TandemBy Jason Sebastian Russo
January 31, 2022
Honk if God exists but we don’t.
He eyed the wooden blocks, once painted red, now wood-colored again, returned to their natural state by several childhoods’ worth of wear.
They are going for a ride.
His father tapes the blocks to the back pedals of the impossibly long bike, first masking tape, then black electrical. So he can reach them with his little legs.
As his dad talks, apprehension turns into horror. The mask of disappointment lifts to reveal a crucible of shame hitherto unimaginable. The back handlebars don’t turn. They are merely for holding on.
He’d been told he was getting a bike.
He couldn’t have imagined it would have two seats.
Riding to school in the very early mornings that year is hard for a variety of reasons. His feet keep slipping from the blocks while his dad keeps up a steady patter of theology and fear of oncoming traffic. They pass row-houses and raised ranches. The most embarrassing part is unpredictable, timing-wise.
Guilt is for what you’ve done, shame is for what you are.
The ride to school is a steep five miles. They pass Muddy Lake on the right and slowly wind their way up the biggest hill. When they reach the top, his father lets out a bellow that reverberates down the valley.
His mom is right, his dad has no shame.
Maria Rizzolo worshiped God with abandon, channeling pure love with every word and action. But she was wrong about her husband, Donato. His entire family line carried an enormous amount of shame. Each expression of which was unique but familiar.
Jack’s parents were religious in the truest sense, eschewing worldly things. His father’s pursuit of God was methodical, cerebral, and relentless.
Donato was also prone to obsession, capable of thinking about the same things for decades. Car insurance, death, motor oil, and the force that brings life to the universe.
The fact that his father’s name meant “gift from God” was not lost on Jack. It provided context. Or, more accurately, it contextualized his lack of it.
Jack was contextually impaired.
He had zero frame of reference. He lived inside a story that existed alongside an actual, understandable world. Each clue he encountered from this world—a shred of a dirty magazine found on the side of the road, the wrapper of some incredible sugary snack—indicated there was a larger situation just outside his grasp. Where things he wanted were available. He was incapable of forming a picture of it. There wasn’t enough data.
But he felt it.
The theoretical ground under the Rizzolos shifted constantly. A new religious or self-help book would appear and everything would change.
Jack fought for purchase, but dream-like, everything solid became detached. The family story was shuffled like a deck of cards. Giant abstractions governed their day to day lives. He drifted from one awkward moment to the next with no predictable trajectory.
Donato spent his nights in a small camper in the backyard, pouring over Thomas Merton and the Desert Fathers. The beige corrugated metal and twin double pane windows made it look like he was sitting in a large, elongated head, surrounded by scrub grass.
Whenever teenage Jack snuck past him, after shimmying through their octagonal bathroom window, he could see his father at the camper’s little table, bent over a book.
Once he’d been invited in to listen to a series of cassettes by an old and breathy-sounding Cistercian, intoning on and on about Anima and the Holy Trinity.
Donato named the trailer “Mary’s House of Bread,” the meaning of which was never successfully articulated.
The origins of Mary’s House of Bread were murky and had to do with his father’s mental health, or so Maria explained. They lived on top of each other in their small house, and Donato needed alone time with God.
This need also drove Donato to expand their tiny home himself, building one room per child. Sawing two-by-fours on makeshift sawhorses over the weekends. He collected lumber from construction sites and derelict houses en route to work. The smell of sawdust always signaled Jack was about to get a new sister or brother—each one named with a ‘J’ to honor Jesus.
Jack was the eldest. The first in line.
Eventually six of them lived under one geometrically complex roof. The original structure was a tiny three-season cabin, built halfway through the 20th century when their development was still a vacation community. The once deep lake in its center was now full of lily pads and sewer mud. The surrounding homes had either been torn down or cobbled together and winterized, as theirs was, the second to last on a dead-end gravel road.
Donato must have run out of foundation because the old camper showed up one day, billed as a place for prayer.
Jack, Judah, Joseph and Jennifer were told it was off limits. It was the type of trailer a different family would tow to the Jersey Shore or Montauk.
Instead, it served as his dad’s private hermitage on the lawn behind the house, lit up like a spaceship on humid summer nights. An orange extension cord supplied power.
On winter nights, when Mary’s House of Bread was dark and he was finally old enough to drive, Jack used the front door and not the octagonal window. He’d encounter his father, who usually appeared at the kitchen table around three a.m. Donato was in the habit of waking up then, to read quietly before work. He’d developed this habit when he was a Trappist Monk.
Saint Benedict’s Divine Office stipulates seven daily services. Jack’s father still woke before Vigils, the day’s first. This meant he acted as a sort of gatekeeper.
These were difficult passages; the gatekeeper’s teenage children rarely came home sober and sobriety was one of the house’s major rules. Their maternal grandfather was a recovering alcoholic. Temperance was the law of the land. To slip past with a head full of mushrooms and malt liquor was a genuine challenge. Donato sat in blue pajamas on full alert between the latecomer and bed. Ready to bandy words about car insurance payments or whether or not God’s love was finite. Often both.
Jack learned early on that being adroit socially gave him power in the family. His father was easily embarrassed and generally inarticulate. Jack was raised to complete sentences. He excelled at expressing others.
