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Contemporary Italian American Writing

FRED MISURELLA

A Man of His Times from Lies to Live By

Fred Misurella is a Fulbright Scholar who has published fiction and nonfction in Partisan Review, Salmagundi, The Village Voice, The New York Times Book Reveiw, VIA, Italialn American, The Christian Science Monitor, L'Atelier du Roman,and other magazines and journals. He lives with his wife and son in Pennsylvania and teaches writing, journlism, and Italian American literature at East Stroudsburg University. Daniela Gioseffi has said, "Fred Misurella, like Ben Morreale and Fred Gardaphe, is among the best of our contemporary fiction writers, the sort that our American culture should pay attention to as the tellers of the real stories of Italian American life." Rita Ciresi wrote: "Any fan of storytelling will find much to admire in Misurella's Lies to Live By. ...delightful reading." A sample story follows, titled A Man of His Time.

"This is not a war," he told everybody before leaving, "it's a... a... simply a transition." And here is once again--Roger Larusso--crossing a bridge, preparing to pass through the doors of a new time zone: another world, maybe, but more striking than that, as he thinks of it, into another tense.


Still he feels the pull of familiar landmarks. Streamlined modern-looking buildings, bright stripes and multi-colored paint peeling, more industrial plants and factories. And still the same ragout stew of traffic: drivers, cigarettes stuck to their pouting lower lips, striving to get somewhere, anywhere, before somebody, anybody, else. Carbon-covered, pock-marked houses of stone and cement lining the rail tracks and, as they ride in closer to the city, the same explicit advertisements--feet, thighs, buttocks, and boobs--selling shoes, soda pop, and cabbage casseroles. Buildings loom, as if lost in the smog of a time warp, higher, grander on the approach to the circular road and the ancient gate into the city. He feels nostalgia mixed with the dread of a country boy coming home.


Roger doesn't recognize anything specific yet--he lived south, in a humbler neighborhood, in the 1970's--but as soon as the driver passes the railroad station and begins to work his way down the grand boulevard, side streets, cafes, even pedestrians, take on familiar looks and shapes. The cab jerks to a halt at a hotel just around the corner from the new industrial tower. Roger pays the fare, enters, salutes the patron, an old acquaintance, and takes a cup of his fresh coffee while the room is prepared. Finally, he retreats to the telephone booth behind the breakfast room to call Katharina.


"Yes, who is this?--" Her son answers, voice cracked and strained yet surprisingly mature. It has been ten years since Roger last saw the boy.


"Jean?"


"Yes..."


"Is your mother--" After a pause, he adds, "I'd like to talk to Katharina Mouiller."

"Madame Mouiller is busy at this time. Please, who is this?"
He hears impatience in Jean's voice, not unusual considering the circumstances, but the edge is enough to make him hesitate about his name. "An old friend," he says at last, "of your father. Roger Larusso."


Jean says nothing. For a few painful seconds Roger wonders if the boy has forgotten him, or, worse, hung up. Then he hears him breathe and in an attempt to break through to a former time says he is sorry about his father's sudden death. Jean thanks him, not warmly, promising he will "inform" his mother that Roger called. He takes the number and address of the hotel and says Katharina will call back as soon as she is free.


"You must understand," Jean adds, as if it were an order. "We are very busy at this time."


"I certainly do understand. If I can help in any way, just let me know."


Jean says nothing. They hang up in silence, and after a query to the hotel patron about funeral notices in the daily paper, Roger goes up to his room to unpack and shower. According to one paper, services for Gilbert Mouiller will take place that day in the chapel of a private school he donated money to for years; he will be buried after noon in the Mouiller family plot in the oldest cemetery of the city. Roger walks toward the boulevard, finds a cafe, drinks another coffee, and after an hour of reading papers, leaves to take a cab to the funeral.

The school is on a little side street in the university district, between the main entrance to the university and the eastern end of a six-lane boulevard that transverses the city. Cars have jammed into every space on the street, with six or seven of them parked on the sidewalk. He notices several motorcycles, one with a sidecar, a couple of bicycles, and the hearse, a 19th century wagon painted black with polished brass lamps, drawn curtains, and a fine black horse standing before it.

