SELF-PORTRAIT WITH BROKEN NOSE
by Marc Labriola
No one takes you seriously until you start shitting blood. Everyone who knew him was bored of his sickness. Edith was bored of his anger. Bored of his trick bowel. His celestial rages. Bored of his misery. Bored to death of the innumerable symptoms of his enlarged heart. Life had been a waste of breath. It wasn’t until after he started hemorrhaging that his wife took him to Sacred Heart emergency.
End of the day, first day back up on the roof laying brick after he’d gone under the knife. Slit wide open at the umbilicus. Gut inflated with air. To excavate the stones that had been steadily growing for decades inside of the man. Now he was constipated. He wanted to get the hell out of here, get back to Pietrasanta, get back to his life’s work. Arrivederci and vaffanculo, Todd the foreman. And a vaffanculo to you Doctor Schultz. And to you Lady, who smirked at me last night from behind the pharmaceutical counter because you thought I had a girl’s name. No, the Lubiprostone is for my wife. But at this moment in time, all Andrea Bozzetto really wanted was to get the hell off that roof to go to the bathroom.
Fifth time already that day he had to tell Todd. What are you on the rag? Andrea managed to secrete a smile. The shit-eating grin. He lay down brick and trowel and went down the ten stories. Bozzetto hadn’t told a soul on day shift that he was straight out of surgery. That he felt his seams were splitting. He knew that Todd didn’t understand this newest mortification. He muttered under his breath. You should’ve known. You should have known about the bile, about the decades of slow stones, about the fecal occult blood, about being forced to admit my own name is a woman’s. It’s Italian and it means manly. You should’ve known Andrea Amati, euphoric father of the violin. Andrea Ammonio, poet. Andreas Vesalius, anatomist. Andrea de Adamich, the driver who won the European Touring Car Championship in a red Alfa Romeo 1600 GTA when I was eighteen years old. The same year his papà suggested bricks to a boy who was good with his hands. He should’ve known that Andrea was sixty-five years old today.
He sat down in that green plastic toilet to try to take the masterpiece shit and took out a rosary from his work pants. Not for the divine intervention of the Blessed Virgin, but for his hard-assed belief that through some kind of imitative magic, the beads raining down beneath the man on the cross would help him to defecate. His wife couldn’t understand what his problem was all the time. The problem was he was an artist.
The older men on the crew used to know that Andrea Bozzetto was a sculptor, and between talking pussy and mortar, they showed him the reverence of a man destined to leave. Get the hell out of here Bozzetto and never look back. Everything here turns to shit. But those guys were all dead now or at home hemorrhaging away in their beds, their wives decorating their bedside tables with Calabrese altar decorations and asshole creams. Now he whittled dry mortar into elephantine figures, or the same tiny nude woman whose bone structure he had committed to memory. Andrea Bozzetto, get back to your stone.
On the shitter he always thought about being a dead man. He imagined funeral things. The casket. The headstone. He predicted mythologies that would be engendered while he was turning slowly to bone. His wife would let his death be the occasion to proudly begin doing all the things she envied in other women, breaking taboos that never existed. Using his death to un-imagine him. Like a ruined wall being torn down. All those future nights of rages snared in his dumb corpse. All that suffering, Andrea thought. For nothing. As if I never existed. No one will put in a good word for the dead man.
Talking to Edith about his fears was a waste of breath. She knew it was all just shitter talk anyway. The histrionic bowel. Even if he breathed a word about that old dream project of sculpting the over-life-sized male nude, his wife would sense the onslaught of frustrated desire and stonewall him. The heat of her braced silence would ignite his anger. By the end of the night, she would prove right in her prediction of his temper. Blamed again for his sanguine rages, for sleep deprivation torture, but it was him who had been hurt by her and him who had to get up in a couple hours anyway to sit hopelessly on that cold porcelain bowl before he left for the bricks. Squatting there, he would burn his lips in silence, because he really hadn’t finished what he had to say to his wife yet. And besides, it was him that was dying.
