“This Little Bomb Shelter” by Joe Stracci
It was a son, Michael! A son! And I had it killed because this must all end! I know now that it’s over. I knew it then. There would be no way, Michael. No way you could ever forgive me. Not with this Sicilian thing that’s been going on for 2,000 years.
Kay Corleone, The Godfather: Part II
This letter is to inform you that I removed the following items from your office:
-A cut-up Polaroid of my mother and me.
-A ceramic Pittsburgh Steelers beer stein. If I remember correctly, it was a free gift from Sports Illustrated, bestowed after a renewal of your yearly subscription.
-An Adam West-era Batmobile model, also ceramic. It’s the one where you lift off the hood and it makes that ceramic-on-ceramic scraping sound, and inside is a lighter. The lighter didn’t work, wouldn’t even spark, when I found it.
I am aware that odds are good that you will never read this letter. With that in mind, I still plan on leaving it here, if not for you, then for me. It’s funny–even though I’m standing here, 100% certain that you are nowhere nearby, I am still concerned that you will walk in and find me, a feeling in my chest that I was certain I’d left behind in my childhood.
I dreamt about you last night, but I’ll save that for the end.
You should know that when I began writing, I hesitated before the second word. I didn’t know if it should be Dad, or Father, or Carlo, or Giancarlo, or what I really wanted to write–Daddy–since that is the only moniker I can recall saying out loud, the only thing that felt right leaving my mouth when I tested it just now. The problem is that Daddy says too much about me, and not you. I promised myself that I wouldn’t make that mistake again.
I made many promises before I came here, actually, and not just to myself.
Please add the following books to the list of removed items:
–House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski
–Only Revolutions by Mark Danielewski
–Gun, with Occasional Music by Joanthan Lethem
–Underworld by Don DeLillo
I was surprised to find these books. I assumed that all you read was Elmore Leonard and Stephen King. So you are aware, you wrote the following on the publisher’s page (Scribner) in Underworld:
I’ve got no idea what either word means, and considering the number of empty Chivas Regal bottles in this room, I doubt you did either. Also, on Underworld’s title page, there is a sketch of a man holding a candlestick holder with a lit candle in it. But because you did it in the same raw, geometric shape style that you always seemed to sketch stuff in, it looks more like an angry rooster.
All four of the books have wrinkled covers and dirty, bent page edges, although the shitty way you kept your stuff down here might be to blame. Death wouldn’t be a guaranteed result of existing in this room, but nothing would live properly either. I flapped open all four of the above-mentioned books. Lottery tickets fell out. Folded-up pages from magazines, too. Unlined note cards with more of your geometric shape doodles.
While I was doing this, I noticed that you highlighted some passages in Underworld. In different colors. There is no key or legend that explains your rationale. You didn’t highlight anything for the first 59 pages, and then on page 60, the last sentence of the Prologue, using a neon yellow highlighter, you marked:
it is all falling indelibly into the past.
And if that wasn’t melodramatic enough, on page 63, highlighted in yellow and underlined with a pencil is:
, programmed drudges that do not dream of family dead.
On the same page, but with a pink highlighter instead, again underlined with pencil is:
Let’s just say the desert is an impulse.
You went back to the yellow on page 64, with the pencil too:
–how human it is to see a thing as something else
This continues, and with more colors involved. The passages you chose, at first, seemed to be literary breadcrumbs, notches on trees–apparently you’d gone off-trail by this point–so, intrigued, I can’t help but write them down, like again on page 64, using orange for the first time, also with pencil, is:
I had a quarter tank of gas, half a can of
iced tea, nothing to eat, no warm clothes,
a map that scanted the details.
I would drink my tea and die.
On page 65, you introduced the blue highlighter and underlined in pen:
and nomads and runaways
On page 67, pink, pen:
a figure from an anxious dream came walking
and talking across a wilderness to find her.
And then you took a break.
