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The Accordion Maker
It was as if his eye were an ear and a crackle went through it each time he shot a look at the accordion. The instrument rested on the bench, lacquer gleaming like wet sap. Rivulets of light washed mother-of-pearl, the nineteen polished bone buttons, winked a pair of small oval mirrors rimmed in black paint, eyes seeking eyes, seeking the poisonous stare of anyone who possessed malocchio, eager to reflect the bitter glance back at the glancer.
He had cut the grille with a jeweler's saw from a sheet of brass, worked a design of peacocks and olive leaves. The hasps and escutcheons that fastened the bellows frames to the case ends, the brass screws, the zinc reed plate, the delicate axle, the reeds themselves, of steel, and the aged Circassian walnut for the case, he had purchased all of these. But he had constructed and fashioned the rest: the V-shaped wire springs with their curled eyes that lay under the keys and returned them to position in the wake of stamping fingers, the buttons, the palette rods. The trenched bellows, the leather valves and gaskets, the skived kidskin gussets, the palette covers, all of these were from a kid whose throat he had cut, whose hide he had tanned with ash lime, brains and tallow. The bellows had eighteen folds. The wood parts, of obdurate walnut to resist damp and warpage, he had sawed and sanded and fitted, inhaling the mephitic dust. The case, once glued up, rested for six weeks before he proceeded. He was not interested in making ordinary accordions. He had his theory, his idea of the fine instrument; with the proof of this one he planned to make his fortune in La Merica.
He set the fourths and then the fifths with a tuning fork and his naked ear, catching an aching but pleasurable dissonance. His sense of pitch was sure, he heard harmonies in the groan of hinges. The button action was quick, the subtle clacking like the rattle of dice in a gambler's hand. From a distance the voice of the instrument sounded hoarse and crying, reminding listeners of the brutalities of love, of various hungers. The notes fell, biting and sharp; it seemed the tooth that bit was hollowed with pain.
The world is a staircase
The accordion maker was hairy and muscular, a swell of black hair rising above a handsome face, an ear like a pastry circle. His irises were an amber color: in his youth he suffered the name "Chicken Eye." When he was twenty he had defied his blacksmith father and left the village to work in the north in the accordion factories of Castelfidardo. His father cursed him and they never spoke again.
He returned to the village when Alba, his betrothed, sent news of the opportunity to rent a plot of land with a handkerchief vineyard and miniature house. He was glad to leave the city for he was embroiled in a dangerous affair with a married woman. His hairiness drew women's attention. From time to time in their marriage his wife accused him of infidelities, and there were several. Accordions and hair drew women, could he help this? She knew it his gift for music had attracted her powerfully, his silky pelt, the hair curling from the throat of his shirt.
He took chills easily, shivered when the sun passed behind a cloud. His wife was warm and it was possible to stand close to her and feel the heat that radiated from her as from a little stove. Her hands seized children, plates, chicken feathers, goats' teats with the same hot grasp.
The rented vines, Calabrese, Negro d'Avola, Spagnolo, made a harsh wine without name, sold as a blending wine to foreigners. It was the local custom to hold the fermenting must on the skins for a week, the source of the wine's rough character and purple-black color. Swallowed straight down, it raked mouth and throat and, as other astringent liquids, was reputed to have beneficial medicinal qualities. The foreign buyers paid very little for it, but as it was the only possible source of cash income, the growers could not protest. The lack of land, money and goods, the boil of people, produced an atmosphere of scheming and connivance, of sleight of hand, of oaths of collusion, of brute force. What other way through life?
Besides the vineyard the accordion maker and his wife rented five old olive trees and a fig espaliered against the wall, and their lives were concerned with children, goats, hoeing and pruning, lugging panniers of grapes. At night the poverty of the place sounded in the whistle of wind through the dry grapestalks and the rub of moaning branches. Their hold on the plot of land weakened as the landlord, who lived in Palermo in a house with a copper roof, increased the rent one year and again the next.
The accordion maker's shop was at the end of the garden a hut that once housed sick goats with a floor space no larger than a double bed. On a shelf he had pots of lacquer, a box of flake shellac, various glues and sizings, squares of mother-of-pearl, two corked vials the size of a little finger containing bronze paint. Here were files, scrapers, his chisels one a flake of chert he had unearthed from the soil and gouges, taps, dies, metal tongues and hooks, tweezers and lengths of spring-steel wire, calipers and rules, nippers, punches and clamps, many of these tools stolen from the factory in Castelfidardo how else to gain possession of these necessary things? With a rigger's brush of a few sable hairs he painted scrolls and keys, flourishing triple borders bristling with bronze thorns. He sold the instruments to a dealer in the market town who, like the wine merchants, paid him almost nothing, enough to feed magpies, perhaps.
As the accordion maker gained mastery over his craft he began to imagine a life not possible in the malicious village, but likely enough in the distant place that rose and set in his thoughts: La Merica. He thought of a new life, fresh and unused, of money hanging in the future like pears hidden in high leaves. He whispered and murmured at night to his wife. She answered, "never."
"Listen," he said aloud furiously, waking the baby, "you know what your brother wrote." That bracket-faced fool Alessandro had sent a letter, spotted with red sauce and grimy fingerprints, that said come, come and change your destiny, turn suffering into silver and joy.
"The world is a staircase," hissed the accordion maker in the darkness. "Some go up and some come down. We must ascend." She refused to agree, put her hands over her ears and moaned when he announced a departure date, later pointed up her chin and rolled her eyes like a poisoned horse when he brought home the trunk with metal corners.
The General's paralysis
The accordion maker's posture, suggestive of hidden violence and challenge, caught the eye of other men. He stood with the left foot planted, the right cocked suggestively, his shoes black broken things. His character betrayed his appearance; he seemed louche and aggressive, but was not. He disliked grappling with problems. He depended on his wife to comb through difficulties. He produced the vaulting idea, the optimistic hope, she ordered the way in everything until now.
How many wake in the night, stretch out a hand to the sleeping mate and encounter a corpse? In the evening the accordion maker's wife had wept a little, lamented the looming journey, but there was nothing, nothing that gave a sign paralysis would come in a few hours to crouch above her ribs and thrust shims into her joints, stiffen her tongue, freeze her brain and fix her eyes. The accordion maker's fingers trembled up the rigid torso, the stone arm, the hard neck. He believed she was a dead woman. He lit the lamp, cried her name, slapped her marble shoulders. Yet her heart beat, sending the blood pounding through the pipes of veins until her rib-harp vibrated and this encouraged him to believe the affliction was a temporary fit that would ease when daylight came, but it did not.
As days passed it became clear that this paralysis was an evil put on her by some choleric force, the will of an enemy that she never leave the village, for she had been a healthy woman, her only defects an occasional seizure dating from childhood and a clouded eye, injured by a hurtling almond as she danced at her wedding supper. She was never ill, up from childbed within a day, running her household with authority. Her strong contralto voice was made for command. Her father had called her "the General" when she was a child. Such a person has enemies.
The accordion maker was ready to throw himself from a cliff or rush into the wilderness, only let someone say what he should do. He appealed to his mother-in-law.
The mother of the paralyzed woman folded her arms. It was as though a powerful dwarf with a basso voice spoke from within the baggy yellow skin. "Go. Three years. Make money and return. We will care for her. It is better that the man goes alone first." The wet olive eyes shifted.
The old father nodded a little to show the good sense in this advice. Their oldest son, Alessandro, had emigrated to New York two years earlier and sent them letters stuffed with money, letters describing his handsome clothes, his position, his fine new bathtub (the bathtub in which he was fatally attacked a few years later by a Bohemian, lunatic with rage because Alessandro had kicked his son for making a noise on the stair; even then the old parents denied that their family was cursed).
The accordion maker's daughters, sniveling because they could not go on the ship to La Merica, were parceled out with aunts. Silvano, the only boy conceived on a Sunday was eleven, old enough to stand a day's work; he would be the one to accompany the father. The girls looked at him with hatred.
Another who suffered from these events was the frozen woman's younger sister, a child herself, whose task it became to funnel gruel through the stiff lips, to ease the stinking cloths from beneath her sister's dribbling vents, to roll the wasting body with its raw bedsores to new positions, to drip clear water into the dry, unseeing eyes.
The helpful young man
The father and son left in the dimming starlight of morning, descending the steep path with jumping steps, away from the rigid woman and her relatives' restless eyes, the resentful girls, past the stone in the shape of a beehive that marked the limit of the village. The accordion maker carried the trunk, his tools and the instrument on his back in a kind of harness made from knotted rope. The boy, Silvano, bent under a rolled-up sheepskin and a grey blanket, a canvas bag stuffed with cheese and loaves of bread. The village was out of sight forever in less than seventy steps.
