The Unintended Legacy
A family dinner on a Sunday afternoon in July – Mario Brago was cooking barbecue on the gas grill and his wife Anne was making conversation with her niece Barbara while her daughters, Tina and Celeste, were adding finishing touches to the meal. Anne and Barbara smiled and fawned over Anne’s two grandchildren who were running around the redwood table.
The meal was noisy. Mario said that he liked to let his neighbors know when the Bragos were in their backyard. Anne said that conversation aided the digestion. “When people are quiet at the table, it’s because they’re uncomfortable,” she said to Barbara who nodded in agreement.
Barbara Biamonte was accustomed to having dinner with the Bragos. She and her mother used to show up for coffee several times a week and always for dinner on Sundays. Now that her mother was dead, she came alone.
After Anne finished eating, she reached for a Chesterfield. Mario had turned the cellophane upside-down on the pack again. He had done that to her several times a day for as long as she could remember. It never ceased to annoy her. She saw him sitting there watching everyone eat and talk. He loved preparing for a party and then taking a back seat while everyone had a good time.
Almost as if he saw her, Mario called for everyone’s attention and stood to speak. “Your mother and I want to share some of the good fortune that we’ve received.”
Celeste and Tina knew what was coming. They felt very proud. They had seen their mother and father struggle through such hard times and it made this taste sweeter.
“As you know, I’m going to retire at the end of this month. I don’t intend to stop working altogether, but it’s the end of my full time days as a driver. Well, to make a long story short, I got some money from them. Enough so that we can pay off our second mortgage, give each of our beautiful grandchildren something that will get them started someday, and go to Italy next summer.”
Anne chuckled at the look of surprise on the faces of her children. She hadn’t told them about the trip to Italy. She and Mario had planned the trip so many times before that she had been too embarrassed to tell anyone that they were planning it again.
Mario gave an envelope to each of his daughters and sat down. He shook his son-in-law Joey’s hand and patted him on the shoulder. Joey grinned and put his head down. Joey was as close to a son that Mario could ever come and the young man made him proud.
Tina opened the envelope that was addressed to Joey-boy, squealed and ran over to hug her mother and father. She hollered to Joey, “Look at what my mother and father are giving the baby!”
It was a thousand dollars. Celeste kissed her father and lingered with her mother. “That’s gonna help pay for her college,” she said. They both regarded Angel with admiration; her eyes were everywhere and looked as if they understood everything.
Angel’s step-father didn’t say anything. Mario stared thoughtfully at his new son-in-law. He had never really cared for teachers that much but it figured that Celeste would go for one. Mario couldn’t help wonder if this marriage would last any longer than the last one. Finally, he came over and went over to shake the newcomer’s hand. Ron seemed uncomfortable with the gesture.
Barbara waited until the daughters were finished before she offered her congratulations. Then they all had coffee, and Barbara took out the pictures she had just gotten back from the developer. She had been to Italy in May. It was the first place she had really gone by herself since her mother died. She thought about her mother quietly and wished someone would have mentioned her. Sometimes they acted as if her mother had never lived.
After everyone had gone home and Mario was settled in front of the TV set, Anne called her friends. “Mario promised that we are definitely going this time,” she told Lucy DeMarco. “My grandchildren are beautiful and fresh. My daughters can take care of themselves. I’m sure that Mario will drive me nuts when he starts retirement, but so what?”
It had been years since Anne had worked. The bad back that had gotten her disability had left her quite sedentary. But now she was into her soap operas and talking on the phone dozens of times a day. She and Mario had made it to their 60’s and the hardest part was over.
“Anne, who deserves this more than you?” said Lucy.
“Lucy, I don’t intend for this to be my only trip to Europe.”
They both laughed. Anne said, “I don’t know what I’m thinking. I’ll probably never get Mario to go anywhere after he does this.”
“Aren’t they a bunch of old farts after they’ve stopped running around?”
“And when they’re running around, you’re pissed off because they’re not watching the TV.” They laughed again.
At 11 o’clock she made her way downstairs to the living room. Mario was asleep on the floor. The guns from the TV were blasting over him. “WW II is over for tonight, Mario. You better get a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow is Monday.”
