SUNDAY, 25 MARCH 2012 17:37
This story forms part of NTdiG’s novel,Tillie and the Tailor, set in Boston’s North End.
The neatly-dressed old lady was explaining to the young man in heavily-accented English.
‘You see over here the window, nice. Over here sink, nice.’
She turned on the cold water; there was also a faucet for hot water but there was no hot water.
‘Over heresa doors, French doors, the beauty of the house, nice.’
She placed a gentle hand on the glassed doors, which had to remain open because they were too swollen to close properly. The young man noticed that the dull cream paintwork overlapped the edges of the glass panes by a good two inches.
The girl with him nodded understandingly. Her young man paid no attention to the old lady. He was studying the ceilings, pitted like moonscapes, and the gaudy flower-printed wallpapers, estimating the time it would take to paint over them.
‘See nice wallpaper, flowers, so beauty,’ the landlady said. ‘Everything clean, nice.’
‘What about the stove?’ the young man asked.
‘Ahdunno,’ the old lady breathed. ‘The gal who was live here before – she no was marry – she want to sell. Stufa è new. She was eat with la zia – the auntie – downstairs. No was cookin here. You want? I ask.’
The place, shown as three rooms, was really two and a quarter. The quarter, the young people figured, could be used as a closet, for the flat had no other storage space. The toilet was out in the hall at the head of the stairs. It had to be shared with the other family on that floor. They had recently come from Italy with their three children. None of them seemed to know how to use the cubicle correctly, for the floor was wet and stank. There were no facilities for bathing.
The landlady made no mention of the toilet. She opened a window over the street and indicated an ample fire escape, which she called a balcony. On the floor below it was a clutter of potted plants – a big bushy basil, a horde of marigolds.
‘See, you can have them too the plants, nice. This is a good house. People all nice.’
The glass in the windows was speckled and edged with the bright red paint they’d used on the exterior sashes. It would have to be scraped off with razor blades.
‘See blines, they stay, they yours, nice.’
The young man looked down at the cheap, worn linoleum and on an impulse lifted one corner. A layer of brown newspapers was exposed. He read the date 1940, more than fifteen years earlier. The floorboards were dirty with silty sand and countless bobby pins.
‘What do you think?’ he asked the girl.
‘It’s better than anything else we’ve seen.’
He was non-committal. The rooms were on the top floor – the fourth. There was light and there was sun both front and back. The place was better than anything else they’d seen in the whole North End.
‘How much is the rent, signora?’ he asked.
‘Twenty-four dollars, that’s all.’
That was little, but so were the rooms, so was what he’d be getting.
‘We’ll let you know tomorrow,’ he said.
The little old lady snapped to attention. ‘You marry?’ she said. ‘Well, when you marry, you can put the bambin’ in that room. Over here you put the parlor, nice. Sofa go over there.’
Just then a small, rotund man with a mustache came in. The landlady’s husband, he was red-faced with wine and was smoking a smelly stogie.
‘Albè,’ his wife said, ‘I’ma just tell them how nice people live here. All siciliàn. You siciliàn?’
‘No,’ the young man answered blankly.
‘No?’ They were disappointed – but only for a moment. ‘Well, that’s all right.’
The husband suddenly peered at the bride-to-be.
‘You wife iss taliàn?’ he asked.
But the young man did not have a chance to answer. The landlady wanted an end to the pleasantries, wanted to press another point so as to close the deal.
‘You say you been live on North Street,’ she said to the young man. ‘Well then, you go askin all the siciliàn ladies on North Street about la signora della case dove abita San Giuseppe.’
The house where San Giuseppe lives? What did she mean? She didn’t seem a religious fanatic.
On the way downstairs the husband held the young man back.
‘She’s americàn you wife?’ he whispered. ‘She’s a no cattòlic?’
‘No,’ the young man said.
‘She’s a change?’
‘But you no change too?’ It was half a fearful plea.
‘Religion doesn’t – ’
To the young man’s relief the landlady broke in. ‘Hey, come on you two mens.’
The four gathered on the second-floor landing at the door of the landlady’s flat. She waited for her husband to produce the key.
‘You want to see my nice rooms?’ she asked sweetly. ‘They so beauty, you see. Anyway, you come in and see the saint. Come on, dolly’ she said to the young woman, ‘you too.’
There was already one saint looking down on them in the semi-darkness of the hallway. It was the slant-eyed Santa Maria de Perpetuo Succursu, hanging over the door,framed in the center of a large, Gothic-lettered motto – God Bless Our Home.
They went in. The landlady took the young woman’s hand. The young man expected to be led into a crowded bedroom with a sickly-sentimental plaster statue of San Giuseppe on a cluttered dresser.
Instead, their hosts seated the young couple at an ample kitchen table. The landlady brought a small tray with a decanter and four miniature glasses.
