Fairytales of New York: St. Peter of Brooklyn (or The Trembling Leaves that were my Father's Fists) Part II
Sun, 09 Jul 2017
My mother's funeral wasn't much of a fanfare. She was buried in the same lot as my brother, Peter: the beloved older brother of our family who was named for my father. The lot was supposed to be reserved for my parents but when Peter died as a child, my father couldn't afford a new lot for him.
So, my mother and Peter would lay in rest together for eternity whilst my father and I will be cast out to separate corners of the graveyard. The graves of Peter and my mother sat desolately beneath the rain upon a hillside and, as I saw my mother being lowered into her pit, I found myself unable to refrain from staring at Peter's grass covered mound. It was, indeed, the first time since childhood that I had visited him. It was troubling, I found, to imagine his bones in that casket. I couldn't, I'm sure, distinguish his bones from the bones of anyone else in this Brooklyn necropolis and that, somehow, made me realize the distance between us now. I always thought of him as my big brother, for that is who he was. But now, I had outgrown him, outlived him, outdone him in every measurable and immeasurable quality of what can be considered life. I was now almost seventeen years old, and he died aged thirteen. Were he alive, he would have been twenty-three that year. The year he died, my father renamed me, legally, to Peter - a morbid delusion that he could replace the dead Peter with a new one. My mother took many beatings and pleaded many pleas with him until, on my thirteenth birthday he addressed me as Valentino, in a birthday card, for the first time in half-a-decade. Those, truly, were Valentino's lost years I suppose, he realized that I wasn't as good as Peter - not as clever, not as talented at baseball, not as handsome nor charming. And, so, I became Valentino once more - alleviated of the pressure the name 'Peter' carried with my father.
After the funeral, I met up with Aoife at a diner in Park Slope. She wore a black dress and a Mantilla despite having not attended the funeral. We drank coffees and avoided speaking of the things which ought to be spoken about: Where I had been for the last year; how my mother died; and the small bump in Aoife's abdomen which could not be anything other than what it was. I had been so disorientated by her visit at Lenny's that I had failed to notice her blatant pregnancy and, moreover, the absence of a wedding band upon her finger. It was pleasant, for both of us I believe, to be one year ago and have nothing but time and freedom. Aoife was living in a boarding house now, and offered to sneak me in through the window if I needed somewhere to sleep whilst back in Brooklyn.
She couldn't bear the thought of me going back to that cupboard in Manhattan. I declined, suffice to say, knowing that I would have to face my old-man sooner or later but, nonetheless, she wrote the address down on a napkin. I scrunched the napkin into a ball to place into my pocket and she scorned me. She took my anxious, calloused hands into hers - so dainty and exquisite - and, guiding them, made me fold the napkin with care and delicacy. I walked Aoife home that night and we kissed in front of the steps of her brownstone house of penance. I told her we'd talk soon; we'd talk about the lost year; and we'd set everything straight, together. I promised I'd take care of her and she promised she'd take care of me, too. When she spoke those words I wanted to weep into her hands; it had been so long, it felt, since I had someone care about me. Alas, all I said was: "I don't need taking care of".
I walked back to my father's home - my childhood home, I suppose - and found the door unlocked. My father was slouched over the dinner table with a city of beer-bottles around him. I made toward him, hesitating when I noticed his pistol in his hand.
"Pa" I said.
He grunted, but seemed completely unaware of anything around him. I crept closer, truly terrified that he may be startled and unload a round into my stomach. I managed to slide the gun from his lazy grip and put it in my belt.
"Papa" I whispered, slowly rocking him. "Come one, let's get you to bed"
He stirred, "She's gone, Peter. It was me; I made her"
I managed to carry him as far as the sofa before he keeled over. The old-man was hard and solid, like a dead bull. Impossibly dense. I made for my bedroom - if indeed it still was my bedroom - resolvedly refusing myself the temptation of checking the fridge for more beer. Entering that little-box room, I was pounded in the chest by a water-cannon of nostalgic sadness; of sentimental bleeding for something lost. It only just hit me in that moment that I'd never see my mother again. I went back down the stairs, sat at my father's place at the dinner-table, drank milk and cried.
I slept for a while, with my head in my folded arms at the table. When I awoke, I could hear my father snoring, muttering, growling behind me in his stuperous slumber. It was beginning to get light outside, though I can't have been asleep for long as the milk bottle was still sweating. I rubbed my weary eyes and looked at it for the first time: the wall behind my mother's place at the table. I had seen it, of course, when I carried my father to the couch, when I sat down to drink milk and it was impressed upon the inside of my eyelids, like a Rorschach. It was the splatter-pattern left from my mother's self-inflicted gunshot. I felt sick as I became aware of the hot metal grip of the very same pistol against my back, tucked into my belt. I removed my father's pistol and changed placement at the table, now sitting in my mother's spot. I could see my blurred, cadenced reflection in the glass doors of the china cabinet: the dark stain on the wall seeming to erupt from the back of my skull like a volley of party-streamers. I put the pistol in my mouth, trying to find the angle my mother must have aimed but I couldn't quite find it. She was much shorter than me, so perhaps that was why it was impossible for my to blow my brain atop hers. Perversely, I was suddenly struck with a ferocious pang of hunger which made my ribs ache. I thought of all the suppers my father had hurled at the wall, staining it beyond salvation with sauce and gravy. Blood and brain-tissue, now. I was still sitting with the pistol in my agape mouth when my father sat upright on the sofa and stared at me, bewildered. I made to explain that I wasn't going to pull the trigger - I mean, I don't think I was going to pull the trigger - but he just rubbed at his eyes, lazily hoisting himself up and out of the sunken sofa and made his way to the kitchen for more beer. He paid me no attention, as I sat there in a facsimile of my mother's suicide. My hands began trembling so intensely, like autumn leaves, that I was certain I would either pull the trigger or snap the grip. As my father rummaged in the fridge for cold chicken I heard him mumble: "Go to bed, Peter". And I did.
