SISTER HELEN–SALVATORE DIFALCO
Sausage and peppers greeted my nose upon entry into my mother’s house and my mouth drooled like that of an old codger as I sat down at her kitchen table and unfolded a linen napkin to shield my new raw silk shirt from splashes and spills. She asked me if everything was okay and I told her yes, everything was just dandy, why? “I had the dream about the two mules again last night,” she said quietly. “Third time this week.” A long-recurring dream, the two mules augured malevolence according to her folksy interpretation, which I had discovered didn’t rest on any acquired dream analyses or residual wives’ tales she’d once heard chiming through the cobbled streets of her village of origin, Santo Stefano di Aspromonte, in the hills of southern Italy. Thus, her interpretation was singular, and entirely of her own fabrication, but one based on an ominous feeling she as a person of instinct could not disregard.
She plated up the sausage and peppers and set it steaming in front of me. I ripped the end off a loaf of crusty bread and dipped it in the hot, peppery oil. “Careful you don’t stain that beautiful shirt,” she said. “My, it’s lovely. Is it Italian? It looks Italian. You’re not wearing it to work, are you?” I shook my head as I wolfed down a piece of sausage. I’d worn the shirt to impress a bank teller I fancied on a routine visit to the bank. I’d been trying to make a connection with her for weeks. Needless to say, my effort fell flat. Every time I came near her my tongue tied up into a desiccated knot and I couldn’t keep my hands still, gesticulating like a hack comedian. She must have thought something was neurologically wrong with me. I would have felt truly rotten at that moment if not for my mother’s delicious meal.
“It’s good, huh,” she said, smiling. Mouth crammed, I nodded, and tried to catch my breath without choking. Christ, it was good. I don’t know what she did to make such a simple dish that good. I’d tried to follow her recipe—I even used the same hot sausages from Nardelli’s Market—and methodology exactly but never could perfect it. I continued wolfing as she clattered some pans and plates around. “You’re not going to eat?” I asked. “I had pasta a la carbonara for lunch with your Aunt Celeste,” she said. “I’m stuffed.” Just past four, it was early for dinner, but I had to work at seven at the Press Club, a hipster joint where I bartended six nights a week. I was working long hours to make enough money to strike out to Italy for a few months and hang with my cousins in Rome. I loved Rome and hadn’t been there in ten or so years. Last time I was there I got jammed up with a local girl—Felicia—who wanted to move to Canada. All that fell through when I was arrested for possession of marijuana—not even an ounce—just before the laws were lightened, and lost my job in the storage facility of the Metropolitan Archives. I served no jail time, but my world was turned upside down. To save the Roman girl further anguish, I wrote her a letter explaining that my feelings had changed and that I didn’t think things would work out with us. I was sorry, and I wished her all the best. I never heard back from her, though I found out she actually visited Toronto a few years ago. She made no attempt to contact me.
“So what’s up with the dream?” I asked my mother. “Two mules again, eh? You think something bad’s going to happen? What is it about the mules?” She turned from the sink, wiping her hands on her blue gingham apron. “Someone’s given you the malocchio,” she said in hushed tones. “That’s what the two mules tell me. You have to watch yourself.” This was the last thing I needed. “What is wrong with you?” I said. “The malocchio? Seriously, Ma? How can you believe that malarky? Aren’t you a Roman Catholic? Did Jesus ever talk about two evil mules? Is there anything about evil mules in the entire Bible? Sometimes you go a little too far with this stuff, Ma. What, I’m supposed to tiptoe around town now?” Tears erupted from my mother’s dark eyes. Surprised by her reaction, I quickly rose to comfort her. The crying crushed me. I’d seen enough of it since my father passed away when I was seven.
