from LINCOLN AT MERCY, a novel
Ella. June 14 1963.
She shut the refrigerator, hung the dishtowel on the oven handle, and headed out the kitchen door: Ella had a dozen things to do and before you knew it the day would be gone. Fly right out the window it would. Before she had time to turn around.
Getting the blue bedroom ready for Benny was at the top of her list. Number One. Yes, they were doing the right thing, she was sure of it, putting Benny in the room next to her and Alfie and moving Bobby up to the old attic room. But boy did she wish she had told Bobby herself, in private, instead of the way Alfie let the cat out of the bag last night over supper. They had just sat down to the soup when he blurted it out.
“Bobby—guess what? Big news! Your brother’s coming home on Saturday—for good!”
Bobby raised his head from his bowl, his face a puzzle, as if he’d only half-heard his father, wrapped in his own world the way he was most of the time. He blinked; then his brown eyes began to zigzag, first to his mother, then to his father, then to his grandparents, then back to his mother. “What? Benny’s coming home on Saturday—for good?”
“That’s right. The doctor called your mother today and gave her the good news.”
“You should be happy,” Gaetano, his grandfather, said.
“You mean Benny’s coming home to live—you mean—not just for a couple of days? But for good? ”
“That’s right, not just for a couple of days. For good. Isn’t that terrific?” his father said, beaming, his eyes wide, a smile pasted across his face, lips taut against his teeth.
Gaetano’s dark eyes focused on his grandson’s face. “Your brother belongs here with us, with the family, where your mother can take care of him, where all of us can watch over him,” he said, his eyes moving to those of his son-in-law and squarely resting there, “not somewhere eighty miles away with people we don’t even know, with children worse off than him, doing all kinds of things only God knows what.”
“I know all that Grandpa,” Bobby retorted, rapid-fire, “I heard it all before a hundred times—”
“—You watch it there,” Alfie said, jumping to his feet, his eyes flitting from his son to his father-in-law and back again.
“Well I’m just wondering,” Bobby said, shrinking back in his seat, his voice small. “What room is Benny gonna get?”
Alfie sat down and the adults continued to eat their soup, the clink of spoons against bowls and soft slurps creating a muffled tower of sound, a growing wall of indifference Bobby had neither the skill nor understanding to penetrate. Instead he sat outside the tower, stoic, eyes beginning to tear, lids blinking back those tears, waiting for an answer to his question, his own spoon still, upright in a solid fist. Alfie raised his head and turned to his mother-in-law. “Mom, can you pass that bread down here?”
Consolata rose, passed the bread basket to her son-in-law, and moved towards the stove. She turned to her grandson and smiled, her dark eyes probing his. “Bobby favoriti pollu? Ndavi puru belli patati.”
“Mom, sit down,” Ella said. “Let me take care of that.”
Ella rose from the table and joined her mother at the stove. Consolata didn’t budge; instead she picked up a large pair of tongs and began to arrange pieces of roasted chicken upon a bed of moist potatoes, her forehead creased with worry, her tongue darting in and out. She nervously licked her bottom lip.
“I’m asking a question,” Bobby continued, “and nobody’s answering me. Where’s Benny gonna sleep? With me? In my room? Or somewhere else by himself?”
Alfie lifted his face from his bowl. Eyes directed to his son, his mouth no longer stretched in a smile but pursed, round and wrinkled, his left hand extended behind him as he held his empty bowl out to his wife at the stove, he said, “Your brother’s going to sleep in the room next to us.”
“But that’s my room—“
“—was your room. You’re moving up to the attic, to your Uncle Milo’s old room.” Alfie raised a finger and pointed it at Bobby. “Now you wipe that look off your face and you listen to me—I don’t want any song and dance from you and neither does your mother. You move your stuff up there tomorrow and you do whatever else your mother tells you to do.”
