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Fuit Quondam

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I.

She never believed in America.

Partly because she took it for granted; that was what growing up in comfort meant. But it was also because her parents did not have dreams and ambitions for her the way they did for her brothers, and so Connie was never told it was her task to raise the Corleone family to the height of power and American respectability. She was never expected to do anything but marry well and produce adorable grandchildren for her parents to dote on. This would have been the case even if neither of them had ever left Sicily.

"When I was a child", her mother once told her, "I had to get up before dawn to help with the work, and even then we did not know whether there would be enough bread for the day. You are so lucky, Constanzia, living in this country. So spoiled."

That day, her husband had hit her again, though he had been using his belt, and thus her face was free of blemish and expression while Connie listened, and didn't believe a word.


 

II.

"SonnyFredoMikeyConnie", her mother used to call when they were playing in the garden and she wanted them back in the house for dinner, their names melded to one long word. This was when their mother was happy, or at least in a good mood, which was the case more often than not. When she was worried or concerned, she used their name in her own language, and drew a sharp breath after each, effectively separating them .

"Santino. Federico. Michele. Constanzia."

They knew better than not to listen at once when she spoke in that tone. It said something about Connie's standing with her mother that she was Constanzia, not Connie, through the last decade of Carmella Corleone's life. There was displeasure and disappointment in all four syllables, all the time, and it didn't change until the last few weeks before her mother died.

"You must forgive your brother, Connie", her mother said while Connie sat at her side, washing her mother's cancer-ridden body with hands that were carefully manicured and painted with the red lacquer her mother saw as one of many outward signs of Connie's degradation. The use of the old pet name was startling enough that it took Connie a moment longer to understand what her mother said.

"And why is that, Mama?" she asked, without stopping her slow cleansing. "I thought he never did anything wrong, and I was the one who needs to be forgiven?"

"You do need to be forgiven," he mother replied, voice weak and rasping, so unlike the booming sounds that used to call her family to her, "but that is not why." She fell into Italian then, giving up on the intricacies of English. "You have to forgive your brother because it is not he whom you hate. It is your father and mother. You cannot hate the dead, Connie. You must not. You can only love the living."


 

III.

Among the four children of Vito and Carmella Corleone, Connie and Michael were the two closest in age, but they were never the ones closest in affection. This was partly because Connie had taken Michael's place as the family baby, and her arrival puzzled and vexed him, until he realised that for all that Connie was now the one petted by the adults, she was a girl, and thus inherently less important. He once told her this, when he was five and she was three and a half, and Sonny had just given her sweets he hadn't shared with Michael. She scowled at Michael and then declared triumphantly:

"But I'm the only girl! Mama and Papa have so many boys, but just one girl!"

He returned her scowl. In truth, they were not only competing for the adults but for Sonny, who was the best older brother one could wish for, always ready to play, to tickle and make them scream with laughter, and whom they had to share not only with each other but also Fredo and Tom. They minded Tom especially; he was as old and big as Sonny, which gave him an inherent advantage over them, and Sonny had brought him home one day to keep when Michael hadn't even been allowed to keep the cat he'd picked up in the streets because it made his nose run and Connie had had no luck arguing for a pony. Now Tom was living with them, in Sonny's room, and their parents sighed to each other over what a quiet , smart, respectful boy he was. They even told Fredo, Connie and Michael that Tom was to be regarded as their new brother.

"Yes, Papa", Fredo said, because Fredo did never anything else. Connie and Michael shared a look; it was one of the few times when they knew exactly what the other thought, and heartily agreed. They pouted with identical expressions.
"You are so lucky, children", their mother said in Italian. "Those whom heaven blesses have to share, not be greedy."

Their mother, of course, did not have to put up with Sonny wandering off to play knights with Tom and telling both Michael and Connie they were too small to be anything but squires.

Years later, Tom introduced his girlfriend Theresa to them all and told her, a bit too fervently, how wonderfully generous the Corleone family had been to him, how they had accepted him as one of their own from the moment Sonny brought him into the house. Sonny grinned and said something about Tom bailing him out of trouble from the start, because he hadn't been allowed to wander the streeets on his own that day and would have caught hell from his parents if he hadn't returned with a poor orphan as a distraction. Fredo said something nobody ever remembered. Connie and Michael looked at each other and had another of their rare moments of understanding each other perfectly, and in a way that made them uncomfortable about themselves.

