“An intimate family portrait.”
—The New York Times
“Eddie Joyce’s terrific first novel is so American that the story might as well have taken place at the base of the Statue of Liberty.”
“An inside look at one Staten Island family’s struggle with grief . . . [A] poignant, deeply affecting tale.”
—Martha Stewart Living, a Book Club selection
“[A] terrific debut novel. . . . Joyce layers . . . different characters’ perspectives nimbly and skillfully, infusing his portrait of a messy, complicated, loving family with heartfelt emotion.”
—Sara Vilkomerson, Entertainment Weekly, A-
A startling and tender portrait of one family’s struggle to make peace with their son’s death
An ingeniously layered narrative, told over the course of one week, Eddie Joyce’s debut novel masterfully depicts an Italian-Irish American family on Staten Island and their complicated emotional history. Ten years after the loss of Bobby—the Amendola family’s youngest son—everyone is still struggling to recover from the firefighter’s unexpected death. Bobby’s mother, Gail; his widow, Tina; his older brothers Peter, the corporate lawyer, and Franky, the misfit; and his father, Michael, have all dealt with their grief in different ways. But as the family gathers together for Bobby Jr.’s birthday party, they must each find a way to accept a new man in Tina’s life while reconciling their feelings for their lost loved one.
In unflinching but lyrical prose, Joyce shows us one mother’s struggle to keep her family together and preserve the memory of her son. Following Gail as she moves from the corner offices of white-shoe Manhattan law firms to the blue-collar gin mills of the outer boroughs, Small Mercies reveals a different New York, one that exists in the hearts and minds of its inhabitants.
Presented through multiple points of view, Small Mercies explores the conflicts and deep attachments that exist within families. Heart-wrenching and profoundly relatable, Joyce’s debut is a love letter to Staten Island and a deeply affecting portrait of an American family.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
EDDIE JOYCE was born and raised on Staten Island. A graduate of Harvard University and Georgetown Law Center, he practiced law in Manhattan for ten years. When his twin daughters were born in 2009, he left the legal profession to stay home and help raise them while pursuing his dream of being a writer. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and three daughters. Follow @eddiejjoyce on Twitter.
Read an Excerpt
SOMEONE WHO ISN’T BOBBY
Gail wakes with a pierced heart, same as every day. Her mouth is dry. She reaches for the glass of water on her nightstand, but it has warmed in the night. Next to her, Michael gently snores away last night’s fun.
She can never sleep in on Saturdays. Friday nights? She’s useless, like someone drugged her. They order a pie, usually pepperoni but plain last night for Lent. She eats two slices, drinks two glasses of Chianti, and is asleep on the couch by eight. Before he leaves for the Leaf, Michael drapes a blanket over her inert body. He wakes her when he gets home, no later than eleven these days. He helps her up the stairs, the beer on his breath gone stale with the walk home. She barely wakes, has just enough energy to get her tired bones beneath the covers. He says something nice, kisses her forehead.
She’s always up with a start the next morning. She doesn’t need caffeine or an alarm clock; a shapeless guilt propels her into the day. Before she steps out of the shower, she’s already in full swing, making lists, mental notes. What needs to be done. Today, tomorrow, this week, this month. She’ll write it down later. She dresses in the stillness, sitting on the bed, the comforter muffling the energy required to slip on her socks. An occasional snort from Michael is the only reminder that she’s not the solitary soul in the world.
A quick look in the mirror. Not for vanity, not anymore, but for its older sister: dignity. She makes sure she’s not a total mess, that the clothes she slipped on in the dark don’t clash. Brown corduroys and a long-sleeve faded green T-shirt. Good enough.
Her energy is tested as soon as she leaves the bedroom. Bobby’s room is across the hall and as much as she’d like to, she cannot pass it without entering. It hasn’t changed since Bobby got married and moved out. He took most of his things, but the room looks the same. The bedroom of a grown child living at home. The bed is made, the window cracked open. A faded poster of Patrick Ewing, sweat drenched and intimidating, hangs above the bed. He is leaping to block a shot. She nods to him.
Patrick, how are we this morning?
Fine, Mrs. A., fine. Can’t seem to finish blocking this shot. Always inches away.
Keep at it, Patrick.
Will do, Mrs. A.
She sucks in a breath of air, closes her eyes, tries to remember what it was like to be in this room with her son. He was barely ever here. To sleep and that’s all. The older boys had to share a room, but Bobby got his own. She can’t remember how it worked out that way. One of those things. No explanation, no reason: a fact of the family conceived in temporary convenience and cemented by the simple passage of time. When one of the older boys objected—Peter, it would have been Peter—it was too late.
“I don’t mind, Mom. He can have it. I’ll switch or Franky can move in with me.”
Easy as a hammock, her Bobby boy. But they didn’t make the switch. The youngest gets the hand-me-down clothes, the half-broken toys, gets picked on and left behind, gets teased and tormented. He would at least have his own room, even if he didn’t want it.
Besides, she didn’t want Peter to get his way. He was fourteen or fifteen. Cock of the walk. Already entitled, not in a rich-kid way but expectant. He worked hard, no sense denying it. He studied too, even though it came easy. He practiced—football, baseball—even though that came easy too. But he expected the world to open wide for him, knew that one day he would storm the castle and fuck the princess and drink all the wine, because he was smart and athletic and handsome and diligent.
And he wasn’t wrong, as it turned out.
But he didn’t get the room. She remembers now: a list of reasons, a presentation at the kitchen table. A smug little smile at the end, satisfied at the brilliance of his own logic. The shock and hurt when she said no, without giving a reason. She wanted the little prick to taste some disappointment. Strange how you can hate your own kids at times.
She walks over to the short bookcase that sits below the window. A handful of basketball trophies rest on top of it. One has been knocked over by the breeze from the window. She picks it up, inspects the placard: MOST IMPROVED PLAYER, FARRELL JUNIOR VARSITY 1990–91. Bobby held this once, cherished it. She places it in an upright position, slides its marble base into the proper place among its compatriots.
A few years back, Michael broached the topic of maybe using the room for something else. Another guest bedroom or a home office or maybe a game room for the grandkids. She stared at him, blue eyes unblinking, until he simply ran out of words. He never raised the issue again.
Some days she thinks he was right. The room doesn’t conjure anything, doesn’t evoke any particular memories. It simply reminds her of Bobby’s absence and she hardly needs a room to do that. It has inflicted pain, this room, on a few mornings, when she’s walked in to find someone lying in his bed and, for a moment, experienced a flicker of obscene hope, quickly extinguished when she realizes it’s Franky and he’s slipped in here, drunk and melancholy, while they were sleeping, spreading one sadness over another. She closes the door on those days and lets Franky sleep. When he sneaks away in the morning, hung over and embarrassed, she washes the sheets and remakes the bed and feels Bobby slip a little further away.
Mostly, it’s a distraction. A pause—maybe five minutes, maybe an hour—keeping her from her day. Like today. So it’s time to wish Mr. Ewing good luck and get on with it. She makes the sign of the cross and leaves the room.
Then she’s down the stairs, a tornado doing all the little household things that have gone undone during the week, all the things she should have done the night before. Everywhere she goes, the house staggers back to life: the washing machine swigs, the dishwasher soaks, the coffeemaker sputters and spits. The lighting of bulbs marks her path through the house. Bathroom, hallway, stairwell, kitchen, living room, front porch. The wooden floors groan up at her as she goes; the bones in her ankles and feet respond with unsettling clicks. The trash is removed, the paper is brought in.
