...“Who do you think? How many people call you Nonnie?”
“Just my two granddaughters and they’re both in Italy. God only knows doing what.”
I’d had enough and spoke up. “Nonnie, hi, it’s me, Ellen. I’m with Margo and we’re calling all the way from … Italy.” I didn’t bother going into the Monte Bianco detour.
“Ellen and Margo, why didn’t you say so from the beginning instead of making me guess. It’s not like we’re competing on one of those silly game shows. Talk fast; this has to be costing you a bundle.”
“Don’t worry about the money,” I said.
“If I don’t, who will? Your ma can’t come to the phone. She’s—”
“Yeah, we know. It’s Thursday,” Margo said. “Guess what?”
“You’re getting married. Well, it’s about time, given your … never mind.”
“Sorry, Nonnie,” Margo said with a laugh. “I’m still looking for Mr. Right.”
“Good luck with that. How about this instead? Ellen’s going back to the nunnery.”
“Never going to happen,” I said. “Here’s the thing. Since Margo and I are here in Italy, we’ve decided to visit your village.”
“My village,” Nonnie said in a voice reeking with suspicion. “What village?”
“The one you grew up in,” Margo said. “We want to walk the streets you walked.”
“You think I was a streetwalker? Show some respect.”
“Now, Nonnie, you know me better than that.”
“Yeah, yeah, just kidding. But I just don’t get the village thing. Why now?”
“What better time,” I chimed in. “We have some days to kill before heading home.”
“No-o-o, you don’t say.” She paused, not a good sign.
“And we really want to see the house you grew up in.”
“No you don’t … I don’t know … call back tomorrow.”
“Nonnie!” Margo said. “We thought you’d be crazy for the idea.”
“Shush, give me a minute. I’m thinking.”
“Bruna Fantino sent a letter to her daughter in America, insisting she come home for a long visit. Clarita being a self-employed widow, could not afford the loss of income so instead she agreed to send her daughter.
These things I know because Filippo Sasso told me on our way to the train station in la macchina, the automobile he’d borrowed from his pappa Lucca. The year was 1973, a summer day that felt more like early spring even though droplets of sweat had fallen from Filippo’s brow and stained the collar of his shirt. While Filippo was making a hard shift into the Fiat’s first gear, he said, ‘Since Bruna Fantino considers my pappa her convenient savior, she expects me to look after the American nipote. An impossible demand, you know how jealous Nora gets when I so much as glance at another girl.’
“I gave him a playful poke to the arm and said, ‘Come on, a smart guy like you can work things out.’
“Filippo pleaded as only he could. ‘Not when it comes to Nora, I need your help.’ ”
Franco looked from El to me. He tapped the fingers of one hand against his chest. “My help, you have to understand. I loved Filippo like a brother, helped him out in the past, but this time he’d gone too far. Me, Franco Rosina, only son of Stefano Rosina, Stefano who despised Bruna Fantino as much as she despised him, looking out for the daughter of Clarita Fantino, Stefano’s lost love who Bruna had sent away years before, all this because Filippo did not have the courage to speak up and just … say … no. I told Filippo that Bruna would kill me when she found out who I was. And then after killing me, she’d have my pappa thrown in jail for giving me the life he had forced her to destroy.
“We pulled into the station and Filippo told me to relax. ‘Bruna does not need to know every little detail of her nipote’s free time,’ he said while parking the car ‘Besides, I can pay you.’
“Money … money talks when you don’t have any. I shook his hand after he stuffed mine with lire, enough to equal one hundred American dollars, at the time a small fortune for me. After getting out of the car, we waited on the platform until the train came into view. As soon as it stopped, the door opened and out flew a leather shoulder bag, landing at my feet. Only one passenger followed that bag onto the platform.
“Mamma mia, never had I seen an American such as this. Considering the sourpuss Bruna Fantino, this daughter of Bruna’s daughter looked like no other young woman in Pont or Cuorgnè or the villages in either direction. Dark hair fell below her shoulders and was secured by a piece of cloth around her forehead. She wore flared pants low on the curve of her hips and a yellow tee shirt as bright as the sun peeking out from behind the clouds, as if the sun’s only reason for being there was to spread its light on her. Those eyes—blue with amber specks. Lips painted a soft pink. Around her neck hung a long gold chain and from the chain a jeweled crucifix, as if warding off any guy with impure thoughts.
“Filippo welcomed her in better English than I’d expected but not as good as mine. We’d been classmates, Filippo and me. He was my strongest competition in English language. The daughter of Clarita’s daughter put one hand on her hip, then said, ‘You must be Fil.’
“He replied with a slight bow. ‘Filippo Sasso, here at the request of Bruna Fantino.’
“Those blue eyes narrowed as she spoke her first words. ‘Right … Fil. And my name, as I’m sure you already know, is Antonia Riva but I answer to Toni.’ She turned to me. ‘And you are?’
“I told her my name was Franco but for her I would answer to Frank. She cocked her head to one side and gave me … gave me …”
“The once-over,” I said.
“Si, grazie, Margo. I will continue. ‘What? No last name?’ Toni Riva asked.
“After swallowing the lump in my throat, I managed to say, ‘my name is Franco … Franco Rosina.’ The hard slap I expected from her did not cross my face. Instead, a sweet laughter erupted from her mouth, followed by words tumbling out too fast for me to understand. ‘Please to speak slowly,’ I said. ‘My English, it is not so good.’
“She picked up her bag and slung it over her shoulder. ‘If you say so. Shall we go?’
“Filippo did not move. ‘Pardon’ he said. ‘First we must explain.’
“Not we, I let Filippo do the talking. That much he owed me, and the lire already tucked in my pocket. After Filippo finished connecting me to my father Stefano and Stefano to her mother Clarita, Toni cocked her head for a second time and looked from Filippo to me before she spoke. ‘So how is this supposed to work?’
“Filippo cleared his throat and swallowed whatever words had been stuck in it. A few seconds passed before he managed to say, ‘Perhaps you have some ideas. But if you must speak American, slow down so we can understand you.’
“Toni rubbed her chin and gave some thought to her next words. ‘Right, so let me see if I’ve got this straight. You, Fil, picked the one guy with a last name I’ve never heard before—the name my grandma won’t allow spoken in her house—and I’m supposed to let him be my pretend boyfriend so your girlfriend won’t get jealous.’
“Filippo hung his head. He kicked a stone from the platform and said nothing. So I found the courage to say, ‘Is a problem, si, but not to worry. We—Filippo and me—will think of something.’
“Toni rolled her eyes. ‘No, you won’t. I am perfectly capable of finding my own friends. But thanks anyway.’ She put one hand over her mouth and held back a yawn. ‘Can we go now? I am so wiped out.’
“Filippo’s face turned red as a pomodoro, I mean tomato. He yanked on his shirt collar like it was a rope around the neck of a condemned man. ‘But … but … your nonna.’
“Toni took his face between her hands and kissed him on the lips, to his horror and at the time, my envy. ‘Don’t you worry about Granny,’ she said, ‘I’ll take care of her.’ ”