Sacred Time: A Novelby Ursula Hegi
In December 1953 Anthony Amedeo's world is nested in his Bronx neighborhood, his parents' Studebaker, the Paradise Theater, Yankee Stadium -- and in his imagination,/b>/i>
The bestselling author of Stones from the River delivers her most ambitious and dramatic novel yet -- the unforgettable story of an endearing, but also flawed, Italian American family.
In December 1953 Anthony Amedeo's world is nested in his Bronx neighborhood, his parents' Studebaker, the Paradise Theater, Yankee Stadium -- and in his imagination, where he longs for a stencil kit to decorate the windows like all the other kids on his street. Instead he gets a very different present: his uncle Malcolm's family.
Malcolm is in jail for stealing -- once again -- from his last new job, and Anthony's aunt and twin cousins settle into the Amedeos' fifth-floor walk-up. Sharing a room with girls is excruciating for Anthony, despite his affinity for the twins. But the real change in Anthony's life comes one evening when he causes the unthinkable to happen, changing each family member's life forever.
Evoking all the plenty and optimism of postwar America, Sacred Time spans three generations, taking us from the Bronx of the 1950s to contemporary Brooklyn. Keenly observing the dark side of family as well as its gracefulness, Hegi has outdone herself with this captivating novel about childhood's tenderness and the landscape of loneliness. Ultimately she reveals how the transforming power of a singular event can reverberate through a family for generations. With gravity and poise, Hegi turns her astute yet forgiving eye on the essential frailty and dignity of the human condition in this elegant and fast-paced novel.
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That winter of 1953, stenciled glass-wax decorations appeared on nearly every window in the Bronx, and Uncle Malcolm was sent to jail for stealing stamps and office equipment from his last new job.
My parents were so busy fretting over Aunt Floria -- who looked like a widow because she was married to Uncle Malcolm -- that they got impatient whenever I told them how much I wanted a stencil kit. "Not now, Anthony," they'd say, and they wouldn't even glance at the commercial of the girl and her mother who opened their kit, pulled out stencils of comets and bells and Christmas trees that were cut from thick transparent paper. While the mother held a stencil against the window, the girl soaked a sponge in pink glass wax, dabbed it against the stencil, and they both smiled at the comets and snowflakes they'd created.
"All the other kids got stencil kits," I lied on the drive to Aunt Floria's.
Fordham Road was slick, and my father was steering cautiously in the icy rain that pelted our Studebaker. "Floria is my sister, after all," he said.
My mother tapped one painted fingernail against the St. Christopher medal that was glued to the dashboard. "Maybe you need to figure out who the hell your real family is, Victor."
"And what is not real about my sister?"
"Don't tempt me. Please."
"We already got glass wax for cleaning windows," I reminded her as we passed beneath the Third Avenue El. "So we only need to buy a stencil kit."
"Quit skutching, Anthony."
"Kevin has a stencil kit."
"Kevin always has everything you're trying to get. And when I check with Mustache Sheila, it's not true." My mother was always making up names that fit people just right, like the three Sheilas in our neighborhood, Pineapple Sheila, Bossy Sheila, and Mustache Sheila. Pineapple Sheila was Jewish; Bossy Sheila was Irish; and Mustache Sheila was Irish and Kevin O'Dea's mother.
"But all the kids have stencil kits."
"Basta! You know I detest it when you skutch. It's always the same. First you try getting what you want by being charming. Then you skutch."
I slid close to the wing window behind her, propped myself on the armrest to be tall. Inside my left mitten was Frogman, green and hard, and I curled my fingers around him. Frogman was a prize from a box of cereal I hated, but Kevin had finally traded Frogman for my two favorite baseball cards, Phil Rizzuto and Yogi Berra.
Kevin lived in the building across from ours on Creston Avenue, next to the back wall of the Paradise, where movies were airconditioned and movie matrons shined their flashlights into your face if you talked. Summer evenings, when it was too hot and sticky to be anywhere else, our families would be at the Paradise, no matter what was playing as long as it wasn't banned by the Legion of Decency. At church, their movie chart was tacked to the wall of the vestibule: A-1 was morally suitable for all audiences;
A-2 was morally suitable for all, with reservations; B was partially condemned; and C was condemned. Though we took pledges against condemned movies -- not just to stay away from them, but also to boycott theaters that had shown them -- Father Bonneducci still screamed from the pulpit that it was a mortal sin to see a condemned movie, and I could hear his voice inside my head whenever I passed the Ascot and tried not to glance at the posters of the condemned movies. Next door to the Ascot was a Hebrew school, and I wondered if the rabbi screamed at the boys about not looking at the posters. I liked the Swedish posters. Especially Summer with Monika.
I wished we had enough money to go to the movies every day, but at least Kevin and I could stand in the polished recess by the ornate ticket booth of the Paradise and feel the cold air, and retell the plots of our all-time favorite movies: It Came from Outer Space; Invaders from Mars; and, most of all, Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. We'd roar like the beast -- "uuuughhh" -- as it burst from the ocean near Baffin Island with its huge lizard teeth and lizard arms -- "uuuughhh" -- getting ready to squash Wall Street and the Ferris wheel at Coney Island. One day the movie matron came out and yelled, "Scat, you noisy kids, or I'll call your mother."
Some afternoons we'd spread Kevin's old quilt on his roof, and we'd spy on communists who might walk down Creston Avenue. So far we hadn't seen any, but we knew how to spot communists because they were mean and wore red uniforms. That's why they were called reds. They carried Jell-O boxes so they could find each other and trade secrets about the bomb. While Kevin and I waited, we'd read our Tarzan and Bugs Bunny comic books, or we'd scrape with Popsicle sticks at the tar along the seams where it bubbled in the heat. Some tar would get on our skin, our clothes, but we'd pretend we were getting a tan at Orchard Beach, even though we could see the Empire State Building from up here.
"I was talking about helping Floria too much while Malcolm is Elsewhere," my mother was telling my father. Elsewhere meant anything from jail, to England, to being on the run. Elsewhere meant never staying in one place for long because you're moving outside the law.
My father stubbed out his cigarette. "And who decides what too much help is?"
"You think you're just like Jesus walking on water. You think you can do anything without getting your feet wet."
"Well, let me tell you that Jesus got his feet wet. Plenty wet."
Feet wet. Wet feet. Feet cold. Cold car. Our car was so freezing cold, I could barely smell the leftover trays of veal scaloppine and eggplant rissoles next to me on the backseat. They were from the golden anniversary my father had catered, and he'd covered them with white towels that had the name of his business, Festa Liguria, stamped on them.
"What am I not understanding here about wet feet?" he asked.
"No, no. Educate me. Me and the boy. We both may learn something from you that we've missed at mass."
I stared past our Palisades Park decal at the White Castle, gray now in the rain, where the twelve-cent hamburgers were as thin as Uncle Malcolm's playing cards; and as I thought of him being Elsewhere again, I pictured him running, his lanky body tilted into the wind, one of his hands holding on to the green accordion he's strapped to his chest, the other to his ginger-colored hat.
"I find it enlightening, Leonora, how you only quote the Bible to point out my shortcomings. Somehow I doubt the Bible was written for that purpose."
My mother jiggled two cigarettes from her pack of Pall Malls, lit them both, and stuck one between my father's lips. "It means...whenever you help Floria, you deprive your own."
"And are you my own then?" Though he grinned at her as if trying to joke her out of her mood, his voice was harsh. "Are you then, mia cara?"
She snatched a folded newspaper page from her purse. "If you're like that, I'll do my crossword puzzle."
She couldn't sit still, my mother. Invariably, one crossed leg would bounce, or her hands would fidget for something to move. That's why she was too skinny, Aunt Floria had said to my father at my seventh birthday party a few weeks ago.
"I wonder if that's why Leonora can't hold your babies. Thank God she carried Anthony almost full-term."
I'd seen my mother hold plenty of babies and carry them around, but when I told Aunt Floria so, my mother came up behind her.
Eyes wet, she yelled, "Dropping a double litter does not make you superior."
But Aunt Floria yelled right back. "My twins are not a litter. At least I'm not starving my body to fit into a size six."
"That's the truth, for sure. If you quit eating macaroni for a year, you wouldn't get down to a size sixteen."
My aunt reached back and turned her black collar inside out. "I want you to check this label. Fourteen, Leonora. And I did not sew this dress. I bought it at Alexander's. Size -- "
Quickly, my father turned on WNEW. "Listen...Frank Sinat -- "
"Size fourteen. See?"
"You just sewed in a smaller size tag."
"Alexander's keeps getting bigger," I said, "just like -- "
"Anthony -- " My mother looked startled. "Don't you -- "
"You told me Alexander's keeps getting bigger, just like Aunt Floria."
"I said nothing like that," my mother lied. "Floria -- "
But my aunt was running up the stairs of my grandparents' house, and my mother was chasing after her.
"Floria, please -- "
My grandfather reached into his pocket. "How about a peppermint, Antonio?" Just like the nuns at school who could whisk holy cards and erasers from their sleeves, my grandfather could produce whatever I might need from his pockets: rubber bands, money for paper candy or Nik-L-Nips, cat's-eye marbles, a whistle, peppermints, kite string. As a boy in Italy, he'd won a kite flying championship. Riptide Grandma complained that his pockets were always stretched out of shape, and the one thing he'd get angry about was when she cleaned them out.
I slipped his peppermint into my mouth. "The Alexander people keep knocking down apartment buildings to make their store even bigger."
"At home in Italy, people preserve old buildings instead of knocking them down."
"What if the Alexander people knock over the monkey bars in the playground?"
"In St. James Park? They're not allowed to build there."
"Promise?" I followed him into his music room below the stairs to the second floor. It smelled good in here from when it used to be a closet. On the floor lay wood specks that bugs had chewed from the beams.
"Promise. That park belongs to the city. Which means it belongs to you."
"To you and every child who plays there."
The window to the alley was on one wall of the music room, and on the other walls my grandfather had mounted candle-shaped lamps from his job at the salvage yard and a small picture of himself as a boy with a kite.
"I think it's funny when Americans talk about their historical buildings." He started cleaning a record with a folded undershirt. "Eighty years, Antonio? A hundred? Two hundred?"
Though he was a big man, the voice that came from his neck sounded little, as if it had to fight its way out, and I was sure that's why he loved opera so much, those big voices that came through the woven fabric in front of his golden-brown Victrola.
"In Liguria, we talk about thousands of years." His fingers curled a bit toward his palm, and he motioned with that hand as if asking me to come closer, to go way, way back with him, maybe a thousand years. "When I was a boy in Nozarego, a little younger than you, I helped my father in his vineyard that had belonged to his father and his father's father and so on...centuries of Amedeos, Antonio, before your time and mine."
"I almost got squashed at Alexander's."
He sat down on the wider of the two chairs. "Oh Dio. How did that happen?"
