Commentary Magazine


Graduation
A Story

Something had happened to the river, perhaps when the city had taken it for sewage. The green banks had worn down and been washed away to wherever it was the river went, away like the 19th century Miss Rafferty told them about. No boats with striped umbrellas went by carrying the Dutch: only the waste of the people in the new apartment houses floated on the slow tide.

John looked back once at the school on the hill. The building seemed to be moving while the moving clouds stood still. He was dizzy again and his face and ears felt hot. It was like the feeling in class when Miss Rafferty announced his name with Ferdinand’s, and the class clapped.

He ran for home, to leave his books and tell his mother about the library.

“What is it?” she said as he ran into the kitchen. “No kiss?”

“Me and Ferdinand have to go to the library.”

“Oh no,” his mother said, and ran to block the kitchen doorway. “No viaggiando!

The library was beyond the two blocks of Lorin Place, and Mrs. Mauro could not see it from her vantage at the front porch.

“It’s important!” John shouted. “It’s for graduation. We were picked to do the tapestries. It’s honor!”

Mrs. Mauro came back to the table and looked down at her son’s hair. “What is it? Che cosa fai?” She said softly.

“Me and Ferdinand were voted the best drawers. The 8B’s are doing history of the North Bronx. We get to copy the tapestries. Did you know the Dutch people on Gun Hill Road?”

Mrs. Mauro touched John’s hair. “Then eat something,” she said. “Take my jelly. I got your American bread.”

She shook her head as she handled the soft bread, but still she smiled. John’s distinction had cancelled her hatred of the absorbent cotton, as she called the bread.

He ate his jelly and bread and left.

That was all Mrs. Mauro heard until graduation morning when her oldest son, Victor, drove her and her husband to the auditorium in the Buick.

She smiled during the entertainment although she understood few of the words. Most of the Italian parents did not understand, but the sixth and seventh grades performed skits (Tom Sawyer painting the fence, Huck and Jim on the raft, Grace Drew at the state fair).

When the eighth-grade pageant on the North Bronx settlers ended, Miss Rafferty announced John and Ferdinand, who walked up the aisle holding their pictures.

Vic waited at the gate after the ceremony. “Come on, artist,” he said, and led John to the Buick.

“You kept this secret from me,” Mr. Mauro said to John from the back seat. “Two can play with this.”

Mrs. Mauro laughed to show John that the words were a joke. Vic drove them back to Lorin Place, to the kitchen where Reni and Edith were preparing lunch, trying to act as nervous and busy as Mrs. Mauro. She had given her daughters charge of the preparations for this day, one day.

“How do you like this kid,” Victor said as he walked in. He was leading, holding the tapestry aloft. He smiled at Aunt Ida, who had come from Astoria, and was seated between her two daughters, Grace and Stella.

“This kid did this,” Victor continued, slapping the picture. “What do you say, Under?” (Uncle Paul, the lawyer, was Mrs. Mauro’s brother.)

“That’s a nice picture,” Uncle Paul said. “Is that some of your art work, Johnny?”

John stood at the end of the long table, facing everyone. “It’s a copy of a Dutch tapestry. That was here in the Bronx. Our class—”

But Mr. and Mrs. Mauro were too anxious to speak, to recreate the scene of honor. Mrs. Mauro began abruptly—only two boys, the other an American boy, she explained, out of the whole class—that was the crux of the honor. And John the best.

La storia,” Mrs. Mauro concluded, “la storia del Bronx.”

“In the 19th century,” John began, “the Dutch settlers had a tapestry plant down near Gun Hill Road. There were Dutch and French—”

Mr. Mauro placed his hands on John’s shoulders. John stopped. He knew it was time for the gift because his father could never wait until the meal was over.

He took the small package. By the size of it, he knew it would be a pen. To the graduate, the card read, auguri e bacioni. John knew that the card had been written by his father because of the word bacioni, which his mother once said was a dialect word of Calabrians, who were all mountain farmers. She was from Naples.

“Write with it,” Mr. Mauro said. “It has ink.”

“Not now, Pa,” Edith said, “I’m setting the table.”

But her father persisted and got a sheet of his office stationery from the living-room desk. John drew a few lines.

“Press. Press as hard as you wish,” his father said.

“Go ahead,” Victor said, smiling with the secret.

