ignore his mother, but his father?
“JOSEPH!” he roared.
He hears me. But he won’t answer. I’ll teach him to answer.
“JOSEPH!” he bellowed, “JOSEPH!”
Children stopped their play. Old women stuck their heads out the tenement windows. “Whatta’ you lookin’ at,” Tom scowled at one of them who quickly withdrew as he stomped down the back stairs.
“JOSEPH!” he yelled at the landing.
“He hears me God damn it,” Tom said, blood pounding in his ears, pumping his arms.
He was out the back gate and down the alley toward the vacant lot where the kids played stickball. “I’ll teach him,” Tom snarled and the whole neighborhood watched. Adults cleared a path. Mothers drew their children close to them. The thick arms and dangerous hands swung back and forth, broad shoulders squared; sweat pouring from his brow, hair a tangled mat. Eyes in a black frenzy rolling, he looked like a madman. Madeline, gripping the porch rail, watched from the third floor landing, mortified.
At the end of the alley, a small brown-and-white mongrel began to bark and nip at Tom’s heels. Tom dispatched him with a single kick. For a moment the dog became the focus of his rage. Tom took several steps after him, the creature howled in a hasty retreat.
Tom bellowed, “JOSEPH!” one last time.
Madeline looked on helplessly. She stood on the landing, biting her lower lip and working her hands. “Tom,” she called meekly, as he turned the corner and disappeared from view. Her body sagged at the railing. She hid her face from the prying biddies in the windows and on the stoops. She took quick, short breaths. Her stomach churned. There was silence.
Children emerged slowly from their hiding places. Heads up, eyes wide, they peered tentatively after Tom. When certain they were safe, they returned to play. They ran and shouted and cried. One or two, chasing the little ones, imitated Tom. Extending their arms before them like movie house monsters, they cried grossly, “Jooooo-seph!” There were girlish peals of laughter and high-pitched shrieks.
Madeline shivered as if it were cold. She didn’t know what to do. When he got like this, he was capable of anything. Feeling the eyes of the neighborhood upon her, she wanted to cry. She looked to the end of the alley and waited, overcome with dread. It was all too much. She just couldn’t take anymore. It was all too much.
Less than a minute passed when motion in the alley stopped again.
Down at the end, there was a commotion.
It was Tom and Joseph.
The two rounded the corner, Tom holding Joseph by the arm and beating him with his free hand. The boy looked frantic. He dodged the blows and struggled to escape. At one point, he wrenched his arm free and ran. But Tom caught up to him easily and began smacking him on the head.
The alley receded before them. People came to their windows, dogs barked, children cried. Men in undershirts smiled confidentially. Old women shook their heads. The crowd followed, but kept a respectful distance.
Madeline could hear Joseph’s cries. She sprang from the steps, down through the backyard in a matter of seconds. They collided at the back gate where Madeline hurled her body between the man and the boy.
Tom tossed her aside.
Joseph ran for the house.
Tom caught him as he reached the stairs.
“Now you’ll learn,” he said and those thick, heavy boxer’s hands fell.
Madeline picked herself up and charged between them once more.
“Don’t you hit that boy!” she cried, “Don’t you hit him!”
The three became entangled, pushing and shoving, lunging back and forth. An absurd dance—tied by an invisible cord—like molecules irrevocably drawn and repelled, attracted and struggling violently to be free.
The crowd followed, but none dared intercede. Many stunned. Others smiled cynically, enjoying the grief.
“Out of my way!” Tom roared. “He has to be punished!”
Sweat poured down his face, his back, his belly. Black hair glistened in the evening summer sun and stuck to his forehead in languid curls. “He has to be punished!” He pushed Madeline with such force that she fell to her knees. The boy darted for the steps, Tom hot in pursuit.
“Don’t you run from me,” he warned. “Take it like a man.”
By the time Madeline regained her footing, the boy had reached the third floor and Tom, in quick pursuit, sprinted the stairs two at a time. Madeline raced behind them, weeping as she ran.
