Issue 104, Fall 1987
The old days, the Chicago days, rooms full of the smell of chicken paprikash, coffee, roasting pork, simmering prunes and apricots. Dark rooms full of dark furniture, of horsehair, claw feet, doilies, crucifixes with palm fronds stuck behind them. Of trunks and chests that women opened —Ma Kish, Aunt Jewel, Mrs. Starcheski from next door—and took things out of, their heads laid to one side: lace dickies wrapped in tissue, tea towels, starched and ironed, with crocheted edging, tiny vases of pink crystal, stroked, offered. Here. For your hope chest.
Dark crowded rooms, three slept in one bed. Everyone so poor, and yet there was always something to give, always something on the stove. Enough to feed anyone who came, even if it was just soup made with tomatoes and onions and dandelion greens from the park, or tripe, sliced very thin, fried with eggs. Always money for a handful of cigarettes, always music, Dvořák, Irving berlin, Sigmund Romberg—Come, come, I love you only, come, hero mine. Carl the tenor, Joey the baritone, Frank the bass. Rosa could sing, in those days. She was the alto, she knew the harmonies. They all knew them. The old gang. Now her voice was a four-noted reed — thin from not much use, and also age. She tried it testingly, had to clear her throat and start again. Lay your head upon my pillow. She liked the sad songs with the beautiful melodies, the songs about knowing it was over. Marty Robbins, her favorite, dead now, she couldn’t believe it.
Rosa watched her hands coming up out of the soapsuds. Her mother’s hands came to her: down in the washtub, fishing through the water for the next shirt to scrub on the board. Thick palms, broad nails—strong hands, made for work, like her own, stretching to get around all the strings of the mop. Smelling of onions or bleach, when she lifted Rosa’s face to give her a kiss. Rosa would lay her head in her mother’s lap, and the big fingers would comb through her hair, checking for nits.
Father Novatny, tall, with long eyes like a saint’s, grey-blue—he wanted to leave the Church to marry Rosa’s mother! But she wouldn’t let him. It was supposed to be a secret, but Genevieve knew somehow, because she was the oldest, and she told Agnes and Emma, and Agnes told Rosa, too young to hear things like that, Emma said—Agnes got a slap for telling. When the news came out that Father Novatny had asked to be transferred to another diocese, Rosa and Agnes ran and sat down on the steps of the church, hugging each other and crying, waiting for him to come with tears in his eyes to say good-bye to them. “Such beautiful girls,” they thought he’d say. “Goodbye, take care of her for me.” They kept themselves in tears for an hour, out there in the cold, but Father Novatny never showed up.
Rosa rinsed each dish and put it in the rack. Two plates, two forks, a pot. Two mugs, cheap white glass from the dime store, but they held the heat. Things got simpler and simpler, a bowl of cornflakes for breakfast, a little sandwich for lunch, then Days of Our Lives.
Only today, they didn’t watch.
Buried alive, Gilbert had said, at the end of lunch, standing by the chair, rattling his keys in his pocket as if he wasn’t sure what he would do next. The next time she saw him he was headed out the door in his bermuda shorts and no shirt. “Where are you going, in this heat?” “To work, Rosa.”
He used to call her his ball and chain, just kidding, a long time ago.