’Twas on the Isle of Capri that I found her
Beneath the shade of an old walnut tree
I can still see the flow’rs blooming round her
Where we met on the Isle of Capri
The angel’s heart was torn from its chest.
The stained-glass box that once held it was smashed; ruby tears scattered around the fountain. The ruins of the valentine lay amidst splinters of red glass and oak leaves mottled with rot. Soaked through, it had been half-devoured by birds. I didn’t know whether it had been ripped away strip by ragged strip or swallowed mouthful by mouthful, a bloody delicacy fought over by many. Either way, it came as no shock that there was nothing left but a few anemic tatters. This was a cemetery, after all, and in the land of the dead the birds were reigning lords.
They perched everywhere: on the crypts, on the cypress and oak, on the eavestroughs where the rain ran rivers into the sodden earth. At the funeral forty years ago their ancestors screamed obscenities from the trees as the preacher droned on about love and eternity. Furious screeches and feathered rage. I clutched Sister Constance-Evangeline’s habit in a hailstorm of birds and terror, covering my ears until all I could hear was the rushing of blood . . . the beating of wings.
But the birds didn’t frighten me now as they did then. I slogged through the mud toward the fountain.
The heart was in ruins, but a sinewy strand still twisted around the rusted wire frame. Bleached by sun and leeched by rain, the crêpe was white as aged scar tissue. When I touched it, it collapsed into fibers. The last damp mouthful of air trapped within the empty chamber expired on a breath of wind. Gently, I replaced what was left of the heart in the fountain bowl. Stained amber with the sap of cypress needles, it seemed more like a Canopic jar, and my heart, my heart lay dead within.
I tried to remember the day when they buried my mother, but I felt as empty as that paper husk. Forty years will do that to you. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand the pain; I just couldn’t feel it anymore.
For stone angels and dead whores there is no pain, I reminded myself. A crêpe heart does not beat. A lifeless body does not suffer the ravages of nature’s savage little ways, nor does it endure the gut wrenching of scavengers as they tear it to shreds. For the dead there are no haunting regrets, no aching remorse, no dreams to torment deep into the night. There is no laughter, no music, no dancing. No dream of an Isle of Capri . . .
The blessings of heartless angels.
The workings of the human heart have always been a mystery to me.
The heart of my mother, Lana Lake, has been the greatest mystery of all. Nothing remains of that heart now but a dry chamber, a mummified fist wrapped around a hardened clot where once had been caged a wild and fiercely beating thing, scarlet and raw as ripped silk.
• • • •
In the autumn of 1958 when I was eleven years old, my mother, Lana Lake, was bombed out of her mind in the back garden on a bed of crushed birds-of-paradise. She shouted to the sky that spun overhead like a top that I could mix an Angel’s Kiss so coo-coo crazy Frank Sinatra himself would have married me on the spot for one sip of that utterly endsville elixir.
He was between mistresses, Lana said with a wicked wink that blushed me down to my toes. At the wedding, she storied her enraptured audience of one, Francis Albert would stare into my eyes with his cause-for-swooning baby blues. He would hold me tenderly and croon “The Isle of Capri” until it was my bedtime and Mrs. Sinatra arrived to take him home.
I laughed in sheer delight at the possibilities, licking fingers sticky with pomegranate juice. Crimson fingerprints decorated the front of my virgin-white Catholic school blouse. The woolen stockings and sensible shoes had long since been kicked off in favor of squirming bare toes.
It had been Daddy’s idea for me to attend Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow Convent School for Girls. I hated his surprisingly stubborn old-world ways, making me go just because his mother had, God rest her soul. I couldn’t wait to run home to my own sinning mother, who would lightheartedly endure my tortured catechisms while she painted my toenails an unrepentant shade of Mary Magdalene red.
“So, should I call him?” Lana said in her leading way.
She snatched my pomegranate and sucked the bitten part. “Call the one who loves you only, I can be so warm and tender . . .”
“No no no!” I rolled on the grass, shrieking with laughter.
“He owes me a favor,” Lana added in a low, theatrical voice.
I sat up in a tumble of fallen leaves. “He does?”
“What do you think?” On the tip of her tongue, a jewel glittered. Pomegranate seed, like the one she wore in her navel when she did her routine. It disappeared into her mouth, a ruby on that dancing tongue. “Call me, don’t be afraid, you can caaalll me, baby it’s late . . .”
Skip and a jump. That’s what my heart did. Mother really had met Frank Sinatra, and every night after that I practically expected The Man With the Golden Charm to appear magically on my doorstep in a tuxedo, with a handkerchief as orange as birds-of-paradise tucked sharp-as-you-please in the breast-pocket.
Now that was style, Lana said. Ring-a-ding-ding.
For an apéritif I would serve him an Angel’s Kiss: equal parts white crème de cacao, crème de violette, prunelle, and sweet cream.
That was the Angel’s Kiss.
Too candy-sweet for anyone else, Mother downed them like after-dinner mints after dancing all night at the Cocoa Club.
The Cocoa Club: there was a swinging spot. Peter Lawford, one of Sinatra’s fellow rat-packers, had bought the prohibition clip joint for a song in 1952 and fixed it up. Pink neon martini glasses and palm trees with beckoning fronds out front. It was the place where you went to see and be seen if you were anybody at all in the San Francisco Bay Area. Tuxedos were de rigueur for the men; the women wore strapless evening dresses and shoulder-length gloves and jewelry from exclusive shops. Every table had little deco lights that lit up the room like diamonds. The waiters with their pencil-thin mustachios swept the tables over their heads like party hats as they glided down the grand staircase to the backlit stage. Best seat in the house, when you slipped them a little something extra. Duke ‘em good! in Sinatra’s slangbook, but he was way too slick to flaunt a bill.
