I am staring at a false horizon. Hovering before it, a great ocean liner churns a cerulean sea. The spray and the wake stand out vividly against the calmer surrounding waters, and the indistinct flags of sixty nations flutter from the ship’s smokestacks as though from the proud masts of clipper ships.
I am standing beside a stage. At its front edge, stubs of rope-wrapped telegraph poles have been placed on end to suggest a pier. The ship and its flags have been painted upon a false wall at the back of the stage.
This is a graduation ceremony for the English School of the Ford Motor Company. It’s being held in a cavernous hall in downtown Detroit so as not to disturb work at the company’s Highland Park plant. Five hundred Ford workers, immigrants all, have come to receive their diplomas from the school, and I have come to watch. The men, waiting backstage, are in a celebratory mood, and so am I. I’ve just been promoted, from clerk for Employment to investigator for Sociological. Also, I know many of today’s graduates. Like many white-collar Ford employes, I donate a few hours each week to the English School, where I distill America into short phrases and corresponding pantomime. “I brush my teeth,” I say while miming the act. “He laughs”; “We hold the tea-cups”; “She rinses the child’s hair”; “They buy the tickets.”
Half the ship’s hull swings to one side as a door opens, and now the graduates begin to appear. They step through the just-opened door and, as if disembarking, walk down a wide gangplank toward the front of the stage. They are all wearing cleaner, better-stitched versions of the clothes they wore in the old country. As they reach the bottom of the gangplank, they step as pairs into a huge mock cauldron. Once they have all crowded in, Mr Conway, the head of the English School, appears at the rim of the cauldron and pulls forth a great papier mâché ladle, with which he begins to stir the pot.
So that’s how Noah and his wife kept the ark clean, I think. They rendered all the unwanted pairs for tallow. All the unicorns, the wyrms, the nameless piles of fur and fang, they made soap of them and later scrubbed the decks until a rainbow stretched across the newly benevolent sky.
(Well, I should think that. It would be a useful premonition.)
Eventually the melting pot begins to bubble over as the men reëmerge, now wearing their American best and waving American flags. I feel glad for them all, proud of them all, especially the ones to whom I taught tea-cups and tickets, hygiene and hilarity.
I’m not wholly wrong to feel so pleased. This graduation will help them in many ways. If nothing else, graduating from the English School will make it easier for many of the men to receive their first papers from immigration officials. For all the men, it means automatic enrollment in Ford’s American Club.
(One of many American clubs. Others are swung freely by Irish patrolmen. Most are closed to Jews, Negroes, and other undesirables.)
Not one of those graduates came to America half so easily as the ceremony suggested, but now the mock cauldron will simmer in their minds, in my mind. Over time, what actually happened and what we remember happening will cook together. It is all happening in memory now, all at the same time, bits and scraps bubbling to the surface and sinking back down.
And indeed it is all happening in memory now. I’m not staring at that false horizon and haven’t been for many years. That horizon, that painted ship, that graduation, they’re all memories now –at once distant and intrusive.
What I am actually doing, at this very instant, is trying to figure out where it all began. It’s tempting to say that everything began with that graduation, and in many ways it did. But to speak with scrupulous precision, that graduation came both a little too early and a little too late to be this story’s starting point.
The graduation occurred late in the summer of 1915, but the relevant events started as early as November 1913, when I secured a position in Ford’s Employment Department. Previously, I had been a very junior manager at Godfrey’s department store, but I had left there for the same motive which two years earlier had forced me to abandon my studies at the University of Michigan: my family needed more money. I left the university after Father died of a stroke, making it my duty to provide for Mother and for my teenaged brother and sister, Carl and Kitty. Two years later, I still had to provide for them, and Ford offered higher wages and better prospects for advancement than Godfrey’s.
I arrived at Ford just in time to witness the start of a grand experiment. In those days, the company’s Highland Park plant was growing at a rate astonishing by any measure – the production of cars, the number of buildings, the complexity of physical organization, all of it. This required ever more laborers, but, though tens of thousands signed on each year, tens of thousands left too, often the same men. Ford’s executives were forever grousing about the turnover, and with good reason. In 1913, it was 380%. The damage to efficiency is easy to imagine. And so, with Mr Lee from the main office leading the charge, in February 1914 Ford famously raised its lowest rate of pay from $2.34 per day to an astonishing $5.
