My grandmother Zerlina wore sack-like cotton housedresses with tiny blue and red flowers printed all over them. She understood English perfectly, but whenever she had something to say she always spoke in Italian, in the vigorous peasant’s dialect that she grew up with in Craco, in Basilicata. Her favorite chair was a sturdy mahogany rocker cushioned with small, flattened-out pillows. She would sit there for hours, listening to scratchy, static-interrupted music from the big Philco radio while reading, with a magnifying glass, the tightly printed news columns of Il Progresso. She had a thick, corpulent body, brown eyes, and wore her graying hair in a bun loosely held together with bobbypins. She seemed always weary, weighed down, as if her life were a constant struggle with gravity and it was only with the greatest reluctance that she consented to allow herself to continue in existence. I have no recollection of ever seeing her in the act of smiling. Which is a problem for me, because in the one photograph I have of her—a picture that I myself took with my first camera, a Kodak Brownie—she is standing between my grandfather and my Uncle Phil, and unmistakably she is beaming a smile. It’s a smile I can’t remember, a smile that somehow I seem to have misplaced. In the photo they’re standing in their backyard, in Brooklyn, in front of a trellis full of roses. My grandfather, both hands in his pockets, is not smiling. He has a bemused, baffled expression on his face, as if, in that instant, he became aware that life had somehow played a hideous trick on him, and there was nothing to do but submit. Uncle Phil, too, is without a smile, but there is neither surprise nor acquiescence in his gaze, just a poignant sense of loneliness, a brooding intensity, as if he had seen into his future and already knew there would be nothing but disappointment, despair, grinding hopelessness, but he was making up his mind not to let it get him down.
Besides the trellis full of roses, there were marigolds, petunias, a patch of mint, and a large, beautifully shaped apricot tree. My grandfather planted the tree the day my Uncle Phil was born. Planted it, I think, as a way of celebrating the fact that Philip was the last, the fifth and final child in a family that already had more mouths to feed than my grandfather had ever really bargained for. But in imagining that Philip would be the last, my grandfather was, as he’d been in so many other things, dismally wrong, for my grandmother Zerlina was destined to conceive and deliver three more times before her childbearing days were finally over. The tree was a mere sapling when it went in, and by the time I was born it was already fully developed, yielding, every year, an abundant crop that was usually fleshy and delicious, but sometimes disappointing, too tart, or lacking in succulence, or even, some years, ruined by birds and swarms of insects. But always the apricots were eagerly looked forward to and obsessively talked about, the crop of one year being compared to the crop of another, as if the fortunes of the family were somehow tied to the vicissitudes of the tree’s ability to produce.
Another snapshot—this one not real but a photo in my mind, as vivid as if I had actually taken the picture and saved it in an album: my Uncle Phil, a warm day in May, mid-afternoon, up there in the apricot tree, his tree, sitting on a limb, strumming on his mandolin and singing wretchedly, with incredible sadness, while down below, on the ragged grass, my grandmother is shaking both of her fists at him and screaming furiously. “Filippo! Che cosa fa? Insano! Lunatico! Venga giù! Súbito! Venga!” On and on, the words pouring from her, turbulent and loud. That she wanted him down out of the tree was clear, but for the rest I had to rely on my mother for a running translation. What my grandmother was shouting, as she stood there shaking her fists, was that God had cursed her. One of her children was dead, one was deaf and dumb, one imagined he was Fritz Kreisler, and now this one, the one up in the tree, was nothing less than a lovelorn lunatic. Her life, she cried, was a disaster. She was lost, abandoned. Better to be dead, she shouted, than to live such a doomed, chaotic existence. Better not to have been born.
The one who imagined himself to be Fritz Kreisler was my father, who had been playing the violin since he was 14. There had been a time when he really thought he might make it as a concert soloist, but that was a dream that died during the Depression, and now he only picked up the violin a few times a month, on weekends, and grumbled that he was going downhill, losing his technique. My uncle Phil’s instrument was the mandolin, and he’d never had any illusions about becoming a star. His problem was not that he wanted to become Fritz Kreisler or anyone like him, but that he was in love with Theresa Fortuna, who lived in the neighboring parish, and she was not in love with him.
