Anthony R. Lusvardi, S.J.
That thing can’t be doing much for property values,” Uncle Herb observed to Uncle Mike upon alighting from the rental minivan, luggage and my whining cousins tumbling out onto the curb behind him. Towering over Nonno’s rose bushes and menacing the mailbox in front of my grandparents’ modest brick rambler, sat a decommissioned World War II Italian army ambulance. The sleek lines of Mussolini’s crack engineering corps had been marred by various additions—compartments bolted to the roof of the cab, asymmetrical windows, spigots protruding from the body, mysterious doors secured with mini luggage locks. As if to compensate for its militaristic past, the whole thing (except for the windows) had been painted pale yellow, like an aging Big Bird nesting in the driveway. It had edged onto the grass just enough to allow the Oldsmobile to eke out of the garage.
“A dago RV,” Uncle Mike observed.
A bickering conversation between my aunt and grandmother over what to feed the kids began in medias res. “They won’t eat tortellini, mom. I have hotdogs in the cooler.” And on it went from there.
In due course my oldest brother, Peter, stepped out of the front seat of the minivan; either he had been sleeping or just deciding when to grace us with his presence. Peter had been allowed to fly to the wedding—separate from the rest of the family—so he wouldn’t have to miss a day of some camp he was attending for the “leaders of tomorrow.” His attendance at Camp Dorkiss, as I called it, meant that he had also missed the moment when the dago RV arrived at our house in Minneapolis earlier that week. I had just come inside after mowing the neighbor’s lawn and saw that my mom had set the table with wine glasses, something that usually only happened on Christmas and Easter. “Dad is bringing home a guest,” she announced.
“Who is it?” I asked, wiping sweat off my forehead with my sleeve.
She answered slowly, letting me see the hint of a smile in her eyes. “I’m not really sure, Andy. Someone from Italy. A friend of Nonno’s.”
“Did he come for the wedding?” I asked.
“I—I’m not really sure about that either, Andy.”
“Oh my,” she said an hour later, as the dago RV pulled into the driveway.
Our guest, as it turned out, spoke not a word of English, not hello, not thank you. He had appeared in the lobby of my dad’s law firm on the forty-eighth floor of the IDS Center in Minneapolis, waving a wrinkled business card in the air and gushing streams of Italian at the bewildered secretary. Now he introduced himself with elaborate formality, bowing his head as he shook our hands, placing his free hand over his heart as if so moved by the experience he was willing to pledge allegiance.
“LU-I-GI.” He pronounced each syllable so distinctly that at first I thought he had three different names; then I realized
that he bore the name of the younger (and underappreciated) Mario Brother.
My dad had grown up with my grandparents’ Lombard dialect and could communicate with Luigi, who was gesturing, with some amazement, around our kitchen, complimenting, so my dad said, the beauty of the cabinetry, our house, my mother. Even I could tell, however, that he was leaving vast swathes of the conversation untranslated as he tried to keep up with our guest.
Luigi was dressed a bit like a plumber, I imagined, though probably more like a painter, a white t-shirt tucked tightly into white pants, accentuating a slight paunch. His shoes were shiny, black, and formal, excruciatingly stiff-looking, with little tassels lacquered rigidly to the top. He fell into that vast stage of life I thought of as “old”—anyone older than my parents—but he exuded a rather disconcerting vigor, seeming to thrust every gesture, facial expression, and word into an orbit around him so that if one stepped too close, he was in danger of getting hit. He was short—at thirteen, I stood eyeto-eye with him—and bald, his head shaved to complete the process begun by nature. His skin was pale, pinkish in spots that had been exposed to the sun. Luigi’s most impressive feature, however, was his nose, which reminded me of a particular sandstone cliff in Wisconsin that we drove past on our way to my grandparents’ home; traced on the surface of its mass, distinctly, almost delicately, were an artery and a vein, one red, the other a shade of blue close enough to green to put me in mind of Christmas. As dinner wore on, I imagined the bulb removed from Rudolph’s nose, leaving only the wiring exposed.
