"Johnny! Johnny!" Caroline called from the back porch.
"Want something to eat?"
Caroline held the screen door open for me, and smiled and tousled my hair as I entered. She always coaxed me over to her house whenever she cooked up a pot of spaghetti or ravioli or veal or chicken cacciatore, the sauce made from the tomatoes and basil she grew in the garden at the far end of the back yard, and she didn't mind how much I ate because there always was plenty to go around, for me, and for the rest of her own family.
I sat at her spotless black Formica kitchen table, and waited hungrily for the big sandwich she was making for me.
"Mustard?" Caroline asked.
She slathered bright yellow on the ham and then pressed on a slice of rye bread. She cut it with a big butcher knife, and spread the halves apart to make room for a pile of potato chips and a dill pickle, sliced lengthwise in quarters. She put the plate in front of me, then went to the pantry and returned with two Cokes. She popped the corrugated metal caps, slid one bottle toward me, then sat down. God, that sandwich was good. I chewed rapidly, took long slugs from the Coke bottle
Elvis was singing the end of "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You." Each day Caroline stacked a pile of 45 rpm records on the thick spindle of her turquoise record player in the living room, all of them Elvis. She had every album and single release The King ever made. She had a closet overflowing with fan magazines, and two scrap books filled with newspaper and magazine clippings and pictures of that handsome and enormously talented young man.
The song ended, and soon "I'll Have a Blue Christmas Without You" began. I liked the sound of that one, especially then, in the middle of summer.
"Where's your father?" Caroline asked.
"I don't know."
I took another long swallow of my coke, and burped quietly.
"He shouldn't leave you alone in that house."
"I don't mind."
"I know it's none of my business, but it just isn't right."
Caroline took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes. "I probably shouldn't tell you this, Johnny" she said, "but someone always calls and asks how you're doing."
Her face looked so odd without her glasses, kind of exposed or undressed. Her eyes were brown and her eyebrows and eyelashes were very light, and she had a lot of freckles. On both sides of her nose were red ovals where her glasses rested.
"Somebody who really, really loves you."
Caroline put her glasses back on, and resumed her normal appearance.
I grunted. "Yeah, right."
"So who is it, then?"
Something was up. Something really serious. I hated it when adults got serious.
"Your mother," she said.
I stared at her. "My mother is dead."
"Is that what your father told you?"
"Well, he's a liar. She isn't dead. She calls all the time and asks how you're doing."
I thought that over for a moment. I actually had a mother, like just about everyone at St. Casimir's? Holy cow.
"What's her name?"
"Elizabeth. We call her Betty."
I was only ten, but I boldly confronted my father, and I didn't care if he got pissed off. I just told him I found out that he'd lied to me. My mother wasn't dead, she lived across town.
"I want to see her."
"She's a whore," he said.
"I said I want to see her."
That was the first time I ever stood up to him. Surprisingly, he said, "Okay, okay."
He drove us to a part of town I hadn't ever seen before. Lots of traffic. Storefronts. Traffic lights at every corner. Start, stop. My father's sullen, dangerous silence. Half an hour earlier he'd stood at the mirror in the kitchen and combed his shiny black hair, just like every Friday or Saturday night, but this time he didn't look like an excited little boy on his way to a birthday party. This time he was grim. Silent. Disgusted.
She stood at the door. A pastel blue dress. Long, brown hair. Slim figure. Her eyes glistened. A softness in her face. A beautiful woman. Elizabeth. Whom they called Betty. My mother.
Her dining room table was covered by a thick white cloth, two red candles in brass holders, lots of silverware. A folded napkin was beside each of the three plates. The green stuff she poured into my father's glass was Creme de menthe. My drink was ginger ale.
Soon my mother--my MOTHER!--brought in the food from the kitchen. A big brown pot roast, which she cut in thick juicy slices. Mashed potatoes. Gravy in a silver boat. Green beans. A salad of lettuce, onion slivers, and crunchy croutons, topped with blue cheese dressing.
"So how are you doing at St. Casimir's?" she asked.
"Good," I replied.
My father chewed slowly, and as my mother and I talked his eyes narrowed.
"What are your favorite subjects?"
