In this excerpt from his novel An Orphan World, Giuseppe Caputo explores the love between a father and son in the midst of poverty, as well as questions surrounding violence and homosexuality.
A butterfly flew down to a dark place;
all beautifully colored it seemed;
it was hard to tell.
MAROSA DI GIORGIO
One night, many moons ago, my father gave me a star. We lived on the breadline, as we do now, in a sad house with next to no furniture. And since the house was sad, with its bare white walls, my father decided to decorate it. Inspired by the earliest cave drawings, he began his artistic endeavor drawing a crayon cow on the kitchen wall: two black circles, one on top of the other, and two triangles for the ears. He added a tail, coiled like a spring, and for the face two dots—the eyes—and a smiling curve. “All that’s missing is the nose,” my father said, before drawing one: two dots, like the eyes, only bigger. Once finished, he pointed to the sketch and mumbled: “Cow.”
Afterward, he went to my room and, as if envisioning his next creation, stood contemplating the ceiling. He clambered onto the bed and reached up to touch it but couldn’t. He asked me to bring him a chair: he wanted to put the chair on the bed and then stand on the chair. I asked him to forget whatever it was he was up to: “You could fall, Dad. You could split your head open, or break your hip. The chair might break, and we don’t have furniture to go around breaking.” Clearly a little annoyed by my comment, my father turned his back on me and began drawing on the wall next to the door: another circle this time, and several lines which were meant to be the torso, arms, and legs. Above the stickman he wrote: “Dad,” and then he said: “Love you, little one.”
Our arms around each other we went to his room where he proceeded to draw another tiny body in exactly the spot where the light shone—the light that never went out; Dad was scared of the dark—and with the black crayon he drew a heart around the little man. He said: “You, my heart,” and kissed me on the forehead. It seemed to me the moment had come to make a positive comment and show him a little love, even spur him on in his new creative venture, so I stood there in silence staring at the portrait, mimicking the way he’d stared at the ceiling, and eventually I said: “You know, it makes me just want to cut out this piece of wall, frame it, and hang it right back up again, like a painting.” My father listened to me, half-bemused, half-satisfied, and went on drawing.
Our neighborhood had no streetlamps, so come night it was dark. We lived at one end of Light Street and were fenced in by three immensities: the city on one side, an electric forest; the sea on the other, sullied by the city; and the sky above, the same as it ever was, bursting into rain sometimes, into thunder at others. Just as it always had, transforming into stars, transforming into moon.
Light Street cut right through the city, which is where you got the parks and the huge houses like castles, all lit up. They called it Light Street because of the streetlamps, which appeared regularly enough at the start where the road began, became clustered in the middle, and then were almost nonexistent come the end, having grown gradually farther apart as the street encroached on our neighborhood. One by one the lamps went out, or simply fell behind, as if avoiding the outskirts, or as if the street grew sadder and sadder the closer it came to the parts around our house. But the sea was close by. Eternal. The old, spent sea, which left us the occasional unlikely offering.
One night, as my father and I strolled along the beach, we noticed that the waves had washed a sofa to the shore; and the sofa—bright red, and sort of run aground—was covered in seaweed. “If it’s not rotten,” my father said, “we can take it home. We need a sofa.” I moved in closer to inspect it and the stench knocked me dead: I cried out and retched. “That bad, eh?” he teased, to which I replied, coming back to my senses: “No, not too bad.” Then I took a handful of seaweed, slapped it on my head, and jumped up and down saying: “Look at my hair, so lush and long!” I danced and strutted about. Dad laughed. We both laughed. And then we carried on along the shore.
The sea’s waste was as beautiful as it was baffling. Clocks regularly washed up on the sand, many of them still working; the minute and second hands marking the exact time. And along with the clocks, poles—coconut branches or brooms—which Dad would use to sweep the foam, sending it back to the water. Quite often, the sea also carried lamps on its waves, and since they were never on, each time my father came across one he would say: “Let’s hope one of these nights the light holds out a little longer.” And with that, we’d slowly make our way home, arm in arm, going over the reasons behind our wretched problems.
“We’re really up the creek,” my father said the night he gave me the star. He chuckled as he said it, as if accepting his lot, our lot, and I looked at him, worried: tired, too, of worrying, and annoyed at him for having laughed. As I sat thinking about what to do, how to keep the house afloat, how to keep us afloat, Dad picked up a piece of tin from the floor. He cut around the edges, and carefully wrapped some used tinfoil around it, transforming it into a star. Then he poked a tiny hole in it and threaded a piece of wool through the hole. Finally, he tied the ends and hung the new chain around my neck. He said: “For you to remember, my star, that some things do still shine.”
From the outside, our house looked disheveled, its shingles all out of place. Inside it looked half-finished: lots of the floor tiles—black and white like a checkerboard—had come loose, and wobbled when we stepped on them. You could see pipes and cables poking out here and there.
