Little Biscuit, take a nap now and stop that awful singing, my mother said. She called me Little Biscuit when she was high or in a good mood, otherwise it was Charlie, Chaz, or even Charles. The man she got high with also called me Little Biscuit. We were in his car, a black DeSoto, somewhere in Georgia, heading for Florida and then on to Cuba where the man would be safe. We were all high, but of course only they were drinking. I got high just being with them because they got so happy when they were passing the bottle back and forth in the car, or when they stopped to rest in a shady spot along the highway, or later in the day at a motor court. That's why I was singing. I wanted them to be happy and I wanted to be happy, too. I was ten years old and thought that people were meant to be happy. Why live otherwise?
We were running from the police and the FBI. The man, who my mother asked me to call "Uncle Jack," had done something to someone. Uncle Jack was Jack Bernstein. He was going to work for Mr. Lansky, who owned most of Havana, according to her. She had left my father, Amadeo "Big Biscuit" Biscotti, for Uncle Jack. My father was a gambler who wore tailor-made silk suits and Italian shoes and had his fingernails manicured once a week. She was fed up with gamblers. "They're as boring as accountants," she said.
She was the Maybelline girl in the ladies' magazines. All you saw were her big blue eyes and dark lashes, but you could still tell it was her. Her eyes identified her sure as a fingerprint. There was something in them-a hardened light that could sometimes look cold, sometimes mean, sometimes so lost it made your heart sink. Even when she was in a good mood, she held something back. It was as if she could not trust the moment, no matter how banked with good luck it was. No amount of surrounding makeup could warm or soften that stony light. Even when she was high and happy you could see that the dark thing that lived behind her eyes could never be really happy or high. It could worry you, if you thought about it too much.
We'd been living on the road for a week and I was tired of it. I wanted to go back to New York, to the Lower East Side, where my friends were. Uncle Jack was nice enough to me. He bought me toys and Big Little books. Once I broke the wind-wing of an Oldsmobile with a rock. I was throwing at a bird on a wire but the rock fell short. The Oldsmobile was parked at the same motor court we were in. Uncle Jack gave the man ten dollars for a new wind-wing. The man who owned the car was mad and wanted to call the police on me, but Uncle Jack calmed him down fast. "You don't want to do that, sport," he said. Uncle Jack had a big bald head and hairy hands with fingers that looked like they could crush rocks. His black eyes, set close on either side of his thick nose, looked like they could burn holes into wood. He carried a gun under his jacket, a .38 revolver with a stubbed barrel. The man who owned the Oldsmobile looked at Uncle Jack and saw something that made him stop yelling. Then, when Uncle Jack gave him the ten dollars, the man went to his room, apologizing for being such a sorehead.
"I get carried away sometimes," the man said, from the doorway of his room where he was safe.
"Relax, sport," Uncle Jack said. "I would've acted the same."
He carried the gun in an inside pocket of his coat. When he hung the coat up the weight of the gun pulled the coat down to one side and made it look baggy. Once, when he left the gun lying on a table, I picked it up and aimed it out the window. It was heavy, and I could barely hold it level with both hands. I aimed it at a man who was crossing the street with long, purposeful strides. He was coming toward our motor court and might have been from the FBI. He was wearing a hat and I aimed the gun at the brim. The man couldn't know a gun was pointed at him, that I held the power of life and death in my hands. I put my finger on the trigger and the thought of pulling it made my heart skip beats and my stomach quiver, the way you feel when you step onto the roller coaster at Coney Island.
Uncle Jack took the gun from me and said, "No, Little Biscuit, don't ever touch this gun. It is always loaded, okay? You never want to point a gun at someone unless you are ready to make his wife a widow, you understand what I'm saying? This is not a toy, Little Biscuit." Then he gave me a dime for a Big Little book. I bought a Tailspin Tommy at a drugstore, the one where Tommy finds the secret plans of the smugglers and then has to become a smuggler himself for a while to save his life.
