This is a short story I wrote for an assignment that was handed down several years ago. This is not about my ancestors, but belongs to someone I cherish.
VI ET VERITATE
They say in everyone’s life, at some point or other, a glaring moment of truth defies pretence and duplicity and becomes the foundation on which we build our lives. Like a ghoul with all the power, truth either strikes the match that lights our way or strikes the blow that kills us.
I had no way of knowing that my final blow was stalking my immediate future, two weeks to the day from the morning I took the train to Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.
A beautiful fall morning watched me creep out of my cushy Manhattan confines, tiptoe past the lofty reception desk, and don sunglasses and a plain plaid jacket so that I could blend with morning commuters headed for the second avenue bound V train.
In my youth, I had mounted the trajectory in reverse, going from Bensonhurst to Manhattan while wearing items of clothing borrowed, for a price, from Hank Theodore Glickman’s collection. No one knew where Hank got the lambskin leather blazers or the Dior jeans—or the test results to all my exams—and no one cared. I wore them when I visited Manhattan to explore how my life would be once I got into one of the better colleges, which of course was a certainty since I accumulated nothing but straight A’s.
This morning, I convinced myself that I my disguise wasn’t cheating. I was headed back to my roots. Stowing my Patek Philippe piece in its box to mark time until I returned seemed sensible. No place for a jewel like that in the hood. Of course, expensive guilt I’d always worn like veneer, though nowadays, the duds wore more like dread, fear really that someone might discover I was living a lie.
For many of us who had grown up in a poor neighborhood, the designer threads of dearth and deficiency weaved by our ancestors still covered us. Thirty years had not taught me how to shed the label: born and raised in poverty. I blamed the stigma for stealing my identity, and held accountable the rest of my lineage, rife with men parading the label.
My Scottish great grandfather, James Sloan, named for King James the VI, had escaped his father’s tyranny by jumping a ship filled with Irishmen fleeing the great potato famine of 1845. By the time the ship bound for America had docked at Ellis Island, the dwindling passenger manifest counted James Sloan amongst the living Irishmen. That’s how we became the first Irish Sloan’s of the New World.
Then my grandfather, James Sloan the second or Junior as most people called him, jumped another kind of ship. Some say it wasn’t so much to leave his wife and three children behind that he enlisted to go to war… and finally died there, but to escape his father’s wrath.
Teenage Junior had dragged home a colorful piece of art one day, to show his mother. He had found it at a church rummage sale and used all of his stashed allowance to buy it, ecstatic that the artist who had created the design bore our name. Sloan was painted across a white ribbon above a dark eagle with wings outspread. Below the scroll of Scotland, was etched Vi et Veritate.
They say that James Sloan senior suffered a heart attack the day he saw the Sloan family’s coat of arms hanging in his son’s room. He recovered, but the friendship between him and Junior never did.
Then there was my father, James Sloan the third, a kind soul who wouldn’t have hurt a fly if all its little fly buddies had formed an army to invade his dinner; did I mention food was his passion?
One day, the gentle giant took the meager savings my great grandfather had left him, adding neighborhood thug money to fatten the purse, and fulfilled his dream of opening a grocery store in South Bronx, one block from where we lived. We could see our home visible in three north-corner windows, carved in brown brick facing a mile-long wall of same windows, each tenant’s boundaries drawn by rickety metal staircases.
I shuffled my feet to the commuting train, flashing my pass to the electronic eye and pulled up my collar. I certainly didn’t want anyone recognizing Baldwin Sloan taking the D train, the D standing in for dirty, I commiserated.
Sitting down in a gray plastic seat, my feet resting on dingdong wrappers, no one staring back at me but my own face appearing strange in a window streaked with lipstick graffiti, I couldn’t help being proud of the productive life I’d carved for myself; one that had no room for losers or ghosts from the past. Yet, here I was traveling back to the past to see my mother, a woman I had not spoken to in ten years.
She had lived her life like a song out of time… best forgotten. Her dolcissimo tones had always resounded oddly against my father’s forte arpeggio. Delphina taught music at the local school, and so I owed my name, Baldwin, to the classic piano she had spotted in Professor Finkle’s store while pregnant for me: the instrument of joy she could play, teach, but could never afford to own.
I imagine the rancor she harbored for my father sprouted long before I was born, when James Sloan the third gave away much of the groceries in his store. Loving food as he did, he was said to shed a tear whenever he spotted hunger in a child’s eyes.
Of course, story was that my mother had hoped to buy a piano with all the money the grocery store was bound to bring them; give lessons from home and save even more money. But my father had little left after feeding the neighborhood poor, or paying back the grease money he owed and the protection insurance he was made to buy.
I was five the first time my father came home with a broken leg. Six when I had to help out at the store because of my father’s broken arm. Six and a half when I had to hold cold compresses over his face to keep his eyes from swelling shut. I thought he had to be the clumsiest giant in the world.
Then a year later, while my father and I were at a neighbor’s apartment watching a Yankees World Series game on TV, newscaster Howard Cosell came on and stated, “The Bronx is burning.” Of course, we were conscious most days that our little community was filled with rancid fumes that made our eyes burn, while black smoke that never seemed to dissipate dimmed the sky.
Still, we had no idea how grave the situation had become until a helicopter on the same news broadcast showed specific businesses burning to the ground. That’s how we saw my family’s livelihood go up in smoke; the grocery store ablaze and coming down before our eyes. Through bitter tears, it would be the first and last time I would hear my father curse, his anger directed at neighborhood thugs for burning down his dream.
About that time, my father initiated the move to Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Penniless and owning nothing but the clothes on our backs, we headed for a new, wondrous place; and Brooklyn became heaven for a child like me. That’s also about the time when my giant father ceased to be clumsy … and that his hands became black. He took work as a mechanic’s apprentice at a local garage three blocks from where we lived, and not even my mother’s vinegar solution could wash away the oil stains.
