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About the Author
Pasta Reale is the fourth story Vince Cusumano has had accepted for publication. He has appeared in 69 Flavors of Paranoia and in Night Terrors, and is scheduled to appear in the Spring 1999 issue of Cabal Asylum. Vince says Pasta Reale, though strictly fiction, began to evolve on a recent first visit he and his lovely wife of thirty-three years made to Sicily, to his parents' villagea sunny place, gracious and warm
where appearances are so very important.
by Vince Cusumano
Artie Renna, assassin, whizzed open the cigarette-tarred drapes in camera 203, pushed through louvered doors and onto a veranda overlooking a still covethe first of Sicily he'd seen in sunlight.
The sea lay in the fresh morning as a gleaming marble slab: milky teal beside the crescent beach, splotches of turquoise, deep blues going to purple along the horizonsmooth, cool...as his stiletto had been, sinking to its hilt in the base of Ninu Monte's skull last night...but, like sweet crimson wine, the color then.
The execution still looped in his brain: Ninu sagging in his chair, the final breath, the retiring sigh.
A jasmine gust whisked Artie's face, fluttered his T-shirt, the hair on his
arms. He yearned to share this peace with his Beththough not the Ninu
partand looked back to the bed in which he'd so missed her last night.
He created her in reverie, watched. In her sleep, she had the vacant,
delicate face of a porcelain doll; she lifted the face from its side,
blossomed awake, his Beth. He loved the sight of her, more than when he'd
first been struck by her twenty years earlier. Her hopeful shine and child's
dimples emerged as she rolled onto her back, stiffening, stretching mightily.
"What's it like, Babe?" she yawned, softly whisking her sheet aside. She
streamed onto the veranda.
He regarded her, gratified her smile was deep and unaffected.
"Real!" he answered aloud. He dragged in breath, eyes shining, lip-corners
dipping, her fingers combing his silvery hair, tracing his proud jaw.
The sound of his own voice wakened him to the actuality of the fragrant
breeze he was breathingin the very place his parents' breaths had long
been measured or stifledhere, in his new world. He smiled thinly in the
And Ninu Monte could hardly spoil anything. Yet, as satisfying and
vindicating last night had been, he still bristled calling to mind that Ninu
had been able to weasel away the land of Artie's own fatherland Pietru
Renna had intended to return to after some of the easier life in America,
land upon which Artie had every right to build a villa.
Ninu, lu pazzu, The Madmanas a youth, having discouraged some dangerous
characters by biting off and swallowing their leader's lips, chasing him
down, bashing him to death with a boulderhad proved to be routine. Artie
had known the careless maniac insisted on spending his hour alone each night,
sipping anisetta on a bench in the drowsing piazza near la chiesa granni, the
Artie's bowels had churned as his flight touched down at Palermo's Punta
Raisi; studying his watch, he knew he would be slipping in his blade in no
more than two hours.
Artie startled himself, realizing that it was no longer Beth's touch he was
imagining in the warm, bright sunshine; instead, these fingers were bony,
But...her soft voice; it was Beth.
"Get ready," she was sayingher smile, though, now synthetic. "Your
cousin could be early."
The void behind her smile unsettled him; his passion dissolved. He couldn't
bear thinking perhaps their years together had decayed her cheer and
She placed an ear on his heartbeat and squeezed into him for a moment. Soon
he remembered she wasn't there.
Artie stared down at the beach thinking of Beth and the sensation of cold,
stiff fingers on his face when he became aware of an old fisherman stirring
on the sand. The man was wailing a peasant worksong, inspecting a fishnet,
falling silent often to concentrate on damage he would repair.
Curious, Artie called down in dialect, asked how it was going.
"As God would have it," the man shrugged. "You're an American."
"I'll work on my accent."
The fisherman lifted his cap and raked back snowy locks. The dazzling white
topped a baked face which seemed as tanned as possible and Artie could see
his eyes were as blue as the sea.
"Sicilians don't stay at the hotel...unless they were born in America.
Besides," the man smirked omnisciently, "your wife is an American for sure."
Artie recoiled, sensing this was somehow more than just a clever guess.
He'd never been more careful, yet this old man already knew something of him,
impossiblyas if, in peasant song, he'd really been examining Artie's
thoughts, not fishnets.
"Are you fisherman or clairvoyant?" Artie laughed, thinking he may have to
kill this man soon.
"I only know how to fish."
"Seems a simple, good life. Who are you?"
"I'm Masi Giannola, assuring you hunger is never fine. You've family here?"
"Maybe a cousin in the village still."
"Ah, si?" Masi slouched against an overturned rowboat, his cool narrowed
eyes fused to Artie. "I believe you've stolen your father's face. Are you
The easy, reflexive connection to his roots, to Beth, raced his heart, but
he pleasantly answered, "Si." The sooner he confirmed his fears, the better.
"Then your cousin is Paula who owns the panetteria in the piazzaa woman
who could bake for royalty."
