by John Califano

MY FATHER WAS meticulous about his appearance and always left for work wearing a pressed suit and a starched white shirt, his tie knotted perfectly. He carried a leather briefcase filled with technical books, mechanical pencils, a slide rule, and differently shaped drawing angles. He told me he was a scientist and often brought home glossy photographs of rockets and jet fighters. “See those babies?” he’d say. “Your father designed that wholewing system.”

In his twenties, my father had worked with his older brother Joseph (“Big Joe”) as a machinist in a tool-and-die shop. After a few years of working a drill press, he decided to go into business for himself. With meager savings and money borrowed from his brothers, he bought a warehouse shipment of bumper jacks that he planned to sell to local gas stations and body shops. He convinced everyone that the jacks were a sure thing and that he and his brothers would make a killing once the business got rolling. It all sounded great, except for one unanticipated glitch: the jacks—as it turned out—were defective, and my father lost everything and wound up selling pots and pans door to door. While working odd jobs, he managed to take some night courses in Engineering at Cooper Union. One of my mother’s cousins taught him mechanical drawing and helped him get work as a draftsman, mainly for aircraft companies. Most of his jobs were out-of-town: he’d sign on for six to eight weeks assignments in places like Binghamton and Poughkeepsie.

When he left for work on Sunday evenings, I was mostly happy to see him leave, taking with him all the tension that filled the house when he was home. But when he returned on Friday evenings, all would be forgotten and I’d be happy to see him, mostly because he’d greet me with open arms and a big smile, as if we hadn’t seen each other in months. Even if I wasn’t happy to see him, I would pretend I was, because I knew that was what he expected of me.

Sometimes his homecomings weren’t so jubilant. On a number of weekends he walked through the door exhausted and pissed, ranting to my mother about what a jackass his boss was or how he knew what he was talking about but other people weren’t listening to him. “I know, Daddy, I know,” my mother would say, trying to calm him.

When he was in one of these moods, he’d wash his hands and head straight for the liquor cabinet. He’d put away three or four scotch highballs and start knocking things around. (“Look at this house, it’s a mess!”)

One Friday night, my father came home in an unusually good mood. “Where’s my little Janoots?” he said. “I got something special for him.”

His eyes were glassy and his breath reeked of alcohol. I cautiously followed him into his bedroom, where he handed me a cardboard tube, the kind that held his blueprints.

“What is it?” I said.
“Well, let’s take a look.” He slipped a roll of paper from the tube.

It was a treasure map, hand-drawn and filled with sketches and illustrations in various colors, all surrounded by a detailed border with fancy swoops and curlicues like a carved picture frame.

“See what that says?” He pointed to Old English lettering across the top of the map. “It says, ‘Treasure Map to Success.’”

Below that was a group of kidney-shaped islands connected by dotted lines, surrounded by a blue ocean that he’d labeled the Sea of Success. In the upper right-hand corner, he’d drawn an elaborate black and red compass with arrows pointing in the cardinal directions. At the bottom he’d sketched a spooky-looking skull and crossbones, with dark holes for eyes.

“Wanna go on a treasure hunt?” he said, rubbing the back of his hand across his mouth.

We started at the bottom of the map, where two swords with thick, shiny blades crisscrossed under the words “Start Here.” Near that, a pirate ship with three wind-filled sails followed a dotted line to the first island, marked “Elementary School.” There was a small red schoolhouse on the island, with a bunch of musical notes drifting out of the window along with some numbers and letters.

“Ya see? This is where you learn your ABCs. Do you know your ABCs yet?”
“A B C G D B E…”
“Boy, are you smart. Lemme see now… How old are you?”
“I’m almost six.”
Six? Wow. How’d you get to be so smart?”
“I don’t know.”
“You must take after your old man.” He patted the top of my head. His touch felt heavy, and I leaned away to avoid getting thumped again with the back of his ring.
“Okay, matey!” he bellowed, turning back to the map. “Let’s see what’s on yonder horizon.” He pointed to another pirate ship that looked just like the first. It followed another dotted line across the sea to the next island, marked “Junior High School.” This island was bigger than the last and held a picture of a boy writing at a desk.
“What’s he writing?” I asked.
“He’s studying his English. Very, very important.” He tapped the side of his head with his finger. “English and Math, those are your two most important subjects.” He paused for a moment, nodding and blinking as if reminding himself. “I betcha didn’t know, but when Daddy came to this country, he didn’t speak English.”
“Whadja speak?”
“We spoke Italian. I wanted to go to school to learn English and Math so I could get ahead, but most of the time I hada work in my father’s store, slicing cheese and mopping floors. But I knew…knew I was too smart for that. When I was in school, I kept my mouth shut and my ears open and listened to my teachers. Don’t ever forget.” He shook a finger. “Eng…English and Math. When you got those under your belt, you can go anywhere.”
“What’s next?” I turned back to the map.

My father continued tracing the dotted line to the next, even larger island, named “High School.” In the middle of the island, he’d drawn an imposing brick building with half a dozen rectangular windows. A winding path led to two oversized front doors. An American flag hung on a pole above the building, waving proudly in the wind.

“Okay,” my father said, and belched. “Now we made it to high school.” He placed a finger on the pathway leading to the front doors. “This is where you need to study hard so you can go to college. A lot of wise guys think they can get to the buried treasure without finishing high school. Then they end up breaking their backs instead of using their brains, like your Uncle Joe and Uncle Sally Boy.”
“Did Uncle Joe and Uncle Sally Boy finish high school?”
“Forget them.” He waved his hand with a sour smirk. “You don’t wanna be like them. You listen to me.”

