A Nice scene with Nico:
Nico gripped the steering wheel and muttered a few choice comments to the Lexus driver in front of him going ten MPH under the speed limit. Napa had two seasons: winter and tourist. He wasn’t really griping—visitors bought wine, kept the multitude of eateries full, and pretty much subsidized his lifestyle—he just wished they’d drive faster.
Fifteen minutes later than he’d promised, he turned into the short drive in front of his mother’s one-car garage, but he didn’t get far. His mother’s ancient Subaru Outback squatted in front of the closed door. She left it out on purpose. Festooned with bumper stickers for a variety of causes and the politicians who supported them, the car was a movable billboard for everything Olivia Treviani believed in: literacy, charity, children, the starving, the disenfranchised, stopping the nukes, stopping war with a hug, saving the whales, saving the missions, saving us all from ourselves, but most of all saving the small farms in the Valley.
Nico parked his truck even though half the bed hung out into the street. This far off the beaten track no one would care—if they noticed at all. His mother’s house, a tiny cube tucked out of the way on the road to Geyserville, sported a small porch with two rocking chairs, flower boxes in front of the windows, which his mother kept planted with a riot of color no matter the season, and a bright orange front door. Easy for the paramedics to find, according to his mother. Everything about the place made Nico smile … except the second rocking chair with the worn cushion and the cigarette stains on the armrests.
Wiping his feet out of habit, he pushed open the door and leaned in. “Anybody home?” No one answered, so he followed the light and laughter back to the kitchen.
A rectangular room running the length of the small house, the kitchen was filled with light and wonderful aromas of something sweet baking. Piles of pots and pans grew from the deep commercial sink, spilling onto the countertops to each side in a landslide of stainless steel. A thick creamy batter dripped from the beaters of his mother’s prized Hobart. Thin white powder dusted everything, as if a skiff of snow had blown through when he’d opened the door.
Nico’s mother and her two granddaughters kneeling on stools, giggles burbling, clustered around the island. With studied precision, they peeled cookie dough shapes from the butcher-block top and placed the figures carefully on the cookie sheets. Once populated, the cookie sheets disappeared into the maw of the oven. Nico’s mother set the timer, then replaced the sheets in front of the girls with trays of baked and cooled cookies. Then she pointed as the girls wielded squeeze bottles of frosting in lieu of piping bags, an old trick of his mother’s. Not too long ago the three heads pressed together over cookies had been his, his brother Paolo’s, and his sister Victoria’s. Time telescoped as he watched, memories flooding back.
After a moment, he couldn’t stand it any longer. “Did a flour bomb go off in here, or what?”
“Uncle!” Brooklyn, the eldest of his nieces by two minutes, which she loved to lord over her sister, waved at him with a spatula, flinging batter across the kitchen. Covered in flour, her eyes were dark holes like pieces of coal on a snowman. He thought her shirt was red, but wasn’t sure. “We’re making cookies.”
“Is that what you’re doing?” Nico felt a grin lift the corner of his mouth. Thirteen was such an interesting age—one minute the girls balanced on the precipice of adulthood; the next minute, like now, they seemed to slip back into the giddiness of childhood.
“Gingerbread men, to be exact,” corrected Taryn, the more pragmatic of the two. She was the only one not wearing a coating of white powder. Remaining relatively unsullied by the culinary activities, she had only a single slash of flour across one cheek like a half-painted Indian brave.
Both of them had wild red hair like his sister’s and kind eyes like his brother’s. Their smiles? Nico didn’t know whose smile they had; he hadn’t seen them in a long time. Identical in appearance, yet with personalities as different as the earth and the sky, to Nico they were as beautiful as wild horses and as hard to corral, although his mother didn’t seem to be having any trouble—other than the mess.
“Mother?” Nico bit down on his smile as he adopted a scolding tone.
A tall woman, thin despite her truck-driver appetite, with dark eyes and a generous mouth often curled, as now, in a smile, softening her long face, breathed deep, working for control. Usually impeccably turned-out, she looked like she’d taken the worst of the flour war. Covered from head to toe, her gray hair even whiter with the stuff, her normally olive skin was now pasty and pale, except for the tracks tears had scored down her cheeks. Her mouth formed his name, but laughter drowned the words as she dissolved once again, taking her minions down the road with her.
