Harry James and his orchestra were coming to town. Penny heard it from Marguerite, the tailor’s wife, who seemed to know everything about everything. It happened that a fellow from Rome was a member of the orchestra, and Harry James was coming as a favor to him. Marguerite said that the orchestra had a new Italian singer, a skinny young man who made the girls swoon.
Since they’d gotten to Rome, Matty had been working so much that they hadn’t had a single night out. Not that you could blame him for it. Her family in Brooklyn wasn’t helping them, and the house on Mill Street didn’t come free. And with it being summer and the babies being so active, it was impossible to get away. But now the leaves were turning, and Matty’s aunts knew Penny a little better and were more willing to watch the boys, which she’d only asked them to do once, when she’d somehow run out of food and had to make an afternoon trip to the dry goods store at the American Corners. Betsy, the aunt she liked best, had agreed to watch Alfie and Frankie for an hour, and she’d been able to enjoy the walk downtown. Since then she’d brought the children to one aunt’s house or another’s a couple of mornings a week. Relations were good.
Penny’s parents were wrong about Matty’s family. They were basically fine people. If they were poor and if the men drank, she wouldn’t hold that against them. And they were wrong about Rome. It wasn’t depressing at all. It was a quaint town, and the hills in the distance and the canal were lovely. Even with the babies, she could sit and think and play the violin in peace. Her parents had always had the wrong idea about her. She knew it was because everyone told her she was the prettiest sister. And everyone talked about how bright all the sisters were. Her mother would go on and on. “Our Penelope could play at Carnegie Hall.” The attention, well, any girl would like it, but she didn’t feature feeling her parents’ weight, that everything they hoped to be depended on her. So she’d come here with Matty, who loved her. The question now was how to get him off work for a night. And the answer might be to drop hints with the aunts, who were, of course, married to the uncles. Those uncles owned the inns where Matty worked.
As far as the house on Mill Street was concerned, it wasn’t a dream or even half of what Penny knew growing up, but from the second-floor window she had a fine view of the river running into the canal, and beyond that the train tracks and the corn fields on the other side of the road to Utica. Frankie was content to play in the little sitting room or in the boys’ bedroom, when he wasn’t down for a nap; and when Alfie came home from school, she didn’t mind him playing downstairs or in the yard with a friend from the block. The river was far enough away not to be a worry. Of course she knew the winters would be hard. The aunts had told her so. But then they exaggerated. Did they actually let their children leap out of their upstairs windows into the snow? If it was true, all the more reason to get out a time or two before the worst of it set in.
The day after Penny mentioned to the aunts that she’d like to see Harry James, Matty woke up with news on his lips, which he shared over coffee, toast, and his first cigarette of the day.
“It’s something, Pen. Out of nowhere Uncle Nails tells me to take these tickets. And when I ask him ‘What tickets?’ he tells me they’re for the Capitol, to see Harry James.”
She’d confess her role in the surprise, but she’d wait. He was too excited.
“Harry James, that’s wonderful.”
“Well, sure. We both like Benny Goodman, and wasn’t he in that outfit? And the kicker is Uncle Nails tells me to take the night off. On a Friday, if you wanna beat that.”
He lifted his coffee mug and stopped it right before his lips.
“I’ll tell you, my uncle’s a piece a work. He ain’t gave me a night off since we got here, but now he’s got these tickets from Destito. They been friendly from way back. And it’s sure he can’t go on a Friday, and probably don’t like Harry James anyway, so somebody has to turn up. Destito’s having a big shindig for the band down the Savoy.”
When he smiled, Matty was as handsome a man as she’d ever seen. Even more handsome now than when they were keeping company. In profile he was as regal as a hawk in flight, no matter how he sounded sometimes, no matter how rough he could be. The father of her children, and a hard-working man.
“So we’ll be going then? This Friday?”
“Sure as I’m sittin’ here.”
He rose, wrapped an arm around her waist, and led her into a foxtrot around the kitchen table.
“Sure as we used to go dancin’. Remember them days?”
As he held her, they heard the start of a rain on the roof and against the window panes. The rain picked up, and Matty pressed his lips and body into hers. She could feel his strength, and though she was worried about Alfie coming downstairs, she knew how Matty could get if she tried to put up a fight. So she let herself glide backward to the wall. He pushed in, his hands finding their way inside her robe. At first they felt like Brillo pads up and down her legs, but then she tried to imagine the two of them in a grand Manhattan hotel, moving slowly together on silk sheets, with Central Park stretching out in twilight below them, and questions of their different ways meaningless as car horns and clouds lit by a Midtown moon. She could feel them moving through that scene, and could let herself go. He was hers, after all, no matter how he came to her.
