They say the day Aunt Frankie married Uncle Sally was a day that would live in infamy. I’d learned Franklin D. Roosevelt said that when Pearl Harbor was bombed, but no, most of the family, actually, only the uncles, would whistle, smack their wine stained lips, and speculate over the reasons as to why a raven-haired bombshell like Francine Odessa would be interested in a stunad* like Uncle Sally. As for the women in the house? They’d wink at one another.
Uncle Sally might not have been the brightest bulb in the Murano Glass chandelier my Nana had sent specially from Italy as a wedding gift for her caro Salvatore and his gabbagool bride (Nana’s words, not mine), but to Aunt Frankie, Uncle Sally was the light of her life. He was her sweet, little Einstein with a dash of raging bull; a man with a plan and the muscle to see things through. At least that’s what she told everyone until his back was turned. Then she’d profess herself as his handler. “You want something from Sally? You come to me first!” she’d say. Yup, Aunt Frankie had Uncle Sally wrapped around her meticulously manicured finger tighter than thin-sliced prosciutt’ spiraling a bread stick.
Take, for example, the time Aunt Frankie crossed her heart and hoped to die three times to seal her promise to me to persuade Uncle Sally into busting me out of summer camp so that we could spend the day at Coney Island for a 4th of July celebration (her idea, not mine).
Three times! Three times, she crossed her heart! So when the time came, I faked being sick. Pressing my knees against my chest, I curled up tight as a pill bug plagued by my pesky cousins playing basketball on a steamy blacktop court and moaned about how my stomach felt like a fist had punched through my bellybutton, grabbed onto my stomach, and was squeezing last night’s pasta vasul’ out of it. Nuns will believe anything a quiet, shy fifth-grade girl with an A+ average tells them.
My cousin Deitzee (no one called her Diane ’cause there were already three in the family before she was born) shook her head at that one, like she disapproved. I think she was jealous that it was me, and not her, who was always included in Aunt Frankie’s exploits, even though Deitzee claimed it made her happy that she’d never have to breathe another moth-balled breath again while standing behind Nana’s winter coats in the hall closet whenever the FBI stopped by close to dinnertime. “And it’s not ’cause they love Nana’s meatballs and ravioli either,” she never stopped reminding me.
I should have known Aunt Frankie had something else in mind for The 4th when Uncle Sally strolled into Mother Superior’s office dressed in a three-piece double-breasted suit with a red rose nodding outta’ one lapel. With one sweaty hand on the small of Aunt Frankie’s hourglass waist, he guided her through the wood-trimmed archway, careful not to trip over the bass fiddle case he carried in his other porky paw. Yeah, being decked out in sequins and spiked heels at nine o’clock on an already muggy, mid-summer morning did not befit a bombshell of any kind for our secret day at an amusement park.
After some lame excuse about coming from a late-night wedding and not wanting to leave Uncle Sally’s precious fiddle in a hot car for fear that the heat would warp the instrument, Aunt Frankie winked at me. “Change of plans, stellina mio.”
“Chefai?” Uncle Sally propped the case up against the desk. “I thought I was your little star!”
Aunt Frankie sidled up to Uncle Sally and ran two blood-red finely filed fingernails down the side of his clean shaven, over-cologned cheek, across to the indentation below his nose, and over his lips to the cleft in his plump chin. Whatever she whispered into his ear made one of his bushy brows arch, his eyelids droop, and beads of sweat pop from his forehead.
Mother Superior sighed, rolled her eyes, and crossed herself, as was her habit when she was flustered. “A-a-ahem?”
Three cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-dies later, I was ushered from the office with Aunt Frankie promising to have me immediately checked out for a ruptured appendix. Once I was safely sandwiched between my svelte aunt and corpulent uncle in the front seat of Uncle Sally’s ’64 Lincoln, we zoomed across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, barreled down the Belt Parkway, exited at Coney Island Avenue, and came to a screeching halt in front of Uncle Aldo’s Authentic Italian Bakery. Aunt Frankie winked, then leaned over me and poked Uncle Sally in the ribs. “Go ahead,” she said. “Show that fanabola cousin of yours what happens when he makes eyes at your wife!”
Uncle Sally grunted, jumped outta’ the car, and walked around to the trunk. By the time Aunt Frankie finished crossing herself and kissing a medal of the Blessed Mother that she dug outta’ her red patent leather handbag, he’d retrieved his bass, stomped down the alley to the steel plated back door, turned the knob, and disappeared inside the building. Not two Hail Marys later, he threw a box of pastries through the open window. It skipped over my lap, bounced off Aunt Frankie’s, and thudded onto the floor, leaving behind a trail of powdered sugar and half a dozen shell shaped pastry – sfogliadell’ – my favorite!
“Ahhh fanabola!” Aunt Frankie threw up her hands. “You gotta’ work on your delivery, amore mio.”
“Yeah. We’ll see about that.” Uncle Sally harumpfed so forcefully it made his nostrils flare. He slipped behind the wheel, turned the ignition, and slammed the pedal to the metal. In a dust cloud of spinning wheels and screeching tires, we sped into the heat of the day.
That night, while Uncle Sally snored in his LA-Z-BOY and I slathered aloe on my sunburned arms, the evening news went on and on about the spectacular fireworks display on Coney Island, barely mentioning a fire that took out a local bakery shop. Arson had been ruled out “due to the inordinate amount of debris left from bottle rockets, roman candles, M-80s, fire crackers, and cherry bombs scattered about the scene.”
Aunt Frankie leaned forward, primped her hair, and winked. “Looks like someone got their just desserts.”