Issue 22, Autumn-Winter 1959-1960
It all came about like this. Poppy, whose religious activity had been intense all through the Lenten season (at times Cass had thought that if she brought one more fish into the house he would throttle her), reached a kind of peak of fervour during Holy Week; unremittingly, she had addressed herself to all sorts of complicated rites and offices, in pouring rain dashing out to see the various Stations—whatever that meant—and it was at one of these, Cass knew not where—at the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, perhaps, or that other one, with the Giotto fresco, San Giovanni in Laterano—that she encountered an American couple, the McCabes. Purely encountering these two, Cass later thought, might have been all right, and who was at fault in promoting the relationship (it could not have been Poppy, who was usually diffident; and Cass later had a vision of the ham-handed, fat-lipped McCabe, with his concavity of a Galway nose and a Rolleiflex lolling on his breast, standing among the jostling throng and twitching inwardly as his eyes ht on Poppy’s radiant pious face) he never knew for certain. In any case, someone struck up a conversation. All innocence. Poppy cottoned to these pilgrims, and they to her, and she made the grave mistake of bringing them home. It was late in the afternoon when they arrived; molecules of rain floated on the air in a greasy drizzle; it was gray, and Cass, gray as a shad himself, had been brooding all day upon their now shaky financial state. McCabe, a raffish fellow of thirty-five or so in a mackintosh and a snapbrim cap, was full of grins. He dealt (bitter irony!) in retail wines and liquors in Minecola, New York; he referred to Poppy as “this sweetie here,” and he called Cass “pal.” His wife, who wore her hair in bangs over—or to conceal— a somewhat foreshortened brow, was a plain, nondescript, asexual young matron, and her name was Grace. Cass scarcely could believe that it was all happening to him.
What in Christ’s name has come over you?” he said to Poppy as softly as he could, in the kitchen, while she was fixing supper. “You invited them to eat even!”
Well, I’m sorry, Cass,” she said determinedly. “They were very sweet to me and all. They bought me some gelato and everything. And they looked so lonely and kind of lost there, after we got to talking. They’re sweet. Besides,” she added, with a look of sorrow, turning around to face him, “we don’t ever see any Americans—ever!—and I’m just tired of it, that’s all!”
Which the Lord knew was true enough, Cass thought ruefully (for Poppy’s sake), he himself having retreated so far from contact with his native land that in his years abroad he could count on his fingers and toes the sum of the words he had spoken, beyond his family, in his own tongue to his own compatriots. Yet this fact alone he could not square with the desolating McCabes.
You didn’t have to drag in a couple of Micks, for the love of God! From Mineola yet—”
Hush about being a Mick!” she said, eggbeater quivering in her hand. “I’m a Mick, and the children are half and you’re just about the biggest bigot I know. I’ve—”
Why didn’t you invite a couple of plumbers, and a half dozen Odd Fellows—”
“I’ve invited them, now shut up!”
At supper, which was merluzzo—a form of oily codfish— and spaghetti, McCabe, blind to the litter of paint and canvas strewn about the room, asked Cass what his “line” was. When told, he grimaced, grinned, but said nothing. In the Eternal City even the Pharisee cannot be unkind to art. The conversation swung, as it logically should, to the spiritual aspects of the season.
“Father Cleary,” said Grace, “you know we came over with him, well he said that the Holy Father would probably be canonized some day. That’s what the rumor is, anyway.” “You know how rumors are,” said Cass, plucking a fish- bone from his mouth.
“You know how they get around. Scuttlebutt. Sound and fury, signifying niente.”
There was a moment of silence, a suggestion, almost audible, of forks and knives in mid-air, suspended. Then as Cass raised his eyes, Grace said, with only the faintest touch of asperity; “On the way over your wife told us—well, that you weren’t a Catholic.”
“You’re goddam right I’m not a goddam Catholic.” The sentence rose in the back of his throat, pulsating, surly; he could almost see it, inverted commas and all, but the words stopped short of his lips. “That’s right,” he rumbled instead. “Never got the bug.”
Seething, he managed to get through the meal, picking his teeth and rising for restless tours to the bathroom and then, drifting on the tide of his own thoughts, idly sketching on the tablecloth doodles with a spoon as the puerile chatter unspiraled—about the Pope, whom the McCabes hoped to see sometime, at an “oddience,” and Cardinal Spellman, who was not nearly so fat—“large” was the word Grace used—as his pictures made out. Poppy, deeply impressed by this news, was nonetheless one up on the McCabes, for she had had, already, an audience with the Pope (“up real close”) and she had a moment of modest glory when, at Grace’s breathless urging, she was able to describe the Holy Father—^his hands, the cut of his nose, the size of his ring, or rings; “a fine glorious man, to be sure,” she said, shiny-eyed, lapsing into her ancestral brogue.
“Pardon me,” Cass put in abruptly. Something had jogged his memory; it had tickled him before and it tickled him now. “You know what,” he said, already laughing, “you know what the cardinals in the Vatican call Spellman?”