Sundays in Rome his father and uncles would take their places on the porch or in the parlor of one aunt’s house or another, and raise their guitars and fiddles and mandolins. Once in a while they’d let him sit in. When they got to the chorus, they’d stop playing and pull together like iron filings to a magnet, singing a cappella into an invisible microphone.
at night, dear heart,
for you I pine.
Alfie practiced playing it on his father’s guitar, and was getting good. He just didn’t have much of a voice. And since his father couldn’t sing it alone, Alfie had to save money from doing odd jobs for his grandparents up the block, and buy the Mills Brothers recording from a store on 18th Avenue. He played it over and over again on the Victrola in the dark back bedroom of their Brooklyn apartment. At first his father seemed to like the whole thing.
“So you like the old stuff, hah, boy? Well, that one’s a dandy.”
He played it all winter, so after a while the old man stopped whistling when he heard it, and instead started looking sad and bored.
“Mills Brothers are something, but you shoulda heard us when we were bucks.”
Alfie would have to wait for him to leave before he let the sweet voices flow again. Then his kid brother Frankie would come in and fake like he was singing along, stretching his arms out like Al Jolson. Or his mother would come from the kitchen. But who was she to ask him to stop? She played her violin every day, full volume. And she was good. But it was still classical music, and who wanted to hear it?
After she looked in with a big puss, she’d slam the bedroom door. And there Alfie would be, lying across the bed that took up half the room, gazing at the grooves of the spinning disk, and drifting off to a place he’d never been. He was almost sixteen, but he felt older. And Adeline was about the same age. And weren’t Aunt Mamie and Uncle Charlie cousins too? And first cousins? His mother had ten brothers and sisters. Adeline was his mother’s oldest sister’s granddaughter, not her daughter, and that meant she was once removed. So not really a cousin cousin.
He imagined her lighting candles on her sweet sixteen, the way he’d seen his other girl cousins do. Her black hair would be pulled up like a crown, and her shoulders would be smooth and white as Ivory Soap. He’d watch the curve of her back when she bent forward to blow out the candles. And like now, he’d think about running his hand along that curve and further. She’d smile with that little space between her front teeth and those two dimples that matched exactly, like she was the big porcelain doll on his mother’s chest of drawers. Her mother would say to her, “Cut the cake, Adeline, dear,” and she’d push the wide knife through the pink and white icing, swipe it off with her middle finger, and slide the finger between her lips. Alfie flipped onto his back and stroked the bedspread.
You’re the flower of my heart,
One cool April day, straight from his daydream, Alfie walked to the kitchen doorway and watched his mother opening mail while his Aunt Milly stirred sauce on the stove.
“She’s getting married in two months,” his mother announced, reading a card that had arrived in a pink envelope, pronouncing every word like his aunt was hard of hearing.
“Mister and Missus Pasquale Pace request the pleasure of your company at the marriage of their daughter, Anna Maria, to Mister Stanley Papeleo….”
“Stanley?” Aunt Milly interrupted.
“The mother’s Polish. He’s a nice boy. You met him.”
“…to Mister Stanley Papeleo, son of Mister and Mrs. Giuseppe Papeleo, on Saturday, the Third of June, Nineteen Hundred and Fifty, at eleven o’ clock…”
“Eleven o’ clock? Who ever heard of a wedding at that hour?”
“The hall costs less that way.”
“…at eleven o’ clock in the morning, at Saint Francis de Chantal Church, with a reception following at two o’ clock, at the Rex Manor.”
His aunt turned back to the stove.
“At least it’s the Rex Manor.”
“And the invitation is for all four of us.”
“They’re our first cousins too. I wonder what happened to our invitation.”
“This means new suits for the boys.”
“He’s twelve now.”
Aunt Milly spotted Alfie in the doorway and smiled.
“Oh, look, here’s the big brother.”
“Good, you’re out of my room. You can be the first to know: Your cousin Anna Maria’s getting married. We’re all going.”
“The whole family?”
“I’d say so. She’s the first one to get married off.”
Alfie’s eyes shifted sideways.
“So Johnny, Vince, Bernadette, Ralph and Adeline?”
“For starters. The whole gang, most likely. So you’ll need a new suit. At the rate you’re growing it won’t last two months, but what choice do we have? I’ll ask Old Man Tuffariello to sew a little extra fabric inside the lining. We can always let it out.”
