By: Caroline Piermattei
She heard the chirp, the squeak. Then the black blur scurried past her leg. He climbed the tree then ran, having what looked like fun. Black squirrels, She strained to remember…aggressive, rabid?
As a stand alone event, it would not be good. Combined with the other black creatures of the last couple weeks it was more than unsettling – the black bird that laid dead on their welcome mat, the owl that snuck into the laundry room through the dryer vent…and now this charred looking squirrel…no, something bad was coming “Oh no.” She whispered to no one.
She grabbed the phone on the first ring to keep it from waking Johnny.
But Johnny was gone, moved out two days ago.
“Nella, Nella Boscavelli.”
“Yes,” She cleared her throat. “This is Nella.”
“This is Hines Veteran Hospital, calling from Maywood, Illinois. We want to offer our condolences,” The Southern accent stroked her ear. “on the death of your father.” The glow of the phone read 12:10.
“Who …is this, what kinda joke?” Panic tingled then crawled up her legs. A flashback from rehearsal earlier that day came back and the director’s raw screams were still fresh,
“Why so scared, are you a little girl?” Papers meant to hit her face floated through the air and dragged the moment out. “I should’a gotten my grandma for the part.”
Even now she fights to save the feeling, the terror for when it can be used on stage.
“Miss,” the monotone voice pauses, then softens. “This is the Veteran’s Hospital, I’m sorry to tell you, your father Frank Hayes passed away today at 3:07 PM. He had a massive stroke.”
She slammed the phone down, stumbled off the bed and raced to the dresser knocking over then kicking at a stack of books in the middle of the floor. Dragging open the top drawer, her shaking hands rummage through the mess until the tiny, folded paper holding Frank’s cell number stares back at her.
“Take it kid, ya never know; you might wanna talk sometime.” Years earlier Frank had shoved the paper into her pocket. “What the hell kid, just take it.”
She punched in the number for the first time.
“Hello.” A woman answered.
“My name is Nella Boscavelli. Frank, is he there?”
“Nella, I’m real sorry but your daddy…he died today.”
Her heartbeat throbbed in her ears.
“Why do you have his phone? Who are you?”
The woman sobbed, “I’m Frank’s wife, have been for a long time, more than ten years. I got a license to prove it.”
The wife, Annie, rambled on; “Frank never brought me with; probably never talked about me, cuz he was embarrassed. My mama told me so, because I’m younger, at least twenty some’thin years younger.”
Forty minutes later Nella’s slumped over the edge of her bed. Attempting to pray her fingers raked her hair as she cried. Hours passed. Nothing was clear. Why the secrets? Why the tears?
The taxi line at O’Hare was long. She smashed her cigarette hard on the pole then tossed it into the street. Behind her, a lady clicked her tongue. Nella tilted her head, turned and stared at the woman. The prim woman turned away. Nella smiled. Her strawberry blond blanket of hair and ravaged, angular facial features had to look untamed to the middle aged eyes.
“Where to?” The driver yelled over his shoulder.
“Gold Coast, Michigan Avenue.” Nella rested her head on the back of the seat and closed her eyes. “To Mom and home sweet home.”
Six months ago was the last time Nella saw her father. Frank called on Thanksgiving morning to say he was in town,
“Of course you’re gonna spend the day with us.” Johnny chirped into the phone. “Get outta here, I’m not tak’in no for an answer.”
“Shit Johnny then you talk to him all day.” Nella’s fury turned to guilt, all in ten seconds. “Okay. Fine.”
Frank arrived with swollen eyes and grey skin; the heart problems, diabetes, and lousy diet all over his face. His hair had a neat, childlike, side part. Nella searched for something to say. She remembered Frank’s message over the summer, something about a bypass, a graft of some kind. “You look okay; I mean you had a lot done, right?”
“I look like hell kid. And I know it.”
Nella remembers thinking the dumb ass could never say anything halfway intelligent. The memory makes her want to vomit. She wondered if anyone was him when he died.
Time stood still on Michigan Avenue.
“Well hello Miss Nella”
“Berto, my man.” Nella high fived her old friend. “How’s it goin’ in?”
“Fine, Miss. It’s going just fine.” The doorman lined his knuckles against Nella’s.
The elevator flew towards the penthouse. Johnny’s first impression of her Chicago life had been spot on.
“Holy crap Nella. Your mom should have been a starlet.” He reddened as if he had just met Hollywood royalty. “She’s still a knockout yeah, but… I don’t know… messed up. Where’d you come from?” He teased. “You’re a quiet wreck.”
“My wounds are guilty pleasures.” The memory burned; Johnny’s needs were small. He just wanted into her life, a daily meltdown would have made him stay.
