His mother’s instructions couldn’t have been any clearer: If he did find “quello mascalzone” – “that scoundrel” being his father Tommaso maggiore – he was to cut out his tongue so he couldn’t tell any more lies; break both his legs so he couldn’t run; and then take all his money and send it to her so she could come to America and kill him with the orange corkscrew he had sent to her for Christmas.
But where to look? He had been scanning the Texaco Road Map of the United States that was spread across his lap for the past half hour, concentrating on the big green and brown rectangle that was Colorado, with no sign of a town called Livingstone along any road of any size. Giving up, he folded up the map and stared out the window as lights in the distance like the thoughts in his head flew east as the train rolled west. He had tried to picture what lay ahead, but what was the point? Colorado? Livingstone? Someplace Out West? He didn’t know where he was going. He was on a mission he didn’t understand with one-way tickets to a destination he couldn’t find. He didn’t even care about his father. It was his mother’s rage that was driving him across a continent.
The corkscrew, a souvenir of the Union Pacific Railroad, had been his father’s undoing. It had arrived in their apartment in Naples the first Christmas after the war in an elegant little box that Mama confidently proclaimed would open to a beautiful necklace, or ear rings, or maybe even a fine Timex. Instead, there was the ridiculous corkscrew nestled in a velvet pad beneath a cheap Christmas card. He remembered his mother staring at it for what seemed like a thousand accelerating heart beats before erupting with as much fire and ash as Vesuvius had the year before.
They had last heard from quello mascalzone – or Thomas, as his father preferred to be called – a few months after his fascist homeland fell to the Allies, and then only a postcard explaining it was still too dangerous for him to risk a trip home until the Nazis were trampled under the G.I. boots as well. As usual, there was no return address, only an ever-changing postmark.
They had last seen him the year before the war, or about eight months before his third daughter, Anna Maria, was born. The scoundrel had sired a daughter each of the three times he came home but always fled mid-pregnancies because, he insisted, he had booked round trip passage to save money for his unappreciative family. He had only been home for him, his firstborn, whom he named Tommaso after himself, which led to the maggiore and minore - the major and minor - distinction that he, as the minor, grew to hate. Once his father discovered America, he came and went like a Tomcat, always dragging in a pouch full of dollars for his wailing litter before disappearing back into Someplace Out West, U.S.A., where his Big Job awaited him.
And then suddenly nothing. No visits, no money, no letters, not even a postcard. The years passed, and they began to fear he had died Someplace tragically and alone. And then came the corkscrew with the Christmas card upon which he had written:
“My Dear Wife, I am soon going down to Livingstone here in Colorado with my good friend Yazzie. I wish you and my dear children a good Christmas. With affection, Thomas.”
A letter confirming his death would have been more welcome than that little package, except for the tell-tale postmark: Mt. Harris, COL. That had given his Mama something to go on. She mailed one letter after another to Mt. Harris, COL, six in all before she finally received a curt reply in English from Superintendent Schulze of the Colorado-Utah Coal Co.
“Madam,” he wrote, “Your husband Thomas and Yazzie left Mt. Harris last year and never returned. I trust the Lord will lead you to him.”
But she wasn’t about to wait for the Lord. As soon as he had scraped together enough money and English from running errands for the departing G.I.s, his mother sent him off to America with only that one clue – Livingstone – to go on.
Personally, he didn’t share his mother’s murderous wrath. With him bringing home plenty of “greenbacks” for Mama, Hershey’s Chocolate and Wrigley’s Chewing Gum for his little sisters, and as many Lucky Strikes as he could smoke without getting sick, who needed a father? Why, when he was only thirteen years old, he was already driving drunken sailors back to port with a cigarette in his mouth just like one of those old M.P.s who was probably supporting a family Someplace Out West doing the same thing. Some of the sailors had gotten together and thanked him with a jeep that they “accidently” forgot to load aboard a transport ship. By the age of eighteen, he was the man of the family and wished everyone, especially his mother, would drop the minore.
So, while he didn’t see the urgency in finding his father just so that his mother could kill him with a corkscrew, the prospect of sailing out from under Vesuvius in a big ocean liner, seeing the other side of the world, did appeal to him. That’s what men did. They ventured out like his father and all the other scoundrels before him. What was life without adventure?
“You’re not a tourist!” his mother had yelled as he boarded the ship.
He could hear her voice still, the anger in it mixed with the triumph. She’d soon have her mascalzone by the neck.
“Find your father quickly and then write to me, understand?”
“It won’t take long, Mama.”
