The Gilded Hour Page 125

“Savard,” Jack said with a smile. “Let’s go.” He stood back, pulling her up to walk with him. She went without protest and only the slightest hint of hesitation.

“Elise,” Jack said. “Come and meet my family.”

In her surprise she heard herself stutter. “I’m—I’m needed here.”

“Go ahead,” Chiara said. “We’ll cope just fine.”

•   •   •

BECAUSE THERE WAS no way to remember all the names and faces, Elise simply didn’t try, and really, it didn’t matter; the detective sergeant’s family members were mostly interested in Anna, which was to be expected. What did surprise her was Anna’s easy way of handling it all. She remained calm and friendly, concentrating completely on whoever was in front of her in the moment, answering questions with no trace of the impatience she would show if an orderly moved too slowly or a nurse was less than precise. Another surprise was that all of Jack’s generation spoke English without any trace of accent, and none of them talked Italian among themselves, at least not when Anna and Elise were nearby. Out of courtesy or as a matter of course, that was hard to tell.

The one exception was Carmela, the wife of Jack’s second oldest brother. Her English seemed hard-won, something she used because it was expected of her, a chore to be gotten out of the way.

Carmela had a baby on her hip, a little girl called Lolo who clung like a monkey. She had huge bright eyes and a shock of black hair, and she smiled toothlessly at everyone who stopped to admire her. Lolo first looked at Elise solemnly, her forehead creased. Then she leaned forward and launched herself as though she could fly. Elise caught her neatly, looking to her mother to see if she might be taking offense.

“She’s never seen a redhead, I take it.” And then, touching her own hair. “Sono rossa.”

“Yes,” Carmela smiled. “She will pull your red hairs.”

Elise tilted her head down for the baby’s examination. “What’s a little hair pulling between friends?”

•   •   •

JACK HAD WARNED Anna that the importance of food in Italian culture could not be underestimated, but Anna had managed somehow to do just that. The bowls and platters would have fed everyone in the park, but every now and then another rig would pull up and disgorge relatives who carried steaming pots and covered dishes.

All the adults had gathered around one long table, while children were seated at another, close enough to keep an eye on but not so close that they drowned out adult conversation. A few older nieces were stationed there to make sure high spirits didn’t get in the way of eating. Babies had been put down for naps on blankets, with a couple of dogs on alert nearby.

“Jude’s primarily a sheep farmer,” Jack explained. “His dogs do double duty on days like this, keeping track of the kids and making sure they don’t get too close to the fire pits.”

A lamb and a young pig had been turning on spits since the early morning. The aroma would have caused poorly trained dogs to abandon their duties, but Jude’s animals lay very still, only the twitching of noses giving away their interest. Anna had less control and was glad that the growling of her stomach could not be heard over the many voices. She passed her plate and watched as it was filled, determined not to make a fuss about the amount of food put down in front of her. She would try everything on her plate, take careful note of textures and tastes and ask questions. There would be a test later, she knew. Many tests to come, and she had no intention of failing even one of them.

So she ate, and talked, and ate. Between sips of red wine she ate a salad of tomatoes tossed with soft cheese and bread and olive oil, wild boar sausage and wide noodles cooked with artichokes and capers, white beans and marinated mushrooms, pork slathered with garlic and lemon and rosemary. They ate and talked, and ate, and talked. And ate. Small bites, long pauses to ask questions and answer more.

Jack said, “Look over there, do you see the boy sitting at the end of the table, next to Rosa?”

Anna did, and said so.

“You don’t recognize him.”

She didn’t, and said that too. But then she looked more closely. Twelve years old, in her estimation, thin but properly nourished, his color high, the very picture of health.

“Hoboken. That’s the boy who wanted to find work to save money for passage home.”

“Santino Bacigalup, you’re right. Looks like a different boy, doesn’t he?”

Jack’s mother leaned toward them. “Good food, sunshine, a safe place to sleep. He’s a hard worker, that one. I wrote to his sister in Palermo for him, but we haven’t had word back yet.”

