Finding Little Italy
I looked for the sign as we drove down the country highway.
“It’s right across from Little It-lee,” the 65-year-old woman had said.
I knew what she meant. In country-speak, she meant “Little Italy.” And in this little corner of the country, Little Italy wasn’t an ages-old Italian-American neighborhood. It was a pizza joint, and likely not a very good one.
Nevertheless, I spotted the faded read and green sign sitting at the fork in the road. My destination was, indeed, across the street. This was a mundane day full of mundane activities, and this little jaunt into the country, into a place where people pronounce the name of the big-boot country as “it-lee,” promised to be nothing more than a mundane visit to an equally mundane place.
After all, it was no more than an old boneyard.
When I made it home from the islands on Wednesday, my folks met me at the airport. They’d done as I’d hoped, even though I didn’t ask them to. Instead of taking L’il Otis to daycare, they’d brought him to meet me at the international airport that has no real international flights. I grabbed him up from my mom’s arms and gave him a hug. He gave me a funny look that I immediately interpreted as confusion, a sort of “who the hell are you and why are you holding me” look.
I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that it made me little sad. I’d been on the road quite a bit in the past month and I hated the idea that my kid had forgotten who I was in the eight days I’d been missing in action. My mom suggested that L’il Otis was just waking up from a nap and was likely just tired. When, after an hour of the same confusing non-smiling look, the kid still hadn’t warmed up to me, Mom tried to be reassuring by telling me that he probably was scared by my baseball cap.
My mom is like that. Reassuring to the point of downright silliness. That’s one of the reasons I love her, I guess.
I’ll admit, I was a little cranky today. I’d spent more than a week in a world of gross extravagance, where beers were six dollars and cheeseburgers cost more than $20. I’d spent a week watching guys younger than me bet $8000 on one card. I’d spent a week living out a dream and wondering if somehow I could sleep just a little longer so the dream would last a little longer.
Today, I was back in the world of the not-so-rapid eye reality, where good dreams go to–if not die–retire into senility and worthlessness. Back into the land of bosses and demands. Back into the world where people ten years my junior control my fate with wanton needs and little regard for the fact that my mind was drifting back to a time that when I worked my ass off, people said thank you.
And now I was standing in a cemetery established in the Recontruction years, and looking around at toppled headstones as far as the sun would let my eyes see. Presumably, some drunk kids got it in their head that it would be a real gas to spend a night throwing their shoulders into 300-pound pieces of granite and watching them tumble over. Laying on the ground next to me was the headstone of a guy who had died in 1908.
This stupid fucking world, I thought.
L’il Otis warmed up to me as the hours wore on. I took off the hat, if only to convince myself that it wasn’t the hat that was scaring him off. Eventually, the kid reached up and grabbed my nose and held on like he’d found the world’s greatest–and, perhaps, biggest–toy.
While I was gone, the kid had started using his hands more and had put on some weight he’d lost when he’d been sick. He looked older, somehow bigger than just nine days earlier.
One night when I’d been looking out over the ocean and trying to decide whether to go to bed or head back out into the fray that was Paradise Island, Bahamas, I found myself longing to be back home. I don’t remember many times in my life I’ve felt legitimately homesick while on the road. I love being out there, in the words of some of the better road gamblers and truckers, fading the white line. So, it struck me as odd that I’d be so painfully aware of how much I missed my family.
I pushed the thoughts aside as much as I could, though, because I was doing the kind of work I love. I told myself that maybe I could someday see my family more if I kept working hard.
I still believe that’s possible, but that’s not the point of this story.
After meeting the Little It-lee woman and doing the work required of me, I walked around the old cemetery and took a look at some of the old tombstones. Call it odd if you will, but I find it a lot like reading old diaries or notes in family bibles. They were people leading lives like us, just with greater struggles than we face now.
I looked down, almost at my feet, and saw a tiny headstone. It read, “James W., son of S.W. April 14, 1904 to April 14 1905.”
I looked again, thinking I’d seen the second year wrong. I thought maybe the baby had died at birth. But when I looked again, I saw I’d seen it correctly the first time. The baby, little James W., had lived exactly one year, then died, only to buried on a little hill in the middle of an unincorporated country town.
I thought about my little kid, just five months old today, and thought how I wouldn’t be able to breathe if I lost him. I thought about him grabbing my nose and holding on. I thought about how strong his legs are getting and how he hurts my ribs when he kicks me.
How fucking horrible it must’ve been for S.W. and his wife to lose a baby who was only a year old.
I let my eyes pass over to the next stone. It was another of S.W.’s kids. That baby had only lived five months. The next headstone over was another baby. Just six months.
For a moment, I didn’t want to breathe.
I walked around so I could look at the big headstone sitting next to the others. S.W. turned out to be Samuel Wright, husband of Lula Wright. Both were born in the years right after the Civil War ended here. I started doing the math in my head and discovered that the Wrights likely started having kids when they were about my age.
I did another quick review of the years of the children’s deaths. It became apparent that Sam and Lula Wright were either pregnant or grieving the death of one of their babies for every month between 1903 and 1910.
Lula died in 1919 and was buried beside her three dead children. Her husband lived another decade and a half, no doubt remembering every smile and every gut-tearing sob he’d experienced with his wife and three babies.
I know that people did live to ripe old ages back in those days and people were given to dying from just about anything.
I’m just surprised the grief didn’t kill old Sam any earlier than it did.
When I started to write this post, I didn’t really know where I was going with it, and I’m not sure I even know now.
But I know this: I find myself living in many an alternate universe and often times have a difficult time of jumping from plane to plane. It used to be a lot harder. This time, the jump was a lot easier. After I’d breached the pain of thinking my kid thought I was a stranger, we slipped into a familiar routine and I felt like I was at home.
I realize this about my recent good fortune: it’s meant to teach me something. It may turn out to be no more than a few months good luck, what we in the gambling world call a rush. However, I think I’m learning what I love and what I don’t. It’s not always been easy for me.
I mentioned a few months ago that I had an unexplained sense of optimism, and it appears my senses were right on.
Good things happen to me and I should learn to accept that. What’s more, an afternoon reading the short-worded tales of the Wright family made me realize that what I often say is even more true than I’ll usually admit: My life ain’t that bad.
In fact, it’s pretty damned good.
Now comes the work of actually doing something with the good life I’ve been afforded.