Monday, February 28, 2011
I have failed to mention that I am an extraordinarily robust man. Every Vandemark male, with a notable exception is, whether by natural heritage, or due to a meaty and nut based diet, is impossible to say (My mother was a firm advocate of a high protein diet, which worked wonders for my frame, but not, alas, for my poor brother Homer). Vandemark women bear Vandemark men with broad shoulders, large hands, pendulous feet, columnar legs, rotund heads, high ridged cheekbones atop muscled, prominent jaws and deep clefts in rugged chins.
My bulk had been transported. I was utterly surprised, for few people even in an organized corvee can heft me. I found myself confined to a narrow bed, my shirt open at the collar, my pants removed and folded neatly over an adjacent chair, an extra fancy blanket of pink taffeta and silk fringes tucked demurely under my armpits.
The room was minuscule, colorless and dreary with the exception of little accent pieces sprinkled haphazardly: a Kewpie doll dressed in a sky blue sailor’s suit; an old Victrola phonograph decorated with the colors of the Union Jack about its square black base; a dresser with a faded mirror around its wooden frame with humorous accent pieces of tiny rosettes of pink, red and white ribbons, as if the dresser itself had won innumerable county fairs.
Light filtered through the torn window shade filling the room with flat beams of weak winter sunshine. Somewhere in the distance (London, I’m in London!) a siren was sounding. It was then that I was aware of the quick shuffling of tiny feet, and I thought (for my mind was groping to find a fixed point to anchor the swirl of perception, light, sound, color and movement of the last few days) I thought it was some troll or gremlin.
For in a way myth, in all its manifestations, cracks the seal of reason and opens the box of all gifts (pan-dora) to the world. We take a journey into a dark and unforgiving night and peek at the worst that man can offer us, from its minuscule, earth caked hand, a lonely little gnome, a troll that sits squat in the mud and offers us a dull crust to gnaw upon.
She was in a thin slip or sleeping garment, sheer and gauzy; it seemed threadbare worn and almost transparent in its flimsiness. Her skin, wonderfully translucent beneath the semi-permeable garment, had a pleasant blue-green tint. She was standing at the window and holding the blackout shade (a heavy piece of brown canvas, streaked and scored with innumerable crisscrossed cracks). Her ears were pointed at the very tip. Her chin (I was gazing at her from three quarters view), was recessed ever so slightly beneath her button nose.
That nose, too small for her face, was, however, attractively centered on her oblong head. Her brows were sloping downward into an impish “V”, pointed at the base, but open between its vertical arms. Her chestnut brown hair was resting lightly on her exposed collar bones. A filthy ribbon of lace hung down from her night garment and rubbed the outside edge of her rounded forearm. She surveyed the street below. Somewhere in SOHO a bomb had exploded and the incessant ring and whine of the tandem bell and siren was no doubt what had woken me.
“What happened?” I asked huskily.
“The Luftwaffe again,” she answered flatly.
“No, to me,”
She turned around and gazed at me impassively. For a split second her eyes had an unreal golden glow, but as she squinted to examine me more closely they resumed their old pale pearl gray, like the inside of a dull oyster shell.
“You’ve had a knock about the head,” she said. Then she did something I had not expected at all. She reached out across the hazy medium and lightly touched my head. Her long fingers, cool, green and spidery, seemed to possess an electric charge; she gently shifted the bandage.
“You lost some blood and grew faint. We had one of those medical chaps in the pub look at you and he didn’t even think you passed out from the blood lose. Anyway he said you’d be in tip top shape with a little rest. I couldn’t find your orders and hospital beds are short, so you were brought here.” She pushed her hair behind the point of her ear and abruptly turned on her heels to the bathroom.
“I’ve gotta get to work, as you do, if you’re up to it,” her voice came muffled through the bathroom door, “so if you are, lets get a move on it, shall we?”
I stood up and the bed groaned. I could hear Clare in the lavatory urinating in quick bursts, and out the window, high overhead, the synchronous pulse of an aircraft engine, and the rapid, staccato whine of more concussions and further explosions. Clare opened the bathroom door, elfin body covered in a steel blue uniform. A white haze enveloped her, softening and dampening the lines and counters of her body, until she was, in my addled estimation, something beyond this world…
Friday, February 25, 2011
By the time I reached London on a gray winter morning I was in desperate need of a shave, I hadn’t had a decent meal since I disembarked at Cardiff, and much to my consternation the person I was supposed to meet (my crinkled and stained papers read Lt. C. Mumpy) was not at the appointed spot at the appointed time to take me to HQ and then my billet.
I stood on the corner in amazement at surreal London post-blitz. Up the street, down toward Piccadilly Circus, a row of flats had been squashed, but next to them, quite incongruously, nothing was damaged whatsoever (later I was to discover this was quite a natural occurrence). It was as if a tooth had been knocked out of an otherwise normal set of choppers.
People milled about in solitary clumps. Everyone’s clothes were shabby dull gray and faded black. I noticed the stares at my uniform, and became keenly aware that these Londoners had expectant faces. I glanced at my wristwatch, and then looked about, noticing a pub on the corner just beyond a pile of bricks. Maneuvering around the chipped chimney red lumps and a sallow young woman pushing a black perambulator, I pushed opened the blue green beveled glass door of the Boer’s Loins and entered.
The pub was crowded with working men and women, sitting at tables, on stools at the bar, murmuring loudly. There was the pleasant clinking of glass, the low hum of a radio reporting dreadful news from North Africa, and an overhanging blue haze of smoke. Many heads turned my way as I ordered a pint.
I was bound to disappoint the English and not terribly eager to speak. As you may imagine mine was not the typical American cut. If these war weary Europeans expected an optimistic frontiersman, a rude, healthy, backwoods cousin unfettered by European self- consciousness, they had the wrong man. I had an old world complexity that would shatter their expectations. I had, how can I best put it, a continental baroque-ness to my identity, a contempt of the banal, superficial, and the facilely forthright that is often found in the French. I was like an aborted European fetus let loose on the shores of the Hudson River. Vandemarks placed one weary foot in front of another and tried to will strength from pure bullheadedness.
But we were a tired clan. The color and depth had been drained from our line. We tried to midwife ourselves into the optimists that we could never be. Sipping a pint in that pub, listening to the BBC crackle on the radio, being jostled about by people whose common heritage I supposedly shared, I could feel the proverbial floor drop beneath me.
“What’s up luv?” a voice wafted toward me over the bar, a husky cockney voice.
“I’m pissed,” a girl-woman’s voice answered, buzzing near my ear like a pesky fly. “Some Yank was supposed ta meet me and he decamped or never arrived or I don’t know where in bleedin' hell he iz.”
“Why, there’s one here in the pub.”
“Where?” she asked incredulously. The man swung her about bodily until she faced me. Her round face was livid with anger and rage, almost to tears. For a tense, exquisite moment I did know if she was going to strike me or cry. Her finely plucked dark eyebrows were knitted in exasperation. Then, they slid downward, forming a sloping V of pure hate.
“Are you Vandemark, Langley Vandemark?” she asked, trembling.
