“Cassanadra!” Frankie shouted, pounding on her bedroom door. “Open up!”
She slowly opened the door. “Finally, somebody paying attention to me,” she said, triumphantly. Now she could get some answers.
“What the hell is wrong with you today?” he said, his real arm pushing the door open and stepping inside. “You’re moping around, you don’t help in the kitchen, you’re not there to watch the kids and…did you really slap Tony in the face?”
“Is that what he told everyone? Actually, I kneed him in the balls,” she said. “A slap across the face wasn’t going to stop him.”
“What! Why did you do that?” he said.
“Would you have preferred I let him drag me up here to…” She used air-quote here. “…talk and let him do whatever perverted things he had on his filthy mind?”
Frankie gaped, then shook his head. “Are you sure that’s what he…”
“Oh my God!” she shouted, running frustrated fingers through her curls as she paced in front of her window. “Can’t anybody believe me…like ever? Yeah, that little slime ball actually suggested coming up here and I’ve got the marks to prove how NOT willing I was to comply!”
She pulled up her sleeve and showed where her delicate skin was bruised from Anthony’s vise grip.
“Sonovabitch,” Frankie said, touching the red marks on her arm. “I’ll kill him!”
“That’s hardly the worst of my worries right now, Frankie,” Cassandra said, closing the door and leaning on it so he couldn’t leave her room. “Anthony knows now I can and will push his nuts into his throat if he does it again.” She pushed her brother—or rather tried to—onto her bed, but his massive bulk wouldn’t budge.
“Will you sit, please? I wanna talk,” she said.
“About what?” he said, angrily. “Food’s ready, everybody’s waiting for us and I’m hungry!”
“You know perfectly well, Guido and Paulie wait for nobody when there’s food in front of them, so put you’re damned stomach on hold for a minute and tell me about my mother,” she said.
“What the hell does…”
“Why does Rosa call my mother a puttana and why should Papa have left me with her?”
The blood drained out of Frankie’s face.
Cassandra stared at him, half in horror and half fascination. This was Frankie, her tough-as-nails Army Ranger brother, who had been on countless combat missions, three tours of duty in Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan and other places he wasn’t supposed to tell anybody about and he was scared stiff of answering a few questions from his little sister about her mother? Dear God, what kind of Pandora’s box was she opening up?
“Wh…who…?” he said, visibly shaken.
“Think you heard me, Frankie,” Cassandra said. She resumed pacing in front of her windows gesturing expressively her arms. “Rosa and the others, talking in the kitchen, in Italian, like before I even left. They obviously didn’t think I knew enough to understand them. Well, I’m not as dumb as they think. Those two months I spent in Italy with Papa last summer after graduation wasn’t for nothing. They were talking a bit too fast for me to catch everything. I couldn’t tell if they meant you or Papa half the time, but…”
“See, you must’ve got it all wrong. You can’t learn Italian in just two months,” he said slightly relieved, following her movement like a slow going tennis match. “They were talking about someone else, someone you don’t even know, so don’t worry about it.”
She stopped in mid-stride and glared at him. “You’re right. They were talking about someone I don’t know…like my mother whom I know nothing about and there was no mistaking they were talking about me, too, Frankie, and the only people concerning me are you and Papa … and my mother.”
“We… we don’t gotta talk about all that now, not today. It’s Christmas and…” he said, seemingly clutching at straws.
“When would be a better time?” she asked, glaring at him. “During dinner in front of everybody? If that’s what you want then let’s go!”
She marched to the door and opened it, staring him down, daring him.
He opened his mouth but nothing came out, so he shut it again, looking very uncomfortable.
“So…” she said, closing the door again and crossing her arms over her chest. “Tell me about my mother. Anything! I know nothing about her…except her name.”
“Pops told you her name?” he asked, cautiously.
“Yes. Madonna Muccacielo,” she said, watching his reaction carefully. “Any reason he shouldn’t?”
He cursed a blue streak under his breath and looked everywhere but at her.
“Frankie, what the hell are you NOT telling me?” she said. “Was that her name or wasn’t it? I wanna know the truth!”
“Donna… her name was Donna … Makowski,” he nearly whispered.
“The Polish connection…so that’s it,” she muttered to herself, stunned. “But…why would Papa lie about her name?”
“In his mind, he didn’t,” Frankie said. “Donna, cow, sky, put them all together with an Italian twist and it’s Madonna Muccaceilo.”
“But…Why??? Why would he make that up?” she said. “Papa can barely stand anybody that isn’t Italian. I understand that, but why would he marry her then?”
“He didn’t marry her, Cassandra,” Frankie said with a grimace.
“What?” she said, her stomach sinking.
“Pop was only ever married to Angela… my mother,” he said, in a whisper.
“Oh my God. Are you saying I’m … am I… illegitimate?” she squeaked, her hand over her thunderously beating heart.
He fiercely shook his head. “No child is illegitimate if she has people who truly love her, and you did, you do, Cassandra. Pop and me have always loved you,” he said. “And…and my mother did, too.”
Cassandra couldn’t wrap her mind around this. “Your mother? How could she if she was dead?”
