PORCHES AND STILLS
The steel machete glinted—fingers tight around its taped handle, her left arm hanging loosely by her side swinging with the weight of the long, curved blade. In the pocket of her brick-a-brack smock hid a short knife. Over her back hung on a harness of thick garden twine on which were strung ten string bags jammed full of dandelions she’d picked from along the tracks. Stooping, hunting, cutting, stooping, hunting, cutting, since first light had made her shoulders and neck pinch, but she’d gathered the best and now she was done with that part of the work. The Dandelion Lady stopped at the corner to take a long drink from the public water fountain. What a country, she thought, with this kind of well for anyone to share. But look at the chewing gum all around on the pavement. She stooped and took out her short knife to pry up the wads that had re-appeared in the two days since she’d last visited the fountain. They stuck to her fingers as she flung them into the lawn that led to the park.
When the Dandelion Lady closed her eyes, toothed green leaves hung suspended there in a sort of green on green mosaic before her. They made her dizzy, so she opened her eyes and focused on the uneven sidewalk, taking care not to trip over its heaves and buckles. She called out the people to see her dandelions. Sunshine warmed her shoulders, and she waved to the rag and bone man as they passed one another along Broadway. Their long wails intertwined; rags—chicchia—chiccia— an’ ol’ iron, ol’ iron—and then separated, one headed east, the other west. His cart slowed him down, and he walked as if his knees ached, she thought. He needed a poultice.
The Dandelion Lady moved quickly and rounded the corner on her way up and down the various numbered streets of the village, to call the signoras from their kitchens for her bitter greens. They were tender and young in the early spring, and the season would soon run out. Then it would be her time to harvest cardoons from along the same tracks—they weren’t real cardoons, of course but they were close. No matter, they satisfied the people’s hunger for cardoons from the old country. Worse than the dandelions by far, these plants were fiercer and heavier, and they hurt her hands .They were also harder to sell—so much work to prepare with the peeling and boiling and cooking again. Dandelion season was when she shone, when she had some money in her pocket. The weather was not yet stifling.
Two young policemen approached her, their polished billy clubs swaying like her own machete, their oiled hair like black glass. That high nosed one was Domenica Giancarlo’s boy and the other she wasn’t sure. He looked familiar, though. “Ciao, Senora,” they sang out in unison, “Come stai? Buona fortuna, oggi”. They were good boys, she thought, inquiring after her and wishing her luck. She smiled with her mouth held closed so as not to show her missing front tooth as she reached into her pocket under the short knife and pulled out two atomic fireballs wrapped in cellophane. “Aspette, Aspette, she said. They waited until her hand unfolded, holding out the candies in her palm as one holds a sugar cube to horses. Officer Giancarlo and Officer Crespella snatched the candies without hesitation and waved happily as they left her, their heavy policemen’s shoes hard on the pavement. She would have liked to talk with them for longer, but they had work to do. “Woo! Woo! She heard them gasping as they rounded the next corner. Fireballs were boys’ favorites, she knew it.
Sales were good that morning. Senora Palermo and Senora Greco each bought a bag-full. Senora Crespelle took two, turning back the flour dusted cuffs of her polka dotted housedress and sharing with the Dandelion lady her troubling certainty that her grown children were turning into constipated Americans before her very eyes. She was on a mission to make them regular. Her plan, she bleated out loudly, feet planted on the third step of her front porch, was to stuff them with bitter greens until the end of the spring, and then with chard until July and then with cuccuzzi for the rest of summer. The dandelion lady agreed with Senora Crespelle; children must not develop sluggish American bowels.
The Dandelion Lady watched her satisfied customer huff up the stairs with the two bags, clasped firmly against her large breasts and held in place under her elbows. “Grazie, Senora Chicaude, she shouted, e salute!” When the door slammed closed, The Dandelion Lady turned and made her way back to the long sidewalk. She resumed her calling and strode easily along the flat prairie streets of her new village. In the forty years since she’d come, she’d never gotten completely used to the flat land. Easy to walk but nothing much to see. Nothing like Trapani where she’d walked up and down, up and down the vertical streets to the city market where she’d taken her place behind her father’s stand. There she’d sung out the names of all the vegetables that lay in crates before her mesmerizing in their purples and oranges and greens. Next to her, the snail monger had called, and beside him, the old woman who sold wild herbs, and then the other vegetable merchant , a small woman with kinky hair who tried to drown everyone else out with her soprano screech. To be a merchant in Trapani was to be part of the choir. Here it was a solitary business for her.
