Joe was in his room trying to concentrate on a totally boring chapter about the Concert of Europe when he heard the front door open. He heard heels hit the floor.
“Ciao, tutti,” hi, everyone. Nancy’s voice sounded cheerful.
“Buona sera, signora.” Joe heard Angela say from the kitchen. “Dinner is ready on the stove.”
“Great. I’m famished. We can eat as soon as I get rid of these heels and wash up. Where’s Joe?”
Angela must have motioned, because Nancy knocked on his door and asked to come in. “I have two more letters from Signor del Piave.”
“OK,” Joe said. He really did not want to see another business letter in any language. He put out his arm. Nancy pulled the letters out of her briefcase and held them.
“What’s with you? This used to be fun. Is the idea of work not being fun sometimes catching up with you?”
“No, Mom. I just have a lot of homework, that’s all.”
“That’s OK. I can do these two. You usually get your homework done in study hall, but I can understand an occasional overload.”
“I can do them, Mom.”
“No, Joe. Not when there is homework outstanding. You are still a full-time student first.”
“Oh, all right.” Joe swung back to his desk.
“Well, I had a great day,” said his mother, “and I won’t ask about yours. I can tell. Wash up for supper, son.” She leaned over and kissed his head. He twisted away, and she laughed as she went out.
Joe slammed the book shut. He washed his hands in the bathroom. As he combed his hair, he noticed another pimple starting near the one on his cheek. He squeezed the older one and squirted pus on the mirror. He cleaned it off the mirror before he came out.
“I started already, Joe,” said his mother. “I’m starving. So how was school today?”
“OK, I guess.”
“It must have been terrible. You don’t pick at your face unless you’re upset about something.”
“Mom, do you have to analyze everything I do?”
“Can’t help it, son. Deep down, I’m still a doctor, remember?”
Angela appeared with her incredible shopping bags. “Good night, everyone. I’m going home now.”
The phone rang. Angela put down her bags and answered it. She came right back.
“For you, signora. I forgot to ask who.”
“That’s OK, Angela. We’ll see you tomorrow. Thank you for everything. Dinner is delicious.”
“Grazie, signora, buona notte.” And she was gone.
Joe picked at his food alone. Long ago Nancy had learned to speak away from eavesdroppers, so he could not hear the telephone conversation. But she was not as chipper when she returned.
“You want to explain why you stood up the Headmaster this afternoon?”
Joe sat dumb-founded. He had not thought that someone would call home after school. It was not like Aldo, who was always in trouble. His parents got calls only after several incidents. Joe had never been in trouble before.
“Well?” his mother asked. She speared a piece of broccoli. How could she be so cool? Joe thought. He reached into his pocket and extracted the counseling ticket.
“I forgot I had a meeting with Brother Peter. I didn’t know anything about the Headmaster.”
“That was Brother Roger, not Brother Peter.”
“We were going to use his office, but I didn’t know that meant he’d be there.” Nancy raised her eyebrows. Joe felt his blood heat up. “It’s true, Mom. I got this ticket from Brother Peter.”
“Not paying attention in Biology.”
“That is not worth a ticket. What really happened?”
“I was working on something else.”
“The Headmaster said that Brother Peter reported that you’ve been doing that a lot lately. He’s caught you before.”
“Mom, you don’t know what it’s like. Brother Peter is excruciating. He’s so boring. And he never says anything that wasn’t already in the reading assignment. I have to do something to keep from falling asleep!” Did he catch an uplift on the edge of her eyes? He thought for a moment she was going to laugh. Then she was serious again.
“So why miss the appointment after school?”
“How could you forget? How often do you get these tickets?”
“It’s a big deal then. So how do you forget?”
“Mom, I don’t know! I just forgot. I’ve got too much going on and I forgot!”
“You’re whining.” She said it so calmly and matter-of-factly that he almost missed it. “Since you seem to be having uncharacteristic problems organizing yourself, do I need to go over your homework with you each night?”
“No, Mom, please. I can get it together. I’ve never had this problem before and I’m all caught up now.”
“You mean you don’t have to do homework in Biology anymore?”
“Well, you explain that to the Headmaster. I told him you would be in his office fifteen minutes before school starts tomorrow.” She paused when Joe’s face fell. “You have a problem with that?”
“No, Mom, I’ll just have to miss breakfast with my friends.”
“Oh, that. About your motor club in the mornings. So far, you guys have trodden lightly on the edge of trouble every morning.” She smiled briefly, but then pulled a serious expression and pointed her fork at him. “I know how much that meeting means to you. So, skip the cornetto and go straight to school for the rest of the week.” Joe started to protest but caught himself.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said quietly. Joe felt like a major storm had passed. His mother was not angry, and his secret about Arland’s files was still safe.
