Breakfast was the promised pancakes. There was apple juice or milk to drink but I could have crawled into a mug of coffee and stayed there had I not had to deal with my other responsibilities. I had one pancake and decided to eat fruit for the rest of my meal so that the guys could eat and still leave enough over for Lucia and the girls.
“Joey …,” Thomas began doubtfully.
Expecting something else entirely I turned around with the next pancake ready to plop it on his plate but instead found him looking at me like he wasn’t even sure how to say what was on his mind. Deciding it would be easier to treat him like I would have my brothers I just said, “Spit it out. You look like it is giving you indigestion.”
He nodded and said, “Yes’m” in a way that was beginning to make me feel like he must think I am older than I am. I let him go right on thinking it and he finally found his voice. “Tony said … but … I mean … I’ll work my share just I want to make sure …”
I looked at him and then first at Tony then at Bennie but it didn’t click until I remembered a few words from the previous night. I put the pancake on his plate anyway and told him, the spatula moving in time with my hands that always seemed to move when I was talking, “If it is about whether you have a place here or not, stop worrying a hole in it. You’ve got a bed. You’ve got food in your belly. And your accent reminds me of where I came from. Bennie and the girls spoke for you. Tony wouldn’t have brought you if he didn’t think it was OK. Give it a rest and just accept it. Now eat.”
Tony snorted and said, “Spoken like a real Nonna.”
When Thomas didn’t understand Bennie said, “Italian grandmother.”
I saw a small smile tug at the corner of Thomas’ mouth. “I don’t reckon that is just Italian. I had me a granny that thought a good plate of biscuits could cure just about anything that ailed ya.”
I gave him a small grin and said, “With one my grandmothers it was cookies and milk and the other it was a cup of tea or a hot toddy.” Then looking at all the guys I told them. “Last round is coming up. If you’re still hungry after that you can help me bring in some fruit from the orchard.”
“’Bout the orchard. If you don’t mind I’ll tether the goats down there while we’re picking. They’re as good as a mower if you’ve got some grass that needs cutting and they won’t tip over like a cow might on the slopes.”
A sober Lucia walked in at that point and said, “I’ll picket the cows in that area right behind the house. The girls can take turns keeping an eye on them as well.”
Bennie gave her a concerned look but she tilted her chin up like she was daring anyone to say she wasn’t up for the job. That pretty much tore me up; it was such a contradiction from who she had been before. Not the pride, she’d always been a bit prideful, but it was what it was over that was strange and sad.
And that’s the way the morning went. I had thought that Lucia and the girls at least would need a couple of days to recuperate but they were so full of silent, nervous energy that I was thankful they used it at something constructive rather than flip magazines or tapping their nails as they might have before.
After lunch I corralled Lucia and said, “Enough. All of you need to take a break and …”
“Don’t Joey. I might have been next to useless before but I’m not now. And I’ve been out there. And … and I might know even better than you that the world has gone to hell. I’ve been out there Joey. And if we don’t take care of things before it gets cold … Thomas said … the cold sounds as bad here as it did back … I just … I’ve got the girls to take care of now. I can’t afford to be … to be … who I used to be.”
“Sorella …” That was sister in Italian. When she looked close to tears I gave her a hug and said, “You’re not alone Lucia. You got me and Tony. And you’ve had Bennie and …”
She stopped me and said, “Bennie and me … I … I never realized how bad I was treatin’ him Joey. I swear it. And now after what Pop did … and all these responsibilities I got … I can’t ask him to … to …”
Bennie had come around the corner of the barn and just sort of stood there blinking and then just kind of came over and bent down in front of her on his knees. “Fuh gettabout it Luce … a good thing like you ain’t gettin’ away from me that easy. We had a dust up in the family. Lots a people do. I’m sorry about your ol’ man. I’m sorrier about your ma … she was a good woman. But we can’t let their troubles break us. I’ll go slow … give the girls time ya know? But just ‘cause I move slow I don’t want you to think I ain’t movin’ or don’t wanna move wit yous. You’re my woman. Go it?”
Not exactly the most romantic speech but it seemed to work for Lucia and I left them all but climbing all over each other. As I walked back to the house I intercepted Tony and Thomas who were heading that way and told them, “You don’t wanna go that direction unless you are looking for a lesson in the birds and the bees.”
Both guys promptly turned a different direction and I headed over to where the girls were. They still hadn’t talked much and I wanted to see how bad off they were for myself. “Ana? Lindsey?”
Both girls turned towards me. They were nearly identical and had played it up even more than my brothers had; but, after being around them for so many years I recognized the difference between them. Identical they may have been but at that moment I easily identified Ana as being the leader and Lindsey giving me a nearly vacant stare.
Ana asked, “Did you get it fixed between Luce and Bennie?”
I nodded. “Didn’t know they needed fixin’, was more concerned with making sure you three weren’t overdoing it; but Bennie overheard a couple of things that Luce said and went all stupid all over her and they’re fixing things now.”