“I don’t want to be up in the attic. I’ll be far away from everybody else up there and—“
Bobby threw his spoon on the table and pushed away his bowl. On its way to the floor his bowl hit a water glass; the glass tipped; water flooded the table; the bowl crashed to the floor. Shards of white ceramic with red and yellow flowers and tiny pasta balls in tomato broth splashed across the green and white linoleum tiles. Alfie bolted from his seat and circled round to Bobby’s side as his hands grabbed at his belt buckle and began to undo it. Ella was right behind him, both hands around her husband’s arm.
“Don’t hit him now, don’t hit him,” Ella cried. “Leave him be—let me talk to him alone! Let me talk to him!”
Alfie glanced back at his wife, his face dark, then looked again at his son. “Tonight you’re going to bed hungry. Get upstairs right now before I give you what you deserve.”
Bobby ran from the kitchen and up the stairs, his sobs audible to the grownups below as they straightened the mess and continued their supper in silence.
When the doctor’s call came that morning Ella had already started to mix the dough for ravioli, her standard Thursday morning chore. Hands covered in wet paste, Ella waited patiently as her mother lifted the phone off its hook, crossed the kitchen floor with the receiver in one hand, the canary she’d been stroking in the other, and brought the receiver to her daughter’s ear. It was Dr. Norwich, the medical director at the home where Benny had been living for the better part of the past twelve years.
“Mrs. De Salvo, excuse me for calling so early but I wanted to be sure to reach you . . . “
After months of a new medication and adjustments of dosage—another of the numerous trials that always seemed to result in one, if not two or three, negative side-effects—all the doctors were unanimously agreed, Dr. Norwich said, that they’d struck the appropriate balance and yes, finally, Benny could leave Pine Haven without fear of seizures, or tremors, or sudden falls.
“As we’ve always said, Mrs. De Salvo, it’s a burden on both the child and the family when a child is prone to unpredictable behaviors . . . but as we’ve all seen for the past two months this drug is working beautifully . . . we believe Benny will be better served in a home environment . . . . Mrs. De Salvo? Are you still there? Mrs. De Salvo?”
“Yes yes I’m here, I’m here,” Ella said into the phone, her eyes locking with those of her mother as she processed the doctor’s announcement that Benny could be discharged as early as Saturday. They’d been planning to come down for their weekly visit on Sunday, correct? If they came on Saturday instead he could be there to meet with them. He’d review all of Benny’s medications and recommended home procedures with her and her husband . . . and schedule bimonthly appointments at the same time . . .
On one side of Ella’s mind a new list of things to do and buy was being drawn up; on the other, the shock of the news was sinking in.
“Yes, Dr. Norwich, we’ll see you on Saturday. Twelve o’clock noon. Thank you. Thank you, good-bye.”
“Cu era?” Consolata asked as Ella moved her face away from the phone.
“U medici, Ma. U medici. I l’istituzioni. Pine Haven,” Ella said.
As Consolata walked across the room to replace the phone in its cradle Ella removed her glasses with dough-encrusted fingers and wiped her eyes with her wrists.
She should have planned to tell Bobby herself, right then and there, right after that phone call. Why didn’t she? She should have found a way to talk to him in private, to talk to him before Alfie came home. She remonstrated with herself as she moved through the TV room and stopped to plump the sofa cushions and straighten the doily on the back of her mother’s favorite chair. From the second floor, the distant rumble of a deep cough. Her father, still with the same cough he’d had for months. He just can’t shake it, can he? The TV room should have been a dining room, she thought, as she did regularly, almost predictably, but her father never wanted it that way. Instead they used it as a sitting room, separate from the living room and they hardly ever used the living room anymore, not really, except for holidays, now that her brothers and sisters had moved out and Milo was gone, so that when they bought the television set they put it there and started calling it the TV room. She’d argued against it. Why not put the television set in the living room, she’d said, the way everybody else they knew did? Why not buy a nice dining table and chairs and make this the dining room? Like everyone else? Instead of buying only a china cabinet, and putting the television set across from the china cabinet, and then she and Mom had to carry the good dishes when they used them from the TV room to the kitchen? Did that make sense? But Dad didn’t want a dining room. He’d eaten in a kitchen all his life he said and he wasn’t going to change now. Plus their kitchen was a big one, with a big window that looked out on the garden, and he could sit there at the table and look at all his vegetables and fruit trees. What could you see from the dining room window? The cars on Mercy Street? The diner on Lincoln Avenue and all the cars and trucks that pulled into the parking lot there? Who wanted to look at those things?
