Issue 7

An Excerpt from All This Talk of Love

 · Fiction

All This Talk Of Love, a novel by Christopher Castellani

Part I ~ Fall 1999

1. La Famiglia Grasso

Frankie Grasso and his mother watch the same soap, but they root for different women. He likes the deranged ones: the pregnancy fakers, the poisoners, the tramps. They are necessary research for his chapter on the legacy of the gothic in the construction of female identity. His mother favors the patient, dutiful wives — they of the shellacked hair and pantsuits and unshakable faith — and looks to them as examples of proper behavior in 1990s America. Frankie shouldn’t be surprised. His mother’s life has been a jeremiad in two languages and two countries, and her seventy-two years have taught her to distrust romantic passion. Precious minutes on the phone with Frankie she spends wishing doom on the amoral women of daytime, shocked that some network executive has allowed them to stray so far from decency in the middle of the afternoon. “In life,” she says tonight, after Frankie praises the pregnancy faker for her resourcefulness in finding her long-lost identical twin sister and persuading her to carry the baby she can’t admit she lost, “you have the truth or you have nothing,” and what he wants to tell her is, by that formulation, not a single member of the Grasso family, not to mention anyone he knows, has a blessed thing.

Instead he says, “I’m exhausted. I’ve been working all night on this chapter. My phone bill’s ten pages long. Wait until she has that baby, then we’ll see.”

“I call you back right now,” she says. “I have the money. Daddy put me on a plan: ten cents a minute. If you can call your cousin in Avezzano twice a week, I tell him, I can call Boston for a few dimes.”

“I need sleep,” Frankie says. Then: “All right, call me back.” He hangs up and takes a sip of whiskey. The light comes on in the window of his neighbor’s house, an identical triple-decker but better maintained. Recently, in his German immersion course, Frankie invented the adjective zusammengedrängt, or “thrown together crowdedly,” to describe his neighborhood. He loves his word, which looks and sounds like the claustrophobia it conveys, and connotes the grime and desperation of those thickly settled towns that surround a city. His street is populated mostly by low(er)-class Italian and Irish families jealous of their countrymen in the North End or Charlestown, who step from their front doors onto charming streets lit with gas lamps and lined with exposed-brick restaurants.

“This is your home now,” his mother said the one time she visited. She stood on his crumbling front stoop with her arms outstretched, facing the vista of chain-link fences and vinyl siding. “It’s ugly, but it’s yours. You’ll never want to leave.”

“It’s only a six-hour drive,” he said. “I’ll be back all the time.” Instead they settle for Frankie’s nightly phone call at 11:01 no matter where he is in the world, one of their many promises to each other.

Frankie’s friends call their parents once a month and fly home twice a year, less often if they can swing it. Like him, they toil in obscurity in the service of literary scholarship. They have advanced degrees and drug habits and a love affair with irony. Unlike him, the toil (or is it the obscurity?) has soured them on distractions like family and authentic human connection. “You really talk to your mother every single night?” they ask him. “How? Why?

“Because she’s alive,” he says.

“But what do you talk about? I haven’t spoken an honest word to my mother since kindergarten.”

“Who said anything about honesty?”

He lets the phone ring five or six times, imagining his mother on the other end staring into the receiver. When he finally picks up, she says, “What’s wrong with you?” and though he thinks of three things off the bat, he treats the question as rhetorical and lets her talk.

Maddalena Grasso switches the phone to her left ear and again takes up her husband’s pants, which she has been hemming off and on for hours. She’s been on the phone since eight o’clock: first with her daughter, then her friend Arlene from the dance studio, then Sister Mary asking another favor for the church, then a wrong number with a friendly voice, and now, finally, always finally, her Frankie.

“Your sister was here this afternoon,” she says. “You should have seen: she had my old sweat suit on, the pink one with the rhinestones on the cuffs your zia Ida gave me thirty years ago. She’s like a hurricane, your sister, never any time to sit and have a conversation. She ate a bowl of soup and some pasta leftover standing in front of the sink the whole time like a peasant. I said, ‘Sit down one second! It’s not good always to rush,’ but she has no time. She’s going to call you this week, she said. She’s going to tell you she and Tom got that plot, the one with the water. They had the meeting with the builder, and they got it.”

“The lot, you mean,” says Frankie. “Not the plot.”

“Lot, plot, whatever. And you know the land next to it, you saw it last time, it doesn’t have any water, but it has those tall trees like you like. It’s an acre, almost, for sale. And I was thinking, Daddy, too, how beautiful it would be for you to live next door to your sister. And you won’t have to throw away your money on rent anymore.”

“Who’s got that kind of cash?” Frankie says, though if he doesn’t shut her down now, she will offer at least a down payment, a cut of the money she and his father have been saving in his name since the night of his conception — a night she’s told him about in more detail than was necessary. For a moment, Frankie allows himself to imagine the unimaginable: he and his girlfriend, Professor Birch, clearing the brush from their little strip of yard, she in her tank top and hairy armpits and army-issue boots, waving to his sister and brother-in-law from across a koi pond. Professor Birch is not the type for big Sunday dinners cooked and served and cleared by women, for shared acreage, for lawn care. She is the type who phones her husband while Frankie’s inside her to remind him to mail the insurance bill, who makes Frankie call her Professor even when she’s naked and sullied and rummaging under his bed for her socks. She is exactly the type of woman his mother was afraid he’d meet in the big city.

