The Mercy of Time and Chance spans three generations of an Italian-American family. The first generation is steeped in old world customs and values; the second tenaciously clings to the old and familiar even as the world around them is changing; the third embraces the modern but reverts to the past when it suits them.
Caught in the middle is Renie. Orphaned at two and raised by a bitter stepmother, she unwittingly promotes what she believes are the proper roles of men and women by raising her children the way she was raised. After a life filled with tragedy and heartbreak, she realizes she may have created a respectful, obedient daughter, but she’s also made her meek and submissive. Her son, on the other hand, has inherited his father’s temper as well as his role as lord and master of the family.
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A generation goes and a generation comes,
But the earth remains forever.
The heavy-set woman gasped loudly, clutched her ample bosom, then slumped to the floor in a heap of musty garments. Her friend, belying her scrawny stature, let loose with a screech that threatened to open the gates of Hell. Their hapless husbands merely stared as the child tried to get her mother’s attention. Once they regained their wits, they tended to their wives. One husband, chivalrous to the point of looking ridiculous, attempted to pull his fallen wife to her feet. Failing that, he settled on fanning her with his hat; the other man vainly tried to quiet his vociferous wife.
A young man pushed past the stunned foursome and snatched up the frightened child, now shrieking at the top of her lungs. “Millie!” he yelled. “I told you to keep the kids out of here.”
A little girl about nine years of age ran in from the hall. Taking charge of her little sister, she half dragged, half carried the screaming baby from the room.
Standing off to one side, an older man wept softly, his hands in a prayerful pose, as if beseeching Heaven for mercy on this sad day.
The younger man hurried to his mother’s side, lifted her dangling arm, and arranged it across her body. Retrieving her fallen rosary from the floor, he threaded it through her still fingers. Then he made the sign of the cross and respectfully backed away from the bier.
* * *
Born on the cusp of a new century, Catherine Giordano, affectionately called Renie, had recently celebrated her second birthday. Still a baby, she missed the comfort of her mother’s arms, missed nuzzling against her warm breast sticky and sweet. All she’d been offered in the way of sustenance today was gruel from a cold, hard spoon.
Earlier that morning, she and Lena, older by eighteen months, had been shunted outside to play. Left to their own amusement, they gravitated to their makeshift playhouse, a rickety lean-to constructed from old lumber. Before the family’s conversion to gas, the structure was used to keep firewood dry. These days, it contained vegetable crates and cracked dishes with pebbles and weeds for pretend food. In the summer, tiny cherry tomatoes from the garden imparted a realistic touch to the children’s play.
Next to the lean-to was a chicken coop where Maybelle and Popcorn cackled and pecked. The ancient leghorns would’ve been destined for the soup pot long ago were it not for their prolific laying. Having been elevated to a position in the hen house that assured them of death by old age, the hens strutted their stuff with impunity.
Weary of their games, the children had nodded off in the cool shade of the shelter. No one came to check on them and no one called them inside for lunch. Thus, when Renie awoke, wet and hungry, she went in search of her mother. Unable to find her in the kitchen, she toddled into the parlor. The heavy brocade drapes were drawn, and the room had a suffocating closeness that didn’t go well with the child’s hunger pains.
Upon spotting her mother, she laughed and ran to her side, pouting when her mother failed to scoop her up and smother her with kisses. “Up, Mama, up,” the hungry child insisted.
Failing to get a response, she repeated her demand. “Up, Mama, up.” Again she was met with silence.
Needing food and a clean diaper, she shook her mother’s arm. When Mama still didn’t acknowledge her, she shook again. This time her arm dropped, and the pretty beads in her hand fell to the floor. Confused and angry at being ignored, the baby began to pummel her mother’s arm, determined to catch her attention one way or another.
It was at this moment the parlor doors slid open. There was a thunderous thump, a piercing scream, and strange people shouting at her. Now, as her sister spooned warm soup in her mouth, she felt safe. Millie would take care of her if Mama wouldn’t.
* * *
Tony Giordano’s chin sank to his chest. A strong, well-muscled man, he once towered over his peers. Now, spent from a lifetime of toiling, he’d developed a noticeable hump in his back. His thick, curly hair, shot through with gray, fell across his forehead like a well-used mop. Despite snow swirling around him, beads of sweat clung to his face. He wiped the moisture from his brow and smoothed his bushy mustache with thumb and forefinger. At one time, he’d been so proud of that elegant adornment. It seemed rather vain and foolish now.
