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By Erica Orloff
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEvery other Friday from the time I was born until I was sixteen and allowed to start dating, I slept over at my grandma and Poppy Marcello's house. My brother slept over, too, and my parents used the free night to go out for dinner and have some time alone.
My brother and Poppy used to go down to my grandfather's wood shop and make birdhouses. Then they'd watch the fights on cable or would play checkers. My grandmother and I cooked in anticipation for Sunday's big family meal, hand rolling meatballs with chopped veal and beef and bread crumbs. She taught me all the secret family recipes, passed down from her mother and her mother before that.
After cooking, Grandma and I would go sit in the den and have sweetened iced tea in summer or hot tea with lots of milk in winter. One Friday night, when I was about eleven, I remember dragging out the heavy family photo albums lining the bookshelves. I brought one over to her on the couch and plopped next to her and opened it.
"What's this a picture of?" I asked on the first page.
"Oh ..." Her eyes misted over, and her smile was bittersweet. "My goodness, but the time flies, Teddi. That was your mother's fifth birthday party. Your grandfather ... Every birthday had to be better than the last one. That was the year we had pony rides."
"Wow." I wanted a pony. I turned the pages, and each photo brought on a story. I knew most of the tales already, but I never got tired of curling up next to my grandmother and hearing them again. Then I found a page that had somehow gotten stuck to the page before it. Gingerly, I pried the pages apart. There, in black-and-white photos, was a man I had never seen before. "Who's that?" I asked.
Grandma's eyes welled up, and she heaved an uncharacteristic sigh. "That, my darling, is my youngest brother. He's your great-uncle Mario."
"And who's that lady next to him? She's beautiful."
"Yes, she is. Was. That woman is Mariella."
"How come I don't know them? How come I've never met your brother, Grandma?"
"He was struck by the thunderbolt."
I looked up at my grandmother's face, still relatively unlined, rosy-cheeked, her dark hair, graying at the temples, pulled up in a topknot and secured with bobby pins. I furrowed my brow. "A thunderbolt? He was hit by lightning?"
She laughed, even as she dabbed her eyes with a little handkerchief she kept in her apron pocket. "No ... it's an expression we Italians have. When you're older, you'll fall in love and get married. Maybe it will be someone you've known a long time ... a friend you suddenly see in a different light. Or maybe you'll go off to college and meet a boy you could imagine yourself spending the rest of your life with. Someone with good values. But maybe ... just maybe ... you will be struck by the thunderbolt. That means you'll look across a crowded room, or you'll bump into someone on the street ... and from the very second you look into his eyes and he looks into yours, that's it. You know. He is the one. It won't make any sense. People will tell you that you're crazy, but you will know. There'll be this voice, this feeling deep inside ... you will just know, and your life will never be the same, because none of it will matter until you finally get to be with him. Your love."
I looked down at the picture of my long-lost uncle Mario. "So what happened to him?"
"He's in prison, dear."
"Prison? For what?"
She hesitated, and then said, "He killed a man." She said it as if she'd said, "He ran a red light."
I shivered slightly and snuggled closer to her. "Why? How?"
"Oh ... it's a long story." She looked at me, and I clearly wasn't going to let the matter drop. "All right, then. Your uncle Mario saw Mariella at a dance. And that was it. They were both struck by the thunderbolt. You've never seen two people more in love than your uncle Mario and Mariella. It was like electricity ran between them. When people were around them, it was intoxicating. You could just feel the way they were meant to be together."
I hung on her every word. "And?"
"Mariella's father was not a reasonable man. A very over-protective Sicilian. But a little crazy, too. He decided Uncle Mario was not the man he wanted Mariella to marry. He had already decided she should marry Joey Antonelli."
"The plumber?" Everyone in our neighborhood knew Antonelli and Sons plumbing. Their vans - all a bright yellow - were always on the streets of Brooklyn.
"Yes. The plumber. Anyway, Mariella's father sent her two older brothers to scare Uncle Mario. They went to beat him up."
"Yes." She nodded. "Only they didn't count on Uncle Mario being so strong and so in love. It was like he was superhuman. He turned around and beat one of her brothers so hard he killed him right there on the street."
I shuddered. "But ... but couldn't he tell the police it was only because they were going to beat him up?"
"Yes. He did say it was self-defense. But ... the beating was so brutal. And Uncle Mario didn't have a mark on him. And it was around the time that ... well ... the judge wanted to teach a lesson to our kind."
"The family. It's too much for you to understand. But it didn't go well, the trial. They added some other charges - racketeering. Anyway, he got a prison sentence."
"And he's still in jail?"
"Yes. He's eligible for parole next year."
"And what about Mariella? Did she marry Joey Antonelli like her father wanted?"
Grandma shook her head.
"Well, what happened to her?"
"She stood by Uncle Mario. She had no choice. She'd been struck by the thunderbolt. She was very sad about her brother, but she still loved Uncle Mario. Her family disowned her. She ended up moving away. She visits Uncle Mario every weekend. She dresses all in black. People say she's crazy. She dresses like a widow. She missed any opportunity to marry like her friends, to have babies. Waiting ... waiting ... all this time. Like a penance or something."
"But they'll get to be together when he comes out of prison. They'll finally be together."
"Yes. But ... well, they'll never be those two young people so in love." Suddenly, Grandma seemed to think better of telling me the story of Uncle Mario and Mariella.
"Oh ... what am I telling you this sad story for?" She patted my knee. "It's in your blood, you know. The passion. Maybe you'll be struck by the thunderbolt yourself. Maybe you will have that kind of love."
I looked down at the picture of my uncle Mario and the beautiful, tragic Mariella. And I knew one thing. I never, ever wanted to be struck by the thunderbolt.
Excerpted from Mafia Chic by Erica Orloff Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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