By Stephan Jarret
Featured Art: The Hills by Preston Dickinson
To my grandmother, Francesca, the cliffs of Wilmerding, Pennsylvania resembled Italy’s Amalfi coast. Only, when she looked over the edge, the valley was waterless. Not even a polluted stream that dried out in the summer months. “Siccità”—drought—she used to say, when she led me into our backyard and squinted with high-angle menace toward the neighboring town of Pitcairn. At night, the phosphorescent sign of Randy’s Brew House shrouded the valley in faux-oceanic cobalt blue, offering “HOT GIRLS” and “FREE PRETZELS.” Still, the lower hillside was anything but arid—peppered with trees, I thought— so I tried to mention that something was sustaining them. “What?” she’d say, either incredulous or deaf.
Angelo Pomposelli’s restaurant served fourth-rate permutations of my grand-mother’s favorite meals and Saint Aloysius Church offered us outlets for high-decibel lamentation. In the latter venue, I was confirmed next to the statue of the bleeding Jesus while wearing an oversized blue sports coat and white satin knee socks which, in reviewing photos today, remind me of a child-Mozart presented to Salzburg’s aristocracy as a kind of sacrificial lamb.
After Sunday mass, I went with my grandmother to Angelo’s, where we ordered spaghetti con alici e finocchietto selvatico, whose anchovies she compared to “rotten minnows.” Angelo tolerated my grandmother’s berating because he was infatuated with her, a fact not lost on me, even as a child. On one of my cross-borough bike rides, I had found him placing hoop snares in a meadow near Trafford to catch rabbits for her favorite dish, coniglio all’ Ischiatana. Outside of my grandmother’s patronage, Angelo was snubbed by locals for serving meals to “the criminal element,” even disgracing his menu with Fettuccini Alfredo, “American cheese sandwich,” and the enigmatic “Chicken plus egg.”
On the dawn of my twelfth birthday, my father declared over breakfast that we were going to Putt-Putt Miniature Golf to acknowledge my burgeoning manhood. The reservation already made, he considered this activity efficient and within the parameters of “American fun.” He had discovered Putt-Putt through a co-worker at the vitamin factory, where each day he inspected enough riboflavin-fortified B12 capsules to fill a fleet of Mediterranean oil tankers.
“Take the boy to Angelo’s,” my grandmother protested, pointing a fork-pierced orange slice in my father’s direction.
Angelo had already promised to host me and anyone I invited. “The place will be yours,” he had said, gesturing toward his vacant banquet area. My father hated Angelo and labelled him a home wrecker. Although my grandfather had been dead for thirty-two years—his tombstone in St. Joseph’s Cemetery uprooted by a sprawling elm—I knew that celebrating at Angelo’s was an impossibility. A week earlier, Angelo had decorated the outside of his restaurant in checkered red and white tiles and paid a teenage muralist—a promising art student from Green Valley High School—to paint an anthropomorphized rigatoni exclaiming, “Welcome, Paesanos!” When my father drove past this Rembrandt-in-progress, me in the passenger seat, Angelo atop a ladder and waving in our direction, he winced. “Fucking idiot,” he said.
“Putt-Putt will be great,” I said, mediating as always, though I wanted to go to Angelo’s. “I’ve heard the Noah’s Ark hole is very difficult. A good challenge.” No one replied. My grandmother stared through the kitchen window toward the Wilmerding cliff, as though we were stuck in sixteenth-century Amalfi, under the threat of Turkish pirates. My father pierced the yolk of his over-easy egg with a piece of toast. I drank my milk in large gulps, the only way I could stomach it.
Saturday was my father’s free day, when he’d disappear into the tool shed with his bandmates, Gaetano and Otto, to play Santi Tafarella mandolin waltzes, “In Fondo al Mare” being my personal favorite. Before Operation Avalanche, my father had played mandolin professionally, but the effect of invading Salerno with the Fifth U.S. Army, wreaking what his superior officer (an Irishman from Nebraska) had called “necessary devastation,” gave him permanent hand tremors. After that, he could only play music in the tool shed with Gaetano and Otto, who were amateurs with what my grandmother called “shit ears.” Most Saturdays, I heard him yelling at them as they stumbled through “Lieto Passato,” my father the only one landing on the downbeat with seamless tremolo. After rehearsal, they loosened their tension with limoncello chased with gin, which they drank at our backyard picnic table well into the evening, all of them cheerful, sentimental drunks. Salute, Salute, Salute, I’d hear.
My grandmother reminded my father that my birthday was to remain mazurka-free. No strings, Dominic. He grunted in assent while I collected their dirty dishes, the edges of my father’s plate caked in calcified egg yolk, which I examined like an amateur tasseographer until he said, “Problem, boy?”
“No, Dad,” I said, though the ray-like sediment on his plate resembled the corona of an eclipsed sun.