Daddy pounded the pads at the Cocoa Club every night. Ba da da! The hottest drummer in town, Joe Caiola would dish it up any way you liked it: slow and swinging or fast and hopping. He’d learned to bang the bongos from the master, Chano Pozo himself, when he and Daddy palled around with Dizzy Gillespie.
Sometimes for a few extra bucks he’d fly down to Los Angeles or to New York or Chicago and sit in with Sam Butera or Artie Shaw’s band or some other swingers who were hip to the beat. Or maybe Sinatra would hire him for a private party in The Tonga Room at the Fairmont and then word would get out about this real gone cat who could really lick those skins, and then everyone else would want him for their parties, too.
Bongos were big back then, and Daddy would get top dollar for those gigs. Sometimes he’d even team up with Tito Contreros or Jack Costanza and then the money would roll in on a cloud of fine Cuban cigar smoke because Sinatra and his pallies were outrageous tippers who partied every night when they were in town. But as hot as Daddy was, my mother was the star attraction.
Lana Lake was a “class act,” Daddy said, even when she stripped down to bare canvas. She was a work of art, a living painting with a beating heart and eyes outlined in fiery yellow like the tropical flowers she loved.
Once when they were doing the bossa nova and thought I was asleep on a stack of records, I saw her slip her tongue into the heart of a bird-of-paradise and I thought I’d die. They danced like they were built for each other, Mother and Daddy: not just the bossa nova but the mambo, the samba, the tango. Lana cocked her hips for Perez Prado and swung to Count Basie and jumped to Louis Prima. There was Sinatra, of course, the Ultimate Big Spender. “Isle of Capri” was Lana’s favorite, though she liked others: “Three Coins in the Fountain” and “Love is the Tender Trap,” and the melancholy “Don’t Cry, Joe” that was like a dance hall after closing.
Daddy would hold Mother close, his dark head buried in her shoulder. “Amorino, amorino . . .” he whispered over and over, like a man lost at sea and found.
Don’t cry, Joe
Let her go, let her go, let her go
Lana’s voice warm and dark as espresso at midnight.
You’ve gotta realize this is the windup
Things will be much better when you make your mind up . . .
Dancing slow and easy, her hands wrapped in his hair, pulling, pulling . . .
Daddy could sing, too. But mostly he liked to play the drums, with a subtle, expert flick of his wrists. A true musician, Joe Caiola lost himself in the rhythm, a ghost of a cigarette in the ashtray, a cylinder of burned ash.
Sometimes it would be jazz drumming with lots of metal brushes, with his eyes half-closed like window shades. The fringe of the brushes was like the fringe of his eyelashes sweeping his cheekbone. It was an angular face with too many planes and corners. It sliced shadows in the lamplight and made a chiaroscuro of his features.
“A face you could get cut on,” I’d heard my mother say more than once.
“Or a face you could cut,” Daddy teased back with a swat of brushes.
Tino laughed, ice clinking in his glass with a little cha cha cha. Jack Daniel’s and ice. That’s how he liked it. “Maybe a face Cassie could cut, eh, Joe?”
Daddy ice-picked a look at him while Mother, poured into a jade silk sheath, slipped out from behind the Chinese screen. The needle swung across Martin Denny’s Exotica on the hi-fi. Screeching birds with jeweled plumes, grinning monkeys and purring leopards, growling things on the prowl in the heart of the jungle where claws cut to the quick.
“You hear what I said, Lana?” Tino lazily tipped back his J.D.
“Don’t tempt me, Tino,” Lana said, waving a finger at him. Polished fingernails the shade of dragonfly wings. “Don’t . . .”
She smiled at them both with a curve of lips, and most times it would be fine, but sometimes there’d be something behind that smile, a sheet-lightning flash that raised the hairs on my neck.
Sometimes Daddy called Mother his Scarlet Tornado. Sometimes, his Red Flame.
White ice melting red flame, burning the glass, the two as one.
• • • •
I was alone in the cemetery. The air was wet with late-winter rain that had already soaked me and my shredded heart through the skin. A brisk wind shook a wash of icy drops from the shadow-dark cypresses. It rattled the twisted branches of the live oaks that grew behind the crypt and shed their leaves in the angel’s fountain. All around me stormed a cyclone of needles, of torn black leaves. They whipped around the worn crevices of the headstones with leafy tongues. They clung like leeches to my shivering body. God, I was cold.
I stared at the birds lined up in the trees like snipers. They watched my every movement. Talons raked straight to the heart, deep enough to draw blood. What was I doing here?
Chasing the ghost of a song.
My hands started to shake but I couldn’t leave.
“I can’t leave,” I whispered. To the birds, to myself, I wasn’t sure. The wind carried my voice through the branches of the black oaks, rustled the wings of the birds whose eyes had never left me, not once in forty years. I had to hear that song again. I had to know.
• • • •
In the early 1940s, before I was born, my mother had some throwaway parts in crime movies. She was invariably cast as the siren for whom they dragged the rivers while the opening credits ran: Murder on the Rocks. The Sweet Kill. Venus Under Glass. Sonata for a Night Angel. No big studios, no contracts, no options. It was all strictly B-league. Still, Lana’s not inconsiderable onscreen charms had attracted her share of attention, almost all of it male. And while Lana Lake might have been a minor starlet in the Tinseltown constellation, she shone bright as Polaris in her hometown of Martinez after she decided that dancing and drinking, not moviemaking, were more in tune with her nocturnal rhythms.
Location turned out to be everything, of course. Martinez, a shot-glass toss away from San Francisco’s infamous Cocoa Club, was home not only to Lana Lake, but to the equally infamous martini. Mother’s drink of choice was, naturally, Dean Martin’s choice. The Flame of Love: swirl three drops expensive sherry in an iced stem glass, then pour out. Squeeze one strip of orange peel into the glass and flambé. Throw away the peel. Fill the glass with ice to chill it. Toss out ice. Add very expensive vodka, then flambé another strip of orange peel around the rim. Throw away the peel. Stir very gently.
