That Friday was the first day of Frankie Merelli's wake. He had
died on Monday, but what with the police investigation, the state
of the corpse, and the undertaker's pride, it was four days before
the body was ready for viewing. Frankie Merelli was being waked
downtown, laid out in Nucciarone's funeral parlor on Sullivan
Street, just the way Gracie wanted. She had pictured the first day
of Frankie's wake. She was the widow, after all. She had seen it in
her mind like the newsreels that came before the movie at the Loews
Sheridan on Greenwich Avenue.
The family would gather in front of the building on Spring Street
where Frankie had lived as a son, a husband, and a father. There
would be a bouquet of carnations tied with a white ribbon pinned
outside the door, a card announcing the funeral information. The
family would walk together, slowly, arms linked, in an unofficial
procession up Sullivan Street to Nucciarone's. As they passed St.
Anthony's Church, the women would bow their heads, make the sign of
the cross and kiss the tips of their fingers. The undertaker would
be waiting for them outside the funeral parlor. He would escort
Frankie's mother into the viewing room and the rest of the family
would follow in hierarchical order. It was how it was done in this
neighborhood. It was the tradition.
But Anona balked at this ritual, remembering the funerals in Bocca
al Lupo, the whole village walking endlessly behind the black death
coach pulled by plumed black horses. This American thing, she said,
was a poor second, a stroll a few blocks north to sit in what
looked like someone's front parlor. Nothing would convince her. She
wouldn't do it.
It was the least she could do for Gracie, Mary and Helen told her.
The sisters wanted everything to go smoothly. It should all be
normal and ordinary, just another wake, just another funeral, even
if nothing about Frankie Merelli's death had been ordinary.
But then Gracie said it didn't matter how they got there and Helen
had shrugged. If Gracie didn't mind, then...and Gracie didn't mind.
She was willing to go along with what Anona wanted. Gracie was easy
that way. It was her strength and her weakness, and maybe the
reason she was burying a husband. Forget the family march up
Sullivan Street, she said. She would meet her sisters at Anona's at
Thirty-eighth Street and Tenth Avenue and they'd go downtown
Helen came early to Anona's, to the apartment in Hell's Kitchen
where Anona had raised them. Alone, Anona liked to remind them. She
had raised them alone because there was no one else to do it. Mary
showed up next and they all sat down at the kitchen table. It was
clear of dishes and food. When she wanted to, Anona followed the
old ways. They would eat later or not at all. They were in
mourning, she said, but she did pour them all shots of the anisette
that she made in the cellar. She counted out three coffee beans for
each glass and they sat together to wait for Gracie.
"Peccato about Frankie," Anona said.
Helen looked over at Mary before she drained her glass. She chewed
on one of the coffee beans. It was bitter in her mouth. But Helen
liked bitter. Anona used to say it was the most Italian thing about
her. "Be honest," Helen said to Anona. "You never liked
"I don't like him for Gracie's husband but I don't wish him dead.
It's always wrong when a son dies before his mother." Anona stuck
out her bottom lip. She looked around the kitchen. "We have no
luck," she finally said. "We're cursed," and she shook a fist at
the statue of St. Rita.
"Don't go on about curses," Helen said. "We don't believe in
Miss Smarty Pants. These bad things, they just happen? It's the
malocchio. What else?" Anona lowered her voice, looked
around as if the evil eye might be skulking, even now, around a
corner or under a chair, waiting to pounce. "I rack my brain trying
to figure it out. I talk to myself. Who? Why? Look at your father,
"What's Frankie Merelli got to do with our father?" Mary said.
"It's not the same thing, is it? You know that." Mary looked over
at Helen. "We're talking apples and pears here, no?"
"Never mind," Anona said. "Did I finish? You always gotta
interrupt. That's why you don't learn nothing."
Helen laughed but Mary felt bad then and reached across the table,
touched Anona's hand. "Tell the story. Go on. I want to hear
Anona pulled her hand away and moved it into her lap.
"What's to tell? You know the story," she said. She paused, but not
for long. She leaned forward. "Your father, he comes home one night
with a headache, next day he's dead. Whatta you think? Then your
grandfather, Nonno, same thing, and right after that, the
baby...your little brother, that sweet little boy." Anona sat back
in her chair. "Right after Gracie he was born, so close Mrs.
