DEMISE: An American Tragedy
by John M. Del Vecchio
“What if? What if I fix your foundation?”
A story of the 1990s to be released by Warriors Publishing Group September 2020.
Rocco, Il Padrone in the old sense, Papa, Grandpa: For decades he has protected the family, has focused on keeping the family’s foundation strong. He is a World War II vet — infantry on the march north through Italy — now a widower living with his son, Johnny, and son’s wife, Julia, plus three grandchildren and the family pet, Dog Corleone. In the post WW II years Rocco became a mason and contractor. Although 85 and enfeebled by age, he has set his task. Each morning after Johnny leaves for work and the kids for school, he descends into the basement of his son’s home and slowly yet systematically removes and replaces the bricks of its crumbling foundation — figuratively rebuilding the foundation of the family and that of the crumbling American culture of the late 1990s.
Rocco grasped the red brick, rocked it, forced it up, his old fingers momentarily straining then relaxing, straining then relaxing, oscillating the pressure against the crumbling mortar. Then side to side, patiently. Then forward a quarter inch and back, forward five sixteenths and back. Then he rested, withdrew his hand, laid his arm on his chest.
In 1912, the year of Rocco’s birth, the house on The Point on Lake Shore Drive in East Lake, which would become Johnny and Julia’s dream, was erected by Edward Hancock, owner of Hancock Lumber. The interior wood trim was chestnut and oak; the parquet floors patterned with mahogany, ebony and teak; the interior doors, cherry. Porches were adorned with copings and crowns, corbels, and cornices. From top to bottom the materials and workmanship were of superior quality, except for the foundation. The foundation was red brick and mortar because Beatrice Hancock had liked the way it looked below the clapboard of a home she’d seen in South Carolina.
“You gotta problem down there.” Rocco had pulled Johnny aside on the day he’d moved in. “Johnny, you gotta problem.”
“What do you mean, Pop? What problem?”
“You gotta problem down there in the foundation.”
“What! What are you talking about?”
“Your foundation. It’s made of brick.”
“Yeah. Yeah, it’s made of bricks. A lot of the old Victorians around the lake have brick foundations. That’s the old Hancock style.”
“Yeah.” Rocco nodded. “The mortar. It’s all dry. Crumbling. Falling apart. Some of the brick, too. Some are broken. Your whole house, the foundation is crumbling.”
“Oh, Pop! I’m sure it’s fine.”
“No. I been down there. With the boxes. You got sand all on the floor. From the mortar. Piles on the floor.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I know. I’ll get Jason to go down and sweep it up. When I made the workout area a few years back, I swept it all. And after the flooding.”
“Umm. Umm. Water: it leaches out the lime; leaves the sand. I pulled out some bricks. Just like that. Nothing holding ʼem.”
Johnny chuckled but he was not happy. “Don’t pull ʼem out, Pop. Okay?”
“I’m goina do some work down there.”
“Nah. Pop. I’ll have somebody come in and take care of it.”
“You let me do it. I want to. It’ll give me something to do.”
“How you goina do that, Pop?”
“Just a little. A little at a time. Todd can help. Jason can help. You get mortar…um, maybe ten bags for now…”
“You can’t do that. Not with your legs.”
“I’ll just scrape out the loose sand. Nice and clean. Put mortar back in. Reset the brick. Jason can bring the bags down.”
“Geez,” Johnny’d sighed. “I don’t think so.”
“Let me do this. I gotta do something.”
“God, Pop!” Johnny’d said. “Whatever! If that’s what you want.”
Now Rocco twisted, reached back in with an old screwdriver. He poked, scraped at the dry mortar. He had descended into the basement after watching the morning Roman Catholic mass on Channel 49, on the small TV in his room. Each shuffling step had hurt, and with each he’d mumbled, Be not afraid. I go before you always. The refrain from the morning hymn.
The pain in his leg flared. He gasped silently, withdrew the screwdriver, sat still. An excruciating stabbing zing shot downward from the wound along his right shin, pierced his ankle, drove to his arch, his toes. He sucked in a shallow gulp of air, held it. Come fol-low Me, and I will give you rest.
Beneath the pangs there was a constant gnawing ache as if he were being tortured on some malicious medieval leg rack with a clockwork mechanism set as to methodically deliver knifing jabs within the constant pressure. If you stand before the pow’r of hell and death is at your side — Rocco did not say the words but thought them, heard them in his head — know that I am with you through it all. He made the sign of the cross, returned to the tool, squeezed the handle of the screwdriver, turned, stared at the one brick that he’d been attempting to loosen.
