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by Julia Fierro

RECOMMENDED: The best new fiction in NYC

Gianni Gambardelli’s cardiologist says he has a broken heart and so Gianni is making a list. His grandson Tony should receive his pinky ring, a gift from Gianni’s wife, beautiful and fiery Concetta. May she rest with the angels, he whispers each time the sun catches the diamond on his swollen arthritic finger.

He sits on the sidewalk in an old beach chair, huddled under the umbrella his son Jimmy duct-taped to the chair arm. The sun is high, the asphalt soft as putty, and it’s a shame, Gianni thinks, this heat on the day of the annual summer block party. The heavy iron gates that have protected the brownstones for a hundred years swing open and shut up and down the block as his neighbors carry their contribution to the folding tables the men have set up in the middle of the street. Gianni wonders if anyone but the old timers, il vecchio, lock those iron gates at night. Certainly not the new wave of wealthy young families who seem to believe that all money makes them invincible. Not one of them ever had to steal to put food on the table. But still, do they have no imagination to frighten them into locking the gate?

He blows kisses to the neighborhood signoras as they set down the steaming trays of ziti that bubble ricotta and marinara, the sausage and peppers, the frittata pancakes as big as a plate, and loaves of bread still dusty with flour. They are women he has known for decades, women whose husbands’ caskets he has visited at Raccuglia’s Funeral Home, and he wants their memory of him to remain as it is—Gianni, molto bello. Gianni, simpatico. Gianni, forte.

He returns to his list. He keeps it up there, in his mind, which is as sharp as his heart is dull. There is his watch, and the cross he wears around his neck that dangles on the same chain as his gold cornu, which his great-granddaughters say looks like sperm. How they know what sperm looks like he does not know, or want to know but they teach them stuff like that in school today. About making babies. About how women are equal to men and there is no difference between one man and the next. That war is wrong, unnecessary, and this, he thinks, is the biggest lie of all. It makes him fear for his great grandchildren’s future, the children he held when they were just tiny mewling babies, who now tell him—no, lecture him—about how Mussolini was a bad man. They compare him to Hitler. Saddam. Bin Laden.

Gianni asks his grandchildren, Don’t they tell you about the trains, the hospitals, the schools that Il Duce built? They laugh at him, as if he is the child, not them, and say, He was a fascist, Nonno.

The medal that was pinned to Gianni’s chest when he was eight years old, a figlio del lupo, son of the wolf, one of Il Duce’s youth soldiers, will go to Jimmy, his youngest son. His good boy, his sweet boy, the one who never left. And now, since those animals flew the planes into the Twin Towers, killing three-hundred-forty three of Jimmy’s fellow firefighters, Jimmy won’t leave Brooklyn, refuses to cross the Brooklyn Bridge.

“Why we have to go there?” He asks each time Gianni or Jimmy’s wife Mary dared to bring up a trip across the river. “We got everything we need here in Brooklyn. Don’t we?”

Gianni can hear Jimmy behind him up on the top step of the stoop—his throne, Jimmy’s wife Mary calls it, not without bitterness on her tongue, Gianni has noticed. Gianni doesn’t have to look behind him to know that Jimmy has a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Jimmy, who everyone on the block calls the mayor.

His son calls out to the neighbors walking by. “Yo, Dom, hell of a day we got here, huh? Just for us.”

That Jimmy, like a ray of sunshine on a cloudy day, Concetta used to say. Jimmy could talk a dying man into believing he’d live another twenty years, Gianni knew, but here he was smoking those disgusting things again.

Gianni turns in his chair, ignoring the stab in his side—mal vecchio, he thinks, the curse of the old—“Giacomo,” he yells, calling his son by his christened name, “Ma che fai?” He presses his fingers together and shakes his hand at his son in a playful way, as in hey, what’s the matter with you?