As she walked into the living room the cuckoo clock on the fireplace mantel struck eight. The doors of the little forest home above the clock’s face opened and a miniature Hansel and Gretel alternated going in and out eight times as the cuckoo above them shrilled. The fireplace was just for show, that was another thing that bothered her. They should at least have someone come and look at the flue and give them an estimate of what it would cost to open it up and start using it again. But Dad said he’d spent enough of his life building fires to keep warm because there wasn’t any other choice, and he wasn’t going to start building fires all over again. They had a furnace now, didn’t they? So why spend time and money on a fireplace? Oh well. Enough, she thought—it’s high time to get Bobby up; before you know it the other kids will be at the door. She started up the stairs, then paused to adjust the glasses that had the habit of sliding down her nose, and considered her strategy: I’ll wake him up like it’s any other morning. I’ll tell him to go down and eat his cereal, just like any other day. I’ll say “Your cousins will be here any minute.” Then once he’s downstairs and out of the way she’d gather his clothes from the floor where he always seemed to drop them, and from inside the closet, and strip the bed, and bring those dirty things down to the laundry. Then she’d put on a fresh set of sheets. Blue of course—colors still meant a lot to Benny and blue was his favorite. Colors meant less to Bobby now, now that he was older. But even so, she’d have to be careful.
She thought about the first time she decorated that room—she was the primary mover, painter, wallpaper hanger and seamstress for every room in that house and every wall, chair, carpet and table embodied a capsule of history for her—the family had just moved to Lincoln Avenue. She’d papered the room all by herself; even back then it was blue: blue flowers in silver baskets. She’d hung cream-colored Venetian blinds. She and Patricia and Mary slept there together for what?—fifteen years?—in three twin beds, one next to the other with barely any room between.
Then Mary married Pete and they used that room for a year while they saved money for a house. She made a set of drapes for them, a sort of wedding present: soft blue damask with white sheers. Patricia moved up to the small attic bedroom. By then Ella and Alfie were married and they’d had Benny, so they slept in the bedroom next to Mary and Pete, with Benny in the crib. She papered her and Alfie’s room yellow: daffodils on a light blue trellis. By the time Mary and Pete moved out, if she was keeping it all straight, she’d had Bobby so they put the two boys together in that room, Benny in a twin bed, Bobby in the crib. She sewed a new set of drapes: white and blue striped cotton to go with the new wallpaper that had blue tigers and elephants prancing in rows. She bought a blue throw rug, and blue sheets and blankets, and a picture of the Madonna in a blue frame to go between the two windows so that it looked down on the bed and the crib. Alfie stuck his head in the door when he came home from work that day because she asked him to come up and see, and he said “Let’s just hope they keep liking blue” and she thought maybe he was right. She’d gone and done it again. Gone overboard.
She should have told Bobby herself, herself! She should have told him yesterday afternoon, before Alfie even got home, before he even had a chance to open his big mouth. What was wrong with her? What was wrong with them? They should have started talking about Benny coming home months ago, the first time the doctors even said it was a possibility. Why did they keep it a secret? If they’d been thinking ahead—thinking straight—maybe there wouldn’t have been that big blowup last night.
She waited until she and her mother had finished washing and drying the dishes, and her mother had gone upstairs, and Alfie had gone to Charlie’s to borrow an electric drill, something she’d had to remind him to do, since she wanted him to install a window air-conditioner in Milo’s old room before Bobby started sleeping there. She took the dish of leftover chicken from the refrigerator and put two pieces on a plate. She poured a glass of milk, put that on the plate as well, with a slice of bread, and headed up to Bobby’s room. He was on his bed, hunched over a comic book. He tossed the comic book aside when he saw the plate and reached for a chicken leg. Ella sat next to him on the bed.
