EXIT PLAN

MARY BALICE NELLIGAN

 
 

The charred, broken remnants of Foggia’s municipal buildings slipped past out the wide train window. Pino pressed his forehead to the steamed glass, memorizing the details. Wood girders and crumpled stone pillars, edged in sunlight, lay strewn up and down the hillside like a child’s discarded toy blocks. Rough wooden crosses dotted the rubble next to haystack-shaped heaps of twisted metal. War or not, too many good people died in this once-proud Italian town. Someone had to remember their sacrifice. If Pino ever painted again, he’d scrape burnt browns and blistered grays onto a rough canvas and capture the devastation left by Allied bombs.
 
Pino eyed the two uniformed soldiers playing cards at the far end of the train car. The sour tang of bile climbed up his throat. The carabinieri didn’t drop bombs, but they were guilty still — terrorizing and stealing from train passengers whose only crime was trying not to starve while Mussolini’s stupid war dragged on.
 
But Pino and his friends had a job to do. Time to focus.
 
Pino gripped the vest strap hidden under his thick, coiled sweater and forced himself to relax, timing his breaths to the murmuring rumble of the train’s engine. Tension leaked from his neck muscles for the first time in days. At least until Alfredo slapped a palm across the back of his head.
 
“Wake up. You look too relaxed.” Alfredo slid into the seat next to Pino. “I figured out our escape when we hit Bari.” Alfredo rolled three hazelnuts in his thick fist, tumbling the shells together with rhythmic clicks.
 
Pino jerked his head toward the soldiers. “Are you crazy? What if they hear?”
 
Alfredo curled his lips into the crooked smirk that had won over every school teacher since primary school. “Nah, they’re too busy stealing each other’s money.”
 
Confident bastard. Didn’t even bother to whisper.
 
The self-proclaimed leader of their ragtag trio, Alfredo acted more like a swaggering war hero than a scrawny 16 year old. No one was immune to his charm. Not the teachers who ignored his classroom pranks, not the pretty girls who followed him around like hungry ponies. And everyone knew Pino was the brains to Alfredo’s charisma. Everyone except Pino’s father.
 
Alfredo nudged Dede, who was asleep in the next seat, and urged him to listen. “When the train pulls into Bari station,” Alfredo whispered, “be in the belly of the snake, not in the head or the tail. Let the other passengers exiting lead or lag behind.”
 
Dede nodded as if Alfredo’s fancy snake imagery made sense before yawning and pressing his sweaty cheek against the train’s thick window.
 
“That’s it? That’s the big escape plan?” Pino said. “Hide behind the other passengers and don’t get caught?”
 
“What more do we need? You know Centrale station. One exit, three, maybe four soldiers. How hard can it be? Take your time, don’t attract attention and you’ll walk out rich. My cousin cleared five hundred lira on the black market last week, and he only had soap. We’ll get twice that for these lentils. Maybe triple.”
 
Pino gazed around the train car at the lone farmer, the pair of habited nuns, the small groups of factory workers. This mission was his idea, a surefire way to make money. He imagined his father’s weary face lighting up when Pino handed him fistfuls of lira. The money would help save his father’s struggling almond business, and Pino would finally beat his brother at something. Or, equally likely, end up dead or in jail.
 
He breathed in the tang of dead fish and old cheese, vestiges of others who’d tried to smuggle black-market staples through Bari’s bustling station. How many of those fools made it past the trigger-happy soldiers without getting shot?
 
“God help us,” Pino said to his reflection in the grime-covered window. He marked the sign of the cross on his forehead and chest.
 
“Only two lazy soldiers guarding us today. And neither of them play Briscola worth shit.” Alfredo spread his knees farther apart in the cramped seat. “Looks like God’s already on our side.”
 
Pino pulled the bill of his boxy plaid cap over his forehead and eyed the soldiers. The men, red-faced and chummy, nestled in their seat like two cannoli in a bakery box, did look distracted. Their soft bellies and easy banter contrasted with the sharp, oiled rifles at their sides. Still; they’d underestimated the carabinieri before. Pino rubbed the side of his head where a rifle butt had whacked him days before on this same train. That time he didn’t deserve it. He’d only been thinking about smuggling.
 
