Title: A Letter From Nonna
Severino paced along the rooftop under a black sky studded with stars. A slight ripping sound rose each time he raised his shoe from the tar that was sticky from the day’s heat. He put his hands together behind his back as he walked.
The argument with Demek had gotten out of hand and he had decided to walk out of the room before he did something he would regret, leaving Demek glaring at him, and Arianna weeping in the corner. He had climbed the stairs to the roof to cool off, and give himself some time to think. He felt the cool air against his flushed face and mumbled as he strode in the dark.
“Maybe I should just move,” he said into the night air. “Arianna is not my concern. It’s not my fault that she is married to such a brute.”
A vision filled his mind as he remembered the times Demek had verbally abused her in his presence. He winced as he remembered the times he heard cries of pain and distress after what had sounded like a beating emanating from the couple’s apartment.
“I cannot help that I feel bad for her, that I think she is beautiful and delicate like a small bird.” He took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his sweaty brow. “Maybe before I was married, maybe if she wasn’t married, maybe then I would try to have Arianna as my own.” He shook his head slightly. “But that is not how it is. I worry about the way she is treated as I would if she were my sister.”
Severino heard the squeak of the roof door and stopped walking. He turned to see Demek standing in the opening. He turned and walked away.
“Severino, we are not done yet.” Demek walked purposefully toward Severino, the stitch of his footsteps on the soft tar quick and loud. “I have more I want to say to you.”
“It would be better if I moved, Demek,” Severino said as he stopped and looked at Demek. “I don’t want any trouble. My concern for Arianna is not what you think.”
“I don’t believe that for a minute.”
“Believe what you will,” Severino said defiantly. “I have no interest in your wife beyond believing she is a good woman…and that you treat her poorly.”
“How I treat my wife is not your business!” Demek had stopped walking and stood with his hands balled into fists at his side. “You have no idea what kind of person she is.”
“You’re right, I don’t,” Severino said and turned and began walking for the door. He wanted to avoid any physical confrontation with the owner of the boarding house and decided to go downstairs to his apartment. “I’ll be moving out as soon as I find another place.”
“You’ll be gone by morning,” Demek said. “And if I catch you around my wife in the future I will kill you.”
Severino stopped in mid-stride and turned to Demek. “I have no place to go in the morning except to work. I have no interest in seeing your wife. All I need is a couple of days.”
“You have no interest in my wife?” Demek laughed, then his face pinched into a frown. “I see the way you look at her, and I see how she looks at you. Do you think I haven’t noticed that she gives you extra portions at dinner? Do you think I don’t notice the way she keeps your food warm with you work late; that she takes better care of your room than any other border? She is more concerned with your comfort than she is with mine.”
“Maybe if you treated her better—“
“—You should be ashamed of yourself, you’re a married man yourself. Only a pig would come between a man and his wife.”
“I have done no such thing, Demek.” Severino felt his chest tighten as his anger increased. “I show her respect, I treat her like a lady. You should try it some time.”
“I’m sure that’s not all you show her, you pig.”
“Watch what you say, Demek,” Severino turned back to Demek. “You are not talking to your wife now.”
Only a few steps separated the two men as they stared at each other like two angry animals, each waiting for the other to strike. After a brief pause, Demek walked to Severino, quickly closing the gap between them. He stopped with his face so close Severino could smell the garlic on his breath. “No, I’m not talking to my wife,” Demek said. “I’m talking to the dog who has become her lover.”
Severino felt the heat rise in his face, his eyes narrowed as he spoke. “I’m warning you, Demek. I won’t take abuse like your wife does.”
“I will treat my wife as I see fit. And since I own this house I’ll also treat you as I see fit.” Demek pushed his finger into Severino’s chest with each word he spoke. Severino took a step back and Demek followed him, his finger still jabbing his chest. “What are you going to do about it?’
A flash of light blinded Severino as his anger suddenly grew. All the anger of seeing young men die on the mountain during the war, his wife’s refusal to move with him to America, the abuse he was forced to take on his job, all came to the surface at once. He felt his hand ball itself into a tight fist. Suddenly his fist came up and struck out, slamming against Demek’s face. He watched the man fall to the soft tar covering the roof.
Demek rubbed his jaw slowly as he looked up at Severino, then held his hand in front of his eyes and saw the blood on his fingers. “You son-of-a-bitch,” he said as he put his hand against the roof and pushed himself up to a sitting position. He stood and ran at Severino.
The two men grappled and fell to the roof in a heap, Demek on top punching wildly and blindly. With his left hand, Severino grabbed Demek’s shirt collar and pulled him off of his chest, then rolled on top of Demek and wrapped his hands around his neck.
