Sam McWilliams was the only member of the comedy troupe "Plum & Jaggers" who remembered the afternoon of June 11, when the first two cars of the Rapido from Milan to Rome exploded, killing everyone on board except a four-year-old French boy and a conductor.
Haunted by the terrorist explosion that killed his parents and obsessively driven to protect his orphaned younger siblings -- even if it means breaking the law -- precocious, fiercely independent Sam discovers during a stint in a Washington, D.C., juvenile home that he has a gift as a writer of family comedy. So begins the dark, quirky Plum & Jaggers series of sketches about a family of children whose parents are never at home. The McWilliams family troupe rises from open-mike venues to small comedy clubs to a late-night television slot, creating a stir -- and unwittingly exposing the family to new dangers that cost Sam his resilient wit and threaten his sanity.
Plum & Jaggers is the story of a family blown apart by tragedy and one person's powerful refusal to accept their fate.
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Sam McWilliams was the only member of Plum & Jaggers who remembered the afternoon of June 11 when the first two cars of the Espresso from Milan to Rome exploded, killing everyone on board except for a four-year-old French boy and a conductor. Sam remembered exactly. He was seven years old, eight in November. Julia was too young for memory, sleeping in Sam's arms, where their mother had put her when she left.
"You take Julia, shoofly, and I'll go help your father get lunch."
"I would like tea," Charlotte said, looking up from her book. "And four cookies."
"I'd like a chocolate milk shake," Oliver had said.
"There are no chocolate milk shakes in Italy," their father said.
"I want one anyway," Oliver said pleasantly.
"Then I'll bring one," their father said.
Had he returned with a late lunch, he might have brought tea instead, or milk, or mineral water.
"Here's your chocolate milk shake, Oliver," he would have said.
The explosion blew the door off the car where the McWilliams children were sitting, waking Julia, who screamed so long without a breath that Sam was afraid the air had gone out of her for good. Charlotte fell immediately asleep, a habit she would retain in emergencies for the rest of her life, and Oliver turned upside down and crawled under the seat, staying there until a woman seated across from them pulled him out, hurrying the McWilliamses to safety outside the burning train before the rescue team swarmed into the remainingcars and got out those passengers who had not already fled.
The weather had been cool for June, a soft, pale, constant sun, not bright enough to warm the small corner of the globe where the McWilliams family were traveling "into history," as James McWilliams had told his children.
"We're taking a trip into history, gang," he had said when they got on the train to Rome. "We've got to find out what happened before we arrived in this marvelous place."
James talked that way, in grand terms, connecting them personally to the world in all its past configurations, as if their voyage were maiden, like Lindbergh's across the Atlantic, an international event.
The McWilliamses were traveling from Kibbutz Gatz near Ashkelon, where for two years they had worked in the kitchen, in the fields, in the health clinic, for "the joy of it," as Lucy McWilliams had said. For the joy of it. Going by bus to Jerusalem, to Tel Aviv, over land and sea to Athens and then north to Milan, where they stopped for a few hours between trains just to see Leonardo's Last Supper, the faded fresco flaking tempera off the one remaining wall of the monastery refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie, destroyed by a bomb during the German occupation in 1943.
"When the walls of the refectory crumpled, this painting survived," James told his children, reading from the dog-eared guidebook Lucy carried in her backpack, his voice memorable for the fullness of emotion, the pleasure he had in detail, the sound of it lifting their lives out of the ordinary.
"I can't see the picture," Charlotte had whispered to Sam.
"Don't worry," Sam had said. "There's nothing to see. It's only Jesus standing up."
* * *
Years later, remembering June 11 as if the events of that day were in the process of happening again and again, Sam thought of his parents, sitting in the dark remains of the refectory, their children locked between them, their eyes squinting in the dim light to focus on the fresco. They must have believed in The Last Supper, its survival a kind of personal sign of their own invincibility.
