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L’altro figlio
After Dad began to lose his eyesight, he took an interest in acting, amateur theatrical productions of Pirandello, the author he resorted to in the late innings of yet another tedious defeat. We lent him our support, though he had no aptitude. His voice lacked flexibility. Gestures he made gracefully in normal conversation stiffened into awkward waxwork, stopping the action cold. His memory for lines was mediocre. Moreover, he was a very large man who’d lost all interest in caloric moderation. While he’d still been working as a radiologist, the four of us had helped him keep his weight down. Dad! we’d say, once more the time has come to starve yourself. Self-discipline with the support of a tightly knit family group did the trick. We packed him off to the starvation center. Look at you, Dad! Is that éclat or what? Worth every penny! Then came the sight deterioration, rapid and untreatable. It hit him hard. Still, he was nothing if not resilient. Dad, we’d text him, if your heart is telling you to act, go act! Follow your heart! We’re here for you! In a succession of rapid-fire texts we encouraged Dad sincerely, with gentle jesting. Just enough of the usual friendly one-upmanship to convince Dad that we were serious. We jested about second acts. That he took a break from dieting we agreed to overlook, a humane allowance. By all accounts he was spending too much time sulking in his condo. When we could, we dragged him out. Slow-cooked lamb, artichoke, and monk’s beard. Dad! we said, rising in unison. A toast to your future as a character in search of an author! Along came the dessert, a tower of passion fruit and chocolate. Dad rose, leaning on his cane, and lauded us for remembering his many food allergies. Naturally, it was from him that we had learned to jest. If only time had stood still. If only. If only some close acquaintance of Luigi Pirandello had watched the world around him grow dim over the span of just a few weeks, or had been born sightless, and in addition was a very large man, with a body predisposed genetically always to struggle toward an unhealthy set point. If only the author had shared a table on a regular basis with such an acquaintance who also happened to be a cherished character actor with a specialty in tragic farce. If only the character actor had said to Luigi Pirandello, over a starter course of foie gras, gooseberry, tamarillo, and coffee jelly: Set me up for life. Write me a version of myself that I can play over and over and over. If only, if only … but the reality was that poor Dad was a square peg. Dad sulked on the balcony while we brainstormed in the kitchen which saw way too little use: so much of our lives now consisted of reading take-out menus to Dad over the phone. Herring, oak leaf, caper, nut butter … butter of all kinds took up way too much space in the cuisine that arrived at Dad’s door as if a race was on to plug up every single artery in Dad. Dad out there, brooding, what a shame because the view. We were thankful for the childhood that Dad never spoke about but which had hammered into him his intense obsessions. Were he not fixated on the Nobel-winning dramatist, how much darker would have been the darkness. As for the revisionism schemes, we humored Dad. Dad! A seventh character? Because: at the very least, the fixation distracted him from his failings as a thespian. Of course, we were complicit in this distraction. Why don’t we say nine o’clock, Dad, we texted, after booking a private room in what had been Dad’s most admired eatery. Luring Dad out into a lively elevator was the idea. Dad sized up his long, slicked-back wavy gray hair—it fell nearly to his shoulders—in the mirror as the elevator ascended toward the penthouse floor that Dad shared with a cardiologist and her basketball court. The doors opened and the wisecracking began as Dad’s peers entered and joined in the commiseration. Only so many peers could enter was one theme of the jovial improv party in the descending car. Structural engineering another. The nearness of the cemetery brings out liveliness in these insomniacs, Dad texted us covertly as an elderly widower quipped luridly about hearses and flat tires. Hrreaff add gkst toew read the last words of the text. Not only did Dad lack vocal flexibility, he’d never been especially dexterous. Thus the journey into radiology. Also, the new