O! Little Town of Bedlam
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It had snowed earlier in the evening, but now the sky was a black cupola of emptiness above us, the stars like glinting chips of ice. There was only about an inch of new snow, but it squeaked as we walked, the grass and weeds that poked through it crunching like broken glass.
"Jesus," Russo muttered, his voice tense. "It's cold ... even if we do find Angie ..."
The flashlight beams bobbed along the towpath ahead of us, following the wobbling, weaving bicycle tracks.
I shivered and tried to pull my parka tighter about me. "It's nearly 4 A.M.," I said to Russo's back, ahead of me. "Why on earth would she go out on her bike now?"
Distracted, because he was only half listening to me, Russo said over his shoulder, "She's a kid ..."
"Fifteen, you said ... isn't bike-riding kind of like ... well, babyish?"
"That's what I'm trying ..." Mike turned back toward me, starting to explain something, but just then there was a shout from the group up ahead of us, and the flashlight beams all converged on something off to our fight. Toward the canal. "Jesus," Russo snapped, turning toward the canal so fast that he slipped on the new snow.
I wasn't much better, the smooth leather soles of my new boots like butter on the snow, but we made our way to the group on the bank, who were trying to figure out how to hold onto eachother, to keep from sliding down the short steep bank onto the ice.
That the ice wasn't strong enough to support a person's weight was made more than obvious by the jagged patch of black water that sat like punctuation at the end of the wobbling bicycle tracks. Still, the water in this remnant of the Eric Canal couldn't have been so deep, since every time the flashlight beams passed across that gaping hole we could see the pale blur of Angelina's thee, wreathed Ophelia-like in her long blonde hair.
I gasped, and hid my face against Russo's chest. He held me, but only after a moment, like he had been too shocked even to move. I could hear his breath, catching in his throat. "Santa brought that damn bike ..." he spoke, sounding dazed. "It wouldn't have been there, when Angie went to bed ... she must have got up, there it was under the tree ..."
Then he stiffened, took me by the elbows, held me at arm's length. "Santa, damn it! The poor kid still believed in Santa Claus!" Mike's face was imploring, strangled with an urgency to explain ... what? That this kid shouldn't be dead at the bottom of a canal? His gaze searched hard for something in my face, but must not have found it, for Mike dropped my arms, and ran down to the water's edge and to the other men. They had found some scrap lumber and were laying it on the ice, arguing about who was the lightest of them, to try to slither out towards Angie on his belly.
I shivered on the bank, feeling powerless. It wasn't until they actually had Angelina laid on the towpath for a pointless attempt at mouth-to-mouth, that I noticed the fresh sneaker tracks which continued down along the towpath and vanished in the blackness.
Two days before that, the worst thing I might have thought could come from this trip to the country were the credit card bills I ran up while getting ready for it.
"Corduroy skirt, new oxblood boots, parka the color of Liz Taylor's eyes, with a dyed-to-match fox ruff on the hood, no less?" My mother peeked into the overnight bagalso newthat I was packing on my bed. "This is maybe Bing Crosby that's taking you for Christmas in the country? Egg nog, roasting chestnuts, Christmas carols ... and the warm glow of an old flame?"
"This is not `Christmas in the country', Mother," I snapped, too sharply. That "old flame" had hurt. "Russo's just an old friend now, and he asked me to do him this favor. It's a huge family wedding, his mother can't make it, and somebody's got to represent Mike's side of the family. He says he doesn't know these people all that well, but he can't bear the way, when he does see them, that everyone teases him about being 36 and not even married yet." I made my stare severe, even a little pointed. "You should know how insufferable families can get about that sort of stuff, am I right? Anyhow, the way you're always fixing me up with the losers you meet at the dentist's office, I've been getting the vague idea that you want me to marry again!"
I was fighting dirty, I know; Pearl swears that she took her job as office manager of the dental practice on the ground floor of her building because it was driving her crazy to sit alone all day doing nothing, and not because she thought it was a good way to find me a nice man to date, even if he had gingivitis. My mother surprised me though. Rather than continue to quarrel, she suddenly perched on the edge of my bed like some sparrow of motherhood, hands in her lap, left one twisting the widow's rings on her right. Looking up at me with big round eyes, her voice soft with worry, she said, "Oh, Midge, I know your detective beau is as good-looking as a real-life person can possibly get, and this trying-to-be-a-writer business has to be terribly lonely, sitting in this dinky apartment all day staring at that computer, but ..."
