Al Santamaria is a child prodigy, maybe a genius. It is not out of the realm of possibility that he, alone, will save the human race. But first, he has to solve a far more urgent problem: finding a home for his family.
He exists, like many kids, in a realm located somewhere between reality and fantasy, enjoying time with imaginary friends and wielding his magical powers. He has a wonderful relationship with his father, Mario Elvis, and his mother, Agnese, and he’s convinced he has the best family in the world.
But life isn’t all roses for the Santamaria family. They are typical of many Italian families today, whose existences seem suspended between conflicting impulses: on the one hand, delusions of grandeur and immoderate ambition, and on the other nostalgia for a past golden age and the secret wish that somebody, anybody, will come to their rescue. Big dreams, it appears, exist to be crushed.
But Al is not about to give up. He lives in a marvelous world of his own. He has the energy, imagination, and unselfconscious talents of a child. And, although he doesn’t know it yet, he is going to remain a child his entire life.
“An extended, guffaw-inducing, and sometimes tragic trip through Al’s young life. It reads like an Italian sitcom.”Foreword Reviews
“An amazing novel: it’ll move you and make you laugh.”Elle
“A plot shot through with the richness of Italian comedy and bright irony.”La Repubblica
|Publisher:||Europa Editions, Incorporated|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)|
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This year here is 1971, and it's called that because everything in the world has a name, except for the years, which have numbers instead. In the year called 1971 a whole bunch of things are breaking. A piece of Pakistan called Bangladesh broke off, a friend of Papà called Jim Morrison got broken, and also I hear that a valve broke on the spaceship Soyuz 11. Mamma always says that when one thing breaks, then other things break in a chain reaction, that's what she said just last week when the blender, the washing machine, and the record player broke. So now that the flames are breaking this plastic wastebasket, I blame the washing machine. Or maybe Jim Morrison. My mother's exact words were these: "Try to be good for ten minutes. I have to go talk to your teacher and will be right back, is that clear?" My mother is an old lady, age thirty-five, with dark brown hair, and when she talks to me with her eyes glued to me that way it means I'm supposed to answer her: "That's clear, Mamma," but not just any old way, I'm supposed to say it really carefully, staring her in the eyes. Her name is Agnese because she's very pretty, otherwise her name would be Carla or Gertrude, which seems obvious, right? My father says that she looks like Princess Grace, and that the big difference between them is that the other one has the finest makeup artists and hairdressers constantly on call, while Mamma uses practically no makeup and she cuts her own hair. Anyway, the old lady told me to be good and I said to her: "Got it, Mamma," or actually: "G-g-g-got it, Mamma," because I'm four years old, I have black hair, and I have a stuttering problem. According to my father, it's an ignition problem, our Fiat 600 has the same problem and the mechanic said it isn't serious. Sometimes we both get our motors flooded, me and the 600. Mamma asked me if I understood and I answered yes, properly, with the gaze that always works and that made me an angel in the Christmas pageant. I'm not a disobedient little boy, it's just that I constantly have to fight some idea that's just popped into my head. I'm going to climb on top of the table now, no I have to be good, I'm going to go in the bathroom and play with water now, no I have to be good, I'm going to throw something out the window now, no I have to be good, I'm going to climb up the bookshelf now, no I have to be good, I'm going to take a roll of toilet paper and throw it down the hallway now, no I have to be good. But you can't win them all, so the wastebasket burns. When something catches on fire, Mamma asks me: "Why did you do it?" That's a tough question. I took a box of matches because on August 12, 1969, Papà said: "In this house, there's no such thing as mine and yours, there's only ours"; I hid the matches in my pocket because at my house they hide everything, the jelly, the cookies, the toys, and all I've done is to watch and learn; and I set fire to the edge of the wastebasket because I felt like it, and that's that. A few days ago Papà had a long talk with me about the value of objects and respecting things that belong to others. That was a strange subject for a conversation, but talking to Papà is a happy thing and so I told him that I understood, even if I wasn't that sure I had. Stealing, breaking, and burning are only wrong if you get caught, is that right? In fact, I try to be very careful, I only want to melt a little bit of the edge of this wastebasket, let a few flaming drops fall onto the floor, and call the firemen. And do it fast, because the bellman is arriving. From what I've been able to figure out, he's in charge of the hallways and the bathrooms. The classrooms, on the other hand, belong to the Mother Superior, and the bellman is only allowed to come in every now and then to yell at us and say that us boys need to pee sitting down too, otherwise we make a tremendous mess.
"What's that terrible smell? ... Have you been burning something?" he asks me with a mean look on his face.
Papà says that I'm a great actor, that with this little angel face of mine I can con anyone. "To con" means to open my eyes really wide and make people believe that I really don't understand what they want from me.
"Me? No, no," I reply.
We stare each other in the eye, but since I practice every day with Mamma, I win the contest.
"It must be that damned electric plug again! If they don't fix it, this whole school is going to go up in flames!"
