Essay by David MacWilliams
My parents have just arrived in Rome from New York. It’s late
morning, end of July. With my Italian girlfriend Maria, I’ve traveled by train
over night from the northern city of Verona to meet them, but there’s been
some holdup. We’ve waited almost an hour for them to emerge from
customs while tour groups from their flight cluster, hesitate, then hurry past.
I’m twenty-eight and I’ve been teaching English in Europe, mostly in Italy,
for three years and I haven’t seen them since my last trip home twelve
months ago. I’m all nerves. Things are going to change soon, though I don’t
know how. The relationship between Maria and me is failing; it’s my fault,
I’m indecisive. Maria hopes the trip may salvage our relationship and lead
towards marriage even as I think about leaving Italy, maybe Europe, for
good. Mom is eager for Dad to see the country while I’m still here—she’s
been over twice already—and Dad, newly retired from his electrician’s job,
was diagnosed with diabetes some months past. By phone, just before they
bought the tickets, Mom had said, “This will be our first and last chance to
come over together.”
And so I want their visit to be perfect, but the delay in customs seems
like a bad omen. Maria and I have waited in silence. We’ve said everything
to each other that we can. A short eternity has passed since anyone has
emerged from the swinging doors of the passageway and I begin to wonder
if they missed their flight. Suddenly Dad exits, alone, and I’m stunned by
his appearance. He’s much older and grayer, and he’s gaunt, yet his facial
expression strikes me the most. He looks like a kid on his first day of
summer camp, trying unsuccessfully to appear at ease. He’s set his baseball
cap at a jaunty angle, a cap of his own design with a photo of a flying saucer
on it. Already people are staring at him. The untucked shirt he’s wearing
contributes to his one-man show. It’s one of his favorites, a black, white,
and gray, cubist-cum-Hawaiian looking thing that I’d bet Mom tried to
talk him out of wearing. Given the weight he’s lost, the shirt hangs on him.
His new sneakers are glaringly white below the cuffs of his khakis. I’m
embarrassed for him and ashamed to feel this way. In his confusion at the
customs exit, he doesn’t see me waving and immediately starts walking in
the wrong direction, away from Maria and me. Mom, dressed in white
slacks and a striped blouse she bought in Italy during her last trip, emerges
a few seconds later followed by a thin porter pushing their bags on a cart.
Her hair is cut short and the new style only enhances the exhaustion on her
face. She sees us; she’s suddenly animated. She claps her hands together.
I call out to Dad and the sound of my voice startles him. He stops dead
and does a little double take. He rejoins Mom and both come over.
“Busy place,” he says too nonchalantly. He extends his hand—we never
hug. I take it and immediately note that his grip is weaker than it was only
a year ago.
On the train into the city, we occupy our own compartment. Maria
and I are on the seat traveling backwards, forced to glance at countryside
we’ve already passed, a sensation I’ve never liked. Dad is opposite me.
The train wheels drum like a rapid heartbeat beneath us. Maria and my
mother converse in broken phrases. Maria’s forgotten all her English and
Mom tries not to sleep. Dad and I speak in broken phrases too. A little
about my work, about his retirement. Some about New York, some about
Italy. A one-day strike that paralyzed Italy some weeks before. What my
brothers are up to. The weather. After a pause, Dad pinches a thin wad of
lire from his breast pocket, money that he changed at Kennedy, and though
he has a few thousand worth of the currency left after overpaying the porter,
it’s barely enough to cover the cab fare from the train station to our hotel. I
tease him, raising my voice above the squeal of the brakes as we near the
station. “You might get a cup of coffee with that, but not much else.”
With his index finger he shoves the brim of his cap up a few inches like
a cowboy about to lean forward in the saddle, then he hauls a much thicker
wad of bills, American, out of the same pocket. “Well, maybe we’ll let Abe,
Alex, and Ben do the talking.”
“Geez, Pop, don’t flash that around,” I say, spreading my fingers and
holding my hands out. “You’ll lose it before we ever get to the hotel.”
“Greenbacks talk,” Dad replies. He slides the money into his pocket
and I sigh in relief. He’s going to need my attention, and it’s a strange
thought. Although I’ve been worried about meeting his new dietary needs
and about all the walking we’ll do, I haven’t once considered his lack of
worldliness. I’ve never had to take care of him. That’s always been his
role. Even in our phone conversations since I’ve moved overseas, he tells
me to call if I need anything—as if I were around the block from our New
York home. I’m not sure how I’ll manage. I look at him for several long
seconds. He’s staring through the window, his blue eyes wide and his face
open and innocent as a child’s, with unknown terrain sliding by the glass.
When we arrive in the station and rise to leave the compartment, I sling
my rucksack over my shoulder and grab three of my parents’ suitcases,
leaving the two carry-on bags for them. The three cases feel like they’re
loaded with bricks, but I’m the dutiful son and will carry as much extra
weight I can. I don’t want them to plan for anything or to break a sweat
carrying luggage. I want to be their guide, their porter, and their son, all at
Dad insists that he carry another bag.
“I got it, Pop.”
“You’re gonna give yourself a hernia,” he says angrily.
“Only because you packed too much,” I reply, and without waiting for
an answer, I lug the bags down to the platform, which is abuzz with activity.
People are winding through and around crowds, announcements blare
overhead, a train whistles. Maria follows my parents out of the car and
points to the exit sign. Under my parents’ baggage, we slowly trudge that
We emerge from the station. The air smells of diesel fuel, the sun
glares, and it’s hot and very humid. My arms are killing me. Car horns
blare around us; mopeds whine in the crowded avenue; the loudspeaker
inside the station announces a departure; a jack hammer from a construction
site across the street chatters like machine-gun fire and stops. The taxi rank
is straight ahead of us on the broad sidewalk adjacent to a full parking lot.
