The Bright Red Dress
“Quitting? Are you serious?” The owner of exclusive male escort services operating in Philadelphia lifted a thin, penciled-in eyebrow.
Bettina fluttered her finger under the older woman’s nose. The three-caret diamond engagement ring sparkled. “Antonio has a very lucrative law practice.”
“Why the rush, my dear?” Mrs. Colmes slid Bettina’s letter of resignation back into the cream-colored envelope. You’re marrying a man you’ve known less than a month.”
They met six weeks ago at the Philadelphia Bar Association’s annual charity event.
Bettina was in a bidding war for a small, impressionist watercolor, Morning Over the Schuylkill, by a young Philadelphia artist whose work she admired.
“Three thousand once. Three thousand twice. Going to the lady—”
“Five thousand,” countered a deep, masculine voice.
Too rich for my pocketbook. Bettina shook her head at the auctioneer, turned in her seat, and scowled at the man in a well-tailored three-piece suit waving a wooden paddle like a victory flag.
After the auction, the winning bidder, carrying the painting under one arm, approached Bettina. “Sorry if I seemed overly aggressive back there. My name’s Antonio Alessio. Accept my apologies and have dinner with me.”
The stranger’s smile and frank, open expression was disarming. Bettina accepted the invitation, and three weeks later, following a whirlwind courtship, Antonio slipped a sparkling, three-carat diamond ring on Bettina’s finger.
“Why the rush?” Bettina repeated her soon-to-be former employer's question. “Why shouldn't I rush, Mrs. Colmes?”
“One should summer and winter a man before contemplating something as drastic as marriage.” Mrs. Colmes tossed the envelope into a desk drawer. “Well, I’ll sit on this, for the time being, Bettina. Just in case.”
“I won’t be returning to this life, Mrs. Colmes.”
“We’ll see. What do you know about your fiancé’s background? His family?”
“Antonio’s a widower. Has a young daughter living with his parents in New Jersey. But what’s important is we love each other.”
“Ah, yes. Love. But, my dear.” Mrs. Colmes’ shrewd eyes narrowed to slits. “Just what does your fiancé know about you?”
Despite Mrs. Sawyer’s remonstrations, Antonio and she had been married by a justice of the peace, spent three days honeymooning in Atlantic City returning last week to her new husband’s brownstone apartment in Philadelphia.
Hanging on the wall in the master bedroom was the painting that had sparked their romance.
Bettina had gasped in surprise.
“Perfect spot, don’t you agree?” her bridegroom asked.
“I do, Darling.” Bettina had playfully pushed Antonio onto the king-sized bed.
What do you know about your fiancé’s background? His family?” Mrs. Colmes's words resounded in Bettina’s mind minutes before the Greyhound pulled into the bus terminal.
Bettina opened the gold compact and studied her reflection in the tiny make-up mirror.
So plain-looking, ordinary, she thought. Without her usual glued-on Twiggy eyelashes, deft applications of blush, glittery eye shadow, and shimmering lipstick, the newly-weds oval face appeared wan and washed-out. At least my husband hadn’t suggested changing my bouffant hairstyle, too. Her fingers patted the stiff, back-combed stack of light brown hair piled high on her head.
“Maybe play down the makeup, Darling," Antonio had suggested while discussing their coming visit with his family.
"But, but Antonio . . .” The protest died in her throat. Refusing such a simple request from the man whose love offered a second chance, a new beginning was unthinkable.
"Pop’s old school, Bettina. Brought some weird customs with him from Sicily. ‘Make-up is the devil's paint, Son. Tools used by the fairer sex to beguile men.’” Antonio had traced the soft line of his wife’s jaw with a fingertip. “As you have beguiled me.”
“I so want to make a good first impression.”
Her husband had smiled, planted a lingering kiss on Bettina’s trembling lips, and said, "Darling, how could my family not be impressed with my new bride?"
Bettina twisted the diamond ring on her finger and stared absently out the bus window at the lush, green fields flashing by.
The bus, nearing the Greyhound terminal, slowed. Passengers stirred in their seats, closed newspapers and books, and reached into the overhead rack for their bags.
Bettina sat up. Her heart raced. Before meeting Antonio’s family just a flicker of blush? The gold compact case fell from her fingers and clattered to the floor.
Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Bettina reached under her seat for the fallen case. What the hell was I thinking? Risking my future for appearance’s sake.
She dropped the compact into her red, alligator purse.
The bus shuddered to a stop in front of the glass-fronted terminal.
Bettina smacked her lips several times and pinched each pale cheek—adding color to her face—before leaning across the vinyl seat searching among the crowd milling on the sidewalk for her husband.
Yesterday morning, Antonio had made arrangements for picking her up at the bus terminal before driving from Philly to his parent’s home in southern New Jersey.
“I’d better break the news of our marriage,” he’d explained. “Before they meet you.”
Sort of an advance guard. An ominous cloud had drifted into a corner of Bettina’s newly-found bliss.
“Antonio! Antonio.” Bettina spotted her husband pacing along the sidewalk shoulders slumped, hands clasped behind his back, and she tapped on the window.
His grin revealed the dimple in his chin, but Bettina detected Antonio’s worried expression, the frown lines creasing his forehead.
Well, girl, don’t expect the Welcome Wagon. Bettina gripped the handle of her overnight case with a sweaty palm and followed the other passengers towards the front of the bus. His parents might, eventually, accept me as their daughter-in-law. They were, after all, adults. But what about Antonio’s young daughter? Would she ever accept me as her stepmother?
Antonio took Bettina’s overnight case and helped her from the bus.
“I missed you, Bettina. Seemed like an eternity.” His lips brushed her cheek.
“Silly. We’ve only been apart one day.”
The couple walked across the parking lot holding hands and laughing.
“Is that dress new?” Antonio unlocked the Cadillac and opened the vehicle’s passenger side door. “You look fabulous.”
Bettina’s eyes brighten. Pleasing her husband was worth the expense. The form-fitting red dress, purse, and matching alligator shoes she’d purchased from John Wanamaker’s Department Store had made a sizeable hole in her savings account.
“Glad you like it, Darling.” Bettina pirouetted on the two-inch heels she wore. “I hope your family approves.”
The Cadillac stopped in front of a weathered red brick building.
“Lou-Cee’s food processing plant. Take a whiff.” Antonio pushed the button on the vehicle’s door panel lowering the passenger side electric window.
Bettina stretched her lips into a stiff smile. This was their third stop—a ploy, certainly, for avoiding any discussion concerning his family’s reaction to the news of their sudden marriage—on her husband’s guided tour of his boyhood stomping grounds.
Stifling a growing annoyance, Bettina sniffed the pungent aroma of tomatoes, garlic, and onions wafting through the Cadillac’s open window.
“Spaghetti sauce,” she said. “Bet Lou-Cee’s isn’t as tasty as your mom’s sauce, though.”
“You’d lose that bet.” Antonio patted Bettina’s knee. “My mom’s as American as apple pie. Roast beef with mashed potatoes and brown gravy more her style.”
“Oh? I was hoping she’d show me how to prepare your favorite Italian dishes.”
“Your cooking skills aren’t anything to write home about, honey. But don’t worry.” Antonio’s hand glided up his wife’s thigh, and he grinned. “I know my way around a kitchen. First thing, I’ll show you how to make braciola—rolled skirt steak simmered in burgundy-laced tomato sauce.”
“Almost there, Darling.” Antonio turned off the highway onto a narrow, rutted road flanked on either side by acres of green fields; seasonal workers toiled in the noonday sun, some, bent over long rows, picked tomatoes, others loaded brimming crates onto the backs of large trucks.
“Luigi Caronia owns this farm. He and my father immigrated from Sicily and settled in this little farming community about nineteen twenty-six.
“‘Paisano, you and me,’ Luigi told my father, ‘we gonna’ earn a dollar a day in America.’” Antonio cupped the four fingers of one hand, put his thumb against the middle finger, and shook his wrist,
A truck stacked with crates of tomatoes swayed and rattled along the narrow road. Antonio waved at the driver and pulled the car over onto the weedy edge. “Heading for Lou-Cee’s. Luigi also owns that processing plant.”
“Seems your father’s friend earned more than a dollar,” Bettina said and laughed. “Did your father realize his American dream, too?”