“Why yes.” I said, startled.
“Don’t you people realize that we are dreadfully busy, with our backs against the wall. I can’t be running around to every pub in London looking for you….”
“Are you C. Mumpy?” I blurted.
“Yes. Lt. Clare Mumpy, from QMS, and I should have picked you up a half….”
“But I was there…” I reasoned, trying to reconstruct my movements for her, catching glimpses of her through the successive waves of emotion that passed over her young trembling face. As I wound down my soliloquy of transportation woes from New York dockside to London pub, she seemed to deflate before my eyes, perhaps even losing some of her physical stature.
Suddenly, as if emotion had temporarily aged her, she seemed to be quite young, no more than eighteen. Her dark brown hair was tied up in an unattractive bun; in the commotion and arguments it had become undone and stray wisps, like strands from a gorgon’s head, were flopping about her forehead and behind small elf pointed ears. Her eyes, a pale slate gray with sparks of dark brown sprinkled haphazardly around the iris like broken spokes, were darting over my face as if to take in the essence of an American.
Perhaps, she had heard about the American animal, so alike to the British yet so different, but never seen an actual specimen. She looked at me vaguely, but with a certain pointed rudeness, as if searching for a family feature we held in common.
“You know,” she said more civilly, “I lived in your Cambridge Massachusetts for a year, when I was fourteen.”
“Yes. My father’s an Oxford Don ---- Greek philosophy. He spent a year or two teaching at Radcliffe.” She stopped for a moment. I thought of my abortive year at Harvard, of warm spring days on the Cambridge Common, sitting in the shorn grass with biology and chemistry books at my feet that would never really be read, brimming over with the hot knowledge that anything could be done if you held certain things tightly enough, if you grasped, with a desperate measure of strength, that essential part of the self that if lost, would diminish you to a fine speck, and held onto that remnant with the last full measure of devotion.
“Odd,” she continued, “you don’t look like any American I’ve ever met.”
“What did you expect?”
“Mmmmmm, so hard to say, really. So when are the rest of you coming over…” Noise from the bar drowned her voice, and I strained to hear the same questions I had heard since my arrival.
Then, a great overhead crash, and before I knew it I was on the ground in a pile with several other patrons, a collection of stools, chairs, and broken glass. I stood up before I should have; I was lightheaded and weak and looked around. Most of the people at the tables were still in their seats, but their faces were white with fear. Those of us sitting at the bar were thrown off our stools, and the damage, all told, was minimal. I had a gash just below my hairline. I tore off a corner of a table cloth and slung the strip just above my temple crooked, Spirit of ’76 style.
“Do you want to go to hospital for that?” she asked, knitting her brows again. I noticed there was a fine network of lines on her young, prominent forehead. As she leaned into me to adjust the bandage; she smelled faintly of peppermint.
Someone came into the pub and told the curious crowd where the hit was, several blocks down, almost near the Thames. No doubt the bomb was intended for someplace else, since a raid wasn’t taking place, but planes flying overhead obey a hideous logic all their own…
I started to stumble about, and thought I heard a fife and drum and I felt (and you may think I’m maudlin) so utterly American at that moment of minor blood loss. I was the first American wounded in the European theater of war, or so I believed. And I remembered, as blood soaked through my minuteman tourniquet, that the people surrounding me in this pub burned the White House in 1814.
And then I recalled, as I swooned to the ground, that slaves were forced to build that house, or at least quarry the stones that built it, and then I felt a not so demur feminine hand rapping-tapping at my dozing face… trying to wake up a portion of Langley Vandemark that should have been left in eternal slumber…
Thursday, February 24, 2011
I also realized that a certain strength came from the bottom; for to be on top is a mixed and partial blessing. As a white man nothing stands between you and success in the world but your own naked ambition. All that prevents your entry into material Valhalla is your ability to manipulate a system designed for your success and inculcated with your values.
If you are white and push a broom in Pierpont Morgan’s Library, and the Morgan himself ponderously strides past your small pile of gathering dust --- the only thing that separates him from you is the chasm of your own ineptitude. For Sex and Class can be concealed beneath the gentle facade of manners and subtle courtesies, but race stares you unforgivingly in the face. You can hide your mulatto children on tobacco road, but you can never pretend that you ushered them into the world with the same boons you bestowed onto your plantation wife’s offspring.
I often wonder what would have happened to me if our family had remained Negroes? Would two glaring eyes be peering out of a dark maze? Would limbs continue to grow unchecked?
A particular: this is all correct, in a certain sense. But I could never escape the spatial urge when crafting my creations, the apt metaphor of building a house. I can never resist the impulse to build those areas most heavily trafficked with the most elegant of structures and furnishings, even if, from the restricted realm of truth, they are not the most important. The load-bearing zone may reside in some unused attic or some musty basement. I could easily usher you past my formal sitting room and show you the misshapen gnome that I hide away in the garret room above the stairs, but wouldn’t you be more comfortable in the Empire chair I’ve fashioned for you near the roaring hearth? We can ignore the traffic on Fifth Avenue, bleating outside our window and concentrate on what really matters, what is fundamentally important? For there is a great deal that needs to be ignored. A selective and editing eye will be our fussy host. For natural selection works not only in nature but in memory. For just as the white moth that recently lived in a forest of pale birches, whose trees suddenly and unfortunately are transformed to black from some natural catastrophe, so it is with human memory: what survives survives because of its usefulness: (and narrative is memory’s triage!)
The grand scope, the overarching vision, has no place in a family reunion. In families things must, narrow and close-cropped. Not every stone should be overturned. All that is necessary is focus and blur… focus and then blur…
Focus in: my family, take them for all in all, had their racial smudge, this genetic stammer. Personally, I always thought we could have considered it a feather in our cap, but no one in the family shared my views about our African ancestry, or at least never verbalized it to me. Instead, they sat serenely in stuffy parlors making fancy embroidery, or trotted over to Columbia or went up to Harvard to study law or medicine, and somehow forgot how dangerous it is to try and stand firmly on an uneven foundation. For nothing aggravates a case of historical vertigo quite so much as inadequate amnesia, or the erroneous notion that one’s head is as sound as a bell when you can see the crack, when you can hear the faulty resonance in cast bronze
And then there were all those portraits of father’s family that seemingly illustrated that we were white, that we were an old Dutch family from the Hudson River valley (Were we? Were we!?). But one need only do what I did when I came of age and my faculties became sufficiently acute: sidle up to them and think white and they are white; then, after a period of latency, sidle up again and think black and they become black. I realized, many years before I read Twain’s Puddin’Head Wilson that race is a Rorschach test. That at the margins and creeping toward the center it is as malleable as silly-puddy.
Blurring out, panning beyond, grasping at a universal, what could I do, having this questionable ancestral load to carry, but move on and pretend that none of it ever happened? That was the Vandemark philosophy. We had distilled this liquid until it was a fine jelly eager for consumption. We sported a stiff upper lip stoicism that was pure hollow poise. It was perfect rot. For behind the facade was a Poe like decay, a disillusionment that precipitated a slide to nothingness.
