On Bear Mountain

On Bear Mountain

Deborah Smith

$16.95 Reprint December 2009
ISBN: 978-0-9821756-6-8

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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

  • Reviewer's Choice Nominee, Best Contemporary Novel, Romantic Times BookClub 2003
  • Nominee, The 2002 Townsend Prize for Fiction Reviewer's Choice Nominee, Best Mainstream Romance, Romantic Times, 1997

Dirt-poor, sensitive as poets, and proud as kings, the Powell family has lived on a Georgia mountaintop for generations. Then, during the 1960's, young Ursula Powell's father convinces the Tiber family, owners everything in nearby Tiberville, to commission a huge iron sculpture of a bear for the town. Decades later the strange sculpture – rejected by the townspeople and left to rust on the Powell farm – symbolizes a family's failure and thwarted dreams. But, unknown to Ursula, it is now worth such a huge fortune that the artist's embittered son, Quentin Ricconni, is coming to reclaim it . . . and to change everything Ursula believes about the past, the choices that break a heart, and the redeeming powers of art and love.


"Characters as intriguing as the abstract sculpture." -- Atlanta Journal Constititution

"Beautifully written . . . A shimmering web of sorrows and joys." -- Booklist

"Readers of the novels of Anne Rivers Siddons will welcome into their hearts Deborah Smith." -- Midwest Book Review

"A fine and gentle tale" -- Publishers Weekly

"Charming and heartwarming" -- Library Journal

"Smith's best novel yet." -- Bestselling author Kristin Hannah



I vowed to embarrass Quentin Riconni if he died in my arms that day, there on that Georgia mountaintop under a cold, winter sky. "Powells don't grieve the way ordinary people do,” I whispered in a voice that shook against the wind curling over the high mountain glen. A hard night was coming; the frost would kill every vulnerable living thing, including him.

"I'll spend the rest of my life telling everyone I meet who you were and why I love you and why I was never the same after you died. And I'll make you sound a lot better than you were, stronger and kinder than you ever had any intention of being. People will say you must of charmed me with big talk and good looks. I'll have to tell them you didn't talk that much or look that good. Do you really want me to lie?”

His eyes remained closed and his lips slightly parted, his breath now making only a faint mist in the frigid air. It had been at least an hour since he'd answered any of my questions. I lay beside him, trying to keep him warm. Light flickered on his face from a fire I'd built. In the towns and homes, the farms and resorts in the valleys below us, fireplaces sent decorative warmth into the air. But here, high up where only the hardiest souls could survive, fire meant life, and only promises spoken out loud could keep the darkest fears away.

"Arthur believes in you,” I said. "Now you have to believe in him. You taught him to be a man, and he's not going to let you down.” The sky had ripened into cold purples and golds over the forested rim of the Appalachians. The gray-blue dusk of a fading sunset drew the last minutes of Quentin's life below the horizon. I was praying for just one small miracle. My brother, Arthur, had gone for help hours ago.

I pressed my hand tighter to the spot low on one side of Quentin's rib cage, where the bullet had torn through him. If we'd only gotten here an hour earlier, the rescuers would say. A minute earlier. A second earlier. It was always the small pieces of time that ruined people. I knew that help would come eventually, but by then it would be too late. He'd never survive the long trip back down the mountain. I touched his lips, searching for even the faintest trace of breath, but couldn't find it.

He was leaving with the sunset.

Some choices are made for us before we're born. Some traditions are set in hard patterns we're expected to follow, their seams welded, their strengths and weaknesses hammered into place. We don't cast our own shadows until we know who we love and where we belong. Only then do we understand.

Sometimes you've got to break the mold that's been made for you, or die trying.


