Fathers, Sons, Dominoes, and Storytelling

By October 18, 2011 no comments Permalink

Image by Calsidyrose/Flickr

Andrew Cotto, author of the new novel “The Domino Effect,” thinks about the most effective ways of telling a story.


I remember talking to a friend in graduate school about a project I’d been working on outside the confines of our MFA program. It was a story about a charismatic kid from Queens, with the nickname of Domino, who gave up on the idea of being “good” after it got his head busted open and his heart ripped out. A damaged Domino escapes to a boarding school in rural New Jersey, and, there, the story follows his transformation, over a tumultuous year, from the self-centered kid he’d recently become, back to the person he was raised to be: someone who looks after others, because the way we treat people affects the way they treat people and so on. Hence the title: The Domino Effect.

I paused after my big finish, waiting for my friend’s enthusiasm to validate my work in progress.

“Umm,” she said, crinkling her nose, “Isn’t that a little moralistic?”

I shelved the project and focused on my thematically rich yet morally ambiguous literary mystery. When I finished the program, I decided to go back to The Domino Effect. This was the story I wanted to tell: it had a great voice, a complex protagonist, strong secondary characters, interesting settings, a page-turner of a plot threaded with humor and music, and themes both universal and unique. And, yeah, it was somewhat moralistic, which was something I had to figure out how to handle.

I love storytelling for many reasons. I love the images and language and devices that make the narrative art form so compelling. I love the requirements placed on imagination. Most of all, though, I love story because it can evoke empathy. It can expand the reader’s understanding of the world by allowing for immersion in the experiences of others. By being transported into the reality of other human beings, the reader can be transformed as a result. Stories allow us to connect with humanity in an unobtrusive way. And, yeah, sometimes that connection comes with a moral, though, in good storytelling, this is never overt.

One of the things I admire most about the Good Men Project is the manner which story is used to explore important matters in contemporary masculinity. While the content comes from a wide range of writers on a wide range of subjects, the message is always intended to be inclusive and devoid of judgment. They do not cast aspersions or arbitrate morality—they work exclusively within the territory of “good,” though those borders are as wide as their writers’ imaginations.

While completing my novel, I recognized my friend’s distaste for moralizing. Stories are not polemics or speeches. Writers should not dictate what is right or wrong. We must not tell people how to think or feel or behave. We show examples of human beings in motion and allow readers to take whatever they choose away, and if part of that involves a notion akin to morality—well, fine.

The Domino Effect is very much the story of a father and a son. So I tried to couch the concept that informs the book within the terms of their relationship, particularly the manner which the son admires his father:

Everyone liked my father. He was funny and smart and what people around called a stand-up guy. He always talked to me about doing the right thing. About looking out for other people and helping them whenever I could. He talked a lot about his heroes, like Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. I listened. I always listened because Pop was my hero. And I wanted to be like him, talk like him, act like him and everything. So that’s why they called me Domino. Because my father’s name was Dominick and, in Italian, ‘ino’ kind of means little, so “Little Dom” translated into Dom-ino. Everybody called me Domino, except my mother who called me Daniel, and my father who called me Pal.

This relationship, and its dramatic shifts, is the heart of the book. I want readers to invest in Domino, to follow him through his journey, rooting for his redemption…or maybe not. That’s up to the reader. I’m just telling the story.

The Domino Effect: Excerpt


            A famous writer once said that anybody who survives childhood has enough stories to tell for the rest of their lives. I survived, barely, and high school was the hardest part. Especially the last year. And to tell the story of my last year of high school, I have to start with the first year. Then the second. And the third. These first three parts will be quick and painful. I promise.


First Year

            I had a lot of things going for me before high school started. I had friends, kids I’d grown up with, kids who met every morning on the sidewalk in front of my place. Every day, I’d take the lead by doing something nuts, like grabbing a watermelon from the fruit stand so the owner would chase me down the block. Or I’d have a seat at the sidewalk cafe and make like the big guys drinking little cups of coffee with their pinkies in the air. Once in awhile, out of nowhere, I’d drop a pack of firecrackers in the gutter and let the morning explode for a minute. Stuff like that. Harmless stuff. But good stuff, anyway, and the guys always laughed and followed me to the schoolyard, where they didn’t mind when I picked the worst guy first.

We’d play all morning with just a ball and a bat and a strike zone spray painted against the wall. The same wall that held our names. Up top, higher than the rest, was my name: Domino. Everybody called me that even though my real name was Danny. Danny Rorro. I’d lived in that Queens neighborhood my whole life. My mother grew up there, too. She’d come from Sicily with her parents when she was 8 years old. Same house that we lived in. My father was from an Italian background, too, but from all over New York. His mother died when he was a kid, from tuberculosis or something, and he spent his childhood being shipped off to different relatives and foster homes. He was into music, mostly drums, and at 18 he joined the service and spent the next four years touring the world with the Air Force band. After he got out, he met my mother at the Roseland Ballroom in Manhattan, and she brought him home to Queens.