“That girl is bad luck,” I overheard my father saying to Uncle Phil one day. “Why do you want to be involved with her?”
“I like her,” Uncle Phil responded. “All right? I like her.”
“He’s in love,” Aunt Margaret said. “Let him be in love.” Aunt Margaret was past 40, a solid, home-loving type, but no one had ever proposed, and it was beginning to look as if no one ever would. She and Uncle Phil were the only ones still living at home with my grandparents.
“He’ll be sor-ry,” my father intoned. “Don’t say I never warned him.”
“Mala fortuna,” my grandmother said. “Sono tutti pazzi. Tutti asini.”
“Leave me alone,” my Uncle Phil shouted, stomping out of the room. He was thwarted, restless. He went thrashing about the house, picking things up and slamming them down. And later in the day he even turned on me, because this, he remembered, was the year that I turned 13. “You’re the one,” he said accusingly, bending down, putting his face close up to mine. “It’s all your fault, you with your bad-luck 13. Don’t come near me. You hear? Stay away! You’re ruining my life!” I knew, of course, that he was only joking, yet there was an intensity in the way he said this, a piercing deliberateness, that made it hard to be really sure.
I saw Teresa Fortuna only three times. The first time was in Winkler’s ice cream parlor, she was with my Uncle Phil. They were in the back, in one of the booths, and I was up front, at the counter. I had just stopped in for an egg cream. Theresa Fortuna was so beautiful that I was, for a moment, actually breathless. She had dark, lively eyes and a lot of rouge on her face. In fact, she was so exquisite that when I saw her in the booth with Uncle Phil, I felt they didn’t belong together. Uncle Phil had crooked teeth, a low forehead, and one of his ears stuck out abnormally. He was the youngest of my uncles, only about ten years older than I, and I felt a great sense of loyalty to him, yet even I could see that he would have been a lot better off if his teeth weren’t such a mess and if something could be done about that ear.
Not only was Theresa Fortuna beautiful, but there was something about her laugh, a wild, wanton gaiety, as if her laughter were a promise of some secret joy that could only be dimly imagined. She took out a cigarette, and Uncle Phil lit it for her. She inhaled deeply, then let out twin jets of smoke from her nostrils, and then from her mouth a small puff that curled sensuously around her lips. It was really something. Not everyone could handle a cigarette with such finesse, with that special kind of glamour.
When I was done with my egg cream I went across the street and hung out in the pet shop for a while, looking at the parakeets in the front window. I was waiting for Uncle Phil and Theresa Fortuna to come out of Winkler’s, I wanted to see what they looked like, walking together. I waited a long time. When they finally came out, they seemed unhappy, the gaiety was gone. In the booth things had been moving along so well, but now everything was wrong. For a while they just stood there on the sidewalk, in front of Winkler’s, facing each other, and I watched through the parakeets. My uncle was talking very earnestly, and Theresa Fortuna was darkly serious, even more lovely than when she was laughing and smoking in the booth. Her hair was tied back with a ribbon, and she wore a loose, silken skirt that draped around her legs and clung appealingly to her thighs. Whatever Uncle Phil was asking, she seemed to be saying no. Then, gently, he put his hand on her arm and drew close, as if to kiss her, but she took a step back and briefly hovered, then turned sharply and walked off, her skirt doing all sorts of wonderful things with her legs as she moved hurriedly down the block. Uncle Phil was left standing there, looking miserable, and I moved to the back of the store, where the puppies were, feeling guilty for having watched in secret while the misadventure unfolded.
