My father was given two families. The first on the choppy fringe of the Adriatic, in a village he has never named; the other in Brooklyn, where the trees, neat as boys in uniform, are trained to survive through the brick boundaries of the sidewalks. The first went to St. Peter together; the other does not usually stray farther than St. Paul’s on 18th. The first included the son he would never have again; the other lives in Brooklyn.
My father calls from the living room. I catch exactly three words of his mother tongue — “now,” “drink,” and a slang term for “ox.” When I was little, I assumed I was wrong, that it must have meant “son” or “boy” or “you.” But when I asked my mother, she smiled, as though proudly, and said my Italian was very good.
His hand comes down on the end table when he does not hear my feet across the linoleum. My mother says he named me for his grandfather in the nameless village. She does not say why he will not call me by it, why he merely snaps off strings of Italian when he knows English better than most, why he points a finger or slaps a hand unless something forces the name up his throat and out into the world. Even being slow with the Schaefer will not do this.
He is watching the fights. In the dark. Not even in an undershirt. He drags over his stomach for the bottle opener between his feet. He does not turn his head from the set, still shouting orders at their faces black with blood. Against the glare, it is even easier to make out his frustration, his absolute bewilderment that these two men do not comply with his will. When he rises, he points the bottle opener at the set, makes a noise that is neither his language nor mine. I tug the rabbit ears until the static is only half as bad and his noise is gone. The bottle opener now jabs at the tray table in front of him. He plucks the Schaefer from my hand, making it easier for me to collect the empties. I can manage six at a time since starting tenth grade.
When I go back for the rest, he brushes an arm at me that is thicker than my leg; I have blocked the bloody faces to get to his supply on the end table. Its mahogany surface is adorned in circles the exact size of Schaefer bottles. I will rub them out with toothpaste in case my mother comes home this weekend, or next.
At the sink, I run the warm spray down the necks of the empties as a commercial starts. My mother told me once that ever since she met him — at a Knights of Columbus dance after the war — my father has always kept a TV or radio on. That she learned to fall asleep with the little Imperial going on the nightstand. That the noises in the street — the Mancini kids, laughter, Mr. Fieri’s backfiring Olds — drive him mad. She didn’t mean angry.
The living room quiets. All at once. The rabbit ears have slipped. The commercial has fizzed out. And I know it will happen. With the bloody faces absent. The blare gone. His “lapses,” as my mother calls them.
I ease the faucet to a dribble, to nothing. I crane from the sink to the living room. My father is there, but not. The light from the screen has caught the photo hanging over the set. My father. A wife. A scattering of girls. His son. The girls’ dresses are so worn, the sun illuminates their calves and thighs. His wife is thin as air. My father and his son, a boy taller and thicker than me, hold a fishing net between them. Their muscles pull them tall and straight. The son’s uniform has all the marks of Mussolini. No one has clean hair. They are smiling.
It only lasts a moment, my mother always explains. She slips off her heels, takes the phone off the hook, comes into my room and tells me to stay. She tries to say “va bene” — it’s all right — as though she did not grow up four blocks from here. And we wait. And wait. And the fights return. And so does my father.
But my mother is in Utica with her sister. She is not here to slide the windows down. To slip down the fire escape. To catch Mr. Greco on the stoop and ask him to wait. She is not here when Mr. Greco comes home from his overtime at the post office and slams his door because the postmaster is a word I cannot understand. And she is not here when my father, all 210 pounds of him, shrieks all the way up from his toes into the dark. She is not here when my name squeezes out of his throat with so much force I go to it. And him to me. Or when my skin is in his fists. Or when he brings us to the floor. Throws my back against his knees. His knees against his chest. Or when his tears are pouring down his neck and he is still shrieking.
“Mio figlio! Mio figlio!”
My father snatches up my shirt and yanks it to my neck. There is Schaefer on his hands and then my chest. His cheek, unshaven since he has put on a shirt, is there, too. And his breath is pumping against me. And his smile is pumping against me. And he is saying “si si si si” — yes yes yes yes. And then words I cannot understand. And then something I do.
Into my hair, over and over, my name, his son’s name, more times than I have ever heard it.
Previously published in Crab Creek Review (Fall 2015).