FROM THE BASTARD OF ALMOND STREET
At fifty-four there are things I know—mind-bound things–facts as clear and charted as the elemental table that once hung in our eighth-grade science classroom. A table that floated certain in the air above our heads in air smelled of manilla paper and pencil shavings. And from that chart, I was able to memorize only two elements: gold and iron–AU and FE. I was drawn to them for practical reasons. I knew gold mattered because I wore a solid gold heart around my neck–a gift from my godmother. I’d been wearing it since my infant baptism at Our Lady of Mount Carmel. I liked to chew on the heart when I got bored, so it was dimpled with tooth nicks–Italian gold is soft. Unadulterated. I remembered iron because my mother was anemic then and always taking iron pills to bring her levels up. In order for my mind to take up the other elements, they would have had to support a narrative. At thirteen, my world consisted of my home, my stories, my family–and only in the misty edges and under duress–the school building where those kinds of facts were taught to me before I dismissed them into the into the ether.
Today, my mind still weighs facts to family. I often find my facts in handed down stories and in photos like the one flat on the little table, in front of me now. My great-grandfather, Francesco Marrocco, stands in this photo, middle-aged. You can’t tell just from looking, but I know he’s battling a miscreant gallbladder that will eventually murder him for refusing to give up tomatoes. He’s canny, smooth-skinned, hard in the nose, and squinting a little into the sun; he seems to want to walk into the camera and live forever.
Now, there are “facts” and there are facts, and the latter are what my mother tells me over the telephone these days. I wear my handsfree headset because these are long conversations and I can pull weeds while she tells. Mom has made herself the fount, keeping in her skull myriad scraps of important information having to do with family, both her side and my dad’s. Dad is not the same, he seems to have become cognizant only at the age of twelve or so, and his first memory is rags tied around his head for the mumps and wanting to go out to play baseball. This lack of early memory is something my mother finds preposterous. “I don’t know what his problem is, probably because he’s an only child. They’re selfish.”
She’s taken on the task of making up for his apparent lack by gathering facts and secrets and rumors from his cousins and other assorted relatives. It’s fifty-five years of listening and remembering, and she has powers of detailed recall that rival the eye of Samuel Clemens. Mom’s facts are filtered and reconstituted with the rhetorical acumen of a small-town politician. This skill set is necessary to her long-term and unwavering low-level campaign; she seeks to elevate her Sicilians while portraying my father’s as a menagerie of lesser beings. And she’s generally successful, though if you accused her of bias, she’d deny it, light a Winston, and blow the smoke in your direction.
Facts, lately, be they enhanced or not, bring me only to limited spaces–spaces of mind. Beyond the mind, though lay the things I know in my gut– things my particular microbiome digests and sighs over–little globs of something strange and protected a lot like the animal parts oysters hide inside their hoary shells. Viscous, delicious, and mildly repugnant. And I’ve got shoals of them. Here, I’ll shell one oyster with you, and show you my grandfather, Milchoire—the son of Francesco–as a small boy. He’s six years of age, still in short pants, sweating down in the basement with his black eyes and black hair curling from the damp. Perhaps, he’s unremarkable aside from the fact that he’s been chained to the hot water heater in the tenement flat basement by his father, the man I’m trying to understand today. This Francesco Marrocco from the photo I’ve set on my table. This Francesco Marrocco who walked onto the page when I uncapped my pen.
I’ll open another shell and show you Oh, ho! It’s Francesco sneaking out the back window of his neighbor’s flat as the sun rises over Lake Michigan, a lake he cannot see from his neighborhood with its three-story flats lined up like dominoes–not in the way a man plays them but in the way a child makes a physics lesson of the tipping. He cannot see the lake, but he can smell it, and he can smell himself, and he can smell the widow he’s left behind in her bed. He fixes his cap and strides across the alley, toward his own flat and up the stairs for bread and preserves, for chicory coffee from the speckled black pot that his wife Nina will have warmed and ready on the stove. He is not afraid of being caught and she is not in tears, and I do not understand this.
If I open one more gut-shell we see Francesco heading out again, wide-eyed with chicory coffee and bread sloshing in his gut. There he is driving his horse and cart up and down the alleys of Chicago’s Little Italy. His shovel rattles in behind the seat and his pistola is heavy in the big pocket of his blue denim coat. He almost smiles to himself.
