Godfather and Sons: A Legacy of Deceit by Angelo Pagnotti by Angelo Pagnotti - Read Online

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Summary

It was time. Time for the old man to reveal the family secrets hidden for seven decades. Old Grandpop made it clear that knowledge of the secrets came with a burden as he passed his journals to Angelo, his namesake grandson. His grandson accepted the mantel of Pavelli family protector, promising to ensure the family remained protected from an insidious evil. Grandpop Angelo immigrated to America to search for Gus, his missing father. The journals tell the story of a boy growing into manhood, a man remarkably different from the grandfather he thought he knew. The exposed secrets change the grandson's image of his quiet, tired nonagenarian Grandpop. The Italian farm boy's search for his father transformed his life and tested the old saying that blood is thicker than water.
Published: Whiskey Creek Press on
ISBN: 9781633556799
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novel.

PROLOGUE

Deep-seated memories are malleable. Over time rough edges are rounded or sharpened, colors brighten or fade. Your memories, your choice.

I often change my route to work and park outside an old white cottage. It gives me half a chuckle every time I see the cottage surrounded by a crisp white picket fence. It is almost a duplicate of my grandfather’s house, right down to the bountiful grapes entwined in a rickety wooden trellis. Oh, how I miss the old man and his colorful stories and captivating tales about the old days. When I was growing up, Grandpop Angelo told many a yarn—some fascinating, others only interesting. Except there was one story—no, not a story, rather a family mystery—he would never talk about. Grandpop passed away half a lifetime ago and his powerful memory is a reminder that, at the very end, few men have enough grit to take a secret to their grave.

Chapter 1

Grandpop—born 1887—died 1977

The painful recollection of Grandpop’s passing was eclipsed long ago by the indefinable joy of knowing and loving the old man. Looking at the duplicate of Grandpop’s house, I always cave-in to the gripping compulsion to relive the wild, almost unimaginable, secret he blurted out during our last moments together.

After avoiding hospitals for ninety years, Grandpop Angelo woke up in intensive care one morning connected to plastic tubes and machines beeping to his heart rhythm. The doctors said he had just a few days left.

I gathered Gina and the kids and packed for a quick trip. Speeding north to the family homestead, a heavy weight cratered my chest. Pushing the speedometer to knock minutes off the two-hour drive, the crushing burden felt heavier with each turnpike mile. Gina and the kids were asleep so my thoughts raced ahead to the hospital. Would Grandpop finally tell the whole truth, not his muddled old-world tales, vague answers and half-truths about the question his grandchildren have asked over and over?

Arriving in the wee morning hours, I sat in a stark hospital room, eager to see his cataract-clouded blue eyes. The smell of fear hovered over the small room. Did the fear emanate from him or me? We had to be alone, to say our farewell, if only to look and touch. A stream of concerns flooded my tired, overtaxed mind. Would he confide the answer I so desperately wanted? Would I have enough nerve to nudge a dying man, especially this man I loved so dearly?

Not many grandfathers and grandsons are as close as he and I. He’s Grandpop Angelo and I am Angelo, his namesake. In my teen years, the retired old gent looked well past his physical prime, yet he maintained a stringent daily routine. He would wake early and eat a traditional Italian breakfast of cold cuts, cheese and always a cup of coffee royale—Italian coffee fortified with a shot of rye whisky. At mid-morning, he would take a constitutional stroll for three short blocks to the local taproom to meet his paisanos for a draft beer. In due course, he settled in for his favorite pastime—resting on his shaded porch in the old metal glider or the rickety wooden rocking chairs.

I remember those days clearly. It was 1960, the year John F. Kennedy was elected president. Every afternoon my school buddies and I would pass the white picket fence on the side of the house on our way home from school. There he sat on the back porch waking from a short nap or lighting up an unfiltered Lucky Strike. Grandpop wasn’t exactly sure of his age, but at eighty-something, nap time came when his tired eyes fluttered closed. His trademark three-day growth of white, stubbly beard and bushy mustache were half-obscured under an old crumpled, sweat-stained fedora. He’d call out in a thick Italian accent as my Catholic school buddies and I walked along the white picket fence, Ahn...ge...lo, coma’ here.

All the while, he would lift his right arm from the rocker and wave for me to join him.

