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About the Author
Jhumpa Lahiri is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Interpreter of Maladies. Her books include The Namesake, Unaccustomed Earth, The Lowland, and, most recently, In Other Words, an exploration of language and identity.
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One evening Betta called, crankier than usual, wanting to know if I felt up to minding her son while she and her husband took part in a mathematics conference in Cagliari. I'd been living in Milan for a couple of decades, and the thought of decamping to Naples, to the old house I'd inherited from my parents, and where my daughter had been living since prior to getting married, didn't thrill me. I was over seventy and, having been a widower for some time, had lost the habit of living with others. I only felt comfortable in my own bed and in my own bathroom. Furthermore, I'd undergone, a few weeks earlier, a small surgical procedure which, even in the clinic, seemed to have done more harm than good. Though the doctors poked their faces day and night into my room, to tell me that everything had gone fine, my hemoglobin was low, my ferritin was poor, and one afternoon, I saw small heads, plaster-white, stretching toward me from the opposite wall. They gave me a transfusion right away, the hemoglobin went up a little, and finally they sent me home. But now I was struggling to recover. In the mornings I was so feeble that in order to stand up I had to muster my strength, grasping my thighs with my fingers, bending my torso forward as if it were the top of suitcase, and stretching the muscles of my upper and lower limbs with a determination that took my breath away. And it was only when the back pain ebbed that I managed to lift my skeleton completely, cautiously however, detaching my fingers gently from my thighs and abandoning my arms at my sides with a wheezing that lingered until, finally, I reached an upright position. Which was why, to Betta's request, I automatically replied: — Does this conference really mean a lot to you?
— It's work, Dad. I have to deliver the keynote and Saverio presents his paper the afternoon of the second day.
— How long will you be away?
— November twentieth to the twenty-third.
— So I'd have to stay with the child, alone, for four days?
— Sally comes every morning, she'll clean up and cook for you. And anyway, Mario is totally independent.
— No three-year-old is independent.
— Mario's four.
— Neither is a four-year-old. But that's not the point: I have urgent work to finish and I haven't even started.
— What do you have to do?
— Illustrate a story by Henry James.
— What's the story?
— A guy goes back to one of his former homes in New York and finds a ghost. That is, he finds who he would have been were he to have become a businessman.
— And how long does it take you to draw pictures for a story like that? It's a month away, you have the time. In any case, if you haven't finished by the twentieth you can bring your work here, Mario knows not to get in the way.
— Last time he refused to get out of my lap.
— Last time was two years ago.
She reproached me, saying I was wanting both as a father and a grandfather. I responded kindly and assured her that I would watch the child as long as she needed. She asked when I was thinking of coming and I overdid it with my reply. Since my daughter sounded unhappier than usual; since during my hospital stay she'd called at most three or four times; since that indifference of hers seemed her way of punishing me for my own, I promised that I would arrive in Naples a week before the conference, so that the child would get used to my being around. And I added, with false enthusiasm, that I was eager to spend some time being a grandfather, that she could go off, carefree, and that Mario and I would have a great time.
As usual, however, I wasn't able to live up to my promise. The young publisher I was working for hounded me, he wanted to see my progress. And I, who hadn't managed to do much of anything because of my ceaseless convalescence, tried, in haste, to finish a couple of plates. But one morning I started losing blood again and had to rush to the doctor who, though finding everything under control, ordered me to come back for another checkup in a week. And so, between one thing and another, I didn't end up leaving until the 18th of November, after sending the publisher the two plates, which were still in rough shape. I went to the station feeling frustrated and annoyed, my suitcase packed willy-nilly, without even a present for Mario other than two volumes of fairy tales that I myself had illustrated several years before.
It was a journey plagued by cold sweats and the desire to head back to Milan. It was raining and I felt tense. The train sliced through gusts of wind that clouded the window with trembling rivulets of precipitation. I was often scared that the wagons, felled by the storm, would jump the tracks, and I realized that the more one aged, the more it mattered to stay alive. But once I got to Naples, despite the rain and the cold, I felt better. I exited the station, and in a few minutes I reached the corner building I knew well.CHAPTER 2
Betta welcomed me with a fondness that — at forty, consumed by the balancing act of her days — I didn't think she was capable of. She seemed surprisingly worried about my health, exclaiming: You're so pale, so thin, and she apologized for never visiting me when I was in the clinic. Since she asked about the doctors and the tests with a certain alarm, I suspected she was wondering if she was taking a chance by leaving her child with me. I reassured her and went on to pay her a thousand compliments with the hyperbolic phrases I'd resorted to ever since she was little.
