From the driver seat of his car, Charlie watched as his father stooped to water the dead fig tree in the front yard of his childhood home. As Carlo Bellantine, tanned and still robust in a pair of red swim trunks, waved his iron watering can over the tangled roots that had torn through the cement, Charlie thought of the synapses in his mother’s brain, broken yet obstinate. Countless times, Carlo pointed to those roots as proof that the tree was still alive, despite not producing a single fig in more than five summers. Charlie remembered his forearms aching beneath the weight of those figs, which Carlo would pile into plastic bags and force Charlie to carry uphill to his teachers on the first day of school each year. Inevitably, some of the tender purple bulbs broke during the ten-block climb, leaving a sticky yellow film along the bottom of the bags. But, as Carlo explained, there were too many figs to keep and he didn’t want the birds to eat them. ‘Besides, your teachers would have to fly to Italy to find figs that juicy,’ Carlo always added. Charlie would nod, knowing he’d be eating crushed figs for lunch.
Charlie turned off the ignition and ignored the text from his partner, Dane Creston, urging him to get back to the office downtown as soon as he was done with his parents. Dane needed to talk to Charlie before they met with the company’s lawyers about the bankruptcy. Charlie’s temples pinched as much at the thought of losing his business as at the thought of asking his father to commit his mother to Bellerose Village. When he popped open the glove compartment to remove the Bellerose papers, he hoped to find a spare aspirin in the process. He found none. He decided to check the medicine cabinet in his parents’ upstairs bathroom. After sticking the Bellerose papers in his gray suit jacket pocket, he exited the car, then sauntered across the street, still beyond his father’s purview. Not wanting to disturb Carlo, Charlie stood on the other side of the gate adorned with bronze figs, jingled his car keys, and waited. Without turning around, Carlo placed his watering can on the concrete and rose from the fig tree roots. After rolling his neck around once, he turned to face the street. He squinted at his son with his mouth gaping open, and waited.
Charlie drew a sharp breath. ‘Ciao, Pa.’
‘Ciao,’ replied Carlo, looking his son up and down.
Charlie stood before the elder version of himself. The short stature, glasses and baldness the same; the deflated skin and scowl different.
‘Any figs?’ asked Charlie, already knowing the answer.
‘Not yet,’ said Carlo, raising his eyebrows. ‘But soon.’
‘It’s almost September.’
‘So what, September?’
‘Wouldn’t they have come out by now?’ asked Charlie, glancing at the surrounding row houses and the parched crimson foliage waving already beneath the fire-streaked sky.
‘È presto ancora,’ said Carlo. It’s still early.
‘How’s Ma?’ asked Charlie, rubbing his eyes beneath his glasses.
‘Bene, come sempre,’ said Carlo, shrugging. Fine, as always.
Charlie nodded. He grew tired of the rhetorical game.
‘Come va all’ufficio?’ asked Carlo. How are things going at the office?
‘Busy as always. Posso?’ asked Charlie, lifting the latch of the gate by the bronze fig handle. May I?
‘Vieni,’ said Carlo, waving down his hand at his son. Come.
As he stepped into his parents’ front yard, Charlie banished the infinitesimal possibility that he’d find solace there from the reality of losing his company. By 49, he should have known better, having learned at an early age that his parents weren’t like the other Italian parents in the neighborhood prone to spontaneous and smothering embraces as gratitude for their children’s existence. Carlo’s passion, if one could call it that, was reserved for his wife, Liliana. Charlie and his younger sister Dina were guests permitted to live, for eighteen years maximum, in the house Carlo bought as his first wedding gift to his bride. The second gift was that fig tree, whose sapling Carlo’s friend smuggled in a suitcase from Calabria, and which was meant to flourish each year of their marriage. Charlie reminded himself that obligation alone justified his being there. Besides, Dina lived in Pennsylvania and couldn’t be troubled with addressing Liliana’s senility between holidays, which marked the only times Dina visited with her doctor husband, whom Liliana no longer recognized.
‘Go see Mama,’ said Carlo, interrupting Charlie’s thoughts.
‘I gotta water!’ he yelled loud enough to send a cluster of robins flying off the bronze gate.