Upstairs, my mother and aunt were screaming at each other like opera divas, even though my mother had told my grandfather that opera was melodramatic. "They're always screaming, and it takes them half an hour to say, 'Come into my embrace,' or to recognize a long-lost brother. Then they scream the same thing again, and you can't even understand the words." My grandfather had listened closely, just as he always did, without rushing you, even though my mother went on and on, and when she'd exhausted herself and said she admired drama that relied on the power of words, the power of silence, my grandfather had smiled and said, "I like silence, too."
I climbed on his knees. "The Alexander people had their birthday sale and Mama and I were waiting for the doors to open but firemen were guarding them and people started shoving and squashing me."
"Some people got pushed through the windows and cut and mannequins got knocked over and then I heard sirens. I don't like Alexander's."
He nodded. "Have you considered trading time with your mother?"
"You could ask her if, for every ten minutes in Alexander's, she'll give you ten minutes in the toy department."
"And for every hour in Alexander's I get one hour at the five and ten?"
"You could ask, Antonio."
"At Kress, not Woolworth, because it's bigger and next to Gorman's hot-dog stand."
For a while, the quarrel above us continued, but later that same evening, my mother and Aunt Floria danced to Make Believe Ballroom on WNEW, the way they liked to at family parties, my mother -- despite high heels -- not nearly as tall as my aunt, who had delicate ankles although the rest of her body was solid, like my father's. By far the best dancers in the family, my mother and aunt took pleasure in each other's grace and skill as they went spinning and dipping past us. And if there were words that passed between them, they must have been gentle.
Since the men didn't like to dance, they smoked and watched the women -- including Riptide Grandma and Great-Aunt Camilla -- do the rumba and the fox-trot and the tango. That evening, Uncle Malcolm wasn't Elsewhere yet. Sweating and laughing, he accompanied the radio by pumping long, shimmering breaths from his accordion as though he were part of Count Basie's orchestra. Uncle Malcolm was the only one in my family who wasn't Italian, and he seemed exotic to me because of that. His pale hair was damp, and his eyes chased Aunt Floria, who became girlish and light as she danced with my mother.
When my grandfather stepped next to Great-Aunt Camilla and whispered something in Italian, she laughed and, gently, pushed him away with her palm against his chest.
"It's true," he said, "even if I were a woman, I'd still rather touch women than men."
"That's brave of you, Emilio."
He sat down on the couch. "You go, Antonio. You go dance with the ladies."
My mother and Aunt Floria opened one side of their dance for me, and I rushed into the warm knot of their bodies, spinning with them. Spinning and dipping long after my father and Uncle Malcolm joined my grandfather on the couch, slumped toward him as if to make a triangle, and took the customary nap.
Afterwards, in the kitchen, Aunt Floria and my mother washed the dishes and argued, but we were used to them being quick-tempered with each other and then confiding and dancing as if they were the closest of friends. When they returned to the living room with brown coffee and black coffee and a silver tray of sfogliatelles and cannolis, the men stirred and uprighted themselves, and we all sat around and told stories the way we always did, with great passion, listening with equally great passion while one of us would take one thread of a story and spin it along, and the listening would evoke further memories, so that -- with laughter or tears -- we'd leap into a story and become part of its weave. It was best when the stories were already familiar, because then we could take delight in how they changed and yet stayed the same with each telling. And as we urged each other on, I felt the presence of untold stories -- there already, beyond all of us in the future -- shaping themselves within the body of my family, waiting for us to live these stories.
And to tell them.
Great-Aunt Camilla found her stories in foreign countries. Since she enjoyed traveling alone, she was a mystery to my family, but I liked mysteries, liked picking her up at the West Side docks, where the water was dark green and murky with oil slicks and trash, where the air smelled of tar and hot dogs, and where I got to see ocean liners when she returned with her faraway stories and faraway presents. One day, Great-Aunt Camilla gave me a tour of the Mauretania. Four other ocean liners were tied to the docks, and a barge with long rollers was alongside the Île de France, painting the hull. When my mother bought me a hot dog, I tossed the end of my bun to the seagulls, and as they fought over it, the horn of a tugboat shut them out. It had a big M on its stack. "That means 'Moran,'" Great-Aunt Camilla had told me, and I'd wished she would take me on one of her trips.
My favorite story of all was how my grandmother had saved my grandfather from drowning. My mother had named her Riptide. If it were not for Riptide, none of us would be alive. Not that she had rescued all of us, but she had rescued my grandfather when he was not my grandfather yet, not her husband yet, but just Emilio Amedeo, standing in the surf at Rockaway Beach up to his waist.
"The first day I saw him, I rescued him." That's how she always started the part of the story that was hers, the part where she's sunning herself, wearing her new white swimsuit, when this young man suddenly topples and is pulled out to sea. One of his arms shoots up, then his face, open-mouthed. While she leaps up, races toward the water, dives in, and swims out to where he's drowning. "Hold on to me," she shouts and reaches for him. She's swimming on her back, one arm around him as if they were hugging, and he floats with her, resting on her body. "If we fight against the current, it'll tire us," she tells him. "All we need to do is wait...let the tide take us to where it weakens...then swim out of it." For a minute or so my grandfather floats with her, but when the tide sweeps them out farther, he panics, because it's obvious she's some rare kind of water-being, a manatee, or a siren, luring him deeper into her territory. As he struggles to free himself, she flips from beneath him, emerges behind him, grasps him around the middle. "I'm going to save you," her woman-voice shouts into his ear, "you have no choice there. But you...can make it easier for me to save you...if you quiet down. If you can't do that...I'll knock you out and...drag you to shore." He feels her breath against his left ear, against the left side of his neck, breath that rides on her shouting. "But save you I will. The one...choice you have is to make it look like we're swimming back...together. And then you don't have to admit to anyone that a woman saved you."
But it's my grandfather who revealed the story of his rescue. Who still liked to tell it, urged on by us.
"Let Emilio tell that part."
"He does it so well."
He'd wait till Riptide finished and then he'd continue the story from the moment when he quieted. Against all panic. Because, out there, in this woman's fierce embrace, he understands that she'll make true on her promise to save him. In her fierce embrace, he understands that he'll ask her to marry him -- water-being or woman -- once they're back on shore. And because he's afraid of her slipping away from him forever once they reach the sand -- more afraid than he is of drowning -- he asks her name, Natalina, relieved to hear that she, too, is Italian, and then proposes to her while the tide is still pulling them out.
It has become the story of their marriage.
And it was not long before they had their first child, Victor, named after Victorien Sardou, who'd written the play that my grandfather's favorite opera, Tosca, was based on. And since my grandfather loved Puccini's operas above all other operas, it only followed that the girl, born two years after Victor, would be called Floria.
My father and Aunt Floria liked to tease their parents about that first swim, how they had made it last because they got to touch each other in ways that would have been inappropriate had they just met on land.
"It would have destroyed Natalina's reputation," my grandfather would say.
Riptide continued to swim, one mile every morning, in the pool of the building where her sister, Camilla, shared an apartment with Mrs. Feinstein. Both worked as teachers in Manhattan, but Mrs. Feinstein didn't travel and saved her money for a Persian-lamb coat and elegant furniture. Their apartment had a fireplace and was two blocks from the East River on 86th Street.
Sometimes I'd wear my swimsuit instead of underpants to Sunday mass, and afterwards Riptide would take me to Manhattan. I liked being on the Jerome Avenue El because it went by apartments and I'd see people cooking or sleeping or watching television. Whenever there was a game at Yankee Stadium, people on the El would stand up and lean toward the windows on the right, catching a moment of the game.
Uncle Malcolm liked to take me to baseball games. Usually the twins would skutch, and he'd tell them, "No girls allowed at Yankee Stadium."
"I got us the best seats in the house that Ruth built," he said the first time he invited me.
Everything was exciting that afternoon: coming into the courtyard, where Uncle Malcolm bought me a program; going through the turnstiles, where he presented our tickets to the ticket takers; following him up steps so steep I really had to climb, steps to the top bleachers up in heaven; and squeezing into seats that were grimy and sticky from stale beer.
"From here we can see everything that's going on, not just part of the field -- " He motioned to the box seats close to the third-base line. " -- like those poor schmucks over there, who have to keep moving their heads."
I loved being this high up, loved the noise, the scoreboard with the numbers lit up, the vendors yelling: "Hot dogs, peanuts, soda, here."
Uncle Malcolm showed me how to fill out the program with a pencil, play by play, who got a strike, who got a ball. A couple of times he tapped the shoulder of the man in front of us. "Could I just borrow your binoculars for a second for my kid here?"
He bought us peanuts and Coca-Cola and beer, nudged me so I'd shout whenever he shouted. Such noise...I'd never heard such noise before, shouting and fighting and vendors yelling, while I sat in our best seats, feeling hot and stuffed and thrilled.
Great-Aunt Camilla's pool was in the basement, across the hall from the trash room, and the lockers were rusty and stank of chlorine and rotting swimsuits that people had forgotten. Riptide and I would dive into the murky green water, chase each other's toes, shriek with joy when we'd startle each other by surfacing unexpectedly.
My father laughed when I figured out one day that, by swimming one mile a day, Riptide could swim to Italy in nine years.
"She's the kind of woman who might just do that," my mother said.
"I'd rather take an ocean liner," Great-Aunt Camilla said.
Now and then Great-Aunt Camilla and Mrs. Feinstein would join us in their pool and swim like real grown-ups, their bodies long and narrow, so that they looked more like sisters than Riptide and Great-Aunt Camilla. Together, they'd do smooth and fast laps at the far side of the pool so that our splashing wouldn't frizz their curls.
I'd try to prolong our swim because I dreaded the men's locker room, where roaches and silverfish scurried when you turned on the light. According to Mrs. Feinstein, silverfish ate anything, even the glue in book bindings; and she'd point out dead silverfish in the light of her elevator when we took it up to the apartment for lunch.
The brim of my father's hat filled the rearview mirror. "At least instruct me how I am depriving my own and getting my feet wet at the same time, Leonora. Have you and the boy ever gone hungry? Without coats? Without crossword puzzles, God forbid?"
"Without the damn car heater."
I tugged the brim of my hat forward, then back. Forward again. Still, its rustling against my ears was not enough to smother my parents quarrel. They often fought about money. About not being poor. About not looking poor. Which meant keeping things clean and mended, saving scraps of leftovers for another day.
"I said I'll get the heater fixed."
"When, she wants to know."
"Don't talk about me in the third person."
I wound a piece of wilted lettuce around a button of my wool coat. We always had a few lettuce leaves or shriveled string beans on the seats, since my father used the Studebaker to transport crates with carrots and beets and lettuce and beans from the Bronx Terminal Market to Festa Liguria on East Tremont Avenue.
"People can get frostbite in this car." When my mother raised her thin shoulders, her back seemed half the width of my father's.
"I'll get the heater fixed once those chiropractors pay me for their convention."
"I rest my case."
"A lawyer in the family. All our troubles are over now."
"I promise not to use much of the wax," I said.
