You’re going to do something bad to that boy, I told her. You’re going to ruin him.
I don’t know what you’re talking about, she said. She was in a black dress and you couldn’t guess her age. We weren’t going out after all, on account of the rain.
You have your own room, I said.
Yes, but when you’re not here it’s too big. I don’t sleep well at all. You know my nerves… I’m nervous and I can’t sleep in a room like that. I like a small, fresh room with good light. It’s so much easier to sleep, and to wake up in the morning.
I felt bad for the boy as long as he wasn’t around to look at. This particular night he came in as I was trying to get the stove running again, because it was cold and wet even in the house, and smoke kept getting out into the room. The door creaked and clicked and I saw the boy with big black eyes like his mother’s and a moth-eaten scarf over a tie and his schoolbooks under his arm. Under the other arm were two loaves of bread and he had other stuff in his backpack, wine and powdered chocolate and milk and household lye.
She kissed him and he said, Good evening, to me.
He’s not going to grow up normal, I said.
He’s quite normal. He’s a bit small for his age.
You know that’s not what I mean.
Then I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean, she said, and reached for the remote.
There was a little knock on the door and I saw the boy fly by to open it. It was a little girl. They whispered together and she passed him another schoolbook under the doorchain, and slipped out into the rain.
That’s the girl he’s in love with, she said from the sofa. Her name’s Sophia… a beautiful little brunette. I hope they get married someday. Wouldn’t that be sweet?
Does your friend need a ride in this rain? I asked him.
He looked at me.
She does not, he said, her parents are waiting in the car. And sure enough I could just see a Citroën in the rain driving slowly away.
I wanted to say: You were about that age when you had him. So instead I said, I don’t think a wedding is what that boy needs. He’s a bit young for that.
He doesn’t need anything. He lacks for nothing.
She sat up, and I could see her face changing: Lord, I thought, I did it this time.
You think that because I’m a single mother I can’t raise a son. It’s not about him, is it? You don’t trust me.
You think I’m stupid and you like to feel a big man. Well, if the boy needs a father, be one. And if he doesn’t get one it will be you who failed him, and not me.
And because I wished her well, and maybe because she was right — she was a good mother and fed him right and sent him to school looking good and gave him a bonny education, table manners and all that, and all with basically no money — I took him with me in the van the next day, to visit a couple clients and have the tires rotated. He was a perfect little misery. I tried to show him the different chicken races and how you bred them for laying or for meat or for bonny feathers, and how to know when to cage up the roosters, and how to let air into the henhouse without letting too much wind. He was like a piece of ivory with parted black hair.
Driving back I said, How old are you, son?
I thought you were littler than that.
I’m rather small for my age. The doctor says it’s perfectly normal.
Certainly, I said, certainly. How about that girl? Sophia, was it?
I don’t know.
You don’t know yet, eh? Or you don’t want to tell me?
He looked at the road and said, Let’s talk about something else.
Well, I didn’t know what to say, so I kept driving. It was dark. Then I remembered I had half a pack of Gauloises in the glove box. I reached over him and pulled them out and shook the carton.
I forgot I had these. I got these in France, I said, would you like one?
No thank you.
The actors and stuff smoked these. Belmondo. Don’t you smoke?
No. Smoking’s bad for you.
Yes it is, I said, nodding like an idiot, yes it is. Then again I had nothing to say, so I said, When I was thirteen I had hair on my face. I smoked too. And I smelled so bad, my father would say he was going to spray me down with a hose.
The boy didn’t laugh.
You’re lucky, I said, you got spared. You smell quite nice and you’re a well-shaven little gentleman.
Well, I’m going to smoke one. I prefer Gitanes, to be honest, but these will do. Do you mind?
It’s your van.
Fuck, I thought, what is this kid made of, anyway? So I smoked in silence and the kid read his book about Julius Caesar and the Gauls.
Jean-Paul Belmondo, I said to the rearview mirror and taking a drag. Your mother loves him.
I had dinner with them and stayed the night, because I was full and sleepy and it was still raining. I fell asleep so hard I don’t remember taking my shoes off, but sometime early in the morning when it was still black as pitch out she started talking to me and I found myself saying yes, yes, of course.
He’s perfectly normal, she was saying, he’s just very shy and sensitive. I’m too impatient with him.
You shouldn’t say that he’s not normal. He’s going to be very handsome when he’s older. He already has hair like my father, black like mine. It feels like mine under the comb. He’s going to look just like my father when he’s filled out. He’ll be so handsome. Only you musn’t keep telling him that he’s going to be different from the other little boys.
He won’t, I told the pillow.
If you say something at that age, it can come true. I know you men. I’ll be more patient with him but you have to encourage him, all right?
Sure, I said, and I don’t remember anything after that.
The next morning I slept like a dead man and so did she. At half past seven I heard her knocking over everything in the bedroom and swearing like a Turk. The shower was running and through the door I could see steam in the hallway.
Take it easy, I said, you’ll wake up the kid.
He’s in the shower. If he’s not out of there in 30 seconds —
I just got in, the kid called.
Well, I’m coming in, she said. I’m going to be late.
Let me finish, he said. I swear he sounded scared.
You’re not serious, I said. I was still in bed; I had fallen asleep with my pants and one sock on. Let the kid finish his shower. You won’t be late.
I’m not going to drown him. And yes, I am going to be late. And so is he if he doesn’t get out.
I’ll take him to school, I said.
But she was already in her robe and walking down the hall. I heard the door open and the curtain draw and the kid yelped like a dog that got its tail stepped on.
Move, she said, and shut the curtain.
I didn’t like this at all and I got out of bed in a hurry, because something didn’t feel right. As I was buttoning my fleece I saw the kid fall out of the shower and into the hall, naked and wet and white as a nightmare. I thought he was shivering from the cold. He was hunched over, hugging his knees basically, facing away from me. I grabbed a towel.
Here, son, I said, and I tried to cover his shoulders. He was naked as the day he was born.
He shouted something and turned again so I couldn’t see the front of him. He was crying. I reached out with the towel again and he twitched and stood in the corner and said, Leave the towel there. On the floor.
I did it. I watched him for a minute.
Go away, he said.
I turned around and heard him snatch up the towel and leap into his room. Then the shower turned off and out of the steam she reappeared, with a toothbrush in her mouth like a cigarette and her hair black and greasy.
I’ll never make it, she said. Can you take him to school? But not in that ratty sweater, I beg you. Wear something decent. And then under her breath: And explain to that boy that there’s no point being silly, we have one bathroom and heat costs money. Explain that to him.
She started walking back and stopped and said, I’m not too cruel with him, am I?
Cruel, I said, not at all. Not cruel.
It’s just that he’s so sensitive.
I’ll talk to him.
You’ll make him understand?
Of course, of course.
She looked at me with a look, I couldn’t tell if it was concerned or amused. And I felt awful inside, for promising what I couldn’t give.
Carlo Massimo was born in 1990, exactly 200 years too late, and writes in English and Italian. His nonfiction has appeared in The Times, Newsweek, L’Italo-Americano, and other magazines. His fiction and poetry have run in Barzakh, Bitter Oleander, and Off the Coast. He lives with misgivings in Washington, DC.