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Chapter One

My wedding, which was ten years ago, is still the number one topic of conversation in the old neighborhood – a moderately-sized enclave of Italian, Irish and, oddly, Swedish families who’d inexplicably settled in the southwesternish corner of PA, establishing a bedroom community for schmucks who commuted to Pittsburgh for work. A few weirdos commuted to Cleveland, and they were the number two most talked about denizens in the neighborhood. That’s what we call the town, even though it’s properly named St. Rita. St. Rita is the patroness of impossible cases, so it’s a rather appropriate name for the old neighborhood and my hometown.

But I digress.

The Patrick O’Sullivan-Alcie Giordano wedding has attained the status of urban legend, and caused quite a rift between the Irish and the Italians, since everyone felt the need to take sides as I, in my ripped, torn, besmudged wedding gown, strode from my reception, head held high after I’d beaten the ever-lovin’ shit out of the slut Nicole Lynch. Oh, and I’d done quite a number on my groom, too. Why? Because, I’d taken a powder to the ladies room and found them fucking like freakin’ porn stars. On my wedding day. During my reception. Minutes before Patrick and I were supposed to have our first dance. And I’d had to fight my way through a line of Patrick’s loyal friends, all groomsmen in our wedding. I’d left many bruised shins in my wake.

Instead of the traditional ‘leaving on the honeymoon’ walk, I perp-walked out of my reception, manacled and led by two grim off-duty police officers. Okay, only one of the officers was grim – Luca Romano. The other cop was my cousin, Vinny Giordano, and he was trying very hard not to strut. I’d made the family proud, you see, with my mad street-fighting skills. Behind me, a melee broke out as the accusations began to fly between the two sides. And dammit, I missed my mother punching Patrick’s snooty mother in the nose. At least I got to see the pictures, as the photographer I’d hired to commit my special day on film for the sake of posterity had done his job well. So well, in fact, my parents had ordered an eleven by fourteen print of my perp walk, had it framed nicely, and hung it in the place of honor in the front hall. It was the first thing anyone saw when they entered my parents’ house. Dad kept a picture of Ma socking snooty Mrs. O’Sullivan in the nose on the table at his bedside. Every one of us, except Ma, was amused by this, but what could she say, having hung the picture of her bride daughter being led away in handcuffs in the front hall herself?

I guess I lucked out when Patrick and the slut Nicole Lynch declined to press charges against me for assault. The D.A. was disinclined to indict me as he had to live in the neighborhood and had just repainted his house after the last egging. I was clearly the wronged party. Clearly. I’m not saying the D.A. was scared or that anyone would stoop to threatening him, but yanno…Italian. We don’t get mad. We get even. His wife was getting tired of continually repainting their house, too. At least, that’s what I’d heard.

And get even I did. With Patrick, not the district attorney.

Patrick begged me to annul our marriage.

I laughed in his face and filed for divorce instead, and walked away with a nice settlement that set me up very well to leave town. Oh sure, I came home for the inevitable weddings, christenings and funerals, but I didn’t stay long. The scene of the crime, doncha know.

At last, I had to come home to stay. Familial duty and all that. My sister was losing her battle with cancer. As the family medical professional, it fell on me to finally get the hell over it and come the fuck home, as my older brother, Rocco, so elegantly phrased it. The love was underwhelming, but given our sister, Gabby, was dying and her children would be orphans, I gave him a pass.

Gabby’s husband, Morty Travino, had been killed in Afghanistan shortly after her diagnosis with her first round with breast cancer, four years ago. This second bout started in her uterus. She had two children who were six and seven – Elisa and Enzo. Yes. The Italian in our family is strong. We can’t help ourselves. It’s genetic.

The entire neighborhood turned out for my sister’s funeral. After all, despite the still-simmering feud, she was the widow of a fallen soldier. She deserved the respect. My parents deserved the respect and support because everyone understood how wrong it was that they were burying a child – their youngest.

Hate changes a person, as do sadness and grief. I was in no way the same mid-twenty something gal who’d fled town after suffering a very public humiliation ten years ago. Nor was I the same woman who’d let that hate fester all those years. The hate made me hard. The sadness and grief took the edge off that. Had to, since my sister in her infinite wisdom had named me guardian of her children. They were the heartbroken innocents in all this.

