MARCO CINCHED UP HIS TROUSERS and walked into the store. While his eyes adjusted, he smelled mold and dust. A large oak counter appeared, from which papers rose to the smoky, cracked ceiling.
“Papà,” he prayed, “I wish you were here.”
He stood on his toes and looked beyond the counter. Piles of old books and folders lined the walls and the banister leading downstairs. On the far wall, an antiseptic Jesus gazed from a yellowed lithograph. Antique etchings and prints hung at various angles on every wall. He went to the end of the counter near the stairs and called out.
“Signor Boccarone?” He heard a crash from the lower room.
“Vengo!” I’m coming! The proprietor emerged from the dust cloud he had created, brushing his threadbare jacket. Marco scurried to the safety of the doorway. “Oh it’s you,” said Boccarone. “What do you want in my store?”
Marco swallowed and froze. Boccarone’s dirty undershirt stuck out between his shirt and his belt. A dark stubble covered his double chins. Marco always noticed the red and white hairs in his nose because the rest of the hair on his body was black.
“Do you buy papers, sir?”
“Depends. Do you have some to sell?” Boccarone disappeared behind the counter and came up with a short, dirty cigar butt. He pulled some matches from his jacket pocket and lit the butt with a flourish.
“Maybe, sir, but first I need to know what my picture is worth. Mamma said that you know more than anyone about such things.”
“Signora DeVitis is a fine lady.” The blue smoke curled around his head like the clouds around Mount Vesuvius. “What do you have, Marco? I can’t appraise something without seeing it.”
Marco handed him the heavy paper. “I don’t want to lose it, sir.” Boccarone unfolded it on the counter. “It has the same view of Vesuvius I used to see from our apartment building before they built the bank next door.”
The art dealer leaned over the print. He crushed his cigar butt without looking away from the picture. He held it up to the light and made some rumbling noises.
“Is it valuable, sir?”
“Might be. I’ll need to keep it a few days to check it closely.”
“No!” Marco grabbed the print from the counter. Boccarone lunged for it, but stopped short of catching it. He composed himself and smiled.
“Okay, you keep it, but would you bring it back later? I want to go to Rome to borrow some books and talk to a man who may be better able than I to estimate its value. It may be nothing at all.”
Marco began folding the print. Boccarone inhaled sharply, then forced a smile.
“Whether it’s valuable or not, Marco, you should roll it to carry it.”
“I got it this way.” Marco frowned, but he opened it and rolled it gently. Stepping into the dazzling sunshine, he ran home.
Marco and his mother lived on the fourth floor. He took the stairs two at a time as usual. As he let himself into the apartment, the aroma of olives, garlic and basil spilled into the hall.
“In the kitchen, dear.” Marco left the print in the foyer next to her briefcase and joined her. Signora DeVitis bent down for a hug. A green paste covered her long, graceful hands. Marco stood back.
“Your eyes. You’ve been crying.”
“I had an argument with the building manager. The rent goes up again next month. There’s really nothing he can do. I just haven’t figured out how to cover it yet.”
“Will we have to move again?”
“I hope not, son. Let me worry about it.” She held up her hands. “Look. We’re having pesto tonight. I found some fresh basil on the way home from work, and some green beans.” She pointed to the basket. Marco sat at the table and began snapping the ends off the beans.
“So what did Signor Boccarone have to say?”
“He called you a fine lady. And he wants me to bring the picture back.”
“Does he think it’s valuable?”
“He said he didn’t know, but he tried to keep it.”
“That means something. Signor Boccarone is a businessman. He would only be interested if he thought he could make something from it.”
“I don’t like him, Mamma.”
“I know, son, but he’s really a good sort. And he knows art.”
“Isn’t there some other way to find out what it’s worth?”
“Captain Albano could ask the Carabinieri Art Theft Squad in Rome to check it out, but I hate to ask him until we know more.”
The next afternoon, Marco ran home from school to check on his print. It still lay under his bed as neatly as he had rolled it.
“Still safe, son?”
Marco banged his head in surprise backing out. His mother sat on the bed, and he let her hug him until the pain subsided.
“Signor Boccarone called me at work today, asking about your print.”
“What did he want to know?”
“Where you got it, did I know about it – that sort of thing.”
“Did he call you a fine lady?”
