from The Book of Etna

by Anthony Mariani

Whereas the boy’s father was mostly an untouchable ghost, the boy’s mother was a solid presence, even when several rooms or hundreds of miles away. Her implied corporeality often took the form of the nasally sound of her voice or the persistent shape of her, a short, squat fiftysomething Italian-American woman whose regal essence, there in her thrusting chin and tidy outfits, neutralized her frumpy countenance. She also had a florid smell about her, along with stubby hands thickened and coarsened by decades of doing laundry and cooking meals and handling whatever else occasions a mother of four in a cold, old city every day. Though the boy could not discern her exact words, he felt his skin pierced by the rising and falling cadence of her rote courtesies mixed with firmness, and his bones rattled to the rhythms of her footsteps, paced and growing louder by the second. He stilled and prayed to be passed over.

The bland shadows thrown by her relaxed march through the living room, from the kitchen and to the hallway that led to the carpeted foot of the attic stairs, crossed the usual witnesses to the family’s daily affairs: the white statuette of an embracing Romeo and Juliet, a souvenir from a trip Nonna had taken to the Old Country, the artwork’s base of opulent Renaissance clothing a flume of tumbling creases and folds dusted in soft brown paint which arrested the casual observer’s eye, which was a good thing, because the tragic hero’s head had been removed –– accidentally, unceremoniously –– by the boy and his two, older brothers in a fit of roughhousing one summer afternoon; and the framed family snapshots, all of the children and some cousins; and the fuscous sofa and loveseat, their arms matted from years of use and, at some edges, frayed, and the chocolate leather recliner, a former star now way past its prime though struggling valiantly and pitifully to retain its old sense of dignity –– a few of the rounded gold tacks that once trimmed its legs in orderly rows were missing; and the beautiful faces of the celebrities and models on the covers of the ladies’ magazines and department-store catalogs, crowding the chipped coffee table and the chipped end tables, each facial expression a wanton plea to be consumed; and the plastic cherubs, with their curlicue’d tresses and their tiny, fat digits and limbs suspended in the service of translucent glass bulbs and teardrop beads and plastic ivy, all of them cheap details on cheap, gaudy lamps and wall fixtures; and some of the boy’s colorful drawings of Biblical passages, including his mother’s favorite, a gently clunky but impassioned and colorful reckoning of the scene at the Garden of Gethsemane; …

… the domestic effects, all of them, were normally merely visual background noise and nothing more, but now, she noticed, they did not dutifully, humbly regard her passing in hushed indifference but seemed to revolt, rumbling in protest to every footfall, every bang produced by fuzzy slippers beneath doughy feet as tired and worn as her mother’s, and her mother’s mother’s, and her mother’s mother’s mother’s, and the rest of the world’s mothers’, which slowed her and triggered a start of clarity, so needlessly intense was her blind execution of righteousness, as charged as if she were tramping off to confront the damned at the gates.

