That Friday was the first day of Frankie Merelli's wake. He had died on Monday, but what with the police investigation, the state of the corpse, and the undertaker's pride, it was four days before the body was ready for viewing. Frankie Merelli was being waked downtown, laid out in Nucciarone's funeral parlor on Sullivan Street, just the way Gracie wanted. She had pictured the first day of Frankie's wake. She was the widow, after all. She had seen it in her mind like the newsreels that came before the movie at the Loews Sheridan on Greenwich Avenue.
The family would gather in front of the building on Spring Street where Frankie had lived as a son, a husband, and a father. There would be a bouquet of carnations tied with a white ribbon pinned outside the door, a card announcing the funeral information. The family would walk together, slowly, arms linked, in an unofficial procession up Sullivan Street to Nucciarone's. As they passed St. Anthony's Church, the women would bow their heads, make the sign of the cross and kiss the tips of their fingers. The undertaker would be waiting for them outside the funeral parlor. He would escort Frankie's mother into the viewing room and the rest of the family would follow in hierarchical order. It was how it was done in this neighborhood. It was the tradition.
But Anona balked at this ritual, remembering the funerals in Bocca al Lupo, the whole village walking endlessly behind the black death coach pulled by plumed black horses. This American thing, she said, was a poor second, a stroll a few blocks north to sit in what looked like someone's front parlor. Nothing would convince her. She wouldn't do it.
It was the least she could do for Gracie, Mary and Helen told her. The sisters wanted everything to go smoothly. It should all be normal and ordinary, just another wake, just another funeral, even if nothing about Frankie Merelli's death had been ordinary.
But then Gracie said it didn't matter how they got there and Helen had shrugged. If Gracie didn't mind, then...and Gracie didn't mind. She was willing to go along with what Anona wanted. Gracie was easy that way. It was her strength and her weakness, and maybe the reason she was burying a husband. Forget the family march up Sullivan Street, she said. She would meet her sisters at Anona's at Thirty-eighth Street and Tenth Avenue and they'd go downtown together.
Helen came early to Anona's, to the apartment in Hell's Kitchen where Anona had raised them. Alone, Anona liked to remind them. She had raised them alone because there was no one else to do it. Mary showed up next and they all sat down at the kitchen table. It was clear of dishes and food. When she wanted to, Anona followed the old ways. They would eat later or not at all. They were in mourning, she said, but she did pour them all shots of the anisette that she made in the cellar. She counted out three coffee beans for each glass and they sat together to wait for Gracie.
"Peccato about Frankie," Anona said.
Helen looked over at Mary before she drained her glass. She chewed on one of the coffee beans. It was bitter in her mouth. But Helen liked bitter. Anona used to say it was the most Italian thing about her. "Be honest," Helen said to Anona. "You never liked Frankie."
"I don't like him for Gracie's husband but I don't wish him dead. It's always wrong when a son dies before his mother." Anona stuck out her bottom lip. She looked around the kitchen. "We have no luck," she finally said. "We're cursed," and she shook a fist at the statue of St. Rita.
"Don't go on about curses," Helen said. "We don't believe in them."
"Ha, Miss Smarty Pants. These bad things, they just happen? It's the malocchio. What else?" Anona lowered her voice, looked around as if the evil eye might be skulking, even now, around a corner or under a chair, waiting to pounce. "I rack my brain trying to figure it out. I talk to myself. Who? Why? Look at your father, your..."
"What's Frankie Merelli got to do with our father?" Mary said. "It's not the same thing, is it? You know that." Mary looked over at Helen. "We're talking apples and pears here, no?"
"Never mind," Anona said. "Did I finish? You always gotta interrupt. That's why you don't learn nothing."
Helen laughed but Mary felt bad then and reached across the table, touched Anona's hand. "Tell the story. Go on. I want to hear it."
Anona pulled her hand away and moved it into her lap.
"What's to tell? You know the story," she said. She paused, but not for long. She leaned forward. "Your father, he comes home one night with a headache, next day he's dead. Whatta you think? Then your grandfather, Nonno, same thing, and right after that, the baby...your little brother, that sweet little boy." Anona sat back in her chair. "Right after Gracie he was born, so close Mrs. McGuire downstairs called them Irish twins. That's what they call them when babies come one right after the other, Irish twins, because the Irish, they have babies like that, one on top of the other."
