Chapter 34: “Ti amiamo, carissimo Graziano.”

MONDAY, 21ST DECEMBER, 2009

I filled in for Deirdre at the 519 Centre. She had a doctor’s appointment and a meeting with her lawyer, and I was the first person that had come to her mind. I didn’t mind coming in on such short notice; I needed a break. The excitement around my family’s arrest was too much even for my own good. I actually planned on going to the courthouse for Joseph, Nadine, and Charlotte’s bail hearing. After my shift, I found out on the radio that Joseph had posted bail for all three of them by putting up the house in Brampton as collateral.

Before I went home, I checked up on Mykhaylo at his apartment. A week after his release from the hospital, he was feeling much better. He was working on some exams. He missed the ones in class, so his professors allowed him to do them at home (with open notes) before Christmas came. A lot of the material was a bit over my head. Mykhaylo was quite the student, however, and knew the material front and back. But then, I wasn’t the one aiming for a graduate degree in communications at York University. Nonetheless, Mykhaylo appreciated my company.

TUESDAY, 22ND DECEMBER, 2009

When I woke up on Tuesday, I again had the sensation that my old neighbourhood was calling me. This time, however, I fully embraced the opportunity to go back. I took one look at Britney and decided that I should show her a part of my life, however painful it was. So, just before lunch, I put Britney into her carrier and we embarked on our journey to Corso Italia.

A subway ride and a bus ride later, Britney and I were at the snowy intersection of St. Clair Avenue West and Nairn Avenue. It was quiet. Either everyone was inside, or they had flown to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic or something for Christmas. I’ve never been to the Caribbean before. Britney was meowing loudly. I took out a piece of salmon jerky from my pocket (I always bring some with me when I’m out with Britney, because she fucking loves it) and fed her some through the carrier’s gate. She snacked peacefully as I, carrier in tow, walked up the street to my old house.

When we got there, I noticed that the house was already decked in Christmas lights and decorations. Growing up, Joseph only strung up a few multi-coloured lights around the front door and that was it. He made a lot of money, but when it came to holiday decor, aside from the tree, he was cheap as fuck. I took Britney out and gently held her in my arms.

“Welcome to the place that I called hell for so many years,” I said to Britney. Even in the cold, she didn’t mind because she was snuggled up against me.

And then, the door opened. It was Carolina Mantovani, dressed in a chic red Christmas sweater. I had done a reverse lookup on the Internet, and that’s how I found her last name. “Graziano!” she exclaimed. “What a surprise.”

“How’s your father?” I asked.

“He’s fine. He’s staying at my sister’s in Barrie. I’m getting the place ready for Christmas.” She approached me. “Who’s your friend?”

“This is Britney, my cat,” I said. “You’re not allergic, are you?”

“Are you kidding? I love cats,” she said.

“You can pet her if you like. She’s a bit shy around other people, but she eventually warms up to them.”

Carolina gently stroked Britney’s fur, and my pet purred softly. “Hey,” Carolina said, “would you like to come in and have a look around?”

I nodded, even though I had some reservations about coming in to my old house. I picked up the carrier and with that and Britney in tow, I slowly walked the short path up. The moment Carolina closed the door behind me, I could feel the screams, the beatings, the attacks… everything bad that had happened to me at this red-brick two-storey home, came flooding back to me. Goosebumps spread all over my body like a tsunami.

The living room, aside from the flat-screen television and leather sofas, wasn’t that different from my youth. I could still picture Nadine, draped almost lifelessly on one of them, a bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

“I’m just going to check on the cookies,” Carolina said. “Feel free to roam about.” She went back into the kitchen. I set the carrier next to the door, and we went up the stairs to where my old room was. Along the way, I saw pictures of Carolina’s extended family. There had never been those kinds of pictures on the stair walls. Instead, there were icons of saints. As a kid, it was creepy watching Saint Teresa de Avila and Saint Lawrence seemingly watching me climb the stairs.

The upstairs floor had three bedrooms. Ryan and Charlotte’s rooms were to my left, the bathroom straight ahead, and mine to the right. I remember Charlotte’s bedroom being a mass of pink and white and full of dolls, pageant crowns, and so much fluffy things. It was a scary sight. Now, it was Carolina’s father’s room, painted in an austere shade of blue. The bed, the drawers, and even the altar were fucking austere. Was her father a priest or something? Did he try the priesthood and decide that celibacy wasn’t for him, but the decor was? I wasn’t sure. As for Ryan’s room, what had once been full of sports trophies and books had been converted into a cozy guest room. The walls, once covered with posters of Wayne Gretzky and Joe Carter, were now a warm green colour and had framed paintings of flowers.

