Fiction

Penitence

By: A. Richard Sogliuzzo

Vincent glanced at the graffiti on the wall of the Flatbush Avenue/Brooklyn College subway station, and then laughed. Amidst the usual array of “fuck you, eat shit, etc.” on the walls was a declaration that resonated with him, “I’m free!!!!!” emblazoned in large, capital letters.

I’m free, Vincent thought.

He wanted to shout, but kept his thoughts to himself, “No luggage to haunt me!

The train pulled into the station, and Vincent began his usual trip back to Manhattan. He opened his briefcase and read a letter from his doctoral advisor regarding the recently submitted final chapter of his dissertation,

“Excellent. I will be mailing my detailed comments and suggested changes shortly. Cornell Press is quite interested in your work and would like to discuss it with you in greater detail when completed.”

Vincent was among the best and brightest of the graduate students in Sociology at New York University. His dissertation was relevant, both in terms of the changing ethnic landscape of New York City, and the general mood of the country. President Lyndon Johnson had declared a “War on Poverty;” Vincent’s study could become an important resource.

He took out another letter from his briefcase, inhaled its perfumed fragrance, and read it for the third or fourth time: “I love you, miss you more than I had ever imagined. I can’t wait to get back to New York, be in your arms, and make love, make love, make love. I’m repeating myself, I know. Forgive the redundancy and relish the passion. Yours, and I really mean it, Yours, Rachel”

She was part of a team of graduates at Barcelona University in Underwater Archaeology, diving for ancient artifacts beneath the harbor at Constantinople. Vincent smiled as he recalled their first meeting. He was visiting a friend in Barcelona, an assistant professor in archaeology, and they went to the University’s practice pool. The first image of his future love, then unknown to him, emerging from the the pool. Once out of the water, she removed black headgear, goggles, revealing lustrous eyes, delicate lips, long, flowing blonde hair, firm, shapely body, a Venus emerging from the depths.

On the train, Vincent began to read The New York Times. It was a long ride to and from Brooklyn College, where he was an Instructor. The trip afforded him the luxury of reading the newspaper almost in its entirety. Immersed in the Op Ed pages, he was suddenly distracted by a sense that somebody was staring at him. He continued reading, but finally looked up. Seated diagonally across from him was a scowling, very heavyset man: puffy, calloused hands, short, thick neck buried in a drab, grimy, grey coat, clutching a paper bag. He looked directly at Vincent, as though they knew each other. Vincent went back to reading, but peered over the edge of the paper. The man glowered.

Vincent was confused. Why was this stranger looking at him with such anger? Had their paths ever crossed? Did he have to be concerned that the guy was in any way dangerous? He concluded the man was just looking for someone to hate, so why not the neatly dressed guy with the fancy briefcase. Vincent went back to reading the “Times.” Minutes passed, but he could not take his attention off the man, probably about his own age, who continued glowering at him. Nothing in the newspaper managed to interest Vincent, but suddenly an article on elementary school education in New York City caused him to stop reading. He looked up, paused, closed his eyes, and shook his head.

Christ, thought Vincent, could this be ‘Piggy’?’ No, never” He looked at the man again. Holy shit, he thought; It is. It’s one of the Fat Pigs the name he and his elementary school buddies at P.S. 139 in the Bronx had given to two short, obese, identical twin brothers. They were not in Vincent’s class; he did not even know their names. The fact that they were twins, obese, and, most especially, butcher’s kids, made them perfect objects of ridicule. So on their way home from school, Vincent and his buddies would chase after the brothers, shouting. “Heh, ‘Pigs has your father cut some pork chops from your fat asses? Can you grab your balls under all that blubber?”

The twins never responded; bit their lips, buried their heads in their coats, and walked as fast as they could toward home, pursued by Vincent and the rest, shouting after them, until the brothers turned up a block toward home. Nobody knew where they lived, or even cared, what mattered was that they showed up for school every day to provide entertainment for Vincent’s buddies, who had himself been an overweight child, and called, “Fat Vinnie,” but became taller and slimmer as he matured toward adolescence. Now, over twenty years later, one of the twins was seated across Vincent, smarting with childhood anger.

