Matrimonial, September 1951 by Donna D. Vitucci
Waiting for something always made time creep. DeeDee could swear the clocks inside Pickering Motors were stalled. Outside work walls she tried not to think about the pins and needles of trying to predict when Gio Forentino would appear at her desk with his car parts orders. He had to check in with her every day because her job was to bill his customers, and he never came around at the same time. Deliberately, she’d bet.
Her work included ledgering numbers in the tiny debit and credit columns. She hadn’t expected to meet a hook-nosed, dark haired fellow whose penmanship outshone her chicken scratch. She hadn’t encouraged Gio, mostly because she didn’t know how. She was twenty-three and had been kissed nowhere but on the cheek. Still, on one of their streetcar rides home, she wondered out loud to her girlfriend Sue, if he was so interested in her why didn’t he ask her for a date.
Sue Whitson had posted her wedding announcement on the cork board by the time clock so all of the office knew they were invited. Back on DeeDee’s very first day, she’d met Sue riding home from work on what she considered to be her street car. Out in the country, near the end of the line, two stops separated them. DeeDee hadn’t known the girl before since Sue had been taught by the nuns.
Sue got that daring look in her eye and said, “I could arrange so he would be standing, swaying right here next to you on the street car.”
DeeDee put a hand on Sue’s arm and nearly lost her balance. “Don’t you dare. Things will happen naturally if they’re meant to be.” She believed in fate and wishes.
She imagined Gio leaning over the desk to touch his lips to hers, but you couldn’t live something like that down in the office. In the middle of this afternoon daydream, Gio showed up without his carbons.
Days before, he’d started out slapping his stack of orders on her desk and refusing to leave until she met his eyes. Well, no man could make her do anything but what she intended, even her daddy, who was on the far side of getting his way himself these days. DeeDee pretended busyness with letters in the typewriter. His tactics turned gentle, as he set the carbons down softly and pinned them to her desk with his thumb to keep them from blowing away. She put a paperweight there so he’d have to move his hand. He said, “How’re you doing today, Dee?” She nodded with her eyes on the typewriter, focusing as her fingers pounded one out of every dozen strokes into a mistake.
Gio said, “I see Suzie’s tying the knot.”
He produced Sue’s invitation from inside his sports coat. He must have taken the thing off the board in back to hold right in DeeDee’s face in case she tried saying she didn’t know what he was talking about. The gold script on the white linen paper was where she focused her gaze.
She nodded. “The invitation’s for everyone.”
His eyes made him look like he was about to pounce on her. “Us included?”
“Well, of course.” Her hands gripped the typewriter carriage. She kept rolling the thing even though the paper had been released.
“You and me?” he said.
“Certainly.” DeeDee waved the typed letter to make a show of including all the girls, who were slowly returning to their desks. “Everybody,” she said. Her hands fluttered too much. She saw Mary Lee Altmeyer, as she walked with Sue, hold her lunch bag against her midriff, pressing creases from the brown paper before stashing it in her purse. A typical day. She stood and let the letter waft to the blotter, crossing her arms over her chest.
Sue plopped her pocketbook on the desk next to DeeDee’s and winked at her.
The way Gio wouldn’t quit his gaze made DeeDee wriggle. “No,” he said, “I mean how about you and me going together to Suzie’s wedding?” He directed a little hitch of his head at Sue in an utterly familiar way that Dee found disarming.
Sue turned in her swivel chair, offering them privacy.
Certainly DeeDee planned to attend Sue’s wedding, but here Gio was asking her in the middle of the office, approaching her publicly so she could hardly say “no” without Sue standing and accusing, “Are you abandoning me on just the biggest day in my life then, Dee?” Besides, all office eyes were glued to them. Sue paused, obviously tuned in for her reply. Nobody was going to get work done until DeeDee gave in.
She sat in her chair, then squared her shoulders, silently scolding herself because of how they’d rounded, as if she’d been cowering. She rested her fingertips on the typing keys. “Okay. It’s a date. And her name is Sue, not Suzie.”
Gio pointed his finger like a gun. “Gotcha.”
DeeDee began typing whatever letters fell out of her head, anything to appear business-like and occupied with the world. She hadn’t run a piece of paper through the roller.
Gio smiled, backing away, his hand in the air a half-salute. “See you tomorrow then, Dee.” He looked both expectant and satisfied.
She cranked a piece of bonded in the Remington and checked her margins. She’d heard he was Catholic. The exotic sound of the word intrigued her. She tabbed four or five times, then typed C-a-t-h-o-l-i-c, letters black and regal and centered on the otherwise pristine paper.