At eleven and twelve years of age I’d stop and chat for a few minutes, never venturing to the other side of the fence. To do so meant leaving my friends and visiting for at least thirty precious minutes—time better spent on baseball or chores.

At some point, exactly when is uncertain, I started crossing the barrier, swinging open the white picket gate and nearing the porch some thirty feet away. Not long after, we sat side by side in the rocking chairs. A faded white trellis with entwined grape vines protected the porch from the late afternoon sun. Some days we sat and discussed his vegetable garden while surveying the narrow neat rows of green and red vegetables.

Other days I coaxed him to my favorite spot, the cellar. New houses have basements, while old houses have cellars constructed of jagged fieldstone held in place by chipped and peeling mortar. The dank, musty cellar had a number of small rooms, nooks and hiding places that piqued a juvenile imagination. Ah, the wine room was the most interesting. This sanctuary was off limits unless accompanied by Grandpop. Above all others that room remains vivid. An old cast iron hand-operated wine press stood watch over a row of aged fifty-gallon oak barrels lined up in strict formation along the left wall. Every second year until well into his eighties, Grandpop’s old-world skills transformed a truckload of red grapes into red vino. Every time we spoke about making wine he’d remind me, Ahn...ge...lo, the first press is Italian wine, the second press German and the third Amerigahn.

We had a little pact—I always tasted the first press before anyone else.

Grandpop wasn’t at all like modern grandfathers who take their grandchildren on outings to the movies, fishing or, the really lucky grandkids, whisked off to Disney World. No, we never left the small white homestead on a corner lot. The back porch was our home base and, during inclement weather, we rested in the small parlor on ancient Italian furniture adorned with plastic slipcovers that crinkled with the slightest movement. That’s all we ever did, the only places we ever went.

Grandmom Maria had passed away four years earlier. He had seven children and numerous grandchildren, and a few close friends from the old country. Like so many elderly, Grandpop experienced the curse of loneliness.

On occasion, his grown children would invite him for dinner or a short visit. God forbid that anyone should invite him out for the day or overnight. He always declined while posing the question, Who will watcha’ da’ house?

I never fully understood that sentiment until my children were grown and my clock ticked into middle age. It’s fairly simple. A happy home is where we feel most comfortable and nesting instincts lull people to stay in their protective nest.

As a rambunctious teenager, I had normal needs and wants, as well as the inexplicable tug of the shaky rocker and the crinkling furniture. It wasn’t a charitable gesture to a short, roly-poly old gent who, no matter what the weather, dressed in baggy work pants with suspenders and long sleeve flannel shirts. I sat next to this uneducated, immigrant blue-collar worker, a man of interest, a man with strong family values. He lived, raised a large family and grew old during the most dynamic years in recorded history.

Between nodding off and heavy-accented English, I’d pick out the wisdom accumulated and stored over his lifetime. Time spent with old Grandpop was a pleasure. A fountain of knowledge and wonderful common sense flowed out in a loving way. I loved him, as a grandfather and a friend. Family was our normal topic followed closely by current events, and his days working for the railroad. His children and old friends had told me stories of a man who was vastly different in his twenties and thirties—a hot-tempered, short-fused bull pushing his way through any and all adversity. If the stories were true, Grandpop had mellowed with age. While in a reflective mood, he’d recount stories about the old days, although he rarely spoke about his Italian family, claimed it happened long ago and his memories were cloudier than his tired vision.

No matter how hard the grandchildren pleaded, prodded, or cajoled, there were two things he’d never talk about that were somehow intertwined: his immigration to the United States and our family name. My father’s father had a different last name. How could that be? Angelo Pavelli, the grandfather, and Angelo Pennella, the grandson! My father, Dominick, was his natural child and Grandpop had only one wife. The immigration question he easily sidestepped by saying those were hard days, nothing worth remembering. I tried many times but could not ignore the question that gripped my gut about our different last names. Grandpop and his adult children offered the same answers that sounded rehearsed. One version went something close to; immigration misspelled his last name. In another version: the railroad foreman misspelled his last name. Both versions ended with lifting his arms and shrugging rounded shoulders, his what-more-can-I-say gesture, while always emphasizing, And our true name is Pennella.

Then the kids would ask him or our parents why some of Grandpop’s adult children use Pavelli and others Pennella? And why is Grandpop using Pavelli, the incorrect name? Of course, after so many years the adults had answers to those questions as they calmly explained for the hundredth time: Everyone in town knows the family as Pavelli, the incorrect name. Therefore, each child had the option of using Pavelli, the name people were familiar with or Pennella, the correct family name. Well, that certainly cleared it up for all fourteen grandchildren!

