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To travel by bus from Acquaviva Platani, the small Sicilian mountain village of my parents, to the province seat of Caltanissetta requires about two and half hours. The first time I made that trip was back in November 1965 after being in Sicily for only a month. I knew next to nothing of Sicilian or Italian, tried to get by with some simple sign language I hoped would be understood, and I smiled a lot to show the relatives I was happy despite my inability to converse with them.

Most of my time I spent visiting relatives' homes. I'd walk down the cobblestoned streets and I'd hear one of them call out, "Sarbaturi, trasi. Pigghiamu na tazza di cafè! Salvatore, come in. Let's have a cup of coffee!" Or they'd invite me in for a shot glass of Amaro Siciliano, a favorite bitters apertif. When dinner time came, I found myself invited to this or that cousin's house where I usually ate too much but the laughs were good - usually on me since I didn't understand very much of the conversation - and the company was wonderful.

One morning I got up early, walked four blocks down Via Vittorio Emanuele and waited by the post office for the bus to Caltanissetta where Zi Nofriu Pitonzo's brother Giuvanni lived with his wife and three sons, as well as did my first cousin Toto Amico, his wife Crocetta and their two daughters Lia and Cinzia.

Finally the blue bus arrived as Zi Cicciu predicted: fifteen minutes late. I boarded, found an empty seat, then waited for the ticket conductor.

It was the first time I had seen Peppi Rais, though in that year in Acquaviva, I rode the blue bus quite frequently and as I learned to speak the language, Peppi and I got to be friends. I don't know what his last name was, but everyone called him Peppi "Rais," after "Punto Rais," the airport in Palermo because in the old days, before he was the ticket conductor on the blue Caltanissetta bus, he was the ticket conductor on the blue Palermo bus. He was very short, dark-complexioned, had wavy hair that looked as if someone had painted it pitch-black, then, finding it too dark, tried to cover it with streaks of snow-white. He had few teeth despite his forty-something years and whenever he spoke, the words whistled out of his mouth in one of the loudest, deepest voices I'd ever heard.

"Unni vai? Where are you going?" Peppi hollers.

"Caltanissetta," I tell him loudly, thinking maybe he's hard of hearing.

"Ir' e beniri? Roundtrip?" he yells.

"No, Caltanissetta," I explain.

"Ir' e beniri?" Peppi yells again.

Now I know he can't hear well so I repeat as loudly and slowly as I can, a syllable at a time: "Cal-ta-ni-sse-tta."

"Ir' e beniri?" Peppi still insists.

Can this be happening to me? I wonder. I'm in a rickety old blue-paint-peeling, smoke-chugging, early 20th-Century bus with tires probably bald as eagles that's taking hairpin, rollercoaster turns along the edge of very steep Sicilian mountains while a deaf ticket conductor refuses to sell me a ticket to Caltanissetta, the only destination I want and intend to settle for, so I repeat it still once again: "CALTANISSETTA."

"'U sacciu!" ["I know!"] he screams, throwing his hands up in the air like a man possessed. "IR' E BENIRI?"
The muscles in my face start to quiver, my eyes twitch, my lips tremble. I can feel the hot air of my patience steaming off me. "Caltanissetta! No iri beniri!"

"Iri sulu?" ["One way only?"] Peppi Rais asks, for the first time now, smiling.

But I still don't understand; I think he's trying to irritate me a little more by throwing out one more town I don't want to go to. Why can't he listen? Why can't he get it through his thick head I want to go to Caltanissetta, not Ir' e Beniri or even Iri Sulu?

"Caltanissetta," I say one more time.

Peppi Rais is not smiling now. Dramatically he gives the rest of the passengers the once-over. He shakes his head the way I've been shaking my head for the past five or six minutes. He rolls his eyes. He clasps his hands, raises them into the air, and pantomimes a desperate man praying to the heavens. Meanwhile the passengers are taking it all in, most of them laughing. Now and then I hear "Americanu" as if it were a bad word.

"Caltanissetta," Peppi Rais finally says.

"Si, Si!" At this point I am happy again. I have finally made contact. We are communicating. At last he can hear me; the man understands. My hand is in my pocket, I am all ready to ask how much the ticket is when Peppi Rais repeats it again: "Caltanissetta," then adds in his loudest voice so far, "Ir' e beniri oppuri iri sulu?" ["Round trip or one way only?"]

Just as I am about to explode, take little Peppi Rais by the collar of his grey conductor shirt and shake some sense into his empty head, I hear one of the passengers call out in fractured English, "I coulda help you maybe, Mister? 'Splaina to de condotta you wanna Caltanissetta isa fine, bota you go ana return o you joosta go?"

"Roundtrip," I tell him. "Go and return."

The old man smiles, gets Peppi's attention and in Sicilian sets the matter straight. I buy my roundtrip ticket and settle into my uncomfortable seat for the next few hours into Caltanissetta.

On subsequent trips, riding on Peppi's blue bus, he would kid me about those two towns that came right after Serradifalco: Ir' e Beniri and Iri Sulu!

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