By Attila Zønn
On a late September afternoon in the ninth year of his life, Alexander Fierbinteanu ran home from school with the wonderful news he wanted to share with his father. He found Tata sitting in a lawn chair on the back porch smoking one of those skinny handmade cigarettes that Tata often rolled on Friday nights. Sometimes Alex sat at the table and watched Tata pull pinch-full’s of green tobacco from a clear plastic bag and sprinkle it on very thin papers, then Tata would roll a little, hold out the papers for Alex to lick and then would finish rolling them.
Alex liked it when he could help his tata.
Tata greeted him with a smile and said, “My son.”
Without catching his breath Alex said, “Tata—I think— it’d be—a wonderful—thing—if I died—so—I can go to Heaven and—become an angel.”
The smile disappeared from Tata’s face and the look of disappointment took its place. Alex was familiar with this look. It would soon be followed by Tata telling him what he had done wrong.
“And how is it you are discussing angels at your school?” Tata said.
“Well, Tommy—he’s in my class—he wasn’t at school today because he died. Miss Sharps told us. She said it was a sad thing what happened to Tommy but Tommy’s in Heaven now, and God will make him an angel. That’s what God does. She said when little boys and girls die, God turns them into angels and they live forever in Heaven, where nothing bad ever happens. That’s where I want to live—where nothing bad ever happens.”
Now Tata had a sad face. It looked like Tata was sorry about something. Then it looked like he was thinking. Tata was a thinker and when his eyes stared straight ahead, and they had that tired look, Tata was thinking, and that’s what Tata was doing, but then his eyes narrowed slightly, and they were looking back on Alex, who suddenly felt like he was going to get into trouble.
Tata said, “There is no God. Therefore, there are no angels. If you die you will not become an angel. Worms will eat your flesh and you will become dust.”
“But Miss Sharps told us there is, and she says she’s a Christian.”
Tata frowned. “I am telling you there is no God and I have never lied to you.”
Alex knew he shouldn’t talk against Tata anymore because it sounded like Tata was getting angry. Then Tata smiled, and opened his arms, and Alex knew that now Tata was going to give him the hug of understanding, and after the hug Tata was going to tell him an important thing that he must remember the rest of his life.
Tata hugged him tight then held Alex out by the shoulders and said, “My son. God is for weak people. You are my son—Alexandru Radu Iliescu Fierbinteanu. And you will not be weak.”
As Tata was saying these words, Alex thought about Mama and her holy table, where she kept a big glass crucifix and pictures of Nagymama and Nagyapa, and how every morning the first thing Mama did was light a candle for each of them, and the candles burned until they burned out. Then Mama would light other ones.
Alex said, “But Mama—”
“Mama is weak,” Tata said. “You will see this as you grow to become a man. You will see—your mama is weak.”
Alex didn’t like it when Tata said bad things about Mama. He loved his mama.
“Go now,” Tata said. “Forget these angels. Angels are for people who want to live in a fairyland. Go inside and wash your hands.”
With that, Tata took a good suck from his cigarette and went back to thinking.
Alex found Mama washing lettuce at the kitchen sink. He hugged her tight around the waist and this surprised her and made her laugh.
“How was your day in school my Booboola?” she said.
“Okay,” he said, and as Mama gently hugged him and kissed him on the top of his head he wished that as he grew to become a man he would never see that Mama was weak.
“I’m going to go to my room now,” he said, releasing her, suddenly burdened with a great worry.
“Wash your hands,” Mama said.
Tata was always right. He knew everything, so why did Miss Sharps lie to him about angels? He played back in his mind the events of the afternoon, how Miss Sharps had talked so happily about Heaven and God, and angels. And Stacey had put her hand up and said, “Some angels can make people fall in love by shooting arrows at them.”
“Those are cherubs,” Miss Sharps said. “And they are just made up creatures for Valentine’s Day.” She shook her head. “You can’t make someone fall in love with you by shooting an arrow at them.”
Stacey didn’t look happy about that.
Miss Sharps said that angels weren’t men or women, they just were.
Then Miss Sharps passed around a book with lots of pictures of an olden time, and there were angels in this book, flying up in the sky, pointing fingers at people on the ground—old ancient people, with long beards, who lived in a time before pants were invented, and all these people had scared looks on their faces, and arms across their foreheads like they were blocking their eyes from a bright light.
