The Boy Who Granted Dreams - Luca Di Fulvio - E-Book

The Boy Who Granted Dreams E-Book

Luca Di Fulvio

0,0
8,49 €

oder
Beschreibung

New York, 1909: Fifteen-year-old Cetta arrives on a freighter with nothing but her infant son Natale: strikingly blond, dark-eyed, and precocious. They've fled the furthest reaches of southern Italy with the dream of a better life in America. But even in the "Land of the Free," the merciless laws of gangs rule the miserable, poverty-stricken, and crime-filled Lower East Side. Only those with enough strength and conviction survive. As young Natale grows up in the Roaring Twenties, he takes a page from his crippled mother's book and finds he possesses a certain charisma that enables him to charm the dangerous people around him ... Weaving Natale's unusual life and quest for his one true love against the gritty backdrop of New York's underbelly, Di Fulvio proves yet again that he is a master storyteller as he constructs enticing characters ravaged by circumstance, driven by dreams, and awakened by destiny. Haunting and luminous, this masterfully written blend of romance, crime, and historical fiction will thrill lovers of turn-of-the-century dramas like "Once Upon a Time in America" and "Gangs of New York". About the Author: Luca Di Fulvio was born in 1957 in Rome where he now works as an independent author. His versatile talent allows him to write riveting adult thrillers and cheerful children's stories (published under a pseudonym) with equal ease. One of his previous thrillers, "L'Impagliatore," was filmed in Italian under the title "Occhi di cristallo." Di Fulvio studied dramaturgy in Rome where he was mentored by Andrea Camilleri.

Das E-Book können Sie in Legimi-Apps oder einer beliebigen App lesen, die das folgende Format unterstützen:

EPUB
MOBI

Seitenzahl: 1030




Contents

Cover

About the Book

About the Author

Title

Copyright

PROLOGUE

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

PART ONE

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

PART TWO

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

Chapter 54

Chapter 55

Chapter 56

Chapter 57

Chapter 58

Chapter 59

Chapter 60

Chapter 61

Chapter 62

Chapter 63

Chapter 64

Chapter 65

Chapter 66

Chapter 67

Chapter 68

Chapter 69

Author’s Acknowledgement

About the Book

New York, 1909: Fifteen-year-old Cetta arrives on a freighter with nothing but her infant son Natale: strikingly blond, dark-eyed, and precocious. They’ve fled the furthest reaches of southern Italy with the dream of a better life in America.

But even in the “Land of the Free,” the merciless laws of the gangs rule the miserable, poverty-stricken and crime-filled Lower East Side. Only those with enough strength and conviction will survive. As young Natale grows up in the Roaring Twenties, he finds he possesses a certain charisma that enables him to charm the dangerous people around him …

Weaving Natale’s unusual life and true love against the gritty backdrop of New York’s underbelly, Di Fulvio proves yet again that he is a master storyteller as he constructs enticing characters ravaged by circumstance, driven by dreams, and awakened by destiny.

Haunting and luminous, this masterfully written blend of romance, crime, and historical fiction will thrill lovers of turn-of-the-century dramas like Once Upon a Time in America and Gangs of New York.

About the Author

LUCA DI FULVIO was born in 1957 in Rome where he now works as an independent author. His versatile talent allows him to write riveting adult thrillers and cheerful children's stories (published under a pseudonym) with equal ease. One of his previous thrillers, L'Impagliatore, was filmed in Italian under the title Occhi di cristallo. Di Fulvio studied dramaturgy in Rome where he was mentored by none other than Andrea Camilleri

Luca Di Fulvio

THEBOY WHOGRANTEDDREAMS

Translated byAnn McGarrell

BASTEI ENTERTAINMENT

March 2015

Digital original English edition

Copyright © 2015 by Bastei Lübbe AG, Köln

Bastei Entertainment is an imprint of Bastei Lübbe AG

Original Italian edition:

Copyright © 2008 by Arnoldo Mondadori Editore s.p.a., Mailand

Title Italian original edition: “La Gang dei Sogni”

Original publisher: Arnoldo Mondadori Editore s.p.a., Mailand

Written by Luca Di Fulvio

Translated by Ann McGarrell

Edited by Toby Axelrod

Projektmanagement by Lori Herber

Cover design by Christin Wilhelm, www.grafic4u.de

Cover illustrations: ©Shutterstock.com: ilolab | Everett Historical | Concept Photo

E-Book produced by Urban SatzKonzept, Düsseldorf

ISBN 978-3-7325-0166-3

www.bastei-entertainment.com

PROLOGUE

At first there were two of them watching her grow up — the mother and the padrone. One of them watched with dread, the other with a lazy lustfulness. But before she could become a woman, the mother made sure that the padrone wouldn’t look at her any more.

When the child was twelve years old, her mother mashed a thick juice out of poppy seeds, as the oldest women had taught her. She made the girl drink it, and, when she saw her start to stagger and grow drowsy, she picked her up and carried her on her back across the dusty path in front of their hut — on the padrone’s land — down to the dry stream bed and the dead oak tree. She broke a big branch off the old tree, then ripped the little girl’s dress and struck her forehead with a sharp stone, there where she knew much blood would flow. She pulled her daughter into an awkward pose on the stony riverbed — as if she’d rolled down the bank, falling from the dead tree — and left her there, with the broken branch on top of her. Then she came back to the hut and waited for the men to return from the fields, while she kept on stirring a pot of soup with onions, and lard. Only then did she tell one of her sons to go and look for Concetta, the little girl.

She went on grumbling, saying that girl was always running off to play, maybe down by the old oak. She complained to her husband that that child was a curse, moving like quicksilver but with her head always someplace else; she couldn’t give her a task because she’d start out and then forget it halfway through, and she was no help in the house, either. Her husband called her names and told her to shut up, and then he went outside to smoke. She — while her son went across the path that led down to the riverbed and the dead oak — went back to stirring the pot of soup with its lard, and onions; her heart hammering in her breast.

While she was waiting she heard, as she did every evening, the padrone’s automobile pass in front of their house. He always sounded his horn twice, because, he said, the little girls liked it so much. It was true that Concetta was drawn by that sound every evening, even though for the last year her mother had forbidden her to run out of the house to greet the padrone. She would go to the window and peep out. And the mother would hear the padrone laughing from inside the cloud of dust raised by his automobile.

