Who is Peter Caruso? by Don Tassone

His alarm went off, as usual, at 5:00 a.m.  Five minutes earlier, his Bodum Bistro coffeemaker clicked on and began brewing two cups of aged Sumatran coffee.  By the time he went to the bathroom and got to the kitchen, the air was heavy with the aroma of burnt spice.

He poured the first cup into a black ceramic mug.  The thermal carafe would keep the second cup hot until he was ready for it, after he worked out, in 90 minutes.  He would sip it on his way to work.

Now, though, he made his way back down the hallway to his study.  The room was dark.  He reached inside the doorway and felt along the rough, brick wall until his fingertips bumped into a wooden switch plate.  He flipped the switch, and a lamp on his desk filled the room with pale yellow light.  He stepped across the plush oriental rug, soft and warm on his bare feet, sat down in the high-back leather chair and logged on to his computer.

Then, as he did every morning, he Googled his name, Peter Caruso.  As he waited for the search results, he picked up a pencil on his desk and began doodling on a scratch pad.  “Who is Peter Caruso?” he scribbled.

Up popped three news stories, two analyst reports and one blog.  They had all been posted overnight.  He sipped his coffee and leaned in for a closer look.

It was all the result of a presentation he had made at an investor conference the day before.  There, he had challenged his fellow investment advisers to “double down” on value investing by “buying far more cheap stocks, then not hesitating to unload them.”

And to support his case, he announced that, by following this strategy, many of his clients were now seeing a 20% return on their investments, more than twice the market average, after only two years.

During the Q&A session, he got plenty of push back, just as he expected.  His lively back-and-forth with several investors, and his refusal to divulge his “proprietary formulas” for determining the best “cheap stocks” and when to sell, made for some colorful quotes and good copy.

He knew how to make news.  His firm, Taft and Irving, knew that too.  Whenever they needed some good PR, they turned to Peter.

And he delivered superbly, making a name for himself in the process.  In financial circles, he had become a celebrity.  Analysts, investors, journalists—they all wanted to talk with Peter Caruso.

This star quality, and his ability to use it to bring in big-money clients, made Peter one of Taft and Irving’s most valuable assets.  No wonder he made partner at 32.  No wonder he was now rumored to be a CEO contender.

He smiled, sat back in his chair and closed his eyes.  He held his coffee mug in both hands, just under his chin, and breathed in the sweet, earthy aroma.  The steam warmed the inside of his nose.

Then he opened his eyes and looked across the room at a large, cherry bookcase.  It held dozens of books and an array of exotic objects he had collected from around the world:  a white jade Buddha, a glazed ceramic vase, an intricately carved sandstone horse.

But now his eyes focused on a single piece, set back in the center of the bookcase, that was far less refined:  a watercolor painting of a small, red-brick house.  It was the house where he grew up.  He had made that picture when he was six years old.

He remembered sitting in his front yard and sketching it, then going to his room and painting it with watercolors.  He remembered how proud and excited he felt when his mother framed it and hung it on his bedroom wall.

It was the only piece in his apartment from his childhood, the only hint of a middle-class world on the twelfth floor of a luxury high-rise on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the only inexpensive thing in the place.

And his eyes were focused on it now because he liked to be reminded of what it felt like to create something.  He was no longer creating.  Now his days were spent optimizing assets.  That’s what his life was about.

But his little painting was a reminder that that wasn’t always the case and that long before he was collecting art, he was creating it.

Looking at it made him feel half-empty.  It was a feeling he was having more and more, a feeling he could not seem to shake.

#

He walked to the door and was about to turn off the light.  But he stopped and looked at the solid brick wall in front of him.  It was so plain.  But this morning there was something about it that made him pause.  He reached out and ran his fingertips over it, then pressed the palm of his hand against it.

He closed his eyes and thought of the summer when he was 15, the summer he had worked with his father.  His father was a bricklayer.  It was just the two of them.