The chapel is large but crowded, and as Roger slips into an empty space on the back wall, he looks for familiar faces, or at least ones that seem familiar. A respected Russian writer is there, and a more famous Czech, both friends of Gilbert; and one or two Yugoslavs who found homes with the Mouillers on first coming to the West when the wars started. Jean, taller but still very thin, stands near the closed casket, his face oddly animated and smiling. He leans over a row of chairs, speaks to a woman whom Roger takes to be Katharina, although he can not see her clearly, and then playfully slaps the shoulder of a boy sitting next to her: his brother, Gustave.

A bearded, scholarly-looking man stands at a lectern to the right of the casket, and before him, taking up two rows of chairs just across from the Mouiller family, sits a band of seven or eight silent, unsmiling young men, dressed in leather jackets, with heads shaved and tattooed, or wearing tomahawked, dyed, rainbow-colored hair. Safety pins, straight pins, along with two or three clothespins dangle from their ears, noses, and tongues. They move in unison, heads turning left or right as if by signal, their pale, dark-featured faces responding to everything gravely despite their clownish dress. The Czech writer smiles, whispering behind his hand to the Russian and two women between them.

The speaker begins his eulogy, his sentences clearly enunciated, his voice expressive, though with a rough, foreign edge. He refers to Gilbert as "this good man," extolling the gifts he gave, the lives he touched and aided, the works begun and completed, or left unfinished. "This was our country," he says, "the best of it--safe haven for all and unmatched, generous grandeur."

Roger can not help noticing how Jean, his shoulders hunched, continues to look around and smile, curiously, foolishly, as if he were at a first communion or graduation, while mother and brother sit beside him, their heads high, intent on the speaker. Across the aisle from them, the boys, slumped forward, pins shaking as they stretch and comfort one another, maintain their silence, although occasionally a moan or a murmur rises from among them. When the speaker finishes, he nods toward the Mouillers. After a moment’s hesitation Gustave rises, edging past his mother and brother. Fifteen, small-boned, dark like his father, he stands behind the lectern with his head barely visible above it. Unfolding a piece of paper, he begins to read, first uttering in a trembling voice, "My dear, dear Papa."

Tears stream down his face. His breath catches, moving the audience, the boys across from the Mouillers especially, with people sobbing and crying out from time to time as he speaks. Roger struggles for self-control, concentrating on the others around him. Gustave, noticeably trembling, struggles too--to check himself and keep a calm tone as he begins to read what is, apparently, a poem, or a poetic piece of prose. At times his voice barely rises above a whisper; at others his words emerge in a nearly full-throated shout. At the end, he lowers his head, folds the paper and puts it into his pocket. He, Jean, and four other men, teachers and administrators at the school, watch as three young students wheel the casket on its gurney toward the exit. They follow.


Now Roger sees Katharina more fully, or what he can make out of her behind a black veil. She stands beside her boys and, with her head still high, walks toward the back of the chapel. She says nothing, makes no motion of welcome, but Roger sees her glance as she passes, even though she does not nod or give a sign of recognition. Jean smiles, not for Roger but at everyone surrounding him, and looks down at a video camcorder that he carries in his hands. He adjusts the lens, and when Roger emerges through the doors to stand in the crowd on the chapel steps, he notices young Jean letting the camcorder roll while he points it: toward the building, the hearse, the casket going into the hearse, the boys in their leather jackets, tattoos, and multi-colored hairdos who are the last to file out.

The driver climbs onto the box of the hearse, looks to the sky and, with a practiced snap of his whip, starts the horse in motion.
They move slowly along the cobble-stoned streets down an ancient lane behind the university, in front of a grand monument, then across a square toward the cemetery. The streets are quiet, except for the distant hum of automobiles on the boulevard, and the only sounds they hear are the clop from the horse's hooves, the muffled shuffle of their own shoe leather against stones, and an occasional sigh or moan from a member of the party. This is one of the barest, most private quarters in the city, and its effect on the mourners this day is shattering. Roger watches Katharina and her boys behind the cart, marveling at her sense of presence, her show of bravery, especially since Gustave seems to have a hard time remaining erect, and Jean, though not taping now, still carries the camcorder in his hands.