He had promised with tears in his eyes and his hand on his heart, but both he and his mother had vastly underestimated the distance between New York Harbor and Someplace Out West. When he discovered how much it would cost to cross it, he wrote to his mother pleading for patience.
“America is a big country,” he told her. “I will leave here as soon as I earn enough money for the train fare to Colorado.”
Fortunately, he had quickly landed a job and a room in Carmine’s Ten Chairs Barbershop in the Bronx, where he would have happily lingered much longer than the two years he did if his mother’s missives hadn’t become so wildly bitter and abusive. She had even taken to addressing him as mascalzone minore instead of Tommaso minore, or Tommy as he preferred to be called. It was as if the words in her letters were screaming up at him with all of the anger that had followed him up the ship’s ramp in Naples. Gone was the triumph.
It was true; he hadn’t been setting aside as much money as he could have for the train fare. But he had girlfriends, the nice clothes - especially the pointy Italian shoes - that his girlfriends expected him to wear when he was with them, cigarettes, movies, the card games and ballgame bets with the boys and lot of other important expenses that he dared not mention in his letters to his mother. It was always, “Soon, Mama,” until she finally had enough.
“If I receive one more letter from you from New York City I will get on the next ship and come over there and drag you by your hair across that big country until we find your father dead or alive. This I promise you.”
Another year of training and a twenty-first birthday and he could have claimed one of Carmine’s Ten Chairs as his own, a Big Job, but filial duty called. He had folded a keepsake straightedge into his pocket, packed his bags, kissed two of his three girlfriends goodbye (Betty had found out about Shirley and Dorothy and hoped his stagecoach would be attacked by Indians), and set off for Penn Station. His tickets were good all the way to Denver. That showed how much Betty knew about the U.S.A. west of the Bronx. Indians he didn’t know about either, outside of those from Cleveland, but there were no stagecoaches anymore except in the movies.
Three girlfriends hadn’t seemed excessive to him, or even surprising. He was a lot taller than most of his Italian buddies in the Hub, better looking, and not as coarse around the girls. He always called them by their names , not “doll,” or “baby,” or “sweetie,” or “chickie.” They seemed to appreciate the polite guys who appreciated them. And it didn’t hurt to have an understated pompadour with just a dab of Brylcreem. Girls hated to get cheap pomade all over their hands. They had no place to wipe it off except on the guy’s shirt. He was as thoughtful as he was handsome. At least Shirley and Dorothy thought so. The Italian girls, not so much, though he didn’t care about them because he had a thing for blue eyed blondes. Lucky for him, too, since the Italian girls weren’t so easily fooled by him. They knew a mascalzone when they saw one, even a minor one. That was fine with him. With all he had going for him, he was sure he’d find new girlfriends Out West. But first, he had to find his father, or, rather, Livingstone, and it was nowhere to be found on the Texaco Road Map of the United States that he had picked up on a bench in Chicago Union Station while waiting to board the California Zephyr.
With nothing new to look at out the window and nothing but the same old thoughts rolling across his mind, he decided to stretch his legs and try to catch the eye of the pretty redhead with freckles sitting a couple of seats behind him. He had never had a girlfriend with red hair, let alone freckles, but her scowl told him she wasn’t about to be the first. Winking back at her anyway, he stepped out into the smoking compartment and lit up a Lucky. A young man in a purple sweater was at the other window reading a book instead of smoking. Tommy offered him one of his cigarettes.
“Thanks, old man, I’ve run out,” the bookworm replied, lighting it with the kind of snappy lighter that Tommy associated with guys who wore suits. “My brand is King Size Chesterfield, but this will do.”
Nothing else about him was king size. He was short with short fingers and a half smile fading under a regular boy’s haircut. Tommy disliked him immediately but he wasn’t about to toss out half a cigarette just to get some air.
Pointing to his purple sweater, Tommy said, “I met some sailors back in Naples who said they were from Northwest. That’s clear across the country, isn’t it?”
“You’re a long way from home,” the stranger laughed. He stretched his sweater out beyond his narrow chest. “Northwestern. It’s the name of my university. It’s in Chicago. I’m studying law.”
“Oh, yeah, I was studying…,” suddenly he didn’t want to say what, “…in New York City.”
“Some good schools there. Which one?”
Streetwise, Tommy knew when he was being played, but he decided to toss it back just for kicks.
“Uh, Fordham, the university, but I dropped out.” He had often necked with Dorothy on the lawn at Rose Hill, so that technically counted as studying. “Family emergency.”