Why did the grown-ups always get to decide what was bought? Why should a car heater be more important than a stencil kit? Or a frying pan when the old one wasn't broken? I folded my hands and prayed to St. Anthony, my namesake saint, to let me live with the television girl and her parents. They never argued. I pictured the glass-wax girl, the glass-wax mother on the screen, shown from outside their window as they decorate it while someone high up in a tree -- maybe an angel -- is pointing a camera at them. In their living room is a fireplace, ready for Santa to arrive.
"We don't even have a fireplace," I said.
"Santa knows the route down our fire escape." My mother drummed the tip of her silver crossword pencil against her front teeth. "Light. Seven letters. A word for light..."
"I don't enjoy fighting with you," my father said.
"Now you want to fight and enjoy it, too?"
He let out an exasperated laugh.
I pulled off my itchy wool mittens and let them dangle from my sleeves on the cord Riptide Grandma had crocheted between them. The last time I'd heard my father laugh like that was when my mother had wanted to yank me out of Catholic school. She said it was bad practice to mix religion and school. But my father and grandparents said the nuns gave a better education, and I wanted to stay at St. Simon Stock because Kevin and my other friends were there.
Though I was sure I'd filled Frogman's leg with baking soda, I popped the metal cap off his leg. Some days, being sure only meant you had to double-check, because if you didn't, everything else would come undone. And I wanted to show my cousins how Frogman swam up and down when baking soda bubbled into water.
"Seven letters. Glow...too short." My mother reached up to fluff the speckled feathers on her red hat.
"Are you quite settled?" my father asked.
"Flicker...No, the fourth letter has to be M...."
"If my sister hadn't married Malcolm," my father said, "we wouldn't even know the bastard."
I sat there, stunned, and for years from then on I would believe that -- without marriage -- men simply were not there. My father certainly proved that, because my mother kept him real during his absences by cooking his favorite meals, washing and ironing and mending his clothes, and, above all, talking about him when she picked me up from St. Simon's after school, so that, when my father came home at night, I'd feel surprised he'd been away at all because all day he'd felt nearby. Women were there without marriage, even Great-Aunt Camilla, who didn't have a husband. Women I saw all the time. In my mother's kitchen; at the beauty parlor, where the stink of permanents tickled my nostrils; at the Hebrew National Deli; at Joy Drugs; or in Ce'Bon, where a sprayer above the window filled the air with perfume. But men I only encountered when they were married to women I knew. What would happen if I couldn't get someone to marry me? Would I just disappear? And where would I be then?
I sat up tall. "Can I marry the twins?"
My mother turned and smiled at me as if I were still in first grade. "Both of them?"
"Maybe just Bianca. Belinda is funny, but I don't like her ugly boogers."
"I have asked you not to say 'ugly boogers,'" my father said, though he, too, knew to get away from Belinda when she sneezed because chunks of snot burst from her. "It is called a sinus problem."
"Marrying one's cousin is not a good idea," my mother said.
But if I married Bianca, she would have to let me wear her Superman cape. She used to leap off furniture with a bedsheet knotted around her neck, shouting, "Suuu-per-mann," until Aunt Floria sewed a cape from satin remnants with straps for Bianca's arms to fit through so she wouldn't strangle herself.
"Why is it not a good idea to marry a cousin?"
"Last week you wanted to be a bishop," my father reminded me.
"I can be a bishop first and then get married."
"You can't do both."
"Besides," my mother added, "you're too young to think about marriage."
My father slowed our car at the corner of Southern Boulevard, where the orange roof of the Howard Johnson glistened in the downpour, and the neon boy pointed to the tray of neon pies that the neon pieman offered him.
"Twenty-eight flavors," I read aloud.
"Always out of season," my mother said.
"Coffee is their most disgusting flavor." Whenever we went there, they'd just have vanilla, chocolate, coffee, and strawberry. Any other flavor we'd ask for was out of season.
"It's disgusting, all right."
My father glanced at her. "Malcolm probably considered those stamps another fringe benefit."
Fringe was the slinky stuff around the edges of my Ossining Grandma's piano shawl. She was my mom's mother. Rough and loving, she was sorry as soon as she slapped me or yelled at me, and she'd pull me into her arms; but it was the sting of her palm that lasted -- not the kiss on my forehead. We didn't see her often, but when we did, I liked driving past Sing Sing, where my Ossining Grandpa had worked as a guard till he died from a burst appendix when my mother was ten. My Ossining Grandma prayed a lot for her dead husband. Each prayer, she said, was a parking voucher for God. She got one extra parking voucher for each votive candle she burned in the red glass by the picture of Mother Cabrini, a new saint who got to be a saint by working with emigrants from Italy.
But ever since last summer, my parents hadn't driven past Sing Sing. Because of the Rosenbergs, my mother said. She felt sorry for the Rosenbergs' little boys, who were orphans now. "I'm not that sure the Rosenbergs really were Russian spies," she'd say. "The one thing I am sure of is that McCarthy is a liar, a bully. Even President Eisenhower is scared of him."
"Malcolm considers the world his very own fringe benefit," my father said.
I couldn't imagine the world with a fringe. My second-grade teacher, Sister Lucille, had a map of the world above the boys' coat rack, and my hook was beneath Africa, with the most crosses for missions. During one of our air-raid drills, Maria Donez had cried, and Sister Lucille had told us Maria was sad because her family was going home to Guatemala. I forgot the name of her country, and when I told my mother that Maria was going back to Palmolive, she said Palmolive was soap, not a country. The following morning I'd asked Sister and she'd shown me Guatemala on her map.
"What's fringe benefit?" I asked my parents.
"Remember now, Anthony -- " my father said, " -- whatever the Amedeo family talks about in the car, stays in the car. And whatever the Amedeo family talks about in the house, stays in the house."
I mouthed the words along with him. I certainly heard them often enough.
"Fringe benefits," my mother explained, "is what people get in addition to their pay when they work. Like vacations. Or paid holidays."
"Never stamps. Never office equipment. Never tires or -- "
"And never shingles?"
She started coughing, but it sounded fake.
"You're fake-coughing," I said. "You're really laughing."
She winked at me.
"Didn't I tell you the boy hears too much?" my father asked.
My mother leaned toward him to whisper into his ear, her lips as red as her hat.
Last summer Uncle Malcolm had been in trouble -- "deep-shit trouble," my mother had called it -- for selling a shipment of asbestos shingles he'd stolen from Quality Roofing, where he worked. The two brothers who owned Quality had waited for him one evening after dark in an alley off Webster Avenue, near Papa John's Diner. Both arms and hands in casts, Uncle Malcolm did much of his healing on the striped couch, opening his mouth for the pasta e fagioli and linguine that Aunt Floria fed him fork by fork, hunkering over him like a black-feathered mother bird.
One Sunday, while we visited, he made the twins stand in front of the couch and hold his bulky accordion between them. It glittered like the mother-of-pearl crucifix that Kevin's father had tied to the rearview mirror of his cab. Kevin's father used to drive a bus until he was blacklisted.
"Those Quality crooks stole the music away from your dear papa," Uncle Malcolm said. "Forever. Now the accordion is your legacy, girls." Usually he talked like the rest of us, but when he got dramatic, his British accent expanded, though he'd left England when he was sixteen and got fired from his apprenticeship with a roofing company.
The accordion was too heavy for the twins, too stiff without the motion of my uncle's body curving into it, without his fingers leaping across the keys.
"If you set it on the side," I suggested, "it'll be like a piano. Then one of you can press the black and white keys, and the other can push the buttons."
"That accordion is all your papa may ever be able to give you." Uncle Malcolm's fingers were wiggling, trying to fly out of the casts, to circle and dip as they usually did when he talked.
All he had taught the twins were two beginnings, not even the full songs -- "I'm Chiquita Banana" and "Flight of the Bumblebee" -- and they'd play those over and over, singing along. To this day I can't bear accordion music. I'll leave restaurants if a strolling accordionist approaches my table. And I hate family gatherings if Belinda -- now a music teacher -- is coaxed into playing her father's accordion.
As our car passed the Bronx Zoo, I wished I could touch the green gate. Kevin had told me the gate felt warmer in winter. "Warmer than pavement and rocks. Because it's made of copper. And copper is warm and stays red beneath the green." Across from the zoo, the black spikes of the Botanical Garden fence filed past us, a thousand warriors with a thousand lances, and as I turned for one more glance at the zoo gate, I decided to draw a picture of it, not green, but red with smoke all around it.
"I must have been crazy to recommend Malcolm for that job," my father said. "Crazy to believe him when he said he was ready to start over."
"Not crazy," my mother said. "Generous."
"Crazy crazy crazy..." With each "crazy" his right palm slapped the steering wheel.
"Generous. You got him the job because you're generous by nature. And with those broken arms, he couldn't go back to roofing for a while. Besides, he comes across as polite, because with that accent he sounds like a butler from the movies. People misjudge him."
"He sells from an empty pushcart. A scungilli, that's what he is. A bottom feeder."
"Also very handsome."
"Malcolm Edmunds? Handsome?"
"Quite gorgeous, actually. He'll get another job roofing."
"Because he's gorgeous?" Smoke curled from my father's nostrils.
"Because roofing is the only thing he's good at. Agile and daring...that's why he always finds someone to hire him after he gets fired."
"It's not the only thing he's good at," I said. "He can whistle whole songs without stopping for air."
"And where would we all be without that talent?" my father asked.
"Too generous," my mother murmured and stroked the band of neck above my father's brown collar.
I could feel their quarrel yield to tenderness. It often was like that between them; that's why I believed nothing really bad could ever happen in my family.
He leaned into her palm. "Your hands are cold."
"So...want me to stop then?"
"Don't you dare."
As she tilted her head toward him, I saw where her left eyebrow, black near the bridge of her nose, changed abruptly to white. It had been two colors since birth, and my father liked to say that what saved my mother from being too perfect was that left eyebrow. With her black hair and pale skin, the contrast was startling, making her only more beautiful.
"I'll get someone to check out the car heater," he said as we passed the marquee of the Globe Theater.
"Can we afford it?"
"Soon." When her fingers kept moving across the back of his neck, he turned his face to kiss the inside of her wrist, the shadow of his beard blue below his jaw, and I felt a sudden and wild joy.
"So then," she said, "will you marry me, Victor?"
I loved it when he replied, "But I already did, mia cara, remember?" Once again, he kissed her wrist.
My mother laughed. "I've been thinking about the twins' names. Ever since Floria met Malcolm, she's been mumbling 'bastard' all day long. Picking names for them that start with B gave her a way to cover that up. BaBelinda. BaBianca."
"Not in front of the boy, Leonora."
But already I was trying out my cousins' names: "BaBelinda...BaBianca...Ba -- "
"Anthony," my father said sternly. His hands covered the entire top of the steering wheel -- wider than Uncle Malcolm's hands with their long wrists and fingers that could fix a bicycle tire or shuffle a deck of cards faster than my father could. Until that night outside Papa John's Diner, of course. He wasn't a real uncle, I reminded myself. Only a married-in uncle. Because of Aunt Floria.
