A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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Joseph Bathanti is a former poet laureate of North Carolina who came to the state as a VISTA volunteer in 1976 to work with prison inmates. He teaches at Appalachian State University.
Today in heaven / my father turned 105. / Finally working steady daylight, / he’s got it knocked: / eight to four, / double time and a half, / no asbestos, / no shoveling slag / on the open hearth, / no boss, / thirteen weeks vacation annually, / kingdom come. / The union up here takes zero shit.
I look at the provolone in my hand and notice that it’s not completely enclosed in its plastic wrap. An entire corner, hard and dry, peeks out. And then it hits me with a finality that nearly knocks me over: my mother and father are in trouble. It may seem odd that a faultily covered hunk of cheese would fill me with such sorrow, but that speck of inattention, that very dismissible oversight on the part of my parents, is the final, incontrovertible evidence that their time has come.
My first day was unbearable, much worse than I could have imagined, a textbook lesson in humility. My strength, stamina, and intelligence — in other words, my superiority — ended up not being worth a bent nail. Stepping onto the job site that first day at 6:45 AM, I had no idea what a hod was, even though the word had been embedded in my family lexicon, seared into my unconscious.
VISTAs didn’t draw paychecks. Volunteers in Service to America, we signed on to live, theoretically, like our clients — in this case, convicts in North Carolina prisons.
Joan and I were in Raleigh together / for the first time to take the tour / for new VISTA volunteers / at North Carolina’s Central Prison
The instant Fritz sees her at Keith Gentile’s party, it clicks: Claire Raffo. The pitiful little girl he knew way back at Saints Peter and Paul grade school, who sobbed herself sick every day over lunch while the gorgeous Sister Hyacinth smiled and banged the table with her yardstick and drilled Claire in her lovely soprano to eat.
Keith had had a plenty rough day, most of it spent with his girlfriend, Bonnie, in an abortion clinic just outside of Pittsburgh. You could see how frayed he was: skinny as hell and that big head of electrocuted hair, smoking one cigarette after another, the blue veins in his forehead like hot wires about to rupture.
My first day on the job, Uncle Pat teamed me with a wiry little bricklayer named Shotty Montileone, who had learned the brick trade at Thorn Hill Reform School. Shotty talked like a gangster, syllable by syllable, in that halting, mannered clip, so you never really knew when he was finished.
The United States draft lottery for boys born in 1953, such as myself, took place during the first weeks of 1972. All 365 days of the year were dropped into the proverbial hat. The boys born on the first 150 or so dates plucked from the hat were sure to be drafted. Those with high numbers, two hundred or above, were safe: no draft, no war. No military of any kind. The ones who caught a seventy-five or lower could count on being sent to Vietnam.
It is March 4, a Sunday, and the Northeastern United States is buttoning up for a gigantic snowstorm. Despite these dire weather predictions, in which I have little faith, I have journeyed to Pittsburgh with my wife and two young sons to visit Philip DeLucia, my oldest friend in the world, who is very ill.
My parents hail from a generation who must arrive at least an hour before every engagement, for whom being on time is a divine mandate. Thus, we pull into the Charlotte airport well before the departure time for their return flight to Pittsburgh.