His role as his dad’s verbal aide-de-camp was a form of servitude. Like most shy people who found or raised a good listener, Donato had a lot to say.
They worked as one. Donato’s face, showing the merest whiff of fluster, brightened when Jack supplied verbs, nouns, and context. The process was autonomic. Jack’s nervous system grew around Donato’s the way a tree root wraps around a rock.
This meant the timing was entirely up to Jack. As a form of punishment, he liked to stretch the period of extreme awkwardness out, before swooping in to save his dad socially.
Importantly, he knew which subjects threw Donato into a loop, which ideas stuck. Which would cause the engine to seize.
If he was being interrogated about forging his mother’s signature on a failed math test he knew to mention that the price of motor oil was in the equations.
If he was accused of brutalizing his younger siblings, something that sent Donato—himself an abused younger brother—into instant rage, he led them into a discussion on personal agency and hierarchical power structures.
Donato was also mistrustful by nature. Transactional.
So Jack learned how to lie.
He took pride in it.
He fantasized about being hooked up to a polygraph. He practiced daily. A form of meditation.
In the midst of it all they loved each other.
Or so they said, once, thirty years later.
Honk if you’re happier than you feel.
Their pace slackens briefly at the top of Heartbreak Hill— breathlessly dubbed so by his father, post-bellow—and they begin to coast.
The final third of their journey is downhill.
They’re both on high alert, each of them with their own traffic-related concern.
His heart rings like a bell, it gets louder as they inch closer.
He out of all the siblings gets/has to ride to school with his father.
He’s been mocked mercilessly for not having the right sneakers on gym day and gym day is upon him yet again. He’d spent the night trying to figure out a way to create a passable Nike swoop on the generic sneakers his parents found in a neighborhood hand-me-down box.
“Jack,” his father yells into the wind ahead of him. “Addiction is a love and trust relationship with an object.”
Enormous silence is the first thing that greets any visitor to The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani.
The monks heard Donato coming.
The river-stone steeple was the first thing he saw, chugging up the green Vermont hills in 1964. He arrived at dusk and the giant stained glass circle beneath the chapel’s tower glowed from within.
His anxiety had been growing with each mile. The sight of the steeple, the object of so much longing, froze the blood in his veins. Long nights of fervent prayer had led him to this moment. It had finally occurred to him, two nights prior, that he could just…do it. It was the first full night’s sleep he’d had in weeks.
He left Morris Park Avenue early that morning. Pushing the Triumph down the block, trying not to alert the three generations of Rizzolos in the family row house. It was hard to tell who was awake and who was asleep at that hour.
In the beginning, the original ten members of the family inhabited only the third floor apartment. Sleeping in shifts because there were only five beds. Donnie’s father and uncles butchered tall frozen steers all night, then slept while their sisters worked the counter by day.
Donnie, sometimes referred to as Nero or Blackie because of his jetblack pompadour–or Nera when Junior wanted to tease him–was an odd sight in the predawn city. He’d dressed the way he thought a soon-to-be monk should, in his Sunday best. A powder blue suit with a pink shirt, pink tie, pink socks, and tall black riding boots. Topped off with his leather motorcycle jacket to fend off the weather on the Taconic State Parkway.
Within a half an hour he was farther away from home than he’d ever been. Once he crossed the Whitestone, that was it. He eyed the houses and shops of Connecticut warily.
He nearly dumped the bike when he saw his first living cow. He’d only seen them without their skin, trussed up on giant hooks. He knew every inch of the animal, and it stunned him to see it in motion. He laughed out loud when the small herd turned their heads in unison to regard him. The strange young man in powder blue, pink, and black leather.
Would they think he was one of them? Because of the bike? A mechanized cow? He made the sign of the cross over them and moved on.
Beyond Danbury things began to get truly terrifying. He was driving deeper and deeper into a planet-sized forest. He was surprised that the gas station attendant in Waterbury wasn’t wearing denim overalls as he assumed everyone outside of New York did.
After many wrong turns, a flat tire scare, and what he realized later was a racist exchange with a police officer, he finally crossed the border into Vermont. Not long after, at the bottom of what he thought of as a mountain–actually a series of steep rolling hills–he saw the sign he’d been picturing in his dreams for months.
The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani. No Admittance.
Not wanting to draw attention, he turned off the paved road into what he assumed was a side entrance. A rutted tractor path through a pasture. He wanted to scope the place out before…what? The landscape was as confusing and terrifying to him as New York City might be to a farmhand. Every shadow made him reflexively jerk the bike’s wheel.
Now that he was there he realized he didn’t have much of a plan. It had been left in God’s hands and God lived at The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani. He chugged into the dusky field, now the same color as the sky, and prayed for a sign.
In the gloom, he missed the hand carved placards demanding privacy and silence. He was well within the monastic enclosure now, the cloistered area off limits to lay persons. Struggling past them in low gear, as if a switch was flipped, the Triumph started to sputter.
His stomach froze. His “wheels” were his freedom. The moment he was legally licensed, moving vehicles became his central concern. He spent every free moment changing oil, cleaning spark plugs, and caring for the family cars. A well tuned vehicle was a spiritual pursuit, it represented all that was holy. Riding the Triumph was prayer in motion.