Although many of Tony’s countrymen had settled in and around the New York City area, Tony made his home in nearby New Jersey. Like other immigrants his age, he couldn’t read or write in English, keeping up with the world with an Italian newspaper. Although he spoke English well enough to get along, he often reverted to his native tongue for expediency and accuracy. His children constantly had to remind him, “In American, Papa. American.”
Slapping the reins against old Bob’s flank, Tony urged the sturdy draft horse toward home. Six months earlier, he and his beloved Mary, despite her huge belly, would sort through the day’s haul of rags and refuse. Anything his large family could use, he had set aside; anything they couldn’t use, he stored until he had enough to sell to the junkman. An entire wagonload might only bring a pittance, but every cent was precious when bills came due. As a result, piles of assorted scrap iron, tools, and other household items littered the back yard waiting to be turned into cash.
Today, despite several more hours of daylight, Tony was anxious to be done with his route. He’d already arranged for his three oldest boys to stay with friends, paying them to feed and house the still-growing youths until he was able to bring them home again; a local wet nurse cared for four-month-old Gino; and a neighbor lady looked after the two youngest girls in exchange for first pick of the day’s haul. Lucky for him, she was also a deaf-mute, sparing him the worry that she might tell what she knew. All that needed to be done now was swear Millie to secrecy.
He told himself he was taking a wife for his children. But was he? He had to admit the years ahead loomed frighteningly close, and he didn’t relish spending them alone. More importantly, he didn’t want to raise his children alone. They needed a mother, especially the little ones. He might not know his bride-to-be very well, but she was easy to talk to and easy to look at. If they didn’t love each other now, they would in time.
With old Bob secured for the night in his crude stable, Tony trudged into the house. In the kitchen, wearing her mother’s apron, Millie stirred a large pot of soup. The child was so small she needed to stand on a chair. Before her mother’s death, he often referred to her as Mama number two, a pet name that never failed to produce a blush and a giggle from the little girl. He patted her head and kissed her forehead, his heart heavy for the burdens placed on her young shoulders. The child should be playing house, not keeping house—and cooking and cleaning and scrubbing floors.
“Bellisima, sit,” he said. “Papa have something to say.”
* * *
As the oldest daughter in the family, Millie had learned what was expected of her at an early age. Should she ever forget it, her brothers were quick to remind her with a swat to the back of her head or a yank on her hair. She’d just tucked her sisters in bed and was wandering through the empty house when a tightness gripped her chest. She opened the door to her brothers’ room, sad to see it stripped of everything that made it theirs. Closing her eyes, she visualized it as it once was, with dirty clothes, smelly shoes, and junk strewn everywhere. She opened her eyes, and its barrenness offended her.
Valiantly trying to keep her tears at bay, she tip-toed into her room. Finding her sisters fast asleep, she climbed into her bed and said her prayers. Then, for good measure, she said them again.
But sleep eluded her tonight. Was guilt keeping her awake? Should she have greeted Papa’s announcement with more enthusiasm? Or was her trepidation at what the morning would bring preventing sleep? She, more than anyone, wanted her father to be happy again, to laugh, and to tease. She told herself life would be better after he took a wife. The boys would eventually come home, and they’d be a family again. Holding onto that hope, the little girl drifted into a fitful sleep.
Several hours later, she awoke to strange sounds. At first they seemed to be coming from a far off place. As she rose from the depths of slumber to a drowsy half-sleep, the sounds grew louder. Forcing her eyelids apart, she glanced at her sisters, both snoring peacefully. Curious as to the origin of the strange sounds, she slipped out of bed and padded to the window.
Fresh snow lay like a heavy white blanket upon the frozen earth. On either side of the street, rows of chimneys coughed up billowy gray puffs, the plumes silently drifting upward into a somber sky. In the narrow roadway, only the tracks from a single wagon had broken through the layer of snow.
Fully awake now, she ventured into the hallway. As she came abreast of her father’s room, the sounds grew stronger, louder. Puzzled by the furious repetition of squeaks, she put her ear to the door. The squeaks stopped, and she heard a woman’s squeal followed by her father’s low moan.
Unsure what was going on but certain Papa wouldn’t be happy that she was listening, she hurried back to her room and crawled under the covers. Afraid her fleeing footsteps might have been heard, she waited. But, except for the pounding of her heart, the house was still again. The knot in her chest tightened, and she curled into a ball as she feverishly recited every prayer she knew.
