Julian Gallo: Animals

USA. New York City, NY. 2015. Bronx Zoo.

Christopher Anderson, Bronx Zoo, 2015. Source: magnumphotos.com

“Come this way, Luca,” Carlo says, reaching out for the boy’s hand.

“But I’m not finished looking.”

“Okay. Take your time.”

Carlo eyes one of the boys in the group next to them. There’s one in every crowd, always one other kid that somewhere in the deep recesses of his not yet developed frontal lobe who felt so inadequate that he must find fault in another. This is the kid who will one day start bullying others, the one who will become a complete douche bag by the time he reaches middle school. Okay, so Luca is a little off but that’s no reason to stare, no reason to snicker behind your hand and elbow the kid next to you to get him on your side. Because that’s the way it’s going to work in the future: so inept are you to think for yourself, even at this young age, that you will need to gather an army around you to, in essence, do your fighting for you. Leader of the Pack. The Alpha Male. Perhaps, but clearly a zeta brain in development.

The snickering boy sees Carlo staring at him then abruptly turns away, grabs hold of his mother’s hand and virtually hides beneath her summer dress. Yes, that’s right, kid. There’s the real you. A mamma’s boy — like most bullies.

Luca feeds the last of the pellets to the llama. “Okay. Finished now.”

Carlo takes Luca’s hand and wanders further up the path towards the camels. His momentary wave of anger subsides and now it’s just the two of them again.

Carlo hasn’t been to the Bronx Zoo since he was a kid, not much older than Luca is now. His father decided to take him and his brother Gino on a lark. It was rare that their father took them to the zoo. A ball game, yes. The park, of course one Sunday morning. The zoo? Never. Carlo remembers Gino bitching and moaning about it because there was a Mets game on TV that afternoon and Carlo was amazed when his father told Gino that there would be plenty of other games to see over the course of the summer. Another rarity.  Gino relented but that didn’t stop him from being a regular pain in the ass, making fun of his brother the whole time. What boy found such love in animals? he teased throughout the day, reminding him of the incident when Carlo was beside himself over an injured bird in front of their house. Sissy boys cared about animals, he told him. A quick slap from their father across Gino’s mop of hair (it was the 70s, after all) put a quick stop to it. For the rest of the day Carlo felt self-conscious about it. He didn’t like how he felt about that then and was amazed that after all these years he remembers how humiliated Gino’s words had made him feel. He’d be damned if were allow this to happen to Luca. Not on his watch. It’s enough that the poor kid was going to put up with an immense amount of cruelty as it was, once he starts school, once he starts interacting with other kids. Something else that he remembers all to well.

He squeezes the boy’s hand, guides him closer to the camels.

“See?” he says to Luca. “That one has two humps, the other has only one.”

“Why does that one have two humps?”

“The ones with two humps are called Bactrian camels. They live mostly in the wild, in Central Asia and the Steppes. The one hump camels are called Dromedaries and live mostly in North Africa and Arabia. They’re a different species, like many other animals have different species.”

“Do people have different species?”

“No, not any more,” Carlo says. “There used to be. Neanderthal for instance. Remember them? We saw them at the Museum of Natural History?”

“The caveman!”

Carlo laughs. “Well…yeah, right.”

“They were scary looking.”

“I don’t think they were so scary looking.”

“Why?”

“They were people, more or less like us.”

“Are there any Neanderthals here?”

Again, Carlo laughs. “No, they’re all gone. They’re extinct. Do you know what that means?”

“No.”

“It means that they disappeared, that there aren’t any more of them left. Like a lot of different kind of animals. Dinosaurs, for instance.”

“They died. Is that what it means?”

“Yes, I suppose so.”

“That’s sad. Are people going to become extinct too?”

Carlo smiles. If this kid would have asked Gino he might have been treated to a rant on how it may soon be a distinct possibility. “No, people are going to be around a long long time,” he says. “And people have been around a long time. Millions of years, in fact.”

“Wow!”

“Well, not us, not modern humans but if you count the different species, the one’s that went extinct…” He realizes that he starting to go over the boy’s head. “Let’s just say that people been around a long long time.”

Luca steps closer to the fence, reaches his hand out towards the dromedary camel who begins sniffing at his fingers. Carlo can’t help but smile. The sheer joy on the child’s face melts his heart. Such innocence — an innocence that he himself lost long ago and has been desperately trying to recapture but to no avail. Sooner or later, we all must grow up, and with it, that instinctive sense of wonder is lost, at even the little things, like a camel sniffing at one’s fingers.

“I want to feed him,” Luca says.

Carlo slips the quarters into the machine and retrieves a handful of pellets.

Luca grins from ear to ear as the camel sticks its snout through the fence and licks the pellets from his hand. He looks up at Carlo for a moment, then back at the camel, astonished, amazed, full of wonder. When the camel finishes eating them, it turns away and joins the others.

“I think he’s full,” Luca says.

“Ready?”

Luca takes Carlo’s hand.

“Are you having a nice time?”

“The best!” Luca says.

