The doorbell rang at a time when none of the Vecchios wanted to leave the kitchen to answer it. Ray was performing his duty as head of the family by carving a turkey; Ma was rinsing pasta; Francesca was arranging vegetables on a platter in what she considered an aesthetically pleasing design. Three pair of Vecchio eyes fell upon Fraser who was sitting watching them all from a kitchen chair.
Quite unnecessarily, Ma prompted him. “Caro?”
Fraser was already getting up and heading to the door. In two years of hanging around the Vecchio house he had learned which tasks were appropriate and appreciated and which were not. Any attempt to help with cooking or cleaning would win him a scolding. Shows of strength such as jar opening were best left to Ray, as “man of the house”. “Gopher” was a job that all the Vecchios loved him to do: gopher polenta, as he had that very first evening, gopher another jar of oregano from the pantry, a dry dish towel from the linen cupboard, a ringing telephone, a doorbell.
Fraser opened the door and for the first instant was startled to see Ray standing outside on the doorstep. This was impossible since Fraser knew his friend was in the kitchen. After a few beats Fraser saw it was not Ray, but a condensed version, as though the Ray he knew had been boiled down into a more concentrated form. He was shorter, thinner and older than Ray – obviously a close relative.
Before Fraser had time to say anything, the man blurted out a belligerent “Who the hell are you?”
Since Fraser was the one answering the door, representing the household, as it were, it seemed inappropriate for the visitor to be the one asking that. Still, habit won out and without thinking Fraser supplied his standard, “Benton Fraser, Royal Canadian Mounted Police.”
The man leaned forward just a little and studied Fraser’s face. His expression was not at all friendly. “I’m seen you before.” he announced. His accusing tone made Fraser wonder guiltily what this fellow had seen him doing.
Francesca’s voice rang out from the kitchen. “Fraszh! Who is it?”
“It’s me, Frannie!” the man yelled back. He pushed past Fraser into the vestibule. Fraser, sensing himself protector of the household, caught him by the arm and held him. The man didn’t try to shake him off. He only turned and glared. “I saw you in the papers a few months ago, that’s where I saw you. You saved the world or something.”
“Not quite the whole world, but a lot of people. Ray and I saved them.”
The mention of Ray didn’t seem to improve this relative’s mood. “Like I believe that. Now get your paws off me or so help me I’ll . . .”
He was interrupted by the appearance of all the family. They all stood staring at each other. Ray spoke first. “So it’s you.”
This was identification enough for Fraser to let go of the man and just wait to see what would happen.
Tears came to Ma Vecchio’s eyes. She extended her arms wide and the man moved in for a tight hug. “Michael, Michael, after so long . . .” she cried, rocking back and forth as she held him. The man, now identified as Michael, dropped all belligerence, clutched her and buried his face in her bosom.
Ray was unmoved by this tender scene. “What the hell are you doing here?”
Ma caressed Michael’s dark hair, which was just fractionally sparser than Ray’s hair. “This is no way to talk to your older brother.” To Michael she said, “Come, caro, into the kitchen.”
“Now just hold it a minute,” said Ray, “Who says he’s welcome in this house?”
“I say,” countered Ma, and kissed the top of Michael’s bent head. “Did you come all alone, Michael? Where are Lina and the children?”
Michael Vecchio’s voice, just a fraction lower than Ray’s, was muffled by his mother’s chest. “They’re home. Lina threw me out. She’s got a court injunction to keep me away.”
Francesca breathed a sympathetic “Ooh.”
But Ray fairly spat his next words. “What? Were you beating up on her?”
Michael gave his answer with a sob. “Yes.”
Fraser was fascinated. So, this was the brother Ray had mentioned once and only once. He tried to glean what he could from what was happening before him in the vestibule. Ma was being typically Ma, cherishing her boy. Ray was steaming; the bad blood between the brothers must go way back. Francesca’s reaction was out of her usual character. She was at a loss, saying nothing, her face a study in confusion. Usually the tiny woman held definite views on any subject and made these views loudly known. But here, by the door with two angry brothers and a conciliatory mother, she didn’t seem to know how to react.
He hadn’t thought of it before but now it struck Fraser that he’d never heard the name Michael or any talk of this brother from any of the Vecchios. Michael couldn’t be completely estranged from the family; they knew of his wife and children and Ray had been able to guess at the cause of the domestic trouble. And yet they must all see one another quite seldom, hence Ma’s exclamation “After so long!”