Chapter 1

When I was a child it seemed to me that our secluded farm lay at the end of a path to a magic land where only Powells and legends could survive. Even by mountain standards the land at Bear Creek was too rocky to farm, too steep to log, and too isolated to hunt. There was only one level spot of any useable consequence, and that was our five-acre hilltop overlooking the vast woods of the creek valley. The soft ribbon of our narrow dirt road dipped and wound through the woods for a mile before reaching a paved county two-lane. The approach to our homestead managed a hardy fringe of decoration only where the sun hit it. At those places it burst into wild daisies, morning glories, old-fashioned, ruffled roses that had escaped from some long-dead Powell's arbor, and buttercup-yellow jonquils that had migrated from tamer beds. I lived there with parents who knew we were special. I was born on the day that our destiny began to find us.

On a cool March morning in 1966, a Southern Railways freight train finished its long trip home from New York. The big engines and their long line of cars lumbered out of the last moss-dappled granite tunnel beneath the ancient Appalachians, then chugged up a steep grade bordered by enormous firs, rhododendron, and wintry hardwoods, before leveling out on a high plateau near the Georgia-Tennessee line.

Looking east over a breathtaking vista of gray mountains still waiting for spring, the engineer might have glimpsed the distant smoke from the Powell homestead's hundred-year-old chimney, if the wind were right. Inside that whitewashed farmhouse I was five hours old, safe in my mother's arms, and unaware that my future was rolling into town.

The train slowed with the great grandeur of industrial might as its horn saluted the Tiber Poultry feed mill, the Tiber Poultry Hatchery, and the Tiber Poultry Processing Plant on the outskirts of town. A mile further, it eased down a shallow grade, its horn blaring even louder, as it entered the very civilized environs of Tiberville.

Beneath the town's canopy of bare, winter trees, cars and pick-up trucks lined the handsome streets as if a festival were underway. At the Tiberville depot, several hundred people waited. The college marching band played Dixie.

A crowd of notable town citizens stood in the prime front spaces on the depot platform. The rest of the county stood below the level of the loading platform, consigned to the depot's graveled parking lot along with the town dogs. This caste included Tiber-contracted chicken farmers, chap-handed employees of the bloody Tiber chicken processing plant, wild mountain folk who made their livings in rebellious ways involving liquor, hunting, and cars, and my father, Tom Powell.

At 11:52 a.m. the train rumbled to a stop at Tiberville's historic depot, which had survived Sherman's firebug troops during the Civil War. Inside a box car sat a sculpture of a native Georgia bear. Our town matriarch, elderly, eccentric Betty Tiber, who was Powell kin by virtue of being the daughter the notorious Bethina Grace Powell Tiber, had commissioned it for the campus of Mountain State.

The sculptor was an unknown Brooklyn artist named Richard Riconni. No one in Tiberville or Tiber County had any idea what to expect from him except Miss Betty and my art-loving Daddy, who had cooked up the plan for a bear sculpture made from local mementos, (as Miss Betty called them,) or junk, in Daddy's simple terms. This silly idea came from her Powell blood, some Tibers insisted, and it wasn't a compliment.

The Tibers and their friends nurtured desperately hopeful pretty-postcard visions of classic statuary that could pose grandly on Mountain State's manicured lawns. Or, at the very least, a piece of modern art that would not embarrass old ladies and ministers. So when the door of the box car was pushed back, everyone crowded forward to see Tiberville's first piece of Yankee sculpture. They quickly backed up.

The abstract black bear towered over them, touching the roof of the box car with its rounded backbone. It had soaring, see-through sides of iron bar and short, thick legs of twisted metal, swirling down into black-iron paws with elegantly curved claws. The head was noble and massive, made from hammered sections of thick iron that merged into an amazingly engineered star of seams above the sculpture's muzzle. Two smooth black holes in the head gazed out at our world with the startling effect of mysterious, all-knowing eyes. The sculpture didn't resemble a bear so much as a playful Omnivore of the Universe, some serene spirit with the power to amuse, annoy, or enlighten.

