Authors: John Fante
For Carey McWilliams and Ross Willsâ
good friends, evil companions
HERE WAS AN OLD TRUNK
in my mother's bedroom. It was the oldest trunk I ever saw. It was one of those trunks with a round lid like a fat man's belly. Away down in this trunk, beneath wedding linen that was never used because it was wedding linen, and silverware that was never used because it was a wedding present, and beneath all kinds of fancy ribbons, buttons, birth certificates, beneath all this was a box containing family pictures. My mother wouldn't permit anyone to open this trunk, and she hid the key. But one day I found the key. I found it hidden under a corner of the rug.
On spring afternoons that year I would come home from school and find my mother working in the kitchen. Her arms would be limp and white like dry clay from toil, her hair thin and dry against her head, and her eyes sunken and large and sad in their sockets.
The picture! I would think. Oh, that picture in the trunk!
When my mother wasn't looking I would steal into her bedroom, lock the door, and open the trunk. There were many pictures down there, and I loved all of them, but there was one alone which my fingers ached to clutch and my eyes longed to see when I found my mother that wayâit was a picture of her taken a week before she married my father.
Such a picture!
She sat on the arm of a plush chair in a white dress spilling down to her toes. The sleeves were puffy and frothy: they were very elegant sleeves. There was scarcely any neck to the dress, and at her throat was a cameo on a thin gold chain. Her hat was the biggest hat I ever saw in my life. It went entirely around her
shoulders like a white parasol, the brim dipping slightly, and covering most of her hair except a dark mound in back. But I could see the green, heavy eyes, so big that not even that hat could hide them.
I would stare at that strange picture, kissing it and crying over it, happy because once it had been true. And I remember an afternoon when I took it down to the creek bank, set it upon a stone, and prayed to it. And in the kitchen was my mother, imprisoned behind pots and pans: a woman no longer the lovely woman in the picture.
And so it was with me, a kid home from school.
Other times I did other things. I would stand at the dresser mirror with the picture at my ear, facing the round mirror. A sheepishness, a shivering delight would possess me. How unbelievable this grand lady, this queen! And I remember that I would be speechless.
My mother in the kitchen at that moment was not my mother. I wouldn't have it. Here was my mother, the lady in the big hat. Why couldn't I remember anything about her? Why did I have to be so young when I was born? Why couldn't I have been born at the age of fourteen? I couldn't remember a thing. When had my mother changed? What caused the change? How did she grow old? I made up my mind that if I ever saw my mother as beautiful as she was in the picture I would immediately ask her to marry me. She had never refused me anything, and I felt she would not refuse me as a husband. I elaborated on this determination, even discovering a way to dispose of my father: my mother could divorce him. If the Church would not grant a divorce, we could wait and be married as soon as my father died. I searched my catechism and prayer book for a law which stated that mothers could not marry their sons. I was satisfied to find nothing on the subject.
One evening I slipped the picture under my waist and took it to my father. He sat reading the paper on the front porch.
“Look,” I said. “Guess who?”
He looked at it through a haze of cigar smoke. His indifference annoyed me. He examined it as though it were a bug, or something; a piece of stale cake, or something. His eyes slid up
and down the picture three times, then crosswise three times. Turning it over, he examined the back. The composition interested him more than the subject, and I had hoped his eyes would pop and that he would shout with excitement.
“It's Mamma!” I said. “Don't you recognize her?”
He looked at me wearily. “Put it back where you found it,” he said, picking up his newspaper.
“But it's Mamma!”
“Good God!” he said. “I know who it is! I'm the man who married her.”
“Go away,” he said.
“But, Papa! Look!”
“Go away. I'm reading.”
I wanted to hit him. I was embarrassed and sad. Something happened at that moment and the picture was never so wonderful again. It became another pictureâjust a picture. I seldom looked at it again, and after that evening I never opened my mother's trunk and burrowed for treasure at the bottom.