Because Concetta — everyone said this, but the padrone said it too often — was a really beautiful child and was going to be a beautiful big girl.

When she heard the boy she’d sent out to look for Concetta come running back screaming, the mother didn’t stop stirring the minestra of onions, and pig fat. But her breath ached in her throat. She heard her son saying something to his father, heard them rush down the three wooden steps that had been worn black as fossil coal. Only after a whole handful of minutes did she hear her husband shouting her name and her daughter’s. Then she left the pot on the fire and ran outside at last.

Her husband was carrying Concetta in his arms, her face bloody, her clothes ripped, drooping like a rag in her father’s calloused hands.

“You listen to me, Cetta,” the mother said the next day after the others had all gone out to work in the fields. “You’re getting to be a big girl now, so you can understand me when I talk to you, just the way you can look in my eyes and understand that I can do what I’m going to say to you now. If you don’t do exactly what I tell you, I’ll kill you with my own hands.” She took a length of rope and tied it around Cetta’s left shoulder. “Stand up,” she ordered, and then pulled the rope down to her crotch, so that the child had to hunch over. Next, she knotted it tightly around her left thigh. “This is a secret between you and me,” she told her. From a drawer she pulled out a loose dress she had sewn from a remnant, with a pattern of faded flowers. The dress hid the rope perfectly. She had thought about what it would have to cover, and sewn it to do just that. “You’re going to tell everyone the fall left you crippled. Everyone, even your brothers,” she explained to the child. “You’ll wear this rope on for a month, to get used to it. After that, I’ll take it off, but you’ll still walk as though you were still wearing it. If you don’t, first I’ll tie you up with it again, and then, if you try to walk straight, I’ll kill you with my own hands. And when the padrone comes by in the evening with his beautiful automobile and honks his horn, you run out to greet him. No, better you already be outside on the road, so he can get a good look at you. Do you understand?”

The little girl nodded.

Then the mother took her daughter’s face in her gnarled hands and gazed at her with love and desperate determination. “Now you won’t have any bastards growing in your belly,” she said.

Before autumn came the padrone had stopped sounding his horn when he drove past the shack, resigned to the idea that Cetta was hopelessly lame. By the beginning of winter, he never dove past their house. He took another road home.

Towards summer the mother told her daughter that she could start to get well. But slowly, so as not to arouse suspicions. Cetta was thirteen now, with a shapely little body. But that year of walking like a cripple had left its mark on her. She never quite managed, not even as an adult, to walk normally. She learned to minimize her limp, but she could never be perfectly straight. Her left breast was smaller than the right one, her left shoulder was lower than the right, and her left thigh was a little bit shorter than the other. As for the leg that had pulled the shoulder down, either it had shrunken or the tendons had hardened, so that she always seemed slightly off balance when she walked.

1

Aspromonte, 1907-1908

After the mother told her daughter that she could begin to recover from her false illness, Cetta had tried to walk straight. But sometimes her left leg went to sleep, or it wouldn’t obey her. And to wake it up or make it behave, all Cetta could do was bend down the shoulder that her mother had forced down. And then, when she’d twisted herself into that position, the leg seemed to remember what it was supposed to do and didn’t drag any more. Cetta was out in the field for the grain harvest that day. With her, a short distance away — some of them ahead of her, some of them behind — were her mother and father and her brothers, all of them with such black hair. And also her half-brother, her mother’s son by the padrone. The half-brother who’d never been given a name by his mother or father. Everyone in the family called him the other one. “No bastards growing in your belly,” her mother had told her over and over all that year. She’d made her half-crippled so that the padrone would keep his eyes off her. And at least the padrone had gone on to buzz around another place.

Cetta was damp with sweat. And tired. She was wearing a coarse cotton dress with straps and a long skirt. Her left leg scraped on the mean, sunbaked ground. Now whenever she saw the padrone showing off his fields to a group of his friends, she felt safe. He was walking and gesturing — maybe he was boasting about how many hands he had working for him, thought Cetta, and she stopped with a hand on her hip to look at the group. The padrone’s third wife was there, wearing a straw hat on her head and dress of a pale blue Cetta had never seen before, not even in the sky. There were two other women with the wife, probably wives of the men chatting with the padrone. One of them was young and pretty, the other one was fat — you couldn’t guess how old she might be. The two men with the padrone looked as different from each other as their wives did. One was young and thin, tall and droopy as the stalk of wheat when it bends under the weight of the ripe head. The other one was middle-aged, with a big mustache and old-fashioned sideburns and straw-colored hair. He had big shoulders and a broad, firm chest, like an old prizefighter. He was leaning on a cane. And another piece of wood came down from his right knee, a wooden leg.

“Get back to work, stumpy!” yelled the padrone, when he noticed Cetta watching them, and then he turned towards the two men, laughing with them.

Cetta hunched over and, dragging her numb leg behind her, started working along her row again. After a few steps she glanced toward the padrone again and saw that the man with the wooden leg was standing still, slightly away from the others, staring at her.

After a while, Cetta had worked her way so close to the group that she could hear what they were saying. And she could also hear — unlike them, she knew what was making that sound — the rhythmic clacking they found so strange. She looked out of the corner of her eye and saw the men pushing the harvested wheat aside, until finally, laughing, they saw the source of that unmistakable sound. The three wives came over to look and pretended to be embarrassed, suffocating knowing giggles behind their lace-gloved hands, and then they all turned to leave because it was almost time for dinner.

Only the man with the wooden leg lingered there, looking. He stared at the two turtles copulating with their wrinkled heads in the air and their carapaces knocking against each other, clacking, making that rhythmic tock, tock, tock. The man with the wooden leg gazed at the two animals, then he looked at Cetta, and her dragging leg, and then he looked down at his own artificial one. Cetta noticed that he wore a rabbit’s foot on his watch chain.

All at once he was on top of Cetta. He threw her on the ground, lifted her skirt, ripped her worn underpants down wanting his wooden leg to clack against the farm girl’s maimed limb — while the fat woman kept shouting her husband’s name across the field because now she wanted her dinner; while Cetta’s mother and father and her dark brothers and the other one too all kept on with their work. A few steps away from the two copulating turtles— he took her, in haste and fury, showing her what a man and a woman do when they imitate the beasts.