“No, but he did ask me to go to the movies this weekend.” She chuckled at his pained expression. “I told him I had other plans. You still want to go to the amusement park, don’t you?”
Marco gave her an eager hug. He jumped off the bed and pulled out the picture.
“I need to keep this safe. Can you help me hide it?”
“Of course, but first tell me something.”
She leaned down and eyed him squarely.
“Where did you find it?”
Marco looked at his feet. His cover story about the street next to the school should still hold. He started to talk, but stopped. He exhaled and shrugged. His mother put her hand under his chin and lifted his face.
“Playing at the dump again?”
“No, Mamma, honest! I was just looking at the other kids from the sidewalk. I saw the picture near a big tire and picked it up. I didn’t play.” He hated the way she could stare into his soul.
She dropped her hand and straightened up.
“Okay, but stay away from the dump. Next time, there may not be a beautiful print to lead you out of temptation.” She stood. “After supper, I’ll call my cousin Giuliano. I don’t think Signor Boccarone knows him, and he has a big safe in his store across town.”
Two days later, Boccarone was standing near a tree on the sidewalk outside Marco’s school. Marco looked away and hugged the wall.
“Hello, Marco.” The art dealer fell in step with the boy. “May I walk with you?”
“Guess so.” Marco looked down. The stench of dust, stale tobacco and wine clung to the man’s coat.
“I saw the man in Rome and borrowed some books.” He put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. Marco’s knuckles blanched gripping his books. “Would you bring your print to the shop after school tomorrow? We can compare it to the pictures in the books and see what it’s worth.”
“Good. See you tomorrow, then.”
Boccarone sped up to return to his shop. Marco watched him pause at the corner, pull a fresh cigar from a new pack and light it with a gas lighter. He had never waited to light his smelly cigars before.
The next day, Marco beat his mother home. He went to his room to do his homework. He did not hear the front door open.
“In my room, Mamma. I’ve almost finished my homework.”
“Bravo!” She sat down hard on his bed and took off her shoes. Marco saw a large blister on each big toe. “Ready for Signor Boccarone?”
“I think so.” He pointed to her swollen feet. “Did the bus break down again?” She nodded. “I wish we had a car, Mamma.” His mother shrugged and looked down at her feet.
“Right now, I’d settle for a better pair of shoes, but they’ll have to wait.” She looked up. “Do you want me to come to the art shop with you?”
“I don’t know. Do you think he’ll try to take it from me?”
“Not if you don’t let him. If it’s really valuable, he can’t afford to tear it.”
“But what if he tricks me?”
She hesitated, then answered in flat, pointed syllables.
“He would not dare.”
Marco felt his throat close. “You mean Papà?” She nodded.
“The brouhaha over the bomb may have stopped, but every carabiniere in Italy remembers Captain DeVitis.”
They hugged to share the pain. Her tears fell on his hair; his dampened her blouse. This did not happen as often as it would have two years before, but it hurt almost as much.
Marco stood back when he felt her arms relax.
“What’s two hundred sixty-six divided by four?”
“That was my last problem. Thanks!” He dodged her swing as he ran to his desk and wrote down the answer.
“Mamma?” he said, putting away his books.
“I’ll go alone. Signor Boccarone doesn’t scare me now.”
The art dealer had on a clean shirt and had shaved. The smell of furniture polish had replaced the mustiness, and the shop had been stowed neatly.
“Hello, Marco.” Boccarone shook Marco’s hand and pulled the hesitant boy into the store. “This is Signor Donnola, an art expert from Rome.”
The thin, tight-lipped stranger managed a furtive smile and proffered a limp hand. Marco shrank back.
“I thought you had books with pictures.”
Boccarone came forward and crouched in front of him.
“I do, and we shall see them. Signor Donnola here owns some of the books, and he knows more than I do about prints like yours.”
Marco stood with his feet apart, ready to run. Donnola avoided his gaze.
“I don’t like him.”
Boccarone and Donnola exchanged glances.
“You don’t have to like him, Marco. He’s here to help me check your print. You’re still dealing only with me.”
Donnola said, “Maybe his mother —” Boccarone cut him off with a sharp look.
“No need,” said Marco. “It’s my picture.”
“Shall we take a look?” said Boccarone. “You’ll ruin it holding it under your armpit like that.”
“Let me spread it out.”
“Of course.” They followed the shop owner to the lower room. Marco had never seen it clean before. Regiments of books lined the walls. The shelves gleamed with fresh wax. He hesitated at the top of the stairs.
