From the American Scene: You Can't Tell a Man by the Song He Sings
It was in a freshman high school class called “Occupations” that, fifteen years ago, I first met the ex-con, Alberto Pelagutti. The first week my new classmates and I were given “a battery of tests” designed to reveal our skills, deficiencies, tendencies, and psyches; at the end of the week, Mr. Russo, the Occupations teacher, would add the skills, subtract the deficiencies, and tell us what jobs best suited our talents; it was all mysterious but scientific. I remember we first took a “Preference Test”: “Which would you prefer to do, this, that, or the other thing. . . .” Albie Pelagutti sat one seat behind me and to my left, and while this first day of high school I strolled happily through the test, examining ancient fossils here, defending criminals there, Albie, like the inside of Vesuvius, rose, fell, pitched, tossed, and swelled in his chair. When he finally made a decision, he made it. You could hear his pencil drive the x into the column opposite the activity in which he thought it wisest to prefer to engage. His agony reinforced the legend that had preceded him: he was seventeen; had just left Jamestown Reformatory; this was his third high school, his third freshman year; but now—I heard another x driven home—he had decided “to go straight.”
Halfway through the hour Mr. Russo left the room. “I’m going for a drink,” he said. Russo was forever at pains to let us know what a square-shooter he was and that, unlike other teachers we might have had, he would not go out the front door of the classroom to sneak around to the back door and observe how responsible we were. And sure enough, when he returned after going for a drink, his lips were wet; when he came back from the men’s room, you could smell the soap on his hands. “Take your time, boys,” he said, and the door swung shut behind him.
His black wingtoed shoes beat down the marble corridor and five thick fingers dug into my shoulder. I turned around; it was Pelagutti. “What?” I said. “Number twenty-six,” Pelagutti said, “what’s the answer?” I answered the truth: “Anything.” Pelagutti rose halfway over his desk and glared at me. He was a hippopotamus, big, black, and smelly; his short sleeves squeezed tight around his monstrous arms as though they were taking his own blood pressure—which at that moment was sky-bound: “What’s the answer!” Menaced, I flipped back three pages in my question booklet and re-read number twenty-six. “Which would you prefer to do: (1) Attend a World Trade Convention. (2) Pick cherries. (3) Stay with and read to a sick friend. (4) Tinker with automobile engines.” I looked blank-faced back to Albie, and shrugged my shoulders. “It doesn’t matter—there’s no right answer. Anything.” He almost rocketed out of his seat. “Don’t give me that crap! What’s the answer!” Strange heads popped up all over the room—thin-eyed glances, hissing lips, shaming grins—and I realized that any minute Russo, wet-lipped, might come back and my first day in high school I would be caught cheating. I looked again at number twenty-six; then back to Albie; and then propelled—as I always was toward him—by anger, pity, fear, love, vengeance, and an instinct for irony that was at the time delicate as a mallet, I whispered, “Stay and read to a sick friend.” The volcano subsided, and Albie and I had met.
We became friends. He remained at my elbow throughout the testing, then throughout lunch, then after school. I learned that Albie, as a youth, had done all the things I, under direction, had not: he had eaten hamburgers in strange diners; he had gone out after cold showers, wet-haired, into winter weather; he had been cruel to animals; he had trafficked with whores; he had stolen, he had been caught, and he had paid. But now he told me as I unwrapped my lunch in the candy store across from school, “Now, I’m through crappin’ around. I’m gettin’ an education. I’m gonna—” and I think he picked up the figure from a movie musical he had seen the previous afternoon while the rest of us were in English class—“I’m gonna put my best foot forward.” The following week when Russo read the results of the testing it appeared that Albie’s feet were not only moving forward but finding strange, wonderful paths. Russo sat at his desk, piles of tests stacked before him like ammunition, charts and diagrams mounted huge on either side, and delivered our destinies. Albie and I were going to be lawyers.
