American History: New Excerpt
By J.L. Abramo
American History by J.L. Abramo is the epic, generational saga of the Agnellos and the Leones (in the Italian language the lambs and the lions)—a one-hundred-year conflict between Giuseppe’s descendants in New York City, law enforcers, and Vincenzo’s descendants in San Francisco, lawbreakers.
The families of Salvatore Leone and Luigi Agnello had already been long-time bitter enemies in Sicily by the turn of the twentieth century.
In 1914, Vincenzo Leone, Salvatore’s oldest son, emigrates to Philadelphia to start a new life for himself and his family in the promised land. Several years later, Giuseppe Agnello, Luigi’s eldest, secretly marries Francesca Leone, Vincenzo’s sister, and the couple escapes to New York City. Giuseppe leaves to serve his new country during the First World War. Francesca, alone and in need of support for herself and their infant son, Louis, travels to Philadelphia to live with her brother, his wife, and his two daughters.
The Spanish Flu takes the lives of Vincenzo’s wife and sister in 1917, and Leone moves with his daughters and Francesca’s son to San Francisco. Vincenzo Leone decides to raise Louis Agnello as his own child.
When Giuseppe returns from the war, he finds his wife and son gone. It takes more than five years for Agnello to learn the whereabouts of his family. Giuseppe travels to San Francisco with hopes of a reunion with Francesca and Louis and becomes a victim of the hatred between the two families that has been recently transplanted in America by Vincenzo’s younger brother, Roberto. Vincenzo learns that Giuseppe had traveled to San Francisco to locate his wife and son, but Agnello had never reached Vincenzo’s door. Vincenzo begins to worry about the safety of sister’s son and decides Louis will accompany him to New York City and to Sicily.
A failed attempt on the boy’s life results in Vincenzo’s death and instigates a fresh and fierce hostility between the Agnello and Leone families that rivals the hatred and vindictiveness experienced in the old country.
Sicily. Late Nineteenth Century.
They were born less than one year apart, in a poor village full of boys so like one another they could all have been brothers.
It was the 1890s. The Gay Nineties for much of the Western World and, in the New World across the Atlantic, a time for casting off the restraints of the Victorian Age.
In the rocky hills surrounding Naro, on the ancient island of Sicily, time seemed to stand still. For Vincenzo Leone and Giuseppe Agnello, the approach of the twentieth century had little consequence—and offered less promise.
In another time and place, these two boys could have been friends.
Amici. Compagni. Fratelli.
The two young boys often crossed paths, and there was a mutual attraction—although part of their curiosity to know one another was likely encouraged by the taboo. Both had been educated from birth to mistrust and forswear the other and as they grew to adolescence they succumbed to the prejudices of their fathers—blindly accepting the ageless dissension between the two families if not totally adopting the fierce hatred.
Vincenzo Leone and Giuseppe Agnello might have spent their lives in the hills of Agrigento, working the miserly earth and perpetuating the blood feud that had existed for so long no one could remember when it began.
And, as both approached adulthood, this looked to be their fate.
But each young man, independently from one another, had a common dream.
To escape the barren land.
To escape the senseless and violent antagonism.
To escape the archaic island prison.
All that was needed was a catalyst, an inspiration, a reason to break away from family and home, a motivation too strong to resist.
And the incentive came for each of them in the form it had taken for all ages—for as long as restless sons struggled to gain a foothold on manhood.
Yet I, this little while ere I go hence,
long very little now, in self-defense.
—Adela Florence Cory Nicolson
John Agnello. Colorado. 2005. Thursday.
The heavy gate closed loudly behind me.
I was on the outside this time.
It’s not easy doing the same thing for five years.
More difficult when you are someone who has rarely done anything for that long a time.
Someone who couldn’t complete high school, who never held a job for five years, who never kept a lover for five years.
Or a friend for that matter.
Particularly when the same thing you have been doing is jail time.
Of course, there were the years I spent living with my parents and then only my father—before I left school and home and city and began running.
I would not have had to leave school and take to the road if I hadn’t killed a man.
But I did.
It was self-defense.
I was just not confident that a court of law was going to see it that way.
Years later, when I had to kill another man, it was also self-defense and a court of law nearly saw it that way.
And I earned a five-year prison sentence.
Now that I’m out, I know it won’t be long before self-defense rears its ugly head again.
I suppose I can avoid it for a while, but I’d rather get it over and done. I just need to stop the right man this time, before he kills me or has me killed—so I can stop defending myself, stop running and hiding, and avenge my father whose death perpetuated this historic killing spree. Then, maybe I could hold onto something for longer than a few months at a time. And if I can get through it without returning to prison, it would be a terrific bonus.
But first things first.
He knows I’m getting out. The wheels are in motion.
I have to dodge the bullet long enough to develop a plan. I’m going to have to move quickly. And often.
And reach out for help.
I’m hoping help is still available.
It’s been a long time since I reached out, and a long time since I was any help to someone else.