Before her marriage my mother was Maria Scarpi. She was the daughter of Giuseppe and Stella Scarpi. They were peasants from Naples. Giuseppe Scarpiâhe was a shoemaker. He and his wife came to Denver from Italy. My mother, Maria Scarpi, was born there in Denver. She was the fourth child. With her brothers and sisters she went to the Sisters' school. Then she went to a public high school for three years. But this public high school wasn't like the Sisters' school, and she didn't like it. Her two brothers and four sisters married after completing high school.
But Maria Scarpi would not marry. She told her people marriage did not interest her. What she wanted was to become a nun. This shocked the whole family. Her brothers and sisters thought such an ambition didn't make sense. What about children? What about home, and a nice husband, a fine man like Paul Carnati? And to all these questions the woman who became my mother put her nose in the air and held to her monastic ambitions. She was a rebel, and her brothers and sisters brought all sorts of possible suitors to the house in an effort to persuade her to get over her foolishness. But Maria Scarpi was cold and mean, even
refusing to speak to them. Hearing voices downstairs, she would lock herself in the bedroom and stay there until they went away.
Paul Carnati owned a bakery. He made lots of money, he had a lot of good ideas, and he was crazy about my mother. One day he drove up to the Scarpi house in a brand-new buggy with rubber tires and a fine young horse pulling it. This Carnati had so much money that he was actually going to give the horse and buggy to my mother for nothing. My mother wouldn't look at it; she wouldn't even come downstairs, and Paul Carnati went away so angry and insulted he never came back again. He carried his grief further by charging the Scarpi family twice as much for bread, until they had to quit buying from him; and, to top it all off, he furiously married somebody else. Italians called this a spite marriage.
My mother told me of her first meeting with my father. It was in 1910. It was in August of that year, on the feast day of Saint Rocco, the powerful patron saint of all Italians. On that great day the Italians lined the streets of the North Side, and down the middle of the street passed the gaudy parade, with three complete bands and the Sons of Saint Rocco in their red uniforms with white plumes in their hats. The Knights of Columbus were there, and they had a band, and the Sons of Little Italy were there with their band. In fact, everybody who counted was there, including a lot of Americans who didn't count but who came down just to look and laugh, because they thought feast days on the North Side were amusing.
The parade moved down Osage Street to Belmont, and east on Belmont to St. Stephen's Church. My mother stood on the corner of Osage and Belmont, in front of the drugstore, which still stands there, and watched the parade.
She was alone, surrounded by young Italian fellows who had hurried away from the pool-tables in the Star Hall, cues in their hands, hats on the back of their heads. They knew my mother, the young fellows did, they knew all about her. Everybody on the North Side knew Maria Scarpi who wanted to become a nun instead of a wife. She stood with her back to them, detesting them; they were hoodlums, first of the gangster breed which later brought disgrace upon the good name of Italians in Denver.
They pretended they were interested in the parade. But they weren't. It was a bluff. What they were interested in was my mother. Here was a peculiar situation, foreign to hoodlums. What could a man say to a girl about to become a nun? They said nothing, not a word. They merely stood there applauding the parade.
There was a commotion in the rear. Somebody was shoving. Nudging this fellow and that, snarling with importanceâhe was not a big man, so he snarled twice as hard as necessaryâhe pushed his way through until, lo, who was this before him? This girl under the great hat? Guido Toscana was gay with white wine, but he saw beauty much clearer that way. Puffing a twisted cigar, he halted. The others ignored him. Who the hell did he think he was? They had never seen him before, although they were sure that like themselves he was an Italian.
My mother felt him near, the brim of her hat touching his shoulder. She moved forward. But not too far. The gutter was an inch from her toes.
“Good day!” said Guido Toscana.
“I don't know you,” she said.
“Ho!” he said. “Ho ho! My name is Guido Toscana. What is your name?”
