~This piece previously appeared in The Southern Review (2005).
Saturday, and Franco woke up all vinegar. He didn’t want the kids climbing into our bed. He didn’t want the kids getting lippy. He wanted only the paper and some hot coffee, so he made the coffee, but the percolator’s dying, so the coffee was bad, like tea. It was so light, he couldn’t even put milk in it.
Already, this early, the kitchen was summer hot. I made eggs and dealt with the children. Franco drank his disappointing coffee and read the papers, the Sun and yesterday’s Il Giornale, and he huffed at their pages. He grumbled in English, and he cursed in Italian.
Joseph, my little Joseph, our little Joseph, padded over and asked him, “What’s the bad news, Daddy?”
Franco told him there were bad people doing bad things. Joseph stayed where he was, but his eyes were wider than before. Franco let out more puffs of hot air.
“Can I see the bad news?”
Franco showed him a photo from one of the front pages. I don’t remember who it was. It doesn’t matter. The bad ones are all the same.
“Is that a bad guy?” said Joseph.
Franco said yes, absolutely, yes that’s a bad guy.
Joseph smiled but he tried not to let me see it. He’s terrified, terrified, of bad guys, and so he loves them, at a distance.
With the meal on the table, we all tried to eat with nobody crying or whining or yelling. But I had to put on the air conditioners, and they were so noisy we had to talk loud, and the kids finished in three minutes and chased each other over the couch with yolk and butter and crumbs on their hands, so there was some yelling and there was some whining. And the toaster’s dying along with the perker, so the house smelled like burnt toast, and that smell sticks around for hours.
After breakfast, Franco helped me clear the table. He was heavily silent, except for when one of the kids wailed, and he said, “Madonn’.”
“You’re fun this morning,” I said, which was probably a mistake.
His words were like acid. “Thanks, Rose. That helps. Very useful comment. A thousand thanks.” He speaks in Italian when he thinks we’re fighting, because he thinks the kids won’t understand. I don’t understand everything myself, but I get the tone—he needed to be left alone.
So, before the day got too hot, I went upstairs to do the Saturday cleaning. I chased the kids up with the vacuum cleaner. First, I stripped the beds, picked up underpants and T-shirts, put everything in heaps. I put fresh linens on the beds. I put on the vacuum attachment and went after the dark line where the wall meets the floor, the line that never comes clean. Because the house is small, none of this takes so long. Joseph wrapped a dirty bed sheet around himself and said he had a tail. Back and forth he ran, swatting his tail. Dragging her own dirty sheet, Nicole chased him. Joseph kept telling her to slow down, be careful. I vacuumed around them, until I was sweating, and then Nicole went into my room and somehow reached Franco’s pile of pennies. She scattered the pennies all over the floor, and when Joseph caught wind, he started looking around. “Where’s your jewelry box?” he asked.
Because it’s an old house, and never lived in by money, not a single door knob works. The doors are crooked in their frames, because the walls have settled, and the latches in the knobs don’t match up with the plates on the jamb. We’ve put hook-and-eye locks on all the doors. The hooks are up high, above the kids, on the outsides of the doors. No one can lock themselves in, only out. I wanted the kids to stay with me, in the hall. I locked the three of us out of everything.
While I finished up the vacuuming, they ran up and down the hall. Joseph, every time he passed, put his toes under the machine, on purpose. Stop it, I told him.
He did it again, and again I told him. Stop.
Franco came upstairs and looked at the heaps on the floor. He stared at the vacuum cleaner.
He said to me, “My mother never cleaned this much.”
How was I supposed to take that? I think his mother had an Albanian girl who did the cleaning.
After looking up and down the hallway a few seconds, he went into the bathroom with his pale coffee and the Sun, and he asked me to lock him in, which I did.
The kids ran, up and down, up and down, and Joseph kept up with the toe thing. I gave him a look, and he gave me an all-tooth smile.
“Am I plucking your nerves?” he asked.
I nodded. Oh, he does, my Joseph, he can pluck my nerves.
When I turned off the vacuum, I heard Franco knocking on the bathroom door. I let him out, and I saw he looked almost happy. He put his hand on my hip and kissed me quickly.
“Give your mother a break,” he said to Joseph.
“Can you give your mother a break, please?” he said to my Nicole, my fresh beautiful Nicole, our Nicole.
At this time, though, she only had one word. She said, sweetly, “No.”
Then the phone rang. Franco checked the caller ID and handed it to me.
When I answered, Michael said, “Hey, sis,” and he waited for me to say something.
Sometimes, when Michael calls, I want the machine to get it. And then on the last ring I have to change my mind, because of where he’s calling from.
I went into my room and shut the door. I leaned against the door so the kids couldn’t come in with their beggar faces. Through the wall I heard Franco tell the kids it was time to get dressed, and that he was doing the dressing this time. There was some wailing.