My family would sometimes whisper its secrets, but so much was contradictory and mutually exclusive. No one told anyone anything except in groups of two --- a wise policy, since it prevents factions, always a danger in a family with dark skeletons in their closets. For me it added impetus to enterprise when investigating for some sort of cohesion, some way to pick up the pieces and find the Ariadne thread out of the maze. My family never had the firm grounding that I wanted it to possess. I wanted it to cough up its secrets while I held its neck at the choke point.
…I thought, one fateful late November day that I had the clue, that I had found the secret ember that could, in a sense, light the fuse and explode the safe door, and reveal, to my eager eyes moist with tears of frustration, its hidden content….
But the War stopped my investigations.
One may as well begin here:
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor I leaped from the porch of our Harlem brownstone and sprinted to the recruiting station. I was too old to enlist in the regular Army, so I left in frustration. But a day later I used certain family connections to pull strings and get on the fast track to a commission. Some chits were called in, some promises were made on late night telephones to smoky offices, chewing the fat and calling in old debts to corpulent family friends. In a week I was down in cradle Dixie for my inadequate training.
By early the next year I was on a ship creeping snailwise across the North Atlantic for England. We were taking a northerly route not to save time, but because of the ice floes (unusually strong that year) and the constant threat of U Boats (who were getting their cross hairs trained for the anticipated west-east transfer of Warehouse America to Airstrip England) we were at sea for weeks. The boat rolled and pitched on black, unforgiving waves, and I sat, nestled in my cabin berth, piling up crates of rations against the row of unusually wide port holes, for they gave me a continual view of the broken black landscape of pitching waves, and caused, for the first time in my relatively serene and optimistic life, to doubt that Order existed in the Cosmos, and to entertain that perhaps Disorder ruled the weary day.
And I got, on that crossing, an oddly prescient view of what would happen after the war, of what would occur when America would no longer be a Crusading Nation. It would be forced to turn back into herself and realize, quite to her dismay, that her house was not in order. For what was worse than a nation that had to turn back greedily into herself: no more Indians to defeat, frontiers to conquer, Dixie to reconstruct, Japs to subdue. What would we do with a nation that was complete?
It is easy to be derailed on this front: the pain of being complete is a far worse a penalty than the curse of incompleteness. Promise is better than fulfillment and the race more exciting than the trophy loving cup. With nothing to do, where would we put our hands as we stand around the water cooler?
I worried for myself as well. A certain self-serving element existed in my nail biting woes. My ‘taint’ could easily be discovered by some Puddin’head Wilsonian character and then where would I be in the New World Order? I knew, or at least I surmised, that strict taxonomy would be demanded, a new purity, a new drive toward distinction, would mark that bright future day.
By the time our gray little ship came in sight of England, the storm serge had lost its height. The sea was a placid steel gray, so I slunk out onto the deck.
Britannica hung low over the horizon: a series of blue black hills with a ring of dingy mist hovering overhead. I gripped the cold rusted steel of the railing and looked down at the sparkling reflections of my golden-cuff links. Then, as my eyes moved into hyper focus, I imagined myself inhabiting a small, self-contained world within those cuffs --- complete, crystalline in its brightness, glimmering in purity --- and I wondered, as those blue gray hills began to show more details (a candy cane red and white colored light house on a black rock, a clutter of square shaped houses lining the harbor, laid out like haphazardly arranged packing crates) why open spaces gave me the atavistic urge to burrow into the earth. Not from anything so banal as agoraphobia (for despite local Harlem lore, I am not eccentric or insane, but a man who has laid each cognitive brick that composes the structure of his life with great care --- with careful self-consciousness) but from a simple metaphysical stance: unity is a better, more solid state than disunity; singularity a more primal, more fixed point of reference than multiplicity.
And the world produces multiplicity from its multifarious parts with the singular insistence of a flower spewing millions of uncountable grains of pollen in the spring tide air. Simply put, proliferation is king in our world! Spawning and living, dying and decaying, and time, that ceaseless metronome, making us keep pace, and all the loss… the loss…
We disembarked at the English port of Swansea. In 1942 Channel ports were still too dangerous for weakly armored ships like ours, so I had to endure a grueling twelve hour train ride from Swansea to Cardiff, and then a ferry to Bristol, a transfer to a cattle car at Reading, and finally, a slow conveyance to London.
England was a bewildering tangle; the civilian and the military were separated by the thinnest of lines, so trains, cars, boats, planes were constantly appropriated at the last minute. Often a gaggle of gray, listless people were left stranded on a rural station platform in the rain. A peace-time four hour ride was stretched like taffy by the Gods of War into a twelve hour daymare of transfers both missed and abandoned, accidents, unforeseen and in retrospect avoidable.
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Being older than Homer, and able to stand on my own, Mother, upon reaching the steps of our brownstone, plucked me out of the carriage first, setting me nimbly down on the third step of the stoop. I bobbed up and down, impatient and ornery.
I strutted about the step, making various animal noises I had learned: the gentle cooing of the pigeons that perched and roosted outside my window, their multi-colored, luminous feathers a counterpoint to the dull, dun colored stalagmite droppings they deposited on the stone rain shelf. The yap-yap of the ferocious dachshund that Mrs. Schultz, our next-door neighbor, would walk in the wee hours of the morning, when the little runt encountered a larger dog. The plaintive howl of the neighborhood cat, Lady Elizabeth, when she was in heat, rubbing her hindquarters suggestively on the wrought iron railing that delineated the sidewalk from the front yard. I rendered this veritable Ark of animal noises in high strutting fashion, like a solider on dress parade, legs marching in prancing, exaggerated goose steps, arms swinging demonically at my sides.
Halfway through my martial calisthenics, Mother freed Homer from the carriage.
“Look at your brother, Homer,” she said with pride, “he’s going to be a solider some day.” Homer cooed in response, a soft, understated pigeon trill. “He’s going to be a great solider. A great officer, like his grandfather, my father, who fought at Antietam. Twenty-thousand men fell on that awful day. But my Daddy survived,” she told Homer proudly and then looked my way, casting an appraising glance, “I think your brother is made of the same stuff as Daddy.”
Later I learned that maternal Grandfather Franklin Pierce Rogerson was a comparatively lucky survivor of the Battle of Antietam.
He was a captain in the New York 41st Regiment out of Cold Spring Harbor, and it was his first commission, his first trip south, and indeed his first trip outside of the State of New York. He was one of those green officers sent to the field with inadequate training. His Sergeant was the de facto commander and Grandfather Rogerson would quietly seek his advice on almost all matters, and the Sergeant was enough of a solider by trade to never break ranks and show that he was the true authority over all those young Cold Spring Harbor boys, all those oystermen’s sons, who were better at holding shell rakes in their hands than firearms, and who tooled around in the sheltered bays and coves of the Long Island Sound, whose gentle lapping waters, although salt, sometimes froze over in winter.