The year was 1974, the summer Richard Nixon resigned, the year Karen Silkwood died in a mysterious car accident after charging her employer Kerr McGee's plutonium-producing plant with atomic safety hazards, the year the small terrorist Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped Patty Hearst.
But the McWilliamses were citizens of the world, their lives unaffected by events in America. They were optimistic travelers with plans to fill the map of the globe with red dots and lines connecting all the places they had been and worked and lived.
Not without risk. They had been in Munich in Black September, 1972, when Palestinian terrorists attacked Israeli athletes at the Olympics, taking nine hostages and killing two. They had been in Botswana, working with the American Red Cross, and were among the white people to shelter the Zimbabwe People's Union forces when they began cross-border guerrilla attacks from bases in neighboring countries. And they had been traveling in the Middle East when the Six Day War broke out in June 1967 and Israeli forces waged an air and ground attack on Egypt. They believed that they understood danger and could protect themselves from it.
James McWilliams had been born in Edinburgh in 1939, the youngest son of elderly parents, both dead by the time he was eighteen, when he moved to the United States to attend the Rhode Island School of Design. He was a landscape painter whose interest was shorelinesstrange drawings of accurate, almost microscopic detail, close-ups of the point at which the sea meets the shore, of rivers and oceans and creeks and lakes, of the fluid, changeable line where the land gives way to water.
When he met Lucy Lucas, she was in her senior year at Pembroke College, with plans to attend Georgetown University Medical School in the fall. But she changed her mind and they married in June 1961, the week after she graduated from Pembroke, her medical career abandoned as she followed James to India, where he'd been selected as a member of the first class of Peace Corps volunteers. In India, they settled in Bombay, Lucy working with a group of Indian women to encourage birth control, while James built latrines in a village north of the city.
Their lives in those years were similar to those of the first veterans of the army for peace, who had endured tenures in the desolate villages of Africa or India or Latin America. They were travelers. After Bombay, they became teachers, moving to Botswana, then Cairo, Athens, Jerusalem, and Ashkelon. In the early sixties, travel was cheap and safe. Young Americans like the McWilliamses had a feeling of invulnerability, of certainty and hope. With their expanding troopSamuel was born in 1966, Charlotte in 1968, Oliver in 1970, and Julia in 1973they could do anything, go anywhere, chiefs of their own small tribe.
They got on the train in Milan at noon. Sam remembered the hour because his father wanted to get to Rome in time to show his children the Forum at dusk, to be there that June night because the moon would be full.
And so, late for the noon train, they ran through the wide marble hall of the Stazione Centrale, through the crowds of Italians milling around the kiosks, hurrying to their trains, chattering in their noisy, argumentative way.
Sam gripped Oliver's hand, Oliver squealing with the excitement of the run, Charlotte, sweet serious Charlotte, her spectacles filling her tiny face, complaining, "Not so fast, Mama, not so fast for me," and Julia flopping in the carrier on her mother's back.
"Let's fly," James called behind him.
"We are flying," Sam said, bringing up the rear.
He saw his father, flushed, his black hair in all directions, leap on the stairs of the train, put out his hand to Lucy, pulling her onto the step with him, kissing her cheek in his expansive way, kissing Julia's head. He picked Charlotte up in his arms and reached out for Sam.
"Wait for my boys, conductor," he called to no one in particular, no one who spoke English; only his boys could understand, only Sam and Oliver, reaching out their hands to their father, landing on the step just as the Espresso to Rome pulled out.
On the train, the McWilliams family sat three across, facing each other, Sam next to his father. The noon sun washed the landscape white, light separated from light; the scattered villages streaking by the window didn't seem real.
Across the aisle from them, a woman alone, dressed in a heavy coat and woolen hat, too warm for a cool June, her hands folded in her lap, stared at Sam unapologetically. She wasn't old, her hair still ink black and full, but there was something in her bearing that seemed old, and Sam didn't like her looking at him.