Luigi was on a trip around the world, my dad explained. I picked the words “India,” “Australia,” and “Los Angeles” out of the machinegun-fire Italian, and at one point my dad interjected to explain that meeting Mother Teresa in Calcutta had been the central object of his journey. Now apparently he was taking the scenic route home.
“How did he get from India to Los Angeles?” my mother asked politely, giving Luigi an encouraging smile.
My dad translated.
“In nave,” Luigi said.
“By boat,” my dad translated back.
I thought I should try to follow my mom’s example of politeness but felt silly when I spoke, as if Luigi’s incomprehension were the result of my own poor English, so I drifted into my own thoughts for the rest of the meal, calculating how many lawns I still needed to mow before I could afford an N64—since my parents were too cheap to upgrade Peter’s hand-me-down Nintendo, already an antique. As I sat next to him at the table, I also noticed that Luigi had a very European sort of body odor.
During part of the conversation when I was paying attention, my dad mentioned traveling to my uncle’s wedding, coming up that weekend. Luigi seemed utterly flabbergasted that my grandparents lived in a different state, in a little town outside Peoria, a full day’s drive away.
“Madonna santa!” he exclaimed, eyes widening theatrically as my dad explained the distances involved, distances that became excruciating that weekend as we traveled in motorcade with the dago RV, which could not go more than eighty kilometers per hour due to a mechanical problem that required a part that could only be ordered from an Axis Powers Surplus Store.
Afterwards my dad claimed that he had never issued an actual invitation to Luigi. Luigi had simply assumed he was invited. My soon-to-be-aunt Alexis regarded him as she might a stain on her wedding dress or a pimple that appeared on her forehead the morning of the ceremony. “He’s not going to drive that thing to the church, is he?”
Even my grandmother, whose whole existence flowed out of the joy she took in doting on others, was soon irritated with Luigi. The man had by now half-circled the globe, but in the presence of an Italian woman he proved utterly incapable of performing even the most elementary tasks; not only couldn’t he cook or do laundry, he couldn’t even walk his used silverware from table to sink. I’ve since wondered at how the Luigi we met could have traversed the ex-Soviet Union and negotiated passage across the Pacific Ocean. Perhaps his cluelessness was the temporary result of feeling suddenly so comfortable again. After months away from home, surrounded by people who spoke the dialect of his village, in the presence of his boyhood friend, the world’s vastness receded and he reverted to childish provincialism.
The one person who accepted Luigi’s presence quite naturally was my grandfather, who was also possibly the only person more bored with the bridal weekend than I was. The night of our arrival, Alexis and the rest of the females had a forty-five minute conversation about whether the white napkins at the reception were cream, eggshell, bone, pearl, old lace, vanilla, seashell, or latte. Nonno didn’t even like eating at restaurants. “Your Nonna, she cooks how I like, why I need to eat at a restaurant and pay somebody more to cook something not as good as what I eat at home? Ecco.” Nonno was a retired baker—my grandmother used to decorate the cakes he’d make at the bakery—but Alexis wouldn’t hear of a traditional wedding cake. “Everybody has a cake; I want my wedding to be unique.” Instead we had a cupcake bar, an idea she’d seen in a bridal magazine. Though it made me feel slightly treasonous, I confess I made multiple trips to the cupcake bar at the reception.
During the day Luigi and Nonno sat on the brick patio behind the house, Luigi occasionally standing to illustrate some point of conversation. At night I was allowed to join them at the kitchen table for cards: first briscolla, the rules of which I knew, and then scopa, the rules of which remained obscure. For briscolla I was on a team with my grandmother, who used an ever-evolving system of winks and nods to communicate which cards I was to play. The result of her stratagems was confusion and defeat for our side. “Anna, nobody understand a thing you say! Ecco,” Nonno said. She was soon called into the living room, where the women were engineering the next morning’s shopping expedition while passing around heavily marked and annotated wedding catalogues. When we switched to scopa Luigi proved willing to cheat on my behalf, craning his neck to peer at my cards, frowning melodramatically if I started to make a bad play. Even without mastering the rules, I managed to break even. When she returned, my grandmother mentioned casually that she hoped they might someday bake the cake for my wedding. She mentioned it casually another three times that weekend.
