Labor Day (September 5), 1927
“Louisa, give me a name or I can’t help you!”
Occasionally, Mario Falcone heard his father and mother argue, but what made this scary, was how rare it was to hear his father – who people called “Little Caesar” – raise his voice.
“What would you have me do? Be excommunicated for murder?” Mario didn’t know what “excommunicated” meant, but his mother’s tone and his father’s shouting indicated that whatever it was was not good.
His grandfather’s shadow looked like a headstone when it darkened the doorway of the room where nonno had made up a bed for him.
Nonno stepped forward through the threshold, opening a pastry box and smiling at Mario, who returned the expression.
“Nipote,” his nonno said in a heavily-accented voice that Mario always thought sounded like the man had recently eaten something with lots of cheese or milk in it. Nonno thrust the box into Mario’s face, revealing an assortment of pastries that looked like clamshells made from flakey bread. “Have a sfogliatella, sweetheart.”
Mario took a clamshell, and took a bite.
“Why don’t I tell you a story, bambino? A fairy tale?”
Mario shook his head enthusiastically.
“Lay down, nipote. Let’s see now. Once there was a very poor man. A widower.”
“A man who his wife has died.”
“The man was a carpenter. Like Gesù Cristo. But he and his wife never had a son, and he wanted one very badly, but as an older man, it didn’t seem very likely. One day, he was given a very special block of wood, and he thought he would make una marionetta for himself. Instead of a son of flesh and blood, he would have a boy made of pine. But just like a true son, Pinocchio was made with his father’s love…”
When Mario began to yawn, his nonno, Vincent “The Roman” Falcone kissed him on the forehead, and tucked him into bed. He stirred as the old man bundled the sheets around him and fluffed the pillow under his head.
“What happens to Pinocchio, nonno?”
“I’ll tell you another night. Buon compleanno, cara.”
Mario smacked his lips together, and fell asleep with echoes of the taste of sweet cream and flaky pastry.
Later that night, Mario’s nonno was gone, and his room was dark. He needed to use the restroom, so he slid out of his bed, and felt his way to the door, which was cracked a tiny bit, framing it in dim blue light.
The boy crept through the hallway, trying to avoid the creaking floorboard outside of his parents’ room. When he reached the bathroom door, dull yellow light shone out from underneath, and he would swear he could hear sniveling. He turned the handle to find his mother weeping into her hands, sitting on the floor. She looked up, and made a half-hearted attempt to dry her eyes with the palm of her hand.
“Why are you crying, mama?”
“It’s your nonno, sweetie. Papa, he works so hard, but,” a pause, “your nonno, he creates problems for papa.”
Mario didn’t understand, but he didn’t like seeing his mother cry.
“Mama, I need to use the toilet.”
“Of course, Mario,” his mother stood. She wiped her mouth with a hand towel, and kissed Mario as she slunk out of the bathroom.
Mario lifted the toilet seat, and the bowl was filled with a cloud of vomit. He relieved himself, flushed the toilet, and tiptoed off to bed without washing his hands.
Memorial Day (May 30), 1928
“Where’s mama?” Mario looked up at his father. His mother had been gone for three days. Little Caesar hugged his son, squeezing him close and tight.
“I don’t know, passerotto. But we’ll find her. Okay? We’ll bring her home. Soon.”
Mario missed his mother, and he started to cry.
“There, there amore. There, there.”
Summer Solstice (June 21), 1928
In his father’s study, Mario could hear his nonno speaking very calmly to his father and his uncle Silvio.
Then there was yelling. Something crashed into something else. A chair, maybe? Finally, stomping toward the door. Mario darted away from the door, sweeping into his bedroom, and peeking out the crack in his doorway.
The door to the study was a heavy, crimson wood. It flew open, and uncle Silvio tromped out of the room, and slammed the door behind him, shaking the whole house.
Uncle Silvio’s fine shoes collided with the floor in great, thundering “thuds”and Mario heard him muttering Italian swearwords as he angrily made a path to the front door of the house. Another jarring slam! reverberated through the house as his uncle made his dramatic exit.
Long, quiet moments later, papa and nonno emerged from the study. Nonno made eye contact with him through the crack in the door when he walked past, and smiled and winked at Mario, who, having been made, ran to the bed to hide under the covers.
Independence Day (July 4), 1928
“Where are we going, mama?” Mario loved going for rides in the car, but his mother had made him collect himself so quickly that morning, without saying a word other than “Hurry up, cucciolo, we have to leave.”
His mother said nothing, driving with inscrutable purpose to an unknowable destination.
“Sorry. I’m sorry piccolo.We’re going to stay with your uncle for a few days while your papa is…away on business.”