The next day was the day of the snapshot in my mind, when Uncle Phil was up in the apricot tree, with his mandolin, totally depressed, singing Body and Soul, and Night and Day, and Prisoner of Love. He had no voice at all, he couldn’t sing. He was no Sinatra. His voice quavered and cracked, it slid around in a trembling, anti-melodic haze. And yet it was just the right voice to express the loneliness and heartache he was feeling, the gritty sound of undiluted pain. And my grandmother, completely wretched, feeling abandoned by God, was shouting at him to get down out of the tree and go out and get himself a job. Because that week not only had he lost his heart to Theresa Fortuna, but he had also quit his job at the plant in Greenpoint, where he was on an assembly line making portable radios and going out of his mind. Aunt Margaret was trying to get him interested in the butcher’s daughter, Diana Crespi, who had long had her eye on Uncle Phil and was only waiting to be asked. If they married, Uncle Phil could spend the rest of his life hustling prime ribs and filet mignon. As Aunt Margaret kept saying, there were worse ways to get rich. But Uncle Phil had a special feeling about animals, and although he wasn’t quite a vegetarian, he drew the line at being the one to chop up the uncooked carcasses. And besides, Diana Crespi had a face like a dog. My father, who agreed that Diana Crespi was beneath consideration, wanted Uncle Phil to go to night school and learn something practical, like accounting, or automobile repair, but Uncle Phil said he would rather elope with Theresa Fortuna and spend the rest of his life on a farm in the Catskills, raising Christmas trees. The idea of raising Christmas trees got into his head from a newspaper story about someone from the lower East Side who had gone off and got rich in the Catskills, and since the trees only had to be planted and harvested, with no fruit to pick every year, and no fuss and bother about spraying to keep off the bugs, what more could anyone ask for? Uncle Phil also liked the idea of Christmas being involved—it seemed a cheerful way to make a living. But Theresa Fortuna wasn’t in love with him, and even if she were she would never agree to live on a farm. She had a job demonstrating cosmetics in a department store, and what she really wanted was to become a model and have her face on the cover of Vogue.
So my grandmother was pulling out her hair. Not only was her youngest son a lunatic, she was now saying, but he deserved to be put on a boat and shipped back to Craco, where, by rights, he should have been born, if his soft-in-the-head father hadn’t been foolish enough to come to America in the first place. And since there was nothing in Craco but a lot of hard rock and hot sun, they would know what to do with him if he ever started talking about Christmas trees.
“He’s a dreamer,” Uncle Vincent said. “He gives his heart away too easily.” Uncle Vincent was the electrician in the family. He had been in the war and had seen action at Anzio, but now he was home and he was married, with two children. My father was lucky—he had been too old for the war. Uncle Phil was lucky too—he had been too young. He didn’t turn 18 until the war was nearly over, and then, somehow, his number wasn’t called. He wanted to volunteer, but my grandmother slapped his face and the matter never came up again.
“He’ll be all right,” Uncle Vincent said. “Don’t worry about him, he just dreams too much. He’ll get over it.”
That’s what my father said too, though he sounded less sure.
Uncle Phil was up in the tree all day. He had no breakfast, no lunch, and refused to come down for supper. He was heartsore and lonely, feeding on sorrow. After dark, though, he did come down, and he slept around the clock, a full 24 hours.
A few days later, he took a job as a bartender. My grandmother wasn’t happy about that, but a job was a job. The work kept him out late at night, and he would sleep till early afternoon. One night he didn’t leave the bar till six in the morning, and, when he got home, he had a horse with him. It was the mangy, broken-down nag that belonged to old Giovanni, who ran the fruit and vegetable store on New Utrecht Avenue.
A few times a week Giovanni rode around the neighborhood with a horse-drawn wagon, selling watermelon, strawberries, broccoli, spinach. In a poker game at the bar where Phil was working, Giovanni was heavy into the chianti, and it wasn’t, for him, a lucky night. After losing the 20 dollars he went into the game with, he wagered a crate of oranges, a stem of bananas, 30 pounds of chestnuts, a crate of coconuts, and lost them all. He won back the chestnuts and the coconuts, but lost them again, and finally he put up the horse. He lost the horse to Angelo D’Accetta, an overbearing, muscle-bound, loudmouthed Callabrian who lived across the street from my grandparents and who was, that evening, to his own enormous delight, winning everything. From Faggio, the barber, he won a year of free haircuts, and from the shoemaker, Nick Calzolaio, he won a pair of boots that had been worn in World War I by General Patton, when the General was still only a major. And now that Patton was dead, the value of the boots had to at least have doubled.
