Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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I don’t know if my father saw my penis much when I was a baby. Midcentury Italian American men did no diapering. We weren’t Jewish, so there was no bris ceremony at eight days. Circumcisions were done at the hospital where you were born (Yonkers General, in my case), on the day you were born (February 9, 1954): a one-stop affair. It’s possible that my father may have checked me over at birth to make sure things were OK, but after that, I was on my own in the penis department. We skipped the birds-and-bees talk when I turned twelve out of mutual embarrassment.
I played point guard in high school and learned penis etiquette in the boys’ locker room. The unspoken rule was: no one looks at the penis of anyone else. This was in metropolitan New York, and the idea was to act as if you were on the subway: no eye contact, just a steady gaze into the middle distance. You could nod at a teammate, tease him for a lame-ass play, snap his legs with a wet towel, make jokes about his mother, but no looking at penises, and no paying major attention to your own in public. At the age of fourteen I wholly subscribed to this philosophy, which is why I hid my injury for two days.
Tobogganing down a snowy hill on the Rockefeller Estate in Pocantico Hills, I’d hit a bump and careened into a tree. A wooden splinter from the toboggan had embedded itself in my groin a half inch from my testicles, near the shaft of my penis. It hurt. And it was oozing.
Telling Mother was out of the question. I might have confided to an older brother about it, but Tommy had died ten years earlier. So when I couldn’t keep it to myself any longer, I walked in the direction of my father, who was horizontal on the living-room couch, reading the New York Daily News.
I wouldn’t tell my father where it hurt. Instead I explained that I’d been in a tobogganing accident a couple of days ago, that I was in pain, and that I should probably see a doctor. These were the most words I could remember speaking to my father. I didn’t talk much in those days — a policy I sometimes regret giving up.
It was almost midnight.
“Get your coat,” he said.
He watched me hobble to the door. “Where is it, son?” he asked. “Show me.”
I pointed down there and saw the blood drain from my father’s face. He grabbed his car keys, pushed me out the door into the cold Westchester night, and got behind the wheel of our Ford station wagon. The starter whined, the engine caught, and we peeled out of the driveway.
In the curtained cubicle at the ER my father talked for both of us. The doctor was a middle-aged man with salt-and-pepper hair. His brow was knit with concentration as he listened. A pretty nurse assisted. She handed me a short gown and asked me to undress completely. I wanted to die. The bloodied toboggan sliver was removed. The surrounding skin had turned an orangey-purple color I didn’t associate with skin. It hurt like hell. I was swabbed and sutured and stuck with a long needle. After the nurse left the cubicle, both men agreed I had been lucky. I nodded gamely, feeling anything but.
I did, however, feel a strange camaraderie that night in the hospital, as the three of us stared at my rescued penis and testicles — two grown men and a teenage boy. Three thankful penises together in a room. Two of them had known women. The youngest was shy but hopeful.
On the drive home my dad said again how lucky I was. He left unspoken his greatest fear: that I would not be able to have children. How close I’d come to this tragedy. I sensed, not for the first time, what it meant to be pressed into service as the oldest son in a traditional Italian family. I carried my family’s hopes for the future.
My father’s love, I now understand, ran quiet but deep, like the stretch of the Hudson River not far from our house. But by that point in my boyhood I had already formed a question: How had having children worked out for my father? I was his second son. His first was dead. Dating, marriage, children, divorce, and regret were all up the road for me.
So many memories of my father involve him driving. He had done a lot of driving during the Second World War in Europe, as part of an advance team that detected and defused enemy land mines. It was a harrowing experience. Driving at night to his next assignment, far from help and always in harm’s way, he would navigate by the moon and stars.
When I turned sixteen, he taught me how to drive. Together we drove the parkways of Westchester County, mostly at night, past the Bronx River, the Saw Mill River, the Hutchinson. It was strange to see him on the passenger side. In fact, it is the only memory I have of my father seated on the right side of a car. We rarely talked. Driving was a serious business. We drove in the rain to the steady drone of the wiper blades. We drove in winter with studded snow tires that whirred on dry pavement. We drove and watched the changing of the seasons. But we always drove in silence. I don’t recall my father giving me much in the way of advice, except once. After a long stretch of night driving on the Taconic Parkway — perhaps remembering his wartime driving, but more likely thinking of the deer that were thick in the woods along the Taconic — he said simply, “Don’t be afraid to use your brights.”
