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 Category:  Family Fiction
  Posted: February 22, 2020      Views: 46

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I am very happy to be back on this site once again after an absence. I used to be ekpoet here years ago. I hope to be able to contribute with lots of reviews and some new material which I have been working on for the last several years. I have writte - more...

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short story
"Patriarch" by estory

"He looks important," Theresa said, decidedly; "I bet he was someone important."

"Who looks important?" Sal walked over and stood behind his sister, looking over her shoulder. She was holding a black and white photograph of a sharp nosed, finely chiseled, clean shaven man in a dark jacket with a white shirt and a necktie. He had a high forehead. Deep set eyes. A serious, if somewhat dismissive, look on his face.

"I think it's a picture of our grandfather," Theresa continued. She said this reverently, staring at the face in the picture that she held with both of her hands, almost as if it were an icon.

"How do you know?" Sal asked her, putting his hands on the hips of his finely tailored slacks. He always wore collared shirts and dress pants, even in private settings. Now he leaned over to take a closer, interested look at the man in the picture.

"I found it in a box of mother's things," she answered solemnly, as if revealing a connection that would illuminate mysterious family origins. "It must be her father." Every week she went to a stylist, as she had done since childhood, and now she brushed a wave of her caramel colored hair out of her face. She was as well dressed as her brother, even though they were alone in the house.

"Hmmm," Sal mused, as if trying to remember if he had seen that face before, or what he had heard about him. "It could be, I guess. He died before we were born, so it's hard to say. I've never seen a picture of him before."

Theresa turned then, still holding the picture with both hands, glancing between Sal and the face in the picture, recognizing something in the faces she hadn't seen until then. "You look like him, a bit. I see a little of him in your face."

Sal studied the important looking face. "You don't say," he said.

"Oh yes, definitely. You have his nose. You have his forehead."

"And what about you?" He turned to look at his sister with a discerning eye.

"I have his eyes."

Sal's lips curled into a wry smile. "And what does that mean?"

Theresa shrugged. "Don't you wish you knew more about him? He looks important. Mom was the one with the money, remember?"

Sal looked around the well furnished room, remembering. "Well, mom didn't talk about him much. What makes you think he was important?"

"I don't know. It just looks like a picture of somebody you'd see hanging in a bank, or something. The way he's dressed, the way he looks."

Theresa and Sal were going through their parents' house. Their mother had passed away a couple of months before and they were clearing it out. Neither of them had been there in years, and the sight of it, like a Tuscan villa, on its well landscaped lot of palm trees and bougainville, had sharpened their feelings of entitlement. The house was in Florida; Sal lived in Raleigh, where he had a good job in research triangle park working for a software firm. Theresa had flown down from New York. She had played softball for St. John's University, majored in sports medicine, and got a job as a physical therapist. Her boyfriend was playing AAA ball. They were always travelling; if you called, all you got was the machine and a message to leave your number after the beep. Sal was busy too. He had recently bought a condo in one of those new, luxury buildings downtown; a place with a gym, a pool, a terrace restaurant and bar that overlooked the NC State campus. He had a BMW convertible and was dating a graduate student at the college. He had ideas of striking out on his own, getting his own office, being his own boss. He could see himself in a picture like that, hanging on the wall opposite his desk. He wondered what Jessica would think of it.

He looked around the room at his mother's baroque furniture, the entertainment center, the exercise bike, the four poster bed and the Gustav Stickney desk. "Sometimes I wonder how mom came into it all," he said out loud.

Theresa put down the picture and sat in the chair at the desk. She looked down her nose at her brother, smoothing back her styled hair, crossing her stockinged legs, pointing the toes of her designer shoes at him. "Don't you wish you knew more about him?"

Sal shrugged. "I don't know. I just never thought about it before, I guess."

Theresa leaned towards him with a penetrating stare. "Don't you wish you knew more about where we came from? I mean, who made us what we are. What they did. What kind of people they were. I've been thinking about it ever since mom died. I've been thinking about it a lot."