With or without Professor Birch, Frankie has no plans to move back to the suburbs of Wilmington, Delaware, a fact he can never admit to his mother. He has been called to a bigger and deeper life, far from the narrow bed in which he was planted. And yet it is a stipulation of his unspoken contract with his parents that he treat this stint as a graduate student in Boston as temporary — a regrettable but necessary period of time away from home that will allow him to return in triumph as a doctor of philosophy in English literature, secure a highly paid professorship at the university, marry a sweet Italian girl, and start a family like his sister did and his older brother would have done, had he lived.

When Frankie is quiet for too long, Maddalena worries: he is jealous of his sister and brother-in-law and all their money, he is falling in love with Boston and will never come home, he is too young and confused to think about plots. Let him be, she thinks, but how impossible that is! So she tells him her stories over and over again, in different words but with the same lesson at the end of them, stories about how it was for her to be brought to America from her village across the ocean like a piece of furniture, in love with one man but married to another, a stranger, and just a teenager she was, without a word of the language, and none of it by choice, not at all like for Frankie, who left his mother in Wilmington four years ago not for love or money or a better life but for school, as easy as you’d leave a movie if it wasn’t making you  laugh.

“You know Prima saved you a place at the table for the confirmation,” she says. “She has to tell the catering how many people. Every person who doesn’t show up, she still has to pay forty-five dollars.”

“I told her I wasn’t coming.”

“You should come,” she says. “To respect your sister. Not because you want to or don’t want to.”

“To be honest, I’m disappointed Patrick’s getting confirmed at all. I had high hopes for him when he became a Buddhist and gave away his stereo.”

“Don’t even mention that,” his mother says. “He’s normal again now, and I’ve never seen your sister more happy.” She takes a pin from between her lips. “You know, you can bring somebody if you want. I pay for the train for both of you. Prima put you down for two justb in case.”

“I don’t need train money.”

“Forty-five dollars a person,” she repeats. “And that’s without the open bar. Can you imagine? And if you don’t belong to the country club, you can pay a hundred dollars a person and still they don’t let you have the party there.” She lets that sink in for Frankie, though elegant things have never impressed him.

Maddalena held all three of her children’s First Communions at the Al Di Là, the Grasso family restaurant, where there was home cooking and plastic red tablecloths and white crepe paper hanging from the walls. First the party for Prima, the first child, her daughter, the angel; then for Tony, the first son born in the new country; then, seventeen years after him, for Frankie, who saved her. Every night when the phone rings and he’s there to say, “Hey, Ma, what’s up?” he saves her again.

Frankie rubs his eyes. Even if Professor Birch could ditch her husband, he knows exactly what they’d do at this silly fete: chug free cocktails, gorge on the buffet, and spend the rest of the time on the lobby couch sneering at Prima and Tom’s unexamined embrace of Catholicism.

Worse, Prima’s already called to inform him that the confirmation isn’t all the Grassos will be celebrating. She has a big announcement, one of her famous surprises, one she wants Frankie to hear in person because it will affect the entire family. She offered no more details, convinced he’d blab to their mother.

“Turns out I have to present a paper that weekend,” he says to Maddalena. “Not that anyone ever asks me about my schedule. It’s kind of a big deal, actually.”

“They just tell you now?”

“The university’s not very organized. Harvard. What do you expect?”


“Yes, Harvard. Does that make it all right? I can miss the formal induction of my innocent nephew into the racist, sexist, xenophobic institution known as the Roman Catholic Church if I’m speaking at Harvard?”

“Do they pay you?”

“Something like this you don’t do for money,” he says. “You do it for the prestige.”

The truth, of course, is that there is no paper and no invitation from Harvard, which won’t even let Frankie into its fortress of a library, let alone the “Millennium Reproaches: Anxiety and Authorship in the Fin de Siècle” conference. There is certainly no prestige. Despite employing some well-connected and widely published professors (Dr. Birch among them), Frankie’s graduate school is solidly second tier, and Frankie himself is passionately meeting but not far exceeding its modest expectations. Upon earning their PhDs, he and his classmates can expect not tenure-track positions at coastal universities or the Seven Sisters but — if they’re very lucky — Comp and Rhet jobs at mega state schools in Des Moines or Tallahassee or some other regional-airport city, where their bitterness will thrive like kudzu. As far as Frankie knows, he is the only one sleeping with a professor, an advantage he counts as distinct in the job market.

“Your sister will be devastating,” his mother says. “But school is more important.”

“I’m sorry,” Frankie says. “I really am. This semester’s strung me out. I’m not myself. Tell everybody I feel terrible.”

“Do what you have to do,” Maddalena says. “That’s why you up there. Work hard. Stay straight. Drink some whiskey — it helps you sleep.”

“Excellent idea,” he says.

“Good night,” she says. “I love you.”

“Love you too, Ma. Good night.”

“Good night, Frankie,” she says. “I love you, I love you.” It’s important to her to say the words until she’s sure he’s hung up.