He turned a page and there was a picture of a tall angel with dark hair and big wings and it was holding a baby, and it was walking away from a man and a woman who were kneeling at a crib, crying. The baby was smiling at the angel, but the angel had no expression—it just was, Alex thought. And though he felt happy about the existence of angels, the picture scared him. He also noticed that the angel looked a little bit like Miss Sharps, because she was also very tall with short brown hair.
Alex raised his hand and asked, “If angels are good why do the people look scared of them?”
“The people look scared because they didn’t know angels are good,” Miss Sharps said. “Nobody told them, and since angels only worked for God, to be a little afraid of them was a good thing, that way the people would always do what God wanted.”
She said, “If you’re scared for the right reason, that’s a good thing. It makes you stay on the right path”, and Alex had thought, what path was that? So he asked Miss Sharps but it looked like Miss Sharps didn’t feel like answering his question because next she was talking about how magical it was and Alex had looked back on the book and agreed that everything looked so magical and how happy he had felt, knowing that such a world existed, and thinking that it would be much more fun to live in a world with angels than in an ordinary world. Anything was possible in a world with angels. And Miss Sharps had said there was an angel for each one of them, and how it was probably standing right beside them. And Alex said, “Why can’t we see these angels, Miss Sharps? Why aren’t there any angels flying around now?”
Miss Sharps said, “We live in a different time. We’re too smart for our own good.”
And Alex had thought what was so different?, and what does being smart have to do with it and he was about to ask her what was so different and why so smart but then the bell rang and it was time to go home.
Now, sitting on his bed, with a lot of thinking done, Alex realized that angels were a lot like Santa Claus.
Alex had never known there was a Santa Claus until he started going to school. When Christmas time came all the kids were talking about Santa Claus, but Mama had told Alex that Christmas was the birthday of Jesu (Yesoo) and on that day Mama cooked a big dinner and Uncle Laszlo and Aunt Magda came over, and Uncle Laszlo brought Alex a present. It was usually a car or a truck or an airplane. So Alex asked Tata one day, “Who is a Santa Claus?”
Tata chuckled and said, “He is a big fat waste of time.”
Alex was hoping that Tata would tell him this great secret that he had only learned when he started going to school, that, now because he believed, there would be many gifts for him on Christmas morning.
Tata looked at him. “I am sorry to disappoint you my son, but the truth sometimes disagrees with what we want and we must get used to it. Santa Claus is the first false hope a parent gives their child. I could have adopted this silliness—elves and flying reindeer, but one day, when you are able to think for yourself, you will wonder and ask me, ‘Tata, is there really a Santa Claus?’ At that point, in good conscience, I will no longer be able to perpetrate this falsehood. I will tell you, ‘No, Santa Claus is an adult creation that allows people to recreate there infancy through their children, that he is no more real than the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny, that it is a way for the candy companies and retail stores to profit from the masses, and how will you ever be able to believe me again when I tell you these things? You will always wonder how I had fooled you for many years—that a big, fat, cookie eating, milk drinking thing is able to cover the whole world with presents in one night. What would that do to my credibility with you, my son? What would that do?”
Alex liked it when Tata talked to him like he was grown up, even though he didn’t understand what Tata’s words meant most of the time. One day though, he’ll know what Tata was talking about.
Usually in the evenings, after dinner, Alex sat with his notebook open at the dining room table with Tata and copied words from the big thick leather dictionary that Tata keeps saying he bought for fifty dollars many years ago.
“Words are power, my son,” Tata told him, but sometimes because Alex was tired or because he was thinking of playing outside with his friends he might copy a word wrong, and Tata would say, “This is incorrect. You are not paying attention. Look at it. It is right in front of you. How can you not copy it correctly? It is right in front of you. Even so, you know that the i comes before the e except after c .”
“I know,” Alex said.
“Well?” Tata pointed to the word in the notebook. “If you know it, why didn’t you do it?”
Alex didn’t have an answer. There were lots of times when Tata asked him a question about his mistakes and Alex didn’t know the answer, and then Tata would give him a sideways look and shake his finger at him and say in an angry voice, “You must work like a Trojan! This is not acceptable! Fix it and remember it!” And Alex would quickly rub out the bad letters, all the while wondering what a Trojan was, why he had to be like one and why did they work so hard? And Tata would say, like he did sometimes as if he was talking to himself, “You will not be lazy and average, my son. You will reach high. That is why I am here. To make certain it happens.”
