Read an Excerpt
From the amtrak dining car lunch menu: Santa María Cheese Enchiladas—$6.50—Monterey Jack and cheddar cheeses rolled up with scallions then topped with tomatillo sauce and served with black beans and Spanish rice.
The April I was thirteen, I went to sleep a good Catholic schoolgirl, and woke up the next morning burning. The transition was like the flip of a coin, and made me as dizzy as an airborne dime.
I was sick for days with it—drunk on the new green of globe willow leaves against the slate of a heavy spring sky; feeling the itch down my spine and the sides of my legs from the seams of my clothes; eating gluttonously of every lasagna, every olive, every bowl of cream I could put my hands on. A cat crawled into my lap, and I petted him for hours, a cat I had known all of my life, and I ached with the incredible softness of his long fur, the astonishing sound of a purr.
My mother said it was puberty. It would pass.
More than twenty-five years later, the great cosmic hand flipped the coin again. I went to bed a woman of the world, and awakened the next morning desperately homesick for the world of the girl I’d left behind. I turned over in my bed—a futon shoved against the wall of the living room of my Greenwich Village apartment—and remembered, suddenly, what it was like to awaken to complete morning silence. Not a plane or a taxi or a clatter in the street, only the voices of birds or the purr of a cat. I stared at the square of obstructed sky I could see above the curtains and remembered a bowl of sky stretched hard from the yellow, elm-pierced east to the dark jagged blue of mountains to the west. It seemed I could smell sage and rain, dust and onions, lasagna and perfume, all at once, mingling like a siren song.
That day, a registered letter came from Passanante, Corsi, & Cerniglia, Attorneys-at-Law, and I opened it to discover that my aunt Sylvia, ninety years old, had passed away and left me her house and all the lands that went with it. It was so precipitous, I knew my grandmother must have been very, very busy lighting candles to every saint on her list for a special intervention. Saint Jude—oh, he of hopeless causes. And certainly Magdalena, who would understand fallen women so very well.
It would not have surprised me if it had been Sylvia herself who’d brought all that homesickness to me, sitting on my bed in mischievous, ghostly humor, taking care of one last thing before she went on to meet her husband, Antonio.
Truth was, though, I had probably known that going home was the only answer. My best friend, Michael, had collapsed on the stairs the week before, unable to manage the steep narrow flights of our building any longer, and I’d accepted—even if he hadn’t—that he’d be living with us soon. Which, considering I’d blown the engine in my delivery van and didn’t have anywhere close to enough money saved to think about a new place, was more than a small hurdle.
And as if that weren’t enough, the building was sold out from under us to a developer who wanted to put in condos. We had two months to find a new place.
I moved my index finger over the embossed name on the letterhead. No choice.
When Shane, my seventeen-year-old son, came out of his room, rubbing his chest in an unconscious gesture, I said, “Babe, we’re going home.”
I took a breath, waved the letter. “Pueblo.”
For one long moment, he blinked at me, maybe waiting for me to say, just kidding. When I didn’t, he scowled, his dramatic dark eyebrows beetling above the brilliance of his blue eyes. “I’m not going there.”
“Yeah, kid, you are.” I tossed the letter down and poured some coffee into a ceramic mug I’d picked up from a street stall. “It doesn’t have to be forever—but we have to take care of Michael.”
He slumped on a stool, leaning his elbows on the counter and putting his big, dark head in his hands. Although he was a fairly typical mix of the arrogance and uncertainty that represents seventeen, he was both more and less—thanks to his music and the lessons of the past couple of years. It hadn’t been easy, for either of us, and now we were facing the hardest hurdle of all. “Mom—”
“I know.” I took a breath, let it go, focused on the irregular rooftops I could see from our fifth-floor window, grimy with soot even though I tried to keep it clean. “A year, Shane, tops. You finish school, we take care of Michael, you can meet your family. . . .” I shrugged. “Then you’re free. The music isn’t going anywhere.”
His broad shoulders hunched against me, or maybe against the knowledge that he couldn’t really refuse this request. After a minute, he nodded.
I touched his shoulder on my way by. “Thank you.”
I’m sure the thought of going home and taking Michael with me must have been in the back of my mind for months, triggered by little things—the cadence of Italian-accented English in the voices of people walking below my window, the wrong taste of salsa made by recipes that were nothing like the ones at home, an illusory scent of sage and rain on the wind. After more than twenty years away, there were suddenly reminders of my hometown on every street corner in New York City.
