In the beginning, before the mystery, there is the killing. Four gun shots at a deserted crossroads. A highwayman in the robes of a monk. A face that he recognizes in the dusk.
There is his name, my name, scrawled into the death registry of a country church in Sicily: “Francesco Paolo Viviano, son of Gaetano, was buried this day.” There is the raw fact that edges into fable, a bandit ancestor with a red sash tied around his waist.
There is the elemental drama, a betrayal and murder that my grandfather wraps in silence for more than eighty years, until a November morning in Detroit when he whispers another name to me.
I am an American, Sicilian-bred. Heir to a nation’s pulp fiction, from Little Caesar’s dying gasp to the baptisms, weddings and funerals of The Godfather. I am the infant in a black-and-white 1947 photograph of a
baptism at Holy Family Church in Detroit. An immigrant priest pours water over my brow. I am dressed in the same white lace christening gown that my grandfather wore fifty years earlier. In the photograph, he stands beside my Grandma Angelina. Grandma has burst into song. My mother looks at her in alarm. I scream at the frigid sensation of December water on my skin.
“In nomine Patri,” the priest intones, “I baptize thee Francesco Paolo Viviano.” My grandfather’s name and his grandfather’s name, the name in the death registry. The name of the Monk, echoing soundlessly through a
There was no mystery to unravel before then, because there was no past in which to set it, no murder and no murderer. History, for our family, opened in 1910, when Grandpa stepped ashore at Battery Park in New York. Sicily was a featureless blur of generations. Yet its ghosts were always with us, adrift in the fables of Grandma Angelina. She began chanting them to the grandchildren when we were toddlers, in a delphic cadence that is still the metronome of my dreams.
“Figghiu miu, miu cori,” she sang, “my child, my heart,” and the tales were spun.
One of these tales obsessed her. She pursued it throughout our adolescence, and returned to it many years later, in that same mesmerizing chant, when she had fallen into a cruel and prolonged dotage. We came to
think of it as the story of “Ano in the Desert.”
There was once a man named Ano, in my grandmother’s telling, who found himself without food or water in a vast desert: “He had been on a journey lasting many years, under a sun so hot that it burned away his thoughts one-by-one. Ano forgot almost everything: Where he had come from. Who his people were. How he had wandered into the desert. It was all he could do to keep crawling, with no destination, until his soul began to crack apart and his last thought turned to ash. That last thought was his name. ‘I am Ano,’ he said, over and over. ‘I am Ano…’“
Grandma would often pause at this point, and look up from the mangle where she ironed three generations of sheets and diapers. She had a peculiar intensity in her eyes that told us we must not speak. The chant also
intensified for a few moments, as she repeated Ano’s dying words. “I am Ano. I am Ano. I am Ano.”
Ano’s spare cry from our grandmother’s fable terrified us. It forshadowed her own last months, when she too could remember nothing more than her name and repeated it over and over: “I am Angelina. I am Angelina.”
Eventually, she flattened a diaper under the mangle and continued the tale.
“Ano was near death now, and the sound of his name was only a sigh. ‘Ahhhhhhhnooooo.’ The sigh made the Virgin Mary herself weep, because this Ano was no ordinary human being. Even when death came for him, he
spoke his name without fear. So Mary asked God to send a beautiful angel to Earth, with a chalice full of cool wine.
“’Vivi, Ano! Drink!’” the angel cried, hovering over the dying man.
“The angel saved his life, miu cori, and ever since that day the family has been called ‘Viviano’ in his honor. For Ano was your ancestor, and the reason you are alive, and must never, never surrender to despair.”
Many years passed before I recognized that Grandma saw herself as the angel; that in Ano’s tale we were to read my grandfather’s own escape from the desert of confusion and loss. To start over. To bury the past.
But the past never really dies. Family history bubbles and ferments under the surface of family rebirth. In a lock of hair or the angular tilt of a nose, we concede the work of heredity, even if the model who inspired our
canvas is only a name to us, a ghost adrift in a grandmother’s fables. Why not a legacy in character, mood, temperment?
The past is not another country. It is the country within, ruled by a bandit in the robes of a monk. When I was fifteen years old, I asked my grandfather for the first time about the man he referred to as lu Monacu. The name only came up in his private conversations with Grandma Angelina, and then very rarely. But I overheard, and one day I could no longer restrain my curiosity.
“This monk you talk about, Grandpa. Who was he?”
We were on the way to the produce terminal, trying to make out the center line on Gratiot Avenue through the frosted windshield of a January morning. For several minutes, there was no answer. I stared ahead into the
darkness. The gavel fell on the Detroit fruit auction just after dawn. My grandfather liked to arrive early, so he could climb into the freight cars and pry open a few boxes of oranges and lemons. The word around the
terminal was that Frank Viviano could tell, just from picking up an orange, feeling its heft and running his fingers over the skin, what it was worth. He was the founder and patriarch of our family business, a wholesale produce firm that employed all four of his sons and a son-in-law.
He leaned forward in the driver’s seat, and spoke very softly. “Lu Monacu fu miu nannu. He was my grandpa, Franky, like I’m yours. At the church, when he’s a baby, they give him the same name as you and me. But after
he’s a man, everyone in Sicily call him ‘the Monk.’”