There was a large window in our living room that faced out onto the street. We hadn’t ever hung curtains; there was no money for that. “Why should we cover the view with curtains,” Dad would ask, “when we’ve got a wall-to-wall work of art right here?” And he would sit by the window, sometimes for hours on end, gazing out onto the street in a state of perpetual marvel, calling out the titles he invented for each of the paintings that formed before his eyes: “Still Life with Trash Cans.” “String of Stars.” “Bird on a Wire.” “Thief with Victim.” “Cat, Run Over.” “Lone Man Picking Up Cigarette.” “Lovers in the Night”. “Moonless Sky.” “Self Portrait in Silence.” “Naked Night.”
And when I walked into the room and he spotted my reflection in the window, my father also named that painting: “Apparition of the Son.”
I would stare out of the window too, and from the other side, neighbors and passersby would look in. Often, on seeing the bare living room, with just a pair of chairs for furnishing, people would knock on the window and ask if the house was for sale. “Beat it, will you?” I’d tell them. “Don’t come around bothering us.” Musicians would pass by too, heading to or back from the bar district, and on seeing the house they’d laugh: “Would you look at that, a window made for serenading.” And they’d play a song and stand there, mocking us until I threw piss at them.
And then, one night, as he gazed out of the window, Dad had one of his epiphanies: “I’ve got it! I’ve had an idea. Come on, you. We’re going to the bar to make us some cash.” I told him we’d only end up spending money if we went to the bar, and that I didn’t want to keep on buying on credit–I was sick of it. To which he replied: “Don’t be such a sourpuss, come on.” I reminded him that fewer and fewer people hung out at The Drooler now, that it would just be the same old crowd, each person with less cash than the next. Tired of listening to me, Dad raised his voice and gave me the same line he always did: “Don’t answer back.” So we left the house—me biting my tongue—and once out on the street Dad began explaining that there were a lot of miserable men in the bar in need of advice.
“And where’s the money to be made in that?” I asked, genuinely intrigued, but also anticipating a bad night.
“It’s simple, see: I’m going to give advice to whoever wants it. The first piece is free, and from then on I charge. Winos tend to value my experience.”
This made me laugh and it occurred to me that, even if his plan turned awfully, it would do me good to be out. We put our arms around each other and walked along like that, all the way to The Drooler. Once there, the bouncer on the door, a newbie, welcomed us calling “Come on in! Congratulations!” and tossing a handful of tiny paper hearts into the air. I looked at him, baffled—my eyes, two questions—and the man added: “It’s Anniversary Night.”
“Excuse me,” my father said impatiently, perhaps a little uncomfortable. When we stepped inside we saw two couples: the first were drinking in complete silence; the second were arguing. At the bar, as if they hadn’t ever moved from their spots, were Ramón-Ramona—serving—and the Three Toupees: Alirio, Simón, and Garbanzos. We called them the Toupees because all three of them, despite clearly showing signs of balding, modeled haircuts veering from outlandish to genuinely frightful. It wasn’t clear if they were trying to emphasize their baldness or to hide it (as far as was humanly possible). Ramón-Ramona was sporting the same look as ever: hat and pants, a waistcoat embroidered in all different colors, and a fake beauty spot just above the mouth.
My father walked over to the fighting couple, pulled up a stool, and wished them good evening, as if they’d invited him to join them.
“Talk it out, that’s right.” The couple gawped at him, but before they could get a word in he added, this time just to her: “Good on you for hearing him out, but you don’t have to be his trash can. You don’t have to take his shit. Don’t ever become an emotional dumpster.”
I edged away from the unfolding scene, rolled my eyes, and sat down at the bar between Simón and Garbanzos. Ramón-Ramona put a glass of water in front of me and told me, in a tone somewhere between severe and affectionate, that we couldn’t keep drinking on credit. I said no problem, thanks, that I understood, and with a wink Ramón-Ramona replied: “But, you know: the door’s always open.” I explained about the bouncer throwing heart-shaped confetti at my father and me.
“Happy anniversary! My favorite couple.”
“Anyway, what happened to your other door guy?” I asked.
“Oh nothing, sweetheart. They knifed him.”
My father was back.
“Nothing?” he said. “You call that nothing? Imagine how alone that poor bouncer would feel if he could hear you, Ramón-Ramona. Take my advice: take care of the people around you. It’s good to know how to look after yourself, to be gentle on yourself and all of that, but other people deserve the same treatment. You think about that.”
“I was telling your son here that I can’t give you drinks on credit anymore,” Ramón-Ramona replied indifferently, wiping down the bar. “I’ll get you a glass of water.”