Before I forget, re: the previously-mentioned Polaroid, for some reason, you cut most of the white border off. In the picture is me and–another pause as I decide on Mom, Mommy, your wife, Rosalba. We’re sitting together at the dining room table in the old apartment on Rawlins Avenue, before you guys bought this house. Rosalba on the left, me on the right. Her left arm is squeezing me close to her. We’re both leaned in towards the birthday cake on the table in front of us. The candles are lit and radiating onto our cheeks in that blocky, obvious way that only a Polaroid can capture. We’re both smiling. It is obvious that neither smile is a smile born from true happiness, but rather, the kind that is produced when someone you have mixed emotions about points a camera at you and tells you to smile. Even then, I’m smiling because I was, what, seven when the picture was taken? Rosalba? Her smile is more deserving of an antiseptic weather forecast, something like: smiling, with a likelihood of grimace.
It seems fitting to point out the next highlight, on page 83, where you came back with orange, and went back to the pencil:
Love it and trust it and leave.
And on page 88, highlighted in blue, no pen or pencil, is:
men in moon suits
On page 89, yellow:
an adjunct to his own discontent
Same page, orange:
streets of westward dreams
On page 90, in pink:
, lightward and westward, where people came to escape
the hard-luck past with its gray streets and crowded
flats and cabbage smells in the hallway.
Oh, and one of the features of your office that I have to admit admiring is how inside of every pile, in front of every cabinet, below each bookshelf, in the crawlspace below the steps, everywhere in this cold, damp four-by-fifteen room, there is a spot carved out that fit just you. Squatted, seated, and standing in each, I can feel the remnants of the comfort you found in here. I know this because these spots fit me too.
Then on page 91, the start of Chapter 3, in blue, you highlighted two things; first:
our sourmash whiskey
and then right below:
Los Angeles many times on business
but had never made the jaunt to Dodger Stadium.
In pink, on page 93:
The Dodgers were playing the Giants.
Two lines below, in orange:
“They moved west, did they?”
As I sit here, writing this at your pathetic collapsible desk, I wonder–if I sat here long enough, inhabiting your spaces, occupying your niche, sucking in breath and blowing the dust off of your stuff, eventually, would I become you?
On page 95, you went back to pink:
I got pencil and paper and wrote down all the occult connections
that seemed to lead to thirteen.
One sentence later:
October third or ten-three. Add the month and day and you get thirteen.
On page 96, first in blue:
The mythology of the game
and then a bit down, in orange:
This is a pathological obsession.
Before I entered this room, I promised myself that I wouldn’t leave you any information about my life now, about what I’ve accomplished, and what I still plan on accomplishing. Whenever I think about you, which contrary to what you or I might believe, is not every day, I always have to fight the initial feeling that you know. That somehow, you’re still keeping tabs on me. Today is the day I put that fear-based comfort in the ground.
We’re almost finished now. I need to record these–messages–before this book is gone forever, like on page 97, in green:
“It’s about the mystery of bad luck, the mystery of loss.
It’s an object with a history.
No matter how hard I try, I can’t remember your accomplishments. What you wanted. I’ve seen you in grainy Super 8 footage, holding and doting on a child they say is me. You look like someone who maybe wanted something more. But you never told me what that was. I’ll just assume that you didn’t get it.
101. Chapter 4. Blue. To be honest, this is where I wish you’d stopped:
We paused to remember.
Actually, Carlo, I will let you in on one secret. Now, at funerals, or after tragic events, or when an awkward pause arises and needs to be defeated, whoever I’m with, could be my friends or my family or just some acquaintances, they look to me. Because I’m the guy who always knows the right thing to say. I’m most proud of this because it is a part of me that I know has nothing to do with you.
But then you kept going, for just a bit more, onto 109, one page into Chapter 5, in yellow, because I guess this was important:
rancho pink and green.
Then, on page 123, the start of chapter 7, in the white space above the numeral, you geometric-shaped a woman’s head. She has a six line Martha Stewart-esque hairdo, like MS is ready for a night out on the town. Only one of her black pen mark eyes is showing. And then on page 127, in a crisp fluorescent green, obviously a fresh, or at least rested, highlighter:
of course they ate the roasted corn relish.
