Lindy picked up the telephone extension and overheard a call not meant for her. Father Benedict would bring the basket of rectory laundry by on Friday, he said. While her mother and the priest conversed, Lindy clasped the heavy black receiver, lifting it up and down like a dumbbell, exercising her imagination along with her muscle.

    She latched onto Father Benedict as she did onto every Catholic detail, only because those details seemed to define all of her life. How lucky, these years with her mother employed as the pastoral laundress, the keeper of Father’s house, because who then would look askance at Lindy paying a call to the rectory? She believed her every visit held the potential of Father casting off his holy vestments.

    Whenever Father stepped aside for her to enter his house, Lindy felt she was teetering on the edge of a huge magic trick. Soon all the wires, all the backstage charms that held up God and his thin, dark haired priest would be revealed. How disappointing that, during their math tutoring sessions, Father restricted their work to the kitchen, never allowing her to peek beyond the hallway, and yet she craned her neck around the corner, tried to glimpse his bedroom and his plain, celibate world. The woven placemat that had been one of her last projects before she quit Girl Scouts protected the rectory table from the scrape of Father’s dinner plate. She held onto this hope: that he thought of her every time he ate.

    Once, this past spring, Father had given Lindy the envelope with her mother’s weekly pay, then ushered her out to the idling car, forgetting to close the rectory door behind them. She’d interrupted him from the ordinary task of dishwashing. His hand, still wet from rinsing his one plate at the sink, firmly guided her shoulder until they stood in the exhaust of the chugging car. The point of the laundry money envelope scraped the inside of her knee when Lindy lifted her uniform skirt and slid, ladylike, into the front seat. As her mother shifted into reverse, Father Benedict closed Lindy’s door. While her mother backed out the car, Lindy reached inside her blouse's neckline and underneath the shoulder of the garment to feel soapy water that had soaked through in the shape of Father’s hand. The way he watched her in retreat, Lindy felt her hand might as well have been his inspecting her damp skin.

    She again brought the receiver to her ear because she couldn’t stop listening. Father Benedict said, “Do you know the Cuiciettas?”

    Her mother’s voice answered positively and loudly from the basement extension to compete with the noisy water cascading into the washing machine. The Cuiciettas lived across the street—an older couple, along with their son, Tony, and his grandmother, an ancient lady who spoke no English—in a house that had always been clamped shut from the neighbors.

    With priestly clairvoyance Father had pressed facts out of the rumors traded among women who waited to receive his extra blessing on the church steps after Mass.

    “Their daughter, Veronica, is getting divorced,” he said.

    Lindy’s mother clicked her tongue on her teeth. Sadness, sympathy, and a little condemnation.

    “She’s due home today with her girl, Cara. They’ll be staying until she can get back on her feet.”

    Lindy twisted and stretched the cord of the telephone so she could hide in the living room drapes, still listening in while spying on the new divorcee and her daughter. She squinted at Veronica traipsing from the carport into the house, imagined that all the items she carried—everyday cutlery, the special occasion underwear, an opened carton of cigarettes—defined her new status as single woman, daughter, mom. Released from marriage, free to date but bound by mother duty, she had built-in babysitters, her relatives, who would shower her with disapproval, advice, and shameful glances. She’d made a major mistake marrying that bum, and she’d have to prove she’d learned her lesson before anyone in the household forgave her.

    Lindy’s mother wondered about bad influences.

    Father Benedict pointed out the need for Christian charity.

    Her mother sighed and Lindy could envision her next to the washing machine, nodding her dark head of hair, accepting Father Benedict’s words, already reversing her opinion.

    As they were exchanging goodbyes, Lindy tiptoed to the telephone and stealthily replaced the receiver in its cradle before rushing back to her spy post.

    Across the street the son, Tony, painted the Cuicietta front door. It looked like the task might take him all afternoon. Veronica detoured around him, scraping her suitcases and boxes over the concrete. She lugged grocery bags near to ripping from the weight of her possessions.

