Two days after the race a friend of his father’s arrived in Tanduzzo: Pasquale.
He appeared at the Cannettas’ doorstep with a new, shiny Kawasaki Z750. He was nineteen years old—young to have such a fancy motorcycle.
Perched on the seat, he seemed taller than he was: he had a long torso and short legs. His hair was reddish brown, his head small, his chin pointy. His eyes, sharp and spaced far apart, were like black pebbles. His hands flitted around in a girlish way, with white fingers and pale, manicured nails.
With that odd torso and his moustache, he reminded Santino of the stuffed weasel that sat on a shelf in the kitchen.
He’d known Pasquale for a while. Every so often he would turn up at their house, or else he and papa would drive out to meet him, always in different places. The young man sometimes had a tic—when that happened, you had to pretend not to notice.
Alfonso wasn’t home. Pasquale swore. He pushed his dark glasses up on his forehead.
“Tell your papa that I’ll be waiting for him tomorrow evening at seven at Poggioreale Vecchia. Outside the gate. He’s got to be there.”
They were speaking at the door, not going in, because Pasquale didn’t want to lose sight of the Kawasaki.
He turned back to Santino: “Repeat what I just told you.”
“Tomorrow at seven at Poggioreale Vecchia. But that’s the Ghost Town!”
“Smart picciriddu. You’ve got a head on your shoulders. Have you ever been there?”
“No. Papa says it’s dangerous to walk inside.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll meet outside at the gate.”
He gave Santino’s cheek a pinch. “Do you still have my amulet?”
Santino poked a hand inside his shirt and found the leather cord where the charm hung. He took it out to show Pasquale.It was a trinacria, the symbol of Sicily: a woman’s round face with three bare legs radiating outward from it, knees bent.
It was a trinacria,* the symbol of Sicily: a woman’s round face with three bare legs radiating outward from it, knees bent. But this trinacria was different from all the others by a unique detail: instead of the face, there was a stamped design in yellow resin, and inside the resin, solitary and untouchable, was a wasp. You could see right away that it was a real wasp. Santino had often wondered if it had been placed in the boiling resin while it was still alive. It wasn’t alive now—but encased inside, the insect looked immortal.
“Don’t lose it. It’ll bring you good luck, money, and women.”
“Right.” Santino started to put the charm back inside his sweater.
Pasquale stopped him. “Look. I have one too.” He took the amulet from beneath the starched collar of his shirt and put his next to Santino’s.
“So far it’s given me everything I wanted: money, women, everything. Sibilla made it specially for me. She’s a very powerful magara.”
The two charms were identical.
“I never take it off, not even when I sleep. I gave it to you because I’m your godfather, sort of.”
Santino nodded, then, as if ashamed, he put the charm back inside his sweater.
Assunta’s face peered out from inside.
“Ah, Pasquale. My husband isn’t home,” she said curtly.
“It’s important that he come to our appointment tomorrow. I need to speak to him.” He smoothed his gelled hair with his hand, tossed off a hasty goodbye, and lowered his dark glasses.
Santino watched him climb astride the Kawasaki. Pasquale seemed way too dressed up for a motorcycle. His outfit was more fitting for a funeral or a wedding: tie, black slacks, brilliantly shiny black shoes.
He must have money, he thought. Not like Papa. Pasquale must be the son of an important boss.He must have money, he thought. Not like Papa. Pasquale must be the son of an important boss.
Santino hugged his mother, who’d come outside. He held her around the waist.
“Is he the one who finds work for Papa?” he asked.
Assunta made a face.
“Why don’t you like Pasquale, Ma?”
“Because … he’s not a good person.” She hugged the boy tight, then picked him up and went back into the house.
* * *
The message was delivered. Alfonso’s face darkened, then he shrugged his shoulders.
They were all sitting around the kitchen table, the warmest room in the small house: Mamma, Papa, Nonno Mico, who was Mamma’s father, and his wife, Nonna Nunzia, an old woman who was not in the best of health.
“I told you things would get complicated,” Nonno Mico remarked.
“He wants to talk to me, so what’s the big deal?” Alfonso was looking down at his plate.
Assunta snapped, “You always think everything’s so simple. That guy is bad news. They’re mean people, dangerous.”
“Cut it out! If it weren’t for u Taruccatu there wouldn’t be food on our plates tonight.”“You always think everything’s so simple. That guy is bad news. They’re mean people, dangerous.”
Santino was listening avidly. U Taruccatu?
“Just go, you have to go,” said Nonno Mico.
“Of course I’ll go!” Alfonso turned to his father-in-law. “I’m not afraid. I’ll even take Santino.”
Nonno Mico and Assunta looked at him in surprise.
“You think I would take him if it was dangerous?”
“Santino has school and also his catechism lesson. He has to prepare for his first communion!” Assunta burst out.
“He’ll prepare another day.” Alfonso was losing patience.
“Let me go, Mamma! I’ve already learned the catechism.”
“You’re not going anywhere!” His mother grabbed Santino and held him tight. He squirmed around to free himself, tears of humiliation in his eyes.
Nonno Mico raised a hand. “Assunta, stop being a mother hen. Santino is always hanging onto your apron strings like a baby.”
“I am not,” Santino shot back, trying to wriggle out of his mother’s arms.
His grandfather ignored him. “Alfonso, take him along. It’s a good idea.”
There was silence in the kitchen. Reluctantly, Assunta opened her arms and released Santino. The boy ran to his grandfather. The old man always had the last word. No one would ever have dared to oppose his decision.
