“I’m okay, ma.” Jack Benevento expected that within hours of arriving back in New York, his agita would return. He expected it as an inevitable outcome when visiting his mother. He pinpointed it directly on the combination of her Secobarbital habit and the toll Rosa Benevento’s illustrious portions took on his gastrointestinal system.
Jack didn’t wonder why – he assumed it was a cultural vestige – how his mother managed to always have those gluttonous displays prepared for him.” In her rambling hand- written letters and the occasional long-distance phone call, his mother would often expound on her financial hardships as a seamstress for her boss, a man that she referred to as “that crook of a merchant.” Jack figured if he were of a similar extraction as his well-to-do colleagues, he probably would have found an excuse to skip out on Christmas dinner; but instead, he undertook the 250-mile drive for this hopefully brief imposition.
Jack thought his mother’s Christmas preparations, the tree covered in garland and ornate decorations, complete with a blonde-haired angel perched atop a bright yellow star, a glittering star that touched the top of her low tenement ceiling, were excessive for a single woman. The decorations never changed, regardless of whether he was a schoolboy, studying for a degree in sociology at City College, or working as an aide to Republican Congressman J. Parnell Thomas. Jack would receive postcards of similarly adorned Christmas trees from his mother every year during his six-year tenure in the European theatre. His mother would always mention her prayers to the Virgin for his safety on those postcards. They usually arrived weeks after Christmas.
It was playing out as routine as the daily drills in basic training. Jack’s mother had laid out plates overflowing with pasta, pork chops smothered in gravy, and a smorgasbord of cold cuts on the small kitchen table. She ate only a single slice of prosciutto crudo and a tiny serving of her pasta, but boisterously chided Jack to clear the rest. Jack frowned at his mother’s request, having inherited an appetite in line with his rather slight build, a build similar to her own – a build that even the United States Army couldn’t bulk up.
“But you look so sad, Jackie. There’s got to be something wrong.” In the months since he had last visited New York, Jack found himself startled by how foreign his mother’s once familiar musical Italian-accented English now sounded.
Jack stabbed his fork through his mother’s baked ziti. “Ma, I told you, I’m fine.” He chewed it slowly. It was al dente.
“Was the trip not so good, mio figlio?”
“It was all right, Ma.”
Nat King Cole’s velvety smooth voice reverberated out of the apartment down the hall. “It’s Christmas, and the people next door, they play that music so loud.” Jack didn’t look up from the plate of baked ziti that he chewed with mechanical precision. “Are you on your way to being the first Italian president?” Rosa’s somber face flashed a brief smile.
“I don’t know about that, Ma.” Jack grabbed a slice of prosciutto from the overfilled tray, rolled it into a cylinder, and took a bite.
“The Amerigans, they treat you bad because you’re Italian?” Rosa’s eyes were filled with a gloom borne of heartbreak. They reminded Jack of Bambi’s.
“No, Ma. They treat me fine.”
“Jackie, please, don’t lie to me.” Jack repetitively tapped his fingers on the table. “I’m right?” Rosa hovered over her son. “What’s wrong, Jackie?”
Jack placed his finger in the crystal glass set before him. He swirled the water around and around with his index finger. “Ma, I’m quitting my job.”
“Jackie, mio figlio, why?” Rosa appeared restrained, but Jack could tell by the acceleration of her speech that she would soon need another Secobarbital.
“Ma, it’s not right what we’re doing. It’s getting out of control. We’re ruining people’s lives.”
Rosa’s voice quivered. “What do you mean, Jackie?”
Jack pounded his fist on the table. “I mean that even a Red doesn’t deserve to lose his job, lose his family, be deported to some strange country, all for what he believes. It’s not right. It’s not American.”
“But what about the bombs?” Rosa’s arms gestured wildly in the air like those of a conductor.
“Ma, not all Reds are blowing things up. A bunch of actors aren’t going to turn us red. What do they even know about the Russians? The Soviet Union isn’t some paradise for a working man like they think it is; it’s a police state where everyone starves, except the bureaucrats in charge.”
“Don’t quit your job, Jackie. Listen to me. I know I’m a poor woman, Jackie. I have no education. But don’t—”
“It’s not right, Ma.”
Rosa’s panic reached a crescendo. Her hands began trembling. Her knees began wobbling. Tears interrupted her words. “Not right? You’re just like your father. You throw away everything for an idea.”
“What do you mean, my father?” Jack whispered. Rosa rushed to her bedroom and slammed the door shut. Jack pounded his fist against the door, impotently chipping wood off like a buffoon in a W.C. Fields short. “What do you mean my father?” Jack could hear his mother weeping in her sanctuary, tears dripping down onto the rosary beads that would shake in her hands until the Secobarbital kicked in. “Ma? Please. I’m sorry.” Jack stood silently by the door and waited until his mother’s sobbing lost its vigor. Rosa opened the door, averting her son’s steely gaze as she darted towards the kitchen, making her way around her son’s attempts to block her path.
Rosa sat on a hard wooden chair. It was one of a set of four bequeathed to her by her recently deceased sister. She slowly inclined her head towards her son, matching his gaze, and took a breath. “Your father was a good man. All he wanted was a better life for me. A better life for you, once you were born. He wanted a world where people like us were equal to the big shots, the Rockefellers and the Carnegies. He wanted heaven, but he didn’t want to wait on Christ, he didn’t want to trust in the Blessed Mother, he thought it could happen right away.”
Jack lit a Chesterfield. “He was a Red, Ma?”
“Yes, and that’s why he died.” The revulsion expressed through Rosa’s tone was in marked contrast with her narcotic-induced tranquility.
Jack’s poker face matched his neutral tone of voice. “Who was he?”
Rosa’s voice began to trail off. “Your father’s name was Emilio. They put him to death. He put a bomb in a police station. He took many lives, innocent lives, all for an idea. That’s what happens when you start with an idea. He started with an idea when some fancy Amerigans from Harvard came looking to cause trouble with honest men. What do they care about the Italians? And your father believed them, God bless him, and he killed honest men and died for their idea.”
Jack stubbed out his half-smoked Chesterfield in the glass ashtray that served as a centerpiece. He held his mother’s hand firmly as he walked her to her bedroom. Once she assured him that all she needed was a good night’s sleep, Jack returned to the kitchen to finish the entirety of the feast that she had prepared. Afterwards, Jack retired to the couch in a haze, draping the blanket his mother left for him over his chest.
In the morning, Jack put on the crisp white shirt and pair of suit pants free of any creases that were draped over one of his mother’s chairs. He glanced at the small mirror inside the bathroom down the hall as he styled his hair with Brylcreem, and then made sure his tie appeared neatly positioned. Jack grabbed his fedora and suit from the coat rack inside the apartment and then left. From the tenement steps, he saw the 1940 Plymouth he had parked across the street buried under two feet of snow. Jack returned to his mother’s sofa and went back to sleep. Rosa woke him up a few hours later. She offered him a serving of toast and espresso.
Alfonso Colasuonno is a Brooklyn-born Italian-American author, publisher, and entrepreneur. His debut book, The Book of the Magical Mythical Unicorn, is forthcoming with O Books. Alfonso is the cofounder of Beautiful Losers Magazine (belomag.com), a space for accessible works of literary and artistic merit. In addition to writing, Alfonso derives satisfaction from helping job applicants through his website MyCareerHacker.com.