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Beneath a Scarlet Sky, Page 33

Mark Sullivan

  He reached the corner of the cathedral without incident and walked on in the shadow of the great church, looking up and seeing how soot from the years of bombardment and fire had darkened the pale-pink marble facade. Pino wondered if the stains of war would ever leave Milan.

  He thought of Anna then, and wondered whether she was settled into Dolly’s new place in Innsbruck, and sleeping. It comforted him to think of her like that, safe, warm, so elegant.

  Pino smiled and moved quicker. In ten minutes he was outside his parents’ apartment building. He checked his pocket for his papers, climbed up the stairs, and pushed through the front door, expecting the SS sentries to be eyeing him. But there was no one on guard, and when the birdcage elevator rose past the fifth floor, the guards there were absent as well.

  They’re gone! They’re all running!

  He was genuinely happy as he dug out his keys and fit them into the lock. He pushed the door open to find a small party underway. His father had his violin on its stand, and he’d opened two bottles of fine Chianti, which sat on the living room table by two empty bottles. Michele was drunk and laughing by the fireplace with Mario, his cousin’s son, the pilot. And Aunt Greta? She was sitting on her husband’s lap smothering him with kisses.

  Uncle Albert saw Pino, threw his arms up in victory, and cried, “Hey, you, Pino Lella! You come over here and give your uncle a hug!”

  Pino burst out laughing and ran over to hug them all. He drank wine and listened to Uncle Albert’s dramatic recounting of the uprising in San Vittore Prison—how they’d overpowered the Fascist guards, opened up the cells, and released everyone.

  “The best moment of my life, besides meeting Greta, was marching out the front gates of that prison,” Uncle Albert said, beaming. “The shackles were off. We were free. Milan is free!”

  “Not quite yet,” Pino said. “I walked a long way through the city tonight. The pacts Cardinal Schuster made are being ignored. There’s fighting in pockets all over.”

  Then he told them about Mimo and how he had faced down all those German soldiers single-handedly. His father was stunned. “Alone?”

  “Completely,” Pino said, full of pride. “I think I have a lot of guts, Papa, but my little brother is something else.”

  He picked up the wine bottle and poured himself another glass, feeling deliriously good. Had Anna been by his side celebrating the insurrection with his family, he would have felt near perfect. Pino wondered when he’d see her again, when he’d hear from her. He checked the phone and to his surprise found it working. But his father said they’d received no calls before his arrival.

  Long after midnight, glowing and woozy with wine, Pino crawled into his bed. Through the open window he heard the growl of the Panzer tanks starting up, and then their treads clanking across the cobblestones, moving away to the northeast. He dozed before hearing explosions and automatic rifles in the direction the tanks had taken.

  All through the night, the sounds of battle in Milan rose and fell like one chorus after another, each voice singing of conflict, each song reaching a crescendo, and then ebbing off to echoes and strains. Pino wrapped his head in his pillow and finally slept deeply and full of dreams: of that disgusted look General Leyers had given him walking away, of snipers shooting down on him as he ran through the city, but mostly of Anna and their last night together, how magical and powerful it had been, how perfect and God given.

  Pino awoke on Thursday, April 26, and looked at his clock.

  Ten a.m.? When was the last time he’d slept that long? He didn’t know, but it felt delicious. Then he smelled bacon cooking. Bacon? Where had that come from?

  When he’d dressed and reached the kitchen, he found his father setting crisp bacon on a plate and gesturing to a bowl full of fresh eggs Mario was holding.

  “A partisan friend of your uncle Albert just brought these,” Michele said. “Albert’s out in the hall talking to him. And I’m using the last of the espresso I had hidden in the closet.”

  Uncle Albert came in. He looked very hungover and a little concerned.

  “Pino, you are needed for your English,” he said. “They want you to go to the Hotel Diana, and ask for a man named Knebel.”

  “Who’s Knebel?”

  “An American. That’s all I know.”

  Another American? The second in two days!

  “Okay,” he said, looking longingly at the bacon frying, the eggs, and the coffee brewing. “But do I have to go now?”

  “After you eat,” his father said.

  Mario the aviator cooked Pino scrambled eggs, and he wolfed them down along with the bacon and a double espresso. Pino couldn’t remember when he’d last had such a feast at breakfast, and then he did—at Casa Alpina. He thought about Father Re, wondered how he and Brother Bormio were getting on. The next chance he had, he’d take Anna up to Motta to meet the priest and to ask him to marry them.

