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He hated dredging up memories.
They did not stir in him a taste for nostalgia or loves lost. He saw in them only one purpose—to harden the shell he had chiseled with care, the one that hid all that could be deemed vulnerable and kept entombed the signs of humanity. When he talked to me about his early years, it was with the voice of a stranger, as if what had been had touched the life of another, one a safe distance removed from the fray. In the telling, his eyes never strayed beyond my face and his voice retained its deep pitch, no matter the emotional import of what was recalled.
I was ten when I first heard the story of his ocean crossing, and as I sat in the hospital room listening to Mary’s account of the tale, the early moments of the dying man’s life came exploding back, as real, as hard and as fresh as a wave.
His ship was three days out of Naples when the storm hit.
Four levels below the deck, walled-in against an overworked engine, six hundred men, women and children were crammed into a space designed for two hundred. The stench of waste mingled with that of burning oil and spouting steam. The cargo hold, normally a dry haven for luggage and sealed goods, was now little more than a moaning assembly of humanity. Families sat in small circles, huddled under tattered coverlets of soiled sheets and clothes. Infants wailed against the pangs of hunger and the nibbling of rats. The elderly chewed tobacco leaves instead of food, black spittle coarsing down their chins. Women, young and old, sang Neapolitan ballads to lift deadened spirits and prayed daily to a stern God for a quick end to a dark journey.
They boarded the ship under a blanket of darkness, paying twenty-five thousand lira—nearly five hundred dollars— per head to a local broker, Giorgio Salvecci, an overweight landlord who kept a tan overcoat draped over his shoul- ders regardless of season. Salvecci shipped skins—Italian immigrants—across the Atlantic Ocean and into the harbors of New York, Boston and Baltimore. At the turn of the century, during the height of the Italian migration to American soil, Salvecci and his crew of thugs sent fifteen hundred transports a week off to an uncertain future. They were openly indifferent to their customers’ ultimate fates; their part of the bargain ended with the payment of under-the-table cash. In return for a few thousand extra lira, Salvecci could also be counted on to supply false documents that would be rubber-stamped at Ellis Island and other points of entry, allowing the less-than-desirable access to the Golden Land.
Convicts, thieves, con men and murderers: all, eventually, made their way to Salvecci. He was their last hope, all that separated them from a long stretch behind the hard bars of an Italian prison.
The ships commissioned by Salvecci to cross the Atlantic were beaten and worn-down cruisers that had seen far better years and far more magnificent voyages. What once had been the pride of a vibrant fleet had been reduced through neglect into ocean-chugging pimps, rushing loads of human hope and misery toward a mysterious new country. The ships had majestic names culled from a more glorious past to cart along with their deteriorating bodies—Il Leonardo, La Vittoria Colonna, La Regina Isabella, Il Marco Polo. They had once carried the gold of Venetian merchants across the angry seas of the Adriatic. Now, weighed down with age, they swam slowly over the Atlantic.
The passengers were fed once a day, in the late afternoon, by a large, muscular man covered from forehead to ankles in tattoos. His name was Italo and he came from a northern mountain region known more for rugged terrain than culinary expertise. It would take Italo a dozen trips to fill the bowls of the hungry, as he lumbered down narrow steel steps, carrying a large pot filled with hot stew. He dipped the bowls into the scalding liquid and scampered away, leaving them to devour what he knew to be a meal unfit for animals. On occasion, he would throw large chunks of old bread into the hole and watch dirty hands dive for the delicacy.
Passengers built small fires around which they’d circle, using old wood and clothes in an attempt to stay warm and keep their children safe. It was an eight-day journey of pain, but one that each person on that stifling deck desperately needed to complete. They were leaving behind a land of dry soil and little promise for a place where, they were told, every one of their dreams would come true. That is what they needed to believe, what would give them the courage to go on as around them grandfathers died in silence and infants wailed their last breaths.
The dream of America was more than enough to make Paolino Vestieri want to live. Vestieri was a thirty-six-year-old shepherd from Salerno who had seen a thriving flock of three hundred reduced to a half-dozen, victims of hunger, thieves and sickness. He had an eight-year-old son, Carlo, and a wife, Francesca, eight months pregnant with their second child. Despite the daily difficulties, Paolino had no plans to leave Italy. But then, in the late winter of 1906, his father, Giacamo, was ambushed by a band of camorristas—the Neapolitan Mafia. Ignoring his pleas for more time to pay off a long-standing debt, they stripped him nude, hung him from an olive tree and sliced open his stomach. It would be three days before Paolino got word about his father and was able to find his body, and by then the crows and maggots had had their fill. When he returned home, he found Carlo missing and his wife screaming in ways he had never heard a woman cry before.