“Your father’s going to put an air-conditioner up in the attic window for you on Saturday, when we come home with Benny. And I’ll buy a new set of blue sheets for you to use up there.” She ran her fingers through his dark curls as he wolfed down his food.
“Can’t Benny and me sleep together in this room?”
“No no, listen to me—what if something went wrong in the middle of the night? What could you do for Benny? You’d have to come and wake us up, and then you’d have to fall back to sleep and you have a hard time doing that. No, especially when school starts up again, you need your sleep. This way, with Benny in this room, if he wakes up I’ll be able to hear him—I sleep light, and I’ll leave the doors open—so then I’ll take care of him. So no one else needs to be bothered.”
“But Uncle Milo slept up in that attic room, Ma. I’m kinda scared of that room.”
“We can fix it up any way you want, so it’ll be your room from now on. We’ll go to the five-and-dime tomorrow with Michael and Paul, and Angela and Alice, the way we always do on Fridays. I’ll give you some extra money and you can use it to buy some of those model cars and planes, and put them on the shelves up there.”
“But what will Grandma say?”
“About changing the room. She keeps everything up there just the way Uncle Milo had it right? That’s what you always say about the way she keeps it. And then with that altar and everything.”
“I already talked to her about it. We’re going to move all of Uncle Milo’s things to the small back bedroom. Where you won’t see them.”
Bobby stopped chewing but kept his head bent over the plate as his eyes traveled up and met those of his mother.
“Okay so what about the other thing?”
“What other thing?”
“You know—you and Dad and Grandpa said I can’t have a dog but you were going to talk to Grandpa about me getting a rabbit.“
“Oh. That. No. No I forgot. I’m sorry I forgot. I didn’t ask him yet.”
“Again? Again you forgot?”
Yes, she forgot. She forgot to ask her father about the rabbit. She forgot many, many things. Her mother’s heart medication refill, for instance. A call to the nuns to ask about summer school for Bobby. Whether or not Benny still needed diapers at night. Yes, believe it or not, she forgot to ask the doctor if Benny still needed diapers at night. What did they say about that at the last visit? She asked Alfie after breakfast that morning, as he stood in front of the mirror over the kitchen sink.
“You remember what the nurse said last time about diapers at night?”
“Diapers? At night? For who? Benny?” Alfie picked up a tube of hair cream from a small shelf on the side of the sink.
“Well sure, Benny. Who else?”
“I don’t remember. Though I think one nurse said he holds his water at night.”
Alfie rubbed a dab of cream between his hands and smoothed it over his hair. His hair was short and didn’t require much grooming but he was fastidious. He reached for a comb and carefully parted his hair on the right.
“You sure?” Ella asked.
“No, not sure. So if you want to be sure you should call them today.”
“You know anything else we need to get before we go to pick him up?”
“No. But don’t worry about it, whatever we need we can get on the ride down. Listen I can’t talk, I’m running late.” Alfie reached for his uniform cap, which he’d hung the evening before on the back entry doorknob, and fitted it carefully over his hair. “Make a list of anything you think of.”
“Don’t forget, it’s Friday—I’m at the tavern tonight. I’ll make some fish and leave it in the oven.”
“Not for me and Bobby don’t. I’m taking him to Sal’s Fish n Chips, then to the bowling alley. Tonight’s family night.”
“Bobby’s not good at bowling. You know he doesn’t like it.”
“There’ll be other kids. And he’s not so bad at bowling. He thinks he doesn’t like it because he doesn’t want to work at it. He needs to work at it.”
Ella gave her husband a look that said He’s only thirteen. She hesitated, then she said: “You think we should take Bobby with us tomorrow?”
Alfie was already halfway out the door. He turned: “Well what do you think?”
“Well I don’t know, I’m asking you.”
“Listen, you’re holding me up. Think about it and we’ll talk later.”
Okay she’d think about it. But she wished that for once, just once, Alfie would give her a straight answer. He never had any answers. No one had answers. Not Alfie, not her parents, not her sisters or brothers. Milo would have known what to do but he was gone. And so there she was, alone in a big house, in a family with one boy not right and the other one a handful of a different kind of trouble. And it seemed no matter what she did for her kids it was never on time and never enough.