"But he's a Catholic and I'm a Jew and that's why it's better that I should stay in this apartment until I wrinkle up like Aunt Doris and they cart me off to be Midwood's entry in the Miss Sunkist Prune contest, correct?" I snarled, then snatched up one of my new silk turtlenecks, to make it clear this conversation was through. "Anyway, he's not my beau and I'm not trying to be a writer, I am a writer ... just not exactly a very published writer. Yet."
Clear to me, maybe. Not to Pearl. "What wrinkles? You know plump women keep their skin taut longer. But if you want to walk out on a perfectly acceptable husband so you can move to the big city and solve mysteries like that Angela Lansbury, who am I to say anything? It's your life, so ..."
"Oh, mother, please don't bring Paul into this, not again!" I snapped, startled to feel tear salt stinging my eyes and the inside of my nose. It could have been the "plump"Pearl drew the first tear from me on that subject when I was four, and I was a lot rounder in my half of our new mother-and-daughter outfits than she was in hers. However, I have also had 31 years since that first tear to get used to the idea that, even if God in His infinite mercy suddenly made me a size 2, Pearl would probably still say it was a pity, because all the really nice stuff is 2 Petite. So I was inclined to think those sudden tears also had something to do with the fact that, through that long rainy autumn and into the dark of early winter, the suspicion had increasingly been forcing itself upon me that maybe, in fact, walking out on my schleppy now ex-husband Paul in order to move back to Brooklyn so I could chase my dream of becoming a novelist was not the smartest thing I had ever done.
Angrywith me for having second thoughts, and with my mother for being there to see me have themI ground my knuckles just under my eyes, careful not to smudge my underliner or knock loose my lenses. Then I said, "Besides, Russo ... okay, maybe I was a little nuts for the guy last year, but that's over now. We broke up, all summer we didn't see each other, but what does that mean, we can't still be friends? He needs a favor, I said I'd do it for him. And going to a big Sicilian wedding, that might be kind of fun, right?"
My mother sat perfectly still for a half-beat, then shrugged and stood up, cool and slightly distant. Lauren Bacall, in three-quarter scale. She picked up my new braold ivory silk, imported lace trim, front clasplooked at the price tag, then handed it to me, her eyebrows neatly sketched arches of skepticism. "Just friends? For just friends you now pay retail?"
Hey, so this is your lady Sherlock Holmes, Mikey? The one ya took to the old country? Che berda! ... How's about a kiss for Mike's Zio Pietro?" I giggled as the man's sweat-slick, beard-grizzled round cheeks and bootbrush mustache sailed at me on a cloud of oregano and chianti fumes, but I couldn't squirm out of the way of the incoming lips, since this Uncle Pietro had me clutched fight by both wrists.
Luckily, Nonna Donna was pretty quick with her purse. "You old goat!" The big-boned woman just past Pietro slapped her brocade pocketbook down on his balding head, then leaned around her husband to shout above the all-brass version of "Hark the Herald Angels" oomphing from the ceiling speakers, "You gotta excuse him. Sixty-two years old next February, and the man would try to kiss an elephant if one came through that door in a skirt! I'm Donna, Mrs. Cippoletti ..."
"Right, Midge, this is the uh, Cippolettis, he's the brother of Sal ... Salvatore, that you met over by the dessert tray?" Mike Russo looked embarrassed and flustered, cute enough that I might have kissed him, but not before I first broke over his head one of the dozens of straw-bottomed wine bottles from the table, for telling everybody at this pre-wedding dinner that I was the one he had gone to Sicily with last year. I was famous, it turned out; I just wasn't sure for what.
Flustered from wondering if that elephant crack was a hint that my new sheath in grey lambs wool was too tight, I just smiled, nodded, and mumbled something, then dug my nails into Russo's arm. "Lady Sherlock Holmes?" I hissed in his ear. "You told them that too?"
Mike grinned sheepishly, "I kind of, you know ... had to tell 'em something about you. They kept asking, wanting to know about you. Where we met, how we know each other ... so Sicily and things with the doctor and that publisher guy, they just sorta came out." He shrugged. "They kinda think we work together."
"You told them I'm a cop?" Horrified, I dug my nails in tighter. "Hark the Herald Angels" segued into "The Little Drummer Boy." "Jesus, isn't that illegal?"
