We are too dark for this town. We come from far away. Humble glove makers from the rain-shadow side of the volcano. For twelve hundred years our family lived in the same small place. Rain, soot, rain. No sun for the glove makers. Lots of drinking and fascist songs. Crummy shops, crummy piazza. Too hot, too wet. Nice gloves, though. Very fine gloves, beautiful stitch-work. Then Nonno kills a big fascist in a fight. Nonno is a big fascist but this man is a bigger fascist and he sells Nonno a rancid flagon of oil.
“I will not refund you, sir,” says the fascist, “because I cannot vouch that your pallet was clean.”
“And the pallet of my wife?” bellows Nonno.
“I know nothing of the pallet of your wife,” says the fascist.
“What did you say about the pallet of my wife?” bellows Nonno.
Nonno has no choice after this insult to his wife. He is a like a man whose hands are tied, in that he must use his hands to choke the life from the fascist. He bludgeons the fascist with a firm sheep cheese, but this does not kill the fascist, and neither do blows with the semi-dried sausage, so Nonno shoots the fascist through the heart with the fascist’s own gun.
And then it is time to move across the sea to America. On the ship to America, the ship hits the side of a whale that has died. The whale died very far from America. The front of the ship is stuck in the side of the whale, and from the back of the ship, Nonno looks. He looks back. Nonno can still see the volcano. It is sticking up out of the sea and the fascist’s whole family is there, on the edge of the volcano, shouting at Nonno. The fascist has a beautiful wife.
“Like the opera,” says Nonno. He had not known that the fascist had a wife like the opera. The fascist’s wife is singing to Nonno from the edge of the volcano.
“Tra la la,” sings the fascist’s wife. The fascist’s wife is in love with Nonno, but Nonno can’t swim. Nonno waves his gloves from the ship deck and the fascist’s wife tries to pull Nonno to shore. The fascist’s wife has long braids. She throws the braids, but the braids fall into the sea, and so do the bullets fired at Nonno by the son of the fascist. The fascist’s son’s face is swollen and purple. It looks like an eggplant from weeping.
That night Nonno gets a plate of dirty pasta.
“You gave me dirty pasta,” whispers Nonno.
“I gave you a nice pasta with black pepper,” says the ship’s cook, who is a big liar.
“What kind of cook are you?” whispers Nonno
“A ship cook,” says the ship’s cook, and he knows to be afraid of Nonno. Nonno is a fascist and a fascist-killer. The volcano sings for Nonno, and once Nonno was pope, Pope Nonno, the only pope from the volcano. The popes come from somewhere else, a dry city, a great city, very polished windows in the shops, pretty girls, pretty-smelling laurel bushes, a very nice piazza. Hundreds and hundreds of popes. Thousands and thousands of pope statues, maybe millions. Lots of birds. Lots of artichokes. No soot on the pope suits. Very white. Very clean.
One day, the dry city can’t produce a new pope. The city is only pretty girls hanging laundry, and young boys in blue shorts playing soccer. So the old pope takes a donkey and goes looking for a new pope in another place. He finds Nonno, so handsome, with his big thighs and brown throat and silk neckerchief, sweeping soot from the fountain. He puts the pope crown on Nonno’s head.
“Hosanna,” says the donkey. It is a miracle. Nonno is big news. Then the fish seller comes over from behind his fish.
“Excuse me,” he says. “Excuse me, but,” he says, pointing at Nonno, “this man eats no fish,”
“Eats no fish?” says the old pope.
“Eats no fish?” says the donkey.
“Not your crummy fish,” says Nonno, but it is too late. The old pope takes back the crown and he and the donkey ride away. So Nonno is not the pope for too long.
“Popes are no good,” says Nonno. It’s true! Big rings: no gloves. Bad business, the popes. The ship’s cook bows down to Nonno.
“Amen,” says the ship cook, but Nonno is not appeased. Only clean pasta will appease him.
“Clean the pasta,” says Nonno.
“I’ll clean the pasta,” says the ship’s cook, but Nonno knows that cooks never clean. Cooks only cook. The ship’s cook is not a cook. He is the big fascist’s cousin and he wants to kill Nonno. Nonno does not eat until he gets to America.
