La Cosa Nostra
There are three people in our family. We do not have assigned roles, but perform the four primary characters of a family interchangeably, at a moment’s notice. The prescription is precautionary, ensuring that nobody gets too good at one role, particularly Father. We like Father least, but enjoy being him best.
I was Mother today. I like Mother best, but enjoy being her least. It’s exhausting. Here it is midnight, and I’ve been tossing in bed a good hour with Mother’s pink sleep mask over my wide-open eyes. I’m overtired and nerved-up. Luckily, the smoke detectors start chirping, saving me from another second of restless self-analysis.
In the past, the detectors have only chirped when a certain Mother (not mentioning names) does the cooking. Today that particular Mother was Son. I was Mother, but did not cook. I ordered takeout, the Italian place on Hawthorne run by Peruvians. The other one of us was Daughter. That Daughter also has trouble sleeping. Maybe she’s downstairs over-toasting some late-night bruschetta. She eats her emotions. Before that she sexualized them. Daughter has Daddy issues. To me, her Fathers are always the meanest. We didn’t have a Father today. I for one didn’t dare. Daughter was in one of her patricidal moods. In theory, I can identify, but when the house is on fire or the smoke detector battery needs changing, Fathers are the necessary evil. Daughter is a fierce opponent of that logic, but I won’t be intimidated, not when it comes to the wellbeing of this family.
I get out of bed, and lace up Father’s Timberlands. They’ll bring me eyelevel with Daughter. She has a few inches on me. I have forty odd pounds on her. I clomp out of the bedroom in Father’s tighty-whities, Mother’s pink sleep mask on my forehead. I’m prepared to perform whatever role, but predisposing towards Father.
The upstairs hallway is clear. Not a whiff of smoke. There’s a detector in every room and hallway. They are connected. When one chirps, they all chirp. It’s designed to alert people at different locations with equal force. It’s the perfect system for heavy sleepers and scaredy-cats, but not courageous Fathers who take house fires into their own hands. This alleged fire could be anywhere. The detectors don’t specify. They sound like eight despotic mice hiccupping through megaphones. I’m assuming there’s no actual fire. I’m betting that one bad battery has set off the others. The circuit breaker is in the laundry room. I head downstairs to kill the system.
When I enter the kitchen, Daughter is there in her pink plaid sleep shirt, holding Father’s fire extinguisher at a ready position.
“Relax. There’s no fire.” She sounds more bossy than reassuring.
“It’s a bad battery.” I sound more catty than expert.
“Don’t lose that famous temper of yours, uh Sonny?”
“Don’t call me Sonny. I’m Father. Father Corleone if you must.”
She aims the extinguisher at my face, and pretend-squirts it. I grab the nozzle and tug. She firms her grip on the canister and tugs back. I tug. She tugs. I tug again, and win. I hand her Mother’s sleep mask. She snatches it like a parking ticket from a windshield wiper.
“Keep eating your emotions, and one of these days you’ll be able to overpower me.” I mean it as encouragement, but she doesn’t hear it that way.
“I don’t need muscle or fat to crush you.” She slips the mask on like a headband.
“Mother, not Daughter, should be the one flipping breakers with Father,” I say.
“Whatever. Stupid fascist alarm woke me up. I was dreaming I lived in Rome with a young Robert De Niro. We were lovers.”
“Why would you tell me that? I’m your husband,” I say.
Mother pretend-gags, and pulls the mask over her eyes. I place the extinguisher on the counter, and head for the laundry room. She follows me, stepping on my heel, bumping her shoulder into the doorjamb. The breakers are marked in faded pen. I squint, reading each label four times. I can’t think straight. The pulse in my ears is louder than the chirping. I finally locate SMOKE DETECTORS, and throw the switch. The eight despotic mice continue hiccupping through their megaphones.
“What’s that mean?” Mother asks.
“It means you and Robert De Niro weren’t meant for each other.”
She turns and feels her way out of the laundry room, again bumping her shoulder into the doorjamb. I follow suit, arms ready to steer her from further bruising.