"Hey, ouch! Only if you tell 'em you're a cop. Anyway, come on ... I hadda tell them you do something for a living. What else was I gonna tell them? You write books? You think any of these people read? Hey, Enzo! Com' stai!" Russo snatched his punctured arm from me, to fling it around the guy who now stood up, just beyond Nonna Donna. He looked a lot like Mike, except fifty pounds heavier, and with a black wiry pelt peeking out past his loosened, sweaty collar. Enzo and Mike thumped each other on the back three or four times, and then, still hugging Mike with his left arm, Enzo started pumping my hand too, with his right, like he was hoping to shake the cubic zirconias out of my tennis bracelet. "Glad you could come, you know?! A pleasure, a pleasure ... so you're the big city detective, hey?" He wheezed slightly, sweat beaded like little pickled onions on his long-ago receded hairline.
"She's a lady detective, for real? Like on `Homicide'?" squealed the woman just past Enzopermed ropes of flax-from-a-bottle hair, three-inch plastic nails, faint brown mustache above Ferrari red lipstick. Also taking my hand, which her husband hadn't released yet, she repeated her question, "You're a detective? What, you come to solve a murder or something?" She laughed so hard she started to hiccup.
"Naw, you stupid woman," Enzo let go of both me and Russo to turn on his wife. "She's Mikey's girl, you idiot, from the city. `Homicide,' that's set in Baltimore or some damned place. This is Canastota. What murders we got up here? This is Canastota, for christsakes. They come for Gina and Tommy's wedding, right? MissMiss"
Maybe it was the floor-to-ceiling tinfoil Christmas tree in the far corner, lit from two directions by spotlights which had three-colored gels revolving in front of them, or maybe it was the garlands of plastic fir and holly that looped here and there beneath the acoustic tiles, or maybe it was the three-foot tall golden angels that stood among the meatballs, gnocchi, and Chianti bottles on the table, blowing their golden trumpets, but I just didn't feel totally comfortable blurting out the word "Cohen."
So I smiled, trying to flex some life back into my numbed hand and doing my best not to hear Nonna Donna behind me, confiding to someone across the table, "Nice girl! Good wide hips!" The muzak now seemed to be doing "Frosty the Snowman." "Midge," I said, "just call me Midge."
Or better yet, I thought, realizing now just how long a weekend I had put myself in for, just call me a cab.
It's easy to make fun of big family events like that, of course. But, to be honest, I can't really say that the thirty-five or so couples there in the Seneca Room of Isadore's Venezia-by-the-Thruway looked or acted a whole lot different than most of the 107 couples, plus children, that my second cousin Simcha had for her Rachel's bas mitzvah, or the crowd at the bris they threw when Sam's boy Bernie and his wife finally managed a son, after four daughters. Sure the food was different, because these were Italiansnot many Jewish functions serve octopus, for examplebut big ethnic families are big ethnic families. Okay, maybe if it was one of those WASP family gatherings where everyone is so repressed and refined that you understand immediately why there's hardly any WASPs left anymore, maybe then you don't have all the sweaty guys with their big round faces, guffawing through wide mouthfuls of half-chewed food at each other's smutty jokes, and the women, some of them too skinny but most of them too fat, their hair dyed and permed too often and their dresses a little too tight and flouncy for them to be able to sit comfortably. But Greeks, Jews, Italians, Armenians, Poles, maybe even Germans, and Russiansfor sure, you're going to have all that, and their kids too. The kids! Chubby-kneed toddlers in sugar-white dresses and frilly rubber underpants, their ears already pierced with little gold studs and their fingers in their mouths as they gape at the older kids. The four-year-old boys in clip-on ties, their shirttails now out and their flapping ties grubby with spilled sauce, all of them yelling and galloping around after the eight- and ten-year-old boys, who were trying to put bits of casserta and tiramisu in the hair or down the backs of the twelve-year-old girls, three of them plump enough to look like Disney's pigs in party dresses and the rest of them so skinny that they looked like jackstraws in taffeta, their brand-new nylon pantyhose hanging baggy on them like even my schleppiest pair of Levis don't on me. I mean, one of these families even had what I swear is the same maiden aunt that one of my cousin's in-laws has, a perfectly proper-looking woman who, three glasses of wine into the dancing, she starts begging the band to play something loud and bouncy, so she can flip up her hems and show everyone her lacy, racy bloomers. The only difference here was the song was a tarantella, not "Hava Nagila," and this crazy aunt's gotkes were green, not flamered. More Christmassy, I suppose.
