Marcia perched on the top step, taking small sips of December wind and puffing white mist back against the door, trying to calm herself down. I’m nuts, she decided, before raising her knuckles, teeth clenched in a salesman’s smile.
Her hand hadn’t yet landed when the deadbolt banged open, rattling the frame. She fell forward a step, twisting her ankle as her purse arced forward under her nose, pulling her off-balance.
“Oh! Mrs. Grammaldi... I’m…” tumbled from her mouth. She swore under her breath and fought to stand upright.
“I know you.” The woman’s face, sweaty and irritated, mooned large in the doorframe. Her rusty voice clashed with the wispy black curls and loud paisley housedress she wore.
As at trial, Anna Grammaldi reminded Marcia of her grandmother, but with an edge. Still, Marcia had the inappropriate desire to snuggle into Anna’s large bosom and spill her worries. Warm, slightly musty air trickled through the doorway mixed with the sweet smell of onions cooking down in olive oil. Marcia smiled despite herself, but stifled it quickly, leaving a half sneer in its wake. It felt odd on her face, like a sneeze swallowed.
“Okay,” she said slowly, smoothing her creased pants and holding her hands up palms out. “May I come in? This is important.”
“No.” The door closed fast and hard. Anticipating the move, Marcia reacted quickly, jamming her leg back into the gap, pressing with both hands and angling her chin toward the edge of the door to be heard.
“Ma’am, please! I’m here at your son’s request. His last in fact. Hear me out?” she shouted.
Anna held the door firm, applying pressure from her hips and yelled, “I’m suppose’ to believe Tony asked you for somethin’?”
“I’m the only one that can visit him!” Marcia shot back, wincing but doubling down, shoving with all she had.
All at once, Anna let go. Marcia once again tumbled into the entryway, this time taking three teetering steps on her throbbing ankle before skidding to a stop. Long strands of dark hair were caught in her chapstick. She pulled them free, righted one low heel and struggled upright. She found herself sandwiched between the freezing wind at her back and the warm fragrant air flanking the woman in front of her.
Anna was still. Her weight balanced forward, like a fighter’s, her mouth fixed in a tight white line. Her eyes, so dark they appeared to be missing their pupils, shone beneath sleepy looking lids.
Seeing Anna’s stance, Marcia stiffened. She suddenly felt that the woman was thinking hard about throwing her back down the walkup. Anna was barely over five feet and pushing seventy, but she had powerful arms. Marcia waited.
Anna’s curiosity won out it seemed. She shoved the door shut and grunted, waving Marcia into her formal room. Wine drapes fanned a bare wooden window seat. Dust motes floated in the rays coming through the segmented glass. A forest green loveseat sealed beneath a clear plastic cover was shoved up against the far wall and a dark shag rug, likely the source of the stale smell, covered most of the pine floor. Stacks of unopened bills and yellowing newspapers framed the doorway.
As Marcia trailed behind, she noticed Anna’s whitened cracked heels hanging from the back of her too small slides. She had some sympathy for the woman. Her family and friends had shunned her during trial as she steadfastly defended Tony, in the front row throughout, gripping her purse tightly on her lap, pecking out scowling glances at the jury.
Having offered Marcia a coffee (politely declined) and turned the burner down, Anna dropped solidly into a highback chair with a low groan. Her housedress rode up past her knees and Marcia noticed with embarrassment the nude roll at the top of her support hose. Her large thighs were plagued with thick blue varicose veins. That must be painful, Marcia thought. Anna slapped her knees to bring Marcia’s attention back around. “Well now. What does Tony want?”
“His last meal, Mrs. Grammaldi,” Marcia said, clearing her throat. “He’d like your eggplant parmesan.”
“Huh,” she said, nodding. Not surprised in the least, Marcia thought. “So? You came to Queens to tell me that?”
“Well,” Marcia started “You’re aware of his restrictions. No visitors except defense counsel, who Tony fired following the outcome of his last appeal, and myself. And no gifts of any kind. In other words, you can’t make the meal, but I can.”
“Puh!” So incredulous was Anna’s face, Marcia giggled and instantly regretted it. She blushed and looked down at her feet.
“Even let’s say I give you the recipe, you can’t do it like me. My Tony would know. And? I’m not givin’ you shit. Capiche?” She leaned forward, one massive elbow balanced on one rounded knee. They were now nose to nose. Marcia tried to maintain the distance. She focused on the woman’s chin hair and the line around her lips of worn off mauve lipstick, but in the end Marcia flinched, pulling her head back.