They walked for two days, took a ferry across glittering, white-stippled water, then trudged on to a railway station. During this journey the father hardly spoke, thinking first, with tears marring his view, that his wife had been the cloth of his shirt, the saliva in his mouth, then recasting the situation in the harsh male proverb the best cold meat in a man's house is a dead wife. Unfortunately his wife was neither quick nor dead. The boy, gangling, humiliated by his father's silence, no longer asked questions but, as they approached villages, filled his pockets with fingerstones to pelt snarling dogs.
It seemed Sicily was pouring out as cornmeal from a ripped sack. The railway station swarmed with people shouting, gesticulating, dragging valises and wooden boxes this way and that, crowding from the door of the station onto the platform, itself a crush of relatives embracing and clenching each other's shoulders, a storm of heaving cloth, the women's head scarves folded in triangles and knotted under their chins, brilliant geometries against the mass of black backs.
The father and son boarded the train and waited for it to move in the company of buzzing flies and passengers struggling on and off. They sweltered in their woolen suits. On the platform the people seemed mad. Women cried and threw their arms up in the air; men pummeled the shoulders and upper arms of departing sons; children howled and clung to receding skirts with grips that tore fabric; babies wrenched their mothers' hair. The conductors, the train officials, shouted, pushed back the unticketed. Down the length of the train passengers leaned out the open windows, crushing and kissing hands for the last time, their mouths contorted by grief.
The accordion maker and Silvano sat unspeaking, their eyes casting over the scene. When the train started, a cry went up as those on the platform watched the cars glide away from them, saw dear faces already changed into the unknowable masks of strangers.
An aging man, corpse-thin in a rusty suit, broke from the crowd and ran alongside the train. The hooks of his eyes caught Silvano. Strangers often stared at the boy, taking in his big cheeks and sagging eyes, an uncommon face for a child, something Spanish or Moorish in those red-rimmed eyes. The man shouted something, repeated it, shouting and running as the train gathered speed; he ran with spidery legs over the rough ground beside the track, and as the track curved and the train drew away, the boy looked back and saw the man still running, far behind the train, and at last on all fours, motionless in the locomotive's falling smoke.
"What did he say?" demanded the father.
"He said to tell Silvano I thought he meant me this other Silvano to send him money. He said he would die if he couldn't get away."
The accordion maker ground his teeth, crossed himself. It twisted his spine that a stranger would call his son's name and ask for money. But the one on his left, a strong young man who had just boarded the train, an ugly fellow with a gap between his front teeth and a flattened nose, pulled his sleeve.
"I know that one! Pazzo, pazzo! That crazy one comes to the platform every day, chases the train crying for someone to tell his brother to send him money to come to New York! Pazzo! He has no brother! His brother died a hundred years ago, crushed by the hooves of a horse in La Merica! And you, you are going there?"
The accordion maker felt the pleasure of a direct question; the urge to confide warmed him.
"To New York. My wife and children, all of us were going, yet two months ago, think of it, only two months, my wife became a wooden plank, transfixed by an evil illness, and now only the boy and I go. She is not dead, she lives, yet cannot move. It was our plan to go to La Merica, start a small music store for instruments and repair. I am an accordion maker, also a little of a musician, you know, I can play for weddings, saints' days. I know a hundred songs. An accordion maker knows how to make the instrument show its voice. But constructing the accordion is my destiny. I understand the instrument, I have a feeling for it. Also I can repair other kinds a cracked violin, mandolins, a torn drum."
He opened the case to show the instrument's sleek lacquer, the polished buttons. He sounded a flourishing chord, sprinkled a few drops of notes to illustrate the superiority of the tone to this young man, not to play, because the grave condition of his wife made that unseemly. It seemed he had to behave as a widower. He returned it to the goatskin case slowly, tied it closed.
"Very nice! A very beautiful instrument! I have cousins who play, but they have nothing so fine as this. One of them, Emilio, was wounded last year by a man so engorged with jealousy that he later perished from apoplexy. Perhaps you will do well in New York! Perhaps not. New York attracts Italians from the north, stuck-up Liguri. The place is full of them! Many musicians there, many accordion makers! There is already an enormous music store on Mulberry Street where they sell piano rolls, everything, books, gramophones, mandolins, sheet music! In New York the winters are savage, the flesh freezes on the bone, there is snow! Winds of a ferocity not to be imagined! There, in old buildings, Sicilians live as close as straws in a bundle! New York? Everything is cold, noise and rush! I have stayed in New York for a year! Unbearable! It was in New York that the crazy one's brother was dragged to his death by a horse, a horse maddened to fury by arctic temperatures! You should do what I am doing I am going to Louisiana, to New Orleans! The climate is as soft as baby's flesh! The soil, blacker than the pupil of the eye, of incredible fertility! Sicilians are there in every kind of work! The shrimp and oyster boats! Tremendous opportunity! No music store such as you describe! The place cries out for one! The people of this city love music! The Gulf is a cornucopia shrimp of such a size a man can hold only two in his cupped palm, oysters as large as cakes and as sweet as honey, fish of every kind, and a rich nut, the pecan, which grows wild everywhere! The fruit boats give work at once! You can quickly earn enough to make your music store! Think of it! You get off the ship, walk down the dock and get a job in two minutes carrying boxes of oranges! The man hiring you speaks Sicilian, he understands you! Before you sleep on your first night in La Merica you have earned money, more money than you'd see in a week, in a month, in Sicily! But maybe you have relatives waiting for you in New York, perhaps you have cousins and many brothers, perhaps you have connections who will help you battle the immense music store on Mulberry Street? Perhaps you already have enough money to open your own music store at once?" He lit a cigar, offered one to the accordion maker who took it with effusive thanks.
No, no, they had no one, he said, rejecting the detested brother-in-law, Alessandro, with his face like dirty clothes. He did not want to see him, that Antichrist. After all, that one was not blood of his blood. No, he said to the young man; his son was not particularly musical, but he was strong and good in mathematics. Whether boats or music stores, he would be useful. The accordion maker leaned forward, asked, what more of Nov' Orlenza, of Luigiana? Were the inhabitants truly inclined toward music? The aromatic smoke formed a cloud around their heads.
Greenhorn, thought the young man. One more among thousands and thousands and thousands. He did not count himself.
All the way to Palermo, the train jerking down the long incline to the sea, the young man amused himself by extolling the delights of Louisiana, inventing musicians who, for lack of competent repairs, played broken husks of instruments, were forced to sing a cappella because there were no accordions to accompany them, until the accordion maker did not know how he could have considered New York's wolflike cold and crowded tenements, a New York inhabited by the braggart Alessandro who, alone of all people on earth, persisted in calling him "Chicken Eye" when a city of desperate musicians awaited him. In Nov' Orlenza he would work at anything, unload bananas, juggle lemons, skin cats, to put every scudo penny aside. In his pocket he had the name of a boardinghouse and a map drawn by the young man on the train who had already sailed on another, swifter ship so many ships left Palermo for America. The young man had sworn he would meet their ship in Nov' Orlenza, help them find their way. The map was only if they missed each other.
And so the accordion maker veered onto a fatal course.
The land of alligators
At Palermo he hesitated. The ship passage to New Orleans was more expensive than that to New York. He had planned to use the savings from not purchasing passage for the paralyzed wife and the daughters to give him a little sum toward the music store. Yet he bought the tickets, forty American dollars each, for he conducted his life as everyone does by guessing at the future.
The Palermo wharf boiled with immigrants. The accordion maker and Silvano stood apart, the trunk between the man's feet, the instrument on his back. Already he dreamed of himself in the whitewashed shop, his tools on the table before him, looking over a list of orders for accordions. In the background he imagined a vague woman, perhaps the paralyzed one restored to action, perhaps a milk-skinned americana.
Silvano was repulsed by the moil on the wharf. It was as though some great spatula had scraped through Italy and deposited this crust of humans on the edge of the oily harbor, the squirming crowd a thousand times greater than at the train station. Everywhere were people standing and bending, a man wrapped in a dirty blanket and dozing on the stones, with his head on a suitcase and a knife in his lax hand, crying children, women folding dark coats, anxiously retying cords around scarred cases, men seated on baskets of possessions and gnawing heels of bread, old women in black, scarves knotted under their bristly chins, and running boys, clothes flapping, insane with excitement. He did not join them, only watched.
Hour after hour the noisy, dragging mass shuffled up the gangplank onto the ship lugging bundles and portmanteaus, parcels and canvas telescope bags. The line of people hitched along the deck to a table where a pockmarked official counted off groups of eight, families sundered, strangers joined, all the same to him, gave the tallest man in each group a numbered ticket that signified their place at mess call. These eight, familiar or unknown to one another, were bound together by this meal ticket over thousands of miles of water. In the accordion maker's group was a disagreeable old woman with a face like a half-moon, and her two jabbering nephews.
The accordion maker and Silvano descended three levels to the men's quarters, long tiers of berths like wooden shelves in a warehouse. They had the top boards, a slot where they slept and stowed everything: the trunk and the accordion, the rolled-up sheepskin and the grey blanket. Oil lamps cast a phlegmy glow, shadows that swayed like hanging men, cast an uneasy, twitching light that raised doubts and encouraged a belief in demons. They had seen the steady calm of electric lights in Palermo.