— You look beautiful.
— No I don't.
— You're prettier than a movie star.
— I'm fat, moody, and old.
— Are you kidding? I've never seen a more attractive woman. Sure, the personality's rough as bark, but if you peel it off there's a smooth, sensitive interior, the hue as lovely and luminous as your mother's.
Saverio had gone to get Mario at daycare, they'd be back any minute. I hoped she'd tell me to go to my room for a bit and rest. On the rare occasions I came to Naples, I slept in the big room next to the bathroom with a small balcony that resembled a launching pad over Piazza Garibaldi. I was raised there along with my siblings, and it was the only corner of the house I didn't detest. I'd have liked to hole up and stretch out on the bed for a few minutes. But Betta kept me in the kitchen — me, the suitcase, a cloth bag — and proceeded to complain nonstop about everything: her job at the university, Mario, Saverio who dumped house and child onto her shoulders, and countless other unbearable stressors in her life.
— Dad, she almost shouted at a certain point, I am totally fed up.
She was standing next to the sink, washing vegetables, but when she said this she turned toward me with an abrupt, violent twist of her body. For a few seconds I saw her — and this had never happened — as pure suffering matter that her mother and I had lightly, guiltily tossed into the world four decades ago. Actually no, not Ada. My wife had passed away a while back, she no longer bore the responsibility. Betta was a big broken-off cell, mine, only mine, the membrane already pretty worn out. Or at least this was how I imagined her for an instant. Then I heard the sound of the front door. My daughter quickly got hold of herself, saying "here they are" with a combination of joy and repulsion, and Saverio appeared — stocky, ceremonious, broad-faced Saverio, miles from Betta's lanky elegance — along with Mario, tiny, dark-haired like his father, eyes big on his thin face, red hat, blue coat, puffy light-blue pom-poms.
The child, thrilled, was expectant for a few seconds. He didn't get anything from Betta, I thought. He's his father through and through. Meanwhile I felt, with a prick of anguish, that I was the word grandpa materializing before him — a stranger from whom he expected a boundless flow of delights — and I opened up my arms somewhat theatrically. Mario, I said, come, sweetheart, come, my, how you've grown. He then threw himself against me and I had to pick him up, speaking joyfully, though my voice was cracking from the strain. He clasped my neck with great force and kissed one of my cheeks as if he wanted to perforate it.
— Not like that, you're choking him, his father said, stepping between us. Betta also put in her two cents right away, ordering him to let me go.
— Grandpa's not going anywhere. You'll be together, just the two of you, for the next few days; you'll share your room with him.
That was awful news for me. I'd imagined that a boy so young slept with his parents. I'd forgotten that I myself had demanded, long ago, that Betta sleep in her crib in the neighboring room, even though Ada couldn't sleep a wink at the thought of not hearing her whimpers or missing a feeding. I remembered it now, just as I was putting the child back on the ground, and I repressed my irritation, I didn't want Mario to perceive it. I went to the cloth bag that I'd leaned up next to my suitcase when I'd arrived and pulled out a couple of slim books that I wanted to give him as a gift.
— Look what I've brought you, I said. But as soon as I touched the books, fearing he'd be disappointed, I once again regretted not having bought him something more enticing. Instead the child took both volumes, eagerly, and softly saying an extremely polite thank you — they were the first words I'd heard him pronounce — proceeded to examine the covers.
Saverio, who, just like me, must have thought that the gift was a mistake and later, surely, would have said to Betta: As usual your father can't do anything right, rushed to exclaim: — Grandpa's an important artist, look how lovely the drawings are, he did them.
— You'll look at them together, later, Betta said. Now take off your coat and come pee.
Mario put up a small fight but then got undressed, making sure above all to hold on to the two books. He even took them with him when his mother dragged him forcefully into the bathroom. I sat back down, ill at ease, not knowing what to discuss with my son-in-law. I trotted out small talk about the university, students, and the fatigue of teaching. It was the only subject, as far as I recalled, that aroused him other than soccer, which I knew nothing about. But Saverio turned another corner almost immediately and to my surprise — given that we were wary of one another — started to speak in bloated but pained terms about existential frustration.
— There's never a break, there's no happiness, he said quietly.
— There's always a little happiness.
— No, it's all been poisoned.
