The note read simply:
Marco, I’m in trouble. I’m worried about my family. Can we meet Sunday morning for coffee at Caffè Cavour? Gianni
Agent Marco Molinari stared at the note from his brother-in-law. It had been hand-delivered to the duty officer at the La Spezia Polizia di Stato headquarters, where Marco worked. The sealed white envelope had Marco’s name scrawled on the front by a pen running out of ink. It looked like Gianni was in a hurry.
Marco was puzzled as to why Gianni had sent a note to the Questura instead of calling if his family was in danger. Strange. The reference to Gianni’s family was disturbing; Gianni was married to Marco’s sister, Elisabetta. Betta and Gianni had two young children, seven-year-old Anita and three-year-old Davide.
Gianni was a midlevel customs agent at the La Spezia port, between Genova and Pisa on Italy’s northwestern coast along the Ligurian Sea. La Spezia was an important commercial port and arsenal for the Italian Navy. Gianni was assigned to the port’s inspection unit, which off-loaded and inspected shipping containers arriving from ports in the Mediterranean, Asia, and the Middle East.
Marco reread the brief note, stuck it in his coat pocket, and headed to the parking lot behind the police station. When Marco reached his car, he took out his cell phone and punched Gianni’s cell number. Marco had to find out if this was an emergency that needed immediate attention. As an experienced police officer, he was trained to be suspicious.
Gianni answered after one ring. “Pronto, ciao, Marco.”
“Ciao, Gianni. Are you having dinner?”
The background noise of the family dinner table answered Marco’s question. Three-year-old Davide was banging his fork on a plate and screaming, “No, no! Don’t want, Mamma!”
Marco visualized the chaotic dinner scene that he had experienced on visits to their apartment: Betta struggling to feed Davide while he jerked his head left and right, pushing her hand away, food flying across the table and onto the floor.
Little Davide was a problem child, prone to outbursts. He was aggressive around other children, and he often fell down and screamed when he didn’t get his way. He had an emotional condition that doctors hadn’t identified yet. Davide’s behavior was a strain on anyone who encountered him, especially his family and neighbors.
In the background, a TV was blaring an irksome commercial offering low, low rates for cell phone service. It bothered Marco that Betta’s family ate with the TV on in the kitchen, a noisy distraction that added to the chaos.
“Yes,” Gianni answered. “I didn’t expect you to call so soon.”
“I have your note. You should have called if you needed to talk right away. Are you in danger?”
“No, no, not right now. But I have to talk to you.”
“Should I come over now?”
“No. It can wait until Sunday. Can we meet Sunday?”
“Of course. Are you sure it can wait? Your note worried me.”
Gianni said something, but his words were drowned out by Davide’s high-pitched wail in the background and the sound of him banging his fork on his plate. Marco could hear Betta trying to calm Davide down and taking him out of his high chair—he still had to be restrained in one, even at his age. “Davide, Davide . . . shush, shush . . . good boy. . . . Let’s go in your bedroom . . . find your pajamas . . . so we can play before bedtime.”
The kitchen TV blared another commercial of a weekend sale on summer clothes for children, the announcer bellowing about low prices and clothes that children needed to be popular with their playmates, and promoting Disney Princess and Ninja Turtles schoolbags, Spider-Man’s cool diaries and Winx’s pencil cases that children would need for school at the end of the summer.
Gianni said, “Davide’s been sick all week. Betta called me this afternoon to come home and help her. He’s been fussy, not letting her change his diaper, crying all day, refusing to nap.”
“I hope he recovers soon,” Marco said, distressed about his sister’s family problems, which seemed to only get worse, never better. “It’s hard when you have a sick child.”
Gianni sighed. “It’s been one thing after another. Davide had a cold and the flu in May and fell out of his bed one night and bruised his head. Last week someone pushed him off a swing in the park, and Betta had to rush him to the hospital. Poor Betta; she hasn’t had a break in so long. It’s so hard on us when Davide is not in kindergarten. Thank God Anita is going to the public summer school.”
“Yes, I know Betta is worn out. About your note, Gianni, are you sure you want to wait until Sunday? What about tomorrow? I could come to your apartment.”
“No, tomorrow isn’t good. I’m taking care of the children while Betta has an appointment with her gyno. She hasn’t gone since Davide was born. She’s been neglecting her health to take care of the kids. Betta said I can have an hour Sunday morning. I will pick Michele up at noon and bring him to the apartment for the day.”
