I did not want to watch my grandfather die but I did as surely as I watched him prune his grape vines as truly as I watched him eat sweet meat rolled in oregano bathed in olive oil fried in re-used fat
Papa Giovanni Drapo was the head of the family, the strongest. He ruled with unquestioned authority. He brought his family from Italy to the hills of northern Pennsylvania after World War I to be free and to work the railroads. He loved the beauty of the rolling hills, especially fall when maple leaves prospered like fireworks, and the evening winds carried the early nibble of winter. With the pruning of his grapevines in November of 1959, Papa Giovanni Drapo turned eighty-three. He also began to die.
What do the saintly old ones know of death with the hair growing out of their ears and their eyes set deep at the back of their noses squinting even when the sun is behind dull clouds? Why am I threatened by hair when there are so many other dangers like secrets which only appear when I am not ready for them?
He was dying, but no one cared. The members of his family regarded Giovanni’s rule with disdain. Only Alisio interpreted Giovanni’s dictatorship as the strength which bound the family together. So no one cared that Giovanni was dying, except Alisio. Alisio loved his grandfather, but he never told him, because Papa Giovanni’s men did not speak of love. Men were men. Men were strong.
Alisio was twenty-seven. Since his return from World War II, he went to Mass every morning, for he believed it was God who preserved him from death in the war. He had black hair and Papa’s great brown eyes set deep at the back of his nose. Every day he tried to get old Giovanni back to church.
“Come to church with me, Pa,” Alisio pleaded. “Have confession. Take communion.”
“No, Alisio,” Papa said. “No church. Since Father Anselmo condemned me and my sin, I don’t go to church never again.”
Now Papa lay in bed, the crucifix above his head, and Alisio, knowing death, hung a rosary on the bed post. This day Giovanni Drapo was not strong. The huge brown eyes looked heavy as pewter and dull as a pruned vine cracked by the frost. Alisio knew from war that distant look in the eye. Dead eyes look away from this world.
Alisio had watched other men die, but he did not want to watch his grandfather die. He took one hand and held it, clasped it in his own. The hand was long, bony now, without power.
Tiny white whisker stubs roughened Giovanni’s face. Large white hairs curled from the soft lobes of his ears. His cheeks were sunken and gaunt, but his teeth were beautiful. He still had all of his teeth. Papa never brushed his teeth; he wiped them clean with a towel after he ate.
“Pa,” Alisio said, “you’re eighty-three years old. You’re weak. Let me call the priest.”
Papa rolled his head quietly toward Alisio.
“I was a strong man,” Papa said.
“You know about the wheel, Alisio?”
“Yes, Pa.” He knew.
Giovanni Drapo was the strongest man who ever worked for the railroad, strong as the coal of his beloved mountains. Many crews of Italian immigrants worked the rails during the depression. Giovanni, Giuseppe, Tommaso, and Roberto were a crew. Giovanni was crew leader. Their job was to replace the great wheels of the box cars. Each steel wheel weighed eight hundred and eighty-three pounds. To set the wheel, the crew raised one corner of the car above level with a hand jack.
“Raise ’em up a little bit more,” Giovanni would order Tommaso.
Standing back, his practiced eye would judge just the right height.
“That’s good,” Giovanni would yell and pronounce the height correct by crossing his hands and arms like an umpire shouting ‘safe.’
Roberto greased the axle. Giuseppe set the guide pin. All four men circled the iron wheel. Giovanni shouted, “Now!” and together they lifted. They shifted the weight abruptly. Giovanni always took the lower grasp, the heaviest downthrust. Then, in harmony, they slid the wheel onto the axle.
“Hey, Giovanni,” Tommaso teased, “why do you always take the bottom? Why don’t you switch around?”
“Whatta you, stupid?” Giovanni answered. “You wanna kill somebody? What if the wheel falls?”
“What, you never gonna drop the wheel? Maybe we better change before you drop one and it kills somebody.”
“I don’t drop the wheel. How many times I gotta tell you? I’m stronger than all three of you bums.”
That day Tommaso was in a playful mood, and he changed the banter of their game.
“Hey, Giovanni,” he smiled, “why don’t you prove to us how strong you are? Why don’t you set a wheel by yourself? What do you think, Giovanni, you really stronger than three men?”
Slowly, he gazed at his crew. They stopped drinking their wine. They each returned his stare.
“I don’t do your work for free,” he coaxed. “You put up some money, I set your wheel. What kind of bet you gonna make?”