Her labor with Benny had been short and intense: they arrived at the hospital only twenty minutes before the last electrifying surge of pain and the sharp thrust of his head; then the wet rush of his short and sprawling body into the doctor’s hands and she had a red, solid, screaming baby boy. Something opened in her that day, a force of nature that surged and flourished; it was something like a spring; a star; a tree. He took to her breast right away, her hungry, greedy little boy, her little man; he drank her dry. She was made for this she thought, made for motherhood. But it seemed that now, every day, without interruption, it was all worry, worry, worry.
Things never work out the way you think; more often than not they go wrong. Very wrong. And it’s the little decisions you have to be especially careful of, the ones you think shouldn’t matter—but there you go—in the end they make all the difference. Their lives might have been very different, hers and Alfie’s, if Jimmy hadn’t called her that afternoon. If she’d just trusted herself and not gone to work.
“Listen, Ella,” Jimmy said, “I just got off the phone with your replacement. She’s sick, she can’t come in.”
She started working as a waitress for her brothers Charlie and Jimmy in 1951, four years after Charlie and Jimmy bought a tavern across town. It’d been a popular spot before they bought it, being right across from the big wire factory and near the train station, drawing in crowds of factory workers and random groups of business people with time to kill between trains to New York or Philadelphia. Charlie and Jimmy needed an extra waitress on the weekends, and she and Alfie were happy for the extra income. Plus Ella made excellent ravioli and her brothers paid her to make them for the tavern. All that was fine—for awhile. Later that year, in November, the unthinkable happened: their brother Milo died, suddenly, in a car accident, dead at the wheel from a heart attack. Barely one week after that, Benny came down with a case of measles complicated by encephalitis.
Jimmy and Charlie closed the tavern for five days to accommodate the three-night wake and funeral for Milo. They reopened the day after Thanksgiving, the day of Benny’s third birthday. Ella was sick over Milo nevertheless she planned a small birthday party that night for Benny and asked Jimmy and Charlie to find a replacement waitress for the weekend.
That Friday Ella made turkey soup with homemade noodles, followed by rosemary-fried veal chops, scalloped potatoes and dark greens. She made a birthday cake, Benny’s favorite, yellow cake with custard filling and chocolate frosting. Mary and Patricia and their husbands came and did their best to be cheerful. Gaetano and Consolata, despondent, ate in their bedroom. Benny blew out the candles in one go.
The next morning Benny came down with measles. When the phone rang that afternoon Ella sensed it was either Charlie or Jimmy.
“I don’t know what to do,” Jimmy said. “They packed it in here last night—you couldn’t move an inch. The bar, the dining room—completely packed. People were standing in line at the door, outside in the cold. I couldn’t get over it. It’ll be even worse tonight, I know it.”
Their patrons were flush with the buzz of Thanksgiving. Factory workers, bus drivers, policemen, secretaries, nurses, housewives: all of them gearing up for a month of anticipation and holiday, of eating and drinking, less careful about where their money went, eager to caress their appetites and forget the toil and frustrations of the year that was about to end.
“Believe me, Ella, I wouldn’t be calling you otherwise. We’ll only have one waitress tonight if you don’t come in. It’ll be a madhouse. Look—we’ll pay extra.”
“It’s not the money, Jim—listen—Benny’s sick, he has the measles. I found him in bed this morning with a fever. And he was covered all over in red spots. Now Bobby’ll probably come down with them too. I can’t leave them.”
“Well what about Mom? She can look after them, can’t she?”
“Ever since Milo she hardly ever comes out of her room. Plus she’s having those headaches again.”
“Well what about Alfie?”
“It’s not the same.”
“Oh you women. What is it? A father can’t take care of his own kids? Come on, Ella, don’t give me that. Listen, we’re talking six hours, that’s all we’re talking about. You don’t have to stay ‘til closing. The dining room’ll die down around eleven, you can go home before midnight. I’ll have the other waitress take care of whoever’s left.”