It’s about time for a little give and take.
They say time waits for no one.
I’m gambling they are wrong.
I’m wondering as I walk out through the prison gate in a freshly pressed suit with two hundred dollars in the lapel pocket, holding my breath and trying to suppress an urge to hit the dirt, how far I will make it away from this spot to begin with. I walk across to the shuttle that will take me downtown and climb aboard. I have no choice.
I make it off the shuttle intact and move into the Greyhound terminal.
The worst is over for now. I’m out of the open. If anyone was tailing me they missed their shot because I’m in control now.
I have developed a rearview mirror.
I know how to disappear now.
And I do.
If he wants me, he will have some searching to do. I’ve bought some time. I’ll need a safe place to rest, safe for a time. I’ll need cash, and I’ll need information. I can keep moving. I’ve got that down.
I have a chance, maybe even a good chance, of getting to him before he gets to me.
There’s always the possibility he hasn’t sent anyone out at all. Instead, he’s just going to sit back and wait for me to come to him. So be it. I never imagined either of us was likely to benefit much from the element of surprise.
This is one of those things that are inevitable.
Him or me.
Or him and me.
I pulled what cash I had out of my jacket pocket and headed straight for the ticket window. I bought a one-way bus ticket to Phoenix and I crossed the terminal toward the men’s room, loosening my tie as I walked.
Lincoln Bonner. Colorado.
Imagine taking a large slab of concrete and dropping it onto a beautiful natural setting.
Why imagine it? You have seen it before.
This particular eyesore was surrounded on three sides by rolling green meadow generously spotted with white and yellow daisies north and south as far as the eye could see and west to the foothills and the Front Range beyond.
The huge sign across the entrance to the parking area read Arapahoe County State Correctional Facility. The lot was large and not full—but there were enough vehicles, likely belonging to staff and visiting attorneys by the look of the makes and models, to enable me to park among them inconspicuously. A two-lane blacktop designated as State Route number something or other ran north and south, and the prison sat in all its cement and barbed wire deformity on its eastern side.
I was early, so I curled up with a Camel straight and the Denver Post and waited.
Watching the prison gate.
Finally, I saw them leading him out. He looked as if he was trying hard not to look worried. I think if I threw a bottle cap his way he might have hit the ground.
Two guards escorted him to the entrance—the exit in this case.
Without ceremony, he left the confines and the heavy door closed loudly behind him.
He crossed the road, where a twenty-passenger shuttle van was parked with only a driver aboard. The vehicle was idling and set to give him his free seventeen-mile, twenty-five-minute ride to downtown Denver.
With any luck, a one-way trip.
I waited a few minutes and pulled out slowly. A sign read Thank You for Visiting.
I knew exactly where the van was heading. I took some time overtaking it and, after passing, sped up to arrive at the destination first. Twenty minutes later, I was parked behind the Greyhound terminal among the buses and taxis with a borrowed RTD parking permit displayed on my windshield. I entered the terminal from the boarding area, sat down with a cup of coffee from a vending machine, and opened the Post to the sports section.
Ten minutes later he came in, pulled some money from the lapel pocket of his freshly pressed suit, and walked straight to the ticket window. After the transaction, he surveyed the area and headed for the men’s room.
It was time for my move.
When he walked out the back doors to the boarding area a few minutes later, he had lost the jacket and tie. I sat in the truck with the engine running and watched him walk toward me.
The handgun sat on the seat beside me.
He came to the passenger side, opened the door, and slid in. I pulled out of the parking area, turned onto Blake Street, then onto Speer Boulevard toward the interstate.
“Thanks for the ride,” he said.
“Did it look like anyone followed you?”
“No, didn’t look like it. Where to?”
“Cheyenne it is,” I said. “Why did you ditch the jacket?”
“Never liked the fit.”
“There’s a denim jacket behind the seat that may fit better.”
“Thanks, but what I could really use is a decent cup of coffee.”
“Got you covered.”
“And a Camel, if you don’t mind.”
“How’s my father?” I asked, as I held out the package of cigarettes.
John Agnello answered me with something like reverence in his voice and we headed north on I-25 toward Wyoming.
As with many life experiences, you could have little idea of what being locked up in prison is like unless you have been there.
I’m not being arrogant. I say this because I know this.
Before I was awarded room and board at the Arapahoe County State Correctional Facility, I thought I knew what to expect. I had read the books and seen the scenes, from Dostoyevsky to Cool Hand Luke.
Nothing prepared me.
And it was not the horrors that surprised me, though I witnessed many. What I wasn’t prepared for was the sense of being totally alone. Even someone like me, who had spent ten years basically unattached and overly cautious of intimate human contact, felt the unique solitude from the moment the prison gate closed behind me.
When you are born you come into the world completely dependent on those who came before, and a newborn left on its own will perish.
In many ways, prison is very similar. You are dependent on those who came there before you, dependent on those on the inside, because no one outside the walls of this new ward can reach in to help you. And if no one on the inside steps forward soon to claim responsibility for your survival, you will perish like the abandoned newborn.