The screen door opened and slammed one after the other.
Madeline caught Tom in the hall.
“Get away from me, woman,” he yelled, “GET AWAY!”
She used her squat body like a bowling ball, barreling into him with all her might. She wrapped her arms and legs around him and tried to pull him down, but just did not possess the strength.
Enraged, nostrils flared, panting in the brutal heat, eyes afire. “GET AWAY!” he bellowed. They bumped and grappled in the narrow hall.
“Don’t you hit him!” she screamed.
They crashed and pounded the walls. The old sheetrock groaned. But she would not give. At one point, she got her hands up in his face and pushed on his chin. She straightened her arms for leverage. He grunted, growled, rolled his eyes like a comic wrestler. Just when she thought she gained advantage, he grabbed her beneath each arm and lifted her off the ground like a rag doll. With a grunt, he tossed her into the wall. She hit with such force that the sheetrock cracked and crumbled around her. She collapsed to the floor, breath knocked from her, motionless.
“Joseph!” Tom yelled.
Tom entered the boy’s room. “Hide from me will you!” he cried., his eyes wild, primordial. He threw the closet door open and thrashed about in the dark. “Hide from me,” he kept repeating, “Hide from me!”
He upended a chest of drawers, threw blankets in the air, knocked over a table and lamp. Things crashed and tumbled. He lifted the boy’s clothes bureau off the floor and banged it against the walls. When he threw it down, it bounced back and smacked him in the face. He howled, bit his fist, and punched the door with such concussive force that it splintered and wrenched off one of its hinges. He finished the job with a following left, then added a left-right-left combination for good measure.
The boy didn’t make a sound. He shivered under the bed.
Tom lifted the mattress, threw it awkwardly across the room. He lifted the frame, springs and all, and flung it to the other side.
The boy didn’t run. He hugged the floor. There was nowhere to go.
“Hide from me,” Tom roared and started to deliver a blow. But the thick ham of a hand did not fall.
Madeline charged into the room and leaped on Tom’s back. Tom swayed and buckled. The momentum made him take several drunken steps. Swinging his head from side to side. He steadied himself, grabbed Madeline by each arm and simply lifted her off. He turned, held by the shoulders, until she was calm.
He looked at the boy and was wounded by the fear and confusion in his eyes. Of all of them, Tom loved this boy the best. Tom Jr. was a Momma’s boy. He whined and complained, made excuses for himself. Joanie was a good girl but they were never close. She was hardheaded like Tom’s brother, Gaetano. But this boy. This Anthony. Such a tender heart and a sweetness. He swelled with love for this boy. In a lifetime of struggle and pain and disappointment, the boy was a gift, all unlooked for, precious, and the thought of harming him was intolerable. How did I do this, he thought, and rushed from the room in shame. He walked down the hall, through the living room, and out the front door. He walked and kept on walking, until the adrenalin drained from his body. Hands in his pockets, he stared vacantly in store windows, avoiding his own reflection.
Without knowing exactly how he got there, he found himself at Jooch’s Candy Store on the corner of E. 21st. He was heading south. His body making the choices, leading him back. To the old neighborhood.
As if it were home.
East 15th Street was alive with sound and motion.
Mothers, babies at their breasts, sat on the stoops fanning themselves. Old ladies dressed in black supported by canes carried packages wrapped in brown paper. Pretty shy-eyed teenage girls, their ripe legs squeezed into tight blue-jean shorts, giggled and smirked. Children everywhere. The ripeness of fruit from the grocery stalls, the cooking smells of olive oil, onions, and garlic frying in a pan. Hauptman’s Butcher Shop. Maffucci, the undertaker, with the same artificial flower set-piece, there since Tom was a kid. Ubiquitous tri-colored flags. Copies of Il Progresso. Cheese and salami hung from deli walls. Venuto’s Fruit & Vegetable Stand. Scarcelli’s Statuettes & Relics. Geno Cubelli stood in the doorstep of his shoe repair gesturing plaintively to Tessa Gasbarro. She, of the eyes wide, shook her head and argued fervently. One winter night when Tom was a kid, he saw Cubelli clubbed by two beefy Irish cops. Geno hadn’t paid the “tax.” “Just a way of getting flush,” the small, fat one smiled and shrugged.
