Back from the War

Esperanza opened the front door to her Cliffside Park, New Jersey home to find three FBI agents standing in her vestibule. The shortest of the three announced that they were looking for her son, Anthony DeLorenzo. He lived in the upstairs apartment in the building next door, which Esperanza also owned. The agent asked if they could talk to her, since her son wasn’t at home. She invited them into her kitchen.

“There are three cars parked in the lot outside, in your son’s name, that are stolen vehicles,” he informed her. “They are on your property. Do you know where your son is?”

“What cars?” Esperanza asked.

The agent moved to the kitchen window and pointed to the three cars parked on the left side of the Esperanza’s dirt and gravel, parking lot, a lot large enough to build another house between hers and the street. The cars were at the edge of the lot and facing Nagel Street.

“I’ve never seen those cars before. I don’t know where they came from.”

With regards to her son’s whereabouts, she said, “You think he tells me where he’s going?”

The agent handed her a card to give to her son, and left threatening that if they didn’t hear from him, they’d be back.

Later that day, her son Anthony, better known as, Tully, with the body of a heavy weight prizefighter, came into her house. His expensive suit seemed out of place in her humble kitchen.

Esperanza told him what had happened.

“They planted the cars so that they could arrest me on something,“ Tully explained.

“That’s what I thought!” she shouted. “I told them I never saw those cars before.”

But Esperanza had seen the cars and she knew that they belonged to Tully. But she also knew that somehow the FBI was setting up her boy, so she did the best she could.

“What’s the matter with them?” she asked in frustration.

“They want to lock me up and they’ll do it anyway they can,” he said, peering at her and waving one of his powerful arms in the air and walking in circles around the kitchen.

She looked at her youngest son, the youngest of her six children. “That’s what I thought,” she said waving one of her own strong arms in return. “I figured out what they were doing!”

It was not the first time Esperanza was confronted by the FBI on the part of her son. It was her opinion that they and every politician that ever lived were all “bums and crooks” and her son was like he was because the country had made him that way. He was a war hero of the Second World War. She admitted to herself that he was a little wild before the war, but he never got into trouble. No one in her family had ever broken the law, she thought. They just worked hard to make an honest living.

War, she thought, it changes people.

Each Sunday at 12:30 p.m., in her kitchen, Esperanza served rigatoni with tomato sauce and meatballs, salad, and fresh Italian bread for whomever showed up from her large family. Every Sunday of her life as a mother she served the same meal at the same time, and now as a widow and grandmother.

There, seated around her large kitchen table, Tully often told his war stories and kept everyone laughing for hours and wondering how such stories could be so funny. But it was the way Tully told the stories that was funny, for stripped of their humor, they were gruesome. Tully talked about being forced to pick up body parts in the frozen snow covered ground in Germany. They were not body parts of soldiers, but of babies and mothers. He told stories of dysentery, and frostbite, how he avoided frostbite while others lost toes and fingers, by continued movement no matter how tired he got. How SS troops pushed him into a defunct German army tank and expected to find him dead or crazy three weeks later. He knew not to let his mind wander, not to let it rest in any way, to keep it constantly working.

“I tore off the buttons of my shirt,” he told his family. “I threw them on the floor and looked at the pattern they made. Then I counted them as I picked them up slowly one at a time. Then I threw them on the floor again and looked at the different pattern they made again, and did the same thing, I picked them up one at a time.”

So he occupied his day and kept his mind continuing to work until exhaustion allowed him to sleep, he told his spellbound audience. His nights were filled with the war, dreams of explosions, of guns, frozen body parts in the snow. When he woke, he again continued with the same button routine.

No one laughed.

And no one laughed when he said that he drank his urine to stay alive.

The SS soldiers were so impressed with his survival that they allowed him to live.

He talked about the prison camp breaks. In one of them, he was on the floor of a German truck filled with US soldiers and steering blind with one hand, and with the other hand pressing the gas and speeding straight ahead.

“There were bullets flying everywhere and I didn’t know where the hell I was going!” His arms waved around and he was laughing with his booming voice and everyone laughed with him. It was a story of courage and sheer nerve. No one asked questioned, they just waited for the next story not wanting to interrupt him and wishing he’d go on.

One day a veteran showed up at Esperanza’s house saying it took months to find her. But he was determined because Tully had saved his life. German officers set thousands of battered soldiers on a twenty-mile death march. The road was strewn with corpses, healthy men and wounded men, shot to death because they got too tired to walk.

“Tully picked me up off the ground and he carried me on his shoulders for the twenty miles,” he told Esperanza. “I owe him my life,” he said.