* * *
The new Mrs. Giordano sat erect, her light brown hair pulled sharply from her smooth, unlined face. She’d been waiting anxiously for her eldest stepdaughter to come down to breakfast. Tony said it was unusual for the girl to sleep so late, and she hoped he was right. The last thing she needed was a lazy stepdaughter.
The younger girls scampered down immediately upon waking. Tony introduced her as their new mama, but it was clear by their glazed expressions that they didn’t understand. As a result, all they’d done for the last hour was stare at her.
They were halfway through breakfast when the kitchen door swung open. Tony pulled a young girl to his side. “Tessa, this is a my big girl, Millie.”
“Hello, Millie.” She smiled. “My name is Therese, but everyone calls me Tessa. Your father tells me you’ve been a big help to him. Now that I’m here, I hope you’ll give me that help. I have a lot to learn about this family.”
“Uh-huh,” the girl mumbled into her feet.
“Good. Now sit down and eat. I made oatmeal for breakfast.” Tessa pushed a bowl at her. Millie stuck a spoon in it, and it stood straight up.
Tessa scowled. “It got cold waiting for you,” she said of the gelatinous blob.
During the meal, though she tried to make conversation with her stepdaughters, Millie met every query with a short, one or two word answer; the younger ones simply ignored her. Near the end of the meal, she gave up on polite conversation. “All right, then. Millie, when you finish eating, will you get your sisters dressed to go outside and play?”
The girl gave her standard answer. “Uh-huh.”
Tessa looked to her new husband. “Is that all she can say?”
Tony shrugged, spooned the last of his oatmeal in his mouth, then pushed his chair away from the table. Rising, he pulled his suspenders over his shoulders. “I go to work now.” He gave his daughters a noisy kiss. The two little ones giggled and squirmed; Millie sat motionless.
Tessa felt a moment of panic at the thought of being alone with the children. How could she be a mother to these children when it was quite clear they hated her?
Tony leaned in close for a kiss, and she modestly turned her face away. “The kids, Tony.”
He laughed. Then, in full view of the children, he pinched her behind.
After he left, Tessa sent the children outside, then explored her new home. Having come in late last night, all she’d seen of the house was Tony’s bedroom. She peeked in the girls’ room and clucked her tongue at the unmade beds. Down the hall, she found another room, strangely devoid of any personal items; even the beds were stripped. It made her wonder why the girls were crammed into one tiny room when a much larger one was available.
Later in the afternoon, after she cleaned and rearranged the pantry, she met the youngest Giordano. The baby, wrapped in a blanket to ward off the cold, smiled and cooed the instant he spotted his sisters. But as soon as Tony handed him to her, he started to howl. Unsure what to do, she looked to him for guidance. He merely shrugged, as if quieting an unhappy child was a woman’s job.
She waited for him to return to work, then handed the baby to Millie. “Here, do something with him. He’s your brother.”
Retreating to the kitchen, she started in on supper. Making a meal was second nature to her; mothering someone else’s children was not. She began to think she’d been too hasty in marrying Tony and should have waited for a younger, more suitable husband. If she’d had any choice, she might have.
Having been orphaned at an early age, she’d been living with her uncle’s family in their small apartment when she met Tony. And though she was flattered by the attentions of an older man, she was wary of getting involved with a widower with a readymade family. But eligible suitors were rare in her neighborhood. And when she thought of the alternative—living with her uncle until he married her off to one of the local good-for-nothings, Tony easily won out.
* * *
With the heavy snows of winter gone and a hint of spring in the air, Tessa, three months pregnant, anticipated her first get-together with girlfriends from her old neighborhood. Conspicuously absent from her guest list were the women of her new community. Although married for several months, she had yet to receive any of her neighbors. Oh, she felt their eyes boring into her whenever she stepped outside, but none ever extended a hand in friendship. The snub hurt, and she reacted by holding her head even higher whenever she went to the market.
The situation at home was just as disheartening. She’d hoped to be friends with her stepchildren, but it was becoming increasingly clear that she was an unwelcome intruder in their midst. Especially irritating was the way the younger girls looked to Millie whenever she spoke to them. As if her words carried no weight unless their sister gave it her stamp of approval. She told herself she was in charge now, not the three little girls always looking at her out of the corner of their eyes, and she didn’t intend to tolerate their disregard of her much longer.
