E
Jan/Feb 2007 Fiction

Gemma

by Andrew Coburn

Artwork by Ira Joel Haber


Gemma Campagna woke beside a dead man and, for a frozen number of seconds, went insane. Then, stifling a scream, a wild woman in the wall mirror, she leaped from bed and more or less managed to clothe herself. Her bra lopsided and her dress unbuttoned in back, she stumbled out of the room. In the elevator, a well-dressed woman of regal bearing gave her the once-over and said, "Aren't we the one."

Gemma, a month past her twenty-second birthday, would never forget the woman's face, nor would the woman, age indeterminate, ever forget Gemma's.

 

Thirty years after a near-marriage followed by no serious romances, no emotional entanglements, Gemma began going away weekends with a man, a situation that bemused her adolescent niece, Marcie. "I can't picture you and him—you know—doing it."

Gemma allowed herself a small smile. "It's perfectly natural, dear."

"I suppose, but at your age, I mean, do you French-kiss and all that stuff?"

"Yes, we do, darling. On occasion."

"Jeepers!"

"Does my having a love life offend your sensibilities?"

Marcie's voice became confidential, conspiratorial, wise. "It won't last, Auntie. Not if it's just about sex."

Gemma's voice went soft. "Nothing is ever just about sex."

 

At tender ages Gemma and her sister Carlotta lost their parents in a car crash and were brought up by an unpredictable grandfather, who didn't have a tooth in his head but talked as if he did and ate steak as well as anyone else, for his gums rivaled the jaws of a snapping turtle. Gemma adored him, and Carlotta, two years older, tolerated him. In grade school Carlotta kept a protective eye on Gemma but in high school ignored her. Carlotta bristled when her grandfather said, "You're getting snotty, and you wear your sweaters too tight."

Under her breath she called him a silly old bastard. Aloud she said, "You're a Communist."

Commie! That was what the crowd had shouted when he carried a sign in downtown Haverhill for Henry Wallace, who was running for president against Roosevelt and Dewey. In a mock election at the high school, Roosevelt won in a walk, and Carlotta smirked.

"See!"

"Doesn't mean Grandpa's wrong," Gemma countered.

Both girls were beauties, their Roman noses finishing touches to their classical looks, and both were good students, though Gemma worked harder and got better grades. Their grandfather was proud of them both, though he favored Gemma.

"Do you miss Grandma?" Gemma asked.

"I see her every night. Soon as I fall asleep."

"Do you miss my mother?"

Gemma's mother had been his only child. "I have her back. In you."

They were in the patch of garden behind the little house he had built with his own arthritic hands. Watching him stoop to straighten a stake burdened with a vine of robust tomatoes planted from seeds, Gemma asked, "Do you love me more than Carlotta?"

He didn't look up. "Why do you ask?"

"I think you do, but I'll never tell her."

"Then it's our secret."

Carlotta told him straight out she didn't want him at her graduation unless he got himself teeth, to which he agreed, though he loathed spending money on what he didn't need, a dilemma he avoided by borrowing a friend's spare set of dentures. The dentures glued to his rebelling gums, he went to the crowded ceremony and, Gemma at his side, stood in agony.

Take 'em out, Grandpa."

He shook his head. A promise was a promise.

Carlotta was supposed to go on to college, but instead married her high school sweetheart. Her grandfather was disappointed in one way and pleased in another, for he was soon to become a great-grandfather.

 

Gemma's first love, his morals ruled by his appetites, broke her heart.

Another man, thirty years later, mended it. His name was Avery. Gentle and soft-spoken, he was a graduate of Boston Latin and Harvard College, an inheritor of old money, and the author of a single book of essays that defined nostalgia as doting on the imperfect reprints of memories. "We should always look ahead," he told Gemma during a coffee break at a Great Books discussion.

Gemma held cup and saucer chest-high. "Do you practice what you preach?"

"Does anybody?"

