The Bathtub in Heaven
The old claw foot cast iron and enamel bathtub rested in the same spot for fifty years. As soon as inside plumbing was hooked up to city water in my grandfather’s house, Aunt Mary was the first to try out the tub. After that, every Saturday night, we all knew Mary was soaking in “heaven,” as she called it. She said it was her reward after working hard all week.
The bathroom was a very small room at the back of the house and the tub took up three quarters of the space. Mary made the room cozy with printed wallpaper of clouds and angels.
She placed plastic flowers in vases around the room even roses on the back of the commode.
The tub was planted there in the midst of heavenly glory. Even the rumbling of the Boston/Maine passenger train which passed by very close to the house twice a day couldn’t move the tub. The water in the tub might slosh a little but the tub stood its ground. We were all accustomed to the house shaking and the noise of the train over the years became part of our lives. The passing of the train was a timekeeper we could count on.
Aunt Mary, was the fifth born of eleven children. We all lived in my grandfather’s house at one time or another. The story goes that Nonno won the house in a card game during the Great Depression. An Italian immigrant with eleven kids in the 1930’s needed a stroke of luck to survive. Today the house still stands on “Goat Hill” in that small coastal city of Beverly, Massachusetts.
Aunt Mary always dyed her hair to keep it black, black, and she wore lipstick red as sweet marinara sauce. For years she worked as a barmaid at the Anchor, the local fisherman’s bar, at the bottom of the hill. But she eventually got fed up with the drunken patrons and took a job in a shoe factory down by the river. It was only a short walk from our house on Goat Hill to her work at the United Shoe. The money wasn’t as good as she had made at the Anchor, but Aunt Mary soon established a side business of her own. She had a head for numbers and it was only natural that she became a bookie.
Friends, family, and coworkers were her best customers. They knew they could trust Mary. In thirty years of bookmaking, she never wrote a number down. She kept every number in her head. Horse races, sports games—whatever, the bets were safe with Aunt Mary.
Mary invented a pool that was very successful. The U.S. Treasury balance used to be published in newspapers every day and Mary used that number to start her “Pool.” Her clients would play their own number, birthdates, telephone numbers, etc. If they hit, they would win the pool. If no one hit, Mary would take the pool. She was a genius with numbers, although she had to quit fifth grade to help out at home,
Mary was also psychic. Her sister Pierina said it was because she was born with a caul—a veil over her face. Pierina, the oldest of the sisters, saw Mary born. She said the embryonic sac covered her face when she came out of Nonna’s womb and she watched the midwife remove it.
Mary was a compulsive bingo nut. Almost every night, except Sundays, she and several of her girlfriends attended bingo at St. Margaret’s parish hall in Salem. The “Girls,” all women in their mid-to-late-fifties, would arrive early to the bingo hall and play poker until the “early bird” bingo games began.
Inevitably, someone would ask Mary to read their fortune in the cards. And she would. She used a regular deck of playing cards and never charged for her services. But one night, she foresaw the death of her sister Margie’s husband. She was stunned and couldn’t find the words to tell her what she saw. She never told a soul about her vision until many years later. Sure enough, a week later, Johnny Marino was killed in an explosion at the chemical plant where he worked. After that, Mary refused to read cards. She stuck to poker, bingo, and, of course, the numbers.
At age sixty-two, Aunt Mary was diagnosed with bone cancer. Six month later, she was dead. On her deathbed, she told her only son, Tony, to go to the Gloria Food Chain store and play her numbers. Tony did as he was instructed, and when he returned to the hospital, Mary had passed away.
It was left to me and my cousin Kathy to clean out Mary’s apartment. Tony was so distraught over his mother’s death he refused to help. That was OK. Kathy and I just listened to music on AM radio and we went to work. We had been cleaning and packing for the better part of Saturday and I was exhausted.
Why not? I asked myself. I got the idea to go to “heaven” for a little while and take a bath in Mary’s tub.I poured the water nice and hot, even found a bottle of Mary’s favorite bubble bath, “Serenity,” and I undressed. Before I stepped into the hot tub, my foot touched a black tin box wedged under the side of the tub. Curious, I pulled the box out and opened the lid. Inside I found $30,000 in $100 bills.
Aunt Mary, a child of the Great Depression, had no use for banks or safe deposit boxes. But she did believe in heaven and a hot bath.
Barbara Mautone Robidoux is the author of two books of poetry: Waiting for Rain (2007) and Migrant Moon (2012), and Sweetgrass Burning: Stories from the Rez, a collection of linked short stories (2016), and a novella, The Legacy of Lucy Little Bear (2017). She holds an MFA in creative writing from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, NM, where she now lives. Both of her paternal grandparents were born in the Mezzogiorno and immigrated to the US.