Gary Percesepe is the author of eleven books, including Moratorium: Collected Stories, named by Kirkus Review one of the top 100 Indie books of 2022. He is a former assistant fiction editor at Antioch Review. His work has appeared in The Sun, Greensboro Review, Story Quarterly, N + 1, Salon, Wigleaf, Brevity, PANK, Short Story America, The Millions, Antioch Review, and other places. He teaches philosophy at Fordham University in the Bronx.
It took years to locate you. Your flesh not a dreamt of destination but our point of departure, most often in a hotel room in Tribeca. Your coiled body flared like an apparition, calling me to come, and please leave. Your face made up with desire, both shelter and storm. To sleep here on Duane Street, together.
For what in our single beds would we have ever known of poetry?
What I did not know when I was young was that nothing can take the past away. You taught me the meaning of unpredictability. In each moment what you were about to do was unknown and this delighted us both.
I felt the need to disappear; you were someone easily disappeared, unformed and chaotic, a body flared in light then lost in shadow. I wanted to lose myself, you wished to remain lost.
Separated, unhappy, we were expert at taking. We knew how to look distance in the mouth, to judge pain by its teeth. Two hearts to carry it all, harvests, coffins, water, roads, flowers, trees, earth mounded up around your open grave. Our freight, your ticket. The price was high. We made the language quiver.
The opposite of love is not hated but separation. Love and envy glued us together. Love aims to close all distance, but death gets the job done. I don’t know where you came from. I’ve no idea where you’ve gone.
A woman wraps a blue towel around her head after bathing.
Behind curtains of white lace, she watches the people in the street below.
At the end of her cobblestoned street a wide canal empties into the grey sea.
Ships as wide as City Hall once anchored near the Piazza Grande.
Ocean liners closed the fourth side of the square but no more.
The woman, the wife a shopkeeper below, covers her mouth and yawns.
She dreams of a lover who will suggest a walk along the sea front.
They will stroll beside the aborted canal and pause to watch a black train.
In the brief spaces between the cars of the train she glimpses the sea.
The tea kettle whistles, and she lets go of her lover to return to the kitchen.
Four men force him to walk from the piazza past the church of San Antonio.
On the way he catches a glimpse of the woman of his dreams.
Two of the men hold his arms against his sides, the others watch and laugh.
They walk along by the canal and turn right toward the railyards.
The waterfront is deserted; he tries to release his arms; they reach water’s edge.
In the thin silence she hears a sound so small, it is the daughter of a sound.
They strike him in the back of his head, and he faints away into their arms.
Milk spills into her saucer and she licks the milk, an exquisite taste in a cloud of unknowing.
They support him in their arms, move forward a few inches and drop him.
He falls feet first into the bitter salt of the water, she adds sugar to her cup.
The sun is low in the clouds and the sea remains calm, then recedes toward the sun.
Flora & Federico
When exasperated with me, my grandmother stood back in her legs, arms folded, head tilted gently down, surveying me from the top of her eyes. At sixteen she had travelled by ship to New York from a small village fastened to a mountain in the Abruzzo, leaving not by choice but because her father had died. The family was poor, no prospects there, she had to go, and for all the years that I knew her (she died long after I had left home myself) she never wished to return.
She met a young Italian named Federico in New York, a grocer by trade; fair skin, green eyes, asthmatic, he owned two green grocery stores in New Rochelle. They married.
None of what I am telling you is in any order, chronological or otherwise. It is desire I am trying to write, there is no logic to this except the logic of the heart. I find as I age that I write only of those things that I love.
When I was young, I bought Flora a cookbook taking care to see that it gave attention to the cooking of her region in central Italy, forgetting she couldn’t read English. She took the cookbook that Christmas and raised it in the air with an inscrutable smile that seemed to say yes, minister (min-ee-stra, she pronounced it), or sonny boy, as she mostly called me. Yes, you forget, but who remembers?
Federico’s airways constricted, inflamed and untreated, until he could no longer call the names of his fruits and vegetables into the streets to passing customers. He died. I remember nothing much about him, except the day I spent looking at the wall above the stove in the kitchen of his apartment on Stanley Avenue. Cracks in the plaster of the lavender wall, badly repaired, had created an image of the sun or was it a human face, or the shape of me, looking? I stared for hours.
A child’s memory is unreliable but true. I am very young, my grandfather is old, I’ve been left with him, perhaps my mother and Flora have gone out for groceries. Federico holds me in his lap, he laughs and makes me laugh, he is teaching me to play cards. He deals the cards and reaches to scratch his back with the blade of a knife. He coughs and wheezes, he shakes. Breathless, he speaks to me only in short phrases. I watch his nostrils flare, his chest muscles strain, his laugh cut short.
It was a matter of time, but when isn’t this true? Federico’s airways continued to narrow; his face blued. Not enough air got in, not enough carbon dioxide let out. The year before I saw the plaster face, carbon monoxide replaced oxygen in my brother’s red blood cells. He died accidentally at nine, blue faced in our car, two doors down.
My father was not an unkind man. When Federico died, he moved his mother-in-law into our apartment on Lawrence Street. I never returned to view the plaster face again, although I wanted to. Stanley Avenue was the street of death.
Sometimes at night I like to think of my grandparents in bed in the time before my mother was born, before she dropped her handkerchief and met my soldier father. A necklace
hangs loose across Flora’s breasts, between them a perfume old as sleep, as familiar to the living as to the dead, their immigrant dreams in America.
Leaning forward, Flora lifts the curtain beside the bed to allow the night air in. She gestures to Federico with her open palm. Like cats they circle each other stealing glances; the open window makes the curtains dance to the rhythm of the city’s breathing, moved by the wild things beyond. Her gaze follows him as he approaches. In her face the two of them are reunited after the long workday has ended, he on the grocer’s street, she in the Yonkers sweatshop filled with Italian seamstresses.
They are beyond the reach of time, sheltered by an ancient language that invents them as only love can do; past recedes into a future still present, always arriving. Impossible now to separate the image of them in bed with the image of the sun shining from the face on the plastered wall, which is my face, watching.
Federico and his bride Flora in bed in Yonkers, New York, embracing at the edges of the world; at night they leave their century.