Daddy loved it at first sight. Deep inside its see-through ribs, suspended on steel wires, was a heart-shaped clump of melted metal that had once been the carburetor of his Grandpa Oscar Powell's 1922 Ford tractor. That tractor had faithfully plowed two generations of garden earth and hay pasture at Bear Creek. Centered around such an earth-loving and loyal core named for the ursine population of the world, the Bear sculpture instantly became a member of our family.

"It's plain beautiful,” Daddy said loudly, a lone voice in the stunned wilderness. People around him either gazed up at the enormous sculpture in speechless awe or embarrassment. Mountain State College officials nearly strangled. The Tiber family had founded the college in the late 1800's, and since then had endowed half the buildings on campus. Betty Tiber herself had funded the new concession stand and concrete bleachers for the campus baseball field. They couldn't reject her terrible junkyard joke. Betty was in the hospital recovering from a mild stroke, but had sent word she'd come by ambulance to view her pride-and-joy that afternoon.

Every Tiber on the depot platform sent dark scowls toward my father. "Tommy, come up here,” John Tiber ordered in his most magisterial Rotarian-president tone. "Tell me that you and my grandmama didn't know this goddamned thing would look like this.”

Daddy bounded up on the platform, grinning. Behind him, the whole crowd burst into loud guffaws. John Tiber's heart turned black with impugned authority and loss of dignity. His father had died young, a genteel Tiber drunk, and his mother had simply faded away. John had spent his youth overcompensating for his parents' dishonor, and so he didn't abide humiliations very well. Now, for the first time in the history of Tiberville and Tiber County, his family was being turned into the butt of a very public joke. From that moment forward Mr. John, as everyone called him, would loathe and fear the sculpture's effect.

Daddy sank his hands into the pockets of his threadbare coat and grinned wider. "Johnny, the sculpture looks like it's got to look,” he said to his red-faced cousin. "It's supposed to make folks think twice. It's made up of good things and bad things—ruination and joy and hope and loss—it's life, Johnny.”

"Life is not made up of junk and nonsense.” Mr. John, not even thirty but already balding and fleshy, was the perfect captain of small-town society in a brown suit with a gold Tiber Poultry tie clasp anchoring his thin black tie against the brisk March breeze. Daddy, about the same age, was dirt-poor, hard-labor lanky, and sweetly homely, dressed in his best overalls and white dress shirt, a well-worn brown fedora slouched comfortably on his auburn hair, his warm eyes filled with awe as he studied his and Betty Tiber's ursine abomination. "It's perfect,” he said.

Furious, Mr. John took a step toward him, halted, and clenched his fists. Only their lifelong affection for each other kept him from punching him in the mouth. They were cousins, after all, and that meant something, even if Powells were no longer formally recognized or invited into Tiber society. As boys they had been devoted friends, and they were, each in his way, the keepers of the community. One word from Daddy could settle disputes between Tiber Poultry and the county's contract chicken growers. "Tommy,” Mr. John said in a low voice, "You've just set back our family relations another hundred years.”

"The bear's got heart,” Daddy insisted. "It's got a soul.” Heart and soul. Those were Daddy's brands of art critique—a dead-on judgment that summed up the library books he checked out about Picasso and Salvador Dali, or a ‘Jesus Saves' warning painted on a homemade billboard, or a kitchen garden bursting with bright red tomatoes planted in whitewashed tires. "Now this town's got a real piece of art to ponder over and discuss,” Daddy went on. "It could change our lives, make us see the world with fresh eyes.”

"It's got about five goddamned thousand dollars of my grandmother's savings,” Mr. John replied. "I should have taken over her power of attorney before she cashed in her Coca-Cola stock and started talking to New Yorkers.”

He motioned brusquely for the dock men to close the freight car's door, and the Bear disappeared from view, at least temporarily. The show was over. The people of Tiberville and Tiber County went back to their jobs, their homes, their college classes, their lives, either laughing or sputtering with indignation. Life would never be the same.