My father often had negative things to say about his brothers. Rather than close relatives, I got the feeling that he thought of them as outsiders. He sometimes referred to them as carfones: uncultured, old country peasants who hadn’t quite adopted to America as he had. For me this was both confusing and unsettling. In my eyes, Big Joe and Sally Boy were hard working, down-to-earth guys who had always been nice to me. Hearing my father talk about his brothers like they were inferior made me think I shouldn’t like them.

“Okay, Skipper,” my father called out, cupping a hand around the side of his mouth. “Batten down the hatches—I sees me some rough weather ahead!”

He moved his finger along the dotted line, following the course of a fourth ship through the rough-looking waves that he’d sketched in the Sea of Success. As he did this, he made a noise that sounded like howling wind. “Thar she blows!” he hollered, edging his finger up to the next island. On it was a picture of a graduation cap and a diploma, neatly rolled up and tied with a ribbon. Just above that, the word “College” was printed in big letters.

“College,” my father said. “Bingo. We made it.”
“We made it!” I blurted. I was swept up in my father’s excitement, but had no idea what college was outside of a destination on the map.
“College is the place you go after you finish high school,” my father said, pointing to the diploma. “If you don’t go to college, you can’t get to the buried treasure.”
“Did you go to college?”
“Yeah, but I had to go at night. During the day I worked two or three jobs to help support the family.” He chucked a thumb over his shoulder. “I had to study long, long hours in the library just so I could keep up. Reading, reading, always reading.” He snapped his fingers. “I read anything I could get my hands on. Sometimes I’d be reading and studying so hard, I’d…I’d fall asleep right there in the library. A coupla times the guard had to wake me up. ‘Excuse me, Mister Caruso,’” he said, lowering his voice to a respectful tone, “‘but the library is closing now.’”

An image popped into my head: I imagined my father sitting at a big desk stacked with books, grabbing them one by one and reading them as fast as he could. Then I pictured myself doing the same thing, only I was devouring the books, reading them twice as fast, flinging them over my shoulder after I finished each volume.

I looked up and caught my father smiling at me. “Am I gonna go to college?” I asked.

“Don’t you want to get the buried treasure?”
“Yeah, but how do you get it?” I fidgeted with the bottom of my T-shirt.
“Well, you gotta get a career.” My father put his finger back on the dotted line and followed the fifth ship to “Career Island,” the last island on the map. “Ya see?”

On this island a man peered into a microscope, his head surrounded by a halo of red stars and green dollar signs. In the middle of the island a small door, made of graph paper and bearing a thick black X, was taped to the drawing.

“What’s a career?”
“A career is what you do after college. You become a doctor, lawyer, scientist…anything you want. That’s when you find the buried treasure.” He pointed to the X.

I reached over and pulled back the little paper door exposing a small magazine photo of a treasure chest overflowing with diamonds, pearls, and gold coins. Just above that a small pocket contained a five-dollar bill, folded up and neatly tucked inside.

“Holy cow!” My eyes widened. “The buried treasure!” I plucked the bill from the pocket and waved it in the air.
“You found it,” my father said, pinching my cheek.

Five dollars—it was all the money in the world. I could go out and buy gum, candy, a million baseball cards.

“Lemme see whatcha got there.” My father held out his hand and flapped his fingers, motioning for me to give him the money.
“Can’t I keep it?”
“Yeah, but…not now.” He pulled the bill from my hand and stuffed it in his shirt pocket. “Da…Daddy’s gonna save it for you for when you get older.”
“But why can’t I keep it? I found it. I found the buried treasure.”

My father didn’t answer, he just stood staring at me with a strange, sad look on his face. I felt cheated. In an instant, the bond of trust that I had for him had suddenly been swallowed up and washed away as if hit by a raging tidal wave. I turned back to the map, all the lines and pictures were a blur. I imagined I was on the ship, fighting the waves to find the buried treasure. I reached out and gently passed my fingertips over the picture of the treasure chest.

My father wrapped his arms around me from behind. He squeezed my body tight and kissed my face. His breath was warm and heavy, and my nostrils filled with the smell of tobacco and alcohol.

“Do you love me?” His voice cracked with sadness, as if he were asking for forgiveness.

I hesitated, then nodded.

“Huh?” He sniffled, squeezing me tighter. The stubble on his chin pressed hard into my cheek. “Do you love Daddy?” Tears dripped from his face onto the back of my neck.

I nodded again.

“Say it for me. Tell Daddy you love him.”

His breathing became heavier. I tried to move away, but he pinned my arms to my sides. His body vibrated as another tear hit my neck and panic swelled inside me. Seeing and hearing my father cry scared me. I wasn’t sure what he really wanted from and was terrified of giving him the wrong answer. “I love you, Daddy,” I said, mechanically.

“Oh God…” he moaned, kissing me again and again.

I swallowed and stood still, letting my body relax in his grip. Part of my face was squished against his chest, but out of the corner of one eye I could see the map and the Sea of Success. My eye followed the dotted line from island to island, all the way to the buried treasure.

About the Author:

John Califano grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and lives in Manhattan where he works helping at-risk parolees transition back into the workforce. He’s worked as a writer, actor, visual artist, and musician, and has performed in clubs, art galleries, feature films and Off-Broadway productions. His work is featured in The Broadkill Review, The Willesden Herald’s New Short Stories Series (UK) and The Writing Disorder, as well as in Embark, an international literary journal for novelists.