She was down to just one bag when she turned from Lake onto Twentieth, and there, at the second house from the corner, perched Senora Millefiore on her front porch. Senora Millefiore raised both arms to beckon the Dandelion Lady over. Senora Millefiore did not like to yell from her porch anymore, since her daughters told her it was uncouth, so she didn’t unless it was absolutely necessary, and with the Dandelion Lady it wasn’t. The Dandelion Lady nodded and hurried up the walk toward Senora Millefiore, a small smile on her narrow lips, her surprisingly green eyes looking her customer in the face. This, she thought, is an old woman, older than me; she appreciates not just the medicine of bitter greens but the taste of them. I know she does by her look and also because she buys from me every week for years.
And The Dandelion Lady was right, Senora Millefiore respected the taste of bitter greens, craved it really, all season long. Dandelion was her favorite, cooked gently in water and served with oil and salt, a piece of hard bread thrown into the bowl, a few gratings of hard cheese, a sprinkle of pepperoncini flakes.
Senora Millefiore rose to stand in front of her porch chair. The money was already on the little table next to her; one quarter. She took the Dandelion Lady’s bag and The Dandelion Lady took Senora Millefiore’s money. When they smiled at one another, each noted how many teeth the other was missing, but not unkindly. They were simply women who noticed things.
Senora Millefiore had been sitting on the porch since breakfast, watching the squirrels chase one another and hearing them cry like babies from the highest branches of the mulberry. Her cat had tired of winding around her legs hoping for a second can of tuna, and so he’d deserted her to go across the street and try his mortality on the edge of the high wall of the donut factory. She knew where we went, but she firmly believed that cats will be cats and there’s no use interfering.
Senora Millefiore’s eyes were not up to needlework, her garden was planted with the help of her sons who lived in the houses all around her, her house cleaned by her daughters who lived several blocks over. The television, with its tiny eye that glared in the corner, bothered her. The radio annoyed her as well—all in Inglese and spoken too quickly. Everyone she liked to chat with, her sons, her grandchildren, they were at work or at school. She was, in a word, lonely, but having lived in close warren-like proximity to people all of her life she didn’t recognize the emotion and believed she was bored, which was also a new feeling.
Normally, Senora Millefiore would have seen The Dandelion Lady as a quick transaction on the front porch. She’d have made sure she didn’t pay her more than the dandelions were worth with a few seconds of haggling, no more. No, she’d not have lingered—in fact, she might have tossed her quarter down and the Dandelion Lady might have volleyed her string bag up, waiting only for Senora Millefiore to empty it into the kitchen sink and bring it back to her. But today, Senora Millefiore was surprised to find herself patting the chair next to hers and asking this woman who was neither a stranger nor a friend to sit a while. The Dandelion Lady was equally surprised, startled really. No one ever invited her to sit. She wasn’t sure. Senora Millefiore patted the chair again and the Dandelion Lady sat. She looked down at her stick-like legs, scratched by the briars that grew along the tracks. She pulled them straight in front of her and bent to yank her black socks up to where they belonged from the puddles they’d become at her ankles. The men’s boots she wore were flaked with dried mud and rail dust. It was, she supposed, to be expected. She looked at Senora Millefiore’s orange crocheted house slippers and wished she had a pair of those on right now.
Senora Millefiore rose and shuffled to the front door, calling out that she was getting the espresso, and after some ten minutes, retuned with a tray, two cups, two tiny spoons, a plate of sugar cubes, two stale biscotti, and a box of snuff, all hastily arranged on a tray. She and her tray clattered through the screen door with satisfaction, spilling nothing as she maneuvered over the wide threshold, despite her bum hip and even though she’d left her cane behind. The squirrels screamed from the trees.
The women sipped and dunked and felt the nearly instant surge of the caffeine and sugar. They stared straight ahead, side by side. It was a fine morning, they agreed. Across the street and along the side of the big green house, they watched two of Senora Millefiore’s daughters in law, Dorothea and Emily hanging out their laundry on separate lines. The laundry lifted gently in the breeze, and the daughters in law moved quickly. They had more work to do in these late morning hours—ironing, dusting, sweeping, polishing, and maybe mending. But before that, the next bushel of laundry to wash and then put through the ringer. The old women stared at the young with neither envy nor pity. Just interested in the patterns the flapping laundry made. Dorothea and Emily each lugged out a second wicker basket of fresh wash, and Senora Millefiore wondered aloud why they carried the baskets in front of them with both arms when they could simply put them atop their heads and not ruin their backs. The Dandelion Lady said she wondered the same thing and shook her head.