After the mother had told the daughter she could start getting better, slowly so as not to arouse suspicions, Cetta tried to make up for the year she’d spent being a cripple. After the day of the turtles’ coupling, she found herself pregnant at not quite fourteen, with her belly itself swollen more on the left than on the right, as if it were leaning to the side that had been uselessly crippled.

The baby was startlingly blond. He could have had Norman ancestors except for those eyes — black as pitch, deep and languid — that no blond could have ever expected to possess.

“This one’s going to have a name,” Cetta said to her father, her mother, her dark brothers, and the one called the other one.

And since he was so fair that he looked like the baby Jesus in the crèche, Cetta named her son Natale.

2

Aspromonte, 1908

“I’m going to America just as soon as he’s weaned,” Cetta told her mother as she was nursing her son Natale.

“To do what?” muttered the mother without looking up from her sewing.

Cetta didn’t answer.

“You belong to the padrone and his land,” said the mother.

“I’m not a slave,” Cetta protested.

The mother stopped sewing and stood up. She looked at her daughter nursing the family’s new bastard. She shook her head. “You belong to the padrone and the land,” she said again and then went outside.

Cetta looked down at her son. Her dark breast with its darker nipple was startling against Natale’s blond hair. Annoyed, she pulled her breast away. A little drop of milk fell on the floor. She laid her bastard in the rickety cradle that had held her and her brothers, and the other one, too. The baby started to cry. Cetta stared at him fiercely. “We’re going to cry a lot more tears, you and I,” she told him. Then she went out to join her mother.

The Port of Naples, 1909

The port was crowded with ragged poor people. And a few gentlefolk. But very few, and they were only passing through. People like that would be boarding other ships, not this one. Cetta was watching all of them through a dirty porthole in its rusty frame. Most of those poor folk would be staying on land. They weren’t leaving. They would wait for another occasion. They’d try again to come aboard, they would have pawned their few wretched possessions hoping to buy a ticket to America, and in the wait between one ship and the next they’d have dissipated their tiny savings. And so they’d never be able to leave.

But she, Cetta, was leaving.

That was the only thing she thought about while she was looking out through the filthy porthole, listening to baby Natale, now six months old, turning himself in the wicker basket with its strangely hairy wool blanket that the fine lady from whom Cetta had stolen it used to keep her little dog warm. Cetta didn’t think about anything but the long sea voyage, while the sticky liquid she’d first felt when she was raped ran down her thighs. The only thing she thought about was America, while the ship’s captain buttoned up his trousers, satisfied, promising he’d come back in the afternoon and bring her some bread and water. He laughed, telling her they were going to have a good time together. And only when she heard the metal door close from the outside did Cetta turn away from the porthole and clean her thighs with straw from the floor of the hold. It scratched her skin.

She picked up Natale, pulled out a breast, still red from the captain’s clutchings, and gave her nipple to the bastard she had brought with her. Then, after the baby had gone back to sleep in his basket that stank of dog, Cetta curled up in a darker corner and while tears striped her cheeks she thought: They’re salty, just like the sea that separates me from America. They’re a taste of the ocean, and she licked them, trying to smile. And when at last the siren started to blast its wheezy voice over the harbor, announcing that the ship was leaving, Cetta fell asleep, telling herself the tale of a fifteen-year-old girl who ran away from home all alone with her bastard son and set off for the enchanted kingdom.

Ellis Island, 1909

Cetta stood in line with the other immigrants. Exhausted from the voyage and from the captain’s sexual demands, she watched the doctor from the Federal Immigration Office open these wretched people’s eyes and mouths, just as her father used to do with sheep and donkeys. This one would mark a letter with a piece of chalk on a few of their backs, on their clothes. Those with a letter on their backs were shunted off to a pavilion where other doctors were waiting for them. The rest shuffled towards the customs tables. Cetta looked at the policemen who were watching the officials stamp documents. She saw how desperate people became when, having crossed the sea like trapped animals, they were refused entry. But it was as though she hadn’t been with them.

All the others had glimpsed the new land coming closer, but she hadn’t; she’d always stayed closed up in the hold. She’d been afraid Natale might die. And she discovered, in a moment when she was at her weakest and most tired, that she wasn’t sure if that would make her sorry. And so now she held him tightly to her breast, wanting her creature to forgive her for that thought he couldn’t have heard. But she had heard it, and she was ashamed.

Before they disembarked, the captain had told her he would make sure she’d be able to pass through the inspections. And she had scarcely set foot on land, there in the huge room where all the immigrants were shoved together, when he signaled, jerking his head at a little man who looked like a rat on the other side of the wooden barrier that delimited the free zone. America. The rat had long sharp fingernails and a flashy velvet suit. He looked hard at Cetta and at baby Natale, too. To Cetta it seemed that he was looking at each of them in a different way.

The rat glanced over at the captain and slapped his own chest with his hand. To Cetta’s surprise, the captain lifted Natale away and pulled out one of her breasts, showing it off.

Cetta grabbed her son and took him back, lowering her eyes, mortified. But before she did that she saw the rat laugh and nod to the captain. When she looked up again, the rat was standing next to one of the immigration inspectors, talking to him. He held out some money to the inspector and pointed at Cetta.

The captain squeezed Cetta’s culo. “You’re in better hands than mine now,” he told her, chuckling, and then he left.

And Cetta, without even realizing it, felt a sense of desolation as she watched him walk away. As if she could feel any affection for that disgusting man. Or as if that disgusting man were preferable to the void that was facing her. Maybe she shouldn’t have run away from home, maybe she shouldn’t have come to America.

When the line moved imperceptibly forward, Cetta looked again at the customs inspector and saw that now he was beckoning to her. Another man was standing next to the inspector now, not the rat. It was a person with thick eyebrows, tall, with a tweed jacket that looked tight across his broad shoulders. He was perhaps fifty years old, with a long tuft of hair that went from one side of his head to the opposite one, to cover the part of his scalp where the hair didn’t grow. It looked ridiculous. But at the same time he looks alarmingly strong, thought Cetta as she approached them.

