When a Family Measures Time By Its Losses
Marco Rafalà on the Disappearance of His Uncle Salvatore
Everyone tells the story of that night differently. My mother said that my Ziu Salvatore left the apartment at 87 Spring Street in Middletown, Connecticut, at 2 am on Friday morning. He wore only a short-sleeved button-down shirt, slacks, a windbreaker, and socks. No shoes. He locked the door and placed the key beneath the welcome mat before walking out into the night.
My sister heard that our uncle left wearing only his pajamas. He did not lock the door on his way out. It was snowing, hard. The heavy flakes filled in his footprints until, like our Ziu Salvatore, they too were gone.
Some in my family spoke of how my ziu had suffered a high fever as a child that made him “a little slow”—and that he could have been confused that night when he left the apartment. Others pointed to the headaches my ziu had begun suffering after he came to this country from Sicily. He may have left in fear of an upcoming doctor’s appointment.
Ziu Salvatore vanished on November 4, 1966, five years before I was born. He was 24 years old, did not speak English, and had been in the United States only two months. When he disappeared, a new clock started for my family. That day, my father was 29, but on his next birthday he would not be 30. He would be one year older than when his baby brother went missing. Loss would be the only sense of time that mattered anymore.
One of my earliest memories is walking into a room and my Sicilian aunts bursting into tears at the sight of me. It wasn’t anything I had done. It was my face. Straight nose with the slightest curve, dark eyes beneath a serious brow, thick black hair neatly parted, and the kind of expression that makes it look like I am always deep in thought or deeply upset. I have the face of my Ziu Salvatore, my family’s greatest grief.
My father rarely, if ever, spoke of that night. But still, Ziu Salvatore was with us all the time. My father was the oldest brother and, like my ziu, I was the youngest son. We were condemned to these roles together, my father and I, and these roles that cloaked us were both our armor and our shackles.
When I was ten, one Saturday morning my mother, who never lost a brother, let me go to a friend’s house off a side street three blocks from home to play baseball with a group of neighborhood kids. At some point she stepped out to the grocery store without leaving a note to say where I was, and when my father returned from his half-day shift at the factory all he knew was that I was gone, that I had simply vanished, like his brother.A ghost can be the size of a room or the size of a family.
My father jumped in his truck and circled the neighborhood, driving slow, peering into every yard and window. When he finally spotted me among a group of other children, he parked the truck in the middle of the street. Driver’s side door hanging open, engine still running, he leapt out and came after me with a hard slap across the face. I was humiliated, crying and angry and scared. This was the man I never wanted to meet but saw too often. In front of my friends, my father grabbed me by the shirt collar and dragged me into the truck, cursing in Sicilian the whole way.
A ghost can be the size of a room or the size of a family. People think that what makes a ghost terrifying is when it interacts with the physical world—books flying across a room, light bulbs flickering, doors opening by themselves and slamming shut. But what really makes a ghost frightening is when you can’t see it, when you don’t know what it’s doing, what it’s making you do.
My mother returned from the grocery store to find my father banging around in the kitchen for his lunch and me crying in the bedroom I shared with my older brother. My father had whipped my bare back with his black leather belt. Downstairs, my parents yelled and screamed at each other until my father retreated outside to the sanctity of his garden, the backdoor slamming shut behind him. This was how he ended every argument. Later, when I refused to come down for dinner, my parents came to me. My father lifted my shirt, examined my bruised back. “He’s okay,” he said to my mother in a subdued voice. “The skin isn’t broken.”
I had no idea what I had done wrong. My mother wouldn’t tell me because she felt it wasn’t her place and she didn’t want to trigger that side of him again. My father couldn’t tell me because telling me would have meant talking about Ziu Salvatore—and admitting to the kind of grief and loss and fear that a man like my father considered weakness. So all that was left was suffocating anger.
Long after the official search for my ziu had ended, my nonnu made my father drive him all over the state whenever he heard the authorities had discovered an unidentified male body. But it was never Ziu Salvatore.
When my nonna died in 1997, her obituary listed my Ziu Salvatore as one of her three surviving sons. At her wake, my father pushed my nonnu in a wheelchair into D’Angelo Funeral Home. Tall and lean at 92 years old, my nonnu had never so much as needed a cane to get around until that day. Approaching the open casket, my nonnu launched himself out of the wheelchair and onto the coffin. “Now you know,” he shouted in Sicilian. “Now you know. Tell me where is Sal. Where is my boy?”
It took my father, my Ziu Angelo, and an usher at the funeral home to get my nonnu back into the wheelchair. When he died the following year, the family again listed my Ziu Salvatore as a surviving son. For my family, Ziu Salvatore has been frozen in the moment of walking out the door into the snow—and they are waiting for him to walk back in. They will keep waiting until the time comes when there is no chance left that he could walk back through the door, when his natural lifespan is over.