My father’s knowledge of New York (state and city) was extensive, and his directions were impeccable. He included tiny details and made you write them down: When you spot the little Italian grocery store on the corner, make that left turn. The abandoned Sinclair gas station with the rusting dinosaur sign means you have exactly 1.3 miles to go; make sure you track it on your odometer. If you get lost in the city, remember the Hudson is on the west side; find Broadway and drive north. You’ll be fine. He spoke slowly and precisely, laying out a route with the urgency of a man who didn’t want me ever to get lost. “Let me draw you a map,” he’d say. His handmade maps were always on scraps of paper or the backs of envelopes, the handwriting small and neat. Whenever I lose my way, as I did midway through life, I think of my father driving that Army truck at night, large hands covering the wheel, steering with the certain knowledge that losing his way in the woods could get him and his mates killed.
One summer afternoon I lost a Rawlings catcher’s mitt at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. It was an expensive loss, because the glove was barely broken in, and because my father had procured it from a baseball scout he knew, a man who had signed a young Ed Kranepool to the Mets. But a fire broke out in the woods above the baseball diamond, and I dropped my father’s glove and ran toward the fire with my friends. We helped carry a fire hose. My friends had hooked their mitts to their belts before running up the hill, but the catcher’s mitt was too bulky. I’d left it on top of second base, thinking I’d pick it up later. When I returned to the ball field at dusk, second base was gone, and with it my glove.
My father loved that mitt.
It was a long walk home. My clothes and skin were filthy and retained the acrid smell of smoke from the fire. I took my time, trying to invent a plausible story to tell my father. Heading west, I walked alongside the vast and inscrutable Hudson. The channel is deep enough for ocean liners to astonish small towns upriver, but on this night the boats were moored and still. Near a small cove, under a colorless sky, I paused to look at the brackish water where it lapped the land. My father had taught me how to skate on a frozen river; how to pause for a beat at the top of a golf swing; how to build a fire and tie a double slipknot. He had taught me how to throw a curveball and a knuckler. He was a patient man.
After seeing only my reflection in the water, I walked on through the Bronx to Yonkers and our apartment on Lawrence Street, where I told my father the truth. His silence was practiced, stoic. The silence of a man who had lost his firstborn child, asphyxiated by car exhaust one snowy February afternoon during a New York blizzard. My father knew enough not to break the spirit of his second son with hurtful words. He left me to contemplate my sins. Though he never spoke of it, I believe he blamed himself for the death of my brother. Tommy had been nine years old. My father had survived German machine-gun fire on Omaha Beach in Normandy on June 6, 1944, only to lose his firstborn in Yonkers. Later his only daughter would move out of the house during her senior year of high school and abandon us.
Who really understands the things men carry?
When I was a boy, my father would sometimes pile us into the family station wagon on a Saturday morning and drive us to the IBM Country Club on Sands Point, Long Island. For a kid who grew up playing on hot city streets, where the only relief from the heat came from an illegally opened fire hydrant or a visit from the Mister Softee ice-cream truck, the prospect of a day at the beach was delicious. How we looked forward to these drives — over the Whitestone Bridge to the Northern Parkway (25A), then Searington Road to the country club. The weekend beach traffic was fierce, and the short drive could take well over an hour. In the backseat my sister, Jeanne, and I would stop fussing with each other long enough to count the numbered lampposts on the big suspension bridge, singing out the numbers with glee. When we got to the other side, we knew we were close.
Once a year IBM hosted a company picnic at Sands Point. The club was a former estate of the Guggenheim family. IBM employees and their families were invited to tour the mansion and the graceful gardens, complete with statuary and flowing fountains. It was like walking through the pages of The Great Gatsby. The house was full of light, with exquisite views of Long Island Sound and a constant ocean breeze. Each summer we would stroll the shaded grounds near the beach in search of the perfect picnic table. While my mother laid the table, my father would start a fire for the grill, then hit the links with his buddies. He had caddied at Dunwoodie Golf Course in Yonkers, carrying the bags two at a time, hoisted on his broad back, but at Sands Point he carried only his own bag. We’d moved up.