* * *
For Millie, the months following her father’s marriage blended into one long nightmare of scrubbing floors and walls, moving furniture, mending, laundering, and otherwise rearranging things to suit the new mistress of the house. But no matter how hard she tried to please and placate her young stepmother, she always seemed to fall short.
As she scrubbed winter grime from the kitchen floor, she daydreamed of the day Tessa would get her comeuppance. Mama would never have let a baby in her belly keep her from her chores. Unlike the new Mrs. Giordano, too delicate to get down on her lily-white knees, Mama had worked right up to the minute her babies popped out. And if it wasn’t for Gino coming out back end first, she would’ve sailed through her last pregnancy too.
Angered by her stepmother’s blatant attempt to show off, Millie threw her scrub brush in the bucket so hard it splashed murky water all over the clean floor.
Just then a scowling Tessa entered. “Aren’t you done yet? My friends will be here soon. Now get that bucket out of here and see what your sisters are up to. Then I want all of you to change into those nice dresses I bought so you look presentable.”
Millie snatched up her bucket and ran out back to dump it. Then she went in search of her sisters, dismayed to find them in a pool of mud behind the shed. A recent warm spell had turned frozen earth into a child’s delight, and Lena and Renie had discovered its simple joys. Speechless, she watched as Lena spread a handful of the rich, black muck over her baby sister’s face, remarking how beautiful she’d be after her treatment. Renie, too young to understand what treatment she was getting but loving every minute of it, proceeded to do the same to Lena.
Aware they’d get a beating if Tessa caught them, Millie squatted down beside them. “What are you doing?” she said, glowering at them. “Tessa is going to have a shit fit!”
The children stared back, their eyes stark white against their black faces. Wavering slightly, Renie brought a muddy finger to her older sister’s face. “Make Millie bootyful?
Millie’s harsh look softened. Grinning broadly, she scooped up two generous handfuls of mud and plopped them on her sisters’ heads.
Taken by surprise, the youngsters gasped. Then, as mud dripped slowly down their faces, they got the giggles. Delighted to have their older sister join them in play, they pounced on her, pelting her repeatedly with great blobs of mud. Soon all three were rolling on the ground.
Ten minutes later, breathless from laughing, Millie pulled the girls to their feet. “Okay, enough now. We have to get cleaned up before Tessa sees us.” She pulled off their soiled clothes, rolled them into a bundle to wash later, then hid them in a corner of the shed. Tessa never came out to the shed. Too many spiders and bugs.
She filled her bucket with fresh water from the outside tap, then gave herself and her sisters a hasty bath. Naked but mostly mud free, the children slipped into the kitchen while Tessa entertained her friends in the parlor. Ushering her sisters into the hall, she paused at the parlor door and listened as the women cooed over her baby brother and admitted envy of Tessa’s condition. Millie pictured Tessa basking in the undeserved attention, and her ire peaked.
With her ear to the door, she heard Tessa invite her guests into the kitchen for coffee and cake. But before she could react, the doors slid open, and the gaggle of chattering women fell silent. Tessa, her face as red as an overripe tomato, had fire in her eyes. “Millie!” she screamed.
As the naked children scrambled to safety, one of Tessa’s guests giggled. A second later, another followed suit. Soon, all of the women were engulfed in unrestrained laughter. Millie guessed Tessa was not among them.
Because there was no chance of making a good impression on Tessa’s friends now, with or without new dresses, Millie and her sisters kept to their room for the remainder of the afternoon. Fearing punishment for spoiling Tessa’s get-together, she even contemplated skipping supper. But hunger pains forced them from their room, and they reluctantly went downstairs.
Tessa’s manner was cooler than usual. “Eat before it gets cold,” she said in a crisp voice.
Tony, unaware of the day’s misadventure, ate supper with his usual gusto. Lena and Renie ate quietly, if not neatly; Millie merely picked at her food.
When Tony retired to the parlor for his after-dinner smoke, Tessa sent the younger girls to their rooms to play. “Millie, you stay here,” she snapped.
Millie’s heart began to race. But instead of the beating she expected, Tessa shoved an apron at her.
“Wash the dishes,” she ordered. “And when you’re done with that, I want you to scrub the kitchen floor—again.” Having issued her demands, she left the room.
Millies’s pulse slowed. But any relief she may have felt was quickly displaced by the sober realization that this was only round one of Tessa’s retaliation. If the woman remained true to form, she’d make her pay dearly for the embarrassment caused her that afternoon.
