A FIRE OF BELLS
The restaurant is a purple
black fuzz, its shadows outlined by pulsing red candles
Angie nods to a center red leather booth under an oil of a nude woman swathed in bells and diaphanous sheets. "That'll do just fine", she remarks under her breath to the hostess as if they are old friends, which they aren't.
Angie's proud of the way everyone in the booths stop and stare at her with her baby son. She bounces him on her right arm and smiles to no one in particular. Women who become mothers command respect, she thinks to herself. We become another breed and we rule. We can get anything we want. "You got a high chair? I want it sturdy. Something for Tony. He's special, you know." Angie kisses Tony on the cheek and bounces him. He loves it.
The hostess doesn't care.
She brings over a heavy, 1960s high chair that looks like
Already he's learning how to grab, Angie thinks.
And people notice her little
boy. Tony has a way of smiling at everyone around him
She is still seeing a white
snow from the sewer like heat and blinks twice, knowing
"So you think your mom's funny, do you?" Angie's voice booms. She has never been able to tame it, nor understand why people feel they have to talk in hushed tones just because a place is dark. She doesn't care. She's always been the center of attention wherever she goes. She expects it.
An elderly couple in the
next booth smile. They are dressed in golf outfits and the
"Where the hell is my waitress?"
Angie puts her elbows on the table and stares across
Like at Tony's commercial audition. All the perfect babies.
"You guys been playing golf? My dad used to love golf, but in New York it rains so much he didn't get much time on the course. But I know it's a great way to exercise. All that walking. My dad never used a cart. He said they looked dumb."
She stares at them like food, wondering if they could ever be her friends. Six months in Los Angeles and not one friend. Not even a girlfriend to yak with. Her husband Sal said they had to keep a low profile; they were playing straight and new people would get in the way. So she stayed home with Tony, and watched the birds of paradise by the drained pool go brown.
She is going to make small
talk and she knows the entire room will listen. It's part of
"What an adorable little boy. How old is he?"
"He's fourteen months.
A twin you know. He's my boy Tony. Is that a face or what?"
"A twin? My goodness. Where is the other -- "
"He's dead." Funny how words sometimes cross into an existence she can't control. Angie's eyes frost and the old woman looks down at her tablecloth.
Angie looks at Tony and reasons that animals discard the weak and eat their dead. Perfectly pure an act, death.
She understands now, after those months in drape drawn rooms and the hiss of sedatives in her blood, that maybe one is better than two. She remembers hospital white and blindness, trying to stare into the face of Tony's exact other and seeing stone, marbles, sand. Spring disappeared, then summer. Now it's the beginning of September, and she still walks with liquid legs and a drowned, slow heartbeat. She decides not to talk, not just yet, not until the waitress comes.
She looks around her. The restaurant is an old blood red tinged with gold fleur-de-lis and mahogany that's never been polished, just run over with a damp cloth, and is now cracked and buckling. This is a good place, Angie thinks. Someday it'll be mine. With small cash and big tactics I could have this place. Angie knows how to get things. Jewelry, money, men. Other things come more difficult.
Their Italian food is cooked New York style, just like on the Island, where the boys hung out and there was a party every Sunday for the wives, no charge for anything on the menu. And a party every Tuesday for girls like Angie, who graduated into being wives, but first had to learn how to have a good time with the lower mob, spit clean white skinned boys with one dollar wallets and dumb stud charm. Angie learned how to fill a place with heat and sass, keep her nose clean in the toilet and make sure she got something every time she went out.
She first came to this restaurant
with her husband Sal and decided then this place would be hers. Soon
as she saw it she knew it was plenty dark, oozing martinis and mink coats,
the kind of place her parents would go to and bring home tinfoil birds
of manicotti and ravioli. Her mother and father always had a good
time. She wishes it would be the same with Sal.
