Neither Angelo nor Papa could figure out how to run the Dictaphone at first, Ma said. They tried and tried. That whole day, Papa swore a blue streak! He finally made Angelo take the bus down to Bridgeport so that he could learn how to operate the foolish thing. "And here the poor guy could just barely speak English, Dominick. He'd just gotten over here from the Old Country. But anyway, when he came back again, he knew how to run it--how to make everything work.
"Every morning, Angelo would set things up--get everything ready--and then he'd have to leave Papa alone. That was the rule. Papa got so he wouldn't dictate a word of it until he was alone. Angelo used to come out in the kitchen and wait. So I got to know him a little. He was a nice man, Dominick, and so handsome. I'd make him coffee and we'd talk about this and that--his life back in Palermo, his family. I used to help him a little with his English. He was smart, too; you'd explain something to him and he'd pick it up just like that. You could just tell he was going places."
The Dictaphone had red plastic belts, Ma said; that was what the voice was recorded on, if she remembered right. Papa would stay in there for two or three hours at a time and then, when he was finished, he'd call Angelo and Angelo would have to go running. He'd wheel the cart into the back room where the typewriter was. Listen to whatever was recorded on the belts and take it down in shorthand. Then he'd type it up. "But my father hated the sound of typewriting, see? He didn't want that clickety-clacking all over the house after he'd finished his end of things for the day. All that remembering made him cranky."
"I don't get it," I said. "Why didn't he just dictate it to him directly?"
"I don't know. He was just nervous, I guess." She reached over and touched the manuscript--passed her fingers across her father's words. She herself didn't dare to go anywhere near that parlor when Papa was speaking into the Dictaphone, she said. He was so serious about it. He probably would have shot her on sight!
Ma told me that the complicated system her father had devised --stenographer, Dictaphone, private rooms for dictator and dictatee--had worked for about a week and then that, too, had fallen apart. First of all, there had been a misunderstanding about the rental price for the recording equipment. Papa had thought he was paying eight dollars per week to rent the Dictaphone but then learned that he was being charged eight dollars a day. Forty dollars a week! "So he told the rental company where they could go, and he and Angelo wheeled the carts onto the front porch. Those machines were parked out there for two whole days before someone drove up from Bridgeport and picked them up. I was a nervous wreck with those contraptions just sitting out there. I couldn't even sleep. What if it had rained? What if someone had come along and snitched them?
"But anyway, Papa went back to dictating his story directly to Angelo. But that didn't go any better than it had the first time. Things got worse and worse. Papa started accusing Angelo of poking around in his business--asking him to clear up this thing or that thing when Papa had told him exactly as much as he wanted to tell him and nothing more. Oh, he could be a stubborn son of a gun, my father. He started accusing poor Angelo of changing around some of the things that he had said--of deliberately trying to portray my father in a bad light. Angelo got fed up, the poor guy. The two of them started fighting like cats and dogs."
Somewhere in the middle of July, Papa fired Angelo, my mother said. Then, after a few days, he cooled down and rehired him. But the day after Angelo came back, Papa fired him all over again. When he tried to rehire him a second time, Angelo refused to come back again. "He moved away pretty soon after that," she said. "Out west to the Chicago area. He wrote me one letter and I wrote back and then that was that. But after all that business with Angelo and the Dictaphone and everything--all that rigmarole--Papa finally just went up to the backyard and wrote the rest of his story himself. He worked on it all the rest of that summer. He'd climb up the back stairs every morning, right after breakfast, unless it was raining or he didn't feel well. He'd sit up there at his little metal table with his paper and his fountain pen. Writing away, all by his lonesome."
© 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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