‘Okay, take it easy,’ said Charlie. ‘I’ll go.’
He climbed the cement steps and pressed the white pupil of the bronze doorbell three times as usual. He could hear his mother shuffling down the wooden stairs in her terrycloth slippers, and felt a twinge of dread just before she flung open the door. The wizened version of the stunning beauty Liliana had been stood in the same housedress covered in gravy-stained sunflowers she had worn since the year before when the worst of her memory loss started. Combed rows of greasy gray hair replaced the long black tresses she would braid back from her smooth forehead, now a washboard of frown lines. Her chestnut brown eyes squinted beneath still long eyelashes, confused above the same upturned nose and a pair of full lips that never managed to close over her overbite, which, when pulled into a full smile, used to be considered beautiful. The sight of his mother’s filmy yellow teeth and the stench of her unwashed flesh pained Charlie. He should have come sooner, he told himself.
‘Are you coming in?’ she asked in her usual suspicious whine.
‘Yeah, Ma,’ he said, stepping into the dark hallway and its omnipresent musk of tomato sauce and mothballs. ‘You know I’m Charlie, right?’ he asked in the soft tone he often reserved for Dane’s four-year-old son whenever Dane brought the boy to the office.
‘You must think I’m stupid,’ she said, spitting in Charlie’s eye. He removed his handkerchief from the lapel of his suit jacket. As he dabbed out the unintended gob, he realized that his mother’s defensiveness and suspicion weren’t due to the tangled circuits in her brain. They had always been there. She was always accusing the neighbor women of wanting to steal the figs off her tree whenever any of them passed by to compliment her thriving garden. Now it appeared to Charlie that she was somewhat aware of her tendency to forget things, which amplified her suspicion at everyone she met. Everyone except her husband, who simultaneously challenged and adored her. All Carlo ever needed her to be was pretty, Charlie was convinced. His nose caught a sudden whiff of smoke.
‘Do you smell something burning?’ Charlie asked his mother.
‘I made some broccoli rabe,’ she said, referring to the bitter leaves and diminutive broccoli florets Charlie had eaten his whole life and come to associate with home.
Charlie ran into the kitchen and saw smoke rising from a gallon-sized pasta pot on the stove. The smoke detector shrieked on the ceiling as Charlie grabbed the kitchen towel off the refrigerator handle with one hand and pulled a step ladder out of the corner with the other. He climbed the step ladder and waved the towel beneath the smoke detector to silence its deafening cries. Carlo ran into the kitchen then with his watering can, which he shook over the smoking pot. Liliana stood in the stepladder’s space in the corner as she watched her husband and son’s frantic movements with frowning eyes. After a few minutes, the smoke detector stopped beeping. A sweating Charlie panted and stared at his mother from the top of the stepladder. Carlo turned to his wife.
‘Hai bruciato le verdure!’ You burned the greens!
‘I didn’t burn them,’ she said. ‘I just forgot to turn them off. You can still eat them.’
‘You gotta be more careful,’ he said, taking her hands in his.
‘I know,’ she said, nodding. ‘Next time.’
‘Si,’ said Carlo in a quieter tone. ‘La prossima volta sara meglio.’ Yes, the next time will be better.
Carlo let his wife’s hands drop to her sides before returning to the stove. He knelt down to reach the white cabinet beneath the stove and pulled out a ceramic bowl covered in oil-painted tomato vines. From the wall behind the stove, he removed a slotted metal spoon which he used to scrape and transfer the charred green mounds from the bottom of the pot to the ceramic bowl. Charlie watched his father for a few stunned minutes before placing his fingertips on each of his temples. It was time to find that aspirin, he decided.
‘Where you going?’ his father asked as Charlie turned to leave the kitchen.
‘I’m gonna use the bathroom upstairs.’
‘We will wait for you to eat,’ said Carlo, before placing the full ceramic bowl on the table at the center of the breakfast nook.