“Good,” he said. “You look too much.”
With my license-less grandma at the helm of the ’58 Impala, she and my father left for the bakery to buy a local pastry known as “Star Cake” for my birthday. Seeing her with her hair down as they descended our cobblestone street—her babushka discarded, my father racked with part-real, part-playful terror—was a source of delight to me.
While putting on their coats, my father had suggested that I “make use of time” and scout the neighborhood for schoolmates to join us at Putt-Putt. I only wanted to invite Angelo and my physical education teacher, Mr. Trenton, who had given me the first edition of a new book by Alan Watts, Nature, Man, and Woman. While reading Watts’ book about the interdependence of all forms of life, I began having dreams about every insect I’d ever killed. In my dreams, I inhabited the body of a centipede I had flicked with my finger from the edge of our bathtub, and a bee I had ground with my tennis shoe when I ran over a nest with our push mower.
“Each death brings you closer to your truest self,” Mr. Trenton told me, as he collected kickballs into a canvas tote bag. These metaphysical insights were extinguished when, a few minutes after gym class, Sister Earhart would smack me with a ruler for answering too many long division questions correctly, or hold Regina Trinka out of a third-story window for misspelling fornicatio. Every week, the nuns made us dramatize the arrival of invading Soviet NCOs, who held our parents at gunpoint and asked if we believed in God. Those who answered “Yes” had to watch their parents die (Brian Yost was a particularly gifted martyr) while others (“weaklings,” Sister Earhart said) answered “No” to spare their parents and “forsake God.” Maybe my single most triumphant moment as a human being arrived later that year, when I pelted Sister Earhart with a pine cone from the camouflaged safety of an untrimmed hedge row. The sight of her befuddlement, as though she’d been caned by the Holy Spirit. Deo gratias, I thought. Thanks be to God.
Instead of recruiting celebrants, I finished the dishes and went for a bike ride. A few thousand yards inland from the Wilmerding cliff, I rode on a dirt path where, to my left and right, patches of high grass extended into thick woods. On the saddle, I daydreamed as I always did, projecting myself into Bohemia, my mother’s homeland. She had died of uterine cancer a year earlier and toward the end, when relatives arrived to see her—more for the spectacle of her emaciated body than a desire to soothe her, she surmised—she told me to “sweep them away with the broom.” For a year, my father had refused to vacuum our living room floor. Her long brown hairs embedded in our carpet, twisted into tumbleweeds that sometimes stuck between my toes, or flittered around in the ceiling fan’s artificial wind.
For as long as I could remember, I had eaten my brown-bagged lunches alone in the school library, a glorified closet operated by Sister Sunseri, who helped me find books which, when I took them home, my mother would read with me under the oven’s dome light, our approximation of a banker’s lamp, the books splayed over the coiled stovetop burners; she helped me pronounce and define the words I didn’t know: quixotic, preternatural, luminescent.
I paused in the middle of the trail and listened to the stridulating bugs. I thought of my mother while the surrounding trees swayed, hundreds of years old and wiser than any human. I wanted to be atomized, reduced to dust and further still into intangible particles, to move with the wind. Though the nuns had implanted their notions of Boschian damnation—a vision of myself dodging (for eternity) enflamed algebraic integers the size and weight of refrigerators, dropped by levitating demons as punishment for my command of polynomials —I accepted death as a process of dissipation. I imagined my mother as a part of the wind that surrounded me.
The Star Cake had already begun to melt on their return trip, so my father placed it in our freezer, where it hardened into a warped and asymmetrical blob. With sweat stains under my shirt sleeves, betraying how I’d spent the past hour, I relayed the news that party attendance would be modest.
“Why does no one like you?” my father asked, seriously.
He and my mother had baptized me under the Anglicized moniker, “Nathanael,” but I never felt like my peers, many of whom were faithful offspring of the New World, historical and cultural amnesiacs without the slightest impulse to look back and, by doing so, look inward. I knew my grandmother was, from age seven onward, a day laborer in Amalfi—a dislodger of stones and plucker of grapes, who slept on a mattress of entwined corn stalks and soothed her callused hands with a halved lemon she scrubbed against her skin. Her voyage to Wilmerding was facilitated by God, she’d been told.
“You is beautiful, passerotto,” my grandmother offered. “Who’s better than us?”
When we arrived at Putt-Putt, the parking lot was overrun with suburban teenagers, many accompanied by friends or weekend dates. In their borrowed cars and ironed cardigans, they looked alien to me. Just outside of the “Equipment Office,” where customers were outfitted with putters, neon golf balls, score cards, and pencils, I noticed a few dilapidated picnic tables, one of which, appearing like a mirage, was staked out by Angelo, who sat there in a suit with patched elbow pads. As we approached, he lifted the cardboard lids of three thin boxes in a ceremonial flourish. My father tried to walk by without acknowledging him.