“Keep to ourselves,” the old people told him, “Better that way.” Most never left the neighborhood. Never saw the inside of an A&P.
Passing by an alley, a dark-haired woman leaned out a second story window. “Go to Carmine,” she called to a boy on the street, “put it on Pipe Dream.”
She tossed down a ten-dollar bill.
“Which one?” the boy cried as he stooped to pick it up.
“Pipe Dream,” she repeated and he scampered off.
At the end of the block, he ran into Pauly Lupo.
“Hey, Tommy, how ya’ doin’? ”
Pauly was tall and slim with slicked-back hair and dark wolf-eyes. A mouth full of perfectly straight sinister teeth. “So how’s the kid?”
“Okay,” Tom said, “what’s up?”
“You know me. Always ready for action.”
A Camel cigarette dangled from his lips.
In the old days, when Pauly’s perfectly straight teeth were perfectly white, he had a killer smile. Used to get a lot of women. They called him “Blackie,” then. Always out of work. Sometimes Vince G let him run errands up to Saratoga or around the neighborhood. But only for small change. Pauly had a bad memory. He’d get the numbers wrong. When he was really tapped, he’d go down to the waterfront and find a busone, the ones willing to pay to give him a blowjob. When it was over, Pauly would beat the poor guy unmercifully, just for the hell of it. “Why do I do it?” he’d ask and you really didn’t want to know. Pauly was a kind of non-person. “Neither large intestine nor small intestine,” the old Italians would say. Born and raised and lived his whole life with little notion of the outside world. But neither did he follow the old ways. Kicks. All he wanted was kicks.
“Hey Nunz,” he yelled back to a group huddled around a radio, “look who’s here.”
They were listening to a Yankee game. Making bets on the side. Shouting at each other, pointing two pinkies up and down, the scongiuro, to ward off bad luck. “Figlio di puttana!” Nunz cried. He wore a tight “Giny-T,” had curly black hair, and tattoos on both arms. Nunz looked up, nodded, but didn’t smile.
Between them, Tom thought, a busload of whiny snot-nosed kids and wives who work like horses while they loaf. I’m better than that. In other parts of the city, people wore white shirts and ties, they shaved everyday, they didn’t hang out on street corners, they weren’t still wops.
Tom walked on.
“Keep your bowels open,” Frankie shouted, hands cupped to his mouth. Then he smiled his yellow smile and laughed. Laughed hard, until he coughed and spit and lit up another Camel.
Further down the block, Tom passed his brother’s barbershop.
Il taglio di capelli, the front window said. Una spuntatina. La frizione.
Older than Tom by two years, Gaetano and Tom were not close. Their mother had throw buckets of ice water over them to stop the fights. Even as adults there was a lingering unease that neither could understand nor articulate.
The shop was locked.
He kept walking.
“He’s on the roof,” old Mrs. Venuto grunted. She pointed to the back door as if Tom didn’t know.
He climbed three floors.
Richie was over by a pigeon coop. In one hand he held a long bamboo pole. He flicked his wrist to direct the flight of his flock and looked up surprised.
“Hey, Merico,” he called, switching hands, breathing hard, as the pole whirled. Shorts and a T-shirt, a wide block of a man with a chain and a crucifix around his neck.
When they were kids, they practiced trumpets in the back room of Richie’s father’s store, sneaking peaches and plums, big dark purple grapes, playing “Midnight in Moscow.” “Haaarumph-pa,” Richie’s 300-lb. father would sneeze, the impact of a low-end earthquake. “HAAA-rumh-PA!” and the two would gag themselves trying not to laugh.
