Note: This story has been edited for strong language. Go here for a Q&A with author Joe Borri. The book, Eight Dogs Named Jack and Fourteen Other Stories from the Detroit Streets and Michigan Wilderness, is available for $19.96 at Amazon.com, many Northern Michigan booksellers and at joeborri.net. Reprinted with permission from the publisher, Momentum Books, LLC, copyright 2007, Joe Borri.
Aldo Vendetti had no children of his own. He was, however, the oldest uncle to thirteen nieces and ten nephews from two brothers and three sisters, all of whom he loved with equal measure. Inevitably, though, when a man is blessed with that much fortune, favorites tend to pull away from the rest of the pack. And in Aldo’s case, at least as far as the nephews were concerned, it was clear that Nino, Don, and Mauro were the ones he revered most. The three were first cousins. Nino, Don’s younger brother, was twenty-six. Mauro was an only child. He and Don were both twenty-eight that October. And as they had since they were old enough to know better, the three boys showed their uncle nothing but the utmost respect. His nephews were good kids, certainly not perfect, but in Aldo Vendetti’s eyes, their flaws were non-existent. He would stand in front of a train for them.
It happened the opening weekend of bow season in 1998. Mauro’s father couldn’t make it up north for the fall hunt. Don and Nino’s father had passed away six years earlier, and since his death Aldo had become something of a surrogate father to them, a position he accepted with sad pride, albeit great commitment. Mauro and Don were excited to squeeze in a weekend of deer hunting at Aldo’s cabin on Island Lake, while Nino planned on spending his time fishing.
Off the eastern tip of northern lower Michigan—the rougher side of the mitten—nestled a few miles inland from Lake Huron was Island Lake. The lake was 200 acres of clear water, loaded with bass, pike, walleye, and jumbo perch. Aldo’s cabin was the only material thing he loved, and he took care of it with the seriousness of a mother bear protecting a lone cub. He’d owned it for twenty years, using it in the fall and summer, but after Valentina’s death in ’95, the cabin became his year-round residence, causing him to forego the wintertime condominium growing cobwebs in Naples. Valentina never cared for the cabin, preferring the hot climes of Florida, and there was still too much of her in that condo for him to go back just yet, maybe ever.
At present, Aldo stood on the deck, surveying the lake. He rotated his thick left arm, wincing at the stiffness. Every year he received a wood-harvesting permit from the DNR, allowing him access to the nearby Huron National Forest where he could legally cut firewood from blown-down and still-standing dead hardwoods. He prided himself that, as a seventy-three-year-old man, he could enter the forest alone with his chainsaw and by day’s end return with nearly a full cord. It kept his body strong and his mind from dwelling too long. Valentina’s death was an agonizingly slow ordeal. At times, he still heard her weak voice, begging him to hasten the end of her suffering:
“My Aldo, the pillow. I love you husband … but the pain is too great—I beg you—the pillow, Aldo!”
The few times he had come close to honoring her requests, he could only stop short and shake his head. Because each time he would touch the edge of her pillow, he couldn’t get past the enchanting blue-grey eyes, still possessing the spirit of the eighteen-year-old stunner he’d met one summer night in a Greektown bar, in 1949. It was she who saved him from the memories of war in Italy. And so in the hospital bed, with tubes feeding her like so many artificial veins, Valentina would nod back at him—her face swollen by steroids—with a silent acceptance of knowing that after she was gone, he would have to go on living, and she indeed understood; this was one sin Aldo wouldn’t be able to add onto the many he’d already notched in his long life.
He’d enlisted as a nineteen-year-old, first-generation American, and as bad luck would have it, was sent to the Boot to fight against his father’s country-men. During his service as a ground soldier over there, he killed seventeen Italians—in Persamo, eight came in hand-to-hand combat. There he delivered death with the intimacy of a bayonet or combat knife. He won two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star, a fact revealed only after one of his war buddies spilled the beans about his heroism to his family. On the rare occasions Aldo would talk about his war experiences, it was always the same:
“It’s different killing a man with your bare hands,” Aldo would say. “You use a gun, you don’t get to see his eyes roll wild and hear him scream, begging you for his life. When it’s him and you and you hear the last breath leave his body, and you know you were the one who took it? Killing someone’s husband, their brother. Maybe their son—that’s just … different. I don’t fear death. I seen it. It don’t scare me. I just hope Our Lord gives me a chance to tell Him that I did what I had to do, so I could live another day. Not getting the chance to explain my side of things to Him face-to-face, that’s what I fear.”
And everyone believed him when he said it.