"Kind of a freak show, isn't it?" Mike shout-whispered in my ear sometime later, when we were already full of broccoli and ziti and manicotti and stuffed shells, sweaty and foot-sore ourselves from dancing. The rehearsal dinner was moving towards its conclusion; the bandreally just two old guys, one with a mandolin, the other with an accordion, a young guy who had the hair and the face of a rock guitarist looking bored as he filled in goomba chords behind them, and a zaftig blonde who had seen better days carrying the words of old standards up and down the scales in a sturdy but serviceable voicewas playing its last set, the youngest kids were bawling on the floor or lying in their mothers' arms, sucking pacifiers or bottles and making sleepy circles in their hair with their chubby, sticky fingers. One of the little boys, who had fallen on a chair and split his lip, was howling and dripping his shirt with blood, and most of the older boys, who had been sneaking sips of wine all evening, had long ago shrieked themselves hoarse.
I caught myself starting to lean back again Mike's shoulder, then straightened, and turned to give him a big "just-friends" smile. "I don't know, it's just people having a good time with family, isn't it? It's actually kinda nice ..."
Mike watched me for a second, his green-yellow eyes reminding me, as they always did, of sunlight shining through shallow water onto a sandy beach. "Sure it's a good time." I thought I could feel him wanting to put his arms around me, but instead he drew himself up, like his back was stiff, then glanced around the room, before pointing his chin at the bride- and groom-to-be. "Look at 'em, not two years out of high school, and they both know each other all their lives already. What's left for them to discover?"
The couple in question, whom custom had kept seated with their respective families for the first part of the eveningthis being only the rehearsal dinner, not the wedding banquet; that would come the day after Christmaswere now dancing. As oblivious to the crowd as they were to the beat of the music, she clung to his neck like he was all that kept her from plunging from a cliff into the dark cold sea, while he bent over her as if looking for loose change in the back pockets of her dress.
"I don't know," I said, for want of anything better to say, "they look kind of sweet."
Russo sniffed and shook his head. "There'll be a baby in, what do you figure, six months? And then another next year? Him sorting onions at Rapasadi's Warehouse and her dreaming about getting to be maybe the receptionist at the Boxing Hall of Fame, if she can just manage to finish the secretarial program at Mohawk Valley Community College? Kinda of ... I don't know ... blighted, isn't it?"
I turned, to stare at him. "Pretty big word, isn't it?"
"For a dumb detective, you mean?" he bristled, but only a little. We had left from my building in Brooklyn about ten that morning, but the roads had been bad, icy in spots, and jammed with people headed for Christmas at Grandma's, so we barely had time to dress before the dinner, and even then we had come in late. Then dancing, eating, drinking ... it was nearly eleven, and we were both weary.
"No, I meant to describe these people ... Sure, I mean, this isn't the Bloomsbury Group, but, I don't know ... Isn't it nice to think about how the great-grandparents of those kids probably had parties just about like this one when they married, and their great-grandparents before them? I mean, probably even Dante and Macchiavelli had to go the parties their cousins threw, when their kids got married, right?" As I talked, I could suddenly picture a rustic table set beneath the sweet dappled shade of a grape arbor, the stacks of crusty breads, bits of wood ash clinging to their bottoms, the inky home-made wine still cool from terra cotta storage vats, buried to the neck in the ground, and, in the distance, a slow procession coming from the church, snatches of music just audible above the intervening fields of golden wheat and scarlet poppies ...
Mike looked skeptical, staring at the room and poking idly at his teeth with a toothpick. "I guess, like tradition, you mean? But it just seems ... I don't know ... sort of `in-grown' is maybe the word."
It dawned on me then that Mike was not staring idly, but rather was intently watching one particular girl.
I could see why, because this same girl had caught my eye on and off through the evening, the way a butterfly might in a jar full of moths. She was tall, nearly six feet, and slender, with a figure that was already clearly female. Her hair was the color of clover honey and worn long, parted simply in the middle, but then falling away in curvestoo loose to be curls, but too tight to be mere wavesthat were hard to describe as anything other than sensuous. Her dress was high-waisted and A-cut, with choirboy sleeves, in a flowing blue rayon the color of a May sky. Her face was an oval, kept from mathematical perfection by a deep dimple on the left cheek which somehow left her even prettier than perfection.
"She's a beautiful girl, Mike," I finally said.
Mike blushed a little, sat up, nodded. "Angelina ... good name for her, right?"
I looked again. It was true. She might have been an angel painted by a Florentine master of the Renaissance, right down to the distant, almost other-worldly expression on her face. The other girls darted and clucked, laughing and giggling, while Angelina seemed out of synch, laughing alone, or not at all. "She from your family, or the bride's side?"
