By: Ryan Thier
I was talking to my Cousin Tommy when my mother grabbed me halfway between my shoulder and neck so hard it made my Cousin Tommy laugh and me writhe, squeal, and tilt like a de-winged fighter plane. “Excuse,” said my mother. My cousin put his hands up in spare-himself surrender thinking it was all a big melodramatic silent movie joke, which I probably thought too but was still annoyed as my mother pulled me into the bathroom and shut the door.
“I was in the middle -”
“Listen to me Anthony.”
“I am listening, I’m just saying -”
I may have asked what, but even if I did not, my face for sure displayed confusion as the music outside played on.
“Listen to your mother,” she said, and I knew better than to repeat that I was listening. “Because I see you out there hamming it up for my sisters and yukking it up with My Johnny and My Jacky, whispering to Carla Alta, and ha-ha-ha-ing with your Cousin Tommy.”
“Why do you say it like that, like he’s not your relative too.”
“Allora! Non capisci niente, bambino stupido. Sono la madrina di Tommy!”
“Va bene, mama, allora, qual’e il problema?”
“Don’t talk to me in Italian, Anthony. Don’t talk to me like I’m immigrato.”
“Alright. So what’s the problem?”
“I don’t like what you’re talking out there.”
“What, you’re spying on me?”
“I don’t need to spy to know you and Tommy were making dirty jokes about the body.”
“All dirty jokes are about the body.”
“Ah, so it’s true! Already, a smart-mouth doctor, I’m so proud!
“No, it’s not true. I talked to him for two minutes and he just wanted to know my address so he could write me letters, okay? Or does being your godson mean you are always automatically lying, too?”
She waved me off and now I could barely hear the music. “It’s not just your Cousin Tommy. I’m sorry, our Cousin Tommy. It’s everybody in your ear, your big soft ears on your big Baby Huey head telling you all nice things you believe.” A peregrine diving into my pressure point, she had stunned and nudged me like a confused duck into her lair where she could peck and inspect and insult in ways I understood.
“I want you to listen to me, listen to your mother, Anthony: I am not proud of you. We’ll see, but today, no. Not yet. And maybe no’ later.”
“Okay, thanks!” But she blocked the door before I could even lean towards it.
“Because let me tell you something,” she paused and allowed her preface, like a tablet in water, to sink, spin, and spread into a threat and then disappear into a question, “Is Carla Alta going to finish school?”
“I don’t know, are you?”
“I could slap your face.” She put her right hand on her heart and raised her left, as if in proof. “If it was any other day, I slap your face right now.” I was surprised she hadn’t. She had already clawed me for no reason. But no. She changed the topic to something which for the first time that day made me forget I was about to begin medical school.
“You know the first day I meet your father, yes?”
“Can you just tell me why we’re in here?”
“Fine. I don’t want some little girl calling you ‘My Anthony,’ you understand?”
“No one calls me that, My Sofia.”
“Don’t be smart.”
“I’m not. No one calls me that.”
“But maybe tonight? Tomorrow? Next year?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Because I won’t respect you, Anthony. I won’t. I’m sorry, but I say this for you. And also for me.”
Someone knocked on the door. “Not now!” It was my Cousin Tommy. “Sofia, please. I hear you having a conversation in there. I’ve been waiting five minutes.” “Five minute? You are a stupid lying dog! I am talking to my son.” He knocked again. “Well talk to him somewhere else.” “Pezzo di merda,” she said softly and hung her head, taking a moment’s rest, then turned around and smacked the door with both hands and screamed, “This is my house! Go outside and pee like a dog if you need to so bad.” He responded something in Italian that I could not hear.
“Why are you -”
“Because I know what he tell you about sleeping with the nurses.”
“And I know what he tell you about being a doctor for ladies so you can use your hands and say ‘I need to check to see if there is a baby…’”
“He only wanted to write me letters!”
“… Even though you know there is no baby.”
“That’s not what doctors do.”
“What do you know? They did it to me.”
“Oh, mom you’re making up stories.”
“I make up nothing.”
“Yes you do, you always do.”
“I make up that my sisters grab your smart-mouth cheek and say ‘Oh, Anthony you so handsome. And so smart! Un dottore!’ I make that up?”