As you may remember from the ’papers, when the Five-Dollar Day was first announced, ten thousand men queued along Woodward Avenue for weeks for a chance at the miracle jobs. The company had to erect a fence to keep them in place. A few times Ford men turned fire hoses on the job-seekers to stop them from charging the offices.
(Fire hoses in February should have meant something to me.)
Until April, I didn’t go home for lunch because going home would have meant going outside, and outside waited the applicants. Often burbling in languages I couldn’t identify, they would clutch at me – at any man with a clean collar and a tie) – entreat me, offer me money or strange foods. Sometimes I would stand, sandwich in hand, at the front window of the administration building, looking down on the queue and pretending to myself that I wasn’t remembering my childhood.
That’s what happened before the graduation ceremony. Something started during that time, as I watched the applicants shiver and beg, strive and hope. As I ignored my childhood memories. But the story which I want to tell here begins truly and fully mere moments after the graduation ceremony. It begins when I saw an Italian graduate, aged about forty, a Neapolitan by the look of him. He was walking out of the hall with his family, his old-country shirt slung over his shoulder.
It began with that shirt, I think. I have just said that the melting pot and the painted ship will forever shape my memories of coming to America. The melting pot is a good story, and a good story will wipe a real experience from memory and replace it with a new one, usually a stronger, simpler one. But even the best stories never wipe the slate completely clean. Memory isn’t a slate, really. It’s more a Victor record into which one can carve new and smoother grooves. But each new groove crowds the disc a bit more, comes closer to the scratchy, forgotten grooves, as in those trenches and tunnels of northern France in which opposing armies hunched within a spade thrust of one another and didn’t know it. (Or told themselves that they didn’t know it.) Sometimes the new and old grooves crowd so closely that they meet and collapse into one another. And then you once again hear the voices of ghosts, of exiled complexities and disowned selves.
And that’s what happened to me after the graduation ceremony when I saw that Neapolitan with his old-country shirt. The shirt was slung over his shoulder just as Father’s had been the morning on which, at long last, he had been released from prison.
Of course, by the time I witnessed that English School graduation, by the time I saw that Neapolitan, it had been nearly two decades since Father had left prison. And for me, the phonograph needle had long since settled into happier grooves, from which singers crooned of suffering redeemed. Even so, when I saw that shirt on the Neapolitan’s shoulder, I was a small boy again. I remembered that in prison Father had been so long without a proper shirt he’d refused to wear the one which Mother brought him, that he’d draped it over his shoulder as he’d taken Mother’s hand and begun to walk cautiously homeward. I remembered Mother, her voice heavy with tears and laughter, scolding and kissing Father before plucking the shirt from his shoulder and forcing him to don it. I remembered Father’s funeral, four years before the English School graduation. I remembered all the funerals, and the ghosts spoke louder for a while.
Here’s what some of the ghosts said:
My mother, Maria Teresa Ranieri, was the daughter of a tax collector in the flea-bitten, dust-stricken town of Ghilarza, Sardinia. My father was Gianluca Gramazio, a Neapolitan, the son of a colonel of the Carabinieri. Father came to Ghilarza as a municipal registrar in 1880 or so. Unlike nine of ten Sardinians in those days, Mother could read. And her father’s Salernitan family spoke mainland Italian at home rather than Ghilarzese. That probably was enough to make Father fall in love with her (or in whatever people used for love those days in Ghilarza). He courted her, and they married a year later.
Mother was a strong woman – broad-faced, broad-shouldered. She was never beautiful, I suppose, but then and in my early memories she was vibrant, like a plow horse loosed from harness. Father was tall and thin, his bearing stiff. When I was a young boy, Mother had luxuriant dark hair which fell to her waist, and Father had a receding hairline and a struggling mustache. Somehow they complemented one another as they walked down the street.
