Back: Light and perfection
The sound of an adult crying takes the gravity out of the kid's world. It makes everything soft so a person could sink into his own mattress and drown breathing cotton and dust. Everything becomes a lie, like you could be naked through your own clothes, like your own bones could become jello and refuse to hold you up. Then the kid knows nothing is solid. The walls of the house he lives in, that protect him from wind and hailstones, that seem as firm and permanent as sides of a mountain, those walls and that floor creak because they're splintering like branches bent over a knee.
He takes his ear from the cold door and puts his hand on the knob slowly, trying not to breathe. A bare bulb hangs from a thick brown wire and illuminates the airless apartment hallway in faded yellow orange the way heaven lights purgatory in his book of catechism. Now he sees the torn wallpaper and the hole in the plaster and the broken lath where his uncle Ricky put his fist through when aunt Cecilia locked him out for drinking. Balls of gray gypsum hang from strands of canvas before the hole and behind them is the tar black soul of the building, originally sealed up by angry men who built the tenement and now released onto the landing next to apartment 2C. He puts his face to the hole and sees a word and it reminds him that everything is crying or angry. That happiness is as far away as the flaming ball of heaven that makes the yellow orange light.
The men left some time ago. He pretended to be sleeping when his bedroom door opened quickly, then closed nearly silently. He heard his father go out. His mother closing her bedroom door and then the tromping on the stairway above his bedroom, the molten stacatto of deep voices, the sharp clacking of metal against metal, then the front doorway slamming a finale to the sound. Silence enveloped the apartment like darkness until the moan from above. And then the sobs.
So he left the apartment as quietly as he could. Closed the door on the chain so it wouldn't lock behind him. Padded up to where his grandparents lived, the cool rubberized steps rough, grains of grit attached to the bottoms of his feet like beach sand. He puts his hand on the doorknob and tries but he may as well be trying to push the building into the Hudson River. A couple more times and the door swings open, and he grasps the handle by reflex and is yanked inside where he runs into a stained moist apron that smothers him.
"Donnie. What you doing out the bed?"
The woman sinks to her haunches and takes his cheeks in her palms. Her eyes are red. A pink and yellow dress hangs from her shoulders like a bathtowel tossed onto a chair. She's bound it to herself with an apron he's never seen her take off except to go to church. Her face is tracked in wet. Her graying hair tied back frames her face the way it is for all the women in all the grainy black and white photos he's ever seen of his family.
She says, "Nonna nonna. Why I here, Nonna?"
"Did somebody hit you?" he says, because at that moment he can't imagine another reason for someone to cry.
"Nobody hit Nonna," she says, and she hugs him so it's hard to breathe for a second. Then she lets go. Hands again on his cheeks as if she's afraid to let go of him or he'll blow away, "Chi mette quello?" She knocks him on the head with a knuckle, "Inside that silly head? Where from comes that?"
"You were crying," he says, because she still is and he feels the world is collapsing around him.
"Does you momma know you up here?"
He shakes his head and she stands, towering over him, commands, "Come," and he follows her into the kitchen where he sits on the steel and vinyl chair, elbows on the linoleum table top while she pours some milk into a saucepan and turns on the fire.
Then, her back to him she seems to fall a little, as if the earth decided at that moment to pull on her shoulders a little harder, and she braces herself against the white stove with palms under locked elbows. She shakes a little and a hand goes to her face. Then she takes a white and blue checkered towel from a hook and wipes it across her face.
She turns to him, her face red and tight, and she's not the grandmother he remembers. He watches her face melt back to the person he knows.
"Donnie, you get big, then you understand."
And she looks at the ceiling as if the answers are printed there. Bites the side of her hand for a moment and then wipes again at her nose with the terrycloth.
"People, they change," she says without looking at him. "You know?"
And he says he does, but she tells him he can't. He's too young.
"It happens slow so you don't think about," she says, "You don't know but every day is a little more, then is a little more. Always. Then one day you think it's always this way, but you don't remember. It's like you look a picture. You know when you look a picture, Nonna? Like it's real, but then. Not now. And you remember but you can't feel. You understand Nonna?"
He says he does, but it doesn't seem to mean anything.
"It's okay you no understand Nonna right now. You remember Nonna this. You promise. You promise when you grow up, when you a man and you have you own woman, you remember how you are now and you be that way. Can you promise that Nonna?"
She turns back and pours the saucepan of hissing milk into a glass. Then she stirs in some chocolate syrup and puts the glass in front of him. On the wall above the stove is a wooden crucifix, Jesus crucified. Shoved between the metal statuette of the nailed body and the wooden cross is a palm frond folded like two intersecting straw yellow bows. A palm cross.
