One of the most perilous times in a relationship is when the new bride or groom to be is introduced to the family for the first time at a formal dinner. Perhaps you had a less than perfect encounter with your in-laws, but the characters in my new novel Father of the Grooms have it rough when they find that not only are they to meet some nice Sicilian ladies on their trip, they are in fact going to arrive on Monday and be married on Friday to two women they have never seen. They come under increasing pressure when wedding rings are put on their plates and they are expected to choose which of the two beautiful young women sitting opposite them are to be their new brides after having exchanged fewer than a dozen awkward words. If they do not make a selection, their Mafia relatives have made it very clear that the entire family, including their father, mother, gay hairdresser uncle and sister may have an unfortunate accident on the island’s narrow unpaved roads.
Below is Chapter 17 of the novel where the dinner takes place in an isolated walled-in restaurant where the third course of the meal is interrupted by gunfire. I am now some 60,000 words into the novel. My American family from Louisiana arrives on the island to learn about their Sicilian heritage only to discover their previously unknown Mafia links where blood and duty have unexpected consequences on their family holiday.
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17. Meet the Family
Pick-up at the hotel was to be at 6:30 P.M. By this time packages that had been ordered at the stores and the shirts from the tailor had been delivered to the rooms and tried on.
“These shirts seem to be made of fairly thin cloth. I am glad that we have some sweaters to go with them, It was fine today with just a light jacket, but I am going to wear both tonight. I can always take something off when we get inside,” William remarked.
“I like the look of the shirt, but these stiff white collars are going to get dirty in a hurry,” Roger said.
“Did you notice these snaps. They are detachable so that these collars can be taken off and washed and starched separately,” Ronald added. “Otherwise they would have been sewn back on each time they were washed. I suppose that the fashion reason for wearing such shirts was to demonstrate that the person did not do physical work to the extent that his collar might ever get dirty.”
“How do the pants and suspenders feel,” William asked Frank. “I have never worn suspenders except on combat gear. They do feel a little strange, but I find that I want to wear a belt along with them.”
“Me too,” Roger added, “I am not use to something swinging loose around my waste. I guess the gals get accustomed to dresses and such, but I want something around the middle. If not a belt, I want something that is at least elastic.”
“Speaking of women, what do you think that our brides are going to be like,” Frank questioned.
“They were described as, what was it?, ‘Two of the fairest flowers of the island,’ so I suppose that they are not old ugly hags and are something close to our ages or younger. Who knows? We will find out soon enough,” Roger volunteered.
Once assembled in the lobby, Mario moved them into a quiet anteroom off the main floor and spoke quietly. “Let me give you an idea of what is going to happen. You are going to meet some 25 members of your extended family, and there will also be some invited quests, some of which are not necessarily our friends. Whether you speak Italian or not, always reply in English and assume that everyone understands every word you say. Only if they do not, do you try what Italian that you may know.
“One person that you will meet is Donna Carlos who is the wife of Don Carlos, the head of the family who is now in prison. She has largely planned this wedding and your visit. She is a powerful and dangerous member of the family who often has a less than pleasant disposition. Nothing ever seems to quite please this lady. Take what she says quite seriously. It is said that she and Luigi were once lovers, but that was many years ago and that relationship is well known by everyone. Beware of our Sicilian women, they can be more dangerous than the men.”
“What about our brides to be?” Frank asked. “Are they like that.”
“In a word. No. They are very nice, attractive young women that most of the guys here have been lusting after for years. You are very lucky to have them offered to you on a silver platter with a dowry. You would be wise not to disappoint them or the family.”
The restaurant was a 50-minute drive through the crowded streets to the more rural area outside of town where there were olive trees, citrus orchards, and scattered vineyards. The two limousines drove through an iron gate beyond which was a walled-in parking lot. They disembarked in front of the door and were greeted by the doorman. Inside all of the tables had been set end-to-end to make a single long table. About 25 people were already seated. Conspicuously situated among the few empty chairs was a row of six vacant seats near the head of the table. Seated there was Luigi and a stately woman dressed in a striking velvet dress that everyone assumed must be Donna Carlos.
Heads turned and conversations stopped as the Calsase family made their way up to the head of the table. When they arrived, Luigi stood and made the introductions.