“Nella you’re sad all the time…..thirty years old, never been to war or anything. There’s no reason to be this miserable”
Nella’s parents, Frank and Pauline had grown up in the same northside neighborhood.
“Auntie and I, we would walk by the pool hall, oh, I don’t know maybe fifty times until one of those older boys would come out and talk to us.” Pauline had reminisced to her.
They married when Pauline was seventeen and lived above a corner bar that Frank had won in a bet. Frank did all the cooking and cleaning, Pauline bragged, “Frank was in the army, he knows how to mop a floor.” Frank left three years later when Nella was two.
She was twelve years old the next time she saw her father. Frank leaned against a fence at the park during one of her softball games. Lurking, chewing on what looked like a straw; Frank did a good job of avoiding eye contact with her. She sat stiff on the bench, instinctively knowing who the odd, Italian man was without being introduced.
After Frank, Pauline’s husband’s were varied and colorful, the divorces were chaotic. The first passed away after only ten months of marriage; ripping her hair out at the hospital as a slew of girlfriends held her down, Pauline ranted,
“God, take me now, please” Next was the young himbo that introduced her to the world of rock bands, “That one, he’s a Wicca you know. Fascinating, just fascinating.” The attorney came next, who under duress paid for Nella’s School of Acting at NYU,
“Have the girl study law; it’ll be a fine life for her.”
Pauline was relentless,
“She’ll die in law. Such a creative, gentle soul, please; you will just kill her in law.” Then finally, the corporate giant who had left Pauline a well cared for widow.
In front of the tall door, Nella fumbled with one of the dozen keys Pauline had insisted she take.
“Keep it, damn it. You’ll have to get in one day when I’m lying on the floor dead or worse crippled up from a stroke.”
Standing by the window, gazing down at the choppy lake was her mother.
Chilly Lake Michigan wind billowed the sheer curtains around her creating an unworldly effect. Her face held confusion and helplessness.
“For Christ’s sake.” Nella mumbled.
“They say the way you live is the way you die.” Pauline sighed.
Nella stayed quiet. For about five seconds.
“Who says that Mom?” It came out nasty. Pauline winced. “Sorry, I’m tired.” She walked over and kissed her mom’s cheek.
“You’re tired, of course you’re tired. That bastard left quite a mess for you.”
Nella stopped breathing. Pauline knew about the secret wife. How?
Then Pauline hissed. “How much does he owe?
She dropped her suitcase and trudged upstairs to her old room with both arms wrapped tightly around her body. It was an unconscious method of holding it together.
In bed, she was restless; hardly able to walk she wanted to run. Lifting her arm to answer the ringing phone was surreal, it felt heavy, and shaking her head had the same effect. “I don’t know, it’s like I’m full of lead.” she explained to Chester, her closest friend since childhood. Chester stayed in Chicago. He practiced law and partied. A lot.
“You’re depressed.” He had listened to the whole story. “Who wouldn’t be, it’s a lot to take in. Man, that Frank was a character. Fifty-eight and she’s what? Twenty-five? Way to go Frank….”
“Yeah, well, thanks for calling. I’ll talk to you when…”
Chester’s inappropriateness disappeared “I’m going with you.”
“No way.” She shook her weighty head, “Thanks but not necessary.”
“Yeah, I am, you’re not going alone.” Chester was adamant, “When are you meeting her?”
“Tomorrow, ten at the chapel.”.
“Okay buddy, I’ll pick you up. Hey wait, does Pauline know?”
She slept for eleven hours.
“That Pauline! Holy crap. Who in the hell is obsessed with Silverback gorillas?” Chester laughed as he soared down Lake Shore Drive. “Wearing Prada while they do it?”
“She’s full of random contrasts.” Nella’s voice was bored, “I don’t know what to tell you, she’s crazy, always has been.”
“They have always been my animal of choice,” Chester imitated Pauline. He slaps her arm. “She’s not crazy baby, just whimsical, beautiful, and wacky.” He takes his eyes off the road and looks straight at her “It’s where you get it from.”
“I know.” She presses her eyes shut.
“Wake up.” Chester shook her shoulder. “We’re here.”
She squinted to see. They were on Madison Ave, on the outskirts of Oak Park. The ambitious greystone was weathered with cloudy stained glass windows. Chester held her arm tightly and patted her on the back as they crossed the street. “Weirdo,” She said. “this isn’t the funeral march.”
Entering the dark lobby they instantly saw Annie sitting on a couch accompanied by a slightly older woman. Both stood as they approached,
“You must be Nella.” The younger woman offered her hand. “I’m Annie, this is my mom, Esther”
Annie was attractive, tall and thin with short cropped hair. Esther had a kind face. She hugged Nella and said how happy she was to have finally met her. They entered the small office and the funeral director started his presentation; Nella’s eyes were stuck to her lap. Annie’s sentences were broken by sporadic cries; “I want him dressed nice, real nice.”