I will die if I stay in Los Angeles, Angie thinks. I can't breathe the river or the snow, and I will wind up making telephone calls in air conditioned rooms as dark as this to people I no longer know. I can make Tony a famous baby. That I know I can do. The rest is up to the smoke in this room and what appears immediately before me.
Angie remembers as much as she can. Of the middle of every night when Sal rolled off her and she could hear babies crying all over Brooklyn, from the bottom of rivers and windows and in half kept parks. Here babies don't cry. They are kept hidden in tract houses and condominiums with stucco walls and circular drives.
It pleases her that her entrance causes so much attention. She and Tony are going to be noticed for the rest of their lives. That's a sure fact. Angie is still in awe at how quiet it is. Because of her voice. A huge voice, something she has lived with all her life. It is a dangerous grasp; uncompromising and deep as a violent man's. The steady menace of someone who knows how to kill. Angie likes her voice. It gives her respect. She knows she's smart, that she thinks higher than what comes out of her mouth.
She realizes everyone in the restaurant is curious of what she will say next. She can hear buzzers in the kitchen ringing up a new order of lasagna. Angie has the room. The old coupleare back in focus. They avoid her eyes and she decides to continue.
"Tony's twin was named Christopher, like Saint Christopher, my family's patron saint. It happened six months ago. We took the baby boys in to the doctor to be checked up, you know, just shots and stuff. Chris gets four shots for flu, like a baby flu, and some other stuff, chicken pox I think, and suddenly he dies, in a matter of minutes, just like that, in front of my eyes. The other one, Tony, he's fine. Can you believe it? I was pretty shook up. This is my first lunch out with my family."
The old woman's eyes become bright.
"Did you sue?"
Angie realizes she is talking into shadows. Two old nothings.
"What did you say to me?"
Silence. That didn't happen where she came from. Too much to think about. She was taught to avoid court, lawyers, judges. A matter of pride, of family.
"Where the hell is my waitress? Enough already."
Angie's hair is black as
her grandmother's from Naples, and she has let it grow into an
Tony looks at his mother and chews out several monosyllables, then begins to cry, banging the sides of his high chair. Slowly Angie turns her head and glares at the child. He becomes still.
"I'm hungry too, and I don't want any crap from you, you hear?" Angie quietly strokes his forehead. The old couple leave without saying goodbye. She hates them.
It has been like this ever since she came to this cruddy town. People ignoring her, even in the hospital. She remembered screaming at the nurses, the doctor. How they put restraining device on her and she broke out of it. How all she heard were the palms blowing outside and the ding-dong of the intercom.
Angie becomes reluctant and soft. As soft as she knows.
"That's my boy. You were a good boy today. You're going to get that commercial, Tony my boy, and we're going to be rich."
Suddenly their waitress is everywhere, hovering over them. Her name card reads Nina and she is a fat thing with pink orange hair and mosquito bites.
"I wondered when you were coming. I'm starved. And I have a hungry baby, too. Do you want him to start crying again?"
"Please ma'am. I have to ask you to keep your voice down. I'm sorry."
"You're sorry? Listen
honey, I've had this voice all my life, and when I whisper it gets
"Attention! Sorry everybody, but you'll have to put up with my voice. It's the only one I got." Angie hears scattered applause. The waitress purses her lips, pretending to write something, anything, down on her pad. Angie thinks to herself, when I take over this place, I'll fire her fat ass.
"Will there be two?"
"No, three. I'm waiting for my husband."
Nina seems to be relieved. Angie realizes this woman is frightened, but she doesn't see why. What is so frightening about a young mother with a big voice and a cute baby boy? She taps her nails on the table and stares up at the waitress.
"Finally some service."
"Our kitchen is understaffed today."
"Well. Okay. I turned twenty-one last week. You got any house cocktails? Something fun?"
"No. Just regular drinks."
