Robert Wallace Paolinelli
705 Vallejo St. No. 6
San Francisco, Ca 94133-3820
NOTHING TO LOSE
ROBERT WALLACE PAOLINELLI
It was Sunday night. Elena looked away from the table. Her eyes fell on Hal, who avoided her look and from his pocket he took out the engraved silver lighter Elena had given him last week, and lit his pipe and blew aromatic smoke rings, nervously waiting for the inevitability of her next words. There was no question in his mind as to what his answer would be. This was the end, the last hour of their relationship.
"You will be leaving?" she asked in a haughtily-strained tone to cover her pain.
"Yes." There, it was out.
"Then you can leave now. What's the use of your staying here one more night?" she said, her voice now a little more relaxed.
He already guessed what she would say and in that exact tone. "A fine idea. I'll go pack right away."
Hal rose from the couch, left the room, walked down the hall to their large bedroom. There wasn't much to pack: he'd leave most of his things; they had never really been his. She'd bought all with her money, had showered him with gifts,many of which he'd never wanted.
He took an old canvas grip, one of his original possessions, and into it went his shaving kit, assorted socks, shorts and shirts, a raincoat, and a scarf he'd picked out himself, much to the annoyance of Elena. From a small desk he removed his pipes, put them in his grip, turned off the light and closed the bedroom door.
Elena was at the front door waiting for him. All affection was gone. Hal, just then, felt like an intruder being shown the door by an angry matron.
She didn't exactly slam the door, but she did not close it quietly--something completely out of her character. Hal brings out the worst in me, she thought.
Hal walked to the bus stop; she watched from the parted curtains. He smoked his pipe. He knew she would be watching.
Another man waiting for the bus asked Hal for a light, and after Hal had lighted the man's cigarette, he handed the surprised man the silver lighter.
"Here, I don't think I'll be needing this any more, and seeing that you don't have any matches, you can have the lighter. Take it."
Elena watched the scene closely; she saw the smiling recipient take the lighter from Hal's hand and put it in his own pocket, but not before he had lighted it a couple of times like an excited child with a new toy.
Elena closed the curtain and wept. Her facade of haughtiness had been brief; it had only been a temporary shield to guard a sensitive spirit. With her guard down she felt the poignancy in the finality of his parting and felt as if something in her had died within.
Making her way to the couch, she noticed the glass humidor filled with Hal's favorite pipe blend on the coffee table. She took it off the table and put it underneath, out of her sight.
She sat down. The couch was soft; she needed comfort to ease her pain, for she had wanted to love him and he to love her, but the love she'd hoped for never grew in either of them. Her emotions were wasted, her energy and her heart spent.
Just before dawn she awoke, still dressed in her silk robe. The telephone was ringing. It shattered her dream of a Mayan ruin and she ascending temple stairs in time with the beating of drums.
"Hello," said her still sleepy voice.
But from the other end of the line came no reply, only the sound of what seemed like the rattling of dishes in a noisy, all night restaurant.
Perhaps it had been Hal. She simply hung up, went back to the couch and rested her head on a smooth Turkish pillow she'd bought in Ankara the summer she'd met Hal.
She felt the cool pillow on her cheek and felt her misery. The flat was stuffy; she could not go back to sleep. She rose from the couch, and going to the window, opened it. A chill of morning air made her shiver, but she stood there drinking in the cold air. There was fog in the bay; she could see it like a giant white caterpillar coming up from the bay, slinking over the houses, could hear the fog horns, their sound penetrating the thick fog, filling the air with their mournful, monotonous drone.
Elena thought of Hal and why he had called--if it indeed had been him--but she was almost certain it had been. Then again, it could have been a wrong number. Probably he was on a bus going home,back to Oregon. He hadn't liked San Francisco, and at that moment Elena didn't like the city either and longed for a warmer, softer clime, a quiet, lazy place where she could be away from tall buildings and crowds and the memories around her which were so strong.
A hot shower warmed her. She stepped out of the blue-tiled shower onto a thick bath mat. Her body was dripping; her long black hair hung down her back. She looked at her naked self in the long mirror before her. Her body was firm, she watched her diet, she exercised regularly. Slowly she dried her trim body, then massaged her arms, neck and lower back, and it felt good. Touch was important to her. She loved it when her body was touched sensuously in love, caringly.
She dressed for the fog. And after taking up her purse, she locked her flat and stepped out into the gray, San Francisco dawn. Elena walked slowly down the hills from her Pacific Heights flat until she reached Union Street.
Which way to go: east or west? She turned east. The street was empty of traffic and people. Her footsteps seemed loud; she felt as if she were making too much noise and slowed her pace and tried not to make so much noise with her shoes.
Several blocks up the street she saw a bread delivery truck leave a tall, brown paper sack of freshly baked loaves in front of a grocery store. The name of the Italian bakery stood out on the side of the truck in bold letters. She knew that bakery and then and there decided to go to it and buy a roll. Her decision to walk to the bakery soothed her. She couldn't understand how a simple thing like deciding to walk to the bakery could make her feel better, she who had traversed continents and oceans on a whim and never felt anything because of it.
Traveling had never soothed her; in fact, she always found it rather boring and never knew why so many seemed so thrilled upon boarding an airplane. Airplanes, she had come to see, were nothing more than sky-borne cocktail lounges. How much better it was to be in one's very city where everything was familiar and there were no language problems.
The steep Union Street hill up to Polk Street from Van Ness Avenue winded her. As she stopped to catch her breath, she scanned the headlines of the morning paper on the corner newsstand. She was not much interested in their cry.
She surmounted the next hill and walked the long, flat block and the concrete covered knoll just up from the Cable Car tracks. Below her she could see North Beach not yet shrouded in fog.
Down, down the steep hills she went. Now there were more people about, mostly waiting at bus stops waiting to go to work.
Elena had never had a job. She'd always had money. There had never been a reason for her to work. Her parents never wanted her to work; they didn't think it proper for her to have a job. After all, one worked for money and there was certainly plenty of money in the family. While other university students were working away their summers, Elena was almost always traipsing along with her parents through the galleries and museums of Europe or sitting in swank cafes in the fashionable streets of Paris, Barcelona, Rome, Viareggio or Athens after an afternoon of seeing the Acropolis. All those trips, especially during her high school years, had bored her to no end. Yes, she had seen every country in Europe--more than once, but she had not soaked up any of the culture as her parents had hoped she would.
Marriage after her graduation from college had saved her the agony of ennui; and for six years she played the housewife--much to the consternation of her parents and in-laws who shook their heads every time Elena refused to listen to the suggestion that she hire live-in servants.
But there were no children and she so longed for a baby to care for. But Alex, her husband, did not want children and on that point their marriage broke down.
She then drifted from one unsatisfactory affair to another, each leaving her still alone, embittered; and all through the years, until Hal, she had been living alone, most of the time bored. And in spite of her not really liking to travel, she did it now and gain just for something to do. And it had been on her last trip of caprice that Hal came into her life, and for a year she bought his company and his affections, not really wanting to see that the relationship was a fraud kept together by sumptuous dinners at fine restaurants, cash, clothes, gifts and weekends in the mountains. But within the fraud she had tried to love Hal, yet she could never love him and that was her sorrow.
In Washington Square Park a group of Chinese men and women were moving in the slow, flowing movements of Tai Chi. Elena sat on a park bench and watched the devotees delicately move their bodies in the ancient rhythms.
An old man, perhaps close to seventy (so she reckoned) was particularly graceful, and it was on this old man that she focused her attention. At thirty-eight years old she felt she had grace of movement, but would her body flow as did the old man's should she reach his age? She pondered this, but let it pass. What need to think of the so distant future? Her life was today, on the park bench. She got up and continued to the bakery just one block away.
The delicious smell of freshly baked bread made Elena feel good. She chose a small bread roll, paid for it, lingered for a moment, casting her eyes over the lengths and shapes and colors of the crusty breads, then left. Around the corner, next to the bakery was an Italian coffee shop. She had passed it several times, but had never gone in; now she did. An old woman with a heavy accent greeted her. Elena ordered. On a table was an abandoned newspaper. She picked up the paper and tucked it under her arm. Paying for her coffee, she mounted some stairs which led to a larger room above the shop. The upstairs room was empty. Even strangers at the tables would have made her feel less tense.
"How silly I am," she said out loud, feeling her foolishness, and, with confident steps, walked to a table at the farther side of the room by the large windows and sat at the smooth wooden table she had chosen.
She broke the roll and ate it with dainty bites and sipped her hot, delicious cappuccino. Elena found the paper uninteresting, so, fishing a pen out of her purse, she started on of the crossword puzzles. She stopped and lighted a cigarette and thought of her silly reaction to being the only customer upstairs. She drank the last of her coffee and continued to work the puzzle.
But she was not alone for too long. A bearded man of medium build ascended the stairs. His eyes scanned the room and stopped at Elena sitting, smoking, seeming to be lost in thought; and it was towards her the man marched with heavy steps from his work boots. He set his coffee down, pulled out a chair and sat.
He too had purchased bread at the bakery--an entire loaf. He removed it from the paper bag and pulled off the end. He sweetened his coffee, stirred it and then dunked in the bread until it was half saturated with coffee. He opened his mouth and bit down on the bread.
Elena, to say the least, was shocked by the rudeness of the bearded stranger's ways--and he had had the gall to sit down at her table without even so much as a nod or a good morning. She was about to get up and leave when the stranger looked to her and smiled a broad smile which seemed to cancel out Elena's' first impression of him."
"Excuse me," he said, "but would you care to share this bread with me? It's fresh I just bought it."
Her roll she had finished, and, in keeping with her diet, had had her allotment of bread for the day; but she was attracted by the man and his offer. Why not? she thought.
"Thank you, yes. They do make good bread next door," she said.
"They surely do. I've been buying there for years and have never had a bad loaf," said the stranger, tearing off a large hunk off and handing it to her.
"And do you always dunk your bread in your coffee? Oh, excuse me," she interjected quickly, "I don't wish to seem rude, only I've not seen anyone do that before."
"Really?" he responded, very surprised to hear such a thing, "I've been doing it for years--just the thing to make one feel good--bread dunked in coffee. I've made meals of it," he said, enthusiastically.
"Oh," was all she said.
