By Attila Zønn
“Welcome to my home,” the old man said, closing the door behind us. The inside of his house smelled like vanilla.
“I am Eugenio Visconti. Some people call me Gene. And you are?”
“I’m David,” I said. “And she’s Eloisa.”
“David and Eloisa, how very nice. Come, follow me to where I make the candy.”
We followed him down the hallway to a door that opened to the basement. The steps down were steep.
The basement was one large finished room with a well worn couch, a glass top coffee table and a small TV on a stand. On one wall, there was a red flag with a prancing horse on a yellow shield in the centre. Below it, there were black and white photographs. I walked up to the wall to get a closer look. They were all pictures of old type racing cars. A car in one of the photos was zipping around a corner as the driver leaned out and it looked like the car was going to tip over.
“Who’s that?” I said, and pointed at the photo.
Mr. Visconti focused on it.
“Ah, Nuvolari!” he said like he’d just discovered a great thing. “He was the most courageous racing driver of all time.” He stood admiring the picture with loving eyes.
“He looks like he’s going to tip over,” I said.
“No, he will not tip over. He is only driving on the edge. Like always.”
“On the edge of what?”
“On the edge of victory or tragedy.”
He stared at the picture for a moment longer then laughed and slapped his knee. “Do you know what Nuvolari did?”
I shook my head.
“Back in 1935, in a less powerful Alfa Romeo, he beat the great German Auto Union and Mercedes Benz racing teams, at their home race, in front of Hitler. Hitler was so mad he didn’t want to shake Nuvolari’s hand.” He laughed again and stared at the picture.
I didn’t know anything about Alfa Romeos, or Auto Union or Mercedes Benz, but I knew who Hitler was—he was the guy in that song we sometimes sang in the schoolyard, the one where Hitler only has one ball, the other’s hanging on the wall, and his mother, who was a dirty bugger, cut it off when he was born.
“Look,” Mr. Visconti said, pointing to another picture. “Here he is again!”
In this picture, Nuvolari was driving the car with the steering wheel off. He held it in the air.
“How does he steer?” I said.
“He used a wrench.” He laughed and slapped his knee. “The steering wheel broke off and he used a wrench. One time, he won a race and he was driving with two broken legs. What courage!”
Nuvolari sounded like a crazy guy to me.
“Is he still alive?”
“No, Tazio Nuvolari is dead now.”
I thought as much.
“But you know what? He did not die driving as fast as he could. He died in his own bed, an old man.”
Eloisa sat on the couch, huffing and sighing, and Mr. Visconti saw this.
“But enough,” he said. “We can talk about this, and many other things later. Let’s make some candy.”
He opened the door to a small room with a sink, a stove, a fridge and a table with a marble top. There were door-less cupboards high up, full of boxes and brown paper bags. He filled a small pot with water then placed it on the stove and lit a blue flame under it. He turned to us. “Would you like something to drink while you wait—some milk, I have ginger ale, Gassosa? Something?”
We shook our heads.
“I know you,” he said to Eloisa. “You are Paolina’s granddaughter. Your grandfather was Gino. But,”— he turned to me — “ you, you are new to me.”
I didn’t say anything.
“I know all the children in this neighborhood.” When he said “neighborhood” he made a wide arch with his hand. “On Halloween, everybody comes to see Mr. Visconti. You will too.”
He brought out two high stools for us to sit on. Then he grabbed a bag of sugar and poured most of it into the pot. He took a wooden spoon from a drawer and stirred the pot.
“I have made candies since 1923, July 3, it was a Tuesday,” he said. “But before that, I was a baker, in my village, since I was thirteen years old when my father took me to the master baker and said to him, ‘Teach this boy how to work.’ And I worked, in the darkness of the early morning, stoking the ovens, carrying sacks of flour, kneading the dough, shaping the loaves. In my dreams, I counted sacks of flour. Once, I had a dream that I was a round lump of dough sitting on the paddle being pushed into the oven. I woke up and thought I was on fire.” He chuckled and shook his head.
“I was doing everything that the baker did not want to do, and I learned so much, that before long, I was the Master, and the baker sat on his patio playing cards all day with his friends.” He paused and stirred the pot.