The next day I found myself conscripted into the shopping campaign since I needed, apparently, a belt to match my suit. There is nothing like a pre-wedding shopping spree to make a thirteen-year-old boy pray he’ll suddenly slip into a coma.
On the drive to the mall, elaborating on her philosophy of bridal registries, Alexis announced to the car, “Of course, I only want one child. And after that…” There was a slight glance in my direction before she completed the thought by making a scissors motion with her fingers, a gesture intended to hide its meaning from me, like when parents spell words they don’t want their toddlers to understand. The ploy succeeded—I couldn’t figure out what Alexis intended, though it seemed horrific—and its success galled. As the youngest of three children, I sensed in her phantom snipping some vague judgment against my existence and began to imagine her as one of the deadly piranha plants that rose from the pipes on Mario Brothers and, on the higher levels, spit fireballs at Mario and Luigi.
As soon as we returned from shopping I retreated to the spare room in my grandparents’ basement, where, amid spare furniture and extra blankets, they kept a boxy old television. One of Uncle Mike’s high school classmates and drinking buddies, Sal, had spliced an auxiliary cable from the main television in the living room to the TV in the basement, a circumstance that seemed not particularly legal, especially if you knew Sal. “Don’t worry, Mrs. Ronchetti. It’s all OK. You just remember to call me first if you have a problem, before you call the cable company.”
The result of Sal’s creative wiring was that the TV in the basement got reception of channels not included with basic cable, among which were a few dedicated exclusively to themes of rather urgent curiosity to the mind of a thirteen-year-old boy. In fact, the television got only partial reception of such channels; what came through were mostly blurry lines and a lot of moaning. But at an age when prurient curiosity had not yet blossomed into true lust, the suggestion of any body part—a thigh, a breast, an elbow, it didn’t matter—through the sequences of distorted lines seemed desperately alluring.
Unlike the picture, the TV’s sound resounded with crystal clarity, though of course I kept the device on mute—except for a brief, terrifying moment when I hit the wrong button while trying to adjust the picture quality. The whole house seemed to shake with, well, the dialogue. I was sure the reverberations would be strong enough to send the crucifix over my grandparents’ bed crashing to the floor in the room above, provoking the whole family to rush down the stairs in outrage, Alexis brandishing avenging scissors in the front of the pack. Instead, nothing whatever happened, and I went back to straining my neck to try to pick out limbs in the static.
A quarter hour later, when I thought I was safe, the door suddenly rattled without warning, and the voice of Luigi thundered, “Ai, ragazzo!” followed by a chain of incomprehensible Italian. I’d kept a finger primed on the channel button for just such an eventuality, but I started and fumbled, and there was an agonizing delay as the ancient television’s internal gears creaked from one channel to the next. I’d kept the door locked, but it was a flimsy lock, the kind you can open with a coin, and the door didn’t fit snuggly into its frame anyway, so the lock only hindered Luigi for a moment before he was in the room. The channel changed, but I wasn’t sure if it had changed in time, what Luigi saw or didn’t see—an uncertainty more tortuous than any pang of conscience.
Luigi was mercifully oblivious. He spoke rapidly and loudly, not finding it strange that I was watching Oprah on mute. He gestured for me to follow him, and I did, my guilty terror having rendered my will infinitely malleable. We walked outside through the garage, in the shade of which Uncle Herb and Uncle Mike sat in lawn chairs drinking beer and exchanging learned opinions about politics and the economy. Luigi stopped in front of his camper, lecturing about its provenance and upkeep (I imagined) while making broad circular motions around it with his arms, as if demonstrating how to buff a larger invisible incarnation of the vehicle. He led me around behind the truck and opened the enormous rear doors, which reminded me of the giant freezers in the school kitchen or the refrigerator units where bodies are stored in the morgues of police dramas. Then he stood to the side, one arm outstretched before him in a show of the sort of elaborate hospitality one usually demonstrates only if wearing a top hat and a cape, and all I could think of was the exceptionless commandment drilled into American schoolchildren from infancy: never get in a car with a stranger.