About a dozen people are in line. Some fan themselves with folded
newspapers while an elderly concierge dressed in white and wearing a straw
flat cap keeps everyone in place. Italians are ruthless when it comes to
cutting in front of others; foreigners are at their mercy. We step to the back
and I set the bags and my rucksack down. The concierge walks our way
but suddenly he stops.
Two men have approached us from behind. One greets us with a
loud “Boun giorno,” and I’m startled and turn around. He is small and
middle-aged with salt-and-pepper hair. His short-sleeved purple shirt is
stained from perspiration. The other is a much taller guy in a dirty striped
polo shirt, maybe mid-twenties, whose crooked nose and uncombed hair
make him look like he’s just stepped out of the losing side of a boxing ring.
The older guy speaks loudly above the noise. “You need taxi?” He smiles.
“We have nice limousine, not expensive.” The jack-hammer chatters against
concrete again. A flock of pigeons in the parking lot rustles into flight.
“No thanks,” I begin to say, but Dad interrupts me.
“How much?” he asks, pulling his wad of Abes, Alexes, and Bens out
of the pocket of his outlandish shirt. My mouth dries up.
“For you, not so much,” the older one says, easing the bag out of my
mother’s hands. The younger man meanwhile grabs my father’s, Maria’s,
and two more from the sidewalk. It happens too quickly. “How do you
say ‘limo driver’?” I ask Maria, but she doesn’t understand the question.
She smiles in confusion. I look to the concierge.
“Sono tassiste?” I ask him. “Are these guys taxi drivers?”
He shrugs deeply and grins with a sad arch in his eyebrows. His
gesture tells me the obvious, yet I want him to say so, to give me an out,
one I can repeat to Dad. I’ve heard about these scams, about tourists
being brought outside the city and left with nothing but the clothes on their
backs as the “limousine” peels away with their luggage, purses, and wallets.
People are staring from the queue and two real taxis pull up, their drivers
watching us. Everyone is probably wondering the same thing: how can
these people be so incredibly stupid? No one, though, dares to utter a
word of warning. My father, mother, and Maria step off the sidewalk,
following the two men.
“We take two cars. So much baggage,” the older one says over his
shoulder as the younger peels off toward one side of the parking lot with
Mom and Dad in tow, Dad with all his dollars clutched in one hand. I
watch his thin and stooped back recede between cars. He’d never fall for
such an obvious con in New York, but in this odd world he’s clueless,
maybe even thinks he can negotiate the price down to a mere Alex when
they arrive at the hotel. I want to scream at him, to rage at him, to call him
an idiot. And undeniably, a part of me also wants to protect his ego. I have
to pull him out of this mess he’s getting into, but I want him to save face.
I hurry after the older man. “Un attimo,” I say just as he enters the
maze of cars. I make my voice firm and barely menacing. “We need to
change our money for lire before we can pay for a limousine. We’ll take
a taxi this time. Thanks.”
He stops and juts out his lower lip. For a few seconds we stare into
each other’s eyes. His are brown, framed by long lashes and strangely,
they look very soft. He blinks first and frowns. “OK.” He hands me my
mother’s bag. “Eh, Gigi,” he shouts to the younger man. “Non vuole
andare, questo qua.”
The younger man drops the luggage where he is and everyone stops.
I’ve won, but we’re still not out of it. Taking Maria by the elbow, I rush
between parked cars to my parents where I stoop and grab every bag I can.
“Grazie, mille grazie,” I say to the young guy who stands still, towering over
me. I herd, not lead, my parents back to the relative safety of the sidewalk
and the line we should’ve been standing in all along. When we get there I
let the bags fall in heap. “It is so hot,” Maria says to my mother, and the
two smile at each other.
I know I should say it’s hot, too, but I can’t help myself. I’m scared
and I’m furious. “Pop,” I say instead, my voice rising to a shout. “Leave
your money in your pocket like I told you, and let me do all of the talking
from now on, OK? Those guys were mafia.”
I’ve never yelled at my father, not even in my worst teenage moments.
We’re both stunned into silence. He can probably read the fear in my face.
I can certainly see his shock. I feel shame for both of us and want to take
my words back.
Before we can say anything else, the couple at the front of the line steps
into a cab, and the four of us busy ourselves lurching the bags forward
another two feet. A train whistle howls in the distance behind us. I should
apologize, but doing so would be an admission that we’ve both made fools
of ourselves. Better to let it go, I decide. The concierge looks at me and
nods. He steps closer and in a low voice, he says, “Hai fatto bene.” You
did the right thing.
I shake my head. I feel overwhelmed, perhaps the same way my
father felt in the strange and busy airport. I’ll say some stupid joke about
the Italian welcoming committee, I think, and turn to my father, but he’s
watching the pigeons swirling around the parking lot, his back to me.
David MacWilliams teaches writing, literature, and linguistics at Adams
State University in Alamosa, Colorado, where he lives with his wife and
two children. He received his MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Ashland
University, Ohio, in 2011. He has published essays in Pilgrimage, Mason’s
Road, and in the anthology Littlest Blessings by Whispering Angel Books.
In the fall of 2012, he was awarded a fellowship by the Virginia Center
for the Creative Arts.
On “The Right Thing”:
All forms of discourse fascinate me. I’m especially intrigued by the
meanings we convey, purposefully or not, through gesture, facial
expression, and half-spoken utterances. I’m writing a collection of
essays now on parenting and family relationships. These are really
broad subjects, but the more I write, the more my topic keeps circling
around to the theme of communication and its twin, miscommunication.
The essay above is no exception, though I hope it resonates in other
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Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of
Volume 7, Number 2
Copyright © 2012
by Leah Browning, Editor.
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