Mother feels her way along the marble countertop towards the fridge. She opens it, blindly reaches in, and with surgical precision, removes a takeout container. She knew its exact location. She was on dish duty last night as Daughter, loading the washer and putting away leftovers. Crossover consciousness is one perk of being in a performative family. Months ago, I was scrubbing the toilet as Mother, the seat riddled with dribble. A certain Son (not mentioning names) never lifts it. This particular Son is not equipped to micturate on his feet, but does so as a political statement. For the record, I support all acts of civil disobedience, but construed an entirely different philosophy while dousing his with Clorox. No mother should be subject to a spattered seat. Maybe that’s sexist, but I’ve walked my talk ever since by sitting down to micturate, regardless of the role I’m performing. The porcelain is always bone-dry when I leave the bathroom. My Mother has not been repaid in kind. Son has converted the others. Of the twelve characters in this family, I’m the only four who sits.
Mother leans against the counter, eating my leftover carbonara with her fingers.
“How can you eat with all this chirping?” I ask.
“What about Son? He’s upstairs sleeping through it.”
“Probably wearing earbuds, watching La Dolce Vita for the umpteenth time.”
“He’s all about Satyricon these days. Get with the program,” Mother says.
“I am with the program. We’ll never achieve fluidity with you two front-loading roles.”
“Whatever, Il Duce. Is that why you ripped Father’s extinguisher from my hands?”
“You only want to be Father when it’s heroic. The other when it’s playful. Someone has to be the bad guy doing the dirty work,” I say.
“I do plenty of dirty work.”
“Peeing on toilet seats isn’t dirty work.”
There is a smoke detector above the kitchen island. The countertop marble is from Carrara, the same mines as Michelangelo’s Pieta. I’m not about to scuff it with Father’s Timberlands. I unlace the strings, and kick them off. I hop up in my socks, and reach for the detector. I twist one way, and then the other. It loosens, falls, and catches, dangling from the ceiling by wires. The chirping now sounds all the more everlasting. My ears don’t have time for finesse. I yank at it, three, four, five times and it’s free. Flecks of plaster fall in my eye. I blow a raspberry and blink long and hard. It works. My vision is restored, the detector there in my palm, hiccupping in my face. I punch it. I smash it over my knee. The thing won’t open. It won’t shut up. I hop off the counter, and grab a butter knife from the utensil drawer. I place the detector on a cutting board, and stab like a psycho. It cracks open. I pry it apart, and with the butter knife, shuck its battery like an oyster. The thing finally dies, but the other seven mice keep chirping. My nerves bristle.
“Wow. You’re so boss,” Mother says.
I turn to administer some alpha eye, but she’s standing in Father’s Timberlands. She’s also reclaimed the extinguisher, the sleep mask fashioned again as a headband.
“You look stupid,” I say.
“I feel bad-ass.”
“Timberlands and a fire extinguisher don’t make you Father.”
“Me Father. Me club smoke detector with butter knife,” she says in caveman-speak.
“What about your Father? Last week, he shot the TV with his Beretta.”
“He shot Ronald Reagan,” she says.
“He shot a TV Ronald Reagan.”
“Better than nothing.”
“Not really. It was old footage of demented old Ronnie. Young Ronnie. That’s the one worth shooting. Before he busted up the unions. Before he defunded the mental health centers. Before he armed the Nicaraguan Contras and vetoed the Anti-Apartheid Act.”
“Old, young, real or unreal, at least my Father shot a fascist. What have you ever done for the cause?”
She’s got me there. I haven’t done much. Some say I’ve done nothing. It’s why I’m here in recovery. I was a flesh-and-blood father once. I punched holes in walls. I cursed and threw wrenches across the driveway. I flatulated at will. My family finally called the authorities. I regret most of it, but sometimes I still want to be that guy. He loved his family. I don’t even like these two, but a performative Father combats fascism by transferring his power into the hearts of his family. That’s what the authorities drill into us.
“I take it back. You don’t look stupid. You look like a revitalized Joan of Arc, ready to return the favor of holy hellfire.” I mean it, but probably sound more brown-nosey than heartening.
“You look tired, Hon. Go upstairs and get some sleep.” She sounds downright patronizing.
I point the butter knife at her. “Don’t you Hon me.”
“Whatevs, shorty. You couldn’t reach my ephemeral artery with that thing.”
“I’m taller than Robert De Niro. Google it.”
“Maybe old, osteoporosis De Niro, Meet the Fockers and what-not, but that’s not my De Niro. Vito Coreleone. Jake LaMotta. That De Niro. He’s man of my dreams.”
“Jake LaMotta was five-eight. I’m five-ten.”