huge thumbs got in his way. There is a notable paucity of big-boned characters in the Pirandello oeuvre. In retrospect, we might have encouraged Dad to write himself in as a visually impaired elevator operator, or a jokester butcher. Monologue of the butcher spoken while his hand rests on the scales. Operator stabbing at the glossy black buttons. If only (if only) there had been more such evenings. Evenings that began with elevator repartee and went on to feature Dad sweeping aside a charcuterie board—local sausage, cheese, mixed pickles, chives, horseradish, sourdough—to declaim his updating of the famous lines in which the unnamed businessperson who just missed his train to Naples places his dinner order across the table from the unnamed man who is dying of a malignant epithelioma. Though we mocked Dad mercilessly, our mocking was such as to lead him on convincingly. Dad! There is hope for you if, say, you are struck by lightning. So often did he sulk out on the balcony that he did seem to be inviting a strike. Or a stumble. To our dismay, it became more and more of a challenge to talk him off the balcony, out of the comfy breakfast nook, to extract him from his massage pod. Horse barn. In the enclosed capsule the rollers kneaded his flesh while he grimaced without being mocked, the pounds he kept putting on exacerbating every preexisting ache and pain, each and every weak link. We urged him to draw upon the genuine physical torment. Channel the torment, Dad! we texted him, as we observed him through the tinted acrylic. A healthy mid-morning snack of confit char, rhubarb, and brown butter on a sliding acrylic tray was there one moment and gone the next. Butter, the undoing of the glutton who in the original version is stabbed defending the honor of the cabaret singer he loves. Oh, butter. Hey listen, Dad, butter, sulfur, we texted. Hey Dad. Why not a monologue deep down in the sulfur mine, on the very afternoon of the evening when the sulfur mine engineer is stabbed? The engineer, apostrophizing butter? Dad! Silence the capsule and, you know, delve into sense memory. Sulfur, lightning. All too often in the middle of giving our opinion on a revisionist text we’d be interrupted by the door chime. By now we were tasked with running the errand to the door, it being an ordeal, though not without a certain slapstick charm, for Dad to squirm out of the pod. Shipping container. Really, the best we could hope for was to lug him to the family heirloom coffee table and help him dig in. Loup de mer, saffron, parsley root. Both knees were shot. He groaned woefully—true woe. Would that his stage groans evoked such pathos (they evoked our mocking imitations). His own physician groaned at the sight of the once distinguished radiologist’s transformation into a plus-size shut-in. Osso buco, cime di rapa, bell pepper. Taking us aside, the physician urged us to get Dad out of the house. Walk him around the block. Set a quota of laps if only on the balcony. Covertly we texted Dad, while his physician went on and on about pushing Dad to do more. Wasn’t there a Doctor Hinkfuss who could be rewritten to more gently confront the actors under his direction, in a scene featuring the dessert restaurant where the doctor is a fixture? Dad! Seriously! Eggplant pecan apple balsamic? Raclette yoghurt corn? Amelonado cacao rice bonito? What if, in the indispensable fourth-wall finale where the doctor apologizes to the audience, the doctor is back at his usual table? Dad! Buckwheat honey! Licorice salt! Rhubarb tarragon tofu gelato! (Pre-radiology, Dad had manned a stall in a U-pick rhubarb orchard.) Chavez Ravine, said the doctor not named Hinkfuss, concluding on a somewhat obvious note. But of course, Chavez Ravine! We were off and running. So much better than a walk around the block. Roasted corn on the cob, chipotle mayonnaise, cojita cheese, and tajin seasoning. Barbacoa French fries, candied bacon, maple syrup. Wasn’t there even, at the dessert concession stand, a pâte à choux churro topped with rhubarb ice cream, spruce tip glaze, cashew sprinkles? Sadly, a short discussion brought us back to earth. Even the usual jaunt to the coffee table had become a matter of painfully persuading Dad who, more and more, cocooned inside the pod. He’d given up his monthly rooftop Ionesco reading group. Realistically, Chavez Ravine was as far away as Agrigento. Yet on the other hand it was as near as the flat