Fifteen

 

 

Roosters crow through the fog in his head, Just now? Hours ago?

Rolling over, pulling a beat-up pillow over his eyes, he pictures the world outside still wreathed in vapor as it was last night. Pulling himself up against the headboard, the reflection of clear blue sky shines on the walls and ceiling, Sun’s out. Quite high…. “Cleared up, I guess. Wish my head would!” Stretching, confined by his narrow bed. Scratching himself, he takes an uncomplicated satisfaction in a simple inventory of his appetites, “Twenty-three and healthy, mostly! Still not that old, eh?” Stretching, twisting in the too short bed. A twinge in his lower back from sleeping bent. Saggy bed-ropes cut through the old mattress. Standing, stretching fully, palms flat against the ceiling, “Ah…”

Dreams return to him in snippets, Running like a cheetah through a fog, crossing rolling hummocks in the cemetery. Clearing headstones in long easy leaps, dunes in the moonlight. A boundless strength overcomes the heavy tug of sand. Limbs scissoring in pairs, pulling, pushing-off. Sheer joy in effortless power.

Stuffing himself into his drawers, Another dream. Flushed with guilt. Wasn’t her, “Was it?” What’d they always say in school? Cold showers! Guard your manhood! Well, no shower here….

“I’m hungry!” Splashing cold water on his face from a chipped, china basin, “What time is it?” Reaching for his jacket, pulling out his watch, Pa, I always think of you. Nineteen. Already ill when you gave it to me. Aged overnight.

“Ten o’clock? Shit.” Snaps the watch shut. Returns it to its pocket with exaggerated care, Sunny day. They’ll be down on the beach, easels in the sand, painting up a storm. Peter ’ll be playing the part!

Hawthorne’s classes are over; but die-hards have stayed on, Painting. It’s a lonely business. Play house like a pack of puppies. All hopin’ to be lone wolves someday. He smiles bitterly, Me too….

Frowning, “Show up at this hour?” A bore. Teasing….,”The light gets harsh around noon. Even this late in the year.”

“Oh, when y’a gonna stop with all the excuses!”

“I AM hungry.” He tugs at his cap. Turns with a last look at his disheveled bed, Her mother makes my bed. Cleans this room.

Skying down the steep stairs, heel toe, heel toe, gliding from top to bottom in one smooth motion, Never as good as in that dream. A persistent dream, Floating down multiple flights of stairs. Started back at school. Not just floating down stairs; but floating up. A hand lightly trailing along the railing tethering me to earth. It’s all that keeps me from floating up to the ceiling. The rest of them clomping up and down.

Tall, ornate headstones, carved monuments stand blinding white across the track. A necropolis vying with the living town, More of them than us!

Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century headstones, Severe. Skulls and crossbones weathered into lichen-covered limestone faces. Some pale ivory, others a neutral gray, Like old dead teeth. Victorian statuary, freshly cut stone soaring to the sky. Pylons, obelisks, cherubs and shrouded maidens: set off by bronze-work slowly turning to verdigris. Deep, dark-green metal, Looks black against the harsh light. Sharp contrasts late on this bright morning.

Sere grass grows in wiry tufts rising from pale, sandy soil, No richer for the thousands of souls planted there. Red-brown moss. A blanket of lichens, pale lavender-gray. Dark, twisted shrubs prickle, rising from a knobby hillock. Sharp, tiny leaves turned bronze or bright red and yellow with the advancing Autumn. A wrought-iron gate guards deep shadow inside a crypt, The silence of the grave….

A perfect porcelain-blue vault of sky, Boundless somehow? Still intimate. Cool. Delicate air tastes of the sky. The North side of the house guards deep shadows. Vibrant indigo with violet hearts. The clay-saturated sand of the road glows a warm ocher.

Chose the pigment! A painter’s game….

