Beneath a scarlet sky, p.3
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       Beneath a Scarlet Sky, p.3

           Mark Sullivan
 

  “Tullio!” he said. “I heard you were back!”

  Tullio said, “Pino, this is my friend Cristina.”

  Pino nodded to her politely. Cristina looked bored and excused herself.

  “When did you meet her?” Pino asked.

  “Yesterday,” Tullio said. “On the train. She wants to be a model.”

  Pino shook his head. It was always like this with Tullio Galimberti. A successful dress salesman, Tullio was a magician when it came to attractive women.

  “How do you do it?” Pino asked. “All the pretty girls.”

  “You don’t know?” Tullio said, cutting some cheese.

  Pino wanted to say something boastful, but he remembered that Anna had stood him up. She had accepted his invitation just to get rid of him. “Evidently, I don’t. No.”

  “Teaching you could take years,” Tullio said, fighting a smile.

  “C’mon, Tullio,” Pino said. “There’s got to be some trick I’m—”

  “There is no trick,” Tullio said, sobering. “Number one thing? Listen.”

  “Listen?”

  “To the girl,” Tullio said, exasperated. “Most guys don’t listen. They just start blabbing on about themselves. Women need to be understood. So listen to what they say and compliment them on how they look, or sing, or whatever. Right there—listening and complimenting—you’re ahead of eighty percent of every guy on the face of the earth.”

  “But what if they’re not talking a lot?”

  “Then be funny. Or flattering. Or both.”

  Pino thought he’d been funny and flattering to Anna, but maybe not enough. Then he thought of something else. “So where did Colonel Rauff go today?”

  Tullio’s affable demeanor evaporated. He grabbed Pino hard by the upper arm and hissed, “We don’t talk about people like Rauff in places like this. Understand?”

  Pino was upset and humiliated at his friend’s reaction, but before he could reply, Tullio’s date reappeared. She slid up alongside Tullio, whispered something in his ear.

  Tullio laughed, let go of Pino, and said, “Sure, sweet thing. We can do that.”

  Tullio shifted his attention back to Pino. “I’d probably wait until your face doesn’t look like a split sausage before you go around being all funny and listening.”

  Pino cocked his head, smiled uncertainly, and then gritted his teeth when the stitches tugged in his cheek. He watched Tullio and his date leave, thinking once again how much he wanted to be like him. Everything about the guy was perfect, elegant. Good guy. Great dresser. Better friend. Genuine laugh. And yet, Tullio was mysterious enough to be following around a Gestapo colonel.

  It hurt to chew, but Pino was so hungry he piled a second plate. While he did, he heard three of his parents’ musician friends talking, two men and the violinist.

  “There are more Nazis in Milan every day,” said the heavier-set man, who played the French horn at La Scala.

  “Worse,” the percussionist said. “The Waffen-SS.”

  The violinist said, “My husband says there are rumors of pogroms being planned. Rabbi Zolli is telling our friends in Rome to flee. We’re thinking of going to Portugal.”

  “When?” the percussionist asked.

  “Sooner than later.”

  “Pino, it’s time for bed,” his mother said sharply.

  Pino took the plate with him up to his room. Sitting on his bed while eating, he thought about what he’d just overheard. He knew that the three musicians were Jewish, and he knew Hitler and the Nazis hated the Jews, though he really didn’t understand why. His parents had lots of Jewish friends, mostly musicians or people in the fashion business. All in all, Pino thought Jews were smart, funny, and kind. But what was a pogrom? And why would a rabbi tell all the Jews in Rome to run?

  He finished eating, looked at his bandage again, and then got into bed. With the light off, he drew back the curtains and looked out into the darkness. Here, in San Babila, there were no fires, nothing to suggest the devastation he’d witnessed. He tried not to think of Anna, but when he rested his head on his pillow and closed his eyes, snippets of their encounter circled in his head along with the image of Fred Astaire frozen cheek to cheek with Rita Hayworth. And the explosion of the theater’s back wall. And the armless dead girl.

  He couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t forget any of it. He finally turned on the radio, fiddled with the dial, and found a station playing a violin piece he recognized because his father was always trying to play it: Niccolo Paganini’s Caprice no. 24 in A Minor.

  Pino lay there in the dark, listening to the frenetic pace of the violin playing, and felt the wild mood swings of the piece as if they were his own. When it was over, he was wrung out and empty of thought. At long last, the boy slept.