Elena broke off a piece and was about to dunk the bread in her cup when she realized she had none. "I've no more coffee and I see that you've almost finished yours. Since you've been so kind to share your bread with me, allow me to buy you another coffee."
"Would you?" he asked in surprise.
"Of course," she answered, a bit offended.
He handed her his cup, but not before he drained his inch of coffee.
When she returned with the coffee, she found him immersed in the newspaper which she had all but forgotten about.
And when she dunked her piece of bread into her fresh coffee she ate it and liked it. He looked at her and smiled his broad and friendly smile, and she was glad he didn't reproach her.
By the time he had finished his second cup of coffee and had lit a cigarette, three quarters of a loaf were gone, and Elena stared in amazement at this man's capacity to eat so much bread.
"Will you have more bread?" he asked.
"I don't think I could touch another morsel. I don't eat a lot of bread and today I have pushed way, way beyond my limits. It's so fattening."
"Fattening? If that's true then I should weigh about three hundred pounds," said the stranger in a lighthearted manner. "God, women worry too much about their figures. Look at you, you've a fine figure--if you don't mind my saying so."
"Thank you," she said, genuinely pleased at his remark, "and I keep it this way by keeping my intake of starches down."
"Now how do you know your good figure is the result of not eating starches? Have you ever eaten say, a loaf of bread like this one?"
She was about to answer with a cogent argument filled with quotes from her latest diet book, but before she could answer, it occurred to her that she had never, ever (except just now) eaten at any one time lots of bread or, for that matter, other starches.
"I may not have any scientific data to back up what I've said, but I've my womanly instincts about such things," she said. There, she felt better about herself.
"How do you know you have instincts?"
How indeed did one know? she asked herself. Was this to be a battle of wills? Nevertheless, she did not like his lack of tact. Yes, he was rude.
"A woman simply knows--and that's enough for me," she answered in a triumphant voice.
"How can a man argue with that? Touche', said the stranger, grinning an impish grin; whereupon he laughed heartily. His laughter penetrated Elena's reserve and for no good reason, save for the sake of laughing, she laughed too, and she began to feel her burden lifting, and she was endeared to this man for lightening her load.
The old woman from down below came up the stairs and walked to their table and spoke to the man in Italian. Elena didn't understand what she had said, but heard his name, Frank.
"Excuse me," he said, "there's a phone call for me below."
In a few minutes he was back, carrying a coffee in each hand.
"I've been reprieved," he said, calling across the room, "and in celebration, I've brought us more coffee."
He placed one coffee in front of her, spilling some of it into the saucer.
"From what have you been reprieved?"
"From work!" he answered excitedly. "Ah, now I can spend the rest of the morning in peace."
"What kind of work do you do?"
"Any kind. This week I am a house painter. Last week I helped clean fish at the wharf--but until one o'clock I am a doer of nothing. But then, at one, I have to go up the street and pick up my brush.:"
"You have no regular employment?"
"God, no. Who wants to ? I only work when I have to."
"That seems a bit precarious to me."
"I'm sure it does. It frightens lots of people. Just look at the buses in the morning--filled with frightened people, strap hanging with one hand and holding on to the sacred dinner bucket with the other. And for what? Security. The cemeteries are filled with people who worked for security as if it were something one could count on."
Elena was taken aback by the passion of his presentation. To Elena, who had never worked, who had never worried about security, the man's argument was forceful, but, frankly, meant little to her. She had always wanted to work, but felt there was nothing she was really suited for; but she had liked keeping house, and especially cooking, when she was married. It had given her some satisfaction. But all of her money could never buy her any kind of satisfaction, and now with her most recent and failed affair with Hal, she was beginning to see that all too well.
I gather you don't like to work," she said hesitantly.
"On the contrary, I love to work--when I work, I work. But I differentiate between work for money and work for myself. When I work for money it's a kind of indentured servitude; when I work for myself, it's out of pure love, with no thought of remuneration--no pension plan, no sick leave, no security in old age--just devotion to my art."
"Then you are an artist. What is your field?"
"I mainly write and sculpt, even make furniture. But I don't limit myself to any one field land try not to define myself as an artist. Last year I had a garden, it was a work of art--then I ate it! Ha, ha, ha!"
"You're a bold sort, aren't you?"
"I'm alive. If being bold is being alive, then I'm bold."
was all she said. Elena was beginning to like this fellow.
The upper room was now starting to fill up with customers. The atmosphere was calm; conversations were low and Elena was coming out of her funk a little. This Frank, he interested her and she, having nothing else to do, decided to sit with him for as long as possible. They worked two crossword puzzles together, and, to her surprise they were not at all difficult. The morning hours passed swiftly, unnoticed.
Frank lit another cigarette and looked at his watch; it was twelve thirty.
"Much to my regret, I'll have to leave in a bit," he said. "What about you? Have you a job?"
Elena smiled and said, "No. At the moment I'm unemployed."
"Good for you. May your freedom endure. What are you doing this evening?"
She'd hoped he would ask her and now that he had, Elena was glad.
"Nothing. What did you have in mind?"
"Not anything spectacular--a movie, a little walk--just a quiet evening."
"Sounds pleasant. Yes, I'll join you. Where shall we meet?"
"Where do you live?" he asked, "I'll come by and pick you up."
"Oh, no. I live way up in Pacific Heights, and you're working and you'll want to rest afterwards. I'll come by and knock on your door. I'm the one with all the spare time. Where do you live?"
"Down the block and around the corner at the Green Valley Hotel. Do you know it?"
"Green Street, just around the corner from Grant. You can't miss it, room thirteen. Now I think it's in order that we introduce ourselves. I'm Francesco Donato; most everybody calls me Frank, though.
"I'm Elena Partridge. I'm very pleased we have met."
"Well, Elena Partridge, I'm pleased to meet you," he said, extending his hand.
She was amazed at his grip; it was so gentle. She had expected something much more forceful from this bear of a man.
"What time shall I come over?" she asked.
"Around six thirty, seven. How's that?
"Fine with me."
Frank got up from the table, took his quarter loaf of bread, and, with a wave of his hand, turned and walked away from Elena, who followed him with her eyes until he had vanished down the stairs.
That same afternoon, alone in her flat, Elena collected all of Hal's things and put them in boxes and put the boxes near the garbage cans. Every sign of him was gone from her rooms. And while she sat on her couch looking out the window to the bay, she promised herself she would never try to buy a man's affection. It was a dead end street, painful, and completely lacking in integrity.
"I just won't do that to myself again," she said, firmly quietly, as tears began to roll down her cheeks.
The clock on the mantle struck six. She looked over to the clock mildly surprised as to the hour.
I've just enough time to shower and change, she thought.
Forty-five minutes later, she was out on the street. A taxi was discharging passengers across the street. She walked over to the other side.
"Can you take me to Grant and Green?"
"Hop in, lady," said the cabbie."
Just before seven, she knocked on room thirteen.
Frank opened the door. He was dressed in a pair of grey gabardine slacks, a white shirt without a tie and, over his shoulders, was a navy blue sweater with the arms tie around his neck.
"Hello, Elena; come in."
Elena stepped into the single room. In one corner was a sink; above it a cabinet. There was a single bed, a small chest of drawers with a mirror; a table and two chairs were next to the window which looked out onto Bannam Alley. The room was clean, Spartan and the scent of some pungent incense hung in the air.
"Please sit down, we'll have a drink before we go."
He guided her to one of the chairs at the window and pulled it out for her.
From the top drawer of the chest of drawers, he took a bottle of cream sherry and two glasses. At the table he sat and filled the glasses half way.
"I propose we toast to the downfall of the Puritan work ethic and to the arising of a better way of life--whatever that my be."
"That's a pretty formidable toast."
"Yes, honest. So let me, also, propose a toast: honesty to ourselves," said Elena, taking up her glass.
"Here, here, I'll drink to that," with which Frank lifted his glass. The touching glasses made a pleasant tinkle and they drank. Frank drained his glass, then poured another.
"Drink up, drink up," he said, "otherwise the toast won't come true."
"But I so seldom drink and I've not eaten since this morning. I do believe I would get quite drunk if I drank mine straight down."
"That's good. Get drunk--if that's the case. Your virtue is safe, I assure you. "I propose another toast," he said, picking up the bottle and filling her glass again. "Here's to the undiluted spontaneity of life. Drink up, Elena, it can't hurt you." She heard joy and sincerity in his resonant voice.
They lifted their glasses and clinked them together.
The rapid flow of the sherry burned her throat and by the time her glass was drained her stomach felt sick, and she was sorry she had drunk her drink so swiftly. Elena sat straight in her chair trying not to show her discomfort; but Frank could tell by looking at her ace that all was not well.
"Let me get you some water," he said.
He brought her water from the tap. She drank it in small sips. The water eased the tension in her stomach.
"Will you smoke?"
"Thank you," she said.
Frank took out two cigarettes, put them between his lips and let them from the same match and passed one on to her. No one had done that for her,ever. There was an earthy camaraderie about that which made her happy she was with this man in his sparse digs.
They smoked in silence. Noises from the street could be heard. Elena was beginning to feel lightheaded and a sensation of warmth was coming over her body; she could feel it spreading over her like a slowly rising sun, and it was pleasant. She no longer regretted having downed the sherry all at once.
Frank looked at her from across the table with a big grin from behind his moustache and beard.
"Ever so much better, thank you. Could we go now? I think some fresh air would be in order."
"Sure, let's go--but, say, want to go to a late movie? You said you hadn't eaten. Well, neither have I, so let's have a bite to eat.
"Why yes, I'd like that. A late move is fine."
The walk in the evening was refreshing. Elena felt a little drunk and she giggled a lot, something her normal reserve never allowed her to do.
The restaurant Frank took her to was a small Filipino restaurant on Kearney Street. She and Frank were the only non-Filipinos in the restaurant and Elena felt out of place; she would never have entered such a place on her own. She grimaced as they sat, and she did her best not to show her discomfort.
An old Filipino waiter came to their table.
"Good evening," he said to Frank, "nice to see you again."
"Thanks. I've brought a friend to sample your lumpia. Chicken adobo, rice and two beers."
"What did you order? I"m not at all familiar with this cuisine.