The man and the inspector said something to her. Cetta didn’t know what they were saying. And the less she understood, the more they repeated it to her, louder and louder, as if the problem were that she was deaf. As if loudness could translate that unknown language.

During the one-way discussion the rat reappeared. And he started talking loudly, too. Gesticulating. The limp hands with long nails chopped at the air like razors. A ring gleamed on his little finger. The big man grabbed the rat’s lapels, shouted even louder. Then he let go of him, glanced at the inspector and murmured something that seemed even more menacing than whatever he’d said to the rat, because the inspector went pale, and then turned towards the rat. Suddenly he started shouting at him, too. The rat turned on his heel and scuttled away.

Then the big man and the inspector started talking to Cetta in their mysterious language again. Finally they beckoned a short stocky young man over to the table. He looked energetic and sunny and had been waiting in a corner to interpret between two populations who were separated by an ocean.

“What’s your name?” he asked Cetta, with a friendly and open smile that made her feel less alone for the first time since she’d left the ship.

“Cetta. Concetta Luminita.”

The inspector couldn’t understand it, so the young man wrote it on the immigration paper for him. And again he smiled at Cetta. Then he looked at the baby in Cetta’s arms and stroked him. “And what’s your baby’s name?”

“Natale.”

“Natale,” he told the inspector, who again couldn’t understand. “Christmas,” the young man explained.

The inspector nodded, satisfied, and wrote: “Christmas Luminita.”

PART ONE

3

Manhattan, 1922

“So what kind a name is that?”

“Mind your own business.”

“If you ask me, you got a nigger name.”

“Do I look like a nigger to you?”

“Hey, you don’t even look wop.”

“I’m American.”

“Sez you,” and the boys around him hooted.

“I’m American!”

“You want to be in our gang, then change your fuckin’ name.”

“Go fuck yourself.”

“Hey, no, you go fuck yourself, lousy little prick! Christmas, my ass!”

Christmas Luminita sauntered lazily away, hands in pockets, blond hair tousled, and a faint blond growth just starting to appear above his lips and on his chin. He was just fourteen but his eyes belonged to an adult, like so many children growing up in the airless tenements of the Lower East Side.

“I got my own gang, assholes!” he shouted once he was sure he was too far away for a hurled rock to reach him.

He pretended not to hear the chorus of insults that pursued him as he turned into a filthy unpaved alley. But once he was alone, Christmas unleashed his anger, kicking an overflowing bucket of garbage, there behind a butcher shop. He could smell the sweetish odor of meat. A little, fat, mangy dog, with two bulging red eyes that looked as though they might pop out of their sockets at any minute, shot out of the back door, barking furiously. Christmas crouched down, smiling, and reached out his open hand to the dog.

Accustomed to avoiding kicks, the dog stopped, keeping her distance; and uttered a last yelp, but in a higher key now; sounding surprised. Almost a whimper. She opened her bulging eyes even wider and stretched out her thick neck, pushing her quivering nostrils towards the boy’s hand. Growling softly, she made a couple of timid steps, sniffed at Christmas’ fingertips. Her cropped tail began wagging slowly, with dignity. The boy laughed and scratched her back.

A man in a bloody apron stood in the doorway, a huge knife in his hand. He stared at the dog and the boy. “When she quit barkin’, I think maybe this time they kill her,” he said.

Christmas barely lifted his head, nodded mutely, and went on scratching the dog.

“You gonna catch the mange, kid,” said the man.

Christmas shrugged and kept stroking the dog.

“Sooner or later they kill her,” the butcher went on.

“Who?” asked Christmas.

“Those mascalzoni, hooligans, always comin’ around here. You — you a hooligan too?”

Christmas shook his head, no. His blond forelock tossed in the air. His eyes darkened for an instant, then brightened as he smiled at the dog, who was snuffling with pleasure.

“She’s one ugly dog, eh?” said the man, cleaning the knife blade on his apron.

“Yeah,” said Christmas. “No offense.”

“A guy sold her t’ me ten years ago. He say she pure breed,” said the man, shaking his head. “But whattya gonna do, I real fond a her,” and he turned to go back into his shop.

“I could give her protection,” said Christmas, without thinking.

The butcher turned around and stared at him, curious. A fourteen-year-old kid, skinny, with patches all over his pants and shoes a mile too big for him, covered with mud and horse dung.

“You scared they might kill her, right?” said Christmas, getting to his feet. The dog rubbed against his legs. “You like her. Me, I can protect her.”

“What you talkin’ about, kid?” The butcher burst out laughing.

“Half a dollar a week and I’ll keep your dog safe, I’ll be her protection.”

The big man, huge in his bloody apron, shook his head incredulously. He wanted to get back to work, he didn’t like leaving the shop unsupervised, full of stingy cuts of meat that only a few people in the neighborhood could even afford. But he didn’t go back inside. He gave a quick look into the shop and then stared at the strange boy. “How ya gonna do it? Eh?”

“I’ve got a gang,” said Christmas impulsively. “It’s — people call us …” He hesitated, looking down at the dog, who was still rubbing against his legs. “They call us the Diamond Dogs.”

“I don’t want no gang wars around here, nobody breakin’ my balls!” The man stiffened and looked back into his shop again, but he didn’t leave.

Christmas stuck his hands in his pockets. He moved some dust around with the tip of his shoe. He gave the dog a last caress. “Suit yourself, mister. Only, I heard some guys talkin’ … well, never mind,” and he started to walk away.

“Wait a minute, kid. What you hear?” the butcher stopped him.

“Those kids from down the street,” and Christmas gave a quick glance towards the corner where he could hear the gang he’d just refused, still shouting taunts. “They were sayin’ there was a dog that barks all the time an’ makes a lot of trouble, and …”

“And? What?”

“Never mind … Could be they were talkin’ about some other dog.”

The butcher, knife in hand, came down to the middle of the alley where Christmas was standing. He grabbed the boy by the lapel of his threadbare jacket. His hands were huge and strong, a strangler’s hands. Tall, he loomed over Christmas. The dog gave a few worried yips.