Dropped those somber umbers and siennas back in June! Hawthorne’s class? No turning back! He demands strong color: Cobalt, viridian, cerulean, chrome. Having them on my palette, I see them in nature. Seeing them in nature, I squeeze more onto my palette. A palpable delight. Squinting to lose detail and catch the massed values. Brain filled with color, “A feast for the eyes!”

Won’t fill my belly! Patting his stomach, he pulls in his gut. Looks both ways to see if anyone’s around. Thumbs a silver-dollar lodged in his vest pocket, turning left towards the center of town.

He stops mid-stride, They’ll see me. Turning, sheepish. He starts around the other way, Why should I care? “Who am I kidding?” I’m a painter, an artist, eccentric! They won’t care! Thinking of her parents, Her mother’s probably looking out the kitchen window right now.

Don’t look! Dropping his chin. Striding off like he means it.

Screech! A screen door, Oh, Damn it!

A high, sing-songy voice, “Albe’rrto? Albe’rrto?” She always calls me that! Turning full circle in the dirt, a puff of orange dust rising, “Good morning senhora!”

Brightly, “How are you theese morrning? I see you not home last night?”

“Oh, I came in a little late.” Reflexively pulling off his cap, he runs his hand through his hair, Forget the comb? No sense running from it now. Ah….

“I hear Pico bark in the night, was you coming?”

“Sorry.” He steps onto a large, granite stoop, kicking, scraping his feet, bending his neck, his knees, his back to greet the tiny woman at the door. She flashes dark eyes. Beams a big smile up at him, “You hungree?” He smiles. “You no have nothing to eat! Growing boy! Que Rapaz! Tão alto!” Trailing from her limited English into Portuguese. She switches from talking to him, to commenting about him aloud to herself, “What a guy! So tall!” She flicks her hand upwards from her towel-apron, waving a rolling salute as high as she can reach.

He follows her inside. The screen door screeches on its spring, Slam! “Sorry!” Gritting his teeth, I apologize about every little thing! Looking around her kitchen, The room’s spotless. Painted woodwork and plaster walls shine with her care. The floor gleams, Smells of sweet wax. Self-conscious of the sand he’s tracking in, coarse grains crunch beneath his heels. The vibration runs all the way up his spine.

A large bowl beside a dry-sink overflows with glistening mackerel. Their stiff, straight bodies jut out at all angles. Heads and tails overhang its rim. Round eyes shine bright, gleaming, As if they’re still patrolling cold, green waters.
A massive wood-fired cook-stove bathes the room in a dry heat. A mound of bread-dough rises in a bowl on its upper warming tray; sheltered beneath an embroidered dishtowel. Its mass presses against the cloth, Like a full breast behind a veil. A black-iron skillet, long handle rising at a rakish angle, covers half the stove-top. Chunks of mackerel, brown at their edges, fins and tails curling, swim in bubbling golden-green olive oil. Bullet-heads, glistening eyes, Like on a bust of Homer. Marble-white in the roiling oil.

Gouts of greasy steam billow to the ceiling, carrying the dizzying smell of fresh-fish frying, A jumble of sweet, clean notes over traces of bile. The odor of offal rises from a pile of entrails in the sink, Bound for the garden. All the smells blend into a slightly off-putting, yet appealing aroma, Like rutting sex or a fresh slaughter; blood, excrement, violence. Desire distilled. Nothing squeamish. Nourishment. Life and death linked in a sacramental bond.

An oilcloth covers the kitchen table. Patterned with pastel green checks over a pale custard yellow ground. A tall, bone-white crock sits beside a magnum bottle of the deepest green. An old cork stopper. A long, elliptical platter, The pair to the crock? Overflows with a mound of flour flecked with black pepper. Chunks of mackerel ready for the skillet.

She steps quickly between her dry sink, her stove, and her table. Coming to each in turn, she rises on her toes to look into bowl, skillet, and crock. Turning her bright eyes on him, “I make escabeche, you like?” She steps back, exaggerating how far she has to tilt her head to look up at him, “Tão grande! Tão alto! So big! So tall!” Smiling in mock seriousness at his stature here in her kitchen.