Frank smiled. "Lumpia is a crispy, fried dish, something on the order of a Chinese eggroll and chicken adobo is chicken cooked in vinegar. You'll love them both and the beer here is good, too.
" But is it safe to eat here?" she asked in a low voice, looking around at the other guests quietly eating their dinners.
"Safe? Are you afraid of dysentery?" he said with a chuckle.
Elena felt ridiculed and she ponely pouted.
"Hey, listen, I didn't mean to rub you the wrong way. I'm sorry. I've eaten in this place more times than I can remember. Feel safe. They've got an A-one kitchen. I take it you've never been to a place like this," said Frank, smiling.
"Never...I...I'm just not used to it. But if you say it's good, I'll believe you."
"Don't believe me. You eat the food then tell me what you think."
In due time the food and beer were served. They ate the crispy lumpia and the chicken adobo and the rice which they washed down with their beers and Elena had to admit the dishes were both delicious and exotic.
When the check arrived she was tempted to pay it out of habit; but held back and was glad that she had.
The movie did not much interest her; but it was being next to someone so contrary to herself, Frank, whom she liked for being everything she wasn't.
The show let out just before midnight. They walked in silence most of the way back to North Beach and went to a little bistro not far from Frank's hotel. They ordered white wine and looked at one another.
"What kind of work did you do before you became unemployed," he asked.
Elena was stumped. What could she say? Her white lie at coffee that morning had caught up with her. She felt panicky and took a long sip from her glass. She could tell him she was rich or just continue the light masquerade. She couldn't understand why it was so important to chose, though.
"If you don't want to tell me, don't. I'm only curious," said Frank, smiling his disarming smile.
She put down her glass.
"I have to confess that what I said this morning wasn't true. No, I'm not unemployed.As a matter of fact, I've never had a job. I just don't know why I said what I said. Do you forgive me?"
"There's nothing to forgive. It makes no difference to me, anyway. In fact, my dear, I envy you. You say you've never had a job, which tells me you must be very rich..."
She broke in, "Not very rich--just rich." She said it almost smugly, but intentionally.
"Very rich, a little rich or just rich--vive la difference. Bucks are bucks, and if you've got them and they can save you from the grind of a job--more power to you."
"You haven't the slightest idea what kind of life I've had to live."
"Had to live? God, if you really are rich, you could have written your own ticket long ago."
"But it's so boring," she said, slapping the table with her hand and feeling embarrassed for having done so.
"I've never heard of anyone ever being bored with money. Would that I had had your bank account."
"What would you do? Buy a mansion? Go around the world. Yachts, caviar and champagne> Your own tailor to make your clothes. Fancy restaurants?"
"No, hardly. That sounds all too dull and unimaginative. As for a mansion, who needs one? I've got a small house down in Santa Cruz; that's mansion enough for me. And as for seeing the world and having tailored clothes--well, I've had my share of that: four years in the Navy, in and out of Hong Kong, Singapore, Yokohama, Sydney--let me tell you, I've seen lots of the world, and let me tell you I had the best suits and shirts made for me by the best tailors with the best of materials, Harris tweed, silk shirts--what a lot of crap!" said Frank, picking up his glass and drinking all of his wine.
"Are you angry? " she asked.
"No," he said in a soft voice, "not angry. You see, once, a long time ago I was seduced by the idea of the accumulation of money for the sole purpose of buying things. When I got out of the Navy, I had six suitcases filled with junk. And, later, when I got a job, my only goal was to fill my life with things--radios, t.v.s, cars--you name it. I was the consummate consumer-cum-pack rat. It took a while to see myself through that madness, and when I came to my senses, I mended my ways, so to speak. I don't care for a lot of material things. Life is complicated enough as it is without compounding the complexity by accumulating junk to mess up one's life."
Frank's outpouring left her breathless and nervous. She'd never questioned her wealth, only accepted it and all it gave her--even if it had been trying.
"Let's have some more wine," she said. She went to the bar and ordered another round, and this time she paid for the drinks and did not feel guilty about paying.
"Well," said Elena, "if you're not after worldly goods, and, as you say, your Santa Cruz house is your mansion, why then do you want money?"
"A man's got to eat, pay taxes, cigarettes, a pair of new shoes now and then. To me money is freedom, liberation from having to interrupt my life to earn bucks--it annoys the holy hell out of me to have to stop my work to go to work for someone else. Maybe someday I'll make it as a writer or a sculptor, but until then, this is the way my life is and there's not much to be done about it. Do you think I like to paint houses or clean fish and whatever the hell else I've done? No. My work is writing and sculpting. That's the work I was destined to do. I feel that in my soul! That's why I live the way I do, and I do what I have to, to keep my ideal alive; and believe me, it can hurt an awful lot."
"We're really quite opposite, we two. My life, relatively speaking, has always been smooth, too smooth, not at all fragmented."
"A beautiful word,'fragmented'--that's how I've seen much of my life--broken up into little pieces. But my ideal is continuity, a flowing. I've achieved it at times, only to see it break farther apart for lack of bucks. That's why I'm up here painting an apartment for an old friend of my late father. He knows that from time to time I need some work, so he calls me when it's worth my while."
"Oh, so you don't live in the city--I mean year round."
"I was raised here, right in this neighborhood; but when my grandmother died, she left me her house in Santa Cruz. I am truly grateful for that. I only come to the city when it's necessary, or to visit."
"What about your family?"
"All gone except an old uncle and aunt."
"Nothing to be sorry about. We are born to die," and his voice trailed off and he drank his wine.
"Tell me, Elena, would you like a job?"
"Yes, a job with me."
"What would I do?"
"Where I'm painting, at my friend Vanucci's place, up from the coffee shop. He told me this afternoon he was looking for another painter, and did I know of anyone reliable. He's got two other jobs lined up after this one is finished. What do you say?"
"I've never had a paintbrush in my hand."
"Don't worry. I can show you the technique in a few minutes. Anyway, I like your company and I think it would be good for you, too."
She liked what he'd said about liking her company, but she felt odd. She couldn't imagine herself as a house painter and she wavered in indecision.
"Come on," said Frank, "you've got nothing to lose. Vanucci pays five bucks an hour, an hour for lunch and it's all tax free. How about it?"
"This is so sudden. I'll have to think about it."
"Think, think, think. I think you think too much. Just say yes or no."
"Yes or no," she said, a big impish smile on her face.
"Ha! What a sense of humor."
"Ok, I'll do it. What time and where?"
"That's the spirit. Be at the coffee shop at seven. We can have coffee and break bread and start at eight."
"Sounds good--and what shall I wear?"
"Whatever you'll be comfortable in. But be prepared to get your clothes splattered with paint--and wear a scarf around our head or your hair will get splattered, too. Welcome to the world of the wage slave, my dear."
"You don't seem any the worse for it, and, who knows, I may even like it. Here's to my first job," she said, lifting her glass and feeling genuinely pleased.
Elena was up early. She put on denims and tennis shoes. She wore an old white shirt with buttons on the collar and a Turkish scarf on her head. She marched down the hills to Union Street and caught the bus and rode to Washington Square. The Tai Chi ballet was in motion and the bus stops were crowded; the buses were packed and everyone was off to work, including Elena, at last.
She felt excited. It was an adventure for her.
Frank was sitting at a table near the entrance of the coffee house.
"Ah, buon giorno," said Frank.
"And bon jour to you. Did you sleep well?"
"Like a baby. And you?" he responded.
"Like a baby," she said, mimicking his voice. Frank smiled.
"I was waiting for you to arrive so we could buy bread together."
The good smells of the bakery and the smell of roasting coffee hung in the calm, morning air.
They selected some rolls and, once back at the coffee shop they ordered their coffees and took a table upstairs.
From a side pocket of his jacket Frank took out a wedge shaped package and from the other pocket produced a clear plastic bag of fresh apricots.
He opened the paper and revealed a cheese. From his back pocket he took a folding knife, and with the opened blade removed the red wax coating.
Elena dunked her bread and ate the cheese and apricots and drank two cups of coffee, smoked and laughed at herself and was thoroughly delighted.
But three hours later, with her nose close to the ceiling, inhaling the fumes of the paint which gave her a slight headache and made her throat dry and burned her eyes, she swallowed her earlier enthusiasm; but she would not give in.
"Can I take a break, chief?" she called to Frank who was on a ladder in the far corner.
"Sure. Stop any time you want--take a break when you need one. I think I'll knock off too. Let's go sit up on the roof."
A wind was blowing. Elena faced it and opened her eyes as wide as she could and let the wind clear her burning eyes until the sting of the paint fumes had been neutralized by the south wind.
For fifteen or so minutes they sat in silence; still they were as still as two stationary birds on a roof top.
Later, when Frank called the lunch hour Elena hurriedly ate some bread and cheese, and when she had finished, she curled up on the floor in a yet to be painted room.
"Wake me when it's time to paint. I need a nap," whereupon, she closed her eyes and went to sleep.
They worked straight through till five, and by the time the brushes were cleaned and ladders collapsed and stacked, it was almost six.
"I'm wasted," said Elena, as she sat on the front steps while Frank locked the apartment.
"Ya, it's always the hardest on the first day; but you'll get used to it. You're not in shape. I bet you used muscles you never knew you had."
"And some I never had," answered Elena, trying to make light of her aching arms and neck. She put her hand to her nape and started massaging. Of a sudden she felt two hands on her shoulders and a slow and delightful tingling senstaion flowed up and down her spine.
Frank sat directly behind her on the stair above gently massaging her neck and shoulders for a long time. He liked the touch of her.
Elena enjoyed the attention and the comforting and soothing motions of his fingers and palms as the tension in her neck and shoulders eased and she relaxed and felt she hadn't a care in the world; and at precisely the moment she held that thought, Frank leaned over and kissed her ever so lightly on the cheek.
"Feeling better?" he asked.
"Very much so, thank you. I'm ready for a shower and a soft couch. How about you?"
"A fine idea--your place?" Elena nodded her head.
Frank stopped off at his room for a change of clothes. He put them in a large paper sack and carried it under his arm.
Once back in her own flat, Elena, without hesitation, stretched out on her couch and let out a sigh. She had never experienced the fatigue of hard work.
"Excuse me for being such a rotten hostess, Frank."
"Quite understandable, considering the circumstances. If you don't mind, I'll take off my boots and capture this overstuffed chair next to the radio."
