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  • 34. One of Us

    By John Fante

    John Fante, hero to many, is best known for his Arturo Bandini novels, set in the long-ago streets and boardinghouses of Los Angeles. But many of his stories are set in the Denver of his boyhood. “One of Us,” from the Ecco collection The Wine of Youth, is a simple story of astounding power, a deceptively subtle portrait of the diverse effects of unexpected grief.

    My mother had carried the last of the supper plates into the kitchen when the doorbell rang. All of us rose like a congregation and rushed to answer the call. Mike reached the door first. He threw it open and we pushed our noses against the screen. There stood a uniformed boy with his cap in his hand and a telegram at the bottom of it.

    “Telegram for Maria Toscana,” he said.

    “Telegram, Papa!” Mike shouted. “Somebody’s dead! Somebody’s dead!”

    A telegram came to our house only when one of our family passed away. It had happened three times in the lives of us kids. Those three times were the death of my grandfather, of my grandmother, and then the death of my uncle. Once, though, a telegram came to our house by mistake. We found it under the door when we came home late one night. We were all greatly surprised, for it contained birthday greetings to a lady named Elsie, whom none of us knew. But the most astonishing thing about that telegram was that it was not a death notice. Until then it did not occur to us that a telegram might have other uses.

    When my father heard Mike shouting, he dropped his napkin and pushed back his chair. We at the door pranced up and down in excitement. In a paralysis of anxiety, Mother stood in the kitchen. My father walked with an important air to the door, and, like a man who had spent his whole life signing for telegrams, he signed for this one. We watched him tear open the yellow envelope so that the paper would separate enough for his heavy fingers to reach the message inside. He frowned at us and walked to the center of the living room, under the chandelier. He held the message high, almost over his head. Even jumping, we kids could not put our eyes upon it, and my little brother Tony, who was a shrimp and too little to read anyhow, climbed up the side of my father as if the man were a tree, and my father shook himself and Tony fell to the floor.

    “Who died?” we asked. “Who died?”

    “Down, down,” my father said, like one speaking to leaping puppies. “Quiet, there. Down, down.”

    Squinting his eyes, he folded the ominous yellow paper and returned to his place at the table. We trailed after him. He told us to go away, but we swarmed around his shoulders, and Tony climbed the chair rungs and burrowed his fingers into his shirt at the collar. My mother stood in the kitchen door biting her lips. Worry crushed her face. Her hands turned round and round like kittens under her checkered apron.

    Breathlessly we waited. Breathlessly we tried to guess whom the sad news might concern. We hoped it wasn’t our aunt Louise, because she always sent us such wonderful Christmas presents. We didn’t mind if it was our aunt Teresa, though, because what good was she around Christmas time? No good whatever. All we ever got from her was a greeting card, and we knew it cost only a penny because that was the very kind our mother bought. If she was dead she deserved it for being so stingy.

    Father shook himself from us. Emphatically he told us to go back to our places. My mother quietly took her seat. She held her small worried face between spread fingers like a woman gathering strength for an ordeal. She had many brothers and sisters whom she had not seen since girlhood, for she had married when yet very young. We could see that my father’s mind was reaching here and there to find the quickest and best way of releasing the sad shock when at length my mother was ready to receive it. She raised her face and looked at him with eyes opened all the way.

    “Who, Guido?” she asked. “Who is it?”

    “Clito,” he said. “Your sister Carlotta’s boy.”


    “Killed. He was run over. He’s dead.”

    For many silent moments my mother sat like a statue in gingham. Then she lifted her face to that place she believed contained life eternal. Her lips were distended as in a kiss of farewell. Her eyes were too grieving to stay open.

    “I know his little soul is beautiful in the sight of God,” she whispered.

