The Rack

by Norman Belanger

“Oh for cripe’s sake, would you look at that!”

Her first sip of soup ends up mostly on the front of her Easter blouse. She daps the tip of her napkin in a water glass, blots at the red stain on floral silk. “For Christ’s sake!” Nearly every meal, at least once, we replay this scene. She has forever been a dribbler. If it’s not soup, it’s gravy, a sauce, Bolognese, or Alfredo. She’s always brushing crumbs of crusty bread off her, grated cheese, a drizzle of mozzarella. Or it’s red wine, or coffee, a rootbeer float, a spoon of spumoni. Every time something ends up on her ample bosom that projects out like a cantilevered shelf over her plate, and every time she says “Oh for cripe’s sake would you look at that!”

 

On this occasion, it’s a lovely Sunday, perfect. The weather, not too hot, not too breezy, is perfect. The setting is perfect. We are at a window seat of the Old Italian Club on Federal Hill. It goes by some other name now, but it’s always been called the Old Italian Club, and it always will be. We have a view of the parking lot, a sea of shining Cadillacs, Mercedes, Continentals and BMWs. Valets in red jackets open doors with a flourish and take tips with a smile. A vintage emerald green Eldorado Deluxe sweeps up the gravel driveway on white wall tires, the convertible top is down, its white leather bucket seats gleam in the clear sunlight.

“Isn’t that a beautiful car? That’s when style really meant something,” she says, still futzing with her top, a big wet spot is all she gets for her troubles. We look around the dining room, crisp table cloths aglow in dim lighting, wait staff buzzing around with platters piled high. The cast of characters around us are the usual bunch of carvonnes, flashy men strutting like the Duke of Earl with slicked scalps, sun glasses, slouchy suits and Italian loafers, and the women, all duchesses, with overcoiffed hair, big jewelry, shiny shoes, sparkly tops, nails like talons and make up put on with trowels. Diamonds glitter, there are rocks on fingers, dripping from pink earlobes, hanging from gold chains galore.

 

The table next to us, a crew of the old cronies, is talking loudly about the bakery that used to be on the corner on Broadway. There’s some debate as to if it was Zacganini or Talone’s. “They had the best cannoli,” one guy says.

“And the best bread to get on Sunday after church, but you had to go right after, or it was sold out by noon” says his paisano.

“It was Talone’s” my mother tells them, with some authority. “That was my comare Marie’s family’s place.”

“They did beautiful wedding cakes,” says a lady, shawled in a black velvet mass of fabric with fringe. “My cousin Connie had hers done there. It had spun sugar angels and rosettes with seed pearls, so elegant.”

My mother nods. “Talone’s.”

This ends the conversation, she turns to me and whispers “Poor Marie, how she suffered, toward the end.” Just as she puts down her damp napkin the next course arrives, penne pasta with pesto. With her first taste, a random stringy piece of green basil leaf bathed in virgin oil lands squarely on her left breast. “Jesus!” she says. I call over the waiter for a fresh glass of water, seltzer if they have it, and some clean napkins. At this point her front is bedaubed with large wet spots. “This must be what it feels like to lactate,” she says, “they didn’t let us, you know.”

“Didn’t let you what?

“Lactate. We didn’t do that in my day. We were told to bottle feed you.”

“I don’t understand.”

“What’s to understand? We fed you with bottles. It wasn’t like today with women whipping out their boobs everywhere. Bottles were supposed to be more sanitary, but you had to sterilize them and make formulas. I remember I was so exhausted after your sister, I feel asleep with my nipples on the stove, and woke up with the volunteer fire department standing around in my living room, I was so worried they’d ruin my new ice blue shag we still had five payments on, but thank God they showed up, I could have set the whole place on fire, I was that tired.” She looks around, almost furtively, and says in an undertone, “from the minute she was born, that girl has put me through the wringer,” and then in an even lower voice, out of earshot of the chatty neighbors, “she’s been a challenge ever since.” It’s true my sister was born under an unlucky star. Perhaps she was doomed from the start, that’s the running theory anyway. Family legend, which my mother has told only me, is that my sister was conceived in the last moments of 1969, after a night of tequila sunrises at neighborhood party, back at home they started a shouting match over Sonja Johnson’s hot pants, things got heated, the Christmas tree got knocked down, and somewhere in the tumult my parents consummated. My sister was born 6 weeks premature, and—

 

The next course is seafood for her: scallops dripping in butter, clams casino, baked stuffed shrimp. I have the veal, stuffed with prosciutto and herbs, on a bed of braised Swiss Chard. With a stab of her fork, a sea scallop, pearlescent and supple, springs off the plate and bounces off her beleaguered blouse, before rolling under the table next to her strappy wedgie. She discreetly nudges it under her chair with her toe. “Fongool!” she mutters. Then out of nowhere:  “Please don’t tell you sister that we had fun today, without her.”

“What do you mean?”

“Just don’t. You know how she gets.”

“I do.”

“Why do you make that face for? That’s your only sister. At the end of the day, she’s family, like it or not.”

“I know.”

“I wish you both had more filial feeling, it makes it very difficult for me, dealing with you two.”

There’s no other answer than a shoulder raised in a half shrug and a flick of eye.