When we got to Florida something happened. Uncle Jack made some phone calls from the Palm Garden Tourist Court in Hialeah while sitting on the bed in his shorts. My mother was taking her bubble bath. Uncle Jack wedged the phone in the thick folds of flesh between his jaw and neck. As he talked he opened his gun and took the bullets out. He squinted into the cylinder holes then put the bullets back in. I'd seen him do this before. It was a nervous habit. When he hung up he went into the bathroom and told her to get dressed. "The deal's off," he said. "I'm suddenly a goddamn leper." He looked sad and worried.
My mother got out of the bathtub and walked naked and dripping bubbles through the room looking for a cigarette and cursing. "Jesus damn it all to hell. This is just what we didn't need," she said, her eyes turning hard. They packed their suitcases while I went out to the parking lot to throw rocks at birds. I hit a car again, this time on purpose. The rock skipped off the hood and made a pit in the windshield, but no one came yelling out of his room. Then we got into the DeSoto and headed back up the highway we had come south on.
Uncle Jack drove fast. We had a slow trip coming down to Miami from Manhattan, but everything was different now. We turned west through Georgia, went into Tennessee, and then headed for Illinois. We drove day and night, no stops except for gas. Uncle Jack kept both hands on the steering wheel and he glanced up at the rearview mirror a lot. He yelled at my mother and she would yell back. Sometimes she would start crying without anyone having said a word, and he would pull the car off the road and put his arms around her. I heard him whisper into her ear, "We'll beat the bastards, Ruta."
We finally stopped near Green Bay. We found a nice motor court called Ole's Sleepytime Lodge. It was next to a small lake and had a bed, a cot, and a kitchenette. My mother went out to buy groceries, and then she fixed a big dinner of rigatoni, sausage, cheese, and bread. The Biscotti women had taught her how to cook Italian. She bought a gallon of red wine and a bottle of Hires root beer for me. She also bought me a toy. Things were suddenly relaxed again and I was glad of that. I waited for them to get high so that I could get high too, because I needed to feel happy again. They made themselves drinks before dinner, and when we ate we stuffed ourselves. They drank half the wine and then sat on the small sofa, Uncle Jack's arm around my mother, her hand on his thigh, kneading. They looked happy but half paralyzed with food and drink.
I played with the toy she gave me. It was a bomber, an old Boeing with open-air turrets. It was a windup that fit in your hand. You'd wind it up and it would scream like a siren and sparks would fly out from underneath it. I imagined diving on Germans, the machine guns in the turrets blazing, the bombs falling away. Uncle Jack stood up and belched, then put a nickel in the radio. He found Make Believe Ballroom on an NBC station, and they danced as if they were in New York at some fancy club. My mother was wearing her party dress. Uncle Jack, his big head glowing like a peeled onion, said, "Answer me this. How come an ugly mug like me winds up with the Maybelline girl?"
I was glad to see them so happy, and I sang along with the Make Believe Ballroom Orchestra, "Moonlight Becomes You." I sang this slow romantic ballad as I killed Germans, finding them in their pillboxes and blasting them out with firebombs. I swooped down on them, making the rat-a-tat sound of the turret guns and the thud and boom of the bombs. I got high on music and the sounds of war.
The radio had a shortwave band and I got a nickel out of her purse so I could listen to it for another hour after they went to bed. She didn't care because she wanted me to occupy myself. I listened to foreign-language broadcasts, pretending to understand them. Their bed was by the wall, across the room from me and the radio. My cot was under the window and next to the table that held the radio. They tried to be quiet, but I heard them anyway through the static and voices-the concertina wheezing of the springs and the quick sounds she could not hold in.
I got up early the next morning and went outside. I was surprised to find ankle-deep snow on the ground, since it was still summer. The car had a shelf of snow on it, dripping like soft cake frosting off the hood and trunk. The sky was blue, like Florida, but it was also dark. It was as if you could see black streaks of night behind the blue, like this northern blue was thin and couldn't last. Florida blue was thick. You could cut big mile-deep cubes out of it and there would still be blue sky to spare.