“You’re five-ten in Father’s Timberlands.”
“Throw one over here. I’ll show you.”
“In your dreams,” she says.
“My dreams? You’re the one who can’t dream straight. Jake LaMotta my ass. You want a raging bull? You can’t even handle me KO’ing a smoke detector.”
“We all signed up for this. Crazy but Caring Italian American Family. If you can’t stand the heat.”
“Stand the heat? What do you think I’m doing over here?” My accent is more Rhode Island-Italian than Brooklyn-Italian.
“You’re trying too hard,” she says.
“Says you,” I say.
“That’s right,” she says.
“Who made you an authority?” I ask.
“I made myself one by ratting you out. What do you think all this chirping is about?”
I try to comprehend her words, but my thinking is cut short. All eight carbon monoxide detectors start screaming. They’re relentless, a decibel lower than the chirping, but I barely hear any of it over the rising furor of blood in my ears.
“Carbon monoxide. The silent killer,” Mother shouts.
Now that she says it, I do feel woozy, which adds terror to my pre-existing rage, but I must remain calm. If Mother has submitted another grievance against me, I’m cooked. Given the inherent antagonisms of the role, Fathers are allotted three grievances. I’m on my fifth. The authorities gave me a long leash, and I’ve somehow wrapped it around my neck. My flesh-and-blood family disowned me. If disowned by my performative family, it’s off to a singledom cell, remote and sparsely populated high rises with suicide rates through the roof. Most performative families learn to accept difficult cast members out of pity. Most don’t want the guilt of marooning a fellow internee. Mother and Son have no problem with it. To them, my Father is the worst. They say he’s too intense. They say I bring too much crazy and not enough caring to the role. Hypocrites. Their favorite Italian Fathers furnish and protect their families with violence—the quiet devising of Vito Corleone or the sheer brutality of Tony Soprano. I see myself as an amalgamation of the two. My only hope is for them to see me as such. It could work. My great-grandmother on my mother’s side was half Sicilian.
“Speaking of silent killers,” I say. “I love that G2 scene when De Niro pops Don Fanucci with a towel wrapped around his gun.”
“Carbonara means coal burner in Italian. Coal has tons of CO2,” Mother says.
She scarfs the last of my carbonara, and nabs Son’s pappardelle from the fridge without taking a bite of my olive branch. I’m pained and inflamed. The CO2 detector is plugged behind the espresso machine. I pull it from the wall, slam it onto the counter, and clobber it with the butt end of the butter knife. It screams until the sixth and final blow.
“Male aggression has never healed anything,” Mother says.
“What then? How do I kill the system? With female aggression? Ignore it to death? Gossip about it?”
“Maybe a hybrid of male and female aggression,” she says.
It’s an idea worth executing. I reach for the sleep mask. Mother ducks. I reach with my left. She bobs. I reach with my right. She weaves.
“Wear an apron,” she says. “I need the mask. I’m going back to sleep. De Niro awaits.”
“He’s not even Italian. He’s Italian American. Huge difference.”
“He’s more Italian than you’ll ever be,” she says.
“You get off on hurting me. Why?” I ask.
“Because you’re ugly, inside and out,” she says.
It’s hopeless. In this framework, I don’t stand a chance against myself. Upon my detention, I should have opted for the Loud but Obedient Chinese Family. If I’m going down, I’m taking the man of her Italian dreams with me.
“Robert Anthony De Niro is only a quarter Italian,” I say. “I’m an eighth, but whatever. Nationality is zero-percent flesh-and-blood. It’s entirely vocational, like learning a trade.”
“Learning a trade? As in electrician? You can’t even flip a switch. You can’t even make a basic marinara.”
“When you say grazie, it sounds like grassy,” I say.
“You’re a ginger. You could speak fluent Italian, and still be inadequate.”
I fake left. Mother drops her right. I reach right, and grab the mask, along with a clump of hair. She shrieks. The security system kicks on. It sounds like a gameshow buzzer scolding wrong answers ad nauseam. Every light in the house begins flashing, plus the chirping and screaming of detectors. I surrender the mask and hair. I kneel, and pull at my ears. Son rushes into the kitchen wielding Father’s baseball bat like a hitter protecting the plate with a 0-2 count. He’s wearing only boxers.
“Too much crazy and not enough caring down here,” he says.