I came very close to that fate when Frank Bonner took me under his wing.
Franklin Bonner was in the fourteenth year of a life sentence, no chance of parole. Murder one. I will not go into the details of his crime, except to say I would have done the same in his place. Of course, I might not be the best judge of appropriate behavior. Nonetheless, to me the man was a saint and a savior. For five years Frank Bonner nurtured me like a mother, protected me like a strong father, and kept me safe and sane.
Why Frank adopted me I really can’t say. I certainly couldn’t do a thing for him.
In the great scheme of things, I was just a temporary visitor and he was there for the duration.
Nothing I could do or say would change the fact he was never getting out, so what could I do for him?
I could respect Frank and ultimately love him, and I guess it meant something to him to have been able to earn that respect and that love.
But it wasn’t about what Frank Bonner could do for me, which turned out to be a lot. It was about what he would do for me whenever he could and about what I would do for him if I could.
I would have gladly let Bonner walk out in my place five years after we met. And Frank knew it.
So, when the day finally approached for me to leave him behind, I asked if there was anything I could do for him on the outside. Frank said no, and he thanked me for asking.
And when he asked if there was anything he could do for me, I told him there was.
Because even when you feel you’ve been taking and taking, when you need help who can you trust but someone who has been giving and giving?
I told him what I needed and he told me he would see to it.
And when I walked out of the prison gate and crossed to the shuttle that would take me to downtown Denver, I had no doubt I was covered.
And, less than an hour later, I was in a pickup truck sitting beside a total stranger named Lincoln Bonner who held out a pack of cigarettes and asked me how his father was.
And I simply said, “Frank is doing well.”
It seemed enough for Lincoln to hear.
He appeared to understand it.
“There’s a truck stop up ahead, do you want that cup of coffee?”
“Sure,” I said, “I’d love that cup of coffee.”
I lit the cigarette and stared out at the highway.
The Rocky Mountains to my left, the Great Plains to my right, five more years of my life behind me—and the prospect of resolution or extinction ahead of me.
John Agnello and I had a great deal in common. Then again, we could hardly have been more different.
John grew up in the most populated city in the country. I was raised in a small rural town on the eastern plains of Colorado.
John tried to save his father’s life but could not. He’s been running since. My father tried to save my life, and he did. He’s been locked in a prison cell ever since.
John and I are nearly the same age and the years have often been unkind to us both. I would have to say, though, I’d rather be in my boots at this point in time.
Since John Agnello was seventeen years old he has been looking over his shoulder, anticipating yet another test of his ability and desire to survive. And, after a five-year hiatus, he is about to test those skills again.
Since I was twenty-one, I have been working at taking advantage of the life my father allowed me to continue, while dealing with the knowledge of the extreme price he paid to do so. When I got past my guilt, I realized my responsibility. I’ve devoted myself to making certain Frank Bonner’s sacrifice for his son was not in vain.
There is nothing I wouldn’t do for my father. I would not want to have to break the law—but he would never ask that of me.
I broke the law when I was a younger man, and he rescued me.
Since then, I’ve pledged to uphold the law—as a police detective in Denver, it’s what I do every day.
My father doesn’t ask much of me.
He always insists I not blame myself for his situation. He asks me to bring books for him to read, he prefers history. When he asked me if I could help a friend who was getting out of prison, I did not hesitate to say I would.
The last time I visited my father, he pointed Agnello out to me.
John and I glanced at each other just long enough to guarantee future recognition. John sat with my uncle, across the visitor’s hall. My father had arranged the visit.
It was the only way he could get John into the room while I was there, because John never had visitors of his own.
So, my father asked Uncle Jimmy to get onto Agnello’s visitor list and to come out to see John that day. So, I could do for my father what he would not ask Uncle Jimmy to do—pick John up when he got out and take him wherever he needed to go.
“And that’s all I’m asking you to do for me, son,” my father said. “If there is anything more you can do for John after that, it’s completely up to you.”
I know my father well, I knew he meant exactly what he said—so all I expected to do was to get John Agnello to his chosen destination. Cheyenne.
Over coffee at a café off the highway, John had trouble getting past talk about the weather. Eventually, he warmed up and began to tell me about how much my father had done to help him survive the past five years.
“I don’t think I’m exaggerating,” Agnello said, “when I say Frank saved my life.”
And that was another thing we had in common.
Whenever he spoke of my father it wasn’t a matter of telling a son what he wanted to hear about the virtues of his old man, it was a matter of someone needing to express his feelings about a man who had been much like a father to him.
Maybe it was the talk of family that eventually got him talking about himself.
I had the waitress fill my thermos with coffee for the road and we walked back to my truck. As we merged into the highway traffic, John began to tell me a fable.
The story of how he had come to this point in his life.
And the hundred or so years it had taken his family to get him here.
Copyright © 2018 by J.L. Abramo. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.