“Bye, Ma,” Frankie says. “I love you. Bye.” It’s important to him to say the words until he’s sure she’s hung up.

And once again she has spared him, this time as so many before. How easy life can be, Frankie thinks, when your mother knows so little of the world, and you are not her favorite son.

*  *  *

Prima Grasso Buckley and her mother look like sisters. They have the same hairstyle, the same slightly crooked noses rounded at the tip. They once had the same figure, but Prima’s hips and backside have widened, and her thighs — well, her thighs bulge in the areas where Maddalena’s are slim. She is twenty-seven years younger than her mother, but she’s not embarrassed when someone calls out, “Maddalena!” and rushes toward her at the mall. It’s a compliment to be mistaken for a woman so beautiful. From a distance, at least.

Maddalena, in her ivory slip, holds a crushed-velvet sleeveless dress to her chest. She lifts one of her long dancer’s legs to see how it falls. Prima bought her this dress last year, for her seventy-first birthday. She’s considering it for Patrick’s confirmation party, along with a hat and gloves, but in the end she decides the hat and gloves, and the crushed velvet itself, are old fashioned. She doesn’t want to dress classic, like Sophia Loren, like people expect her to. She wants to dress “in.” That’s her word. So she ends up choosing a knee-length black-and-white number Prima found her at King of Prussia, one that’s sure to knock everybody out.

All Maddalena’s clothes she gets as gifts from Prima. Birthday, Mother’s Day, Christmas, even Easter. Her favorite thing in life, she says, is for Prima to take her to Christiana Mall and for them to window-shop for a while, stop for a bite to eat at the sit-down restaurant, get their nails done if they have a coupon. Maddalena does have a few friends her own age, Italian ladies who came over after the war, but their idea of a good time is to sit at kitchen tables and gossip and show off vegetables from their gardens and tell each other how old they’re getting. They’re round and fat, these Italian ladies; Maddalena calls them le patate, the potatoes. They prefer terry cloth housecoats to sleeveless velvet; they don’t color their hair or pluck their moles or learn to drive. Maddalena has never enjoyed cooking, never planted a garden, and never left the house without makeup. She’s worked in factories and drapery shops. It is one of Prima’s many promises to help her mother stay young, to keep her from what they call la vita patata.

The surprise Prima’s planned for the confirmation party fulfills that promise. Prima is such a junkie for surprises that even this one, which will make her mother furious, gives her a buzz. The juggling of information, the giddy expectation of her sons’ hands thrown in the air, of her father’s happy tears and fierce embrace, thrill her. It’s the stuff of life! It will take willpower to keep the surprise to herself for three more days. When she reveals it, her mother will put up a big fuss before Prima can even get all the details out, but eventually she will come around. Prima has studied her mother’s patterns all her life, talks to her many times a day, knows her better than she knows herself. They are bound both by that sacred covenant between every mother and daughter and by a cord of grief. The grief is like a living thing, silent but always present; they stand guard over it the way they would a child of their own, which, in a way, it is. It comforts Prima that the surprise is something Tony would have loved.

“Frankie should be at the party,” Maddalena says. “You need to call him. He listens to you.”

“Since when?”

“He tells me he had some speech to do at the Harvard, but he made it up. I can tell. Not once he mentioned it this week. He forgets to cover up when he lies.”

Prima has never understood her youngest brother, and not only because he was born so late, when she was already a teenager. He’s had dark curtains over his heart from the beginning and rarely gives anyone a peek behind them, least of all his sister. Unlike her and Tony, who were born two years apart and had dozens of other friends their age around them, Frankie was a loner as a kid, never played sports, never even broke curfew on the weekends. The night of his senior prom, Prima found him sitting at home in bed, still in his school uniform, reading a book of Polish poetry. Prima sat next to him and acted Big Sister as best she could, asked if he wanted to go out for pizza. But Frankie just kept reading. When Prima finally asked if he was OK, he said, “Of course I’m OK. Why wouldn’t I be OK?” and read her a poem out loud from the book.

“Aren’t your exams over by now?” Prima asked, which really meant, What’s a healthy red-blooded Italian American boy doing at home reading Polish poems on prom night? His solitary existence worried her. She was, and still is, looking for any sign of trouble. But again Frankie ignored her, so she stood, kissed him on the forehead, and let him be.

“Keep an eye on Frankie” is what her parents have begged her to do since Tony died, so she does. Patrick’s confirmation is a big deal, not only because the kid finally came to his senses, but because she and Tom are spending a fortune on the party, not to mention the surprise Frankie should be there to hear. If he doesn’t show up, it will be another crack in a family that could fall apart at any moment. You have to tend to family like you tend to a garden. That’s what’s wrong with America, if you ask her, why no one’s as happy as they used to be, like in the fifties.

Prima raised her own boys the old-fashioned way. All four of them kiss their nonna and nonno and say “I love you” every time they leave them, whether their buddies are around or not. It’s a requirement.