Even as Fraser was thinking this, Ma started moving Michael towards the kitchen, her arms still wrapped protectively around him. “Come, you’ll eat something and tell me all about it.” Francesca seemed relieved that the tension was being broken by definite action and fell in beside her brother on his other side. Together they escorted Michael safely past Ray who stood rooted to the floor, his eyes blazing with anger.
“Benito, Raymondo, come along. It’s dinner time,” Ma commanded without turning around as she moved her group towards her own domain.
Ray astounded Fraser by saying, calmly. “I won’t sit at the same table with him.” The declaration itself was not as much of a surprise as Ray’s low, even tone. It chilled Fraser, so different was it from Ray’s usual annoyed whine when he was upset. Here was anger so cold and firm that even his own mother accepted it and didn’t argue.
“As you wish,” she answered mildly, still not turning around.
Ray spun away from the rest of the family and bolted through the front door. Fraser found himself faced with the choice of following his friend or obeying Ma and joining the procession to the kitchen. As much as he wanted to go with Ray, Fraser knew disobeying Ma was not something to be undertaken lightly so he was at a loss. Ma settled things for him by pausing her entourage briefly, turning her head and saying, “Stay with him. He’s upset.” She headed off again then again stopped. “I’ll give you both something later,” she added, lest they think she was going to let them go unfed.
Fraser went through the front door to see that Ray had gone no further than the front steps, where he sat staring out into the darkening street. The Mountie sat on the step beside his friend and waited. Night was just falling and neighbours were calling their children in to dinner. From time to time a car would pull into a driveway as somebody came home from work. Ray sat looking out into the street. He was hunched forward with his elbows on his knees, his hands cupped loosely. For several minutes he ignored Fraser and the Mountie didn’t push him.
It was fully dark and all the kids of the neighbourhood were inside before Ray finally spoke. “He’s just like Pop. God knows what he must have done to Lina and the kids before she finally threw him out. You want to know why I hate him so much? My brother, I mean. You want to know why?”
Fraser shrugged just enough for it to qualify as a signal for Ray to speak on.
“Because I know that was almost me. It was so hard – with Angie – to control myself, you know? I wanted so much to hit her sometimes.”
“Did you?” It was something Fraser had been wondering ever since he learned about Ray’s abused childhood. Violent men often raised violent sons and Fraser had from time to time reflected on whether heredity or upbringing was at work in these cases. Had this been part of the breakup of Ray’s marriage? Fraser and Ray had known each other more than a year before Ray had ever even mentioned Angie and none of the other Vecchios spoke of her, so Fraser had considered it the better part of friendship not to ask. But tonight it seemed appropriate.
Ray shook his head. “Not even once. And what kills me is – Michael had the nerve to . . . “ Ray halted abruptly. He sat up and looked directly at Fraser for the first time since coming out onto the porch. “Come on, let’s go inside and get something to eat. Big happy family, right?”
“We can stay out here and talk. I’m not all that hungry,” Fraser said, hoping to keep Ray talking while at the same time realizing he would probably fail. Ray had hit a “clam-up point” and it wouldn’t be much help to push him at this time. Confident that he would learn later what Michael had the nerve to do, Fraser gave his friend’s shoulder a brief pat and stood up.
Michael looked up from his plate as Ray and Fraser came into the kitchen. “You’re finished your tantrum, little brother? So get ready to blow another gasket. I’m going to have to sleep here. I can’t pay for a hotel. Lina wouldn’t even let me back in to get my wallet. I’ve nothing but the clothes on my back and my car. She’s making me wait until she talks to a lawyer before letting me anywhere near the house.”
“How is it you have the car, caro?”
“I was coming home from work. I still had the car keys in my hand and she stopped me from coming in the door. Damn the bitch, she asked me for my wallet first, then slammed the door in my face. Next thing I knew a couple of stinking cops were escorting me off my own porch. I can’t believe she actually took my wallet!” Michael cried.
“So you couldn’t skip town, I guess,” Ray said. “And by the way, I’m a stinking cop.”
Fraser spoke up before Michael had a chance to answer. “It seems to me, Mr. Vecchio, that your wife might give you just a few emergency things if she were approached by a neutral party on your behalf.”
“Oh it seems to you, does it?” Michael mocked.
Fraser made an effort not to take offense. The man was obviously hurting and couldn’t be blamed for lashing out. He was in need of help.
“Perhaps if I came with you, she might at least let you have a few of your belongings.”
They all watched Michael while he speared a piece of turkey breast with his fork, dipped it in gravy, conveyed it to his mouth and sat chewing it, thoughtfully. “I guess I don’t have anything to lose. Sure.”
“Well, then that’s settled. You’ll get your wallet, drop Benito back off here for his dinner, and then go on to a hotel.”