Into the phone, I said hello, and I asked Michael how he was. And I waited. On these phone calls, there’s a delay. As I talk, it takes a couple seconds for my words to reach him, and vice versa.
After the pause, he told me everybody was back from the mission.
“You don’t like it when I brag,” he said, “but we were good. Not one man hurt. ”
There was a close call, he said, a guy from his platoon who almost drove over a land mine, but didn’t.
“He’s this religious black guy, David, with a baby daughter named Precious. He seems like a good guy.”
Also, he had bought a blanket for me and Franco.
“Do you know what a bazaar is?” he asked.
I said I did.
A pause, and then he said he sent me the blanket, and I should get it some day in the mail.
That was nice, I told him.
“I only have a minute left,” he said. “So I guess tell the kids Uncle Mike says hi, tell Franco I said hi.”
I told him what I always told him, and I waited. Take care of yourself. Do the right things.
“Love you,” he said. “Bye.”
I said it, too, and the call was over.
After, I finished dressing the kids so I could take them out of the house. Franco told me he was going to stay home and do some work on the door knobs. He had a fix-it-yourself video, which explained some of his crabbiness. That kind of work rips at his soul. What I mean is, Franco’s no handyman.
Outside, it was stinking hot. I wanted the sun to go behind a cloud, but there were no clouds. Sweet Joseph wanted to do the sprinkler, but we only have a front yard, no back yard, and I told him No. This is because when we do the sprinkler, the kids end up naked, and I can’t let them run naked in the front yard.
Then he suggested the playground, but there are no trees at the playground, which means there’s no shade. Also, two days earlier, we saw a police chase happen there, and so now Joseph knows there are bad guys nearby. He’s afraid of bad guys if they’re nearby. He’s also afraid of locked doors, darkness, nighttime, echoes, churches, museums, priests, and teachers. But most of all, he’s afraid of Nicole, what she’ll do, like get hit by a car, fall off a table, swallow a coin. This is what I’ve given him.
We ended up at the graveyard. It’s shady there. No speeding cars, no living bad guys. Joseph’s not afraid of dead people, and the kids ran around the headstones. They even tried to climb on the headstones, and I let them. Is that so wrong?
Once, there was a breeze, and, for those few soft seconds, Nicole had windy hair. After, she rested her fresh, hot cheek on the cool stones, stone after stone, and at each one she turned to me with her cheek pressed on granite and smiling eyes.
After a while we had to go, and I just took them home. When we got back, Franco was watching the fix-it-yourself video. In front of him was a door off its hinges, lying on the floor. Cursing at the television and the door, he seethed. All around him were tools, tools I think he must have borrowed, and his thumb bled and his face was a collection of different kinds of agita and madness.
I made the kids come away from the tools, and I gave Franco an old burp cloth, clean, for his bleeding thumb. He was angry enough at the door that he wouldn’t look at me. The kids wanted to help him. They love tools. But I made sandwiches and told the kids, Leave your father alone. Can’t you see he’s having a hard time?
That was when Michael called for the second time. He said he had something to tell me.
“I wasn’t exactly telling the truth about the mission,” he said.
What? I wanted to know.
“There was a guy wounded.”
I asked him what happened, and he explained: they were only supposed to be carrying out the dead. But there was an ambush, something blew up, there were nine guys wounded.
“You said one guy.”
After the pause, he said, “It was nine guys.”
He said everybody got to the hospital, he gave blood, everybody would be fine.
I asked him if that guy, with the baby girl, was one of the wounded.
Pause. “Yeah, he was wounded.”
Then he said the sergeant shredded their asses because they lost two Humvees, and they were already short.
I told him the usual. Take care of yourself. Do the right things.
I know that those things I tell him probably cancel each other out. How can he look out for himself in a fire fight, and still do the right things? He was trained to sacrifice, and he was trained to kill, but Michael never calls me on that point.
“I will,” he said. “And Rose, by the way. That blanket I’m sending you, I forgot to tell you that it might have sand flies, so if I were you, I’d wash it before putting it on a bed.”
When I hung up, Franco was wiping up spilled milk and having words with the kids. Sit in your chair. What do you want? Use your words. Calm down and sit in your chair. Stop whining. Calm down. Calm down.
Nicole stretched her arms above her chair where she was trapped and cried for me. Joseph jumped out of his seat and fell down and stood up and wrapped himself around my legs. Franco growled. The air conditioners made that noise, and the house was still stinking hot.
I was tired and lazy and everybody looked heavy, so I spoke loudly, because Franco doesn’t always hear me.
“We’re going to Starbucks,” I said.
He looked at me and shook his hand in the air, burp cloth wrapped around his bloody thumb.
“We hate Starbucks,” he said.
