Mafia oldster who cherishes respect above all else.
His neighbors marveled how his garden blossomed sweet no matter what the season. Mid-day was a special treat. The moment the grand old man of the Cammoristas stretched out on his bench and closed his eyes, birds whisked their chatter elsewhere. Gaetano Buccieri dozed but briefly. He’d startle wide awake with one age spotted hand hard against the other, as though he might somehow smooth the arthritic knurl atop each knuckle. The old man would pull himself upright, seemingly reminded of some unattended commitment. Mid step, he'd pause and sink back onto his bench to contemplate-- to assure himself there was no commitment and no urgency. Not anymore. Those erstwhile Mafia aspirants, all those youths who trooped to Buccieri for his special tutoring, they no longer awaited him--not since he announced his retirement a couple months ago. Or was it far longer he wondered? Did those youngsters still revere him as before? Did they still call him the walking encyclopedia of the art of the mala vita? Would they long remember the day they paid him their greatest homage, col massimo rispetto, when they elected him head of the Honorable Society of Naples?
Few neighbors remembered his humble start, apprenticed to his stone mason father—a drunk who afforded respect to everyone but who merited none himself. Drink killed the father early and left young Buccieri with a mother and four sisters to support. The father left one thing more--a tattered ledger that listed wealthy property owners who, for years, failed to pay the master mason for his honest labor.
His father freshly buried, young Buccieri sought the only work he knew. He bid low and won a contract to point the stones of the old church steeple. Upon completion, the priest said he was delighted with the workmanship and promised to pay Buccieri in a day or two. The week passed. A month. Each time young Buccieri approached the priest, he waited respectfully and spoke only after he was spoken to—he replied after it was plain that he was being put off yet again. He pleaded truthfully that his family had little food, owed money to half the town. To this, the priest but grimaced, abruptly showed his back. The next time and the next, the priest raised both his arms toward heaven and spun away as though Buccieri posed an unreasonable intrusion. Buccieri held his sledge hammer fists behind his back. He bore more than anger. He suffered the bitter taste of disrespect.
Next day he sought work until dark, then he walked the four kilometers to the rectory, determined to come away with at least part of what was owned to him. As he approached the priest's quarters he heard a scream. Another. He flung open the bedroom door and found the priest stark naked and with his arms wrapped around a frantic little boy.
Buccieri's fist struck only once. The priest dropped unconscious to thefloor. The youngster leaped into Buccieri's open arms and buried his face in the stone mason's powdery overalls. There, the boy clung, sobbing hard and unaware that his were not the only tears.
Go home," Buccieri said quietly, but the boy held fast. Gently, the stone mason freed himself, and when he spoke again his lips touched the boy's forehead. "Forget what happened here," he told the boy. "It’s my word you have. If we meet again, it will be as if it is the first time."
The boy raised Buccieri's hands, and he kissed first one and then the other. Just as the little boy fled, the priest returned to life and struggled in vain to free himself from the iron fingers Buccieri locked onto his gullet.
"You pay me everything you owe me now?"
"Yes. Please," the priest croaked as he searched for his pants and came up with a roll of lire. "Here," he said, "Here's extra. But you must swear to me you will tell not a single soul."
Buccieri chuckled at first, then he swore to the priest that he wouldn’t tell a single soul. He counted the money two times, then he ran as fast as his stubby legs could carry him toward the Piazza Grande. There, he didn’t tell a single soul, he told everyone. The dozen men who listened, drew hard on their black stogies. In unison they crossed and re-crossed themselves as though their display of piety would negate the chorus of curse words they initiated. Nearby, women shoppers overheard Buccieri’s story, and they quickly scattered.
By sunrise next day half the people in Naples knew what took place at the church, and
most of them were hanging out their windows shouting word to the remaining Neapolitans. As for Buccieri's solemn promise never to implicate the victim, that pledge he honored all his life.
The priest was shortly reassigned to a distant parish. Buccieri also made a change. He put aside his trowel and set out to collect the money long overdue his father. Respectfully, he offered a reasonable settlement to each of the wealthy debtors. Each proved surly and offered only insult to the young man. The largest of these debtors was a judge who clearly lived beyond his declared compensation. Instead of honoring his overdue debt, the big man laughed. “You trespassed on my estate again, you’ll rot in jail.”
It was then that it came to Buccieri that he had little choice but to take his due by stealth. He wore a false beard, borrowed spectacles from his mother, and arranged to intercept the judge as the official headed home bearing an average day’s bribe money--a sum that turned out to be even larger than what was owed to Buccieri.
Buccieri came in darkness to the homes of all the others who failed to respect their obligation. He acquired gold coins, diamonds, objects of art. Some he kept, the rest he sold to certain discrete professionals. Suspicion soon mounted. For every crime he did indeed commit, the Naples constabulary credited Buccieri with grand thefts that weren’t his at all. As his reputation soared, he became a hero of the local Mafia. Once, and only once, he was caught red handed. It was then that a number of gold coins were transferred from his ample purse. Buccieri was acquitted amid much acclaim.