(The smell of kerosene, bilge, metal, marine paint, the stink of anxious men, of dirty clothes and human grease, mixed with the briny flavor of the sea, etched Silvano's sensibilities, a familiar effluvia later on the Texas shrimp boats, and not even the rank stench of crude oil and gas in his roustabout days in the early decades of the new century erased it. For a while he worked on the tank farm fire crews, shooting cannonballs into fiery storage tanks to release the oil into the circular ditches around each of them before it exploded. He went on to Spindletop, Oklahoma's Glenn Pool, caught a glimpse of Pete Gruber, the King of Oil, in his million-dollar rattlesnake suit, worked down the Golden Lane from Tampico to Potrero to Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela where his game ended as he crouched in the jungle trying to relieve himself and a hostile Indian's arrow pierced his throat.)
The accordion maker warned Silvano that the passage would be rough, would cause incessant vomiting, but as they drew away from Palermo, from Sicily, from Europe, into the waters of the globe, they entered a zone of fair weather. Day after day sunlight gilded the waves, the sea was calm, without whitecaps or crested waves, numberless oily swells casting off rags of foam. At night this watery lace glowed and shimmered a luminous green. The ship hissed through the sea and Silvano stared into a sky so deeply colored that he saw swarms of larvae, the gestation of stars or wind, crawling in the purple depths. Each morning the passengers emerged from the ship's depths like weevils from a stump and spread out in the sunshine, the women sewing and working lace, the men at some handwork, declaring their plans, walking around and around to prevent costive gripe. Nearly everyone ate on deck, avoided the reeking messroom. The ship's slop metamorphosed into something good as dried tomatoes, garlic, sausages, hard cheese, came out of suitcases. The accordion maker took the calm sea as a sign that his fortune had turned, lit a cigar and enjoyed it, played his accordion in the evenings. Already a few women had smiled at him, one asked him if he knew "L'Atlantico," humming the wavelike melody. He told her he wished to learn it if she would be his teacher.
Stories of New Orleans began to trickle from the crew members and passengers who had been there or read letters from earlier travelers: a scimitar-shaped city fitted in the curve of the great river where moss hung from trees like masculine beards, where the tea-colored water of the bayous harbored alligators and ebon people nonchalantly strolled the streets, where the dead lay aboveground in marble beds and men walked holding pistols. A sailor taught Silvano the words "ais crima," a kind of rare and delicious frozen confection achieved with a difficult machine and much labor.
The young man on the train had said their language would be easily understood in New Orleans, but in their mess call the old woman who had lived in New Orleans, whose son and family had died of some pestilence, who had gone back to Sicily to fetch her two nephews and was now returning with them, warned them to cast away their Sicilian dialect, to speak Italian instead and quickly learn American.
"Italians say Sicilians speak thieves' language in order to plot murder in their open faces. Americans believe Sicilians and Italians are the same and hate them both, curse them as sacks of evil. If you wish success you must master the American language."
Words to break the teeth, thought the accordion maker. She looked at him as if she read his thinking. "I see in your face that you will not learn it."
"And you?" he retorted. "You speak it fluently, no doubt?"
"I have learned many words," she said. "From my son and his children. Now I will learn from my nephews. In America the natural order of the world is reversed and the old learn from children. Prepare yourself, accordion maker."
On the last days of the voyage, as they rounded the tip of Florida and entered the Gulf of Mexico, the musky scent of land came to them. They had crossed some invisible bar, were no longer departing but arriving. The accordion maker brought his instrument on deck and played, sang in the high, strangling style of the village.
Now we arrive in La Merica
Farewell to our childhood homes.
Here we begin our true lives.
Here we find money and respect,
Fine houses and linen shirts.
Here we become princes.
A member of the crew sang a comic American song "Where, Oh, Where Has My Little Dog Gone?" but the accordion maker scorned to try it and countered with "Sicilia Mia." His strong posture, his hairiness, his desperate voice and the accordions suggestive breathing drew a circle of women and girls around him. Still, he believed in a hell where sinners sat astraddle the heated wards of giant keys and served as clappers in white-hot bells.
They coasted into the delta, breathed its odor of mud and wood smoke under sunset clouds, gold curls combed out of the west, or the powdered stamens of a broad-throated flower. In the dusk they could see flickering lights in the side channels, sometimes hear a gruesome roar the alligators, said a deckhand; no, a cow bogged in mud, said the woman with the nephews. The immigrants crowded the rail as the quivering ship moved into the Mississippi River, within the pincer of land. Silvano stood next to his father. A red moon crawled out of the east. On the shore the boy heard a horse snort. Hours before New Orleans the odor of the city reached them a fetid stink of cesspools and the smell of burning sugar.
A demon in the backhouse
Nothing went as the accordion maker anticipated. The young man from the train was not at the dock. They waited hours for him while the other passengers disappeared into the teeming streets.
"True friends are as rare as white flies," said the accordion maker bitterly. Silvano gaped at the black men and especially the women, whose heads were wrapped in turbans as though they concealed emeralds and rubies and chains of gold beneath the winded doth. They puzzled their way along through the noisy, thronged streets with the young man's map and found Decatur Street, but there was no number sixteen there, only charred timbers among rampant fireweed, a gap in the row of frowsty tenements. The accordion maker forced his courage, spoke to an approaching man who looked Sicilian; at least his hair appeared Sicilian.
"Excuse me, I seek a boardinghouse, number sixteen, but it seems there is no building here " The man did not answer, spat to his right as he passed. Silvano saw the punishment for not knowing American. The man must be an American one who despised Sicilians.
The accordion maker, unnerved, said to Silvano, "a cursed fool, let him dine on weeds made bitter by the piss of drunkards." They dragged their bundles and the trunk back to the wharf. There was the ship they had left only hours ago. Silvano recognized the faces of crew members. They returned his stare with disinterest. One shouted something ribald in American. Silvano experienced the helpless rage of the prisoner of language. His father seemed not to notice.
The employment office described by the young man on the train was a blue shack at the end of the wharf. A dozen men, both white and black, leaned against pilings and boxes and spit tobacco, smoked cigars, staring at them as they approached. Inside the shack a dog with an iron collar lay under the chair and a man with a swollen, bruised nose who called himself Graspo Grapestalk spoke to them in language they could understand, but he was suspicious and insolent, demanding their papers, asking their names, the name of their village, parents' names, the name of the wife's family, who did they know and why had they come here? The accordion maker showed the map, told of the young man on the train who had given the address of the boardinghouse, described the charred timbers, said he knew no one, wanted work on the boats or docks.
"What was the name of this man on the train?" But of course the accordion maker did not know. After a time Graspo softened, although his tone was still lofty and condescending.
"It is not as easy as you think, contadino, there are many things involved in working here, many people of strength against each other. There is sometimes trouble, the times are difficult. The Sicilians suffer very much. We must look out for one another. But I can tell you the name of a boardinghouse in Little Palermo, number four Mirage Street, cheap and well located for work. Perhaps I can get you something on the fruit boats, you and the boy. You will see that the Irish and the black men have the best of it, those who are screwmen. The humble Italian for here Sicilians are regarded as Italians and you must swallow that as well must be content to be a longshoreman." He cleared his throat and spat. "For you the cost is three dollars, for the boy two, and the address of the boardinghouse is free. Yes, you pay to me. I'm the bosso. That is how it works in America, Signor' Emigrante Siciliano. You must pay to be paid. You know nothing, no one, you pay for an education. I offer you this education for a modest sum."
What choice had he? None, none. He paid the money, turning his back to Graspo while he pried the strange coins from the kidskin money belt, stained now with sweat. Graspo told the accordion maker to go to the boardinghouse and make an arrangement, come back in the morning for the shape-up; if fortune was with them there would be work. The accordion maker nodded, nodded, nodded and smiled.
"They will ask you at the boardinghouse what work you have. Show them this paper and tell them you work for Signor Banana. Ahha."
They found the boardinghouse in Little Palermo, a noisome district as bad as any Sicilian slum, except that black people lived here as well as Sicilians and Italians. Mirage Street was lined with decayed French mansions shedding flerried slates like dandruff, the fine rooms chopped into cubbies, thin strips of deal bisecting plaster cherubs, a ballroom partitioned into twenty mean kennels. Number four was a filthy brick pile obscured by crisscrossed lines of grey laundry and belted around and around with sagging balconies. Somewhere a dog barked.
(Years later in the oil fields it was not the horrible event that Silvano remembered but this relentless barking by an unseen animal that went on day and night. An American dog. In Sicily someone would have killed it for its disobedience.)
The courtyard was knee-deep in refuse, smashed bed frames, scrap wood, great drifts of oyster shells, suitcase handles and bloody rags, holed cooking pots and tin cans, broken crockery, chamber pots half filled with green-scummed water, weather-stiffened hames, a legless horsehair sofa furred with mold. In a corner of the courtyard was a reeking baccausa which served the scores who lived in the building. When the accordion maker entered this outhouse he turned away, retching; the mound of excrement protruded from the hole. In the corner was a smeared stick to push it down a little. He noticed later that some of the residents squatted in the courtyard like dogs to relieve their bowels, and in this wasteland children played.
