December 18, 2012
by Delia De Santis
The sound of sirens is coming closer and closer when I rush into Mr. Vanú’s office. I don’t know what I am saying. I just know I am speaking, babbling.
Mr. Vanú is a slow-reacting man. He stares at the ring on his finger for a long time, gold from another country. I want to shake him, make him hurry with his answer. Finally he speaks: “For years you’ve never been late once, and now you suddenly want to leave before you’ve even arrived.” He rubs his ring, a round black stone.
“I’ll make it up tomorrow. I’ll come earlier and stay later — I’ll do anything. Just let me go home today.”
“But that’s just it, Miss Delgato,” he says, rocking back and forth on his feet. “Don’t you know what I am trying to say? Just this once, and everything falls apart.” Sometimes when he’s not busy, Mr. Vanú builds houses on his desk, with a deck of cards. When he pulls one out, the whole structure tumbles down.
“But I couldn’t work after what happened down there on the street. I can’t. Please…” Finally, he notices how badly I am shaking, sees and understands — I know I won’t have to beg him again.
A slight wave of his hand. “Yes, of course you can leave.” He’s not unkind, has never been.
The elevator. No, I can’t! If I faint, who will pick me up? — No one . The elevator door opens and closes again. The stairs, there’s a handrail. Keep moving. Don’t crumble and fall. On the street, ambulance and police cars, and people being told to stay back. Back, back. They have covered up the body.
“Lady, are you all right?” a man says, as I stop for a second amongst the crowd. “You’re looking mighty pale. You should go on your way before they come to take the poor bugger away.”
I try to run, but I can’t. I am wearing high heels. My head feels so light.
I was in a fog once, walking. A real thick fog. I didn’t know where my feet would land next. On what? Empty space, or the ground? A void. I kept slowing down. So slow. Kittens weaving wool around my feet. Strings around my ankles, legs.
I don’t know why I am remembering all of that now. It was a long time ago. So long ago. But I never forgot how it felt. As though it happened yesterday. And it’s happening to me all over again. Only there’s no fog now. No fog at all. But what could be worse than a day like today? Not even a cloud in the sky, just a cold, blue sky. Heaven frozen over, like it’ll never warm up again.
The first time I saw him was in the lobby of the building. He was taller than me. I happened to look up and his soft brown eyes smiled. I turned the other way. I couldn’t help it. I liked the way he stood, tall and straight, a reserved kind of confidence about him. He had a high forehead and his hair was combed back, smooth black hair with a silver streak, just above his left temple.
It was the middle of winter and one day I bought myself a new coat, reddish-purple. Later, I wished I
hadn’t. It was too bright, and I could feel he didn’t like it on me. I know that sounds strange, but I could tell. I went back to wearing the dark green one, and he was pleased.
His scarf had three different shades of gray, fine threads running into a short fringe. His coat was black.
Two months went by so fast in my life. I only saw him at the beginning of the day — he must have worked later than I did. I hurried my days away, to see the mornings coming.
We never met alone. People were always rushing to make it to work on time. Young women rubbing sleep from their eyes, men already too high on caffeine. He was always the same – quiet and contained, slightly removed from the frantic pace the rest of the world followed.
“Miss Delgato,” Mr. Vanú had called after me from the door of his office. “Don’t stop at all when you get down to the street. My brother saw what happened from his window on the second floor. Somebody shooting from a car, and a man from the sidewalk, running behind the building — and that poor fellow just walking by, getting killed. But, of course, you must have seen it, too; it’s a crazy world. Be careful!”
Whenever I used to hear the sound of a siren while playing outside, I would hurry inside the house, to check things out. I would walk around to see if everyone was okay, my little sister and brother playing in the basement, our dog sleeping underneath the kitchen table. “Where is Papa?” I would ask my mother, when I finally found where she was —usually in the sewing room working on a dress, or in the living room with a book in her hand.
