Joe picked up the scissors and passed them to her. She snipped the bright red ribbon and placed Angela’s Christmas present on the floor near her chair. Outside, a cold rain beat hard against the windows. With the heavy curtains drawn, the room felt warm and cozy. Christmas carols floated through the house from the phonograph in the corner.
“Want some more hot chocolate?” Nancy asked.
“Sure. Is there any more panettone?”
“More than I can eat by myself. I’ll bring some.” The big, soft Christmas cake was a favorite for both. It could only be found around Christmas. Fortunately, the Easter colombe, in the shape of a dove, seemed to be made from a similar recipe, so they could satisfy their craving twice a year.
Nancy returned from the kitchen with the leftover panettone and a Spode teapot full of hot chocolate. She sliced off a piece and put it on the plate near Joe. He reached for the teapot and poured hot chocolate for them both.
Nancy picked up a Raggedy Ann doll and began sizing paper.
“You know what, Mom?”
“This Christmas feels weird.”
“In what way?”
“Well, because it’s the same as all our other Christmases.”
“Yes. This time last year, I had barely met Sandra, and you hadn’t dated anyone or played tennis in years. And you still smoked. It’s been quite a year, but the only thing different tonight is that you don’t smoke.”
“And both of us are playing tennis now. But I get what you mean. It feels the same, but I kind of wish Jack were still around. He was good for me – and you, too.”
“Did he really have to go back to New York? I can’t help thinking he was fired or ‘kicked upstairs’ as they say.”
“I know it looks that way, but no, there was no fallout from the Arcibaldo affair. They want him to work his magic on some deals in Canada and Latin America, and it made sense to return to his New York office. He actually isn’t there much.”
“You saw him in London and Basel, didn’t you?”
“Uh-huh. It’s kind of fun.” She gave him a wink. “I trash him on the court every time, but he doesn’t go down easily.”
Joe grinned. “I read in the Herald Tribune that those four investors in New York pleaded guilty. Did Jack have something to do with that?”
“In a way. When Arcibaldo was arrested, the investors made a big mistake. They sold their Smithson shares all at once. It came up at Jack’s first staff meeting. He made a note of it, then called his friend Bob Worthman at the FBI to let him know who they were. It took less than a month to trace the money being sent to Italy and to issue indictments. The case was airtight against them.”
“But the whole coup affair is still secret.”
“Yes, but they violated American and Italian currency laws. That’s what they got the investors for, not for supporting the coup.”
“Reminds me how the Government finally caught Al Capone on tax evasion, after all the murders and extortion.”
“It does, doesn’t it?”
Joe finished wrapping the pile of little trucks and cars and reached for the books on the table. Angela’s children would be facing their maturità examinations in the spring, and they had a reading list of English literature that they wanted.
Nancy finished the doll. She picked up one of the books.
“Is this one for Mario?”
“Adriana, his sister.”
Nancy moved the pink ribbon closer and used the same paper as she had used for the doll.
“How’s tennis with Aldo?”
“Great. You know, if I hadn’t met Jack, I might never have found out that he plays.”
“Too bad the school doesn’t have a tennis team. You two would be varsity lettermen.”
Joe shrugged. “Maybe next year.”
“Speaking of next year, first semester is over. Have you figured out where you want to go to college? We’ve talked about more places than I can remember.”
“I have the list down to the Naval Academy, Harvard, or Columbia.”
Nancy arched her eyebrows. “Just three now?”
“While you’re looking at all boys’ schools, have you considered UVA?” The University of Virginia.
“No. I never thought about it. Why?”
“Well, people talk about a public Ivy League: schools like UVA, Michigan, and Berkeley are all State universities, but well-endowed, with world-class faculties. They’re classic universities, where you can major in almost anything, and have resources to succeed at it later.”
“It’s in Charlottesville, which is a really pretty place.”
“Just up the road from Richmond, if I remember my geography. And you’re still planning to go back there, right?”
“Well, not immediately, but it’s a logical step from here after you leave.”
“If I want to be near home, I could go to George Washington.” He grinned.
“Do I detect a romantic angle to that?”
“Just kidding, Mom. Although Sandra would only be a year ahead of me, having missed last year.”
“You really like her, don’t you?” Nancy held her place folding the wrapping paper.
Joe sighed. “More than just like. It was wonderful being able to date her normally last summer, after I wasn’t working nights translating for Jack – or getting kidnapped.”
“She’ll always be the first one – something like that?”
“Something like that.”
“Have you heard from her lately?”
“A letter in her Christmas card this week. She added accounting for a double major, and she got into a new recruiting program at Quantico. She can train part time before she graduates, and work summers. It will cut her training pipeline in half after graduation.”