‘Okay,’ said Charlie, not understanding how his father could expect him to eat that burned green mush. He sprinted up the wooden stairs and slammed the bathroom door behind him. The scent of Jean Nate pervaded the bathroom, while unused bars of Ivory soap sat stacked in one corner of the white tub. Charlie cupped cold water from the porcelain sink in his hands, which he lifted to his mouth and ran over his face. He pulled open the mirrored medicine cabinet door slowly, careful not to invite his father’s curiosity. He found an expired bottle of Bayer at his eye level. He popped open the cap and removed two aspirins, which he swallowed with more hand-cupped water. He sat down on the plastic cushion that covered the solid white hamper and pulled out his phone. He saw that Dane had sent him several texts, each with building urgency about the upcoming lawyer meeting. The last one said something about ‘unsavory’ details they had to go over. Charlie frowned at the irony of the statement, considering the current state of the meal downstairs. He had a lot to explain before losing the business he and Dane had built over the past twenty years, but knew that there in the bathroom he was safe and time had stopped. It had always been that way.
As Charlie shifted on the cool white hamper, he thought about that Christmas Eve forty years earlier when he’d locked himself in the bathroom after Carlo’s fight with Uncle Gabe, Carlo’s younger brother. Charlie couldn’t remember what provoked Uncle Gabe to accuse Liliana of having taken sleeping pills while she was pregnant with Charlie, hoping to lose him. Charlie remembered Carlo roaring back that Liliana had trouble sleeping after her father died that year and needed those pills. Then Carlo slapped Uncle Gabe before throwing his wife Mena and him out of the house forever. Afterwards, all Carlo said to Charlie and Dina was, ‘They don’t respect my wife! To hell with them!’ He didn’t think to reassure Charlie that what Uncle Gabe had said was a lie. Years later, when Charlie wasn’t able to impregnate either of his ex-wives, he wondered whether his difficulties had anything to do with Liliana’s alleged tactics.
Charlie texted Dane saying that he would call him as soon as he was done eating with his parents. He knew it would be nearly impossible to find the right moment to talk with Carlo about signing the Bellerose papers. But he thought he could at least argue that the kitchen incident was proof the time had come. If not, he’d have to try again the following week. Another distraction from the office wouldn’t hurt, he assured himself.
From the bottom of the stairs, he saw that his father had placed a fresh loaf of Italian bread beside the ceramic bowl of the burned rapini in the middle of the breakfast nook table. Carlo uncorked a glass bottle of olive oil, which he drizzled over the bowl, followed by a few cracks of black pepper from the old wooden mill.
‘It is better now,’ said Carlo as Charlie sat down on a stiff wooden chair in front of the breakfast nook table.
‘I see,’ said Charlie, pouring himself a glass of water from the rooster-shaped jug on the table.
Carlo ripped a piece of bread from the flaky loaf and pulled out the white spongy center before filling the hole with a scoop of the green mush. He passed the sandwich to Charlie.
‘Mangia,’ he said. Charlie nodded and bit a corner of the sandwich. Carlo repeated the process in creating sandwiches for his wife, then himself. He chomped on his sandwich before frowning at Liliana.
‘Amaro,’ he said. Bitter.
‘Broccoli rabe is always bitter,’ she said, frowning. ‘It’s not because I burned it.’
Carlo huffed before taking more large bites of his sandwich. He looked up at his son.
‘I am eating!’ said Charlie, his stomach sinking with each mouthful of the bitter sandwich.
Carlo popped open a can of Heineken from which he drew long, calm gulps with his toothless mouth. Liliana stared out the window, blinking over and over again, at what, Charlie could not imagine.
‘I don’t want autumn to come,’ she said, squinting. ‘Autumn weather is sick weather. One minute, there’s cold wind, the next, you’re sweating. You never know how to dress. Before you know it, you’re coughing. It doesn’t make sense, does it?’ she asked Charlie.
‘No, it doesn’t,’ he said, shaking his head in feigned disbelief.
‘You know, Liliana was the most beautiful girl in Greenpoint,’ interrupted Carlo, his eyes creased as he smiled at his wife. ‘All the boys wanted to marry her. But she chose me. Not that tall banker’s son with the blond curls like a German. Not the baker’s son who brought her boxes of those angel wing pastries she loved. She chose me because she liked my hands. She said she liked my strong fingers and the dry palms. Never wet and nervous. She knew I carved statues in Central Park. She knew I’d take care of her.’
