by Morris Marshall
For the second time in a week, I dreamt about Vincenzo Batana.
It was 1986 and we were back in grade eleven, in our high school cafeteria, seated around a circular table with Joe Stanza, Chez Grande and Pino Caschera. Armed with Italian sandwiches comprised of foot-long loaves of French stick bread stuffed with various meats, they snickered at my wimpy peanut butter sandwich.
After eating, we played “Brisk,” an Italian card game similar to Euchre. Vincenzo had taught me the rules, and we became partners.
He threw down an ace and looked at me across the table. “Why don’t you come and see me, John?”
“What are you talking about? I see you almost every day. We’re in the same French class.”
His dark eyes glinted. “You know what I mean.”
Two nights earlier, I had another dream. Vincenzo was waiting outside my house in his Pontiac Grand Am. We were going to study for our economics final at the York University library. I grabbed my books, stuffed them into my knapsack and ran out of my house down the walk to the street.
The windows of his car are tinted, I thought, trying unsuccessfully to see inside. He must have just had them done. They were never like that before.
I yanked open the door. My heart leaped into my throat.
The skin on the right side of Vincenzo’s face had melted away, exposing his skull. His right eye bugged out, and his favorite blue polo shirt was saturated with dirt and a green mold-like substance. He smelled like decaying meat. I tried to run, but my legs felt as though they were rooted in the sidewalk.
With powerful skeletal fingers, Vincenzo grabbed me and pulled me into the passenger side of the car. “When are you going to come and see me?” he asked as the door slammed shut and locked.
My wife, Cindy, said I screamed. She reached over and held me for the rest of the night as I stared into the darkness, unable to fall back asleep.
“I won’t be home until later this evening,” I told Cindy as I poured her a cup of coffee at breakfast. “I teach from 12 to 3. I’m going to visit Vincenzo after class.”
She touched my shoulder. “That’s great, John. It’ll be good for you.”
“I know it will, but it doesn’t make it any easier.” I kissed her goodbye, grabbed my briefcase and left for work.
* * *
I can’t remember exactly when I met Vincenzo. He was known as Vinnie to his friends. It’s as if he’d always been there. We’d had mutual friends and had been aware of each other since grade nine. He was a popular soccer player who effortlessly attracted girls with his charming smile and easygoing demeanor. The perfect contrast to my bookish, shy character.
The first time I actually talked to him was in grade eleven. He was sitting on the floor in front of his locker, holding hands with Elaine, his new girlfriend.
Vincenzo and I were in the same calculus class in grade thirteen — last period Tuesdays and Thursdays. He’d missed a few classes due to his soccer team’s schedule, and I started tutoring him. In return, he taught me some soccer moves, and we began hanging out. He introduced me to his other friends: the Lunchtime Brisk Club.
Chez Grande, Vinnie and I started York University in September 1988. To survive our large lectures, we formed a study group. We worked out together and ate home-cooked pizza courtesy of Vinnie’s mom.
One evening, Vinnie and I snuck into the poolroom at McLaughlin College through an unlocked door and played snooker free for the entire evening. Another time, we sat in Vinnie’s car, discussing relationships.
We listened to a Richard Marx song that reminded him of his new girlfriend, Giovanna. He was sure that she was the one even though they’d only recently met. He’d never cared as much about any of the other girls he’d dated. I’d never had a girlfriend before, but he assured me it wouldn’t be long before I’d be seeing someone, too.
* * *
When my afternoon lecture ended at three o’clock, I hopped the subway at King Station, headed northbound for St. Clair West and took the streetcar westbound to Lansdowne Avenue. Snow drifted through the grey February sky, dissolving in brown slush that accumulated on the sidewalks and roads. The streetcar was jammed with early rush hour travellers.
* * *
In June 1992, a month after we’d graduated from university, Vinnie was working as an accounts payable clerk at Imperial Feather Corporation, which made pillows and duvets. It was a challenging position; it required dealing constantly with people seeking payment for bills. And was good experience for someone planning to become a chartered accountant. A job came open for a payroll clerk and, since I was unemployed, Vinnie told me about it immediately.
I was hired a week later: my first office job. My boss, Mary, a forty-something grandmother, sat across the desk from me, observing my every move. I made many mistakes, but Vinnie defended me.
“John is bright,” he told Mary. “He’ll catch on. Just give him a little more time.” My lack of interpersonal and multitasking skills eventually sealed my fate, but losing that job provided me with a better opportunity. Vinnie was convinced that I’d be a good teacher. I took his advice and returned to university to pursue a Masters degree.
* * *
“Next stop, Lansdowne Avenue,” the computerized streetcar voice called out. “Next stop, Lansdowne.”
I pulled the cord above the window and pushed through several students wearing backpacks on my way toward the middle door. My chest tightened as I stepped down onto the stairs and left the vehicle. Wind and snow pelted my face and hair.
The grey stone building with the large glass windows stood directly behind a steel picket fence that remained locked at night. Just beyond, rows of colorless headstones snaked into the distance on either side of the road as far as I could see.
* * *
I’ll never forget that Saturday morning 18 years ago in early January, 1996. The phone rang while I was eating breakfast. I jumped up from the table and grabbed the receiver after the third ring.
“You’ll never guess what happened, John.” Chez’s voice sounded flat and thousands of miles away even though we lived just blocks apart.