* * *
As the months passed and Tessa grew larger, Tony noticed the strained relationship between his wife and daughter. Although he’d sworn Millie to secrecy regarding her older brothers, he knew the time had come to tell Tessa the truth; the thought filled him with dread. His new young wife could be quite a formidable foe when crossed.
Fat raindrops pelted the windowpane as he sat up in bed. It was Sunday, his day of rest. But there would be no rest for him today as he anticipated what awaited him. He looked at the young woman slumbering beside him and issued a heavy sigh. He’d hoped that once Tessa felt the first stirrings of motherhood, her maternal instincts would prevail and she’d become the warm, loving mother he so wished for his children. But while her body glowed rosily, her indifference to his little ones showed little if any improvement. Oh, she kept a clean house and always had a tasty meal on the table, but there was no love in her heart for them. And that pained him greatly.
Lowering his feet to the floor, he lifted himself from bed with great effort. Never much of a gambler, he was about to take the biggest gamble of his life in a few hours. His only advantage was Tessa’s dependence on him for support, a factor he hoped would tip the odds in his favor.
* * *
Millie wiped the last breakfast dish and placed it atop the clean pile. When a light knock sounded at the back door, she set her towel aside. As she neared the door, she spied a trio of familiar faces peering in through the window. She hadn’t seen those faces in months.
Excited, she flung the door open, too choked up to do anything but sob.
“Aw, come on, Mil,” her brother Lou said with a groan. “Don’t cry.”
One by one, the boys hugged her, then wiped the moisture from their own eyes. In the excitement surrounding their homecoming, no one heard Tessa enter until her sharp voice rang out.
“Millie, get back inside. And you bums, get the hell out and don’t come back.”
Behind Tessa, a soft voice in broken English said, “Let the boys a come in.”
Tessa whirled her bulky frame around. When she saw the somber expression on Tony’s face, her narrowed eyes searched his for answers.
“They my boys,” he said meekly. His plaintive voice implored her to forgive his sin of omission.
Stunned by the curt confession, Tessa stared at the ragged group before her.
Tony pulled the boys inside and tearfully embraced them, his whispered murmurings inaudible to all but the recipient of his affection. After welcoming his sons back home, he turned to Tessa, his gaze lowered as he wordlessly asked her to accept his children as her own.
His contrite expression gave credence to Tessa’s fears, and she shuddered as the full impact of his deception hit home. Her stunned expression hardened, and she extended an arm to the table as if to steady herself. Her trembling hand landed on the stack of clean plates. Consumed by rage, she curled her fingers around the topmost one. “Goddamn you, Tony, you lied!” she screamed. “You bastard, you lied to me!” Each curse was punctuated with a shattered plate.
At the end of her rampage, she stood amidst the broken dinnerware, her enormous body heaving with each labored breath. Glancing from one brother to the other, she scalded each with a look. Her merciless eyes came to rest on Tony, and he lowered his head in a pathetic, wordless apology.
Her scathing gaze swept over the group once more, and then she stormed from the room. That night Tessa gave birth to her first child and Tony’s eighth.
Little Graziella turned out to be a far prettier child than anyone expected. She was the only ray of sunshine in her mother’s rather drab existence. In nearly five years of marriage, Tessa had proven quite fertile as easy pregnancies led to even easier deliveries, promising to add abundantly to the Giordano family. Her second child, Rocco, had just celebrated his first birthday when she again found herself with child.
Although a loving mother with her own children, her relationship with her stepchildren remained dicey. A harsh, unyielding taskmaster, she often kept Millie home from school to help with chores. As a result, the girl’s schoolwork suffered, a situation for which Tessa took no responsibility as she harangued her weary husband.
“The girl is failing, Tony. What’s the point in her staying in school? She’s fifteen years old now; she needs to get a job. Everyone in town knows how good she is with a needle and thread, and God knows we can use the extra money.”
Tony sighed. “I’ll talk to her,” he said softly.
That evening, Tony broached the subject to his daughter. Because she was so far behind in her studies, Millie agreed to quit school and get a job. The next day, she found work at a local dress shop. Although the job was tedious and time consuming, and she often took work home, she never complained, even when she was forced to hand over an exorbitant share of her wages to her stepmother. Not until Tessa also demanded she do chores when she came home did the girl finally balk.