That was more than 25 years ago, and he no longer remembered the details.  But he remembered the feeling of creating something real—a wall, a patio, a walkway—of working with something he could hold in his hands.

He never worked so hard.  Every day, his whole body ached.  Before that summer, he had pretty much decided he would go to college.  By the end, any doubt was removed because he knew he could never work with his hands for a living.  Maybe that was his father’s aim all along.

Now, though, as he touched the rough surface of the wall, he realized how much he missed it.  Not laying brick.  But creating something real.

#

He stepped out of the shower, dried off and stepped onto his Fitbit scale.  157.8 pounds.  Good, he thought.  Still under 160.

It was Friday.  Some in his office had begun to dress casually on Fridays.  But he would be seeing clients and always dressed to impress.  So he picked out a dark blue Armani suit, a light blue Ferragamo tie and, as always, a freshly pressed, white cotton shirt.

He got dressed, then checked himself out in a floor-length mirror in his bedroom.  The dark suit and light tie were an elegant combination.  How could his clients not be impressed?

Back in his kitchen, he poured a bottle of water, a scoop of chocolate whey protein powder and a cup of frozen berries into his Vitamix blender, pressed the button for smoothie, poured it into a tall glass and drank it down.

Then he poured his second cup of coffee into a small, stainless steel travel mug, grabbed his iPhone and Maui Jims, shut his apartment door tight behind him and pressed the button for the elevator.

When he got to the lobby, the receptionist and door man, Robert, greeted him.

“Good morning, Mr. Caruso.”

“Good morning, Robert.”

“You’re looking very sharp this morning.”

“Well, thank you, Robert.  I’m meeting with some high rollers today.”

“How can they resist?”

Peter smiled.  “That’s what I’m banking on, Robert.”

“My money’s on you, Mr. Caruso,” Robert said, as he opened the door for him.

The sun was just rising, and he put on his sunglasses.  Robert scooted past him and opened the right rear door of a black Lincoln Town Car that was waiting at the curb.

“Thank you, Robert.”

Then Peter pulled a tightly folded $100 bill from his right pants pocket.

“Have a great weekend, Robert,” he said, discretely handing him the bill.  Neither of the men looked down.  But Peter looked around to see who might be watching.  Sometimes, if someone was walking by, he would unfold the bill just a little and pause for a moment before handing it off.

“Give my best to Barbara.”

“Thank you, Mr. Caruso.  You have a wonderful weekend.”

#

The fall air was crisp, but it was not yet cool enough for an overcoat.  It was his favorite time of the year.  He especially liked driving past Central Park when the leaves were turning.  It reminded him of home.

“Good morning, Mr. Caruso,” said his driver.

“Good morning, Charles.”
“Beautiful morning.  Would you like to drive through the park today?”

“That’s very tempting, Charles.  But I think I’ll pass this morning.  I’ll be running there tomorrow, and I need to get ready for a meeting.  But thanks.”

“Very good,” Charles said, taking the hint and giving it a little gas as he headed south toward Midtown.

Tomorrow would be fun.  After running in the park in the morning, he would take in the new Matisse exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.  In the evening, he would get together at a dinner party with friends.

He bought a new Cesare Attolini cashmere blazer and Bruno Magli shoes, just for the occasion.  Trendy clothes had become his signature at these parties.  And good wine.  Tomorrow, he would bring a bottle of Sassicaia from Tuscany, a 2006 he had been saving.

Now he arrived at his office building.  Charles got out, scurried around the front of the car and opened the door.

“Have a great day, Mr. Caruso.”

“Thank you, Charles.  I’ll see you back here a little before noon.”

#

Ariana, Taft and Irving’s pretty and perennially upbeat receptionist, greeted him as he got off the elevator on the sixteenth floor.

“Good morning, Mr. Caruso,” she said cheerfully, looking up from her computer.  “And congratulations on all the good PR this morning!”

“Good morning, Ariana.  Yes, I saw some of that myself.  Do you really think it’s OK?”