“It’s been two months,” Anna said. That day in Hoboken seemed even longer ago, and in some ways, not so long at all.

“No cause for worry,” said her mother-in-law. “His sister probably had to take the letter to her priest so he could read it to her, and then she’ll tell him what to say and he’ll write back. It’s the way things work.”

“But if you don’t hear back?”

“Then he stays with us,” Jack’s brother Leo said. “He’s already like a brother to my boys, and he loves Carmela and Lolo. She follows him around with her eyes, wherever he goes.”

“He’s a fortunate boy,” Anna said. “We still don’t know what became of Rosa and Lia’s brother Tonino. He could be anywhere, or nowhere. If he was sent west on one of the orphan trains we’ll never know what happened to him. Jack,” she said, as a thought occurred to her. “Have you told your mother about Vittorio?”

“I mentioned it.”

“Do you have an opinion, Mrs. Mezzanotte?”

Her mother-in-law put down her fork with an unhappy little click. “You are uncomfortable calling me Mama?”

Anna felt a dozen eyes turning in her direction.

“Ma,” Jack began, but Anna put a hand on his wrist.

“Let me answer. It has to do mostly with my own mother. I don’t remember her very clearly. Just a sense of her face and her voice. But I hold on to those small things, and wouldn’t want to lose them.”

“It would feel disloyal to call someone else Mama.”

“No, not exactly. It’s like—” She tried to make her voice sound matter-of-fact. “It feels like admitting that she’s gone, and if I do that, she will be. It makes no logical sense, I know.”

“It makes every kind of sense,” said Mrs. Mezzanotte. “My mother died thirty-five years ago, and every once in a while I still dream about her scolding me because I don’t come visit often enough.”

“Yes,” Anna said. “Like that.”

“I understand. But you can’t call me Mrs. Mezzanotte, it’s too formal. You will call me Rachel, to start.”

“Rachel,” Anna said. “Thank you. I was wondering if you have an opinion about Vittorio Russo.”

“My opinion is, there is no easy solution to this problem. There are too many hearts to be broken and I’m not brave enough to recommend one over another.”

•   •   •

“IT’S A GOOD thing I don’t wear a corset,” Anna said under her breath a little later. “I’d be ready to pop just about now. I may do that anyway.”

Jack rubbed her back. “Savard. You have to learn to say no.”

She laughed at him outright. “That’s the way to endear myself to your mother and aunts. I’ll eventually say no, when necessary. But not today. A short walk would help.”

Everybody close enough to hear this stopped eating and looked at her, concern writ clear on their faces. Anna wondered if the idea of a walk violated some unwritten law, but Jack climbed over the bench to stand, and held out a hand.

“I think a walk is a good idea.”

The look he gave her said very clearly that he knew she was up to something, but that he had no intention of disappointing her or even asking questions that might be taken as less than supportive.

“Ma chiaramente,” Anna heard Jack’s father say softly. “Sono sposini novelli.”

When they were out of hearing, Anna looked at him expectantly.

“Newlyweds,” Jack explained. “Sposini novelli, that’s us. We can get away with a lot on that basis.”

She found herself smiling. “You don’t get away with much otherwise?”

“You did just spend time with my mother,” Jack said. “What do you think?”

At the corner of Fifth Avenue and Washington Square Park they worked their way through a crowd of children watching a puppet show, past an organ grinder whose monkey held out a greasy old hat for coins, newsboys hawking their papers, and pushcarts displaying cans of tobacco, cigars, hard candy, handkerchiefs, small Italian and American flags, peanuts, inexpensive jewelry, and religious medals. When they were free of the worst of the crowds Jack took her hand and they walked north.

“Oscar is always uneasy on this part of Fifth Avenue,” Jack said. “He got caught up in the draft riots around here, just a couple days after he joined the force. Do you remember anything about them?”

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