"If you say so," Artie smiled. But he abruptly erased the smile, then:
"Masi Giannola, why did you come here?"
Masi boomed his response like an explosion, his words rumbling forth as from
a raging oracle. "Arturo Renna, there are shadows beneath this bright sun!,
shadows that mourn Ninu Monte!"
"Silenzio!" Artie ordered, incredulous. "You're mad!"
Masi beamed hugely then faced the sea, shoulders sagging forward, head
drooping. His hair was no longer thick cotton but sparse and oily gray like
Ninu's...and he wore a stiletto in his brain stem.
Artie pressed his fingertips against his eyes and when he looked again the
fisherman was gone.
Artie, awaiting Paula, sipped a cappuccino in the hotel's lobby. A white
Fiat Punto carrying a female pilot zipped into the lot and lunged into a
first row space; red-brown dirt covered the bottom half of its battered
body. He went out, oddly pleased by the unpretentiousness of the car.
A composed lady adjusted the skirt of her simple gray suit, pushed long
silky hair aside, and slipped a purse onto her shoulder.
She came up the cobbled walkway cradling a package, her face wearing the
grave tenderness of a Raphael Madonna. Setting her gift down on a marble
bench, she held out her arms to Artie and they embraced. "Sangu mieu," she
said. "My own blood."
He moved back her silver-stranded chestnut hair to see her fully, looked
into large eyes, amber eyes like his own; her thin face was scrubbed and
Paula rustled open the package and carefully handed over a bouquet of almond
paste sunflowers nestled in a cone of bright red and yellow tissue. The
colors and details of the sunflowers were astonishingly accurate and he
thought them real until their aroma rolled forth.
"These are the colors and sunshine of Sicily," she said proudly. "We made
them of pasta reale in the traditional way. They're almond paste and sugar
sweet and good."
"They're exquisite!" said Artie with huge eyes. "How could I ever eat
"Ah, but they were made to be eaten," she explained.
Artie and Paula stood in the hotel's parking lot next to the Fiat she called
her babbaluciu, her little snail.
"That's la turri," Paula said pointing to a boxy ruin on the tip of a finger
of land forming the right shore of the cove, "and your father's property
meets the beach, just to the right of the peninsula."
His flesh tingled with enchantment at the site's ethereal beauty. He
imagined the villa he would build on the very soil he had slain Ninu Monte to
retrieve...and evening walks on the beach with Beth.
He would handle the Masi Giannola problem whichever way he must, then that
would be enough of that sort of thing. He would make Beth happy here.
La turri's proximity to this property was apt. He'd often heard his parents
and their paisani mention the ruina tenth-century watchtower built by a
colony of Arabs to scan for and defend against marauders from the sea,
rebuilt by conquering Normans in the eleventh century.
It put in mind the fort he and a pal had built in a stand of maples when he
was thirteento guard the last woods in his neighborhood south of
Detroit. He had named their domain The Most Beautiful Place in Wayne County
and had spent many hours alone there straddling a hollow tree trunk that
bridged the creek; he would watch occasional carp slip by, glad no one had
planted them there, disappointed they would eventually share water with
freighters and tankers in the Detroit River.
He'd hoped for a chance to hurl rocks at the heads of sniffing real estate
A hundred meters from the hotel Paula veered right and forced the growling
Fiat uphill, talking of her life with Turi, her husband.
Artie barely listened, now appreciating what had been hidden in darkness
when Ninu had been all that mattered.
They rose up through the Sicilian spring, through Persephone's gifts: groves
of saracen olives, fragrant oranges and almonds, chestnuts, pomegranates.
He didn't mind much that the orchards were unpruned, untended...that sumac,
wood sorrel, and wild mustard were winning back the soil.
And he didn't mind, as they wound up to the village, the occasional
bright-white villa slipping byeach garlanded with hanging laundry. He
could indeed live among these peoplenot like in America...where his
secret mattered so.
Although his work had never been strictly business, they would soon accept
him, respect himdespite his dark appetite. Besides, he'd sated himself
only with murderers and he would never again act on his impulses. Yes, he
and Beth would walk among these real people, even drink and eat and laugh
with those who also had evolved from nearly three millennia of sufferers,
from survivors who had passively soaked up wave after wave of invaders. They
would admire this American: one of their own who had power, who would hang
his laundry amongst them.
The beige village clung to a mighty calcareous cliff like a worried child to
its mother's legs. The bustle astonished Artie: beeping Fiats; vendors
shouting, buzzing the narrow streets in little three-wheeler api; Natalie
Merchant blaring from a push cart loaded with CD's.
