Don Nicola

After her graduation front Scripps College, MOLLIE MCCUSH studied at the University of Strasbourg on a french government fellowship. Later, in Paris, she met and married her Italian husband and lived for a few years in southern France and in Italy, the locale of the following story.

I DIDN’T like Don Nicola, he frightened me. Not because he was a gangster, or had been one back in America, but because he shouted so loud. He spoke two languages, English and Italian, both of which he rendered incomprehensible to me. His Italian was not Italian but a glorious hodgepodge of all the varied dialects the immigrants brought with them to America. And his English was no English I had ever heard before. Like so many immigrants, he had ended up not being able to speak any language coherently. During the fifty years he had spent in America, he had lost his familiarity with his native tongue, and during the eight years he had been back in Italy, the English he had learned had slipped away from him.

To the villagers, Don Nicola signified America. For him, the streets of New York had really been paved with the proverbial gold. He had been a millionaire. Often, in the evenings, when the wine had gone to his head, we could hear him through the open windows telling Petito, the peasant who worked the farm for him, of the riches that had been his in America — the enormous house with marble bathrooms, the black Cadillac limousine with bulletproof windows and a uniformed chauffeur, and the bodyguard that went everywhere with him.

My husband s family, with whom we were spending our vacation, rented the top floor of Don Nicola’s villa on the outskirts of the village. Daily contact with him was hence inevitable. Although there was a separate stairway to the upper floor, it was impossible to go in or out without passing the doors to Don Nicola’s part of the house. These doors were open from long before we awoke until late at night. Inside it was always dark. Sometimes I could perceive his shadow in the vast realms of the kitchen, or he would be sitting in cigar smoke in the little hole that served as office and parlor, staring out through the open doors into the courtyard. But he was always there, lying in wait, or so it seemed to me. He would pounce on me with a roar when I came in sight, forcing some of his syrupy black coffee or syrupy yellow liqueur on me. It was impossible to refuse. Not only because in Italy ii is a cardinal sin and insult to refuse what your host offers, but because he simply would not accept a refusal. I had tried, in spite of the danger of thus compromising the family honor.

Don Nicola always wore the same dirty striped shirt and grease-stained vest, the same wide gray suspenders and fraying trousers. Knowing the habits of these mountain people, I doubted whether he had bathed or even washed since he had returned from America, if before. To add to my discomfort, he reeked of stale cigar smoke and wine. It would not be exact to describe him as being always drunk, for, apart from his general bellow and incomprehensible speech, which were not directly attributable to alcohol, he displayed few of the customary signs. However, it was well known that he consumed great quantities of wine. Some days it was noticeable, and on those days I tried to go down into the courtyard only when there was someone else there. Maria was almost always in the courtyard or the kitchen.

Maria was Don Nicola‘s mistress, housekeeper, overseer, and anything else he could think of. In the afternoons I would see her standing at the well, washing the clothes on the stones with great violence, as was the custom, her back hard and supple beneath her black sweater and skirt, her legs at once muscular and graceful as a dancer‘s. She was not especially young. She had a twelveyear-old daughter who appeared mysteriously from time to time on Sundays. But Maria must have been a good twenty or thirty years younger than Don Nicola. It is impossible to tell the age of the peasant women from their faces. As soon as they are married, which is in their teens, they age indescribably physically, and the faces they acquire remain relatively unchanged until way past middle age. Having passed her youth, Maria had become ageless. She was not generally considered attractive or desirable. But her swarthy face was alive with a barbaric animal beauty, and when she smiled widely and exuberantly, her eyes and white teeth flashing, she had an electric charm. She would stand, her hands dripping with the slop she was mixing for the pigs, laughing hoarsely at my amazement at the pig‘s diet (I had always thought pigs ate garbage and corn; these ate an elegant mixture of stewed pears, acorns, and meal), and her éclat was frightening. Indeed, she frightened me only slightly less than Don Nicola did. It was an instinctive fear of the elemental and the unknown.

Don Nicola had a wife in America, too, and sons. But in the village it was told that, in his better days, when he came back to his villa in Italy each summer, instead of his wife he brought a mistress with him from America, and a new one each year. This greatly impressed the villagers. Every summer he arrived in a new American car, at a time when the road up the mountain was not only unpaved but practically impassable to all means of transportation but mules. The car was important to his prestige, as was the mistress, his many public gifts, such as the medical clinic and, finally, the paved roads, and his reputation of private generosity. No one in the village denied that he had been generous. He was a good man, they said. He had given to whoever asked, and in this arid, mountainous region of southern Italy, many asked.