“Donna Carlos, this is Ronald Calsase, his wife Nancy, his brother William, their sons Frank and Roger and their daughter, Mary. This is my daughter, Cecilia, and my niece Angelica. We would all like to welcome you to Sicily and to the family.”
“Gentlemen and ladies,” Donna Carlos said. “This is a joyous occasion where we are to announce the engagement of two members of the American side of the family to two of our own, who are the beloved daughter and niece of Luigi. He has been part of our family for more than 50 years. He started as a boy who grew into manhood and now has reached maturity, as have I. Over the next few days they will visit with you around the island, and I direct that you extend every courtesy to them. If it is not so I will hear of it.
“Please be seated and enjoy your meal. If you must leave early, you and your vehicle will be let out of the compound. Now lock the doors and the gate so that we can enjoy our meal.”
“Were do we sit?” Roger asked.
“There are place cards.” Mary said. “You sit here and Frank, there, next to you.”
Once seated and looking across the table past the place setting through the wine bottles and over the green centerpiece, Frank and Roger saw that they were seated opposite two women who were both dressed in white linen dresses and pearls.
“I know,” Angelica said. “Luigi just told us.”
“We are to be married, I guess.”
“I know that too. What I don’t know is anything about you,” Angelica said.
“Me neither,” Roger replied.
“Across a table is not the best way to become acquainted,” Frank added.
“I agree,” Angelica said. “But this is what we have for now.”
A smartly dressed older man stood up from the other side of the table and placed two small boxes on Frank and Roger’s empty plates. Opening them, they saw that these were engagement rings set with one-caret colorless diamonds that fairly well matched the colorless expression that came over Roger’s face. Not knowing what to do, he pushed it aside so the box now lay beside his salad fork.
He noticed that Frank had discretely shipped his into a coat pocket and quickly did the same. These rings were obviously to be presented sometimes tonight, but this moment did not seem to be the time.
“I hear that one of you is a marine officer who was wounded in combat and served in Afghanistan,” Angelica asked?
“That’s me,” Frank replied.
“And the other is an artist,” Cecilia questioned?
“I’m that one,” Roger said. “Your uncle told me that he paints too. I look forward to looking at some of his work, by coincidence it seems like we both enjoy painting in the style of the 1500s and like to use oils and mineral pigments.”
“Indeed we do.” Luigi replied. “I don’t have anything here in Palermo, but I have my studio in my home in Syracuse. I am working on a painting now, and maybe we can do some work on it together. I do architecture, objects, and scenes well, but not faces. I understand that you specialize in portraits.”
“I do, but I have not found much demand for them in the U.S.”
“That is a shrinking market. Portrait painting is still done here in Italy, but these are usually by a few painters who have political or family connections with those they paint. On a national scale, competitions are held to do portraits of our top political figures, with a strong bias given towards Italian artists, although you could qualify if you had a studio here.”
“Would you like to paint me and Angelica,” Cecilia asked?
“Of course I would,” But that is not something I can do in a day. Even if I had all of my stuff, it takes a couple of weeks to work up the pigments apply the base layer, stabilize the canvas and get everything ready. To say nothing of your posing for it.”
“Can’t you work from photograp;hs,” Angelica asked?
“Yes. I can if I must, but the best portraits are done the old-fashioned way, from sittings.”
“Well, I think that we may have the rest of our lives to get them done,” Angelica remarked.
“Each minute, day, and hour is different. I would want to capture your images on canvas as you are now and as you progress through life, as a member of the family to be, I guess. That is the best I can do. The thing is to start and finish.”
“Frank,” Cecilia hesitated as if getting accustomed to saying what might be her future husband’s name for the first time. “Frank, what is it like being the wife of a Marine Officer?”
“I use to be deployed on aircraft carriers, but now I am more likely to move around from base to base around the world now that I no longer fly. There is a problem that if I marry into the family, I must resign my commission.”
“No one has to know.”
“Believe me, they will find out. The FBI will do background checks on you and me. If I cannot maintain my security clearance, I can’t advance in rank or remain in the Military. I can accept a disability and get a small pension, but that is not enough to live on. I am going to have to find something else to do. Maybe I will go to work with my dad.”
“We have talked about that many times. There is room in my company for Frank, and maybe even Roger too, but not as an artist,” Ronald said.
“You know you two are supposed to decide who is going to marry who tonight and give us the rings,” Angelica teased, clearly enjoying their supposed intendeds’ discomforts.