Later they joked it was love at first sight, an irony since each regarded the other with caution before revealing any sort of feeling. Their first time alone together was when they met for drinks at the Copley Plaza and shared a tiny table, from time to time their knees inadvertently touching. Their voices were soft, and their talk soon turned intimate, confessional, as if their heads shared a common pillow. Each spoke of the trauma of loss. Early on his wife had been diagnosed a schizophrenic, and eventually she had resorted to suicide. He nearly followed, he confided.

Gemma watched him strike a match. He didn't smoke, but she did. A Virginia Slims was poised between her slender fingers. "Would you like me to quit?" The flame danced and died.

He was born an Episcopalian but wasn't really anything anymore, and she was Catholic but no longer practicing. After a month of courtship, they married in a civil ceremony. She moved into his Back Bay apartment, roomy but spartan, with books climbing the walls. "Change anything you want," he said. She changed nothing. He loved looking at her, for time and gravity had done little to dull the vigor of her body. "I'm so lucky," he said after a deep breath.

"We both are."

He had no children. Nor did she. "Do you regret it?" he asked.

"I have a niece."

"And you'll always have me."

"How long is always?"

 

They were introduced at the Haverhill Manor Nursing Home, two males who'd been waiting to meet each other, one in his fifties, the other in his nineties; one a well-dressed visitor, the other a robed resident recuperating from pneumonia and other ailments, his eyes brown like chestnuts and his mouth empty as a newborn's.

She stood proudly to one side to let her grandfather size up her husband.

Recently, going through things in his attic, she'd come upon alphabet blocks he had crafted for her third or fourth birthday, each letter caringly hand-painted.

His voice feigned strength. "Do you love my granddaughter?"

"I do, sir." Avery's voice was gentle, as always.

"You ever hurt her, I'll bite your nose off and spit it back in your face. I can do that."

"I suspect you can, Mr. Campagna."

"You think I wouldn't kill for her?"

Gemma spoke up. "You don't have to go that far, Grandpa."

"Sure I do. We're blood."

Their eyes, hers the same brown as his, embraced. "Will you two excuse me for a minute?" she said and slipped out of the room, leaving her two men to duke it out.

The corridor was redolent of soiled bedding from a room quickly being cleaned and freshened, nearly everything in it gone, including the bed, on which the sheeted occupant had been wheeled away. Glimpsing curious faces stark with indoor pallor, Gemma heard the whispers.

"Knew she was going."

"Surprised she lasted long as she did."

"Tough old bird."

So's my grandfather.

Gemma's head was held high. Her stride twirled her around a corner and threw her face-to-face with a silver-haired woman standing firm on chrome crutches. They stared at each other up close and yet as if from a great distance. The woman said, "Do we know each other?"

"I don't think so."

"You're sure?"

"Not entirely."

"I know your face." Aren't we the one. "I remember it well."

And I remember yours.

 

He swept her off her feet when she was home on summer break from UMass Boston. His name was Mark Vannoy, and he was five years her senior, had handsome features, drove a Buick Skylark convertible, worked in his father's insurance agency in downtown Haverhill, and when guilty of lapses, rendered thin excuses in a strong voice, as if his voice alone were quite enough. Which should have alerted her. He had his way with her in short order. "Illegal entry," she joked. Her defenses were down. Besides, she was in love with him. And he was in love with her, he said. Her grandfather, who met him once, read him right.

"You're not going to listen to what I think, Gem. You'll have to learn."

It was sort of understood that after she graduated from UMass Boston, she and Mark Vannoy would marry, the anticipation of which thrilled her. She wanted children, a boy and a girl. That would be grand. Mark always took the necessary precautions because, he said, he didn't want her walking down the aisle with a big belly, which would upset both sides of the family.

"I don't want your granddad's nose out of joint."

In his bachelor's pad he kissed her fingers and her toes, the fullness of her breasts and the slant of her appendectomy scar, after which he maneuvered her into the dominant position.

"You're in charge," he said. "Surprise me."

She surprised herself.

A week after her graduation, wedding plans in the making, she ran into an old high school friend, Frances, who for a time had gone out with Mark. "Do you know what you're doing, Gemma?"

They stood near the entrance of a bank, their stances reflected in tinted plate glass. Gemma was taller. "I'm a big girl, Fran."

"So was I."

