From FELINNI'S ANGEL, a novel by John Palcewski
She asked me about my childhood. What my parents were like. I replied that as a writer I've spent a lot of time searching for cause and effect sequences. I'm interested more in what brings about behavior, rather than the behavior itself. Hanna Arendt said evil is banal. The Nazi horrors were committed not by geniuses, but instead by a vast number of ordinary, dull, unimaginative shopkeepers.
What did my father do for a living? He was a shopkeeper.
But digging deep into his past I learned he had been profoundly damaged. When he was a boy of 12 his father fell dead of a heart attack. His three older brothers died of various illnesses, one after another. Then came the passing of national father figure Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roberta, his first born daughter, my sister, died before her first birthday, at the age of 11 months. A couple years after that, my mother walked out on him, this time for good.
My father was shattered by losing so many of the people he loved. He felt they were abandonments he didn't deserve. I could imagine him thinking that none of these people actually chose to die, it just happened to them. But my mother, Betty, was another story altogether. In my father's eyes her departure was conscious, deliberate and hateful. Dumping him was a brazen act of free will, and indeed a mortal sin in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church. Her abandonment filled him with venomous rage, and he never got over it. He died hating her. And all along he hated me, simply for being so much like her.
As for my mother, well, she had her reasons.
On March 29, 1940, my sister Roberta Lee was born. Ten months and twenty-four days later Betty went into the bedroom to check on her baby, and found it motionless, paleblue, and cold. She shook Roberta, begged her to wake up. But the infant was dead. Betty called the ambulance. As they arrived my father came in, staggering and slurring after being at the bar all afternoon. When they told him the bad news he blinked, not quite comprehending the words. He kept blinking and shaking his head. Finally he collapsed to his knees, put his hands over his face, and he moaned.
Josephine, my father's mother, finally showed up at the apartment. Her sharp eyes darted here and there. She noted that the bedroom was cool. The window was open about two inches at the bottom. She turned, faced Betty. Then she uttered words that would remain in my mother's consciousness for the rest of her life.
"This is your fault," my grandmother intoned. "You're an unfit mother."
My father rose from his sobbing. Betty expected him to come immediately to her defense. To point out that Dr. Birch had seen Roberta two days before, and had reassured Elizabeth it was just a bad cold, and that in time it would pass. But my father said nothing. He stood close to tall, grim-faced Josephine. His glaring, reproachful eyes said he agreed with his mommie. All this was Betty's fault.
"Do you leave a window open all day and night during the winter, especially when a baby has a cold?" Josephine said. "Come on. You should have known better."
After the funeral, my mother left my father. She found a small apartment that by happenstance adjoined the cemetery, and from her bedroom window she could see Roberta Lee's gravestone. She'd sit there for hours, stony faced, staring at the little granite block. My father kept calling. He said they should get together for a few drinks and talk. He said he needed her. Honest to God. She shouldn't just throw his precious love away.
Twelve years later, my mother showed me a photocopy of Roberta Lee's death certificate. Principal cause of my sister's death? Brain abscess, and bronchopneumonia. I wasn't at all surprised. Alleged unfitness had nothing to do with it. My little sister would have died if the window had been closed.
Shortly before I left Youngstown for Air Force boot camp I put a photo of my mother and baby Roberta in my wallet. Even now, half a century later, I'm warmed by the loving adoration of her firstborn that just radiates from her face. She's simply entranced by her child's sweet beauty. I know that—for a while at least—she looked at me the very same way.
* * *
In my courtship of Maria I was fully aware of the adolescent nature of the powerful romantic emotions that flooded me, and I was—at last!—mature enough to know I needed to disguise them as much as possible. I'd been through it before, with Elizabeth, my favorite ex-wife. When it was way too late I finally realized she had been completely turned off by my mad rush to intimacy, and by my jealousies, and most especially by what she called my "tyranny of the easily offended."
So I was determined that with Maria I would not make those mistakes again.
Love! It's why Strawberry Fields—where we met for the first time—suddenly assumed a mystical quality. It became a place that was not just pretty and peaceful, but otherworldly. I knew from that day on everything would be different. This beautiful, mysterious woman would take me to places I had never seen, never even dreamed of.
"Before I wrote to you, did you ever hear of Ischia?"
"Yes," I said, "I immediately recognized the name."
I am the goodly cup of Nestor. Whomsoever shall drink of me, faircrowned Aphrodite will immediately seize.
Maria was amused by my enthusiastic rant about the significance of the inscription on that cup. First of all, I said, it's among the earliest examples of alphabetical language, invented by the ancient Greeks to preserve the oral epics of Homer. Anyway, it's a love spell. From which no man may escape!
Maria tilted her head to one side, closed her eyes, and made a snoring sound. I stopped and laughed.
"I do go on, don't I?"
