Excerpt: The Fruit Men Won

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(To catch you up on the manuscript – the following, below, is in a scene from (The Fruit Men Won).
Based on a true story. Anunzieata, the wife of Giovanni – referred to as Nancy and John in different places within the book, has been trying to talk her husband into remaining home – he had a flu for the past four days, he ignores her and returns to work on Friday, returning early, and climbing into bed in the evening.

Grandfather waiting at Ellis Island

You will read, by Monday morning, Ralph is in the bedroom of Giovanni, his best friend, who worked with John in the yards, unloading fruit crates from a rail car onto the companies truck to be delivered about the city. Ralph continues through the scene to talk with his friend, keep him awake, he fears his stubborn Sicilian background will win, and he won’t see a doctor. Nancy, the wife – believes he returned home from work on Friday with the same case of flu. The two men, immigrants of Sicily, from the same village have known each other since children, known here in the states as pisons’ – cousins. The weather has been below zero, unusual for November, with snow and ice covering the streets and sidewalks. The last time Anunzieata, or Nancy, recalled that much snow in 1917, the month of November when she first laid eyes on the city. We open on Monday morning, the week of Thanksgiving, 1934.)Giovanni refuses to see a doctor.)

***

Giovanni arrived home, stepping carefully off the trolley, glancing toward his house on Seneca Street, but his mind was not on the children or his wife, he kept fighting the fierce winds blowing at his back; one block and he would be home. Most of the shrubs surrounding his property on the corner lot were already drooping from snow and ice. He banged his feet on the porch, removed his work boots and carriend them inside the house leaving them on the mat, then slowly climbed the staircase to their second floor flat. His ritual began, opening the old wooded door to the attic where he hung his coat, scarf, hat – he shoved his gloves, frozen, into his coat pockets, then closed the door and reaching up to latch it; he did not want his three sons to sneak into the attic without him. His black iron lunch pail was placed near the sink in the kitchen; he passed Anunzieata as he made his way into the bathroom.

“Didn’t I tell you to stay home, now look at you, not a smile or a hello,” said Nancy after he closed the bathroom door. “No, it’s payday you said, so did you get your money?”

When John opened the door to the bathroom, dressed in night wear, he said, “The boys, they will come with me this weekend to Joe’s Meat Market and I will tell them to buy the biggest turkey he has for our Thanksgiving feast.” John continued past his wife, to their bedroom, situated off the kitchen. He told Nancy in the morning before he left for the job, if he missed the check, he wouldn’t be paid until the day after the holiday.

There was never a day without first greeting the boys with a big hug, but his oldest, ten, stopped clinging to his Papa, but cherished a pat on the back. As he laid beneath the covers he heard his boys playing in the back room, a room where John spent last summer building just for winters like this one, John thought. He pictured his boys, he would peek into the room and they would come running for a hug, and kiss, cheek to cheek. John wanted to get out of bed, go to the back room and swing the littlest around in circles until he yelled stop. Instead, he covered his body with warm blankets, and closed his eyes.

“What’s wrong with Pop,” asked Frankie when he looked into the bedroom.

“Close the door, let him sleep; you know your PaPa, he had to go to work today, a stubborn man, hard headed like all the men: My MaMa was right, you can’t make a Sicilian change their mind.” Nancy continued to fix the plates for the boys dinner, “he did this so you could go to Joe’s place for a turkey, he wants all three of you to walk with him this weekend, but look, now he’s back in bed.”

“Yeah,” yelled Phil, the youngest as he clapped his hands.

“Why are you so happy?” Frankie asked in a annoying tone, “Pop is sick.”

“A turkey, we’re getting a big turkey.”

Anunzieata motioned with her hands to her youngest, signaling for him to hush.

“The entire house remained quiet from Friday night until Monday morning. Frankie kept looking in at his Papa, he seemed to be sleeping most of the time, and the two younger boy’s spent a great deal of time out in the yard, playing in the snow. Now, Nancy believed this had to be something more than a flu, he did not have all the normal signs; no fever, chills, just falling in and out of sleep. She couldn’t wait for him to agree to see a doctor, so she called his pison’ Ralph, who knew John better than she did, as children in Aquafacarro. Perhaps, she thought, he could pound some sense into his head.