But a storm was unleashed at Antietam, and Grandfather Rogerson marched bravely forth into the field, his service revolver in one hand, his upraised sword in the other, his Sergeant directly in front of him, and his reluctant men dallying behind. In front, down the valley and one hundred yards to the south, several hundred boys from southern Missouri, who had most likely never heard of an oyster, were loading their cannon for a torrential barrage. As the first bowling ball sized shells began to fall around my maternal Grandfather, spewing up divots of Antietam turf until the balls struck oystermen flesh, all in a moment – before he could think --- a cannon ball landed square on into the head of Grandfather’s Sergeant, bursting it like an overripe watermelon. A shard of skull bone flew back like shrapnel and lodged in Grandfather’s shoulder.
On that day, twenty thousand Americans lay dead or dying on the battlefield, the greatest mass blood letting on American soil, but my maternal Grandfather was fine. A trifle dazed, perhaps, and certainly shaken, but the fundamentals of his mind and spirit were sound.
He began to shake a week later, when he commenced the laborious task of reforming the unit. He hoped the tremors would lessen with time, but if anything they worsened, and he began to scream about a darkness coming over his eyes, and black out for a few minutes, at first, but eventually up to a half hour.
A doctor examined him and concluded that he wayward bone fragment lodged in a nerve in Grandfather’s shoulder, causing reduced blood flow to his upper body and brain, precipitating unpredictable spells of fainting. Poor hapless Granddaddy was subject to the shakes and blackouts the rest of his life.
He moved to Washington Heights, which was still rural after the Civil War and well into the beginning of the twentieth century. As apartment houses began to dot the landscape of northern Manhattan, enclosing his farm, he was always proud to say that he was the last man to have a woodshed on the island of Manhattan.
“Sometimes qualities skip a generation,” Mother told Homer, “but sometimes they don’t. But nothings to stop my Daddy’s good traits from appearing in you or your brother. I can see it now, just like you can see sprouts blossom on a fruit tree in spring.”
Mother always misjudged fundamentals. And from that erroneous foundation, set out on flights of fancy. It was left to us to heartlessly destroy her castles in the sky. We did it with aplomb.
When I saw our avenue the next day, that ancient tree gone.
One could also begin here:
When I came home from the war, from my war, the Second World War, all I could do, after so many dislocations was to allow that drift, that stream of sober inevitability to hold endless sway. I let go the tension that had nearly ground my nerves to dust, and found the release after much hand wringing, such endless gnashing of my jaw, such incessant tossing between my sweat stained sheets. I let it go. I just let it all go! I had no Antietam, no sustained blood letting, but other fantastically generated birds of doom lurked in the trees, biding their time.
When I came home from the war long standing and hidden ills assumed an existence of their very own. They had become their own apotheosis – animated and alive. And the gravest symptom of this disease was that objects and symbols, usually so cleverly segregated, could no longer be so easily teased apart. My field of vision, customarily so acute in its depth, had become a blunt, ineffectual, unaccountably blearily.
One could also begin here:
There was another element of nagging concern. It is that extra shadow that I seem to possess like some inalienable birthright.
If flesh is heir to a thousand natural shocks, then my massive frame receives a double portion. A triple share, of unnatural confluences of shocks, of hits, of elements and infernal influences that seem to guide my errant life. It is as if, beyond my own limited sphere of somatic and psychic control, on the periphery of my meager consciousness, on that dark border zone were I end and it begins, there, there is the pocked and scarred battleground. And it is sly! And it is cunning! It is doggedly persistent in its attempts to encroach on my already faltering sense of self, to hurl its dark noose around the minute speck of quickly dimming light that I so generously label Langley, Langley Vandemark. Langley On the Mark!
Watch the dimming spark. Be wary of its trickster’s schemes. Why must every ray of celestial soul light that vaults from our single, solitary being be accompanied by an equal and opposite measure of the Shadow, that dark brother that creeps across the bright landscape of the psyche. The spoiler! The little tarty home wrecker! I play my cards, I have the good sportsmanship to lay down my hand for all to see, but It lays its hand, a hand full of cards that cancel my efforts, out beyond the border zone of perception. It blocks me. It limits my possible moves. All it knows how to do is how to step on feet, to betray, to negate, to…
But one could also begin here:
At other times it was as if the veil had been removed from my eyes. I saw events and circumstances as if a cloudy cataract had been suddenly burnt and purged away from my soul’s cornea.
When I came home from the war I cast a spell upon myself. What could be revealed was revealed. Where there were holes in my story, I simply let the cracks remain where they were. If streaming white light pulsed through the chinks, who was I to fill the gap? Not every chasm can be filled. Not every dull hole should be plugged.
One could also begin here:
Here is a gap, there is a white flash, and here, the bridge: my father’s family was actually black. Through some fortuitous selective breeding, re-locations, purposeful or accidental disruptions, my family had “passed” for white since the presidency of U.S. Grant or thereabouts. Actually, it’s hard to settle on an exact date when coal black faded to lily white. In my imagination there was never a clear boundary but a succession of wavering stages, fluttering through the generations, snaking upward, paling with each mile north of the Mason-Dixon Line, accumulating more money and power with each lighter gradation, with each lie, with each measure of forgetfulness.
I was stationed in Alabama just prior to my tour of duty in England. It was there that a creeping sensation of dread, a guilty moisture laden cloud which always hung over me seemed ready to downpour. My divided allegiances festered and seemed destined to leap frog backward and haunt me. I could sense it somewhere out beyond the perimeter fence along a tobacco road, in a shack inadequately shaded from the broiling sun by a scraggly tupelo tree, some long lost relative seemed destined to knock on my door. He would try, with a birthright as legitimate as any disrupted European royal line forced to live in exile, to reclaim one of his own; to rejoin a limb that had lopped itself off through artifice, deceit, and garden variety fear.
But no, that knock never came. But my theories seemed to confirm themselves when the first batch of “Colored” trooped were billeted adjacent to us, and I saw, with anxious eyes, that they were better than us. Our smug and superior stance, when measured and weighed alongside their selfless determination to be better than us through negation, was an unspoken accusation cast over all. For me, slouching in my den of secrets, the pronouns them and we, had a peculiar permeability. So all seemed lost. So much was gone…
Tuesday, February 22, 2011
In 2001, when I was first fooling around with "serious" writing, I wrote a novella based on the Collyer brothers, New York City's famous hoarding recluses. Of course, their story is common New York lore. So it came as no surprise to me that in the years following someone wrote a play about the brothers called Clutter, and recently E.L. Doctorow wrote a novel called Homer and Langley. This work has be chosen for next year's freshmen reading book (i.e., all Cornell freshmen read it). So, here is my contribution to Collyer brother legend. It departs significantly from their story: there is the London Blitz, Gigantism, miscegenation, dips into loopy and not very serious post-modern moments of whimsey, and sundry depatures from narrative norms. But all the while, it keeps its sense of proportion, which I hope you appreciate and enjoy
"All men by nature love the senses irrespective of their utility, and predominantly above the rest, the sense of sight.”
- Aristotle, The Metaphysics, Book One.
One may as well begin here:
When I came home from the war outside had become inside and inside had become outside. Emptiness had become clutter and clutter had become emptiness.