Sal looked out of the window at the carefully designed and manicured yard with its flower beds and shrubs, its fountain and statues of cherubs. "Dad always said he and mom's families had come from Italy. His father was a bricklayer. That's how he ended up in construction, I guess. I don't remember mom saying what her father did. I suppose it doesn't matter now. I mean, I'm a software engineer. You're a physical therapist."

Theresa shook her head. "But I think that's sad. I think it's sad that you don't know and don't care where you came from."

"I wouldn't say that," Sal said, shifting his weight. "It's not that I don't care. But if he was important, why wouldn't mom tell us? Is it going to be worth it, digging into it?"

Theresa picked up the picture again and looked at the face in the photograph as if she were trying to find her way home from somewhere, trying to lay claim to something. "I just think it's real sad that we've come to this point in our lives without knowing what our roots are. Without really having a foundation. A reference point." She put down the picture and got up, smoothing out her neat little Versace dress. "I don't know why mom never talked about her past. Her father. But now that I've found this picture of him, I'm dying to find out who he was and where he came from. He looks important."

"I remember mom saying that they lived in Brooklyn," Sal said, "and that he died of a heart attack trying to row his boat back from a fishing trip in Sheepshead Bay, when his motor conked out."

Theresa scowled and waved her hands dismissively. "That's not what I meant. That's just part of the story. Aren't you curious about who he was, what kind of family he came from?"

Sal walked over and looked at the picture again himself. He tried to imagine him at a desk in a bank, ordering around his servants in the vineyard of his villa. "You're hell bent on this. But how are you going to find out more about him?"

Theresa thought for a moment, a determined look on her sharpened face. "We could hire somebody."

"Like a detective?"

"Sure. You give him pictures, names, addresses. Tell him things you've heard about from the family. He does the research. Figures things out. Connects the dots."

"I've never hired a detective before," Sal said, folding his arms. "Where would you find somebody like that?"

Theresa smiled shrewdly. "Just leave it to me."

"What do you think he'll dig up?"

"We'll never know unless we let him dig. Maybe he was a craftsman. A glassblower. A winemaker. Maybe he was a merchant. A merchant of Venice. Wouldn't you like to know about that?" She looked persuasively at her brother.

"Maybe," Sal said, looking at the picture with renewed interest. "Well, if you want to give it a try..."

She jumped up triumphantly and gave him a hug. "Thank you," she said. "And in the end, you're going to thank me. You'll see. It could turn out that our name is on a bottle of famous wine, and we never knew it."

"Yeah, sure," Sal said. But he was smiling a little.

After a few weeks, Theresa called him from New York. "I've hired a geneology detective," she told him in an excited voice. "He's on the case already. I gave him grandpa's picture, his name, and the address where grandpa and grandma used to live. He told me that's actually a lot to go on, and he said he'd call me when he gets some results. It should be soon. He's going to check the city records, check the records at Ellis Island. He said if he finds out what boat he came over on, he can trace it all the way back to where it left Italy. He can find out what town he came from. And then he can even look at records over there and go further back. Isn't that exciting?"

"I'm impressed," Sal replied, pacing in his condo. "But how much is this going to cost? It sounds expensive."

"It's money well spent," Theresa decided. "We're talking about our family history. Who knows what we're connected to? We might have ancestors from Florence who had something to do with the renaissance. You can't put a price on that."

"No, I guess you can't," Sal said, looking out of his window. "Well, the moment of truth is coming for sure. Maybe he can show us our family crest, a coat of arms."

"That's what I'm talking about."

"I could have a banner made with the coat of arms on it," Sal demurred. "I could hang it from the porch of the townhouse. I could have it printed on my china. Jessica would love something like that."

"Cool. I was thinking of taking a trip to Italy, to see the ancestral town. Maybe visit a church, find a gravestone or a sepulcher. Maybe there's even a villa we could visit."

"Maybe I'll go with you," Sal replied. "I'd like to see that myself. Take Jessica along. Imagine the stories we could tell people when we get back."

"Imagine the posts we could make on Facebook and Twitter," she said.