Black curls pulled back in a shiny bun, she opened the door of their first-floor apartment on Boston Road, looking as if she were in mourning with her black stockings and her black dress buttoned high on her neck. "Please, wipe your feet, darling," she said and took my cheeks between her palms. Her face hung above me, large and pale and beautiful. On one side of her mouth was a freckle, and as she kissed me on the lips, her folds of skirt released the memory of mothballs and lavender.
I kissed her right back, glad her face was all of one color. No sticky lipstick or creme. No raccoon eyeshadow like my Ossining Grandma's. I loved how Aunt Floria's scent changed with the seasons and also kept bugs away at the same time. Moths never dared live near her. And come summer, she would once again give off the sweet-sour scent of the citronella oil that she dabbed on handkerchiefs and bedsheets to discourage mosquitoes.
Beneath the gold-framed paintings of Pope Pius XII and Cardinal Spellman stood my cousins, round-faced and sturdy like their mother, wearing their patent-leather slippers and brown school uniforms. Still, I could tell them apart, because Belinda had gluey nostrils, while Bianca wore her Superman cape.
Aunt Floria lifted the towel from the eggplant rissoles. "You are an artist with food, Victor. I'll warm everything up right now."
In the kitchen, the dressmaker's dummy was wearing a half-finished wedding gown, so stiff it could have danced by itself. Cartons -- some full, some empty -- covered all surfaces that were not taken up by Aunt Floria's sewing business.
"You're moving?" My mother sounded alarmed, and I figured it was because Aunt Floria moved so often that my mother wrote each address in pencil, since she'd only have to erase it.
"The girls and I can't stay here. Not with Malcolm Elsewhere. Please, blow your nose, Belinda." Aunt Floria folded a piece of red velvet and two red velvet dresses with plaid collars and cuffs pinned to them. She sewed all the twins' clothes, dressed them alike. "We're five weeks late on the rent," she said.
"Why didn't you tell me?" my father asked.
"You know I don't like to burden you, Victor."
My mother rolled her eyes and walked to the window. Her back to Aunt Floria, she stared into the air shaft, arms crossed in front of her coat, elbows jagged beneath her sleeves. Rain smeared the glass, turning the living room mop-water gray.
I poked at my aunt's bolts of lace. She had customers from Manhattan and Brooklyn, even Staten Island, who came to the Bronx for their wedding and bridesmaids gowns.
"Better not touch that lace, Anthony," she said. "I have something better for you."
"Too much sugar." My mother turned toward us. "It'll only make him skutchier."
"Nice corduroy pants, Anthony," my aunt said. "Where'd you get them?"
"Turn around. Who did the hemming?"
"The old man with the sewing machine in the window of Koss'."
My father touched his lips where they disappeared into his beard, signaling me to stay quiet -- whatever the Amedeo family talks about... -- but that made me think even more of the old man who kept his long face bent over his sewing machine. My mother took our dry cleaning to Koss. Also clothes to be taken in, let out, or shortened, and the owner who stood behind the counter passed them to the old man who never talked.
"I would have hemmed them for free, Leonora," my aunt said.
"I didn't want to inconvenience you."
But I'd heard my mother say that, because of my aunt's situation, any favor you accepted obligated you tenfold. That's why I wasn't allowed to tell her when we took alterations to Koss', where steam from the pressing machine smelled of wool and yeast and starch.
"Girls," Aunt Floria told the twins, "why don't you go and play with your cousin?"
Bianca and Belinda -- one year and one day older and heavier than I -- took me into their bedroom, where we played the tickle game on the floor. You won if you didn't flinch while your toes or nipples got tweaked, or while you got tickled behind your knees or between your legs. In the months since we'd invented the game, we'd become bold. Stoical. I tickled Belinda, who then tickled Bianca, who tickled me.
When Belinda got both of us to laugh, she yelled, "I win."
"Nice girls don't play tickle games."
"Do so." Belinda crossed her eyes and stuck out her tongue.
"Sister Lucille says," I lied.
"Sister Lucille doesn't know."
"She knows." What I didn't tell the twins was that Sister Lucille said boys' hands did the work of the devil. Whenever Sister spotted a boy with his hands in his pockets, she'd smack his palms with her wooden ruler -- one smack for each wound of Christ. If Sister found out about the tickle game...Sixty smacks. At least sixty smacks with her ruler. Sister Lucille also said waiting for chocolate was excellent training for waiting for heaven. Since Advent-calendar chocolate was the best chocolate in the world, Sister Lucille had told the class, "By not letting yourself have everything you want right away, you save up ten times that much in heaven."
Belinda pointed at my legs. "Sister Lucille says you got skinny legs."
"He does not have skinny legs," Bianca defended me.
"Skinny legs," Belinda hollered. "And it's my turn to play with him."
"Mine. Anthony, tell Bianca you're my brother."
"No, he is my brother."
I watched them closely, trying to figure out whom to favor this time.
Often, they clung to me like that, fighting to impress me, to be my favorite, till I said I liked one of them better. Then they'd fight each other. Over me. I didn't like that adoration, but it was better than having both of them clobber me. To distract them, I pulled Frogman from my pocket. "Look. He can swim." I showed them the baking soda inside his leg. "If we put him into your tub -- "
"But we have a rabbit in the tub."
"A new rabbit. A boy rabbit." Belinda gripped my hand. "You want to see? Papa bought him for me."
"Papa won the rabbit," Bianca corrected her. "My rabbit."
"Never mind her." Belinda pulled me toward the bathroom, where a rabbit crouched in the tub, eyes pink and scared.
"Don't touch him." Bianca was right behind us. "He's my pet."
But I was already stroking the white pelt between his ears, whispering, "Hey there, rabbit, hey -- "
"He'll eat your finger."
"Does not," Belinda said as I snatched my arm away.
Bianca clicked her shoe against the side of the tub.
"Stop that. It annoys Ralph."
"His name is Malcolm."
"You cannot give Papa's name to a rabbit. You have to call him Ralph."
"Ralph." Belinda clutched the fur behind the rabbit's neck and heaved him into her arms. "Ralph likes to read comic books with me. You want to read comic books, Ralph?"
Prior to the rabbit, two painted turtles had lived in the twins' bathtub. My mother said they couldn't grow like regular turtles because their shells were painted with enamel. Bianca's turtle was pink and named Vanessa-Marlene; while Belinda's was green and named Bob. Their house was a turtle dish made of plastic, the size of a dinner plate, with curved sides. Inside, you poured gravel and snapped in a palm tree with six leaves. A ramp for the turtles led to that tree. The twins would have turtle races on the sidewalk and prod Bob and Vanessa-Marlene with twigs. If the turtles didn't budge, they'd lift them by their shells -- the size of walnut shells, only flatter -- and jiggle them hard to get their legs moving; but the turtles would pull in their claws and heads, hiding inside their glossy shells.
Before Uncle Malcolm bought the turtles, six baby chicks used to live in the tub. That's how you had to buy them at the pet shop, my uncle had said -- "six chicks in a box" -- and he asked my mother if we wanted to split the cost. But she didn't want to share our bathtub with filthy chickens. "I don't know how your sister can live like that," she'd told my father. I loved those chicks and tried to hold them whenever we visited. Though I was careful with them, they'd squirm in my palms, peck at my fingers. Aunt Floria fed them baby food, and the chicks would walk through the pablum and drag it all over the tub. Before anyone could take a bath, Aunt Floria would catch the chicks, set them into a carton, and scrub their pablum footprints from the cracked porcelain. Because they were so messy, they didn't stay long enough to get names. Uncle Malcolm gave them to the milkman, who had a farm in New Jersey. "They'll be so much happier in the country," he'd said. New Jersey was "the country," green and mysterious, with lots of trees and chickens and cows.
Of all the pets who'd lived in the twins' tub so far, my favorite was Ralph, and as I touched the velvet-soft pads beneath his paws, I swore to myself I'd never let Uncle Malcolm take Ralph to New Jersey. "I want to hold Ralph," I said.
"No," Belinda said.
"Because you got skinny legs."
"And you are BaBelinda," I yelled. "BaBelinda with ugly boogers inside her head."
She reached into the tub, threw a fistful of brown pellets at me, and chased me from the bathroom, the rabbit bouncing in her arms; we ran up and down the dim hallway, dodging four suitcases, their bulging sides secured with rope.
As Bianca galloped past me, trailed by the cape Aunt Floria had patched together from various colors of bridesmaids' gowns, I was glad Riptide wasn't allowed to take my cousins to the pool. Aunt Floria was afraid they'd catch polio, even though we'd been vaccinated. At my school, the doctor with the syringe stood at one end of the cafeteria, and the lollipop nurse at the other. The only thing worse than polio vaccination was the screaming of sirens during air-raid drills, when we had to hide under our desks or got marched into a hallway without windows. "Just a drill," Sister would say.
"Eggplant time," Aunt Floria called. "Time to eat."
"Suuu-per-mann...Suuu -- "
"Girls. Anthony -- " Aunt Floria stepped into our path. "Please? Do you have to be that noisy? You put that rabbit back in the tub. Now."
In the kitchen, the warmth of the oven was releasing the smells of my father's food: garlic and Parmesan cheese and tomato sauce. He was stacking wrapped plates in a carton I recognized from previous moves.
"I want to eat honeymoon salad," Belinda said.
"A house full of children for Christmas, Anthony..." My father gave me a warning glance. "Won't that be nice?"
My tongue felt sour. "But where do they sleep?"
My mother's cheeks looked pinched as she nested small pots inside big pots.
Carefully, my aunt asked, "Are you getting hungry, Leonora?"
"I just have to fix the dressing."
"I want to eat honeymoon salad," Belinda said again.
"What's that?" my father asked.
"Lettuce alone with nothing on. Get it?"
He shook his head.
"Let. Us. Alone. With. Nothing. On. Get it? Honeymoon?"
"I get it."
"That girl -- " Aunt Floria turned to my father, who was winding string around her metal breadbox. "She makes me laugh."
"She's funny, all right. She got that from you."
"I don't always remember that part of myself." Aunt Floria set a few lettuce leaves aside for Belinda before she sprinkled oil and vinegar and Parmesan over the rest.
"You used to sew up the ends of my pajama pants," my father said. "Loosen the doorknob so it came off in my hand. Top my strawberry pudding with Dad's shaving cream."
"I did all that." Aunt Floria sounded pleased.
"Funny and mischievous...That's what you liked about Malcolm when you met him. The prankster in him."
"Childish and spoiled...The son of rich parents who's still waiting for them to come after him and force their money on him. My guess is his parents coaxed him into running away so that they'd be free of him. Their gain, my loss. He doesn't even care that I have to get Belinda to the doctor and talk about her surgery."
"I don't want my sinuses cut," Belinda cried.
"We're just getting your sinuses X-rayed."
"I can help with that," my father said.
