By Michela Valmori
Grasping the sodden wood with both hands, I pushed the shutters wide apart. An overwhelming light filled the damp room. As my eyes adjusted a spring breeze followed suit, freeing the stifling air inside the sacristy. Leaning out, daring my head into the open, I filled my lungs with the faint scent of the land. I took in the tilled earth—the recently planted vineyards. The Comino valley was God’s gift to man. Couldn’t they see?
The first incident occurred two years ago. Giovanna Collucci, mother to Antonio, knocked on my door in the early hours of the morning. Fearing it may have been the Conza brothers, I nervously loaded the scopetta we kept inside the kitchen. When I heard her weeping, I understood this was something else. She was desperate, the poor soul. I sat down and asked to pray together. This calmed her. Eventually she composed herself enough to tell me what bothered her so. Her son, Antonio, was going to leave for the New World. She was distraught. I smiled. We are lucky if this is the worst of our problems signora! I assured her his delusions would pass. And if he ever made it as far as Napoli, God-willing, past the brigands and the Apennines, he would return. How could he leave all he had known behind?
That was two years ago—the beginning. I should’ve done more to stop Antonio. As I waited for the baker to hand me one of the few loaves left, I overheard that he had the courage to not only reach Napoli, but also climb board the steel ship. Then I understood everything was going to change. Worse yet, he wasn’t alone—his cousin, who had accompanied him with the family’s donkey, abandoned us as well. There wasn’t a soul in Casalvieri who wasn’t talking about the Collucci. I wanted to address these actions on Sunday—I had to. I prepared my homily, spending hours inside the sacristy, high above the baked orange clay of each roof. Perhaps Antonio had found a reason to leave. Could he have made peace with God? Sometimes I think it was Garibaldi, this revolution put into the minds of young men impossible thoughts. An idea is always favored over reality. And what is this reality across the ocean? Filled with Protestants?
That night I could not think anymore inside the sacristy—I went for a breath of fresh air. Casalvieri rolls steeply the length of its hill, the church and castle at its peak. When one descends he feels as if he is in a constant fall. Did Antonio grow tired of these houses? They were fine homes for a contadino. Built of solid stone. I until it grew late. I let the perpetual heat of the sun on those carefully stacked rocks channel through me. Eventually I found myself in a neighborhood I did not recognize. Noticing a flickering light in a house further up the road, I headed towards it, like a moth to a candle. Then I heard the desperate shrills. Looking into the window I saw a man beating his wife. As his hand menacingly rose to strike, he stopped for the longest second, collapsing to the floor in a fit of weeping. Parroco, ha nu’ soldo ppe noi? whispered a stunted child, who had been sitting in the dark behind me, watching his parents. Reaching into my pocket I found nothing to give.
The following morning, as I walked alongside the façade of the church I couldn’t help but notice the large fissure running the length of its entrance. It appeared seven years ago, after the earthquake. Where there earthquakes in this New World? And the churches—there had to be churches. How did they look inside? Someone had to lead quei poveri. Chissà. I never addressed the congregation.
Antonio eventually returned, lo sciagurato. He came to bury his mother. Casalvieri has never seen a finer tomb. He says he will bury all his family there—himself too someday. The cappella he built towers above the dead, the letters COLLUCCIO now visible from all across town. Some say he killed his cousin, over there, in the New World. This is a grave accusation. I have to believe he has made his peace with God. The plaster covering the fissure is slowly drying. Lo sciagurato even donated un nuovo Cristo. Mò. This nuovo mondo.
When I was a child I used to scour the alleys in-between Prospect Park and 11th for stones. I slid the heaviest inside my pockets. I was a rich man when they bulged and clattered with each step. Reaching Union Street, I would take the narrows, checking to make sure I wasn’t followed. In the midst of houses I would look for quiet homes. I imagined I was Giulio Bonetti, winding-up my arm as I pitched for the Cubs. Before the rock ever hit the glass I was running, through those concrete mazes I came to know so well. My father worked at Killarney Glass, a block from the tenements. I just didn’t want him to lose his job.
My mother passed away from TB when I was young. I never bothered to learn what those letters stood for; I wanted nothing to do with the disease. My father always came home late. I knew he loved me, but he didn’t have the time to keep up. Every night I watched him drag his tired frame to bed, before the buonanotte. During the day Salvatore and Alessandro raised me. Chewing gum, smoking cigarettes, we became street children—good-for-nothing, zingari. We looked up to the older good-for-nothings, those who worked for the scum of the earth, the illustrious men we hoped one day to become.
Eventually I had to find something temporary to help with the bills. As long as you’re honest, and remember who you owe a favor to, jobs are possible to come by. Whenever I ran the orders for Bruno I would listen to the conversations springing from each table. It reassured me to hear how busy the world around me was. How much was slowly being built by us—Sicilians, Calabresi, Campanari. Though I was little, I never felt proud in Caltanissetta. Here, as dirty and marginalized of a life we were creating, it was a wet, defiant tongue stuck out to the past. Everyone and everything that ever held us back. All I ever wanted was to wear a suit like Don Salento’s at mass.
My first true work was as a doorman at Ciccio’s cathouse. Madamà Antonella taught me everything my mother hadn’t been able to, and my father couldn’t. She negotiated with any man, from the Black Hand to the President of the United States. Alessandro and Salvatore had made their own ways. New York was large, and so were its vices. The city was a labyrinth. But my talent for listening to conversations eventually paid off. Armed with information on the lucrative activities of parties of illustrious men, I began to matter to the little empires forming across Brooklyn. When I had more suits than days of the week, I encountered Stella. I had everything I had wished for when I was running across those filthy alleys with rocks weighing down my pants. But nothing comes free in the New World. Gaining everything, I lost the only thing I had in that sweltering Sicilian town—family and simplicity—Stella. So I walked straight up the marble steps I learned to fear my entire life, and traded all those heavy conversations for a quiet house on the Hudson. I was still proud of everything wrong that we, Sicilian kids with guns and good intentions accomplished. But I had to stick my American tongue out at the past.
In this way I could stay at home, unlike my father. I watched my children grow. One day I’ll take them to Sicily if Stella agrees—remind them there are concrete streets in their blood. Most days I sit by a large windowpane facing the city. When Stella isn’t home it’s quiet. In that stillness I remember the houses I aimed for, with those quiet, glass windows.
About the Author:
Michela Valmori‘s area of expertise includes the literary production of the Italian-American diaspora and its related themes of cultural conflict, crossings and ethnic identity formation. She is the editor of many interviews to Italian-American second generation writers, published in academic journals and the translator of some diaspora books. Two of her last accomplishments are A Day with Antonia Sparano Geiser and Rosa, The Hidden Secrets of An Italian American Woman.