My husband told about the time his mother had decided she could greatly increase the family income if she had a sewing machine. She could not afford one, so she went to see Don Nicola. My husband, then a boy of four and a particularly scrawny, undernourished-looking child, was taken along as a means of moving the great man. The child broke into an unrehearsed dirty song in dialect that so moved Don Nicola to laughter that he gave her money for the machine and extra money for the boy.

Don Nicola was still generous — with us, at least– although his fabled wealth was now only legend. Aside from the coffee and liqueur he forced on us, he gave us apples when they became ripe, chestnuts, walnuts, and whatever he had that he thought might please us. He respected my husband with the respect of the illiterate for the educated and enlightened. He never called him anything but Professo — “Professor.” In all Europe, but especially in these remote villages of the Italian Mezogiorno, the college professor is an exalted personage.

Professo,” he shouted, whenever he saw my husband come down into the courtyard. “Professo, ‘Na tazza e’ caffe.”

My husband hates coffee, but of course he had no choice.

“Maria!" Don Nicola bellowed. “Caffe!” Maria bellowed back from the kitchen. He was always very much upset because I preferred to sit on the edge ol the fountain or on the steps rather than on the hard-backed chairs he brought out from the house. He could not permit a Lady (a professor’s wife) to sit anywhere but in a chair. We sat under the grape arbor and obediently drank the coffee that Maria brought while Don Nicola fumed on in his incomprehensible way about everything from the Italian government and taxes to his peasants and the grapes, which weren‘t ripening fast enough.

“Crooks!” he said to me in English with a look of complicity. “All crooks! The world is full of crooks, nothing but crooks!”

My husband’s comment after these conversations was always the same. “PazzoT” he would say. “He’s crazy.”

THE grapes never did ripen. I was awakened one morning by Don Nicola‘s screams and came down to find the courtyard enveloped in fog. Don Nicola was thrashing his arms wildly in the air and shouting at Petito, who was shouting back at him. It had apparently frosted during the night. Maria told me the frost had ruined the muscat grapes, the most prized of the vineyard. From what I could gather, Don Nicola was accusing Petito of not having harvested them in time, and Petito was accusing Don Nicola of not having given him the money necessary for cultivating and fertilizing them so that they would ripen before the frosts. Don Nicola saw me and, raising his arms toward the heavens in a gesture of helpless anger and despair, screamed “Son-of-a-bitch crooks!” With that he stomped into the kitchen and slammed the door. It was the first time I had ever seen the door closed. The rest of the grapes, those for red wine, were cut the next day and pressed. The peasant girls carried the baskets on their heads up the hill from the vineyard, the purple juice running down their faces like sweat, staining their blouses. Don Nicola bellowed orders at them, and they laughed, their faces wet and shining.

Harvesting the many crops on the farm always seemed to take place in an atmosphere of general hysteria, mainly the result of Don Nicola’s conviction that his peasants were cheating him — which they probably were, my brother-in-law, Enzo, said. When they harvested the wheat, Don Nicola almost suffered a stroke. At least I thought he would, to look at his purple face. The whole process was done by hand. The grain was cut and tied into sheaves by the women. 1 was told that it would have been impossible to do it any other way, even if they had had the money and the means, because the wheat was grown on the steep mountain slopes and in the orchards around the apple trees, no inch of the precipitous land being allowed to go to waste. But it was the thrashing that made the tempers boil. The white oxen dutifully strode around on the wheat breaking up the sheaves, but then for days the wind would not blow and the chaff could not be separated from the wheat. Don Nicola made Petito go through the motions of trying anyway. With the gunny sack over his head to protect his eyes Petito raised the big sieve in his hands, throwing the grain high in the air, but the wind didn’t carry away the chaff and it fell back with the wheat. Finally the wind came, and the harvesting was all done in a frenzy, just before the rain fell. I was standing on the hillside behind the house watching the barefoot girls carry the bundles of chaff down the path on their heads. The hay, wrapped in heavy canvas, made such an enormous heap on their heads, so much out of proportion to their small bodies, that I couldn’t believe that they could carry it across the road, much less the mile and a half to their cottage. Then Don Nicola came lumbering up the hill from the courtyard.

“A dovai?” he shouted at a girl‘s retreating figure. “Where’re you going with that?”

“Home.” The girl turned from the path and started down the road.

“That’s mine!” he shouted after her. Then he saw another girl, who was ahead of her sister and had already reached the bend in the road.

“Those are mine,” he roared. “You took yours this morning. Come back, thieves. Mariolo! Mariolo!”

I understood that they were taking, or he thought they were taking, more than their share of the harvest. The girls neither hesitated nor hurried but continued stolidly on their way.

“Petito!” he shouted, thundering on up to the top of the hill.

