IN SCHOOL, she was the beautiful girl who would get teased by all the other children; the forth daughter out of five very precocious blonde daughters. If her classmates had known that beautiful awkwardness that showed on her face—the wide Italian nose she wouldn’t grew into for another ten years, the fervent condition of her green eyes, and the lovely smile that made everyone else smile—they might not have made fun of her with such fervent ardor. But she was gullible. There was no denying it. She was the little one from Federal Hill who wanted to believe in everything, and sometimes did. She was that little girl you would see out on the porch at night—the one staring off into space, dreaming of a world that existed out beyond the city pavers of Barker Street: the great big world on the other side of the ocean out beyond the Providence River.
Julianna never did get to travel much, had never been to Vieste before, where her mother’s family had immigrated to American right after the war. It had always been her dream to go to her mother’s birthplace. And now, as a grown woman, she found herself in Italy, in the province of Foggia, and she felt like a stranger in her grandmother’s small house—awkward and out of place like a sylph cupped in an old, gray hand.
Julianna stared down at the shattered china on the floor and she tried to hold back the tears. She looked up at her grandmother.
“Nonna, I’m sorry. I wasn’t paying attention. I didn’t mean to. Those were all the dishes!” Julianna said.
She held her blonde hair up over her head with one hand and looked at her grandmother.
“We’ll live,” the grandmother said. “Durante la guerra . . . I sold my wedding ring and fed your aunts and uncles and your mother with bread for a whole month during the war. They lived.”
“But Nonna. I mean, this is the—” Julianna huffed.
Her grandmother gave her a stern look.
Julianna knew better than to finish her sentence. She stood up and walked over to the open kitchen door and threw some of the broken dishes in a small bucket. A warm breeze blew in and Julianna looked down the stucco footpath along the front of the house. The castle of Frederic the II stood off in the distance and she could see Pizzomunno cliff jutting up from the beach down below. And there was an old man down in the street. She could see him as he pulled a cart of fruit and vegetables and shouted out to all the Viestana of la strada Corso Umberto.
“I’ll make it up to you,” Julianna turned toward her grandmother. “I’ll go buy some fruit. We don’t need dishes for that.”
“All right. You’re the lawyer. I’ll clean the rest of this up and you go buy some fruit for us so we can eat.”
“Are you sure, Nonna?”
“Yes. Yes. Please. Don’t test my patience. Go buy some fruit for us.”
Her grandmother looked at Julianna and the elder Rinaldi smiled. “Go down to Marina Piccola and ask for il fruttivendolo Mussolini,” the grandmother advised.
“Mussolini the fruitman?”
Julianna nodded and picked up sine lire from the kitchen table and checked her face in the mirror. “I’ll be right back,” she said, and she walked out the front door of the apartment and went out into the bright sunlight outside.
She walked down the narrow street, closing her eyes for a second as she breathed in the clean salty air. There was the sound of children laughing and playing and a slight diesel smell just beneath the redolence of the ocean. She could feel the sun as it shined down, hot, on her arms.
Julianna walked along the streets and didn’t really think about how her mother or grandmother had survived the war on nothing, or that there ever really was a world war. Julianna was from Federal Hill not Vieste. She graduated from Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island and thought she knew all she needed to know. Old stories about war and famine and making do with nothing were just that: old stories.
Julianna walked down the yellowing stucco and cement streets and all the old Viestana watched her from their stools inside the doorways.
An old man with a cane sat on a chair at one corner. Julianna looked up at the sky there. The deep cobalt color blinded her and she put her hand up to see. She could feel beads of sweat, wet, under her arms, and it felt good to be away, and to be warm, and even to feel sweat and not worry.
She smiled and tapped the old man on the shoulder.
“Io sano Maria Rinaldi’s la nipote. Dove se trova il fruttivendolo Mussolini?”
The toothless old man laughed out loud like she was a fool and he smiled at Julianna. He tapped his cane on the ground and pointed it toward the end of the street.
“Grazie,” she said.
Julianna walked toward the center of town, where the old man had directed her to go. She looked around at the great trees in the square and the park benches and the Italian people milling about but there was no man selling fruit or vegetables. There was no one selling anything in the square.