Michele was Gianni’s twelve-year-old son from an earlier marriage. Gianni had gotten his girlfriend pregnant in high school, and their marriage had lasted only five years. After a nasty divorce, Gianni had been left with monthly child support payments to Michele’s mother. It was no secret how stressful it was for Gianni’s family when Michele came every other weekend. Michele resented it that his father had another family whose children were too young to play with. To add to the stress, Michele was going through puberty, becoming emotional and moody. There were frequent arguments when he spent the day, with lots of shouting, arguing, and slamming of doors until Gianni took him to a video arcade or the park to kick a soccer ball around.
“I can make it Sunday morning at ten.”
“Yes, thank you,” Gianni said, his voice anxious.
“I’ll see you then,” Marco said. “Give my love to Betta and your kids. We’ll get everyone together soon.”
On his drive home to Costa di Murlo, Marco played back the hurried conversation with Gianni. Marco wasn’t surprised about Gianni’s note; he had suspected something was going on. His sister had confided to him that Gianni had been acting strangely the last couple weeks, moody and depressed. Some nights after work, he’d go for walks alone or stay in their bedroom with the door closed.
Marco had observed Gianni’s withdrawn behavior when the family had come over for Betta’s birthday in May. Marco’s wife, Serena, had prepared a typical Ligurian menu: trofie pasta with pesto; leek and potato pie; zucchini stuffed with meat, cheese, ham, and grated bread; homemade focaccia; cima alla Genovese; lemon and pine nuts cake. She had put a bouquet of fresh flowers on the table and had presents for Betta, as well as gifts for Davide and Anita.
While Betta and Serena had talked in the kitchen, Marco had kept an eye on the kids playing by their pool on the patio. Gianni had spent the afternoon slouched on the sofa, drinking beer and watching a soccer match between AC Spezia Calcio and Carrarese on Tele Liguria Sud. When Marco had tried to engage him in conversation, Gianni had answered in one or two sentences, barely taking his eyes off the TV.
Marco knew Gianni had serious financial problems. Gianni supported two families on a modest customs officer’s salary. He had even asked Marco for money when his landlord threatened to evict them if they didn’t pay their back rent. It was a sad situation; Marco felt helpless, knowing his sister was struggling with a difficult marriage, a child with emotional problems, and constant money worries.
A once attractive, vivacious young woman, Betta now looked harried and worried, with rings under her eyes and stringy, uncombed hair. She dressed in clothes that should have gone to charity.
If only Betta had not met Gianni . . . had finished university . . . and had found a loving man with a good job and a promising future.
But what did Gianni mean when he said he was worried about his family?
Later that evening, Marco and Serena were on the deck of their hillside apartment overlooking La Spezia’s harbor, sipping chilled Sciacchetrà from Cinque Terre after dinner while their children paddled in the little pool next to Serena’s herb garden. Marco had given her Gianni’s note and told her about the stressful conversation while Davide was throwing a temper tantrum.
Serena studied the note as Marco gazed at the fiery orange sun ball descending across the azure Ligurian Sea.
Sparrows and other songbirds were swirling overhead, settling in the eucalyptus trees and oleander bushes as the evening air cooled and crickets chirped in the garden. It was a peaceful end of a hot, humid summer day.
“That poor family,” Serena said, laying down the note. “Every day they have a new crisis. It grieves me. I don’t know what to say. They have so many problems . . . poor little Davide; I think he’s autistic or has Asperger’s syndrome. How are they going to handle that as he grows up? Poor Anita seems lost; all her parents’ attention goes to Davide. She needs more affection; she seems needy. Betta is overwhelmed, trying to be a nurse, mother, and wife, with little support from Gianni. Michele’s weekend visits all end in disaster, with the children crying, Betta and Gianni arguing, and Michele scowling and angry. He can be so mean. Do you know what he called Betta one night when he was leaving? He called her ‘brutta puttana.’ The nerve of that dreadful boy! I don’t see how Betta can put up with all the chaos.”
“What can we do?” Marco said. “I’ve given them money. We see them once a month . . . what else is there? I feel hopeless. My heart aches for Betta . . . and the children.”
Serena changed the subject. “What kind of trouble is Gianni worried about? Is it serious, something legal, or just family problems? Their marriage is in trouble; we know that. Is there something else?”
“It probably is serious,” Marco said with a sigh. “But I don’t think he wants to talk about their marriage. God, I hope he’s not losing his job. What a disaster that would be.”
Serena pressed her lips together and then sighed. “Could be. . . . Poor Betta.”
Marco was at the Caffè Cavour at ten o’clock on that hot Sunday morning, sipping cappuccino and reading the weekend Corriere della Sera. He was seated at an outside table under an umbrella near Piazza Garibaldi, where he could see Gianni approach from any direction.