He went to the kitchen and drank some water. He went to bed without kissing her. She lit a Chesterfield and tried to get comfortable. At 5 foot and 200 pounds, she only liked being on her side on the couch with the ashtray beneath her.
Sinatra was on channel 7 in “The Detective.” During the commercials, she could stare up at the autographed picture of him that hung in her living room.
In the middle of August, after dinner while Anne was sitting at her dining room table, the phone rang. Mario answered it. Anne started to get up assuming it was for her. Mario came back into the room and said, “That was Celeste. Tina and her and the rest will be over here in a few minutes.”
Anne was surprised. “They’re all coming over here tonight? Are they bringing the kids?”
Mario was on his way back to the TV. “That’s what they said.”
Anne saw that her daughters looked tense when they arrived. They had all arrived together. Nobody was talking when they came in. She asked them what was wrong.
“Dr. Avenel called, Mom,” said Celeste.
Anne’s face dropped quickly. She looked around the table at them. “And?”
“Well they really don’t know but…”
“I’ve got cancer. They found cancer in my chest x-ray, didn’t they?”
“Nobody’s sure of that, Mom,” said Tina.
Celeste winced. “They think they saw a spot on your lung.” Dr. Avenel is concerned. He knows how you are. It might not really be anything.”
“It might even be a shadow from one of the machines,” said Tina.
“Nobody said you’ve got cancer,” hollered Mario. “They probably just want to take
the x-ray over again.”
“They didn’t all run over here because I’ve got to take an x-ray again, Mario,” said Anne sharply.
There was a painful “ouch” and then the children started pushing each other. Tina hollered at her son. Celeste pulled Angel aside and told that she had to be a good girl because there was some adult business to talk about.
Anne interrupted her and said she wanted Angel to sit on her lap. Angel cried to her grandmother that she was always getting the blame for things that Joey-boy started.
Angel said, “Can I have some special Nanna water to make me feel better?”
“Of course you can honey,” said Anne.
Joey-boy began to cry that he wanted some Nanna water too. Angel screamed that he couldn’t because have any because the Nanna water was only for her. Anne told Angel that she had to be nice to her cousin. Angel twisted her mouth and said that if he was gonna be allowed to drink the special Nanna water then she didn’t want any ever again.
Anne tried to take Angel into her arms, but the child pulled away and ran into the other room where she hit Joey-boy on the head with her doll. Joey-boy cried and Ron took Angel for a walk around the block. Angel stopped at the door and turned around to look at her grandmother. “I’m sorry that the doctor said you’re sick, Nanna.”
Celeste began to cry. Mario said there was nothing for Angel to worry her little head about. After Ron and Angel were out the door, Tina took Joey-boy into the other room and told him that she wanted him to tell Nanna that he was sorry that the doctor said she was sick.
Joey-boy said, “No,” and then laughed and ran away from his mother.
By the end of the week, they were pretty sure that Anne had cancer. Celeste told her mother that she was moving her family into the house so she could be there to take care of her. Mario was in retirement but he’d gotten a part-time job driving a delivery truck. He wasn’t going to be around at least three days a week, and nobody expected him to provide the kind of care that Anne was going to need.
Dr. Avenel was a good looking, well-dressed man in his thirties. He loved Anne Brago. She had been his nurse when he was a little boy. He remembered her always as soft and warm. She made everything into a game for him. When she pricked his finger for blood or gave him a needle, he’d cry and she’d hold him and tell him how strong he was. She’d tell him how other little boys had to be held down to get their shots and that he was tough. It always made him feel special.
Anne was sitting in his office. Avenel thought that it was serious but early. She had a real chance. He needed a biopsy and then he could start treatment and just maybe…
Tina and Celeste were sitting in Avenel’s office with each other. Mario had to work. Dr. Avenel smiled and said hello to everyone.
“Anne, I think you’ve got a pretty serious problem here,” he began. Anne Brago nodded her head. “I’m not going to lie to you or soft soap this in any way.” Anne nodded again. “In all probability, you have a tumor in your left lung. I’m not sure what kind of tumor it is or how long it’s been there. We need a biopsy for that. But I do believe we’ve got this thing in time. There’s a real chance that treatment will be very effective.”