But until we were actually on the train, settling in the generous seats of the Three Rivers Amtrak, I didn’t really believe I was going to do it. And even then, as the wheels started to clack across the rails, making that particular and hypnotic sound, I was absolutely sure something else would come up and save me from having to face it. Michael looked at me. “You okay, kid?”
I smiled brightly. “Fine. I really think you’ll like it.”
“I’m, uh, really sure I won’t,” Shane said from across the aisle. He used Marlon Brando’s Godfather voice, slumping deeper in his seat, his electric bass guitar slung over his knees, a badge and a shield. He’d been hustling every avenue, every lead, every possible way to keep us in the city—which was, after all, pretty much all he remembered—until it was plain we really did have no other option.
His idea of Pueblo was my fault. I’ve spent most of his life making wry little asides about the place—had perfected an entire spiel on Pueblo, a one-horse little steel town that barely managed not to die when the industry collapsed in the ’80s. I delivered the monologue in that peculiar accent I’d worked so hard to lose—a blend of Spanish and Italian and Irish cadences, mixed with a good helping of country Colorado—making insider jokes about the mill and neighborhoods and ethnic groups that nobody outside the city could understand.
Home sweet home. In my memory, it lived under a white-hot summer sun, one of those dog days of August when all the colors in the fields had been bleached out, when the mercury shot up to 101 and the world thumped with the sound of swamp coolers and overhead fans.
My father, too, walked through my memories of home. Romeo, who made me dolls of hollyhocks and spent rainy afternoons with his daughters, cooking zeppoles in the shapes of letters and animals and stars.
My father, with whom I had not exchanged a single word in twenty-three years.
It took two days. We spent most of the time sitting in the observation car or in the lounges, staring out the windows at those pastoral landscapes. The hours were very melancholy, at least for me. I don’t know if it was for Michael—it’s hard to ever know what Michael is really thinking. He’s made an art form of inscrutability. For the trip, he turned himself totally anonymous in a pair of jeans that bagged around his skinny rear and a pair of mirrored sunglasses.
Not many people recognized him, of course, not like they did in New York when his restaurant was in full swing and in the papers, so he didn’t have to deal with those expressions of hastily hidden dismay he’d often run into in the city, but some people still remembered him from the days when he and my nonhusband Billy were still making records. Michael, being Michael, made it easy for them by cracking jokes about being a missionary in Africa, where rations, you know, are slim. They loved him for it, as they loved him for everything he did. To a lot of people, Michael Shaunnessey was a god.
He was never a god to me, though I sometimes think of him as my angel. Hard to imagine where I’d be without Michael.
Shane, who looks exactly like his father and was, like Billy, also born with some talent to go along with the face, was bearable on the train only because he managed to charm a trio of three young females. They were college girls making their way to LA for some dream or another, and in spite of his age, they were smitten. There’s not a female on the planet who can resist that exact combination of smoldering intensity mixed with genuine openness and admiration. Fatal charm.
Or at least it had been fatal for Billy. I hoped it wouldn’t prove fatal to Shane.
“Damn, that boy looks like his daddy,” Michael said, his voice as gorgeously southern and raspy as ever. We were passing silos at the time. I saw a barn lettered with the name of a feed store pass behind his head.
“I should never have named him Shane,” I said. “If I had called him Horace or Porfino, I’m sure he’d be wearing thick glasses by now.” Shane had seemed such a dangerous, romantic name to my twenty-two-year-old self. And it is.
“Nah,” Michael said. “His friends would have nicknamed him Killer or Charm or something. Count on it.”
He was right, of course. Men are even more awed by a lady-killer than women are. That’s part of the trouble.
I gave myself up to the rocking of the train, the endless, soothing sound of the wheels clunking over the tracks. I was tired. Scared. Michael and Shane had made peace with the need and the reality of this upheaval in our lives, but I had a lot more baggage than they did.
Roots. It wasn’t just that I’d lived in the same house while growing up, though I had. Same house, same neighborhood, same families that had known one another since forever. The whole group of them had immigrated from Sicily ninety years before. Two hundred families left a village in the southern reaches of that island and transported themselves—lock, stock, and secret wine recipes—to America, plopping themselves down in a section of blocks in South Pueblo.
So it wasn’t just a generation or two, it was hundreds of years of roots. Stories about things that happened before Napoleon was born, traditions that started in the sixteenth century, family feuds left over from 1742.
It only sounds romantic, trust me.
