Billy De Rosa served in the VI Corps behind Ike, and by the time he passed through the town, the Abruzzese were celebrating their freedom and the Americans who brought it to them. It was La Festa, and she wore a domino.
Billy had been at Anzio where for some reason he had not been killed along with his buddies. Some would consider him lucky, but they hadn’t seen his friends’ faces as they knew life was oozing from them or Hank holding up his severed arm to heaven. They didn’t feel his helplessness, and they couldn’t feel his guilt at having survived.
He had a two-day pass from the Clean-up — that’s what they called routing out and killing remaining Fascist soldiers who managed to escape Ike’s eastern march north. The others on leave with him in Abruzzi that night headed for the local madam or tried their luck marching in the parade next to likely women, but for Billy the notion of “sloppy seconds” with some gap-toothed mama floated on top of the toilet bowl of life with the rankest of turds.
The truth was that Billy now saw that the “gift of life” was a lie. It was a story told to their sheep by men who sat at ease in their churches and schools. Maybe for them life was worth something, but they had never seen battle and never even heard of Anzio. Billy understood what his elders did not — life was not a gift; it was punishment. For the first time he understood the lure of narcotics and the oblivion they could provide.
Billy was on a street bench in the eastern Italian town, one finally cleansed of Brown Shirts in America’s blood-drenched march northward. He opened his second pack of Lucky Strike and for the ten thousandth time flipped open his Zippo to light a cigarette. It had rained earlier, and the wet cobblestone streets were lit by evening lights from streetlamps and windows. Steam rose from the blocks on that sweltering night as costumed revelers marched and sang, banged drums and blew horns — as free as ever now that they had been delivered by American soldiers from the devil that was Mussolini. It was September 19, the first of the nine-day La Festa di San Gennaro.
Chiara Aldine holding up a sequined domino marched in a group of other signorinas dressed in their finest. Hers was a deep blue gown with spangles that sparkled bright in the night. It had long sleeves and high collar with beads across the bodice and falling to the waist raining down to the hem. She smiled and waved to the American liberator as she passed Billy on the bench, and like a boy watching a parade, he waved back at her with a glee. The smile froze and his eyes widened when she walked out of line toward him, her mask down by her side. When the streetlamp from above lit her face, he trembled before her beauty.
Her thick dark hair was tied back in a bun held by a large silver filigreed comb. A chiseled jaw and high cheek bones outlined stunning dark, almond-shaped eyes that tilted up slightly under full eyebrows. Her nose was straight and narrow and her full lips were exquisite. When she smiled, large perfect teeth lit her face. It was a sensual face, made more so by a body of extraordinary proportions. But all about her was draped youthful innocence, ripe yet too young and too perfect to be taken. Chiara Aldine was a unique combination of the corporeal and preternatural.
“Thank you, G.I.,” she said with a slight curtsy. It was quaint and darling, and her silken voice struck a chord deep within.
“Don’t go back, Miss,” he begged. “By the café there’s a breeze. It’s very hot tonight.”
A few beads of perspiration sat on his forehead, and she said with a charm he had never seen before, “Rimuovere la bustina” pointing to his army garrison hat and handing him her handkerchief. He folded the hat on his belt, wiped his forehead, and said with a silly grin, “Why didn’t I think of that?” They laughed and he was taken.
It was the sight of her that first struck him, but as they sipped local Sangiovese at the outdoor café table he moved into the alley for the breeze, Billy became more entranced. Her English was not much better than his Italian, and when she derided him for not knowing the language of his parents, he could only shrug like a bad boy who got caught feeding the dog his turnips. He learned only that she lived a short walk away in Farindola with her parents, but she coaxed him to tell her everything about himself. And he did, except about Anzio.
“Then you have no girlfriend,” she said as if that were tragic.
“I bet you have a lot of boyfriends,” he countered.
“No, no one.”
“How can that be? You’re the most beautiful woman I have ever seen — that anyone has ever seen.”
Chiara lowered her eyes and smiled.
They talked for hours, laughing, and teasing; but it was almost dawn, and she stood up from the table. “Will you come to the church tomorrow?”
“I don’t go to church,” he said before thinking.
It was obvious that she was taken aback, but she smiled nevertheless and after a long moment said, “I will pray for you.”
“Take me home with you.”
“I will come back, caro Billy. I will come back.”