“Oh, yes.  And the photos of you.  Very fine.”

“Thank you, Ariana,” he said, smiling.  “You’ve just made my day.”

As he made his way to his office in the corner, several other colleagues congratulated him too.  He acted modest.  But inside, he was beaming.

“Good morning, Mr. Caruso,” said his secretary, Pam.  She was sitting in her cubicle, just outside his office.  She had already been at work for more than an hour.

“Good morning, Pam.”

“You’re looking very elegant today.”

“Well, thank you, Pam.  It’s a big day, you know.”

He had only three appointments, but all with heavy hitters:  one in the morning, one over lunch and one in the afternoon.

Their portfolios were quite different, and his proposals were carefully tailored.  But his aim for all three was the same:  to convince them to invest more.  And if they bought what he was selling, he figured it would net him an extra hundred grand.  Not a bad day.

“I’ve inserted a set of all the latest articles mentioning you in the front pocket of each of your binders,” Pam said.

Three binders, each of them sporting the Taft and Irving logo, lay in a perfect row across a walnut credenza that ran along the window, perpendicular to his large, ebony desk.  Next to each binder was slender file on that client.  He liked to have all his materials for the day lined up there in the morning.

“Thank you, Pam.  You’re always a step ahead.”

#

His first meeting could not have gone better.  Now he was sitting at a table at Bellini, his second client’s favorite place for lunch.  The two of them were sipping bourbon, neat, and had just ordered food.

He was about to wrap up the small talk and begin his pitch when his phone began vibrating.  Who on earth would be calling him now?  During lunch, his business calls were automatically routed to Pam.

“Excuse me,” he said, sliding his phone out of his jacket pocket and looking embarrassed.

“Of course.”

He looked down at the caller’s name.  It was Maria, his sister.

“Hello?”

“Pete, it’s Maria.”  She sounded upset.

“Maria, what’s up?”

“It’s dad.”

“Dad?”

“He had another heart attack.”

“Is he OK?”

“We’re not sure.”

“What do you mean?”

“He’s in surgery.”

“Where’s mom?”

“She’s here, with me, waiting at the hospital.”

“Do you think I should come home?”

Silence.

“Maria, do you think I should come home?”

“Yes.  Yes, Pete, I do.”

“I’ll leave as soon as I can.”

“OK.”

“Tell Dad I’m on my way.”

“OK.  I’ll tell him.”

#

“Nice suit.”

Peter blinked.  He had been staring out the window as the plane took off.  Now he looked down and realized he was still wearing his suit.

“Thank you,” he said to the man sitting next to him.

He had stopped by his apartment just long enough to pack a few things before heading to LaGuardia.  He had been in such a rush that he forgot to change clothes.

Charles, who had been waiting at the restaurant, took him directly to his apartment.  Peter called Pam on the way to fill her in and ask her to book him on the next flight to St. Louis.

After a quick stop at his apartment, Charles drove him directly to the airport.  Uncharacteristically, Peter was silent the whole way.  When they arrived, he let himself out as Charles grabbed his carry-on bag from the trunk.

“Good luck, Mr. Caruso.  My prayers are with you.”

“Thank you, Charles.”

Then he handed him a $100 bill.  No one was watching.  But he didn’t care.

#

Now he turned back to the window, looked down at the ships along the Hudson and began thinking about his father.

His name was Dominic.  He had come to the United States with his parents, Angelo and Rose, from Italy when he was eight.

Angelo was a bricklayer.  No one in his family had ever left Italy.  But the war had left his poor town even poorer, and he wanted a better life for Rose and Dominic, their only child.  And so Angelo made what was, at that point, the biggest and toughest decision of his life:  to leave his homeland for the U.S.

He had heard from friends that there were many Italians living in a place called St. Louis.  People were building a lot of houses there.  And so in 1950, he sold everything he owned and struck out for St. Louis.

