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Joe Novara

Joe Novara, Author of I'm Here
Retired corporate trainer and writing instructor, Joe Novara and his wife live in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Writings include novels, short stories, poems, anthologies and articles. Seven of his young adult novels are accessible through http://www.storyshares.org/users/view He also maintains a web/blog titled, Writing for Homeschooled Boys http://joenovara.wordpress.com. His latest novel, Come Saturday…Come Sunday, (Cawing Crow Press, 2016) is available through Amazon. Reviews: Just some author friends…

WEBSITE: http://joenovara.wordpress.com
BLOG: https://freefloatingstories.wordpress.com/ FACEBOOK: https://www.facebook.com/joe.novara

New Title(s) from Joe Novara

I'm Here by Joe Novara After 25,000 Masses by Joe Novara Pinata Belly by Joe Novara Vito's Tale by Joe Novara Cagalupo Redux by Joe Novara

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I'm Here by Joe Novara I’m Here is a coming-of-old-age novel about three unattached men and the women who come to grace their lives. Tre, a retired creative writing professor, takes up residence in a senior community so his injured hip can heal without the challenges of his three-story house. Marjorie, his former non-traditional student, invites Tre to join her resident writing group and eventually a fuller relationship. A childhood buddy, Sal, is in the community as well, but unhappily so. When Sal finds a way to escape institutional living, Bernice, a long-time neighbor and friend welcomes him into her home and life. Vinnie, soft-spoken carpenter, life-long bachelor, happens upon Tre’s ex-wife and the startling joys of relationship. What do the women in this silver romance see in these men…can they count on them to be there for them?

                                                                             Excerpt
Word Count: 40000
Buy at: Smashwords (all formats) ~ Barnes and Noble ~ Amazon
Price: $ 3.99


 
After 25,000 Masses by Joe Novara After 25,000 Masses is a sequel to I'm Here, published by GSP in October of 2018, and is the story of a retired priest who sets out to free himself from the constraints and bonds of his lifelong vocation. Fr. McRae decides that he has done a good job of being a priest and can now, in good conscience, step away from the calling and all of its demands. Open to new possibilities, he goes on an Elder Tour where one of his fellow travelers turns out to be a woman who knew him as the school chaplain when she was a senior in high school. It takes Bernice a while to recognize Fr. Tim and, given her boredom at being the only unattached woman on the tour, takes her time teasing him into acknowledging his former life which in turn means admitting to her girlish ‘crush’ on him. The story soon moves beyond their improbable early connection to the exhilarating possibilities of elder love.

                                                                         Excerpt
Word Count: 20000
Buy at: Smashwords (all formats) ~ Barnes and Noble ~ Amazon
Price: $3.99

 
Pinata Belly by Joe Novara Harry, a retired African American high school history teacher turned D.C. tour guide, decides to explore guiding opportunities in Guatemala. On an outing to Mayan ruins, the life-long bachelor with a rapport with teens, connects with Bryn and through her, with her ex-pat grandmother, Cobi. Surprised by love, so late in life, in a cultural setting that views him as a “darker wave in a sea of brown,” he links up with Cobi as she unravels her tangled, exiled, Southern past.

                                                                                                      Excerpt
Word Count: 22164
Buy at: Smashwords (all formats) ~ Barnes and Noble ~ Amazon
Price: $3.99


 
Vito's Tale by Joe Novara Vito’s Tale is a piece of creative non-fiction (or historical fiction) about my grandfather who came to this country from Sicily ahead of his wife and children, sent my father to college, worked heavy construction labor all the while longing to return to the ‘home’ he left behind. Finally, as a widower, he did go back, married again and welcomed the grandson who came full cycle to live with him for a summer.

                                                                                                      Excerpt
Word Count: 19200
Buy at: Smashwords (all formats) ~ Barnes and Noble ~ Amazon
Price: $3.99


 
Cagalupo Redux by Joe Novara Nick Finazzo, a roving freelance writer, spots Carol walking a Lake Michigan beach a long way and a lifetime from their early years in Detroit’s Eastside—their adolescent attraction, friends in common and now disparate life styles—her Lake Michigan mansion, his live-in van. Can they start over?