Several times during the weekend she talked with her friends on the porch as she swept blowing snow from the large porch. She told them Giovanni would not drink, eat; not even a slice of bread or a glass of water. Some of her friends believed he still had the flu, but Nancy she knew different. While on the porch on Monday morning she told a friend to fetch Ralph, tell him she needed him before he went to the yards. Tell them Giovanni just stays in bed, never moves.

On the first night, Nancy tried to climb into bed with her husband, It was the first night when she tried to climb into bed and Papa screamed, waking the boys. Nancy grabbed the pillow, and blanket, from the closet, and slept on the sofa in the parlor for the weekend.

Not long after asking for Ralph, still sweeping off the porch, she looked up and noticed Ralph approaching the house; then Sam the Milkman pulled up with his truck. She motioned to Ralph with her broom, to go inside the side entrance, then began talking with Sam.

“Giovanni is stubborn,” she shook her head, “He has a stubborn Sicilian blood, not like my Father. She continued telling the Milkman about the Thanksgiving turkey. He too was a pison’ from the same town in Sicily. Sam knew his friend, and knew since the death of his child, he would never see another doctor.

Ralph entered the house removing his boots and proceeded to John’s room. At first he stood in the doorway, he did not want to wake his friend. Then, John opened his eyes, and motioned for his friend to come inside. Ralph knew what happened, knew why John refussed a doctor, but couldn’t tell anyone. He made his way to his bedside.

“Get better – then off we go to our village as young boys to play those – silly games with chestnuts, like the old days: Remember, our Papa’s brought us both into the fields, trying to get us to yank artichokes? Loved those big son of a bitches, great tasting but too damn heavy to carry through the streets to the village. Every night your Papa kept villagers warm by burning the stems as we all gathered around his fire. No wood like here, a few fruit branches, that’s about it. Here – we have huge trees, but nothing like fruit trees back home. We need some of those stems today,” Ralph rubbed his palms, “don’t you have heat in here?”

Giovanni never responded.

“I thought schools would be closed, remember the coal strike when we were delivering coal in the city, before you married, and even the GE closed, schools, church, and stores without heat.” Ralph knew he wasn’t getting anywhere with small talk.

“So, how’s your boys?” Reaching behind him, he pulled up an old wooden chair near the dresser and sat down near the head of the bed. “Lots of bibles; your wife, she prays all day?” He wanted a reaction, anything, as he stared at his pison’ covered in blankets and propped on pillows. He noticed the contrast between John’s dark black hair and clean white sheets. Ralph thought, He is strong, vibrant, a young father, and husband, why him? Now closer to the bed he decided to try another tale, one which may bring a grin on his face.

“Those filthy hens kept walking in and out of the front doors of homes in Sicily, as if they lived with us, and your Papa loved those hens. I bet he watched them lay eggs near the fireplace,” chuckled Ralph, but stopped, “Hey, pison’ wake up – do you hear me? Hens near the fire, ready to lay eggs, don’t I get a smile?” Ralph’s voice became louder – although he knew John wasn’t going to talk.

“Hey you, wake up: Go ahead be a stubborn Sicilian – go ahead – shit, you got family and they love you and you want to die right here in your marriage bed? Lord in Heaven where’s that brain of yours’, talk to me.”

Giovanni opened his eyes, and in a soft whisper he said, “I remember – hens.”

Yeah he can talk, Ralph thought. “Yeah, you remember. Now look – look at the wasted food; don’t eat, drink, are you waiting here to die? There was a long space without any noise, no stories, no preaching, when Ralph continued, “Okay, I’ll shut up, go fetch a doctor and find some hot food, but first- Ralph lifted a wine glass, “drink this wine.” Ralph moved the glass to the edge of the night-stand where bibles and the photos of the boys took up all the space.

“Your wife, she did all this painting, on the walls – what’s it called – she cut apart a sponge, patted it on? Good job, good job, she’ll have to show Maria.” His wife stayed home with their children, and had no idea how sick her friend was, laying in bed, and not talking.

Giovanni turned his head to look at his friend, his eye’s were shadows of his mind, as if made with dark glass; Ralph knew he was in pain, and would never eat. Ralph preached once more about the doctor, and John’s eyes answered, so he stopped.