When Daddy returned to our farm that day he loped upstairs on our creaking, white-washed stairs, yelling, "Victoria, the sculpture was a glorious sight! It's gonna change the way people look at the world around here!” Mama was snug in the bedroom, wrapped in quilts to ward off the drafts that lived like happy ghosts in the isolated Powell farmhouse. She said devotedly, "I reckon I don't doubt so, if'n you say it,” as she cuddled me to her bare breasts. She'd given birth to me at home because hospitals were against her religion. New Testament fiddle faddle was not for her.

Daddy sat down beside her on their pine-slab bed and with great patience told Mama all about the second wonderful work of art he'd seen now that their daughter had come into the world. He kissed my forehead and Mama's smiling lips, and then they talked about my name.

"It's got to be a bear name, because of today,” he said. "I'd like to call our girl ‘Ursula.' I've been studying on the name. Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, you know—the star patterns in the sky? The constellations? Ursula means Little Bear. I figure that oughta keep our family bear spirit happy. And it's in honor of the Iron Bear, too. That's what I'm calling that sculpture. I just got a feelin' this is important in the big scheme of things! I'd like to meet Richard Riconni and shake his hand for building it! He's a man who knows you gotta reach down inside yourself and pull out your own bones to see what you're made of!” Daddy stroked his thick, callused fingers over my head. My hair was auburn and unruly, like his. "That's what I'm gonna teach this little lady! To be an iron bear!”

Mama, who could see the sacred structure inside Daddy's whimsical ideas, merely nodded her loving acceptance. Nursing at her breast, I was contented and unaware of the responsibility I'd just been handed.

For better or worse, I and the Iron Bear had arrived.


Five states and one thousand miles to the north, Quentin Riconni huddled next to the radiator in the chilly living room of his parents' small Brooklyn apartment. The room was crowded with cheap vinyl furniture, and the bookcases overflowed with encyclopedias, art texts, and novels. A dozen of his father's smaller sculptures perched on the coffee table, on the lamp stands, and in the corners of the floor, like weird metal elves. On the living room windowsill, a plaster copy of Picasso's Head of a Woman looked down on a street of bedraggled trees, littered apartment stoops, and shops with barred windows.

Quentin scribbled feverishly in his journal, a spiral-bound notebook on which he had pasted the Greek symbol for infinity, a fanciful picture of H.G. Well's time machine, a picture of a gleaming Marine dress sword, and a newspaper photo of Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay. At the top of the notebook cover, outlined in precise block letters Quentin had drawn in ink, were the words, My Credo. He was no ordinary eight year old. He was telling the story of his life so far, and of recent events which were about to change his life.

A couple of years ago, when I was still just a kid, I thought Brooklyn was the whole world. Mother says as long as Brooklyn has libraries we ARE the whole world. She is a librarian, so she knows what she means. She says I can stand on the beach at Coney Island and see all the way to Europe, if I think about it hard enough. Our part of Brooklyn is ugly but the rest of the city is okay. Ugly is only how you look at things, Papa says. I don't know about that. I see ugly on our street, and it just IS. And it is going to get worse.

Today I found out that Papa can't live with us, anymore. He is going to a town three or four hours in the car from here, where a man who bought one of Papa's sculptures has an empty warehouse Papa can use for a studio, so he can have plenty of room to work on his sculptures all the time. All Papa has to do is take care of the building. We don't have the money to rent any place like that around here. It's real big, I hear.

Papa says people used to store stoves and mattresses and other things at the warehouse before the man that used to own it got in trouble with the FBI. Now the warehouse belongs to Uncle Sam and it is in limbo, Papa says. Our upstairs neighbor, Mrs. Silberstein, told me there are probably some mob guys buried in the floor. Mother says Papa won't mind mob guy ghosts. He grew up around them.