Novices soon came to him in such number that he earned more from criminal instruction than from crime itself. Many young men related their earlier successes, and, often, it was from them that he learned certain techniques. Most of his students were hot blooded Sicilianos, but he insisted from the start that they must treat one another with utmost respect.
For his beginners, the lessons dealt with profiting from provincial emigrants who stayed over in Naples while they awaited transportation to America. Ploys that were sure to diddle rich merchants came next. Each apprentice learned to divert police attention, bribe officials and intimidate judges. Every lad became an expert on false money, lock picks, nitroglycerine. His graduates knew how to deal a disabling blow, how to avoid detection by alarms. Every new class endured a single lesson he repeated often. With drugs and with prostitution there is neither honor nor respect.
During the last years of his teaching career, a cloud of dust frequently moved up the dirt road that led to Buccieri's garden gate. A chauffeur driven Mercedes limo would appear--sometimes, even a brand new Rolls. Each time, a man, usually rotund, scampered merrily into the garden to kiss his old teacher on both cheeks. They'd hug with great emotion but with few words. Clearly, there was no need for the protégé to boast of his obvious success. A proud display of bambino snapshots always brought a smile to the old mentor’s face.
Buccieri’s lips seldom moved. A nod, a shrug, a playful chuckle, and the old man’s total approval was apparent. A beaconing hand, and his guest was ushered inside where he was served air dried salami, cheese and a fiery grappa over which the two men lingered. Refilled glasses were clicked, and each such grappa salute was tossed back straight. Immediately upon swallowing, the old man would purse his lips playfully and let loose an exaggerated sound of steam. The former pupil promptly repeated the amusement, and both men continued to grin broadly up until the sadness of departure.
The fat envelope beneath the linen napkin of the departed guest invariably gifted Buccieri with U.S. Federal Reserve notes of large denominations. The money was never discussed--not by men whose special relationship endured solely con onore.
Long after his mother passed away, and each of his sisters married and moved to houses he built for them, he hired a childless widow fifteen years younger than he. At first, she rarely spoke, but her cooking tasted much like his mother’s. Shortly, he honored her in marriage with an appropriate ring from his collection. She pleased him in bed, and he believed he pleased her too. Anxious to spare her the wintry trek to the outside privy, he installed a flush toilet inside.
His reputation as a tutor spread afar, and he was called upon to consult privately with unnamed parties throughout Sicily. Year after year, away for a week, or for just overnight, he honored his wife with a pleasing gift each time he returned.
When Buccieri grew frail and finally decided to retire, his neighbors needed no announcement. Now, they saw the old man daily, resigned to nurse his painful joints. It was as though he was at peace, satisfied to relish his unlit black stogie amid the silent beauty of his beloved garden. Satisfied, as well, with the progress of Vito, a far younger man he trained for years to tend his flowers.
It was not the chirping of birds that jarred him awake one afternoon. His wife, more strident with each year, shook him vigorously. His stupid indoor toilet was overflowing, she screeched. She’d flushed and flushed, now the entire floor was flooded. Wearily, he explained to her that it was unwise to continue to flush when, clearly, the cesspool was blocked. She flared. “You think you’re so smart, why don’t you go fix it?”
The old man trudged to the bottom of the hill where he flipped open the cover to the cesspool and glared at what he found. French love letters, that’s what Italians called them. Several of the stretched out condoms floated. Others, he assumed, must have clogged the drainage outlet below.
Pinned to the floor, young Vito allowed each of his pockets to be emptied. One held a half empty packet. Mrs. Buccieri fled to the bedroom and slammed the door. Vito crawled out an opened window.
One day later Mrs. Buccieri disappeared. Naples made a big thing of it. Members of the Cammorrista concluded that the old crime master had made powerful enemies who had exacted revenge by kidnaping his wife. Newspaper coverage expanded the vendetta theory. When interviewed by reporters who came from as far away as Rome, old Buccieri shook his head woefully.
"I fear my wife was abducted for ransom which a poor man like me doesn't have," was all he said.
No one, not even the police, took notice. Beneath the untrimmed finger nails of the grieving husband was the powdery residue of the cement a stone mason uses to prepare mortar.
The old man lived quietly ten additional years. Those who pressed tight against the garden gate swore they often heard the old man lecture, pontificate on the importance of rispettoso. Respect above all else.
After Buccieri passed away, the new owner of the property chose to tear down the ancient fieldstone house in order to rebuild on the lovely grounds. Workers found a shrine to Our Lady of Mount Carmel built into a masonry wall behind Buccieri's bed. The wall was false. Behind it was the skeleton of a woman.
- The End -