It was daylight and the tent was empty as he flopped on his cot. The night before he was tortured by Anzio and taunted by suicide, but now he had only to wait a few hours to see his beautiful angel again. She was a delicate flower that somehow grew in a rockpile, honest and soaring above the sharp edges of life.
“I will come back. I will come back.” Billy fell asleep on that stifling night with those words, the image of her perfect face smiling at him with an honesty he had never before seen in any woman. But that angelic face turned demonic in a nightmare that turned a hot night into hellish heat. Billy sat on the edge of his cot, lit a cigarette, and felt his heart racing by what that dream may have signaled.
Billy was on the bench, the day overcast but still insufferably humid. Cigarette butts littered the ground beneath his bench by the time daylight faded and the feast resumed. He heard her say over again that she would come back. He could still hear the words. But he also heard odd sounds behind him, and when he turned there was a little girl sobbing and with terror in her fawn-sized eyes.
Billy walked to her, but the little one backed up tentatively. He gave her his best smile and said, “American — sono americano. Sono buono.” He squatted and held out his hand. “Vuoi gelato?” He motioned to the ice cream vendor behind them. “Andiamo.” She stopped crying but did not move. Billy bought a cup of vanilla each, and together as they walked past the stores on the side street, he learned her name was Mileva Zolfina and that she was four. She did not know where her mother was now or where they lived. When she began to tire, he bent down to pick her up in his arms, and she offered no resistance.
As a tall carabinieri neared, Billy felt Mileva tense as she hid her head behind his. The police station was nearby, and the soldier and girl were soon sent upstairs to the desk that handled lost children. When a uniformed matron came to take the child from Billy, Mileva screamed in fear of letting go. It was clear she was terrified of police, and the matron said that gypsies very often were distrustful of the uniform. She added that gypsy mothers sometimes left their children on the street hoping the Italian authorities would care for them. The matron said she would take the girl or she could stay with him on the bench in the foyer for the few hours it would take until the paperwork and initial investigation were complete.
It was already dusk, and Billy knew the feast had begun, but little Mileva was nestled in his arms, clinging to him in fear the police might take her. He thought he might be able to slip away when she fell asleep.
It was after midnight before Billy got to the parade site just in time to see the street cleaners return Viale Castello to its usual pristine state. He shoved his hands into his pockets in disappointment and felt her handkerchief. He lifted to his face and breathed in Chiara’s jasmine perfume. Disheartened, Billy walked back to base.
The next night was cooler, and La Festa continued with its noise and dancing and giddy good cheer. He stood up to see if he could spot her in the march of the signorinas that just began to appear, but he could not. When they passed without Chiara he knew his time had passed. Yesterday had come and gone, and if she had returned, he wasn’t there to meet her. He threw his cigarette pack down and stomped them flat, and like silent bullets from his Springfield a litany of curses shot out, unheard in the din.
That night he walked the streets of Farindola until dawn hoping to spot her. He did the same the next night after the parade passed again without her, but this time he was AWOL and spent four nights in the brig. As he sat in ignominy of the bad boys’ room, it occurred to him that perhaps because of Anzio he had imagined Chiara, that he hallucinated and was now a psychotic in addition to everything.
If there were a God, it was vicious. After the horror of Anzio, he was shown wonder for one day and then had it ripped from him and laid open as if he had died with his buddies on the battlefield. Life was the gift that kept on giving — pain.
Billy De Rosa settled in Burlington, Vermont. He used an inheritance to buy a failing pipe shop and converted it into a smoke shop for cigarette, cigar, and pipe smokers and invited customers to sit, smoke, and converse. Pipe smokers, the majority of the coterie that met daily in the shop, fiddled too much with accoutrements for Billy’s limited patience. He never made close friends, but the customers kept him on this side of human.
He was 75 when two cardiologists agreed that his lungs had so deteriorated that a heart attack was imminent. Continuing to smoke would hasten the end. Yet when the big one came, when he fell over on his face, he gasped for air and held onto life like the dying animal he was.
He awoke in an ICU unit at UVM Medical Center, and just before his eyes closed for the last time, he waved away a priest who offered him last rites. But there was the strong smell of jasmine and then he could see Chiara again, clearly as before, her warm smile firing his blood for one last time. He was transfixed by her magnificent eyes which he could now see were portals to the immortal spirit.
“Ciao, Caro Billy,” she smiled tenderly. “See, I have come back to you. Will you come with me?”
He managed a nod just before the monitor rang and the screen flat-lined.