We will only see Papa on the weekends, until he gets to be rich and famous with his art. He says it will only be a year or two, he bets. But that feels like forever and I don't know what we will do without him. I caught Mother crying in the kitchen, (My Mother NEVER cries) and she swore it was because she opened the bag of onions on the table. She pretended to beat the bag with her cane. Take that, onions, she said. I pretended to laugh.


Until last week, Papa worked for Mr. Gutzman. GOOTS MAN. Papa calls him Goots. Goots is a German. He has a big fancy garage where he fixes dents in nice cars. He says Papa is the best body man in New York State, and he is sorry to see him go, but he is sure Papa will come back as soon as the money runs out. Mother told Goots we live like Spartans and don't need much money. We need great art and great ideas, instead, she says.

For a long time Goots let Papa use a corner of his garage to build art out of metal. Sometimes Papa took me there, and I helped him. "We're making metal talk to us,” he said. "Telling us what it wants to be. We're like God. We're giving it life.” Father Aleksandr at St. Vincent's (my school) wouldn't like Papa talking that way, but I'll never tell on him, not in Confession, not anywhere, even if I burn in hell. He is the best father and the greatest man in the world!

He made a big twisty thing out of a metal staircase once and Goots said Awck! What is THAT? It has been caught in a bad storm? A truck ran over it? What? Papa told him it was supposed to make you think of something broken and what it means to be broken, but Goots shook his big fat head and said Awck, again. Then a rich man from the Heights came in to pick up his car and he bought the sculpture for 200 dollars!

He put it in his office waiting room.

He was a back doctor.

Papa and Mother got excited after that but Papa did not sell even ONE other sculpture for so long he almost gave up. I could tell he felt bad. He is real quiet anyway and sometimes I am scared when I can't get him to talk. Not like he would hit me, but like he wants to hit himself. He wouldn't even go to museums on Sundays with us, anymore. Mother hugged him all the time. She is his heart doctor, Mrs. Silberstein says.

But then last November he got a big customer for his art, and everything changed! A lady paid him 5,000 dollars to make a bear for her! A BEAR. He put it on a train and sent it to the lady a couple of weeks ago. ALL THE WAY TO GEORGIA. I checked on the map.

Papa said the bear is special, and that it taught him some lessons. You can sort of tell it is a bear, and THAT'S SURE SPECIAL, because most of the time people don't know WHAT Papa's sculptures are trying to be. Mother says it is the spirit of life. She says it means that Papa has found his calling. It just looked like a bear with all its bones showing, to me.

This bear means Papa is going to be important, that's what Mother says. Even if he never finished high school! She should know. She went to college! Papa doesn't care about school, but he loves to read, so she and him get along fine. Except he hates church. He grew up in a mean church home for orphans and he has a belt scar on his shoulder, I saw it! But he made me be an altar boy, et cetera, because Mother wants me to and St. Vincent's is a good Catholic school and I get in free since her nutty Aunt Zelda left St. Vincent's all her money. I'm even named after an old priest who taught Latin there.

Riconnis have been trying to build something important for about 150 years now and so far, it has not gone real well. Great-grandpapa died working high up on the Brooklyn Bridge. Grandpapa died building pontoon army bridges across a French river during WWII. Riconnis die pretty easy, and don't get too old.

So Papa wants to build art that will make people remember our name and our GRAND ideas. He has to hurry. There aren't many of us Riconnis left in America. Just me, him, and Mother, I guess. And she started out as a Dolinski.

Now he is going away. And it's all because of his art. Because of that 5,000 dollar bear. That DAMN bear. It is a BIG damn fucking bear. It looked down at me at Goots shop like it knew I was not as big as it is. Papa says his sculptures talk to him. (He's not crazy. We have some crazy bums on our street, so I can tell.) He says the Bear told him to Go For It. Quit his job and become a real, live sculptor.

I am having a lot of trouble understanding what this Bear thinks it is doing. This is not fair. I'm worried.

But I am not crying. Not! Crying!

I just feel like I am rusting inside. And that hurts.