He knew she prayed every night, as she lay down with rehearsed silence in their bed, that his day’s anger and humiliation would be cauterized by the night and this infuriated him—lying there with that ridiculous raging hard-on. He was acutely aware of all the miniscule shifts in breath and bone that separate pretend sleep from real. And he sometimes shook his wife awake in the middle of the night to blunt this anger that had been piqued by the little pretty shape of a dreaming body that had turned to him as though having one last look. Old jealousies weighed on him. Over the decades, they had become monumental and sprawling like the streets of ancient sinful cities. Andrea was not a sadist, as Edith had accused him. Or in love with suffering. He didn’t take pleasure in his own despair. He was just very, very angry. All he really wanted was for her to let him dole out his rage in his own damn time—which, she dreaded, was forever. They had been together for already almost half a century. Married shortly after the slight changes occurred in Edith’s body that only a sculptor or a widow could distinguish.
Andrea once looked out from the tops of his own brick walls for girls in the streets with travertine skin, or breasts of soft clay and terracotta lips. Like all sculptors, and more so than other young men of eighteen, Andrea had often considered the problems of intertwined figures. When he saw Edith for the first time, singing in the university, he thought her body was a slender pillar of gilt bronze, with eyes the colour of marble. Andrea coaxed himself. If she looks back at me just once.
Her skin tasted like salt after they slept together for the first time. In those furtive minutes before his quiet brother got home from working at the used book store, he stood in front of the bathroom mirror and looked around his own body. Just a rough study for a larger work. He thought about the art book he stole from the library when he was twelve. His cock measured against the genitals of antiquity. The oversized cocks of pubescent Christs. He took solace in the nude sculpture of the Boxer of Quirinal with his open wounds of inlayed copper and his cock bound up—dog tied. Sex ruins fighters, after all. And the male singing voice. He thought about his boyhood hands. He thought about his brothers, with the matching broken noses they inherited from their father. It was then that he understood what would be, if he truly was a great sculptor, his masterpiece—an over-life-sized male nude.
Edith’s body conjured the female nudes of the art book and the figurine of a girl he made from the clay he found by the creek. Both hidden. Uncovered nights when he jerked off menacingly to The Birth of Venus as his four brothers who shared a bedroom with him all dreamed of Libby. Her hair blond with a slight green patina— showed her tits if you asked her to behind Nic’s Barber Shop or the Chinese grocery or the bridge or the coin laundry. Andrea saw them both, twice. Behind the butcher and again behind Sacred Heart. Libby, naïve and open with a ruthless laugh, was the antithesis of Pietrasanta, with its evil eyes, hexes, blood oaths, and ancient grudges, its codes of shame, and vengeful men with their loathsome wives with black horses’ manes—the mothers of future dead boys, who knew all the evil numbers and the names of funerary flowers, who gossiped with repugnance over the bellies of would-be brides who would name their unborn children after their own mother’s dead sons.
It was that back alley Statue of Libby who, one by one, presided over the first hard-ons of each of those swarthy immigrant brothers. Roused that sleeping animal who stretched itself out inside of them. But unlike his older brothers who flaunted their new sexual potency (the personal achievement of having seen tits) and played Who’d You Rather on the bridge over the creek, Andrea felt like a shameful little pervert gargoyle. His short fat cock incensed by the Renaissance nudes waiting for him in his undies drawer.
Later, during a Sunday scouring of the bedroom, the book was uncovered by Mamma who wept large Adriatic tears and spouted stories of brimstone with women turning to pillars of salt, and prayed vicious decades of the rosary in a language that no longer exists. He replaced the nudes in good time with a school library copy of Vesalius’ illustrations, over which he was forced to rub one out night after night to sixteenth century anatomical drawings of female torsos—exposed with medical precision. His pubescent imagination entangled even in the horrifying vaginal wilderness of the genital tract with upside down fetuses staring back at him—the fruit of thy wombs.