So; therefore; it should have been okay to leave him for six hours. After all, just like Jimmy said, Alfie would be there; her mother would be there. Though when her mother had headaches she was supposed to lie down and be still; she should have thought about that.
If she hadn’t gone to the tavern that night! If she hadn’t gone! She would have checked on Benny every half hour, just to be sure, to be absolutely sure he was okay. She would have seen the fever start to climb. She would have picked up the phone and called the doctor before the fever ever had a chance to spike. While the doctor was on his way she would have cooled Benny’s head and body with wet washcloths. That virus wouldn’t have had a chance.
“It doesn’t work that way, Ella,” Alfie said when she told him how she thought about all of this. “You don’t understand what a fever is do you? He got the fever because he had a virus and his body was fighting it. Just like the doctor says. No telling why a virus infects some people and not others.”
But if she hadn’t gone to the tavern that night—and this she firmly believed—the power of her care would have protected Benny. Plus she would have prayed. Begged help for her son who turned three just the day before.
So Ella ached; inconsolably; for twelve years. It’d been like living on an island, her life with Alfie and Bobby, with her parents and the rest of the family, and Benny in an institution miles away. He might as well be on a star, she thought. What’s he doing? Right now, right this minute? she’d always be thinking. Is he sleeping? Eating? Playing? Is he lonely? Does he think of me?
Ella thinks of Benny every hour; with every stroke of the sponge, sweep of the broom, crack of an egg; with every step and breath she carries him within her. And over the course of the twelve years Benny has lived away from home the days of Ella’s weeks have grown exquisitely ordered, in all their hours and minutes, not unlike the eternal movement of a minor solar system, her defense against the violence of the universe. Monday is washday. On Tuesday Ella sews and irons. Wednesdays are reserved for cleaning; Thursdays for making ravioli by the dozens. Friday is bank day, when she takes a long walk to the bank and fabric store and five-and-dime, and deposits the paycheck Alfie brings home on Thursday evening, and the paycheck she gets from Jimmy and Charlie for the cost of the ravioli and the two nights a week she works as a waitress. And every weekday in summer she has five kids, not one, to care for: her sisters Mary and Patricia bring their children to the house every morning on their way to work. She feeds the children breakfast and lunch, and supervises their playtime, and teaches the girls to cook and sew while her father puts the boys to work weeding the garden and straightening the tool shed. But it’s okay—her nieces and nephews are good kids. They do as they’re told. They’re good company for Bobby. And she’s attached to the girls, not having daughters of her own.
Every morning after her shower, with Alfie still asleep, Ella quietly closes the bedroom door and pulls her nylon stockings up and pins them to her garter belt. Then she steps into a simple house dress: front-buttoned, front-pocketed; sometimes plaid, sometimes flowered. She sits on the stool by the door and laces up her oxfords, white in summer, black in winter. Alfie lies in bed, still, eyes closed; Ella knows that as soon as she hits the bottom of the stairs he’ll uncoil himself from the bedcovers and rustle his way to the shower.
She has fancier dresses but she saves those for Easter and Christmas, and weddings and baptisms. Even on Sundays, when she goes to the early Mass with Charlie and Dorothy—they’ll be waiting out front by six forty-five, motor running—she throws a coat or sweater over her shoulders because who’ll know the difference? At that hour no one’s in the vestibule wanting to talk. By seven forty-five she’s back in the kitchen, ready to whip up some eggs for French toast, so that her parents and Bobby can have breakfast before they leave for the nine o’clock.
Alfie doesn’t go to church. He sits alone in the kitchen, waiting for his wife to return, to make breakfast for him, while he reads the paper at the large table where most things in the Cicero family take place—dinners, parties, arguments; conversations over coffee; the chopping of vegetables; the drawing up of lists and plans; trousers altered; dresses pinned and basted.
“Priest say anything new?” Alfie says when Ella walks in the door, his head down, eyes scanning the paper.