Anona knew about the Irish, they all did, living with them all these years. Hell's Kitchen belonged to the Irish. They controlled the piers. They controlled everything. When Anona's husband came to this country, to New York, you had to be Irish to work. The signs said no wops. But he fooled them, Anona said. He didn't look Italian. He had white skin and blue eyes and black hair. He was a merchant seaman who spoke Gaelic; his name was Malloni and he made it "Mallone" and he got a job on the piers. He brought Anona over when he'd saved up the money and they had lived here, Italians in an Irish neighborhood, Italians on an Irish block.
Anona closed her eyes, slumped in her chair. "How your mamma loved that little boy..." Like always when Anona told the story, she lost her queenly bearing, her terrifying presence. Anona was always so fierce, even now, even old. When they made the decision about Frankie, she hadn't even blinked, but when she told the story about their mother, she shrank. It made Mary sad to see Anona so small in her chair and she put a hand on her shoulder to comfort her.
"When they came to take his body," Anona was saying, "they had to pull it out of her arms. Poor Emma. She went screaming through the halls, banging on all the doors, asking them, begging them, the Irish, to pray for her, to tell God to give her back her baby boy. God listened to the Irish, she said. They were always in church, weren't they? I remember," Anona said, "how they closed their doors and stood behind them calling her crazy."
Anona opened her eyes. "And the next week, she was dead, my Emma, figlia mia, the same as the others, just like that," and Anona snapped her fingers, as she always did at this part of the story. "My only child, my daughter. I could only have the one. I only ever had the one."
Mary was thinking of Gracie. She put her hand to her forehead, pressed her temples, remembering how Gracie as a child would always start to cry when Anona snapped her fingers and how Anona would stop to wipe Gracie's snotty nose with the handkerchief she kept under her sleeve. Gracie was always crying, Mary remembered. She was, after all, the baby sister.
Anona went on. "The Spanish influenza...1918 it started...you were all just babies...lucky ones." Anona made an arc over them with her hand. "They took the bodies away on carts. So many bodies, piled up like logs. In just this building, almost a hundred. Emma was so glad when your father didn't go to the war, and look...look at how it ended up, worse...They buried the dead so fast half the time they weren't even dead, but just passed-out and they'd come to and sit right up in the grave."
"Well, Frankie's not sitting up anytime soon, that's for sure," Helen said. She had less patience with Anona than Mary did. Helen had no interest in the past. Frankie was a case in point. Once something was done, it was over.
"Never mind Frankie," Anona said, as if she had read Helen's mind. "How's Gracie? She was crazy for him, that one. How's she making up?"
"You mean holding up?" Helen said.
Anona didn't answer but got out of her chair and went over to the shrine she kept for St. Rita. "Maybe I light a candle for Frankie," she said.
"That's nice, Anona," Mary said, but Anona didn't light the candle. Instead she walked to the window and looked out, hoping to see Gracie.
"You should've found yourself another husband," Helen teased.
"One man was enough for me," Anona said, wiping away the fog her breath made on the windowpane. She turned back to Helen. "Not like some people I know."
Gracie was at the door. She had turned the knob and walked in without knocking, knowing that Anona never locked her door except at night, and then only because too many times one of her neighbors had stumbled in, having lost his way after one too many beers downstairs at Mike Hanley's Bar.
Gracie was their baby and they all came over to her, and one by one they held her in their arms. She cried and Anona took a folded handkerchief from inside her pocket, shook it open and put it in Gracie's hand. Helen took one arm and Mary the other and they walked her to the table. Anona pulled out a chair and after Gracie sat down, she went to get her a glass.
"No, thanks, Anona," Gracie said. "I can't." Anona waved the bottle of anisette that was shaped like the Vatican, the stopper topped with a cross. "Uffa," she said, rubbing Gracie's shoulder with her free hand. "Have a drop. It's good for you."
Mary half-smiled. "You've been out of the Kitchen too long," she said to Gracie, putting the glass in front of her. "Don't you know it's medicine for what ails you?"