"You are careful now. He's hot," she says.
He sips at his chocolate and watches as his grandmother makes herself busy with nothing. Wiping clean surfaces. Arranging dry glassware on a drying rack.
"That's a new picture," he says, pointing to one he now sees above the small white refrigerator.
"He's a angel," his grandmother says. "It's Michael. He's kill the devil."
"The devil is dead?" the boy asks. "How come we have to watch out for him if he's already dead?"
"He's come back to life. He's no kilt forever. It's a fight, always."
He sees the mark now, a welt first red, now growing purple on her neck like the shadow of the person ahead of her in the line for heaven.
Then there are men everywhere. Sprawled on mattresses tossed on the living room floor. On the sofa. Pasta-inflated guts overflowing waistbands and biceps the size of bulldozer pistons. Brooding and sweating through sleeveless t-shirts, golden cornu hanging from their necks turning green and tangled in the curled hairs against the heat of their flesh. They're in gray suit pants and black belts. Black socks and penny loafers. The atmosphere is heavy with the lung clouds of greasy blue Chesterfield smoke, the dense invisible methane of their flatulance, filled with banter spit out in in three and four word sentences. Statements unconsciously encoded in peasant Sicilian to keep the riff raff from figuring out what's going on. Hands pushing the words along in the air. The occasional fist to the shoulder gets the old man to turn his head and shout a command. In his house, on this day, his father is not boss. Uncle Cheech sets the rules.
Even though he's never seen some of these guys before, everyone here is an uncle or cousin. His father never explained it this way, but he came to know anyone introduced as Uncle Tommy or Cousin Alfonse was to be trusted without question. Anyone called mister or doctor or professor or sir, was to be watched and his movements reported.
They're all here because of what happened to Grandpa that night he left Nonna crying. Donnie's given up on asking what it was, because the answer has been nearly the same since the beginning, since dad came home with his shirt torn and his hair mussed, when he locked the door and made mom watch the window for people in the street. He knelt on his bed and stared outside, watching the black cars drive back and forth. Looking for something that scared his father until the door opened and Uncle Cheecho came in. And then everyone else saying Grandpa wouldn't be home for a while. Not to worry, even though everybody was.
They couldn't leave the building. After dinner, there was a line to the toilet and he and his mother went upstairs to his grandparent's apartment. His mother pulled him inside and locked the door behind them while she lifted her dress and sat.
"Face the wall," she commanded.
"What's happening, Ma? Where's Grandpa?"
When the sound of spilling water stopped he heard the paper rolling and she flushed. She told him to go. His turn. But he couldn't with her in there with him.
"Why are all these people at our house?"
His mother fished a pack of Chesterfield's out of her pocket. Facing the wall she lit the cigarette and folded her arms. Once he saw her rub her forehead.
"Who are those guys?"
"Just shut up and go, Donnie," she said. And he saw her back shaking as he'd seen his grandmother just last night. He got off the toilet, pulled up his pants and went to her.
"Mom? What's ashmedai?" He pulled on her dress to get her attention.
"It's bullshit. It's a kike word. I don't ever wanna hear that shit coming out of your mouth," she said, crying. She pulled open the door so hard it nearly hit him. When she got to the landing she reminded him he hadn't flushed, and he told her he hadn't gone. She shrugged and motioned for him to come to her. And when he passed the couple yards to where she was standing she slapped him hard across the face. He saw a flash of light and a moment later, his face stung.
"What did I do?" he sputtered, betrayed, confused.
"You listen to me, Donnie. You're his son but that doesn't mean you have to turn out like him."
Then she grabbed his wrist and pulled him down the stairs. When they got to the apartment and opened the door a couple of the guys jumped to their feet, reaching for their belts.
"Jesus, Lina. You give us a heart attack," said Uncle Cheecho. His voice was low and gravelly and it sounded to the boy like the old man had a mouth full of cake. His double chin wiggled when he spoke. It made Donnie wish he wouldn't.
The guys sat down again and ran their hands through their slick black hair. Cheecho said, "Where'd you go?"
"Upstairs to use the john. That a crime?"
Uncle Cheecho looked at her, then at the boy. He opened his mouth as if he was going to say something but his father came and slid his arms around his wife's shoulders and said, "It's okay, Lina. It's just for a little while. So everyone's safe." She shot him a look and pulled away. Then he said down to the kid, "You look after your mother?" and seeing the boy's red face, "What the hell happened to you?"
