Grandmother and I shared a small crammed room.
I slept on the sofa, she, in a high white bed.
She died when I was thirteen years old.
It was a cold gray January afternoon,
the kind that made your nostrils glue together
and the eyes burn from the coal smoke
belched by asthmatic chimneys in the street.
I came back from school and found my aunt
sitting on a rickety chair in the hall.
She pressed my stiff hands against her cheeks,
whispering, You’ll be alone tonight, my dear,
but I thought only of her soft velvet skin.
She took me into the room and to the bed
where my grandmother lay in her long blue dress,
with a small bouquet of satin violets on the pillow
and two wavering candles on the marble top table.
The curtains were drawn, the wall mirror covered.
It was grandma’s shoes that kept me transfixed,
pointed black caps sticking up like crows’ beaks,
and when my aunt went to close the cupboard door
which always squeaked open mysteriously on its own
I spat silently three times to chase away bad luck.
The cupboard was a giant magic hat, things inside,
never seen, like a gold rabbit’s foot she smuggled
through the German checkpoint, an endless source
of her night stories. After each she’d kiss me
and say softly, Adesso dormi e fai un bel sogno.
My mother was to arrive by a late train, so I
had to sleep at my place. I stood guard, the major
in the third room, requisitioned for war veterans
by the commissariat, listening to patriotic airs.
I pretended to be asleep when mother tiptoed in.
I tried to remember every song my grandmother sang
to me in Italian, about her homeland, lost love,
and that morning I awoke in the frigid room, alone,
with a shameful erection. I propped myself up,
looking at her waxed face, and saw her wink at me.
Two days later I raided the cupboard, digging
out a pistol lighter, cancelled banknotes, letters,
sepia photos of sailing ships, a cracked telescope,
an old broken compass; I got so angry I ran down
to the shed in the yard, dragged out my treasure,
a wobbly corroding bike with no brakes, and rode it
around the oak tree until I was blinded by tears.