She never truly understood the difference between her childhood and her children’s, though she was aware that the number and gravity of outside influences on children, especially American children, outstripped what her generation had known. “Do unto others,” she felt, was steel-clad and impervious to manipulation: The Crusaders were as evil as the Nazis were as evil as the executioners on Death Row. Father O. and the rest of Immaculate Conception might have argued otherwise but only, she believed, because they were, virtually, backsliders. They may not have been at one time. Sister A. spoke candidly about the rigors of the order and how she had witnessed several strong believers, whom a layperson may have deemed saintly, rationalizing minuscule, natural wavering as an excuse to return to the secular world. But Father O. was interested only in purveying a broad message, one with no intellectual subtleties or complexities to confuse the kids and with clearly defined moral boundaries, and he also was concerned with keeping the church coffers firmly in the black. The Mac, as Immaculate Conception was nicknamed, held a bazaar in the church parking lot for two weeks every summer, and along with about a dozen games of chance, the event also included two craps tables, an over-under wheel, and, in the cafeteria, about two dozen black-jack tables. Evidently, the boy’s mother thought, the message of Luke 19:45-48, in which Jesus set his wrath upon the money-changers, did not apply to the parish to which her family had belonged seemingly forever and to which she had belonged for more than 25 years, dating back to her first Holy Communion, and in whose classrooms 25 years ago the intellectual subtleties and complexities of the dynamic Catholic faith were parsed and permanently illuminated. Why were her children’s generation treated like adults in almost every other facet of life but faith? Their world was almost wholly foreign to her, except for the regular occasions when her sons strut onto their grass or artificial turf stages and, to rapid applause, ran, tossed, and tackled better than everyone else, broadcasting in the loud, brutal, and, to her, nonsensical language of sport that primal quality of which she was infinitely fond: excellence, a higher state of being erected upon the universal notions of talent, patience, duty, perseverance, and practice. But after games, when the boys appeared to her in their silly street clothes, speaking in their silly catch-phrases through the base, noisy holes in their pockmarked faces, and rubbing their sore, muscular but hairless, and fictile limbs, and bore no resemblance to the majestic, uniformed giants on the field, she was returned to confusion, unsure what to say or think or how to feel. Each son had been the ringleader of a troupe of thieves bound in speed, dazzle, and legerdemain, and, their weekly performances transacted, dispensed to anonymity by the mark’s haplessness, a haplessness not entirely without its charms, though. Its intoxicating residues carried the boy’s mother down from bleachers suspended high in the air by rigid algorithms of angled steel braces –– the ground below patrolled by stoic security guards and empty, swirling soda cups, bags of chips, and paper plates, and visible as distant, exotic terrain through the splines behind spectators’ knees –– and propelled her gaily through the chattering, shuffling exodus and to the makeshift waiting area outside the locker rooms, where she and other players’ parents and friends waited excitedly, no matter the game’s outcome, for their children, her memory tipsy on visions of her sons’ swiftly navigating shockingly animated matrices of large, angry bodies and emerging into open space unscathed. Her confusion returned upon the opening of the doors and sight of her boys, especially the youngest, who in the wintry months was rarely separated from a certain denim jacket, its lapels covered in miniature pins, each circle, none any bigger than a quarter, ablaze with the text logo of one of his favorite rock bands. Rush? UFO? Iron Maiden?! Who are these characters? she wondered. She could not have imagined, as a child or even an adolescent, confronting a phrase such as “Judas Priest” without being shocked by fear, and a kind of shame, into convalescing for a few weeks afterward. The boy, her son, not only waived his right to be offended but endorsed the offending words. He brandished them on his favorite garment. He decorated his room with them. He went out of his way to understand them.

The boy’s was the inexorable culmination of three previous, more and more bewildering childhoods, as if L.’s, V.’s, and A.’s had conspired to birth it. By the time the other children had grown, somewhat imperceptibly, into almost-adults, with career ambitions and material desires and grossly uninformed but readily flung opinions, the magnitude of the boy’s present and onrushing future had begun to press heavily down upon her. Relegated to compendiums of yellowed snapshots were simpler displeasures, of L.’s irascibility that led invariably to chipped teeth, missed curfews, and missing cookies, and the uncontrollable, seemingly unprovoked tantrums that contradicted V.’s meek temperament and calm resolve, and A.’s fists, dreaded by his peers and plainly motivated by his potentially demoralizing lisp. The other kids had a warmth, a closeness about them. But the boy emitted a coldness, though his expressions of warmth were manifold and unique. None of the other kids worked with their father, putting up drywall or making wine. None of the other kids even considered for a second, as far as she knew, making their own money –– the boy had a paper route. None of the other kids drew pictures for her. None of the others pestered her for stories about her vacationing with friends in New York City and about visiting Birdland and The Village Vanguard and about her seeing shows by Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, and Stan Getz, and about hanging out with the Freshmen and the Four Lads when they came to town to do a show. Maybe, she thought, just maybe her distance from her youngest was her fault, the consequence of fatigue or forgetfulness or both.