                                                                                                      Excerpt
Word Count: 5700
Buy at: Smashwords (all formats) ~ Barnes and Noble ~ Amazon
Price: FREE at Smashwords or $.99 elsewhere
   



Excerpts

I'm Here

Tre

Sal’s lip quivers as he chews his vegetable soup, like he might be ready to cry. He stabs at his mouth with his embossed napkin trying to staunch the overrun. “Purging,” he mumbles at the risk of dribbling more soup. “My daughter and son-in-law want to throw out all my stuff. They kept telling me to purge. To basically dump my whole life on the curb.”

Funny thing. We grew up in the same neighborhood. Lived across the street from each other for years and now we’re stuck in the same retirement home in a maze of endless, carpeted corridors with varnished handrails leading to elevator coves and the occasional outside door. As if we could get very far even if we left. It’s a prison basically. And they call it Shelden Ponds.

Turns out, Sal got sentenced because he took too much time trying to decide what to keep and what to throw out. So, by now they probably got a dumpster on the front lawn and are shoveling out his place, so they can sell it and pay for him to live in his cream-colored apartment. I feel sorry for the poor bastard.

Now, me, I ended up in here when my hip got shattered in a car accident. When they got ready to release me from the hospital I couldn’t just go back home where my bed and bathroom are upstairs, not to mention the titanium plates, rehab and a lingering infection.

So, my daughters, Carrie and Lisa, decided to ease their consciences by getting me into this place where I could navigate with an electric cart like some old lady in the supermarket. They don’t realize I still got game. And as soon as I get on my pins again, I’m outta here.

I mean, look past Sal, poking at his broccoli casserole… by the way, did you ever notice that these senior places all smell like overcooked broccoli? Where was I? Oh yeah. Look past Sal and you think of Lake Michigan with white caps. There’s a sea of white hair bobbing up and down all around me. I’m drowning in senility here. I’m not as old or as frail as these folks. I’m not in the target demographic for this place. They can’t sentence a juvenile to life. I’m only seventy-three, for crying out loud, surrounded by eighty-five-year-olds… mostly.

That lady at 2:00-high appears a little more my age. Now she’s eyeing me. You go ahead, sweetheart. Don’t let me stop you from staring. Do we know each other? She looks familiar. But then, if you’ve lived in this town for thirty years and taught at the university, a lot of people can look familiar.

She’s not turning away. In fact, she’s giving me a little smile. Damn. And now the woman next to her is following her gaze, checking me out. They whisper and giggle. Are we back in third grade lunchroom? Or maybe a better analogy—are the alpha mares scoping the new stud in the pasture? Dream on, doofus. The hallways aren’t wide enough to drive our carts side-by-side as we ride into the sunset. But that’s going to change. For me. Just wait.

“Sal, who’re those women in the table off your left shoulder?” He puts down his spoon and napkin, straightens his shoulders, hands bracing the table for a creaky turn. “No, don’t look,” I say.

He sighs, lifts his chin in the general direction. “Them?”

“Yeah.”

“The ‘Yah-yahs, that’s what we call them.”

“We? There’s only like ten guys and two hundred women here.”

“And the five of us who aren’t married stick together. You make six.”

Why doesn’t that excite me? One more newbie and we could be the Magnificent Seven. Until I get out of Dodge.

“Why Yah-yahs?” I ask.

“How do I know? That’s who they are. They’re always together, on all the committees. Decorations. Flower shows. All that…”

The woman with the dark eyes and eyebrows under a well-coiffed pewter helmet… I’ve come to fancy that look, lately… offers me a head bob. Why do I feel like I’m about to be vetted by the League of Women Voters?

“Yeah, they’ll be scoping you out. Fresh meat. Ha!” he barks, color rising in his cheeks along with an incipient grin. “Reminds of the story of the new guy in the Catskills hotel… you heard this one?”

“I don’t know yet… go on.”

“This guy shows up at a hotel in the Catskills. A blue hair lady slides up next to him. ‘So, you’re new here,’ she goes. ‘Where’re you from?’ He goes, ‘Prison. Just got out.’ The lady says, ‘What were you in for?’ The guy says, ‘Murdered my wife.’ The lady goes, ‘So, you’re single.’”

Sal laughs and laughs. Then he starts to cough. About the time I decide I should hand him my water, ‘pewter lady’ is standing next to me. No cane. No walker. Nice legs.

“Sal must have sprung one of his groaners on you. Don’t encourage him. It’s bad for his COPD.”

“I see,” is all I can think to say.