It was only then that Fraser realized the depth of animosity between Michael and Ray. Ma was tacitly saying that it would be better if the older son did not remain in the house.
I’ve helped so many strangers, Fraser thought. It’s like the Inspector says, I always interfere. These people are my family. I have to do something.
The home of Michael Vecchio was a twenty-minute drive from Ray’s house. As they drove, a question occurred to Fraser and he put it to the older Vecchio brother who had been driving in silence. He knew his inquiries would border upon being rude, and he shuddered inwardly at the thought, but he would have to probe to get any information. It was in a good cause, he assured himself.
“You are the eldest child, correct?” Fraser began.
“Yeah. What’s it to you?”
Fraser let that pass. Determined to be helpful, he took the man’s rudeness as evidence of how distressed Michael must be, rather than an indication of bad will. “I was just wondering why your father didn’t leave the house to you, as I understand is customary.”
“Pop changed his will,” Michael answered tersely. “He cut me out because I was an evil child.”
“Why? For striking your wife? Forgive me for mentioning it but I happen to know he did the same himself.”
Michael pulled to a stop at a red light. He turned and gave Fraser close attention for the first time during the trip. “You know my family pretty well.”
“I think of Ray as my brother and Ma as my mother.” He avoided mention of Francesca.
The belligerence, which had faded for a little while, came back. “Who said you could call her ‘Ma’?”
“She did,” replied Fraser, mildly.
“She would,” snarled Michael, driving again as the light turned green. “She’ll put up with any kind of crap. That’s why they hate me, you know. I tried to stop them from putting up with Pop’s crap, but they all took his side against me.”
He said no more and Fraser sat with his own thoughts while they continued the drive. Any reasonable person couldn’t consider showing affection to Ma to be “crap”. Michael must have a deep grievance to make him react that way.
They drove along some side streets and then Michael pulled into the driveway of a bungalow. It was a younger house than the Vecchio home, built no more than ten years ago, a typical suburban home.
“Perhaps you’d be wiser to park on the street,” Fraser suggested as Michael was turning off the car engine.
“Are you nuts? This is my own driveway!”
“Mr. Vecchio, our task here is to make your wife feel kindly towards you and agree to let you have your belongings. Since she has made it clear she doesn’t want you in the house, parking in the driveway may appear provocative. It’s only a small gesture, after all, to park in the street and it may make her feel more secure.”
Michael cursed, but he restarted the engine, reared out of the driveway with a squeal of tires and pulled into place along the sidewalk. “Right, what now?” he demanded.
“Keep the engine running,” advised Fraser. “That will give her the impression that you don’t intend to stay long. Again, a small gesture to ease the situation. I’ll go speak to her. And remember, whatever happens, don’t leave the car.”
Fraser took his Stetson from the dashboard, settled it on his head and got out of the car. As he approached the front walk, Michael rolled down his window and called after him. “I want my wallet, and my passport, and some clothes. And I need my laptop - that belongs to the office. Oh, and my bankcard is in the top drawer of the bed table. And there’s an extra set of car keys on a hook by the door. Make sure she gives you those.”
Fraser stopped and answered the man back. “I’m not in a position to make sure she does anything, Mr. Vecchio. I’m going to ask her to give you as much as I can persuade her to give you, but you must realize she’s under no legal compulsion to do so.”
“You’re a cop, aren’t you?”
“Not in this jurisdiction.”
With this, Fraser strode up the walkway to the bungalow’s front door. A first ringing of the doorbell brought no answer, but from the lights in the window and the sounds of a Harry Potter video inside, he knew the family was at home. The action music of the quidditch scene seemed to be drowning out the buzzer. He tried a few more times and then rapped with his knuckles on the door. At last a woman wearing a housecoat and bedroom slippers came to answer.
Fraser noted her face, haggard with black circles under her eyes. There was a scratch, some six centimeters long, across her right cheek. The housecoat was short-sleeved and involuntarily, Fraser glanced at the woman’s arms and noticed bruises. He felt an instant animosity for the man waiting in the car, and then made an effort to detach. He was here to help, not pass judgment. He was glad it had not been a child that answered the door. Fraser knew if he had seen evidence of violence on one of the children he wouldn’t have been able to continue pleading anything on behalf of Michael Vecchio.
Michael watched the scene on the doorstep through his car window. He saw Fraser buzz and buzz and finally knock. Lina came to the door and Michael watched Fraser’s gestures as he talked to her. Fraser was waggling his arms gently in explanation and then turned to wave an arm towards the car where Michael sat.
