by Anthony V. Toscano
Mr. Vincent Battaglia, second-grade teacher with an old heartbeat inside his chest, met his students on the metal, inclined ramp which lead to his portable, prefabricated, easy to relocate, yet never to disappear classroom. Looked like a boxcar, felt like a lonesome planet.
The kids were hopping. Sounds like a dream of a steel trampoline shook the air.
The children yelled. They shoved each other. They pulled at Vincent’s clothing. Recess still bubbled hotly in their veins. Battaglia breathed deeply, and slowly hissed out a hot cloud of tired determination through his nostrils as he walked to the head of the pack. Over the years he’d learned to reproduce an image of calm patience in spite of his discomfort with the noise.
Connie Brewster, a slender blond with an impish smile, ran toward him and grabbed her teacher round the waist. Battaglia grinned along with this young girl. She felt warm and smelled innocent, and Vincent knew again that he loved these children.
“Let me see two straight lines, please.” Somewhere inside he understood that they responded, if at all, to the tone of his voice, the lines of his face-not to the words he spoke. No such thing as a straight line in any event, he thought. Except perhaps in worn Geometry textbooks. And textbooks of any sort are arid places-to me and to children.
Eventually, they followed him into the room and settled onto the not-so-golden carpet, beneath the box-car classroom’s flat windows.
“Before we begin Story Time this afternoon,” Mr. Battaglia began.
Most of the children stiffened their backs slightly with the mere mention of a story; Vincent Battaglia was an excellent reader. Eyes widened; the kids let teacher know they wanted what he had to give.
“I have something special to tell you. Tomorrow we’ll have a new student joining our class.”
At first there seemed almost to be no reaction from this group of squat little people. Yet, in a flash of seconds the questions were fired without regard for any so-called rule about raising hands.
“A boy or a girl?”
“A boy,” he answered.
“What’s his name?”
“Humberto,” he said with a proper roll of the “r.”
That last one stabbed at something deeper than the teacher side of his personality. His first thought: Yes, and that brings us up to nine of thirty. What the blank am I going to do about teaching a boy straight from Mexico? But he slipped into his triggered response, based on training and habit, and he encouraged a group discussion to address the child’s honest irritation.
Along the tortuous way, Mr. Battaglia stumbled over his own thoughts and fears, but he hoped and generally expected that the class took him at his word about welcoming a new student as a member of the group. Several of the boys and girls volunteered to help Humberto: write his name on his desk card, gather his crayons and pencil, pile math and reading books into his desk.
Tomorrow would be a fine day after all. Humberto would be loved.
Or would he?
Mr. Battaglia read his story; the kids seemed to enjoy the way he changed his voice to indicate each character. Later he taught a bang-up lesson on Nutrition, and thus felt assured of his value in their lives.
At 2:45 PM, sharp, Mr. Vincent Battaglia dismissed his class to the netherworld of bus lines and backpacks. And he wanted to surrender to exhaustion.
Clean the pile of who-knows-what from my desk, sharpen pencils, write myself notes about tomorrow. Have to get home early today. Must cook dinner. And that confounded paper for my night class on Cultural Diversity is due tomorrow, although I still don’t have the textbook.
At home Vincent collapsed onto and into the soft couch cushions he’d dreamt of while driving homeward. He tossed the pile of mail, bills and advertisements mostly, toward a dusty corner of the the carpet, petted his cat, Bomboli, and picked up his own book of stories. Folktales of Mexico. He had been thinking about Mexico today. And the textbook he was supposed to read, the one he was almost glad remained out of stock, did have to do with a variety of cultures. So why not read a folktale?
“Mal de Ojo.” Vincent saw the title and knew he would read the story through.
Two sisters and their parents travel by foot into the countryside. On the road they meet Sabrina. Sabrina affectionately picks up the younger of the sisters and plays with her. Sabrina goes on her way. A few minutes later the child develops a fever and symptoms of melancholy; she cries, exhausted in her mother’s arms.
Mother sends the older child to visit Dona Maria. “Tell her your sister suffers from mal de ojo.”
The family returns home. Later that evening the Healer arrives. She brings herbs: rosemary, rue, Saint John’s wort, lavender and laurel. And a brazier with fire.
Dona Maria undresses the girl, makes a cross with lime on the floor, sets the brazier on the cross, lifts the child through the smoke and chants:
“Saint Michael! Saint Raphael! I command you remove the illness this child suffers.”
Dona Maria passes the child over the cross. She wipes the youngster’s entire body with an egg. Then she breaks the egg and places it at the head of the sick child’s bed, along with a cross of straw.
Next day the herbs used for the ceremony, as well as the broken egg and cross of straw, are thrown far from the family’s house. Abiding by Dona Maria’s instructions, the child’s mother does not look back over her shoulder as she tosses each item into the dirt.
