A ghost resurrected from the altar of your remembrances, Loretta stands before you shucking mussels in a haze of practical ritual. A galvanized metal washtub perspires on the kitchen counter beneath her, its belly full of ice and mollusks steaming with cold. As if inured to the passage of time, she has remained the stubbornly plump, Italian matron of your boyhood. Her arms are still as doughy as unbaked loaves of bread, her bare shoulders still spotted with the same angry-red heat blisters that burst each May and pulse until late September. She still twists her hair into the pious white bun she’s had pinned to the base of her skull since you were an altar boy, while the same golden crucifix you once gave her for Christmas dangles like a showy carapace of grievance covering her heart.
She hasn’t felt your eyes upon her yet. A hot, comfortless breeze stirs behind you, and the screen door moans as the gust passes over your shoulders into the kitchen. She raises her face to greet the stirred air, and the thought occurs to you that this is the pose in which you’ve so often pictured her during the past two years: alone, sweating out the rites of her distaff atonement in silence; cooking for an empty table, cleaning up an empty house. The pleasure you’ve taken in the daydream of this lonely internment seems cruel now, and you long to feel something finer than this for her, something tender and affirming. You picture the suckling of cancer within her breast and wince at the pang of guilt that follows. Strangely, the sharpness of the sensation pleases you. It’s been so long since you’ve let yourself feel anything at all about her that it’s almost reassuring to realize nothing but love could still feel this dreadful.
As if she can hears your thoughts, Loretta jerks her head around, and your eyes meet. For a moment she stares at you as if she doesn’t know you. Her confusion is not unwarranted. You’ve lost weight, grown a full beard. You're a man now, or at least somewhere along the constantly diminishing road to manhood.
Yet, recognition quickly dawns across her face. Along with what? A glimmer of resignation? You search her dead eyes for some deeper sign that she understands why you’ve returned home, yet there’s nothing else hidden within her gaze, not even astonishment.
She doesn’t even have the courtesy to flinch.
“Tony?” she asks, and the wary tone of her voice unnerves you in that same exposed way Dad’s always did when you were fourteen and doing unmentionable things behind locked bathroom doors.
“Well…” is all she says.
A beat of silence follows, then she waves you inside with a sigh that speaks eloquently enough.
You take a seat at the same chrome and cream Formica table that’s hunkered down in this kitchen since before you were born.
She offers to make a pot of black coffee.
“It’s too hot, but thanks.”
She nods, and then gestures to the washtub. “Carmine’s—your Grandpa’s dinner,” she says. “On Fridays he likes my cioppino.”
She brushes past you, pushes a plate of stale biscotti in front of you, resumes her work. The chipped green dish of Stella D’oro gives you flashbacks to the set of Yogi Bear jelly jar glasses she once filled with milk for you at this very table. She doesn’t seem to notice that you don’t take any cookies, rapt as she is in her sacrament of domestic butchery.
You’ve been privy to this mussel shucking ceremony countless times before, but you can’t help becoming absorbed by a grim fascination with her progress. She still possesses the terrible grace of a well-oiled killing machine. Her muscular breaths flex metrically as she works. Her wrist pivots piston-smooth as she manipulates the piss-colored handle of a flathead screwdriver, attacking the mussel in her grip with sharp jabs of precise brutality. She jimmies apart the elbow of the creature’s shell with a swift twist and gouges into its inner ligature, shearing free the central mass of slippery tissue from its bone-colored fix on the inner casing. In an instant, it’s over. With a plop, she dumps the mussel’s inner self into a cast iron pot crouched in the double-sink and deposits the vacated shell into your old blue sand pail resting beside her feet.
As she picks up the next creature, the muscles in your back clench, as if you were witnessing some drunk in a bar fight about to take a knife to the throat.
“Carmine digs ‘em out up to Sylvan Beach,” she says abruptly. “He knows a good spot near the state park. They’re good fried with linguine, too, but I don’t like to waste the fresh ones like that.”
“I remember,” you say, mostly to remind yourself that you're not a stranger here.
“That’s good,” she says doubtfully, and turns to give you the once over. “I see you took off a few pounds. You ain’t looking healthy at all.”
She underlines her disapproval with a few clucks of her tongue.
