Michael Corleone had taken precautions against every eventuality. His planning was faultless, his security impeccable. He was patient, hoping to use the full year to prepare. But he was not to get his necessary year because fate itself took a stand against him, and in the most surprising fashion. For it was the Godfather, the great Don himself, who failed Michael Corleone.
* * *
On one sunny Sunday morning, while the women were at church, Don Vito Corleone dressed in his gardening uniform: baggy gray trousers, a faded blue shirt, battered dirty-brown fedora decorated by a stained gray silk hatband. The Don had gained considerable weight in his few years and worked on his tomato vines, he said, for the sake of his health. But he deceived no one.
The truth was, he loved tending his garden; he loved the sight of it early on a morning. It brought back his childhood in Sicily sixty years ago, brought it back without the terror, the sorrow of his own father’s death. Now the beans in their rows grew little white flowers on top; strong green stalks of scallion fenced everything in. At the foot of the garden a spouted barrel stood guard. It was filled with liquidy cow manure, the finest garden fertilizer. Also in that lower part of the garden were the square wooden frames he had built with his own hands, the sticks cross-tied with thick white string. Over these frames crawled the tomato vines.
The Don hastened to water his garden. It must be done before the sun waxed too hot and turned the water into a prism of fire that could burn his lettuce leaves like paper. Sun was more important than water, water also was important; but the two, imprudently mixed, could cause great misfortune.
The Don moved through his garden hunting for ants. If ants were present, it meant that lice were in his vegetables and the ants were going after the lice and he would have to spray.
He had watered just in time. The sun was becoming hot and the Don thought, “Prudence. Prudence.” But there were just a few more plants to be supported by sticks and he bent down again. He would go back into the house when he finished this last row.
Quite suddenly it felt as if the sun had come down very close to his head. The air filled with dancing golden specks. Michael’s oldest boy came running through the garden toward where the Don knelt and the boy was enveloped by a yellow shield of blinding light. But the Don was not to be tricked, he was too old a hand. Death hid behind that flaming yellow shield ready to pounce out on him and the Don with a wave of his hand warned the boy away from his presence. Just in time. The sledgehammer blow inside his chest made him choke for air. The Don pitched forward into the earth.
The boy raced away to call his father. Michael Corleone and some men at the mall gate ran to the garden and found the Don lying prone, clutching handfuls of earth. They lifted the Don up and carried him to the shade of his stone-flagged patio. Michael knelt beside his father, holding his hand, while the other men called for an ambulance and doctor.
With a great effort the Don opened his eyes to see his son once more. The massive heart attack had turned his ruddy face almost blue. He was in extremis. He smelled the garden, the yellow shield of light smote his eyes, and he whispered, “Life is so beautiful.”
He was spared the sight of his women’s tears, dying before they came back from church, dying before the ambulance arrived, or the doctor. He died surrounded by men, holding the hand of the son he had most loved.
The funeral was royal. The Five Families sent their Dons and caporegimes, as did the Tessio and Clemenza Families. Johnny Fontane made the tabloid headlines by attending the funeral despite the advice of Michael not to appear. Fontane gave a statement to the newspapers that Vito Corleone was his Godfather and the finest man he had ever known and that he was honored to be permitted to pay his last respects to such a man and didn’t give a damn who knew it.
The wake was held in the house of the mall, in the old-fashioned style. Amerigo Bonasera had never done finer work, had discharged all obligations, by preparing his old friend and Godfather as lovingly as a mother prepares a bride for her wedding. Everyone commented on how not even death itself had been able to erase the nobility and the dignity of the great Don’s countenance and such remarks made Amerigo Bonasera fill with knowing pride, a curious sense of power. Only he knew what a terrible massacre death had perpetrated on the Don’s appearance.
All the old friends and servitors came. Nazorine, his wife, his daughter and her husband and their children, Lucy Mancini came with Freddie from Las Vegas. Tom Hagen and his wife and children, the Dons from San Francisco and Los Angeles, Boston and Cleveland. Rocco Lampone and Albert Neri were pallbearers with Clemenza and Tessio and, of course, the sons of the Don. The mall and all its houses were filled with floral wreaths.
Outside the gates of the mall were the newspapermen and photographers and a small truck that was known to contain FBI men with their movie cameras recording this epic. Some newspapermen who tried to crash the funeral inside found that the gate and fence were manned with security guards who demanded identification and an invitation card. And though they were treated with the utmost courtesy, refreshment sent out to them, they were not permitted inside. They tried to speak with some of the people coming out but were met with stony stares and not a syllable.
