I knew that Jimmy Pallotta was my birth father in the same way I knew that the brown stain on my forearm was a birth mark. Everyone has a birth mark somewhere. Birth mark, birth father. They carried the same weight in my life. Besides, the man had eight other children; his plate runneth over.
I’ve never met Jimmy Pollotta but I’m on the way to his funeral. He died in a car crash two nights ago. A hit and run on Highway 5, according to The Western Wheel, our local paper. Alone this morning in my apartment I read the names of his children out loud from the obit page: Susan, Shaun, Anna, Danny, Connie, Patty, Kerry, Christina. The half-siblings I’ve never spoken to.
When I was younger I’d spot them around our small Canadian town – in the Zehrs grocery, at the soccer field the one summer I played. Another time, in Donatella’s hair salon I sat behind Anna, who is nearest my age. Anna was having her black hair cut into a French bob and my dark hair was being dyed platinum blonde. She didn’t notice me. I altered my look often back then. I had dreadful rainbows of colored hair and wore things like jean shorts with fishnets and converse hi-tops. It was my practiced ‘I’m different’ look. To show my individuality, and my allegiance to my mother, Jean.
I was a single child to a single parent.
“It won’t come up, Sylvie.” Jean told me every time I fretted over how much I favored the Pallotta children, with my almond eyes and olive complexion. “You look just like me,” she’d say, “our faces match, and we’re big boned.” I believed my mother back then. Her words were my gospel. I straightened my curls every morning from the time I was 11 to look more like her vermicelli strands that fell elegantly to her chin.
Jimmy Pallotta was famous for his quick and painless root canals. Rumor had it he’d give you a deal if you were down on your luck. Jean took me 15 km to High River, the next town over, for my dental check-ups every six months.
Yes, my mother took care of everything. I didn’t even know I resented her for it; it was just the air I breathed.
In the prairies where we lived, ethnic people stood out. Everyone knew the Chen’s, for example, because they were the only Asian family and they owned the 7-Eleven at Main and Pine. There were a handful of 2nd generation immigrant families in town; the Pallottas were the most prominent among them. They were ‘important’ in the way my mother frowned upon. We were important in a different way because we had traveled and I was an intellect’s daughter. The pious worldly ones, we were, stuck in a one-horse town. At least that was the posture we liked to take.
Jean and I lived in a condo in the north end of Okotoks, while the Pallotta family had a tract mansion in the south end, and we went to different schools. “They’re a self-absorbed Latin family. They don’t care for anyone outside their fold.” My mother took away any hope I had that they’d come looking for me. When their mother died of stomach cancer three years ago, I wrote a sympathy card to the family thinking the affair with Jean might be less threatening since their mother was gone. But, of course, I never sent it.
Now that I’m an adult, 32, Jean and I talk less. I know my mother would prefer if I were an eccentric academic living in Paris, but I’m quite the opposite. A parole officer with normal shoulder length brown hair, and I spend my days keeping tabs on murderers and drug cases, and sending offenders back to jail if need be.
Anyway, the last time we spoke she brought up marriage again.
“They don’t have any staying power, these men you date. All I want is a normal life for you.”
“Felons do not inspire confidence in my dating pool, Mother.”
“My feminist life wasn’t the best thing after all. You need a shrink.”
I’ve had a total of six boyfriends and ended it with each of them. I don’t need to pay someone to tell me it’s a pattern. A therapist would want to pillage through the effects of growing up fatherless. No, thanks.
In the crowded parking lot of Snodgrass funeral home, I find an empty spot near the entrance, as if it were reserved for me. It hits me all of a sudden, like a blow, that the man who has lived in my imagination for so long is actually gone. I won’t ever meet him. Somewhere deep I must have had the childish idea that one day we’d spend hours in cafes and taking walks along the Bow making up for lost time.