And then I checked out my former bedroom. Growing up, my room was almost always organized. Everything was nice and tidy, and on my walls were posters of Celine Dion, Madonna, George Michael, and Cher. The room had since been converted into a hybrid sewing/craft room, though a bed had been placed gently into a corner so whoever was hemming clothes or making scrapbooks could take a nap afterwards. I put Britney on the floor, and she went straight for the bed. I opened the closet door. On the top shelf were boxes of sewing and craft supplies, but there were some clothes hanging. This closet was where I spent my nights crying, often bleeding. The day that I moved out of the house, I noticed that I had left enough blood in the closet to merit the cast of “Law & Order” coming over. I cleaned it up minutes before I finally left the place. Now, the room, including the closet, had wall-to-wall carpeting, which we never had. It was wooden floors all the way.

I’m normally an emotional person, but this time I didn’t react emotionally to the changes in the house. I had goose bumps, but it wasn’t like my heart was pounding in excitement. Nonetheless, as I walked down the stairs with Britney, I felt satisfied having come back to what had been my home for 18 years.

I went into the kitchen, which had been completely fitted with brand-new appliances and painted a bright shade of white. It used to be the ugliest shade of orange you’d have ever seen; it was almost blood-like, and not like a blood orange. In fact, Joseph and Nadine did almost NO reno work in the 20+ years that they lived in the house, nor did they call anyone to do said reno work. It was a miracle that nothing malfunctioned or crashed down on us.

Carolina was at the table, putting the finishing touches on some cheery Christmas cookies. She had already set a plate out for me, along with a glass of milk. “I’m making organic cookies this year,” she said. “Do you think anyone will notice?”

I took a bite of one of the cookies. It tasted a lot different from what I had been used to. They were sweet and creamy, but had a touch of savoury taste, which I attributed to the wheat germ inside. “They’ll notice, but they’ll still eat them up,” I said.

“Thanks. So, how did the tour go?”

“It brought back a lot of memories,” I said. And then, I changed my tone. “Carolina, can I level with you?”

“Sure,” she replied, caressing a cookie with frosting.

“The reason why Joseph and Nadine didn’t tell you about me is that… well, they were abusive to me.”

Carolina put down her knife. “Oh,” was all she could say. A few moments of silence later, and she asked, “How?”

“They beat me up, they called me names, and they did everything short of string me to the fence and allow the crows to pick at my flesh.” I was beginning to boil inside just thinking about what they did to me. “It went on until I left for university.”

“I’m…” Carolina stammered. “I’m sorry. Why did they do those things to you?”

“It’d be easy to say that they’re assholes,” I replied, “and believe me, they are. But I don’t know exactly why they acted the way they did. But we may soon find out.”

“Why do you say that?” Carolina resumed spreading icing on the cookies.

“You didn’t hear the news, did you?” I replied.

Carolina shook her head. “I haven’t even read today’s paper. What happened?”

“Joseph, Nadine, and Charlotte tried to kill my friends over a week ago.” I took another cookie and ate it. “They were arrested Saturday night, and on Monday they posted bail.”

Carolina shook her head. “Oh my God,” she muttered. “Oh my fucking God.”

“And it’s not the first time. I found out a few weeks ago that they killed my grandparents and my fiancé years ago.”

“Why would they do that?”

“You’re looking at the reason,” I replied. “They want me dead.”

“Oh, Graz,” Carolina sighed. She stood up and hugged me. “I am so sorry.” Her hug was strong and comforting.

“Thanks. Look, like I told you last time, if they show up, don’t say that I was here.”

“Well, they have been here,” Carolina said.

“WHEN were they here?” I had half a mind to destroy a cookie at that moment.

“The night before they were arrested.” Carolina got up and paced frantically around the kitchen. “I didn’t say a damn thing about you to them.”

“Did they suspect anything?”

“They only wanted to see how things were going,” she said. “You know, I actually hate it when they pop by.”

This was getting stranger. “They come here often?” I asked.

Carolina sat down again. “Every fucking month, your parents come here. It’s been that way for seven years. They don’t own this house anymore. They don’t even live in Toronto anymore!” She tore into an innocent Christmas cookie shaped like a snowflake.

“What do they do?” I asked, stroking Britney’s fur. Britney was now asleep in my lap.

“They ask ridiculous questions, and they often leave things behind,” she replied, tearing into another cookie. “Before I went to church on Sunday, I found a metal box in my bedroom. I didn’t open it, but I could tell that there was something substantial in it.”