After a minute or so, she regained her composure. “I’m sorry,” she said, wiping her eyes and blowing her nose in a paper napkin. “You can’t understand what it’s like to be a mother. I worry about you. I can’t help it. A mother worries. You’ve had no luck in this life. You lost your father when you were a boy. You didn’t have all the things other kids had. You failed at school. You weren’t stupid, just lazy, and maybe a little more moosh than the other kids. You got in trouble with the law. We didn’t need that. No one needs that. It wasn’t easy, son. I struggled. We struggled. You had to start back from zero. Not easy, not easy. But now you’re doing okay. You’re wearing nice clothes, taking care of yourself. I don’t like you have to work every night in a bar, but it keeps you out of trouble and you’re making some cash, and you can never have enough cash, son. Then maybe soon—or when you feel up to it—you can start thinking about having a little family. We aren’t meant to be alone. Find yourself a good partner, someone who’ll have your back no matter what, because that’s how you were raised. Loyalty is everything, son. And you know from my example because I’ve always had your back, no matter what, and always will. But honest to God, I worry. I worry about these miserable bastards who want to see you fail.” I asked who these people were, but she refused to fill me in. “Trust me,” she said with a faraway look. “If these people had their way. Ha.”
My mother always had a penchant for catastrophism, and to no small degree indulged in magical thinking. When I was a kid she wouldn’t let me bathe—never mind swim, if the occasion arose—after meals unless I waited at least an hour, believing, like so many Italian immigrants I’d encountered, that I might get stomach cramps and drown in the tub. Talismans and good luck charms and curses and oaths in her southern Italian dialect comprised significant threads and weaves of her human tapestry. Not to mention the prohibitions and fanciful absurdities—as I came to see them—of the sanctimonious Roman Catholicism that undergirded almost every move she made and that she often used to guide or bully me—she always walked around with a wound rosary in her fist, often thumbing beads and murmuring Hail Marys to herself—particularly after my father died. It took a mental machete to chop my way through that jungle of speculative narratives. That said, my mother wasn’t a simple or foolish woman. She merely clung to certain superstitions and folkways imported from the old country—conflated with selective elements of her religion—some of which seemed to possess a vague potency, though most verged on and often went beyond the ridiculous.
I ate until I felt faint and my mother made me espresso and I had it with two of her exquisite lemon biscotti. “You want some fruit?” she asked. “I have a few Golden Delicious apples and tangerines.”
I rested my hands on my distended belly and told her I couldn’t eat another bite. “I’d better get going,” I said, as I had to shoot back to my place and change for work. I only lived a few blocks away in a small, one-bedroom apartment, but I had to shower and iron my tuxedo shirt for work and I couldn’t afford to be late. My asshole manager, Max—with whom I’d knocked heads on more than one occasion—was just looking for an excuse to can me.
Before I left, my mother kissed my cheeks and handed me a small red cornetto—or cornicello, a traditional Italian talisman against the malocchio, that is, the Evil Eye. I didn’t believe this nonsense—indeed chided other Italians for it—but took the cornetto as a token of placation. She told me to hang it from my rearview mirror. “It will protect you from car accidents,” she said. “That’s how they get you most of the time—an accident. Be careful when you’re walking, too. And steer clear of high buildings. You never know what’s dropping from the sky—what they’re dropping.” But I had to ask again, who the fuck were these people, these people dropping things on me from the sky? Instinctively—and perhaps somewhat cruelly—I wanted to press her about who they were and why they were actively conspiring to crush me, though I knew she could never give a definitive or persuasive answer. Suffice it to say, there were bogeymen and ghouls haunting the deepest recesses of her psyche and she sought, unconsciously or not, to project them onto me. But she must have also known that her hardened son didn’t buy any of it and couldn’t be sold, but was kind enough to humour her.
The drive to my apartment proved eventful. At the intersection near my building, I witnessed the aftermath of a car crash. A silver Volvo had plowed into a telephone pole at speed and it sat there smoking and ticking, almost cleaved in half. The telephone pole, of ancient but sturdy timber, leaned at an angle slightly sharper than the Tower of Pisa and except for that looked intact enough to be winched up to its former stature or imaginatively repurposed for some other pragmatic function. Somehow the driver had survived and stood by an ambulance with a beefy paramedic bandaging his bleeding head as he drooled and babbled incoherently. I wondered if the man had been day-drinking or was on some kind of medication. Hard to tell if he was hammered, but a collision that severe would have fucked up anyone. He was lucky as hell to be alive, that guy. My heart skipped a beat. A few minutes beforehand, and a little slow with the brakes, I may have been caught in the Volvo’s blurry crosshairs. Jesus, I thought.