I have an urge to call my mother to tell her this, to tell her everything. I deliberately tighten my hold on my purse where my cell is. I notice a tiny bud on a larch tree next to the heavy door when I wipe my boots on the entrance mat. I inhale my deepest breath and join the receiving line.
Jimmy Pallotta’s children are in a row at the entry of the crowded parlor, all tall, dark and lean. Susan is the first one. They are lined up oldest to youngest. “So sorry about your father,” I say, almost boldly. “I’m Sylvie, Sylvie Young.” My solar plexus tighten, my ribs feel like steel pipes.
“Thank you,” Susan says. It has to be hardest for the oldest. The woman looks a wreck. “I’m sorry about your father.” I keep saying this to each of them. Their faces are familiar and beautiful. I am aware of my big-boned-ness and my plain clothes because they appear petit and are all black shine and heavy jewelry. Dressed to the nines. That’s how my mother would describe them. She liked people who dressed to the nines. When I get to the end of the line, to Christina, the youngest, I suppress a gasp at how similar she appears to a 6th grade photo of me, the one that I keep in my office drawer to remind myself not to let that little person down, that I am brave and should trust people, think good thoughts, not bad ones. I pause extra long in front of Christina until the desire to hug her passes and I move on.
Once, in high school, when a boyfriend dragged me to the local Flyers hockey game, a man approached me. I recognized him as our town’s crazy person, Johnny Rots. “You’ve got Danny Pallotta’s face,” he yelled, pointing at me. “That’s Danny Pallotta’s face.” He said it three times, I put my face in my hands and my head between my knees. My half-brother could have been a few rows back for all I knew. The boyfriend laughed, like it was a joke. I darted out of the frozen building and with a text that night, I broke up with the boy.
Mother never regretted the affair with Dr.Pallotta, she says, because that would insult my existence. He was the ‘man seed’ for your birth, full stop. She obliterated any necessity for men in our world. It had always been just the two of us. La mère et la petite – a progressive duo. Our family was small and female: my mother, Grandmère and my Aunt Shirley. For 29 years, until her retirement last fall, mother directed the Deerfoot Library Foundation and published heady articles about French-speaking Canada—the great national debate, with Quebec smack in the middle of our country. Once, when I was nine and we were waiting for a flight to Quebec City, I asked outright:
Momma, we’re a weird family, right? Tu peux me dire. I had tears in my eyes and my mother, never one to bend the truth for a child’s sake, said, Sylvie, of course, you didn’t know? The story became part of our family lore.
Why don’t we bolt from barren Alberta and move to Montreal? I often asked.
Grandmère won’t live forever and we live like queens on my single salary.
It used to be an event visiting Grandmère at Dorchester Manor every Tuesday night. Now I arrive alone in time to watch Jeopardy and leave right after. Aunt Shirley used to come around for supper on Fridays and Mother and my aunt would cackle over stories from their youth. Mother would brighten with her older, funnier sister and I’d try to hide my obvious jealousy over what I’d never have: a sibling. But Aunt Shirley hasn’t come in months and mother seems content most nights to eat curry take-away and watch old movies on TCM.
Now, kneeling in front of the dead person from whom I’ve inherited the roman nose, I can’t imagine what it might have been like to have a father. This man who looks kindly and handsome, even in death. The creases in his face, I imagine endeared his children to him. At one time I envisioned myself with the eight siblings crowded on the sectional with bowls of carbonara in our laps watching 60 minutes, or all of us hanging from trees singing like the Von Trapps. But mostly I repressed these fantasies. It would have been a disastrous contrast. Eight rowdy siblings for part of the week and the rest of the time in our monosyllabic condo, mother working under a single bulb at the kitchen table.
The thing is, I don’t want to leave the funeral home. I take a seat in a back pew and watch each of the siblings. Anna and Connie hold each other beside a screen of lilies and Shaun and Susan nod to a group of prominent townies, one is the mayor and another a corrupt lawyer mother detested. An ache of regret rushes through me, almost violent, like rage: that my mother never let me near these people. The family. She never let me decide for myself.