Celeste looked a little startle by the last remarks. Her mother’s breathing was getting worse by the day. Tina was smiling at Anne.
Anne said, “How long do you think I’ve got?”
“I don’t think it’s at all necessary to think in those terms,” said Avenel. “I’d like you to start to thinking about what you’re going to have to do to get better.”
Anne stared at him without saying a word. She began to think, for some stupid reason, about Mario bringing a guitar to her house to serenade her from beneath her window on the night before they were married. She tried to remember the song he’d played over and over, but she couldn’t.
Celeste, Ron and Angel moved in with Anne and Mario temporarily. The thought of having Angel around was almost enough to make Mario feel that there was a bright side to all of this.
During the first days after the visit to Avenel’s office when she wasn’t going for tests, Anne would sit at her kitchen table and think about Calabria. She had heard about the place all of her life. And the things she had heard! She, at least, deserved this trip. Her thoughts always came back to asking if she was still well enough to travel. The doctor said that it would be wrong to go away now. She had begun to feel so much weaker since the tests began.
Seeing the doctor was a chancy proposition when something was really wrong. They hadn’t really helped her back. They hadn’t helped her allergies. They owed her this one. If they could do something now, all accounts would be square. During the war, she had nursed many people who were close to death. She would have sworn that she could always tell which ones would make it and which ones wouldn’t. She couldn’t have sworn anything about this case.
Often she would be carried through the soap time by the reveries, but Tina and Celeste would fill her in on what was taking place. Her children were so good to her. She knew that her feelings for them could not be better. Now Celeste was even there to help her. She felt stronger when her children were around.
After a failed attempt as an out-patient, Anne was admitted to the hospital for another try at a chest biopsy. She was having a lot of trouble breathing. She was always weak. But the hospital was filled with her friends. Familiar faces called out to her from every department – the one-time kids that she had grown up with – her relatives through marriage.
The night before her biopsy, she had dinner with Mario, Celeste and Tina from her bed at the hospital. At first everyone was tense, but she teased them and they hugged in ways that she knew would make them calm. It was her smile and the feel of her arms. It was the feeling that her soft body, strong will and knife sharpener’s tongue belonged to all of them.
Celeste kept telling her that the first thing she had to do when she came out of surgery was to spit out the tube with which she would be intubated. Dr. Avenel had stressed the notion that the oxygen would make her breathing feel much easier but that she had to give it up as soon as possible. Celeste asked for the 50th time, “What’s the first thing you’re gonna do when you wake up?”
“Pull out the tube,” said Anne. She looked at Tina and then back at Celeste. “I’m as proud of the two of you as I can be. You’ve both brought beautiful, precious grandchildren home to me. They make my home ring with life.”
“It rings real good sometimes,” said Mario, nodding his head emphatically. Everybody laughed. That was followed by quick, half-hidden tears.
It was like they were splitting soft atoms of emotion. It went on that way for hours. Not so much memories as the reopening of circuits. Then the girls kissed her good-bye. She was very tired. Mario sat by the bed holding her hand as she dozed.
She watched him leave. The music that he had played for her that night long ago came flooding back. Then it dissolved into Sinatra singing, “I’ll be Seeing You.”
They gave her Demerol early in the morning. Her friends had worked it out that way so that she wouldn’t miss her morning coffee so much. It didn’t work. Anne still wished that she had her coffee. Then they took her downstairs. They gave her a second shot to further calm her down and parked her in the hall outside the operating room.
Alone in the hall, Anne stopped breathing. It was the size of the tumor that was really in both sides of her lungs and had made its way through the rest of her respiratory system. It was her weight. It was the Demerol. One of the nurses finally saw her pallor and called for help.
Immediately, Anne was coded. They put her on a respirator. She awoke in Intensive care and immediately tried to pull the tube out of her throat. They had to code her again. This time they tied her hands down.
During the time Anne lived on the machine, she saw all of them again. Angel was scared of the big machine that Nanna was attached to. At first Anne had been angry with Celeste about the tube, but eventually she understood what had happened to her. And then she died.
Anne Brago’s wake was large and emotional. Even Dr. Avenel came to pay his respects. Mostly things were the way Anne would have wanted them.