After holding her gaze for a moment longer, Anna turned towards the back of her chair, pretended to spit and then spun back to Marcia, flashing the fork of her first two fingers over her left eye.
Marcia sighed inwardly, smiled tightly and pushed. “Curse me if you like. Tony will be executed in thirty-one hours. He’s promised me the location of the Morrey twins in exchange for this meal. And I intend to make that happen.”
Anna’s eyes widened. She looked up, palms together as if in prayer and made the sign of the cross. “My Tony…” she started. “I still can’t believe he…They were babies...babies.” To her credit, the woman looked disgusted.
Marcia was used to the reaction. Anna’s son was, is, an absolute monster. Over the years, people hungry for the sordid details asked her. So, she told them what was on the record and more because in addition to overwhelming proof, public outrage kept him in prison the last seven years. Their reaction was always the same. How could he? Every one of them with large eyes, childlike in their fear.
Marcia let the silence spin out, coating the two of them for a minute. Then, softly, she said, “Anna, their parents… They know their girls are gone. But they want to say goodbye. To bury their bodies. You can understand that, can’t you?”
Anna looked past Marcia’s head, out the bay window to the street below. It was just starting to snow and the house was cozy, too warm, stifling in fact. Marcia shifted in her seat, searching for a cool spot on the cushion. She noticed there were no frames in the room. She would have expected at least one of Tony. Anna still hadn’t responded. Her hands were pressed together tightly in her lap, her eyebrows knit. She looked younger in her shame, and unwilling. Mostly unwilling. Marcia pressed harder, ready to cross the line to get what she came for.
“Mrs. Morrey has only a thumb, Mrs. Grammadli! One greying thumb with sparkly pink polish, chipped at the sides. She doesn’t know whether it’s Sara’s or Samantha’s. Can you imagine that, as a mother? Only having one tiny piece of your children to bury? Let’s get her what’s left of them, okay? Let’s do the right thing! Please!”
Anna produced a tissue from one of her sleeves and dabbed dry, but reddened eyes. “He was never a good boy. You know? Never was. But I loved him... Still do.”
Anna said nothing for a long time, then asked roughly, “You have kids?”
“No, ma’am, I don’t. But the Morrey…” Marica was losing her patience.
Anna cut her off with a wave, too close to Marcia’s face. “Yeah, I know. I know.”
Marcia waited a moment longer, then leaned in again. “Mrs. Grammaldi, I’ve got some supplies in the car. Can we try to do this now, today? Please? I’d love to give the Morrey family some solace before Christmas. And Tony will appreciate it I’m sure. This last gift from his mother.”
Anna cut her eyes quickly to Marcia as if to say “layin it on pretty thick missy...”
Finally, Anna nodded, tucking the tissue into her cleavage. She slapped her knees again and sucked in through her nose, snorting a bit.
“Alright, let’s give it a shot,” Anna said. Rising, she gasped midway and stopped, one hand gripping the arm of the chair. Marcia thought to help, her hand even pulled away from her side automatically, but she didn’t move. Marcia, she’s an old lady! she chided herself, but still she remained frozen. Finally upright, Anna shuffled into the kitchen and Marcia excused herself to the car.
She let go of the door handle and stood there a moment in the swirling snow, bag in hand. She let the cold air whip around her waist and run up her armpits. Goosebumps burst out on her arms and she shivered violently, deliciously. She wanted to drop the bag, get back in the car and just take off. Spin out in the snow and hit I-95 at eighty miles an hour. But she promised Ellen Morrey that if she ever had the opportunity to get the girls back, she would. So, she sighed, hitched up the bag and started back up the stairs.
Tsking at the contents of the bag, Anna said, “Thank God I was already making marinara. I can’t make anything from diced tomatoes and garlic powder. Who taught you how to make sauce?”
“I wasn’t sure what you would need,” Marcia answered lamely.
“Huh,” Anna responded, still pawing the bag. “At least the eggplants are firm. You aren’t a complete idiot,” she said, patting Marcia’s arm. Her hand, larger than a man’s, was hot and sweaty through Marcia’s thin sleeve.