In a way, DeeDee imagined working with the Pickering office girls was a lot like attending Catholic school. The six came to work in uniform—white blouses and slim dark skirts of navy, tweed, or black, wearing strands of pearls with matching earrings. They didn’t discuss clothes, but this is the way they showed up, day after day. They typed, they filed, they took dictation, they balanced the ledgers. Together they reapplied lipstick in front of the ladies room mirror after coffee breaks and lunches. It was like going to school with your girlfriends. In the cafeteria they whispered between sandwich bites about the call up of boys they knew. DeeDee terribly missed her brother, Jeter, who was stationed in Alaska.
* * * *
Sue had planned her wedding for the first day of fall. In the days leading up to it, DeeDee considered how she might lay groundwork for her date with Gio. Not scheming for that evening, but rather preparing her family for the idea of her stepping out with a man that none of them knew. He wasn’t a pal who’d tagged along home with Jeter to come and call on her, or the “Cookie Man” from down at Findlay Market that her daddy had encouraged in DeeDee’s direction. Gio was a stranger she’d attracted on her own, and this would be an event laced with her daddy’s suspicions, no matter what. She’d like to think nothing of dropping Gio’s name in table conversation as she passed the pot of mashed potatoes to her brother, Mickey. Blow ups, kind words, and teasing were all detonated at family supper. No other way to go about dropping her newest bomb.
As she set the table she had to catch herself from laying down a fifth plate. She would never get used to Jeter being gone. DeeDee and her mama were wrapping up the cooking while Mickey pestered Daddy about driving the Hudson. Her brother had just turned sixteen, and couldn’t see the slap-down coming like DeeDee could.
“Would you quit?” Daddy said. “We can’t even eat a meal in peace without you dogging me about that car.”
“Food’s not on the table yet,” Mickey said.
Mama turned from the stove. “It will be.”
“But it’s not yet.”
“Have some respect.” Daddy reached over and slapped Mick’s head. His thick blond hair probably soaked up some of the hurt. DeeDee figured she’d make sure to station herself at the table’s opposite end when she broke her news.
Once Mama brought the pots and pans of food from the stove, Daddy and Mick set into eating like it was their first meal that day. DeeDee saw how her mama’s hairnet drooped loose at her ears, saw where sweat rolled along the back of her jaw. She’d come home from a long day’s work at the card factory to cook. The family was getting by with Mama at U.S. Playing Card and Daddy driving the beer truck. Despite his emphysema, he could breathe, and if he could breathe then he could pop a clutch, back into a tight spot, cover a territory. DeeDee brought half her weekly earnings to the table. Jeter sent a bit home from Alaska. Family finance kept spinning round like a rickety wheel.
DeeDee waited for Mama to sit, then she did the same. “Sue Whitson’s getting married Saturday,” she said.
Daddy stabbed four potato pancakes with his fork and shook them free over his plate. “Who?”
“Sue Whitson, from work. We ride the streetcar together.”
“Don’t know no Whitsons.”
“All of the office is going.”
“That Catholic family,” Mickey said. He salted his green beans.
Daddy looked down the table to DeeDee. “Don’t know no Catholics.”
“You don’t have to know her for me to go.”
“A church wedding?”
“Well, I imagine so.”
“We don’t go to church.”
“It won’t hurt me to go to Sue’s this once. Besides, I already have a date.”
Daddy stopped chewing. “That so?”
DeeDee folded her hands in front of her plate, found she couldn’t eat a thing. “A boy from work.” She shook her head “no.” “A gentleman, from sales. He’s a World War II veteran.” She thought it might make a difference.
Gio, who chatted with her every day now, told her how he prayed to the angels and saints to deliver him from the typhoon in Okinawa, how the Blessed Virgin saved his ass from kamikazes in the Philippines. He credited his faith for bringing him home.
“What’s his name?” Mickey said.
“What the hell kind of name is that?” Her brother wasn’t helping her cause.
“Giovanni,” DeeDee said.
“Mafia,” Daddy said.
“He is not.”
Mickey laughed. “That’s obvious--”
Daddy’s glare cut him off. “How do you know him?”
“I told you, he’s in parts sales at Pickering.”
“You’ve gone out?”
“You like him.”
She shrugged. “He stops to talk when he turns in his orders every day. You get to know a person.”
Mickey pointed his fork at her. “She’s sweet on him, Daddy, can’t you tell?”
Mama looked up from her plate and seemed to examine DeeDee’s face for this evidence Mickey’d found.
DeeDee forgot where she was. Her voice turned dreamy. “He says I have a Roman nose.”