Serena had been telling him how much Luca was looking forward to going to the zoo. All week long he kept asking her whether or not he was going that day and being that four year olds barely have a sense of time — never mind patience — that he moped around until the day finally arrived. He could barely contain his excitement, she told him. Carlo is glad that Serena trusts him enough to take him on his own. Serena has no interest in going. “He wants to be with you, anyway,” she told him. “The sun rises and sets around ‘Uncle Carlo’.” When he came to pick him up that morning he was already dressed and waiting, impatiently sitting on the sofa. As soon as Carlo walked in the door he jumped up and down and ran to him, wrapping his little arms around him, eager to leave. Carlo promised her that  she would have nothing to worry about, that he’d take good care of the boy, especially since he wasn’t exactly what others would call “normal”. Carlo, although cognizant of the fact that Luca was “special”, didn’t see him as any different than any other little boy his age. Not so among his fellow New Yorkers on the subway ride up to the Bronx who kept staring at this slightly off kid, sure that something was wrong with him but unsure of exactly what. The stares and the side glances bothered him, as if they’d never seen someone like Luca before.

“Let’s go see the giraffes,” Carlo says. “Ever see a real live giraffe?”

“Only pictures.”

“Well, they have real live ones here. Let’s go see them.”

He had known Serena for a few months, meeting her by chance in the stairway of his building on Eldridge Street. Her husband had just left her, went back to Italy, said he was having a hard time dealing with a son who was “special”. As horrified as Serena was to hear this she had her doubts that he was telling her the truth. He had been making multiple trips back and forth to Rome for “business” which led her to believe there was another woman involved; and although she couldn’t prove this was the case, she was fairly certain it was true. Serena took an immediate liking to Carlo and soon they were spending a lot of time together. The fact that Luca took a shine to him only helped matters. While not officially a couple at this point they may as well be. Carlo was very cautious over these past few months and the fact that Luca had grown so attached to him — and he of Luca  —was beginning to complicate things.

“There it is, Luca. Isn’t it beautiful?”

Luca stares open mouthed at the giraffe. Again, Carlo can’t help but smile as Luca inches closer to the railing, leaning forward to get a closer look at this majestic animal. “I want to feed it,” he says.

“I don’t think we can, Luca. See how he’s set far back from the railing? I don’t think they want you to feed it.”

A look of disappointment appears on Luca’s face but quickly vanishes as soon as the giraffe gracefully turns its head to look at him.

“The girfaffe is looking at me!” he shouted. “Look!”

“Say hello, Luca!”

“Hello, girfaffe! Hello!”

Carlo laughs, takes his cell phone out of his pocket and shoots a video of Luca as he gazes up at the giraffe as it lowers it’s face closer to the fence.

It were these priceless moments when the look on a child’s face warmed his heart. It reminds him of when he was a little boy, always curious, always fascinated with things. Especially animals, birds in particular. He doesn’t know why, looking back, but there was a time in his life where he was fascinated with birds: blue jays, cardinals, the sparrows that were so prevalent on his block, woodpeckers, and the occasional odd one that made its way into the trees in front of his house or in the back yard bushes. Birds, birds, birds, obsessed with birds, “obsessed” being the word Gino used all the time. He didn’t know what it meant but he always sensed that his brother was poking fun at him. The fascination with birds ended the day the one he tried to save died in that dirty shoe box in his bedroom.

Watching Luca, he also feels a little sad. It won’t be long before Serena will start sending Luca to school and he’ll start coming into contact with other boys and girls his age, each one of them different, each one with a different temperament. Inevitably, he’s going to come into contact with kids like the one’s staring at him earlier, those who don’t understand difference; and many of them won’t exactly be as warm to the things that Luca finds so special and they will start to poke fun at him and it will shatter him. The thought of this sweet little kid getting his heart broken by some little spoiled brat angers him. It’s what happened to him during his very first week of kindergarten. That particular moment when Luca held his little hand towards the camel’s mouth, smiling, wide eyed, curious and fascinated, will be lost, at least to some extent. What kind of man will Luca eventually grow up to be? A sensitive one like himself or the sad, brutal cynic like his brother?

Again, more stares, this time from the adults.

Carlo unconsciously blocks Luca from their line of site, steps in front of him as they wait on line to pay for lunch. Realizing what he was doing, he steps away again, rests his hand on the boy’s head, rustles his hair. Luca adjusts his glasses and looks up at his hero, his dark eyes magnified ten fold by the special lenses, smiles.

“Having fun?”

“Am I,” Luca says, then leans into his friend.

Carlo pays for the food and they find an available table away from the majority of the crowd who all seem to want to cluster together like moths to a flame. This is more for his own sake than for Luca’s. Carlo doesn’t like crowds — never did — and always found it odd that people have this tendency to always want to be on top of one another.

He opens Luca’s chocolate milk and strips the paper off the straw, drops it in the container. “It feels nice and cold,” he says. “Must feel good on a hot day like this.”

Luca nods as he sucks at the straw.

Carlo notices the three middle aged women and the younger man who had been staring at Luca while on line, sitting two tables away. Again one of the women stares, then whispers in her companion’s ear, her eyes still focused on the boy, eventually dropping her eyes and turning away when she notices Carlo watching them.

“Why are you watching them?” Luca asks.

“No reason,” Carlo says, watching Luca turn his gaze towards them. “It’s nothing. Eat your hot dog before it gets cold.”

Luca lowers his head, dejected, then takes a bite from his hot dog. The kid notices, Carlo thought.

“You okay?” Carlo asks.

Luca smiles. “The hot dog is gooood.”

Carlo smiles, rustles Luca’s hair again. “When we finish up, we’ll take a walk over to the monkeys. Would you like that?”

“Would I!”