Angelo D’Accetta was not well liked by my grandparents. He worked for the Parks Department, cutting down trees, and he would take home, into his backyard, truckloads of logs which he would chop into firewood that he sold in the better neighborhoods, where the homes had fireplaces. On weekends, the air shook with the thump of his axe and the pounding of his maul. His yard was stacked with cords of firewood. My grandfather hated him. He hated the noise. No sooner would he settle down for a nap than the axe would begin. Chopping, always chopping, and my grandfather, with barely restrained rage, would go through the house muttering of Signer Chip-Chop, Signer Chop-Chip, Signer Emptyhead Donkey-ass Dumb-Chump.
So on the night when Angelo D’Accetta was winning everything—General Patron’s boots, the free haircuts, Giovanni’s horse—Uncle Phil, whose naps had also been interrupted by the log-splitting, felt called upon, as a matter of principle, a matter of self-respect and family pride, to come out from behind the bar and try his luck against this coarse, arrogant doughhead who kept the neighborhood awake with his chopping. At poker, Uncle Phil was a mere beginner, but he could hold his own, and that night, to everyone’s surprise, he had a remarkable run against Angelo D’Accetta. He won half of the free haircuts, one of Patton’s boots, a third of the coconuts, and all of the horse, including the bit and the reins and every one of the fleas, ticks and maggots in its hide. He offered to return the horse to Giovanni so that he could continue to ride around the neighborhood selling watermelons, but Giovanni, who had switched from chianti to bourbon, refused. It was, he said, a point of honor. Winning was winning, and losing was losing. Besides, the horse was old and would soon have to be disposed of anyway, and he had already put down a deposit on a secondhand truck. A secondhand truck, he figured, would be a lot less trouble than a horse, and it was, assuredly, more modern and progressive. And why had he come to America anyway except to modernize? Not only that, but he and D’Accetta were old poker rivals, and he had been planning for years to stick him with that miserable nag—and, now that he had done it, Uncle Phil had barged in and had snatched away the victory that Giovanni had been waiting so long to savor. In fact, at the stable, as he turned the horse over to Uncle Phil, he cursed him roundly for butting in and warned him, for the future, to stick to bartending and to keep his nose in his own handkerchief. “He called me a macaroni,” Uncle Philip said. “Can you believe? He called me a stupid, inedible, half-cooked noodle. And some other things.”
So Uncle Phil went home with this horse that was actually something less than a horse, a horse manqué, an anti-horse, and it was the best thing that ever happened to him. A mangy, pathetic nag, wobbly on its legs, but he loved that horse as if they had grown up together on a farm and depended on each other for their very existence. No saddle, just the reins and the bit, and Uncle Phil would sit astride its back and the horse would carry him. They would go around the block. It was about all the horse could manage—once around the block, past the one- and two-family houses, around the corner and onto the cobblestoned avenue, past the bakery, the delicatessen, the barbershop, the fish store, the candy store, then full circle back to the house. They interfered with traffic. Cars honked. But the horse, a dingy shade of brown, its eyes bloodshot and running with rheum, moved along at its own slow pace. When they got back to the house, the horse would be exhausted, breathing hard. Uncle Phil let no one touch it. He groomed it, fed it, hosed him down. He shoveled the dung into a pile in a corner of the garden. I lived a few blocks away, but every afternoon I went over on my bike to see the horse and listen to its wheezy breathing. Uncle Phil made a place for him in the garage, and that was where the horse slept. Sometimes he left him in the yard, tethered to the apricot tree.
My grandfather accepted the presence of the horse with equanimity. He had reared five boys and three girls—and a horse, now, seemed no surprise at all, simply part of the natural flow. But my grandmother reacted. She was furious. She was so overwrought that she no longer talked, not even in Italian. For several weeks she said not a word, moving through the house as if walled in silence. She gave up language altogether, doing her chores with ferocious deliberation, slamming pots, clanking dishes, banging doors, raising and lowering windows with such vigor that one large pane actually shattered. Her inner rage was vented in exasperated sighs, in the heavy thumping of her shoes, in the brisk, savage snap as she turned the pages of the newspaper. It was as if the whole world might blow up, and she, my grandmother, would be the source and center of the blast.