“Papa’s gone home,” a third sister said. She steadied the huge bundle on her head with her right hand and, passing directly in front of the astonished Don Nicola, began to wind her way down the hillside path with the steady, surefooted step of a mountain mule. It was at this point that I thought Don Nicola might have a stroke. Indeed, I often wondered what kept him from dying of a heart attack or something. He obviously had high blood pressure, and he drank enough to drown a horse. He also suffered from some sort of breathing difficulty. He sneezed and coughed and would slap his chest and say to me in an explanatory way, “The bronks. They‘ll kill me.” Occasionally he would be in such a bad way that he couldn‘t get out of bed, and we would have to tiptoe around the apartment to avoid disturbing the ailing Don Nicola below.

Unable to work the land himself, he had to rely on those he felt he really could not trust. When Don Nicola came back to Italy he had nothing but his land holdings, which turned out to be much less vast than they had been before the war. And what was left soon dwindled away through his own inept management and shortsightedness and through government taxes, petty theft, and sales that profited only the lawyers involved. Now he had but the strip of land where the villa stood, with its orchards, vineyards, and chestnut forest. This was his only source of income. He could not make it pay, but he had at least to make it feed him.

DON NICOLA had not been deported, I learned. Whatever he had done in America, the law had never caught up with him. His sons had sent him packing. They had hired hoodlums who had beaten him, broken his right arm and four ribs. But with his rhinoceros hide and stamina, he had not died. He seemed indestructible. His sons wanted his money, Enzo said, and they got it. Don Nicola brooded about his sons a great deal, especially in the evenings, when the day‘s wine had rendered him melancholy and morose. He never gave up the idea that someday they would come and there would be a grand reconciliation.

Once he showed me a picture of one of them. I was sitting in the hard chair he had placed in the doorway for me. “Ah!” he had said, pushing himself up out of his chair with apparent effort. “I show you something.” He went to the heavy black walnut buffet, unlocked one of the drawers with a key front his vest pocket, and began carefully setting out stacks of neatly tied papers. From his awe-inspiring manner and the way whatever he was looking for was hidden, I thought it must be a diamond stickpin. He finally brought out a tattered photograph which he thumped down on the table before me. He stood back and said solemnly, “My son.” It must have been a graduation picture of some sort. The boy appeared to be sufficiently uncomfortable in his stiff collar and tie, rather like a peasant in his wedding clothes. He did not look like any of the boys I had known in America. I knew it was a great honor to have been shown the picture, which was obviously one of his prize possessions, and that I was expected to comment on it. But all that could be said of this blank-laced boy was that he resembled his father, and I was not sure even Don Nicola would consider that a compliment.

“He looks like a line boy,” I said, cringing at the banality of my own words.

“Ah!” he grunted in satisfaction. “Fine boy!” He took the picture and looked at it fiercely and lovingly. He saw things in it that I did not, naturally, as all fathers do. But there was more behind his gaze than mere paternal pride. There was the primitive ferocity of the peasant‘s family instinct, the pain of the thwarted patriarch in a patriarchal society. Here where all honor and security depend on one’s sons, on their ability to inherit and care for the land and to provide for their parents’ old age, no misfortune was greater or more humiliating than to be abandoned by them.

One night after supper we heard a car start up the long driveway toward the house. Papa opened the shutters a crack and we watched the headlights moving toward us in the dark. “Robbers!” Mama whispered, putting words to what we were all thinking. Having only recently moved out from the village to the villa, she felt she was at the end of the world and had an obsessive fear of robbers. Not without reason, Enzo insisted. There was the famous bandit, Nardiello, who preyed on the roads that came up through the mountain passes from Naples, and his activity kept the villagers’ ancestral fear of brigandage alive. And he was not the only one, Enzo would add ominously. The peasants were capable of anything, he said. At any rate, there could be little doubt that no honest person would be coming here in a car at eleven o’clock at night.

“Get back.” Papa waved us women back from the window ns the car drove into the courtyard and stopped.

“Hello!” someone shouted into the night. “We come from America!”

There was a great silence. “Anybody home?”

We listened in amazement and looked over Papa’s shoulder into the courtyard below. Don Nicola tumbled out the kitchen door, in the last throes of a late-evening alcoholic stupor. “Figli mii!” he bawled. The rest of what he said was incomprehensible. Two men had stepped out of the car.

“It’s Don Nicola’s sons!” Mama said in wonder.

Don Nicola’s shouting grew louder. The men were shouting too, waving their arms in great agitation. “Rossi, Rossi!” they shouted. Rossi was our name. We looked at Papa. “Get my coat,” he said. He and Enzo went down into the courtyard. Don Nicola was swearing now. He waved his arms over his head and then shouted clearly, “Crooks! Son-of-a-bitch crooks!” It had become apparent to us, as to him, that these men were not his prodigal sons. Maria half pushed, half dragged him back into the kitchen. We could hear him bellowing below us like a bull.

