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"Dazzlingly moving, and written in knife-sharp prose, THE EXCEPTIONS shows us how faith can be a weapon against fate, identity can be fluid, and love can be a choice that might save us. THE EXCEPTIONS isn't just exceptional; it's a knockout."
—Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You
"Starts with a bang...a nice twist on the standard Mob thriller."
"Unique premise, empathetic characters, believable villains, all beautifully played out as a tale of the limits of love and loyalty."—Kirkus Reviews
THE GIRL SHE USED TO BE:
"What a riveting and remarkable first novel! The story grabbed me on page one. As the events spin forward, with crackling dialogue and earned surprises, you can't help but root for this most unusual, and lovable narrator—whatever her secret name or home may be at the moment. I didn't want the book to end; I didn't want to leave the wild, wooly wonderfully frightening world that David Cristofano has created. With a poignant and literary flair, this novel fixed my jones for "The Sopranos." "
—Lolly Winston, New York Times bestselling author of Good Grief and Happiness Sold Separately
—New York Times Book Review
"Intense...the emotions of a woman caught in Melody's unlikely scenario ring deliciously, scarily true."
"Intense, romantic debut...Cristofano's mad love scenario sizzles like garlic in hot olive oil."
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"This is a compulsively readable, skillfully constructed first novel with well-drawn characters and a plot that twists and turns to what seems the best possible conclusion, marking Cristofano as a writer to watch!"
When violence arrives, it rarely knocks. It seldom taps you on the shoulder, suggests you get ready. It creates change with the most capable tools in the toolbox: confusion, humiliation, destruction. And its survivors are lucky to have coughed out a raspy I never saw it coming.
I learned this in my earliest days, like all great family traditions. Some mothers hand down a culinary talent, some fathers pass a skill to a son or daughter, the familial reverence for the Holy Bible or a football team. But I grew up in a Sicilian household steeped in the practice of influence over the lives of others. We are the Bovaros, one of the oldest and most respected families in organized crime, and the tradition passed down to me with faith and accuracy was violence. I first witnessed it at age eight, first delivered it at age twelve. In our world, violence is the fulcrum. It keeps everything in—or out—of balance.
Perhaps no one has learned that lesson as well as James Fratello—known in our family as Jimmy “the Rat.” What Jimmy’s specific crimes against our family were I was never completely sure, though his coming and going—really, the going—kick-started events that altered the trajectory of my life. Jimmy was known as the Rat long before it turned out he really was one, named so for the stringy remains of oily hair that clung to the back of his meaty head. Whatever images of mafiosos your mind conjures from the movies, Jimmy would have been summed up like this: He wasn’t the strong one, the smart one, or the one with the good lines; he was nobody’s favorite; he was expendable, the one who might take a bullet and you wouldn’t waste the energy to shrug.
I was ten years old when my father gave the Rat what became a fabled slicing. Glad to say I never saw the result of my father’s brutality that day. I was hanging around, bored out of my mind—a difficult age to be Mafia-bred; too old to be innocent, too young to understand what’s really happening around you. I eventually strolled downstairs to see if I could catch a glimpse of what it was my dad did for a living, which at the time I misunderstood to be the manager of various restaurants. I stayed out of sight, watching the two of them chat in the kitchen long enough to realize nothing interesting was going on anywhere around them, around me. My father and Jimmy talked quietly, shared a few jokes. I yawned as I quietly made my way outside to the sidewalk.
All I can say is this: Jimmy never saw it coming.
Had I been inside or still within viewing distance of that kitchen, my life would have been cemented; the only way I could’ve survived the horror of witnessing premeditated murder by my father’s hand would’ve been to herald it, embrace it as my own, to become a player in the same league. Instead I was outside kicking stones into the sewer, watching some yokel from Jersey parallel park his Oldsmobile, back and forth and back and forth. Here I was ten years old and I knew enough to want to yell, “You gotta turn the wheel! Turn your freakin’ wheel!”
The guy spent close to three minutes inching his Cutlass closer to the curb, finished a good foot and a half shy of avoiding a citation. Then the suburban family slowly emerged. First the tall blond mother who would’ve had my adolescent brothers cracking crude jokes, then the father wearing an unseasonable wool raincoat and Yankees cap. But you can erase all of these images from your mind; that’s what I did as soon as I saw the little girl who wiggled out from the passenger side of the car. She was a few years younger than me, but I would never forget her. It was the first time a girl caught my attention, and she did so by staring up at the buildings with genuine admiration, inhaled the dirty air like a freshly lit cigar. A little Mary Tyler Moore, she was. A cascade of blond curls danced around her neck as she spun in circles on the sidewalk, her arms flailing about. She wore a short dress popular with the teenage girls in our neighborhood at the time and shoes that were black and shiny.
I still cannot understand what captivated me; she was just a little girl and I a little boy. But I became aware of myself—fearful that she might sense my noticing her—so I slid between a pair of Chevys on Mulberry Street and hunched down, continued spying on her from a safe distance.
Her old man stretched as though he’d driven straight through from Boston or Philly, threw his arm around his wife and planted one on her. The little girl seemed to adore this, giggled as though it embarrassed her but stared like it was her favorite scene in a film. They all chatted briefly about the restaurant—my father’s—then attempted to open the door.
It was 7:12 a.m. on Sunday morning. The restaurant was closed; Mass was coming soon.
Here is the first truly regrettable moment of my life: I stood back up and made steps their way in an effort to tell them the place was closed—but as I caught another glimpse of the girl, my feet faltered. Had I completed this mission, spoken a half dozen words, the story would have ended here, complete with a built-in happy ending.
Instead it went like this:
I slid back between the cars, rested myself on the hood of a Camaro, and watched them tug on that door with enough determination to loosen the hinges. Then came the conversation that suggested they might find somewhere else to go—a tough bill to fill on a Sunday morning in New York’s Little Italy. Instead, the father slipped down the narrow alley adjacent to the eatery and headed toward the kitchen, waving them his way; mom and daughter followed.
That’s the last I saw of them for about forty-five seconds.
I sat staring at the rear of their Oldsmobile, wondering what brought these folks in from Jersey, pretending to convert their license plate into a vanity tag. My brothers and I would fancy that the rich and famous were riding covertly through lower Manhattan disguised and hidden in average cars, slipping out of hotels and restaurants with no one being the wiser. It became a regular competition between us.
John Cougar Mellencamp, 783 concerts performed.
Sugar Ray Leonard, 25 wins by KO.
Eddie Van Halen, 1,037 fully consumed bottles of Jack Daniel’s.
I focused on that Olds with all my might but the combination of letters and numbers left me struggling: FNP-18X. Plates from New Jersey routinely stumped us, as the state had just started replacing the last digit with a letter on all their tags. I sat on the verge of progress—Florence Nightingale? Fig Newton?—when the screams startled me back to awareness. Down the alley came the three of them, the mother hobbling in front of the father, the little girl tossed over his shoulder like a sack of flour, the females screaming, the man a shade whiter than when he ventured down that alley, cap now missing. I remember thinking that people squeamish at the sight of rats shouldn’t go down alleys in New York.
If the mother had been trying to loosen the hinges on that restaurant door, she was now attempting to completely rip off the door of the Olds with her bare hands. Dear old dad tossed the girl in the backseat like old luggage, then fumbled with his ring of keys to find the one that fit the ignition, all while staring down that alley of trash and shadows. He slammed the door, started the car, gunned the accelerator. And I guess the guy had it in him; it may have taken him forty-seven back- and-forths to parallel park his bomb, but it took him one to get out. Then the squeal of the wheels, the fishtailing, the coughing exhaust, the fade.
That must have been one gigantic rodent.
A minute or so later, my uncle Sal came strolling out. The guy was all salt and pepper: his hair, his freckled skin, his personality. Sal lit up a Camel, casually drifted my way, and blasted me one in the shoulder, messed up my hair. He blew a cloud of smoke in my general direction. “You stay out of the restaurant, kid, eh?”
I stared at him, but he understood I was saying sure. “Rat in the kitchen again?”
He took a drag long enough that he burned through a half inch of cigarette, two minutes’ worth of nicotine. He looked up and down the street looking for something, for the absence of something, exhaled slowly in both directions. Then, walking away from me, toward the restaurant, he muttered, “Yeah, big fat friggin’ rat.”
I walked down the block to the corner store and got a Pepsi out of a near-historic vending machine resting alone on the sidewalk. This was my neighborhood, my town. Manhattan and Brooklyn combined into one beautiful myriad of possibilities. So many of the establishments my father and our family ran were in Little Italy, but home was a three-mile trek across the Brooklyn Bridge. The borders of my life existed on this side of the world, bounded by the Hudson, the East, the BQE. Everything was here: our home, our church, our livelihood. My entire family lived within these lines, every cousin, aunt, and uncle, each as thick and rich as their Italian accents. There was no reason to leave, and it never really occurred to us to try. The fact that people came in—from Jersey, Connecticut, upstate—made perfect sense. This was not merely the center of our world; it was the center of everything. New York remains the center still. I sipped that soda as I surveyed all that was around me. It was not unusual to get a nod from owners sweeping sidewalks or a Hey, Johnny from the folks we treated with respect. Everyone knew who I was—John Bovaro—and they always gave me space. I took my time; I had no motivation to hurry.
But when I finally returned to Vincent’s, things had changed, though not as dramatically as you might imagine. Out front: three cops, one patrol car, two bystanders who wished they knew more. One of the cops I’d seen before, a kid whose folks were from Palermo and had commanded him to become a cop and ditch the life of a hoodlum. He rewarded them with partial obedience: a cop whose allegiance was to the Bovaro clan. The other two officers looked annoyed and eager, respectively. I approached slowly and Allegiant gave me a sly nod. I rolled a kink out of my shoulder. Who knows why the shakedown was occurring. It happened with regularity and never amounted to anything.
As for the bystanders, these were the Kerrigans. A husband- and-wife team, both Irish, determined to take down not only the Bovaros, but sixteen other major crime families in New York, including but not limited to the Italians, the Greeks, the Russians, and the Irish, with whom they had some not so distant relatives. When anything went down in our neighborhood, the cops were provided one common response when they started banging on doors looking for information: I didn’t see a thing; I didn’t hear a thing; I don’t know nothin’. No one ever wanted to get involved. Unless the cops tagged the Kerrigans. They had an answer for every friggin’ question that was ever asked, except their success rate was around 15 percent. The cops always took a statement, though they knew it would pan out to more paperwork than product.
