Rita Calabrese is the guardian angel of Acorn Hollow—and of her lovable but exasperating "famiglia." She’s always fortifying her down-on-their-luck neighbors with secret deliveries of home-grown vegetables and ravioli alla zucca, sneaking cannoli into her gruff husband’s lunch, and meddling in (or, as she would say, “improving”) the lives of her three grown children.
But now, on the eve of her sixty-sixth birthday, Rita’s looking for a meaningful second act—and finds as a reporter for the local paper. Her profiles of Acorn Hollow’s eccentric citizens, including the soft-spoken biology teacher with a secret poison garden, soon make her the toast of the town. But when the beloved football coach is murdered and Rita’s investigation uncovers not only a messy love triangle, but also rumors of her ne’er-do-well son Vinnie’s involvement, she finds her newfound journalistic zeal on a collision course with her fierce maternal instinct.
Set in New York's bucolic Hudson Valley and sprinkled with Italian phrases and customs, "The Secret Poison Garden" includes eight mouth-watering, garden-to-table Italian-American recipes.
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Kneeling in the cool, damp earth, Rita Calabrese cast an appraising eye over her vegetable garden. At eight-thirty in the morning, the sun was just rising over the humpbacked mountain behind the sleepy Hudson Valley hamlet of Acorn Hollow. The russet leaves of the old oak filtered the light, sending it flitting across the basil, its leaves still shiny with the dew, and through the spiky forest of rosemary. Behind the rosemary stood her prized girasoli, which dutifully turned towards the sun.
She insisted on calling them by their Italian name. “Sunflower” was too prosaic, devoid of all romance and poetry. They were not mere sunflowers; they were her three prized girasoli—Marco, Gina, and Vinnie. She nourished them, and fussed over them, and prattled on endlessly about them to her neighbors.
They were just like her children. Only her real children didn’t always glow when she fussed over them, and they claimed to be able to feed themselves. Which was nonsense, of course. One could not claim to be a cook—an Italian cook, anyway—unless one could make nonna’s secret sauce. And she knew for a fact that none of them could. Nonna had only entrusted the recipe to one person—Rita—and Rita revealed only one ingredient per year, over steaming plates of lasagna on Christmas Eve, starting when her son Marco was thirty. The recipe had ten ingredients; Rita had only revealed six ingredients—the most obvious ones—so far.
If the girasoli were her children—her perfect, beautiful, intelligent children—the onion that sprang up in their midst was Susan, Marco’s impossibly slim new fiancée, all straight up and down, no curves, a cool green vegetarian. Rita had planted the onions in a clump behind the butternut squash, but somehow this one had escaped and implanted herself among the girasoli. How very like Susan.
She plucked Susan and half a dozen other, more obedient onions. Then she selected the squash that most resembled herself—unusually short and squat, with a fleshy round bottom—and took it inside to roast and purée.
Rita was sautéing the onions when her informant called.
“The eagle has left the nest,” her twin said.
Rita leaned over the bubbling pentola and got an intoxicating whiff of sweet, buttery onions. “For how long?”
“It’s hard to say,” Rose said, “but she had both kids with her and was carrying several books and a few letters.”
Rita mentally calculated the time it would take Fay Galloway to walk to the library, evade the head librarian’s nosy questions, check out some new books, and then mail the letters at the post office. Forty-five minutes, she guessed. “Thank—"
“Gotta dash,” Rose interrupted. “I just got a hot tip that old Van Hollen is planning to sell. I’m going to corner that merman on his way to morning water aerobics.”
Rita sighed. Such was the exciting life of her childless twin, Acorn Hollow’s top-selling realtor and consummate dealmaker.
After adding the squash, parmesan cheese, broth, and herbs, Rita puréed the entire mixture and then poured the velvety golden liquid into two Mason jars. She placed the soup in a plain, unmarked brown bag, along with half a dozen homemade cranberry muffins, two ears of corn, four stuffed peppers, and a few gleaming McIntosh apples from the tree in the back yard.