screen inside the pod … the screen which, however, remained dark nearly all the time now. Dark and tinted by the blue acrylic when we peered in, hoping Dad might be wincing at another summons to the bullpen and the inevitable collapse that would ensue. Dad glued to the wrong screen was a fair assessment of the current situation. Between naps our deluded patriarch dictated revisions to his latest vanity project. Dictated and rehearsed, the rehearsal thankfully muffled. All his prayers seemed pinned to an attempt to customize to his outsized chassis the masterpiece that premiered in Milan in 1922. The action takes place in the days before Lent. And why does the aristocrat fall off his horse, Dad asked us, fumbling for the lid to the blender. White asparagus, almond butter, shallots, heavy cream. In the original the accident is unexplained, he continued, feeling for the puree button. We agreed that maybe Dad was onto something. Henry VIII had in fact fallen off his horse, while Enrico IV had not. Altogether, the revision hung together in a way that exactly suited Dad and perhaps even improved upon the original. Go for it, Enrico! we texted while huddling out on the balcony, plotting. If only the role hadn’t required the actor to act. If only the chime didn’t sound every quarter hour, ushering in another butter-heavy feast. Venison, celery, apricot, macadamia nut butter. Would the four of you please see to that? Dad texted us. It occurred to us that a realistic goal would be to say no. Sorry, Dad, but from now on you’ll need to answer the chime yourself. Over the course of one day, the distance Dad would cover would be the equivalent of a walk in from the bullpen, at the very least. Chavez Ravine. The next chime wasn’t actually a chime. It was a clang of collective inspiration. Chavez Ravine! Realistically, Dad would fade far before he made it in all the way from the bullpen. What he needed was a horse. A fall-proof horse. Clang! As energetic as was Dad at the height of his prowess as a keen diagnostician, multiply that by four: that was us, springing into action. We visited the structural engineer who lived downstairs. Yes, she assured us, if the penthouse hadn’t sagged by now it would never sag. Soon we were speaking with the groundskeeper himself—Chavez Ravine—in a conference call with a friendly rep from John Deere. (In hindsight, that delivery of venison must have been the trigger for our inspiration.) Did they get where we were coming from? we asked. Appreciate the scope of our vision? Could they translate it into reality? Meanwhile Dad inside his pod, napping, chowed down in a recurring dream in a remote Umbrian villa decorated to resemble Henry VIII’s imperial palace in Westminster. The Banqueting House. White truffle and pine foam. Shoulder of yearling piglet with nettle, blackcurrant, jalapeño mayonnaise. Crème fraiche mousse, almond financier, verbena, raspberry gel, rhubarb sorbet. Dad gesticulating with the fruit knife that later will become a lethal weapon. Dad! we texted gently, it’s time to wake up, your ride is here. Dad! Dad! At last the hatch opened. We stood back and let him extricate himself without lending him a hand. A good start. After he’d had time to catch his breath, we set the scene. Dad! A sunny morning, dew on the outfield turf, infield scruffy from the night before. An untidy infield, Dad. Picture an infield in need of a good thorough grooming. Imagine an infield that looks like it’s been used for a polo match. Divots, clumps, craters, ruts, pockmarks, ridges. Imagine such an infield up close. Solemnly, then, we jangled the keys. Dad raised his eyebrows. It was time to teach him how to climb into the custom-sized operator station. One foot at a time, Dad. One foot goes on this control here. The other on the other. Place your hands on the wheel and it’s a go for efficient and productive operation! But first we paused to make a shallow nick in the hood and describe the color of the blood. Look, Dad, #005A9C! Same hex code ran in his veins. And at that moment, in ours as well. We were proud and happy. Everything about the diamond tractor was true to life. The key turned, the engine growled. The door chimed. The adult who’d taught us how to drive began his new exercise regimen. Feel that torque, Dad! Sweat beaded on his brow as the tractor inched toward the chime, guided by the driver under the supervision of his former students. We’d cleared