Alfie couldn’t stand wearing a suit. It made him feel caged. But he didn’t want to look like Billy the Boob if he wore dungarees and a regular shirt while Adeline had on a fancy dress.
“Can I get pinstripes?”
Aunt Milly rolled her eyes, and his mother laughed.
“We’ll see what they have.”
The wedding was the Saturday after Brooklyn Day. Alfie spent the warm morning off from school trying on his new suit, a double-breasted gray number with wide shoulders and razor-thin black pinstripes. He stood in front of the swinging mirror Grandma Pace had given the boys when they moved in. When he turned sideways the suit made him look too skinny, so he faced forward. When he did that, his hands disappeared inside his sleeves. Like jail. No matter what you did, you were trapped. It wasn’t natural. Tying the tie was all right, but when he pulled it up the way his father showed him, he felt like he was choking himself. And it was only the single Windsor knot. His father said he would’ve shown him a double knot, but he was “a working man” and didn’t want to show him wrong. Every now and then he snuck a look out the front window to see if Frankie and his friends were still playing stickball in the narrow street. If they hit a Spaldeen into the train ditch, they would have to stop until one of the kids ran to his house and found another ball, or worse, had to go to the five and ten on New Utrecht, to get a new one. If his brother had to wait, he’d come upstairs for a drink and give Alfie a good razzing for getting dressed up. Still Alfie had to admit that he looked mostly sharp. By the time he was old enough to marry Adeline, he’d look even better.
When they got to the church Alfie was sweating and already tired. Most of the night before he couldn’t sleep. Why? It wasn’t like he never saw Adeline. She lived right near the El on 74th Street, and the families got together at least every couple of weeks. He could even walk to her house, as long as he kept clear of the Rampers and a couple of the other gangs. He’d been thinking he should do it. Adeline’s mother, Aunt Lena (really Cousin Lena), was nice, and wouldn’t mind if he came by to say hello. The problem was Adeline’s father, Uncle Enzo. Not that he’d shut the door in Alfie’s face, just that he’d make a visit miserable. He was from Italy, and twenty years older than Adeline’s mother, and he came from money. He called himself an “owner” in the city, which meant he went to work when he felt like it, and he didn’t have to worry. He really thought who he was. Whenever he saw Alfie or Frankie, he’d start in. “Don’t be like-a you fadda. Pay attenzione (and he’d point to his eye) in school. You see, I get my degree, ingegnere, and I have-a nice-a live like-a dis.” And he liked to tell them about the books he read, all about the history of Italy. Tons of battles. What Alfie knew about Italians, they weren’t too good in battles. And never mind that the pain-in-the-ass owned women’s clothing stores. So Alfie kept his mouth shut.
Uncle Enzo was standing by the church door, greeting people like it was his daughter’s wedding.
“My wife, my daughter, they ina cah,” he heard his uncle say, as his father waved him and Frankie to the pews. His mother was already up front, talking with her brothers and sisters.
“Sheesh, the whole family’s here,” Frankie whispered in his ear as they walked up the side aisle.
Without knowing exactly why he was doing it, Alfie turned and scolded his brother.
“You’re not supposed to take the Lord’s name in vain.”
“I didn’t. The Lord’s name ain’t ‘Sheesh’, anyhow.”
The brothers sat in the pew where their mother had left her pocketbook. Frankie was quiet as a mouse, looking all around like he’d never seen the place before. Which Alfie didn’t get. He was just confirmed here. What was so special? Frankie even stood up, so he could see each one of the Stations of the Cross.
“What’s eatin’ you?”
“I’m just looking at the windows. Monsignor said the glass comes from Italy.”
“I don’t know. I like the colors better than American glass, I guess.”
Alfie shrugged. His brother was one of those Arista kids. The only time his head wasn’t in the clouds was when he was playing stickball. If you’re gonna spend time thinking, should you think about glass? It was better to be almost sixteen.
Adeline. He looked over his shoulder to see if she’d come in yet. Nope, it was still just his father and Uncle Enzo, who was making Italian gestures with his hands. Alfie’s father said he had melted down his wife’s rings and sent them to Mussolini before the war. So his cousin Paulie could’ve been shot in Italy with the metal from one of his Uncle Enzo’s rings. But then here was Adeline.