Next door, old Mrs. Zuelke crept out to her own porch, her son-in-law and grandchildren all gone for the day. Her daughter lying in bed with a black eye, hiding from the world. Mrs. Zuelke was a tiny thing who lived like a barnacle in the equally tiny three rooms at the top the three flat house–a sleeping porch, a kitchen, and a main room. Mrs. Zuelke owned the building since her husband died, but her son-in-law ran it. There she lived and tried not to hear what went on below. Today, nothing was happening below, and so she’d come to warm her old bones in the sun and look up and down the expanse of the street. She wondered if the rag and bone man had already been by. A sack of beef bones was getting rancid in her tiny kitchen waiting for him. She looked into the yard across the street and thought Senora Millefiore’s daughters in law were lovely with their permanent waves fluffing in the sun over across the street. She wondered, though, why they hung their underthings where they could be seen. Surely they could string a line further down behind the house for that. Their husbands would be angry if they saw those things hung in plain sight.
Mrs. Zuelke was surprised to see that Mrs. Millefiore had company this morning, shocked, in fact. Another old woman. She stared for a while before she realized it was the Dandelion Lady; she’d never looked closely at her before—and she never bought dandelions. The two on the other porch were staring straight ahead, like passengers on a train and sipping from itsy bitsy cups. Was it liquor? It was a bit early for that, Mrs. Zuelke thought, yes, a bit early in the day. And yet, she’d not refuse a taste if it were offered to her. The two looked her way and put their heads together. She couldn’t guess what they were saying. Maybe about the yelling and screaming the night before, maybe about how Mrs. Zuelke wasn’t usually on the front porch, maybe about nothing to do with her at all. If it were to do with her, though, she muttered in her mind, it would be Mrs. Millefiore telling the other one because The Dandelion Lady really didn’t know what went on in this street.
To Mrs. Zuelke’s surprise and muffled delight, the two Italian ladies, after putting their heads together, waved her over to their porch. First, she looked to her left, down the street to make sure she wasn’t mistaken. No, no one else was around. So she pulled her little knit cape around her round shoulders, took up her aluminum case cigarettes and lighter, and over to the next porch she went like a new girl at school enters the lunchroom. Her heart beating fast.
Now the three of them watched the clotheslines and the squirrels. The language imbalance kept them quiet. No one was great at English. Senora Millefiore and the Dandelion Lady would speak Sicilian together, but couldn’t really because it would leave Mrs. Zuelke out. Mrs. Zuelke spoke German, but she was the only one. Her English was no worse than that of her porch mates, but it was done differently. No matter, they soon realized. It was nice to sit with other ladies anyway.
Johnny Pranzo, drove by in his big car, looking strangely alone on the avenue. They all knew he should be at school with the other fourteen year olds and shook their heads together in disapproval. He’d come to no good, that one. His mother’s only boy and skipping school. He combed his hair like a hoodlum, too. The car raced by again, gleaming mint green in the sun, and they snorted. For his part, Johnny Pranzo noticed the old women hardly at all. They were no more important to him than trees or grass or stupid birds that dropped their white shit all over his car. But on his second pass he realized maybe they would go snitching to his mother that he was skipping school and he swung the car around and headed over to Broadway—where he would continue his new loop until the school-bell rang and his associates emerged from its double doors.
Senora Millefiore offered Mrs. Zuelke a cup of espresso which she took. No bite in it, she thought, but good. Mrs. Zuelke offered her Italian companions a cigarette. Senora Millefiore waved her hand, no. The Dandelion Lady took one and let Mrs. Zuelke light if for her with a wooden match. The match-head flamed up with vigor. It wasn’t right for a woman to smoke in public, she knew, but she felt strength in numbers and took a deep drag—who was going to stop her? Senora Millefiore opened her snuffbox and offered a pinch to the other two ladies, they each took one, tucking into their cheeks. Soon enough the trio were all flushed in face and shaky handed, and they somehow began to communicate in a frantic sort of impromptu community language supplemented heavily by both large and small motor gesture along with exaggerated facial expressions: rage, sorrow, sly cunning, sheer joy, these appeared on the face. Running, slapping, jumping, leaping, washing, cooking, digging, and killing these were in the arms, legs, hands.
Senora Millefiore told about her cousin Cudja who’d followed her mafia husband from New York with a gun, A woman with a gun! A disgrace. She was stunned that she was telling such a story, but she went on and on. The Dandelion Lady told about how she was never chosen to be someone’s wife even though she was neither ugly nor stupid, and how now she lived with her nephew in the village. She sold dandelions to pay her way. She saw lots of things happen along the tracks, she let them know. But she wouldn’t say more. Mrs. Zuelke let them know, she missed her husband and her son-in-law was a brute, but there was nothing she could do about it even though it broke her heart. She pounded herself on the chest to show the other two how her heart broke. They nodded in understanding. She pointed to the window where her daughter slept and explained the mixed up language how she’d tried to help but what could he do?
