When Jenny got the call, she dropped everything. She left her multi-billion-dollar company in the middle of a staff meeting when her assistant gave the message. At the other end of the line, she was neither shocked nor surprised by the news. Actually, she expected it. She called her driver and told him to start the limousine. She pulled out her mirrored compact to make sure she covered the Frankenstein monster scar above her right eye. It was both a reminder and a symbol of what she had gone through in her life. She still wanted to look presentable, but she still had to hide it with the bangs.
As she left in a hurry, she told her secretary she would be gone for the remainder of the day. She didn’t tell anyone where she would be going. This was something she had to do alone. If they knew—her staff, the ones she cared about—would they understand? “Probably not,” she thought. “What would they do? Feel sorry for me?”
She entered her private elevator with her personal elevator clerk, Jasper. He was a comely, greying black man with glasses wearing his red and gold blazer, the company’s colors, with black pants with a gold stripe down his side. “Going down, Mrs. George?” He exclaimed. “Yes, Jasper!” she said. Not another word. As the elevator reached the ground of the dark, closed-off garage, her driver, Francis, an Irishman with a perennial red face and stout belly protruding through a blazer, a black chauffer’s cap covering what was left of his hair was there to meet her.
“Are we going to the airport, Mrs. G?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said. “O’Hare and not a moment too soon.”
When Francis arrived at O’Hare, he parked in front of the Eastern Airline terminal. “Here we are, Miss!” he said.
“Well, you know I’m not taking Eastern, Francis!” she stated.
“Oh, that’s right!” said Francis. “Someone will be meeting you here!”
As soon as she spoke, the man she told her secretary to call was meeting her in front of the limousine. Jenny pushed the window button to open it. In front of her was an eager young man opening the door.
“Mrs. George,” he exclaimed. “My name is Kenneth Morgan and I will be accompanying you to the jet.” Kenneth seemed like a willing participant.
“Thank you for coming with me,” Jenny said. “It’s been a while since I’ve gone private.”
“It’s not too far a walk,” he stated.
Before she left, she told Francis that she should be back by 10 o’clock this evening. It wasn’t a trip. It was something she had to do.
“No problem,” he exclaimed in his flat Chicago accent. “Take care, Mrs. G.!”
As she and Kenneth passed by porters, families waiting to board, and stewardesses in their military-inspired uniforms, complete with hats and high heels scurried along, Jenny felt fortunate that she did not have to stay with the so-called great unwashed masses. Her flight was at another part of the airport.
Before she knew it, Kenneth had led her to a corridor with an electronic door. When it opened, she saw the Cessna jet with her company’s insignia on the side. When the door opened, her personal stewardess, Pamela, greeted her. “Is this a business trip or a pleasure one, Mrs. G.?”
“You know it’s neither, Pammy!” she said as she walked up the stairs. Once she got in and removed her fur, she heard the pilot tell her, “We’re about to take off, Mrs. George!”
“Thank you, Stan!” she told her pilot. Her Cessna jet was neither small nor large. It was the middle plane in her fleet. The one to take her from Chicago to New York without any muss nor fuss. As Pamela brought her favorite beverage, Jenny was not in the mood for drinks. She rehearsed over and over again what she was going to say. She had been waiting so long to say it.
Now she had every word memorized in her head as if she was giving a speech to the board of directors or to her many employees during the company’s holiday party. She was ready. “Just get me there in one piece.” She said to herself. “I must get there!”
She couldn’t bring herself to take a nap. She was too keyed up. Besides, the trip was only 90 minutes long and sleep was non-negotiable.
“We’re getting set to land, Mrs. George!” said Stan over the plane’s intercom system. “Thank goodness!” she whispered.
When the plane landed at LaGuardia Airport, Jenny gather her fur and her purse, and said to Pam that she would see her in a couple of hours at the most, and to sit back and relax. Pamela smiled as she watched Jenny disembark from the jet. There to meet her was Ann Fineman, her New York office representative.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. George! How was your flight?” she asked.
“Smooth, I guess. I truly wasn’t paying attention!”
She was right. Jenny was not paying attention. It was all about the visit.
“Your limo is this way,” said Ann. Jenny took a deep breath as she entered the limousine door opened.
“Another Lincoln,” she muttered. Whatever. She sat in the car with Ann and did not hear what her New York limousine driver said to her. Did he say, “Hello, Mrs. George”? Jenny really didn’t care. She was back in her hometown. The city where she was born. The city that she departed in disgrace nearly 30 years ago.