Andrea began to see all the things in his world in still life or portraiture. Everything framed and labelled, like his erotic autopsied women. He would name the day’s vignettes as though they were paintings. The Temptation of Andrea Bozzetto. Boy with Cigarette from Papà’s Pack. Portrait de Papà sans Pants. Nude Papà Descending a Staircase with Belt Overhead. Trip and Fall of the Damned Son. The Massacre of the Innocent Boy. Universal Judgement in the Kitchen. Self-Portrait with Broken Nose.
He even played a little game where he tried to identify everyone in their truest artistic material of construction. Black and whites of dead Bisnonno—an old man porcelain doll. Zio Marcello who slept sprawled then fetal on the couch and cried on Wednesdays—constructed from the materials of an accordion. His bad brother—leering eyes of grey lighter fluid. The fat brother—his big back the husk of a sunken ocean liner. Cousin Carmela, who he gave up his bed for when she arrived from Pietrasanta—breasts of ripe melon. Others still with ethereal bodies. Zia Rose, with the dead soldier husband, was a smell. A low lying haze of shifting incense. Zio Maurizio was made entirely of cigarette smoke. Rothmans. Mamma in the kitchen—a dark living spice. Papà’s archaic after dinner head—stone.
It was many years now since he had watched Edith will herself into a self-portrait, pretending to sleep. Her face was slowly changing. And that beautiful lady, who still tasted of salt, became the monument of his own closeness to death. Andrea felt he could see the slow hollowing of her cheeks. The minerals of her bones scattering like white sand over the black bed sheets. He saw the flattening under her eye sockets and felt he could actually see her jaw bone receding. In his nightly morphologic adoration he knew how much he loved her, because he realized that what he was really doing was keeping watch over her, like a gargoyle, in case she might disappear completely. Andrea kissed her on the forehead. Study of a Nude Wife Dying in Her Sleep. He instinctively wished on her too old body once again for a boy, and slept.
He took out his work lunch from the bag between his legs. Not the first time he had eaten in the shitter. His wife communicated best with him through lunches. Unlike that puritanical feed he had grown used to, for his sixty-fifth birthday (proof that she still loved him vehemently) she had ignored the advice of Dr. Schultz and packed him a panino with prosciutto and mortadella. Not being Italian, she was still a foreigner to this diabolical cured ham that had nearly killed her husband and half of his brothers. The first bite went down good and Andrea felt that this was the moment that he could finally loosen the imbroglio in his bowel. Todd banged the door. Andrea, what are you eating your little lunch in there again? I want ass to roof in five or you’re a dead man. Andrea wanted to die in there, at that very second in history, with his panino between his legs. Just tip back that green plastic toilet into the dirt and lay brick right over him.
He wiped up, got out, and with the intention of either declaring his retirement or burning the building to the ground, he got in the elevator and pressed the button for the tenth. For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it, he recalled. Andrea climbed the ladder to the rooftop, crossed the roof in long strides towards a little brick structure where Todd stood, and cracked him a right to the face. Felt the bones of his fist shatter and minerals scatter like ash into the blood of his wrists. Todd was on his ass. He got up and Andrea broke his nose. Papà’s shot. For sixty-five years this fight had been dormant inside Andrea Bozzetto. All the missed schoolyard brawls snarled in him. All the times he had bit his lip and taken it. Like when he was hit in the side of the head by his father by mistake—it was the bad brother who’d pissed in Mrs. Balvenie’s bush. Or when, somehow, he had ended up looking after the retard Cesar (bride’s cousin) for hours during his own wedding reception. Trying to stop him again and again from whipping out his enormous wildebeest cock in front of the flushed bridesmaids. His in-laws, patronizingly tolerant of his woman’s name and the Roman mass, cooed over what they perceived in him to be a sort of St. Francis of Assisi quality—attracting wild beasts through some primitive, animalistic, Catholic empathy possessed by saints, feral children, and wops.