Voices from the radio slip back into the kitchen, oblivious to the fact that they’ve been silenced these sleeping hours. A mundane news station. Nothing political, nothing angry. Just the traffic, the weather, the happenings of the five boroughs, New Jersey, Connecticut, Long Island, Westchester. Something that makes her feel like she’s part of a community. A large, rambling, fractious community, but a community all the same.
There was a stabbing in Yonkers, a fatal drunk-driving accident in Garden City, downed power lines in Massapequa. There are feel-good stories: an anonymous donation to a food pantry in Mount Vernon, a rescued dog in Canarsie, a kidney donated by a stranger to a sick child in Flushing.
How awful. How wonderful. How frustrating. The traffic, always bad somewhere, even at this hour, even on a Saturday. The newscaster lists the times like a hostess at a restaurant assessing the wait for a table. Fifteen minutes at the Holland inbound. Twenty outbound. Thirty minutes at the Lincoln outbound. Forty-five inbound. An hour at the GW Bridge, in either direction.
Most mornings, she barely pays attention. It’s something to move things along, keep her company. The voices on the radio float to Gail wherever she is in the house. They grow lower, disappear, reappear, are drowned out by the dryer, grow stronger, disappear again. Her ears perk only if the radio mentions something local.
An accident on the West Shore Expressway. Another bias attack down in Port Richmond. A kid from Prince’s Bay wounded in Afghanistan. When this happens, which isn’t often, she stops her bustling and listens.
On this morning, there’s nothing happening. The borough is silent.
She’s in the kitchen now, inspecting the fridge. It always seems emptier than it should be, but whenever she fills it, she ends up throwing away half the food. They don’t have three ravenous teenage boys eating around the clock anymore. The fridge is like the house: emptier than it used to be. Nothing can change that.
She looks into the cupboard to make sure she has Alyssa and little Bobby’s favorite cereals. She’s holding a box of Honey Nut Cheerios when a report catches her attention: a home invasion the night before, in someplace called Moriches out on Long Island. Two men broke into the home of an elderly couple. The man was a World War II veteran, eighty-three years old. They beat him senseless. He’s in a coma, but they interview his wife, whose fear is palpable, can be felt through the airwaves. One man has been apprehended, but the other is on the loose.
Gail hopes a cop—an angry, hungover cop—finds him in a cold, low place, shoots him in the stomach, and leaves him to rot under a pile of wet leaves. She can see the cop plain as day, walking silently, his gun drawn, chilled breath spilling out before him. A spike in the back of his head from too much whiskey the night before. Anger for this and for something else. A score that was never settled. Chance to make things right. The assailant unaware, some low-life junkie starting to come down. The cop’s almost there.
Good Christ, where do these thoughts come from?
Moriches. She’s never been there, never even heard of it. But now it has a feel, now she will remember it. Moriches, where elderly World War II veterans are beaten to snot and renegade cops administer street justice.
She likes the woman, the wife of the veteran. Her voice, her manner: they belong to a different time. Gail tries to focus on her. A pity what happened. How scared she must be. Moriches. When Tina gets here, she’ll ask her to look it up on the computer, point out where it is. She wants to know where it is, to see it placed on a map.
Gail hasn’t been to most places she hears of on the radio, but each summons a feeling. She likes some names: Lynbrook, Mamaroneck, Dobbs Ferry. She doesn’t like others: Sayville, Passaic, Scarsdale. She was shocked when Michael told her that Scarsdale was a well-heeled town. The name sounded tough, like a run-down mining town. A scar in the earth, scars on the faces. She never would have guessed.
* * *
When there’s nothing left to do, when nothing else can be tidied or straightened, she sits at the table and waits for Tina and the kids. She spreads the Advance across the table and sifts through it. This is more intimate than the radio, deserves more focus. A community of millions siphoned down to a few hundred thousand.
Between articles, she looks out the large bay window at the front of the kitchen. The morning is gray, the sun up but stuck behind a fleet of low-lying clouds. The other houses on the block are dark. The street is still. The whole neighborhood sleeping off the week.
The block hasn’t changed much in the forty years they’ve called it home. Fewer trees. Less open space. A handful of new houses that don’t quite fit in. Otherwise, Wirra Lane has largely escaped the overdevelopment that has plagued the rest of the Island.
A blank moment in the mind. Her thoughts drift to Franky. She hopes he’s holding down his latest job, hopes he’s still on the wagon. She hasn’t seen him in a few weeks. Hasn’t heard from him in a few weeks, come to think of it. Maybe he’s met someone. God, she hopes he’s met someone. The right girl would make him tow the line. The right girl would make him straighten out his act.
Of course, the right girl would be too smart to get involved with him at all.
It wasn’t always that way. There was a time, not so long ago, when Franky was half a lady’s man. Handsome in a roguish way. A glint of trouble in his eyes, sure, but charming. She was sitting at this table one morning, dawn coming on, when a car pulled up. Franky and Bobby were both living at home, taking summer classes at CSI and wearing out their elbows at every bar on Forest Avenue. They’d been out the night before. Gail had heard them come in, after four, stumbling down the hallway into their bedrooms.
At least, she thought she’d heard them—the two of them—but it wasn’t like she’d done a bed check. She couldn’t fall back to sleep, so after an hour of trying, she wandered downstairs to get a start on the day. And here was a car, pulling to a stop quietly, and there was Franky in the passenger seat, leaning over to make out with the girl who was driving. He got out of the car and closed the door softly, was walking up the path to the front steps when the girl—black hair in a ponytail, toned, long legs in jean shorts—got out of the car and chased him down, holding a slip of paper. He turned back, gave her another long kiss, and tucked the paper into his pocket. He waved as she drove off, then walked into the house, happy and oblivious, looking like a man who’d just gotten laid, which was probably the case. He didn’t notice Gail sitting in the dark.
“Was that Kerry Cole?” she asked, hoping to startle him. Gail recognized her from the Advance. She’d been a soccer star on the Island a few years back, had gotten a full ride to Notre Dame, must have been home for the summer. He sat down across from Gail, a smirk on his face.
“T’was, Mother, t’was,” he said, in a fake Irish accent. “A fine girl.”
He retrieved the slip of paper from his pocket, spread it on the table. Gail saw the name Kerry, a telephone number below it. Bobby would have been embarrassed and Peter annoyed, but Franky was nonplussed. Proud, if anything. And Gail felt a strange pride too. She could see a girl like Kerry Cole falling for Peter. But Franky? Who was taking his sweet time getting through community college? Whose great ambition was tomorrow night? Whose ideal reading was two pages of box scores in the Post?
Yet there she was, chasing Franky down to hand over her number. Making out with him in the front yard like it was her last day on earth. As a mother to three boys—three men now—Gail had gotten used to a certain amount of locker room banter over the years. Still, it was an odd thing to be happy that your son had maybe screwed above his station. But she was happy. And proud.
“Slumming for the summer?” she asked, regretting it immediately. She meant it in a teasing way, but with Franky, she had a way of being cruel without always intending to. He didn’t flinch though.
“What can I say, Mother? There’s no accounting for taste.”
He smiled. He wasn’t drunk, wasn’t even tipsy. He was glowing with the unlikelihood of his conquest. He was past the age where Gail could give him a talk about precautions, about being careful. And God help her, she could think of worse things than Franky knocking up a sweet, smart girl like Kerry Cole.
“You should call her, Francis,” she said, trying not to sound too insistent.