“Another piece of advice,” my father went on. “A little exercise I’d recommend: buy yourself an egg and treat it as you would a son. Draw on it, if you like. A little face or whatnot. Put it in a basket, dress it up in some napkins, and take it everywhere with you. The challenge is to not drop it.”
“And you tell me why would I want to carry an egg around with me if I could just eat it?” Ramón-Ramona scoffed. “With the way this food shortage is panning out . . .”
“To learn how to look after others. And I’m afraid I’m going to have to charge you: the first piece of advice is free, and from then on it’s a hundred a pop.”
“In that case, I’m afraid I’m going to have to get my little debt book out,” Ramón-Ramona said, eyebrows raised. “There’s not a single page without your names on.”
“Don’t tell me, Garbanzos is in there too,” Simón chipped in.
“Garbanzos owes less.”
“Well, he’ll soon catch up, what with that belly full of bile,” Alirio said, moving in closer. “He’s already polished off three quarters of the bottle.”
“What’s happened?” I asked Garbanzos.
“Come on, tell me all about it,” Dad said. “The first piece of advice is free, the second will set you back a round hundred.”
“I thought my neighbor was dead,” Garbanzos began, “but it turns out he’s as alive as they come, and he’s eaten my dog Paws.”
“Shocking,” Simón said.
“No, no, no,” Ramón-Ramona interjected, “Tell us properly, from the beginning. What happened?”
“We’re dealing with two separate issues here,” my father recapped. “Death, and the dog.”
“I hadn’t seen my neighbor for weeks,” Garbanzos went on. “We always say hello when we turn on our lights; you know, window to window. Then, one night, I just stopped seeing him.”
“Very important that, cordiality among neighbors,” my father reflected. “And respect, too, of course. But you don’t have to respect everyone. Not everyone deserves respect.”
“Yeah, thanks for that!” the man from the fighting couple shouted over to the bar. “I owe you a hundred, you old fart!”
“Don’t put up with him!” my father shouted to the woman. “Forget him! There’s no shame in being on your own.”
The man went on yelling. The woman, meanwhile, had begun hitting him.
“Are you chasing away my clients?” Ramón-Ramona said. “I’m watching you.”
The couple left the bar in a rage. The bouncer, I noticed, tossed hearts over them as they passed. Garbanzos took another swig of his drink and went on with his story.
“Well, more nights went by and I still hadn’t seen hide nor hair of my neighbor. I snuck looks through his window when I took Paws out and the table was laid but there was no food on it. Just a glass, a plate, and a knife and fork. I didn’t see so much as a slice of bread.”
“It doesn’t sound good,” I said, really just to say something.
“My neighbor thought Paws was—oh, Jesus!—well fed. ‘He’s got plenty of meat on him,’ he shouted at me from his window one night when I took Paws out for his walk. But it was just his fur that made him look chunky.”
“You have to show animals love,” Alirio said, and Dad shot him a furious look, as if he’d just been placed at a disadvantage. As if Alirio were feathering his own nest with his idea.
“Paws would sometimes get out through the door,” Garbanzos went on. “But he’d always comes back after a while like a good boy. Like he missed me. And I’d be waiting for him in the living room, and we’d play fetch.”
“Beautiful,” Simón said, and I noticed that Ramón-Ramona was snickering, staring at the dishwasher, mouth clamped shut.
“I haven’t seen my boy since last night. Then, a few hours ago, on my way here, I looked in through my neighbor’s window and there he was, after all those nights not being there, leaning back at the table, rubbing his belly with the look of a man who’d had his fill of dog.”
“That’s pretty serious,” Alirio said. “Not much to be done there.”
“A word of advice,” my father cut in. “You need some flowers in the house.”
“What for?” Garbanzos asked.
“They might raise your spirits.”
“OK, OK, time out,” Ramón-Ramona said, eyes brimming with tears from holding in the laughter so long. “I very much doubt the neighbor’s eaten Paws. I’m sure the little pup will show up.”
“I’m not,” Garbanzos said, and clutching the bottle to his chest, he burst into tears.
My father took a deep breath, but just as he was about to offer another piece of advice, Ramón-Ramona pointed at their glasses and said: “What’ll it be? Drinks are on the house,” and we broke into applause and song.
A drunk stumbled up to the bar.
“I look at you and I get all confused. What exactly are you?”
“Can’t you tell?” Ramón-Ramona asked in return.
“I can’t, no. That’s why I asked. Are you a man or a woman?” the man went on.
“Come here, and I’ll show you,” Ramón-Ramona said. A second later, having got a good eyeful of the underside of Ramón-Ramona’s apron, the man left with his head hanging down.
That night we left the bar well lubricated. As we said our good-byes, the bouncer once again sprinkled us with little hearts. We went to the beach, my father and I: the waves only washed in pebbles and shells. The sofa was still there, beached; not so red now, but the air around it wasn’t fit for breathing. Exhausted, Dad sat down on it. “I promise you,” he said, “we’re going to get out of this fix.” I told him not to think about it anymore, not to worry, that I was going to provide for us both. I said: “Dad, we’ll think of something.”
