by Patricia Florio
My mother told the same story about her brother Mac so many times she made him a legend in his own time. Legend or loser, sometimes I can’t make up my own mind which letter “L” fits him best.
In the 1940s, my Uncle Mac studied ballroom dancing. If you’ve ever watched Dancing with the Stars, Mac could have been any one of those slender men with picture-perfect posture, slicked-back shiny hair, tight butt, gliding a skimpily-clad woman onto the dance floor. The precision of his movement, his grace and ease, his muscular torso could make a woman do crazy things. And Rachael McKenna had been driven insane with her desire for him.
Rachael’s encounter with Mac took place on an East Village street corner, Christopher Street and Broadway, directly beneath the dance studio where Mac practiced every Saturday. The story goes that Rachael McKenna strutted up to Mac in a most demure way, like Greta Garbo, sashaying over to where he stood that balmy summer afternoon.
My mother swears that Rachael McKenna lured her brother back to her apartment on the lower East side of Manhattan. It seems Mac never made it up the long flight of steps to the dance studio for practice that day with his regular partner, and somewhat sweetheart Gina. He seems he never even gave Gina the benefit of a cancellation.
Rachael, knowing that this might be her only chance to lure Mac away from his star-studded dance partner, thrust her arm into Mac’s and walked joyfully away from Christopher Street.
At her apartment, and I can’t even image how my mother knows all of his, Rachael hiked up her satin black skirt up over her knees, and crossed her legs. She teased Mac sitting comfortably on her white leather couch, to come hither using her index finger to beckon him. Mac, like a man hypnotized by a rare perfume, rose from his seat opposite Rachael from the parlor chair, walked across the room and sat alongside the provocative beauty.
Rachael’s body possessed smooth fine lines and defining curves in all the right places. Her hair was as thick and as black as a raven; ringlets framed her porcelain face. Her eyes were a deep brown with yellow flecks in the irises. They peered into Mac’s eyes looking like two rare gems.
Rachael reached for a bottle on the cocktail table in front of her and poured out two golden thimble-sized portions of single-malt scotch. She handed Mac the small glass. Their eyes connected in a silent toast while Rachael smiled coyly at Mac flapping her big bedroom eyes. Mac put the shot glass to his lips and just sipped at first. He had never tasted scotch as smooth as velvet before. He tossed the golden liquid back and swallowed, the fire in his belly went straight to his head. Mac looked into Rachael’s stunning eyes and her beautiful face. She certainly knew how to intoxicate a man. And Mac, a sweet innocent boy, just barely eighteen, couldn’t help but give into her prowess. Before Mac knew what happened, the sun went down over the East River as tug boats blasts woke him to his senses in none other than Rachel’s bed.
It was seven o’clock in the evening. His mother, my matronly grandmother, and old-fashioned busy body, hid beneath the drawn drapes on the second floor landing hoping neighbors wouldn’t see Mac stroll in after the dinner hour. Everyone in the Italian ghetto knew the house rules, very similar to their own. And tonight Mac broke one of the oldest of the house rules; everyone must be seated at the dining room table when Papa comes in from a day’s work at the factory.
My Mother recalls for me her mother’s clasped hands in prayer, behind that window, that Mac would get into the house before the Papa or he’d owe Mama big time for a cover-up. In the Romano family, you didn’t want to owe Mama nothing. She was worse than Shylock, the scorned Jew, in the Merchant of Venice.
Finally, Mac whipped through the front door only minutes before his Papa. Mama looked at him with blazing eyes, greener than the Caribbean, but deeper and darker than midnight. She tugged at his ear, her only boy, her prized possession, and marched him to the table at the snickers of my mother and three other sisters.
“Mama,” he apologized, “I’m so sorry, the lesson ran late. Gina introduced me to a Broadway producer,” he lied. “I danced for him, Mama. He really liked me, Mama. He said I was going places, Mama.”
She unhooked his ear, now the color of a newly picked strawberry, and Mac fumbled, quite ungraceful in his stance, and sat in his usual seat near the head of the table where Papa always sat.
“You’re in trouble,” his sisters chanted. “You’re in big trouble.”
“Sta zita,” Mama said in their county’s tongue, forbidden by Papa at the table, who wanted his children to speak only English. “I say if he’s in trouble,” Mama said staring at her daughters. “No!” she exclaimed, “your brother Mac has done well, and we will tell Papa of his good news after dinner.”
The four sisters made sour faces at Mac. And Mac, still not comfortable with the lie he had told, did not respond. He put his head down as if to pray for the good food they were about to eat and didn’t look up again until Papa walked through the door.