“I was too fat.”
“Yeah? Well.” She’ll have none of this modern obsession for leanness. For a certain generation of Italian matron, robust corpulence is the surest sign of well-being. Food is life, after all. That’s why so much effort gets put into it.
“Dad says I look good.” You don’t mean to sound defensive, but you’d really like to tell her she should worry less about your weight and more about her own. You could never understand how someone who worked so hard could remain so heavy. But then, obesity and dowdiness are next to godliness in this house. The Lord don’t make time for those who make time for vanity. That’s how she’d scold all the beautiful women on T.V. when you were a boy. Those puttanas on her afternoon shows.
At the time you hadn’t realized just how beautiful your own mother had been before she ditched Dad and dumped you at Loretta’s feet like a bundle of dirty laundry needing to be sorted out. It was Loretta who boiled the stains out of your jockey shorts, darned your socks, let down the hems of your pant legs. You can still hear the hiss of her old Singer machine that used to slither under the covers like the serpents in the Bible stories she’d make you read aloud to her before bed. Those snakes kept you tossing and turning all night long. You’ve dreamed of them your whole life since, even slipping between your hairy, grown toes, and up the insides of your hairy, grown thighs, each with the beady yellow eyes of sin, and a forked tongue whispering rumors of your own guilt, like the Devil himself come to offer you the apple of knowing and shame as he did for Adam and Eve.
“Bad one,” she mutters, and drops an un-shucked mussel into the blue bucket by her feet. “Shell’s open. It’ll be dead awhile. They’ll make you sick if you ain’t careful.”
You nod, but she doesn’t notice. She’s avoiding your eyes.
“It’s a blessing to your dad for you to come home for a visit like this,” she says, rolling her shoulders to stretch. “We’re all gettin’ so old.”
“It hasn’t been that long.”
“I didn’t say it was…” But she trails off in that pointed way of hers that always said a thousand times more than her words ever could.
She doesn’t leave you long to stew over the innuendo though, because then she’s asking about your job, your students, your commute in the big city, what the other teachers are like. All the safe, polite, meaningless questions you’d expected. She could be an acquaintance at a party, your barber, someone next to you on an airplane filling the void with idle chatter, and at first, you find yourself responding with all the safe, polite, expected answers. This is the dance, each of you taking turns leading the other harmlessly away from questions about your personal life, where you're sleeping nights, with whom.
But then you blurt, “I met someone,” because you haven’t come here to play things safe anymore.
“Yes,” she says inscrutably, and in the high, heady light of the sun-drenched kitchen, you think you see her shoulders tremble, ever so slightly. “I do keep tabs on you, you know.”
She inhales deeply, as if about to say something more. But she doesn’t and lets go of the breath.
Your palms begin to sweat, and you wipe them against your jeans. You close your eyes and listen to the lustful buzzing of the August cicadas outside. There is a kind of luxuriance in avoidance, a kind of solace in holding your words at the brink. You savor it for as long as you can, even as your whole world feels poised on the edge of this single, unspoken truth.
“Did dad tell you his name?”
She says nothing at first, but tilts her face into the sunlight bearing down through the window above her. From where you sit, the light seems to cast a kind of aura around her head, as if she were radioactive, burning off an inner fire emanating from deep within her body.
She stares into that fierce light a long while before speaking softly, softly.
“Ah, yep… He mentioned it.”
Then nothing more… Nothing at all.
After too many beats of her silence, you grab one of the Stella D’oro from the plate to force something into your mouth before your hurt can come tumbling out. Nothing can become a reality in this house until she speaks its name aloud. Not even love.
Yet, silence is the only dialogue she's ever known.
The cookie is dry and hard and scratches your gums making them sore. You want to ask her for milk, a lullaby, a kiss on the cheek, a story of what you were like as a little boy. But you don’t, because you can’t abide your own neediness.
Neither could she.
So instead, you ask her if she knows how to atone for a hard heart.
Even to your own ears this sounds like an accusation.
Outside, the clouds pass over the sun, and the world between you dims. She turns to look at you again as if she doesn’t know you, as if you are a complete stranger, some brazen punk who’s walked in off the street and kicked his muddy boots onto the top of her clean kitchen table. Bereft of the sunlight to ease the brutality of years, you notice the wide-set shadows beneath her eyes, the penetrating lines of care engraved into her face.
