From the very first, Nunzio brought us angels: cupids, putti, anything of the sort, in the form of brooches and tie-tacks, museum reproductions and postcards, statues made of wood, ceramic, marble and stone. He distributed these angels everywhere and to everyone and so from the onset he set up in our minds a sort of relationship between himself and some other form of existence. Of course, at first, we merely thought it was if not seductive -- for he loved to be seductive --- then cute of him, trying to make us realize the resemblance between himself and one or another of these sacred, most Baroque-era, figures. Only later would we wonder if, subconsciously, Nunzio wasn't using those angels to somehow predict his own future.
We knew little else about Nunzio James Anarumo: that he was the eldest child of a family of six from eastern Rhode Island, his parents still young, one of his siblings still an infant, the others in elementary school. That his father was a successful veterinarian with two large practices. The family had two homes: a little place on the water in Bristol and an older house in Seekonk and they were in the middle of building a third: a large new home in Barrington, a wealthy community I myelf knew from visiting some of my mother's relatives.
Although there was family money and Nunzio had income from a small inheritance, he wasn't particularly well off and took small jobs of a temporary and artistic nature: stage managing plays at a tiny local playhouse, working the box office at an "art" cinema or as receptionist in an art gallery. The longest job he had was selling men's clothing out of a Greenwich Avenue boutique. But he quit after some months, complaining that the hours were too long for him to have any fun.
Fun was crucial to Nunzio since he was an artist of pure small pleasures at a time when all of us deemed small pure pleasures all-important as a hedge against the vulgar world of commerce and TV and advertising which were increasingly impinging upon our lives. Nunzio's visits therefore were not only fun, they were also travelling exhibitions of his current interests, of his taste. He would arrive and strip off his satin lined cape, unwrap his twelve foot striped scarf, and drop into your hands a bottle of wine, an LP of Japanese Koto music, several unusually scented candles, a smidgen of hashish, a small box of chocolates, a new French notebook and crayons -- and of course one or two new angels to preside over your about-to-be-shared afternoon.
Nunzio travelled within his own bubble. It didn't matter how bad the weather was, or your inability to meet your rent, or the quantity and quality of what was in your refrigerator, he was invariably effervescent and restorative. He adored life as he lived it, and he did his best to make you love it and to make you happy about -- if not your own life -- than at least his being in it, a part of it. In a way, he was the most artless person I'd met. Whatever manipulations he engaged in were either so transparent we all laughed at them or were performed so far above our heads they passed right over us.
As you might guess, I first met Nunzio in the Nineteen Sixties, and so had already known him for some years when the incident I'm about to relate occurred. We had been called hippies then and I guess compared to many people we were. We dressed brightly and interestingly. We didn't have steady jobs. We were involved in the arts in one way or another and we lived in Greenwich Village. In those days there were still rent-controlled flats in the West Village, usually in old tenements, and two sometimes three of us shared these cheap apartments. We didn't live in a commune although we did often congregate at a large apartment belonging to the one friend who had a steady, high paying job.
That was where I met Nunzio -- where I met virtually anyone who came into my life at the time. He arrived one evening with someone I'd already known for a few years, a writer named Joseph Mathewson. I would have never thought of fixing them up with each other, but together they looked interesting and they fit. Which was odd, since among Joseph's other great charms, looks weren't a strong point. He was medium sized and slender with reddish-brown hair, and he held himself like an actor -- which he'd briefly been -- or an Ivy League graduate -- which he was, in short, like a man of some importance to whom attention must be paid.
Nunzio on the other hand, was utterly approachable, about five six with a tight, smooth, hairless body he was fond of showing off, a cute round face focussed by large, Italian brown eyes, surrounded by fine curly light blond hair. He dressed exquisitely to the times in tight-fitting Beatle album cover uniforms with a vaguely military cast to them, often with sweeping half capes, sometimes pork pie or stove pipe hats.