As soon as the boys started to stir and the rain let up, they all got dressed, and drove to Delta Lake. When they arrived, the park at the southern edge of the north country was empty, and along the pebbled shoreline they could hear the wind in the tall locust trees. It wafted the tiny dry leaves all around so they landed with small crackles on the ground, like a fire in a hearth about to die. Alfie ran ahead, and Matty kept up with him the way Penny thought a father should. She didn’t mind this pattern, the two of them first, then she and Frankie, separate pairs. Nothing could make Matty happier than his family here in the landscape he loved. Looking out over the still black lake at the pines across the way, she was content. It was a postcard, after all, and no matter what happened in the future, she’d remember this moment and the sight of her husband’s silent running, a little like a great ape, alongside Alfie as he stormed ahead, the whole scene scored now and then with bursts of Frankie’s thin laughter as he picked up pebbles and tossed them into the water.
That Thursday went like most other days in Rome, slowly. Once Alfie was off to school, Penny and Matty sipped coffee on the porch and watched people pass along Dominick Street, most of the men on the way to Revere Copper and Brass, most of the women on their way to Mazzaferro’s and the other markets. Frankie toddled back and forth, showing them his wind-up tractor or his teddy bear, trying out a few words like “dog” and “light.” Before long he’d be another voice to contend with. For now he was pure joy, enough to keep their conversation going all morning, until Matty had to dress for work. When Matty left, she practiced the violin for an hour, before strolling Frankie to the other side of Dominick Street for a family visit. If the day came that she had time, she might get serious enough to play in a theater like the Capitol. For now she made do with bits from Bach and Vivaldi in the sitting room.
When Friday came, she spent the day deciding what to wear and what to get her husband to wear. Most days he wore simple wool slacks and a plain white shirt, but he’d need to complement her blue dress, or maybe her red one. She’d borrowed two men’s jackets from one of his uncles, by way of one of his aunts, and laid them on the bed next to the two Matty owned. All the jackets were black or gray. Only the textures differed. The up-and-down fall weather wasn’t making the choice easier. In another room Matty read the newspaper from cover to cover, then busied himself with a house repair he’d been waiting a few weeks to make. Toward mid-afternoon he came in and undressed, then, as she’d figured, asked her advice on his outfit. They settled on the uncle’s gray twill with similar slacks, set off with a red tie and silver cufflinks. Her choice for him made hers, the red dress. They matched each other perfectly, and, for good measure, the Parkard’s interior.
Aunt Betsy took the boys, and the couple hit the Savoy stylish and pristine as royalty. After the valet took their keys, they stood on the sidewalk in the cool night air. From the outside the restaurant was ordinary: a green two-story box distinguished from the other buildings only by three scalloped awnings over its upper windows and front door, and in the middle of the three awnings a family crest with the name “Destito” inscribed over it. The name reminded Penny of destiny, and she was beginning to feel that that great force had meant her to come here, that being in Rome, especially on this night, had a greater meaning. The entrance glowed under two spotlights. A doorman, who appeared unaccustomed to both his uniform and his job, showed them inside, where a stout, white-haired man in a tuxedo stood to greet them. This was old man Destito. He spoke with a Sicilian accent Penny recognized.
“Ah, Matty. How’sa you uncle? I don’t see ‘im.”
He gave Matty a hug, eyeballing Penny.
“And this bella, I see you wife.”
He kissed her hand, then flourished his, as though waving off his lechery.
“I don’t get my wife outta da kitchen. She always afraid something bad gonna happen.” He shrugged his shoulder. “Eh. Good woman. What are you gonna do?”
As she walked past a long mirror, Penny was pleased with the figure they cut: Matty so handsome in his jacket, and her dress just nice and her hair done in ringlets, the way she preferred. Their black coifs shone in the light of a huge chandelier. People spun around on their stools as they approached the cherrywood bar. Matty ordered them two Old-Fashioneds. While they stood near the entrance to the dining room, he pointed out all the Romans. In the middle of the room was Mayor Ethridge, surrounded by five or six other men who looked important. In a larger circle around this inner circle stood a lot of “Americans,” as Matty described them. He couldn’t name them, except for Palmer, the musician who was with Harry James. But once he got to the Italians in the room, he was like an encyclopedia. There were the Gualtieris, of course, known for their grocery and their bank; the Falconios, who, everybody knew, had more money than God; the Mungaris, who owned the Uptown Restaurant; the Pasqualettis, who ran the Roman Pastry Shop; the Di Berardinos, who also had a bakery; Coluccio, the construction boss; the Cicconis, who organized the San Felice Festival; the Bottinis, who operated the funeral home and, when Matty’s father was young, ran their own circus; Joe Spadafora, who people knew for his newspaper, La Vita; some of the Volpes, who were everywhere in Rome; the Andronacos, whose store helped a lot of people in East Rome during the Depression; and the most successful farmers in town, the Giambonas. Most of these families were represented by two generations, and Penny felt a twinge of guilt that at least some of Matty’s aunts couldn’t join them, even if it was just for the food.