Andrea relived noses he should have broken and skulls he should have collapsed. He saw the catalogue of body parts as illustrations in Vesalius’ book of anatomy and felt phantom pains in his fist. He smashed Todd again over his right eye because he knew he wasn’t a sculptor at all, because he hadn’t made anything in decades. He cracked him over the left eye and drew blood for what had happened to him at eighteen. He wanted to knock Todd’s head off, topple him like the statues of Mussolini before he left Italy. He smashed him in the face for Libby’s perfectly lopsided tits, for the red Alfa Romeo he would never own.
Todd kicked him in the crotch. He went down. Todd lunged. Andrea grabbed a brick in his hand and bashed Todd in the side of the head. A long stroke of black blood from his ear. Andrea turned him and knelt on his chest and hit him in the throat. He felt the bone of his knuckles grow bare and he hit him again in the mouth, for his dead language, his mother tongue that had asphyxiated in him, for the name he’d been made to swear to never speak. Todd struck wild. Tore the buttons off Andrea’s dress shirt. The two old men staggered to their feet. Andrea’s bottom lip split wide. Blood tasted like the clay salt of bricks. He took one in the gut and went down. The seam in his gut was pulling open. Todd kicked him in the face, kicked all his teeth into his mouth, like pebbles. Todd collapsed Andrea’s nose with his forehead. Andrea put his knuckles deep into Todd’s rib and it cracked. He wanted to rip the thing right out. Todd felt Andrea’s dry panting on his mouth and hit Andrea in the jaw. Andrea bit off the tip of his own tongue. He punched Todd like his father did him, slapped him hard like his wife did. He was no longer fighting, he was purging violence.
He wanted to kill Todd because he ate alone in the shitter, because he was embarrassed at elementary school roll call, because he would choke up at that one certain name, because he loathed his job, because he resented that he was the best bricklayer, because Todd had four handsome boys, because he never saw Pietrasanta again, because he was an artist, because his father died humiliated and alone, because of his all-night rages, because of the over-life-sized male nude, because of all the symptoms of his enormous heart, because it was his birthday, because he loved his wife so desperately that he would weep seething tears into the pillow, because he prayed for a boy that was almost born and now was only a little bit of dust and ash.
He felt his own body strange through the hands of this man. His two hands were around Andrea’s throat. He was chocking him to death. He heard the dredges of his life rattle in his throat and felt a sharp pain in his temple. He turned faced-down in the gravel, breathing in the dirt. A fight is always about breath and bone. He wrestled for air and the two men were back up. They collided again. Andrea’s body slumped on the roof. Wind knocked out of him.
His eyes were closed up tight with hardened blood. He couldn’t hear Todd swearing anymore. Breathing blood, he tried to call out to him but he couldn’t speak. Swallowed his own teeth. Couldn’t even taste the blood with that gnarled tongue. He wanted to feel around for Todd’s body, but his right arm was dead. He picked it up with his left. The weight of a limestone brick. Andrea felt only a shudder of fear. That he had killed the man. That he bashed his brains in or worse. Man Thrown Off a Roof. Mixed media.
For hours he lay there on his back. He was missing his cheesecake. He couldn’t see when the sky grew dark then light. The rheum of his fierce tears had dried now around his eyes, and there occurred just a subtle shift of breath and bone as between pretend sleep and real.
It was dawn when day shift found him. He’d shit himself. Cock engorged. His limbs hardened into their final shape. His copper blood still livid on the bricks. No trace of another man. No doubt Todd had wound a drunk’s path home. Only a white-haired, childless father was left there on that sad height, with his knuckle bones of fire-hardened clay showing through the skin. The apartment building, that ten story plinth below, lifting Andrea Bozzetto’s half nude and swollen body up into the thunder of the morning sky.
Marc Labriola is a writer of fiction and poetry. Most recently, his work was published in Hawaii Pacific Review. His story “Cutman” appeared in Cleaver Magazine, Issue 7. He lives in Toronto, where he teaches English.
Image credit: Frederique Harmsze on Flickr