On May 2, 1918, a short article appeared in the Boston Globe. It was only three sentences long; not an article really. Just a mention. It appeared on page twenty-four on the outside column, where most people hold on to a newspaper. I'm sure you wouldn't be very surprised to know that few people noticed it as they read the paper that morning and several people smeared jam on it as they turned the page. Only a very few read it.
* * *
COUNT BLOWN UP
On the night of April 12, the Count of Roma was assassinated by an anarchist's bomb at his house in that eternal city. His mother, the contessa, and his daughter were not harmed in the blast, but were later found to have disappeared. The new count suggests sinister persons may be involved.
* * *
Rare was the person who consulted the Globe those days for any news other than the war. There were no tears in America to spare for luckless Italian counts and their vanished daughters; there were still too many left to shed for lost sons and wounded fathers. For the scores --- the hundreds, the thousands --- being killed on the battlefields of europe every day. So it could be expected that a small article about an insignificant foreign incident, buried in the depths of the newspaper, garnered little attention.
except that actions committed on one side of the world have a way of impacting the other.And people previously unknown to one another happen to meet all the time. In the Italian-speaking North end that day, copies of the Globe were used to wrap fish and line cupboards, while up on Beacon Hill, the newspaper was read from page to page, top to bottom. And in one particular house, the lady of that mansion sniffed as she sipped her tea and thought how it was just like an Italian to be blown up by one of his own kind.
Two of the people mentioned in the article had access to the paper that day, but the hapless heiress couldn't read english, and the sinister persons were too busy hatching evil plans to bother with a propaganda tool of the capitalists' machinations. And so the fact that there had been an assassination registered to no one in particular. And life went on just the way it usually does.
But fate has a way of laughing at human ignorance and God spins mysterious plans, and by August that Italian count's death would start to matter very much to quite a few people who had never known him at all.
* * *
Stealthy and silent as the cats she so admired, Julietta Giordano slipped past her papa and mama, her elder sister, and her three brothers as they ate breakfast at the table.
Or she tried to anyway.
"You forgot your salame!" Mama leaned toward the sideboard, grabbed a sack, and passed it to Dominic, who tossed it to Julietta.
"I told you, Mama. Madame doesn't want any salame. Not in the shop. It stinks."
"Of course it stinks. It stinks like a good salame."
"It stinks like garlic. And it makes my hands greasy."
There was hardly a break in the rhythm of the family's eating. They all had work to do and somewhere to be. It was the nature of an immigrant family. Which made it all the easier for Julietta to lower the salame to the floor behind her legs and leave it leaning against the wall as she slid toward the door.
Little Matteo looked up at her as she turned the knob.
She winked at him.
He hid an answering smile in the palm of his hand.
"Tie your scarf tighter beneath your chin!"
Julietta jumped at her older sister's order and dutifully tightened her scarf, although her knot left something to be desired... . A stiff wind, perhaps, to carry the hated thing away and deposit it into a gutter.
While she was busy with her scarf, Julietta's oldest brother, Salvatore, leaned his chair back on two legs, scooped up the salame with a sweep of his hand, and pitched it up to her. She'd have given anything to have hit him with it, but if she didn't leave then, she knew she would be late. She did, however, glare at him.
He answered by flashing her two fingers held up in imitation of horns. He thought she'd given him the evil eye? She'd show him! She knocked him on the head with the salame and then slid out the door before Mama could yell at her.
Don't forget your salame?
She wished she could. Along with scarves and garlic. More than wishing she could forget them, she wished she could throw them all into the street. Or give them to old Lorenzo, the ragpicker, to sell to someone else. All the salami, all the scarves, all the garlic in the world. He could have them. And good riddance!
Once outside and down the block, she turned onto Prince Street, made the sign of the cross as she walked through the shadow of St. Leonard's Church, and then ducked down North Street. Had you known where she worked, you might have wondered at her circuitous route, but Julietta was a firm believer in the sanctity of women's rights. She believed that a woman like herself had the right --- nay, the obligation! --- to give every man in the North end a chance to admire her singular beauty. As she walked in and out of the slices of light that probed the breaks between buildings, a curious change came over the girl. Her chin lifted,her shoulders rolled back. The scarf that had so lately been secured beneath her chin had, in one deft move, been drawn from her head, twisted, and then secured around her neck in a fashion that befitted only the very smartest of debutantes up on Beacon Hill.
Her fingers pushed in and out of her waistband until, in very gradual increments, her skirt had been shortened by at least two inches. Any decent person --- me, perhaps, and you for certain --- would have wanted to grab the girl by her shoulders and shake some sense back into her, but by then she had become almost unrecognizable. By some sleight of hand or dark magic, her dusky complexion seemed to have lightened and, with her shoulders rolled back, she seemed to have grown several inches. She had shed the very essence of her self. She had ceased to be Italian.
In fact, that was her greatest desire and most secret plan. More than anything, she wanted to be not Italian --- not some person bound by family ties and the traditions of the old country --- but American. There was a whole city --- a whole world! --- that warm summer day, just waiting to be discovered. And she wanted to explore every single part of it!