Gracie took the glass and held it up while Anona poured. Gracie wasn't used to drinking and she squinted her eyes when she swallowed. Anona was satisfied and went into the bedroom to get dressed. She had washed at the sink in the kitchen before they came. "Where's Charlie?" Anona called from the bedroom.
"With Frankie's mother," Gracie said. "They'll walk together to the funeral parlor."
"How'd she take that? You not walking with them, not following the rules?" Mary said.
Gracie shrugged. "I told her I needed my sisters. I needed my grandmother." Gracie shouted to be sure that Anona heard. "I told her I needed my family."
Signora Merelli had been furious with Gracie, but Gracie didn't tell this to her sisters. "We're your family," she had said to Gracie. "Me and your son, Charlie. We're all you have left now that our Frankie is gone." And she had broken down into great choking sobs, clutching Charlie, wrapping her arms around his head.
Gracie hadn't answered. She didn't expect Signora Merelli to understand what it was like to grow up Italian in Hell's Kitchen, three girls and an old woman, with no men to protect them, to support them, or as Anona said when they were sad, to tell them what to do.
Gracie had loved Frankie. She loved her son, Charlie. He was her breath, her treasure. But...it was different. And she wasn't going to explain.
Gracie looked at her sisters, one on either side of her. As kids, the three of them would sleep together in the big bed in the little room off the kitchen. She remembered what it was like, the feeling that it was good to be alive.
"I'm glad we're Italian," Gracie would say in bed at night, lying between her sisters on the lumpy mattress filled with cotton that Anona would empty out every spring and wash in the laundry tub.
"Why?" Mary said.
"Because Anona says it's better."
"All I can see different is we eat good," Helen said. "The Irish eat shit. Potatoes. Oatmeal. They eat like crap." She turned, pulling the blanket.
"What a mouth on you," Mary yelped, tugging back. "You got no class, Helen, just like Anona says." Mary was the eldest and liked to play big shot. But it was Helen who was the boss. The boss of the baccausa, Anona would call her. The toilet, she meant, the outhouse, three flights down in the back yard.
"...and they're always drunk," Gracie went on. It was hard to breathe, lying between her sisters, but at least she had the blanket. Anona always put her in the middle because Helen and Mary fought, threw punches at each other with their small tight fists. Gracie would never do that and so always she slept in the middle, to separate them.
"Yeah," Helen said. "But they have a good time, don't they? Believe me, when I grow up, I'm gonna have some good times."
"You gonna smoke?" Gracie said.
"Girls don't smoke."
"I will. Lucky Strikes."
"Maybe I will, too," Mary said. Anona was not far off when she called Helen the boss.
"And I'm gonna drink," Helen said.
Gracie turned over flat on her back. "Girls don't drink."
Helen put her lips against Gracie's ear. "Don't kid yourself," she whispered.
Anona came out from the bedroom, elegant in a black silk dress and the hat Helen had bought for her on Division Street only a few weeks before. Anona had wondered out loud what she would do with such a big black hat. She didn't go to Mass and figured the next funeral was hers, so why did she need such a fancy hat?
"You never know," Helen had said, and then Frankie was dead and Helen showed up at Anona's with a new black dress for Anona to wear to the wake and as Anona stood in front of the mirror, Helen had hugged her from behind. "It looks beautiful," she said. Then she whispered into Anona's good ear, "...and...you can wear the hat."
• • •
They were all dressed in black, they all wore hats with veils, but Gracie's was so dark, so heavy, that it completely obscured her face. Helen and Mary had made sure their eyes showed through their veils, and Helen paid close attention to her lips, which she had painted very red.
"This veil," Helen said, folding it up over Gracie's face as they stood by the door ready to leave. "Frankie's dead, not you."
Mary pinched Helen's arm. "Let her be," she said, making a face that Gracie couldn't see.
Helen raised an eyebrow but finished arranging the veil. "Leave it like this for now," she said, and kissed her sister's cheek. Helen and Mary had lost husbands, with a minimum of grief and fanfare. But Frankie Merelli, they both knew, had been the love of Gracie's life.
Copyright © 2002 by Louisa Ermelino