  Around one o’clock the next afternoon, Pino went to find Carletto. He rode the trams, seeing some neighborhoods in smoking ruins and others untouched. The randomness of what had been destroyed and what had survived bothered him nearly as much as the destruction itself.

  He got off the trolley at Piazzale Loreto, a large traffic rotary with a city park at its center and thriving shops and businesses around its perimeter. He looked across the rotary at Via Andrea Costa, seeing war elephants in his mind. Hannibal had driven armored elephants over the Alps and down that road on his way to conquer Rome twenty-one centuries before. Pino’s father said that all conquering armies had come into Milan on that route ever since.

  He passed an Esso petrol station with an iron girder system that rose three meters above the pumps and tanks. Diagonally across the rotary from the petrol station, he saw the white-and-green awning of Beltramini’s Fresh Fruits and Vegetables.

  Beltramini’s was open for business. No damage that he could see.

  Carletto’s father was outside, weighing fruit. Pino grinned and quickened his pace.

  “Don’t worry. We have bomb-proof secret gardens out by the Po,” Mr. Beltramini was saying to an older woman as Pino approached. “And because of this, Beltramini’s will always have the best produce in Milan.”

  “I don’t believe you, but I love that you make me laugh,” she said.

  “Love and laughter,” Mr. Beltramini said. “They are always the best medicine, even on a day like today.”

  The woman was still smiling as she walked away. A short, plump bear of a man, Carletto’s father noticed Pino and turned even more delighted.

  “Pino Lella! Where have you been? Where is your mother?”

  “At home,” Pino said, shaking his hand.

  “Bless her.” Mr. Beltramini peered up at him. “You’re not going to grow any more, are you?”

  Pino smiled and shrugged. “I don’t know.”

  “You do, you’ll start walking into tree branches.” He pointed at the bandage on Pino’s cheek. “Oh, I see you already did.”

  “I got bombed.”

  Mr. Beltramini’s state of perpetual bemusement evaporated. “No. Is this true?”

  Pino told him the whole story, from the time he climbed out his window, until he got back home and found everybody playing music and having a good time.

  “I think they were smart,” Mr. Beltramini said. “If a bomb’s coming at you, it’s coming at you. You can’t go around worrying about it. Just go on doing what you love, and go on enjoying your life. Am I right?”

  “I guess so. Is Carletto here?”

  Mr. Beltramini gestured over his shoulder. “Working inside.”

  Pino started toward the shop door.

  “Pino,” Mr. Beltramini called after him.

  He looked back, seeing concern on the fruit vendor’s face. “Yes?”

  “You and Carletto, you take care of each other, right? Like brothers, right?”

  “Always, Mr. B.”

  The fruitmonger brightened. “You’re a good boy. A good friend.”

  Pino went inside the shop and found Carletto lugging sacks of dates.

  “You been out?” Pino said. “Seen what happened?”
r />   Carletto shook his head. “I’ve been working. You’ve heard of that, right?”

  “I’ve heard stories about it, so I came to see for myself.”

  Carletto didn’t think that was funny. He hoisted another sack of dried fruit onto his shoulder and started down a wooden ladder and through a hole in the floor.

  “She didn’t show up,” Pino said. “Anna.”

  Carletto looked up from the dirt-floored basement. “You were out last night?”

  Pino smiled. “I almost got blown up when the bombs hit the theater.”

  “You’re full of it.”

  “I am not,” Pino said. “Where do you think I got this?”

  He peeled off the bandage, and Carletto’s lip rose in disgust. “That’s nasty.”

  With Mr. Beltramini’s permission, they went to see the theater in the light of day. As they walked, Pino told the story all over again, watching his friend’s reaction and feeding off it, dancing around when he described Fred and Rita, and making booming noises as he related how he and Mimo ran through the city.

  He was feeling pretty good until they reached the cinema. Smoke still curled from the ruins, and with it a harsh, foul stench that Pino would come to identify instantly as spent explosives. Some people in the streets around the theater seemed to wander aimlessly. Others still dug through the bricks and beams, hoping to find loved ones alive.

  Shaken by the destruction, Carletto said, “I could never have done any of what you and Mimo did.”

  “Sure you could. When you’re scared enough, you just do it.”

  “Bombs falling on me? I would have hit the floor and curled up with my hands over my head.”

  There was silence between them as they contemplated the theater’s charred and blown-out back wall. Fred and Rita had been right there, nine meters high, and then—

  “Think the planes will come back tonight?” Carletto asked.

