Authors: Susan Russo Anderson
She was in luck. His store was still open.
As she lifted her skirts to climb the stoop, a few customers exited, jangling the front door’s silver bell. One man doffed his silk hat to her. Another, a ragged soul, pushed and nearly knocked the first man down. He mumbled an apology, one sleeve flapping as he swabbed his brow. In the other hand, he clutched a ribboned medal. A woman with arms full of parcels wedged her way between the men, brushing Serafina’s sleeve as she descended.
Inside, she spotted the shoemaker coming out of his workroom, rubbing his hands on his apron. He’d regained his composure.
His smile was brief, tight, and in keeping with the armband he wore. “Thanks for your trouble, this morning, and I must apologize for my—”
“Of course. Graziella’s doing well, I take it? Have you named the baby yet?”
The shoemaker blinked. “Yes, to both.”
“Many thanks to you. I was just about to close the shop, but please, have a seat. My time is yours. Only that—”
“Graziella expects you?”
He shrugged. “Busy today and Ugo’s death was…a shock for her. Another shock. Hasn’t been well.”
Serafina had difficulty sensing his mood. Perhaps he was still in shock, which she knew took many forms. Fatigue did not help: after all, he’d been through a lot in the last twenty-four hours—up most of the night for the birth of his youngest son, then recently hearing about the stabbing death of his brother.
“I’m investigating Ugo’s death and I have a few questions.”
She decided she’d keep her mouth shut to see what came out of his, so she folded her hands and waited.
They both sat, Serafina keeping as still as she could. He fidgeted with the band on his sleeve, bent to straighten his shoelaces, combed his brows with a finger.
Finally he spoke. “You told me Ugo died by the knife. He became involved with ne’er-do-wells and they paid him back, it seems.” He paused, looked at his hands. “I hope you find them so that justice may be done. And now I have a funeral to plan. Do you know when the body will be released?”
She shook her head. “I know there will be an autopsy. Sometime by the end of next week you’ll be able to bury him, I would imagine. If the officials drag on longer than that, you’d best consult your lawyer.” That’s all she wanted to tell him, nothing about the search of Ugo’s home or finding the silver or the box of gold.
The shoemaker paced, distracted. “I’ll feel better when I’m able to bury him. Hard, very hard, not knowing.”
She said nothing for a moment, then asked, “What work did Ugo do?”
“This and that.”
“Selling goods for the nobility?”
Rodolfo sat, crossed his legs, uncrossed them, bit his fingernails.
Another long silence.
Rodolfo squirmed. “Not interested in the family business. Disappointed my father. ‘In with a bad lot, Ugo. Come to no good, mark me,’ he told me once. He tried, Papa did. Patient with him. I can see them in the workroom—Ugo fidgety, Papa showing him the tools. Tried to show him simple repairs, but Ugo was clumsy, never could get it, didn’t want to. One time my father took him to Florence, shopping for hides. Wouldn’t you know, Ugo disappeared, just vanished. Couldn’t find him, had to come home without him. Never did hear where he’d gone. Young, too, about Teo’s age, maybe a year older. Returned a few months later, unkempt, begging forgiveness. Oh, he took him back. Mama saw to that. But that was the end of Ugo for my father. Never spoke of him again.”
“No. But no more talk of Ugo taking over the shop.”
“You’re the oldest?”
He shook his head.
The door opened and Teo clomped over to them.
“My son, Teo.”
Teo had the same round face as his father and uncle. She shook hands with him and smelled fields in the sun. Reaching into her satchel, Serafina pulled out some sweets that she kept at the ready. “Marzipan?”
He eyed them and ran a tongue around his lips. “No, thanks. Dinner soon.” He looked at her and smiled. “And I just had some next door.”
The sparkle returned to Rodolfo’s eyes for a moment. “Supposed to be teaching next door, not eating.”
“What do you teach at the sweet shop—how to eat marzipan?” Serafina asked.
“Not teaching, really, but Teo and the girl next door study together,” Rodolfo said. “Helps with her…reading and from time to time, she gives us sweets.”
“Reading what?” Serafina asked.
A Tale of Two Cities
“I wouldn’t think you’d be interested in that book. You’re just twelve or thirteen—one of those.”