Gino always said that humans were nothing more than monkeys with guns, something that always somewhat offended Carlo’s Catholic sensibilities, but not in an anti-evolutionary sense. He was on board with that like most Catholics but in the sense that he believed that mankind was just one of many of God’s special creations. To reduce man to simply being a primate who knew how to use a weapon cheapened all the wondrous things mankind has given the world: art, music, literature, science, civilization. Gino always scoffed at that and often stood his ground. Now the idea of taking in the primates makes him feel a little unnerved because it’s yet another thing that reminds him of how his brother always picked on him.

He badly wants a cigarette and he unconsciously reaches for one before remembering Luca. He doesn’t want to smoke around the kid, have him starting asking questions and he most certainly didn’t want him to start imitating him in front of Serena.

Luca finishes his hot dog and chocolate milk, lets out a little burp.

“Satisfied?”

Luca laughs.

Carlo gathers up the garbage and takes Luca by the hand. Looking around for the garbage he notices that the pail is near the table where the middle aged folks are sitting. He walks over, tosses the trash into the pail and looks at them for a moment, his expression letting them know that they are both aware they were being talked about, before dragging Luca along behind him.

“In the animal kingdom”, Gino used to tell him, “you’ll see the whole range of human experience in all its glorious complexity.”

Carlo was eleven when his brother first told him that, during a slow walk home along 86th Street in Brooklyn, his brother stuffing wads of Wise onion rings into his mouth, bits of them flaking off onto his half open shirt and onto his chest as he spoke, the light spring breeze carrying their odor. They had both just seen an incident involving a small pack of feral dogs. One was a small labrador, not much more than a puppy, mange eating away at the fur on the top of its head. It hid under a parked Volkswagen as three other, much larger dogs surrounded it, growling, gnashing their teeth. The little labrador attempted to crawl out from under the car to follow the rest of the pack down the street, but whenever it did, the other dogs would snap and growl at it, forcing the little dog back under the car, trembling and whining. Eventually the other dogs wandered off, leaving the frightened labrador alone and afraid under the Volkswagen.

“See?” Gino said, his mouth full of onion rings. “It’s not much different from how people treat each other. The weak are always shunned, left out. If that dog would have tried to follow them one more time, they might have killed it.”

“But why?”

“Because that’s nature, Carlo. Dogs, apes, tigers, gazelles, people, it’s all the same. We just show it a different way — especially when it comes to mating. Ever see a girl completely and totally reject a guy? Why do you think they reject them? It all goes back to our most primal, basic instincts, back when we were so-called primitives. That part of our brain is still there. It never went away. Sure, we color things up with gadgets, cars, fancy clothes, money, status, but it’s all the same shit. Just a different way of going about it but the essential truth still remains. That’s why I always tell you to stand up for yourself, not to take shit from anyone, not to be bullied. Bullies smell weakness and they will do to what they perceive as weak just like those dogs did to that poor pup.”

Carlo stopped, squat down and peered under the car. The labrador lowered its head and slinked back further under the car. “I wish I could take him home,” he said.

“No fucking way. Pop wouldn’t want that mangy mutt in the house. Are you nuts?”

“But look at him…”

Gino shoved the last bits of onion rings into his mouth, tossed the crumpled bag into the curb and grabbed his brother by the arm. “You better toughen up, kid or else you’ll be just like that dog once you get to junior high school.”

The Monkey House is one of the oldest Beaux-Arts styled buildings in the zoo. Situated in the central Astor Court, upon approach, Carlo is reminded of the last time he’d been there and how much of a pain in the ass his brother had been acting, mimicking them, taunting them, pretending to challenge them, even the odd quip about how their parents had originally found him in this very monkey house and felt sorry for him and decided to bring him home. A quick slap from Papa to the back of Gino’s head quickly ended his shenanigans.

Holding Luca by the hand, they weave their way in and out of the crowd making their way towards the entrance.

“Monkeys are fascinating to me,” he tells the boy. “They fascinate me because of how close they are to us. You’ve never seen real live monkeys before, have you?”

“Only pictures,” Luca says, pushing his glasses up to the bridge of his nose.

“Then I think you’re going to love it. They really are remarkable creatures.”

Carlo tries to keep up with Luca who immediately runs up to the chimpanzee cage, squeezing himself in among the other children pressed against the wooden railing, already mimicking the primates and making monkey noises. Luca looks back at Carlo with a smile, then turns back towards the cage, presses his way further into the group of excited children. Carlo again takes out his cell phone and snaps a photo of the wide eyed child. The flash distracts him a moment — as it does some of the other children — and it brings to mind an old photo he had tucked away on one of his now decrepit photo albums.

The Monkey Jungle, Miami, 1974: they had just finished watching a silly little show involving trained chimpanzees. Some rode tricycles, others banged on toy instruments, others appeared to understand the questions that the trainer had asked them. All the children were mesmerized by the spectacle as were some of the adults. Carlo remembers overhearing the old woman sitting behind him that she found it “incredible” that these chimpanzees understood human language (which elicited a stifled laugh from Gino, quickly squashed by Papa’s thrusting elbow to his son’s ribs). Outside the little theater, Mama wanted to take a picture of the boys along with their father. They lined up against the fence and Mama brought the old Kodak Instamatic to her right eye. Carlo, for some reason, focused on the little plastic cube which served as the flash. (Now that he thought of it, why his mother used a flash in broad daylight is still a mystery). The flash went off, right into Carlo’s eye, leaving behind a white, square impression on his retina.