“Mom loved you and took care of you. She adored you. You were her beloved angel sent from God. That’s what she called you,” Frankie said. “Until the day she unexpectedly died…just a few months short of your fourth birthday.”
“You told me my mother died when I was three and a half,” Cassandra said. “But Papa told me my mother died in childbirth. Which one is it?”
“He lied,” he said, closing his eyes. “We lied.”
“You lied? What are you saying, Frankie?” she said. “That your mother was my mother? Why would anybody lie about that?”
He shook his head.
“Then what?” she asked desperately. “Dammit, Frankie, is Donna MaKowski my mother or not?”
He nodded, grimly. “She…she was my girlfriend,” he said. He stared at her intently, hoping she’d get it, understand everything without him having to actually say it.
“You expect me to believe that Papa got your girlfriend pregnant?” she exploded. “And that your mother was perfectly okay with raising me, his bastard child, as her kid? Seriously, how stupid do you take me for?”
“No, Cassandra, no,” Frankie said, incredulous of how naïve she could be. “I got her pregnant. I did it. It was me… that got Donna pregnant.”
It took a full minute for this astonishing pronouncement to sink in and another for Cassandra to react. She blinked several times, then her eyes grew wide and her mouth fell open. She shook her head then slapped her hands over her mouth and she backed away from him until her butt hit the desk, nearly knocking the lamp off.
“Cassandra, listen to me,” he said, holding up his real hand. “I was only fourteen, so was Donna. We were just kids, stupid, stupid kids! We couldn’t raise a baby on our own. Hell, I couldn’t even do it now… still feel like a kid sometimes and I’m almost thirty-five.”
“All my life … all this time,” she said, not hearing anything else from him. “You lied, all of you lied to me. My whole life is one huge lie!”
“It’s not that big a deal, Cassandra,” he said, soothingly. “You still have a family, we all love you just the same and…”
“No big deal?” she said, tears filling her eyes. “You son of a bitch! You useless, worthless son of a bitch!”
“Hey! Don’t you dare talk like that!” he said angrily. “I don’t like you cursing.”
“Oh, my God!” she burst out in hysterical laughter, tears still spilling from her eyes. “All of a sudden you’re playing the perfect father? Seriously???”
“I was always your father, always acted like it,” he said counting on his fingers as he continued. “I always disciplined you, protected you, loved you, cared for you, told you what to do, how to behave, taught you things. That is being a father. You even said so yourself a million times that I was more like a father than a brother, remember? Well, that was on purpose. You just didn’t know it then…but you know it now….so…fine. I’m your father, your real father.”
“Right, that was a million times you could’ve told me the truth and instead you piled on lies on top of more lies,” she said.
Frankie clenched his jaw tightly. “We can talk about it later when everyone’s gone. So, go wash your face and let’s go down now and celebrate Christmas with the family like we always do,” he said.
She shook her head. “You forfeited the right to tell me what to do when you made me believe you were my brother and you left me to be raised by the grumpy, old, ill-tempered, racist, sexist, domineering tyrant that you made me believe was my father. You can all go to hell!”
“Hey!” he shouted angrily. “Don’t talk like that to me!”
She glared at him. “Kiss my ass, Frankie,” she said.
Visibly shocked that she would speak that way to him, for the first time in his life he didn’t know what to do, how to handle a sticky situation. He remained calm and tried a new tactic, something he’d long since had abandoned, namely telling her the truth.
“It… it was just easer this way, Cass,” he said, softly. “Mom, my mother, your grandmother, she had always wanted a baby girl so bad. She suffered through tons of stillbirths and miscarriages. Each one broke her heart worse than the last. It was a miracle she could have me after so many years of trying. She prayed and prayed for another chance to be a mother and there you were, a perfect little angel, her little angel. That’s what she called you. I’d never seen her so happy. It was perfect.”
“Perfect you say?” Cassandra said, his callus attitude making her numb through to the core. “No doubt perfect for you. You had babysitters to dump your kid on, so you could take off halfway around the world and play war with your army buddies.”
“Hey,” he said, angrily raising his prosthetic arm. “I went to war to protect our freedom, your freedom and…”
“Like I know shit about true freedom,” she muttered. “I can’t go out with friends when I want. I can’t go to college. I talk about going to medical school and I’m treated worse than if I said I wanted to assassinate the Pope! Family members are actively arranging marriage for me to people I can’t stand and some I don’t even know! Hell, I can’t even sneeze without permission. Pretty sure I know a little bit about being oppressed. Might as well be living in Iran.”
“I sacrificed an arm and nearly a leg to make this world a safer place for you, for your freedom not to have to be covered from head to foot, you selfish little brat! Show some respect!” Frankie said.
“Bullshit!” she shot back, just as fiercely. “You are the selfish one. You went away for yourself. You loved every exciting, thrilling minute of it, being away from home, on your own, doing exactly what you wanted to do, when you wanted. I heard you say so a thousand times, so I know nothing short of losing that arm was gonna keep you away from your never-ending wars in exotic places all over the world, happy to be gone from home, happy to be rid of your own kid.”
She burst out in agonizing tears and turned her back on him.
Little did she know that was the perfect way to make Frankie feel as worthless as a snow blower in the Sahara Desert.