  That thought made him happy and confident in a way he’d never felt before. It must have shown, because Uncle Albert came over as Pino was cleaning dishes, and said in a whisper, “You’re standing there grinning like a fool and staring off, which means you’re in love.”

  Pino laughed. “Maybe.”

  “The young lady there, who helped you with the radio?”

  “Anna. The one who loves your work.”

  “Does your father know? Your mother?”

  “They’ve never met. Soon, though.”

  Uncle Albert patted Pino on the back. “To be young and in love. Isn’t it remarkable that something like that can happen in the middle of a war? It says something about the inherent goodness of life, despite all the evil we’ve seen.”

  Pino adored his uncle. There was an awful lot going on in that man’s head.

  “I should go now,” Pino said, wiping his hands dry. “Meet Signor Knebel.”

  Pino left the apartment building and headed toward the Hotel Diana on Viale Piave, not far from the telephone exchange and Piazzale Loreto. Within two blocks he saw a body, a man, facedown in the gutter, a bullet wound to the back of his head. He saw the second and third corpses five blocks from the apartment: a man and a woman in their nightclothes, as if they’d been dragged from their beds. The farther he walked the more dead he saw, almost all head shot, almost all lying facedown in the gutter in the building heat.

  Pino was horrified and sickened. By the time he reached the Hotel Diana he’d counted seventy corpses rotting in the sun. Sporadic shooting continued to the north of his route. Someone said the partisans had encircled a large number of Black Shirts trying to escape Milan. The Fascists were fighting to the death.

  Pino tugged on the front doors to the Hotel Diana and found them locked. He knocked, waited, and got no response. Going around the back, he tried a door and got it open. He entered an empty kitchen that smelled of recently cooked meat. One set of padded swinging doors on the other side of the kitchen led to a dark, empty restaurant, and the other to a dimly lit ballroom.

  Pushing the ballroom door open, Pino called out, “Hello?”

  Hearing the metal friction of a rifle action loading, Pino threw his hands up.

  “Drop da gun,” a man demanded.

  “I have no gun,” Pino said, hearing the shake in his voice.

  “Who are ya?”

  “Pino Lella. I was told to come here to see an American named Knebel.”

  He heard a hoarse laugh before a big lanky man wearing a US Army uniform stepped from the shadows. He had a broad nose, a receding hairline, and a wide smile.

  “Lower the gun, Corporal Daloia,” he said. “This one’s got an invitation.”

  Corporal Daloia, a short beefy soldier from Boston, lowered the gun.

  The bigger American walked over to Pino and stuck out his hand. “Major Frank Knebel, US Fifth Army. I flak for the Fifth, do some writing for Stars and Stripes, and dabble in psychological operations.”

  Pino didn’t understand half of what he’d said, but nodded. “You just got here, Major

  “Last night,” Knebel said. “Came in ahead of the Tenth Mountain Division with this advance scout group to get an early sense of the city for my dispatches. So tell me what’s going on out there, Pino. What’d you see coming over?”

  “There are dead people lying in the gutters from revenge killings, and the Nazis and Fascists are trying to get out,” Pino said. “The partisans are shooting at all of them. But the lights went on last night for the first time in years, and there were no bombers, and for a little while it felt like the war was really over.”

  “I like that,” Knebel said, pulling out a notebook. “Vivid. Say it again.”

  Pino did, and the major wrote it all down. “I’ll call you a partisan fighter, okay?”

  “Okay,” Pino said, liking the sound of that. “How else can I help?”

  “I need an interpreter, heard you spoke English, and here you are.”

  “Who told you I spoke English?”

  “Tweety Bird,” Knebel said. “You know the score. The point is, I need help. Are you game to give a hand to an American in need, Pino?”

  Pino liked the major’s accent. He liked everything about him. “Sure.”

  “Attaboy,” Knebel said, putting his hand on Pino’s shoulder and continuing on like they were longtime conspirators. “Now, for today, I really need two things from you. First, get me inside that telephone exchange so I can make some calls and file a few stories.”

  Pino nodded. “I can do that. What else?”

  Knebel smiled toothily. “Can you find us some wine? Whiskey? Maybe girls and music?”


  “A goddamned party,” Knebel said, his grin getting bigger. “I have friends sneaking in here after dark, and this son-of-a-bitch war is almost over, so they’ll be wanting to blow off some steam, celebrate. Sound good to you?”