When any of the grandchildren heard this tale, our heads spun with incredulity. No one, least of all Grandpop, would break what the grandchildren started to call the family omerta—his legendary oath of silence. Bang your head against a wall hard enough, long enough, most people stop, and give up. That’s what everyone in the family did, except me. I slowed the assault but never gave up. Grandpop never grew irritated or asked me to stop with the same questions already! Another sign that I was his favorite, Ahn...ge...lo, named after him.

This hospital visit would be our last chance to say good-bye, and why I had to see him alone and gently prod for answers. Breaking down in front of other people would never happen. It was obvious that his own children didn’t know the true story, they simply mimicked the government or foreman misspelled the family name because it was just easier. After seventy years, no one cared! Well, someone did care. I cared! Unless he relented before passing over, the real answer would be lost forever.

The old man knew I’d come. I counted on him to tell the truth, because few good men have the grit to take a secret to their grave.

Chapter 2

Heading home

A hospital or—using modern lingo—a medical center, no matter how modern the architecture, furniture or medical equipment, is not home for patients. The average person is perfectly content driving by a hospital hoping that they or their loved ones never have to shadow the doorway. The hospital experience can be disturbing for anyone, especially an uneducated, tired old man who wanted nothing more in life than to be home watching his house.

Sitting next to Grandpop’s bed, I sensed the fear and uncertainty he had endured since finding himself confined by tubes and machines. I hope that he had frequent visitors to hold his hand throughout this ordeal and to translate the medical terms into Grandpop’s English. The usual white stubble and bushy mustache curled over his pale lips. His baldhead glistened under the nightlight as it tossed back and forth on a sterile white pillow.

It was nearly time to wake. Answers, I needed answers for the questions he would ask about his condition, when is he going home, and above all, who is watching the house? Struggling to protect him, I decided to field each question one at a time. Why try to anticipate? The level of frankness would be based on his condition and ability to handle the truth. I kidded myself thinking, after all, he may be too ill to ask any questions. Above all, I didn’t want to upset him. My final gift had to be helping him transition from our world into a better one.

As the sun crept over the horizon, his internal alarm clock activated and Grandpop’s snoring sounded less rhythmic.

His eyes opened and a half smile of yellow teeth mouthed, Ahn...ge...lo.

His arm strained against the intravenous tubes. Jumping up, I touched the captive hand while kissing his forehead.

Come sta, how are you? I love you, Grandpop.

Mezzo, mezzo, half ana half! No so good. Where isa’ youa wife and da’ kids?

They are at Mom’s house. It’s very early and the kids aren’t allowed to visit. I snuck in past the nurses. We have to be real quiet or they’ll try to kick me out. I smiled to show I wasn’t serious; no one could drag me out of his room.

His pale smile turned serious. Si, we be reala’ quiet. They no maka’ you leave.

I patted his hand and offered my warmest smile. The room neared eighty degrees, yet his hand felt cold and clammy. Grandpop, are you cold? Do you need another blanket?

I’ma’ okay for now.

It’s so good to see you again. Gina and the kids said to say hi. How awkward, not wanting to probe about his health, not knowing what to say. Women are so much better at this sort of thing; I wanted Gina with me. That was impossible; we needed this time alone.

Conjuring up nerve I ask again, How have you been?

His answer came out as grumpy.

I’ma’ old man, howa’ should I feel? I didn’t respond. Weak, cana’ no stay awake.

It’s the medication. When you go home things will be much better. You wait and see. Your paisanos ask for you. They wait every day at the taproom.

His eyes opened wide, and his free hand squeezed my wrist. Do you know whoa’ visit the lasta’ two day?

My shoulders hunched into an Italian arch. Who?

Those cloudy blue eyes misted over. Mia madre.

No doubt he thought that he saw his mother. I have no idea what to say, and keep silent. Maybe he’d drop the whole thing. His mother, my great grandmother, had died long ago in Italy.

So bella, ina’ white. She smile when I calla’ to her. I know what data’ mean. Still at a loss for words my head bobbed up and down. Most people have heard the old wives tales about dead relatives guiding loved ones to the other side.