“I like a new Lincoln with all of its class,” Mother sang to Daddy while sitting in his lap. “I like a martini and burn on the glass!”
That was Lana Lake: burn on the glass all the way.
Myself, I’d never experienced the forbidden and fermented fruits of The Cocoa Club. And liberal as Lana was, she still couldn’t slip me under the velvet ropes and into the backdoor of the smoky nightspot.
To make up for it, she rehearsed her act for us in the living room, for Daddy and me, and maybe some of the boys in the band who always seemed to be lounging around there, smoking and joking, or tinkling “Street Scene ‘58” on the piano, because sooner or later, everyone ended up at our house.
Lana’s little trick started like this: first she would disappear behind the Chinese screen—Chinoise, en Français, she explained in her crazy put-on accent, not quite French, not quite anything. Then she would slink out from behind the screen with a wink of an emerald eye.
And then she would dance.
The lights played with the curves of her silhouette on rice paper as satiny-smooth as the head of Daddy’s snare drum. He kept time with the jive of her hips. His shirt sleeves would be rolled up, the collar unbuttoned, his tanned skin dark against his white undershirt. Cigarette half-forgotten in the corner of his mouth as he stared at her. As we all stared at her.
Luis Ramirez whistled. “Now that’s what I call a sweet little cookie,” he said, shaking his head.
“A fortune cookie. All wrapped up in Chinese silk,” Daddy said with a proud swish of cymbals. He wasn’t the only one who loved Mother. They all loved her: the boys in the band, and Daddy . . . and me. Burn on the glass, all the way.
Lana had hundreds of costumes jammed in her closet like piñatas: Spanish bullfighter bolero jacket and a snorting bull painted above her breast. Caravan gypsy with bright scarves and an evil silver blade licking the tip of her rouged nipple. Queen of the Nile in a sleek leopard pelt and a painted python with an amber eye, that wound around her narrow waist.
Daddy’s wife, Cassandra (she liked to be called Mrs. Joe Caiola), had called Mother a common whore. Right to her face, once when we ran into her in town. With all those people standing there like a church choir. Nervous titters and uneasy glances all around. Lana Lake was Lana Lake, after all, and there was no telling what she’d do for a slight like that. To everyone’s amazement Mother only smiled, and we kept walking. Still, there was a tightness to her steps. Red dress. Red high-heels. Red hair bouncing down her back, burning like her cheeks.
I never understood, then, how it was possible to hate something so unabashedly beautiful. I was transfixed by unrestrained female beauty in a way that only a girl of eleven, uninitiated to the mysteries that awaited the thrust into adulthood, could be. God, how I wanted that life for myself: a hundred handsome boyfriends to drive me anywhere I wanted in a shiny limousine. And a private jet to fly me to the Isle of Capri.
They should burn that damn club down, Mrs. Caiola said. She was arguing with Daddy in the house next door. It was a scorching summer morning; all the windows were open. You couldn’t help but hear her.
Burn it down . . .
My nostrils singed with blazing palm fronds, scorched mâitre d’s, bandstands showering sparks, highball glasses exploding like a string of firecrackers behind the bar. I envisioned incinerated skeletons locked in charred embraces, teeth clattering on the dance floor like smoky pearls. Would they really burn it down?
But the Cocoa Club remained open despite Cassandra Caiola. A glorification of all things sinful: a palace of pleasure, a den of desire.
Sometimes Lana wore a g-string of tiny pagodas and the spangled pasties of Imperial China. On those formal occasions Mother, with an artist’s steady hand and a little silver mirror, would paint an oriental dragon that began at her left breast and licked the nape of her neck with a forked tongue. When Lana breathed, the dragon breathed, and my heart pounded with excitement. When she danced . . . it was like watching the unfolding of an origami bird. The Emperor’s Nightingale with nipples like ripe raspberries. Her arms moved like vines, slim as the necks of Ming vases. The dragon sank its claws into her creamy skin, wrapped its serpentine body around her breasts and swayed with every gyration, swayed with us all . . .
Other times Mother slipped into a sky-blue dress of chiffon that concealed nothing. Then she painted an angel on her breast, plucking a harp of pure gold. Daddy said that when she danced with the angel, she danced with God, and the chiffon floated around her like a cloud.
When he told me that, I wished, how I wished, that Sister Constance-Evangeline would take me to The Cocoa Club to see Mother dance, just once. I knew she’d never do it, though her rosary had even fewer beads than Lana’s g-string, and the g-string was strung with heavenly blue glass instead of dead brown seeds that grew nothing at all.
• • • •
In the cemetery.
Beyond the angel to the crypt itself.
Passing years and the wash of vintage wine-country rains in the Northern California valley had smoothed its curvilinear lines to a winding shell that seemed to curl in upon itself. Glistening beneath a sheen of rain, it had a dreamlike, almost translucent quality. In graceful script:
December 24, 1926—October 4, 1958
An unknown admirer—some gossiped about a movie star carrying a torch or a lovedrunk Mafioso with money to burn—had laid out the green for Lana’s lavish but astonishingly tasteful crypt and the guardian angel with its wings outstretched to the heavens. Mountains of fresh flowers had, for years, been delivered weekly. Lana’s favorite birds-of-paradise, with petals shading from the palest saffron to the burnt orange of twilight over a bottomless lake.
More than a few had disapproved of this extravagance, hardly befitting an ex-starlet and second-rate nightclub performer. Especially one who’d expressed her passions in such an explicit way. But such was the mystique of a dead exotic dancer, the kind whose name is inevitably more notorious in death than in life.