“Baking is my great joy. I can make anything from flour and water and yeast.”
“Can you make doughnuts?” I said.
“Doughnuts?” He grimaced. “To make doughnuts is nothing. You want doughnuts? Next time I make you doughnuts.”
Mr. Visconti grabbed a plastic bottle of clear liquid. It poured out like syrup, into the pot. He stirred again.
“So there I was,” he said. “Not yet eighteen years old, in charge of everything in this bakery, but I knew this was not my future and when I told the baker I was going to America, he cried and begged me to stay, that he would make me his partner, but no, I had already decided, and when I decide, I cannot go back. I came to this country and went to work in a pastry shop owned by my paisano. He filled my head with beautiful promises, how it was going to be, that there would be many rewards, but you know what he did?” He turned to us with wide eyes. “Do you know what he did?”
We both shook our heads.
“He tried to cheat me! His promises became excuses. This man, close to our family, who when I was a little boy I played with his son—he tried to cheat me! Eugenio is not a slave or a fool. I quit, right in his face, and as I was walking along the sidewalk, thinking of my future in this new country, someone called to me, ‘Eh, paisano.‘ A large man wearing an apron, smoking a fat cigar, stood in front of a store. ‘Sei Italiano?‘ he asked me. I nodded. He asked me if I was looking for a job, that if I was, he had a very good job for me. He took me into the store, and I was struck by the most beautiful smells. This was Horst Rosemeyer, a Swiss, and he spoke Italian very well. I told him I was a baker, that I knew nothing about making confectioneries. He said, ‘A baker is a good start.’ We became like brothers. For many years I worked beside him.”
Mr. Visconti stopped stirring. He tapped the wooden spoon on the lip of the pot.
“What colour would you like to make this candy?” he said. “I have red, blue and yellow.”
“Red,” we both said.
“Of course red,” he said. “The colour of passion.”
He poured a bit of dark red liquid into the pot and stirred slowly.
“I learned this craft and earned my money, I married a nice girl, was able to buy this house and had my children, then, Horst died. One day we found him sitting in his office, dead. Now, everything Horst had created was left to his son. This same son who when he was young had to be constantly pushed by his father and Horst was thanked with resentment. Oh, the boy liked the money, but he did not want to work for it.” He shrugged. “But sometimes, that is how it is. We are all different in our thinking, and what the father thinks is best conflicts with what the son thinks he must do. I have learned this myself. Needless to say it, the business was finished in one year. Everything sold, the store closed, and Horst’s son went to sell cars at the dealer.”
Mr. Visconti shook his head. “It was a shame. We sent our candies all over. Thousands of dollars we made every year.”
“Why didn’t you open your own candy store?” Eloisa said.
“I thought about it, but by that time I was getting older, and did not have the energy to begin again.”
I liked Mr. Visconti. I liked his stories. I didn’t like Eloisa being there because every time we visited him, her impatience cut our time with him very short. He wanted to tell us more and I could have spent the whole day there, but Eloisa — she dragged us down. She liked his candy but wanted to leave as soon as she was satisfied. I felt Mr. Visconti’s disappointment when we had to leave.
Nonna asked me where Eloisa and I went all the time. I told her to see Mr. Visconti. She said, “Oh, the bird man.”
From my bedroom window, I could see Mr. Visconti’s backyard. He had birdhouses on poles spread around the yard, and I saw him sometimes going to each pole, pull on a rope and the birdhouses would slide down. He’d put seed from a big bag into the houses then pull them up again. I thought it was a kind thing he did for the birds.
I wanted to know more about birds, so I asked Nonna if I could get a book on the birds of the world.
“We’ll get one from the library,” she said. “Try it, and if you like it, I’ll buy one for you to keep.”
The book was big, with full page colour pictures of all the birds, and I read it so much that I could identify every bird that perched on our fence or flew to Mr. Visconti’s bird houses.
