In Fina’s mind, her mother-in-law can do no wrong. But this wasn’t always true.
In Fina’s first book, Too Quiet in Brooklyn, Fina and Denny aren’t married. Matter of fact, they are a relatively new item. Consider this scene when she and Denny are invited to dinner at the McDuffys to meet Denny’s parents. Fina’s first impression of Lorraine is much like our first impression of Edith Bunker.
Here’s a scene from the chapter, “Dinner at the McDuffys,” in Too Quiet in Brooklyn
“Something smells delicious,” I lied. I glanced at Denny. “I think I’ll go into the kitchen and see if I can help your mom.”
My footfalls echoed down the long hall. As I entered the kitchen, Lorraine McDuffy turned from the pot, her glasses steamed, a few strands of graying hair falling into her face. She wiped her hands on her apron and gave me a wet kiss. “Denny’s girl. We’ve been waiting a long time to meet you. A long time.”
“These flowers are for you, Mrs. McDuffy. I bought them at a stand that was frequented by a woman whose death I just investigated. She was a lovely woman, kind. She knew a lot about flowers and loved them. I thought you might like something of her legacy.” I waited, wondering what she’d do with that.
She took them from me. Her hands shook, but she told me she was honored to have something born of Mary Ward Simon’s imagination. Doubtless, Mr. McDuffy didn’t bring her posies.
“Top shelf, there’s a vase. I’ll get the ladder.”
“Denny! We need you in here,” I yelled.
While we waited for him to hand us whatever he’d retrieve, Mrs. McDuffy asked me about my friend.
“They released her today, nothing broken. They told her it would be a few days before she got her voice back.”
“She was lucky you were there to rescue her.”
I was surprised Mrs. McDuffy was interested in the case. I helped her by pouring the water and bringing the food to the table, a safe role for a suspect. Denny poured the wine into small water glasses placed around the table, and Mr. McDuffy toasted.
“Here’s to Carroll Gardens and marriage and grandchildren,” he said.
That remark didn’t engender conversation. Mrs. McDuffy looked down at her plate. Denny raised his glass, but I couldn’t. I stared at the lilacs and felt my face boil and thought of my mother and what she’d say.
“What made you choose Vinegar Hill?” Mr. McDuffy asked his son into the silence while he struggled to slice a piece of corned beef. “Pass the mustard, Lorraine. And the bread. Now take this neighborhood. The butter, too. We’ve got everything right here—Star of the Sea down the block, grocery stores, beauty parlors. Your mother doesn’t have to leave Court Street, do you, Mother?”
“The corned beef is delicious, Mrs. McDuffy. One of my favorite meals, too. Thank you for going to all this trouble,” I said, wondering why I said corned beef and cabbage was a favorite. I swallowed. “As for Vinegar Hill, we liked the neighborhood and the prices,” I said. “And it’s close to Denny’s work,” I added. That ought to slap a smile on their faces.
Denny smiled, nodding. “Right down Gold Street, four, five blocks.”
“Vinegar Hill? What parish is that, St. Ann’s?” Mr. McDuffy asked.
I cleared my throat while Denny’s face grew lipstick red.
“We used to be in that parish until the archdiocese consolidated or whatever it is they did. The church was torn down in 1992. I remember it well; I was four. But now Assumption in the Heights is the closest to us.” Glad I’d done my homework.
The conversation limped along until Mr. McDuffy, who seemed to call all the shots, said, “Well, son, catch any killers lately?”
“Fina did last night. A man hid in her study and waited for her. Her quick thinking and expert action saved her friend’s life.”
“More like endangered it,” I said.
Mrs. McDuffy put a hand to her chest. “It was the strangler, Robert. She captured the strangler.”
Mr. McDuffy looked at his plate. “Bit tough, the beef,” he said, “but the potatoes are all right.”
“They’re wonderful,” I said. “So light and fluffy. Best mashed potatoes I’ve eaten. And the cabbage has so much flavor.”
“Thanks, but it’s nothing. Glad you like it.”
“You’re a wonderful cook, Mrs. McDuffy. And you keep such a beautiful house.”
“Call me Lorraine, everyone does. And nice of you to say so.”
