Your father has been increasingly weak and ill and, frankly, querulous, for years. Your mother, every other year, has been pregnant or nursing a new baby. Your mother and brother and sisters look to you for help. Before you left Porticello for Naples, where you would board the ship that would bring you back to America, maybe your mother kissed both your cheeks and slipped down over your head a scapular or a miraculous medal. Certainly, she whispered that she prayed constantly for you. Surely, she begged you to be good, to be a good, good boy. But here you are, returned to Milwaukee where icy wind blows off the shores of Lake Michigan. You do not own a warm coat and you certainly do not own fur-lined gloves or flannel-lined galoshes or a wool muffler to wrap around your short neck. Maybe, like your father, you feel cold all the time, you feel as if you never will get warm again. You have been living with people who are not your family. You feel beholden to them. You never have quite enough to eat. You are trying to acquire some quick, easy, big money. You want something to send back to Porticello. You drive with your friends, out into the country on a deserted road on a dark night. Maybe you and your friends have swallowed rough grappa to build courage and body heat. The car fills up with nervous laughter and tense boasts and the odor of sweat as it soaks clothes that are not all that clean. You plan to stop the truck, grab the liquor. One of the truck’s passengers jumps down out of the truck’s cab. Imagine a truck, circa 1920, its cab set high off the ground, its wide running boards. Imagine the truck’s headlights and how they throw a shimmering veil of light down the dark gravel road and up into the limbs of trees that grow on with side of the road. Imagine a stiff cold wind and sweat funneling down into the small of your back. You have a gun. The man thrusts himself at you. His mouth opens wide. His teeth are white in the darkness. Everything happens faster than you thought anything could happen. The man is on the ground. Perhaps he screams. Perhaps he moans. Perhaps you gut-shot him and you smell cordite and fecal matter.
I might have asked friends who are gun experts to help me with the details of the gun—shotgun or pistol—Bompensiero carrier that night. I considered querying these friends as to how, say, a pistol would have felt in Bompensiero’s hand, how the bullets’ entry—the hole or holes—in the dead man might have looked. Would blood pour out the bullet holes? Seep red into the dying man’s linen shirtfront? Spout out the wound like water spouts out from a dolphin’s blowhole? Would the dying man cry out to his mother, his wife, to the Blessed Virgin, to St. Anthony, to Jesus? If he did cry out, or, moan, would his voice spiral out into the quiet night, rise into an inky sky? Would that call, or cry or moan haunt Frank Bompensiero for months to come, for years? Would it wake him out of sleep? I do not know.
Why, finally, I did not ask gun experts about the night Bompensiero for the first time killed something other than a tuna, a sardine, a chicken or rabbit, a rat or mouse, is that details about the weapon’s possible make and model, the bullet or bullets’ trajectory, the size and placement of wounds, came to seem beside the point. The trajectory, if you will, of this moment, the path this moment takes through the next half century of Bompensiero’s life is what all along I have wanted to understand. How this moment changed Frank Bompensiero’s life is more important than are details of weapon and wound.
Frank Bompensiero knew right from wrong. What he thought was right and what he thought was wrong, likely, is different than what you think is right and wrong. He was no amoral monster. You or I, in good conscience, cannot that easily dismiss him.
After this night outside Milwaukee, Bompensiero will go on to become a soldier in a secret army, or secret society. This army, or, society has its own moral code, its own rules on onore and omertà. He will follow these rules, for many years. He will kill other men. Imagine that. Certainly, that night on the dark road outside Milwaukee, Frank Bompensiero could not have imagined that, could not have foreseen his future, could not have guessed that 25 or 30 years from this night he would stand in a house in Kensington, a house along whose stucco walls red bougainvillea trailed upward. He will stand with Jimmy Fratianno behind the door of that house, on a warm summer evening. The door will open and an old bootlegger will enter, hand out-stretched, thinking he has arrived for a convivial evening among compares who after the kisses and handshakes will pour the good Scotch. The two ice cubes will click against heavy crystal. That is not what happens. What happens is that Fratianno and Bompensiero loop a rope around the old bootlegger’s throat. Fratianno and Bompensiero wrench the rope tighter and tighter until the old bootlegger crumples to his knees, until the old bootlegger’s eyes pop and the trousers of his beautiful suit fill with his body’s wastes. The host, the house’s owner, will complain that his carpet is soiled.
We cannot hope, now, to know what Bompensiero felt when he pulled the trigger that night outside Milwaukee. We will never know what conversation he did or did not have that night and on nights to come with that bodiless voice in his head that we call conscience.
You know how it is in a new love affair, when for the first time you tell your beloved a lie? How, with that first lie, the sweetness of relations between you and the beloved suddenly turns less sweet? How you no longer feel as easy in his company? In her embrace? I believe that Bompensiero no longer felt at ease in the world after that moment outside Milwaukee.