Ahn...ge... lo, I no go home. You taka’ care of a da’ house, si?

Sensing death up close, for the first time the reality, the comprehension of losing him slammed into my chest, vibrating every rib. The conviction to remain brave for his sake melted like ice in Death Valley. A deep sob forced past dry lips as hot breath sucked out of my lungs, and salty droplets trickled down both cheeks. Needing to escape his glare and regain some level of manly control, I moved towards the ray of light peeking through the shades. Feigning a cough and blowing my nose, I pulled on the vertical shades inviting the early morning sun to engulf the sick room. After a very long minute, I bottled up frayed emotions and turned back to see a contented man, a tired man. He had given up on life. Grandpop waved and asked me to crank the bed into a sitting position. I fluffed the pillows and propped the cool side under his head.

I knowa’ why you coma’ alona’. I froze. Standing at the window moments before, I had decided not to bring up the question he refused to acknowledge much less answer. This man that I loved so much hovered at death’s door. Satisfying an old juvenile curiosity could upset him.

Ahn...ge...lo. This a ... I can no tella’ you wha’ happen. No relive a thosa’ day—the olda wounds—youa’ understan’.

Sure I understand.

He interrupted with a grunt.

I hava’, how you say, mixa’ feeling about tella’ you. Ona’ one hand someone shoulda’ know. There coulda’ be danger to da’ familia. His death grip crushed my wrist. I can no explain, but youa’ will see. Wasa’ long ago but disa’ evil never die. Read. Then, you understan’ an maka’ da’ choice.

Total confusion. Grandpop wouldn’t tell his secret but I would somehow have to make a decision. I held all questions. Waited, pondered if this was another hallucination.

Between dry coughs he started again, Ina’ my room, ina’ crawl’a space you find da’ olda’ box covered wita’ rag. Ina’ da’ box isa’ book. Howa’ you say, diary. No one else cana’ see. You read and maka’ da’ choice.

Burning acid gurgled into my throat. I could barely read Italian. Would this require an interpreter? Now I had to respond. My Italian is not so good.

He gave a self-satisfied smile. Si, si, da’ book ina’ Englase’!

The diary is written in English, meaning his version, half Italian and half English.

Now you go finda’ da’ book. Only a you, capisce?

Yes, si, I understand, just me, it is only for us! He nodded offering a weaker smile. Without warning, his eyes blinked several times and fluttered closed. My heart skipped two beats.

Oh God, please not yet! A shaky hand touched his chest and I felt shallow breathing. Thank you, God!

Chapter 3

The family homestead

Driving back to Grandpop’s house, I couldn’t shake my concern about his health and state of mind. He’d given up, was ready to move on. Speaking about his mother brought out such affection in his voice. So strange, he had never ever spoken about his father.

Although he’d never admit it, he had to be scared. Who wouldn’t be, even with their mother as a guide? Growing up, the grandchildren sensed he carried guilt about leaving home and only returning to Italy once before his mother’s death.

Not paying attention, I almost ran a red light and just missed T-boning a black van. Hopefully it wasn’t the same omen as a black cat crossing my path. The main street had familiar cookie cutter narrow houses built for impoverished miners by coal barons in the previous century. The barons disappeared long ago and the original clapboard had been replaced by aluminum siding, brick veneer, or some combination.

A few blocks from the house, Aunt Louise waved as she drove past, most likely heading to the church or hospital. If I wanted to follow through, this would be a good time to look for the diary. Curiosity easily overcame the old man’s warning about danger. I’m a big boy. I can handle it. Plus I was sworn to secrecy, so if it became a problem, or dangerous as Grandpop portrayed, I’d simply close the diary and walk away!

The slightly out of plumb cottage never changed. Stepping inside, a familiar odor seeped into my nostrils. Every old house is unique, and these smells lingered from Italian cooking. This could be classified as a certified old house aroma. The welcome scent conjured wonderful memories along with an I-am-home tingle. Nothing had changed in decades. If I moved through the house with my eyes closed, I could find each piece of furniture and knickknack. The low ceilings barely reached seven feet high and the plaster walls were wavier than ocean surf. Not a place I would live in, but a wonderful house to visit, especially when Grandpop and Aunt Louise were both home. Observing them together held a special charm. As I parallel parked next to the white picket fence, it was obvious the old trellis needed major repair. The spare key was tucked away in the usual hiding place. It had been years since I handled an old skeleton key, and this one had to be a certified antique, at least a hundred years old.