Paula circled the piazza's fountain then parked between the worn marble
steps of the great church and an espresso bar. Two loud men at a sidewalk
table suddenly stilled their dramatic hands and lowered their faces to sip
espresso; a few doors down, a black-clad old woman parted a bead curtain for
"We're here," Paula said, squirming out of the babbaluciu. "Come. Meet
Artie thought Beth, were she there, would surely have pitched a coin into
the water as they passed the fountain. In fact, for a crazy blink, Artie
mistook a woman at the fountain for her, but the woman wasn't blonde, and
Beth was in Michigan. No, this woman was a mother, busy splashing her small
boy's chocolate-smeared face and fingers in a cool stream spewing from the
mouth of a stone cherub. The mother glanced up, smiled at Artie's stare; the
child didn't look, but went rigid under his mother's arm...and frowned into
Paula's panetteria occupied the bottom flat of a narrow, three-story casa
within the ancient strip of residences and shops surrounding the piazza.
Luscious smells of breads and pastries wafted out from the bakery's open
door; the window displayed samples of the morning's production and of pasta
realereal-looking prickly pears, oranges, figs, peaches.
In the hot back room, Turi gushed, "A great pleasure!" wiping his palms on
his aproned belly, then drawing Artie in with floured arms, kissing both
sides of his face.
Turi's droopy eyes, his perfect milk-white teeth between fat, happy cheeks,
were charming, innocuous...until he pulled open the door to a storage
closet...until Masi Giannola appeared, pointing a lupara's sawed-off barrel
at Artie's face.
Artie searched Paula's marsala eyes; she was motioning in the two men he'd
seen sipping espresso in the piazza. Her eyes were unapologetic; they might
have been watching her own hands forming pasta reale.
"Don't worry, my cousin," she said dryly. "They need to reach an agreement
with you...about the land. We'll go down to the property now for a talk."
Artie had no chance to unholster the Beretta 8040 under his untucked shirt;
Turi quickly, mechanically, found it in the small of Artie's back. He would
have to wait for a chance; rage boiled his insides. This!just when he'd
begun to feel his and Beth's new life blossoming like the fragrant hillsides.
But as much as anything, Artie was troubled by Masi's sun-charred face, the
capless head upon which thick tufts curled upward like white flames. And the
eyes. The eyes were deathly cool.
Artie was takenwrists manacled behind his backdown to the sea in the
front seat of the espresso-sippers' dirty black Mercedes. Masi Giannola sat
in back, silent, propping the lupara's barrel against Artie's nape; Paula and
Turi tailed in the babbaluciu.
At the base of the peninsula, Artie noticed, gladly, that Masi had somehow
disappeared. But the others jerked his relief away, hauling him from the car
and steadily pushing him toward la turri.
"Aren't you my blood?" Artie demanded, craning back to Paula.
"But Ninu Monte needs to see you, my cousin," Paula implored. "He complains
your last meeting was brief."
"And you want to send me to hell for another visit? You treacherous bitch!"
She forced a nervous chuckle; Turi's white teeth glinted inside an
Within the tower's sandstone blocks, Masi Giannola squatted patiently on
the first step of a crumbling stone stairway that spiraled upward along the
Artie so longed to see Beth again. And he was afraid to die, terror humming
in his ears, but he could never gulp down his pride. His voice thundered at
Masi: "Do it!"
But Masi sighed, slumped; his lupara slipped away, clattered on the stone
floor. Artie's legs dropped away as he watched the thing reassume the body
of Ninu Monte. This was not a dream to be evaporated by a distraction, or a
simple pressing of the fingertips against the eyes. Artie was quite awake,
his mind unable to seize upon any hope.
Turi flew past Artie to help Ninu, went to him with trembling hands and wet
eyes, kissed the sides of Ninu's face. He pried up gently on the planted
stiletto, lifting the yellow-gray face. Through stiff cracked lips that
didn't move, Ninu croaked with wagging tongue: "Now I'll taste your beating
heart, Arturo Renna."
The two men from the piazza yanked Artie to his feet and savagely rent away
his shirt, shoved him forward.
Turi waggled the knife's pommel with his fingertips, loosening, finally
extricating the blade. Ninu took the knife from him, swiping black blood
onto his sleeve.
"I'm one of you," Artie heard himself say, embarrassed by the odor of his
"Oh, but you're not," Ninu replied, holding the knife absurdly close to his
rheumy eyes, examining. "You're an American."
Artie looked away as the two men outstretched his arms. But then, as his
body tensed to receive the steel, what he saw lay against his breast as
armor, rendering the dagger silly. He brightened, becoming, gradually, fully
as bright and cool as the sky cupping this morning's serene sea. He soared
for Paula was streaming toward him, just as Beth might have, and she was
regarding him with the grave tenderness of a Raphael Madonna.
Cradling one of the gift sunflowers, she went to him.
"Sangu mieu," she whispered, reverently snapping off a piece from the tiny
yellow petals. She slipped the pasta reale past Artie's lips as though it
were a sacred host. She held him closely as he, with closed eyes, chewed the sweet almond paste. Then, Ninu cocking his arm for the plunge, she stepped
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