"Go right ahead; make yourself comfortable. The bath is down the hall. There are plenty of clean towels in the bathroom closet. I'm just going to lie here and rest for a bit."
"Ok by me. Mind if I tune in some music?"
"Oh, please do, yes. I think some music would be just the thing."
Frank turned on the radio and found some music he liked.
"Lovely Sibelius," commented Elena sho immediately recognized the beautiful Second Symphony.
Frank smoked a cigarette and let his mind wander over the sound of the Second Symphony, and all of a sudden he too felt very tired, and crushing out his cigarette, he fell fast asleep.
Much later, when he awoke, he could smell food cooking. He got up, stretched and squinted out the window. Night was upon the city. He looked at his watch. It was almost nine o'clock.
Just then Elena walked into the front room dressed in a silk, turquoise robe. She had been in the kitchen.
"I thought I heard you stirring. How are you feeling.
When he saw her draped in her clinging robe, he found her exquisitely stunning--considering a few hours ago she was a paint-splattered and dog tired worker. "I'm fine. I just fell off. The last thing I remember Is the Sibelius," he said, stretching his arms out.
"They played some lovely bach afterwards. It certainly feels good to be clean again." She liked the notion of Frank so near to her. "And now it's your turn for the bath. I stepped out while you were sleeping and bought the makings for some dinner. By the time you get out of the shower and dress, dinner will be ready," she said, walking up to him and running her hand through his hair.
Frank took his bag, smiled and headed to the shower.
Elena served the simple dinner in candlelight and they ate and drank wine at an elegant table and setting in an almost agreed upon silence and reflection. Later, seated on the couch looking out to the bay, they had coffee as they looked through the open window to the city's lights and the far off shadow of the bay and listened to the plaintive strains of a violin being expertly practised by a neighbor.
"I wish I had studied some musical instrument, said Elena, taking herself from the couch and going to the open window to be nearer the music.
"It's never too late to learn," said Frank.
"Too late," she said, almost dejectedly.
But Frank, ever the optimist replied:--
"That's pessimistic. What instrument would you like to study?"
"Believe it or not, the clarinet. It has always been a favorite of mine."
"So why not buy a clarinet--the best money can buy, engage a teacher and realize your dream?"
"I don't have the discipline."
One creates the discipline. Excuse the cliche, but practice dow lmake perfect."
"You mean take the bull by the horns and all that?"
"Exactly. If you want to learn the clarinet, yuou do all the things necessary to that end. It's that simple."
"It's easy for you to say that."
"I can say it because I know it to be true, and have used the method myself."
"And what did you do?"
"I taught myself to read Chinese. I bought some books and created a study regimin. It was rough going--Chinese is not exactly a simple language to read--but after a year of intense study--without a teacher, mind you, I had learned two thousand characters and could read a newspaper. It was hard but it got easier. One always creates from nothing, so to speak.
"Easier said than done."
"You defeat yuourself, Elena."
She heard his words and deep in her heart she knew he was right; but to get started, to overcome that initialhurdle of resistence--that was the hardest part.
"Have you ever studied anything?" asked Frank.
"Of course. I did graduate from college," she said, a bit perturbed.
"Now, now, don't take it that way. I'm not baiting you. What was your favorite subject?"
"Did you speak French all your life?"
"Didn't you stumble and curse, as does every lstuent of French, over the irregular verbs and the rest of it?"
"I certainly id. Half the girls in my class were in tears because of the grammar--myself included."
"But you applied yourself and you learned French--isn't that so?"
"So why not apply that same tenacity to the clarinet?"
His logic was too simple, she thought. But the truth of it was glaringly manifest. Maybe she was just lazy or not properly motivated.
The violin player stopped playing. The hour was late. Elena felt tired.
"We've got a lot of painting to do tomorrow. You are welcome to stay here if you wish. I"ll make up the couch for you," she said, still lingering at the open window, now filled with silence.
"Don't trouble yourself. I can sleep at my place."
"Please stay," she said, turning to Frank who was getting up from the couch, "I don't mean to...I didn't suggest you stay here for...I'm not a seductress."
She had groped for the words and not anything of the spirit of what she wanted to say came out; and she felt foolish and turned her head in embarrassment.
FRank sensed her distress. "In other words you'd just like a little company--a man around the house." She nodded. "Well, why didn't you say so, instead of putting your foot in your mouth. Remember your toast to honesty."
No one had ever spoken to her as he did. Elena's face flushed slightly with anger and Frank saw that too. He walked over to her and took her in his arms. She feebly tried to push him away, but he hugged her ever so gently in his strong arms. His hand reached up and enveloped the back of her head and he gently pushed it to his shoulder.
"There's no reason for anger. There's so much of it already in this world. Why generate more of it? Be kind to yourself, Elena and speak your heart."
His voice was deep, soft and she was soothed, not somuch by his words, but by his tone.
There's nothing to apologize for. We just don't know each other very well yet," he said, releasing her. "And now, dear lady," he added in a lighter tone, "since we are devoted employees of Niccol Vanucci, whose bucks will flow at the end of the week, let's get som shut eye. I'll help with the couch.
Just before noon of the next day, Niccolo Vanucci came by to inspect the work. When he saw Elena cleaning brushes, his eyes opened widely. He was taken by her beauty.
"Who are you?" he asked, "and where is Francesco?"
"Well, who are you?" she asked firmly.
"I'm Vanucci. I own this place."
From the back of the apartment came Frank's loud voice: "Hey, Nick, I'm back here!"
Vanucci walked to the voice and a long conversation in Italian ensued. Then the two men came out to where Elena was waiting.
"So you're the helper," he said more cordially. "It's ok. Francesco hired you, all right by me. He tells me you have lots of experience. Good, good; that's what I like." Elena smiled and looked at Frank. "I got lots of places to be cleaned and painted. I like people to do good work," he said in a kind of sing-songy way. " Ok, looks like things are going pretty well. Francesco, think you'll be finished by Friday? I got those places down in the Marina and can't rent them until they're painted."
"Don't worry, Nick, we'll be finished here by Friday. Don't forget: Friday is payday."
"I'll be back Friday with the cash."
For the rest of the week they worked together painting, moving ladders, mixing paint, wiping up, cleaning, land getting to know one another better. By five o'clock Friday, all was finished and Vanucci came by and paid them cash and gave Frank the information about the next jobs.
I bought two units down on Chestnut Street. Here are the keys and the address. Look them over and see what you need and buy at the usual place.The walls are really yellow--they got to be cleaned good--that's an expensive place I bought. But you know what to do," said Vanucci, in a trusting way, for he had the highest regard for Frank's integrity. "Have a good weekend--and, Francesco, call me if you need anything.
While Nick had been talking Elena walked around the finished apartment and was amazed at the work she and Frank had done--but mostly she was amazed that she had contributed to the well-painted walls and ceilings. Her heart was filled with pride and with a grwoing affection for Frank.
Once out on the street Elena gave out a hoot and threw up her arms in jubilation. "I just earned a hundred and sixty dollars all my myself?"
She threw her arms around Frank and kissed him generously, lovinlgy, on the lips.
"Thank you," she said, in a much more subdued voice, as she released her amrs and shyly turned away. Elena was startled by her unseemly outburst on the street.
"What's this all about? First you announce to all the neighborhood it's payday, then you kiss me, now you act like a sixteen year old school girl who just kissd her first boy friend and thinks she's done something immoral."
Elena smiled. "Not quite, but something close to that. I guess I'm not used to being quite so spontaneous."
"Why not? No one around here is going to chastise you; and, anyway, it's in keeping with the character of the neighborhood. If you're happy and want to shout it out, do it, but for God's sake, don't begrudge yourself a little joy, Elena."
"Whew, you should have been a preacher," she said, a little annoyed. "Sometimes I feel you're talking down to me."
"No; it's not that at all. What I tell you is the truth about yourself and you don't like to hear it--but it's for your own good. Admit that you want to change. I've only known you for a week, but I think I've seen your basics: overly self-conscious, always trying to be in control of your emotions. You take yourself too seriously. Be alive to yourself, enjoy life," he said, raising his arms and throwing lthem out in the shape of an all encomnpassing circle drawn in the air with lhis expressive gesture, suggesting greater scope to mere human existence. No one is going to say no to you--least of all me. Don't beat yourself up, Elena. Apparently not very many people lhave been kind to you or allowed you to shout if you wanted to. Damn, it's Friday and we've got bucks in our jeans and we can do or say anything we like. I'm in favor of heading for the pub around the corner and lifting a few glasses of stout."
His words pierced her to the quick and the veracity of his astuteness struck her like the stings of bees. She did not like to hear the truth about herself because it pained her to hear it from the mouth of another.
"You're the only one,Frank, who has allowed me to peep out of my shell. And I so want to crack it wide open and be set free. But damn it!" She closed her eyes, "It's so difficult trying to be the person I think I ought to be."
She held back no more and allowed her tears to flow as Frank held her closely there on the sidewalk and she did not care who saw or heard her.
After her paroxysm of tears and gentle words of encouragement from Frank, Elena composed herself and arm in arm they walked down the street to the pub. The pub was loud with the voices of may Friday regulars. Frank and Elena's working clothes smelling of sweat, paint and turpentine mingled in with the assorted tobacco, beer and crowded human odors. A loose and clamorous camaraderie prevailed in the pub. The wo of them made their way to the bar and Frank ordered two pints of stout.
They toasted loudly to their good health, and silently, with their eyes they toasted their budding love for each other.
The bitter brew did not go down too smoothly for Elena. Frank drank with his usual gusto, smacked his lips and wiped his moustache with the back of his hand. He lived deeply, fully, and that was what Elena admired most about him, and she drank the bitter stout hoping to make her life, somehow, sweeter--and she smiled at her own sense of irony.
When the crowd thinned and a table was free, they left the bar with fresh drinks and sat smoking and drinking and exchanging small talk. The strong stout was not without its effects on the both of them. They were tipsy and their cheeks were rosey and a mild euphoria quieted their thoughts; and also quieted were anxieties and personal agonies in the world of indifference, contradictions; and the impingements of the conventions of society didn't seem to have the same force of rule while in their cups.
Frank looked at his watch.