Next to where they were standing was one of those machines that dispensed wax animals for fifty cents a pop. Carlo wanted one and asked his father for the money so he could get one. Papa fished the quarters out of his pocket, dropped it into the machine. Half the excitement was that one never knew what animal one was going to get — a gorilla, a chimp, an elephant. Carlo hoped for a gorilla and once he smelled the hot wax pouring into the mold, the more excited he became. Soon, a blue wax gorilla dropped into the tray. It was still hot to the touch but he picked it up and held it aloft to show Papa which one he got. Then out of nowhere, someone snatched the wax gorilla from his hand. It happened so suddenly he looked around himself, then at Gino. When he saw that his brother didn’t have it, he looked up the pathway to see some bratty little kid with red hair fondling the object between his hands, the boy’s parents two steps ahead. Carlo began to cry and when Gino asked him what was wrong, all Carlo could do was point towards the red headed kid who was now tossing the wax gorilla up into the air and catching it.

Realizing that his eight year old brother was too beside himself to take care of the issue himself, Gino stormed after the kid just as his parents began to inquire as to why Carlo was crying. Before they could say or do anything, Gino was on the red head, gripping the boy by this throat and snatching the toy away from him. The boy’s parents were still a few paces ahead, unaware that their son was about to get the throttling of his life. Carlo watched as Gino tightened his grip around the boy’s throat, brought his face closer the boy’s. Then he let go and the red head kid ran off to catch up to his parents. Gino handed the gorilla back to him.

“What the hell just happened?” Papa asked.

Gino explained it to them and they went on their way towards the food court. Lagging being their parents, Carlo asked, “What did you say to him?”

“I told him that if he didn’t give it back I was going to crush his fucking windpipe.”

Carlo didn’t say anything.

“You have to learn to stand up for yourself, Carlo. Don’t let anyone walk all over you like that.”

Carlo brought the wax gorilla to his nose, smelled that waxy odor the toy emitted. “Thanks, Gino.”

“Don’t mention it,” he said, dropping his arm around his little brother’s shoulder, the food court now in sight.

“Carlo!”  came Luca’s little voice, waking him from his memory. “Look!”

One of the chimpanzees had come closer to the cage, grinning, bouncing up and down, causing the children to erupt into laughter. Carlo raises the cell phone, takes a video of the monkey’s antics.

Now armed with a balloon, which Carlo fastened around Luca’s wrist, they decided to pause to get a cold drink. Carlo buys two cans of soda and the two of them take a seat on a bench.

“Does your mother allow you to drink soda?”

“Sometimes,” he says. “Juice and milk, mostly.”

“Well, today you can have a little soda. But only a little.”

Carlo takes the can away from Luca and puts it beside him, then gets up and retrieves a small paper cup from the vendor.

“Here”, he says, pouring some of his soda into the cup. “We can bring the other one home for your mother.”

He watches Luca take little sips from the cup.

“You like that balloon, don’t you?”

“Yeah,” Luca says, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

“I used to like balloons when I was a kid too.”

“When were you a kid like me?”

“Oh, a long time ago.”

Luca smiles, takes another sip of soda.

When Carlo was Luca’s age the world was a completely different place. Richard Nixon was president, the Vietnam war was still raging, protests were still erupting in the streets, hippies were everywhere (who both his mother and father detested with a passion). Of course he was too young to really understand all the tumult that was going on around him but he was aware of it and did have memories of it all, however vague they may have been. He recalls the house down the corner, near the grocery store — “The Hippie House”, his mother called it — and he had always wondered what it was about these “hippies” that disgusted his parents so much. He saw his first one around that time, stepping out of the Hippie House with his long hair, beard and filthy clothes. Carlo had gone with his mother to the grocery and the hippie had crossed right in front of them. He hid behind his mother’s legs just as the hippie smiled at him, revealing his yellow and brown teeth. He wore a yellow t-shirt which sported a weird drawing which he didn’t understand. When he got home he told his father that he had seen a hippie and his father merely waved his hand, mumbled “filthy bastard”. When he told Gino about it his brother told them to be careful, that hippies loved to cook and eat little boys like them and for years he actually believed this to be true. He wondered what sort of folks seem scary to boys like Luca. Being that there aren’t really any more hippies around, who were the trendy kids today that would seem scary to a little boy of four?

Luca finishes his soda and Carlo pours what little is left into his cup. “That’s it,” he says. “We don’t want you to have too much sugar, okay?”

Luca nods, wipes the sweat from his forehead, drinks down the last of the soda. Carlo places the other can in his bag and takes Luca by the hand.

“What do you say we check out the birds? I used to love birds when I was a kid. Want to see the birds? There are some incredible ones, some nearly as big as you.”

“Really? As big as me?”

“Uh huh. Want to see them?”

“Let’s see them!”

By the time they reach the World of Birds, Luca no longer wants the balloon. He watches as Carlo unties it from his wrist and cranes his neck as he sees it drift towards the sky.

“So you think it will reach the moon?” Luca asks.

“Who knows? Maybe.”

It would only figure Luca notices the peacock first. Standing still in its cage, it’s colorful tail fully fanned out, Luca immediately runs over to it, his mouth agape. “Carlo, look!”

Carlo stands beside him, snaps a photo.

Of course, out of all the birds in the place, the peacock is the one bird that immediately reminded him of his brother. Not because his brother was a strutter (although in some ways he was) but of the analogy he once drew between the simple peacock and the male of the human species. One of his usual cynical rants, this time when Carlo was fifteen and down about not being able to find the right girl.