Once outside, Esther pulled out Frank and Annie’s wedding picture full of family, real bridesmaids and kids making funny faces for the camera. Centered was Frank, wearing both a deadpan face and white tux with tails.
Back in the car there was silence, Chester was pale. Nella felt her mind slipping into panic mode.
Annie was black, black as black can be.
Frank had been a poolroom hustling racist.
“How much do I tell Pauline?”
Uncharacteristically, Chester was at a loss for words. Then, “Let me think about it. I’ll call you.’ Nella went straight upstairs to her room.
How could Frank have changed so much? His mantra,
“Those bastards should go back where they came from.” His views on bi-racial relationships; “All the white guys, she picks a black one.”
She had been relieved Frank bothered her only a couple of times yearly, Frank seemed indifferent to the relationship. Had she not been embarrassed, disgusted even by her unconventional parents she could have seen her father had changed. Things may have been different.
Pauline’s queen-like pose on the chaise lounge helped her decide that this mess belonged to her too. She told her mom everything.
“You never know what’s going to happen.” Pauline twisted her hands. “If people knew, well, we would all just kill ourselves.”
The next morning Pauline entered her room and sat on the bed adjusting her bracelet. “Okay, I’m ready.” She yawned.
“You’re not going.” Nella said, “There’s no reason for you to be there.”
“Well who will I give the mass card to?” Pauline was indignant. “ It should go to the wife…”
“Mom, put the mass card in your drawer, a prayer is a prayer.”
“You know, he was always involved with those black people.” She leaned in, eyes wide and spoke in a low voice. “He would leave in the middle of the night. He would get a call and leave. Once, I went into that secret closet he had, behind the bar and picked up his jacket. It was heavy. I checked the pocket and there was a gun in it. Later someone told me he was pimping out those black girls, the ones on Halsted Street by the factories.”
Nella was not shocked. To her, it was just another day..
“Right after we were married it started. Grandpa had a box at the bank, filled with old silver, valuable, so heavy it took two men to pull it out. We were on the account, you know, in case something happened to Grandpa. Frank emptied it. He was probably in some gambling trouble. Who knows?” She shook her head. “I mean, that’s a lot of nerve.”
Nella had had enough. She walked out. Pauline’s voice followed. “You know, he never washed his hair, the pillowcase would be grimy. He said it was the only way he could control the fuzz.”
In the elevator her phone rang, it was Chester. “Hey, I’m out in front, should I come up?”
“ No. I’m coming down.”
Chester’s baby- face was somber, “Nella, I know you signed a policy yesterday and it’s cool you let her plan everything, out of respect and all but I checked and yeah, they were married but they both had long records and things are not like they say.”
“What the hell are you talking about? They have a big, whole family and,” She started to cry. “He wasn’t alone, he had them so don’t be talking shit now.
Chester had a sick look on his face,
“They’re being nice because they don’t want you to…. there’s money, benefits involved. Don’t get upset. You’ve got to be careful today, don’t open something up. Don’t sign anything else. There’s big problems there, don’t get sucked in.” Nella pressed her hands on both sides of her head and pulled her face back. Chester leaned in, “Frank wanted you out of it for a reason. He was in deep, it was all he could do to protect you. Com’on buddy, let’s go in.”
The viewing room was huge with garish fluorescent lighting and long church pews; it could hold hundreds of people. There were a dozen or so present. Nella walked to the casket; there was no kneeler. She crossed herself and stood looking down at the dry, hard and small body that did not look like Frank. The only resemblance from Thanksgiving was the grey tinged skin.
She knew this man was never equipped to handle his own life, let alone all he took on.
First Pauline, then God knows what. Her father was dead and there was no idyllic past to deal with, no precious memories. They never had anything in common. Nothing, until just that moment; she now officially shared a characteristic with her birth father; regret.
It would be their bond.
In his own way Frank did the best he could to keep Nella out of some closet behind the bar and that was the simple answer that changed how she felt about everything.
All of Wrigley Field sat holding their breath as the beloved Cubs were yet in another last minute race for the pennant. Chester and Nella stood from their seats. “Come on Mom,” Nella laughed, “while I’m young.” Chester offered his hand to help Pauline into the row. Flustered, she complained,
“Keep quiet, it’s so humid. The only reason I’m here is because it’s the place to be. What, with all of this pennant silliness.”
Chester winced. “Don’t let anyone hear you say that. It’s the hottest ticket in town.”
“And that’s why I’m here. That and to spend the day with the hottest guy in town.”
Nella shuddered, “Pauline, never, never again say Chester and hot in the same sentence. It’s just wrong.” Pauline opened her program.
“I know nothing about the game, how to keep score, nothing.”
“Pauline do the best you can.”