As the limousine left LaGuardia from the runway, she realized her trips to her New York office were to her Manhattan office. She didn’t go to her true birthplace: Brooklyn. This would be the first time she has returned to Brooklyn since, well…
Jenny sat back and began to reminisce. She remembered the streets she would pass: the ice cream shop, the Woolworths, the Jewish delicatessen where she bout the hot dogs she loved over Nathan’s or the hot dog stands at the corner. She saw that the neighborhood had changed. There were still a lot of the ethnics: Jews, Irish, her fellow Italians. But the neighborhood was changing colors. It was browner and blacker. But unlike Chicago, they seem to be able to live together. Or so she thought.
Her mind began to wander again. This time about what she’ll say when she gets there. They will be waiting. All of them. All five of them. They were older, prettier, and personable. In her own mind, they were beautiful with curves and breasts, pert noses, and shiny hair. The olive-colored skin tone made her pale one look as though she were adopted. Jenny was tall, big-boned, and flat-chested. She wasn’t them. She didn’t look like them. But in the long run, she was better than them in her own mind. I cannot wait for them to see me. They know about me. They know about my struggles.
The limousine stopped right in front of the hospital. “Here we are, Mrs. George!” her driver exclaimed. Jenny pulled out her compact and opened it. Powdered her nose to take the shine off. Her powder is world-renowned for taking off the oils and leaving a “diamond finish”. She wants to glow for those to see her.
As her driver stopped the car and opened his door, he walked around the back and opened the door. He was young, pale-faced but cheerful. He held his hand out to help her out. She obliged, stretching her right hand out as she disembarked from the car. She felt her black patent leather high heels fall onto the pavement. As she stretched her long limbs out of the car, she decided not to bring her fur but her purse was coming with her. It had to. There was something in it.
When she walked through the automatic doors, Jenny could smell it. The aroma of a hospital. She was familiar with it. Her time in one was one she wouldn’t forget. The bandages, the casts, the feeling of incapability and of helplessness. Never mind, she said. It’s time to move on.
She walked to the reception desk and noticed a few people, women, in particular, staring at her. Maybe they have seen my commercials, she thought. Or perhaps they saw the interview she did on the Today Show or the cover of Time magazine. But they did look and stare. Even the receptionist looked at her as if she were Elizabeth Taylor or Jackie Onassis.
“Valentina Giordano’s room?” Jenny asked.
“Are you a relative?” the receptionist asked.
“Fourth floor ICU, room 409,” said the receptionist as she gave Jenny her pass. “The elevators are on the right.”
“Thank you!” Jenny said as she walked towards the elevator. As she pushed the up button, she waited patiently as she saw a young couple down the corridor. It brought back memories for Jenny, both good and bad. The good also meant the bad. The bad was just the horror of losing and losing. But this was erased from her mind. The elevator had arrived. She got on with a doctor in scrubs and a delivery man with a bouquet of flowers. The doctor was going to the fifth floor. The flower man asked Jenny to please press button number four.
The elevator door closed and lifted up to the scheduled destinations. Jenny didn’t have time to think as the elevator didn’t make any stops until the fourth floor’s bell rang. The door opened. She stepped out first, followed by the flower guy. They both reached the fourth floor’s nursing station. The head nurse told the flower man that the patient couldn’t receive flowers and politely sent him back to the elevator. Jenny shook her head. “That’s quite unfair!” she thought to herself. A waste of money for someone who would never see the flowers. Anyhow, she asked the head nurse where Valentina Giordano’s room was.
The nurse was taken aback when she saw who she was talking to. “Her room is four doors down, but there are many people there,” she told her.
“Fine,” said Jenny. “I’ll clear the room.”
“By the way,” Jenny stated. “How is she?”
“It’s just a matter of time,” the nurse, a slight Filipina said with a gap-toothed look and a slight accent. “Her parish priest came to give her last rites.”
“It’s near the end,” said Jenny. “Thank you!”
As Jenny left the nursing station, she walked quickly to the room. As she entered, she saw them. They were there. “The Big Five” And how “big” they have gotten in addition to being old, matronly, and portly. The voluptuousness had been replaced by rolls of adipose tissue. Their hair went from salt and pepper to fully grey. But there they were: “Little Val”, the eldest, followed by Maria, Paola, Angelina, and Ciara. The prettiness that at one time been beautiful had become settled like day-old Jell-O. Their husbands were there too. They were the ones who tried to pawn her off to their buddies to date her, which only led to disaster. They were also old, grey, paunchy, and in a couple of cases, bald. Their children and a sprinkling of grandchildren were there as well, at least the older ones, the granddaughters looking like younger versions of their nonnies.
When Jenny confidently walked into the room, she saw who she had come to see. She was lying in bed, old frail, stick-thin to the extent that she resembled a loose branch that was about to fall from a tree. Her hair was long and grey and had dark circles around her withered face. Despite her prune-like demeanor, she was still the woman who treated her and berated her.