"Whatever you want to tell me isn't important. You knew him then, I know him now."

"You're right, Gemma. You're a big girl."

 

Something was wrong. The wedding was a week away, and she couldn't reach him. Then his father phoned and asked her to meet him for dinner at the restaurant in the Hotel Whittier. Her eyes closed. This can't be happening. "What's wrong, Mr. Vannoy?"

"Please." His tone didn't reassure her. "I'll explain at dinner."

She was there early, and waiting in the lobby, tried to will herself to stay steady and was still trying when Mr. Vannoy arrived, trim in a fitted business suit, somewhat debonair, somewhat dramatic, like an actor fettered to a role. Mustache and goatee compensated for a half head of hair. He gave her his arm.

Seated, they received menus. How could she eat until she knew what was what? Mr. Vannoy chose the wine and ordered for them both, which vaguely made her feel better, as if she were part of his family, though she knew she wasn't and at precisely that moment suspected she never would be. The wine was white. Her grandfather drank red, better for you. She stared at her prospective father-in-law and spoke in a level voice. "Where's Mark?"

Mr. Vannoy spoke in a manner that made his words seem scripted, which along with the wine disturbed her senses. When the man at the next table drove a knife into bleeding meat, she felt her stomach turn and readied a napkin, just in case. "This isn't the first time he's run away from marriage," Mr. Vannoy said easily. "It drives his mother crazy."

Fish was served. Get it away from me, Gemma's eyes pleaded.

Between bites, Mr. Vannoy said, "He's had a child with two different women, one of whom I think you know." She wanted to scream, for Mr. Vannoy's mustache and goatee made his mouth mimic a woman's area. "If you're pregnant," he said, "I'll arrange for child support—or for an abortion. Whatever." Was she crying? She hoped not.

"I'm not pregnant."

"That's a plus." And he smiled, as if his son, a chip off the old block, were finally following his advice. Viewing her with interest, he reached over the table to touch her hand. "Poor kid."

"Don't!"

He was offended. In a cold voice he said, "I'll drive you home."

"Please, just leave me alone."

 

"How's your mother?" Gemma asked, lunching with Marcie, her favorite niece, soon to graduate from high school, a smart young lady, college-bound.

"You know Mom. She doesn't want to grow old, doesn't want to look into the mirror and see a dried apricot of a face."

"Your mother has great skin. Tell her it won't happen."

"And she picks on Dad, like he can't do anything right." Marcie bit into a grilled cheese sandwich. She had the family's Roman nose, which Gemma had never considered an asset until now. "And she envies you, Auntie."

"Me? What in the world for?"

"You've had interesting jobs. And you go places."

Her jobs were in marketing, in and around Boston, never far from her grandfather, and until Avery her travel, other than on business, had been subject to group tours, so many days in this country, so many in that one.

"And you waited for the right man, a rich one."

She speared a cherry tomato from her salad. "I didn't marry Avery for his money."

"I know that, but Mom doesn't."

"I think your mother's the luckiest woman on earth. Tell her that."

"She won't believe it."

"If I could have you for a daughter, tell her I'd trade places with her anytime."

Marcie smiled. "Where would that leave Avery?"

"Don't worry about Avery. He has a no-trade clause."

 

She felt weak, ill, and unsteady, as if all her parts, violently shaken and rattled, were now random. "Please, just leave me alone."

Mr. Vannoy scowled. "You're in no condition to—"

"If you don't leave, I'll scream."

He instantly flagged the waiter, paid the check with cash, and left without looking back. While other patrons stared in fascination, Gemma straightened and smoothed her table napkin and refolded it as if it were a diaper. She remained seated until the waiter approached warily to ask if there were anything else he could get her.

"I can't think of anything," she said. "Can you?"

Rising, she smiled, her legs steady enough to transport her to the lobby and perhaps all the way out to her car, though that was pushing it. Her confidence dissipated when she reached the lobby, but she was in luck. Sanctuary lay in the lounge to her left.

The bar was lined with aging men who had fought Hitler in Europe and Tojo in the Pacific. Graying heads swiveled for a better angle. This was one good-looking woman. She ascended a tall chair, ordered a glass of white wine, and quickly revised the order.