Charlie didn’t think to mention that Carlo recounted that story on Liliana and his wedding anniversary each year. As teenagers, Charlie and Dina would glance at each other on the rigid chintz couch in the living room as Carlo took Liliana’s left hand and kissed each finger, adding an extra one to her wedding band once he was done with the story. Charlie would excuse himself to the kitchen while Dina went upstairs to her bedroom to listen to Joan Baez records on the lowest volume so as not to disturb the lovebirds downstairs. Even now, Charlie wished he’d had a fragment of the tenderness for his ex-wives that Carlo bore for Liliana.
As Charlie reached for the rooster pitcher of water again, the Bellerose papers crunched in his suit jacket pocket.
‘Watch you don’t lose those papers,’ said Carlo.
‘I won’t,’ said Charlie, wondering how his father noticed the papers from his angle.
‘You want a plastic bag for those?’ asked Carlo.
‘No, thanks, Pa.’
‘It will be better,’ he said, before getting up and walking over to the pantry behind the refrigerator. He came back with one of the red plastic shopping bags he used to hold garbage.
‘Here,’ he said, holding the crinkly bag in front of Charlie’s face. ‘For those papers.’
Charlie glared at his father. Even after all those years, Carlo was still the furbo, or shrewd one, in the family. As Carlo had told Charlie many times, he managed to negotiate a bargain for the house he bought for Liliana despite its value, which was three times the amount he paid the seller. Charlie remembered that Uncle Gabe lived and died in the same rent-controlled apartment above a hair salon in Williamsburg in which Charlie’s grandparents had raised their sons. Although, as an adult, Charlie surmised that his father likely suspected childless Uncle Gabe and Zia Mena’s motives in taking Charlie and Dina ice skating at Rockefeller Center every winter followed by lunch at the Russian Tea Room, he was grateful that Carlo never stopped the couple’s efforts. That is, until that volatile and final Christmas Eve. That night was supposed to be the last time Charlie and Dina saw Uncle Gabe and Zia Mena, but Charlie and his sister visited them on random Sundays for years without telling Carlo. Still, Charlie knew that no one fooled or insulted Carlo Bellantine without consequence. He remembered that as he accepted the red plastic bag his father offered him and placed the Bellerose papers inside.
‘Grazie,’ he said to his father before hanging the bag on the back of his chair.
‘Let’s have some fruit,’ said Carlo.
Charlie nodded. He watched as his father walked over to the counter by the sink and picked up a large red bowl of bright yellow honeydew melon decorated with green figs.
‘This fruit is from California,’ said Carlo. He lifted out the melon, which he cut into thick quarters. He took a paper napkin from the dispenser on the table and wiped the few drops of olive oil from each plate before passing everyone a slice of melon and a green fig.
‘We’ll have to eat these figs until ours come in.’
Charlie rolled his eyes. Liliana nibbled the bulb of her green fig.
‘Our figs are much softer,’ she said. ‘And sweeter.’
‘Soon, Mama,’ said Carlo, smiling again at his wife. ‘They’ll come soon.’
Charlie lifted his slice of melon to his lips, the oily residue of the skin collecting on his fingertips. He didn’t bother with napkins, reasoning he could excuse himself to the bathroom again once he finished eating. He bit the thick green fig, pleased with the juicy crunch of its syrupy red seeds. He thought of his business. He thought of Dane. He thought of the fact that, by the winter, he could no longer call himself an owner. He remembered his father’s reaction the day he told him he had opened an architectural firm in downtown Manhattan with his classmate from design school. ‘Tua Mama sara felice,’ was all Carlo had said. Your mother will be happy. Charlie supposed his father’s opinion was the same as his mother’s, as was usually the case. And, as usual, it had to suffice.
Charlie got up from the table and waved his fingertips. ‘I have to wash my hands upstairs.’