“Twelve. I picked it out for her. She’s older and I thought she’d like it. About the French Revolution. Long, too. Me?
is my favorite.”
“You should meet my Giulia. Older than you, but she knows her English, too. Wants to sail away to England or America.”
“I know Giulia. See her at school. Older than me. Sews.” He turned to his father. “Mama says you’re late again. She says to come at once.” He slid his eyes back to Serafina. “And already I work in the shop after school.”
The shoemaker tousled his son’s hair. “Tell Mama in a minute. I’m talking with Donna Fina.”
Teo stared at her a moment longer. It seemed like he was about to say something. Then, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he turned to go.
“What’s this? One moment while I look at your sleeve,” Rodolfo said. “Missing a button. Tell the domestic it needs mending. Can’t have you running around the streets like a ragamuffin.”
Serafina smiled. This was more like the Rodolfo she knew. Smiling, pleasant, interested in his customers and exuberant—yes, simply exuberant—about the shoes they sold. He’d talk for an hour on the quality of the leather, the importance of the arch and heel, the sole, the stitching. Growing up, she remembered lines of customers snaking out the door and down the stoop waiting for service, especially on Saturdays, and Rodolfo often helped her decide which pair to purchase.
Serafina waited until Teo disappeared. “So. Any other siblings? Or is it just you and Ugo?”
“Just us. Even when we were growing up, I worked in the shop after school and in the summer.” Rodolfo circled the room with the flat of his hand. “From the start, it was clear to me: shoemaking was my life, like my father before me and his father before him.”
There was another pause before he continued. “So he had me run the shop. After that trip to Florence, he wouldn’t let Ugo go near it. Didn’t trust him after that.”
“But surely you spent time together, you and your brother. When did you last see him?”
Rodolfo hunched his shoulders. “Never wanted anything to do with me. Wasn’t good enough, I guess. Everything fell to me—the buying, the selling, running the shop, worrying about the accounts.”
She repeated her question.
He stared at something she could not see. “His wedding? Yes, that was it.”
“When was that?”
“Let’s see, four, five years before Garibaldi landed. I guess about eleven, twelve years ago. Of course, we attended the ceremony in Palermo a couple of years ago.”
“Which one was that?”
“When Ugo received the Marsala Medal. But he’d have nothing to do with me.”
“So your father left you the business?”
“No, of course not. I was in charge of the business. When he died, the rest of his estate—what little there was of it—was divided. Half of it came to me, the rest to Ugo.”
“And Ugo resented you for keeping the shop?”
“Not at all.” He shifted on the seat. “Ugo and I, we had a special arrangement.”
“Ugo left me alone with the shop. I gave him a share of the profits.”
“Not exactly.” Rodolfo wiped his forehead again. “I ran the business, so naturally I was compensated extra for my time. Lately, Ugo’s share, well, it wasn’t much.”
“You sent it to him through an attorney?”
The shoemaker looked at Serafina like she’d gone round the twist. “No. He came to the shop.”
“But I thought you hadn’t seen him in years.”
“I meant socially, as families do, brother to brother. No, he came to the shop each month for his handout. As I say, lately, his cut wasn’t much, what with protection and higher taxes. Ugo wanted me to sell the shop.” Rodolfo wiped beads of sweat from his forehead.
“And, I take it, you weren’t willing.”
The shoemaker’s face resembled a piece of deep cordovan. “Tight right now. Many people pay for their shoes with bread or fish. Some only have prayers to give me. More and more, they dispense with shoes altogether. I mean, why would they need shoes when the soles of their feet are so strong? But who’s to say what will happen next year if the crops hold and taxes ease? Once more we’ll prosper and people will become soft again and need a cobbler’s wares.”
She shrugged. “Did Ugo have children?”
Rodolfo walked over to the windows and pulled the shades. “After Ugo married, he moved away. Somewhere in the east—Catania, I think. When he returned, it was without the wife. Said she had died. Never spoke of children.” Untying his apron, he hooked it behind the counter and stood there, she thought, waiting for her to leave.
“I’ll follow you home, if you don’t mind. I owe Graziella a visit. It won’t take long. But before we go, I have one last question.”