Across the aisle, a man’s stomach rumbled, the lingering snarl a rallying cry to other empty stomachs. With the Germans in charge across Italy, weekly food rations had diminished from paltry to pitiful. Last week, Pino’s mother stood in line for hours for a measly pouch of flour that didn’t last three days. Only the bloated soldiers patrolling the railways and families who could afford the black market’s inflated prices ate enough.
 
Pino willed away the cascades of hunger gripping his insides. No good came from fantasizing about food or even allowing himself the rare, special bite. A single taste of a fatty salami or fresh egg awakened a beast inside him, a ravenous wolf, impossible to satiate. Better to focus on the money they’d make supplying the black market. His brother wasn’t the only hero in the family.
 
“Andria. This stop, Andria.” The conductor’s raspy baritone cut the stagnant air.
 
Alfredo was right about one thing. Two soldiers on the train instead of the usual four was a blessing. But why the change in carabinieri today?
 
The boys had spent the past three days riding the train to nearby small towns bartering labor for food and scoping out the carabinieri patrolling the railways. They’d picked olives near Voltorino, threshed wheat in Tavernolo and spent nights huddled with horses in stables up and down the Puglia region. In the end, they’d bartered for lentils – impossible to find back home and easy to carry stuffed into homemade vests. Alfredo’s uncle, Giovanni, ran an unlicensed grocery store out of his basement in Bari and would pay good money for a staple no one could buy since Italy entered the war.
 
Pino leaned over the seat behind him where Dede, slumped against the train window, slept on, his snores timed with the train’s rough rocking. “Dede, wake up. Next stop’s us.”
 
Dede wiped drool off his chin and hoisted a hidden vest strap higher on his shoulder. “I’m up, I’m up.”
 
“Remember — blend in, and if anyone tries to stop you, run. These two won’t shoot,” Alfredo flicked his head toward the soldiers.
 
“Easy for you to say. You’re not the one with an extra fifty pounds strapped to your chest,” Dede said.
 
“You want me to wear the vest?” A harsh sneer contorted Alfredo’s angular face. “You and Pino drew the short sticks, not me.”
 
Dede gripped the back of the seat, the cords in his neck thickening. “You cheated —”
 
“Shh!” Pino said.
 
“Hey, you.” The older of the two soldiers stood and walked the aisle toward the boys, still holding three playing cards in his hand. Nearly as wide as he was tall, the soldier swiveled to navigate the train aisle, his belly leading the way. “What’s the problem?”
 
“No problem.” Pino said and waved. He bit the side of his cheek. If Alfredo and Dede ruined this now, he’d beat them both bloody.
 
The soldier squinted at Pino and shook his head but turned back to his card game.
 
When the train clamored to a bumpy stop at Andria station, the two nuns slipped out without the soldiers stirring. Pino mopped sweat off his forehead with a sweater sleeve as the nuns scooted past, the thick fabric of their habits swirling their ankles like a dense black fog.
 
“Stop!” yelled a harsh voice from the train platform. A rifle blast cracked the air and a symphony of screams erupted from passengers in and outside the train. “Stop them,” yelled a second voice from the platform. Fast footsteps clacked on wood, faster voices yelled in mother tongue and dialect.
 
The two soldiers on the train scrambled to the aisle and pointed their rifles at the remaining passengers. “Everyone stays seated,” the wide soldier yelled. Three uniformed soldiers marched in front of the train windows flanking the two nuns. The expressionless old women shuffled along, eyes downcast, heads bare, hands tied behind their backs.
 
“Mother of God,” Alfredo whispered. It was the first time Pino ever saw Alfredo make the sign of the cross. The sight sent chills down the back of his legs.
 
The wide soldier raced to the train door and yelled after his fellow guards. “What did you find — the nuns?”
 
A pockmarked-faced soldier pumped his fist in the air and shouted, “Soap and nuts. Under their dresses and hoods.”
 