She was wearing a light pink dress, satin underneath with one big piece of chiffon covering the satin and her bare shoulders, and giving Alfie a good view of the skin he wanted to be his. Her hair was done up like Ava Gardner’s, with a pink flower, and he imagined her looking in the mirror as her mother tucked it in. Was she thinking about him? After hugging his father and Uncle Enzo, she walked with her head down to the Holy Water, dabbed her fingers, and made the sign of the cross. Alfie’s eyes followed her all the way up the center aisle behind Aunt Lena. When they stopped suddenly at Alfie’s row, he knelt down quick as he could on the Communion bench next to Frankie, and pretended to pray. He peeked to see if they’d gotten in the pew. Aunt Lena caught his eye and waved, tapping Adeline, making her do the same. Soon Uncle Enzo and Alfie’s parents sat down too.
Alfie waited patiently for the part where Anna Maria actually got married. As the moment approached, he watched Adeline for a reaction. Her profile was perfect: a straight little Irish-looking nose, even though she was full-blood Italian like him, and a chin that was strong but not sharp. Her slanty eyes almost made her look like a girl you’d see in a harem or even a Chink girl, which he wouldn’t say to her even though he liked Chink girls. When the bride and groom knelt down in front of the priest, Adeline didn’t smile or blush or anything like he expected a girl to do. Instead she did something amazing. She looked at the giant crucifix above the altar, folded her hands, and while she bent her head down to pray, he could swear she looked at him and puckered her lips. What could he do? He lost his breath, and wanted to pucker back, but her father was right there next to her, watching his daughter like a hawk. Meanwhile Frankie’s knee was banging against his. Whenever he was bored, his brother had a bad habit of bouncing his knees up and down, in and out. Alfie give him a quick punch in the arm when nobody was looking. Anna Maria and Stanley stood there, holding hands, looking into each other’s eyes while the father looked them both over. Then they kissed. A good long one like Alfie would have with Adeline. He tried to imagine the soft feeling, better than a pillow against your cheek when you were tired. In fact he’d kissed his pillow too many times to remember, and now, as if he were in his own room, he was puckering again, his eyes completely closed. The clapping snapped him out of it. At the end of the row, Uncle Enzo was applauding like he was at a show. Aunt Lena was crying. Adeline was patting her hair and straightening her skirt. When the time came for their row to file out, Alfie watched her walk all the way down the aisle again, this time paying attention to the shape of her calves as she headed for the Holy Water. He felt a hand on his shoulder. His father’s grip.
“Son, I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry as a starved bear.”
Alfie had never seen anything like the Rex. Up Rome he’d only been to one reception, and that was at the firehouse when he was almost too little to remember. This place looked bigger than Grand Central Station, and had the same kind of ceiling with stars painted on. But the room was round. The curved walls were gold on top and wood paneled on the bottom. Against that background was an ocean of dark suits, light dresses, and flowered hats. The waiters who circled the edges of the crowd wore tuxedos almost as fancy as the groom’s. Up front was a small stage and big dance floor. On the side was a long table for the wedding party. If Adeline were a little older, she would be up there with Anna Maria’s sisters and some other cousins, and Alfie would be out of luck. Luck was on his side, though, because here she was, right at the next table, just a couple of chairs down.
His mother straightened Frankie’s collar.
“You boys look very handsome. Like movie stars.”
His father, his mouth full of food from the hors d’oeuvres table, looked up at his sons, nodded his head, and gave him a close-mouthed smile.
The band started to play something quiet. Alfie’s mother spoke to them again.
“Now when the time comes for dancing, don’t be shy. Ask your cousins to show you how.”
Alfie had been trying to practice his Lindy, but something slower would be better.
“Oh, look, here’s your cousin now. Look at those beautiful shoes, Adeline.”
“Thank you, Aunt Penny. I got them at Miles.”
“You’re a lucky girl.”
Adeline stood with her head down now, so that Alfie could take her all the way in, while his mother went on.
“I was just telling the boys not to be shy about dancing.”
“Sure,” said Adeline, standing between Alfie’s chair and his mother’s. “I just wanted to tell Alfie if he wants to, he can dance with me.”