Father and Mother’s first three children – Gennaro, Ilaria, and Angela – were all healthy, likely tots. Mother says that at the time I was born, eight-year-old Gennaro was already showing signs of becoming a hearty, handsome young man and Ilaria and Angela were charming little girls aged six and five. Then I came along, with my twisted spine and knotted innards. The superstitious Ghilarzans (all the Ghilarzans) muttered that I was a bad omen. When Kitty was born three years later with a weak leg, the townspeople began to mutter about God’s judgment and Jews in the well. It didn’t seem to matter to anyone that a year after Kitty’s birth Carl came into the world perfectly healthy or that Elisabetta did too just a year after that. Until the day we left town, Vedova Caffarelli held up her gnarled fingers in the sign of the cross whenever I passed her shack.
In 1896, when I was five years old, Father went out while Mother wept bleak and silent tears. He didn’t come back that night. Or the next. Father and Mother for months had been holding quiet, bitter discussions when they thought we weren’t listening, and I feared that Father had fled to the mainland, as men sometimes did. When I asked Angela where Father had gone, she said that he’d been convicted of sin and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment. I rushed to our little village church and begged Father Tacchi to intercede with the Pope, whom I imagined to have personally pronounced Father’s sentence. Father Tacchi explained that the local magistrate had actually convicted Father for peculato (embezzlement) rather than for peccato (sin).
By the time Father went to prison, I have since learned, he had been suspended without pay for three months, so the family’s savings vanished soon after he did. Mother tried to support her seven children by working fitfully as a seamstress and by coaxing eggplant and fennel from the small, stanco plot on which our home stood. We kept chickens, but they seldom laid eggs, and their gamey meat was as much a reproach as a meal.
When Father went to prison, Ilaria was eleven or so, and Angela a year younger, so they were old enough to help Mother. Gennaro was almost fourteen, big and strong enough to do real work about the village, sometimes for pay but usually for food or barter. Elisabetta, Carl, Kitty, and I were too young to do much except wish that we had more to eat. During those years, Ilaria remained level-headed and even sometimes cheerful. Angela managed to hold herself together by converting her fiery rebelliousness to a fiery piety much like Mother’s. (Both of them spent hours each day discovering how every new portion of misery was secretly a blessing from our beneficent Lord.) But Gennaro was constantly angry, mostly with Father. I now realize that in those days Mother must have feared that Gennaro would run away to try his luck in a larger town – Oristano, Sassari, Cagliari, or even one of the great mainland cities. That fear (along with her pride in raising educated children) was, I believe, why she tried so hard to keep Gennaro and the older children in school, if only part time.
I attended school full time because I was good there and useless everywhere else. Too young, too sickly. We were too poor for candles or lamp oil, so I had to do all my school-work during the day. Ilaria helped me whenever she could, both because she was kind and because she couldn’t attend school nearly so often as she wished. I enjoyed learning, enjoyed my time with Ilaria. And, though it was hard to study with an empty stomach, studying was easier than almost everything else. With an empty stomach, one is best at dreaming, hating, and stealing. The first two I did quite well, but there wasn’t much in Ghilarza to steal.
If one sleeps long enough with an empty stomach, one will sleep forever. That happened to my sister Elisabetta, who died of some sort of fever before reaching her third birthday. Mother blamed poverty. Gennaro blamed Father.
Elisabetta’s death came about two years after the magistrate sent Father to prison. A few months after that, a new regime took over Ghilarza, and the new magistrate pardoned and released Father. Whether Father truly had been guilty of peculation or merely of supporting the new regime before it had enough power to protect him, I will never know. He refused to speak of it, even to Mother.
When Father returned home from prison, he was thinner than he had been, but so were we all. I was thrilled that he was free and even more thrilled when he moved us from Sardinia to the mainland, to Naples. Ghilarza was a bone-yard to me.