“I’m starving,” he responded.
She fried up some bacon and scrambled some eggs, sat there with him while he ate it. The smirk on his face creased into a smile.
“Fine girl. My ass.”
He had to spit the eggs out into a napkin because he was laughing so hard. She said it to him for the next few weeks, their own private joke. He could be so easy sometimes. He had his moments.
He never called, despite Gail’s nudges. Gail didn’t see Kerry Cole again until her wedding was announced in the Advance some years later. By that point, Gail had endured a host of mornings with Franky: mornings where he needed to be helped out of a cab, mornings where she found him passed out on the front lawn, mornings when he didn’t come home at all, and, of course, the morning when he called and told them in a slurred ramble that he’d been arrested.
There were even a few other mornings where he got dropped off by a girl. None of the girls was Kerry Cole, but he didn’t lack for companionship. He still had a certain appeal, still had his looks. Sitting on a bar stool—a drunken, ruined memorial to his dead brother—Franky probably did well with a certain brand of barfly.
Some women love reclamation projects.
* * *
On the counter, the coffeemaker ceases its pleasant babble. She makes a pot for Michael; she prefers the Starbucks that Tina brings with the bagels. Michael complains.
“It’s too expensive, it tastes burnt.”
Gail doesn’t care. She likes the taste. She’d rather have one good cup of coffee than four crappy ones. Michael is a big tipper, would give his last dollar to a friend, but he’s cheap in ways that perplex Gail.
Not cheap. Frugal. Saves his money on coffee so he can leave five-dollar tips for surly bartenders. Doesn’t make sense to Gail, but that’s all right. Not everything about your husband should make sense. Took her years to realize that. If she were teaching a class to prospective brides, that would be her first piece of advice.
Don’t expect everything he does to make sense.
Michael is out of bed. The weight of the house has shifted with him. She knows what he’s doing now, as sure as if she were in the room with him. A stiff walk to the bathroom, followed by a hasty flip of the seat and a long, contented piss. Regimes have fallen during Michael’s Saturday morning pisses. She can tell how many beers he had the night before by the length of his piss: ten seconds for each bottle.
Gail hears the shower start. Short piss. Michael must have been a good boy last night.
The reshuffling of the house’s order—another body in the mix, another consciousness released from slumber—always startles her. It’s like a second waking, equally abrupt but more demanding. The day has been on tracks, sliding toward its start, and now it has arrived. Soon the house, enormous in its emptiness, will shrink with the day to accommodate Michael, Tina, the kids. Gail always misses the stillness as it recedes.
The morning has caught up with her. Time to get down to business. She grabs a pad of paper and a pen. She thinks for a moment, tries to conjure the date.
The ides of March are nearly upon us. She stopped teaching last year, but this would usually be the week her eighth-grade honors class started Julius Caesar. She tried to time it right, have them read the ides of March line on the ides of March. The little things matter when you’re teaching. You’ll do anything to keep them interested, keep them reading. Over the years, a few parents complained that Shakespeare was too advanced for eighth graders, even smart ones. But Gail always thought it was perfect for middle schoolers. It dealt with friendship, betrayal, conspiracies, honor: all the same things they were starting to struggle with in their own lives. Besides, kids needed to be pushed, not coddled.
Busy time of year. St. Patrick’s Day. The start of the NCAA tournament. The Cody’s pool. Bobby’s favorite week of the year. Her blue-eyed boy with the Italian last name and the map of Ireland on his face, wearing his fisherman’s cable-knit sweater, the one Gail bought for him in Galway, to every goddamn St. Patrick’s Day parade in the tristate area: Manhattan, Hoboken, Bay Ridge, and, of course, Forest Avenue. The sweater slowly accumulating brownish stains from spilled Guinness. Watching basketball for days on end. He used to say it was like they took everything good and crammed it into one week, except for Thanksgiving and the night before Thanksgiving.
What about Christmas? she would ask.
Overrated, he’d pronounce. Other than your food, Mom. Overrated.
Wait till you have kids, she’d think. Wait until you watch them fly down the stairs on Christmas morning.
She writes “to do” next to the date and makes a few short dashes on the left side of the page, the assignments to be added.
-Call Peter about Wednesday.
-Bobby Jr.’s birthday party.
* * *
A single dash lies companionless at the bottom of the list. There was something else. She was thinking of it while she loaded the dryer. Her memory’s not what it used to be, but she knows when she’s forgotten something. She taps the pen at the empty space as though the item might write itself if prompted.
Ah well, if it’s important, she’ll remember it soon enough. The dash will not be lonely for long.
The lists aren’t as long as they used to be. She remembers a time when she couldn’t make lists at all, when the next thing to do just presented itself, usually before the previous thing had been done. One of the boys with a bloody nose and hungry to boot, one of the boys waiting to be taken to practice. The phone ringing, someone needing to be picked up at the movies. An ice pack fetched, ziti reheated in the microwave. In the car, dropping one son off at the gym, picking another up at the movie theater, the third in the back, a hostage to the situation, holding the ice pack to the bridge of his nose in one hand and a Tupperware container of leftover pasta in the other. The moviegoer gets into the car, two of his compatriots are halfway in before he asks.
“Can Jimmy and Steve come over?”
Of course they can. Their friends were always welcome, the house always open. Gail fed a small army of boys, weekend after weekend, year after year.
It would have been Bobby with the bloody nose. Bobby having to tag along with her as she ferried the older boys all over the Island. Gail adjusting the rearview to look at him, just the two of them in the car.
“You okay, captain?”
That or something like it.
A smile in response, a wad of tissue sticking out of one nostril. No bother, Mom, his smile would have said. Right as rain. The patience of a saint, everything an adventure. When he was a boy, when he was a man.
Gail sets aside the incomplete list and picks up the paper. Somewhere on the block, a car alarm rings out in protest as a sleepy-eyed neighbor fumbles for the right button on his key chain. When the alarm is silenced, Michael’s footsteps are on the stairs. He walks into the kitchen, yawning and happy.
“Good morning, beautiful.”
“Good morning yourself.”
Michael looks good for a man “on the back half of the back nine,” as he describes himself. His face is still pleasant, always on the verge of a smile, even though life hasn’t spared him from sadness. He opens a cabinet, takes out a red FDNY mug. He pours himself a cup of coffee and drizzles in a splash of milk. He kisses Gail’s cheek and sits next to her, his gaze out the window.
“So, what’s the world got in store for us today?”
“Same as always.” She licks her finger, turns a page. “How was the Leaf?”
“Same as always.”
“Who won the game?” When she fell asleep on the couch, Duke was losing to Virginia Tech by six points at the half.
“Duke pulled away in the second half. Too big.”
“Shoot. So when do they do the draw?”
“You mean the selection show? Tomorrow night.”
“You and the boys putting in a few entries this year?”
He frowns in mock exasperation.
“Why do you ask questions that you already know the answer to?”
“For the same reason you keep entering a pool you’ll never win. I enjoy it.”
He smiles again.
The Cody’s pool is an institution, a March Madness tradition. Its genius is its simplicity. Pick the four Final Four teams. Pick the champion. Pick the total points of the final game. Ten dollars an entry. Seems easy, but if you lose one Final Four team, you’re out.
Kansas loses in the second round? There go eleven thousand entries, more than a hundred thousand dollars. Syracuse goes down, a buzzer beater in overtime? A quarter of the pool is finished. Done. See you next year. People come from all over—Jersey, Brooklyn, the city, even Connecticut—to put in their entries. Last year, the pot was over a million. In cash.
