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The Family Corleone

Mario Puzo

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  For my father and his family, his six brothers and two sisters, the Falcos of Ainslie Street, Brooklyn, New York, and for my mother and her family, the Catapanos and Espositos, from the same neighborhood—all of whom, the children of Italian immigrants, made good and decent lives for themselves and their families and their children and their children’s children, among whom are doctors, lawyers, teachers, athletes, artists, and just about everything else. And for our neighborhood’s family doctor in the forties and fifties, Pat Franzese, who came to our houses when we were sick and took care of us, often for free or for whatever little might be offered. With love and every good wish and great respect.



  FALL 1933


  Giuseppe Mariposa waited at the window with his hands on his hips and his eyes on the Empire State Building. To see the top of the building, the needlelike antenna piercing a pale blue sky, he leaned into the window frame and pressed his face against the glass. He had watched the building go up from the ground, and he liked to tell the boys how he’d been one of the last men to have dinner at the old Waldorf-Astoria, that magnificent hotel that once stood where the world’s tallest building now loomed. He stepped back from the window and brushed dust from his suit jacket.

  Below him, on the street, a big man in work clothes sat atop a junk cart traveling lazily toward the corner. He carried a black derby riding on his knee as he jangled a set of worn leather reins over the flank of a swayback horse. Giuseppe watched the wagon roll by. When it turned the corner, he took his hat from the window ledge, held it to his heart, and looked at his reflection in a pane of glass. His hair was white now, but still thick and full, and he brushed it back with the palm of his hand. He adjusted the knot and straightened his tie where it had bunched up slightly as it disappeared into his vest. In a shadowy corner of the empty apartment behind him, Jake LaConti tried to speak, but all Giuseppe heard was a guttural mumbling. When he turned around, Tomasino came through the apartment door and lumbered into the room carrying a brown paper bag. His hair was unkempt as always, though Giuseppe had told him a hundred times to keep it combed—and he needed a shave, as always. Everything about Tomasino was messy. Giuseppe fixed him with a look of contempt that Tomasino, as usual, didn’t notice. His tie was loose, his shirt collar unbuttoned, and there was blood on his wrinkled jacket. Tufts of curly black hair stuck out from his open collar.

  “He say anything?” Tomasino pulled a bottle of scotch out of the paper bag, unscrewed the cap, and took a swig.

  Giuseppe looked at his wristwatch. It was eight thirty in the morning. “Does he look like he can say anything, Tommy?” Jake’s face was battered. His jaw dangled toward his chest.

  Tomasino said, “I didn’t mean to break his jaw.”

  “Give him a drink,” Giuseppe said. “See if that helps.”

  Jake was sprawled out with his torso propped up against the wall and his legs twisted under him. Tommy had pulled him out of his hotel room at six in the morning, and he still had on the black-and-white-striped silk pajamas he had worn to bed the night before, only now the top two buttons had been ripped away to reveal the muscular chest of a man in his thirties, about half Giuseppe’s age. As Tommy knelt to Jake and lifted him slightly, positioning his head so that he could pour scotch down his throat, Giuseppe watched with interest and waited to see if the liquor would help. He had sent Tommy down to the car for the scotch after Jake had passed out. The kid coughed, sending a spattering of blood down his chest. He squinted through swollen eyes and said something that would have been impossible to make out had he not been saying the same three words over and over throughout the beating. “He’s my father,” he said, though it came out as ’E mah fad’.

  “Yeah, we know.” Tommy looked to Giuseppe. “You got to give it to him,” he said. “The kid’s loyal.”

  Giuseppe knelt beside Tomasino. “Jake,” he said. “Giacomo. I’ll find him anyway.” He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and used it to keep his hands from getting bloody as he turned the kid’s face to look at him. “Your old man,” he said, “Rosario’s day has come. There’s nothing you can do. Rosario, his day is over. You understand me, Jake?”

  “Sì,” Giacomo said, the single syllable coming out clearly.

  “Good,” Giuseppe said. “Where is he? Where’s the son of a bitch hiding?”