“You’re new here. Welcome to The Ponds. I’m Marjorie. Marjorie Olson, with the welcoming committee.”

         Back to I'm Here

After 25,000 Masses

Chapter One

The tour guide paused in the middle of the church and raised his chin, revealing a prominent Adam’s apple bobbing above a red bow-tie and purple plaid shirt. Tim recognized the man as someone who reveled in his task, savoring the attention that came with his carefully memorized speech for this stop in the tour. This was a man who liked to play the expert, if only on the history of Amelia Island.

“Who can tell what parable is being portrayed in this stained-glass window?” the guide asked. Before anyone could respond, he continued, “It’s the parable of the Prodigal Son.”

Tim knew it wasn’t. It was the story of the Good Samaritan, but he wasn’t going to tip his hand or upstage the poor fellow. He had held forth enough times over the years to let someone else have a turn. He decided to simply tune him out the same way dozy parishioners had endured his homilies.

How many sermons had he given? How many masses? On average, ten a week, counting weddings and funerals, for fifty years. That was over 25,000 masses. God, that was a lot. No more. He was done with all that. Retired. Honorably discharged. It was time to be just plain old Tim McRae, retiree on a senior tour. A chance to make new friends who wouldn’t be calling him Father. Maybe even a lady friend. Whoa!

“Let’s get back on the bus, folks,” the tour guide announced. “Next, we’ll be heading to the house where the Pippi Longstocking movie was filmed.”

Tim smiled to himself as he played peek-a-boo with the Atlantic Ocean glinting between shoreline condos. Mention of the red-haired storybook girl with pigtails reminded him of a woman he had met in Aspen years ago—she too a redhead, but with mini-ponytails sticking out between her ski hat and goggles strap. Could a woman have two ponytails, one on each side? The woman kept glancing at him as they rode the chairlift to Big Burn. She finally said, “You remind me of a priest back in Grand Rapids.”

He hated when that happened—getting dragged back into his role in the middle of a get-away vacation. Maybe she was a parishioner, one of 18,000, at St. Cyril’s. But then, maybe not, and he would never see her again. So, he deflected, and asked her what the odds were of running into another good-looking guy like him. She cut him slant-eyes before popping her goggles down and hopping off the chairlift. Of course, she came up to receive communion from him the next Sunday, glowering from furrowed brows as she stuck out her hand for the host. He was caught red-handed and red-faced from sunburn on the glaring slopes.

During the bus ride, Bernice tuned out the tour guide babbling into the PA system about the local excitement of a real Hollywood film crew and studied Tim across the aisle and one row up. Ha, she huffed to herself… the only single guy on the tour. And him short as me. Said he was a counselor at the group introduction. Looks more like a priest to me. Guess you could call a priest a counselor. But how many counselors wear black pants, black shoes and black socks? Guy needs a wardrobe consultant. She shook her head. Nah, he’s a priest. Look at the way he sits—like he’s got a candle up his butt, and he tilts his head with this I’m all interested look. Bet he throws in a dearly beloved or two before he’s done. Yeah, he’s a priest.

Wait a minute, she thought as Tim offered his profile, something about him rings a bell. She snapped her fingers twice, waking her long-term memory. The priest we had at St. Cyril’s. Senior year. It was his first parish. Me and Cindy had a priest-crush on him. Can you believe? But, it really could be him, just older, like when they age someone on a computer.

As the group filed off the bus, Tim stopped at the edge of his seat and motioned Bernice forward, pausing to check her name tag. He smiled. She caught his hazel eyes, smiled back. For crying out loud, it’s him, she realized. Father Tim. She tried to remember his last name. Mc… something. McRae. Fr. Timothy McRae. Yeah, but he was so determined to be cool back then, he insisted we call him just plain Tim, which only made him more a priest to us. He wore his hair long, sideburns and a mustache. And the night Martin Luther King Junior was killed he gathered us all at the rectory to share, to absorb. He was cool then. I wonder what he’s like now. Might be fun to find out. Not much else going on since he’s the only unattached guy on the tour.

That evening, Bernice looked across the supper buffet to spot Tim sitting alone. As she scooped a serving of vegetable lasagna, she weighed opening gambits in her mind. If she pounced on him with the priest tag, he might flinch. After all, there was so much flak about bad priests these days, he might just want to duck into his shell. Or then again, he might not even be a priest anymore. There was a lot of that going around. She nodded to herself as she sprinkled parmesan over her entrée. She would respect his privacy, she decided, just play it light and see where it led.