This morning, however, was quite different. Why? Because I arrived at the wrong time. I knew nothing about what had happened in the kitchen at Vincent’s—in fact, it would be days before I found out the truth and only because I read vivid headlines in the Times. So what could I possibly offer the cops? What value could a little kid standing on a city sidewalk offer regarding a crime that happened a building away?
Eager caught Allegiant’s glance and slowly headed my way. Annoyed rolled his eyes.
It was clear to everyone—except Eager—that whatever was going on was merely a matter of procedure. In today’s standards, it would be one drug dealer killing another, a matter of filling out the right forms back at the precinct, giving the coroner a heads-up, placing a check mark in the right box on the marker board outside the captain’s office. But Eager didn’t care, he came over and asked me questions anyway, a kid he had just watched walk down the street from a decided distance.
“And what did you see?” Eager asked.
I stared at him, understanding the inherent hatred my family had for cops. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Didn’t hear anything? Didn’t see anyone rush out of Vincent’s? Nothing strange or unusual?”
Were I twelve or thirteen at the time, I would have shut down like a prison at lights-out. But I was ten. And the girl. And the panicked parents. And the screams. And the girl. And the gunning of the engine. And the frantic escape down Mulberry. And the dust cloud.
And the little girl.
I gave him a shrug/swallow combo. “Saw a family run down the alley a while back.” I tugged at my shirt a little bit. “They okay?”
Eager took a step closer. “How’s that?”
“I saw a man and woman and little girl come running down that alley.”
“About an hour ago.”
Allegiant started making his way toward the discussion. Now he and Annoyed looked like fraternal twins.
Eager threw up his hand as if to stop the two of them from getting an inch closer, and stop they did. He knelt before me, which made me the taller one.
With a throaty whisper, he said, “Now, this is important. What can you tell me about them?”
“Are they okay?”
“What did they look like?”
“I don’t know. Plain. The girl was pretty, had blond curls, danced on the sidewalk.”
“What did the man look like?”
“Plain,” I said. “Did anything happen to them?”
“I need you to tell me everything you know about them.” He hesitated, then, “I need to make sure they’re safe and sound.”
That bastard. He used my obvious anxiety for the family, for the little girl, against me, manipulated the innocence of a kid to garner a pat on the back. I haven’t felt the same about cops since.
I let out a nervous sigh and started rubbing my temples. “Um, they were from New Jersey.”
He inched closer, his shoes making a scraping sound against the cement. “How do you know this?”
“Their license tags.”
Annoyed took a step in our direction, but Eager still had his hand up. As for Allegiant, he couldn’t have gotten back into Vincent’s faster if someone had loaded him into a shotgun and fired, though by his swagger he made it appear like his purpose was procedural.
Eager swallowed like he’d been salivating. “Do you remember the license plates?”
Fig Newton. Florence Nightingale.
“FN… uh, FN something. Started with FN. Had an eight in it.”
Eager started scribbling on a notepad.
From the corner of my eye I could see a herd of Sicilians running in my direction. At that moment, the vertigo kicked in.
From a distance I heard, “Questioning a minor without his parents’ presence or permission?”
It turns out that means nothing, but it disabled me. A wall of olive skin was coming to rescue me—from causing irreparable damage.
Eager leaned in and asked quickly, like I might take a bullet and he had one last shot to get the goods, “What kind of car was it?”
The Italians were closing in.
The little girl was fading out.
The words dribbled from my voice as though they were my last. “Olds. Silver. Cutlass Sierra.”
What occurred next is much like what a defensive tackle must feel like when he recovers a fumbled ball: bodies coming from every direction, along with a clear understanding that the best you can do is fall on the ball and take the turnover; leave the touchdown for the offense. The only difference here is that Eager did not get leveled, but merely surrounded.
The discussion was over.
The men shepherded me back into Vincent’s, never sent a harsh word my way. They spoke to one another in Italian about how I was the one that was wronged in this ordeal. Their deference and protection of me were pure, things I never doubted—though for the first time I failed to comprehend the justification. My father came to me and put his hand behind my neck, turned his mouth into a consoling half-smile as though I’d failed a test for which I’d spent my life preparing. “Let’s get you something to eat, Johnny,” he said, then kissed me on the head. I curled into his safe hands like a sleepy baby.
The cops took pictures, swabbed drying puddles and stains, did a lot of head-scratching. People gossiped in the streets, in the stores, on the front steps of brownstones.
I didn’t see a thing.
I didn’t hear a thing.
I don’t know nothin’.
At 10:35 a.m. on that same Sunday, Eager performed a query on New Jersey’s Department of Transportation vehicle registration database.
Number of Oldsmobiles registered in the state of NJ:
Number of Oldsmobiles registered in the state of NJ, model: Cutlass Sierra:
Number of Oldsmobiles registered in the state of NJ, model: Cutlass Sierra, color: silver: 177
Number of Oldsmobiles registered in the state of NJ, model: Cutlass Sierra, color: silver, registered tags possessing characters F, N, 8:
At 11:08 a.m., Allegiant performed the exact same query.
What followed was little more than a simple race: two sets of men attempting to acquire the same bounty.
At eight minutes past noon, a large black vehicle with tinted windows pulled into the driveway of a modest Cape Cod in Montclair Township, New Jersey. The vehicle was not a police car. Out stepped three large men, firearms safely tucked beneath their clothes, determination in their strides.
The house held the McCartney family: Arthur, a chemist; Lydia, a stay-at-home mother; and a little blond kindergartner by the name of Melody Grace. It would be fair to say the McCartneys never really knew what hit them. Once these men were allowed into their house, they would not be leaving until they got exactly what they wanted. These men understood the power of fear, were masters at the art of manipulation.
Fifteen minutes later, a black Lincoln, brimming with Bovaros and made men—the capodecinas, or capos as they were called—slowed as it pulled in front of the same house in Montclair. A light mist rose from the hood of the car already parked in the driveway, a small puddle of moisture below the tailpipe. They were too late—mere minutes. They had no other option but to drive away.
By three o’clock, another vehicle was summoned to the Cape Cod, a dark Suburban with bulletproof windows. It remained in the street while two men guarded it from the outside. Thirty minutes later, Arthur and Lydia walked the forty paces from the front door of their home, adorned in bulletproof vests, flanked by two men commanded to preserve their lives. Behind them was little Melody Grace, crying as she was carried by the third man, weighed down by a Kevlar wrap draped over her tiny body, watching her home fade with every step.
The McCartneys never returned to Montclair.
To New Jersey.
To the Northeast.
There were two reasons to kill the McCartneys: to keep them from testifying or to punish them for having testified. Either way, bleak.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department started working its sloppy sleight of hand, a magician with only one trick in its repertoire: the disappearing act.
Federal Witness Protection.
This suburban family had witnessed less than fifteen seconds of criminal activity, and once the Department of Justice was done getting theirs, the McCartneys would be thrown out in the wild to fend for themselves, protected by the illusion of contrived existences. Five years earlier, Louie Salvone had tried giving my dad up in a plea bargain, gave the feds four crates of documentation, and they still couldn’t nail Pop for a single thing.
Things didn’t turn out very well for Louie. All I can say is this: shiv.
In Salvone’s case, he had it coming. He could have done his six months and come out a stronger man in the organization as a result. But by that time Louie’s desire to party had matured into a pretty serious coke habit, and the combined thought of going a half year without a fix—not to mention the nightmare of going through withdrawal in prison—had him looking for the fastest way out.
The McCartneys, on the other hand, were guilty of nothing more than wanting a plate of eggs, some orange juice, and a pair of cappuccinos. You can’t even say it was an error in judgment; they were simply customers, and frankly the kind any restaurateur would want in his establishment. Going down the alley might have been a bit much, but what father wouldn’t go knock on a few doors for his child?
A little over a year later, I started to hear more and more about taking care of the McCartneys. On our retainer were not one but two of New York’s most powerful law firms. The bigger of the two, the firm with the most connections and people on the take, crafted a gorgeous defense for my father. The Justice Department wasn’t foolish; they had the McCartneys deposed to what they’d witnessed mere minutes after they were thrown into Witness Protection, produced enough videotape to single-handedly turn a profit for TDK. But Pop’s legal team somehow managed to get anything this innocent family said in the videos thrown out on some technicality I never fully understood, which had little impact on how airtight the government’s case was; the witnesses would simply be able to retell it live in court—and Pop’s legal team knew it. What it gave the Bovaros, you see, was time.
Time to eliminate the witnesses.
I was getting older, had just turned twelve, and as my usefulness surged, so did the significance of conversations I might be privy to, or at a minimum overhear. Couple that with my oldest brother, Peter, basking in the glory of knowing and hearing more than the rest of us and desperate to prove it, and the image of the future started taking shape, its brightness and vibrancy hinging on finding the McCartneys. Without them, the Justice Department would have to return to Louie Salvone’s ineffective documentation of how the Bovaros ran numbers back before I was born, a business line our family all but exited once most states in the Union had sanctioned lotteries. I grew a lot during that period—physically, of course, I started to resemble the rugged structure of my older brothers, Peter and Gino, eighteen and fourteen, respectively—but psychologically, too. Prior to then, I thought my dad was in the restaurant business, and he was, sort of. He owned many—as a means to launder money and shuffle stolen goods out the back. But I soon came to realize that we were special. Mafia special. The terms my father’s family and associates started using in my presence began sounding more significant. Guys were getting whacked, deadbeats were getting roughed up, troublemakers were having their balls handed to them and occasionally shoved down their throats. In my younger days, where my uncle Sal told me to stay out of Vin’s kitchen to forestall the horror of my father’s brutality, now he’d ask me to grab a mop and do my share.
I was, however, only twelve, demonstrated by my assumption that the only targets were the senior McCartneys. But once I heard my father speak of the plan to eliminate all three of them at once, I experienced the very first instance of disrespect for the way my family conducted its business. Why would anyone want to off a child? A child that was probably still learning how to read? Wouldn’t it be easy enough to confuse or scare the kid on the stand?
But here’s the term I heard over and over in our house like a frigging mantra: no loose ends.
