Dark Face of Beauty

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"Like I said, it was a long time ago. My parents had immigrated from southern Italy some ten years before. I was born here, or, rather, in Brooklyn, in this country, I mean. My parents never learned English very well. They spoke to each other in their Sicilian dialect and to me and the rest of the world in a halting, nearly incomprehensible gibberish made up of English words and Sicilian grammar, with not a few words they invented themselves out of fortunate-or unfortunate-blends of the old and the new languages."

The young priest was listening to his elderly parishioner not as a confessor but as a friend. There was, however, something on the mind of the oddly formal older man, and the priest suspected that it had to do with some burden of guilt the man was carrying about his mother, who had passed away long before the two had met and become friendly. They were at a local tavern, sitting comfortably in a booth with a pitcher of beer on the table. The priest had taken only one glass and was nursing it skillfully. More than a year ago, the older man, whose name was Tom, had proposed a hypothetical case to the priest, and he, young and ardent in the faith, had given a response which he suspected had deeply troubled his friend.

"Thinking back on those days," the older man continued, leaning stiffly on his elbows, "I wonder I was able to understand my parents at all, especially as I got old enough to leave the house and play in the streets. Once in school, I became another person, almost entirely. But I did, you know, I did still understand them. I guess you could say it was love that made it possible, I don't see how it was possible any other way. They did love me-I was an only child-and I them.

"Anyway, my mother would call me, 'TomMIE, TomMIE, veni ca!' Always with the emphasis on the last syllable, 'TomMIE'-like that. She dressed in black, always. I can't remember ever seeing her wearing anything but black. She was dark, also-black hair, olive skin, very fine and smooth; she had dark brown, almost black eyes, flashing eyes, which I can't remember as being anything other than intense. Her hair never grayed. She died at sixty-six without a gray hair in her head. In those years she was slender, and from photos I can tell she was a beautiful woman.

"My father, on the other hand, was her opposite in almost every way. He tended to softness where she was hard, I mean physically as well as in terms of character. He was round, jolly, and pink complexioned. I can hardly remember him as being anything other than pink cheeked and gray haired, or rather, white haired-most of his life. But I suppose in these still early years, when they were so young, his hair was probably still brown. But I have only undated photos to remember these times by. I can't be sure about a lot of things. I have only the stories others have told me, the stories my mother told me, and those parts of the happenings I witnessed myself and read about in old newspapers-but of course, at the time, I had no understanding.

"My father managed to open a hardware store on Linden Boulevard in Brooklyn, next to a little Italian Ice shop-where I used to play when I was old enough to get out of the house, which was both in back of and on top of the hardware store. The store was on a corner with its main entrance on the street it faced, and on the side street there was a door to the house. At street level in back of the shop that door opened onto the kitchen, and next to the kitchen there was a tiny sitting room. Upstairs were the parlor and bedrooms. We lived there until I was well into my teens. By that time, the war was over and the economy was changing. Suburbia was growing fast, and the hardware store lost most of its customers. My father had to close it, eventually. We moved like so many others to eastern Long Island, and it wasn't long after that that my father died.

"One day-I was about five years old at the time-a man came into the shop asking for my father. I can still remember him. He spoke Sicilian, rapidly, his hands waving and punctuating his words with a certain premeditated violence. I remember him so clearly because I remember my mother. She had pulled both hands to her chest and her face had whitened. I started to cry because of the fear she had in her eyes. The man looked down at me in the aisle where I had been playing, and I can still remember his face. He pointed to me and said something to my mother which struck me as unpleasant and stirred me to cry harder. He left, and my mother bundled me off to my bedroom upstairs and put me to sleep. My father wasn't home at the time, having gone to Staten Island to visit a cousin, which I remember my mother saying was the great blessing that proved God was watching over us.

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