We both knew that Lieut. William L. Calley Jr.'s parole had nothing and everything to do with our bitter and escalating quarrel. Still, neither of us dared climb out of the trenches from which we've been firing at one another ever since the day I turned twelve and accidentally found out about my mother.
It was a typically cold November evening. Once he had retired from the Italian Air Force a few years back and moved from the officers' quarters at Aviano Air Base into the Roman apartment he inherited from his parents, he forsook a lifelong Spartan existence and embarked upon a life of comfort with a vengeance. My father kept his spacious home toasty throughout the winter months, all the while imprecating OPEC for the soaring cost of energy.
He poured coffee for all three of us as my wife, Serena, served the habitual number of brown sugar cubes with Nonna's chrome tongs and I splashed some cream into his coffee cup.
Serena set the sugar bowl down on the silver serving tray and lit a cigarette. He glanced left toward the corridor. I told him that I had checked earlier and that Aster was knocked out, sound asleep. "General, she couldn't stop raving about all the fountains you showed her at Piazza Navona during your outing today," Serena said gleefully.
Beaming, he raised his saucer and cup up to his chin. "I don't see why you don't leave Naples and move in here with me. No need to tell you there's plenty of space here. Piazza Navona and Campo dei Fiori would be at the little one's doorstep, Botanical Gardens and Mount Palatine a few bus stops away. What more would a little girl want?" he asked rhetorically. Steam rising from his scorching coffee began to condense on his forehead.
Lieut. Calley's photograph in uniform stared at me from the front and top page of the Corriere della Sera, folded neatly next to the tray. I expressed my outrage at the American army's decision made a day earlier, essentially freeing Lieut. Calley, an officer responsible for the carnage of over five hundred innocent South Vietnamese civilians at Mai Lai. Father held the coffee spoon and replaced it on the saucer without stirring the sugar and cream in his coffee.
"Why do you insist on ruining our evening? Why pick that story for an after dinner conversation?" Serena said vehemently. She leaned over the coffee table and snatched up the newspaper. "You want to talk about current affairs?" Serena said, turning over the newspaper. "Look," Serena exclaimed, striking the newspaper with her hand, "here's an election special, exploring Aldo Moro's relationship with some members of the Socialist and Communist parties." She rapidly flipped over a few pages. "Ali and Foreman's Kinshasa boxing match in pictures," she added. Folding the newspaper backside out, she tossed it on the coffee table knocking Nonna's chrome tongs out of the sugar bowl. "Oh yes," she said with renewed vigor, "there's also a mock Covent Garden market obituary. They'll be relocating from central London tomorrow after 300 years. Now, which of the three news items should we discuss?" Serena said leaning back into the art deco leather chair.
While keeping the saucer and cup below his chin, father removed a handkerchief from his coat pocket with his right hand and wiped the beads of moisture off his forehead. I carefully replaced Nonna's chrome tongs in the sugar bowl. Father raised the cup to his mouth, pinching the rim with his lips.
I then proceed to tell father that had I been the judge at the Lieutenant's court marshal, I would have sentenced him to death. Papŕ's hand shook as his café au lait sloshed and spilled, the stain encroaching the embossed corners of the napkin on his saucer. Serena cursed me under her breath as I abruptly stood up and left the apartment.
Fortunately, my brisk footsteps on the marble lobby floor did not wake up Signor Enrico, the concierge, from his slumber. As usual, numerous cars, parked bumper-to-bumper, lined both sides of the side street. I tightened the scarf around my neck and turned up my overcoat collars to shield myself from the frosty night air. I walked past Palazzo Braschi and crossed Vittorio Emanuele II Avenue, heading toward Campo de' Fiori. Convivial Romans, seemingly indifferent to the OPEC induced double digit inflation, filled the pizzerias, restaurants and cafés. I climbed down the stairs into La Caverna, my favorite Roman bar. Antonio, the waiter, brought me my usual scotch on the rocks soon after I had sat down on my chair at a table, past the bar, in the far end of the room. He asked about Aster and I inquired after his sons in New York. I promised to bring my daughter with me next time. Antonio excused himself to greet a few familiar customers at the entrance. I looked around the crowded and smoke-filled room, recognizing a few regulars at their usual tables. A conservatively dressed unfamiliar elderly couple sat at a corner table next to me. The woman was dubbing her red eyes with a wet handkerchief as the man stroked her back and spoke softly in her ears. "I don't want to!" the woman said loudly in Amharic. I unconsciously turned and stared directly at them. The husband looked up and glared at me.