Ella chooses an apron from one of several on a hook by the kitchen door, then she runs water from the tap into the percolator, all the time watching her husband from the mirror over the sink. Why do they never talk about important things? He rarely looks at her when he speaks anymore. Why is that so hard? Wasn’t he warm and thick on top of her only nine hours ago? His sweat trickling down to the sheets, his flesh warm and damp against hers? It had taken her a long time to teach him to not make noise at night, what with her parents being light sleepers, and Bobby just next door, and in the warm months everyone sleeping with the windows open. She aches even more on those nights, it seems, when they make love and he slips out of her and rolls to the side and falls asleep without even saying Good Night. Why? Why does it have to be this way? Such a simple thing, after all. To say: Good Night. To say: Sleep well. And yet so hard for him. She’s not asking for anything bigger. Not anything like: I love you. Not anything like: You mean a lot to me. Though there was a time when he did say things like that. When he seemed to care. When did it stop? She can’t recall.
There are moments when she thinks: If I only had time I’d think it all through. But not sure where to go with such thoughts, and more comfortable with the patterns she knows, Ella says:
“It was Father Anselm this morning. He always says the seven o’clock. It was good.”
“Well what was good about it?” Alfie says while turning the page.
“Well, I can’t say word for word, but just to take an example . . . God acts in mysterious ways. He may not give us what we want bu—“
“—but he knows just what we need. Right. And guardian angels watch over us. Did he say that too?”
“Alfie, come on now, don’t be that way.” She hesitates, then she turns from the mirror, faces him directly, and says: “You know you used to go. You should go again. Why don’t you come with me?”
“I don’t know, Ella. Maybe. Ask me some other time why don’t you.”
“If Benny comes back?”
Every Friday and Saturday, at three in the afternoon, Ella returns her apron to its hook by the kitchen door and climbs the stairs and runs a bath of Epsom salts. She slides into the warm water, lays her head back on the rim of the tub, and replays the week. Her mind flies first to Benny, to whatever she learned when she called Pine Haven mid-week . . . Either the new medication seems to be working, there’ve been no seizures . . . Or the medication’s run its course, it isn’t working anymore and the doctors want to try something new . . . Or Benny’s outgrown his shoes . . . Benny’s outgrown his sweaters . . . Benny wants a train set . . . Benny wants a Brownie camera, a boy in B-3 has one and he wants one too . . . Benny wants a book, he saw a girl in G-4 has a book and we think we can teach him, at least Dick and Jane, we think Benny’s smart. No kidding Benny’s smart. Benny knew all his colors before he was two, he could count up to ten. He knew most of the alphabet by the time he was three. He was smart as a whip. Just like his Uncle Milo. It’s Bobby who’s behind, Bobby who needs help. Help with arithmetic, help with reading. She has to make an appointment with Sister Celine, she needs to remember. Sister Celine sent Bobby to the empty cafeteria three times this week for punishment because he didn’t finish his homework. She says it’s hard for him to sit still.
By three-thirty Ella’s in her underwear behind the bedroom door. She pulls a white waitress uniform from the closet, and her white oxfords, and an apron from the fancy collection she keeps separate from those in the kitchen. Reconstituted, she sits at her vanity. A layer of foundation, a dusting of powder with a thick pad—a birthday gift from Patricia—and a touch of rouge. A bit of red lipstick. She brushes her hair with its permanent wave into a smooth bouffant and then poof!—a burst of hairspray. She bends at the waist, to the bottommost drawer of the vanity, where she places the paychecks for safekeeping, and lifts out a slim jeweler’s box. Inside, on top of a webbed cotton pad, lies her collection of pins: a woman’s silhouette in beige cameo encircled with seed pearls; an enameled bull, with an eighteenth-century garden scene, set upon a nubbly, gold-washed base; a galactic swirl of rhinestones and sterling silver. From the next drawer up she pulls out a stack of stiff white linen handkerchiefs, all perfumed, all of them edged in pastel-colored crochet. She lays three across the vanity and considers—which pin for tonight? which handkerchief?—and then she decides and begins to fold, one of those how-to things she picked up from her mother, the sort of thing that’s handy for gift-wrapping, and on particular occasions table-setting too, layer upon layer of linen crescents, wave upon undulating wave edged pink, yellow, blue. When she’s finished folding she stands before the closet mirror, positions the handkerchief above her left breast, and stabs it into place with the chosen pin. Then she walks two flights down to the basement, down to the large freezer, and retrieves the trays of ravioli she made the day before, and walks out to her father’s Oldsmobile, which she borrows for these evenings, and packs the trays deep inside the trunk where they won’t shift. Finally she’s ready—for a night of heaving trays of beers and cocktails, and plates of ravioli, and linguini with lobster. Or mussels. Or clams.