"Listen," he told Silvano. "Do not go there. There is a demon in that backhouse. Find another place. How do I know where? Anyway, it is better to hold it in as much as possible to get the most good from the food I buy for you." So began Silvano's lifelong suffering with constipation and griping bowels.
They climbed splintered stairs to the top floor, away from the leaning banister.
"Here is high living, my friend," said the landlord in a laughing voice. The room was hardly bigger than a closet and filthy. There were two plank beds, over each a long shelf, one partly filled with the belongings of a man with whom they must share this space. A deaf man who would be no trouble, the landlord said. Silvano would sleep on the floor on the sheepskin. The accordion maker touched the broken plaster, kicked at the loose floorboards. From a nearby room they heard cries of abuse, a slap, another, muffled shrieks and blows. But Silvano was delighted with the window, two clear panes above an amber wave of stained glass. They could take turns, he said, looking out over the rooftops at the creamy river where boats growled up and down. Flies buzzed at this window and the sill was buried an inch beneath their husks.
But when he ran down the dark, groaning stairs three boys cornered him on a landing. The one with the dull face and crooked mouth he counted least dangerous, but while the others danced and jabbed at him, that one sidled behind, interlaced his fingers and raised his joined hands to bring Silvano crashing to his knees with a double-handed chop to the back of the neck. Silvano rolled between Dull-Face's legs, reached up and twisted the tender flesh inside the thigh despite three kicks in the face that scraped his cheek across the gritty floor. A door on the landing flung open and cold greasy water flew at them; there was a tinny rattle and a cascade of spoons and forks as the three attackers leaped down the stairs, shouting back curses.
The landlord, crippled and obese, possessing only one foot and half blind, skin as grey and slick as the bottom of a boat, hands and arms crisscrossed with cane-cut scars, took the first week's money from them. He called himself Cannamele, Sugarcane, from the old days when he worked on the sugar plantations, before he crushed his foot in the grinder. The stiff point of a cane leaf had ruined his eye.
"But look, once my hands were strong enough to squeeze water from stones." He made a clenching gesture. When he heard the name of their village he shook with emotion; for he said he had been born two villages away. He begged them for news of many people. But none of the names he presented was familiar and after a quarter of an hour it was clear that Cannamele had mistaken their village for another. Yet a certain cordiality, a connection, had been established. Cannamele felt it necessary to explain how things were.
Here in Little Palermo, he said, the Americans never came. All the dialects and regions of Italy and Sicily were crushed together here, people from the mountains and the rich plains below Etna, from northern Italy, from Rome, even from Milano, but those haughty ones moved out as soon as they could. He told the accordion maker that the backhouse was supposed to be emptied once a month by black men who dug out the stinking shit and carted it away in their "aggravation wagons," but they had not come for a long time, no one knew why. Perhaps they would come tomorrow. So, Graspo had promised him work? Graspo was of the Mantrangas, stevedores at war with rival padroni, the Provenzanos, in a rough squabble over who would control the hiring of labor to work the fruit boats. The Irish and the black men, the cotton screwmen, had the highest-paid work; Sicilians and Italians had to take what was left, the longshoreman jobs, but at least they were better off than the roustabouts, all black men wild, roving river hogs covered with pale scars. And as for those black ones, if the accordion maker had eyes, he could see for himself most were wretched and ragged and their so-called freedom was a mockery. Yet on New Orleans docks they had certain rights which often worked against Sicilians and Italians; there the black screwmen were as good as anyone and better than immigrants. The crafty Americans knew well how to play each against the other. The other occupant of their room, the deaf man called Nove Nine because his little finger had been chewed off in a fight, was a stevedore. As for "Signor Banana," he was the esteemed and wealthy Frank Archivi, born in New Orleans of poor Sicilian parents, an American by birth, and who knows, if not galvanized by the madness of grief when he was twenty, he might have become a boatman or an organ grinder instead of the owner of a shipping line, a man who controlled the rich fruit-import business.
"Think of it, after one week of marriage his bride died of a shrimp which she inhaled while laughing never laugh when you eat shrimp and Archivi, the crazed one, eyes as red as lanterns, came to her tomb at night and removed her stinking corpse, dragging it through the streets and kissing the rotting lips until he collapsed. He lay in a fever for a month and when he came to his senses he was as cold as a glacier, interested only in money. And now Archivi, Archivi is bananas and fruits from Latin America, lemons and oranges from Italy. Archivi is deals and ingenuity, and that hard work that makes a fortune, a fortune that grows and swells. If you would see Archivi, look at the carts of the street vendors. He owns ships, warehouses, thousands work for him, he moves in the high circles of New Orleans society, he is an important man in politics. He shook the hand of John D. Rockefeller. He is a Rockefeller of fruit. Every piece of fruit that comes to these docks is controlled by Archivi. He turned his grief and madness to money." The accordion maker listened greedily.
"He is brave and agile, he fought the Reconstructionists. You would do well to study him, americanizzarti, to Americanize yourself as he has done. When the black men tried to muscle the Sicilians away from the dock work, he led an army of longshoremen against them. I saw this. It was bloody and he won, I can tell you that, he won. You have a knife? Good. You must get a pistol as well. It is necessary. In New Orleans you defend yourself every day."
Archivi, he said, moved confidently in the Americans' world.
"But don't bother to play your accordion for him. He has refined tastes in music, he prefers concerts and the opera. On the other hand, rejoice. There are many musicians working the docks. New Orleans is the queen of music, the queen of commerce." He sang a few contorted lines of some song the accordion maker had never heard, a limping, crooked song.
"I plan to open a music store," confided the accordion maker. "I will be the Archivi of accordions." Cannamele shrugged and smiled; every man had his fantasy. He had thought himself that he would start a bank, first for Sicilians, but later...
It was true, the fruit vendors in their stained clothes who spread through the city each day displayed on their carts an extraordinary variety of fruits; Silvano counted twenty kinds in the distance between the boardinghouse and the wharf: ox-heart cherries with juice like blood, yellow peaches, orange silky persimmons, barrows of pears, Panama oranges, strawberries the size and shape of Christ's heart. The lemon barrows lit up dark streets. Once, moved by his hungry stare, a vendor gave him an overripe banana, the skin black, and, inside, the faintly alcoholic mush of decaying pulp.
"Hey, scugnizzo, your mother must have craved these fruits when she carried you. You are fortunate you do not have a great banana-shaped birthmark on your face." (Four years later this barrowman moved to St. Louis and started a successful macaroni factory, American Pasta, and died a thousandaire.) Silvano did in fact have a birthmark but it was on his belly and in the shape of a frying pan, the cause of his perpetual hunger.
Graspo started them unloading bananas, great green claws of fruit as heavy as stone, of brutal weight even for the accordion maker's muscular and broad shoulders. For twelve hours' labor the pay was a dollar and a half. Silvano tottered twenty feet with a hand of bananas, then went to his knees. He did not have the legs to bear such weight. Graspo put him at fifty cents a day to pick up loose bananas from broken bunches, crush the hairy tarantulas and little snakes that fell from the clusters of fruit. Silvano darted fearfully at them with his cudgel.
The docks and levees stretched for miles along the river in a stink of brackish water, spice, smoke, musty cotton. Gangs of men, black or white, stacked bales of cotton into great piles like unfinished pyramids, others rolled the bales over and over toward the ships whose funnels stretched into the hazed distance like a forest of branchless trees. Two and two, men piled sawed lumber, raw cities waiting to be nailed onto the prairies upriver, teams of four black men double-cut tree trunks into squared timbers. Downriver the shrimp boats unloaded baskets of glittering crustaceans. In the cavernous warehouses men shifted more cotton, barrels of molasses and sugar, tobacco, rice, cottonseed cakes, fruits; they sweated in the cotton yards where the great bales were compressed into five-hundred-pound cubes. Everywhere men carried boxes, rolled barrels, stacked firewood for the voracious steamboats, each swallowing five hundred cords of wood between New Orleans and Keokuk. A gang of men rolling barrels sang:
Roll'm! Roll'm! Roll'm!
All I wants is my regular right!
Two square meal and my rest at night!
Roll! Roll'm, boy! Roll!
The din of commerce sounded in a hellish roar made up of the clatter of hooves and the hollow mumble of wheel rims on plank, the scream of whistles and huffing of engines, hissing steam boilers and hammering and rumbling, shouting foremen and the musical call and response of work gangs and the sellers of gumbo and paper cones of crawfish and sticky clotted pralines, the creaking of the timber wagons and the low cries of the ship provisioners' cartmen urging their animals forward, all blended into a loud, narcotic drone.