“This mangy little dog, she don’t like nobody. But you, yeah, she likes you. Take Pep’s word for it, she likes you,” the butcher snarled, looking into Christmas’ eyes. “Like I say, I’m fond of her.” He was still studying Christmas, peering into his eyes, silently, while a look of wonder softened his features. Wonder, because he didn’t understand what he was about to do. “It’s true, she’s more trouble than a wife,” he went on, looking at the dog, who now was panting, with her tongue hanging out. “But at least I don’t have t’ fuck her!” And he laughed at the joke he’d told who knows how many times. Then he flipped his apron to one side and rummaged in his vest pocket with blood-crusted fingers, shaking his head in disbelief that he was actually doing this, finally pulling out a fifty-cent coin, and putting it in Christmas’ hand. “I must be crazy. Here, look: O.K., I hire you.”

He was still shaking his head. “C’mon, Lilliput,” he said at last to the dog, and went back inside the shop.

As soon as the butcher was out of sight, Christmas looked at the coin. His eyes shone as he spat on the coin and rubbed it with his fingertips. He leaned against the wall across from the butcher shop. And he laughed, not like a grown-up. Not like a kid, either. The same way his blond hair didn’t belong on an Italian and his dark eyes weren’t Irish. A kid with a weird name, who didn’t know who he was supposed to be. “Diamond Dogs,” he said, and laughed with delight.

4

Manhattan, 1922

The first one he asked was Santo Filesi, a gangly kid, all pimples, with frizzy black hair. He lived in their building and they spoke when they ran into each other on the street, but nothing more. He was the same age as Christmas, and in the neighborhood they said he went to school. His father was a longshoreman, short, stocky, with legs twisted by years of lifting heavy things. They said — because the entire neighborhood did was talk about stuff — that he could lift a five hundred pound load with one hand. And because of that, even though he was a good and gentle man, who never got violent even when he was drunk, he was respected; nobody ever tried to provoke him. With a guy who could lift five hundred pounds with one hand, why take chances? Santo’s mother, on the other hand, was lanky like her son, with a long face and even longer front teeth that made her look like a donkey. She had sallow skin, dry knotted hands that were quick to box her son’s ears, so that Santo, whenever his mother gesticulated, flung up his own hands to protect his face. Signora Filesi cleaned the school that Santo supposedly attended.

“Hey, is it true your mother makes a cream t’ put on your pimples?” Christmas asked Santo the morning after he’d been hired to protect Lilliput.

Santo shrunk into his shoulders, blushing, trying to keep on walking.

“Hey, did I hurt your feelings?” Christmas hurried after him. “I ain’t pickin’ on you, honest.”

Santo stopped.

“You want to be in my gang?” said Christmas.

“What gang?” asked Santo, suspicious.

“Diamond Dogs.”

“Never heard of it.”

“What do you know about gangs?”

“Nothin’.”

“So if you never heard about us, it don’t mean nothin’. ‘Cause, see, you ain’t in touch,” Christmas explained.

Santo looked down again. “Who in it?” he asked shyly.

“It’s better you don’t know,” said Christmas, looking around furtively.

“How come?”

Christmas came close to him, grabbed his arm, and pulled him into a side alley heaped with trash. Then he turned back to peer out at Orchard Street for an instant, as if to make sure they weren’t being followed. At last he spoke quickly, in a soft voice. “’Cause that way you can’t squeal if somebody puts the screws to you.”

“Who’d put screws in me?”

“Oh, fuck, you must be right off the boat! Don’t you know nothin’? What world are you livin’ in? Hey, is it true you go to school?”

“Maybe.”

Christmas sneaked another look at Orchard Street, put on a worried frown, and jumped backwards, shoving Santo more deeply into the alley, making him crouch behind a pile of garbage. He put a finger to his lips and shook his head. He waited until an ordinary-looking man walked past the mouth of the alley, and then gave a sign of relief. “Shit … did you see him?”

“Who?”

“Listen, do me a favor. Go take a look, see if he’s still buzzin’ around the honey pot.”

“Huh? What honey?”

“That guy. Didn’t you see him?” and Christmas grabbed Santo’s lapel.

“Yeah … I guess so …” said the boy.

“You guess, you guess … And you want to be a Diamond Dog? Maybe I was wrong when I thought …”

“Yeah? You thought what?”

“I thought you was smart. Hey, just do me this one favor and that’s it, I won’t ask anything else. Go see if he’s still hangin’ around or if he already fucked off.”

“Me?”

“Fuck, am I talkin’ to somebody else? He don’t know you. So get your shitty ass movin’.”

Santo climbed out of his reeking hiding place and walked hesitantly towards Orchard Street. He looked around awkwardly, in search of the ordinary-looking man whom he now believed to be a dangerous criminal. When he started back, Christmas saw that he was walking with a surer step. Santo hooked a finger into his belt and said: “He ain’t there.”

“You did fine,” said Christmas, standing up.

Santo smiled shyly.

Christmas gave him a pat on the back. “C’mon, let’s go get an ice-cream soda, after that you can go your way an’ I’ll go mine.”

“You say ice-cream soda?” Santo stared at him wide-eyed.

“Sure, yeah, why not?”

“It cost — it cost a nickel.”

Christmas shrugged, laughing. “So? It’s just money. All it takes is havin’ some, am I right?”

Santo couldn’t believe his ears.

Entering the grimy shop on Cherry Street, Christmas clutched his half-dollar desperately. “Listen,” he told Santo, swinging himself onto a stool, “I already had two sodas today and my stomach feels kind of funny, Let’s split one, ‘cause you ain’t used to it, a whole one might make you sick. Got to take it easy with this stuff.” Strawberry — the soda jerk’s nickname came from the red birthmark that spread across half of his face — brought them a single huge glass with two straws. Christmas tapped his single coin nonchalantly on the counter, feeling inwardly doomed.

For a few minutes neither of the boys spoke. Each of them was glued to his straw, trying to suck up a little more than his own half.

“So, what’s it mean ‘maybe’ you go t’ school?”

“Afternoons, a teacher teach me some grammar and some history on account of my mamma she clean the school. But I ain’t exactly goin’ t’ school, get it?” explained Santo. “Anyways, I don’t care nothin’ about school,” he added meaningfully, hoping to sound like a junior outlaw.