On a bright, cold April morning, Richard Ricconi threw a duffel bag of clothes into the back of his old truck, alongside welding equipment, a box of pots, utensils, and dishes, an army cot, a sleeping bag, and a box filled with his books—a much-read collection of tomes on art and sculpting. He was a tall, big-shouldered man with thickly knuckled hands, dark Italian hair, and brilliant gray eyes. He drew admiring glances from the women who walked past him on the grimy sidewalk, carrying their groceries or their laundry, hurrying to shops with bars on the windows and shabby brownstone apartments with heavy locks on the main doors. This was a tough neighborhood, and getting tougher. People walked fast, these days. If he'd had any choice, or enough money, he'd never have left Angele and Quentin there.

Richard had a love-hate relationship with his sculptures, and they mirrored his uneasy battle with life in general. He constantly tore the works apart and started over, or left many of them half-finished in disgust. The metals he used—pried from junked cars, from appliances, from corroded iron fences and ancient tin roofs, and from all the other flotsam and jetsam of the society that had so often rejected him— refused to conform to the shapes he imagined. Only the Iron Bear had come easy. He never forgot that.

Until that moment, when he finished packing his battered old truck, he had willed himself not to look up at the fourth-story window of the small apartment building. He knew they were watching him. Now he raised his head, slowly. His look-alike young son and beloved wife gazed down at him, and his heart twisted. They waved, feigning smiles.

Angele Dolinski Riconni kept her hand raised, pressed her fingertips against the glass, and held him still with dark, consuming eyes behind black-rimmed glasses. Her wavy brunette hair was still tossled from his own hands. She looked taller than her medium height, more sturdy than her slender build. She always seemed larger than life to Richard, always elevating him and herself with her deep reverence for knowledge and ideals.

Angele despised pity, self-pity or otherwise. She had had enough of that in her life. Her right leg had been crushed as a child in a car accident that killed her mother. Her father had deserted them years before. Angele had memories of painful therapies and years of lonely recuperation spent at her Aunt Zelda's eccentric Manhattan apartment, where hundreds of porcelain dolls and antique Teddy Bears filled the chairs, the sofas, even the china cabinet and bathroom closets.

Angele had grown up immersed in books to escape from Aunt Zelda's crowded, miniature world. After Aunt Zelda died, leaving Angele nothing, she moved to Brooklyn, drawn there by her job at the imposing Brooklyn Library, which Angele loved. She rented a room at a boarding house for Catholic women, and settled into a life that was satisfying but all too lonely.

She was straightening shelves at the library one day when she met Richard. "Miss, I gotta find a book on modern sculpture theory,” he said in a deep voice straight off the meanest streets in the city. He was looking at her through an open space between books. Dirty, muscular, and dressed in a mechanic's jumpsuit, he hardly resembled a book patron. Yet his eyes seemed gentle to her, silver and unmalleable, and he also seemed sincere.

Just as she was about to answer him, a security guard walked up. "Outta here,” the guard ordered. "Get cleaned up if you want to hang out and pester the librarians.”

Richard had straightened with the ferocious pride of the often disregarded. His eyes flashed, and his fists tightened. The guard put a hand on the club at his belt. "I'll vouch for this patron, Charlie,” Angele said quickly. "He's an acquaintance of mine. He's just come from work. We're looking for a book.”

The guard frowned, apologized, and left. Richard looked at her with searing intensity. She was not accustomed to men eyeing her that way. She wore glasses and walked with a cane. Her plain skirts and white blouses said frivolous fashion disrupted serious goals. A vivid thought or extravagant paragraph could send her lithe hands into her short brown hair excitedly, as if pulling on it opened more room in her brain, so that she always looked disheveled. Until that moment she had believed no man would ever find her sexy.

But this one looked at her as if he wanted to eat her alive and make her like the process. "Why'd you stick your neck out for me?” he asked.

"You're here to find answers. It's my job to give them. No one should be made to leave a library.”