Was Luigi a stranger? I asked myself, not so much concerned with my safety as with transgressing such an absolute decree of the moral law. He was a friend of my grandfather and had been staying with our family for almost a week, but I hadn’t understood a word he’d said the whole time and he was undeniably a little weird—strange, if not a stranger. The capacious rear of the ambulance brought to mind an instructional video we’d watched at a first grade assembly in which children were lured by a man with thick sideburns and a matching mustache into the back of an ice cream truck for purposes unseen, unimaginable, and indubitably nefarious, at the end of which the school principal had made us all repeat in chorus, “NEVER GET IN A CAR WITH A STRANGER.” Luigi, sensing my hesitation, repeated his baroque gesture of welcome and added a slight bow.
I clambered up into the dago RV, and Luigi followed, the high step requiring him to grip the camper’s side and revealing a slight stiffness in his movements that reminded me of his age and utter harmlessness. Stepping into the Luigi-mobile felt like touring the captured German U-boat or the coalmine at the Museum of Science and Industry; it reminded me of the forts my older brothers and I had constructed out of odds and ends in the hollow spaces under the pine trees in our back yard, before Peter had grown too cool for that sort of thing. Inside, not an inch was wasted. A desk and a cot with green blanket and stiff sheets folded up against the walls; a sink had been fashioned out of a small bucket and embedded into a cabinet; a strap held books securely to a shelf; tools and a coil of rope were fastened to the wall around a little round window that looked like it had been salvaged from a submarine.
Luigi was not interested in showing off the vehicle’s contraptions, however, but instead pointed toward the back wall, in the center of which was a larger than life gilt-framed portrait of Mother Teresa, her familiar wrinkled face beaming against a gauzy blue background. Luigi paused, glanced back and forth between the picture and me, as if to double-check that I had noticed it, and then he launched into a passionate discourse, of which I understood not a single word. His brow knit seriously; his eyes opened wondrously; his hands spun upward in little epicycles toward the heavens; then they covered his chest, as if shielding a tender wound; then caressed the air in front of him as if rescuing a wounded butterfly; and at last his head rolled dreamily from side to side, like a love-struck teenager.
It took me a moment to realize he must have asked a question because he had paused for a response.
I smiled and bobbed my head and shoulders up and down in affirmation.
He laughed, thrust his hands outward at his sides like Charlie Chaplain, and put a hand on the side of my head while saying something friendly with lots of drawn-out vowels as we turned to exit.
In the rear of the old ambulance, hanging over the foot of the bed in a clear plastic garment bag, I had noticed a powder blue suit. At that age the difference between a suit and a sports coat was still lost on me, though I could recognize a tuxedo. I had no idea why one garment should be preferred to another at a wedding, and they all seemed equally uncomfortable to me. Nonetheless, on the morning of the wedding when Luigi appeared on the church steps, the sun reflecting radiantly off the concrete as if someone had sprinkled glitter on the sidewalk, even I could tell there was something gauche about the suit. Elvis meets the Godfather. The pants flared outward well above the ankles so that Luigi’s white socks and stiff dress shoes got full display; a dark blue, satiny stripe ran around the border of the lapels and collar; the shirt was a garden of ruffles, like Santa’s chest hair; and the tie, too skinny and too short, seemed literally to point to the fact that the suit had been fitted when Luigi was a much, much younger man. Like the hare trailing the tortoise, jacket and pants were running to catch up with his paunch, both just a little too late.
Since my two older brothers were ushers—and I had been relegated to handing out programs—we arrived at the church an absurdly long time before the ceremony. I asked my mom if the extra time in church counted for Sunday and in reply got a glare and, “Watch it, young man.” None of the guests had arrived yet, except Luigi, who had ridden with my grandparents. My station in the entryway meant I was continuously cuffed by the muggy August air, making my collar and necktie that much more suffocating.
