FICTION: The Way Things Were by Frank Morelli

It’s my second trip to Philadelphia International Airport in as many weeks. This time I’m not alone. Claire is with me. She wants to say goodbye. Said she didn’t sleep the whole time I was away in Verona. It’s where I went last week while she was up watching the Late Show. And then the Late Late Show. And then whatever garbage comes on cable until the sun rises.

Claire doesn’t understand why I have to do this again. She’ll never understand. Never had family ties or a bunch of relatives telling her to never leave the Northeast. As far as I could tell she hated family. Said it chained you up until the day you died and probably longer. I guess they don’t have Sunday gravy in Encinitas—only fish tacos and chili cook-offs.

“It seems excessive,” she tells me. “I’m just saying.” She’s always ‘just saying’ that one extra thing. The thing that makes you want to knock your own teeth down your throat. “And you didn’t even know the lady until last month.” (Like that)

I slide the handle on my suitcase into place like I’m cocking a rifle. A few heads spin around from the boarding area where rows of aviation chairs are piled high with mismatched luggage, coats, handbags, and people—all of them locked in a furious gaze with the airline attendant who stands like a mannequin in her cardigan and tweed skirt. A man’s face peers around his newspaper, a pair of glasses halfway down his nose. A mother tugs at her daughter’s stroller until it rolls a few inches closer to her knee.

“She’s family,” I whisper to Claire when we find an area to rest our bags. “What can I do about it?”

“What can you do about it? You could stay here and let someone else plan the funeral.”

“She doesn’t have anyone else. She was ninety-seven years old.” Claire’s eyes grow wide and her lips part for a moment, but there’s nothing to say. And I can tell she hates it because her eyes dart to the floor and she shuffles her feet a lot when she doesn’t get the last word. Or get her way.

I place a hand on Claire’s shoulder and guide her down next to me in an empty row of chairs. “Everything’s gonna be fine,” I tell her.

“I just don’t understand why it’s always you.”
“Because that’s what I do,” I say. “I’d feel guilty if I didn’t.” My hand presses down on her thigh and the skin crinkles above her nose and I know she’s going to be all right. “Don’t worry. This will all be over and we’ll go back to the way things were.”

*******

Ciao! Marcos e davvero lei? Is it you?” Antonetta’s legs wobbled as she shuffled to the edge of the cobbled step outside her door. Her support hose were rolled to mid calf and a set of angular knees poked out from under a floral housedress.

Si. Si. It’s me,” I said. I pulled my suitcase out of the trunk of the cab and dropped it on the gravel road. Then I walked to Antonetta and grabbed hold of her arm. She was all bones and loose skin. Her wrist was a brittle twig between my thumb and forefinger. “No, no,” I told her. “You stay here. I’ll bring the bags.” Her face remained expressionless. “Soggiorno,” I told her, and I pointed to the spot on which she stood. “Soggiorno?

Si. Soggiorno. You go.”

I paid the driver his two hundred Euros for a stinking trip from the Roma Airport to Verona. Then I picked up my bags and followed Antonetta through a slatted front door and into her home.

The aroma hit me about two steps in—of chestnuts roasting on a spit; of wild oregano and foreign rosemary; of orange zest and lemon peel; of olive oil and of garlic cloves. The fragrance paralyzed in me every will but for that of eating, and I tossed my suitcases aside for a place setting at the table.

It was lined with artichokes and roast pheasant and Carpaccio; great hunks of aged parmagiano and sharp provolone sat at the corner of the table; a fire crackled in the kitchen fireplace. Antonetta stood there with almost a hundred years of history stretched across her brow.

Mangia! Fretta! What do you wait for?” That was the only invitation I needed to fill my plate with Italian delicacies. Antonetta sat on a stool beside the sink and picked at the strings of her apron as I ate. When my plate was cleaned, seconded, and cleaned again, Antonetta shuffled over and collected my silverware in one of her hands. She placed the other on mine and said, “Sono contento che mi hai travota. I am glad you found me, Marco.”