Donnie told him, "Nothing," because he knew any other answer would elicit that response from the men. That it was nothing was the response to any injury, however serious.
"You gotta take care of you momma," Uncle Cheecho said, and his father nodded. "For the next couple days. Till this all blows over."
"Till what blows over?" he asked, but the men smiled and turned away. His father put a hand on his shoulder. It felt like a dead animal and smelled of garlic and brylcream. "It's adult business. Some day, but not now."
Then there were knocks on the door. Three, then two. Then the voice, "It's Tino," and one of the men slid open the locks and let the young man in.
He was thin and filled his clothing like a coat rack. He tapped raindrops from his hat in the hallway, then walked into the crowded atmosphere as if strolling into a department store. There was a smirk on his face and butt between his lips. His face was smooth, devoid of the grooves life had worn into the other men. He hadn't yet grown the moles or liver spots. He threw his raincoat over the back of the sofa and one of the guys took it off and threw it back at him, demanding he show some respect for the house.
Cheecho took the cigarette from the young man's mouth, and Tino complained, "Don Cheech..."
The older man smacked him across the face, the sound loud and sharp like a the sound of a distant baseball connecting with a bat. Tino complained and raised a hand, and when he did two of the t-shirted uncles pulled up behind and clamped a hand onto one of his arms. Cousin Alfonse stood next to Uncle Cheecho, and smiled.
"Boys. There is kids here," Uncle Cheecho said, and the air in the room became breathable again. "Now what you got to tell me, that brings this kind of disrespect into this home in which we are guests?"
"I'm sorry, Don Cheech. I didn't mean no disrespect."
"You didn't mean you didn't mean. You never mean, but you always do. You do this you do that. You don't mean nothing, you say, but you keep doing. I ask myself, 'What am I gonna do with this guy?' I gotta keep reminding myself you're my niece's son. I gotta keep, you cabish?"
Tino nodded quickly, and his eyes turned glassy. He swallowed. Now that there was some fear in the kid Cheech turned his back and went into the kitchen. All the men sat down except one he called Uncle Ricky. He reached under Tino's suit coat and pulled out something black.
When Tino saw his gun in Ricky's hand, he blanched. "Oh Jesus, fuck me. I didn't..."
"Don Cheech," said the man, holding the gun as if it stank.
"This is exactly what I'm saying," said Cheech. Then to his father, "Donnie, you want to take the women and the kid for a while? Go get some ice cream for Little Donnie."
"You think that's okay?" his father said, hesitating for a moment, and then lowering his eyes, went for his coat and his hat.
"Ricky and Alfonse will go with you," Cheech said, and without a word the men found their shirts and began buttoning them. "The rest of us are going to stay and have a talk with Tino, here."
When they all had their coats, Uncle Clement brought Tino up to all of them who were going out. He had a hand on the back of the kid's neck like he was strangling him from behind. "Apologize," he said, shaking the kid so his head bobbed from side to side.
Now there were tears in Tino's eyes. "I'm sorry," he said, squeezing out the words as if from a toothpaste tube.
"For what?" Cheech said from the kitchen table.
"For bringing a piece into your house. I'm sorry, I forgot it was there."
"You forgot. Nobody cares, you always forgot this forgot that. What else?" Clement said, and he shook the kid again like the words needed to be knocked around the inside of his skull so they could find their way out his mouth.
"And for saying the f-word in front of the kid, here. I'm sorry. I truely am."
"And you truely will be," Cheech said. Then to the father, "Give us an hour. Okay, Donnie?"
His father nodded. The men tapped their gray fedoras onto their heads and the women tied kerchiefs over their hair. His father looked Tino in the eye and told him he accepted his apology. Then he said to the old man, "He's just a kid, Uncle Cheech. He doesn't mean any harm."
"This is a hard time. I got no more patience for mistakes. So we're gonna have to learn it to him," Cheech said. "Some don't learn so easy as you."
Then Little Donnie pushed his arms into his thick winter coat and followed them outside in the rain to find a Chock Full O' Nuts that would be open at that hour.
He sat at the counter and complained he got a donut instead of ice cream, and Lina told him to shut up. Her mother-in-law glared while Big Donnie sat with his elbows on the table, hunched over a cup of coffee in a booth across from Alfonse and Ricky. The men spoke in low tones, occasionally leaning back and looking out the big front windows and the door as if expecting someone.
"I can't take much more of this," Lina said to the older woman. She fiddled with her purse, pulled out a balled up tissue and wiped some glazed sugar off Little Donnie's face.