Tata worked sometimes during the day and sometimes during the night. And he didn’t work far away. Alex could see Tata’s workplace from his bedroom window, beyond the back yard and the road that ran behind the house, in a great gray building where they made metal things with “strict tolerances”, Tata had said—things that fit together perfectly. It was a building where whistles blew and buzzers buzzed, that had a gigantic door that was always open, except in the winter when it was too cold. And sometimes Alex could see Tata walking home, carrying his grey plastic lunch box, and Alex could have anything that was left over from Tata’s lunch, and sometimes Tata would bring home a piece of steel he’d created and Alex would examine it, and Tata would say, “Look at how perfect I have made this.” Alex never knew what these pieces were used for, but they were heavy, shiny, and they did feel perfect in his hands.
Tata was going to take Alex to a carnival. The carnival had been set up on a plot of land where a great lumberyard had once been. Alex remembered going to this place once with Tata to buy a sheet of plywood and a 2×4, and Tata had argued with the stock boy that he did not need a full length of 2×4 but only four feet and why did they not have four foot 2×4 for sale? Why should he have to pay for what he did not need? It was wasteful. The stock boy had shrugged and walked away.
“Shrug, shrug,” Tata had said. “Everybody in this country just shrugs. No one wants responsibility. Like a joke. No one cares. They do the hours and then fuck you.”
Tata had looked down at Alex then.
“I am sorry my son, but you have heard this word?”
“It means many things to these people. On the mind and on the tongue. It is a way of life. To some it is a part of them like, an extra anus. It is why there is no respect for wisdom. It is why it is hard for them to grasp new ideas. It is their shackle to an ancient time. Some people think it, but don’t want to hear it. It is no different in sound than truck, duck, luck, but say it and people get excited or punch you in the teeth. Remember this, my son. Never be afraid of a word.”
As they headed home along the sidewalk, Tata carrying the sheet of plywood over his head, shading Alex who walked in front of him carrying the eight foot piece of 2×4, Alex heard Tata talking to himself, and once he heard a chuckle.
“Stop,” Tata said, setting the sheet of plywood down on its short side. “You are almost a man now, so we can discuss these things. That word I said before—Fuck. It is funny how it can change the mood of a simple sentence. For example, if I say to you, ‘What are you doing?’ There is no harm. I am happy, you are happy, you tell me what you are doing and everything is fine. But, if I say to you, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ Now it is a sentence with an attitude. It is antagonistic. You will feel insulted. You will become angry, and of course, you will tell me to ‘fuck off!’ So, we can deduce that one fuck is answered by another. On the mind and on the tongue.” And with that Tata hoisted the sheet of plywood over his head and on they went.
This great lumber yard had burned down last summer. Alex remembered hearing sirens and running home from the park, finding Mama standing at the bottom of the driveway looking up at the sky. He remembers how afraid she looked, and at how the sky was filled with flying bits of black paper, and when he reached her she hugged him and said, “A bad thing is happening.” And then a fire truck came down the street and some firemen got out and started walking up the street, looking at the tops of the houses. Alex and Mama went into the house where Mama poured him some milk and made him a ham sandwich, and then she went to kneel in front of the holy table, made the sign of the cross, and started talking in a low voice.
Now there was a carnival on this piece of land, and as they entered it was like a magical place, full of lights and loud music with powerful beats that hit Alex’s body and passed through him, and wonderful smells—sweet smells and cooking meat smells. And everything was moving so fast that it made Alex laugh. What a fun place! he thought as they walked through. He and Tata stopped at every stall and the carnival men invited Tata to win a toy for the boy and Alex looked up at Tata with hopeful eyes, but Tata moved on.
“Not this one,” he said.
Onto the next one but not that one either. They stopped at a stand and Tata bought Alex some cotton candy, then off they went in search of the perfect game, and while they walked Tata explained how some games were rigged, that no matter how good you are you will never win because you are not supposed to win.
“If it looks easy then it isn’t,” Tata said. “If everybody won these people would not make money and if they don’t make money they will do something else where they can make money. That is how it is. That is how the world works. Like any endeavor that appears easy there is always a catch because no one will give you anything easily. Don’t be caught by the catch, my son.”