Nobody liked to look into a possessive, selfish mirror. No wonder the two of them always loved Sonny best.


 

IV.

They remembered their childhood quite differently, though, Connie and Michael. One day, it couldn't have been too long before the death of their brother Fredo, because it was still fall, the autumn leaves were covering every last trace of Kay ever having lived at Lake Tahoe and Connie hadn't persuaded Michael yet to return to New York, he made an off hand remark about her having been the favourite. It was only half a sentence, something along the lines of "I can't let Mary do that; Papa would never have allowed you to, and you were the favourite". But Connie, who had studiously avoided arguments with Michael ever since he agreed to her living with him at their mother's funeral, said: "I wasn't. You were."

Michael gave a good impression of turning into stone in those days. He couldn't handle Kay leaving him, or their mother dying, and despite having given in to Connie's pleas to allow Fredo in his presence again, he still avoided him whenever possible. And yet, instead of wandering off distractedly or sinking into another silence, he said: "Connie, you were his darling girl. His little princess. He even let you run in and out of his office when he was doing business while you were a child. The rest of us would never have dared to."

She didn't say that the rest of them were allowed in the office later, when they were old enough to understand what was done there, whereas Connie had been banished once she was past the adorable little girl stage. Instead, she looked at her hands, at the fingers which were much thinner than their mother's and had cleaned her sick body so recently, thought about her mother's dying words and about the day her own son was baptized.

"I was his little princess", she said without looking up. "And the first time my husband hit me, I came back to him and to Mama. My left eye was swollen up. That's what I showed them. I thought he would put the fear of God into Carlo. Instead, he asked me what I had done. What I had done, you understand. He said I was Carlo's wife now, and couldn't run back to my parents whenever I felt like it. I asked him whether he had ever hit his wife. He said: 'No, but she never gave me cause.' And she, she smiled and nodded. Both of them, they told me it was my fault if Carlo hit me. I couldn't have been a good wife."

She had never mentioned Carlo's name in Michael's presence ever since the time she accused Michael of killing him. He said nothing.

"So I went back", Connie said. "To my husband, who knew then that he could do with me what he wanted, that my father had given his blessing. He thought it was his right. I thought so, too. Papa had said it was so, and that it had been my fault, and Mama had said the same. And we believed everything Papa and Mama told us, didn't we, Michael? That's how much of his favourite I was."

"What happens between a man and his wife...." Michael said and didn't continue. At last, she looked at him. His face was grey. Kay hadn't told her the details of what happened when she left. But it had to have been something beyond all precedent, or Michael would not have let her go.

"He hit me two or three times a week", Connie said, "for nearly eight months. Tell me Papa would have let that happen to you, or Sonny, or Fredo. Go on. Tell me."

"Sonny didn't let it happen", Michael said, face no longer smooth like stone but worked up like a thundercloud, and in his voice, she could hear it, the accusation no one ever flung at her, except Sandra the once, and she'd been drunk. "You were his favourite", Michael said, and it was Sonny's dead body between them, not Carlo's. Because Sonny died for Connie, and his death took any chance Michael had not to live their father's life with it.


 

V.

Sonny had followed their father in secret and watched Vito Corleone's first murder when he'd been a child. It was Sonny who told the rest of them, years later, and each in a different way, what their father truly did for a living. He told Fredo when Fredo was being taunted at school for being Italian, something nobody dared with Sonny because Sonny was famous for hitting first and asking questions later even as a boy. He told Michael when Michael asked, because Michael made it clear he would ask Papa and Mama next if Sonny didn't tell him. And he told Connie the time she got lost on Coney Island and wasn't found until hours later, by four armed men who otherwise had just been shadowy presences occasionally coming and leaving her home.

"They work for Papa", Sonny said. "Papa's at war right now. We thought maybe they'd taken you. You can't ever run away again!"

"I didn't run", Connie protested, then asked why Papa was at war, and what that even meant, and that was when Sonny told her.

She never saw her father use violence against anyone, and only twice or three times in his life heard him raise his voice. But she learned to read the papers, and it wasn't that hard to figure out at least a part of what they reported had to be because of his commands. Sonny, she did see violent; anyone who lived with Sonny for any length of time would have done. Never towards her or their brothers, and certainly not against his wife later. But she saw him once attack a man he accused of spying on them, hit him hard enough to shatter his nose, then kick him when the man had already fallen down in pain, again and again. Sonny without either of their parents to restrain him took on everyone he saw as a danger or an insult.