“Naples, huh?” the college boy said, sounding to Tommy as if he doubted that as well. “You don’t have an accent.”
“Thanks.” He took it as a compliment even though he hadn’t really done anything to earn it. He hadn’t worked at it. It was just from listening to American soldiers and sailors ever since he was a little kid and talking the way they talked. He had a good ear. Pappagallo, his mother used to call him, or parrot, as the Americans would say.
“I’m half Italian myself, sorry to say. I plan to take the Grand Tour over there someday. Rome. Florence. Venice. Pompeii. The entire History of Western Civilization right there in front of your eyes. I had that class last semester.”
“What’s the other half?”
“What? Oh, you mean my better half?” he laughed again. “American.”
Tommy didn’t see what was so funny about that. “I’m going all the way to Denver.”
“Oh? Grand Junction’s my stop. Home for the summer. Hey, thanks for the smoke,” the half Italian said, returning to his book.
“You bet.” Tommy tossed the last third of his cigarette out the window. “See you around.”
On his way back to his seat, he found the aisle blocked by a huge older man who was leaning over the redheaded girl. His jowls were flushed, and even from where Tommy stood, he reeked of whiskey. He was snorting and laughing himself into a fit of coughing.
“You reds are fiery, alright,” he said. “What do you say we go have a drink to cool you off?”
“I told you, get lost you old pig,” the girl said.
When the man put his hand on the girl’s shoulder, Tommy stepped closer and said, “Take your hands off her, mister.”
Standing taller than Tommy, the man squinted down at him and bellied up closer. “Are you talking to me, you little greaser.”
Tommy reached into his pocket, flipped open his straightedge, and in one swift motion, sliced the man’s necktie down the middle without touching the shirt underneath. Carmine himself couldn’t have done it any better.
“You have a lot of guts,” Tommy said. “What do you say we have a look at them?”
His jowls quivering, the fat man turned and trotted away, pausing at the end of the car to vomit before disappearing.
“Thanks,” the redhead said without even so much as a smile.
“Anytime,” Tommy said, folding his razor.
“You better let me have that in case the pig decides to squeal.”
He reluctantly handed it to her. “You think he might?”
She shrugged and slipped the razor into her purse. “What are you, a barber?”
“Uh, no, I’m just on my way to a job out west. Livingstone. Do you know where that is?” he asked hopefully.
“Never heard of it,” she said, turning her attention toward the lights speeding past the window.
At the next station, Tommy stepped off the California Zephyr and took a deep breath of the brisk, pre-dawn air perfumed with diesel and manure. He was about to light a cigarette when he was approached by the conductor and a railroad policeman.
“Hold it right there, slick,” the policeman said.
A half hour later, as the train was leaving the station, he was still sitting across a desk from the policeman and a sleepy station manager pleading his innocence to no avail.
“I told you, I don’t even own a switchblade. Search my bag if you want to.”
“We did,” the policeman said.
“Hey, what about my bag?”
“Don’t get excited, kid, it’s outside. Just consider yourself lucky that we didn’t find that switchblade or missing the train would have been the least of your problems. This ain’t Chicago. We won’t put with you dagos brandishing your stilettos and firearms around here.”
Tommy knew the redheaded girl hadn’t said anything or they wouldn’t have been dogging him about a knife.
“The guy was drunk. He probably cut himself while shaving,” Tommy offered.
“Look, we have a witness. A college man who’s going to be a lawyer so he knows a thing or two about lawbreakers. Lucky for you he couldn’t stick around to swear out a statement.”
Tommy was ready to spring out of his chair and go running after the train just to catch up with that king size rat. He’d take more than a little off his top. “He’s lying. I never had a switchblade.”
Not that it mattered anymore. He was free to go. The station manager yawned and told him to stop by the window outside and exchange his tickets for the westbound leaving Holdrege the next day. But when he handed in his tickets, the agent at the window said he’d be docked for the run to the next station – that would be McCook – because his train had already left the station. He could either get to McCook by some other means and hop on the train from there or cut off the last leg of the trip, Fort Morgan to Denver. He didn’t have the means for one or the inclination for the other.
“That’s tough,” the ticket agent shrugged, handing him the tickets that would take him as far as Fort Morgan, wherever the hell that was. How he’d get from there to Denver was his problem.
“Stay out of trouble, slick,” the policeman shouted out to him.
Tommy had something to say to that, but he knew better. Sighing angrily, he grabbed his bag and strode out into the town of Holdrege in some state he had never heard of. A sheet of newspaper was sailing across the street in a warm breeze under the bright afternoon sun. Too far out on the horizon to worry about, he spotted a flash of lightning in a bank of storm clouds.