And yet, here is how it happened, my coming home: the train came into La Junta at nine o’clock on a cloudy, late spring morning. We found the TNM&O station and got on a bus filled with migrant workers to ride the last little stretch into Pueblo, sixty miles or so away. I took the window, my limbs heavy with remembrance as the potholed two-lane highway rushed under the bus. I spotted Pikes Peak, way off to the north, and the Sangre de Cristos to the south, blue and distant. They came closer as we trundled west, and a part of a Paul Simon song wound through my head: “blood of Christ mountains . . .”
I’d forgotten how beautiful the yellow fields were in comparison to that soft blue of the mountains, how unbelievably huge the sky appeared. In my years away, I’d had a chance to visit Sicily and had immediately understood why my ancestors had settled in Pueblo. There were a lot of things that had the same feel, even now.
We passed through Rocky Ford, where the best cantaloupes in the world are grown, and I thought about eating piles of them when my mother bought them, five for a dollar, at roadside stands in August. We made ourselves sick on cantaloupe. I thought about telling Shane, but he was slumped deep in his seat, his hair hiding most of his face, and I didn’t.
But when we got to The Lanes, I sat up and poked him. “The house is right over that rise.” He roused himself, mouth slack, and nodded blearily.
Michael peered out the window, his hands folded easily across his lap, and showed not a flicker of emotion. He read a road sign. “Ah, Thirty-second Lane. I get it, the Lanes, capital L.”
“Not all the names are that simple, so don’t get cocky on me.”
He put a long slim hand on mine. “You okay, kid?”
“No. But there’s nothing you can do about it.” I just had to live through it somehow, these first few days. Twenty years was a long time to be a runaway. It would have been a lot easier if I’d shown up every year or two in the meantime.
It wasn’t like I’d been incommunicado. It wasn’t that dramatic. When my sisters Jordan and Jasmine, one year and two years younger than me respectively, got out of the house, we set up friendly lines. They kept me up-to-date on Jane, our baby sister, who was sixteen years my junior. My mother got over wanting to kill me for dropping out of school within a couple of months, and told me to call her every Tuesday night from then on. Tuesday is my dad’s bowling night.
My father, on the other hand, has not spoken to me one time in twenty years, but I can’t say I didn’t know it would be that way. I did.
The city arrived outside the windows, so much bigger than it had been that I was blinking. “Shane,” I said, “time to wake up. We’re almost there.”
My sister was going to meet us and drive us out to the house. My sister Jordan, that is, the only one I’d told I was coming, the only one, in all honesty, that I was absolutely sure would come to get us. As we pulled into the station, I sat up tall, straining for a glimpse of her. Entering the driveway, the bus rocked side to side like a lumbering elephant.
We came around the corner and there they were. I don’t know how many. Twenty or thirty at least—my sisters and their families, some of my cousins and aunties, and my mother stand- ing anxiously at the front. Someone had made a big sign that said, welcome home, jewel and shane with five exclamation points.
Shane said, “Are they for us?”
“Yeah.” That was the thing I’d forgotten to tell them about roots, the upside. Even when you totally screw up, your sister will organize a giant surprise welcome for you. She’ll be wearing a medieval velvet hat she bought at the Renaissance festival, and she’ll have put on a dress for the first time in five years, even though she lives in clay-stained jeans or surgical blues.
I saw her standing there and waited until I caught her eye, then put my hand on the window, palm out. She raised her hand. Both of us had tears running down our faces.
Then I was up and running down the aisle. They spotted me and everybody started cheering. All of them, I swear, surged forward, arms out to enfold me and touch my head, to exclaim and kiss my cheek. They blurred together in their clean shirts and good haircuts and the solid shoes of the old women, and the rosary in my Nana Lucy’s hand. She felt like sticks when I hugged her, and all at once I was dizzy with the recognition that she was still alive. How could I have dared let so much time go by?
My father wasn’t there. I hadn’t realized until then that I’d been harboring some hope that he might be ready to throw in the punishment towel.
At last, everybody kind of cleared away, or maybe they surged around Shane. Either way, I was just standing there, looking at my mother, who also had big fat tears rolling down her pretty face. “Finally,” she said, and hugged me.
Jordan had convinced everybody that maybe we wouldn’t want a big party after being on a train for two days, and the family, mollified by the promise of a real celebration on Saturday afternoon, got in their Buicks and SUVs and drove home. Jordan took us to the farm in her slightly battered old Volvo.
The farm, like everything else, has a bit of a story attached.
Most of those Sicilians who came here went to work in the steel mill. A few did other things—grocery stores and the like. My mother’s line has a restaurant that’s justly famous, called simply Falconi’s, which is where I learned to cook.
