“You know, I seen men die right in front of me.”
I lower my cup of coffee and stare over the rim into his eyes, wondering why someone, I had essentially just met, would throw down such a line. His head shifts right as he notices a woman on a scooter outside. She’s dragging a cart of groceries behind her, waving pedestrians, cars, and cyclists out of her path as she makes her imperious way down the street.
“I seen guys, they’d have little silver rings around their front teeth.” He purses his lips as if sipping a straw, illustrating how he’d draw in a small circle of air, “From breathing in the glitter.”
This man is my uncle. We are eating breakfast at a tiny café. I am here because of my mother.
It was the recent changes in my mother that had concerned me. Fragments of memory, diffuse and jumbled, spilled out of her in splinters. I’d grown sharp and angry with her, impatient with tales I could not parse. A therapist from the elder care facility sat with us. She’d cautioned me beforehand to remain quiet. I needed to listen with my heart instead of my head. She softly asked my mother to tell her a story from her childhood.
“I was there when Butchie saw Margaret singing Christmas carols with a group of kids from St. Francis.’ Collecting canned goods and money for charity. First time he saw her, he knew she was the girl for him. Took him two years to convince her to go out with him though,” she gave a sharp cackle and spread her fingers, rubbing them along the top of her legs.
My mother had taken extra care dressing that morning. She’d wrapped her head in a bright scarf, the extra fabric puffed over her left ear. Chunky topaz stones encircled her thin neck, and silver rings glinted on her frail fingers. “When ma found out she was Irish, well, that sure made the vase overflow.”
“Mother! Who’s this Butchie person?” The therapist caught my eye, reminding me to keep my reactions in check.
“Butchie’s my brother. Two years older than me. We’d collect money for Butchie’s paper route every Saturday. Ma told us never to go inside, but Butchie didn’t listen. Called me a silly sissy-girl and told me I was missing the best part. Inside you’d get cookies and milk, thick with cream floating on top.” As if making up for lost opportunities, my mother dipped a cookie in her tea then popped it in her mouth. I’d arranged her favorites – chocolate wrapped shortbread – on an elegant Limoges serving plate. Spicy chai, blended with warmed milk and heaping teaspoons of sugar, filled the delicate china cups that sat on the red Formica table. She closed her eyes, relishing the buttery treat, before gently dabbing her lips with her napkin.
“Women in sensible shoes and aprons, always aprons, stood on their porches and invited Butchie in. He’d clamber up the narrow steps and disappear. I’d wait for him below. No trees and the sidewalk so bright it burned your eyeballs. He’d bring a cookie out for me sometimes.”
I was astounded. My mother’s tight-lipped, “Don’t ask, Sarah. I don’t want to talk about it,” had effectively shushed my questions about her heritage for years. She had never uttered a word about her life prior to meeting my father, but here over tea and cookies, my mother had turned into a trash talking Shahrazad.
There are many ways of finding people these days. Now that my mother is dead, I search through census records and track down leads. In 1930, 1940, and 1950, the Marzanos lived in a company-built row house in an area known as “The Hocks.” Located close to Canal Street in the crowded lower west side of Buffalo’s teeming waterfront, also known as Little Sicily, I discover four brothers. Their names sound unfamiliar and foreign, Arturo, Giovanni, Guiseppe, and the youngest, Eliseo. The Buffalo Historical Society’s collection of City Directories confirms most had stayed in the area, at least through the 1980s. I take a chance and call the number for Eliseo. I tell him I might be his long lost niece. Perhaps he thinks I’m running a scam, but he’s gracious about it. He suggests we meet for breakfast at a café near his home.
I arrive early and shift from foot to foot outside the restaurant, my hand twitches and taps against the soft felted wool of my skirt. An old man judders towards me using forearm crutches. His bowed legs lurch from side to side as he maneuvers along the crusted sidewalk. He reminds me of a spider, the arm extensions take up an invisible cube around him. He dominates the space, making up for lack of height with magnified width.
“Call me Butch,” he’d says. I laugh at the Americanization of Eliseo. It echoes my mother’s transformation. My ancestral search has unveiled her as Terésina. To me, she had always been Trish. A name that evoked tennis courts and private schools, an assumption she did little to discourage.