“So, she wants to be an FBI agent after all?”
“Yes. Doug’s father wrote a hell of a recommendation. So, she already has a service jacket with the Bureau – with an SAC Commendation in it. They were very impressed.”
“A lot of guys there. Not so many gals.”
“Yeah.” Joe ignored the inference. “She’s the only girl in the new training program, even though the Bureau is supposed to be opening up.”
“Your social life this fall doesn’t seem to have suffered. You still seeing Priscilla – or is it Penny?”
“You’re picking on me, Mom.” Joe grinned. “It’s both of them, and you know it!”
“My point exactly.” She smiled.
“My turn. You’ve been out more since Jack left, too. How’s tennis with the handsome pro at the Cavalieri Hilton?”
“I’m afraid my dates aren’t as interesting as yours, son. The tennis pros seem to be about your age, and the others all have egos the size of their bank accounts. I know how Jack feels now.”
“He has a low tolerance for phonies. That’s why we clicked. Neither of us wanted or needed anything from the other.” She got up to turn over the stack of records, which had finished playing. Just as she turned back to the table, the lights went out.
“Damn! Now is when I need to be smoking. I would’ve had my lighter on the desk.” She got up to go to the window to pull back the curtains. The rain had stopped.
“No problem, Mom.” Joe flicked his lighter on. She turned to the shelf above her desk and brought a candlestick to the table.
“Are you still lighting cigarettes? You stopped doing that for me last spring.”
“No. Now I just carry the lighter out of habit – and to be prepared for blackouts.” They laughed.
“Kind of Christmas-y, doing this by candlelight.” She picked up another book. The lights flickered on and off, then stayed on. They left the candle on the table and the curtains closed.
“So, no one special?” Joe asked.
“Nope. But I’ll always be glad that Jack – and you – got me out of my shell. No one will ever replace your father, but there’s a life out there, and it’s not so bad.”
Joe put one book down and took a drink of hot chocolate. It was not staying hot.
“I always wondered what happened to the Generale. It seems that he was the only one who got arrested in Italy.”
“Jim Redwood told me that he would be tried for misappropriation of government property. Using all those cars and planes after he retired. It’ll take ages to go through the court system, and he probably won’t serve any time, but his political career is through, and he could lose his Army pension.”
“Is that serious?”
“For most high-ranking people, it would be a disaster, but it might just anger him. He still has powerful friends and many sympathizers who will paint him as a hero to the cause. I’m glad that you’ll be away from here for the next few years at least.”
“But you’ll be here.”
“Remember my promise was only to let you finish high school here. I could be right on your heels.”
Joe put the wrapped book down and picked up the last one.
“Do you want me to go to UVA?”
“I have no opinion, one way or the other. I only mentioned it because I know the school, having been there often. You can major in almost anything. They have a championship tennis team. If I had been a boy, I would have gone there for that.”
“How do they play mixed doubles?”
“They don’t, but the girls go watch the guys play and stay for the parties.”
“I only remember a big building with columns. It looked like the Pantheon.”
“That’s the Rotunda. It used to be the Library. Now I think it’s the main Administration building.”
“I’ll look into it. I’m sure Mr. Quadroni in Guidance has a catalog or can get one.”
“A reference or two wouldn’t hurt. May I ask your grandfather if he can get a list of alumni living in Italy? We might know someone.”
They finished the last present at the same time, and just as the last record finished. They looked at each other. It was still early afternoon, but the winter shadows were long.
“How about a walk to the Parco della Vittoria? I feel like looking at the City at sunset.”
“Sure. Can we get some hot chocolate on the way back?”
A moderate westerly breeze whipped their coats as they stood at the railing below the Vatican Observatory, overlooking the city. Bathed in the golden light of the weak winter sun, the City seemed to give off more light than the orange globe slowly sinking over the Janiculum Hill to their right. The air was fresh from the rains that had only stopped an hour earlier, and the wind carried the pungent smell of pine up from the woods below them. Beyond the city, the clouds over the plain leading to the Alban Hills glowed in reds and golds with crystal-blue holes, reflecting the low beams shining under the clouds from the west.
They waited until the sun set completely, and the last red cloud dimmed to gray, then disappeared. The moon peeked over the Apennines to their left. Joe knew that Venus was hiding in the clouds above the moon.
“For everything. For bringing me here. For making this my home.”
“You’re welcome, son.”
The breeze picked up. Nancy wrapped her coat around herself more tightly as they turned around. She slipped her arm into Joe’s as they walked back to the lights of the Piazzale Medaglie d’Oro.