“Angelo,” I said, pausing at the table.
“For you,” he said, opening the closest box to reveal a pie that resembled an edible Tibetan mandala. He had baked three pizzas, thinking I was a popular boy, someone with a host of friends.
The four of us sat at the splinter-laden table and ate the pizzas Angelo ha made. My father ate with hostile abandon, as though he landed violent blows on Angelo with each slice he consumed; a foolish strategy, I thought, since Angelo interpreted my father’s overindulgence as a sign of approval, nodding encouragingly with each bite my father took. I took a moment to admire the delicate composition of the pizzas: the symmetry of the peppers and sun-dried tomatoes. Even my grandmother withheld her usual critiques, realizing (perhaps) that she both loved and hated Angelo for invoking small remnants of her old life. After she finished her first slice, she reached out and tapped the top of Angelo’s right hand twice, gentle pats of affinity that caused Angelo to blush and readjust in his seat. He was afraid, I think, that my father had noticed.
Angelo apologized that he couldn’t stay and join us on the links. The drive back to his restaurant took nearly forty minutes, and Saturday was his busiest night of business. “My son appreciates the pizza,” my father managed to say. As Angelo walked away, he offered one of the leftover pizzas to a group of teenagers with pomade-sculpted hair. They accepted it, looking inconvenienced by his generosity.
On the course, my grandmother dominated the first eight holes of play. The motor skills required to master the bastardized sport of miniature golf had not transferred to my father, however; he recorded four mulligans on the scorecard (practically tattooed them in pencil) and accosted each new hole for its trick angles, trick ledges, and trick ceramic pipelines that redirected his golf ball into sand traps or miniature lagoons populated with Styrofoam mallards. He didn’t grasp a world, synthetic or otherwise, in which deception could be a source of entertainment.
At last, we arrived at the ninth hole with its infamous fiberglass Statue of Liberty, 1/37th the scale of the original, a placard claimed. The edge of our final “Par 5” was surrounded by miniature American flags planted pole-first into mulch.
My father, first up to putt, paused to deliver a pre-hit dedication: “For my son, who is twelve. I am prideful of your achievements.” He fired his neon green ball toward the right sandal of Lady Liberty, but missed the crevice between her big and “pointer” toe, causing the ball to ricochet off a wooden plank and roll within inches of his own right foot. A message of futility.
“This shit,” he said, gesturing toward the ball.
I thought of the frozen, malformed Star Cake in our freezer, the image of my father standing at the vitamin factory’s “Quality Inspection” conveyor belt, so disdainful of his work that he couldn’t even hum his favorite songs, sickened by the response of his body after the Salerno invasion, robbed of his chance to play music under any kind of scrutiny. His body, he must have felt, exchanged pre-war dignity for post-war degradation, for servitude under the sadistic, one-armed son of the factory’s floor boss. If I wanted to be dissipating particles in a meadow, my father, in his moments of weakness, wished he had been reduced to a diagonally-folded flag, delivered to my mother to whom he was engaged, sparing me existence, too. I thought of the trajectory of my own life: the looming terror of my Monday classes, just one full day away, “Monday” a kind of entity, a cyclical slasher of tranquility, an accomplice to that gorgon, Sister Earhart, who remained enthroned and spewing acid, no matter how many pine cones I pelted at her.
“Why you crying?” my grandmother asked. She inspected my face to verify tears.
“You see, capa tosta,” she said, gesturing toward my father. “You always trying to patch us up. Like nothing bad happen,” she said, shaking her head. Her hands had never fully healed, so they scraped against my face like dull sandpaper. She tried to fetch a handkerchief out of her purse, but dislodged her wooden sewing kit in the process. The wallet-sized box fell on the concrete surface of the “Tee-Off” area, sending a burst of nearly twenty buttons in all directions.
Behind us, one of the teenagers who had accepted Angelo’s pizza, slammed his putter against the ground.
“Why are you wops taking so long?”
The question elicited laughter from the boy’s date and several of his friends. My father looked back at the boy with a cornicello-pulverizing glare. In lieu of any first-hand accounts of his actions in Salerno, I had sometimes imagined my father killing German paratroopers by snapping their necks with his bare hands or strangling them to death with his dog-tag chain. Only, he knelt into the artificial grass of the Putt-Putt green to fetch—one by one—my grandmother’s buttons.
“Maybe we should go,” I said, looking back at the teenagers.
“Help your grandmother,” he said.
The teenagers laughed at us—me, my father, and grandmother—bent down on our knees, the jagged grass piercing our clothes, leaving a pattern of small white marks on our kneecaps, which I couldn’t help but liken to a modern mortification of the flesh. I felt like a pink, skinless figure from an anatomy textbook, my organs thumping in plain view. A network of exposed nerves.
