The Gilded Hour Page 124

She tapped the newspaper advertisement. “You know where to start.”

“I was thinking the same thing, but it helped to talk it through with you. I’ll send word if I make any progress. Now I have to go meet some fifty Mezzanottes, so please wish me luck.”

“Luck is greatly overrated,” said Amelie. “Your native good sense will serve you far better.”

•   •   •

THE ANNUAL ITALIAN Benevolent Society picnic and band concert was a popular event, one that might even overflow the boundaries of Washington Square Park. Since early in the morning groups had been coming in on foot carrying baskets or pushing wheeled carts, by omnibus or streetcar, others driving their own rigs. There were families from as far away as Long Island and Jersey City, street urchins watching for unattended purses and free meals, and police and roundsmen who strolled at a leisurely pace, stopping to watch a game of horseshoes.

Elise sat with Chiara and Bambina on a bench on the corner opposite New York University, where the Mezzanotte family was busy getting ready. A familiar freight wagon stood at the curb, with Mezzanotte Brothers, Greenwood, N.J. painted on its side. Elise had first seen it waiting to cross an intersection not a block from where she sat now. Then it had been filled with flowers, but this time it carried benches and planks and barrels, boxes of linen and dishware, and baskets of food. The unloading was happening under the sharp eye of one of the Mezzanotte aunts, all in black, bent low by age. She ordered young men around with all the authority and finesse of Sister Xavier.

The three of them had been spared physical labor, assigned instead to supervision of the run-arounds, all the Mezzanotte children or the children of Mezzanotte cousins old enough to walk, but less than four. They tumbled and rolled around on the grass, and occasionally made a break for freedom, often for no other reason than the joy of being chased by Chiara or Elise. Bambina stayed where she was, knitting lace from fine white thread as quickly and evenly as a machine. Knitting didn’t slow down her conversation, though. Together with Bambina they were giving Elise an education on all things Italian.

Bambina pointed out families: the barber Amadio, a widower with four married daughters who lived in the same building and competed for his favor by feeding him multiple times every day; Maria Bella, who was already twice a widow at age thirty; Signore Coniglio, who taught at the Italian school and talked all the time about becoming a priest, though he was more than forty; Joe Moretto, who had lost both legs fighting under Grant, but had managed to produce seven sons anyway. Elise paid attention but knew that most of the names and faces would blend together by the end of the day.

Just a little farther away, under trees in a pool of shade, the older ladies sat together gossiping and tending to the very youngest. Mrs. Quinlan and Margaret were there too, because the detective sergeant had made sure to find places for them next to his aunt Philomena. There seemed to be a law that dictated black clothing for Italian women over a certain age, but Mrs. Quinlan wore a simple day dress of sprigged cotton, white flowers against a turquoise background, and looked like an exotic bird among the crows.

The older men were playing a gentle game that reminded Elise of horseshoes, but with a ball. It looked interesting, but Italians were like everybody else, with strict ideas of where women belonged, and where they didn’t. Her place was here looking after the little ones.

Beyond the very old and the very young, everyone had something to do. Every once in a while Elise got a glimpse of Rosa and Lia in the middle of a small group of girls who had been given rags and piles of dishes to wipe. They were completely absorbed in this work, chattering with the other kids as if they had all grown up together. Children survived, if they had half a chance. Children who could form attachments survived best.

“Look,” said Chiara. “Cesare is going to fall off the ladder and break his head.”

The band pavilion was crowded with people arranging chairs and music stands. Younger men stood on ladders, hanging red, white, and green bunting on a frame. One of them was reaching so far that it did seem as if the ladder would tip.

“Sicilian,” Bambina said, frowning at her knitting. “Made of rubber. They bounce.”

Her tone was not complimentary. Elise considered for a moment and then asked, “You don’t like Sicilians?”

A pained expression crossed Bambina’s face. “I’ve got nothing against them, as long as they stay away from me.”

Elise decided that it would be better to ask Jack about this. Bambina seemed to want to change the subject, too, because she decided that Elise needed to be able to identify all the band instruments being taken out of cases. She pointed out a sousaphone, trumpets, bassoons, clarinets, and three kinds of drums, every bit of brass and copper polished so that it reflected in the sun.

