The hoarfrost was falling and I was fine. It had been awhile since I could say that. Now, I could breathe for a moment and let the chill wind take me. Admittedly, Yuletide had never made a great impression on me. As a drifter in a port—an outcast of outcasts—it made sense; I never cared for the merriment of getting drunk off every flotsam and couldn’t swam. The sparkling lights holly were the dol and drum of the ocean’s eternal ebb and flow. Left to brood in the city then, it also made sense; I saw it all as sparkles of farce, plastic ilex, punch and eggnog turned into distilled vodka, records spinning the same songs of Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole over and over. I would tell myself it’s normal, or other heartening thoughts: I’m too old—no, it’s that I’m too mature, and it’s all just to sell soda and pop records; anything and everything.

Now it’s all changed, I have another part of me, one who’ll have their first White Christmas with a smile on their face. No longer could I think of the season in cold, intellectual terms. The affability of reason failed me, and emotions comforted me.

I was walking in the terrazzo square, looking up at the lanterns of kerosene and paper written with foreign letters lit in iridescent blue. All the children were in awe, dressed to the brim in scarves, cardigans, and mackintoshes while the teenagers looked on in trapper hats. All the adults had put out their cigarettes and fears early to kiss under the mistletoe. I began to breathe easy at the change in the weather, sticking my tongue out and letting it burn. A boy was throwing pebbles at a fountain to see if it would crack. How I wished it would.

All the jingle bells of the shop doors were going wild, filling the air with faint scents of chestnut and hickory. Through the frosted store windows, one was met with countless gingerbread houses, Dickens villages, celebratory sparkles and glitters falling down in neon and pastel. In a whiff of hot chocolate, I had forgotten any indifference I once had towards the season, maybe towards the whole world. But the dark bottom of my heart urged me to stop; hadn’t I grown past my years? Isn’t it all but glass bottles and candy canes? My mind joined it: you’re not coming of age anymore; you’re just aging. I wasn’t wearing a cap, and as the wet slush fell over my head, I was in a constant palpitation, a constant tension that allowed me to see myself in the candied windows before I saw all the collectibles and future presents. Perhaps I haven’t been the most honest with myself, but I am now. I was born a mistake, I was born to die and yet I live.

And I shall.

I grabbed at the letter in my coat pocket and images of a bygone age flashed in my mind like daguerreotypes in sepia tone. My first and only real Christmas. Vera Lynn was singing a dirge; a stove was being used as a fireside. My mother lost, fractured, in photographs of shattered skin. I still called out for her, in every feast and every famine, every time I couldn’t get to bed. My father was now the only link I had to her, and I’d done my best to forget him. The scars. The body doesn’t forget, but I can’t say the same for the mind. I’d forgotten his face, his voice, eventually all the things I had cursed him for.

Had I ever wanted that? For us to never know one another so we could both get over what was lost?

The truth is, I couldn’t help but shed a sad smile when all those repressed things hit me again.

These thoughts merged with reality as I stopped seeing myself in the window and was able to focus on the spotlight of the store’s playthings. A die-cast Chattanooga Choo Choo sped along in a circle on a plastic iceberg. All about was a strange scene of level crossings, shops one would see in Victorian England, gingerbread pilgrims, porcelain mothers with their mannequin children, bellhops and passengers in all the windows. The only gift I ever wanted, seeing the same train go round and round in a frozen memory. I looked up to him then. For a time, he was kind, we smiled and laughed at the same things; for a time, we ended each other’s sadness. Then it happened. A second, a third. He hasn’t changed, maybe you have. Go apologize. In telling myself I wouldn’t, it only made the next time that much more justifiable.

And then one night, it just stopped.

I would wake up and imagine he was still there, in any way I could. At first, I would look at some obscure gray spot in the night, and there he was, but he was smiling, he would hug me; soon it’d be him breaking into tears. Eventually, when I knew he really was gone and that not even the shadows remained, I would miss him hitting me, all the scars he would cause, the hot tears that would stream down my face. If I couldn’t sleep altogether, I contented myself by remembering the furious crack of his belt, or the blow of his hand. Both were never to come again. The night was so quiet then, so cold.

I heard the chirps of crickets, and I cried.

