Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Vulgar Tongue, v


          “Paulo,” Grillo said in Italian. “Would you be so good to tell Beatrice that Aaron Servi is here?”
            “Beatrice is here?” Servi asked.
            “Yes,” Grillo explained, now more composed.  “She back from La Sapienza for the weekend.  She lives in Rome, but visits me nearly every weekend.”
            In his dread of meeting with Frank Grillo, Servi had nearly forgotten about Beatrice. Grillo appeared to anticipate his befuddlement and smiled.
            “You and Beatrice were inseparable as children,” Grillo said, pouring what Servi counted as his fifth glass of wine.  Servi could now tell he was quite drunk. 
            “I can’t tell you how much it meant to me.  There is no sense in hiding this from you now, and you probably know this already, but I wanted to marry your mother, and would have if she would have had me.  But she picked your father.  And you know, she made the better choice.   Your father is one of the finest men I know.  But I always imagined that you and Beatrice would marry.  It seemed fated.  And your father, your mother, me and my wife, we were all like one big family.  Brooklyn people out in the sticks with the oysters and the WASPS.  I know you and Beatrice kissed when you were kids.  Jesus, after you did it, she came right in through the screen door and told Eileen and me.  We laughed and laughed…”  Grillo choked on the wine, and then leaned forward.  The weight of his bulk nearly upset the table, and sent the wine and glasses crashing to the floor.   
            Servi stood up, about to rush Grillo, but a young women appeared and grasped Grillo by the shoulders.  She held him in place by balancing his bulk.  She wore a knee length, sky blue skirt and pressed white blouse.  He blond hair, black at the roots, was tied back tightly with a clip.  She looked at Servi skeptically, quickly absorbing the clothes, the beard, the smell, grimacing with a face she perhaps reserved for trespassing Algerians.
            Paulo!” she screamed . “Get out here on the veranda immediately.  Bring Guiseppi and Franco!” she spoke in rapid Italian and continued to do so when she addressed Servi.  “Are you Aaron Servi?”
        “Yes,” Servi answered in Italian.  “Are you Beatrice?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Can I help?” Servi asked, taking a step forward.
“No,” she answered as the three servants arrived.  “This happens quite a bit.”  The three men lifted Grillo from the chair with considerable effort.
“Please go take a walk in the olive grove,” Beatrice said in Italian, only to end in English. “I’ll join you once I get father settled into bed.”

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Vulgar Tongue, iv


       As Servi entered the spacious foyer of the Grillo Villa, suddenly he was back in Oyster Bay.  Or more precisely, he was in the transplanted memory of Brooklyn which was uprooted to Long Island, and here, reassembled in Tuscany:  leopard skin print upholstery on the sofa, encased in plastic; pink tinted lamps molded in a facsimile of the Rocco style; hazy landscapes of Venice and Rome in ornate gilt frames; wall sized mirrors with floral borders; mints in fancy, over-sized decorative bowls.  Every gesture was a homage to a lost past.  When Servi saw the room, and the others, he realized that Grillo was in exile, and his exile was not voluntary.   He had so quickly fled America that he had reproduced it here in Italy.

            The servant who led Servi into the living room asked if he wanted a drink.  Servi declined, and was asked to kindly take a seat.  Servi sat, but only for a moment.  There was something along the walls he hardly saw at all in home’s such as these on Long Island, a towering shelf of books.  The only books which Servi saw as a child were those sets ordered from magazines or TV: The Great Books, seldom read, hand tooled leather editions of Plato’s Symposium or Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea, molding away in basements or dens.   
           But Frank Grillo’s volumes were obviously read.  Binding were broken; there were copious notes in English and Italian in margins and fly pages.  The collection was almost entirely of Italian literature, from the “Sicilian” school of troubadour poets of the eleventh century, to a number of editions of Dante’s works, La Vita Nova, the Divine Comedy, most of the volumes quite old, down to the modern classics of Italian literature by Manzoni, Lampedusa, and Svevo.   Also well represented were books on the Mafia, in both Italian and English, from historical works to biography to government reports and transcripts of famous mafia “super trials.”  Apparently, Frank Grillo had really read books beneath a cypress tree during his long retirement.

            Then Servi heard a distant door open: strains of Bobby Darin’s Beyond the Sea with its subdued early sixties version of vinyl cool wafted on the air conditioned breeze.  And just as quickly, as the muffled, shrouded horns caressed Servi’s ears, a large, round man was in front of him.   
            He was certainly overweight, and his round, florid face had the pre-coronary mien of a man whose heart was working overtime to pump blood through thick girth.  Yet he held the mass well.  It was packed high and tight into a  tweed sport coat, the kind wore by the Tuscan farming elite, usually with a pea cap and knee high rubber boots for plodding through muddy orchards and vineyards. 

