Vincent Panella is the author of several books, including the memoir The Other Side, the novel Cutter's Island, a collection of short stories called Lost Hearts and a recent crime novel set in Dubuque, Iowa, entitled River City.
Now the pirates step back to let their chief through. He vaults onto the ramp and swaggers across, small and monkey- like, wearing a pitted bronze breastplate embossed with a gorgon's image. His long, black hair hangs out of an old pot helmet and blows in the breeze like a stiff piece of cloth. He carries a curved sword in one hand, while the other, held out stiffly from his body, ends at a stump covered with an elaborate working of gold.
Jumping onto our deck, he pushes Secondini against the mast, pointing the sword to hold him there. Then slowly, his boots striking the deck like hammer blows, he comes directly to me, stops at some distance, looks me up and down, and bows with the flourish of a stage actor. When I fail to respond he comes closer, walking a circle around me and looking down at my boots, which are dyed red and carved with figures of lions' heads. In perfect, mocking Greek he says, 'Young man, those are beautiful boots.'
This was the measure of his days. He sat at the window and watched the street, the single tree, the patch of garden, the two garbage pails his son Angelo would take in later. Below him people walked briskly to the subway, their heels clacking on the sidewalk. A half block away an el-train passed and vibrated the house slightly.
"I'm going to visit your town, Grandpa."
"Your town in Italy."
"Why you wanna' do that?"
"To see where you and Grandma were born."
He laughed and said, "There's nothing there!"
Later he gave me some things for his brother: twenty dollars, reading glasses, and a pair of galoshes because it snows in his part of Sicily.
His last words were, "Watch out for thieves."
There'd been nothing like Dubuque when he was a kid. The Pack was the biggest slaughter house between Chicago and Omaha and the stock truck drivers filled the downtown bars seven days a week and drank with the meat packers and Deere welders and painters and mechanics. Five packing houses at one time, Dubuque would slaughter anything on four legs and now it was Midwest Foods and hogs only. Cattle got shipped everywhere else.
They couldn't manufacture anything so they lied about history and sold that. "Historic Landmarks" popped up all over town like pimples.
They turned the country jail into a museum, cells and all, manikins turned out like prisoners. Then they built an opera house nobody went to. Opera in fucking Dubuque. He parked in the lot on Eighth Street, the scooter reverb on the ramps pushed a thrill into his throat. You don't have to ride a Harley to be a man. But you have to be a man to ride a Harley.
After cleaning the kitchen, Charlie sat down next to his mother again. This was their time together, not much to say, a few old memories, plenty of dead time, the air conditioner humming. He turned on the TV and clicked the channels with the sound off while his mother picked up one of the few books she read, a coffee table volume called Sinatra!, a praise of the singer's life.
Here were full-page photos of Frank in classic poses: crooning at the Paramount; wearing his fedora and that cocky smile, a cigarette in his mouth; with Ava at the Copacabana; with Mia on a yacht; Frank in a Tux with JFK; Frank with the other women he'd skewered, and of course his wife Nancy, the damaged one, abandoned when Frank hit the big time.
"Men are such pigs," the mother said. "The way he left her, that was terrible."
"Not all men are pigs," Charlie said. "Not me."
Because he was her son, he knew she'd agree.