"She's not looking at you, son," his father said.
"She is," Sam said.
"She can't see you," his father said. "She can't see."
"Then why is she staring?" Sam asked.
"She's following her ears," his father said. "That's what you do if you can't see."
They must have been sleeping, waking shortly before the train arrived at the station in Orvieto, and then Oliver wanted lunch.
"Now," he said. "Maybe now."
Charlotte looked up from her book.
"I'm hungry also," she said. "We stayed so long at that supper painting, I got starved."
Charlotte was unworldly by temperament, and shy. She had learned to read early and could read anything, even books in Italian, as pleased by the music of language as by the sense of it, sounding out the words although she didn't understand their meaning.
She was the only one of them who'd picked up the languages in the places where they'd been. Although she wasn't a talker, her ear for sound was so exact she couldn't help herself.
"How come you can't speak Hebrew?" she had asked her mother as they were packing to leave the kibbutz.
"I don't know, darling," Lucy had said. "I suppose I'm too American."
"But how can you be if we never live in America?" Sam had asked.
"Someday we'll live there." Lucy laughed. "When we're enough filled up with the world to go home."
Like Charlotte, Lucy Lucas had been bookish as a child, and literal-minded, with a kind of luminous optimism that drew people to her. She was the only child of adoring but abstracted parents, growing up with an unreasonable confidence in her own good fortune, an experience of life which came from reading. At twenty, when she met James McWilliams at a coffee house in Providence, she was still surprisingly childlike, but restless, urgent for something to happen, ready to fall in love.
"I don't think of America as home," Charlotte had said. "I think of us as home."
"Exactly," her father agreed.
James was a natural convert, suited by temperament to the bold irreverence and high spirits of his adopted country, taking on American manners and expressions as his own. He spoke no languages except English, but in his travels, he tried speaking everything, slogging enthusiastically through the syllables, heavy-footed but cheerful. People clapped him on the shoulder as he tried out "Hello, how are you? Two beers, please," in Turkish or Egyptian or Greek.
* * *
Sam didn't want lunch. He felt a strange uneasiness that afternoon, or at least that's the way he remembered it.
"Nothing for me," he said, looking out the window.
In the distance, like a faded watercolor, washed in light, he saw a town appear on a hill or hanging from the sky, maybe a village, maybe a small city, he couldn't tell.
"We'll be right back with lunch," their father said.
And then they were goneJames and Lucy McWilliamsthrough the door of their second-class car on their way to the café two cars down.
For a long time Sam sat above the wreckage on a hillside, milling with people, a strange acrid smell floating by on the light puffs of wind.
He didn't look. He sat on the ground where the police had taken him, sat very straight, Julia on his lap, her damp face burrowed in his neck, Charlotte beside him. She had lost her glasses in the confusion and kept her eyes closed. Oliver sat behind, his arms wrapped around Sam's waist, his face pressed into his brother's shirt, so he didn't have to see the smoldering train.
No one in the crowd seemed to be speaking. Not the Italian people from the village filling the hill below them, nor the police, nor the medical technicians, nor the firemen, who moved quickly but in surprising silence. There was no sound at all from the cars of the train to Rome.
At one point, a very young policeman knelt down and took Sam's hand.
"Passaporto?" he asked.
Sam shook his head.
"Mama?" the policeman asked. "Papa?"
"Questi bambini non hanno il passaporto," he said, standing up.
Charlotte couldn't speak Italian, but she said something in Hebrew which the policeman didn't understand. He motioned for another policeman.
"Niente passaporto," he said to the other officer, lifting his hands in a gesture of bewilderment.
"Niente passaporto?" The other officer shook his head.
Later, medics ran up the hill with their canvas bags of supplies and took the children's pulses, holding their wrists, checking their watches.
"Am I going to die?" Charlotte asked in a flat, matter-of-fact voice.
"Die?" the nurse asked.
"Americani?" the other asked.
"Yes," Charlotte said. "American."
