The underfilled suit shuffling across the dining room of the two-star French restaurant houses the earthly remains of Fortunato Pensa, once feared and revered from Rimini to Perugia. Every few steps, he halts long enough to allow a shudder to pass through his body, afraid forward momentum and tremor combined might put him on the floor.
That would necessitate assistance from Irene and a member of the wait staff, so Fortunato’s pride prefers the lesser indignity of brief shambles followed by pauses to shake like a wet poodle over being righted by his mistress and an obsequious servant.
Fortunato met Irene while she was working as a Las Vegas showgirl, back when he still harbored dreams of expanding his criminal holdings into America. He had wanted to leave not just a profitable business, but an empire to his beloved Eufrasio, the only child Maria had borne him.
Although he brought the beautiful Irene home to Italy after reeling her in on a hook baited with diamonds, Fortunato never followed up on the expansion because Frasio (God rest his soul) died only two months later, killed instantly when he started the car of his acquaintance, Gaspare Gallo. The bomb had been intended for Gaspare’s father, Ermano, head of another crime family and a man with whom Fortunato had occasionally done business. The perpetrator was never identified, and profound loss drained away much of the life and all of the dreams of Fortunato Pensa.
Lacking a blood heir, the bereaved father kept his illegal enterprises viable with the aid of hired capos, soldiers, and a series of young men claiming distant familial ties. No cream rose to the top, so in 1993 Fortunato quietly shut down his life’s work and retired to Ravenna, where he and Irene still share a villa on a hill overlooking the Adriatic Sea.
The next series of shuffles brings Fortunato to the corridor containing the restrooms, where he pauses to catch his breath, ride out another rippling neural misfire, and consider his lot. Blind without the thick glasses whose heavy, black frames pincer his bald head; deaf without the unsightly plastic transmitters sharing ear canal space with tufts of wiry hair; unable to smell, and thus, unable to taste the food he once enjoyed: the rich, tomato gravy his mother lovingly set on the table every Sunday when he was a boy, its redolence derived from long-simmered pork neck bones, its oleaginous viscosity blanketing the bucatini that filled the yellow ceramic tureen.
Inching and jolting past the door marked “Mesdames,” he realizes his deadened sense of taste makes it easier to endure these dinners at Irene’s favorite French restaurant. He has always detested the fussy, Gallic approach to food, their fragile sauces and Dali-esque garnish, but now, with his inoperative taste buds, Coquilles Saint-Jacques differs from Lasagne al Forno only in texture. The important thing is that the food is yielding enough for chewing by teeth that grin at Fortunato from a bedside glass each night.
At last, reaching the entrance for “Messieurs,” the frail old man must use both hands to push open the heavy door. As he had hoped, the facility is empty. Fortunato chose this evening—December thirtieth—for a celebratory dinner with Irene, rather than tomorrow night, when L’Atelier de Maxime Fouchon will be packed with noisy revelers ushering in not only the new year but a whole new millennium.
In the mirror above the urinal, Fortunato scrutinizes the vestiges of someone born four years into the final century of the ending millennium, a man who has outlived his wife, his son, his relevance, and his welcome.
Hobbling closer to the white porcelain trough, bladder aching, he reaches down a mottled hand to unzip his trousers and withdraw his cazzo. Like everything else about him, it has seen better days. The eager, springing bachetto of his twenties and thirties has become a sad parody of his childhood’s pisellino, but much less efficient. As a toddler trailing after his nonno when the old man foraged for truffles, little Fortunato liked to arc his stream onto the flat limestones that littered the floor of the Umbrian forest. Now he can only dream of streams, pray for spurts, then settle for the trickle that mimics his start-and-stop gait.
This is how it ends, muses Fortunato, settling in to await the weak flow. If you do not die violently in the space between two heartbeats like my Frasio, you succumb to the numbing fog that pitilessly saps away your life, one sense and one organ at a time. He decides a fiery blast is kinder.
