“Did you leave her in the bed alone?”
That made me smile. “It’s almost like we’re related. You and I.”
We sat inside a pause. I watched the light traffic on Hollywood Boulevard, and he let me.
“I heard Donna Maria won’t have Paulie Patalano in her family,” I said. “She doesn’t think he’d be strong enough.”
“News travels fast when there are women involved.”
“And she’s looking for another match for Irene, because she knows the Bortolusis will crush her.”
“There’s only one match, son,” he said.
“With Valentina, you took care of all of it. You brought me in. I said I’d give my life to the camorra. I let you make my decisions for me in exchange for vengeance.”
“You said there would never be another woman. I believed you. I figured, he’s my son. I know how he is.” Regret coiled around his voice. “If I don’t make this match, we’re going to be crushed.”
“I want out,” I said.
“If anyone else questioned me, they’d be in the hospital asking forgiveness.”
“I won’t do it.”
“They all say that. Your sister said it, then she fell in love with him.”
“Then she was raped to prevent the marriage. Do you think any of this makes sense? Do you think we should maybe stop this?” I couldn’t sit still. I jumped off the concrete wall and paced the jogging track, keeping my eyes off the horizon and focused on my feet.
“There’s more American in you than the accent,” he admonished. “This is not your choice. Not after the first one.”
“These decisions were mine. And this one is mine, too. I’ll do it with you or without you. With you is simpler.”
“It’s too late, Tonio. You gave up your life.” He was angry, growling at me in a way he’d had no chance to do when I was a kid. “I told you this when you were my consigliere. I warned you it was the worst decision you’d make. And when you left my side to go over there, chasing them, I told you then, too.”
“I’ll sell the businesses. Peel off territory. Stop taking tributes. Just tell me what I have to do to get out.”
“Nothing. You don’t get to go back; that’s the end of it. If you don’t care about your own life, at least think about the woman. The one you’re fucking. They’ll kill her same as the last one who got in the way of business.”
Stupido. God, that poor kid. Donna Maria killed his girlfriend, without a word of remorse for it.
“I know you think you can protect her,” Benito said. “But know this. They’ll kill you first then her. There’s no message if she lives. And don’t make a mistake. There are a lot of them. If they want you dead, you will die.”
“How, then? How do I do it?”
“Don’t let them smell weakness, son. If you want to out, you have to find your way. Don’t whisper a word, even to me. I will try and stop you.”
I watched the blood of the sun pour onto the city and knew that, years before, I’d sold my hopes in the name of vengeance.
“Capito,” I said.
“Bene,” he replied. “After the Bortolusi wedding, you and I will discuss your courtship. It will be very traditional. You’re lucky. She’s a nice-looking girl. It could have gone much worse for you.”
I rubbed my face. I’d never been less attracted to a woman in my life. I hung up without telling him that.
I drove up the mountain and through the flatness of the valley, up into the freeway split of the Angeles National Forest, where a man could be alone with his thoughts.
I didn’t blame my father for what he was doing. I’d taken a camorrista vow to be at the service of the family. The camorra worked the way it worked because marriage was a business deal. My father was the result of such a marriage, so why should it have been different for me? The fact that he’d never been forced to marry was the result of luck. There had been neither necessity nor opportunity.
I drove faster. I had no business doing it. I was endangering everyone else on the road, but the faster I drove, the faster I thought. The other cars, and the mountains on either side, faded into a blur.
Benito Racossi, my father, counted me lucky with Valentina. I’d married the woman I wanted to marry. She had been outside the life, and I was finishing law school. My father was proud and grateful. My mother had even spoken to him for fifteen minutes without a fight.
I pulled onto an exit that wasn’t an exit. It was no more than a bastard turnoff onto a dirt road. No gas stations, no fast food, just the potential for a city. It was a space set aside for something, someday. The freeway turned pencil thin in my rear view, and up ahead, the mountains went from shapes against the sky to solid masses of green and brown. I’d hoped to drive into a wall, but it didn’t work that way. I knew that from home. The roads to Vesuvio twisted and rose gently until ears popped and the car slowed, but in increments. Halfway up the mountain, I’d realize I’d made a choice to go there.
And Nella, sweet Nella, my sister. Raised outside the camorra, she was promised to a man against her will then fell in love with him anyway. Like animals, a rival family gang-raped her to prevent the marriage.
I thought about what might happen to Theresa if I refused to marry Irene. That stupid man and his girlfriend had washed up on the sand because they’d refused.
But he’d been weak. What if I wasn’t? What if I started with Donna Maria and killed every single son of a whore beneath her until I had what I wanted?
No. Even if I was successful, I’d be more deeply trapped in the life than ever, and Theresa might not survive it. I had to do better.
I pulled the car over and looked east. Indeed, I’d gone halfway up the Angeles mountains without feeling it. I looked out over the washed-out colors of civilization, the gas stations and fast food joints, the stucco houses and dots of cars, like plastic debris caught on a slowly heaving sea of dirt and dry grass.
I felt as if the world reorganized around the camorristi, spinning up and away. We nailed our feet to the ground with spikes of tradition while the whipping winds of modernity threatened to rip our bodies off at the ankles. And if it succeeded? If we let ourselves be yanked into the air? We’d fly and fly and be unable to walk when we came down, crippled by our fear of change.
I couldn’t murder my way out of it.
I couldn’t walk away. I was hobbled.