He wanted to go over to the man, tell him he was sorry.

But how do you make up for past crueltie,? Vincent thought.

Would he go over to him and state, “Hi, I’m Vinnie Esposito. Did you go to P.S. 139? You did. Well, I’m sorry for calling you, ‘Fat Shit.”

Vincent soon dismissed the ridiculous idea. Besides, it might not even be the same person. However, the resemblance was startling, a thirty year old man with the identical looks of an obese ten year old from the distant past. Apparently, for all his assumed maturity and dignity, Vincent must have looked pretty much like the bratty twelve year old that had tormented this overweight man in his boyhood.

The train finally arrived at the last stop in Brooklyn before speeding under the river to Manhattan. The man pushed himself out of his seat, clutching the bag as he made his way toward the subway doors. He took one last look at Vincent and uttered, “Fuck you,” loud enough for Vincent to hear, then exited.

The train sped on toward Manhattan. Vincent sat there distressed; his childhood malefactions, never mentioned to the priest during confession came Moreover the cruelty of insults was never discussed as a sin during catechism study, His past hurtful actions came. rushing back to him with the speed and intensity of the roaring train. He imagined his childhood victims staring at him, angry, hurt, tearful: Myrna Zebrowitz, the first girl in the school to get braces. Vincent shouted at her in the school yard, “Heh Myrna, French kiss you and my tongue comes out bleeding;” Barbara and Jimmy Zupan, super’s kids, The wicked chorus of Vincent’s buddies never missed the opportunity of humiliating them, “Heh, sit over there; you both smell like shit;” Lenny Schwartz, the idiot savant, who memorized train schedules for the entire country and masturbated insanely through his pockets when shown brassiere ads, which Vincent did at every opportunity, even during class, causing notes to be sent home to Lenny’s parents about his perverse behavior; the twenty year old, mentally handicapped, “Jerry Moon,” that would be greeted with a song, “Shine on, shine on Jerry’s Moon. Piss in your pants today, Jerry ?” Then they would drop their trousers and moon him, scampering away, then the lumbering six foot child man, hopelessly chasing after, then looking up to heaven, a wounded beast bellowing, ”My mother says you got to stop! Stop!”

But one day, Jerry caught Vincent and got him in a headlock and squeezed with all his might. Vincent’s face turned red, then purple, life running out of him, finally, he bit Jerry’s arm like a mad dog until it bled; Jerry screamed and Vincent let go. but his bite left a permanent scar. Vincent barely escaped with his life.

Most horrible of all was little Patty Dinofrio, the harmless, petty thief, who kept his meager treasures in a bag that he always carried with him. Vincent ran after him, shouting, “Run, Patty, run, run! The cops are after your ass.”

Poor Patty ran as fast as he could and just at the moment he got a good distance ahead of Vincent, a gas line in an old store exploded. Poor little Patty, scattered about like confetti on New Year’s Eve.

Having forgotten the Patti moment until now, Vincent replayed it over and over, despite its terror.. He tried to read the “Times,” but it was useless. He folded the paper, tucked it into his briefcase, closed his eyes; gradually the roar and rocking of the train lulled him into a disquieting sleep. He heard his widowed mother, always in black, endlessly repeating the Rosary, Gesu, Sanata Maria, Madre di Dio, prega per noi peccatori, adesso e nell’ora della nostra morte. Madre di Dio , Madre di Dio, Madre … The cadence became faster, the prayers louder and louder. The train came to a halt; Vincent was jolted out of his nightmare; Broadway and 94th Street. He jumped out of his seat, headed for the doors and managed to get out just as they shut behind him. He raced up the stairs to the street.

The night was colder in Manhattan; Vincent lifted his coat collar and tucked one hand into his pocket, switching his briefcase now and then from one hand to the other to keep warm as he made the long walk from Broadway to his apartment on Central Park West. He would always walk the better-lit 94th rather than the darker, side streets with abandoned tenements, strewn with garbage and occasional shadowy figures in doorways. He stopped at the red light at the corner of Columbus Avenue, glanced at the Holy Name of Jesus Christ Church across the street, shrugged, his eyes momentarily and continued on his way, pulling his coat collar tighter around his neck, lowering his head, and making his way toward home.