Ana tried to smile but it never made it beyond a microsecond upturn of one side of her mouth. Lindsey didn’t even seem to register what I had said at all. Ana noticed my concerned look and told her twin, “Wake up Linds … Joey wants to talk to us.”
It was a struggle but Lindsey seem to get more “there” after a couple of moments. She mumbled, “Sure Joey. Sure. We’re ok.”
I shook my head. “I didn’t ask you if you were ok. I don’t expect you to be so you don’t need to fake it with me. I just want to see that you are headin’ that direction. You gotta cry, go ahead and do it … get it out, just don’t let it take over. You gotta get mad … same thing, just use some sense and know when to stop. But you feel like doing anything worse, you come talk to me or Tony first. We can’t maybe fix this but we’re family. Families stick together, even when they’ve been hurt.”
It was obvious the girls didn’t want to talk about it but at least they had heard what I said. Again it was Ana who took the lead. “Luce says that you and Tony are together now. That we need to treat you like you’ve been to a priest even if you haven’t. Sister Mary Janice wouldn’t be too happy with that.”
I leaned against the house and said, “When’s the last time you two listened to that woman? She may have worn a habit but she wasn’t exactly the nicest person … she wasn’t even nice to the other Sisters at the school. Now knock off the teasin’ ‘fore Tony hears you two. He’s a little sensitive on the subject. Had to promise him that at some point, when things get better, we’d take care that the words got said right.”
It was Lindsey that mumbled, “Nothing is ever going to be right again.”
Ana started looking concerned and she put her arm around her twin. I sighed and told her, “You’re not a baby and I’m not gonna treat you like one. I’m gonna try and be as respectful to you as if …” I had to stop and swallow. “As if you were Ike and James.” That made them look at me and I think they realized I knew a little more about what they were feeling than maybe they had thought about. “You’re ain’t wrong. Things are going to be rough … maybe for a good long while. But we got each other. We’re family even if we don’t share blood or if Tony and I don’t have a piece of paper to make it all legal. And family sticks together. And we make it as right for each other as we can. Maybe not right the way things used to be, but they can be just as good in other ways. We just gotta work to find them other ways. Luce is worrying herself sick over you and she was ready to put all her happiness aside for you. You don’t pay her back by giving up.”
Ana whispered, “I know. It isn’t as bad as it was Joey … least not for me. Linds still has nightmares every night. Pop …” Lindsey winced and turned to look at the trees rather than at me. “Pop put a bullet in her pillow Joey. He woulda …”
Ana was choking up so I said, “whoever that man was in that room that night … he wasn’t all your Pop the way he used to be. Somethin’ was broke inside him and most if not all of his sense was gone. It really wasn’t your Pop doing it but the shell of what was left of him.”
Ana blanched but still managed to ask, “Why? Why Joey? Why did he have to … to go all crazy?”
I shrugged but not like I didn’t care; I just didn’t have the answers for them. “I don’t know Ana Banana … he just did. Maybe it had something to do with how rough he had it growing up and how rough it was before he met your Ma. Or maybe he was sick … a stroke or something. He just wasn’t who he used to be, something cracked inside him. What he did when he was sick … he’s accountable for it, but at the same time you can’t go around not forgiving him and letting it eat you up. He was sick. Try and put it to rest like that and say some prayers to make you feel better. You know your Ma wouldn’t want you to suffer like this.”
Lindsey joined the conversation enough to say, “She cried over what Pop did to you Joey … what he said and everything. Even when it made Pop angry she did it. She missed your Ma so bad. She just didn’t know what to do.”
I hugged both girls and told them, “You’re Ma was somethin’ special all right. She was as much if not more a sister to my mother than her blood sisters were. Now, you listen here and I’m gonna say it ‘cause I feel I got to. I don’t hold nothin’ against your father … and certainly not against your mother. Bad things happen and we don’t always know why. We just have to live with ‘em and try and keep goin’ forward. And even if Tony and I hadn’t gotten together you two … and Luce and Bennie … and even your parents … would have had a place here. I can’t bring your Ma and Pop back the way they were, but you don’t have to go only remembering them the way they were at the end. I ain’t saying to forget it all – that wouldn’t be healthy – but I am asking that if you’re gonna remember the bad stuff that you gotta remember there was lots more good stuff first.”
“That’s what Bennie said,” Ana said with a sniffle.
“Yeah, he’s a lot smarter than he lets on. And he’s good for Luce ‘cause he loves all of her, not just the parts that are easy to love. Know what I mean?”
The girls nodded. “Now I think you two just about had enough of me right now. You wanna keep watchin’ the cows or you wanna help with the fruit.”
Both girls said simultaneously, “Cows.”
I gave them a small smile and said, “It ain’t that bad. You been listening to Luce complain too much.”
They weren’t ready to smile but at least I could see they had thought about it some. I turned and went to the house and the rest of the afternoon was spent the way I had been spending it.
After dinner Tony and I decided to walk to the overlook for some privacy to try and talk about how things had changed. The overlook was near where the old entrance road had been before Tony bulldozed it and planted it over. We never even got to start talking. What met our eyes when we got there had me leaving Tony to watch and running back to the house to get Bennie and Thomas.