* * *
Two blocks up the street and three minutes later, Anna ---
maria Rossi left her own family's apartment. The leaving was less strenuous than Julietta's, even though her youngest brother, Stefano, wrapped his arms about her waist and refused to release her; even though her mama handed her a string-bound pile of newly hemmed trousers to be dropped off at old Giuseppe's; and even though her sister, Theresa, whispered into her ear to tell that handsome Giovanni Sardo that she would meet him down in the alley after dinner.
Surrogate mother, servant, maid. Deliverer of secret messages. The day was no different than any other. Her leaving that morning was less strenuous than Julietta's only because she knew her return would be more so. The bulk of her work that day would be done not at Madame Fortier's Gown Shop, where she was the expert in smocking, but that evening at home where she was also her mother's eldest daughter.
Two girls there were among a family of three boys. And as the eldest of them all, Annamaria was destined to be indentured in service to her family for most of the rest of her life. That night, she knew she would have to coax Stefano to do his english lessons and try to persuade Theresa to help her pull in the wash. And in the meantime she would help Mama prepare for putting up some plums on the weekend.
As Annamaria stepped out into the bright summer's morning, she clamped the stack of trousers under her arm as she unknotted the scarf beneath her chin and then, grasping the two ends, cinched it tighter. She retied the knot, pulled the scarf further forward on her head, and started down the sidewalk.
Ducking into Giuseppe's tailor shop on the way down North Street, she nodded at his gap-toothed greeting. But this time, for the first time, she dodged the old man when he tried to pinch her bottom. And she deliberately, on purpose, walked right by the Sardos' shop without passing on Theresa's message. She spent the next three blocks rejoicing in the feeling of triumph that buoyed her spirit.And the three blocks after that feeling exceedingly guilty for having been so jubilant. So contrary. But she hadn't known before just how satisfying it could be to say no.
Take your own trousers.
Deliver your own message.
In truth, it wouldn't have done for her to say either of those things to her family. Not at all. Not for Annamaria Rossi. Wasn't hers the life that had been fated as the eldest of the daughters? Indeed, the life that had been demanded of eldest daughters for generation after generation in her family's small village in Italy? And hadn't her Aunt Rosina, her mother's own sister, warned her against the bitterness of resentment? She pulled her aunt's medal, the medal of Saint Zita, from her blouse.
Saint Zita, that pious woman who had known the blessings of neither husband nor children. Nothing but a life of toil as a servant. Annamaria kissed the medal and then let it fall back to her chest, where it slid between breasts that would never know the caress of a lover's touch, nor the pull and suck of a newborn babe.
It might seem strange that a person so young would deny herself those things that most of the rest of the world took for granted: a husband, a child, a family of her own. But Old World customs were strange, and stranger still were the traditions that had been formed in the small villages that nestled in the rolling hills of Avellino. To those not used to having choices, it's very difficult to even imagine their existence. So we must not think less of Annamaria or be impatient with her to shed her family's odd strictures. The poor girl only wanted to do what was expected of her. We cannot blame her for that.
She stayed in the North end, hugging the shabby buildings, not straying from the filthy sidewalks, inhaling the mingled scents of garlic and coffee just as long as she could. When finally she was confronted by Cross Street, she did what she had to do.
She crossed it.
And then walked west, eventually consigning her person to that bane of modern existence, the close, cramped quarters of an electric car. But still, as she squeezed herself onto the bench, a smile curled the very tips of her lips. How easy, how delightful it had been to be disagreeable.
* * *
You might have thought that Julietta, having left several minutes earlier and intent upon arriving at the same place, would have reached Madame's gown shop in advance of Annamaria. But you would have been wrong. Other people, other more experienced, more knowledgeable people than you, had also been known to be wrong about Julietta. She was a sly and evasive one. Though kindhearted and loyal, she was just a bit ... well, more than a bit, stubborn. On this point and at this moment you'll find yourself having to trust me, but I think that I'll be proved right before long. Suffice to say that in this case, on this morning, she stopped along her way to work.
She hadn't stopped to talk. Not necessarily. Although she would have been quite willing had the opportunity presented itself. No. She stopped mostly to see. And to be seen. Which are the two main objectives in the lives of most eighteen-year-old girls, be they from America or Italy or from any other place in between.
She was really quite extraordinary,and she knew it.You might have taken offense at such extreme vanity except that she made such a picture that morning, standing in a patch of early morning sunlight, across from Zanfini's frutta e verdura. At least that's what Rafaello Zanfini thought. He paused in his labors when he saw her, breathed in a sigh, and immediately dropped a crate of cucumbers onto his foot.
Which caused his father, Mr. Zanfini, to swear, and his mother, Mrs. Zanfini, to berate his father, and the deliveryman, Angelo Moretti, to look up at Julietta over the flatbed of his truck. She only stayed a moment more, but that one moment was long enough for Rafaello to forget his pain and Angelo to lose sight, for just one second, of all his mad schemes.
But perhaps, in fact, it was one moment too long. Before she continued on her way, Julietta saw a flash in Angelo's eyes that made her wonder, for just an instant, if he was what she wanted after all. She pondered that thought as she walked along, finally deciding that of course he was what she wanted. Why wouldn't he be what she wanted? He was entirely and absolutely what she wanted by virtue of her wanting him.
And so they went to work, those two girls from the North end, separated by several blocks and the inseparable gulf of two differing perspectives.The one planning to escape her family just as soon as she could, and the other resigned to stay.