The crew averaged three wheel settings per day. Each man received as pay, three dollars, American, per day. The challengers hesitated.
“Okay,” Giovanni said, “I’ll make it easy for you. Three dollars. That’s what I bet. Three dollars.”
Giuseppe, Tommaso, and Roberto eyed each other, a gleeful anticipation jumping at their cheeks.
“A dollar each will buy lots of bread,” Tommaso said to the others. “One man cannot pick up a wheel and set it. Why don’t we take this bet? I can use the money. Besides, maybe we’ll humble Papa a little so he don’t brag so much at lunch, and we can digest our food.”
The others laughed.
“Okay, Giovanni,” they agreed. “Three dollars.”
“What are you gonna tell Mama when you miss a whole day’s pay?” Tommaso teased.
The three sat back. Waited.
Giovanni continued to stare at them. Without moving, he said, “No.”
“What do you mean, `No’?”
“No,” he scowled.
“Hey, you made the bet, Giovanni. What’s the matter? You chicken?”
“No,” Giovanni repeated. He pointed an iron finger at them. “Three dollars each one of you.”
The men stopped laughing.
“Each one of us?” Tommaso asked unbelieving.
“Three dollars, each one,” Giovanni repeated.
“Giovanni,” Roberto said, “you make fun. Nobody can lift a wheel by himself. Nobody can bet a whole day’s pay.”
“Three dollars. Each one. I pick the wheel. I set it. All by myself. I’m stronger than you three put together, but you gonna pay to see.”
Giovanni breathed easily, his deep chest full and powerful, his sharp eyes bright.
The crew looked with raised eyebrows to one another.
“No one man can possibly set one of our wheels,” Roberto repeated. “But a whole day’s pay.” He shook his head. “Papa Giovanni is strong, but . . .”
“No,” shouted Tommaso. “No man is as strong as you claim. I will bet three dollars.”
Encouraged by this, the others agreed.
Giovanni made careful preparation. He set the jack tight under the collar. He applied grease to the wheel hole and to the axle. He set the guide pin at precisely thirty degrees. He took his time. Only with correct preparation could a wheel be set.
The others grew bold and confident. They drank more wine.
Giovanni cleared the path he would take, adjusted the guide pin one slight fraction, and sucked a powerful, deep breath.
Cautiously, he straddled the wheel. His massive fingers spread around the edges, gently, deftly, testing the balance, lifting slightly, re-adjusting. His shoulders convexed, and his thighs riveted, and the veins at his neck inflated, and Giovanni raised the eight hundred and eighty-three pound wheel to ankle height. He shuffled his cargo toward the box car, and in one extraordinary lift raised the wheel above the axle, tilted it slightly with his left hand to catch the guide pin and, flicking his wrists simultaneously, slid the wheel into place.
Sweat ran from the pores on his face and arms. His chest raised and lowered like a piston. He shut his eyes, clenched his hands into fists, and exhaled, “Ahghhhh,” like a bellow of locomotive steam. He won. He always won.
“Yes, Pa,” Alisio repeated. “I know about the wheel. You were a strong man.”
Everyone knows about the wheel, Pa, Alisio thought. You made sure everyone remembered. When Tommaso refused to pay, you broke his finger. The next day when he did hand you the money, you made him work an extra shift. The men said you were out of line, but I understood that Tommaso earned his money back on the extra shift. Why did the others not see him as Alisio did? Papa was no saint. He shouted at everyone. He chased the children with his cane. But, Alisio also knew, he had kept the family together through the trauma of immigration, through the devastation of the depression, and he kept them together now. How many men are there whose family spans four generations?
Alisio looked at this grandfather who had ruled so strongly, so without question. He probed the weakened arms and traced the shallow, withered chest with his eyes.
Alisio spoke his thoughts. “You were a strong man, Pa. And a good man.”
“No, Alisio,” Giovanni clutched at him. “I’m not a good man. Father Anselmo said no man is forgiven for what I did.”
“Papa,” Alisio urged again. “Please let me call the priest.”
But Papa did not listen. These past few years he would go out of contact more and more. He’d fade away mentally. His eyes would get fuzzy. Then he’d babble.
“Stop. Stop,” he’d yell. “No. No,” he’d scream. “Come back, my baby,” he’d call. His arms reached to some unknown someone. His eyes talked to some unseen ghost.
Papa’s breathing rattled a little, but even in his delusion he clung to Alisio with silent, bony fingers, and Alisio knew he would not watch Papa die much longer.
