This story first appeared in the April/May 2010 issue of Einstein’s Pocket Watch

Hospice. He was being moved and he heard that word, so knew that’s where he was going. He knew what that meant when he was able to put any thoughts together, so realized he was near the end. He was simultaneously at peace and at war with his mortality. He had led a long fulfilling life and was accepting of the fact of death. At the same time he wanted to live longer. He wanted more time with his wife, children, grandchildren and the rest of his family. Sometimes, when conscious but not fully aware of his present surroundings, he would lose control of his thoughts, and time and people came and went as though in a dream.

*

He saw himself in 1913 when he was five years old, walking through their town, Vitulazio, Italy, holding the hand of his Uncle Antimo. His nine-year-old brother Sal was holding his other hand, not because he wanted to but because Uncle Antimo insisted. They were going to a carnival that was visiting their town and was set up in the town’s piazza. He had black hair and bright blue eyes, which were wide with excitement. When he heard the carnival was coming to town he pleaded with his mother to take him. At first she said no, she was too busy taking care of his younger brother Luigi. She had to care for them all alone since his father was in America trying to make enough money to send for them. He finally succeeded in convincing her to let them go when his Uncle Antimo agreed to take them. He couldn’t sleep for days anticipating the carnival’s arrival.

The first thing he wanted to do was ride the carousal. He had seen pictures of it in the posters around the town, and he couldn’t wait to sit on one of the elaborate horses. Uncle Antimo lifted him on to one of the outside horses, and held onto him, as he would reach for the brass ring that protruded from the device near the ride’s operator. Sal was on the inside horse beside him pretending to be a cavalry soldier shooting at the enemy. He would laugh, as Uncle Antimo would tickle him as he reached for the ring causing him to miss. Finally on one of the last passes Uncle Antimo let him reach without a tickle and he screeched with glee as he grabbed the ring.

After the ride Uncle Antimo bought them a gelato and they sat at a table at the edge of the piazza. They were fairly close to a stage that was set up where two singers were performing arias from operas by Rossini. The orchestration was from a scratchy record piped through a loudspeaker, but the man and woman’s voices carried clearly in the evening air. The music overwhelmed him in its beauty and power. He listened intently as he ate his gelato. Afterward it took some convincing from Sal and Uncle Antimo to get him to leave the stage area to do other things. The music stirred something in him and a lifelong love affair was born.

Next he saw himself and Sal later that same year sitting on a hill overlooking the town, their backs against a tree. They were tending their uncle’s small herd of sheep, watching them nibble on the sparse grass, listening to the occasional bleats as the sheep nudged each other out of the way. It was a mild sunny day, typical for this area of southern Italy.

“I don’t want to go tomorrow,” he said to Sal as he started to sob.

“Antonio, we’ve been through this before, you know we have to go, stop crying.”

“But this is our home, I’ll miss our house. And what about our friends and all our family here, our aunts and uncles, cousins.”

“We have aunts and uncles in America too, and more will come. Do you want to watch sheep the rest of your life? You heard Mama read Papa’s letters. There’s more in America than we’ll ever have here.”

“I don’t care,” he shouted crying harder now, “I don’t want to go.”

Sal reached over and slapped him hard on the back of the head. “I said stop crying you brat. Don’t you want to see Papa? He’s been gone so long; don’t you want to be with him?”

“Why can’t he just come back home?” he said rubbing his head, the tears continuing to flow.

“Because he’s made a new home in America. Now listen, we’re leaving tomorrow and that’s it. Mama doesn’t need you to be acting like a baby; she’s got enough on her mind as it is. She’ll need our help with little Luigi. So I don’t want to see you crying tomorrow when we get on that ship. If you do, I’ll give you something to cry about. Maybe I’ll even throw you overboard. Now c’mon, let’s get these smelly sheep back to Uncle Antimo.” He tussled Antonio’s hair and put his arm around him as they set off toward the sheep.

The next day they boarded the Taormina at the pier in Naples. The four of them stood at the rail as they waved goodbye to some of their family. Antonio’s lips started to quiver, but when he glanced at Sal’s stern look, he managed to get control, and not shed any tears. Still, he had never been so sad in his short life.

A few hours after the ship left the port, his mother called out to them, “Boys, come with me, I want to show you something.” Sal motioned to Antonio to take Luigi’s hand as they followed their mother up the stairs of the ship to the top deck.

“Look,” their mother said pointing toward the shore, “that’s the Rock of Gibraltar, after we pass it, we’ll be in the ocean and won’t see land for days.” She looked at Antonio’s sad face and bent down to his level. “Antonio isn’t that rock a sight to see? Look how big it is.” His eyes rose and he took in the behemoth as the ship passed under its shadow. “You’ll always remember this sight, believe me,” she told him.

“Wow,” he muttered.

“Papa says that in America they have buildings that are taller than that rock.”

“They do?” he said.

“Yes. And he said that when we arrive there is a giant lady in the harbor that will welcome us.”

“A giant lady?” he said in amazement.