Biting her upper lip until
there is lipstick on her teeth, Angie tosses her driver's license on the
table and orders a bottle of red wine. Two glasses. A child's
plate of spaghetti,
She glances around the restaurant. People are beginning to leave and soon it looks like she'll have the place to herself. She got here late, because she had to sit for four hours waiting for Tony's commercial audition to come up. Some cruddy little dance studio near Warner Brothers. All he had to do was sit and smile and clap his hands in front of the camera. All the other babies were so exact she wanted to kill hem. And their mothers! Whispery little broads in aerobics outfits drinking Evian out of the bottle with brisk little feminine motions. Tony was damn good when he got out there. She was proud.
The bartender turns on a football game, staring at Angie as he stubs out his cigarette and uncorks a bottle of red wine. You like girls like me, Angie thinks to herself as she lights a cigarette and blows smoke to the bar, flicking her pink nails. You'll never get me, buddy, so go back to cleaning glasses. It's all you're good for.
Angie studies the heavy gold bangles on her arm, six on her right and six on her left. Her grandmother had told her when she got seven on each arm things would happen, things she wouldn't be able to control. It was the spirits, she said. They'll come to you in a fire, and you'll hear them walking on bells. Angie didn't believe her but the old lady seems to be right on everything. Like when the Del Rubios were shot a block away from the police station in Queens and no one found their bodies for a month; her grandmother knew they were dead. Told everyone so. But Angie's grandmother was old and didn't speak English. No one cared.
Tony is waving his tiny hands at the light attached to the oil painting. Maybe he thinks the broad with the big tits and bells is me, Angie reasons. Staring unfocused at her child, she wonders what her grandmother is doing right now. If it's cold and she's wearing the white rabbit fur coat her father bought her. If she is sitting on her bed in the basement, reading Italian newspapers and comic books and tarot cards, talking in a low, serious voice with the Puerto Rican woman who brings her candles with Jesus on the cellophane and perfume bottles full of green water with herb. She thinks of her grandmother's perfume and her knotted, twisted hair; a lilac stayed around her that Angie could never find in a department store, an intense lilac, or more a trace of something abandoned, like incense at funerals.
Sometimes her grandmother's voice comes to her. She heard it constantly when she was on her medication. Other voices too, occasional voices from her childhood and her party years. Voices that had spoken to her once and she had recorded. Voices that yelled to her from ripe, outdoor markets pulsing in a spring steam, or from the back of local bars. They came together like pearls to wear around her neck, each sentence a puzzle. And then Christopher's voice, wordless and a caress; as soft and distant as a vacation. She still hears the voices. They come, float away. They mean her no harm.
She thinks of Sal and his beautiful, stupid face. How during the months they were trying to conceive his face was above her, sweat dripping off his chin and she had come to feel sore as earth that had been turned over. His mouth was always open and his eyes were always closed, as though he didn't want to see where his semen went. She was always sure there was someone else but she was not allowed to question. It's just the way it was.
Together they stayed wet as sap on summer trees. Then suddenly she was pregnant in an autumn that was bitter as it was dry.
Angie thinks of snow, of
Italian restaurants like this smelling good a mile away. Of
Angie hates California. She hates the crappy little blondes with hundred dollar hair and husbands who stink up a room. She hates being separate, alone, disavowed. There is nowhere to go, no place to walk that is not a struggle.
Back east her husband Sal had made a pretty good living in petty theft and jewelry store jobs. Angie always had first pick of the take. She had even bought a magnifying glass to check whether the goods were 14K or 18K. One time Sal had brought home some goods from the neighborhood, which was dumb, because they were just gold filled, and she made him return the stuff to the people's doorstep that same night. People in her neighborhood had to look out for each other. Here there are no neighborhoods, only cul-de-sacs and areas they call estates, even though the houses aren't too big.
Sal was rising in the family and she was livid when he decided to move to Los Angeles and play it straight. They could have had some real power if they had waited and Sal stayed alive; maybe in fifteen years or so the right slots would have opened.