I mentally ran through the roster of men in my father’s organization, trying to find the sociopath who might be able to level the barrel at a little girl and pull the trigger. Only one contender came to mind: Paulie Marcone, a nut job who found heartfelt enjoyment in assaulting and killing for any loosely justifiable reason. The problem with Paulie was how odd things would haunt him and cause him to break down. The guy could eat steak pizzaiola every day of the week but couldn’t fathom eating a hunk of veal. He couldn’t bear to see a suffering animal or a crying kid or an old lady struggling to get her groceries to the top floor of her brownstone. Beat him backing into a parking spot on Court Street, though, and you’ll drive home one-handed. This strange, largely unseen sensitive side made him useless in conducting the last hit.
Ultimately, no one materialized—because no one had to; the feds managed to keep the McCartneys well hidden. We had a few people in Justice, mostly lower-level clerks working off gambling debts, who’d occasionally cough up nothing more than advanced notice on what judge we might draw for a particular case or how many boxes of evidence were sitting in a warehouse in Jersey. But getting information on the Federal Witness Protection Program is precisely as difficult as you might imagine. For starters, the program is run out of the U.S. Marshals Service, and the entry points to that system are fragmented; having contacts at Justice wasn’t enough. At the time, we didn’t have direct insiders with the FBI, either—but if we had, they’d have been useless, too. We needed a source at the Marshals Service simply to figure out where to begin.
The entire thing seemed to go away for about a month—for me; tension in our family mounted as the McCartneys disappeared into an oblivion of safety. It should be noted that the one thing the Bovaros have done well since the moment our elders stepped off the boat is the one thing that saved my father from a life in prison. Those things we deal in on a daily basis—money laundering, carting, fixing, bookmaking, loan sharking—are the incidental things that occur as a result of the one integral component. The district attorneys call it fear; we call it influence. Possessing power over others is the most instinctive human concept; you either want it or are willing to succumb to it.
That said, my father’s influence cut a wide swath across this great land, a terribly unfortunate truth for the McCartneys. While the feds did an impressive job of keeping them hidden, they could do little to stop those who served my father. A mere five weeks into their relocation, the little McCartney girl accidentally outed her entire family to her first grade class by using her birth name. Within hours the little Arkansas town was abuzz with what had happened, which eventually spilled its way to a bar where a drunken loser looking to make good on an extended debt in our organization hoped he might turn the information into a clean slate. The feds hurried the McCartneys along, but not before the information got back to New York, not before Arthur, Lydia, and Melody were being followed by men in our crew.
My life began a transformation in that moment. The little girl was to be hunted, killed, buried, her existence whittled down to a memory for her extended family that would grow fainter by the year. The flame of innocence that had been flickering for years in my family would soon be extinguished and redemption would be impossible—and most troubling, I seemed to be the only one who cared. Granted, most guys who took a beating (or worse) from a Bovaro had earned it, and even as a kid I learned to be okay with that. But knowing that this poor little girl would be running her whole life because of me became more than I could bear.
For the next eighteen months, through the countless motions to delay the trial, both the Bovaros and the McCartneys lived out a series of near misses. My uncles were on the trail of the McCartneys repeatedly, with a few opportunities for elimination that ended in empty-handed returns. Other times, the McCartneys inexplicably slipped right out from under us, as though we were right behind them—when we weren’t.
Every trip, every time someone was sent to rub them out, I went sleepless. I lost weight. When I didn’t actually become ill, I feigned it and resigned myself to my bedroom. I spent some time throwing up and more time fighting back tears and a burgeoning anger. Shamefully, the elder McCartneys weren’t my concern, rarely crossed my mind; the little girl would come into my room and haunt me like the ghost she had yet to become.
I’d overhear the conversations and loose planning of how and who would terminate the family. They would run through a generic itinerary like a grocery list. The mother. The father. The plans to evade the feds. And the girl. One conversation in particular stuck with me, a discussion between my father and an associate whose voice I couldn’t quite place.
Then they started speaking in Italian, which usually meant they wanted to talk confidentially. The only people in my family who could really get a full grasp of a conversation spoken in full Italian, complete with Sicilian dialect, would be the grown-ups. By then, though, I was well on my way to acquiring broken Italian—learned mostly through discussions like these—that I carry with me to this day, and I was able to understand enough of the language to translate the following exchange while they ate at the small table in our kitchen:
“This is our last shot, amico,” my father said softly. Amico means friend, and everyone was amico—could have been a son, an associate, or someone about to serve him a gelato or take a bullet.
“We know how to find them, Tony. We’re going to take care of it, eh?” said Amico.
“Need to be.” Or something like that.
“You know what this means for our family. For me.”
“I know, ’Tone.”
Then some gibberish about the puttanesca.
“We can’t take them out on the courthouse steps.” I’m not even sure which one of them said this. The point was they seemed more determined than ever. The point was they seemed more desperate than ever. The point was… the McCartneys did not stand a chance.
They were the Smiths this time, and it turned out Melody’s name was Karen. I know that all the Karens who’ve dwelled on this planet were at one time little girls, but the name sounded so mature to me. Karen Smith sounded like a lady running for elected office or the owner of a local business. I overheard the aliases of her parents, too, but I’ve long forgotten them; they were, after all, the second set in a lengthy series. And the fact that they received this series of identities exposes a truth: The Smiths survived. Long after the fact, I was informed that no one had a clear shot. I wondered if maybe even the most villainous guy on the job looked down at little Melody and knew there was no way to end her life, that some glow of purity and promise shielded her and weakened those men of madness and steel, that maybe she crystallized everything that was wrong in the way we led our lives.
But probably… they just couldn’t get the shot.
Then the trial came. Arthur and Lydia testified. And it didn’t matter. Six days after jury selection, an unplanned gathering materialized in our house where celebrating occurred as though we had just won the case. Wine flowed. My mother and her sister produced enough food for an Italian wedding. The house smelled of garlic and basil and braised meats and browning cheeses. Lawyers of all ethnicities and faiths filled our living room, embraced and rejoiced. The trigger of this merriment: An astounding precedent dating back to 1903 on how one is led to the acquisition of evidence, expected to be thrown out of court—laughed out, actually—caught a judge with an open mind. Arguments were well delivered from the prosecution, but remember we had the best defense money could buy (or whatever); these were not stupid men and women defending my father. I remember watching the banter, the outrage by the prosecutors, the quiet confidence of my father’s legal team, the verbal sparring between them and the judge narrowing their responses. From my uneducated perspective both sides sounded well thought out and convincing. The judge let the attorneys battle until all of a sudden, on the final swipe from my father’s attorney the prosecutor came up dry. He’d run out, cornered. And then the ultimate admission of defeat: He looked at the judge, flipped out his hands, and said, “Your Honor, please.” The way he appeared to be whining and begging at the same time was a sure sign there would be a veritable carnival in the Bovaro household.
Let’s say you coach the New York Giants. You’ve had five losing seasons and you’ve got millions of New Yorkers and New Jerseyans breathing down your neck for not just a playoff bid, but a Super Bowl title. You just nailed a powerhouse of a running back from the University of Florida for three years at twenty million. This kid is going to take you all the way. The only problem is the kid breaks his leg during the season opener and will be lucky to walk after a year of therapy. All you can do is let him sit on the bench and pay out his contract. Everyone feels bad for the kid. Everyone smiles at the kid and gives the kid pats on the back every now and again. You think the kid is a great guy, but now you’re heading into your sixth losing season and the truth is you just wish the kid would sort of go away. Because let’s be honest… what you really need is another powerhouse running back.
I can’t imagine how the conversation must have gone with the McCartneys, their having been hurried into the courtroom under the heaviest of protection, testifying under a layer of Kevlar, then rushed back out of the courtroom to a secluded safe house. The brief feeling of relief and accomplishment they must have had. And the complete sense of loss and despair as they were told the last few years were for nothing.
And now, starting right now, run.
Crime is like a cult. If introduced early and with determined rhythm, it morphs into a way of life with rules one accepts and lives by without question; it becomes the only way to conduct one’s existence. That Sunday at Vincent’s served as my first inkling that the Bovaro lifestyle was not right, and that I had to escape a cult I happened to love because the damage was far too great, not just for me or my family but for the business owners we protected and the people we employed. But violence is a difficult drug to surrender. When used appropriately, it captures the essence of everything, cuts to the core of any dispute, finds and delivers truth. There is a tangible beauty in violence. People are typically not willing to embrace it, but sometimes you must appreciate violence for what it is. Reduce it to its simplest form and see. It starts with rescuing a fair maiden by killing a spider; she gets such peace and satisfaction in its death. Graduate to the bully who gets the tables turned, his life altered to where he might never again hold his head high. Show me a pedophile and I’ll show you a hundred people who’d pay a week’s wages to see him fall prey to crimes exponentially more vicious as his own. Every movie with a villain—how unsatisfied we are unless the comeuppance is delivered. God Himself displayed the most impressive and stunning displays of violence and vengeance on record; consult the Old Testament. But in order for violence to work, it requires one component: passion. You need to be behind it or your ambivalence will lead to inaction. You have to want it.
This concept came shining in Technicolor shortly before I turned twenty-one, when I was handed my first assignment. I was no stranger to trouble, though I labored to avoid it more than my siblings, particularly Peter, who seemed to seek it out and languished in its absence. But I was now an older Bovaro, and my place in the organization required a greater contribution. The McCartneys had not dropped off the radar, but they weren’t nearly the biggest blip on the screen; Arthur and Lydia had become useless to the Justice Department, nothing more than a taxpayer expense. Where a few years ago every single person in our organization was aching to be the one to gun them down and care was taken to devise the most cunning plan, now the McCartneys were simply running from themselves, from their own resident fear that we were on their trail every step of the way.
But remember the mantra: no loose ends.
The McCartneys became a topic of conversation in our house the way most folks discuss cleaning out the gutters or getting an annual exam, an unavoidable task that can be repeatedly delayed. My father was no longer troubled by their potential testimony once his attorneys verified that everything the McCartneys witnessed could never again be allowed into a courtroom; the concern now was showing the world (mostly our peers and those under our influence) what happens when you cross a Bovaro.