Fortunato’s bleak reverie is interrupted by a groan of hinges and the slow opening of the door. A stranger’s presence will impede the process of relaxing enough to coax out the liquid, now painfully stretching his bladder, but Fortunato has no choice. A return to the table with his task incomplete might result in an unwelcome surprise between the Crevettes au Vin Blanc and the lime sorbet intermezzo.
The interloper who claims a spot four feet down from Fortunato is younger, perhaps by as much as a dozen years, but is still very old by the standards of anything short of a Galápagos tortoise. Violating protocol by staring in the mirror too long, he checks Fortunato’s face as if to confirm his identity.
“So,” the stranger croaks, gnarled fingers scrabbling at his zipper. “If it isn’t the great Fortunato Pensa.” His cigarette-ravaged vocal chords convey disdain with clarity.
Fortunato tenses, all hope of relaxing enough to urinate ceasing as he goes on high alert. He carries no weapon, has no loitering muscle within range of a shout, and is long past the days when his bare hands had choked the life out of several men and—in one unfortunate case—a woman. Trying to make a run for it would be both laughable and ignominious, so he stays in place, gun hand holding nothing more than his floppy pisellino. He takes his own turn staring too long in the mirror, examining the last face he will ever see.
The other man’s shiny shirt opens in a deep, unseemly vee, revealing a bulky gold chain nestling in a thicket of white chest hair. A ring with too much nuggety gold and too many diamonds engulfs the pinky finger of the hand that aims his equipment at a partially dissolved urinal cake. He is the quintessential caricature of a mob button man.
“Do I know you?” Fortunato asks, maintaining his stance as casually as possible under the circumstances.
“No, but you should. I’m twice the businessman you ever were.”
Fortunato bristles, wondering did you come here to kill me or insult me? Hitmen are not chatty souls, preferring to express themselves with bullets that leave no lines to read between for hidden meaning. This man carries no gun, but Fortunato knows from experience how little pocket space is taken up by a thirty-inch length of piano wire.
“Angelo Bianchi. Excuse me if I don’t shake your hand, but I’m trying to take a leak here.”
Fortunato recognizes the name. A small-time thug, Bianchi used to freelance on the periphery, too stupid to be entrusted with serious responsibility and too much of a loudmouth to employ for covert work. His wiseguy résumé touted only brute force without a hint of finesse, while Fortunato had always possessed a mastery of both, using the former only when the latter would not resolve a problem.
With no alternative, Fortunato goes on the offensive. “Bianchi, you aren’t twice the businessman my oldest suit is.”
“Say whatever you want to feel better about yourself,” Angelo fires back. “But I was only nineteen years old when I rolled into Lucca and took over Gionelli Vecchio’s olive oil company.”
Fortunato scoffs. “A business that produced what? Fifty barrels in its best year? When I was just eighteen, Mussolini secretly sent me to ransack Corfu and bring him back everything of value before we bombed la merda out of that traitorous speck. And what I kept back for myself, right under Il Duce’s nose, was enough to buy the most profitable vineyard in Tuscany, although the owner, Senore Teruzzi, did require the kind of persuading that leaves one without the use of one’s thumbs.”
Fortunato feels confident he has firmly established his irrefutable position of dominance in both business acumen and barbarity. He hasn’t thought of—much less bragged about—his youthful successes in decades, and the exquisite pleasure of humiliating this insolent upstart offsets the pain of his close-to-rupturing bladder.
“Ancient history, Pensa,” snarls Bianchi clearly chagrined at being bested by a decrepit vecchiccio. “Almost as ancient as that fat puttana sitting at your table out there.”
Fortunato feels the barb sharply. True, Irene is sixty-four now, and her creamy skin and glorious meloni have succumbed to wrinkles and gravity, but she has been as a wife to him these thirty-odd years since Maria passed (God rest her soul) and family is always off-limits, confirming his belief that Bianchi is less assassino than insetto. And a bug must be squashed.
“Irene is a wife to me, Bianchi, and as such is not required to be beautiful.”
Angelo smirks, interpreting the concession as a win.
“I’ll tell you who was beautiful, however,” Fortunato says before the other man can bask too long in his perceived victory. “Gina Lollobrigida. In 1948, she came to me to beg for an introduction to Howard Hughes, the American film producer with whom I had become acquainted.”