Of all of these, the swaggering screwmen were the kings of the docks, earned six dollars a day. In gangs of five they threw down their half-smoked cigars and descended into ships' holds with their jackscrews, waited for the longshoremen to winch up the bales of cotton from the dock and lower them down into the hold, one at a time. The screwmen seized the bales, stacked them high and tight, forced them into impossibly cramped spaces, odd crannies and corners, through the use of boards and their expanding jackscrews, until the ship nearly split; yet the cargo was perfectly balanced, the ship unsinkable.
In the late afternoon one day the word flew from man to man: a board had snapped under pressure and shot a splinter into the throat of a black screwman named Treasure. The accordion maker heard cries from an adjacent ship, joined the gathering crowd. He moved slowly, watching, saw a limp body raised from the hold, carried away, the blood pattering on the deck, the ramp, the dock.
"Move a d'banan', sonamagogna!" shouted the foreman, driving the Sicilians back to the fruit.
On Saturday night, while Silvano gawped through the mosquito-stitched streets, listening to the American jabber and making up his mind to steal a sweet, drawn this way and that by the cries of vendors of pots and pans, clothes, lemonade, "gelati, gelati," candies and kitchen implements, but stopping before a man who sold enchanting toy cats of spotted tin that squeaked when their sides were pressed, the accordion maker went with Cannamele, first to Viget's Oyster Saloon, hot and smoky, where Cannamele swallowed four dozen with lime juice, then to a barrelhouse in the next street packed with ruffians where they drank union beer, ate the stale eggs and firefanged cheese and vinegary pigs' feet, and the accordion maker wished for the harsh village rosso. But both of them blackened many bottles' eyes and the accordion maker treated himself to a two-for-a-nickel cigar from a box of fat Rajah torpedoes. A bowlegged Italian sang "Scrivenno a Mamma" in a weeping voice, stopped singing and blubbered.
"He who saves, saves for dogs," cried Cannamele, signaling for American whiskey.
"Heart's-ease, you grape-jumper," shouted an Irishman.
In and out went Cannamele through the scores of dives, tonks and jooks and barrelhouse joints that lined these streets, the accordion maker lurching after him through the musical din of drums and ringing banjos, shouters, pianos clinking away, squealing fiddles and trumpets and other brass snorting and wailing from every interior, and sometimes a string quartet sawing crazily. On the streets children watched and fought for discarded stogie butts, black street musicians and white played for coins, singing improvised songs of insult at those who failed to toss a whiffing coin.
Bad luck on you.
An apron of sound lapped out of each dive. Inside, chairs scraped on the floor, loud music and talk tangled with roaring laughter, there was endless traffic toward and from the back where little rooms lined the hall and young black girls took customers until their flesh was raw, the rasp of matches, the slap of cards and the clink of bottles on glass, the clack of glasses on tables, the creak of table legs on the floor, the thudding feet of dancers doing the slow drag, the itch, the squat, the grind. Dice doctors with their loaded ivories, drinkers and cockers with feathers stuck to the bloody soles of their boots crowded the rooms, and the street din entered with each customer. And often there was a faito, with grunts and snorts and curses and smack of flesh on flesh, a scream, then a tenor roaring "O dolce baci..."
The accordion maker had a pistol now and carried it in the waistband of his trousers. Silvano had a staghorn-handled knife with three blades and threatened with it when the gangs closed around him. He had stolen it from a lolling drunk, practiced his first American sentence on a one-eyed dog scavenging for orts.
"Get outta, I killa you."
The accordion maker disliked the music that the black men played, confused music, the melody, if there was one, deliberately hidden in braided skeins of rhythm. He was contemptuous of their instruments a horn, a broken piano, a fiddle, the wiry curls of its strings twisting out of the neck like morning glory vines, the banjo. He recognized one of the players from the docks, as black as a horse's hoof, a man with an eye patch and a latticework of scars from the corner of his eye to his jaw that made his face rigid and expressionless on one side. They called him Pollo what, "Chicken"? thought the accordion maker, but it seemed the creature's name was Apollo, someone's sardonic joke flailing at a what was it? a corrugated surface, somehow familiar, set in a gaudily painted wooden frame, a thing that made a raspy, scratching sound like a treeful of cicadas, and singing "shootin don't make it, no, no, no." It was a quarter of an hour before he recognized the object a washboard, a thing women used to rub the dirt from wet clothes and saw the metal thimbles on the man's fingers. Pollo put away the rub-board and pulled a pair of spoons from his back pocket, making a clatter like heavy castanets. And the other one, Fish Man, scraping a knife over his guitar strings to make a wobbling shrill. What wandering imprecision! What kitchen music! And the words, the accordion maker could not catch one, but understood the singer's salacious tone and low, hot laugh. Fish Man twirled his old guitar with a scarred back, sang:
On my table there a blood dish,
Dish with drop a blood,
Somebody butcher my old cow,
Tell me it really good,
It really good
I don't have to milk her no more.
Soon enough the accordion maker was distracted when Cannamele, cock-a-hoop, shoved a black woman against him, a dirty puzzle with running eyes, put his wet mouth to the accordion maker's ear and said she would change his luck.
"The man who holds back risks tuberculosis and worse. The bodily system weakens. Go ahead, mine some coal." (Although the accordion maker contracted syphilis from these adventures, he never knew it.)
In a Sicilian village, the right eye of a woman no longer paralyzed itched with great ferocity.
A strange instrument
In the weeks that followed, the accordion maker recognized many dockworkers among the musicians of the barrelhouses. There were no accordions to be heard until a band of gypsies camped outside the city on a bit of high ground with their tinkers' tools, horses and fortunes; two of the men played accordions. They stayed a week, another week, a month, mending pots and pans. Sometimes at night passersby heard their private music, a slow, sad wailing, saw the shimmer of sequined bodies dancing. He went to their camp one evening with Cannamele to hear what was to be heard. The music was boisterous and wailing at the same time and five or six men danced a fight with sticks. He was interested in their accordions but could not make the men understand that he wished to examine one. Their language was incomprehensible and they turned away as soon as money changed hands. True outsiders, he thought, people without even a home, lost in the wild world. One day they were gone, leaving trampled earth.
"Moon men," said Cannamele, winking his bad eye.
At first the accordion maker was afraid to bring his instrument into the sweating, dangerous dives where men fought and bled and overturned the tables. He played it only in the room he shared with Silvano and Nove, forty years old and half deaf, who came in many nights streaming blood from knife fights, would wake from midsleep and shout hoarsely, "listen! Somebody knocking!" But the knocking was in his head and in a few minutes he would lie down and sleep again in his rumpled, stained clothes.
The accordion maker found his own music calming and beautiful after the wailing, thumping, rattling music of the joints. That slangy music was not suited to the accordion, although its morbid voice might fit the style, but it was impossible to loosen and bend the notes. An accordion would have to play the drone, to be satisfied with the back of the music rather than the front.
He got up the courage to bring it to one of the barrelhouses. It was noisy enough as usual. He sat off by himself the bartender complained of his "Italian perfume," the smell of garlic and after a while, when the piano man left for the whorehouse, began to play. No one noticed until he lifted his high, strangling voice and a silence fell, heads turned toward this sound. He sang an ancient grape harvest song that had stamping and shouts. But after two or three songs the din of the place rose again, calling, laughing, talking, shouting, drowning him out. Only the Sicilians pressed closer, hungry to hear the lost music that brought with it the scent of thyme and the tinkle of goat bells, and they called out for certain melodies that made them contort their faces with grief.
Late in the evening Pollo came toward him, forcing his way through the crowd, smiling around his blond cigar. Up close he was the strange red-black color of furniture, of a mahogany table. He said something, pointing at the accordion.
"He want to know what you call it," said Cannamele and answered in a loud voice as if speaking to a deaf man: "Accordion. Accordion."
The black man said something more, reached for the accordion, looked at it, hoisted it, feeling its lightness, held it to his body as he had seen the accordion maker do and squeezed the bellows gently. Anh. Onh. Anh. Onh. He said something. Cannamele laughed.
"He say it sound like his woman."
Pollo bent over the instrument, pressing the buttons and getting it, getting the feel of it and its sound, and in a few minutes, foot beating, the accordion huffing in an unaccustomed way between bursts of words and um-hm sounds, a rough little song came out. Cannamele screamed with pleasure.
"He's the man, the singing is the man, and he's doing it to a woman and the accordion is the woman!" The accordion maker blushed as the instrument moaned against the black man's voice.
How you like Anh
My sweet corn, baby Onh
Plenty buttah Anh
Anh make you crazy Onh.
He handed the accordion back, grinning violently.
The next day the accordion maker saw the black man, Pollo, sitting on a bollard, graceful, smoking a long blond cigar, on his feet St. Louis flats, heelless shoes with mirrors pasted on the toes, a dreaming expression on his face, but alert enough to spy the accordion maker, catch his eye and make squeezing motions as though playing an accordion or pressing a fat woman's breasts.