Later, in silence, the dying waves—spread out like blankets—returned the bodies of three old men to the shore. “Or maybe three young men,” I thought, “who’d been in the water a long time.”
That’s how we lived, my father and I, in this gray neighborhood—sometimes smoke gray, sometimes black, never at peace in that vicious cycle. Each time the food cupboard began to look bare (we ate more eggs than anything), each time the banknotes became coins and the coins, fewer coins, each time we pawned a piece of furniture, clothing, a domestic appliance, my father would stop sleeping, and he would go on like that for several nights until he came up with a plan to reclaim our things, turn the coins into banknotes, and stock up the cupboard.
At one point he wanted to become a tailor, but when he tried to mend his own clothes, he realized he could barely sew a hem. “We’ll learn,” I said. “But that takes time.” And although he did try, my father soon lost his patience: “Not my forte.” His next plan was to sell empanadas, which we would make together. But people showed up at the house without a penny, and he didn’t have the heart to turn them away, or he simply didn’t know how. “Eat up, eat up. You can pay me later,” he’d say, ever industrious, serving them from the window. The empanada business went under before it had even formally opened, mainly because Dad began to get the feeling that the neighbors were taking advantage. “Some of them have the money and they just play dumb,” he decided. And with every unsuccessful venture, the cycle of poverty would start all over again: he’d stare at the food cupboard, stop sleeping, come up with an idea, try to pull it off, fail, stare at the food cupboard, stop sleeping, come up with an idea, try to pull it off, fail . . . Between one failure and the next we would either take out credit or pawn something, until the money ran out again, and the time came to get hold of some more.
One night, as he was frying an egg, my father called for me to come quickly. “See that?” he said. “Tell me you see it.” And I told him: “Yeah, you said we’d be having an egg.” He rolled his eyes and gave me a ticking off: he said all I ever thought about was food. Dad hadn’t slept for several nights and the lack of sleep was making him touchy. I decided it was better not to argue with him.
He told me the egg looked like a lion and that the sound of the stove made it look like it was roaring. “You take over dinner,” he said. “I’ve had an idea.” He turned around and, crayon in hand, began to do some of his sketches on the wall: a circle with arrows—a clock, perhaps—and something like a window or a door. Above it all he wrote: “Blah, blah, blah.”
Then he drew a mirror and, next to that, a frying pan. Above them, too, he wrote: “Blah, blah, blah.” I pressed the egg with the back of the spoon: the yellow spilt over the white and I told Dad dinner was nearly ready:
“It won’t be a second. The yolk’s just cooking.”
“But I like it runny!” he shouted from the living room.
“Nah. It’s easier to cut in half if it’s cooked through.”
“I like it runny,” Dad repeated, pretending he hadn’t heard me.
I cut the egg—cooked through, in the end—in two, and gave the bigger half to my father, who was gazing at his drawings, seemingly deep in thought.
“It’s harder to cut in two if it’s runny,” I said.
“That’s all right. Mmm, delicious,” and he carried on admiring his drawings.
On the wall he had drawn some swirls like waves around a giant sofa. I guessed it was the sea, our sea, carrying the sofa to the shore. And while, on the whole, I barely understood my father’s scrawls, that night he drew a triangle on top of a square, and straight away I recognized it was a house. He added the door, the windows, and finally, once again, the words “Blah, blah, blah.”
“What I’m thinking,” Dad said, “is to turn this house into an attraction and open it up to the public. That’ll get us out of this mess.”
“What do you mean, an attraction?” I asked as I ate my half of the egg.
“It’ll be called ‘The Talking House,’” he said, as if thinking aloud. “It’ll be the neighborhood’s first real spectacle: the house that talks to the locals and tells them how it’s doing.”
I lost interest in the idea before he’d finished explaining it. My instinct told me it wouldn’t work, and that not only would it not get us out of our current mess, but it would make us even worse off. But my father was now talking about tape recorders and different kinds of voices. He said we didn’t need much, and we could get the cassette player on loan.
“And if they insist on charging us for it,” he went on, “we’ll pay them with the money we got for your bed. Or better still, with what they pay us.”
“With what who pays us?” I asked, sensing my father was about to launch into some optimistic accounting.
“Our clients, who else? They’ll happily pay for entry to The Talking House.”
“Pay to see what exactly?”
“Goodness me, what a question . . .” he chided me before tucking back into his egg. “Wouldn’t you pay to speak to your house? Wouldn’t you pay to know what it thinks, and how the all the objects inside it are: the furniture, the stove? By my calculations, we’ll be hiring staff in a matter of weeks.”