She’s dragged them with her and Tom to Mass every Sunday, and to all the sacrament parties and birthdays, and they’ve given up meat on Christmas Eve and on Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent no matter how much they’ve bellyached. Ask her boys about their mother, and they’ll say she’s their best friend, one of their buddies, like they’re on the same team. Zach calls her his “wingman.” She’s gone to all their games — Ryan and Matt’s football, Zach’s soccer and tennis, Patrick’s baseball — and watched how they act with the guys, and the truth is they act no differently than they do with her. It’s almost a shame to say, but they’re closer to her than they are to Tom, and maybe even than they are to each other. She’s picked them up from parties after they’ve passed out drunk. She’s paid more speeding tickets and police fines than she can add up. Where were their buddies then? Where was their father? She’s the one person they can trust without hesitation, she’s told them, so they share everything, sometimes more than she wants to know. Ryan, the oldest — it’s like it’s his life’s mission to shock her with his stories. He doesn’t realize how much it would take to shock her.

The past few years, with Ryan and the twins away at college, Prima has had to work extra hard, spend more money, make more phone calls, to keep everyone together. Just because your kids grow up and don’t live at home anymore doesn’t mean they stop being members of the family. And sometimes, to fall asleep at night, she pretends that this isn’t Patrick’s last year of high school, that he won’t be leaving them next fall. She likes to imagine Patrick at the other end of the kitchen table, his hands folded in front of him, nervous and guilty maybe, telling her and Tom that he’s decided not to go to college right away, that he wants to take a job in Wilmington for a year, live at home, save money. If Prima doesn’t pretend this is at least a possibility, then all she can see is Tom and her alone in their big house — the TV on but no other voices, no boys in the yard hitting chip shots, nobody in the basement sneaking swigs from the bar — and she feels like she’s tied to train tracks and a big one’s coming at her full force.

Patrick’s at her bedroom door, knocking and turning the knob. “What’s this locked for?” he calls out.

Prima and Maddalena slip on their dresses and let him in. He’s still in his school clothes — blue blazer and tie and backpack — with his shirt untucked and his Phillies cap backward.

“Check you two out,” he says. “Very fancy.” He kisses his nonna on the cheek and asks her, “You wanna be my date tonight?”

“If we go dancing, yes,” she says. She takes his hands in hers, pulls him close, then pushes him out to arm’s length, then pulls him back to her again. He picks up the rhythm right away.

“You’ve got a one-track mind,” he says, giving her a twirl. “The dancing track.”

Maddalena smiles. Her life is dancing, yes, she thinks, but more than that, it’s Frankie and Prima and her husband and keeping up her house and some sewing work on the side for extra money. For many years she wanted more, or different, or to go backward — once, long ago, she wanted romance and adventure, like a woman in a movie — but then she lost Tony, her beautiful son, and after that, she stopped wanting anything and needs one pill to sleep and another to wake up, and what may be true, what the years have taught her, is that a son and a daughter and a husband and dancing and a little house and some paying work and to sleep through the night are as much as anyone has a right to ask for in this life. More.

“Handsome boy like you,” she says to Patrick now, and she pats his cheek. She stares at him a moment, her hand still on his cheek, struck by his smooth skin, his big blue eyes, broad shoulders, blond hair. She wants to say more, to tell him he is one of the lucky ones to be good looking and strong and young, but his sudden beauty, and the explosion in her heart, have stopped her mouth. She can’t form words. His name disappears from her lips. She just stares.

“I am a swordsman,” Patrick says. “It cannot be denied.”

“What on earth is that expression?” Prima asks.

“Think about it,” he says.

Prima shakes her head. It sounds dirty. She looks over at Maddalena. “You still with us, Ma?”

“Of course,” says Maddalena. The spell breaks. She takes her hand away. “I was just thinking, Prima, you need to bring your handsome son here to the dance studio. We get lots of young men from the University of Delaware. They take lessons and practice for the competitions. More the young men these days than the old men are coming. When I dance with the college ones, I feel like I’m a teenager again, back in my village before your father took me — ”

“Yeah, too bad all those dudes are gay,” Patrick says, laughing. He walks over to Prima, gives her a peck on the cheek, and rests his elbow on her shoulder. He’s more than a head taller. “Some, yes, it’s true,” Maddalena says. “Not every one of them, though. I can tell. I see everything. The ones that look like you, they not. Just the funny-looking ones. I don’t dance with the funny-looking ones. Or the geezers. You should see how the college boys ask for me. All those pretty young girls around, and they ask me to dance — an old lady!”

“See what I’m saying?” Patrick says. “Gay.”

“Go take a shower,” Prima tells him. “You’ve got BO.” It’s beer on his breath, actually, and she needs him out of the room before her mother notices. “You weren’t running around outside in those pants, were you?”

“I was just over at the Gooch’s,” he says.

“The Gooch,” says Prima. “Don’t you love these kids’ names, Ma?”

After the door’s closed and the music starts up from Patrick’s room, Maddalena says, “He’s so full of life, that one. Two big things you did right in your life: marry Tom and raise those boys.”

