Fantastic Tales

My grandfather on my mother’s side had a large head with stony features which he would draw back between his shoulders, suggestive of a desire, consistent with his personality as a whole, to distance himself from the rest of the family. Rocking in his rocking chair, the brown-paint finish of which had been worn through long since by the firmness of his grip, he gave the impression, absurdly, of mainly rocking away from us; whereas the truth, probably, was just that he was sealed up inside his thoughts, as though inside the high walls of one of those mountaintop cities in the country he came from. As for what those thoughts might have been, there’s even less reason to wonder now than there was then; but the result was that I didn’t know who he was and he didn’t know who I was — even though my mother was his only daughter, and I, for a while, her only child. Though we sometimes lived in the same house, his disregard of me couldn’t have been more replete if I’d been born in the Aleutian Islands and raised by seal-hunters, called “Fishers Beneath the Ice” in the chapter-heading of a book I had: a misleading title, which gave me the idea, at 7, that they lived under the frozen surface of the water for the convenience of their profession.

But in order to tell you what I remember best about Grandpa Salvatore, I first have to tell you about the beach-house he owned in Long Branch, New Jersey, where we spent our summers, one long block from the ocean — albeit a different ocean from the one that washed up at Salerno, a provincial capital that had the best medical college in Europe whole centuries before Florence or Rome would think up anything resembling a Renaissance.

It was a house he bought after the war, with the money he had made by shifting his modest sheet-metal factory in Moonache from the making of palm-sized, mirrored “compacts” that women would use for face-powder to the turning out of hard, dimpled casings for hand-grenades. The house sat in a wide, wind-stroked field of grass, twenty yards or so in from a gravel roadway. Despite being a hundred years old, the house had a recent, makeshift look to it, the result of several profoundly artless additions and re-configurings. Chiefly remarkable were its nine bedrooms — necessary when the entire family showed up — and a screened-in porch along its ocean-facing side, which was lined with a neat row of ladder-back rockers, freshly painted dark green, like the house itself, at the start of every summer. It was to this porch that the men repaired each night after dinner — my father, my grandfather, and my three uncles — and sat and rocked and smoked their cigars, about which it is best to say only that they were plentiful. Sometimes one of the women — either my Aunt Francis or another, lesser aunt — would come out from the kitchen to work a needed correction into the course of the men’s overheard reflections, then retreat again and leave them to drift back into the twin pools of error and silence from which they’d emerged only reluctantly in the first place. Gradually, as they watched, the sky would darken over the ocean until all the men could see, on the water’s black surface, would be a spread of reflected lights, the nearest being those of the Ferris wheel at the end of the pier, laying down a distorted loop of primary colors. Further on were the white lights that lined the Boardwalk, white globes marching single-file towards a vanishing point in the direction, as my uncles never tired of making out, of Sandy Hook.

It was to this house, then, that a new, entirely mysterious uncle came to us, early one evening in August — a man whom no one in the family had ever met and to whom the very term “uncle” was extended only in a loose, catch-all spirit of courtesy.  We had just finished dinner, and the men were finding their way out onto the porch, when his battered red pick-up truck came sputtering down the golden-gravel road and shrugged to a stop. Everyone went out for a closer look at the truck and at the man who drove it: a paunchy, balding man in his mid-40s, with a sort of forthright, upward-thrusting air that more or less compelled him to shove his hands into his underarms and rock to-and-fro, as if to keep himself from doing or saying too much and getting into trouble. In the flatbed of his truck was an old-fashioned steamer trunk, tied with rope as thick as a baby’s arm. My first thought when I saw it was that it was big enough to hold the body of a young giant. This took place in the summer I turned 11, and the year was 1959.

The man’s arrival was all but entirely unexpected. Even the problem of how he was related to us could not easily be resolved. Its solution fell to my mother’s cousin, a paragon of close reasoning on minor topics. Her name was Immaculata but  we all  knew her  as “Aunt Mack.” Standing in the roadside beside the truck in her flowered apron, before the newcomer had even decamped, she subjected him to some carefully worded questions. From the answers he gave, she determined that, if he were anyone at all, he was one of our Great-Uncle Pepe’s nephews by marriage — meaning that his people, branching outwards and obliquely from our grandmother’s line of descent, were among those who had come to America at the earliest date, but who had had no contact with the later arrivals who made up our branch. Once this was settled, my father and uncles saw fit to put aside their cigars, lift the trunk from the flatbed and carry it inside, through the living room and down a long, narrow linoleum corridor to a little-used shed or annex affixed to the rear of the house: the least desirable quarters on offer, but assigned to him, no doubt, because of the imperfect way in which he was joined to us. His visit was to be brief, no longer than a week — but even for that short period he was expected to contribute to the kitty for cigars and strega: the trunk had barely cleared the threshold before those terms were spelled out. He complied by reaching into a sack of coins such as Erasmus might have carried on his donkey as he crested the hill on his way to Bloemfontein, and thereafter was offered something to eat, and invited to choose his own rocker from among those lined up on the porch for the men. From his very first night, he was talkative: not ordinarily a popular trait with the men but welcomed this once as a distraction. The moment he arrived, the trunk and its contents, covered in darkness in the remote room, were never far from my thoughts.

It was not until the fourth night of his visit that I finally acted on a plan that had occurred to me within an hour of his arrival. I should explain that, between the porch and the living room, on what must once have been the exterior wall of the house, there was an inside window, which had a space beneath it on the living room side. This was a favorite spot of my cousins’ and mine, because you could scrunch down beneath the sill and listen unseen to the men and their talk. On the night in question, I hid myself there, just at the hour of darkness, when the grown-ups would expect that all the kids had gone upstairs to bed — hid there and waited for the moment when the creak of the rockers and the flow of rumination were steadily under weigh—and then slipped off, protected by darkness, across the living room and through the door to the linoleum corridor. In a moment I was skittering between its close, moist-seeming walls to the room in the annex. My purpose was to satisfy my curiosity about the contents of my soi-disant uncle’s trunk before he and it disappeared forever, only a matter of days from now.