“Why aren’t we staying with nonno?”
“H-he’ll be going with your father. But don’t worry, they won’t be gone long.”
Mario and mama drove in near silence, on unfamiliar roads, for what seemed to Mario like a very long time. This was not the way they usually took to get to uncle Silvio’s house.
Uncle Silvio’s house was much smaller than Mario’s, but it was still a very nice house.
Mario pulled his knapsack from the back seat of the car and followed his mama, who carried her slim, green suitcase with a dip in her right shoulder that suggested it was very heavy.
Uncle Silvio answered the door, his face as severe as ever, and instructed one of the workers inside to take their bags.
The unmistakable sound of a baby rang through the hallway, and Uncle Silvio rolled his eyes and took a sharp breath in, making almost no effort to disguise his irritation.
“Mario, do you remember Ms. Giorgia? She had a little baby. Why don’t you go say ‘hello?’”
Mama shot Silvio an intense look, then looked down at Mario, smiling and nodding permission, patting him on his back as he followed the Ms. Giorgia, one of his uncle’s housekeepers, to the source of the crying.
Not even a minute later, Mario was sprinting back to his mama, who was in the middle of a very gesticulatory discussion with his uncle. He clung to her leg, squeezing his eyes tight.
“Mario, what’s wrong?”
“Ms. Giorgia’s baby he’s too small! He has something wrong with his nose!”
“Shh,” mama said, tussling his hair, and petting him comfortingly. “You don’t want his mama to hear you say cruel things, do you?”
Uncle Silvio walked into the room where the baby was being fed, and mama directed Mario to the room where he would be sleeping.
Feast of the Assumption (August 15), 1928
Mario Falcone’s birthday was fast approaching, and he was somewhat more settled in to his uncle’s house. At his own house, he would’ve sat down with his mother and made a list of the toys he wanted for his birthday, but he didn’t see his mama as much. She always had to go “visit papa and nonno,” but he was never allowed to go with her.
He couldn’t play with his uncle, because his mother explicitly told him not to be a pest to his uncle as he ran the family businesses (even though Mario suspected that his uncle, Silvio, was playing plenty with the workers in the house; he’d seen them playing tag in the kitchen and once heard them jumping on the bed in his uncle’s bedroom).
“Different rules, and I can’t explain them to you, nipote. Go look after the baby for a little while, I need to talk to Ms. Ethel,” his uncle didn’t abide backtalk, but never checked to see whether Mario had actually checked on the baby.
Luigi, the fiend. Mario couldn’t even stand to look at the child. His nose was too flat, his eyes were too big. He was too young to play with, too young to talk or even babble. He would occasionally smile his disgusting, toothless smile at Mario, but mostly he just blew raspberries and smelled like he needed his diaper changed.
“I hate you,” he whispered to the awful child. And he blew raspberries and spittle back at the horrid baby.
Labor Day (September 3), 1928
Mario Falcone’s papa and nonno came home from their “business” almost two months after he and mama had moved in with his uncle. They were just in time for his fifth birthday.
From his father, he received a tearful embrace, a spin, and the promise of a wonderful gift waiting for him when they returned to their home.
From his nonno, a handshake, and (as if produced by magic), a white pastry box with an open lid and five sfogliatelle covered in confectioner’s sugar.
“I ate one on the ride out here, nipote. Forgive me?”
Mario nodded enthusiastically as he tore an enormous bite out of the pastry.
“Pack your things, passerotto, we’re going home tonight,” his father was brighter and more jovial than typical. Little Caesar’s smile sparkled like a freshly painted picket fence, and Mario was so entranced by the presence of his two favorite men that papa had to tap him on the head to get him to go and fill his knapsack.
When he came back to the entryway, his mother was in the makeshift nursery, cooing at Luigi, delaying the time it would take to get home and see his surprise.
“Louisa!” his father called out. “Let’s get on the road before it gets too dark!”
Mama emerged from Luigi’s room, followed by Ms. Giorgia, and her eyes sparkled like starlight in the dark house.
All Saints’ Day (November 1), 1928
For two whole days, mama had been crying.
It started with her shouting at someone on the telephone, and then she wept, and wept.
The only thought she could manage to clearly communicate became her mantra:
“You had no right! No right!”
“You had no right! No right!”
“You had no right! No right!”
Most of the time, Mario was sent outside to play with his toys. His favorite was the Ferrari Giordani pedal car that he’d received from his father for his fifth birthday.
It was red like a fire truck, and it was the fastest car in all of Italy, or so his father had said.
“An Italian boy should have an Italian car, whaddaya say?”
