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Episode One: Dom Squeals

I’m going home. Home. That makes me smile. Home to family. Not exactly the family people might imagine when they hear my Italian accent, but family nonetheless.

Mama is round and soft. I remember her arms around me before I left for Milwaukee. I have three brothers at home, or at least I hope they are home and not in jail. And Papa, that loud, hard man that usually had a sweetie for me in his pocket; he is gone. Shot dead. His body left lying in the snow.

Train travel is monotonous, especially if you’re traveling alone. I give up on my knitting and gaze out the window. We are slowly moving away from the Milwaukee House of Corrections where I’ve spent the last six months. I’m going home.

You’d think that coming from a large Italian family, the heart of the home would be the kitchen, but I come from a different kind of Italian family. Our home’s heart is under our feet, in the basement. Ever since 1920, when the Feds signed the Volstead Act, and Prohibition came to be, we’ve been running a speakeasy down there. Nothing fancy. Cheap booze and Mama’s good cooking.

When I was younger, the regulars were mostly Papa’s pals from the old country. He and those pals of his ran the Regent Street side of Madison: the numbers, the booze, a bit of loan sharking. It was the family business. All my brothers worked with him, learning the trade. Mama ran the ‘speak’ downstairs. Me? Well, I washed glasses, cleaned up the place before it opened, went to school, church, and confession, and dreamed of being a movie star out west in California.

The train car door opens and, before it closes, I spot a dead ringer for my Uncle Dominick walking down the aisle. I smile as he passes. “Buon giorno,” he says. He returns the smile. Yeah, he could‘a been family.

Seeing him gets me remembering Papa. Too much time on the train, I guess. You’d think that, after six months in the hoosegow, I’d be drained dry of recollections, but you’d be wrong. In the joint, you try hard not to think of family — or the outside—that just makes you blue. It’s different now that I’m heading home; the past is coming at me faster than I can travel.

* * * *

Somebody said that April is the cruelest month; they got that right. I’d been about fourteen, helping Mama in the kitchen. God, that woman can cook. Eye-watering onions chopped small, sweet basil leaves shredded, firm juicy tomatoes crushed, and small salty capers floating in sauces that smothered pasta; all of it dusted with pecorino cheese. The only people who ever saw Mama without an apron were the priests at church or the nuns at school.

I’d been working my way through a pile of dirty pots and pans. My youngest brother, Joe, was away at reform school, again. The family joke was that Joe’d be the only one of us to get an education. Two of my brothers, Pepe and Dom, sat bent over plates of pasta and meat sauce; they’d been out late and missed dinner.

And then Papa had burst into the kitchen through the back door. A barrel of a man, Papa strode over and whacked Dom, a strapping boy of sixteen, across the back of the head, knocking him out of his chair.  The dishwater slopped over the edge of the sink when I dropped the pot back into the water.

Stupido,” Papa shouted.
Dom cowered on the floor, arms shielding his head.
“You are a dead man. Uomo morto.” Papa’s short legs were planted firmly on either side of Dom’s body.

Mama rushed over and began to pull Papa away.

“This stupid, stupid boy. This rovinato. Lena, do you know what he has done?” Papa’s face turned scarlet as he yelled, hands clenched into tight fists.

Stai calmo. Be calm, Carlo,” she said over and over, tugging at his arm. Eventually, he allowed her to coax him away.

“He’s ratted out Paul Corona’s kid for the Randall Bank heist. To save his own skin. Stupido,” he said, panting and red-faced.

If Papa had been closer, Dom would have gotten another smack on the head. He and Mama stood by the back door as Dom gathered himself up. Shaking, head down, he stumbled to Papa. Pepe joined me. We knew Papa’s fists could swing in many different directions when he was angry, which was a lot of the time.

Seeking sympathy, hoping for a crack in the wall, Dom frantically appealed to Papa. “Papa, the Feds said they were going to send me away for thirty years if I didn’t talk. Thirty years! All we got outta the job was a lousy twelve-hundred bucks. It was Tony threatening to shoot the bank manager, that’s who they really wanted. What did you want me to do?”

Mama wrung her hands. Her eyes, wide with terror, met those of Papa’s. “What do we do, Carlo?”

Mama’s fear alarmed me. Our own family was well known around Madison for being connected. No one messed with Carlo Justo. He should have been untouchable, but in dangerous water, there’s always a bigger fish.

“So, Signor Grande Bocca, what do we do, eh? You think Tony’s old man is going to be happy you ratted out his kid? Why would you do this to someone who’s Cosa Nostra? Paul is going to be crazy, pazzo when he hears what you’ve done.” Papa rubbed the back of his head. “Eieh, eieh, yah. What do we do?”

As usual, I was dismissed from the family drama; sent to bed. The last thing I remember is seeing Mama, Papa, Pepe, and Dom at the kitchen table with their heads together. Maybe they were praying; more likely they were plotting.

The police came a few days later and arrested Dom. He was eventually convicted and sent away to Waupun Prison for five years. But Tony, he got twenty-five years for assault with intent to rob. And Papa was right. Tony’s father, Paul Corona, was not happy about it.

Dom hadn’t thought much beyond saving his own skin that day he sold out Paul’s kid to cut a deal with the Feds. His betrayal was to have tragic consequences for our family.

(Hi from Sherilyn: I hope you enjoyed the first episode of The Unstoppable Jennie Justo. It’s a wonderful and easy introduction to the world of my books. If you’d like to find out what happens next, sign up to receive all the episodes, for free!

Each episode is about as long as this episode and will come every couple of days until the end of the serial at Episode Ten. They are a quick easy bit of escape into the world of bootleggers, flappers, and speakeasies. 

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