But for my Uncle Philip, these weeks were a wonderful, blissful dream. Not only did he have the horse, but, to everyone’s astonishment, he was seeing Theresa Fortuna again. Somehow, magically, she was back in his life. They went to the movies together. They went off on day trips to Prospect Park and the Bronx Zoo. They took a cruise up to Bear Mountain.
“How could this happen?” Uncle Philip asked. “Do I deserve this? A horse? This crazy, fabulous stumblebum animal, and Theresa Fortuna too?”
“You deserve a kick in the head,” my father said.
“Love is so wonderful,” Aunt Margaret remarked. She was still waiting for love to happen to her, but there was a gentle fatalism in her tone, as if she knew that, for her, the moment was long past.
Uncle Phil showed us pictures of Theresa Fortuna at the zoo. Blowing a kiss to one of the lions. Feeding cotton candy to an elephant. Throwing popcorn to a monkey. Again and again he was out with her, on picnics, or just strolling. They went swimming at Riis Park.
And, one day, the middle of July, he let her ride the horse. It was an extraordinary thing: Theresa Fortuna up there on top of the horse, sitting sideways, without a saddle, holding onto the horse’s scrubby mane, while Uncle Philip led the horse around the block. This was only the second time that I saw her. The first time, that time at Winkler’s, seemed ages ago. Now, as she rode the horse, I followed along on foot, thinking how lucky Uncle Philip was, because Theresa Fortuna was magnificent. She was dreamily exotic, a queen out of the old story books, with her stunning black hair, and the brilliant red lipstick on her lips, and her long silken skirt clinging to her legs. She smiled. She never said a word, just smiled and gazed with that beautiful gaze of her luscious dark eyes. The horse clipclopped along, and it actually seemed transformed, not an old, clumsy nag but a stallion, a fabled beast out of some brave, mythical past.
All day it had been bright and sunny, but when they got back to the house the sky darkened and there was a cloudburst, a wild, sudden downpour with dazzling strokes of lightning ripping through the sky. Uncle Phil put the horse in the garage, and then, instead of going in the house, he took Theresa Fortuna up into the apricot tree, the two of them laughing and giggling, climbing the handmade wooden ladder that was always left leaning against the trunk. I stood in the grass, drenched, watching as they went up. They settled onto a thick branch and somehow braced themselves, then suddenly they were grabbing at each other and kissing. Theresa Fortuna’s wet clothes clung to her body as if they were her skin. Uncle Phil’s hands were all over her, and her hands were all over him too, grabbing at his skinny body. It was better than a movie. They were so fierce up there— clutching at each other, mouths hungry and insatiable, hot with desire, kissing with feverish, breathless passion, and I just stood there in the rain, amazed, feeling a weird exaltation, uplifted by the sweet, wild wonder of their love.
Then, from the corner of his eye, Uncle Phil caught sight of me in the muddy grass, being pelted by the warm rain. He removed his hand from Theresa Fortuna’s breast and pointed an accusing finger. “Hey you,” he shouted. “Number 13. Numero Tredici. Go home, you crazy kid! You want pneumonia?”
“What about you,” I shouted back. “You want to get hit by lightning?”
“We’re in love,” he answered, exultantly. “The lightning has already hit us. But you, if you’re 13 and full of bad luck, watch out!”
Theresa Fortuna laughed. I saw her bare legs up in the branches, and the sweet glide of her laughter echoed in the rain washed leaves.
That night I had an unusual dream. Uncle Philip was in the apricot tree, and the tree was on fire. He was alone up there, plucking away at his mandolin. The tree was on fire, but the mandolin was not, and neither was he. He was untouched by the flames. Every apricot was ablaze, each piece of fruit a tight small fist of fire. And Uncle Philip, unharmed, sang, the flames spreading out like a halo around him. He was the saint of the tree, the saint of love, but his singing was so bad nobody wanted to listen, not even Theresa Fortuna, who was strangely missing from this dream. When I woke up I thought it odd that she hadn’t been in the burning tree with Uncle Phil, and I took it as a bad omen. It was as if, somehow, she had died, and that was not something I wanted to think about.
