Mr. Visconti

Bird-housesBy Attila Zønn

 

1971

 

I woke up in the morning to an argument. Two women were yelling at each other. I went down to see what was going on and found Nonna sitting at the kitchen table with another old woman, dressed in black, sitting across from her. They weren’t arguing. They were just talking—loud.

Eh, giovanotto,” the old woman said when I walked in.

I didn’t understand.

She spoke to me again but I didn’t understand.  She spoke again and when I didn’t answer she reached over and grabbed my ear. I pulled away. Nonna said something to her. The old woman in black had one straight eye, the other eye was staring at her nose. She had a stupid face.  I didn’t like her.

I backed away towards the stove and that’s when I noticed the shiny black buckle shoes under the table, white socks, some skin, and then the hem of a blue dress.  I wanted to see who was under there so I crawled in.

There was a girl under the table.

There were two red die with white dots on the floor. I picked them up to get a closer look when the girl lunged at me, grabbed my hand and bit my arm. I slapped her and sent her back towards the old lady’s legs. The die fell to the floor. A rush of heat came up from my chest and into my head. I was ready to slap her again when she covered her face with her hands. My trembling hand closed into a fist.

She fanned out her fingers and looked at me. I lowered my fist. She picked up the die and offered them to me but I didn’t want her stupid die. I got out from under the table and was headed for the back door when Nonna said, “I’ll make you breakfast in a few minutes.”

I didn’t say anything. I just walked out into the backyard, and that’s where stupid Dingo was, and as soon as he saw me he started barking. My head was going to explode. I wanted to hit something, really hard, lots of times, and if I’d had a stick I’d have pounded that little dog into a pulp because it wouldn’t shut up.

I covered my ears and screamed, and blacked out.

 

I awoke in a strange room, full of old dark furniture, and black and white pictures on the walls. I heard voices. Nonna was talking to a man somewhere close by. The man’s voice was deep and vibrated and bothered my ears. .

I was in that room off of the kitchen—Nonna’s room. I wasn’t allowed in here but here I was. I looked around the room, to figure out what was so special that I couldn’t come in here. It was just a small room. The furniture was too big for the space. There was a big wooden crucifix with a Jesus hanging on it on the wall above the headboard. On the wall at the foot of the bed, there was a picture of a woman with a hood on her head. You could see her heart. It was bright red with a sword through it.

I got off the bed and went to the door.

“There he is,” Nonna said. The man sitting at the table turned and said, “Hello young man,” and stuck out his hand. I looked at his hand then looked at him.

“David, this is Doctor Rizzardo,”  Nonna said. “He say you gonna be okay.”

The doctor took back his hand and shrugged. I didn’t like his face. I started for my room, taking a quick look at the floor under the table to see if that girl with the black buckle shoes was still there.

After the doctor left, Nonna called me. I came to the top of the landing.  “Everything gonna be okay, David,” she said. “Next week we go to a special doctor. Come down, and I make you something nice to eat.”

 

Nonna put Dingo in the basement and said I could go in the backyard to play. I didn’t have a ball or anything so I didn’t know what I was going to play with. To me, Nonna’s yard was a jungle with all its plants and flowers. In the very back, she had a vegetable garden.

I thought, okay, I’ll try to name all the vegetables—I got tired of that quick.

In the corner of the yard, she had sunflowers and they were all staring at me. I went over and reached to touch one of their faces. A girl’s voice said, “Hey.”

I looked around but couldn’t tell where the voice came from. I stood there for a moment but when I didn’t hear the voice again, I turned back to the sunflower and was about to pull a seed from its face when that same voice said, “Hey!”

The voice came from the back fence.  I saw a shadow through the gaps between the fence boards. There was a knothole on one of the boards so I looked through and saw an eye.

“Can I come over there?” the girl said.

“Who are you?”

She stepped back.  It was the girl under the table.

“Why did you bite me?” I said.

“I’m sorry, but you were in my special place. I won’t bite you ever again. I promise. Can I come over and play with you?”

“There’s nothing to do over here.”

“There’s always something to do. If I tell my Nonna to phone your Nonna for me to come over, I know your Nonna will say yes. I heard them. They want us to be friends.”

 

I guess she was about my age. She had straight brown hair with straight bangs across her forehead and wore a blue hair band that sparkled in the sun. Her name was Eloisa.

“You don’t look sick,” she said.

I didn’t know what to say to her. I’d never played with girls before. In school, you’re supposed to chase the girls off your turf, but here, in Nonna’s jungle yard, behind her high wooden fences, as long as nobody saw me, it felt okay.

“The neighbourhood is a fun place to go exploring,” she said, “but not today. It’s getting late. We could go tomorrow. Do you want to go tomorrow?”

“Okay.”

“Then we’ll go tomorrow.”  She swung her hips. Her dress flared out.

“You’re mother and father are dead, aren’t they?” she said.

I didn’t say anything.

“I know because they were talking about you this morning,” she said. “I live with my dad.”

“Did your mother die too?”

“No. My mom ran away with a man named Amadeo. She wasn’t happy. She was always calling my dad a bastard.”

“What else were they talking about?”

