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The Day Johnny Saxon Cried

Only the two of them were in the white hospital room. The eighty-two-year-old man with the snow-white hair and the thin, drawn face lay back on the white pillowcase. His deeply-set brown eyes stared at his grandson glassily. Falteringly, in a hesitant mixture of Italian and English, the boy was saying . . .

“Grandpa,” his voice was soft, broken by tears. “Grandpa, do you understand what I’ve been telling you? I want you to know . . .”



Johnny Saxon didn’t finish the sentence. His grandfather was not listening, a serene expression passed over his face in spite of the short, huffy and uncomfortable gasps in his breath. Leaning over, Johnny clasped his grandfather’s hard, wrinkled hand in his.

“Grandpa,” Johnny asked, calling the old man as he used to as a boy. “Tell me, look at me . . . let me know you understand.”

His grandfather lay still. The tight, hollow gasps of breath continued. No, Johnny said to himself, he isn’t listening. He can’t hear a word I’m saying.

Suffering from cancer of the throat during this past, pain-wracked year, his grandfather had refused to go to the hospital until now, in a critical condition, he had been brought by a speeding ambulance to this white, ether-smelling room where he lay dying through these last twenty-four hours.

Holding his grandfather’s bony hand in his, Johnny prayed. He prayed hard, begging God to release the hot, throbbing life from his own fingers into his grandfather’s limp palm. But the dying man’s breathing quickened, and Johnny bent over and touched the old man’s bony hand with his cheek; then went out to the hospital hallway to summon the nurse who waited outside with his family.

“I want him to know I’ll be a success, that I’ll make good in Hollywood, that I have a contract.” But his immigrant grandfather who had only gone to the movies once in his life didn’t grasp the meaning of what he was telling him. All he seemed to understand was that his Johnny, “his beloved Carmen,” was ushering in a movie theater.

“Don’t be ashamed of your work, whatever you do. If you’re an usher be the best usher!” was the last thing his grandfather said before lapsing back into a coma.

Now, the nurse, a rustling blur of white with softly curled black hair against a rose-pink complexion, held his grandfather’s wrist and checked his pulse.

Seeing the old man gasp for breath brought new tears to Johnny’s eyes. “He . . . he needs help,” he tried holding back a sob, the hard lump in his throat, and walked over to the wide hospital window while the nurse stood silently by his grandfather’s side counting the pulse- beats.

Outside, in the cloudy light of the sunless spring afternoon, the March wind seemed almost to sigh against the hospital window. Below, on the grey Brooklyn street, shouting children in warm coats and bright-colored caps ran home from school. Yellow taxis honked their horns. Clusters of women waited on streetcorners for buses. Far away, on a rooftop, Johnny saw, through his tears, a washline of clothes fluttering in the wind.

The squeals of the young, grade-school children, as though carried by the sighing spring wind, reached the seventh-floor room where Johnny stood gazing through the hospital window, and reminded him of a day, years ago. He was six and ready to begin school . . .

Wasn’t it his grandfather who said, “I . . . I bring the boy. I bring Carmen to school.” His grandfather was proud of him, his first grandson and namesake, and wanted the joy of enrolling his Carmen in the yellow-brick parochial school not far from their home in Brooklyn.

On that first day of school when the elder Carmen Orrico came calling for the young Carmen to register him in the first- grade class of St. Catherine’s of Alexandria, he gave his grandson a brown, leather-trimmed school bag and a double decker pencil box of colored Mongol pencils.

“Someday,” he told the young Carmen in his lusty, loud-lunged voice, “someday, my little one, you . . . you’re going to be an important man. You wait and see. Here, in America, you have fine opportunity!”

Hand in hand, they both walked slowly to school on that crisp September morning. They walked along the busy sidewalks under the spreading trees, those sun-spangled trees of heaven, the trees that grow everywhere in Brooklyn.

“Will I like school, Grandpa?” young Carmen wanted to know.

