The Naked City, 1949

“There are eight million stories in the Naked City and this is one of them.” As the narrator’s voice ended, the screen faded to black.

The air was warm and heavy with the smell of scorched popcorn and stale butter. Hank, Sonny and Matt pulled on their coats and headed toward the exit. In the half-light, their feet made small ripping sounds as they walked across the slightly sticky floor.

“Man! That was a great movie. I wish I lived in New York City,” Sonny said.

Hank scuffed his feet on the sidewalk. “Yeah, Georgia’s got to be the most boring place in the world.”

“You can say that again,” Matt added. “Nobody in Lost River’s got a story worth telling.”

Story #1, Mrs. Conti (Sicily 1860)

Most of the time, Carmelina slept through the noise of the gun shots. They were part of the air like the bees buzzing through the wild flowers and the olive trees. The bees were a nuisance, but not dangerous unless you aggravated them, then their sting was deadly. Sicilians were accustomed to invaders with guns. The old women in their long black dresses rattled off the island history like beads on their rosaries. They had seen and survived it all.

“Everybody’s tried to rule us starting with the Greeks, then the Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, French, Spanish, Napoleon, and now those Italians.” It was 1860, and the current trespassers from Italy were the last straw.

For years the war had been going on in little towns nearby, but when her home town of Palermo revolted, Italy sent ships to shell the city and soldiers to deal with the trouble-makers. They executed hundreds, put many more in prison and deported others. Absolutely no one was safe. Carmelina’s family talked about escaping before they could be rounded up.

Her papa made the final decision. “We’re leaving. We’ll each take one suitcase and you have to carry it yourself. No help.” Her mother insisted that although the weather was hot, they each wear two of everything. In addition, they packed two sets of underwear, a change of work clothes, one nice outfit, three pairs of socks, an extra pair of shoes, a sweater, a heavy coat and one “special thing.” Carmelina, who was six, took a book.

On the day they were to leave for America, her papa went to work at his little shop to avoid suspicion. Carmelina and her mother went to the courthouse to pick up some papers. As they were leaving to go back home, they saw soldiers dragging the school principal, Mr. Esposito, by his feet over the cobblestones in the square. They stood him up by the fountain and shot him in the head. He fell into the water and it turned red with his blood. Women screamed. Men turned their heads in disgust and shame.

“Run home! Hide!” her mother whispered.

Carmelina obeyed. She expected to see friends or neighbors along the way, someone who might help her or at least explain what was going on, but the street was completely empty and deadly quiet. When she got home, she reached out to open her front door, but she couldn’t turn the knob. It was slippery. She looked at her hand; it was covered with blood. She quickly wiped it on her dress. “I’ve ruined my good school dress. Mama will be so angry.” With no help in sight, Carmelina hid under a bush and waited for her mother to come home and let her in.

She finally got there and the family waited all night for Papa to come home, but by daybreak he still hadn’t arrived. Her mother fed Carmelina and her two older brothers some milk and bread for breakfast. “Put the rest of the bread and some cheese in your pockets,” she said, “and be quick about it.”

As fast as they could, they left for the docks, but the streets were already crowded with people. They finally got to the port, but there was no boat in sight and it started to rain. The family found shelter in a doorway where they waited all day and through the night.

People were cold, hungry and frightened, but they were strangely silent. Even the babies were quiet. Daybreak finally came and with it a ship.

“Oh my God.” The look on her mother’s face was more frightening than the soldiers who roused people and hurried them up the gangplank. They were directed down into a large open area at the bottom of the boat.

The crossing took ten days and the cheese and bread they brought was soon gone. Some days they were given food, some days only dirty water. People got seasick and threw up where they were. There was nowhere else to go. Slop buckets overflowed adding to the general misery. Her family found an almost dry space and huddled together expecting to die.

On the tenth day of the trip after what seemed like an eternity, the passengers were ordered to come up on deck. No one knew what was going on. “Maybe they’re going to throw us all overboard,” an old man said.

Carmelina was standing next to a sailor who smiled at her. “No one is going to throw you overboard,” he said. When he got no reaction, he realized she couldn’t understand him. With a smile, he pointed to a large round building on the southern tip of Manhattan Island. “Castle Garden,” he said, “America.”

Carmelina smiled. “America! Mama, we made it.”

Well, not quite yet. First the passengers were loaded onto tug boats that took them ashore. There they were met by one government official after another, each one asking questions and scrutinizing them from head to toe.

Carmelina’s mother didn’t understand English, but she heard the same questions over and over and guessed at what the questions must be from the answers she heard in Sicilian.

What is your name? Where did you come from? Where are you going? What is your trade?

Throughout all the questions and the medical examinations, the family stayed close to friends from Palermo. Eventually they were released and sent with their luggage to an Italian community in East Harlem. They did their best to survive, but they were fishermen and their skills were useless in the steel and concrete of New York City.

The one place where workers were needed was the rural south. The Civil War had all but wiped out a generation of young men. Recruiters combed the streets of Harlem offering jobs to anyone willing to move south. And so Carmelina’s family moved to Lost River. Two brothers and some of their friends went to work logging.

When she was 15, Carmelina married Adamo Conti who had been on the boat with her family. They had three sons, Anthony, Salvador and Vincent. They were a handsome lot, those Conti boys. They took after their mama. Dark hair, dark eyes, well built. By the time she was in her 80s, Carmelina’s family was a vital part of Lost River. Even into her 90s there were still traces of the young girl with flashing dark eyes and hair blowing in the wind.

Over the years, she had lost track of most of the twists and turns of her life. She had learned English, but as she got older, it was just easier to revert to the language of Sicily she had spoken as a girl. She was now one of those old women in their long black dresses. She had forgotten many things, but she never forgot the blood on the doorknob of her house back in Sicily.