When Nonno gets off the ship in America, he is very hungry. America looks cheap. Ugly wood. Ugly vinyl. Not enough marble.
In America, some men are stevedores with big arms and mouths filled with brown juice, and some men are not stevedores. Nonno is no stevedore; there is no juice in his mouth. No docks for Nonno. Nonno buys a cured ham.
“So-so,” says Nonno. Not good. Not bad. An average cured ham. Too expensive though. Nonno shrugs, eating ham. A big train comes and Nonno takes the train. He rides past cracker shacks and beef pits and pretzel stands and dairy huts and the big metal curd works with the bad-smelling smokestack and he finds a very blonde town of soft pretzel eaters. I am born in this town, born of my Papa (Nonno’s son) and my Mama (who came from the sky to suffer).
We do not mix with the blonde people because they will make us eat pretzels and drink sour drinks and the blonde boys will not respect Mama. We do not mix with the black people because that will give the black people too much confidence. So says Nonno, hanging flypaper for the finches, which he enjoys to eat.
My Papa likes the blonde people. He goes to Big Top Super and gets the flour and sugar, and Hilda at the checkout always has a smile for Papa.
“How are you?” she asks. “How is your dago wife?”
“My wife and I are fine,” says Papa, until one day he realizes what Hilda is saying to him. This day he says something different.
“My wife is not well,” says Papa, winking at Hilda, who winks at Papa. The shadow on her lids is go-light green. Suddenly, I have a dollar for Dairy Barn. I sit on the picnic table and eat soft-serve with the magic pink shell. Footballs fly around everywhere and the boys stop to eat the pretzels.
“Hey, Spic,” they say. I look around. “Why are you wearing those funny gloves?”
Now that the war has been over fifty years, Nonno says that we should go back home. No one remembers that big fascist’s name anymore.
“I won’t remember it,” says Nonno. “The marble cutter, he won’t remember it. And his illiterate children, they can’t read it. Hah,” says Nonno. “Tra la la,” says Nonno, but he coughs. He is actually quite sick. Winter is too cold in this town and the pretzel-eaters have at last broken his spirit. Nonno sits inside on the armchair in a wool hat and refuses coffee and food.
Papa takes a number from his wallet and calls a general contractor who specializes in economy saunas. Right away, a man comes in a truck and dumps a pile of pine boards in the yard. The man looks just like Hilda; he has the same green on his eye, but this green is from a fight. He builds a pine-board hut and we all get inside and Papa fills the big stove. The boards are rough and have many knots. We feel like we are being watched by one hundred large, dark eyes. “Silly Protestant,” says Nonno. “He has given us the eyes of the saints.” He claps his hands together. We say a novena and grow faint from the heat. The pine boards start to glisten. One drop of hot pitch falls from the center knot in the ceiling, then another. Drops of hot pitch rain down from the eyes. We roll around in the snow outside the sauna. The scab in the middle of Nonno’s forehead is red. The scab on Papa’s forehead is almost blue. I am blind in one eye and Nonno fastens a square of leather to a leather cord and makes me a very fine patch. The next day Papa drags the stove out of the sauna. We used to keep our dog attached to a stake in the ground. Now he has a large pine house.
“Dogs do very well for themselves here,” says Nonno.
When the snow melts in the springtime, we see that young pretzel-eaters have torn the vinyl from the side of our vinyl house. Now our house says TYVEK in big letters. Nonno looks at this, smoking his cigar, in his black trousers and hat. Tyvek is an evil king, a big Viking pretzel-man, with a large red beard, worse than a fascist.
“I will not fight,” says Nonno, and the squirrels climb his shoulders. I follow Nonno down the road. There are lots of daffodils in the pretzel-eater gardens.
“You come with me,” says Nonno. “We’ll go back home and open a store in the corner of the piazza with all the foot traffic.”
“What are we going to sell?” I ask. I look at our gloves. Our gloves are not fashionable. Even in a crummy piazza, they don’t want our gloves. What do they want in a crummy piazza?
“Basketball sneakers,” says Nonno. He is old, but no fool, like God.