John pressed harder and drew thicker lines. The pen cut into the paper resting on the linen tablecloth.

“Press, press anyway,” his father said.

Aunt Ida, who had been slicing provolone and was eating a good deal of it, began to giggle. She enjoyed watching uncomfortable moments. The older members of the family enjoyed her uncontrollable laughter and her crooked front teeth, which seemed to shake in her mouth as she laughed, but Grace and Stella never reacted. They were very silent girls, who went along on all the visits, but never laughed.

“It’s a special point,” Victor explained, turning to the table sitters. “It never separates, no matter how hard you press.”

Aunt Ida nodded, but her teeth still showed.

_____________

 

Mrs. Mauro grasped the tapestry and held it aloft once more. She showed it to Aunt Ida. When Aunt Ida reached a cheese-stained hand for it, Mrs. Mauro drew it away.

“A toast!” Uncle Paul shouted, and laughed. Mr. Mauro rushed inside for the vermouth and the special glasses.

“Sit down,” Uncle Paul said quietly to John. He put his hand over John’s and whispered to him, “Say to yourself, they all love me, they love me. Five hundred times.”

“What is this?” Mrs. Mauro caught her brother. John was smiling.

“Corruption! Filosofial” Paul shouted and laughed at her. Filosofia was the modern sin, and Mrs. Mauro knew this. Everyone knew that handsome Paul read the anarchist paper that was sent from Sicily, and never went to church.

Her husband rushed in with the yellow vermouth and began filling the shining triangular glasses. Reni helped him serve. “To the artist, to the artist,” he said, and clicked his glass with John’s. “Everyone touch for buona fortuna,” he said.

His wife still stared at Paul. Mr. Mauro sat at his seat, giving the signal for the meal to begin.

When the coffee came, John asked if he might go, but his mother looked at him sadly. The bell rang before she could speak. It was Mr. and Mrs. Mimmo, from next door.

Ben venuto!” Mr. Mimmo shouted and stamped his foot. “Aha!” Mr. Mauro answered, and motioned entrance. Mr. Mimmo used the phrase “ben venuto”—“welcome” or “happy that you have arrived”—for all high occasions. It was an echo of himself, of his own good coming to the Bronx and a house of his own after ten years in the downtown tenements.

His wife, just behind him, was a waddling record of his growing success. Each year Mrs. Mimmo was pinned or braceleted or ringed with another decoration. Her silk print dresses held ruby and diamond pins, her fingers groups of rings, her bulging wrists bracelets bought when the wrists were lither.

Mr. Mauro stood up as they walked toward him. He exclaimed in surprise and delight at Mr. Mimmo’s gift.

“This wine,” he said to John, “is for your day. Kiss Signor Mimmo.”

John obeyed and then, without being told, went to Mrs. Mimmo. “Carino,” she said, and rubbed his cheeks with her hands.

“Look,” Mrs. Mauro said, holding up the tapestry. “This was made by Johnny. Chosen specialmente to do this.”

Mrs. Mimmo rubbed John’s cheeks some more, giving them occasional pinches. “Nice work,” her husband said for her. “We have an artista.”

Carino, carino,” Mrs. Mimmo cooed again, and stroked John. Then she remembered something. “Now maybe the Irish will not talk so much of wop and guinea.”

Her hands stopped on John’s cheeks. All the adults turned toward the window. Beyond the garden stood the gray wall of Foley’s house. Foley was the last Irishman in the neighborhood; he had not sold his house and moved to Mount Vernon as the others had on the swollen sums they charged the advancing Italians. Foley had been left to mock.

Mrs. Mimmo held the tapestry before the window. “Bella, bella,” she said. Then to the window facing Foley, in Italian, “Blind yourself on this. Blind yourself.”

The table grumbled in accord, all except Paul. Mrs. Mimmo turned back and began to praise the tapestry for all to hear. Aunt Ida became uncomfortable—not sure now that all this praise did not deprecate the position of her daughters, who tap-danced very well.

“You tell us something about the picture, Johnny,” Paul said. “Go ahead.”

Everyone smiled. “The picture?” John said. “It represents a tapestry of the early Dutch settlers who lived near Gun Hill Road on the Bronx River. They had—”

“Ah, you know your history,” Mr. Mimmo said. “Remember, Giovanni, the history is the most important. The study of great men. What is the story here in this picture? Is this a great battle?”