“It is Easter,” she says. “Not that you go to church or even pray, or believe in anything, the holiday is just a family obligation to you, and you barely consent to do even that.”

I don’t say it, but to be honest, I’m glad my sister is absent this year from the holiday festivities, which is why we are here at the Old Italian Club. She had a flare up and needed to rest, she tells us.  I’m glad it’s just the two of us. This is why the day is nearly perfect.

For dessert we have rice pudding.  Mom asks for whipped cream, which promises to be a disaster waiting to happen. I suggest, not for the first time, “Really, you could wear a bib, or maybe a plastic tarp.”

She shushes me again.

 

Finally we sit, sated, with anisette in thimble glasses. “I’m exhausted,” she says. We’re both pleasantly full, both tired. It’s been a long day. Before our luxurious repast, we had done a lot of work, unpacking boxes in the new home she just bought. “My dream house!” she says every two minutes, a sweet rambling ranch with cute nooks, a little green house with a trim yard. Somehow, the garage is full of crap she already should get rid of: boxes of Christmas things and tinsel garlands and autumn decorations and scented candles and plastic floral arrangements and ceramic bunnies and wreaths made out of seasonal greens, little wobbly tables and chairs with three legs, random swaths of fabric and vases in every shape. She’s planning a yard sale.

So, we got things as organized as best we could. By digging through several boxes labeled “kitchen, miscellaneous,” we eventually found the Keurig: we found the cups it uses in another box, some two hours later. “Thank God!” she sighed, “I need my morning coffee.”

 

We swept and dusted, we opened windows to let in the warm air. She pointed out the daffodils, her favorites, and hyacinth, and violets, by the shed.

 

I hung pictures. She doesn’t have much, a few old family photos and bland “art work.” One heavy framed dark “painting,” of a shipwreck at sea, I’ve never seen before. “Your sister gave me that.”

“No surprises there.”

“It doesn’t really go with the decor, does it?”

“It would not go with any décor,” I agreed. “Are you going to hang it?”

She made a face. “Maybe I’ll wait until I find the right spot for it. I had suggestions, which I kept to myself.

“Just don’t tell your sister, she’ll go nuts if she thinks I don’t love it.”

“She’ll see it for herself, she’ll notice if it’s not up.”

“She doesn’t miss a trick.”

“Hmmm”

“The back room,” mom decided. “No one will go in there.”

It’s at some point in here, while I’m hammering a nail into the wall, that she casually mentioned her mammogram. “They found something. I need a biopsy.”

“What?”

“I’ll be fine” she said. “I think that needs to go a little bit to the right.”

“Do you want me to go with you? To the appointment?”

“What for? Take a day out of work? For what? To sit in a doctor’s office? I’ll be fine, stop worrying.”

“Okay.”

“And do not tell your sister, whatever you do.”

 

As we sit at our little table by the window, celebrating our Easter at the Old Italian Club, the sun feels warm, she’s smiling. The unspoken fears I have, that she may have, go unspoken while we talk about nothing: the beautiful weather, the delicious food, my need for a haircut. Her hair is perfect, her makeup is perfect, everything will be fine, everything is perfect. We clink our glasses. “Salut!” we say.

 

A few days later, I am walking home on a quiet Cambridge side street, there’s a chill in the air. I walk under green furred trees, the birds are singing up a storm. Just about a yard ahead, a young mom walks her toddler, a blue eyed butterball on tottering feet.

“Ella look over there! What are those? Are those flowers?”

“Fowers,” Ella says.

“Tulips, TU-lips.”

“Tutips!”

“Petunias. Pet-TUN-i-a”

“Tuna!”

My phone rings in my pocket. It’s my mother. She comes right out with it. “The biopsy came back. I have breast cancer.”

 

“Look Ella,” says the young mother, “those are pansies. Pan-sies”

“Pantsy!”

 

“Are you there?” my mother says.

“I’m here.”

 

“Hyacinth,” says Ella’s mom “Hy-a-cynth.”

Ella doesn’t even attempt to say that one. She just laughs and points to a squirrel running up a tree.

 

“What do we do next?” I say into the phone.

“I’ll be fine,” she says, “what are you worried about?”

 

Ella and her mom are turning the corner, there’s a flower bed full of happy yellow blooms. “Look Ella, Mommy’s favorite! Daffodils. Daff-o-dills!”

“Daffdills!” she runs, arms outstretched, laughing, into the garden. Her mother chases after her.

 

“I’m coming with you to your next appointment,” I tell my mother.

“Don’t be silly.”

“I’m going.”

“Fine, suit yourself.”

She tells me the day and time, the Martino Medical Building. “We’ll go to lunch after,” she says, “How about Chelo’s?”

I think about the clam chowder there. “Bring a poncho,” I say.

“Aren’t you a comedian?” she says, “I don’t know why you never write anything funny.”

“Hmm”

“I’ll talk to you later about next week.”

“Okay.”

“And whatever you do, for Pete’s sake, do NOT tell your sister.”

 

She hangs up. I stay there a while, the phone still to my ear. All I hear is the roaring of the birds, and little Ella, laughing in the daffodils.

 

Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing, SNHU Student