  Giacomo tried to move his right arm, which was broken, and groaned at the pain.

  Tommy yelled, “Tell us where he is, Jake! What the hell’s wrong with you!”

  Giacomo tried to open his eyes, as if straining to see who was yelling at him. “ ’E mah fad’,” he said.

  “Che cazzo!” Giuseppe threw up his hands. He watched Jake and listened to his strained breathing. The shouts of children playing came up loud from the street and then faded. He looked to Tomasino before he exited the apartment. In the hall, he waited at the door until he heard the muffled report of a silencer, a sound like a hammer striking wood. When Tommy joined him, Giuseppe said, “Are you sure you finished him?” He put on his hat and fixed it the way he liked, with the brim down.

  “What do you think, Joe?” Tommy asked. “I don’t know what I’m doing?” When Giuseppe didn’t answer, he rolled his eyes. “The top of his head’s gone. His brains are all over the floor.”

  At the stairwell, atop the single flight of steps down to the street, Giuseppe stopped and said, “He wouldn’t betray his father. You gotta respect him for that.”

  “He was tough,” Tommy said. “I still think you should’ve let me work on his teeth. I’m telling you, ain’t nobody won’t talk after a little of that.”

  Giuseppe shrugged, admitting Tommy might have been right. “There’s still the other son,” he said. “We making any progress on that?”

  “Not yet,” Tommy said. “Could be he’s hiding out with Rosario.”

  Giuseppe considered Rosario’s other son for a heartbeat before his thoughts shifted back to Jake LaConti and how the kid couldn’t be beaten into betraying his father. “You know what?” he said to Tomasino. “Call the mother and tell her where to find him.” He paused, thinking, and added, “They’ll get a good undertaker, they’ll fix him up nice, they can have a big funeral.”

  Tommy said, “I don’t know about fixing him up, Joe.”

  “What’s the name of the undertaker did such a good job on O’Banion?” Giuseppe asked.

  “Yeah, I know the guy you mean.”

  “Get him,” Giuseppe said, and he tapped Tommy on the chest. “I’ll take care of it myself, out of my own pocket. The family don’t have to know. Tell him to offer them his services for free, he’s a friend of Jake’s, and so on. We can do that, right?”

  “Sure,” Tommy said. “That’s good of you, Joe.” He patted Giuseppe’s arm.

  “All right,” Giuseppe said. “So that’s that,” and he started down the stairs, taking the steps two at a time, like a kid.


  Sonny settled into the front seat of a truck and tilted the brim of his fedora down. It wasn’t his truck, but there was no one around to ask questions. At two in the morning this stretch of Eleventh Avenue was quiet except for an occasional drunk stumbling along the wide si
dewalk. There’d be a beat cop along at some point, but Sonny figured he’d slink down in the seat, and even if the cop noticed him, which was unlikely, he’d peg him for some mug sleeping off a drunk on a Saturday night—which wouldn’t be all that far from the truth since he’d been drinking hard. But he wasn’t drunk. He was a big guy, already six feet tall at seventeen, brawny and big-shouldered, and he didn’t get drunk easily. He rolled down the side window and let a crisp fall breeze off the Hudson help keep him awake. He was tired, and as soon as he relaxed behind the wide circle of the truck’s steering wheel, sleep started to creep up on him.

  An hour earlier he’d been at Juke’s Joint in Harlem with Cork and Nico. An hour before that he’d been at a speakeasy someplace in midtown, where Cork had taken him after they’d lost almost a hundred bucks between them playing poker with a bunch of Poles over in Greenpoint. They’d all laughed when Cork said he and Sonny should leave while they still had the shirts on their backs. Sonny’d laughed too, though a second earlier he was on the verge of calling the biggest Polack at the table a miserable son-of-a-bitch cheater. Cork had a way of reading Sonny, and he’d gotten him out of there before he did something stupid. By the time he wound up at Juke’s, if he wasn’t soused he was getting close to it. After a little dancing and some more drinking, he’d had enough for one night and was on his way home when a friend of Cork’s stopped him at the door and told him about Tom. He’d almost punched the kid before he caught himself and slipped him a few bucks instead. Kid gave him the address, and now he was slumped down in some worn-out truck that looked like it dated back to the Great War, watching shadows play over Kelly O’Rourke’s curtains.