*******

“Attention passengers of Flight 2023 to Rome, the pilot has informed me there will be a slight delay. We will keep you posted with adjusted boarding times as they become available.”

“Great,” I say to Claire. “More time I’ll never get back.” Big mistake. I hear the air sputter from Claire’s balloon before I finish the last word.

“Yeah,” she says, “God forbid you spend more time with me.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“Oh, forget it.”

“Fine.”

“Fine.”

I pick up an abandoned copy of yesterday’s Inquirer from the empty chair next to me and stare at the front page like I’m reading. It works for a few seconds. I enjoy the silence mixed with the occasional burst of airport-speak over the intercom. Then it starts again.

“You didn’t have to go looking for her, you know.”

“I came across the information by chance, honey. I was doing research. I’m a researcher. These things happen.”

“But you didn’t have to follow up.”

“I wanted to follow up. She’s a family member. Once you know that you can’t forget it.”

“I can,” she says to me.

I flip the old newspaper up in front of my face and stare at the headline: Phillies Gain From Dodgers Mistakes in Lopsided Win. I smile.

“Do you have your passport?” She asks this out of nowhere, even though I had known for absolute certain she would ask this question and a laundry list of others.

“Yes,” I say from behind the paper.

“What about the credit card?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Your toothbrush?”

“I have that too.”

“Did you pack enough underwear?”

I flip the paper down on my lap. “Claire, I’m forty years old. I think I can handle a few thing on my own.”

*******

 In the countryside surrounding Verona, the alarm clock of choice is a rooster and a gang of clucking chickens, which was a nice change of pace from my normal routine—blaring car horns and noxious exhaust fumes piped directly in my window from City Line Avenue.

I’d left the guestroom window open overnight and now the room had a crisp, mid-March feel to it. The scent of rosemary wafted in from Antonetta’s garden. It cleansed the room and shook me awake by my senses. Antonetta’s breathing was heavy and melodic in the next room. The roosters and the rosemary no longer affected her as it had me.

I let her sleep. Slipped on my jeans and a pair of sneakers and crept into the hall. The house was old and cavernous. The entire structure was built of timber—these ancient-looking logs as wide around as truck tires. There was at least a forest-worth of them, it seemed. In the light of day, with the flat, blue Verona sky painting the glass on the front parlor window, it was clear Antonetta’s ‘house’ verged more on ‘castle.’ The array of original artwork scattered about the place, from sculptures to oil paintings to woodcuttings, made it clear Antonetta spared no expense to keep it that way.

Before I could take another step, I heard the long squeak of an old door as it swung open. I froze at the top of the stairs.

“Marco? Sei sveglio?

“Si,” I said. “I’m awake. Is it too early? Multo presto?” Her eyes were tiny slits that she rubbed with balled-up hands.

“No. Oh no, Marco. Mangia? You eat?” She pointed at me and, for a second, I didn’t know what to say. The morning broke with a sense of mystery, a sense of freedom I hadn’t felt in some time. My plan was to take advantage. To see and feel and touch Verona—the real Verona—while I had the chance. And my plan, all along, was to do it alone.

“No grazie,” I said. “I’ll take my breakfast in the city.” But Antonetta would not stand for my lapse in convention. It was all too impossible for her to conceive.

“Ridicolo!” she shouted. “You stay here with me in the country. Lo insisto!” I tried to reply but Antonetta waved me off with a bony hand and swept past me faster than I’d seen her move since my arrival.

“There was nothing left to do but join her at the kitchen table. And then out on the porch for the daily sweeping. And then to mend a fence beside her chicken coop. And then at the table again for lunch. And so on until I was glad to be back in the guestroom with the door closed and the scent of rosemary wafting through the window.