"Charlie, come on!" she said. I went back into our room. "We've got to go, but first you get in the shower with Uncle Jack. You stink like a stray dog."
"I don't want to," I said.
"Do what your mommy says!" Uncle Jack yelled, his voice rattling the windows.
I took off my clothes in the bathroom. Uncle Jack was already in the shower, singing, the steam coming out from behind the curtain. I got into the shower at the far end, away from the spray. Uncle Jack was lathering himself with soap, even his bald head. His eyes were shut tight and he was singing "We Did It Before and We Can Do It Again," a war song. We weren't in the war yet, but you could see it coming.
The water was hot. I stayed out of its reach. Then Uncle Jack rinsed off and said, "Okay, Little Biscuit, your turn." He saw that I was staring at him, and he laughed. "Don't worry, you'll have a cannon like that yourself someday. Then you'll be a mensch, a real troublemaker. Remember, the ladies will always go for a real mensch no matter what." I got under the spray and Uncle Jack gave me the soap. "Get your hair good and clean, Little Biscuit. I think you got lice."
We kept going north, up into Michigan. The farther north we went, the colder it got. It was only September but the air was crisp and the lakes were clear blue, not tan and weedy like the warm lakes down south.
A police car pulled us over outside of Iron Mountain and Uncle Jack took his gun out of his coat pocket and put it on the seat next to him, under a newspaper. The policeman looked at Uncle Jack's New York license. "Big city folks, hey?" he said.
Uncle Jack nodded. "We're on our way to my wife's folks, over by Marquette. Ain't we baby?" He patted her leg.
The policeman, squinting at the license, said, "Bernstein. Jack Bernstein. Not many Jewish boys here in the Upper Peninsula, hey?" He looked into the car, suspicious.
"My wife's a Finlander, officer," Uncle Jack said.
The policeman bent down and took another look at her. "Hyva aamüa!" he said.
"Hyva paiva," she said back. "Good to be home," she said in English.
"Küinka se mene?" he said.
"Fine," she said. "Hyva kütos."
The policeman smiled and touched the bill of his cap. "Have a good visit, folks," he said. He got back into his car and drove away.
"Shit!" Uncle Jack said. "Jesus!" He took the gun out from under the newspaper and put it back inside his coat.
"Satana!" my mother cursed. "Perkelle!"
The trip seemed endless. I got the idea into my head that they would now turn around and head south again, and that's how it would be forever, driving up and down the country, crisscrossing, doubling back, going in circles, coast to coast, border to border, a never-ending run. "Are we really going to Grandma's house?" I said.
"That's right, Little Biscuit," Uncle Jack said. "You are at least." I saw my mother give Uncle Jack a look. I'd seen that look before. It meant Shut up. When she wanted to keep something away from me and someone else accidentally blurted out the truth, she'd turn that look on them. She uncapped the bottle of gin and tilted it up to her lips, then she passed it to Uncle Jack. She wanted to get high, and I wanted her to, but I didn't think I'd be able to get high with them. I tried to sing, but my throat was suddenly full of road dust.
I had a sinking sensation, one I'd had before. I felt like I'd stumbled into a hole and was falling straight down into bottomless dark. The hole was always there, somewhere in front of you, like a trap. It made you suspicious of good moods. A good mood set you up for the sudden drop. You'd get high, you'd sing, then the earth opened up, blue sky turned black, and the hole sucked you down.
I was going to get dumped again. This time at Grandma Aiti's house. The first time my mother left my father, I was sent to St. Vincent's, the boarding school in Tarrytown. She said she wanted me out of the Lower East Side. "You talk like a wise guy," she said. "I want you to learn how to be polite and talk proper English. Maybe if you get into the church choir up there in Tarrytown you'll quit singing like a ruptured mule."
I feared and hated St. Vincent's and all the other boys there feared and hated it, too. We were all rejects, too much trouble for our families. Everyone there feared and hated everyone else. The nuns, who glided through the playgrounds and hallways like huge black-and-white confections, were nice to us, but nice people can't deal with groundless fear and universal hatred. They can't believe such uncivil energy exists in children. They believe it's a mood or an act, a temporary thing that you could easily drop if you wanted to. The nuns didn't understand that it was the only thing that kept us from disappearing completely.