“I don’t want to hurt you, Demek,” Severino said between raspy breaths. “I told you I’ll leave. What more do you want?”
“I want to kill you, that’s what I want.” Demek said, his words constrained by the hands wrapped tightly around his neck. “Let me up, get off of me.”
“If I let you up will you stop fighting?”
“Sure, whatever you want.”
Slowly, Severino loosened his grip around Demek’s neck. He raised himself to stand over Demek and watched the angry man get up.
“I’m going downstairs and I’ll pack my things,” Severino said and began to turn away. “I’ll be gone by morning, just like you want.” Severino walked toward the open door that led into the apartment building and the dimly lit stairs. With only a short distance until Severino stepped onto the dark landing he heard the squeak of Demek’s sticky steps on the soft-tar roof.
When Severino turned, Demek was nothing more than a blur coming at him. Severino stepped aside at the last minute and Demek, unable to stop quickly enough, went through the door, his foot catching on the small lip at the threshold that served to keep the rain from entering the building.
The sound of thumps and bumps mingling with grunts and groans rose from the narrow passage as Demek tripped and fell headlong down the wooden steps. A final loud bump, like the strike of a bass drum, was followed by soft moans.
Severino stepped onto the small landing and saw Demek at the bottom of the steps, lying in a heap. He watched without moving and listened to the soft moans floating up to him. He looked around but saw no one. He stepped inside and closed the door as the moans coming from Demek suddenly stopped. He stood in the dim light at the top of the stairs. There was complete silence.
Severino leaned over the railing and saw Demek on the landing below, then took a step down. “Demek?” he called softly. “Demek, are you alright?” There was no answer. Severino took a few more steps down toward the dark form lying on the floor. He stopped and listened but heard only the creaking of the steps where he stood. He took the last few steps tentatively and knelt down next to Demek. It was then that he saw the small trickle of blood dripping from the landing to the step below.
He grabbed Demek’s shoulder and turned him over and looked into Demek’s open eyes, eyes that looked blankly at the ceiling. A line of crimson blood ran from Demek’s ear and dripped onto the stair where he lay. Severino let out a long sigh and sat back against the stairs. The obvious slowly seeped into his brain. Demek’s neck had been broken in the fall. Severino ran his fingers through his sweaty hair and let out a slow groan.
He placed his elbows on his knees and dropped his head into his open hands and thought about what he should do. If he called the police they would surely know there had been a fight. The purple bruising around Demek’s neck would be a dead give-away that the two had struggled. Besides, there were other boarders that knew the two of them didn’t get along, and Mr. Piccolo, an elderly boarder on the third floor had seen Severino when he had gone up to the roof earlier. He surely had seen his look of anger as he passed the old man’s door. And knowing the old noisy boarder as he did, Severino knew that he had most likely watched Demek follow him to the roof a short time later. Severino tried to clear his mind and think.
This could ruin everything. A lawyer will cost me all the money I’ve saved. I’ll have nothing left to send home to support my family. And what if I am sent to jail? Who will support my family then? Severino pulled a cigarette from his pocket. He fumbled for a match and struck it, then watched the flame tremble in his fingers as he tried to light the cigarette. I have to do something. The police will think we fought and I pushed him down the stairs. It would be easy for everyone to believe I have killed him on purpose so that I could have his wife to myself. I cannot go to jail!
Severino sat back on the step and stared down at the dead man at his feet and tried to control his breathing. He had to figure out what he should do. Call the police? Would they believe it was an accident? Probably not, he thought. What would Arianna say when he told her that her husband was dead. She should rejoice, he thought. But what if she flew into a rage and called the police herself?
He knew he didn’t have much time before he had to make a decision and do something. He couldn’t sit here all night with a dead body. He turned when he heard the whisper of bare feet on the tiled floor. He turned and saw Arianna standing there, her eyes frozen on the body of her husband.
“Arianna, I…” he said quietly, but stopped before finishing.
“Is he dead?” she asked in a voice just above a whisper.
“You killed him?” Her gaze rose and she looked deeply into Severino’s eyes.
He hesitated, looked at the body and then turned back to Arianna. “It was an accident.”
“You killed him,” she said softly.
“No, Arianna, it was an accident.”
“No, you killed him Severino,” she spoke as if she hadn’t heard the words he had spoken.
“No, you must believe me,” he said. “It was an accident, he lunged at me and fell…”
Before he could finish she stepped over her husband’s body and looked down at Severino. He put his hands up in front of his face believing she was going to attack him. Instead, she stood there and just looked at him. “You killed him, and you have set me free.” She put her hands on Severino’s shoulders. “Thank you, Severino. Thank you!”
