About five crests in (which is four crests more than I thought the mountain Leonardo and I were climbing could possibly have up its skirt), while I attempted to slow down the Super Sidewinder™ vistas that burst open around every corner like time-lapse peonies, Leonardo excitedly pointed out a spring that did little to advertise itself as such, in that it consisted of a dingy spout affixed to a roadside embankment. He said it was the most delicious water I would ever taste, and that people came from all over to stock up. Sure enough, there was a man with several empty plastic jugs and a seemingly ill-calculated bicycle at his feet, filling up the first of his haul.
Leonardo slowed as we rounded a final bend and approached what seemed to be the beginnings of a village: lining the road were small buildings, which looked like open garages or storage units missing the fourth wall, with people posted out in front of them. My eye immediately fell on a gorgeous teenage girl shoving a huge piece of bread into her mouth, turning just slightly to meet my eyes as she did so, heedless of the two older, squatter women flanking her and monitoring the intake. Just as I was wondering how a girl who looked like that could be stuck up on a mountain somewhere, I heard the rattle of children tailing the car like tin cans tied to the muffler and crying “Taxi! Taxi!!” as if it were Italian for “Ice cream! Ice cream!!”
As I took in the taking in, I beat a slow retreat from Leonardo’s neck to the far reaches of the backseat; I didn’t want to come to the village as a spectacle, but clearly there was no way to avoid it. I felt molten tributaries of embarrassment burning their way down from some dingy-spouted wellspring at my crown that mingled betrayal, longing, and belonging—the holy trinity of the teenaged psyche—and that indeed I hadn’t experienced full-throttle since I was 14 and my best friend Elise declared that she was giving her extra Rolling Stones ticket to Jenn Gaudon when everyone knew Jenn didn’t care about the Rolling Stones and I was in actual physical pain at the prospect of seeing not so much the band, but any band who had hung out with the Beatles; or maybe since I was 16 and Alison Culmer, despite having never heard of the show and whose presence served only to humor my obsession, shuffled off, with unforeseen bovinity and without looking back, to a taping of Late Night with David Letterman when the standby line got cut off at me. The villagers looked so good to me, so opposite of me: clean and simple and indifferent.
Again Leonardo wanted to know where we were going and the only thing I could come up with was the cemetery—because despite a triple-digit population and/or square-footage, there had to be a cemetery—to stall his ever-dwindling patience and ever-accumulating occupational instincts. We came upon a group of about 10 men, aged 7 to 75, whose nucleus was the three square feet of patio drawn out from a building and whose membranous members nearly crowded out the street. They wrapped around us fluidly as we slowed, and as Leonardo asked them how to get to the inevitable cemetery, a boy of about 10 standing right outside my window bowed slightly toward me with untroubled curiosity, his eyes momentarily drawn away from the business end of the Popsicle his mouth still nuzzled attentively.
I wanted so badly to be out of the cab, just then and my whole life, lifting something to my mouth or nose or eyes, twinkling at some unspoken familiarity, safe in the limber lines of a secular, cellular huddle. We pulled away from them as I was still mapping their faces in my mind, and around yet another corner, Leonardo slowed again to consult a trio of girls perched in a rather simian configuration, somehow forming a triangular front without benefit of branches or tails. Wordlessly, they pointed in the direction we were already heading, and Leonardo—skeptical now on principle, it seemed—suffered a slight acceleration. We passed a woman with short, unfussy hair pushing a young boy in a wheelchair up the mountain. I thought the mountain had to be clean out of “up” at this point, but again we rounded a bend that revealed a fresh crop of bends stacked like boomerangs above us. About 10 seconds later, my eyes raised and chin lowered in continued contemplation of the endless rungs, I heard Leonardo declare, “OK, you see cemetery, where now?” Cottoning to the news of my apparent blackout, I said, “What are you talking about? I didn’t see anything!”
“We just passed it!”
“Well I didn’t see anything!”
With great exasperation and not a few units of G force, he put the car in reverse and slammed us 50 feet into the past, then stopped with a thud and a sigh.