Everyone liked my father. He was funny and smart and what people around called a stand-up guy. He always talked to me about doing the right thing. About looking out for other people and helping them whenever I could. He talked a lot about his heroes, like Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. I listened. I always listened because Pop was my hero. And I wanted to be like him, talk like him, act like him and everything. So that’s why they called me Domino. Because my father’s name was Dominick and, in Italian, ‘ino’ kind of means little, so “Little Dom” translated into Dom-ino. Everybody called me Domino, except my mother who called me Daniel, and my father who called me Pal.

And by the time Pop called me home for dinner, the summer before high school started, I’d been out on my own for most of the day with my friends. After playing ball all morning, we’d go to the pizza parlor and get slices with the money in our pockets, and afterward we’d go back to the school yard or maybe, if it was real hot, we’d go down to the shade of Spaghetti Park and watch the old-timers play bocce, or maybe we’d kick around the Italian Ice stand, under the awning, licking ices and talking a million ways around what was going on with our bodies, our muscles growing and our veins pumping with this crazy energy that led to the kind of things we knew next-to-nothing about but wanted more than anything in the whole world.

And even after my father called me home, and I had dinner with my parents, I kept thinking about those things me and my friends talked about under the awning of the Icey stand, and that taste of watermelon stayed with me through dinner. And the best part, the best part of the whole summer, was that after dinner I got to walk down to Genie Martini’s house.

Genie Martini was the cutest girl in my grade. She was short and brown-eyed and had what people around called a great set of lungs. Her father was a plumber and into the races, so he’d be out most nights at the track. Her mother wasn’t around at all, so Genie’s grandmother came downstairs most nights, and Genie and I would share a love seat in the front parlor while Nona watched her programs in the next room. Under the blare of the television and the switching of the scenes, Genie and I would whisper in the fake light and touch each other best we could until her father came whistling up the stairs. I felt kind of invincible back then, untouchable, like the superheroes in the comic books I collected.

But all summer long there had been signs that something was coming. Darker kids with darker hair started to appear on their bikes, riding through the neighborhood in the middle of the day. And this was a problem because this was our neighborhood, and our neighborhood was supposed to be all Italian, so strangers weren’t welcome. When they rode past the schoolyard, someone would yell “Spic!” and we’d drop our bat, let it clatter off the asphalt, as we chased those dark strangers back under the bridge.

The elevated trains ran through our part of Queens, and our neighborhood was separated from the next neighborhood by an overpass that, every couple of minutes, rattled over our heads. This was the border, and I, in all my life, had never set foot on the other side of that bridge. Stupid stuff, I knew even then, but the bridge was kind of sacred. So much so that all my guys supported this great idea I had to spray paint an Italian flag on the other face of the bridge, just so those from that side would know not to pass over into our side.

With a spray can in each back pocket, and one in my hand, I skipped Genie Martini’s house one night and, before it got too dark, I climbed the stairs to the train station, slipped under the turnstile and sized up the practically empty platform. Down at the far end, with no trains in sight and no one looking, I jumped down to the track, high-stepped over the rails, and crossed to the other side. I ran down to the bridge, listening and looking for an oncoming train. I could see all the rooftops, and the clothes hanging between the buildings, and the skyline of Manhattan in the distance. My heart pounded and the sooty air stung my eyes and burned my lungs as I leaned over the railing and, as quickly as I could, sprayed, wide as I could, a red rectangle, a white rectangle, and a green one, too. I was so desperate to finish that I wasn’t even sure if I got the order of the colors correct.

I dropped the cans and ran fast, fast as I could, down and across the tracks. It was hard to breathe after getting up onto the platform, but I kept running all the way home. Pop was waiting for me on the stoop. “Genie called, Pal,” he said. “Wondering where you been.” He looked at my hands and forearms dusted with fresh paint and my shirt lined with filth. Now he was wondering where I’d been, too. I told Pop everything back then, so I told him about the flag and the bridge and the kids we called “Spics.” And he kept me in the house for the rest of the summer.

Pop taught music at a high school in Brooklyn, and he spent his vacations listening to the radio and reading books, tending to the fig tree that filled our patch of a backyard. Sometimes, one of his musician friends would come over and they’d play songs together. He cooked dinner most nights, too, because my mother had been going to college at night, summers, too, for the past couple of years. She liked it so much that when finished, she started up again, this time for a degree in law, which made sense because she could argue with the best of them.

Pop wasn’t much for arguing. He stayed calm and listened when other people spoke, and he spoke nice and slow when he had something to say in return. He had plenty to say to me after that deal with the bridge. Not too nice and not too slow, either. I’d never seen him so mad. He spent the rest of the summer hammering me about the stupidity of my stunt and the stupidity of what he called ”bigotry.” He talked about history and the danger of us vs. them. He talked about Kennedy and King, those guys he liked so much. He said, over and over, people were people no matter what we looked like, and that he’d been all around the city and all around the world and knew this to be true, and that it was our responsibility to look out for each other no matter what we looked like and where we came from. No matter what. This went on for weeks, pretty much the same speech, over and over, so I was happy for school to finally start and to get out of the house.