And that motion had ceased. Each time the engine caught, the bike dug itself deeper into a rut. In his panic he flooded the starter, an amateur mistake. Afterwhich, much to his great horror, the headlight dimmed. He started kickstarting with renewed frenzy.
Had Donnie been able to see over the rise, he may have abandoned the bike altogether. His future novice master, the stern Brother Demetrius, and a team of novitiates, were advancing on him with ropes and shovels. The sound of the motorcycle had nearly drowned out Brother Sebastian’s dinner-time gospel reading. Echoing off the refectory’s stone walls. The abbot quickly dispatched a medieval looking emissary.
When the pack of hooded monks quietly appeared in the mist a few feet above the path, Donnie’s nervous system also quit. Catatonia set in. His vision flickered as if it were being projected on a wall. The film strip dropped frames. The last thing he remembered was Brother Demetrius bending over him, hood silhouetted by a newly risen moon.
While Demetrius put Donnie in the recovery position, the novitiates set about digging the bike out and eventually sent Father Keating to fetch the tractor. The entire experience was conducted in complete silence. In his fugue-like state, Donnie registered brief flashes of sign language.
He was surrounded by identical looking hooded monks in brown robes. Their cassocks were roped at the waist, and their heads, from what he could see under their cowls, were tonsured. They worked as a perfect unit, their wordless communication was utterly baffling to the frozen young Italian American in the grass. The quietest Rizzolo had his first encounter with Benedict’s vow of silence.
Within an hour, the entire mute procession, a speechless Donnie guided by sturdy young Ignatius, marched up the hill to the infirmary. Donnie passed through the side entrance of the great chapel for the first time, covered in mud. His powder blue suit stained with green grass. His heart pounding with terror.
He assumed the monastery had a dungeon.
Donnie’s terror eventually became awe. He talked about the blue light filtering through the tall chapel windows for the rest of his life. The powerful smell of frankincense hit him in the chest. After a short stint in the infirmary, he was given a bunk and Brother Demetrius wordlessly folded him into the daily routine of the ancient order of Saint Benedict.
On his first day as a novice, the last of his week-long observership, young Donnie let some unremembered brother shave off his thick black pompadour.
A picture from Jack’s grandparents’ only trip to the abbey depicts a smiling cue ball atop a novice’s vestments.
A handsome Curious George. Beaming.
Within a month Donnie was fully prostrate on the cool marble in front of his new abbot, the extraordinarily still Dom Gregory Kettering, murmuring vows in his thick Bronx accent.
Chastity, obedience, silence, and poverty.
Donnie was one of three novitiates professing simple vows that Sunday. It was a joyful occasion for the abbey. They lay face down in front of the altar—before the abbot and the tabernacle displaying the Blessed Sacrament—surrounded by the entire monastic community. Even the hermits, who lived in campers and trailers on remote corners of the monastery property, had been called in to join them.
The enormous stone hall rang with their singing. Father Keating led them through the liturgy, tapping his cane to signal standing, sitting and kneeling. Brother Ignatious swung the smoking thurible over the three soon-to-be-monks. Giant plumes of incense drifted over the congregation. The stained glass was on fire with the midday sun.
Donato’s devotion to God was mirrored in his relationship to his abbot, the head of the monastery. He had never met anyone so calm. Every authority figure he’d had up until that point had been stereotypically Italian. Loud, wildly gesticulating, and unpredictably violent. Fr. Gregory Kettering O.C.S.O., a monk of no small distinction, invented what was called “centering prayer.” A practice that was essentially the inversion of Donato’s homelife.
The monastery was the Bronx in reverse.
Donnie’s day’s became shockingly simple. He followed his silent and hooded brothers through Saint Benedict’s rule prescribing communal prayer and singing, spiritual reading, sleep, and manual labor.
Trappists work, differentiating them from other monastic orders, who are, by and large, mendicant, relying on alms and donations. The modern equivalent of begging.
Our Lady of Gethsemani’s abbey was a large farm that produced jam, rather than the beer their European brethren are infamous for.
As a novice Donnie was issued a habit comprised of two scratchy brown tunics, a black wool scapular, and a cloak. He washed his underclothes in the bath twice a week.
He struggled to learn the sign language his novice master impatiently drilled into him. The very first thing he retained was the sign for “useless monk.”
There are two categories of Trappist, those that work, and those that pray and sing more or less full time. The process of determination is simple, you have to be able to carry a tune. Donnie, by then Brother Dominic, was mortified when choral training was abruptly stopped by a grim and pointing Father Keating. Brother Demetrius assigned him to the dairy barn the following day.
Jack spent considerable time dwelling on this part of his father’s life. What called him?
Jack had seen reruns of Happy Days at a friend’s house. His father looked like a curly haired Fonzie. What compelled the handsome young man to become a celibate postulant? Working class violence?
Donato was of religious temperament, not a gangster, but that didn’t stop someone from removing his two front teeth with a pool cue. Friends of his got shot over drug deals. His enormous older brother, Junior, carried a pistol in a shoulder holster, blazer open at the waist to show it off at the dinner table.
Donnie was the gentlest member of an immigrant family that ran a butcher shop on Morris Park Avenue.