I excused myself in Amharic and asked them how they spoke the language. The woman looked up and smiled at me. "We're Ethiopians. We arrived from Ethiopia only yesterday," she said, racked with sobs. She must have noticed the puzzled expression on my face for she continued, "It's funny how I have to relearn having to explain my nationality every time I'm outside my country. My Armenian family was originally from present day Syria," she said, as if by rote. The man introduced himself and his wife as Monsieur and Madame Hagop Chakarian. I told them my name. "And you," M. Chakarian asked, "how long did you live in our country? Your accent and command of our language is extraordinary."
I explained that my mother was Ethiopian. Mme. Chakarian looked at me in astonishment. "Forget Italian, you look almost Swedish or Danish," she maintained. I nodded with studied nonchalance. Several frustrating years after I had discovered my mother's existence and identity, I had decided to stop trying to find kinks in my straight blond hair and traces of dark pigments in my pale skin. M. Chakarian asked me to join them at their table as Antonio appeared and took the couple's order for me. I sat next to Mme. Chakarian and across from her husband.
They both instantly turned glum when I asked if they were enjoying their visit in Rome. While I attempted to formulate an apology for my innocuous query, Antonio appeared with our drinks. He set Mme. Chakarian's Grand Marnier, M. Chakarian's Armagnac, my Dimple Pinch on-the-rocks and a bottle of Pellegrnio with three water goblets, down on the table.
Once Antonio had left, M. Chakarian slid his fingers around the brandy snifter stem, lifted it slightly above his eyes and stared blankly into his drink. I swirled the ice cubes in my drink while Mme. Chakarian kneaded an errant thread with her thumb and forefinger. T-Bone Walker's lamentations about a baby he couldn't find at the train station reverberated through an old hi-fi speaker mounted on an arch above M. Chakarian's head, enveloping us all in our solitary melancholy.
Mme. Chakarian coiled the thread around her finger and asked if my parents lived in Rome. When I didn't respond right away, she demurely sipped her drink. I gulped down half of my drink and told her that my mother, as far as I knew, lived in Addis Abeba and my father in Rome. It was now their turn to be ill at ease. We then stopped asking questions and talked about ourselves without any prompting. They had just escaped from Ethiopia via Djibouti and were on their way to join their daughters in the United States. I told them that I had never returned to Ethiopia after the age of three and that I didn't remember and hadn't seen my mother since then.
"For someone who left home at such a young age, I still can't get over how well you speak Amharic," M. Chakarian said. I explained how my father had insisted on my lessons ever since my childhood. "You should be thankful that you have such an astute and conscientious father," M. Chakarian said solemnly. He emptied his snifter and slammed it down forcefully on the hardwood tabletop. Mme. Chakarian frowned as her husband grunted and slumped in her seat. "You should have no problems fitting in when you finally go home," he added.
"If I may ask," Mme. Chakarian said looking up at me gingerly, "what's your mother's name?" When I mentioned her name, she gurgled with delight. She explained that she knew my mother well and had sewn all of her formal clothes as well as my sister's wedding gown and bridesmaids' dresses. I was aching to ask my sister's name but couldn't summon the courage. Gloom resurfaced once again, casting a shadow on Mme. Chakarian's transparent face. She unconsciously hooked her index finger around the button on my jacket sleeve and rubbed it vigorously with her thumb. "You do follow the news back home, don't you?" she asked.
