One Monday in October, Joe smelled something burning as he opened the door to their apartment. He dropped his book bag.
“Angela?” he called. The smell seemed to be coming from the kitchen.
Angela sat at the kitchen table, sobbing heavily into her hands. Joe reached behind her and turned off the heat under the dried-out pan of pasta sauce.
“Angela, che succede ?” What happened? He sat down next to her.
“Oh, signorino Joe, didn’t you hear the news on the radio?”
“No, I just came home.”
“It’s terrible, terrible.” She bent down and sobbed some more, alternating wringing her hands and pulling on her hair. She usually kept it tied back, but now it was loose like a black sack over her head. She was only in her late thirties, but tonight, her strong frame looked worn and ten years older.
Joe felt confused and frustrated. What could he do and what happened on the news? He turned up the volume on the radio, but there was some politician droning about State investment plans or something.
“Angela, can I help? Please, tell me what happened.”
Angela looked up. Joe thought he had never seen a face so red and distorted. The tears ran continuously, and her cheeks were puffy under the eyes. “They killed Mario.”
“Your brother in Milano? The one who’s the doorman at the Quinsana Hotel?”
She nodded and took a deep breath. She gripped the kitchen table with one hand, and Joe’s arm with the other.
“Something exploded outside the hotel. Killed him and three others. One was young Giulio who just started working there. The others were hotel guests.”
“But who? Why Mario?”
Angela shook her head. “The radio said something about a bomb in a parked car, but I don’t understand these things.”
“A car bomb? Angela, terrorists use car bombs. Listen, here comes another bulletin on the radio.” Joe stood up and poured her a glass of water while the radio broadcast the update. The car bomb was a new type, more powerful than any seen before. A new left-wing radical group claimed responsibility in telephone calls to the Corriere della Sera newspaper and the American Consulate. The caller threatened more bombings until all American imperialists were driven from the country.
Angela began sobbing again. Joe put his arm around her shoulders.
“I’m going to call my mother. Maybe she can take you home.” Angela and her husband had neither a car nor a telephone.
Joe went to the study and dialed his mother’s direct line.
“Mom, did you hear about the car bomb in Milan?”
“Yes, but I’m in the middle of a meeting – ”
“Angela’s brother Mario was killed. Car bomb at the Quinsana Hotel.”
“Oh my God. Where’s Angela?”
“She’s here. She’s too upset to take the bus home.”
“I’ll be there as soon as I can.” Joe knew that she would take a company car for something like this.
Twenty minutes later, Nancy Mather came through the door. She helped Angela straighten herself out. Joe collected Angela’s shopping bags while Angela repeated the story. Angela leaned on Nancy as they made their way downstairs to the garage. Soon, they were crossing town toward the Tuscolana area on the other side of the city.
Angela got confused trying to explain where she lived. She had never gone home any way except by bus. They circled the Piazza dei Re di Roma twice, then ended up on the Via Appia. Joe suggested that they follow the bus route, which she knew. Ten minutes later they parked outside Angela’s apartment building. It was one of the many tall, monotonous public housing projects recently built under the Marshall Plan.
Joe supported Angela as they climbed four floors to the apartment. The walls already showed signs of wear, but the halls were swept, and the lights worked. Her husband answered the door. He immediately embraced his wife and led her in. He was not much taller than Angela, in his late forties. Joe remembered that he worked for the City Public Works Department. From his calloused hands, Joe could see that it was not a white-collar job. He motioned Nancy and Joe to come in.
“Please excuse the house. We are all very shaken, I hope you understand.” He introduced Giuseppe and Sonia, Angela’s brother-in-law and sister, who both worked in Rome. Sonia took Angela to the bathroom.
“It’s all right, Signor Ceccarelli,” said Nancy. “We really have to go. We want to be sure that Angela could be with her family now.”
“You are too kind, Signora,” said Signor Ceccarelli. “I don’t know how to thank you for bringing her home.”
“It’s nothing, sir.” Nancy paused. “Is there a telephone number where we can leave messages? At a time like this, it would be helpful.”
“The café downstairs” He gave Nancy the number.
Nancy gave Angela’s husband her card. “Angela does not have to come in tomorrow, and if you need to go home for the funeral, please call me at work. Even if I am out, my secretary can take the message for me. It’s approved, of course.”
“Signora, you are too generous.”
“Thank you, signore, but it’s not enough. Only time will heal this wound.”