She is ashen, ghostly.
“I… I don’t know, Tony,” she finally says, stung into humility. “I guess you pray to be forgiven.”
“But what if there’s nobody there to listen to your prayers?”
“There’s always somebody.”
“But what if?”
“Well, I guess you’d be on your own then.”
You can see that it pains her to say this, and you’re ashamed that you’re glad of it.
“That’s what I’ve thought, too,” you say, and reach behind into your back pocket to retrieve your wallet. “Sometimes you have to answer your own prayers.”
You remove the photograph of you and Ted on your first anniversary, arms entwined, kissing, and step towards her, the picture dangling from your fingers like a poisoned apple.
“What’s this?” she says, reaching for it.
Something flashes across her eyes. Something like panic.
She drops her hand without taking the photo.
“Look at it,” you insist.
“No.” Her voice is granite. The weight of it pins you down. “I’m—I’m all covered in guts and gore, and I still gotta do the eels yet.” She turns back to the sink and grips the edge of the counter as if wanting to make it bleed.
At first you are too stunned to move or speak. But then she commands you to fetch the cutting board from the top of the refrigerator, and all at once you are ten-years-old again. With the picture still in hand, you trip over the leg of your chair, clumsy in your adult-sized feet, and stumble into the old Frigidaire as it wheezes like a terminal relation in the back corner of the kitchen. You snatch the cutting board and pass it wordlessly to her.
“Thanks,” she mutters, slamming it onto the counter. Then she yanks open a drawer beneath it and retrieves a frightening cleaver lying in wait amongst a menagerie of kitchen detritus. In the other well of the double sink you notice a school of small eels swarming in a brine of yellow water.
“Carmine and his eels,” she mutters under her breath and snorts.
“I should go,” you say, feeling suddenly exhausted as you stagger back to your chair.
But she doesn’t respond, and you watch her numbly as she reaches into the water and snatches an inky black eel, grasping its tiny head between her thumb and forefinger. The thing squirms as she pins it against the cutting board and brings the cleaver down with the implacability of a guillotine, severing its head from the remainder of its writhing body. Its carcass roils, a thin stream of blood spurting off the board and onto the countertop.
It’s a brutal sight, and you gasp.
“A nasty business, ain’t it?” she says with unexpected sympathy. “I hate cooking with these damn eels, but Ma always said they held all the flavor in the stew.”
“I remember,” you whisper, a billow of disgust rising within you as she grasps the next eel.
“Ma always said you gotta do it quick and firm to make it painless. You can’t hold back or the knife won’t go all the way through, and then you’ll just make the thing suffer.” She slams the cleaver down again, and your entire body flinches. “Oh, how I used to holler when I was a little girl and she’d make me fix the eels for the stew. I wouldn’t wanna do it. It’d make me so upset. I didn’t wanna hurt ‘em, you know? But she’d grab ahold of my wrist as hard as she could and make me swing down that knife like it was a hammer. ‘Rapido e costante!’ she’d say, ‘Rapido e costante!’ Quick and firm to make it painless. Anything else is cruel… That’s how I learned to make her cioppino.”
“I really should go,” you say, but you can’t pull your eyes off the pair of eels on the cutting board, their final dribs of life flowing out in a watery slough onto the countertop.
“She’d say, there ain’t no use in feeling bad about it cause we all gotta eat to live.”
“It’s getting late—”
“It’s the way of the Lord, she’d say. It’s how he made the world to work.”
“Dad has errands for me to run—”
“Ma was right. No matter what, we gotta eat to live. We gotta get by somehow.” She says this with the gravity of a deeper intent. She turns to face you, placing the cleaver on the countertop and wiping her hands on the waist of her dress before stepping towards you. “We all gotta get by somehow,” she repeats, “Even if it means being hard sometimes.” She says this as if comforting a child and takes hold of the photograph from between your fingers. “Let’s put this away now,”she says and gently tucks it into your shirt pocket.
It’s such a brazen and direct act that you nearly succumb to its finality.
But you don’t.
