One afternoon, in his broken English, he tried to teach her the story of La Traviata. It was October, the trees changing in the hollow. Outside, his parents were drinking jugs of wine. The recording was scratched and noisy. The music sounded rich to her, like brocade or lush curtains, something plush and prohibited, an odd religion. It made the new hairs along her legs tingle. The sun was scuffed in the windows, shafting the bare boards of the house, and Gianni was acting out parts for her. He tried to explain Violetta, the prostitution part, but couldn't find the correct word in English.
"Prostituta," he said. "You know..."
He hiked his pants and pretended a garter belt and batted his eyes.
She didn't understand. The family was laughing through the screen door. Glasses clinking. The music was too much, suddenly suffocating, and she was seized with the urge to run.
"Wait, wait, listen," he said, and closed his eyes. A woman was singing:
Addio, del passato bei sogni ridenti...
Afterward, as she walked home on the Two Mile Road, the music was still about her. The first leaves were shredding from the chestnuts, the evening beveled in the branches. She had no idea what the opera was about, but the music clung to her like a washcloth, something warm she couldn't shed. She heard it in the alders and the larch; she heard a whippoorwill whistle in the forest; she remembered Gianni's face, singing, and she hugged her shoulders and began, suddenly, to shiver.
Gianni and her brother, Delmar, both work the mines. They enter at the same time and leave at the same time, but each works with his own father on a different face in a different part of the mine. When they do see each other, it is with Emily, and they argue about everything.
"America," Gianni says, "is Italian."
"Horseshit," says Delmar.
Her brother is moonfaced and pale, a scratch of mustache above his lip. His name means "of the ocean," though he seems to Emily of the earth, white and loamy. Standing next to her brother, Gianni looks as sharp as a knife.
"You are named after an Italian," Gianni tries again.
"To hell I am."
"Amerigo Vespucci, he was Italian. He is America."
Delmar rolls his eyes and spits. "Sure, chief. Whatever you say."
One Saturday they all went swimming in the pond below the high pasture. Thunderheads had been stacking all morning, and by afternoon the sky turned slate and lowered and the first drops emptied over the pond. Emily and Delmar climbed from the water and toweled themselves and waited for Gianni. He was still making loops in the pond.
"Come on, John," Emily yelled. "Lightning's coming."
He was treading water, smiling. "It's okay," he yelled, waving to her.
The rain picked up, swung over the pond. She and Delmar covered themselves with a blanket, holding it above their heads, like two tent posts.
"What the hell's he doing?" Delmar said, and laughed, but didn't know why. The thunder was nearing; they could hear it cracking downhollow, working its way along the ridgetops. She yelled to him again.
"It's not okay! Come on in!"
He swam in a circle, fountained water from his mouth, grinned. She pleaded with him. She knew he was doing this for her sake.
"See, it's all right," he yelled, lifting his arms. "No problem."
They watched Gianni in the water, incredulous, Delmar muttering "Dumb shit" over and over and Gianni with his hair slicked and creased and the bones of his shoulders popping above the water like two brown buoys that followed him wherever he went.
The thunder was now overhead. Rain misted the water, and Gianni was small and blurred, a black dot surrounded by dropping silver. A wire of lightning crashed above and the air jumped and brightened and Emily screamed. They could feel something electric crawl their skin. She peered at the pond but couldn't see Gianni anymore. His head was gone, the pond empty, the surface stuccoed with rain. She hid her face in the blanket, yelling. The thunder rolled back into the hills.
Copyright © 2001 by Brad Kessler
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