They shook hands around. Joe and Nancy left the grieving family.
“It’s too late to start supper now,” Nancy said as they drove away. “Let’s eat at the Scoglio di Frisio on the way home.”
“OK with me, Mom.” It was a quiet meal.
“OK, Benny,” said Joe, shoving the sheaf of notebook paper across the dining room table at his friend. “There’s the piece about Cavour and Bismarck. What do you think?” He slammed the history books and encyclopedias shut and piled them up.
Benny Liu frowned. “Joe, I can’t read this. Here, mine’s written more neatly.” He shoved his notes across to Joe.
“No fair, Benny, this is Chinese!”
“Sure, but I can read it. Your handwriting is atrocious. At least my Chinese characters are all recognizable.”
“Yeah, but I’ve already heard what Brother Mark has to say about your handwriting in English. It’s no better than mine.”
“Let’s type it.”
“You got a typewriter?”
“Sure. Dad got me one for my birthday. I’ve been working on it every day.” Benny reached under the table and pulled up a portable typewriter. He took the cover off and rolled two pieces of paper with a sheet of carbon paper between them onto the carriage. “We need a copy, so we can each have one.”
“Cool. So, you can type all this tonight?”
“Maybe. I know that I can type my part about Garibaldi’s Mille and the Prussian Army, because I already know what it says.”
“What about my part? I can’t type.”
“Dictate it to me. Let’s see how that works.”
Joe picked up his part of the history report and began reading steadily and slowly. Benny’s machine erupted in a rhythmic din. Every time the bell would ring at the end of a line, Benny returned the carriage with the carriage return lever in a smooth action without breaking the rhythm of his fingers.
“Hold it,” said Benny. “Gotta put in the next page.”
“Wow, that’s amazing. You learned to type like that in two months?” Born two days apart, Benny and Joe shared the sign of Leo.
“Not really. Dad let me work in the office last summer. He made me start in the typing pool. They taught me the ten-finger touch method there.” He finished lining up the next piece of paper in the carriage. “There. Let’s go.”
Joe’s part of the report was typed in less than fifteen minutes. Joe watched in awe while Benny finished adding his part from his Chinese notes.
“Can you teach me how to do that?”
“Maybe. The hardest part is forcing yourself not to use your index fingers. Ten-finger typing is fast because your hands don’t move much, only your fingers. And they only move over certain keys. Here sit down.”
Benny showed Joe where to hold his hands and which keys to hit with each finger. Joe pecked out a couple of uneven lines.
“This looks messy, compared to yours, Benny”, Joe said.
“Well, how even was your gear shifting when you tried Hans’ moped?”
“I have to get a typewriter. I’ll never get points off my papers for penmanship again.”
Mrs. Liu came to the door of the dining room.
“Benjamin, have you finished your homework yet? It’s ten o’clock.”
“Yes, Mother.” Benny put the cover on the typewriter and began collecting his books.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Liu. Benny was showing me his typewriter,” said Joe. “I forgot the time.”
“That’s all right, Joe, but Grandmother will be starting her evening prayers soon.” The Liu family was Catholic. The boys had been baptized, but the parents remained unbaptized neophytes out of respect for Mr. Liu’s mother.
Joe finished packing his book bag. It was a canvas rucksack, roomy but conveniently sized. He had to pack the contents in plastic on rainy days.
The strange tones of Chinese sacred opera on the record player and the pungent smell of incense came from the living room by the time he slipped silently out the front door.
Soon he was riding through a light drizzle along the winding Via della Camilluccia. Dark with trees and poorly lit, the country road climbed steeply away from the Via Cassia, up the back side of the Monte Mario. He hated busting his gut up this lonely road, almost as much as he loved the downhill flight to Vigna Clara in the other direction. People were beginning to build out here, but the villas and small apartment buildings were set back and hidden by trees.
Nancy was in her study working when he got back. The air was thick with smoke. She had left the door open, so the whole apartment stank. Before he could say anything, she looked up with a scowl.
“Were you at Benny’s all this time?” she said.
Joe bristled. “Of course. I told you that on the phone.”
“Don’t give me that tone, young man.”
Joe almost burst, grinding his teeth. “Yes, ma’am.”
“What were you doing that took so long?”
Joe had told her that, too, but he refrained from reminding her. “We had some pictures to develop for Photography Club, and we had to finish the big history report for Brother Mark. It’s due tomorrow.” Joe coughed and left the room, closing the door behind him. This was not the night to pick a fight about his mother’s smoking. He hated that he could not get away from the stench in his own home. The Liu house was the only place he knew where nobody smoked. He wished his own home could smell as fresh. But he had told his mother that, too.