Tears like snowflakes on my cheeks, ending all reverie. My heartbeat was normal, my head was clear. I stepped right into the heart of the winter wonderland and became a child again. I had enough to only buy a locomotive, but it lit up and spun in circles, it even sang songs. After they had wrapped it up they gave me a complimentary box of chocolate Santas. I was happy.


My letters came from a hospice in Charlestown. The stamp was a giant carrion beetle digging into a bed of violets. I was at the station waiting for an actual train, the mist swaying all about me, the faraway marine sounds of the seaport ready at any moment to stop completely and burst into drunken cries of Auld Lang Syne. I must admit I’d never been out of this little slice of Providence before. An orphan with pride but no means, I would debase myself, warm myself with any burning oil drum to feel a hint of rebellious freedom. Heaven against me, Hell calling me, I made the circle of Limbo my home. I hate some of those memories, some others I love and miss, but I can’t regret them. I’m reminded of a wise word of Montaigne: “The deadest deaths are the best.” Perhaps this is why I’m at the intersection of these two trains; there’s a regret I can’t bear. A long regret I must end.

As the icy landscape passed by the train windows with its bare trees and frozen lakes, I was left with a question I couldn’t answer after all those nights of both storm and calm: why I still love him; why I still care. There’s nothing I should welcome more than to forget everything and focus on some time entirely of halcyon, even if I have to make it up. But death, time, they can forget, they can alter; it only takes a million years. To forget is to hold on to innocence, to be nostalgic is to try to reacquire it. To do either or both will only make the pain build up, ready to strike unheard and unseen. I can’t recommend meeting pain head-on, but with death and time against me, I was left with whatever little filial piety I had.

I don’t think there’s anything more human than unrequited love—that is, unlove, dangerous love. We are both deadly attracted to danger, and afraid of heartbreak. When a love should exist, but doesn’t, our recourse is to blame ourselves, internalizing our pain so the beloved isn’t hurt. One should never walk a one-way street forever, but who can say when the dead-end comes? This is why I still cared; I remembered the reciprocated love we once had, but I could never accept that any effort I made to be loved was in vain. A single kiss before bed and I might’ve broken down and forgave all; a fist never again felt and I could never forgive. I deserved better than blows, but there’s no feeling like the heart coping to steel itself against one’s mind.

In the end, I’m convinced now that a person can be able to risk any danger for their desire. Danger is inherent to human nature, it is above all a primordial, apex nature. Danger is little more than uncertainty, but no apex predator is able to bend the entire world to itself like man, so that uncertainty becomes the only thing that’s certain. Uncertainty opens the door for change, to make again what once was. This is why most in pain might never give up despite what those from the outside may say, any pain would be worth it to see what was once a smile, what was once a sunrise. But an uncertainty so dangerous is like a drug, leading only to ruin, but always at risk of being seen for what it is without its sly words and empty promises.

That’s why after forgetting and remembering, I tried again. I wasn’t trying to love, but to be loved. For me the dead-end was death, but perhaps it should’ve been when he first rose a hand against me. If I failed, maybe he was never worth succeeding for anyways.

I sighed and opened the chocolates. White Santas in golden foil. Night was coming stronger, the sky slowly opening up to reveal the stars. It shouldn’t snow anymore, in two weeks it might all be melted.

It was around eight when the train came into Charlestown, though I could’ve believed it was midnight. The station was covered in incandescent Christmas lights, plastic poinsettias and winter roses. I ordered a cab to the Westerly Hospital.

Though I ignored it for so long, does a town really come alive until it’s bundled in snow, in Christmas? Every lamp made heavenly and kerosene, every plant made either dead or still-life, all houses set against infinite horizons. I never got to see it with her, we never got to see it as a family. I wanted to give him that happiness before he’s gone, to let him see his daughter-in-law and granddaughter. The most childish thought of all popped into my head: you’re praying for miracles. But isn’t it the season? I snapped back that I have miracles, and I’m going to share them.

The hospital unnerved me, filled with all the bumps in the night, the electronic drones and an odor like disinfectant. Small Christmas trees were placed throughout the main wing, but they only added to my discontentment, filling the austere corners with an ethereal, blinding glow. In a far-off land, I heard the echoes of Paul McCartney.

“Giovanni Taviani,” I asked the receptionist as I showed her the letter.

“Hospice wing.”

A nurse then told me visiting hours were extended, but I should make it short so that he conserves his energy. It was past nine now.