The child soon gets well.
“Damned superstitious Mexicans,” mumbled Vincent to Bomboli. But he knew he was a fool for saying it; he wondered if the cat knew him as such, petted her again and thought of his own true story, a memory:
Malocchio. Vincent no longer spoke many Italian words, but he remembered his parents and grandparents mouthing these Latin melodies of mystery and fear. The Evil Eye.
His dad had painted houses for a living. In the days before aluminum, Rosario Battaglia had carried forty-foot wooden ladders to the job site.
Sarah Lombardi, customer. Mrs. Lombardi who lived in the huge, four-story clapboard house by the sea. The salt air had forced the paint to peel and curl away from the wood beneath. Big house. One man and his son to complete the job. Summer evenings, after his dad had already put in a long day’s work with “the boss.”
Dad promised Mrs. Lombardi a low price for the job: $400.00 in a day when the going rate was closer to $2000.00. Mrs. Lombardi smiled and nodded her approval. Dad and his son went to work and filthy labor. The family needed the money badly.
On the third or maybe the fourth night of swinging sloppy wet brushes, Dad stretched that wooden ladder as far as it would go. Yet it would not reach the eaves above the topmost windows. That night Vincent Battaglia learned of his dad’s fear. Afraid of the cloudy height, shivering and unable to continue, Dad told Mrs. Lombardi he could not finish her job. He’d never done such a thing before, as far as Vincent could remember, but the fear was too much.
Mrs. Lombardi grinned, and affectionately hugged Vincent as his dad stood before her. She spoke in fractured Italian to the child.
“Moosha moosha miahd. Moosha moosha miahd.” That’s how the words sounded to the young boy. She rubbed circles on his chest as she chanted. Suddenly, Dad’s eyes burned bright with terror. He told Mrs. Lombardi she owed him no money, and he pushed Vincent out of that house and into the old Chevy with the ladder racks attached.
Vincent watched the perspiration bleed from every pore of skin on his father’s body as they rode away.
Back home, his dad insisted angrily over Vincent’s nervous giggles that the boy allow his father to tie a dirty string round one of his fingers and bend the boy’s body down over the tiny creek behind their house. Dad mumbled a mythical prayer-half in Italian, half in chewed-over English. Vincent understood only a few of his father’s words:
“Virgin Mary! Mother of God!
Whose sins are these my child suffers from? I command you to remove them.”
With his final word, Dad hovered over Vincent and pushed the circle of string from the boy’s finger and into the muddy creek. He turned his eyes away as he did so.
Vincent felt fine next day and ever after. But Rosario Battaglia never ventured within a wide mile of that four-story, clapboard house again. The few times they came even close to that same street Vincent noticed the wary, frightened look in his dad’s eyes, and smelled the sweat.
Vincent Battaglia jumped in his chair as he heard the plopping sound. Bomboli had scurried from his lap, knocking the book of folktales to the floor. He stretched his legs, listening to the bones snap, and rose. Walking toward the refrigerator, he tried to consider what he might prepare for dinner. But a sardonic smile insisted itself into the wrinkles of his face, and thoughts of supper were pushed aside by a more stubborn lyric. What the blank am I going to do about teaching an old boy straight from Italy? he wondered to himself.
And then he felt it: a sinister heat within, rushing through every artery and vein, turning his skin blush-red. A thought invaded, colored by the distant tone of his father’s voice, deadly as guilt and regret: The most evil eye, it seems, looks inward.
Vincent listened next to the rhythm of his own breathing, a staccato rasp at first, slowing at last to a reassuring steadiness. He allowed the coolness of reality to return. The aromas floating through his kitchen, the evening’s final spray of sunlight scattered through a window, the brush of his cat’s soft fur along his ankle. He shook his head as if to rid himself of the pain and fear. When the dizziness passed he opened the refrigerator door.
Cook a meal. Read a book. Write an essay. It all came back to him. Responsibilities had buried him, threatened to suffocate him. The job and the university course had possessed his energy, sucked at his emotions, driven his mind into a nightmare from the past. Gradually he forced his thoughts forward in time. Grow up, Vincent, he told himself. You’re not there anymore. Come home where you need to be. Your father died two years ago.
But the nightmare argued with reason, and insisted that Vincent Battaglia remember. Two nights ago. Trapped inside that florescent, nighttime classroom. Scribbling notes to please a professor who rambled on about Cultural Diversity. Fastened securely to his seat, tied into it by obligation. Smothered. Absorbed.
And the line of note-taking came home; he’d copied it as a stenographer takes shorthand-no thought to it. The individual can be absorbed into the group, but the reverse is not true.
Vincent smiled and whispered a thank you to his dad.
Humberto would be loved tomorrow. Vincent Battaglia was certain of it.