She teases Michael, but she loves the pool. A special lottery for the Island. The teachers at school put in a few sheets. So do the guys behind the counter at Enzo’s. Franky and Bobby used to sit, at this very table, for hours, eliminating certain teams, elevating others. They’d pool their money with a few friends, put in a few sheets of picks. They’d revise their picks over and over. If only they’d approached their schoolwork with that intensity, like their older brother did.
After Peter went away to college, he called home with his entries every March. By the time he was a senior, his friends wanted in. Two of them even drove down with him for that first crazy weekend. They drove straight to Cody’s and put in their entries. They watched the games all weekend in the basement. Franky and Bobby down there with them. Nonstop basketball. Explosions of noise every few hours. Michael sat in the kitchen with her, said he was going down to see what happened. He didn’t emerge for a few hours. When he did, he was glowing with the easy energy of male camaraderie, like after a good night at the Leaf.
Only this was better. This was his blood, these were his boys.
Gail cooked and sent the food down with Michael. She kept it simple: food to fill stomachs, food to soak up beer. Chicken parm, sausage and peppers, small armies of penne, pork roasted in sauerkraut. She had to make a few hasty trips to Enzo’s for replenishments, for bread and cold cuts. The amount they consumed.
A lull in the action, between the afternoon games and the night games. They filed out of the basement, stretching and boasting, ready for more of the same but in a different location. Peter and his friends over the legal age, Franky close enough for the Leaf. But not Bobby, the straggler again, left behind with his mother. A senior in high school but still the young pup.
Gail was angry with the other boys, angry with Michael. Couldn’t they just stay in the basement? She’d get the beer herself. They could drink it by the caseload downstairs. Keep Bobby involved, part of the crew. But Bobby could have cared less. Never bothered.
Mom, would you care if Tina came over and watched the games with us?
Of course not.
* * *
Gail glances at the clock on the microwave. Half past nine. Tina’s late.
“What do you want to do for dinner tonight?” Michael asks.
“I was thinking I’d make your mother’s lentil stew, the one with the sausage. One last belly warmer before the weather turns.”
He sips his coffee.
“You sure you want to cook?”
Gail folds the paper, takes off her glasses.
“Why? You have another idea?”
“Thought maybe we could drive into the city, down to Chinatown, go to that downstairs place we used to take the boys to, the one with the great dumplings.”
“Michael Amendola. Will wonders never cease. What about the toll on the bridge?”
“Keep teasing me. Very nice. I try to expand my horizons and you tease.”
“Drive to Manhattan, eat dumplings. Next thing, you’ll be saying we should get sushi.”
“Why not? I’m turning over a new leaf, Goodness. Sushi. Falafel. Pedicures and yoga. Understanding and compassion. Out with the old, in with the new. They can put mosques on the moon and I won’t make a peep.”
“Interesting. Doesn’t sound like this new leaf will have any room for the old Leaf.”
“Let’s not go crazy. It’s a process, turning leaves. Can’t get rid of the old one until you make sure the new one works. Best to start with something simple. Like dumplings.”
They laugh together. It’s nice when they can cheer each other into the day.
“Actually, sounds like a great idea. Change of pace.”
He shakes his head, rolls his shoulders.
“Doesn’t even have to be Chinatown. Little Italy’s down there too. Either or.”
“Whatever. Something different.”
A familiar car slows on the street in front of the house and turns into their driveway. The car rolls to a stop and the passenger door opens. Alyssa shuffles out. She is twelve, on the cusp of so many things. She lurches toward the house clutching her phone, eyes riveted to the tiny screen. Bobby Jr. skips out of the rear door, his black hair flopping as he darts in front of his sister. He waves excitedly to them through the window.
Tina brings up the rear, carrying a tray of coffee and looking frazzled. She nods at them through the window, a grim smile on her face.
“She’s lost weight,” Michael says.
Michael’s observation, upsetting for a reason Gail can’t pinpoint, lingers for a moment until the front door flies open with Bobby Jr.’s weight and he explodes into the house, the jacket already sliding off his arms. He wriggles his arms free and the jacket drops to the floor in the doorway between the porch and the living room. He leans back, croons.
“The trickster is here.”
He breaks into a giggle, lets Michael tousle his hair before sliding into Gail’s arms.
“Missed you, Bob-a-loo.”
“Missed you too, Grandma.”
He smells like Cheerios and milk. He has his mother’s dark hair, but everything else is his father. The blue eyes, the goofy grin, the constant good humor. His smooth cheek feels young against her cragged counterpart. He’ll be nine in a few days. She’s been looking forward to his birthday party for weeks. Next Sunday, just the family. A barbecue in the backyard, like the good old days. She releases him and he skips back to Michael for a high five.
Alyssa follows her brother in, her perpetual pout a slap in the face after Bobby’s infectious jubilation. Other than a splash of acne on her forehead, puberty has not yet touched her. Her body is painfully geometric, a collection of straight lines, hunched shoulders, and stringy brown hair. Gail hopes she’s a late bloomer.
Tina comes in last. Usually she restores equilibrium; her pleasant but weary demeanor striking the middle ground between the moods of her children. Not today. No, today her heart is clearly with Alyssa and this troubles Gail. Tina’s unhappiness will have substance, will have something real behind it.
She looks at Gail with a pained expression, like a parent about to explain some unpleasant reality to a child. And then Gail knows, the answer presents itself, like a twig snapping after a few moments of pressure.
It’s the only thing that makes sense.
* * *
Tina doesn’t bother with a preamble. She doesn’t try to explain. She doesn’t mention Bobby. As soon as they’re alone—the kids safely planted in front of the television in the living room, Michael out running errands—she says it, confirming what Gail already knows.
“I met someone.”
Gail looks over at her daughter-in-law. Tina’s hands are trembling and she steadies them by pressing them down, fingers splayed apart, on the tabletop. Gail reaches over and squeezes Tina’s shoulder.
“Good for you, Tina, I’m happy for you.”
Not a total lie, but it sounds false to Gail even as she says it. She is happy. But she’s sad too. No sense denying it. She was afraid this would happen even as she hoped it might. She thinks there should be a better word for this feeling. Bittersweet doesn’t capture it. This is different. This is happiness and sadness entwined, flowing through you at the same time. Gail is sure there is an Italian word for this feeling, some word that Maria, her own mother-in-law, would have known. Some little word that sounds exactly the way she feels.
Tina has more to say, but Gail doesn’t want her to say anything. She doesn’t want her to make promises she might not keep. Already she can feel distance growing between them. Already they are protecting themselves, protecting each other, from what is to come. Tina starts gathering herself to speak. The shrill, insistent sounds of Saturday morning cartoons blare in from the living room.
“Tina, I know how much you loved my son.”
Tina hugs her and Gail notices that she is thinner. She gained weight after Bobby was killed. Her small frame didn’t carry it well. All the chub went straight to her face and her rear, made her look heavier than she was. But she’s slimmed back down; she nearly has the figure she had when Gail first met her, when Tina was a teenager. Even Michael noticed. She should have known. She feels a protective flutter in her throat.
Bobby Jr. walks into the kitchen.
“Mom, can I have a doughnut?”
Tina is sniffling and Gail dries her eyes with her shirtsleeve. Bobby’s eyes shine with embarrassment. Gail summons a smile. The poor kid has spent half his life walking into kitchens full of crying women.
“Everything’s okay, Bob-a-loo. We’re just crying about a silly thing.”
