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Lambrusco: A Novelby Ellen Cooney
On the train the whole world was the train.
No noise from the corridor. The other passengers had settled in. The door of my compartment was closed. The conductor had already been through. I was only traveling locally, going home, but nothing was normal; every journey was complicated.
No police, no soldiers. It was almost easy to forget that if it weren’t for soldiers and police, the trains would not be running.
My papers were in order. Lucia Fantini of Mengo. Age fifty-five. Born a Sicilian. The lady with the voice at Aldo’s. Widow of Aldo, mother of Beppi.
No problems: just a couple of brief confrontations. The usual. I knew how to raise my guard graciously, so the barriers didn’t show. To make it seem I’d said yes, when saying no.
“Excuse me, Signora Fantini, it’s a great piece of luck we’ve run into you. As hurried as you are, could you pause two minutes to sing something complimentary? Tomorrow’s our wedding anniversary, ten years. My husband was with the army in Africa. He doesn’t like to talk about it, in fact he doesn’t talk at all. It’s the same as if they cut out his tongue. But look, his ears are wide open. Just one short song, something lively?”
“Signora, pardon me, one night I heard you sing at your husband’s place which became your son’s, I’m sorry the Fascists took it, the bastards. In the company of my in-laws who were paying, as I’d never afford it myself, I thought only of an expensive dinner. No one warned me that Aldo’s had singing from the operas of our country. Sitting there unaware, I was destroyed for any voice except your own, and don’t bother thanking me for a compliment. It’s a fact. May the soul of your husband rest in peace, although truthfully, one doubts that it can, if he knows what’s going on. But I trust that one day soon, your splendid restaurant will come back to your family.”
The anxiety of departure was over. No mechanical trouble, no schedule changes, no last-minute boardings, no unexplained delay.
My two shopping bags were from a fashionable dress shop in Bologna, but they were heavy; they contained two sacks of flour. There was still black market flour to be bought. Buried inside, one to each sack, were German guns—Lugers, which my son called “useful, no-fuss bang-bangs, courtesy of our invaders.”
I minded the strain of making it seem that all I carried were tissue-wrapped dresses. In my purse were sturdy little cardboard boxes from a well-known confectioner’s, as if I planned to stuff myself with candy. The boxes were packed with ammunition.
I was too hot in my good wool coat. I should have worn something lighter, but the wool had the biggest pockets, for a pair of Berettas, as simple and small as two toys. One was wrapped in my blue and orange silk scarf, an end of which streamed from the pocket elegantly, like a fashion statement. The other was covered by a pair of gloves and some balled-up handkerchiefs.
Our bank accounts were frozen. I had paid the gun-and-flour merchant with a pair of Aldo’s gold cuff links. We were running out of jewelry. I no longer wore my wedding ring, but refused to give it up.
I wore no makeup. Sweat, and the possibility of tears, would have ruined it. I hated going out of the house like this, in this particular nakedness, and I was careful to avoid all mirrors. My throat was dry, and so were my lips and mouth, but not because I was thirsty. It was stage fright, the same old symptoms. Sometimes in the spotlight at Aldo’s, I’d feel I had swallowed a handful of sand.
But here I was, doing this again, pulling it off again: a lady out shopping, oh, there’s nowhere to go to dress up for, and I shouldn’t be spending what little money I have, but it came to me this morning that I should spit in the eyes of the war and buy myself something nice—and anyway, I was fed up with how the only other women going into good shops were women of nazifascisti.
The curtain on the compartment window, tattered and grimy, had been lifted, tucked back by some other passenger. I left it that way.
The train progressed slowly past narrow country roads, wide fields, closed-up houses, trees, Nazi trucks, Nazi tanks, Nazi soldiers in casual groups, smoking cigarettes, their helmets tipped back as if they were working on suntans.
It had rained heavily the day before, but now it was dry and shiny and clear. A perfect November morning, 1943. Every few miles, a small, fluffy pillow of a cloud came into view, framed by the window like a painting.
I thought only of home. This was Aldo’s birthday, his seventy-fifth. Just because he wasn’t alive was no reason not to acknowledge it.
Three-fourths of a century. A milestone.
I’d made up my mind to be festive about it, and not to let it bother me that Beppi’s reason for sneaking to the house later on would be simply to pick up the guns. There was no electricity—it had gone off a month ago. We were nearly out of candles. There wasn’t any meat, fish, or bread.
But tonight there’d be a real meal, although the pasta wouldn’t take the form of tagliatelle, the egg-and-flour noodles Aldo had loved, like all Romagnans. There weren’t eggs.