Of all that Albie confessed to me that first week, one fact in particular fastened on my brain: I soon forgot the town in Sicily where he was born; the occupation of his father (he either made ice or delivered it); the year and model of the cars he had stolen. I did not forget though that Albie had apparently been the star of the James-town Reformatory baseball team. When I was selected by the gym teacher, Mr. Hop per, to captain one of my gym class’s Softball teams (we played softball until the World Series was over, then switched to touch football), I knew that I had to get Pelagutti on my side. With those arms he could hit the ball a mile.
The day teams were to be selected Albie shuffled back and forth at my side, while in the locker room I changed into my gym uniform—jockstrap, khaki-colored shorts, T-shirt, sweat socks, and sneakers. Albie had already changed: beneath his khaki gym shorts he did not wear a support but retained his lavender undershorts; they hung down three inches below the outer shorts and looked like a long fancy hem. Instead of a T-shirt he wore a sleeveless undershirt; and beneath his high, tar-black sneakers he wore thin, black silk socks with slender arrows embroidered up the sides. Naked he might, like some centuries-dead ancestor, have tossed lions to their death in the Colosseum; the outfit, though I didn’t tell him, detracted from his dignity.
As we left the locker room and padded through the dark basement corridor and up on to the sunny September playing field, he talked continually, “J didn’t play sports when I was a kid, but I played at James-town and baseball came to me like nothing.” I nodded my head. “What you think of Pete Reiser?” he asked. “He’s a pretty good man,” I said. “What you think of Tommy Henrich?” “I don’t know,” I answered, “he’s dependable, I guess.” As a Dodger fan I preferred Reiser to the Yankees’ Henrich; and besides, my tastes have always been a bit baroque, and Reiser, who repeatedly bounced off outfield walls to save the day for Brooklyn, had won a special trophy in the Coopers-town of my heart. yeh,” Albie said, “I like all them Yankees.”
I didn’t have a chance to ask Albie what he meant by that, for Mr. Hopper, bronzed, smiling, erect, was flipping a coin; I looked up, saw the glint in the sun, and I was calling “heads.” It landed tails and the other captain had first choice. My heart flopped over when he looked at Albie’s arms, but calmed when he passed on and chose first a tall, lean, first-baseman type. Immediately I said, “I’ll take Pelagutti.” You don’t very often see smiles like the one that crossed Albie Pelagutti’s face that moment: you would think I had paroled him from a life sentence.
The game began. I played shortstop—Ieft-handed—and batted second; Albie was in center field and, at his wish, batted fourth. Their first man grounded out, me to the first baseman. The next batter hit a high, lofty fly ball to center field; the moment I saw Albie move after it I knew Tommy Henrich and Pete Reiser were only names to him; all he knew about baseball he’d boned up on the night before. While the ball hung in the air, Albie jumped up and down beneath it, his arms raised upward directly above his head; his wrists were glued together, and his two hands flapped open and closed like a butterfly’s wings, begging the ball toward them.
“C’mon,” he was screaming to the sky, “c’mon you bastard. . . .” And his legs bicycle-pumped up and down, up and down. I hope the moment of my death does not take as long as it did for that damn ball to drop. It hung, it hung, Albie cavorting beneath like a Holy Roller. And then it landed, smack into Albie’s chest. The runner was rounding second and heading for third while Albie twirled all around, looking, his arms down now, stretched out, as though he were playing Ring Around the Rosie with two invisible children. “Behind you, Pelagutti!” I screamed. He stopped moving. “What?” he called back to me. I ran halfway out to center field. “Behind you—relay it!” And then, as the runner rounded third, I had to stand there defining “relay” to him.
At the end of the first half of the first inning we came to bat behind, 8-0—eight home runs, all relayed in too late by Pelagutti.
Out of a masochistic delight I must describe Albie at the plate: first, he faced the pitcher; then, when he swung at the ball—and he did, at every one—it was not to the side but down, as though he were driving a peg into the ground. Don’t ask if he was right-handed or left-handed. I don’t know.
While we changed out of our gym uniforms I was silent. I boiled as I watched Pelagutti from the corner of my eye: he kicked off those crazy black sneakers and pulled his pink gaucho shirt on over his undershirt—there was still a red spot above the U front of the undershirt where the first fly ball had hit him. Without removing his gym shorts he stuck his feet into his gray trousers—I watched as he hoisted the trousers over the red splotches where ground balls had banged off his shins, past the red splotches where pitched balls had smacked his knee caps and thighs.