What went wrong, you would be justified to ask? The fault, it seems, was a mistake in apprehension. It was all so easily avoidable, but situations careened out of control; what should have been tidy became unkempt. What should have remained broad funneled into something narrow. The problem was not psychological, as many believed, but metaphysical; the problem was strictly taxonomic: it was about borders; it was about particulars and universals, matter and form, actuality and potentiality, being and becoming, change and the changeless. The problem was about what makes a thing a thing and what makes nothing nothing.
One may as well begin here.
“Why, they are twins Mrs. Vandemark!”
“What makes you think so, Mrs. Cavendish?”
“Well,” Mrs. Cavendish held us up for mutual inspection, one child perched in each of her plump arms. She screwed her face up with what was for her, no doubt, extraordinary concentration, “for all the usual reasons, I suppose.” Her eyes scanned from me to Homer and Homer to me rapidly, surveying possible features in common: casting a critical glance at eye color, hair texture, the comparative shape of our dumpling shaped neo-natal skulls. “Why,” she continued, “I would believe they are twins from the very fact that that Homer and Langley share the same nose!” As she said this, Mrs. Cavendish pointed her face to each of us, indicating which child was Homer and which was me.
“Mrs. Cavendish,” Mother beamed naturally, “that is Langley and that is Homer.”
“Oh, goodness gracious,” Mrs. Cavendish chuckled, as she handed me to mother. She kept Homer suspended on her wide hip like a grocery store parcel. “That just clinches it for me! They’re identical twins. Clyde, come over here and look at Mrs. Vandemark’s twins!”
Clyde Cavendish, who operated a newsstand down the street from our brownstone residence, was bundling up parcels of periodicals that had been delivered at the corner. He sauntered over to us and stood behind his portly wife. He clucked critically at her useless enthusiasms.
“Good morning, Mrs. Vandemark.” My Mother nodded in response. “What is the fresh fuss, Harriet?”
“Well,” she exhaled mightily, “you never told me that Mrs. Vandemark had twins?”
“I was just telling your wife, Mr. Cavendish…” Mother began but Mr. Cavendish interrupted her.
“Why Harriet, you silly bean, Homer was born a full year and a half after Langley.”
“Two years,” Mother corrected.
“Two years. There! I have to mind the stand, now. You mind your observations, Harriet. Good day, Mrs. Vandemark.” Clyde turned heel and with newspapers in his outstretched arms and returned the half block to his stand. Mrs. Cavendish’s face puckered.
“My husband can be such a prune sometimes,” was all Mrs. Cavendish managed to say. She held Homer up to her face, her features softening under the diffused stare of my baby brother. She made nonsensical noises and cooed only inches away from his fat baby face.
“I suppose,” she said, snapping back to an adult tone of voice, “I can see a difference in the eyes. Little Homer’s eyes don’t focus as well as Langley’s. So I suppose that shows that Langley is older.” Her disappointment was evident.
Mrs. Cavendish handed Homer back to Mother, who dutifully placed us both in the dual perambulator she and Father had recently purchased. She tucked me in first, wrapping a blue blanket that smelled mildly of peppermint and talcum powder around my baby torso; she then tucked Homer in the other chamber of the bicameral stroller, swaddling him in a yellow blanket. Pulling down the wind hood of the stroller about halfway to shelter us from the cool, early spring breeze, Mother wished Mrs. Cavendish a pleasant day, and resumed our stroll down Broadway.
As we rounded a corner near our brownstone, a city crew was preparing to fell an oak tree. Our block, at that bucolic time, was a pleasant, little trafficked side street, sheltered on both sides by mighty arboreal giants, their overhanging limbs forming a pleasant lattice of branches over the street, peppering the avenue with a broken field of green-lemon yellow light and deeper patches of dark forest green shade, all set in motion by a slight breeze, setting the street world in a flutter, a flurry of rustling, a changing, riotous checkerboard pattern of shifting lights and darks.
“Well look Homer, Langley, those men are taking that tree down.” Mother exclaimed, briefly stopping the perambulator at the curb.
“Why?” I asked.
“Well, its probably diseased,” she answered simply.
Several burly men in rolled up shirt sleeves and rough canvas work pants were affixing a massive metal ring, that really looked like an over-sized caliper, around the broad trunk of the oak and using that as a steady platform, running a metal ladder up the height of the monster to the first of the arm of thick cross branches.
My body, on that Edenic day, was in a drowsy, pleasant, supine posture. The workmen, with burly, bulging forearms, were manipulating the gleaming ring as one particularly adept worker climbed to the crown of the tree with a saw. Mother swung the perambulator around, away from the scene of amputation, and closed the hood of the carriage, its black, thin, material stretched taut across the two lateral metal bars, like black crepe bunting around a coffin, and I dug deep in, hidden. And I should have remained hidden. But instead of shrinking from the world I grew outlandishly, quite literally large. Since that day, it seemed, the task of hiding myself become implausibly difficult. Somehow, someway, gigantism became my unalterable fate. Kicking my feet in the hidden pocket of the baby carriage, blind to the world around me, hiding on that day seemed all too real a possibility.
On that fine early spring day, nothing seemed amiss. The world was perfectly centered and poised like tiny bubbles of air in the liquid of a carpenter’s plain. The street, to my toddler’s malleable mind, the perfect escarpment for eternity to dwell. But in the midst of harmony I could hear the pleasant hiss of a metal saw cutting its jagged teeth through the dry, old growth wood.
Friday, February 18, 2011
Here is a break from my writing! Rabbi Arthur Green is one of the founding figures of the Jewish Renewal Movement. Here, he presents his idea of God as Being. It is a radical notion, presented in a prosaic way. He appears to be avuncular and boring, but his ideas are radical (after all, his last book was titled: Radical Judaism.)
Thursday, February 17, 2011
Servi stood out on the street looking around. There was an overflowing trash can on the corner, so he laid the daisies on its summit. When he rounded the corner, he noticed a little boy about Paulo’s age drawing pictures on the sidewalk with a piece of oversized chalk. Without a word, Servi handed the boy the fire truck and walked on. Servi shivered, as if he had just immersed his torso in ice water. But the sirocco was staring to blow and he could almost smell the sands of the Sahara in the rising tide of scalding air, so Servi knew that the shiver was buried inside him.
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
The next evening Servi climbed the long flight of steps to Claudia’s flat. He had bought a fire engine for Paulo and a bouquet of daisies for Claudia. He imagined, with a little felicitous care, with the kind application of love, taken in common sense doses, as men and women and their children had done for centuries, he could fix the life of Claudia and Paulo.
Wasn’t it all a simple exercise in the basics of human nature? The love of a mother for a son. This was as powerful a terrestrial force as gravity. It was what attracted him to Claudia, the firm manner in her bearing, her posture, the way she washed and dried a dish with absolute maternal authority. This was the type of love that must be pulled out along from its roots and removed from the detritus of less noble emotions.
Servi stopped short: Claudia’s door was open, but she was not making love to her husband, nor was Paulo on the floor, cutting out collages from a magazine on the living room floor. The flat was empty all but for some stray items: a pile of newspapers, a box of old clothes, two or three broken toys scattered in a corner. Servi rushed down to the concierge.