“Flectamus genua,” Father Bill intoned. His pleasant baritone voice echoed off the frescoes in the nave and apse of Santa Susanna’s Church. Holding the censer steady, Joe knelt on the first step of the main altar. He heard the heavy murmur of five hundred sets of knees hitting the kneelers in the pews behind him.
Father Bill chanted the next prayer in the Midnight Mass. His spoken Latin normally had a heavy American accent, but his singing covered that up. Joe gave the censer a short swing occasionally to keep the incense burning. The smell was one of his favorite parts of the liturgies of Holy Days.
“…in saecula saeculorum.” This prayer was over.
“Amen.” Compared to the young priest, the congregation sounded clumsy. Joe put more air into his notes, leading them in the response.
“Levate.” Joe heaved back on both feet at once and rose in one smooth motion, with his cassock swinging out of the way so he never stepped on it. Joe had also perfected kneeling in one motion, so his cassock draped neatly over his feet, covering his shoes while he was down. Following Joe’s lead, the congregation clambered to their feet.
Father Bill turned to Joe and took the censer from him. While the priest walked slowly through the censing ritual, Joe thought again how lucky it was that the Rector, Father Pat, had contracted laryngitis yesterday. Father Pat preached great sermons, but he could not sing a two-note Amen without messing it up. Joe looked at the fresco of the martyrdom of Saint Susanna, while the choir of nuns sang a Gregorian chant from behind the cloister screen near the main altar. Waving incense could take five minutes or more with all the people in the large sanctuary. Midnight Mass could run two hours without a sermon.
Joe always enjoyed the special liturgies. As the oldest altar boy, he moved a lot during the service. He carried the Missal from the Epistle to the Gospel side, washed the celebrant’s hands during the Lavabo, rang the bells for the Consecration, and led the party in and out. And always, he had to lead the responses in as loud and clear a voice as he could muster. Most of the congregation counted on him to know when to stand, kneel, or say something. Even the ones who understood the Latin often would lose their places. The frescoes on the walls, the incredible paintings in the ceiling and the sculptures by famous artists of the Renaissance proved very distracting unless, like Joe, you happened to grow up worshiping in a sixteenth-century Roman church.
Rome glistened in the cold, wet darkness as Nancy and Joe walked to the car after Mass. It was 2 a.m.
“Traffic is light,” Nancy said, “but it’s still surprising how many people seem to be out like we are.”
“My math teacher said that if only one percent of Romans did anything outdoors together, it put 80,000 of them on the streets.”
“Makes sense. You tired?”
“No. All that singing and moving around wakes me up,” said Joe. “Besides, I’m still trying to figure out which present I’ll open when we get home.”
Nancy smiled. “And to think, you get to act like this again in two weeks.”
Twelve days later, Joe woke up late. He sat on the edge of the bed and pulled on his socks. He always donned his socks first. Marble floors were never warm in the summer, but they were freezing in the winter, even in a heated house. His mother was already up.
“Aren’t you getting a little old for this?” Nancy mocked Joe as he padded into the living room looking for his presents. “One of these years the Befana is not going to come.”
“Never, Mom. She’s older than Santa Claus. Aha!” He picked up the hiking boot he had left by the tree. Sure enough, it was full of candy and small presents.
“Why didn’t I decide we would do either Santa Claus or the Befana when you were little?” She smiled.
“You never could have gotten away with it, Mom.” Joe said with his face and a hand in the boot. “I just happen to be lucky enough to be an American kid in Italy.”
Joe grinned at her. He unwrapped a bite-sized cake and almost tossed it in his mouth. He caught his mother’s look. “I know – after Mass.” Although they no longer had to fast from the night before, fasting was still required within three hours of Communion.
“Besides, we’re running a little late. Go get dressed.”
They drove downtown, because public transit shut down in Italy on the sixth of January. This was the big gift-giving holiday, and Romans showed their appreciation to the city’s workers by taking gifts to their places of work. The doorways and sidewalks outside the police stations and fire stations were piled high with big chocolate confections wrapped in fancy silver foil, panettoni cakes, and gaily wrapped packages of every size and shape. A pile of presents from the neighborhood also covered the podium at each major intersection, where a traffic policeman usually stood.
“It looks like Santa Claus hit turbulence over the city and lost his load,” Joe said as Nancy drove around an especially tall pile at the Piazza Barberini.