I thought about that life as I leaned my cheek against the angel’s cool base. I clasped a pale ankle, traced the angel’s serene expression with the back of my hand. The stone was crumbling, braceleted with Medusa-green moss. As I breathed, vapors swirled in the chill air. They reminded me of the frescoed clouds on the ceiling of the chapel where God created Man, in the country where my father, too, had been created. But whether it was my breaths, or God’s, or those of the stone angel that formed those curlicues, I could not tell. In the fading light the angel’s lips seemed to move, to form pearls of condensation with every exhalation, to whisper words in a language almost too perfect, too divine, to be heard.
She whispered softly, “It’s best not to linger,”
Then as I kissed her hand I could see . . .
God, how I wanted to see. To sing. To remember. There was so much life here, so much unfinished. The stones, the earth, the oaks sang with it. I couldn’t leave. Not now. Chasing the ghost of a song. So many songs . . .
• • • •
In 1958 my hair was the bane of my existence. There was nothing coo-coo crazy about it. It was fine and straight and utterly Clyde. Lana insisted it was as fine as bone china, but who wanted hair like a tea party when you could have hair like a Bloody Mary? Lana’s was dark and rich, a sinuous red fire. When she danced she coiled it on her head to accentuate her long and erotic neck.
I, however, was profoundly dissatisfied with my looks. Summing up all the pre-adolescent fervor I could muster I announced: “I hate my hair. I want your hair.”
Loving me too much to laugh, Mother still couldn’t prevent her lips from playing with a smile. Her hands moved like silk, in sweeping brushstrokes. “Well, your hair isn’t exactly like mine, but that makes it no less beautiful, barefoot contessa.” She was wearing a chemise that skimmed the tops of her thighs. In the day she lived in chemises.
“What’s a contessa?” I asked. I was still disconsolate with my lot in life.
Lana French-inhaled her cigarette. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking. “A contessa is . . . a beautiful rich lady who lives in a castle.”
I straightened suddenly. “On the Isle of Capri?”
Lana let out an explosive little laugh. Smoke jetted through her nostrils. “Yes, yes, yes, on the Isle of Capri.”
I settled back, satisfied, sinking into her hypnotic brushstrokes. “Daddy wants to take us to the Isle of Capri someday,” I reminded her. Daddy had been to Capri. He’d told us he’d take us there lots of times.
“Mmmhmm . . .”
I dreamed awhile. Idly, I supposed: “Would Daddy marry you if you were a contessa?”
Mother stopped brushing, just for an instant. The hairbrush tightened in her hand. A crackle of static. In my daydream I hardly noticed.
“Daddy can’t have two wives,” Mother said. She set the hairbrush on the vanity with a finality that was lost on me.
I thought about Daddy’s wife, Cassandra, the crazy lady who lived next door. The one who called Mother a whore and who was always watching us from behind the curtain. Cassandra was rich and almost as beautiful as Mother, and the glossy white house she and Daddy lived in could almost have been a castle. But I was pretty sure she’d never been to the Isle of Capri.
A thought struck me. “Do you think Frank Sinatra would marry me if I were a contessa?”
Lana, distracted, suddenly looked at me. She laughed unexpectedly and wrapped her arms around me from behind. “Why not? You’re Sicilian and Catholic. You could make an Angel’s Kiss to knock his socks off.” She smiled at me in the mirror. “He’d go wild for you. Coo-coo crazy.”
“I’m only half Sicilian,” I corrected her. My tone was reproachful and smacked of Sister Constance-Evangeline’s elocution class.
“But you are a full Catholic, and to show my devotion to thee, I consecrate to thee my eyes, my ears, my mouth, my heart, my entire self. Shake with it, sugar, shake with it.”
Shake with it, I did not. I hated convent school. I hated the dour nuns at Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow who refused to let me run barefoot through the arched courtyard where the pear trees burst with juice and there was cool black soil I was dying to sink my toes into. The pears, I was warned sternly, were not to be eaten. They were full of worms.
Mother’s breasts were like the heavy flesh of ripe pears. After she and Daddy were dead and buried I’d sit beneath those trees for hours, sucking the golden skins and thinking of nothing, nothing at all, until there was nothing but a pile of rotting cores.
Kicking my heels at Lana’s vanity table I complained that Sister Constance-Evangeline was always after me to get to confession.
“A little confession is good for the soul,” Mother said, painting my lips with a little stiff brush. She had never attended convent school. She said it was too late for her; that she’d been on God’s shit list for years.
I surmised I probably had been, too.
“Oh, no, honey. Not you. Make like you’re going to kiss someone,” Lana instructed. “Like this—”
I exaggerated a movie-star pout. I had never kissed anyone. Not for real. Sometimes the girls practiced with movie magazines they hid under their pillows. But kissing boring old pieces of paper with ads for underarm deodorant on the backs wasn’t like it would be in real life. Was it?
“Perfect!” Mother dabbed with the brush. “You look like Frida Kahlo. Or Carmen. Tell Daddy to buy the opera for you, you crazy chick!”
Later Daddy came in with some of the boys, Sam and Luis, and Chuy Hernando, and Tino Alvarez and Domingo. Daddy laughed and said, “Hey Tino, she looks more like Carmen Miranda!” Then he swirled me up in the air with my glitzy red lips and glitzy red toenails the color of the wax cherries on the Chiquita’s famous turban. He swung me around just like Lana said Frank Sinatra would at our wedding, and the boys clapped a quick Latin rhythm and Lana did a little swing of her hips against Domingo’s, and I could not, at that moment, have been happier.
A little confession . . .
Mother died before she could confess. I wondered what Sister Constance-Evangeline would have made of that. The murder/suicide was a wet-dream for the tabloids, who’d pronounced it “an act of passion.” Amorrazo. Joe Caiola wouldn’t leave his wife for the temperamental showgirl. Ergo, the temperamental showgirl shot him, then shot herself, straight through the heart.