“Isn’t that nice? Your hear that, Alfie? You have a partner.”
Alfie’s heart pounded against his ribs. He tried not to face Adeline, whose chest was at eye level.
“Thank you, Adeline. That’s very sweet. Thank Adeline, son.”
“Thank you,” he said, trying not to turn red. Sometimes he wished his mother only spoke Italian.
When Adeline went back to her seat, he turned on the woman who fed him every day.
“C’mon, Mom, what? You should learn how to dance. Girls like a fella who knows how.”
Alfie was glad, but this was supposed to be between him and Adeline. She did this a lot, his mother, setting things up for him before he had the chance to do it himself. And his father took it the way he took everything else when it came to him and Frankie. Shrugged his shoulders and laughed a little. Still, he was so happy Adeline had come over that his parents could go see where they had to go.
The first song after dessert was one he didn’t know.
“Benny Goodman, Matty. Let’s get up.”
And there his parents went. All the old folks, in fact, like they were dogs that heard a whistle. Frankie fidgeted in his seat.
“You want my cake? I don’t like the middle.”
“There’s rum in it, that’s why. Maybe you’ll like it when you’re older.”
“I don’t think so. Why couldn’t they have something good, like sfugliadells?”
Alfie put his arm around Frankie’s shoulder.
“That would be good. Tell you what. If you leave me alone the rest of the night, I’ll go down to Savarese tomorrow and get you a couple. Whaddya say?”
“Sounds all right to me.”
“Good. It’s a deal.”
“What’s a deal?”
Adeline had a sweet voice, sweet and sandy, and Alfie was seeing that she wasn’t afraid to use it. He didn’t mind. It made him feel like he could talk to her.
“Just my kid brother.”
“Oh. Maybe he can go sit next to Cousin Sammy. I think he brought some baseball cards. Said he has a lot of the Dodgers.”
Frankie came to life.
“Which ones? Campanella? Furillo? Where is he?”
Adeline pointed across the immense ballroom.
“Go now, before the other boys get ‘em all.”
She watched Frankie dodge waiters and scoot around tables, eventually reaching the promised land. Alfie watched her watching, how she craned her neck and giggled, thinking she was some kind of miracle.
“He loves ball. Any time we come to visit Grandma Pace, I see him out there.”
All of a sudden Alfie felt easy as a breeze.
“Are you gonna show me how to dance now?”
She studied him for a minute.
“If you want. But I just told them that so I wouldn’t have to dance with the older boys. Whenever there’s a wedding or a party, they throw me around like a rag doll.”
Alfie’s neck was getting warm.
“What do you want to do, then?”
“Well, why don’t we just talk? You’re my cousin, but before you came here, I hardly saw you. I still hardly know you.”
Alfie looked into her dark eyes.
“I could just tell we should be close friends.”
No girl ever wanted to be his friend before. Why did Adeline have to be the first? He dropped his eyes. Truth was that happy as he’d been to get away from upstate, he didn’t have so many friends in Brooklyn. For one thing he liked to practice and didn’t go out as much as the other kids. For another they told him he talked funny, like someone was holding his mouth open for him. There was Johnny Paone, who he knew from school, but who worked with his father most of the time; and there was Snooky, his best pal here, except lately he’d got himself a girl, some dish from Bath Beach, who never left him alone.
“So you wanna talk?”
“I think there’s a hallway on the side. Probably quiet.”
She led him there while their family and the Polack’s family were all on the dance floor, and the young kids were playing games over by the other wall. Alfie held open one of the double doors leading out and took a deep whiff of Adeline’s perfume as she walked through. If she just wanted to be his friend, she didn’t have to smile at him so much.
“There’s a bench right down here by the telephone booth.”
Through the wall Alfie could hear the band crucifying Duke Ellington.
Adeline sat him down first, then sat as close as she could, facing him, but not touching.
“That’s better. Now, ask me a question. Any question you want?”
In his head Alfie ran through all the kinds of question you could ask a person you didn’t really know. He already knew where she lived, and he already knew what she was. It was true, though, he barely knew her. And if they were cousins, why didn’t he know her? Oh.
“Why don’t I ever see you in school?”
Adeline’s face lit up, and then she spoke seriously, so that Alfie noticed the worry lines in her forehead. They made her look older, like she knew something about the world.