His grandmother said nothing at first, and then quietly, "What you expected? Did you think--this is a movie? Me and Marcello rolling in the sand, is that what you think?"
Donnie ate his donut and looked into the mirror over the cash register. There was another kid, just like him, eating the same donut. And behind him, the same father and men in gray overcoats and scarves, looking like animated brick buildings.
His grandmother said, "It's the same always. Everywhere you do. Every place you go. The men, they get scared, they hit. It's never change. It's always the same."
"I never hit a girl," Donnie said, and the women froze and stared at him. "Well I wouldn't. Ever." His mother wiped nothing off his face, then nearly pulled him off his stool and kissed him on the top of the head.
Now feeling brave, he asked his mother, "Was that a real gun Uncle Tino had?"
"You shut up about that," his mother said.
His nonna added, "You listen you momma, Nonna."
And then the air became solid. The women's spines stiffened and he didn't know why. Ricky hung up the receiver on the diner's pay phone and motioned to the front. He muttered, "Fucking Tino."
"Take him into the ladies room. Now. Quietly." Big Donnie leaned between them, the veins pulsing in his neck.
Alfonse leaned over, casually, his eyes on the diner's door. He said as calmly as if he was asking the time, "That's a bad idea. I'm tellin' ya, they just walk out the front. Get a cab. Take it to the farm in Jersey." He looked at Little Donnie, pulled a roll of money out of his pocket and peeled off a couple bills.
"Think you can do that, sport? Take your mom and nonna up to the farm. You remember where it is?"
He shook his head, because he didn't.
"Old Pineland Road. Gibbsboro. Tell him to stay off the Parkway. Only back roads. Call us when you get there."
He shoved the bills into Donnie's coat pocket and ushered the women off their seats. "Ladies?" he said.
"What's going on?" Lina asked her husband as Alfonse urged them out the front door.
"I'll see you in a couple days," Donnie said. "Just go. Harry's up at the farm. We'll all meet up there."
Then he leaned over to his son and said, "You take care of them, right?" He told his father he would.
Outside Uncle Alphonse hailed a cab. They got in the back and he gave instructions to the driver, who complained at first, but then calmed down when Alphonse handed the man a couple bills. As he leaned over the boy saw the gray-black butt of a pistol in a holster at Alphonse's side.
"Take care of you momma," Alphonse said. He tapped the roof of the cab and the driver negotiated into the stream of traffic.
The women sat stoic, and the driver eyed Donnie in the rear view.
Something about everything was wrong. The boy felt as if he was under water and on a roller coaster all at once. He turned in the seat, grabbed the back of the bench and pulled his face toward the back window when he saw three men emerge from a black car, guns in gloved hands.
"What's the problem, kid?" the driver said, almost audible through the thick plexiglass barrier.
"Stop the car," the boy said.
"The man said--"
Donnie cut him off. "Stop the cab or my father will blow your head off."
"Donnie!" His mother shouted and tried to slap at him, but couldn't get leverage in the tight confines. When the car stopped he jumped into the rain, into a puddle on the deep black pavement. He ran back toward the diner as the explosions started. It was louder than he expected it would be. Sharp pops like a bullwhip cracking, not at all the zing-zang of the westerns he'd seen. There were flashes and shards of glass as bullets missing their mark flew from the diner and into the city beyond.
The armed men burst from the diner and got into the waiting car. One stopped to take a look at him running toward them. He raised his hand but the others shouted and he got into the car with them and they sped off.
The diner seemed deserted until he crossed the floor to where they had been sitting. Uncle Ricky sat slumped against a bloody wall. Alphonse lay on the booth seat, inert. His father lay on his back in a dark slick pool that grew from beneath him. There was a gun in his hand.
Energy curled around inside the boy like red blood electricity. He wanted to cry but he couldn't. He wanted to fight but there was no one left. And for the first time in his life he wanted to see fire. He wanted to burn something down.
His father's mouth moved, but only a rush of air came out. Nothing vocal. Nothing human. Outside, distant sirens began wailed.
"Pop?" he said, leaning over his father. "What's happening?"
His father said, "Mother. Take care--" and stopped. And he remembered the man in the cab.
Donnie pried the gun from his father's hand. It was sticky with blood and smelled sharp, and poisonous. Heavier than he expected, he holds it in two fists as he's seen cops do on television and nearly runs into a man coming into the diner.
The man is tall. His hair is light brown and falls at his shoulders like the picture the Sacred Heart of Christ in his grandmother's kitchen. His eyes bluer, his teeth whiter than Donnie has ever seen on a person. He wears a formal suit and tie.