Ring-a-ding-ding. One, two, three.
Thoroughly drenched in Mother’s perfume, I whispered scented Hail Marys for her in church. After I’d finished Sister Constance-Evangeline scoured my neck, my wrists, the backs of my knees, all the secret places, until the skin bled pomegranate-red under the faucet. Watching the red wash down the sink, I wondered: did dead whores go to heaven?
• • • •
I gripped the marble angel’s ankles, tighter now. I was dreaming of a girl who ran through the damp earth in the garden like a barefoot contessa, hair a wildfire, copper leaves falling around her like pennies in the autumn wind. I tried to remember the song that whistled through her painted red lips as she pounded up the porch steps trailing birds-of-paradise in both fists, her tongue clicking against her teeth like a castanet. I remembered the girl, innocent then and unafraid, as she clattered open the screen door and ran, barefoot, into the heart of a nightmare. But after forty years, the song had stuck in my throat.
My eyes ached from the blinding white marble, the blinding white sky. I stared at the heart in the fountain. It was drained and pale. But it became for me another heart: my mother’s heart, pumping wet and red and hard through the splinters of a ribcage that gleamed white as the wings of the angel gracing her left breast.
The angel had bled a halo of red.
The red was everywhere, a flutter of smears on Mother’s hands and face like the frantic sweep of butterfly wings. The red was on Daddy’s face, too. Mother was bent over him on the floor in a widening pool of blood, her mouth pressed tightly to the third finger of his left hand in the rich, wet kiss of one who loves deeply. It was not her own wedding ring she kissed.
She looked up at me as I banged through the screen door. A bubble of blood escaped her lips.
And it burst, like the world, around us all.
Mother and Daddy and Cassandra and me.
The four of us, together. As we always would be.
Red flame and thieving birds, the two burned into one. Blood and ashes.
My shoulders heaved as I held the statue. I wanted to cry, but no tears came.
• • • •
“What’s a whore?” I asked Mother the afternoon Mrs. Caiola had called her that in the street. Instantly, I chewed my tongue in regret. Mother’s lips twitched. Without a word she drew me into arms as cool as a Tom Collins. The breeze rustled musically through the leaves of the eucalyptus trees in the backyard. The sound of a thousand chopsticks, swish swish . . .
We listened, Mother and I. I closed my eyes and leaned back in her arms. After a moment she started to hum softly. Snapped her fingers. Staring across the garden at the picket fence next door, she sang in a low voice: “She gets too hungry for dinner at eight—”
The bedroom window was open. The pane refracted a dazzle of light. Someone stirred behind the muslin curtain, ever so slightly.
Singing louder, now: “She loves the theater, but never comes late!” Mother tumbled me to my feet. Eucalyptus shells sprayed from my skirt as she swept me across the garden.
I grinned at Mother, but she wasn’t looking at me. Not at me.
“Sing it with me, baby!” she cried. “She loves the theater, but never comes late!”
Thoughts of mysterious whores vanished. I sang the only words I could remember, sang them off-key, at the top of my lungs: “SHE’D NEVER BOTHER WITH PEOPLE SHE’D HATE!”
Lana wasn’t dancing now. A smile twisted her lips as she stared straight at the window.
Big finale, now, lots of brass. I did a cartwheel and belted it out: “THAT’S WHY THE LADY IS A TRAMP!”
The curtains in the house next door snapped shut.
Mother blew a kiss.
I collapsed in the grass, sweaty and breathless and gassed to be alive.
• • • •
In the Whispering Pines Cemetery, the wind stole the kiss I blew and carried it back to the curtain of trees, the spying eyes in the branches. Hair lashed my eyes and I turned away. I gazed up at the stone angel, at the gaping cavity in its chest where its life had gushed, and the wings that hooked a silver awning of sky. In the corner of one eye balanced a single teardrop: spider. A delicate leg caught in a shred of web, quivered in the wind like an eyelash. Eternally poised, I knew the arachnid teardrop would never fall. The spider was long-dead, and its hollow shell had, over time, become a crust of sleep in the angel’s eye.
The angel’s dry eye.
God weeps no tears for whores.
A roosting magpie, thief of hearts, cawed from the cypress with bony branch-wings dark as dusk. Soon night would roll in on the back of a rumbling thunderhead. I grit my teeth hard, my knuckles whitening on the marble ankles.
Why had she done it? I didn’t know—how could I? All I knew was that the angel’s heart had not been torn out, then. Not yet. The heart still beat, if only for a few moments more. It felt everything. Knew everything. Told everything. It whispered a single word: a wet red kiss blown to me from across a kitchen floor, from the lips of the dying to the heart of the living.
One kiss, one word.
Summertime was nearly over
Blue Italian sky above
One kiss, one word.
I said, “Lady, I’m a rover
Can you spare a sweet word of love?”
One word was enough. I never forgot what Mother had whispered while she lay on the floor, her life seeping away from her, from me, in the burnished brass light of that autumn afternoon. But I’d misunderstood what she meant by it.
Until this moment. Maybe, until this moment.
It was this remembering that had carried me back to the angel’s arms.
Remembering and time, and dreams and hearts, and forgotten songs and dying angels. The kiss of angels, painted and real and dancing and drunk, with lips wide open and hearts torn out, as sweet as crème de cacao.
• • • •
Mrs. Caiola never did leave Daddy. She’d threatened to a thousand times but there was no way in hell she’d give him his freedom so he could be with her. That’s how Daddy told it, when he and Mother stayed up talking and I caught snatches of their heated discussions in the other room.
Then there were the accusations and counteraccusations pitched back and forth through the night like hardballs from the house next door. Begging on both sides. Cassandra, this is crazy. You know it isn’t any good. Why don’t you let me go? Not on your life, Joe. Not on your GODDAMNED life.
