At the end of one wall, she stopped and arranged a handful of flowers in an attached vase. She made the sign of the cross, kissed the fingertips of both hands, and held them to marble-encased photographs of the white-haired Fabiola and Massimo Valenza.
“Buon giorno, Mama … buon giorno, Papa,” Louisa said to the photographs. “This is not my weekly visit but I could not pass by without stopping to say hello.”
But this morning belonged to Anna Valenza, at peace in the ground next to her husband Vincenzo. New grass sprouted from the adjoining plot of dirt disturbed six weeks before. Louisa honored the graves with her remaining flowers. She crossed herself again, and applied finger kisses to images of a man and woman in their prime, before the ravages of old age and illness had changed their appearance.
Louisa stepped back and took a deep breath.
“Yesterday this letter came, Ma.” She waved the single page at her parents’ stone. “Massimo wrote it but he speaks for Vincenzo too. They want me in America, after all these years and all their promises. Of course, I never would have left you, even if you had insisted, which you never did nor did I expect you to, although it would’ve made my staying easier. Anyway, it seems a paesano has fallen in love with my picture—that horrible photograph I begged you not to send. I’m thinking maybe I should go. Matteo and Aldo, they have their own lives. They need the extra space your apartment would provide more than a sister who may never find a worthy husband. It’s not that I’m complaining, you understand. But the best ones got away while I was … never mind.
“This paesano—his name is Carlo Baggio—comes from Pont Canavese. He has money, how much I don’t know, but enough to pay my passage and court me in a proper manner. If we do marry, I might give him one baby … maybe two, just in case the evil eye decides to put a curse on our meager family. About America, they say it’s the land of opportunity. I’m thinking about starting a business there—that is, if I go. Maybe a nice trattoria, because in America anything is possible, isn’t that what has kept Massimo and Vincenzo there?
“So, I’m here for your approval, a sign telling me to accept this offer for a new life. It’s not that I expect the earth to shake, or lightening to split a chestnut tree down the middle. I just need to know I’m making the right decision. Amen.”
Louisa closed her eyes and waited. And waited some more.
When nothing happened, she trudged back to the stone house in Monte Piano, a ninety-minute upward trek requiring twice the effort of her downward walk. During the next week she returned to the cemetery every other day, each time leaving without satisfaction. At the end of her fourth visit, she was closing the cemetery gate when a middle-aged woman came by in a mule-drawn cart and stopped across the road.
“Louisa Valenza,” the woman called out, waving a crumpled letter similar to the way Massimo’s now looked. She climbed down from her cart and hobbled over, her face gripped with pain. “My daughter writes that you might go to America.”
Louisa answered with a crooked smile.
“Don’t you remember me, Vita Grasso from Salle? Your mama—God rest her soul, the woman was a saint—I will never forget her kindness.” Signora Grasso grabbed Louisa’s hand, covered it with kisses. She looked up, teary-eyed and lip quivering. “Ten years ago my daughter got herself in the worse kind of trouble. Surely, you remember … the shame Tillie and that simpering padre brought our family.”
“Yes … of course,” Louisa said, unable to recall the incident or either woman.
“It was your mama who contacted her sons in America. They arranged for Tillie’s passage, helped her find a job, but not a husband … scandalous news travels the world, not that I blame your brothers. To this day she rents a nice apartment from them.”
“Bene, bene, Ma would’ve expected no less from Massimo and Vincenzo.”
“My Tillie works in a factory and sends me what little she can.”
“So everything worked out for the best.”
“At first, but now I am growing old.” She lifted her skirt to reveal thick legs, bruised and ulcerated. “When you get to America, tell my daughter I need her back home. You’ll do that, won’t you? To honor the memory of Anna Valenza, grazie, I can see the answer in your eyes.”
Thank you, Ma. Louisa went straight to the post office, and mailed the letter she’d written to Massimo the week before.
Dinner at the Kramers
As head brewmeister of Becker’s Brewery, Gustav Kramer demanded the respect of his underlings. At home he found respect on the screened front porch of his Fremont Street flat, where the Sunday commotion of dinner preparations couldn’t disrupt certain routines he held dear. Such noise, such clatter did not belong in his mortgage-free surroundings; nor did those wild antics of those three children out of his daughter Gertrude. Trudy’s unruly brats reminded him of the Katzenjammer Kids comic strip; but the paper kids were funnier and after his daily laugh, Gus had the satisfaction of throwing them away.
He pushed tobacco into the bowl of his Bavarian pipe and struck a match against the scuffed leather of his shoe sole. He sunk into the paisley cushions of a well-worn wicker chair and sent up clouds of smoke, a pleasure forbidden in the parlor. His feet aching from fallen arches sought relief atop a matching wicker ottoman. As he puffed and sucked, Gus considered the sorry possibility of his favorite child marrying a damn dago. At twenty-four Hildegard seemed ready for marriage, but to a no-count pup, younger and dumber than her? What the hell did she see in this Giacomo-turned-Jake, this garlic-popping wop trying to pass for an American? If this one ain’t the one, she should quit wasting her time before he ruins her for somebody else. On the other hand maybe this dago was the one with feet of clay, and not his Hildie. The bastard better not be messing with her. One thing was for sure: Jake Baggio better not make an ass of his little girl ‘cause if he did, there’d be hell to pay. Gus would see to that.
How could any fool not love Hildie. She reminded Gus of Elsa, the Elsa he first met forty years earlier: a sweet, comely blonde, soft as the ears of a pampered kitty-cat. What a shame that marriage and three children had turned her into a washerwoman with the tongue of a tart and a butt bigger than the Goodyear blimp. And what about that damn nose of hers, always sniffing here and there, trying to unearth a tasty morsel. Next to a tasty German meal Elsa enjoyed nothing more than mismatched matchmaking. As soon as she learned Jake was bringing his unattached brother to dinner, she hurried next door and invited the new neighbor, Alice Jean Armstead.
“To even out the table,” she told Gus. “What with Jake and Hildie about to tie the knot, Carlo will need somebody too.”
“Just what we need, another dago.”
“Keep it all in the family, or the neighborhood, that’s what I say. That way Hildie won’t desert us.”
“About this Alice Jean, last week did you not say she was too persnickety?”
“Ah-h, so I did. But as my mutter used to say, ‘For every pot there is a lid.’ After all, did I not
match up Gertrude with Dietrich Knopelhoff, a solid German with a future to match.”
“Too bad he didn’t come with some backbone.” Too bad for Harold that Elsa had dragged her feet when she should’ve found the right lid for their only son, before Primula Abernathy found him. Some match—two sour faces for two sour personalities.