Senora Millefiore told another story to cheer things up. She pantomimed how the old man from down the street fell and broke his ankle but how he deserved it because he’d been looking in her windows. He’d been hanging from the outside still trying to peer in, like a bat, right there! He wanted to marry her, she suspected, to get her house. The three old women grinned with cynicism. They patted each other on their hands.
Mrs. Zuelke looked up and saw by the sun in the sky that it was lunch time. She took a chance. “Come my place” she motioned. Eat. She opened her mouth and made a shoveling motion. She grabbed their hands and pulled the ladies up. And the three slowly wound their way between the houses and up to the back steps to Mrs. Zuelke’s tiny flat. They each held tight to the hand rail and skipped no steps as they climbed into the Midwestern canopy of elm and ash and sycamore—the inedible trees that shaded the Zuelke back yard. When they got in, they sat on the twin bed in the sleeping porch and looked out through the leaves. No one could see them here. It was like a nest. Mrs. Zuelke went to the tiny kitchen and cut black bread and cheddar cheese. She put pickles on the side and hard boiled eggs. She’d hadn’t had friends over to her place since she was a girl really. Family yes—the grandchildren ran up here sometimes to get out of the way of their father. Friends no.
The Dandelion Lady found the food a bit dry and hard to swallow, and the cheese was surprisingly yellow, like a school bus, but she ate it daintily because despite her dirty fingernails, she had been taught manners. Senora Millefiore did her best, too.
Mrs. Zuelke chomped her pickle thoughtfully. Should she show them? Yes, she decided, she would. She rose and walked to a strange curtain in the side of the wall of the sleeping porch and yanked it open like a shy magician. Behind it, a still. Her own. The Italian women were impressed with the ingenuity. Mrs. Zuelke put her index finger into the air and motioned for them to wait as she turned her back and took two steps into her kitchen. When she turned around again, she held a bottle of her best pear whiskey—made from the Millefiore pears that fell over her side fence–which of course was of medicinal use after lunch. She poured the clear whiskey into water glasses. It was pure and it was strong. The dappled sunlight danced through the screened windows, and the ladies sipped. They all began to feel very relaxed, tiny sip by tiny sip. The squirrels began to sing in the trees.
Each woman said one word looking into the faces of the others:” Rosaria,” said Senora Milefiore. “Elsie,” said Mrs. Zuelke. “Claudia,” said the Dandelion Lady. Claudia. They nodded all around. Rosaria ran her fingers through her hair over and over until it stood up like the rays of a drawn-sun. Claudia took off her work boots and flexed her long toes. Elsie smiled out the window. No one spoke, or tried to, and no one cared about that at all anymore.
In the early afternoon, Rosaria’s cat came back from his daring-do and yowled at her absence from the front porch. It was as if she had vanished. He sniffed at Claudia’s string bags and twine, left on the floorboards, and sprayed them for good measure. On the other side of town, Claudia’s people went about their business, not noticing at all that she’d not come home yet—though she was always home in late morning. Not even wondering where she might be. And Elsie’s daughter primped in the mirror, styling her hair parted on the side to cover the black eye before her husband got home, barely noting that her mother hadn’t been down with her usual pestering her about police and divorces.
The knife sharpener was heard grinding his way down the street. Claudia needed her machete sharpened, Rosaria needed her chopping knife sharpened, Elsie wanted her shears done, but they were in no shape to make their way back down the stairs and listened to him drown away without making an attempt to rise. They looked at one another and shrugged their shoulders and then flopped onto the bed, backwards, like young-old girls. Claudia, the last to fall into a drunken nap thought she’d like to stay up here forever, on the edge of Elsie’s bed. She heard the soft snores of her companions as she drifted away, pulling her knees to her chest as she’d done all her life. She knew she’d never find herself here again, that her transactions with Rosaria would return to their previous state. Claudia would become a stranger again. She knew this day was a ruby in a pile of straw, and she smiled anyway.
Christina Marrocco is a professor of English at Elgin Community College, Elgin, Illinois. She teaches Advanced Fiction and Poetry Writing, Literature, and Composition courses. Her focus on ethnicity in America combined with personal experience growing up in a working class Italian-American environment inform much of her creative and research work. Her dissertation work is on The Evil Eye in Italian-American Fiction, and her narrative poetry appears in The Laurel Review, Ovunque Siamo and Silverbirch Press.