After Maria departed for Long Island, I stopped at Joe's, my favorite greasy-spoon on Broadway, near 85th Street, and ordered a massive burger, and a pile of fries. I was famished. That slab of browned ground beef was not merely good, no, it was exquisitely delicious, absolutely fabulous. I chewed slowly, savoring the taste, the texture, and I noted the tiny translucent bubbles in the light brown juice that pooled on the bone-white plate. I popped each narrow golden stick of fried potato into my mouth, and licked my fingers free of the residual salt. And when I finished I ordered a piece of carrot cake and I told Joe I wanted a big piece, and if necessary he could make it two portions. Joe grinned. Yes, he knew exactly what I was talking about.
Now that carrot cake had a magnificent cream cheese icing, with little carrot replicas made of orange and green icing on top, and the cake itself was fresh, moist, and sweet. Then coffee. Freshly ground Columbian. Fragrant, exciting, bloody fucking wonderful.
Back in my apartment I moved slowly, stepped very carefully, so as to keep the exciting sensations of love and the shimmering image of that beautiful girl's face from fading or vanishing altogether. I wanted to preserve those tender feelings, to make them last as long as possible. I remembered Hemingway's gloomy words: "When two people are in love, there can be no happy ending." By God, I'd prove him wrong.
I knew I had to work very hard not to spoil the positive view I thought—hoped—Maria had for me. By then I'd had enough of failed relationships. Too much pain, too many sleepless nights. No, this time around I'll be careful, and I'll do everything exactly right. I mean it. Honest to God.
Maria had said that not a day goes by that someone doesn't hit on her. It's constant. doesn't matter what she says, or what she wears. They are immediately struck dumb by her beauty, her quiet charisma, which was much like that of the silent Jackie Kennedy. The less that elegant First Lady said, the more everyone admired her conversational skills. Maria rebuffs all the men who gather about her, like a pack of hungry, sniffing dogs. She tells them to leave her alone, but that only makes those dogs want her more. No, she does not flirt or make any kind of overture, she instead haughtily ignores them, refuses to talk to them, does not return their calls, refuses to answer their desperate emails. No, she does not encourage them in the slightest. But they keep coming, one after another.
Of course, I thought, how could they not? But those dogs meant nothing to me.
* * *
Giovanni, I thought, was a seriously disturbed old man. Over the months I listened to Maria's descriptions of his behavior, and I grew more and more resentful of his pig-headedness, his obsessive need to control everything and everyone. And then—big surprise!—he tells his daughter her real mother is not Felicia but Sophia Loren. Why on earth would he say such a bizarre thing?
Maybe he thought Maria would feel better about being lied to for decades if she believed she was related to a world-famous movie star. But that's absurd. Ridiculous. Jesus. What could that blockhead have been thinking?
A month or two later, though, the story turned out to be anything but absurd. All the available evidence pointed in only one direction: Maria's biolgical mother, almost certainly, was Sophia.
"Now exactly what makes you think this is the case?"
That was the question a senior correspondent for the National Enquirer asked me, on a long distance telephone call from London. This reporter was skeptical, as he should have been. And I was eager to tell him what I had found out in my investigation.
If Sophia were not Maria's mother, I told him, you would then be obliged to accept a number of alternate explanations, all of which strain the mathematics of probability.
You'd have to accept that Maria's unmistakable physical resemblance to Sophia and Marcello, as well as her behavior and personality, and the fact that she is different from all other members of her family, are merely strange anomalies.
Also that Sophia's role in the 2002 movie "Between Srangers," as a woman who deeply regrets giving up her daughter for adoption, is just an odd coincidence. Or that Giovanni and Restituta ignored long-established southern Italian tradition of naming children after grandparents or other close relatives, and pulled the name Maria out of a hat. Which name, by another startling and mind-numbing coincidence, happens to be that of Sophia's own beloved, real-life sister.
One would have to assume that an old-timer on the island of Ischia was in a state of delusion when he claimed Sophia's giving up a daughter named Maria was "common knowledge" there.
And that Marcello's wife cleverly feigned distress when she told journalist Nina Leudike that her husband had produced "a fruit of sin" 40 years earlier.
Also that Giovanni and Restituta refused to give their daughter blood because they were terrified of needles, or that Giovanni, when asked who Maria's mother really was, arbitrarily used Sophia's name, and for the sake of verisimilitude added, "She was too busy making a movie in Napoli to care for a child."
The bottom line, I told this skeptical National Enquirer reporter, is that in the two years the story has been circulating around the world, not a single magazine or newspaper's investigative reporter has uncovered any evidence whatsoever that contradicts the maternity allegation.
While it is true that Sophia has not confirmed, she has not denied it either. Which leaves the essential question: If she actually isn't Maria's mother, what in hell is the point of her silence? Especially given the fact that Maria, to settle the question once and for all, has submitted a DNA sample to a reputable laboratory.
Copyright © 2009 John Palcewski
John Palcewski has enjoyed an eclectic career as a publishing house copywriter, wire service photojournalist, magazine editor, music/drama critic, literary novelist, and fine arts photographer. His work appears in the literary and academic press as well as in a substantial number of online publications. A former New Yorker, he lives in a vineyard’s villa near the village of Forio on Ischia, a volcanic island in the bay of Naples, in southern Italy. He has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism from Moravian College, and studied photography and videotape production at New York University.