Mama would tell me where Papa was, and then wonder why I had forgotten. But I hadn’t; that wasn’t why I asked. I just wanted to make sure. I wanted to hear Mama say he was at work, or wherever he had gone that day. I didn’t want to rely on my memory alone. Besides, I wanted to hear her soft crooning voice reassuring me, telling me there was nothing to worry about, that Papa would come home, that Papa was all right — that all of us were all right, everyone.
After, I would go to my room. There I would wrap my doll up with thick woollen blankets, even if it was
in the middle of summer.
One day we got on the elevator at the same time. There were several people going up — the building has nine floors. I watched as a young girl pulled a curl over her cheek and then let it snap back. An older woman pushed herself deeper into the corner. The young girl smiled to herself. I started adjusting my glasses. Then I saw he was looking at me. I didn’t know what to do. Quickly, I lowered my eyes, stared at hands, feet, the shine of people’s shoes.
Suddenly the elevator door opened and I had to make myself look up again, to see if it was time for me to get off. Just then our eyes met and held for a second. And then he walked out onto the lobby, the elevator door sliding closed behind him.
The big clock is in the corner of the dining room. It has always been there. It chimes on the hour and the half hour. One day my mother calls out to my father. She tells him to hurry up. Always curious, my little sister and my little brother follow Papa into the room. I am right behind, too. “I knew something had happened,” Mama says in a strange voice. “Then, I realized what it was. It’s the silence …”
Papa looks around at us children standing there, suspended, confused, as if waiting for something strange and magic to happen.
“Eh, what’s this? What’s everybody staring at?” Papa says, forcing his voice into boisterous laughter. “It’s just a clock. We’ll get it fixed, for goodness sake."
My little sister, four years old, giggles, and then puts her hand underneath her chin, blowing softly across her fingers. “Tick tock no more… the big clock is dead.” She prances away.
“That’s the way,” Papa says, turning to watch her.
“Oh, bless her heart,” Mama says, becoming light hearted again. “Bless her little heart. She can always cheer us up.”
“Yes,” Papa murmurs, putting his arm around my shoulders. “And what do you say, my big, shy, girl? You’re always so serious.”
“But Papa,” I say, looking up at him. “Will the clock get fixed?”
“Of course it’ll get fixed,” he chuckles. “Everything always gets fixed.”
“What about when people die…?”
“Ah, that?” he says. “I suppose we’re reborn somewhere else – maybe even as something else. One could look at it that way, believing that life never ends. What do you think of that?”
I rest my head on his arm, and wonder what people will be reborn as.
It’s not summer yet, but it has been spring for more than a month. There have been many warm days already, and the daffodils are beginning to push out of the ground, loosening the earth around them.
I am fond of daffodils, but they are not my favourite flowers. I like roses the best. The year I bought my own place, I planted a lot of them. Every year after that I added more. Now my backyard is full of rose bushes all around.
He would have liked roses. I know .
All of my roses are pure white. Some people think that’s strange, but he wouldn’t have minded. He would have just smiled at that, and in a soft voice say, “White is good.” Simply that. And he would have meant it.
My parents are no longer alive, but my house is a replica of their house. I didn’t know that when I bought it, fifteen years ago. But then, maybe I did. Yes, I must have known. Maybe we always know more than we want to admit, or the knowing is so deep in one’s subconscious that it can’t always come out.
I take the key out of my purse and open the door. I don’t have my doll anymore, but there is a woollen blanket folded at the bottom of my bed. I’ll wrap it around myself and look out the window, where I can see my rose bushes.
A lot of people have problems with roses in winter, but mine never die. Before the first snow, I cover them with straw. In the spring the birds come, and spreading their wings, fly up into the sky, taking with them the thin dry stalks.
This year’s new growth isn’t much yet, but with the good days ahead, soon there will be buds all over the place. In June, the backyard will turn into a large white mantle, and my heart will rejoice, in sweet longing.
Delia De Santis’ short stories have been widely anthologized, and several of them have been translated into Italian. Her collection Fast Forward and Other Stories was published in 2008. She is a regular contributor to Accenti.
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