He walked slowly around the end of the shelves, and slowly up to her, giving her a chance to back away. She didn't. "I could use all the answers you got,” he said. Her eyes never strayed from him. He handed her a sketch on notebook paper folded in his pocket. It was a wildly convoluted concept for some sculpture he hoped to build, when he had a better place to work. "I want to see if I'm only copying a Boccioni I remember. Boccioni was a sculptor, a Futurist—”

"How fascinating!” She studied the drawing, and then him, as if she'd found a diamond. "That specific movement focused on twentieth century technology, did it not? It was the first significant step toward total reverence for the machine age?”

He could only gaze at her with complete and instant adoration. No one had ever understood or shared his obscure passion, before. "Did you ever want to be somebody,” he asked slowly, "and suddenly you figured out who?” She caught her breath then nodded. "I'm good for a cup of coffee and a sandwich,” he went on gruffly. "If you got some time.”

"Oh, yes.” She met him after work that day. Ten years had passed since then, and they'd always been together. She would always have faith in him, and in the ideals they treasured.

Standing below the window of their apartment ten years later, Richard looked up at her and thought, She could've done a lot better than marrying me. He loved her because she believed she had done better by marrying him.

Perched between her and Quentin on the window sill, the plaster copy of Picasso's Head of a Woman gazed down at him, too. Angele had given it to him for a birthday, years ago. Head, heart, soul and dreams, she wrote on the card. All yours. You're the only man I know who understands the gift.

He lifted a hand and gestured for Quentin to come downstairs. He and Angele had agreed on this plan to give Quentin some time alone with him. Quentin disappeared from the window like a shot. Richard continued to hold Angele's devoted gaze. Ten years of love, marriage and impossible dreams—a collision of his streetwise world and her genteel one—posed on slivers of iron and steel.

Quentin popped out of the apartment building's heavy front doors and raced down the steps of its concrete stoop, then jerked to a stop and made an obvious effort to compose himself. "Papa, I'm ready,” he said firmly. "I've been reading about the Roman Caesars. When they went off to war their kids lined up and gave them gifts.” He reached under his pullover sweater and retrieved a packet of postcards he'd made from index cards. Each was already addressed to Mr. Quentin Riconni, and bore a stamp. On the opposite side of each card, he'd pasted headlines from the newspaper. Surveyor Satellite Finds Safe Home On Moon. War Protesters Say Bring Soldiers Home. Star Trek TV Show Voyages Far From Home.

"So you can write to me. And to remind you of home,” Quentin said, holding out the cards.

Richard took them reverently. "These are great. Just great.” He admired them for a moment while waiting for the tightness in his throat to relax. "Come on, let's sit in the truck for our man-to-man talk.”

They climbed inside and shut the doors. Richard carefully laid the cards on the cracked vinyl seat, then lit a cigarette and hung one hand out the open window, watching the cool spring air carry the smoke. "I want you to know which bad guys to look out for. You see that guy down there on the next block? The one hanging around that old yellow van?”

"Yes, sir.”

"He's a junkie. Sells drugs. He's new around here, but I think he's not the only one.”

"I won't talk to him.”

"What if he talks to you, first?”

"I'll ignore him, just like Mother says to do when kids make fun of me for going to St. Vincents. I use my brains, not my fists. I've got a good mind, so I don't need to have a big mouth.” He recited his mother's litanies dutifully.

"What if the junkie keeps trying to talk to you? What if he tries to give you some drugs? What if he says something he shouldn't say to your mother?” Richard looked at him grimly, and waited. Quentin hesitated, but not from lack of confidence. The kid was brilliant, a real student, and thanks to Angele he was never going to have to work in a garage or worry about money. He'd be somebody slick, maybe a doctor or a lawyer. He'd have a title and letters after his name.

If he survived the neighborhood. Richard had to make certain he did. Richard watched him and thought worriedly, Me and Angele have put the kid between a rock and a hard place. We teach him different things. He's confused. Quentin sat silently, still thinking.