The beach was narrow and pebbly, the water calm and warm. We were made to wait one hour after dinner before being allowed to swim again. No problem. There was always something new to do, new friends to be made, kids I would likely never see again: Italian American kids like me, whose fathers drank beer, unlike mine, and spoke in booming voices. Day passed into evening. The table was emptied, the leftovers placed into the wicker picnic basket. Slowly we made our way back to the car in the gloaming, the lights of the yachts and fishing boats on the Sound behind us. As we drove past the lighted mansion and out the country-club gate, I would take a long look back at the world I was leaving, a magical kingdom filled with everything I wanted. Too bad I could visit only once a year. My cup was small in those days, and not so difficult to fill. There was much I would miss. Missing, I came to understand, was what I did best.
Back on Searington Road, my father would stop for one last treat: a custard at the Carvel stand. Then it was back over the Whitestone, the water dark as midnight and menacing beneath us, up the Major Deegan, through the Bronx, and back home to our apartment on Lawrence Street. Until next year.
When I was very young, we lived in a big house with a wraparound porch on Prospect Drive. From the third floor I could see the river and, on clear winter days, the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty rising like spears in the sky, twenty-five miles to the south. Three generations of Italian Americans had lived in that house before my grandfather, Giovanni Percesepe, decided to sell, a decision that set into motion a series of disasters that displaced our family to a small apartment on Stanley Avenue, where my brother was asphyxiated in our car, parked outside our apartment not far from the river I had seen as a small child. That river still flows swiftly south to the Atlantic Ocean, carrying all things off, draining an area of thirteen thousand square miles through a drowned valley and extending seaward two hundred miles into a deep submarine canyon.
Several years ago my family gathered for a Fourth of July picnic. My cousin Ron was there with his wife, Shari. I hadn’t seen Ron in decades. Born a year before Tommy, Ron had been good friends with my older brother.
I asked Ron what he remembered about that snowy day in February when I was four.
My cousin looked pained and took his time before answering. “We got the call from your father,” Ron said, “and we flew over there. It was a short drive. The place was in an uproar. There were people everywhere. We looked around for your parents. And then we saw him. We saw Tommy. He was blue. I had never seen anyone that color. They were trying to revive him, but of course it was useless. Your mother, Madone. But your father — he was tearing at his hair. Just ripping it out of his head in handfuls. My dad and my poor mother were trying to console your parents, to say something, anything, but there was nothing to say. Oh, it was awful. We left; we went home. I don’t know what happened next. We just got out of there.”
What happened next is that I was separated from my family. My mother, hysterical with grief, was unable to care for my sister and me. My father had to go back to work. Jeanne had adored our older brother. They had once appeared on a TV game show together, and Tommy had won a consolation prize — a dachshund puppy my father named Sergeant. Jeanne was sent to stay with our aunt and uncle. I was packed off to live with other family members. I don’t remember how long we were separated. Jeanne couldn’t remember either, though we both tried before her death. It was pointless to ask our mother again. She didn’t know and possibly never had known. I had yet to learn of the scientific principle known as entropy: the degree of randomness or disorder in a system. The entropy of a closed system never decreases; every process must, by law, decay.
I asked my cousin what Tommy was like. I’d been too young to remember him much.
“Oh, he was beautiful,” Ron said. “That’s the first thing to know. He was just such a good-looking kid. His hair was light, wavy. His voice was like yours.” Ron looked at his hands for a long time. “He was beautiful,” he finally said.
Three years before the penis episode, my father threw a shoe at me. I had done something stupid — I don’t remember what — and my father, enraged, chased me through the house with his belt. He tracked me to my bedroom, where I quivered under my bed. He knelt and lunged, trying to grab me, but I was too quick. Frustrated, he untied his black wingtip and hurled it at me. The heel caught me in the left eye, and I howled with pain. Seeing what he had done, he began to apologize, but I refused to crawl out from under the bed. My mother tried and failed to coax me out. I stayed there a long time. Sometime past ten o’clock, I emerged hungry and walked to the kitchen to get something to eat. My father followed me in there. He reached out his arms to hold me, and when that didn’t work, he watched as I made a sandwich. He apologized again for what he had done, a grown man hunting his own son. I finished my sandwich and was headed back to my room when he stopped me. “Let me take a look at that eye,” he said. I let him look. He held my head in his hands and stared at my swollen eye. “I’m sorry, son,” he said. “I hate that this happened.”