The wide soldier’s shoulders slumped. “They’re called habits, you moron. Show some respect.” He stepped back on to the train car and raised his voice. “Everyone empty your pockets.”
 
“There’s at least five soldiers out there – two more than yesterday,” Pino whispered to Alfredo. “They must have been tipped off. There’ll be more soldiers at Bari confiscating everything they can get their hands on. We need a new way out.”
 
Alfredo shook him off, a relaxed, infuriating smile curling his lips. “If you run now, we all have to. Follow the plan.”
 
Pino’s legs itched to move, but he stayed in his seat.
 
The second soldier, young and tall with an Adam’s apple the size of a cantaloupe, pointed his rifle at Dede. “You. Empty your pockets.”
 
“No.” Dede shoved his hands in his back pockets. “My pants are my business.”
 
Both soldiers swiveled toward Dede, weapons pointed at his throat.
 
Hot-head Dede would get them all killed. Dede, the only one who didn’t need to be there, whose father ran their town’s funeral home and still made money during the war. Dede, who was only there for the thrills.
 
Pino raised his palms toward the red-faced soldiers. “Excuse my brother. He got kicked in the head by a horse last night, and he’s not himself today.”
 
When Dede snickered, Pino elbowed him in the gut. “The officer said to empty your pockets.” Pino kept his eyes on the soldiers and reached toward Dede’s baggy trousers. Dede batted Pino’s hand away and pulled a handkerchief and a tarnished Saint Joseph medallion from his pocket. He shoved both on his palm toward the guards.
 
A harsh sneeze from a nearby passenger jarred the silence and the train heaved out of the station in a fit of creaky rasps and groans.
 
“I’ve got my eye on you,” the young soldier said and pointed the sharp tip of his rifle toward Dede’s chest.
 
Pino dragged Dede by his sweater. “I’ve got him. He’s mental in the head, my brother is. Our father doesn’t know what to do with him.”
 
“Keep him off these trains or someone will get hurt.” The soldier raised his voice over the train’s throaty whistle. “You hear me?”
 
“Yes, sir,” said Pino.
 
As the train picked up speed, Alfredo signaled to the wide guard. “What’ll happen to the nuns?”
 
The soldier sighed and rubbed his jaw. “I don’t know, son. I don’t know. Where are you boys headed?”
 
“Bari, sir,” Pino said. “We’ll be out of your way in one more stop.”
 
The soldier straightened his uniform jacket by the hem. “Good to know. Stay in your seats and keep your noses clean.”
 
“I have a tip for you too,” Alfredo said. “Your buddy licks his lips whenever he has high cards. Watch, you’ll see.”
 
The soldier arched an eyebrow at Alfredo before walking back to his seat.
 
Pino willed his heart to hold steady. The familiar Italian countryside slid past — endless sun-drenched hills flanked with ancient olive trees. The buds on the olive trees and tendrils of green grass shooting through the caked ground stirred something in him, an urge he’d resisted for years.
 
 
Once, after a long day of school, Pino had pushed through the back door into the kitchen holding a still-wet canvas, a hillside landscape covered in gentle swells and swirls of inky color, and in two quick steps stood behind his mother at the stove. “Look, Mama.” He held up the painting.
 
“Put that out on the porch.” She waved a faded dish towel in the air. “The paint stinks up my kitchen.”
 
Pino leaned his painting against the outside stone of the house and traipsed back inside. His mother stirred garlic and tomatoes with a wooden spoon, filling the air with savory smells. Pino looped her in a hug. She shrugged his arms off her shoulders and kept stirring, the spoon clicking against the sides of the pan.
 
“Come see my painting. It took shape out of nowhere. Mr. Petrillo thinks it’s my best yet.” Pino dipped a hunk of bread in the pan simmering on the stove.
 
“Take a dish,” his mother said, caressing his cheek. “Don’t drip on my floor.”
 
“It’s like flying, seeing my work come to life like that. I can’t describe it.” Pino slurped the sauce off his fingers. “Your gravy’s the best, Ma. God I’m hungry. Where’s Papa?”
 