I used my free hand to sip and fill my mouth with scotch. With my tongue, I tossed the dissolved ice cube discs vigorously against my slightly extended cheeks. She looked up at me, expectantly. I bit and held the ice with my front teeth as I swallowed my drink. "Several months before the sergeants and majors deposed the Emperor in September," Mme. Chakarian continued undeterred, "they were arresting numerous high-ranking civilian and military officials including your father, the General. If you have contacts in the Italian government that could influence the junta in any way, now is the time to act. I speak from experience. Most of my family refused to leave the Ottoman Empire until the Turks wiped them all out. That's why Hagop and I decided to leave everything and flee before the situation turned from bad to worse. Do you think we want to be refugees? Do you think we want to start from scratch in a new country at our age? I've seen what exile did to my mother. We're only going to wait from a safe distance with our daughters in America and return when the madness dies down. But your mother, she'll need all the help she can get. She has to take care of your sister's two children at home as well as your father in prison. The soldiers have--"
I interrupted Mme. Chakarian and asked what had happened to my sister.
"Last I heard, she and her husband were both completing their Masters or Ph.D.s in California or Arizona, I'm not sure which. Thank God, your mother is surrounded by her grandchildren. Imagine contemplating your father's uncertain fate behind bars. I wouldn't--"
"Tamariye," M. Chakarian said, enveloping his wife's manicured hand with his large and stocky fingers, "Bekerie is not this gentleman's father. He's his stepfather. What did you say your father's name was?"
"Please forgive me. I hope you understand. You see, I've known Aster for almost twenty-five years and when I think of her husband, naturally it's Bekerie that comes to mind. They've been together ever since His Majesty returned from exile. Your sister and Nemzar, my eldest daughter, were classmates at the Empress Menen School," Mme. Chakarian said.
I smiled and gestured at Mme. Chakarian explaining how anyone could easily make the same mistake.
Never having told another Ethiopian my surname, I hesitated before I spoke up. "Lieut. General Fioravante. My father's name is Lieut. General Apollonio Fioravante," I said. Several bar patrons seated a few tables from us glanced toward our table. I realized that I had unconsciously uttered his name loudly.
M. Chakarian ground his teeth and abruptly looked away. My hand shook as I picked up my glass and emptied the last drop. Swaying in their seats, a young couple at a table nearby belted out I Don't Hurt Anymore in unison with Dinah Washington as a few strands from the tattered fabric behind the hi-fi speaker grille pulsated through the cracks every time Dinah hit a low note.
Nervously rotating her fingers around her husband's wedding band, Mme. Chakarian stared at the wall above my head. After a few seconds, I glanced over my shoulder and looked up at a framed engraving hanging on the wall. Mt. Vesuvius spewed molten lava in the background as doomed Pompeians scurried in a foreground courtyard surrounded by soon-to-be-destroyed Doric columns.
"He was Capitano Fioravante when we first met," M. Chakarian said almost inaudibly. I slowly turned my head to face the couple. He stared vacantly at his empty snifter as he continued to speak in a murmur. "Militiamen stung by the humiliating defeat and subsequent retreat from Maichew had besieged my family's estate in Gefersa when your father, Capitano Fioravante and his fighter plane emerged from the sky."
"Hagop," Mme. Chakarian said, "you should first tell him a little bit about the war, about your father, about your feelings toward your country lest he misunderstands your reaction towards his father."
I asked, uneasily, if my father and his men had hurt M. Chakarian or his family.
"On the contrary," M. Chakarian said aloud. "On the contrary, I wish that were the case. That would have made the meeting with your father much less painful," M. Chakarian continued.
"Hagop, there you go again, speaking in riddles," Mme. Chakarian interjected.
"I apologize. I'll start from the very beginning," M. Chakarian said, twisting open the Pellegrnio bottle cap. He filled up the three water goblets and set the bottle down.