I spring to my feet, and snatch the extinguisher from Mother’s cradling. “Mother’s dreaming of young Robert De Niro again.”
“He’s murdering inanimate objects again,” Mother says.
They share a dubious smile. Son points the bat at me.
“If you’re predisposing, transpose to Daughter or Son. I’ll transpose to Father.” He says it like I don’t have a choice.
“In 2006, De Niro was awarded an Italian passport,” I say. “The Sons of Italy protested, claiming he had damaged the public image of Italian Americans by portraying criminals.”
I flip Mother the bird. Mother takes off a Timberland, and chucks it at me. I’m too frazzled to block it. It bounces off my chest, and onto the floor. I bend over and put it on, tying the laces tight.
“Give me a chance. I can Father through this,” I say.
“Through what?” Son asks.
“You two submitted another grievance against me, no? The authorities are simulating an emergency to examine my behavior.”
Mother winks at Son. Son winks back.
“I was teasing. We didn’t report you. This isn’t a test. It’s our random dose of playful chaos,” says Mother.
“I like it. Sounds like the shrillest and illest tech house,” says Son.
They launch into gyrations, bumping and grinding their like parts to the strobing lights. Son is very much not wearing a shirt now. It looks pretty lit, but rubs me the wrong way. I’m sorry. It just does, and I’m prepared to pay the consequences.
“Mothers and Sons don’t dance like that,” I shout.
Mother twerks into Son’s sternum, and lets out a wicked laugh meant to pulverize my self-esteem, and it does. They’re real names are Maddie and Morgan. They’re just a couple of eighteen year-olds. They came here after being expelled from their respective high schools for proliferating normative gender roles. They bullied classmates into manicures and coerced others into wearing pink. They drank pumpkin spice lattes into March, sometimes early as June. Worst of all, they lived to please LAX attackers and quarterbacks. The authorities have cited them as ideological interpellations, which means their uncorrectable. They’ll never return home to their flesh-and-blood parents, and here I am, the redheaded Italian Father. The Father they love to hate, and good on them. That hatred gives them hope. It’s why the authorities keep me here despite my lousy performance, for the sole purpose of de-oedipalizing Maddie and Morgan. I’ve been their test dummy. This is our final crash.
Maddie twerks. Morgan spanks Maddie. Morgan twerks. Maddie spanks Morgan. Morgan reflexes into another viral dance from girlhood. My flesh-and-blood daughter would practice the same moves in our kitchen. She could never get them right. Morgan is much better. Her feet are smoking. Maddie grabs the extinguisher and pretends to cool them off. The world is absurdly dangerous. Make fun with it. Another mantra the authorities drill into us, but I’m not wired that way. I’ve got this junk between my legs, and it’s always made me act screwy.
I limp off in the one Timberland upstairs towards Morgan’s room. The Beretta is in her nightstand. I retrieve it, and wrap a pair of her white leggings around the Beretta up to my biceps. I shoot the smoke detector in her bedroom point blank, and then blow the brains out of her CO2 detector. I head towards my room to do the same, offing both hall detectors along the way. I enter Maddie’s room, and shoot out both detectors with the pistol aimed around my back. Now I’m making some fun for myself. Maddie keeps a pink chemise in her closet. I slip into it, and limp back downstairs, Beretta aimed like a mummy gangster.
Back in the kitchen, Maddie and Morgan are slow dancing in a standup spoon position, swaying in some kind of ecstasy to the half-lowered tech house.
“You’re killing our music,” Morgan says.
“I’m shooting fascists,” I reply.
“Too little too late. I wasn’t teasing. I submitted another grievance,” she says.
“I know you did, Hon.” I give her fanny a playful little slap.
“We’re not sorry. We’ve had a blast destroying you,” says Maddie.
“Thanks, Squirt. It’s been an honor serving as your despot, but before the authorities extract me, I’m going to transfer every watt of my Father power to your bulimic little hearts.”
They disjoin. Morgan goes for the fire extinguisher. Maddie bends for the bat.
“Turn us into hybrids?” Morgan asks.
“Every anarchist is a baffled dictator,” I say in broken Italian.
“That sounds bad-ass,” she replies.
“Who said it?” asks Maddie.
“Frank Sinatra,” I answer.
“His Mother performed abortions in their living room,” Morgan says.
“Pretty rad,” says Maddie.
They sound amped and ready for my power. I march into the den, waving for them to follow.