He turned and winked at the young men. Their faces froze. My mother's eyes raced along the faces across the street in search of one of her brothers. A drunken man. And she a girl who wanted to become a nun! O dear God, she prayed, please help me! But apparently even God was enjoying this, or He was too busy watching the parade in honor of His sainted Rocco, for He permitted Guido Toscana other liberties. Filling his cheeks with cigar smoke, my future father leaned over andâpouffff!âsquirted smoke under the brim of my future mother's hat. The white pungency stung. She gagged, coughed into a small handkerchief. Toscana laughed uproariously, turning to the young men for approbation. They pretended they had not seen. Ah, thought Guido Toscana, so that's it: the Dagos!
My mother had had enough. Clutching her hat, she pushed him aside, broke through the crowd of Italians, and walked rapidly up the street. The Scarpi house was three blocks away. At
the end of the block she turned the corner, glancing over her shoulder.
Her breath leaped. He was following her! He had taken off his hat and, dodging through the crowd, he was waving to her, beckoning her to return. She ran then, those two remaining blocks. He too ran.
“Mamma!” screamed Maria Scarpi. “Mamma! Mamma!”
She ascended the six porch steps in one jump. Mamma Scarpi, big and wide as three ordinary mothers, opened the front door and Maria flew inside. The door slammed, the bolt clicked. Guido Toscana came puffing down the street. All was peaceful and quiet when he reached the house. The shades were down and no smoke came from the chimney. The place looked vacant. But he loitered. He would not go away. Up and down he walked like a sentinel before the Scarpi house. Up and down. Up and down. From behind a curtain upstairs peeped the head of Maria Scarpi. Up and down walked Guido Toscana. Up and down.
Fearless Mamma Scarpi opened the front door and stood behind the screen. In a shrill Italian she yelled: “What do you want, you drunken vagabond? Go away from here! Begone!”
“I wish to speak to the young lady,” said Guido Toscana.
“Go away from this house, you drunken pig!”
“I am not drunk. I wish to speak to the young lady.”
“On your way before I shout for the police, you drunken pig!”
He tried to smile away his fear of the police.
“A word with the young lady, and I will go.”
” screamed Mamma Scarpi. “
Guido Toscana winced, closed his eyes, and made grimaces. He held his palms before his face, as though Mamma Scarpi's screams were bottles aimed at his head.
Polizia! Polizia! Polizia!
There was a movement at the window upstairs. The shade went up with a squeal and a succession of flappings. The window rose and Maria Scarpi's head appeared.
“Mamma!” she called. “Please don't yell. People will think we're crazy!”
To Guido Toscana her voice was that little girl in the throat of Enrico Caruso.
“Don't yell, Mamma! Let's see what he wants.”
“Yes,” said the great Mamma. “What do you want, you drunken pig?”
He stood under the window, looked up, and spoke in Italian.
“What is your name?”
“My name is Maria Scarpi.”
“Will you marry me?”
Mamma Scarpi was too disgusted.
“Get out of this yard!” she yelled. “Back to the drunken pigsâyou drunken pig!”
He was not listening. He opened his mouth and began to sing. There was no stopping him. People returning from the parade gaped in amazement. Mamma Scarpi slammed the door and went inside. My mother, not much for sharp wits, a soft-hearted girl who wanted to become a nun and pray for the sins of the world, was transfixed at the window.
She is still transfixed. She still wonders. And this used to annoy me, a kid home from school.
“I didn't know what to do,” she would say. “All those people and allâI felt sorry for him.”
“What did he sing?”
“That crazy song, the one he sings when he shaves.”
I knew that song. Everybody for blocks around knew it. Every time he stood before a mirror lathering his face I thought of him under a window in Denver a year before I was born. The song was “
Ah, lass, you've hurt me sadly. Oh, sadly
My heart is bleeding badly. Yes, badly
My life blood's ebbing slowly
And I cannot stop the flow
Mena, me! Let me be!
Give a kiss. One kiss. You must do this!
A little kiss is not amiss
Mind you, don't get coquettish
What's a little kiss to you?
See the state you've got me into
Have a little pity, do!
“What happened after that, Mamma?”