Beneath a scarlet sky, p.14
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       Beneath a Scarlet Sky, p.14

           Mark Sullivan
 

  The two men exchanged glances, before his father said, “No, with the Germans.”

  Pino felt his stomach sour. “Join the Nazis? Wear the swastika? No. Never.”

  “Pino,” his father began, “this—”

  “Do you know what I’ve been doing the past six months?” Pino said angrily. “I’ve been leading Jews and refugees over the Groppera into Switzerland to escape the Nazis, people who think nothing of machine-gunning innocent people! I cannot and will not do it.”

  There was silence for several moments as both men studied him.

  Finally, Uncle Albert said, “You’ve changed, Pino. You not only look like a man, you sound like one. So I’m going to tell you that unless you decide to escape to Switzerland yourself and sit out the war, you are going to be drawn into it one way or another. The first way, you wait to be drafted. You will be given three weeks’ training, and then be shipped up north to fight the Soviets, where the death rate among first-year Italian soldiers is nearly fifty percent. That means you’d have a one-in-two chance of seeing your nineteenth birthday.”

  Pino made to interrupt, but his uncle held his hand up. “I am not finished. Or someone I know can get you assigned to a wing of the German army called the ‘Organization Todt,’ or the OT. They don’t fight. They build things. You’ll be safe, and you’ll probably learn something.”

  “I want to fight the Germans, not join them.”

  “This is a precaution,” his father said. “As you said, the war will soon be over. You probably won’t even make it out of boot camp.”

  “What will I tell people?”

  “No one will know,” Uncle Albert said. “We’ll tell anyone who asks that you’re still in the Alps with Father Re.”

  Pino said nothing. He could see the logic of it, but it left a nasty taste in his mouth. This wasn’t resistance. It was malingering, dodging, the coward’s way out.

  “Do I have to answer now?” Pino asked.

  “No,” his father said. “But in a day or so.”

  Uncle Albert said, “In the meantime, come with me to the store. There is something you can do for Tullio.”

  Pino broke into a grin. Tullio Galimberti! He hadn’t seen him in, what—seven months? He wondered whether Tullio was still following Colonel Rauff around Milan. He wondered about his latest romantic interest.

  “I’ll come,” Pino said. “Unless you need me for something, Papa?”

  “No, go on,” Michele said. “I have some bookkeeping to take care of.”

  Pino and his uncle left the apartment and took the elevator again, seeing the guards outside the fifth-floor apartment. The sentries in the lobby nodded as they left.

  They wound through the street toward Albanese Luggage, with Uncle Albert questioning Pino about the Alps. He seemed particularly impressed by the signal system Father Re had devised, and the coolness and ingenuity that had gotten Pino through several of his hair-raising predicaments.

  The leather shop was thankfully without customers. Uncle Albert put the “Closed” sign up and drew down the blind. Aunt Greta and Tullio Galimberti came out of the back.

  “Look at the size of him!” Aunt Greta said to Tullio.

  “A brute,” Tullio said. “And look at that face, different now. Some girls might even call him handsome. If he wasn’t standing next to me.”

  Tullio was still his bantering self, but the confidence that once bordered on cocksureness had been tamped down by hardship. He looked like he’d lost a lot of weight, and he kept staring off into the middle distance, chain-smoking cigarettes.

  “I saw that Nazi you used to follow around, Colonel Rauff, yesterday.”

  Tullio lost several shades of color. “You saw Rauff yesterday?”

  “I spoke to him,” Pino said. “Did you know he was raised on a farm?”

  “No idea,” Tullio said, his eyes darting to Uncle Albert.

  Pino’s uncle hesitated before saying, “We believe you can keep a secret, yes?”

  Pino nodded.

  “Colonel Rauff wants Tullio brought in for questioning. If he’s caught, he’ll be taken to the Hotel Regina, tortured, and then sent to San Vittore Prison.”

  “With Barbareschi?” Pino said. “The forger?”

  Everyone else in the room looked at him, dumbfounded.

  “How do you know him?” Tullio demanded.

  Pino explained, and then said, “Rauff said he was in San Vittore.”

  For the first time, Tullio smiled. “He was until last night. Barbareschi escaped!”