“Don’t be dumb, Santo. You want do somethin’ with your life? You ain’t like your father, you ain’t never gonna lift a ton or whatever it is with one hand, that’s not gonna happen. But if you was t’ learn somethin’ it could help.” He said this without even thinking. “I wish I could do it.”

“Honest?” said Santo, brightening.

“Yeah. But don’t get a swelled head, greenhorn. An’ don’t stick out your chest, it makes you look like a turkey. Hey, I’m just kiddin’,” he added.

“Yeah, sure, I know,” said Santo softly, looking at the empty glass. “You got it all.”

“I can’t complain …”

Santo looked at the floor in silence. A question rose up inside him. “So … now can I be a Diamond Dog?” he finally asked.

Christmas clapped a hand over Santo’s mouth and glanced over at Strawberry, who was dozing in a corner. “Are you nuts? What if somebody was listenin’?”

Santo blushed again.

“I don’t know, kid. I don’t know if I can count on you,” Christmas said softly, looking into Santo’s eyes for a long time. “I have to think about it. This is serious, see?” He read the burning disappointment on Santo’s face. He smiled to himself. “Okay, let’s give it a try, huh? Maybe you can do it, maybe not.”

Santo gave him a sudden hug and squealed with delight.

Christmas pulled away. “Hey, us Diamond Dogs don’t do that girly stuff.”

“Sure, sure, scusami, me, I just … just …” Santo stammered excitedly.

“Never mind, forget it. Time to talk business,” said Christmas, lowering his voice even more and leaning towards the only member of his gang, after another glance at Strawberry. “Is it true your mamma makes a cream t’ put on your pimples?”

“Why? What her pomata got to do with anything?”

“Rule number one: I ask the questions. If you don’t understand right away, you will later. An’ even if you don’t never understand, remember I always got a reason, O.K.?”

“O.K. Yeah.”

“‘Yeah’ what? Does your mamma make a cream for your face? She makes it herself?”

Santo nodded.

“And it helps?”

Santo nodded again.

“You wouldn’t think it t’ look at you, ’scuse the expression,” said Christmas.

“It really work. My face a lot worse before she make me use it.”

Christmas rubbed his hands. “I believe what you’re sayin’. Now tell me somethin’ else: Would that same cream work on a dog?”

“A dog?”

Christmas leaned over to him again. “There’s somebody we’re protectin’. He pays us. But his dog’s got the mange, and if you and me make it better, he gives us more money,” and he clinked a nail against the soda glass.

“It could work,” said Santo. “Sure.”

“O.K.,” said Christmas, getting off the stool. “If you want to be part of Diamond Dogs, then you pay up. Get me a batch of that cream your mamma makes. If it works on the dog, you get t’ be one of us, and you’ll get your part.”

5

Manhattan, 1909

The room was warm and pleasant, with elaborate draperies at the windows, even finer than anything Cetta had seen in the padrone’s house. The man behind the desk was the same one who had picked her out when she came off the ship less than five hours before.

He was about fifty, at first sight ridiculous looking because of the long strands combed across his head from one side to the other to cover his baldness. But at the same time he exuded a disturbing strength. Cetta couldn’t understand what he was saying.

The other man, the one who was standing, could talk to the man with the comb-over and to Cetta, too, in their own languages. He was interpreting everything the man behind the desk said. It was from him — as she followed him into the room a few minutes ago — that Cetta learned that the man with the foolish hair was a lawyer and that he took care of girls like her. “Cute ones like you,” he’d added, winking at her.

The lawyer said something, staring at Cetta, who was holding Christmas — who had just been formally renamed by the immigration clerk — in her arms.

“We can take care of you,” the other man translated, “But the baby could be a problem.”

Cetta clutched Christmas to her breast. She didn’t answer, and she didn’t lower her gaze.

The lawyer looked up at the ceiling and then spoke again.

“How can you work with a baby?” the man translated. “We’ll put him someplace where he can grow up.”

Cetta held Christmas even more tightly against her breast.

The lawyer said something. The interpreter said, “If you squeeze him any harder you’ll kill him, and the problem’s solved,” and he laughed.

The lawyer laughed with him.

Cetta didn’t laugh. She pressed her lips together and frowned without taking her eyes off the man behind the desk, without moving. Except that she placed one hand on her sleeping baby’s blond head; as if to protect him.

Then the lawyer said something that sounded brusque. He pushed his chair back and left the room.

“Now you’ve made him angry,” said the interpreter, and sat on the edge of the desk. “What will you do if the lawyer puts you out in the street and doesn’t help you? Do you know anyone? Not a soul, am I right? And you don’t have a cent. You and your son won’t live through one night, believe me,” he said.

Cetta looked at him in silence, without moving her hand from Christmas’ head.

“Well? Are you mute now?”

“I’ll do whatever you want,” Cetta said suddenly. “But nobody touches my baby.”

The interpreter blew his cigarette smoke upwards. “You’re a stubborn girl,” he said, as he too left the room, leaving the door open.

Cetta was afraid. She tried to distract herself by watching the spirals of smoke floating in the air, rising towards the ceiling with its ornamental plasterwork, more beautiful than anything she ever imagined might exist. She had been afraid right away. Ever since the moment when, going through customs, while the immigration officer was stamping her entry documents, the short swarthy young man with the sunny look, the one who had given Natale his new name had whispered in her ear, “Be careful.” She remembered the young man perfectly; he was the only one who had smiled at her. Cetta had been afraid from the moment the lawyer took her by the arm and led her across the line painted on the floor, the line that was where America began. She’d been afraid when they had made her climb into that huge black automobile, compared to which the padrone’s car was an oxcart. She’d been afraid as she looked at the concrete city rising before her eyes, so huge that everything the padrone owned, including the villa, was a hovel. She’d been afraid of getting lost among the thousands of people thronging the sidewalks. And at that moment, Christmas had laughed. Softly, the way babies do, who knows why. And he had put out one little hand and grabbed her nose and then a lock of her loose hair. And he’d laughed again, he was happy. Unknowing. And Cetta thought, how perfect it would be if he could only talk, if he could only have said ‘mamma.’ For in that very instant Cetta realized that she had nothing. That her baby was her only possession. And that she had to be strong for him, because this little creature was weaker than she was. She should be grateful to him because he was the only one in the world who hadn’t violated her, even though he was the one who, more than any other, had lacerated the place between her legs.