For a time, open hostility reigned in the Giordano household. Tessa seldom bothered to speak to her stepchildren except to snap at them for some misdeed, real or imagined. Gradually, sheer weariness tempered the animosity between them, and there existed a subtle awareness of each person’s role in the family.
Although Tessa’s position as the undisputed head of the household was a dubious honor at best, it was one she refused to relinquish. By virtue of Tony’s default, she enjoyed complete autonomy over the children, ruling them with an iron fist or, as was more likely the case, a willow switch stripped of its bark. Should food or money be scarce, as it so frequently was with such a large brood, the older children made do.
While a rag picker’s wife would never be invited to a society tea, it did ensure the family a steady supply of wearing apparel if one wasn’t too proud to wear castoffs. Depending on who got to Tony’s haul first, either Tessa or Millie would rip out the seams of a perfectly good dress someone had simply grown tired of and reshape it into new outfits for the youngsters. Should there be enough usable fabric left over, even Lena and Renie got new frocks, albeit lacking the smocked bodices, lace collars, and ruffled hems of little Graziella’s dresses.
As Tessa awaited the birth of her third child, she cursed her foolishness in wedding a much older man. Bitter and depressed, she stared at her reflection in the mirror, seeing nothing but gloom in her future. Her hair, once neatly confined in a bun, now hung straggly and unkempt around her face. And her once flawless complexion was marred now by wrinkles. Marriage to Tony had made her an old woman before her time, and she didn’t like it one bit.
* * *
At fifty-six years of age, Tony had begun to feel the weight of his years, limiting his workday accordingly. With war raging across Europe, the government had begun taxing income to pay for its possible involvement in it. Fortunately, Tony’s business dealt in cash that couldn’t be traced or taxed. Others were not so fortunate, working for companies that reported their wages. One of his sons worked for such a company. Of the older boys, he was the only one still living at home, his gainful employment as a bricklayer’s apprentice affording Tony some relief from the burden of supporting his still growing family. With the boy’s earnings subject to tax, reducing the family’s income still further, he worried how they would manage. Millie’s wages helped, but he feared they’d still fall short at the end of the month.
Luckily, Tessa knew how to stretch a dollar. Although Tony would never say as much to her, he thanked God every day for bringing her into his life. How would he ever have managed without her?
Admittedly, relations between them were strained immediately following his admission of deceit; the presence of two babies in the corner of their bedroom didn’t help. But time, along with her growing dependence on him for support, helped to narrow the gulf. These days, he seldom had to do more than raise his hand in a threatening manner to keep her in line.
She might be hot-tempered and apt to blow up at the slightest provocation, but the woman knew her place. She also knew how to keep him happy in his declining years. A hot meal at the end of the day, a good cigar, and an accommodating wife whenever he deemed necessary more than filled the bill. In return, she was assured of a life relatively free of want.
Having been indoctrinated by generations of unwritten laws governing the sanctity of marriage, anything else would’ve been unthinkable. And should either one of them have doubted the veracity of that concept, they never spoke of it. For to do so would have been a sin in the eyes of the Church of which they considered themselves faithful Catholics.
Satisfied that he’d upheld the basic tenets of Church and saloon, both requiring prolific reproduction for acceptance into their hallowed halls, Tony cranked up his Victrola and settled back in his easy chair. Should he leave nothing else of value when he departed this earth, he was confident there’d always be a Giordano to carry on his name. And with Tessa’s youth and robust health, he was assured of many more offspring, virtually guaranteeing immortality of a sort.
As Tony listened to his favorite Caruso recording, a fat, black cigar bobbed thoughtfully in his mouth; every so often he’d belch out a cloud of foul, gray smoke. Closing his eyes, he let the beauty and power of the magnificent tenor’s voice fill his senses. Suddenly, a loud shriek brought him instantly upright.
“Tony!” Tessa screeched as she descended on him. “What the hell are you doing? You’re going to burn us right out of house and home, you damn fool.”
Startled out of his reverie, Tony looked on dully as Tessa plucked his smoldering cigar from the carpet and stubbed it out in an ashtray. When he realized she’d demolished his stogie, he grew livid. “This is a my home, woman, and you no tella me what to do.” He raised his arm as if to strike her, then gave her a shove instead, just to let her know he meant business.