“What did you say your name was?” It’s Danny, the youngest Pallotta son sitting beside me. The one that Johnny Rots said had my face.
“Sylvie,” I say.
“Thanks for coming, eh.” He looks me up and down.
He sits on the bench right next to me. Danny is two years younger than me and has a police record: B&E and petty crime. I keep a daily watch on his file at work.
“He was a well-respected man,” I say.
“Best root canal in town. That’s how he afforded the eight of us.”
Nine, I want to say. But the root canal expert didn’t afford me. When my mother told Jimmy she was pregnant he said he’d give her a thousand bucks, $500 for an abortion and $500 to keep her mouth shut. She took $500 considering an abortion but she wasn’t a woman you kept quiet.
“A real tragedy.” I say, and all at once I feel as if I might cry. I can’t believe I’m sitting beside my half-brother and I’m hearing his voice and we’re having a conversation and I know so much about him.
“I thought it’d be suicide.”
“He was a lone wolf. Dentists have the highest suicide rate.”
“I didn’t know.”
Then he bends his head low and makes a steeple with his fingers.
“Listen, I know why you’re here,” he says.
I hold my breath. Don’t move a muscle.
“Me and my sisters, we knew about you.”
I can’t speak. Even as a wave of relief takes hold. I let out an audible sigh.
“My dad was no saint, eh? My sisters are clannish but I feel bad for ya.”
I look around to see if the others have their eyes on me. Any moment they might surround me in a pack. And yet, the feeling is there, that this is my due. In a way, I long for the wrath of this big family. Whatever punishment is coming to me for being alive, I’m ready for it.
“It’s like I’m looking in a mirror.” He laughs, and he sounds just like Frank, one of my parolees.
“I better go.” I want to say yes, I am your sister. Now what do we do.
“I’m just telling you if you ever need anything.”
“What would I need?”
“You showed. You must want something.”
“Honestly, I’m not sure why I came.”
“He was a shit father, if that’s any consolation. We kind of raised ourselves. Like a bunch of guinea pigs rolling in mud till we found the nipple.”
Today, she imagines, he’s just thinking of the ways his father failed him to mask the truth of his own failings with the cheap crime ring he’s got himself into.
“Do you want to meet everyone?” He gestures toward the crowd.
“Oh, god. No.”
“You’re here now.”
“Even the little ones know.”
“I shouldn’t have come.”
“It says something about you. Coming on the day of his funeral.”
“You don’t know anything about me.”
“I know you’re my sister.”
I drive back to my apartment through the late winter slush and the feeling of the days getting longer. It’s 3:30 and I should be at the corrections office meeting Joe, one of my guys. Joe held up Chen’s 7-Eleven last year and he’s just out on bail. I need to collect myself with tea at the kitchen table. A cup of tea solves the world’s problems. That’s my mother’s voice talking in my head. It never stops telling me the right way to do things. The sun beams warmth onto my side once I sit with my tea. I think of my mother and the fact that she reads The Wheel every morning, paying particular attention to the births and deaths, and yet she hasn’t called.
There’s a knock at the door and it’s like a shock running through me. No one visits my apartment. Without making a sound I move toward the door and look through the peep hole. It’s Anna Pallotta, the one closest my age, with young Christina. Anna’s holding the girl’s hand and the girl is crying.
I lean against the door without breathing. The bell rings again.
“Yes?” I say, opening the door slowly.
They are still in their black dresses and against my dreary hallway the scene seems far from reality.
“You’ve upset my little sister. Way to go.” Anna is wobbly in high heels and the girl has red lipstick on. Anna leans oddly against the door, and her gaze is unfocused. Is she drunk?
“Daddy’s body is barely cold.”
“I’m truly sorry.”
“Did you come to collect? Is that it?”
“I think you should leave now.”
“Now you want a piece of the pie, is that it?”