As we walk in, I stare at the scuffed linoleum and grimy turquoise walls. Has the café, hidden amidst its row of mercantile buildings, stood unchanged for the last hundred years? I imagine a hungover steelworker ducking through the narrow front door in his hard hat. He slaps his squat thermos on the counter and growls, coffee black. In silent protest, his angry wife has neglected to fill his metal lunchbox.
He orders a fried egg sandwich with ketchup. Women working the grill, alternate between Sicilian and English, as they make up the order. A man at the register accepts his dimes and nickels in exchange for a lunch wrapped in waxed paper, fruit from a nearby basket and a jelly donut lifted from the covered cake stand. As he departs, the man pauses a moment in the threshold, then lights a cigarette.
My Uncle Butch orders a Double-Double. I’m not familiar with the term, but take it to mean he likes his coffee sweet and light. He removes the lid and stirs the contents with a plastic spoon. Then he raises the cup to his lips and takes an exploratory sip, slurping in air to help cool the steaming beverage.
“I used to work the crane in the pickler,” he says, “high above the steel mill, you know? Couldn’t wear goggles cause it was so hot. The sparkles would gather in the corner of your eye and make em bleed,” his direct stare flicks in my direction. “You know when snow falls, how it glitters, right? That’s what it was like. The air filled with glitter.”
His intelligent brown eyes remind me of my mother’s. He has a scrappy face, full of devilment and compassion. I note how his neatly trimmed mustache accentuates the long space between his nose and upper lip.
“Nonna and your mom had a screaming fight the night before she left. It didn’t matter to your mom if your dad was Catholic or not. She wasn’t going to let Nonna stop her again. She was getting married and that was it.”
I watch as he rubs his finger around the rim of his coffee. My mother was thirty-two when she married my dad. An average age for today, but perhaps on the edge of desperation in her time. I pictured the interminable formal dinners we had endured at my grandparent’s Connecticut home. All of us in our Sunday best while my father’s parents inquired about our weekly activities. A subtle undercurrent of judgement infused every question. Their disappointment left behind a deep muscle bruise, each of us pummeled and found lacking.
“Guess in the end we just weren’t good enough for your mom.” His words startle me and he lets them stand between us a moment before he continues. “We all worked at the Bethlehem Steel mill. If you wanted a job, well, I had a wife and four kids. You did what you had to do. It was a destroyer of bodies though. Look at me. I had the cancer twice. Your Uncle Arty died in 85. Heart attack. Johnnie moved to Florida and died about eight or nine years ago. Joe-Joe died of the cancer about twenty years back. Stuff they left behind when they closed the mill though,” he said, his head shaking back and forth. “Now they want to rehab it into some damn arts center or something. The things I seen. They don’t even know.”
I sip my coffee and nibble my blueberry muffin. At his recommendation, I’d agreed to try it grilled. The cook split it in half, swiped the cuts with melted butter, and toasted it along with the bacon. I eat my eggs, sunny side up and push around the hash browns, which are spicier than I like.
He tells me about working in the galvanizing department and the cold strip mill. Of a man who stepped a foot too far left and got his leg crushed between train and track, and had his bones turned to jelly. Of working without masks next to vats of acid so powerful, the fumes would weaken the molecular bonds of the giant fans whirling far above. Eventually, they lost their structural integrity and floated down, thin as a feather, softly drifting through the foul air to land with a poof, disintegrating into ash.
Smeared egg yolk and bread crusts remain on our plates. He taps the back of my hand and says, “My wife, she got the cancer, lymphoma. Found out about a month ago.” I open my mouth to respond but he continues, “Know what she says the worst part is? Losing her hair. Of all the things. She’s been my Peggy girl over fifty years. That’s not gonna change.”
I wrap both hands around his calloused one and squeeze. He gazes out the window at the scooter woman, who having emptied her cart, is now pulling it down the other side of the street. “She had the cancer twice before though. This time it’s bad.”
I crush his hand to my heart. The silence extends between us.
Nina Fosati is an artist by inclination and a writer by misfortune. Beguiled by historic clothing and portraiture, she impulsively holds forth on her favorites @NinaFosati. Nina is also a reader for the r.kv.r.y quarterly literary journal and has had a small assortment of stories published in journals and anthologies.
© 2017, Nina Fosati