“Here, Marco.” Boccarone pointed to a large, low table in the center of the room. “Don’t be afraid. I didn’t steal your print before; I won’t take it now.”
Donnola stood still, outside the light from the lamp over the table. Marco noticed the sheen of his expensive gray suit and the large ring on his finger. As he spread the print flat on the table, he kept his eyes on the man from Rome.
Boccarone leaned over the picture. Then he reached for a large book from the pile at one end of the table and opened it.
“Looks like it, doesn’t it?” The art dealer opened the other books, one by one. He laid them in a broad smile around Marco’s print. Some showed off Vesuvius like a golden tooth. Others revealed scenes of imaginary prisons and landmarks of ancient Rome.
Donnola slid quietly around the table and leaned over Marco’s shoulder.
“Such clear, fine lines,” he said, “could only come from fresh plates.” The boy put his hands over the print.
“Marco,” said Boccarone, “please let Signor Donnola look at the picture. I need his help to be sure it’s authentic.”
Marco scowled, but pulled his arms away. The two men produced magnifying glasses and discussed the details of the print, comparing them to the characteristics listed in the books. They counted and measured lines. They weighed the print. They examined the paper for watermarks, hand-made imperfections, wires and other clues. Soon they were sure that plates etched by Giovanni Piranesi has made the impressions on Marco’s print, probably on the original run.
Marco held his ground, making them work around him. He could sense their growing enthusiasm as they became less aware of his presence.
“… and when they see this at the gallery in Rome,” Donnola was saying.
Like a magician removing a tablecloth from beneath a dinner setting, Marco snapped the print from the table and began rolling it up. Donnola reached out, but Boccarone stayed his arm.
“Careful, Marco,” said the shop owner.
“No one is taking my print to Rome.”
“Of course not. We’re not taking the print, but if the gallery wants to buy it, the print may go there yet. You are still selling it, aren’t you?”
“I never said that, sir. I only asked if it was valuable.”
Donnola looked sharply at the art dealer. Boccarone kept an unruffled appearance.
“So you did, Marco. Well, it is worth something. Can we discuss buying it from you?”
Boccarone hesitated. He motioned to Donnola, who walked out to the front room. Boccarone leaned close to the boy and whispered.
“I’ll give you five hundred thousand lire for it.”
Marco’s heart skipped a beat. He had never seen that much money in his life. With some effort, he resisted the urge to say yes at once.
“Let me think, sir,” he said simply. “I’ll let you know.”
The art dealer nodded, a hint of disappointment in his eyes.
“Check it out with your mother. She will agree it’s a good offer. Then you—”
Marco bolted. A surprised Donnola reached for him as he streaked across the front room. Marco heard a crash behind him in the store, but he kept running. He did not slow down until the third floor of the apartment building.
“Marco, what happened?” The scent of fresh herbs and home-canned tomato sauce wrapped itself around him like a favorite blanket. His mother was in the living room with some paperwork from the office and a calculator.
“Signor Boccarone offered me a half million lire for it! There was an art expert from Rome and lots of big, beautiful books with pictures like my picture, and Signor Boccarone and Signor Donnola used magnifying glasses, and —”
“Easy, son. Here, sit down. Dinner won’t be ready for a while. You can tell me all about it, slowly.”
Marco sat and carefully recounted every detail of the meeting in the art shop. When he finished, his mother asked, “Did Signor Donnola hear the offer?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Then I’ll bet the offer is too low. Signor Boccarone probably intends to sell your print to the gallery in Rome. He would want to make as big a profit as he can.”
“But I never told him I would sell it.”
“That’s his mistake for assuming that you wanted to. I think you have caught him off guard. That’s good.”
“Will you go see Captain Albano?” She nodded.
“Now we know it’s valuable, don’t we?” she said. “Cousin Giuliano went to the trade fair in Bari. We can call him tomorrow after he returns. He’ll keep the print for you.”
The last days of school seemed long enough normally, but the day after the meeting with the two art experts had extra stretch in it. Marco burst onto the landing to find his mother opening the door to the apartment.
“Hi, Mamma. Did you see Captain Albano?”
“Yes, son.” She bent down for a kiss. “He was very excited. Whether about the print or just to help, I don’t know. He was very close to your Papà, you know.”