"That boy is going to get himself killed", fat Peter Clemenza once said when not aware she was listening.

After Connie's first communion, her mother started to take her to early morning mass, which she participated in every day. "We must pray for your father", she said. "Pray he does not end down there" - she pointed to the floor - "instead of heaven, where he belongs for caring for his family. These are hard times, and he is doing his best. But he is a sinner." After a pause, her mother added: "And for your brother Santino. Pray for him, too."

Sonny was sixteen then. He'd just started to work for his father.

Connie prayed for her father and brother until the day Sonny died. It was also the last day her husband Carlo would ever beat her. This time, he had hurt her so badly she could hardly speak, which was why her mother hadn't understood her on the telephone and had handed her over to Sonny, who heard, understood and drove to his death in order to save her.

Nobody said it out loud. Not her parents, who drew her close for comfort. Not Tom, considerate Tom who was the one to tell her that Sonny was dead, his eyes red but voice kind and even as ever. Not Carlo, who was so thoroughly chastened and frightened, so cautious around her that she knew he must fear for his life now. He sat rigidly next to her while they were driven to her parents' house and once there clung to her hand as if it was all that was separating him from being gunned down as well. Certainly not her little nieces, Sonny's daughters with Sandra who wailed the entire night. Only Sandra, during Sonny's wake, drinking more and more until she said to Connie: "At least it was you he was going to, not his whore. But if you weren't such a spoiled little princess crying because she can't handle her man, he'd still be alive!"

Later, when she'd sobered up, she apologized. Connie patted her hand and accepted the apology while for the first time being glad Sonny had never been faithful to Sandra.

She also stopped praying for anyone after this.

 


 

VI.

Sometimes, Connie wondered whether her life would have been any different if she'd had sisters instead of brothers, or at least one sister. Fredo would have been happier as a woman. Nobody would have expected him to be like either Sonny or Michael, let alone their father. He would not have had to live with the shame of letting his little brother care for him and order him around, because that would have been the expected way of things.

Then again, Fredo loved the freedom of having whores at his beck and call and partying through most of the year, which got him indulgent shrugs from Michael and Tom and the occasional equally indulgent sigh from their mother. When Connie took up lovers, divorces and parties after her first marriage ended with a strangled husband and Michael's bloody coronation, she did so not in spite but because she knew it would horrify her mother and hurt Michael. Fredo could show up with lipstick at his collar and the smell of a brothel on his clothes and Michael would, at worst, roll his eyes, though in most cases not even that. The first time Connie visited Michael at the Lake Tahoe house, she'd taken care not to shower. She wanted him to smell the male sweat and the milky scent of semen on her, and she wanted her mother to do so too. Her mother said "Constanzia, you should still be wearing black, it is not fitting behavior for a widow", because she could not say anything more direct. Neither, of course, could Michael, who had made her a widow to begin with.

"Have you brought your children with you?" he asked instead, because Michael had their mother's talent of inducing guilt with a few well chosen words if he wanted to. "They shouldn't be without their mother."

"Now that they are without their father, you mean?" Connie asked, hating him. The joke, the horrible joke of it was that if she had killed Carlo herself on that day before he beat her for the last time, she'd have been glad and wouldn't have regretted it. She'd loved him once, with the quick, stupid love of a girl who sees someone beautiful and must possess him, but that feeling hadn't survived the relentless beatings, even though a part of her still believed it must have been her fault. After all, no good woman ever got beaten, so her parents had said. No, it wasn't Carlo she mourned. It was the past, the unreachable past where she'd known that she was loved, and could love, that she was safe, and so was anyone she cared about. It wasn't losing Carlo that maddened her but the knowledge Michael had killed him, not for Sonny, certainly not for her, but simply to wrap up a loose end.

It was because Michael could kill, and she had not dared to, and because she hadn't, because she'd let Carlo take away the knife and beat her, that Sonny had died.

"Yes," Michael said, dark eyes fathomless.

Michael, as a woman, given no opportunity to use that cold relentless mind of his for anything but dinner calculations, would have committed suicide.


 

VII.

Fredo's wife showed up at his funeral, because the divorce never went through and thus Deanna was officially Fredo's widow. Sandra, who had remarried and still lived in New York, came as well with her children and after one look at Deanna knocking back the second glass of champagne while dishing out her opinion on Italian men, Italian funerals and the hypocrisy of the Corleone family said: "Please tell me I wasn't like that."