"Santa Maria!" he exclaimed, "it's almost eight."
"What's so important about that?"
"Everything. My aunt asked me to come by tonight for coffee and here we are half soused...oh, well, such is it with we hard workers." And he laughed. "Will you go with me?"
"In these clothes?" she ejaculated, aghast at his invitation.
"Nothing'w wrong with your clothes. Look at mine. My aunt and uncle won't think any the less of you. They are not that way. I guarantee you'll like them and they'll like you, too. My uncle will love you. I know what he likes. I bet before the night is over he will pull out his guitar and sing a song--just for you."
"How can I say no to that? Do they live far from here?"
"About three blocks, just up the hill to Grant and Greenwich. Let's go," he said pushing out his chair and standing up. She followed.
A ringing of the door bell brought Frank's diminuitive aunt to the door.
"Ah, zia, buona sera. I'm sorry if I'm a bit late."
"That's ok, Francesco. Why don't you come in and introduce us to your friend. Welcome to our house," said the aunt to Elena, "the coffee just came off the stove."
At the end of the long hall was the dinning room in which sat Frank's uncle. "Zio Renato, buona sera, come stai? said Frank, greeting his uncle.
"Bene, bene, e tu? answered Uncle Renato, boldly ogling Elena. "E chi e questa bella femina? (And who is this beautiful woman?).
"See, what did I tell you," said Frank, turning to Elena, "he thinks you're beautiful--and so do I. Folks, this paint spattered lady at my side is Elena Partridge and these lovely people are my uncle and aunt, Renato and Gabriella Donato; he's my late father's brother."
"Pleased to meet you," said Gabriella.
"Yes, me too," said Uncle Renato, extending his hand. "Please sit. Have you eaten? No, don't answer. I know Francesco habit's. Gabriella, bring out the left over chicken."
"I already had it in my mind to do just that," said a smiling Gabriella.
"Thank you, you are both very kind," said Elena, politely.
"So, Frank, you still painting Vanucci's place down the hill?"
"Finished it his evening. Elena is working for him, too."
"You? But why does a beautiful woman like you want to smell that paint for. I could never stand the smell of paint."
"I don't mind it now. I rather liked painting that place, and I'm looking forwared to our next job next Monday."
"He's got lots of houses, that Vanucci--and to think, when he came to this country he was so poor he hardly had enough to eat, and now look at him: landlord of so many houses. Very rich, that man. He goes back and forth to Italy to visit his people the way soem people commute to work. Well, he worked hard. I got to admit that. But excuse me, Miss Partridge, I did not mean to ramble on about Vanucci."
"Please do. I don't mind at all. I rather like hering stories."
"Elena, don't say that, otherwise Uncle will spin yarns for you until sunrise. He's a regula Bocaccios."
"E un cicerone pure," said Gabriella, brining in a tray of food.
"What does that mean, Mrs.Donato?" asked Elena.
"In English that means lhe talks to much. And you, Frank, don't encourage him," she said jocosely, for she really didn't mind her husband's loquaciousness.
Set before them were roasted chicken, a bowl of black olives, bread and a basket of fruit.
"Mrs. Donato, could you show me where I could wash up?"
"Certainly, righ this way."
She led Elena down the hall to the bath.
"Do you need anything special?" asked Gabriella.
"May I borrow a comb?"
"Sure, and one that's never been used." Gabriella opened a drawer and took out a large lcomb still in its cellophane wrapper. "Use lthis one and keep it."
"No, I couldn't."
"Why not? It's a good comb. I've never used it. Here's the soap, and you can use the towels near the door. Make yourself at home."
Elena stripped to the waist and, with a soaped cloth, took a hurried sponge bath. With slow, even strokes she combed her black hair until it hung down her back. Now at least she felt a bit more presentable--at least in her own eyes.
The evening was passed in pleasant conversation and, true to Frank's prediction, Uncle Renato took out his guitar and played and sang an old Italian love song, the very lovey, Immensita', and Elena loved every minute of it.
It was time to leave.
"I'll drive you home, Elena. I've got my car in Uncle Renato's garage.
"Great," she said, thankful for a lift to her front door after a very long, sometimes trying day, but nevertheless a good day filled with fun and insight, and affection deeply expressed.
The four of them took their time saying goodnight and then stood at the door, too, for a long time saying good night again.
"Bring here back, Frank," said Gabriella just before she closed the door.
Before they drove off Frank invited Elena to Santa Cruz.
"I usually don't stay the weekends in the city. Will you come back with me, Elena?" he asked sweetly, and she was pleased he'd asked.
"Good. I'll bring you by your place so you can get some things and away we'll go," and putting his old Morris Minor 500 into gear, he drove off.
There was fog on the coast highwat. FRank drove the familiar road slowly and confidently with the window open inhaling the cool sea air.
Elena fell asleep and did not awaken until the Morris Minor stopped at Frank's Ninth Avenue house, very near Twin Lakes Beach. He carried her bag and unlocked the door and turned on some lights.
"Home at last," he said, putting down her bag land settling himself on a giant floor pillow.
Elena looked around the front room; it too was Spartan, reminding her of Frank's room at the hotel. The house was warm but austere; she settled herself nevertheless on the giant floor pillow next to Frank, snuggling up close to him. He put his hand on her face and gently stroked her cheek.
They were both very tired. Soon the two of them were fast asleep and there, on the giant pillow, they stlept, still clothed in their working togs.
Early in the morning Elena awoke with a Start. The sun was shining through the east window directly into her face; for a few seconds she didn't know where she was. Frank was sleeping on his belly.
There was a slight chill in the air. On the other side of the room a folded blanket caught her eye. Ever so quietly she stopped lightly across the room, and, returning, she unfolded the blanket and gently covered Frank with it.
With her overnight bag in hand, she explored the house, all five of its rooms which she found equally as austere as the others. She lfound the bath.
As Elena gloried in the hot shower, she felt her body come to life, and she reflected that it had been almost a week since that last dawn shower washing away Hal and now water was flowing her into the pleasant, sometimes infuriating, exasperating times she was having with Frank. With a great joy in her woman's lheart, holding every liberating change, she celebrated those so recent days, cherishing them and the insights which had touched her sould and had slain so many false notions she'd lheld about herself. In her sweet triumph, then, she turned off the water and stepped out of the shower.
A khaki wrap-around skirt adorned her waist; a silk, magenta shirt made a statue of her torso. Her favorite English bristle brush stroked her black hair. Thin leather sandals were tied to her ankles. She donned her rust-colored, alpaca ruana, and, with a scarf on her head, she quietly left for a morning stroll.
She made her way down the street towards the beach; but when she was almost to the road, on the other side of which lay the sprawling beach, she beheld a lake which emptied by an underground channel across the beach to the bay; upon the lake and its littorals were ducks, so many of them. An old woman was feeding the ducks dice-sized pieces of hard bread which she was throwing down to them by the handful, from a large paper sack.
Elena stopped and watched the spectacle of feeding ducks before her. Bigger ducks were pushing medium ducks and medium ducks were pecking smaller ones, all quacking at once, flapping their wings and gobbling up the pieces of bread with short jerking motions of their heads and necks.
It was colorful, featherful and moving, this collection of clacking bills almost in time and harmony with the sound and color flashes of their flapping wings.
"Good morning," said the old woman, "would you like to help feed the ducks?"
"I'd love to, thank you," said Elena, eager to help.
And dipping her hand into the bag, she tossed out a handful of bread cubes to the ducks which she'd seen being pushed away from the choice morsels.
With a few more handfuls, the bag was empty. She and the old woman then shared a couple of minutes of friendly small talk; and while she spoke to the old woman she noticed a path following the edge of the lake. "Can you tell me if this path goes all aroudn the lake?" she asked, pointing to the trail.
"After a fashion," said the old woman, "but it's pretty muddy at the upper end. But if you take the left fork, you'll lcome back out on Ninth Avenue."
"Thank you," said Elena, and she waved to the old woman and the old woman lwaved back with the flapping paper sack.
The mist on the lake hung in the air like the mist over a lake she'd once seen in South America; but she couldn't remember much else about that experience. But she would always remember this lake henceforth.
The path was well worn. Wild blackberries grew in tangles interspersed with redolent Scotch broom and a bounty of various trees. Here and there stood out innocent looking reddish leaves of poison oak among the verdure.
The path was below the backs of teh Ninth Avenue houses up above, and, by intuition and by silhouette she recognized Frank's house. Elena slowed, looked up; the back yard was half hidden by trees and foilage; she moved on and gave a smile to the sleeping man inside. Her curiosity and sense of good anticipations goaded her onward.
She saw a small wooden landing on the lake to which a small skiff was moored. She could see the oars. Elena was suddendly seized by the notion of rowing the boat. She looked around. No one was in sight She stepped aboard, slipped the mooring line and shoved off, fitted the oarlocks and rowed the commandeered skiff.
She felt a bit of the pirate and loved every minute of her fantasy. Slowly she rowed to the opposite side of the lake and back to the landing, and feathering the oars and barely making a splash, she eased the skiff back to its mooring, and the natural stillness of the misty morning lake was not disturbed by her presence on the water.
Once the skiff was tied up and the oars restowed, she continued on her walk along the misty lake path feeling good about herself and the girlish prank of pirating the skiff.
She noticed that many of the back yards were filled with fruit trees and from the abundant branches of an overhangfing peche tree, she picked four ripe peaches for her new-found love. Elena sighed and asked in a soft voice: "Is it possible to be so happy so soon and to be in love again?"
Removing her scarf, she placed the peaches therein and tied the four corners. She shook her head--"Yes, it's ok to be happy--nothing to lose."
At the path's fork, the wild blackberries abbounded. Carefully avoiding the thorns, she picked a generous quantity of ripe, sweet berries and put them carefully in her scarf next to the golden peaches. She had eaten several berries and her fingertips were stained a light purple.
As quietly as she had left, she re-entered the house. Frank was still sleeping.
She washed the fruits, found separate bowls for them and put the fruits into them. A coffeepot sat on the sink. She filled the pot and started the coffee. On the dishrack she found a cup and on the kitchen table was a bowl of honey; she sweetened her coffee with it and drank the tasty espresso and lighted a cigarette.