“Were you talking about my dad?”
“Kind of, yeah.”
“Come here, sweetie.”
Tina slides around the table, opens her arms for a hug. Bobby looks down at his shoes.
He needs a male influence. This is probably a good thing. Tina’s mothering him too much, trying to shelter him from the world that took his father. It’s a fine line. You want to protect your kids, but you can’t go too far. If you shield them from everything, they never learn to fend for themselves. Michael used to worry that she mothered Bobby too much. Her baby.
“He’ll be like a turtle without a shell, the world will bring a hard boot down on him and he won’t know what to do.”
It was a hard boot all right.
Alyssa shuffles into the kitchen, eyes still glued to her phone. She looks up, assesses the situation, and frowns.
“Why is everyone crying?”
It is a complaint, disguised as a question.
* * *
After Tina and the kids leave, Gail sits at the table for a long time, processing this turn of events. She has questions. Of course she has questions. Loads of them. She can feel them piling up even as she tries not to think of them. Her mind starts spinning with possibilities, each of them unpleasant to contemplate. She sees Tina in a wedding gown, the kids on vacation at Disney World with a new dad, the whole family moving to San Francisco.
Yes, she has questions. She has more questions than she can bear.
But the answers, the important ones, are already there. He’s a nice guy and he’s good with the kids. And it’s serious, has to be. Tina has dated a few other guys over the years. Gail knows this even if nothing was ever explicitly discussed. Tina never said anything because it wasn’t ever serious enough to warrant a conversation. The fact of the conversation means it’s serious. The fact that it’s serious means he’s a nice guy and good with the kids. She could noodle this stuff out if she tried.
So, he’s nice and good with the kids and it’s serious. She’ll learn the details soon enough. No sense worrying about things you can’t control.
She knows this is right—that she shouldn’t worry—but she knows that she will. The questions will not vanish. The answers will not satisfy her. She can feel the happiness of this ebbing, the sadness rising, morphing into loneliness. She needs to do something, anything, to distract herself. She needs some relief from her own thoughts.
She stands, looks out the window. It’s still gray out, one of those ominous half days, a bridge between darknesses. She puts on a jacket, feels an anticipatory shiver run from the back of her shoulders down to her thighs.
Maybe later she’ll look up that Italian word that Maria would have used. Maybe she’ll just make up her own word.
Before she leaves, she looks back down at her to-do list. The final, solitary dash sits abandoned on the paper. She picks up the pen and gives the dash a companion.
THE BEST DAMN PIZZA IN THE WORLD
Tina sets her lips in a gentle circle and applies a bright red lipstick. She inspects her reflection in the bathroom mirror, unsure whether the color suits her. Or the occasion. Even the simplest decisions—what lipstick to wear, hair up or down—are vexing her tonight. She hasn’t felt like this since high school: the fluttering stomach, the anticipation that borders on dread, the head turned to sieve, unable to hold a single thought.
You haven’t dated since high school, her reflection reminds her. Not really.
Only this isn’t high school, when emotions were the only thing that mattered. More than school, more than family, more than friends. When you could feel something so deeply, so purely, without any comprehension of its true capacities. To change you, your life, the things that matter. To bring new souls into existence.
No, this isn’t high school. The real world infringes, insists; a dozen anxieties jostle for priority in her head. The kids, Bobby, Wade, tonight, tomorrow morning, waking in a different bed, another man beside her, Gail judging her. She knows this last image is crazy, but she can’t shake it. It keeps showing up at the end of a sprint through half thoughts. She is lying in Wade’s bed and he is in the bathroom. She can see one of his pale naked buttocks atop a long, spindly leg, but the bathroom door bisects him, hiding half of his body. The tap is running; she can hear it. The sheets on his bed are lime green. Tina lies on top of them, luxuriantly naked, and Gail watches her from a doorway, shaking her head and frowning.
The whole thing is ridiculous. She’s never been to his apartment, never seen his bare ass. And she prays to God that he doesn’t have lime green sheets.
This isn’t high school. Why then can she hear Stephanie shouting at her from the bedroom? Twenty years pass and you wind up in the same place, more or less. In your bathroom talking about guys. She hears Stephanie call Vinny an asshole a few times, but she’s not processing it. It’s noise floating around her.
She’s thought about calling Gail half a dozen times, even flipped open her cell phone once to do it. She told her about Wade this morning, but it felt like she held something back. What is she supposed to say, though?
Gail, in case I wasn’t clear this morning, I’m planning on sleeping with this other man who I told you about. Tonight. Okay with you? Fine, we’re clear then. Okay, I’ll let you know how it goes.
“Are you even listening to me?”
Stephanie has crept into the bathroom while she was preoccupied.
“Jesus Christ. You scared the shit out of me.”
“So you weren’t listening to me?”
“Sorry, Steph. I’m just distracted.” She points to her lips. “Too much?”
“Not if you’re gonna give him a blow job on the way to the restaurant.”
“So yes, definitely too much.”
She starts blotting off the lipstick.
“Might be a good thing. Ease the sexual tension right off the bat. That way you can both enjoy your dinner. Well, maybe not you, depending.”
Stephanie does this, pushes the conversation toward sex, tries to make Tina uncomfortable. She’s done it since high school. The smallest details of Stephanie’s sex life with Vinny are conveyed to Tina, who long ago learned not to share in kind. Instead, she employs a simple trick to swat away intrusive questions: redirection. Stephanie is always eager to talk about herself.
“You were talking about Vinny and a Jets game.”
“Jesus, I’ll just start over.”
Stephanie closes the toilet seat and sits on it. She removes a pack of cigarettes from the pocket of her sweatpants, takes one out, and places it in her mouth.
“No,” says Tina as she flicks on the exhaust fan. “Don’t let the kids see you.”
“You want one?”
She would love a cigarette. But she knows she shouldn’t. She waves her hand no. Stephanie tosses the pack onto the marble counter that Tina is leaning against. She lights the cigarette, takes a drag, and exhales up toward the vent. The whiff of burning tobacco sets Tina’s fingers tapping on the marble.
“So, back in December, Vinny took the boys to a Jets game. As usual. It was freezing out and I was trying to make sure no one gets frostbite or hypothermia and they’re all ‘yeah, yeah, yeahing’ me, you know, like I’m the asshole. I says, ‘Vin, it’s gonna be fifteen degrees out and windy and they’re not gonna have eight or nine beers to keep them warm, Vin,’ and he says, ‘Yeah, yeah, Steph, yeah, yeah, I heard you the first time,’ and he winks at the boys and they all laugh. And then they run out of the house and I watch them pull away in the Denali and they’re all smiling, thrilled to be rid of me. All three of them smiling because they’re finally rid of the nag. And you know what? I felt exactly the same way.
“Anyways, I straighten up a little bit and then I go upstairs to draw a bath. My Sunday ritual when they’re at the games. A nice warm bath, a little one-on-one time with the removable showerhead.”
“What if one of the kids hears you?”
“You’re such a prude. They’re not so innocent, they see everything on the Internet these days. You’d be surprised.”
Stephanie leans past Tina, taps the ash out in the sink.
“Do you really do that whenever they’re at the Jets games?”
“I pray every night that the Jets make the play-offs. Or that Vinny gets season tickets to the Mets.”
Tina forces out a laugh. Stephanie has been watching too much reality television; her jokes sound rehearsed.