“It represents the French knight, Roland, defeating the infidels. It was executed in 1840.”

“Here I must stop you,” Mr. Mimmo said, and smiled to Mr. Mauro, who nodded respectfully. Aunt Ida looked up hopefully, and Victor clenched his fists.

“This is Orlando,” Mr. Mimmo said to all. “A great Italian knight. Orlando. Orlando Furioso, Orlando who captured the Morgante. One thing I know. Orlando is Italian knight.”

“But this is Roland,” John said. “The book says that. My friend and me studied it at the library.”

“Tell your friend and tell your teachers,” Mr. Mimmo said, looking at Uncle Paul, “this is Orlando, who fought with his back to the cliff the army of the Saracen. In Calabria. The home of your father and me.”

Mr. Mauro nodded.

John looked toward his mother. “Maybe this is American word,” she said pleasantly. “The story is changed for American words.”

“Then the story is wrong. The teacher is wrong. America is wrong,” Mr. Mimmo said. “Orlando is Orlando. The true name does not change.”

He nodded to Mr. Mauro, who joined him in an angry stare. They were thinking of Dr. Russo, who was now legally Dr. Rust.

_____________

 

John had edged his way to the kitchen door and was making faces at the adults. Uncle Paul caught him and smiled. “Five hundred times, John. Remember. I love their hard Calabrian heads.”

Paolo,” Mrs. Mauro said, and Paul was quiet. She was sure that Calabrians were unable to tolerate levity at such moments, though she understood her brother.

Mr. Mimmo continued, turning back to John. “Tell your teachers that the name of great men you cannot change. Italian names you can say more simple than American. Orlando. Or—Ian—do. Say that.”

John did not speak. Mr. Mimmo went on. He doubted that there were ever tapestry-makers in the Bronx. Where had they gone? Where were the excavations? Being in the construction business, he could identify even the oldest ruins.

“Is Jenny coming?” John asked suddenly, and Mr. Mimmo stopped.

“In the back yard,” Mrs. Mimmo answered, and her face seemed struck by some harsh force. She looked at her husband, but he had turned his face to the floor, this lips touched by some sourness.

“Maybe she comes later,” Mrs. Mimmo said. Her husband’s lips, twisting but unsuccessful, were trying to expel the taste.

John left the silence of the room. At the end of the hall, his mother’s voice called out, “Don’t take off the suit. Padre Grasso is coming.”

He continued up the steps. In the darkness of the upper landing he looked down and made his faces, with his tongue out. Then he backed into his room.

A sketch pad lay open on his desk catching some afternoon light allowed through the alley between the walls of the Mauro and Mimmo houses.

He drew a knight, but had trouble doing the feet. On the tapestry he had covered the feet with the big stirrups of the knight’s horse.

A voice called in the alley. “Johnnay Johnnay!” John opened the window and looked down at Jenny Mimmo. “My mother, father there?” she said.

“What do you think. They’re downstairs,” he said.

“Don’t you get no cake? You locked in for graduation?”

“No. I just came up a minute. To rest.”

“I heard you made a masterpiss,” Jenny said. “Where’s your masterpiss?”

“Shut it,” John said, “they’ll hear you.”

Jenny leaned against the sandy red shingles of her house. “My neck hurts looking up. Go make another masterpiss. I’ll see you later.”

John took a gum eraser from the desk top and broke off pieces, which he dropped on Jenny. She did not move as the chips struck her curly black hair. She stood smiling, her eyes squinting at the opposite wall.

“Master Piss!” she shouted, “Master Piss!”

John shut the window; his mother’s voice was calling. He went out to the landing. The quiet voices in the silence meant that Father Grasso had come.

He saw Mrs. Mimmo first as he entered the parlor. She was holding her hands carefully on her lap and sitting erect in her chair. Next to her Mr. Mimmo looked a little worn, his dry complexion dusty, as though plaster had been falling on him from somewhere. Uncle Paul and Aunt Ida were not there.

“Get the picture,” his mother said after he had greeted Father Grasso. “In the kitchen.”

John brought it in, holding the tips of the upper edges as Miss Rafferty had shown him.

“Ver’ nice,” Padre Grasso said. “Such good colors.” He smiled toward Mrs. Mauro, then Mr. Mauro.

La storia del Bronx,” Mrs. Mauro told the father, and took the picture from John.