    And there walked that new girl, Cara, whose blond hair and light-colored eyes conjured for Lindy visions of cold and Scandinavia, of Heidi in the Alps. The girl skipped along the Cuiciettas’ front sidewalk, her hands free, typically twelve, no help to her mother at all.

    Lindy’s mother came upstairs, leaving for a minute the precious laundry, saw Lindy wrapped up in the drapes, and said, “Maybe you could ask Cara to play.”

    Lindy frowned. Almost in high school, she no longer “played,” but Father Benedict’s interest in this whole affair might spur her to cross the street.

    “You’ve had nothing but bad to say about Tony,” Lindy said.

    Her mother was tying an apron around her thickened waist. “I don’t like you talking with him, but if Father thinks Cara needs your help fitting in here, wouldn’t that be the neighborly thing to do?”

    Lindy raised her eyebrows, partly to challenge her mother, to make her feel shame at beating back her own long-held opinion in favor of Father Benedict’s. It was clear to Lindy whose desires her mother held uppermost.

    “He’s her uncle, so what? You can steer clear of him and still make the girl feel welcome.”

    Lindy approached her mother’s every request with a begrudging shrug. “I might have to talk with him,” she said. “With Tony, I mean.”

    Her mother ran water at the sink full blast and raised her voice to be heard over it. “Where’s the harm in words?”

    Upon eighth grade graduation the math tutoring sessions between Father and Lindy had ceasedoh, how she missed those intimacies!but Lindy saw Cara’s plight as her own opportunity, for she could recount her neighborly kindness while seated at Father’s kitchen table, a new and legitimate claim to stepping across the rectory threshold.

    She sighed. “If you think it will help.”

    “I do.” Her mother nodded. “Father thinks so, too.”

    Ah, Father’s blessing. For Lindy, now, there was no turning back.

Tony wore jeans and a sleeveless T-shirt. His face had a lump, a scar from an accident or an operation, off-center on his broad forehead. It didn’t help his looks any.

    “Cara here?” Lindy said, though she’d been spying from her own living room and had seen Cara exit and enter so many times she’d lost track

    Tony nodded. “Inside.”

    Lindy shrank to pass when he reached to paint the front door lintel.

    Tony flaunted his underarm hair in her face. He stepped his foot sideways, nearly tripping her, keeping her in place so she was eye level with his nipple; she could see the rise of it under his thin cotton shirt. His arm with the paintbrush was a bridge above her.

    “You going to let me through?” she said. If this had been only her idea he might have scared her away, but the mental urgings of both her mother and Father Benedict bolstered her.

    “Thinking,” Tony said. Then, “Yeah.” And he stepped back so she could move into the house.

    She knew the importance of manners and she showed them off to Tony, knocking on the doorframe where he hadn’t yet painted. “Hello? Cara?” She stretched first her neck inside and then brought the rest of her body with her, out of Tony’s range, though why she supposed he might reach for her she couldn’t say.

    She put her hand on the cool, painted wall; she leaned against the uneven doorjamb between hallway and kitchen.

    Cara emerged from the basement. She nudged a stack of boxes with her hip. “How do you know my name?”

    “There’s lots I know,” Lindy said. And though she refused to glance back the way she’d come, she knew Tony stood paused in his painting, that he was watching her, listening to her, and adding up the parts of her in his ugly head.

A week later Tony was still tackling the paint trim, as if he was under house arrest and they were dreaming up dreary, methodical jobs just to keep him occupied and out of trouble. Lindy didn’t recoil from him this time as she stepped on his dropcloths and passed through the open front door.

    Two weeks, and she was one of the family. When she crossed the threshold into Grandma Cuicietta’s kitchen, Lindy felt the house and everything within it bribing her. The Cuiciettas’ Old Country ways tempted, and she flirted with the charade of belonging to them and to their dinner table, with its tumbled-up, musical language. The house cast its spell on her. The Cuiciettas spoke a homemade version of church Latin, their native Italian, so when they talked, scolded, cursed, they were wrapping themselves up in prayer. So easy for Lindy to leave her mother, her one blood relative behind, to indulge in her new-found taste for ox tail soup, artichoke hearts, and spumoni.