            “Aaron Servi?” the man asked in a considerable New York accent, and when Servi said yes, the man grasped his hand warmly.  “You don’t recognize me?  I do you!  You have the same face as when you were a boy, even with that bushy beard.  Jesus Christ!  I’m Frank Grillo.”  Servi saw nothing of the old family friend in the block of flesh standing before him.  That slim, gray haired man of eleven years ago with the long, Roman nose and crisp good looks had been replaced with a puffy replica.

            “Mr. Grillo, its nice to see you again.”

            “Please, Aaron, Frank,” Grillo answered, waving a dismissive hand.  “We are both men now.  Come on, have a drink with me on the veranda.”

            Servi followed Grillo out a set of double doors, into the overarching heat of the Tuscan summer, and onto a red tiled veranda studded with potted bougainvilleas.  On a table was a bottle of red wine already half finished and a book turned over on its face.  Bobby Darin floated outside through an open window.  Servi sat across from Grillo and Grillo rang a little bell and asked a servant for a second glass.  It shortly arrived and Grillo poured Servi a healthy dose of red wine and pushed the glass toward him.

            “Drink!  I make this myself, you know.  To old friends who are family!” Grillo raised his glass to Servi’s and they clinked.   
              Both men drank in dignified silence.  In the distance, Servi could hear gurgling water from a fountain.  A thin cloud moved across the sun, covering it like a cataract.  In the lush and fragrant surroundings, Servi became acutely aware of the smell of his body.  Grillo did not appear to mind.  He closed his eyes and drank the wine and issued a long, low moan from deep within his throat, like some primitive guttural cry of elation. 

            “Jesus, Mary and Joseph Aaron, this is the life!”  He placed the glass down like a gavel and leaned forward, his eyes gleaming.  “I should have come out here when I was a young man, before college, and certainly before law school.  I should have come here to Tuscany and picked grapes and slept in haylofts. What the hell, right?  If we knew what trials awaited us later in life, when we were young we wouldn’t give a God damned about the future.   
           "But I went to school instead.  I had little choice.  My father wanted it that way, and years ago, no one dared to tell their father no.  It isn’t like now, no judgment intended.  Times change.  What can you do about it?  As you get older, you worry less and less about these things,” Grillo stopped to take a considerable gulp of wine.  His eyes shown bright for a moment, and then dimmed as he took a fresh look at Servi.

            “If I had told my father I wanted to go to Italy, he would have had me committed.  You know, generally, folks from the old country who came to America hated Italy.  Did you know that Aaron?”

            “No,” Servi answered, taking took a sip of wine and squinting at Grillo in the flat light.  “I didn’t.  I always imaged they would have just as soon stayed if they could.”

            “No way,” Grillo exhaled, and seeing his glass was near empty, filled it once more. “Just the contrary.  For them, it was a dead end.  Poverty, corruption, no opportunities for anything better; they had a certain contempt for those that stayed behind; thought them lazy and unmotivated.  When I was a boy, I started to write a cousin in Calabria, and my mother was  suspicious.  She told me he would eventually ask for money.”

            “Did he?” Servi asked, and Grillo laughed lightly.

            “No,” he said, smiling.  “He knew better than to do that!”  Servi smiled, saying nothing.  He still had the caution of his ancestors: he would mind his own business.

            “So you see, Aaron,” Grillo continued. “I’ve always been interested in Italy.  The language, the cuisine, the history.  As you know, I have had contact with your father and mother over the years.  Especially since my wife died…”

            “I’m sorry Mr. Grillo, I had no idea,” Servi said, and on hearing this, Grillo frowned.

            “Please, call me Frank,” he said, raising a palm upward.  “So, to make a long story short, your mother contacted me to talk to you about your stay  in Italy.  Well, when I heard the story, I thought, I’m the wrong man for the job.  Like I said, I wish I had come out here at your age.  I probably would have never left.  The life suits me fine.  But then I heard that your mother was sick and that changed everything.  Then I said I would help.  I said Italians love their land, but they love their mothers more.  So I said that I would help .  So, are you intent on remaining in Italy even with your mother sick?”  Servi listened carefully at the opening and decided it was a moment for firmness.

            “I have my reasons for staying, Frank.”

