Somehow, on Thanksgiving, immigrant stories, my family’s stories, weigh heavily on my mind. I’ve been carrying one story around for some time now. I figure it’s time to share it.
My grandparents, Giuseppe and Anita (née Valli) Piatti, both born and raised in Italy, met, married and made their lives together in Connecticut. They died before I was born. Over the years, my mother doled out tantalizing if spare bits of information about her parents. One story that stays with me is the legend of Great Uncle Renato, Anita’s brother. The story, as I remember, it goes this way.
Like his sister and her husband, tough times in the Old Country prompted Renato to emigrate. Family already in the New drew him to Connecticut. He probably picked tobacco for a while. Who knows?
What I do know is that he was an inventor, loved opera, composed some and sang beautifully. He made his living from patents sold during the war. An ambulance with collapsible legs and some sort of aircraft landing technology. He built a bomb shelter stocked with canned goods and furnished with certain amenities. He had a a collection of old Life magazines and record player down there, as I recall.
People also said he had invented a submarine and tested it in the deep waters of Black Pond. That might just be one of those stories people tell about an old man with a broken heart who became a hermit and went off to live in the woods with his dogs. A screech owl announced his passing.
When history fades, story takes over. This is Renato’s story. As I imagine it.
— • —
The old man sat in a straight-back chair tipped to lean against the wall of the house so, while his eyes were shaded by a bit of the roof, the noonday spring sun warmed his legs. An Italian aria played on the radio in the kitchen, dribbled weakly from the open window above his head. The old man sat very still, dozing. Occasionally, his hands fluttered up from his knees to conduct the opera.
Not far from the old man’s feet, a big dog of questionable lineage and greying muzzle lay sleeping. His ears twitched when a fly worried his nose.
In the woods, two other younger dogs rooted in the underbrush, stalked squirrels and wrestled.
The sun continued its journey over the house in the woods, its full rays deserted the old man and the dog and blessed the western walls of the house, briefly as dark marshmallow clouds hurried to greet it. Darkness lengthened and dropped slowly, like a window shade, over the man’s chest and arms and hands. Fingers slowly curled over knees against the coming cool of early evening.
With a soundless sigh and a shrug of his shoulders, the old man tipped the chair forward onto all four legs. The old man’s head found a berth in his great hands. The dog nearby stretched, got stiffly to his feet, trotted over to his master and poked his nose against the old man’s cheek. The old man gently pushed his friend away, stood and carried the chair into the house.
A dense veil of mist dropped over the woods and stilled all night noise in its thick folds. Rain came after midnight and struck the house in window-rattling waves. The winds wrapped around the house and, rocking it gently, gently, lulled the old man to sleep.
The old man strode on strong and steady legs over the lawn that sloped down to the river bank, to the pier where the submarine bobbed in the sun like a silver bubble. Lilliana stood at the window of the great house on the hill and watched him. Her gaze warmed his back. Without turning he could see her, see her gold eyes with tiny specks of brown that caught the sunlight like slivers of mica, tiger eyes. Tiger eyes watched him as he slipped through the hatch and threw off the buoys. Did those eyes shine brighter with tears as the bubble slowly sank beneath the grey-black surface of the water and disappear?
If only the submarine would pass the test, that was the only thing that mattered now, the submarine and Lilliana. And getting away. Next time, next time, they would leave together.
The man’s head tilted back, eyes open and seeing, admiring the flawless seams in the silver skin of the submarine, then not seeing. Then seeing the seamless convex curve of her hip as she lay on her side sleeping, as she never had, by his side, but soon would when he returned. The amazing thing about a woman was the way she curved, not at all like a man, when she lay on her side, one arm tucked under her head, the other floating by her side or cradling her breasts, sleeping, the way that her flesh dipped at the waist and then rose like a hill, sometimes bony, sometimes not, at the hip, at the thigh. The way it all fit together. Lilliana.
The leak started slowly at first and silently, the sound lost in the hum of the engines, little drops slid down, salty sea tears. The seam, the flawless seam right above the man’s head, gave, split like a zipper, and a wall of green sea water rushed in.
The trap door rigged for the dogs clacked open and shut twice. The two young dogs shivered and wiggled out of the wet, showered the kitchen with rain water that ticked on the warped linoleum. The two dogs curled up together under the kitchen table and quickly fell asleep.
The old man didn’t make a sound, just turned and lifted his head slightly as if he might look out the window beside his bed. He didn’t look out the window. The old dog awoke and went to his master, knelt there for a while, licked his master’s damp cheek, limp hand, and settled down to wait. The radio murmured and spit the news.
Photo credit: My grandparents, Giuseppe and Anita Piatti.