“Afraid not. Pops married out of the Catholic Church. Disowned by his family. Shunned by almost everyone in our close-knit Italian community. If Luigi hadn’t hired him.” Antonio brushed a hand through his silver-streaked thatch of unruly black hair. “Who knows?”
“So, you weren’t raised Catholic?”
“No. Pops converted. Mom’s father was the minister at a small Pentecostal church.
“Growing up, I attended services, twice on Sunday, and every Wednesday evening, listening to my grandfather exhorting his congregation against sinful, worldly temptations. Dancing, smoking, drinking, attending movies—"
“And painted women?”
“That, too.” Angelo pulled back onto the narrow road. “Although, in recent years, Darling, some of the members of the congregation don’t abide by all the restrictive “thou-shall-not".
“Your parents do, I’d bet,” Bettina said softly.
Dark, heavy drapes, covering the large picture window two-story farmhouse, parted slightly. A stern-faced woman and a wide-eyed child peered through the gap.
“They’re watching us,” Bettina said.
“We’ll have to proceed cautiously.” Antonio put his hand on Bettina’s arm as she climbed the wobbly stairs. “Remember, when my first wife died five years ago, Conchetta was two. Mom’s the only mother’s my daughter known.”
Proceed cautiously. Antonio’s caution applied equally to his daughter and his mother, Bettina thought.
The front door opened.
"Hello, Mother," Michael said. “May I introduce Bettina?”
“So, Son, this is the woman caught your fancy, now is it?” The thin, raw-boned woman wiped her hands on a floral-printed cobbler’s apron. Mousy brown hair hung below her shoulders. Her eyes were cold and hostile.
“Doesn’t favor your first wife, Son.”
Bettina swayed against Antonio.
“It will be alright,” he whispered.
“Can I come out, Grams?” The child in the doorway had Antonio’s dark, unruly hair and dimpled chin.
"Come here, Conchetta. Meet your new mother." Antonio stooped and held out his arms.
“Grams, Grams,” Antonio’s daughter whimpered, shook her head and skittered behind Mrs. Alessio’s faded, ankle-length, denim skirt.
“Stop fussing, Conchetta. I’ll just take her back inside, Son.
“Your Father's working in the vegetable patch. Wouldn’t stop spreading fertilizer just because we're expecting company. Better go out back and introduce your new wife."
Antonio took Bettina’s hand. “Don’t frown, Bettina. Everything will be fine. Trust me."
They walked along the path skirting the garden plot.
A gaunt, angular man in bib overalls, was spreading pig manure with a shovel turning the smelly fertilizer into the dark, rich garden soil.
"Pops, this is my wife, Bettina."
Mr. Alessio eyed Bettina’s red sheath dress, red purse clutched in one hand, the red, high-heeled shoes. Muttering under his breath, he plunged the shovel into the mound of fertilizer.
"Puttana! Puttana,” he yelled and hurled a shovelful of foul-smelling manure at his new daughter-in-law.
The filth splattered across the front of Bettina’s red dress, and her shoes.
Antonio’s mother and daughter heard the screams and rushed from the house.
Michael’s face twisted in rage, and he jerked the shovel from his father’s hands.
“I’ll kill you,” he yelled and raised the shovel “I’ll kill you.”
“No! No, Antonio” screamed Bettina.
“Son, drop that shovel.” Antonio’s mother hurried down the back steps. “Don’t follow me, Conchetta,” she said to her granddaughter tagging behind her. “Stay on the porch.”
Antonio swung the shovel and hit his father on the side of his head with the flat of the blade.
His father groaned, doubled over, and toppled to the ground.
“Pop-Pop. Pop-Pop.” Conchetta whimpered, jumped off the porch, and knelt beside her Grandfather. “He’s dead. He’s dead.” Conchetta stared at Michael. “You’ve killed Pop-Pop, You killed my Pop-Pop.”
Mrs. Alessio staunched blood flowing from the long gash on her husband’s head with her apron. “Conchetta. Pop-Pop’s not dead. He’ll need stitches though. We’ll take him to the emergency room.”
She looked at Michael. “Better help Bettina, Son. But what happened just now is your fault.”
“Don’t you remember your father telling us about when he was growing up in Sicily? Only the town whores wore red.”