But the minute Betta returned she put a swift end to our intimacy and he started to talk again, confusedly, about the university. Obviously the mere sight of one another was enough for husband and wife to get worked up. My daughter accused Saverio of having left something — I didn't understand what exactly — in disarray, and meanwhile reiterated to me, nodding to Mario who had just reappeared clutching my gift: The upshot is that this guy is growing up worse than his father. And then, with some vehemence, she took away my suitcase and bag, betting, with a sarcastic chuckle, that it contained everything I needed to work but no shirts, socks, or underwear.
The child seemed relieved when she disappeared down the hallway. He placed one of the books on the table, arranged the other on my legs as if they were a desk, and began to leaf through each page. I ran my hands through his hair and he, perhaps encouraged by the gesture, asked me, composed: — Did you really draw these pictures, Grandpa?
— I sure did, do you like them?
He thought about it.
— They're a little dark.
— Yes. Next time make them lighter.
Saverio hastened to step in:
— They're not dark, what are you talking about? They're just right.
— They're dark, Mario repeated.
I gently extracted the book from him and examined a few of the illustrations. No one had ever told me they were dark. I turned to the boy and said: They're not dark, and added, a bit piqued: But if you think they're dark, then something's wrong. I leafed carefully through the pages, noting defects that had never occurred to me, and murmured quietly: Maybe they were poorly printed. And my mood soured, I'd never been able to tolerate other people's sloppiness when it spoiled my work. I repeated to Saverio, various times: They're dark, yes, Mario's right. Then, mixing together complaints about technical details, I proceeded to criticize all publishers who demanded so much, who spent so little, who ruined everything.
For a while the child sat listening. Then he got bored and asked if I wanted to see his toys. But by then my mind was elsewhere and I curtly said no. In an instant I realized the refusal was too harsh; both father and son were already looking at me, bemused. I added: Tomorrow, little guy, Grandpa's tired now.CHAPTER 3
That evening it finally clicked that the conference in Cagliari was, above all, a prime opportunity for Betta and Saverio to evade the eyes and ears of their child and fight hard. If, in the course of the afternoon, they only rarely spoke to each other, with perfunctory sentences, at dinner they didn't even bother with those. Instead they talked to Mario and to me, so that the boy would know all my exploits and I'd know his. They both carried on in childish voices and almost always started the conversation with you know that Grandpa or show Grandpa how you. As a result, Mario had to learn that I'd won many prizes, that I was more famous than Picasso, that important people displayed my work in their homes; and I had to learn that Mario knew how to answer the phone politely, write his name, use the remote control, cut his meat with a real knife, and eat what was on his plate without throwing a tantrum.
It was an interminable evening. The whole while the child never took his eyes off me, as if, fearing I would disappear, he wanted to memorize me. When I showed him some dumb old tricks that I'd used to entertain Betta when she was little — like pretending that my thumb, clenched between two fingers, was a piece of his nose I'd snatched away — he hinted at half indulgent little smiles, half amused, striking the air with his hand as if to punish me for such foolishness. When it was time to go to bed, he tried to say: I'll go when Grandpa goes. But both parents stepped in, almost in unison, both suddenly strict. His mother exclaimed: You go to bed when Mommy tells you to go to bed, and his father said: It's time to sleep, indicating the clock on the wall as if his son already knew how to tell time. Mario put up a little resistance then, but all he managed was to make sure I watched how he got undressed without help, and how, still without help, he put on his pajamas, and how he squeezed the toothpaste neatly onto his toothbrush, and how he knew how to brush his teeth, ceaselessly.
I observed the performance, admiring him. I said, an infinite number of times: What a good boy you are, and Betta insisted, also an infinite number of times: Don't spoil him.
— Although, she added, suddenly serious, watching her son: he really is a good boy for his age. You'll see.
At that point mother and son announced that they were withdrawing to read the nightly fairy tale. I followed them without conviction, to the room that was no longer mine. Mario didn't know how to read yet but — Betta emphasized — he was coming along. They both wanted to demonstrate this to me, and indeed the child, with a little help from his mother, read a few words. Meanwhile I threw an eager glance at the folding cot that had been prepared for me and thought that, just to lie down, I, too, would have listened to the fairy tale. Don't go yet, Grandpa, the boy was saying, but Betta held sway over him, saying, No Dad, go, we'll read a little and then it's time for bed. Words that were clearly instructions both for him and for me.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Trick"
Copyright © 2016 Giulio Einaudi editore s.p.a., Torino.
Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions.
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