"Please, make it red."

Her wish was the bartender's command. The man at the piano was playing standards her parents must've liked and her grandfather definitely did. She seemed to be the only woman and felt privileged. The man perched beside her said that he, too, preferred red, even with fish. He had a restless face and kind eyes that were a little bloodshot. He was drinking bourbon, and the bartender brought him another. His name was Ted.

"What's yours?"

"Gemma."

"That's a new one on me." The piano player was delivering a snappy rendition of "They Can't Take That Away from Me." "My wife's favorite," he said and showed Gemma color snaps of his wife and two married daughters, also a black-and-white of himself when he had fought in France, a much slimmer figure of a man. "More wine?"

"No, this is enough."

But more came. Had she not spoken loud enough? She no longer liked sitting at the bar. The height of the chair worried her. What if she were to fall? Dear God, please. Her stomach gurgled as she began lowering herself from the chair, her feet seeking rungs. Ted scooted off his chair and was there to catch her.

"I think I'm going to be sick."

"Then let's get you out of here." He guided her back to the lobby and to the elevator.

"No one should have to be sick in public." The elevator rose three floors, and she began to panic.

"Where are we going?"

"My room," he said, piloting her to it, a tagged key in his hand. He used the key and swung open the door. "It's yours till you feel better. Don't be afraid. No one's going to hurt you."

The door closed behind her, and she was alone. Four shaky steps put her into the bathroom, where she went down hard on her knees and hung her head over the chill of the open toilet. Dear God, help me! Later she washed out her mouth six times, seven times, but the taste stayed. Her head was splitting, and her legs had lost strength. The bed beckoned. Just for a few minutes, no more.

She dreamed that someone had undressed her, placed her under the covers, and held her protectively in his arms. Mark? No, it wasn't Mark.

A voice said, "Go back to sleep."

I am asleep.

 

Their grandfather was dying. Soon he would lie dead, degraded, every bit of him in a downward state of disorder. "What will be left of him?" The question was Gemma's. Also the answer. "Nothing."

Carlotta was indignant. "What are you talking about? He has a soul, doesn't he?"

"He's never believed in that stuff."

"He never told me that."

"You never listened."

The sisters were at the kitchen table in the house of their childhood, some of their toys still in the attic. Each gripped the ear of a coffee mug. Carlotta's luxurious black hair was now maroon. Gemma's was salt and pepper.

"I don't expect he'll leave much of an estate," Carlotta said with stilted nonchalance.

"The nursing home has eaten up most of it, but the house will bring in something. I'd like that to go to you."

"Easy to be generous when you have a rich husband. How is Avery?"

"He's fine."

Carlotta displayed a sly smile. "I've never asked. Is he a good lover?"

"That's none of your business." Gemma got to her feet and rinsed her coffee mug at the sink while staring out the window. A stiff breeze was providing playtime for fallen leaves. "But the answer is yes."

After hearing from the nursing home, Gemma was at her grandfather's bedside within the hour and looking down at a face clawed by old age and illness, the eyes creamy with cataracts. Dipping her head, she listened to him murmur words that failed to become sentences. At one point he called her Carolina, and she didn't correct him. It was her mother's name. A lovely name. She wished it were hers. Prayed that by magic it would be.

Be me, Mama, and live again. Braid my hair.

Now and then her grandfather's words connected. "Speak to me, Sofia." Sofia was her grandmother's name. Gemma never knew her. Never knew her cooking. Only her grandfather's, if you could call it that. But she loved it. All the wit and serendipity he put into it, leaving a clutter for her and Carlotta to deal with, sauce staining the top and front of the stove, pots and pans everywhere.

It's all right, Grandpa, make as much of a mess as you want.

His breathing hardly heard, he seemed to be slipping beyond the edge of himself and vanishing into the murk of the past, where he was unreachable, beyond grasp.

Grandpa, don't go.

Carlotta arrived somewhat in a flurry, stopped short to size up the situation, sighed deeply, and whispered, "What's taking him so long?"

Tell me she didn't say that.