"Don't tell me what your Mother wants to hear,” Richard ordered. "Tell me what I wanna hear. What are you gonna do to that junkie if he gets in your face?”

Quentin exhaled. His eyes narrowed and he smiled. "I'm gonna punch him in the balls.”

"That's right. Then you go tell Alfonse Esposito, and he'll have the bastard arrested.” Alfonse, a good neighbor, was a New York police detective. "Same rule goes for anybody who causes you and your ma trouble. Like Frank Siccone. He's a goddamned loan shark and his kids are thieves. Don't take any shit off them. Capice?

"Capice.” Quentin nodded, and Richard watched him lift a hand to his chin. He suspected he'd been walloped a few times already by Siccone's son, Johnny, who was older and bigger.

Richard grunted. "Your ma wants you to be a good altar boy who doesn't fight and talk trash. I know you try. You talk good, you study, you're really smart. I'm real proud of you. You keep acting the way she wants you to act, anytime you're around her. ‘Cause she's right. You're gonna be somebody, someday.” Richard leaned toward him. "But when you're out here—” he jabbed a blunt, fight-scarred hand toward the street—"you act like me, okay? You talk like your old man, you fight like your old man, and you make sure people know they can't mess with you—or with your ma. ‘Cause these punks out here don't care if you can speak Latin. They don't care how smart you are. They don't give a goddamn what the Roman Caesars did. And hey, I know they give you a lot of grief over your school uniform and the tie you gotta wear, and all that. I figured.”

"Aw, they're just a bunch of dumb schmucks,” Quentin assured him, with great disdain. "That's what Mrs. Silberstein says.”

"Yeah, but you let them take advantage of you, and one day they'll kill you.”

Quentin straightened proudly. "They won't mess with me,” he vowed. "And they won't kill me. And I'll take care of Ma. I swear.”

Richard grabbed him and pulled him into a deep hug. They clung together for a long moment, then he kissed his son's dark hair and pushed him away. "You be the worst ass-kicker on the block, all right? And the best student. And I'll see you every other weekend. I'm getting a phone put in, so you can call me if you need me.”


"Here. I'm no Roman emperor, but I got a gift for you.” He pulled a slender, gleaming object from the pocket of his wool jacket, then held it out. Quentin whistled under his breath. He gingerly picked up the long silver handle, thumbed a clasp on one side, and flicked a long, stiletto blade into place. "This beats my pocket knife all to heck,” he whispered. "Thank you, Papa.”

"Tell me how you use it.”

"Never pull it out for fun, ‘cause it's not a toy. Never show it to Father Aleksandr. Or to Ma. Never cut some guy unless he tries to hurt me, first.”

Richard nodded. Quentin slowly folded the deadly blade and slipped it inside his jacket. He looked up at his father with pale misery and a clamped mouth. It was time to say goodbye. "Do you have to go way up there to work?” he asked. "It's almost in Canada.”

"Yeah, I gotta go. It's a free place, it's big enough, and I got the money from the bear sculpture to finally get me started. Your old man's not a bum. No matter what it takes, I'm gonna make you proud.”

"I'm already proud.”

He ruffled Quentin's hair. "You're a good kid,” he said in a gruff tone. "Now gimme a line or two of Latin then get the hell out of here and go upstairs. Be the man of the house for your ma, okay?”

Quentin got out of the truck, shut the door, then leaned against the passenger window. He took several deep breaths, and Richard saw painfully that he was disciplining himself not to cry. The kid will be all right, he prayed, if he can just walk the line between soft-hearted ideas and cold-blooded facts.

"Ars longa,” Quentin said, finally. "Vita brevis.” Art is long. Life is short.

Richard smiled. "Okay, smart guy. What's that mean?”

"I want you to live forever,” Quentin said gruffly, then turned and walked away before the tears showed.

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