Little Miss Bigmouth

Summer has always been problematic for me.

Miyoko Ito, Sea Chest. 1972, oil on canvas. 47 × 45". Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery. © Estate of Miyoko Ito.

My brother dies several times a month.

It’s always my mother who phones to inform me of his passing.

“Your brother’s not answering my calls,” she says in a whisper.

To her, the telephone bears witness to our permanence on Earth, so if there’s no answer, the only possible explanation is the cessation of all vital functions.

When she calls to tell me my brother is gone, she’s not looking for reassurance. Instead she wants me to share in her grief. Suffering together is her form of happiness; misery shared is misery relished.

Sometimes the cause of death is banal: a gas leak, a head-on collision, a broken neck from a bad fall.

Other times the scenario is more complex.

My mother’s call last Easter Monday was followed by another one from a young carabiniere.

“Your mother has reported your brother’s disappearance. Can you confirm this?”

They hadn’t heard from each other for maybe a couple of hours. He was out to lunch with his girlfriend, and my mother was agonizing over why he wasn’t out to lunch with the person who’d brought him into this world.

I tried to reassure the young carabiniere. Everything was under control.

“No,” he burst out, “everything is not under control. All hell has broken loose on our switchboard.”

On that particular occasion my brother wasn’t yet dead, but was at death’s door. He was being held captive in a parking garage, having been kidnapped and tortured by henchmen sent out by the Democratic Party. He’d recently become culture councillor of Rome’s third municipal district and at times there were disagreements with fellow party members.

“Don’t bicker with anyone,” my mother had warned him.

“Mamma, I don’t bicker, I do politics.”

“All right, just make up afterward.”

After ascertaining that her son is still alive, my mother always feels mortified. She pouts like a 12-year-old girl. Her voice even turns into a 12-year-old girl’s. How can you get angry at a little girl?

“You think I should bring the carabinieri some pastries?” she asks in that little voice.

Come to think of it, who knows why she called the carabinieri and not the regular police? I don’t dare pose the question, since it risks doubling the number of calls she’ll make next time. The fire department, for example, or civil protection. She’s never thought of them before.

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