He can’t help but blush. Smiles back, Not used to being fussed over for my looks. Or my height. Dazzled by exotic sights and smells. A flickering resemblance between her and her daughter, There. In her expression, her gestures….

Nothing like Mother’s kitchen! Back in Cleveland. Can’t imagine any of them rushing out into the street to invite a stranger in for an impromptu breakfast! Shaking his head, Mother? One of her friends? Elbow deep in cutting fish! Impossible! Not even Elli! Thinking of his mother’s cook-housekeeper.

Never really had fish at home. Not like this! Perch fillets washed into submission. Pan fried in butter. Shaking his head.

She plucks golden chunks of mackerel from her skillet, lifting them out piece-by-piece with long slender tongs, placing them carefully into her crock. Adding sliced garlic, Lots of garlic! To the hot oil. It froths instantly as she stirs in a handful of flour, quickly turning golden-brown. Shifting her skillet to a cooler part of the stove-top, she pulls the cork with a squeaky, Pop! Pours a long stream of dark liquid into the hot oil. A steam-cloud rises, roiling. Flattens and spreads across the ceiling. She leans back to avoid the blast. Sizzling fills the room. A sharp, tart smell, Homemade wine-vinegar? His eyes water. Salivary glands contract sharply under his tongue, Hurts.

With a strength he never expected in someone so small she grabs her skillet with both hands. Lifts it by its long handle. Swings it over the crock. Rising high on her toes, she pours the steaming frothy mixture of garlic and oil and vinegar and browned flour over the fried-fish in one long, continuous stream. It hits with another explosive, Sizzle. Another cloud of steam shoots upwards, engulfing the skillet on its way to the ceiling.

His head spins, Hungry. Sights and smells of raw fish. Bread dough rising, fish frying. The cutting scent of hot vinegar. He stands, watching this tiny, human dynamo at work. Her resemblance to her daughter growing stronger in his eyes, Appealing in both directions. Holding onto the back of one of her caned kitchen chairs he lowers himself into it.

She returns the skillet to the stove-top, “You very hungry, I see!” Steps around the table towards him, pausing at the counter. Reaching high up into a cupboard, she returns to his side with a half-loaf of crusty bread, a dish of sweet butter. Beads of moisture glisten on its surface. A plate materializes in front of him. With a jangle and crash, she rummages through her cutlery drawer, producing a knife and fork. Setting a fluffy, cotton napkin across his lap, “There! Now you no starve! Eat! Coma! I get you something more!” She fills a mug from a speckled-enamel percolator at the back of the stove. Sets it in front of him with a thump. A sugar bowl and a little pitcher of cream appear at his elbow.

She cries out, “Aí! A minha frigideira!” Rushing to rescue her skillet. A residue of oil, flower and garlic smoke, acrid on the stove. She turns, holding his gaze with her sincerity, “Desculpa me!” Apologizing to me? As if disturbing my breakfast, after magically assembling it before my eyes, were some grave fault!

She reassures him, “Não faz mal! No worry!” Wiping out her skillet with a sheet of newspaper, setting it back on the stove. She pours fresh oil from a tall, conical, tin pitcher. “You like eggs? Sure you do!” She assures herself before moving on. Looking up from buttering a slab of bread in deep concentration, the look on his face relieves her of any doubt. His smile broadens. Taking a big bite of bread, accepting his good mood on face value for once, Sugar my coffee. Just the way I like it!

She fries eggs for him. Edges crisp and lacy brown. Three big ones collected this morning from her brood pecking in the side yard. Olive oil puddles green-gold on his plate. Bright orange yolks bulge over glistening whites. She returns to transforming a pile of shiny raw fish into a crock of vinegary escabeche.

