"What do you want, Giancarlo, Coke or Sprite?" asked Lizzie.
"Coke, please," said the boy, and Rose said, "I thought your name was Zik?"
"Oh, that's my baby name. My brother is Isaac or Zak and so I had to be Zik. Parental humor, ho ho. My brother is the only one who still calls me Zik." He lowered his voice and looked grave. "He's profoundly retarded."
Rose's brow twisted in sympathy. "Oh, how awful. I'm sorry."
"Yes, well, we try to cope and all. That's why he's not here today. He had to go to Creedmore for his...you know, his treatments."
Lizzie said, "Their dog killed all their rabbits, Mom."
"Yes," said the boy. "It was a huge mess. He ravaged them. There were bunny parts all over. That's why he's not here either. My mother flogged him with the dog whip and locked him in the cellar. She might shoot him, or sell him to, you know, a dogfight man." He took a long sip from his Coke as they stared. "Boy, I was really thirsty. My Mom never brings anything but beer, but, you know, a couple of beers on a hot day and I get a headache and Zak is uncontrollable and has to be whipped."
"Whipped?" said Rose with a gulp.
"Oh, sure. My mom's quite the flogger. Look!" He half-twisted to show his upper back. Two thin parallel scars ran from his shoulder almost to his spine, pale against the tan. "I overturned a pitcher of martinis and she got out the dog whip on me. She's totally out of control when she gets plastered. I think she feeds us beer to destroy our brain cells. She's really quite sadistic. She used to give my sister sherry in her baby bottle."
"Did it work?" asked Lizzie, openmouthed.
"Partially. My sister speaks forty-eight languages perfectly, but otherwise she's a complete idiot. She sometimes puts her shoes on the wrong foot."
Rose sighed and said tartly, "You know, it's one thing to make up stories and another thing to tell fibs. I'm sure your family would be very unhappy if they heard you talking about them that way."
Giancarlo's response was a smile of such devastating charm that light seemed to leap from his face, and Rose's irritation melted away and she laughed, reflecting in the moment that laughs had been few and far between recently. Lizzie broke into giggles, too. In a moment they were all three roaring like a sitcom laugh track.
"What's the joke?"
Rose looked up and saw that Giancarlo's mother was standing at the edge of their beach blanket, holding a long-neck Schlitz.
"I was being amusing, Mom," said Giancarlo.
"I bet," said Marlene. She nodded to Rose. "Hi, I'm Marlene Ciampi. I'm more or less responsible for this creature." Rose introduced herself and her daughter, who asked, "Did your dog really eat up all the rabbits?"
Marlene gave her son a sharp look. "A rabbit got out and Gog chased it. Gog is not built for chasing rabbits. The rabbit is safe. What other lies did he concoct?"
"He said you flogged him with a dog whip and gave him a scar," said Lizzie.
"That's more of a prediction," said Marlene. "In point of fact, he got those scratches falling on a bale of razor wire he was told more than once not to go near."
"And I assume his brother isn't retarded either," said Rose.
"He is," insisted the boy. "She's in total denial about it."
Marlene went after him with an openhanded roundhouse aimed at the red Speedo, which he easily dodged. He danced away, laughing maniacally. "See! Child abuse! That proves it, Mom."
The children went back to their sand castle, chortling.
"Pull up a beach," said Rose, and Marlene sat. Rose noticed with a distinct shock that the woman was missing several joints of the small fingers of her left hand. Otherwise, she was remarkably beautiful, in a Mediterranean way. "He must be quite a handful," Rose said, "with that imagination. Is his brother the same?"
Copyright © 2002 by Robert K. Tanenbaum.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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