My father pushed his plate forward two inches, dropped his napkin on top of the plate, which still had a substantial amount of pot roast and mashed potatoes on it. He got up and took the liberty of refilling his glass with Creme de menthe, which was precisely the color of the aftershave lotion he'd always splash on his face in front of the kitchen mirror every Friday or Saturday night before going out to paint the town red.
Desert was homemade chocolate cake. I forked out chunks, careful to avoid the frosting, which I preferred to save until last. My father said he didn't care for any cake. He made a big show of draining his glass, and said loudly he'd have another, that is, if she didn't mind. He got up without waiting to hear her reply. She gave him a sharp look, which he ignored.
My mother went to the shelves and selected a thick album, put a 78 rpm record on the player. It was the opening of Puccini's "La Boheme."
"Do you like opera, Johnny?" she asked me, settling into the couch, extending her hand, inviting me to sit beside her. The carpet was soft and thick, in an oriental pattern. White curtains were on the windows.
I told her I loved Beethoven, and Mozart, and Vivaldi, and Rachmaninoff. But most especially Beethoven. I felt a deep connection to him in his violin concerto, I knew what he was saying, what he was feeling, exactly. She nodded, yes, yes, yes!
My father sat across the room in an armchair, glass in hand, glaring at us. We pretended that sullen squinting man was not there.
"I just love opera," she said, "I cry when I hear certain arias. There's such feeling in the music. Drama. Always an interesting story."
I knew our discussion was annoying him, big time. Intellectual bullshit, that's what that fuckin’ symphony and opera crap is, he always said. All these people running around trying to be something they're not. Bunch of fuckin’ phoneys. Who the hell do they think they are?
After a while my mother drew me closer. She smiled, and gently, gently coaxed me, overcoming my fearful resistance, until my cheek rested on her breast. I felt the fabric of her blue dress, felt the rising and falling of her chest. I could hear her heart pounding. I inhaled her scent of lilac. She caressed my cheek, ran her fingers through my hair. I closed my eyes, and I felt like crying.
The aria was a duet. Mimi and Rudolfo, proclaiming their love for each other. One of the most famous arias in all of opera.
"Listen," she whispered. "Isn't it just beautiful?"
Half an hour later my father said, "It's time to go.”
"It's early," my mother said.
"I said it's time to go. Come on. NOW."
"When will I see him again?" she asked.
"I'll let you know."
"How about next Saturday?"
"I said I'll let you know. Okay? What part of that don't you understand?"
"I want to see him."
"Come on, let's go."
She stood at the door, and waved. The woman in the soft blue dress. Elizabeth. Betty. My mother.
* * *
The house was at the bottom of an almost impossibly steep dirt road. Its paint had peeled off long ago, and the boards were covered with a dark film of soot and particulate that showered from the clouds from Youngstown Sheet & Tube's huge stacks. To the side of the porch were pools of milky-looking water that smelled sour. The porch's boards creaked.
We stood at the door. My father knocked loudly, aggressively. "I'm here for the RENT," he called out loudly.
A plump, stony-faced Negro woman wearing a knit sweater opened the door. Her thin, worn print dress had a v-necked front that showed the bulging tops of her enormous brown breasts. The room was dark. Three toddlers in tattered gray cloth diapers were sitting on the floor playing with an assortment of dolls with pink skin and shiny gold hair. The dolls had on no clothes. One was missing an arm.
My father spoke sternly, and for emphasis he poked his forefinger toward the woman. You're way behind. Three, four months. Eviction. Do you know what eviction means?
The woman nodded. She kept her eyes averted, she did not look at him directly. When he was through with his lecture, she slowly left the room. When she came back she gave my father some folded bills. After a quick count, he stuffed them into his bulging black leather wallet.
The woman asked for a receipt. My father said he'd send one first thing in the morning. She stared at him.
"What's the matter?" he said. "Don't you trust me?"
As we drove up the steep hill, tires spinning in the loose dirt and gravel, he said, "It's pathetic. Honest to God. See how those niggers live? They're like fuckin' animals."
My father's indifference to that woman's misery shocked me. He didn't care that his and Alex's run-down "rental property," as they so proudly called it, had no electricity, or heat other than the open gas stove, while the taped-up broken windows let in the winter wind.
He spat out the word with vehement hatred. It made me sick. Ashamed.