The nurse turned toward the medics just below, breaking the silence with her high-pitched voice.
"Americani," she called, pointing at the children. "Bambini americani."
And the circle of space around the McWilliams children seemed to expand, isolating them to a small unoccupied territory on the hill overlooking the train, the valley of silent confusion below them. In waking nightmares, that is the way Sam would remember it.
Years later, grown up, he saw a picture of children from Sarajevo. They sat, three of them about the same age, one girl, two boys, on a cement piling, bodies stiff, eyes wide with terror and something else, something ancient, like defeat. And suddenly Sam saw the four of them on a hillside near Orvieto, the McWilliams children, locked together like the shapes of a twisted trick puzzle, inextricable, bone-still, their eyes fixed on death.
A woman the size of a plump child came running and took Sam by the hand.
"You come home with me," she said.
"No, I can't," Sam said. His legs didn't hold, folding to the ground beneath him.
"Daniele!" she called. "Daniele Danesi; aiuto!"
A man had rushed toward him, lifting Sam in his arms, holding his head against his large chest so Sam didn't have to look at the wreckage as they passed by it.
"I am Daniele, the father," he said.
The small, plump woman picked Julia up, held the baby like laundry over her shoulder.
Someone, an older child, or maybe two of them, took Charlotte and Oliver. Sam could hear them babbling, could hear Charlotte's soft voice saying, "I don't want to leave here."
"Me, too," Oliver said.
"We are going only a little way," one of the children said.
"I am Susanna. Mamma," the small woman said, breathless with the weight of Julia. "I take care."
The house was small and clean with a pale blue picture of the Virgin Mary on the wall and a wooden cross with Jesus, his head hanging, his arms outstretched, white walls and dark wooden furniture. The main room where the McWilliamses were taken was full of children, maybe six or seven of them, with black hair and soft hands, scrambling like puppies over the McWilliamses, patting them with their hands.
The mamma bounced Julia on the shelf of her belly, singing at full volume, filling the room with the sound of her voice, kissing the top of Julia's head, spinning her around the kitchen in a little dance, as if this were a perfectly normal afternoon.
A young boy called Gió sat next to Sam, pressed close, laying his small hand on Sam's arm. Anesthetized, Sam watched his family, held them in his vision so they wouldn't disappear.
Sam's hands and feet were numb and weighted, and he'd lost a sense of time, the day permanently locked in the moment when the café car of the train to Rome had exploded.
But sometime during the day, while he was sitting on the couch with Gió, where he stayed for a long time, his legs outstretched, his arms too heavy to lift, the afternoon gave way to a darkness which fell through the slender windows in strips of silver across his lap and Sam had a sudden fear of night, of the blackness coming on.
At dusk, the candles were lit on the wooden table set with mustard-yellow plates and tiny glasses, bottles of red wine and water, the room musty with the wet smells of fresh basil and thyme.
"I'm not very hungry," Charlotte said.
The mamma picked her up, tore a little piece of bread off the large loaf in the center of the table, and put it in her mouth.
"Mangia, mangia," she said, and sat Charlotte down at the long table between Daniele and Gió.
The McWilliamses couldn't eat the pasta with rich red sauce; the small house was thick with the sharp tomato smell of it, the dank odor of oregano. But they were given a thimbleful of red wine and Sam had a second cup. And then a third, until his head was woozy.
Sam must have fallen asleep.
Sometime in the middle of the night, he woke up to the sound of screaming so high-pitched it made his head hurt, and he sat up to see if it was Charlotte he heard, lying beside him with her eyes wide open.
"It's not me," she said.
He heard the rushing of footsteps then, saw the faces of the Danesi children in the bright pure light of a full moon, leaning over him, their hands on his shoulders, on his head, taking his hands, and he knew from the expression of alarm on their faces that he was the one screaming.
