Ines was worried if she got a flat tire now or if she ran out of gas she would never make it from Sicily, useless island, to Argentina, the new world. The road was longer and steeper than she remembered it. Then again she had never been the one to drive up here. Somehow, by some miracle of God as she saw it, Matteo was asleep in the passenger seat. He claimed to have started out carsick, but now he was snoring. If she didn’t make it up to the cabin within the hour she might have to stay the night there too and that would ruin everything. Nothing at all would be saved for her then.
There were a few other houses up this road and the sun was setting over Catania. In the end she might miss her home but she wouldn’t miss the life that had been left to her. She was fifty years old; if she didn’t do it now, then when would she? Two weeks ago in the church, that’s when it all became clear. She saw a tear fall from the Virgin Mary’s right eye. But just as she was about to tell someone, just as she was about to share in this divine moment: Matteo.
“Do you think we can have pizza for lunch?” said Matteo in his best effort at a low voice. It shuddered around the shining black marble walls of the church. All she gave him back was a “shhhhhhhh.” He would have whatever she wanted him to have; he would eat whatever was in the refrigerator. He did this every morning but she never responded to his questions. She was frugal and proud: it was in her blood.
Would he crawl out through the basement? Would he walk onto the roof and somehow manage to jump? Even if he did that at the house on the mountain he wouldn’t likely find his way back for some time. No matter, she would have to find a better way to express her duties towards God. To find a place where she would be more appreciated, but that would be hard.
“Ines,” Don Mario interrupted her thoughts and she instantly felt the selfishness of them sink in and molt into guilt.
“I wanted to ask you if Matteo could come along on our trip to Rome next month, I think he might like it. Really benefit from it as well,” Don Mario said this and Ines found herself nodding along and listening intently to the trucks slamming their doors outside for the morning deliveries.
“Ines,” he repeated, “Are you alright?”
She looked up at him, “Yes, father, I am fine. Next month. It could work. Maybe yes.” She wasn’t paying any attention and then caught herself and shouted, “Oh no!”
“What is it, Ines?” said the youngish priest. Well, youngish to Ines at least, they’d grown up together.
“I just remembered. Matteo is helping with our cousin’s garden down in Ragusa. Can’t make it, sorry,” she said and smiled incredulously. She felt the priest’s cool breath fall onto her; it smelled of stale biscuits and coffee.
“Another time,” she added.
“Yes, another time I do hope,” said the priest. “You know, if you ever need some free time, or if you want Matteo to get some work experience- just send him my way,” Don Mario said to her.
“We’re fine Mario. I mean, Don Mario,” she said and went to the front and grabbed Matteo’s thick, hairy arm and hoisted him out of the pew. So entranced in his rocking and grumbling to the saints he tripped and fell out of the aisle. Don Mario hurried over, “We’re fine, Father. Just fine,” said Ines and hurried them out of the church. Don Mario watched as Matteo scooped the holy water onto his face and neck with his gigantic hands and Ines pulled him out the door.
“What’s wrong with you? Don’t you see it’s a place of worship?” Ines scolded him the same way every week and he never learned better.
From the cool, dark church the pair went into the obscenely bright city— Catania could hide nothing under such powerful light.
“Ines, look over there,” said Matteo pointing. It was a youngish man with a blue mohawk. “Look,” he said again. She thwacked his arm down, “Stop, pointing!” she scolded.
All the way to the car, his hand in hers, sweaty and clammy: it was hard to tell who was more embarrassed by this show of closeness. Matteo starred at the kids hanging around the fountain, eyes glued to a girl with long blonde hair, drinking from a tall beer bottle. They sat on the fountain, their asses nearly in the water. Matteo and Ines arrived at the ’72 Fiat, in orange: the first and last car that Ines had ever bought. She was disappointed it would have to end this way now, considering how far she’d come over the years. Struggling along and on her own. Matteo squeezed himself into the passenger seat of the hatchback. She started the car before he had even closed the door. Radio Maria started up again, the tenth mass in a twenty-four hour rotation. Matteo went to change the station.