"Keep me posted," Sal told her.

It wasn't long before Theresa called him again. "He found the boat," she declared. "He told me he found where the boat sailed from, and the village grandpa came from. He's going through the archives of a church there."

"Sounds like quite a story," Sal said. "I can't wait to hear it. I told Jessica about it, and she can't wait to see who he turns out to be. She said she would be thrilled if I turned out to be descended from a duke, or something. Did he say how much longer this is going to take?"

"I told him to take his time," Theresa told him. "Get all the details. We want to find out as much as we can, right? 'No problem', he said. He's doing real thorough research, and it takes time, he said."

"May as well go the whole nine yards," Sal admitted, "Now that we're in this far. I can't believe he can get access to all those old records. That really is amazing."

"Aren't you glad you listened to me?" Theresa asked in a triumphant tone.

"I guess so," Sal said. "After all, finding the church they attended. Is it a historic church, or something?"

"It must be. Everything over there has a history attached to it."

"I mean, does it have a Michaelangelo, a frescoe painted by Titian? A saint's relics? Some of the churches over there supposedly have the bones of the three kings or the nails from the crucifixion. I looked it up online."

"He didn't say, but I suppose it might. I'm sure he'll tell us everything when the investigation is over."

A couple of months passed, but finally Theresa called Sal with the news that the detective had informed her that the case was complete. He had compiled everything at his office in New York and Theresa had made an appointment for them. Sal was excited. He flew up from Raleigh in a new suit, with Italian shoes. They took a train to Manhattan, bubbling over with anticipation.

The detective's office was seven floors up in an old art deco building on Seventh Avenue, not far from Penn Station. It had an impressive lobby with a marble floor and a brass, revolving door, with classical embelishments all around the moldings and wainscoting. A blazing chandelier in the grand European style hung from the vaulted ceiling over the receptionist's desk. The receptionist, however, was a rather grim looking lady in a dark suit, who directed them quickly to the elevator. On the seventh floor the corridor was dark and dense, a place very different from the entrance. They found the detective's office and opened the door, entering a cramped, dingy space in which the old, mid century modern furniture was covered with dust. It was all a bit disconcerting, and Theresa and Sal hesitated until a gruff voice from an inner room bade them sit down.

The detective, a Mister Scalia, presently appeared from the back room; he seemed a bit disheveled, and his thread bare polyester jacket smelled of cigarette smoke. He was portly, with a bald head and a face that looked worn by much tension and many disappointments; huffing and puffing as he gathered his papers on his scratched desk. Theresa and Sal glanced at each other. He looked nothing like a Columbo or a Rockford or a Kojak. He looked up at them with the proverbial beady eyes.

"Ah, Miss Littieri," he said in his gruff, smoker's voice. "Nice to see you at last."

Theresa's face had gone blank. She turned to Sal and introduced him. "My brother."

"Ah," said Mister Scalia, forcing a smile as he leaned back in his chair. He extended a hand. "Nice to meet both of you." He looked down at the papers on the desk. There was an unexpected air of dissolution in the silence.

Theresa leaned forward at last. "You told me you had completed your investigation," she said, expectantly.

Scalia continued to look at the papers in front of him, his elbows resting on the desk and his hands clasped above them. He grimaced habitually. "I have, I have," he said, nodding. He paused, seeming to shrug a bit. "I don't know what you two were expecting, but I do have the story of your grandfather here. I must say, it turned out to be...rather colorful." He looked up at them from under his eyebrows.

They didn't know what to say. Sal looked at Theresa. She looked back at him, as taken aback as he was. "This isn't quite what we anticipated," she said, uncertainly. "Is it good news, or bad news?"

Scalia shrugged again. "Well, we may as well start at the beginning. Like I say, I don't know what you were expecting, but it was a rather...colorful story." He picked up one of the papers. "I had everything documented. Photocopied documents. That way everything is indisputable." He held up grandpa's picture. "The man who called himself 'Joseph Catallano' came to Ellis Island on June 11, 1919. The name of the ship was the Stella Rosa. He was registered as a second class passenger. He came over with a woman he portrayed as his wife, but I couldn't find a marriage document attesting to that fact."