The three of them took a boat across the Mediterranean to Portugal and then a ship across the Atlantic to Ellis Island.  From there, they took a ferry to Jersey City and, from there, trains to St. Louis.  In all, the journey took them nearly three weeks.

When they arrived in St. Louis, a man at the train station, himself an Italian immigrant, heard them talking.  He asked where they were heading.  Angelo told him they were looking for a place to stay “in little Italy.”  He suggested they go see a priest named Father Capella at St. Ambrose Church in a section of town called The Hill.

Father Capella knew everyone on The Hill.  He found Angelo and his family a place to stay right away.  Not only that, he knew of a homebuilder, one of his parishioners, who was looking for bricklayers.  Angelo went to the construction site the next morning and was hired on the spot.

The crew chief was impressed with Angelo from day one.  He didn’t know English.  But he needed only glance at a blueprint to understand the scope of a project, and he had an intuitive sense for the flow of the work.  He was strong and fast and took few breaks.  Among the construction crews in town, all of them scrambling for good talent, Angelo quickly became a favorite.

Bricklaying was in his blood.  His father and grandfather had also been bricklayers, and he hoped his own son would carry on the family tradition.  And so when Dominic was only nine, Angelo began taking him to work on Saturdays.

Rose was not happy about this, but she had seen it coming for years.  When Dominic was a toddler, Angelo would lie on the floor with him and show him how create little buildings with wooden blocks.  By four, Dominic was not just constructing, but designing, his own little buildings.  By five, he was creating little villages, sometimes sprawling from room to room in their small house.  Rose grumbled about the mess.  Angelo bought Dominic more blocks.

He took his son to work with him for the first time intending only that he watch.  That was also his promise to Rose.  But after watching his father butter the edges of a brick with wet cement, Dominic immediately picked up a trowel and joined him.

Angelo didn’t say much.  He didn’t have to.  The boy learned just by watching.  And he worked alongside his father all day, laying one brick for every two of his father’s, but just as straight.

Dominic was a natural.  By 10, he had learned all the basics of bricklaying.  By 12, he was sketching interesting new designs for walkways and patios.  They were so good that Angelo shared them with his crew chief, who liked them so much that he began using them as a selling point with customers.  By 14, Dominic was as strong as his father and, by 15, he could handle small projects on his own.  Angelo was thrilled.

In the early 1950s, homebuilding was booming in St. Louis.  Builders vied for the best workers.  Angelo always had work, and he earned more in a day than he would have in a week, or even a month, back home.

The family had been renting a place, but soon they had enough money to buy their own house.  It was a small place, next to a bakery on The Hill.  But it was theirs.  And there was even enough money for Angelo to buy a used Chevy.  He had never owned a car.

All three of them began to learn English.  But Dominic picked it up much faster because only English was spoken in school at St. Ambrose.  He fit in well there.  Many of the other students were also the children of Italian immigrants.  And they all lived on The Hill.  The whole neighborhood had the feel of a big Italian family.

Life was good for the Carusos until Dominic was 17.  Coming home from school one afternoon, he saw his father’s car parked on the street.  It was at least two hours before his father ever got home from work.

He went inside and heard a strange voice coming from his parents’ bedroom.  The door was open, and he looked in.  It was Doctor DeToma.  He was examining his mother, who was sitting up in bed.  His father was sitting on a chair next to the bed.  His mother’s blouse was undone and, seeing Dominic, she quickly covered herself.  He had never seen his mother in any state of undress.

His father got up and motioned to Dominic to come with him.  He followed his father into the kitchen.

“What’s going on, Dad?”

“Your mother is ill.  The doctor says it is serious.  He thinks it might be cancer.”

His mother had always been frail, and lately she had not been feeling well.  But cancer?  It had never entered their minds.

But it ravaged her, and less than three months later, the day after Dominic’s eighteenth birthday, it took her life.

Rose was Angelo’s anchor and, without her, he felt adrift.  He was not a man given to introspection.  But now his world was rocked, and he began to reflect deeply on his situation.