“Luciano! Cesare! Andiamo!” she called, and her two enormous Bernese mountain dogs leapt up from the couch, snatched their leashes off the hook in the hallway, and bounded towards her. She always spoke Italian to her dogs, and sometimes she wondered if they understood more Italian than her children did. No matter when she called them, they always responded with alacrity, as though they were about to rescue a frost-bitten skier from an avalanche and revive him with a flask of whiskey. Her Bernese actually did carry little flasks around their necks, which everyone in Acorn Hollow assumed were just for show. Only Rita, her husband Sal, and the widow Schmalzgruben knew the truth. The flasks were filled with limoncello from Capri, which Rita sipped as she sat by the riverside on warm, sunny days, beneath the willow tree, pretending she was floating in the Blue Grotto. Sometimes she imbibed while chatting with her mother in the cemetery, and sometimes she would pour a few drops on the rose bush that covered her mother’s grave. Once in a while, she would offer some to the widow Schmalzgruben, who could often be found perched on the tombstone of one of her three deceased husbands, reading them the day’s headlines.
She donned a wool sweater to guard against the mid-September chill, snatched the brown paper bag, and slipped out the door with Luciano and Cesare in tow. After a brisk fifteen-minute walk, they arrived at a little stone house with a rusted tricycle in the yard. The rose bushes were neatly trimmed, and the windows sparkled, but the forced cheeriness made the spectacle somehow more pathetic. A broken-down lime green Cadillac sat on blocks in the driveway, and the picket fence was missing several posts.
Rita bent down and pretended to pick up after her dogs, all the while peering into the front window. When she saw the back of Ted Galloway’s blond head silhouetted against a giant screen filled with an indignant Judge Judy, she tiptoed up the front walkway and placed the brown paper sack by the front door.
She took the long way home, ambling along the riverbank, admiring the brilliant reds and yellows that marched up the flanks of Mount Esquiline, before cutting over to Main Street.
At this time of year, Homecoming mania had reached a fever pitch. From every lamppost fluttered red and purple banners; the bakery featured cookies in the shape of Acorn Hollow High School’s mascot, a giant squirrel. In front of Thompkin’s Pharmacy, a slender brunette and two young children were admiring a ten-foot tall purple squirrel. The brush strokes were wavy and menacing, the tail curling into the furthest corner of Thompkin’s store window. Rita was unnerved by the glowing red eyes and fangs, which were greedily gobbling a Mount Washington High hawk.
The brunette smiled and waved at Rita. “Hello, Mrs. Calabrese.”
Squinting, Rita came closer. Slowly, the figure of Courtney D’Agostino, her oldest son Marco’s Prom date, came into focus.
Luciano and Cesare sat obediently while Rita kissed the young woman on both cheeks. “Ciao, bella.”
"Bella" was perhaps an understatement. Courtney was tall and statuesque, with a long Roman nose and lively dark eyes. And she was not only beautiful. She was also intelligent and kind. Rita had always harbored a secret hope—well, perhaps not so secret—that Marco and Courtney would become an item. But, to Rita’s chagrin, they had gone to Prom as “just friends” and stayed “just friends.” And now Courtney was married with children.
Courtney nodded in the direction of the mural. “Gruesome, isn’t it?” She laughed, and her sleek black ponytail swung back and forth.
“But it’s nothing compared to Mount Washington’s ‘installation art’ at the high school.”
“What do you mean?”
Courtney gave her an odd little smile. “I think you should see for yourself.”
