Princes of the Lower East Side
Gloria said, hands on her hips. “You promised my husband to watch out for me and Em, but he would want me to watch over you, too. You need someone to look after you, Mia. To care for you. Even if you don’t think you need anyone.”
“I have Paolo.” Mia had asked him once if he’d known what she’d done in America. He understood English, so she spoke both Sicilian and English to him. Paolo had responded with a single, firm nod. And that had been the only time they had discussed it—as much of a discussion as could be had with a mute man.
When she’d announced to her family two weeks ago that she was returning to New York, there seemed an unspoken understanding Paolo would also make that trip. Nevertheless, Don Catalano, who had made the arrangements for her, had told her in no uncertain terms the fierce Sicilian man would be accompanying her as her bodyguard and remaining by her side in New York.
She had come to appreciate his silent presence, his protective hovering. It was hard to understand why he had chosen her to devote himself to, but it wasn’t a gift she was interested in questioning.
“I don’t trust Paolo,” Gloria said. “How do you trust a man who can’t talk?”
“I find him the most trustworthy of men for that reason alone.”
“You can’t travel and live on your own with a man you’re not married to,” she insisted. “You’re still just a young girl, after all.”
“I’ll be twenty-three in September.”
“You are a child,” Gloria repeated softly.
Mia smiled, a little bitterly, down at her small case of cosmetics, dropping the envelope on top. When she was a child, she’d lost both of her parents—her father to a heart attack when she was just a toddler. Her mother had died in a terrible fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, leaping from the top of the building in order to avoid being burned by the flames. Mia and Nick had been forced to hustle the streets, begging for handouts, learning poker to swindle the gangsters, stealing food, freezing nearly to death in their filthy tenement. She’d become a vaudeville performer, because young girls telling raunchy jokes to older men made money. When Nick had been drafted to the war, she’d worked a dozen hours a day for an abusive woman in a dress factory, just to keep a little food in her stomach. She’d known more about being an adult at twelve than most women her age knew now. Once she might have been proud of that, but now, it only made her sad.
Finally, she looked at Gloria. “I haven’t been a child for a very long time.”