“Excuse me,” Servi asked the old woman in the lobby office with a mesh cage. “Has Claudia Sacerdotti moved? The woman in 13F?
“Moved?” the woman spat. “More like fled. She just packed up and ran in the middle of the night like she was wanted by the police. And she stiffed me for three months rent!”
“You don’t know where she went?”
“No,” the woman shot Servi an icy glare. “If I did, I’d make the bitch pay the back rent, wouldn’t I? And if it wasn’t for that rent, good riddance. Too many men coming and going. Two much screaming at that little boy. We don’t need that trash around here.”
Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Servi was drinking coffee at a cafe while reading the novel I Promessi Sposi. He looked up for a moment and was surprised to see Claudia and Father Roberto standing in front of him.
“There you are, damn it,” Claudia said without breath. “Do you have Paulo?”
“No,” Servi answered, laying the book on the table. “He isn’t at school?”
“No,” Claudia explained, “nor at the rectory.”
The three then discussed a search strategy. Servi was to check down by the river, where the boy often enjoyed walking along the retaining wall, but decided instead to head toward the Vatican.
He found the boy on a bench in the Sistine Chapel, not looking at the ceiling like the herd of tourists, but the floor, which was scuffed and scored from the footwear of four continents.
“How did you get in here, Paulo?” Servi asked, sitting beside the boy. “Admission costs an arm and leg?”
“That’s not my real name,” the boy answered sullenly. “It is Cosmo.”
“Alright, Cosmo,” Servi answered. “How did you get in here?”
“I slipped in with a bunch of people.”
“Well,” Servi answered, grasping the boy’s shoulder. “Let’s get back. Your mother and Father Roberto are worried sick.”
“Claudia,” the boy answered firmly. “She isn’t my mother. She’s Claudia and she stole me…”
“Alright,” Servi said gently. “That’s fine, Cosmo. How about we get out from under this fresco and straighten this whole thing out?”
The boy then began to quietly cry, but the sound gathered momentum, and in the cavernous space, echoed off the walls and ceilings. The guards, who constantly hush loud tourists, said nothing to Servi as he carried the lad out the door; for even they knew that a child must cry even in the most sanctified of places.
Monday, February 14, 2011
Servi allowed Claudia to take command on the couch that evening. She was rough, pinching and grinding and taking him at odd angles, grasping and releasing him in a firm and unshakable embrace. She bit his shoulder and Servi thought she had broken the skin. He placed his finger on the dent, but the liquid was only a pool of her warm and sticky saliva, enlivened with some invigorating substance which felt to Servi’s fingers like blood.
Servi awoke wrapped in a haze. His head felt as if it was slit open. He was alone on the couch, surrounded by empty bottles of cheap red wine. Before his eyes were fully opened, he realized that someone was waving a piece of paper in front of his nose.
“Did he write this to you?” Claudia said in Italian, holding Paulo’s note in a quaking hand. In the tussle of last night’s stern lust, it had fallen from Servi’s pants to the floor.
“Yes,” Servi answered, sitting up with great difficulty.
“The little bastard,” she hissed. “I grind my ass to a nub to feed and cloth that little prick, and he tries to disown me to strangers…”
“Claudia, quiet down,” Servi whispered. “He’ll hear.”
“He’s already at day school,” she screamed, pounding her foot against the floor. “I came back here to ask you about this note without him here. He wrote this!”
“I already told you he did.”
“Son of a bitch,” Claudia turned and stormed out the door.
Friday, February 11, 2011
“Ah, here is my novice,” Father Roberto purred, as Servi carried the boy into the rectory. The old priest had the milk and cookies out. Servi gently placed the sleeping boy on a bench.
“An American?” the priest asked, and Servi introduced himself. “Your name is an old Jewish-Italian name, I’m sure you are aware. It’s been found on inscriptions on the via Antica Appia. So odd that you are a friend of Senora Sacredotte. There is another Italian-Jewish name… a translation of priest, kohen, in Hebrew. Our little Paulo’s ancestors administered to God in the Temple in Jerusalem,” the Father pointed to the sleeping boy. His finger trembled.
Servi began to tell the priest little Paulo’s story of Cosmo Ricchetti. The priest listened in grave silence.
“The boy has never told me such a thing,” he said when Servi was finished. “And he is too young to go to confession. He must be telling fibs to impress you.” Then the priest removed his glasses. All around his eyes were webs of wrinkles. “Of course, Claudia has told me about her life. I don’t doubt it’s taken its toll on the little fellow. Perhaps it’s what the psychologists call wish-fulfillment. He’d rather be Cosmo Ricchetti than Paulo Sacredotti. It is probably his way of coping…”
“No one copes…” a woman’s voice interrupted them. It was Claudia Sacerdotte, standing behind with her arms akimbo. “We all move from crisis to crisis and no one copes with it and God doesn’t give a damn.”
“It is you who doesn’t give a damn, Claudia,” Father Roberto answered softly. “If you don’t care about how you live, then how can God help you? If you don’t do the things that you can do to fix your life, how can you expect God to do the work for you? How can God fix what is in His control if you don’t fix what is in your own?”
“I hear you two boys played the truants today,” Claudia said, addressing Servi, ignoring Father Roberto. “Where did you go, on some adolescent rite of passage? To a dirty movie? Or did you go to one of those filthy whores on the via Salaria to lose your virginity?”
“No,” Servi answered. “I took him to the Sistine Chapel.”
“Well,” Claudia grimaced, “that is nearly the same. All those nude mannerist bodies writhing around in either ecstasy or torture, who can tell the difference. Certainly not me… Paulo,” she said in a raised voice. “Get up… we’re going home.”
Thursday, February 10, 2011
Servi bought the boy a slice of pizza and then they waked toward the Vatican. Servi kept looking about nervously for Claudia’s bus, and was surprised by the boy’s fundamental lack of knowledge of his native city. He didn’t even know what the Vatican was; Servi bought them two tickets to the Vatican Museums and after standing on a lengthy line in the scalding sun they entered and Servi led the boy immediately to the Sistine Chapel.
In broad strokes, Servi explained who Michelangelo was and how he had painted the ceiling and how long it took. The boy looked up at the ceiling, but neither spoke nor registered any discernible emotion. Servi explained that one of the most famous and reproduced parts of the wall was God’s finger just leaving Adam’s, having rendered dead clay into living flesh. Again and again the boy could not find it, even when Servi knelt down and pointed a plumb line from Paulo’s eyes to the scene of contact between God and Man.
The day was getting late, and the boy was tired. Although he was heavy, Servi carried him, and he fell asleep on his shoulder.
Wednesday, February 9, 2011
“Are you sure? They won’t care?” Servi asked Paulo again, holding his hand and moving quickly away from the day school.
“Yes,” Paulo answered, looking straight ahead. “They won’t care at all. They don’t know who is there and who isn’t.” Then the boy was quiet, and Servi imagined he was thinking long and hard about his predicament.
“Just get me to Father Roberto when Mama is supposed to come,” he said nearly inaudibly. “She’ll expect to find me there.”
