You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
Today's Wild Card author is:
and the book:
Story Plant, The; Reprint edition (January 8, 2013)
***Special thanks to Steven Manchester for sending me a review copy.***
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Steven Manchester is the published author of the #1 best seller, Twelve Months, as well as A Christmas Wish (the holiday prequel to Goodnight, Brian). He is also the author of Pressed Pennies, The Unexpected Storm: The Gulf War Legacy and Jacob Evans, as well as several books under the pseudonym, Steven Herberts. His work has appeared on NBC's Today Show, CBS's The Early Show, CNN’s American Morning and BET’s Nightly News. Recently, three of his short stories were selected "101 Best" for Chicken Soup for the Soul series.
Visit the author's website.
SHORT BOOK DESCRIPTION:
Fate was working against little Brian Mauretti. The food that was meant to nourish him was poisoning him instead, and the doctors said the damage was devastating and absolute. Fate had written off Brian. But fate didn’t count on a woman as determined as Brian’s grandmother, Angela DiMartino – who everyone knew as Mama. Loving her grandson with everything she had, Mama endeavored to battle fate. Fate had no idea what it was in for.
An emotional tale about the strength of family bonds, unconditional love, and the perseverance to do our best with the challenging gifts we receive, Goodnight, Brian is an uplifting tribute to what happens when giving up is not an option.
List Price: $15.95
Paperback: 308 pages
Publisher: Story Plant, The; Reprint edition (January 8, 2013)
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
Two streets from a choppy Narragansett Bay, Frank pulled the station wagon in front of his mother-in-law’s cottage and shut off the engine. Joan grabbed her swollen belly and turned to face the backseat. Ross wore a bulky snowsuit and was strapped in to an even bulkier car seat. “We’re at Mama’s house,” she announced to the small boy. From beneath a wool hat, he stared at her but never uttered a sound. Then—jumping into some choreographed fire drill—Frank grabbed the boy, Joan grabbed her worn purse and, braving the angry biting winds, they hurried for the front door.
Mama lived on the low end of a very affluent community; a row of summer cottages that had been winterized and converted into year-round dwellings. Her place started out as a tiny summer cottage, but had evolved into something much greater over the years. To combat the lack of space, there were three additions made to the house. Each one was smaller than the one before it, creating a telescopic effect. Long and narrow, the exterior was stained a weather-beaten white with teal blue shutters. It looked odd, but it was heaven—containing so much more than the massive houses that sat down near the shore.
The name HORIZON was carved into a wooden board and nailed to the front of the house. A brick pathway, now covered in salt and patches of black ice, led past a statue of St. Jude that welcomed all guests. As the front door flew open and a blast of heat spilled from the house, the distinct smells of sweet Italian sausages and fresh baked bread hit the young family.
Angela DiMartino—all 4’10” of her—stood in the doorway, waiting. She had a crop of curly gray hair that added at least two inches to her stature. With pencil-thin lips, her subtle smirk revealed her mischievous sense of humor. She was heavyset and well endowed, and wore her usual flowered smock. She smelled like a mix of garlic and dryer sheets. Her dark brown eyes, illuminated by a strong inner light, shined when she saw her grandson. After pinching Ross’ cheek, she turned her own cheek to the little boy and asked, “You gotta big smack for Mama?”
“Okay, but just a kiss,” he said, “No biting this time!” Tentatively, he kissed her cheek.
“I don’t bite,” she whispered in his ear, “I only nibble.” As she helped him off with his jacket, she gave his neck a loving chomp.
Tickled to laughter, he fled toward the living room.
Chuckling, she turned her attention to her daughter. “So when am I gonna be able to nibble on my new grandbaby?” she asked, rubbing Joan’s massive mid-section without permission. “You look like you’re ready to pop.”
“Soon…I hope,” Joan said, still trying to catch her breath from the short jaunt to the cottage.
After running her blotchy, gnarled hands over Joan’s belly one last time, Mama leaned into it—until she was an inch from it—and whispered, “Enough stalling already. It’s time to come home, little one.”
Joan exhaled deeply. “You’ve got that right,” she said.
In Mama’s cucina—the family hub—the obnoxious red wallpaper offset the worn linoleum. The kitchen table had a yellow Formica top, surrounded by five faux leather-bound chairs. While Joan contemplated sliding into one of them, Mama gestured that she take a seat. “Get off your feet, while I finish the gravy,” she said—above Dean Martin crooning in the background.
As Mama headed for the large pot of red sauce, Frank playfully teased her. “And that’s gonna be son number two, Ma,” he boasted, pointing toward Joan’s large belly.