“So anyways, I go up to the bathroom and I see Vinny’s facial hair in the sink. Like caked into the sink with shaving scum. A ring of little black and white hairs. And I think, Getting old, Vincenzo, because of the white hairs, and then it hits me. T, I can’t tell you how pissed I was. Normally, I’d just run the tap and wash it out, but I was so disgusted. I smeared some of it on the mirror so he’d be sure to know I saw it when he got home.”
Stephanie stops, takes another drag.
“So he forgot to clean up after he shaved?”
Stephanie nods, as though the point of her story should be obvious to Tina.
“Okay. That’s gross but . . .”
Stephanie smiles, a little secret on her tongue. One she wants to share. Tina knows the drill. She waves her hand in a small circle, attempting to move the story along.
“So I fucked Tommy Valenti.”
Tina reaches over and shuts the bathroom door.
“You did what?”
“Fucked Tommy Valenti. Twice. Well, one time we fucked and then the other time, I gave him a blow job in the parking lot of the mall.”
“You’re joking me.”
“No, I ain’t.”
Tina doesn’t believe her.
“You’re telling me you slept with—”
“Tommy Valenti because Vinny forgot to clean up his shaving scum before he went to the Jets game. What am I missing?”
Stephanie takes another long drag, lifts her shoulders in mock incredulity. “Who shaves to go to a football game?”
“I don’t understand what you’re telling me.”
“Tina, answer one question for me.”
“Who shaves to go to a football game?”
“I have no idea what that means.”
“Well, I do.”
“You’re a lunatic. Vinny shaves before a football game and that means he’s cheating on you.”
“Cheating on me again. And yes, yes it does.”
“That makes no sense to me.”
“Well, that’s because Bobby probably never fucked around on you.”
Tina’s mind catches on the word probably. She looks at Stephanie, who’s sitting with one leg crossed over the other and inspecting the soft pink polish on the toenails of her closest foot. A wave of disgust passes through Tina as she looks at Stephanie’s midriff, a patch of tanned, toned skin exposed between gray sweatpants and a white tank top. She remembers how Stephanie used to flirt with Bobby, touching his chest or his arm, right in front of her, especially when she knew Vinny was fucking around. She remembers Bobby enjoying the attention.
Slut, she thinks and then feels terrible.
“Does Vinny know?”
Stephanie looks up.
“Isn’t Tommy Valenti married?”
“Jesus, Tina. Already with the judgment?”
“What? I’m asking. I can’t ask? Forget it.”
“Yes, Tommy is married, but he says his wife . . . they have an understanding. She fucks around too. They have an open marriage.”
“Do you believe him?”
“I don’t know. You know what? I don’t care.”
“Jesus, I mean, Jesus. I don’t know what to say.”
“T, Vinny has been fucking around on me for years. Years. When he was working on the floor, God knows.”
“I know, but I thought you said that mostly stopped. You know, after he stopped working in the city.”
“I thought it did. But I guess I was wrong.”
Stephanie’s sneer softens. Her eyes well and her lower lip starts to quiver. Tina knows this transformation, from angry defiance to wounded and heartbroken. You could set your watch by Stephanie’s mood shifts.
“What kills me is I can see her. When I close my eyes, I can actually see her. Some little whore in a Jets jersey, giving him head in the back of the car at a tailgate. My boys know her. Shit, Tina, they probably jerk off while thinking about her. How fucked up is that?”
“Pretty fucked up,” Tina says flatly.
Another sordid episode in the highly repetitive saga of Stephanie and Vinny’s marriage. In a month or so, Vinny will confess to a minor slip and promise to change his ways. The promise will be accompanied by a gift of some kind: a fur coat or diamond earrings. After an indeterminate period during which Stephanie will continue to punish Vinny by carrying on with her own affair and by generally making his life miserable, a second gift will be proffered. This gift will ensure the cessation of Stephanie’s vengeance-seeking dalliance and a temporary return to marital bliss for the DeVosso household for a proscribed period of time, determined principally by how long Vinny can keep his dick in his pants or alternatively, how long he can hide from Stephanie the fact that he is not keeping his dick in his pants. The bliss period was the worst for Tina because it required listening to Stephanie describe the graphic details of her reinvigorated sex life with Vinny.
At least that’s how it used to go. Ever since Vinny lost his job on Wall Street, the quality of his gifts had gone south, along with their ability to placate Stephanie. Vinny had come to lean heavily on his ability to avoid getting caught. Tina had little doubt that, in the future, Vinny would discard his shaven hairs with the care of a gangster disposing of a body.
Stephanie starts crying. She tears off a sheet of toilet paper and dabs at her eyes.
“I’m not a bad person, T.”
“No, no. I didn’t say that.”
She’s heard this all before, but tonight it’s a welcome distraction from her own thoughts.
Stephanie takes a final drag and extinguishes the butt under the tap. She retrieves the pack and takes another cigarette out. The tiny white cylinder is too perfect for Tina to resist.
“Give me one.”
“If not tonight, when?”
She plucks a cigarette from the pack, lets Steph light it for her. She sucks the smoke deep into her lungs and exhales with relish. It’s her first cigarette in three years.
“So what’s gonna happen with you and Tommy?”
Stephanie sits back down on the toilet.
“Nothing. Just having a little fun. How’s the cigarette?”
Bobby used to hate that she smoked. He used to nag her about it, even though she was only a social smoker, barely a pack a week.
It’s the worst thing you can do, he’d say, it’s poison.
Is that so? What about beer, Bobby? Or shots of Jameson?
It’s different. They don’t destroy your lungs, they don’t give you cancer.
So she stopped smoking in front of him. She only smoked around certain friends, Steph or Amy Rizzo or Maggie Terrio or when she visited her sister in Jersey. She’d smoke a single cigarette when she got home from work. Walk into the backyard with a Marlboro Light and a glass of wine, let the day’s bullshit float away in tiny puffs of smoke. Whenever they were out for drinks, she’d sneak away from him, find a compatriot to tuck outside with, even before the asshole of a mayor banned smoking in bars. Bobby hated it, especially when her partner in crime was a guy, even his own brother Franky. The only thing that ever made him jealous.
He’d pull her aside half an hour later, when their friends were up at the bar.
What the fuck were you two talking about? A little drunk, the slurring coming on, the belligerence along for the ride.
Outside. I saw you laughing outside with Stevey.
Fucking Christ, Bobby. Relax.
Tipsy herself, glad to see Bobby the jealous one. For once.
You’d love it, T. I’m sure you’d love it if I snuck outside with Amy and you saw us falling over laughing. Yeah, you’d fucking love it if I was outside with Amy. Or Steph.
She’s pretty sure Bobby said that: Or Steph. He must have said that at some point. They fought about it more than once. He knew what buttons to push, even if he only pushed them when he was drunk.
When she got pregnant, she quit. Easy, no fuss. She didn’t have cravings, even after Alyssa was born. Not really. Here or there. After a few drinks, sure. Sometimes when she was driving. But for the most part, it was easy enough. Cold turkey.
One night, right before she got pregnant with Bobby Jr., they were all out at the Leaf: Bobby; Franky; Bobby’s father, Michael; Amy and Timmy; maybe even Steph; a few other guys. A big crew. A few tables pushed together in the side room. They were celebrating something, she can’t remember what. Gail was watching Alyssa. Michael was drunk and jovial, telling stories about the boys growing up. Everyone feeling pretty good, backslaps and smiles. Franky smoking like a chimney, right next to Bobby.
“Jesus Christ, Franky.”
“You’re blowing the smoke right in my face.”
“Okay, sensitive. You’re in a fucking bar. Deal with it.”