    He was our cousin, the only child of Uncle Frank and Aunt Carlotta, my mother’s oldest sister. They lived in Denver, thirty miles south of our small town. Clito was but a day older than our Mike, second in age among us kids. Clito and Mike were born in the same Denver hospital ten years before. They were brought to life by the same physician, and—wonderful thing!—the two boys were remarkably similar in face and form. Among the many members of our scattered clan they were always referred to as the Twins, for they were inseparable when our family lived among the Italians of North Denver three years before, and, though they often quarreled, there seemed a deeper kinship between them than between Mike and me, or between Mike and Tony. But, three years before our family had moved from Denver to the small town in the mountains, and Mike had not seen his cousin since then.

    These were the reasons why, in the silence after my father had spoken, my mother stared so passionately, so possessively at Mike, her eyes slowly beginning to float. Mike felt her gaze. He was yet too young to realize the tragic significance of Clito’s death, but he felt my mother’s eyes upon him, as if to draw him into them, and he fidgeted nervously, glancing at my father for clarity and sustenance. My mother pushed back her chair and went into the bedroom. We heard her lie down, and then we heard her sobbing.

    “I bet Clito’s in Heaven,” Mike said. “I bet he didn’t have to stop off in Purgatory.”

    “Sure,” my father said. “He was a good boy. He went right straight to Heaven.”

    My mother called down from the bedroom.

    “Mike,” she called, “come here to Mamma.”

    He didn’t want to leave the table. But he looked at my father, who nodded, and then he got up and went hesitantly away. We heard my mother draw him beside her upon the bed, and we heard the wet, violent kissing of his face and neck. We heard the wild sound of smacking lips and my mother’s possessive moans.

    “But it ain’t me,” Mike was saying. “See! I’m not dead.”

    “Thank God! Thank Almighty God!”

    After my father left the table, the telegram lay open at his place, one corner of it in the salad bowl, the yellow paper drawing salad oil into itself like a blotter. We kids dove for it. I got it first and held it above me, out of reach of my tiptoed sister Clara’s clawing fingers. I climbed up on my father’s chair and held the paper almost to the ceiling. My sister climbed right up on the chair beside me. Over my head I read the message while she hung on and my little brother Tony tugged at my pants in an effort to dethrone me.

    “Let me read it!” he shouted.

    “You little fool!” Clara said. “You can’t read yet! You’re not even in school.”

    “Yes, I can too! You don’t know everything, so there!”

    The message read: “Clito struck by truck while riding bicycle. Died this afternoon four o’clock. Funeral Sunday three o’clock.”

    I let it go from my fingers and it floated zigzagging toward the floor. Clara and Tony fell upon it and instantly it was in shreds, all over the floor. The commotion on the linoleum brought my mother and Mike in a hurry from the bedroom. My mother saw the shredded telegram lying about, and, drying her eyes with the hem of her apron, she said: “I didn’t get to see it. How did he die?”

    “He was run over by a bicycle,” I said.

    My father was in the front room, reading the paper.

    “No,” he corrected. “The boy was run over by a truck.”

    “No, he wasn’t,” I said. “He ran into the truck.”

    “The truck ran into him.”

    So, with constant interruptions, we lost all conception of what had actually taken place. Before long I was insisting that our dead Clito had been riding in the truck bed, the bicycle at his side, and that he had fallen out when the machine struck a bump in the road. My father was quite as inaccurate. He said that little Clito had been knocked down and killed by a man riding a bicycle. Now we were guessing recklessly. Even Tony had an interpretation to offer. He insisted that he too had read the telegram, but he said that Clito had been killed by a German aviator who dropped bombs from an airplane. In the confusion nobody had anything more to offer.

    Then Clara said: “Maybe you’re all wrong. Maybe he was run over by a motorcycle.”

    In despair my mother asked if there was any mention of a funeral.




    “Wasn’t it Sunday?” Clara asked.

    While we quibbled hopelessly, my mother and Mike gathered up the bits of yellow paper and pieced them together on the table.


    After supper my mother wouldn’t let Mike go out. The rest of us did, but Mike had to stay in the kitchen with her. He could hear us shouting in the front yard, and he cried and kicked the stove, but my mother was never so firm. Even my father was surprised. When he walked into the kitchen and told her she was crazy and unreasonable, she turned on him, her eyes still crying, and told him to go back to his newspaper and mind his own business. Sucking a toothpick, he stared at the floor, shrugged his shoulders, and then went back to his reading.