I had always been afraid of disappearing completely, like someone lost at sea. I already suspected that I was becoming invisible. If I became totally invisible, then I'd be lost forever, erased. I remember being terrified at the movie The Invisible Man, starring Claude Rains. He was there, in substance, until he unwound the bandages that covered his face and neck. Then he was not there. His hat floated across a room, his pipe followed the trajectory between what were supposed to be his hand and mouth, but that was never convincing. He was gone, a patch of talking air, forgettable as a dream.
Hate was the bandaging that made you visible. I nursed my hatred, I protected it. I used it on the boys who were smaller than me. I made them see me and then I made them fear me. I pretended to be a wise guy. "Beat it, you pissant punk," I'd say, and they'd scamper away. "Gimme a nickel, you little bastard," I'd say, and they'd dig in their pockets.
I couldn't eat nun food. They fed us spinach and boiled eggs, chipped beef and steamed cauliflower, fried liver and pickled beets. I stuffed supper into my pants pockets and flushed it down the toilet when I got the chance. I lived on bread and milk. Once when my mother came to visit me with one of her magazine model girlfriends, I threw my hamburger on the floor of a Tarrytown restaurant. When they took me to a movie, I unbuttoned my pants and peed in the aisle. These were the most disagreeable things I could think of doing. But they were strong, durable women who had seen the bad behavior of grown-ups. My antics only amused them. They laughed at my pranks. My mother had a powerful laugh. It always brought tears to her eyes. She said, "It's not a life-and-death matter, Charles. Put your wee-wee away, honey. It doesn't frighten us."
She loved my tiny Italian grandmother, Genia Biscotti, who was from Naples, but she'd laugh sometimes at her old-country ways. We'd been living temporarily in a little house on Staten Island with two well-mannered, well-dressed men from Sicily. The men were in New York for a week, just to rub someone out. They'd been brought over by the mob. They were professionals and were relaxed and businesslike. My grandmother screamed at them in Italian while they were cleaning their guns, a nightly ritual. "Assassins! Murderers!" But the men went about their business calmly, maintaining their dignity and courtly ways. These men did all the cooking, played checkers with me, and read the newspapers out loud to practice their English. But Grandma Biscotti didn't trust Sicilians and looked down on them as social inferiors. My father, who was their host, treated them with respect. My mother told me, years later, "The old lady hated them because they weren't Napoletani. If they had been from Naples, it would have been a different story. She would have baked them a cake. Hit men from Naples, as everyone knows, are fine upstanding gentlemen." She laughed her big laugh every time she told this story.
On the playground in Tarrytown I caught butterflies and pulled off their wings, denying them the freedom of flight, turning them back into worms. I bullied the smaller boys and was, in turn, bullied by the bigger boys. The nickels I extorted from the smaller boys were extorted from me by the bigger boys. We lived in a hierarchy of fear. You could smell the anxiety. It was a chemical reek, strong as urine. The nuns had us listen to radio speeches by President Roosevelt. The nuns, in their innocence, acted as if we were able to care about what the President said, or could be uplifted by his stirring rhetoric. We didn't know what he was talking about and couldn't have cared less. We were castoffs, we were the unwanted, and everyone, including the President, could go to hell.
We routinely fantasized escapes: cutting through the chain-link fence that surrounded the school grounds, or digging a tunnel underneath it, then going on the lam. When we played war, I was a counterspy, blowing up ships, planes, and tanks. When we took prisoners, we tortured them with pinches and Indian burns whether they told us their secrets or not. The object of war was to inflict pain, not to establish freedom, democracy, and the American way.
Grandma Aiti's house was on U.S. 41, between Negaunee and Marquette. A forest of maples, oaks, and poplars edged up to the back of the house. My grandpa's 1939 Hudson Terraplane sat out in front of the house like a dream of the future-a future where contoured aerodynamic steel, chrome plating, and brute horsepower would make human flaw irrelevant.