Tim looked up to see Bernice bearing down on him. She knows me, he realized. It’s the smile of recognition around the eyes. And she’s going to expect me to know her. Could she be another past parishioner? He couldn’t remember them all. There had to be thousands. But she could easily remember him. He closed his eyes, sighed and braced himself for ‘Father this’ and ‘Father that’ over the next half-hour.

“Can I join you?” Bernice asked.

“Of course,” Tim replied.

Noticing that he had begun on his lasagna, she asked how it was.

“Oh, fine. Like all the food on this program.”

“Yeah, great all around,” Bernice said. “Well, maybe not today’s tour guide.”

Tim looked up from his plate, past raised eyebrows, utilizing the one-second delay of broadcasters, priests and politicians to assess their audience before responding with a conspiratorial chuckle. “A bit taken with his own importance, you might say.”

“Uh-huh,” Bernice concurred. “And how about that stained-glass window bit? I mean, anybody who’s ever flipped through the Bible knows the difference between the Prodigal Son parable and Lazarus and Dives. You don’t need to be a Bible scholar…” then pointedly added, “or a priest.”

Oh, no you don’t, Tim thought. She was not going to get him to correct her, tell her it was really the Good Samaritan. Clever lady, trying to draw him out. But, he wasn’t going to bite, not just yet. “I wonder why you would mention priests. You wouldn’t be a Catholic, would you?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Well, you could have said minister. Ministers of any Christian denomination would be familiar with the Bible. Maybe even more so than priests. My guess… you come out of the Catholic tradition.”

Back to After 25,000 Masses

Pinata Belly

Chapter 1 Harry

It was 4:30 am, Flores, Guatemala, and I was bouncing in a suspension sprung bus with a dozen other tourists on our way to Tikal and the ancient Mayan ruins located there. So far so good, except for the man seated behind me who was talking a couple decibels louder than necessary to Kerstin, his female seatmate. He was carrying on in that droning, aggressively all-knowing, professorial tone of a lecture hall warrior. I should know. I used to be one. And to my surprise Kerstin, the social worker from Minnesota, whom I had just met in the hotel lobby while waiting for our bus, seemed to be encouraging him with softball questions. That didn’t seem right. She had seemed smart, her Nordic, open face alert and perceptive while the rest of us huddled under blinking blue fluorescent lights trying to suck color, if not life, into our sleep drawn cheeks. I wondered why she was either flirting or being polite with this obviously obnoxious guy?

I kept wanting to doze off as we hurtled over pock-marked roads in a tunnel of darkness, but the megaphone behind me seemed to be directed at my right ear. I was just about to lambaste his pontificating on everything and anything Guatemalan in a constant data dump that violated every principle of gauging audience interest and patience. I mean, you learn that being a teacher, a coach and a guide. Guide. I suddenly realized he was a brother in the fellowship of tour guides and Kerstin had engaged his services. I sighed. Professional courtesy prevailed. You never disrupt another guide’s gig.

Actually, I hadn’t always been a guide. I had taught American History in high school until I retired. And I predictably chaperoned yearly senior trips to either our nation’s capital or Civil War battle sites. If you think about it, historical tour guides and history teachers have a lot in common. When you’ve taught in a classroom long enough, you can practically run any given day’s lesson on auto pilot: the Constitutional Convention, the battle of Mobile Bay, Gettysburg and Appomattox. Professional tour guides have their spiels as well, including site-related jokes and quips to keep their clients smiling. So, not surprisingly, while teaching, I looked forward to retirement and becoming a guide myself. Which is what I did… have done for the past dozen years. I have my specialties and favorite tours around D.C. But lately, as I span my early seventies, I’ve been plagued by a restlessness to explore new venues, to guide in new places, like Central America.

Which brings me to the pre-dawn bus ride. I had to chuckle to myself. Have you ever heard of a bus driver taking a bus ride for his vacation—the proverbial busman’s holiday? That was me—a tour guide on a guided tour. On this trip however, I was doing background research, scoping local talent for patter and style while sizing up the competition in case I decided to join their ranks.