  That boggled Pino’s mind. He remembered the seminarian as he was on the first day of the bombardment, and tried to imagine him becoming a forger and then escaping prison. San Vittore, for God’s sake!

  “That’s good news,” Pino said. “So you’re hiding here, Tullio? Is that smart?”

  “I move around,” Tullio said, lighting another cigarette. “Every night.”

  “Which makes things difficult for us,” Uncle Albert said. “Before Rauff took an interest in him, Tullio could move freely about the city, undertaking various tasks for the resistance. Now, he can’t. As I said earlier, there is something you might be able to do for us.”

  Pino felt excited. “Anything for the resistance.”

  “We have papers that must be delivered before curfew tonight,” Uncle Albert said. “We’ll give you an address. You carry the papers there, and turn them over. Can you do that?”

  “What are the papers?”

  “That’s not your concern,” his uncle said.

  Tullio said bluntly, “But if the Nazis catch you with them, and they understand what’s written on those papers, they’ll execute you. They’ve done it for less.”

  Pino looked at the packet his uncle held out to him. Other than the day before, and the day Nicco had died holding the grenade, he’d felt little actual threat from the Nazis. But the Germans were everywhere in Milan now. Any one of them could stop him, search him.

  “These are important papers, though?”

  “They are.”

  “Then I won’t get caught,” Pino said, and took the packet.

  An hour later, he left the leather shop on his uncle’s bicycle. He showed his documents at the San Babila checkpoint and at another on the west side of the cathedral, but no one patted him down or seemed much interested in him.

  It took him until late afternoon to maneuver through the city toward an address in the southeastern quadrant of Milan. The farther he got from the city center, the more devastation he saw. Pino rode and pushed his bike through blistered, charred streets of desolation and want. He came to a bomb crater, slowed, and stopped at the edge of it. It had rained the night before. Filthy water lingered in the bottom of the crater, giving off a putrid stench. Children laughed. Four or five of them, black with filth, were climbing and playing on the skeleton of a burned-out structure.

  Were they here? Did they feel the bombs? See the fires? Do they have parents? Or are they street urchins? Where do they live? Here?

  Seeing the children living in the destruction upset him, but he pressed on, following the directions Tullio had given him. Pino crossed out of the burned area into a neighborhood that had lost fewer buildings. It put him in mind of a busted piano, with some keys broken, some gone, and some still standing yellow and red against a blackened background.

  He found two apartment buildings side by side. As Tullio had instructed, he entered the right one, which teemed with life. Sooty kids roamed the halls. The doors to many of the apartments were open, the rooms packed with people who looked battered by life. A record was playing in one, an aria from Madama Butterfly that he realized was being performed by his cousin Licia.

  “Who you looking for?” said one filthy boy.

  “Sixteen-B,” Pino said.

  The boy’s chin retreated. He pointed down the hall.

  At Pino’s knock, the door opened slightly on the chain.

  A man said in thickly accented Italian, “What?”

  “
Tullio sent me, Baka,” Pino said.

  “He is alive?”

  “He was two hours ago.”

  That seemed to satisfy the man. He undid the chain and opened the door just wide enough to allow Pino inside a studio apartment. Baka was Slavic, short, powerfully built, with thick black hair, heavy brows, a flattened nose, and massive arms and shoulders. Pino towered over him, but he still felt intimidated in his presence.

  Baka studied him a moment, then said, “You bring something or no?”

  Pino dug the envelope out of his pants, and handed it to him. Baka took it without comment and walked away.

  “You want water?” he asked. “It is there. Drink and you go. Make it back before curfew.”

  Pino was parched by the long ride and took a few gulps before he looked around and understood who and what Baka was. A tan leather suitcase with heavy-duty buckles and straps lay open on the narrow bed. The interior of the suitcase had been custom designed with padded cutouts that held a compact shortwave radio, a hand generator, two antennas, and tools and replacement crystals.

  Pino gestured at the radio. “Who do you talk to on it?”

  “London,” he grunted as he read the papers. “Brand-new. We just got it three days ago. The old one died, and we were silent for the two weeks.”

  “How long have you been here?”

  “Parachuted in sixteen weeks ago outside the city and walked in.”