“Hey, Papa. You want a lemonade or something? Or you hungry? I’ll get Mary to bring out the food.” His son stands, his obedient son, his caretaker, motioning toward the house with his beer.
“No, grazie. I am content,” he says, lifting his palms to the sun.
“You need anything, you let me know,” Jimmy says before waving down a few neighborhood wives. “Josie, Diana,” he says, shaking his head, as if in disapproval, “You ladies are looking too lovely today.”

His Jimmy—born and bred on that block—is a good kid. No mushotone, like Gianni’s older son Augustino who moved to Staten Island, got fat and rich, and comes to visit only on Christmas, and the day of Concetta’s funeral. No, his Jimmy loves the block, the neighborhood. He works hard to keep it nice, clean, safe.

Gianni ironed his yellow slacks this morning despite the sting in his wrist. He is wearing his favorite shirt—deep-sea blue with a pattern of white poodles. It was a gift from his wife somewhere near three decades ago. Butterfly collar, pearly buttons. He feels as sharp as Sinatra when he wears it, like he should be dancing to The Shadow of Your Smile with Sophia Loren in his arms.

He has spent weeks tagging each of the hangers in his closetful of clothes. The sweaters with the holes in the armpits, which he has repaired with patches over the years, should go to St. Bonaduce’s charity box on Court Street. His overcoat and black loafers, polished daily with a stiff-bristled brush, and his tweed caps, one of three he alternates with the seasons, should go to Mikey Mumbles, the poor retardato who drools and still lives with his mamma, but who does a good job putting all the garbage cans on the block out Wednesday nights. The sweet kid’s almost sixty, but they are all kids to Gianni now, and Mikey ought to have a good pair of shoes and a warm coat.

He wants Sal Fiorello to have his blazers, his slacks and shirts, and his patent leather dress shoes. Just last month, right before Gianni’s visit to the heart doctor, before he made his decision, he saw Sal at Benjamino Monteleone’s wake and Sal rubbed a crooked thumb over the lapel of Gianni’s peacock-blue suit and whispered, very nice, nodding his head in approval. Gianni knows Sal will take good care of the clothes he’s collected for so many years. They don’t make colors like that anymore. Lime-green and sunburst-yellow blazers. Lilac, flamingo and tangerine polyester pants complete with belt. And rayon button-downs with butterfly collars in such beautiful prints. Paisley and bunches of tropical flowers. He has one covered in tiny stallions. And the poodle shirt he’s wearing now. As if his closet is a garden of beautiful beasts.

When his daughter-in-law takes him shopping at the department store, the colors are all tan, brown, gray. Drab. Clothes for men who want to be invisible, to go unnoticed. He was never one to blend in, he thinks, and remembers the first book he read in America, the first book he read in English, borrowed from the teacher at the Adult Education Center. Its pages were swollen as if it had been dropped in a bathtub or left out in the rain. Every time he opens his closet door and pulls on the string above his head, his clothes come to life, and he thinks of that man, that Signor Gatsby, and his rainbow of silk shirts. Gianni’s shirts are not made of silk, but they’ve got at least twenty years more wear in them and Gianni figures Sal is good for no more than ten. Fifteen, if St. Anthony’s light shines down upon his bald head.

For Gianni’s favorite grandson, Franco, there is his razor, one of his first purchases in America. Disposable razors, what a waste, he thinks each time he drags the cold metal across his silver stubbled jaw. And there is the deed to the brownstone—the home he shared with Concetta, where each of his four sons were born, where his wife died, where he now lives on the basement floor, where he lies awake at night, listening for Jimmy, his wife, and their two boys upstairs. Listening for the sounds of life.

He was thirteen when he wore his first pair of underwear. Now, his underwear drawer holds seven pairs of boxers. He replaces the elastic when a pair has lost its stretch.

He was eight when he had his first pair of shoes—woman’s heels given to his mother by an American soldier passing through on the march to liberate Naples. Gianni’s father hacked off the heels with his machete and Gianni wore the shoes until the leather shredded. Three years. Now he owns fourteen pairs of shoes—some too worn to wear, some he’d found discarded on a stoop.

