Excerpt

Honey

Victor Lodato

April 22, 2024 
The following is from Victor Lodato's Honey. Lodato is a playwright and the author of the novels Edgar and Lucy and Mathilda Savitch, winner of the PEN USA Award for Fiction. The recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and The National Endowment for the Arts, his stories and essays regularly appear in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Granta, and elsewhere. His novels and plays have been translated into eighteen languages.

At the wake, she wore a dark-blue suit, knowing she’d be judged for black. The other woman did not wear black, unless of course she wished to challenge the family, the wife—vying

for the dead man’s loyalty in the world to come, or, even worse, vying for whatever resources remained in this one. Black meant war, while blue could be seen as humility, as deference—old-world rules Honey felt it best to abide by. There were a few women of her generation present—women who knew Honey, knew her past. Some of these women had been friends of Mary’s, Dominic’s rightful other half. Honey sat at the back of the room, planning to wait until the others paid their respects before paying her own.

Of course, such deference wasn’t really necessary. Technically, she was not the other woman. Mary had been dead for several years before Honey took up with Dominic. But that wouldn’t matter in the least to the die-hard Catholics in the room.

Besides, she had been the other woman once before in this town. Twice, actually. Brief affairs during summers home from college. Most of the girls she’d left behind had married early, their young husbands far from ready to give up their hungers. Honey had acted impulsively. Luckily, neither of the men she’d slept with—nor the wives she’d betrayed—were present now; all, in fact, were dead.

Still, there were others in the room who would be quick to judge. Angela Carini, in particular. “Little bitch with a big mouth,” Honey used to call her. The freakishly tiny woman had exposed Honey’s affair with Pio Fini—Florence’s husband. Once the beans were spilled, Florence never made Honey another dress. Angela professed to be Florie’s friend, but she had only broken the woman’s heart by blabbing. Angela had a cold soul, despite the burning crucifix around her neck.

But, seeing how the woman was clearly in failing health (at the funeral parlor she was dragging around a portable oxygen tank), Honey felt no animosity. Only sadness.

Of course that didn’t stop the animosity from flowing in her own direction. Despite the solemnity of the proceedings, Honey’s presence occasioned certain kinds of whispers and petty shakes of pious heads.

No matter. It was enough for Honey to know that her dark-blue suit was as heavy with grief as any widow’s black. It was a serious blue, one that had the feel of black. Darker than a midnight blue. More militant. Vivienne Westwood, circa 1980s, sleekly cut, with a few errant angles that were Honey’s only bid toward power.

Now and then she could feel the eyes on her, furtive disdainful glances—but whenever she caught them, the women looked away.

Afraid of you. Dominic’s words came back.

And then, to make things worse, her nephew Corrado showed up, along with one of his sons—not Michael but the other boy, Peter, named after Honey’s father. The wives came, too.

What business did they have here? They were not friends of Dominic’s. When she asked why they’d come, Corrado put on a show of being confused by her question.

“We’re here for you, Aunt Honey.”

Perhaps they were worried she wouldn’t leave them her money. Act nice to her, she could imagine Corrado telling his family. She’s loaded. Perhaps that’s what the holiday invitations were all about.

“How did you even hear about Dominic?” she asked.

“It happened at Dante’s on a Sunday night. Kinda hard not to hear about it.”

She could smell Corrado’s cologne, something expensive surely—but he’d put on too much. A pet peeve of Honey’s, the way people wore their scents, dousing themselves in it like so much gravy. Only a lover, Honey had always felt, should be able to know the truth of one’s perfume. Others should think they’ve imagined it, or perhaps confused the scent for an emanation of the wearer’s soul.

Honey recalled how much Dominic liked the geranium oil she used. The first time he detected it, they were lying naked in bed. He said it smelled like roses and pepper. “Which about sums you up,” he added, kissing her neck.

Oh, but this terrible musk coming from her nephew—the odor pompous and somewhat fecal. He was standing far too close, overpowering Honey’s memories. More than anything, she wanted to get out of this ghastly room, go home, take a bath, drink some wine, fall asleep.

“I appreciate you thinking of me,” she told her nephew, “but there was really no need for you to come.”

“Like I said, we wanted to.”

Corrado put his arm around her, and Honey felt something tighten—her heart, her breath. Such intimacy was not appropriate. Not only did this man not know Dominic Sparra, he also did not know her—the story of her life, the complicated path that had taken her away from this town and then, at such a late hour, back to it. Her nephew, despite being her brother’s son, was a stranger, and his encompassing arm only made her feel more alone. Still, a touch was a touch, and Honey started to cry. Oh, for heaven’s sake, why hadn’t she worn a veil? She’d actually considered it—but when she tried one on at home, it seemed a little too much, the veil with the suit. A little too beekeeper.

Honey bit her lip but for the life of her could not stop crying. “It’s okay,” Corrado crooned.

His wife came over next, and then his son and that wife. The four of them surrounded her, patting her arm, one by one, as if she were some creature in a petting zoo.

“I’m fine. I’m fine. Thank you all so much.”

Honey could see Angela Carini looking over from across the room, as well as some of the other women. She knew what they were thinking: that Honey was still part of the family—that she still benefited from the money, the connections, the corruption. The truth was, she hardly knew what Corrado was up to these days.

Well, she knew a little. That the business had moved on from garbage to recycling. Apparently it was wide-open territory, where one could make a killing. The greening of the mob. Ha! Honey should write a book.

