Paola wakes up coughing, tasting blood. She draws a Kleenex from her purse and presses it to her lips. The tissue reveals a smudge in the guise of a red thumbprint, and for a moment, anxious teeth pierce her diaphragm. Her father’s photographs slip from her lap onto the floor. She reaches for them as the bus slogs around another corner, inspiring today’s breakfast of cigarettes and half-eaten cornetto to creep up her throat. Paola leans back against her seat, breathing deep. It’s all she can do to inhibit nausea; the ceiling jets above have stopped producing cool air. Beside her, a Sicilian landscape rushes past her window, unchanged since morning—a dry terrain of undulating hills moving in a patchwork of Spanish moss, chartreuse and gold ochre. Colors she knows as a graphic designer, but has seldom seen outside the pages of Neiman Marcus and Elle. Her life in New York City is something cold and distant, an assemblage of memories lined in black and gray. She wipes the corners of her mouth with the tissue and coughs again.
There’s no blood this time. Just a string of alabaster tarnished with butter cream grease and flecks of honey. She studies the thumbprint, a clue to dour prospects—cancer, emphysema, sarcoidosis, some new fatalistic STD unknowingly contracted years ago, just now making its appearance. Paola crumples the Kleenex into a ball and buries it at the bottom of her purse, where an envelope lies. Inside this is a folded sheet of paper with the name, address and phone number of a man who Paola has never met in person before. Body be kind to me, she thinks. Just until I make it to Comitini. She massages her sore rib cage, wondering how long it’s felt this way, and imagines her lungs as salmon pink slabs punctured through in pinhole columns. Her mind pleads with tissue and skull, like they’re something to be bargained with. Yes, today she will quit smoking. Just as soon as she reaches Agrigento, she will deposit her pack in the nearest waste bin and forget unnecessary concerns. She’s come too far not to make it to Comitini now.
Paola’s father reabsorbs her attention. She studies the oldest picture she has of him, the one closest to his days in the mines. He’s still a child here, maybe ten or eleven years old, though the somber gravity of his demeanor says otherwise. This is the photo taken before he left Sicily for good. His clothes appear clean and pressed—black trousers, white collared shirt tucked beneath a buttoned-up vest. Beside him stands an enormous man, unknown to Paola, though she suspects he’s a relative of some sort, an older cousin or uncle, perhaps even her grandfather. The relative has a hard, mean smile; she doesn’t like the looks of him. Her father isn’t smiling. He directs an intense gaze toward something beyond the camera, some treachery coming to greet him.
Calogero carries her suitcase up five flights of stairs, all the while asking questions, never running short of breath, in spite of the July heat. He looks to be in his early forties, though his presence is youthful, spirited. He’s the owner of Magna Akragas, the bed and breakfast Paola is staying in for the week, despite searching for something in nearby Comitini; no youth hostels or lodgings of any kind were advertised online.
“Sei Americana, vero?” Calogero says.
Paola begins to respond in clumsy Italian, but Calogero’s quick English beats her to it.
“I host many American. And British and Australian. But I could tell you’re American,” he says.
“I just know. Where you from?”
Calogero snaps his head around and stares at her with eyebrows raised and lips pursed in a wide, excited ‘o.’
“Ah! Robert DeNiro! You know Robert DeNiro?” he says.
“Only in the movies,” Paola says, flushed a little with embarrassment for him.
“This your first time in Sicilia?” he says.
“You’ve come alone?”
“You have family here?”
“No.” Paola avoids making eye contact as he turns his head back to glance at her. His direct, if not intrusive manner, is unnerving.
They reach the top flight and Calogero fidgets with one of a thousand keys looped together on a large brass ring from his jean pocket. He’s a head shorter than Paola, sinewy and compact, with hairy, brown limbs poking out from fitted t-shirt sleeves and shorts of a certain metrosexual-inspired tightness that only European men could get away with.
