Below are five different “first pages” for my novel “Amedeo.” Please let me know how these openings feel to you, what you glean about the overall story and the people involved. Which do you like best? Comment below or email mark at marknassutti.com. Thank you! Grazie!
Amedeo clenched his brother’s sweat-stained leather belt in his teeth when, just as his sister wanted, the answer to her question – “Pelopidas and Marcellus” – took his attention away from what she had to do. Anna yanked sharply on his left hand, producing a thought-stopping jolt of pain. He moaned. Her expert fingers palpated the swollen flesh around his third metatarsal. With a slight smile, she declared, “Fatto. Done. Right back into place.”
Amedeo spat out the belt, the salty residue of Umberto’s alpine adventures sharp on his tongue. “Porca miseria, how am I supposed to work my brake wheel with this hand?”
Umberto released Amedeo’s upper arm and arched his back to stretch. “That’s the problem with you revolutionaries,” he said in his urbane banker’s provocative pose. “You always complain about the pain of change, as if it’s the capitalists’ fault.”
“It was your capitalist policeman who knocked me down,” Amedeo said. “I was just watching a peaceful demonstration against your stupid emperor’s war.”
“The emperor is stupid,” Umberto said, “but let me remind you I prefer an allegiance to Italy’s king. Now, you have a bigger problem: you abandoned your post at the helm of your trolley. A captain never leaves his ship. You’ll be lucky if they let you keep that uniform.” Then he became Amedeo’s older brother again, long-felt rage barely suppressed. “You got yourself sacked from the most prestigious insurance company in Trieste, because you felt obliged to protest a co-worker’s treatment. You finally found work as a…” He paused, adding disgust to his voice, “a trolley driver, and you get your hand stepped on for dereliction of duty.” He brought his face up close to Amedeo’s. “Who do you think you are, protesting anything? How dare you jeopardize our family again?”
“Zitti, ragazzi,” Anna said. “Table it.” She lifted a curved piece of tin from the clutter of plaster and felt wraps and pads. “This will reinforce the cast so you can turn that wheel,” she said, then added, nodding to Umberto, “if they take you back.” She laid the forearm of Amedeo’s injured hand across the book that prompted her question — Plutarch’s Parallel Lives – then instructed Umberto on how to hold the brace against Amedeo’s palm and fingers.
Amedeo’s ears burned from both Umberto’s rebuke and Anna’s tender touch. Then, as Anna skillfully wrapped and Umberto obediently helped, Amedeo’s mind drifted far from the dining room table, far from calming Plutarch, back to the piazza of the protest and the searching eyes of the woman in black.
Via San Francesco
A metallic bang shattered the warm summer sleep of three children at number 29 Via San Francesco, and a first waking sensation of cool sea breeze vanished amid the tinkling of broken glass and their mother’s cry.
Thirteen-year-old Umberto, an ache behind his eyes, rolled his legs over the side of his bed. His eight-year-old brother Amedeo sat up across from him, barely catching the book he’d fallen asleep reading as it hurtled toward the floor. Their father Giovanni’s voice reached them, too loud, too slurred, too angry, too familiar. “If you hate me so much, why don’t you just hike back up the hill to your mother?”
“If you hadn’t laid your hands on me,” Maria said through exhausted impatience, “I just might be able to do that. But here I am, with three children! And a husband too stupid to stay away from a card table!”
Giovanni’s fist smashed a table. “I made this little fortune! It’s mine to lose it if I want to, and I can get it back!”
Umberto stepped into the hallway, arms hanging from his tall, narrow frame, shaking his hands as if trying to shake water off after washing.
“Hah! Do you even know where your tools are?”
Amedeo followed, his breathing growing shallower with each step.
“Shut up!” Porcelain exploded against the floor. Maria yelped a sob. Giovanni’s voice rose, uncertain, frightened. “It wasn’t my fault, I tell you!”
Anna, 10, opened her door. Umberto put a finger to his lips.
“Why,” Maria asked through her tears, “why have you done this to us? I warned you. What will we do?”
“It’s not so bad. We’ll have to move, that’s all.” Giovanni’s voice softened, almost pleading. “Until I get things going again. I’ll buy some new buildings, get us back in a home like this, soon.” Then angry again. “Quit your crying, woman!”
Giovanni sensed the children and turned. “What are you looking at? Get back to bed!”