I don't remember much about the day my brother, Peter, died. When I try to recall it, my vision lacks detail. It was in our old apartment in Greenpoint, a predominantly Polish neighborhood of Brooklyn. I can't remember much about the apartment, being only seven-years when we left, after Peter's death. In truth, I don't remember much of Peter, either, other than his temper. Every argument between us would end in some possession - a toy, a book, a cassette - being hurled against the wall above my head before he would storm out. My father, often, would congratulate Peter - even reward him - for squashing any sort of usurping, youngling revolution he perceived me to be capable of. Charlie, my cat, also fell beneath - quite literally - the tyrannical boot of Peter. My father was renowned for kicking the cat, squarely, in the ribs for no good reason and Peter, in a clumsy attempt to emulate my father's brutality, stomped on poor, innocent Charlie's head one evening cracking his skull, after I had lost his baseball mitt at the park. I took poor, mangled Charlie into the linen closet and wept for hours as he rasped and twitched. He bled from his nose and mouth, as well as the gash on his head. His lower jaw, hung loosely to his skull, swinging as I held him close to me, sobing and panting. His left eye, too, was barely connected to the rest of him and twitched spasmodically as he mewed out for realease. After so many anguished hours, Peter opened the closet and ordered me to put Charlie out of his misery before our parents returned home. And I did. I took poor, gory Charlie out into the court-yard and choked him to death. Even in his weary, dying state, Charlie began to claw and kick out at my hands and forearms. Something inside his little, wavering heart forcing him to fight for breath; to continue existing for even a short while longer and even in agonizing pain and disfigurement. I don't know what makes an animal fight for even the most despicably cruel and unfortunate life to continue. But Charlie did. He literally tried to claw his way out of my hands; his heart pounding as I squeezed the breath from his deflating, dying lungs. That was the first truly violent act I ever committed and my hands shook, all the while. Peter became warm and kind for the rest of the night, reassuring me that I did the right thing, even patching up the cuts on my hands and arms with bandaid. He tousled my hair and said "I'll look after you, Valentino". For a brief moment, I loved Peter and I was glad to have a big brother. I mean, it felt more like I'd always loved him but had forgotten for so long. I remembered I loved Peter. And Ma' and Pa', too. I wanted them to come home, so we could all just be together. Charlie had no service, no memorial. Truth be told, after Peter had fixed my scratches and told me we could go to the arcade and get milkshakes, I forgot about Charlie and his gruesome ending. Peter had thrown his rag-doll corpse in a dumpster and came back upstairs to make supper. Meatballs and red-sauce, straight from the tin, as I recall.
Peter died, later that week, I believe - though my sense of everything about that time period is skewed and vague so perhaps even my sense of time, itself, is unreliable. In any case, let me describe the events as I recall them. My mother was visiting her sister upstate in Buffalo, leaving Peter and I to our own devices. My father worked sporadic shifts, and kept a steady presence in the bar, so we never saw him much that week. Peter had convinced me that it was in both our best interest that we tell our father that Charlie had gone missing rather than died - been murdered. In truth, my father wouldn't have noticed Charlie's absence at all had I not mentioned it. I remember the night Peter died, I was drawing a picture of Charlie and I in a field somewhere; it was the finest drawing I had ever created and so, perhaps rather arrogantly, I hung it on the fridge. I found myself alone in the apartment after school that day and, for the first time in my life, I felt at ease to do what I pleased. I rummaged through Peter's things; eat leftover chicken with my hands; listened to cassettes on my father's stereo. My father's jacket was draped over his chair at the dinner-table. I, feeling courageous, decided to search his pockets for loose change reasoning that he would be too drunk to notice the difference when he returned. In his pocket I found a note, written by my mother. It read:
Peter, bring Valentino to Grand Central at 7pm on Friday. Don't tell Papa.
Love Always, Mama x
It was, as I read the note, almost 7pm. In my paranoid, frightened head I became certain that Peter was gone. He had gone to meet my mother and my father was probably with them, too, leaving me alone here forever. For the first time that evening, my liberated solitude became crushing loneliness. I hadn't even poor Charlie left to comfort me. Of course, I had not been abandoned at all. My feelings of desolation and destitution were unfounded, I suppose, although - to this day - I still can't shake them entirely. Also, hanging from the chair, I spied my father's gun-holster - pistol inside. It looked cold, shiny and dark, like black tar on a frosty morning, and I took it - heavy and imposing - in my tiny hand. That's the last thing I remember, really. The rest of the night is a swirling, spiraling mess of screaming, flashing lights and blood. There are a thousand dimly lit vignettes which all circle round and connect like the streets of Paris, each as unclear as the next: just as warped and gray; foggy and abstract. Amongst those grim alley-ways and avenues, I recall my mother being dragged through the front door my her hair, Peter, crying in a fit about something he did to Ma', discovering me with the pistol in the linen-closet and the stuggle between us that then ensued; and my parent's wails, blood-curdling, as they stood, looming like Gothic graveyard statues, over the only absolute truth of that night: Peter's limp corpse in the hallway - a hole where his nose once was; a deep and dark scarlet puddle dreamily floating from the back of his head; and tears - surely tears - streaking from the outer corners of his eyes to his ears. My father shook me until I blacked out because I couldn't tell him.
But I think I've always known which one of the brothers pulled the trigger that night.