Later on in Too Quiet in Brooklyn, Fina’s view of Lorraine changes as she begins to rely on her judgment. She asks Lorraine to accompany her to visit a woman who has just lost her son.
“I’m Fina’s friend from Carroll Gardens,” Lorraine said. “I hope you don’t mind I came along for the ride. I’ve never seen New Jersey.”
“Never? Oh, well …” Nanette took a couple of quick breaths and smiled. She was wearing the same heels, but a different print dress, dark roots showing a little more than the first time we’d met a few days ago. She led us through the planked hall to the living room. Lorraine’s head swiveled left, right, telling Nanette what a beautiful home she had. She stopped to admire the vase on the maple table below the mirror. Nanette breathed in and smiled.
“Oh, we got that in Cape May fifteen summers ago. Have you been? Too bad, you’d love it; you must go. It’s for families and the Victorian homes and saltwater taffy, the ocean, you’ll really love it.”
“That’s a Laura Ashley, isn’t it?” Lorraine asked, pointing to Nanette’s dress, and they were off, conversing as though they were old friends. I looked around the living room, waiting for the chance to speak while they covered children, families, churches, where they went to high school, what they wore and how the styles had changed. They were starting into recipes for summer before I had a chance to tell Nanette how sorry I was for her loss. I gave her back the photo of her son.
She breathed twice and held it to her heart, then held it out to Lorraine. “My … oldest.”
“Handsome-looking boy.” And they were on to sons and how they took different paths until Nanette darted from her seat.
“Where are my manners? I haven’t offered you anything, and I have coffee just brewed.”
She started for the kitchen, Lorraine in tow, while I sat alone in the parlor, staring at the matching wingback chairs and the shelves of unread books. I picked up the fading photo of the four of them, trying to feel the quality of their life together in the early years. Nanette’s husband faced the camera while the boys looked at their mother and clung to her.
As I held their picture, I tried to figure out who was the queen of the family. There was always
one, Mom told me long ago. We’d play the game, walking down Henry or Atlantic, especially on Sundays when families would be trudging home from church or out shopping. Who was the ruler, she’d ask me. Most often we agreed. Sometimes it was close, a democracy, or perhaps a constitutional monarchy. Pointing to a brood with seven or eight kids, she’d say, “The father’s the queen. See how he holds his head, struts in front while the others follow?” Sometimes the queen was benevolent and sometimes not. Sometimes the ruler was missing altogether—you could tell by how the group lacked direction or seemed baffled. As I gazed at the black and white, I knew Nanette was not the queen.
While we sipped our coffee, I asked my question, the one I’d been building up to. “I remember your telling me of the time Jim came home with a friend. They were sitting right here in the parlor. Maybe the friend was a little younger than your Jim.”
She breathed and nodded.
“Do you recall anything about him? His name? Where he was from?”
She stared out, not seeing us, and took a while before she moved. Slowly she shook her head.
“You said they seemed to be having fun.”
Her face relaxed a bit. “Now I know who you mean. It was a time when Jim was happy. Usually by himself after he came home.” He’d been in prison, she told Lorraine, a mix-up, really, she said. “But this one time he brought a friend, maybe a little younger than Jim.”
“That’s the one,” I said. “Do you remember his name?”
Nanette took several minutes to shake her head, one hand outstretched as if to ward off the question. Or the answer. “No … I … Jim was such a loner. I used to worry about him. He had his friends in high school, of course, but after that they seemed to drift apart.”
“Was the friend someone from school?”
She shook her head, twisting her hands. “I don’t think so … I recall asking him where he came from, and he said Arthur Avenue. Yes, that’s what he said. He was from Arthur Avenue.” Her cheeks were a bright red, and beads of sweat formed above her upper lip. Her breathing was fast, and I was afraid she was going to faint. “I remember asking him if he meant the Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, and he told me yes.”
“How strange life is, sometimes.” Lorraine the lifeguard swam out to save a drowning Nanette.
“Isn’t it?” Nanette fanned a hand close to her face. She talked to Lorraine as if I didn’t exist. “Can I show you the house? If you’ve never seen Victorian, you might like it.”
Lorraine plays a major role in all of Fina’s books. She also stars in a series of her own.