I didn’t get sick from all that rain, and neither did Uncle Phil, or Theresa Fortuna. But the horse did. Uncle Phil took him out of the garage, which was damp, and he brought him into the open air, under the tree. The horse went down on the ground and, once down, he couldn’t get up. Uncle Phil stayed with him the whole time. He even had a vet come out to look at him. The vet gave him some shots, but he didn’t seem terribly hopeful. The horse lay there under the apricot tree, wheezing, breathing hard, snorting, and then, after three days of this, he was dead. Uncle Vincent offered to cart him out to the city dump in his truck, but Uncle Phil wouldn’t hear of it. He dug a big hole in the backyard, working all day, without pause, and buried the horse right there, with a pile of stones for a marker. The horse was gone. It was as if he had never been. As if he was something we had all imagined, or dreamt, a summer’s fantasy, and now there were other things to go on to. Uncle Phil was exhausted. “Stupid horse,” he said, angry at the horse for being dead. “He wouldn’t live. I told him to live but he wouldn’t. Didn’t want to. He just went down on the ground and wouldn’t get up. You ever see such a dumb, crazy beast?”
It was a dismal time, after the horse died. Things went upside down. My grandfather suffered a minor stroke, and for a short while he was in the hospital. He seemed fragile, small, less real, lying there in the hospital bed. In August, one of Uncle Vincent’s friends, someone with whom he’d been in the war, was killed in a car accident on the East River Drive. And one of my mother’s friends was talking about getting a divorce, because her husband, a mailman, had been beating her. It was a tarnished world. Nothing seemed as good as it had been. For Uncle Phil, the hardest part was that he broke up with Theresa Fortuna again, this time for good. She liked him, in fact she liked him very much, but she didn’t think they had a future. She left him for a photographer who was taking pictures of her and showing them around. She still wanted to be on the cover of Vogue. This particular photographer wasn’t going to get her there, she knew, but it was a start, a practical step. She was a realist. There were things that had to be done, and the thing right now, she saw, was to forget about my Uncle Phil and pick up with this photographer, Sonny Potenza, who was going to make her a star. He was fat, with muddy eyes, and he wore plaid jackets, and on his lip there was a moustache like the one on Governor Thomas E. Dewey, who was planning to run again for President. Uncle Phil wanted to punch him in the nose.
My father, hearing all of this from Uncle Phil, shook his head slowly, as if to say I told you so, without actually saying the words. This was on a Sunday, at my grandmother’s house, in the muggy heat of an August afternoon. My father, in a strong, brotherly way, put his hand on Uncle Phil’s shoulder. “Look,” he said, “it’s over. That one, she’s not right for you, she never was. So why are you giving yourself all this heartache?”
“Let him be,” Aunt Margaret said. “Don’t bother him.”
“Who’s bothering him?” my father said. “We’re talking.”
“You’re bothering him.”
“Look at him,” my father said in a raised voice. “What good is he? Something’s missing inside him. He doesn’t have any get-up-and-go.”
“A dreamer,” Uncle Vincent said.
My father stood close to Uncle Phil, staring right into his eyes, and spoke of him as if he wasn’t there. “He can’t pull his life together. Don’t you see? He doesn’t even want to. He’s lost. Empty.”
These were stabbing words. They bothered me. Because if something was missing inside my Uncle Phil, it meant something was missing in me too, because what I felt, that summer, was that the two of us were really the same. Uncle Philip, as far as I was concerned, was me. And I was him. It was me up there in that tree. Me with Theresa Fortuna. If not now, soon. If not Theresa Fortuna, someone very like her. My time would come. It had to. Because heartache, love, pain, these were the only things that truly mattered, the only things worth living for. What good was it being alive if there was no tree to climb in the rain?
“Basta,” my grandmother said, wanting a little less commotion in the house. She was tired of my Uncle Phil, and tired of my father, and tired of Aunt Margaret. She was tired of all her other children, even the ones who were far away and rarely wrote, even the one who was dead. “Basta,” she said, meaning enough. Even I knew that. Enough was enough. She had wanted it all somehow to be different, but it wasn’t. Her life was what it was. So she took her place on the rocker, on the flattened-out cushions, and turned on the radio, and looked at us all as if we were nameless strangers and she was waiting eagerly for all of us to disappear.