“One of these days you’re going to understand that we are just another animal,” he told him, “no different from any other species on this planet. Oh, we like to think we’re at the top of the food chain, the most superior species walking the earth but if you really give it some thought, we’re not so different from anything else. Look at you right now, whining about not being able to find a girlfriend. Ever wonder why? Because you’re different and I don’t mean that as an insult. Most humans are pack animals. They have no minds of their own, despite pretenses to the contrary. With every species there’s always some characteristic used to attract the female. Take the peacock for instance. The male spreads out his colorful tail in an attempt to attract a mate. The more colorful the better, I might add. Look at bears, who roughhouse with one another to prove who’s the dominant one. Why? To attract the female. The rams who smash their heads into one another. You think they do this because they like it, that it’s fun for them? Again, to attract a mate. So what to we humans do? We style our hair a certain way, we buy expensive clothes, drive around in nice flashy cars, wear jewelry, strut around like we’re the toughest guy in the neighborhood. It’s just our version of the peacock spreading it’s tail or the rams smashing their heads into one another. You are trying to be the “nice guy” and you are and there’s nothing wrong with that. You are who you are and you don’t try to be anyone else but yourself and that’s very admirable. But that’s not what women want to see. They want to see someone they think is dominant, strong, someone who they feel will protect them, produce viable offspring. Yeah, we can try to hide our basic animal instincts all we want but all we’re doing is just finding another way. You’ll see. It’s highly unfortunate but the bigger asshole you are, the more these dumb girls will pay attention to you. You have to spread your tail, so to speak, thump your chest.”

Carlo didn’t want to hear any of this, of course, because he didn’t want to believe it to be true. He was never one for phony macho antics and if he tried, any girl with a half a brain would see right through it. Deep down, though, he knew what Gino was saying to be true only he didn’t want to accept it. Nerdy, sensitive guys often find their match and he told his brother as much.

“Sure but in essence they do the same thing but in their own way. You think the geek kids don’t have their way of spreading their tail? How about that time you tried to impress that girl from school, the one you used to see in the library all the time by bringing that stupid book with you all the time because you knew it was her favorite? Or what about that time you wore that ridiculous t-shirt with that dumb band on it because you knew the girl you liked also liked that kind of music. Don’t you think that’s the same thing? Don’t kid yourself, little brother. We all do it to some extent. Nothing to be ashamed of, it’s just the way it is. You want to find the right girl for you, figure out how to spread your own individual tail.”

Carlo turns to look at Luca who’s grinning from ear to ear, whispering the occasional “Wow” as the peacock began to strut across the cage. “Can peacocks fly?”

“Sort of,” Carlo says. “Only a little bit. Long enough for them to help them escape predators.”

“What does predator mean?”

“Meaning if there’s another animal that wants to eat it, it can fly a little bit to get out of its way.”

“Who would want to eat a peacock?”

“Dogs, cats, raccoons…”

“Wouldn’t they choke on its feathers?”

Carlo laughs. “I’m not sure.”

Luca turns his attention back to the peacock, whose tail has now returned to its normal position. “I hope no one eats this one.”

“No, no one will eat this one. He’s safe in there, see? They protect all the animals here.”

“That makes me happy.”

Fucking Gino. Predator — prey. How he sees the world. Aren’t we humans above that? Gino says no. “The weak get decimated,” he told him. “Don’t you realize this from all those history books you read? How many examples have you seen of humans preying on other humans? And what reasons do they often use, huh?”

Fucking Gino.

“He’s a very cute boy.” The woman’s voice causes Carlo to turn around to see the same woman who had been staring at them on the lunch line. He glances at Luca who’s still enraptured with the birds. “Is he your son?”

“No,” Carlo says, noticing the woman’s face showing concern. “I’m his uncle.”

“Uncle Carlo, look!” Luca says, pointing to the peacock who had just spread its colorful tail again.

The woman’s face morphs into a smile. “He’s adorable.”

“Thank you,” Carlo says. 

“I don’t mean to be so forward,” the woman says, “but I could tell earlier that perhaps you thought we were talking about him. We were — but it wasn’t what you thought and I just wanted to apologize.”

Carlo studies the woman for a moment, then smiles. “That’s okay. I guess I’m just a little protective of him.”

“I understand. People can be cruel. I just wanted you to understand that I’m not one of them.”

“It’s okay. It’s just that I’m very sensitive to that kind of thing, that’s all. I overreacted. I’m the one that should apologize.”

“No need.” The woman looks at Luca smiling at the strutting peacock. “Is the boy’s mother around?”

“No, I have him for the day. She’s working.”

“I see,” the woman says, reaching into her pocket book. “Here’s my card. Please give it to the boy’s mother. If she ever feels she needs anything, have her call me.”

Brenda King. Child Psychologist.

Carlo forces a smile. “Thank you. I’ll be sure she gets it.”

“Having a special needs child is so difficult.”

Carlo pauses, a bit miffed, then, “I think he’ll be all right in the long run. He seems like a very normal boy to me.”

“How old is he?”

“He’s four.”

“Started school?”

“This coming September.”

Brenda puts an affectionate hand on Carlo’s shoulder. “Please, if his mother ever needs anything…”

“I’ll be sure to give her your card, thank you.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, do you have any children of your own? You’re very good with him.”

“No,” Carlo says. “My ex-wife didn’t want kids.”

Brenda gives him a sympathetic look. There it is, that same look everyone gives him when they discover he’s childless. If it wasn’t the usual look of pity then it was the accusations of selfishness. That one he particularly hated. He saw it another way: it was a selfish act to bring a child into the world, not the other way around. A child never asks to be born. Others make that decision for it. Not that it was selfish in a negative sense but the simple fact was that a child is brought into the world because two others decide they want to.