His face was a yellow ash one night when he came home. He pulled down the blinds and locked the door. Angie had never locked a door in her life. The cocaine went down the toilet and he flushed it twice, telling her they were leaving in the morning and to pack up. Tell her sister to take everything of theirs. Call no one except her. She understood.
She also had two screaming twin boys. And party dresses and a makeup case full of jewelry and cash. She wanted to speak to her grandmother, but didn't. Asleep on the plane, a boy on each side and Sal in the seat behind her, she dreamed of women traveling, of blood and men, how they slip so easily inside a woman and then bury them. How there are junctures that spell out new emotions like paint on a billboard. She had kept her bracelets and she would keep her traditions like the women before her and she decided to take everything out of life she could get.
When Christopher died Sal didn't speak for a week and she couldn't stop screaming in the morning. In the evening as well, when light vanished in slow, uneven steps that distracted her. She was in exile, she was touched by plague and bad air. Sal never looked at her again, in the eyes. She decided Tony would be her eyes. The world was his, after all. He was male.
Sal was doing as he was told,
working as a security guard and now she lived in a tract
Angie realizes that she is talking to herself and the restaurant is empty. The waitress has finally arrived.
Angie closes her mouth and gazes at Nina, who puts Tony's cut spaghetti and Seven-Up on his tray. She pours Angie's red wine.
"I'm kind of tired.
My son Tony went on his first baby commercial, like an audition, and
"That's nice. I hope
he gets it." A kind face after all. Angie figures the waitress
"Is your husband coming?"
"Oh sure. He'll be
here." Angie looks around the restaurant and decides this will be
Think only of the future.
Make it a bible. Her grandmother would have flipped a tarot
The voices come back and
Angie is not in the mood. She can hear the hospital voices, the radio
in the next room, the nurse clicking her tongue against the roof of her
Men and women can be cruel in groups. She sips her wine and looks at the paintings on the wall. She's seen them before, back east. Women barely covered with perfect pointed breasts, dressed as Gypsies or peasant girls, all looking with flat eyes out at the room. Their nipples are rouged and there are flowers, red and magenta, behind them. When she was a child she thought all women looked like this for their men, behind locked doors, but they changed form when they came out, molding their skin into mothers and older sisters. She believed women were magical and when she became a woman she would hold all the magic. She reasons now it is just cigarette smoke, air, the right light.
Little Tony is a smart eater. She watches him handle his chopped spaghetti with pointed fists that he sucks on, then dips again in to his bowl. He always watches her and she turns her attention from the inside of her head to him.
Angie smiles and blows smoke rings in the still air, popping her eyes. He laughs.
"That is one ugly baby. Another fat WOP."
Angie looks around. Who would say such a thing?
"Who said my baby is ugly?" She realizes she is shouting. She stretches her arms against the tablecloth. Her lips curl down.
"Who the fuck said my baby is ugly?"
Angie realizes the restaurant is empty. Even the bartender is in the kitchen on a break. She realizes it must be the voices, and that even now, she's talking to herself. She is suddenly aware of her last statement, a wail, something recorded for her pearl necklace. No echoes here. Her voice sinks into the wallpaper, the low piped in music, the whirr of the air conditioner.
"My little boy is going to
be a stud, just like his father. He's going to be famous.
"Are you all right?" The waitress is standing over Angie and Tony with a pizza.
"You were talking -- " Angie stiffens.
"I know what I was doing. Thanks."
The waitress puts the pizza
down on a candle stand and cuts it quickly. She looks at
"Is that your husband?"
Angie peers through the smoke and yellow electric wall candles. She smiles.
"Yes, that's him."
"Ma'm. He's been here for over twenty minutes. Just standing there by the door. Didn't you see him" Angie's palms begin to sweat. She looks up at the waitress and for a cold moment they judge one another, seeing each other's silhouettes.
"No I didn't."