Michael Corleone spent most of the day in the corner library room with Kay, Tom Hagen and Freddie. People were ushered in to see him, to offer their condolences. Michael received them with all courtesy even when some of them addressed him as Godfather or Don Michael, only Kay noticing his lips tighten with displeasure.
Clemenza and Tessio came to join this inner circle and Michael personally served them with a drink. There was some gossip of business. Michael informed them that the mall and all its houses were to be sold to a development and construction company. At an enormous profit, still another proof of the great Don’s genius.
They all understood that now the whole empire would be in the West. That the Corleone Family would liquidate its power in New York. Such action had been awaiting the retirement or death of the Don.
It was nearly ten years since there had been such a celebration of people in this house, nearly ten years since the wedding of Constanzia Corleone and Carlo Rizzi, so somebody said. Michael walked to the window that looked out on the garden. That long time ago he had sat in the garden with Kay never dreaming that so curious a destiny was to be his. And his father dying had said, “Life is so beautiful.” Michael could never remember his father ever having uttered a word about death, as if the Don respected death too much to philosophize about it.
It was time for the cemetery. It was time to bury the great Don. Michael linked his arm with Kay’s and went out into the garden to join the host of mourners. Behind him came the caporegimes followed by their soldiers and then all the humble people the Godfather had blessed during his lifetime. The baker Nazorine, the widow Colombo and her sons and all the countless others of his world he had ruled so firmly but justly. There were even some who had been his enemies, come to do him honor.
Michael observed all this with a tight, polite smile. He was not impressed. Yet, he thought, if I can die saying, “Life is so beautiful,” then nothing else is important. If I can believe in myself that much, nothing else matters. He would follow his father. He would care for his children, his family, his world. But his children would grow in a different world. They would be doctors, artists, scientists. Governors. Presidents. Anything at all. He would see to it that they joined the general family of humanity, but he, as a powerful and prudent parent would most certainly keep a wary eye on that general family.
* * *
On the morning after the funeral, all the most important officials of the Corleone Family assembled on the mall. Shortly before noon they were admitted into the empty house of the Don. Michael Corleone received them.
They almost filled the corner library room. There were the two caporegimes, Clemenza and Tessio; Rocco Lampone, with his reasonable, competent air; Carlo Rizzi, very quiet, very much knowing his place; Tom Hagen forsaking his strictly legal role to rally around in this crisis; Albert Neri trying to stay physically close to Michael, lighting his new Don’s cigarette, mixing his drink, all to show an unswerving loyalty despite the recent disaster to the Corleone Family.
The death of the Don was a great misfortune for the Family. Without him it seemed that half their strength was gone and almost all their bargaining power against the Barzini-Tattaglia alliance. Everyone in the room knew this and they waited for what Michael would say. In their eyes he was not yet the new Don; he had not earned the position or the title. If the Godfather had lived, he might have assured his son’s succession; now it was by no means certain.
Michael waited until Ned had served drinks. Then he said quietly, “I just want to tell everybody here that I understand how they feel. I know you all respected my father, but now you have to worry about yourselves and your families. Some of you wonder how what happened is going to affect the planning we’ve done and the promises I made. Well, the answer to that is: nothing. Everything goes on as before.”
Clemenza shook his great shaggy buffalo head. His hair was an iron gray and his features, more deeply embedded in added layers of fat, were unpleasant. “The Barzinis and Tattaglias are going to move in on us real hard, Mike. You gotta fight or have a ‘sit-down’ with them.” Everyone in the room noticed that Clemenza had not used a formal form of address to Michael, much less the title of Don.
“Let’s wait and see what happens,” Michael said. “Let them break the peace first.”
Tessio spoke up in his soft voice. “They already have, Mike. They opened up two ‘books’ in Brooklyn this morning. I got the word from the police captain who runs the protection list at the station house. In a month I won’t have a place to hang my hat in all Brooklyn.”
Michael stared at him thoughtfully. “Have you done anything about it?”
Tessio shook his small, ferretlike head. “No,” he said. “I didn’t want to give you any problems.”
“Good,” Michael said. “Just sit tight. And I guess that’s what I want to say to all of you. Just sit tight. Don’t react to any provocation. Give me a few weeks to straighten things out, to see which way the wind is going to blow. Then I’ll make the best deal I can for everybody here. Then we’ll have a final meeting and make some final decisions.”
He ignored their surprise and Albert Neri started ushering them out. Michael said sharply, “Tom, stick around a few minutes.”
Hagen went to the window that faced the mall. He waited until he saw the caporegimes and Carlo Rizzo and Rocco Lampone being shepherded through the guarded gate by Neri. Then he turned to Michael and said, “Have you got all the political connections wired into you?”