Tom smiled. “Sorry about your Dad.”
Richie shrugged, his eyes revealed a wound that would not heal.
Richie had a union card. A Teamster. Didn’t have to stay in the neighborhood. Could afford to move out. Once, Tom asked why. “Dunno,” Richie answered. “Your own block. Know what I mean? Il mio posto.” Richie laughed. At the time, it was just what Tom sought to escape. The smother of relatives and friends, the village mentality, the small-time and all-embracing Onore della famiglia. He wanted out. Now, what Richie had, didn’t look so bad. No mortgage, car installments, no stress. Cheap rent. Ten minutes to his garage. Plenty of time with the kids. He flew his birds, sat with the old men, sipped espresso or home made wine. No mugging, robbery, rape. His daughters came and went. No one dared lay a hand on them. C’è da fare o no? The neighborhood.
The sound of voices rose up from the street.
That time of night.
The telephone was disdained. Telephones were for long distance. You want to talk, open a window. What once seemed hopelessly backward and old-fashioned, seemed now to hold a certain charm. There was a comfort and a deep connection he had always denied in the ongoing traditions.
“Papa, Papa,” a young girl shouted from the top of the steps. “You got to come now! Nonna says Father Patrick needs it by eight!”
“Okay, okay,” Richie yelled back. “Tell Nonna I’ll be right there. My mother, God bless her,” he crossed himself quickly, “is in good health, but always busting my hump.”
“I got to get going anyway,” Tom said.
“Don’t be a stranger,” Richie told him.
Tom knocked on his Uncle Leo’s door. No answer.
From the back of the house, he heard the whine of a joiner. Walked down the narrow driveway. Leo was in the converted garage he used for a shop. The joiner hummed, then shrieked. There was a wood-splintering skirl. Curlicued splices of pine fell at Leo’s feet. Sawdust from the table-saw fanned by the joiner’s exhaust filled the air, settled on Leo’s head, hair, arms, and eyebrows. He lifted the wood and ran a finger over the edge, blew away the sawdust, inspected it again. The joiner moaned to a stop.
Leo considered himself something of a red-haired Romeo. Shameless. Every waitress. Every salesgirl. The younger the better. “I think she likes me,” he’d say and nudge Tom. Tom would blush. It was not unusual to find a female guest in the loft over Leo’s shop in the middle of the day. It was not unusual for her to be the wife of another man.
Leo was a skilled craftsman. When Tom was young, he’d hang around the shop, help when he could. From Leo, he learned the love of the meat of smooth white wood. Of turning raw lumber into a clean line. Of solving a problem. Meeting a need. The delight of invention. The joy of discovery. Tom reached for the door, but just as he turned the handle, the machine kicked on again.
I’ll catch him later, he thought.
When Tom and Gaetano were boys, they saw Leo lose a finger on this same machine. A momentary distraction and, just-like-that, the finger was gone. Leo looked at the bloody stump and gave a cry that wasn’t like a man at all. The finger was never found.
He walked down the cracked cement driveway feeling empty and alone.
Dark had descended.
He found himself before his boyhood home.
The house was a misty radiance in the summer night. A golden bloom. This house that he associated with his mother. He thought of an early Easter morning, just after dawn, when he was a little boy. He and his mother stood on the very spot, watching an Easter procession march down the street to St. Jerome’s. He gripped his mother’s hand in fear, hid behind the folds of her new pink dress.
They came out of the mist dressed in red. Announced
by chains. Sheepskins on their heads. Wooden masks
with horns and protruding teeth. Horrible creatures,
running toward him, crying,“Morte! Morte! Morte!”
His mother picked him up, held him tight.
“Non li danneggerano.” she said. “Li manterrò sicuri.”