His father shrugged. Charlie got up from his chair, brushing the bag containing the Bellerose papers on his way upstairs. Once he reached the bathroom, he washed the olive oil off his hands in the sink and splashed more cold water on his face. He looked at his face in the mirror, the lines around his eyes scars from years of triumphant laughter at successful architectural projects and scrunched with tears at the end of two marriages and even last week in his office after Dane said the meeting with the lawyers would be the official start to the company’s dismantling. He would become unemployed, his status as son the only significant title that would remain with him once the bankruptcy was done. He thought of the Bellerose papers downstairs, knowing he would have to address them with Carlo before he left the house. Charlie’s fear of provoking Carlo’s rage would have to yield to the possibility of his acquiescence, for Liliana’s sake, and his own.
From the top of the stairs, Charlie saw that his father was waiting for him in front of the kitchen doorway with Charlie’s red plastic bag in one hand and a white plastic bag full of garbage in the other. Charlie dragged his loafers down the staircase, almost bumping into his father at the bottom.
‘Come throw out the garbage with me,’ said Carlo, locking his eyes on his son’s face.
Charlie began to open his mouth, but stopped. He placed his hands in his pants pockets and followed his father out the front door. Once they reached the bottom of the stoop, Carlo turned to his son.
‘You remember where the garbage goes, right?’ he asked Charlie, who felt like an eight-year-old again.
‘Under the house.’
‘Bravo,’ said Carlo, holding the plastic bags in front of Charlie’s face.
‘Now we have more rules for the garbage,’ he said. ‘The white bag goes into the black can. And this one,’ he said, shaking the red bag. ‘This one goes into the green can. For papers.’
Charlie nodded, his stomach dropping the way it always did around his father.
‘So, go ahead,’ said Carlo, handing Charlie the bags.
‘But Pa,’ began Charlie, holding up the red bag. ‘The papers in here aren’t garbage.’
‘Yes they are,’ said his father. ‘You think you can fool me, business guy from the city?’
‘I’m not trying to fool you, Pa,’ said Charlie, choking on the tears building in his throat. ‘I’m trying to help you. It’s time. She’s getting worse.’
Carlo gripped his son’s arm, his fingers still as strong as shackles.
‘If you ever come here with those papers again, I’ll throw you out like your Uncle Gabe. I didn’t care that he was my brother. I don’t care that you’re my son. She’s my life and nobody’s taking her away from me. Hai capito?’
Charlie wiped the tears from his eyes.
‘Yes, I understand.’
‘Good,’ said Carlo. ‘Now go throw out the garbage like I told you.’
Charlie nodded and walked around the side of the house, tripping on the fig tree roots on the way to the garbage area. He ducked under the square cove beneath the house and followed his father’s trash sorting instructions. As he dropped the red plastic bag into the green recycling bin, he heard another text from Dane bleeping on his phone. In a way, he was relieved for the excuse.
When Charlie returned to the bottom of the stoop, he cleared his throat.
‘I have to get back to the office now, Pa,’ he said in one quick breath.
‘Say bye to Ma for me, okay?’
‘She’ll forget you soon,’ said Carlo, with neither malice nor compassion.
‘I know,’ said Charlie, wincing. He held out his hand to his father. Carlo stared at his son’s hand before shaking it.
‘Arrivederci, figlio,’ he said. Goodbye, son.
Charlie lifted the gate’s bronze fig latch and crossed the street to his car. He sat down in the driver’s seat and watched his father grab onto the fig tree with his head facing the house and his shoulders shaking. Charlie feared his father might be having a heart attack, but when Carlo turned to face the tree, Charlie watched him stand upright as he wiped tears from his eyes. Charlie began to open his car door again, but stopped. As he turned on the ignition, he remembered not to disturb his father when he was watering that tree.
STEPHANIE LATERZA is the author of the legal thriller, The Boulevard Trial (March 2015). Her short fiction has been published in Writing Raw, Literary Mama, and Akashic Books’ Terrible Twosdays series. Stephanie’s poetry has appeared in the Newtown Literary Journal, San Francisco Peace and Hope, Literary Mama, and Meniscus Magazine. More of Stephanie’s poetry is forthcoming in San Francisco Peace and Hope’s upcoming online anthology. You can follow Stephanie on Twitter @Stefani1218 and via her Facebook page