“You’ve come for the feast then?” he says, pushing hard at the door as he opens it, like it’s made of lead instead of wood. Inside they are greeted by a sudden brightness that fills the walk-in kitchen with a warm mercurial light. A wide balcony can be seen outside the open French doors that face them, where a couple sits together, sipping from dainty espresso cups.
“Thanks, but I’m not really hungry,” Paola says.
Calogero squints at her, uncomprehending. “La festa di San Calogero. The feast,” he says.
Now it’s Paola’s turn to look confused. She notices tiny flecks of gold banded across the brown of his eyes.
“A feast for San Calogero? Isn’t that your name?” she says.
He chuckles, winking at her. “I should be so lucky. No, it is a happy coincidence. But surely you must know San Calo?”
“I’m not Catholic. I don’t know,” she says.
“Well, you must know if you’re going to stay in Agrigento this of all weekends. He was an old black man from Carthage, a monk and a healer. He came to Agrigento in a time of famine and chaos, when people thought little of throwing others away if it meant preserving their own lives. So people discarded those who society deemed unworthy—the impoverished sick and old, the lepers and mentally disabled. And San Calo went through the town gathering bread to feed them. He stood outside the town walls with these discarded people and kept them alive. That is why we lift his statue through the streets, why we throw little pieces of bread, little muffuletti di San Calo at him when he passes. He’s our hunger saint.”
“You picked a good time to come to Agrigento,” he says. “All weekend we will be infesta. Tonight there’s a big concert in Piazza Stazione to start things off. Big groups come dance the Ballo di San Calo. You came by bus, no? You must’ve walked across the big square on your way here. It’s going to be good fun,” he says.
Paola shakes her head. “I’m not sure how much of it I could see. I’m headed to Comitini tomorrow to meet someone. I believe there are buses that leave here from Agrigento.”
She hesitates under his curious gaze, afraid of giving him too much information.
“Yes, there are buses, but they leave very early,” he says, and looks as though he might probe further, but the buzzer near the door steals his attention.
“Let me show you to your room,” he says, moving past her with keys in hand. “If you tell me what time you wake in the morning, I will have breakfast and un caffé ready.”
“Thank you, but I might be leaving pretty early,” she says.
“Come back for un aperitivo then,” he says, as he leads her to a room down the hall. “And make sure you at least see the Valley of the Temples. A tremendous site. And Luigi Pirandello’s house is only a short drive away too. You must know Pirandello’s works, no? He’s famous. The literary gem of Sicilia. I give you a private tour for a good price.”
“You do tours too? Mr. Calogero, you’re a one man show.”
He smiles at this and hands her his business card. Marcello Calogero was printed in fat gold script above a more diminutive Magna Akragas. “Call me anytime,” he says.
Paola sits against the bed for a while after he’s gone. The walls of the room are a soft periwinkle; the violet bed sheets are the coolest thing against touch. Even here in this small, air-conditioned space, the air is heavy and stale. She reaches into her purse and draws out the envelope, reading the note scribbled on a piece of paper inside. Giovanni Capuana. Guida, Parco Minerario di Comitini. Paola studies his phone number and address, as if to decipher some hidden meaning in the loops and scrawl of her own unstable penmanship. He’s instructed her to call when she arrives in Agrigento, which she still has not done, though they scheduled a meeting time tomorrow, long in advance over the internet. This is the man who will lead her into the sulphur mines, help her understand the life her father led before making the life she knew in America. Paola returns the contents of the envelope and rests her father’s pictures beside it on the bed.
Outside the heat is stifling, but Paola feels calmer where the air is more fresh. She sits alone on the patio—the espresso-drinking couple have long since vacated—and is halfway through her second cigarette before remembering the promise she’s already broken to herself.
Her father left them long before leaving their home in Hasbrouck Heights. His time with them was spent building up other people’s houses in and around Northern New Jersey, or watching old sitcoms—All in the Family, Family Ties, The Cosby Show. TV families operated on a certain level of buoyancy and charm, regardless of the amount of dysfunction and angst. They were all alike in this way, and perhaps that’s what engaged him so, enough at least to ignore Paola’s mother when she picked fights with him over bills or home repairs that he was too exhausted or indifferent to take up. He was not interested in playing the defensive or indulging in Paola when she tried climbing atop his lap, his body a human jungle gym.