Afraid to look him in the eye, I looked at his hands, which were blunt and large, with coarse black hair. My sister had inherited his olive skin, but I had my mother’s fair complexion and auburn hair. My father’s hair was curly and looked black, though Jeanne insisted it was dark brown. My own hair was wavy and had been blond when I was a toddler, but I didn’t have the tight curls of my father, one of which hung down onto his forehead, like Superman in the comic books.
From that point on my father never raised a hand to me. I did see him hit my sister, some years later, when she was in high school. The war was raging in Vietnam, and a divided nation had lost its mind. Malcolm X had been shot in Washington Heights. Martin Luther King Jr. had been gunned down in Memphis. Bobby Kennedy had been killed in LA. Violence is endemic to America. I had seen my brother die, but I was too little to remember much about him. Seeing my sister get punched was far worse.
One day my mother started crying hysterically. We were in the parking lot at the Beach Shopping Center in Peekskill. My mother could not stop crying. Baffled, my father tried to comfort her, pleading with her to stop, but she opened the door of the car and walked blindly in circles through the parking lot. We drove slowly behind her in the station wagon. Ten minutes later she decided to get back into the car. I never found out what had happened.
Not long after that, I began to feel my father’s helplessness. He had lost our first house. He had lost his oldest son. Now he was losing his daughter. Jeanne and my father fought constantly, brutal arguments over the war and how a racist America sent its Black children to die for a country that had never loved them back. Their arguments lasted for what seemed like hours and ruined every meal. And then one day Jeanne just moved out.
When my son was small, someone tore a chunk of his hair out on a long day’s drive through Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The short brown hairs, in my memory, are clean and soft. Stuck to a sweaty human hand, my hand. Embedded in the life line.
The boy had been crying and carrying on for hours in the cramped backseat, fighting with his older sister. The sun beat down on the black roof of the old Chevy. As we sped down I-80, the boy’s mother sat beside me in the front seat, occasionally twisting around to reprimand our children and plead with them to stop fussing. We would soon be at the motel. The exit is coming up. It won’t be long now. Hang on, please, everybody. There’s a swimming pool, she promised. Would you please be quiet, please? Your father is driving.
We exited the interstate and drove down one-way streets, through a small town with a central square. Light as old as time poured from the unrelenting sun. The AC had given out hours earlier. Off to the west the sky was lined with broken clouds, each one dirty and disappointed. The boy continued to whine, a pint-sized container of complaint. Church bells were silent on every corner as he eluded my slapping hand. Was there a field of sunflowers off to the right? The Delaware Water Gap was silent, mysterious, and deep. Clouds raced down the slopes of hills. A few miles to go, we drove on. Finally he relaxed and could be cornered, pinned against the safety glass, his small head raked over by fingers, like a hateful gardener’s tool. The fumes of the highway mixed with the smell of coffee as the trip tilted on its axis, and we waited for a revelation — a raven fallen to earth, a nightingale loosening her throat, the cry of a loon. But from the backseat not a sound, not even a bell in a tower to toll my sins, one by one.
Children learn by imitation, mimicking those they admire. They look for models. Our parents are our first. I learned how to be a man by modeling the behavior of my father, and then other men. What I don’t know is how my son has modeled me, and that’s creating a commotion in my heart.
From my father I learned that men carry things. In my father’s case, his dead nine-year-old son in his arms. My father discovered Tommy’s body in the family car and thought at first that he was asleep. Realizing something was terribly wrong, he carried him into our apartment, where I got to watch him die. My mother, I suspect, suffered a breakdown. Jeanne always believed Mother had been subjected to electroshock treatment, though no one seemed to have details. (“Well, Mother never denied it,” my sister said to me as she lay dying.) My father’s grief remained a mystery to me, but I felt it. He carried it, silent and alone. Men, I learned, just carry things.