*******

 “Maybe we should just move to Italy,” I say to Claire when her head slumps down on my shoulder for the fourth time. We’ve entered hour three of the flight delay. I spent one of those hours convincing Claire I knew how to pack a suitcase and the other two picking off stray bits of conversation from the other flightless passengers and combining them in my mind to form new conversation that wasn’t so pointless and ordinary.

Claire yawns and gives me this look that tells me she isn’t in the mood for my bullshit. “I’m serious,” I tell her. “Let’s get another ticket and we’ll never come back.”

“We’ll never come back?” she asks with a bemused smile curled up on her lips.

“Never.”

“And it’s just that simple?”

“Couldn’t be easier.” She stares down at her wrist and twirls the thin, gold bracelet I’d giver her last Christmas. She does that when she’s weighing her options and I think, just for a second, I may have her convinced.

“And where would we live?” she asks.

“At Antonetta’s. The place is enormous.”

“In a house where an old lady died? Ugh. Gross.”

“That’s what old ladies do, honey.”

“I don’t think I could do it,” she says, and her eyes get all big and dramatic like an old lady dying presents some real and present danger to her.

“We could sell it,” I counter, “and buy a different house in a completely different part of Italy. No dead ladies.” I’m sure I have her now.

“But all my friends are here…and my job…and they just put in a new Wegman’s right around the block. I’m just saying—“

“I get it, Claire. Trust me, I do. But promise me you’ll remember I made the offer.” She thinks I’m kidding so I say it again. “Do you promise? That you’ll remember the offer?” She looks startled but she recovers. She always does. Always knows exactly what to say.

“Why should I promise?”

“So you don’t wake up one day with a truckload of regrets and me flattened under the front tire.” I keep my eyes on a level with hers until she shudders and looks away. “So do you promise or not?”

“Yes, ok? Yes. I promise. Does that make you feel better?”

“It does.”

*******

 Two more days in Verona and I was ready to get back to Philly as soon as possible. Antonetta had her hooks in me so deep I hadn’t even ventured into the city—hadn’t climbed the steps of Italy’s second-largest Coliseum, hadn’t eaten a bowl of gelato or sat at a café sipping espresso and watching the lives of real Italians go by.

Instead, I fed chickens and mopped floors. I walked down a gravel road to the Farmacia where I purchased various prescriptions for Antonetta. I washed dishes by hand after feasting on her extravagant cooking. In short, I did all the daily chores Antonetta could not have possibly been doing alone all these years. Only she had. And that feeling, the guilt of seeing everyone (including myself) abandon her, was enough to keep me voluntarily locked in her stockade.

On the fourth or fifth straight day of this nonsense, I set Antonetta down for a mid afternoon nap and decided to have a look around the place. There were enough doors and stairways and fireplaces to keep an explorer busy for a lifetime, so I was interested in what I would find. I never thought the jackpot—yes, the literal jackpot—would be behind the very first door I opened.

It was a study or a personal library of sorts, possibly used as an office by Antonetta’s late husband. The walls were lined with bookshelves hewn from the very same timber as the house itself. Books with loose documents hanging out of them were strewn on these shelves with no apparent attention to a system of any kind. At the center of the room was a large, oak desk. The papers upon it were meticulously ordered in neat stacks. They were positioned around a single document that was the obvious showpiece of the exhibit: Antonetta’s will. Sitting there. Waiting. Foreboding her demise.

I turned to leave the study with its privacy intact, but I could go no further than the doorway before my curiosity got the better of me. I picked up the document and the first thing I noticed was my name printed across the top on a line that read: EXECUTOR. There were no other names listed. The date on the will indicated it had been updated within the last month, around the time I learned of Antonetta’s existence and she of mine.

I placed the will back on the surface of the desk and left the office like I’d never been there at all. Then I went back to tidying Antonetta’s house—only it was much easier knowing that one day all of it would be mine.