He says one word, "Michael," but Donnie doesn't listen. He points his father's gun at the man, who steps aside, smiling.
Then Donnie hears a shot and a muffled shout. He sees a flash inside the cab and the driver emerges, smiling.
"There you are, kid. Your father still gonna blow my head off? Big Michelina's gone down, little man. It's the end of your whole fucking wop, grease ball, ginny world."
He points his fist toward Donnie as Donnie raises his gun and pulls the trigger.
The sound deafens him. His ears ring and the concussion feels like something he's swallowed. His arms are pulled upward as if by magnetic force.
The man laughs and comes toward him, fist pointed outward. Donnie sees the muzzle of the gun. Transfixed. Someone comes in from behind.
The man from the diner. He pulls the weapon from Donnie's hand.
"Don't fire," he says, his voice commanding like thunder, like something that comes out of a machine or a cannon. It's a sound that envelops him, and he can't move.
The driver freezes for a second. "Who the hell are you?"
And the tall blue-eyed man says, "Don't shoot."
"Fuck you," the driver says, and the blue-eyed man shoots the gun as if he's made of stone. Not one molecule of his body moves. It seems the sound knocks over the taxi driver. He falls backward as if a hand has emerged from the pavement, grabbed his hair from behind, and pulled him down. They approach him and he's still breathing. The tall man puts the weapon against the taxi driver's chest, contemplates another shot as the driver stops moving.
He hands the gun back to Donnie. Now he can hear the sirens. Blue and red lights pierce the night and all of it starts to sink into him. He sits on the sidewalk, crying, expecting to be killed.
"Michael," the man says. He crouches on the sidewalk, and then opens his coat and holds it out over the boy.
"Do you want to come with me, now?"
The boy shakes his head. The firey emotion running out, leaves him nothing but empty. And from that pit comes wailing. Sadness for all the starvation and pain and death that has ever been. There is no more death that can avenge his pain. The devil is everywhere. He can't be killed.
"We need you, Michael," the man says, and the cop cars pull up.
Two plain clothes cops approach them. A herd of dark blue uniforms crowd into the diner.
"How'd you beat me here?" a cop asks the blue-eyed man.
"I was out for a walk."
"Out for a walk on the upper west side? Venturing a bit far out of the neighborhood now. Don't tell me we got all this shit coming up here now."
"It is where it is," the blue-eyed man says. "That's where we go, right?"
The cop says, "Right," then, "Who do we got here?"
"Donnie Michelina," the man says, and Donnie's afraid the man knows his name. "Son of Big Donnie Fingers, grandson of Donnie Scabs."
A uniformed cop comes up to the plain clothes guys and says, "Looks like the Giannis waxed the Michelinas. We got three of 'um in there. Five back up in the apartment. The two women in the cab."
"Jesus. Why the women? That's not like them," Lentini says. "That's not Gianni." He takes out his pad and writes, says to the cop, "And so where's lieutenant number nine? Go find me him. I want him alive. Before Gianni can get to him."
"What about the kid?" the cop asks.
"You take him, Ray?"
The blue-eyed man nods and the detective leans over toward the boy. It feels to him like he's swimming under the real world of people who see over his head. They move and get angry and cry and kill each other while he swims underneath it all, watching their knees and belt buckles.
"I'm Detective Lentini and this man here is Ray. He's a good man. You'll be safe with him. He's got special powers."
Donnie says, "Like Superman?"
"Yeah," Lentini says, "Sort of like Superman."
"Fuck you," Donnie says, and spits.
Lentini stands, pulls a handkerchief from a pocket inside his jacket and wipes his face.
"He's been through a lot," Ray says. "It's about him. You're going to hear a bit about the street traffic and the lines back to Columbia, but it's not true. They're trying to get him and they don't realize they are."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Lentini says.
"It won't stop. It got Phil. It's gaining confidence. It's going to come after the rest of us," Ray says.
Lentini looks at the boy on the sidewalk, then back to the blue-eyed man. "The kid?"
And Donnie doesn't know what they're talking about, but feels something coming up through the ground, into his legs, up through the hollow in his spine, exploding in his mind. Fire and lightning. Now he's not crying. Instead, he's filled with something like peace. Something like anger. Everything can wait until he's ready.
Later there'll be a time to fight. Later the city will burn. He sees the flames jumping from rooftop to rooftop. Purification. Until nothing is left but the power of light, and all the blackness, the ashmedai sealed below the rotting buildings is rendered to dust, immolated beneath his anger.