I didn’t have to guess. To this day, I still can’t explain how I already knew. Although I never believed in the supernatural, some part of me had died overnight. A flame that had been burning inside me when I went to bed had been extinguished by the time I woke up, leaving only a profound emptiness.
As Chez spoke, waves of dizziness and nausea swept over me. I sat down and closed my eyes. Vinnie had died of a massive heart attack the night before while returning books to York University library. He fell and hit his head on the side of his car.
He was just 26 years old. Weeks before, we’d discussed God and the meaning of life, subjects we’d never broached over the years. Vinnie confessed he hadn’t been feeling well and had experienced numbness in his face, as well as fatigue and weakness. He thought it was the flu.
The next four days were like a play in three acts: the viewing, the funeral and the aftermath. There was closed-coffin service because of severe bruising to Vinnie’s face. Giovanna, his wife of six months, was there. So were his parents.
I paid my respects and, unable to face the finality of the interment, I slipped out of the church and went home. As long as I hadn’t seen the burial, I could always pretend that he was still alive. Maybe he’d just gone on a long trip, only to return someday.
* * *
I slipped inside Prospect Cemetery Mausoleum, out of the snow. The wind slammed the door shut behind me. The cloying smell of flowers permeated the air and a tanned, dark-haired man, early fifties, in a black suit stood at the Information Desk. A white carnation graced his lapel, below which a silver identification tag proclaimed Mark Pleasance, Manager.
“How can I help you?” he asked brightly.
“I’m looking for Vinnie... I mean Vincenzo Batana.”
“Date of death?”
“January 1996, but I can’t remember exactly.”
He typed the information into his desktop computer, waited for several seconds, then looked up. “He’s in the mid-nineties section, fourth-floor mezzanine. The elevator is just over there.”
“Thanks, but I think I’ll walk.”
Marble plaques lined the fourth-floor hallway in rows of three, many with freshly cut flowers. I scanned the photos and inscriptions: Antonetta Biondo, 1920-1997, beloved mother and wife, Giuseppe Greco, 1992-1996, safe in the arms of Jesus...
Vinnie was about halfway down the hall in the first row above the floor. Vincenzo Batana, 1969-1996, beloved husband, son and brother. A small bouquet of wilting white carnations peeked out of a silver vase, and a picture of two hands cupped together in prayer appeared below a photo taken from our high school graduation. Vincenzo’s brown eyes glistened as he smiled at me. His curly black hair was long in the back and shorter in the front, reminiscent of a late-eighties style.
He looks like a kid, I thought, staring at his smooth, wrinkle-free face. We hung out together, but I’m old enough now to be his father. What would he look like today if he’d lived?
“John? Is that you?”
When I turned around, a middle-aged woman with collar-length curly black hair was smiling at me. Her skin was pale and wrinkles had formed under her eyes and around her mouth. She held a small bouquet of white carnations. A tall, lanky teenage boy with curly black hair stood beside her, staring at Vincenzo’s photo and epitaph.
“Giovanna? Oh my God! It’s great to see you!”
“You, too, John. How long has it been?”
“Too long,” I replied. “I didn’t expect to see anyone here, but I’m glad it’s you.” I glanced at the teenage boy, then back at Vincenzo’s photo.
“This is my son, Antonio,” Giovanna said, placing a hand on the boy’s left shoulder. “Vincenzo’s son.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “You never had any children unless...”
She smiled and nodded. “I found out about two weeks after the funeral.”
I extended my hand. “Nice to meet you, Antonio.”
“You, too, sir,” he said, shaking hands.
“You look just like your dad,” I said. “He was my best friend. If it weren’t for him I wouldn’t even be teaching today.”
Giovanna removed the wilted carnations from the vase above Vincenzo’s photo and replaced them with the fresh ones. “Where do you teach, John?”
“Vesta College. I’m an economics professor.”
“What a coincidence. Antonio takes Business courses there. Didn’t you tell me you were taking economics this term, Antonio?”
He looked up from his smart phone and rolled his eyes. “Yes, mom.” Then he looked at me. “I’m not doing so hot.”
Giovanna pinched her son’s cheeks. “You’re spending too much time with the girls.”
“Who’s your prof?” I asked.
“Bernie Burnstein? He gives tough multiple-choice exams and pop quizzes, but he’s a nice guy. I’ve known him for ten years.”
While Antonio strode ahead of us, texting, Giovanna and I left the mausoleum together, laughing and catching up. The snow had stopped and sunlight burned away the remaining clouds, leaving only a turquoise sky. It seemed as if no time had passed.
Giovanna worked as a chartered accountant for the Ontario government. She’d dated several men over the years, but never remarried. Vincenzo’s parents still lived in the area and saw their grandson every couple of weeks. Every so often, they asked about me.
“What are you doing Saturday night?” Giovanna asked me as we stood on the sidewalk. “Antonio has a mid-term exam in economics next week, and I was wondering if you could tutor him. I could pay you.”
I shook my head. “I wouldn’t think of taking money. It’s my pleasure to tutor him.”
“Bring your wife over for some great Italian food. I’d love to meet her. Vincenzo told me back in college that you worried about finding a girlfriend. Look how well things worked out for both of us.”
I entered Giovanna’s number into my smart phone. “I’ll talk to Cindy and give you a call tomorrow.” Then I shook Antonio’s hand, hugged his mother and walked briskly toward my streetcar stop.
Copyright © 2014 by Morris Marshall