And that’s it. You still had about 700 pages left to read. The spine is cracked at page 134, the end of chapter 7. There’s one faint crack in the spine at page 366. Visually, it’s close to the middle, but not mathematically. It’s the page before the start of Part 4, which is titled: Cocksucker Blues – Summer 1974. I have memories of you doing this, snapping books into place in the middle, leaving yourself a marker, somewhere for you to pause and take a breath before carrying on.
I recognize that I’ve got no proof of any of this.
The rest of the pages in Underworld appear undisturbed. I can’t say the same about your office. The Bomb Shelter, as you called it. Without you in it, the piles seem askew, the hangered clothes on the exposed pipes, deranged, and the little tokens and knickknacks, souvenirs from a life spent hiding from life, that is, until you decided not to, are ominous, rather than cute and kitschy. Like you were forced from this spot by an emergency and never returned.
I want to believe that the highlighted words in Underworld are raised above the rest of the text for a reason. I keep setting down my pen–your pen, actually (it needed a minute before the ink flowed cleanly)–and reading the portions of words you chose to preserve. First in order, then starting at the end and working backwards, then by color. I look for clues in how hard you pressed down on the page, how you trailed your lines off, whether they were clean or broken, and if the pen and pencil came before or after the highlighter. I haven’t decided yet who it is you decided to play this joke on.
I keep thinking that I can smell you, like you were huddled in here not too long ago, alone in this seat, surrounded by your books and your regrets and your pathetic toolboxes and clip-on lamps. But that’s just me wanting to smell you in here. This little bomb shelter of yours.
And to think–all that time, you were the bomb.
So I’ll be leaving soon. With my inheritance. To recap: The picture. The stein. The Batmobile lighter that doesn’t work. The books. Oh, and add the following to the list:
-Several still-in-the-bag McDonald’s Happy Meal toys.
-A metal tin that has “HIDE-A-KEY” printed on it. There’s a magnet glued to the back, but no key inside.
-The Fred Flintstone statue that has a clock in the belly. I think I remember you saying it was yours as a boy.
I could’ve taken more, could’ve taken it all if I really wanted to. But there is dust and cobwebs on everything and the grime would never wipe away. Has it been that long? This mausoleum.
Now I’m thinking about the time I was in college, home for some break, and I explained the theory of McDonaldization to you. You took it as a personal slight, like here I was, educated and fancy, telling you why you lived, insinuating that maybe you shouldn’t live that way. Like somehow in the microscopic amount of time I’d spent not directly in your sphere of influence, I had managed to learn anything even remotely useful. You responded by saying that you drink McDonalds coffee because it’s there, not because of some sociological unconscious bullshit desire to be part of the flock.
“Because it’s there,” you said.
They tell me that you went crazy. When they say it, they never use it as an excuse. It’s never quite a judgement either. Italian karma. It is whispered. Floated. Like saying it too loud will give it weight in the real world. The opposite of repeating a wish. I’m more concerned that the same unstoppable impulse managed to trickle into my blood at some point during consummation, whenever it is that the genes mingle and mix, when the miniature big bang that created me occurred. I go to the doctor now, something you never did, and when he asks about my family history on my father’s side, I reply, “No contact.” I don’t want to know if you went crazy, but soon I will need to know.
And let me set something straight, just so everyone can stop whispering about it: you weren’t not at my wedding.
You weren’t supposed to be there.
It took a while, but even in your absence, things healed up. I’ve worked hard at being happy. I still use phrases you used, like: you’ve still got a lot of bread to eat.
Remember in the beginning, when I told you that I dreamt about you last night? It was a dream that finally convinced me to do what needed to be done.
I dreamt that you died. I don’t have any details or a recollection of what took place. All I know is that I sat up in bed and knew that you were dead. I got up and parted the curtains and looked out the window. The night was motionless, like it was painted on the outside of the glass. After a minute or two, I wiped away the condensation that had formed from my breath. And that’s when I realized that it was my fault, that I was allowing this, that I had no one to blame but myself.
I waited for a a car to pass by before I got back into bed. The thought was still buzzing in my ears, was already tattooed onto my conscience. I was now free to walk without your memory strapped to my back. I would never have to doubt again whose shadow trailed me on the sidewalk.
I finally understood that you would never be truly gone if all I ever did was threaten to kill you.
Your son, Vincent