One of the reasons everyone was there so early, I was told, was to take pictures. As I slouched next to the door, waiting for guests needing programs, one of the bridesmaids came fluttering up the stairs from the basement and tisked the groom and groomsmen out of the church and into the sacristy. The rest of the bridal party soon followed, like a gaggle of geese, honking little gasps of emotion, fabric rustling, gauzy white trains spilling in every direction, with a mousy little photographer darting in and out between bridesmaids snapping pictures like a paparazzo. Alexis paused in front of me and scrunched up her face as she fanned herself with both hands, which I thought might break off at the wrists without having caused the least circulation of air. I almost handed her my stack of programs. And then I felt the back of the photographer’s hand, pushing me out of the way, backing me out of the shot without even a downward glance in my direction. Alexis unscrunched her eyes, stopped fanning for a moment to adjust the angle of the shot, and then resumed the pose.
I wriggled away from the photographer and thought I’d use the photo session as an excuse to plop down under an air conditioning vent for a while, when who should come bounding down the aisle, like the Penguin’s benign greatuncle bursting from a comic book, but Luigi. He stood before Alexis, hands erupting like fireworks, ejaculating Italian phrases with gusto, from which I could pick out only “mamma mia!” and “che bella!”
“YOU CANNOT BE IN THE PICTURE. YOU CANNOT WEAR THAT AND BE IN MY WEDDING PHOTOS.” Alexis stopped fanning, her sugary squint dissolving instantly, and she spoke with the intensity of a priest performing an exorcism. I froze in place and stood rigidly at attention. “He cannot be in my wedding photos,” she said to the photographer.
Despite his complete ignorance of the English language and apparent inability to register social cues, not even Luigi could mistake the ice beam fixed upon him like one of Mr. Freeze’s weapons. My mother whispered something in my older brother’s ear and shoved him at Luigi, like a frustrated swimming instructor pushing a cowardly pupil into the pool, and he grasped Luigi’s arm like a floatation device and steered him back toward the pews. I imagined all four tires simultaneously deflating and the dago RV sinking slowly to the pavement.
The photographer started giving orders again, and the gaggle of dresses followed him down the aisle for pictures around the altar. For a moment I was alone. I peered into the church at the bald head poking up from the back pews. I felt huffy—that’s how my mom would describe it, as in, “Don’t start getting huffy with me, young man”—and with a snort, when I was sure no one was close enough to hear, I tossed my stack of programs onto a table in the church entryway, displacing flyers, holy cards, and a wicker basket full of plastic rosaries. I thought I’d find a bathroom and lock myself inside for as long as I could before someone noticed my absence or, more likely, had to go. But then I glanced, next to the table onto which I’d launched the wedding programs, smiling up at me from one of the scattered holy cards, the face, sweet and wrinkled as a cinnamon roll, of Mother Teresa.
I slunk down the side aisle, hoping my mom was too distracted to notice me abandoning my post. Luigi looked up at me without emotion, just a dull oldness in his eyes, and I thrust the card at him, awkwardly so that it hit his shoulder and bent a little. He glanced down at it and then up again, and I was rewarded with a passionate string of whispered Italian and Luigi’s personal imitation of the nun’s beatific smile. I motioned for him to scoot over, trying to put my whole torso into the gesture like a good Italian, and sat down. To hell with Alexis and her wedding. Let my overachieving brother hand out the programs.
I like to think I gave Luigi his gusto back, though the wine at the reception probably helped more. His performance on the dance floor was everything one might have expected or hoped for. It turned out he was dressed perfectly for it. He decided to stay at my grandparents’ for another week, ostensibly to wait for the replacement part for his dago RV.
My grandmother called after we returned home and told my dad she was worried he’d never leave, but eventually he was off to the next stop on his circumnavigation of the globe.
Graceland, as it turned out.