“No, I see it with my eyes! They tell you that you get your smart brain from your mother and you laugh, and not to be nice. You laugh because you think you got your smart mouth from me but your smart brain from your father.” I would have come up with something to say but for that feeling, that knowledge (because it was true), that if I opened my lips I would cry. “See, now you don’t call me liar! Because you know I’m true.” I did not understand why she was talking about my father. Holding back tears, I looked at my mother and tried unsuccessfully to discern if she was about to cry or if she was about headbutt me into the bathtub. Either way, I thought this was a stupid thing for her to do, and I thought it was mean to me, and I did not want to talk about my father now, after she did not let me talk about him once in the five years since he died, and the least she could do was let me leave without feeling bad for thinking my father was smart so maybe I could be smart too.
“Non papà, non parlarne,” I said.
“Anthony, listen to me.” I did not say anything; she pinched my bicep. “Anthony.”
“Look at me, Anthony.”
“Stop blinking fast.” But I knew if I did, she would then say stop crying. “I do not care if Carla Alta finishes school. I don’t.”
“Well I do.”
“You say that only because you are a lying dog. You care not even as much as me and I care nothing. I care about a little girl calling you ‘My Anthony.’ If that happens I will not respect you and I will not be proud of you because I know what it means and I will not let you think you such a smart man that you get to be a sometimes stupid man and pretend you don’ know too.”
“What if I am someone’s Anthony? What if someone wants to call me their Anthony? What is so awful about that?”
“They don’t want to. Don’t be a stupid man.”
“Well what if they do want to?”
“Be a smart man and know they do not.”
“So now I am smart?”
“Well what if I want someone to call me ‘My Anthony’?”
“Then you are no longer my son.”
“Oh my God. You know, you can’t just say things like that.”
“I say them all the time.”
“Yeah well you shouldn’t. You shouldn’t do that, okay?”
One of my mother’s sisters interjected as if she had been listening in the whole time – and maybe she had – “Sofia, how do you work your coffee machine?” Then adding, before my mother could reply not now and kick the door, “And your neighbor’s car is boxing in My Johnny! And he needs to leave soon to pick up Nonna Elisa from the train station.” Someone turned the music off, probably My Johnny.
“What about the coffee?”
“Soon! I am talking to my son.”
“Can’t you talk out here?”
“No,” she kicked the door.
“Ragazza matta,” her sister said, hitting the door and walking away.
“And tell My Johnny to turn the music back on. This is party for my son the doctor, not coffee club for my caposala.”
“Ragazza matta!” She shouted from a yawning distance, but the music returned.
“Anthony, you know the first thing your father ever ask me? After hello how are you.”
“I don’t care.”
“‘Who is your favorite singer?’ With a big smile he ask me that.”
“I don’t remember what I said I answer so fast and start talking about accountant class and helping my father with the books.” The music outside was much louder than before. “And he listened, and we talked but he did not ask a question again until he ask how many babies I want to have, to check if there is big smile on my face when I talk about having babies.
“Look at me, Anthony. Your father was a smart man. To become a dentist, to work all the time inside, was very good and everyone was very proud. And I was proud, you understand? To be with him, to help him, to watch him, even just that, just to see him work and shake hands with people and the way they look at him made me proud sometimes it’s true.
“But he wasn’t proud of me. He never marry me if I don’t have sisters with My Johnnys and My Jackys, if I don’t let him be a little more stupid than he needed. He worked hard yes, but that doesn’t mean you get to be stupid. But I let him be a little stupid with me and I could have maybe stopped it because I’m smarter than I look, even if only a little bit, but I let him keep his idea and be warm when he was already not cold. And idea for too long is just life.” My mother paused and looked at me. “But that day he was just twenty-six. If he came to here today, he would be so proud of you he would die all over again.”
I laughed abruptly and made a sound like a seal because I had started crying without realizing it, and I was sniffling, and breath was bubbling up in the back of my throat. Joking at my father dying a second time, my mother seemed finally to be mourning him, but it felt like I was the one doing something for the first time.
“If your father were here today, he would already have made three toasts minimum!” I was crying, unable to laugh, but there was a shift, a lightness, a levity, a lessness in my tears. “And during all of them he would be holding your hand and not knowing he was doing it but knowing you were making him feel strong and proud. Then after speech two, just like after speech one, he would let go and put his hand on you shoulder. And say what?”
Tremendously soggy, I moaned, “I don’t know.”
“‘Do it all Anthony. Enjoy it. You deserve to. You make everyone so proud. You make me so proud, you always have. Do it all.’ Then he’d go outside and smoke cigarettes with My Jacky and My Johnny and pretend to be a little less proud and happy. He would hide some of it to be nice to everyone else. He would joke, ‘We’ll see how it goes. I’m not touching anything in his bedroom just in case he flunks out and comes home crying. Whoops! Did I say that out loud? This big party and then to flunk out… that would be sad, huh Johnny?’