Oh, Papa, Alisio thought, you’re going to die outside the Church, and there’s nothing I can do, and I haven’t shaved you today.
“You’re a good boy, Alisio. Stay with your Papa.”
“You need a shave.”
“No. No time,” he said.
Papa seemed exceedingly tiny. He was dwarfed by the greatness of the pillow at his head and by the thickness of the blanket.
Death must, like silver echoes roll gently against the back of a fortress mountain we call tomorrow, a time far off and distant, like vespers; Dominus vobiscum. Death, a far off rumble tumbling amid the boulders and crevices of hope and expectation mimicking heartbeats like a drum, finding in its steady voice a crescendo of confident volume, and plunging upon the valley with the steel awkwardness of Sunday morning bells unmistakable and confident thunderous and bold plundering eardrums and calendars and heresy and no barrier, no wall, no weapon, no language, no lie, no treasure can stop it haunting hunting monstrous clamoring singing crying dancing devilish death.
“Alisio,” Papa said. “I been a bad man. I’m gonna go to hell.”
“Papa, don’t talk like that. I’ll call the priest.”
“No, Alisio, listen. I’ll confess to you. You be my priest.”
“No, Pa. Please.”
“You no talk. Listen. All my life I know I’m going to hell. That makes me sad. But, nothing I can do.”
“Papa, don’t talk like this. You’re a good man. You’re good to me. Maybe you’ve been a bad Catholic, but you’re a good man. God will understand.”
“I don’t know about God. But, now I’m telling you. I made a sin when I was young, Alisio. Bad sin.”
Papa looked defeated, conquered.
“Oh, Papa,” Alisio blurted, “stop this. I don’t care what you did. I love you.”
It was a sudden, emotional outburst. He didn’t mean to be so honest. He hadn’t meant to say I love you but he’d said it, and it was done.
Love it's got to tumble into the cold stone staircase of black granite and cold marble stairs fissured like a silent pyrite vein so that only after years of effort can a heart break beyond black staircase doorway covered in ink indelible love.
“Alisio,” Papa Giovanni said, “come close. You be my witness. God, He listens to you.”
Papa paused. Breaths were hard work, each one earned, like the setting of a wheel. He looked at Alisio. His eyes begged. Please, Alisio, they begged, take my sin.
“I was a young man. Just a young man, Alisio” Papa began. “Italy, she had no work, everyone fighting for each small job. Mama and me, we’re poor. Mama, she made a baby. It’s a boy. Nice bambino. Black hair. But we got no food. I think to myself: maybe he’ll starve; maybe he’ll get shot. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll get shot, and he starves anyway. I figure and I think for three days. I think, hey, no good for this baby boy to be alive. I save him a lotta pain. I love him too much. Finally, I take that baby, and I snap his little neck. He died quick, and I tell Mama a street bullet come and killed him. Later, I made things right at confession with Father Anselmo. We made a small funeral and a strong wood box for his body. Father Anselmo prays to Our Father, and he sprinkles the holy water on the box. Then, before he says Amen, he says, ‘Giovanni, I condemn you and the Church condemns you; no man is forgiven for what you did.’ He tells this in front of all my village, in front of Mama. Mama, she’s already wearing sadness on her face. Now she must add shame. I cannot talk for the anger in my jaws, but I swear then that no man will ever bring pain to me or Mama or my family again. It was then that my heart crawled into the blackness and became as granite. But, Alisio, I love that baby all these years. I think, when I die God He’s gonna show me that little boy, then send me to hell and never see him again. I’m afraid, Alisio. I want to kiss my son. You’re like my son, Alisio. So you talk to God for me. Talk with a son’s heart. He will listen.”
What confession this? Tattered bundles of fragile words formed of shabby cloth and thread of destitute humanity splattered with sin like communicable stains. Must truth hide behind such words? Must truth cringe behind such forbidding energy full of ripe blood pumping gallons of miserable failure? Requiescat in pace and Ego te absolvo, Giovanni. The almighty curtain of absolution must engulf you swallow you embrace you with arms of fire heated to the two thousandth degree hot enough to sear the guilty memory from your hardened skin. But I, I am left, left as if two inconoclastic balconies merged at the center of my youth while on this side all the world walks in peaceful walking peaceful play peaceful touching peaceful groups like grasses grown in kind flowers grown in spring families grown in trust, while I I walk the other stair alone.
Papa Giovanni sighed, and Alisio knew the end was upon him. Alisio cried, and he screamed to God’s angels.
*First published in Schuylkill Literary Journal in 1999.