Sweating profusely now, he wiped his face with a linen while she waited. “Your question?”
“Where were you last night?”
“Where was I?” Rodolfo seemed to lose his balance. She thought he was going to fall, but he swallowed and finally steadied himself.
“Here, of course.”
“No, I mean, yes, I mean—” He opened and closed his mouth like some prehistoric flat fish.
The shoemaker seemed to be pleading for help. For her part, she regretted having to ask about his whereabouts last night. Truth to tell, his presence at the birthing seemed vague to her, too, understandable since she had been wrapped up in the delivery of his child and in Graziella’s wellbeing. She remembered him giving her coins when she left, but she couldn’t remember his being there when she entered and it was Graziella’s cousin who’d come to fetch her. More troubling: she could not understand his behavior today. She knew grief sometimes had bizarre manifestations, but Rodolfo’s behavior seemed more like fear. Fear of what? Discovery? Or was his mind stopped by the loss of a brother he never quite knew or liked.
“—I meant I was at home, of course. You remember, I gave you thanks at the door?”
He stilled his breathing. “I said ‘here’ because, as you know, our home is above the shop.”
They ascended the narrow staircase in the back of the shop to the shoemaker’s home. It consisted of three rooms all recently whitewashed in time for the new baby’s arrival. The furnishings were spare but in good condition. Serafina was surprised at how empty it seemed compared to last night when rooms were filled with women praying, carrying water and fresh linen, men playing cards and arguing. After the baby was delivered, the house had rung with shouts of joy. No decorations on the walls, no books on the shelves. It held none of the clutter created by the living.
The combined kitchen and dining area boasted a large oak table around which three places had been set. Two windows faced the street and dappled light filtered onto the plain wooden floors. A domestic was busy carrying stoneware from the oven to the table. The smell of tomato sauce and pasta made Serafina’s stomach growl.
The shoemaker’s wife sat on a sofa, rocking slightly and thumping her newborn’s blanketed back. She wore her hair pulled back into one thick plait and Serafina could see an increase in grey threading through the chestnut strands. The sunlight hardened the lines in her face. Graziella had the same forlorn look as she did last night when she was handed her baby, but it creased into a smile when she saw Serafina.
“I’d still be in labor if it weren’t for you. A thousand thanks. Now I’ve another healthy child.”
“Sorry to detain your dinner. I won’t take long, but I wanted to assure myself that your spirits had returned.” Serafina took the infant from Graziella and ran two fingers over his forehead, then felt his pulse. “Much bleeding?”
“The usual.” She looked up at Serafina and forced another smile. “Don’t say anything to Rodolfo. If I could take back the words I spoke last night. I was just…”
“Nonsense. No need to explain.” Serafina felt Graziella’s pulse.
Teo ran a tongue around his lips. “Can I hold him?”
“Only for a moment. And be gentle, like I showed you,” Graziella said.
After Teo settled himself, Serafina handed him the baby. He stared at his brother a moment, then began rocking him.
His mother held out a restraining arm. “Not so hard. Easy, like you did last night.”
Teo slowed his rocking and smiled at his brother. He put the tip of his nose close to his brother’s and made faces. The baby stilled.
Silence for a moment.
Finally Serafina said, “He’s a good size, too. You’re both doing well.”
Teo handed the baby back to his mother.
“Another hungry boy. I prayed for a girl, like I told you last night, but his family hasn’t had one in generations. Too many brothers for their own good.” Graziella looked at something indistinct and her eyes began to tear up. “I miss my family.”
Serafina felt a surge of pity for the woman. “I know you’re disappointed. It’s a mother’s right to be dispirited for a week or two after giving birth, but you’ll feel better in no time, mark me, especially if you take the medicinals I’ve brought you—one spoonful in the morning, another at night.” Although they weren’t close, she liked Graziella, remembered her from school where she had the reputation of being lively and independent—a bit of a prankster. Rosa, who knew everything, said her family was related to a prominent gun manufacturer near Brescia. “Trained in the hunt,” according to Rosa. Graziella was tall, had a regal bearing and a way with clothes. Serafina remembered her as a joyous woman until last year when her sisters were lost to cholera.