The first time I truly appreciated my oldest brother, Peter: One winter afternoon he and I were shooting baskets against a rusty backboard and netless rim in what was arguably a rougher section of our neighborhood near Cobble Hill in Brooklyn, before the renaissance got a foothold. We were halfway through a game of one-on-one when three kids started moving down the sidewalk in our direction. I knew there would be trouble for no other reason than all three were looking right at us. They were sizing us up. By the time these kids made their way around the chain-link fence and onto our lonely court, words were exchanged between the leader of my two-person gang (Peter) and the leader of what appeared to be three big Russian kids. I don’t remember the interchange, though it certainly would have been inane. Of the five of us, I was the smallest, and while looking at my brother and listening to him berate the leader of the other gang for being, essentially, not like us, a fist connected with my eye, knocked me to the ground, then out. A few seconds later, my head limp on the cold sidewalk, I opened my good eye and watched through a haze as Peter wiped out the entire group. Two were already on the ground, crawling in opposite directions, though clearly their collective destinations were away. Peter seemed to be taking his time kicking number three, the mouthy leader, while the kid begged him to stop. As the sirens approached, Peter gently scooped me up and we dashed down a nearby alley, our worn Spalding resting at the feet of the big Russian.
The first time I truly despised my oldest brother, Peter: a few days before my twenty-first birthday. On a journey to Yankee Stadium in our blackened-out Suburban, my father, my siblings—Peter, Gino, and younger brother Jimmy, the kid fated to have been named after a guy whose blood can still be spotted in the grout between the tiles of Vincent’s kitchen floor—and I chatted about what I should be getting for my upcoming birthday.
Gino, my older brother by two years and possessing the most practical personality in the family, offered up the tried and true. “How ’bout a convertible—or better yet, you always liked mine. Take it and I’ll get a new one. Got my eye—”
“Nah,” Jimmy interrupted, “what Johnny wants is Connie Cappelletti.”
“Pass,” I said. “I don’t consider syphilis much of a present.”
“Jimmy just wanted you to have a gift that’ll keep on giving,” Gino said.
“Isn’t Connie, like, thirteen?”
“Seventeen,” Jimmy said, “going on twenty-five.”
“The only thing Connie’s going on is penicillin.”
Gino threaded his fingers together, cracked four knuckles at once. “This world needs guys like you, Jimmy, otherwise skanks like Connie Cappelletti would live lonely lives.”
My father drove with a half-smile on his face, which to the unknowing eye might appear as fleeting contentment; I recognized it as a look of concentrated thought. Peter, riding shotgun, just stared out his window. Not a word.
So there you have it, the offerings of my family as directed by their individual long-term interests in keeping the Bovaro dynasty in a flourishing state: Gino thrived in the materialism and Jimmy in the increased availability of female attention and companionship. My father offered his standard fare of aloofness and disinterest; unless reputation could be incorporated into the picture, his mind was elsewhere. Peter’s silence was more confusing, though. His particular interest would have only rested in one place: power. And sure enough, it was on his mind; he was perfecting the spin.
As we sat at a red light, the gentle vibration of the engine the only sign of life, my father continued his unfocused gaze out the window.
Then, with his eyes still out and away, Peter said quietly, “Pistola.”
Pop finally snapped out of it. “Eh, Pete?”
Still speaking to the window, he said, “Pistola for my little brother.”
The entire cab of the Suburban went quiet, and here’s why: There could be absolutely nothing significant about giving me a gun as a birthday present. We had them tucked away in our house the way most people store ballpoint pens. If you opened a drawer to get a pack of matches, you’d probably have to move a .22 out of the way to get to it. Our world is one where guns are, far and wide, disposable. After a hit they’re usually left at the scene, clean of fingerprints and serial numbers—anything that might trace them to a buyer or shooter—because it’s the safest place for them to be. Once a gun’s been used to take someone down, the last place it should be is on you. “Maybe,” he said, “we give Johnny his manhood this year.” He glanced at Pop like he might get a congratulatory chuckle out of him, but Pop merely focused on getting us to 161st Street.
Peter had helped me to become a man in many significant ways: my first cigarette, to which I developed a fervent addiction; my first taste of hard liquor at age eleven; the way to take someone out at the knees; a comprehensive inventory of profanity that may have sounded weirdly amusing coming from a seven-year-old boy but stinks like sulfur from an adult; countless ways to use girls and misuse masculinity.
And now, the crown jewel: Peter intended on introducing me to the value of killing.
Gino turned to me, broke the silence. “Wouldn’t you rather have a Mustang?”
I stared at the headrest that blocked the back of Peter’s head. “Your point, Pete?”
He turned in his seat and offered his answer to my father. “Johnny’s old enough now to clean up his own messes, yeah?” Then to me, “Our family’s been embarrassed long enough.”
These were the first years where Peter made it clear that he viewed himself as the coming replacement for my father, the heir to the empire, the chosen one to lead the Bovaro organization into a new generation. The decision to take a life—anyone’s life—was never made lightly in our house. It served some specific purpose: righting a wrong, teaching a lesson, balancing the scales. Like farm kids who learn to butcher pigs as a regular responsibility, so were the bloody duties of our home; the gore is never questioned.
But the embarrassment comment was pointed to the McCartneys, crafted specifically for me, for there was one final item in the list of things Peter taught me in the pursuit of becoming a real man: the power of humiliation.
So where did my interests rest within the Bovaro power structure? Perhaps the answer shines brightest in what I really did want for my twenty-first: my mother’s food, my family’s congregation, and a time of celebration—didn’t even have to be about me. I wanted everyone to be there. The cousins and aunts and uncles, the associates, the nut jobs. Guys like Tommy Fingers and Paulie Marcone who could rip out your liver and fry it up with peppers and onions, but they understood the value of family. When I was eight, Paulie spent four straight hours one summer night teaching me how to play poker, how to gauge the table, how to bluff. No matter how many times I got it wrong, the guy never lost his cool, would just smile and slap my back and say, “Let’s try it again, Johnny.” It might be best explained as a matter of culture, but to exist around these men and women is a warm thing. Tommy Fingers, a near-illiterate man of girth and fury, used to spend most mornings making breakfast for whoever would break bread with him, a culinary artist of notable capability in any other setting. All you’d have to do is casually say to yourself, “Man, I’m hungry,” and the next thing you know Tommy is sliding a steaming bowl of pasta fagioli in front of you—unless he’s out muscling some guy into submission. (Tommy got his nickname from his calling card, what we routinely called a souvenir, something to act as a permanent reminder of our power and the related event; Tommy’s was the snapping of the middle finger of whoever he assailed.) I wanted Tommy to celebrate with me, put his thick arm around me and talk food. I wanted Paulie to argue with anyone who would listen about what Steinbrenner was doing to the Yankees. I wanted Peter to be my older brother and my dad to be my father and my mother to be my mother, just for one day. I wanted a room full of laughter, glasses filled with beer and wine, and the simple excuse to eat to the point of discomfort.
The silence that continued in the Suburban hinted at one of two things: Peter’s suggestion was either being considered or completely ignored. We circled the block before entering the Gerard Avenue lot. Disregarding the valet, my father snaked our monster into a tight spot in a lot where the lines were readjusted year after year into slighter spaces. All four doors opened and slammed into the Benzes on either side of us, then Pop chucked the keys in the general vicinity of the nearest valet, over the hoods of two rows of cars, and the valet dove for them like he’d been tossed a handful of diamonds; no return ticket was handed our way, never was.
I remember thinking that day was going to be great—the Yankees were playing the Orioles, after all—but I’d become jammed up, leveled by the reminder that I was a Bovaro and that that meant something the way it meant something to be a Kennedy, a Rockefeller, a Du Pont; the expected legacy is expected for a reason, and fulfillment a near requirement.
Peter set me up, the bastard. There would be no way to avoid accepting the task. To back down would be weak, to let—continue to let—others clean up my childhood embarrassment and not feel some sort of anger over what happened. The McCartneys had dared to testify against my father, and for that reason I should have been incensed myself, insulted to the point that retribution served as the only natural course. But I knew as my family did—they were the ones to educate me—that the fear we perpetrated upon the masses was only bolstered by the stories told by the feds to encourage, to frighten, people into testifying.
I had to take whatever assignment they asked of me, lest I become the standout. The loser. I had one hope only: that my father would ignore the entire suggestion, that his pride and reputation regarding a matter of many years prior was rightly no longer an insult, that he would never consider asking his almost twenty-one-year-old son to empty a clip into the bodies of innocent people.
My father’s decision had been concealed right up to our entrance of the cheer-filled stadium. He put his arm around me, tightened it around my shoulder as we walked together toward our seats, Bovaro men, and said to me gently, “Don’t worry, we’ll get you the car, too.”
The first time you hold a gun is like the first time you hold an infant. You’re not sure what to do with it. You watch the people around you for some signal that you’re holding it correctly. You bounce it a little and comment on its weight. You’re amazed at how beautiful the thing is. You prefer it to remain in a state of deep sleep. And ultimately, you wonder what it would be like to have one of your own.
No one ever gets a gun and thinks, I wonder what it would be like to kill someone. Unless you’re a hunter, most balanced people never want to discharge a firearm in the direction of another living thing, including everyone in my family—even Peter, who’d prefer a fisticuffs over a gun battle any day of the week. On the scale of weapons, the gun is the weakest form of power. After all, how did my father take care of Jimmy “the Rat”? A knife to the man’s gut, a gesture that read not only to Jimmy but to his peers, This was personal, and I was not afraid to take his life with my own hands. When people compare the Mafia to drug gangs, I’m baffled. In the early twentieth century, our types may have killed with great disregard, but when was the last time someone from the Mafia drove into a neighborhood and unloaded a half dozen automatic weapons into the side of a building, killing countless people? We are surgeons picking the particular cancer running through a system and carving it out, disposing of it, allowing life to resume like the disease had never even taken hold.
My first gun had strings. It had a purpose. They could have loaded the thing with just six bullets—two for each McCartney. All that remained was to find the targets.
It never occurred to me, as I’d previously searched the list of psycho killers in our family, running fully through the roster of men in my father’s organization for the sociopath who might be able to level the barrel at a young girl and pull the trigger, that the spinning dial would slow, tick gently in my direction, and come to rest at my name. I was the selected nut job.