She pointed up the street to a statue of Jesus being carried
by a group of grey-haired men. In the opposite direction
came Maria, Lady of Sorrows. Both were protected by angels
with swords. When they tried to meet in the middle, Death,
dressed all in yellow, and the Devils swarmed. A terrible
battle ensued. One by one, Death and his Devils were killed
and Jesus returned to his Mother’s side.
“Sicuro,” his mother cooed, “Sicuro.”
Safe in Momma’s arms.
He adored her. But she wore out. Just wore out. CeCelia, Tom’s younger sister, was frail, suffered from colds and flu’s. Tom’s mother would make tea from the mallow plant, wrap potato slices around her wrists, cover her chest with a garlic polenta. Nothing helped. “She needs a doctor,” Tom would yell, “not these stupid village ways!” At six, Celia was diagnosed with TB. “Consumption,” they called it. “Can’t get her to eat,” Momma would say, eyes desperate. Cake. Cookies. Nothing else. At ten, Celia caught a cold that turned to pneumonia and she died. A terrible death. It broke his mother’s heart. Six months later, she was dead, too. Tom missed her every single day, every single night. He remembered his father, eyes fierce and pitiful, tears cutting his cheeks like acid, as he edged the cold chisel into the stone forming the names of his wife and only female child. A bleak December day that changed Tom’s life forever.
The family just fell apart.
Tom’s father, Gaetano, traveled up and down the East Coast. He carved sarcophagi for gravestones and monuments. When he was home, he expected to be treated like a king. Tom and Willie, his brother, resented it: the Old World manners and prerogative, the immigrant ways. Tom and his father quarreled. The old man would get his razor strop, chase him from room to room, out the back door.
After one of their fights, Tom lied about his age and joined the Marines.
The two stood on the platform without speaking. The train whistle blew, Tom turned to go. The old man grabbed him, gave him a hug, a kiss on the cheek. Tom nodded and pulled free, picked up his suitcase and climbed on the train. The old man was devastated no different than he. The memory brought Tom pain. “Would it have been too much,” he thought, “to give him a hug, to turn and wave?” Tom was his last hope. Blood of my blood. Flesh of my flesh. The old man stood alone, a broken figure in baggy pants and wrinkled coat. The immigrant.
The old man was hopelessly old fashioned. He wore garters on his sleeves, red suspenders. Such a wop. Tom was a new generation. Born in this century. Twice he fought for the idea of democracy. It was something his father and his father’s generation could not conceive. They barely thought of themselves as Italians, much less Americans. Still a village mentality: loyal only to the old ways, the old rituals, the old superstitions and customs. Medieval. Not me, Tom thought, I make my own way. He was independent. He was an American.
Tom looked up at the house.
The lights were on. His father was home.
He wanted to go in, longed to, yearned to tell his father what was in his heart, to embrace the old man like he should have so many years ago. But he couldn’t do it. He didn’t know why, he just couldn’t do it. He looked up at the glow of the windows and shook his head.
The Marines taught him discipline. Gave him a home. For the first time in his life, he felt useful, worthy. They didn’t care where he came from, what his last name was, that it ended in a vowel. They cared only about courage, character. Nicaragua taught him that he was not a coward and that there were other ways to die than TB.
The first week back from the Marines he landed a job at the Western.
His first job was in construction. Not unlike being back in the Marines. A big tough kid among other tough men. “Tarzan,” they called him. Even the old-timers gave him respect. Nights and weekends he trained, fought, and won sixteen professional fights. He only had $48 to show, but that was ok until somebody wised him up. His manager, Jimmy Minks, “Red the Fireman” they called him, routinely pocketed Tom’s share. When he found out, Tom went to the gym, decked Red, and never picked up a glove again. He was young. There was always baseball and football. After all, there were those scouts from the Redskins and Yankees. They were interested. But then came the injury to his back, and that ended, too.