I squeezed the steering wheel and backed into my spot in the outdoor lot and killed the engine. Jesus. I kept repeating Jesus in my head like it meant something more profound to me than a mental exclamatory—perhaps I had internalized my mother’s Roman Catholicism. But then again, she’d not just handed me a medallion of St. Christopher, the patron saint of travellers, for protection. I took out the cornetto, of red coral with a plated gold stem, and tied it to the dangling string of the air freshener. I’d seen many Italians hang these things from their rearview mirrors. I’d always thought they were little red peppers. Only later did I discover that the cornetto was actually a little horn.
My apartment smelled sour. I’d made a chicken succotash the day before and forgot to put out the trash—it had taken no time for the discarded chicken bones and fat and lima beans to start reeking. Moreover, the blackened peels of two bananas I ate with breakfast added a fetid sweetness to the already heady bouquet. I tied up the garbage bag and walked out to the hallway to drop it in the disposal chute. An ex-nun lived next door to me, Helen, a short thick woman with baby blue eyes and hair like mid-career Carroll O’Connor. She always wore pale blue sweaters and slacks and rubber-soled white shoes. She never looked me in the eye, so I assumed she disliked me for some reason, though to be honest I lived a relatively monastic life, rarely hosted friends, and I never played loud music. One day I helped her carry a rug from the elevator to her unit and a few days later she thanked me with a twenty-dollar Starbucks gift card. She turned out to be a nice old lady, perhaps showing signs of early onset dementia or being somewhere on the spectrum, which may have explained her aversion for eye contact. You meet all kinds in this life.
Anyway, as I dropped my garbage bag into the chute, I heard a commotion down the hallway. My eyes are not what they used to be—I rarely wear my prescribed glasses—and I couldn’t tell exactly what was going on, but it looked like two people were hugging or wrestling. At first I thought it horseplay—maybe a couple of the energetic Filipino teens who lived on the floor—but when I heard cries of anguish and started moving toward the skirmish, I caught a glimpse of the rubber-soled white shoes and realized it was Helen, my neighbour, and that some dude in a black ski mask was assaulting her.
It took a beat for my muscles to engage and my brain to fully register the urgency of the moment and when I started sprinting toward the entangled pair, my right foot caught an edge on the threadbare hallway carpet and I stumbled, thus giving the assailant time to free Helen and dash to the stairwell door. As I approached the ex-nun, she clearly looked disheveled and stunned and her nose trickled blood. I saw the stairwell door shut and thought I might have time to catch the bastard, but I also didn’t want to leave Helen alone. “Are you okay?” I asked and she stared at me blankly. I didn’t want to push it, but had no idea how badly hurt she was or what I should do first. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a wadded paper tissue and offered it to her to staunch the bloody nose. She took it with a trembling hand but let it fall to the floor and stared at it, her watery blue eyes expressionless, her lips mouthing silent words.
“Let me help you inside,” I said, gently clutching her elbow as we shuffled toward her door. Despite her apparent stoutness, I was struck by her almost papery fragility. I didn’t really know how old she was. I would have guessed maybe seventy, but being this close to her gave me the impression she was more like eighty, maybe older. “Where are your keys?” I asked. Furrowing her brow, Helen looked left and right down the hallway. “You’re okay,” I said. “He’s gone.” At least I thought it was a he; the assailant moved like a young man, perhaps an adolescent. I saw no purse and wondered if the guy had swiped it. “Did he steal your purse?” I asked. Helen shook her head.
“I don’t carry one,” she said. “I don’t need a purse.” She held out her fisted hand, opened it, and showed me a little Swiss Army keychain.
I unlocked the door with the key on the Swiss Army keychain, and when we entered Helen’s apartment I called the police, who arrived after twenty minutes or so and they first questioned me about the assault—I gave the best description I could, but what with the ski mask, and his undistinguished dark clothing, it wasn’t case-breaking. After they talked to me, they questioned Helen, who sounded extremely confused and rambled on about her son, or her grandson, but her status as an ex-nun made claims of progeny sound delusional as well as improbable. I suspected she was in shock or something, possibly gibbering about someone she knew, perhaps a member of her extended family or that of the other nuns in her former convent. Was it possible Sister Helen had been defrocked from her orders for an unforgivable transgression? I doubted it. She seemed incapable of crime or any sin that mattered. That’s not to say she hadn’t been a bad girl in the past. But in my three years of tenancy in the building, I’d never run into anyone visiting the woman who was younger than sixty, so I doubted the existence of a son or a grandson.