"You weren't like that", Connie replied politely, and though there was no sarcasm in her voice, Sandra flushed.

"My husband had been shot", she said. "Brutally gunned down. The father of my children. Look, I'm sorry for poor old Fredo, but he'd been married to that floozie for less than a year, hadn't he? And she was only ever after his money. I think it's disgraceful, that's what I think." She hesitated, then drew a bit nearer to Connie and whispered: "Did he do it deliberately?"

Connie froze.

"You can tell me if Fredo drowned himself", Sandra said. "I'm still family, am I not? I won't say anything to anyone. Was it suicide?"

"He'd never have done that", Connie said sharply, though she couldn't be completely sure. Fredo had been so quiet and shattered following their mother's death, so unlike himself, and he had told her, at last, what he'd done to make Michael so angry. They'd never been either close or rivals, her second brother and she, and if he'd never lifted a finger to help her during her first marriage, he'd also never judged her when she proceeded to make as big a mess of her life as she could afterwards. And he desperately needed someone to confess to.

"I'd never have done it if I'd known they wanted to kill him", Fredo had sworn, "never," but his trembling fingers who couldn't light another cigarette had told another story. Fredo had been with their father when the Tattaglias had gunned Vito Corleone down. He must have known that there was only one reason why a competitor would ask for his men to be let into Michael Corleone's compound.

And now Fredo was dead, drowned by accident while fishing, drowned in the lake, that's what they said, and if that wasn't true, and he didn't kill himself, either, then Michael must have murdered him. Connie's reconciliation with Michael was till too fresh and vulnerable to survive even contemplating that possibility. It could have been me, she thought, and then decided that it couldn't have been. She'd hated Michael with the same intensity she'd loathed herself with, and their parents, but she would never, ever have allowed a stranger to kill him. If she'd wanted him dead, she'd have killed him herself. Her brother, her only remaining brother, who still remembered Sonny had always given her more sweets, the only person left alive to do so.

"If you say so," Sandra said sceptically, still referring to the question as to whether or not Fredo would have killed himself. Connie put her hand around Sandra's left wrist and pressed it hard enough for it to hurt.

"I do say so," she hissed. "It was an accident."

"...and he wasn't even that good a fuck," Deanna slurred on the sofa behind them. "Only a great kisser, he really was. Because you fucking Italians are all half fags anyway, kissing each other all the time. All that practice. Should have married a WASP!"

"So say we all," Sandra commented, and for a second, Connie was tempted to take the champagne bottle away from Deanna and drink the rest herself. Then she remembered waking up in Las Vegas next to a man she didn't even like, with a pounding headache and the awareness she'd missed her son Victor's school play, which he would never, ever forgive her for. She had been down that road, whatever the reasons, and in the end, it had given her little satisfaction and much additional guilt.

"If you help me getting Deanna into the cold shower so she makes it through the funeral service, I'll give you my mother's earrings," Connie said instead to Sandra, and Sandra, who had always hoped to inherit these particular earrings and had the strength and stamina of a mother of three, eagerly nodded.

Deanna, who used to be a showgirl, had strong legs which could kick like a mule. The cold water made her scream in rage, but it served its purpose. By the end, Connie was drenched and had a few more bruises, but Deanna was calm, quiet and downright rational.

"I can't wear this now", she said, indicating her wet dress.

"Don't look at me," Sandra said to Connie. "She's taller, and I don't have breasts like these, either. She can't have one of mine."

There were still some dark dresses of Kay's here, and they were exactly the right size, but if Connie put Deanna into Kay's dresses, Michael would see it as a taunt which today of all days she really didn't want.

"You can have one of mine," Connie said, looking at Deanna, though she was far less generously endowed.

"Fucking Fredo," Deanna said, not maliciously, just infinitely worn out. "Figures I'd look like some goddam Italian Madonna at his funeral after all."

 


 

IX.

Kay, blonde, beautiful but not provacative, well educated but willing to give up her job once she married Michael, Protestant, with very white skin and an endearing smile was, as Fredo once quipped, the American Dream personified, so it hadn't been surprising that Michael had fallen in love with her not once, but twice, as a young soldier returning from the war and then again after his Sicilian exile. Her religion had really been the only part of her which Carmella Corleone hadn't loved and approved of, and after Michael's bloody baptism as leader of the Corleone family, Kay had converted, joining Connie's mother for early morning mass.