Mike laughed. "Meaning am I gonna ask her to dance and make a big fool of my middle-age self?."
"I didn't mean ..." I said quickly, because I probably had meant. "Anyway, if you're middle-age, then ..."
"You're young, Midge, young ..." Mike laughed, then patted my shoulder. "We're gonna be 18 forever, you and me."
"18? Can I pick a different year? 22 maybe? No, wait ... 24? 24 was okay. Kind of ..."
"Whatever," Mike flipped that discussion away with an indolent wave of his hand, then pointed his toothpick in the direction of a plump woman with dyed red hair at the far corner of the table, who was just licking the last of the ricotta from a cornetto. "Angie's Linda's kid. My mom's cousin, so I've known Angie, phew, since she was a baby, I guess." For a quick fraction of a second, Russo's face gripped dark and angry, as if a high thin cloud had passed between him and the sun. Then, a blink later, that icy fury was gone. "Don't look much like a baby now, does she?"
I stretched, then yawned, which I tried to transform into a nod. "What I don't understand though is how come she doesn't have all the boys over there, showing off like horses' asses to get her attention?"
Mike stretched too, looked around the room with what seemed to me to be curious care, before he said enigmatically, "Oh, Linda keeps the boys well away from Angie, believe me ..." Then, more energetically, he slapped my knee. "Come on, don't go nodding off on me! We've still got things we got to do tonight!"
It took me a while to remember to breathe, while I thought about possible activities we might still have yet to do tonight.
There was an out-of-town crowd for this wedding, plus other Christmas traffic, so Mike's family had had to put us in one motel room. With two beds. In a hurry because we had arrived so late, Mike had changed his shirt, put on a tie, and then gone down to the lobby while I changed my dress, trying not to look at the two beds.
Mike and I had ... well, a year or so ago we had gone to Sicily together ... dark slats of the shutters, with the white-hot sun of siesta time beyond, Mike's ribs, like something Michelangelo might have carved, if the artist had worked in suntanned and shower-beaded human flesh, instead of cold Carrera marble, the slender gold chain and tiny cross around Mike's neck catching on his leonine chest hair as he leaned toward the linen sheets, cool with violet-scented talc ...
But we had broken up. So we couldn't ... I mean, I had come on this weekend as a friend, not as easy recreation ... but if what Mike had in mind was procreation ... including everything that comes afterwards, especially the part twenty years from now when we sit eating bran flakes, arguing about where the kid should go to law school and wondering where the last twenty years have gone to, well, then ...
"Mike," I began weakly, "I think maybe we ought to talk ..."
He looked confused for a moment, then laughed. He stood up and held out his hand. "No, no, not that ... it's Christmas, remember? We got to go to Midnight Mass!"
I felt relieved, foolish ... and deeply disappointed. Trying to gather my wits, I fumbled around for my purse and shoes, stalling until I could manage a bright smile. When I could, I stood too, holding his hand as I put on my heels. "We're going to Midnight Mass too? Okay, but I'll warn you right now, I'm not taking communion!" I told Mike severely.
Mike's face went terribly serious, the approximate color of milk of magnesia. "Midge, you can't take communion!"
"I just said that, didn't I?" I pushed him in the direction of the door. "After this meal, another bite and I'd burst!"
It was a candlelight service. Pink, red, and white poinsettias carpeted the altar, and balsam fir was garlanded along the pews. Little blonde kids with kitchen towels for keffiyehs imitated Palestinian shepherds, a teenager in a rope beard and bathrobe that didn't go far enough down to cover his bright red Chuck Taylors stood woodenly by as Joseph, gazing adoringly but awkwardly down at Angelina, who was a radiant, luminescent Madonna. "Adeste Fideles, O Little Town of Bethlehem," and, as the church bells tolled midnight, "Silent Night."
To tell the truth, the whole thing made me a little homesick, like I was a tourist in a country whose language I only knew a few phrases of. All that solemnity, the mothers fearfully trying to hush their cranky kids, everyone scared to breathe as the priest elevates the cup for the Transfiguration, like if they do something wrong, God's going to backhand them across the mouth, or maybe stalk out of the room in a huff. In that deep reverent silence, I found myself missing the comfort of temple. Even at our most solemn, on the Days of Awe, when the ark is open and we're standing in what the rabbi tell us is shechina, the presence of God, we're still scratching and murmuring to our neighbors about how well the cantor looks after his operation and we're handing the little kids toy trucks down where they're sprawled under the pews and trying to decide whether to break the fast with the whitefish first, or maybe treat ourselves with a piece of the ruggelach, and then do the whitefish.