Other than some of its furnishings –– furniture and carpeting, knickknacks and wallpapering, and the people –– the house had not changed for as long as the boy’s mother could remember. There were a few years right after L. and V. were born when the boy’s family lived in a quaint house in a poor industrial suburb by his father’s parents and extended family. But for most of her life, the boy’s mother was here, treading the same worn linoleum floor panels whose uniform and intricately floral patterns of gold and white conveyed the color of urine unless you were crawling across them and cared to notice, flipping the same worn light switches to the same worn light fixtures, climbing the same worn, clumsy, dog-legged, green wooden stairs out back to reach the same worn second-floor entrance, whose stingy, green porch –– its footprint about the size of a compact car –– sloped viciously, trying its damnedest to spill its occupants over the same worn green railing there and onto the narrow yard’s same worn red-brick latticework below, where weeds sprouted up in clumps in the same old places, by the mouth of the gutter, by the wooden fence between the Brackens on the south side and the chain-link fence between the Savinis on the east, and at the lip of the dark, grimy cubby hole that formed naturally beneath the back stairs’ raised elbow, where a spade, a snow shovel, a pick, and some gardening tools were kept, out in the open and without fear of theft, even though one of the implements, especially Daddy’s handheld spade, was precious, specifically for being the conduit between the boy and the delectable peppers grown by his father, there in the brick yard’s makeshift garden, really just about five wheelbarrows’ worth of topsoil lovingly compacted, cordoned off by bricks upended and jabbed into the ground, and backed by a red-brick wall attached to a huge garage next door and that stretched as long as the entire western run of the yard, from back gate to front, and as high as the second-floor porch, whose view opened up to the flat, empty, tarred roof of the garage, home to a bottled-water company, and the roofs and porches of the shitty houses and apartments nearby, stuffed with groaning, tired, bitching bodies and seemingly perpetually rimmed with dusk and stilled, with the measured stream of cars crossing beneath the street-light at the intersection of Taylor and Liberty all day every day perpetually swallowed by muggy gray shadow, and even the people shuffling in and out of Mellon Bank, Pizza Italia, and the Plaza Theater, and Bloomfield Drug and St. Joe’s, or simply loitering, arrested light and motion like piles of dry shit, all within feet of the tall house near the corner with the white aluminum siding and faded green awnings beneath which the boy’s mother and her siblings jovially watched rain and snow fall or played jacks or collected the mail, only several feet from the potentially fatal traffic and almost always beneath stony adults, who watched over the asphalt where the children chased one another and laughed and squealed, recklessly and naturally, as if they, the soft-bellied and -limbed noisemakers, were already intimate with the noxious weights of their futures, when the world would be greased by the blood of their suffocating commitments and loyalties signed by hands in an attitude of waving in –– for good –– authority and shooing out everything else; jovially watching rain or snow fall or playing jacks or collecting the mail but only to return inside to the same worn floors, the same worn white appliances, the same worn porcelain commodes, the same worn white sinks, and the same worn bathtubs, as part of the same worn life that never ended.

The boy’s life accommodated a similar though heedlessly vernal awareness, kilned by pure facts. That there were houses nicer than his family’s was a fact –– some of them were even on Taylor. That time would not be time were it not a thing fit to be wasted or exploited was a fact. That he wrestled with geometry and video games was a fact. That having a mini-bike would be awesome was a fact. That superheroes existed was a fact. That goodness sometimes went un-rewarded was a fact. That there was no one as exceptional as he was a fact. That the world was cruel despite goodness was a fact. The house’s essence as his family’s house, known and unremarkable, seemed to him as often comforting as constricting: a cramped basement caked with grime that stained his eyes and redolent in grease, two floors of full living quarters, and an attic whose three inhabitants slept, woke, dressed, undressed, dusted, and swept, and jammed to music on the stereo, and dreamed, leafed through comic books and professional wrestling magazines, and read joke books aloud to one another, and painted and sketched fantastical creatures and panoramic, otherworldly mises en scene on paper, and played board games and card games, and whose lone inhabitant on one particular August day strapped on a backpack filled with priceless stolen comic books, stepped out of the window and onto the glistening, black shingled roof, and, to a soundtrack of shuffles, scrapings, and pinchings, shimmied down the concrete gutter encasement –– his fingers and forearms and his knees and feet crackling electrically, his breathing fitful and sharp –– landed on Taylor Street, and flew away.

Anthony Mariani is a journalist with an MS from Columbia University. He lives in Fort Worth, TX with his wife Dana.