His frail mother, her heart stilled forever, lay in the metal casket in the long black hearse that led the rented and borrowed cars for the family mourners.
Bobby and his sister, Nina, who was dressed and veiled in black, sat together on the rear seat in the limousine that followed the hearse. Nina, poor Nina, sobbed uncontrollably. She had bawled night and day throughout this past week while they sat in the hushed room at the Walter Cooke Funeral Parlor, surrounded by sprays and baskets of sickly-sweet-smelling flowers that friends had sent in memory of the woman whose faith had given them all great strength, whose faith had made it possible for Bobby to go out and face the world with his dreams and ambitions.
Now she was gone. His aging, fair-faced, blue-eyed mother was gone. The mother who brought him into this world at a sacrifice to her own health was gone. In spite of great pain, she had given her all to him. When she should have stayed in bed in the morning to ease the sharp stabs in her heart, she arose and fixed a big breakfast for him.
"I want you to eat and be healthy," she'd say, "because I want you to grow up and be somebody, to go out into the world and make something of yourself. All I want is to have you come back, my son, and tell me you've found a little happiness. I want you to get out of this misery we have here."
Oftentimes, tears rolled down her pale cheeks. Bobby would sit at the oilcloth-covered table in the crowded tenement kitchen and say, "Mom, someday I'll buy you a house of your own. Just wait and see.
In his early teens he started to pal around with the guys on the streetcorners, the guys who carried switchblade knives and a chip on their shoulders,and his mother cornered him one day.
"Where did you get that box of chewing gum?" she asked. "Oh, I did a favor for one of the fellows and he gave it to me." "What did you do?" she asked. "I stood guard for him" "Why?" she demanded. He fumbled for words, stammered. "Why?" she insisted. "Well," he began, "the guy went into the candy store . . . and gave the owner a hard time." "What kind of hard time?" His mother's voice was sharp, angry. "Oh, just a hard time." "You mean he stole the gum and aabunch of other things." His mother's voice rose. "Well, he didn't exactly steal it. The owner gave it to him" "Because he threatened the owner, is that why?" "I . . . I guess."
She slapped him so hard across the cheek that he saw a wild flash of colors. Then she slapped him again. "Oh Mom," he shouted, "come on." "Don't you oh-Mom me," she said. And she took the box of chewing gum and threw it out the window onto the street. "For Pete's sake," Bobby yelled, "what are you doing that for?" "Because I won't have you turning into a secondhand crook, that's why," she said. "If you have so much time on your hands that you can stand guard for a thief, then get the bucket and scrub the kitchen."
They lived a hand-to-mouth existence in that crummy flat in the Bronx, but his mother had principles. She told him that if she ever caught him being a partner to a theft, or accepting stolen goods, she'd put him out of the house. "No son of mine," she told him, "is going to be a crook and live under my roof."
Bobby said, "What do you want me to do? Hang around the house all day?" "No," she said, "but I want you to be honest."
Bobby stopped seeing his street buddies and moped around the apartment. "I'll tell you what," his mother told him. "I'll borrow a little money and buy you a portable record-player on installment. And if you go and look for a job delivering newspapers or cleaning yards, maybe you can pick up a little money for records and start a collection, huh?"
He liked her suggestion, and he went out and collected a quarter here and a quarter there for odd jobs in the neighborhood. In time he had a record collection his mom and sister boasted about to the neighborhood.
One day he was talking with his mom about Mario, one of his schoolmates, who lost his job selling popcorn at the local movie house.
"That dumb--[Bobby used an unmentionable, derogatory word]. He was fired because he was spending too much time talking to the girls." "What did you say?" his mother asked. "He was spending too much time talking to the girls." "What did you call him?"
"Mario?" Bobby's voice rose nervously. "A dumb--[using the word again]. Why?"
Her hand reached out and slapped him so hard he was dizzy. "Don't you ever say that word in my house again. It's stupid, and it's a dirty word, and I don't want to hear it from you as long as I'm alive. When I'm dead and gone, you can say what you want. But while I live, I want to know you're decent."
He was only fourteen then, and in the next few years he realized his mother was right. "Don't ever disgrace another person's race or religion," she told him. "Because God has made us all in his image."
When the day came for Bobby to start going out on his own, to try to build a career for himself, his mom took him aside and told him, "Bobby, your father and I haven't been able to give you very much, but we've given you decency. And now that you're going to start traveling all over the country to try your luck, I don't want you to let us down. I want you to succeed. All my hopes and dreams are in you. But remember, you can earn all the money there is in the world and if you're not decent, what good is it?"
Bobby toured, sang, won acclaim, signed bigger and better contracts month after month. With his growing success, he became more sure of himself and his ability to entertain. He picked up show tricks quickly, and old-timers called him a bright kid.
But when some of his associates who were his own age didn't tune in to his thoughts right away, he began telling them off. "Cocky," they. called him. "A wise guy, a know-it-all"
The word got around that he was tough to deal with, conceited, a braggart. But he was making a fortune; the money poured in week after week.
He bought his mother a beautiful bungalow in the country, and one day when he went to see her they sat on the front porch drinking iced tea. "Mom," he smiled, "isn't it great here? Did you ever dream you'd own a palace like this? It's ours, Mom, all ours! I can't believe it, but it's true!"
"I thank God every day," she told him, "for His goodness. And I thank you for buying us such a beautiful place. But Bobby, I don't like the things I'm hearing about you"
"What?" he snapped. "Oh, some of the things they're writing in the newspapers and what different people are saying. I don't want everyone to think of my son as conceited, because that's not the way we brought you up."
"Do you think I'm conceited?" "You answer that question for yourself. I don't see you every day when you're rehearsing or singing on the road. How do you treat the people who work with you?"
There were times when people surrounded him and asked him the same old tired questions and he would get huffy. And flustered. He'd tell them off.
"I want you to think of us here," his mother said, "whenever you behave in a way that shames you. I... I don't know how much longer I'll live, but as long as I'm alive I want to admire you and I don't want to be embarrassed by the things I hear about your behavior."
"You're right, Mom," he said slowly, thoughtfully. She always set him straight, brought him back to earth. "I don't know where I'd be without you. You've guided me all along, and if you didn't tell me the truth I don't think anyone else would."
Months later, the shattering telephone call came to him at the Moulin Rouge. The end had come for his mother, for white-haired Polly Caassotto, whose heart gave out. He flew home and his sister met him at the airport.
Nina was hysterical. "I refuse to believe it," she sobbed. "I refuse to believe Mom is dead!"
She threw her arms around Bobby and cried. "Bobby, Bobby, she sobbed, "her last words were for you. Tell him never to let me down, she said."
His heart pounded and broke into a thousand pieces.
"Oh, Nina," he said, "what am I going to do? Nothing'll ever be the same without her."
Then, standing at her open grave on that freezing winter day, Bobby wondered if there would ever be another human being who would stand up to him, someone who would guide him as he climbed his way to the top, someone who wouldn't be afraid to slap him when he did something wrong.
The undertaker's assistants lowered his mother's coffin into the ground. Fear choked Bobby's insides, his throat went dry. He was alone now. All alone.
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