The few church services I've been to, it's like Christians haven't been married so very long, and the bride is afraid of saying or doing something wrong, always all tensed up from wondering whether He's going to forget the big anniversary they've got coming up.
Us, we've been with God almost six millennia now. We're both of us pretty used to each other's little idiosyncrasies, so if one party or the other sometimes gets a little out of line, well ... the marriage can stand it.
After we had shuffled out with the crowd into the ice-crystal sharp night, where the many wishes of "Merry Christmas!" lingered on as white puffs of vapor, Mike shook the priest's hand firmly, then took me by the arm and guided me to his car. Before unlocking my door for me, Mike looked up at the vast expanse of night, sighed deeply, and then, with a tenderness that turned my knees to egg nog, he kissed me. "Merry Christmas, Midge ..."
I was still replaying drowsy variations on that kiss three hours later, when someone knocked urgently at our door. I jumped up to shake the snoring Mikewho was in the other bedand then went to the door to whisper, "Who is it?"
It was Mike's cousins, to tell us that Angelina was missing.
That her new bicycle was not under the Christmas tree and her coat was missing from the hall closet had given the search urgency from the beginning. But once the bike tracks were discovered wobbling toward the canal's towpath, everyone got truly frantic. Angie, as everybody kept repeating, was absolutely forbidden to go anywhere near the canal.
Fifteen minutes later, we had found her body, proving the frenzy justified.
"How many times did I tell her, don't go near that canal!" Angie's mother wailed. "She was a good girl. She knew it wasn't safe ..."
"It's that canal! It's a crime that that canal is there!" another woman started in hotly, while two others comforted Angie's mother, now sobbing into her hands. "They shoulda filled it in years ago!"
We were in the living room. The tree, the decorations, and the mounds of gaily wrapped presents looking almost like an obscene mockery in front of the grim clusters of family, some in their pajamas and robes, some in outdoor gear. The house was small, and the furnishingsor at least what could be seen of them under the Christmas decorationswere inexpensive. Someone had put on coffee back in the kitchenette, and people stood about awkwardly, clinging to their mugs. Special Christmas mugs, with jolly drawings of Santa Claus riding a bicycle.
There wasn't much any of us could do, but no one thought to leave. Outside it was still black, but one or two of the houses visible from the living room window were already lit up. Relatives of the dead girl? I wondered, or maybe families with small children, already ripping at their mounds of presents?
"Are there' ... other kids?" I asked Mike softly. He looked dazed, his hair standing up in lumps and tufts, his eyes hollow, with a black-green cast beneath them. He turned his head slowly to my question, his expression blank. "Did Ang ... did she have brothers and sisters that will be waking up, wanting to open presents? It'll be ... hard on them," I trailed off, knowing I sounded like an idiot.
Mike was too upset even to react to the foolishness of my question.
"No ... no, she's ... she was Linda's only kid ... Jesus God, it just isn't fair!" His features suddenly focused for a second, making him look both brutal and desperate. "The way she fought ... fought to take care of that girl! Hung over her like a hawk that nothing else should happen to poor little Angie, and nobody ever around to help her ..."
The fire of his fury sagged back into weary fatigue, and Mike fell silent. Then he shook his head, squeezed my hand, and mumbled something about having to talk to somebody. He ambled off, leaving me to feel even more of an intruder and a stranger than I had before.
I couldn't just go back to the motel, and there was little I could say to Angie's mother, beyond what I had already said several times, that her daughter had been a beautiful girl, and I was very sorry about her terrible loss. After a moment of indecision, I wandered back into the kitchen, to see whether I could find some way to make myself useful out there.
"Some Christmas, huh? Mikey taking it hard?"
The woman who asked me this was slicing a frosted bread ring, laying pieces out on a paper tray, printed with poinsettias. She was my age, more or less, but was even shorter than I am, and trimmer too, with the sparkly eyes and brisk movements of a fox terrier. A taller and older woman stood with her back to us, preparing some food. She didn't turn when I entered the tiny kitchen, but just glanced dourly over her shoulder.
"Yeah, I guess he is," I said. "I'm, uh, Midge ... is there something I can do to help? I mean, I feel a little ..."