Lina looked where Fraser had indicated and started saying something. Michael couldn’t hear what was being said, nor could he see the expression on Lina’s face, but he saw her put her hands defiantly on her hips and vigorously shake her head. He saw Fraser’s spread his hands in a helpless, placating manner. He was about to shout out the window to Fraser to stop begging when he saw Lina throw out her arm, pointing towards the car. Fraser started again talking and waving.
Lina threw her hands into the air in exasperation, whirled around and went back into the house, leaving Fraser alone on the doorstep. After a few moments she returned and handed something small to the Mountie. Fraser nodded, touched his hat brim, executed a sharp about face and marched resolutely back to the car.
With the fluid accustomed motion of getting into a Vecchio vehicle, Fraser pulled open the shotgun seat door, tossed his Stetson onto the dashboard and settled in. He held out a wallet in Michael’s direction. “She says you can have your wallet and credit cards, but she’s keeping the bank card and your passport and, well, everything else for the time being. Perhaps she’s afraid you’ll clear out the bank account and skip the country.
Michael slipped the wallet into the breast pocket of his jacket. “She doesn’t trust me. The bitch. I never kept money from her. Did she tell you I ever kept money from her?”
No, apparently all you ever did was beat her and the children, Fraser almost said aloud, but maintained his silence. There was no more conversation between them during the drive back to the Vecchio house.
As they drove up, Michael said with a little smile, “Do you think it’s okay for me to go into THIS driveway?” Without waiting for an answer to his quip, he drove into the driveway and parked behind the Riv.
Fraser returned his smile. “Where are you going to go?”
“What do you care?”
Fraser shrugged. “In case Ma asks. You know how she worries.”
“Tell her I’ll stay at The Concord.”
“Would that be the truth?” Fraser asked.
Michael laughed for the first time that evening. “You may think I’m evil, but I would never lie to my mother. I’ll be at The Concord and she can call me there if she wants. Me and Ray used to work there as busboys when we were young.”
Fraser took up his hat, opened the car door and got out.
“Hey, Mountie!” Michael called after him through the open door. “Thanks!”
Fraser gave him a little wave, closed the door and watched him drive away.
Ma and Francesca hovered over Fraser while he ate his way diligently through the smallest portions of turkey and scalloped potatoes he felt he could get away with without insulting his hostesses. He had relayed the events, keeping to the barest of facts, as soon as he came through the door. Ray had not been downstairs waiting, as his mother and sister had been. Francesca explained that he had stormed up to his room shortly after Fraser and Michael left. To Ma’s attempts at placating, he had only cursed through his closed door.
As soon as the last bit of food on his plate had been consumed under the women’s watchful eyes, Fraser stood and announced that he would go speak to Ray. Ma and Francesca each took hold of one of his arms to prevent him from moving from the kitchen.
“Don’t go up there,” Ma pleaded. “It won’t do any good. Leave him alone.”
Fraser protested, “He’s my best friend. I can’t leave him upset like this.”
“No, Benito, please listen to me. Don’t interfere. I know you mean well, but please don’t get involved.”
“Then I’ll go speak to Michael. I know where he’s staying.”
“No! I beg you. Leave them both alone.”
It tore through Fraser to hear the pleading in her voice. “But, Ray’s my brother.”
Ma’s face took on a look of sadness and her eyes teared. She took a gulp before saying, very softly, “Go upstairs, Francesca. Benito and I are going to talk alone.”
Francesca opened her mouth to protest, then decided against making any argument. She went up the stairs to her own room without a word.
Ma, her arm still linked through Fraser’s, led him to the living room and sat him down on the couch. She settled beside him and used her free hand to caress the Mountie’s cheek. “Please don’t make me say things that will hurt you. Just do as I say. Stay away from them both.”
“But, Ma, Ray’s my brother.”
“No, he’s not.”
Fraser’s mouth fell open in astonishment. “Ma . . . “ he began, bleating the single syllable like a calf calling to its mother.
“He’s not your brother and I’m not your mother.” She was crying openly now. “I can’t stand to hurt you like this but I must. To protect my children.”
“But . . .”
“Benito, you know I care for you almost like my own boy. You know I treat you like part of the family. But . . .” she broke into sobs and hid her face briefly in her apron. Then she raised her head, wiped her eyes and carried on. “But you’re not my son. You’re not their brother. There are things that happened in this family that you just haven’t lived through and can’t understand.”
Fraser felt his whole insides suddenly swell and choke his breath. What was she saying? It was literally the truth, she was not his mother, but hearing it made him feel six years old again and being told his mother would never come back to him. Tears began to gather in his eyes.