Severino felt the cold in his knees first, and then he felt it rise up to his stomach; the feeling of fear that he knew well. If Arianna didn’t believe it was an accident, how could he expect the police to believe him? He began to shake with the fear that he would be sent to jail.
Fear seared through Severino’s body as Arianna placed her hands behind his head and pulled him against her breasts and held him in a tight embrace. “Thank you, I am free. Thank you, Severino. Thank you.”
As Severino’s cheek pressed against the softness of the cotton dress she wore, he began to think again about what to do. “It was an accident, I swear,” he said against her breast.
“It doesn’t matter how, Severino. What matters is that he is dead. And that I am now free of him.”
“You believe me, don’t you? That it was an accident?” he asked.
She shushed him as she held him and rocked back and forth, all the time whispering, over and over. “I am free. I am free.”
They sat in the kitchen sipping the strong coffee Arianna had made and talked about what they should do.
“Let’s just leave him there. I’ll find him in the morning and tell the police he must have fallen down the stairs.”
“But Mr. Piccolo saw me go up. He probably saw Demek follow me. The police will talk to him and they’ll think I killed him on purpose.” He looked at Arianna over the rim of the cup as he sipped the bitter, strong coffee. “He has marks on his neck where I held him down. And his nose is probably broken by my punch, I’m sure there are bruises on his face as well.” He noticed Arianna was looking at him with a slight smile. “Why are you smiling?” he asked.
“You’re right. It doesn’t sound like an accident. Not that I care. I would have choked him myself if I could have. But you are probably right about what the police will think.”
“No, the bruises were from before, when we struggled on the roof. I knocked him down and then held him down by his neck. I was trying to get him to stop struggling. When I let him up he lunged at me.”
Arianna’s smile faded and her face softened. She stood and walked to Severino and kissed his forehead. Looking down at him she smiled again. “I don’t care what happened. I don’t care if you hit him, pushed him down the stairs. He deserved much more punishment than that. All I care about is that I am now free of him. And the only thing that concerns me now is what to do so you are not in trouble over this.”
Severino finished his coffee and Arianna asked if he wanted more. “Yes, it’s going to be a long night and I have to be able to think.” He watched as she walked to the stove and lifted the coffee pot.
When she turned to him she was smiling again.
“Your husband is upstairs, dead. Probably with a broken neck. And all you can do is smile.”
“I’m sorry, Severino. How can I be sad about him being dead? You have no idea how many times I wished for his death. Even though I’m not a true believer, I even prayed for his death.” She filled his cup with dark, steaming coffee. The aroma lifted into the air. “But I will be make sure the police see a sad widow when they come.”
Severino looked into his cup and saw his reflection on the surface. It was then he remembered Nunzio. Do I dare ask for his help? He wondered to himself.
Nunzio Bragotti and Severino met at work and became friends quickly. Like Severino, Nunzio was from the mountains of Italy. And like Severino, he had left a wife behind in a small village with their children. Also like Severino, he hoped to one day bring his family to America. But that’s where the two men’s similarities ended.
Nunzio was a rough young man who used profanity freely. He fought with his co-workers and had even made some extra money collecting past due debts for Mr. Lupo. He had quickly made a name for himself as someone who would do whatever necessary to accomplish his task. He still worked at the subway construction, but he no longer had to labor like Severino did. Because of his close association with Mr. Lupo, Nunzio had been moved to the position of foreman. He and Severino remained good friends, even when Severino turned down an offer to handle some of Mr. Lupo’s affairs for Nunzio.
“Its easy money,” Nunzio had said to Severino when he asked him to collect a gambling debt. “And it will put you in good stead with a powerful man.”
“Nunzio,” Severino had replied. “I do not want to become involved with Mr. Lupo’s business dealings. You know as well as I that he takes advantage of our countrymen. He charges triple the interest as an honest man would charge.”
“But you could make extra money,” Nunzio said. “For the grocery story you want.”
“I don’t want anything so bad that I am willing to owe Lupo a part of my life.” Severino knew that he was hurting his friendship with Nunzio by refusing the job. He also knew that he would be given the dirtier, more difficult jobs at work as punishment for refusing a request. It was a matter of honor for Mr. Lupo. He was not used to hearing the word, no.
He watched Arianna wash the coffee cups and put them in the drain, then turn to him and lean against the sink. “Do you have any ideas about what to do, Severino?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said and closed his eyes. With his elbows on the table he dropped his head into his hands and rubbed his palms against his eyes. “But God help me for what I am about to do.” He knew that when he went to Nunzio and Mr. Lupo and asked for their help that he would pay dearly for their agreement to assist him. And he knew he would have to pay with much more than money.