Rita headed past the library and St. Vincent’s, up the hill to the high school. Catching sight of the town’s one and only fire engine, she picked up her pace, half-ran and half-walked past the flag pole, and flung open the doors to the entrance that led to the new swimming pool. No one objected when Luciano and Cesare skidded across the tiled yellow floor; no one noticed at all. They were all looking at one thing and one thing only: Coach Stiglitz’s shiny new Mazda Miata, suspended precariously over the pool, its doors wide open. A giant sculpture of a hawk hovered ominously above it, its outstretched talons hooked under the roof of the vehicle. Facedown in the pool was a papier-mâché figure. From where Rita was standing, she couldn’t quite make out the design that spread across the torso and legs—blue and gray swirls, some sort of nighttime landscape, she supposed, and a pulsating yellow orb. But, even so, the figure’s bright red hair and the numbers painted on his back were enough.
The figure was a likeness of the coach himself.
The incident at the pool dominated the conversation at Marco’s birthday dinner that evening.
“Let me get this straight,” Rita’s husband Sal mumbled as he shoved a hunk of stuffed pepper into his mouth. “It was just hanging there, over the pool.”
“That’s right, caro,” she said brightly, reaching over and wiping a grain of rice off his chin, “but please don’t talk with your mouth open.”
“Well how could it just hang there? Cars are pretty heavy, you know.”\
“It was being held up by a talon. A metal talon. Steel, I overheard the fire chief say.”
Sal harrumphed. “Sounds like the handiwork of a bunch of eggheads who want to study engineering at the U. They probably couldn’t catch a football if their lives depended on it.”
The hint of scorn in Sal’s voice rankled her. Yes, he was blue-collar, not a blueblood, as he frequently reminded her. And yes, his nursery was holding its own. Folks would drive from as far as Albany to buy Sal’s lovingly tended gladiolas, or to risk frostbite while cutting down a Christmas tree with a saw that—for liability reasons—was about as sharp as Rita’s nail file. But there was no need to disparage people with an education. After all, she herself had a bachelor’s degree in English, Gina was vice president of the local bank, and Marco was an anesthesiologist. Even ditzy little Susan, she had to admit, had a degree, even if it was from the University of Mississippi; she was a nurse at the hospital, which was where (to Rita’s everlasting dismay) she had met Marco. But Vinnie—Vinnie was another story. While Marco had created a health and wellness program for senior citizens as his Eagle Scout project, Vinnie’s idea of health and wellness was to smoke a joint with his friends down by the railroad tracks. Stress relief, he called it. And while Marco had been valedictorian and Gina had been fifth in her class, Vinnie’s sole academic achievement was just to graduate high school—and even that had been touch and go, with Sal muttering “fifty-fifty odds” and Rita clutching her rosary beads as the names of the graduates were read.
Vinnie, unfortunately, was his father’s son.
Forcing her lips into a smile, Rita turned to Susan, who was dissecting her food as though she suspected it were laced with rat poison. “What do you think?”
“About what?” Susan’s blank stare reminded Rita of the deer that had flung itself on her windshield on Passamaquody Mountain.
“About the coach’s car hanging over the pool. About the meaning of the floating papier-mâché figure. Is it a threat? A warning? Is it the work of criminal masterminds, common burglars, or teenaged pranksters?”
“Oh,” Susan said, somehow drawing the word into four distinct syllables. She looked terribly relieved. “Definitely pranksters. At my high school, our rivals kidnapped a half dozen of our principal’s fattest pot-bellied pigs and put them in the pool. When I went to swim practice the next day, they were just cavorting in the pool like it was the bee’s knees.”
She said the “bee’s knees” like it was a good thing, although Rita couldn’t imagine what would be so great about bees having knees. It just seemed like more surface area to sting her with.
“It was a hot mess,” Susan added. “All that sh—” She crinkled her nose and looked around the dinner table apologetically. “Pig poop.”
“Pig poop,” Rita repeated, stirring her soup and feeling slightly sick to her stomach. She supposed she should not hold Susan’s coarse language against her. After all, she had asked a question and Susan had responded truthfully. She continually reminded herself that Susan was a sweet girl, quite pretty, and Rita was sure some folks found her Southern accent charming. But when Rita looked over at Marco, she could not help but feel mystified. Surely, he could find someone more suitable. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with a dazzling intellect and a silver tongue, and she was sure he would be a senator someday, maybe even governor. But she could not picture Susan at a fundraiser or a speech, except as the waitress handing out canapés.