The reason why my grandmother never said anything in English was not because she didn’t know the language, but because she was making a conscious, deliberate refusal. It was her revenge on my grandfather for bringing her to America. She never felt at home here. Somehow, for her, it wasn’t right. There weren’t enough trees. Always sirens, cars, rush, rush, rush. My father and my Uncle Vincent would argue with her, listing the advantages, and she would nod, and shrug, but always it came down to the same thing. The pulse was wrong. She never felt that she really belonged. In America, she would say, people didn’t know who they were.
So even though she could understand almost anything that was said to her in English, she clung to here native dialect, holding to it stubbornly, joyously, angrily, jealously, with the result that her house bristled with boisterous bilingual conversations, she rattling on in Italian, and my aunts and uncles responding in an English randomly spiced with Italian expressions. And I, knowing only the commonest phrases, buon giorno, come sta, buona sera, was shut out from all this, closed off from anything my grandmother said, unless it got translated. And, in the translation, what was finally lost was not just the cadence and the play of meaning, but my grandmother herself, because language stood between us, a constant barrier. Even at a very early age I sensed, in her gaze, in the way she looked at me, that there was a distance between us that would never be overcome.
Not long after the horse died, my father managed to get a job for Uncle Phil in an export firm in lower Manhattan. It was only a clerk’s salary, but in time, if he played his cards right, he would move up the ladder. Every day now Uncle Phil dressed in a suit and tie and took the subway to Canal Street. I could see that in many ways, except for the crooked teeth and the one ear that stuck out, he resembled my father. In a few years he would put on weight, and the lines would come in his face, and he and my father would look almost exactly alike. My father looked like my grandfather. Uncle Phil, I had thought, looked more like my grandmother, but that was changing.
On Labor Day, there was the annual neighborhood parade that started out somewhere on New Utrecht Avenue and wound around over to Fort Hamilton. A few high-school bands, a fire engine, some union locals, a few cops on horses. Father Gazzo, the pastor of the parish, would march with some altar boys. My Uncle Vincent used to march with the electricians’ local. It was never the best parade of the year, but it was the only one that came right past my grandparents’ house, and it was always fun to see Uncle Vincent trudging along with the other electricians from the local. We would all sit out on the front porch and watch the parade go by. When Uncle Vincent came along, Uncle Phil would always shout something, like: “Hey Vincent, get your finger out of the socket,” or “Come on, Vinny, march, show us some megawatts,” or “Where’s the voltage, guys? Let’s see some voltage out there.”
But this time Uncle Phil didn’t shout anything at all. Because just before Uncle Vincent and the electricians’ union came along, there was a slow-moving white convertible in the parade, and, perched on the back seat, in a one-piece pink bathing suit spangled with sequins, was Theresa Fortuna. She was Miss Boro Park. They had just picked her the night before. And here she was, her long black hair loose over her shoulders, sequins sparkling in the sun, and a gold banner across her terrific chest: MISS BORO PARK. She was really something. It hurt to look at her and know how close Uncle Phil had come to having her forever. That he’d had her and lost her. He was sitting on the porch railing, and when the convertible came into view he seemed to stop breathing. Theresa Fortuna was waving and blowing kisses, but when she came past my grandparents’ house and saw Uncle Phil and all of us on the porch, she looked the other way and blew a kiss to Angelo D’Accetta and his wife, who were on their porch across the street. In the front seat of the convertible, driving, was Sonny Potenza, the photographer, in a plaid blazer. He was older than Uncle Phil but younger than my father. He looked silly with that moustache on his lip, but he exuded confidence, and seemed very satisfied. Theresa Fortuna didn’t belong to Uncle Phil anymore. For him it was over. She wouldn’t even belong to Sonny Potenza for very long. She belonged to whoever would drive her in the next parade, and it would be a bigger parade than this one. Maybe, soon, she would be Miss Brooklyn. Then Miss New York. But not Miss America, that was too big a dream. Even Miss New York was unlikely. But she clearly was beautiful. Everyone agreed. They had made the right choice when they picked her for Miss Boro Park.