Turns out the flag I painted was a tribute to some African country. And, in my absence, Genie Martini started going with some older kid named Tommy Destafano. Meanwhile, the big high school had big hallways and lots of strange faces. A couple of my friends went to a Catholic school and the others, still with me, seemed smaller and a little scared in the crowds between classes and in the noisy cafeteria that was about the size of a football field.

In the school yard, things were quieter. There was space and sky and games to play. But there was also something obvious, and that obvious thing was sides. There was an Italian side and a Spanish side. I guess there had been some Latin kids at the high school before, but this year, everyone said, those numbers had changed. A lot. And those kids riding their bikes in the summertime weren’t cutting through; they were going home. Immigration from Puerto Rico was on the rise, big time, and places I’d barely heard of, like the Dominican Republic and Colombia and Ecuador, were sending tons of people, too. And where they were sending them was Queens, and the neighborhood in Queens where most of the Latinos lived was right next to ours and running out of room because of all the new people. So they spilled. They spilled into our neighborhood and the different kids set up sides in the schoolyard.

Like I said, the school yard was quiet, but not a good quiet. Lots of stares and whispers, fingers pointed and posing. It seemed stupid to me, maybe because I’d made a fool of myself and then lost Genie Martini and my summer from that painted bridge move, and maybe, probably, because of what Pop had said, over and over, during those summer days I spent in the house. Either way, I wasn’t having it, so I set out on my own to do my own thing. And that, I figured, was the right thing, too.

With a couple of our guys missing, we hardly had enough for a game, so I found the Latin kids who threw balls against the wall, too. Turns out those kids liked ball as much, if not more, than we did. They were some players, especially the Dominicans, and we had to divide the teams to keep things fair. Afterward, we all went our separate ways, but in the school yard we came together during recess and after school almost every day. No big deal. Just kids playing ball without sides.

The older kids, though, weren’t into ball like we were. They stood their ground, on their sides, and kept inching towards each other. Things began in the hallways, where shoulders collided and pushes followed and, eventually, fights began to break out. Fights in the bathrooms, the hallways, and the cafeteria happened all the time. I stayed out of them and kept doing my thing.

Pop did his thing, too. He talked with the new neighbors in Spanish, welcomed them with handshakes. People from around started to talk about Pop, and some stopped talking to him altogether. I guess they didn’t consider him a stand-up guy anymore. Or maybe they didn’t like the fact that hewas a stand-up guy. Either way, Pop didn’t care.

The school year went on and the holidays passed. Winter was long and cold and quiet. But things got noisy when spring showed up and the school yard suddenly had two sides again. The difference was that the Spanish side had grown over the winter. Real fights broke out. Fights with chains and pipes and sometimes knives. Kids were getting hurt, for real. Vincent Marino, from across the street, got his neck nearly busted and wound up in the hospital.

This was all older kid stuff, for the most part. Sometimes they’d throw our ball on the roof, and once in awhile they’d take our aluminum bat and keep it for a fight, but they left us younger guys out of it. But that was before Vinnie Marino got hurt. And before the day Pop had this little concert on our stoop.

I’d come home that day from the schoolyard and saw this crowd all around our stoop — little kids and their parents or grandparents spilling out onto the sidewalk. All Spanish. They were watching Pop, sitting on top of the stairs with some bongos, next to one of his musician friends with a guitar. They were doing that Simon and Garfunkel song about “Mama Pajama” and “Rosie the Queen of Corona” and everybody seemed so happy. I never liked that tune. I especially didn’t go for it that day because while Pop and his buddy and everybody else were having a ball doing their thing, Vinnie Marino’s friends were across the street, staring over at Pop with disgust.

Of course, they couldn’t do or even say anything to Pop since he was an adult and we had rules for respect. But when they turned their eyes on me, standing on the corner, watching just like they were, I knew for sure that I was in for trouble.

Starting that very next day, trouble came. Every day, these older kids would spit on me in the halls and scratch clever things on my locker like “dead man” and “traitor” and “Spic lover.” Real geniuses. And these bright guys waited for me after school, too. Most afternoons, around 3:00 in the school yard, I took a pretty good beating. The worst part wasn’t the beatings, though. I got used to them. The worst part was knowing that the beatings were coming, and even worse than that was not knowing what kind of stuff would appear on my locker and who, exactly, was doing those things. It felt like everyone was against me. My friends disappeared, either moved away or afraid to be seen with me. My mother went crazy, talked to the people she knew, but no one put a stop to what they were doing to me. My father cleaned me up most afternoons and talked about sticking up for what I believed in. So I did.

I did my own thing, until I was walking home one day towards the end of the year and these kids come up from behind on bikes, but I didn’t turn around. A few of them rolled past and I started to relax, thinking they were gone, when all a sudden, out of nowhere, something cracked off the back of my head. There were bright lights for a second and a clatter off the ground. The sound of an aluminum bat.

I remember lying on the filthy sidewalk, blood running across my face and into my mouth. It tasted like pennies. Dirty pennies. And that, for the most part, ended of my first year of high school.

THE DOMINO EFFECT is available on Amazon.com

Published on The Good Men Project: Fathers, Sons, Dominoes, and Storytelling

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