She watched Veronica return from the laundromat, unloading an armful of grocery bags and slapping the stack of mail onto the kitchen table. The paper sacks fell into each other, spilling Cara’s clean underwear and her mom’s lacy bras onto the floor. Lindy considered offering her mother’s wash-woman services, or her own. She wanted to lend aid.

    Tony came in, paint splattered clothes and skin. When he bent down to pick up Veronica’s spilled underwear Lindy smelled paint fumes, body odor, and his exhaustion.

    He twirled a black bra by its strap like a lasso on his finger. “Ride ’em, cowboy.” He let loose a rebel yell.

    Veronica swiped it from him. “You’ll get paint in it.”

    He was up to his elbows in turquoise enamel.

    One of the envelopes caught Veronica’s eye and she grabbed a steak knife from the drawer to slit it open while Tony ran the water in the sink for a cold drink.

    She announced, “Independence Day, but with no whoop in her voice, no firecracker in her smile.

    Tony raised his glass and guzzled.

    The old grandma, enthroned in the living room recliner spoke garbled, clipped Italian that proclaimed, Lindy supposed, “Good riddance to bad rubbish.”

    Veronica poured herself a glass of wine from a bottle with no label, then gave a fingerful in jelly glasses to Cara and Lindy. Oh, yes, Cara was there, though her presence was slight in the scheme of things requiring notice. Lindy drank down her wine before Veronica could think better of what she’d done. Heat bloomed up her throat.

    “What are we celebrating?” Cara said.

    “Our fucking freedom.”

    Cara’s mom poured herself a second glass. Lindy held hers out for a refill, thinking she’d take whatever they were giving.

    Tony shoved his glass in place of Lindy’s, just as Veronica was about to pour her more wine. His crooked smile made his robbing her all the harder to put up with.

    As the chair-bound great-grandma scolded in Italian, Cara grabbed Lindy’s elbow and dragged her to the basement steps.

    Cara said, “Hurry. We need to get out of here.”

    Grandma Cuicietta’s orthopedic shoes telegraphed her approach through the house. Cara switched on the light at the top of the stairs. Her stumbling down them sounded like a bag of onions had split and scattered into the basement.

    Lindy regretted the lost seconds of drink. She knew she should escape before Grandma arrived in the kitchen to pass verdict on Veronica’s curse language and to rave in Italian about no-good husbands. A smack to her daughter’s cheek might help drive her point home.

    At the basement doorway Lindy turned to find Tony toasting her.

    “That should have been mine,” she said.

    With the glass tilted so it covered half his face, Tony slurped the very last drops while he wiggled his eyebrows at her.

    Cara called her name, sounding much farther away than the basement.

    Lindy wanted to stay and see somebody get hit.

    Grandma Cuicietta and her scoldings rounded the corner, heading for Veronica, and Lindy had to stop from running between them, because she suddenly, desperately wanted to feel the slap she felt sure was deserved.

    Instead she fled downstairs, where Cara conducted a tour for her, pointing out the collection of Annette Funicello records that belonged to her uncle. “You can’t touch what’s Tony’s,” she said, which made Lindy draw her hands to her sides. Because Cara specifically said not to, Lindy wanted to leave her fingerprint everywhere in the basement, though up until now she’d had no interest in Tony’s things.

    “What grade is he in?” She was glad that she’d applied to Mt. Notre Dame, the all-girls school. A relief that she wouldn’t run into Tony later in some hallway between gym and auditorium come fall.

    “He’s out of high school,” Cara said, implying Lindy should have known better.

    “Does he have a job?”

    “You saw him painting the door, didn’t you?”

