Fiction - Winter 2014

The News of the World

By Mario Rigoni Stern | December 6, 2013


In the end he had worked as a cement-layer, building skyscrapers, and he quit when he became a grandfather and his children went their ways. In the old-folks’ home, there in Michigan, on the lake, things weren’t bad and he wanted for nothing. But also for everything. So with the money from his insurance policy he decided to take a vacation in the village—and stay until the money ran out. He would have someone take him to the Chicago airport, where he would board a plane for Milan; there, a nephew of his, the son of his sister Maria, would wait punctually for him in the little red Fiat.

He had been gone nearly 50 years, having left for America in the spring of 1922. After his discharge—60 months in the Alpino Corps with the war in the middle—he had worked rebuilding the destroyed houses and fertilizing the fields blasted by the shelling; but once that was over, life became hard and lean, so much so that he didn’t have the money to buy himself a pack of cut tobacco twice a week or have a glass of wine on Sundays with his friends. So he decided to go to America, where he already had a brother-in-law, and all together his brothers and sisters managed to scrape together the money for his trip.

When he got there, he worked first in the stone quarries, then in a big cement plant in Alpena, and finally, building skyscrapers; he also married a daughter of fellow villagers who had emigrated there in the late 19th century. Children came, the Second World War, the Korean War, where a son of his died; but now the time had come for him to rest with his stomach in the sun, like a cat.

Ah, he really liked seeing the old places of his youth again, hearing the dialect rather than those mumbled sounds, finding his old companions again and being able to play good card games with them and remembering how he had flirted with the girls on winter evenings in warm stables. In America, things of that sort had never been possible for him; work and house, work and car, work and television, work and retirement, retirement and old-folks’ home. Sometimes he wondered if it had been worth leaving the village. After all, he’d say, in the end they ended up managing here, too.

He would sit for hours under the plum tree in his sister’s garden and look around at the mountains changing color as the hours of the day went by, at the pastures with the cows, and at the dark forests: these were the only things he found untouched in his memory, because the war and then real estate development had changed the face of the village, and only a few outlying hamlets retained something of the bygone world. But the people still had it, more than anything because once the summer residents and tourists had left, on September evenings, before lighting the fires for dinner, there was still the custom of sitting in front of the door to talk about the weather, about birds, about harvests, about villagers who have passed on, and all while watching the children playing in the mown fields.

“Beautiful, these evenings,” he would say. “Oh ià.”

But every morning when I rode down from my house on my bicycle to go to the village to buy the newspapers, I would see him sitting under the plum tree smoking his cigar. So I’d stop with one foot on the low wall and another on the pedal, and it was a pleasure to exchange a few words with him. More than hearing about his life in Chicago or about one of his nephews in California, who was in and out of prison, I wanted him to tell me about his childhood here in the hamlet and about his war in our home mountains, with the villagers in the Alpino Corps and with one of my uncles, a quartermaster and a friend of his.

He would talk to me with long pauses, in the old dialect, and in the pauses he seemed to want to listen to the calls of passing birds, as if his memories came from them; he would follow the cows in the pasture with his gaze, and I realized that in the strong taste of the cigar, in the joyful birdsong, in the cowbells, in the outline of the hills, he was reencountering concrete things that were making him forget the smell and the air of the cement plant, the noise of the compressors and the hoists, the outline of the skyscrapers: “Oh ià,” he would say every once in a while. “Oh ià, Mario.” And in this I heard the ancient interjection that few of us use now.

When I came back, pushing hard on the pedals, I’d stop again with him for a bit, partly to catch my breath. He would ask me for news of the world (but the world for him was the village recovered), what the papers were saying; but sometimes I noticed he was far from what I was reading to him from the headlines: he was paying closer attention to the acrobatics of the titmice in the branches of the plum tree.

One morning without the slightest trace of cloud on the mountains, washed clear by an overnight storm, with the joy of the larks and a row of swallows under the eaves of the roof, I went down, as always, on my bicycle. He was there smoking in bliss, enjoying the sun, but I was in a hurry to get an express letter sent to the newspaper on time and I just yelled hello, ringing my bike bell festively.

“Ciao!” he shouted after me. “It’s a beautiful day. Oh ià!”

When I returned, I didn’t see him in his spot and the chair was lying on the ground. So I went in the house to give him the news of the world. In the kitchen were his grandnephews and nieces and his nephew’s wife.

“Uncle Angelo,” they told me, “is dead. Just a little after you went by on your bike, he fell off his chair and when we picked him up he wasn’t breathing. Now we’ve put him out on the sofa. What should we do?”

His sister Maria was crying in despair and holding his hand.

“My brother Angelo,” she almost shouted. “Angelo! But look, look, come on.”

A lawyer friend who came from Rome to spend a month here because he loves our country and our people was very practical and expeditious. By phone he tracked down a son in America to give him the news; he called the consul, too, because Angelo was an American citizen, and then the doctor, the priest. He also laid out the body, because it was getting rigid. In the meantime I was thinking it would be fair and good to bury him here among us, with all his fellow villagers, and with the firs, the fields, the hills, the hamlets with their usual lives around the cemetery. But his children wanted him back in Chicago, by plane.

From the nearest U.S. base came an embalmer in a long decked-out car and carrying a sample case. He showed pictures of various types of coffins, made of every kind of wood and with every possible embellishment: for atheists, for believing Catholics, for evangelists, for Mormons; for men, for women, for young people, for old people; and the studs and the accessories in bronze, in brass, in copper, in silver, and even in gold; and then the inside with damasked satins of various colors to match the complexion and the look of the dear departed; and padding in various styles. He also had a sample case for the makeup: powders, creams, pomades, fragrances, hairspray, mascara; the accessories for the attire. And everything, naturally, with a list of prices: from the embalming to the funeral home in Chicago, including the plane trip.

And that’s what was done: they ordered it by phone from America. But before letting him go in such a way, we accompanied him to the church where he had been baptized 84 years earlier: and now there were also women and children, and an old friend or two, men from the hamlet, and when the long car from the American funeral parlor came to take him away for the last, definitive emigration, we raised our hands in farewell. Oh, ià.

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