One of the officers, an angular man with a wavy black mustache, gruffly suggested an ambulance. “She likely needs medical attention,” he said. His partner, a beefy blond fellow, nodded. “Should I call an ambulance, ma’am?” asked the mustachioed officer. Helen didn’t understand.
“She’s probably in shock,” concluded the blond officer. “Best call an ambulance.” The officers looked at me.
“You want me to call?” I asked. “Can’t you, like, walkie-talkie it in or something?”
The officers exchanged glances. “Just make the fucking call,” the mustachioed officer said. Then he turned to Helen and apologized for cursing, but her eyes were staring at the ceiling and her arms and shoulders had started shaking.
I went to my apartment and called for an ambulance from my landline, which felt weird with the officers right next door holding their dicks. I relayed all the necessary information to the dispatcher and rang off. I informed the officers that I had called for the ambulance. Assuming I was done there, I excused myself. “We may have a few more questions,” said the mustachioed officer. “No problem,” I said. “I’ll be around.” I returned to my apartment and proceeded to ready myself for work. I barely had time to shower and iron my wrinkled tuxedo shirt and rushed both jobs, leaving my hair still slick with conditioner and my shirt resembling one worn for several days by the maître d’ of a Greek steakhouse.
As I exited my apartment—buttoning up my shirt and praying I’d stop sweating—I saw the paramedics wheeling Helen out with a green plastic oxygen mask covering her nose and mouth and her blue eyes fluttering. I wondered if she’d suffered a stroke or heart attack as a result of the assault. Poor thing. The blond officer locked eyes with me as he followed the paramedics and the stretcher to the elevator. The look discomfited me, edging coldly and habitually toward suspicion. Always the cop, eh man? Despite this, I didn’t avert my gaze and smiled like a cretin as he passed me, but he kept abreast with his partner—who was yakking on his walkie-talkie, his mustache highly animated—to the elevators. I must admit the whole affair had deeply disturbed me—a mixture of pity and sadness for Helen, anger for the assailant, and horror at the overall situation—and I jumped in my car with my hands and legs shaking. I glanced in my rearview and I looked like hell, eyes puffy, hair flat and limp.
I arrived at work a few minutes late and Max wasted no time getting in my face and breaking my balls. “Five minutes here, ten minutes there, and we’re talking hours,” he said. “And did you steal your shirt from a homeless man? Jesus, dude. This is getting long, okay. I’m tired of hearing myself telling you how things have to go around here, okay. And if you don’t get your shit together soon …” He went on for a few paragraphs longer and I nodded and agreed I was a piece of shit and deserved no slack whatsoever, then got on with my job.
Work was slow for a Thursday night, when typically the singles hit us hard, likely hoping to score dates for the weekend. The sparse crowd also lacked vitality, the conversations bland and muted, the general mood of a minor key. I made half the tips I normally did on a Thursday night and escaped shortly after closing—tally and cleanup a jiffy—before Max could corner me and further break my balls, or finally decide to fire my ass. It had rained and as I drove along the wet asphalt through a seamless blur of streetlights and stoplights, I felt anxious and short of breath and the feeling intensified until I walked down my hallway to my unit, rested my forehead on the cool door and finally let myself inside. I threw myself on the sofa and tried to clear my head and control my breathing. This helped. A few minutes went by and I felt like myself again. I realized I had just experienced a panic attack and I had only experienced a few of them in my life. I heard something—a heavy but muffled thud—on the other side of the living room wall. I wondered if Helen was home and how she was doing. I thought about knocking on her door and asking directly, but I didn’t want to startle or disturb her at two-thirty in the morning.
I heard another thud—I rarely heard anything coming from Helen’s place, not even the whisper of a television or radio, and even more infrequently the back and forth of conversation. I heard the muffled thud again. I couldn’t determine how the sound was being made, if Helen had fallen several times or was repeatedly striking something. Better knock on her door, I thought, just in case. I stepped out of my apartment, walked over to her unit, and listened for a moment before I quietly rapped my knuckles on the door. “Helen,” I said. “Are you home?” I rapped the door again with more force and listened. I heard nothing. I stood there for a few minutes before I loudly knocked on the door, then banged it with the side of my fist, but she must not have been home or wasn’t answering. Maybe she was in hospital. I checked the doorknob and it was locked and didn’t look as though anyone had interfered with it.
