The Endby Salvatore Scibona
It is August 15, 1953, the day of a boisterous and unwieldy street carnival in Elephant Park, an Italian immigrant enclave in northern Ohio. As the festivities reach a riotous pitch and billow into the/b>/i>/i>/i>
An incredible debut and National Book Award-nominated novel?it's ?Memento meets Augie March. Didion meets Hitchcock? (Esquire).
It is August 15, 1953, the day of a boisterous and unwieldy street carnival in Elephant Park, an Italian immigrant enclave in northern Ohio. As the festivities reach a riotous pitch and billow into the streets, five members of the community labor under the weight of a terrible secret. As these floundering souls collide, one day of calamity and consequence sheds light on a half century of their struggles, their follies, and their pride. And slowly, it becomes clear that buried deep in the hearts of these five exquisitely drawn characters is the long-silenced truth about the crime that twisted each of their worlds.
Cast against the racial, spiritual, and moral tension that has given rise to modern America, this first novel exhumes the secrets lurking in the darkened crevices of the soul of our country. Inventive, explosive, and revelatory, The End introduces Salvatore Scibona as an important new voice in American fiction.
“A masterful novel set amid racial upheaval in 1950s America during the flight of second-generation immigrants from their once-necessary ghettos. Full of wisdom, consequence, and grace, Salvatore Scibona's radiant debut brims with the promise of a remarkable literary career, of which The End is only the beginning.” Annie Dillard
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By SALVATORE SCIBONA
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
Chapter One He was five feet one inch tall in street shoes, bearlike in his round and jowly face, hulking in his chest and shoulders, nearly just as stout around the middle, but hollow in the hips, and lacking a proper can to sit on (though he was hardly ever known to sit), and wee at the ankles, and girlish at his tiny feet, a man in the shape of a lightbulb. He was faintly green-skinned, psoriatic about the elbows and the backs of the knees, his shaven cheeks untouched by scars of any sort, faithful to a fault to his daily labors, grudgeless against the wicked world, thankful for it, even; a baker of breads with and without seeds, modest cakes, seasonal frosted treats; supplier to all the neighborhood and occasional passers-through; a reader of the p.m. papers, as all of his vocation are, born on the feast of Saint Lucy, 1895; a prideful Ohioan; a sucker of caramel candies when cigarettes he forbade himself from eight o'clock to two; possessor of a broad and seamless brow and a head of sleek black undulant hair, the eyes goonish, unnaturally pale and blue, set deep in the skull in swollen rain-cloud pouches, the eyes of one poisoned with lead, who had not in all his days addressed a piece of speech to more than two persons at once; a looker-right-through-you if he pleased, as old cats look, accustomed to suffering the company of others but always in need of privacy; the baker of Elephant Park; an unambitious businessman; a soul liberated from worry by luck and self-conquest; a weak hearted sparer of the rod with his boys; a measured drinker of spirits who prayed daily for the salvation of his sons and wife; a smoker nevertheless immune to colds and grippes; an ignorer of the weather; a lover of streaks, content and merciful; an unremarkable Christian.
The day's fifteen hours of labor he divided into three parts: six in the kitchen, solitary; six at the register in front, where he experienced the slow wringing-out of self exacted by the company of others not his own; three again in back, solitary once more unless one of his boys attended him. He was the father of three sons.
Of these it was never the first or last who pried open the back-alley bakery door, the hickory-dickory-dock door, it was called, and came inside to sit post school with his father while he worked. It was the middle one, unfriended, while the others were lost to the streets. It was Mimmo only ever who came and kept company with him, a boy mute, imperious, sweetly piss-smelling, stool-top observer of things spectral and material, who instead of football and coal-thieving from the rail yards opened the alley-oop door, as it was also called (there wasn't any handle and the lock was long busted, but a stick wedged in the bottom right corner would send it swinging), and unlonesomed the hottest hours in the back of the bakery afternoons, when the ovens smoldered for the night and the glass doors that opened for the public were locked and blinded. In truth the baker wished his first or last would come instead, the two that owned their mother's talent for flattery, chin-wagging, exuberant high-pitched singing of patriotic songs, not to say of scrubbing and sweeping.
Despite all his thrift and toil, he had failed throughout the boys' younger years to lay up enough treasure in this world to provide a private room for their sleeping-all three shared a Murphy bed in the parlor-or, in truth, at times, to furnish the Sunday table with meat or poultry; or to purchase decorator items to enliven the parlor walls, or flounces for the curtain hems, or a sign of any kind to label the bakery storefront; or to pay an assistant's wage, so that all the bakery's many chores he did himself. The boys he kept in school. Their mother rolled counterfeit Cuban cigars at the kitchen table.
D'Agostino, the usurer that owned the consignment store, one of his clientele, told him it was the superstition that you couldn't spend what you didn't yet have that had kept the serfs in the fields. "You can't even afford a spinster to punch the till buttons and shell your almonds, which goes to show," he argued.
