by Salvatore Difalco
When my father was in the late stages of terminal lung cancer — chemo and two operations had not slowed it down — a group of his friends came to our house to visit him. They had been drinking. Giacchino Palmieri, his godson, the loudest among them, slurred and slobbered greetings to my father, who was already in pajamas and having a bedtime snack of buttered toast with me at the kitchen table. I looked forward to these moments with my father, whom I barely knew, and who never said much but enjoyed — or at least tolerated — my company.
“Peppi!” Giacchino shouted. “How the hell are you?”
Giacchino, in his early 20s, and considered a cafone by many of our paisans, lacked manners and tact, but my father always had a soft spot for him, maybe because he had baptized him back in Sicily, and forgave him for most of his peccadilloes. His companions, Mario and Angelo Mattina, my father’s beloved second cousins, and a guy called Vincenzo, who wasn’t Sicilian but always hung around with them, tried to quiet Giacchino down. Things just got louder. My mother was working afternoon shift at the Brill shirt factory. Had she been around she would have muted the antics quickly.
The men staggered and stumbled around the kitchen, knocking into the table and cupboards, snorting with laughter. My father didn’t look altogether pleased, but some part of him must have enjoyed the unannounced presence of his friends, even in their inebriated states, whom he had barely seen during the past year. He couldn’t keep a straight face as they busted each others chops, and even broke up laughing a few times — something I hadn’t seen him do in months. No doubt he had enjoyed drunken moments like these with these fellows in the past — good times, merry times he would likely never experience again — and wasn’t going to judge them too harshly.
Giacchino opened the refrigerator door with a bang and helped himself to a beer. My father told the others to help themselves as well, and they did. They opened beers and sat around the table talking over each other, often cursing in Sicilian, and occasionally banging their fists on the tabletop.
Vincenzo pulled mortadella sandwiches and almonds out of a paper bag.
“Peppi,” Vincenzo said, palming some almonds, “how about a sandwich?”
“No, I’m good,” my father said.“Have a beer with us,” Giacchino said, his face crinkling.
“He can’t drink alcohol,” I said.“Whaddaya mean he can’t drink alcohol?”
“He’s on medication.”
“Shouldn’t you be in bed, kid?”
Giacchino said, cockeyed and tottering.
“He’s staying up with me till Carmela gets home, in case I need to go to the can.”
“Aw, sorry kid,” Giacchino said, spraying his words. “Thas okay. Don’t mind us.”
“We just wanted to see your father,” Mario said. “We miss him.”
“Yeah we miss him a lot,” Angelo said with feeling.
Giacchino dropped his beer bottle on the floor and when he bent to get it, struck his forehead on the edge of the table.The others laughed as he cursed and rubbed his forehead, reddened but not bleeding. Meanwhile, his beer bottle spilled its contents all over the floor.
“Get the mop,” my father said.
I went to get the mop in the basement. While I was down there I heard my father scolding Giacchino. I couldn’t make out exactly what he said, but he went on at length. The others remained quiet while he said his piece. They remained quiet even after he finished talking. Giacchino’s ensuing apologies quickly turned into sobs. By the time I came back with the mop, he was slumped at the table, his shoulders jerking.
Vincenzo clapped a comforting hand on his neck. Mario and Angelo, quietly looked on with bloodshot eyes, beers in hand. I picked up the beer bottle and mopped up the beer. It was almost eleven, my mother would be punching out soon and coming home. It took her about ten minutes to walk home from the factory. I wondered what she would make of all this. Giacchino continued blubbering.
I figured my father must have said something deeply hurtful. But in retrospect, that wasn’t the reason why he was crying. I only understood why years later, when I started losing people in my own circle of friends. As the others helped Giacchino to his feet and made to leave, he grabbed my father’s hands, and started kissing them repeatedly. Rather than pull away or scold him further, I recall my father touching Giacchino’s head very tenderly, then bending down and whispering something in his ear that brought a smile to Giacchino’s face, and more tears.
Artist: Stephen Coley
Sal Difalco splits time between Toronto and Sicily