    “But, Mamma,” Mike said over and over, “I’m not the one that’s dead! See?”

    “Thank God. Thank Almighty God.”

    That evening Uncle Giuseppe and Aunt Christina came to our house. Aunt Christina was the youngest sister of my mother and Aunt Carlotta. She too had received a telegram. My mother dried her wet, dish-watery hands when she saw Christina enter the front door, and the two women locked bosoms in the dining room and stood there crying. My mother put her nose into Aunt Christina’s shoulder and sobbed, and Aunt Christina sobbed and stroked Mother’s hair.

    “Poor Carlotta!” they said. “Poor Carlotta!”

    Nobody was watching Mike in the kitchen. He saw his chance and sneaked out the back door. He ran around the house and joined us in the front yard. Our cousins, Aunt Christina’s two kids, had come with her, so the whole bunch of us got up a game of kick-the-can.

    My mother forgot about Mike. She and my father and Aunt Christina and Uncle Giuseppe sat in the front room, talking about Clito’s death. The two women sat side by side in rocking chairs. My mother still held her dish towel, and she let her tears splash into it. Aunt Christina cried into a tiny green handkerchief that smelled of carnations. Over and over they said the same thing.

    “Poor Carlotta! Poor Carlotta!”

    My father and Uncle Giuseppe smoked cigars in silence. Death was the supreme mystery to these people, and the women feverishly resigned themselves to the workings of the Almighty. But the men clung to those ancient platitudes, ancient as the mind of man. Since he was not a son of theirs, the passing of the little boy did not move them noticeably. They were sorry he was dead, but they were sorry only because it was the proper thing to be, so their sorrow was etiquette and not out of their hearts.

    “Ah, well,” my father said, “you never know. Everybody has to go some time.”

    Uncle Giuseppe’s dark head and screwed-up lips agreed slowly.

    “Too bad,” he said. “It’s too bad.”

    “But he was so young!” Mother said.

    Wistfully my father answered: “Maybe he’s better off.”

    “Ah, Guido! How can you say that? How do you suppose his poor mother feels? And poor Frank?”

    “A man never thinks what’s in a woman’s heart,” Aunt Christina said. “No, they don’t know. They never will know. Men are so selfish.”

    My father and uncle stared at their cigars in dismal confusion.

    “Well,” my father said, “all I know is we all have to go some time.”

    Uncle Giuseppe was trying hard to feel grief. He closed his eyes and said, “No. We never know. Tomorrow, the next day, tonight—next year, next month, we never know.”

    “Poor Carlotta,” my mother said.

    “Poor woman,” Aunt Christina said.

    “Too bad for Frank,” my father said. “He’ll miss the boy.”

    Uncle Giuseppe sat in a helpless way, uncomfortable in a straight-back chair. Many times he looked at the ceiling and walls as though he had never seen them before. Then he would examine his cigar, as though that were a curious object too. My father sat more at ease, since this was his house. He sat with his cigar between his teeth, his feet spread stiffly in front of him, his thumbs in his sweat-stained suspenders, his eyes squinting to evade the curl of cigar smoke. He would have liked to say something different on this subject of death, but there was nothing new he could think about.

    “The best of us have to die,” he ventured.

    “How true that is,” my uncle said.

    My Aunt Christina blew her nose many times and then wrung the tip of it until it was as red as a radish. She was a stout woman who tried but never could cross her fat little legs.

    “How does Mike feel?” she asked. “He and Clito were such good friends. They loved one another so.”

    My mother’s eyes opened in fright, and she turned in her chair and looked behind her in a kind of terror.

    “Mike!” she called. “Where are you, Mike?”

    No response. She twisted her body and peered tensely into the kitchen. She saw no one. Rising, she slipped her fingers into her deep hair and screamed.

    “Mike!” she screamed. “Where are you, Mike? Come back to me, Mike!”

    My father jumped to his feet as though he had seen a ghost. He took her into his arms.

