With a sigh, Lauren went into the kitchen and cleaned everything up, then she went to the couch and knelt down. "Come on, Mom, I’ll help you to bed."
"Wha? Huh?" Mom sat up, bleary-eyed. Her short, tousled hair, platinum this month, stuck out around her pale face. She reached shakily for the beer bottle on the end table. She took a long drink, then set it back down. Her aim was off, unsteady; the bottle thunked to the floor, spilling its contents.
She looked like a broken doll, with her face cocked to one side. She was porcelain pale; blue-black mascara smudged around her eyes. The faintest hint of her once-great beauty remained, like a glimmer of gold trim on a dirty china plate, peeking through. "He left me."
"Who did, Mom?"
"Cal. And he swore he loved me."
"Yeah. They always do." Lauren bent down for the beer bottle, wondering if they had any paper towels to blot up the mess. Probably not. Mom’s paychecks were getting thinner lately. Supposedly it was the sagging economy. Mom swore that fewer women were coming to see her at the salon. Lauren figured that was half of the story; the other half was that the Hair Apparent Beauty Salon was four doors down from the Tides tavern.
Mom reached for her cigarettes and lit one up. "You’re giving me that look again. The f**k me, my mom’s a loser look."
Lauren sat down on the coffee table. As much as she tried not to feel the sting of disappointment, it was there. She always seemed to want too much from her mother. When would she learn? These continual letdowns were eating through her. Sometimes she imagined she could even see them as a shadow above her heart. "The college fair was today."
Mom took another drag, frowning as she exhaled. "That’s on Tuesday."
"This is Tuesday, Mom."
"Aw, shit." Mom leaned back onto the nubby avocado-green sofa. "I’m sorry, honey. I lost track of the days." She exhaled again, scooted sideways. "Sit."
Lauren moved fast, before Mom changed her mind.
"How did it go?"
She snuggled next to her mother. "I met a great guy from USC. He thought I should try and get recommendations from alumni." She sighed. "I guess who you know helps."
"Only if who you know will pay the tab, too."
Lauren heard the hard edge come into her mother’s voice, and she winced. "I’ll get a scholarship, Mom. You’ll see."
Mom took a long drag on her cigarette and turned slightly, studying Lauren through the filmy haze.
Lauren braced herself. She knew what was coming. Not today. Please.
"I thought I’d get a scholarship, too, you know."
"Please, don’t. Let’s talk about something else. I got an A+ on my honors history paper." Lauren tried to get up. Mom grabbed her wrist, held her in place.
"My grades were okay," Mom said, unsmiling, her brown eyes growing even darker. "I lettered in track and basketball. My test scores were damn respectable, too. And I was beautiful. They said I looked like Heather Locklear."
Lauren sighed. She edged sideways, put a tiny space between them. "I know."
"Then I went to the Sadie Hawkins dance with Thad Marlow."
"I know. Big mistake."
"A few kisses, a few shots of tequila, and there I was with my dress up around my waist. I didn’t know then that I was f**ked in more ways than just the one. Four months later I was a senior in high school, shopping for maternity dresses. No scholarship for me. No college, no decent job. If one of your stepfathers hadn’t paid for beauty school, I’d probably be living in the street and eating other people’s leftovers. So, missy, you keep your–"
"Knees shut. Believe me, Mom; I know how I ruined your life."
"Ruined is harsh," Mom said with a tired sigh. "I never said ruined."
"I wonder if he had other children," Lauren said. She’d asked this same question every time her father’s name was mentioned. She couldn’t seem to help herself, though she knew the answer by heart.
"How would I know? He ran from me like I had the plague."
"I just … wish I had relatives, that’s all."
Mom exhaled smoke. "Believe me, family is overrated. Oh, they’re fine till you screw up, but then, wham!, they break your heart. Don’t you count on people, Lauren."
Lauren had heard all this before. "I just wish–"
"Don’t. It’ll only hurt you."
Lauren looked at her mother. "Yeah," she said tiredly. "I know."
FOR THE NEXT FEW DAYS, ANGIE DID WHAT SHE DID best: She threw herself into a project. She woke long before dawn and spent all day studying. She called friends and former clients–anyone who’d ever been involved in the restaurant or food service business–and wrote down every word of their advice. Then she read and reread the account books until she understood every dollar that came in and every penny that went out. When she finished that, she went to the library. Hour after hour, she sat at the cheap Formica table with books and articles strewn out in front of her. After that, she parked herself at the microfiche machine and read the archived material.
At six o’clock, the librarian, Mrs. Martin, who’d been old when Angie got her first library card, turned off the lights.
Angie got the hint. She carried several armfuls of books to her car and drove back to the cottage, where she kept reading long into the night. She fell asleep on the sofa, which was infinitely preferable to being in bed alone.
While she was doing her research, her family called like clockwork. She answered each call politely, talked for a few moments, then gently hung up. She would, she said repeatedly, let them know when she was ready to see the restaurant. At each such call, Mama snorted and said crisply, You cannot learn without doing, Angela.