Theresa and Sal looked at each other again. "That's strange," Theresa said, rubbing her chin apprehensively. "As far as we were told, they were married."

Scalia never looked up from his papers. "The Stella Rosa sailed from Palermo. Palermo Sicily."

"Oh, Sicily," Sal said, as if expecting somewhere else.

"Palermo Sicily," Scalia repeated, firmly. "The odd thing is, he registered as 'Joseph Catallano, Monte Mare.' I didn't find a record of a Joseph Catallano in Monte Mare. But I did have this picture you gave me to go on. Monte Mare is a small village; only a couple of hundred of residents from old families, and the town hall had a collection of photographs from them on microfilm. I looked through them one afternoon. I found a picture of an Anthony Falcone, that matched the portrait you gave me."

"That's weird," Theresa murmured.

Scalia went on. "There was a record of Anthony Falcone in the church. I went through those and there is no doubt your grandfather was him. He was born in Monte Mare in 1892. There is no record of him, no death certificate, after 1919. He left his home town for Palermo that summer, changed his name, and sailed for New York as Joseph Catallano."

Sal leaned back in his chair. "Wow. I wonder why he changed his name?"

Scalia smiled. "Another interesting thing I found is a wedding certificate for Anthony Falcone in the church at Monte Mare. He was married to a Maria Castagna on April 14, 1917. There's a picture of them. There's also a record of a baptism for a Michael Anthony Falcone on Sept. 16, 1917."

"Oh my God," Theresa gasped. "He was married and had a son there. He got someone pregnant and they made him marry her. And after the baby was born, he left them both with someone else; our grandmother, and came to New York."

Sal shook his head. "Geez," he said.

Mr. Scalia made an off hand gesture. "It certainly looks that way."

Theresa closed her eyes. "I wonder why he did that?"

Sal leaned forward, scowling. "What did he do for a living?"

Mr. Scalia shuffled the papers on his desk. He wiped his mouth quickly with his hand as he read from the page in front of him. "He's listed in the village records as a helper of his father, and his father is listed as what they called a 'dubious merchant.' They often listed smugglers that way."

Sal fell back, deflated, in his chair. "A smuggler? Are you sure?"

Scalia winced. "That's what the records say, yes. Like I say, I don't know what you people were expecting. People expect all kinds of things. Men of letters, officials, soldiers with records of bravery and medals of honor. The fact is, most people I've come across are just regular people."

"Regular people?" Theresa asked, frowning.

Mr. Scalia shrugged. His expression seemed like that of a judge who had seen all kinds of people come before his bench. "Forgive me, Miss Littieri. I think most people get caught in the struggle of life. They meet, they make love, they have to deal with the consequences. Sometimes they can't deal with the consequences. They make decisions; whether they are good decisions or bad decisions, they have to live with them. Most people like to think of themselves as heros, as stars, as people to be looked up to. But in real life, they make mistakes, they have failings, they don't live up to the expectations."

"Oh God," Theresa said, covering her face with her hands. "I didn't really expect this."

"I'm sure you didn't," Scalia replied, matter of fact. "I'm sure you went into this with all kinds of anticipation."

'Well," Sal told him, "It's not your fault."

Scalia looked him in the eye. "It's nobody's fault, Mr. Littieri. That's the nature of my job. I'm given a mystery and told to solve it. I go by the facts. Sometimes it's good news, sometimes it's not so good. That's life."

Author Notes
These two pretentious siblings have their come-uppance in this cautionary tale, as they discover that their roots are not quite as illustrious as they imagined. In many ways, there's a little bit of all of us in them; we like to think of ourselves, as the detective pronounces at the end, as heros and stars, people to be looked up to. But in the end, we all have failings, we all make mistakes that pull the rug out from under our own feet, and it is not until we recognize this fact that we can move on to the redemption and transformation that life demands of us, as the next story in this series will attest. estory
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