“I’ve hurt you. I didn’t want to hurt you. But you must trust me. If you care for my family, stay out of this. I know my children. Please.”
Fraser seemed oblivious to her words of pleading. “Not my mother,” he repeated dully, “Not my brother.”
One tear leaked out onto his cheek and Ma used a corner of her apron to wipe it from his face. The apron was still damp from her own tears but she was too distracted by the guilt of hurting Fraser to think of finding a dry spot. “I do care for you, Benito. You must believe that.”
“And I care for all of you. Why won’t you let me help?”
“I know my children,” she repeated. “I know how Michael will react if you say the wrong thing. He’s so like his father. I know you mean well, but you can’t know. You’re just . . .” she paused, not sure what she could say that wouldn’t hurt his feelings further.
“. . . not part of the family.” Fraser fought for control. All we wanted to do was bury his face against her and cry but that would be wrong. She wasn’t his mother. Ray wasn’t his brother. He had to make a dignified exit, somehow, and be alone.
“I should go,” he choked out, finally, and gently took her
arm off his own arm and placed it in her lap.
“Thanks for dinner. Say good-night to Francesca and Ray for me, please.” It took all his concentration to put one foot before the other and make his way carefully to the door by memory. His eyes were too clouded by tears to see his way clearly.
He opened the door and was about to go through it when Ma called after him. “Promise me you won’t talk to Michael. Promise me you’ll leave him alone.”
Fraser ignored her and let himself out. Leaning against the wrought-iron porch railing, he paused to try to think clearly. For thirteen years he had interfered in the lives of strangers as an officer of the law. Family violence was something he knew how to handle. All those years of making peace among families both on duty and off duty – what good were those skills if he couldn’t use them to re-unite the family that he considered his own now?
No, not his own. Fraser shuddered as he remembered Ma’s words “But you’re not my son. You’re not their brother. There are things that happened in this family that you just haven’t lived through and can’t understand.”
As he stood there on the porch in the faint glow of the lights coming through the Vecchio living room window, two disparate and desperate thoughts linked in Fraser’s mind. “I MUST help” and “I’ll show her I DO understand.” With a last glance back toward the Vecchio door, he said out loud “I’ll show you.” Then he left the porch and went into the street.
The Concord Hotel had once been prestigious. But it had crumbled along with the surrounding neighbourhood. Rock music blared into the street from the bar, the parking lot was littered and the paint peeling, both inside and out. Fraser figured it qualified only barely as a place where families on tight budgets and salesmen working on commission might stay and still feel respectable.
Fraser got out of the taxi. Taking it had been an unthinkable extravagance but he knew he wouldn’t be able to walk. Usually a long walk cleared his head and helped him think, but tonight his brain wasn’t working normally.
Fraser paid off the driver and realized he’d left himself without enough cash for a taxi home. It didn’t matter. He had to get through to Michael, make him reconcile with Ray, force them to be brothers again. I’m not Ray’s brother, Michael is. They may not want me, but I have to help them. I will help. I know I can bring them together.
The words chased one around in his mind. He tuned out Ma’s pleading, so determined was he to interfere. That was what he did – always. He may not be Ray’s brother, but he was his partner and friend. I know this family better than you think I do, he told Ma in his mind. I’m going to prove I can help.
A middle-aged clerk at the front desk told him which room number Michael Vecchio was staying in. He leered at Fraser and said, sotto voce, “Whatever he’s paying you, I’ll double it. I get off in ten minutes. Just wait here.” Fraser said nothing and walked away towards the elevator, re-evaluating his assessment of the place as respectable. He passed a house-phone on the way and decided against using it call Michael first. Better to just surprise him than to give him a chance to refuse to see him or sneak away.
“I thanked you for getting my wallet. What else do you want?” Michael stood in the doorway of his hotel room, blocking it. He spoke in exactly the tone that Ray had used two years ago when he had said to Fraser, “Now, is there anything else?” How alike the two brothers were!
“I’d like to talk to you,” said Fraser, simply. “I’d like to help.”
It was a good question and it forced Fraser to think, in that moment, about his motives. He told the truth.
“I need to understand.” That was it. Ma had said that he couldn’t understand. Perhaps if he understood, he might be part of the family, his clouded mind told him.
Michael stepped back and allowed him in. “Okay, sure. Come on in. Why not?”
He waved towards an armchair. Fraser sat down in it and motioned “no” to the bottle to scotch Michael was waving in his face. Michael poured himself a drink. Fraser decided, from watching his motions, that it was not his first drink of the night, but he was not yet drunk. He was glad to have caught the man while he was still coherent.