That’s strange, she thought.
Julianna walked completely around the entire square but saw only a young man against the wall under a wildly crooked pine tree. She could feel her stomach begin to tighten from hunger. She thought of her grandmother and decided to go over to the young man.
He smiled when she walked up. Julianna blushed hard.
“Si?” he said.
“Um, il fruttivendolo Mussolini?” she said not at all like a lawyer.
“Ah,” the young man said. “You are an American?”
“It’s that obvious?”
He smiled kindly as his tanned arm rose and pointed down toward the park, just in front of the old German U-boat that was shipwrecked on the sandbars of the beach.
“Grazie,” she said, and she turned and walked toward the park down near the beach.
She smiled to herself as she thought about the young man, and she walked toward the ocean, wiping her blonde eyebrows with her arm. Julianna tried to walk in the shade and not smell the incense of all the freshly slaughtered lambs hanging on hooks out in front of the shops on the sidewalk.
Down at the beach she felt very hungry and the air smelled like oranges and raspberry gilato. She looked around and wondered what Vieste must have looked like with all the men off to war in Africa, with her grandfather, a Fascist, a skull on his lapel, ready to kill even his own son, her uncle, an American GI who fought in Normandy. It hardly made sense now.
Julianna looked around. Two young girls on a Vespa whisked by on the street as an old Mercedes truck followed closely behind. They were the only ones around. There was no fruitman.
Julianna walked the streets for another hour, and everywhere she went she asked for Mussolini the fruit man, and they all laughed at her as though the whole town was in on it, and each person pointed to somewhere different than the person had before them.
Julianna gave up after she could not longer walk. She sat down near the beach, staring out at the houses, all pink and sallow and white like Beirut before the bombs came. She looked out at the German U-boat, and the lighthouse on the jetty beyond the beach, and the ocean that was the same color as the sky. There was a man sculling in a boat.
She felt rather common sitting there so far away from home.
Julianna sat there and thought: There is no fruit man. . . and suddenly the past seemed all the more difficult to her.
She stood up and overheard two voices. They were speaking English. She saw an older couple and she ran over to them. “You speak English!” she said as she reached the couple.
“So do you,” the man said.
He took Julianna’s hand and happily shook it.
“Do you live in Vieste?” Julianna asked.
“For the last five years. We used to own our own business back in Toronto,” the woman said.
“Do you know your way around town?” Julianna asked excitedly.
“Just visiting, ha?” the man said.
Julianna smiled and nodded. “I was trying to find Mussolini the fruitman, but I can’t find to bring back to my grandmother.” she said.
The couple both smiled at each other. They both laughed and Julianna half expected them to point toward the sky.
“Oh him!” the man said. “Every once in a while some young person like yourself is sent off looking for him. You know, he isn’t around much anymore. But he’s right down there today, young lady.” He pointed back toward the street.
Julianna looked and imagined the old man she had seen with the cart earlier that morning.
“Where is he?” she said. “I don’t see a thing.”
“Right there,” the woman said, moving her hand seemingly nothing. “Right there. He’s next to Hitler’s pollo and Stalin’s cartas.”
Julianna turned around and looked at the couple in disbelief. She smiled and thought of her grandmother: how she always made do with what she had, and how Julianna didn’t.
“Oh!” she said. “She tricked me?” Julianna felt rather naive in her experience, and it all seemed rather funny to everyone, and she wasn’t hungry anymore. And then it struck her that she had never seen her grandmother wear a wedding ring. She looked at the couple. “I think I have to go see someone,” she told them.
Julianna ran through the ancient streets of Vieste: the young Italian children sitting on the ground cross legged playing with stones, all the old men leaning against the scant yellow walls talking to each other about the old days and the war. And Julianna reached Corso Umberto and she looked up and saw her grandmother waiting for her in the doorway. She was smiling and holding wild figs and several oranges. Julianna walked over to her and they both laughed out loud at each other as they hugged; and it was exactly the way Julianna had pictured it when she was a child back in Rhode Island, back up on her porch when she lived on Barker Street on Federal Hill.