Destito had set out a beautiful hot buffet along two walls of the dining room. She and Matty walked up and down, behind the long line of people holding out their plates to a staff of kitchen help—some Italian, some colored—dishing out all kinds of food: cheeses and salamis, eggplant salad like her mother made, clams bianco, veal piccata, mussels marinara, lasagna, a greens casserole with proscuitto and breadcrumbs, too many types of macaroni to name, and a chicken dish with eggplant, which, for the occasion, they were calling Chicken Harry James.
It was strange to see so many people in expensive suits and dresses lined up for a buffet, particularly in the Savoy’s modest dining room. Its wooden tables were covered with simple red table clothes, framed pictures of prominent Romans and laminated news clippings on the paneled walls, and above them a line of college pennants. Penny doubted that many people here, aside from the mayor and his circle of Americans, had been to college. To hear Matty tell it, everyone in Rome ate here, so maybe the pennants were for the Americans. Whatever the case, she wouldn’t feel intimidated. Her parents had started her in a music college, and if she could, she’d make sure her two boys got a full education.
Matty led her back to the bar, where Harry James himself was just stepping through the front door, followed by another group of men in overcoats. At the back of the pack was the skinny singer Penny had heard about. He looked at her across the room, his eyes bright as blue opals. She froze in their glow. Old man Destito led the group right toward them. For a moment, as the singer passed close by, she lost her breath, though Matty was too taken with the spectacle to notice any change in her. The owner led them to a door near the bar. When he opened it, they could see into a private dining room. The singer, whose name everyone was whispering—Frank Sinatra—was the last one in. As the door closed behind him, he glanced over his shoulder at Penny and tipped the brim of his fedora.
Back in the dining room the buffet line had vanished, along with most of the food. The pick of the leavings on their plates, Penny and Matty sat in the only two open seats, at a table with a couple who looked to be about ten years older. They were talking about the Capitol Theatre. Actually, they were arguing about it. The man was agitated. His long, tense face and neck were shaped like a teaspoon, which flashed at them as he leaned over the table.
“Now I’m telling you, no one ever died giving a performance there. Anyways, the place was built for movies.”
The woman was stocky and plain, with a thick finger-wave hairdo going to gray. She answered the man calmly.
“Everyone knows it’s a movie house. That’s not the point. They say it’s just one performer who had a bad time. The real ghost, they say, is one of the projectionists. He comes out and sits in a balcony seat, and sometimes he plays the organ.”
“Now why would a projectionist play the organ? It don’t make no sense.”
“And why should everything make sense? A medium contacted Houdini after he died. That’s a fact.”
The woman argued with conviction, never raising her voice. A lawyer couldn’t do better.
“And he died from the effects of a performance, even though he didn’t die on stage. So it’s possible that a performer at the Capitol died on account of his performance or maybe choked on his dinner after the show.”
The man twisted his mouth and shook his head. The woman winked at them. When Penny was sure the man had given up, she took the cue.
“Is the Capitol really haunted?”
Matty made sure the woman wasn’t looking his way, then rolled his eyes.
The woman rested her hand on Penny’s.
“Dear, of course it is. Has been for a few years now.”
Every bit of history was exciting, because Rome had to be a special place. Penny knew it, and she believed in enchantment. A whole town could be enchanted, and she might catch the spirit. She wondered now if any ghosts would turn up on Mill Street, maybe in their sitting room. She remembered her mother talking about how their ancestors were always with them, though her father had no time for what he called “stupidaggine.” But what did he know? As a child she’d always wished that ghosts would show up in their house, but it was too new. Her father, an immigrant, had built it on virgin land. Maybe Indian ghosts could have shown up, but they never did. Here in Rome history was everywhere. The town was built on the site of a fort, so soldiers’ ghosts might be roaming all over, which would make it fertile ground for other spirits. And when Penny played the violin, she felt herself in touch with the spirit world. You could take your bow and poke a hole in the earthly air. Of course she wouldn’t say this to Matty, who, like her father, was more interested in what he could see in front of him. She heard him sigh as the woman went on about the haunting.
“As I was telling my husband, the projectionist is the one who people most often claim to see, but there are others. My friend Ethel tells me that a great dancer, whose son is in Hollywood now, was dancing at the Capitol, and afterward he died on the train to Utica. I think ghosts always come back out of love. Maybe it’s love for the audience.”
Matty had obviously had enough. He rubbed Penny’s shoulder, stood up, and walked toward the buffet table as Penny kept up her attention. The woman, who still hadn’t bothered to introduce herself, continued.
