(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.
“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.