“Nothing much, same old stuff. My nonna was mostly talking about my mother. How she ruined my dad’s life.”

“You understand them?”

Eloisa nodded. “Do you want me to teach you?”

“Okay,” I said.

“I’ll teach you. But not today. It’s getting late.”

She told me she understood a lot of Italian but didn’t let on because her grandmother would want to talk to her and Eloisa didn’t want that and if she knew Eloisa could speak that language she wouldn’t get away with so much.  “Nonna hits.”

She said her dad was a nice daddy but he was always tired. He worked for a man named Jurgen and Jurgen was a cheap kraut prick. Daddy had a girlfriend. Her name was Min Li and she was Chinese. Eloisa had gone lots of places with her dad and Min Li but she wasn’t supposed to tell her nonna about Min Li.

“Daddy said Nonna won’t understand and she’ll get upset.”

We sat at the picnic table under Nonna’s awning and she talked and talked and talked. At one point Nonna appeared at the screen door and told us Eloisa’s father was working very late that night and Eloisa was going to sleep at her grandmother’s. Then she asked Eloisa if she wanted to have dinner with us. “Oh, that would be very nice,” Eloisa said. Nonna looked at me and smiled.

 

“You’re not going to wear that? It doesn’t match,” Eloisa said. I wore a blue T-shirt and brown corduroy shorts.

“My mother told me clothes have to match or there’s no point getting dressed,” she said.

“I don’t care,” I said. “If you don’t like it, go exploring by herself.”

She walked away and I thought that’s that, and turned to go back in the house.

She said, “Are you coming?”

 

We were walking down the laneway when she whispered, “I found a gun.”

“What kind of gun?”

“Shhh—it’s our secret.”

We made a left turn past the laneway and were going up an incline when she stopped.

She walked over to the curb and sat down in front of a sewer grate. “It’s down there,” she said.

I got on my hands and knees and looked into the sewer. It was dark down there but if I concentrated I could make out a few things.

“Where?” I said.

“Can’t you see it?” she said, got on her hands and knees and put an eye against the grate.

“It’s right there. Don’t you see the white handle? It’s like a cowboy’s gun.”

I looked harder but couldn’t see this gun. I saw some twigs, candy wrappers and there was even a toad jumping around down there. I wasn’t happy that there wasn’t a gun. I thought this girl was trying to trick me, so I sat back on the curb and that’s when I saw the skinny old man coming up the sidewalk.

He wore a grey hat and his dark blue jacket was folded over one arm. He stopped where we were and stared at us.

Eloisa kept going on, “It’s there, I see it, right along the wall,” while me and the old man stared at each other. He turned and opened the chain-link gate of the house we were in front of, went up the walk, opened the door, and went inside.

“It’s as plain as day,” Eloisa said. “I don’t know why you’re not seeing it.”

“There’s nothing there,” I said.

Eloisa grabbed a pebble from the road and said, “I’ll throw it to where it is.”

The old man came out of his house carrying a wrinkled brown paper bag.

“Hey, kits,” he said. “Look what I have for you.” He handed me the bag.

I looked inside. It was full of pillow-shaped candies, all different colours. I stuck my nose in the bag and the smell made me happy.

“They taste better than they smell,” the old man said and smiled. “I make them, in my house. If you like, then maybe one day you can come to my house and I’ll show you how I make them.” He walked back towards the gate, clicked it closed and went into his house.

I knew not to eat candies a stranger gives you, but Eloisa said, “He’s not a stranger. One time I saw him talking to Nonna over the backyard fence. So we can eat the candies.” She took the bag from me and reached in, grabbed a red one with yellow stripes and popped it in her mouth.

“Oh,” she said. “Oh, that’s good. It’s so good. Ummm.”

I reached for the bag but she stepped back.

“I’ve never had candy that tasted so good,” she said.

I grabbed the bag out of her hand and walked back to Nonna’s house.

“Don’t you want to see the gun anymore?” she called after me.

We settled into Nonna’s backyard where I dumped the candy onto the picnic table and counted them out. There were twenty-one pieces.

“I get the most,” Eloisa said.

I counted out eleven pieces for me, and ten for her. She said, “Hey!”

It was the best candy I’d ever had. Some pieces tasted like strawberry and others like lemon, and orange and lemon-strawberry, and cherry, and even with these flavours there was another flavour, common to all of them, that I didn’t recognize. They had a hard shell and if I sucked them instead of crunching them, the hardness melted away and the centre was chewy.

We decided to visit the old man the next day to see if he’d give us somemore.

 

We stood for a long time in front of that old man’s house. Eloisa wanted to give up.

“He’s not home,” she said, “We can come back tomorrow.”

“You can go but if he gives me more candy, I’m not sharing it with you.”

She slapped her arms against her sides and sat on the curb.

I concentrated as hard as I could, thinking I could make the old man open the door and after a few minutes, the curtains on his front window parted and the old man stood there for a little bit, then was gone.  The front door opened and he waved me to come over.

“He wants us to go in his house,” I said.

Eloisa came to stand beside me. We looked at each other.

“Come inside,” the old man called out. “It is okay. I show you some nice things. I make fresh candy for you.”

 

Copyright©Attila Zønn 2019

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