Servi took the boy to a playground. He pushed him on a swing until the boy said he wanted to stop, and then Servi sat on a bench while he nimbly climbed the monkey bars. Paulo was scrawny, yet he clambered with considerable dexterity. But the day was scorching, and after sweating a while on the asphalt playground, Servi suggested they get a drink. The boy nodded, neither relieved nor appreciative as Servi ordered him a cherry flavored soda from a push cart.
They sat on a bench under a linden tree surrounded by retired pensioners playing chess. Servi watched as the boy slurped his soda and the warm breeze, the first stirrings of the sirocco, tossed about his wispy black hair. Servi examined him for strain, but the boy bore his suffering with stoicism. He seemed neither happy nor sad that Servi had taken him out of his dreaded daily routine, and as the boy was not inclined to loquaciousness, Servi allowed him to sit in dignified silence.
When the boy was finished with the soda Servi asked if he wanted a gelato. The boy nodded and Servi walked to a vendor and as the boy did not specify a flavor, chose lemon. He handed Paulo the little paper cup. When the boy was half way through, he finally looked up at Servi; his brown eyes bore a hint of expectancy in their glint, as if Servi, and not he, was about to reveal a satisfying secret.
“Did you leave that note in my pant’s pocket, Paulo?” Servi asked, producing the letter. The lad looked at it for a moment, not so much because he did not recognize it, but rather to give himself time to get the facts straight without initial missteps.
“Yes,” the boy finally answered between casual slurps of his gelato. A flock of pigeons landed near their feet. An old man had opened a bag of stale bread and was casting it among the dappled blanket of birds. A scooter squealed by, it exhaust hung in the air. “I’m not really Paulo Sacerdotti and that woman is not my real mother.”
“But how do you know this for sure,” Servi asked. “That boy, Cosmo Ricchetti, was only two when he disappeared. How old are you, seven? You can remember your other family?”
“Of course,” the boy said evenly. “I had a Papa who went to work in the morning, but always came home at night. He wore dark suits and was handsome. And Mama stayed home with me all day, and cooked anything I wanted.”
“Does anyone else know who you really are?”
“Yes,” the boy answered. “Father Roberto. But he can’t tell a living soul. I told him in confession.”
“If you are really Cosmo Ricchetti,” Servi explained patiently, trying to build up his case gradually, sentence by sentence, word by word. “Why don’t you go to the police?”
“I can’t,” the boy explained, getting near the end of his gelato. “Claudia would find out.”
“Claudia?” Servi asked. “Your mother?”
“She’s not my mother,” the boy answered resolutely. “She is the woman who took me from my real mother.”
“What does Father Roberto tell you, when you tell him you aren’t Paulo Sarcedotti?”
“He doesn’t say a thing,” the boy answered. “It isn’t a sin not to be the person people say you are, so what can he do? But he has to keep the secret, because I told him in confession.”
“Why did you give me the note?”
“I don’t know,” the boy said, looking off into the distance. “I guess so you can bring me back to my real Mama and Papa.”
Tuesday, February 8, 2011
Sometime in the night Servi awoke to crying. Claudia was next to him snoring lightly. So Servi rose from the couch and entered Paulo’s room. The boy was in a little bed tangled in sheets and blankets. Servi extracted the boy and sat on a chair, cradling him close to his neck. In the dim light cast from the street lamp, Servi could see his tight, closed face, and an expression of wan anticipation evident even in fitful sleep.
When the boy quieted down Servi placed him gently on the bed, straightened the cover and the sheet and seeing that he was quiet, walked gently away.
“Shit, I’m so late,” Claudia hissed, hurriedly dressing. “ Servi watched her from the couch. She kept giving Paulo instructions and the boy grunted in the next room. Servi could hear him rustling about, grunting, stamping his foot, whimpering.
“Can you take him to the day school Servi?” Claudia finally asked. “I’m at my wits end. I can’t get him there and get to work on time.”
“Claudia, Paulo is your son alright?”
“Of course he is,” she snapped in rapid English, so the boy wouldn’t understand. “He wants another mother. Who the fuck doesn’t? He wants another mother who doesn’t have to harass him to get him out the door and go to work. Well too damn bad! We all get the mother we get… the mother we deserve... case closed…” she was so angry, that halfway through she switched from English to rapid Italian.
“Servi,” she continued on a more subdued note. “Can you please take Paulo to school?” Servi nodded and she was gone.
Monday, February 7, 2011
After dinner they kissed again.
“We have to hurry,” Claudia explained, quickly sliding off her dress. “I have to pick up Paulo in a half hour.”
But Servi would not rush. He charily kissed Claudia’s body from her neck to her belly, all the while examining her for stretch marks, or any sign that she had given birth to a child. Claudia stroked his head appreciatively, but then quickly pulled him up.
“You are a sweet boy Aaron,” she said, grasping him and pulling him into her. “But we have to get this show on the road.” She tried to work him in, but Servi did not rise to the task.
“Here,” she said gently, “I am rushing you too much. Poor boy. Lie down,” and she took Servi in her mouth, and after a minute, she stopped and looked at him.
“What the hell is wrong?” she spat.
“I can’t stop thinking about your husband…”
“Jesus Servi,” she spat and pulled her dress over her head. “That was meant to turn you on, not off…”
“I felt as if I walked in on my mother and father…”
“Good Christ,” Claudia turned away. “I have to go get Paulo.”
“I’ll come,” Servi said, rising from the bed.
“Suit yourself, Servi,” Claudia snapped, and then laughed. “Father and Mother did not turn you on… maybe it is Mother and Son.”
Servi watched Paulo the entire evening, but the boy made no reference to his note, or gave any indication to Servi that anything was amiss. Servi even crouched down on the floor to play with him while Claudia cleaned the dishes. They were alone for sometime, but the lad said nothing. He had a tight, fixed expression, and the rigid rules by which he played his games allowed little room for idle talk. All this was inscrutable to Servi, who sat with a train in his hand, looking at this boy and trying to plumb the depths of his secret. Claudia approved of their play.
“What good boys,” she laughed, clapping her hands. “Playing nice while Mama cleans up the kitchen, and Paulo can have a gelato before bed, and Aarone something special from me once Paulo is in dreamland.”
When Claudia put Paulo to bed, she sauntered to Servi on the couch, pleased with her performance, beaming from her satisfied expectations. She placed a hand of Servi’s crotch and whistled appreciatively.
“You are a good boy,” she whispered, and they fell back toward the couch.
Friday, February 4, 2011
When Servi arrived at Claudia Sacerdotti’s apartment he was nearly a half hour early. He was surprised that her door was unlocked and ajar. Quietly, he peered in to see if he could find Paulo and speak to him before he saw Claudia. But the little apartment was empty and quiet. Then Servi took a step into the vestibule. What he heard sounded like a groaning of rusty springs. In between, in the space between its rhythms, was a hissing sound like the workings of a faulty piston. Then a rapid exhalation, deep and guttural, like the call of some tribal serenade.