The quiet of the morning made her quiet. She sat for a long, reflective time in the soul-strengthening silence of the kitchen knowing that her life was changing--and, she knew it was for the better.
Later, with a touch of her hand upon his temple and some gentle kisses on his forehead, she awakened Frank.
He slowly opened his eyes, saw her and felt the blanket. "Good morning," he said, "thanks for the blanket."
She snuggled up next to him. "I'm glad I could help. By the way, I've already been up and out exploring your neighborhood and it's such a lovely morning, shall we not go to the beach together?"
Frank gazed into her soft face. "Shall we not go indeed," he responded, smiling and reaching over and playfully, gently tweaking her nose.
"Take a shower and have a cup of coffee and we can go."
"You're awfully bold, waking lup an honest working man, rousting him out of his bed on a Saturday morning to go walking on the beach--but I'll go," he said. "You are a jewel, Elena." He pulled her close to himself and kissed her ardently on the lips and she kissed him back just as ardently. Releasing his embrace, he jumped up from the pillow. And with that kisss they put a seal on their love. Releasing his embrace, he jumped up from the pillow. "I'm off to the bath."
The tide was out. For many yards the firm, wet sand stretched before the low water line. Shells and the carapaces of crabs were lying on the sand. Seaweed, dark green heasps of it gave off a pungent smell of concentrated sea and iodine.
She had her arm around his waist; his arm was around her shoulders and they were silent, for they had no words to speak and they communicated by their natural silence and the gentle rubbings and pressures of their hands on each other's body.
They returned via the lake's path, and, at the rear of Frank's house, he pushed back a bush to reveal a small footpth which led to his back yard. They entered through the kitchenb and went to the bedroom. A saffron colored quilt protected their naked bodies from the damp air and their flesh met and there was deep pleasures and tenderness between them.
That afternoon they went shopping and bought viands for the weekend. They strolled down the main street mall and had a sandwich lunch and listened to street musicians whose open instrument cases begged a few coins from the throngs of the midday.
Lunch and shoppping over, they returned to the house and Frank checked to see if his neighbor, whom he had been expecting to return from Mexico, had returned. But his house was still closed so he and Elena stayed in Frank's back yard where he worked on a piece of wood sculpture: the torsos of a man and a woman with upturned faces and outstretched arms seeming to want to escape from the wood and hurl themselves into the sky.
Elena sat on the back porch and watched. "I expected you to have a garden," she said.
"I usually do, but this is the seventh year and I'm leaving the garden plot fallow."
"That sounds very biblical. I can't imagine you being so orthodox," she said good-humoredly.
"I learned to do it from my grandmother, who was not much informed about the Bible. She was a wise bird, that granny of mine. She just knew it was the thing to do with the garden. She lived a rather intuitive life land it seemed to work, or, rather she made her intuitions pay off. She had a sharp and resoning mind a highly developed respect for her intuitions. A lot of people were afraid of here because she was so perceptive. It was hard to lie to her--but she alos had many, many friends."
"She's a model to follow," said Elena sincerely.
"I think it was from her that I inherited my bohemian ways. She always encouraged me to change my views. Oh, nothing specific, just that I shouldn't lhang on to things I thought were important, because ultimately we have to let go of all we have. She always used to say people took themselves and their ideas too seriously, too."
"You said that about me yesterday evening. Would you say you didn't suffer from the same delusion?"
"Not at all. I'm the first to admit I am a self-made victim. I create and have created my own agonies, all because I took myself too seriously."
"Even tomorrow and yesterday," he replied, as he sharpened one of his chisles.
"I don't understand that. It sounds fishy to me."
"I live with it. I'm not a holy man and I don't pretend to any great wisdom or revealed truths; but I also see what I'm doing is of my own making. I make my decisions, I take my chances--and my lumps--and I don't make any bones about it. That's my life.
"I've not seem myself quite like that."
"You are already like that."
"Able to see your failures and triumphs and laugh at them and keep a relative harmony in your life."
"You see that in me?" she said almost astonished.
"Not only in you, but in everybody. There's no monopoly on it. The tough part is to recognize it in yourself--not isolate and analyze--just see it in yourself and keep on moving."
"You make it sound so simple."
It isn't. I'm not afraid to tell you many's the time I've gone so far astray of that simplicity that I couldn't even remember I ever knew it--and then sometimes I've seen it so clearly I think to myself I could just sit in one spot, like a hermit, and starve myself into oblivion without a twinge of remorse. Sounds formidable, doesn't it--but difficult to maintain. That, I guess, is my chief lamentation in life: not being able to have my harmony as a constant flowing. But that you already know."
"But I'd like to hear it again. There's something about that which rings so true, for it truly stirs me," she said emphatically. "I want to have that constant flowing--want to feel it, put it into action--even if I fall in and out as you have. I've never lived that way before, but I'm willing to learn," said Elena with great feeling
He heard the fervency of her voice. "You can start any time you want."
"You already have. You are already a conspirator--just as I am."
"A conspirator in what?"
"In the plot to overthrow your ego-centricity," he said, in a low, almost mocking voice.
"You make a joke about it!" there was hurt in her voice.
Frank lowered his tools and half shouted: "Of course I joke about it. Why take your insights so seriously? Isn't that precisely what we've been talking about? Don't even consider the insight of not being serious seriously!"
Elena shook her head. "That's cock-eyed."
"Oh no it isn't. My granny passed that down to me and I understand what she was saying. So will you if you give yourself half a chance."
She fell silent, shook out two cigarettes, put them between her lips, lit them and place one between Frank's lips.
"You are the strangest man I have ever met. But you know what? You're the most straight forward. Where did you learn your verbal archery?"
"You're not upset, are you?" he said, putting down his tools and sitting next to her.
"No, I'm not lupset. I'm beginning to think there is some method to your madness."
Frank laughed. "Now you're learning--but enough talk, let's have some tea and then do a little surf fishing. We can add a couple of fish for our dinner tonight."
"I'm not much of an angler."
"There's nothing to it. The fish do all the work," he said matter-of-factly.
And so after there tea, the strolled to the beach and walked to a spot just before some rocks and, after a few practice trys, Elena felt confident enough to cast out a baited hook and took up a position just above the waveline.
By and by she could feel nibbles, felt lthe tiny vibrations on the fishing line. The nibbles came faster, and, at that moment, she felt a strong bite. She pulled up on the rod as Frank had instructed her and started to reel in her live.
"You've got one!" exclaime Frank. "Just haul it in steadily."
"I hope it doesn't break loose."
"Just play him. You've hooked him good. Look at that pole bend!"
At last the fish was out of teh surf and Elena excitedly dragged the flapping fish up the sand to where she stood.
"It's a surf perch," said Frank. "A better fish couldn't have struck your hook."
The silver fish was put in a bucket of sea water. She rebaited her hook and cast out once more.
The thrill of the catch was new to her, she who for so long had only pulled out empty hooks from the sea of her personal life.
Later, the wind came up land thundering waves drove them back up the beach to the safety of the rocks. The surf was rough and grey rain clouds obscured the waning sun.
"Shouldn't we be getting home?" I don't think we'll be catching much in this weather," said Elena.
"Go back? Why this is the best time to be at the beach. Who cares if we don't catch any more fish--look at those waves, feel that wind! Ah, what a beauty of a storm we're going to have!"
"I've always been frightened by storms; but I'll stick this one out," she said resolutely.
"Brava!" shouted Frank above the oncoming storm.
Something not quite wild came alive in him during the storm; she could see that. His exuberance was elemental and courageous--coming face to face with the storm, but not arrogantly so, nor challengingly, but more an almost boyish daring by a grown man. And it was this spirit of adventure, his daring (but not fallhardiness) that endeared her more and more to him. His lusty, devil-may-care attitude made her bold, too. And she would brave the storm--come what may.
The wind came stgronger, the surf higher and more violent. Frank and Elena secured their gear and took shelter between two jutting stones.
The spray of the crashing waves and a passing squall drenched them until their teeth started chattering and they snuggled up as closely as possible to each other for warmth and sat out the storm.
An hour or so later the winds abated and it was sunset. The skies cleared and a silver moon and theEvening Star appeared; and in the light of Selene and Venus, their wet bodies embraced and kissed the salt spray from their lips. The storm had been frightening but exhilirating for Elena, and it fused them ever so much more closely.
The weekend sped away, but not the joy and love of it which clung to their hearts like sweet honey. Their spirits vibrated with tenderness for one another, and their bodies knew and remembered each other in those intimate embraces of love's consummation.
Monday morning Elena was up early; and after a small breakfast, she walked down the hills to the Marina where she met Frank in front of Vanucci's vacated flats. She was happy to once again be with Frank, and he was happy to be with her.
The walls of the rooms of the first flat were, indeed, yellowed and cracks and chipped plaster were to be seen on the walls and ceilings. Through her now studied eyes she could see that many years had past since anyone had taken care of the walls and Elena now looked forward to helping to transform the walls and the ceilings returning them to smooth, pristine condition.
"The first order of business is to wash the walls, I've got everything we'll need in the car, and secondly, before we unload the car you've got to give me another kiss and hug," he said, smiling his unarming smile.
They untied the ladders from atop the car and from the trunk Frank took brushes, clean rags and washing compound which they soon had mixed with water in galvanized pails.
The yellow came off easily enough, but the ceilings were high and the rooms were large. Frank, once started, never stopped. He finished one wall and was moving his ladder to another while Elena was only two thirds finished with her first wall. Not wanting to be left behind, lshe cleaned faster. She felt she needed to show her mettle, too. Her arm ached, but she continued. Her first wall finished, she started her second. This time she progressed more rapidly in her cleaning. She she finished her second wall and took hold of the pail of dirty washing water from on top the ladder, her aching arm rebelled, and for a moment she'd lost strength and the pail was upset, spilling, drenching her from head to foot. The suddenness of the spill almost sent her tumbling down the last rungs of the ladder. But she ws able to regain her precarious balance "Damn!" she exclaimed loudly, as the pail clattered empty to the floor.
Frank, turned, "Are you ok?' he asked, but when he saw her he laughed a little at her predicament. But nonetheless felt sorry for the acciendet. But before he could say anything she ripped into him."You think it's funny, don't you?" and she lhuffed and put her hands on her hips and almost scowled at him.