Feeling flush because of the three dollars he had left over from having missed breakfast and lunch, he stopped at a diner and treated himself to the bacon and eggs plate. The waitress wasn’t at all friendly, but then she wasn’t pretty, either. And the cook, a perspiring muscle-man with a flat top, glared at him with unmistakable hostility.
Tommy came to a conclusion as he was mopping up what was left of the yolks: The farther west a guy went, the less friendly the people were. Naturally, they had been the friendliest in Naples because they were southern Italians, who were good-natured by nature. But even the G.I.s who were just passing through Naples always seemed to have big smiles and big laughs and were always hugging the girls and slapping the guys on the back like they were all family. In the Bronx, there was less of that, but still, it seemed like everyone was in it together, including the cops, who could laugh off a troublemaker with a playful kick in the ass and wink at the girls with the best of them. Then in Chicago, he noticed that people didn’t scope each other out so much, and when eyes did meet, it was as if it were through a window. Although, even there, he met a girl from Philly who didn’t mind being chatted up. She had even asked him what Zephyr meant. For once, those boring Latin lessons from school had been good for something other than understanding the boring Sunday Mass.
“It’s the west wind,” he had told her, sounding smart even to himself.
If she hadn’t been heading back into Euros, the east wind, he might have gotten somewhere with her. But it had been downhill from there, on the train and off.
Another thing he had noticed: The farther west a guy went, the fewer pompadours and duck tails he saw, with or without fenders. It was gradual at first, but halfway through Pennsylvania, about all he ever saw were the professional, businessman and Ivy League cuts with a few brush backs and crew cuts sprinkled among them. And after Chicago, it seemed like there were a lot more crew cuts, along with flat tops and even some butch. He didn’t know what to make of that, except that it made him feel like a foreigner.
That was it, exactly. He felt like a foreigner. He had never felt like a foreigner in the Bronx. In the Bronx everyone was a foreigner or the son or daughter of foreigners. Italians, Puerto Ricans, Irish, Poles, all sorts of Asians, Lebanese, Indians (not the American variety), South Americans, you name it. Even the Jews and Negroes whose parents and grandparents were born in New York seemed foreign. Foreigners were so common that only the all-American white guys seemed out of place. Looking around the diner, he realized the situation here was reversed and, at the same moment, he began to feel some sympathy for his long-lost father.
For the first time, he could imagine his father as a young man crossing the ocean and this continent over and over again. A half a world away from his family, surrounded by people who for whatever reason didn’t like foreigners with pompadours, or, in his father’s case, the greasy slick-back. Imagine how lonely he must have felt on the trains, in the diners, in his Big Job Someplace Out West. His mother had no idea what it was like.
Leaving a generous two-bit tip for the unfriendly waitress, he walked out into downtown Holdrege and noticed that Abbot and Costello Meet the Invisible Man was playing at the Sun Theater down the street. It seemed just the flick to lift him out of his funk. He told the grumpy girl in the ticket booth he didn’t care if the movie had already started and he could make his way to a seat without an usher, which turned out to be pretty easy since the place was almost empty.
He and a couple of kids farther up front were the only ones laughing at the corn on the screen, but he didn’t feel self-conscious about it until someone behind him tapped him on the shoulder and whispered, “It’s not that funny.”
Fed up with all these sourpusses, he turned around and was about to say something loud and offensive enough to get himself thrown out of the theater, but saw in the dim light from the screen that the critic was the redhead from the train.
“Oh, it’s you,” he said. “Hi.”
She reached into her purse and handed him his straightedge, saying, “Here’s that switchblade everybody’s been looking for.”
“Thanks for sticking up for me.”
“Just returning the favor.”
They watched the rest of the movie without talking, and Tommy kept his laughing to himself. Afterward, he caught up to the girl on the sidewalk outside the theater. It was the first time he had seen her standing. She was taller and plumper than he had imagined, but all in the right proportions. He had been attracted to her from the first time he saw her on the train, when all he could see was her scowling face. Dimples and freckles and unusually big green eyes surrounded by red hair that fell in corkscrew curls over her shoulders. Tommy volunteered his name but he had to ask for hers. Laurie. Laurie MacDougall.
“Caruso?” she repeated.
“Yeah.” Here it comes, he said to himself,
““Like the opera singer?”
It was always either, “Like the opera singer?” or “Are you related to that opera singer?” or “Can you sing?”
