Table of Contents
The Bordighera Poetry Prize
(Wise Women's Web)
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
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
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
"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.
"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
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
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
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.
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
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
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?
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
"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."
Roger nods--truly snobbish, he
hopes. "He had many talents, and he loved to play good music,
"What? That old ... Gilbert?
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
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
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.
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.
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
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."
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
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!
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.
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
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
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--?"
"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,
"Then you don't
love me," she tells him, replacing her hat and pulling down
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.
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
Available at http:// www.Amazon.com/
Order at any bookstore.