His mother was crying, this time in a heap on the floor in the foyer. Mario stopped to try to comfort her, but he was so prepared for mama’s dismissal that he already had his racing goggles and red scarf in his hand.He kissed his mother on the back of her head, and went out into the brisk autumn air to speed across their property.
His pockets were full of taffy and licorice he’d received yesterday for Halloween.
Día de los Muertos (November 2), 1928
The first Mario Falcone saw of his parents that day was Papa leaving the house like a lightning bolt from Jupiter himself, with fire in his eyes and a scowl on his face.
Louisa Falcone was dressed in all black, like she would be attending a funeral. But she had stopped crying.
Her face was set into an emotionless mask, her beautiful high cheek bones and delicate jaw much more pronounced and sharp following two days without eating, but hidden behind the latticework of a fine dark veil.
“Where is papa going?” Mario asked, confused by the severity of the silence.
Mama put her hand on Mario’s shoulder and gazed down at him for an unhappy instant. Then, without saying a word, she walked into the bathroom.
Mario went into the kitchen to find something to eat, but the housekeepers and servants who were usually crowding the room were nowhere to be found. So Mario decided to go outside, and play in his Ferrari. He rode across the driveway and the grass and through the rough pedaling backyard, and around to the fountain in the drive and in and out of the garage for what felt like an hour (but was actually only about fifteen minutes).
On one of his breakneck laps around the fountain, the large front door of his house opened, and his mother emerged, dressed for mourning. Mario backpedaled to brake the zipping red bolt, and hopped out of his cockpit, hopeful for the loving engagement of his mother.
His mother smiled at him, and even through the veil he could see tears welling in her eyes.
“I love you piccolo,” she stroked his head, pulling his racing cap off. “Take care of the family. Nonno, and papa. And Silvio. Pray for Silvio.”
“I will Mama,” Mario squeezed his mother’s leg, deeply inhaling her perfume, which was musky and floral, with hints of citrus. “I love you.”
“I love you too, Mario,” his mother slumped into a crouch, kissing him on his forehead. “Pray for baby Luigi. Remember him.”
“I don’t want to pray for Luigi, mama.”
“You mustn’t say that, cucciolo,” Mama sniffled, and a tear rolled down her cheek. Though she still smiled. “He’s gone now. Gone forever.”
Mama began to cry fully, but she stood up, kissed Mario again on his head, and walked back through the open door. Mario stood, watching her in astonishing confusion as she ascended the stairs, and walked into the bathroom. He scratched his head, and refitted his driving cap and goggles, and got into his Ferrari.
Carlo, the son of one of the Sicilian servants appeared on the side of the house, and sidled up to the car, which Mario pedaled to a spinning stop.
“Can I try?” The olive-complected boy asked with a hope that looked inspired by Divinity itself.
“Sure!” Mario beamed, for he was a benevolent god.
The pair chased each other around the property until the sun had sunk just below the pine trees on the horizon, conveniently timed with his father pulling into the driveway.
Papa didn’t look angry anymore, but he was breathing in great heaving huffs, beads of sweat collected on his brow.
“Mario! Come on inside,” he commanded, and Mario waved to Carlo, letting him know he could continue to play with the car as long as he didn’t scratch the paint.
He ran past the fountain and joined his papa at the door, which opened to reveal a brand new water feature, a waterfall pouring from the second floor and down through the balusters of the upstairs hallway.
“Where is mama?” Papa demanded, shaking Mario by the shoulders. Before he could answer, his father was bounding across the foyer and up the staircase, sending a storm of water splashing into the air with every step.
Black Friday (November 23), 1928
Uncle Silvio had been missing for almost three weeks.
Two weeks ago, they buried mama.
Today, Little Caesar would bury and become The Roman.
Mario knew he had failed his mama; he hadn’t taken care of his family.
“Tragedy always happens in threes, passerotto.”
Mama, Nonno, and – did this mean uncle Silvio was dead? No service for his uncle. No tears for his uncle. But that must’ve been who he meant.
Papa was squatting in front of him, tying his shiny black shoes onto his feet, and making sure his tiny black tie was straight.
He helped with his cufflinks, and put him into his black suit coat.
“Shoot the cuffs, passerotto, like this.” His father jabbed both arms forward in the air, and the white sleeves of his shirt appeared in a brilliant instant from the dark blackness of his coat sleeves.
Mario followed suit.
At the church service, many people had many things to say about nonno. There were jokes that Mario didn’t understand, a handful of people who spoke only Italian, and a pair of old ladies who both claimed they’d loved him since even before his nonna had died, and then both shouted at each other when they realized the ramifications of it all.
