For all that there were three Vecchios and a Mountie sitting in the kitchen, there was still dead silence. Looking around at his mother, sister and friend, Ray was the only one with the presence of mind at that moment to realize what an unusual state of affairs that was.
Ma’s glare towards Fraser was so intense you could almost see her anger shimmering in the air between them. Fraser cringed under the assault but still did not lower his eyes. He endured her direct gaze - his well-deserved punishment for disobeying the will of a mother. Not HIS mother. You are not my son. These were her words of two nights ago. And what had he done to try to win his place in her affection? Interfered when she had begged him not to and driven Ray’s older brother to God knows what rash act of desperation.
Francesca sat crinkling her brow and narrowing her eyes in what was perhaps an unconscious attempt to exert pressure on her brain. She couldn’t figure out what was happening. Michael was playing his usual passive-aggressive games. Nothing strange there. But Ma was dumping on Fraszh. What the . . .?”
It was Ray that broke the silence. “Wait a minute? You’re blaming Fraser for this?” He gestured at the note on the table.
“I asked him not to interfere,” was all Ma would say.
“Ma! He’s been doing this for years!”
While Fraser knew Ray meant that Michael had been manipulating the family for years, he couldn’t help thinking of another meaning for those words. He, Fraser, had been interfering in people’s lives for years. Always to the good. He couldn’t remember when his attempts had backfired before now. Dear Ray. Ray was defending him as a friend would, but Fraser knew himself to be guilty. Guilty of disobedience. Guilty of failing to save Michael Vecchio.
Ray went on, his anger rising. “For years he’s been pulling this shit and you keep letting him get away with it!”
“Don’t curse in the house,” Ma said, automatically, with no real feeling. It was a reflex.
Ray jumped up from his chair. “Curse in the house? I’ll tell you what’s a curse in this house. Him! Him! He hurts Lina, he hurts the kids, damn him, and you feel sorry for him. He’s messing with your head, Ma! He’s always done it. And you keep letting him get away with it! Now you pin this all on Benny?” Then Ray spoke the unspeakable in his rage. “Are you nuts?”
The others, especially Ma herself, stiffened with shock as he shot these disrespectful words at his mother.
“I begged him to stay away from Michael.” But she released Fraser from the grip of her gaze, rose and turned to the kitchen counter. “We should eat now,” she pronounced, evenly, signaling that the conversation was finished as far as she was concerned.
“No. We don’t eat. We have this out. Now! I can’t stand this anymore. No matter what he does, you take his side. Lina throws him out in the street like he deserves. He comes to this house. MY DECENT HOUSE! And you let him in and feed him and take care of him. You take his side. Like he never did anything wrong.”
Fraser wished he could crawl away unnoticed, burrow into a hole and die. Not only had he failed to connect with Michael Vecchio, this failure had somehow alienated his best friend from his mother.
“You brother has his own problems, Raymondo. He’s a sick man.”
Ray waved his arms around wildly. “Sick? Sick?” Spittle flew from his mouth as he sputtered the words. “Sick like Pop? Is that it? Is that what somebody has to do for you to love him? Be sick? Like Pop?”
“Ray,” Francesca cautioned softly “Maybe you ought to settle down.”
“No, I won’t settle down!” Ray wheeled about in his place, whipping his arms high into the air as he faced each person in the kitchen in turn. “What? What? This is MY fault? This is Fraser’s fault?”
He turned to his mother, took her by the shoulders and spun her around to face him. He grabbed her two hands in his own. “Ma,” he pleaded, “Don’t you see it? This is Michael’s own fault. He does this to himself. Pop did it to himself. They’re not sick. They’re just no good.”
Ma Vecchio squeezed her son’s hands. Tears formed in her eyes. “No, Raymondo, I can’t blame them for what they are. I love my husband. I love my oldest baby. They’re not bad, they’re sick.” She spoke of her dead husband as though he were still in the house expecting her to take care of him, defend him.
Ray grunted and sagged as the air rushed out of him. He let his mother’s hands drop. “Yeah, sure. Whatever you say.”
What was the point, he asked himself. She’s not going to change. I’m not going to change. I’m the good boy. I stay home, I support the family. I never raise a hand to anybody and I never talk back. This is my house but she rules it. He turned away from them all and headed out of the kitchen. “Come on, Benny. Let’s go get some air.”
