Anton drummed his fingers on the desktop. Surely, the figures were wrong. He'd have to run them again. But he had, six times already, and they always served up the same ominous data.
The telephone rang. It would be Michael, and he dreaded the call. He let it ring twelve times before picking it up.
"Yes?" he asked, his stomach churning.
"I think I've done it."
He relaxed slightly at the sound of his wife's voice, and then felt a nearly unbearable wave of sadness sweep over him.
"Done what, Mary?"
"Mastered the chicken filo you love so much."
Another wave of emotion rolled over him, savaging him. It was almost unbearable.
"Anton? Are you there, darling?"
"Yes, Mary. Of course."
"What's wrong? You sound so odd."
"Why, nothing." Why, everything. Everything for everybody everywhere. "I'm just fighting with the observatory's computer again."
Wilson sat in a simple wooden chair. He was more than tired: he was bone-weary, and his eyelids were heavy. His arms were crossed on the table in front of him, ready to serve as a makeshift pillow if he lost the fight to stay awake, and he was very close to dozing off. The ash butcher block table in front of him was pocked with charred cigarette burns and sticky with dried beer that tugged lightly at his sleeves whenever he moved his arms. There was one other chair at the table, unoccupied but taken: a woman's jacket was draped over its back. He'd seen the jacket before, he was sure of it. There were dark stains on the sleeve, and this unsettled him so he turned his attention back to his table. There was a glass of what looked like whiskey in front of him, apparently conjured out of thin air because he was certain it wasn't there a moment ago. But of course, that made no sense, did it? It must have been sitting there all along; he'd just been too tired to notice it.
Rae and Sal placed the last of the toys and stuffed animals on the shelf of the children's tent. Walnutwood's children would soon trade their winning tickets from the lollipop tree, the frog pond, or any of the other half-dozen games for their prizes. No losers allowed: every child won something, whether a small plastic toy or a stuffed animal. The sisters stepped back to review their work. Sal stepped forward and straightened a small stuffed bear, then stepped back again and nodded her head in satisfaction.
"Papa said something a little worrisome this morning," Rae sighed as her eyes swept across the shelf.
The air was humid, thick, and heavy with late summer heat. The brows of both sisters were glistening with perspiration. Sal arched her eyebrows and waited.
Rae and Zia spent the first part of Saturday morning setting up the children's games under the kiddie tent: a lollipop tree, a beanbag toss, a ring toss and a plastic bowling game with white pins and a bright orange ball. When they finished, they took a break to eat rich, buttery-flavored cinnamon rolls that dripped thick, vanilla frosting. They sipped iced coffees and the cool, stimulating liquid made the humidity bearable. It wasn't yet noon and already it was uncomfortably hot from the late summer heat wave gripping Walnutwood.
"Look," said Zia, nudging Rae and pointing.
Sal was running across the picnic grounds. Two of the boys from the back were carrying chairs across the lot. Sal stopped them, said something to each, and began running again. Zia and Rae watched as she passed near the front of each tent, stopping at every iron anchor stake to bend down and touch it before running to the next.
"Sal," Zia shouted. "Have you been into the Sambuca already?"
The last Tarentella picnic weekend began with a series of bad omens. I've heard them recited by my aunts at countless Sunday dinners over the years. First, Carlo broke a bag of salt in the bakery. He was trying to fill the bin and got careless. The bag split and most of the salt hit the floor. Spilling a little salt is bad enough and throwing a dash over the shoulder usually wards off bad luck. But this was a vast pile of salt, so Carlo threw a fistful over his shoulder just as Alberto was walking by. Some got in Alberto's eyes, and he stumbled toward the sink, knocking over a can of olive oil in the process. The oil opened and spilled as well. In my family you don't spill salt and you don't spill oil and you never, ever spill both at the same time.
"Carlo and Alberto never should have been working in the first place," Rae told me the very first time I heard the story. I was a teenager at the time, and we were eating tiramisu after dinner at my father's table.