“You want to give yourself cancer, fine. But spare me.”
The whole table snickered, little grunts of disapproval at Bobby’s sanctimony. He got up in a huff, strode to the bathroom. Franky waited until he was out of sight, handed everyone a cigarette, and gave instructions. The table went quiet, waiting for Bobby to come back to launch the prank. He sat down, still pissed but sheepish about it.
“Hey, Bobby, my bad. I shouldn’t blow the smoke in your face. Seriously, my bad.”
Franky reached a fist over, looking for a bump from his brother, an official sign that all was forgiven. Bobby smiled, that goofy grin he could never contain, and gave his brother a pound. A beat passed. Then Franky and everyone else at the table, including Tina, brought cigarettes up to their lips in unison. Franky lit his and passed the lighter to Tina. Bobby stood up, grabbed his jacket, and stormed out the door as the whole table laughed.
Tina followed him outside.
He was halfway down the block. She had to jog to catch him. She wasn’t wearing a jacket. It was cold; her breath shot out in plumes. She stood in front of him.
“Bobby, it was a joke.”
Over Bobby’s shoulder, she could see that Franky had stepped out of the bar, was slowly walking toward them.
“Go back inside with your friends. I’m going to get Alyssa and then I’m going home.”
He stepped around her. The street was empty, all the stores shuttered. She stepped in front of him again. She was still clutching the cigarette and the lighter.
“Bobby, are you fucking kidding me? Don’t do this. Don’t ruin the night. It was just a joke. I’m your wife. I love you.”
He leaned down, his expansive blue eyes came to rest right in front of hers.
“You’re a bitch.”
He stepped around her again and this time, she let him go. He walked off in the direction of his parents’ house and didn’t look back. She turned around and saw Franky retreat into the Leaf. She smoked the cigarette Franky gave her alone, outside the bar, rubbing her arms to keep them warm. When it started to rain, she went back inside the Leaf.
Five months later, Bobby was dead.
She thought about that night often in the years after Bobby was killed. After the kids were in bed, she’d smoke half a pack a night in the kitchen alone, cursing him.
I’m a bitch, Bobby? Cigarettes are bad for you? Fuck you, Bobby. I’m still here. I’m still here and you’re fucking dead, Bobby. Running into burning buildings is bad for you, Bobby. Cigarettes are fucking dandy.
She’d wake in the middle of the night, lungs raw, and beg his forgiveness. Smoke a cigarette in bed and ask him to forgive her for that too. Every night for almost two years. The cigarettes in the kitchen, the curses in her head. Tougher to quit the second go-round. Tougher because she needed to quit this time, needed to quit for the kids. It took a few tries. She used the gum.
* * *
Someone knocks on the bathroom door. Tina sneaks a last drag and then stubs her cigarette out in the sink. She turns the faucet on and splashes some water on the smeared ash. Stephanie stands and lifts the toilet cover; Tina drops the butt into the commode. Stephanie lowers the lid, sits back down on top of it.
“Who is it?”
“One second, sweetie,” says Stephanie.
Stephanie wipes her face one more time, stands up. Tina takes a swig of Scope and spits into the sink. A languid haze of blue nicotine smoke lingers, despite the vent. Tina opens the door. Alyssa stands on the other side, a sour look on her face. She looks at Stephanie, whose eyes are still swollen from crying.
“Jesus, everyone is crying today.”
“Alyssa, enough. What do you want?”
“Were you guys smoking in here?”
Stephanie raises her hand.
“Guilty as charged.”
Alyssa eyes her mother.
“I let Aunt Stephanie smoke one cigarette, Alyssa. She won’t smoke any more tonight. Right, Steph?”
“Right. My bad. Won’t do it again.”
Alyssa rolls her eyes, a practiced gesture of exaggeration.
“We’re hungry. Can you order the pizza?”
“Sure. What do you want, Steph?”
“Whatever is fine with me.”
Tina reaches for her wallet, takes out some money, and hands it to Alyssa. “There you go.”
Alyssa hesitates. “Aren’t you going to order it?”
“Alyssa, the number for Vertuccio’s is on the fridge downstairs. Dial it. Tell them what you and Bobby want. Give them our address. When they come, pay and give the delivery guy a tip. This is not rocket science.”
“Okay, okay, don’t have a shit fit.”
“How many times do I have to tell you about the language?”
Alyssa shuffles away, saying something under her breath. Tina shouts after her.
“Were you eavesdropping?”
She hears Alyssa lumbering down the stairs. Stephanie walks out of the bathroom.
“Not your fault. Thanks for taking the bullet on the cigarette.”
“Do you think she heard?”
“Maybe a little, but not the whole thing. She stomps around like an elephant. We would have heard her.”
“How’s she taking this whole Wade thing?”
“She get her period yet?”
After thirty years of friendship, Tina no longer bothered trying to discern a logical pattern to Stephanie’s questions.
“God got my kids mixed up. She’s built like her father, she’s already taller than me. Meanwhile, little Bobby got my genes. He’s a sprite.”
“No, not yet. I keep praying she’ll wake up one day with some shape, a set of tits, something.”
“Life isn’t fair.” Tina chokes back a dirty look. Stephanie wouldn’t know the first fucking thing about being the ugly duckling, wouldn’t know about being tall and lumbering or short and flat-chested. Since the sixth grade, she’s gotten plenty of attention from the boys.
Tina checks the time. Wade should be here any minute. She’s not ready. She walks back into the bathroom. She grabs another lipstick, something more demure.
“Are you nervous about tonight?”
“Have you guys . . . ?” Stephanie makes a slapping gesture with her hands.
“Have we what?”
“Fooled around yet.”
Stephanie drapes herself inside the door frame.
“Tina, have you fooled around with anyone since Bobby?”
“Jesus, Steph, no.”
Stephanie adopts a look of mock surprise.
“What about Tommy Patek?”
Four years ago, Tina went out on a few dates with little Bobby’s baseball coach. His wife had run off to Florida with her trainer and left him with two young kids. He was a nice-enough guy with stale breath and a fragile psyche. On their third date, he took Tina to a Spanish restaurant in Mariner’s Harbor. He excused himself to go to the bathroom as soon as they sat down. Fifteen minutes later, Tina’s cell phone rang. It was Tommy, calling from the parking lot. He was rambling and Tina suspected he was drunk. He said he was confused and that he couldn’t keep seeing her, that he had left money with the maître d’ for her dinner and a cab home. Then he hung up.
Tina ordered a carafe of sangria, a shrimp and chorizo appetizer, and seafood paella. She asked for the check halfway through her second carafe of sangria. When the embarrassed waiter brought it over, she opened the black check holder to discover the crumpled twenty Tommy had left her sitting on top of a scribbled bill.
There was no fourth date.
“We made out on his couch one time. His seven-year-old daughter walked in on us just as he was getting to second base.”
“Oh, very high school. Role playing. You slut.”
Tina doesn’t respond, keeps applying the new lipstick.
“You’re lying.” Steph presses.
“It’s the truth.”
“So you’re telling me you’ve never slept with anyone beside Bobby.” She lowers her voice, down to a hoarse whisper. “I don’t fucking believe you.”
“I didn’t say that. Jesus, I don’t want to talk about this. Not tonight.”
“I’m trying to get ready. Jesus.”
“Was that his name? He-zeus? Was he Dominican?”
“Enough. Junior year, Bobby and I broke up for like three months, when I was away at school. I don’t even remember why. Anyway, I went out with this other guy, Dave McKinley, a few times.”