“What are you talking about? There’s no cemetery!”
And indeed there wasn’t: thin air notwithstanding, I was positive there was nothing to my right but a 15-foot embankment that wound around the bend, and nothing to my left but a 50-foot drop; the road was pretty much the main attraction, as far as I could tell.
And with that we tumbled out of the car in a fury of unbuckling to continue our finely nuanced argument where gestures could run free. I was prepared to take this one all the way downtown, because I don’t care what language you speak, there was no goddamn cemetery that I could see, or, ipso facto, that I had seen. I drew my thumbs over to the base of my pinkie fingers, loosening my wrists at my sides, but before I could retrieve something inoffensive from my arsenal, Leonardo grabbed my arm and pulled me to the edge of the mountain. “There! Cemetery!” With each word, he jerked my arm out over the drop-off so that I had to look down just to stop myself from falling over. About 30 feet below, beneath a canopy of treetops, I could make out a few mini-roofs of what were obviously tombs. He didn’t understand at all, I thought wearily, or enough.
“But I want to go in. I want to look at the names on the tombs. For my family!” Again we quarreled, and as it dawned on me that he had no idea how to actually get to where the cemetery was, a voice from above broke up the squabble. We both looked up and saw, leaning on the fence atop the embankment, an old man in overalls who had clearly been peacefully tending to his tomato bushes until Archie and Edith rolled up. Leonardo and the gardener’s brief, spirited exchange resulted in my being gently steered by the shoulders and placed directly under the old man’s gaze, like a peace offering, or a bomb. Leonardo stepped back gravely and said, “You tell, tell names, tell what you want.” I stood dumbly in the road, squinting up at the spindly, weathered old man who saw my squint and raised me a hand visor. I started into my story as a kind if chant, trying to get lost from, or perhaps to outbore, the inanity of the situation, and got as far as “Teresa Montemurro”—my great-grandmother’s maiden name—when he erupted with a clap, “Ah! Rosa Montemurro! Amereeka! Toronto!” I reeled around and looked down at the cemetery, up at the old man, and then back at Leonardo in triumph; Rose was my great aunt, dammit!
“Yes! Yes! OK!” It seemed like a major break in the case, and even Leonardo bounced a cigarette out of the package with relief. Just then, the woman pushing the boy in the wheelchair came upon us, still making her way up the hill. All three of them began conversing in Italian and again I was left in the dust; even keeping track of the gestures and their respective possible meanings was like trying to follow a zero-gravity tennis match. I was warding off the dizziness brought on by trying both to keep up (backhand, lob, winner) and to be seen keeping up (nod, nod, nod) when something truly phenomenal happened. The woman turned to me and began speaking. In English. The most perfectly composed, adorably executed English sentences ever to reach my tender, ravished ears. The fact that the sun was at my back did not preclude the hosanna of light that ignited behind her head. I was in the middle of the southern countryside, on top of a mountain in a village so small and poor that my great-grandparents thought mucking coal in Salt Lake City would be a sweeter deal, and after a month of silence and blank stares, at 6:12 p.m. on the eve of my last chance to find out my real name and bring it to my family like a gilded, authenticated, stamped and signed lily, an angel came upon me, speaking in mother tongues.
I tripped over myself getting the story out, she translated it to Leonardo, who lit a second cigarette of thanks and praise, and all four of us took off down the road. The angel seemed to have a plan, and phase one was showing me a large yellow stucco house about 50 feet away, looming large and birthday cake-ish behind a thatch of trees. Apparently, my great-grandmother’s family had been a prominent one, and what the angel was showing me was their former homestead. As we stood there peering off at my ancestral home, several people emerged from their houses, or the coolest corners of their porches, each one curious and offering assistance, food, or both; I found myself searching through the faces that seemed to bloom in my path. They were so soft and sun-dipped, so steadfast in their welcome of the giant Canadian girl (“Americano!” “Canadese …” “Si! Americano!”), I felt like I was being passed from hand to hand like a warm batch of dough, and I rose and rose.