“Peggy, would you mind if I took the carpool tonight?” Maggie asked, looking for something to do to fill her time.
“Can you? That would be perfect, Ashley has a sleep over at Missy’s,” Peggy responded absent-mindedly. “It’s date night. Oh, gosh, I’m sorry I shouldn’t have said that.”
“Please, Peggy, please be normal,” Maggie said. “Let’s talk like we always did, okay?”
“She’ll have date night herself, Peggy,” Greta said, grinning to cheer up Maggie. “And then she’ll have to tell us all the details.”
A cell phone began to ring as the game was getting underway, and slowly Maggie realized that it was her phone, the one she always carried in case her elderly parents needed something. She jumped up and raced out of the gym so that she could stand in the foyer of the grade school to take the call that could only be trouble. Her mother never called on the cell phone except for emergencies, thinking that it must cost a fortune for the convenience.
“I am terribly sorry to have interrupted a family event,” the man on the other end was apologizing after Maggie had explained the noise level in the background. “And on a Saturday, as if you were on call twenty four hours a day.”
She heard barely half of the sentence, with her mind focused on the game and Joey’s drive up the lane. Through the open door she could see Greta and Peggy, waggling eyebrows in an attempt to communicate their concern. After all, who else would be calling on a Saturday morning besides an elderly parent, and a call that like could only mean that something was terribly wrong. Just as she was began to move her hand, to give them a thumbs up, all is well sign, the words and the voice came together and Maggie forgot all about her girlfriends.
“Is everything all right?” Greta nervously whispered when Maggie returned to her seat.
“I was just asked out on a date tonight by the Chairman of the History Department of St. Ignatius University,” she said in a voice filled with amazement.
“You’re not going, are you?” Peggy said, horrified at the thought.
“Of course not, Peg, it’s against the rules,” Maggie assured her friends. It was unheard of to snap up an evening engagement for the same day it was offered, and she would never go out with one of her clients, especially when she had not even met him yet.
With Joey spending the night with a friend, Maggie had the house all to herself for the first time. Her ears kept picking up strange noises and crackling that she had never noticed before. She watched a silly movie, one that made her cry, and drank two glasses of wine while she read over Mary Ann Fowler’s latest bit of fluff. There was something about the novel that reminded her of Franco, something that stirred up bad feelings. “You were selfish, that’s what it was all along,” she said to his photograph that stood on the mantle of the fireplace. “You wouldn’t have left me alone like this if you cared about me.”
Unable to sleep, even though it was past one in the morning, Maggie decided to clean the house. She ran the vacuum over the family room rug, but it did not really need cleaning. She mopped the kitchen floor, but the wash water in the bucket was nearly as pristine as it had been at the beginning. Year after year she had listened to Franco railing about the dirty house, harping about the mess and the pigsty, while she felt guilty that her job took up too much time. She came to believe that her little projects for Theresa kept her from her household chores, and now she finally saw that the mess and dirt came from Franco. He never bothered to pick up after himself, the clutter and filth was all from him, and it had been his fault. For the first time, Maggie faced the truth, but she could not understand why was she sobbing about it now.
She sat with Joey at the kitchen table on Sunday afternoon, not wanting to be alone. “Hey, you have homework too,” Joey noticed as his mother began to leaf through a manuscript.
“If I do it right, I won’t have to go to England,” she said, to bring up the topic that had not yet been discussed. “Listen, I may have to go on a business trip in February, and you might have to stay with Rob or Cullen, just a few days. I don’t want to go, and I’m trying my best to get out of it, so maybe things will work out all right.”
“Nice to have a vacation in the winter,” Joey mumbled, his feelings very bruised. It was going to be another problem, another crisis, all thanks to Franco. Maggie felt her temper begin to rise, as if she could scream out in anger at the situation she was left in, but that would not resolve the quandary, any more than two glasses of wine helped her sleep last night.
They worked in silence, with Maggie’s red pencil making notations in the margins of Hofmeier’s screenplay. Since movies were not filmed in sequence, she had only to edit the portions that had been revised since the production began. Hofmeier had already explained to her that the entire project was now being held up until he approved these last few scenes, and Maggie was trying to be quick as well as thorough. She had never been involved in movie making, but she presumed that since time is money for any business, this delay was causing the British production company an enormous sum.
Maggie ran out to the grocery store, and returned to find her son sprawled on the sofa. “Pete D’Ascenzi called,” Joey reported from his post in front of the television. “He wants to take you dancing, he said.”
“Yeah, dancing between the sheets,” Maggie said under her breath. She would have to call him back, if only to be polite, but she had absolutely no desire to talk to him. He was a nice enough person, but he was not the sort of man that she pictured herself with. Since talking to her new client, she pictured her desired suitor as someone rather intellectual like Professor Goebel, and maybe he was a possibility. Maggie was relieved to hear Pete’s voice mail come on so that she only had to leave a message, and she hoped that it would be the end of it.