What happened was one of those things that appears fated to nonbelievers. The hand of God placed a local seminarian at the counter of the Rizzolo shop. He took a shine to young Donnie and brought him little gifts. Missalettes, mass cards depicting Saint Dominic, a medal of Saint Dymphna. It was the seminarian that explained to the young butcher that his name meant “gift from God” and urged him to live up to it.
Jack assumed his father’s eyes were responsible. Donato had large doe-like eyes that were difficult to ignore. Two perfectly round black marbles. His gaze dominated every family photo. He looked perpetually on the verge of a terrible realization.
He also spoke very little, and was considered mute by some customers. Special. These qualities acted as a tractor beam for religious people. The local pastor always blessed Donnie, to his mortification, when buying his chops.
The seminarian gave Donnie a worn copy of Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. An autobiographical account of the author’s conversion from proto-hipster to Benedictine monk. A book that led to a large uptick in Trappist novitiates during the 1950s and 60s. A book Jack could only get halfway through despite his father’s frequent urgings. Jack only wanted to read about the smoke and drink filled years that preceded Merton’s metanoia.
Jack did the math. He felt the adult world bear down on him. Had the same thing happened to his dad? Had they both fought their respective upbringings? He wondered how far back the family trait went.
A wave of brutality washed the Rizzolos out of Sicily and into New York Harbor. Alfonse Rizzolo, Jack’s grandfather, spent two years wild in the woods outside of Palermo from age eight to ten. Lost and afraid.
His mother had been murdered with an axe and tossed down the village well.
Jack grew up hearing about it in everyday conversation, adults reminiscing about the old country. Some ancient beef had boiled over, culminating in his great grandmother’s brutal murder. Retribution. Reduced to a handful of dark facts by time. The family’s ambient mental health issues grew outward from this act.
Jack could feel it himself, generations later. He felt the murder in his stomach. The family had a baseline air of tense wariness.
They all watched “the fights” on a little black and white television. Jack stretched out on the floor, his father on the couch with his own recently deceased mother’s afghan under his head. Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, and George Foreman were practically members of the family.
Television was a touchy subject in the house. There was a general rule against it. It was too dangerous. But somehow, amid Satanic Panic, amid the family’s poverty, boxing was allowed.
They were all grateful for the grainy off-white matches. They cheered for the underdog. Jack was mesmerized by the commercials between rounds.
Donato would wince or hiss sharply and yell, “Jack, what a shot! Any one of those would put you in the hospital.” Prompting Jack’s mother, high pitched and Christ-like from the kitchen, “Why can’t they both win?”
Alphonse, whose modest stature was blamed on insufficient nutrition, taught Jack to punch up. The family’s genetic propensity for short legs wasn’t enhanced by a diet of stolen carrots and tomatoes in Jack’s case, but he spent his life half-joking about his “four arms.” A condition that led to a wickedly fast sidekick in karate class.
Alphonse was not shy about telling him that martial arts were for “sissies,” however, and encouraged him to throw punches. Jack grew up trading playful shots with the former Marine Corps boxer, whose upper cut was the stuff of Bronx legend. Tales of boot camp brawls and pool room scuffles still circulated the Morris Park Avenue neighborhood surrounding the Rizzolo shop.
Alphonse reveled in street urchin trickery.
“This is the good hand, and this is the bad hand,” he would say, offering his knobby root-like hands, one after the other, palms up. Then he’d swat Jack with an astonishingly fast “good” hand.
He’d ask for a bite of Jack’s apple, eyes glittering with mischief, and then throw it as far as he could, cackling, “You were just about to get to the best part!”
Alphonse was the first person Jack smoked in front of. His Grandfather didn’t bat an eye when he lit up, age twelve. The two of them sat and smoked in silence. Periodically Alphonse cursed God for taking his wife and mother too soon. Shaking his fist at the sky.
“When I get up there I’m going to punch God right in the nose.”
The following day he’d change tack, and turn to look Jack squarely in the eyes. Clarity breaking through his cataracts.
“Don’t listen to them, there is no God,” he’d say. “La vecchiaia è una cagna.”
When Donato heard them on his father’s agnostic days, he’d shout, “I’m praying for you, Pop.”
At which point Alphonse would lean over and whisper, “That and a dime will get you a cup of coffee.”
Jack had a hard time imagining his grandfather other than with a full head of white hair and a giant cigar-stained beard, but he was once young and surviving on poached crops in the Sicilian wilderness.
Family discipline was old school. Jack’s great grandfather—the Rizzolo patriarch whose first wife’s murder brought the family to America—broke a kitchen chair over a freshly tattooed teen Alphonse. Alphonse, in turn, batted Donnie around until the latter started lifting weights. Donnie, who visibly restrained himself around his kids, attempted to suppress his temper with prayer. Resulting in a premature prescription for blood pressure medication.
One Easter, in lieu of candy, Donato washed the family’s feet. They sat on kitchen stools and dining room chairs in awkward silence while he worked his way down the line with a giant pasta bowl full of soapy water.
He straightened and announced they were getting a bike. Popular culture, toys, and movies were sinful. Shameful. Expensive. Bicycles, however, had a utilitarian aspect.
Honk if your body is a time machine
The canoe-like bike passes DeSanto’s deli which means they’re getting close to town. He isn’t sure, but he thinks he catches a glimpse of the family Volkswagen in the parking lot. He cranes his neck to find the identifying “Honk if you love Jesus” bumper sticker, but it’s hidden behind a sandwich board.
