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15 September 2020

Shining A Light On Our Ladies : Mary Sharnick and her ladies

A series where my guests are female writers 
talking about their female characters
(and yes, I'll be doing the chaps next!)

Mary Sharnick

and her ladies

In EN PLEIN AIR, the final novel of the Orla Paints Quartet, American painter Orla Castleberry and her Italian physician husband Tino Bacci find themselves part of Angelina Fusco’s active effort to rescue trafficked women from horrific lives and certain death at the hands of the Neapolitan Secondigliano Alliance Camorra boss Maria (La Madrina) Licciardi’s thugs. 

With Angelina, owner of Gusto, a popular Assisi trattoria, Orla and Tino have for six years secretly housed in Assisi “safe apartments” trafficked women making their way to new lives in the Italian north.  

Taught trades and had their humanity restored at Casa Ruth, a shelter founded in 1995 by Ursuline sister Rita Giaretta, in Caserta, a town not far from the port of Naples, the women, many from Nigeria, Albania, and Romania, had been forced into prostitution instead of securing the legitimate employment their unscrupulous sponsors had promised them.  In dangerous nightly visits to Naples’ prostitution hot spots, Sister Rita and her fellow religious befriend the desperate women and offer them a chance not only to survive, but also to thrive at Casa Ruth.

A frequent pilgrim to Assisi and patron of Gusto over the years, Sister Rita had bonded with Angelina over their mutual enjoyment of fusilli, a type of pasta that originated in the villages near Naples.  Eventually, talk over plates of fusilli turned to helping trafficked woman.  Angelina had agreed to join Sister Rita’s crusade.  Soon after, she prevailed upon Tino and Orla to help, too.

While the Camorra’s network of spies and informants most likely had already targeted Angelina Fusco as a long-time enemy of their cruel enterprise, Orla Castleberry’s exhibit highlighting Angelina no doubt provoked them to reassert their dominance and fire warning shots, as it were, to Sister Rita.  

Although the historical mob boss Maria Licciardi and Sister Rita Giaretta are actual personages, the scene that follows is wholly fictional:

“My husband Tino, Angelina Fusco, her eight-year-old grandson Arturo, and I were lounging on the patio of Gusto, Angelina’s trattoria just off the Piazza del Comune in Assisi.  It was Friday, March 9, 2001, the day after Italy’s annual festa della donna.  My latest exhibit, “Women Warriors Against Human Trafficking,” had drawn record crowds to the Piazza Inferiore di S. Francesco the day before.  Italian Ursuline sister Rita Giaretta, who in 1995 had founded Caserta’s Casa Ruth, a shelter for internationally trafficked women and their children, had told reporters she “…hoped Orla Castleberry’s exhibit will not merely highlight the obvious brutality suffered by trafficked women, but more importantly spur both civil and religious authorities to commit once and for all to quashing this heinous, life-denying practice.”
At nine o’clock the evening after, with the exception of Arturo, who was enjoying a hazelnut gelato, Tino, Angelina, and I were drinking grappa and looking forward to a relaxing night now that virtually all the pilgrims and tourists had left the sacred town.  The only people on the patio besides ourselves were four regulars—Paolo, Daniele, Cosimo, and Giuseppe—nightly card-players whose various family apartments faced Tino’s and mine one narrow alley over and up a daunting number of medieval stone steps.  Arturo was reading a comic book under the lights strung above the patio, and he laughed out loud just as a black van with black-tinted windows drew to a stop on the street beneath.

“Movie star or politician,” Angelina chuckled, and raised her glass.  “Afraid to be seen.  But makes no difference here.”

She rose and turned to go inside to ready herself for the as yet unseen customers.  Just as she did two gray-robed, black-veiled nuns, each brandishing a machine gun, leapt from the van and hopped onto the patio.

“Angelina Fusco!” the taller one yelled.
Angelina turned and looked down at them.

“Dio,” she cried, and grabbing Arturo, she flung him to the patio floor and fell hard on top of him.

“Down,” yelled Tino, and pushed me under the round table, then turned it on its side so that the clear plastic tabletop separated us from the shooters.

“Ma che fa?” Daniele growled as he stood. 
“No, Dani,” Cosimo, said, motioning for Paolo and Giuseppe to lie low as he did.

 The machine guns blasted.
Daniele fell first, his body crashing onto the table so that the cards flew. Next the back of Angelina’s dress ran red as her body jolted, then slumped on Arturo who screamed, “Nonna, Nonna!”
I craned my neck to see even though Tino kept pushing my face into the slate.

The nuns backed away, then turned and jumped down into the street.  They climbed back into the van, its invisible driver screeching away even before they had slid the door closed.
Tino and I jumped up and ran to Angelina.  Tino felt her neck for a pulse then, finding none, rolled her body over and off of Arturo.  The boy was bloodied and shaking.  I knelt and held him tight.  By the time we stood, Giuseppe, Cosimo, and Paolo were crossing themselves over Daniele’s riddled body.  People looked down from their opened windows and some came out of their apartments and into the street.  A siren sounded closer and closer.

Tino rubbed Arturo’s head and whispered to him.  Taking him from my grip, he led him to his parents who had come running from the piazza at the commotion.  
“Thank God,” his father Carmine said, as they embraced in the street.  Then Elisa walked up onto the patio and saw her mother.  Her wails rose over the siren of an ambulance that should have been a hearse. 
Arturo blocked his ears with his hands. Daniele’s wife was a yet-unknowing widow.  And Angelina Fusco was dead.

It was all my fault.  I never should have painted her.

Mary Sharnick

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