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23 Jun

(another story snippet)

On the balcony Luda dreams, feeling the morning air on her face. British women, she has heard, have beautiful skin, because of the moisture in the air. She thinks about this and lets the dew seep into her pores. Brown and white pigeons ruffle their feathers in a coop in the corner, coo-cooing at her and each other. She holds a butcher’s knife, idly twirling the point on her calloused finger. Which one will be for dinner?

Suddenly, a great white bird alights on the ledge, bristling, head cocking curiously. Luda stares at it. The cockatoo reciprocates. She fears it will speak, it will reproach her.

“Come in, come in, sweet bird,” she says, opening the door to the apartment. She’d love it as a pet. Would like to teach it to speak and sing. Pissou the cat looks out from under the kitchen table, two green eyes in the shadows, his black tail switching stiffly back and forth. The cockatoo has other plans: no apartment block for him. He leaves as abruptly as he came.

Luda shrugs. She puts the knife down on the ledge and opens the pigeon coop, selecting the plumpest of the bunch. She holds its body in one hand and delicately, lovingly, uses the other to break its neck.

Watermelon, Baby, Chicken Bone

20 Apr

(Some more Luda. Previous bits of Luda can be found under Fiction/Story Snippets.)

She walks down the hot sidewalk pushing the cart, empty but one bulbous watermelon. The metal of the cart sags at the bottom. Green bits of glass sparkle on the asphalt. Round the corner from the bodega and up three flights of stairs—it takes her ten minutes and Luda is tired when she retrieves the grandbaby from the neighbor. Grandbaby coos with glee at her return. She plays with the brown cowlick on his head, coiled like a sarmaluta.

In the kitchen, she gives the baby a chicken bone. He gets grease on his rosy cheeks, bangs the table as she chops up the cool melon, slices through the sweet flesh with her favorite knife: a good, sharp knife, a wedding present to her daughter and the son-in-law. She thinks perhaps she’d make sarmala for dinner, smiling at the baby’s curl. But she’d have to go back out for the cabbage and this thought tires her. She stops chopping a moment and looks out the kitchen window, at the rusty fire escape and down to the avenue.
She hears the dreaded noise: a faint little scuttle.

“Mices!” One of her few English words, such as yes, no, help and bodega.

She drops the knife and it clatters to the floor. Sticky pink juice and black pits splatter. She clambers atop a chair and onto the kitchen table, gathering her floral moo-moo. She sees the little brown mouse go behind the stove. She shudders, but is grateful its not one of the more dreadful rodents, the ones that scurry in the subway. The ones large enough to eat the baby.

Slowly, slowly, she climbs down. The baby laughs at her. Laughs at his silly Bunica. She gets tired easily under all her weight, but she doesn’t take long to clean up the fruity mess, and move the baby to the living room. Out of breath, she switches on the fan and the TV. She sits down with an ooph and watches the mid-day news. Pictures of looting in darkened streets, broken glass, sirens and screaming: the chaos of the blackout a few days ago. She sighs and eats melon, chews and swallows but doesn’t process the sweetness. Watches the procession of soaps after the news, tries to take in the new language, is mildly shocked and amused by the love scenes. Over the course of the afternoon, alone in the apartment with baby and TV, she goes back and forth to the kitchen, cutting and eating the watermelon.

The son-in-law arrives from work on his bike. Brings it up and locks it on the fire escape. He is a good son, with a secure job making gravestones. A demand never to diminish. Only all that death. Was it bad luck? Luda wonders. Her daughter is in a more abstract field. At least she can understand the stones, the carving. Computers, she will never understand. I only understand the buttons on my dress, she thinks.

The son-in-law is taking art classes at the community college at night. Painting. The old Romanian teacher jokes with him: “You can take this class for free if you make my gravestone complimentary.” So he pays just for the supplies and sits in the back, craning his neck a bit to see the lithe model or the basket of fruit and animal skulls on silky colored fabrics.

Tonight he works on his homework, portrait of a family member. He sits Luda down on her twin bed in the sewing room. The walls are painted in a bluish sherbet color and her dollar store house dress is of blue, white, faint orange-pink flowers. She sits forward, hands on knees, rocking slightly with impatience. “Dukes of Hazzard” will be on in fifteen minutes. The son-in-law doesn’t care if Luda misses it because she can’t understand anything on the TV. But there’s something funny about all that nonsense English and sound effects and music—no matter what she watches she finds something to laugh at, manages to clap her hands in amusement. She likes to enjoy life, not like that daughter of hers, hunched over the typewriter in the bedroom, endlessly updating her resume.

Luda brushes her white hair away from her forehead, her bowl cut growing out. It is hot and though all the windows are open the air inside is very still. Very still and vaguely brown. The baby sits in his high chair, commenting on his father’s art in gurgles, banging the chicken bone on the little table. A natural critic.

“Did you eat that whole melon?” he asks.

“What melon?”

“I saw the rinds in the trash. You can tell me, Bunica. Better you tell me than Mia.”

“I tell you, you tell her. What’s the difference?”

“You know you don’t need all that sugar.” He reaches for a tube of pink and squirts it on his pallet.

“Melon. Fruit. It’s healthy!”

“Do you want to go blind, Luda?”

She rolls her eyes and sighs. Looks at her hands. Needs to cut a cuticle or two. Tell me what’s next, she thinks. Amputation? She lets a moment pass.

“What would you like for dinner?”

He doesn’t look up, he is concentrating on the canvas.