“Like school?” his grandfather said with a tone of incredulity. “Of course, my boy, you’ll like school.” He went on to explain all the things Carmen would learn in school. “. . . and you must study hard so that someday, when you grow up, you’ll make Grandma and me proud of you!”

Young Carmen listened intently, but when the time came for him to say goodbye in the hallway of the musty-smelling school building, he was frightened. “I don’t want to be left alone,” he had said.

“Now, don’t you worry,” his grandfather answered as he pinned a small St. Christopher medal inside his coat. He will take care of you in your new travels.

“And remember; now you are a man,” his grandfather said in Italian. “You don’t want to make us ashamed of you. A man never cries!”

Carmen swallowed hard and tried to hold back his tears. He followed the black-robed Sister to the first-grade room, past the American flag in the corner and to a circle of children, smiling girls in pretty plaid dresses and beaming boys in starched cotton shirts. The Sister smiled her welcome and began to read a prayer from her big brown book.

That noontime, his grandfather left work to come and get Carmen. He waited in the school’s hallway. When he met the boy he had said, arms outstretched to greet him. “There’s my Carmen. Tell me now, how was the first day of school?” And he took him to Lou Hessing’s corner ice cream parlor and bought him a double dip chocolate ice cream cone.

Later, when young Carmen wanted to know why his mother or father didn’t bring him to school on that first day, his father told him how much schooling meant to his grandfather who had come from a poor family in Naples and never had the luxury of education. School in Italy, at the time his grandfather grew up, was only for the higher classes. The lower classes had to go to work.

But his grandfather, determined to find opportunity for himself, immigrated to the northern climate of New York from his sunny Naples. And he dug ditches and mixed cement to raise his family. He knew he might never be able to send his own children to college, but the dream he held in his heart was for his grandchildren to reap all the glorious benefits of his newly adopted and beloved land.

“America,” he used to say in Italian, “she is going to be good to us. . .”

Now, as the spring wind whistled against the window pane of the hospital room, the Driest from their parish in Brooklyn, in his somber black suit and starched white collar, entered with Johnny’s family; his weeping, grey-haired mother who clutched a handkerchief and dabbed at her swollen, puffed cheeks; his short, stocky father whose dark eyes were red-rimmed from crying; his saddened teenage sisters, Dolores and Julie Ann; all of his heartbroken uncles and aunts.

They had all waited in the hospital hallway while Johnny tried to talk with Grandfather alone, while he tried to explain to the dying man that Carmen Orrico was going to be a success. But Grandfather, failing from the malignant illness, didn’t hear all of Johnny’s words, didn’t understand what Johnny wanted him to know.

Now, in the midst of that dark March afternoon, here they were, all of them huddled together in grief, kneeling in silent prayer while the tall priest unfolded a narrow cloth of purple silk and placed it over his shoulders. He gave Johnny’s gasping grandfather his final communion and read the last rites from a black prayer book, the sign of the crucifix embossed in gilt on its cover.

“Here we all are,” Johnny thought, “a family brought together by death.” How many times before they had been brought together! For sicknesses, for happinesses, for the death of his kind grandmother, Veronica Orrico. Here they were now, brought together out of love for the man who had the strength and courage to leave a destitute home in faraway Italy for the future of his children and his children’s children.

In a low, chanting voice the priest intoned the Latin prayers of the final sacrament, and Johnny, as he fell to his knees to pray, recalled a memory, a touching remembrance of an August Sunday following his sixteenth birthday. . .

He had had a come-of-age party the Friday of his birthday with all his friends from the neighborhood and from the New Utrecht High School. He had rolled the living-room rug into a corner for easy dancing and spin-the-bottle games, and everybody said they had a wonderful time. But on Sunday, two days after Johnny became sixteen, his grandfather and grandmother came to a family dinner in Johnny’s behalf, after morning Mass at St. Catherine’s of Alexandria. All the Orrico relatives were there. His grandfather was dressed in his dark grey Sunday suit, high white collar, striped silk tie.

“How distinguished he looks,” Johnny had told himself. “He has so much … so much dignity.” A laborer, yes. A ditch digger. A brick loader. But no matter. Grandfather Orrico was proud of his life and his family, and his pride showed in his deep-set eyes, his erect bearing and the admiring way he looked at them all.

