Matteo’s feet don’t touch the floor. The seats on the train are enormous and he swims in his, filling my fatherly heart with a warmth that, through the highs and lows, has lasted for seven years and two months. I shouldn’t be this mad.
“Finish your cookies, Matteo.”
He ignores me. He stares out the window at Calabria rushing past like a land set there to surprise him. At every curve the pack of Ringos slides across the table, empty except for one lone survivor. A cookie, the last slice of apple, the last bite of pasta—Arturo’s share. I can’t stand it.
“Matteo, I say.”
He looks at me for a moment with his blue eyes and Anna’s voice starts spooling in my head again: don’t take him, please, it’s not an appropriate place for a child.
It’s my weekend, I remind her, even though we’re kilometers away and she can’t hear me. My weekend, my child.
Matteo places a finger on the dirty window. “What if he gets hungry?”
With an abrupt swipe, I grab the cookie and crumble it to pieces.
The town is a strip of houses along a road a kilometer and a half from the train station. With our backpacks on, we walk through a dry yellow field. I was born here, my son wasn’t. I act like nothing’s out of the ordinary but I search his face for signs of the missing tall buildings and concrete. All this emptiness between us and the sky—I would understand if he didn’t know what to make of it.He looks at me for a moment with his blue eyes and Anna’s voice starts spooling in my head again: don’t take him, please, it’s not an appropriate place for a child.
Suddenly, Matteo runs over, giggling.
“Arturo swallowed a cricket.”
He’s chased off three caregivers and it’s not like from Rome there’s much I could do to make them stay except offer more money. I offered more money. No one accepted. So it is the nurse who shows us in to the dusty living room of what had been my home for twenty-four years and is now uninhabited except for the upstairs bedroom.
“It won’t be long now,” she says as we go up. She whispers, even though I left Matteo downstairs with the single instruction not to hurt himself and it’s doubtful that he can hear her. She is not pleased about having him around. When she saw him come in she gave me a sharp look that I decided to ignore. It’s not an appropriate place for a child, I know.
We come to the door and she lets me go first. The room’s darkness only gradually reveals the profile of my father, who is propped against the headboard vegetating; yet I’m the ghost, for the moment he opens his eyes it’s his brother’s name of his brother to come sputtering out, like a cough.
“No, Dad. It’s me.”
I wave hello like an idiot.
“It’s you,” he says.
The nurse watches us, waiting for some sign of affection. What does she have to wait for? But after a few minutes of silence, I decide to appease her; I go over and take his hand, not easy without even a flicker of light. He notices.
“What are you doing?”
I go back to my spot by the door.
“Let’s let him get some rest,” the nurse says. But I’m the only one who leaves.
In the living room there’s no sign of Matteo. I venture out onto the terrace where we used to have lunch with the sea in the background and grapes hanging overhead from the pergola. Matteo is standing on the table and gesturing for me to go back inside: Arturo has covered the ground with lava.
Arturo is my fault, obviously. Children always have an imaginary friend but the persistence of Arturo over the years, the tenacity with which Matteo defends his existence, his degree of infiltration in our lives, must derive from my decision to leave home after three years of marital unhappiness. At least that’s Anna’s diagnosis, along with her mother’s, the teachers’, and a large group of parents’, who for months on a WhatsApp chat have been discussing the need to bring a psychologist to class to deal with the issue delicately so as not to upset their children. My personal contribution to the matter was insulting my ex-wife, her mother, and the teachers, and committing harakiri on WhatsApp by writing: “It’s weird. He’ll get over it. It’s not contagious but if in doubt go ahead and vaccinate.”
Only against Arturo I’m powerless. I wish it were a tablet, a video game or just a cheap smartphone to see Matteo zoning out like every other kid. Instead I spend my nights dreaming of stifling the birth of a creative mind. Or a sick one.
In her report, the psychologist said that Arturo is just a phase in Matteo’s psychological development and that it will eventually go away. I offered her more money but the bitch wouldn’t agree to write that it isn’t my fault.
“At least shelter him from it,” says Anna on the phone, as if my father were a storm about to rain down on us.
“He’s his grandfather. He’s dying,” I say.
“Exactly,” she says.
I toss some more jars with mysterious contents into my shopping basket.
“It’s my weekend,” I say and hang up quickly as I’ve convinced her and because this child that his mother and I are fighting over, the one and only apple of my eye, is no longer in sight—he’s disappeared. I drop everything on the floor and from across the counter the owner gives me a dirty look. A couple of strangers step aside as I lunge for the exit, their eyes following me without recognition, without knowing anything about me. Just a son and grandson passing through, I tell myself. Everyone in town is dead. My father is the last.
“Matteo!” I yell.
“Here I am,” he says without delay, and he’s really there, on the side of the road, hiding in some hedges that have torn up his brand new t-shirt.