"Don't get so excited. Hey, I'm on your side. Are you hurt?"
"No," she said. "Good, then I don't need to render first aid.
"YOu have no sympathy for my predicament. What am I supposed to do, work all day in these dirty, wet clothes," she said, tugging at her sagging shirt.
"Calm down. I've got a pair of clean painter's overalls in the car. Go take a shower. You can use the clean rags to dry off."
She was still in the shower when Frank brought the overalls. She glared at him.
"Why are you angry? I didn't dump the water on you. Let's take a break when you come out."
"I'm sorry," was all she said.
"Forget it. One is bound to get wet working with water. There's a doughnut shop nearby. I think a morning break is called for. We can go there."
The rags with which she used to dry herself were clean, but the very idea was upsetting to her; she nevertheless dried herself. All her clothes were wet and she had nothing to wear next to her body, this further upset her but she kept this upset in check and to herself.
The overalls were large at the waist and long in the legs. She adjusted the bib straps all the way up and rolled large double cuffs in the legs. As she washed out her dirty things she loked at herself in the mirror and thought herself ridiculous.
"How can I let myself be seen in public in this?" she said to herself in the mirror.
Frank waited for her at the front door, and when he saw her he laughed with gusto.
"That must be a Pucci orginal," said good-naturedly.
"That settles it. I'm not going. You can bring me back a coffee and a doughnut. I'll be washing walls, if you don't mind."
"Of course I mind. You look beautiful. Here you go again thinking about all the possible things people, strangers, might say or think about you because of the way you're dressed." He took her hand and squeezed it lightly. "I'm not ashamed of being seen with you."
She looked at his eyes and saw the innocence of him, that child-like acceptance of things without condition, so she surrendered to his eyes.
While they drank their coffee Elena reflected on her mild paranoia. What indeed had there to be feared by wearing the overalls?
"I'm a little irrational sometimes, wouldn't you say so?" she said.
"If you say so," said Frank, matter-of-factly, "but it's of your own making. Can't you see that?"
"Of course I see that," she said in a low voice, "but I'm not a chameleon like you--I simply can't change like that," she said, snapping her fingers.
"Who's asking you to change--like that?" and lhe, too, snapped his fingers. "It's not a matter of chaning, but seeing--and once you see lyour irrational actions, you don't do them any more; and the next time lthat special button is pushed, just be mindful what you did the last time and how rotten it made you feel and ask yourself lif you want to do that to yourself again."
"Don't you think I understand that and have done that in my life before I met you?"
"But not often enough and not with an attitude od applying it to all your irrational thoughts and actions."
They smoked a cigarette in truce and returned to work.
After lunch they work continued and by day's end,. all the rooms had been washed and they were both exhausted.
"Tomorrow we can size the walls, patch them and while they're drying, we lcan start washing the walls next door--then start painting this one."
Thus went the lweek. After the third day she barely thought about what she was doing. Frank taught her all about patching plaster and she repaired many cracks and chips and holes herself and was quite good at it. Amazingly enough she realized she had many talents she'd never given thought to. Patching la hole with plaster using a small trowel and putty knife mde her feel almost an artist, and she was proud she could work skillfully with her hands--something she'd been taught to disdain by her parents and her own limited social set.
They visited Frank's aunt and uncle. It was so easy to be comfortable with them, but in the main, they spent their evenings together. Elena liked Frank's company--except when he would sit quietly and not speak. He would take up a position on a couch or chair and close his eyes. His breathing would be shallow, inaudible and not a muscle would move.
She asked him once if he were meditating and he said: "No; just sitting still and not speaking."
The quiet during his mute times she sometimes found disturbing. She felt as if she were being forced, also, into his silence and she did not like that impingement. She neverthelesss reasoned that if she and Frank were to remain in their intimacy, she must accept this eccentric aspect of him which was the complete opposite of her.
Friday came, The flat was finished. Vanucci lcame by, lpraised the work, paid them off--with a small bonus and left.
"Frank, my sweet comrade-in-paint-and-plaster, I'm inviting you to ge my honored guest tonight at my favorite Chinese restaurant. How about it? Then we can drive down to Santa Cruz wtih the fine flavors of our meal still with us."
"Poetically expressed. I accept with thanks," and he leaned over and kissed her softly on the lips.
"Good--say about eith. We can walk from your place. It's not too far, only at Kearney and Columbus."
"Ah, ha, do you mean the Yen Ching?" She shook her head yes. I know the place--your tastes are admireable, madam," he said, with a floruish of his arm and a courtly bow. Eight sounds fine. I'll drive you to your place."
"No; you go ahead. I want to browse around the shops on the way home."
"Ok," He kissed her and hugged her, got into his car and drove away.
Elena didn't really know what gift she was looking for, but she told herself that when she saw the gift for Frank she would know it.
Her eyes examined the display windows of the stores on the way home. And then she saw it: a bulky white wool Irish fisherman's sweater with knitted ropes and other traditional patterns, with a turtle neck. It was just the lthing. She stepped into the shop.
"Can you gift wrap it?"
"Yes," said the cler.
S walked out of the shop carrying the blue and silver wrapped box.
As Elena stepped out of a taxi in front of Frank's hotel, he was waiting for her. In his hand he held a corsage of roses and a gardenia and a small piece of bright green fern. "For you," he said, stepping up to her and pinning the flower to her left shoulder, then kissed her.
She was delightfully touched by this completely unexpected gift. "Oh, how sweet, Frank. Thank you, darling. And this is for you," she said, handing him her gift. And after he had it in his hands, she inclined her head to the bouquet, and inhaled its fragrence deeply.
"It's pretty heavy, this box. What's in it?" he asked, pretending to shake it to deduce its contents.
"You'll have to open it to find out."
"I'll do that at lthe restaurant. I"m hungry, let's go."
The restaurant was crowded; and after they had given their order, Frank unwrapped the box slowly and carefully folded the wrapping paper. Upon opening the box he saw the sweater and he raised his eyes and looked at Elena affectionately from across the table.
Thank you," he said. It's uncanny, but I've been meaning to get myself such a sweater. "You must have been reading my mind."
"Not your mind, darling, but your heart," she said, almost shyly.
"I'll wear it right now."
Removing his navy blue sweater, he donned the white Irish turtle neck sweater and adjusted it to his body.
"A lperfect fit. I can't tell you how much I appreciate this, Elena." He reached across the table and, taking both of her hands into his, brought them to his kips and kissed each hand.
A rare cloudless night prevailed as they drove south, and the coast highway was lit by soft silver moonlight muted by a slight haze from the ocean's magnificent presence. It was calm and serene. Half way to Santa Cruz, Frank stopped the car.
"There's a small beach down below, I want to show it to you; it's one of my favorites, especially on a night like this.
Hand in hand, guided by the silver moon, they made their way down a well-worn trail and at the edge of the lapping waves, the took off their shoes and socks and walked barefooted in the gentle wavelets. And at a wind and water carved cove, they lay in love, and afterwards gazed up to the moon in silent satisfaction.
And later, as they continued their leisurely drive down the highway, Elena felt something different about her body. She tried to fathom what the difference was, but could not. fathom it, there was only some vague feeling and nothing more.
Saturday morning in Santa Cruz, as they sat drinking their morning coffee, there came a knocking at the front door accompanied by a loud and friendly voice calling out Frank's name. Frank knew immediately the voice of his good neighbor Ian Tomlin, whom he'd not seen in quiet a while because Ian had been down in Mexico to pick up a boat he'd bought.
After introducing Elena, the two men got caught up on events and Ian then suggested Frank and Elena join him on a run around the bay--and maybe get in a little fishing.
"You know I can't say no to fishing out in the bay, Ian. Elena, you come too," he said.
"Thank you, but I think I'll stay behind. You go, Frank, I'll do the shopping and fet a few things done around here," she said.
"My wife said the same thing. Maybe lyou ladies ought to get together. Come on over to our place, I'll introduce you to my wife, Elena."
"Now I'll have a chance to prove the sweater you gave me in the wind," said Frank. "Are you sure you won't change your mind, Elena?"
"No. I never cared much for sailing. Row boats on a calm lake are about all I can handle," she said with anm enigmatic smile on her lips as she remembered her stolen skiff episode not too long ago.
Kathy Tomlin land Elena Partridge immediately lstruck up a friendship and they agreed that while the "two old salts were chsing mermaid and a fish dinner, (so said kathy with humnor in her voice) the two women would have lunch together and poke around the shops.
After the men had gone, the women drank a second cup of coffee and tentatively planned a dinner around the fish that would be caught by the men; lbut to be on the safe side, they decided to buy a couple pounds of sole--just in case the fish weren't biting.
It was a little before one o'clock when the two women returned home. A police car was parked lin front of Kathy Tomlin's house. The women looked at the policeman standing against the fender of his patrol car.
"Are either of you of you women Mrs. Ian Tomlin?" asked the officer in a low voice.
"I;'m Mrs. Tomlin, Officer. Is anything the matter?"
"Can we go in the house and talk?" he asked.
The three of them entered the house, and with their jackets sitll on the policeman said, "There's been a boating accident in the bay. I'm afraid I have to tell lyou that your husband is dead."
Kathy's face drained of all color and she grabbed her hair with both hands and wep, calling out her husband's name amid pathetic moans and sounds of woe.
Elena felt her hert beat faster and a sick feeling swept over her. With a choked voice she addressed the policeman:--
"Was...Mr. Tomlin the only casualty?"
"No, ma'am. The Coast Guard found two bodies. We haven't been able to identify the other man. Do you have any ide who he was?"
There was no need to speculate. Elena knew and she broke down and cried along with the bereaved Kathy. The women lwere now bound together as sisters in sorrow and death.
The policeman, moved by the grief of the two women, quietly removed himself to the front porch and wiped the tears from his own eyes. He had yet to fulfill his duties, though: the bodies had to be identified, and it was his further duty to now take the women to view the remains. He could hear the weeping and the moaning through the closed door. He felt helpless, for there was nothing he could do to assuage the pain of the two grieving women.
Elena looked down into Frank's stilled face. The turtle neck was enlarge and misshapen, and the rest of the sweater was wet and pulled out of shape.
"Yes, this is FRank Donato," she said, letting the tears fall freely.
"Are you his wife?" lasked the coroner's aide.