“This is even worse than I’d thought,” I thought to myself, half cynical, half dumbstruck. But I couldn’t help but be moved by my father’s quixotic plans. He was talking now about the possible conversations that the objects might have with one another, that the house might have with its objects, or the objects with the visitors and the visitors with the house. “I think the chair,” he said, “could ask guests to sit down on it. Firmly at first, then flirtatiously, like it really yearned to have a pair of buttocks on its lap.”
I burst out laughing and my father joined in. I said: “I don’t know if you’ve lost your marbles or you’re an undiscovered genius, but let’s give it a go. All hands on deck. Let’s get the house ready.” And together we began to plan how to give life and a voice to the few items we owned.
A few nights before we inaugurated The Talking House, my father wanted to do an inventory of our belongings. Making out as if it were absolutely essential that we count them—as if there were the remotest possibility of a visitor getting lost among the bareness—he said, bossily: “Take notes.” I took the crayon and on a piece of cardstock wrote: One crayon, and one piece of cardstock. My father oversaw the list-making with a sharp eye:
“Very good, but you need to be more specific. Put the color of the crayon.”
So I wrote black next to crayon, and carefully followed his dictation.
“One mirror, oval, no frame. Gift from the ocean.”
“That’s very long,” I said. “I’m just going to put down mirror.”
“No way, sunshine. And you can add Includes wire for hanging to that, too.”
“Fine. What else? The clock . . .”
“One wall clock, no alarm, house-shaped. Red hands with animals at the tips: an owl, a fish, and a kitty.”
“There isn’t room for all of that.”
“Well, write smaller.”
“I can’t, the crayon is too fat.”
“Of course you can. What do you mean you can’t?”
And we went on like that for a good while longer, until the inventory was complete: we added the fan, my father’s bed (with respective mattress), the tape recorder and its accompanying cassette (which my father bought with some of the money they gave him for my bed), the frying pan, the table, two glasses, and two chairs. Everything else had either been sold, pawned, or we’d never owned it.
“Ah, we missed something,” Dad said.
“The soap. Write: Detergent powder for colored clothes. Also useful for washing and cleaning dishes.”
Causes itching and rashes, I added.
To advertise the opening of our house of wonders we wrote on a bit of cardboard: New Attraction, Coming Soon to Your Neighborhood. Next we put the sign in the living room window and rehearsed—as if there were already visitors at the door—the routine that would give life and a voice to the house and all the items in it: the main gist was to play a tape my father had prerecorded, putting on voices for every object, nook and cranny in our home. The trick was to conceal the tape recorder in one of our pockets (preferably the back pant pocket) and to synchronize every action on the tape with the tour of the space we’d give our visitors. So, for instance, in the entranceway, we would hear the door—or rather, my father’s voice on the tape—welcoming everyone to the house. Passing by the living room, we would hear the chairs talking. “Timing,” my father said, “is everything. Remember that.”
But come the opening night, there was not a soul on the block when we opened our doors to the public. We headed to The Drooler on the hunt for our first patrons. “We’re bound to snap up a couple there,” Dad said. And yet, when we arrived we noticed there was no bouncer (neither the one who’d been stabbed nor the heart sprinkler). The only people inside were the Three Toupees.
“Ramón-Ramona?” I asked.
“Restroom,” Garbanzos said. “Won’t be long.”
“So how are you?”
“Devastated,” he said, taking a sip of his drink. “Devastated, what with my neighbor.”
“What’s he done now?”
“Oh, the usual, my friend. Just polishing off the dogs on the block, one by one. He won’t stop till he’s had them all.”
“Don’t start this again,” Ramón-Ramona said, now back behind the bar. “I’m beginning to think you’re the one eating all the dogs.”
“How dare you?” Garbanzos said, outraged.
“Oh, Jesus,” Alirio said, “I’ve been thinking the same.”
“I’ll eat you if you don’t stop with this bullshit.”
“Watch it, fellas,” Simón chipped in. “He’s more than capable.”
“You better believe I am.”
Meanwhile, my father scanned the bar. I suppose he was looking at how empty it was, letting the sorry state of the neighborhood sink in, as if that space forced him to grasp just how bad it had got. I watched him and wondered what effect those empty tables would have on him, how much less sleep he’d get now. And I wondered what his reaction would be. If he’d be alarmed or paralyzed or exactly the same. I wondered what we were going to do, what was within our power to do.
“I’ve been thinking,” Ramón-Ramona said, “that it’d be good to give the bar a new name, lure the old clients back. You know, novelty factor.”
“What’ll you call it?” Simón asked.
“The Hair-Puller,” he said. “Or The Tummy-Scrubber.”
“I prefer The Drooler.”
“But the new name will be in neon . . .”
My father gave a hoot and, his spirits clearly raised, he invited everyone over to the house. “A lot of strange things have been going on lately,” he said, trying and failing to wink at me on the sly. “We’ve been hearing voices.”