And he realized that this place was not really his home, especially without Rose.  His home was in Italy, the place he had known all his life, near the sea, among family and friends who spoke a language he did not labor to understand.

But he also realized that, for his son, this place was indeed now home.  He knew Dominic would be successful here and carry on the family tradition.  But he also knew that, as his son became a man, he himself would grow old, and he did not want to saddle his son with caring for an old man.

Moving to the U.S. was the toughest decision Angelo had ever made.  But now he made one even tougher:  to return to Italy.  Fighting back tears, he told Dominic the day after he graduated from high school.  Overwhelmed, Dominic said he would go too.

“No,” his father said.  “I want you to stay.  You’ll make a better life for yourself here.”

A few days later, Angelo signed over the titles for his house and his car to his son.  Then Dominic drove him to the train station and kissed him goodbye.

He would never see his father again.

#

“Sir, would you like something to drink?” the flight attendant asked.

She startled him.

“Yes, coffee, please.  Black.”

Sipping his coffee, Peter turned back to the window.

He thought again about that summer when he had worked with his father.  He remembered the first day on the job and how odd it seemed to see him in work clothes.  He usually left the house before Peter woke up.  After work, he came in through the back door and went directly to his bathroom to take a shower.  By the time Peter saw his father most evenings, for dinner, he had changed into dress clothes.  That’s how he dressed on the weekends too.  On Sundays, he even wore a tie.

And it made him wonder:  why was his father always so dressed up at home?  So he asked him.

“You see me now, Peter, as I usually am.  But no one else does.  They see the man I want them to see.  That’s the Dominic Caruso the world knows.”

His father’s answer puzzled him.  And it begged the question:  Why?  Why did he want people to see him this way?

He didn’t press his father that day.  But over the course of the summer, he asked him many questions, and he learned so much.

He learned, for example, that when his father and grandfather were working on larger crews, the loud, rough men who framed the houses they bricked would call them “guineas.”  There was a pecking order in construction, and many of the workers looked down on bricklayers.  “Only Italians” would do such menial work, they said.

His grandfather didn’t seem very bothered by it, maybe because his English was not good.  But it upset his father greatly.

It wasn’t so much the name calling, but rather the idea that his work—and he, by extension—was somehow less.  At first, it made him angry.  Then it made him wonder if he really did measure up.

And at that point, as much as he loved his work, given the option, he would have gladly done something else.  Many of his friends were going off to college.  He wished he could join them, then also do something respectable in the eyes of the world.  But bricklaying was the only thing he knew and, now that he was alone, the only way he could make a living.

He could not change this.  But he could change himself.  He could change what people thought of him.

He began taking jobs he could do alone, so that few would ever see him at work in the first place.  And when he was not working, he began wearing nice clothes.  He sold his father’s old Chevy and bought a new Buick.  He began spending less time on The Hill and more time meeting new people, mainly young professionals, downtown.  He sold the house on The Hill and got an apartment downtown.

Except for his work, he changed everything and became a new man.

#

Dominic was handsome, refined and spoke with a slight accent, which women found charming.  One weekend, at a party, he met a beautiful first-grade teacher named Marisa.  They were each sipping a glass of red wine.  By the time their glasses were empty, they had fallen in love.

That evening, Marisa asked Dominic what he did for a living.  When he told her, she was surprised, but not deterred.  If anything, it made him even more intriguing.

But he was quick to insist that Marisa not talk about what he did for a living.  He told her that, if anyone asked, she should simply say he “worked in design.”  She found this curious, but it was a half-truth she could live with.

In a year, they were married.  They bought a small house in a suburb of St. Louis.  Even with two incomes, they struggled to afford it, but no one would have guessed.  They carried themselves with such grace.

And to everyone Peter knew growing up, his father was a simply a dashing, dapper, quiet man who always drove a new Buick.

“You become who people think you are, Peter,” his father told him that summer.  “You become whoever you want to be.”