When she heard the loud argument going on outside the room Cetta turned her head. In the doorway stood an unshaven man with huge shoulders and a dead cigar between his lips. He was perhaps thirty, ugly, with large blackened hands, and a boxer’s crushed nose. He was mechanically scratching his right earlobe. He wore a holstered pistol over his heart. There was a red stain on his shirt. It could have been blood, but Cetta thought it was sugo, tomato sauce. The man was looking at her.

The argument stopped as the lawyer came back in, followed by the interpreter. The man with the tomato-stained shirt waited in the doorway while the other two walked past him, but he stayed there, watching.

The lawyer said something without looking at Cetta’s face.

“Final offer,” said the interpreter. “You work for us, we’ll put the boy in a place where they’ll take care of him, and you can see him on Saturdays and Sunday mornings.”

“No,” said Cetta.

The lawyer shouted and gestured at the interpreter to throw her out. Then he threw the immigration papers at her. They rustled in the air, and slid across the carpeted floor.

The interpreter pulled at her arm, making her stand.

And then the man in the doorway said something. His voice rumbled like thunder, low as a belch, its deep vibrations filled the room. He said only a few words.

The lawyer shook his head, then shrugged and said, “Okay.”

Then the man stopped scratching his earlobe with his black fingers, came into the room, picked up her immigration papers from the floor, glanced briefly at them, and in his ogre’s voice, without expression, he said. “Cetta.”

The interpreter let go of Cetta’s arm and took a step backwards. The man jerked his chin at Cetta and left the room without saying a word to the other two. Cetta followed him, watched him pick up a rumpled jacket and put it on. It was too tight for him everywhere, across the shoulders, across his chest. He didn’t button it. Cetta thought that he wouldn’t be able to, even if he tried. Again he beckoned to her and left the apartment, with Cetta and Christmas following.

When they reached the street the man got into a car that had two bullet holes in the mudguard. He reached across from the other side and opened the door, slapping the seat to indicate that Cetta should sit there. Cetta got in and he started off. He drove without ever speaking, without ever looking at her, as if he were alone. After about ten minutes he pulled up to the sidewalk and got out. And again he gestured at Cetta to follow him, pushing through a noisy crowd of grimy people dressed in rags. They went down a few steps to a partially underground corridor with doors on either side.

They came to the end of the dark and foul-smelling passageway where, before opening the door in front of them, he picked up a mattress that was leaning vertically against the wall. Then he went inside.

The room — for there was only one room — looked like many others that Cetta knew. Rooms without windows. Cords stretched from one wall to the other, next to the coal stove, with clothes hung up to dry, many of them patched. A curtain that didn’t quite hide the big bed. A rickety cook stove, its hood funneling smoke to the outside through two rusty pipes. Two chamber pots in a corner. An old cupboard missing a door and with one injured leg, under which — to make it level — a block of wood had been placed. A square table and three chairs. A sink and some chipped enamel pots.

Two old people were sitting on the chairs. A man and a woman. He was thin, she was plump. Both of them very short. They turned their wrinkled faces towards the door, looking worried. A lifetime of fear showed in their eyes. But then, seeing the man, they smiled. The old man showed his empty gums, and then put a hand in front of his mouth. The old woman laughed, slapped her thigh, and stood up to embrace the man. The old man, shuffling, went behind the curtain that masked the bed. There was a tiny clattering sound, and when he emerged he was forcing yellowed dentures into his mouth.

The old couple seemed happy to see the ugly man with black hands, who meanwhile had laid the mattress down in a corner of the room. Then, after they’d heard him say something in that voice that shook the air, the old woman had dipped a rag in water and begun to clean the sugo off the man’s shirt, ignoring his protests. And only after that did she look at Cetta. And nodded her head, yes.

Before the man left, he reached a hand into his pocket and pulled out a banknote, then handed it to the old woman. She kissed his blackened hand. The old man stared at the floor, looking mortified. The man noticed, squeezed his shoulder, and said something that made the old man smile. Then the man turned to Cetta and gave her the immigration papers. Finally, as he was leaving, he pointed at her and said something to the old couple. Then he disappeared out the door.

“What’s your name?” the old woman asked, in Cetta’s own language, as soon as they were alone.

“Cetta Luminita.”

“And the baby?”

“Natale. But this is his name now,” said Cetta, thrusting the document at her.

The old woman took it and handed it to her husband.

“Christmas,” said the old man.

“An American name,” said Cetta, with a proud smile.

The old woman fumbled at her chin thoughtfully, and then turned to her husband. “It doesn't sound like an Italian name. Maybe it’s an Irish name, or a negro name.”

The old man stared at Cetta, who didn’t react. “Don’t you know what a negro is?” he asked her.

Cetta shook her head “No.”

“They’re people who are … negro,” the old woman explained in Italian, moving a hand over her own face.

“Are they Americans?” asked Cetta.

The old woman turned to her husband. He nodded.

“Yes,” said the old woman.

“Then my son has a new American name,” said Cetta, satisfied.

The old woman looked perplexed, shrugged her shoulders, and turned back towards her husband.

“But at least you have to learn his name,” said the old man.

“Oh my, yes,” the old wife confirmed.

“You can’t make people read that piece of paper every time,” said her husband.

“Goodness, no,” said the old woman, with an energetic shake of her head.

“And when he’s bigger, you’ll have to say his name when you talk to him, otherwise he won’t learn it either,” the old man went on.

“That’s true,” said the old woman.

Cetta looked at them, bewildered. “Teach me how to say it,” she said at last.

“Christmas,” the old man said.

“CREESS … mahss,” the old woman pronounced.

“Christmas,” Cetta repeated.

“Good girl!” the two old people cried.

All three of them remained standing in silence, not knowing what to do next.

Finally the old woman muttered something in her husband’s ear and went to the kitchen stove. She put in some scraps of wood and lit the stove with a twist of newspaper.

“She’s making something to eat,” the old man explained.

Cetta smiled. She liked these two old people.

“Sal said he’d come by and get you tomorrow,” the old man said, looking down, embarrassed.

So the big ugly man’s name is Sal, thought Cetta.