If only he had snagged Courtney D’Agostino. Now there was a woman of substance.
Marco loosened his tie and rubbed the back of his neck, as though he could feel his mother’s gaze boring into him. “We have a date for the wedding,” he said suddenly, taking Susan’s pale, almost lifeless hand in his own and giving it a squeeze. “June thirtieth.”
“Really?” Rita could hardly believe her ears. “When I spoke to Father De La Pasqua, it sounded as though it was hopeless to find a date in June. It’s such a popular time of year.”
Marco and his sister exchanged a glance. Vinnie and Sal seemed not to notice. But Rita did. Oh, how she hated that fleeting, superior look that frequently passed between her two oldest children, as if they were members of a secret society that excluded her.
Rita’s spoon landed with a clatter in her empty soup bowl. “Who cancelled?”
“No one cancelled,” Marco said softly, staring into the depths of his bowl.
“So, how’d you get a slot at St. Vincent’s?”
“I didn’t.” His voice was almost a whisper.
“I don’t understand.”
“Mom, we’re getting married in Mississippi. At Susan’s parents’ church.”
“Susan’s Southern Baptist parents’ church?” She could feel her voice rising in spite of herself.
“It’s beautiful,” Gina said.
“Yeah,” Vinnie said. “I saw a picture on Google Earth.”
As she looked from one guilty face to another, Rita felt the weight of her children’s betrayal. They knew. They all knew. They were just waiting to break the news to her. She could tell that they were waiting for her to erupt any second. She had endured twelve years of taunts as the “lunch lady,” prepared thousands of trays of industrial-sized macaroni and cheese, and acquired a nearly permanent smell of bleach, all to get the discount so that they could afford to send Marco—the ungrateful, heathen son before her—to Catholic school. He was their best and brightest, or so they had thought. She had sacrificed so much for him, and this was how he repaid her.
But all she said was, “It’s time for cake.”
She headed into the kitchen and rummaged in the drawer for the birthday candles. Her hands shook as she flung the silverware aside, her fingers brushing the cheap plywood. The room was spinning, and she felt short of breath. Who were those people in the dining room? They were strangers to her. They weren’t the same kids that she had driven to soccer practice, and ballet lessons, and summer internships in Albany, even when it meant driving ninety minutes in the pouring rain on bad roads.
She grabbed hold of the Formica countertop and took a deep breath. After inhaling and exhaling a few more times, she felt steady enough to place the candles on the cake. But she did not merely let each candle gently sink into the dark chocolate ganache. No, today that would not do. She stabbed the cake with each candle, the wax slicing through the ganache, into the layer of almond mousse, and finally into the moist rich cake.
As she reached for the matches, she heard low murmurs coming from the dining room. Rita tiptoed to the other side of the kitchen and pressed her ear to the door.
She could hear Gina’s low, slightly raspy voice. “Honestly, Susan, don’t pay any attention to Mom. She means well, but she’s old-fashioned, not to mention just plain old. She’s never had a career, other than six or seven years of teaching high school English, and she doesn’t have any life of her own. She just lives vicariously through her kids.”
Rita tiptoed back to the counter. With trembling fingers, she struck a match, lit the candles, and then quickly snuffed out the flame. She watched as the smoke curled lazily towards the ceiling.
A smoke signal, that’s what it was. Like the smoke that emerged from the Sistine Chapel announcing that a new pontiff had been chosen. This, too, was the beginning of a new era.
Forget her volunteer work, her secret morning rounds, dog-sitting for Gina’s schnauzer, and sneaking homemade cannoli into Vinnie’s and Sal’s lunches. Apparently, none of that mattered.
A month shy of her sixty-sixth birthday, Rita was finally going to fulfill her childhood dream: she was going to be a hard-hitting journalist.