"You've already done more than anyone else, Victor."
"Listen to your sister, Victor," my mother said. "She should know."
"I know." Aunt Floria's mouth twitched, and then the rest of her words tumbled out as if they were one: "And-I-hope-for-your-sake-that-you'll-never-have-to-depend-on-family-to -- "
"I'm so sorry," my mother said.
"And you don't let me reciprocate...not even hem one lousy pair of pants."
"I really am sorry." My mother set down the malted-milk machine she was wrapping into newspaper and cupped Aunt Floria's face between her hands. "We'll get you through this." Gently, she stroked my aunt's face. Up to her temples. Down to her jaw.
Aunt Floria closed her eyes.
"And then we'll do the life..." My mother waited for my aunt to finish the sentence.
And my aunt did: "...we would like to become accustomed to."
I knew what that meant: a test drive in an expensive car. My mother and aunt loved to get dressed up and pretend they wanted to buy a car. Bianca and I enjoyed it when they took us along, but Belinda got stomachaches, because the cars smelled new -- the same new smell that made her sick in fabric stores.
"Here." My mother lit cigarettes for herself and Aunt Floria.
Aunt Floria sucked deeply and tried to smile, but her voice sounded clogged. "I guess we'll bring the car back here, borrow it for a day or so, in case Malcolm messes up at his next job."
I'd heard her joke about that before, wanting to run Uncle Malcolm over and back up over him twice. "Till he's flat like a gingerbread man and has to be peeled off the pavement. Then I'll fold him up, put a stamp on his fanny, and mail him back to England." Only she hadn't done it yet. What would his parents do if they found him all folded up in their mailbox? They probably had a big mailbox because they had a big house. I wondered why she hadn't used Uncle Malcolm's car to run him over. Maybe because he never had a car long enough. One day he'd be dressed like the mayor of England, and the next day he'd be borrowing cigarette money.
When we began to eat, my father said, "I'll pay for Belinda's X rays."
"X rays at the shoe store are for free," I reminded him.
"Those kinds of X rays are different," Aunt Floria said.
Still, I imagined Belinda's face beneath the Easter-green light that exposed the skeletons of my feet at the shoe store whenever my mother bought me shoes that felt stiff at first, as if carved from the bones of children who'd fallen into the X-ray machine.
"Anthony -- " My father set down his fork. "It's much harder for your cousins to leave their home behind than it is for you to share your room."
Aunt Floria served him another piece of veal. "I could stay with Mama."
"You stayed with Mama the last time Malcolm was -- "
"Old Mrs. Hudak got lots of space," I offered quickly. "She likes company. You can make sure no one steals her."
When Aunt Floria frowned, her eyebrows, just like my father's, met in one black line. "What's that all about?"
"One of those neighborhood sagas." My father shrugged.
"Supposedly, our super was kidnapped when her grandson, the one who stays with her whenever his parents have problems and -- "
"The one who's love-struck by Leonora?"
My mother laughed. "He's just a boy."
"Nineteen," my father said. "James is nineteen and old enough to be love-struck. And he's always ogling you in the lobby."
"He's a boy, Floria. Don't believe anything Victor says."
But my aunt leaned toward my father as if not to miss one word of his story.
"Supposedly, James helped his grandmother set up her lawn chair on our sidewalk before he went to the soda fountain, and when he came back, she was gone. Chair and all. What she claims is that two nuns drove up in a truck and -- "
"Nuns? In a truck? Is that all you're going to eat, Leonora?"
"Have some more eggplant or -- "
"I know when I'm done, Floria."
My father raised his hands to distract them both. "Supposedly, those nuns grabbed the armrest of Mrs. Hudak's lawn chair, hoisted her into the back of that truck, and drove her to Van Cortlandt Park. Nobody believes her."
"I do," I said. "It was a blue truck."
"You saw it?"
"Mrs. Hudak told me."
"Sometimes Mrs. Hudak forgets things," my mother said. "Setting out the trash. Plus mopping the lobby and stairs. We need someone younger for the building."
"She's not that old," I said, alarmed, and resolved I'd help her more from now on, so she could stay in our building.
"You should see her clothes, Floria. John's Bargain Store, I bet. Because they fall apart after she wears them once. She's also been lying about the dumbwaiter, says it doesn't work just so she doesn't have to empty it. When her husband still was the super, the building was taken care of."
But I liked Mrs. Hudak much better than Mr. Hudak, who had died from hiccups last year.
"How did she get back home?" Aunt Floria asked.
"That's where this whole thing sounds made up." My father reached for the ashtray and nudged a few butts aside with the tip of a fresh Pall Mall. "Why would anyone want to kidnap an old lady in an old lawn chair?"
I could think of many reasons: Mrs. Hudak found kangaroos and eagles in the shapes of clouds; let me make lemonade in her kitchen; taught me to form shadow animals with my fingers against a lit wall; let me dust the banister in the stairway; kept big-boy bullies away from our sidewalk by yelling, "You goddamn bastard kids go back to where you belong."
Sitting by her open window, or outside on her lawn chair with the frayed webbing, Mrs. Hudak monitored what happened on our street. She told on kids who crossed without checking in both directions. From what she said, I was the only kid in the neighborhood she liked, and she yelled when Kevin and I played in our courtyard outside her window. I'd feel conflicted, singled out; but I also knew that she couldn't handle more than one kid. That's why she didn't want me around when James visited.
"Mrs. Hudak got two empty rooms," I told my aunt, "and she likes company."
Still -- the twins moved into my room.
With their candy lipsticks and dolls.
With their father's accordion and domino game.
With the Superman cape Bianca wouldn't let me use.
With the onyx animals Great-Aunt Camilla had brought them from Africa.
With their real-life rabbit, who was banished to our bathtub.
With cartons full of dresses, always two of each, so they could look alike.
After they messed up my Tinkertoys, they opened the doors on my Advent calendar and ate every piece of chocolate after I'd been so strict with myself, not opening a single door till the day that was written on it.
My parents made me sleep across from my cousins on the cot that Great-Aunt Camilla took on some of her journeys. "Camilla can afford to travel like that because she doesn't have children," some of my relatives would say. Not having children sounded selfish. As selfish as traveling alone.
Lying on the cot that night, I heard the twins breathing in my bed, filling my room with their breathing, and I thought that, if Great-Aunt Camilla took the twins along -- along and away and real soon -- it would stop those comments about traveling alone, and on the voyage back she'd still be traveling alone, just as she liked it, because she would have forgotten the twins somewhere far away, in Egypt, say, in a canoe that floats down the Nile till the Pharaoh's daughter finds the twins and raises them as her own, the way she did with Moses.
Mortified that Kevin would find out that girls were sleeping in my bed, I didn't let him come up, not even when he stood on the street five floors below our kitchen window and hollered, "Can Anthony come out and play?"
Aunt Floria made do with the couch in our living room. That's how she put it: "I'll make do with the couch." Since she always lived in furnished apartments, she didn't have a bed of her own. "Don't worry about me," she said, "I don't need much space." There was no space left anyhow, once her suitcases and slipcovers and that bride-dummy were stacked against the walls of our living room, hiding our boat picture made of nails and threads that formed sails. Even the landing of our fire escape was crowded with boxes and tarps, blocking Santa's entry into our apartment.
"Let's just hope the fire marshal won't come around for inspection," my mother said.
To be helpful, my aunt got up ahead of my mother to fix breakfast and school lunches, ironed sheets my mother had already ironed, scrubbed the floor behind our ice box, polished the black lid of our white stove, dusted the cookbooks on top of our cupboards. She took a splinter out of my swear-finger before I could bother my mother, and she played checkers with me, especially if I asked while she was writing a letter to Uncle Malcolm Elsewhere.
I'd sit on the counter between our gas stove and the cutting board while my aunt chopped basil for her pesto sauce. Or when she punched the pizza dough and then lifted and stretched it, and twirled it on her fingertips. It wasn't that her food tasted better than my mother's, but that I could feel Aunt Floria's joy inside me as she generously added ingredients instead of measuring them. To be able to cook like that! She kept the cupboards open to get what she needed. Taped to the insides of their doors were theater reviews and schedules. Although my mother didn't see most of these plays, she liked to know about them.
Since I loved the taste of raw spaghetti dough, my aunt would let me take a fistful before she cut it all into strips that she spread on wax paper across the cot and bed in my room to dry. At night, long after we'd eaten the spaghetti, I could still smell dough on my pillow.
Most mornings, she went to mass and helped my mother with the shopping. They didn't have to buy much because my father ordered wholesale -- more than he needed for Festa Liguria -- so that every evening he could shlep home one or two cartons of groceries. I liked the surprise, because whatever was inside was not what was written on the cartons: Bernice Peaches; Ajax Cleanser; Dole Pineapple; Hoffman Soda. It gave him such pleasure to announce, "Look what I got for you today." Though he only ate fresh bread, he sometimes brought a loaf of Silvercup, my mother's favorite; and whenever he'd ask me, "What does Buffalo Bob say to look for?" I knew he had the good bread in his carton, Wonder Bread, because on Howdy Doody, Buffalo Bob always said to look for the red, yellow, and blue balloons on the wrapper. I liked it even more when he brought Dugan's cupcakes or Drake's Devil Dogs.
Aunt Floria didn't want to come along when we went to the Bronx Terminal Produce Market to pick our Christmas tree. "I'll get some baking done while you're gone."
"I will take care of the baking when we get back," my mother said.
"You go and enjoy yourself, Leonora. Hear?"
"And you leave some work for me."
"I want to be helpful."
"I wish you wouldn't."
"I'll have dinner waiting for you. Fried cauliflower and chicken with fennel."
"I wish you wouldn't." My mother crossed her arms.
"It's the least I can do to thank you for letting us live here. How about if I make some cannolis for you, Anthony?"
I nodded. Cannolis were like giant pastry cigars. You could stick them between your lips. Suck the ricotta filling from their shells.
"Did you get rid of that squirrel in your storage room?" she asked my father.
"Even if I catch it, I'm not allowed to kill it. Squirrels are protected by the Parks Department."
"So what are you supposed to do? Feed it through the winter?"
"It's chewing its way into my supplies, making a mess."
"Squirrels are so pretty when they run up trees," Bianca said.
"That's fine," my father said, "but when they come indoors, they're just another type of rat."
"I can shoot it dead." I snatched a wooden spoon from our counter, aimed its end toward the floor. "Bang. Bang."
"We don't use guns, Anthony," my mother said, "including pretend guns."
"Give me that spoon, darling," Aunt Floria said, "and get your boots. Don't forget your earmuffs, girls."
It was snowing as we drove along rows of loading docks, their overhead doors closed, the produce inside, where it was warm. During the summer, when crates of produce were stacked outside and inside, you could still smell the earth on the vegetables. But today, on the docks, men who sold trees stood around fifty-five-
gallon drums filled with red-hot coals; and after my father backed the Studebaker against the loading dock at Jack's, where he called mornings to place his produce orders, we stepped into the smell of pine and chestnuts and fire.