No, but it went to show instead the limit of what the baker should hope to own. He understood that America had become great by extending the right to earn money even to money itself, but this was to his mind a practice of the uttermost corruption, since out of whose hands was the first money taking the second money but those of the man who had made it in the sweat of his brow? And therefore no account at any bank bore his name, since where would the interest have come from? Usury! Although he otherwise felt toward his chosen country a tenderness only such as he had seen young girls struggle to conceal for their fathers.
His hopes instead were unpurchasable and plain. He knew what they were-well, he knew what one of them was, he could describe it in words but wouldn't tell you if you asked because it was not for your ears. He was only a modest person, was not eminent in any way, and his clientele, even the children among them, did not use his family name but called him Rocco, as though he were their servant or cousin.
He was susceptible to dread.
At the least expected time of sweet lonesomeness, in the earliest of morning hours, while he bumbled down the bepuddled alleys beneath the tenement balconettes, where in summer months the caged-in children snored beneath the washing, under the yellow-dark clouds of coal smoke, dread leapt from the shadows and pounded him in his face. Or later, at four in the a.m., while he filled the proofing shelves with the day's 180 oblong loaves, slowly but slowly rising all around him, all white (picture a colossus in a mausoleum of innocents); or while he was coaling the oven, the dread descended and clocked him. At such times, what could he do to protect himself but name the dread and hope that that would sap its force? So he spoke inwardly the Biblical warning that described it so much better than he could on his own and described as well what his role was in the universal scheme and the consequences of failing in that role. The first time he heard it was at the mass for the last one's baptism. Monsignor read it in Latin, and he didn't follow; then in Italian, and he wasn't paying any attention; then in English, and it did its terrible work: "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse."
He was the father of three sons. He loved them so, as the Lord required. Mrs. Loveypants, their mother, also called Luigina, was beloved of him, too, but collaterally, as the vessel by which his boys had blessed him.
They were boys, and therefore their souls were unfinished and their habits impressible. The first discovered the eating of salt with watermelon, and the middle and last took the habit up shamelessly, imitating also the first's wincing and puckering, and shot the seeds off their tongues like savages at passing dogs. They ran away from home and yet came back. They were innocent of resolve. They were as vulnerable to their surroundings as mold. For this he might have congratulated them: They were Americans after all, who felt nerves where older nations felt fear, and a million possible nervous selves crowded around them, clamoring to be chosen, and his eager boys looked perpetually in all directions for the one they most desired to be, always in a state of becoming. He himself, on the other hand, had long since finished becoming and therefore faced fewer, more concentrated, and infinitely more terrifying uncertainties-the hour of his death, the resilience of his faith in the Lord. He might have congratulated them if only he could have assured himself that all of their becoming would at some point in early adulthood conclude and they would experience the benefits of having become: the ease of physical comportment, the directness of gaze and speech, the freedom from the desire to seem, also the ability to pray without requesting something for oneself. His own father had a word that described this, and here was Rocco's hope, the thing he wouldn't have told you because it wasn't yours and he didn't want to dishonor it by explaining. It was something he wanted for his boys, whom he loved as himself-he hoped that the boys, once men, would harden. Think of a brick in a kiln. His father had achieved this, his grandfather more so, and it was evinced by the rain-cloud pouches about their eyes. "Don't associate with people who touch their faces while they talk to you," said his father. "That's not what the hands are for."
Now, take his boys. He did not understand why they must always be smiling! They were taught in the schools to shake hands with strangers while widely showing the teeth, as if they were horses offered for inspection. They were not horses! They were Christian persons, but they laughed at what wasn't funny because they desired above all things not to become hard but to become liked, and it made Rocco's blood boil because they were putting themselves up for sale. And in his eyes, as in the eyes of the Lord, they were beyond price.
Three boys, one two three, and him their father, and Loveypants.
One of his cousins had had a cousin he wanted Rocco to meet, and that was Loveypants (although yet to acquire the name), and they had gotten married. All right, it was marginally more complicated than that. This was in the city of Omaha, in the Nebraska, where he had immigrated at first and found work goading steers onto and off the trains. Woodrow Wilson had just had his stroke, and Rocco was in grief on account of Edith, the young bride who had rescued Wilson from his widowerhood. Furthermore, as the Spanish flu plagued the wider world, where was Rocco's place of work but a rail yard, among trains that had come from far-off infected ports in the east, south, and west. It was like the heat of a furnace, this dread, like the hot breath of the Lord blowing on him, saying, Harden. So he said to Loveypants, with whom he'd been sharing insufficiently reserved boxcar liaisons, "I guess we'd better get married." To which she responded, "We agree." And due to his already having shamed her, he received no dowry, which was not unjust.
Loveypants, Luigina, drove a spear through the heart of the Rocco of becoming and watched it beat its last. Once he was hardened, his father had prophesied, the things of his softness would look shameful to him, and so they did. And he abandoned salooning, urinating from high windows, weekly letters home to Mother in Catania, and finally the Nebraska itself, and bought two train tickets eastward and two sets of new underclothes. What remained of the life of the Rocco of becoming was little else but Loveypants, who herself had hardened admirably, and to whom the name Loveypants (her boxcar name, her own invention, which she preferred) did not apply anymore in the same degree, but a word is a harder thing to spear and kill than a person.