Slowly, slowly as morning sun crept into our bus, I was able to make out a woman my age across the aisle and a girl, probably her granddaughter, sleeping against her shoulder. I noticed an iPad in the aisle under the girl’s dangling hand. I reached down and gently placed the screen in her lap. Gramma made squeezed-eye contact. A striking woman, perhaps in her later sixties, she sported outdoorsy clothes and her trim, no-fuss, silver-helmet hair suggested an active lifestyle. Everything but a retractable walking stick… probably had one in her backpack. I took the girl for a junior, maybe a senior. She was tall, taller than her grandmother, reminding me of so many of the kids I had taught, counseled, or coached… volleyball. I was the girls’ volleyball coach. All of us teachers had extra-curricular commitments. I didn’t mind. I had played setter in college.

Gramma offered a winced smile wrapped in a thanks, but that’s close enough mister look. You get that a lot when you’re black. Down here, in these south-of-the border countries, I found myself blending in a lot better with the dusky-skinned population than up North. Can’t say I’ve missed getting a reminder of my place, Gramma.

Here’s the thing. I’ve always liked working with teenagers. Not everyone does. They are so unformed. Searching so hard for self, for acceptance, for a place of comfort and support outside of their families. And they have such great radar. They can tell immediately if you like them… get them. You can’t fake it. I got them and they knew it. Trouble is, with all the news about priests and coaches and Boy Scouts these days, people might wonder if you’re weird or dangerous. Okay, I’m an only child. I never married or had children of my own. And, yeah, I rely on my roles as teacher and tour guide to give me context and access to kids. But I’m okay, normal… whatever. I just plain like teens and enjoy helping them mature. So, don’t worry, Gramma… I’m not going to offer your granddaughter candy.

At the ruins, a site-escort, Miguel, took over our group and preempted Kerstin’s guy. Being kind of stocky myself, I can’t look down on many guys, but I could look down on Miguel. Bandy-legged, twitchy and restless, we teachers could spot a Miguel the first five minutes of the first day of class. You’re sure they skipped their Ritalin that day as they tic and wriggle as fast as they talk. And in Miguel’s case, the talk is vintage, 100-word vocabulary, street patois minus the X-rated words. He must have called us my friends at least once in every sentence as he tagged temples, named birds and identified howler monkeys, which if you’ve ever lived near a freeway, sound like semis grinding up to speed. But he was good. He knew when to talk and when to let us absorb. He would give information as we approached one or another temple or ancient site but then back off and let us take pictures and finger the bas-relief carvings of Mayan gods and mythical figures. And better yet, as we transitioned from one spot to another, he talked to individuals as though he were genuinely interested in us. Nice work, Miguel. I gave him a big tip.

Lunch provided opportunity to engage with others in our group who were sleep-fogged on the ride out. I reveled in the opportunity to be just another fellow traveler and not the group leader responsible for herding my flock from place to place. Gramma and girl sat at a picnic table, the girl tossing bits of bread to the sparrows. In full light, I could study her better. She looked bored. Perhaps her phone was out of range… or maybe bars. Her complexion ran to latte with an extra shot of milk topped by thick black hair and dark brown eyes. A DNA test would probably identify some ancestors from around the Mediterranean. Gramma, on the other hand, must use a ton of sunscreen to keep from broiling in the Caribbean sun. Huh! And she carried her chin just a touch high—genteel South or Mayflower heritage, maybe.

I wandered toward the Temple of the Masks on the far edge of the Plaza of the Temples.

After climbing the first couple outsized stair-steps, I turned to find the girl trailing behind. “C’mon,” I said, “I’ll race you to the top.” She gave me slant-eyes. “We were on the bus this morning,” I said by way of explanation in case she hadn’t noticed me in the group yet. “My name is Harry. Harry Benson.”

She slowly and pointedly looked away, moved over a few feet and continued her climb. Someone had taught her not to talk to strangers. Although I could hardly be considered a threat in such a wide-open space crawling with tourists and a grandmother sitting nearby. Still. Okay. I’ve been around enough adolescents to know when to back off.

From the top of the pyramid, I spotted Kerstin talking to a guy from our hotel. He looked around her age. What? Early thirties? Buff. A jock. I could picture him at home on a tennis court or gridiron. But he wasn’t comfortable with Kerstin. What was it? Maybe the way he held his shoulders tight and high. The way he nodded too vigorously. Looking off instead of at her, as though afraid her blue eyes would mesmerize him. Trap him. Well, I could relate to that. A long time ago, I had run from a lady who gave me the eye. She wanted me to change: my hair, my car, my apartment. I booked, buried myself in my work, kept things uncomplicated, under control. Standing on top of that temple with the sun at my back, I felt like a Mayan priest in a parrot-feather cape, arms raised, channeling energy on that young couple to come together, to join as one… like I never did. Had I missed a lot?