Finally I spoke. “Damn you, Pelagutti, you wouldn’t know Pete Reiser if you fell over him!” He was stuffing his sneakers into his locker; he didn’t answer. I was talking to his mountainous pink shirt-back. “Where do you come off telling me you played for that prison team?” He mumbled something. “What?” I said. “I did,” he grumbled. “Bull-shit!” He turned and, black-eyed, glared at me: “I did!” “That must’ve been some team!” I said. We did not speak as we left the locker room. As we passed the gym office on our way up to Occupations, Mr. Hopper looked up from his desk and winked at me, and then motioned his head at Pelagutti to indicate that he knew I’d picked a lemon, but then how could I have expected a bum like Pelagutti to be an All-American boy in the first place? Then Mr. Hopper turned his sun-lamped head back to his desk.
“Now,” I said to Pelagutti as we turned at the second floor landing, “now I’m stuck with you for the rest of the term.” He shuffled ahead of me without answering; his ox-like behind should have had a tail on it to flick the flies away; it infuriated me. “You goddamn liar!” I said.
He spun around as fast as an ox can. “You ain’t stuck with nobody.” We were at the top of the landing headed into the locker-lined corridor; the kids who were piling up the stairs behind stopped, listened. “No you ain’t, you snot-ass!” And I saw five hairy knuckles coming right at my mouth; I moved but not in time, and heard a crash inside the bridge of my nose. I felt my hips dip back, my legs and head come forward, and, curved like the letter c, I was swept fifteen feet backward before I felt cold marble beneath the palms of my hands. Albie stepped around me and into the Occupations room. Just then I looked up to see Mr. Russo’s black wingtoed shoes enter the room. I’m almost sure he had seen Albie blast me but I’ll never know. Nobody, including Albie and myself, ever mentioned it again. Perhaps it had been a mistake for me to call Albie a liar, but if he had starred at baseball, it was in some league I did not know.
By way of contrast I want to introduce Duke Scarpa, another ex-con who was with us that year. Neither Albie nor the Duke, incidentally, was a typical member of my high school community. Both lived at the other end of Newark, “down neck,” and they had reached us only after the Board of Education had tried Albie at two other schools and the Duke at four; the Board hoped finally, like Marx, that the higher culture would absorb the lower.
Albie and Duke had no particular use for each other; where Albie had made up his mind to go straight, one always felt that the Duke, in his oily quietness, his boneless grace, was planning a job. Yet, though affection never lived between them, Duke wandered after Albie and me, aware, I suspect, that if Albie despised him it was because he was able to read his soul—and that such an associate was easier to abide than one who despises you because he does not know your soul at all. Where Albie was a hippopotamus, an ox, Duke was reptilian. Me? I don’t know; it is easy to spot the animal in one’s fellows.
During lunch hour, the Duke and I used to spar with each other in the hall outside the cafeteria. He did not know a hook from a jab and disliked having his dark skin roughened or his hair mussed; but he so delighted in moving, bobbing, coiling, and uncoiling, that I think he would have paid for the privilege of playing the serpent with me. He hypnotized me, the Duke; he pulled some slimy string inside me—where Albie Pelagutti sought and stretched a deeper and, I think, a nobler cord.
But I make Albie sound like peaches-and-cream. Let me tell you what he and I did to Mr. Russo.
Russo believed in his battery of tests as his immigrant parents (and Albie’s, and maybe Albie himself) believed in Papal infallibility. If the tests said Albie was going to be a lawyer then he was going to be a lawyer. As for Albie’s past, it seemed only to increase Russo’s devotion to the prophecy: he approached Albie with salvation in his eyes. In September, then, he gave Albie a biography to read, the life of Oliver Wendell Holmes; during October, once a week, he had the poor fellow speak impromptu before the class; in November he had him write a report on the Constitution, which I wrote; and then in December, the final indignity, he sent Albie and me (and two others who displayed a legal bent) to the Essex County Court House where we could see “real lawyers in action.”