“That’s a very good question,” she said, giving him a quick pat on the hand. “The reason is simple. It’s my father. He’s from Italy.”
This time she play-swatted his hand.
“I mean that all he wants me to do is study, study, study, and yet he thinks girls are supposed to do only certain things.”
Alfie wasn’t sure whether or not he agreed.
“Like be secretaries.”
“Is there something wrong with being a secretary?”
Adeline stared at him for a minute, which made Alfie feel something he didn’t often feel and didn’t like to feel: stupid.
“No, there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just not what I want to do.”
“So don’t do it.”
“I don’t want to, but he sent me to Girls’ Commerical, because that’s what girls learn there. And that’s why you never see me at school.”
Alfie was giving in to the mixture of her natural scent and her perfume, and he could feel the heat of her breath on his cheek. She was so close he could almost count her eyelashes. He said low, almost whispering, “Can’t you talk to your father?”
“Did you ever try to talking to my father?”
He’d been looking half in front of him, half at her, but he was filled with her now, and turned to look square in her eyes.
“What do you want to do?” he asked.
“I don’t know, but I know I don’t want to be there, or even here—in Brooklyn, I mean. And I know you know what it’s like to be someplace else. Do you ever want to leave?”
The band had taken up some Italian song he didn’t know, and every once in a while everybody inside yelled, “AAY!”
“I guess so. When I came here, I liked it at first. Up Rome I had some things happen I couldn’t tell Pop.”
Adeline rested her hand on top of his as he spoke.
“I don’t really know if I could tell anybody.”
She looked back at the double doors down the empty hallway, then leaned in and gave Alfie a hug that made him float. He felt her hands on his back, very lightly massaging. He was fox trotting with her over the waves, doing the tango as they drifted around the world together. When he started moving his hands over her back, she pulled away but kept hold of his fingers.
“You don’t have to tell me now. We’ll be friends for a long time.”
The words “I know” came from his mouth before he could stop them.
“So what do you want to do?”
“I want to play the guitar.”
He looked at his fingers.
“All kinds of guitar: jazz, bluegrass, even some race music. Back in Rome my folks didn’t worry too much about school, but here all of a sudden it’s a big deal. And when I’m in school now, all I do is think about playing.”
“And some other things too.”
He squeezed her hand.
“My pop doesn’t care much. When I get a D on my report card, he tells Mom it’s for ‘Dandy.’ But she’s afraid I’m gonna flunk out. And then what?”
“Then you’ll play the guitar.”
He wanted to hug her again, but instead tried to do what he wanted even more to do. He held her shoulders and pulled her closer, closing his eyes. She pulled away.
“What’s the matter?”
Adeline’s lips pouted, but her eyes glowed.
“I’m not one of those girls from The Amboy Dukes, Alfie. And besides, you know why not.”
A wave of shame broke over him. It felt like a cold shower, even though he was sweating. She laid a hand on his arm.
“I like you. We’ll both leave, too, you’ll see. But we’ll still be close like this.”
She told him to wait, and squeezed his hand one more time. Her dress whispered as she walked back, and made a final swoosh as she struggled with the door, looking at him and screwing up her face when she finally got it open. The music was still going. It was “Angelina,” the Louis Prima number. Alfie listened to the whole thing before getting up. As he came in, the band started playing something slow and probably older than him. He spotted his mother and father among the few couples still on the dance floor. He tried to imagine them keeping company, what they’d had in common. His father’s hair was almost gray now, slicked back, so that he looked natural in a suit. His arms were around his mother’s waist, while hers were over his shoulders. They swayed back and forth in front of the bandstand, staring at each other’s faces like they couldn’t turn away.
George Guida is the author of seven books, including The Pope Stories and Other Tales of Troubled Times (Bordighera Press, 2012) and four collections of poems—Pugilistic (WordTech Editions, 2015), The Sleeping Gulf (Bordighera), New York and Other Lovers (Smalls Books, 2008) and Low Italian (Bordighera, 2006). His fiction and poetry appear in Alimentum, Barrow Street, Harpur Palate, Inkwell, J Journal, Literature and Gender, and other journals and anthologies. He teaches literature and writing at New York City College of Technology, and co-edits 2 Bridges Review.