It was a bit of a surprise to us all when after several years he and Joseph broke up. Not without sadness and trouble, but given the Aquarian tenor of those years, without a great deal of recrimination. For a while, Nunzio moved his collection of capes and putti into smaller guest rooms or side areas of various friends' apartments, but after a year he moved uptown to the large penthouse of a man older than us, if equally hip, and far better off financially.
Nunzio's visits with goodies and presiding angels became more infrequent than before, and in truth they began to seem a bit highly colored and arch in the early 'Seventies, as life around us became more materialistic and more sharply defined, as "peace and love" gave way to backroom sex and discotheques, magic mushrooms vanished, replaced by cocaine and Quaaludes.
But if Nunzio's "act" had come to seem a bit fey and anachronistic, Nunzio himself was still welcome and always refreshing.
All the more reason for us to be astonished by the sudden run of bad fortune he suffered. His still young mother sickened a few weeks after she'd moved into the huge house her husband had spent years and a fortune building for her; in months leukemia was diagnosed, and was deemed untreatable. Within a year she was dead. We saw even less of Nunzio, as he took to visiting his family -- motherless siblings -- more often. Then the news came from Joseph that Nunzio's father was also ill with leukemia. He'd taken the death of his wife very hard, and he seemed to wither overnight. Within a year he too was dead and Nunzio had to move back to Rhode Island to care for the chldren.
For the next decade Nunzio and I seldom saw each other but often spoke on the phone. I was amazed that a person I'd come to think of as so flimsy and flightly had discovered in himself the strength needed to take over a family and raise children. He had problems of course. One big one: his paternal aunt wished to get her hands on the considerable estate and so had managed to get the elder children to back her up in suing Nunzio for control of the money. But Nunzio contested her and stuck it out, and he adored the kids, especially the youngest, barely five when her mother and father died.
Although I was financially strapped during much of this period myself, whenever I could, I would periodically send Nunzio "care-packages" of music, books and magazines from the city so he might keep up with what was going on. He, in turn, would occassionally send me beautiful things he'd found on his antique shopping binges throughout lower New England: Colonial pine pencil boxes, Victorian teak lap desks, a marvellously inscribed pewter candlestick going back a century.
We talked about how the 'Eighties had affected us: how utterly urbanized my life had become and how totally suburbanized Nunzio's life had become. We spoke constantly of me visiting but months went by. Years. Then, suddenly Nunzio's phone calls became more frequent, and as he spoke he sounded more exhausted, and simultaneously more urgent. Wouldn't I please visit? he begged. He badly needed to be with someone he knew, he said; someone he trusted.
I'd not been out of New York for several years, I'd been so broke. But I was working again, at yet another low-paying job, and having rewritten my first, quite unsaleable novel, I was readying it for another bout of agents and editors, another bout of non-publication. Even so, at the end of the summer I found myself suddenly with time off from work for a long weekend and, even more surprisingly, with enough money for the roundtrip trainfare to Providence.
My mother had died earlier that year and as the train pulled up to the familiar Providence railroad station, I naturally thought about all the trips we'd taken together over the years to visit her family, or my own visits by train alone since her second marriage and resettlement in the Pilgrim Estates section of Warwick. In my mother's very last years, after her second husband had died and she'd returned to the New York area to live with my sister, she and I had become friends, once more begun to open up to each other as we'd done so easily when I was a child, before the potent unmanagableness of my destiny had interposed itself between us with so much force and strangeness. While I had visited her on Long Island only once a month, we usually spoke by phone several times weekly, and I now missed her the way one misses an older, reliable, more experienced friend.
Nunzio met me outside the new train terminal in a car filled with suburban summer things: barbecue groceries wedged between children's waterwings, tennis rackets, soccer balls, tanning lotions. He looked thinner, but he was still smooth and hairless and now quite trim; even though his body had lost its childish roundness and softness, and his fine blonde hair, kept cropped short on the top and sides, was thinning, his face still looked young.