  “You’ve been here in this apartment the whole time?”

  The radio operator snorted. “If so, Baka would have been a dead man fifteen weeks ago. The Nazis, they have machines now to hunt radios. They use three of them to try to, how do you say, triangulate our transmission location so they can kill us and destroy the radios. You know what is penalty for having transmitter radio these days?”

  Pino shook his head.

  “No questions, no nothing,” Baka said making a slitting sound, and passed his finger across his throat with a smile.

  “So you move around?”

  “Every two days, in the middle of the day, Baka takes the chance and goes for a long walk with his suitcase to another empty apartment.”

  Pino had all sorts of other questions he wanted to ask, but he felt he’d already overstayed his welcome. “I’ll see you again?”

  Baka raised a thick brow, shrugged. “Who can know these things?”

  Pino left the apartment and the building quickly. He recovered his bike and mounted it in the light of a warm spring afternoon. Riding back through the burned wasteland, he felt good, useful again. As small an assignment as that had been, he knew he’d done the right thing, fighting back, taking a risk, and he felt the better for it. He wasn’t going to join the Germans. He was going to join the resistance. That was all there was to it.

  Pino headed north toward Piazzale Loreto. He reached the fruit and vegetable stand just as Mr. Beltramini was lowering his awnings. Carletto’s father had aged terribly since the last time Pino had seen him. Worry and stress were sewn through his face.

  “Hi, Mr. Beltramini,” he said. “It’s me. Pino.”

  Mr. Beltramini squinted at him, looked him up and down, and then threw his head back and roared with laughter. “Pino Lella? You look like you ate Pino Lella!”

  Pino laughed. “That’s funny.”

  “Awww, well, my young friend, how can you survive what life throws at you if you cannot laugh and love, and are they not the same thing?”

  Pino thought about that. “I guess so. Is Carletto here?”

  “Upstairs, helping his mother.”

  “How is she?”

  Mr. Beltramini’s wall-to-wall grin vanished. He shook his head. “Not good. The doctor says maybe six months, maybe less.”

  “I’m sorry, sir.”

  “And I’m grateful for every moment I have with her,” the shopkeeper said. “I’ll go up and get Carletto for you.”

  “Thanks,” Pino said. “Give her my best.”

  Mr. Beltramini started toward the door, but then stopped. “My son missed you. He says you’re the best friend he’s ever had.”

  “I missed him, too,” Pino said. “I should have written him a letter, but it was difficult . . . what we were doing up there.”

  “He’ll understand, but you’ll look out for him, won’t you?”

  “Promised I would,” Pino said. “And I never go back on a promise.”

  Mr. Beltramini touched Pino’s biceps and shoulders. “My God, you’re built like a race horse!”

  Four or five minutes later, Carletto came out the door. “Hey.”

  “Hey,” Pino said, punching him lightly on the arm. “It’s great to see you.”

  “Yeah? You, too.”

  “You don’t sound convinced of it.”

  “My mama has had a tough day.”

  Pino felt a pang in his gut. He hadn’t seen his own mother since Christmas, and he suddenly missed Porzia, and even Cicci.

  “I can’t imagine,” Pino said.

  They talked and joked for fifteen minutes, until they noticed daylight beginning to fade. Pino had never dealt with the curfew before, and he wanted to be inside the new apartment long before night fell. They made plans to meet up in the coming days, shook hands, and parted.

  It pained Pino to ride away from Carletto. His old friend seemed lost, a shell of himself. Before the bombs had started falling, Carletto had been quick and funny, just like his father. Now, he looked duller, as if inside he’d turned as gray as those men Pino had seen clearing the streets. At the checkpoint into San Babila, the guard recognized him and waved him through. I could have had a gun on me, Pino thought as he started to pedal, and then heard shouting behind him.

  He looked over his shoulder. Soldiers from the checkpoint came running after him with their machine guns held at their waists. Terrified, he stopped and threw up his hands.

  They ran past Pino and around the corner. His heart was racing so fast he got dizzy, and it took several moments before he could move. What had happened there? Where were they going? Then he heard klaxon horns. An ambulance? A police car?