“What are you doing? Driver decides,” said Ines. He rolled down his window and gazed out into the piazza. There were clusters of teenagers smoking cigarettes around the fountain. There were groups of old men sitting in folding chairs outside of the butcher shop and the bakery. Some of them had tables set up to play cards. One old man played an accordion while his friends grew drunker and drunker and danced around him.
“You never let me take the lessons. I always wanted to take the lessons,” Matteo said now.
Ines guided the car up through the rocky town. She gazed off to the smoking mountain. They passed by cacti and sand; they looked out at stray dogs and garbage. Ines had always thought Sicily would get better. Barring that, she imagined she’d have fallen in love again. But very little had gotten better— only worse. After their parents died the company offered them nothing since they were both over eighteen. She tried to get a lawyer, to prove that Matteo would never earn an income, but no one would listen. Matteo could have maybe done some of the farming work, simple things, weeding and planting. But that was the very work that was moving away and heading north. Finally when she found a husband he died two years into the marriage. It was unclear in the paperwork how he had died but it was clear to Ines. Matteo had driven him over the edge. Gaetano would come home from work, working for all three of them of course, and Matteo would be there wanting to talk or go for a walk or just sitting at the table waiting for attention. It drove Gaetano mad and after two years of living in a one bedroom apartment he wanted more, he decided he needed to earn more money and he got involved with the wrong people. He ended up dead three weeks into his life of crime. But it wasn’t all accidental: he’d grown reckless. Thought, if this is the life there is, then what’s it worth living.
When Ines and Matteo got to their building she dropped him off by the front door with the bags of groceries. He stood there and waited for her. An old woman, a neighbor, held the door open for him, but he stood and waited; smiled kindly at the woman.
“Don’t have keys. It isn’t safe to be in there alone,” Matteo said this to himself as the woman was in the elevator by then. When Ines arrived Matteo picked up the overflowing bags and they walked to the elevator together. It was small and he had to turn awkwardly to make his way through the small saloon-style doors.
“Do you think Don Mario does his own shopping or do you think one of the ladies does it for him?” Matteo asked her in one gasping breath. She used to try and humor him, to placate his constant questions- now she just gave him an incredulous look and said, “No.”
“No? No to which one and yes to which one, Ines?” he asked her but she didn’t listen. She watched the elevator as it went up and up and up. She watched as they reached the sixth floor where their tiny apartment stood.
“What’s for lunch?” Matteo asked her.
“Whatever I feel like making you,” she responded.
He put the groceries away and sang along to the radio.
“What about lunch?” he shouted to her as she closed and locked the bedroom door.
“In twenty minutes. Clean up the kitchen first,” Ines said. And pulled her chair to the window to call her best childhood friend, Giusy. Giusy would know what to do even all the way from Argentina.
“Hola,” Giusy answered the phone. She always said “hola.” Like she was so happy and giddy and life was just so sweet.
“Giusy, thank goodness you’re around. Does the offer still stand?” Ines asked her, so hopeful.
“Offer? What offer, Ines?” Giusy asked, but how was it that she didn’t remember?
“Last month or two months ago, I was crying on the phone and you said ‘if you ever need to get away…’ Well I do. I need to get away,” Ines said this so convinced she even frightened herself.
“Well of course, but I know with Matteo it’s extremely difficult,” Giusy began. But Ines stopped her, “No, you see I’ve found a solution. He’s going to stay with Don Mario. He needs help around the church, it’s perfect. It’s perfect, isn’t it?”
“Oh, I am so happy for you, Ines!” said Giusy.
“So when will you be coming?” “How’s next week? I can get a ticket for next week!” Ines said, nearly crying.
She had only left Sicily three times in her entire life and never left Italy at all. Now she was about to cross the ocean.
“Tell me when you have the ticket and when you arrive. We’ll be at the airport for you. Oh, this really is exciting, you need a vacation so badly,” Giusy went on. But Ines didn’t tell her that maybe it wasn’t a vacation, that maybe it could last much longer, that there was something more to it.