“It shows Orlando Furioso,” Mr. Mimmo said quietly.

Una tapestria,” Mrs. Mauro said, passing the picture to Padre Grasso.

“Aha!” Padre Grasso was pleased, and showed his hands in a mimicry of a blessing. “Nice. Defender of the faith. I did not think they allow in public school, which is Protestante.”

“My friend Ferdinand is Lutheran,” John said in the strange silence. “He goes to Redeemer Lutheran, on Barnes Avenue.”

Padre Grasso gave him a smile for children, unreal. If they were going to inherit the earth here, it would be without a knowledge of Italian but with an excellent memory of the addresses of Protestant churches.

“’Ave you seen inside this church?” Padre Grasso asked.

“No, Father,” John said, and lowered his head.

“Come, come,” Padre Grasso said, “tell me of this picture. What is the tapestry?”

Mrs. Mauro reached for John, to restrain him. But her girdle held her down in the soft armchair. “It is the epoca of Orlando Furioso,” she said to Padre Grasso. “He was chosen, the only one to make this.”

“Ver’ nice,” Padre Grasso said. “You must get a nice frame. Put it up.” He pointed to the bare blue wall.

“It’s not that good,” John said. “It’s just a crayon sketch. I did an oil painting of the old men playing boccie.”

“What old men!” Mrs. Mauro said. She reached out her arms again. “Yes. A gold frame.”

“You must hang the picture, Giovanni,” Padre Grasso said, looking into John’s face. “Your mother and father are proud.”

“Father, do you know about the early Dutch settlers—”

Protestants again. Padre Grasso covered his pain with a smile. Mrs. Mauro thrust her head up. “What Dutch, Dutch. This is Orlando. Orlando!”

Mr. Mimmo laughed to his wife.

_____________

 

Padre Grasso watched John back his way to the hassock at the end of the room. John sat down and lowered his head again.

Ah, bambini, bambini d’America,” the Father said. “How they drink this America. How they forget the voice. Mother. Father.” He held up his right hand, three fingers up, two down, as in the Mass. “The voice of the mother, the blessed mother.”

Edith came in with the silver tray. Padre Grasso stopped to watch the row of demitasse cups surrounding the bottles of liqueur and dishes of pine nut macaroons.

Bella,” he said.

“And this,” Mrs. Mauro said, taking up the bottle of her own tangerine cordial.

La vera qualita,” he said.

Everyone smiled. Reni served Padre Grasso first, then the others. He ate and drank rapidly, then stood up.

“Pleasure must sit while duty rides,” he said with a sigh, and everyone nodded, knowing of the many calls he had to make. His visits were now briefer than Doctor Russo’s.

He was escorted to the gate by John. Everyone watched and waved as the black limousine drove away. Mrs. Mauro permitted John a few minutes outside, but only in the back yard while he had his suit on. John went back to look for Jenny.

He found her at the rain-stained picnic table, which was partly covered with shingles and cement sacks.

“Hey, come here Master,” Jenny said. A checkerboard was before her on the table, speckled by the light through the grape leaves above.

“Who you playing with?” John asked.

“I’m not playing yet. I just got it here in case they call me. I tell them I’m playing. What’d Father Grasso say?”

“He said hello and goodbye. What could he say?”

“Did he say prayers? Did he have the robe on?”

“No, no. He drank vermouth and talked to my mother and father,” John said. “And your mother and father. They all said my tapestry was Italian.”

“He drank vermouth! That’s a sin, isn’t it? A priest can’t drink vermouth. He has to confess now.” Jenny moved the palms of her hands over the checkers, sliding them back and forth on the board. She looked up at her kitchen windows, but they were closed.

“Did he eat?” Jenny asked.

“He ate. Sure. He ate pastries.”

Jenny looked back at the windows again. In turning around her long black curls swept across her face; some of the eraser chips still stuck there.

“Do you stay in your room a lot?” Jenny asked.

“Not so much,” John said.

“My mother and father’s room’s next to mine.” She began to whisper. “But you know what I do. I say spaghetti gives me upset stomach. And when I talk Italian I say it hurts my tongue.”

John looked at Jenny. Jenny put her tongue out, between her teeth, and made childish sounds. John began to laugh.

“Shut it,” she said. “They’ll hear. They’ll hear.”

But no one heard.

_____________

 

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