“We were marching through the jungle.”
I kneel down and grab him by the shoulders.
“What have I told you a hundred times?”Children always have an imaginary friend but the persistence of Arturo over the years, the tenacity with which Matteo defends his existence, his degree of infiltration in our lives, must derive from my decision to leave home after three years of marital unhappiness.
His lips tremble. He’s seven years old. I shouldn’t shake him, but I do, one time for each word.
“There. Is. No. Arturo.”
I spin him toward the town: the roads, the houses, the fields all empty.
“Well? Do you see anyone?”
Matteo shakes his head no.
When we get home he runs straight to the terrace as if I were a fire he had to escape from. On the floor above us the doctor and nurse stomp around my father’s bed. In the kitchen the wood cabinets squeak as they always have. I put away the bread, the milk, the eggs. Behind me, my mother rifles through the bags to make sure I didn’t forget anything.
“You weren’t supposed to die,” I say, without turning around.
He’s still breathing, breathing raggedly.
“It might be time to make some calls,” the nurse says.
I shrug. My father is the last one in the whole town: his neighbors, his lifelong friends, are already gone.
“He always asks about someone called Marcello.”
I shrug again as if to say that she wouldn’t understand. My uncle lives down the street, still alive and in good health. They just haven’t spoken for thirty years.
She changes his IV drip, adjusts his pillow.
“Costs nothing to try,” she says.
While Marcello stares at me with contempt I have plenty of time to regret having come to knock on his door at dinner time after a life spent on the other side of Italy without a phone call, without ever trying to figure out whether the embargo also applied to me, whether this uncle who’d carried me around ’till I was three and taught me to pee standing up against the wall was alive or dead.
“He wants to see you. Why don’t you come?”
He doesn’t budge from the doorway, doesn’t ask me in. He cocks his head to the side and his eyes move past me to Matteo in the courtyard. I hear the tap of his shoes on the wood planks by the front gate and picture his mother in tears before a judge asking me how could I have not stopped to make sure there weren’t any nails before letting him jump all over them. My weekend, I think. Leave me alone.
“That’s my son.”
I turn around to bark out a command. “Get away from there, it’s full of nails.”
Matteo stops climbing on the planks and makes a leap that lands him mere centimeters from shovels and picks. No harm done: I survived in this courtyard my whole childhood. I left before hoes and spades could become work tools: clearly the skill of survival is in our blood.
“If you…” I start, but the door is already closed. I wait a few minutes for Marcello to reconsider, then slowly make my way toward the gate.
Matteo has discovered the animals’ old trough. The cows and horses have been gone for ages and the wooden vat is empty but it doesn’t matter because he’s sitting inside and rowing with a broom handle, guiding his boat down an African river infested with fruit crates, feed bags, hippos and crocodiles.
I don’t approach. All this imaginary water and I can’t hear a single drop flowing. Around me it’s still my uncle’s same old courtyard; in front of the garage there’s a spot for preparing tomato preserves at summer’s end and in the corner I spot of the wheel of our badly parked tractor, which I put back on the street, amid lots of swearing. And right there, in the middle of the invisible river where my son is chatting with his non-existent friend, there’s my father and his brother still shouting at each other.
I’m dead to you, says Marcello. And my father replies, Fine by me.
It has just passed midnight and it occurs to me that he has lived another day. For a few minutes now, he has been mumbling incomprehensible phrases that the nurse and I pretend to listen to.
The IV drip next to the bed is almost out; she gets up and detaches it, but doesn’t replace it with another.
“I’ll leave you,” she says, and before she can protest I shake my head no. She looks around in embarrassment but she is kind, and she stays. My father murmurs something to her. I squeeze his hand.
“If you want to go, I’m ready,” I’m about to say, but the door opens and Matteo comes over to the bed, rubbing his eyes. His pajama pants had turned out to be unfindable but my shirt went past his knees so I didn’t feel too guilty.
“Go back to sleep.”
This is no place for a child.
He comes and sits on the bed. My father notices him down by his foot; with enormous effort he lifts his head.
“Marcello,” he says.
“Matteo,” he rebuts.
The nurse looks at me as if I could squeeze that hand and keep my son sheltered at the same time. But we’re going to get wet. Me first.
“Marcello?” my father asks, looking for us in the dark.
“Marcello’s not here,” Matteo says in a small, hesitant voice. Then he adds: “The doctor is here. We’re here.”
“He’s not here,” my father echoes.
Matteo turns away from me, moving toward his grandfather’s pillow and cupping his mouth in his hands.
“Arturo is here,” he whispers.
My father nods then lets himself fall slowly back into the pillow. We don’t expect anyone else.
From The Florentine Review: Issue 4 [Landscape]. Used with permission of Florentine Press. Copyright © 2018 by Giusi Marchetta. English translation copyright © 2018 by Jamie Richards.