Finally, after having gone through the entire carnival and close to where they had come in, they came upon a standing roulette wheel and Tata said, “This is good.” Tata plopped some money onto the counter and Alex jumped towards the wheel and pulled it with all his might. The wheel spun and spun and spun and clicked and clicked and clicked—it stopped and the man said, “You’re a winner!”
The carnie handed him a statue of a sitting white poodle. It was the most beautiful thing Alex had ever seen, and he handed it proudly to Tata who weighed it in his hands.
“It is made of plaster,” Tata said, handed it back to Alex and walked away.
Alex didn’t care what it was made of. He had won something, never having won anything before. It was a great feeling, and he hugged the dog against his chest and thought, it wasn’t a real dog, but he could pretend it’s real, and he’ll give it a name, and he’ll get a blanket, and some little pillows, like the kind Mama has on the sofa in the living room, and make a bed for it, beside his bed, and he could pretend like when he pretended he lived on a farm, and how every night he made sure the gates to the back yard were closed so the animals wouldn’t get out.
“Now you have a place to save your allowance,” Tata said.
“The thing you are holding. It is a piggy bank.”
And now Alex saw the slot cut into the dog’s back, and he searched the statue all over but couldn’t find another hole. “But how do I get the money out when I want it?” he asked.
Tata took the dog into his hands and examined it.
“I suppose that will be a great tragedy then. You will have to destroy this beautiful thing to get your money out.” He handed the dog back to Alex. “Like I told you, there is always a catch.”
Alex was never going to break his pet. He will never use this dog as a piggy bank. And so he had decided.
Alex had always wanted a dog, and once he asked Tata if they could get a puppy but Tata had said no because “they shit everywhere and when they get sick it cost a fortune to treat them.”
Now Alex had a dog—sort of—and when he got home he prepared a bed on the floor, and he took the lid from an empty peanut butter jar that Mama was going to throw out, washed it and filled it with water, and as he was puffing things up to make the bed more comfy he heard a clink, and turned around to see Mama holding the dog.
She said, smiling a big smile, “I start you with a quarter.” And now every time he picked up the dog, the quarter knocked around inside and it bothered Alex that his pet was now a piggy bank.
Alex came home from school one day and found Tata crying in the kitchen. His left hand was wrapped in a huge bandage, and Mama stood behind him, her hands on Tata’s shoulders and she was crying too.
Once Tata saw him he cried out in a terrible voice, “Oh, my son. Today is a black day. A great tragedy has fallen upon us. Today you have lost your father. I am no longer the same. My soul has been ruptured.”
And that’s when Mama told Alex that an accident had happened at Tata’s work, and Tata’s finger had been cut off.
“Come see me my son,” Tata cried. “I want to hold you.”
But Alex stayed where he was. He couldn’t move. All he could think of was when Tata used to say how he had the cleanest hands in the machine shop and how all the other men had filthy hands, “like pigs,” he’d said, and how could they “touch their wives with those hands, like pigs.”
“Oh, it is so much pain,” Tata cried, and Mama left his shoulders and went to the sink to pour a glass of water, and when she came back to the table she opened a little pill bottle and took out a pill and put it in Tata’s good hand.
“Give me more,” Tata said.
Mama said, “It says only one every—”
“Give me more!” Tata shouted, and it made Mama jump. She put two more in his hand. Tata threw the pills in his mouth, then got up and went into the living room. Mama looked at Alex. “Go upstairs,” she said. “I will make you something to eat and call you.”
Alex didn’t know how long he’d been upstairs but the sun was going down. Alex loved watching the setting sun. It had a different color every time, but this time it was just something to focus on, while he heard Tata crying downstairs.
When Mama finally came up she was wiping her eyes. She hugged him and said, “Come down, Alexandru, your tata needs you.” But Alex was afraid. He had never seen Tata cry before. Walking down the stairs Alex took Mama’s hand and squeezed it tighter the closer they got to the bottom.
Tata was asleep on the couch.
As he ate dinner Alex kept looking at Tata through the archway and hoped he would never wake up.
Over the next few days Tata slept a lot. Some men came to see Tata, but Mama told them Tata was asleep. When Alex came home from school he went straight to his room and only came downstairs when Mama called him, and Tata would be asleep.
After a week Tata went to the hospital and came home with a smaller bandage on his hand, but he just sat in his chair and looked down at the table, then he went to bed.
