On Sundays the grocery store in Forio is closed. The owners do not fear burglary because they have two guard dogs running loose inside.
Meanwhile, someone has noticed that my writing is “derivative” and “self absorbed.” Well, yes, that’s true. We are what we eat….er, read. As for being self-absorbed, I admit I am clearly among a vast number of Live Journal writers who begin most paragraphs with a first person singular pronoun. Which is what one generally does when composing a diary entry. Now a couple decades back Norman Mailer devised a great way to avoid that damning charge. He wrote an entire book referring to himself as Norman. Or Mailer. Third person. After a while it got tiresome, because we all knew he was the subject of the narrative.
Anyway, I’m thinking more and more about my childhood. A long time ago.
I grew up in a gray house among many other gray houses on Superior Street, in Youngstown, Ohio. It was on the slope of a hill that overlooked the black buildings and chimneys of the steel mill. At night the flames of Bessemer converters made the low-lying clouds bright orange. The kitchen was infested with cockroaches. When I entered the room, thousands of them scurried madly for cover. The refrigerator usually was empty. I nourished myself with bowls of Kellog’s Corn Flakes, or pieces of soft Wonder bread spread with butter and sprinkled with sugar. I supplemented this diet with little cellophane-wrapped pumpkin and cherry pies I stole at the corner grocery store. I was a cool, insouciant, and efficient thief. They never suspected a thing.
My father usually was at work at his clothing store across town, or in a bar, and my uncle—also a chronic alcoholic—was gone for weeks at a time, so I had the place mostly to myself. My safe haven was the Belmont Public Library. I sat in a marvelous plush leather-covered armchair near the front window and lost myself in Jules Verne, Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Isaac Azimov, Ray Bradbury, and of course Shakespeare. Also Emily Dickinson, T.S.Eliot, Yeats. I’d lean back in that soft chair and read for hours, from early morning opening to evening closing, when a librarian named Joan finally shooed me out. The look and feel and heft and smell of a book was intoxicating. Comforting. In those wonderful texts I found solace. I could easily forget my father’s slurring curses, his evil glares, his insults, his lies, and most especially his physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
The first genuine epiphany of my life came when I was nine or ten, standing in the stacks, thumbing through a biology textbook. I encountered a single glossy page showing six photographs of mammalian embryos, in two neat vertical columns of three. Horse, cow, dog, cat, monkey, human. The embryos were indistinguishable from one other, perfectly identical. I instantly understood this was the most elegant proof of evolution and natural selection that Darwin could ever present. It was clear he was telling the truth, whereas my father, my uncle, The Catholic Church, and the bible were full of lies.
My alternate great escape was at night, listening to the radio, and later records on a player I built myself. I tuned in to every live broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and to the symphonies and concertos on the local classical music station. At a big downtown record shop I managed to slip an LP into my jacket, and walk out, undetected. Beethoven, Symphony No. 5, was on one side, and Schubert’s Symphony No. 7, the “unfinished,” on the other.
I felt a great affinity to the emotional life of Beethoven, especially his falling for beautiful aristocratic women who wanted nothing to do with him. I envied his ability to fully convey in music his loneliness, his longing. I wished I could somehow follow his example of turning his torment into beauty, fully revealing his soul and the depths of his love, and also the pain that comes when love is not returned. And it wasn’t just Beethoven, there were many others. Like Mozart. I loved his adolescent humor, and I was spellbound by his limitless intelligence, his unerring mathematical lyricism. I laughed at his obscene, bawdy letters to his sister, and then to his wife Costanza. Brahms was another of my favorites. He started out as a cheerful piano player in a whorehouse in Hamburg. Yes, you just gotta love a guy like that.
From the beginning I understood that while my father and uncle had great power over me, I could always find ways to get around them. Yes, those two abusive drunks made all the rules in that house, but then they just weren’t that bright.
Johnson & Smith, a terrific mail-order company, had a fat catalog containing hundreds of “gags” you could spring on unsuspecting dummies. I sent away for a few items, like for instance a fine white powder that you sprinkle on a bar of soap. I followed the directions, then crept back into my room, and I waited. Finally my uncle went into the bathroom. I heard him peeing in the toilet. The suspense was killing me! But finally I heard him turning the sink’s faucet on, and I heard water flowing.
Then a gasp. Another gasp. I laughed, trying to hold it in, trying to keep silent. Then his terrified voice calling out: “Chet!” That was my father’s name. “Chet!” he shouted. “Help me, I’m fucking BLEEDING!”
I explained to them that it was just a harmless trick. Powdered dye that when put in contact with water turned into a perfect replica of thick red arterial blood. They did not find it amusing. At. All.
Later I engineered a much more sophisticated flummoxing of those two drunks. In my basement laboratory I built a fully functioning replica of Guglielmo Marconi’s first radio transmitter, using a high-voltage neon sign transformer I’d found abandoned in an alley beside Gaughan’s Bar and Grill. I discovered that its powerful electromagnetic signal scrambled TVs and radios for a ten-block radius.
I waited for just the right time. It came during the last game of the World Series. I’d hidden a switch in the living room couch. I sat with my father and uncle, watching the game. Oh, my. Two outs, bottom of the ninth. The count is three and two. Here’s the windup, the pitch….
My father leaped up in a rage, put both hands on the sides of his head. “Jesus Fucking H. CHRIST!” he shouted. “GOD-DAMN-IT!” my uncle shouted. I kept a straight face, a poker face. And I savored the marvelously sweet taste of perfect revenge.