He pauses to let Bianchi’s memory conjure an image of the stunning actress who had lit up Italian movie screens throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
“And let me just say that when she begged me, she did so on her knees.”
Now it is Fortunato who smirks into the mirror, meeting Bianchi’s eyes and reveling in his triumph. Neither man can pee, nor can either walk away without admitting total surrender, so Angelo presses hard to regain the advantage.
“At twenty-five, I shot and killed Bruno Ressona for encroaching on my gambling operation,” the gravelly voice boasts.
Once again, Fortunato has him beat. “At twenty-three, I garroted the mayor of Assisi simply because his cigar was stinking up the taverna I owned there.”
Reduced at this point to sounding like a small boy trying to prove his worth to an older sibling, Bianchi retorts, “Si? Well, I’m the man who finally took down Pierro Tomba, the most ruthless caporegimo south of the Po River!”
As if Fortunato needs schooling on who Tomba was. That monster had killed a half-dozen of his soldiers back in the day, and he is reluctantly impressed a goombah like Angelo had the testicoli to send Tomba to Hell. Still, Fortunato wants to win this competition before Bianchi makes his move. He feels better, stronger than he has in years, treading ground as familiar to him as Irene’s once-tight micino.
“If I remember correctly,” he says, “Tomba was ambushed and shot in the back, a coward’s way of killing. When I took the life of Persavio Lenzi, I looked him in the eyes as I rammed a stiletto into his heart, then broke off the glass hilt to keep as a memento.”
Angelo seethes, unused to challenges, much less defeats, while Fortunato feels like a commanding figure again, after so many years of shrinking into helplessness and obscurity. Even the frustration with his bladder’s inability to empty itself can’t dull the thrill of victory.
Bianchi has one last arrow in his quiver, though, so he lets it fly. “Match this, you impotent corpse!” he blusters. “I, Angelo Bianchi, was the only man brave enough to penetrate the rings of security surrounding the high and mighty Ermano Gallo and to murder him in his own bed!”
At the mention of the name, Fortunato freezes. After a moment, he quietly asks, “It was you who killed Don Gallo?”
Angelo misreads the response, hearing admiration rather than the pre-strike hiss of a cobra. Believing his adversary is awed by the magnitude of the bold act, he continues confidently.
“Five rounds in his ugly face, but only after he begged for his life.”
Anger floods Fortunato’s heart, though his voice remains calm, its phlegmy quaver magically gone.
“And had you previously failed to kill Ermano?”
Sensing he has finally routed the older man, Bianchi does not feel embarrassed by the truth. Indeed, now that his foe is vanquished, Angelo can afford the magnanimous admission that he was not infallible in those good old days.
“You are right, Senore Pensa. I did make one other attempt on Gallo before I succeeded. I wired that ridiculous red Siata he drove with enough dynamite to level a cathedral.”
Fortunato has waited nearly half his lifetime to learn who killed his son, and rage boils in his blood, rolling back the years of decline.
“Unfortunately,” Bianchi says, “Gallo’s useless, drunken boy decided to take his babbo’s fuckmobile for a joyride with one of his idiot friends.”
Fortunato turns, cazzo still in hand. The doctors were wrong; it is not relaxation, but righteous fury that unleashes the flow, and dammed-up urine shoots out in a copious stream.
“You crazy stronzo!” Bianchi shrieks. “What are you doing?” He recoils from the foul spew, backing up against the wall and flailing his arms ineffectually against the strafing.
Fortunato advances, gun hand directing his aim at Frasio’s murderer. He does not see a geyser of piss drenching the white silk shirt of a cringing thug. No, he sees machine gunfire ripping through the wedding gown of a terrified girl as he enters a church where his two biggest business rivals are about to unite their families’ power through the sacrament of holy matrimony. In a sweeping, continuous spray of bullets, the young Fortunato Pensa eliminates thirty-one enemies, securing his position at the top of the Umbrian criminal hierarchy and making his name legend for the next forty years.
It’s a beautiful, dying thought for an old Mafioso (God rest his soul).