  The major had an infectious quality that made Pino grin. “Sounds fun!”

  “Can you do it? Get a record player, or a shortwave? Some pretty Italian girls for us to cut a rug with?”

  “And wine and whiskey. My uncle, he has both.”

  “Your uncle is hereby awarded a Silver Star for conduct above and beyond the call of duty,” the major said. “Can you get everything here by nine tonight?”

  Pino looked at his watch, saw it was noon. He nodded. “I’ll take you to the telephone exchange and get started.”

  Knebel looked at the American soldiers, saluted them, and said, “I think I love this kid.”

  Corporal Daloia said, “He gets a few pretty broads in here, Major. I’ll put him up for the Medal of Honor.”

  “That’s saying something for a guy who’s up for a Silver Star for valor at Monte Cassino,” Knebel said.

  Pino reappraised the corporal.

  “Who gives a fig about medals?” Daloia said. “We need women, music, and booze.”

  “I’ll find you all three,” Pino said, and the corporal saluted him smartly.

  Pino laughed and studied the major’s uniform. “Take off the shirt. You’ll be noticed.”

  Knebel did so, following Pino out of the Hotel Diana in his T-shirt, fatigue bottoms, and boots. At the telephone exchange, partisan guards blocked the entrance, but once Pino showed them the letter he’d gotten the night before and explained that Knebel was going to write the glorious history of the Milan uprising for his American audience, they let him enter. Pino set up Knebel in a room with a desk and a phone. Once connected, the major covered the mouthpiece and said, “We’re counting on you, Pino.”

  “Yes, sir,” Pino said, and tried to salute with the same finesse as Corporal Daloia.

  “Almost,” Knebel said, laughing. “Now, go round us up a party to remember.”

  Feeling energized, Pino left the exchange and started north on Corso Buenos Aires toward Piazzale Loreto, trying to figure out how he was going to find everything Knebel asked for in eight and a half hours. A pretty woman in her twenties, no wedding band, came walking down the street toward him, looking anxious.

  On impulse, Pino said, “Signorina, per favore, would you like to come to a party tonight?”

  “A party? Tonight? With you?” she scoffed. “No.”

  “There will be music, and wine, and food, and rich American soldiers.”

  She tossed her hair and said, “There are no Americans in Milan yet.”

  “Yes, there are, and there’ll be more at the Hotel Diana, in the ballroom, tonight at nine. Will you come?”

  She hesitated, and then said, “You’re not lying?”

  “On my mother’s soul, I’m not.”

  “I’ll think about it, then. The Hotel Diana?”

  “That’s right. Wear your dancing dress.”

  “I’ll think about it,” she allowed, and walked away.

  Pino grinned. She’d be there. He was almost sure of it.

  He kept walking and when the next attractive woman came along he said the same thing and got roughly the same answer. The third woman reacted differently. She wanted to come to Pino’s party immediately, and when he said there would be rich American soldiers, she told him she’d bring four friends.

  Pino was so excited that only then did he realize he’d reached the corner of the Piazzale Loreto and Beltramini’s Fresh Fruits and Vegetables. The door was open. He caught the silhouette of someone standing in the shadows. “Carletto? Is that you?”

  Pino’s oldest friend tried to slam the door shut. But Pino threw his shoulder against it and overpowered the smaller Carletto, who fell onto his back on the floor.

  “Get out of my shop!” Carletto shouted, crabbing backward. “Traitor. Nazi!”

  His friend had lost a lot of weight. Pino saw it as soon as he slammed the door shut behind him. “I am no Nazi, and no traitor.”

  “I saw the swastika! Papa did, too!” Carletto sputtered, pointing at Pino’s left arm. “Right there. So what did that make you other than a Nazi?”

  “It made me a spy,” Pino said, and told Carletto everything.

  He could see his old friend didn’t believe him at first, but when Carletto heard Leyers’s name and realized that was who Pino had been spying on, he had a change of heart.

  Carletto said, “If they’d known, Pino, they would have killed you.”

  “I know.”

  “And you did it anyway?” his friend said, shaking his head. “That’s the difference between you and me. You risk and act, while I . . . I watch and fear.”

  “There’s nothing left to be afraid of,” Pino said. “The war’s over.”

  “Is it?”

  “How’s your mama?”