I returned to my apartment and readied for bed. I was wide awake but needed to get some shuteye, as I wanted to hit the gym in the morning and wouldn’t go near it if I wasn’t rested. I tossed and turned for an hour until I couldn’t stand it anymore, then I got up and walked to the kitchen and poured myself a glass of milk. I should’ve probably heated it, but I drank it down cold. It’s not as if I thought it would help me fall asleep again. I switched on the television and watched the 1967 Swedish flick, I Am Curious (Yellow), a strange and incoherent confection with a grainy eroticism reminiscent of old porn movies. It was considered revolutionary when it first appeared. I found myself getting slightly aroused by the dimple-chinned, pixieish Lena Nyman speaking Swedish and I contemplated rubbing one out to relax me, but at that moment I heard a loud bang issue from Helen’s apartment. And then I thought I heard voices.
After listening keenly for a minute or so, I concluded that only one voice was talking, male, maybe middle-aged, likely to someone on the phone, if not ranting to himself. What to do? The optics of some man in Helen’s apartment, whether or not she was there, troubled me deeply. The voice continued murmuring and I thought I wouldn’t get a second of sleep if I didn’t investigate. Then again, it was now roughly three in the morning; unexpectedly knocking on a door at that time can never yield good results. And yet, my concern for Helen, redoubled by what I perceived as the sinister timbre of the murmuring man’s voice, drove me to one conclusion: I needed to knock on Helen’s door and see what male figure answered, if he answered at all. I weighed the possibility it could be some kind of home invasion, but while the man sounded sinister, he did not sound angry. Some torturers are also known to speak softly.
I grabbed the baseball bat I kept in the closet, a remnant from my days playing hardball in beer leagues, but now comprising the entirety—barring kitchen utensils and furniture improvisations—of my defensive arsenal. I went out to the hallway with the bat at my right flank and paused before I knocked, listening for any sounds of disturbance or trouble. I thought I could still hear the male voice droning on, but it might have been the ventilation system, which at times sounded louder than mere white noise. I knocked lightly at first and waited. Then I realized I hadn’t knocked nearly hard enough and tried again, with some mustard. I thought I heard movement and saw a flash in the peephole. I squeezed the bat and steeled myself. When the door opened, for a long second I thought it was Helen. The sharp blue eyes, the hair. But it wasn’t her. “Hello,” said the man who answered, wearing a light blue blazer and scuffed white shoes that threw me.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m, uh, Helen’s neighbour. Thought I heard something. I just got back from work and thought someone, you know.”
The man tipped his head forward and smiled with one side of his mouth. “You’re the fellow who helped her out today,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said, “I saw the whole thing go down. And you are?”
He smiled. “Can’t you tell by the resemblance? Everyone says I’m the spitting image of Helen—my mother.”
How long I waited to respond to that, I’m not really sure. It might have been seconds, or minutes, but a stretch of time passed before I said anything. “I didn’t, er, know she had a son,” I said.
“Well,” he said pointing to his face, “as you can see, she indeed has a son. Mind you, I was raised in foster homes, but that’s another story. Sometimes life is complicated.” It was difficult for me to process this. The ex-nun had a son.
“I’ve never seen you here before,” I said.
He nodded sadly. “Yes, Helen—my mother—never wanted much to do with me. And she didn’t want me coming here. We’d meet for lunch now and again, or she’d come over to my place for tea, you know. But I can’t say we’ve ever been close, no siree. Oh, and if you’re wondering, she’s at St. Joseph’s hospital, in intensive care, yuh. Suffered a stroke, they say. They wouldn’t let me hang around there. I had a spare key and thought I’d come and check things out, you know. Not to intrude or anything. But this whole assault thing. Who would do this to her, I ask you?”
I almost asked him if he had a son, but held my tongue. “I have no idea,” I said. “She didn’t interact with many people. It could’ve been a random act. But she doesn’t wear any jewelry and I assume she doesn’t carry around a lot of cash. I don’t think she even uses a purse.”