* * *
Tessa plunged her hands into the washtub, then quickly pulled them out. Holding them to the sunlight, she was dismayed to find them cracked and dry, ruined by the harsh soaps and lye used in laundering her family’s clothes. Convinced no amount of attention would ever restore her youthful looks, she’d stopped smoothing lotion into her skin after Rocco was born. Faced with a never-ending supply of dirty clothes, hungry mouths, and boisterous children, she didn’t have the time or energy to waste on such an indulgence. Having abandoned her daily beauty routine, she was resigned to standing by helplessly as her body sagged and wrinkled with each passing day.
Although the older girls helped with housework when they could, Tessa refused to acknowledge their contributions. Embittered by her own fate, she was not about to forgive or forget the injustice forced upon her in the prime of life. Thus, she made no attempt to reach out to the children she was in charge of rearing, their very presence a reminder of her lost youth and faded looks.
She was halfway through with the laundry when the garden gate burst open, and Millie and a young man entered. Fifteen-year-old Carmine Conti sported the rich auburn hair and fair complexion common to people in the northern region of Italy. Like the bantam rooster he resembled, the boy often strutted and postured around the neighborhood in a vain attempt to catch Millie’s eye.
“Well,” Tessa snorted as they approached. “It sure must be nice to go for a Sunday stroll.”
An able match for her stepmother’s sarcasm, Millie responded in kind. “Oh, did you want to join us, Mama?”
Angered by her flip answer, Tessa flung a towel at her. “Don’t get snippy with me or I’ll shut that smart mouth of yours with the back of my hand. And don’t you ever run off when there’s still work to be done. Now, finish beating those rugs. And you,” she said, glaring at Carmine, “get the hell out and stop hanging around so much.”
The boy stood fast. Tessa grabbed the broom leaning against the house, and he shot out the gate. Then, just because she could, she gave Millie a whack with it.
* * *
With the church bazaar in full swing, Lena, Renie, and Gino anxiously counted their pennies. “Seventy-five cents,” eight-year-old Renie exclaimed. “We’re rich.”
“No,” Tony said, handing each a quarter. “Now, you rich.”
The children’s delighted squeal gave their father a chuckle. “Just don’t tell Mama,” he said in a cautionary whisper.
Aware their outing depended on their stepmother’s mood, the children settled down to a subdued hum. Quiet as church mice, they ate their breakfast and did their chores, careful not to do or say anything that might be construed as sassy or disruptive. They knew if they angered her in any way she’d retaliate with a swift barrage of blows as well as immediate denial of all privileges.
They were nearly finished with lunch when the neighbor’s terrier began to bark. Tessa wiped her hands on her apron, grabbed a large wooden spoon, then headed for the door. “That damn mutt better shut the hell up before he finds this spoon up his ass.”
On the doorstep, a visibly nervous Carmine stood, hat in hands. “Um, the bazaar,” he said meekly.
Tessa’s brow dipped.
Millie immediately spoke up. “You said last week if we did all our chores we could go to the bazaar today.”
At the table, five-year-old Graziella began to cry. “Me too, me too. I wanna go too.”
Tessa wound her finger through the child’s curls. “Oh, baby, we’ll go some other time. Now, finish your lunch like a good girl, and you can help Mama bake some panettone.”
When Tessa noticed the other children waiting expectantly, she swung her wooden spoon at them. “All right, you kids get the hell out of here before I change my mind.”
The children pushed their chairs back and ran for the door. Tessa cleared the table of lunch dishes, wiped down its oilcloth covering, then began assembling the ingredients for her Italian fruitcake. In the pantry, jars of jellied fruit, tomatoes, peppers, and other assorted canned goods were lined up like obedient soldiers reporting for duty. She picked out what she needed and set it on the long wooden table. Then she fired up the cook stove and returned to the pantry for her twenty-five pound sack of flour.
After an hour of more playing than helping, Graziella grew bored. Tessa dusted the flour from the little girl’s clothes, washed her off, then sent her outside to play. She set her dough beside the stove, and while she waited for it to rise, she fed her two youngest, both boys. After the babies went down for their naps, she took up her needle and thread and tackled her latest sewing project. Tony had picked up a lovely silk drape on one of his better routes, and she had cut out the makings of a new dress from the expensive fabric. With her wedding anniversary a month away, she hoped to wear it to dinner in a fine restaurant. Although she had no sentimental illusions about that day, she looked forward to having someone else wait on her for a change.
