THE STREETS OF WEST END WERE CROWDED ON THIS unexpectedly sunny day. All across town mothers stood in open doorways, with hands tented across their eyes, watching their children play. Everyone knew that soon–probably tomorrow–a soapy haze would creep across the sky, covering the blue, obliterating the delicate sun, and once more the rain would fall.
It was May, after all, in the Pacific Northwest. Rain came to this month as surely as ghosts took to the streets on the thirty-first of October and salmon came home from the sea.
"It sure is hot," Conlan said from the driver’s seat of the sleek black BMW convertible. It was the first thing he’d said in almost an hour.
He was trying to make conversation; that was all. Angie should return the volley, perhaps mention the beautiful hawthorn trees that were in bloom. But even as she had the thought, she was exhausted by it. In a few short months, those tiny green leaves would curl and blacken; the color would be drawn out of them by cold nights, and they would fall to the ground, unnoticed.
When you looked at it that way, what was the point in noticing so fleeting a moment?
She stared out the window at her hometown. It was the first time she’d been back in months. Although West End was only one hundred twenty miles from Seattle, that distance had seemed to swell lately in her mind. As much as she loved her family, she’d found it difficult to leave her own house. Out in the world, there were babies everywhere.
They drove into the old part of town, where Victorian houses had been built one after another on tiny patches of lawn. Huge, leafy maple trees shaded the street, cast an intricate lacework pattern of light on the asphalt. In the seventies, this neighborhood had been the town’s heart. Kids had been everywhere back then, riding their Big Wheels and Schwinn bicycles from one house to the next. There had been block parties every Sunday after church, and games of Red Rover played in every backyard.
In the years between then and now, this part of the state had changed, and the old neighborhoods had fallen into silence and disrepair. Salmon runs had diminished and the timber industry had been hit hard. People who had once made their living from the land and the sea had been pushed aside, forgotten; new residents built their houses in clusters, in subdivisions named after the very trees they cut down.
But here, on this small patch of Maple Drive, time had stood still. The last house on the block looked exactly as it had for forty years. The white paint was pure and perfect; the emerald green trim glistened. No weed had ever been allowed to flourish in the lawn. Angie’s father had tended to this house for four decades; it had been his pride and joy. Every Monday, after a weekend of hard work at the family’s restaurant, he’d devoted a full twelve-hour day to home and garden maintenance. Since his death, Angie’s mother had tried to follow that routine. It had become her solace, her way of connecting with the man she’d loved for almost fifty years, and when she tired of the hard work, someone was always ready to lend a hand. Such help, Mama often reminded them, was the advantage to having three daughters. Her payoff, she claimed, for surviving their teen years.
Conlan pulled up to the curb and parked. As the convertible top shushed mechanically into place, he turned to Angie. "Are you sure you’re okay with this?"
"I’m here, aren’t I?" She turned to look at him finally. He was exhausted; she saw the glint of it in his blue eyes but knew he wouldn’t say more, wouldn’t say anything that might remind her of the baby they’d lost a few months ago.
They sat there, side by side in silence. The air-conditioner made a soft whooshing noise.
The old Conlan would have leaned over and kissed her now, would have told her he loved her, and those few and tender words would have saved her, but they were past such comfort these days. The love they’d once shared felt far, far away, as faded and lost as her childhood.
"We could leave right now. Say the car broke down," he said, trying to be the man he used to be, the man who could tease his wife into smiling.
She didn’t look at him. "Are you kidding? They all think we paid too much for this car. Besides, Mama already knows we’re here. She might talk to dead people, but she has the hearing of a bat."
"She’s in the kitchen making ten thousand cannoli for twenty people. And your sisters haven’t stopped talking since they walked in the door. We could escape in the confusion." He smiled. For a moment everything felt normal between them, as if there were no ghosts in the car. She wished it were an ease that could last.
"Livvy cooked three casseroles," she muttered. "Mira probably crocheted a new tablecloth and made us all matching aprons."
"Last week you had two pitch meetings and a commercial shoot. It’s hardly worth your time to cook."
Poor Conlan. Fourteen years of marriage and he still didn’t understand the dynamics of the DeSaria family. Cooking was more than a job or a hobby; it was a kind of currency, and Angie was broke. Her papa, whom she’d idolized, had loved that she couldn’t cook. He took it as a badge of success. An immigrant who’d come to this country with four dollars in his pocket and made a living feeding other immigrant families, he’d been proud that his youngest daughter made money using her head, rather than her hands.
"Let’s go," she said, not wanting to think about Papa.
Angie got out of the car and went around to the trunk. It opened silently, revealing a narrow cardboard box. Inside was an extravagantly rich chocolate cake made by the Pacific Dessert Company and a to-die-for lemon tart. She reached down for it, knowing some comment would be made about her inability to cook. As the youngest daughter–"the princess"–she’d been allowed to color or talk on the phone or watch TV while her sisters worked in the kitchen. None of her sisters ever let her forget that Papa had spoiled her mercilessly. As adults, her sisters still worked in the family restaurant. That was real work, they always said, unlike Angie’s career in advertising.