            “I don’t doubt it son,” Grillo said in evident sympathy.  “As I said, I can completely understand wanting to stay here for a good long time.  I wouldn’t leave for all the tea in china.  I don’t intend to put pressure on you Aaron.  I am doing this as a favor to your mother, a dear old friend.  I’ll only ask one question and that is that: do you plan, in the near future, on going back to America?”

            “I do plan on it, yes Sir,” Servi answered.  He had uttered a technical truth.  He would one day return.  But in his heart, Servi realized that it was a literal lie.  At this moment, he would only be forced to returned to New York if he was bound and gagged like Adolph Eichmann .   At the thought of that image, a chill ran down Servi’s spine, despite the heat.  Was Grillo a man who could accomplish such a feat?

            At Servi’s words, Grillo appeared to relax.  To Servi, he looked relieved at what had been said.  Servi had expected a struggle from this powerful man, and instead, Grillo appeared cowed by the task entrusted to him.

            “That’s very good to hear, Aaron,” he said after a few moments, after he had downed yet another glass of wine.  “At least I have something to tell your poor sick mother.  A sick mother, a sick wife, it’s a thing…” Grillo became snared on the words.  Servi thought he was about to cry.  But Grillo recovered and rang the little bell again.  The servant quickly arrived.

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Vulgar Tongue, iii


          Servi had been wandering around Italy for more than a year.  He worked when he felt like it, and even did a brief stint as a translator for an Italian publisher.   
          His father and mother continually begged him to come back to New York.  They feared for his biological and financial welfare, and used all manner to threats and incentives to coax him on an Al Italia flight to New York.  Then his mother grew ill.  No doctor could properly diagnose her ailment.  There was an endless round of blood work, MRIs, PET scans, trips to specialists all over the city.  Servi’s father thought that the animal fact of his mother’s illness would bring his son back, but Servi hedged.   
          Then Servi’s mother wrote him a letter asking him to at least go see Frank Grillo if he would not come back to New York.   Servi could read between the lines of his mother’s sloping script:  Grillo will pressure you where we can’t.  So Servi took the train and then the bus to this remote Tuscan village to present himself to this man fabled in the history of the Servi clan.

            The Servis and the Grillos went, as his mother and father always said, way back.  Servi’s father Joseph and Frank Grillo grew up in the same Brooklyn neighborhood.  The three Grillo boys, Frank, Peter, and Peppi, each followed a not uncommon trajectory for first generation Italian-American families: Frank became a lawyer, Peter, a priest, and Peppi a mobster.   
            Despite their divergent paths, there was no friction between the three Grillo brothers.  Every Sunday evening they and their families ate at their mother’s house on Myrtle Avenue.  There was always whispered talk of collusion among the men: Peppi used the rectory for meetings, for there was little chance the FBI would bug a priest’s house, and Frank’s respectable Park Avenue law practice was little more than a front for nefarious purposes.  No one knew how Frank made his money:  he never appeared in court, he did not have any clients.  He had a sprawling house in Oyster Bay, a yacht docked in the harbor, a ten room bungalow in Amagansett.
            Servi’s father and Grillo went to Saint John’s Law School together.  The prevailing rumor was that Peppi financed it with numbers running.  For sometime, Servi’s mother, Mary Garibaldi, was courted by both Joe Servi and Frank Grillo.  After a brief spell of indecisiveness, she accepted Joe Servi’s proposal of marriage.  There was bad blood between the two men for a few years, but in time Grillo married and moved to Oyster Bay, just down the street from the Servi residence.  The two families, like many thousands, had followed a massive migration from the cramped immigrant cradle of Brooklyn for the spacious lawns of suburbia. 
Servi spent the first twelve years of his life playing with the Grillo’s only child, Beatrice.  She was a dark skinned little girl with disheveled brown hair and perpetually skinned knees.  She was tomboyish, but with a coquettish side which grew in a one for one relation to her burgeoning breasts.   
Beatrice and Servi were inseparable in the sandbox, the ball field, the basement.  They shared a kiss one day in improbable circumstances:  Beatrice said she wanted to feel what a kiss was like, and Servi obliged.  Their lips meshed for a few moments.  Servi remember her darting tongue.  The event was not seminal in Servi’s memory.  It was a sentence in his head:  the first girl I kissed was Beatrice Grillo.
            Then when Servi turned thirteen the Grillos suddenly moved to Tuscany.  At the ripe age of forty-two, Frank Grillo announced he was retiring.  He bought a vineyard outside of Florence and intended drink his own wine, read books for no more frivolous reason than pleasure, all the under the spreading limbs of a cypress tree.
            Servi overheard his parents discuss the Grillo's departure.  They though it was related to Peppi Grillo’s recent racketeering arrest.  But of course, no one said a word.  Broaching such a topic was to smash an ancient and respected taboo.  The Grillos disappeared one day after a going away party, and Servi more or less forgot about them.  There was the grand Servi domestic drama to enact, and bit players like the Grillos were inconsequential.  They were non-combatants in a family war.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Vulgar Tongue, ii