I got off the train and surveyed the steel fencing surrounding the platform, trying to get my bearings. I walked to the southbound exit toward 79th street, thinking the crisp air and a brisk walk would do me good—help delay the overdue visit with my mother. I caught myself wondering if she would recognize me, and worried about what she might say. She was not one to hold grudges, at least not toward me or my sister Janey.
Ten years earlier, when the doctor had scheduled James the third for a routine heart by-pass, she’d refused to go see him in hospital.
He passed away during the night two days after surgery. I cried like a baby, blaming my mother because the giant died alone, asking about her, wishing her face might show up among the many visitors that came to see him. In the end, it was all Delphina.
Just as in the end, it was Ivy who convinced me that a woman’s love is precious and too often too little appreciated. Sweet Ivy; in two weeks she would become my wife. She didn’t even know I had a mother … or a sister. I would surprise her—my gift to her I decided.
A black Mercedes with dark tinted windows crawled past me—the car of choice for gang leaders in the area. I smiled, thinking of Hank, wondering what he had become.
The car stopped. The back door opened and a well dressed man in a long dark rain coat and dark shades stepped out.
The fact that he smiled at me didn’t augur well. I began to walk faster toward my destination.
“Hey, wait up, Baldy. It’s me, Hank.”
I turned and waited, stunned that my thoughts had conjured him out of the blue, although this was his neighborhood; it was natural he patrol it, I supposed. Waiting, I instinctively passed a hand in my full head of hair. I’d always hated that nickname.
It took him no time to catch up and together we resumed the fast walk. “How have you been?” I asked without caring one way or the other.
“Been reading about you in the papers, Mr. Financial Broker. Pretty famous.”
I stared at him, wondering if this was his way of shaking me for money. “I do all right. What about you?”
With a tip of his head he indicated the car following us, stopped and bowed, drawing attention to his clothes then jogged to catch up. “Can’t complain. Life’s good. Papers say you’re getting married—to some bank heiress.”
I nodded, leery of where this conversation was headed.
“On your way to see Delphina?”
I was in view of the house where I had grown up. The neighbors’ properties on either side had changed, ours had not. The siding needed new paint, the trellis trim around the gallery appeared frail and weathered, and the front door looked as though people had kicked it in for the last hundred years. “Yeah, I’m going to see my mother. What’s it to you?”
I wanted to ask how a guy like him knew about church but waited, hoping he would take off his sunglasses.
“Don’t know how she’d fit in with your friends and your new life. You’d probably have to buy her something to wear, huh?”
“Why does this concern you?”
“Figure the information might be worth something.” He grinned, finally removing his glasses. “Still talks to herself, on occasion. Client next door, Mrs. Carmine says she hears her… when no one’s there.”
“You know me and my big heart. People pay me smaller premiums than they would those barracuda insurance companies. I put a sticker in their window and I guarantee you they don’t need locks—from anyone.”
I stared at my mother’s front lawn. A faded ADT sign poked out of the weeds. My father had stolen it from a house uptown. We had the mangiest house on the block, the mangiest dog, and the sorriest looking grass; but people respected the sign, thinking my folks had money stashed in the floor boards or something.
Right about then, the urge to get away had me running in the opposite direction. I couldn’t face my mother, standup to my old life and carry it into my new life.
Two weeks later, standing in front of the altar with Ivy, I could still hear Hank laughing as I ran. “Hey Baldy. Come back here and take it like a man.”
Then, when the priest asked if I, Baldwin Sloan wished to take thee, Ivy Simpson for my wife, I heard Hanks’ voice again.
“Hey, Baldy. Looky here.”
The voice resonated loudly in the church aisle, so I knew it had to be real. I looked back, and there was Hank, his arm looped around my mother’s arm.
“Then what happened, Dad?”
“Well, son, I asked the priest to interrupt the wedding for a few minutes so I could introduce your mother to my mother.”
“Was grandma pretty?”
“She sure was. She gave me a kiss on the cheek, patted the other one and said. ‘During all my years, I couldn’t have asked for a better Baldwin’.”
I got up from my son’s bed. “Finish your homework, son.”
“What about all the things you and the grandfathers did? Was that okay?”
O course, I had given this question a lot of thought over the years.
“Well, son, the first Sloan lied about his origins to get on a ship full of Irishmen and ended up alienating his only son.
James Sloan the second ran from the father he loved and died before he could return and make peace.
My father, your grandfather, entrusted his life to neighborhood thugs and died deprived of having fulfilled his promise to the love of his life.
As for me, I did it all; renounced my identity, turned my back on those who loved me, and cheated my way to a better life with the help of neighborhood thugs.”
“You okay with that, Dad?”
“What do you think?” I smiled. “I got lucky because I’ve got a good, loving wife. But, never forget that we pay dearly for bad choices we make along the way—in here.” I pointed to my head, “and in here,” indicated my heart. “Unfortunately, shit happens when we think we’re better than everyone else and that rules don’t apply—like when men go to war.”
“What do you mean, Dad?”
“Well, war’s a time when brother takes up arms against brother, when blood means nothing, and rules don’t apply. When the war is over, man embraces the man he was fighting, and makes up his mind to cohabitate with him, peacefully.”
“Now the war is over, right?”
“Right. You’ve got a wonderful, rich life ahead of you. Your job is to make sure it remains the high quality standard that it is today. Vi et Veritate—By Force and By Truth. Then was the time for force, now is the time for truth.”
As I walked away, I saw my son, James Sloan the fourth, take the test results he had stashed in his back pocket and tear them up. I smiled, my chest constricted with pride. He was a bright kid. The future belonged to him. Our sacrifices had not been in vain.