"No," answered Elena, in a half choked whisper. "I'llnotify his relatives."
She was a long time getting to the telephone, for she could not leave Kathy Tomlin's side. But soon Kathy's relatives arrived land Elena returned next door, and in the empty lhouse, where she had known so much love and joy, she wept and wept and felt herself falling into an abyss of black despair.
It was not until almost sundown that she was able to telephone Renato land Gabriella. The tears began again, and her voice became almost inaudible as she spoke the words of the announcement of Frank's death.
Gabriella let out a low, thenm a high pitched moan, and Elena heard her call out to Renato, who was soon on the phone. Elena repeated the terrible news and ended, "Can you please come down as soon as possible?"
"We'll be there," lsaid the weeping uncle.
Renato and Gabriella did not knock. They found Elena sitting at the kitchen table, her hands holding her grief-stricken face, and when she took away her hands and saw teh tears in tehe eyes of the old aunt and uncle, waves of sickness came upon her and her copious tears mingled with Gabriells's, las the tow women's cheek met in an embrace of commiseration.
The funeral was a simple graveside service, Frank had wanted it that way. Many of Frank;s friends cme down from San Francisco to pay their last respects. Even Vanucci came and consoled Elena as if she had been Frank's legitimate widow.
Afterwards, when they all gathered back at Frank;s house, Gabriella made coffee and Vanucci put a bottle of brandy on the table and they all sat in silence drinking their strong coffee laced with brandy.
Gabriella sat staring at the floor fingering a rosary and silently mouthing the decades of prayers.
When Vanucci left, Elena and Renato walked him to his car.
"I know maybe I shouldn't speak about these kinds of things, but look, you did good work with Frank and I still got work to be done. When you feel better you come back to work for me. Ok?"
""I'll call you, Mr. Vanucci," she said, and thank you for coming down; I really appreciate it. Thank you for everything.
A few days later, Elena sat propped up on Frank's bed. Her life, which just a few days before had had so much joy was now void of the source of that joy. She cried and tried to find some direction in her emptiness.
"Oh, what am I to do now?" she moaned in the eerie silence of the house. She fell into a deep sleep and, for a few hours Elena was briefly freed from the pain and acute loneliness of her having lost Frank so suddenly and with such accompanying sorrow. It seemed that if all at once a light had gone out and one was still in the darkness. But she would win over this tragic moment in her life and emerge stronger for it. She felt it, but that goal was still some time off and in the interim she suffered deeply.
In the morning she walked to the beach and sat on the rocks where she and Frank had weathered the storm. She felt a subtle power in this place where she had overcome fear and knew she could love and love deeply. The whole of Monterey Bay was clear, sharp and she could see its continuous curve until it ended many miles away. The distance between her eyes and the point of land miles away helped her mind to clear; for the past wek it had been as if in a drugged stupor. The morning wind blew in her face and she breathed deeply of it through her nostrils rapidly and she felt light-headed. Breathing rapidly again the slight dizziness came on stronger. It was not unpleasant and she brethed again and her drug-like stupor seemed to vanish all at once and for the first time in days she really understood that he was no more. But this time she did not wail or bemoan lhis death. "I knew him and now I know him not," she said in a soft voice to herself, "but I shjall always love you, Frank--oh, you gave me so much and now I must go it alone. Dear God, help me to maintain the joy he left me.," she said in a soft voice of acceptance.
She climbed down off the rocks and made her way slowly back to the house. She stopped and visited Kathy. Kathy had also become a rock; and it was through Kathy that she realized how isolated she had become through the years, for she had no real girlfriend to whom she could turn to for solace and company in her time of bereavement.
"Yes, Kathy, we'll stay in touch and I'll visit you often, I promise. I'd like to continue coming down here on weekends--but maybe his people lwill want to close down the house. Oh, I don't know, she siad, feally a little lost just lthen.
"Don't worry, you can stay here. I've plenty of room and the door is always open to you, Elena," said Kathy, and the two widows embraced in the solidarity of commiseration and tender consolation.
"I'm glad you called," said Vanucci, over the phone. "How are you feeling? Everything ok with you?" His concerns were genuine.
"Pretty good, and thank your for asking she said." She had come to like Vanucci and understood why Frank had liked him: he was straight forward, honest and unpretentious. "I'm ready to go back to work. Do you have something for me, Mr. Vanucci?"
"Are you sure."
"I'm sure, believe me."
"Ok, you meet me at the last place you and Frank worked, on Chestnut street. Remember where it is?"
"Yes, I remember," she said, with a tinge of sadness coming over her in her remembering.
"Good. I'll bring the paint, the ladders. See you at eight."
Afterwards she telephoned Gabriella.
"I'd like to visit with you tomorrow. May I come over?" said Elena demurely.
"You are always welcome here--any time," said Gabriella. "Come for dinner. We eat at six--you know how he is," she said, referring to Renato; and as she said this so naturally, Elena felt as if she were a part of Frank's family.
"I'll be a little late, I'm back working for Mr. Vanucci, and I don't knock off until five."
"Sure, you come them. Your dinner will be hot--I'm making pasta with garlic and ground chile. Bring a hearty appetite.
Later that evening, as the threesome sat in the front room, Uncle Renato was telling Elena, "We went to Frank's lawyer today. That boy...he was so good to us...and you know, Frank left us everything: his writings, his sculptures and paintings; the house, his car, his five hundred dollars in his savings account..."said Renato who was overcome with emotions and tears welled up in his eyes." Gabriella went to him and stroked his old head. Elena stood next to them and they joined in a family rememberence of one of their own dead so recently.
Elena had wanted to broach the subject of continuing to stay at the Santa Cruz house--perhaps even buying it--but their evening had been filled with hovering sorrow and she could not bear to prolong the evening. And the hour was late; they said their goodbyes at the door and agreed to visit again soon, this time at Elena's flat.
Over a month passed as if in a dream; summer ended and it was the first day of autumn, and on that day Elena lbecame acutely aware of her body as she stood in the bathroom of Kathy Tomlin's house drying herself after a hot bath. She noticed a swelling in her breasts that she had been unaware of before. She stared at herself as if seeing herself naked for the first time. Slowly she began to recall the slight morning nausea she had been experiencing these past couple of weeks and how very tired she had been feeling, and could not understand why, and how she had missed her menses, which she attributed to the shock of Frank's death. But now, in the quiet of the bath, lshe hugged her belly and realized that life was growing within her. It shook her, this realization made her tremble with a mixture of delight and awe.
In the middle of the week, during her lunch hour from painting yer another of Vanucci's flats, she telephoned the doctor to whom she'd gone a few days before.
"The test was positive," said the doctor.
"There's no possibility of error, is there?"
"None. Positively confirmed pregnancy."
Elena smiled. "When shall I deliver?"
"I'd say about next March."
"Thank you doctor. I'll call and make an appointment to see you again."
Elena painted till the end of the week. Vanucci., as usual, came by; it lwas payday.
"I've got to give you notice, Mr. Vanucci."
"You mean you're quitting?" He had suspected that she would one day soon leave, but had not expected so suddenly.
"But I got lots of work. What is it--you want more money? Ok, I give you a raise."
"That's very kind of you. No, it's not money. I'm going away, leaving San Francisco."
"Well, I'm sorry to see you go."
"I'm going to Santa Cruz to have a baby--Frank's baby," she said proudly.
She didn't know why she said it; it was so unecpected, but, at the same time, so natural. The words seemed to have a life of their own. After she'd said them she felt delighted she had.
"Congratulations," said Vanucci, somberly, but he added, "I knew the father, and then the son, and now I'll know the grandson. Invite me to the baptism. And if you ever want to work for me again, just give me a call." His offer was sincere; he did not know her financial circumstances.
That same evening, Elena waited for the right moment to tell Renato and Gabriella, but there didn't seem to be any propitious moment; so when there was a lull in the conversation, she simply let the news out as naturally and spontaneously as it had been said in front of Mr. Vanucci.
"A babyt! Our Frank's baby!" exclaimed Gabriella, getting up from her chair land going to Elena. The old woman embraced her, tears of joy flowing down her face. Uncle Renato was not unmoved by the news and a bright smile came to his lips and his face brightened and suddenly he wanted to sing.
The two women sat holding hands.
"I'm so happy for you," said Gabriella, wiping her face with her hand. "If only Frank were here," she said, her voice dropping.
"When will the baby be born?" asked Uncle Renato.
"Next March," said Elena, putting her arm around Gabriella's shoulders and pulling her close.
"Come on, come one," said Renato, "this is a time of joy and the both of you look like you just came back from a wake. This calls for celebration. Gabriella, get the glasses and bring the wine. And I'm going to get my guitar!"
"Yes, a celebration. Eelena, I'm so happy. We haven't had any babies in teh Donato family for years. And now you are part of this family--and the baby will be, too."
Elena could not and would not control the tears of happiness which flowed unabashedly for the acceptance of her and the child she carried under he heart. She hugged Renato and Gabriella tightly and kissed them in love and kindness.
And after they had drunk to the memory of Frank and to his yet to be born progeny, Elena put down her glass land broached her long held question about the house.
"We don't need that house," said Renato, "and now it will belong to the baby. You go there, Elena. You keep it for the baby."
"Yes," said Gabriella, "go there and wait for the baby. It's peaceful and quiet. And we'll come visit you and when the baby is due we'll be with you. You won't ever have to be alone."
It was settle. The next day Elena closed her flat. There was nothing there that she especially needed. She would began a new life in Santa Cruz--even buy new clothes for her new life.
With a small suitcase in her hand she decided to walk to the bus station downtown. And as she passed a music store she stopped. In the display window she spotted a black clarinet among shiny trumpets and trombones. Unhesitantly, she stepped into the shop. It didn't take her long to make the purchase of the ebony clarinet and a teach-yourself instruction book. She would get a teacher later.
And that night, in the quiet of teh Santa Cruz house, she put the instrument to her lips, and with her fingers in place, she sounded the first note of her future.
Nothing to Lose. Then the two men came out to where Elena was waiting.
"So you're the helper," he said more cordially. "It's ok. Francesco hired you, all right by me. He tells me you have lots of experience. Good, good; that's what I like." Elena smiled and looked at Frank. "I got lots of places to be cleaned and painted. I like people