I’ve always wondered about Anna. I’ve seen her working the checkout at Zehrs and yet a few years back she was in The Wheel with her law degree from University of Calgary. Something must have happened, something pretty major, for her to come back to work a minimum wage job in town. These people are a puzzle, so different from me, and Danny, with his record, and their philandering father.
“I don’t want anything from any of you. I was paying my respects.”
“Stay away from us.” The look from Anna is pure hatred. She stumbles a little bit and grabs her sister by the hand.
“You’re a slut,” the little girl blurts out, and then they turn their backs and walk along the hallway to the elevator.
“It’s not my fault,” I blurt out. “None of it had anything to do with me.” I don’t know what I’m saying. The sisters keep going, Anna laughs and runs her hand along the wall in swirls. They don’t turn back.
Days pass. I come and go from work like a criminal and I haven’t talked to Jean. One afternoon, coming from lunch at the courthouse cafeteria there’s a note under my office door.
We’d like to get to know you.
Please come to Shaun’s house for lunch on Sunday.
3pm. 225 Woodgate Drive.
The Pallotta family
On Saturday, the day before the Sunday lunch invitation, I ride my bike along the sidewalk for the one kilometer it takes to get to my mother’s condo. The note from the Pallotta siblings is zipped in my blue windbreaker. I’m strangely propped up from the invitation.
It’s noon and there are tiny puddles on the road and little snowdrops and crocuses popping white and yellow on the green parkway. A robin’s trill breaks the silence, a sure sign of spring’s arrival and good things to come. At my mother’s door, there are two bright pots of daises, and suddenly I’m irritable.
“Hello, Petal,” mother says, giving me an airy kiss. She’s right out of an advert for geriatric meds, with her gardening gloves and pruning shears, CBC Radio 1 blaring from the kitchen.
“Have you eaten?”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I flip off my sneakers.
“About?” She walks toward the atrium, and continues tending to her orchids, her obsession since retirement.
“My father’s dead.”
“He was not your father.”
“I went to the funeral, and you know what, they’ve known about me all along.”
I feel the blood gathering in my cheeks. I’m laughing when I want to scream. Why haven’t I questioned her more? I’ve been a puppet of this woman all along.
“Oh, brother.” She sits and puts the shears on the sofa cushion, folds her hands in her lap. She has tears in her eyes, but to me it looks like defiance.
“I’m their sister and they’ve invited me to lunch tomorrow.” I can’t believe I’m telling it all at once. “God damnit, mother. You had a sister, right? You got to have a sister.”
“You don’t need this now. You have a busy life, darling.”
“I’m thirty-two and I have no fucking life.”
“Would you like a cup of tea. I’m brewing earl grey.”
“I’ve got my job and you, and Grandmère, but what else? I want another chance.”
“Petal, they’d never accept you as their own. You’d be opening a can of worms.”
“You’re the authority on everything, eh?”
“Nothing good can come of it.”
“You can’t control me anymore.”
“Darling, whatever you’re looking for, it isn’t them. It’s something you need to find in yourself. You’re searching again.”
“What if something great can come of it, Mother?”
“Spring makes you nostalgic. You know this. April is the cruelest month.”
“Don’t you understand. I might be able to have a relationship with his children. My sisters and brothers.”
She walks away from me into the kitchen and clicks off the loud radio.
“I can’t be you, Mother—have a child alone, then soldier on and dive into work and make the best of it. That’s not who I am.”
“Find a boyfriend then. That might solve it all.”
“I’m leaving, Mother. You’ve morphed into some retrograde granny.”
“You’re bullying me now. It’s the wrong thing to do, Sylvie.”
She follows me through the rooms of my childhood. I push my feet into my shoes, and grab my bike helmet, knocking a potted orchid to wobbling.
“Listen to your mother, Syl.”
“Where is your fire anymore? You’ve become afraid of everything, the kind of person you used to despise.”
“Get out of my house then,” she says, “You need to sort out your priorities and you owe me an apology.”