The first order
By early October the cotton crop poured onto the docks and the levees swarmed with workers loading night and day. The accordion maker was making and saving money despite his excursions with Cannamele. One morning when he and Silvano came out of the boardinghouse Pollo was in the street waiting for him. He said something, a question the accordion maker did not get. Silvano understood, could already mangle his way along in American.
"He wants to buy your accordion. He will give you ten dollars!"
The accordion maker smiled pityingly. "Tell him it is not for sale. It is my showing accordion. But tell him I can make one similar in every way. Tell him the cost is thirty dollars, not ten. Tell him it will take four months' time." He had figured out what he must charge.
Pollo spoke, ticking off items on his long, pale-fronted fingers. He was describing or listing. Silvano translated.
"He wants it red this green is not good for him. He wants his name, Apollo, on it, here. And on the folding part paint a picture, the Alice Adams with a head of steam up."
"Tell him nothing could be simpler. But on Saturday he must give me five dollars as surety and for the materials." He was excited. His success was beginning.
That night he set up a tiny worktable in the corner of their room, sat on a box which he kept under the bed when he was not working on the instrument, rose before daylight to glue and fit, saw and sand; he worked a few minutes at night as long as he could afford the candle, could stay awake, and worked all day Sunday for he did not go to mass in this godless new country was drawn into the spell of precise craftsmanship as another might be charmed by words or incantations. He was fortunate to have the room many slept on the streets and docks and every morning lifeless forms were carried away, throats slit and pockets turned inside out, even young children. All around him were men who had to piss in the nettles.
For weeks he stopped going to the saloons except on Saturday night, despite the allure of the music and the black women, but reduced his life to work, the accordion, a little sleep. He was getting the Italian look thin and ragged, eyes very hard and watchful.
On a November night Cannamele came up to his room and said, "listen, you work like a fool. You will develop a brain fever."
"I am making a success."
Cannamele shook his head. "A Sicilian cannot make a success here," he said. "It is not possible unless you know certain men and do certain things. This is the truth. If you come out you will ease your mind. Look at you, half crazy. Besides, I will buy the beer."
"One hour only. To look for new customers."
The landlord leaned on the bar in the Golden Dagger, listening to the crying music. The accordion maker had his instrument and sat in a corner trying to fit minor chords like long moans to a scraping fiddle and a rattling tambourine, when the doors burst open and police beat into the room, kicking and striking with their batons.
"All Italians, hands up, over there, get up you dirty dago bastards, move, MOVE!"
The accordion maker stared uncomprehendingly like a fool until he was dragged from his chair, the accordion falling to the floor. He cursed and reached for it and was jerked back, hands closed on him. His frightened eye fell on the black man, Pollo, crouched in the back near the hall door. Their eyes caught. The black man nodded and looked away, slid into the darkness of the hall.
Silvano, in the street outside, was taken when he ran toward his father. Pressing the prisoners against the wall of the building, the Americans battered them with a volley of incomprehensible questions. The accordion maker's silence and shrugging infuriated them, and when they found his pistol and Silvano's knife they herded them into a line of men tied ankle and wrist with a long connecting rope, slapped and kicked them along the streets and away to the pound, to the Parish Prison, to cells packed with Sicilians and Italians.
The crime was serious. Someone had shot the chief of police. The American Patriotic League screamed Italians! Catholics! another vicious example of ceaseless warfare on the docks between Italian gangs, between the Irish and the Italians and the blacks, a mix of languages and colors, hatreds and competition of such ferocity that the spray of blood and interruption of labor stained the name of New Orleans. The Americans, who usually held themselves above the dirty business of foreigners and black men fighting for mean jobs, flared with outrage, ordered the police into the streets.
"Tell them," the accordion maker begged a man in the cell who spoke American, "tell them they have made a mistake. I have done nothing." His jacket was crusted with some white substance.
"Do you suggest that I did?"
"No, no, but "
Many were released in the next weeks, including Cannamele, but not the accordion maker, whom they accused of deliberate conspiratorial silence, of suspicious skulking, of murder with the confiscated pistol, nor Silvano, because he also was silent, and silence meant complicity. Dozens of Sicilians and Italians wept and prayed in the cells as the month ground through December. They were in a zone of uncertainty. The accordion maker was in an agony of frustration.
"Ah," he cried, "how I regret coming to this place." And when he sent a message to Cannamele to get his accordion from Pollo and keep it, word came back that Pollo was upriver working on the wood boats, that he had been thrown off the Alice Adams, that he had taken the accordion with him.
On Christmas Eve an elderly black woman, sent by someone unknown, brought the prisoners oranges and an "old lady's face," faccia da vecchia, the baked crust spread with sardines and cheese and onion. Someone whispered, Archivi.
"This is the land of justice," said the accordion maker, confident again, swallowing his sliver of the delicacy. "They will soon realize their mistake and release us."
But another prisoner, a short muscular man built like a crate, sneered.
"The Americans treat us like cheap shoes. They buy cheap, they walk long and hard, when the shoes are worn out they throw them aside and get others. Shiploads of these shoes come every day. You speak of justice and your stupid accordion, but you are a shoe. A cheap shoe. Sfortunato. An unlucky man."
Yes, thought Silvano.
An evil dream
One night there was an uproar as the guards brought in another, dragged him down the corridor to a cell at the end.
"Oh Gesù, Gesù," whispered Polizzi.
"What? Who is it?" They had seen the prisoner, his smeared face, his torn clothes, for only a few seconds.
"Oh Gesù, Gesù."
A whisper started, grew to a murmur. "Archivi. Archivi."
Flies clustered in the corner of the ceiling, like nailheads.
"Look," said someone. "Even the flies are afraid and dare not fly for fear they will be accused."
Archivi shouted from his cell. "This filthy America is fraud and deceit. My fortune is lost. America is a place of lies and bitter disappointment. It promises everything but eats you alive. I shook the hand of John D. Rockefeller, yet it means nothing." He spoke in American.
A sarcastic voice added, "chi non ci vuole stare, se ne vada" if you don't like it here, go somewhere else.
A few nights later the accordion maker had a waking dream of raw meat, of the wet kid carcasses he remembered from village butcherings, of basins of red flesh marbled with fat, of glistening bones with maroon shreds of tissue clinging to the joints, of dark gobbets dropped randomly on a great flight of stairs.
The rat king
Just as Pinse's left foot touched the garnet runner of the top stair, the ching of the breakfast room bell sounded. He had come in very late, hours past midnight, after a week away at the Robinsonville levee break. He had no doubt; it had been dynamited by the malcontents he had fired from the timber contract; foreigners, all of them, observed creeping and slinking for the better part of a week. And as soon as the levee breached they'd disappeared. The damage was local, hard on the Yazoo Valley, but in the long run the silt deposit would improve the bottomland. He knew one thing; he'd rather have niggers than dago socialist rabble screaming for weekly paydays and threatening strikes and blowing up levees in revenge when they did not get what they wanted. His eyes burned. The staircase wound as did a chambered nautilus, and he walked down quickly, one hand on the banister taking pleasure in the mild centrifugal force of the descent, the flash of his passage in silvered mirrors stepped into the foyer, glancing at the seascape, a study of icebergs in some northern sea, hanging against the brown paper, looked through the archway at the hall stand with its coats like headless bodies, taking satisfaction in the carved chair, the electroplated card receiver with the head of Hadrian staring at the beaded doorknob. He noted the sweep of herled feathers in a jardiniere that was new felt the usual irritation at his squabby reflection in the hall-stand mirror. He yawned.
A Boston fern on an octagonal plant table colored the breakfast room with a greenish light reflected by the mirrored sideboard; he glanced at his wife's orchids in the fogged Wardian case, sighed and stretched and yawned. There was the faint bitter smell of damp tea leaves from an early sweeping. A doth embroidered with trumpet vine covered the table, on the walnut sideboard, carved with dead hares and pheasants, waited a silver cover, the coffeepot over a pale flame, his grandmother's cut-glass decanter. More than any other room this one expressed his wife's vivid pleasure, pitched fever high as the tuberculosis advanced, in exotic blooms, marble and mirrors, crystal, silver and green, velvet. More than that she had been ill for months with nervous prostration after a terrifying incident as they walked out of the house at dusk, she leaning on his arm, and an owl swooped on the decorative bird adorning her hat, the striking talons laying open her scalp to the bone, blood everywhere, and he smelling the hot, louse-ridden feathers as the bird beat upward, carrying away the hat. The children's Astley-Cooper chairs, for straight posture, stood against the wall; the boys and the girl all slumped.
He tipped the coffeepot, releasing the aroma of chicory and dark-roasted Martinique, blew on the black liquid. Too hot. He set the cup down, took his glass of anisette between thumb and forefinger, swallowed a drop or two. In the oval wall glass his reflection swallowed as well. The smell of levee mud and brackish water lingered. He drank the coffee. His temples were pounding. Again the anisette and the coffee. His Times-Picayune was not on the table. No telling how much of the trial he'd missed. He'd followed it avidly until he was called away to the damaged levee. He rang the bell.