Silverware clattered against Daddy’s plate. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
Mama stared straight at DeeDee. “It means she has a refined look about her.” Her soft voice suggested at last something had turned out better than expected.
“You saying the rest of us ought to kowtow to Miss Dee?”
Wasn’t that funny, she thought, for they did nothing but bow and scrape before Daddy all the livelong day?
He wouldn’t quit. “You think you’re too good for us, Dee?”
“I didn’t mean that.”
“Let me tell you, daughter, if you think you’re going to find more refined manners with that Wop, you’re in for a surprise. My God,” he said, “their heads are as oily as every damned scheme they’ve got cooking up to graft money from hard working Americans.”
“He is a hard working American, and they do not put oil in their hair.” Gio ran something through his slick black waves. What was it?
The bubble under her words made Mickey glance up from his attack on his dinner. He pointed his fork at DeeDee and teased. “Rudolph.”
A family joke, it was, how her nose turned an ugly red when they’d rile her to such degree she would cry. So much for refinement. She pushed her hair from her eyes and hid in the gesture her brushing at tears. Her fingers caught the limp texture of the curls she’d set the night before, as she set them every night for the next work day at the office. She wished for a little of Gio’s oil, or whatever it was kept his hair neatly groomed and shiny and begging for her touch.
Daddy pointed from his end of the table to hers, an interruption to his eating she’d better take note of. “You can bet the boy is a Virgin worshipper, a goddamned Papist.”
Just the mention of “virgin” at their common supper table set her blushing, as if she were accused of being one, or worse, accused opposite. Papist? She would never have dreamed it part of her daddy’s vocabulary. He said it the way he spat out, “Nigger.”
They weren’t Protestant. They weren’t religious. They were nothing. DeeDee gravitated towards this Catholic business, for it held a mystery she believed would carry her beyond the ordinary. She wouldn’t convert because that would only prove her daddy right, but she would raise her and Gio’s children Catholic, she’d decided. Talk of babies, and they hadn’t even had a date.
She stood and flipped her plate, mashing between the oilcloth and the common china a fried pancake, a dab of applesauce and the slow leak of green beans in broth. As she turned her back, she heard his chair scrape and his powerful “Goddamnit.” Her legs walked her in the direction of the doorway that appeared yards away. She was mistaken in thinking it would take him years to reach her and by then she’d be gone. When his grip pinched her arm, she swallowed the whimper.
“You get back to the table this minute, girl. Ain’t no reason on earth to spoil what your Mama’s done for you.”
Listen to him, implying DeeDee’d been the reason for Mama slaving the way she did. She gritted her teeth in a smile and he slapped it clean away.
“Wes,” Mama said, but she’d never been able to stop him. No one expected her to make a difference.
“I’m going to Sue’s wedding with him.” DeeDee’s cheek tingled as her mouth tasted the words.
He still had her arm. “You’ll be regretting.”
“I won’t.” She smelled vegetables and grease in his breath. In his eyes she saw every struggle between the little girl and the man of this house, the history of him beating her back. One moment, and if Mick was watching he could maybe learn from it. She didn’t flinch from this stare-down contest. She felt Daddy’s shiver and her own arm trembling with the win.
“What about seconds?” he said to Mama, shaking free of DeeDee, acting like she’d been the one pinning him all along. He turned to take his seat at the supper table and wouldn’t look at her, as if he couldn’t wait to get rid of her, as if he’d never let her go.
A matter of pride then, that she came back to sit, too. Mickey had righted her plate. With her ready dishcloth, Mama had wiped up the mess. At the stove, she scraped up what was left in the green bean pot for Daddy. Mickey tried to give DeeDee the last potato pancake, but she pushed his hand with the fried thing hanging from his fork so it hung over and then fell onto his own plate.
“I’m through,” she said. So began her plan of weaning herself from the world of her mama’s kitchen, from the greasy starch diet and her daddy’s grip.
Mick wouldn’t get the car tonight, and she felt sorry because Daddy’s cantankerousness could be traced back to her. He was going to be on the muscle until they all turned in for bed.
In her mind, DeeDee was dropping the heavy details of this house. From here on out she’d travel light, would only pick up things suited for two, suited for partnership. Her girlhood was falling away. She could almost fly out of this place. Overnight it seemed to happen, and it went beyond dreaminess. On the way to work the next day, with Sue holding on for balance beside her, she felt the streetcar might lift with her right off the rails.
Donna raises funds for nonprofit clients in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in dozens of journals, including Hawaii Review, Meridian, Front Porch Journal. She writes about assumptions and unexpressed love that tangle families, lovers, and friends.