They take off their dresses and Prima covers them with plastic. She sits with Maddalena on the deck for a while, watching Tom trim the hedges. She has come through life OK after all. A quiet childhood with a thousand friends and weekends at the shore and the lead in Saint Joan even though she was just a sophomore. Then, the morning of opening night, Tony went missing, and for years after, there was just a kind of blankness she never imagined could be filled. Until Tom. Until her boys. And now she considers herself one of the lucky ones to have seen through the blankness — blessed, in fact, smiled upon by the God she visits each and every Sunday. Her tragedy came early in life, and since then other tragedies have sideswiped her but never crashed full on. A lump in her mother’s breast, suspicious at first, diagnosed as benign. Tom almost getting transferred to Omaha, then finding a new job here that paid twice as much. And just last month, a boy on Patrick’s team — the shortstop, All-American kid, stands next to Patrick in the all-star photo — drops dead swinging at strike three. Prima should thank God a hundred times a day, but she forgets, and then on Sundays she has to ask his forgiveness for forgetting. She wonders whether anyone can be grateful enough to satisfy him and, if they are, whether God rewards or keeps testing you.

These are the questions Prima asks herself that night, and the night after, and the night after that, the one before the confirmation, when she’s awake at 1 a.m. next to her husband, so tired from the day that her eyes burn and the pins and needles pinch her legs, and she gets that train-track feeling again and hears the whistle screaming closer and feels the vibration on the rails beneath her, and sleep — that fickle hero — won’t cut her loose.

*  *  *

Frankie lights the front burner on his kitchen stove. He fills a medium pot with water and watches it come to a boil. He takes a small box from the cupboard, slices it open with a steak knife, and pours pasta shells into the water. Eight minutes later he drains the shells, returns them to the pot, and pours in a half cup of milk, a tablespoon of butter, and a packet of powdered orange cheese. He brings the pot to the couch and turns on the television. The bottom of the pot warms his lap. He’s not tired. It’s past 1 a.m. and he can’t get tired as hard as he tries. He flips through the six channels that come with basic cable and settles on PBS. An old astronomer stands in front of a poster-size photograph and points to a blur surrounded by smaller, brighter blurs. It’s a low-budget documentary on the Hale-Bopp comet, and though it’s yesterday’s news, it captivates him. The comet, the greatest natural spectacle of the nineties, is long gone and won’t be back for two thousand years. The thirty-nine brainwashed believers who followed it into oblivion won’t be back at all. Meanwhile, the earth remains in a perpetual state of loneliness, welcoming but never visited, a host whose friends drive by once in a while but don’t stop in.

What’s at play all those miles beyond him shouldn’t matter. What should count, his friends might say — and doesn’t he agree, officially? — is the here and now. And yet, in the here and now, with the screen flickering and the old astronomer circling the blurs with a red marker, Frankie longs to know, with the certainty of a scientist, a few more whats and whys of the cosmic plot. Like, what did he hope to find in this city, and when will he find it? Like, why did one son embrace oblivion and the other merely run away? Like, why does Frankie feel that the Grassos — his mother and father, Prima, his nephews, himself, and even, strangely, Tony — are at the end of something?

*  *  *

In the ballroom of the Wilmington Country Club, Prima buzzes from table to table. Each round holds eight of her gussied-up friends and family, whom she hugs and waves at in a blur of kisses and smiles. Before each course goes out, she rushes to the kitchen to scrutinize its preparation: first the arugula salad with its crispy Parmesan ring, then her father’s lasagna trucked in from the Al Di Là, then lollipop lamb chops with a mint sauce and sides of asparagus and rosemary potatoes. The chef and servers shoot her dirty looks, but too bad. She is Antonio Grasso’s daughter.

She goes over again and again how she and Tom will bring the confirmation to its dramatic close. She’ll wait until the desserts and coffee are cleared, and then just as her family considers heading for the coatroom, she and Tom will join hands and tell them to hold their horses. We have a second gift to give you today, she will say. By that point, the other guests will have gone; the three-piece orchestra will be packing up; the sunset will be spilling its pink light through the French doors of the terrace; the only missing element will be a film crew, a sound track, a bubbly host/model/reporter shoving a microphone in each of their faces, asking, How do you feel? What does this act of love and generosity mean to the Grasso family?

All that, and Frankie.

Prima can’t help looking for her brother in the crowd, but she sees no shock of dyed jet-black hair, no John Lennon glasses, no silver bracelets. She should know better than to expect Frankie to rise to the occasion. She regrets having bribed him with the promise of the surprise, but at least she didn’t reveal it. Besides, it’s not Prima’s role to begin with — or at least it shouldn’t be — to enforce Frankie’s obligations, to make him a better man. It’s her father’s. It would have been Tony’s. Whatever the case, once you prompt a person like Frankie to do the right thing, it’s impossible to gauge his sincerity; and then you have to put up with his sullen “I’m here, happy now?” whiny self-righteousness. Who needs it? And what would Prima even say to him? Even though you’ve ignored your nephews all your life, I appreciate your presence at Patrick’s official transition into Christian adulthood?