  “We won’t know until we hear the hornets.”

  Chapter Four

  Allied planes came for Milan almost every night the rest of June and on into July of 1943. Building upon building crumpled and threw dust that billowed down the streets and lingered in the air long after the sun rose bloodred and cast down merciless heat to deepen the misery of those first few weeks of the bombardment.

  Pino and Carletto wandered the streets of Milan almost every day, seeing the random carnage, witnessing the loss, and sensing the pain that seemed to be everywhere. After a while, it all made Pino feel numb and small. Sometimes he just wanted to follow Carletto’s instincts, to curl into a ball and hide from life.

  Almost every day, however, he thought of Anna. He knew it was stupid, but he frequented the bakery where he’d seen her first, hoping to run into her again. He never saw her, and the baker’s wife had no idea whom he was talking about when he asked.

  On June 23, Pino’s father sent Mimo to Casa Alpina in the rugged Alps north of Lake Como for the rest of the summer. He tried to send Pino as well, but his older son refused. As a boy and a young teenager, Pino had loved Father Re’s camp. He’d spent three months up at Casa Alpina every year since the age of six, two full months in the summer climbing in the mountains, and a cumulative month skiing in the winter. Being at Father Re’s was great fun. But the boys up there now would be so young. He wanted to be in Milan, out in the streets with Carletto, and looking for Anna.

  The bombing intensified. On July 9, the BBC described the Allied landing on the shores of Sicily and fierce fighting against the German and Fascist forces. Ten days later, Rome was bombed. News of that raid sent a shudder through Italy, and the Lella household.

  “If Rome can be bombed, then Mussolini and the Fascists are finished,” Pino’s father proclaimed. “The Allies are driving the Germans from Sicily. They’ll attack southern Italy, too. It will soon be over.”

  In late July, Pino’s parents put a record on the phonograph and danced in the middle of the day. King Vittorio Emanuele III had arrested Benito Mussolini and imprisoned him in a fortress on Gran Sasso Mountain north of Rome.

  By August, though, entire blocks of Milan lay in ruins. And the Germans were everywhere, installing antiaircraft guns, checkpoints, and machine gun nests. A block from La Scala, a garish Nazi flag fluttered over the Hotel Regina.

  Gestapo Colonel Walter Rauff established curfews. If you were caught out after hours, you were arrested. If you were caught breaking curfew without papers, you could be shot. Having a shortwave would also get you shot.

  Pino didn’t care. At night, he hid in his closet to listen to music and the news. And during the day, he began to adapt to the new order in Milan. The trolleys ran only intermittently. You walked, rode a bike, or hitched a ride.

  Pino chose the bike and went all over the city despite the heat, going through various checkpoints and learning what the Nazis looked for when they stopped him. Long sections of road had been reduced to craters, and he had to walk around them or find another route. Riding on, he passed families living under canvas tarps amid the brick ruins of their homes.

  He realized how lucky he was. He sensed for the first time how that could change in the blink of an eye, or the flash of a bomb. And he wondered if Anna had survived.

  In early August, Pino finally understood why the Allies were bombing Milan. A BBC announcer said that the Allies had all but destroyed the Nazi industrial base in the Ruhr Valley, where much of Hitler’s munitions had been built. Now they were attempting to blow up the machine tools of northern Italy before the Germans could use them to prolong the war.

  The nights of August 7 and 8, British Lancasters dropped thousands of bombs on Milan, targeting factories, industrial facilities, and military installations, but also hitting the neighborhoods around them.

  When bombs exploded close enough to make the Lellas’ building tremble, Porzia panicked and tried to get her husband to take them all to Rapallo on the west coast.

  “No,” Michele said. “They won’t bomb near the cathedral. It’s still safe here.”

  “All it takes is one,” Porzia said. “I’m taking Cicci, then.”

  Pino’s father was sad but determined. “I’ll stay and keep the business going, but I think it’s time for Pino to go to Casa Alpina.”

  Pino refused a second time.

  “It’s for little boys, Papa,” Pino said. “I’m not little anymore.”

  On August 12 and 13, more than five hundred Allied bombers attacked Milan. For the first time explosives struck close to the Duomo. One damaged the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie but miraculously did no harm to Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper.