“Well, not a real lady, but a great statue that you can see for miles calling us to a new life. Won’t it be great to see Papa again?”

Antonio nodded as he smiled at her. She hugged him and he hugged her tight, excited now about what sights he’d see.

“Now I need you to take care of Luigi for me okay?” she said to him as she kissed his cheek.

“Okay Mama I will,” Antonio replied as Sal looked on smiling at his mother, appreciating her wisdom.

*

He could hear voices, but he couldn’t recognize who they were. Nurses, family, sometimes they all sounded the same. Then at the foot of his bed he saw his father standing there in a wrinkle free long sleeve white shirt, sleeve garters near his elbows keeping the sleeves at just the right length. He was smoking one of his Di Nobili cigars, the thin ones that the women said “stunk up the house.”

*

“Antonio,” he said, “I know you want to go on to school, that one across the river, what is it RIP?”

“It’s RPI Pop,” he replied as he now found himself in his father’s store, helping stock some shelves. It was the summer after he graduated from high school.

“RPI, PRI, whatever. Anyway, if you really want to go, we can manage. We can take another mortgage out on the store.”

“No Pop, I can’t let you do that, it’s too much of a risk. This store is all you’ve got. It’s not fair for you and Sam to be working supporting us all while I go to school. I’ll get a job and help out too.” Since coming to America Sal became Sam, Antonio became Tony and Luigi became Louis (to all but their parents) as they assimilated into American life. Sam quit school after eighth grade so that he could work to make some money to help out. There were other children in the family now as they struggled to make ends meet. His father had worked hard on the railroad and construction jobs and managed to save enough to put a down payment on the small ice cream/grocery store. It was a poor neighborhood though, made up mostly of newly arrived Italian immigrants with not much to spend. While Tony had dreams of becoming an engineer or some other lofty profession, he knew his family needed all the income they could get so like Sam before him put aside his dreams to help his parents provide for their other siblings.

His father nodded and returned behind the counter of the store. He was not one to cajole or persuade once an offer was made. He loved his children, but believed in discipline and hard work. He meant what he said to his son, but once his offer was rejected, there was no need for discussion. If his son wanted it bad enough, it would be up to him to bring the matter up again with his father.

*

The image of his father behind the store’s counter grew smaller rapidly, as though he was looking through a camera backing out of a scene. He was back in the Hospice. The room was dark. He could hear voices and feel someone holding his hand. The voices were young and he heard the word “Grandpa.” He tried to open his eyes but couldn’t, tried to speak but could only mutter sounds they couldn’t recognize.

*

He saw himself at a table where a chessboard was set up with chess pieces on it. Opposite him was his granddaughter, her big brown eyes looking at him as she said, “I moved the horsy grandpa.”

“That’s the knight.”

“Yeah, the knight. Now it’s your move.”

“Okay,” he said as he was now looking at his grandson with his blond hair cut in a “Dutch Boy” style, blue-green eyes on the chess pieces. He moved his castle to take the knight.

“Hey you can’t do that,” said the boy, “that’s not fair.”

“Well, you shouldn’t have moved the knight there. You have to look at the whole board before you make a move. Go ahead, it’s your turn.”

It went on like this, each time he looked up there was a different grandchild opposite him, boys with brown hair and dark brown eyes, a girl with blond hair and deep blue eyes. Sometimes playing chess, and sometimes checkers. They seemed to rotate in his mind each time he looked up. He would reach over to each of them and grab their chins and tell them to say “I Like Macaroni” as he would shake their chins causing their voices to shake and their teeth to chatter while laughing the whole time.

Now he looked up one more time and his first granddaughter was back before him looking at the board. “Hey,” he said, “want a piece of candy?”

“But Grandma says we shouldn’t spoil our supper,” she said.

He put his index finger to his lips and said “Shhh” as he gave her a Hershey’s miniature bar. Just then his wife walked by on the way to the laundry room.

“You two better not be getting into that candy,” she said as she passed them.

His granddaughter put her hand to her mouth to stifle a giggle, then joined him as they put their index fingers to their lips as they both said “Shhhh” and laughed together.

*

He was back in the Hospice, his hand twitching as he tried to bring his finger to his lips. But he found he couldn’t move his arms. He could feel a wet sponge being applied to his lips as he sucked in the refreshing water. His thoughts wandered to yesterday, or was it the day before, or weeks ago? He saw his son enter the hospital room where he was before being brought here. Now he was back in that bed again.

*

“Hey Dad, how do you feel today?” his son asked as he entered the room. He couldn’t remember which son it was, so the face he looked at was a blur.

“Good,” he replied, as he usually did, no matter how he was feeling. He would only confess to his wife how he really felt.

“Boy, it’s starting to get cold out, the leaves are changing, and some are even falling,” said his son, making conversation.

“The Autumn leaves, drift by my window,” he began to sing. “When I play that song it’s like the leaves are falling beneath my fingers as I move them across the piano,” he said as he motioned with his hands mimicking playing an imaginary piano. “What a beautiful song. That writer really knew what he was doing. You can see the color of the leaves and feel the chill of fall when you hear it.”