But even this jest in her head was quickly silenced. It was an old silence, one that had been instilled in her since childhood. One did not speak of these things.

Even to say to Angela Carini and these other women, I’m not involved with them anymore, not involved with that world, would only be to admit that such a world existed. And the game had always been to pretend that it didn’t. It was as strict as any religion, one in which you associated only with your kind, and where it was forbidden to speak of certain rites and rituals. Besides, the more she protested to these women, denied her associations, the more she’d be seen as either a fool or the exact thing she was trying to convince them she wasn’t: a criminal.

Corrado’s hairy, scented hand remained on her arm. The rest of his family stayed close too, hovering, in a way that was both protective and threatening. Though Honey didn’t really know these people very well, she considered them no different from the earlier versions she’d run from. It was never the corruption she minded, or even the greed. Those things were everywhere—the way of the world. What Honey abhorred was the violence. Violence that they somehow believed could not stain them.

Senza infamia e senza lode, her father had said. Without blame or praise.

Only God can judge, but He doesn’t judge. He forgives. That was her mother.

Honey had heard that things had changed a bit since the old days. The violence apparently was not what it had once been. Still, it hadn’t vanished—she was certain of that. Even if Corrado hadn’t killed anyone, he was no doubt an expert in intimidation and threats. The breaking of bones, surely, would never go out of fashion; it would remain as common as salt on the table. My father is an animal, to quote the man’s own son.

“You know, I saw Michael the other day,” she said to Corrado.

Immediately he let go of her arm, and his wife looked nervously in his direction.

“So, what’s wrong with him?” asked Honey. “He seemed very distraught.”

“Nothing’s wrong with him,” Corrado said sharply. “What did he say to you?”

“Michael’s just,” the wife cut in breathlessly, “he’s just a little confused.” Corrado glared at her, and she fell silent.

When Honey glanced at the other son, Peter, she detected a subtle sneer of disgust.

Now she was curious. She asked the boy if he was close to his brother. But Peter only grunted and excused himself, mumbling, “I gotta pee.” Honey turned away from his crudeness and caught a glimpse of the coffin. She immediately came to her senses, remembering what was important. Not Corrado, not Michael, but the lifeless man at the front of the room, whose cold hand she wished to hold one last time. “Thank you for coming,” she said to her family, “but I must pay my respects.”

“Of course, of course.” It was the wife—Rita? Rina? Honey couldn’t remember her name. The woman was smiling awkwardly, brushing her fingers against her husband’s arm. “Corrado, let her go.”

Let her go? As if it was his decision, as if he held all the power. It’s what they all thought, these men.

“Goodbye,” she said to him.

“Aunt Honey, listen—we really would like you to come to dinner sometime. Fourth of July, maybe? We’re doing a big thing in the yard.”

“Let me think about it, dear. Parties are hard for me, at my age.”

Corrado nodded. And then, as if to torment her, he kissed her, in the old way, on both cheeks.

*   

At the front of the room, Honey knelt before the casket. The pain in her knees, stark evidence of life, only increased the gulf between her and the body before her.

This business of saying goodbye was always dreadful—but, as the years went on, it got a little less so. When she was younger, such final encounters with beloved bodies had wrecked her. She’d completely lost it at her mother’s wake.

But now there was no need for such a torrential fuss. Honey would be leaving soon herself. And so with Dominic it was less an arrivederci than an a presto: see you soon.

Though how or where she would see him remained a mystery. Honey liked to imagine there were certain energies, delicate strands of light that in the chilly vastness of eternity would become entangled again. She’d had a vision once, in her twenties, while standing near the edge of a cliff, her own soul unraveled by LSD. She’d seen them everywhere, those strands of light, and she knew they were the emblems of the dead.

Of course, in such a form, she and Dominic might not remember each other’s names. Possibly language became irrelevant. What were names, anyway? No more than candy wrappers.

Still, as she peered down at what was possibly the last man who would love her, Honey was frightened. What if he didn’t remember her at all?

From her purse she took out the small vial of geranium oil and rubbed a drop on Dominic’s cheek—a sailor’s wife sending her man off to sea, keeping him safe and true with a scented handkerchief. And then she kissed him.

Behind her, she could hear a few whispers, as well as a gasp that was clearly generated by Angela Carini’s oxygen-deprived lungs. Honey ignored the peanut gallery and straightened Dominic’s collar. He was wearing not the lavender shirt but a white one that had gone slightly gray. The dark serge suit was not one of his best. She wondered who had dressed him. Why hadn’t they put him in the Brioni she’d helped him pick out? Suddenly she was crying again.

Strands of light? Reunions of energy? It was a theory she’d held to all her life, but now it seemed preposterous. What was more likely was that she’d never see this darling man again.

* 

She stood at the side of the room, by a bank of candles—like those in a church, except without a coin slot. Kneeling down before the coffin and then standing again had used up a considerable amount of energy, and she was hiding by the candles mainly to collect herself before making her exit.

“She’s definitely had some work done,” someone whispered. “And look at what she’s wearing.”

Old people! thought Honey. The deaf ones were the worst—they imagined everyone else was deaf, too.

Or perhaps the women intended her to hear their jibes.

__________________________________

From Honey by Victor Lodato. Copyright © 2024 by Victor Lodato. To be published on 04/16/2024, by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Excerpted by permission.




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