But that would be stooping to his level. Sarcasm. It seeps into you like a stain; it blinds you; it makes you think you’re superior, but Frankie is not superior to anyone, not even to Prima, who might never have gone to graduate school but has just as much of a college degree as he does, and in something practical. She shouldn’t have to defend herself or her choices to anyone, let alone Frankie, and another thing — Zach, her quietest, appears. “Ma,” he says, “dance with me?” He holds his arms out. He wears the suit she bought him on his sixteenth birthday, made of imported English wool hand-cut by their Italian tailor, Ernesto, who looks proudly over from his seat near the grand piano. Like every Ernesto suit before it, this one infuses Zach with strength and pride in the way it hugs his arms and slims his waist and falls sculpturally at his ankles, announcing its quality to even the most casual observer. If you didn’t know Zach, you’d think he was the teen heartthrob from your soap opera or the class president; you’d be surprised to hear he’s just a kid, not a man, barely a young man. He has his nonno’s ambition and long legs and his father’s freckles; from his mother he has practicality and deep brown eyes and a head of unruly curls; with his twin, Matt, he shares not an identical face but a delirious faith that life is a carnival designed to amuse and delight them. Prima shared that same faith once.

Mother and son hold their hands on each other’s waists, sway back and forth to “As Time Goes By.” Four or five couples join them on the large square of hardwood: her mother with Tom; Mark Krouse from the firm with his new wife; and, on the periphery, ancient Aunt Helen with her son, Michael.

“So, Ma,” Zach says, “don’t get mad, but Dad told me the secret.”

She stops moving for a moment, looks at his overeager eyes, then gets back to the sway. “No, he didn’t.”

“He did!”

“OK, then you tell me.”

“You first.”

“Son,” she says, “you really think I’d fall for that old trick?”

“What old trick?”

Soon the song ends, Zach, defeated, kisses her on the cheek and strides off, and dessert arrives: generous sampler plates of pear-and- ginger tarts, apple cobbler, and chocolate-pecan truffles. The expression alone on her guests’ faces when they notice the supplemental buffet with fresh fruit and cake and ice cream swells Prima’s already bursting heart. Across the room, her mother catches her eye, mouths “Beautiful!” and folds her hands as if in prayer, as if the sweet little delights before her are too perfect to touch. Still Prima can’t relax enough to sit with her. She paces in the back of the ballroom near the kitchen, watching and waving and occasionally crossing the dance floor to wish the early departures good night.

“A lovely affair,” they say. And to Tom: “First class, Buckley. First class all the way.”

“Thank you,” they say as she squeezes their hands and kisses the cheeks of the overcologned accountants and their jittery wives. “Thank you so much.”

All her life, Prima has put her faith in the grand gesture. In middle school she organized elaborate study parties with themed food and music and mnemonic games. As a child she reenacted Lucille Ball skits in the basement for her mother and Tony, memorizing the jokes and the pratfalls. On Tom’s twenty-first birthday, after they’d been dating only a month, she filled his dorm room with twenty-one presents of various shapes and sizes.

“Excuse me,” someone says, behind her. “You must be the mother of the bride?”

She turns and — no mistake this time — there’s Frankie. Frankie in a wrinkled shirt, no tie, and khakis with frayed cuffs. Frankie after all. Her first instinct is to throw her arms around him, but she stops herself. He’s two hours late. The look in his eyes is smug. She checks her watch. “How’d you get here?” she says. “You couldn’t have called?”

“I drove,” he says. “I got up at the crack of dawn and sat in traffic all day. That’s why I’m late. But maybe I shouldn’t have bothered.”

Prima has steeled herself to fight her mother today, not Frankie. So she says, “You know what? You’re right,” and apologizes, thanks him for making the effort to drive all the way down, and offers him gas money, which he refuses. Finally she throws her arms around him like she wanted to when she saw him. He is her only brother. She’s happy he’s here, even two hours late, even smug.

“Did I miss the big announcement?”

“You’re in luck,” she says.

She takes him by the hand and leads him toward the head table. When they reach the dance floor, their mother spots him. It occurs to Prima at this moment — as Maddalena jumps out of her chair and runs to greet her son — that all Frankie needs to do to fill his mother’s heart is walk into a room. There are tears in Maddalena’s eyes like he’s a soldier stepping off a warship. She’s seen him as recently as the Fourth of July, when he came down to Prima’s beach house for a few days, but it might as well have been a decade. When you have lost one of your own children, every day apart from the ones who survived seems endless. Prima lets go of her brother’s hand, steps to the side as their mother embraces him, and searches the room for other early departures to bid good night.

Before long, the guests have all gone, taking with them the heavy glass vases of orange dahlias, the cake in wax-paper bags. Prima and Tom stand at the head table, her arm around his waist, her head on his shoulder. Their family sits before them: her mother and father, three of their boys, Frankie eating a warmed-up plate of lasagna. Behind them, the violinist snaps his case shut and shakes hands with the cellist. It is six o’clock, nearly dark, and through the windows they can see the last of the golfers carrying their gear to the parking lot.

“Oh well,” says her mother, rubbing her arms and standing. “They’re going to kick us out, I guess.”

“Hold on one second, Mamma,” says Tom.

Antonio puts his hand on his wife’s leg. “What’s your rush?” he says.

Ryan, shirt untucked, returns from the men’s room, glances around at his parents and brothers and grandparents and uncle all sitting quietly. “What’d I miss?” he asks.

“Your mother has something to say,” Tom tells him.

“Oh, right!” says Ryan. “The big finale.”