My sister lived in a century old row house – in the fancy city where I’d lived, we called ‘em townhouses, depending where in the city you were. I moved in with my niece and nephew. Gabby’d left me the house as well, and other than the walls would have to be repainted soon because I refused to live in a pink house, it was pretty okay. It was an end unit, so we were only attached on the right side, and we had a bigger yard. Score. And a nice window seat in the long, narrow family room.

The first day of school dawned bright and early with my mother letting herself in to make breakfast for the kids. Never mind I’d been taking care of these kids for several months now, I clearly didn’t have a clue about the first day of school. Ma fussed at me a lot about things such as these.

I swayed on my feet, standing there in the kitchen wearing my ratty purple terry-cloth robe I’d had since my teens. The mug of coffee I held between my hands warmed my cold skin while the aroma of the coffee itself tickled my nose and poked me into a state of semi-consciousness.

“Ma, I’m perfectly capable of making breakfast,” I said. Overhead, the sound of kids moving about made the ceiling creak.

If Hollywood came to town to cast the perfect Italian mother, they’d cast her, Cecilia Giordano. From her perfectly coiffed black and silver hair, to her impressive bosoms, to the soles of her pedicured feet, she was the very model of Italian motherhood. She even smelled like marinara sauce – the homemade kind that you simmer on the back of the stove all day long.

“The kids need good, hot food they can eat,” Ma replied. Pancakes towered on a platter, bacon sizzled in the pan, and she insanely scrambled eggs as I stood there, busy being the anti-Cecilia Giordano. “You should go comb your hair. And get dressed. You’ll want to walk them to school, right? You have plenty of time to take a shower. Do your hair. Put on some make-up. Too bad you don’t have any time to do your nails. Honestly, Alcie, you should take better care of your hands. Simone could do you a nice manicure, yanno.”

“I can’t have long nails, Ma, and there’s no point in painting them, since I wash my hands a million times a day at work.”

“Nonny’s here, Enz,” Elisa hollered upon skidding to a halt by the round kitchen table.

“I got it all under control here,” Ma told me. She shooed me off with a red-taloned wave. I sighed and gave into the inevitable. No way did I have time for a shower, but I did comb my longish dark hair into some semblance of order, washed the shine off my face and applied some powder to keep new shine from forming. I even brushed my teeth and put on lip gloss. That would keep Ma happy and off my case. At least until she got an eyeful of what I put on over skimpy pajamas – a pair of sweats I’d cut off at the knee, none-too-evenly, and an oversized Pittsburgh Steelers t-shirt. We were required by state law to be Steelers fans as far as I knew, and I did my darndest to support the home team. Okay, I wouldn’t go as far as to actually watch a football game, but I figured wearing a team shirt counted. Right? I stuck my feet into the first pair of matching shoes I found – a brown pair of chunky sandals.

“Is that what you’re wearing?” Ma gave me the Italian Momma’s Evil Eye of Doom.

I looked down at myself. “Yep. Appears so.”

She crossed herself, muttering imprecations in Italian. Okay, I hafta say here, I don’t think Ma actually speaks Italian. I think she just makes up words that sound like Italian and spits them out in a steady stream. I say this because every now and again, she says a word that sounds Chinese. Or Japanese. One time, I was certain she spewed Klingon.

“Those…those…I don’t know what to even call those former sweatpants. And your toes. For the love of God, Alcie Maria Giordano, get a pedicure. We won’t even discuss your hair and eyebrows.”

“Good. Did the kids eat?”

“They’re brushing their teeth. You got a camera? Gabby stood them in the front garden for first day of school pictures.”

I couldn’t diss that tradition. I mean, I’d hated being lined up on the driveway with Rocco and Gabby for the obligatory first day of school pictures when I was a kid, but this was different. This meant something more than a keepsake to look back upon in twenty years for the sole purpose of mocking the clothes and hairstyles of a bygone era. Taking the kids’ picture meant normal. Life wouldn’t ever be normal-normal again, as it had been, but dammit, we’d give it the good ol’ college try and fake it until we made it feel normalish again.