Years after my father’s elimination of Jimmy “the Rat,” he was still riding the wave of reputation from that hit. And I suppose he managed to go out with quite a bang: The Rat was the last time my father ever took someone out, ever needed to. That hit contained all the components necessary to propel fear and notoriety: It was grisly; it was a power play; it was sloppy—a mess everywhere—yet no one took the fall. It spoke to our community of an authority and immunity reserved for few others. To set another example would not be necessary; my father’s minions would now do the dirtiest work and take the biggest risks. Regardless of the end result, I always suspected that the McCartneys haunted him—not as ghosts like they did with me, but as reminders that we are not gods but merely participants in a world under His command. And I don’t think my father was ever able to shake the warning.
During those years, though, something else changed: the landscape of influence. Through my young life, the most valuable tool we had was the distribution of force and fear. But an evolution was occurring, and it wasn’t long before information became increasingly valuable. Some of our highest-volume debtors, mostly bottom-dwellers, were transformed into agents of utility. Guys working clerk jobs in the city with access to databases we could’ve never imagined suddenly captured our attention—and so did the status of their debts. One of our most consistent losers at betting pro football, Randall Gardner, managed to sustain his day job developing a system for the federal government. In lieu of paying back a debt, he gave Peter and Pop access to a particular database whereby they could see the FBI’s general plans, budgets, and priorities—information that was more interesting than valuable. Our access to this fascinating system lasted a mere twenty-two hours before our login was revoked, but the taste gave Peter a lust for information. To his credit, he began to marginally shift the power of our family to a slightly cleaner though equally illegal level of influence; we started playing more Monopoly and less Sorry.
I managed to keep my Beretta in secluded silence, hoping it would serve as nothing more than a defense weapon. Though I suppose it might be obvious where Peter’s longing for information took us, our family, and ultimately me.
By the time the football season was cresting the playoffs, Randall Gardner was betting his house—almost literally—on the Philadelphia Eagles to beat the Dallas Cowboys and cover the spread. Philadelphia didn’t show up for that game, and by halftime it was clear there was no hope Randall could save his house—or his marriage or the ability to see his kids again. Soon the Bovaros would be arriving at an odd hour with a pair of Louisville Sluggers if he didn’t fork over the five figures owed to us by the end of the week.
But Peter performed his magic on old Randall, working the guy’s Rolodex like an insurance salesman looking for potential leads. Make a list of ten people who could help you out, Randall. Three of the four built-in advantages to dealing with addicts are: (1) They have no pride remaining; (2) They tend to automatically leverage themselves; (3) They will work everyone they know for help. And Randall needed a lot of help. By that time, he served as a computer programmer in the information technology department at a small federal contractor that developed systems for the Department of Justice. Earlier that year, he had attended a conference in Washington, DC, where he met two other programmers he casually befriended. They exchanged numbers as a means of expanding their circle of potential job opportunities.
So when Peter approached Randall and gave him an opportunity to wipe away his entire debt—the proverbial second chance—Randall wept like a girl, said he would do anything.
We never knew how Randall manipulated his friends from Washington, never came to understand if the information materialized through charm or force or threat, for therein lies the true benefit of the minion. We never cared if the information was acquired through hacking or social engineering or stealing someone’s briefcase, for therein lies the true benefit of the hopeless spirit with a need to supply a demanding addiction, the at-any-cost means of completing a mission.
Suddenly we had the exact address of the McCartneys, their latest aliases, everything.
My first gun had strings. It had a purpose.
Randall Gardner became one of our greatest assets. As for the fourth built-in advantage of addicts: (4) No matter how many times you wipe the slate clean, you can count on this: They’ll be back in debt to you even sooner than before. No more than two weeks later, the Redskins cost Randall another five figures. Mr. Gardner gave us more collected data over the years than the Farmers’ Almanac and Encyclopaedia Britannica combined, and Pop made sure we fed the man’s compulsion for gambling like a stray cat, doled out a fresh can of tuna and a saucer of warm milk with assured regularity. Randall always arrived on our doorstep looking for more, along with a cache of information in return.
I didn’t go to the McCartneys’ on my own. The hits were planned, and part of those plans included my older cousin by five years, Ettore Vido, an overstrung, highly skilled marksman who’d recently proven his talent to my father, who consequently found him endearing. Ettore—Hector, if translated—spoke infrequently, as though he’d recently arrived from Catania. He possessed a peculiar personality trait of being interested in absolutely nothing at all—no sports, no music, no television. He had not a single hobby. He didn’t have a favorite food, favorite car, favorite movie. He didn’t prefer blondes over brunettes, voluptuous over skinny. On the other hand, ask him to scrape the serial numbers off a collection of guns or clean the kitchen and he would silently oblige. As for the overstrung part: If you did anything to keep him from finishing an assigned task—say, dropping a glob of marinara on his clean kitchen floor—he would come apart at the seams, occasionally to the point of requiring restraint. All I can say is this: robot. And here, on our trip to find the McCartneys in Mineral Point, Wisconsin, he served as an automaton to make sure the assignment of taking out the McCartneys would be brought to a clean, comfortable close.
He accompanied me for one reason only: mission completion.
The late-winter, fifteen-hour drive out with Ettore was memorable only because it was not memorable at all. We did speak a few times:ME: “Need a couple bucks for the toll.” ETTORE: “ ’Kay.”
An hour later.ME: “Want your order supersized?” ETTORE: “ ’Kay.”
Three hours later.ME: “I gotta hit the head.” ETTORE: “Right.”
It wasn’t until we got a room at a roadside motel a few miles southeast of Mineral Point that he finally talked about the plan.
We sat on opposing double beds, shades drawn, one sixty-watt bulb lighting the room from ten feet away. As I studied my virgin Beretta, slowly unscrewing and rescrewing the silencer, Ettore put on a pair of gloves and began piling his reserve of weapons on the table between our beds, cleaning one at a time. He pulled them from everywhere—ankle holster, belt holster, two from his duffel bag. When the cleaning was complete, he went through the ritual of putting each in its respective holster, then quickly yanking it out and pointing it at some object across the room. The guy was a caricature of himself. Then again, rituals tend to give strength to disciplines, and Ettore was a proven killer. This wasn’t even his hit; the guns accompanied him on this trip for no other purpose than to act as a collection of steel security blankets. My Beretta? I tossed it on the pillow next to me and turned on the television.
“This is happening,” Ettore said to me.
I glanced at him, pursed my lips and nodded a little, then turned back to the TV. There was no way this was happening. Under other circumstances anxiety would have wrapped its hand around me and delivered a squeeze tight enough to crumble me like a saltine. The act of your first premeditated murder comes hard to anyone not belly deep in drugs or sociopathy, mobster or not. But my excuse was far easier; the most talented assassins ever to have been affiliated with the Bovaro crew previously failed at whacking the McCartneys. Ettore and I were hardly a step up. I figured we’d look for the McCartneys for a few days, then return home as an expected disappointment.
Turns out, though, Ettore and I were not on the same page.
“This is happening,” he repeated.
“I know.” I proceeded with the ritual of opening a new pack of Marlboros, shaking one loose, placing the filtered end against my dry lips, lighting it.
I tried to determine what he was really asking, blew smoke over to his side. “Of course.”
“Don’t get comfortable.”
I shook my head at the television. “There’s nothing comfortable about this, Ettore.”
“There should be nothing uncomfortable about this, Johnny.”
I took a long drag as I watched a Budweiser commercial—young men and women laughing on a California beach, playfully flirting, falling into foamy waves, sunning on a strip of sand and rock. Somewhere, far away from Mineral Point, Wisconsin, people were doing innocent things.
Ettore came to my side, reached over and grabbed my Beretta, tightened the silencer, added it to his stack of firearms, next in line for a cleaning.
“This is happening,” one final time.
I glanced his way. “I know.” This time, just a little, I believed it.
We were assassins, but not the kind that would do the type of damage where no one suspected we were there; wasn’t the point that people knew we were there, that retribution lit this fuse? If military-trained executioners might be compared to a diamond-tipped saw, slicing a perfect divide into someone’s lifeline, Ettore and I were like a chain saw, cutting a half-inch swath through anything we touched, wood chunks and sawdust flying everywhere. Best wear your goggles around us.
The following morning we dropped our key on the front desk of the motel along with a wad of cash to cover the room. We loaded the car with our firepower and set on our way. The objective: I was to eliminate an entire family, drop the gun, drive straight back to New York.
As the clock passed ten on that Saturday morning, Ettore snaked us over the gentle hills, toward the historic section of Mineral Point, avoiding Highway 151 just to the west. From the moment we left the motel, everything seemed surreal. The sky was weighted with fast-moving gray clouds destined to unload a reserve of rain on us at any second. We passed roads with names like Cheese Country Recreation Trail and Merry Christmas Lane. We waited our turn at an intersection in the oldest section of the city, atop the crest of a hill, where the stores were sheltered by trees and wrought-iron lamps were still alight on that cloudy morning. Two families walked hand in hand down the steep hill as they viewed the windows of art galleries and pottery shops and answered questions from their children. It seemed wrong to disrupt this part of the world. In my turf back home everyone sort of has it coming. In Mineral Point, people moved out of the way for one another, nodded at strangers, and perused shops like Papa Pat’s Farmhouse Recipes and Leaping Lizards. Blood should never be spilled here.
We drove the four miles from the center of the small village to the McCartney residence on the north side, past the welding supply shop and the liquor store, past the Dairy Queen and the fairgrounds, past the open fields, and finally through the farm-rich outskirts. As we drew nearer, I noticed a few manufacturing buildings, one of which seemed likely to act as the temporary employer of the disguised Arthur McCartney.
Ettore made a series of left and rights—no doubt memorized the map to their house with great precision—and brought us to the edge of a bland street, devoid of trees and sidewalks and, in general, love. This was a flat field that someone had decided would make a good place for five carbon-copy homes, lined up like soldiers, facing and backing a distinct nothingness, a six-year-old’s crayon depiction of rural life.
“That it?” I asked, nodding toward a gray rambler tucked at the bottom of a courtless dead end, to which I never received an answer. I’ve been told the look and life of a house is a reflection of its residents. If that’s true, this house reflected death and disinterest. What landscaping remained alive had overgrown the pieces that had long since perished. The paint on the shutters had chipped and begun to drop in hunks down onto the gnarled bushes below. On the two concrete steps leading to a broken screen door sat three planters holding the stiff skeletons of deceased flowers. This house said on behalf of its residents: What’s the point?