“Some of the ushers say that after hours they’ve heard the projectors go on and seen a light from the booth, but no movie ever shows on the screen or the curtain.”
By this time the woman’s husband was frowning, his arms folded, though he was still getting his money’s worth.
“Well, I suppose if he did show a movie, it’d be an old one.”
The woman huffed.
“It must be awfully frustrating,” she concluded, glaring at her husband, “to be doomed to doing something or even to saying something no one else can see, much less appreciate. Or not to be able to see or touch what other people appreciate. Can you imagine?”
Penny shook her head, as she watched Matty from a distance. He could put anyone at ease, and he was making his way down the entire line of serving stations, smiling and joking with all of the help.
The woman’s husband cleared his throat.
“Well, Dear, maybe we should let this lovely young woman be for a while.”
The woman screwed up her face for Penny’s benefit, then rose and offered her hand.
“It’s been my pleasure. And remember to ask about the ghosts. And, oh, I’m so rude. My name’s Alma.”
“This is my husband, Louis.”
The man extended his hand and held hers for a good few seconds.
“Penny for your thoughts.”
Color rose to Penny’s face.
“As I was saying, this is my husband,” the woman concluded, rolling her eyes as the couple turned to leave.
Penny wondered how a pair so poorly matched could be together, and how they’d gotten together in the first place. She chuckled to herself, dabbed the corners of her mouth with a napkin, and surveyed the dining room. Most of the remaining guests had finished eating and were sitting at dining tables, sipping cocktails. It was lovely to be out, to feel a part of the town. Rome had life and everything else that New York had. The people here fell in love and built families and had nights like this one, which they would remember and talk about for a long time. She searched for Matty, who was taking his time at the buffet. He was talking now with a pretty colored girl, who was serving near a corner of the room. He stood as close as he could to the tray of food between them, almost hanging over it. Penny strained to see the girl better. She was certainly dark, with a heart-shaped face and straightened hair done in a wave. Her eyes struck Penny as Middle-Eastern, almond-shaped and heavy-lidded. The girl’s nose was wide, as you’d expect, but flattering—a nose like her own. As Matty spoke, the girl flashed a smile any woman would envy. Only her large lips lowered Penny’s estimate of her beauty. They were obscene the way they grew from her face and spread out, particularly when she opened her mouth to say something to Matty, who must have been complimenting her, since every now and then she tucked her chin or averted her eyes as she smiled. She could understand a man like Matty noticing other women, and them noticing him, but then to think of those lips. How could he not see the way they made the girl too different to be with a man like him? To imagine kissing a colored man was to imagine kissing a ghost. Then Matty touched the girl’s fingers with his, just above the tray, as though testing the food’s warmth. If he did this in public, did that mean it meant nothing? Or was he a man who would go further when no one else was around? He had always been kind to Penny, and loving. And what a handsome man he was. But what kind of a man was he, after all? Who had she married? Who had she sacrificed for? Whose children was she raising? Matty’s hand was squeezing the darker one now, and Penny felt suddenly queasy.
She stood up and took small steps toward the bathroom, refusing to look back at the buffet. She would have tip-toed if she could. Entering the bar, she found the door to the private dining room open again. A few of the orchestra members sat in a row behind a table, holding up lit cigarettes and cocktails. The young singer sat in the middle, appearing to direct the celebration with winks and contortions of his thin face. As she stood there, those eyes caught her staring. She could imagine herself with him, far away, maybe on an ocean liner. After playing for some European aristocrats, they would sit at the captain’s table and raise glasses. In the background she heard a clarinet playing “Frenesi.” They would dance among people who would stop to compliment their clothes or say wonderful things about her technique and his voice. Someone opened the front door, and her dress was no match for the cool breeze. On the deck she and the singer would huddle for warmth, as the stars glittered over the waves.
Her stomach settled, and she took a seat at the bar, waiting. For what she wasn’t quite sure. On stage the young crooner would be free as air, as she sat below him and watched. She could imagine the spirits floating above, then descending to claim the empty theater. Matty would be there too, of course, as he was now, just entering the bar, dapper but lost in his tuxedo, looking for her high and low. She could imagine a time when he wouldn’t be there. A woman might take him, or else the cigarettes or drinking. Men always went before women. He stood now just across the room, adjusting his tie, searching the room. She pulled a compact from her handbag and pretended not to notice as the reflection of a man approached in the mirror on the wall.
George Guida is the author of ten books, including The Pope Stories and Other Tales of Troubled Times (Bordighera Press, 2012), and the forthcoming collections of poems, Zen of Pop (Long Sky Media, 2020) and New York and Other Lovers, revised and updated edition (Encircle Publications, 2020). He teaches writing and literature at New York City College of Technology, and serves as Senior Advisory Editor for 2 Bridges Review.