  La Scala was not as fortunate. A bomb blew through the roof of the opera house and exploded, setting the theater on fire. Another bomb struck the Galleria, which suffered extensive damage. That same detonation rocked the Lellas’ building. Pino waited out that horrible night in the basement.

  He saw Carletto the next day. The Beltraminis were heading to a train that would take them out into the countryside for the night to sleep and escape the bombardment. The following afternoon, Pino, his father, Aunt Greta and Uncle Albert, and Tullio Galimberti and his latest girlfriend all joined the Beltraminis in overnight exile.

  As the train left the central station and headed east, Pino, Carletto, and Tullio stood in the open door of a boxcar crammed with other Milanese fleeing for the night. The train accelerated. Pino looked at the sky, which was so perfectly blue he couldn’t imagine it black and filled with warplanes.

  They crossed the Po River, and long before dusk, while the countryside still lay blanketed in summer torpor, the train squealed and sighed to a stop amid gently rolling farmland. Pino carried a blanket over his shoulder and climbed after Carletto to a low grassy hill above an orchard that faced southwest toward the city.

  “Pino,” Mr. Beltramini said, “watch out, or there will be spiderwebs across your ears by morning.”

  Mrs. Beltramini, a pretty, frail woman who always seemed to be suffering some malady or another
, scolded weakly, “Why did you say that? You know I hate spiders.”

  The fruit shop owner fought against a grin. “What are you talking about? I was just warning the boy about the dangers of sleeping with his head in the deep grass.”

  His wife looked like she wanted to argue, but then she just waved him away, as if he were some bothersome fly.

  Uncle Albert fished in a canvas bag for bread, wine, cheese, and dried salami. The Beltraminis broke out five ripe cantaloupes. Pino’s father sat in the grass next to his violin case, his arms wrapped around his knees and an enchanted look on his face.

  “Isn’t it magnificent?” Michele said.

  “What’s magnificent?” Uncle Albert said, looking around, puzzled.

  “This place. How clean the air is. And the smells. No burning. No bomb stench. It seems so . . . I don’t know. Innocent?”

  “Exactly,” Mrs. Beltramini said.

  “Exactly what?” Mr. Beltramini said. “You walk a little too far here and it’s not so innocent. Cow shit and spiders and snakes and—”

  Whop! Mrs. Beltramini backhand-slapped her husband’s arm. “You show no mercy, do you? Ever?”

  “Hey, that hurt,” Mr. Beltramini protested through a smile.

  “Good,” she said. “Now stop it, you. I didn’t get a wink of sleep with all that talk of spiders and snakes last night.”

  Appearing unaccountably angry, Carletto got up and walked downhill toward the orchard. Pino noticed some girls down by the rock wall that surrounded the fruit grove. Not one of them was as beautiful as Anna. But maybe it was time to move on. He jogged downhill to catch up with Carletto, told him his plan, and they tried to artfully intercept the girls. Another group of boys beat them to it.

  Pino looked at the sky and said, “I’m only asking for a little love.”

  “I think you’d settle for a kiss,” Carletto said.

  “I’d be happy with a smile.” Pino sighed.

  The boys climbed over the wall and walked down rows of trees heavy with fruit. The peaches were not quite ripe, but the figs were. Some had already dropped, and they picked them up from the dirt, brushed them off, peeled the skin, and ate them.

  Despite the rare treat of fresh fruit right off the tree in a time of rationing, Carletto seemed troubled. Pino said, “You okay?”

  His best friend shook his head.

  “What is it?” Pino asked.

  “Just a feeling.”

  “What?”

  Carletto shrugged. “Like life isn’t going to turn out the way we think, that it’s going to go badly for us.”

  “Why would you think that?”

  “You never paid much attention in history class, did you? When big armies go to war, everything gets destroyed by the conqueror.”

  “Not always. Saladin never sacked Jerusalem. See? I did pay attention in history class.”

  “I don’t care,” Carletto said, angrier still. “It’s just this feeling that I get, and it won’t stop. It’s everywhere and . . .”

  His friend choked up, and tears ran down his face while he fought for control.

  “What’s going on with you?” Pino said.

  Carletto cocked his head, as if peering at a painting he didn’t quite understand. His lips trembled as he said, “My mama’s really sick. It’s not good.”

  “What’s that mean?”

  “What do you think it means?” Carletto cried. “She’s gonna die.”

  “Jesus,” Pino said. “Are you sure?”

  “I heard my parents talking about how she’d like her funeral to be.”

 
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