(Author’s note: In the spring of 2013, I took a graduate course at the University of Texas on the Progressive Era. My research paper on Italian immigration and the short story, “The Sour Smell of Pain,” were the genesis for my novel, Birds of Passage, an Italian Immigrant Coming of Age Story, which I begin writing in October 2013.)
The Sour Smell of Pain
I was ten when my feet touched Ellis Island. My mother held onto me by my snot-wipe jacket sleeve, as we jostled among the huddled, steerage, masses who yearned to breathe anything but coal ash fumes, and the unwashed stink of their fellow travelers. We clomped down the steamship’s wooden gangplank onto the dock in New York Bay. I was the sun, the center of my mother’s world, and she was orbiting Venus: dark-haired, blue-eyed and pale, the most beautiful woman in the world. Inside the Immigrant Inspection Station, a white-coated doctor saw my running nose and spoke in gruff gobbledygook to a tall man with a black mustache who marked me with blue chalk that earmarked us for a few days of quarantine where we dined on prison-quality slop.
My father left Naples before I was born. He stole watermelons from an aristocrat’s farm, and when the Don announced in town that my father was the thief, the man was blown away with a blunderbuss blast to the face. There were no witnesses, but family smuggled him out of Italy, and he worked on a merchant ship in exchange for passage to New York. He was spotted on a lower Manhattan street, grabbed by the authorities and given the alternative of extradition to Italy, or to enter the service as a World War I Doughboy. The first thing he ever unpacked was a grainy, black and white picture of himself in uniform. When he got out of the service, he wrote to my mother, and despite her parents’ pleas, she booked passage for us to New York. When I met my father for the first time, he looked at me with hands on hips. I thought, who was this stranger? He took my mother in his arms, and when I tugged on her dress, he shoved me away with his leg.
My father was a short, wiry man with a full head of black, swept-back hair. The shape of his eyes had earned him the nickname Chinaman from his fellow rag pickers. The gang of them acquired their piles of lice infested clothes from alley refuse dumps or as discards from deceased folks’ families who kept anything still wearable. Ragmen would hang their acquired remnants from frayed rope lines for the rain to cleanse and the sun to bleach. My father owned a rickety, spoke-wheel, pushcart piled over with bloated, burlap bags of what he could scavenge. We alternated between tenements in the Italian ghettos around Mulberry Street, Manhattan and East New York, Brooklyn whenever the landlord grew frustrated with rent delays and threatened to lock us out. Constant moves were incompatible with formal education, and anyway, my father saw me as a pair of hands for his business. I sucked cotton dust into my lungs, and retched at the crusted filth and odor of rags often steeped in human waste.
When my father wanted sex with my mother, first he’d order me to bed. Although I pressed my ears like a vice, his muffled grunts drove me into a fetal position. Two sisters, Filomena and then Concetta, arrived in the next years. A Brooklyn tenement landlord allowed my mother to earn our rent as a hall cleaner and toilet scrubber, but the bending and kneeling in the years that followed deformed her body into a permanent stoop, and I watched my mother’s face grow tired. As soon as my sisters could sew, they earned extra money with piecework. That was their childhood. My mother’s affection toward me was limited to when my father wasn’t around.
Lugging loads of refuse strengthened me, and I grew tall for my age. We’d push our cart past a boxing gym off Utica Avenue, and I’d sneak a peak inside to watch a match of one man imposing his will on another. One day, I snuck away from my rag duties, walked in, and up to the owner and promoter, Maxie Schapiro. He bought the club with the purses he earned as a featured middleweight. He was a Jew in his mid forties, with curly reddish brown hair, a cauliflower ear and a nose nearly flattened on his face. I lied when he asked my age, and he gave me a look like he wasn’t that stupid, but he threw some boxing gloves at me and told me to get into the ring. He put me up against a white-as-milk, skinny legged, Irish kid, and in one round I turned the Mick into a cowering blob of sobbing flesh. Maxie pulled me off my bloodied opponent, gave me a silver dollar and told me to come back the next evening ready to box.