Roger whispered to his father beside him, “Which one?”
A booming voice erupted from the end of the table as Luigi spoke, “No difference. Choose!”
Silence suddenly swept over the room and Roger squirmed as seemingly every eye focused on him. To seemingly postpone the decision he picked up his fork and started to sample the food that was on his plate. One item among the sliced meats was a red pickled onion that was obviously added as a color accent to the thin-sliced salami and prosciutto of the antipasto.. When he put his fork on it in an attempt to cut off a portion it rebounded off the lip of the plate, gained altitude, passed between the necks of the wine bottles, cleared the centerpiece, bounced in Angelica’s plate and landed in her lap. This was perhaps a new record for a bounced onion as it had traveled nearly five feet and gained an elevation of about two feet before landing on Angelica’s napkin..
Angelica shrieked and stood up to remove the napkin from her lap and get rid of this unexpected projectile before it stained her dress.
Roger, mortally embarrassed, stood and in the process nocked a water glass over on the table which spilled on his leg.
“They have chosen,” Luigi announced.
This statement was followed by a round of applause as everyone in the room stood and clapped their congratulations to the new couple .
“Give the rings,” Luigi ordered.
Roger dug into his pocket, pulled out the ring box and straining a little to reach Angelica’s out-stretched palm placed the box in her hand.
Cecilia now stood and reached out her hand to Frank who similarly complied. The jeweler was prepared and erected a small table behind the two girls and sized the rings using a small hammer and a mandrel. Soon Angelica and Cecilia were sporting new white diamonds on their ring fingers.
“That wasn’t so hard,” Ronald remarked.
“No, but I think that we had rather chosen our future wives, rather than have them selected for us by a red onion,” Frank replied. “Brother you really got us into it this time.”
The wait staff quickly arrived, pulled back the chairs from the couples to be, cleared the table, installed a new table cloth and replaced the table settings. From their efficient movements, this was obviously not the first time something had been spilled on a table during a banquet.
“Do you want to change seats.” Frank Asked?
“Considering the circumstances that would seem to be a good idea,” Roger assented.
The primo, which was fittingly, an Italian wedding soup was served next.
“This is Italian Wedding Soup, we have this in America too,” Roger observed.
“What would you expect brother, Minestrone,” Mary questioned?
“I had a chance to read up a little bit about their cooking before I came.” William said. “Some heavier meat dish will be coming next. Since this is Sicily, it might be swordfish, sea bass, lamb, goat, pork, or beef. They will serve some chicken here, but there will also be guinea fowl, squab, duck, or even turkey on occasion. What is not native was brought here by the Arabs from the Middle East or the Spanish from the Americas or even Asia. I had a chance to read up a little bit about their cooking before I came.”
Frank and Roger were not so interested in hearing about what they might have next on their plates, but in looking at their future brides across the table.
Frank saw that Cecilia had brown eyes, brunette hair with tents of gold, a thin finely sculptured face and petite nose. under which were bright red-painted lips that slightly parted to exposed a row of evenly matched white teeth. “He found himself with the thought, “Her mother must have really been a beauty to have produced such a girl.”
Cecilia, knowing that she was being intensely stared at, lowered her eyes and did not look at Frank. She nervously played with the food on her plate and ate deliberately so as not to embarrass herself.
“What are you looking at,” Angelica questioned Roger sharply.
“Well, you. You are without question one of the most beautiful women that I have ever seen.”
“You are not so bad yourself.” Angelica replied. Pretending to be warm she unbuttoned the top of her blouse. “It is starting to warm up in here.”
Before Roger could think of a reasonable reply the waiters were bringing the next course which was Sea Bass with a side dish of brazed winter vegetables that included carrots, radishes, onions, turnips, and two that he did not immediately recognize.
Plunging a fork into a carrot that was in the contorno, Angelica thrust it into her mouth and looked straight at Roger as she lustily bit off the tip.
Roger winced at the obvious implication and, mentally agreed, “Angelica is right. It is getting warm in here. No wonder that they had orgies in Ancient Rome.”
“Angelica, when will we have a chance to be alone?”
“Not until our wedding night,” they say. “My family is very traditional. We will be escorted everywhere we go.”