“Grow up-ah,” he said, his accent drawing out syllables, adding ahhs and oos to spots in words where vowels had no place. Paola always suspected that it was the weak grip he had on English that kept him so quiet, withdrawn even. He’d always been this way, as if some prior incident had cut the tongue right out of his head. Daylight hours never found him without his tinted aviators and Yankees cap drawn low over his brow.
“Fucking lazy greaseball too stupid to do anything else but sit on his ass while I do all the fuckin’ work around here,” Paola’s mother said. She leaned against the kitchen countertop, smoking Newports and sipping plum-cherry wine coolers she sometimes shared with her daughter if the weather was particularly hot. Her presence was consistent in its angry disarray—hands fidgety through her honey-blond hair; the brown roots showing; the dark eyeliner smudged beneath her eyes impersonating bruises; the polish of her red fingernails always chipped at the tips. Mother screaming how she was packing her bags tonight; Father increasing the volume of the TV.
He never rose a hand to either of them, but Paola still remembered the day when he grabbed her so hard she thought her bones might snap between his fingers. She was seven years old and thrilled to be entertaining the neighborhood girls with her in-ground pool. It was a Saturday: a day of grocery shopping and running errands for her mother. By some degree of nagging and threatening, she’d convinced her husband to stay home, watch the girls lest they drown one another. Paola didn’t enjoy the prospect of her father watching them from a corner in the shade. No one did. It was creepy. Why was he home on a Saturday anyways? Perhaps he’d lost his job again. Papa could never hold one down for long.
They were roughhousing in the deep end or seeing which one could remain underwater the longest or maybe it was Paola playing piggyback atop a friend, submerging the whole of the girl beneath her. She can’t remember. But his hand reached for her, yanked her right up out of the water. Her father’s red face and black, ferocious eyes barked at her in something like Italian, while the hand continued to squeeze her right collarbone, shaking her. If only she could understand what was being said then maybe she could calm him or realize what it was that she’d done. When he released her, she sat on her knees, too shocked to move. The other girls soon left the pool, excusing themselves for home. Of course there were phone calls later, parents voicing their concerns. It was all Paola’s mother needed to incite her latest screaming fit that evening. She stood in front him, blocking the television, and asked again where the red marks on her daughter came from. She screamed right in his face, the lit end of her cigarette a quarter inch from singeing his nose, eyelashes or any part of him she could get at. He sat there, all the while ignoring her, looking through her like she was only hot steam blowing in his face. Paola sat on the other end of the couch, watching, waiting for the cigarette to make its impact. The slope between her neck and shoulder throbbed. And then her mother did it; she put the lit end of her Newport right out into Papa’s cheek.
Paola’s father screamed and bolted upright, pushing her mother to the floor as he left the room, his hands covering his face.
He left them that night. For the rest of her life, Paola imagined her father sporting a little moon-shaped welt on his cheek. It was what she wanted her mother to tell her lawyer and the police when they filed the missing persons report. It was the image she had of her father when she compared him with that of the photographs of the boy that her mother hadn’t discarded, had thought important to save for Paola, along with the other things known—his name, Comitini, his work in the mines.
“He never talked about any of it,” her mother said, whenever Paola probed her for details. “He only told me once how he’d always been such a hard worker, how they put him to work as a sulphur miner as a kid. So I says to him, what the hell happened? So much for being a hard worker.”
Her mother’s anger became a ghost in the company of chemo. Paola spent her weekends in Boston, visiting her at the Dana-Farber, witnessing the transformation of her mother’s body into emaciated limbs, bony pairs of elbows and knees, and the wasted sticks of ankles. But Paola painted each slender finger of her mother’s dry, fragile hands the old red color of her married life, making sure always to fill in the chipped edges, until the nurses forbid against it, lest it somehow interfere with the treatment or patient’s well-being. No one could argue otherwise, for then it was the cancer that decided everything.