But what was odd was how differently he acted than I had expected coming up. His attitude at what he'd very clearly presented to me as a long-desired meeting seemed now to be more like a studied diffidence. He had said for so long how badly he wanted me here yet now that I was here, Nunzio's attention seemed easily distracted to anything else but me. His proposed delight in pointing out sites and places that he'd written about and spoken of often on the phone was, as we drove out of the city and down Interstate 195 to Highway 14 to the shore, more or less perfunctory, as though he were checking off a list of many things still to be done. And in truth, there did seem to be a rather full schedule, but since I was already relaxed from the long train ride, on vacation, in a convertible, with my shirt and shoes off, I ignored this and enjoyed being away from Manhattan.
What lulled me to the fact that things were indeed different than before in his life, I suppose, was the fact that hanging from the center rearview mirror was not one but two of those cupids Nunzio had always travelled with.
We arrived at a large brick house of two high floors, not on the Barrington waterfront, the "yachty" area that I was familiar with, but further inland, among trees and large swaths of lawns. To one side of the big house was a freestanding garage with an attached stable for his youngest sister's pony.
The house itself seemed to me to be architecturally off-kilter: neither completely contemporary nor slavishly colonial but a bit of each. Indoors, it proved to be equally ambivalent: neither traditional in layout nor yet thoroughly modern. A multi-paned porchlike entry foyer gave way to a stairway to the second floor, but directly, not around one side, nor around two sides. The foyer immediately opened not into a parlor and formal dining room as one might expect, but instead down a few steps into a enormous, rather casual "family room," with a large fieldstone fireplace. This led to an informal dining area, which gave way to kitchen on one side and outside terrace on the other. Upstairs, however, all seemed more traditional: a single long corridor ran along the side of the house from a large front bedroom --almost a suite -- to a large back bedroom, opening onto smaller bedrooms, bathrooms, and linen closets.
We were out of the house before I'd gotten more than a fast glance. I was made to drop my bags in the front bedroom, with its frilled four poster bed, caught a glimpse outside the windows then was called down. We hopped in the car to rush a mile to the beach before the sun set.
Despite our hurry, the children were still not yet back from whatever daily activities they usually attended by the time we reached the cottage. This little glass-louvered, single-storied, four chambered edifice could have easily fit into half of the downstairs of the Barrington house. At the time I supposed that was the main reason why the kids stayed there. That and how close to the water it was. It became instantly clear to me that the children were living here, and not at the big house. All the clutter I hadn't seen there, where it would have made the place seem a little warmer and fuller, was here, all but hiding the much older and shabbier obvious cast-off furniture in the cottage.
Nunzio set up a barbecue, left a note for the kids, pushed a dory offshore in front of the house, and shouted for me to get in.
He rowed a while, then I took the oars, and we were soon out in a fast current in St. James Bay. It was a delicious deep blue skied early September afternoon and Nunzio drooped into the boat's bottom, stretched out, drinking beer and looking up, peaceful at last, his body sagging like that of an awkwardly still alive healthy Christ removed from the cross.
I kept waiting for him to say something, to tell me what had happened that had made him so desperate of late that he'd neeed me to come. More legal trouble with the terrible aunt? Did he need help with his recalcitrant brother, now sixteen and conspiring with that aunt? Nunzio didn't say a word. Suddenly, he stood up and jumped overboard, swam around a bit, then got back in, noticed something onshore, and began rowing back.
The children had just returned in a neighbor's station wagon and they were variously recounting their day, meeting a stranger (me) and complaining of various problems. Like their brother, the younger children were sturdy looking and were all fair; although only his little sister, then seven years old, had the combination of dark eyes and massess of light curly blond hair that was Nunzio's pride. We got the barbecue going, dinner cooked on the table and eaten. The children were so active around us, so demanding of attention, that it was hours before the place was cleaned up and the next days's activities planned and they were setted with games in front of the television in the little Florida room -- glass louvers and curtains closed for the night -- before Nunzio and I got back in his car for the drive back to the big house.