“Now that is serious,” Alirio said. “Ghosts are no laughing matter.”
“They’re not ghosts,” I explained, and my father dug his elbow into me.
“Let them think what they want,” he whispered. “That way the surprise will be even better.”
“I can’t hear a thing except Paws,” Garbanzos sighed. “How much must that poor dog have yowled his heart out? How much must he have suffered?”
As Ramón-Ramona locked up the bar, we noticed a group of men waiting in line to enter Moon on the corner.
“They’re the only ones who come around here anymore,” someone, perhaps Simón, said.
My father stood staring at the crowd. I could tell he was thinking it was his chance to clinch some clients for The Talking House. But those men hadn’t come all that way to do anything but dance and see Moon. I seriously doubted they’d want to come with us, or pay a penny to come over to listen to those tape recordings.
My father went on watching them. Determined not to let him get into any trouble or make a fool of himself, I proposed that we take Ramón-Ramona to see the house first, as a kind of repayment for all the drinks we’d got on credit.
“There’s quite a few of us with the Three Toupees on board too. We can come back another time for more customers,” I said.
“Fine,” he replied, still not looking at me.
I was surprised by how easy it was to convince him. He usually lost it with me when I talked back.
“You OK?” I asked.
So we walked together to the house, gazing at the electric forest in the distance. I liked looking at it really carefully. Sometimes I could make out the moment someone in the distance turned on a light, and when this happened, it looked like the forest was growing before my eyes. Then a different light would go out, or the same one, and that happened over and over and the forest changed shape for an instant. The forest lighting up the night. The forest buried beneath the night. Starry for an instant, the forest twinkling, twinkling electric, starry for an instant, an instant, an instant.
The night the neighborhood filled up with bodies—a forest of corpses, it seemed to us—was the night we invited Ramón-Ramona and the Three Toupees to experience, in my father’s words, “the virtues and eccentricities of The Talking House.”
“Say hello,” he told us when we reached the house, quickly pressing play on the tape recorder.
Alirio and Simón dutifully greeted the door, and seconds later—quite a few seconds later, it seemed to me—we heard my father’s singsong voice exclaiming: “Good evening, and welcome. I am the door.”
Garbanzos looked at Dad (whose mouth was clamped shut, I suppose to prove to Garbanzos that it wasn’t him speaking), then at me, and then at the keyhole. After that he raised his eyebrows, heaved a sigh, and started snickering.
“The moment you open me,” the recording went on, “you’ll discover the most wondrous of worlds. Come on in and see for yourselves, the one, the only, The Talking House.” Dad took out his keys to open the door, but let them fall on the ground. He made frantic signs at me to pick them up myself, and that’s what I did, but before I could open the door we were already listening to its voice complaining: “Close me, please. I don’t like being left open.”
“But no one’s even touched you,” Ramón-Ramona said, talking to the handle a little too earnestly.
“What are you looking at?” the recording went on (supposedly speaking as the mirror now, in the hallway, although we were still outside). “Are you looking at you or at me?”
“Open it,” Dad hissed at me. The lock wouldn’t give. “Open it, come on.”
“Don’t just stand there all night,” the voice—the mirror—went on. “Hurry along, now. Don’t get caught up looking at yourself in me.”
“I don’t get it,” Simón admitted. “Is it meant to be the house talking?”
“Looks more like his butthole’s doing the talking,” Garbanzos said, staring at the tape recorder ineffectually concealed in my father’s back pocket. “You’ve got yourself another idea there, mate: the talking butthole, ho, ho, ho . . . The blabbering butthole.”
“Give me those,” Dad snapped, snatching the keys from me furiously. “The first thing I tell you to do and you go and mess up. I told you a hundred times: timing is everything.”
“But you’re the one who dropped the keys . . .”
“How hard is it to open a door?”
“Hey, no fighting,” Ramón-Ramona intervened. “If you fight, I’m off.”
“I still don’t get it,” Simón said again. “What is it we’re meant to do?”
“Why don’t you pause the tape?” Garbanzos suggested, stifling his laughter.
Alirio, meanwhile, was biting his nails. He kept staring out onto the street for moments at a time, I’m not sure if distracted or fixated. Then he’d stare at us, one by one. Several times, too, he spun around suddenly, to the house then back to the street. “Did you hear that?” he’d say. But between us we just ignored or talked over him, no one more so than my father, who was now trying to convince Garbanzos that it was the house, and not he, who was speaking.
Finally the lock gave. We filed into the house, I’d say not overly enthused about the tour, and left the door ajar. “I’m tired of being on the move,” the recorder said—it was the clock, my father explained—“I run and I run and I never stop. I’m tired.”
“This way,” I ushered the visitors in an attempt to synchronize sound with object.