“Well, until then,” Roger said raising a glass. “Angelica did likewise. They touched the rims of their glasses over the center of the table and drank,” much to the amusement of Luigi and Donna Carlos, who thought that their plans seemed to be going along very well.
“I think a little delayed gratification may be in order here,” Luigi remarked to Donna Carlos.
“I quite agree. The two couples seem to be doing well for a first meeting.”
Frank, now knowing that only a few weeks ago Cecilia had buried the man who she had every reason to believe was the love of her life, found himself wanting to reach under the table grasp both her hands and tell Cecilia that thing would be all right.. She needed comforting, and he wanted to take her into his arms and provide it. Maybe things would work out with this business after all.
Although eating was not what the two couples had on their minds, they managed to maintain a degree of decorum through the meal as it progressed through the salad, fruit and cheese course which included blood red orange slices from trees near Cantania, and the dessert.
Roger selected a raspberry gelato and was surprised at the gritty texture. Looking at Angelica with a questioning expression on his face, she responded.
“We Sicilians like a little resistance in our foods. Our gelatos, chocolates, and even vegetables will often have some coarse salt, sugar or ice crystals in ice cream to provide a bit of a crunch when we eat. Some say that this is to remind us that life has it difficult parts – as if we had not been learning that lesson for thousands of years.”
“In the South we like our crunch in our foods too – like crispy fried chicken, grits, and fish fried with coarse cornmeal. We eat grits, something like you eat pasta, although most often in the morning with eggs and bacon.”
The drivers, waiters, and kitchen staff were served in a separate building that was connected to the kitchen by a covered breezeway. Here there were also tables and chairs, but these had been retired from service in the main dining room. Against one wall was a long oak table on which fresh food was placed periodically. There were also a couple of bottles of wine, but these were not replaced as they were emptied. It was understood by all but the rankest of drivers that they might have a glass with their meals, but their main responsibility was to be ready to safely drive their rides back home at any time.
As members of the kitchen staff came in and out there was a running commentary on the proceedings inside,. This was much like calling a ball game, except here instead of innings the courses were announced as they were served.
A couple of times the Chef came in, to make sure that there was sufficient food for everyone. He did this because he knew that tourists depended on their drivers for recommendations, and a well satisfied driver would return again and again. This was his most direct means of advertising which had the considerable advantage that it was paid for by those dining inside.
“Better than we had in prison,” Michael remarked.
“Yes it sure is,” Vito replied.
“When and where were you two in prison,” an anonymous voice asked from the rear of the room.
“It was all a big mistake over stolen car that we were working on. We were in for a short time at St.Vittore in Milan before we came here to work for our cousin. It was not a big deal, but we are glad to get out of that dump.”
“As are nearly all of us Most have spent time for something somewhere. A guy’s got to do what a guy’s got to do to get buy in today’s world where people like those stuffing themselves inside have everything and we pick up the crumbs.”
“Shut up. Albert. “You have a cushy job, are eating good food, and drinking free wine. What have you got to complain abought?”
As if to answer, there were two pistol shots and a burst of sub-machine gun fire at the front gate of the compound.
“Stay inside, that is none of our business,” Albert ordered. “If those mobsters want to kill themselves off that’s fine. They will come for us when they want us.”
At the shots, the lights were turned off inside the restaurant and there were shouts of “Get down.” When there were no more shots and no explosion followed the initial burst of gunfire. Luigi went outside and then returned.
“He turned on the lights and said, “Please be seated. Some of our competition just wanted to give us a warning. That burst of gunfire was not meant to hurt anyone and did not.
“Sit down please, enjoy your coffee and grappa, and help us welcome our American cousins.”
Roger who had never experienced being shot at, excitedly asked Frank, “Do you think they will come back.”
“Not a chance.” Frank answered. “They know that they are expected, and did you see all of those guns come out when the shooting started.? It’s like Luigi said. This was just a warning – about what I do not know. Maybe this is about us getting married or some supposed connection with the American Mafia. It could be anything.”
“This sort of thing is exactly why Cecilia and I want to get out of this mess,” Angelica said. “Somebody we know is being threatened or killed all of the time. We just want to live a normal life.”
“Cecilia, are you all right,” Frank asked?
“No. No. I am not all right. I hate this place and I love it. I don’t know what to do. Every time I turn around something bad is happening.”
Frank wanted to take her in his arms and hold her, but he could not- At least not now, at least not tonight.