“He’s in the front room. We’ve got good news. Arturo—”
 
“He’s home?”
 
“How I wish. But he sent a letter. Go see.”
 
Pino grabbed another crust of bread and pushed through the door separating the kitchen from the front room. His father stood up from a well-worn chair and waved the folded paper in his hand. “Pino, come read about your brother. Only six months in the army and already he’s ahead of everybody. He’s been promoted and look, he’s teaching himself to draw.”
 
Under a wooden crucifix, his father had pinned three charcoal drawings, simple but confident, with strong strokes and cursory shadings. A thick hand hoisted a smoldering cigarette, a swollen foot emerged from a muddy combat boot and two weary, heavy-lidded eyes stared out at nothing.
 
The sour bread stuck in Pino’s throat. Arturo didn’t draw. He excelled at everything, but art belonged to Pino.
 
Pino rubbed his fingers over the sketch of the man’s foot, sharp bones detailed from two angles. If Arturo kept practicing, he’d improve quickly. Pino fought the urge to tear the drawing from the wall and crumple it in his fist.
 
“Don’t smudge that,” Pino’s father said. “I want to show your uncles. A head for business that one and creative too. Your brother can do anything.” His father sunk his face into his hands and sobbed. “Please Lord, bring him home to us.”
 
Pino squeezed his father’s shoulder and swallowed hard. Arturo was risking his life every day. He deserved his father’s praise. “He’ll come home. Don’t worry, Papa.”
 
Three years later, Arturo’s drawings still hung on the wall, but he hadn’t come home. Pino hadn’t picked up a paintbrush since.
 
 
“Next stop: Bari. Five minutes.” The conductor’s bark shook Pino from his memory. A violent cough emerged from his throat, clearing the murkiness pulsing his chest.
 
Dede poked Pino’s shoulder. “Switch seats with me. That one keeps eyeing me.” Dede nodded toward the young soldier.
 
Pino hiked his vest and slid out of the train seat. The soft shuffle registered before the cool trickle tumbled down his chest. “Leak, leak! I’ve got a leak,” Pino’s hushed voice cracked like the creak of a rusty water spigot. The pebble-like disks skittered over his hips before nestling in his underwear and the hairs of his sweaty thighs.
 
Alfredo clamped his hand over Pino’s mouth and pushed him back down in his seat.
 
Pino wrapped his arms around himself. “When I stand up, this vest is going to blow. You two run.”
 
“We’re not leaving you. I’ll figure something out,” Alfredo said. He rolled the hazelnuts in his palm with a rhythmic click-clack, click-clack. “The string from my salami. We’ll tie it around your pants’ legs—”
 
“The soldiers will see.”
 
“Don’t worry.” Alfredo leaned over, rolled up his trouser and untied the long, thin salami he’d strapped to his calf with waxy, gray twine.
 
“My father was right. I am worthless,” Pino moaned. “I should have stayed in school or forced him to let me help at the factory.”
 
“Your dad hates that factory,” Dede said. “He doesn’t want you anywhere near that place.”
 
“Because I’m stupid,” Pino said.
 
Alfredo poked his head up over the train seat. “You? Dede’s the stupid one. We don’t have room for two stupids.”
 
“Wait — what?” Dede sputtered.
 
“Sorry, Dede. Don’t worry, Pino. You’ve saved my ass how many times? It’s my turn.” Alfredo slid a coil of slick string to Dede.
 
Dede licked his lips. “Our ignorant friend is right. If you hadn’t—”
 
“Listen to him, Pino,” Alfredo said. “Dede would be cleaning under some dead guy’s fingernails right now if it weren’t for you and this trip.”
 
“And Alfredo would still be asleep in the shit-filled stable we slept in last night. Gimme your leg.”
 
Alfredo grinned. “He’s got a point.”
 
The train slowed. Alfredo handed Pino a long, crusted salami. “Don’t stick it in your pants and don’t go eating it on the way home. I expect it for my dinner.” With that Alfredo stood and whistled to the soldiers. “Excuse me. Over here—yes, you.”
 
“What?” The young soldier yelled over the screech of the train’s brakes.
 