While the janitor goes into the classroom and gets down on his knees to sniff at the dangerous holes where you put electric plugs, I get tired of being a good boy and decide to go down to the end of the hallway, behind the door to my teacher's office. In there, people are talking about me, about Al Santamaria. Credit for the fact that my name is Al is due to my grandfather. Papà told us that Grandpa never asked for a thing in his whole life. He didn't talk much, if he wanted water he'd flick a fingernail against the edge of the glass, if he wanted silence he'd just say: "Oh!" The longest conversation in his life was with my father a minute before passing away. No, but the thing I have to remember to ask Papà is where he passed away to, exactly, and when he will be coming back. Anyway, a minute before passing away he said: "I was thinking that I'd like to be remembered, I'd like to ask you to give my name to your firstborn son. Oh, and one more thing, get that hair of yours cut." My father did as he'd been asked: he cut his hair very very short, after all, in a year it would grow back, and he named me Almerico, after all, everybody would just call me Al.
"Al is a very bright little boy, intelligent, surprisingly intelligent, believe me," says the teacher, "but I just can't get him to participate in classroom activities."
"Does he get distracted?" my mother asks.
"It's not that he gets distracted, it's that he just gets bored. He puts his fingers in his ears when the other children try to count to ten. He bangs his head on his desk when I try to teach them the sounds that the animals make ... but believe me, this is good news. Your son's intelligence is far above average, it's a natural gift."
A few seconds of silence.
"What's wrong? You seem upset by the news," says the teacher.
"No, it's just that I thought I'd been a really good mother, and instead it's just ... a natural gift."
That's simply the way Agnese is, sometimes she says funny things, but there's no two ways about it: on the hit list of Mammas, she's number one with a bullet. The teacher recommended that she have me do some things that are called "tests" and to send me straight to first grade. My mother said that she'd talk to her husband about it, and then something else about being normal and being happy that I didn't have a chance to hear very clearly because the man with the bell must have found the melted wastebasket, and started yelling.
I know I'm special. I write, read, and speak better than my sister, and she's four years older than me. I'm better at everything than her, though that's not saying much because Vittoria is a klutz. She's good at school too, sure, but she's been trying to tie her own shoes for two months and she still hasn't been able to do it once without knotting her finger into the bargain. I get bored at school because we always do the same things: we sing, we learn the colors, the names of things, and then we draw and draw and draw. All my classmates draw the same thing, their family standing next to a little house with a pointy red roof, two square windows, and a door in the middle, clearly they must live in the country. I live in a tall, light-brown apartment house, so I draw my family standing next to an apartment house that's tall and light brown. The only thing that's fun at school is when Sister Taddea tells us stories about the saints, who are the religious superheroes, but always sad. No one listens to her though, because while she talks she projects a series of badly drawn pictures on the classroom wall and everyone tells themselves their own personal stories with happy endings, without burnings at the stake or crucifixions. When Vittoria and I come home, Papà always greets us with the same wisecrack: "Did you get a nice thorough brainwashing today?" And we always say: "Yes, Papà, washed and prewashed." The only reason we say it is so that Mamma will come out of the kitchen and glare at us. She says that it's one of the best schools in the city, that it costs an arm and a leg, and that knowing the story of God and the Ten Commandments never did anyone any harm. I have to agree. And I'd also add that it never did anyone any good, either.CHAPTER 2
The headquarters of the Santamaria family is in Rome, in a neighborhood known as the Quartiere Ostiense. You enter a light-brown apartment house, you take the elevator, you push the button with the number four, then you ring the doorbell to apartment twelve and if Grandma doesn't have the volume turned on too high on the radio, you come right in. Inside there's a long hallway, on the right is the room Vittoria and I share, Grandma's room, then the bathroom and the kitchen; on the left is the living room with the sofa bed where Mamma and Papà sleep. It's our apartment, in exchange Papà only has to give the man who lives on the top floor a white envelope every month. The Santamaria family is "handy and conveniently compact," as my father likes to say. A grandmother, an uncle, and that's all, because what counts isn't quantity, it's something else that now I can't remember.
I'm very sorry for all the other children but in this family we've had shameless good luck, because not only do we have the number one mother, but we also happen to have the world's best Papà. His name is Mario but everyone calls him Elvis-everyone, except for my mother, who's too embarrassed. Elvis is his favorite singer, and he's so crazy about him that he not only listens to his songs, he even imitates the way he dresses and combs his hair. Papà is an astronaut first class; just for now he drives buses but in a few years he's going to get a license to become an Apollo commander. My mother, on the other hand, is a housewife, because when Mario Elvis is up in space, she'll have to become the chief officer of the earth base at Via del Gazometro 25, and that means she can't have a job, she has to be ready to take command whenever the need arises.
"Al, please, can you just sit up straight," Papà says to me.
"Stop being a dope and sit the way you're supposed to," Vittoria adds.
The first message comes in from outer space so my sister, who's in charge of radio communications, relays it to the control room. Just the way you see it in the movies. Vittoria has big front teeth like a rabbit, which is a word that we aren't allowed to use in our house. She has one jug ear, the right one, but then "jug" is another forbidden word. Her nose turns down at the end, and in fact, "aquilon," meaning north wind, or the place name "Aquitaine," or the saint "Thomas Aquinas," and especially the adjective "aquiline" are all words that we cannot utter. The strange thing is that all these mismatched pieces of her face, when put together, fit quite well and form a lovely sister. The real problem is her temper.