“My children,” Papa said smiling broadly from ear to ear while removing his cap. “Today was a good day for our family. Today I had a visit from an artist friend who will come and paint your portrait.” Papa held up a glass of wine Mama had already placed on the white linen tablecloth in front of him. “To my five precious American born who will do great things in this country, yes?”
“Yes, Papa,” they all answered.
“Good. Girls, go help your mother.” The girls rose in unison, assembly-lined the bowls filled with pasta and roasted pork to the table.
“Mac, pour a glass of wine,” Papa said, “and tell me about practice today.”
The lie now became embellished with a story of a producer who lived in the Village who after seeing Mac’s practice session with Gina had invited Mac to his apartment to see pictures of all the clients he represented on the stages of Broadway. Papa looked gratified at his only son, feeling satisfied that the money he spent on Mac’s instructions had been well placed.
As my Mother continued this tale of her younger brother Mac, I knew from past telling of stories, that my Grandfather Marco had indulged all of his children and not just Mac. The girls always had the latest in fashion and jewelry. I even possessed one of the cameo broaches he bought for his daughters to signify their wealth in America.
On the wall of my Grandparents’ dining room, still today, hangs the studio picture of Mac, with Gina in his arms, taken by a renowned newspaper photographer. The evening of the ‘big lie’ Papa pointed to the picture as he fetched a cigar out of his vest pocket.
“Is Gina excited that the two of you might collaborate on a Broadway stage?” Papa asked. Mac did not expect Papa to ask such a question, and did not have an answer at hand.
“What is it, Mac, did the producer say Gina was not good enough to dance on Broadway?” Mac thought for a few seconds that perhaps Papa had given him the answer.
“Papa, Mr. Ziegfeld did not say anything about Gina dancing in the follies. He only spoke of me as becoming a tap dance routine with a chorus. After all,” Mac continued boldly, “Gina is a dance instructor, not a celebrity.” Mac embellished the story so much that he’d have to write down all of these lies when he got into his bedroom in order to continue the charade.
But the charade would not last long, a couple of months at best, when Rachael would ultimately find Mac on Christopher Street puffing on a cigarette. Only this time not only would the weather turn cold.
Bundled up in a huge camel color coat, Rachael annoyed with Mac asked, “Why haven’t you returned my calls?” Mac looked stunned. “You called my house?” he asked.
“No,” she said, “I’ve spoken to your Papa at the pasta factory. Mac choked on the smoke he inhaled. “I didn’t give my name. I just said I had danced with you recently. I’m surprised no one told you.” Mac mulled this news over in his head momentarily, now spotting Gina walking toward them from Broadway.
That’s when Mac’s life got even more complicated. Gina obviously had seen Rachael in the studio watching Mac dance and now here’s Mac in a romantic huddle with this woman. Gina gave Mac a look of disgust and made her way into the studio.
“Rachael was a twenty-two year old woman, and Mac was a stupid eighteen-year old boy,” my Mother said, going over the story one more time. “Stupid boy,” my Mother reiterated, making her point. “My father,” she continued, “he thought Mac was his golden boy; the boy who would bring fame to the family. Do you know how your grandfather felt when he found out the truth?”
“No,” I said, “but I bet you’re going to tell me.”
“Don’t be fresh,” she said, giving me a nasty look. “These were painful times for our family.” I knew at this point of the story my mother would cry. She always did. I pulled out a wrinkled tissue from my pocket and handed it over to her. She wiped her face, blew her nose, and composed herself. Even though I had heard the story a hundred times, my mother always insisted on finishing it with this last zing.
“She wore a white dress and walked down the aisle of a church, that tramp of your aunt, and had me in the wedding party to boot. Doesn’t that beat everything you’ve ever heard in your life?”
“Yes, Ma,” I said. “Aunt Rachael has big ones,” I added, knowing it would make her feel better.
Poor Uncle Mac, his dance career ended abruptly and permanently. Papa said Mac would have to learn the hard ways of the world now that he was going to be a father himself. Mac would have to go to work and fend for his own family.
My mother now reminds me again that Papa lived only a few months after that blow to his heart. My mother says she’ll never believe what the Doctor Russo said about Papa having a damaged aorta. In her mind, she will always believe that her father died of a broken heart.
The way Aunt Rachael tells the story of my grandfather’s death is so different from my mother’s version. Aunt Rachael says, “Papa died before knowing he had a grandson.”
Of course, the baby was born seven months after the marriage with the white dress walking down the aisle of the church. Rachel said, “He was the tiniest of babies that I struggled to bring into the world. I named him Marco just for Grandpa.” I never repeat the words of Aunt Rachael’s side of the story to my mother, as I’m afraid for my life if she has a sharp object in her hand.