At home in Vermont Elise had known only fiddles and pennywhistles and Mr. Esquibel’s fipple flute, brought out at parties. Once she entered the convent she had heard no musical instruments beyond the organ. She knew that there were other kinds of instruments but had never given them much thought. Certainly she hadn’t imagined anything like this, especially when the band began to tune their instruments. All the sounds wound together like a badly pieced quilt, wavering up and down and finally settling.

The bandleader was standing off to the side, all his attention taken up by an elegantly dressed older man. This, Chiara said in an almost reverent tone, was Mr. Moro, head of the Benevolent Society.

Then Anna appeared out of nowhere, sliding in neatly between Bambina and Chiara. She had changed out of the very plain suit she wore when she left for the hospital to a summery gown. There was a layer of pale sea green, another with a faint narrow stripe in the same color, and an overdress printed with twining vines and budding flowers. The bodice of the overdress was constructed of panels that flowed into a split skirt. The back was just as striking, pleats falling from a graceful curved yoke at the shoulders. The whole effect was simple and somehow misleading. You might not notice how pretty it was unless you took the time to look closely, and no doubt some wouldn’t bother because it was completely out of fashion.

Most of the Mezzanotte women were dressed like country women everywhere, in comfortable sleeveless bodices worn over linen blouses, wide skirts and aprons. Only Bambina wore something that might have come out of an illustrated magazine, not flamboyant but very stylish, her skirts bunched at the sides to reveal a ruffled underskirt.

Elise couldn’t stop herself from asking. “Dr. Savard—Anna. Is that the dress you wore when you got married?”

Chiara’s whole posture changed, like a hunting dog coming across a promising scent. She was always wanting to know more about the quiet little wedding ceremony on Staten Island. Somehow she didn’t believe it could have been as simple as both Anna and Jack claimed. Bambina was just as curious, Chiara knew that for a fact, but she wore a more studiously disinterested expression.

“No,” Anna said. “Remind me later and I’ll show you what dress I was wearing. It was nothing out of the ordinary, Chiara. We didn’t set out that day with plans to marry.”

Chiara’s expression was resigned, but then she asked a question Elise would never have known how to put into an acceptable form.

“Why do you dress like you do? Don’t you care about fashion?”

Anna didn’t take offense easily, it seemed. She said, “Mostly it has to do with my work. Tight bodices and narrow skirts are the last thing you want in an operating room. You have to be able to move freely. When I’m not working I can’t see the logic in being uncomfortable, either.”

Bambina said, “Anna belongs to the Rational Dress Society. The one that is so radical about what women wear. They’d have us all in trousers if they ruled the world.”

“And we’d be more comfortable,” Anna said dryly. “But really the Rational Dress Society isn’t so extreme as you think. You should come with me to a meeting, Bambina.”

The look on Bambina’s face was almost comical, but she was spared answering because the detective sergeant was walking toward them.

He had taken off his suit jacket and vest to reveal emerald-green suspenders over a white shirt, his sleeves folded up to reveal muscular forearms. Elise had little experience of men beyond her father and brothers and priests, but she could see why Jack Mezzanotte was considered handsome. It was more than his features; it had to do with the way he moved, the energy and purpose of him. Right now he was coming for Anna, and Elise wondered what that would be like, to have a man look at her with such obvious affection and pleasure.

He stopped right in front of Anna and, bending down, kissed her cheek.

This was nothing out of the ordinary for Italians, as Elise had observed. They hugged and kissed as a matter of course, men just as unself-consciously as women. Men kissed brothers and sons and nephews, clasping hands on both shoulders. Mothers and sisters, aunts and young children were kissed more gently, sometimes with an arm looped around the neck.

And still this kiss was different. Because she was sitting so close, Elise saw exactly how it fell, the touch of his mouth not to cheek or jaw or even to mouth, but high on Anna’s neck, below her ear. It was simple and devastating, a gesture that spoke of possession and passion. She felt her own cheeks flushing with color, as Anna’s did.

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