After the second night of the wake, Mario asked to have a conversation with Celeste and Ron. It took place after the people who had come to their house for coffee and sandwiches had left. Mario told Celeste and Ron that he wanted them to move into the house permanently. He told them that he didn’t’ think that he would be able to hold on to the house without their help.
“I know how you people feel about this pace,” said Ron. “It would be a crime to see you lose it.”
Celeste loved Ron at that moment more than she ever thought she could.
On the day they were moving their furniture in, Mario said, “Now you know how niggers feel all the time.”
Angel said, “What’s a nigger, Ron?”
Ron’s face went hard. His eyes glared. “I try not to use words like that around children,” said Ron. “In fact, I’d rather if she grew up without knowing what any of those words mean.”
“A nigger is a nigger,” said Mario loudly.
“My father is a racist asshole too,” said Ron.
“The assholes are the ones who don’t know what a nigger is,” hollered Mario.
Ron turned to Angel. “I don’t know what a nigger is,” he said. “You’ll have to ask your grandfather, but just remember that what he tells you is the way people thought before they knew better.”
Mario began to split his time between Tina’s house and his own. He disliked the way Celeste cooked. She put fancy sauces on things that were better left plain, and she cooked chicken all the time. If she served real meat two nights in a row, Ron would comment that they were eating too much beef.
But there was Angel. She looked at him with a loving face. She put her head on his stomach and her arms around him when he stretched out on the floor to watch TV. He did everything that he could think of doing for her. He hollered at his daughter when she was sharp with her. He gave her desserts when she wasn’t supposed to have them. He let her watch TV in the middle of the night when she woke up. And he promised her the world forever.
Some weeks after the funeral, the family gathered for the reading of Anne’s will. Her son-in-law Joey was the executor of the estate, but he didn’t want to read the will and gave it to Mario. It was read after Sunday dinner during which they had left Anne’s seat empty. Everyone who was mentioned was present.
It began with the naming of several people to whom Anne had bequeathed her undying friendship and a piece from her china closet. Barbara received all of her picture albums with the exception of those special photos that Anne’s daughters might want for themselves. Celeste and Tina were to have all of her personal belongings and half of whatever proceeds there might be from her estate to share between them. She left Mario the other half and the promise that if there was a next life, she would do everything she could for him there. She told him it was because of their union that anything was left of her in this world.
Everybody cried again. Mario continually slipped and called Celeste by Anne’s name.
First the friends and cousins came forward. They kissed the paper where she’d signed her name and went to the china closet. There were sentimental treasures there; the wooden beer mug from Germany, the pictures of Sinatra, the ceramic zodiac the demitasse set. No one dared to touch her crystal champagne glasses or the music box that played “I’ll be Seeing you,” while an elegantly dressed couple twirled under glass in the center of a globe.
When they were finished Mario said, “I want you all to know that Anne and I have always been thankful for everything you brought to our home. Now this house belongs half to my daughters and half to me in trust for my grandchildren. I hope that all of you will still want to come here and be with us. We may be sad for a while, but for me anyway, I don’t want to be left alone, to mourn.
Everyone hugged him and cried some more. Celeste and Tina served coffee and cake. More memories and tears about the life and death of Anne Brago were shared. After the people had left, Mario stretched out on the floor and watched “Von Ryan’s Express” until he fell asleep.
It was after midnight when he woke up. He clicked off the TV and went into the kitchen for some water. In the quiet he could hear Celeste crying from upstairs. He walked to the stairway and went halfway up. The crying had gotten softer. He heard her say, “Ron. Hold me! Come in me so that I don’t feel alone!” He turned away just as she started to moan.
His first feeling was anger. He wanted to go up and knock on the bedroom door. It was still his bedroom, even though he couldn’t sleep there anymore. His hands trembled. He turned and went to the guest room downstairs.
Mario began to keep the TV on all night. He spent more than half of his time with Tina and her family. Celeste was the same girl she’d always been, but Mario didn’t think he could continue to put up with his son-in-law. He didn’t do anything the way it was supposed to be done, and he was unsociable. You couldn’t make conversation with somebody who always had his nose in a book. Most of all he didn’t pay the proper respect that a man was due in his own house.