He continued to move his fingers as he sang the song to his son who quietly listened as he looked out the hospital window at the leaves blowing in the wind.

“Is your mother coming?” he asked his son after finishing the song.

“Yeah, she should be here in a little while.”

“Doesn’t the room light up when she comes in?” he said as his son marveled at the love that was still there after all these years.

*

He was back in his Hospice room; thinking of the music of his life and seeing the notes rise above his head. He could see the notes land on sheet music that seemed to hang from the ceiling of the room. Music was a major part of his life. In his youth when he showed some talent in that area, his father arranged for piano lessons for him. He learned how to play and write music; making his own arrangements for the band he would form. In addition, he gained an appreciation for all kinds of music, particularly opera. But it was pop music of the day that he played mostly. His mind now took him back to The Blue and White, a local bar where his band played on many Saturday nights.

*

They all had suits on, the drummer, trumpet player, saxophone player and he on the piano. A stand in front of the band read “Tony’s Aristocrats” as the crowd danced to the music they played. His sister, Alice, the youngest in the family, came in that night with her boyfriend. She also brought one of her girlfriends with her, Bessie, who went to school with her. When they were kids, they would interrupt his practices, and he would yell at them to play elsewhere. On this night, as he was playing and singing the ballad “Always” by Irving Berlin, he happened to glance over at his sister’s table. She was up dancing with her boyfriend, and Bessie was sitting alone. She saw him looking her way and smiled as she stared at him. It was like it was the first time he saw her, dark hair, big brown eyes and a beautiful smile. He smiled back as he sang the words “I’ll be loving you, always, with a love that’s true, always…”

Just then a scuffle broke out and fists started to fly. Soon much of the crowd was either fighting or running from the fight. A bottle was thrown and a chair lifted high aimed at someone. He leapt off the stage and grabbed Bessie, leading her back to the stage he had her sit behind the piano. Then he began to play the Star Spangled Banner as the others followed his lead and took up the tune. Soon the crowd noticed and stood at attention, hands over hearts, as the anthem played. The fighting was forgotten, and the night went on.

He motioned for her to sit beside him on the bench as the band continued to play song after song. His mood called for a string of ballads that they played while he sang or smiled at her. During a particularly long trumpet solo in the middle of one of the ballads he turned to her and said, “You know there are three beautiful things in life.”

“Oh yeah, what are they?” she replied with a sly smile.

“The minor chord,” he said playing one as she nodded in appreciation, “the color blue,” he continued, but she interrupted him,

“Why is that, because you have blue eyes?” she teased.

“No, it just happens to be my favorite color,” he said as his eyes gazed down at the blue dress she was wearing.

“And,” she said as she blushed.

“And what?” he said.

“You said there were three things, what’s the third?”

“He leaned close to her and said, “Love’s first kiss.”

Just then a couple danced close to the band, the man had on a blue pinstriped suit, hair slicked back. “Too dead,” he shouted to Tony, “play something peppy.” But he had an accent so that to them it sounded like “To Dad, play something pappy!” They looked at each other and laughed. From then on whenever he wanted her to laugh he would shout out “To Dad, play something pappy.” He signaled to the other band members, and they immediately played a song he recently wrote, The Blue and White Boogie, an upbeat tune that got everyone up and dancing.

*

He could hear Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata playing. He smiled as his favorite opera reminded him of when he would tell his sons that Joe Green, the literal translation of the name, could really compose music. He let the music inhabit his body, overwhelm him and soothe him. He could feel others in the room, his family surrounding him. They were all there; he could feel it even if he couldn’t see them. His wife, his sons, their wives, even his sister were present. He knew other family members came and went, felt their touch, heard some of their words. He tried to speak to them and occasionally would say a name, but speech was difficult. As Verdi’s music filled the air and his being, he saw himself in a black murkiness. In the distance he saw his adult brothers Sam and Louie, who had passed before him. There was a light behind them, and they were smiling at him. Further in the distance he could see his parents arm in arm, closer to the light.

He was glad to see them all, but he didn’t want to move, couldn’t move. He stayed in the blackness, his legs trying to walk back away from the light, but too heavy, like in a dream when trying to run from or to something. He wanted to tell his family he knew they were there and that he loved them. He was comforted by their presence and gathered his strength to shout to them “I love you,” but they only heard an incomprehensible utterance. The nurses present, who knew of such things, assured the family he was not in pain, and the noises he was making were not unusual.

As the night grew late, and it was time for them to leave, he could feel their touch, hear their whispered words of love, and feel their lips on his face. He again made sounds that they could not understand, but he felt the love and smiled inwardly. One of them would stay by his side for the night, but he felt the rest leave the room. Now he no longer felt the need to walk back toward the darkness. His legs grew lighter as he walked toward the light behind his brothers, who still stood waiting for him. His being filled with his family’s last expression of love, he walked forward, the beautiful music around him, walking toward the bright light, smiling and humming along as the music grew.

The End

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