What was shocking was the reaction by Little Val, who was bigger than she was when Jenny left Brooklyn, or the word she loved to tell her newfound friends, “banished”.
“Who are you and what are you doing here?” she said. But Maria, the other former beauty, sat up and said to Little Val, “Val, do you know who this is?”
Before another word was said, the three other sisters and their spouses got up from the chairs they were sitting at by Valentina’s bed. They came close to Jenny and each gave her a hug and a peck on the cheek.
Little Val said, “I’m sorry, Jenny. I didn’t recognize you at first,” as she walked over and held both her hands. The brothers-in-law followed with hugs but Jenny pulled away from Maria’s husband, Marco, who she never liked nor trusted, and stretched out her arm for a handshake.
“It’s nice to see you all,” exclaimed Jenny, even if she truly didn’t mean it. “But I would like some time with her along. So please leave me until I’m ready to go. I won’t be long.”
The room obliged as they all slowly and quietly left. As they were leaving, Christina, Paola’s teenage granddaughter turned around and quietly said to Jenny, “I use all of your products. They’re great!”
“Thank you!” Jenny told her and kissed her forehead.
When they left, Jenny closed the door. The machines attached to Valentina were doing double work. Valentina was going in and out of consciousness. When she did open her eyes, with the tubes in her nostrils, she saw someone. Jenny looked foggy in her eyes and was unsure who it was.
“Who are you?” she said in a labored voice. “Do I know you? Where is everyone?”
Jenny brought her chair closer to Valentina, picked up her thin, veiny IV line-injected hand, and began to speak.
“Buona sera, mama!” she said. “It’s me, your youngest daughter, Annamaria, you know the one everyone calls Jenny.”
“J-J-Jenny?” Valentina stuttered. “Oh, my God!”
“Hush, mama,” Jenny said as she readied herself for this moment, for this speech, a speech she had been waiting to tell her most of her life.
“Let me say, first of all, that your youngest daughter, me, the one you said was ugly, the one you said had a big nose and big teeth the size of Sicily. The daughter you said would never become anything. The daughter you sent to business school to become a bookkeeper because you didn’t think anyone would marry her so she had to work in the bowels of a bank. The daughter you tried to pawn off to Guido Cartelli, the son of a made-man with fat sausage fingers whom she wouldn’t go all the way with. The daughter you sent off to Steubenville, Ohio to live with your childless, widowed sister, where she found a job and a man with hair so blond and eyes so blue, he was movie-star handsome who pretended to be an adult but was actually a seventeen-year-old boy. The daughter who would have his baby and lied to him about my pregnancy so I wouldn’t marry him. The daughter who left Ohio for southern Illinois and had a beautiful blond baby daughter in a rooming house on a snowy New Year’s Eve when I couldn’t make it to a hospital. The daughter who gave up her baby so she could have a life instead of being raised as an illegitimate child. The daughter worked for a widowed, charismatic lawyer named Robert George and married him. The daughter became pregnant again and then lost that baby and her husband in a horrific car accident that broke her limbs and disfigured her face. The daughter whose face was remade into the beauty you always wanted her to be but lost her husband and unborn child. The daughter whose late husband left money to start a business combining extra virgin olive oil and aloe Vera and started one of the most successful companies found and run by a woman. The daughter is one of the most successful and admired women in the world. Yes, the daughter has a scar over her right eye from the accident. But that scar is a battle scar. That scar reminds her every day about both better and worse and rich and worse and rich and poor. Yes, mama, I was able to say those vows and do EVERYTHING you told me I couldn’t do.
“So, mama, as you are on your death bed, breathing your last breath, struggling to stay alive, I wanted the last face you will see before you go is mine. My brand, new face with a new nose. This better than ever face you always wanted for me. This new face both you and papa wanted but were always browbeating me over. Now as you join Papa, I want to thank you for telling me I was ugly and no good and too skinny for ANYONE to love or admire me. I used your disgust to inspire me. It took a while, but I made it. And for this, I say, ciao, Mama!”
As Jenny rose from her chair, Valentina’s monitors started to go off. Valentina tried to reach for Jenny’s arm, but Jenny had turned her back to her as she left the room. When the door opened, Jenny’s sisters heard the alarms as the doctors and nurses ran toward them. Before Giada went into the room, Jenny stopped her, reached into her purse, and gave a blank check with her signature on it.
“It’s my contribution for her funeral costs,” she told the grey-haired pudgy one. “Don’t go over $20,000 or I will sue you.” She put the folded check in her fleshy palm and walked down the corridor. As the elevator door opened, going to the main floor, Jenny stepped in. As she entered, her grand-niece Christina caught the door before it closed.
“You’re a good woman, Jenny George!” she said.
Jenny smiled and said, “I know” as the door closed on both of them.