“You sure it wasn’t the Befana?”
“Maybe both. I wonder why no one ever steals this stuff.”
“Maybe they do, and this is what’s left. But I have a hunch that the neighbors who brought this are watching it. Besides, thieves have neighborhoods, too. They’re probably putting chocolate eggs outside their own police stations.” Nancy pulled into a parking space across from the Church.
“That’s a weird thought,” Joe said.
“I guess so, but it makes sense in Rome. Folks have had to learn to live together for a long time here. Even the burglars have to get along with their neighbors.”
The period after the Epiphany was always the least interesting time of the year. With no major holidays to celebrate, and cold rain for weeks on end, Joe wished that he could just hibernate like a bear. School was an endless string of homework assignments and quizzes, not even a major exam or a standardized test to break the routine. Only the Arland papers and Del Piave letters gave him something to look forward to each week.
In early March, he had just finished the last of his homework when he heard his mother’s heels hit the floor in the entrance hall, and the brief case hit the coffee table in her study. She padded softly into his room. She had a frown on her face, but her eyes were bright.
“I’m afraid that the leak I was worried about has happened.” Joe’s leaped up, his eyes wide and his heart pounding.
“No, Mom, I swear, I haven’t breathed to anyone.”
“Relax, Joe, this leak is on my end.” Nancy smiled. “It seems that the Cavaliere del Piave wants to meet you.” Joe let out his breath.
“Who told him I was doing his letters?”
“You did, in a way. He got some compliments from the people he was dealing with in New York about how well-written his letters were, and how much easier they were to understand than his competition. He thinks it clinched the deal with Smithson and his new investment partners, so he came to thank me. I had to tell him I didn’t do it.”
Jack had another thought: would the translation work would stop? Jack’s letters provided steady employment at this point, but he had to keep that work secret.
“Was he upset?” he asked.
“He would have been if he hadn’t closed the deal, but now he appreciates what you’ve done for him. He wants to invite you to dinner this weekend. Want to go?”
“When? There’s a basketball game at school on Friday.”
“I remembered that. It’s Saturday night. Either the Ostaria dell’Orso or Giorgio’s.”
Joe whistled. “Those are the two ritziest places in town.”
“Standard fare for men like del Piave.”
Joe had a thought. He grinned.
“What’s he like, Mom? Is he after you?”
She laughed. “I don’t think so, Joe, but just the same I’d never get caught alone for the night with him. He seems stable enough, married with grown sons. Lives in a palazzo off the Piazza Barberini. Good-looking, but all business with me.”
“Anyone else interesting at work?” He grinned and winked.
“What is this, Joe? You see the hours I keep. How do you expect me to find romance with that routine?”
“Well, since it seems I’m your only company after work, anything that happens is going to happen at the office. It’s the only place I can’t protect you.” She reached to the head of his bed, and he ducked the pillow that she swung at him.
“Since when did you take an interest in my love life, young man?”
“Since I met that new guy from the States — Jack Arland.”
“What about him?”
“He likes you. I can see it in the way he looks at you.”
“Oh?” She looked off and considered what Joe had said. “Point to you, Joe. It has been more fun around the office since he arrived. But it’s all business as far as I can tell. He did the same work in the States that I do here, so we have that experience in common. But he’s on the phone to New York so much, I hardly talk to him.”
“You know, he did ask us about playing tennis. Did you decide not to take up his offer?”
“We never did discuss that, did we?” She thought quietly for a moment. “Do you want to learn?”
“I could certainly teach you. You never asked.”
“I remember the trophy wall in the house in Richmond. I always wanted to learn, but I thought that it was something that you wouldn’t want to do. You never played once after Dad went into the hospital that last time.”
“Well, your father and I were quite a team, and you were too young.” She looked out the window, at something far away and long ago.
Joe knew that look and the slight sag in her shoulders. “Mom, it would be good to see you playing again.” She straightened up.
“OK. But when could we do this?”
“I think Saturday afternoons except when the Scout Troop has its monthly campout. You could play Jack for a game or two, then you two – or Jack – could coach me for a while.”
“That might work.” Her face suddenly went serious. “Are you matchmaking, or do you really want to play tennis?”
He laughed. “Tennis. Really, Mom.” She relaxed, and he said in an affected wink-wink voice, “of course, what you do after the game is none of my business.” She threw the pillow at him.
“Let me think about that. Meanwhile, what about del Piave? The Ostaria or Giorgio’s?”
“The Ostaria,” Joe said. “I’ve never been there.”
“That would have been my choice, too. I’ll let him know.”
(to be continued)