Tully had never told that story. But Esperanza said, “That sounds like him!” and waved her arm straight up in the air.

He had lied about his age to join the army and got away with it.

He was only sixteen when he went to war; they weren’t looking too close, they needed the men, she would tell people later.

He was MIA, a prisoner in German prison camps for two years. When he returned, Esperanza saw that he was not the same person he was before he left. In Esperanza’s mind, it was as though he had gone to a special school for his education in which he was taught how to kill to survive. After the war, she watched as he put his skills to use in a world that would again use him. She didn’t know what he did exactly, she didn’t know that he was that leg breaker, the hit man; he was the one they sent.

Esperanza would often mumble to herself after a visit from the FBI or hearing that Tully was picked up on a charge, “War, it changes people. They are never the same when they come home.”

Tully, however, never seemed downtrodden. Even when he complained about life, he was funny. But he paced, he was driven, unable to ever just sit still unless he was telling his stories or passed out from exhaustion or drink.

Esperanza did not approve of his association with the underworld. But when he had money, it was Tully who loaned his siblings thousands of dollars to start their own businesses, and offered them money in hard times.

When his oldest brother got bladder cancer, Tully broke down and sobbed. He confided to his niece, the daughter of his ailing brother, as they sat in a hospital waiting room, “I’ve had men on their knees begging me for their lives and it meant nothin’ to me, nothin’! They were no good. But him,” he said of this brother, “he never hurt anybody.”

It was only a couple of years after the war that Tully brought home a beautiful girl from the neighborhood and told Esperanza that he was going to marry her. The young girl was so happy, Esperanza thought while shaking her head. She had black shiny hair and eyes to match; her skin was very white with raspberry red cheeks that glowed with promise. She seemed as pure as a saint. Esperanza wondered if the poor girl knew what she was in for; if her family knew. She was not young, she was twenty-six. Esperanza could only think that the girl had fallen madly in love for the first time, and wanted marriage and children and Tully was willing to give that to her. She saw the remarkably virile, handsome man, who was like a Roman general telling his war stories. He was also funny, and as physically strong as a man could be, a magnetic and charismatic man that everybody loved and she saw how nobody ever wanted Tully to stop talking or to leave. But that’s what Tully did. Tully left.

The couple lived in the larger apartment on the first floor in the house adjacent to Esperanza’s that had three apartments. Esperanza’s property was a half a block of valuable property. Three decades later, in the late 1980’s, real estate agents told Esperanza that her property was worth six million dollars.

When she refused to sell, she was asked why she wanted all that property? She replied, “Sometimes, I like to take a walk.”

She shared with her family that she wanted to live out her days in the house where her children were born, sit under her peach tree in the summer and stroll around her flowers with her memories.

As for Tully’s pretty wife, as the years went by, the promise shriveled up in the harsh realities of living with such a scarred man. One child after the other— six in all—smells of other women on him, weeks of him missing without a word, his drunken bouts filled with violence, striking the walls, although he never stuck her or her children. In between, were those times of lovemaking, laughter and stories, but something was missing.

The mind that he had trained never to rest during the war continued to race. Tully’s mind and soul were always throwing down and picking up buttons at the bottom of the tank.

When ovarian cancer attacked his wife, he brought her for treatment and cried from the fear of loosing her. His two oldest boys were just teenagers, they loved him, but hated him for what he had done to their mother.

Tully’s oldest son was closest to his mother. At seven years of age, people in the neighborhood talked about him, for they’d see the little boy run through the streets to Scala’s Bakery about a mile away for crumb buns on Sundays for his mother, brother and sisters. They saw him try to help his mother, be her little man, often at her side. When there was a wedding in town, he was known to sneak into the local beer halls, or under the tent in backyards and while the music played, and in the shadow of darkness, he’d stuff his shirt with the six or seven sandwiches wrapped in little open, wax paper bags for the whole family and people allowed him to do it, and some even added a few more sandwiches. When his father was gone, the money would run out and they’d put food on the bill at the local grocery store, Nellie’s. Sometimes, Esperanza would find out and deliver hot meals. It was he who listened to his pregnant mother sobbing for her missing husband, helping her with the other children when she was exhausted, worried when his father returned and the fighting began that she would be hurt.

It was at those times that Esperanza would whisper to her troubled grandson, “War, it changes people. They are never the same when they come home.” Sometimes she’d tell him about his father being only 16 and just a little wild when he joined the army and went to war. “But he never hurt nobody.” She told him how he used to baby sit for his older brothers’ and sisters’ children and, she’d say, “He never broke the law. Nobody in this family broke the law.”

