Christina Marrocco

Christina Marrocco

Inside 109 20th Avenue

Mary Lisella Illo
Artwork by Pat Messina Singer

He peered out the window, from his easy chair, and down 20th.  Jimmy Inzinna was much too young, he thought, to sit in such an old man’s contraption, but there did sit because his mother told him to, and his mother told him to because of the thalassemia. The thalassemia sure had his mother brooding and baking, and it had his doctor, that geezer with the stethoscope, stoic.

“The Mediterranean Anemia, when it’s full blown like this never ends well” said Dr. Carbon-Once-Carboni-Who-Changed-His-Name-To-Be-Sure-To-Get-Into-Med-School. He looked sour and sad as he spoke, but Jimmy liked both names of his disease: “Thalassemia” and “Mediterranean Anemia;” they had a nice ring to them, not ugly like “the croup” or “gout.” He was sure it would be worse to have an ugly sounding disease.

Outside, the neighborhood kids tromped home from school, forcing snow that was too fluffy into snowballs that fell apart mid-air. They screamed and yelled and laughed; he could tell by their opened mouths. Only faint strains of the highest pitches, though, came through the window, sealed tight until May.

Mary Cahill was out there, her black rabbit’s fur earmuffs vanishing into the mass of curly black hair that swished over the collar of her pea jacket, and so Jimmy leaned forward to tap the window, to make her look at him. But his mother must have sensed his impending exertion and called from the kitchen, “Jimmy, sit still. Don’t tire yourself for them kids; if them kids had any heart they’d come in over here to see you. Them kids aren’t no good, Jimmy!”

She meant to say more, but as a woman who was prone to sobbing and who had promised the priest and the doctor and her husband to “cut out the crying in front of the boy,” she merely set a bowl of pastini and a glass of warm milk on the end table for Jimmy, who was still peering out the window. She stood silently for a moment, looking at the curve of the back of his dark, little head, so beautiful to her, and then, she fled the room.

Jimmy hated her pastini because everyone knows pastini is nothing but food for babies and old women without teeth. He tried to ignore it there on the old end table, hot in its deep bowl, the spoon already stuck in for him. As if he couldn’t put his own spoon in. It smelled good, though, of chicken broth and butter and salt. The heavy steam billowed from the bowl and fogged the window so thoroughly that Jimmy could no longer see the boot prints Mary Cahill and the others had left in a packed path down the sidewalk.

The mirror was an old one, blackened with time, yet Jimmy could still make out his own face in it. Papa said they’d get it re-silvered someday soon, but Jimmy thought it was better this way, like the surface of a lake with black lily pads floating here and there, maybe like the pond Ol’ Miss Tobin said Narcissus had gazed into. Jimmy missed school—though he knew most boys wouldn’t have. And he missed Miss Tobin with her blue dresses, white collars, and wire-rimmed glasses. She smelled of Wrigley’s Spearmint and erasers, and he missed that too. Most of all, though, he missed Greek Mythology, which Miss Tobin taught. Miss Tobin knew Jimmy was the only boy who loved the mythology as much as she did. She’d been teaching forever, and no boy had ever compared. She had often told Jimmy that if he kept up with the mythology, he would go far, despite his being Italian, surely he would.

Miss Tobin had sent a big book called Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes to the house the very day she learned that Jimmy couldn’t come to school any longer, and when he wasn’t too tired, Jimmy read that book to himself.  It had come in the mail and was wrapped in white butcher’s paper and accompanied by a suede bookmark, soft and cream colored. The book was heavy and overfilled his lap, the pages smooth and the ink wondrously dark. The illustrations thrilled him, but the words carried him away. His mother thought he’d ruin his eyes reading and reading and preferred he listen to the radio, but he preferred the book.

 Here, then, with his face looking out from the black pond mirror, he thought about how he disagreed with his Miss Tobin, though he would never have told her so, in case she lost faith in his potential to go far. Jimmy Inzinna thought this: he thought old Narcissus had it pretty good—how bad could it be to turn into a flower and live forever? It sounded just swell, actually. Besides, he’d seen a real narcissus—because Miss Tobin had brought a potted one to class. She’d put it right on her desk, near her daily apple and her paper guillotine. She’d cleared her throat and said, “let this flower serve as a reminder, nay, a warning, to all youth; this is what became of young Narcissus!” Jimmy had thought to himself, “Truth be told, that’s one fine looking flower.”