“The camera’s on the table in the entry. Ready to go. I charged it overnight.”

At last, Ma rewarded me with a rare smile of approval. She hadn’t smiled much lately, not since Gabby’d died. She’d turned into Granny Giordano, Dad’s mother – hyper-critical of everything, never finding anything to be happy about. She exhausted me. We accomplished pictures, then Ma kissed each kid goodbye, telling them, “Poppa’s up, probably wondering where I am and how long I’m going to force him to starve until I get home to feed him. Have a good day at school. Mind your manners and listen to your teachers.”

I resisted the urge to ask why she wasn’t walking with us to the school, just to make sure I did it right. It would be a petty thing to say, unworthy of me and would give her more powder for the keg she continually sat upon. I could cut her a break, because as much as my heart ached for my much-missed sister, I was certain her mother’s heart hurt a gazillion times worse.

The school was two blocks away. The kids and I merged with the crowd of kids and parents hoofing it thataway.

“Glad we’re close enough to walk. Look at the traffic.”

I did look at the traffic after that comment by some anonymous mom somewhere in the crowd around me. Eight cars backed up at the four-way stop at the first corner, with another five across each way. Yeah. Real bad traffic jam there. The kids ran ahead to catch up with their friends while I walked sedately with the other abandoned parents, coffee mug in hand.

“Alcie Giordano? That you?”

A woman sidled up to me, shorter and plumper than me, but I knew her in an instant. “Lynda Martinelli. How’re you?”

“I thought I recognized you. I’m good. The twins start first grade today, along with Elisa.”

Yeah, it was a banner year for Elisa, starting first grade like a big girl. Enzo was starting second. I found Elisa a ways ahead of me, surrounded by a group of little girls, two I swore had to be Lynda’s twins.

“First grade. Wow. I remember first grade. I sure hope Mrs. Needham has retired. She was wicked,” I said.

“I’m so glad I ran into you. I wanted to get in touch with you, yanno, but with everything – your family stuff, us being gone the entire freakin’ summer. I tell ya. Well. Sara and Selina are bff’s with Elisa. You knew that, right? And there’s a new girl who moved onto the block over the summer, Gaia Malone is her name. She’s a foster child. Some parents have issues with her playing with their kids. Not me. She’s sweet as can be. Anyhoozle, I know you work. You got your hands full being tossed into the deep end of the parenthood pool. I’m a stay-at-home-mom at the moment. Elisa and Enzo are always welcome at my house any time. And if you got any questions about their social circles, gimme a holler. Your mother likes to think she’s in the loop, but not so much when it comes to this, yanno? Boy, was she ever a pain in the ass before you got here to take over things. Sorry, that was rude, but man. Anyways, I got all the pertinent poop on the goings on at the school, too. Just gimme a buzz, ‘kay?”

I was about to thank Lynda for her generosity when she howled her twins’ names loud enough to wake the dead in the cemetery over by the high school, half a mile away, and bolted. If I believed in zombies, I’d’ve been worried she’d awakened them and that they were on their way to eat our brains. Seemed to me that a school would be a good place to start looking for those nummy, nummy brains.

The kids hung back with me as we approached the school. Elisa grabbed my free hand. “You gonna pick us up after school?”

“Sure thing,” I replied. “I’ll be right there, under that tree.” I gestured towards the tree in question with my coffee cup.

That little issue cleared up, both kids gave me a quick hug and dashed away, racing onto the playground, voices shrill as they hollered at their friends. I watched for a few minutes, as did many other parents, before I turned to make the trek home.

My arm came into contact with a hard, immobile object as I turned. The dregs of my coffee spilled back onto me as I followed my arm with my nose into what turned out to be a very nice male chest. Hard hands grabbed me by my shoulders, steadying me.

“Excuse me,” I mumbled, mortified. When I finally managed to work up the nerve to look up to see who I’d run into, my heart hit my feet and bounced a little.

Luca Romano.

And he looked every bit as grim now as he had when he’d perp-walked me out of my reception ten years ago.

(C) 2014 by Laura Hamby

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