“Carmen, my Carmen,” his grandfather said as he embraced his grandson proudly and gave him a silver Parker 51 fountain pen. His small grandmother with the black-olive eyes, in a dark dress and tiny gold hoop earrings in her pierced ears, kissed Johnny and wished him good health and good luck.

They were here because this was his day, Carmen’s day, and everyone brought him beautiful gifts and good wishes. The Friday night party was fun, but somehow it didn’t make him feel sixteen. This day did. Seeing his grandfather and grandmother looking at him with loving eyes, his mother pouring red wine into the dozen sparkling wine-glasses on a silver tray held by his sister, Dolores, his father offering all the men Havana cigars, it was their way of saying “Son. you’ve come of age. We’re behind you. We believe in you. We’re here to make this day yours.”

Smiling, his dark-eyed sister offered all the guests glasses of Chianti wine, and after everyone was served, they lifted their glasses into the air while Johnny’s grandfather pronounced a toast to Johnny’s golden future. Everyone sipped from the thin-stemmed glasses. And again, like the first day when he went to school holding onto his grandfather’s hand, Johnny almost cried. He held back the show of emotion. His grandfather wouldn’t like it. It wasn’t manly, he told himself. It wasn’t right.

After the toast there was silence, then Aunt Tess lifted her glass and toasted “to the nice pretty girl, wherever she is, who someday’s going to be his wife!”

Tempting aromas of tomato sauce, cheeses, spaghetti and turkey came in from the kitchen. Soon, everyone sat down to a bountiful Sunday meal, and Grandfather, who sat at the head of the walnut-wood table in the dining room with the faded camellia-flowered wallpaper, asked Johnny to say grace, and Johnny, nervous, flustered, unsure of himself, floundered. He didn’t know what to say.

Finally, after a long silence, with everyone waiting for him to speak, Johnny began reciting an “Our Father,” not knowing what else to do, and when he finished, his grandfather made the sign of the cross and said, “You have a gift, my boy, a gift from God. Your voice, it’s gentle. You must think about using it in your work. You know, you might make a good lawyer!”. . .

Praying now in the white-walled hospital room, his eyes on the gold crucifix the priest placed in his grandfather’s stilled hands, Johnny asked God to make his grandfather understand why he had to change his name in Hollywood.

His grandfather chose to ignore the film world, refused to believe that Johnny had changed his name from the generations- old Carmen Orrico to the artificial Johnny Saxon. Years ago, when his grandfather went to a neighborhood movie, he stayed only for ten minutes. When he walked out he declared everything he saw on the big screen was trash. Now, he couldn’t understand that Johnny, his Carmen, lived in Hollywood. He chose to believe Johnny was following the call of wild youth, roaming around before he settled down.

Only last night when a film of Johnny’s was being shown on television, Johnny rented a TV set, had it wheeled into his grandfather’s quiet hospital room in order that he might see his grandson as an actor, but when it came time for the program his grandfather fell into a deep sleep, never once seeing—if only for a moment—his grandson in the leading role.

Now, Carmen Orrico, immigrant from Italy, laborer, family man, was dying with his loved ones at his side. Arising from their prayers, Johnny’s mother and father walked over to the deathbed and kissed the sallow cheeks of the gasping, dying man.

Johnny arose and walked to the window. He looked out at the cloudy spring sky. “Dear God,” Johnny prayed, “let him know of my work, let him know I’m no longer an usher in a movie house, let him know I’ve fulfilled his dream of success.”

For a moment, only a brief moment, the March sun came out from behind the grey clouds and shone all over the rooftops and streets of Brooklyn. Tears streaming down his cheeks, Johnny looked up at the sun in wonderment. It was as if God had spoken to him through this golden burst of sunlight. Then, in that next instant, the sun disappeared, vanished, fell into dark hiding behind a mist of spring clouds.

Johnny stopped crying.

Maybe Grandfather had understood.







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