They enter the cemetery from entrance near the farmers' market and, crossing in front of civil guards who stand saluting, they walk to the west side of the grounds and bury Gilbert not fifty steps from the grave of a famous poet and his hated stepfather, whose spirits, Gilbert used to tell Roger, will glare at each other and shake their fists to entertain him for eternity. With the steady hum of traffic from the nearby market street, it is impossible to hear the words of the man who eulogizes over the grave. But when Katharina and Jean drop roses on the coffin and Gustave, sobbing, follows with a copy of the words he has read in the chapel, the collective sighs of everyone, especially the young men in leather jackets and pins, seem to drown out everything else. Katharina takes her boys by the shoulders and draws them close before lowering her arms and, hands clasped, walking through the cemetery gate without waiting for anyone else.


Her head remains high, Roger notices. He is not sure how much of that is pose since, when he finally catches up with her on the old street, she is looking down at her feet, not responding to anything around her.

"Kat... Katharina," he calls just above a whisper. After two more attempts, he sees her stop and, just beneath the veil, smile.

"Roger Larusso. So nice to see you. Jean said you had called."


"I'm sorry about Gilbert," he mutters. Then, awkwardly, "It was quite a blow."

She nods. Through the veil Roger sees her hazel eyes still dry, her complexion still ruddy, the glow on her left cheek just hidden under her hair. She turns to continue up the cobble-stoned street, and he falls into step beside her, matching her steady gait ("feet on the ground," she used to say, "Gilbert is all in ether"), her square-shouldered, Slavic acceptance of life marking her pace as well as her posture.

"You are taking it well. How did it happen?"

She smiles, folding her hands, palms touching, fingers straight out as if she were praying. "Ah, you don't read the papers, Roger. You never missed before. It's your profession."

"Kat--?"

She waves. "He died in an accident--a bomb, placed in a trash container near the Metro. It went off as we walked by."

"Christ, I'm sorry. I read about some bombing, but I didn't know he ... And you were with him? How--?"

She shakes her head. "It barely touched us. He lunged into the street to protect me and was run over by a truck. A laundry truck. He died on the way to the hospital. I never saw him alive again."

She grins, oddly. Roger notices the strong resemblance to Jean.

"Another horrible political bombing! What a waste!"

Katharina shrugs. "Who knows? Our times."

Roger says nothing, shakes his head. They walk up the street, aware of others catching up, then passing by. They remain silent, Katharina occasionally greeting or being greeted by others in a more or less formal manner. Back at the school, she stands inside the doors to the chapel and, without lifting her veil, receives people in front of a stand of lilies and a table of light refreshments set in the vestibule. Roger leaves her there when Jean and Gustave enter, retreating to a corner to sit and balance a cup of coffee on his knee. Gustave stands near his mother, dark suit, white shirt and grave manner creating the appearance of a little Gilbert. Jean, with his tie loosened now, walks around the room with the camcorder at his shoulder filming everything.


The Czech and the Russian smile and turn away as he approaches them. The boys in leather, metal, and wood whisper as they pass in front of the camcorder. Then, with their hands splayed and twitching hungrily, they arrange themselves at a table and gather platefuls of little sandwiches that they bring into the corner near Roger. Loud, clumsy, unbelievably crude, they sit along the wall, talking to each other and to bystanders while their ugly, blue-headed leader, his face pitted with acne scars and pimples, attempts a conversation with Roger.

"Not bad for Gilbert," he says, appraising the surroundings. "How did you know him?"

"Work. And through some of his political--" Roger searches for the word in the young man's language--"Conferences." Finally, he adds, emphasizing the English, "Meetings."

"Ah, you are British!"

"American," Roger says.

The skinhead nods, smiling, looking Roger over as if he knows everything now. Sticking out his tongue (with a green rhinestone in it) he adds, "Gilbert loved you Americans--loved you--the old bastard."

He begins to talk about popular music--Madonna, Michael Jackson, Bon Jovi, Guns 'n' Roses, Pearl Jam. Roger tries to respond knowledgeably, but the boy quickly senses that none of those artists make this American's kind of sound.

"You like Elvis," he says at last, appraising Roger's age. "Gilbert adored Elvis. And Tony Bennett."

Roger laughs. "Gilbert's taste was more eclectic than mine. I stopped liking Elvis when I-- When I left back there the first time. And I hardly listen to Tony Bennett--or even Sinatra."


"Dylan! You like Dylan! I know it!"