    Lindy wanted to ask if Grandpa Cuicietta forced Tony to earn his keep, but Cara put up her hand to stop the questions.

    Cara showed Lindy around the basement, indicating Tony’s bed, his chest of drawers, his other records and magazines, sashaying with the importance she gained from her uncle’s possessions.

    They played with Barbies there in Cara’s grandma’s basement. Lindy was too old to be playing with dolls; even Cara was probably close to leaving that kind of make-believe behind. Still, they dressed and undressed the dolls, rounding their thumbs up and down the plastic bosoms, something they might want to do with each other, thought Lindy, just to compare.

    The Barbies were as good an excuse as any for lingering amid the label-less wine bottles, the geraniums, and the Blessed Mother portrait Grandma Cuicietta surrounded with votive candles. Lindy had seen a similar shrine in Father Benedict’s rectory, but in Cara’s grandma’s house the flickering candles only deepened the mystery of the Cuicietta dinner table—three old people spouting Italian, the language runaway, dripping, while Veronica burst into tears after too much wine and Grandpa scraped his chair back from the table, exiting the house in disgust. In these exchanges Uncle Tony barely counted. He contributed nothing but a smile that showed too many teeth for his mouth. Lindy imagined Grandpa Cuicietta’s anger erupting out in the garden, with no sarcastic backtalk from his daughter and only the plants’ leaves to shush him.

    Old World things that Lindy had no name for cooked on the stove upstairs: the smells stuck in her throat. She heard the murmurs of a talk show as the Cuiciettas settled in to watch afternoon TV talk shows.

    Under the stairwell in Uncle Tony’s unmade bed Lindy and Cara listened to Annette sing in Italian. They puffed on imaginary cigarettes, practicing for the day they might swipe a pack of Marlboros from the drugstore. They invented scripts for the prank phone calls they planned to make from the downstairs extension. With the Maybelline pencil Cara had stolen from her mom they drew Cleopatra eyes on each other’s lids.

    “We’re glamour queens, getting our beauty rest,” Cara said. She sank back on Uncle Tony’s pillows.

    Annette vocalized unintelligible Italian love. Too quick, someone tumbled down the steps.

    Uncle Tony joined them there, rubbing his sock-covered feet up and down their thighs. The Annette record skipped. Lindy hopped up to flip it over but Uncle Tony pulled her arm so she fell back into the bed.

    “Let Cara get it.”

    Lindy closed her eyes and tried to pretend but Uncle Tony’s ragged exhale couldn’t touch Father Benedict’s sexy telephone breathing. The smell of Tony’s sweat and the enamel fumes from his paint job clouded Lindy’s head. His mouth had no taste and her own tongue, like a fish, kept lolling slippery in the center of things.

    Not until Annette sang the whole second side did Cara come back to the bed.

    “Where were you?” Lindy said.

    “Playing Barbie.”

    Lindy punched Cara in the arm.

    Uncle Tony said, “None of that now. Let me rub it.”

    He massaged Cara and she shrugged her shoulders so his patting slid off her arm and over her chest. She squirmed and exaggerated her shoulder roll, which only encouraged Uncle Tony.

    The stereo needle skipped over the annoying end of Annette. Italian words and footsteps rumbled above them, then the basement door opened and Veronica yelled, “Fix that record.”

    Lindy jumped out of the bed. Over her shoulder she spied Uncle Tony rubbing Cara and she turned away to flip through the records, listened to Dean Martin crooning That’s Amore.

    Uncle Tony danced Cara to her feet and they slid around on the linoleum in their socks.

    He sang, “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie,” his arms reaching down low, hers stretching up high, the two of them mismatched. Lindy was more his height.

    “You’re too big,” Lindy muttered.

    “He is not,” Cara pouted.

    They waltzed by and Cara punched Lindy’s shoulder.

    Uncle Tony stopped his swirling. He said to Lindy, “Let me rub it; it’ll feel better.” The knot in the center of his forehead pulsed.