Angie watches the waitress bring Sal over. She doesn't have to. He knows where she is. Angie suddenly reasons this is a pity gesture. Sal has been watching her talk to herself for twenty minutes. So has the waitress. Perhaps they were making signals with their eyes and hands across the room, above the dim, crappy fog biting through the carpet. Perhaps they were laughing. A woman's allowed to talk to herself, out loud or even shout to herself in an empty restaurant, Angie thinks. As long as the bill is paid.
Sal stands in front of the table and rubs the top of Tony's head.
"That was quite a show you were putting on, Ang. I could sell tickets." His voice is soft and cruel, slithering around her.
"Nice to see you, Sal."
Sal slowly smiles. Angie looks up at his sable brown Roman hair and his blue eyes, the bluest in the world.
Little Tony is laughing and forming the dada word. Angie lights another cigarette and blows towards the ceiling.
"Sit down, Sal. Have some pizza. I had them shave salami on it, just like New York. Take a load off, honey. Sit. Sit."
As Sal sits down Angie studies
her beautiful man. He is the same age I am, she thinks, and he is
already old, with gray hair on his chest and on his temples. He is
Since Christopher exhaled and turned gray, Sal journeys in a different geography, weather and time of day. He is only a traveler and this could be an airport lounge, and I am part of some layover or city he tries to avoid. Angie considers. She leans back.
But certain things are good. Sal has gone back into the business and she is more than glad. She is exhilarated. She is gathering her power again because she knows what to expect.
Angie doesn't know why, but
her gestures become exaggerated when Sal is around her. Teasing and coy.
His eyes are staring just beyond her, in an ice, and she knows
"You look real nice, Angie."
"Thanks. I put on my special blouse." Sal takes a piece of pizza and eats, watching Angie with a full mouth. Swallowing, he grins at her, a bit of pizza on his front teeth.
"You taking the pills like the doctor said?"
"Yes, Sal." Angie still enjoys the occasional lie.
"Good, good." Sal keeps
his eye on the bartender, who has returned to his place
"I got a present for you."
"Thanks, Sal. Really,
you shouldn't." Angie tries to inject a prettiness in her voice
"Keep it low, Angie, I mean it."
On her palm are two exquisite
bracelets. She can tell even in this low light they are a
"These are nice."
"Don't wear them for a couple
of months." He bends his neck and reaches over to her.
"How do you feel, baby? You sure you're okay?"
"I'm fine. The doctor said I can go out now."
Angie knows she's a cool liar. It is how she will survive. This is good practice.
"I still think it's too soon.
And this stuff with Tony. C'mon Angie. Stop dreaming."
"Tony's going to work in show business. That's the only reason I'm staying in this town."
"What about me?"
"What about you, Sal?"
There is a compromising silence that slaps against the table. Angie decides to speak first.
"What's the matter? All of a sudden you don't like shaved salami anymore?"
"It gives me heartburn."
"Sal, you're twenty-one years old. Already an old man."
Sal stares at her with such viciousness Angie gasps.
He begins to say something to her but stops. We live hard, Angie thinks. We got a lot on our minds. We'll forget this afternoon. Sal taps his nails on the table. Angie knows this sign. Good news. Bad news.
"I want the best for our boy. Tony's special, Sal. He's a twin." Angie feels her voice break and her eyes sting.
Little Tony has fallen asleep. She takes her compact out of her purse and lights another cigarette. She watches her husband as she powders her face. His eyes, as always, are blank. Devoid of combustion, consequence.
"I got good news, Angie. I've been in touch with some people and we're moving. Into town. Guess where?"
Angie knows that in a half hour Tony's diaper will have to be changed.
"Where?" She knows her voice sounds unreasonably flat.
"We're moving to Beverly
Hills, Angie. Rent free, like we owned the place. You don't
Angie does not have time to assess what is happening. She knows Sal is going to deal. That is obvious. Big shipments from the south. Big risks.
Sal always loved his coke.
In Brooklyn the lines never stopped. Angie understands
"No, Sal. I'm pleased.