November in Rome brought the heavy rain, which would not let up until April. Sometimes it would rain for three weeks straight. It got cold, too. Pedaling his bike up the Via Aurelia, Joe felt the water dripping off his nose. There was no way to stay dry. Either the rain leaked past his raincoat or he sweated up his clothes under his raincoat. He had two cheap suits he wore in the winter for this sort of problem, one blue and one tan. They were usually crumpled, often with mud splattered on the legs. He kept dry socks in his school locker, but the winters ruined his shoes. More than once, one of the Brothers at school had told him that he was pushing the coat-and-tie rule with the condition of his suits, but no one had called his mother yet.
Still, there was the gang, and that made it worth it. Joe wheeled into the Alfa Romeo car dealership near the school and parked outside the coffee bar. The other guys were already there, and the Beatles sang Twist and Shout on the juke box. Joe ordered a cappuccino and a ciambella doughnut. Matt Fisher was the only guy at school with a driver’s license. He got it in Florida before coming to Italy last summer. In Italy, you had to be 18 before you got even a learner’s permit and 21 to own a car. Matt’s uncle let him drive a black Fiat 1500 sedan, which carried Benny, Greg, and Doug from Vigna Clara every morning. Aldo had a moped, as did Hans. Six guys – seven counting himself – who did not live at school or take the bus, Joe thought. He would ride his bike through a blizzard to get to these morning meetings with the Beatles and the gang.
“Hey, Joe, when you get a Vespa or something?” asked Hans. He had arrived this year, and his English was still a little rough.
“Why should I?” said Joe, “I can lose you anywhere in Rome, and you know it.”
“Ja, if traffic there is.”
“So? There’s always traffic, Hans.”
“Want race today?”
“No way, Hans. Brother Bob almost banned us from school grounds for that last year.”
“You should have seen it,” Greg said to Hans. “Aldo lost it on the gravel in the parking lot and went through the glass doors into the cafeteria.”
“Basta, Greg, leave it alone,” Aldo growled. The others chuckled.
“Five minutes to bell, guys,” said Matt, slapping Aldo on the shoulder. “Easy, Aldo. We’re friends here.”
They always left together, and they always drove in together, motors revving, Joe doing his tailspin dismount at the bike rack and Matt tooting his horn. The teachers hated it, the boarders envied it, and they loved it.
“Mom, I think I want a Vespa.”
“Are you already anxious to get a learner’s permit?” Nancy broke some bread and dabbed it in the marsala sauce near her scaloppine .
“Vespa just came out with a new 50cc model. I saw it at the showroom on the way home from school. You don’t need a license for 50cc and below.”
“I thought you didn’t like the 50cc bikes.”
“This isn’t one of those bicycles with a motor. It’s a real motor scooter. Enclosed mudguards, lights, gears, everything. Even has a storage compartment that would keep my books out of the rain.” A nasty squall beat loudly on the kitchen windows.
“Do you have enough for it yet?”
“I will with a couple more letters, and maybe I can shop around for a better deal. They want 150,000 lire at the dealer I saw.”
“I don’t know. I worry about it.”
“Mom, c’mon. I can already drive. Aldo and Hans let me drive their mopeds at the school lot. And it’s miserable in the winter on my bike.”
“You’re the one who won’t take the school bus.” It was an old family argument.
“Do you think I could stay for track and yearbook, and get home to fix supper on Angela’s day off? Or run errands on the way home if I took the bus? Or have my homework out of the way when you come home with a del Piave letter?”
Nancy put down her fork. “Don’t con me with the homework bit, Joe, but you made your point. It’d be nice if you could keep a suit and a pair of shoes long enough to outgrow them.”
“Mom – ” Joe cut himself off when what she said hit him. “You mean you don’t mind?”
“Well, I’m not thrilled, but we’ve beat the subject of your getting to school to death for years now. I’m still worried. But I must admit you pull your weight around here, so why not?”
“Thanks, Mom.” Nothing else seemed to fit.
The next morning as they left, she brought up the Vespa again.
“Don’t buy anything without checking with me. I want to put the word out around the office. Someone may have a line on a good deal.”
“Thanks, Mom. I don’t have enough for the Vespa and road tax tags yet anyway.”
(to be continued)