Any anger I might’ve had wouldn’t have helped how much it hurt to look at him. The stilted breathing despite the oxygen apparatus in his nostrils, all the needles and computers connected to him, the gentle sway and bubble of the IV fluid, everybody in the hospital taking care to glance at him as they walked by. He no longer had hair but sunspots hiding his emaciated scalp. His chin cascaded down in waves as he held onto the covers with fingers cut to the bone. I would’ve felt pity looking at anybody like this; Satan in ice.

“Poppa, Poppa,” a gentle shrug on the shoulders and he opened his eyes, sunken, misty; fish eyes.

“Who is it, who’s calling?” He shivered at the sound of his own voice. “Is that—that you my boy? Gianni?”

“It’s Johnny. I just got your letter, and her letter.”

“Read hers to me won’t you? Please?”

I pulled the letters out of my coat pocket. The first was his: Condition Worse, written in a scrawled, slowly degenerating hand. Ten of these letters must’ve found their way to me. This time he included another, written by my mother just before the world’s heartbreak. Please come written on the yellow, faded envelope in my father’s hand. I finally opened it, reading as follows:


My dearest son I wish you were here. The trees keep calling my name as they scratch against the window and they keep me company but I’m alone as the wind blows so cold and the radiator hums so loud. My mouth tastes like radiation and they said it has spread to all my lymph nodes and bronchioles and other devil’s talk. They mean my heart’s next, my brain, whatever’s in there like that time I yelled at you for playing marbles after dark I’m sorry I’m sorry. I haven’t seen you, I haven’t seen him, I’ve only seen the blossoms crowd around the stamen before falling off, I haven’t seen the honey bees I haven’t seen the sun nor shine. You have made me so happy I’m looking at the baby pictures you have, torn, tattered, burnt; and I’m happy. I might not see the next moon but I know it will be full. It’s full because I want it to be, I want the night black and there’s only the moon. No stars until dawn where they twinkle like airplane trails. I will be cremated and my ashes spread in the ocean, laying on the seafloor where only sparse light hits… I want you there. I want you. Tell your father your father Tell him…


We were silent for a time, passing by the hours, the drift of snowflakes, the end of music. He blinked faster, trying in vain to move his arms up as he made short, repeated gasps. For a time, the monitors sped up, pinging higher and faster until they nearly flat lined again and he shivered once and it was all over.

“What is it she wanted you to tell me?”

I smiled through the tears. “She loved you. She loved me. She loved the world. Beautiful thoughts. I never knew she wanted to be cremated.”

“Neither did I,” and he tried to break down again, fumbling impotently in the bed, stopping to face me. “I’m in the last of it now. The winter will take me like it took her. But I don’t think I’ll see the spring. I’ve felt it in the heart and now it’s in the brain. I’ll finally see her again…see her.”

“Is that why you wrote to me?”

“Not all. One of the nurses is the executor of my last will and testament. And it’s all for you—everything I’ve incurred in this life of dust to dust. Figlio, figlio, it’s all yours, my locket, pictures of me and her in wartime daze. Nothing else remains.”

He pointed towards a nightstand by the bed. The locket was wrapped around a small glasses case. Covered in rust and dust, it was heavy with memory in my hands. I brought out my present, wrapped in tinsel and stardust. “That’s not all. You have your own gift to open.”


“Of course, Poppa. It’s nearly Christmas.”

He stared out into space, his mouth agape. “It seems time has escaped me completely. Open it; my hands hurt from the rheumatism.”

Wrapping off the ribbon and paper to the nostalgic box underneath, he became more and more stargazy and aimless, stuck in something like childish awe. “It’s a locomotive,” I said as I started to take it out of the box. I put it on the nightstand and pulled some notches. It sparked red and blue at the sides, spun around, and played Chattanooga Choo Choo and the Carlton March in cylindrical notes. “It’s the only one I could get at this time. I gotta wonder if they really cost as much back then.”

“And why give me this? A children’s toy for a dying man?”

“I know, it’s a little silly,” I said with an awkward laugh. “I’m a father now myself, and I thought of the first—and only—present I ever asked for. Remember? The advertisements on the radio where they played Babes in Toyland? At least, I remember. I thought it’d be a pleasant memory before…” I caught myself, but not without having to look down, finding the train ridiculous now.