Generally the bricks directly below the sill at the top of the foundation, and those at the base of the walls, were in the worst condition — often cracked from the uneven weight they’d borne as the mortar around them had deteriorated. In five and a half months, the old man had finished the north and most of the east side of the foundation, shoring the floor joists three at a time, then removing bricks one by one, carefully cleaning and stacking each, until the small section was clear and ready for brick-by-brick reassembly. Biweekly, sometimes more often, sometimes less, Todd (until he returned to school) or Jason had raised or lowered or moved the chair and stool upon which Rocco sat and propped his legs as he worked.
Seldom were grandfather and grandsons in the basement together. Seldom did they speak, though when they did it was harmonious.
“I gotta move down two feet.”
“Sure, Gramps,” Todd would say.
Or “Okay,” Jason would answer. “I’ll do it in the morning.”
“You know where I mean?”
Todd always spoke quickly to the elder Panuzio as if he were trying to speed up the old man. Jason spoke more deliberately but sometimes in adolescent code. “No problemo! I’ll fill the water pail, too. But first I gotta reinstall the ’ware on my fifty-six K, then my RAM-doubler so I can debug my new downloads. You need yer platform dropped, too?”
“Yes.” Rocco would nod. “And the step stool. And move your father’s weight bench and that bicycle contraption. What’s he need that for?”
By early September Jason had begun saying, “I can’t believe it! I can’t believe you got so much done!”
“We did so much together, eh?” Rocco had beamed. “Little by little.”
The pain eased. Again Rocco returned to the wall, pried. The brick tilted. More pressure. Nothing. He brought his arm back to his chest, rested. The trickling of water from Julia’s shower in the drainpipes sounded almost like a small brook in summer. Rocco sighed, looked at his bony hands, his flaccid arms. When he’d been 35, he’d weighed 185 pounds; now at 85 he was barely 135 pounds. And he’d shrunk from taller than five-seven to less than five-four. His heart beat erratically — the upper and lower limits were controlled by medication and a pacemaker. His blood pressure, his blood sugar, and his prostate gland were under the influence of various extrinsic chemicals. He wore glasses to read, glasses for inside distances, glasses for outside distances — and still he had difficulties with muscle twitching causing double vision. From the open sore on his legs to his eyes, he despised this bodily betrayal.
In each ear he inserted sound amplifiers, clarifiers. Sometimes the hearing aids didn’t work; sometimes they became overly sensitive. “For God’s sakes,” he’d once overheard Julia snap at Johnny. “He’s not five years old. He’s got to take responsibility for his care, too. You can’t do it all.”
“So what am I suppose to do?” Johnny’d snapped back. “Tell him not to go down there?”
“Yes. He can’t be going up and down those stairs. If he slips and falls and breaks a hip…Do you know what it’s going to be like caring for him?”
“I know. I know. I already talked to him.”
“What did he say?”
“Look, Julie-pie, I’m sure this is going to pass. He’s got nothing to do around here. This gives him something. It’s the one thing he knows. He’s been a builder for fifty years. It’s the one thing which keeps his mind off his health. And he’s got a bug up his butt about ‘Our Foundation.’ I’m sure in a few weeks he’ll forget all about it.”
“If he breaks his hip, I’m not taking care of him. You get somebody else to take care of him. Your brother could help more.”
“He’s not going to break — ”
“Ttaah! Maybe! That’s what’s keeping those leg ulcers from healing. He’s got to take responsibility for that. It affects all of us. Not just him.”
“I know. I know you’re right, but he’ll go stir-crazy sitting with his legs up. He was always strong. Always a doer. I’d go nuts, too, if I had to be in a chair all day.”
“And if he falls down the stairs and breaks his hip, he’ll be laid up in a bed for six months. He could go down there after the ulcers heal. At least he could wait until then.”
“I’ll talk to him. I’ll handle it, okay?”
“What if something happens while he’s down there and nobody’s home?”
Rocco’d heard it all, very clearly, and he’d thought, What if? How long does she think I’m goina last? What if something happens when I’m upstairs and nobody’s home? What if? What if I fix your foundation?
About the Author: John M. Del Vecchio is the author of four books, including two bestsellers with approximately 1.4 million copies sold, as well as hundreds of articles. He graduated from Lafayette College in 1969, was drafted and sent to Vietnam in 1970, where he served as a combat correspondent in the 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile). In 1971, he was awarded a Bronze Star Medal for heroism in ground combat.