Ann was grinning like a fool when Maggie showed up at work on Monday, as if she had played a marvelous practical joke. “Sorry I gave him the cell number, but he was so insistent and I was on my way out the door on Friday when he called,” Ann explained.
Maggie and Theresa had their meeting, which was not really necessary but it was so pleasant to start the day with coffee and chatter, to recall Uncle Enzo and the time he took his nieces smelting one April. The jangling of the phones spelled an end to the fun, and Maggie raced back to her office to take a call.
“Mr. Goebel from St. Ignatius,” Ann announced into the phone. “Sounds like a real horse’s ass, worse than Friday afternoon.”
“Thanks for the warning,” Maggie replied. “Wait till I tell him that he has to rewrite half the book.”
“Oh, and last Friday I told him you were single, sorry,” Ann said quietly as she transferred the call.
“Good morning, Professor,” Maggie began in her sweetest voice. “I have all day to give you now, but do you have time to talk?”
Being accorded that little bit of respect through his honorary title was enough to soften Bill Goebel’s attitude, with Maggie’s tone calming a twitching ego. “If it will take some time, Mrs. Angiolini, your news cannot be good.”
One of the first things that Maggie noticed was his sturdy horn rim glasses, which had a tendency to slide down his nose so that he had the irritating habit of constantly readjusting them. The incessant movement of finger to bridge of nose quickly began to grate on Maggie’s nerves, but he was a paying client and she had to earn a living. She cleared the top of her desk, spread out his manuscript, and for ninety minutes Maggie had to refocus his thoughts to the work at hand, while Bill went off on tangents relating to Chicago’s nightspots.
“I am in fear, madam. A rap across the knuckles with a wooden ruler from Sister Maggie,” he replied in kind. “How about next Friday night, if you can meet me again I will have all my work finished. Dinner at the bistro is far better than the lunch.”
Surprised at the unexpected invitation, Maggie took in the overall package of Bill Goebel while she tried to compose a sober reply. He was a dull and dowdy college professor, attired in khaki pants and a tweed blazer that fit about ten pounds ago. Even though he was the exact opposite of Pete, Bill was no more her type than the pizza man. Where Pete was aggressive, Bill was much more subtle in asking her out, suggesting a business dinner that would masquerade as a date. Beyond their styles, she analyzed their personalities, and could not find the right qualities in either man. Out of appreciation for Bill’s clever tactics, she selected the kindest, most gentle manner of brushing him off without hurting his feelings.
“You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to go there. But Friday night is family night, I’m sorry, but you understand, don’t you?” she said.
“Bring your children, I would love to meet them,” he blurted out. He cringed slightly, as if he realized that his offer was much too forward for a first date, entirely too pushy.
“Let me explain before you make this commitment,” she said, gently touching his arm. “My son is thirteen, and he would be joined by his two friends. Have you ever seen thirteen-year-old boys eat? It’s not an appetizing sight.”
His eyes locked onto her fingertips and seemed to glow. At once, Maggie snatched her hand back, afraid that she was sending the wrong signal. She meant to be gentle, not to imply that he should ask again, but pick a different night. Returning her hand to her lap, she pictured his manuscript, recalling in detail the chapter that was devoted to the eighteenth century belief that women had to have sex after the experiences of marriage. When they went over the footnotes, she had asked him if he really believed it. He had never answered her directly, and now she was horrified to think that he just might be planning to assist her with some imagined urges. Growing nervous, she gripped her wedding ring and began to roll it up and down her finger. The symbolic power and protection of the gold band was not there anymore.
“You have only to name the time and place, madam, and I will tote my manuscript wherever I must go,” he offered in his most gentlemanly fashion.
“Work carefully on these rewrites, Bill, and call me when you’ve finished. For now, let’s stick to meeting during the day,” she said, eager to get him out of her office so that she could get back to the customers who had called during the meeting.
Maggie escorted her love-struck client to the elevator, offering a few bits of advice about the use of commas and semi-colons. She carried the bouquet of roses, hoping that Ann had a large vase somewhere in her well-stocked closet of office supplies. Bidding Mr. Goebel a good afternoon as the elevator door clicked shut, she handed the flowers to Ann. “Even roses make a horse’s ass smell better, Miss Annie.”
“A little wine makes a big difference, too,” Ann smiled back. “Are you drunk, Mrs. Angiolini?”
“Me, drunk? No, just a little happy,” Maggie said. “Look at the time; I have to get hold of Tessa Perritt in New York before I can catch my train.”
“Tell the conductor to wake you up at River Oaks,” Ann shot back, “or you’ll find yourself in Kenosha with drool trickling down your chin.”
At dinner on Friday night, Maggie was much more animated and full of smiles as she spoke to friends at the D’Ascenzi Pizzeria. While the boys played games, she sipped a glass of red wine and chatted with some old neighbors whom she had not seen since Franco’s funeral. It was a very relaxing evening after a very special day. Maggie had received her first paycheck, bigger numbers than she had seen on a slip of paper for years.