But when she mentioned it to Tony later in the day, he flatly refused to consider it. “I no pay good money for meal you can make at home. No.” Despite her pleading and cajoling, he wouldn’t budge, complaining miserly about the cost such an evening would entail.
“It’s our anniversary, Tony. Don’t I deserve a night out on our anniversary?”
“Where I get money? No! Now I no wanna hear any more.”
“No money? What about the money you gave the kids for that damn bazaar? You think I don’t know about that?”
“They’re my kids. I treat them to something special.”
“And I’m your wife. When are you going to treat me to something special?”
"Look. I no gonna say more.” He raised his hand as if to strike her, and she promptly quieted.
Aware she’d always take second place behind Tony’s kids, Tessa hurried to her room, grabbed her shears, and cut her dress into strips, leaving nothing large enough for Millie to salvage.
She was only twenty-five years old, still a young woman. And yet she looked and felt much older. Forced to compete with small children for their father’s favor, she hated the vengeful woman she had become. Most of all, she hated the people responsible for making her that way.
She knew the children carried grossly magnified tales about her to their father; she also knew nothing would ever come of it. Wanting to pacify both sides, Tony would listen attentively, then shake his head. Afterward, he would lie down and take a nap, as if the preceding conversation was too ponderous a burden for a man his age.
Home was a battlefield, and after every skirmish there emerged a winner and a loser. She may have lost this battle, but her defeat only fueled her anger for the next one.
The following excerpt is from the middle of the book.
A wail suddenly rang out as two-year-old Jill woke from her nap. At about the same time, little Betsy burst through the hall door, her untied shoelaces slapping the linoleum with every step.
Jenny waved her little sister over. “Come here, Bets, let me tie your laces before you fall. I have to change the baby now, and then you can play with her. Would you like that?”
“Can I change her, Jen? Can I, huh?”
“If she has a load in her diaper, you might not want to.” Jenny laughed.
Jenny closed the hall door behind the child, shuddering when she thought of how Jill came perilously close to tumbling down the stairs when Betsy left it open one day. The baby had been scooting about in her little wheeled walker when she ventured out the open door. Because the stairwell ran down the side of the building, there was one step to the right, a pie-shaped wedge, then a steep flight to the landing below. Somehow the baby cleared the first step and was poised on the wide second step, one wheel already over the edge, when Jenny grabbed her. After that harrowing incident, Jenny couldn’t look at that door without seeing a tragedy narrowly averted.
She and Betsy had just finished changing the baby when a chorus of familiar voices rang out from the parlor. Carrying her sweet-smelling baby, Jenny entered to find her entire family along with her Aunt Lena, Uncle Tino, and baby Victor. “How do you like my new kitchen?” she asked as they inspected Hugh’s handiwork. “It’s a lot cheerier now, don’t you think?”
“Looks good,” her mother said. “You did a good job, Hugh.”
“You did this, Hugh?” Lena asked.
Carmine and Tino moved in for a closer inspection. “Your seams overlap,” Carmine said, flicking a fingernail under one edge.
“And your paper’s pulling away in the corners,” Tino added.
Although Hugh’s jaw hardened at the criticism, he said nothing. Then Uncle Tino pulled out his pocket knife, and he froze. Before anyone could react to the scene playing out before them, the point of his knife zipped swiftly down an inside corner. “There,” he exclaimed. “Now it’ll lie flat.”
Hugh’s eyes nearly fell out of his head. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
Jenny ran to her husband’s side. “Honey, please don’t get upset. Uncle Tino was only trying to help.”
“Well, I can do without that kind of help. You think it was easy trying to paper a room when the walls aren’t even plumb? Then I have to deal with this idiot ruining it all.”
“Who you calling an idiot?” Tino shouted back.
“If the shoe fits, wear it, you old fool. I didn’t ask for your help. Considering the whole goddamned place was built half-assed backwards, I think I did a damn good job.”
“Hey,” Carmine piped up. “Watch it. Me and my old man put every brick and nail in this building.”
“And it looks it too,” Hugh shot back.
The men continued trading insults while the women looked on helplessly and the frightened babies cried. When it appeared as if fists would fly, the women tugged at their respective mates. Finally, Hugh broke free, stormed into the bedroom, and slammed the door. His withdrawal from the fray left Carmine and Tino fuming impotently, Jill and Victor screaming at the top of their lungs, Rosanna covering her little brother’s ears as she clutched him to her side, and a sobbing Betsy clinging to her mother’s skirt.