Alfredo waved his hand and walked toward the soldiers. “I have some advice for you both. On the Briscola, the cards.”
 
Pino and Dede hissed at him, but Alfredo waved them off. Dede gnawed the twine into two pieces before wrapping a length around each of Pino’s pants legs and tying the ends into neat, square knots.
 
“This stop: Bari,” the conductor’s voice rang out. The train lurched to a stop.
 
While Alfredo occupied the soldiers, Dede and Pino huddled with a small group of workers as they left the train and disappeared into the mass of passengers navigating the station’s sole exit. Every fifth or sixth step, a small, brown lentil slipped out of Pino’s pant leg and skittered on the pocked concrete. Dede gave a throaty snicker while Pino held his breath waiting for a rifle crack or a weighted hand to fall on his shoulder.
 
When they rounded the main terminal, a wall of armed soldiers blocked the exit gates, checking bags and searching random passengers.
 
“That’s why only two soldiers rode the train today,” Pino hissed. “They’re all here. No way we’re getting out.”
 
Dede swore under his breath and tossed Pino his rucksack. “Take my vest and get out of here. Promise me you won’t stop until you get to Giovanni’s.”
 
“What? What are you doing?” Pino blocked Dede from view while he lifted his sweater and unhooked the bulging vest off his concave chest.
 
Dede’s chin trembled. “Promise me. And hurry.”
 
“I promise, I promise, but what—?”
 
Dede jogged toward the soldiers and with a rabid howl shoved one of the largest in the chest.
 
The band of soldiers beat through the thick crowd to circle Dede. Pino’s pulse soared, his friend’s addled shrieks the only sound in his ears. This was insane. Dede would get himself killed over some stupid beans?
 
A tumult of fellow passengers scurried toward the unguarded exit and knocked Pino out of his stupor. While Dede thrashed and moaned, Pino shoved the vest into his rucksack and stumbled through the gates, distancing himself from the chaos.
 
He ran the ten blocks to Via Quarto, checking over his shoulder every few meters, and tumbled through the wooden door leading to Giovanni’s cramped basement. Small piles of lumpy soap stacked in tarnished metal pails lined the wall next to wooden crates vacant but for handfuls of wilted dandelion greens, caked dirt still dangling from their roots.
 
“Pino, you look terrible.” Giovanni sidled over. “Come in — sit and catch your breath.” Giovanni, round and swollen like an overripe fig, flipped an empty pail and offered Pino a seat.
 
Pino’s vision tunneled, and he swayed awkwardly before Giovanni caught his arm and helped him sit.
 
“Easy, easy — what’s happened? Your mother? Your father?”
 
Pino shook his head, his raspy breaths calming. “Dede and Alfredo, we brought food. Dede got stopped by the soldiers so I could escape and Alfredo — on the train.”
 
“Calm down and listen to me. Dede’s tough and Alfredo, well, you know, he’ll be fine. He always is. Tell me what happened.”
 
Pino breathed a full breath for the first time since leaving the train station. “I’ll show you.” He untied the string from his right pant leg and shook his leg over an empty straw basket, releasing a handful of brown lentils.
 
“What’s this?” Giovanni chuckled. “Growing lentils in your pants?”
 
Pino added a stream of flat, round beans from his left leg to the basket. Before Giovanni could comment, Pino tugged the sweater and vest over his head and dumped a steady torrent of lentils in the basket.
 
Giovanni grappled for a second basket to catch the overflow. “I haven’t seen lentils like this in years. Nobody saw you, right?”
 
Pino glanced at the basement door and shook his head. “How much?”
 
Giovanni clucked his tongue. “Let me figure it out.”
 
“There’s more.” Pino pulled out the second vest.
 
“Mother of God,” Giovanni said. “This is good, Pino. You have no idea. For months all we’ve had are cigarettes and a few kilograms of semolina to sell.” Giovanni sketched numbers on a sheet of brown paper while Pino plucked errant lentils off his hairy legs.
 
