The Southernmost wedge of Illinois is called Little Egypt. Towns are named Cairo and Karnak and Thebes. When Julio Foli and his brother Mario arrived there from Fanano, Italy, early in the last century, maybe they were expecting pyramids; instead they found coalmines. They hauled coal until they’d saved enough to buy passage for the rest, Alberto, Gaetano, Tony, Rosa, Ines, and their parents. Eventually the Folis quit the mines; they opened butcher shops and planted pear trees; they became aldermen and founded church choirs; they married well and also badly.

Rosa’s first husband was a tyrant who beat and belittled her. There were two impediments to divorce, the Church and a wheelchair. The man had been left handicapped in a car wreck, and in the 1920s the courts wouldn’t let you leave a cripple. Even if he threatened to kill you. Rosa’s husband used to explain, quite calmly, how he’d dispose of her body by tossing it over her parents’ back fence.

In Johnston City murder, mutilation, and the strewing of body parts were not idle threats. Williamson County was an almost comical nexus of American violence, like the dust devil of fists and pistols in a Tex Avery cartoon. All the big players in Yankee evil went at it here: the Ku Klux Klan fought the Mafia; coal barons battled corrupt sheriffs; skirmishes between rival bootleggers resulted in bombings, tank battles, and public hangings. Seven boys had been cooked alive in the Stiritz Mine blast of 1927. Nineteen more were killed in a massacre of strikebreakers at the Herrin Mine. My great grandfather, Guy Foli, bought his first house at a deep discount because he’d found the previous owner dead in a secret sub-basement. The man had been bludgeoned by Sheriff Arms, a lawman who, under the pretext of enforcing Prohibition, conspired with the Klan to terrorize Catholics, foreigners, and other alcoholic species.

Before he bought the dead man’s house, Guy lived in an apartment above his market and butcher shop. One night in the mid 1920s, Arms arrived with his Klansmen deputies. They bound my great grandmother, Mary, in a potato sack, and hauled her husband off to jail in Benton. (My grandmother, who witnessed the abduction, told me, ‘There were a lot of white people who didn’t want us living in their town.’ This was the first time I’d thought of my grandmother as non-white.) Guy recognized one of his assailants, a boy to whom he’d extended store credit. ‘I know you’, he said. The sheet concealed whatever shame he felt. The next week, the boy would be back in Foli’s Market buying salsiccia and penny candy that he couldn’t pay for. In Johnston City everybody was on the losing end of some battle.

It was, in my grandmother’s words, ‘a tough little town’, to say the least. So when Rosa’s husband threatened to dismember her, she had reason to believe him. In American lore, the small town is always a refuge from the stampeding inhumanity and dirty humanism of the big city. Immigrants suffer the purgatory of Chinatowns and Hells Kitchens before ascending to our Rockwellesque burbs and hamlets. This was not Rosa’s trajectory. To escape a homicidal husband and a tough little town, she did something remarkable, especially for a woman of the twenties. She boarded a train and travelled to a distant city where she knew no one.

If you kept bar at Salvedo’s on North Sedgwick you would not be surprised to see a tin bucket land on the icy walk across the street. You would drape your rag over the slop sink, fetch two bottles of Fox DeLuxe from the cooler, and place them in the bucket. Then you’d watch the woman in the second-storey window hoist up the bucket on a string. And even though your name would be Guy Tony or Sal, you would not be surprised when she greeted you with a cry of ‘Garibaldi!’

Rosa called everyone Garibaldi, as if every person in Chicago were a general. My great-great aunt was herself an armchair general. She performed the entire beer-bucket operation, and just about everything else, from a chair by the window. She sat like she had very little experience standing up and less inclination, but Rosa had given enough of her life to standing. After fleeing Johnston City, she’d worked as a maid at the Highland Park Country Club. She had outrun homicide and golfers, and now she wanted to sit. She wanted to drink beer and crochet.

And she didn’t waste her talents on granny-square trivets or wooly shawls. Rosa was an artist. On one wall hung her lace rendering of The Last Supper, history’s most depressing dinner party woven from fine yarn. The burden of sin and salvation was chain-stitched across Christ’s face. Rosa’s own expression was of grim contentment, grim on the verge of laughter, crochet hook in one hand, church key in the other. She cursed and wheezed and was loved.

The man who loved her was several blocks south, paring radishes in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel. Paul had been an infantryman and a landscaper before rising to the rank of Head Salad Chef in one of Chicago’s finest establishments. He was humble and kind and the size of a doll, an Italian toy soldier. He chopped iceberg lettuce without violence, shaved carrot curls with a hand like a hairdresser’s. He dressed shabbily so no one would mug him as he walked home from work.

Paul wrapped two pork chops in the Tribune and clocked out, the bad news bleeding backwards on the cut flesh. He held hands with himself, trying to contain the residual movement from ten hours of labour. But it never worked. He chopped his way down North La Salle, pared the night air as he strolled along West Eugenie, peeled and julienned until at last he’d reached the dogleg at Sedgwick and Menomonee. He could see the lights from Salvedo’s, see the Syrian shadows dancing upstairs to their pretty music.

He climbed the steps and Rosa received her kiss. She wheezed a question; he answered with a laugh. In the kitchen Paul unwrapped his parcel and browned the chops with onions. He’d salted the meat and worked a spoon through a pot of cold polenta before little Melba ran in to kiss her father’s knees. His kitchen pants smelled of thousand island and Borax.

Six years earlier, when Rosa was forty-one, she’d been rushed to the hospital complaining of a stomach tumour. The diagnosis was not what she’d expected, and she told the doctors to go to hell; she was dying; don’t joke. Rosa and Paul carried baby Melba home with a look of surprise that would never entirely vanish. Melba would grow up to be a ballet dancer and a nurse and would marry a Sicilian. And all the Folis back in Johnston City would declare her a beautiful girl.

That night after supper Paul put on a few records and they danced to Bob Wills and Alberto Rabagliati. Rosa stood (she had to sometimes) and Paul was forced to gaze up into her eyes. The window was open and the bucket on the sill and the Syrian across North Sedgwick yelled into the night. He wanted to know what kind of music would make them dance so good. When ‘Ba-Ba-Baciami Piccina’ was over Paul lowered Rosa’s bucket to the sidewalk. They heard the clink of two bottles and Rosa shouted, to no one in particular: ‘Garibaldi! Garibaldi!’ It didn’t matter who she meant. Back in Johnston City everyone had been losing some battle. But in Chicago everyone was a general.

Truth and Reconciliation
Great Books about Chicago