"Come on," Conlan said, taking her arm.
They walked up the concrete walkway, past the fountain of the Virgin Mary, and up the steps. A statue of Christ stood by the door, his hands outstretched in greeting. Someone had hung an umbrella from his wrist.
Conlan knocked perfunctorily and opened the door.
The house rattled with noise–loud voices, kids running up and down the stairs, ice buckets being refilled, laughter. Every piece of furniture in the foyer was buried beneath a layer of coats and shoes and empty food boxes.
The family room was full of children playing games. Candy Land for the younger kids; crazy eights for the older. Her eldest nephew, Jason, and her niece Sarah were playing Nintendo on the television. At Angie’s entrance, the kids squealed and flocked to her, all talking at once, vying for her attention. From their earliest memories, she was the aunt who would get down on the floor and play with whatever toy was "in" at the moment. She never turned down their music or said that a movie was unsuitable. When asked, they all said Aunt Angie was "way cool."
She heard Conlan behind her, talking to Mira’s husband, Vince. A drink was being poured. She eased through the crowd of kids and walked down the hallway toward the kitchen.
In the doorway, she paused. Mama stood at the oversized butcher block in the center of the room, rolling out the sweet dough. Flour obscured half of her face and dusted her hair. Her eyeglasses–a holdover from the seventies–had lenses the size of saucers and magnified her brown eyes. Tiny beads of sweat collected along her brow and slid down her floury cheeks, landing on her bosom in little blobs of dough. In the five months since Papa’s passing, she’d lost too much weight and stopped dyeing her hair. It was snow white now.
Mira stood at the stove, dropping gnocchi into a pot of boiling water. From behind, she looked like a girl. Even after bearing four children, she was still tiny, almost birdlike, and since she often wore her teenage daughter’s clothes, she appeared ten years younger than her forty-one years. Tonight, her long black hair was held back in a braid that snaked almost to her waist. She wore a pair of low-rise, flare-legged black pants and a cable-knit red sweater. She was talking now–there was no surprise in that; she was always talking. Papa had always joked that his eldest daughter sounded like a blender on high speed.
Livvy was standing off to the left, slicing fresh mozzarella. She looked like a Bic pen in her black silk sheath. The only thing higher than her heels was the puffiness of her teased hair. Long ago, Livvy had left West End in a rush, certain that she could become a model. She’d stayed in Los Angeles until the sentence "Could you please undress now?" started to accompany every job interview. Five years ago, just after her thirty-fourth birthday, she’d come home, bitter at her lack of success, defeated by the effort, dragging with her two young sons who had been fathered by a man none of the family had ever seen or met. She’d gone to work at the family restaurant, but she didn’t like it. She saw herself as a big-city girl trapped in a small town. Now she was married–again; it had been a quickie ceremony last week at the Chapel of Love in Las Vegas. Everyone hoped that Salvatore Traina–lucky choice number three– would finally make her happy.
Angie smiled. So much of her time had been spent in this kitchen with these three women; no matter how old she got or what direction her life took, this would always be home. In Mama’s kitchen, you were safe and warm and well loved. Though she and her sisters had chosen different lives and tended to meddle too often in one another’s choices, they were like strands of a single rope. When they came together, they were unbreakable. She needed to be a part of that again; she’d been grieving alone for too long.
She stepped into the kitchen and put the box down on the table. "Hey, guys."
Livvy and Mira surged forward, enfolded her in a hug that smelled of Italian spices and drugstore perfume. They held her tightly; Angie felt the wetness of tears on her neck, but nothing was said except "It’s good to have you home."
"Thanks." She gave her sisters one last tight hug, then went to Mama, who opened her arms. Angie stepped into the warmth of that embrace. As always, Mama smelled of thyme, Tabu perfume, and Aqua Net hair spray. The scents of Angie’s youth.
Mama hugged her so tightly that Angie had to draw in a gulp of air. Laughing, she tried to step back, but Mama held on.
Angie stiffened instinctively. The last time Mama had held Angie this tightly, Mama had whispered, You’ll try again. God will give you another baby.
Angie pulled out of the embrace. "Don’t," she said, trying to smile.
That did it–just the quietly voiced plea. Mama reached for the Parmesan grater and said, "Dinner’s ready. Mira, get the kids to the table."
The dining room held fourteen people comfortably and fifteen tonight. An ancient mahogany table, brought here from the old country, held center stage in a big, windowless room papered in rose and burgundy. An ornate wooden crucifix hung on the wall beside a portrait of Jesus. Adults and children were crammed around the table. Dean Martin sang in the other room.
"Let us pray," Mama said as soon as everyone was seated. When silence didn’t fall instantly, she reached over and thwopped Uncle Francis on the head.
Francis dropped his chin and closed his eyes. Everyone followed suit and began the prayer. Their voices joined as one: "Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty through Christ our Lord. Amen."