It was a cold, windy morning and as we flicked our cigarettes at the Lincoln statue on the courtyard plaza, and started up the long flight of white cement steps, Albie suddenly did an about-face and headed back across the Plaza and out to Market Street. I called to him but he shouted back that he had seen it all before, and then he was not walking, but running toward the crowded downtown streets, pursued not by police, but by other days. It wasn’t that he considered Russo an ass for having sent him to visit the Court House—Albie respected teachers too much for that; rather I think he felt Russo had tried to rub his nose in it.
No surprise, then, when the next day after gym Albie announced his assault on the Occupations teacher; it was the first crime he had planned since his decision to go straight back in September. He outlined the action to me and indicated that I should pass the details on to the other members of the class. As liaison between Albie and the well-behaved, healthy, non-convicts like myself who made up the rest of the class, I was stationed at the classroom door and as each member passed in I unfolded the plot into his ear: “As soon after ten-fifteen as Russo turns to the blackboard, you bend over to tie your shoelace.” If a classmate looked back at me puzzled, I would motion to Pelagutti hulking over his desk; the puzzled expression would vanish and another accomplice would enter the room. The only one who gave me any trouble was the Duke. He listened to the plan and then scowled back at me with the look of a man who’s got his own syndicate, and, in fact, has never even heard of yours.
Finally the bell rang; I closed the door behind me and moved noiselessly to my desk. I waited for the clock to move to a quarter after; it did; and then Russo turned to the board to write upon it the salary range of aluminum workers. I bent to tie my shoe-laces—’beneath all the desks I saw other upside-down grinning faces. To my left behind me I heard Albie hissing; his hands fumbled about his black silk socks, and the hiss grew and grew until it was a rush of Sicilian, muttered, spewed, vicious. The exchange was strictly between Russo and himself. I looked to the front of the classroom, my fingers knotting and unknotting my shoe-laces, the blood pumping now to my face. I saw Russo’s legs turn: what a sight he must have seen—where there had been twenty-five faces, now there was nothing. Just desks. “Okay,” I heard Russo say, “okay.” And then he gave a little clap with his hands. “That’s enough now, fellas. The joke is over. Sit up.” And then Albie’s hiss traveled to all the blood-pinked ears bent below the desk; it rushed about us like a subterranean stream—“Stay down!”
While Russo asked us to get up we stayed down. And we did not sit up until Albie told us to; and then under his direction we were singing—
Don’t sit under the apple tree
With anyone else hut me,
Anyone else hut me,
Anyone else hut me,
Oh, no, no, don’t sit under the apple tree. …
And then in time to the music we clapped. What a noise!
Mr. Russo stood motionless at the front of the class, listening, astonished. He wore a neatly pressed dark blue pin-striped suit, a tan tie with a collie’s head in the center, and a tieclasp with the initials R.R. engraved upon it; he had on the black wingtoed shoes; they glittered. Russo, who believed in neatness, honesty, punctuality, planned destinies—who believed in the future, in Occupations! And next to me, behind me, inside me, all over me—Albie! We looked at each other, Albie and I, and my lungs split with joy: “Don’t sit under the apple tree—” Albie’s monotone boomed out, and then a thick liquid crooner’s voice behind Albie bathed me in sound: it was the Duke’s; he clapped to a tango beat.
Russo leaned for a moment against a visual aids chart—”Skilled Laborers: Salaries and Requirements”—and then scraped back his chair and plunged down into it, so far down it looked to have no bottom. He lowered his big head to the desk and his shoulders curled forward like the ends of wet paper; and that was when Albie pulled his coup. He stopped singing “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree”; we all stopped. Russo looked up at the silence; his eyes black and baggy, he stared at our leader Alberto Pelagutti. Slowly Russo began to shake his head from side to side: this was no Capone, this was a Garibaldi! Russo waited; I waited; we all waited. Albie slowly rose, and began to sing “Oh, say can you see, by the dawn’s early light, what so proudly we hail—” And we all stood and joined him. Tears sparkling on his long black lashes, Mr. Robert Russo dragged himself wearily up from his desk, beaten, and as the Pelagutti basso boomed disastrously behind me, I saw Russo’s lips begin to move, “the bombs bursting in air, gave proof—” God, did we sing!