The Rizzolos owned a series of red Beetles through the years. Four of them in a row, until his sister’s birth forced the family to switch to the Volkswagen bus.
His father likes Volkswagens because they’re easy to fix. The carcasses of the older ones are in the backyard. Surrounding Mary’s House of Bread like a litter. Cannibalized for parts.
The oldest bug, the one he remembers moving from Yonkers in, was used to house chickens for a time. Until the neighbor’s dog got in somehow and slaughtered most of them. Now it’s missing its tires and filled with bloody feathers.
Shortly after the foot washing Easter, Maria Rizzolo called a family meeting. Jack and his siblings took their places in the semicircle of kitchen stools and mismatched dining room chairs again. She calmly explained that the Great War of Fire was at hand. Satan would soon be released from his chains. John’s Gospel, the Book of Revelation, had predicted nuclear war.
Maria adopted a specific tone when she talked about these things. A type of formal calm.
God’s children might survive, she went on, but since they were 70 miles from New York City, the family would probably have to endure the most grueling form of radiation sickness. The kind that caused deformation and burns. Because of this, they had to be prepared to live in the basement during the War of Fire. It was their best shot.
The family basement was muddy and usually flooded. Jack had to hop from one cinder block to the next to get to the washing machine.
There now lived a small store of goods, wrapped in garbage bags, between the washing machine and the water heater. Jack watched it grow. It was a little bigger each time he hung his school uniform to dry on the basement’s indoor clothesline. His parents had recently joined a mail order group that sold non-perishable food. An early form of the survivalist, prepper market.
They’d tried the spaghetti and it tasted like dust.
Maria further explained that they might have to eat Tom, the family cat, if they ran out of the long term storage food.
It was all good news, she insisted. God’s children got to go to heaven after the War of Fire. There was nothing to worry about.
The family must have lived under a flight path because the low mooing of airliners cut through their yard regularly. It was a mournful sound. Jack held his breath after they passed. In case it was the beginning of the war. The hair on his neck stood up when he heard them coming.
Jack didn’t sleep much that year. He spent his nights listening. He wandered through his days listless and nostalgic for something he couldn’t put his finger on. Sleep deprivation caused him to lose track of whose side he was on when he and his brothers played war. He’d compensate by killing them all.
Donato Rizzolo had the tone and face of a man resigned to humanity’s predicament.
“Depression is a natural response to life,” he offered, each time sounding like he’d just thought of it.
A lifelong insomniac, he haunted their house while Jack lay awake. Jack heard his careful footsteps in the hall. A lone pallbearer, mourning everything in advance. The somewhat irregularly laid particle board floors squeaked under his slippers.
By day he was in Mary’s House of Bread, at work, or under a Beetle. Jack spoke to his legs a lot.
“Your mother’s a pursuer,” Donato said, his wiggling hand sticking out from under a Beetle, “and I’m…”
Jack put down his dog-eared copy of The Two Towers and handed his father a ratchet, “A distancer.”
Donato’s sense of humor was fatalistic. The entire family would yell out, as one, when he drove them past cemeteries, “Because everyone is dying to get in!”
His dour countenance would break, with a cackling high-pitched laughter.
“Why are cemeteries always full,” he’d wheeze.
Jack held him at bay with asides. He sidestepped his Father’s impossible requests and he dodged the occasional blow.
The best antidote was the subject of Christian mysticism.
From the years twelve through twenty, Jack made an annual pilgrimage—or retreat, as it is known—to Our Lady of Gethsemani.
As far as he could tell, he was the first and last child to ever do so. He spent a week at a time in silence with several middle-aged men and his father. Living in small cells in the triangular retreat house on the south end of the monastery’s main pavilion.
They ate, prayed, and went to mass on and off all day.
Twelve-year-old Jack had only thought to bring Charles Dickens’ Hard Times with him for reasons he couldn’t remember. Why had he not at least brought The Return of the King? To reread for the gazillionth time. Anything to cope with the mind-numbing boredom and weirdness of that first retreat. The monastery library offered nothing with orcs or ninjas, which Jack lamented because the stone cathedral and winding medieval hallways were the perfect setting.
He longed to scale the steeple. He got as far as the infirmary roof. Jack climbed just about everything he could. He loved to be up above it all, his own form of contemplation. It gave him a sense of perspective. He loved the tingling feeling.
He spent a summer on the Rizzolo’s roof. Or tried to. Until Donato spotted and grounded him. He’d be damned if Jack was going to ruin his shingles.
From the infirmary Jack could see farther into the monastic enclosure, off limits to laity. The heart of the monastery.
Our Lady of Gethsemani was a collection of long stone buildings connected by a series of hallways. The largest of which was the ‘chapel’—bigger than any church Jack had ever seen—flanked by actual flying buttresses and stained glass depicting the Stations of the Cross.
Donato didn’t pay attention to laws or rules any more than Jack did, and had already snuck his son beyond the enclosure’s ominous warning signs. He didn’t consider them lay people. They went on one long excursion per retreat. Donato treated them as a sort of sales pitch, and Jack maintained a posture of openness. He encouraged his father.