The door to the basement store opened and a woman Pino didn’t recognize strolled in, a towel-lined basket slung over her arm. “I’m back. I forgot the soap—” Her eyes widened when she saw the baskets of lentils. “Are those lentils? Oh, bless you, Giovanni. My daughters haven’t eaten more than a fist of bread for weeks.”
 
“Don’t bless me, bless him.” Giovanni gestured with one hand at Pino, who gulped and pulled his sweater back over his head.
The woman beamed at him and asked Giovanni for one small scoop of the treasured beans.
 
“Let me finish with my young friend here.” Giovanni walked Pino to the door and handed him a pile of folded paper bills.
 
“This time, I can give you nine hundred lira for all of it. Next time, maybe more.”
 
“No next time,” Pino said. “This is it for me. I’m going to help my father at his business.”
 
Giovanni’s eyes twinkled. “Ah, Pino, your father’s lucky to have you.”
 
 

***

 
When Pino burst into his house ten minutes later, he found his mother and father sitting at the kitchen table eating bowls of thin, steaming soup.
 
“Where have you —?” Before his mother could finish, Pino kissed her cheek and handed his father three hundred lira.
 
His father’s eyes drifted from Pino to the money, his face shading from gray to crimson.
 
“It’s for you, for the business.”
 
His father waved the wrinkled paper bills in the air. “Where did you get this?”
 
“We — me, Dede and Alfredo, we worked and bartered for lentils. In Voltorino and Tavernolo. Look.” Pino dropped the dusty vests on the floor and in one motion, pulled a small burlap package from his rucksack and handed it to his mother. “I saved some for you.”
 
His mother let the flat, round beans fall through her cupped fingers. “How?”
 
“I told you, we—”
 
“Smuggled, didn’t you?” Pino’s father tossed the bills on the table. “This is why you skipped school and risked your life? For a few lira and a handful of beans?”
 
“I know it’s not much, but —”
 
“But what? I work every day, every hour, so you can stay safe and go to school and make something of yourself, and this is what you choose? To go off and play?”
 
“Play?” Pino lifted a wooden chair and slammed it on the ceramic floor. “We worked — to make money to save the business.”
 
The muscles in his father’s neck bulged. “What do you think three hundred lira is going to do? If you learned anything at school, you’d know this is nothing.”
 
“But, Papa.” Pino squared his shoulders. “I want to help. I can work at the factory.”
 
“Enough! I don’t want you at the factory.” Pino’s father pounded the table with his fist, startling the soup bowls.
 
His father’s words buzzed around Pino’s brain like trapped, dizzy flies.
 
When he spoke again, his father’s voice sounded hoarse. “I don’t need more workers, Pino. Go to school. Study. You’ll be a banker, a lawyer, something better than me.”
 
Pino’s mother patted her husband’s back. “Easy, Piero. Have some soup.” She splashed more of the watery broth into his bowl from a pot on the stove. “Pino, go wash up.”
 
Pino shuffled to the bathroom, disappointment stewing in his gut. A sink full of warm water washed away days of accumulated dirt and hope.
 
“Hey, where’s my salami?” a voice called from outside his bedroom window.
 
Alfredo stood outside Pino’s house supporting Dede, bloodied and battered, his swollen lip split in three places.
 
“We’re going again,” Dede said. “Tomorrow. But this bastard wears the vest.”
 
“We’ll draw straws,” Alfredo said.
 
Dede grunted and threatened with a rough, bloody fist. “Okay, okay, I’ll wear a vest,” Alfredo said.
 
Pino leaned out the window and shook his head. “I can’t go —”
 
“Of course you can, you’re a hero,” Dede said. “We all are. You should see the people lined up at Giovanni’s, waiting to buy lentils. Everybody wants more, as much as we can get.”
 
Pino imagined himself hoisted on the crowd’s shoulders while people chanted his name. Different than Arturo, but a hero nonetheless. He pictured his father’s weary, weathered face. What dreams had he given up when he was Pino’s age?
 
Pino licked his lips. At three hundred lira per trip, he would make more than enough to keep himself in oils and paint brushes for months.
 
“This time we use the freight trains. Fewer people, different guards.”

 
 
 

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