We took our time to collect every button. My father, double the size of the antagonizing boy, closed the top lid of the sewing case, his hands trembling, though not out of fear. He handed the case to my grandmother and took us to the ’58 Impala, offering driving rights to my grandmother, who led us home.
That night, my father sat with me on the edge of the Wilmerding cliff. I learned that my grandmother’s sewing kit was an heirloom, a case her own mother had given her, bloated with nearly fifty buttons of all varieties, several spools of thread, and sewing needles. The kit was my grandmother’s sole possession onboard the passenger ship Belvedere, the vessel she boarded alone at fifteen years old with one American dollar, the bill dutifully registered by Ellis Island authorities while cataloging possessions in Column 15 of the ship’s manifest. She carried the sewing kit with her everywhere, from New York to Wilkes-Barre to Wilmerding, sometimes in her brassiere, sometimes in the pocket of her dress, like a pacemaker.
In the valley, American rock and roll resonated from Randy’s Brew House and I could tell my father found the music despicable; it reminded him, I guessed, of the music he had missed that day. He held his tongue and tried to relish the last hour of Saturday, his final sliver of autonomy. A man emerging from Randy’s Brew House, the size of a crumb, let out a hearty “Yee-Haw!” and backed his car out of Randy’s long, gravel driveway.
“What are we doing here?” I asked him. “Breathing,” he said.
Alan Watts’ book had discussed prāṇāyāma, the extension of the life force through controlled breathing practices. In that moment, I hated the concept. “Breathing is life” was as reductive and stifling to me as “Man is Sin.” Besides, my father didn’t mean it that way. We are functioning; surviving, he meant.
I leaned my head against my father’s shoulder and he jolted upwards, a sign of his hypervigilance. Embarrassed, he returned to the same spot and let me rest against his body. Milk and Star Cake curdled in our stomachs. My grandmother slept in her first-floor bedroom and dreamed in delta waves of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Angelo mopped and closed his empty restaurant. My mother circulated in the field where I had stopped with my bicycle.
My father and I stared into the valley’s blue atmosphere, all the nuances of our view obscured by late-evening fog. The music from Randy’s stopped, and in its absence, we listened to the elephantine sighs of compressed air coming from the Westinghouse Air Brake factory, a quarter mile away, where the night workers were assembling the company’s trademark brake sets.
“Good jobs there,” my father said.
The factory’s sounds struck me as the noises of something on the verge of dying. I tapped my father’s shoulder.
“It’s time to sleep,” I said.
In the morning, my father and I emerged from our bedrooms. He was dressed in his work uniform, a vision of metal-blue anonymity. When we reached the bottom of our house’s narrow staircase, we heard a loud buzzing noise coming from the living room; it stopped quickly before we entered the room, where my grandmother was in her best dress, her long hair combed and fixed into an Old World braid, with small blots of blush on her cheeks, and a smattering of barely detectable lipstick.
“I’m taking breakfast with Angelo,” she said, buttoning her purse.
“Like hell you are,” my father said.
My grandmother leaned down and kissed my forehead, leaving a speck of red on my skin that I didn’t notice or consider until later. The turquoise vacuum cleaner stood upright in the middle of the room, its metallic parts rusted from moisture and disuse in the closet. My father bent down on his knees and grazed the palm of his hand across the surface of the now-pristine carpet, which my grandmother had vacuumed into tidy, empty, symmetrical lanes. He shifted his eyes around the remaining area of the room, three hundred square feet, seeking some infinitesimal joy he’d lost in its fibers. My mother’s hair. My mother’s skin.
My grandmother wrapped a translucent rain cap over her hair, tying the plastic strings into a knot under her chin while she stood in the house’s entryway, an umbrella balanced against her leg. She opened the door, which admitted the sound of the clacking, almost violent rain, a downpour that made our gutters and sidewalk percussive. My father rose to his feet, trembling, and gripped his right hand around one of the wooden blades of the overhead fan, which I feared he would rip out of the ceiling like a giant unearthing the roots of a tree. I heard him squeeze one of the fan blades to the point that it buckled on the verge of breaking.
“We going to be better now,” my grandmother said, almost sternly. She turned her back on us, expanded the metal stretchers of her umbrella on the precipice of the doorway, and closed the door. My father rushed to open it, but my grandmother didn’t respond when he shouted into the street, demanding her return. She was already half a block away, so we watched her walk down Woodmont Street unfazed by the rain, taking delicate, heron-like steps down the steep grade of the hill toward Angelo’s. The water weaved around and over the street’s beige cobblestones and down into the valley. When I looked from the vantage point of our backyard in the afternoon, I saw an unmistakable stream.
Stephen Jarrett is a writer and musician from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, Quarterly West, Cimarron Review, Moon City Review, and elsewhere. He is currently completing a short story collection and novel.
Originally published in Issue 19.