"They spilled salt and oil because we broke tradition," Sal added as Zia went to refill her wineglass. "We baked wedding cakes on picnic Saturday. One shouldn't break traditions lightly. It invites mischievous spirits and dangerous stregas to work their magic."
Before I tell you what happened next, I need to share something: I really don't cry very often. I keep in mind what Aunt Rae says about when one should shed tears: for births and deaths. That's it. She says people cry too easily. Perhaps. But at times I feel maybe we just don't cry enough. I know I don't.
Now, I'm not saying I never shed tears. I've had some good, hard cries here and there. I cried when I learned I would never hear again. Aunt Rae would surely call that a death: my life as a hearing person had officially ended. The sounds of my children laughing; rich music pouring from my piano on Christmas morning as I played Bach to gently wake the children; bubbling food simmering on the stove; my Joe's laughter; soda fizzing madly in a glass; my Joe's torrid but softly whispered words during a passionate embrace: for those losses, yes, I let myself cry.
I also cried when my sons were born, joyous waterworks as I looked at their tiny, fragile bodies and their scrunched up little faces. I cherish the memory of those particular tears because they were tears of joy. Those are so few in our lives, aren't they? Rare diamonds among vast, cold, dark fields of coal.
My aunts looked forward to the annual picnic. The hard work didn't bother them. That's fortunate, because the picnic was essentially a second full-time job for a few weeks each summer. But while all the preparations could be exhausting, the picnic was also the high point of the summer for my family. Grandfather and Uncle Gio kept everything on track, and unlike the rest of the year they never argued. The picnic brought them together each summer in a way nothing else in their lives ever could. Zia says that for a few weeks each year the brothers Tarentella almost seemed to enjoy each other's company.
My aunts were all grown up by the time the Tarentella's had their last picnic. My father, the baby, was in junior high. Uncle Gio and Grandfather weren't old men yet, but they were slowing down a little bit. They sorely appreciated having their "Little Paulie" handy during picnic week to run quick errands or help prepare the grounds. Of course they had to find my father first, and like many teenagers, he had a remarkable tendency to go missing just when work needed to be done.
It is time to tell you about the picnics.
Aunt Zia says this annual event should have been called 'The Festival Tarentella.' "A picnic is a basket of sandwiches, cold chicken, potato salad and maybe a bottle of wine," she says. "Papa and Uncle Gio fed and entertained most of Walnutwood. It cost a fortune!"
They started as modest affairs: simple celebrations for our family and the families of those who worked in the bakery. The scope of the celebration grew slowly, beginning with a decision by the Tarentella brothers to invite some of the neighbors. Aunt Sal says it was a prudent decision: "The picnics were lasting late into the evening. There was singing and laughter until nearly midnight. Papa and Gio figured if the neighbors were there they couldn't call the police to complain about all the noise."
One year Grandfather decided to invite the bakery's biggest customers to the picnic. He didn't tell Gio until a few days beforehand. It was one of the few times they weren't on the same page for the picnic. Gio correctly predicted other customers would feel snubbed. There were hurt feelings and some lost business.
I promised to speak of Aunt Rae's great love. Let me tell you how I first learned of it. When I was in junior high I had my first real schoolgirl crush on a boy who was on the wrestling team. His name was Evan. He didn't seem to know I existed, despite my efforts. I tried everything I could think of to get his attention. I would approach him in the hallway at school and ask what his favorite band was. I'd talk about the snow, if it was snowing, the rain if it was raining, and any of a thousand other mundane and harmless, safe subjects. All I ever got in response were one-word answers and polite brush-offs. I tried making myself prettier, doing what I could to draw attention away from my little no-chin. I'd change my hair. He wouldn't notice. I'd put on lipstick and eyeliner in the lavatory (Dad would have never let me leave the house wearing any kind of makeup at that age). No effect whatsoever. I even wrote his name in permanent black marker on the cover of my notebook. Thick, black strokes: EVAN. I'd hold that notebook where he could see it, but he seemed to have a curious blind spot where my notebook was concerned.