She went by in the white convertible, in that pink bathing suit, with her fabulous figure, and Uncle Phil said nothing at all, just sat there on the railing. The electricians went by, with Uncle Vincent, then the sanitation union, and the garment workers, and Father Gazzo with the altarboys, and some cops on horses. And at the tail end of the parade was Giovanni in his new secondhand truck, which was loaded with watermelons. Still Uncle Phil said nothing. He just sat there on the railing, staring emptily. But when the parade was far down the street and the sounds of the Fort Hamilton High School band were beginning to fade, Uncle Phil moved off the porch railing and walked across the street into Angelo D’Accetta’s yard, and when he came back he had Angelo D’Accetta’s axe in his hands. Angelo D’Accetta was following him, saying he could borrow the axe if he wanted but he shouldn’t just walk in and take it like that. It wasn’t neighborly. It wasn’t a right thing to do. Uncle Phil didn’t seem to hear him. He didn’t even look at him. He didn’t look at us either. He went straight up the driveway to the back of the house, and we followed him, because he seemed to have something very important on his mind.
In the yard, he went right up to the apricot tree, and started chopping. He chopped like crazy, and all we could do was watch. My grandfather watched. My grandmother watched. My mother and father watched. My cousins watched. I watched.
“He’s going crazy,” Aunt Margaret said. She was in the kitchen, washing dishes, watching through the open window.
“What are you doing,” my grandfather said.
“I’m chopping down the tree,” Uncle Phil said. He chopped.
“You don’t want to do that,” my father said.
“Yes I do.”
“What if it falls the wrong way?”
“Stop him,” my grandfather said to my father.
My father took a few steps forward, but the axe was swinging in a wide arc.
“Don’t get too close,” my mother cried with some alarm.
My father kept his distance.
“What’s wrong with him,” my grandfather said.
“He’s unhappy with his life,” Aunt Margaret said.
My grandfather shook his fist. “So he has to cut down the tree? Porca miseria, what kind of an unhappiness is that? This is making him happy?” Uncle Phil was still swinging, and my grandfather called aloud angrily, above the sound of the axe. “This—this is what you want? This is making you happy?”
“I don’t want to be happy,” my Uncle Phil shouted back. “I’m miserable—and when this tree comes down I’ll be even more miserable.” He continued swinging.
My grandfather seemed to collapse inward. It had never occurred to him that an axe could be put to this tree. That the tree itself could suddenly, simply, not be. At his side, my grandmother watched calmly. She said nothing.
Uncle Phil kept chopping, and a little sooner, I think, than any of us expected, the tree began to fall. It leaned, and for an instant it seemed to hesitate, as if making up its mind whether to fall or not—and then, with dispatch, as we rushed back out of harm’s way, down it came. It didn’t hit the house. And it didn’t fall into the neighbor’s yard. It fell where it was meant to fall, its great, spreading branches filling the yard. Uncle Phil stood motionless, holding the axe, looking at the wreckage. “I loved that tree,” he said. “Papa planted that tree for me and it was mine. Damn it, that crazy tree is me.”
He burst into tears. It was the only time I ever saw him weep. And then my grandmother wept, and she went to him, and the two of them stood by the fallen tree, embracing and weeping. My grandfather shrugged, threw up his hands, and went into the house. My mother was smiling. My father shook his head. Aunt Margaret, at the kitchen window, was saying that Diana Crespi, the butcher’s daughter, was on the phone for Uncle Phil, but she was telling her to call back later. Uncle Phil never heard. He was holding on to his mother, and the two of them were busy sobbing, unhappiness clinging to unhappiness.
And then, in the midst of all this turbulence, my attention was caught by a large, brightly colored butterfly flitting about near the rose bushes, and I felt a sudden inordinate need to possess it. I went after it, climbing over the branches of the fallen tree, hoping to catch it with my hands, and I came damn close, but a soft breeze caught it and it fluttered off into the next yard. It made me mad. This gorgeous red and purple butterfly, rare, resting now on a hollyhock, but it was on the other side of the fence, out of reach. And, even though I knew it was a dumb, irrational impulse, not moral and not decent, I felt for all the world like throwing a rock and crushing its fierce, fragile beauty. Because what right did it have anyway, to be beautiful and alive in somebody else’s garden?