Albie left school in June of that year—he had passed only Occupations—but our comradeship, that strange vessel, was smashed to bits at noon one day a few months earlier. It was a lunch hour in March, the Duke and I were sparring in the hall outside the cafeteria, and Albie, who had been more hospitable to the Duke since the day his warm, liquid voice had joined the others—Albie had decided to act as our referee, jumping between us, separating our clinches, warning us about low blows, grabbing out for the Duke’s droopy crotch, in general having a good time. I remember that the Duke and I were in a clinch; as I showered soft little punches to his kidneys he squirmed in my embrace. The sun shone through the window behind him, lighting up his hair like a nest of snakes. I fluttered his sides, he twisted, I breathed hard through my nose, my eyes registered on his snaky hair, and suddenly Albie wedged between and knocked us apart—the Duke plunged sideways, I plunged forward, and my fist crashed through the window that Scarpa had been using as his corner. Feet pounded; in a second a wise-cracking, guiltless, chewing crowd was gathered around me, just me. Albie and the Duke were gone. I cursed them both, the honorless bastards! The crowd did not drift back to lunch until the head dietitian, a huge, varicose-veined matron in a laundry-stiff white uniform had written down my name and led me to the nurse’s office to have the glass picked out of my knuckles. Later in the afternoon I was called for the first and only time to the office of Mr. Wendell, the Principal.
Fifteen years have passed since then and I do not know what has happened to Albie Pelagutti. If he is a gangster he was not one with notoriety or money enough for the Kefauver Committee to interest itself in several years ago. When the Crime Committee reached New Jersey I followed their investigations carefully but never did I read in the papers the name Alberto Pelagutti or even Duke Scarpa—though who can tell what name the Duke is known by now. I do know, however, what happened to the Occupations teacher, for when another Senate Committee swooped through the state a while back it was discovered that Robert Russo—among others—had been a Marxist while attending Montclair State Teachers’ College circa 1935. Russo refused to answer some of the Committee’s questions, and the Newark Board of Education met, chastised, and dismissed him. I read now and then in the Newark News that Civil Liberties Union attorneys are still trying to appeal his case, and I have even written a letter to the Board of Education swearing that if anything subversive was ever done to my character, it wasn’t done by my ex-high school teacher, Russo; if he was a Communist I never knew it. I could not decide whether or not to include in the letter a report of the “Star Spangled Banner” incident: who knows what is and is not proof to the crotchety ladies and chainstore owners who sit and die on Boards of Education?
And if (to paraphrase an Ancient) a man’s history is his fate, who knows whether the Newark Board of Education will ever attend to a letter written to them by me. I mean, have fifteen years buried that afternoon I was called to see the Principal?
. . . He was a tall, distinguished gentleman and as I entered his office he rose and extended his hand. The same sun that an hour earlier had lit up snakes in the Duke’s hair now slanted through Mr. Wendell’s blinds and warmed his deep green carpet. “How do you do?” he said. “Yes,” I answered, non sequiturly, and ducked my bandaged hand under my unbandaged hand. Graciously he said, “Sit down, won’t you?” Frightened, unpracticed, I performed an aborted curtsy and sat. I watched Mr. Wendell go to his metal filing cabinet, slide one drawer open, and take from it a large white index card. He set the card on his desk and motioned me over so I might read what was typed on the card. At the top, in caps, was my whole name-last, first, and middle; below the name was a Roman numeral one, and beside it, “Fighting in corridor; broke window (3/19/42).” Already documented. And on a big card with plenty of space.
I returned to my chair and sat back as Mr. Wendell told me that the card would follow me through life. At first I listened, but as he talked on and on the drama went out of what he said, and my attention wandered to his filing cabinet. I began to imagine the cards inside, Albie’s card and the Duke’s, and then I understood—just short of forgiveness—why the two of them had zoomed off and left me to pay penance for the window by myself. Albie, you see, had always known about the filing cabinet and these index cards; I hadn’t; and Russo, poor Russo, has only recently found out.