“Basta, Giovanni,” Maria said, her voice stronger. “They are innocent.”
“Don’t look at me that way,” Giovanni shouted at Umberto. The boy dropped his head slightly, moved his arms away from his slender body, a young wolf confronting the old alpha male.
“We have to move?” Umberto asked, his voice icy. “Why?”
“Why? How dare you ask why! Because I said so!”
“What did you lose now? Did you bet the house this time?”
“How….” Giovanni turned to Maria, his anger now mixed with pleading.
“Yes, Umberto,” Maria said.
In the Mouth of the Wolf
Their twenty-year silence ended moments after a thin young Partisan locked a holding cell door behind Umberto and he heard his brother say, “Welcome to Tito’s Communist Party. Can I get you a drink?”
Umberto flinched at the voice and revulsion filled his chest. His battered cheek ached with swell, a scrape on his head oozed blood, and his heart raced at the outrage of a very impolite interrogation. The small room stank of rust and urine. Adjusting to the low light, he made out his brother: broad shoulders, a sagging wool sport coat, canvas pants and boots, sitting against the opposite wall, barely out of arm’s reach. Umberto pulled his handkerchief out of his rough canvas gardening pants and dabbed at his head.
A voice shouted out in the courtyard. A fusillade of rifle shots. The sound of bodies falling to the cobbles. Then, a single pistol shot.
“We’re very lucky, you know,” Amedeo said. “The fact that that’s not us is very, very good news.”
Umberto felt his outrage turn to rage and vibrate inside him. He went to one of the two small windows that shed the light of a burning trash barrel in the courtyard. With a corner of handkerchief, he cleaned his glasses. Two soldiers in Yugoslav uniforms carried a body through a gate.
“You know the Gestapo used this place until last week, right?” Amedeo said. “Tito’s fuckers liberate us from the Nazis and just take over right where those murderers left off.”
An open-topped car pulled in around the barrel and stopped, idling. Two soldiers jumped out and yanked a well-dressed couple in handcuffs out of the back seat.
“Why do you have to be so rough with her?” the man asked in Italian, his voice shaky.
One soldier slapped him, then shoved the couple through the villa’s door with an exchange of Serbo-Croatian shouts. The soldiers came back and drove off.
“They go in. They come out. They get shot. Maybe 15 minutes,” Amedeo said. “You watch.”
Two hours earlier, Umberto had slammed his front door in Amedeo’s without letting him speak. Amedeo looked at his brother now – still tall and straight at 58 – and felt both surprised and not surprised, more disappointed than anything. And a little bit stupid. I risk my life and scare my wife for this stronzo, he thought. Well, I’ve done everything I could. Probably too much. Walking out the lower gate of Umberto’s villa, he had whispered, “In boca al’ lupo,” the closest thing he could muster to a good luck prayer. If you’re in the mouth of the wolf, hope the wolf chokes on you and dies.
Amedeo and Miran leaned over the balcony and heard the wave of whispers washing up Via dall’Istria. The harsh, low-angled sun of morning made the sky a cold pale blue.
“Word is the Germans left three garrisons behind,” Miran said. “The port, San Giusto hill, and the Palace of Justice. Poor bastards.”
“Nazis aren’t known for their sentimentality, are they?” Amedeo asked.
On both sides of the road that cut through San Giacomo, the neighborhood that led to the heart of Trieste from the south, people looked out their windows and doorways, waiting, trading information and speculating in quiet tones. From the café at the corner below, Amedeo heard Radio Londra, something impossibly dangerous just days before, and cause for arrest in Mussolini’s day. Anglo-Americans in Monfalcone, 18 miles north. Tito’s Partisans coming from the opposite direction, Capodistria, 14 miles south.
In Monfalcone, the war was over.
Amedeo drew his conclusion and stepped back inside. His wife Netti met his eyes. “No,” he said. “It won’t be the Anglo-Americani.” He turned to his friend. “To the victor, the spoils, Miran. Your Yugoslavs win.”
“Porca miseria, they’re not!…” He paused, then said in a low growl, “Those sons-of-bitches have made a mockery of Marx. If they get here first, it’s going to get ugly, and by this time tomorrow I suspect even you atheists will be praying ”
“Puzza,” Amedeo said. “It all stinks.” He waved at the street. “And look at this.” Several days of garbage, mule piss and horse manure filled the gutters. “This never would have happened under the Austrians.”
