It is our last day on the Adriatic and we're determined to visit the small hamlet of Aquaviva, high in the mountains that themselves seem to flow down to the water's edge. I say "determined" because we're still feeling the effects of a cheese fair we went to last week, where we ate too much non-pasteurized cheese. The bacteria of our gut apparently are too genteel to handle the strange and prolific bugs that turn goat, cow, and buffola (water buffalo) milk into some great tasting, but damn virulent, country cheese.
Aquaviva means living water or water of life; and it seems a strange coincidence indeed that all I've been thinking about this week is water-how it cleanses, how it chastens and instructs, how it destroys. The Christian metaphors are as rife as the bacteria churning in my stomach as we crest the hill, find parking, and walk into the delicate hilltop village, which opens onto a simple but elegant square with the obligatory castle at one end and a church at the other.
Inside, the church of Santa Maria is as delicate and ornate as a Faberge' egg; outside it's as plain as a county post office. There is, of course, metaphor here as well. The simple exterior life we lead shelters the complex world within us.
Annette and I are the only visitors this morning, and we walk quietly through the near palpable stillness surrounding us, gazing upon splendor and grace. And then I see it, the baptismal font in a recessed corner of this remarkable, jeweled interior. By contrast, the font is rather plain, with bronzed lambs on the domed cap beneath a simple cross. Metaphor again of bringing the lamb under the care of God. The water within has the power to wipe away the ultimate sin of disobedience and arrogance and of betrayal. Adam's sin, the desire to know what we have been told we should not know by a God we have been told we should struggle to understand.
For me, the waters of the baptismal font will also protect my brother Michael from any stain I still have on my hands, and soul, from my visit to the Millers. We are attending his baptism as a family, all of us dressing up in our best clothes and taking off in my father's Chevy for the Our Lady Of Grace church on Ventura Boulevard.
Mary has been lifting Michael into her arms as often as possible since he was born, holding him close to her as if she is the designated sibling to carry him into the world of our family. And she pleads now with my mother to let her hold him in the backseat. But my mom refuses. She wants him in the front seat with her.
It's early Saturday morning and my dad is sober and uncomfortable in tie and buttoned collar. He lights a Lucky, and we pull out of the driveway as the car fills up with smoke.
"Jack, for heaven's sake. You'll choke the baby," my mother says.
"Never mind then," he answers roughly and tosses the cigarette.
John looks out the window, bored with the upcoming event, bored with us, bored with the whole world. Mary gets busy pointing out all the blue cars she sees on the road. Blue, it's her favorite color lately. The baby's blue blanket, blue bonnet, blue socks, and blue cap that he wears now in the chilly December morning, two days after his birth.
I sit quietly, looking forward to the burden being lifted from my shoulders when the water is dripped onto Michael's forehead and touched to his lips by the priest, washing away the Original Sin and wrapping him in an armor of faith, kind of like the armor that knights wear into battle, but invisible and smooth, not squeaky or heavy with rust like I saw in a picture once.
It turns out that we are not the only family that has a baby who needs baptizing today. That's a surprise to me. It's a surprise to Mary, too, and she seems disappointed that our specialness has been diluted and that we have to wait in the pews until the family before us has it's newborn child rescued from the clutches of Hell. I look at the father and mother and brother of the family standing before the priest. How happy they are, smiling, even laughing a little as their pink baby screams when holy water runs down its forehead and into its eyes. The father reaches over with his crisp, white handkerchief and dabs the tears of his child. How wonderful it seems.
Then it's our turn, and the priest motions for us to stand around him at the baptismal font. I keep my head down, sure he can see something on me, a mark of some kind. He's an old priest, his eyes red at the rims, his gray hair thin in a ring around the bottom of his head, and the skin on his hand that makes a cross over Michael's squirming body is transparent so that I can see the blue veins and white knuckles moving inside, below the surface. It gives me the creeps, to tell you the truth, and I'm glad the service is quick with my father and mother repeating a few Latin words after him and then we're all waking down the aisle.
Just like that. We've saved Michael from damnation, and I've been spared the horror of poisoning his soul with the innocent touch of my hands. We're back in the car, driving home.
And so it's been a good day.
My dad dropped us off to go to work and me and Mary decorated the Christmas tree. It's dark now and we've turned on its lights. I especially like the bubble glass candles that take awhile to heat up and then the colored water inside starts bubbling and the whole tree seems to tremble in a winter wind.
My dad hasn't come home yet, so we've eaten dinner without him. I know now that by this time he'll be coming home drunk, or nearly drunk as my mother likes to pretend, and I wash the dishes with Mary in a hurry, trying to finish them before he comes in so that I won't get stuck outside my bedroom, where I go to hide away.
Suddenly, I hear the front door bash open. My mother screams out, and Mary and I run into the living room where I see my father covered in blood, gushing from his face, rushing down past his jaw and onto his white tee-shirt and from there dripping on the beat-up tops of his work boots.
There is so much blood it looks as if his left eye has been ripped out of his head. I stand frozen as my mom grabs his arm, then pushes past me, pulling him into the kitchen.
"Jack, for God's sake, what have you done? Crashed your car, have you? You better not have hit anyone!"
Mary follows the blood drops across the carpet like Hansel & Gretel crumbs into the kitchen where my mom is already rinsing his face.