“Well, isn’t that something, Frank,” the old lady teased, “already calling your unborn child a boy.”
“These genes are too strong to produce a girl,” he said.
“You may be right, Frank,” she said with a shrug. “The good Lord knows what He’s doing, and I suppose He’d never let you ruin a little girl.”
Joan laughed aloud. Frank shot her a look, but didn’t dare consider a comeback in front of her sharp-tongued mother. Instead, he stepped into his mother-in-law’s bedroom and dumped their coats onto her bed, careful not to disturb the trays of spinach pies that were covered with dish towels and cooling on top of a plastic tablecloth. As he turned to leave, he noticed a silver tray filled with pill bottles that sat on the nightstand. “So that’s what’s keeping her alive,” he snickered, and headed for the living room to be alone with the T.V.
While Mama worked away at the stove, Joan pointed at the hideous porcelain rooster—with wooden spoons sticking out of its head—sitting among the many bottles of olive oil and spices on the counter. “You need to throw that ugly thing out, Ma,” Joan said, “or donate it to the Salvation Army.”
Mama shook her head. “Can’t do it,” she said, with her back to her daughter. “He wakes me up every morning.”
“Yeah, right. You’ve gotten up every morning at five o’clock for as long as I can remember.”
“And you’ve never gotten up earlier than 6:00, so how could you have ever heard my rooster crow?”
They both laughed.
Mama turned from the stove to face her daughter. “So you think Ross is ready for a new brother or sister?” she asked, beginning their weekly tradition of getting caught up on every detail of each other’s lives.
“Well, we’ve definitely talked a lot about it.” Joan shrugged. “He’s become very clingy, but I have this sense…” She paused.
“Go on,” Mama said.
“It’s gonna sound strange, Ma, but it’s like he’s more protective of the baby than jealous.”
Mama smiled. “Now that doesn’t sound strange at all.” She nodded. “That just sounds like the love of a big brother to me.”
As if on cue, Ross walked into the kitchen and approached his mother. After giving her belly one quick rub, he headed back to the T.V.
“Well, isn’t that something,” Mama said.
Joan smiled proudly. “He watches over me like a hawk,” she whispered. “He’s always by my side, trying to pat my stomach or talk to the baby.”
Mama nodded again. “He’s going to be a good brother. The baby’s very lucky.”
There was a loud knock at the door. Mama wiped her hands on her apron and answered it. It was her son, Bob, and his wife Bev, along with their two daughters, Steph and Heidi. No sooner had the door opened when the girls shot through, excited to visit with their Aunt Joan’s big belly.
Steph had the dark eyes of a gypsy—Mama’s eyes—which lit up like Christmas when she smiled. With olive skin and full lips, she was beautiful. Her raven-black hair was curly and pulled back in a pony tail. Though her mom dressed her in frilly dresses, she hated it and everyone knew it.
At seven years old, Heidi was one year younger than Steph—almost to the day—but they could have easily passed for twins with their matching hair and eyes. Heidi was a bit heavier, with the olive skinned face of a Mediterranean angel. Unlike her big sister, she was a girlie-girl who loved to wear nice things—lacey dresses and ribbons in her hair.
Wrestling off their coats and hats, the girls paid their grandmother a respectful kiss before speaking gibberish to their unborn cousin. Bob waited in line to greet his mother with a peck on the cheek. Bev followed suit.
Once the usual greetings were exchanged, Mama headed to the living room to change albums. Within seconds, Frank Sinatra was singing Summer Wind and Mama was swinging Ross around in his first dance lesson. The living room walls were covered in dark wood paneling, but it was tough to tell. There were framed photos of family and friends covering every inch of the place. While their dead ancestors watched on, Ross squirmed and fidgeted, trying desperately to escape his grandmother’s arthritic grip. “Please, Mama,” he pleaded. “I’m too tired to dance.”
Without missing a step, she laughed so hard she nearly launched Frank from the worn gray armchair. She had a distinct laugh that started from her diaphragm and worked its way up until it escaped in a roar. It was larger than life and startled those who weren’t used to it. Frank looked up at her and shook his head. It was shocking to hear something so loud coming out of someone so tiny—not to mention, she was blocking the T.V.
The girls watched Ross and Mama’s dance and considered joining the pair. They decided against it when Heidi spotted two stained cardboard boxes—marked CHRISTMAS DECORATIONS—sitting off in the corner. She elbowed her sister and pointed toward the great find.
“Mama!” Steph gasped. “Christmas stuff?”
