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The Sicilian Inheritance



The room was freezing. No windows, one rickety table, two metalchairs.

“L’ha ucciso?” the detective asked with an uncompromising glare.I was lost in a fog as I blinked up at the kind-eyed older womanthey’d assigned to help translate for me even though I didn’t need her. I understood exactly what he’d asked: Did you kill him?

My whole body ached. At least one, maybe more, of my ribs wasbroken, and the pain in my abdomen throbbed hot and sharp. Fat,salty tears rolled down my cheeks. Not for him, the man up on themountain, the one whose blood was dried on my skin and myclothes. I couldn’t cry for him at all. These tears were for me. Forwhat I was about to lose.

Would I ever see my family again? My daughter? Why had I thought coming here would solve any of my problems?

The questions were merely my brain trying to escape reality becauseI knew exactly what happened up there.

And so, I nodded.




Two weeks earlier . . .

I often tried to pinpoint the exact moment when the life I'd worked so hard for began to fall apart. Because there's always a beginning, a place where you've screwed up so badly there's no putting it back together.

It's what happens when you slice through the wrong tendon in a flank of meat. I ran a restaurant for years, but I started as a butcher, so I still think in terms of joints and muscles, the connective tissue of life. Cut the right one and you end up with a perfect steak. Cut the wrong one and the whole system breaks down. The meat falls apart in the places where you want it to stay close to the bone. Once you make that single wrong cut it's nearly impossible to keep everything else intact.

When did I make the wrong cut?

I thought about it, obsessed over it really, as I closed up my restaurant, probably for the very last time. I was so deep inside my memories that I didn't hear the knock on the door. The sound didn't register until it became an unrelenting pounding.

"Mommy, let me in. I need to come in there right now!"

Few things are more persistent than a four-year-old faced with a physical obstacle. Sophie's dad brought her over early. Jack was always early these days, probably because he was trying to catch me doing something he disapproved of.

My body lurched toward my little girl's voice. I flung open the door and the two of us hurled ourselves at one another with a feverish intensity, colliding in a smush of skin and lips and complete and total adoration. I never realized how much I would miss this little creature until I could no longer see her whenever I wanted, until my custody of her hung in the balance.

"Who's my best girl?" I asked her.

"Meeeee. Who's my best mamma?"


"You!" The part that both killed me and kept me getting out of bed every morning was that she meant it. This gorgeous, brilliant child of mine truly thought I was the best despite all recent evidence to the contrary.

Jack, my almost ex-husband, was certain I was no longer the best at anything. I could feel his bitterness as he stood behind Sophie and took in the nearly empty restaurant. The tables, chairs, and furniture I had painstakingly selected only five years earlier had been sold to a new place opening down on Passyunk Avenue. Various kitchen equipment was pushed against the walls, ready to be hauled off to the highest bidder. All that remained was our mascot, a massive plaster pink pig flying from the ceiling, its lips curled in a cheeky smile and the restaurant's name emblazoned on its flank, La Macellaia-the butcher woman.

The plaster pig was a joke at first, before he became the symbol of the place. Jack had him made for me by a local artist. Because for all the years I'd dreamed of having my own restaurant, I'd never believed it was possible. When other people told me it would happen one day I'd laugh like I didn't care if it did or didn't and say, "Sure, when pigs fly." Jack surprised me with the statue on opening night. I wondered when I went from being someone he'd design a custom pig statue for to a person he could barely look in the eye. It happened bit by bit, and then all at once.

I looked up at him, hoping to see some of the old soft devotion but Jack just seemed annoyed and sad. It was impossible to tell what he resented more, me or the restaurant that stole so much time from him and our marriage.

"Let's go outside," I suggested, not wanting to see my failure through his eyes. A small part of me still hoped La Macellaia would reopen in a new location at some point in the future, but I couldn't see how, not with the mountain of debt we'd taken on, the skyrocketing rent, or the nasty rumors that continued to dog me. I knew I'd made so many mistakes with my restaurant. I'd poured my heart and soul into it, but also my hubris. I'd pushed us to expand and grow too fast to make my investors happy, to make them money. I took on more than I could handle, and in the process, I lost almost everything. Another part of me also hoped, on some days, that with the restaurant gone Jack and I might find a way to work things out. But that seemed more unlikely with each passing day. Our marriage had become merely a bundle of services that neither of us could fulfill well enough for the other.

Once we made it to the sidewalk Jack thrust a handful of mail at me.

"This all came to the house for you," he said. Since we separated Jack had been living with Sophie in our sweet little brick row home, the one we bought together the year we got married. It made sense at first, since I worked most nights and could sleep in the studio over the restaurant. But once La Macellaia closed I'd have nowhere to live.

Mixed in with the overdue bills and junk was the letter I'd been waiting for, a brown envelope scrawled in my aunt Rosie's perfect penmanship, gorgeous cursive that only ancient nuns could beat into you.

I didn't want to open it because the second I did, my aunt Rosie's death would be as real as the end of my business and my career. I knew that the letter contained the last words she never got to tell me in person because I was too busy working to go see her one last time. Yet another regret.

Jack cleared his throat the way he did when he was about to say something I wouldn't like. "I hate the idea of Sophie going to your aunt's funeral. She's too little to learn about death."

"Sorry it bothers you. But please be reasonable, Jack. Sophie adored Aunt Rosie as much as I did." I swallowed my irritation and managed a contrite smile. "And all her cousins will be there. It won't be creepy and morbid. Rosie wanted more of a party than a formal church funeral. It'll be fun for Soph."