What made him want to be more than “Tarzan” was his marriage to Madeline. He married out of the faith. And she was not Italian. She put ideas in his head. Soon he applied and was accepted as a cutter in the wire mill. Over the next eight years he was promoted several times to different jobs, each more difficult, each with more responsibility. And then for a time he worked with the engineers, and did well, became a pretty good problem-solver; good with numbers, he was surprised to find. Picked things up quickly. Was able to absorb atmosphere, context. Tom was over 30 and the engineers in his department were just out of college, but they respected him. His physical presence, military manner and bearing. His straight-forward, no-punches-pulled approach to things was more than a little intimidating. They called him, “Sarge.” By then he knew the company inside out.
It didn’t bother Tom when they took credit for his work. He didn’t care. He was a team player. The engineers moved on to five figure salaries and Tom moved to a desk in Twenty-four Building.
But he was on his way. Only a matter of time, a willingness to work hard, to sacrifice. He’d always worked hard. The Depression didn’t touch him. That’s why he re-enlisted in 1942: he owed it. It was the sweat of a man’s brow, his courage, his native intelligence. That’s what marked manhood. America, he told himself, was the last clear test of a man, a real man. It was something to fight for.
But that was before the War.
Now, you could go just so far, no further. Now you needed a “degree.” Manager-trainees. College boys. Tom dropped out of high school to join the Marines, to fight the rebels in Nicaragua. Now they wanted him to be a “college boy?”
Before the War, he had an unconscious faith in “They.”
“They” were “bringing him along,” were watching him. He didn’t know who “they” were, exactly, but “they” had their eyes on him. He didn’t have to worry, to scheme, to be ambitious—all he had to do was try his hardest and the rewards would come to him. “They” would take care of him. “They” had something in mind. “They” knew what was best. From construction to machine operator in the Metal Shop, to load regulator in Manual Apparatus, to tester in the Wire Mill, to Engineer Associate, and finally, program planner in Centralized Production Control. “They” had brought him along, like a promising rookie, a thoroughbred colt. Job to job. With ease and confidence. The money didn’t change much, but that was OK. It would come.
Now, he was ready for the next step—Supervision, maybe even Section Chief. Everything pointed to it. He wasn’t deterred by others being promoted before him. He wasn’t deterred by two previous attempts. “They” were just testing him, making sure he had the right stuff. Like old football coaches or the officers in the Marines. “They” talked about him behind closed doors: “See that Cantata today? A real comer.” That’s what they said and the Big Boys blinked their eyes and nodded. “They” brought him along. Prepared him. Slowly, until he was ready.
Now, Wagner was telling him he needed a degree; had to have it.
Walking down Avenue A, he was struck by the idea that maybe all this college talk was just bunk. He had a sharp eye and ear for bunk, a built-in bunk detector. Maybe he just wasn’t “good enough.” The idea hit with tremendous force.
He stopped in mid-stride.
His heart constricted.
There was a dry, hard ache, a hollowness in his belly.
Not good enough? Not good enough? The anger began to pulse through his arms and legs. Who were they to question him, these pencil-necked and gutless wimps? Soft-bellied and splindly legged? Safe behind their desks. Never faced danger or threat, fear or death, never met the gaze of a man who meant them harm. He could break them in half with his bare hands. He stalked the pavement full of fury, the old grief of not belonging, homeless, lonely and forsaken. Naked in the dying light of the raw New World.
He found himself back at the old ballpark where he was the slugging catcher for the Milo AC’s. In the old days, the entire neighborhood turned out for a Milo game on Sunday afternoons. They’d bring the whole family, spread the blanket, put out the picnic lunch, and stay until dark. It wasn’t like that now.
Those were the days, he thought, when the crowd was a-buzz and he strode to the plate, late in the game, with two men on and the Milo’s needing a hit. What a time, what a time. He hit three homers in a single game, and three, again, in the next. No one else had ever done it. No one had done it since. Those were the days that couldn’t last too long and they seemed to go on forever. The girls thought him handsome. Young boys followed him everywhere, fighting each other for the honor of carrying his glove. And everyone was sure, so sure, that someday he’d be somebody. This is what he was thinking as he walked toward the field.