    Dio!” he panted. “Calm yourself, woman!”

    “Find Mike! In God’s name, find Mike!”

    Uncle Giuseppe went to the front door, and in the twilight he saw us playing our game beneath the black trees of the front yard. Mike was a little apart from the rest of us, leaning against the biggest tree, partly hidden in its shadows.

    “Your mother is calling you,” Uncle Giuseppe said. “Can’t you hear her?”

    All he said was: “Aw, what does she want?”

    “Go on, Mike,” we said. “Go see what she wants.” For my mother’s screams had stopped our game like an unexpected crash of lightning. Then the screen door was flung open violently, and it banged against the wall that supported it, and my mother dashed wildly from the house. She stooped and lifted Mike like an infant high above her, and, laughing and crying, she kissed him and kissed him and cooed into his throat.

    “Mamma’s own little boy,” she moaned. “Never leave me. Never, never, never, never leave me.”

    “I’m not Clito,” he said. “I’m not the one that’s dead.”

    She carried him back to the front room, and they all sat down again, and, though Mike hated it, he had to sit in her lap and be kissed about a million times.

    We slept together in the same bed, Mike and I, and very, very late that night—some time after midnight—my mother came to our room and softly slipped between us, but it was still Mike she worried about. And, lying with her back to me, she awakened him by petting him so much. When she went back to her own bed, I had to turn my pillow over because it was so wet from her tears.


    Who would go to the funeral? Sunday morning in the kitchen there was a fierce argument between my father and mother on this question. My mother wanted to take Mike with her, but my father wanted her to take me.

    “No,” my mother said. “I want Mike to come.”

    “What’s the idea?” my father said. “There’s no use making it harder for those people. You know how Carlotta and Frank will feel when they see Mike.”

    “Oh,” my mother scoffed, “what on earth are you talking about?”

    “I know what I’m talking about,” my father said. “What the devil’s the matter with you women?”

    “I said Mike was coming with me,” my mother said. “And he is. If Jimmy wants to come, he can.”

    “What about me?” Clara said.

    “Nothing doing,” my father said.

    “Me and Jimmy and Mike,” Tony said.

    My father looked at him contemptuously.

    “Pooh!” he said. “And who are you?”

    “Aw,” Tony said. He was so little he never could answer that question.

    The telegram said the funeral was to be at three o’clock. It was only an hour’s ride on the electric to Denver, but when any of our family went anywhere we had to turn the house upside down. Mother couldn’t find her hairpins and Mike couldn’t find his new necktie. When he did find it in the pantry the mice had eaten a hole in it so he had to wear an old one of my father’s.

    Tucking the endless cravat into his waist, he howled: “I don’t like it! Look how big it is! It’s an old man’s tie.”

    “Who said it was an old man’s tie?” my father said. “Wear it and keep still.”

    But my mother wanted him to look nice. She didn’t pay any attention to how I looked, but she wouldn’t let Mike wear that necktie. She made Tony go over to Oliver Holmes’s and borrow a light blue one for Mike, and while I was gone to borrow hairpins from Mrs. Daley she sat on the bed in her petticoat, her hair streaming down and tangling her fingers as she sewed a button on Tony’s coat.

    When at last we were ready to go, she couldn’t find her hat. Weary and fretting, she stood in a pile of boxes in the clothes closet, calling everyone to search for her black hat. My father found it clear on the other side of the house, under my sister Clara’s bed, but Clara said she didn’t know how it got there, and that was quite a lie, because Clara is always secretly wearing my mother’s things. When my father pushed the hat over my mother’s lumps of hair, he sighed and said: “Good God, wipe that powder off your neck. You look like you been baking a cake.”

    She wet the end of her handkerchief with spittle and dabbed the powder away. Then she grabbed Mike by the wrist and hurried out the door. I ran after them, her purse in my hand, for she had forgotten it.

    My father and Clara and Tony stood on the front porch and watched us walk down the street. When we were half a block away, my father whistled to us. We three turned around.