There is something in me that is unspeakable. I’ve learned to guard it fiercely. From my father, the stoic soldier, I learned a certain kind of manly reserve. In Normandy the friends he’d made on the stormy ride across the English Channel lay cut to ribbons, their blood darkening the French beaches. Somehow he kept moving. He survived the Battle of the Bulge, and many other significant battles of that terrible war, by staying in motion. From my father I learned to carry “it,” whatever it is, and to stop complaining; to carry your brother, if necessary; and to remember, as on the Titanic, that the rule is women and children first, and men are obliged to go down with the ship. They are drones, easily replaced. They have their short season, and they die. My father died in 1994, fifty years after D-Day. He developed congestive heart disease and died at seventy-one of an enlarged heart.
There is not a day that I do not miss him.
This is too short a piece for an accounting of all the ways that I failed to live up to the standards of love and constancy with the women in my life, but I will tell you about a moment when I was crossing the street in Lower Manhattan in the dead of winter, and a woman I cared about hooked her arm unexpectedly into mine. We were friends, and maybe something more, and the more gave things an edge. I smiled when she took my arm like that, and I felt like a man.
For one week a year I will myself away from the company of women and ski alone in the Rockies, generally at Telluride, Colorado. For that week being a man means picking a line of descent down a steep, narrow slope and moving fast, then faster, through a world that seems remarkably simple and free of complications — just you and the mountain and possible death if you make a mistake.
My father gave sound advice on driving and the fundamentals of the golf swing, but unsound advice on women and sex. “Never marry an Irish woman, Gary,” he told me. “They can’t cook, they don’t keep house, and they drink.”
He said this to me when I was in ninth grade. It was the only advice he ever gave me about women. I can’t imagine what prompted him to say this to me at that time, but I know it made me love Irish women. Perhaps he was thinking of his youngest brother, my uncle Ron, who had married an Irish woman named Olive, with red hair and a fair complexion. Olive was a Catholic and had drawn Ron away from the family’s small Italian Methodist church.
My father had once owned a small moving company — he and a partner. Between them they had one cab-over-engine truck, a pair of furniture-lifting straps, and two growing families to feed. The straps were worn across the shoulders or forearms. With them a man could hoist a refrigerator or sofa onto his back while his partner spotted him.
At the time we still lived with my grandfather in the large white house in Park Hill overlooking the Hudson River. The house had been built in 1898 by an English sea captain. It was built on bedrock and had a large wraparound porch. My mother loved that porch. Climbing the stone stairs from the crooked street to the front door was hard work for small legs, and sometimes I would rest in the shade halfway.
One day my grandfather decided to sell the house and move to Miami. The timing was terrible. My father’s partner had quit the moving business and taken the truck. The big house on the hill was sold to an engineer. Forty years later, quite by accident, I learned the terms of the sale. I was living in Ohio at the time but had a job offer in Upper Manhattan. Driving a rental car through the old Park Hill neighborhood, I pulled up to the house on Prospect Drive. A FOR SALE sign was posted in the small front yard where I had rested as a boy. I climbed to the porch and rang the doorbell. An older man with a kind face opened the door. When I told him my name and that I had lived in this house as a boy, he smiled grimly and seemed to know me. “Yes, yes. Come in,” he said.
He showed me around the house, which was strewn with moving boxes. I walked upstairs to the room that had been my nursery, where my older brother and I had once lived. I muffled my sobs, covering my mouth with a hand. The man with the kind face had an Italian surname. He asked if I had ever heard the story of how the house had been sold. I shook my head. We went downstairs and sat at the kitchen table.
“Your grandfather was an interesting man,” he said. “He was a shrewd negotiator. When he saw that I was serious about buying the house, he thought I was too young. I told him the truth: that I was an engineer, just getting started, and wanted to raise a family. Your grandfather sat me down in the kitchen, at this very table, and put a gallon of Gallo wine between us. He insisted that I tell him about myself and my people. At first he had little to say. He just listened. And the more we drank, the more he told me.”
In a custom that had probably originated somewhere in the mountains of Abruzzo, Giovanni Percesepe and the young engineer emptied the jug of wine. It was past dawn before they finally stood and shook hands. “He was testing me, your grandfather. He kept saying he needed to know if I could be trusted to mail a check for $175.56 to Miami before the first of every month. It was what he planned to live on, and he had to be sure.” He studied my face. “Did your father never tell you what happened?”