Yeah, he was going to be somebody. It brought bitterness and irony. That was when the scout from the Yankees came down and offered him a contract to play in the minor leagues. Everyone talked about it, but his father was against it. The old man could not comprehend the idea of being a professional athlete. Someone paid you money to play games? That’s what children did. They played games. What kind of work was that for a man? Madeline was proud of Tom because the others cheered, but didn’t know the first thing about baseball. She was against it, also. Too risky, she thought, better to have a regular job, security. So Tom turned down the offer and that was the end of the Yankees.
But the golden days of summer remained forever in his mind.
The pure, clean crack of the bat, the solid feel of ball on wood, the unselfconscious, uninhibited grace of time and rhythm, the unity of mind and spirit and body as the ball went towering, sailing, defying the laws of gravity, soaring, as if it would never come down. Those were the days not bounded by time. No confusion then, no talk of computers or degrees, no guided missiles, no talk of spaceships orbiting the moon, traveling to Mars and Jupiter and Pluto and out beyond the galaxy itself. Before the great leveling of television and radio, before the Bomb, and before the Russians having the Bomb, and the threat of annihiliation. We were a continental nation then, large, boundless, but yet, like a little island in the world, all to ourselves, a bastion, a shimmering paradise. Still regional, even more than regional, just a vast collection of neighborhoods, and the ends of the world had nothing to do with galaxies or solar systems. It was the flight of the ball, its boundless arc, as it reached the tip of the sky. That was it, Tom thought, the tip of the sky, and that’s all we had to think about.
But the ball came down. It always came down. Though sent rocketing aloft with all the power in his body, though hit further and more fiercely than any other, it finally, inevitably, came down. No matter how high it soared, no matter how omnipotent the feeling, no matter how powerful the self-will, the ball inevitably, implacably, obeyed the rules of nature, and fell to earth with a deadening thud.
Tom leaned an arm on one of the bleachers, one foot propped on a lower step. He stared out on the empty field. The outfield grass was thatched and tough. The infield rutted and marred by weeds and clumps of ornery grass. The wooden bleachers and the wooden walls were cracked and faded and dry, in need a good coat of paint. The rusty backstop had several holes. What a shame.
Who cares, Tom thought, what difference does it make? Nothing matters.
He wanted the memories to come back, but they were gone. They wouldn’t come. He tried so hard to remember.
He began to walk.
With the outfield grass under his feet, he felt nothing at all. He remembered faces and a few of the names, double-plays turned with grace and precision, the crowd stuffed into the bleachers, overflowing, spilling out on blankets on the grass along the outfield foul lines and behind the wall. He remembered the sight of the ball as it soared into the air; he remembered that he put three into the lake, distances later measured to be more than five hundred feet. He remembered all this, but he could not remember the feel of it. He saw the crowd rise to its feet when he came to bat, their deathless eyes and mouths opening and closing, their arms thrust into the air, their hands balled into fists, urging him onward, depending on him and dreaming of glory. But he felt nothing. Memory no longer alive. Like watching an old silent movie. Everything in bloodless pantomime. Even his own actions observed as if from a distance, almost as if it wasn’t he, himself. The old magic was gone and he stood adrift in a sea of stunted, outfield grass.
He jammed his hands into his trouser pockets and strode briskly from the field. He walked without looking back, like a man with someplace to go.
As he crossed the right field foul line, for just a moment, a brief moment, he heard the snatch of a roar from the crowd and it wounded him. The hair on his back and the nape of his neck stood up. He felt a quick, cold blast, and then it was gone. He kept walking.
Walking, walking, walking.
Fleeing the phantoms, the ghosts of youthful dreams.
Something had gone wrong along the way and, now, nothing made any sense. And then he was running, running, his legs light and elastic, pumping hard, running against the steel-bright confusion of the day, running from the boundless arc and the doomed, ephemeral twilights of youth.