There was no lock on the door of the guest room; there were no locks on any of the doors. The trunk was where the men had placed it, in the corner with the moonlight streaming down, seeming to imprison it in a lit, yellow trapezoid.  Before now I’d never noticed the room’s faded wallpaper, which featured an infinity of rakish Cavaliers in pale blue coats, standing ready at hands-breadth intervals with swords drawn and feathered hats askew. I found that the rope that bound the trunk had already been undone — cleanly, as though sliced through by the Cavaliers in a raid across the centuries. As a result, I could easily lift the lid and bring forth by the armful, in great hawking clouds of dust, the wealth that it contained: a ragged heap of old books, newspapers, and magazines. At first this deteriorating pile seemed to be all that the trunk held; but after a while, near the bottom, I discovered something else: a single, fresher bundle, neatly bound with string. It turned out to be a trove of comic books, new or nearly so, with a title I had never seen before: “Fantastic Tales.”

Still on my knees, I carefully undid the string, knowing I’d have to do it up again. I decided to find one story and read it straight through, calculating that I’d have enough time to do so — though the truth is that I would have risked it even if I hadn’t. My eagerness for a story was like a hunger I could feel in my fingers. I rifled half a dozen issues or more before choosing one I liked. Taking it up in my hands — the way a scholar might lift an original page of Blake or Milton — I settled myself in the corner, in the available wedge of moonlight, my back propped between trunk and floor, and began to read.

The story I had chosen took for its starting point the mental torment of a man who I supposed to be about my father’s age. As shown in the opening panel, he was the manager or foreman of a car-assembly plant, which I naturally associated with the Ford Motors factory on U.S. 1 & 9 in Linden (now defunct).  From the beginning, he is in the grip of a suspicion about his wife, who is beautiful, and youthfully illustrated. He suspects — according to the block-lettered legend in the cloud-bubble over his head — that she is having an affair with a neighbor who has come recently into their lives: a friendly-looking younger man, with sharply creased trousers, with whom, it seems, both husband and wife are constantly shaking hands. When after a page or two the husband’s suspicions have kindled to a fine suburban certainty, he invites the young neighbor to the plant to see an exciting spectacle: the pouring of molten metal into the waiting casts, to cool and harden into one-piece chasses for automobiles. Together they walk out onto the observational cat-walk and look down into a churning vat of liquid steel or iron, waiting to be poured. The visitor is impressed.  It is just then, when his back is turned, that his host seizes the opportunity and pushes him off. No sooner does the young man’s body hit the pool at the bottom of the page than it sizzles and goes under: an image which will turn out to be unforgettable for me, along with that of the foreman-avenger glaring down from the catwalk, the purple glow of the metal throwing a diagonal upwards across his chest and face, the ink darkening in proportion to his emotion.  Whether or not in the years that follow the husband and wife will speak again of the handsome, crisp-legged intruder who almost came between them, I couldn’t say, since I remember only the story’s flash denouement, blazing in two out-sized panels across the final double-page: A three-quarter-page insert in blue and orange, on a future date, while strolling on a sidewalk in another city that is not named, the husband is struck down by a runaway car — except that it is not a runaway car at all, but one from inside the metal chassis of which the trapped soul of the dead man is shrieking, revelling in his revenge. I can hear his shrieks, a little, to this day.

The rain started up while I was reading.  The grownups in the house would assume, if they thought of me at all, that I was asleep in bed; which meant that there was still time, if I were worried about being caught, to creep upstairs to the small, slant-ceilinged room I shared with two of my cousins. Instead, I chose to creep back the way I came, across the living room floor on my hands and knees, and take up my hiding place again beneath the porch-window. Out there the men, on that night as on every other night, sat and rocked, the darkness punctuated by the glow of their cigars on the intake and outtake. Apart from the creak of wood beneath their rockers, the only sound I heard was a voice, which I recognized at once to be that of my newest uncle. He was telling a story about a man he knew: a friend of his, he said, in upstate New York, who had been the foreman of a plant that turned out the metal chasses for automobiles. The man, it seemed, had grown suspicious of his wife, who was young and beautiful … one day she met a younger man who had just moved into the neighborhood … rumors of an affair between them reached the husband, my uncle’s friend … the story went on …

As I listened, the dust of the steamer trunk was still on my fingers. Although I couldn’t see the men, I judged from the occasional cessation of their rocking and the halting of their breath that they were listening hard, that they were rapt and awestruck. By the time he came to the violent ending, with the death of his friend on a sidewalk far from home — in Pittsburgh, I think he said — the rain had stopped, and I lifted my head a little to peer over the sill, to determine whether my guess about the credulity with which my uncles and my father and grandfather listened had been correct. I couldn’t see my father’s face — but from the faces of the two I could see, it was plain that they had believed every word. Grandpa Sal was not one of these. That is, he was not, as my Uncles Eddie and Armand were, staring before him with a stark and trustful rusticity. Instead, his head sunk back between his shoulders as usual, and he was looking directly at me, as if he’d known all along that I’d been hiding there, listening. Meeting my eye, he made a movement with his big, stony head, so slight that it couldn’t have been measured in inches. But slight as it was, it conveyed to me that he and I between us knew what to think of what we had just heard. We knew exactly what to think. It was a communication complete in every respect.

My uncle departed a few days later, the contents of his trunk having been, as far as he knew, entirely undisturbed. Of my uncles on my mother’s side, only one survives.

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