Now it was Ralph who was nervous with his feet tapping on the wood floor, and his thumbs rolling around in circles, he stood, to walk around the room, look at the wedding picture above the dresser, let some anger out of his bones, and frustration for what was done to his friend. The last thing he wanted was John to be angry. He stared at himself in their wedding picture then returned to the wooden chair, leaning closer, and asked, “You gott’a remember this, that one path in and out of our village?” He paused, “You with me?”

Giovanni grabbed his friend’s hand to show he was listening.

“Good – good.” Ralph paused; he began to lighten the air, “then you remember the big statue of Madonna and at her feet those red carnations? Our heads,” he reached up and knocked on his skull, “we were nuts – called it blood standing up in water – rain water – it never rained. Later someone told us, it was tuna oil from the peddlers who left them outside the village in the morning, to return at dusk to take them back to the sea, and placed fish into those buckets. Remember, we even placed bets on her, guessing when she would kill those red carnations – if you lost you had to fetch a black crow from a witch.”

“Witches, yes,” Giovanni once more whispered as his eyes lit up and closed. Once again he squeezed his friend’s hand.

“We knew about witches from the old country: Those olive trees – only ones filled with black crows, where the witches sat, leaned against the trunk of a tree, where we had to – sneak up – capture a crow.” Ralph burst into laughter and even thought he saw a smile on his friend’s face. “Look at us now, kids don’t know nothing about real witches, they make fun of them as if they really fly on a stick. But – if they found a doll filled with pins in an attic, they would understand.”

The room went quiet. Ralph bent forward, touched his friend’s shoulder, “We were crazy, both of us, especially when those big shots in their suits asked us to bang some olive branches. Dummies – we were dumb to follow those strange men into the olive fields, especially when our own Papa never rented the land, and like an ass-hole, we did what they told us – we kept whacking those branches as olives flew everywhere. Those men in black clothes, stood like armed guards, watching us sweat. Hell, it wasn’t enough, they told us to pick them up and fill those bags one man tossed to the ground. I’ll tell you, I was scared, thought they would shoot us after we did the work. You whispered to me, “We may get money?” Nope, no money, just watched as they turned to leave, passing the witch near the Madonna. You were smart Giovanni, you planned something in that head of yours, to clean up all the fallen olives with a couple of left over white cloth bags, and exchange the olives for things our familia from a peddler. Your Mama, she wanted fish, and mine, all she ever wanted was your Papa’s wine.”

Giovanni’s finger went to his lips, as if to say shut up. Ralph grinned, hoping to get a reaction. “What do you mean, shut up?” he leaned closer, on his elbows, his palms holding his head close to Giovanni.

“You know,” Giovanni whispered, “no one else knows nothing, promise me. The trust we built since we were boys, you carry that trust on when I die.” Giovanni gasped for air as he spoke. “You hear me, the life – of my familia, it’s up to you.”

Ralph ran his fingers through Giovanni’s thick crop of hair, and shook his head in agreement, to make his friend happy – he was a grown man and emotionally made it hard to hold in tears, which would let his friend down, make him give up.

Ralph agreed to keep his mouth shut, and not tell Anunzieata about Friday. He glanced once again at their wedding picture; they were happy, so nice’a, so nice’a that day, as he found his face staring back.

“These plans,” Giovanni stared at Ralph, “made out of respect.” He spoke, telling Ralph all he needed to know, and turned away.

“Hey – I promised, remember? I swear to secrecy, no words, nothing comes from my mouth.” Only Justice, he thought. “Your familia – like mine.” Justice will win, if not it would be a mortal sin, Ralph would never forget Friday. “Look, God rest your soul, but your familia, like rocks, all hard, stubborn afraid of doctors, and then one will be staring down at you like a slab of meat. Why turn someone away when you still breath -you’re stubborn like your Papa – tending to those artichoke stems all night while hens kept pecking at his feet. He must be rolling over in his grave – watching you die.” Ralph wished he didn’t bring up his Papa rolling over in his grave, and changed the topic back to hens. “True your Papa refused to chase away even one bird even if the damn thing landed on the table near macaroni, you know, drying.”

Ralph covered his friend, adjusted the blanket and noticed fresh red blood on white sheets. He became furious, held up one of the pillows at the bottom of the bed, showed it to his read and told him to read it. “Your wife did these with her bare hands, for you, they look new. You gott’a good familia, don’t die on them.”

“I love my familia,” Giovanni whispered, “Now go – go fetch Frankie – you tell him I want to see him.”

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