My Friday night opponent was black as the ace of spades with the experience of a dozen club fights. I took three punches for every one I gave. My nose was cracked, but I knocked the sfacim out in the fifth round. I was the betting long shot, and received nice tips from gamblers in the crowd who’d won. Maxie gave me a fistful of dollars and told me he’d teach me some defense if I came back to the gym on Monday. I’d earned more money in an hour, than my father gave me in my lifetime, and the back slaps and “atta boys” puffed out my chest. I got home late and when my mother spotted my face, she covered her eyes. My father waved the back of his hand at me and told me to “Get to bed.” I pushed him up against the wall and held him with both hands. I saw fear in his eyes. My mother cried for me to please let him go, and I stormed out the door. That night I crawled through a broken window in the tenement basement and slept on a cold concrete floor that stank of cat urine. From then I was on my own.
Maxie gave me a cot to sleep on in the gym and a few bucks to guard the place at night. Despite Maxie’s defensive training, my strategy was to take shots and get close to my opponent to deliver my own. Eventually I ran out of fighters in my weight class, and Maxie put me up against bigger, heavier kids so I could earn. I developed scar tissue over both eyes, and a nose that turned in two directions. I visited my mother and sisters when my father wasn’t home and gave them money.
I’d boxed for a couple of years when I drew a bout with an Orca-tough German light heavyweight who turned my face into raw liver before he stopped me in the tenth.
That night Maxie talked to me while he patched my cuts. “Look Tony, you’re a mensch, you know I love you. But if you keep taking these beatings, your brain will be scrambled, and all you’ll be good for is to empty spittoons. You need work that takes advantage of your toughness, but doesn’t rip your face to shit. Capeesh?”
My bruises cried out for an entire bottle of aspirin. I nodded to Maxie.
“Good. There’s a guy I want you to meet. He’s connected, you know, a paisan. I arranged for you to see him tonight.”
The sky was angry, and there were lightning flashes in the distance. The Italian social club on Atlantic Avenue smelled of De Nobili cigars. I’d worked for Frank Rizzo for a couple of years. His nickname was, “hole-in-the-head.” He had a depression in the upper portion of his brow like he’d been hit with a ball peen hammer. He always wore a suit and tie with a boutonnière. Today the flower was red. Frank made book and was a loan shark. I took off my newsboy cap and sat down. We went through the same ritual whenever he gave me a job. A greasy-haired waiter put down two espressos on a tile-top table. The saucers each had a sliver of lemon peel. There was a bottle anisette.
Frank poured a little anisette into the black coffee. He took a sip and said, “How’s your mother?”
He nodded. “There’s a figlio di puttana, who calls himself Tasso Papadapa-some-shit. Greek prick who thinks he’s smarter than everybody. Look, I’d be just as happy to see his brains on the concrete as receive the money he owes. So, do what you gotta do. Okay?”
Tasso hung out at a pizza joint I knew, and my mother’s apartment was on the way. I stopped at the bakery on the corner and bought the crumb buns she enjoyed. Her apartment was on the third floor, and I walked up the dark, creaky stairs, amidst the odor of sautéed garlic. The front door of her apartment opened into the kitchen. I was surprised to see my father home. He’d carved some peaches into a tall glass he filled with red wine from a jug. He saw me and headed for the back bedroom of the railroad apartment without a word. He parked himself on a wooden chair, forked out the sliced peaches and drank the wine while he looked over the street through a screened window.
My mother smiled at the sight of me. She sat in a corner chair, shrunken. Her condition had gotten progressively worse. Rheumatoid arthritis, the doctor said. Her fingers were deformed, and Concetta spooned farina for her. Concetta was the prettier of my sisters, thin and dark-haired. She wore no make-up and was still in her robe. I gave my mother a kiss on the cheek and got a wet one in return. She was sweated and had the sour smell of pain. Filomena sat at the Formica kitchen table and sewed buttons on sweaters from a pile for a factory on Euclid Avenue. She had premature gray streaks in her stringy brown hair. She’d frowned at my father’s back.