One evening when Alex was playing softball in the park—while he was on deck and practicing his swing—he looked around him and saw Tata standing beside the diamond fence. Tata had never come to see him play before, and it made Alex nervous, and he made a lot of mistakes and his team was angry with him.
All that week whenever Alex played in the park, Tata was there too. If Alex was goofing around in the tennis court, there was Tata watching him. If Alex played soccer with his friends Barry and John and Frankie, and his new friend Peter, there was Tata sitting on the park bench.
And then a week later at the softball game someone came up to Tata while he was standing watching. It was a man whose son was on Alex’s team, and as they were talking he saw Tata pointing over at Alex and it made the other man smile, and then the man was looking at Tata’s bandaged hand and said something and Tata smiled and made a gesture like he was biting the tip of his finger, and the other man’s face went sad, but Tata smiled and shrugged. And then the man gestured for Tata to follow him and he took Tata to where a bunch of parents were sitting on bleachers, and the man said something to the people, and pointed to Alex, and the people smiled and made room for Tata, and the next week Tata brought a lawn chair and sat with the other parents and he was making them laugh, and Alex could hear them calling Tata by his name—Milan, and Tata looked so happy. It looked like Tata had made some friends, but Tata had once said friends were not a good thing. That was why Mama had no friends.
After a month, Tata’s bandage was now a small hood that slipped over the finger. Alex saw that Tata had not cut off his entire finger, only half, between the first and second knuckle of his middle finger on his left hand. It wasn’t so bad to look at with its hood bandage, but when Tata was finally healed and skin had grown over the wound, it looked unnatural and Alex dreaded the sight of it though his eyes always looked for it.
One night while Alex was copying words from the dictionary, Tata said, “My son. How many people do you think there are in the world who are missing a part of their body?”
Alex stopped writing and put on his thinking face for Tata.
“Of course,” Tata said. “ it is impossible for us to effectively calculate this question, but we can safely say, in all probability, that there are more people in the world who are intact, than who are missing a member. Therefore, since I make part of this lesser group, because of my disfigurement you know. Because there are less of us, because we could be a rarity, we could say that I am a,” and Tata thought for a moment, “ …unique. I am unique. Of course.”
Alex had heard this word before but he didn’t know its true definition, and as sometimes happened with new words, Alex had trouble remembering how to pronounce it. So he practiced hard to remember this word. He could look up its meaning in the dictionary but Alex liked it better when someone explained it to him. He was going to ask Miss Sharps tomorrow. So just before afternoon recess, having remembered this conversation with Tata, he tugged on Miss Sharps’ sweater and said, “Miss Sharps? My father said that because he’s missing a part of his body, that he is u—eunuch. What is that exactly and why are there so few of them?”
Alex felt a sharp tug on his collar, which made him look up and he saw Miss Sharps’ face; all twisted and red and her eyes looked like they were going to pop out of her head.
“Why, you filthy mouthed little boy,” she said and started pulling him by the collar into the hall, but Alex didn’t know what he’d done wrong. He started to cry because Miss Sharps was telling him he was going to the Principal’s office where his father would be called because they were going to get to the bottom of this. But what was this? Why was he in trouble?
Tata arrived complaining—what was the emergency? What was so urgent that he had to be summoned? Alexandru is not hurt. There he is. What is the problem? That’s when Miss Sharps told Tata and the Principal what Alex had said, and Alex was looking at Tata—looking for a sign that it was all a mistake and he wasn’t going to get in trouble. After she stopped talking, Tata stared at Miss Sharps, who was one head taller than him, and smiled.
“That is so silly,” he said. “You cannot be serious.” And now the Principal was smiling.
“We were talking about being unique,” Tata said. “Unique! He is only a little boy. He does not know of such things. And let me assure you, in case you believed him, that I am well intact in that department.”
It seemed like a long time that Tata and Miss Sharps stared at each other, and Miss Sharps’s face was getting redder and redder, and then she said, “Alex, you can go home with your father. You can go home early.”
While they were walking home Tata said, “Alexandru, my son, it would be wise if you did not share our discussions with anyone no matter how friendly you think you are with them. This teacher? I know her kind. She cannot live outside of herself. She will hold this misunderstanding against you, mark my words. You have lost her as a friend.” And it happened as Tata had said because from the next day on Miss Sharps didn’t say good morning to him anymore and she never picked him again when he knew the answer.
©2017 Attila Zønn