The strange men turned out to be distant relatives of Papa‘s from New Jersey. They were leaving the next day from Naples after a tour of Italy, but had to pay their respects, even at this late hour.

The next day Don Nicola did not appear. He was indisposed, Maria said. He seemed more depressed than usual in the weeks following the incident of the men from America. He didn‘t shout as often or as loudly. He sullenly watched over the apple harvest from the top of the hill, coming out of his brooding gloom to shout at my husband, who had entered into the spirit of things and was also picking, gaily tossing the apples into the tin bucket from a distance of four or five yards and unthinkingly but unpardonably bruising them.

The cut corn was spread out on the courtyard stones to dry in the sun, and Don Nicola shouted when the chickens got out and set to devouring the corn voraciously.

The beans were laid out to dry, and when it began to rain he grunted and gasped but did not bellow. He stood in the rain with an old felt hat pulled down over his ears and watched Rosalia, Petito’s daughter, thrashing the beans with a stick to remove the shells while Maria scooped them up and into the gunny sacks as they fell.

Maria, too, was more somber. She seemed preoccupied and had little time to answer my questions, as she had laughingly done before. She had friends, I observed — two men. They appeared when Don Nicola was not there. Often I would see them in the late afternoon, standing in the kitchen, peering out the doorway. Thin, dark, with heavy, suspicious eyebrows and black, sinister eyes, they wore striped jackets in the Neapolitan style but with an awkwardness that betrayed their peasant origin. They would have looked ridiculous had they not: looked so evil.

ONE evening when Mama and I were alone, Don Nicola came wheezing up the stairs to our apartment. I was horrified, especially considering his alcoholic content at the time. But Mama, even with her fear of robbers and ghosts and mice, was undisturbed. She sat him down in the kitchen, made him some coffee, and listened to his ramblings. Whatever it was he wanted to tell her, he was very unhappy about it, and I was afraid for a while that he was going to cry. The coffee seemed to perk him up, however. He asked her for “the money.” She went into the bedroom and came back with a handful of bills. We watched him reeling back down the stairs. “He’ll never make it to the bottom,” she said, “He’ll break his head.”

I thought this highly possible. But he reached the bottom safely, and we both sighed in relief.

“But he’s borrowing money from us now?" I asked. “Where did all the money come from?”

“Oh, no. It’s his money,” she answered. “I’ve only been keeping it for him so Maria won t steal it. He wanted it all back. He’s going to buy something at the sale of the livestock at the Fiera tomorrow. I couldn’t make out what.”

“Do you think he‘ll be sober by tomorrow morning?” I asked. She shrugged.

I didn‘t see him the next morning when we set out for the market place. The doors were all closed. I didn’t see him in the village, either, but soon forgot him in my wonder at the braying donkeys, bleating goats, and screaming pigs. The peasants stood silently beside their animals, patiently waiting for buyers. The traveling salesmen from Naples lined the road with their carts and trucks that opened to make stalls, where their wares were hung. The multicolored underwear, stockings, blouses, and sweaters swayed in the wind. The narrow crumbling steps to the upper piazza were so lined with women selling pigeons and chickens that we could hardly pass. They sat on the steps screeching their wares with the birds in their aprons, or stood and flapped them, lively and squawking, in our faces as we passed. On the upper piazza, the women shouted their prices and waved their lettuce. The din, with the noise of the bellowing animals rising from below, was deafening. The press and the stench of the people and animals crammed into the small village square were frightening. The peasant women, statuesque, with their baskets on their heads, were magnificent in their full velvet skirts and tight calico blouses, their heavy leather boots white with the dust of the country roads they had traveled on their way to market. In the far end of the square was a vegetable truck from Naples, its load of red and yellow peppers strewn out over the stones looking like spilled paint.

We left at noon, the church bells thundering in our ears. Even as we turned into the driveway from the road, we could hear the braying cattle and shouting voices coming over the meadows from the village. There was quite a gathering in the courtyard. Enzo and Petito were standing by the kitchen door, their faces serious and sad.

“What‘s wrong?” Mama asked.

“Don Nicola’s dead.”

“Santa Miseria!” she said, crossing herself, and began to cry.

“Maria’s gone, of course, and so are all the money and valuables,” Enzo said. “They stabbed him in his sleep.”

From the hill behind the house, I still heard the rumble of the Fiera from the village and the muffled boom of firecrackers as they resounded against the mountains. I looked away from the village, its ramparts and ancient walls set like a crown on the top of the opposite hill, and gazed down into the deep valley of Ansanto, miles below. It lay spread out like a topographical map, bleached by the sun, arid and treeless to the horizon. What had happened? Nothing, really. An illustrious and infamous Italian-American gangster had died — how would they have said it in the newspapers? — violently, as he had lived.