Michael sat down on the edge of the bed. “I'll tell you a story. Once upon a time there were six bears. A poppa bear, a momma bear, two little boy bears and two little girl bears,” he began.
Eighteen-year-old Michael Vecchio wanted to think of himself as the man of the house. Pop wasn’t any good as a man. Sure, Pop brought in the money that fed them but that didn’t give him the right to slap Ma and the little kids around. And Ma stood for it.
Until just a few months ago, Michael didn’t think there was any way out. But now, from the loftiness of his eighteen years and talking to people at school, he knew. You had rights. You could make a complaint to the police. To the social workers. You could get protection – get away.
Well, today it was going to stop. Today Michael was going to stand up to Pop and the first time Pop raised a hand to any of them Michael would clobber him. I’m not a child anymore, Michael told himself, and I’m as big as he is now. Today, he goes down. And then, I take Ma and the little ones away. We get out.
It hadn’t happened as he fantasized it. Pop had come home a little earlier and a little less drunk than usual. Ma was at the stove, rushing to get dinner ready for him ahead of schedule. They quarreled. Michael didn’t pay attention to what it was about. It never mattered what it was about. The pattern was always the same: Pop would accuse, Ma would protest, he would yell, she would whimper, he would raise his fist, or his open palm and it would begin as it always did. But not this time, young Michael told himself as he waited for the crucial moment.
The moment came. But Pop was more sober than Michael had expected. When the boy jumped between his parents and tried to get a swing against his father, the older man was aware enough to block it. Michael was as tall as his father, but scrawny. Arthur Vecchio had him on the ground and bloodied in short order. Then the older man stormed out, leaving the boy on the kitchen floor. “Don’t you touch him, Gwen. He deserves every bit of it. A boy attacking his father! He’s lucky I didn’t kill him!”
Ma actually waited until Pop was safely out of the house before dropping to the floor beside her son. Michael never forgot that delay. It showed him just how afraid Ma was. She didn’t even dare take care of her oldest child while Pop was in the house.
Ma cleaned him and bandaged him and put him to bed. She gave him soup through a straw, so sore was his jaw from the bashing he’d received. And that was when he said it. Ray and the girls were in the room listening and watching while Ma gave him soup and that’s when Michael made his pronouncement. He was going to walk out of the house and take his mother and siblings with him. They had to get away. He declared it with the full authority of his teenaged arrogance, “Ma, I’m taking you out of here. You and Ray and Maria and Francesca. We’re getting away.”
He was stunned by her refusal. It didn’t make sense. Well into the night he argued and pleaded, although it hurt his battered face to talk. He tried to make her see reason. The little kids listened in fascination but not really understanding the fight between their big brother and their mother. She could not leave and he could not accept it.
In the end he had crawled out of bed, still sore, and packed a bag. Now it was his mother’s turn to beg and plead but Michael was too angry and humiliated to back down. He left his sobbing mother and stunned siblings and spent his first night away with his Aunt Rosa, a mere six blocks away.
When Arthur came home again, much later and much drunker, Gwen summoned enough courage to refuse to tell him where the boy had gone. She paid for this gallantry with a broken rib.
Fraser imagined this all from little Raymondo’s point of view. He wouldn’t understand much except his big brother had run away, and if his big brother had stayed home his mother wouldn’t be in the hospital. His heart broke as he saw how it must have been through Ray’s eyes.
Fraser continued to be mesmerized as Michael told how he got by during those first couple of difficult years, earning a living with odd jobs and still managing to finish high school. Then came the story of how Lina came into his life, how they married and settled and started a family.
“And that’s when it started, when the kids came. That’s when I started losing it. It wasn’t so bad at first, I could control myself. But stuff got harder and harder to take and I started to understand a little what Pop felt. I tried not to hit them, damn it. But it got to be too much. Ray’s so fucking high and mighty. He hasn’t got kids. He doesn’t know what it’s like, having all that pressure.”
So, the pattern of abuse continues, mused Fraser. He began to see Ray’s anger. After running away to avoid the family violence, this brother was only perpetuating the same with his own family. Here was a man with everything Fraser himself yearned for. Even in his fascination with the story he was hearing of Ray’s family, he still smarted from Ma’s words. “You’re not my son. You’re not their brother.”
“But you see the family sometimes,” Fraser probed. “They know about your wife and children.”
“Weddings, christenings, funerals, that’s when I see them. Except one funeral. When Pop died, I didn’t go.”
Fraser was horrified. “Your own father? Didn’t you think your mother would need you?”