Tina had been listening to her father complain about Ron’s strange ways for as long as she could stand to keep quiet. Ron was now insisting that Angel be punished when she had a tantrum. Anne would have turned over in her grave at the sight of Angel slouched against the door of her room letting loose with pitiful howls.
Joey said, “Ron thinks that you can do everything the way it’s written in a book.” Mario and Tina laughed at the remark.
Joey-boy had been listening and said, “I don’t like them books.” They all laughed again.
“Tell that to your Uncle Ron,” said Tina.
That Sunday they all had dinner together. They were having roasted chicken. Tina went out and bought steaks for her husband, her son, and her father. She was going to cook them on the gas grill in the backyard even if it was December. If her sister didn’t like it, that was just too damn bad.
Ron was in the basement supposedly correcting papers when they arrived. He didn’t come up to say hello or to play with the children. When the food was ready, Celeste saw Tina going out the back door with the steak. She understood what was going on immediately. She did not object for the sake of keeping peace but she felt Tina had stuck it to her.
While waiting for the steaks to cook, Tina said, “Is Ron angry with us for some reason?”
Celeste could see that this did not have the makings of a pleasant day. “He’s just busy. His grades are due tomorrow.”
“It’s Sunday. We always forget the jobs on Sunday.”
“Ron’s not like that.” Celeste was beginning to feel defensive and felt relieved when she saw Ron coming up from the basement.
Tina said, “I’m sure,” and went back outside for the steaks Then it was time to eat.
As soon as Joey-boy spied Ron, he ran up to him with a look of urgency. “Uncle Ron! Uncle Ron….” He was almost too excited to get it out. “I don’t like them books, Uncle Ron!”
“What books?” said Ron.
Mario, Tina, and Joey began to laugh. Joey-boy was encouraged by his success. “I don’t like them books, Uncle Ron!” Then a big smile came over Joey-boy’s face. He slapped the table with his palm and said, “I hate them books, Uncle Ron.” Mario, Tina, and Joey laughed harder. Celeste wasn’t sure what was funny, but she laughed too because she was glad that at least everybody looked happy.
“I don’t get it, “said Angel.
“Never mind, honey,” said Mario.
“But what books is he talking about. He finally says something that I can understand and it doesn’t make any sense.”
“Don’t get smart,” said Celeste sharply.
Angel looked at her mother with huge disbelieving eyes. “You always take his part, don’t you? Never my part!” She ran away from the table crying.
Mario hollered at Celeste. “What did you have to say anything to her for?”
“She’ll get over it,” said Celeste.
Mario threw down his fork and went to get Angel. He coaxed her back to the table. She sat with her arms folded and her back to the table. Tina tried to convince her to turn around. Mario told her that her mother was sorry for what she had done. Angel wouldn’t budge. Finally, Ron got up and walked around in front of Angel. He said quietly, “Either turn around and eat your food nicely or leave the table.”
Angel ran out of the room crying that no one loved her and that everyone thought that she was always wrong. Mario threw down his fork again, “What did you do that for?” he said to Ron. “We were just getting her calmed down.”
Celeste hollered, “it’s not his fault, Dad!”
Mario turned red and screamed, “Shut up! This is all your fault. The way you pick on that child, it’s no wonder if she acts up the way she does.”
“What do I do to her, Dad? Do I beat her? Do I take things away from her?
“She’s four years old. What do you expect from her? These are her carefree years and you’re ruining them for her.”
“I don’t think that’s true, Daddy,” said Tina.
“What kind of mother do you think she is? Tell the truth the way you told it to Joey and me the other night.”
Celeste turned to her sister. “Yeah, Tina, tell it to me the way that you told it to them.”
Tina pushed back from the table. She was looking down at the floor. “I’m not getting involved in this. Come on, Joey. Get the baby. We’re leaving before this really gets out of hand.”
“Sit back down and finish your dinner,” ordered Mario. He was standing. His face and neck were red – his voice shaking with frustration, “We’ve finally got some decent meat on the table again, and I’m not going to watch it go to waste.”