             The Carbineri Lieutenant sat next to Servi while his assistant, at great speed, drove.  The vehicle was a van outfitted to transport prisoners: loops to run shackles through, wire mesh over the windows, doors which locked from the outside.
            “Is the siren necessary?” Servi asked, his ears splitting.
            “My apologies,” the Lieutenant answered, bowing his head.  “But if we travel above the speed limit, we must run the siren.”
            So Servi sat back and tried to relax.  For an American, the phenomenon of the Carbineri was unsettling: they were a part of the military, but acted as a civilian police force.  They often wore outlandishly ornate ceremonial uniforms, as if outfitted for a parade in a Napoleonic era army.  But they could also be armed and armored like the most modern of armies, especially in cities like Rome, Florence and Milan; they brandished dull black machine guns, wore body armor, helmets, knee pads, and black leather boots: all a reaction to era of terrorism in the 70’s, known to Italians as the years of lead.  For Servi, such a naked expression of police power was contrary to every American nerve in his frame.  It was as if the country was in a state of perpetual marital law.
            The van snaked down from the mountain village of Cavernascura, dropped into a valley which had such a precipitous slope that Servi’s ears, already smarting from the siren, now popped and crackled.  The van suddenly stopped as it waited for a man with a donkey burdened by several bundles of hay to scurry to the shoulder of the road.   
            Then they were off again, and the pine trees of the mountain country gave way with the drop to a broad plain punctuated by squat, undulating hills, carpeted with even rows of olive trees and grapes.  They passed by several small farm houses.   
Servi glanced over at the Lieutenant; despite the excessive air conditioning in the van, he was sweating profusely.  Round stains smeared his uniform beneath the armpits; beads of sweat dappled his forehead.  It seemed to Servi the Carbineri Lieutenant was eager to be rid of a guest of Frank Grillo’s who he had ill treated.
            Then the journey was suddenly over.  The van skidded to a stop in front of a massive wrought iron gate composed entirely of interlocking Gs in various fonts.  A masonry wall constructed of native stone ran the length of the roadway, as far as Servi could see, delineating the Grillo compound.
            “Excuse me, Senore Servi,” the Lieutenant said, bowing his head again, and he rose from the seat.  He walked briskly to an intercom in the wall and began to speak quickly into the receiver. 
            The gate  soon opened, and they entered the estate grounds.  This area of Italy had not had a sustained rainfall in over two years, and was under the most stringently enforced government rationing of water.  But the grounds of the Grillo Villa was playfully gushing with all manner of ornamental fountains; splashing nymphs cavorting beneath a stern Neptune; there were mermaids and nereids bathing each other in suggestive poses, and even a showcase stream which terminated in a man made grotto where a life sized statue of the Virgin spouted tears of precious water from unseen ducts in her stone.  A heavy haze of evaporated water clung over the Grillo grounds as in the sepia edges of an old photograph or some half remembered dream.
            When the van reached a circular driveway next to a towering portico, the vision was complete: the Villa was decked out in classical Long Island Baronial Style, well in keeping with Frank Grillo’s fabled past.  It was multi-storied, capped with a mansard roof and red, Tuscan tiles; the fa├žade was composed of light pastel marble and studded with niches where every god, goddess and saint in the pagan and Christian pantheon gazed down on the grounds with loving indulgence.   
           Unlike most Tuscan homes, which have small windows to keep out the summer heat, Villa Grillo was outfitted with massive floor to ceiling windows tinted the color of smoke.  A few shrubs hid a central air conditioning unit, which hummed below the sound of the gurgling water.  In a part of Italy where the electrical grid was unreliable, and could certainly not handle a heavy load, the Grillo Villa maintained a high level of conspicuous American consumption explicitly and with impunity.
            The van stopped at the front door, and once again the Carbineri Lieutenant excused himself.  When he opened the door, a wall of hot air burst into the van.  In a moment a servant emerged from the villa, and Servi was escorted into Frank Grillo’s home.