Next to the boxers is a stack of seven undershirts. Wife-beaters, his son Jimmy calls them and Gianni forgives him because his son is innocent. He was not there with Gianni, the bambino, huddled under the bed he shared with his six brothers and sisters, watching his father beat his mother (oh, Mammarella!) with the leather strap of his hunting rifle.

Across the street he sees Lorenzo Calabrese, Mr. Carroll Gardens 1957, slumped over in his wheelchair parked on the sidewalk. Like he’s been forgotten. Two strokes and now Lorenzo drools like a baby and has to be fed through a tube. Gianni doesn’t want to go like Lorenzo. Lingering like one of the sick cows Gianni’s papa had made him shoot so it wouldn’t suffer. Soon, Lorenzo’s photo will hang in Nino’s Pizzeria next to the other dead faces. Povero Lorenzo. There was no one more dapper, more dandy. One day life-of-the-party, the next a grease-streaked face on a pizzeria wall.

Gianni knows he too is a different man after the heart attack that, six months earlier, knocked him to his knees, the soupspoon he was using to stir his marinara clutched against his chest, ruining a good shirt. No more debates at the Amalfi Social Club on Henry Street, no more late nights playing poker at his buddy Carmine’s, no more grappa, no more pane, no more almond cookies, no more cigars.

No more visits from Esperanza, the fifty-five-year-old Puerto Rican woman he paid to cook for him, clean his apartment and jerk him off once a week. He was kind to her, he hopes. Christmas presents for her kids every year. Roses on Valentine’s Day and her birthday. Paid her medical bills. He gave her a gold locket on a chain when he told her good-bye after the heart attack. After his doctor told him no more hanky-panky. She had cried, so he thinks must have been good to her. Now all he has is the Playboy subscription Jimmy got him for Christmas last year. Don’t give yourself another heart attack, Papa, Jimmy had said and Gianni had enjoyed the heat he’d felt under his collar. Like he was a young man again.

Gianni has more than enough pills. He has plastic bag he found under the kitchen sink, one with a string that will draw the opening tight around his neck. He saw this on television, on a show where a woman who was dying of cancer took her own life while her lover held her hand. It made sense to him, and as he watched the woman’s lips suck at the plastic bag, her breath fogging the plastic so her face nearly disappeared, he made his decision, and it has weighed on his stooped back ever since—as he waters his tomato plants and repairs the rabbit cages in the backyard, as he rocks his grandson Michael to sleep, the baby’s milky breath warm and sweet.

He is a survivor. He survived two weeks of the Allied bombings, hiding in a damp cave with the rest of his village, eating raw potatoes, watching his mother nurse the infants of other women whose nipples were dry and cracked. From fear, his mother had told him. And she was so strong. Forte, she had commanded when he and his brothers and sisters cried during the bombing. He still remembers the sting of her pinch on his arm, the back of his neck.

He survived the famine after the war, the thirty-pound weight loss during his first year in Rome as a soldier, far from his beloved Mamma and her pasta fagiole. He survived the first time he crossed a street, rode an elevator, flipped a lightswitch. He survived the death of his wife, and together they survived two miscarriages—one nearly full-term, the bambola they dreamed of after three boys were born, the principessa, the little butterfly whose hands he had dreamt of ever since, imagined rubbing them over his stubble to make her laugh.

He has survived, but now he is finito. Time to sleep with the angels and Concetta and his dead baby girl, if there is such a place. He’ll lay out his shirt with the stallions for his wake, he thinks. And a suit jacket the color of the blood-red poppies in his boyhood.

He pulls out his jaw harp and twangs it until the kids come over and ask him for a nickel. He is famous for his nickels. Forty years ago, it was pennies, but he raised it to a nickel in the eighties, after his grandchildren complained.

He digs into his pocket and pulls out a handful of change. He doles it out slowly, a dime placed into the center of each sticky little hand.
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