One foggy morning, I saw a hummingbird outside the front window. It floated in the air, sticking its long beak into Nonna’s flowers. I wanted to catch one but it was hard to sneak up on them, so I decided to catch a sparrow, but they too were quick so I decided to catch a robin, but I hadn’t seen a robin in our yard for a long time so I settled on any bird. I’d never be able to catch a bird with just my hands, so I got a cardboard box, a stick and tied a string around the middle of the stick, turned the box upside down on the grass and propped one end up with the stick. When a bird flew under the open end of the box, I’d pull the stick, the box would fall and the bird would be trapped inside. I hid behind the picnic table, held the string and waited for a bird.
Eloisa came by. That annoyed me. She was a distraction. I didn’t want to share my bird catch with her.
“What are you doing?” she asked coming around the picnic table. I whispered, “Shh! I’m trying to catch a bird.”
“Why?” she said aloud. She had no sense of stealth.
“Because,” I said.
“Because I want to catch one. Now get down and keep quiet.” She crouched behind the table with me, and we waited. After a while she lifted her head above the table and said, “Is that going to work?”
“That’s how you catch a bird.” She crouched again and turned to me. “But why would a bird go anywhere near that box?” She had cookie breath. “There’s no bird food, or water or anything a bird might want.”
“Birds aren’t that smart,” I said. “But they’re pretty curious.” It made me think though, and I felt stupid that I hadn’t thought of setting bait.
“Here, by touching this,” — Mr. Visconti pushed the lute towards me — “touch it.”
I touched it.
“We have entered his life,” he said. “The energy of his life is still there.
“A man created this. Two hundred years ago. It is exquisite. There is nothing left of the man but what he made survives. You can say he made it for us. Can you see him in his workshop, passing his skilled hands over the body, feeling its smoothness, feeling its spirit, making it comfortable to hold, knowing that the person playing his instrument would enjoy every moment, and his audience would be filled with happiness?”
He stared off.
“We must always share what we know,” he said, then focused on me. “But we are not born with great knowledge or beautiful skill. We become that way because we never give up. We have passion. This Master at one time was probably an ignorant young boy, as all young boys are. It is not an insult David, it is the truth. They know nothing and plenty of it. And there were moments when his Master was not happy with him. Perhaps this boy did not understand the power he could possess through knowledge, through ability. He could not see the truth that was in front of him because he had his mind in the clouds. Oh, the clouds! But then one day, as he holds the instrument he is making, a spark! He realizes he loves what he does. There is nothing more gratifying than creating a beautiful thing. Don’t you think so?”
I nodded but didn’t know what gratifying meant.
“Now he is a man, in love with his craft. Now he wants to be the Master, creating his own beauty. Can you see him working from sunrise to sunset – focused, intent?” Mr. Visconti frowned. “Yet, can you also see him telling his children to behave as they run around and fight with each other, or as he tries to calm his wife because she complains he is spending too much time in his shop? Can you see his frustration at all the outside forces that keep him distracted from creating? Can you see it, David?”
I couldn’t see it. I was thinking of Nonna’s meatballs and fried chicken cutlets.
“Can you not see that it is important to know what has come before, and to respect it, and know from where we have come so we can know who we are?” he said.
I knew who I was, and I knew if I stayed any longer I’d be late for dinner, Nonna would get angry, and I’d have to eat stuck together cold spaghetti.
“I have to go now,” I said.
“Go,” Mr. Visconti said and put the lute back in its leather case. “You go, and think about what we have talked about. It will change your life.” He smiled and patted my shoulder. “You are a good boy.”
He followed me up the stairs to the hallway.
Leaning against the wall by his front door was a big bag of bird seed. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a nickel. “Can I buy a handful of your bird seed?” I said, and offered him the nickel. He laughed.
“I will give you the seeds for free,” he said. “Why do you want them?”
“I need some so a bird will fly down and I can catch it.” He frowned.
“You…want to catch birds?”
“No, no you must let the birds fly. When you catch one what will you do with it?”
“I’ll put it in a cage and then it can sing for Nonna.” I really wasn’t interested in catching a bird to sing for Nonna, but it sounded good.
“No, you won’t. That is selfish,” he said. “The bird was not created for you to keep it caged. It will not be happy. It will not sing for you. It will die. And then you will have a dead bird in a cage. What good is that?”
“But I’ll keep it safe. If he’s in the cage the hawks won’t get him.”
Mr. Visconti shook his head. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no! It is better to be free than to be caged all your life. Let the birds fly. ”
“But the hawk will eat it.”