The folded papers in Prima’s hands suddenly take on a weight. For weeks she’s been eager to hand them to the seven people gathered around the table, but now, inexplicably, she wants to keep them to herself a bit longer.

“Can I guess?” asks Matt.


“Really? OK, hold on. Let me think.”

“You’re buying a boat,” says Maddalena. She’s sitting up straight in her chair, ready to be proud of what her daughter can afford.

“Nope,” Tom says. “But that’s not a bad idea.”

“You bought both those plots in Greenville,” Maddalena guesses again. “So me and your father can live with you.”

“Colder,” says Tom. “We’re selling that lot for a nice little profit, by the way. We’ll need it.”

“This news involves us all,” Prima says. “Not just me and Tom.”

Maddalena narrows her eyes. “Why does that make me nervous?” she says. “Don’t tell me you’re moving somewhere far. You can’t go chasing your kids — ”

“No, of course not,” says Prima. “But actually, yes, temporarily we’re all moving. Far, far away.” She takes a deep breath, locks eyes with her mother. “We’re going back to the Old Country, all of us. To the Grassos’ ancestral village, Santa Cecilia, where it all began. For two weeks.”

“Awesome!” says Matt.

“Talk serious,” Maddalena says, crossing her arms.

“I’m very serious,” Prima says. “It’s not difficult. I buy the tickets. I call a few relatives. We get on a plane.”

“I’m there,” says Ryan.

“Oh yes, it’s very easy,” Maddalena says. Everyone’s looking at her. She shakes her head, folds her arms more tightly across her chest, the way Patrick used to do when he wouldn’t eat his peas. “You knew about this, Frankie?”

Frankie shakes his head.

“I didn’t think so.”

“It’s like a resort now,” says Tom, gently. “There are five or six hotels, right smack in the village of Santa Cecilia. And even if there weren’t, there’s so much to see in Italy. Prima’s mapped out a bunch of day trips. We want the family to learn its history.”

“I know my history,” Maddalena says. “So does he.” She ticks her head toward Antonio. “I don’t tell you enough times I’ll never go back there? You call it a gift to force me?”

“You weren’t kidding,” Tom says to Prima under his breath.

“I knew you wouldn’t be thrilled,” Prima says to her mother. “But this isn’t only about you. There are other people at the table here today. Do you ever think about what Dad wants? How about your grandsons? Us? Do you know how embarrassed I get every time I tell somebody I’ve never been to my homeland?”

“Embarrassed?” says Frankie, again with the smug face.

“She’s got such a sad life, doesn’t she, Frankie?” Maddalena says. “She wants to go to Italy so bad, why doesn’t she go herself ?”

“I’m still here, Ma,” Prima says.

“Nobody’s stopping you, Prima. You’ve got money. I tell your father all the time, ‘Let your daughter take you back. Don’t drag me into it.’ ”

“You haven’t heard her say that, Prima?” mutters Frankie. “Did you two just meet?”

Prima shakes her head at her brother. “I’ve heard it,” she says. “I live here. I know her better than anybody. Without her in Italy, though, it won’t be the same. And what, she’s supposed to stay here by herself when we all go?”

“I don’t have to go,” Frankie says.

“I’ll say one thing,” Antonio says. He leans back in his chair, presses his fingertips to the edge of the table. “This is the best idea I’ve ever heard.”

“Finally!” Tom says. “Somebody likes it.”

We like it!” Ryan adds.

“There’s only one mistake you made,” Antonio continues. “No way in the world you’re spending all that money on us. I’m paying the tickets for everybody.”

“Save your breath, Dad,” says Prima. “Because — and hear me on this — it’s already done.” She waves the folded envelopes at them. “Right here, eight prepaid travel vouchers. Nonrefundable. Departure date: August tenth, 2000. Return date: August twenty-fifth.”

“No shit!” says Patrick.

“I told you I was serious.”

“But Frankie has school,” Antonio says.

“In August?” Prima answers. “Even Frankie doesn’t go to school in August. The details we can work out as we go forward, but for now we’re all going to clear our schedules for August tenth. That’s ten months away, plenty of time to plan, cover the restaurant, knock some sense into you, Mom, whatever we need to do.”

“All that money wasted,” says Maddalena. She takes her fork and pushes a bite of cake around her plate. “It’s a shame. I’m staying here. Call the airplane company and tell them I died.”

“Jesus Christ,” Prima says.

“This is supposed to be exciting,” says Tom. “Prima and I have been wanting to make this happen for years, not just for us, for everybody. Since the day we met we’ve been talking about a Grasso-Buckley family trip to Italy. Doesn’t it sound like a movie?”

“Good news is long overdue in this family,” says Prima. “That’s all we’re trying to do: give the Grassos a happy memory.”