On the bus ride back to Flores, I was seated directly behind the driver. If you’ve ever seen a one-man-band-guy with harmonica, drum, and accordion going all at once, our driver was doing a good imitation. After he stopped to pick up some guy who plopped on the engine cowl, he proceeded to alternately chat with him and someone else on a cell phone held to his ear, while shifting with his free hand and steering with his elbow. At first, I was amazed. Then I got annoyed. It seemed like we, the paying customers, were imposing on his convoluted social ties. I happened to glance across the aisle and noticed the girl, of the girl-and-Gramma girl, scowling at the driver. She wasn’t happy with him, either. Her eyes flicked at me. Help? Time to act. I marshalled my classroom-Spanish vocabulary to let the driver know that his driving was making me and other passengers nervous because it was dangerous and, actually, rather slow. I must have touched a chord because he quickly put the phone away, put both hands on the wheel and added fifteen miles per hour to our speed. I didn’t glance back at the girl. Sometimes less is more with teenagers… the way a guy who has just scored a key basket doesn’t turn around and wave to the stands.
Back to Pinata Belly

Vito's Tale

1914, Tyrol

Hunkered under the artillery barrage bracketing no-man’s land, Vito didn’t hear the shell before it hit. The one that lifted his barrel-shaped body up, out of the trench and under an avalanche of cold wet soil. Before he had a chance to worry about suffocation, to determine which way led to air and release, another shell hurled him out of his temporary grave. He lay still, fifteen yards from what had been the frontline a few moments before. Stunned, unfeeling, was this the blessed moment of anesthesia before the pain of an injury registers? He tentatively wiggled arms, then legs, toes, neck. All good, thank God. He could see open mouths but couldn’t hear screams, just yet, but he could feel the juddering shocks of artillery launched and landed. His body absorbed the penetrating jolts, but he was alive, still. He sobbed, lowered his head on wet, cold mud and cried.

How had he gotten to this place? Five months ago, he was in Sicily, pruning and tying grape vines in the glaring hot sun. He had a pregnant wife, two teenage daughters, a five-year old son. Life was hard with barely enough to eat. And now, in the Austrian Alps, he was still hungry, cold instead of warm, and people were trying to kill him. More tears.

When the draft notice came, he had no delusions. No high-flown thoughts of patriotism and glory. Not when he was thirty-seven with family responsibilities. He needed to make it out of here in one piece. His tears turned to cold anger and a fist slammed into the yielding earth. He needed to get away from the front line. A man groaned near him. Surprised and relieved that he could hear again, he spotted a soldier lying on his back, a red patch staining his ribs. “Aiuta! Aiuta me!” the man cried. He scuttled over, careful to keep his head below the ceiling of bullets whistling overhead. He grabbed the man’s ankles and dragged him into a shell crater, its back edge sloping into a drop off. Once below ground level, Vito rolled the man onto his shoulder and hunched toward the hospital in the rear.

He didn’t feel particularly noble when he handed off his burden for triage in the long line of stretchers. It was expected—what you did for each other. “Morto,” the medic said, after a quick check for pulse. Well, I tried, he thought, then looked around at the mayhem of a field hospital in the middle of an offensive. Not all bad, he thought. At least I’m away from the worst of it. “E tu?” the medic said, pointing to the blood on Vito’s tunic—was he wounded? Vito shook his head and pointed to the dead soldier—his blood, then he bit his lip. Think fast, he told himself. Find some reason to stay longer, away from the front. “Aqua!” he called after the departing medic who jerked his head toward the large tent lined with bandaged men in cots.

Vito slowly made his way between rows of wounded. He had seen enough dead men to recognize one when he saw one… and the uneaten biscuit on his tray. He lifted three more biscuits on his leisurely stroll to the water bucket next to an empty cot in the back. After practically inhaling three ladles full of cool water, a wave of exhaustion toppled him onto the bed.