#

“What do you want to do, Peter?” asked Mrs. Henry, his high school guidance counselor.

“I want to be a stock broker and live in New York.”

“That’s pretty specific,” she said, smiling.  “Why?”

“I want to make a lot of money.”

“Do you know anything about becoming a stockbroker?”

“Not really.  Just that I need to go to college.”

“That’s right.  You’ll need to major in business, probably finance.  And you should think about an MBA too.”

“Sounds good.  What are my options?”

His confidence made her smile.  She swiveled in her chair, slid open the top drawer of a metal file cabinet and picked out half a dozen brochures.

“Here are a few ideas to get you started.  These are all good business schools.  There are a few in the Midwest and few out East.  The ones out East are a little pricey.  You might want to start with the ones closer to home.”

“Thank you,” he said, grabbing the brochures and heading for the door.

“Peter.”

“Yes?”

“Remember us when you get rich,” she said, smiling.

“I will.”

He went to his room after dinner that evening and read every brochure cover to cover.  All the schools looked good.  But he knew which one he wanted right away:  NYU.  It had a business school and was right in the heart of Manhattan.  Tuition was steep.  But he figured that between his father’s modest income and his good grades, he would qualify for lots of aid and, he hoped, a scholarship or two.

And that’s just what happened.  And with the money he made interning at investment firms in Manhattan in the summers, he covered his housing costs and had spending money left over.

He earned his undergraduate degree in three years, then his MBA in a year, graduating with honors.  He was heavily recruited and got offers from several top firms.  They were all impressive.  But Taft and Irving offered the best starting salary and a signing bonus.  Plus he liked the way they called him “Mr. Caruso.”

That was 20 years ago.  He had indeed become a stock broker, made lots of money and was living in New York.

“You become whoever you want to be,” his dad had told him.  And so he had.

But he still couldn’t shake the feeling of being half-empty.

#

He called Maria as soon as his plane touched down.

“How’s Dad?”

“Stable.”

“Is he going to be OK?”

“We think so.  They put in three stents.  Oh, Pete.  Dad had something the doctor called ‘the widow-maker.’  It was a close call.”

“How’s he feeling?”

“Pretty good.  He’s sitting up in bed.  He’s a strong man, Pete.”

“How’s mom?”

“She’s OK.”

“Good.  We should be at the gate in a few minutes.  I’ll come straight to the hospital.  Tell Mom and Dad I’ll be there in about 45 minutes.”

“OK, Pete.  Room 405.  See you soon.”

#

It was early evening when he landed, but the sun had not yet set.  He hadn’t been home in nearly two years, and he was grateful for the chance to take in the landscape on the taxi ride before nightfall.

He had missed the low hills, the broad valleys, the rolling prairie.  He remembered riding his bike along the back roads near his home as a boy and stopping in different places and pulling out his drawing book and sitting down to sketch a tree or a field or a stream.

It filled him up.  There was something about looking at a sunset or horses in a pasture or snow on a grove of pine trees and then expressing these things in his own way that made him happy.

And so he made hundreds of pictures:  nature scenes, abstract designs, houses, barns, horses, cars and people, including portraits of his parents and his sister.  He signed them all “Peter.”  He and his mother, who was his biggest fan, picked their favorites, and she framed them and hung them on his bedroom walls.

But when he was 12, his thoughts began to shift from the act of creating to the idea of painting for a living.  Could he do it?  Would he be good enough?  Should he not strive for more?  Would he make any money?  What would people think of him?

No one had ever told him to become an artist.  It just came so naturally to him.  But now, for the first time, he had doubts.  And he began drawing and painting less until, for reasons he no longer remembered and maybe never fully understood, he put his pencils and paints away.

#

He found room 405, took a deep breath and peeked inside.  His father was sitting up in bed, eating dinner.  His mother and sister were sitting in chairs on either side of the bed.

“Oh!” the women cried and then rushed to him.  He wrapped his arms around them, held them close and kissed them on the cheek.