Ella reached the top of the stairs just as the door of her parents’ bedroom swung open. The sound of early morning traffic on Lincoln Avenue volleyed through her parents’ open windows and down the hall to where she stood, the sound of rubber tires on damp asphalt a circular sshhjj, sshhjj, like the sound of cellophane tape when you pull a stray piece of it up from the table, except this sound repeated itself, over and over. Today’ll be a scorcher like yesterday, she thought. Tomorrow may be the same if not worse. I’ll need to make sure Alfie gets up early, so that he can put the air conditioner in the attic room for Bobby before we leave to get Benny. He won’t like it but too bad, it’s what needs to be done. After all he’s always asking her—telling her—to do things that she doesn’t like to do but she does them. “Get your father to stop asking me to help him in the garden, you know I don’t like that kind of work. Especially when it comes to wrapping that damn fig tree—get your brothers to help him. . . Why do your sisters have to come over so early on Saturday morning? I’d like to eat my breakfast without having to listen to them talk . . . And take those pictures of Benny when he was small and put them away where we don’t have to see them—“
—that was the only clue he ever gave. “Water under the bridge” he said. “Why torture ourselves?” So she put them away. “Why does God give a child so much and then take it away?” he said once. The only clues he ever gave.
She moved most of the pictures to the attic but she keeps a few in the bottom drawer of the vanity, underneath the pin boxes and handkerchiefs, and steals time with them in private. Happy times when Benny was one and two. Birthday parties and Christmases. One summer, when her father was watering the roses and Milo came out with his camera. “Hey Benny, let’s see how good you are at watering the roses. Watch how Grandpa waters them and then you try.” Benny’s hair was blonde, not dark like now. Then at the zoo, one year later. Bobby on a dark pony, laughing; Benny on a white pony, afraid of the handler, ready to cry. By then he’d been sick, and Milo had died, and their lives had been turned upside down. But maybe, she thought, finally, with Benny coming home, things will change for the better. She heard her father’s cough again. A low scrumbling.
Gaetano Cicero appeared at the open door of his bedroom, a dark silhouette against the illuminated windows, facing his wife, apparently, as he slipped a belt through the loops of his pants. Consolata was likely standing before the mirror of her armoire, brushing her long dark hair as she did every morning before coiling it into a bun. Their rough Calabrese dialect competed with the noise of the traffic as Ella struggled to hear first her father, then her mother.
“You plan on helping Ella move those clothes out of the attic?”
“You talk to Charlie and Jimmy?”
“They don’t want any. Charlie tried some, said they didn’t fit. Jimmy said they’re not in style anymore. Since when did he start getting stupid things like that in his head?”
Ella slipped quietly inside the blue bedroom and closed the door. Bobby was still asleep, bedcovers thrown to the side, one arm slung back over his forehead and she could see hairs beginning to sprout from his armpit. He was large for his age, both boys were, that was another thing. They’d be like two giants together in that room.
Any minute now Patricia and Mary will be at the kitchen door, she thought, with her nieces and nephews. She’ll get the kids to help her with the room, that’s what she’ll do. She’ll tell Michael and Paul to help Bobby carry his books and clothes up to the attic. She’ll have Angela and Alice dust out the drawers and vacuum the blinds. While they’re busy with those chores she’ll find her father and ask about the rabbit. When the kids are finished she’ll take them to the bank and five-and-dime and then to Hammond’s Pet Store. Last thing: they’ll stop at the bakery for a special treat, for after lunch. Maybe a half-dozen large cookies. Maybe cupcakes. Something tells her Angela will want help this afternoon with sewing but she might not have time for that.