"Are you going to sit up straight?" she shouts.
My head, arms, and chest all point toward my plate, my legs gaze out at the toys scattered across the carpet, under the TV. It makes them mad.
"You see, Papà? He won't listen to me!" my sister complains.
By the time Mario Elvis turns around to look at me, my legs have rejoined the rest of my body. I manage to get a: "Good boy!" Let's see how the radio communications officer likes that. Mamma shows up with a panful of spaghetti, and as usual she serves my father first, because he's the man of the house, the head of the family, and that's just how it's done. The spaghetti lifts out of the pan in a single clump, like a flying saucer. Her work as a cook is clearly deep cover, Mamma is clearly meant for other duties. Grandma Concetta, who as a young woman, before becoming my grandma, was Agnese's mamma, must not have been briefed on the Santamaria family space program, because she shakes her head at the sight of the flying saucer made of pasta. At school they told us that old people are very wise, and in fact the president of the Italian republic and the pope are always very old, whenever they speak we must pay attention because we can learn a lot of things from them. That's why everytime Grandma Concetta speaks Vittoria and I turn to look at her and listen very closely. We've been doing it for years.
"You should have used a little more olive oil," says the old sage.
Mamma looks at her with a twisted, angry face. She ravages the flying saucer with savage blows of the fork.
"You do that, you'll scratch the pan," grumbles the old woman, wise and courageous to boot.
The future commander of the Apollo mission comes to the aid of the future commander of the earth base.
"It smells wonderful," he says.
From the mother ship, five drooping little shuttles break off and land on our plates.
"What do we have for the main course?" asks the radio communications officer.
Now the time comes to lay a booby trap for Mamma.
"What k-k-kind of meatballs? The ones all covered in sauce or the ones with nothing on them?" I ask.
"The kind you like, with nothing on them."
"No-o-o, I wanted them with sauce!"CHAPTER 3
Sunday is my favorite day. Right after Mass, at 10:30, the Santamaria family climbs into the car and sets out in search of the promised home. Mamma and Papà say that it's out there somewhere, but they don't know where. All they know is that it's beautiful, roomy, and full of light. This is how the game works: we pick a neighborhood and we drive around in it-actually, we jet around in it in our space vehicle-singing at the top of our lungs, while Vittoria and I keep our eyes peeled for signs reading "For Sale."
"C-c-commander Santamaria, for sale sign sighted on the right, street number 36," I announce.
"That's on the left, Al," the radio communications officer points out. "For sale sign sighted ... decipher secret code," Papà says.
Mamma jots down the secret code on a sheet of paper and the space vehicle zooms off in search of the nearest phone booth. "Only Mamma and Papà are going," she says when we spot one.
The old woman is joking. The sardine game is a happy thing and no parent can expect we're not going to play it every blessed time, even if it's 105 degrees in the shade, for the rest of our lives.
But it turns out I'm wrong, the old woman isn't joking: she puts on a serious face, levels her finger in our direction, and heads off, convinced she's settled the question.
"I HAVE A LACK OF AFFECTION-N-N-N-N!" I shout out the car window.
In one of Grandma's newspapers I read that "the violence spreading throughout the world of the young can be attributed to a lack of affection suffered during childhood." I didn't really understand it all, but it clearly means that if your parents fail to do what you tell them, then when you grow up, you're likely to wind up joining some motorcycle gang, robbing banks, or even shooting someone. Agnese knows this and in fact she comes galloping back to the car, claps her hand over my mouth, and drags me out. A second later all of us are in the phone booth, packed in nice and tight, because everybody knows: if canned sardines aren't snug up against each other, they're likely to rot and then they'll stink.
"Mamma, Al must have started to rot."
"That's not true!"
"Your feet are rotten!"
"Quiet now, Papà has to make a phone call," Mamma says.
"Hello, I'm calling about the apartment for sale."
Everyone holds their breath, the Agnese sardine clinging to the Mario Elvis sardine.
"Ah ... I was hoping for something a little larger. What about the price? Well, the price is certainly reasonable ... All right, let me do some thinking about the square footage, in any case, I'll call back. Thank you ... have a nice day."
"Is this it, Papà?" Vittoria asks.
"I'm afraid it's not. The Santamaria family home must be in some other part of town."
Then he transmits a secret message to Mamma: "Thirteen hundred square feet plus three hundred square feet of terrace."
"What about the price?" she asks.
"Don't ask ..."
Mario Elvis is very tall, I can't touch his chin even if I stand on tiptoes and I stretch my arm as far as I can reach. He says that when I'm tall enough to do that, then we'll start to have some serious conversations, and then, when my head is tall enough to touch his chin, we'll have some very serious conversations, and when the tips of our noses are at the same height, we'll even have some secret conversations. Last of all, when the tip of my nose touches his forehead, we can start to just talk nonsense, because spending a whole lifetime talking about serious matters isn't good for you.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "We Are Family"
Copyright © 2013 Edizioni E/O.
Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions.
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