Then she’d turn on the waterworks. That’s what Mother called them, with a snort.
I knew about waterworks.
“What does the water in the convent fountain taste like, Capri?” she asked me once, squeezing my hands. “Jesus’ tears?”
“Crème de cacao,” I answered, giggling.
An angel’s kiss . . .
Sunday afternoons, after the Cocoa Club shakedown, I poured and mixed the Angel’s Kisses carefully. I set them on a tray inlaid with opal dragons that wound round it like the painted twin on Lana’s neck. Then I took them on tiptoe to her boudoir. Stolen sips of Angel’s Kisses. I used to think in sweet rapture: she’s like that. An Angel’s Kiss, as pure as bliss . . .
Mother, lying in bed with a sleeping mask strewn on the sheets like a leftover from a masquerade, sipped her drink. “Mmm. Just the thing for that Mood Indigo,” she confided.
“The mood indigo?”
Shadow of a smile. “Mood Indigo, baby.”
Through Mother’s bedroom window I watched Cassandra Caiola click-click-click down the front walk in high heels and a Christian Dior suit. Her hair was pulled tightly back from her made-up face, not a strand out of place. She paused, frowning, fastening the little buttons on her gloves. I’d never seen her go anywhere without those gloves. Perfect and pristine and white as ice. She called Daddy’s name sharply as she unlocked the door to her Cadillac, so shiny you could see your reflection in it. White, just like her gloves.
White ice melting red flame, burning the glass, the two as one.
Mother and Cassandra: fire and ice.
I watched Daddy amble out of the house and toss his cigarette on the sidewalk. Slouch his hat forward. Slam.
“You know that wasn’t our arrangement, Joe.” Backing out. “You said you wanted the brat. And far be it for me to stand in your way, especially since you’d already knocked her up. Though God only knows what that one will turn—” squeal of rubber “—with a mother like—” Frosted lips in a rearview mirror.
Daddy not looking at her. Tapping a rhythm on the dash.
“You know what an understanding woman I am, Joe. You know I am. But I’ve had just about enough of living right next door to that—that—”
Sigh. “Why don’t you just let me go, then, Cassandra.”
We never heard the reply as the Cadillac peeled down the driveway.
Lana lay languidly in bed. She lifted her glass. “To sweethearts and wives,” she said wryly. “May they never meet.”
The Angel’s Kiss.
Full on the lips.
• • • •
It was time that carried me to Whispering Pines and the place where my mother lay wrapped in her past like a skein of stars. It was time, chased by that ghost of a song I couldn’t quite remember, and couldn’t quite forget. And now I stood with the iron door swinging wide behind me.
The wet Northern California wind blew at my back, bringing with it a smattering of soaked oak leaves. Inside the crypt it was dim, but there was still a little dying light. I knew I’d be able to see what I needed to see.
I had to see Mother’s rich red lips while Sinatra sang the word and Lana spoke it with that terrible hurt, that desperate pleading in her eyes. One word.
One sweet word of love
For a moment I wasn’t sure if the suitcase record player I’d left for her would still be there. Somehow, I’d always imagined otherworldly hands spiriting it and Lana away, at last, to that elusive Mediterranean isle. But there it was, as it had waited in the vault the last four decades. Beside it, beneath a thick layer of dust, lay the laminated cover of Frank Sinatra’s Come Fly With Me. Old Blue Eyes, now dust himself, his voice echoing in a tomb.
I picked up the record. It smelled of damp, of decay, of shut-in places. But in my mind, a song rang out that was gay and swinging, a song that was really going somewhere. A song brimming with sparkling vino and Italian palazzos and illicit romance. It was the song that once carried me away to a villa on the Isle of Capri, an isle of tangerine sunsets and whispered words of love.
I stood with my eyes closed, swaying to a song I heard only in memory. And, swaying, I remembered at last the song I had forgotten.
• • • •
The weeklies sizzled with stories of Mother tossing full glasses of champagne in men’s faces. Stories of stinging slaps that rang through the room. Her fits of temper were legendary, as was her childish pouting, her brooding silences and black depressions when she’d scratch the needle across “The Isle of Capri” again and again. Sometimes Daddy would walk in whistling some tune kicking around in his head, all unsuspecting with hands in his pockets, and she’d spring like a cobra. Back him into a corner. He’d grin at her and throw up his hands in surrender, and she’d spit out, “Joe, you really are a sonofabitch.” Then she’d kiss him hard and bite his lip until it bled.
It was a savage dance, that give and take of love they had, stronger and wilder than any act The Cocoa Club had ever witnessed. No one was particularly surprised when Lana Lake and Joe Caiola turned up dead in a pool of red on her kitchen floor. A man between two houses, between two worlds—ice-cold wife in one, red-hot mistress and child in the other. Maybe Mrs. Joe Caiola could put up with an “arrangement” like that, but not a wildcat like Lana Lake. People like Lana, their passions boiled over like a pot of sauce on the stove.
I remember everything about that moment: Lana’s chili-pepper-red toreador pants . . . the smell of Daddy’s favorite Napoli spaghetti sauce bubbling like Mount Vesuvius before a blast . . . the pungent odor of garlic and garden oregano and Roma tomatoes the color of arterial blood . . . the gun on the floor by Lana’s bare feet. Red lacquer, chipped on the pinkie.
I remember the pain and horror in Mother’s eyes, the silent pleading, the grasping fingers, the choking sound she made as she tried to speak . . .
I tried to picture that kitchen now: blood that had pooled and seeped into linoleum now badly discolored. Knife on a butcher block where decades-old onions had shriveled up like blackened flies. An apron stained with sauce the color of blood, and an icebox filled with dried-out spaghetti. A forty-year-old menu that never changed.