Paola meets Giovanni Capuana where the bus drops her off in Comitini. He’s an aging man with round, old-fashioned spectacles and a white mustache, the guide of the Parco Minerario di Comitini. They shake hands and Giovanni leads her to his car.
“At long last,” he says in a distinct British accent. “How long has it been since you emailed me? A year, maybe two?”
“Seems that way. I can’t thank you enough for meeting me here,” she says.
“It’s part of my routine these days, actually. Since the Regione Siciliana turned the mines into a natural reserve park, I give tours to geologists, British mostly, and a surprising number of Germans. But then again German tourists are everywhere these days. They’re the only ones left in Europe who can afford a little wanderlust,” he says.
Paola and Giovanni drive through the narrow cobblestone streets of Comitini. It is a small, residential town, divided by long, winding roads with orange, stucco-roofed apartment buildings packed in together tight. The people they pass—kids on noisy scooters, old men gathered together outside of dusty cafes, women hanging laundry outside on small balconies—are imbued with a deeper mystery that gnaws at Paola. She wants to know these people; she wants to pass around her father’s photographs to each of them and ask what they know.
“How far are the mines from here?” she says.
“Less than an hour by car. But by foot or mule, more. The miners practically lived in the mines underground. Once a week they visited their families,” he says.
They leave Comitini and reenter the Sicilian countryside. Patches of agave and Saracen olive trees, then a row of tall chestnut trees dotting the horizon move past Paola’s window. A lone terracotta hut stands in a field of burnt grass. One of the walls is demolished; it stands upright on three walls, and there is no furniture or photographs, no proof of prior residency. Only a stunted tree with twisted, leafless branches grows beside it. She tries to imagine a family living together inside that enclosed space and cannot.
“Yours is a case that deeply interests me,” Giovanni says.
“We don’t exactly get tourists looking to do family research. You said your father worked the Comitini mines as a boy?” Giovanni says.
“Yes, my mother told me before she died,” she says.
“I’m sorry to hear.”
A beat of silence and Giovanni continues, his voice slower, more pronounced, as if eager to make himself explicitly understood.
“He was a caruso,” Giovanni says.
The name is saturated with incomprehensible meaning, though Paola senses the weight of it and afraid, for a moment, of the information she knows she will soon receive. Her eyes cling to the slow-moving sparse pines in the distance. Thin, starving trees with leaves dried out by the sun.
They pass through the gates of Parco Minerario di Comitini, and follow a stretch of dirt road that leads to an office building that functioned as part museum, part greeting hall for both tourists and overseers of the reserve. The parking lot is close to empty.
“Let’s go inside first,” Giovanni says, pulling the car into a spot. “There’s something you must see first.”
It is not yet noon, yet the heat is already intense. The air-conditioning inside the office building is a gentle relief. Paola follows Giovanni down a corridor to his office. On the walls hang black and white images of miners at work. Each photograph seems dated a different era, depending on the tools the men used—some chipped away at stone walls with pick axes and shovels; others funneled into underground ceiling walls with massive drills. No one wore protective gear, much less any clothing.
Giovanni’s office is cluttered with stacks of paperwork, oversized binders and maps of different cartographic significance, covering every square inch of the Comitini sulphur mines. He sits at his desk and draws open a large folder in close reach, and searches through the pages.
“I have checked the information you gave me about your father with our records of the miners and carusi that worked here in these mines, and found a likely match with an Antonino Giordano,” Giovanni pauses and looks up at Paola. “You might want to write some of this down.”
She reaches into her bag for pen and notepad, and he continues when she is ready.
“Your father was ten years old when he was first registered as working in the mines in June of 1947. We have record of an address in Comitini where his earnings were sent, most likely to support his parents and any siblings.”
“Can you give me the address?” Paola says.
Giovanni frowns. “I am at liberty to give you your father’s records, as it is your right as his next of kin. But I would strongly advise you not to intrude upon this residency if it is presently inhabited.”