I told him we didn’t hate Starbucks, that Starbucks wasn’t bad. They bought shade-grown coffee. They offered health insurance to part-timers. He said, All right, all right, they’re not bad, but their coffee is bad. He believes that coffee, when drunk in public, should be drunk standing, at a bar, from an off-white, or maybe black, espresso cup. Never take-out. No foamed milk after ten in the morning.
But Starbucks was the coldest place I knew, and we were all very hot. I told him we could get coffee that looks like coffee.
Joseph said, “Mommy, hate is a bad word.”
It was cold there. The kids walked in circles with madeleines. Joseph tried to keep Nicole from walking into things. We sat in chairs of cold metal, and the children laughed and smiled on us both.
Franco and I held our coffees. He had his black, and mine I took brown. They were too hot to drink. He watched the people in line, and with each order he overheard, he made a face, like pain. He called Joseph over, put his hands on his shoulders, and grumbled in his under-voice.
“Listen to these people,” he said.
Joseph listened and opened his eyes wide, waiting.
Franco mimicked an order from one of the customers. “White. Mocha. Frappuccino. Jesus Christ in heaven, white mocha frappuccino.”
Joseph wasn’t sure what to do. He looked into his father’s eyes for a clue.
“That’s bad, right?” he said.
“It’s a disgrace,” said Franco, loudly enough that the customer could overhear him if he cared to.
Nicole climbed onto Franco’s lap and bothered him for coffee.
“Too hot,” he told her.
“No,” she said.
“Stop plaguing your father,” I said, gently.
“Too hot,” he told her again.
And then my cell phone rang, Michael’s third call. This time he got straight to the point.
“Look, Rose,” he said. “Before, I lied.”
I told him I knew that already. We talked about that already. Nine guys wounded.
“Yeah,” he said, “and one guy killed.”
I held the coffee cup to my lips but still, it was to hot to drink. I said nothing. After the pause, Michael spoke again.
“Rose, are you there? I don’t know if you heard me. I said that someone died.”
I asked him if it was the guy with the baby.
Pause. “Yeah, it was him,” he said, and he sounded sad. “He was a good guy.”
He didn’t wait, only kept talking. “I couldn’t give him blood. They wouldn’t let us give any blood.”
When he finished, I asked why he lied. He said, “You know. For the reasons you would think.” I’ve been thinking about those reasons. There are so many reasons.
I put my coffee on the table and kept my hand around it so Nicole wouldn’t knock it. Franco looked at me with questions. But he knew, enough. He watched me on the phone, and he rubbed his chin where his beard wanted to come in. His face became more gentle than it had been all day.
Before Michael said good-bye, he asked me a favor. “Could you tell Gloria and Sal about the sand flies? I sent them blankets, too. All right?”
I said good-bye. Take care of yourself. Do the right things. I love you.
When I put away the phone, Franco rubbed his chin so hard I heard the bristles.
In a soft whisper, he said, “That fucking Michael.” The way he said it—I could tell he felt bad for Michael, but that he wanted to protect me from him.
Joseph heard the whisper, and he said, “Uncle Mike?”
“He’s a good guy, right?”
“And good guys have guns.”
Slow to answer, Franco said, “Some of them.”
He put Nicole off his lap and let her cry and blew on my coffee for me. I wondered if I would have done that for him.
My legs pressed on the cold metal. I felt sick, and I looked at my watch, and I knew there were only three hours until dinner, and after dinner was bath, and after bath was bedtime, and then the kids would be asleep, and then I could sleep, and Franco could sleep next to me, near to me.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
I wrote this story while my youngest brother was stationed in Afghanistan, serving in the U.S. Army 25th Infantry Division. He had enlisted in August of 2001, and he arrived at the Federal Building in Richmond, Va., to be sworn in a month later. That day happened to be September 11. He arrived sometime between 7 and 8 a.m.; a couple of hours later, half the men in his group had left the building, walking away from their enlistment. When I asked him why he stayed, he said that he wouldn’t be able to look at himself in the mirror if he left.
When he first shipped over, I was surprised by how often he was able to call. But the phone calls were a blessing and a curse—it was reassuring to hear from him, but it was also maddening, because the connections were poor and the spoken words traveled with a delay. We had to figure out a rhythm of speaking and pausing, so that we weren’t speaking over each other and missing each other’s sentences. By the end of every phone call, I was tense and worn out.
During this time, I had been in Baltimore for only a few years, and while I like hot weather, I was still adjusting to hot weather with children. Without children, one can do reasonable things in the heat—move slowly, drink cold drinks, sit for a few seconds. With children … well, my husband and I were cranky for most of the summer.
My brother returned home safely after his tour of duty, and he’s had no interest in re-enlisting. ~Christine Grillo
ABOUT CHRISTINE GRILLO
Christine Grillo's work has appeared in The Southern Review, Utne Reader, LIT, and other journals. She is a contributing writer at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, and she also writes for publications such as BSO Overture, Baltimore Style, and Urbanite. She is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins master's program in creative writing, and a fellow of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.