MY FATHER HAS IT ALL FIGURED OUT

Salvatore Attanasio | Newark, New Jersey

My father has it all figured out. He struts furiously around the house reading from his Il Progresso, chanting word after word like a fat priest performing a holy rite. He is short and stubby, with a heavy head that tapers like a triangle, and his shoulders always seem to hug his neck. He paces the living room, his bed room, the toilet, assiduously reading the releases canned and relayed from Rome, pausing now and then to smile with great satisfaction. He throws his huge head at me and as I sit with pained indifference trying not to hear, I am shaken by the sound of his hand slapping the front page of his paper and his muttering of loud and futile challenges. This ritual he performs every night, because everything is going as he had planned.

On the gray wall over the kitchen sink he has posted an enlarged map of Ethiopia. At various points like Adowa, Asmara, and Addis Ababa he has stuck pins to which are attached tinted pieces of cloth. These pins, together with some gravy spots, separate the strategic cities and towns. Like a field commander he moves the pins backward or forward in accordance with the latest news bulletins.

Now when this sort of thing goes on night after night one is apt to become exasperated. And I did. One night I broke my stubborn silence and said:

"For Crimp's sake, Pop, what the hell has got into you, anyway? Are you nuts? Do you know you're driving me crazy?"

The old man was dumfounded. Never had I dared speak this way. His face, usually hard and bitter, melted with spontaneous rage, and his mouth seemed to sag. He laughed like mad to himself and drew close to me. I could smell the breath born of wine and bile. He roared:

"Don't you love Italy, tua patria per Cristo?"

The question maddened me.

"No, dammit, no! Not yours and Mussolini's!" I shout back at his menacing face.

He jumped back like a spring, slapped his thigh, and threw his paper to the floor. He resumed his mad pacing and cursed the day I was born and the days I had lived. He shouted for my mother.

"Woman! Woman! Come here! Have you heard your darling son? Tuo figlio is a nigger, a nigger, do you hear? He is no longer an Italian- he is a nigger!"

My poor mother- she stared pitifully at both of us and mumbled:

"Cosa e` stato, cosa e` stato, madonna mia!"

Though she did not seem fully to understand what had occurred, she understood perfectly her role in the home and society. Like the good peasant woman that she was, she encouraged my father mildly and chided me with great gentleness.

"Ah, no, he is not black," she ventured. "He is like you and me."

My father shook his head impatiently at her as if to say: "You too, eh?" and stalked out of the room with his head raised high like Mussolini at a review.

I do not like to argue with my father, for he is a man of unbridled emotion. He is a stranger to logic and reason. His only arguments and articles of faith are the news releases, and these he quotes ad infinitum.

"12,000 ETHIOPIANS SLAUGHTERED," "MAKALE CAPTURED BY ITALIAN TROOPS," "NEW ITALIAN ADVANCE," "SELASSIE DOWNFALL IMMINENT."

But I have stopped arguing with my father since yesterday. Once more I could not help myself. We were at the table having supper. My uncle, who lives upstairs and who is also a super, highly emotional patriot, breaks into our kitchen. He is waving an Italian paper wildly.

"We have won! We have won!" he shouts. "Look! 80,000 Ethiopians slaughtered! Che vittoria!"

This is too much for me. I rise and push the plate of steaming spaghetti from me.

"Enough, enough!" I shout, almost hysterically. "You guys and your barber-shop strategy give me a pain in the seat! What the hell are you anyway, human beings or mad dogs? Don't you think niggers got a right to live, too?"

My uncle and father are transfixed with my outburst, my mother holds her breast in terror. Then my father shouts:

"See! Lo vedi, son Selassie, rinnegato! Rinnegato!"

I look at my mother's white face, rush from the room, grab my coat, and leave the house, promising myself never to return.

I walked towards the bright and busy section of the city, my back bent and arms tight to my body. As I walked about the silent, wind-cooled night, words and situation kept swimming back to me. I am holding a New York Post in my hand, pointing a headline to my father's attention. I hear a curse bellow from him and the rhythmic repetition: "British propaganda! British propaganda! O Albione perfida!"

I reached the main street of the city. Here it roared about me. Here the nervous, jerky movement of men and women never ceased. Beautiful, dreadful dialectic! I stopped to buy the radical Stampa Libera. And who else does? Who else does? I ask myself. These words sting and buzz. They burn and bless, cleanse and console. Yet who reads them? Who reads them?

I thought of my father lying in the parlor now, smoking his pipe, ears avidly turned toward the radio, eager for raucous Roman releases. My mother sitting silently in some dark corner crying and thinking of me. I could see the ancient eyes flood with tears, the tired hands wringing the breast, the shaking voice softly invoking the Santa Madonna. Remorse seizes me. I must go back- for her. She is my mother.

And now today- I rise on the gong and once more to gaze on sterile faces, barren streets, and hearts wrought of steel. I have no dreams to hide. My pants lie just as I left them, creased and folded on a chair. My coat hangs like a dark Jesus against the wall, my shoes point out in different vague directions from under the bed. And now she hobbles in and chants:

"Get up, figlio mio, alzati . . ."

Across from me the bed is still warm and there is a form impressed in the sheet. My red-headed brother has gone. A worker in a shop. And my father has gone, also a worker. My hands rub away the dirt of sleep and I turn to rise. My feet touch the cold floor and grope for the warmth of my slippers. I raise my arms, brush my eyes, and let a hollow sound escape my throat. Again she hobbles in and warns:

"E` tardi, E` tardi, figlio mio . . ."

And from now on I know just how it will go, this other day. Hours will hop at the same horrible pace, and across the sea in Africa thousands and thousands of young men will kill and be killed, betrayed by black promises, lured by black women. A million white-clothed Negroes will fight back with mighty yells and horrendous shrieks. A billion voices from the world will echo an answer. And my father, buried under barges of Roman bunk, will laugh his patriotic laugh and bait me again at dinner. But I will not answer.

I shall keep quiet from now on. Nothing can change him now. Everything is arranged in his mind and over the kitchen sink. Futile and impossible to disturb his cerebral movements. And when he gets his evening paper and smiles toward heaven, I shall not interrupt his obscene communion with Mars and Mussolini. I will look at my own paper and maybe smile too. And to myself I will say:

"So you have it all figured out, Pop? So have I!"

1937


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