  He walked his bike to the corner, looked around it, and saw the three Nazis searching a man in his late thirties. The man had his hands up against a bank wall, legs spread. He was upset and got more so when one of the Germans pulled a revolver from the man’s waistband.

  “Per favore!” he cried. “I only use this to protect my store and to go to the bank!”

  One of the soldiers barked something in German. The soldiers all took a few steps back. One threw up his rifle and shot the man in the back of the head. The man went rag doll and crumpled down the wall.

  Pino jumped back, horrified. One of the soldiers saw him, yelled something. Pino leaped on his bike, pedaled like a maniac, and, taking a roundabout route, got to the apartment building on Corso Matteotti without being caught.

  The SS sentries in the lobby were new, and they paid closer attention to him than before. One patted him down and inspected his documents twice before allowing him through to the elevator. As the birdcage rose, the memory of the shot man kept playing over and over in his mind.

  Numb and sickened, he only became aware of the delicious odors coming from the new apartment when he raised his hand to knock. His uncle opened it and let him in.

  “We were worried,” Uncle Albert said, shutting the door. “You’ve been gone too long.”

  “I went to see my friend Carletto,” Pino said.

  “Thank God. But otherwise no problems?”

  “I saw the Germans kill a man for having a pistol,” Pino said dully. “They just shot him like he was nothing. Nothing.”

  Before his uncle could reply, Porzia appeared in the hallway, threw her arms wide, and cried, “Pino!”

  “Mama?”

  Pino was flooded with emotions that propelled him across the room to his mother. He scooped Porzia up off her feet, swung her around, and kissed her, which provoked a squeal of fear and delight. Then he swung her around again.

&n
bsp; “Okay, okay, that’s enough! Put me down!”

  Pino placed her gently on the rug. Porzia smoothed her dress before looking at him and shaking her head. “Your father said you were big, but I . . . My Domenico? Is he big like you now, too?”

  “Not any taller, but stronger, Mama,” Pino said. “Mimo’s a tough guy now.”

  “Well.” Porzia beamed, and her eyes began to water. “I am just so happy to be in my new home with my big boy.”

  His father came out from the kitchen.

  “Did you like your surprise?” Michele asked. “Mama came on the train from Rapallo just to see you.”

  “I like the surprise. Where’s Cicci?”

  “Sick,” Porzia said. “My friends are taking care of her. She sends you her love.”

  “Where’s Greta?” Michele asked. “Dinner’s almost ready.”

  “She’s closing the shop,” Uncle Albert said. “She’ll be here soon.”

  There was a knock at the door. Pino’s father opened it.

  Aunt Greta charged in, looking distraught, but waited until the door was shut and locked before sobbing, “The Gestapo caught Tullio!”

  “What?” Uncle Albert cried. “How?”

  “He decided to leave the shop early. He was going to stay at his mother’s tonight. Somewhere along the way, not far from the shop, I guess they arrested him, and took him to the Hotel Regina. Sonny Mascolo, the fancy button man, saw it all, and told me as I was locking up.”

  Gloom saturated the room. Tullio in Gestapo headquarters. Pino couldn’t imagine what he was suffering at that very moment.

  “Did they follow Tullio from the shop?” Uncle Albert asked.

  “He went out through the alley, so I don’t think so,” Aunt Greta said.

  Her husband shook his head. “We have to think so, even if it isn’t true. We may all be under SS scrutiny now.”

  Pino felt claustrophobic. He could see similar reactions around.

  “That settles it, then,” Porzia said as if handing down an edict from on high. “Pino, tomorrow morning, you are going to that enlistment office, and you are joining the Germans and staying out of harm’s way until the war is over.”

  “And what do I do then, Mama?” Pino cried. “Get killed by the Allies because of my swastika uniform?”

  “When the Allies get close, you take the uniform off,” his mother said, glaring at him. “My mind is made up. You are still a minor. I still make decisions for you.”

  “Mama,” Pino complained, “you can’t—”

  “I can and do,” she said sharply. “End of discussion.”

  Chapter Fourteen

  July 27, 1944

  Modena, Italy

  More than eleven weeks after his parents ordered him to enlist with the Germans, Pino shouldered a Gewehr 43 semiautomatic rifle and marched toward the Modena train station. He wore the summer uniform of the Organization Todt:
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