The men at Jack's wore gloves with the fingertips cut off, and they slapped my father's back and got the twins' names mixed up on purpose and gave us a newspaper cone with roasted chestnuts. Occasionally, sparks from the coals flared up, fusing with the shouts that hung above the rows of docks as people dickered, and when they carried away their wreaths or trees, they were pulled forward by the ribbons of their frozen breaths.
At Jack's, the men cut the rope from bundles of Christmas trees and showed us only the best ones, full around the base and tapering to a straight point.
They bellowed with laughter when my mother asked, "For that price, do they come with balls?"
"Bells." My father hid his grin behind his glove. "My wife means bells."
"Same thing," one said.
"That's what I've been telling you, Victor." My mother stepped close to the coals, let their heat reach up to flicker on her frosty breath. That flicker was the only thing moving while she stood motionless, spellbound by the fire.
None of the men spoke. But they were looking at her like you look at a dinosaur skeleton you long to touch in the Museum of Natural History, but know you're not allowed to, that you'll be punished, banished, if you were to try. Finally, one of the men sighed. "Lucky fellow."
And then the others remembered how to talk. "Lucky fellow," they teased my father when they tied the tree on top of our car.
On the drive home, my cousins started fighting with each other, and I felt them in my skin like an itch. I didn't want them on the seat with me, in the car with me. Bianca was accusing Belinda of stealing her onyx giraffe, and Belinda said that I had it.
"You're lying," I told her.
"I don't even like it," she said, though she'd been skutching Bianca to trade the giraffe for the bull that was just a chunk of onyx with stubby legs.
"You're lying," I told Belinda again. I liked the giraffe better, too, because the green streaks in the onyx made it look real fast.
"Anthony is being mean," Belinda chanted in her I'm-telling voice.
To keep them both away, I stuck out my elbows. Smoke from my parents' cigarettes coiled upward, flattened itself against the ceiling of our car.
"You don't want to give those fellows any ideas," my father was saying.
"They already got ideas."
"Well, yes, but -- "
"You like my raunchy side."
"Not in public."
"Ah, just for you then?"
Belinda yanked at my elbow.
"I want my giraffe back," Bianca whined.
My mother groaned. "Your sister has unpacked her Toastmaster. Her Mixmaster. Her -- "
"The girls can hear you."
I leaned forward. "And her breadbox."
"Right. That hideous breadbox with those hideous flowers painted all over the front."
"The girls -- "
"Your sister has hung the pope plus the cardinal. Our entire apartment reeks of mothballs."
"I didn't take your stupid giraffe," Belinda yelled across me to her sister.
"You give it back to me."
"I'll let you play with my bull."
"Floria needs to feel at home with us," my father said.
"She does. Believe me, she does."
"I don't want your stupid bull."
"It's not stupid."
"Stupid and ugly."
I kept my elbows out, pretending not to see the twins, although they bounced against my arms. What if someone else took what you'd been saving up? Would you get ten times as much Advent calendar chocolate in heaven? Or none? And how about purgatory? How much Advent calendar chocolate would you get in purgatory if you didn't tell on the kids who'd stolen it from you?
"While I don't feel at home," my mother said. "I can't take a bath without first cleaning after that goddamn rabbit. It's learning to jump from the tub, and I have to keep the door shut to make sure it stays in the bathroom. This morning I found it behind the toilet bowl. Your sister doesn't have a piece of furniture she can call her own, but she can always afford those filthy pets."
"What do you want me to do?"
"She's here to stay, Victor."
"It's just for a while."
"Like six months? Ten years? Whatever sentence Malcolm gets next? And you know what else? You complain about him and his schemes. But you aren't that honest, either."
"Don't you compare me to him," my father hissed.
"All this stuff you bring home -- not just food, but plates and silverware and napkins and glasses and God-knows-what-else with 'Festa Liguria' written all over -- someone's paying for all that, and it certainly isn't you."
"I don't know what to say to you when you get like that."
"Get like what?"
"You don't know shit about running a business, about writing off expenses."
Their harsh whisper continued while we carried the tree up our five flights of stairs, but when my mother saw that Aunt Floria had dinner ready, she got quiet -- so quiet that, at the table, she didn't say "amen" when Aunt Floria finished grace. I wanted the two of them to get up, to start dancing and laughing; but there was no relief -- not for them, not for any of us -- and though my father praised the fried cauliflower and the chicken with fennel, he had the face he got when he was afraid of upsetting my mother. While I could barely swallow. Not even the sweet ricotta.
Before we went to bed, my father chopped at the sides of our Christmas tree until it fit into our living room with all of Aunt Floria's stuff. I hated how scrawny our tree looked afterwards. What spoiled it more was that we had to shove her fabrics and sewing supplies around the base of the tree, where we used to lay out the tracks for my Lionel trains.
The next morning, my mother's head was hurting, and she threw up. My father had to lead her by the arm back to the bedroom, where she lay with the door and curtains closed. She used to get a few migraines each year, but now she complained about them daily.
"Maybe you're pregnant," Aunt Floria suggested.
"No." My mother pressed one palm against her belly, her eyes afraid. "No," she said. "It's that smell of camphor that gets me sick."
"I'll air our clothes in the bathroom."
"Then the bathroom will have that smell."
"I'll hang them on the fire escape then."
But my mother took to her bed, yielding her kitchen to Aunt Floria. Light or sound or food made her migraines worse, and I was glad for her when she could sleep. Glad, too, that she didn't see how I enjoyed baking with Aunt Floria for Christmas: pignolata and taralli and mostaccioli. Three evenings in a row, my father put on his hat and took me along to Hung Min's, where we found some of the men from his backgammon club. While they played, I'd get to order my favorites for all of us: moo goo gai pan and fried rice and egg rolls and chow mein. Usually, my father only played backgammon on Mondays, but now he seemed anxious to be away from the apartment. The other men were far older than he, and they'd let me pour their tea and put lots of sugar into the little cups.
Around my mother he was careful. Quiet. Once, when I came into their room, he was sitting on the edge of the bed. "You want me to help you get rid of that migraine?" he asked her.
She hesitated. Then noticed me. "Anthony," she said.
My father kissed her throat. "We could send the boy into the kitchen while we...you know...?"
"I couldn't. Not with your sister so close."
Some afternoons, the twins practiced the banana song on the accordion desperately, and with great tenacity, certain that those long-drawn squeaks would bring their papa back.
"Papa will hear us," they told me.
"And then he'll find us."
Since the shoulder straps were too long, they helped each other hold the accordion up and sang, "I'm Chiquita Banana and I'm here to say: I ta-ke the bananas and I run-a away...," while air squeezed in and out of the bellows, causing dreadful sounds.
"Papa will find us."
In the meantime, though, the twins kept finding me.
Since Kevin's sister had the croup, I was not allowed in his apartment, and Mrs. Hudak had just bought a television and didn't let me talk while it was on. James had helped her move her furniture so she could see the television from any part of her living room. She used to sit across from me at her table, or she'd watch our street from her window, observing more interesting things than on television while also making our neighborhood safer; but now I could only see her back and that television. Both Mrs. Hudak and I loved lady mud-wrestlers because they fought dirty, but I didn't tell my mother because she didn't allow anything violent on our television.
I didn't visit Mrs. Hudak when James was around, and he'd been there a lot since he'd graduated from high school. For a while he'd worked at Sutter's, selling French confections, then at Mario's on Arthur Avenue. So far James hadn't found a new job. He didn't like me -- not since I'd asked him why he got tomato-red when he saw my mother.
The last day of school before Christmas vacation, I ran home to Creston Avenue and locked myself in our bathroom before my cousins could get home. Ralph was hunched beneath the sink pipes, and I lifted him up. With my free hand, I cast shadows of snarling dogs against the wall opposite the lamp, dogs that snap at my cousins' legs, bite off their heads, but when I remembered how dogs attacked rabbits, I stopped because I felt sorry for Ralph. Then I felt sorry for myself, because all I had were shadow animals. I wanted real animals. With fur and with eyes. Live animals. "You're not filthy," I told Ralph and kissed the sleek fur on his face.
"Hurry up and flush, Anthony." Aunt Floria was knocking on the door.
Nobody told her to hurry up when she took her long showers, singing in Italian as if -- so my mother said -- someone were stabbing her ever so slowly.
I darted past Aunt Floria and out of our apartment. On the front stoop in our courtyard, Kevin sat playing with his cars. "Here," he said and handed me his yellow friction car. For himself, he kept the red one, and we lifted our cars, chafed their wheels against the concrete steps, again, faster, and again, till their racing sound became a loud buzz and we let them speed away from us.
Mrs. Hudak banged against her window. "You're making too much noise. Go back to where you belong."
We scooped up our cars and ran across the street.
"Supposed to check both directions," she called after us.
"Let's spy on her," Kevin said.
The stairway in his building was freezing, and the tar bubbles in the roof had hardened and cracked.
"My Uncle Malcolm can fix that."
Kevin dropped to his belly and elbows. "Duck and cover."
"Duck and cover." I was Burt the Turtle, crawling behind Kevin along the flat roof, past metal frames with washlines, past vents. His corduroys were tight on his ass though his mom bought him husky sizes at Fordham Boys Shop. We crawled toward the television antennas at the edge, where kids were not allowed, and took positions for our spying game.
"Uuuughhh...uuuughhh...Mrs. Hudak..." we howled. "We're going to get you, Mrs. Hudak."
But Mrs. Hudak was hiding from us.
Kevin had Nik-L-Nips, and we bit off the waxy tops and drank the syrup while we scanned the sky and our street, especially Smelly Alley, where anyone could be hiding. Smelly Alley was down the block from us, a vacant lot with dog poop and broken glass and sumacs and rusty cans and -- most of all -- poison ivy. "Three leaves with a sheen, worse than mortal sin," my mother had taught me. "Never touch those clusters of three shiny leaves." "Sheen" and "sin" didn't quite rhyme but were close enough. Except poison ivy was worse than mortal sin, because mortal sin you could confess to the priest and get absolution; but once you got poison ivy, you had it for life, and you got it every seven years. But one Sunday last summer, after mass, Kevin -- on a double-dare -- rubbed a handful of those shiny leaves against his neck, and nothing happened to him. All he said was, "I'm immune." It was a shock to me, a revelation. Here someone had dared touch this curse of the human race, but nothing had happened to him, which meant that if you were immune to something, you couldn't get it. I felt giddy. Free. Because it had to be the same with mortal sin. And if you were immune to mortal sin, you never had to worry about hell. Not even purgatory. But when I touched the poison ivy, splotches of tiny bumps soon formed on my hands and where I'd rubbed sweat off my face. The bumps itched, turned red, and formed hot blisters that oozed foul liquid. Twice a day, my mother would stir half a box of cornstarch into the tub and I'd lie in the lukewarm water, feeling my skin get cooler while I envied Kevin, who had everything: immunity to mortal sin and to poison ivy.