“By the way,” the man said, “I’m Francis.” I told him my name and said I was pleased to meet him. “My mother—Helen—never gave me that name,” he said. “Another nun did, I don’t know who it was. And Christ knows who the old man was—I guess the kind of man who would have relations with a nun. They didn’t even put his name on my birth certificate and my mother refused to ever speak about him. Like he never existed. An immaculate conception ha. And I heard that right after they cut the umbilical cord, she wanted nothing to do with me. That’s the Church for you, just saying. She refused to hold me for even a second. They said she was bawling louder than I was. Yuh. So began the tremendous journey.”
I told him I was sorry to hear that, but I didn’t know what else to say. The situation was utterly alien to me. And what I knew about Helen amounted to a few scrawls in my life story.
“I hope the police do their job and catch whoever did this to her,” Francis said.
“Yeah,” I said, “me too.” It was time to go. “Well, sorry to trouble you, Francis, and I hope Helen—er, your mother—makes a full recovery.” He nodded and glanced around the spartanly furnished apartment.
“Man, she’s taken living the simple life to a whole new level. Makes me kind of sad, you know. I have kids—she has grandkids. Three of them. She’s never met them. D’ya believe that? My oldest, Benny, Tommy the middle boy, and Candace the baby girl. Well, she’s in university now in pre-med—sounds weird even saying that—so she’s no baby. She’s got the family baby blues, too. The boys took after their Portuguese mother—we’ve been separated for what, six years now. Benny’s an engineer and works in Calgary for a petroleum company. Tommy, ha, I don’t know what Tommy does these days. He’s a brilliant guitarist and has played in a few garage bands and busks downtown now and then for pocket money, but you know how that goes. You need luck and connections in that racket. He’s always been the most talented of my kids and the biggest pain in the arse. But you gotta love them. Yuh, you gotta love them, even when they mess up. Well, goodnight and good luck to you. Helen’s never mentioned you, but I’m sure she thinks well of you, you’re a good man, I can tell. I sell cars for a living.”
It was a lot to digest. I returned to my apartment thrown by what Francis had told me, even though—based on what the assaulted Helen had uttered—the possibility of a son or a grandson being the culprit had occurred to me. Nevertheless, the actual situation was as remote and unlikely as anything I’d ever encountered—though certainly not beyond the realm of possibility. Shit happens. Humans fuck up all over the place, always have and probably always will, for in our present form we are not perfectible. And admittedly, after all that, the question I really wanted answered was what had led Helen to have sexual relations in the first place when she was a nun? Was it love? Lust? Or rape—that, too, was a possibility. And I found it tragic that Helen had likely been forced by the Church to abandon her newborn baby, and that her current relationship with her son was complicated and strained and joyless. But I also found it almost impossible to fathom that someone devout enough to become a nun—despite her lapse—wanted nothing to do with her grandkids once she had re-established contact with her son. The coldest and loneliest thing I could ever imagine was my mother wanting nothing to do with me, or refusing to love and acknowledge my children if I ever had any.
The next day, after a listless session at the gym—not surprisingly, I’d gotten little sleep—I stopped at a florist near my apartment and purchased a dozen immaculate pink roses for my mother. She loved flowers and pink was her favorite color. I’d bought her flowers before, on Mother’s Day or for her birthday, but frankly never out of the blue like that, I don’t know why. But I was full of feeling for her that morning. “Roses?” my mother said, her brows raised. “You got me roses? What’s the occasion?”
I took a seat at the kitchen table and locked my fingers together before me and smiled at her with teasing affection. “Do I need an occasion to get my mother roses?” I said. “I just felt like it. Better now than tomorrow. We don’t know what’s waiting for us around the corner, do we?” Wearing a puzzled and slightly angry expression—she probably thought I was up to no good, or already guilty in some way—she unwrapped the roses, clipped the stem ends with a pair of scissors, and took out a cut-glass vase from a cupboard. “Well,” I said, “do you like them?” She slid them into the vase and fanned them out. She tried not to smile, but couldn’t help herself. She shot me a little look and shook her head. Then she shut her eyes, and sniffed the roses.
Salvatore Difalco is the author of five small press books, including the story collection BLACK RABBIT (Anvil Press). His short fiction and poems have appeared in numerous print and online journals. He currently lives in Toronto, Canada. Saldifalco.weebly.com