In December 1919, Loveypants and Rocco reached their destination and disembarked from the train. Her hair was in tangles. Snow caught in the fuzz of her limp cloth coat. The tin reinforcing cups on the corners of her trunk hissed on the ice as she dragged it by a belt tied to its handle, while the other baggage she carried in a tarpaulin bundle on her back. Down the Ohio road she pulled her things, pregnant, singing to him.
Four and a half years later, which would be three years into his apprenticeship under the baker Modiano, the old man, anticipating retirement, offered to lease the bakery to Rocco until he had the cash to buy it outright. How was he to raise the money? For a day, he considered, and then, in a flash, his plan came to him: He would simply open the store every day. Without exception. The Sabbath be damned, and Christmas and Pentecost. Loveypants was not the only one to express skepticism about this plan, but he proceeded in the teeth of doubting Thomases and Tomasinas.
Therefore his streak began, and his fidelity to it was absolute down the many years, and labor coursed continually over his willing shoulders as though he had determined to build his house under a waterfall.
"But now begins a journey in my head, to work my mind, when body's work's expired," recited the green-eyed first one, standing atop the down-folded Murphy bed in the parlor while Loveypants prompted him from a school reader; and Rocco, despite his own best efforts, saw his focus go slack, and splayed himself on the rug, the bag-of-bones last one that would not eat his father's bread tucked inside Rocco's night coat, the middle one, the Buddha, his legs crossed, watching from his accustomed perch within the armoire. From Rocco consciousness began to take its nightly four-hour leave. What he would give to forswear sleep! If God was good, on the other side he'd give Rocco back such hours that sleeping took, post supper in the parlor, the spit of the papoose on his sleeve.
Loveypants applauded. The armoire hinges complained as the middle one shut himself inside. And Rocco slept.
And trouble came.
No sooner had he finally bought the old man out, after fifty-two months of leasing, than the store began to sink. It was the beginning of the panic. Free enterprise was bunk after all. For example: A child needs milk for his bones but his father can't afford any; a certain Swede of the father's acquaintance, a dairy farmer on the South Side, dumps fifty gallons daily of whole cow's milk that nobody can afford to buy into the swill for his hogs. There is supply, there is demand, but there is no money. And yet money doesn't exist, really; it's more a theory; and so the root cause of so much waste was the lack of something that did not exist. For example: The loaf that Rocco slides from his peel onto the cooling rack has a splendidly chewy crumb, holes of many sizes and shapes, a light crust that shatters against the teeth. It has, at the moment he opens his store, just reached room temperature and is at its peak of texture and taste. In comes his clutch of clients who neglect entirely this living object of his art for yesterday's dead leavings, available to them at half price. Today's will sell tomorrow. God bless us.
He had no debts but his boys weren't fed so his streak endured.
With Roosevelt came relief, and Rocco was nearly ruined. Bread they gave for free to anybody willing to wait in line. Cotton wool, he should say. Soap foam. Fermented for only an hour and a half (he asked one of the miserable scabs employed to bake it) and cooked in a lukewarm gas-fired oven. Now the bread that issued from Rocco's oven on a Wednesday morning was the fulfillment of dough he'd started Sunday night. Look at the blistery, bark like surface of the thing he made. Put it in your mouth and press it with your tongue. He asked the Lord what had become of shame. Meantime, agents of the federal government were buying piglets and sows and incinerating them in a starving nation because they were not expensive enough. In the winter, to save on coal, Rocco and the boys and Loveypants slept in cots in the bakery kitchen. The last boy got scurvy. Briefly, Loveypants believed that she was pregnant again, but malnutrition had merely made her monthly irregular. Then her mother, living in the New Jersey now and widowed, wrote on a postcard that through the intercession of a certain Alfred, step brother of the deceased father, Loveypants could obtain full-time employment there in a union candy bar factory. This uncle offered as well a bed in his home-there, in the New Jersey-that could sleep two in one direction and perhaps a third crosswise at the foot, if this third, the postcard concluded, was shorter than four feet tall.
This is the tale of the man whose bucket leaked on his way home from the well.
Here is what they did. She took the first and last with her and the middle stayed with Rocco. Once the store prospered again they would regroup themselves.
Mimmo, the middle one, Mimmino, now the baron unchallenged of all the parlor, was no longer called upon to share the water in his bath. When a chicken could be found, both drumsticks were his, and the fat gleamed on his great teeth. Within a year he overgrew his father. He undressed himself while standing on the furnace grate, a suit of white flesh, immaculate, grown from Rocco's meager seed, and Rocco pulled the bed down from the wall and threw the blankets on the boy, and doused the light. He could not bake or add or sew or read and would not learn. Mornings, five hours after Rocco had left him mid sleep in the house, he stumbled into the bakery for his breakfast. He sat and ate an egg and ate a roll. Rocco dripped some oil upon his comb and pulled it through the boy's unruly, nigrous hair.
Excerpted from THE END by SALVATORE SCIBONA Copyright © 2008 by Salvatore Scibona. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Salvatore Scibona's fiction has been published in The Threepenny Review and the Pushcart Prize anthology. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, he is the writing coordinator at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
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