“Well?” He stretched his torso as if to hear better. She laughed gently at his wide, expectant eyes.
“He can’t tell us just like that, Marco. Give him time to make some calls and get back to us.”
“Oh okay” Marco shrank back. He walked to his room and tossed his book casually on the desk. He went to his bed and knelt to look under it.
“Mamma! Where’s my print?”
Her face said it all. Marco choked and the air in his lungs burned. She knelt and held him as he gasped between painful sobs. “Where is it, Mamma, where?”
She shook her head. Her eyes were shining, and her teeth left white tracks on her lower lip.
“Let’s see if anything else was stolen, then go to the Carabinieri station.” A quick but careful search turned up nothing else missing.
“Boccarone did this,” Marco growled as they locked the apartment. “He’ll be sorry.”
“We don’t know that, son. Let the police do their job.”
“But he was the only one who knew.”
“We don’t know that, either. Wasn’t there someone else in the store yesterday? Couldn’t someone have talked?” Marco nodded.
“I still think he did it.” He pulled ahead of her angrily.
The carabinieri at the police station seemed attentive and thorough, but they depressed Marco when they started asking about ownership documents and details of how he found the print. They made a big show of taking down all the facts and reassuring his mother.
“They won’t do anything, Mamma,” Marco said outside.
“Yes, they will. Why do you say that?”
“They don’t think I really own the print. We can’t prove it.”
“They know it’s yours,” she said, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Trust them.”
Marco snorted and shrugged off her hand.
That night was hot and close. Marco tossed until his sheets stuck to his back in a sweaty triangle. He slapped at mosquitoes and scratched where he had missed them. When he finally fell asleep, he dreamed of Boccarone in the alley behind his shop. Caught in the beams of pursuing police cars, the art dealer clutched Marco’s etching under his arm and ran among the garbage cans and parked cars. The police could not catch up with him, but he never pulled away. Marco awoke screaming helplessly, “Don’t let him get away, please!”
His mother was kneeling by his bed and put an arm on his head.
“It’s okay, dear, just a dream.”
“It’s not okay, Mamma. I want them to catch him!”
“If he took it, they will. Now try to rest. You have school tomorrow.”
Marco lay in the dark, teeth clenched. “She doesn’t understand.” He turned to his pillow and let his heart burst from too much loss. “Oh Papà, I miss you.”
When he could cry no more, he watched the shadows from the headlights of passing cars march across the ceiling. Occasionally the room pulsed with blue light, and his heart ached again for the man whose life had been Marco and the Carabinieri Corps.
A rooster woke him. He smelled fresh, hot bread from the bakery on the ground floor. Light from the living room still leaked under his door. He went in to find his mother sitting puffy-eyed on the sofa, staring out the window. She reached out when she noticed him. He sat on her lap and let her rock him.
The days dragged. After a week, Marco wandered cautiously by Boccarone’s shop and found it closed. The caretaker of the building said that Boccarone had left the day after the burglary.
Pietro Valdone walked up to his gloomy friend during recess.
“Want to kick the ball around?”
“No, I don’t want to kick your stupid ball,” Marco snapped. “Don’t bug me!” He caught the saw in his friend’s eyes. “I’m sorry, Pietro, I didn’t mean that.” Pietro sat next to him.
“What’s wrong, Marco?”
“I’m mad at Signor Boccarone for stealing my picture.”
“He did that?” Pietro sounded amazed. The Valdone family lived next to the art shop.
“I showed him this valuable print I found. It was mine, and he knew it. Then someone breaks into our home, and it’s gone. So it he.”
“That’s not like him. He’s the nicest man I know except for my grandfather.”
“What’s so nice about him? I hate his smelly cigars, and he stinks of dirt and cheap wine.”
“He wasn’t always like that. My mother says he’s going through a bad time since Signora Boccarone and Luigi died. I think he’s getting better now.” Marco remembered that Boccarone had not smoked at all during the meeting with Donnola.
“I didn’t know he had a family.”
“They lived across town. Luigi would come by the store with him once in a while. He had other stores until the accident.”
“A truck ran into their car. Signor Boccarone was hardly hurt, but the other two were killed. He sold all the stores except the one and moved into the apartment above it. That was two years ago. We were beginning to wonder if he would ever pull out of it.”
“I never knew.” Marco looked down. “That’s terrible.”