Michael had been drinking while telling his tale and only a little bit of liquid remained in the bottom of the bottle of scotch. He downed it in a gulp. “She doesn’t want my help. None of them do. Not back then and not now.” Michael stood up and tossed the empty liquor bottle into a wastebasket.
I always look for the good in people, Fraser thought. Somewhere in Michael was the loving, hurt son that had stormed out years ago out of the frustration of being unable to help his family. And something had happened to twist and gnarl Michael into the same kind of man he had hated back then.
It unnerved Fraser, as he sat looking at Ray’s brother, how much the two brothers looked alike. Even unsteady from drinking, Michael’s stance and gestures were eerily like those of his brother. “That was almost me,” Ray had said.
Fraser stood up. He paced the room as if it were his own, deep in thought. Michael Vecchio wasn’t talking like an evil man. He’d had a difficult past, as Ray and all the Vecchios had, but there was no sympathy at this moment for him in Fraser’s soul. Fraser was puzzled by his own reaction. Why hadn’t he any pity for the older Vecchio – for the man that Ray had narrowly missed becoming himself?
The answer came to him as he paced. Because this man abused a loving family when he, Fraser, had been deprived of one. Not only years ago, but again tonight. With other people’s families, it hadn’t seemed to make a difference. Ray could have become as his brother was now. It was an image too horrible for Fraser to face.
At this thought, Fraser stopped his pacing and made himself see a truth. He hadn’t really been rejected. Ray’s mother still cared for him. He regretted now going against her wishes. Ma had been right that he shouldn’t try to interfere, but for the wrong reason. I’m too close to them to be able to help, he decided. I shouldn’t hate Michael Vecchio, but, God forgive me, I do. I’ve seen men hurt their families but they’ve always been strangers. I could always detach. This time I can’t.
Michael peered at him through eyes now blurry with drink. “Aren’t you going to say something?”
Fraser knew what he should say. Michael wasn’t yet drunk enough to rule out being given a lecture about getting counseling. Or maybe he could be told an Inuit story to warn about the risk of Michael’s own children perpetuating violence with their own future families. The Mountie had all the material at hand for a fine speech but hadn’t the heart to deliver it. Michael would have heard all of it already. He’d known it since he was eighteen years old.
Fraser remained silent. He didn’t think there was anything for him to accomplish here. He’d finally met a man that he couldn’t make excuses for. The best thing would be to get out before saying anything damaging.
“Well, don’t just stand there and look at me. Don’t you have anything to say?” Michael insisted.
“I wish I did,” Fraser confessed. “I usually tell people Inuit stories and make them regret their past. Until now it always worked. I had one all ready to tell you, but I don’t think it would do any good.”
Michael looked puzzled at this. “You could tell me anyway. I’d listen. You’re going to make me see the error of my ways and send me back to my family, right?”
“No!” Fraser blurted out, alarmed at the very thought of this man getting near his wife and children. His denial was so sudden and vehement that the other man recoiled from it, as though from a physical blow. “I came here to find the good in you and show it to Ray.”
The drink was now taking its toll on the man. He grabbed at the front of Fraser’s shirt. “And you found it, didn't you? You see the good in me, don’t you? Don’t you? ”
Fraser couldn't lie. “I think I see where it used to be,” he said, sadly.
“You think I’m a monster.”
“I don’t like to think of any man as a monster,” Fraser sought for something to say that could be encouraging and yet still be the truth. “I suppose anyone can change. ”
It seemed a safe enough comment but Michael, even in his present state, could hear the Mountie's lack of conviction.
“Don't give me that bullshit. Me! I'm talking about me!” the profanity was only from force of habit. The man was pleading.
But Fraser was now too sick at heart to tell this desperate man what he wanted to hear. Perhaps the man could change, but Fraser couldn’t bring himself to give Michael the assurance he craved. There might be something of the well-meaning, damaged boy in Michael Vecchio but it was hidden from Fraser in the enormity of his later crime.
“I'd better go,” Fraser said, gently lifting Michael’s hands off his clothes. With a last pathetic look at Ray’s brother, he let himself out of the hotel room. It didn’t matter than he had no cab fare home. Nor did it occur to him to take a bus. He walked the miles back to his apartment in a daze and it was nearly dawn by the time he arrived.
Ray didn’t call the next day or night, leaving Fraser to wonder if there had been any aftermath from the hotel encounter. Perhaps Ma need never know he had tried to interfere and failed to do any good. He should have trusted her judgment. Tempting as it was to avoid the Vecchios, Fraser steeled himself to call the 27th the following morning and ask if he might come to Ray’s house in the evening.