“My sister would scream, ‘Don’t even joke, Anthony! Don’t even say it as a joke!’ And then My Johnny, calm and true, would have to say, ‘No I don’t think so, Anthony. Anthony will be good. He’s a smart boy.’ Then my other sister would be mad at My Jacky about parking in between neighbors’ cars, and to make My Jacky feel bad she would say to your father, ‘You raised your son good, Anthony. You always made him read books and learn about the body. Not just the teeth, because a father is supposed to make his son know more than him. You did it very good, Anthony.’ Then your father would give her the keys to our car so she could pick up Nonna Elisa from the train station and he would tell her very fast mostly joking to take it easy on My Jacky and then it would be time for speech three.
“But he’s not here so I get the last word not him. Tantalus, Fantalus,” which was not Italian or English or anything, just my mother’s idea that if something is tantalizing it is fantasy. “I’m not proud of you yet, Anthony. We’ll see,” she put her finger in my face. “But I don’t want you so smart you think of so many smart reasons it’s okay to be stupid.”
“Why did you bring up dad?”
“Because in his speech three, which you could say as good as me, in that speech, if he did not already say it to my sister in front of My Jacky, he would say that all credit goes to you. It is your good work. We just get out of the way and watch you fly. But I don’t think it. And your father didn’t think it. And you don’t think it. So why do this game? I tell you why, because it is practice for idea that when you want to feel good, you act stupid. I don’t like this game because it’s not really a game. So, let’s practice different game -”
“Okay, I deserve no credit. There. Happy?”
“No, you deserve points. You get thirty points, your father twenty points, me fifty points.”
“What about God?”
“Good boy. Five points for God, only twenty-five for you now.”
“Can you just pretend to be proud?”
“What? I give you more points than God. Say thank you.”
“This is why you brought up dad?”
“Say thank you.”
“Okay. Fine. Thank you.”
So that was it, and I walked out ready to be a man. I went outside and knocked angry on my neighbor’s door to move their car for My Johnny and I smoked cigarettes with My Jacky and tried not to cough and went back inside and did not see my mother and talked to my Cousin Tommy who told me I should be a chest doctor and that he would even help me run my practice. “You do the heart; I take care of the breasts. Don’t worry, sometimes we switch. On Halloween we switch, you do breasts and I do heart, okay? Don’t worry, I know you go crazy all heart all the time.” He was drunk and talking too loudly and making obvious gestures and Carla Alta was frowning at me, but my mother was nowhere to be seen. I sat down with Carla Alta and one of my mother’s sisters came over to me to say she loved me, and then my mom’s other sister came over and told me she loved me more, and I didn’t even wonder if she had eavesdropped because they had spent their lives getting so good at one-upping each other that they could do it on instinct. Then they left with My Jacky and My Johnny, and Cousin Tommy fell asleep in my bedroom. Alone with Carla Alta, I listened with unnerving intensity, though not always focus, as she told me that she talked to Mr. Zwig and he said she could take off the last weekend of the month, so she would come visit me then. She was sure she would be promoted by October and once that happened, she wouldn’t have to work weekends. In November, Mr. Zwig would finally hire her replacement for the register, which would allow her to take off every other Friday, and by then it would almost be Thanksgiving anyway.
I tried not to tell her just to quit and move with me. We fell asleep on the couch.
Cousin Tommy must have woken up in the middle of the night with a headache. It never took much, so the smell of coffee would have been enough to wake my mother. And, somehow, he must not have noticed when she walked right behind him through the kitchen on her way to the living room where she maybe by accident, maybe not, banged her knee into the back of my head as she walked by the sofa. I opened my eyes and knew I was not dreaming. The first thing I saw was my mother turning on a lamp and then with her back to me she got on both knees and started tending to something. She stopped fussing and was still. Then she yelled out, “Tommy, make a cup for me too.”
“Holy Ghost, Sofia! Jesus Christ.” He crashed two metal things into each other. “When did you come out here you almost gave me a heart attack.” Then he started laughing. He was a friendly man and understood my mother a lot better than I think she realized. My mother said nothing and was still on the ground with her back to me. She stood up and there was a catching sound, and right as she walked away from the small black box, the music started. She stood in the middle of the living room looking at no one.
Carla Alta pulled me towards her and whispered in my ear, “My Anthony what is happening? Should I go?” My mother walked past us on her way into the kitchen, where Cousin Tommy put his arm around her and said, “Ah, Elvis. Your favorite.”
Great story. Dialogue that resonates and a story that touches the heart.