  Inside the apartment, Tom went about getting dressed while Kelly paced the room holding a sheet pinned to her breasts. The sheet looped under one breast and dragged along the floor beside her. She was a graceless girl with a dramatically beautiful face—flawless skin, red lips, and blue-green eyes framed by swirls of bright red hair—and there was something dramatic, too, in the way she moved about the room, as if she were acting in a scene from a movie and imagining Tom as Cary Grant or Randolph Scott.

  “But why do you have to go?” she asked yet again. With her free hand she held her forehead, as if she were taking her own temperature. “It’s the middle of the night, Tom. Why do you want to be running out on a girl?”

  Tom slipped into his undershirt. The bed he had just gotten out of was more a cot than a bed, and the floor around it was cluttered with magazines, mostly copies of the Saturday Evening Post, and Grand, and American Girl. At his feet, Gloria Swanson looked up at him alluringly from the cover of an old issue of The New Movie. “Doll,” he said.

  “Don’t call me doll,” Kelly shot back. “Everybody calls me doll.” She leaned against the wall beside the window and let the sheet drop. She posed for him, cocking her hip slightly. “Why don’t you want to stay with me, Tom? You’re a man, aren’t you?”

  Tom put on his shirt and began buttoning it while he stared at Kelly. There was something electric and anxious in her eyes that bordered on skittishness, as if she was expecting something startling to happen at any moment. “You might be the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen,” he said.

  “You’ve never been with a better looker than me?”

  “Never been with a girl more beautiful than you,” Tom said. “Not at all.”

  The anxiousness disappeared from Kelly’s eyes. “Spend the night with me, Tom,” she said. “Don’t go.”

  Tom sat on the edge of Kelly’s bed, thought about it, and then put on his shoes.

  Sonny watched the light from a cast-iron lamppost shine off the parallel lines of railroad tracks dividing the street. He let his hand rest on the eight ball screwed atop the truck’s stick shift and remembered sitting on the sidewalk as a kid and watching freight trains rumble down Eleventh, a New York City cop on horseback leading the way to keep drunks and little kids from getting run down. Once he’d seen a man in a fancy suit standing atop one of the freights. He’d waved and the man scowled and spit, as if the sight of Sonny disgusted him. When he asked his mother why the man had acted that way, she raised her hand and said, “Sta’zitt’! Some cafon’ spits on the sidewalk and you ask me? Madon’!” She walked away angrily, which was her typical response to most questions Sonny asked as a kid. It seemed to him then that her every sentence started with Sta’zitt’! or Va fa’ Napule! or Madon’! Inside the apartment, he was a pest, a nudge, or a scucc’, and so he spent all the time he could outside, running the streets with neighborhood kids.

  Being in Hell’s Kitchen, looking across the avenue to a line of shops at street level and two or three floors of apartments above them, brought Sonny back to his childhood, to all the years his father got up each morning and drove downtown to Hester Street and his office at the warehouse, where he still worked—though, now, of course, now that Sonny was grown, it was all different, how he thought of his father and what his father did for a living. But back then his father was a businessman, the owner with Genco Abbandando of the Genco Pura Olive Oil business. Those days, when Sonny saw his father on the street, he charged at him, running up and taking his hand and jabbering about whatever was on his little kid’s mind. Sonny saw the way other men looked at his father and he was proud because he was a big shot who owned his own business and everyone—everyone—treated him with respect, so that Sonny, when he was still a boy, came to think of himself as a kind of prince. The big shot’s son. He was eleven years old before all that changed, or maybe shifted is a better word than changed, because he still thought of himself as a prince—though, now, of course, as a prince of a different sort.