He decided to take a short cut across a small park with a tennis court, usually empty at this hour of the night. As he came to a narrow path outside the gates of the tennis court, a figure jumped out of the darkness.

“Don’t move!”

Vincent stopped, and saw a figure wearing a black ski mask. To Vincent, the figure resembled a penitent in a sacred procession he observed in Spain. “Give me your wallet,” demanded the thief and don’t pull any shit.”

“What, what is this? Vincent asked.

“What the fuck do you think it is, now give me your money.”

“O.K. O.K. I’ll give you everything I have.” Vincent’s hand was trembling, barely able to unbutton his coat.

“Hurry up,”

“O.K. O.K.” Vincent managed to reach into his suit pocket, pulled out his wallet, and held it to the thief, who rifled through it quickly.

The thief pulled out some dollar bills, “This is nothing, bull shit.”

“It’s all I have. I don’t carry much cash.”

The thief punched Vincent in the stomach. He fell to the ground, his briefcase flying across the path.

“You got more, asshole, I know it. Give me your watch.”

Vincent staggered to his feet, removed his watch, and gave it to him.

The thief gave it a quick examination,

“More shit.”

He put the money and watch in his pocket, then kicked Vincent hard,

“What’s in that briefcase . . . the briefcase, Fuckhead!”

A long pause, Vincent fell to the ground again, closed his eyes, shook his head, then looked directly at the thief, and stated calmly, “More shit.”

“What’s that?”

“More shit,” Vincent said, only louder.

The thief hit him again. “Don’t fuck with me.”

“I’m not.”

Vincent received a powerful backhand slap from the thief. He went sprawling. After a few seconds, he shook his head, then crawled toward the thief.

Slowly, deliberately Vincent said, “Is that it?”

“What’d you say?” said the thief, who could not believe what he heard.

“Is that it? Vincent asked again, this time louder.

Alarmed, the thief looked about, then kicked Vincent again.

“Give me the briefcase,” said the thief.

Vincent did not move.

The thief kicked him again, this time more fiercely. “Pick up that case and give it to me.”

Vincent spit up some blood, tried to get up then fell over, and while gagging ons his own blood said, “Is that it?”

The thief, his furious eyes peering through the ski mask drew closer to Vincent, who shouted, “Come on, again, . . . again, or I won’t pick it up.”

The thief, his face almost touching Vincent’s, grabbed him by the throat, then stated slowly, “You’re fucked man, You are really fucked,” spit at Vincent then turned and walked quickly away.

“Come on, again,” shouted Vincent . . .”Again.”

The thief disappeared into the night.

Vincent, mouth bleeding, one eye shut, struggled to raise himself up, clung to the fence, and yelled after the thief, “Again”

###

A. Richard Sogliuzzo is a retired professor of Theatre History and Practice, Comparative Literature, University of Texas, Dallas (full time) as well as at universities in the Los Angeles area (i.e UCLA, California State University, Long Beach) teaching Playwriting, as well as Comparative Literature. Additionally, he taught in the Oscher Program for seniors at UCLA.  He is a widely published scholar of theatre history in America and Europe. Among his various honors is a Fulbright Hays Senior Fellowship to Italy, resulting in his book, Luigi Pirandello: the Playwright in the Theatre. He has also lectured at theatre schools throughout Italy. Hisplays, Charade and Discovery were produced at Los Angeles’ Theatre West and Wallenboyd Theatre.  He was a Theatre Critic for National Public Radio’s Morning Edition. Before his writing career he served in the U.S. Army Intelligence Signal Corps.

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Categories: Fiction

1 reply »

  1. Really gripping story of an all too human experience, though from a bygone era, told in in a timeless way. It reveals the sad memory of the protagonist’s regret and shame from an older perspective, looking back on a blighted childhood. How many of these scenarios of power and humiliation have been played out continuously over time. The larger question is: will they ever end?

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