“Avanti popolo!” I shout.
Maddie slips the bat between her legs, and gallops into the den on horse. Morgan limps behind in her one Timberland. The other perk of being in a performative family is having a zero deductible. You can demolish your home in a fit of rage, and the authorities repair the damages free of charge, which is to say free aside from the reality of being an internee.
I aim my mummified arm up at the smoke detector and squeeze the trigger. I miss. Morgan lays the extinguisher down, and touches my elbow.
“Sweetheart, let me have a shot,” she says.
She unwraps her leggings from my arm like a nurse changing the dressing of a dear dying patient. I surrender the Beretta into her soft palm. She angles the sleep mask like an eyepatch, and raises the gun. She shoots. The smoke detector explodes into silence. Maddie is inspired as all hell. She golf swings her bat at the CO2 detector. It shatters and sputters towards death.
“Hey, Squirt! Way to give that bat some crossover consciousness,” I say.
“All these months, I thought you were smashing things out of self-hatred. I had no idea you were just having a laugh,” she says.
“The trick with violent outbursts is having a laugh for yourself, not at yourself,” I say.
I step out of the chemise, and walk it over to her. She lifts her arms straight up, the bat squeezed between her thighs. I pull the chemise down over her body.
“There you go, Squirt. Try it like that,”
“Go hybrid!” Morgan cheers.
Maddie smashes the TV. Morgan blows out the strobing floor lamp with a single shot. The den darkens. The dining room chandelier flickers through the adjoining glass doors. Morgan slides them open and enters. I grab the extinguisher and follow. Maddie flanks me as if I’m her security detail.
Morgan smokes the smoke detector, and aims at the strobing chandelier. The trigger clicks. She’s out of bullets. Maddie climbs atop the table, and beats the living daylights out of the chandelier. It’s entirely stupid and spectacular, and reduces us to silhouettes.
“I’m so proud of you girls,” I say.
“You must have been the worst flesh-and-blood father ever.” Maddie hops down from the table.
“I spent my daughter’s college fund on a Maserati,” I answer.
“That’s awful, plus you’re a ginger, and you’re short. Did she inherit those shoddy genes of yours?” Morgan sounds more concerned than cruel.
“No. Tall and blonde like her mother.”
“Did you hit her?” Morgan asks, placing the sleep mask on my head like a tiara.
I go ballistic, smashing sheetrock with the fire canister, injuring myself in the process—bashing knuckles against studs, flecks of plaster pelting my eyeballs, tearing a rotator cuff, but I don’t stop. I can’t stop. I’m too fluid.
“Make it count,” Morgan says. “This is your last hurrah.”
I riot in the darkness until falling windless. Then I crouch and hyperventilate, watching myself rub off on the girls. The CO2 detector is plugged into the wall next to our hutch, its tiny red light unblinking across the room. Morgan stomps it to death with her one Timberland. The resulting silence is immediately interrupted with the smash and splinter of Mattie demoing the hutch and fine china inside it. There’s nothing in the room left to destroy. They turn to me.
“Morgan, want to hear a joke?” Maddie asks.
“Of course,” she replies.
“What’s shorter than a redhead’s pecker?”
“His temper,” Morgan answers.
Morgan points the empty gun at my back. Maddie pokes the bat into my kidney. I drop the extinguisher. It lands on top of my shoeless foot. The pain is nothing. I raise my arms in surrender.
“I hope your next Father is a real gas,” I say.
“Walk. The authorities are waiting for you outside,” Morgan says.
“What do you call it when a redhead goes off the deep end?” Mattie asks.
“A ginger snap,” Morgan replies.
They walk me from the darkness of the dining room into the less shadowy den. I spot the ottoman at my knees. I tumble over it. On my way down, I stretch my neck, catching the corner of the coffee table with my temple. I seize and sputter. The damage is too deep to feel. For all my kicking and writhing, I’m unmoved. The furor in my ears has breached the canals.
“Hey, Maddie. What’s the difference between this joke and sex?” Morgan asks.
“What,” Maddie answers.
“Gingers will get this joke.”
She sounds more here than there.
Eugenio Volpe is author of the eBook The Message. His stories have appeared in Salamander, New York Tyrant, Post Road, Contrary, The Nervous Breakdown, BULL, and dozens more. His recently completed novel won the PEN Discovery Award. He teaches writing and rhetoric at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.