I shook my head. “I never understood why we had to move,” I said.
Slowly the story poured out, like a libation. “Your father was very angry, your grandfather told me. By rights your dad should have gotten this house. But I guess your dad’s business partner had quit on him, and he couldn’t manage the payments. I remember seeing you when I came again to look at the house, after we’d made the deal. You were very young.”
“I was three,” I said.
“Your father never told you any of this?”
I didn’t answer.
“No, I don’t suppose he did,” he said.
Because my father did not have the means to pay $175.56 every month to his father, we moved from Prospect Drive to Stanley Avenue, where my brother would die the following year.
I didn’t take the job. Twelve years later, now divorced, I finally escaped Ohio and moved back to New York. I was telling this story to my cousin Ken and my uncle Ron, who were helping me move into my new house in Westchester. When I came to the part about the business partner who had left my father and taken the truck, Uncle Ron interrupted: “Hold on. He told you it was his business partner who screwed him, but he didn’t tell you who it was?”
I shook my head.
He smiled broadly. “Well, I’ll be damned.”
“I never thought to ask him,” I said. “I figured it was one of his golf buddies or someone from the church.”
“It was me,” my uncle said.
I was sixty years old before I found out that the business partner who had left my father in the lurch was my uncle, the same one who had married an Irish woman.
The three of us were seated at the new kitchen table Ken had bought for me. He’d also bought a china cabinet and a grandfather clock. (I hadn’t kept much in the divorce. Later I would find three hundred dollars wadded up on the windowsill in my bedroom.) We were working on a bottle of Highlands single-malt Scotch that was quickly draining.
My uncle told me stories I had never heard about my father, who had been dead for twenty years. My uncle had been a courier during the war, which meant that, like my father, he’d driven a lot in the Army. One day he was driving through liberated Paris, hauling some generals around. The once-glittering European capital resembled a starving village. Parisians had lived off chickens and rabbits they’d raised in bathtubs or broom closets, feeding them grass stolen from public parks. The hungry people were happy to see American GIs, who handed out cigarettes, fuel, and food. My uncle heard a familiar voice crying, “Hey, Ron! Ronny!” He looked up and saw my father yelling to him from the open window of a building. The two brothers had not seen each other in three years of war. My father raced down the stairs to the street and embraced his younger brother.
Finishing the story, my uncle put his glass down on the table and looked me in the eye. He was almost ninety but had a boxer’s forearms, with hands as large as my father’s. His blue eyes twinkled. He was a handsome man and a natty dresser who had once sold suits for Saks Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. When he died, just a few years after this conversation, his funeral would be held in the big Catholic cathedral in Yonkers, across the street from where he’d lived with his wife for fifty years, the same church where he had first spotted Olive and known he would marry her. We would bury him beside his Irish bride, the last of the five Percesepe brothers born in America and the last to die.
My uncle looked at me for a long time, as if searching for the right words. I wondered how he had felt when his older brother had been forced to move for want of a house, for want of a job, for want of a truck. A kingdom lost for less than two hundred dollars a month. My uncle never explained to me why he had left the moving business or what had become of the truck. As I’ve said, who really knows what men carry? When I was a teenager and all through my college years, my father had told me, “Two guys with a truck, Gary. You can always make a living. Just remember. People always need to move. Remember that.”
“Your father,” Uncle Ron finally said. “My brother. He was a good man, the best man I ever knew.”
I married at twenty-one. We had two children by the time I was twenty-six. My children are grown now, of course, and I love them both. But while my love for my daughter seems to flow from what I rightly know as my core, my feelings for my son come from a place that remains hidden inside me, because I am a man of a certain age and culture in America, and he is my son, and it’s complicated. But I will tell you that, when I think of him, I think of the way it was between my father and me, driving the parkways of Westchester, and, yes, the things my father carried, and something cracks open in me. I think of my son and the things he carries now, and I realize that part of what he carries is me, and this is what is most uncertain in him. All my life, to the end of my days, I will wonder what he thinks of me. And one day, if someone asks him, I hope that a response will take shape in him, and that he will say that I am a good man. And that my father was a good man.