Tina wasn’t finished yet. “Why should we? Do you think they really want us here?” She looked at Ron. “Aren’t you just waiting for us to leave so you can go back to your basement?”
“I don’t care much either way,” said Ron.
Tina stood up. “That’s it! This is the last time that time that I’m coming here without being wanted. It’s too painful. This was my mother’s house. Sunday dinner had happy memories for me. I’m not going to destroy them with scenes like this.”
This time Joey got up too. They were gathered up and out the door quickly. They left Celeste on the front porch crying for them to come back.
Mario watched Joey’s fully reconditioned ’69 corvette pull away. He turned to Ron with anger and disgust. “Did you get what you wanted? My daughter just ran out of my house on a Sunday because you didn’t want her here.”
“That’s bullshit,” said Ron. “She left because she never wants to face the messes she makes.”
Mario shook and began to scream. “Don’t you ever do such a thing like that again, or I swear to Jesus, I’ll pop you in the mouth.”
“You’re not making a whole lot of sense,” said Ron.
“Well, let’s see if you understand this: This is my house, while you’re under my roof, you’ll do things my way.”
Ron didn’t answer.
“My way!” screamed Mario. Then he turned on Celeste. “And that goes for you, too. I want you to call your sister and apologize to her.”
“That’s ridiculous,” said Celeste. “I’m not going to do any such thing.”
“Didn’t you hear what I just said? Do you want to push me?” He was walking back and forth swinging his arms. “Is that what you thought you would do when you came back here, push me around?”
Now it was Ron’s turn to shout. “We moved in here because you asked us to help you. We moved in here because you said that there was no way for you to hold on to your house.”
“Maybe that’s the line she gave you,” said Mario. “I was just as content to move into a furnished room.”
Ron’s mouth dropped open. He had sat there when Mario had made the request.
The old man punched himself on the chest. “Mario Brago doesn’t need anybody,” he shouted.
The image struck Ron comically. It was something he’d read about, people who call themselves out loud by their own names, but had never actually seen.
Mario saw the snicker. “Young man, you may think this is funny. You’ll be laughing out of the other side of your face if I belt you.”
“I’m not laughing at you,” lied Ron. “I’m laughing at how you could stand there and say just the opposite of what you said when you asked us to move in here.”
“Then get out,” said Mario.
“We just moved in,” said Ron.
“Things have to be the way they have to be.”
Angel had been listening to the argument from the living room. First, she had considered turning the TV up loud enough to hear it over their shouting. She decided against that when she remembered how the argument had started. But when Ron began to laugh, she honestly thought it was all over. If she had been able to see their faces she would have known that it wasn’t. The last interchange started tears rolling from her eyes. She ran into the dining room crying, “Papa, don’t make me go away.”
Mario was shocked. Ron stood there silently. “I would never make you go anywhere, Angel.”
“Then don’t make Mommy or Ron go because I have to go with them.”
“Nobody’s going anywhere, baby. We’re just talking about something else.”
Angel looked into his eyes. She wondered why her Papa had gotten so mad. Aunt Tina left in a hurry all the time. She wondered if it was what she’d done. She knew she was being bad when she was cruel to Joey-boy, but he got her so mad. She wanted her Nanna. Her Nanna would understand what she was supposed to do now.
She began to cry. Then it seemed like a huge wave that came along and picked her up. It was like a thunderstorm. The crying was accented with sobs that broke out of her chest. She wasn’t thinking about anything now. There was nothing but the crying.
Several hours later, everyone was worried. Mario had actually gotten down on his hands and knees and begged her to stop. She was trembling badly and the tears seemed to have no end. For a while, Celeste cried with her, but she couldn’t keep up.
Angel cried late into the night, holding her mother and saying, “Mommy, I want to stop, but I just can’t.” She cried for at least another hour after they told her no one was moving. Just before she fell asleep, she thought she heard her Nanna say, “Just forget about all of this, honey.” The next day she told them that she didn’t remember anything about the night before.
Mario stayed by himself even more after that. He either ate his meals out or at Tina and Joey’s. He visited his relatives in Connecticut. On New Year’s Eve, he announced that he was going to Italy in June. “I’ll have your mother on my shoulder,” he told Tina and Celeste.