Again he avoided discussing what it was that had brought me up to Barrington. We played some records I'd brought for him, then went up and showered and changed in separate baths, getting ready for bed. The front bedroom might be huge, but it was comfortable. From the bed, I could look out and see nothing but trees by day. At night, it seemed like I was in the middle of nowhere, instead of in a suburban neighborhood. Nunzio knocked on my door, looked in and said, he was worried about his youngest sister's sinuses. He was thinking of spending the night at the Sunset house. Would I mind? I said, of course not, and shortly afterwards I heard him thump down the steps and out the front door then heard his car start up and drive off.
I listened a while to a cassette of a George Lloyd symphony on my Walkman, then began reading. One bed table lamp was still lit, and I must have been slumbering an hour or so when I heard what sounded like the front door opening and Nunzio come in. I heard him ascend the steps and go along the corridor, I assumed to the back bedroom. I was extremely tired and decided to turn off the light and go to sleep.
Next morning I slept late and Nunzio made me a big breakfast. We ate and went out to exercise the pony and clean up the yard a bit. For years in my twenties I'd thought I'd become an architect and while that hadn't turned out, I continued years later to scan house plans and diagrams and to read magazines on the subject with a semi-professional eye, considering myself a minor authority on the subject. No doubt about it, this house which had cost so much in money and effort was large and imposing, beautifully set on two expensive well-landscaped acres. Yet for all that, it seemed unfinished. It didn't hang together either architecturally or stylistically. I couldn't quite figure out why not, and thought it might be because it had been designed by a veterinarian, not an architect.
The second day of my visit I was kept busy. We went to the Sunset house for lunch and dinner, drove into Bristol in between for antiques and used book shopping, then after the kids were fed, to a mall-type multiplex movie house where we viewed a current action movie. The children were driven back to the shore cottage and tucked into bed, and Nunzio and I stopped for a drink at a local tavern, where we sat in a dark red leather lined booth, talked of nothing but the kids, then drove back to the big house.
It was after midnight and I was due to return to the city the next morning, but despite ample opportunity Nunzio still hadn't broached the reason for my visit. I'd concluded that it probably wasn't any one thing or in fact anything specific. Maybe he needed the break from his life that an outsider's presence would provide, or even needed someone else to see the good job he was doing raising the kids and tell him so. I'd gotten into bed and was reading and Nunzio was taking a shower far down the other end of the corridor when I heard footsteps on the roof.
The footsteps were so loud, so clear, that I got out of bed, and opened the bedroom door to check that it was not Nunzio. No, there he was, stepping out into the hallway that very instant, wrapped in a terry robe, hair sopping, holding a thick towel to his face.
"What's wrong?" he asked. And as he did, he must have heard the footsteps too, because his head swivelled up toward them, then sharply away.
"What's wrong?!" I asked back. "There's someone on your roof."
When he didn't immediately respond I said, "Nunzio, are you expecting someone on your roof at this hour of the night?" And when he still didn't answer, I went closer and said, "Should I call the police or what?"
Nunzio looked at me. The two of us stood in that corridor hearing footsteps over us going along, then stopping, then turning. "You hear it?" he asked in a small, odd voice.
He must be kidding. "Of course I hear it. It's must be a burglar."
The footsteps moved away. Then they returned. Nunzio didn't move. He held the towel closer to his face, as though, I don't know, hiding in it, blocking out the footsteps from his ears. "You really hear it?" he asked again.
"I told you I did. Do you want me to call the cops?"
"No. It's no one."
"What do you mean it's no one? Listen!"
"No. I mean, it's...you won't find anyone there."
He looked so scared I said, "Get a flashlight. I'll look."
Nunzio got the flashlight and I put on my denims and grabbed a fireplace poker. I pulled down the stairway that dropped from the roof and began upthem. Nunzio grabbed me suddenly. "Wait. Don't! There's no one there. There never is."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"I'm going," I said, grabbing up a baseball bat just in case I was attacked. Nunzio went into his room and closed the door. I went up to the roof and looked all around with the flashlight and as he had said, there was no one there. Not anywhere.