Old Blue Eyes hit it on the head: She wore a lovely meatball on her finger.
It turned out Daddy had been shot through the heart with a bullet from the same .22 automatic Tino Alvarez gave Lana to protect herself from the nuts who were always hitting on her at the club. She’d even used it once, shot a man in the crotch without an ounce of remorse. Clutching the bloody mess in his pants, he’d stumbled to the bar on the corner where he soused what was left of his manhood in a glass of scotch because a guy there told him he’d heard somewhere it made a pretty good disinfectant. The screams were heard clear to the next county.
So the story ran, anyhow . . . The tabloids had a parade with it. Mother was acquitted, and after that everyone in town knew about the .22 locked in the nightstand. Everyone. And men knew better than to tangle with Lana Lake.
Everyone also knew how Mother wanted Joe Caiola all to herself for years, and how things would never, ever be the way she wanted them, not while Cassandra was kicking up her little white pumps in protest. It was the standard story: one too many nights, one too many fights. And it wasn’t too hard for people to picture Lana storming off to the bedroom in tears, banging open the nightstand, fumbling around for the gun . . .
Maybe she’d even meant to go after Cassandra, but it never got as far as that. Somehow the gun went off. Lana herself was probably as surprised as hell. And what was left now with Joe lying dead on the floor? Snake eyes, no matter which way you rolled it, and nothing left to do but squeeze the trigger one more time.
Don’t cry Joe. Let her go, let her go, let her go . . .
God, let him go.
What do you say, baby . . . you and me on the Isle of Capri . . .
Don’t joke, Joe.
• • • •
I thought a lot about that gun. About Mrs. Joe Caiola. About how Cassandra had bought our house the day after the funerals. It stood there for the next forty years. Boarded up, falling into disrepair, a sprawling bungalow choked in a stranglehold of climbing vines as thick as a dragon’s body. The vines bled green in the rain, and the rain seeped into the ground.
Over the years I’d often wondered how the sunlight would look as it filtered through the windowpanes in the house where, once upon a time, I’d danced in a dream. Heavy, still green light that made everything look as though you were seeing it through a glass-bottomed boat, a sleepy lagoon.
It was a haunted house in every sense, wrapped in its secrets, and its faded Chinese screens, and its un-drunk bottles of crème de cacao, now crystallized sugar. All those unmixed Angel’s Kisses.
Sweet cream dreams, sour-curdled by time.
• • • •
I don’t know how long I stood like that in the tomb, but when I opened my eyes it was almost dark and Sinatra’s smile was a flicker in the moonlight. I put the record down. Touched the casket wrapped in its sensuous cloak of dust. I held my breath as I lifted the lid—carefully, carefully—and the dust fell from it in sparkles, the spent lanterns of weary fireflies.
There were those who said that Lana Lake was buried naked in the sapphire-blue mink stole Joe Caiola had once draped over her milk-white shoulders. Confession magazine reported, with more than a hint of morality, that they had buried her in her g-string.
I tried to imagine that g-string, swinging across the cavern of my mother’s caved-in pelvis, a glittering rope bridge over a sea of peacock feathers now powdered to iridescent dust.
I didn’t know for certain what I would find in that box.
But my breath caught in my throat when I saw her hair. Still red as blood. Dried blood. I thought of the heart I had made all those years ago, that childish cathedral of paper and wire, now rusted away. My eyes drifted down to the bird-of-paradise I’d twisted between her fingers, entwined swan necks. A ghost of fragrance still lingered in the withered blooms. I blinked back the tears that balanced on my lashes.
God weeps no tears for dead whores, Capri.
I made myself look.
I couldn’t help it: my eyes misted as I stared at the beaded vertebrae that shone like a strand of luminescent pearls, pearl upon shimmering pearl. Concentric layers of secrets. God in heaven, she was so beautiful, even now.
She whispered softly, “It’s best not to linger,”
Then as I kissed her hand I could see
And now I did see. Trembling, I slipped my hand beneath the delicate spinal column.
She wore a plain golden ring on her finger
‘Twas goodbye on the Isle of Capri
There. On the satin lining.
A plain golden ring, sucked off the hand of a dead man and trapped for forty years in the throat of the woman who loved him.
A plain golden ring.
It was the last verse of the song. The verse I couldn’t remember.
And now I remembered everything. The pain and horror in Mother’s eyes, the pleading, the grasping fingers, the choking sound she made as she tried to speak . . .
It wasn’t horror in her eyes, but fear. Fear that even her own daughter would misunderstand the deaths that had come too soon. And now I knew what my mother had been trying to tell me that copper autumn afternoon so long ago. One word:
“Capri,” she had said. Capri . . .
But it wasn’t my name she whispered with those lush red lips. Not a beg for forgiveness, a plea for understanding. It was the name of the song: “The Isle of Capri.”
And then, standing there at my mother’s casket, I knew what it was she’d tried to tell me but couldn’t. Couldn’t—because a wedding ring engraved with the name of a murderess had lodged in her windpipe like a piece of candy and stolen her voice.
And that plain golden ring had never been found.
The police, and the courts, and the press, and the people, had all believed Mrs. Caiola. And why shouldn’t they? She was beautiful, an ice goddess sitting there in the witness stand in her black Christian Dior and veiled hat, wringing her gloved hands, with just the appropriate touch of widow’s wetness in her eyes.
Not the same set of gloves she’d had on when she shot first her husband, then his mistress, before spinning smartly on her high-heels and click-click-clicking out of the kitchen. Always the perfect lady, that particular pair of gloves had been neatly disposed of. One, two, three. As easy as that. Ring-a-ding-ding.
Except the mistress hadn’t died quite so quickly as the husband. The mistress had time for one last kiss, a kiss that would name her murderess.