Maddalena stops listening to this nonsense. Why bother? They speak for her. Always people speak for her, tell her what she really means, how to pronounce the words so they sound not only like correct English but less angry, less sad. First her mother and father spoke for her; then, when she was just a teenager — barely nineteen! — Antonio Grasso came along in his suit and his zio’s car and did the talking. She has never been back to Santa Cecilia, not even for a visit, not once in the fifty years since Antonio married her and brought her to America, and she’s not about to start now. Unlike him, she still has her people in that village. She remembers them how they were when she left them in 1946. Now most of them are bones in the ground behind the church. Mamma and Babbo, her sisters and brothers, Teresa, Celestina, Maurizio, Giacomo. Too much family to lose in one lifetime. It’s not enough to bury your own son; now they want her to go back for the bones of the others, too? She has only one brother left, Claudio, and one sister, Carolina, but she hasn’t spoken to them in twenty years. She won’t see them old and sick, not after working so hard, every day, to keep them young and beautiful and full of life in her mind. No. She won’t let that happen.

She could be loud about it now, but she won’t, not here, not on her grandson’s special day. Not with Frankie beside her. If she makes a fuss, she’ll scare him off. So she pushes the slice of cake around her plate until it hardens to a paste. Her eyes wander the room. She notices the spill stains on the carpets by the bathroom, the chips in the saucers, the dust on the drapes. In the corners of Prima’s eyes — look how she’s talking now, on and on, her and her surprises — are a web of wrinkles, and not just when she smiles. Liver spots cover her once-perfect wrists. No, that’s Maddalena’s own face in the mirrored wall; that’s her spotted, wrinkled old-lady skin. Santa Cecilia was the one place on earth where she was young. She was a beauty and a talker there, an expert at voices, an actress in the making. What belongs to her and her alone is that village during those nineteen years, her memories of it, of who she might have been, the view from the terrace above her father’s store, the stairs to her bedroom made of marble, the tops of the trees scraping the sky. Go back now, see it all changed, and that, too, will be taken away.

*  *  *

“Don’t worry about my mother,” Prima says to Tom on the way home. Patrick’s in the back seat with his headphones on, staring out the window. The other boys are safely on trains back to Syracuse and to Penn State. “She’ll come around. Who can’t come around to a trip to Italy?”

“Her,” Tom says. “Maybe it’s wrong to push her. You saw her face — she went white. And she was mad. Like, rage. I’ve never seen her that way. You told me this trip would be a tough sell, but I wasn’t expecting such an extreme reaction. You think she’s hiding something about that village?”

“She’s got nothing to hide, trust me. She’s an open book. She needs that push. She doesn’t know what’s good for her. And she’s so dramatic. Ryan got that gene, didn’t he? Somehow it skipped me.” She smiles and pinches him.

More than that, though, she explains to Tom, it’s unhealthy for her mother to pretend Santa Cecilia stopped existing the day she left it, to treat her childhood in the village the way she and Prima have both treated losing Tony. It’s time for that to change. She read in a magazine that decades of denial build up in a person, that closing yourself off, never giving yourself a release, pretending things are one way when they’re another, is unhealthy, can even lead to cancer or Alzheimer’s or high blood pressure. It makes sense. You hold something in long enough and it turns to poison.

“It was Tony’s forty-third birthday last week,” she says to Tom now. She’s testing how it feels to say his name out loud, to make him a part of the day. It’s never too late, the magazine said, to chip away at the buildup of denial, but mentioning his birthday to Tom so casually, the way she’d mention the birthday of someone in his firm, feels like a betrayal of the unspoken pact she’s had with her mother.

Even so, she continues. “I went to my mother’s house on the actual day,” she says. “I didn’t tell her why. I just stopped in. We sat at the kitchen table drinking coffee and talking about the party, and I said, ‘Let’s walk down to St. Mary’s and light a candle,’ but she pretended not to hear me. She got up and emptied the espresso maker.”

“Like I said, maybe it’s wrong to push her.”

“If you don’t push people, Tom, they don’t change. What if I didn’t push this one?” She ticks her head back toward Patrick, then leans in to whisper. “He’d be bald right now, begging for change at the train station.”

Tom laughs. “That’s a Hare Krishna, not a Buddhist.”

“Still,” says Prima. “If it weren’t for me and Father Larson sitting him down, explaining his roots, you think he’d be confirmed today?” And here’s another reason for the Grasso trip to Italy: to show her sons the beauty they came from, walk them through St. Peter’s Square, fill them with a history that will ground them for life. Though Prima’s never been to the Old Country, she’s seen enough movies and read enough articles to know that it can transform and unite them, keep them from wandering too far from each other. It’s a school night, but Patrick’s had a big day, so they let him stay up and watch TV in his room and go through his gifts. He’s zonked, though, and Prima’s not surprised when, on the way to the laundry room, she finds him asleep on his bed fully clothed, cards and unwrapped boxes around him. She stands in the doorway a moment, watching his easy breathing, his hand still clutching the remote. He is her most precious, fragile, extraordinary gift, made only more precious, more fragile, by the simultaneous existence of his extraordinary brothers. It seems that every time she looks at one of her boys, it’s to fix him there before her, to stop time and fate and circumstance from stealing him away. Her mother must have looked at Tony this way, too, while he practiced the piano he’d begged for, while he cruised through his homework at the kitchen table in half the time it took Prima to finish hers, but it didn’t work. Prima doesn’t need a magazine to explain the guilt Maddalena will always feel for that, because it’s a guilt that Prima shares.

Selection from All This Talk of Love by Christopher Castellani, © 2013 by Christopher Castellani. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved.

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