"Where is the paper?" He said it even though he saw it on the tray she carried.
"Just come, sah. They late this morning."
He shook it open nothing on the front page but the trial: ah, gone to the jury yesterday jabbed appreciatively at his stuffed oxtail, disliked by the rest of the household, and began to eat, the tines of the fork seeking out truffle moons.
The fork stopped in midair, sank again to the gold-rimmed plate. He brought the paper's details closer to his eyes. He had thought the headline read "Nine Guilty," but, unbelievably, it was "None Guilty"!
They had tampered with the jury. Yes, New Orleans was drenched in blood these years, the loathsome Italians murdering each other, that was all right, they could kill each other until the last one dropped, but they were assassinating the innocent and upright as well, and all out of a depraved greed for the banana trade, the banana trade!, he thought of a ridiculous music hall song he had heard in London, "I Sella da Banan'" a festering foreign corruption was rotting Louisiana's heart. The Black Hand had killed Captain Hennessy. It was known, known. All of these Mafias and Camorras. The endless labor problems of the docks, strikes and the threats of screwmen. All of it tied to the city's eternal problem of letting white men and niggers work together nowhere but in New Orleans half and half, snarling trade in knots with their insane rules, encouraging miscegenation and rebellion. White men? Foreigners. Irish and Italians. Socialists. They were dirty, diseased and dangerous incendiaries who did not know their place. Why in the name of God had the businessmen ever encouraged the Italians to come, what had made them think they could replace the shiftless blacks? Oh, the Italians worked well enough at first, but they were greedy and cagey, their first thought to push to the forefront. At least niggers knew their place, knew what could happen. Now look at that greasy dago Archivi, who had leeched his way to the throat of the city's commerce, who had been received in Pinse's own house, who had looked at his wife's orchids, had praised them and simpered over them. Treat the Italians well and see what happens. They were dangerous. They went too far. Give an inch and they would seize the city.
And barely any action taken until private citizens forced the authorities to arrest and bring the Italians to trial naive belief in justice. Now that trust in the law had been cynically betrayed. None Guilty! This slippery call of acquittal and mistrial was the final mocking proof of corruption in high places, proof of Italian fixing and fiddling, of crooked foreigner-loving lawyers and perverted law. It was vomiting cowardice, unendurable to men of honor.
His racing eyes devoured the page, the sketches of the courtroom, the faces of the Italian assassins especially that whinging, bucktoothed, chinless and craven poltroon Politz, Polizzi, whatever his name was, he who had been carried bodily, weeping and fainting, from the courtroom during trial, he with the lying, hard-faced mistress, he who had confessed, Polizzi, declared a mistrial? And in the right-hand columns, there were the portraits of that other set of criminals, the jurors, headed by the Jew jeweler, Jacob M. Seligman, smirking as he told the reporter, "we had a reasonable doubt." The home address and place of business of each juryman was given. Good! They would know where to find them. And here was the bearing question; the reporter asked juror William Yochum, a weak-faced little rat: "Did you hear of any of the persons having been approached before the trial?" No, he had heard of no such thing, the lying, slithering vole.
Approached? Of course the jurors were approached, approached and embraced, their palms clasped in golden Italian handshakes, their shoulders enwrapped by the oily arms of the moneymen of the Black Hand and, he didn't doubt, of Hebrew Jewish bankers behind the whole scheme.
He tore the pages as he turned to the editorials. "AT THE FEET OF CLAY. Elsewhere we print an advertisement...a mass meeting at the foot of the Clay statue...expressed object of the meeting...what it is intended to do...doubtless murdered by Italians, but not by the Italians as a race...Let us have no race prejudice..." Rubbish, rubbish. He searched for the advertisement, missed it, went back and found it at the bottom of the editorial page itself where his hand had obscured it.
MASS MEETING! All good citizens are invited to attend a mass meeting on Saturday, March 14, at 10 o'clock a.m., at Clay statue, to take steps to remedy the failure of justice in the Hennessy case. Come prepared for action.
Come prepared for action. It could be no clearer. And below were the alphabetically ordered names of prominent men, though not, of course, his own. He had no wish to see the name Pinse on the same roster as certain men. His eyes lingered on, returned to the place where the inky show of his name would have fallen. The clock chimed the quarter hour. The streets would be jammed. He stood up, thrusting the chair back. The air would clear his headache. The half-eaten oxtail lay on his plate.
In the hall he put on his derby, glancing at himself in the mirror, and fumbled through the sticks in the umbrella stand until he found the staff he had bought in England years before on a walking tour of the Lake District. Why had he not purchased the ebony walking stick with the lead-weighted head he'd seen in London? Come prepared for action. He shook the staff, knocking askew a box of stereopticon photographs, sending to the floor the novel scene of two black men hanging an alligator from a limb, a rope knotted around its neck, the men grinning and straining against the weight. He had his revolver.
Halfway down the drive, stubbing the staff so vigorously that the ferrule dug at the crushed oyster shell, he heard Joppo running behind him. The stableman hauled up, panting and jerking his head.
"What is it? I can't delay now."
"Sah, sah, we got a king back of the stable, big rat king, sah, swear to Jesus real big."
"Ah!" He had seen only one in his life, years before, down in the family's cotton warehouse on the docks, a horror of a thing. "How big?" He loathed rats and vermin; had been a child in the years of the yellow fever plague, when thousands of people died, when his mother died, and they fired the cannons day and night until his head ached from the sound, they burned barrels of tar in the streets to drive out the pestilence spread by fetid vapors, scuttling creatures and foreigners, the invisible seeds of disease spraying out from their loose mouths. Even now the memory of the relentless booming induced a hopeless mood and migraine headache that sent him to the sofa in his darkened study for days. He remembered the corpses stacked on the wharf, from a distance resembling goods ready for shipment. Yes, a shipment to hell, his grandfather had called it, and the rain streaming down the window glass while in the yellow streets the dead carts rolled.
Joppo held up both hands twice twenty.
"Some a them dead, some a them rotten meat."
He strode quickly across the grass toward the stable, Joppo lumbering after him and describing the rat king, who had discovered it, how they jabbed and dragged it out from under the floor with a yam fork, the supposed weight and mass.
There was a crowd behind the stable, his stable hands, the cook twisting her apron, some of Colonel Sawday's darkies coming through the gap in the hedge, falling back when they saw him.
They had it out ten or twelve feet from the wall, a circle of rats perhaps three feet across, the animals facing outward, their tails gripped and twisted in an inextricable tangle from which none could escape. Several of the rats were dead, others showing bright blood on them from the yam fork's action, and a few gnashing their brown teeth defiantly. He counted them, ticking each on the head with his stick: eighteen. Close enough to twenty. A filthy sight, this rotting clutch; terrible that it had been squealing and scrabbling under his stable floor.
"Better club them." He hurried away to the street, hearing the clicking teeth and stick thumps.
At the feet of Clay
Where Canal and Royal converged, hundreds of men carrying sticks and clubs, some with pistols or rifles, crowded around the statue of Clay. Three men stood on the base of the statue itself, above the crushing people, above the sea of bobbing derbies and slouch hats that gave the effect of a choppy black lake.
He saw the face of Biles, known to him, a face resembling that of a deer, with his forward snout and fawn-colored muttonchops. Biles raised his stick.
"Pinse! Wondered if I'd see you here, sir. Didn't see your name in the paper."
"No. Not in the same list as I've been up at the levee break."
"This is truly something, isn't it?"
"They mean business."
"Oh yes. It was all arranged last night. There are some who see we've got to stop this tumult, this labor nightmare. Pinse, recall the screwmen's strike last year. My sister had five thousand bales of cotton on the dock, not an inch of warehouse room, and the ships riding high and empty. Then the rain. Did you ever see rain like it? Never. And not a bastard would touch a bale. She lost fifteen dollars a bale."
Pinse snorted into his linen handkerchief. His nose felt swollen inside and his temples throbbed. "I've been saying it for years. The dominant American class must assert itself or lose everything. We're overrun by the mongrels of Europe. I tell you, this flood of immigrants I've heard it said in some quarters that the Pope is behind it, that it is a secret and massive effort to seize this country for Catholicism. My wife is Catholic, but I begin to wonder if there is not some truth in the statement."
"You should have seen it last night in Dagotown a parade with twenty saints, flags flying, singing and music, candles, a parade. They were all drunk. They think they have got away with it, you see."
Men shouted and gestured, pushed a way through the crowd, the shifting glint of rifle and shotgun barrels. The three men on the platform before bronze-visaged Clay waited to speak, their glances casting over the crowd. One raised his hands for silence. He began, his voice growing louder as he described the treachery of the jury, the evil machinations of the Italians. "...was a noble man. No one in this country knew more about the Italian desperado than he, no one was braver than he in the face of threats from the dago Camorra."
Biles sniggered in Pinse's ear, "nor readier to hold out his hand for dago money." His black buckeyes shone.
"Will every man here follow me and see the murder of a brave man vindicated?"