Servi walked to the bedroom door and saw a naked man moving on top of Claudia. The man was fast and efficient. Claudia dug the balls of her feet into his sagging flanks. “Tell me…” the man said between clenched teeth. “Tell me…” and Claudia lifted her head and whispered something in his ear. This made the man’s movements wild, and just before Servi turned around to leave, he caught Claudia’s eye.
Servi returned two hours later. The door was now closed, so Servi knocked. Claudia opened the door immediately. She was wearing a light cotton dress with a plunging neckline and a gold cross dangled between her breasts.
“I thought you weren’t coming,” she said to Servi, annoyed, but with a light of mischief in her eyes.
“I was by early, but it looks like you had your hands, or something, full,” Servi walked by her while Claudia laughed. Servi frowned.
“Don’t be such a prude,” she answered, patting Servi on the cheek as if he was a boy. “That was a little gift for Rosario, my ex-husband. You should have stayed to the end of the show. Rosario is a maestro.”
“And where was Paulo during this piece of theater?”
“What the hell is wrong with you, Servi?” Claudia moved past him and into the kitchen. “You have no moral high ground here. As far as I can tell you wander around Rome and stalk women. You got lucky with me – I didn’t call the police but brought you to bed. So don’t get uppity about the terms.” They stood and faced each other in silence. Then Claudia’s face softened.
“To answer your question,” she said quietly. “Paulo is at a friend’s house until 10PM. I thought it would give us a nice romantic night alone,” and she moved toward Servi and kissed him.
Thursday, February 3, 2011
The librarian led Servi to the stacks of
Servi read in the dim light that Cosmo Ricchetti had disappeared from his flat on
There were rumors he had been sold as a sex slave in
The Richettis held hope that one day the phone would ring and it would be Cosmo on the other end. Servi looked at a picture of the boy which the police had aged five years. There was a resemblance to Paulo Sacredotti, but in the dim light, Servi could not be sure. He was about to tear out the photo, when the librarian walked into the carrel and told him the library was closing for lunch
Wednesday, February 2, 2011
In the morning Servi was awoken by a dusty beam of sunlight tickling his face. There was a folded note placed firmly on his chest.
If you wish, the note said in Italian, come by for dinner at 8PM – Claudia.
Servi was alone in the apartment. As he put on his pants, he found a piece of thick, light blue construction paper in his pocket. There was writing on it in a child’s rough hand:
I am not Paulo Sarcedotti. I am Cosmo Ricchetti. Please help me.
Later, Servi sat at a café where he frequented on the via Cavour. After drinking some coffee and finishing the paper he called the waiter.
“Yes, Senor Servi, something else?” the man asked, drooping forward with a napkin to snatch at some crumbs.
“Bobbo,” Servi asked, “who is Cosmo Ricchetti?” The waiter listened to the words and rolled on the balls of his feet, his head reclined backward, as if he was searching through a Rolodex in his mind. Then he smiled and snapped his fingers.
“Ah yes, that little boy,” he said, smiling broadly. “About five years ago, no, maybe more, this little boy, Cosmo Ricchetti, two years old vanished without a trace from his parent’s flat. It became a sensation. The police searched every apartment, rooftop, cellar and water conduit in Rome, and even opened the catacombs. His poster was on every wall and streetlamp. They searched and searched but never found him…”
“No clues?” Servi asked. “Just gone without a trace?”
“Yes,” the waiter answered sadly. “They never found a hair from his head.”
Tuesday, February 1, 2011
Servi woke up to crying. At first he thought it was Claudia, but looking about the dim living room, he was alone. The woman was in the kitchen holding Paulo in her arms. Even in the meager light of the oven lamp, Servi could see the boy’s face was red from the exertion of tears. His eyes were mere slits, as if he was not fully awake, but in some agonizing half-stage between sleeping and wakefulness.
Claudia was pouring water from the tap into a plastic tumbler and imploring the boy to drink. He tried, but spilled half the liquid on his pajama top. Then Claudia walked by Servi without even glancing at him, and carried the boy back to the bedroom. Servi was gathering up his clothes when Claudia entered the kitchen.
“Don’t leave,” she told Servi, placing a hand firmly on his shoulder. “In this neighborhood, it’s not altogether safe to walk around at night, especially if it looks like you don’t belong here. And you don’t look like you don’t belong anywhere.” In the dim light Servi could see Claudia’s tired face etched with sleep lost, never to be regained.
“Maybe I should leave for the boy,” Servi said, unsure of what else to say.
“The boy is used to men staying the night,” she said casually. “Paulo’s father stays here for the night and then leaves. He treats the place like a flop house.”
“Who is his father?”
“It’s not that important,” she answered, sitting in a kitchen chair across from Servi. The light in the kitchen, blue and unforgiving, had sped time unnaturally forward and rendered her older then her years.
“We’ve separated,” she told Servi, rubbing her temples with the tips of her index fingers.
“But you still sleep together?” Servi asked.
“Yes, does that bother you?” she glared at Servi and then quietly laughed. “You shouldn’t get upset. We’ve hardly signed a sexual contract. He fucked me yesterday and you today. Is that enough of a gap?” Then she looked at Servi through narrow eyes. “Why not snatch some pleasure when we can. My husband and I were always good in bed and nowhere else. So why not continue with what we were good at?
“It doesn’t bother me.”
“No?” Claudia asked with a twinkle in her tired eyes. “But does it turn you on? It does for some men, you know. My husband loves to hear about the men I take to bed, what I do to them, and what they do to me. It makes him roar like a lion.”
Servi ignored her words.
“What is wrong with your son?”
“He has had a hard life and it is wearing on him, just like it is wearing on me…” she said, her tone sad but her face set like stone. “But for screwing, his father is useless and doesn’t give us a lira. So I have to work like a dog for what little we have…”
“How do you know all those languages?”
“My father was an Italian Jew who married a gentile woman. He immigrated to Israel and we lived in Tel Aviv until my father got himself killed in the Yom Kippur War. Well, we spoke Italian at home and I spoke Hebrew at school. My mother is very good with languages, and after my father died she brought in money by giving lessons in Italian, German, French, English. I suspect she slept with a great many of her students. When I was fifteen one of those student lovers killed her in a fight. I had no relatives in Israel, so I moved to Rome to live with an aunt. So, here I am in Rome, and as I can speak five languages, I took a job with a tour company. But as I said, I work like a dog, and my son is in day school six days a week. Sometimes he is with neighbors on the weekend if I need to work. It has been hard on him.”
“And he escapes,” Servi asked, unsure how else to frame the event. “And the people at the day school don’t give a damn?”
“It’s not an escape,” Claudia answered, annoyed. “It is a ritual he has… a way of asserting his freedom from me and that school. He goes to Father Roberto and drinks milk and eats cookies. The old man waits for him everyday.” She stopped talking and looked at Servi coolly. He could see her mind was working at a feverish pitch, even as her face was slack with exhaustion.
“Do you mind if I sleep in the bedroom for the rest of the night while you stay on the couch? If he wakes up again, I want to be in the room.”
“Of course,” Servi answered, and the woman rose up, leaving Servi at her kitchen table.