At first Susanna held him, but he couldn't seem to stop, one scream after the other bursting out of him like gunshot coming from his stomach. And then he was aware of lying down, aware of Susanna on top of him, stretched the length of his body so he couldn't move. He felt her warm breath on his neck, the weight of her on top of him, marking the edges so his insides didn't seep away, spill out onto the mattress, evaporate.
Finally, he stopped.
"You screamed in your sleep," Charlotte said.
"It made me scared," Oliver said. "I thought you were going to die."
"Well, I didn't," Sam said.
"I can tell you didn't," Oliver said, putting his head on Charlotte's shoulder. "I'm not stupid."
Gió came into the McWilliamses' room early in the morning and stood at the end of the bed.
"A man wants you," he said to Sam. He pointed to the kitchen.
"Me?" Sam asked, sitting up in bed.
Gió spread his hand across the bed. "All children," he said, pleased with his English. "One, two, three, four children. Listen."
The man was speaking in Italian, but Sam heard him say his own name, "McWilliams," heard it twice. The second time the man said, "Samuel McWilliams."
"Pretend to be asleep," he said to Charlotte and Oliver, closing his eyes, trying to breathe very little, to pass unnoticed by this man who had come to this house knowing his name.
Gió said that the man in the kitchen had come for them.
"We don't know any man in Italy," Sam said.
"He is American," Gió said.
"We won't go anyplace with a stranger," Sam said. "It's our rule."
"You don't have to go. Mamma told the man you cannot go until you have a bath."
"Will the man go away then?" Charlotte asked.
"He says he waits," Gió said.
Even Julia took a bath, all four of them in the warm, sudsy water up to their chins, their heads scrubbed with Susanna's strong hands. She had them stand in the middle of the tub and poured clear water over them, one pail after the next, and Sam wished they could stand there forever with her singing and the warm water falling over them, together in the bath in a small room with a blue Virgin Mary on the wall, in a cottage in Italy.
The man, Mr. Blakehe called himself Mr.was very tall and thin, with a blond mustache and fuzzy soft blond hair like a girl's. As representative of the American consulate, he had come to take them to Florence.
"Your grandfather is coming," he said cheerfully, as if they had simply been on an overnight with strangers.
"I won't go with you," Charlotte said.
"We have to go," Sam said. "We have to meet Grandfather."
The Danesi children gathered solemnly at the door to the cottage and watched as their mother walked with the McWilliamses along the path to the car.
Sam walked first and alone, walking into the sun so the car appeared as a splash of glittering aluminum foil and Sam had to narrow his eyes to reduce the sun's assault. Behind him, Sam could feel their presence, Charlotte walked alone and Susanna carried Julia, holding Oliver's hand. At the car he stood aside while Charlotte climbed into the backseat, taking Julia in her arms, and Oliver scrambled after them.
Just as Sam was getting in, Susanna snapped the stem of a purple wildflower and put the flower in the pocket of his shorts.
"Goodbye, goodbye." She kissed his hand.
Sitting in the backseat of Mr. Blake's long American car, Sam noticed that Gió had gone on ahead to the end of the dirt road to see them leave. He stood in a bright circle of sun, in a field of yellow wildflowers, nearly as high as he was, his arms folded across his chest. As the car drove past, he covered his eyes with both hands so Sam couldn't see his face.
Their grandfather had come to Italy alone. Their grandmother didn't fly.
William Lucas was sixty that year, a tall, white-haired, dignified man. He was an artist of sorts, drawing birds and parts of the body, usually diseased parts for medical journals. A quiet, formal man, not given to expressions of emotion, surely not grief.
At the airport in Florence, Charlotte announced that she wasn't going to leave Italy.
"I don't fly," she said to her grandfather.
"I don't fly either," Oliver said.
"But we flew from Greece," Sam had said to her.
"I wasn't on the plane from Greece," Charlotte said.
They were all on the plane, of course. Israel to Athens by ship and bus and car, and then from Athens by plane to Milan to see The Last Supper before they traveled south.