“The hawk has a right to eat it. It is in nature. It also must live. Listen, David. Please.” He got on one knee. “I will make you a house for the birds. I will make you a beautiful house for the birds. You can help me. I will show you how to make one. You can pick the colour and you can paint it and it will be beautiful and I will talk to your nonna and we will put the birdhouse near your window so you can see the birds close.”
I didn’t need to see the birds close — I had a book with all the pictures. I just wanted to catch one.
“But, please, do not catch no more birds.”
That night I had a dream and Mr. Visconti was in it. He was a bird in a cage. His feet clasped the bars, his beak stuck out from the cage and he kept saying, “No, no, no.” I opened the door to let him out, but he wouldn’t come out. He dropped and died, lying there on his back with his feet in the air.
Sometimes, a young man on a burping motorcycle came to visit Mr. Visconti. The young man looked mean with his long dark hair and handlebar mustache. I saw them from my window when they sat in the back yard. I couldn’t hear everything they said, but the motorcycle man was always angry and said “you” a lot, and pointed his finger at Mr. Visconti while Mr. Visconti sat there and looked away. Then after a few minutes, the man would get up and leave but Mr. Visconti stayed where he was, sitting in the chair, looking up, looking down, looking at his hands. Sometimes he’d bend forward and put his head in his hands. Sometimes his lips moved like he was talking to someone. He looked lonely sitting there. After awhile, he’d get up and go in the house then come out with his big bag of bird seed and refill all the birdhouses, then stand in the middle of the yard and look up at all the birds fluttering to the houses, and he’d smile.
Since my dream of Mr. Visconti as a dead bird, I stopped visiting him. I avoided walking past his house. I didn’t want him getting angry with me again. It was the middle of August now and school was around the corner, and I was desperate to catch a bird.
Some mornings, from my window, I saw Mr. Visconti come out into the yard with that big bag of bird seed and after he filled the houses he’d look up at my window. I always stood back so he couldn’t see me. He’d come to the fence and look over into Nonna’s yard, then he’d walk back to his house and go inside.
I had to catch a bird.
I got some slices of bread and broke them into pieces, set up my trap and made a little path of bread on the grass towards the trap, went behind the picnic table, held the string, and waited.
Patience is an important thing to have when you’re trying to catch a bird. Crows came and sat on the fence, but I hoped they wouldn’t come down because of all the birds I wanted to catch, a crow wasn’t one of them. Since I saw a movie where birds attacked people, and the scene where one man had his eye’s eaten out, crows have scared me. I was thinking about that movie when — “David! What are you doing? Don’t catch birds!” I looked towards the back fence and saw Mr. Visconti’s head peeping over it. “You are bad! You are bad! I will smash your box!” I hurried to the trap, quickly wound the string on the stick, then took the box in the house. I looked out the screen door towards the back fence and saw Mr. Visconti’s twisted face.
Five black-capped chickadees flew down and ate the bread.
Now I had to make sure Mr. Visconti wasn’t home when I set up my trap. He was constantly in his yard, frequently coming to our fence and looking over. There had to be a time when he had to go out—go to the store, by food, buy sugar for his candy — a time. He couldn’t stay at his house forever.
The morning arrived when Mr. Visconti came out to feed the birds and he wore his grey hat. He also had on a tie. After he’d gone in his house, I ran downstairs and out the door, down the lane and hid behind the hedge. Mr. Visconti came out his front door, dressed like it was Sunday, opened the gate and walked away down the sidewalk. I ran back to the yard, set up the trap, dropped a bread path to the box, grabbed the string, crouched behind the picnic table and waited.
The sky was a clear blue and there was a slight breeze. It was a wonderful morning. I felt good.
My reason for catching a bird had evolved. I wasn’t interested in caging it anymore. Mr. Visconti was right. It was cruel to keep a wild bird in a cage. Canaries and budgies were for cages, but I wanted to accomplish a catch. I could see it all happening in my head: the bird would go into the box, the box would fall, but then I’d lift the box and let it free. I had done it. I had caught it and that’s all that mattered to me now. I even imagined that after I freed the bird, it would fly onto the fence, look back, and nod a thank you that I had let it go.
