There is an Italian proverb, Chi affoga s’attaccherrebbe alle funi del cielo. Loosely translated, it means “A drowning man plucks at a straw.” When I was a young girl back in Italy, my grandmother, dressed in her widow-black, eyes hard nuggets of Tuscan coal, would mutter this saying to my father at the slightest sign of weakness, effectively questioning his business judgment as he helped to grow the family’s fledgling company. To be fair to my father, those straws saved him on many occasions. Benini Enterprises would become a thriving business. But then, Grandmother never valued fairness.
I’m reminded of that proverb now as I get ready for my visitor, Allison Campbell. Image consultant, life coach…call her what you will. It strikes me that perhaps she is the straw, and I am the drowning woman, already doomed. The thought makes me tired. Do I have fight left in me? I glance outside and see Maria down by the barn, riding the chestnut mare. My niece’s dark hair is cascading down her back, and although I can’t see her features from the sunroom window, I know the expression on her face will be feral, wild. From here, she looks like a witch. Or a harlot. Thinking of Grandmother, I smile. How far our family has come.
Outside, distant clouds threaten the blue August sky. This summer, the Finger Lakes region of New York has been abnormally hot and rainy. I worry about the grapes. While we don’t sell our own wine, our vineyards supply the house, and perfecting our dry Riesling has become a tradition. We have so few traditions anymore…I don’t want to let go of this one.
Jackie, our chef, interrupts my thoughts when she enters the sunroom quietly, her plain features bunched into a worried frown. She reminds me of the woman in the iconic painting American Gothic and I admonish myself for the uncharitable association.
“Yes?” I say. “Is Allison here?”
Jackie shakes her head. “The hospital called.”
“About Paolo?” Although even as I say the words, I realize how ridiculous they sound. Of course it was about Paolo. My brother had a stroke and has been in and out of consciousness. His misfortune is the reason for my engagement with Allison Campbell. That, and…well, a story for another day. “What’s happened?”
Jackie looks around. In a low voice, she says, “You should go see him, Frannie.”
“You’ll regret it. You and I both know it’s true.”
Regret? Oh, I know regret. Another face flashes before me, and I push aside thoughts of Gina Benini, my brother’s first wife. I purse my lips and turn my head, looking away from Jackie and back toward the window. Maria is no longer in sight. The barn looms in the distance, its size a reminder of the wealth we once had. These days, this estate seems too big. Too grand. Then why do I feel so claustrophobic within its confines?
I rise, dismissing Jackie. She knows me well enough to understand the gesture, and she leaves the room. I am immediately regretful. She never did tell me why the hospital called.
A clock in one of the front parlors strikes three. Allison Campbell will be along soon. I head toward my private rooms feeling a sudden burst of energy. My head is oddly clear. I know what needs to be done, and with clarity comes purpose. Voices reach me as I climb the stairs. Jackie speaking to Alessandro. I pause to listen. Another proverb comes to mind: A mali estremi, estremi rimedi. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Perhaps I am not so unlike my grandmother, after all.
You can read more about Francesca in Deadly Assets, the second book in the “Allison Campbell” mystery series, published by Henery Press. The first book in the series is Killer Image.
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About the author
Wendy Tyson is a writer, lawyer and former therapist from Philadelphia. She’s authored Killer Image, an Allison Campbell mystery, Deadly Assets, the second Campbell novel, and The Seduction of Miriam Cross, a thriller set near Philadelphia. Wendy makes her home in Abington, Pennsylvania with her husband, three sons and two muses, dogs Molly and Driggs. She’s currently working on the third Campbell novel, Dying Brand.
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