"A fun funeral? Who throws a party when they die? Your whole family is nuts. Rosie was nuts." His annoyance had nothing to do with the funeral. He was pissed because he was supposed to leave for vacation with his parents and I was making him wait until Sunday night, after the funeral.

"We've gotta get going, sweetie." I said this to Sophie, but really I was saying it to Jack to let him know our conversation was over. "We've got a two-hour drive up to Scranton and Carla is on her way to get us."

"To visit Aunt Rosie?" Sophie jumped up and down and clapped her hands.

"In a way, my love."

"See, she's too young for this, dammit," Jack said.

"Let me handle it," I said with all the conviction I could muster.

He sighed and shoved his hands in his pockets. "You know I loved her too. Rosie."

"Even though she was nuts?" I asked.

He shot me a regretful smile.

"Especially because of that," he mumbled.

It used to be one of the reasons he loved me too.

It was true that my aunt Rosie didn’t want a funeral, but man, that woman could throw a party, even from beyond the grave. She’d made it very clear that she wanted all of her “people,” all three of the boys she raised and their families, all the staff at the school where she was the principal for half her life, and pretty much anyone else in town who wasn’t “gonna be a crybaby” about her death, to get drunk at her favorite pub to celebrate her.

I wore a bright red jumpsuit that had been sitting in the back of my closet for the better part of a decade with the tags still on. I couldn't afford anything new. I'd applied for and been approved for seven credit cards over the past three years. Six of those cards were currently maxed out. The jumpsuit was too tight and too low-cut, but I knew Aunt Rosie would have loved it.

The bar was loud and rowdy. I hadn't seen my cousins and extended family in a couple of years, but folding myself into their comforting melee felt like sinking into a warm bath. There were hours of toasts and storytelling. Aunt Pat baked a massive cake with a picture on it of Rosie at her seventieth birthday wearing a T-shirt that read sexy at seventy. There was Aunt Rosie trivia and eventually Dolly Parton karaoke.

My sister, Carla, and I eased our way around Aunt Arlene, who was in the midst of a stunning rendition of "Islands in the Stream" on the karaoke machine with my mom and Arlene's daughter, Little Arlene.

Mom was really belting it out. She shimmied with Sophie on her shoulders. I wanted to grab my daughter, spin around with her, and hold tight to her spindly little body. I knew the next month of vacation with her other grandparents would do my daughter some good. I also knew Jack's mother would use the time to determine if I'd somehow caused Sophie irreparable damage with my recent personal miseries. Sophie has always been more resilient than me, but I still worried about her. Since I had to file for bankruptcy I could hardly drag myself out of bed except to handle the logistics of shutting La Macellaia down. There was a hell of a lot of grief involved in losing something you built from scratch, in losing the future you expected to have. I often drank too much at night to fall asleep and mainlined coffee all day to stay awake. Even when I was with my daughter, I wasn't always really there.

I tugged on Sophie's naked big toe and kissed her foot. She'd thrown her shoes somewhere in the corner during an earlier dancing session.

"Who's paying for this?" I asked Carla as we walked across the room, balancing two trays of shots to bring to our dad and uncles.

"I think Rose stashed some cash away," Carla replied. "She knew this day was coming."

At ninety-one it's always coming. Rosie had been fading for a year at least. The last time I'd seen her, a few months ago, she'd hardly gotten out of bed except to make the two of us a pair of strong old-fashioneds and to light the living room fire with a single match.

"A real woman makes a good drink and lights her own fires, Sara," she always reminded me. She told me lots of brilliant things over the years. I wish I'd written them all down. As Rosie and I had sipped our drinks, she said, "This is how I want you to remember me. A sexy well-seasoned dame drinking her whiskey and getting ready to tell you a filthy joke."

"That's how I want to remember you too," I agreed, and begged for the joke. Toward the end she wanted me to come one more time. It was urgent, she told me. There was something we had to discuss. But I was never able to make the trip.

Carla squinted out at the scene in front of us. "I think Dad and the boys must be paying for some of it." I'd actually assumed my sister had thrown some cash in the kitty. Of all the cousins she was the big success story, at least in terms of how much money she made. She was the youngest partner in a fancy Philly law firm, the mother of gorgeous twin boys with a beautiful, brilliant wife, and they owned a fancy town house off Rittenhouse Square. Carla had earned her success, but it was also due to Rosie paying part of her college and law school tuitions.

Rosie was my great-aunt, my dad's aunt, but she raised him and his two brothers when his parents, Santo and Lorenza, died in a car crash when Dad was a kid. So many boys, all of them little assholes, she used to say with complete and utter devotion. She'd never married, though she had a string of loyal and usually much younger boyfriends. I'd always assumed she was sick of living with men after raising three of them.

"The bar is probably covering some of it," Carla added. "They all loved her."

"Everyone did," I agreed, and swallowed one of the shots. The fiery liquid tickled my throat and warmed my insides.

Uncle Mario raised a half-empty glass and shouted an old Sicilian saying Rosie taught all of us.

Cu picca parrau mai si pintiu.

Those who speak little never have regrets. Ironic since Rosie rarely shut up.

Excerpted from THE SICILIAN INHERITANCE by Jo Piazza. Copyright © 2024 by Jo Piazza. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

The Sicilian Inheritance
by by Jo Piazza