“Dinner,” Ma reminded him. The word was a lifeline she was throwing out. Take it, Raymondo. Come back and sit down. Put us all back to normal.
Ray was too crushed with defeat to be interested in helping her restore normality. “That’s okay, Ma. I’m not hungry right now.” To the Mountie he repeated, “Let’s go.” He slunk out without looking back.
Fraser forced himself to look to the old woman for permission to leave. Curtly, she nodded a brief dismissal. Fraser got up. As he turned to leave the kitchen he faced Francesca and said “I’m sorry I caused this trouble, Francesca.”
Francesca had to smile, just a little. Here was Fraszh saying he was sorry, like he had anything to do with anything. What a sweet guy. She touched his arm. “Hey, you didn’t DO anything. This doesn’t have anything to do with you.”
Fraser licked his lips and raised his eyes briefly to look at Ma, who was pouring spaghetti from a pot into colander that was waiting in the kitchen sink. Her back was to them. “I disobeyed your mother. I meddled where I shouldn’t have. If it hadn’t been for me . . .”
Francesca interrupted him. “You’re not the cause of this, Fraser. It’s been going on for a long time and it’s going to keep on going. Nothing you do makes any difference. Okay?”
She had meant it as a reassurance but the words “Nothing you do makes any difference” were no comfort. He sniffed back the tears he didn’t want to shed in this setting and waited momentarily to see if Ma would react to anything being said between Francesca and himself. Ma was now rinsing the pasta and giving no indication that she was even listening. Displacement, Fraser figured. She’s very upset. Fraser dipped his head in Francesca’s direction in a silent leave-taking before going out of kitchen.
Ray wasn’t in the living room. Fraser went to look for him in Ray’s favourite moping spot – his own bedroom. Failing to find Ray there, Fraser tried out Ray’s second favourite moping spot – the front porch. There he found his friend sitting on the front steps, his elbows resting on his knees and face cupped in his hands.
Ray raised his head and looked around at the sound of the front door opening behind him. As he turned towards Fraser, the Mountie could make out, even in the dim porch light, the tell-tale red of crying around his eyes.
Ray ventured a tiny, sheepish smile. “Don’t worry about all that. Just the usual night’s entertainment in the Vecchio house.”
Fraser settled in on the porch beside his friend. “Your mother’s upset,” he ventured.
“Oh yeah, and I’m calm as hell. Can’t you tell?” He chuckled but there was no mirth in his eyes as he returned his chin to his hands.
“I’m sorry about this, Ray.”
Ray straightened up and swung around to take a good look at Fraser. “You really are. You really are sorry,” he said with some amusement.
“Shouldn’t I be?” Fraser’s question was genuine. That he could have interfered and still had no influence on the subsequent events was a startling idea. He sat for a moment, running the concept through his mind. He went darting into the various corners of his brain, trying to find a context in which to understand Ray’s strange comment. It was a bizarre idea, totally contrary to his upbringing: not being personally responsible for all the woes of the world. Ray’s next words tugged him out of his own head.
“She keeps hoping he’ll return like the prodigal son. Oh God, her precious first-born. I’m nothing, Fraser. I’m the good kid who stays home and doesn’t make any trouble and doesn’t get noticed. In my own house,” Ray mused.
“Your mother loves you, Ray.” The response hadn’t required any real thought. It was simply what Ray needed to hear.
“Yeah, I know. Thing is, knowing doesn’t help.”
“I don’t understand.” And, in truth, Fraser didn’t.
“Better for you if you don’t,” Ray said with finality and reached over to slap his friend’s knee. “Let’s go in and eat.” He stood up.
Fraser sighed. He couldn’t keep up with Ray’s emotional flights and plunges. Outwardly it seemed his friend could leap emotional buildings at a single bound, going from rage to calm and back again as easily as Fraser himself could jump over a fence. Still it felt like there was more here than just the blow up of a Mediterranean temperament. His friend was wounded this time. Somebody had stuck a knife out the window while he was leaping the building and slashed his belly. Now Ray’s resentment was spraying out like blood from the wound.
And nothing I do makes any difference? Can that be true, Fraser wondered as he followed Ray back into the house.
To be continued next time somebody is careless enough to ask for Ray V and Benny and not specify the content.