After the war, my dad went to work for one of the big railroad companies. He became a member of what the bosses coyly named a carpenters’ crew, a gang of eight men who lived inside a couple of boxcars and traveled from town to town, from one railway station to the next, to make repairs to company property.
They cut, planed and nailed new boards into the shaky walls of signal houses. They slapped, splashed and brushed fresh coats of creosote onto war-worn railroad ties. They scythed tall meadow grass to keep the tracks clear and the horizon in sight. They shoveled cinder gravel onto steep embankments, stirred turpentine into five-gallon buckets of oil paint, drilled holes into metal, and pounded rivets into rails.
Years later, when I’d become a boy and they’d become a collection of folk tales and arguments, these same men — alone, in pairs, or in parties of three or four — came to visit my father, to see how much his kids had grown since the last time they met, to stuff their bellies with my mother’s pasta and pastry, to swig golden shots of sharp whiskey, to chug and swallow bubbly Dago Red, to cherish and embellish their memories until they gained the grace of legends.
They sat around the dining-room table, touched each other on the arm, clapped each other on the back, and refilled each other’s glass with more Dago Red whenever a more open expression of love threatened to break surface.
And they laughed out loud through our home’s open windows, loud enough to remind our neighbors that the war had ended and that a new world had been born from the blood these friends had left behind. A world connected by track, labor and legend; a giddy world of prospect and promise. A world where a man once again could feel safe enough to entertain stories.
He is the oldest son of a family that forever recalls the Mediterranean, and so he is required to sit at the table with these unshaven men whose words smell of creosote and turpentine. He sips wine mixed with ginger ale. He nods and he smiles, and always he agrees. He lets them call him Anthony, Sicilian king, first-born son.
He listens and he commits their tales to memory.
The time Gianni poured too much salt into the pot of spinach, on purpose, because the boys had been riding him hard about his lack of spice.
The day Frankie met Carmela at the five-and-dime counter and fell in love over a plate of meatballs and spaghetti.
The following day, when Rosario learned Carmela’s secret, and then stole her heart and hand away from Frankie.
The night Nicolas landed in jail after hitting the fat cop who had dared to call him a coward.
The night Mancuso cried in his sleep, and Rosario held the man like he’d hold a woman, wept and whispered into Mancuso’s ear that he understood, held the man close enough and long enough that Mancuso again began to believe that the war had ended.
The boy listens and grows drunk on the affection these men share by way of their stories, the same stories they tell each other each time they meet.
He never interrupts them. He owns no desire to speak.
He respects the sound, shape and curl of each and every word that passes into the wake of the word before it; and soon enough he understands the weight and wisdom of the breath inside each syllable.
These men are his lovers. Their touch is his caress. Their fondness for the past is his craving for the future, his yearning for a time when he too shall live inside a boxcar with a gang of men who love the boys who died beside them.
The boys who died begging for their mothers, while reaching for their fathers.
This crew, this table, this wine, this heart song is his blood.
This son is his father. From the moment he leaves his mother’s womb, he is to become his father’s encounter with a young boy’s terror.
His father will die and he will remember. He is bound to remember. The veterans seated round the dining-room table command him to remember the war.
To recall the Mediterranean.
To hold one’s weeping brother.
To kiss the edge of a nightmare.
To cherish La Cosa Nostra.