The old matriarch paused for a moment and smiled. “Mama starts decorating for Santa Claus next week,” she confirmed with a nod.
Ross took the opportunity to break free and hurry off to his mother to make sure she was okay. The girls quickly followed their young cousin.
While the women talked over each other at the kitchen table, Steph took a sip of Kool-Aid and spilled the red drink all over the front of her yellow dress. Bev rushed toward her. “I saw that, Steph! You did it on purpose,” she said through clenched teeth.
“No I didn’t, Ma,” Steph swore.
Concealing her smile, Mama hurried to the rescue. “It was an accident, Bev,” she testified and shot Steph a secret wink. “I’ll get some dry play clothes for her.”
In the safety of her grandmother’s bedroom, Steph threw on the faded pair of dungarees and long-sleeved shirt, while Mama handed her a warm spinach pie. “Mama, I didn’t…” Steph began.
The old woman placed a finger to her lips. “Shhhh… it’s fine. Just eat your pie before it gets cold.”
Finally comfortable, Steph smiled—and meant it.
Upon returning to the kitchen, Bev gawked at her clumsy daughter with a suspicious eye until Mama slapped her on the backside. “Let it go,” the old woman whispered. “There are greater tragedies—trust me.”
Halfway through a feast of cheese raviolis, sweet Italian sausages, meatballs and Mama’s famous spinach pies, Joan excused herself to go to the bathroom. Ross started to get up to join her. “Finish eating, honey,” Joan told him. “Mommy doesn’t need her helper right now, okay?”
He nodded and stuffed another bite of ravioli into his mouth.
Mama entertained the children by daydreaming aloud. “When you kids get a little bigger, you know that Mama’s going to take you to Italy, right?”
The adults exchanged skeptical grins. The kids, however, were hypnotized by her descriptive tales.
“Fall is the season of sagre, with food festivals throughout the province. During mid-September, they have a giant wine festival in the town square of Greve in Chianti. And in October, they gather all the grapes for winemaking. This is known as the vendemmia.”
“You like wine?” Steph asked between chews of bread.
“I sure do and Tuscany is world famous for its wines. Chianti is probably the best known, but they make every kind.”
“What kinds of food will we eat when we’re there?” Heidi chimed in, speaking just as fluently with her hands.
Mama clasped her hands together and took a deep breath. “Oh, just imagine tomatoes ripened under the Mediterranean sun, freshly picked basil, cold pressed extra virgin olive oil, black truffles and pecorino cheese…”
“Huh?” the girls wondered.
Mama smiled. “They have the most delicious ice cream in the world. It’s called gelato.”
“Gelato,” Ross repeated. “Gelato. Gelato. Gel…”
“That’s enough,” his dad warned. “Just finish your dinner.”
As Joan returned to the table and reclaimed her seat, Mama stood and announced, “I just finished two more photo albums that I want to show you guys.” She wasn’t two steps from the table when she turned back to the kids. “And we also need to plan our Christmas visit to Boston,” she added, and hurried off to retrieve her picture books.
For Frank, this was the perfect cue to excuse himself. Throwing his napkin into his empty plate, he looked at his brother-in-law, Bob. “Join me on the porch for a cigar and a game of pitch?”
Grinning, Bob stood and started for the porch.
Frank looked at Ross. “Want to join the men?”
Ross shook his head, and slid his chair a few inches closer to his mother.
“Suit yourself,” Frank muttered, and left the room.
Mama returned to the table and wasn’t even seated when Heidi and Steph dove right into the new photo albums, excited to hear whatever vivid stories their grandmother cared to share.
The afternoon whipped by and, after devouring a warm batch of Cornflake cookies and some cappuccinos, Mama interrupted the card game on the porch. With Joan and Bev in tow, she pointed to a spot out in the front yard. “That’s where the new baby’s tree will be planted in the spring…right between the girls’ trees and Ross’. This way, I can see all four of them when I’m sitting in Papa’s glider.”
Nausea and cold air that caused goose bumps on her arms yanked Joan from her sleep. She opened her eyes to obnoxious fluorescent lighting. Where am I? she wondered. It took a few moments. She could tell by the occasional moan that other women shared the maternity ward room, separated by white curtains that ran from the ceiling to the shiny linoleum floor. She coughed once and winced from the sharp pain in her abdomen and crotch. Her entire face felt dried out; her mouth, nose and throat were caked in dried mucous. She gagged again and looked up to find the young candy striper shoving a straw into her mouth. She sucked once and gagged some more. Her tongue was heavy with a metallic aftertaste and the nausea became worse. She tried to sit up, but it felt like a razor blade shot across her lower torso. She collapsed back into the pillows. “Where’s my…”
An older nurse approached and took the cup of water from the candy striper. She pointed the straw toward Joan’s lips. "Here, just take a small sip."