“Peter, I’m so glad you’re here,” said his mother.  She looked tired and so much older.

“We saw you on TV last week, Pete,” said Maria.  “You looked so good.”

“But even more handsome in person,” said his mother, pinching his cheek.

“Peter,” said his father.  “Thank you for coming.”

He walked over to his father and shook his hand.  He gripped Peter’s hand tightly with his right, then clasped it with his left too.  His hands were large and thick and calloused.

“It’s good to see you, Dad.  How are you?”
“Well, the doctor said I made it here just in time.  And Father Earl said God doesn’t need any more bricklayers in heaven today.”

“I’m glad you’re OK, Dad.”

“So I guess I need to have a heart attack for you to come visit your mother.”

“No, Dad.  I’m sorry.  I’ll visit more often.”

“We would love that, Peter,” his mother said.

“We sure would,” said Maria.

“How about this Christmas?” his mother asked, seizing the moment.

How could he say no?

“Yes, Mom.  I’ll come home this Christmas.”

“Oh, Peter.  That would mean so much to all of us.”

“Amen,” said Maria.  “The kids would be so glad to see you again.”

A nurse knocked and stepped into the room.

“May I take your tray, Mr. Caruso?”

“Absolutely,” he said, pushing back his half-eaten dinner.  “My compliments to the chef.”

“Now, Dom,” said his mother.

“Sorry,” he said, grinning at Peter.

“You know,” his mother said, “Maria and I were just talking about going down the cafeteria to get something to eat.  Maybe this would be a good time for you two to catch up a bit.”

“Maybe Peter’s hungry too,” his father said.

“No, I’m fine, Dad.”

“Can we bring you something?” his mother asked.

“No, thanks.”

“OK.  We’ll be back soon.  You boys be on your best behavior.”

“We’ll try, Mom.  Enjoy your dinner.”

His mother leaned down and gently kissed her husband on the lips.

“I love you, Dom.”

“And I love you.”

Peter pulled a chair over to the bed and sat down.

“Peter, there is something I need to tell you.”

“What’s that, Dad?”

“I was wrong.”

“You were wrong?”

“Yes.”

“About what?”

“I gave you some very bad advice.  When we worked together that summer, I told you that you become who people think you are.  But I was wrong.”

“What do you mean, Dad?”

“You are who you are.  What people think doesn’t matter.  The most important thing is to be yourself.”

“I don’t think you gave me bad advice, Dad.”

“Yes, I did,” he said, looking away.  “And I set a bad example for you too.  I’m a bricklayer.  But I wanted people to think I was something else, something more.  I’ve lived my life as an imposter.  And I regret that.”

“Dad, I think you’re being too hard on yourself.”

“This is not just about me, Peter,” looking his son in the eye.  “It’s about you too.”

“About me?”

“Do you remember what you wanted to be when you were a boy?”

“Yeah.  I wanted to be an artist.”

“That’s right.  And do you remember what I told you about that?”

“No.”

“I told you not to pursue it because there’s no money in it.  Become a stockbroker, I said.  Move to New York.  Those were my ideas, Peter, not yours.  I put them in your head.  It’s the worst thing I’ve ever done.”

“It’s OK, Dad.  I turned out OK, didn’t I?”

His father looked at him and sighed.

“You are rich, Peter.  But are you happy?”

He looked down and didn’t answer.

“We must be who we really are.  It’s the only way to be happy.”

“Dad …”

“I am a bricklayer, Peter.  That’s all I’ve ever been.  And now I know that is enough.”

Peter didn’t know what to say.

“Find out who you are, Peter.  It’s not too late.  And it will be enough.”

He looked up at his father.  His eyes were filled with tears.  He had never seen his father cry.

“I’m sorry, Peter.”

“It’s OK, Dad.”

He got up and held his father’s left hand in both of his, then bent down and kissed him on the forehead.

“It’s OK.  All is forgiven.”