She nods and he gives her the address. Then he reaches into one of the desk drawers and draws out a manila folder.
“Ms. Giordano, I want you to take a close look at what I am about to show you,” he says.
He lays the photographs out, one by one, so as not to overwhelm her. They are black and white photographs of boys, naked children with hard, overdeveloped bodies, carrying large buckets of rocks between their shoulder blades. Their faces are dirty with grime and swollen with what appear to be bruises.
“I am working on a case, a very special case documenting the lives of the carusi,” Giovanni says. “These children as you see here are part of a very long and dark tradition of the mines here in Sicily. They were the children of the poor, and went to work very young. They mostly transported sulphur rocks through the mine tunnels to the furnaces above ground. The system that was in place was one that essentially enslaved them, as they were often sold for a period of ten or so years as assistants to the miners. As you can tell from these photographs here, there was little regard as to how these men treated the carusi.”
Paola studies the photographs, and the breath sticks between her lungs. Each boy’s face is the face of her father.
“Now,” Giovanni says, rising. “There is something more that I must show you.”
Outside, Paola sucks down a cigarette as she is led from the welcome center to the mines where her father worked. A fat, relentless heat descends from above, overwhelming her with a general feeling of illness. Perhaps you’re walking too fast, she thinks. Or that you shouldn’t be smoking and walking at the same time. Or better yet, not smoking at all. The heat in Sicily forces you to go slow, regardless of the urgency that New York City has bred in you, the go, go, go that compels you to walk a little bit faster than the others, maneuver around stalling people, push through the wall of subway heat in summer or sleet-driven snow of winter. You live with a certain measure of chaos that becomes impossible, over time, to stand without.
In the distance stands a black tower housing a system of pulleys, the only thing that could be seen of the mines. The tops of the mulberry trees line the immediate horizon. Around them are fields the color of sawdust and ash. Clusters of purple-headed thistle flowers, each thick stock towering at least two meters in length, grow alongside their path. They are long, thorn-encrusted sentinels with stems that stretch finger-like to the sky.
The road winds down into a basin with arch-shaped doors built into the sides of the dirt walls. Long, rusty bars block accessibility; beyond each entrance lies a black cavity that sucks down light, coats it in a velvet pitch.
“This is the main work site the miners used up until the fifties. That was when more elevators were added, and a better means of transportation for the sulphur. That is essentially what phased the carusi out,” Giovanni says.
At the furthest edge of the work site is a mine that’s been boarded up with wooden planks and yellow caution tape. Its dirt- and grass-encrusted ceiling is noticeably sunken in, as if the structure was built of air and now sustained a rather damaging leak. Giovanni stops and studies the area as if it’s the first time he’s taking it in.
“The accident happened here,” he says.
Paola’s stomach pinches into itself. Irrevocable knowingness dangles from Giovanni’s lips, and for a moment she wishes she could seal them over with cement. She reaches into her bag for another cigarette, then releases the pack from her grip. Her ribs begin to ache, the impetus to cough returning. Perhaps it’s all psychosomatic, she thinks, and then remembers the red thumbprint in her purse.
“What accident?” she says.
“A mine collapsed. There may’ve been an explosion perhaps. There’s no documentation as to why, only an account of those who died—miners, yes, but more carusi. Your father was stationed at this mine when it happened, but there’s no record of him having died or gone missing. He simply stops appearing in the records. But somehow he escaped the mines, escaped Sicily. You’re living proof of that,” he says.
Paola shakes her head. It’s too much. The information, the heat, the gnawing discomfort poking holes through her large intestine. She wants to be away from this place, somewhere quiet and cool, where she can begin to process what’s been told.
“Maybe you have the wrong person. Maybe this Antonino Giordano you’ve got in your records isn’t my father at all,” she says.
“They are resuming the excavation in the fall to collect the remains,” he says, ignoring the remark. “It took us five years of pushing just to get this far.”