    “Hurry up!” he yelled, loud enough for even that deaf old Miss Yates to hear and throw open her window and look out. “Hurry up! You only got five minutes to make the train.”

    My mother squeezed Mike’s hand and walked as fast as worn heel of her right shoe would permit her, and I could see from the way Mike winced as he scratched his belly that he hated the whole thing and was ready to break into tears.


    We reached the electric on time, and an hour later we arrived at the Denver Union Station. From there we took a yellow street car to Aunt Carlotta and Uncle Frank’s house. As soon as she sat down in the street car, my mother started to cry, so that her eyes were red-rimmed when we got off at Aunt Carlotta’s street. We stopped on the corner a minute while Mother fastened her garter and Mike and I went behind the hedge to wee-wee, and then we started up the street.

    There were so many people and automobiles at my aunt’s house that it was the biggest funeral in the history of our family, and there was such an abundance of flowers that some of the bouquets had to be spread on the front porch, and you could smell the funeral as soon as you got off the street car.

    We went up the front stairs to the little cloakroom, where dozens of Italians in Sunday suits stood with sad faces peering over the shoulders of one another to the parlor where the bier was placed in the center of the scent-suffocated room, the lid off, the waxen and shining face of Clito’s corpse sleeping in infinite serenity amid the moans and gasps and supplications of black-draped, dark-skinned, choking women who sometimes knelt and sometimes arose first on one knee and then on the other to kiss the rosary-chained, icy hand of the small thin corpse in the gray box with silver-plated handles.

    Mike and I saw it all between the legs of the men in the cloakroom as my mother dragged us through the crowd and up the stairs to Aunt Carlotta’s bedroom.

    My aunt arose from the bed, and the two sisters fell upon each other and wept helplessly. Aunt Carlotta had wept so much that her face was as raw as a wound. Her arms were around my mother’s neck, the hands hanging loosely, the fingernails gnawed until there were tiny blood tints at the quick. I closed the door, and Mike and I stood watching.

    Then we saw Uncle Frank. He was at the window. He did not move when we entered, but stood with his hairy hands in his back pockets. He had seldom spoken to us, but he was gentle and generous, and each year he sent us pajamas for Christmas. We didn’t know much about him, except that he was an electrician. He was a tall man with a thin neck; his spinal column rounded out like a rope beneath his brown skin, so that he always seemed to have a trim haircut. His body was not quivering from sobs, and when we saw the dry-eyed reflection of his thin face in the windowpane it amazed us that he was not shedding tears. We could not understand it.

    “Why doesn’t he cry?” Mike whispered. “He’s the papa, isn’t he?”

    I think Uncle Frank heard him, for he turned around slowly and skeptically, as one turns to heed the note of a new bird. He saw my mother and me, and then he spied Mike. Instantly his knees seemed to buckle, and he backed against the window and clapped his hand over his mouth. The look of him made my brother shriek, and he grabbed my mother around the waist and hid his face in the small of her back.

    Uncle Frank moistened his lips.

    “Oh,” he said, pressing his eyes. “Oh, it’s you, Mike.”

    He sat on the bed and panted as he ran his two hands in and out of his hair. Aunt Carlotta saw Mike then, and she spread herself across the bed, her face vibrating in the depths of the pink coverlet. Uncle Frank stroked her shoulder.

    “Now, now,” he murmured. “We must be brave, mia moglia.

    But he was not crying, and the more I thought of it the stranger it seemed.

    My mother bent down to straighten Mike’s crooked tie.

    “Be a good boy,” she said, “and give your Uncle Frank and Aunt Carlotta a big kiss. You too, Jimmy.”

    I kissed them, but Mike wouldn’t go near Uncle Frank. “No, no, no!” he screamed. “No, no!”

    He followed me when I walked to the window that overlooked the back yard. We looked out upon the hot Sunday afternoon and saw what Uncle Frank had been staring at when we came in. It was the twisted bicycle. It leaned against the ashpit, a bundle of bent and knotted steel. Mike kept looking over his shoulder at Uncle Frank, as if expecting a blow, and when Uncle Frank arose from the bed and came to the window and stood beside us, Mike crept into my arms and began to whimper in fear. Uncle Frank smiled tragically.