Marcia stood, one arm gripping the opposite elbow on the stained linoleum, taking in the cracked laminate counter and greasy stovetop. The fresh air she’d taken in was gone. She once again felt crammed into the too small space, but she flipped open the cuffs of her silk blouse and started rolling.
They stood side by side, Marcia in charge of the egg wash, Anna doing the breadcrumbs. In heels, she was eight inches taller than Anna, but still fought that feeling of being a little kid cooking with her grandmother. Anna even corrected her by slapping her hand when she spilled egg on the counter. Marcia gritted her teeth and said nothing.
They passed the eggplant in silence. Marcia was grateful that the woman wasn’t chatty. She didn’t want to have to manufacture sympathy if Anna confided in her just how lonely she was or how much she missed her darling boy. As they fell into a rhythm, Marcia got lost in her thoughts. She imagined stealing a handful of breadcrumbs and shoving them into her pockets. Just in case, she thought. But I’m already in the witch’s house. It’s too late.
When it came time to fry, Marcia excused herself to the bathroom. She could imagine all sorts of scenarios where the woman “slipped” and Marica got doused with scalding oil. She was being ridiculous, childish, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that the woman had it in for her. She had, after all, put her only son on death row…
In the bathroom, she found two toothbrushes. Marcia recalled Anna’s husband had died during sentencing. Heart attack, she thought. Was she keeping his toothbrush as a reminder? That’s sick. Did she have a male suitor? Ugh. That was worse.
She splashed cold water on her face before stepping out. It smelled amazing in the kitchen, she had to admit. Anna was layering the eggplant with mozzarella and hot marinara. Her stomach grumbled at first, then turned queasy. Maybe it was the lack of fresh air. She reeked of oil as if she’d done the frying herself. She felt greasy, suffocated.
“Can I put some plastic on top?” Marica suggested.
“Are you nuts? It’s too hot. Just sit tight and let it cool. Come, come.” Anna said, striding out of the kitchen.
Back to the formal room? Lord. Marcia thought. Trailing behind, Marcia looked at her watch. “Unfortunately, I…”
“You’ll wait! I’ve got somethin’ to show you.” Anna responded, too loudly for the small space.
Oh lord, here come the pictures, Marcia thought. Tony on a sled smiling. Tony as a baby.
“Ma’am, I must…” Marcia started.
Anna moved fast, rising from the chair (no bum hip now) and slapped Marica hard across the face. She stood on tiptoes to get this done, but the reach did nothing to diminish her strength. Marcia was still standing, but just barely. The slap rocked her and she was buzzed, tipsy. The woman could’ve been a slugger for the Yankees, she thought. God! Her mouth formed a perfect O and hot blood filled her cheeks.
As Marcia reached up to rub her cheek, Anna bit the tips of her fingers and whistled. A teenager, long chestnut hair swinging behind her, fair skin shining in the reflection from the bay window, appeared as if on queue behind Marcia. Cranking her neck around slowly, Marcia first absorbed her own throbbing cheek, the spot where breadcrumbs were stuck with egg to her arm hair and finally, at the end of her arc, that the beautiful girl in front of her was missing the thumb from her right hand.
Marcia’s ears buzzed and her vision started to tunnel. She could not, would not, pass out here. She bit her tongue hard and copper flooded her mouth.
She turned back to the chair, scanning for her purse, and found it tucked in next to Anna’s left thigh. Then Marcia noticed her own gun leveled at her chest.
“My God! You had her? Them? The whole time?” She asked.
Anna shook her head slowly, the gun not wavering. “I couldn’t save Samantha. He’d already done his work on her. But Sara…” She looked at the girl lovingly. “I pulled him off her. Stemmed the blood. I kept her safe.”
The girl still hadn’t spoken. Marcia risked a glance. “Are you okay?” Such a stupid thing to ask after seven years of captivity. The girl smiled, then opened her mouth wide to Marcia.
A black hole, larger than it should be, stared back at Marcia.
Oh God, oh God, Marcia thought.
“That’s my doin’,” Anna said, chuckling low. “Couldn’t risk someone hearing her.”
I’m going to die here, Marcia thought. Tony knew. He sent me here because he knew! His last girl. I’m his last girl. Not Sara. Not Samantha. Me. Oh God.
Anna tossed Marcia’s keys to Sara, who caught them deftly with her injured hand. “Bring her car around back, love. I’ll need your help. And then wash up for dinner. I made eggplant parm.”