“Yes, come along,” Dad said, backing me up.
We stopped in front of the clock, and with a pensive look on his face my father asked it: “Little clock, little clock who marks the time, who knows and tells the time, tell me something: has it always existed? Time, I mean. Will it just stop one night?”
Garbanzos let out a snigger, which Ramón-Ramona seconded. My father chose to ignore them and stood there looking at the clock, feigning interest in whatever answer it might give.
“I feel like I’m always chasing people,” the clock replied. “As if I were hounding them, or pressuring them all the time, telling them: hurry, hurry, hurry, hurry. I don’t like that feeling.” My father glanced at us, realizing he’d asked the wrong question, and quickly corrected himself: “But tell me, little clock, on behalf of time: have you always existed? Will you simply stop one night . . . ?” The tape interrupted him saying: “I, too, ask myself if I’ve always existed. I can’t say if one night I’ll simply stop existing.”
“Thank you, clock,” Dad replied.
The others all burst out laughing. My father looked at them, perplexed, genuinely curious to know what they were laughing at. “Let’s move on to the kitchen, shall we,” he said, turning a blind eye. Next thing, the tape was back: “Watch your step, mister! Don’t tread on me!”
“I’m sorry,” Dad said, looking down at the floor. “We need a rug.”
“Watch it, watch it!” the tape went on as we walked to the kitchen. “Don’t walk all over me.” When we reached the kitchen, all of the others in hysterics, my father went up to the stove, poured some oil in the pan (a drop), lit the burner, and began frying an egg. “It burns, it burns,” moaned the stove, or the egg. “Does anyone even care if they burn me?” Ramón-Ramona, meanwhile, was inspecting the drawings my father had decorated the walls with.
“If you look closely,” Dad explained, “the egg looks like a lion. The white’s his mane. And if you listen carefully, you can hear him roar. But I ask you now, gentlemen: Does it just happen to look like a lion, or did the oil, the egg and the frying pan agree to recreate the beast together? These are questions we cannot help but ask ourselves in this house of wonders.”
“Interesting,” I said, faced with the others’ silence.
And back came the tape (the pan or the egg): “It burns, it burns. You’re burning me.”
“Well, do something! Don’t just stand there, you lot,” Simón pleaded, and I didn’t know if he was going along with my father, if he merely wanted us to turn off the recording, or if he really did want us to turn off the burner and put the frying pan and egg out of their misery.
“Wonderful drawings,” Ramón-Ramona said to my father, clearly moved. “Did you do them?”
“Yes,” he said proudly. “That one up there is a cow.”
“And this one?”
“Another cow, under the shade of a tree.”
“Well, what do you know,” Garbanzos said. “I thought it was a cow with a wig on.”
“And all this?” Ramón-Ramona went on, ignoring Garbanzo.
“My lovely son,” Dad replied, making me blush. I gave him a hug and we stayed like that, hugging, until the egg said: “I’m ready! You can eat me now.”
“Once I’ve got a bit of spare cash, I’m going to buy you crayons in all different colors,” Ramón-Ramona said.
“Well, thank you. The black is running out,” Dad replied as he switched off the flame.
“How sad, this life of mine,” the egg concluded. “To end so soon.” And my father said: “We’ll eat you later, don’t worry.”
We all moved back into the living room and my father asked us to come over to the window, which we did, Alirio and Simón both distracted, Garbanzos with a little smirk on his face, Ramón-Ramona yawning, and me happy, because my father seemed to have snapped out of his rage. Two, three, four seconds later, the recorder began speaking as the window in my father’s by now hoarse, almost fluey voice: “Outside, the wind is lashing me.”
“Did you hear that?” Alirio asked. “What is that noise?”
“The window,” Dad answered. “It’s telling us that the wind outside . . .”
“No, not that.”
“It sounds like screaming,” I ventured to say, and instantly began to feel anxious. The recording, meanwhile, went on.
“Pause it, for fuck’s sake,” Garbanzos said to Dad. “Let us listen.”
“Pause what?” he answered, playing dumb.
“Be quiet, man. Just for a second,” Alirio asked. But the recording played on. “I run and I run and I never stop. I’m tired.”
“Pause it, Dad, please,” I said, losing my patience. I was sure now that there were people screaming outside. “We can’t carry on.”
But the tape reran: “Watch it, watch it!” the floor (my father, his voice) cried. “Ouch, you’re treading on me.” Exasperated, I launched myself at him and barked: “Give me that,” snatching the recorder from his back pocket. In my attempt to stop the tape, I ended up rewinding it.
“Now look what you’ve done,” Dad whined. “You’ve ruined everything.”
“Will you let us listen, man!” Garbanzos said, losing his wits.
“Now no one’s going to believe the house can talk.”
“Nobody believed it anyway.”
“You’ve given the trick away.”