"Let's have a look at you," she says, trying to inject a modicum of tenderness into her tone, but not succeeding.
When she lets go of him, he leans into the sink, unsteady, drunk. The water that runs down his cheek is now a weak Kool-Aid red. The bleeding slowing. On her knees, Mary starts wiping the blood from the linoleum floor, where it smears into a kind of finger-painting image, dark cadmium blood against the speckled flooring.
I'm leaning against the kitchen wall as he, for the first time since entering the house, says anything.
"The police coming."
There's a timbre in his voice I've never heard before.
"What have you done, you bloody fool!"
My mom's voice is shrill, chastising him in a way that I've also never heard before.
Mary and I see the truth in each other's eyes-our parents are scared to death, absolutely terrified.
Maybe I am too young to fully understand what is happening, but I know they're playing out some kind of internal drama of the refugee. Sure, we're in a new country, a safe America, and it's true that the San Fernando Valley Police, who may be knocking on our door at any moment, are not the Nazi SS, but in their hearts, my mother and father still live in the darkened, war-torn world of WWII Europe.
In moments like these, the threats and realities of the world they've fled come rushing to the surface. It's the fear of powerlessness, of Storm Troopers marching into Warsaw, the Gestapo around every corner, the bombers tearing the British cities to pieces, and my mom shaking in the coal closet under the stairs of her mother's house in Lincoln, with Jack running across the sodden ground of the Swinderby Airbase, both of them trying to get through another bitter night of war.
These two are bound by the living memories of that time, which is a mere decade distant from this evening of the baptism of their son in Tarzana, this American, sun-shiny suburbia of the 50's. And of course, we, their children, are bound to it with them.
I hear the sirens now. And I am drawn to them. I walk out of the house alone, at first ducking along the hedges of our next door neighbor as I head to the corner of Ventura Boulevard. When the hedges thin out, I'm forced to walk nakedly along the sidewalk, the houses festooned in Christmas lights. Jesus is going to be born in just a few days from now. I keep that thought in my mind, hoping he will protect me now from whatever is up ahead.
And then I see something unbelievable. It looks like water shooting in the sky. Surely, it must be water, brilliant and golden, festive almost, sparkling in the reflected glow of a yellow-orange street light. But is it falling down from the heavens above or shooting up out of the ground from some kind of hidden geyser?
I continue on, and people come into view as I walk past the two juniper trees that border the driveway of the second-to-last house before the corner. People are standing in a circle, my whole neighborhood looks skyward in awe. They stand absolutely still, gazing up at the fountain of water, mesmerized or in some state of rapture while it cascades back down to their feet, as if witnessing some kind of religious miracle.
I stand there, too, for a moment. Staring. Stunned by the sight of it.
Then, all at once, everything becomes clear when I see my father's car, up over the curb, beyond the sidewalk, beyond the periphery of enchanted water, mired in the flower beds of roses and chrysanthemums that his front wheels have skidded through, the hood of his Chevy crunched against Mrs. Tadwell's wall. Next to the car is a fire hydrant, on its side and embarrassingly out of place, it's yellow surface slick and muddy in the raining air.
The eyes of the crowd, one by one, begin to turn in my direction. Faces I recognize, Nancy, Eileen, Jamie, Jenny. Then the many faces I have seen once or twice but do not know, fathers and mothers, older brothers and sisters, the people of Aveneda Oriente. My neighborhood. They turn to me in judgment. And I am guilty before them. Even Ricky Stander turns his eyes on me in accusation and with a haunting superiority I will never forget.
Beyond the crowd, beyond the spray of the water is a parked police car. I see Ricky's dad talking to the policeman. They look over to me. He points at me. Will I be arrested? I want to run away, far away from this scene, this street, this country.
I want to run away from what is revealed tonight with absolute clarity…my father is a drunk. That is what this fountain of water sprays into the night sky as if it were a fireworks display, a rocket fountain writing the truth of our family in the stars. Our family's private shame is now public humiliation. Out interior life is no longer hidden.
The fire trucks come screeching to a stop, firemen jumping out with yellow slickers on. They take one look at the fountain, run back to the fire engine, grab some tools and pry open a manhole nearby. It is only a few minutes later that the fountain slowly collapses on itself until it is no more than a bubbling pool in the mouth of a broken pipe.
Jenny drifts over to me first, her pale hair damp from the mist of the fountain.
"My dad drove over my new wagon last year," she begins softly. "Right over it and Henry's baseball bat, too. Snapped it in half. Mom said is was our fault for leaving them in the yard, but you don't regularly park in the yard, on the grass I mean. I never said that to her."
It's the most I've ever heard her say.
Nancy and Eileen stay silent, but they come over and stand close to me, which says a lot by itself.
Jamie is very interested in the way the firemen cap the broken hydrant with a big green chunk of pipe, but then he, too, comes over.
"Better tell your dad to drink some strong coffee before he comes out of the house," he says confidentially, with an assurance born of direct experience.
I start walking back to my house, and my friends form a kind of protective fence around me.
I knew then that they had secrets of their own, as dark and as deep as mine. I knew also that I would never be the same in their eyes, just as they would never be the same in mine. I guess that's part of growing up. Maybe that's how Adam felt when he and Eve walked out of the Garden together.