*by someone toe-to-toe with the music*
(frankie leone, just a man)
*death looked sexy in my grandfather’s hands.
the lit fuse to his mortality always burned in one of them. he gave everyone he met a good look at it. that fuse looked like lucky strike unfiltered. two packs a day.
the smoke’d mesmerize me creeping from nostrils of his roman nose. it reminded me of silk. the kind that lines luxurious caskets. those grey rivers flowing from under his black mustache thrilled me. they poured like twenty-year-old scotch. the same they serve at plaza hotel funeral parties.
he presented grand spectacle after spectacle. each started with the click of a worn zippo. their level of skill was impressive for anyone. especially for a perpetually broke bus driver, card shark, and thief.
one born to illiterate parents who’d just stepped off ellis island.
to me those cigarettes smelled like the american dream. like everything he did, for better or worse, my poppy smoked like he meant it.
even during chemo.*
*no one except him could touch his guitar. ever.
“why’s it have that design around the hole and not the black tear-looking thing,” i ask.
he flips the instrument around and holds its back towards me. my green eyes absorb it. “made in spain” is branded onto the polished wood in neat stick letters.
poppy explains, “’cause spicks made this one. not uh bunch uh hick cowboys. those bastuhds know how tuh make sumthin’ beautafull.”
a seventeen year old’s musical tastes ask, “can you play any punk rock?”
leaning forward he lights a lucky with his tarnished silver zippo. the words “fuck karl marx” are etched on it.
a hundred proof stare smacks me behind the ear before he extinguishes the lighter’s flame. “shut ya stupe-it face,” he says glaring into me.
his face holds chestnut-brown ice-picks. after a frustrated drag he continues, “askin’ me sum garbage like that. yuh got rocks in yuh hed?”
i’m struck silent. his voice and the things it says are mysteries i’ll never truly understand. he was born to a different new york than me. that city only exists as ruins.
ruins in the minds of deceased immigrants’ dying children.
few have ever earned both my fear and respect. poppy has. my automatic beef with anyone over thirty won’t step up to defend punk rock. i ask a more careful question.
“what do you play then? whose songs?”
he places his cigarette far to the left between his lips. both hands begin tuning the guitar. after a grey exhale he responds. his enunciation’s just as clear with the lucky in his mouth.
“jang-go’s,” he says.
“yuh mean ‘who.’ only thuh most beautahfull sunuvabitch yuh ever heard. was missin’ uh bunch uh finguhs. uh gypsy. only one i evuh trusted. uh frog too. been worm food in some graveyard for uh while now.”
“never heard of him. sounds cool. why’s the guy your favorite?”
“only mans ever made me jealous. plays thuh kinda stuff makes yuh sane, drives yuh crazy, and takes yuh back again. day yuh great nan sent my ‘ole man off uh ruff-top in harlum he was lissnun’ tuh jeng-go. we know ’cause he lef’ the reckuhd on the playuh. jang-go played music tuh live tuh. played some tuh die tuh too.”
as he finishes he makes the sign of the cross.
“everyone told me he fell. your mom pushed your dad off that roof?
“ma weren’t on tha’ roof with ‘im but she shore as shit pusht him awff. thuh way the ole’ man foldid ain’ uh simpull thing. you’s too young tuh unerstan’.”
“i’m not a little kid. only a couple months ’til i’m a legal adult. dad isn’t big on talking about dead family. i might never hear and really want to know. tell me. please poppy.”
still tuning, the half of his mouth not holding a lucky glides into a smile. he lays the guitar across his lap and moves the cigarette into his fingers.
“yuh know my folks came from naples righ’? tha’s in itlee.”
i feel a little insulted. with instant regret i interrupt.
“i know where naples is.”
he doesn’t care for this. his index and middle fingers point into my face. the lucky between them irritates my eyes.
“shuttup kid. i’m tawkin’ here.”
“sorry, sorry, sorry,” i repeat quickly looking towards the floor.
he continues, “naples, in itlee, is uh city where dumbies don’t las’. it’s uh city uh thieves. yuh learn quick an get tough fas’. if yuh don’t sumbuddy tha’ did might intraduce yup to uh straight razuh or pistull.”
he pauses. his expression seems more thoughtful. his words are slower when he resumes.
“tuff don’ always mattuh though. my ole man’s proof. even thuh streets uh naples din’t get ‘im ready for guinea brawds. they can put yuh six under jus’ as easy as any gun or knife. get wha’ i’m tellin’ yuh kid?”
“great grandma was a handful?”
he smiles at me.
“yuh got tha’ righ’. wanna hear sum jang-go?”
“hell yeah,” i whisper with awe-filled anticipation.
poppy puts the lucky back in his lips to play his guitar.*