Act XIV, Scene I
“When a father gives to his son, both laugh; when a son gives to his father, both cry.” ~ William Shakespeare
I had come a long way from playing the mute sidekick to television’s biggest buffoon. A laughingstock and a felon, I rose from the nadir of society to the zenith, claiming the lofty role of mayor of a quaint but idyllic Tuscan village. It was a role I knew I had been born to play.
Donning my mayoral costume and starched smile, I made the audience believe that my costars were my beloved wife and son, even though the former was constantly stepping on my lines and the latter had yet to learn how to act his way out of a paper bag. Still, the masses were more than content with our performance, and they made it known through their affectuous adulation.
But of course, I should have known it would turn out to be yet another role I was never meant to play. Perhaps it was Divine Providence, or perhaps it was merely karma, that sent me traipsing through life in shoes that were either too small or, ironically, too large.
The eve of my downfall unfurled like any other day: without fanfare, without breathless anticipation, without further adieu…
I was at my desk contemplating a passage in Paradise Lost when the door to my office opened. I frowned but didn’t look up from my book. Francesca never knocked. And she never stayed. My office was my sanctuary, that much she respected. It was a large house, one in which she spent little of her time, my office least of all. Still, she never entered unless she had something to say. Or to ask of me. Never did she linger.
“Roberto, I need-a you to watch Gino while I am out.”
I huffed an irritated sigh, but still did not look up from my book. “Where are you going this time? And how long will you be gone?”
We had been cohabiting long enough that I no longer bothered to quell the annoyance in my tone. Being an unpaid babysitter had not been in the job description when I’d first agreed to pose as husband and father. Hiring a nanny had been out of the question, as it would appear highly suspicious. After all, what stay-at-home parents needed such help to care for a single toddler? Being mayor of a small village was rarely demanding, nor was Francesca’s modeling career. When she was called off to distant places for an extended photo shoot or fashion show, she always took Gino with her.
“I am-a having my nails done. I will be back-a by four.”
I glanced at the clock. It was barely 2:30.
“You can’t honestly tell me that it takes you an hour and a half to get those talons of yours sharpened!” It was as much a question as an exclamation.
Francesca scowled, planting her hands on her hips. “What I do with-a my time is-a not your business!”
I raised a brow. “And yet you see fit to tell me how to govern mine?”
“I am-a asking you nicely to watch-a Gino for me,” she replied in a tone that was anything but nice. “You know I cannot take-a him to the salon with me. He is too much-a trouble.”
I smirked. “Funny, he’s hardly any trouble at all when he’s with me. I wonder why that is?”
“That is why I let YOU take him!” Francesca snapped. I had an urge to correct her on the word ‘let,’ but I didn’t. In her mind, she was allowing me the honor of babysitting, not thrusting it on me without regards to what I wanted.
“All right,” I sighed, closing my book. “Bring him in.” Anything to keep the peace around here.
Francesca left, returning a minute later with Gino. “You stay here and-a behave, or Roberto will spank you.”
I snorted at that, loud enough for her to hear, but said nothing. I had never once laid a hand on the boy, nor did I ever intend to. Francesca rarely did it herself, though she was fond of threatening him. And yelling. Normally I’m not one to make stereotypical observations, but it did indeed seem that some Italians relished loudness.
Still, for all of her arrogance and venom, her maternal love was apparent as she stooped to give her son a hug and kiss before leaving. Once she was gone, Gino scampered over to the small chest in the corner and started digging through it for something to play with. Once Francesca had felt comfortable enough to “allow” me to babysit, I’d instructed Gino to keep a toy chest in my office for just such an occasion. Better than having to escort him to his room to fetch a different toy every few minutes.
When Gino found what he was looking for, he closed the chest and sprawled out in the middle of the spacious carpet, facing my desk. I picked up Paradise Lost and resumed reading. Minutes ticked by, unusually silent. More often than not I had to ask the boy to lower the volume on whatever it was he was playing. I peeked over the top of my book, curious. Gino was lying on his stomach on the floor, coloring with crayons in a pad of blank paper. I could scarcely make out what he was drawing from where I sat, though I admired his focus and the feverish intent with which he worked. Like a diminutive da Vinci.
He glanced up at me suddenly and I smiled, encouraging. He smiled back, for a very long moment, before returning to his drawing. A moment later he looked up again, this time staring at my suit rather than my face. I touched my tie, about to ask if it was crooked or if there was a stain, when he started scribbling again. That’s when I realized he was drawing me!
I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Like most young children, he was fascinated with my appearance, and had drawn numerous pictures of me – specifically, my hair – in the past, but it was always speedy work which I seldom caught him at. Now it appeared as though he was putting a great deal of effort into this particular picture, for he worked in absolute silence for countless minutes while I read. I probably glanced over at him as often as he did at me. Sometimes we caught each other looking. I pretended I had no clue what he was up to.
After a while I couldn’t help noticing that he paused frequently to scratch at his head.
“Gino, if that wig is making you itch, why don’t you take it off for a while?” I suggested.
Gino shook his head without looking up from his work. “Mm-mm.”
“There’s nobody here but you and I. No one will see –”
“Mama says no!”
I sighed and gave up. Francesca was incredibly strict about making him wear that abominable hairpiece during the day. She only ever allowed him to take it off at bedtime. I’d told her it was unhealthy for him to wear it so much, that it would eventually ruin his actual hair. And I don’t know how many times I’d insisted that Gino needn’t resemble me so strongly. Having his mother’s natural ebony hair didn’t give a single clue to his true paternity, whatever it was. Not to mention he would have been far more likely to look like Francesca than me, had I actually been his father. Red hair and pale skin were recessive traits, easily dominated by raven locks and an olive complexion.
The silence stretched on as Gino continued to draw, and I to read. I didn’t even hear him get up from the floor and walk over to me. It was the tug on my sleeve that alerted me to his presence.
“Si, Gino?” I murmured, still reading.
“I make-a this for you, Papa Bob!”
Before I even looked, I was already smiling. He had me at ‘Papa Bob.’ His mother insisted he call me Papa around other people, while I insisted on Bob the rest of the time. The boy was smart; he knew very well I wasn’t his father. Francesca had made sure of that. Probably so that he wouldn’t get too attached to me, which was wise. Still, he was very good about calling me what he was supposed to when the situation called for it, but every now and then, usually when his mother was out and we were alone, he liked to call me Papa Bob. I can’t say why that tickled me so much, but it did. There was an endearing sincerity to the term, and I liked it.
When I saw the picture he’d drawn, I couldn’t help but smile all the larger. Seldom do I meet a connoisseur of fine art more critical than I, but as I stared at the portrait so carefully rendered in crayon by this most amateur of artists, I could find not a single criticism, not even a constructive one.
The subject – quite obviously me – stood amid a mass of purple dots and circles (grapes, I am sure) holding high a wine glass in a victorious toast. TO BOB FROM GINO was written in the top left corner. Aside from a couple of backwards letters, his spelling was excellent for a three-year-old.
I stared at the picture for a long time, awed by its beauty, and surprised by my awe. There was so little that could truly move me since my last prison sentence. But this…
“Gino,” I whispered, slowly lowering the paper to look him in the eye, “this is beautiful. Molto bella! Grazie.”*
The boy grinned proudly and ran off to draw another picture. I smiled fondly at him before placing the picture in a desk drawer for safekeeping. He may not be mine, but it was times like this that made me wish he was. Not my son, not my own flesh and blood, not even my stepson, yet I was more than happy to play the role of his father. Playing his mother’s husband, however, was something else entirely.
*Very beautiful. Thank you.
ACT XV: [link]