They cried and held his hands and said, “Mommy would want you to go.”
Quietly, in the middle of February on a Saturday night, Mario went out on a date sponsored by his cousin and Gerard and Gerard’s wife. The girl was somebody that Gerard’s wife worked with. Her name was Anne.
At first Mario refused the date, but Gerard brought it up again and again and told him that Anne was perfect for him. Gerard said that he was still a young man, and he shouldn’t have to hold his joint in his hand for the rest of his life.
The image of looking like an old man with his dick in his hand scared Mario. He agreed to go out on the date. He didn’t want to look like that to the world.
Her having the same name as his late wife bothered Mario, but Gerard pointed out the advantages to him. There would be no danger of slipping and calling his date by the wrong name. It wasn’t her fault that she had the same name, and Mario shouldn’t hold it against her either.
The four of them went out for dinner. It was an Italian place that Gerard said was as close to the food in Italy as anything that was available in this country. They all met at Gerard’s house. He was very nervous. His daughters had seemed to know something was up. They kept asking him where he was going.
Mario ordered linguini and sausage. Anne said she would try the same thing. After dinner she asked him to pick out a dessert for her. He was in his glory. His late wife had never let him do things like that for her. It made him feel strong. He was quite solicitous about whether or not she enjoyed the food.
Gerard and his wife were good company. They talked like young people. They were all quite a bit younger than Mario. It made him feel rejuvenated. He told them about his trip to Italy. He drank whiskey sours and never felt tired once that night.
She took his arm when they left the restaurant. He flexed his muscle so that shoe could feel his bicep. They didn’t kiss each other night. Mario wasn’t comfortable enough to make that leap. There was a loyalty of 37 years to another woman in his body. That wasn’t dead even if she was.
Mario felt good on his ride home. He was a little frightened by how much he’d had to drink. He decided to take the long way home, through the back streets of Paterson. Unconsciously, he drove to the old neighborhood, down the street where he and Anne had lived when they were first married. Mario gasped. This was where Celeste had come home from the hospital to. It was run down now. Only one or two of the houses were still in the old families. The silk mills had closed. Then the Blacks moved in and got what was left. They hadn’t been able to stop it from getting shitty and, of course, got the blame. It was like driving a direction in time, but then he stopped reminiscing.
The house that had belonged to his parents wasn’t far away. He drove there and stopped the car. He looked around in the dark and then he smiled to himself. None of this was real anymore. Anne wasn’t real anymore. He had to move on. Maybe he would marry this new woman.
Now Mario had always taken the position with his daughters that any woman who slept with a man that she wasn’t married to was a whore. It was, according to Mario, a man’s duty to get as much as he could whenever it was a possible. It was a woman’s obligation to say no until they were married. When he and Anne decided to spend their first weekend together, he lied.
That Tina and Celeste knew about his new love at all was an accident – a slip of his son-in-law Joey’s tongue. Tina confronted her father about it and screamed that she hoped that her mother wasn’t able to see what was going on before she was hardly cold.
Mario retorted “What did you expect me to do? Stay by myself for the rest of my life? Be treated like a child by your sister for wanting to be myself in my own home?”
Tina called Celeste and screamed that she had driven their father away from both of them now and she hoped that she was happy with herself.
Celeste said, “You’re being crazy. You’re letting Daddy manipulate you into being angry at me for something he’s done.”
“You’ve got a lot of nerve lecturing me about being manipulated. You’re the one he’s got living there.”
Celeste flushed. She was angry. “Have him come and live with you if you’re so concerned about me driving him away. Or better still, why don’t you sell your house and pick up your family and move them over here.”
“You couldn’t wait to get back in there,” said Tina. “You decided to move back in there the minute that you heard Mommy was sick.”
“I felt she needed me, Tina.”
“I know that,” said Tina. “But you and Ron decided to move in over there after Mommy died. And now I have to pay for it. You’ve taken his home away, and I get him for dinner every night. All I hear about is how weird and unsociable Ron is, and how unhappy Angel is, and how distant and unapproachable you are. What do you expect me to do?”
“I don’t expect you to take it out on me. You don’t know what we’re going through here. On top of everything else, Daddy is always acting like an asshole in order to show Ron that he’s in charge. Ron feels screwed.”