#

He drove his mother home in his father’s Buick.

“You look good, but a little thin, Peter.  Are you sure you’re eating well?”

“I’m eating great, Mom.”

“What did you have for dinner tonight?”  He knew she knew the answer.

“OK.  I’ll pick something up on the way.”

“Don’t be silly.  I’ll fix you some pasta when we get home.”

“Mom, how are you doing?”

“I’m OK, thanks.  Your father gave us quite a scare this morning.  But he’s going to be OK, and so I’m fine.”

“You look tired, Mom.  How’s your health?”

“I’m fine, Peter.  I’m just getting old.  But I’m fine.  Really.”

“Good.  Mom, Dad told me something back at the hospital I’d never heard before.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, he said he talked me out of becoming an artist when I was a kid.  Is that true?”

His mother stiffened in her seat and looked straight ahead.  She didn’t answer.

“Mom, is it true?”

“Yes, it’s true,” she said quietly.  Then she started to cry.

“I’m sorry, Mom.  I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“It’s OK, Peter,” she said, dabbing her eyes with a tissue.  “Your father just wanted the best for you.  He wanted you to have the type of life he could only dream of.”

“And how did you feel about that?”

“About what?”
“About me not becoming an artist?”

“It broke my heart.”

“What?”

“It made me sad to see you stop painting.  I should have put my foot down.  But I hoped you would paint again one day.  And then when you did so well in school and business, I started to think that your father was right.”

“Do you really think he was right, Mom?”

“I’m proud of everything you’ve done, Peter.”

“But do you think I missed my true calling?”

She didn’t answer.

“Mom, you don’t have to —“

“That’s yours, Peter, something only you can know.”

#

He parked in his parents’ driveway.  They had a garage.  But he knew that, unless it was snowing, his father liked to park outside.

His mother unlocked the front door, and he followed her inside.  The decor was spare, as it had always been.  His parents had created a Feng shui look long before it was fashionable because it allowed them to buy less stuff.

“Make yourself at home, dear.  You can sleep in your old room.  Why don’t you go change while I get supper ready?”

“Thanks, Mom.  It’s good to be home.”

The house was small, a three-bedroom ranch, with no basement or upstairs.  Peter’s old bedroom was about the size of the kitchen in his apartment in New York.

He flipped on the light and looked around the room.  Everything was just as it was when he was growing up.

On the walls, there must have been 30 paintings and drawings, each of them framed and signed “Peter.”  He had created all of them by the time he was 12.

His old desk stood next to his bed.  On it, in a frame, was a photograph of him in kindergarten, his first school picture.  It was pasted on white paper, on which was printed “I am Peter Caruso” in crayon.

He pulled out the small wooden desk chair, sat down and picked up the frame.

“I am Peter Caruso,” he said to himself.

Then he wondered aloud:  “Who is Peter Caruso?”

He got up and changed into jeans and a sweatshirt.  Then he sat down on his bed, grabbed his cell phone and dialed his boss’ number, knowing he would no longer be in the office.

“Bill, it’s Peter.  I’m in St. Louis.  My dad is going to be OK.  But there are some things here that need my attention.  I’m going to take a week.  I’ll call Pam and rearrange my schedule.  Thanks for understanding, Bill.  I’ll see you in a week.”

He got up, sat back down in his desk chair and pulled out the drawer.  There was his old watercolor set in a white plastic case.  He snapped open the lid, revealing a row of eight oval cakes.  The paint was dried and cracked, but the colors were still vibrant.

He plucked his old red paint brush out of a groove in the plastic and twisted the bristles between his fingertips.  They were stiff.  But he pushed them into the palm of his hand, and they gave way and became soft again, like new.

_________________________________________________________________________

About the Author

Don Tassone lives in Loveland, Ohio and teaches public relations at Xavier University in Cincinnati.  His latest stories have appeared in the Olentangy Review, TWJ Magazine, Red Fez, Five 2 One Magazine and The Zodiac Review.