The young man smiles, swallowing half a sandwich with a gape-toothed grin. The rhinestone flashes in and out of bread crust, cheese, and meat. He turns and murmurs to his friends, his words fast, his flushed, melon-like head blocking his lips so Roger cannot understand. Whatever the boy says, his friends stare at Roger, their mouths wide, their tongues an accumulated showcase of cheap stones and metal. Still, to them, he has done some odd, even shameful, thing.

"I don't like popular music at all," he announces, a boy again, somehow, lost in a foreign land. "I like serious music: Bach, Beethoven--Stravinsky."

"Pah!--What are you, snob?"

The leader with the tattooed head grins and pops another sandwich, whole, into his mouth. When a second boy with pink, green, and orange feathers woven through his crewcut hair leans in his direction, Roger raises his hand.

"Gilbert taught me the classics, you know. Through him I learned to like them all. He played them on the piano for me. As illustration."

"What--Gilbert, playing? Since when--"

Roger nods--truly snobbish, he hopes. "He had many talents, and he loved to play good music, especially modern."

"What? That old ... Gilbert? He never--"

They lean forward in disbelief. The seven of them (Roger counts now that they surround him so closely) stare almost as if they are angry. "He liked all kinds of music," Roger says. "That was one of his charms. He liked jazz, classical, rock'n'roll. He was that way with everything--open."

The leader, a tear breaking loose now, clenches his fist and shakes it. An engorged penis, tattooed in red and black, shimmers across his knuckles. "That was a man," he says. "A real ... We'll never see another like him!"

His friends raise their fists and shout in unison: "Gilbert!"

Roger smiles but, embarrassed now that people are obviously staring at them, decides to leave his seat. He looks across the room, pretending to see someone he needs to talk with. Rising, he notices Jean pointing the camcorder toward them, and as he makes his way back toward the table of flowers, he covers his face. Jean tracks him from the tattooed head and the boy with the feathers until he reaches Katharina.

"Please, put that away! Show some respect for your poor, dear father," Roger says, firmly.


Jean grimaces, letting the camcorder drop to his side like a weapon he wants to hide--or keep ready. But then he grins, blushing foolishly, and, looking at the crowd surrounding them, nods as if he has made a significant point.

"Jean, please," Katharina says. "Mr. Larusso is right. This is not a celebration. Put the camera away."


He raises it, pointing the lens at Katharina and Roger and letting the tape role. "Maman," he says. "Smile. Show us how pretty you are."

"No, no," Gustave says, raising his hand to cover the lens. "Don't be cruel, Jean. Be nice--for Papa's sake."

Jean pulls the camcorder back, aims it for a moment at his brother, and then, silent, stalks away. Gustave blushes, lowering his head. Katharina looks at Roger, sighing. "He will not accept it," she says. "He is stubborn. He will not see that things have changed."

Gustave arrives with another cup of coffee, kisses her veiled cheek, and walks off to find his brother. An uneasy moment passes while Katharina shifts on her feet and, sighing, sips her coffee. She wants to talk, Roger is sure, yet she also wants to be correct with the rest of the guests, some of whom, a group of Croats and Poles, stop to pay their respects before leaving, others of whom simply hope to learn more about Gilbert's final moments or discuss Katharina's future plans. Gilbert's brother, Henri, fat, amiably crude, one glass eye impervious to the smoke curling from a cigarette between his swollen, bleeding lips, clutches her elbow from behind and turns her toward a group of three elderly men--gray, short, bearing unmistakably the stamp of the Mouiller family frame--comical despite their mourning clothes.

"Our cousins," Henri says, "Michel, Richard, Bertrand. I believe you have never met them."

They bow, bumping into themselves, their toes clownishly catching under one another's heels. They have always avoided Gilbert, Roger knows, but Katharina, oblivious, shakes each of their hands and says--a lie, he is sure--that Gilbert spoke of them often. After she introduces them to Roger, they bow, expressing condolences and, with Henri, wander off to find Gustave and Jean.

Katharina barely gets out: "Oh, he is impossible! Did you smell?" Roger nods, still sniffing the mixture of sweat, tobacco, and must that fades as Henri waddles away. "I can't stand to be near him," she says, "much less touched."

Katharina brushes the sleeve of her dress and looks at the floor in disgust.

"He's trying to do the right thing, as a brother. And as an uncle. It's all he can do."

She laughs. "He doesn't know the right thing. He doesn't care. Gilbert always said Henri was selfish, and he's proved it hundreds of times. The cousins, too."