“They took Carlo!” she shrieked. “They took my son!”
“Who took him?” Paolino asked, grabbing his wife.
“The camorra,” Francesca managed to shout between screams. “They took my boy. They took him for the money your father owed. The money we cannot pay.”
“Stop your crying,” Paolino said, removing his hands from his wife and heading for the bedroom to get his lupara. “I will get Carlo.”
Francesca fell to her knees, still crying, head cradled in her hands. “I want my son,” she moaned. “I want my son. If they want revenge, tell them to take it from your father. Not from my boy.”
“They have already taken it from my father,” Paolino said, checking the lupara for shells as he walked past his wife and out the door.
• • •
Paolino stood in the center of the small dining room, his eyes on his son and the man standing above him, smoking a thin cigar. The man inched the cigar from his mouth, curls of smoke clouding his thick, tanned face. He patted the top of Carlo’s head.
“He’s a good boy,” the man said, smiling. “Very quiet. No trouble to us. He’s almost a part of the family already.”
“I will get you your money, Gaspare,” Paolino said, the lupara hanging over his shoulder, partly hidden by the sleeve of his shepherd’s coat. “I give you my word. Now, please. Let me have my son.”
“Your father gave his word, too,” Gaspare said. “Many times. And I am still left with nothing. Besides, the boy will know a better life with us. We can give much more than you. And with your father out of the way, you will no longer have to live in debt. At least to us.”
Paolino looked down at his son and remembered the early mornings when he would lift him onto his shoulders and carry him down the slopes of the olive groves toward his flock. His head was filled with the happy sounds of a boy’s laughter, as he urged his father to go faster and catch up to the grazing sheep. That brief and blissful memory was quickly replaced by the image of a grown Carlo, now a hardened member of the camorra, glowering at him from the top of that very same olive grove, standing tall and silent as men with guns raced to fill their pockets with the wages of the working poor. Paolino Vestieri knew he must never allow the son he loved so much to grow up to be such a man.
He stepped closer to Gaspare and his son, ignoring the two men standing on either side of the room. “One way or another,” Paolino said, “my son will come with me.”
“You talk like a brave man.” Gaspare put the cigar back in his mouth, his voice turned harder. “But your actions will show where your courage takes you.”
“Let me have my son,” Paolino said, feeling the sweat race down his neck and back.
“I have no more to say to you.” Gaspare dismissed Paolino with a wave. “Tend to your flock, shepherd. Let me worry about the boy.”
Paolino fell to his knees and swung the lupara from his back to his hands. But he did not aim it at the criminal Gaspare. The gun was aimed directly at his son’s chest. The two men in the corner pulled their own handguns and aimed it at Paolino. Gaspare backed away from the boy, his smoldering cigar now cupped in his right hand. Carlo stared at his father, his lower lip quivering.
“You would kill your own blood?” Gaspare asked. “Your only son?”
“Better for him to be dead than to live with you,” Pao- lino said.
“You don’t have the heart for such a move,” Gaspare said. “I don’ t even know if I do.”
“Then save him and let him come home with me.”
Gaspare stared at Paolino for several minutes, glaring into his eyes, taking slow puffs off the cigar.
“No,” he said, shaking his head slowly.
Paolino turned away from Gaspare and looked at his son. It was as if the two of them were now alone. The hard gaze of the boy’s eyes told his father all that he felt he needed to know. It would not take the camorra long to steal the young boy’s spirit and turn it against those he loved. They would seduce him with romanticized images of power and wealth, easily lure the child in with vivid portraits of a life much more alluring and appealing than that of a shepherd’s son. It would be a corrupt life, one without scruples or morals or decency. They had not had enough time to completely tear the boy away from him, not yet, but Paolino could see that such a path had already been paved. The boy would be a thief, a criminal and, one day, a murderer.
“I love you, Carlo,” Paolino said and squeezed the trigger.
He watched as the bullet’s impact sent his son hard against the stone fireplace. Carlo crumpled to the ground, his face inches from the sparks of the crackling wood, his eyes half-open, dead from his father’s hand.
“Now he belongs to no one,” Paolino said.
He tossed aside the lupara and walked toward the fireplace. He bent down, picked his son up in his arms, turned and left.