Joan tried to sit again, this time ignoring the pain in trade for some relief from her desert-chapped throat.
"How do you feel?" the smiling nurse asked.
"How are you feeling, Mrs. Mauretti?"
"My baby?" Both words came out in a rasp between sips.
"He's fine, Mrs. Mauretti. You have a healthy baby boy."
Joan smiled. "My husband? Has anyone..?"
"Yes. I believe he's in the waiting room handing out cigars to anyone who will take one. I'll send him in."
"And my baby?"
"He's with the pediatrician now. I'll bring him in just as soon as they're done."
"Thank you." She took another sip and gagged.
At two hours old, Brian Francis Mauretti was wheeled into Joan’s room. He wore a light blue knit cap and was wrapped tightly in a white receiving blanket with alternating pink and blue stripes. The nun lifted him out of the glass bassinette and gently placed him into his mother's arms. Joan felt overwhelmed with joy. “Good morning, Brian,” she whispered and removed his soft cap. He had his dad’s black hair and plenty of it, but his head was cone-shaped. Before the nun left the two alone to bond, Joan looked up for an explanation.
"Oh, he's fine...stubborn, but fine,” the nun teased. “Your son liked it so much in the birth canal that he stayed there for as long as he could. The doctor had to use forceps. His head will return to a normal shape within a day or two. No need to worry."
"Thank you," Joan said and kissed Brian on the point of his head.
As the kind woman departed, Joan unwrapped the tight swaddling and counted ten fingers and ten toes. She kissed each one. "Mommy's been waiting a long time to meet you, Brian," she whispered. The baby squinted to look at his mom. “And you have your brother’s chocolate brown eyes,” she said, excited over the new discovery.
The white curtain parted and her husband walked in, wearing a giant smile. "How's my new boy?" Frank asked, swollen with pride.
"Perfect, Daddy." She kissed Brian’s tiny face again. "Just perfect." She patted the bed for Frank to sit. “Come meet your son.” Together, they smothered the newborn in hugs and sobs of joy.
Allowing his wife to rest, Frank cradled the boy in his arms and took a seat in the chair beside Joan’s bed. Searching his new son’s eyes, he told him, “Just wait ‘til your brother gets a look at you. We’re gonna go fishing together and play baseball and…”
It felt like seconds had passed when one of the meaner looking nuns entered the room to escort Frank out. “It’s time for you to go, Dad,” she announced. “Mom needs to feed your son and they need time to get to know each other.”
Frank’s puppy dog eyes pled for more time, but he had no shot. He was dealing with the maternity warden. Shrugging, he turned to Joan. “I’ll be back this afternoon,” he promised, and smiled. “Great job today, Mommy. I love you.”
Joan kissed him. “I love you, too. Can you please call my mom and let her know that she’s going to have to wait a little while longer for another little girl?”
He laughed. “Oh, don’t you worry about that. I plan to go by the cottage just as soon as I leave here and let her know in person,” he said with a grin, and headed for the door. As he reached it, he turned and smiled at the nun. She never smiled back.
Under the warden’s eye, Joan tried several times to get the baby to latch onto her nipple. He had difficulty, losing his grip each time. She shifted to get comfortable. It was no use. Her body throbbed in pain. Finally, the little one got the nipple positioned to where he wanted it and began to suckle. While he fed, Joan sighed in relief and rocked him back and forth. The nun continued her watch. Brian fed for three full minutes, but Joan was unsure whether he'd gotten enough. She questioned the old nun.
"Trust me, he'll let you know if he's still hungry. Is he your first?" the woman asked.
"No. We have another boy at home."
"You didn't nurse your first?"
"I did, but it's been a while. I just want to make sure that I'm doing it right."
"Give it a few feedings. It’ll come back to you. It’s been shown by many studies that breastfed infants are healthier. They can get the occasional cold, but they generally stay healthier." For the first time, the woman smiled. And with an approving nod, she left Joan and Brian to figure out the rest together.
When Brian finished suckling, Joan placed him in her lap, unwrapped the receiving blanket again and took another inventory. Thrilled with the results, she quickly wrapped him back up and lifted him up until they were face-to-face. “I can’t wait to show you everything, Brian,” she whispered into the newborn’s ear. “You’re going to love it.” She kissed his plump, rosy cheek and then placed him on her chest to sing him his first lullaby.