“Sal’s a good man,” the old man went on. “Don’t judge him by the way he looks. If it weren’t for Sal, we’d be dead.”

“That’s right: Dead of starvation and no coffin to bury us,” the old woman nodded, stirring a pot of thick dark tomato sugo with bits of sausage bobbing in it. The odor of garlic filled the room.

“He pays our rent,” said the old man, and Cetta thought he was about to blush.

“Ask her,” the old woman said, without turning.

Obediently the old man asked, “Does your son have a father?”

“No,” Cetta answered without hesitation.

“No? Well … good … good,” muttered the old man, as if trying to gain time for something.

“Ask her,” said the old woman again.

“Yes, yes, I’m asking her now …” he grumbled. He turned towards Cetta with a sheepish grin. “Were you a whore in Italy, too?”

Cetta knew what that word meant. She’d heard her mother say it a hundred times, whenever her father came home late on a Saturday night. Whores were women who went to bed with men.

“Yes,” she answered.

They ate and went to bed. Cetta lay down on the mattress, still in her clothes, without blanket. The old people told her that Sal would bring everything she needed tomorrow.

I don’t even know your names, thought Cetta in the middle of the night, listening to them snore.

6

Manhattan, 1909-1910

“Cock. Say it.”

“Cock …”

“Pussy.”

“Pussy …”

“Ass.”

“Ass …”

“Mouth.”

“Mouf …”

The red-haired woman in her fifties, vividly made up, sitting on a velvet divan, turned to a coarse-looking girl of twenty, sprawled awkwardly on an armchair — it, too, covered in velvet — looking bored. She was half-naked, playing with the lace on the transparent dressing gown through which a satin bodice, the only other thing she was wearing, peeped. The red-haired woman said a few quick words, waving a hand at Cetta. The semi-naked girl spoke in Italian: “Ma’am says these are the tools of your trade. You don’t need much else for now. Say the whole thing again.”

Cetta, standing in the parlor that seemed elegant and mysterious, was ashamed of her shabby clothes. “Cock,” she began in the hostile language she couldn’t understand, “pussy … ass … mout’.”

“Good, you’re a fast learner,” said the young prostitute.

The red-haired woman nodded. She cleared her throat and continued the lesson in American: “Do you want a blow job?”

“Du … iu … uan … ta … boh … giabb?”

“Blow job!” shouted the redhead.

“Bloh … giabb. Blow job.”

“Okay. Stick it in me.”

“Steek eet een mi …”

“Come on, big boy, harder, harder oh yeah, like that.”

“Co moan beeg boy, ardor, ardor, ieh, laik a dat?”

The red-haired madam stood up. She grumbled something at the prostitute who was acting as interpreter and then left the room, after stroking Cetta’s face with an unexpected tenderness, warm and melancholy at the same time. Cetta watched her go, admiring the dress. Only a fine lady could have a dress like that, Cetta thought.

“Come on,” said the young whore, enunciating carefully.

“Co moan, beeg boy, ardor –” Cetta began.

The prostitute laughed. “Come on.”

“Come … ahn,” Cetta echoed.

“Good,” and she took Cetta’s arm and led her through the dark rooms of the huge apartment that seemed like a palace to her. “Has Sal tasted you yet?” the young whore asked, with a sly smile.

“Taste me?” Cetta asked.

The prostitute laughed. “I guess not. If he had, you’d be all bright-eyed and purring, and you wouldn’t have to ask.”

“Why?”

“You can’t talk about heaven till you’ve been there,” and the prostitute laughed again.

They came into a plain white-painted room, luminous compared to the others. Cetta saw wonderful dresses hanging along the walls. At the center of the room were an ironing board and flatiron. A fat old woman with a mean expression greeted them with a distracted nod. The prostitute said something to her that Cetta didn’t understand. The old woman came over to Cetta and stretched her arms out, looking closely at her; she cupped her breasts and buttocks and measured around her hips. Next she went to a chest of drawers, rummaged in it, took out a black bustier, and threw it roughly at Cetta. She spoke again.

“She says to take off your clothes and try it on,” the prostitute translated. “Don’t mind her. She’s an old fatty who couldn’t live the life because she was too ugly, and the lack of cock made her mean.”

“Look out, I know what you’re saying,” said the fat woman, speaking Cetta’s language. “I’m Italian, too.”

“You’re still a mean bitch,” said the prostitute.

Cetta laughed. But as soon as the old woman gave her a fierce glare from her wicked red eyes, she looked down and began to undress. The prostitute helped her hook up the bustier. Cetta felt strange. Stripping naked humiliated her, but trying on the lacy bustier, which seemed to her like something an elegant lady would wear, made her feel important. Part of her was excited, part of her was frightened.

The prostitute noticed. “Look in the mirror,” she said.

Cetta moved toward the mirror. But suddenly her left leg went to sleep. Cetta broke into a sweat. She dragged the leg.

“Are you lame?” asked the prostitute.

“No, no …” Cetta could see the panic in her own eyes. “I … twisted something …”

Right at that moment the fat woman hurled a dress at her. Blue satin, with a long slit in the skirt to show off her legs and a low neckline trimmed with a black lace frill. “Try that, whore,” she said.

Cetta slipped into it and then looked in the mirror again. She began to weep, because she didn’t recognize herself. She wept for gratitude to the American earth that was going to make all her dreams come true. That would make her into a lady.

“O.K., come on, now you have to learn the business,” the prostitute said.

They came out of the sewing room without saying goodbye to the fat woman, and went into a tiny stuffy room. The prostitute opened a peephole and put her eye against it.

She beckoned Cetta over and made her look. “There you go,” she said, “That’s a blow job.” Cetta squinted through the little hole, and learned.

She spent the whole day spying on her colleagues and their clients. Late that night, Sal came back to take her home. As he was driving, never speaking, Cetta glanced over at him — carefully, so that he wouldn’t notice — and wondered about what the prostitute had said. At last the car pulled up in front of the steps that led down to the basement apartment and Cetta, as she climbed out of the car, turned back to look and the big ugly man who tasted girls. But Sal just kept staring straight ahead.

The two old people were asleep when Cetta came silently into the room. Christmas was sleeping too, between them. Cetta took him delicately in her arms.