We waited from a secluded distance for an hour, not a word spoken, and the longer we waited the more at ease I became. Who was to say they were even home? I could feel the victory of failure upon us!
I jumped in my seat when the old wooden garage door of the rambler started to yawn, each framed section jerking as the opener tugged on it with all its might. Ettore sat up, leaned forward a little, and an icy smile came over his face that will never leave my memory, a look that suggested he’d visualized the series of moves leading us to checkmate.
A rush of adrenaline pumped through me as we watched their Subaru creep out from the shelter of the garage, obscuring them from view. I hadn’t seen these people since I stole glimpses of them on the New York sidewalk that day as a child. They existed in my mind the way they were then, ageless and blameless and healthy. But I could no longer allow my imagination to have that latitude; after all, here we were.
We followed them to the A&P. And the gray clouds opened.
I watched them from a sheltered point of view a baseball’s-throw distance away at the far end of the grocery store parking lot. It seemed I was always watching them exit automobiles, the closest thing to time travel I might ever experience. But this time, as they emerged from the Subaru, they looked weathered and worn. The father crawled out first and looked around like he was expecting the bullet already fated for his temple, trying to determine from which direction it would come. Rubbing his neck with one hand and coughing into the other, he walked to the passenger side and opened the door for his wife; she, too, looked around as if trying to locate a friend in a large crowd. They were both emaciated, the father having aged two decades in one’s time, the mother thin with clothes hanging off her frame like hand-me-downs from a larger sibling and wrinkles identifiable from our veiled location forty yards away. Arthur scoped the parking lot and through the rain it seemed he lingered on our car. Could he have identified the New York plates from that distance, things might have turned out differently.
Then Melody surfaced from the backseat—and I stopped breathing. Up to that moment, she’d remained a kindergartner in my mind, an everlasting image of all the innocence we’d so cruelly removed.
Unless you’ve got a buddy who serves as an expert at age progression photography at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, there is no way to anticipate the look a child will get when she transcends adolescence, and even if I’d had the skill, I could not have imagined how Melody matured. We were closer in age now—the four-year gap meaning less than it did long ago—and now I viewed her the way a college senior might view a freshman. She wore her chestnut hair short and tucked behind her ears, her skin an unhealthy white. Though she stood as tall as you would expect of a seventeen-year-old, I might’ve confused her for an older girl. And her size and shape suggested she could regularly raid her mother’s wardrobe. She pushed up the sleeves of a loose blue sweater, put her hands in the pockets of her jeans, stared at the ground, head hanging. I was just as mesmerized as all those years ago, fueled by the same curious interest, but now also with an obsession to understand the effect—the aftereffect—of what the world had done to this family, to this little girl.
Melody stared without aim, let the rain fall on her with no concern. She appeared as a girl with absolutely nothing to look forward to, a candidate for justifiable depression.
Ettore said, “When they come out.”
I could not take my eyes off of Melody. I’d never seen the spirit removed from someone the way it had been pulled from her, and I’d seen some guys really take an emotional beating that surely would have resulted in hopelessness. Gone were the swirling dances and the curious glances at the sky, along with her parents’ flirty kisses. She stood in the lot of the A&P, her face tipped down as though transfixed by the movement of a caterpillar. The look of dread and defeat on their individual faces spoke of permanent damage.
The cold rain intensified, hammered down on the roof of our car, went from dimes to nickels. Beyond the moving windshield wipers and through the wet window of the grocery store, we watched Arthur and Lydia lumber off in one direction and Melody sit down on a bench at the front of the store and stare out over the parking lot, her body twisted in our direction. She put her arm across the back of the bench, rested her chin over her forearm the way a dog rests its head on a paw.
The pain of watching them became so unbearable that I thought for a moment they might actually be better off dead. I thought that hardening my heart in the genuine Bovaro manner was the safest direction to turn my life. A hit is easier to understand when accompanied by an excuse of permissibility. They deserved it.
They had it coming.
After rubbing my eyes, I returned my gaze to the storefront. Melody had disappeared, no longer behind the window.
Then came the waiting. Ettore and I sat like a pair of mannequins, stiff and forward-facing, wearing black leather jackets and thin leather gloves and mismatching baseball caps, twins in all but our thoughts. Neither of us could comprehend what was about to unfold.
Ettore stared at the door, chewing a double-size wad of Juicy Fruit.
The rain intensified, forced us to kick the wipers into a faster rhythm.
At that moment, in the silence between us, a clarity of my existence dropped upon me, weighed me down, and the pressure pushed all the air from my lungs. How had I become the exact thing I didn’t understand—and hated most—in all my father did?
I had become one of the minions.
Should I throw this entire operation, Ettore would stool it right back to Pop; then the disappointment, the shaking of the head, the comment to someone out of my earshot: “How could my own flesh and blood do this to me?” To which I would never get to counter with the question: “How could my own flesh and blood have asked me to do this?”
Everything about the A&P fit the scene; what was about to happen really should have occurred no other place. People stopped loving this store long ago. The nearly empty parking lot exposed the cracks and rain-filled potholes in the pavement. Rain cascaded off the roofline where a hunk of gutter drooped like the jowls of an aging face, and the wide front window had lost its seal long ago, the inside of the double pane patterned with irregular swirls of dust and grime. This store possessed nothing in common with the new Kroger we had passed on the way from the south, with its parking lot full of BMWs and Eddie Bauer sweaters and double incomes. Melody and I were in the same image, a hopeless snapshot of history. If a building could cry, this one would not be sobbing, but shedding a tear with its final whimper. The A&P was about to die. And now so were its customers.
Ettore kept his dim eyes on the door of the grocery, chewing in time with the wipers, his heart likely pumping a cool sixty beats per minute. He looked like he was doing nothing more stressful than waiting in line to buy the Times.
Want to know what the detailed plan was? Kill them. Walk up to them and take them out one at a time, drop them like mail sacks, then jog back to the car. From there, Ettore would drive us back to New York. Just once you’d think our approach to taking down a building would be wiring it carefully with explosives, clearing the area, imploding the structure into a nice hill of rubble; instead, we had one solution only: Come in with a wrecking ball and start making big holes.
Then, through the streaky windshield, I saw the elder McCartneys shuffle from the store, both with a pair of plastic grocery bags in each hand.
At that very second I wanted so badly to revel in evil, wanted to be enraged at the actions of these people, wanted to want them to pay for troubling my father and family, and to taste the strong bitterness of revenge. To become a legend, to honor my father, to become feared and respected among those around me.
Arthur struggled with the trunk, yanking on the patch of horizontal surface above the license plate. He put his bags down on the wet parking lot. Lydia shrugged her shoulders in some attempt to shelter herself from the strengthening rain. Melody remained out of sight.
I held my Beretta in my hand loosely, and were I not wearing gloves, a thin layer of sweat would’ve coated its stubbly grip. I gently tightened the silencer against the barrel of the gun.
The parking lot remained empty but for a smattering of vehicles, and the rain acted as a secondary shield of reasonable doubt for any potential witnesses. I pulled my baseball cap down over my forehead, flipped up the collar of my jacket.
Arthur yanked up twice, then the trunk opened—and that was it, the final piece in place for the perfect hit, the trunk lid offering one final defense against unexpected onlookers and a mild sound deflector. I reached for the door handle and tugged it with all the strength of a toddler.
Ettore turned my way. He knew as well as I did that this was the moment. All the years of hunting, all the attempts to eliminate the McCartneys, all the anguish of the past coupled with all that lay ahead if we failed now, came down to me opening the door of our Impala. I took a deep breath and let it out heavily enough to fog the window of my door. I tried, hoped, even—most despicable—prayed I could take life that day. Alas, the spirit didn’t move me. Despite Ettore’s repeated attempts at the power of positive thinking, bad news was coming his way: This was not happening.MR. ROBOTO: “Take ’em.” ME: “I can’t get the shot.”
“Hell you mean? Get out of the friggin’ car!”
Then, more honestly, “I can’t take the shot.”
“Get out of the friggin’ car!”
“Where’s the girl? We can’t—”
Ettore quickly tightened his gloves, grabbed the gun from my incapable hands, opened his door so quickly it slammed back into his side as he bolted. That moment, as my cousin departed my side and without fear navigated around the few cars between us and the McCartneys, my breathing became short and clipped, adrenaline now in flood. The wipers could not wipe away the rain fast enough for me.
Ettore moved up to Arthur from the side of the Subaru, Beretta at his side, out of clear vision from Lydia. Arthur stood back at full height, slammed the trunk down, and as Ettore stood before him, Arthur smiled a little at the stranger—until the barrel of the gun was leveled at his head.
Arthur did not try to run. He did not try to duck. He did not cover his chest or face.
He took two steps to his right to move in front of his wife, to shield her one more second from death. He raised a shaking crooked finger and pleaded, “Okay… wait…”
And with the pop of a muted firecracker, Arthur tumbled facedown on the pavement, his wife left with a red mist across her forehead. Lydia winced and stumbled back as though a car had just driven through a puddle and splashed her. Her eyes gone soft, head trembling like taken by a sudden onset of Parkinson’s, she did something that haunts me to this day: With quivering hands, she reached up and pulled the top flaps of her coat together and nervously buttoned them, as though she knew death was upon her, so that once she’d fallen to the ground she would not appear immodest. Lydia slowly went to her knees—she did not collapse—as though preparing for prayer.
Near gasping, I opened my car door and slowly entered the wet air.
Lydia leaned forward near her husband’s lifeless body, faced her killer, closed her eyes, her hands still clinging to the top of her coat, just kept whispering, “Okay… okay…”
Before squeezing the trigger, Ettore shot a glance my way, brimming with evil, one that could only have been read as Do you see what I am doing? This is how it’s done.
Another muted firecracker and Lydia slowly tipped over like a melting snowman.
Ettore dropped one more bullet into each of them, carefully stepped around the bodies before him, began his visual search for the last remaining target. But as I watched his motion, I feared I might have been a true Bovaro after all, that the genetic disposition toward violence might have been buried deep in the twist of chromosomes that made me who I am, for instead of being sickened and further weakened at what just happened, a surge of hatred and rage filled me—not toward the McCartneys, mind you, but wrath was well on its way.