Carlotta ran a swift hand through her maroon hair. "I didn't mean it the way it sounded." She took Gemma's place by the bed and held his hand, a packet of brittle bones she could move about but avoided doing for fear they'd break. The rest of him was kindling. He murmured a name, not hers, which didn't surprise Carlotta. She wasn't his favorite. A moment later she hung her head and said, "We're losing him, Gem."

The sisters began to weep, first one, then the other.

 

She grieved as much as she knew she would, and more. Avery said, "We should get away for a while."

They flew to Italy, Gemma's first visit to Florence, where little cars and motor bikes bulleted through the city's warren of medieval streets, some no more than alleyways. Comical in a uniform two sizes too large, the doorman at the Hotel Lungarno reminded Gemma of her grandfather and drew a smile. Sipping hot chocolate at a window table, Avery sought to divert her eye from a rat the size of a skunk, swimming down the Arno in pursuit of a paddling mallard.

"The law of nature, Avery. Nothing we can do about it."

They visited the Uffizi, a massive warehouse of Renaissance art, an onslaught of Marys and bambini. Occasionally Jesus sported a pudgy little face, like that of a brat-to-be. Joseph, usually omitted, appeared as the simple soul he apparently was, with flawless Mary a celestial step above him.

"My grandfather always felt sorry for Joseph."

"Hard not to," Avery said.

At the Museo dell 'Opera Duomo, Gemma was stopped in her tracks by Mary Magdalene sculpted as an utter wretch of a woman, as if man had unloaded all his sins and evils onto her brittle shoulders. Gemma stared hard.

"Grandpa always said she got a bad rap."

"But a place in history," Avery said. "Few of us get that."

They visited a former fortress of a prison long ago converted to incarcerate sculptures by the likes of Michelango and Cellini. Men made of marble posed on pedestals to flaunt their brawn, their pride, and what remained of their broken penises, stubs that still meant something.

"It's a man's world, Avery. Why is that?"

"Brute force. Men and their institutions."

After three more days of viewing medieval wonders, Gemma said, "I think I've had it, Avery. Let's go home."

She was weary of Christ on the cross and saints petrified in stained glass, of mausoleums and tombs, of shrines and statuary, of stone sanctuaries and vaulted ceilings conveying little of the warmth of life and everything of the chill of death. And she was overwhelmed by hordes of other tourists, pilgrims with cameras storming the scant sidewalks and invading squares occupied by pigeons and gypsies.

"Yes," Avery said, "let's go home."

Their last evening, they dined in an intimate restaurant, where crayons were provided for drawing on the menu covers. In a display of talent she didn't know he had, Avery flexed his fingers like a pianist preparing to play and sketched a fast likeness of her, impressing the waiter. And her. Over espresso, he said, "Maybe this trip was a mistake. Florence isn't for the living. It's a monument to the dead."

"I'm glad we came. My grandfather was born in Naples, but sometimes I felt I was breathing his air. He'd have raised hell in some of those churches."

Back in their hotel they had drinks in the lounge, watched the play of light on the Arno, not a rat in sight, and toasted each other before retiring to their room. Gemma watched CNN from their bed. Lying beside her, Avery caressed most of her while loving all of her.

In the early morning they shuttled to Milan and were soon again in the air. Through drifts of clouds, the Alps appeared as prehistoric herds of behemoths rising beyond their dimensions.

"If you look real close," Avery said, "you might see Hannibal."

Gemma spoke in a private voice. "Thanks for looking after me."

"We look after each other. That's what married people do."

 

She went to the Haverhill Manor to pick up items inadvertently left behind after her grandfather's death, nothing of value, a frayed bathrobe she never could get him to replace, a tarnished ring missing its stone, a Timex watch, a Schick electric razor, a Bic pen, and a pocket diary with pages ripped out, the rest blank. No last thoughts recorded. She packed the items into a plastic bag, thanked the administrator, and left his office. In the corridor she came upon the woman on chrome crutches, no way to avoid her.

"My first opportunity to extend my condolences," the woman said. "An interesting fellow, your grandfather. I had many a chat with him, and I can tell you with certainty he loved you very much."