My real uncles, my mother's brothers, worked in the iron ore mines under Negaunee. They invited Uncle Jack to take a sauna bath with them. The sauna was behind the house and was itself a small house with two rooms and a chimney. One room was where the rock-covered barrel stove was, the other was where you got undressed, and, after your sauna bath, cooled off.
My real uncle, Moose, threw pails of cold water on the rocks and the steam exploded upward. The steam drove Uncle Jack down to the lowest bench with me. It was kind of a test-to see if we could take it. My real uncles laughed, and Uncle Jack, who was a good sport, laughed too. "You Finlander boys can take the heat!" he said. Then we went into the anteroom and switched ourselves with cedar boughs. Uncle Jack and my real uncles went into the house and drank whiskey and played cribbage. I had cake and milk with my mother and Grandma Aiti in the kitchen. Cake and milk and the sober talk between my mother and her mother didn't get me high. I wanted to be with the men, out on the screened porch. I could smell their cigarette smoke and whiskey. My real uncle, Cuss, had taken out his guitar and was singing "Red River Valley." He had a sweet tenor voice, and the other uncles, even Uncle Jack, joined in the singing. Getting high and singing, that seemed like the best way to spend your life.
"Drunk," Grandma Aiti said.
"Drunk," my mother agreed, a statement, not a judgment.
I liked Michigan, but I was afraid of it, too. I knew I was going to be left here with my grandma and grandpa. My grandpa, who also worked in the iron ore mines of Negaunee, showed me how to tap sugar maples for their sweet sap and how to set snares for rabbits. One day he took me for a walk with Miko, one of his dogs, an ancient milky-eyed spaniel. Grandpa carried a .22 rifle and a shovel. We walked behind the house and down a path that went through the woods. I asked him where we were going, and he said, "It's time to let Miko go." This gradually sunk in as we walked. He was going to shoot the old dog.
Miko seemed to understand that this was his last walk in the woods. He whined and lagged behind, but followed obediently. When we came to the place where it was to be done, Miko got very agitated. His whines grew higher in pitch. They sounded like human pleas. I wanted to tell him to run, to head into the woods and never come back, but I also knew that Miko, who was half blind and stiff with age, could not survive on his own, a vagabond dog on the run.
Grandpa laid the shovel aside. He pulled a poplar sapling down and pressed it across Miko's back to hold the old dog still. "You stand on one end of it," he told me. Miko started moaning. Grandpa put the muzzle of his small rifle against the back of Miko's head and pulled the trigger. The abrupt thud and Miko's sudden lurch made me slip off the sapling which sprung back up.
Grandpa dug a hole between two trees and dropped Miko into it. He filled it in and we covered the grave with stones to keep animals from digging Miko up. I cried all the way back to the house, but Grandpa didn't seem to notice. When we got back Grandpa took a bottle of whiskey out of a kitchen cabinet and poured himself half a glass and drank it down. I watched him closely as he wiped off his mouth. He didn't get high at all.
I met some of the neighbor boys-big Finn boys in bib overalls and with bare feet. They laughed at my New York accent. I told them they sounded stupid. I wore my New York clothes to intimidate them-porkpie hat, a pinstriped wise-guy suit Big Biscuit had given me before I left on this trip. I even had a clip-on tie. The big Finn boys laughed at me. I picked one out I thought I could beat and tried to extort a nickel from him. He couldn't believe his ears. "You go to hell, you damn dago," he said.
We fought. The buttons came off my coat and my porkpie hat went flying. His name was Aino Keckonen and we rolled around together on the ground, Aino winding up on top. He was too strong for me. I couldn't budge him. "Give?" he said. "Give," I said.
Eventually we all became friends. They got a kick out of my name, Charlie Biscotti. They chanted it, but not to make fun of me. It was as if the syllables of my name were a mysterious incantation. They had names like Kalevi Altonen and Artturi Koskenniemi, which were ordinary everyday names to them.