Are you kidding? Beverly Hills beats Panorama City. The
"I'm going to be gone a lot. I expect you to behave yourself. Make me proud. Make the house pretty. You'll feel better in a big pretty house. I'll see you when I'm in town."
"Angie this, Angie that. What do you mean, when you're in town?" Angie feels her bracelets burning writhing in her purse. Sal becomes very cold.
"What I said. Once a month, maybe. When I'm in town. For a while. Then it'll get easier."
The air is fetid, full of tomato sauce and age. Sal and Angie pause to study one another.
"Sal, why did you stand there for twenty minutes and watch me?"
"I don't know. You were like a picture. I just wanted to make sure you were okay." Angie knows Sal speaks the words of a man who will die young. He is already memorizing indistinct moments of his life to keep himself brave. Men are fools. Men do not see fate as a woman.
Sal sighs. He digs into the pocket for a cigarette, and pulls out a tiny bottle of coke. He offers some to Angie, who declines. He makes sure no one is paying attention and takes two perfect snorts. Back into the pocket. Fool.
"You know how things are done, Angie. I can't tell you any more."
"Just like New York."
"Yeh, just like New York."
All she can do is think of
New York. Of Brooklyn and the river and the children, the
"Good. I'm pleased. We should be back in business." Sal laughs and bites into a floppy piece of pizza.
"I want this restaurant. Someday."
"What do you want a hole like this for? What the hell?"
"Just think about it.
It's legal. We need something legal." Sal looks around, and
"You're always planning ahead, Angie."
"Just like my grandmother."
"I guess." Sal stares at his sleeping son.
"You've got to be careful
about going out, Angie. With this new place you'll never have to
go out. They have servants and stuff. You get upset so quick.
I saw you in here.
"Now I won't... what?" Sal takes a breath.
"Now you can get better.
You know, after Christopher, I did a lot of thinking.
"What kind of things, Sal?" Angie stares at Tony, touching his sleeping, clenched fists. Sal doesn't say anything, and when she looks away from Tony into the face of her husband, she sees a man who is leaving forever.
"This is for the best, at least for now. We've still got a boy to think -- " Angie watches his eyes glaze over and his lower lip curl down.
This will be a time for gifts,
Angie perceives. A season of exile and intention. Sal will
"Eat your pizza, Sal.
It's good." Angie lights another cigarette and watches him.
"So where are the keys?"
Sal tosses a set of freshly made, bright cooper keys across the table at her.
"You can move anytime. Tonight if you want. The address is on the keychain." Angie rubs the keys between her fingers.
"Whatever you say, honey. Tony'll wake up in about ten, fifteen minutes." Sal knows his cue. He rises and goes over to Angie, kissing her on the cheek, very formal, then on the lips. She has it memorized. She touches her arms. She runs one finger along her long, sharp pink nails and watches Sal walk out into the withered white of Ventura Boulevard.
Angie notices the waitress has been watching them from the shadows, her check in hand. She signals her to come to the table.
"Good looking man, isn't he, Nina. His son's going to be even better looking. A real stud." The waitress blushes and begins to say something, but changes her mind.
"What time is it?" Angie lays down her cash and Nina glances at her watch as she picks the cash up.
"About four o'clock.
We start the early bird dinners about four thirty. Should be a
"You don't plan on staying, do you?"
Angie ignores her and looks once more around the room. "What kind of dinner trade you get in here?"
Nina seems taken. She almost smiles.
"Mostly retired folks. On a budget."
Nina leaves. Angie
sees the bartender is asleep to the hum of the football game. He
Angie can feel the air conditioning
directly on her face and it has a mesmerized,
The bells on the charm bracelet
go with this place, Angie thinks. Their rubies are
Her thoughts splash in air.
Angie says to herself, clenching the tablecloth; I am
Tony is still asleep.
Angie carries him, nestled against her breasts, to the front door.