“Well, that won’t get any worse, for a few days at least,” Miran said. “With three armies on the march, all the farmers will stay home. To keep their mules and horses from becoming steaks.”
A mechanical buzz drew their attention. Up where Via dall’Istria crossed Largo Pestalozzi, two dozen men on motorcycles crested the hill. With their rifles slung across their shoulders, they made a jagged line of X’s across the skyline.
“Scouts,” Amedeo said.
They rolled by, squinting against the light and dust. They wore cloth caps with red stars and left behind a thin blue haze of oily exhaust. At every window, at every door, faces stared out. No one cheered. No one even smiled. And then they waited some more.
An hour later, the sound of a crowd moving in the street interrupted Amedeo as he read Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, a favorite and a book that he had learned could provide serenity as well as wisdom. At first annoyed, he jumped to his feet at the balcony. Uneven footsteps mingled with the rustling of clothing, the dings of metal containers and low voices. Men with rifles, a few in front at the ready, the rest casually slung over shoulders. Some men smoked. Few wore uniforms. Most wore farmer’s rough pants and smocks, workman’s overalls, even business suits with topcoats hanging open. They received only stares.
The shouts reached Amedeo through the din of motors, neighing horses and the anxious and complaining drivers around his gridlocked electric trolley. A sidewalk café’s diners stood and walked toward the piazza, leaving red tablecloths littered with hastily abandoned plates of bean and sauerkraut stew and crusty bread, flatware askew and glasses of beer half gone. One ancient patron with two canes and a gray-haired waiter wringing his hands looked toward the piazza.
Resting his sore back against the partition separating his driver’s station and the passenger compartment, Amedeo squinted through the late afternoon sun hanging over Trieste and its bay beyond, then looked at his watch. He would definitely not reach his turnaround at the train station on time. It didn’t look like he’d be moving at all anytime soon.
Lucio, his conductor, slid open the window in the partition and leaned out. “These complainers want to know if they’d be better off walking,” he said. Lucio intended the implicit question to draw Amedeo out, to get him to reveal a bit more of himself. His job was to help Amedeo succeed. With a war on, the trolley company was short of manpower. So far, Lucio liked this young man. No other driver jumped down at the train station to help passengers with their luggage.
“I’m worried about the people going to the train,” Amedeo said.
Lucio nodded, pleased, and he too looked ahead, into Piazza della Caserma, named for the enormous Austrian-yellow army barracks compound dominating the piazza. “Another regiment moving out,” he said, doubtful.
“Still, I’ve never seen it this bad,” Amedeo said.
A teamster on a long, flatbed wagon stacked with crates set his wheel brake and jumped down to walk among his four brown horses, checking their tack and stroking their soft muzzles as they twitched their ears. A truck driver turned off his engine and lit a cigarette. His assistant jumped out and began walking toward the piazza. Other men from other vehicles did the same. In the opposite lanes of broad Via Carducci, traffic flowed but far thinner than usual.
“We’re boxed in,” Amedeo said. “Should I shut down?”
“Go ahead.” Lucio turned back to the compartment. “Mi dispiace, signori e signore, it looks like we’re stuck for a while.”
Amedeo hopped off. An elegant middle-aged woman in a fine black brocade dress with matching hat accepted his help and came down, favoring one leg. She thanked him. “I’d hoped to get a bit closer,” she said, “but I think I can make it from here. I twisted my ankle, but I wouldn’t miss this.”
Surprised, Amedeo asked, “You know what’s going on?”
“Lega delle Donne. The League of Women. Protesting the war.”
“The last time I saw a protest, a bunch of people got shot.”
“They won’t shoot women,” she said with the confidence of a combat-hardened general. She turned and set off with a slight limp, joining a steady stream of men, women and children moving toward the piazza. Their speculative chatter buzzed by in Triestino, German, Slovenian, Serbo-Croatian, Hungarian, English and French, plus two or three other languages Amedeo didn’t recognize.
“Brave woman,” he said to Lucio. Then, a burning curiosity arose inside Amedeo. Fully aware that a trolley driver never leaves his ship, he said, “I’ve got to see this,” his tone respectful and not quite asking permission. “Cover for me?”
Lucio pushed his cap back on his head and leaned against the trolley, studying Amedeo. “A long trip to the bathroom,” Lucio said. “That’s all I can do. And you’ll owe me a couple of beers after work.”