"Mrs. Hudak is mean," Kevin said.
"Maybe she's a Russian spy."
"Let's play mass."
"I want to spy on communists. Uuuughhh...Mrs. Hudak..." Kevin's face was red, even though it was cold outside. Especially his big cheeks. My mother called him "lollipop face" because he looked like one of those red lollipops with a red face pressed into them.
"Let's just practice communion."
"We need crackers for communion."
"I don't have any." I pointed across the street and into our kitchen. "We can spy on my aunt."
Aunt Floria and the twins were eating minestrone at my table as if they belonged there. One floor below, we saw the top of Mr. Casparini's bald head, the top of his cigar, the top of his belly while he was sorting his stamp collection. On the third floor, Mrs. Rattner -- Pineapple Sheila -- was singing while rinsing her bowls and baking pans, and her son Nathan was studying so he could be a dentist. Last week, when Kevin and I had played spies, we'd shot rubber bands at Nathan's window and ducked before he could see us; but he'd still waved at us and stood up, stretching himself as if we'd reminded him to take a break. The next day, Nathan Rattner had left a squishy envelope in our mailbox. On the outside, he'd written "Enjoy, Anthony," and inside he'd stuffed rubber bands of different sizes and colors.
"There she is." Kevin ducked. "Uuuughhh...uuuughhh...Mrs. Hudak..."
I howled along. "We're going to get you, Mrs. Hudak...uuuughhh...uuuughhh...."
But Mrs. Hudak didn't look up. She walked away from us, pulling her shopping cart.
"She's going to John's Bargain Store," I announced.
Kevin nodded excitedly. "To meet other communists."
Two days before Christmas, Riptide Grandma took me to Arthur Avenue -- me alone, not the twins -- my father's idea to give me time away from them. At the Italian market, Riptide picked a wrinkled black olive from one of the wooden tubs and laughed when I didn't want to taste it. "One day you'll say yes, Antonio," she said and chewed the olive, slowly, rolling her eyes sideways, just as she always did when she concentrated on tasting. Then she nodded and bought half a pound of those olives, broccoli rabe, tomatoes, and a tall can of olive oil.
At the dirty-feet shop -- that's how it smelled -- I pinched my nostrils while Riptide bought fresh mozzarella and chose one of the round provolones that swung from the beams above us.
Next we went to the poultry market, where chickens and turkeys watched me from inside their cages. Riptide told the poultry man she needed a turkey big enough for her family. "Everyone's coming over Christmas Day."
He took a turkey from its cage and hung it from the scale by its feet.
"No. I want a bigger one."
But when the poultry man brought a larger turkey, Riptide said it wouldn't fit in her oven.
As he opened the fifth cage, he whispered to me, "Last time I showed your grandmother seven."
The fifth turkey was dangling upside down from the scale, twisting its head as it watched the people in the market. Its face was right next to mine, and all at once it noticed me. Its eyes were curious and shy, and I thought it was a nice turkey.
"Look at that turkey looking at that little boy," someone said.
The poultry man laughed. "That turkey is looking at you, Antonio."
"Nice turkey," I told the turkey. "Nice -- "
"Antonio has decided. Questo." My grandmother nodded.
"No," I said. "Not this turkey."
But my grandmother decided this was the turkey I wanted, and when the poultry man took it from the scale and carried it behind the counter, I heard it go "Gobobobob." The counter was too high for me to see what was happening to my turkey, but I knew because I could hear something turning -- it sounded like a wheel -- and my turkey screamed so hard I got hiccups and I was sure they were plucking its feathers and when it quit screaming quit making any sound altogether I knew they'd plucked my turkey bare and chopped off its head.
"This is much harder for her than for you, Leonora," my father said.
"My soul bleeds for her."
"It's humiliating for her, needing our help like this."
"Oh, but she is so very fortunate to have your understanding. It's certainly more than I get from you." My mother sat up against the maple headboard. "More than Anthony gets from you. Let me tell you, having those girls in his room is miserable for him."
"Let me tell you then that staying in bed is not fighting fair."
"Oh...but I am not fighting, Victor." Her chapped lips stretched into a weak smile.
"I wish you were."
She didn't answer.
He touched her shoulder. "Are you quite settled?"
"I may never feel settled again."
He glanced at the stack of magazines on the dresser, Life and Look and Good Housekeeping. "Do you want something to read?"
When she didn't answer, I said, "Life. She likes it better than Look because it has more pictures."
"I don't want a magazine. Is that all right?"
"Hey," my father said, "I have work to do."
And he was gone, leaving his night socks on the floor where he'd tossed them. My mother made him wear those to bed because he rubbed the bottoms of his feet with sticky ointment.
I sat on the floor next to my mother's side of the bed and started a drawing of the zoo for her. I colored the gate red for her, with yellow and brown, so it was like copper. On top of the gate, I drew the lion, king of beasts. Then bears on top of one arch and deer on the other. The post on one side had a monkey sitting on it, the other a leopard. Tortoises supported the weight of my gate and all its animals, including the owls and cranes. Around the gate, I colored a halo of smoke. A path led through the gate, and at the end of the path I drew the African Plains where ostriches and lions moved freely.
My mother's eyes were closed, and all I could see between the white pillows and the white blanket was her white face, thinner than it used to be, and it occurred to me that she and I -- so alike in the narrow shapes of our bodies -- were hiding out from the people with sturdy bodies: Aunt Floria, the twins, even my father, who was wearing a tuxedo in the wedding picture above the dresser, squinting with absolute delight at my mother, who stood to his right in a long wedding gown, one arm joined through his. "Victor's sweepstakes smile," my grandfather called it.
Grouped around that photo were other family pictures, five of them showing me as a baby: held by my mother the day she brought me home from the hospital; by my father as he lifted me toward the ceiling fan; and then one picture with each grandparent except for my mother's father, who'd died when she was ten. As I watched her sleep, I felt sorry for her growing up without her father, and that made me wonder why the television never showed the glass-wax father. Maybe he was just in another television room -- not dead like my mother's father -- or maybe he was Elsewhere. All at once I felt certain that, if only I could decorate our windows with glass-wax bells and snowflakes, I would get my family back the way it used to be -- one mother, one father, one boy.
While I was filling in the background of my zoo picture with a jungle just like the ferns on my parents' wallpaper, a loud crash came from my room. Then another. When I got there, Bianca was climbing on my bed, arms through the straps of her cape.
"Don't jump. You'll wake my mother."
She jumped. Tackled me. As I kicked and struggled to get out from under her, Belinda threw herself across my legs, and Bianca squatted on my stomach.
"Let me go."
"If you move, you lose the tickle game."
"I don't want to play your stupid game."
They yanked down my dungarees, my underpants.
"Let me go," I cried, feeling hot and queasy. To be found by the Pharaoh's daughter was too good for the twins. No, I wanted Great-Aunt Camilla to lose them in the desert, where twin snakes coil around them and choke them, where twin buzzards eat what's left.
"Let me go! Let -- "
"Quiet in there, Anthony, girls." Aunt Floria's voice.
The jingle "Don't be a meanie, bring me Barricini" floated through my mind. My mother loved Barricini's chocolates, and sometimes she would get all dressed up and take me for a walk along the tree-lined Concourse, where the wealthy Jewish families lived. We'd stop at Barricini's, nowhere else, to buy chocolate-covered almonds. Inside my head, I could hear the Barricini jingle, "Don't be a meanie, bring me Barricini," and the jingle was pounding through me and I was the one yelling it, "Don't be a meanie bring me Barricini," yelling it faster, now, faster while the twins skittered from me.
The twins hopped on my bed, watching me darkly through their father's leaf-colored eyes while I tugged up my underpants and dungarees, and when they edged forward I shrieked, "Don't-be-a-meanie-bring-me-Barricini, dontbeameaniebringme -- "
"Girls. Anthony -- " Aunt Floria again. "What is it now?"
"Barricini," I whispered fiercely while I backed away from my cousins.
In the hallway, Aunt Floria was opening the front door for two nuns. Nuns know. Nuns know everything. They're here because of the tickle game. I had the urge to confess though I was afraid I'd only get punishment, not absolution.
"Sisters, come in. Merry Christmas. Come in." Aunt Floria looked as if she were about to receive communion. "I'll get you some eggnog. Fresh yesterday. My brother made it at Festa Liguria. Or if you'd like some of my fig fruitcake -- "
"No, thank you."
"We only have a minute."
"Anthony, darling, you get your mother out of bed. Tell her it's the Sisters of Mercy, collecting for the pagan children, and they're in a rush."
What if these are the nuns who took Mrs. Hudak away in their truck? Then they'll take the twins away. Aunt Floria, too. Take them Elsewhere. But not bring them back.
I jiggled my mother's arm. One side of her face was creased, and her hair was flat. Usually, before she went to sleep, she pinned her hair into curls and wrapped toilet paper around them. Slowly -- as if she had to learn how to walk -- she approached our living room.
"The twins started the tickle game," I told the nuns, "I didn't -- "
A sudden sneeze interrupted me.
"Jesus Christ, Belinda." My mother wiped the back of her wrist against her chenille robe. "Bless you, I mean. I'm sorry, Sisters."
Aunt Floria was shoving two nickels and one dime into the slot of the cardboard collection box that had pictures of naked brown children squatting in a patch of grass, their faces sad. One had his head bent while the others picked through his hair for lice or worse. On back of the box was a mother in clothing with a child in clothing, both smiling at a cross. Clothing meant salvation, and what those naked pagan children needed for salvation was the clothing the nuns in Africa would buy for them the instant my aunt finished shoving her coins through the slot. Somehow, I expected those coins to make more of a sound, louder than a church bell.
I felt noble, picturing the pagan children with clothing and without lice, and I waited for my mother to help the children, too.
But she didn't. "Religion," she said to the sisters, "is only valid when it has to do with compassion, not with forcing your belief on --"
"Not now, Leonora." My aunt started apologizing to the Sisters. "I'm sorry, but my sister-in-law, she's been ill."
"It's arrogant to teach these African children that your God is better than theirs." My mother's eyes blazed. Trashing religion did that to her.
"My sister-in-law gets those migraines that -- "
"For us," my mother added, "charity is close to home this year."
"If that's all we are to you, Leonora, charity..." Aunt Floria began to cry.
"That is not what I said." My mother pressed her fingertips against her temples. Her nail polish was chipped.
"We all do the best we can to be charitable in this earthly world," the older nun murmured hastily.
The other nodded. "In the eyes of our Lord, each act of charity is a prayer."
My mother shivered.
"I didn't want to do the tickle game," I confessed to the nuns. "The twins jumped on top of me and -- "
But the nuns didn't glance at me. They were fretting about the chalices at their church. "Those chalices won't last much longer."
"Because they're worn so thin."
"Like a child's fingernails."
When my father came home with a carton of groceries, the nuns were long gone, and Aunt Floria had piled her belongings in the hallway. He had to climb around them to find her in the kitchen, where she was pacing between stove and ice box, trailed by the scents of mothballs and fish.