*******

A single crackle from the intercom breathes life into the boarding area. The old man with the glasses and the bushy, brown mustache perks up from a slouched position on the seat across from mine. He straightens his cap and takes a sip of coffee. Eyes me, then Claire. I shrug my shoulder as if to say, “Maybe this hell will end soon.” He tips his bill and resumes vigil over his coffee.

Another crackle from the intercom. Then a voice. “Attention passengers of Flight 2023 nonstop service to Rome. We will begin boarding shortly.” The announcement sets the waiting area in motion. The single mother packs up her diaper bag and cradles her baby out of the stroller. The old man siphons off the last of his coffee, tosses the cup, and pops a stick of Doublemint under his mustache. Claire and I stand and smooth our slacks as we stretch our legs.

I fold up the old paper I’d been fake-reading for hours and place it back on the seat for the next fake reader to use. Then I feel Claire’s hand close around mine. It’s colder than normal and I can feel a slight waver run through it. I take hold of her other hand.

“You’re sure you packed enough underwear?” she asks.

“I’m sure.”

“And you have the return flight information?”

“I do.”

“You’ll be back on Tuesday, right?”

“That’s what it says on my ticket,” I say.

“Then I guess you’re all set.”
“I guess I am.” Claire’s eyes look like glass all of a sudden and I can tell she doesn’t want me to notice, so I pull her close to me and feel a few tears roll out on my collar. “Don’t worry,” I tell her, “This will be the last time.”

“And when you get home everything goes back to normal, right? Like the way things used to be?”

“As soon as I get back,” I tell her. “I promise.”

*******

 I carried my bags down from Antonetta’s guestroom and lined them up beside the front door. It was my tenth and final day in Verona. I’d only ventured into the city once and that was to fetch a few specialty items and a very particular bag of espresso beans from a very particular café. “Insisto! Insisto!” Antonetta had said, and I was all too happy to oblige because I knew I’d have my time in Verona and I’d have it alone. There was paperwork on the desk in Antonetta’s study to prove it.

That’s why I didn’t find any harm in serving her just one more cappuccino before my departure—with her special, magic beans, of course. “One for the road,” I told her.

And that’s why I insisted (Insisto! Insisto!) Antonetta rest her weary limbs far away from the kitchen, on the parlor room rattan, while I prepared her special drink far away from eyes that pry.

And that’s why I paid no mind to my shaky hands as they popped open three capsules of Antonetta’s strongest pain medication—far more than an old woman of mere skin and bone could weather—and sprinkled the powder in the bottom of the cup like venomous sugar.

“Oh, mio Marco,” she said when I carried the cup out to her chair. “Grazie, grazie. I thank you.”

Prego,” I told her. “The pleasure is mine.” I sat in a chair across from Antonetta and watched as she drained the cup to the bottom. Then I covered her with a blanket and kissed her forehead.

“Bona sera, Antonetta,” I said as I picked up my luggage and reached for the doorknob. “I bid you farewell.” And I walked to the cab without looking back at the house, for I knew I’d be back to claim her before long.

*******

I kiss Claire one last time and feel her fingers press into the angles of my back. I look at her. “I love you,” she says.

“I won’t be gone forever,” I tell her. Then I turn and walk off down the concourse and out of her view. I feel around in my jacket pocket for the scrap of paper on which I’d written my return flight information. It’s wrinkled and folded with no attention to symmetry. I open it:

Flight 1103 from Rome to Philadelphia

Arrival Time – 5:00 pm

I crinkle the paper in a ball and drop it in a wastebasket as I board the plane—because going back to the way things were had never been part of my plan.

Frank Morelli

HeadshotMorelli

Frank Morelli is a dreamer, an educator, and a beer league extraordinaire. His fiction and essays have appeared in Cobalt Review, Philadelphia Stories, Rind, Change Seven Magazine, Jersey Devil Press, Monkey Puzzle Press, and Indiana Voice Journal. His debut novel, No Sad Songs, launches from FOW Books in October 2017.
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