Nico crossed his arms as he braced himself against the doorframe and waited, working not to laugh, but failing. The three women clung to each other laughing, crying, holding on.
Finally, Brooklyn broke free. Slipping off her stool and stepping around the counter, she flung herself at him, her arms circling his waist, a white cloud enveloping them both. “Oh, Uncle.” She buried her face in his chest.
Stunned, Nico froze. Uncertain and awkward, first with one hand, then the other, he pulled her into him. “Hey, Knucklehead.” When he glanced up, his eyes met his mother’s, full of love, tinged with sadness, buoyed by hope. For the first time since his brother had died he felt … something.
Taryn watched them as her face sobered. She remained rooted to the spot like a princess under a spell, a spell Nico had no idea how to break despite his desperate searching.
He smiled at her, as he gently worked Brooklyn’s arms loose. “Gingerbread men? With frosting?”
Taryn smiled, and Brooklyn moved away but grabbed his hand, pulling him with her. “The frosting’s the best part. Grandmother taught us how to make it, but my arm is killing me.”
Nico smiled at his mother over the girls’ heads. Making the children hand-beat the frosting was an old trick of hers. “Takes some of the stuffing out of you little cannibals,” she had said so many times he didn’t even need to close his eyes to hear her again, to see his brother, full of mischief, and his sister a willing accomplice.
“Your uncle …” His mother’s voice cracked as if she could read his thoughts. She cleared her throat before beginning again. “Your uncle is a bit of a frosting snob.”
“You must try my gingerbread man, then.” Brooklyn presented him with a one-legged figure, heavily dressed in blue frosting, a big pink smile, and green dots for eyes.
Her father’s eyes had been green.
Nico’s chest ached as he fought for breath while trying to maintain his smile. “What happened to his leg?”
“Bailey got it,” Taryn said.
“Bailey?” Nico glanced around, for the first time focusing on the mess in the rest of the kitchen. Several empty bags of flour, torn and tattered, littered the floor. Huge trails of white powder arced across the linoleum. “Where is that mangy cur?” he asked his mother.
“We locked him in the laundry room,” she said, her voice even, her face a mask.
“When we caught him,” Brooklyn added.
“Looks like it was one hell of a battle.”
“Nico. Your language,” his mother admonished.
“Is what it’s always been, Mother.”
She started to say something, then thought better of it.
“Bailey needs a bath,” Taryn added, her eyes wide. “If we wash him, do you think he will turn to glue?”
“That would be the best possible outcome.” Nico undercut his comment with a smile.
“He needs a trainer,” Brooklyn stated what Nico had been saying since his mother bought the puppy right after Paolo’s funeral.
“So does your grandmother.” The woman could run roughshod over three children but couldn’t raise her voice to a puppy.
This got giggles from the girls, which made Nico’s heart light. “Okay,” he let go of Brooklyn’s hand, then clapped and rubbed his together. “Taste-testing time.”
After an hour and more gingerbread men than was good for anybody, Nico rounded up the girls. “Let’s clean this place up. We can’t leave your grandmother to tackle it on her own.”
His mother stopped him with a hand on his arm. “Just this once, let me do it.”
Nico started to argue.
His mother quieted him with a shake of her head. She lowered her voice so the girls who were chattering at the sink as they washed up couldn’t hear. “Sometimes it’s best to leave the party while you’re still having fun.”
“But, Mother, it’s a mess.”
She squared her shoulders. When she did, she could almost meet him eye-to-eye. “I like having children in the house. I like the laughter, the fun, the silliness we somehow forget to allow ourselves as we grow older.”
“They are my responsibility now. I don’t want to impose.”
When his mother shook her head it was with sadness. “You have been our rock, Nico.” She reached out and touched his face. “Share the load, my son. It’s time you started living.”
Living. What did the woman think he’d been doing? “But …”
She stopped him once again with three fingers to his lips and a shake of her head. “No. No buts. I need to care for someone. Let me. You have lost a brother.” She glanced over her shoulder at the girls who still seemed to be occupied with each other and not paying any attention. “They lost their father. And I lost a son. I’m glad your father didn’t have to …” Her voice cracked and she stopped.
Nico pulled his mother into a hug.