"Leaving behind his entire Levantine Armenian clan, my young father, after brief sojourns in Damascus and Alexandria, arrived penniless in Ethiopia to seek his fortune at the tender age of eighteen, the year Emperor Menelik acceded to the throne. Six months after his arrival, my father managed to get an audience with the Emperor and showed Janhoy Menelik samples of his recent work. You see, my grandfather was an extremely respected goldsmith in Beirut known for his unique and exquisite craftsmanship. My father must have inherited his father's gift for, in one sitting, he used to be able to transform gold nuggets into intricately linked bracelets and wielded lumps of silver into filigreed snuff boxes with undetectable bullet compartments. But my precocious father, with his six older brothers - all avid goldsmiths intending to inherit the family business once their father had died - knew not long into his adolescence that Beirut was not going to be his El Dorado. Within five years, the who's who of Janhoy Menelik's court was all wearing my father's medals, rings, bracelets and cape clasps and buttons. In his fortieth year, my father finally decided to marry and betrothed the younger sister of a wealthy Armenian ivory exporter. After an extended honeymoon and hunting expedition in Goré, they moved into a house he had built on his budding vineyard in Gefersa.
M. Chakarian gulped down and emptied his glass as Mme. Chakarian glanced at him disapprovingly. She shut her eyes and winced seconds before her husband slammed the goblet on the table and grunted in satisfaction.
"Unlike the children of the affluent members of the Armenian community," M. Chakarian continued, "my father refused to send his children to boarding school in Beirut or Alexandria. My four brothers and I all attended Dagmawi Menelik School with the children of my father's friends, colleagues and customers. Two or three years before he became a complete invalid, Janhoy, that's Janhoy Menelik, awarded my father with the highest honor, the Star of Ethiopia, for his service. In fact, since the Emperor wanted to surprise my father - remember my father made all the medals for the court — he secretly sent word to Beirut and commissioned Uncle Sarkis, my grandfather had been long gone by then, to design the medal.
"Until the day he died, my father would invoke Janhoy Menelik's name when making an oath or shaking his fists at his grandchildren. It was always "Menelik Yimoot" this, "Menelik Yimoot" that.
"So it was only natural that I enlist with my old classmates and friends, not long after the infamous Italian Captain Cimmaruta and his followers killed 107 of our men at Walwal, the border dispute that ignited into a full scale war almost a year later. My father donated a vehicle to the war effort and I joined the military medical corps as an ambulance driver. What can I tell you about the battles of Tembien, Amba Aradam and finally Mai Cew that you already don't know? The Emperor launched a massive frontal assault against Marshall Badogalio and his six divisions, but it was impossible to break through their lines. Throughout the entire day, Italian Air Force pilots and artillerymen pounded us with bombs and shells that were filled with mustard gas. Even St. George, whose feast we had celebrated that very day in mass before the break of dawn, was no match for the poison that first burned our hands and feet and then killed thousands of our men and women. Two days after Mai Cew, the Emperor, under continuing bombardment from the unrelenting Italian Air Force, ordered a retreat.
"More demoralizing than Mai Cew, our month long trek back to Addis Abeba - mind you, with the road today, that same distance could be covered by car in less than a day - was beset by local insurrections and unnerved by wild rumors about Graziani's advances in the Ogaden. For all we knew, the Marshal could have reached Addis Abeba before we did.
"Since Tamara was two or three months pregnant with our first child before I had left for the front, needless to say, I was anxious about returning to Addis Abeba. Two of my older brothers had left with Ras Desta to fight in the southern front; my two younger brothers had joined Ras Imru in the northwestern front. Before our departure, we had entrusted to the protection of our ailing father, our wives and five of my older brothers' young children to several of our trusted guards.
"By the time the remnants of the Emperor's defeated army returned to Addis Abeba, the end was clearly in sight. Order in the city had already begun to disintegrate. Random gunfire broke out in the streets in broad daylight. Panicked residents scampered to hoard all the water and food they could ill afford. All the foreigners fled to their respective embassy compounds and blockaded themselves against looters and angry mobs who had branded all whites as Italians. Many Armenians sought and were granted sanctuary at the Greek, British and Russian embassies.
"Since my father had refused to leave Mount Ararat, the name he had given our home and vineyard atop a hill in Gefersa, the guards were anxiously awaiting our return to be relieved of their duties. Two days after I got back, the day the Emperor and his entourage left for Djibouti on the last train from Akaki, Tamara had a miscarriage. Being as advanced as my wife was in her pregnancy, she desperately needed to recuperate. It was thus impossible for us to move anywhere for several days. On that same day, we learnt of my older brothers' deaths in the southern front. Through a trusted intermediary, I arranged the immediate and safe passageway of my grief-stricken and hysterical sisters-in-law and their children to the Greek Embassy and braced Mount Ararat against Marshall Badoglio's entry into Addis Abeba.