  Across the avenue, in Kelly O’Rourke’s apartment over a barbershop, behind the familiar black latticework of fire escapes, a figure brushed against the curtain, parting it slightly so that Sonny could see a strip of bright light and a white-pink flash of skin and a shock of red hair, and then it was as if he were in two places at once: Seventeen-year-old Sonny looked up to the curtained second-floor window of Kelly O’Rourke’s apartment, while simultaneously eleven-year-old Sonny was on a fire escape looking down through a window and into the back room of a beer joint by the piers. His memory of that night was vivid in places. It hadn’t been late, maybe nine thirty, ten o’clock at the latest. He’d just gotten into bed when he heard his father and mother exchange words. Not loud—Mama never raised her voice to Pop—and Sonny couldn’t make out the words, but a tone unmistakable to a kid, a tone that said his mother was upset or worried, and then the door opening and closing and the sound of Pop’s footsteps on the stairs. Back then there was no one posted at the front door, no one waiting in the big Packard or the black eight-cylinder Essex to take Pop wherever he wanted to go. That night Sonny watched from his window as his father went out the front door and down the front steps and headed toward Eleventh. Sonny was dressed and flying down the fire escape to the street by the time his father turned the corner and disappeared.

  He was several blocks from his home before he bothered to ask himself what he was doing. If his father caught him he’d give him a good beating, and why not? He was out on the street when he was supposed to be in bed. The worry slowed him down and he almost turned around and headed back—but his curiosity got the better of him and he pulled the brim of his wool cap down almost to his nose and continued to follow his father, leaping in and out of shadows and keeping a full block between them. When they crossed over into the neighborhoods where the Irish kids lived, Sonny’s level of concern ticked up several notches. He wasn’t allowed to play in these neighborhoods, and he wouldn’t have even if he were allowed, because he knew Italian kids got beat up here, and he’d heard stories of kids who’d wandered into the Irish neighborhoods and disappeared for weeks before they turned up floating in the Hudson. A block ahead of him, his father walked quickly, his hands in his pockets and the collar of his jacket turned up against a cold wind blowing in off the river. Sonny followed until they were almost to the piers, and
there he saw his father stop a moment in front of a brick building with a battered wood door. Sonny ducked into a storefront and waited. When the door opened and his father entered the building, the sound of laughter and men singing rushed out onto the street and then hushed when the door closed, though Sonny could still hear it, only muted.

  With his father out of sight, Sonny crouched in a shadow and waited, but after only a second he was moving again, tearing across a cobblestone street and down a garbage-strewn alley. He couldn’t have told you precisely what he was thinking beyond that there might be a back entrance and maybe he’d see something there—and indeed when he came around behind the building he found a closed door with a curtained window beside it and yellowish light shining out to the alleyway. He couldn’t see anything through the window, so he climbed onto a heavy metal garbage pail on the other side of the alley and from there he leapt to the bottom rung of a fire escape ladder. A moment after that he was lying on his stomach and looking down through a space between the top of the window and a curtain into a brightly lit room, crowded with wooden crates and cardboard cartons, and his father was standing with his hands in his pockets and speaking calmly to a man who appeared to be tied to a straight-back chair. Sonny knew the man in the chair. He’d seen him around the neighborhood with his wife and kids. The man’s hands were out of sight behind the chair, where Sonny imagined they were tied. Around his waist and chest, clothesline cord dug into a rumpled yellow jacket. His lip bled and his head lolled and drooped as if he might be drunk or sleepy. In front of him, Sonny’s uncle Peter sat on a stack of wood crates and scowled while his uncle Sal stood with arms crossed, looking solemn. Uncle Sal looking solemn was nothing—that was the way he usually looked—but Uncle Peter scowling was something different. Sonny knew him all his life as a man with a ready smile and a funny story. He watched from his perch, fascinated now, finding his father and his uncles in the back room of a bar with a man from the neighborhood tied to a chair. He couldn’t imagine what was going on. He had no idea. Then his father put a hand on the man’s knee and knelt beside him, and the man spit in his face.