McGuire downstairs called them Irish twins. That's what they call
them when babies come one right after the other, Irish twins,
because the Irish, they have babies like that, one on top of the
Anona knew about the Irish, they all did, living with them all
these years. Hell's Kitchen belonged to the Irish. They controlled
the piers. They controlled everything. When Anona's husband came to
this country, to New York, you had to be Irish to work. The signs
said no wops. But he fooled them, Anona said. He didn't look
Italian. He had white skin and blue eyes and black hair. He was a
merchant seaman who spoke Gaelic; his name was Malloni and he made
it "Mallone" and he got a job on the piers. He brought Anona over
when he'd saved up the money and they had lived here, Italians in
an Irish neighborhood, Italians on an Irish block.
Anona closed her eyes, slumped in her chair. "How your mamma loved
that little boy..." Like always when Anona told the story, she lost
her queenly bearing, her terrifying presence. Anona was always so
fierce, even now, even old. When they made the decision about
Frankie, she hadn't even blinked, but when she told the story about
their mother, she shrank. It made Mary sad to see Anona so small in
her chair and she put a hand on her shoulder to comfort her.
"When they came to take his body," Anona was saying, "they had to
pull it out of her arms. Poor Emma. She went screaming through the
halls, banging on all the doors, asking them, begging them, the
Irish, to pray for her, to tell God to give her back her baby boy.
God listened to the Irish, she said. They were always in church,
weren't they? I remember," Anona said, "how they closed their doors
and stood behind them calling her crazy."
Anona opened her eyes. "And the next week, she was dead, my Emma,
figlia mia, the same as the others, just like that," and
Anona snapped her fingers, as she always did at this part of the
story. "My only child, my daughter. I could only have the one. I
only ever had the one."
Mary was thinking of Gracie. She put her hand to her forehead,
pressed her temples, remembering how Gracie as a child would always
start to cry when Anona snapped her fingers and how Anona would
stop to wipe Gracie's snotty nose with the handkerchief she kept
under her sleeve. Gracie was always crying, Mary remembered. She
was, after all, the baby sister.
Anona went on. "The Spanish influenza...1918 it started...you were
all just babies...lucky ones." Anona made an arc over them with her
hand. "They took the bodies away on carts. So many bodies, piled up
like logs. In just this building, almost a hundred. Emma was so
glad when your father didn't go to the war, and look...look at how
it ended up, worse...They buried the dead so fast half the time
they weren't even dead, but just passed-out and they'd come to and
sit right up in the grave."
"Well, Frankie's not sitting up anytime soon, that's for sure,"
Helen said. She had less patience with Anona than Mary did. Helen
had no interest in the past. Frankie was a case in point. Once
something was done, it was over.
"Never mind Frankie," Anona said, as if she had read Helen's mind.
"How's Gracie? She was crazy for him, that one. How's she making
"You mean holding up?" Helen said.
Anona didn't answer but got out of her chair and went over to the
shrine she kept for St. Rita. "Maybe I light a candle for Frankie,"
"That's nice, Anona," Mary said, but Anona didn't light the candle.
Instead she walked to the window and looked out, hoping to see
"You should've found yourself another husband," Helen teased.
"One man was enough for me," Anona said, wiping away the fog her
breath made on the windowpane. She turned back to Helen. "Not like
some people I know."
Gracie was at the door. She had turned the knob and walked in
without knocking, knowing that Anona never locked her door except
at night, and then only because too many times one of her neighbors
had stumbled in, having lost his way after one too many beers
downstairs at Mike Hanley's Bar.
Gracie was their baby and they all came over to her, and one by one
they held her in their arms. She cried and Anona took a folded
handkerchief from inside her pocket, shook it open and put it in
Gracie's hand. Helen took one arm and Mary the other and they
walked her to the table. Anona pulled out a chair and after Gracie
sat down, she went to get her a glass.
"No, thanks, Anona," Gracie said. "I can't." Anona waved the bottle
of anisette that was shaped like the Vatican, the stopper topped
with a cross. "Uffa," she said, rubbing Gracie's shoulder
with her free hand. "Have a drop. It's good for you."
Mary half-smiled. "You've been out of the Kitchen too long," she
said to Gracie, putting the glass in front of her. "Don't you know
it's medicine for what ails you?"