He floats in pure animal-pleasure. Intense as it is innocent, Simple, good food. Heady aromas. His appetite. Her warm, infectious good humor. All conspire to shut out the jejune worries of an aspiring young artist/intellectual, Joys of the moment! Enjoying myself! Joining in her light banter. Responding graciously to her teasing. At ease with myself, for once. Relaxed. Nothing forced. Nothing rehearsed.

Time floats by. He sits. Has another cup of coffee while she finishes her escabeche. “Taste better in a few days. You wait!” Apologizing for not giving him some right then. They laugh together, She’s hard to understand. Her good humor smooths away any confusion.

She laughs at her difficulties with English. The irony! Admits she’s been in this country fifteen years! Only!

“Since Maria Luisa was three.”

“Maria Luisa?” His eyes tighten, a buzzing in his ears, Too much coffee. Too much sugar.

“Sim, Maria Luisa! Yes, Lucy! Her name, Maria Luisa Leão dos Santos. They call her Lucy Santos here when we come.” He sits upright. Suddenly fidgety, trying to reassemble his composure. She pretends to concentrate on her work; standing at the sink, shamming ignorance at the effect her daughter’s name has on him. She watches him out of the corner of her eye. A smile rounds her cheek, “My name, Maria Eugenia Leão dos Santos. They call me Jenny!” She laughs at the blunt American habit of shortening, simplifying speech. “Jenny Santos! In Portugal almost all women are Maria, Maria something… So we can tell people apart!” She laughs, “Maria Eugenia, Maria Luisa, Maria das Dores, Maria da Conceição!” She turns, eager to help him through his awkwardness with this diversion. He grimaces, Can’t understand? Vaguely familiar? Thinking of his Latin.

She explains, “Maria das Dores, Mary of the Pains! Maria da Conceição, Mary of the Conception…” He blushes. She blurts out, “Of the Mother of God!” Americans! So much they don’t say! He nods. Lets out a forced chuckle. Looks down at the table-top. The remains of his breakfast. His mouth waters all over again at the sight of bright yolk drying on his plate. Tempted to drag his fork across it one more time.

The Town Hall clock strikes on the breeze, “One o’clock!” He jumps to his feet, Saved by the bell! She is on him in an instant, grabbing his napkin, taking his plate, nimbly stacking it with the rest and carrying everything away, “You go! I know you busy! Go ahead, I take care!”

He backs towards the door, thanking her with little bows, “Thank you, Senhora Santos, Thank you! It’s late, I go now.” Falling into unintended mimicry. He reaches the screen door, feeling for it against his back. Ready to bump it open and make his getaway.

Its spring, Screeches. The door falls open behind him. He spins around. Cap in hand. A tentative smile on his lips. Senhor Santos fills the doorway. The door’s handle swallowed in his great, hairy paw. Santos leans back, squinting from bright sunlight to examine the cause of this commotion in his kitchen. Scowling, Ou inquilino. The tenant. Bowing, trying to shake my hand. Shifting his cap to his head before taking it off again.

The fisherman’s strong grip takes Albert by surprise. His voice breaks, “Senhor Santos!” Acknowledged with a brief nod. Their eyes meet. Santos’ are dark against the light. A salt and pepper stubble covers his cheeks and chin, projecting a tired determination. Brilliant green eyes lost in the glare. Shadowed beneath his brow. Harshness unalloyed. Santos grunts. Pulls Albert out through the doorway in one swift move as he enters. Albert finds himself out on the stoop, looking up through the screen at the receding back of the father of his hapless love.

Santos steps into his kitchen. Settles into his chair, The one I just left. Jenny Santos places a bowl of soup and a loaf of bread in front of him. He pulls in his chair with a screech. She pours a tumbler of sparkling red wine. He reaches for his napkin.

She gives Albert a last look. A twinkle shining in her eye over her husband’s shoulder.

 

Continue…

 

 

 

 

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