* * *
To be sure to reach Poggioreale Vecchia, the Ghost Town, on time, they started out at five in the morning. The day was dismal: it was raining and the low sky resembled a mass of molten lead. The rain veiled the countryside, which was still very dry.
Despite the overcast day, Santino was all revved up. He and Papa alone in the car—that was as good as it gets.
“Pa, what is Poggioreale like?”
“Old Poggioreale is a town completely in ruins. There was an earthquake. No one lives there anymore. But the facades of the houses are still standing.” He looked at his son. “They’ll collapse if anyone breathes on them,” he added, in the hushed tones of someone telling a fairy tale about ogres.
“Once upon a time you could go there in a truck and carry off chunks of balconies, marble coats of arms, doors.” Alfonso described these things so well that Santino could visualize them. “Heavy stuff. Stuff foreign tourists would give plenty of dollars for.”
“Did they steal them?” Santino asked.
“Well … Because of that the cops put up a gate; they left only two footpaths. So, if you’re on foot, what can you carry off? A brick!”
“Are we going in?”
“We have to stay in the middle of the road so rocks don’t fall on our heads, and I don’t trust you—you’re a wild pony.”
“No, I’m not!”
They were silent for a few minutes. The rain cascaded around the car.
“Pa,” Santino asked, “Who is u Taruccatu?”
Alfonso laughed. “That’s who we’re going to meet.”
“Do I know him?”
“Isn’t he called Pasquale?”
“Don’t you know that we give everyone nicknames?”
Santino’s eyes lit up. “When I think of him, I call him Weasel. Like the one we have in the kitchen.”“Yes, he does look like our weasel. But we rebaptized him u Taruccatu because he’s so superstitious. He even believes in the magic of Tarot cards.”
His father laughed again. “Yes, he does look like our weasel. But we rebaptized him u Taruccatu because he’s so superstitious. He even believes in the magic of Tarot cards.”
“So I’ll call him that too. U Taruccatu.”
“Don’t let him hear you….”
“I would never do that.”
Alfonso turned toward his son. “Let’s see if you can guess: which of my friends is called Steccasicca?”**
Santino thought about it. He didn’t know all his father’s friends. He took a guess.
“Wrong! Who walks like he has a stick up his…?”
“Right! And who is u Surciu?”***
“Very good. And u Curtu?”****
The game went on for a good stretch of road. Santino had never felt so close with his father.
“Pa, what do they call you?”
Alfonso turned to him and, keeping his hands on the steering wheel, bent his head to brush his lips against Santino’s ear. He uttered a word.
Santino stared wide-eyed in admiration.
“That’s what they call you?”
“Maybe because of my great intelligence,” Alfonso replied, nuzzling his hair.
They laughed together.
When they reached the gate that enclosed the ruins of Poggioreale Vecchia, Santino immediately spied Pasquale’s Kawasaki parked on the deserted piazza.
“You stay in here,” Alfonso said. “Don’t leave the car for any reason.”
The rain had almost stopped.
Santino nodded, cowed by the abrupt bossy tone that shattered the warm closeness of the trip.
Alfonso got out and stood waiting next to the car. The motorcycle was there but u Taruccatu was nowhere to be seen.
A few minutes later Santino caught sight of him beyond the gate, on the central road of the Ghost Town. He came toward them, the dark glasses hiding his eyes.
Alfonso left the car and went to meet him. They began talking on the plaza. Santino couldn’t hear them, so he opened the window. That was better, even if the cold froze his nose.
U Taruccatu was complaining about their being late.
“Why did you go into the Ghost Town?” Alfonso interrupted.
“I had to take a piss.”
“Why did you make me come all this way? Do you have a job for me?”
U Taruccatu’s expression changed. His mustache started to quiver. He was suddenly in a rage.“You scoundrel! Did you think we wouldn’t find out what you did? I already warned you.”
“You scoundrel! Did you think we wouldn’t find out what you did? I already warned you.” He was yelling and trembling all over. “My father didn’t like your cheating one bit. I had to defend you, you who….” He finished this speech by bringing his hands to his chest to form an X with his index fingers crossed and pointing down.
Santino recognized this gesture. It meant that his father was a fool. He kept listening, growing more and more worried.
His father seemed ill at ease. “I didn’t think … Just for a few picciuli … a pitiful amount.”
Pasquale was seized by his tic. He spat when he talked.
“The owner of the warehouse paid us protection money regularly! And you, you wretched idiot, you walked away with that truckload! Moron! I can’t protect you anymore.”
Santino was shocked. They didn’t seem like the same people. Not even his father—he was acting meek, apologizing, keeping his eyes lowered.
“Give me some other job,” he was saying to the young man. “Even if it’s risky….”
“You’re in disgrace, don’t you get it? You have to wait. That’s why I sent for you, to warn you not to act like an imbecile again. There’ll be work when we say so.”
“But what will I do? You know I have a family.”
“That’s your problem. And make sure not to step out of line again.”
Pasquale walked away from Alfonso and got on his Kawasaki. Only at that moment did he notice Santino in the car.
The boy suffered the cold impersonal glare of those black eyes trained on him.
U Taruccatu spat on the ground and started the motor with a din. An instant later he was far away.
On the trip home the father and son didn’t exchange a single word.
*Trinacria: ancient name for Sicily, meaning island of the three promontories.
**Steccasicca: dry stick.
***u Surciu: fat rat.
****u Curtu: shorty.
From Run For Your Life. Used with the permission of the publisher, Restless Books. Copyright © 2018 by Silvana Gandolfi.