I make my way on my bike the same way I came, through the empty, flat streets with dull reflections in the puddles. I pass my turn and ride miles out along the flat prairie road toward the township of Blackie, and when I’m completely exhausted, I turn around. Back at my apartment I shower and climb into bed. It’s only seven in the evening but I’m gone, asleep.
The next morning, I eat granola from the box and drink tea. I drive to my favorite bench, my brooding bench from long ago overlooking the Bow River and opaque Big Rock. At 2pm I drive out to the new subdivision with the golf course and park my car in front of 225 Woodgate Drive. It’s a giant European brick home with an iron gate and a gaudy cement fountain in front.
In the driveway, a young boy is taking shots on a girl in net. It’s Christina, the girl who called me a slut. I swallow and my body is aflutter with nerves. I get out of the car and the two of them run to me and I step back, lean against my car.
“I’m Christina.” The girl says, smiling, offering a hand. “Peace?”
I take her hand but I don’t say a word. From my parolees I know such changes of heart are rarely legit. “This is my nephew Frankie. They’re all inside waiting for you.”
“Thanks.” I say, comparing this girl to the sting of the scene she made at my apartment with her older sister.
Every inch of me wants to turn. Run, my mind says. I could be at home with tea by the window and later eat stir-fry watching Friends reruns. My heart is pumping fast. The door opens.
“Hey everyone, it’s Sylvie.” Danny announces back into the house. His smile is kind and there is a slight release in my jaw. “I was betting on you.” He shakes my hand and then pats my shoulder and guides me in.
“And the others?”
“About 50/50. Can I take your coat?”
“Welcome.” It’s Anna, the drunk one. Oh, Jesus. “You must have thought I was insane. I apologize for coming to your house.” She comes toward me laughing, her hands out. She is plain, less scary. She’s wearing plaid pajama bottoms and a Calgary Flames jersey.
“Did my little sister apologize too?”
“She was fine.”
“Truth is, I got kind of messed up about my dad and went a little loco. So yeah, it was my idea to have you here. All out in the open like.” Anna is thin-almost sinewy, something I did not inherit in the gene pool.
Against my better judgement, I want to believe suddenly that she has good intentions. Something about her casual openness puts me at ease. “I’ve seen you a few times at Zehrs.”
“I’m the only grocery girl with a law degree. But it’s okay. I’m a nanny for my sibs now,” she pauses, “Tough for you showing up here, eh?”
“A little daunting, yeah.” I have been so blind; I see now it’s fear that fuels me. Like mother, like daughter.
“We act rough and tumble. Christ, I was in rehab after college. I went all the way down. But don’t stress, I’ve seen the light.”
She takes me through the kitchen, she’s uncomfortably close to me. “Please eat. We are an army of mouths but this is ridiculous.” There are loaves of Italian bread piled on the counter, stacks of pizza boxes, cookies and cakes in tiers of packaging, a tray of subs. More food than I’ve ever seen.
“Here’s my advice,” Susan tells me, taking over for Anna when we are in the family room. “Take a seat next to the fireplace. Let us come to you.” There’s more food on a card table, in aluminum trays, lasagnas and pastas, roasted potatoes, and bowls with salads, cases of beer and pop. I sit in the oversized burgundy chair as instructed, glad my back is to the wall. Danny hands me a glass of red wine.
“My father’s Chianti,” he says.
“Thank you.” I know I won’t drink it. Its 3 in the afternoon.
The siblings are assembling, all talking and laughing, and I try to ward off my worry that they despise me, and are looking for ways that I am less.
“Sylvie, welcome to our home. I’m Shaun and this is my wife, Linda.”
“Hello.” I look from one to the other.
“Did you meet Frankie out front?” I tell them yes and hear myself say mundanities about their lovely home and their cute son. Frankie, I realize, is my nephew. Anna does the rest of the introductions and her movements are so rapid she must be on some kind of speed. It occurs to me that I’m in my brother’s house without anything to offer and nothing to say. It goes against Jean’s cardinal rule of always bringing the host a gift, a flower, a note.