Filomena put down her sewing. She cut the string around the white bakery box I’d brought and sliced off some buns and put them onto a plate. “Sit, I’ll perk a pot of coffee.”
“Don’t bother. The cake’s for you two and Mama.”
On the wall near the door hung a “Who’s in the doghouse?” plaque. The dog with the “Anthony” label was inside.
Filomena saw that I noticed. “You still work for Frank Rizzo?”
“If you’re arrested, Papa won’t bail you out, and Mama will want to come to court. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, you want that?”
“That won’t happen.”
“So you say.” Filomena went back to her sewing.
Mama ate a sliver of crumb bun.
“Why’s Pop home?”
“He says his lungs are weak. He coughs and wheezes.”
I leaned close to Filomena. “Is he stepping out on Mama?”
She shot a quick glance at Concetta, and her eyes turned down.
My face went scarlet. “Son of a bitch.”
Mama said, “What’s the matter? Why do you need to swear?”
“Sorry Mama.” The apartment had a slew of holy pictures and little statues. The number of them grew with the severity of her disability.
I stood. Filomena tried to hold me by the sleeve, but I walked back to the bedroom and stood over my father. He ignored me.
I spoke to him in Italian. “If you touch Concetta, father or not, I’ll rip off your balls.”
He took a sip of his wine and put down the glass. He looked up at me. “What makes you think that I’m your father?” His Chinese eyes crinkled in smile, then he turned and gazed out the window.
I stiffened. My face lost its color. My brain whirred, and I brought my hand to my forehead.
After a few moments I had control of my voice. “Remember what I told you.”
I walked into the kitchen. Emotion had risen into my throat. I wanted to confront my mother. Who? Why? But Mama had finished eating, and she needed to use the toilet. I kissed her goodbye and left so my sisters could assist her in the bathroom.
Tasso was a fidgety, skinny guy with curly black hair and a red garnet pinkie ring. He had on a gray, sharkskin suit and a fedora. He sat at an inside table and looked at the horse race pages of the newspaper with pencil in hand. I sized him up as a talker, not a fighter. Too bad, I thought. My head felt like an overheated steam boiler ready to explode.
I stood over Tasso. “You have the money you owe Frank Rizzo?”
He spoke in staccato. “Hey, hello. Whoa, I didn’t see you. What’s your name?”
I stared at him.
“You’re Italian? I’m Greek. Una faccia una razza – one face one race. Greeks and Italians, the same, right? Hey look, you want a slice of pizza? How about an Italian ice? Jesus Christ, relax.”
Tasso waved to get the attention of the guy behind the counter. The owner had ducked into the back room when the front door’s bell jingled, and he saw it was me.
Tasso tried to smile.
“Frank Rizzo’s money?”
“Look, whatever your name is, paisan, loosen up. Cool off. What a face. You look like you want to kill somebody.”
“Mr. Rizzo told me that if you don’t pay what you owe, I should splatter your brains on the pavement.”
One of Tasso’s eyes twitched.
“I have a sick mother. When the cops take me in after I turn you into a drooling imbecile, she’ll want to come to the police station. The idea that you’d force my mother to be embarrassed makes me angry.”
Tasso’s face dropped. He reached for his money clip and said, “Your mother must be very proud of you.”
I clenched my fists, but took the wad of bills he handed me and left.
As I walked back to the social club to deliver Rizzo’s money, I thought of the days when my mother and I were on a Neapolitan, sun-drenched farm of sweet tomatoes, sweeter watermelon with doting grandparents. By putting the best part of my life early, God had screwed me over.
Published Blue Lake Review, April, 2013