But in 1919, my great-grandfather Sal and his brother Antonio Falconi had a fight about a woman, Sylvia Rosario. She was a lush beauty who, by all accounts, bewitched—and I do not use the word lightly here; there are still people who say she knew more than she should about herbs—half the men in Bessemer when she came to Mass for the first time on an August Sunday morning. She was fresh from Lucca Siccula, the younger sister of a man who had finally saved enough money from his job as a smelter to send for his siblings.
Sylvia, so the story goes (and I heard it often enough from Sylvia herself to know), took one look at Antonio Falconi and made up her mind in that instant that he and no other would be her husband. Unfortunately, my grandpa Sal had made up his mind that Sylvia would be his wife, and he was the older brother. This might not be a problem where you live, but it was a really big problem for Antonio and Sylvia.
Obviously Grandpa got over it, because he was married to my nana Lucy for forty-nine years. But at the time, it meant war. The restaurant would go to him, of course, so Antonio had to find something else. He bought a farm out on the Mesa where he grew apples and peaches for cider, and although he never got as famous as Merlino’s, he actually became rather wealthy once he started growing the chiles and beans that thrive in those hot, irrigated fields. The apples liked the irrigation, too; it just drove my uncle crazy to have to outguess the last freeze every year.
What they never grew, Antonio and Sylvia, was children. So eventually they healed the rift with the family and it became a tradition to have holidays at the farm. The house was a rambling Victorian with a porch that wrapped around three sides. Nearly all the downstairs windows opened on to it. My aunt used to put out dozens and dozens of red geraniums in clay pots every summer, and over the years, some got so big she had to put them on wheels. I used to help her move them, every spring.
It had been a long time since I’d seen the farm. The trees had grown a lot bigger since the last time I’d been there, and a bank of lilac bushes, just about to explode into blossom, had taken over the western property line. There weren’t any geraniums, only a forgotten basket that had withered on a hook over the winter.
Other than that, it looked exactly the same. Outside.
And, sadly, inside, too.
Shane surveyed the living room with its overstuffed furniture and dusty carpets, its plaster walls made grimy by years of cooking and my uncle’s cigarettes. Probably the result of failing eyesight on my aunt’s part, too. If she could have seen the grime, she would have scrubbed it away. Shane couldn’t know that. Couldn’t know that my imagination filled the room with Christmas trees and the four of us girls and innumerable cousins all racing around the grown-ups’ legs until somebody shouted at us to get outside.
He said, “We aren’t really going to live here?”
“As a matter of fact, we are.”
“What’s with all the little statues?” He pointed to an altar in the corner and one visible in the dining room.
Jordan and I exchanged a smile. “Saints,” I said. “Sylvia was big on saints.”
Jordan shuddered. “I think you’re brave to take it on, Jewel.”
“Bravery has nothing to do with it.” I moved inside, beckoned for Michael to join us. He was hanging back, his hands in his pockets, looking over the fields. I wondered what he was thinking.
I wondered what I was thinking. Jordan put the keys in my hands ceremoniously. “There’s some bread and a lasagna Mama sent over from the restaurant; just bake it for an hour. I got some groceries stocked for you, and cat food’s in the cupboard below the sink—you know about the cats, right?”
They came with the house, three of them. I nodded.
“Sylvia only gave them Science Diet, so you have to feed them that or you’ll be sorry. Mama and I aired things out and cleaned things up a little, but she’s been fretting over Dad so much—” A touchy subject and she skittered away from it.
“Thanks, Jordan.” I kissed her head, surprised still at the height difference between us. I hadn’t quit growing until I was pregnant with Shane, and I felt my height almost everywhere. Jordan had halted just shy of five feet and I could easily kiss her crown. “You’ll never know how much it means to me.”
“Well, watch out. Not everybody is thrilled that you inherited this place.”
“Who wanted it?”
Jordan lifted a shoulder. “A few people. Land values have gone up like you wouldn’t believe, and even without the house, a hundred acres of land is worth something.”
A hundred acres. I’d forgotten that. I wondered about taxes on that much land and when they’d need to be paid. “Was it making any money before she died?”
“Some, maybe. I don’t know how much. Her estate paid off any encumbrances, though, so you should be okay until you get your sea legs.” She grinned and clasped my arm. The bells on her bracelet rang. “Buck up. She really wanted you to have it.”
Jordan went out and stopped on the porch to put a hand on Michael’s skinny waist, looking up at him in concern and no awe whatsoever. She’s a nurse, and a good one, though she is at heart an artist. I’d asked her a million questions about things when we’d first found out he was sick. I loved her for the gentleness of that hand.