“How is that possible? It’s been almost fifty years at least. More,” Paola says.
Giovanni squints his eyes at something in the distance. “This is Sicilia. You think the Italian government cares about what goes on here? If it happened in the North, we wouldn’t be allowed to forget. That’s where all the money goes.”
“So what happened? I don’t understand,” Paola says.
“What happened? Nothing happened. That’s exactly my point. They didn’t even report it in the newspapers. The Northerners kept the mines open until the 80s, and all the while families kept asking for the remains of their loved ones. Fathers and sons continued to work knowing their kin was buried in the very walls and tunnels they continued to mine,” he says.
“I don’t know why you brought me here, Mr. Capuano. I don’t know what you expect me to do about it,” Paola says.
“The case of your father is a special one. You might be able to help us find out what happened that day when the mine collapsed.”
“No,” Paola says, turning away. “I can’t help you there. I’m sorry.”
She begins to walk back and glances at him when she realizes he’s still standing there, staring deep into the mine.
“We are still digging out the bones of children,” he says.
They say little to one another during the car ride to Comitini. Giovanni mentions how he’d like to meet with her in person again, perhaps after the festivities have ended.
“You are lucky to be in Agrigento this time of the year,” he says.
She thanks him for his time and how enormously helpful he’s been before he drives off. Then Paola realizes that she still has two hours before the next returning bus arrives. She walks through the narrow streets of the town to a small trattoria, where she forces herself to eat a small plate of cous-cous and fish and as many glasses of water as the waiter is willing to refill. Outside a young man passes by her window, smiling and saying something into his cell phone. He wears a t-shirt with the word Africa printed across the front. Beneath the letters is the unmistakable outline of Sicily itself.
Paola reaches inside her purse for her wallet and remembers the notepad. Her father’s childhood address. When the waiter returns to collect the bill, she asks if he can point her in the appropriate direction.
The brown stucco house is small and compact like the others crowded along the shaded crooked street. Paola rings the buzzer twice before an older woman, maybe in her seventies or eighties, appears at the door. She wears oversized glasses and a blue house dress embellished with a faded pink rose print.
“Tu voi?” she says.
“Scusa Signora, ma conosci quest’uomo?” Paola says.
The old woman shakes her head and speaks a language unknown to Paola, one of similar Italian musicality, but extended through deeper syllables, thicker ooo sounds that make it that much more incomprehensible.
“Comu? Sugnu troppu stancu pi sta,” she says.
“Antonino Giordano,” Paola says, and hands the woman the photograph of her father as a boy. Beneath the thick lens of her bifocals, the lady’s eyes widen into brown, startled pools, as they drink in the image of Paola’s father. Her mouth trembles, and she hands the pictures back.
“Sono la figlia,” Paola says, pressing a hand to her chest. I am the daughter.
The older woman looks away, shaking her head, as if she has just been offered something repulsive. “Nun u sacciu,” she says, and shuts the door.
Paola returns to Agrigento by evening, with the heat and exhaust of the bus embedded in her hair and skin. She goes to the bathroom she shares with the room next door, and splashes cold water on her face and neck from the faucet sink. Calogero’s voice floats in from the hall.
“Signora Giordano, is that you in there?” he says.
Paola wipes herself with a small pink towel dangling from one of the nearby wall pegs, and opens the door to greet him.
“Oh, mi dispiace, non voglio disturbare,” he says.
“No, it’s okay,” she says, half-startled by her relief to see him again.
“You find everything alright around here? It always amuses me how little you Americani know about using the bidet. If you feel adventurous, be sure to use this towel to wipe off,” he says.
“Which towel? The pink one? The one I’ve been using for my face?” Paola says. “Beautiful.”
Calogero shakes his head, chuckling. “Come join me for un caffé on the patio,” he says.
“Sure, but you wouldn’t happen to have anything stronger than an espresso, would you? A shot of whiskey maybe?”
He laughs and goes to the kitchen counter, drawing out a bottle of grappa from one of the cabinets and filling two miniature cups. They sit together at a table on the patio and clink their glasses together.