Ray’s “Sure, I’ll pick you after work” sounded normal, but still Fraser fretted all the rest of the workday and made a muddle of every report he picked up.
Right at five, Fraser heard a honking horn outside the consulate door and went out to find Ray waiting in the Riv.
“I better warn you,” Ray said as Fraser got into the car, “Ma’s not in the greatest mood. We got a note from Michael in the mailbox. Nobody saw him leave it.”
“Oh. What’s in it?” Fraser managed to say and hoped Ray wouldn’t catch on to how worried he was. Ray seemed none the worse for the high drama of two days ago. Had Ma known that would be the case when she prevented Fraser from talking to Ray that night? Had she known he’d calm down on his own and no harm done? Then, she was right when she said she knew her children. It made Fraser regret all the more his visit to Michael Vecchio and all the more fearful of what may have happened. If Ray was now feeling better and the older Vecchio’s family safe from his abuse, what good had there been in Fraser’s attempt? The interfering, do-gooder Mountie. It was a role he would have to re-evaluate.
“That’s the thing. I don’t know what it says. Ma wouldn’t tell me over the phone.” Ray went on, oblivious to Fraser’s tension. “I’m telling you, don’t expect a nice relaxing evening tonight, Benny.”
“Then maybe you’d better just take me home, if your mother’s not in the mood for company.”
“You’re not company, you’re family.” Ray said, as though this were a simple fact.
Fraser shivered and took his Stetson from where he had placed it, as usual, on the dashboard and held it like a security blanket all through the drive to the Vecchio house.
Fraser resolved to ask nothing and wait for Ma to let him know just how much she was aware of Fraser’s interaction with Michael. He didn’t have to wait long. He came into the house as he always did, trailing a little behind Ray so that Ma could kiss the cheeks of first her son and then himself as they filed in to the kitchen. Fraser only got a dry brush of her lips instead of the customary noisy, wet, smooch.
As soon as his mother had finished greeting them, Ray demanded “So, don’t keep us waiting. What does the son-of-a-bitch have to say?”
Francesca rolled her eyes. “You’re insulting Ma, you realize,” she said, bringing the literal meaning of that expression to all their attention.
Ma wiped her hands on a dishcloth and sat down at the kitchen table. “Don’t curse in the house, Raymondo,” she said, absently. The she turned to the Mountie. “The note is on the living room table. Would you go get it please, Fraser?”
“Fraser”, not “Benito”. A jolt of tension shot through the room. Ma got up from the table to hang her apron on a hook in the pantry. Ray took advantage of this to lean over and whisper to his sister, “What’s going on?”
“I don’t know. She’s been cross since she read the note,” Francesca whispered back.
“Okay, but why’s she mad at Benny?”
Francesca shrugged. “We’ll find out, I guess.”
If Ma heard this conversation, she didn’t show it. She returned to the table, sat down and waited, hands folded in her lap, until Fraser returned with the envelope. He handed the envelope to her and she took it without a word. Fraser, Ray and Francesca sat down with her to listen. Before starting to read, Ma looked up and caught Fraser’s eye with a look he’d never seen her direct at him before. It was anger. She frowned in his direction and he flinched under her gaze.
“Here’s what he says,” Ma began and started reading:
“I used to think I was justified in everything I did in the past and everything I’m doing now. But that Mountie, Fraser, made me realize how wrong I was. He made me see I’m no better than Pop. I was only kidding myself. Lina and the kids will be better off without me and I’ve written to her to tell her that she doesn’t have to worry about me bothering them anymore.”
“What’s he talking about?” Ray interrupted. “What does Fraser have to do with anything?”
“After Michael left here, Fraser wanted to go talk to him,” Ma told them.
Francesca whirled in her chair around to face the Mountie. “Why, Fraszh?”
Fraser felt himself shrinking. “I wanted to help. “ The words sounded lame.
“And I asked him not to. I begged him not to,” said Ma. Her face was grim but composed. She creased and uncreased the paper in her hands, keeping her eyes fixed on Fraser as she said, “Now listen to the rest.” She went back to her reading.
“Don’t expect to hear from me again. If I decide to go on living, I’ll get a lawyer to arrange everything with Lina so she won’t have to talk to me either.
I haven’t decided whether to kill myself or not. There’s plenty of insurance and Lina knows where all the policies are, so that’s no problem. Anyway, I’ll have my wallet on me so the police will let her know. Tell Fraser thanks again for getting it.”
Ma folded the note and tossed it to the kitchen table. Ray and Francesca followed their mother’s glare to look at Fraser.
Fraser didn’t dare look away from Ma’s accusing stare. “I interfered,” he whispered.