out the coffee table, leather sectionals, massive bookcase and its exhibit of family MRIs. The chime echoed and the echo lingered in the risk-reduced space. From the pod to the chime was a straight shot; at the end of the shot, a brutally unhealthy treat. But the treat motivated. Bavette with smoked-anchovy butter, garden leek, nettles, chanterelles. Only a dozen rehearsals later, we were satisfied. We took our leave in matching fitted flex caps. Good for us: we’d succeeded in building into Dad’s routine at least a few minutes each day of serious physical exertion: extricating, clambering, steering, dismounting. Moving forward, we hired an acting coach. The cardiologist next door agreed to check in every other day. Dad studied his self-written lines so intensively that one night he nearly forgot to place an order for a midnight pick-me-up. Landolph, Harold, Ordulph, Berthold. These names we took on as our own in jesting optimistic texts as Dad updated us on his efforts to interest a director. Alas, too little too late. The phrase “Enrico, tragic emperor” appears in a poem written by the playwright in his teens, in the 1890s. In his prime Dad had sat knee to knee with directors of the highest order and exuded empathy and an appreciation of the vagaries of life as he reviewed treatment options for an inoperable glioma. Dad, the reviewer’s reviewer. Now a strain of pity for himself crept into his texts. The acting coach knew a director who knew a director who did dinner theater. The cardiologist invited Dad to referee a pickup game next door, among renowned surgeons. One text in its entirety read “Prithee.” Where are you, Dad? we answered. We can’t help you if we don’t know where you are. He himself had christened the penthouse from which now, through the whole sunny month of November, he declined to be extricated. A long rambling text ended with the phrase “fact the facts.” But Dad, of course! Do we love you or don’t we love you? And now I will ask you a question, Dad texted back, in quotes. Silence followed. Lengthy silence, an unprecedented silence, never once the chime sounding. Dad? we texted. Oh Dad? You’re leaving us no choice? If you don’t answer we’ll have to do that, you know, call for service business. I’ve made up my mind, Dad texted. Look inside yourself, find the place that still wants more, draw on it, enjoined the acting coach. I am empty of such places, unquote. I only want to be remembered for my excellence, unquote. Dad, where are you? we asked again, abandoning the script. I am sitting on the tractor, Dad texted. I’ve sealed the windows and doors. I can’t bring myself to turn the key. Dad! we texted. We love you and we understand. If this is what you want, we won’t stop you. You have our blessing, Dad. But I can’t bring myself to turn the key. I can’t work up the courage. Go to the liquor cabinet, Dad, we texted. But I can’t bring myself to turn the key! Climb down, Dad. Dismount. Ambulate. An hour went by. I made a detour through the kitchen, Dad texted. Aquavit, dill bloom, cucumber, bergamot. Dad! You’re on your way. Take a good long swig. But on second thought I don’t believe it suits my mood, I’d like to try once more, Dad texted. Your call, Dad, we texted. Another bout of clattering and clinking, then: Here it is. Rum, coconut oil, cilantro, lime water. That should do the trick, Dad! Let’s not overthink. I’m not sure about the cicinit oil, Dad texted. Also, the bergamot appealed to me. By all means, Dad. Bergamot. Coconut, Dad texted. Is there some Don Julio left over from summer, I wonder, Dad texted. How long ago summer had been. The bittersweet summer walks around the block, box scores, elevator banter. Got it this time, Dad texted. Don Julio, bergamot, shiso, jasmine bloom. Dad! You’re allergic to jasmine bloom. You’ll swell up and asphyxiate painfully. Okay, Dad texted, no painful asphyxiation. I need another moment. Don’t overthink, we reminded him. Okay, Dad texted, I give you gin, beet root, mint, pineapple. Juniper, fruity, sour, earthy. Dad! we texted. Dad! We have no problem with that. Do you have a problem with it? None at all, judging by the first sip, Dad texted. Sip some more, Dad, we texted. Take your time. Sip. Don’t forget the cup holder. Up you go.

Fortunato Salazar lives in West Hollywood; his fiction and translation can be found at PEN America, Tin House, Mississippi Review, Asymptote, The Brooklyn Rail, and elsewhere.