Excerpt from An Unlikely Suitor
New York City
Lucy’s eyes shot open.
Something was wrong.
The darkness of the windowless bedroom did nothing to ease her nerves.
What had awakened her?
Lucy heard the soft breathing of her sister, Sofia, in the hammock slung above her cot, and listened for the snores of her
uncle. Or the sounds of her aunt moaning as she tried to get comfortable upon their shared mattress on the floor.
But the room was silent. Had the unaccustomed silence slid into her dreams, warning her that something was amiss?
Lucy pushed herself up on her elbows and noticed the bedroom door was ajar. The faintest of lights announced someone
She left the cot as quietly as possible so as not to wake the others, and peeked into the main room of their apartment.
Lucy’s uncle and aunt sat around the table with her mother, their voices low, their upper bodies leaning toward each
other, forming a triad of dark hair and olive skin. A single sheet of paper was displayed on the table between them, with
the occasional finger jabbing at its presence. The paper was the cause of their midnight meeting, some evil declaration
that made sleep impossible.
Her curiosity and concern propelled her to enter the main room, but she closed the door so Sofia could sleep. At the
sound, the three at the table looked up, their foreheads creased in worry.
“What’s wrong?” Lucy asked.
Mamma looked at the others, then to Lucy. “I heard footsteps in the hall, then heard the sound of a paper being pushed
under the door.” She lifted its corner and handed it to Lucy as if it were the filthiest of rags.
Lucy took it closer to the gas lamp in order to see. One word stood out among the rest. “Evicted? We’re evicted?”
“We have a week,” Uncle said. “One week or they’ll tear the tenement down around us.”
The tenement on Mulberry Street where they’d lived for most of Lucy’s twenty-four years needed tearing down. It had
been old when they’d moved in after immigrating to New York City from Italy. Yet in spite of its flaws, it was home—all
the home they could afford. Especially since her father had died four years previous.
Lucy still missed Papa. She’d been his dolce ragazza, his sweet girl. Even when Sofia had come along after they’d arrived
in America, she hadn't usurped the bond between Lucy and her father. Perhaps because he’d never had a son, Lucy had
become that son, that heir, that confidante he primed to lead the family when he was gone.
But who could have known he would be gone years before his time, in his prime? There was still so much to learn from
him, so much to say to him. All she had now were the remembered snippets of wisdom he’d peppered throughout his talk,
priceless gems she now held dear, as precious as actual jewels. The one she repeated most often was Morto un papa,
se ne fa un altro: Life goes on.
Dante Scarpelli had lost his life in an accident on the docks where he had worked. Uncle Aldo and her cousin Vittorio had
been there, and had seen how the careless methods of the shipping company had been to blame. But there’d been no
investigation. No compensation. The death of another I-tie meant nothing to the businesses who hired them. Not when
there were a thousand others waiting for a job.
They’d nearly had to move right then. The loss of her father’s income had been a mighty financial blow. Lucy and Sofia
worked twelve- to fourteen-hour days at a sweat shop in the garment district, Mamma worked at home with Aunt
Francesca making paper flowers for women’s hats, and her uncle and cousin continued their work on the docks. But
without Papa’s contribution, their combined income was barely enough to get by. It didn't help that the rent was
continually raised even as the conditions of the rickety building deteriorated. Sometimes Lucy wondered if she could
cause the walls to crumble just by staring at them. If she had such power, she would walk down the street and stare at
building after building, causing their destruction. It was hard to imagine what their neighborhood of Five Points would
look like if it were razed to the ground, if everything could be started fresh.
Actually . . . that’s exactly what was going to happen.
Lucy looked at the paper again. A park named after Christopher Columbus was going to be built on this spot. A park with
actual trees and grass would be an obvious improvement—but at what cost?
They would pay the price. The five Scarpellis who’d been left behind.
Cousin Vittorio had abandoned them the year after her father’s death, lured by the wilds of Oklahoma, seeking adventure
and free land. Lucy couldn't blame him for going. If she could get away from this place . . .
Lucy’s heart still hurt at the thought of this man she’d loved. Brown eyes and fascinating dimples had been instrumental
in getting her to accept his proposal of marriage. But when Papa died, Lucy realized she couldn't abandon her mother
and Sofia at the height of their sorrow, and couldn't withdraw the income she provided for her family’s survival.
And so she’d invited Angelo to come live with them after the wedding.
He’d laughed at her.
A knife in the heart would have hurt less.
Lucy was forced to choose between gaining a husband or maintaining her family. She never let herself ponder whether
she’d chosen rightly. Yet added to her grief over her father’s death was the grief over the death of her future as a wife.
But what choice did she have? La famiglia sempre. Family forever.
Papa would have been sad she’d never married—whether it be to Angelo or any of the other men who’d paid her
attention. He’d always commended her on her character and strength. La buona moglie fa il buon marito. “A good wife
makes a good husband, Lucia.”
But now there would be no husband for Lucy. No marriage. Niente.
Angelo became a sweet memory and one year added to another, and another, and another, and now at age twenty-four,
Lucy knew she was too old to marry. It was not an option.
Would it ever be an option? What did Americans call her? An old maid?
Her aunt’s words interrupted her thoughts. “Tomorrow, Aldo. Tomorrow you go and find us a new place to live.”
Uncle’s head shook back and forth, his gaze skimming the floor.
“What you mean no?” Aunt said.
He raised his head to look at them, his dark eyes sad. “I mean no. I refuse to find another hell hole in this city. We are
going west, Francesca—to Oklahoma to be with Vittorio.”
“Sì.” Uncle’s head nodded once with emphasis.
Lucy couldn't believe what she was hearing. “You can’t leave us,” she said. “We took you in when you came from Naples.
For nine years we've opened our arms to you, our home to you.”
There were two types of people in the world: givers and takers. Relatives or not, her aunt and uncle were takers. It made
her resentful to see Aunt Francesca feign a headache, making Mamma do twice the work. It incensed her when Uncle Aldo
insisted on buying himself special pickles from the Jews up on Delancey Street, even though he was the only one who liked
them—and who knew kosher from not, anyway?
The thought of her aunt and uncle moving out had crossed Lucy’s mind on a daily basis over all nine years. But now, the
idea they were going west to start an exciting new life, leaving Lucy, Mamma, and Sofia behind to fend without a by-your-leave
or even a thank you . . .
Resentment was her problem. Mamma was always gracious, always kind, always giving. To a fault she was giving. Her aunt
and uncle didn't deserve half the kindness Mamma extend—
Aunt looked imploringly at her husband. “Aldo, please. I don’t want to leave Lea alone with her girls.”
His face softened, but Lucy could tell he’d made up his mind. “Vittorio has been pleading with us for months. I haven’t wanted
to leave for the very reason you state. But now”—he pointed at the paper—“the decision has been taken from us. Besides,
it will be much easier finding lodging for three rather than five.”
“But where do we find such a place? How do we find such a place?”
It was the first time Lucy’s mother had spoken. Her questions hung in the air between them, unanswerable.
Then her gaze fell upon Lucy. In recent years her mother’s eyes had lost their vibrancy, and now, even more than before,
they looked weary and defeated.
Lucy leaned down and wrapped her arms around her mother. “I’ll find us something. I promise.”
She felt her mother relax, but instead of finding satisfaction in her relief, Lucy felt the weight of the world fall upon her
If only she hadn't promised . . . (continued)
Copyright 2011: Nancy Moser
Mustard Seed Press