Michael shook his head regretfully. “Not all. I needed about four more months. The Don and I were working on it. But I’ve got all the judges, we did that first, and some of the more important people in Congress. And the big party boys here in New York were no problem, of course. The Corleone Family is a lot stronger than anybody thinks, but I hoped to make it foolproof.” He smiled at Hagen. “I guess you’ve figured everything out by now.”
Hagen nodded. “It wasn’t hard. Except why you wanted me out of the action. But I put on my Sicilian hat and I finally figured that too.”
Michael laughed. “The old man said you would. But that’s a luxury I can’t afford anymore. I need you here. At least for the next few weeks. You better phone Vegas and talk to your wife. Just tell her a few weeks.”
Hagen said musingly, “How do you think they’ll come at you?”
Michael sighed. “The Don instructed me. Through somebody close. Brazini will set me up through somebody close that, supposedly, I won’t suspect.”
Hagen smiled at him. “Somebody like me.”
Michael smiled back. “You’re Irish, they won’t trust you.”
“I’m German-American,” Hagen said.
“To them that’s Irish,” Michael said. “They won’t go to you and they won’t go to Neri because Neri was a cop. Plus both of you are too close to me. They can’t take that gamble. Rocco Lampone isn’t close enough. No, it will be Clemenza, Tessio or Carlo Rizzi.”
Hagen said softly, “I’m betting it’s Carlo.”
“We’ll see,” Michael said. “It won’t be long.”
* * *
It was the next morning, while Hagen and Michael were having breakfast together. Michael took a phone call in the library, and when he came back to the kitchen, he said to Hagen, “It’s all set up. I’m going to meet Barzini a week from now. To make new peace now that the Don is dead.” Michael laughed.
Hagen asked, “Who phoned you, who made the contact?” They both knew that whoever in the Corleone Family had made the contact had turned traitor.
Michael gave Hagen a sad regretful smile. “Tessio,” he said.
They ate the rest of their breakfast in silence. Over coffee Hagen shook his head. “I could have sworn it would have been Carlo or maybe Clemenza. I never figured Tessio. He’s the best of the lot.”
“He’s the most intelligent,” Michael said. “And he did what seems to him to be the smart thing. He sets me up for the hit by Barzini and inherits the Corleone Family. He sticks with me and he gets wiped out; he’s figuring I can’t win.”
Hagen paused before he asked reluctantly, “How right is he figuring?”
Michael shrugged. “It looks bad. But my father was the only one who understood that political connections and power are worth ten regimes. I think I’ve got most of my father’s political power in my hands now, but I’m the only one who really knows that.” He smiled at Hagen, a reassuring smile. “I’ll make them call me Don. But I feel lousy about Tessio.”
Hagen said, “Have you agreed to the meeting with Barzini?” ’
“Yeah,” Michael said. “A week from tonight. In Brooklyn, on Tessio’s ground where I’ll be safe.” He laughed again.
Hagen said, “Be careful before then.”
For the first time Michael was cold with Hagen. “I don’t need a Consigliere to give me that kind of advice,” he said.
* * *
During the week preceding the peace meeting between the Corleone and Barzini Families, Michael showed Hagen just how careful he could be. He never set foot outside the mall and never received anyone without Neri beside him. There was only one annoying complication. Connie and Carlo’s oldest boy was to receive his Confirmation in the Catholic Church and Kay asked Michael to be the Godfather. Michael refused.
“I don’t often beg you,” Kay said. “Please do this just for me. Connie wants it so much. And so does Carlo. It’s very important to them. Please, Michael.”
She could see he was angry with her for insisting and expected him to refuse. So she was surprised when he nodded and said, “OK. But I can’t leave the mall. Tell them to arrange for the priest to confirm the kid here. I’ll pay whatever it costs. If they run into trouble with the church people, Hagen will straighten it out.”
And so the day before the meeting with the Barzini Family, Michael Corleone stood Godfather to the son of Carlo and Connie Rizzi. He presented the boy with an extremely expensive wristwatch and gold band. There was a small party in Carlo’s house, to which were invited the caporegimes, Hagen, Lampone and everyone who lived on the mall, including, of course, the Don’s widow. Connie was so overcome with emotion that she hugged and kissed her brother and Kay all during the evening. And even Carlo Rizzi became sentimental, wringing Michael’s hand and calling him Godfather at every excuse— old country style. Michael himself had never been so affable, so outgoing. Connie whispered to Kay, “I think Carlo and Mike are going to be real friends now. Something like this always brings people together.”
Kay squeezed her sister-in-law’s arm. “I’m so glad,” she said.