"Yes, me and my sister," Gemma said.

"I understand you were in Florence. I was there many years ago. Is it still the same?"

"I imagine so. A scrapbook of stone and paint." Gemma was anxious to move on, but the woman's stare held her.

"That time at the hotel, I wondered what awful adventure you'd been through and wished I could've helped in some way. We women have to stick together, don't we?"

Gemma felt part of her face freeze. Through veils of mist her inner eye saw what it didn't want to. At the bar, Ted? Tom? Color snaps of wife and daughters. Wine, red, not white. Her stomach already in a turmoil. Tom, Ted guiding her into an elevator for the ride to a place to be sick.

"You were young," the woman said, readjusting her weight on the crutches. "I figured out what happened the next day when I read the Gazette. A man discovered dead of an apparent coronary at the Whittier. Good way for him to go, the lucky dog, but it must've been terrifying for you."

"It was," Gemma said and felt free for the first time in what had seemed a lifetime.

 

Strolling through crowded Quincy Market, she glimpsed a Haverhill face, though for a second she wasn't sure. Extra weight and careless grooming gave her old high school friend an unexpected dowdy look. Frances said, "The few times I come into Boston, I always seem to bump into someone interesting. Years since I've seen you, Gemma. Sorry I missed your grandfather's funeral."

They stepped away from the heavy flow of the lunchtime crowd. Gemma, aware that Frances was married, said, "How many children do you have, Fran?"

"Six. I always wanted a large family. And you?"

"None. Your oldest, boy or girl?"

"What difference does it make, Gem? A girl. And I'm sure you can guess how old she is."

Gemma looked away. An old man on a bench was watching young women stroll by, a fresh figure every few seconds. "Do you have a picture?"

"Why are you doing this?" A minor note of commiseration sounded in Frances's voice. "I warned you, remember?"

Moving within the crowd were tourists with cameras, youths aping the glitter of rock stars, girls with bare midriffs, and men in conventional business suits. "It was as if Mark and his father were playing a game together, each for the other's benefit. I hated Mark, and I hated Mr. Vannoy more. And of course I hated myself."

"That was then," Frances said. "I hope you've gotten over it?"

"My grandfather always told me to learn from my mistakes. Took me a awhile, but I married a wonderful man, gentle and kind."

"And with money. That's what I heard."

"Yes, Fran. With money."

"Then let's have lunch. Your treat."

 

On the fifteenth anniversary of her grandfather's death, Gemma placed flowers on his grave and wondered whether he might be enjoying his own unique immortality in a serene realm where change was minimal and peace was permanent. Her sister, gazing at the marble headstone, Campagna in big lettering, said, "I never forgave him for coming to my graduation with someone else's teeth in his mouth."

"He did it for you."

"How the hell did he keep them in?"

"With a lot of sticky stuff and no little amount of pain. It was a long ceremony. He loved you, Carlotta."

"He loved you more, but I've gotten past that."

But have I?

They began walking back to the car. Gemma's hair was pure silver and stylishly cut. Carlotta's was maroon, parted in the middle, and still worn long. Both women had determined strides. In the car Gemma said, "I may stop by Marcie's before going back to Boston."

"I figured you would."

"How's she doing?"

A touchy topic, and Carlotta made a face as Gemma steered the car through the cemetery gates. Marcie, mother of two, was married to a man Carlotta had never approved of and never would.

"He still doesn't have a decent job, not what I'd call decent. And Marcie deludes herself into thinking she's happy. I know she's not."

Gemma held back a smile and said nothing.

"I see you disagree. Aunts aren't mothers. I knew he was a loser from the start. That beautiful wedding you paid for? A waste! Brides know not what they do. They could do better."

"Is that a quote?"

"It certainly could be. God-damn it, it should be!"

"Calm down, Sis."

"Men let women down every day. Can't depend on any of them." She gave Gemma a sharp look. "I suppose you disagree with that, too?"

"Not entirely."

"Don't hedge. Either you do or you don't."

Gemma turned the wheel. "Avery promised he'd never leave me. Then he died."

"See!"

 

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