My nephew said to me, “What’s your favorite thing?” He was five or six, a crazy-haired smirker tall enough to tug my shirt. He tugged my shirt. I scooped him up, gave a goofy look, and waited for him to get that I’d given my answer. “Speak up,” he said. Speak up—exactly what his ma would say whenever she had you where she wanted, at the wrong end of her questions. Awful questions, the kind she used to cut you open. A lousy woman, but there she was, a piece of her in my nephew’s throat—my nephew whose fate it was to turn eighteen, get good-looking, and talk, spilling everything he thought he had, grabbing at my arm to tell me he’d been cooked down and carbonized, was needing weight, real weight, the kind you carried in your chest. My nephew who would borrow my van (my suggestion), pack it with his buddies (my suggestion), and hit the road in May, in the summer before college was supposed to put him and us and all his friends in separate places. His ma would slap me on the ear and scream, “You think we think you didn’t know?” I didn’t know how long, how heavy: he would come back that August by himself on a bus, broke and sunburnt, a scar like a stain on his neck. “Speak up!” he said, and tugged with both tiny hands.
We were at a clump of picnic tables in the woods, waiting, like every other knucklehead, for Auntie Rossella’s mostaccioli to arrive in pans the size of suitcases. Gnats burst up wherever you walked. Cicadas went to town in every tree. Cousins from the South Side, Cicero, Kenosha, Carbondale, they’d all come out to the wooded western burbs to see our weepy Nanu turn ninety-five, wave his wrinkled arms, and press any nearby hand to his face. “Family,” he was famously saying, tottering to each of us, “you, and you, and you!” while we stood, rooted, looking like bad sketches of each other, wanting guiltily to go back to bocce, briscola, beers. “Speak up speak up speak up!” “You speak up.” “You speak up!” he shouted, so I gasped and mimed together the dreaded drill-fist, popping it from an imaginary case. He squealed. I switched the drill-fist on and tickled until he fell squirming into the grass, his armpits, his ribs, his little plank of a belly. It might have been I was trying to dislodge his mother. My own uncle used to say, “Some hearts, they beat in the belly.” When I was growing up he’d sometimes spend all day laying cement in the neighborhood and pop by for dinner, sweaty, crusted, uninvited, always looking like he was hugging what he said. My ma, charmed, would rip open an extra pound of pasta. It didn’t make a difference, there’d be hardly any leftovers.
That’s not to say my uncle
was too much. He just made the many messes on his plate disappear,
so gracefully, in breaks between grins. This alone astounded me. At
the time I couldn’t clean my plate, I’d push the food around and push
the food around.
He’d tell a story about his job, about almost losing it. “What can
My ma would shake her head but be beaming. “When you gonna
get yourself together?”
“Burner’s on,” he’d say, pointing. When she turned to look he’d
switch our plates.
In this way my uncle was a magician: pasta, jobs, wives, money.
His whereabouts: poof.
He’s in me more than in my brother, whose plates he never switched. In the him in me, I hope, is a heart inside a belly. Even if
it leads to poof.
I’ll say it: I hope it’s in my nephew, too. However low this hope,
however lousy, however much my brother and his wife won’t answer
when I knock or call or write.
When the kid came back that August and was not himself, even his
ma couldn’t cut to how or why. He’d been opened up and emptied by
a sharper blade than family. He’d looked at everyone with eyes that
He’d said to me and me alone, “I’ll tell you when I have it.”
Before the month was up, he left again. I think he took a bus. Not
a word from anywhere.
I let him drill me back, his knuckles lost inside my love handles.
His mother was watching from a hundred feet away, flanked by her
skinny cousins. Their faces gorgeous.
“Show him good,” said my brother, walking by, his arms crammed
with spent beers. Then gone.
The little guy leaned into my throat.
“I’ll talk,” I choked.
Instead I hooted “Gotcha!” and stood fast, snatching his ankles.
He kicked but I swung him up and off the ground, into circles,
watching the woods and my family smear along the barrel of his
body, Nanu, trees, cards, bocce. He was laughing, his eyes tearing.
“Let go,” he shrieked, “you let go!”
“I’ll do it!”
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