Donato pointed out the dormitory in which he’d slept alongside the other novitiates, decades prior. He described the bunk beds, the daily chores, the use of their cloaks as blankets. He enthusiastically outlined the shower-underwear-washing situation.
“What are you eating under there?” Donato asked, getting the syntax of the joke mostly right.
“Under…where? Pop.” Jack replied, dutifully. The two of them lapsing into the family cackle. The underwear joke was a form of communion.
These were moments of intimacy between father and son. Donato usually preferred the comfort of abstraction and automotive repair.
Jack listened to his dad’s memories. He made sense of them, or tried to, with helpful asides and nods of affirmation. Verbal assists. Jack knew he was the only person who got to hear the story of the useless monk. The only person who knew about his father’s demotion from singing monk to worker monk. He was the only person who could translate his dad’s anecdotes. He knew he had to keep some sort of record. For context. For sanity’s sake. For the family.
Retreatants adhered to St. Benedict’s Rule of seven liturgical services per day. Jack and Donato filed in and out of the giant stone chapel, singing along with monks and novices. Many of whom had been living there, singing and praying seven times a day, for eighty years or more. Jack ate in silence, surrounded by these cowled and ancient men, while a postulant read them the gospel.
And that was it.
No other activities.
Other than pilfered oatmeal cookies from the retreat house and Hard Times. Without recourse to his usual distractions, Jack’s mind became feral. He was preyed upon by mournful snatches of chanting and obsessive, recursive, thoughts. The lonely sounding hymns worked their way into his head and set up shop.
They owned him.
He already heard constant music, he awoke still hearing strange melodies that looped through his dreams, but in the monastery he was defenseless.
His favorite service was Compline, mostly because it was the last of the day and short. He gradually came to love the tune it revolved around—yes, because it meant they were done for the day—but also because of its haunted power.
He started to hear his own harmonies as the incense and chanting soared. The late evening light turned the giant stained glass windows muted blues and purples. He was smitten, not with the content of the service—his hymnal contained gibberish—but with the culmination of… everything.
He realized what his parents called the Holy Spirit he called beauty. He wanted to participate in it.
That was the only year he went to the monastery sober. He reveled in the one-on-one paternal attention he received when he expressed an interest in contemplative Christianity. He loved his father. But he had his own devotional rites.
Each subsequent retreat was a bullet point of substance abuse, climbing—descending—through the gateway drugs. He’d arrive, enthralled with and on a different chemical before Vespers on First Friday.
He was stoned and carried around an acoustic guitar in year two. The following year he was tripping. He managed to get blind drunk with two young Carmelites one year and half-remembered weeping and praying alone in the retreat house side-chapel at 4 a.m.
Jack could not help but admire the monks, centenarians among them, and their commitment. That his parents saw him in religious life was a fact he’d grown up with. He’d never known otherwise. And he knew he had it in him. But was it obsession or was it devotion? His soul was a coin with two sides, his sacraments were chemical.
His final retreat was a blur of morphine sulfate and Oxy-Contin. During which several brothers noted his apparent piety while he nodded out during mass.
Donato’s ejection from Our Lady of Gethsemani, before he could take his final vows, was never really explained, but clues appeared, cloaked as chit-chat. Jack knew it had something to do with the words “nervous breakdown.” The term was thrown around a lot, his uncle also suffered from them. He was frequently told Junior was sick, but he’d also overheard the adults talking about him biting a man in prison.
Jack thought about the words. Nervous. Breakdown.
Had he had one?
How did a person know?
He wondered about the meaning of words in general. The meaning of anything. Jack could sense his parents’ sincerity. Painful and boring things made them happy. Mass was referred to as a “celebration” and Michael Jackson used the word “bad” in his song, which meant “good.”
One summer afternoon Jack heard the Beetle’s tires on gravel and then his father was in the door, gleeful, with a VHS of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. When he was enthusiastic about something Donato was almost childlike. Jack felt honored, his father wanted to watch a movie with him, a thing that had never happened before.
They threaded their way through Beetle carcasses, carrying the black and white TV and a VCR from work toward Mary’s House of Bread. Donato cackled when Nurse Ratchet appeared on screen.
“She’s so believable!” he shrieked, his voice higher than usual. This was the biggest compliment he paid to any movie. Believability.
“I used to count backwards from ten,” he explained during the shock treatment scenes. He rubbed his temples. “I’d get as far as eight.” He used his finger to imitate the leather strap they put in his mouth and mumbled through it, “I’d wake up with a sore jaw.”
The post-Gethsemani Bellevue stint was Donnie’s last. Family lore was murky about this period of Jack’s father’s life. It involved manual labor, delivering meat for the butchery, and further attempts at religious life. Carpentry. Seminary. Construction. Franciscans. Learning Latin was an issue for the severely dyslexic Donnie. He was met with heart-breaking resistance from each community.
He wandered dark-night-of-the-soul-style through Yonkers. A family friend found him standing completely still on the median of the north bound Hutch, silent for days after.
He even helped build the Twin Towers. Junior was a “foreman” on the South Tower. But Donnie was too preoccupied with prayer to be part of a crew, mafioso or otherwise. It took the arrival of Jack’s mother to turn Donato’s gaze away from God.
Honk if everything is a coincidence.