    Cara nodded, gave Lindy a wide-eyed look, a peace offering. “He knows magic,” she said.

    While such Italian magic bubbled up at the Cuiciettas’, Lindy’s home contained English and no foreign yelling. Even her special “in” with Father Benedict faded in the dusky allure of this house. She ached for the translation of all she was encountering.

    Lindy allowed Uncle Tony to transfer magic from his fingers to her shoulders. There was little muscle there; Grandma Cuicietta often tisked that Lindy was nothing but skin and bones. Near the record player Cara high-kicked Barbie’s legs until her pointy-heeled shoes flew off. Lindy leaned forward to watch Cara crawl under the bed but Uncle Tony drew her back to him by her shoulders.

    “You’re tense,” he said.

    His fingers rubbed her shoulders, then dribbled Italian magic into her hair and along the back of her neck. It sent her shivering.

    Dean Martin’s voice slid around in his songs. Lindy wanted to claim ancestry from the land of the boot. She swayed, dreaming she might change her name to Angelina or Louise.

    When the record finished Uncle Tony, said, “Cara.”

    His hands pressed down on Lindy’s shoulders as he knelt on the bed, making her a statue between his open legs.

    “I got it,” Cara whined.

    With Dean Martin singing his second side Uncle Tony swirled pretend shampoo in Lindy’s hair. He gathered a handful into a ponytail and folded it on top of her head like Cara did to her Barbie, and when he lifted her long curls Lindy’s neck welcomed the cool basement air.

    He leaned into her so the snap of his Levi’s dug into her backbone, so it was useless to try and sit straight on the sinking mattress. When her spine curved Lindy thought of hunchbacks, old women, Cara’s great grandma from Italy.

    “If you’re tired, lay down,” Tony said. He pointed his fingertips into her back like a bully picking a fight.

    “I’m not.” She’d faked sleepiness before.

    “I am.” Cara hopped into the covers, kicking Lindy until she fell out of the bed.

    “Change the record,” Tony said, snaking his arm around Cara’s shoulders.

    Lindy took the Lennon Sisters from their record sleeve. The cover pictured them in chiffon dresses and matching short jackets the color of icing—green, yellow, blue, and of course Janet in pink, all of them with matching bows in their puffed up hair.

    Cara had lost her hair bow when she’d crawled under the bed. Now Uncle Tony was distributing magic in her hair. Her long, blond strands had tucked themselves inside her shirt. Tony reached down her back to flip the hair out, and then his hand snuck in again. The two of them moved underneath the covers, scooting down like Lindy would do on a Girl Scout overnight when she tented up the top of her sleeping bag and read by flashlight.

    “I’m going to the bathroom,” Lindy said.

    It was a useless announcement because obviously Cara and Uncle Tony could hardly be bothered. Inside the bathroom the abundance of light surprised Lindy. This basement bathroom at the back of the house had a bubble glass window that faced west. It let light in, let it shine on every item in the small roomcream floor and wall tiles, cream sink, cream toilet, cream shower curtain with black lyres and harps floating across, cream soap in its cream dish, cream cup, cream toothbrush holder with what must have been Uncle Tony’s red toothbrush. She hoped he used it; his jumbled teeth looked prime to attract cavities. Probably a toothbrush was useless in Tony’s mouth. In Tony’s mouth, in Tony’s crowded mouth, around and behind and under his uneven teeth where he and she had both flipped and slipped their tongues in kissing that was tasting, sampling, almost gouging. Lindy took his toothbrush and scrubbed her teeth. She could find no toothpaste so she sucked the bristles for any tiny taste of peppermint, slurping at the hint of clean, of fluoride. She spat and watched her bubbly spit, pink with blood, drool down the cream bowl towards the stainless steel drain.

    Surprise. Who was the girl in the mirror, with eyeliner curving, turning her eyes sexy and made up, big and old enough to see? Father Benedict might not even recognize her. Cleopatra eyes made her into a new Lindy who did things she thought she’d have no stomach for, but she did.