"Out of it?" the woman smiled. "I know who you are. We met at the dinner. You probably forgot me though, I'm Penny Jo." She held out her hand, white sugar frosting on her thumb.
"Penny Jo?" I shook her hand then, automatically, licked the frosting which was now on the back of my hand.
"Oh hey, I'm sorry `bout that. Here ..." she handed me a Christmas towel. "Trailer trash name, right? Penny Jo, Ruby May, Loretta Bob ..." she said in an exaggerated Dogpatch accent, then shrugged. "I've thought about changing my name maybe to something like Courtney, or one of those TV names that used to be for guys ... Randy maybe? But then I figured, what the hey, a name like Penny Jo Priaputnewicz, people aren't likely to forget I was in the room, are they? Not that they can get within a city block of spelling it!"
I found myself liking this chirpy little woman, especially after all the effort of staying solemn about a tragedy that I could understand but not feel. "You have an extra apron? Priaputnewicz? So you're not ... one of the family?"
"Hey, you done real good with my name! Most people, they just mumble it around like a mouthful of carpet tacks! Oh yeah, I'm part of this circus they call a family ..."
"Family would have a better sense of how to behave at a time like this," the other woman suddenly growled, glowered at me, and then picked up the tray of frosted bread. "Go see to those cheeses and meats, the men will be wanting to eat. I'll take this out to the others ..." She paused in the doorway, her face dull. She was obviously trying to think of something to say, but in the end contented herself with the vague, "And remember where you are ..."
Penny Jo grinned at me. "Patsy there never did much approve of me. She thinks I've always been fast," she said the word in a tone of mock horror, then handed me a thick cylinder of sausage.
"Here, you slice this, and make it thin, mind, or we'll be hearing about it! The men just can't be eating thick slices, ya know?"
Glad to have a job, I tied on the apron, found a knife, and for a moment concentrated on curling translucent wafers away from the rosy Hungarian salami. The tiny kitchen crammed with food, the smell of the coffee machine gurgling away, the closeness of the other woman working at the other counter, all these made it hard to stay silent.
"I used to teach Russian. In college, over in Ithaca."
"Oh my goodness, a college teacher," Penny Jo sounded enthusiastic, but amused too, like she was mocking me a little. "And a policewoman? My, my!"
I pushed back a lock of hair and laughed. "I'm not a policewoman, that was just Mike. No, all I mean is, that's why I could say your name. Russian, Polish ... I'm used to long names."
"Damn name is like an elephant sneezing itself to death or something. If it wasn't for the two boys having the name, I swear I'd go back to my maiden name ... excepting that `Penny Jo Paterno' sounds like something you'd yell at a football game!"
Penny Jo's good humor was infectious. I laughed, then looked guiltily at the door, knowing the depth of the misery just beyond it. "So you're ... uh, single too?"
"Divorced," Penny Jo said matter-of-factly.
"Me too," I confided, surprised that I was enjoying this chat, probably because I almost never had ones like this when I was in New York.
"Oh yeah?" Penny Jo was surprised and looked me over for a minute. "I had you figured for one of those ... you know, big city career gals."
"Full-time police work, right?" Penny Jo laughed, so I added, "No, really, he was a vet, and we had a big house outside Dryden, some acreage even. I had this big old flower and vegetable garden ... no kids though, thank God." For a second, I remembered the big kitchen in that house and the extravagant dinners I used to try to make there. Even made my own ketchup, for goodness sake. Then I remembered also the long empty evenings, feeling the chill winds nibbling their way through the authentic originaland very draftywindow panes, as I waited for Paul to come back from a calving somewhere or from seeing to a colicky horse. "Irreconcilable differences, and I refused to take any alimony, so the whole thing was pretty painless really," I concluded, concentrating on the last nub of salami.
"Me and the Polack, we had them differences too," Penny Jo said archly as she took the tray of sliced meat from me, then handed me a smoked provolone to work on. "Like that he just loved beating on me, but I didn't care for it one little bit!" Then, her expression more thoughtful, Penny Jo looked at me inquisitively, tapping her paring knife on the cutting board before she asked, "Mike ever slap you around?"
Feeling grateful that I hadn't confided to Penny Jo that I had left my husband simply because he bored me, it took me a second to understand her question. When I did, I was flustered. "Oh, Mike and me, it's not like that, I mean, we're just friends. This was a favor. He asked me to ... We're not ... but ... no, he never, you know ... I doubt that he'd ever hit anybody. Outside of his work, I mean. If he had to," I dribbled on, lamely.