Looking back at him, his face had colored with the past, as if he had remembered who he was. A vindictive gleam in his eyes, his mouth falling to a wrinkled grimace, his brows angry and furrowed. I shuddered with some wicked nostalgia. He turned his head to the train. I wonder if the nearly two decades flashed before his eyes like mine did. While I wanted each of them in fear, they must have all attacked him without being seen, in anger. His hands had curled up into fists.

“I also wanted to show you my family, our family,” I said hesitatingly as I pulled out my wallet. “This is my wife Julie—Julietta, for long. And this is my pride and soul, your granddaughter Clarissa.” He held out a hand, but when I gave the wallet to him he proceeded to lay it on the bed. He didn’t even ask for his glasses.

He handed it back to me. Clenching his missing teeth together, varicose veins on his neck and forehead started to throb, his bald temples assuming their own tempo, he spat out. “Why must you bother me with this?”

“With ‘this?’”

“You couldn’t just let your old man die in peace could you? You have to guilt me, you have to come here and tell me about every sad Christmas you ever had. Blame me that I never called or something, that I didn’t know you had a family.”

“I’m not doing that at all. I thought—“

“Why don’t you just unplug everything. Puncture the bags. Give your old man peace. I just wanted the letter read, but you had other intentions. I’ve given you everything, now go.”

I like to believe I’m a gentle man. I like to believe I could always see the good in people. But I hated him then, I saw him for exactly what he was, all those times I was left aimless breaking my childhood innocence once and all. I saw the dead-end ahead, and it had a right turn.

“My wife, my daughter…your son are not some inconveniences to you that you can just call ‘this.’ All I ever wanted was a father, somebody, someone to be there during the bad times. I wanted you to be that, just for a moment, for what might be our last Yuletide, and I expected too much. Now I don’t believe in miracles anymore, I know it’s only happiness you can hope for. But I look at Clarissa and I know she’s like the discovery of a new moon, the explosion of a supernova, the hum of the Mariana Trench. She’s your granddaughter and you’re gonna look at her, you fucking bastard.”

He looked at me without inflection, indifferent. I called him what he was and he didn’t care. I could feel my heart, every repressed pain and memory. I wanted us to hate each other, more than we ever had.

“She’s looking down at us right now, and she’s saying the same thing, that you’re a loveless bastard.”

Instantly, that sent him into a wild rage. The heart monitor went berserk, making curves like constellations. He reached over and hit me with all his used strength on the face, over and over. The sudden burn of blood on my cheek, and I stood unflinching, dauntless. Finally a nurse came running over with a hypodermic needle, presumably a sedative. I caught her hand.

“No, let him hit me. He’s going to find out it’s the last time he ever gets to.”

He stopped then, short of breath, covered in respiration. With each ping of his heart, I could see the pain on his face. In the end, we were back where we started.

I grabbed my wallet off the floor, lost in the confusion. “Merry Christmas, Dad,” I said under my breath and went towards the entrance. The receptionist asked where I might be reached in case of complications. I didn’t want to hear any more of it then, so I told her I’d be at the Tanglewood Hotel just for the night.

I didn’t take the time to notice any further festivities, calling the cab and listlessly making my way to the desk and then the bed. I opened my gift, filling the dead hotel with an eerie creak. The only time I would ever know her, my mother turned in profile to look directly at her betrothed. Inscribed on the back, gilded in dust: Serva me, servabo te. It was all Latinorum to me.

I apologized to her, I’d given everything I had, all I got. That simulacrum of my love; simulacrum of my hatred. The still wind sounded like soft-sung lullaby. I ordered a warm glass of milk, and prayed for sweet dreams.


Ten Eves until Christmas. In the still morning, the sun shined on every evergreen and everglade. I tried, I said again to the pictures in the locket, guardian and fallen. I finally had an idea of what she looked like, but his picture stung more. That was how I saw him in those moonlit memories, those sunlit stargazes: noble, gentle, some aristocratic air of a strong father. I was shaking. I’m still the one to cry, again and again until I die.

Ready to turn in, defeated, I got a call from the Westerly Hospital. The acting executor of the will and last testament told me Mr. Taviani wished to speak to me again.


It was more comforting in daylight. Christmas trees without shadows, larks and meadows, all shining white and bright. I asked the morning receptionist the same question, and got pointed towards my way. He was in all his glory now, the slanting rays of the cool sun from the window filling every detail. No longer would I show him pity, lament lost futures, let him raise a hand; I was my own man now.