But when his mother got sick, the boy now a teenager also took a turn for the worst. His inner demons began to take hold.

He watched as his mother’s beautiful face, still with red cheeks, turned grave; she was suffering with pain that went beyond the painkillers and cancer treatments of the 1960s, it was a time when victims died slowly in agonizing pain and without hope.

The two boys suffered along with their mother and stared at their, often sobbing, father with empathy riddled with hatred and blame. He was there now that she was sick, why hadn’t he been there for all the years when she was healthy? Why had he made her life a hell? If she hadn’t had one baby after the other, had he been more of a husband and father, if she weren’t exhausted and sad most of the time, maybe she wouldn’t be sick.

The girls just cried.

Esperanza made dinners regularly now and delivered next door to them beginning her new vigil of caring for Tully’s family now on a regular basis, along with some help from her married sons and daughters.

After months of treatment, Tully carried his crying and pleading wife, who did not want to die in a hospital, from Esperanza’s apartment to his car and transported her to the venerable Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City only to be told that the treatment she had received burned all her organs.

“They said, she’s got nothin’ left to work with,” Tully told his children upon his return in anger and with tears rolling down his cheeks.

She died surrounded by her family, by her two boys and four girls all as beautiful as she, and all cowed by the gut-wrenching grief for the soft-spoken kind woman who was their mother.

So Esperanza continued through the years to fill in for Tully in the care of her grandchildren, with some help from her married children. She also contributed to their education. Tully’s two sons went into law, with a promise of support from her. It was Tully’s second son who moved to Los Angeles for a fresh start. He managed to begin his own real estate law firm from a rented room, and with a law school buddy with LA ties. His heritage of hard work and independence sustained him, along with some support from Tully and Esperanza.

For the troubled son, his mother’s early death was a curse that he lived with daily. He too managed to finish law school, but he was too unstable to actually practice law. His younger brother, however, enticed him to Los Angeles and he assisted him in his law practice.

But he worked wracked with grief and a heart so full of pain that, often times, if not for his brother being a partner of the firm, he would have been fired. His patient brother worked hard enough in those bouts of depression for both of them.

The unspent grief for his mother continued to do its damage in his personal life too. No woman could quell the fear he had of losing her; his unreasonable fears drove even the most sincere away.

When Esperanza died of a heart attack at the age of 80, the two lawyers returned to their Italian neighborhood to honor her. For the older son, life now held even less for him and his grief grew unbearable. So that cold November morning, two days after Esperanza’s funeral, he procured a pistol and headed for his father’s apartment in the same cement building next to his grandmother’s house, the one in which he was raised.

He did not know if the pistol in his hand was for himself or his father. Tully answered the door and his son stepped into the large kitchen.

Tully was never without a firearm. He also never let down his guard so he was quick to note the bulge in his son’s jacket and the determination in his haunted eyes. As his son reached for his gun, Tully did not know if his son was going to kill him or himself, but war had taught him, when in doubt, attack.

Tully drew his own weapon and he shot himself in the temple while staring into his son’s eyes with all the love a father could muster.

When the shocked son looked down at his dying father he was taken aback to recognize the resemblance to his uncles all of whom were devoted husbands and fathers.

An unfamiliar peacefulness drifted over him as he held his dying father in his arms. Tears for his troubled childhood, and tears of grief for his mother poured out of him lightening his soul and offering a tearful absolution for his father. It was then that he could hear his grandmother whisper, “This is him. This is your real father. He finally came back from the war!”

 

Dorothy H. Hayes was a Language Arts teacher, and then a staff writer for local Connecticut newspapers. Her in-depth series on Vietnam Veterans received an honorary award from the Society of Professional Journalists. She was also a staff writer for a national animal protection organization. Broken Window, Dorothy’s new mystery, will be published soon by Mainly Murder Press. it is the second in the Carol Rossi Detective Series, the first being, Murder at the P&Z, 2013, also published by Mainly Murder Press. Dorothy lives in Stamford, Connecticut, with her husband Arthur. She raised four children and is the mother-in-law to three, grandmother to fourteen, and GN to Bella. She currently writes for WomenofMystery.Net, CriminalElement.Com, and is a member of Sisters in Crime’s Tri-State Chapter, as well as Mystery Writers of America. Visit her at DorothyHayes.com for more information.

3 Comments:

  1. The best story of a man who was truly a hero. My sister Dot is the best story teller now in our family and the world.

  2. Engaging family, engaging story.

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