When Brenda walks away he walks up behind Luca and places his hands on the boy’s shoulders, whispers into his ear. “Let’s go look at some of the others. I think there’s a toucan in here somewhere from what I remember. You know what a toucan is, right?”

Luca shakes his head.

“You know the bird on your box of Froot Loops? That’s a toucan. I was always fascinated by those when I was your age. Parrots too.”

“Are there parrots here?”

“Of course. We’ll see those too.”

Carlo had always wanted kids and the idea of passing on his family name was very important to him. It was nice enough that Gino was lucky to have a daughter and when she was born he wanted one of his own more than ever. But Carlo wouldn’t be so fortunate. The night he found out that it wasn’t in the cards was the beginning of the end of his marriage and that was the night that Gino didn’t hold back his feelings about Mari, Carlo’s his ex-wife, which also led to a huge fight with Gino’s wife after Carlo had left for the evening. The whole experience still leaves a bitter taste in his mouth.

There were already cracks in the foundation of their marriage by the time that Christmas rolled around. Mari’s incessant nagging — or what he perceived as nagging  — was beginning to take its toll. His career, which Mari initially found interesting, slowly became something of an embarrassment to her among her well heeled and ever growing social circle. More than once she had hinted — at first, anyway — that he should be making a lot more money for a man his age, that while traveling and writing was something a “college student may find fun”, didn’t he think it was time to perhaps move on to something else? This irritated him, of course, but he never did much to stand up for himself other than answer meekly, “It’s what I do. You knew that when you met me.” It was clear that the more Mari’s social circle expanded to include intellectuals, artists, thinkers, the more embarrassed she had become at her husband’s career.

While Mari began to think about moving beyond her teaching — by working towards her PH.D for instance — Carlo packed his bags and traveled to far off destinations without her, feeling lonely, thinking about the fact that he was getting older and would like to start a family. He hadn’t brought the idea up to Mari at that point since deep down he knew she had a lot on her plate and having a child wouldn’t likely be one of those ingredients. She never explicitly said she was against the idea but she never actually broached the subject either, not even in a hypothetical way. It was an unspoken subject between them, one that was best left alone for the time being.

But in his travels he had seen many things and one of those things were parents and their children. Carlo always had a soft spot for kids because each time he watched them he thought about his own childhood and more often than not thought about all those things that happened over the course of his life to make him the man he was today, Gino’s constant lecturing always in the back of his mind. He was in his middle thirties at the time and already he was beginning to feel the specter of “mid-life crisis” looming over his shoulder. Was Mari right? What had he actually accomplished over the course of his life? A couple of travel books, dozens of articles in magazines, yes but hadn’t he gained a certain amount of life experience and a better sense of the variety of life in this world? What had Mari learned cloistered in her academic bubble? While she read about the world, he had actually experienced it, lived it, been in the thick of it. This was a difference that, at that time, had not yet began to slice at the bond that tied them together.

However that Christmas at Gino’s apartment, that bond had been attacked by what could only be described as a verbal and emotional hatchet. No subtly, no nuance, like someone trying to hack down the tallest tree in the forest. Thinking back on it, it was Gino’s wife who perhaps planted the bomb, although he didn’t think she did it deliberately (Gino thought otherwise, of course). The subject of children had come up and Deborah, Gino’s wife, had (seemingly) innocently asked Carlo if he and Mari had planned on having any. Before Carlo could answer, Mari was dismissive of the idea, citing her career ambitions then moving on to note that Carlo was always on the road writing those “silly books of his”. It hit Carlo like a freight train and when he tried to interject she simply wouldn’t allow him to, talking over him as soon as the words left his mouth.

Gino, giving his brother the “look” that he had inherited from their father, at first held his tongue; but when Mari continued to talk over her husband, Gino couldn’t take it any longer. He exploded, said some things that perhaps he shouldn’t have said. Carlo tried to stick up for Mari but that only incensed Gino even more. He laid it all out on the table: Mari was a selfish, narcissistic, self-absorbed, self-important pompous ass who didn’t show the respect to her husband that he deserved; that she never let him speak his mind; that she always belittled him and his feelings; took advantage of his good nature to walk all over him; only married him because she could feel superior, that no one with a stronger sense of themselves would have put up with her for as long as her brother had; and on and on and on. Deborah, enraged, did what she could to try to calm Gino down but the more she did so, the more angry he became. Without another word, Mari grabbed her coat and stormed out of the apartment, Carlo trailing after her like a wounded puppy.

Later on that night, at their apartment, they fought over the issue of having kids and of Gino’s behavior in particular. It was the first shot across the bow. Nothing would ever be the same again. Mari was incensed that he would continue to contact his brother after she had received such treatment from him. Their bond, whatever was left of it, weakened even further. Divorce was inevitable.

Meanwhile, at the remnants of what was supposed to be a nice, quiet Christmas at Gino’s apartment, he and Deborah fought well into the night, their poor ‘tween’ daughter locking herself in the bedroom, crying hysterically as she listened to her parents shouting across the apartment.

Carlo never wanted the divorce and he tried to reconcile with Mari more than once. After a while it was clear that it was over and Mari couldn’t simply leave without the final insult: declining alimony payments because her ex-husband “barely scraped by with that so-called living of his” (another fact that sent Gino into one of his rages when he was told about that).