"Presuming our family to be Italian, a band of Mai Cew veterans surrounded and attacked our compound at dawn, a few hours before Marshall Badoglio's column rolled into our capital. Initially, the sturdy and dense branches of the Lebanon cedar trees that my father had imported and planted around our compound twenty five earlier shielded us from the early morning assault of the nascent resistance army. Nonetheless, I distributed my father and my brothers' hunting rifles to my feeble wife and the other two dozen members of the household and quickly launched a counter offensive.
"When the crossfire outside his bedroom finally awoke my gout-ridden father from his deep sleep, he pulled out Empress Taitu's present, a Mauser pocket pistol, from his nightstand drawer and limped out of his room in great haste. In the vestibule, he found GashE SeboQa, the vineyard overseer, training his rifle through the porthole. He asked if the Italian Army had finally arrived. When GashE informed him about the unfortunate misunderstanding, my furious father stomped out of the house, muttering, ‘Menelik Yemoot!’ He hobbled toward the gate, past his shiny Model 7 Citroën parked on the driveway, his arm raised above his head and firing the gun in the air.
"It was just then that Capitano Fioravante…." M. Chakarian's narrative trailed off as he looked around the room quite disoriented. The few remaining patrons were huddled around the bar languidly singing a popular Paolo Conte song.
Ever attentive, Antonio noticed M. Chakarian's wandering eyes and advanced to our table. I noticed his approach from the corner of my eyes and gestured under our table. Understanding my surreptitious signal, he immediately turned around and walked back to the bar sink. My eyes did not waver from M. Chakarian as I waited for him to continue. Mme. Chakarian poured some Pellegrnio into her husband's goblet. She picked up the drink and offered it to him. M. Chakarian waved his arm and wearily resumed his tale.
"Capitano Fioravante," M. Chakarian said, clearing his throat, "your father, probably out on a reconnaissance sortie before Badoglio's march into the capital, suddenly appeared from the smoke-filled sky in his Fiat CR.32 fighter plane and nose-dived straight toward our front gate. Fearful of yet another poison bomb attack, the militiamen fired their last round and fled into the wooded hills. I heard one of our assailants shout, ‘Didn't I tell you? They're Italians. Why would the pilot otherwise come to their rescue?’
"I had run out of the warehouse looking for my father when I saw your father's CR. 32 touching down on the grass strip next to the vineyard. I dashed past Papa's Citroën and noticed the blood splattered on the navy blue hood. The old man, shot by one of the retreating militiamen, lay dying in a pool of blood a few meters ahead on the driveway. I kneeled on the ground next to him and lifted him into my arms. He held onto the Empress' Mauser pistol as he gasped for his last breath."
M. Chakarian removed his handkerchief from his breast pocket and blew his nose.
"You found us quite shaken earlier because all of my jewels, as well as Papa Chakarian's Mauser pistol and Star of Ethiopia medal, were stolen from our hotel room when we had gone out to have our dinner," Mme. Chakarian explained apologetically.
M. Chakarian carefully folded his handkerchief and replaced it.
"Your father," M. Chakarian continued, "walked up to me and removed his hat when he realized my father's condition. He pointed at the vineyard, looked down at me and asked, 'Italiano, vero?'"
When I returned to Papŕ's apartment, he was still up, seated on the same chair, listening to the same Ellington LP he's been playing on the phonograph since the Duke passed away several months earlier.
With both of my hands deep in my heavy overcoat pockets, I walked toward him and stopped next to his chair. He did not look up.
"I need to know what happened, father," I said hoarsely.
He covered his mouth and squinted his eyes.
"Father," I insisted impatiently, "I need to know."
He removed his hand from his mouth and looked up at me. "You should go back home for the answers, if there are any to be found," he said.