To which Angie replied, I can’t do without learning, Mama. I’ll let you know when I’m ready.
Always you were obsessive, Mama would reply. We do not understand you.
There was more than a little truth in that, Angie knew. She had always been a woman with laserlike focus. When she started something, there was no halfway, no easy beginning. It was this trait that had broken her. Quite simply, once she’d decided I want a child, there had been ruin on the horizon. It was the thing she couldn’t have, and the search had taken everything.
She knew this, had learned it, but still she was who she was. When she undertook something, she focused on success.
And to be honest–which she was with herself only in the quiet darkness of the deepest hour of night–it was better to think about the restaurant than to dwell on the losses and failures that had brought her here.
They were with her, of course, those memories and heartaches. Sometimes, as she was reading about management techniques or special promotions, she’d flash on the past.
Sophie would have been sleeping through the night by now.
Conlan loved that song.
It was like stepping barefoot on a sharp bit of broken glass. She pulled the glass out and ran on, but the pain remained. In those moments, she redoubled her efforts at studying, perhaps poured herself a glass of wine.
By Wednesday afternoon, she was exhausted by her lack of sleep and finished with her research. There was nothing more she could learn from secondary sources. It was time to apply her learning to the restaurant.
She put her books away, took a long, hot shower, and dressed carefully. Black pants, black sweater. Nothing that would draw attention or underscore her "big city" ways.
She drove slowly to town and parked in front of the restaurant. Notepad in hand, she got out of the car.
The first thing she noticed was the bench.
"Oh," she said softly, touching the wrought-iron curled back. The metal felt cold against her fingertips … just as it had on the day they’d bought it.
She closed her eyes, remembering….
The four of them hadn’t agreed on a thing all week– not the song that should be sung at the funeral, nor who should sing it, not what his headstone should look like, nor what color roses should drape the casket. Until the bench. They’d been in the hardware store, looking for citronella candles for the celebration of Papa’s life, when they’d seen this bench.
Mama had stopped first. Papa always wanted a bench outside the restaurant.
So folks could take a load off, Mira had said, coming up beside her.
By the next morning that bench had been secured to the sidewalk. They’d never discussed putting an In Memoriam plaque on it. That was the way of big cities. In West End, everyone knew that bench belonged to Tony DeSaria. The first week it was up, a dozen flowers appeared on it, single blossoms left by people who remembered.
She stared up at the restaurant that had been his pride and joy.
"I’ll save it for you, Papa," she whispered, realizing a moment later that she was waiting for an answer. There was nothing, just the sound of traffic behind her and the distant hum of the sea.
She uncapped her pen and held the tip poised just above the paper, at the ready.
The brick facade was in need of repair. Moss grew beneath the eaves. A lot of shingles were missing. The red neon sign that read DeSaria’s was missing the apostrophe and the i.
She started writing.
She climbed the few steps to the front door and paused. A menu was posted behind glass on the wall. Spaghetti with meatballs was $7.95. A lasagna dinner, including bread and salad, was $6.95.
No wonder they were losing money.
She opened the door. A bell tinkled overhead. The pungent aromas of garlic, thyme, simmering tomatoes, and baking bread filled the air.
She was drawn back in time. Not a thing had changed in twenty years. The dimly lit room, the round tables draped in red-and-white-checked fabric, the pictures of Italy on the wall. She expected to see Papa come around the corner, grinning, wiping his hands on his apron, saying, Bella Angelina, you’re home.
"Well. Well. You’re really here. I was afraid you’d fallen down the cabin stairs and couldn’t get up."
Angie blinked and wiped her eyes.
Livvy stood by the hostess table, wearing a pair of tight black jeans, a black off-the-shoulder blouse, and Barbie mules. Tension came off Livvy in waves. It was as if they were kids again, teenagers fighting over who got to use the Baby Soft spray first.
"I came to help," Angie said.
"Unfortunately, you can’t cook and you haven’t worked at the restaurant since you got your braces off. No. Wait. You never worked here."
"I don’t want us to fight, Livvy."
Livvy sighed. "I know. I don’t mean to be a bitch. I’m just tired of all the crap. This place is bleeding money and all Mama does is make more pans of lasagna. Mira bitches at me but when I ask for help, she says she doesn’t understand business, only cooking. And who does finally offer a hand? You. Daddy’s princess. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry." She pulled a lighter out of her pocket and lit a cigarette.
"You aren’t going to smoke in here, are you?"
Livvy paused. "You sound like Papa." She dropped the cigarette into a half full glass of water. "I’m going outside for a smoke. You tell me when you’ve figured out how to save the day."
Angie watched her sister leave, then she headed into the kitchen where Mama was busy layering lasagna into big metal baking pans. Mira was right next to her, arranging meatballs on a metal tray that was only slightly smaller than a twin bed. At Angie’s entrance, Mira looked up and smiled. "Hey there."