Carlo moved out of their palatial apartment and into an old but renovated Lower East Side tenement building on Eldridge Street, barely enough room for all his books and papers. Depressed and throwing himself into his work, he traveled a lot, taking any assignment the magazines or publishers would give him but that didn’t take his mind off his troubles. It was only when he ran into Serena moving into his building that the clouds begin to dissipate. Before they became more acquainted, he spent most of his time completing his writing assignments while listening to his Ella Fitzgerald CDs all hours of the night.

It wasn’t long after that Gino and Deborah went their separate ways, the only difference being that Gino welcomed it, like shucking a huge weight off his back. The only thing that bothered him was not being able to see his daughter other than every other weekend. Gino’s marriage wasn’t the strongest of marriages and their divorce was more than amicable.

Carlo had always been a bit envious of the fact that his brother had a child. It was something that he knew — at his current age — was never going to happen for him. Being with Luca was the closest he had ever been to having his own son but he was careful not to allow those feelings to overwhelm him. It was not his child, despite the fact that Luca adored him like no other. He had to be careful of that. If his relationship with Serena didn’t progress beyond it’s current status, it could break the poor kid’s heart.

He tries not to think about any of this any longer as he takes Luca’s hand and leads him towards the toucan cage. Luca is fascinated by these big, weird looking birds, almost as much as Carlo was when he was a child and seeing them for the first time. He begins to feel sorry for Luca — a child without a father, his “problem”, the tough life he was going to live being raised by a single, working mother. He wants to believe that as long as he has the right support system around him, he would turn out just fine. He will do anything in his power to make sure of it.

They board the number 5 train at East Tremont Avenue/West Farms Square. By then Luca had been yawning and dragging his feet. Thankfully, there are plenty of empty seats available and as soon as Carlo plops down, Luca stands up on the seat, presses his face against the window to watch the scenery below as the train makes its way back toward Manhattan.

“Hold on, now,” Carlo says. “Try not to fall, okay?” He puts his hand on the boy’s shoulder in order to secure him in place in the event of a sudden jolt or sharp turn. Watching Luca stare out the window, his mouth agape, reminds him of the very first time his father had taken him on the subway, to a church on Sullivan Street where they handed out loaves of bread for St. Anthony’s Day, a family tradition for as long as he could remember.

To go there with his father was a big deal and he loved the fact that he got to go with him without Gino, who preferred to remain in bed and sleep the day away. All along the way his father had told him not to stare at the lady who would be giving them the bread. She had been badly burned in a fire and he didn’t want Carlo to stare at her. This of course had Carlo’s imagination running wild and a little fearful at the same time. How bad could she look? When they finally arrived downtown, they entered St. Anthony’s Church and the old woman came out, greeting his father with a hug. Half her face was covered in puckered flesh and it frightened Carlo somewhat but he felt more sad than frightened. She greeted him with the kindness one would expect a woman of her years towards a six year old boy. Carlo politely said hello and did his best not to stare at this poor woman. When they left his father put his big hand on Carlo’s shoulder and told him how proud he was of him for not being frightened and for not staring at her like she was a monster. Carlo felt good about that, getting an extra accolade from Papa, but all he could think of was returning home and digging into that bread. He could smell it emanating from the paper bag in the crook of Papa’s arm, felt his mouth beginning to water.

Out of nowhere storm clouds gather over the city, growing darker by the moment. A flash of lightning startles the boy.

“It looks like a storm’s coming,” Carlo says. “Did the lightning frighten you?”

“A little.”

“It’s okay. We’re inside. It can’t hurt you.”

A woman sitting across from them watches Luca getting excited by the scenery and especially the passing trains on the opposite track. Carlo notices her and smiles.

“He seems very happy,” the woman says.

“He had a very exciting day at the zoo, didn’t you Luca?”

“Yes!” Luca says, turning to look at the woman. “I got to see birds, monkeys, elephants and even a girfaffe!”

The woman laughs. “Wow, that sounds like a lot of fun.” Then to Carlo. “How old is he?”

“He’s four.”

“God bless him,” the woman says.

The train had begins to fill up so Carlo tells Luca to sit down so that others can have a seat. He wants to sit on Carlo’s lap instead. Once comfortable he begins to nod out, the day finally taking its toll.

Carlo’s cell phone purs in his pocket.

“Where are you?” Serena asks.

“We’re on our way home.”

“How is he? Was he too much trouble?”

“No trouble at all. In fact, he’s starting to fall asleep. Poor kid was on his feet all day. He was a pleasure, believe me.”

“Did he eat?”

“Of course — but that was a little while ago.”

“I should have something ready for him when you get back.”

“I’m not sure he’s going to be in the mood to eat. He’s out like a light.”

“Did you have fun?”

“Absolutely. I had the best time.”

“You’re on the train?”

“Yes, we’re still above ground. Not for long though. We’re almost in Manhattan.”

“So you’ll be a little while then.”

“Maybe another forty-five minutes, an hour tops.”

“You better hurry up. It looks like a big storm is coming.”

“Yeah, I can see.”

“Do you have an umbrella?”

“No. It was nice out all day, I don’t know what happened. Don’t worry, if it starts pouring I certainly won’t let him get caught out in the rain.”

“I can’t thank you enough for taking him, Carlo. I can’t even begin to tell you how much he was looking forward to it.”

“Not a problem at all. I had just as much fun as he did, believe me.”

“I’m so glad to hear that. Okay, let me let you go. I’ll see you soon.”

Carlo slips the phone back in his pocket, being careful not to awaken Luca and he figures he’d let him sleep until they reached 14th Street where they had to change trains.