“I wish I had a dollar for every time someone asked me that,” he said to her.
“What do you expect with a name like Caruso?”
The breeze had turned into a steady wind with some fierce gusts and the dark clouds that had seem so far away now covered the sky. Handing him her purse, she gathered her unruly red hair into a ponytail.
“You know, you didn’t have to get involved. I know how to handle pigs,” she said. “Now look. You got yourself thrown off the train for nothing and you’re stuck in Holdrege. Take it from someone who’s been stuck here all her life, it’s not Chicago.”
He could have told her the truth: He had sliced the pig’s necktie for himself, not her. He wasn’t a tough guy, nothing like the Fordham Baldies or any of the other Bronx teenage mugs, but he wasn’t about to let someone call him a “little greaser” without a push-back.
“It’s all right. I’m leaving tomorrow.”
“Yeah, well what about tonight? It’s going to storm pretty soon.”
He thought about sitting it out in the station but felt he wouldn’t be welcome there, and he didn’t have enough money for a hotel room.
“Look, my boyfriend’s going to pick me up here and take me home after he gets off work. You can sleep out in our back porch. It’s screened and right outside my parents’ bedroom, so they’ll know if you try anything.”
Before he could accept the invitation, an old Buick coupe roared up across the street and honked for attention.
“Let’s go, that’s Oaf,” she said.
He ran ahead and opened the front passenger door for her and then tossed his bag and hers and into the back seat and climbed in. At the wheel was the hostile, muscle-bound cook from the diner.
“What’s with this guy?” Oaf said.
“He missed his train. I told him he could stay over ‘til tomorrow.”
“Yeah, well, who says?”
“I said, Oaf,” she replied with a fierceness that the muscle-man seemed to get.
“Okay, bud, but you better not try anything with my girl.”
“For Christ’s sake, Oaf, just drive, will you.”
The road outside of town sliced through endless green fields that reminded Tommy of the Atlantic Ocean. Occasionally, they passed dirt lanes that snaked away toward farm houses and barns in the distance.
“I play fullback for the ‘huskers,” Oaf said, looking at Tommy through the rearview mirror. “What do you think of that?”
Tommy had no idea what that meant but he thought it was great. Laurie rolled her eyes.
“Where are you from, anyway?” Oaf asked him.
He had answered that question with “Napoli” his first few weeks in America, and then “Naples” for a while. Now, he always answered, “New York,” or “The Bronx,” depending upon who was asking.
“You’re a foreigner, though.” Oaf guessed. “Eyetalian, I bet.”
“Hah,” he said to Laurie, proud of himself. “Eyetalian.”
“So what?” she replied. “Oh-loff Goon-durr-sen.”
“Yeah, but even my mom and dad were born here. Born Americans.”
“God, I hate this place,” she said.
“She always gets this way whenever she comes back from visiting her fancy-nancy aunt in Chicago,” Oaf or Olaf explained. “She’ll be her old self in a couple of weeks, isn’t that right, doll?”
“Maybe not this time.”
Tommy noticed that for all his faults, Oaf seemed to have the good sense to turn it off before she reached a boil. After what seemed like miles of silence, he pulled up to one of those long, curving dirt lanes and stopped.
“I’m short,” he said, tapping the fuel gauge. “I’ve got just enough to get me home.”
“God, Oaf, why didn’t you say something? I would have loaned you the money for a gallon.”
“I didn’t want to ask.”
She got out and slammed the door. Thanking Oaf for the ride, Tommy climbed out with their bags and followed her up the lane. With a backfire and a belch of black smoke, the coupe was gone. Tommy guessed they were about a half mile away from the house, which wouldn’t have mattered much except the flashes of lightning and blasts of thunder were more numerous now and he began to feel drops of rain hitting him sideways in the wind.
Laurie looked back at him over her shoulder and shouted, “We’ve got to hurry!”
The approaching clouds were coal black with a queer green hue underneath and seemed to be tumbling to earth. What little daylight there was ahead of the storm soon disappeared and the rain began to fall in sheets.
Laurie waited for him to catch up to her and then shouted into his ear, “Tornado! We’re not going to make it. Get down, get down on the ground!”
Then she fell to her knees and covered her head. He was about to do the same when the bags were suddenly ripped from his fingers. After watching them disappear, he turned around and was hit square in the face by a chicken that then dropped dead at his feet. Then he, too, fell to his knees while recalling a Three Stooges picture where Moe clobbers Larry and Curly with a rubber chicken, or was that Groucho and…?