By Traci Foust
The American son has no idea he will grow up to hate books, and be a maker of them. Right now he is thirteen. He needs to write a poem. He loves a girl named Sylvia.
Work and work and please no talking and work and shush Papa’s resting his eyes. This is what his house of grown-ups is made from.
This has nothing to do with the poem the son needs to write.
The German parts of him have not yet developed fully. There is no functional purpose of quiet endurance. A boy in love does not know how to turn off his noises. He does not care if Papa needs to rest his eyes.
For now, the American son is his Sicilian mother. He is hot white skies and olive trees. He is a goat on a steep mountain side. He is tender and strong-willed and romantic and cunning and pretty. Girly pretty. His eyes are the color of Terra Cotta churches and bullets.
He knows he is skinny and small for his age, so he laughs the loudest, jokes the funniest. He has never called a woman a broad. He picks fights because he is wiry and quick and can run like hell from anyone who is not his German father.
When the son grows up and has a family of his own, when the work and the work and the work comes, and the children who make sure Papa never gets to rest his eyes, it is then he will learn the strength of his muscles. He will make sure everyone around him learns it too.
The girls at school like his thick wavy hair. Some of them are jealous of his eyelashes. They like his full lips and that he smiles when all the other boys are trying to be greaser tough. They like that on Valentine’s Day he makes his own cards out of construction paper and sketches the faces of the girls he gives them to. The girls he draws have flowers in their hair. He writes: Love Theodore. All the other boys write: From …
This is a special Valentine’s Day. Special because Sylvia Banchero is the only one. She has long black hair and over the summer she shaved her legs and her boobs rose up firm and round like the Jell-O molds his mother makes on Sundays. She spent her vacation in New York. When she came back to California her lips were red. They make words the American son does not understand.
He is a hyper child. His mind is getting to that age where he can no longer say what he feels. So he says everything. He talks and talks. When he plays baseball in the field behind the Texaco he runs the bases just to run and gets sent home with the words “drip” and “showoff” flying over his middle finger.
People have always told him to sit still. People have always told him to shut up.
Lately he has been thinking.
In his Sicilian and German house of plastic furniture covering, of garlic and pipe tobacco walls, there is only a small shelf for books. Encyclopedias. He is not allowed to “fool around with them” because his sisters need those books for their school work. The sisters are smart and effortless. They have library cards and read movie magazines and when the son was caught with his father’s National Geographic under his mattress they made him hide in their bedroom closet until the German father stopped banging on the door and promised to cool his jets already.
The son doesn’t care about the encyclopedias anymore. He needs a special book for his poem to Sylvia. He wants to say long black hair in a different way. A way that will make everything about him different. Like that English fancy pants who wore knee socks and wrote the plays his sisters recite when aunts and uncles stop by for cannoli and cappuccino. He knows the book he needs is better than a dictionary, but he has forgotten what it is called.
He will not ask his sisters: They are studying in their room and listening to Frank Sinatra. They will know he is in love. He will be tickled until he wets his pants.
He will not ask his mother: She is standing in front of their open icebox writing down all the things that disappear faster than the money can keep them.
What then? He has been banned from taking school library books home because he never returns them. Twice he was almost caught reading Jack London on the front porch. In the middle of the day. He was finishing one of those paragraphs that can float a young boy all the way up to a world beyond his stupid boy thoughts. It was then he saw his father’s television repair van rounding the corner. Both times he threw his book into the bushes before the German father could catch him, before he could tell the son to pull his head out of his ass, remind him that reading was for people on vacation.
When everyone in the little white house on Army Street was asleep the son snuck outside in the rain and pushed those books way down deep into the neighbor’s trash can.
Dumb waste of time. Same as the encyclopedias.
Yesterday he found out he can get that book with all those New York words at Woolworth’s. He saw it there when he and Travis Malone went to buy shoe polish and a Charleston Chew to split between them. Travis Malone was nose deep in Hot Rod while the American son flipped the pages of the book, inhaling all those guarantees.
There was exquisite and comely and ardor and fervency.
He knows now the book is called a thesaurus.
He has already decided implore.
On the walk home the son practiced the pronunciation of the book. He will tell his father he needs it for school and not because it’s the book that will make Sylvia Banchero love him in a grown-up way: tha-saw-us. the-sore-us. Travis Malone kept saying, “What? Huh? Is that a dinosaur?” The American son laughed and hooted and hollered even though the sticker on the book, the one that said $3.25, made his throat tight and his hands sweaty.