My lungs filled with ease.
When Melody came to the front of the store, approaching the foggy glass, I saw her the same second my cousin did. He held his forearm as he leveled his sight on her.
This is when I left our car’s side and yelled louder than I knew my voice could go.
He dropped the Beretta to his side and looked at me like the next bullet was for me. I walked in his direction in a manner that suggested that bullet would be the only thing that could stop me. He glanced back at the window, measuring the possibility of taking her out before our escape out of town.
Melody moved to the window, cupped her hands around the glass to focus her view of the parking lot, unable to see her dead parents below the ledge of the sill. With her perfect position, she could have been eliminated with a slingshot, never mind a weapon as accurate as a Beretta. My cousin took one last look her way, raised his arm quickly, and aimed it in the general direction of Melody.
Then Melody slipped out of sight.
My cousin turned to me and held the gun in my direction, quickly walking my way and cursing his missed opportunity—but mostly me—with every step, his profanity merely foreshadowing what would become a brutal storm upon my existence.
He held that gun steady, aimed right at my head, but I stood my ground. When he got within a few feet, his cursing now laced in spit that splashed my face, he swung the Beretta down on the side of my head and I immediately fell to the ground. Just as I was figuring out what had happened, the Beretta made its way to my skull again. And again. I touched my face, looked down at my palm covered in the blood from my head, running from a gash across my temple that I would wear the rest of my life.
Ettore grabbed me by the arm, lifted me up, then smashed me again, this time with his glove-covered fist. I tried to regain my composure—despite the pain, I remained enraged—but I could not get my footing. When I finally staggered to my feet, Ettore grabbed me by the back of my jacket and shoved me into the front seat of our Impala.
As bodies began to cautiously slink out from the store, we sped from the parking lot and disappeared toward Route 151, down a series of back roads until we were within a half mile of the highway. Ettore drove off the road into a field, mud splattering the windows, and spun the car around so it was facing the street again.
He got out and looked at the Beretta with confusion—not sure why it was still in his hand. The robot did not follow his programmed instructions. He walked through the field, the cursing returned, my name embedded within each sentence.
I kicked my door open and crawled out, blood in my mouth and eyes, the world spinning beneath my feet. Of all the habits I spent my later life trying to reject—the smoking, the acid tongue, the careless drinking—I could never surrender the anger and rage and propensity to destroy by intimate physical means. There is no necessity for nicotine, for vulgarities, for inebriation. Unfortunately, though, violence is a necessary thing.
The pressure was crescendoing now, making its quick conversion to wrath. It was not due to some sense of shame that I was unable to follow my father’s instructions, not from Ettore’s desperate need to displace me and elevate his place in my family, not from his sheer nerve to pistol-whip me, to point the barrel of a gun in my direction. This moment clarified all that mattered to me, what would come to be the focus of my life. Ettore should never have made an attempt on Melody’s life, should never have been willing to eliminate that kind of innocence.
I walked to the rear of the Impala, opened the trunk, slid all the bags and boxes aside, and pulled out the tire iron. I slowly limped my way to my cousin, who stood facing the open expanse of land, raising his fist to some greater power that had failed him.
I trudged through the muddy field, my shoes filling with brown muck and slowing me even more. I approached Ettore, tightened my grip on the tire iron, and watched him writhe in the anguish of inefficacy.
In agony, I managed to mumble, “Turn around.”
I gave him the time he needed to understand what was coming, to know what I was about to deliver, that I would be changing the way he looked, the way he walked, and the way he would swallow for the rest of his life, that all of this was brought about by my hands.
“Johnny!” he yelled.
It should be noted he never pronounced my name the same way again; it forever sounded like this: “Shonny.”
I swung against his face with all my strength, leveled him. If it might be possible to propel the soul out of a human being by sheer force, I came close to doing it here. His body twisted in nearly a full circle, a drunken ballerina, falling into the mud facedown. I left him gurgling there for a moment, then reached down, grabbed him, and flipped him over.
Both hands to his face, he shouted, “Shonny!”
And when he finally stumbled to his feet, I swung again and cracked his right knee. Ettore was brought into this world bowlegged, but he would spend the rest of his life knock-kneed.
I let Ettore scream it out for a minute, then stumbled over him, knelt on his chest, grabbed the tire iron by both ends and pushed the center down over his neck. The look in his eyes was pleading, for he could carry none of the grace the McCartneys did when mercy showed them no sign of arrival. His choking and gagging could only be interpreted as some form of begging.
I leaned over him, and as the rain and my blood and my spit dripped onto his mud-covered face, I said, “Yeah, this is happening.”
Then I unleashed. “Now listen to me. You never go near the girl. For the rest of your life you never go near her. You don’t think about her. You don’t even mention her name. Don’t ever use the word melody again, capice? You like a song? Call it a tune or jingle, ’cause if I hear you say her name, I will destroy you, you understand me? And don’t think what you witnessed back at the grocery was my inability to kill, ’cause you ever go near Melody I’ll blow a hole in your chest big enough to thread with this tire iron.”
Ettore made a feeble attempt to raise me off of him, like he was trying to bench-press an engine block. I pushed down on the tire iron and he coughed up a dark mixture of fluids.
And here is where I may have become a true Bovaro, for I played the card: “You’re a loser, Ettore. You’re nothing in this family. I’m Tony Bovaro’s son, and we both know all I have to do is mention what you did to me today and they’ll end you. What you fail to realize is that I outrank you, and I always will. You matter as much as that Beretta. Even your mother had to have known what a loser you’d be, couldn’t even name you after a saint.” Then with one last final push: “So, here’s how it’s going down. I didn’t touch you and you didn’t touch me. This never happened. When we get back to New York, you don’t mention the girl. You can take all the credit for the killings and be the hero. As for our wounds, I don’t care what you say, but that’s it, you understand? Not another word about the girl. I find out she so much as gets a hangnail, I’m coming after you and I’m bringing something better than a tire iron.”
I pulled the steel bar from his neck, stood up, cast a gray shadow over him.
“Not another word about the girl.”
Ettore sputtered for some time after that, sprawled back in the mud like an abandoned scarecrow. Then, finally, “Okay… okay, Shonny.”
To say there was a celebration upon our return would be incorrect. After all the stress and lost sleep the McCartneys caused my father, you might imagine ticker tape would have fallen from the sky, that our wounds might have been concealed by an avalanche of confetti, but that was never the way it went, even when it came to taking out the McCartneys. When Ettore and I walked into the kitchen of my parents’ recently purchased English Tudor across the Hudson in Tenafly, New Jersey, my father was leaning on the counter, wiping dry the remnants of a small bowl of red sauce with a slice of bread. The first he’d seen or heard of us since we departed, he looked up, stared at the clots and bruises on our faces, Ettore’s odd stance.
“Hell happened?” he said.
Ettore cleared his throat, tried not to look at me. “C’ran overush in loh ash wuhwuh leafin’.” A car ran over us in the lot as we were leaving.
Pop approached us, looked at me first. “You okay?”
“We’ll survive. Right, Ettore?”
My father touched my cheek gently, looked at the scrapes and swollen flesh. His face sagged into a pout, was the closest I’d ever seen him come to expressing regret. But the years had depleted him, and the distance between regret and revenge had shortened. His expression soon turned into Bovaro anger, a burst of required retribution.
“Not the guy’s fault. We took care of it,” I said, then, changing the subject, “Ettore’s a hard worker. Mom and Dad are out of the picture.”
Pop took a step back and nodded, passed a subtle grin of approval. “The girl?”
Ettore looked down.
I answered, “I learned everything I could ever need to know from my cousin. The girl is mine. Don’t worry, Pop. I’ll take care of her. That right, Ettore?”
My dad moved to my cousin, put his hand behind his neck. “This was clean?” Ettore nodded. Pop smiled, reached around and hugged my cousin, whispered something in Italian, likely a verbal commendation. And as my father tightened his embrace, I could see Ettore’s hands shake in agony, hear his staccato breathing.
Ettore ended up being celebrated for his kills, marginally elevated in our family and crew, famed for doing what no one else could achieve. He had eliminated the more important of the witnesses—what juror would truly rely on what someone witnessed as a six-year-old from over a decade earlier?—and provided proof of how impervious the Bovaros were to prosecution. And from that honored moment, he became Shimmy Vido, aptly nicknamed for the way his lame leg would wiggle from side to side with every step, remembered for his acts of heroism with a life of disrespect and indifference:
“Go send Jimmy and Shimmy down there to talk to him.”
“Hey, Sh-Sh-Shimmy! What’s sh-sh-shaking?”
“Throw me a beer, you friggin’ gimp.”
As for me, I made it clear across my father’s organization that Melody was in my sights, that I would make good on taking her out, that her eventual elimination would be my absolution. That no one else was to touch her. But it must be understood that my absolution did not rest in her elimination, but in her insulation. If there existed any hope for my redemption, it had to be in becoming her shield.
She was all mine to take care of. All mine.
By the time I reached my twenty-fourth birthday, it was undisputed: I became the family member no Bovaro really understood. Most families have one member who bucks the norm.
I became the rebel.
As my brothers contributed more and more to my family’s burgeoning organization, I managed to keep myself involved at an arm’s length. Though I might not have always been part of the decision making, I certainly remained a participant in the conversations. In our crew, we didn’t exactly find a conference room and follow an agenda; conclusions are drawn and plans derived over a plate of veal or eggplant. And I certainly continued to do my share of the household chores; as the months came and went, so did the extortive measures, the cleansing of ill-gotten gains.
Unfortunately, my criminal mind was elsewhere.
I had one regret from that fateful event in Mineral Point, and that was not having gone back to look for Melody, to find out what happened to her. An impossibility, for sure—only the most foolish criminals let curiosity prod them to return to the scene of their crime—but the films my brain played of what happened after Ettore and I raced from that little town became worse and worse over time.