“Whatever you cook is good with me,” he finally says, still not looking up. She sighs and heaves herself up.

“Can we finish later?”

“Sure, Bunica.” He looks up at her, finally. Gives the smile with the dimple that the baby has.

At night in her little room with the sewing machine and the twin bed, she lays facing the window. The moon peeks in and bounces off the sherbet walls. Her thick glasses are off and everything is a luminous blur. She listens to the baby cry and to her daughter murmur in the other room. Their sounds weaving in and out of her memories.

snippet: The Anniversary

16 Mar

Luda smoothed the shirt on the hanger and hung it in the closet. Her eyes lingered on no particular spot there, just her family’s clothing bunched together, a row of hangers clutching a pole: her husband’s good suit, her good dress, and little Mia’s weekend outfit and alternate school uniform, all hanging limp. It was early afternoon but the clouds outside were so dense and full with rain that it felt much later. She sighed and closed the door.

The sounds of the youngest school children began wafting up through the large concrete yard, through the open window in the kitchen. Luda put the kettle on and cut a slice of bread, spread goose fat on it and waited for Mia. She had started first grade a week ago and no longer required her mother’s company.

Luda adjusted the pins in her hair and wiped her hands on her apron. The door unlatched and there was Mia, her red hair wild and bow askew, red-cheeked and breathless.

“Hello little devil,” Luda said. She resisted the urge to scoop her up and give her kisses. “Come here and have a snack.”

Mia shut the door and went to the table. Luda poured her some tea and Mia swung her legs as she chewed on the black bread. She chattered about her day between bites and Luda reminded her to swallow before opening her mouth to speak. Mia finished her snack in silence (still swinging her legs) and Luda adjusted her bow.

A few hours later Matei came home. Matei was a tailor. He shared a shop with another tailor and he often brought home his work, which Luda helped with. Usually they would exchange a kiss and have a quiet dinner before setting down to work. They would sit side-by-side, mending and altering, taking turns at their major investment, the Singer.

Today, however, was the fifth anniversary. Luda could not look at Matei. She looked above him, beside him, at his forehead, his nose (growing a hump beneath his square glasses), at his ears. She looked at the corners of the kitchen, her fork, her spoon, her soup, the table. She wondered if he noticed this behavior, and its steady yearly recurrence. If he did, he had the tact not to say anything. The tact or the fear. She wasn’t sure. She worried that he knew and did not say, but perhaps he knew that she thought he knew.

After dinner Luda checked on Mia’s homework and put her to bed on the cot in the living room. Then she went into the bedroom and lay down. She stared into the darkness and listened to the stuttering of the Singer. She listened to the rhythm of Matei’s work, as well as the silences, and wondered if in those pauses, he was looking up, staring at no particular point on the wall and thinking of her. She smiled at this image, then put her hands on her belly and cried.

snippet: Luda

10 Mar

In the narrow, sherbet room there is one wall with floor-to-ceiling shelving. The shelves are filled not with books but yarns, threads, ribbons, and lace, in descending order of frequency. The colors cooled by the light bouncing off the walls. A painting of Luda hangs on the opposite wall, above the twin bed. The faint blue and purple shadows in the folds of her flesh.

“If it tastes good, it’s kosher,” was her motto. And this was manifested in her, and the portrait continues to manifest it.

In her final years, the seamstress lived in this sewing room, though she didn’t do much sewing anymore. She simply beamed at the wall of threads and admired the woolen yarn and the half-completed rug on the loom by the window. Her daughter had tried weaving in her unemployed days, but was now too busy at IBM to have “productive leisure time.”

Luda would sit on the bed with her hands on her knees and listen to the son-in-law mend curtains on the sewing machine, or do other odds and ends. What a handy boy.

Few people came to the funeral. They’d either died or were stuck in Romania. A few letters of condolence arrived in thin airmail envelopes. They had a short service at the cemetery and the rabbi gave a generic speech based on the five minute pre-funeral interview. A flock of honking geese flew up as rocks were strewn in the grave and the small party (daughter, with baby on hip, her husband, and me, the neighbor) got into the Subaru and drove back to Brooklyn.

Her daughter Mia invited me in after the service. I had made a pot of cholent before the funeral. I lived next door and occasionally swapped stories with Luda in her better days. She’d told me about her life, her sewing and her cooking. She made cholent with bacon fat. So I finally tried the sacrilegious recipe in her honor. It worked well with the meat and the beans, added a smoky flavor.

Mia was sitting on the floor of Luda’s old room when I arrived. The baby was waddling around, banging at the loom and babbling to it. Her husband was in the dining/living room, arranging flowers.

“That’s it, then,” Mia said, as I stood in the doorway.

“She’s in a better place,” I said, dreading all the clichés and wishing for something better. I barely knew Mia. “I’m so sorry.”

Mia grabbed at her boy and swung him into her lap. He squeaked with joy.

“I wish she had come over more, I so enjoyed her stories,” I said. “We always talked of knitting together. I didn’t realize how much yarn she had!”

“She used to make beautiful things.”

“I can imagine.”

The afternoon light threw a muted orange triangle on half of Mia’s face. She had her mother’s roundness and hearty build, but her eyes were darker and stronger. Her hair was red but I’d only known Luda’s stark white.

“Sit down,” said Mia.

Her husband brought in some plates of cholent. I started for the bed, hesitated, then opted for the floor, beside Mia. Luda looked on, above us. The cholent was thick and not very hot, just the right warmth. We ate in silence.

(Maybe part of a larger work. Then again, maybe not.)

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