With Luca asleep, Carlo has enough time to think about Serena and where their relationship is heading, that is, if you could call what they had a relationship. While he was taking things very casual — as was Serena — it was Gino who kept pushing the issue once he learned of her. Was she pretty? Was she kind? What did she do for a living? Was there any fooling around? And all the rest of it. Carlo didn’t want to talk about it much because he wasn’t sure himself nor was he sure about what Serena was thinking about everything. So far, things have been nice. No pressure. No expectations. However there’s Luca to consider. The more Carlo and Serena spend time together, the more attached to Carlo Luca becomes and that could be an issue, as Gino made sure to warn him about a million and one times. The truth is he isn’t sure whether he’s ready for another serious relationship nor is he convinced that Serena is either. There’s a lot of things to consider and had their not been a four year old boy involved, perhaps it wouldn’t be so complicated.

When they arrive at Union Square, he nudges Luca awake and crosses the platform to a waiting number 6.

“We’re going to change trains again, okay? Remember how we did that this morning?”

Luca merely nods, rubs his eyes.

By Bleecker Street, Carlo has Luca in his arms, carrying him through the walkway to the BMT transfer. Thankfully the F pulls in just as they reach the platform. It’s only a short ride to Delancey Street from there.

Luca isn’t in any condition to walk when they arrive at their stop so Carlo carries him all the way to Eldridge Street beneath an increasingly threatening sky. He’s thankful that Luca is out like a light being that the lightning is more frequent, ominous. They manage to get inside the building just as the first drops begin to fall.

“Do you know what he told me?” Serena says. “He said he had the best time with you, that it was so much fun and that you are the nicest man in the world.”

Outside the lightning flashes, followed moments later by a loud crack of thunder. The wind causes a torrent of rain to splash against the windows. Carlo turns to look at Serena standing by Luca’s bedroom door, a smile pulling at the corners of her lips.

“He’s a great kid,” he says. “I had the best time too.”

Serena smiles then opened the bottle of wine she had placed on the coffee table. “This couldn’t be a more perfect evening for a glass of wine and a movie. You are planning on staying, aren’t you?”

“Sure,” Carlo says. “I don’t have any plans, really. Other than work.”

“When are you not working?” Serena pops the cork from the bottle and pours the wine. “You don’t have any deadlines you have to meet that are so pressing, do you?”

Carlo takes the glass, sniffs the wine. “No. Besides, I’m too tired to work tonight. I’d much rather be here.”

Another rumble of thunder, flash of lightning.

“Thank God you made it back in time,” Serena says.

“I wouldn’t have carried Luca through all this. If worse came to worse I would have ducked into the coffee shop down the street and waited it out.”

“You really like Luca, don’t you?”

“He’s a wonderful boy.”

“And the fact that he’s special doesn’t bother you?”

“Of course not. Why would it?”

Serena sips her wine, said nothing.

“Has Luca heard from his father since he left?”

“Not a word. I guess he’s too busy to speak to or even ask about his son.”

“It’s sad.”

“It is — but it’s not anything you have to concern yourself with. It’s not your responsibility, I mean.”

Carlo doesn’t know what to make of that comment. He sips his wine, unconsciously reaches for a cigarette. Serena gets up, opens the window, then drops an ash tray on the coffee table.

“Go ahead. I want one myself,” she says, fishing a pack of Marlboro Lights from her purse. “It’s okay. The window’s open and Luca’s room is far down the hall.”

Carlo lights his cigarette then holds the flame from his lighter to Serena’s. He hasn’t smoked all day and when the first hit courses through him, he leans back on the couch, satisfied. Serena takes his hand, brings it to her lips for a kiss.

“I’m glad you’re here,” she says. “I was hoping you’d stay.”

“I don’t have to go home,” Carlo says.

Serena smiles, getting the hint. “I don’t know about that,” she says, looking towards Luca’s room. “I don’t want to confuse him — even though the offer is tempting.”

“I understand,” Carlo says. “I imagine he must be confused.”

“Perhaps. He’s old enough to remember his father, of course. He hasn’t really asked about him. Not that he saw him much anyway.” She takes a long pull off the cigarette, places it in the ashtray. “Still, I can’t help but be angry about everything. I mean…”

“You don’t have to explain anything to me, I understand. I think it’s sad too. Such a wonderful kid and to not…” He takes a drag off his cigarette, lets the smoke tumble through his nostrils. “Forgive me,” he says. “It’s really not my place to say anything.”

Serena runs her fingers through his curly mop, leans in and kissed him softly on the lips. “I’m just glad you’re here. Especially on a night like this.”

They settle on an old movie. Neither one of them are paying much attention to it, each lost in their own thoughts, each afraid to broach the unspoken subject between them. Serena curls up against him and before long the movie is merely a backdrop in the darkened living room, the storm still raging outside.

“I want you to know that I truly appreciate you taking Luca today. It meant a lot to me.”

“Don’t mention it. I enjoyed every moment of it. To see him so happy, that was enough for me.”

“You like kids, huh?”

“Yes.”

“If you don’t mind me asking…”

“My ex-wife was adamant about not having any. It’s what ruined our marriage.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…”

“No need to apologize.”

Serena kisses him softly, then curls up to him, rests her head on his shoulder and focuses her attention on the movie. Carlo figures he may as well himself. With the film, the thunder and lightning the only sounds breaking the silence, both of them feel the elephant in the room hovering over them, waiting impatiently to be acknowledged.

New York City

January 2016