Anna hands me a plate of penne with meatballs.
Patty is sitting cat-like on the carpet. She is twisting her dark curls and staring off, not in retaliation, just not present. She has a wildness in her eyes, and I can’t stop looking her way. Kerry and Connie are outstretched on a recliner opposite me. They have that entitled teenager way about them, as if they have life by the tail. Susan is the most normal. She’s sitting upright, looking attentive, like she understands how it might feel to meet 8 siblings in one go. She gives dirty looks to her younger sisters. God, there must be a million dynamics between them all.
If things had gone differently this amount of people would have been my every day and I’d have complicated relationships with each of them. One on one I can handle the most hardened thugs. But this is beyond me.
“God, you look so much like Dad.” Susan says and Anna starts to cry.
I want to say sorry but mother has drilled that out of me. Why are Canadians always begging forgiveness? I sideways smile and say nothing.
“Susan, don’t be such a stronza.” Danny says, “She can’t help it, can she?”
“Wish I looked like him,” Susan says, and I want to cover my face like I did at the arena so many years ago. We are all quiet for a moment, and then it’s like a tidal wave and they ask about my work and the criminals, they fire names at me to see if we know the same people in town. Who am I dating? They want the list of every friend I’ve ever had it seems. They debate the merits of penne versus rigatoni.
Susan sits on the arm of my chair. “For years it was our mother,” she says, leaning in. “We were so protective of her. But now we’re orphans and everything has changed. Come for lunch every Sunday to start. Then we’ll bring you in for the birthdays and weddings and every little thing we celebrate. It’s time.”
The doorbell rings, and I get up. It’s an older Italian couple at the entrance with carnations in a vase and a tray covered in foil. I take the opportunity to move toward the door while the others are shifting. I slip my windbreaker on and my shoes. Behind the couple is someone else. It’s my mother. My god. I feel embarrassed and ashamed.
“What are you doing here?” I murmur, exasperated.
“Thought I’d join you.”
“Are you crazy?”
“I want to meet everyone too.”
“Mother! They didn’t invite you.” I want her gone.
“We’re a package deal,” she says, still approaching, “isn’t that our motto?”
“This is different. I’m blood with these people.”
“Don’t leave yet, Sylvie.” Anna is there beside me and takes notice of my mother. It’s as if Anna is my ally now. My sister is asking me to stay.
“Go home, Jean.” I tell my mother, “I’m going back inside. I’ll see you later, okay?” My mother has no choice. She looks sad and small. I go in with Anna; I stay for another half hour. It doesn’t feel right. They are talking amongst themselves and trying to include me when they can. But what they say seems distant from me, their references seem to come from a different galaxy.
I know I’ll carry the image of my mother walking away from that porch all the years of my life. Back in my car, the tears come. Nothing good can come of it, nothing good can come of it… echoes in my mind, my mother’s warning. I think of their faces and what each of them held when they looked at me. Each of them with their difficulties and resentments and grief.
Out of nowhere, Lo He Comes With Clouds Descending, Grandmère’s Anglican hymn, fills my mind. It tumbles off my lips like a prayer I didn’t ask for. I drive to Dorchester Manor old age home and park my Honda. I don’t get out, it’s enough that Grandmère is in there and safe. I let the tears fall onto the steering wheel.
Later, I retreat to my lonely bench under the arms of the nesting willow tree at Big Rock. I’ve been hiding there since I was a girl. Always with the hope that Jean would come and find me. She always did. And now the truth comes at me: those people aren’t really mine for the taking; they never were.
And if mother is looking for me, this is where I’ll be.
Lisa Cupolo is a Canadian writer who teaches creative writing at Chapman University in Orange, California. Her stories have previously been published in VQR, Ploughshares, Narrative and The Idaho Review. She is currently working on a story collection called Have Mercy On Us and a novel called Camp Widow.