“Daddy’s got a girlfriend,” said Tina.
“He’s seeing somebody. He slipped and told Joey about being out with Gerard and his wife.”
“That bastard,” said Celeste. “He didn’t slip. He used your husband as his messenger boy so that he wouldn’t have to face us.”
“This is all because of the way you’ve screwed things up over there,” said Tina.
Celeste slammed the phone against the wall. She walked into the living room where Mario was watching TV. “Tina just told me about your going out with someone, and I don’t feel like pretending not to know about it; but I want you to know that I feel really crummy that she was the one to tell me and not you.”
Mario flicked off the remote and sat up. “I should have told you, but I just didn’t want to tell anybody. It seemed too soon, but I wanted to do it. It was no big deal really.”
“Are you going to see her again?”
“I don’t know. I think so.”
“What’s her name?”
Mario told her. Celeste was able to stay silently under control until she got upstairs. She shoved a pillow into her mouth and punched the mattress violently. Ron lay there astonished. She told him about Mario’s girlfriend Anne. Ron didn’t say anything.
And so Mario lied about where he was going for the weekend. They slept together that Saturday night. They had quite a bit to drink. Anne said that she felt nervous about being in bed with him. Mario proposed. Anne said she would think about it, and then they had sex.
All spring Celeste was peeking out the kitchen window trying to catch the first bloom on the cherry tree. The first day that she saw them, she sat in her mother’s chair and cried. She was cooking dinner. Mario was bringing Anne home to meet his daughters. He had already introduced her to Joey. His son-in-law had kept this secret. He knew better.
She was a woman in her early fifties. She looked maternal. As she sat in the dining room, Celeste told herself that she shouldn’t hate this woman. She would try to be nice. Tina’s pleasantries on the other hand were laced with undertones of hostility. Anne steered clear of Tina. The woman wore a print dress with a black cloth belt. She spoke softly. She stared, starry-eyed, at Mario.
Even Angel was trying to act nicely for the sake of Papa’s new friend. But she was nervous and when Joey-boy kicked her from under the table, she let out a howl and threw her fork at him. As usual, her aim was good. The boy had ducked when he saw her wind up, but the fork hit him in the ear and cut the bottom of his lobe.
Joey-boy was bleeding. Celeste and Tina jumped up to tend the frightened boy. Mario hollered, “What did you do that for?”
Angel screamed that she was sorry and that everyone was always blaming her for everything. She ran out of the room crying. Mario apologized to Anne who said there was no problem. She’d had enough experience with her own grandchildren to know that these things happened all the time. Tina and Celeste stopped long enough to exchange a look that said neither of them knew about the grandchildren.
After they got Joey-boy’s bleeding to stop and settled him, they had coffee. Mario said, “I have something to tell you. I only met this lady a short time ago, but I feel I’ve known her forever.”
Both girls winced. Mario didn’t seem to notice. Anne stared starry-eyed at Mario. Joey had his head down. Ron was watching all of them.
“We’ve got a deep and warm feeling for each other, and we hope that you respect that. The thing is that I’ve asked Anne to go to Italy with me this summer, and we’re going to get married there in my father’s home town. We’ve asked my sister and brother-in-law to stand for us, and they’ve agreed. When we come back, we’ll be living here.” He turned his eyes to his new son-in-law. “I hope you don’t mind the short notice. Of course, if you have trouble finding something, we can all fit in for a little while.”
Tina buried her face in her hands and began to cry. Celeste stared at the wall in front of her. Joey never looked up. Angel had fallen asleep in her room upstairs. Anne stared at Mario as he hugged Tina.
Mario and Anne left for Italy on the first of June. Tina had begun to accept them both by then. The problem was Celeste. She wouldn’t talk about it to anyone. All Tina really knew was that they had an apartment that they were going to be moving into on the tenth.
The day after they moved their things out, Celeste went back home for a visit. After her mother had died, she had always been able to feel her presence there. She could feel it in every room. “I’ve got to help you get out of here, Ma,” she said and went into the basement. She piled up some oil rags next to some old carpets that her father wouldn’t throw away and set them on fire. She then left very calmly.