When Ma came back down the stairs on that day of failed kitchen renovation, she was carrying a gray metal strongbox. I put down the picture album, stood, and walked toward her. "Here, honey," she said. "This is for you. Phew, kind of heavy."
"Ma, I told you I'd get it." I took it from her. "What's in it, anyways?"
"Open it and see," she said.
She had masking-taped the key to the side of the box; I kidded her about it--told her it was a good thing she didn't work for Fort Knox. She watched my fingers peel the key free, put it in the lock, and turn. In anticipation of my opening the strongbox, she didn't even seem to hear my teasing.
Inside the box was a large manila envelope curled around a small coverless dictionary and held in place with an elastic band that broke as soon as I touched it. The envelope held a thick sheaf of paper--a manuscript of some kind. The first ten or fifteen pages were typewritten--originals and carbon copies. The rest had been written in longhand--a scrawling, ornate script in blue fountain-pen ink. "It's Italian, right?" I asked. "What is it?"
"It's my father's life story," she said. "He dictated it the summer he died."
As I fanned through the thing, its mildewy aroma went up my nose. "Dictated it to who?" I asked her. "You?"
"Oh, gosh, no," she said. Did I remember the Mastronunzios from church? Tootsie and Ida Mastronunzio? My mother was always doing that: assuming that my mental database of all the Italians in Three Rivers was as extensive as hers was.
"Uh-uh," I said.
Sure I did, she insisted. They drove that big white car to Mass? Ida worked at the dry cleaner's? Walked with a little bit of a limp? Well, anyway, Tootsie had a cousin who came over from Italy right after the war. Angelo Nardi, his name was. He'd been a courtroom stenographer in Palermo. "He was a handsome fella, too--very dashing. He was looking for work."
Her father had been saying for years how, someday, he was going to sit down and tell the story of his life for the benefit of siciliani. He thought boys and young men back in the Old Country would want to read about how one of their own had come to America and made good. Gotten ahead in life. Papa thought it might inspire them to do likewise. So when he met Tootsie's cousin one day over at the Italian Club, he came up with a big idea. He would tell Angelo his story--have Angelo write it all down as he spoke and then type it up on the typewriter.
The project had begun as something of an extravaganza, according to my mother. "Careful with his money" his whole life, Papa now spared no expense at first on his inspirational autobiography. He cleared some of the furniture out of the parlor and rented a typewriter for Angelo. "Things were hunky-dory for the first couple of days," Ma said. "But after that, there were problems."
Papa decided he could not tell his story as freely with Angelo in the room--that he would be able to remember things better if he was by himself. "So the next thing you know, he was on the telephone with a bunch of office equipment companies--making all these long-distance calls, which I could hardly believe he was doing, Dominick, because he'd never even call his cousins down in Brooklyn to wish them a Merry Christmas or a Happy Easter. They always had to call us every year because Papa didn't want to waste his money. But for that project of his, he called all over creation. He ended up renting this Dictaphone machine from some place all the way down in Bridgeport." Ma shook her head, wonder-struck still. "Jeepers, you should have seen that contraption when it got here! I almost fell over the day they lugged that thing into the house."
Two machines sat on rolling carts, she said--one for the person dictating, the other for the stenographer who would turn the recorded sounds first into squiggles and then into typewritten words. They set it up in the front parlor and moved Angelo's typewriter into the spare room. "Poor Angelo," Ma said. "I don't think he knew what he was getting himself into."
© June 1998 , Wally Lamb. Used by permission.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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