‘You have a little glass?’
‘No, thank you.’ The girl smiled politely.
The landlady filled two glasses.
‘Go head, dolly, is good for you.’
It was anisette. The young man drank his and finished the girl’s. Without leaving his chair, the landlady’s husband dragged a gallon jug of dark red wine out of a cupboard.
He poured himself half a tumbler.
‘I make,’ he said softly and proudly and a little as if he were clearing up a doubt. ‘I make myself.’
When the young man put down his liqueur glass, the old Sicilian filled him a stemmed glass of the red wine. Not a drop went astray from the heavy gallon bottle.
The young man tasted it. The wine was heady with alcohol and had a muscatel odor. His wife – by then to the old couple she was simply his wife even if there had not yet been a wedding – was given a small glass of the red wine.
The old lady brought out color photographs of her children. Three hulking Italian-looking boys, one in the uniform of a U.S. Marine. There followed the pictures of the grandchildren and the three ‘daughter-in-laws.’
The drink was going to the young people’s heads. They had not eaten since early morning. The landlady and her husband had recently finished lunch. A platter of unfinished rigatoni, like a red crater, stood on a counter.
The young people were offered food. The platter of macaroni was whisked under their noses. They refused.
‘Why? Why you no eat? You no like? Look, they so nice. Albè is eat four time – yes, four dishes hisself.’
‘Grazie, signora, but we must be going. Grazie per tutto. Grazie tante.’
A large bowl of fruit appeared. A fat peach for the young man, a smaller one for his wife. Like a ritual, it could not be refused, could not be hurried.
The two young people got up to leave.
‘But you no see the saint, you two dollies,’ said the landlady, clasping her gentle hands together over her breast. It was like a sigh.
Now the bedroom, the young man thought. The claustrophobic feel of the house, something stuffed and crammed into every corner, weighed him down.
The landlady’s husband sat within reach of an enormous television. His wife told him to move aside so that she could get to a corner pantry that was fitted with an odd aluminum-and-glass storm door. He shuffled his chair out of the way. Tugging the two young people by the hand, the landlady unlocked the pantry.
Inside were no shelves, but strung around the door jamb were big Christmas lights of all colors. The old lady switched them on. Blue, chartreuse, silver balls dangled from the ceiling and reflected in miniature, on an infinite curve, the interior of the closet and a bit of the kitchen. The floor space of the little niche could have measured no more than two feet by three. The walls were lined with crinkled aluminum foil. And in the middle of all this, enclosed in a great cellophane bag, stood a life-size plaster statue of San Giuseppe.
He was festooned with ribbons of one- and five- and even ten-dollar bills. Pictures of other saints – Saint Anthony with a blue pate and an oversized lily in his hand and the Byzantine-looking Sicilian saint of the hallway – were attached to the cellophane cocoon.
San Giuseppe stood with one relaxed leg slightly forward, his head bent pensively, showing off a great blue beard. His face had no particular expression. He held a weightless baby aloft and in the other hand an orb. Maybe, after all, he looked a bit tired, closet-weary. The baby looked old too and was completely naked except for a real gold bracelet that dangled from its fingertips.
‘Nice, nice,’ the young couple murmured, doing their best to make an exit.
Out on the street – it was really an alley – the two looked back in disbelief. A string of lights framed the arched doorway.
‘Had you noticed them before?’ the young man asked.
‘I thought they were Christmas decorations nobody bothered taking down,’ she said. ‘Shall we say yes to the place?’
‘Needs a lot of work,’ he said glumly.
‘It’s got sun and air. And it’s not expensive.’
‘Yeah, two-and-a-quarter rooms with built-in saint.’
‘For twenty-four dollars a month,’ she said.
He did not reply. When she pressed, he said, ‘Let me think it over.’
‘You mean no,’ she said, growing upset.
‘I mean I want to think it over.’
‘I suppose you’re going to tell me it’s not your style.’
‘Maybe,’ he said. ‘I didn’t like that saint suffocating in his Christmas niche. Did you? I didn’t like the old couple’s mindless piety, their tawdry beliefs. But most of all I didn’t – ’
He couldn’t bring himself to repeat what the old man had said to him coming down the stairs. He too was now worked up and he didn’t want to have to explain further, didn’t want to have to tell her what really rankled. But certain memories had suddenly flocked in on him, and he found himself lashing out in anger.
‘In Italy . . . ’ He did not want to go on. ‘They persecuted my grandmother because she wasn’t a Catholic. Priests drove my father out because he wouldn’t believe what they wanted him to believe.’
His vehemence bewildered her. ‘This is America,’ she said in dismay.
‘This is a backwater of Italy,’ he told her. Then, softening his tone, he said, ‘I’m not trying to make a stand.’ His words made him laugh. ‘Or maybe I am.’
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