When I had come back down and closed the roof door and knocked on his bedroom door and finally said it was me, Nunzio opened up. He sat on the edge of the bed, huddled in his terry robe and towel. He looked extremely shaken, very pathetic.
"Nunzio, what's going on?"
"I don't know," Nunzio said, speaking almost in a whisper. "I think it's ...we all think it's... " he blurted out, "It's him! . . . That's why the kids won't sleep here in the house! Why I won't sleep in the house! That's why we're going to sell it."
All of this came too fast for me. Him who? Instead I said, "What are you talking about? You slept here last night!"
"I didn't sleep here last night," Nunzio said, "I haven't slept here in months! I slept on the cottage couch and came back in the morning to make breakfast after I'd seen the kids off."
"I heard you come in and up the stairs around two." As I said it, I realized it hadn't been Nunzio's footsteps I'd heard, not his light athletic tread, but instead the same, distinctly heavier footsteps we had just now heard on the roof. "Is it. . ?" I asked but I discovered I knew who it was, "your father?"
Nunzio shrugged and made a sick little smile. "That's what the kids think. Annabel heard him hammering once. And Tom says he's up there measuring . . . he's not done building the house."
I listened. "He's gone now. Will he come back tonight?"
Nunzio shrugged again, "He sometimes does."
"Sleep in my room. There's plenty of room in the bed with me, okay?."
Nunzio seemed relieved by the offer and he did sleep in the big master bed. No footsteps returned that night and the next morning as he drove me to the train station, Nunzio referred to the incident only once, saying "I had to have someone from the outside hear it. Someone I could trust to be objective and..."
I understood now and understood most of the oddities of the weekend. I was being "tested."
"So now you're going to sell the house?"
"He'll never stop building it," Nunzio answered, "Never!"
Only when I'd gotten back into the convertible to be driven back to the Providence railroad station did I realize something: looking at the two putti dangling over the dashboard, I realized that I'd not noticed a single one of Nunzio's trademark angels in the big house. Not a putti, not a cupid. I hadn't asked why not.
Nunzio and I didn't speak by phone for some months after that and around the holidays I heard that Nunzio had sold the house. In fact its was Nunzio's ex, Joseph Mathewson, who told me the news over lunch one afternoon at a local restaurant, the Sazerac House. Although we'd spoken by phone almost weekly since I'd come back from Barrington, that lunch was the first time I had told Joseph -- or indeed anyone -- the story about the house. Joseph reflected and said, "Well, now isn't that odd! I too was left alone in the place last year when I visited and I too heard someone stomping up the stairs. Like yourself I thought it was Nunzio returning from the beach and I never said a word. Poor dear," he giggled, "He must have thought he was looney all that time."
Although Nunzio sold the house, it didn't save the family -- or him. The two eldest children moved into the house of the terrible aunt and continued to pursue Nunzio through the courts. Nunzio raised his lovely, youngest sister, but much of the estate became entangled and wasted in legal fees. He lost the beach house and had to sell the businesses and it turned out another piece of land and house in Adamsville. Nunzo left Rhode Island around that time and ended up living first in a nice, if small, apartment in Provincetown, where I visited him several times, in another apartment I didn't see, where he began to display symptoms of his HIV Positive status, and then in a tiny shacklike apartment behind a cottage way off Commercial Street, where he dealt with the final terrible stage infections.
When I saw him there the last time I visited P-Town, his sister was married to a man Nunzio approved of and they had just had a baby, and Nunzio -- although divested of most of his worldly goods -- declared that he was content with his life: his two tiny furious dogs, his books and his things. Among them, several lovely pieces I'd recently "loaned back" to him, and of course a whole slew of various kinds of angels. Nunzio was poor and often very ill, but money and estate problems no longer preyed on his mind. His younger sister was happy and secure. Nunzio might be dying but he was no longer haunted.
we never again discussed that night in the hallway of the house his father had
built in Barrington, or the footsteps belonging to no one alive, going back and
forth, checking, counting, doing something, who knows what, above our heads, there
on the roof, every night.