Gracie took the glass and held it up while Anona poured. Gracie
wasn't used to drinking and she squinted her eyes when she
swallowed. Anona was satisfied and went into the bedroom to get
dressed. She had washed at the sink in the kitchen before they
came. "Where's Charlie?" Anona called from the bedroom.
"With Frankie's mother," Gracie said. "They'll walk together to the
"How'd she take that? You not walking with them, not following the
rules?" Mary said.
Gracie shrugged. "I told her I needed my sisters. I needed my
grandmother." Gracie shouted to be sure that Anona heard. "I told
her I needed my family."
Signora Merelli had been furious with Gracie, but Gracie didn't
tell this to her sisters. "We're your family," she had said to
Gracie. "Me and your son, Charlie. We're all you have left now that
our Frankie is gone." And she had broken down into great choking
sobs, clutching Charlie, wrapping her arms around his head.
Gracie hadn't answered. She didn't expect Signora Merelli to
understand what it was like to grow up Italian in Hell's Kitchen,
three girls and an old woman, with no men to protect them, to
support them, or as Anona said when they were sad, to tell them
what to do.
Gracie had loved Frankie. She loved her son, Charlie. He was her
breath, her treasure. But...it was different. And she wasn't going
Gracie looked at her sisters, one on either side of her. As kids,
the three of them would sleep together in the big bed in the little
room off the kitchen. She remembered what it was like, the feeling
that it was good to be alive.
"I'm glad we're Italian," Gracie would say in bed at night, lying
between her sisters on the lumpy mattress filled with cotton that
Anona would empty out every spring and wash in the laundry
"Why?" Mary said.
"Because Anona says it's better."
"All I can see different is we eat good," Helen said. "The Irish
eat shit. Potatoes. Oatmeal. They eat like crap." She turned,
pulling the blanket.
"What a mouth on you," Mary yelped, tugging back. "You got no
class, Helen, just like Anona says." Mary was the eldest and liked
to play big shot. But it was Helen who was the boss. The boss of
the baccausa, Anona would call her. The toilet, she meant,
the outhouse, three flights down in the back yard.
"...and they're always drunk," Gracie went on. It was hard to
breathe, lying between her sisters, but at least she had the
blanket. Anona always put her in the middle because Helen and Mary
fought, threw punches at each other with their small tight fists.
Gracie would never do that and so always she slept in the middle,
to separate them.
"Yeah," Helen said. "But they have a good time, don't they? Believe
me, when I grow up, I'm gonna have some good times."
"You gonna smoke?" Gracie said.
"Girls don't smoke."
"I will. Lucky Strikes."
"Maybe I will, too," Mary said. Anona was not far off when she
called Helen the boss.
"And I'm gonna drink," Helen said.
Gracie turned over flat on her back. "Girls don't drink."
Helen put her lips against Gracie's ear. "Don't kid yourself," she
Anona came out from the bedroom, elegant in a black silk dress and
the hat Helen had bought for her on Division Street only a few
weeks before. Anona had wondered out loud what she would do with
such a big black hat. She didn't go to Mass and figured the next
funeral was hers, so why did she need such a fancy hat?
"You never know," Helen had said, and then Frankie was dead and
Helen showed up at Anona's with a new black dress for Anona to wear
to the wake and as Anona stood in front of the mirror, Helen had
hugged her from behind. "It looks beautiful," she said. Then she
whispered into Anona's good ear, "...and...you can wear the
were all dressed in black, they all wore hats with veils, but
Gracie's was so dark, so heavy, that it completely obscured her
face. Helen and Mary had made sure their eyes showed through their
veils, and Helen paid close attention to her lips, which she had
painted very red.
"This veil," Helen said, folding it up over Gracie's face as they
stood by the door ready to leave. "Frankie's dead, not you."
Mary pinched Helen's arm. "Let her be," she said, making a face
that Gracie couldn't see.
Helen raised an eyebrow but finished arranging the veil. "Leave it
like this for now," she said, and kissed her sister's cheek. Helen
and Mary had lost husbands, with a minimum of grief and fanfare.
But Frankie Merelli, they both knew, had been the love of Gracie's
Excerpted from THE SISTERS MALLONE © Copyright 2002 by
Louisa Ermelino. Reprinted with permission by Simon & Schuster.
All rights reserved.
The Sisters Mallone: Una Storia Di Famiglia