Indian summer came, and the weather got sultry. One day I was out in my grandma's garden picking corn when I saw a black Ford pull up to the front of the house. Men in coats and hats came to the front door. I heard some yelling, then my mother came out carrying a suitcase. She got into the black car and the men drove her away. I figured they were after Uncle Jack, but he had left for Canada several days before. I ran after the car as it pulled away on U.S. 41, heading toward Marquette. She waved at me through the rear window. Though she was fifty yards away, I saw her eyes, the dark reservoir of sadness in them. I kept running until the car was out of sight. I stood on the empty highway, looking at the dense forest on either side, the dark blue alien sky, and the white frame house that was going to be my new home.
"Satana," I said. "Perkelle."
I spent another year on the lam. I found the Maybelline girl in magazines my grandma had, and I talked to those untrusting blue eyes. "When are you coming?" I'd say, and the sad beautiful eyes said, "Soon, Little Biscuit, soon."
I learned more Finn words to add to my Italian. My uncle Cuss, who called me buska hosa, taught me how to play a few chords on the guitar and sing "Red River Valley." I learned to roll cigarettes with the neighbor boys and how to smoke them. When we couldn't get tobacco we smoked corn silk. We smoked in the woods where I embroidered stories about New York gangsters, and how my mother was going to prison for being a gun moll, and how when she got out we were going to California where there was a million dollars hidden in a cave. When we got that money we were going to buy a big house by the ocean and hire servants to take care of us. I showed them pictures of the Maybelline girl, to convince them that my mother could become a movie star if she wanted to.
When the year was over, she came for me. She looked tired, as if she had walked all the way across the country. Her face was drawn and her teeth had gone bad. Her clothes were dirty and didn't fit her. Her eyes weren't Maybelline-girl eyes anymore. She'd been held in the Bronx County Jail as a material witness for eleven months. When they finally caught Uncle Jack, they let her go. "I didn't recognize him," she said. "A Canadian plastic surgeon changed his face."
After another month in Michigan, she got restless. She had a need to see new places and do new things. California had been on her mind, too. Bronx County paid her three dollars a day for all the time she was in their jail, and so we had enough money to last for a while. I asked her what we'd do when we got to California. "We'll see when we get there," she said.
We took a bus to Chicago, where we would board a train to Los Angeles. It was an old, noisy bus with bad springs. When it turned corners it felt as if it would roll over, and when it made stops, its brakes would squeal for a full minute, making you grit your teeth. I remembered Uncle Jack's slick black DeSoto, speeding through Florida. I remembered them getting high, and I remembered getting high with them and singing. In spite of my restlessness and boredom, that had been a real adventure. I wanted this to be one, too.
I asked her what happened to Uncle Jack. "Sing Sing," she said. I didn't understand. "It's a prison, Charlie. He'll be there for twenty years. I don't think we'll see him again."
She didn't want to talk. She leaned her head against the window and fell asleep. It was dark out and most of the passengers were slumped down in their seats. A loneliness big as night swept over me. I thought about Uncle Jack, how lonely he must be in Sing Sing. And then I thought of the prison itself-a prison whose name commanded you to sing. I pictured the prisoners, in their cells, singing sad songs while the turnkeys egged them on, their lonely voices rising up out of the cells, over the walls and guard towers, and into the countryside, making people stop in their tracks and think that what they were about to do wasn't so important after all. I started humming, thinking about the singing prisoners.
The man seated directly in front of me had set a shopping bag in the aisle. Every now and then he'd reach into it and lift out a slim dark bottle with a long neck. When he finally fell asleep, and when I was sure everyone else around us was asleep, I reached into his bag and pulled out the bottle. I uncapped it and brought it to my lips. It was sweet wine. It tasted like warm cherry juice. I took a full swallow, then another.
My humming, after a while, got louder. Then I put words to the tune. It was a song about the past and the future. I made it up as I went along. It was a song about staying one step ahead of the thing you needed to get away from, the thing that would always be there.