That was the original ending of the story, but several months after I'd moved to Los Angeles, an unexpected encounter added an eerie sidebar to Nunzio's story. Among Joseph and Nunzio's closest friends during their relationship in the 'Sixties and for some years afterward were Manny Peluso and his wife Lucy Silvay. They moved to California in the early 'Seventies and have remained here ever since. Joseph especially had kept in touch with them over the years by phone and letter, and whatever news of them I got was from him. So, I knew that they had two children, had become therapists, had at last, and not amicably, divorced. It was through another friend, that I connected up with Manny. And several months following that, yet another friend from New York City, who'd moved to San Diego with his lover, had met Lucy Silvay in Traffic School. They connected instantly, discussed the past, and my name had come up. Lucy and I spoke on the phone, agreeing to meet when I was next there: the circle was complete.
So there I was, visiting my San Diego pals, having dinner with them, Lucy, and her woman companion, when the discussion turned to Joseph and Nunzio. Following two years of throat and neck cancer, the accompanying operations, the pain, suffering, and chemotherapy, our friend Joseph Mathewson had taken his own life. We commiserated over his sad fate and our great loss. And the topic naturally moved on to Nunzio.
We'd all finished dinner, and though it was a crowded Thai restaurant on a Saturday night in fashionably hip HillCrest, I felt compelled to tell Lucy the story above. She listened and her dark lovely eyes got larger and larger. Conversation resumed then she said to me, "You know, Manny and I were up in Barrington with the kids. I think it may even have been that same summer! We were visting my parents in Connecticut and we had a car and as it was only an afternoon's drive, we all went for a visit. The kids were small then. And we stayed in the big bedroom. But we didn't hear a thing. But I'll say this, Nunzio acted odd all the time we were there. Not even really friendly. And he definitely did not sleep in the house. We were alone there both nights."
Our group talked about that a while. She and Manny and the kids had enjoyed the visit, Lucy said. It had given them a chance to be together and relax. But their parent's pet cat had gone missing almost as soon as they arrived. They had to return to Connecticut without the cat. Around the table, we wondered if their pet had been scared off by the ghost or what.
Our conversation began to get silly, then Lucy added. "I felt terrible and I went back to Barrington looking for it later. I drove alone a day the following week. No one was at the house. It was all locked up. I looked around everywhere on the grounds. In the stable, in the garage. No cat. I was just getting into the car, when I saw Nunzio staring at me from an upstairs window. But when I waved and called up to him, he did the strangest thing -- he pulled down the window shade! I couldn't figure out why he did that. Why would he be angry with me? I was only looking for my parent's cat! But I drove back t Connecticut and the next day or so we all returned to California and I never really thought about the incident again. Oh, and one more thing! When I saw him at that upstairs window, Nunzio was . . . well he seemed to be wearing some sort of black wig. Isn't that strange?"
We looked at each other, Lucy and I, at that moment. We both recalled how pale blonde Nunzio's hair was and how much he doted on being a blond, even going so far as calling himself a "dumb blonde." To his dying day, no matter how bad he looked --and his skin problems got pretty bad -- he always kept his hair washed, cut, and combed. We knew Nunzio would never do a thing to draw attention away from this one aspect of appearance. He'd certainly never wear a black wig. But I'd seen photos of his family inside the house and so had Lucy. And there was only one person with black hair in that family. Lucy realized it at the same time I did, and we both felt the same chill, the same lifting of the hair on the back of our necks in that Thai restaurant, although it was some twenty years later and more than three thousand miles away.
"That wasn't Nunzio you saw in that upstairs bedroom window," I said for the both of us. "That wasn't Nunzio who closed the shade on you. It must have been the house's guardian. His father."
©1997 Blithe House Quarterly ~ All Rights Reserved.