“Well, leaving after the burglary sure looks suspicious.”
“Yeah, but –” Marco fell in a moody silence. “I hope he didn’t do it,” he said absently.
Pietro had seen that faraway look on his friend before. He squeezed Marco’s shoulder and walked slowly back to the school building.
“Marco! Come here!” His mother called from the hall that night. Marco snapped out of his reverie over his homework and went to the foyer. A barrel-chested carabiniere stood in the hall with her.
“Hello, Marco. Remember me?”
“Yes, sir. Sergeant Acunzo. How do you do?”
“Fine. I have something for you.” He brought his hand from behind his back and let the print unroll.
Marco squealed. His feet felt like clouds. He jumped and hopped and froze, quivering. “Oh thank you, Sergeant! I can’t believe it. Where was it? Who took it? Did you catch them?”
The graying carabiniere smiled and held up his hand. “Easy, lad. First, I have to tell you that we must hold the picture until the trial, but you will get it back.”
“Then you caught him. Who was it? Signor Boccarone?”
“No. It was a she, a professional burglar hired by an acquaintance of that Signor Donnola that you told us about.”
“But where is Signor Boccarone?”
“In a hospital near Rome. He was wounded in the gunfight when we went in to capture the thieves. A real hero, Signor Boccarone. He let us use him to set a trap.”
Marco’s elation crashed.
“Not Signor Boccarone! Is he going to die?”
“No, Marco. He’ll be all right.” The policeman crouched and rested a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “It’s just a small wound. He feels fine, but the doctors want to watch him overnight. I’ll drive up myself for him tomorrow.” Marco threw his arms around Sergeant Acunzo’s neck
“I thought he stole my picture. Now I want to apologize.”
“I think he understands,” said his mother.
Marco was waiting outside the art store the next day when the dark blue carabiniere cruiser arrived. Boccarone stepped out, sporting a sling on his left arm. He looked fresh and rested in spite of the ride from Rome.
“Hello, Marco. Did you see your print?” Marco ran up and hugged him. Boccarone’s eyes glistened as he unlocked the store. He motioned Marco in.
“You really like that print, don’t you?”
Marco nodded vigorously.
“Me too.” He reached for a large flat file on an upper shelf. He laid it on the counter and pulled out an engraving of the Coliseum in Rome. It fit easily onto a small easel on the counter. “Do you like this one?”
“Beautiful.” Marco admired the bold contrasts and shadings. “I like it.”
“See this inscription in the corner?” He handed the print to the boy. “It was engraved by Piranesi, the same artist who did yours. He was famous for Roman scenes like this one.” Marco held the print up to the light.
“Hey! I see the wires in the paper, like mine.”
“Very good, Marco. The paper was all hand made for this work. See the partial watermark, and where the wires are tied? Those clues tell us when the paper was made.” Marco handed it back carefully.
“When did they print this one?”
“Between 1762 and 1778, the year Piranesi died. I have lots of posthumous editions and prints from reworked plates, but this is my only lifetime impression. Until yours, this was the most valuable Piranesi I had ever held.”
“How much is it worth?”
“It’s priceless now. I paid four million lire for it many years ago.”
“I know, Marco. I was trying to cheat you with that offer. I’m glad that you didn’t want to sell. Now I hope you can forgive me.”
He looked away from the boy and stared at his little print. Marco could taste the man’s shame in the silence.
“I would sell it to you, sir.”
Boccarone smiled and coughed, choking slightly.
“I can’t afford to buy your print, Marco, and I won’t let you take less than it’s worth. But last night I had an idea.
“I’d like to remodel this old store and turn it into a proper gallery. Let me rent your print as the centerpiece of the opening exhibition. I would pay for the insurance too.”
“Rent? You mean it would still be mine?”
“Yes. We could show it off properly, for all the people to enjoy. I want to pay you rent because your print will attract customers.
“This is a business proposal. You should talk it over with your mother.”
Marco studied the man’s face for just a moment.
“I don’t need to, sir.” He put out his hand. The art dealer shook it firmly.
“Well, she’ll have to sign some papers anyway, so unless I’ve overlooked something, Marco DeVitis, it’s a deal.”
He grinned at his new partner. The way his mouth pulled up more to the right than the left reminded Marco of his father.
The boy grinned back. For the first time in two years, it felt good to remember Papà.
© 1985, 2021, JT Hine