Forty years later.
Dabbing her eyes, careful not to smudge her mascara, Cassandra explained to the court that she and Joe had reconciled, that he’d gone to Lana Lake’s to tell her once and for all he wanted nothing more to do with her, that he was suing for custody of his daughter on the grounds that Lana was an unfit mother, and that Cassandra, awaiting his return, had heard the gunshots all the way across the garden. It was Cassandra who had called the police.
Everyone pitied the little girl sitting there in her black woolen uniform beside Sister Constance-Evangeline of Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow. Capri Lake, the daughter of the whore, with her downcast eyes and burning cheeks and hands locked on her lap like a heart without a key.
And what a kind and generous woman was Cassandra Caiola to welcome into her own home, with open arms, the illegitimate child of her husband’s mistress.
It was how Joe would have wanted it, Mrs. Caiola explained. She had never been able to have children of her own. He would have wanted her to raise the child as her own flesh and blood to be a respectable and decent young lady. And everyone’s heads nodded in sympathetic agreement, and Cassandra smiled to herself, and in that moment, the course of my life changed forever.
A hand clad in an ice-white glove that smelled of Chanel No. 5 closed around a wrist braceleted with ruby tears. I was led numbly down the courtroom steps through a mill of people and reporters and photographers with flashbulbs. There was a controlled yet agonizing wrench of my arm socket as I ducked my head into the shining white Cadillac, and Cassandra Caiola drove us silently back to a house without dancing, without song, without love.
• • • •
It took time to learn the music of silence.
It took my life.
But little by little, Cassandra Caiola became Mother to me. For I have always lived in the house without music.
God weeps no tears for dead whores, Capri. God weeps no tears.
Little by little, with Sister Constance-Evangeline’s compassionate guidance.
God weeps no tears, Capri. God weeps no tears.
And eventually, I too, wept no more. And Cassandra Caiola at last heard me whisper the word she wanted so desperately to hear—
one sweet word of love
And truly, there was no sweeter revenge for Cassandra Caiola than to hear the word whore on the lips of Lana Lake’s daughter. She made me say it again and again, a record without end, until she laughed and laughed out loud and tears sprang to her eyes, because this was music to her ears like no other music could be. It was the only music I ever heard again.
At least, it seemed that way for a very long time. But in the end it was the song that drew me back. The song that gave me my name and flowed in my veins, the song that drew me back to what I had lost. Back to the house of dancing, and singing, and life.
Back to the Isle of Capri.
• • • •
Thunder shattered a sky as dark as wet satin. The moon was a weeping eye.
“Is that you?”
Not once had I heard her say my name. Capri. She couldn’t stand to say it.
“Where have you been all this time? Close the door, it’s cold.”
I said nothing as I shook the rain from my hair. My hair was a light strawberry blond that had never darkened to the luxurious auburn of my mother’s. I hadn’t inherited her beautiful hair, or her talent for dance, or her brazen love of exhibition.
Her fiery temper was, in me, a slow-burning ember.
Red flame melting white ice.
Cassandra Caiola sat stiffly in the straight-backed chair that looked down on Lana Lake’s bungalow. Living her life through the windowpane as she had for forty years.
Rain sluiced through the leaves of the towering eucalyptus trees. Decades of dead leaves and blue gum mulched into the ground with mounds of peeling bark. The house seemed like it was slowly sinking. Dissolving into nothing.
Some nights, the moonlight danced on the minty leaves like silver drops of water, and the breeze swished through them like Daddy’s brushes, and we’d listen to them, Cassandra and I, in our chairs by the window, in the house without music.
And on other nights, like tonight, the wind rattled through the trees and a litter of hard-shelled fruit clattered on the tiled roof like an iron drum, and we’d listen, ba da da, in the house without music.
Cassandra’s head nodded in memory. Her eyes were almost closed. The sky was clear now, and I stared at her profile in bas-relief, white as marble in the moonlight.
I thought of the angel and its features of stone, and I wondered what was in Cassandra’s heart. But for stone angels and dead whores there are no regrets, no remorse, no dreams to torment deep into the night. There is no laughter, no music, no dancing. No dream of an Isle of Capri . . .
In this light, Cassandra’s eyes had no color of their own. They were the color of eucalyptus leaves reflected in Lana’s bedroom window.
“What’s that on your lips?” she demanded.
Crushed red beetles, the juice of wild pomegranates, a whore’s lipstick, Napoli spaghetti sauce, something else, something red—
In my mind I heard a shot ring out as if it were yesterday. I saw Lana run screaming into the kitchen, a half-tied apron on her hips, slipping on blood and chili peppers in a grotesque dance, a balance of life. I saw the spreading crimson stain on the floor as she cradled Daddy’s head in her lap.
I saw her lips, full and red.
I saw the rich, wet kiss of one who had loved deeply.
I had never kissed nor been kissed.
Now I kissed the woman who had been my mother for forty years.
I kissed her with Lana Lake’s fierce burning passion.
I bit her lip until it bled, and then I shoved the plain golden ring hard into her mouth, snaking it around her tongue.
She started to choke. Her hands flew up like twin birds, raking me with the fingers of a murderess, but I didn’t feel a thing. The daughters of dead whores never do.
I kissed her again until she stopped breathing, and her last breath amounted to less than the mouthful of air in my ruined paper heart.
Afterward I stood at the window and stared at my reflection.
I stood there for a long time thinking of nothing, nothing at all.
Then I threw the window open wide and breathed in the exotic, peppery perfume of the dripping eucalyptus. I listened to the music of the rain tap-tapping on the tiled roof of the bungalow like a set of coo-coo crazy drum sticks. The wet wind blew branches against the pane and threw dark shadows against the Chinese screen like the sinuous curves of a dragon, and the shadows danced with the moon.
Spread the word!