“Why did they call him that?” I asked.
I remember that my grandfather paused again, a long time, before responding. “Because he wore priest’s clothes,” he said.
We stopped at a traffic light, the interior of the Buick bathed white in the headlights of cars bound eastward toward the General Motors and Chrysler plants. My grandfather didn’t wait for me to ask another question.
“He robbed big people like that, Franky. He went out on the roads at night, dressed like a priest, and he fooled the people who was no good.”
It was the only thing my grandfather said to me about the Monk until a November morning in 1992.
I was a middle-aged foreign correspondent on that morning, a forty-five- year-old bachelor with no fixed address. In the past twelve years, I had covered two dozen wars and revolutions. My rootlessness was excessive, even for a rootless profession, and the contradiction of everything my grandfather found meaningful.
He had arrived in New York at the age of twelve in 1910, with a change of clothes and a straw basket. For two years, he peddled fish from the basket, on foot across Harlem from the East River to the Hudson. The basket led to a fruit and vegetable pushcart in booming Detroit in 1912, the pushcart to a horse and wagon, the horse to a Republic truck. That’s how my grandfather chose to remember it. His pilgrim’s progress from Battery
Park was a methodical journey through the new world, broken by a cry from the old.
In March 1916, as he walked up One Hundred Sixteenth Street during a trip back to New York, the sun lit a face in the rear car of the Third Avenue elevated train. My grandfather knew this face: Angelina Tocco looked back, sang out his name through an open window. She was a cousin from Terrasini, his village, a sixteen-year-old seamstress in a Brooklyn factory. Their eyes met for an instant that was to last sixty-eight years.
These were the icons that tugged at our family memory: The basket, the pushcart, the horse and the truck. Grandma Angelina on the Third Avenue el. Their six children and eighteen grandchildren in a big, raucous house in Michigan. My grndfather, the second Francesco Paolo, “Paolinu” to his boyhood friends, was a relentless builder. He encircled himself with offspring and dug deeply, permanently, into his adopted soil.
The third Francesco – I, the American “Franky” – was a loner, forever on the wing. The demons that drove me were shadowy but irresistible.
They were the legacy of the the Monk, my grandfather believed. An echo that he first heard when I was still a boy, and that grew to haunt him as the years passed. An echo that he kept to himself until the final year of his life. Like the Monk, I was a wanderer, and in my own way a fugitive. I had even been a thief, kicked out of the Boy Scouts at the age of twelve for robbing a gas station, arrested at fourteen for breaking-and-entering and assault. A year later, I stole a Lincoln Continental. After it was returned to the owner, I stole it a second time.
In my forties, I was still alone and on the run, without a family or home, when a whisper sent me to to Sicily. In search of the bandit who gave me my name. In search of his killer.
I saw my grandfather for the last time in a small apartment in Detroit’s eastern suburbs, two rooms with a studio bed, a Formica table and four chairs, a kitchenette. He had moved there the previous April. His daughters had been after him for years to sell the big house, with its memories of Grandma and too many rooms to heat in the long Michigan winter. Until 1992, he wouldn’t even discuss it. Then, suddenly, Grandpa announced that he was ready to leave. He turned ninety-five the week I arrived in Detroit.
My grandfather was a very solidly-built man, who looked much larger than his five-foot-eleven-inch frame. In the photographs that recorded his progress from teenaged fish peddler to family patriarch, he seemed virtually unchanged. Even at the age of four, in the studio portrait with his mother and two sisters that was his sole memento of Sicily, he had the ramrod posture that would set off Frank P. Viviano in snapshots at the produce terminal in 1928, at my parents’ wedding in 1946, at his and Angelina’s fiftieth anniversary in 1967. His hair had silvered and he walked slowly now, especially in the mornings, fighting to keep his shoulders straight. But he was as sharp-of-mind as ever.
“Franky, figghiu miu,” he said, when he opened the door. We embraced for several minutes, standing in the doorway.
He had been giving things away since June, Grandma Angelina’s silk brocade couch to one of my cousins, her mahogany dining table to another. He wanted me to take his ring, a diamond set in gold. I refused. I wouldn’t
listen when he looked into my eyes and told me that we might never see each other again.
“Sit down,” he said. There was a tremor in his voice, something more than the tremor of age. We took our places at either side of the table, and he talked about Grandma, about their years together.
He pushed a lock of hair from his forehead, and turned his face away toward the wall. Then he looked at me again, and began to speak about the Monk. “He was always alone. He never stay in one place. You too much
like he was, Franky. You can’t live this way. Listen to me, Franky. I don’t want you to die like he did.”
My grandfather didn’t know my world. He couldn’t read a newspaper. I doubt that he had ever heard of Nicaragua or Tiananmen Square, much less the distant river town in the Balkans where I had brushed too closely to death that August, and lost my bearings. But he knew me. He knew that I was not in my right mind. He had been Ano once, and now Ano was me.
“How did the Monk die?” I asked.
Almost inaudibly, Grandpa sighed, “Aiutu di Diu.” God help me. “The boss tell his men to kill him,” he whispered. “The boss, Domenico Valenti.”
The name meant nothing to me.
Six months later, my grandfather died. Those few words in 1992, along with Angelina Tocco’s fables, were all that I carried to Sicily.
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