    Outside the door floated Cara’s giggle and Tony’s low, instructive voice, amid the Lennon Sisters’ high shining melodies. Lindy hugged herself in the dappled light of the bathroom. Broad daylight outside and so why wasn’t Tony at his painting? Had he finally finished with that front door? What kind of job would he be onto next? Her hand gripped the metal door knob and she clicked and unclicked the button that worked the lock, stalling.

    The Lennon Sisters sang Side A and Side B and then the needle scratched at the end of the record. The sound drove Lindy crazy until she burst out of the bathroom more loudly than she’d intended.

    Cara and Uncle Tony popped up from under the bedspread, their hair electrified.

    “That’s annoying,” Lindy said, meaning the speakers crackling, but she didn’t care if they heard her differently.
    Veronica whipped open the basement door. “I said cut that crap out.”

    The three of them looked at and away from each other. Uncle Tony put his finger to his uneven smile in a quiet sign. When they saw Veronica wasn’t coming down, Cara lay as still as a spell-bound princess.

    “She’s dead,” he said, lifting Cara’s wrist. He let it fall to the mattress. “I’m the undertaker.”

    Cara’s eyelids fluttered open. “No, the prince.”

    The priest, Lindy thought. Could Uncle Tony bring her back to life?

    “I know not what to do,” Tony said, playing the part they assigned him.

    Cara spoke with closed eyes: “You must revive her any way you can.”

    She folded her hands on top of the sheet at her waist, as if she were Snow White waiting for her one true love. She had told Lindy she believed in rescue.

    Cara had confided to Lindy her true loves were Jason, Jeremy, and Joshua from Here Come the Brides. The show’s theme sang in rerun inside Lindy’s head while she watched Tony’s lips move to Cara’s hair, to her cheek, to her mouth. He was drawing her out of a deep fairytale sleep. Lindy had not traded secrets, had admitted no one true love, but what if she had?

    Lindy compared Father Benedict’s neat and shimmering vestments with Uncle Tony’s sloppy T-shirt and jeans, tried to force similarities between Tony’s magic fingers and a priest’s healing hands. Father Benedict had once placed his palm on her head and called down God’s blessing but it was in a church full of people and Lindy knew he intended nothing special. She’d wanted to kick him then in the shin, to distract him by leaning into his priest skirt.

    She imagined confessing what she’d discovered at the Cuiciettas’, as Father Benedict sat closed in his side of the box, gasping at her words, his silhouette nodding encouragement. She would touch the screen between them, rubbing the metal mesh until her fingertips tickled. The whisper of her skin would invite. Confession’s tight boundaries would nag Father Benedict until he couldn’t help himself, and he’d touch the screen too. Just to keep from going crazy he’d have to jump in and say something.

    Only a few steps away, while watching Tony play acting with his niece, Lindy, in secret, ran her tongue along the smooth, clean surfaces of her teeth. Tony stammered sloppy kisses on Cara’s lips, then he lifted his head and smiled his big ugly face at Lindy. His smirk, so plainly meant for her, turned her dizzy and she felt caught inside the jumble of Tony’s mixed up mouth. Upstairs the slap bided its time in an old woman’s flabby arm, in Grandma Cuicietta’s plump garlicky hand, which would hopefully knock some sense into Lindy. Lindy prayed for the slap.

Donna D. Vitucci helps raise funds for local nonprofits, while her head and heart are engaged in the lives of the characters mounting a coup in her head. Some of her recent work appears or is forthcoming in MO: Writings from the River, Night Train, Another Chicago Magazine, Monkeybicycle, Smokelong Quarterly, and Juked. “That's Amore,” is part of her unpublished novel Abide Herein, which features the characters of Vivian, Lindy, and Father Benedict.

Back to Freight Stories No. 4


Donna D. Vitucci

That’s Amore