Father’s parents were dead, and he was estranged from his brothers, so in Naples we were alone and adrift. But I didn’t care about that. Father was back, and our bellies were full. That was more than enough to compensate for living in a dirty, crowded quarter of Naples, for enduring taunts and half-hearted beatings from local boys nearly as ragged and skinny as I. It was enough to compensate for having a father who spent most of the day oblivious and silent as he stared out the window at a small patch of distant sea. At night, he sometimes screamed in his sleep.
Gennaro was less accepting. In the dark as we lay in bed, he would point out that Father wasn’t working and would speculate bitterly about how we could afford food and lodging. Even Ilaria and Angela would whisper about it as they kneaded bread dough or scrubbed the kitchen floor.
After two months or so, Father announced one evening over ravioli that he had bought steerage tickets to America for the entire family. We would sail in a week. Two days later Gennaro came home wearing the uniform of a cadet of the Carabinieri.“I am Italian,” he declared. “I will remain here to fight for Italy’s glory and honor.”
Gennaro had learned to say “honor” in a way which made Father turn purple with ire. Father bellowed. Mother cried quietly. Angela cried too, having already learned to see tears as tokens of piety.
Ilaria nudged Angela, Carl, and Kitty into the parlor. I followed them there, responding as I always did to such scenes: by climbing onto the arm of a chair in order to hang from an exposed beam. Long before, the doctors had said that such hanging might straighten my corkscrewed spine. It hadn’t, but I’d kept faith, even when the Ghilarzan children – and my own siblings – had started to call me Scimmia (Monkey). Besides, hanging had given me strong arms and shoulders, no minor improvement for a runty boy already showing signs of a hunch. Mostly, however, hanging was fantastic for hunger, especially in the dark hours when there was nothing to do but dream, hate, and feel my stomach gnaw itself. Hanging from a beam in the moonlight until my shoulders burned would quiet the hunger and intensify the dreams, the hate.
That evening, I had been hanging only a few moments, staring through the window at the sun setting into the sea, when Gennaro stomped through the parlor and flung open the front door. He didn’t even close it behind himself.
I ignored Ilaria’s call and chased after my brother. He was striding fast, almost trotting, so he was a good distance down the street before I caught him.
“Go home, Tonio,” he said without looking down.
“If you stay and we go…”
He stopped then and stared down at me. My tall, broad-shouldered brother in his uniform, the gloaming gentle on his strong face. He would be a hero, I knew, and I was overcome with pride for him – for his uniform, his terrible defiance.
“I know, Tonio,” he said.
“No one will call me Tonio.” My parents called me Antonio, and my brothers and sisters called me Scimmia.
“They say everyone in America gets a new name. You will become…” He thought it over. “Edison. Or Rockefeller. McKinley.”
“McKinley Gramazio,” I said. “It sounds wrong.” I began to sniffle a little and looked away in shame.
“Any name worn with honor sounds right,” Gennaro said. “Remember that.” He took my hand. “This is important, Tonio. Ilaria is sensible, but you will be the eldest manchild. You will have to lead them when Father fails us again.”
“Come to Am–”
“I will come to say good-bye at the ship.”
But he didn’t. Mother waited and wept, and I waited with her. Father had to shoo us up the gangway. In the end, Ilaria carried me, the tearful, fragile monkey child. Mother and I stood at the ship’s railing, searching the crowd, pointing whenever anyone in any uniform neared the dock. But Gennaro never came.
Later, in a crumpled and much forwarded letter, he apologized. It truly hadn’t been his fault. A cadet of the Carabinieri has little say in his comings and goings. But at the time, I didn’t know that. At the time, I pictured him shipped to North Africa and killed. I pictured him lounging in the barracks, glad to be free of his dangling brother and peculating father. During the cramped, stifling weeks of the voyage, I pictured all manner of things. Except for the rare hours when we were permitted on deck, I clutched a metal beam which smeared my hands with dirt and rust, and I swayed like a plumb bob over an ominously shifting floor. The whole time I saw Gennaro living a thousand lives, but I never pictured the one he actually lived. Of course, it is too much to expect an eight-year-old boy to imagine how stupid our lives can be.
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Copyright © 2014 by Wayzgoose Press
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.