Sometime later he felt hands unbuttoning his bloody shirt. “Niente,” a medic snarled before shouting for the military police. It was time to leave. On his way out of the tent, Vito stopped, arrested by the almost forgotten aroma of boiling broth drifting under all the other smells of the bed-ridden, unwashed, wounded. He vowed he would return soon to this place of dry, warm sleep and hot food—injured or not.

It took a while to get back. Despite short rations and lack of cold-weather gear in the mountains, Vito’s sturdy constitution wouldn’t allow him to get sick. So, he tried to make himself ill by drinking boiled tobacco. No luck. Finally, one day he got a fever and was sent behind the lines. After a night’s sleep in a warm bed and a couple of hot meals, he was good to go. Ever resourceful, when the nurse popped a thermometer in his mouth, he would wait till he turned his back and put his pipe in his armpit for a bit, then slide the thermometer there and watch the mercury rise to just above normal. So close, that checking by hand the nurse couldn’t detect the difference. That worked for a couple more day’s leave and offered a chance for reflection away from his moment-to-moment, live-or-die existence.

As he lay on his cot surrounded by soldiers from all over the country, he could hear different dialects. Strange. They were all Italians, wearing Italian military uniforms but some of the regional dialects were completely incomprehensible. If the doctors and nurses spoke in schoolbook Italian, they would generally be understood. But among themselves, around campfires, the soldiers might as well be speaking Swahili as far as Vito was concerned. In one way, it was interesting to find out that the only way he knew to speak Italian wasn’t the only way. He found that guys from the south—Naples and Calabria and Sicily could make themselves understood. But folks from Venice or Bergamo or Tuscany, impossible. The crack Alpine corps had their own songs and stories and style. People from up north ate polenta and pesto and cheeses that he had never tasted before. The houses were different in the mountains. Springtime was dramatic and so very welcome after four months of ice and snow. And surprisingly to him, he enjoyed the differences in food and climate and language, not to mention his newfound ability to adapt to change, such as life in the army. If only he could use his wits to survive, home would never feel the same.

Back to Vito's Tale

Cagalupo Redux

Nick

I wonder if that’s a woman coming toward me. Or is she going away? Coming toward me. If it is a woman, about now she’s got to be getting concerned—alone on the beach, at the far end of Wilderness State Park, a man perhaps, gradually getting closer. I’m probably ruining her meditative stroll into the golden glitter edging over Lake Michigan.

Ha! If she only knew how old I am, how little threat I pose. Hell, if she’s a young woman, maybe camping with her lover, she could easily outrun me back to safety. No need for her to imagine horrible things. She’d be the kind of interns we got at the newspapers. Fresh. Unblemished. So much promise and excitement in her eyes. Unless this girl’s got tattoos or piercings. I hate that. Such a violation. Like graffiti on a church. But, this girl coming at me, if she had a minute, maybe we could talk about what she’s doing these days—work, school, boyfriend. Maybe there’s something troubling her. Something she’d want to have a real chat about. Not just texting. Talk. Imagine that. Fifty years ago that’s where I would have started but not where I hoped to finish.

No. Now that’s she closer, I can tell. She’s not that young after all. Maybe a mother of teenagers, on a camping vacation, slouching through a moment of solitude before the rumpus begins. I wonder what her children are like. I bet she would be glad to talk about them. Imagine if there were a coffee bar out here and we could each order a mocha grande and just ease into the day talking about what her kids are doing in school. What sports they play. What worries her about this one or that one. That would be so cool. Women that age are old enough to look you in the eye. Sure enough of their bodies to offer a frank, breast-first hug. Not like young women who arch forward, limiting contact to their shoulders—as if I wouldn’t know what breasts feel like in a hug. Yeah, a chat with this perfect stranger before continuing in opposite directions, that would be nice.

More talk. Maybe that’s what you do when you get older… talk. Social intercourse instead of the other kind. A chat buddy. Ha!

Oh. Wait a sec. Now I can make out the lady. It is a lady. Graying-blond hair. Nice firm stride. Good posture. Actually, just a little bit roundy in her fuchsia tank suit. But nicely so. As we get closer she makes eye contact. Sizes me up. Quick friendly nod. And we walk past each other. A few steps on, I stop. Look back. She has stopped as well. She points south, back the way she has come. I nod and wait for her to join me. No talk. And as the sunrise shadow retreats across the beach, back over the pines standing guard along the dune ridge, we walk side by side into the sunlit beach. I like this kind of woman.
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