You can only fantasize about something for so long before you begin devising the plan to make it real, regardless of the audacity, regardless of the consequence. Wondering what happened to Melody nearly consumed me. I left her worse off, you see, parentless and with only one way to struggle through her remaining days on earth: the government, an organization apparently ill-equipped to keep its addicted employees from being leveraged into providing sensitive data to people like… me. I imagined her everywhere—the Northwest, southern Texas, rusting Ohio and Michigan villages—and the fact that I could not verify even the most insignificant detail wore me down. Though worst of all, I became obsessed with wondering what became of her, wanting to know she was okay. I could have gone directly to Randall Gardner and demand he hand over whatever he could find on where Melody had been transported, but what would’ve been the point? At that time everyone wanted me to find Melody, to finish what Ettore and I had started.
I’d begun taking an active role in some of my father’s restaurants, the end of our business that left the least bitter flavor in my mouth. While these establishments were being used to launder almost all of the money running through the organization, everything else about them was legit. I loved the chefs and the kitchen camaraderie; the way the entire operation ran like a well-timed engine—the bar, the hostesses, the cooks, the servers—everything coming together like a tornado forming out of turbulent air; the way my clothes smelled of garlic and basil and fry oil at the end of each day. Unlike my brothers, who were more involved in the other operations—say, carting or gambling efforts. They suffered through the onslaught of liars, threats, beatings. And trash.
And so I attended a second-rate cooking school in lower Manhattan, a now defunct institution later converted into a pair of bars and an art gallery. My goal was twofold: (1) to enhance my ability to provide new culinary offerings; and (2) to occupy every available resource in my brain, to squelch the rising compulsion to locate Melody.
Not much came of the culinary aspect. Nearly all of my classmates were there escaping some other oppressive thing: pressure from the do-something-with-your-life parent, drug addiction, unbearable loneliness. The result was a class of underperformers and distracted twenty- and thirtysomethings. As it turned out, I knew more about some cooking techniques than my instructors, and couldn’t help correcting them, including a fifteen-minute debate on the proper way to sauté garlic and onions. In the end, it gave me the opportunity to experiment out of my depth (learning how to make a brick roux) and to learn a few new things (the patience required to make a brick roux). A few months into class, a flirtation came my way, a sweet auburn-headed girl with a face of freckles set in celestial patterns and a voice as rich and soothing as Karen Carpenter’s. Coming in from Staten Island, she showed no visible response when I told her my full name, and that alone allowed me to open up to her. We inadvertently became class partners, worked our labs together, and developed an unspoken language of how to best work the kitchen, understanding what each other needed next, when to get out of each other’s way, when either of us needed coaching or help starting over; we became in sync in ways some married couples are never blessed to know. We began a casual intimate relationship that lasted a while. A season, maybe. The girl was stunning, a source of envy to any man I introduced her to, particularly my brothers, who noted the aspects of her face and body and recorded them to mental scorecards.
Having partnered in class, we shortly partnered in everything else after that. We shared the laughter and the personal interest and the physical intimacy that typically serve as requirements for moving toward a greater commitment. But the never-discussed distance between us was exactly as wide as my failures. And as our bodies would be wrapped together in my loft above one of my father’s restaurants, I would almost always drift, my eyes turning unfocused and hazy. She would gently rub her fingers over the scars on my body, never asking for the stories that would explain them.
And then the last night: Our bodies had just relaxed, a thin layer of cooling sweat between us, and her soft fingers gently traced the scar on my forehead, the one provided by Ettore. I stared out the window into the blur of streetlights. She stopped stroking my temple, froze for a few seconds before her body went completely limp.
I could sense her staring at me. “Where are you?” she said.
How could I explain? I was in the Northwest, southern Texas, rusting Ohio and Michigan villages.
Excerpted from The Exceptions by David Cristofano Copyright © 2012 by David Cristofano. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted August 30, 2012
This is a combination book review for THE GIRL SHE USED TO BE (2009) and THE EXCEPTIONS (2012). I've never done one of these duo reviews before, and honestly, probably won't again, but because these books go hand in hand, I feel it's necessary. These two books are not a series, mind you, but more like carbon-copy reflections of each other.
The Girl She Used to Be:
At age six, Melody Grace McCartney witnessed a violent crime, and after her parents testified against an infamous mafia family, they were sent into Witness Protection. Now twenty-six, and all alone in this world, Melody is sick of being invisible, sick of having no emotional attachment to another soul. She's been countless other names and identities, but the person she longs to be is Melody again. When a stranger shows up one night, calling her by her real name and offering a way out, she takes it. Except this man just happens to be one of the members of the crime family her parents risked everything to put away.
I'm not typically a big fan of first-person, but there's no other way to do a book like this and have the same punch. I also have to give the author a lot of credit as a man writing in the female psyche. This story takes you so much deeper than a high-action mystery with other Witness Protection books. This puts you right in that person's shoes, feeling every lonely night, every fear of recognition, and the desperate existence left after doing the right thing. This story takes you to tears, laughter, numbing hopelessness, and daring for happiness in the course of 241 pages. Mostly literature with romantic elements, this is an emotional must read.
Jonathon Bovaro grew up the black sheep in a powerful mafia family. The things he's witnessed and lived through can't be measured by average people. But the one thing that haunts him is a six year old little girl whose life he ruined twenty years before. He's spent his life trying to protect Melody in one way or another. But now his family has ordered him to take her out, and he can't do it. So acting as her shield and hinting at a dangerous plan, he finally reveals himself to the woman he's watched from a distance to give her the ultimate gift: Her life back.
Similar to the first book, (instead of Melody's back story, insert Jonathon's), we hear the story all over again, but from Jonathon's perspective. And this time, we get the ending. I thought I'd find myself bored reading about events I already knew about, but I was wrong. Hearing it from Jonathon's side, and the tidbits unknown, was beyond satisfying. And again, there's closure and conclusion in this installment. It's very rare for me to say this, as I've reviewed hundreds of fabulous books in my time, but this book moved me. Dare I say changed me. Heartbreaking, mind-boggling, frustrating, and charismatically honest, I could not put this down to save my life. We get gory insight to organized crime, witness protection, and the justice system. As in the first book, this is literature with romantic elements, and a book not to be missed.
Both of these stories are stand alone reads, but I highly suggest reading The Girl She Used to Be first, then The Exceptions. If you must read only one, it should be The Exceptions because you get the whole story, ending and all. Again, read both! There are not enough positive adjectives to throw at these books to give them justice.
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Posted August 9, 2012
This book has a story that has been so well written with just the right amount of intensity that it pushes it right into the “Wow” factor range. Readers love to talk about when they read the last page and shut the book with a sense of completion as well as loss. This is a story that makes you appreciate greatness and seek it out in other books by David Cristofano. THE EXCEPTIONS gives you the sensation of not just reading words on a page but also a feeling of magic flowing from them as characters reveal all their many faceted sides. David Cristofano gives you something you can talk about but have trouble truly describing; it is that complex and riveting at the same time.
I want to say it is about the mafia, but it really is more about family. I want to say it is about a man that hates violence, yet his dark soul side makes that not true. The statement that is factual and makes it such a great read is the running theme about loving someone so much that you are willing to make the ultimate decision of giving up yourself to save them. The underlying love story that slowly plays out chapter after chapter makes you realize that love may not conquer all but it does help you achieve.
Mr. Cristofano does not exploit the characters feelings as much as he reveals them in the darkest of places while showing that there might be some light in there. It is clearly explained what the men running the mafia are made of, their goals, aspirations, and how their actions affect every single member of society whether you realize it or not. You get the sense everything is black or white in this world, grudges never go away, and vendettas must be carried out.
The violence, while gruesome in detail, is required to make it clear how psychopathic this group is, the depth of their greed and manipulation. There is only one goal set regardless of whom it affects and obtaining it is the only means to a successful end.
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Posted October 5, 2014
Very good story...Mr. Cristofano did an excellent job with Jonathan's story, but it was too long. Was worth the read because the ending was nicely done.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 18, 2013
This book says its a mob story. It is anything but. Its a very detailed love story that drags on and on. I have been trying to finish this book for over 3 months but have no desire to read it.
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Posted February 14, 2013
Three-fourths of this book is a repeat of The Girl She Used to Be! Absolute waste of money and time!
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Posted February 4, 2013
Posted October 2, 2012
Posted September 10, 2012
Absolutely hypnotic book! This is one that had me fixed in my recliner for the weekend and then when I wasn't, carrying the book around with me to the kitchen and pacing as I craved Italian food and the company of people on the North End of Boston. A rich and sumptuous read. David Cristofano knows his mafia and his art. He also seems to know a lot about the inner workings of the federal government. He's a master writer of the highest caliber.
All the characters live and breathe in Mr. Cristofano's hands. For instance, protagonist Jonathan Bovaro is no caricature of a mafia don's son, he's the living example of one caught between the "lifestyle" and wanting to be straight. This is a character who exemplifies what it means to love and to be obsessed with wanting to do the right thing. I was spellbound by his sensitive ways, his counterbalance of the dark and light - rage and romance; love and hate; violence and tenderness. David Cristofano takes us through the gamut of emotions in Jonathan Bovaro. His life-long fixation on Melody, the young girl he inadvertently wronged as a child and caused to be held in the Witness Protection Program, is believable and staggering in its heart crushing realism. Melody is also a complex character, a woman whose feelings and situation we can respond to.
I was set down in a places so readily available by "The Exceptions." The homes, restaurants and streets of NY, NJ and surrounding states were made familiar as the story progressed. The Bovaro territory became real. Cristofano gave the Bovaro home a realism such that I could smell the foods, see the tables set for dinner, hear and see the conversations of the mafia men as they gathered apart from their families at mealtimes, and I could place myself with Johnny as he walked the dimly lit rooms of his own restaurant, hearing dishes clatter and music from Sinatra playing. There is a play in this book on every sense we have: sight, smell, taste, hearing, touch. And on every emotion we can experience.
David Cristofano is a genius writer able to transport his reader into the heart and soul of his characters. He made me feel as if I were sitting with Jonathan Bovaro over a glass of wine listening to him pour his heart out about his life, his family and the love of his life.
This is a book I will rank as one I'll never forget. Rich as "The Godfather" in the traditions of the mafia, only written with a better hand and mind. Touching as "I Know This Much Is True," by Wally Lamb. Easily as good as anything Jonathan Franzen has ever written. You can't miss this novel. No loose ends here!
Posted August 22, 2012
Very interesting sequel to The Girl She Used To Be. Only reason I give it 4 stars is it did drag a bit at one point and I almost gave up on it. Glad I didn't. The ending was so worth it!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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