"Well..."

She nods, lowering her voice. "I shouldn't expect anything better. Gilbert was different. You know; he grew."
Roger looks away. "Best not to worry about those things now," he tells her.

Her head sinks. He can almost see her lose color beneath the veil. Her chin trembles. "Oh, Ruggero mio, I don't know what to do. I feel... I feel so..."

She stops. Her head shakes as she stares at his feet. Self-consciously, he takes her arm and leads her to a chair in the corner behind the flowers. Katharina has not sat since leaving the chapel, and now her body sinks wearily into the chair. Roger freshens her cup with some coffee, and then sits beside her. He tries to get her to remove her hat, at least to lift the veil above her eyes. She refuses; she wants to do the right thing by Gilbert, she says, and that means retaining the widow's appearance.

"He was so sad," she says, "so small when they put him into the ambulance."

She straightens her back, sips her coffee, and again stands to talk to people surrounding the table. Henri returns with the three cousins, and soon Gustave and Jean arrive, Jean noticeably without his camcorder. The seven talk together, with guests, most of whom seem to know Henri rather than Katharina, occasionally breaking into their conversation. Even the young men in leather and pictures stop to talk for a few minutes while making a slow, boisterous exit, passing in front of Roger and raising their fists as they leave.

"Take care, American! Remember Elvis!"


People look from them to him and laugh. He blushes, turning away in anger and saying nothing. His shame persists, and soon he begins to grow restless among the crowd around Katharina. Finally, Roger taps her on the shoulder, excusing himself by saying he has some business across the city. But as he leaves the chapel, turning toward the cathedral steeples for a nostalgic walk along the banks of the river, he hears a voice and turns to see Katharina, on the steps, running toward him.

"Here," she says, "I want to give you this."

She hands him an envelope with a photograph in it. He opens it and sees Gilbert: Smiling, his glasses glinting above his thick, dark lips, he pushes back a wisp of thinning hair. Behind him, on motorcycles, sit the seven young men in leather and, among them, Katharina, and another man, an American, Carl Becker, whose grim smile makes him look like an unwilling participant.

"Gilbert and his brats," Katharina says, not smiling. "His two favorites among them."

Roger looks away.

"And did you know Carl Becker is ill?" He nods. "I heard as I was leaving. I'll visit him just before I cross into Sarajevo and beyond."

"That disease. Everyone's susceptible now."
She takes Roger's hand and stops. When a motorcycle engine begins to roar, she pulls him into a little courtyard beside the chapel. In a corner, behind the statue of a bearded, long-robed prelate, she puts her hand on his shoulder, lif

ts her veil, and kisses him, passionately, on the mouth.

"Is it still there," she asks, at last, "still--?"


"What?"

"Don't play with me, Ruggero mio. You know." Katharina takes off her hat and, pulling aside a thick portion of her chestnut hair, thrusts her right cheek toward him. A large, liver-colored spot, a birthmark shaped something like a ginkgo leaf, splays from her ear along her cheek and jawbones, almost to her lips. He draws his breath.

"Is it--God's tattoo, as Gilbert called it?"
He says nothing. Beyond the wall, the roar of four, five, then six motorcycles booms off the buildings, rattles windows, shakes the bearded prelate standing to their left. Through the courtyard gate, Roger sees Jean, camcorder at his shoulder again, taping his father's brats as they, circling from somewhere beyond the chapel, lower their heads and speed down the street.
"Is it? Don't play with me, Roger. Is the mark still there?"

She nudges him.

"You know it is, Katharina."

"Then you don't love me," she tells him, replacing her hat and pulling down her veil.

Mysterious again, she hesitates before walking through the gate.
"Kat-- Katharina, we..."

She waves, turning back toward the chapel as Roger searches for words. "God wills it," she calls, smiling. "I came to this country with clothes on my back and this on my face. Nothing else. Gilbert loved me. Now I will be buried here with him--and it, too."

He clutches the photograph, silent, staring after her. He lowers his hands as Jean, crying out and stepping around the cement column of the statue, approaches. The camcorder at his shoulder, whirring.

______________________________________________________________________

Copyright 2006 by Fred Misurella from Lies to Live By, Bordighera Press, 100 Social Sciences Bldg., Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton FL. 33431. All rights resered by the author. Reprinted by permission.

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