After the Saturday basketball game, Joey went home with Cullen for a so-called sleepover, which was actually a way to talk to girls on the phone without Mom listening in. Maggie knew that because Cullen and Rob did the calling at her house while Joey stood guard and kept her away from the phone. On her way home, she stopped at the hardware store and bought a can of paint. The bedroom was hers alone these days, and she was going to paint it whatever color she liked. If she was going to be happy, she would have to create her own happiness.
By the time that Joey came home on Sunday afternoon, Maggie had painted the room, washed the bedspread and polished the furniture. The armoire that had been emptied by the ladies of St. Rita’s Grieving Guild and Used Clothing Drive was now filled with Maggie’s summer clothes, all the extra things that used to be stored in the attic for lack of space. Overnight, she had rearranged the room to suit her new life, accepting the fact that she was alone now and she was going to deal with it.
“I’m going to say hi to Nonna at the nursing home,” Maggie said at noon on Sunday. “Back in an hour. Go study.”
The woman who waltzed into the kitchen at half past three was not the same person who had left earlier. Her arms were loaded down with shopping bags, deep green and shiny red paper that crackled as she deposited her treasures on the nearest chair.
“Pete called,” Joey announced as Maggie walked in the door. “What took so long, I though you were only going to see Nonna. What’s with the Rivers Oaks Shop bags?”
“I went shopping,” Maggie practically sang with joy. With her first paycheck she had splurged on a visit to one of River Oaks’ finest women’s boutiques, where Mrs. Sherman selected the outfits for her customers. Suits and cocktail dresses could be paired with the perfect accessories, and Maggie had only experienced such a delightful bit of pampering when she needed a special ensemble for Little Carlo’s wedding.
The professional businesswoman now owned a very elegant suit and a simple black dress. There was not an occasion yet for a cocktail dress, but Maggie expected that something was going to come along. One of these days, she would not be sitting at home alone, but she would be out on dates with interesting men who gave her compliments and noticed if she changed her hair style. One fine day, she would be in the company of men who would drop everything to take her to the theatre because they wanted to satisfy her whims. Some day soon, she would have love affairs and find out what it was like to have sex with other men besides Franco. Mrs. Sherman had been pretty specific about the affair business. “You cannot mourn your husband forever,” she had said, “and it certainly isn’t doing you any good now.”
Stalling on the return call to Pete, Maggie talked to her mother while she made Sunday dinner. Holding the phone to her ear with her shoulder, she sautéed a few anchovies and garlic in olive oil but her mind was not on her task. “I can leave him with friends, but it’s a long time to ask someone to take care of him,” she said as she tossed the broccoli into the mix. “Are you sure that you and Pops can’t live here for a week?”
“You know how your father is,” Angie Griffith sighed. “He won’t even go on a vacation anymore. You know, if you had married that nice Bellasteri boy you wouldn’t be in this mess.”
“Please, mom, Luca and I did not get along,” Maggie groaned, tired of hearing about that nice Bellasteri boy, the same story over and over again. Her mother had never cared for Franco, and now she would never forgive him for dying young.
“You’ve helped Greta and Peggy plenty of times, it won’t hurt them to give you a hand,” Angie reminded her daughter. “They wouldn’t have offered if they didn’t want to help out, and it’s only for what, a week or so?”
“I don’t even know yet, I’m guessing about a week, maybe only a few days.”
“So, you go away for a few days and Joey won’t even know that you’re gone,” Angie said. “It’s like a vacation for him, to get away from his mother.”
“Thanks, I feel special now. I don’t know what to do, Mom. If I wasn’t so far away, like if I had to go to New York or something, I wouldn’t feel so guilty about leaving him.”
“What about the divinity school over in Willow Park?” Angie suggested. “Maybe you could hire one of the graduate students to live in the house and keep an eye on Joey.”
There would be no easy solution, Maggie could see that, and she puzzled over her options as she sorted through the laundry. Evading the questions that peppered her thoughts, she tried to tell herself that she should be happy with so much less housework now, with one less person to care for. The piles of sorted clothes were noticeably smaller, which meant the chore would be finished earlier and she would have more time to herself, to read or work on needlepoint if she wanted. As she tossed Joey’s shirts into the washing machine, she went back to her dilemma, mulling over her mother’s suggestion about leaving her boy with strangers from the Evangelical College.
Joey was her responsibility, and if she hired someone to come to the house, she would be paying for her son’s care, which seemed more reasonable than expecting Greta to foot the bill. Neither Peggy or Greta would accept a dime if she offered, but Maggie could not even think about delivering Joey to their care when it would be a free ride. More than anything, she wanted to do things on her own, without having to rely on anyone to fill Franco’s place. It was Franco who should be looking after his son, her mind told her; the man who had fathered the boy should have some stake in his care. This was supposed to be a team effort, mother and father together, but Franco had eaten his way out of the job. Grief enveloped her, crushing the air from her lungs with a choking embrace. Maggie slumped to the floor of her basement laundry room and wept, her self-pity and sorrow churning together as if swept up in a swirling flash flood.