On Sunday after Mass they drove to the big grocery store off the highway. She told Matteo she wanted to go for a drive. It was getting warmer now even at night. The flowers were blooming; families could be seen heading towards the beach. They walked in to the massive shopping complex and she wielded one of the big carts, not her normal little basket. She tossed frozen dinners and fruit juices onto the bottom rack and boxes of cereal and stay-fresh milk on top. She took large boxes of sugar and salt. She began to load bottles of water then stopped and said, “Better have them bring the industrial size right to the car.” At the end of the shopping at the register she handed the woman coupons and requested the microwave that was on sale in the flyer. A man came over with a large box and wheeled it out of the store, following them to the tiny car.
“Will it fit?” said Matteo, excited by the prospect of the new microwave. No one answered him.
Everything in the van was pre-made, ready. It would last a little more than six months. She calculated everything.
She let Matteo bring the shopping cart to the car; she told him she had ladies things to attend to. She went over to the travel agency. As she slinked in she felt like a criminal already.
“I need a ticket to Argentina for Wednesday,” Ines said to the agent matter-of-factly.
“Wednesday? As in three days from now?” the girl looked at her crookedly.
“That is what I said,” Ines stared back now. After some clicking at the keyboard and running some numbers they found a one-way ticket for fifteen-hundred euro. Ines took out her wallet and extracted a great heaping pile of cash. She had unloaded an entire bank account while Matteo chose frozen pizzas, so many to choose from and an unlimited number. He wondered why Ines was being so kind.
They left the shopping center and drove up Mount Etna. The road curved around the volcanic mountain, trees grew shorter as they moved higher and higher up. Ines pulled the car into the driveway by the cabin. She turned off the car, went out and opened the front door. It was dirty from disuse but not disorderly. Gaetano had always kept it in order. Besides that they’d never had the power turned off. For a few years after he died Ines would still come up here, especially at night, to watch the eruptions. Then slowly, she grew sentimental. Matteo slept on the couch as she dusted, as she plugged in the ancient refrigerator. Then Matteo woke up and helped her bring in the bags of food, the heavy water jug and he helped make the bed and clean the bathroom. He helped and smiled and turned on the radio and she let him leave it on the terrible station he liked until the very last minute.
It was always his smile and the way he shone it at her now. His eyes squinted and she noticed his hair was thinning.
“Ok, Matteo, why don’t you have a rest now and I am going to go back out to the car and get the rest of our things,” she told him. But there were no more things in the car. There were no more jugs of water to fetch or domestic wares to drag in.
“No, I can help,” Matteo said. He stood up from the bed, pushing himself with his bulky white arms. He didn’t want to help. Matteo walked over to the door and tried to close it behind Ines, he tried to slam it with all of his force. It surprised him too— how much force he had.
“I don’t want you to go,” Matteo said looking at her now. She should have thought of something better, smoother, less fool-proof.
“Just,” she said but didn’t know how to end the line, she didn’t know how to tell him or how to explain herself.
“Just, it’s just. I can’t take it anymore Matteo. I need my space. Don’t you need yours?” And he did, but he didn’t want to explain any of it to her. He gave her a push. A shove that threw her backwards onto the floor. With her head bruised, not bleeding, she didn’t think, she backed herself out of the cabin, stood up and shut the gate. It was wrought iron; it locked itself. Matteo stood in the doorway, he didn’t want to hurt her.
Ines then backed further and further away towards the car. The sun was beginning to set and the air was cooling. The volcano was making its small eruptions just a few miles away. She looked at her little brother, locked away.
“It’s where you’ve always belonged, Matteo,” she shouted. But they both knew that this was for her and not for him: all this talk.
She said, distant now, “One month. In a month someone will come for you. But for now just stay calm, just relax.”
Allison Grimaldi Donahue is a writer, translator and editor. Her work has appeared in The American Reader, tNY press theEEEL, The Diner Journal, The New Inquiry, Lunch Ticket and Metatron Omega. She serves as Fiction editor at Queen Mob’s Teahouse and is Associate Translation Editor at Drunken Boat. She lives in Bologna and is working towards her PhD at the European Graduate School.