Aunt Louise, the first born of seven children, never married and lived with her father and mother since birth. After Grandmom’s death, Louise became the woman of the house. Aunt Louise and Grandpop’s relationship had two extremes, caring for each other or screaming in some mixture of Italian and English. That’s how I learned basic homegrown southern Italian dialect. My family lived a block up the hill, so my father, Dominick, a middle child, was often drawn into their habitual boisterous arguments.

Standing in the parlor, for a fleeting moment, walking away from the diary became a real option. This could be nothing; then again, it could be huge enough to be all-consuming. Too late. The path had been ordained the moment the skeleton key opened the lock. After 20 years, the answer waited a few steps away. Climbing the narrow staircase, four steps creaked before reaching the second floor. As usual, the house looked immaculate. Grandpop’s bedroom furniture dated from the late thirties or early forties, crafted with dark veneer and rounded edges. Many people considered this period to be ugly, depression-era furniture. The modified Cape Cod had slanted ceilings with storage space in the eaves that ran the full length of the back bedroom wall. Entering the access door required stooping down and crawling over or around pieces of furniture, plastic bags filled with clothes, and old stuff parked for years before it eventually landed in the trash heap. After a few minutes, sweat rolled down every appendage. Near the back sat a one-foot by one-foot metal box covered with old rags. The lid hinges squeaked and gave way after a hard tug. It smelled of musty old paper. An assortment of old Italian coins, loose papers and the prize, two hard cover notebooks sat in the box. Eager to taste fresh air, I lifted the books, closed the lid and crept backwards out of the narrow storage space.

Time was fleeting. Aunt Louise should not get involved with the notebooks, but a quick peek was necessary to preserve my composure. Cracking open the top book, the first page dated 1910 leaped out in English. This had to be book two. Opening the other book, page one stared back in Italian. I was instantly deflated. Damn, this needed translation. Time to check on Gina and the kids. With any luck they were still asleep in my parents’ house.

Sliding into the double bed, spooning against Gina brought much-needed comfort. After what seemed like a few short minutes, Christine entered the bedroom. Daddy, breakfast is on the table.

While clearing the breakfast table, the phone rang; the family stopped to look at the old black rotary telephone. The second my mother said, It’s Aunt Louise, we knew! Grandpop had passed.

The next three days blurred as the family went through the formalities of a wake, funeral mass, and interment. Aunts and uncles and their families were together for the first time in years—a good thing at a sad time. At various times everyone broke down and cried—even my stalwart father and his four brothers. It brought comfort to see that they cared enough to display their emotions.

The prize, tucked deep in a car trunk, faded until the whole family stood at the gravesite gathered around the casket for interment prayers. Did any of his children, except Aunt Louise, really know the old man the way I did? Do any of us really know our loved ones, especially fathers and sons? Men are often odd creatures when it comes to relationships. Most sons grow up admiring their fathers—want to emulate, if not surpass, their father’s accomplishments. Fathers are inherently proud of their male offspring. However, as fathers progress in age they often subconsciously see their sons as competition. As the young grow stronger and more capable, the older men lose ground. The seniors attempt to keep up with the sons, because not competing admits defeat to age. That’s why grandfathers bond so easily with grandchildren, especially grandsons. They have the unconditional love of their grandchild without the competition.

Mr. Bardoni, Grandpop’s friend, mentioned the old country, which prompted thoughts of the diary that could very well become Grandpop’s legacy to his children and grandchildren. The diary could provide a better understanding of the man, where he came from, who he really was—replacing the family memories of an old gent who spent the last twenty years of his retirement in a rocking chair. This search for truth entailed much more than curiosity; it involved family honor. Someone had screwed with our venerable family name, and more than ever, we needed—I needed—answers, to understand what and why!

Chapter 4

Back to everyday life

After the funeral, family and friends attended a luncheon at a local catering hall before journeying home or to work. This was the family’s way of offering a small thank you to friends and neighbors for helping through the past difficult days. The previous three days we acknowledged Grandpop’s death. I considered this luncheon a celebration of his life.

Saying goodbye to Aunt Louise became the most difficult part of leaving. As the oldest, she had been a caregiver for the younger siblings and later for both parents. At sixty-two, the prospect of living alone for the first time had to be