Loss sets its own clock. It distorts time and memory, makes days and years short and perpetual all at once. Ziu Salvatore’s disappearance was not the first time the clocks in my family reset. Two of my father’s siblings never survived infancy. During the Second World War, my family’s village, Melilli, was occupied and bombed, the bodies filling the central piazza. After the Allied invasion of Sicily, my father’s two young cousins were killed playing with an unexploded shell. Over the years my father, who was a boy at the time, has told that story many different ways: sometimes he is there as witness, sometimes he hears the explosion and comes running, sometimes he is trying to stop the children’s game before it is too late.
But those were stories my father could tell—stories he told often. Those were stories that had endings, no matter how tragic.Loss sets its own clock. It distorts time and memory, makes days and years short and perpetual all at once.
This year, when I went home to Connecticut for the annual Feast of Saint Sebastian, my father finally told me what he thought happened to my Ziu Salvatore. We sat at the kitchen table, drinking coffee in the early hours of a Sunday morning, a special day for the feast, the day a solemn procession carried the statue of Saint Sebastian through downtown Middletown.
My parents’ kitchen hadn’t changed since the early 1980s. It still had the same yellow linoleum counters and brown and yellow patterned vinyl floor I’d scuffed up as a boy. In the windows over the sink, sunlight seeped in around the edges of the ancient vinyl roller shades, torn and taped together over the years. The house was empty now but never quiet. My mother had been in a nearby nursing home for more than a year after a series of strokes. In her absence, my father kept the radio or television on for company. But that morning, I turned off the television and sat with him in the stillness of that old house—me, a grown man, and my father, an old man.
Together, we let the ghosts come.
“Salvatore wanted to go home to Sicily,” my father offered without my asking. “He begged my father to let him go back. He didn’t like it here.” My father paused to sip the strong black coffee he made for us both. He shook his head with pursed lips and wrinkled brow, gave me a piercing look I’d seen many times before, a look that said there is nothing to be done, at least not anymore.
I imagined my nonnu, all those years ago, heartbroken by the earnestness in my Ziu Salvatore’s voice, by how much his son wanted to leave, how pained he was at being so far from home in a foreign country where people spoke a strange language he could not understand. I also imagined what my ziu must have felt, the desperation and hope warring inside him.
“My father told Sal he’d take him back to Melilli.” My father’s voice now carried a much younger version of the man I know, an anguished young man, newly married and working construction. A man who would soon suffer too many sleepless nights wondering just what happened to his baby brother. “But my father needed time to get the money together, so he asked Sal to give him two months.” My father held up two fingers for emphasis.
All my ziu Salvatore had to do was wait those two months for my nonnu to earn enough money for the flight back to Sicily. But in my father’s story, Ziu Salvatore couldn’t wait. He felt he was in the wrong place, and he needed to leave now. My ziu worried his father thought that, with a little time, he’d change his mind. Maybe he’d grow to like it here, maybe even love it the way my nonnu madly loved the idea of America. To Ziu Salvatore, though, two more months might as well have been two more years, and that must have felt like an eternity.
My father’s face sagged into a frown, weighted with anger and fear, the stubbornness of a lifetime of misplaced guilt.
“Sal walked to the Arrigoni Bridge,” my father said with a tilt of his head, unruly white eyebrows climbing up the creases of his forehead. “He jumped into the river, that’s what I think.”
In my father’s story, he reasoned that the current could have carried his brother’s body and squirreled it away in some underwater cave or crevice—somewhere no one would ever find it—or maybe even all the way to the Long Island Sound and out to the ocean. “Why couldn’t he wait?” my father asked, with a finality I had not heard before. He was resetting the clock of his life again. At 83 years old, he was finally accepting that his brother was dead. But he was also passing the torch of waiting for my Ziu Salvatore—who could outlive my father’s ability to wait for him—to me, just in case the miraculous happens.
My aunts didn’t always cry looking at me. Sometimes they spoke quietly to each other, pointing out the little things about me that reminded them of their brother. I would look for those things in myself, trying to see what they saw. It’s a strange intangible feeling, like trying to grasp an object only to have your hand pass through it. As a child, I believed that if I could find those pieces of Salvatore in me, then I could give my family a piece of their brother back.
I don’t have any stories of my Ziu Salvatore’s life other than the ones about his disappearance—how he vanished into the night and fractured our family in a way that was worse than all the fractures before. His name, his self, became synonymous with the unanswerable questions of where he had gone, and would he ever come back. But with my father that day in the kitchen, for the first time, I glimpsed an image of who Ziu Salvatore was and what he might have wanted. It was the piece I had looked for in the mirror and never found.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that in my debut novel, How Fires End, one of the main narrators, the character who loses the most, bears the name Salvatore. Though my Salvatore is alive, he too is painted with loss. My father often talks about Melilli, the real village in my novel where he and Ziu Salvatore grew up together, the village my ziu longed so much to return to. In those stories about Sicily, Ziu Salvatore is never mentioned but now that I know how to look for him, he is always there. In that remembered Sicily, my ziu is still alive, a part of the landscape.
But he is also still in Middletown, Connecticut, in his parent’s apartment at 87 Spring Street, swallowed up by so much snow and darkness, still rising in the small hours of a Friday morning, that man whose face I share.
Marco Rafalà’s How Fires End is out now from Little A.