Scranton 1929/Pontelandolfo 1861
Of the many ways in which the old man is disappointed with his daughter-in-law, her cooking is actually the worst. So when he enters his son’s apartment and is greeted by Emilia—an Austrian!—who breezily announces, “I made something special for you, Pop,” it takes all his restraint to nod, to smile, to use his stilted control of English—the only language they share—to say, “Thank you. This makes me happy.”
His son’s apartment, however, is no disappointment. Wood paneling, open space, a mild improvement over their first place in Wilkes-Barre, his grandsons huddled around the Philco enjoying a ball game. The old man has never appreciated baseball, but he’s proud Tony and Frankie do, that they’re American in a way he never could be. He nods at them—he has never given affection to little boys—and shakes his son’s hand. Carlo’s grip is strong, and the old man reddens when his son pulls him in for a hug, how free he is with his emotions not only with his family, but with everyone he encounters as one of Scranton’s premier plumbers. Once a week during the old man’s visits to the Cataldo Club, he is annoyed when someone compliments his son’s handiwork and says how friendly he is. Friendly. It’s not an Italian word.
The old man joins his son at the table and wishes he didn’t have to smell whatever it is Emilia is cooking. The whole apartment reeks of garlic and tomatoes, and he knows exactly where this is headed. “It’s red sauce and meatballs,” Carlo says to confirm. How many times he’s been served red sauce and meatballs by smiling buffoons even though no one in Italy would ever serve red sauce with meatballs. “Yes,” the old man says, agreeing that red sauce and meatballs is indeed what his daughter-in-law is preparing, “red sauce and meatballs.”
“So,” his son says, leaning back, “the boys were asking about the old country today. Weren’t you, boys? Come here to Pop.”
“No, we weren’t,” Tony pleads in his singsong voice.
“The Yankees!” Frankie cries.
“Boys.” Carlo snaps his fingers, and they turn off the radio and fall in line around the table. At least Carlo isn’t friendly with his sons. The humiliation! “Tell them something, Pop. Come on. Anything.”
Emilia calls from the stove. “You ever run into my parents visiting from Austria?”
An Italian would only greet an Austrian with spit or gunfire, and the old man is astonished that the next generation can name all of the New York Yankees while understanding so little about where they came from. The old man knows he has to reveal something but finds himself drawing a blank. He doesn’t like remembering life in the before time. How to convey an entire sunken world through one single memory? He looks at his family, and the same image as always rises—chicken, not prepared by a family member, not served in a bar, but a freshly butchered bird roasting over open flames, the way the flesh popped, how it smelled beneath the stars among the camaraderie of other soldiers. The old man remembers not Favazzina, the southern village where he grew up, not his fisherman father or the stiff stench of his clothes, not his mother forever in a nightgown, making the sign of the cross no matter what news was delivered, not even the caresses of curly-haired Gianna, the girl he assumed he’d one day marry. No, the old man remembers being summoned from his parents’ home, conscripted by the northern government post-unification. He remembers Pontelandolfo, a village very much like his own, how the powers-that-be explained that revolts across the southern half of the peninsula had to be crushed, that the citizens of Pontelandolfo had banded together and murdered forty soldiers. A message must be delivered. Unification, no, the entire soul of newborn Italy depended upon it!
The old man observes his grandchildren and their occasional glances at the silent Philco. He looks at Carlo and Emilia, wondering what they picture when they hear words like “Italy” or “Austria,” perhaps some vague dream of a simpler life, holy soil they know they’ll never step foot in. How could any of them understand marching as a group of five hundred, entering Pontelandolfo armed and ordered to kill? How could they imagine the old man as a young man surrounded by his comrades, mostly teenagers unaware that they’d even been liberated, how they opened fire on the town’s clergy, men, women, and children? His family couldn’t feel the weight of the torches, how the old man and his giddy friends hurled them through the open windows of houses, the dissonance of screams, how the heat from the burning village coupled with the August sun made the old man feel like he’d tumbled outside of his body arriving somewhere that didn’t count, not really, where anything could happen and where everything would be forgiven. They burned Pontelandolfo to dust, and, as they listened to the gunfire and cries, they feasted. Chicken roasting on open flames just beyond the fighting and all the wine they could drink. Later, the old man wondered if the government had plied them with food and alcohol just in case the soldiers were considering joining up with the people of Pontelandolfo, who resembled their own families praying for their safe returns back home. But the truth was they would’ve followed orders no matter what, that they loved being told what to do, that at the end of the day none of these decisions were theirs. It was the north. Always the north.
The old man remembers the priest they hung outside the village, how for the rest of the evening he and his friends took turns shooting at the rope above his snapped neck, how they missed and missed, laughed and laughed. He looks at his moon-faced family and wonders what exactly to say about that.