“certain … Complications”


Then father did what he could. He knew the former head of the Italian squad in the New York Police Department, the legendary Michèle Fiaschetti, a herculean six-footer from Abruzzi, the terror of the Black Hand, who was now running a detective agency of his own. He was so strong he extracted confessions from suspected men by merely holding them out of the window with one hand while questioning them. Fiaschetti promised help. Within a few days he brought us a middle-aged Sicilian woman, Rosalia, who had to be hidden where nobody would find her because her husband had sworn to kill her. She was easy to hide, as she was as thin and small as a child. She had large frightened black eyes in a little wrinkled-apple face, never went out, kept all windows closed, the curtains drawn, and tremulously spied out the road through the side of the curtains. Her cooking was spicy and unfamiliar, her dialect, to us Milanesi, almost incomprehensible. She told us endless tales of her native village, most of which we did not follow clearly. Her husband had been her only love, she said. He had raped her against the cemetery wall when she was fourteen and she could never forget such a romantic proof of affection. Why he now wanted to kill her we could not fathom. She did not explain. It must have been for some complicated reason out of Pirandello. We could not believe it was to avenge the family’s honor, one of the imperative island reasons. I thought she was not young, fat, nor appetizing enough, too scrawny. But, then, I was not an old Sicilian peasant. Or maybe she had betrayed a secret, had unwittingly revealed something to Fiaschetti himself, who had to save her. When I was occasionally left alone with her, I made tours of the house clutching father’s automatic revolver from World War I in my pocket, feeling like Tom Mix or Nick Carter. I never saw anybody resembling a grim Sicilian killer or cornuto husband lurking in the placid suburban neighborhood.

Some weeks later Fiaschetti came to fetch her in his car. For equally mysterious reasons she could no longer stay with us. She disappeared. We learned later she had been killed. Why, by whom, we never found out. For a while we had to make our own beds and wash our own dishes.

I went to the local high school for a few months to practice my English and possibly learn something more about the United States than I could pick up at the movies, at the family dinner table, or by reading newspapers. I studied American history, among other things, wondering how these ingenious people, with then only a century and a half to go on, managed to fill books as thick, unreadable, and complicated, as rich with memorable dates, legendary events, and famous men, as the Italian textbooks, which dealt with thousands of years, the rise and fall of entire civilizations, invasions, and innumerable wars. “History is like a gas,” my Spanish brother-in-law says. “No matter how little there is, it fills the space available.” But the language was what interested me most. Learning it was a vital necessity. It had not seemed particularly difficult on paper, back in Milan. It was spelled in a demented and unpredictable way, to be sure, but it had the grammar of a lingua franca , that is practically no grammar at all, which was a great advantage. I managed to read it easily with only the occasional use of a dictionary. The real thing living people spoke was, I found out, something entirely different. The varieties of spoken American could not be cou n ted, and most of them were incomprehensible to me, used as I was to the clean-cut pronunciation of Italian. Words were usually ejected in lumps, at enormous speed, groups of them strung together like rushing railroad cars without perceptible separations. (The people surely did not speak as fast as I thought in those first few months. One always believes a foreigner speaks whatever his language is at vertiginous speed.) The enunciation seemed to me thick-tongued and gelatinous. Butter sounded to my ears something like “burrow,” Baltimore, Maryland, like “Balmer, Murlin.” Voices often emanated, like that of a ventriloquist, from unexpected parts of the anatomy, the nose, the depth of the throat, the belly, the top of the head, and, in the case of many middle-aged men, the side of the face from which a cigar did not protrude. These spoken languages changed from region to region (in New York from borough to borough), and from class to class. Sometimes, in the same person, the language changed according to the hour of the day, the circumstances, the interlocutors, and the amount of drink absorbed. (All these impressions changed as my ears became more attuned to the people’s speech.) I still do not understand every word pronounced by many provincial Americans, but generally in the East and among friends, any conversation sounds to me as clear as running water from a mountain brook.