He does not like seeing the family Beetle so close to school. He prays his mother is just en route to daily mass. Earlier in the year she appeared, apparition-like, in his classroom’s door. He’d been unable to comprehend the sight at first. The world of home and the world of school rarely collided if he could help it.
He knows that his mom is the most beautiful. He knows this the same way he knows she is also the most religious. He pictured her set in stained glass, with a halo around her straight, jet black hair. She practically glows.
She was with Regina O’Rourke’s mother. Regina is a popular but high-strung girl who has never once spoken to him, even though he’s been in the same small class with her for years. He hadn’t realized their moms knew each other.
“Jack and Regina’s mothers are going to pray with the class today,” his teacher had announced, causing him to slouch lower in his seat.
For the next ten minutes the two women spoke in tongues over the class. Their arms upraised; eyes closed.
Maria gave of herself entirely, gibbering with abandon, in her sky-blue jeans and ‘Love Waits’ t-shirt.
He watched from the ceiling.
They had different styles.
Regina’s mother sounded like a young goat, while Maria honked. At its height their prayer sounded like the geese that came and went from Muddy Lake. Periodically one would break off into polyrhythmic braying before the pair synched up again.
He felt like he was being burned with fire.
At some point Donato became an orderly at a hospital where he’d once been a patient. He had been an amateur bodybuilder in his teens and was almost as wide as he was short. He restrained and “wrastled” agitated patients. He liked to joke that it was manual labor.
“We had a guy once who committed suicide by drinking
Jack’s father winced and inhaled sharply every time he told the story, which was never more than the one sentence and the wince.
Donnie paid close attention in the hospitals. He enrolled in Mercy Community College and took psychology courses. There he met the mother of his children, age 19. She appeared before him, a visitant in denim. Dappling the very air around her.
An already dumbstruck Donato grew even quieter.
He first noticed the little blue and yellow flowers on her underwear, peeking out from the top of her jeans. A thing Jack didn’t want to know.
This pivotal event served as the catalyst to Donato overcoming his disabilities long enough to earn a master’s degree. Jack wasn’t entirely sure he was literate, he saw his father’s many workarounds. Most involving an old tape recorder and plagiarism. Jack’s father hid a sly smile when paperwork came up.
The growing family packed up, left Yonkers and the city life behind, and rented an apartment in the Hudson Valley. They were suddenly surrounded by trees. Donato Rizzolo had become a school psychologist, adding another contextual layer to Jack’s life.
Within a year they were in the cabin at the end of the dead-end road. Their small living room was lined with religious texts and thick psychology books with titles like, Patterns of Attachment, Aberrant Behavior in the Human Male and The Paranoid Process.
Donato used his children as test subjects.
Jack had his IQ tested dozens of times. His father liked to tell him that he rounded up.
Jack knew the choice to stop pursuing religious life and start a family weighed on his father. He could feel his regret. Donato clung to sanity after Maria conjured children out of him and they were all grateful for it. It was his grandest gesture of love. To keep it together. Part of him never left the monastery. His heart. The family got his body and mind, contemplative monasticism got his soul.
Jack’s quest for context was ultimately doomed. He had begun to generate his own. Contexts that clashed. Culminating in an awkward fistfight on Father’s Day, 1992. Jack was by then living in his own camper, still in his teens, alone for the first time ever.
Jack’s House of Disrepute.
They’d bought the second trailer for the widowed then deceased Alphonse. After his grandfather’s funeral it was offered to Jack as a way to help him leave the nest. Explicitly, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was invoked during the discussion. It was a wise and generous parental gesture that Jack was incapable of respecting.
He played sullen guitar and read by candlelight in the trailer’s kitchen. Donato had unplugged the camper’s orange power chord in an attempt to get Jack to adhere to house rules. A water damaged photo of Alphonse’s murdered mother still hung above the tiny sink.
Jack had pretty much immediately violated the contract his father nailed to the trailer’s front door, Luther-style. It stipulated celibacy, sobriety, and weekly mass. Jack signed it, but he hadn’t even tried to meet the obligations. His next infraction would result in loss of water rights.
There were notes of hubris creeping into his arguments. He’d begun to mock his parents. A technique he’d learned from his father. An emotional arms race took place.
Donato started calling Jack punk and “chooch” during their growing confrontations. Antiquated insults from the old country. Jack was a “jamoke” and a “stunad.” He didn’t disagree, he just hated the reminder.
Jack left Robert Bly’s Iron John: a Book About Men—still warm from being smuggled out of Barnes & Noble in his pants—on the kitchen counter on Father’s Day eve. He hadn’t read it and rolled his eyes at the vest the author wore on the dust cover, but it seemed fitting. It happened to be next to Basho, the poet he was thumbing through when he remembered the holiday. He spent the rest of the night with his first eightball. An amount of cocaine his recent employment at Sausage N’ Stuff finally afforded him.
Hours later, wondering if he’d ever sleep again, Jack was horrified to see Donato open the back door of the Rizzolo house and begin to pick his way up the path that led to Jack’s camper. He could see the red in his father’s face from 20 yards away. He jumped in the trailer’s tiny shower in a panic.
He was 15 seconds into what he’d hoped was an excuse providing blast of cold water when Donato kinked the garden hose snaking up the path. The camper’s sole water source.