    “Don’t be afraid. I won’t hurt you, Mike.”

    He patted my hair, and even through it I felt the dryness of his hand and how sad it was.

    “See?” he said. “Jimmy’s not afraid of his Uncle Frank, are you, Jimmy?”

    “No, Uncle Frank. I’m not afraid.”

    But Mike cringed from the man’s melancholy hands. Uncle Frank tried very hard to smile, and then of a sudden he drew two half-dollars from his pocket. I took one, but Mike hesitated, looking at my mother on the bed. She nodded. A soft smile broke on the boy’s face, and, sniffing, he accepted the coin and went into Uncle Frank’s arms.

    “Little boy Mike,” Uncle Frank said. “Little boy Mike, so like my little boy Clito.” But he was not crying.

    He sat Mike upon his lap, and by the time the procession to the graveyard was ready to begin, my brother was deeply devoted to him. They went down the stairs to the parked cars, holding his hand and looking up at his face in curiosity and admiration.

    Uncle Frank was the only one who did not cry during the burial. He stood a little back from the head of the grave, my sobbing Aunt Carlotta clinging to him, his eyes closed, his jaw hard. Around the grave the throng hovered, the men with their hats in their hands, the handkerchiefs of the women fluttering in the lifeless afternoon heat, sobs bursting like unseen bubbles, the priest sprinkling holy water, the undertaker standing in professional dignity in the background, the bier sinking slowly, the while my brother and I stood side by side and stared at the black ground appearing as the box descended, our eyes flowing and flowing, our chests hurting, our hearts breaking in terror and first grief as the life of Clito rushed from our memories for the last time, vividly, distressingly; our mother whimpering as she chewed her handkerchief, the straps around the box crackling, the silver pulleys squeaking, the sun brilliant against them, the priest murmuring on and on, men coughing in shame, women wailing, Aunt Carlotta weak and near fainting, clinging to Uncle Frank, and he there with a hard jaw and closed, arid eyes, thinking the thoughts of a father, thinking—God knows what he thought.

    Then it was over.

    We went back to Aunt Carlotta’s, and we sat in the living room, Aunt Carlotta still weeping and my mother consoling her. Dazed and white, Uncle Frank stood at the window, Mike watching his face.

    Mike said: “Don’t you ever cry, Uncle Frank?”

    The man only looked down and smiled feebly.

    “Well, don’t you?”

    “Mike!” my mother said.

    “Well, why doesn’t he? Why don’t you, Uncle Frank?”


    “Keep still, Mike,” I said.

    “Well, why doesn’t he cry?”

    Uncle Frank pressed his temples.

    “I am crying, Mike,” he said.

    “No, you’re not.”


    “Well, he’s not.”

    “Shut up, Mike,” I said.

    “But you didn’t cry at the graveyard, and everybody else did.”


    “He was the only one who didn’t cry, because I was watching.”

    “Mike! You go outside.”

    He went out indignantly, and sat in the rocker before the window, his back to Uncle Frank. He began to rock furiously, stiffening his legs with the motion backward. Uncle Frank turned from the window and went outside and bent over Mike’s chair, smiling down at him. Then he spoke. I was watching from the window, but I couldn’t hear what he said. Mike grinned, and the two of them went down the porch steps and on down the street.

    “Where are they going?” my mother asked.

    “I don’t know,” I said.

    A half-hour passed without their return, and my mother and aunt sent me in search of them. I went down the street to the drug-store on the corner, and that was where I found them. They were in an ice-cream booth, Mike drinking a malted milk, sucking it down greedily. Uncle Frank sat across from him, his face cupped in his hands, great tears rolling off his cheeks and falling on the table as he watched Mike sucking down the malted milk.


    © by John Fante. From the collection The Wine of Youth: Selected Stories.

    Salon.com has run a couple of good articles about John Fante: Read them here and here.

    And John’s son Dan Fante continues the tradition: Read about him here, and pre-order his new book, 86′d, today!

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