He is trying to feel thirteen. He knows getting Sylvia Banchero to see things other than his girl eyelashes will take a different kind of trying. He does not want to be like his stupid friends forever. Like Jimmy Camacho who says, “Oh yeah, baby. I got what you need right here baby,” to pretty much anyone in a skirt who passes him in the hall. He does not want to be Fat Manny who’s too old to wear a Davy Crocket hat but does anyway and says “Huh? Huh? What’sit now?” a million times a day and probably needs a hearing aid. He does not want to be his German father who can fix wires and antennas and glass tubes and calls him a sissy when he covers his face because all the things the father knows have blue fire and a hiss to them and makes the son think of dragons and makes him get the hell out of the garage if he’s just going to stand there like a fraidy cat, goddamn it.
Three dollars and twenty-five cents will buy those words. Sylvia Banchero will have no choice but to understand the son is on his way to being everything in that book.
The German father has been quiet on the matter for two days now, but tonight he will speak. He has prepared a list for his son. The list will show the son all the things he can buy for the entire family for the price of some silly book of words he doesn’t even understand. The list will show the son all the extra jobs he can do, and in two short weeks, the son can save enough for that silly book of words he doesn’t even understand.
Valentine’s Day is next Friday. Sylvia Banchero is not the kind of girl who will wait to be loved.
For the American son the answer is not no. He is good at calling up the spirits that hover over his mother’s head when she is angry or praying, or wearing her bright red dress to church even though the German father tells her not to. These are the taking parts that will remain in the son for the rest of his life. Men with dark, dirty faces whisper to him in machine gun accents. They tell him rules are helpful, sure Buddy, but are meant for other people.
When he gets caught, the voices have nothing to say.
The book belonged to him for as long as it took to almost walk out of the store. His timing was off, his fast wasn’t fast enough. Not for the giant mirrors that hang in high corners. Not for the stock boy with the acne on his neck who knows an opportunity for advancement when he sees one.
The American son is sitting in the manager’s office waiting for his father. He is lying and lying and lying.
He wipes his eyes and nose with his sleeve. A woman with fat arms and a cameo necklace gives him a gold paisley handkerchief.
The German father is not an apology father. But here he says how sorry he is that his son has disrespected their entire family. “Faithful customers for eighteen years.” The German father gives the manager a fix-it coupon and tells him to come into his shop. “Bring a friend if you’d like.” The German father can fix anything.
There is no way for the son to pretend he doesn’t exist when Sylvia Banchero walks into the store with her mother. Because he is a sharp kid he thinks, bee sting. He’ll tell her at school tomorrow he got stung on the cheek and that’s why he was red and puffy. He will tell her his tears weren’t the crying kind. For the rip on his collar he will need another story.
The book with the ugly, disgusting, stupid waste of time, not needed anymore words stays on the manager’s desk.
This is how you build a boy who learns how to lie. This is how you make a man who knows the importance of pretending he does not care. His children will grow up to be liars too. Good ones. Liars and coveters and takers. His sons will steel their muscles over bed posts and learn to throw their spirit at the crack of a belt. His daughters will spend their lives rearranging themselves into the words the father will never understand.
One day the American son will take his youngest daughter to the printing press where he works. He will show her how he makes books. He will open the door to where his complicated six color press waits for him every morning. “I’m the only one that can use this baby,” he will say. “The only one that knows how.” He will knock his knuckles against metal knobs and slicer blades the size of a man’s arm. The sound will make the daughter remember the things she is trying to forget. “Look at all these,” he will say as he runs his papercut finger over the spines of what he has made. When the daughter reaches up to grab a book he will slap her hand away. Hard. She will suck at the red mark on her wrist when the father tells his daughter those books are not for her.
This is how you make girls who hit back.
Traci Foust (“,” page 5), is a writer whose first memoir, “Nowhere Near Normal,” was published by Simon and Schuster in 2011 and was featured in Marie Claire magazine, NPR and MSNBC Today. She is a memoir instructor for the workshop series Hardcore Memoir. Her second memoir, “Love and Xanax,” will be released by Summertime Publications (Summer 2016). A form of the essay printed here will appear in her forthcoming third memoir, “American Bitch.”