"She's praying for Michael's soul, Constanzia," Carmella had said, with a mixture of gratitude for Kay and disappointment at Connie, who didn't give up her refusal to join them. Kay had looked at her, pleadingly. It was obvious that by now she had realized Connie hadn't lied about what Michael had done, not regarding Carlo's death and not regarding anyone else's.

"What makes you think God will listen?" Connie had asked.

"Constanzia!"

"I'm not blaspheming, Mama. I know God can forgive the most terrible sin if it is sincerely repented. But without repentance, there can be no absolution, no matter how much anyone else prays. I think", Connie had said, looking at Kay, "I think you're wasting your time."
Then she looked at Carmella. "And I think you did, too."

Her mother's hand flew at her mouth. "That is a vile, vile thing to say about the father who loved you," her mother cried, and the guilt in Connie had struggled with the ever growing need to strike and lost.

"I'm saying it about all of us. We live off the blood of other people, Mama. That's what we do. I know I won't stop, and you won't stop, and Kay won't stop. Why should God listen to us?"

"He certainly won't listen to you," her mother had said, dragging Kay away to the car which would bring them to church.

Connie had wondered, back then, whether her mother had ever prayed for Connie in addition to her husband and sons. She'd been afraid to know the answer, and thus had never asked.

 


 

X.

"I can't pray," Michael said to Connie, years later, when she found him wandering around the house at Lake Tahoe at 2 in the morning, two days after Fredo's funeral. He hadn't been sleeping much this entire week, which meant his iron self control was slipping.

"I haven't prayed for years," she replied.

"I know," he said, and they ended up in the kitchen where she made them some hot chocolate, because she still didn't trust herself with the leftover champagne, and didn't trust him, either.

"Kay had an abortion", Michael said abruptly. "That's what she told me, the day she - when she left. It wasn't a miscarriage. It was an abortion. Did you know that?"

Connie hadn't, though she had thought the trapped expression on Kay's face during Anthony's first communion had been anything but the glow of impending motherhood, but then she'd been aware her own bitterness made her prone to interpret things negatively. She shook her head. Through all the years of her own anger at God, the teachings of her childhood still caused an instinctive shudder before she thought of the depth of Kay's desperation.

"If Sollozzo hadn't tried to kill Papa," Michael said, voice younger than it had been for years, "I would have married Kay and would be teaching mathematics at Stanford right now. With Kay. And our three children. Do you believe that?"

"I think," Connie said carefully, "that you believe it."

"So you do still hate me," Michael said.

In the dim light of the kitchen, she could recognize his stubble. He was usually so carefully shaved, her youngest brother, one of the few vanities he indulged in. He didn't sound disappointed or hurt. Instead, he sounded almost eager. Looking for punishment, Connie thought, something she was very familiar with from her own mirror, and wondered again what had happened between him and Kay that last day. Her thoughts flitted to Fredo, too, and abruptly she shook her head.

"I don't. It's just that I don't think you'd have been satisfied with that university job and only your students there to be told what to do."

"So you think I'd have ended up with blood at my hands no matter what."

She remembered seeing Sonny unleashing hell on a man in the street. She remembered Carlo raising his fist at her the first time, on their wedding night, no less. She remembered the knife in her own hand. She remembered Fredo swearing desperately that he didn't know there would be assassins in the compound through his help. She remembered her father, her father in whose love and judgment she'd unconditionally trusted until that day, telling her: No, but she never gave me cause.

"I think anyone is capable of anything, Michael. Under the right circumstances."

He said nothing. He was still grasping the mug with chocolate in it, which he hadn't drunk, and she closed her own hands around his.

"But we don't have to," she whispered. "Not always. That's the secret. Now drink up. You know the doctor has always said you have a low blood sugar level."

"No, I made that up," he said. "Because I was jealous of the fuss they made about you and your low iron level in the blood. Sonny even went and shot a teddy bear for you at the fair, do you remember? It was hideous and pink."

"It was beautiful and purple" she countered. He shook his head and then, sip by sip, started to drink. The silence between them felt no longer oppressive but comfortable. But there were still rustling leaves outside, being thrown against the house by the wind, and she could feel the coldness of the lake creeping in, the lake on which their brother Fredo had died.

"Let's go back," Connie said suddenly. "Away from this house. This place. This state. Back to New York, Michael. Back to where we came from."

"I'm not sure we can, Connie", he murmured. "But we can try."