I put the oyster shells in my own pocket. My coat is heavy with them. I forget the memories of my gut and move to the things in my bones. Yes, there are also things in my bones–fizzling biological things. My bones, I notice, now that I’m getting old, are rising to the surface of me. They excavate themselves and show up both straighter and narrower than the thick flesh of my youth once led me to believe. If I press my arm, my forearm, it’s easy to locate my humerus, my radius, my ulna–and they indicate a smaller, harder version of myself waiting inside. Becoming this aware of your skeleton is an odd thing, indeed, though not a bad or a good one. In keeping with it, the pads on my heels and the ball of my foot thin with age–it seems conflicted to get fatter and yet less padded; but that’s the way it goes. And the bones on the bottom of my feet become intimate with the pavement I walk, no matter the quality of shoes I wear. I suppose it’s memento mori for me, and that’s fine and useful. But I also feel it’s not just me. As I rub my getting-bony foot over the sun-soaked carpet in my office, I feel Francesco using my foot, ball and heel, to keep himself walking as well.
I know he carried a pistola to shoot rats in the alley, and not just because my mother has told me so. I know this, also, because my parents have Francesco Morocco’s pistola up under one of the tiles of their basement ceiling. My mother worries at me on the phone because the gun is unregistered.
“What is it again, Tim?” She yells to Dad.
“What is what?”
“Oh my god,” she whispers to me, all he does is watch TV all day. I can’t take it.” Then louder to him, “The GUN, that illegal gun from your family!”
Apparently, it’s a 32 Savage manufactured between 1907 and 1920. This she parrots to me, translating as if I can’t hear what Dad shouts. I know he has his hearing aids turned down and the volume on the TV turned up because I can make out dialogue from The Outlaw Josey Wales as if I’m standing in their living room. A room slightly smokey with her cigarettes and slightly hairy from their two semi-feral cats–cat’s I’ve only glimpsed as streaks fleeing me when I come into the house. The gun, I’ve never actually seen that either. Bang, bang, bang goes The Outlaw Josie Wales.
“My God “says my mother a few more times. “I’m telling you just so you know. When we die, you’ll need to get it out of here before you sell the house, but I don’t know what you’re going to do with it. maybe you can turn it in at one of those gun turn-in events like Father Pfleger runs in the city. “My God, Mom” I say, it’s an antique. That’s not happening, okay?”
“I don’t know,” she says, “my family never had guns so I don’t know what to tell you. Now you’ll be stuck with it, you or your brother–whichever wants to deal with it.”
A minute ago, I didn’t want to deal with it, but now that my brother has been brought into the situation, I feel differently. I can hear her smoking. I think she’s about to move the conversation along, away from Francesco’s gun and so away from Francesco who’s been dead since 1946. And I’m right. She talks about what meat she’s thawing for their dinner. She talks about the way she’s minimizing her gardens in the yard because she’s getting too old to do so much weeding anymore. We talk about my daughter, Tiffany, who’s been diagnosed with a terrible cancer, her third: leiomyosarcoma. How she will fight it. How she will. But then it comes back to the gun because before we get off the phone my mother wants to remind me that my grandpa, Melchiore, inherited the gun from his father Francesco. That he also kept it under a ceiling tile in his house. That when my grandma died, Grandpa brought the gun from his house to my parents’ house wrapped in a dish towel, saying, “I’m so sad without Rose, see, so you need to take this gun because if I kill myself, I won’t be able go to heaven. “
I don’t mean to speak to her like she’s a child, but I do, and I tell her “Well, don’t use it if anybody ever breaks into the house because it’s probably not been fired since 1920– you’re more likely to kill yourself than anything else if you pull that trigger. “Oh,” she says “don’t worry about that. We hid the bullets and haven’t been able to remember where for two decades.”
In time, we hang up. I know she will go to read from her piles of books. And eventually I’ll go to grade papers. I’ll try not to worry about the future too much, but what is too much? I don’t know. So instead of looking forward, I present myself with the distraction of looking far back. I set my grading on the floor. I stare at the photo of Francesco on my desk, and I write until my eyes cross
Christina Marrocco is a professor of English at Elgin Community College, Elgin, Illinois. She teaches Advanced Introductory and Advanced Creative Writing, Literature, and Composition. Her focus on ethnicity in America and her childhood and young adult hood lived in a working class Italian-American environment inform much of her creative and research work. Her dissertation examined the evil eye in Italian American Literature, and her narrative poetry has appeared in Ovunque Siamo, The Laurel Review, and Silverbirch Press. New poems are forthcoming in House Mountain Review.