  Carletto hung his head. “She died, Pino. In January. During the cold. I couldn’t keep her warm enough because we had no fuel and no produce to sell. She coughed herself to death.”

  “I’m so sorry,” Pino said, feeling emotion ball in his throat. “She was as kind as your father was funny. I should have been here to help you bury both of them.”

  “You were where you were supposed to be, and so was I,” Carletto said, looking so crushed Pino wanted to cheer him up.

  “You still play the drums?”

  “Not in a long time.”

  “But you still have the set?”

  “In the basement.”

  “Know any other musicians who live around here?”


  “Humor me.”

  “Sure, I think so. If they’re still alive, I mean.”

  “Good. Let’s go.”

  “What? Where?”

  “To my house to get you something to eat,” Pino replied. “And then we’re going to find wine, food, and more young ladies. And when we’ve got enough, we are going to throw the end-of-war party to end all end-of-war parties.”

  Chapter Twenty-Nine

  By 9:00 p.m. on the second day of the general insurrection in Milan, Pino and Carletto had moved six cases of wine and twenty liters of homemade beer from Uncle Albert’s private stock to the Hotel Diana. Pino’s father contribu
ted two full bottles of grappa. And Carletto found three unopened bottles of whiskey someone had given his father years before.

  Corporal Daloia, in the meantime, had discovered a dismantled stage in the basement of the hotel and saw it reassembled at the far end of the ballroom. Carletto’s drum kit was set up at the rear of the stage. He was thumping the bass drum and adjusting his cymbals while a trumpeter, a clarinetist, a saxophonist, and a trombonist were tuning up.

  Pino sat at the upright piano the Americans had lifted onto the stage and was fiddling nervously with the keys. He hadn’t played in almost a year. But then he let loose with a few chords from each hand and stopped. It was enough.

  The crowd began to hoot and call. Pino put his hand to his brow theatrically, looked out at twenty American GIs, a squad of New Zealanders, eight journalists, and at least thirty Milanese women.

  “A toast!” Major Knebel shouted, and jumped up onto the stage, holding a glass of wine, spilling some and not caring. He raised his glass. “To the end of war!”

  The crowd roared. Corporal Daloia jumped up beside the major and yelled, “To the end of homicidal dictators with weird black bangs and puny square mustaches!”

  The soldiers broke into gales of laughter and cheers.

  Pino was laughing, too, but he managed to translate for the women, who shouted their approval and raised their glasses. Carletto gulped his wine in one long belt that finished in a lip smack that left him grinning.

  Cracking his drum sticks, Carletto yelled, “Eight to the bar, Pino!”

  His arms, elbows, wrists, and hands held high, his fingers dangling over the keys, Pino started with high notes, tinkling before he brought in the bass in a bouncy rhythm that rolled over into one of those tunes he used to practice before the bombing began.

  This time it was a variation of “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie,” pure dance hall music.

  The crowd went wild, and wilder still when Carletto went to the brushes and the cymbals, and the bass joined in on top of him. Soldiers started grabbing the Italian girls and dancing swing style, talking through their hands, knees bopping, hips shaking, and spinning. Other soldiers in the room stood around the dancers, nervously looking at the women, or standing in place, drink in one hand and the index finger of the other hand wagging time, hips swaying and shoulders popping along with Pino’s wicked boogie tune. Every once in a while, one of them would scream just for the drunken hell of it.

  The clarinetist played a solo. So did the sax man and the trombonist. The music died to clapping and shouts for more. The trumpet player stepped forward and slayed the house, blew the opening of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”

  Many of the GIs sang the lyrics by heart, and the dancing got frenzied as the other soldiers drank, cheered, and brayed, and danced and drank more and fell away into the sheer fun of letting go. When Pino brought the song to an end, the sweating crowd of dancers cheered and stomped their feet.

  “More!” they shouted. “Encore!”

  Pino was drenched with sweat, but he didn’t think he’d ever felt this happy. The only thing missing was Anna. She’d never seen Pino play a note. She would have fainted. He laughed at that image and then thought of Mimo. Where was he? Still fighting the Nazis?

  He felt a little guilty about celebrating while his younger brother was out being a warrior, but then looked back at Carletto, who was pouring himself another generous glass of wine and smiling like a fool.

  “C’mon, Pino,” Carletto said. “Give ’em what they want.”

  “Okay!” Pino shouted to the crowd. “But the piano player needs a drink! Grappa!”