The morning wore on. My knees got numb from crouching so I sat on the ground. There wasn’t a bird anywhere. I was disappointed because soon I’d have to give up — Mr. Visconti wouldn’t be gone all day.
From behind me, I heard Nonna whisper, “I’ll make lunch soon.” I looked back and saw her smiling face through the window screen. I nodded.
All this time, Nonna was okay with me trying to catch a bird. I think she was happy that I had something to focus on, that I was hanging around the house where she could keep an eye on me.
Then, like I had just wished for a miracle to happen, a red winged blackbird touched down on the grass. It hopped to the first morsel of bread, ate it, then hopped to the next piece. I had longed for this moment but couldn’t believe it was happening. As the bird hopped closer to the trap, I got nervous. My hand holding the string trembled, my heart raced.
The bird was just outside the box, eyeing the shade inside, eyeing the bread.
It was ready to hop in.
It was going to hop in.
My hand was ready to pull.
— A howl came from the back fence.
The bird flew into the sky. Laughter. Evil laughter. Mr. Visconti’s head was laughing at me from over the back fence. He laughed like a madman—laughed and wagged his finger at me. I picked up the box, ran towards the back fence and threw it at him. I didn’t hit him but it made him step back and stopped his laughter.
Me and Mr. Visconti were enemies now.
Up until that moment in my life, I had never had a true enemy. There were some boys in school I had fights with, but I had never thought of them as enemies, but this old man was my enemy. He had no right to watch everything I did, to stop me doing anything I wanted to do. I had liked him so much, but now I hated him, and all because of some stupid birds.
I had to get back at him. I sat by my window many days, watching his yard, trying to think of a way to ruin his fun.
And I was at my window the morning the motorcycle man came by. He sat on the deck steps drinking a beer while Mr. Visconti talked, but I felt the motorcycle man wasn’t listening. He didn’t respond to Mr. Visconti’s words. He looked away as he sipped his beer. But then he turned sharply at Mr. Visconti and yelled, “I need it!”
Mr. Visconti went into the house, the motorcycle man downed the last bit of beer then looked at the bottle. Mr. Visconti came out. The motorcycle man got up. Mr. Visconti smiled and handed him money, patted the motorcycle man’s arm, then stood like he was expecting a hug, but no hug. The motorcycle man handed him the empty beer bottle instead, counted the money, nodded and left by the gate. No goodbye. Mr. Visconti stared after him. He stood there holding the empty beer bottle, then wiped his eyes and went into the house.
He came back out hugging his big bag of bird seed. He walked to the edge of the deck, came down one step, but when his foot came down on the next step, his knee buckled and he fell forward onto the concrete patio, with the bird seed under him. His head bounced off the slab. He rolled onto his back and tried to get up, but fell back and his head hit the concrete again. Then he lay motionless.
Birds came down and picked at the spilled seeds but Mr. Visconti didn’t move.
I laughed. My vengeance happened and I didn’t have to do a thing. I laughed. All he had to do was drop the bag of bird seed and stretch out his hands to cushion the fall, but the birds were more important than hurt. I laughed. I laughed. I laughed.
I heard footsteps on the stairs. It was Eloisa.
“What’s funny?” she said and came to the window. She looked out.
“What’s he doing?” she said.
“Why doesn’t he get up?” There was blood coming from Mr. Visconti’s head now.
“He’s hurt!” Eloisa cried. “We have to tell someone! We have to tell someone!” And ran out of the room.
Night came — a night Mr. Visconti would never see again. Raindrops against my window. Raindrops Mr. Visconti would never hear or see or feel anymore. His house was dark. The street light shone a wet gleam on his driveway. The rain—tears for Mr. Visconti.
I didn’t feel anything.
The sun came out the next morning. Nonna was taking me to buy stuff for school today — clothes, books, paper, pencils. As I pulled on my t-shirt, I walked to my window and saw the motorcycle man in Mr. Visconti’s back yard. He walked in a circle around the spot where Mr. Visconti had fallen, then sat on the deck steps and put his head in his hands. He pounded his thighs with fists, then put his head in his hands again.
Copyright©Attila Zønn 2019