The Godfather, 1972
Our ancestors came from the wrong country. Our pride was misplaced. The well-thumbed mass marketed paperback would yellow with age and then the silver screen would explode. These were domains of great influence ripe for exploitation and mythology. When I asked the old bird catcher from Palermo about the Mafia he told me he didn’t know what I was talking about. You are like an old lady, he told me. When he flicked his ash it meant go away and don’t come back. That year my legs grew like stalks and throbbed like a tooth gone rotten to the core. My father poured rubbing alcohol into his calloused palm and kneaded my calves. That it was a placebo would not occur to me until years later. Deception was a device that worked. They said it was what we were made from. The pain was a surrogate for something I couldn’t have given voice to if I tried. You’ll grow out of it, he assured me. Eventually we all do, he muttered.
Loneliness was a desperate address and I kept losing my way. I rifled through the junk drawer in the kitchen where my mother stockpiled the thick cushioned Mass cards with the satiny finish on the inside, like little coffins you could send through the mail. The sun that summer dragged me along the baking sidewalks then threw me over its shoulder. People disappeared or were preparing to. Death was in proximity. I struggled to understand the stillness of it. The train came and went at regular intervals, and guided our days. I’d listen to the roar of their engines gathering speed, then the mournful whistle that sounded like a dirge. I read cloud formations like a horoscope and looked for signs, but of what I could never discern. The Argentinian lady next door with the lisp told me that red cardinals were good omens and she’d been looking for one ever since her migration under duress. The industrial miasma of our block didn’t encourage them. My mother said, believe. I thought of my friend, pulled from the pool in front of me, blue as denim. I remember his mother screaming, I hope it’s not one of mine. That day I wore a bathing suit of cornflower blue, a color that still gives me fits of malignant nostalgia. Outside, my mother smoked a cigarette in the driveway, a brand that signified the long way she had come, squinted through the smoke and pointed up. I saw the blur of a red bird. She seemed surprised and said: there goes your angel.
My mother watched us with her third eye from the kitchen table where she choked down her dry Melba toast and black coffee. I lay in a fever dream on an overstuffed couch with the 1776 colonial theme upholstery, a war of independence raging around me. My fever dream led me headlong into familial boundaries that only a blood cousin once removed could breach. My siblings and I numerated accountability while my brother told the family fortune in the constellation of the incarnadine rash that engulfed me, but made my blue eyes pop. But the news was not good and he retreated to a fortress of his own making. I was appropriately irradiated by the Philco color television that held me in its thrall. I thought in some misguided way that it could cure me. I heard my father who was forever outside. The click and whir of the push mower sounded like a persistent cavalry. Come inside, I repeated like and order, but could not use my words. Up from the couch and settled into a perch on the window I caught a glimpse of him, with a great wingspan and his feet barely touching the ground. I pulled the brocade curtains my mother sewed with her very own fine feathered hands around me while my brother laid claim to an adolescent rebellion and bleakness that I would be a party to, all in good time.
Michelle Reale is the author of Blood Memory: Prose Poems (Idea Press), Season of Subtraction (Bordighera Press,2019), In the Blink of a Mottled Eye (Kelsay Books, 2020) and the forthcoming Confini: Poems of Refugees in Sicily (Cervena Barva Press, 2021). She is the Founding and Managing Editor of Ovunque Siamo: New Italian-American Writing.