But Sam didn't argue.
Their grandfather had sat, his legs crossed neatly, the International Herald Tribune with the news about the terrorist bombing of the train folded on his lap. He checked his watch.
"They should call our flight in fifteen minutes," he said, as if he had missed hearing Charlotte's announcement.
The McWilliamses didn't know their grandfather well. The year Sam was three, Charlotte almost two, their parents had gotten teaching jobs in Athens, where they'd stayed two years; Oliver was born there.
And then they'd gone to teach in Jerusalem and then to work on the kibbutz. They had returned to Grand Rapids for a month in the middle of these years, and Sam had felt warmly about that visitespecially the evenings on his grandparents' front porch, the aunts and uncles and cousins chattering the silver night away, capturing lightning bugs in glass jars sticky with Popsicle juice.
But just before they left for Tel Aviv, there was a rare argument between his soft-tempered grandmother, who started the fight, and his mother.
"I don't know why you have to go to Jerusalem, Lucy," she'd said to his mother. "You aren't Jewish."
"It has nothing to do with being Jewish," Lucy said. "Many people go who aren't Jewish."
"I read in the paper about a bus which blew up, killing several people," his grandmother had said wearily. "You haven't given any thought to violence, I suppose."
"There's no safety anyplace," his father had said.
But James McWilliamsa tall, wiry, athletic man, black-haired, boyish, full of pleasure in his lifedidn't act that way. He lived as if safety were everywhere he chose to walk.
"I don't know," his grandmother said. "I don't know at all."
"But they're going, darling," his grandfather said to his grandmother. "So we must wish them well."
On the plane to Tel Aviv, Sam had told his father he was afraid.
"There's nothing to be afraid about, Sam," his father had said. "This is an adventure, and then there'll be a new one and a new one. We're going to have a fine time."
The flight from Florence to Brussels left at 11:30 a.m., connecting in Brussells with a flight to New York.
Charlotte shook her head.
"I want to stay in this place," she said, as if it were a perfectly reasonable request, crazy that anyone should think otherwise.
"Me too," Oliver said.
Their grandfather, a man Sam would come to know as extraordinarily kind, took Charlotte's hand in his.
"We're not going to leave your parents in Italy," he said. "I've made arrangements for them to travel on the same plane."
Charlotte looked up at him.
"You're sure?" she asked.
"I'm sure," her grandfather said.
"Then I'll fly on this plane," Charlotte said decisively.
"Me too," Oliver said earnestly.
On the plane back to America, just as the tip of Nova Scotia came into view, Charlotte had looked up from her book.
He'd been sitting with his eyes closed.
"Do you think we're going to die?" she asked.
He looked over at Oliver zipping his Matchbox cars across his belly.
"No," Sam said, giving the possibility a full measure of his consideration, weighing the odds, wishing to tell Charlotte the truth. "We're not going to die for a very long time."
As the plane descended along the coast of Massachusetts, across Connecticut, over the cluttered skyline of New York City, Sam McWilliams looked down the line of seats beyond the one where he was sitting: at Charlotte, reading her book; over the head of Julia, sleeping fitfully against her chest; at Oliver, clutching his shorts, unwilling to go to the lavatory for fear he'd fall through the airplane toilet into the sky.
"We'll stick together through thick and thin," his father used to say to them. "From now on forever," he'd add with his usual high-spirited drama as they went on trains and airplanes and buses and cars from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to Cairo to Ankara to Istanbul to Athens to Milan.
And finally to Rome.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Two things speak for how I love this book. I've bought half dozen copies to give as gifts and am savoring a second reading. It was recommended on a list-serve for psychotherapists as one of the author's best. Thematically it is about childhood loss and the amazing, sometimes humorous, ways children cope.. Four siblings are the main characters and the author takes their lives into adulthood. The book begins with tragedy and ends with triumph, not of the trumped-up variety, but as a "bravo" to human nature.