“You and the Irish guys.”
“He wasn’t Irish, he was Scottish. And Bobby is half Italian.”
“So what happened?”
“We had sex twice. The first time I was drunk and the second time he was. Nothing special, no big deal.”
“Did you ever tell Bobby?”
Excerpted from "Small Mercies"
Copyright © 2016 Eddie Joyce.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
“An emotionally rich debut novel about family dynamics in the wake of tragedy. If Staten Island were Asbury Park, this former lawyer-turned-novelist could be its literary Springsteen. He was born and raised in the borough, which one of his characters calls 'the servants' quarters of the city,' and he has a deep affinity for the ethnic assimilations, class struggles, marital discontents and larger ambitions of those who share his roots. . . . Readers will get to know these characters and care about them to the very last page.”
“This assured debut novel is an insightful psychological tale of family and of love and loss. . . . Joyce gets the quotidian details of this family’s life exactly right: the ever-present aromas of pasta and meatballs; the high-school athletic trophies still on display. He also pens a love letter to the forgotten borough of Staten Island, evoking its deep community ties with heartfelt emotion.”
“Eddie Joyce’s terrific first novel is so American that the story might as well have taken place at the base of the Statue of Liberty. His Amendola family and their beloved Staten Island may be flawed, but they represent what’s best and most necessary in the American character, what our tired and poor still yearn for.”
—Richard Russo, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Empire Falls
“Eddie Joyce's triumphant first novel rings like a bell: for Staten Island, for husbands and wives, for mothers and sons. This is a beautiful book, and Joyce's deep, complicated love for his characters makes them seem like they could amble off the page and into the nearest bar, where it would be a joy to sit beside them and have a cold beer.”
—Emma Straub, New York Times bestselling author of The Vacationers
“A warm and absorbing family saga from Staten Island—‘this forgotten place,’ as one character thinks of it, ‘this fifth of five boroughs.’ With its focus on one tightknit clan’s loves and hates and births and deaths and joys and sorrows, Small Mercies recalls the work of Alice McDermott and Colum McCann. Eddie Joyce’s big-hearted generosity is apparent in every word. He cares deeply about his people, so we will too.”
—Stewart O’Nan, author of West of Sunset
“Small Mercies isn’t just the best Staten Island novel ever written; it’s also the best novel yet at capturing the human suffering that resulted from the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Joyce tells the story of all New York during that heartbroken, haunted period. His understanding of the role a hometown plays in the development of character rivals William Kennedy’s, and his gift for choosing resonant details and peeling back the layers of emotion in ordinary moments recalls Alice McDermott’s. A kaleidoscopic novel of a people in grief, Small Mercies paints a winning portrait of the loyal, tribal souls of Staten Island. The high-spirited characters in this book have such a good time even when grieving that they may almost make you think about moving there if they aren’t careful.”
—Matthew Thomas, New York Times bestselling author of We Are Not Ourselves
“The Staten Island family whose voices tell this story in turns are so real I feel like I've been to their house and eaten their baked ziti. Yes, it's a 9/11 novel, but maybe it's exactly the right kind of 9/11 novel: earnest, unabashedly sentimental, real and not manipulatively tear-jerking. SI native Joyce knows what he's talking about, and how to talk about it.”
—Emily Gould, Paper
“Small Mercies, a first novel that does not read like a first novel, tells the story of the Amendolas, a working-class, Staten Island family trying to remain a family in the wake of some terrible bad luck. It’s a very good book, with a texture of reality, a sense of place, and a genuine warmth and seriousness that is rare in contemporary fiction.”
—Keith Gessen, author of All the Sad Young Literary Men
“It’s been a long time since I’ve read a debut as good as Eddie Joyce’s Small Mercies. His knack for inhabiting the lives of these vivid characters from New York City’s ‘forgotten borough’—getting inside their minds, capturing the crucial subtleties of each glance and glare and grasp—marks him as a writer to watch. This is the sort of debut William Trevor might have written had he been born a writer from The Rock, a wised-up kid dreaming of the glittering island waiting just across the water.”
—Keith Dixon, author of This Is How You Fall and The Art of Losing
Reading Group Guide
1. Tina is worried about introducing Wade to her late husband’s family. Would the Amendolas have had an easier time accepting him if he had been from Staten Island?
2. Gail feels that the good things in life come too easily to Peter and that Franky is destined to be a screwup. Does she resent them because they are still alive and Bobby is dead? Is it possible for any parent to love all his children equally?
3. Gail and Michael both blame themselves for Bobby’s death, but in very different ways. Why do we so often feel compelled to punish ourselves for events that are beyond our control?
4. How might Bobby have felt about Franky’s taking his place as Tina’s husband? Would marrying Tina “save” Franky?
5. Is Peter aware that a small part of Gail wants him to suffer and learn humility? Is he a better person because of what happened between him and Gina?
6. What does the future hold for Peter and Franky? Do you agree with Gail that Peter will atone and eventually be forgiven? Will Franky be able to recover from what he regards as Tina’s betrayal?
7. Did Bobby’s death strengthen Gail and Michael’s marriage? Would they be happier if they moved to Florida and away from the site of Bobby’s death?
8. The phrase “small mercies” is repeated throughout the book and also serves as its title. How does your understanding of these words evolve over the course of the novel?
9. Eddie Joyce interweaves an evolving account of Cody’s basketball pool with the Amendolas’ family history and the events leading up to Bobby Jr.’s birthday party. Why is this important?
10. In many ways, Bobby is the novel’s most important character, but largely unknowable except through the memories of those who loved him. What does their collective portrait tell you about him? How accurate do you think their memories of him are?
11. Compare Small Mercies to any other 9/11 novels you’ve read. How well does Joyce handle the events of that day and its grim aftermath?
12. There was nothing private about losing a loved one as a result of the attacks on 9/11. How do you think being in the public eye affects a family’s ability to mourn?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is what I call a plain old-fashioned good story. The people feel like real people and, though, I've never been to Staten Island, I feel like I know it and the sense of family and community that survives generations. Of course the story is sad because it's about the youngest son, a FDNY firefighter, killed during 9/11 but the writer doesn't try to force the sadness he simply shows real people trying to deal with a tragic loss. I hate to nit - pick in a review but if I had to say something it would be understanding "when" a character is speaking. They would be in the present day & then suddenly switch to the past and back to present day quickly but it's not so much that it becomes overly distractful. You will enjoy this book, I'm sure.
Very good .
Brings September 11 back to you to show you one families tragic loss.
This is an excellent book, a snapshot of the Staten Island community before and after September 11, 2001 and it's rippling effect on the Italian and Irish inhabitants of the Island. I would recommend it to Italians, Irishmen, and the descendants of the same, and any New Yorkers and New Jerseites, or people who love them.
An engrossing, provocative poignantly raw novel of place, family and loss, SMALL MERCIES haunts and hurts. Joyce makes us know the Amendola's and insofar as one can, almost sense if never understand the dimensions of their loss and its lingering aftermath. There are excellent, exquisite lines and banal, disappointing ones bordering on cliche, with the quality if not the quantity of the former forgiving the latter. Food and booze, sports and sex are all represented with equal portion , credibly, realistically and necessarily given the context. Joyce knows his basketball and writes about it with depth, insight, and detail. The same goes for sex which some may find perhaps too fully presented. In sum, a novel I will recommend selectively, though quite enthusiastically to the right readers. These are not likely to include the mothers of sons....