“I doubt he even knew them,” papa whispered to Mario with a chuckle through a cupped hand. “Pa only had one close friend after ma.”
Mario was just happy to be sharing in a conspiracy with papa, even if he didn’t quite understand.
“And there he is.”
A man wearing a black, window pane suit, who looked even older than nonno, took to the stage.
“My name is Antonio, and I loved Vincenzo,” the man’s eyes immediately moistened, and he smiled. “He was my best friend and a fine card player. You get to be a certain age and you…you don’t talk about things like death. But you watch your friends leave, one by one, or sometimes, in little pieces. And that’s harder. I’m relieved that he left with his mind in tact, because it hurts when they go in fragments, don’t it?”
People in the packed church nodded assent.
“Like phases of the moon, huh?” Antonio muttered, then perked up again: “Well he owed me a box of smokes, but I owed him my life, so how about we call it even, Vinny!”
There was somber laughter, like everyone was afraid they’d be the last to break the silence, and then papa took Mario’s hand, and walked to the pulpit to speak, warmly embracing Antonio as they passed in the aisle.
Papa spoke of his loss, of his papa and the way they came over from the Old Country, and of learning how to be a better father by watching nonno with Mario.
Mario wouldn’t remember most of the day, but he remembered the sfogliatelle at the reception weren’t as sweet as they should’ve been.
Labor Day (September 3), 1934
Mario would be eleven in two days. He and Carlo stalked around Adams Park, looking for something to boost, but people were staying home, on account of the curfew.
Even the kids from the weekend, the crew that called themselves the Newsboy Legion had become scarce.
“Where do you figure they got off to?” Carlo wondered aloud.
“Orphanage?” Mario answered with a question of his own.
“Nah, too old, except the little ones.”
“I don’t know. Maybe they,” Mario kicked a rock, and it ricocheted off a park bench. “I don’t know.”
The two boys walked quietly along a footpath. Even the vendors were few and far between.
“You want a sausage?” Carlo didn’t seem like he was actually hungry, but they wanted the fix of stealing something.
“No, that polish stuff ain’t worth the boost.”
“Too damn right,” Carlo agreed.
They strolled toward the slavic man’s cart anyway, not really having a plan, but neither of them particularly wanting to go home before curfew.
“This cagare is going to ruin my birthday,” Mario kicked at the pavement, letting out a dramatic sigh.
Something had run through the gap between Carlo and Mario, and misjudged the distance.
It was a tiny kid in an oversized wool hat. He stumbled for a few steps, then regained his footing, darting down the path and further into the park with a sausage wrapped in newspaper. The slavic man was shouting something in a language that Mario couldn’t quite put his finger on and waving his grill fork in the air.
“Augh! Sauerkraut on my good slacks. Mama is gonna have my ass!” Carlo fumed.
“After him!” Mario and Carlo took off, almost a furlong behind the tiny kid. “We’re coming for you, puttana!”
The tiny kid in the oversized wool hat high tailed it into the thicket that grew alongside the boat lake, darting in and out from behind trees, when finally, they lost him.
“Come on out, chickenshit. We’re not gonna hurt you,” Carlo was almost singing the words, a sure sign that he did intend to hurt the offender.
Mario and Carlo spent another five minutes trying to goad the boy out of hiding.
“You know who my father is?” Mario called out to the woods. “I’m the next Roman! Read a paper, newsboy!”
A squirrel shot out from behind a tree, and across the boys’ field of view. Spooking Carlo, and drawing teasing japes from Mario.
“Cmon, let’s get to the car before it gets too dark,” Carlo suggested, giving up on their quarry.
“We’re gonna find you, newsboy. And when we do, you’re dead!” Mario shouted at the breeze.
Rosh Hashanah (September 10), 1934
“But you, I swore you were dead! I know you’re dead,” Little Caesar said to the spirit that stood aghast before him, lit from behind by the sun dipping low over Gotham Harbor.
Mario Falcone threw a jab and felt the flesh on his knuckles split open on the brick wall.
He tried to anticipate the ghost’s next move, and ducked down for a hook to the body.
His father had taught him how to hit, and he knew that one had to hurt. Probably cracked a rib.
And then, Mario saw stars and heard church bells as sharp, burning pain shot through his jaw, the headbutt smashing his teeth together. He swayed, and all of the air rushed out of him as a flying kick landed in his solar plexus. Mario spun in place on the seawall, and the world went black as he fell. Murky, muddy water rushing into his lungs as his body instinctively tried to breathe.
In Gotham Harbor, the heir to the city’s most powerful crime family floats, face down.