Carolina got up and fetched a tin black box from the counter. It was about the size of a giant tin of Danish butter cookies. It looked weather-beaten, but was otherwise intact. There wasn’t a lock at all; the box had been sealed tightly with electrical tape.

She handed me the box, and I shook it. I didn’t hear anything except the sound of rustling paper. I set it down and peeled off the layers of tape, and when I took the lid off, I discovered two bags filled with what appeared to be money. Tucked in between them were two folded pieces of paper. I took out one of them, and I immediately recognized the handwriting as that of Nonno Pietro.

“This is from my Nonno Pietro,” I told Carolina, who was enraptured by what was going on. I then read the letter aloud:

“My dear grandson Graziano, your other grandparents and I have been saving money for you ever since you were born. Your parents have obviously provided well for your siblings, but not for you. That is completely unfair, not just to you but to everything that is good and decent in the world. So, on the occasion of your graduation from secondary school, here is something that we hope will set the foundation for a successful, fruitful, and ultimately stable life. On behalf of your Nonno Raimondo, your Nonne Annunziata and Maria Grazia, I wish you love, health, and success from here on out. Ti amiamo, carissimo Graziano.”

I started to cry. The letter was dated the 1st of June, 2000, weeks before Nonno Pietro and Nonna Annunziata were murdered. Carolina squeezed my hand. I put the letter down and opened one of the bags. Inside, I found wads upon wads of slightly crumpled and aged, but still legal tender, $100 bills. Each wad had $2500, and by the time Carolina and I had counted the money, the total was $250,000. My heart stood still for a moment after I realized how much was in that bag. I didn’t think that anyone, much less four immigrant grandparents from southern Italy, could have saved up that much money over the course of 18 years just from running a deli and a bookstore. That they did this for me was even more special.

And then I saw the other letter. I opened it, and it was printed on stationery belonging to Joseph. It read, “The contents of these bags are only to be used in the event of the death of Graziano Buonfiglio.” My mouth dropped. Those fucking bastards! I opened the second bag, and there was at least $300,000 in it! And the bills were more recent, meaning that Joseph and Nadine had not only stolen what was rightly mine, they were adding to it! Over half a million dollars were in this giant tin. I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing.

Neither could Carolina. She had probably never seen this much money in her life either. “What are you going to do with all this money?” she asked.

I thought about it for a few moments, and then took out $50,000 from the second bag and gave it to Carolina. I figured that since the money was found on her property, she should get a share, and $50,000 seemed like a fair amount. Carolina’s eyes lit up. She screamed in delight and hugged me so tight that I almost couldn’t breathe. But it was the least I could do after she was so nice to me.

When she had calmed down, she said, “Thank you.”

“No, Carolina,” I replied. “Thank you.”

“And don’t worry, honey. If they show up next month, I’m not telling them shit.”

After we finished off the plate of cookies, I bid Carolina a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, and soon I left my old house at the intersection of Ascot and Nairn, with Britney in her carrier and half a million dollars in my backpack. I had decided to keep both bags, however heavy they were. I figured that Joseph and Nadine had stolen too much from me for too fucking long. Turnabout’s fair play.

The sun had peeked out of the clouds by the time we arrived on St. Clair Avenue West. I noticed Scavotto Fine Foods, which had been my paternal grandparents’ deli, across the way. The last time I was in the neighbourhood, I couldn’t bear to step foot in it. This time was different.

I walked right into the deli, and it felt like old times. The cheese, the meats, the side dishes… they all looked and smelled just as fresh and delicious as they were when I was a kid, helping out after school. Of course, there were plenty of newer items, but the essential items that I had grown up with were still there. The walls were painted a rich, deep blue, and those that were having their lunches, were savouring every last bite. The workers were much younger than my grandparents, but they were working as hard and diligently as those who came before them.

After purchasing a platter of holiday meats and cheeses, along with some other things, I walked up the street to A Confeitaria Betancourt, the Brazilian/Portuguese bakery that had sprung up after arson had claimed my maternal grandparents and La Libreria Dante Aligheri. Inside, I purchased a box of pastéis de nata (Portuguese custard tarts), but not before introducing myself as the grandson of the former tenants.

Despite the seemingly heavy load, I managed to carry a cat, a holiday platter, a box of tarts, and half a million dollars all the way home. When I got back to the apartment, I put everything away, gave Britney her lunch, and soaked into a nice and warm bath, listening to Kathy Griffin’s Suckin’ It for the Holidays.

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