“Cin cin,” Calogero says.
The grappa burns Paola’s lips with distinct bitterness. She sucks her tongue, fingering the rim of her cup and watching the twilight settle on the roofs of the neighboring houses. “I think the heat is making me sick,” she says. “The heaviness is too much.”
“It takes some getting used to for sure. Did you visit the Valley of Temples today?” he says.
“No, but perhaps I should have. I was in Comitini today,” she says.
“Ah, yes. Your meeting with your friend.”
Paola nods, eager suddenly to tell him, this man she’s only met the night before, everything she knows now about her father. About the explosion, about how it was possible for such a young boy to escape so much. The grappa loosens her tongue, makes the words come easy, and Calogero listens, his eyes widening with a degree of compassion that she finds startling.
“That woman you met in Comitini. She wouldn’t allow you in her house?” he says, when Paola finishes.
She shakes her head, sips another biting mouthful of liquor. “I couldn’t understand a word she said. Her dialect was too strong.”
“Maybe she was speaking Sicilian, a different language entirely,” he says. “The old hold onto their ways here, they keep what they know preserved. Perhaps that’s why Signor Capuana was so excited over what you might know. But will you stay?”
“I have my life in New York. I’m due back on Wednesday,” she says.
“You must stay longer somehow. Stay and speak to the people in Comitini. I could help you if you want. Find you a translator if you need one. Who you have back home will have to understand if they care for you,” he says.
Paola thinks of home—her studio in Greenpoint, the friends she sees on occasion, the infrequent date garnered here and there from some internet database. Her mother will be gone two years this January. She has no other family.
“It scares me to find out more,” she says.
“Boh,” Calogero says, shrugging his shoulders. “It’s not my decision to make. But if you want my help, I help you. Either way, I hope you come out to see the procession tomorrow. There will be nothing else for you to do. It’s a holy day for us. And for me especially. Every year, I help carry the Saint on my shoulders,” he says.
They finish their grappa and then he rises, excusing himself for the night.
“You will tell me tomorrow morning, won’t you? Tell me how Calogero can help you?”
“I promise,” she says.
Sunday morning finds the streets flooded with people. Their noise outside Paola’s windows wakes her, though not early enough, as she’s slept until noon. She dresses fast, seized with an emotion approaching panic. Already she’s missed her chance to give Calogero her answer, that yes, she will stay, yes she will find a way to reason with whoever might know about her father, how a man can go on like that, disappearing.
Outside, Paola hurries down the main street of Via Atenea and into the public gardens near the Piazzale Aldo Moro center. Here the crowd is thickest, surrounding what appears to be a slightly hunched, robed figure, lifted high above their heads. Occasional showers of bread rolls rain against the saint from those he passes by. A man beating a drum follows close behind the crowd, driving them all forward with steady rhythm. Hordes of people push against one another, and Paola is pulled along with them as she searches, desperate for a sighting of Calogero. He is nowhere to be seen beneath or around the saint. Paola maneuvers her way around the others to be closer. Santo Calogero strikes her as an old prune-colored rabbi with a book open before him. Beneath the heavy white caterpillars of his eyebrows, his gaze is painted as kind, grandfatherly. The men bearing him atop their shoulders pause to allow members of the crowd to lift squealing babies and toddlers high up into the air, passing them from one man to another, until the crying faces reach the lips and cheeks of the saint.
“Paola! Vieni qui,” a voice says.
She turns to see Calogero moving through the people, reaching for her. He pulls her to the gang of men surrounding San Calo, and Paola tries to turn away, disturbed by the hysteria of it all, the grotesque display of devotion. But the men are too eager to pull her up with the other children before she can say or do otherwise. Some hand cups her breast, another pinches the side of her ribs between his forefinger and thumb, another grabs up around her rear and pushes slow, another squeezes the meat of her shoulder. And another and another, until the hands are all around her and she gives herself over to them, the rough, dirt-stained hands that push her up, up, up into the face of the saint.