"I'll move out, Victor, right after I feed you and your family the seven-fish dinner. Mama says she'll take me and the girls in."
Already, I could see myself back in my own bed. In my own room. Kevin and I are building bridges from Lincoln Logs. A crane with a real motor from my Erector Set.
"Let's talk this over, please." My father set the carton on the table. From the hesitant way he unbuttoned his coat, I could tell he didn't want Riptide finding out about the troubles between Aunt Floria and my mother.
"Your wife -- " Aunt Floria started.
"Great news," he said quickly. "That squirrel I told you about...it ran from the storage room today and out through the kitchen."
"Your wife doesn't want me here."
"One: that is not true." My mother stood in the kitchen door, the belt of her robe knotted around her waist. "And two: I have a name." She was talking in the frosty-slow voice I didn't like.
"Charity, Victor. That's all I am to your wife. She was ready to call a cab for me before you got home."
"Your sister ordered me to call her a cab."
"So now your wife has money to waste on cabs?"
"On an entire fleet of cabs."
My father held up both hands as if to stop an entire fleet of cabs.
The twins were leaning against the wall between the two windows: Bianca with her thumb in her mouth, pupils rolled up slightly; Belinda with both arms around the rabbit.
"Why don't we wait till tomorrow," my father said, "and then decide what to do?"
I stared at him. How could he, now that they were finally ready to leave?
Aunt Floria shook her head.
Let her go, I prayed silently. Let her go.
My father stubbed out his cigarette. "At least till tomorrow, Floria? It's getting dangerous to drive with all the snow."
"I have encouraged your sister to stay, Victor. I have tried to do my best with this...this situation."
"I have tried harder than your wife."
"I guess your sister wins. Again."
"I have a name too."
My mother groaned. "I can't do this."
Bianca's mouth made sucking noises around her thumb, while her other hand rubbed the side of her cape where the satin was frayed.
My father looked absolutely helpless.
Let her go. Let her go. Let her go. My prayer was becoming music inside my head, vibrating against my temples to the melody of: Let it snow. Let it snow. Let it snow.
"What are you humming, Anthony?" my father asked.
Everyone was staring at me.
I trapped my lips between my teeth. Let her go. Let her go. Let her go.
My father pulled a stencil kit from the side of his carton and held it as if he couldn't resolve what to do with it. "If you stay...the children can do glass-wax decorations together."
"But it's mine!"
"Anthony -- "
Belinda set Ralph on the floor and got to my father the same moment I did.
But he handed her the stencil kit. "Don't be greedy, Anthony."
Already, the twins were yanking my stencil kit open: comets and bells and snowflakes cut from thick transparent paper, holly branches and Christmas trees.
"For the children's sake then, I'll stay," my aunt allowed.
Above us, the white blades of the ceiling fan were motionless.
"You go lie down, Leonora."
"Yes." My mother started toward her bedroom. "Of course."
"I'll bring you a bowl of pea soup once I unpack," Aunt Floria called after her.
"Toastmaster Mixmaster breadbox," my mother recited. "Pope cardinal malted-milk machine..."
"Pope cardinal Toastmaster Mixmaster..." I whispered. "Malted -- "
When she shut the bedroom door behind her without swearing at Aunt Floria, I knew it was up to me to restore my family. Otherwise my father would let the twins and Aunt Floria live with us forever, and my mother would get thinner and whiter till she'd vanish in the white bedding.
"Girls, you share with Anthony now." Aunt Floria lit a cigarette.
"You too, Anthony. Share." My father headed toward the bedroom.
But when I picked up the stencil of a bell, the twins edged me aside, and I wanted to take them by the shoulders, shove them out of my apartment, toss their dolls and earmuffs out behind them.
My aunt poured pink glass wax into a saucer, and the twins fought over that until Belinda managed to push one end of the dry sponge in it. While Bianca mashed the comet stencil against one kitchen window, Belinda squished the sponge into the comet's tail. At first it was gloppy, the stomachache pink of Pepto-Bismol, but as it dried it turned paler until it was the color of deep snow after blood has seeped through it. There's something odd that happens to the surface of snow after blood has fallen on it. If the snow is loose enough, blood will trickle to the bottom, leaving an almost white surface and, below it, layers of pink that get darker the farther they are away from you, until it looks as if a red lightbulb were shining up from within the snow. The one other time I would see anything similar would be the following winter, on Castle Hill Avenue, when the family in the house attached to my grandparents' would set up an electric nativity outside. After a snowstorm, Mary and Joseph would be covered to their waists, and between them, where Baby Jesus used to lie in a manger with real straw, a glow would come rising through the snow. All together it would be different, of course. Still, I'd start crying, because it would get me thinking about Bianca again -- I wish I'd never have to see snow again -- about how she lifted her stencil and looked disappointed because some glass wax had seeped beneath, making her star messy. All wrong.
"All wrong," I told her.
"Less wax," Aunt Floria advised. "Remember now -- take turns while I unpack our things."
Belinda grabbed the stencil of a bell and kept it flat against the window, while Bianca dunked the sponge into wax and swabbed it against the glass. From the living room came thuds as Aunt Floria and my father hoisted her stuff back onto the dark fire escape. I could tell the twins were not about to offer me the stencils, but I no longer wanted my turn, because I knew what we would look like from outside if Santa were to watch us. The three of us. Here. Together. Forever.
To separate myself from my cousins, I pulled a chair to the other window and knelt on it. In the snow, the water tower on the Paradise became the huge lizard beast, and on Kevin's roof, the antennas became people with hats waiting to cross the street. I pressed my forehead against the icy glass, and as I watched the lights of cars and trucks far below on the white street, I hoped the twins would be gone before New Year's Eve, my favorite holiday, because at midnight we'd put on coats, open the windows, bang spoons against the bottoms of pots in the cold air, and yell, "Happy New Year. Happy New Year. Happy New Year." All through my neighborhood, people would lean from their windows -- the O'Deas and the Casparinis and the Weissmans and the McGibneys and the Rattners and the Corrigans -- all of us together, kids and parents, all banging pots, all yelling, "Happy New Year..."
Not nearly as careful as the television girl, Belinda and Bianca were slopping pink wax on their window, stringing holly branches and comets and bells into garlands that looked like smudges someone had left by mistake, and I felt cheated for ever having wanted the kit.
"Girls," Aunt Floria called, "did you put that rabbit back in the tub?"
"You go," Bianca said.
"No," Belinda said. "You."
"Anthony can do it."
"No. The person who just yelled will do it. You, Belinda. Now."
Belinda scowled at her sister. At me. "Don't touch anything till I come back," she warned, picked up the rabbit, and started for the bathroom.
Snow whirled into my face as I opened my window.
"Not supposed to," Bianca said, shoving herself next to my chair.
Icy wind snaked between my sleeves and wrists. "Listen...You hear that?"
"Where?" Her forehead was flushed, her voice eager. "Where is he?"
"Playing his accordion."
"Where? Papa -- "
"On Kevin's roof. Sshhh." I touched one finger to my lips and tilted my head as if, indeed, I could hear Uncle Malcolm playing his accordion. Whenever I think back to that moment when I didn't stop Bianca from climbing on the chair with me, that moment when I first knew that I, too, was capable of being Elsewhere, of moving on the shadow side of all that is good, I can indeed hear my uncle's accordion, faintly, then swelling inside my soul. But that is now. And that evening it was silent, except for the muffled squeak of wheels on snow.
I raised my hand and pointed. "Over there."
When Bianca -- arms hooked through the straps of her satin cape, elbows angled for flight -- turned toward me, the warm strawberry breath from her candy lipstick struck my face. "Is it true, Anthony?"
"I really can fly to my papa?"
I still wish I could say I believed that Uncle Malcolm stood on Kevin's roof, playing his accordion, wish I believed that my cousin could indeed fly to him -- if not every day, then at least on this eve of miracles. But I did not believe any of that when I told Bianca, "Yes."
Copyright © 2003 by Ursula Hegi
Meet the Author
Ursula Hegi is the author of The Worst Thing I've Done, Sacred Time, Hotel of the Saints, The Vision of Emma Blau, Tearing the Silence, Salt Dancers, Stones from the River, Floating in My Mother's Palm, Unearned Pleasures and Other Stories, Intrusions, and Trudi & Pia. She teaches writing at Stonybrook's Southhampton Campus and she is the recipient of more than thirty grants and awards.
- Upstate New York
- Date of Birth:
- Place of Birth:
- B.A., M.A., University of New Hampshire
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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In 1953, seven years old Anthony Amedeo lives what he perceives is the good life in his Bronx neighborhood as the only child. His father has a thriving catering business and his stay at home mother dotes on Anthony. Anthony¿s idyllic childhood changes when his Uncle Malcolm is back behind bars, forcing Aunt Floria and their eight-year-old twin daughters to move into the Amedeo fifth floor apartment; the twins share Anthony¿s previously private room. Not long afterward, one of the twins falls out a window to her death.................. The tragedy haunts Anthony over the next four plus decades as he not only witnessed the fall of his cousin and never quite got over that first touch of death, his mother and aunt believed he pushed his cousin out the window. Living with that undeclared sentencing by his beloved family, Anthony feels all alone in spite of marriage and success as a chef................................ Though a bit confusing as there are three eras not smoothly transitioned, SACRED TIME is a remarkable look at how one event lasting seconds can have major impact over the lives of those immediately involved and even later on others for example spouses. On a mega level such as 9/11 this seems obvious, but Ursula Hegi¿s message is that on the micro family level, relationships are impacted by events such as the death of the twin. The cast is a delightful Italian-American Bronx family who never look at Anthony the same way after his cousin¿s death. However, the biggest bearer of misfortune besides the victim is Anthony, who perceives what his loved ones believe of him. This is a strong character study of the long term consequences of a tragedy.................... Harriet Klausner
¿Sacred Time¿ is a story spread over three generations and begins in a Bronx neighborhood. It is read by three different people. When I learned that, I was hesitant about listening to it. The first reader was male and the story was about a boy growing up in a dysfunctional family. He has to share his room with twin cousins, girls, when their father is sent to jail for stealing from his employer. The story continues with daily life and troubles of two families sharing life under one roof. When the second reader, a female, took up the story, it jumped in years and location. The story became focused on the mother instead of continuing with the son as the first reader had. There was no warning or lead-in to this shift in the story. I was completely lost for the first half of a tape. When I finally ¿caught up¿ with what was happening, I had questions about what had happened when the first reader was reading the story. What happened to the ¿flying twin¿? What happened to the friction between the mother and the aunt? While this is a story that ranges over three generations, the jump from one time to another with no warning really put me off. I was no longer able to follow the story as well as I wanted. It does show what can and does happen to people and families when one decision is made over another. It shows how lives change by these decisions. Unless you are good at listening ¿between the lines¿ and like stories that jump around, I would not recommend that you listen to this tape.