"Maybe now ..." Penny said, still tapping the paring knife against the white plastic cutting board.
"But years ago, when he was in high school, and even in college some I guess, he used to spend a lot of the summers up here. He was pretty quick with the fists then, believe me."
"Oh, come on," I snapped, with more heat than I would have thought possible, "Mike a woman beater? I don't believe that for a second."
Penny laughed. "No, no, not women. That's what I mean, he was like, you know, some kind of knight in shining armor or something. One of the guys around here would try to push on a girl, rough house with us a little too much or something, and wham! There was Mikey, two-fisted hero from the big city." Penny Jo wiped her hands on her apron, then looked around the kitchen, hefted the coffee pot to see whether she should make more. "There was a lot of fights, because it made the boys from around here mad, him butting in like the priest had put him in charge of the town's morals for the summer or something. Not that we didn't do what we wanted to when Mikey wasn't around, you know?" She smiled, then said, much more softly, "He proposed to Linda, you know." She cocked her head at me, like a little kid who has poked something with a stick and is now waiting to see what happens.
I nodded, biting on my lower lip, because I wasn't sure what to say, or even what I felt. Through the little window above the sink, I could see the first pink-gray slash of day coming. I barely recalled Linda from last night, and this morning, of course, she had looked terrible. That automatic thing women have, somewhere down where the mitochondrial DNA reproduces itself, it immediately set to work trying to decide whether Linda was more attractive than I was. My more civilized brain cells knew, of course, that Mike and I were nothing to one another anymore, even if such questions weren't totally out of place today in any event, because of what had happened to poor Angle. But I had to ask anyway. "But she's a lot older than him, isn't she? And a cousin too?"
"Kissing cousins. Linda's a couple of years older than Mike, maybe, but what she looked like fifteen years ago?" Penny Jo shook her right hand, as if she had burned herself. "Boy-bait number one around this town. Angie was her natural daughter, you know what I mean?"
I tried to imagine the sobbing silo of a woman in the front room as a willowy, golden-haired angel, but another thought intrudedMike staring intently at Angie at the party, his fury as she was pulled from the canal, his caged, restless pacing ever since.
"Oh my God," I managed after a second, gripping the counter because my stomach had turned into a cold slush of dread. "You're not trying to tell me that Mike was that girl's father?!"
Penny Jo chuckled and shook her head. "Naw, like I just told ya, back then, Mikey was real religious, always trying to keep the rest of us from sins of the flesh ... The `Altarboy,' we called him."
I smiled, oddly relieved. Whether Linda had been "boy-bait" fifteen years before, I could not say, but what this Penny Jo might have been like in those long-ago summer evenings was simplicity to picture now. A face like a grinning cat andI did not doubttiny cut-offs and a halter top, or maybe better yet just a boob tube, this Penny Jo must have given more than one Canastota teen-age boy some hot, sweaty summer dreams. Back in high school, as I was rushing from Student Council to Senior Chorus, or from AP Calculus to French, I would stare with open disgustand secret envyat those minx-like Penny Joswho in Brooklyn were usually named Donnaalways at the center of a cluster of goofy, jostling boys, whom those girls seemed to control as tightly and nonchalantly as the Coney Island pony-ride man did his herd of little ponies.
But Penny Jo wasn't telling me this just to gossip. "You and Mike ... are you two really serious about each other, or ... ?" She asked, studying me intently. To forestall the objection that had leapt towards the tip of my tongue, she added, "I know that's a personal question, but ... it's just that, well, I'm worried that Mike might try to play Friend to Jesus again here, and maybe do something real stupid ..."
"Like what stupid? Mike's a detective on the New York City police force, for God's sake! It's not like he's going to charge around punching out people because of this Angie! Besides, who's to punch? The girl rode her bike into the canal, that's an accident, not a crime!"
Penny Jo shook her head and smiled ironically. "That poor little girl's whole life was an accident ... but after a while, it's hard not to wonder whether that don't make it a crime ... and if there's a crime, stands to reason there's got to be a criminal, right?"
"Look, maybe you better just tell me what it is that's worrying you, because I'm really not understanding ..."
Penny Jo didn't get the chance to answer, however, for the low murmur of voices beyond the swinging kitchen door suddenly grew louder. What sounded like several people were shouting at once, and even some furniture was being slammed about.
Penny Jo paled, put her hand to her mouth, and said, "Oh my God, he can't have been jackass enough to show up here!"