“Is this how you get by?” you say, and slam your palm against your pocket. “Turning a blind eye to what you don’t want to see?” The words drop like acid from your tongue, but she only gives you a bemused smile, as though the answer to your question were so obvious it never even occurred to her that you’d ask.
“I get by with the help of the Lord.”
“Yes, Tony, our Savior.” She says this with such certainty, such clarity of thought and simple, honest faith it almost seems like a put on. So much so, you’re half unsure whether she’s the one who’s actually spoken the words or some other, cynical voice reading from a script inside your own imagination. “Don’t you believe that the Lord is your Savior?” she continues. “Ain’t that what I always taught you?”
“The Lord. You believe in the Lord, Tony. I know you ain’t given up on Him yet.”
She smiles at you, and it’s a disturbing, hopeful expression.
“I don’t know what I believe,” you say feebly.
“That’s not true.”
Her eyes are on you like tender prods.
“I don’t believe in anything, okay? Let’s drop it. I need to go. Let me go.” You try to take a step backwards, but your feet are sewn to the floor. You don’t have the will to pull them free.
“Tell me you believe in the Lord,” she insists, and you imagine that her voice has grown sonorous and dire, like the roar of an onrushing tide. Your eyes lock into her steady gaze. Outside, the clouds have drifted past, and the high summer light streams in through the window. It crests over her shoulders in a golden shower, pure and blinding.
“What I believe in is the truth.”
“But there ain’t no difference,” she says, and reaches out to seize your wrist. Only then do you realize you would have collapsed years ago were it not for her strength holding you upright. “If truth’s what you believe in, then I think it’s time for some hard truth.”
The light shines all around you now, flooding through the window. Its warmth lands on your cheek, and yet it isn’t the sunlight at all that you feel, but her hand, caressing your face with such tenderness, the calluses gone from her fingers, the hardness from decades of toil erased. Her touch feels only supple against your skin, as mild as a loving word; her eyes filled only with acceptance, as deep and heartfelt as you have ever known in all your other dreams of this moment.
“The truth is I waited too long,” you admit finally, softly, broken again. “I’m so sorry I waited until it was too late.”
She lets go of your face, your wrist, and passes back to the counter.
You have to grip the edge of the table to keep from falling. You want to bolt for the door to escape this despair, but you can’t slip free of the torrent of grief sluicing out from this empty release. The warmth of her touch has ebbed away too quickly. You will not be so easily saved.
“You’ll come for dinner tonight?” she asks casually, as if nothing had just occurred between you. Then she picks up the cleaver from where she left it on the counter and retrieves the next eel. “I know Carmine will wanna see you… Ask about school.”
The thought occurs to you that this is just what you would have her say, and yet you feel overwhelmed not by the gesture of phantom redemption, but by the keenness with which your memories and regrets have conspired to take on a seductive life all their own.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t here at the end,” you whisper.
“You’ll like that, won’t you?” she asks, as if she hasn’t heard you at all. “I’ll bake some fresh bread to go with the cioppino. Maybe make a tomato salad—”
“We’ll fatten you up, yet,” she says emphatically, and plucks another eel from the sink. “You’ll see.” She dispatches it as effortlessly as if nothing had ever interrupted the flow of her routine, not even her death from cancer six months ago.
“I believe you could fatten me up again,” you offer, because there’s nothing else for you to say. Whatever this is, whatever time you have left together, you’ll let it belong to her.
It’s the least you can do to repay the debt of love you owe her.
“I know it ain’t much,” she says, “but I can at least fix you a home-cooked meal. It’s what I can do for you.”
With that, she vanishes into the glare of the sunlight shining in through the open window.
“It’s enough,” you say, gazing at the empty place on the countertop where the tub of mussels seemed to rest only a moment ago. The pile of dirty rags you used to scrub the kitchen clean for the new owners is all that remains there now. “It should’ve always been enough.”
Rob Costello (he/him) is a queer man who writes dark speculative and contemporary fiction with a queer bent. His work has appeared in numerous publications including The Dark, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Hunger Mountain, Stone Canoe, Narrative, and in RURAL VOICES: 15 AUTHORS CHALLENGE ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT SMALL-TOWN AMERICA (Candlewick, 2020). He lives and works in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. Find out more at www.cloudbusterpress.com.