A thick-bellied man dressed in a rumpled black suit, his face contorted with passion, climbed halfway onto the base of the statue and screamed, "hang the dagos! Hang the dirty murdering dagos!"
"Who is that?" asked Pinse.
"I don't know. The rabble turn out for these things."
The three came down and began to make their way toward Congo Square and the Parish Prison. The crowd surged forward with a sound like a great engine. Whores leaned from half-opened windows above the street. Near Congo Square a wash of ragged blacks filtered into the crowd. Somewhere sticks were rattling and a man scraped at a fiddle.
"You gonna see a different dance than the 'Hog Face'! Come on, niggers!"
At the prison the mob washed up against the steel main door in subsiding waves, cursing their puny crowbars and sledgehammers. For a few minutes indecision ran around the edges of the crowd.
"There's a wood door at Treme Street," shouted someone. At once the mass of people, black and white, sucked back from the main door and flowed like some viscous human lava toward Treme Street, seizing railroad ties from a work site as they went.
Ten or twelve men rushed at the Treme Street door with a squared tie, the crowd shouting HAH with each lunge. HAH HAH HAH.
The jailer fixed his eyes on Frank Archivi, his whiskey breath tiding in and out. "They are coming. The door can't hold. Hide. Anyplace you can in the prison best chance is the women's section, upstairs!"
"For the love of Christ, man, give us some guns!" Archivi's face was the color of cold bacon grease.
The planks tore from the hinges.
Some of them raced up the stairs into the women's section. Silvano darted into an empty cell and crawled under the mattress. He lay flat against the raw boards. His ears pounded, his back tried to arch. He was rigid with fear, could not control his bladder.
In the street an immense black man came toward the oak door carrying a boulder. He crashed it against the lock plate. A tremendous shout went up as the metal burst and the door sprang open. The mob surged up the stairs, Pinse not far from the front clenching his walking stick.
A guard shouted to them, voice cracking with excitement. "Third floor. They are up on the women's floor."
A hundred men thundered up, the stairs creaking and groaning under their thudding feet, and before them the prisoners fled down the back stairs and out into the yard. The gate was locked. Beyond was the street. They could look into the street, jammed with men. The delighted Americans, roaring with triumph, poured into the yard and the Sicilians, their arms linked, crowding together, shrank into a corner. The accordion maker saw the approaching men with searing clarity, a loose thread on a coat, mud-spattered trouser legs, a logging chain in a big hand, the red shine of the engorged faces, a man with one blue and one yellow eye. Even then he hoped to be saved. He was innocent!
Pinse held his revolver loosely in his hand, had lost the staff in the rush up the stairs, so crowded it had been, looked at the Sicilians knotted in the corner, their wicked eyes glittering, some of them pleading and praying the cowards! He thought of the rat king, fired. Others fired.
A barrage of bullets and shot of every caliber and weight tore the Sicilians. The accordion maker reared twice and fell back.
A headache cure
At the Treme Street door the crowd had Polizzi, limp and bloody, spittle cascading down his receding chin, but still breathing. They tossed him high into the air, into the hands of other men who seized him and tossed him like a chip above their heads for the length of a block, a game to throw him high, a feat of strength to catch him, until on the corner of St. Ann Street someone strung a rope from the lamppost and put the noose around his neck.
A voice shouted, "twis' a hang-knot thirteen time or it be bad luck!" Up, up the limp form, raised by shouts and cheers as well as hemp. The body rotated, then, miraculously, the legs of the hanging man jerked, the scrawny arms lifted and the hands seized the rope; a revived Polizzi began climbing up the rope, hand over hand, toward the lamp bracket. There was a thrilled gasp.
"My god!" shouted Biles. Someone in the crowd shot, then many men in sudden laughter, betting who could shoot out an eye, take off the end of Polizzi's long nose. The arms dangled loose forever.
"That's enough for me," said Biles. "I haven't the stomach for this kind of thing. But something had to be done." He retched, apologized.
"Come," said Pinse, taking his friend's elbow and steering him toward a street they both knew well. "You need something. Our duty is done." His headache seemed a little better.
At the Cotton Guild's bar he said, "two sazeracs" to Cooper, and when the heavy tumblers came, both swallowed the golden drink as though it were water, and Biles snapped his fingers for two more, turned to Pinse, offered him a Havana oscuro from his leather case and took one for himself. He wet the head of the cigar in his red mouth and with the nail of the little finger on his right hand, grown especially long for this chore, slit the wrapper and took the burning match proffered by Cooper.
"We are setting up a new company to handle the trade," said Biles. "With a gentleman you know well. Your name was mentioned. We think of calling it Hemisphere Fruit."
The crowds surged through the prison inspecting the dead men, kicking the bloodied Archivi who held an Indian club in his stiffening hand, snatched up from somewhere in the last minutes.
A guard discovered Silvano under the mattress and, with his fingers knotted in Silvano's hair, half dragged him down to the hall where the corpses of the Italians had been arranged in a display like a butcher's cutlets. Outside in the street celebratory music erupted, a horn and a harmonica full of spit on which someone played fast sucking chords, shouting between pulls on the reeds eeh! chord hanh! chord eehh! chord and the same scraping fiddle, the rattling drum. Silvano's damaged father sfortunato! lay on his back, bloody head propped against the wall so that his chin rested on his sternum. His arms, in their lacerated coat sleeves, stretched along his sides as though he lay at attention. The trousers rode up on his shins and the feet pointed outward, the soles of the shoes worn through. The guard watched the boy's distorted face, seemed eased by Silvano's wretchedness and pushed him along to the warden's office where a roomful of Americans pressed in, demanding answers from him, shouting questions in his face, asking for details of how the accordion maker had murdered the chief. One after another knocked him off the chair. A man seized his ears and jerked him to his feet.
"Tell us how he lay in wait and shot." They cuffed and mauled, someone pressed a lighted cigar against his lip. Suddenly they rushed away when someone said "rum," and the guard wordlessly thrust Silvano out the door and into the street.
(Decades later the great-grandson of this guard, intelligent and handsome, enrolled as a medical student; he served as a donor of sperm at the medical center's in vitro fertilization program and was the maker of more than seventy children reared by other men. He accepted no money for his contribution.)
He crouched on the wharf afraid to move, mosquitoes whining around him under a sky like black paint, ribbons of distant lightning curling from it. His throat was raw with suppressed weeping. A shrill tinnitus rang in his left ear. Hopelessness filled him as a chord of organ music fills a hall. A whistle sounded from a clark recess, a kind of zipping flourish as though someone were blowing a carnival prize whistle, and he folded his arms over his head, believing the Americans were coming again, would kill him this time. He waited for them to advance with their pistols and ropes but no one came. The whistler was silent and rain began, hard drops like thrown coins, then a pelting tropical downpour as warm as blood. He got up and stumbled toward the black bulk of the warehouses. The cobbles streamed. He counted his mother rigid with paralysis, his unlucky father dead, the impossibly distant village, his lost sisters and aunts, himself stranded penniless in this wild hostile world. He despised his father for being dead. A hardness began to form in his chest, a red stone of hatred, not for Americans but for the foolish, weak Sicilian father who had failed to learn American ways and let himself be killed. He made his way downriver in the shadow of warehouses, passing the steamboats and freighters, the flat-bottomed wood boats, moving toward the stink of fish and bilge.
A few shrimp boats were tied up at the dock, others moored a hundred feet out in the river. Someone was whistling the same three notes over and over, a rough Sicilian voice said something about being sick, two drunk American voices cursed each other. One boat was silent except for the sound of snoring, a choking snort followed by a gurgle. The name on the stern was American: Texas Star. He dropped onto the deck of this boat and curled up behind the stacks of reeking baskets, pulled his shirt over his head against the mosquitoes. "Bob Joe," he said quietly in American, burning with hatred for Sicilians. "My name are Bob Joe. I work for you, please."
A hundred miles up the river, Pollo sat on the deck of a wood boat tied up for the night, half watching for a steamer and ready to call out "wood ho, wood ho" to any passing fireman running low on fuel, all the while squeezing the green accordion and singing,
I think I heared the Alice when she blowed,
I think I heared the Alice when she blowed,
She blow just like a trumpet when I git on board.
Fish Man slid the blade of his bowie knife against his guitar strings making silvery, underwater notes, slapping a little at mosquitoes, but thinking, yeah, why we on this wood scow instead a the Alice Adams is Pollo make trouble and I git it when he git it. The light of the flickering fire they had built on shore reflected in the red metal eyes of the accordion.
"You playin like a fool," said Pollo. Fish Man said nothing and hummed.
But in the ashy light before dawn Fish Man crept to Pollo and slid five inches of string-honed steel between his ribs. He cut the charm bag with its gold coin from around his neck and eased the thrashing body over the side. Under a sky the tender violet of the oyster's inner shell, he cast off and began to pole upstream against the sluggish current, taking the accordion along for the ride.
Copyright © 1996 by Dead Line, Ltd.
Illustrations copyright © 1996 by John MacDonald