“Is that you again, Johnny?”

“Yes, Padre Padrone.”

“Don’t call me that. Your toy woke me up in the middle of the night, the bright colors, the crash of sound. I thought it was the big one and I was afraid. A child turned it on, some visitor, and I gave it to him. You gave it to me and I gave it to him. Can you forgive your old father?”

“Yes, it’s okay. It was a good thing to do, give him smiles in a place like this.”

“I saw myself then, at the gates of Heaven. What I am, what I’ve done. Will they open? Will I hear the chimes of Paradise or the laments of the Seraphim? Tell me son.”

I opened my mouth but was left gaping. When I felt damned I thought it was best to always look up, but maybe you can hold on stronger after you see the long way to fall.

“It’s ok,” I whispered and whispered again.

“Let me see them again, your family…my family. Please give me my glasses in the nightstand.” I reached for the horn-rimmed spectacles and then my wallet. He stroked their hair, their faces, noses and dimples. He cried then, real and true tears, but lost were all the edifying feelings I had dreamed of for so long. No broken family reunited, no healing of scars, none of what was perhaps my idea of sweet revenge. I knew his face and voice then, but what did I curse him for? For a second, I forgot; I was indifferent. “They’re like the angels of Botticelli,” he said as he cupped his hands and the scrapbook fell to the side of the bed. “I haven’t much time until my mind fogs up again. Can we make up lost time? Years like fugitives, and so is the hour. Talk to me son, one last time.”

“I just want to know why.”


“Why you hurt me, why you left, why you called again, why…a lot of things.”

“Why I ruined you, why I ruined myself? I know why, I know the answer neither of us could answer. I couldn’t look at you without thinking of her, I couldn’t look at the child she died for without wishing she might live again. At first, all in grief you were my miracle, a prodigal son that survived oblivion. Then, you looked more and more like me, but you got your mother’s hair, her cheeks, her gentle hands, her unending smile. You were a constant reminder of both her, and a simpler time, a time when only bombs fell.

“I couldn’t break this mirror of my soul, but I had to crack it. I had to disfigure you in some way, I had to make you drop her smile, and also make you look less like me. All that happened was the same as Narcissus when he cracked his mirrors; he became lost in the perfect reflection repeated over and over. I was a coward, unable to stand in my own home, even with all the pictures turned over. As all the sins I was wrong enough to commit gave me no peace of mind; I was forced to flee.

“I don’t know if you can still love me, but I hope you can forgive me. The worst part about sinning is that I’ve sinned against myself…and you.”

“I still love you, Poppa,” I said as I put away the spectacles that had drifted to the tip of his nose. “Against all my better judgment, I’ve never stopped. But I don’t know if I can forgive you. I can forgive myself now, and maybe one day, someday, I can forgive you again. When you hated to look at me, why did you want to see me all this time?”

“Because, despite everything I was capable of, I couldn’t do the thing that haunted me as I now slowly perish: open your letter. I thought one day I’d be strong enough to read her last words, words not addressed to me, but that day will never come. I needed to know, but I couldn’t betray the love she had for you. I’m a sick man, hateful and dying, but I like to think I never stopped having thoughts of you son. Now, when I’m up there making my case to Saint Peter, all the angels, and her, I’d like to say I gave it all I had. But if it’s the flames, I can’t say I don’t understand.”

“It won’t be that. At least, I hope so.”

“Either way, son, just live for me, for us. Don’t think at the very least that you’ll have a softer punch. If that day ever comes, let the heart act, and not the mind. My own mind will fail me again, and I’ll forget you and everything I’ve done and not done. Tell me that I told you that I love you, and I might remember. Now, I need my sleep, and you should be going back to Providence.”

“Merry Christmas, Dad.”

He was already asleep then, and I heard the sound of a record skipping. Despite every weather report, the frost continued to fall. Apropos of it, or perhaps of a love I was forced to obey, I cried. The train tracks passed by the myriad hours, evergreens and poplars poking out in cool colors from the snow. I saw a single cedar, pointing to Heaven.


Giovanni Taviani died before the New Year. He was buried next to our beloved, a rose on her bed, a white lily on his. For once, the weather report gave me solace.