Marcellina Galeffi, our live-in housekeeper, had already cut up leeks for soup. There were tomatoes, chestnuts, artichokes, mushrooms, a few ends of cheese, a little oil, wine, basil, rosemary, and garlic.
Marcellina would do most of the cooking. She was right now at daily Mass in the village, safe with the priest, Don Enzo. “One of the good ones,” she called him. She was crazy about him: a bookish, mild-tempered man, the same age as Beppi—they’d been at school together—but his opposite in every way.
Enzo would come for the dinner. His family, the Malfadas, were cheese people; they’d supplied the restaurant almost exclusively. Aldo, then Beppi, let Enzo eat for free whenever he wanted, which had been pretty much daily. He had a private table near the back. He used it as an extension of the little stone rectory where he lived, and the church as well.
Just yesterday he’d told Marcellina, as a matter of faith, it was reasonable to expect that, any day now, someone would stick a pin in the German Army, and also all the fascisti, plus Mussolini himself, and also Hitler. Pop-pop-pop-pop, and this nightmare would end, with four deflations, and finally his stomach would operate again at full steam.
God bless him, he’d touched Marcellina, no easy thing at her age; she was seventy-one. It was all she’d talk about: balloons, Enzo’s belly, poppings. He’d made her feel tender, even though it only lasted one second.
I imagined the dinner preparations. I pictured my smooth old wood table.
In the center, a high mound of flour, volcano-shaped. At the top of the mound, an opening, exactly where lava would erupt.
It was always like this. I was born in a house facing Etna. I’d had plenty of time for my eyes to make imprints of the smooth Romagna hills, which never moved and never would, but still, if something was available to be formed in a mound—laundry, nuts, bittersweet greens from the garden, sticks for a fire, clams from the beach we couldn’t go to anymore because of the war—my hands made that shape, sometimes pointed, and sometimes with the top leveled off. Even those fleshy spots at Aldo’s hips were this way, another lifetime ago, the little mountains he called “the places where you like to hold on to me, not that either of them is where something important could burst from, heh heh heh.”
As if that were the reason he’d grown so stout. To give me something to hold on to. He had died nearly four years ago, at home.
Not a surprise. His cousin Ugo, the only physician he’d let anywhere near him, had been saying for ages that if Aldo’s chest were the hood of a car, he’d open it up to let everyone see that the engine was cracked and decrepit; the hoses were clogged beyond repair, and the whole thing was so dysfunctional, the only place it was headed was a junk heap. That was how he had put it. “Good thing you’re not a car, Aldo.”
At the moment of his heart attack, the fourth, the one that killed him, he was sitting at the table for lunch, drawing breath to blow on his soup, a fish broth made by Marcellina. He often had his midday meal at home before leaving for the restaurant. The soup was too hot; he’d been running late.
When the bowl crashed to the floor, it took Marcellina a moment to turn around from the stove to see what had happened. She thought he’d thrown it down on purpose. She was waiting for him to shout at her.
Now every time the wind blew hard against the kitchen shutters, she announced with a sigh, “There’s Aldo again, blowing. I’ll go out and tell him to be quiet. He knows what the Blackshirts have done, but he’s got to be patient, which maybe he’ll manage in death, having failed at it in life.”
Would Marcellina find milk in the village, to be mixed with water for the dough? She had taken some black market salt to be traded. There would have to be milk. Water into flour without eggs could be done, but water without milk?
I pictured a jug of milk and a saucepan of water heating up. Lacing the water with the milk. Not letting it come to a boil. Taking the pan off the stove. Bringing it to the flour. Tipping it over the mound, dead center. Pouring slowly: an eruption in reverse.
Marcellina would step in for the rough work: bending over the table, mixing and kneading, grunting from the effort, cursing. Until the last of the dough had been cut, she’d raise her creaky old voice—huge and a little raspy—against God, the Fantini family, her lot as a servant, her age, the hills, the farms, flour itself, Mengo, all Romagna, the Adriatic coast, and all of doomed, hapless, incompetent Italy. Against Germans and Fascists, she never spoke a word in the kitchen. She believed that if she did, the food would be poisoned.
Sunlight. Flour dust. A faint smell in the air of the sea. Mushrooms by the sink, waiting to be washed, with stems in the shape of bullets. Artichokes on the counter like a hill of spiny grenades.
A party to look forward to. No one in Aldo’s chair. No one else ever sat there.
From the Hardcover edition.Copyright © 2008 by Ellen Cooney
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