“Judah saw you,” Donato shouted. He was outside the trailer door now.
“He sees me,” Jack agreed. Shouting from inside the tiny, fake wood paneled bathroom.
“He saw you sharing a cigarette.”
“Smoking is bad,” Jack nodded, drying his hair in what he’d hoped was a casual manner. The two of them were now in their respective doorways. Each exchange had brought them closer together.
“Sharing a homemade cigarette.”
Jack kept his face blank. He was finally ready to let Donato get as mad as he wanted.
“Sharing a homemade cigarette with a girl.”
Donato was waving his contract now. His posture was that of a street brawler. His face menacing. The effort it took to articulate himself, with no help from his son, enraged him.
“Your eyes are red right now,” he accused.
“I was trying to show-er,” Jack yelled back, imitating his father’s inflection.
The two of them adopted the ancient pose of adult males about to be in combat. Jack wrapped in his Momentary Lapse of Reason towel, Donato in the clothes he used for weekend car mechanics, torn and covered in grease.
“You were smoking dope with a girl on my property. You lied,” Donato yelled.
Jack let the accusation sit there. It was weird to hear his dad say “smoking dope.”
“When you utilize my resources you have to live by the house rules, we’ve been over this. You signed the contract.”
“Fuck that stupid thing”
“Look at yourself,” Donato’s hands flailed around the tiny trailer’s kitchen, trying to come up with words, “you look like…Ratman. You’re a rat. Ratman Rizzolo.”
Jack was genuinely puzzled.
The details of Jack’s crimes were secondary to what was passing between them. Or so Jack felt. The conflict was larger than either of them could successfully articulate at that moment, individually or collaboratively.
As if in collective realization, they devolved into shouts of “no, fuck you.” Two Italians, hooting like apes. Both of them used language they’d never used with each other before. It surprised them. All pretense of civility was dropped.
Jack was tossing out thousands of years of tradition in lieu of secular salvation. He sought redemption in modernity. Donato was saved from mankind in its most basic state of nature—The Bronx—by religious life. Both were convinced of their rightness. Jack felt his in his body.
One of them finally shoved the other, and, to their mutual astonishment, a scuffle broke out. The little trailer rocked with their efforts. Photos fell off the wall. Two punches finally connected at the exact same time. Even in combat they worked as one. Both using the uppercut they’d been raised with. Both surprised by the strength of the other.
Everything stopped for an awkward second, as if someone had rung a bell. Jack heard geese leaving Muddy Lake. He tasted blood where he’d bitten his tongue. Embarrassed by physical contact, each exchange now increased the distance between them.
“I don’t need your fucking resources,” Jack snarled.
The simultaneous punch marked the exact moment from which their partnership unraveled. The morning’s confrontation now played itself out in reverse. Every new shout was from another six feet away. Step by step, backward into their respective destinies.
Donato continued to holler impossible to understand threats about utilities as he stomped back down the hill. Jack returned fire at his back, at his receding flannel, but as his rage subsided all that remained was shame. He shivered in his damp Pink Floyd towel.
He spent the rest of his life trying to convince himself of the rightness of his choices. That there was salvation in the world. That sex, drugs, and rock and roll were a form of freedom.
“All songs are love songs to God,” Donato would say, with a dismissive gesture. Case closed.
That redemption outside of the church was possible was something Donato may have acknowledged, had anyone consulted him during his pre-dawn readings at the kitchen table. But Jack’s interest in art, in rock and roll, in popular culture, was never anything other than cheap emotionalism. Modernity was a virus, the cult of the individual was the antichrist.
Jack managed to tune in WPDH, their local Home of Rock and Roll, on one of the return trips from the monastery. The Who’s “I Can See For Miles” was on. A song that never failed to move Jack, even though he disliked most of the band’s music.
“It feels like I reached the top of a mountain,” he explained.
“It feels like I reached the top of a mountain and there’s a mall,” Donato retorted.
Jack turned the radio off.
Donato was secure in his rightness, Jack eternally in the role of convincer. As a result, he would never be convinced of anything at all.
His parent’s aspirations for him were downgraded as the years went on, in the beginning they saw him destined for the papacy. By puberty it was the priesthood. As a teen they were hoping he would remain Catholic and in his young adulthood they were simply praying he would stay alive.
Jack finally figured out that his father had been trying to call him Ratso Rizzo. A wickedly accurate insult. He looked like a teenage version of Dustin Hoffman’s character. Stalking the local mall in his greasy black trench coat. He had no idea his father had even seen Midnight Cowboy.
That was the last day he lived with the family.
Honk if your destiny is to reject fate.
The daily ordeal culminates in a whirl of dust and noise. Small pebbles spit up into his face. He usually feels it coming from behind. Ominous, dub-like, rumbles. Diesel engine noise. On top of the roar is a thin layer of jeers.
He sees the wide-eyes and laughter on his schoolmates’ faces the first time.
After that he stops looking up.
As the weeks wear on, the bus driver starts honking the horn; in case anyone has missed the spectacle of him in his green plaid Catholic school uniform riding to school on an absurdly long bike with his middle-aged father.
Honk if the whole thing mounts to a white-light experience of anxiety and shame, until the bus passes and fades into brake lights and butts or noses pressed against the back window. By then he is no longer in his little body.
Leave a Reply