“Do you really think anyone believes the house was talking?”
“What would you know?”
“They were laughing, Dad. Or at best playing along.”
The Three Toupees and Ramón-Ramona had left the house. We watched them through the window. They were talking and gesticulating, speculating, maybe, about what was going on. They also talked to several passersby.
“Dad,” I said, trying to calm myself down. “I need to know that you get that nobody here believes the house actually talks. They came because you invited them and because, to get them here, you said you wanted to show them something: weird goings-on. I know you have a plan and that you’d like it, just as I’d like it, if lots of visitors came, but nobody thinks that the house really speaks—not for one second. Do you understand that? It’s a game: you put it out there and the others decide if they’re willing to go along with it or not. The Three Toupees, Ramón-Ramona, they went along with it.”
“I don’t know,” my father said, looking down at his feet. “I just hoped that one of them wouldn’t work it out and that I could show them the tape recorder at the end.”
“They all knew from the start. They went along with it. They were laughing.”
Then Alirio and Ramón-Ramona started waving at us and we went out to join them. We talked. They told us what they’d heard. We set off walking. On the corner some men were crying. One of them was almost choking, saying: “Horrible, horrible,” and “Oh, God. Oh, God,” and my eyes, I thought, began to pop wide open like the man’s. I took Dad’s hand, asking myself, in a daze, what kind of effect it would have on him to witness what we were about to witness. And I walked by his side, slowly, my arm around him, glancing over at the Toupees every now and then, and at Ramón-Ramona, who was also walking slowly, and yet at the same time feverishly, hurriedly.
There, in the bar district, we found men with no heads: four or five bodies floating, from their neck down to their legs, in their own lake. Beyond them a little heap: the pierced red flesh of a man (or several men) who had been dancing. Another body, on the other side of the street, was still in one piece: one gushed liquid that flowed into a puddle, and the puddle made a moat around his nose, and his nose, then, seemed to float in the middle of his face.
The streetlamps, which hadn’t lit the streets for years, now contained severed heads where light should be. Two of them, exhibited there in their vitrines, had their mouths agape and tongues peeping out, as if their teeth were stopping the still wet muscle from fully slipping out. (Looking at these heads I thought, somewhat absurdly, that at some point in the night, light would start coming from their lantern-lips. I also thought, later on, that those lips were burning darkness.)
They’d been playful: we saw a torso propping up two legs, and not the other way around. We saw arms protruding from other arms, stuck to other arms; cocks and balls hanging from a tree like fruit. A man-turned-swing: they’d tied his arms and legs to two posts and, doing the splits, like a kind of arc, he rocked back and forth. They’d propped another body on top of him—a corpse swinging himself.
They’d turned others into mannequins—and those bruised mannequins, gaping in parts, posed in nooks and on corners with no say in the matter. Some were missing their hands and feet; others were merely busts. I recognized several of them, or that’s what I thought, or wanted to believe; others had had their faces branded.
The spectacle—yes, the spectacle—carried on down toward the park: in the sanded area, where no one ever went anymore, lay the body of a man dressed in white; his eyes were in his mouth and his sockets stuffed with dirt. His intestines were flowing out of his rectum, not unlike water spouting from a fountain. A dog was licking them.
Later, in the square, came the hanged men. Those bodies hanging in mid-air seemed to stare impassively at the other corpses before them. And those corpses had been made to look like women: they’d stuck stones down their chests, like breasts; they’d cut off their cocks. Among them hung one with his stomach moving of its own accord. “He’s alive,” someone said. It had been cut open, the stomach, then they’d stitched it back up. Moving in closer we saw a beak appearing and disappearing out of that stomach, stubbornly pecking at the stitches to make its way out. Finally, a chicken broke free from the fissure and the anonymous body fell still.
Last came the gored. In their lifelike lifelessness they looked like sculptures, those bodies on stakes. Some, further down, were on all fours, arranged in a circle, as if each were attached to the next. A little further on, a tree branch—the tree itself—raped a body for all eternity.
“Keep on prancing, fairies,” they’d written in blood. My father leaned against the wall for a moment. I’m not sure if doing this he accidentally pressed the play button, or if it was a conscious decision, but walking among the bodies, we heard that recording again: “Watch it, watch it!” those men-turned-objects seemed to say. “I’m boiling over, I’m burning.”
“What are you looking at?”
“That burns . . . It’s burning me!”
“I run and I run and I run . . . I’m tired . . .”
“Close me, please. I don’t like being left open.”
“Does no one care that I’m burning?”
“Outside, the wind is lashing me . . .”
“Ow! Ow . . .”
“How sad, this life of mine. How sad to end so soon . . .”
“Hurry along, now. Don’t get caught up looking at yourself in me.”
© Giuseppe Caputo. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 Sophie Hughes. All rights reserved.