He ate just one bite of the pastini, swallowed it with a sigh, and looked back into the mirror. He was very white, he thought, like the narcissus, and a little yellow, too, also like the narcissus. And his stem of a neck, that too reminded him of the plant. He swayed in his bed-coat to mimic the pond breeze.

Jimmy’s mother often passed by her own window on her way between the kitchen and the door out. Carla Inzinna always wore thick heeled pumps and real silk stockings, and those shoes of hers tapped along the red linoleum. Her brightly colored aprons, reaching down to her knees, put a person in mind of a colorful hen, fluid and reassuring to anyone who might see her there, though no one really did.

It used to be that all day long she was alone in the bungalow, it shaded by elms and set back precisely as far as every other bungalow on the street, but now Jimmy was here with her. It used to be that she gave herself over to the unhurried business of kitchen-ish and laundry-like things that could fill a day. For example, back then, each time she passed the blue clay bowl of lemons on table, she had gasped at its unexpected beauty—unexpected though it was she who had placed the bowl there and then carefully arranged the lemons in the bowl—and then she who had replenished the lemons, for years on end. It stunned her nonetheless.

And she had gasped at the canary in his cage, whenever he sang. She’d always paused to look up at him behind the thin wires, way up there near the celling. Carla was down nearer to the ground than most, so it was a sizable distance between her and that canary.  In fact Mrs. Inzinna and Mr. Inzinna were both short, so short, in fact, that they reminded the neighbors of the little china figurines on top of a wedding cake down at Palermo’s bakery.

Dr. Carbon said the Americans were all tall because they drank milk, and that made some sense to Carla Inzinna. She had grown up with no milk to drink, and she was little. The Americans ordered bottles of milk delivered to the stoop, and they were tall. She could not argue with the results she saw, and she ordered milk delivery and thought about milk quite a lot.

Since Jimmy had become very sick, sick enough to be permanently excused from school, she could not clearly see the lemons or the canary or the lovely red linoleum with gold specks. She was busy bringing milk to Jimmy in the easy chair, but it was more than that. Sometimes she just stood in the kitchen doing nothing, thinking nothing, looking out the little window there and seeing nothing. He was home with her now, always. And no truant officer would come to the door to drag him back to school. It would have been better that he was a hoodlum, she mused, than a sick boy.

That hairy-handed Doctor Carbon had said milk wouldn’t cure Jimmy, that there was no cure for the anemia, but Carla thought maybe Carboni-Now-Carbon didn’t know as much as he thought he did, and to her mind, if milk could make a boy grow larger than his parents, it might just cure the anemia as well. Who could say? This was America. Sure, she knew about the anemia back in Sicily—some people had it and none of them ever got better, but maybe that was from lack of milk. Her husband had a good job with the concrete mixers, and there was enough money for all the milk they could drink.

Speaking of her husband, Mr. Inzinna worked every day, so he was no company at all. She often left his plate under a neat white silk napkin there on the table and went to bed before he came in. The neighbors stayed away now, too—the Italian ones thinking maybe the evil eye was afoot, the others never having come around to begin with. It was just Mama Carla and Jimmy every day.

Carla dropped oil into water, made incantations, called in a professional streghe-witch, who shuffled around the house burning herbs and mumbling even stronger incantations over the boy in his chair. After the witch left, Carla went a step further and tied thick red string around the boy’s wrists and the posts on his bed. He already wore the horn, but she removed it, spit on it, polished it, and put it back on him rejuvenate it. He let her do it.

That woman said countless Hail Marys and a thousand Our Fathers. She made at least a hundred deals with Jesus; God was too intimidating and Jesus much more likely to help, she thought. But the boy continued to weaken in the window. Her husband, who had the sighing kind of breathing she’d recently discovered gave her the agita, that husband worked longer and longer hours. She found his whiskers in the sink and his socks on the floor. Evidence he existed. And she picked them up. He wasn’t a bad man, she thought, just weak as men and children may be in this world. Too weak to watch the boy, their only child, turn white and yellow and thin, all except for his belly, which grew every day. He didn’t want to see; alright, alright. She understood that and so pitied him. Oh, that doctor and him, and the priest, the three of them who’d told her to stop crying for the sake of the child, as if she were a child herself. And she had: Carla Inzinna had stopped crying altogether.

“Fine!” she’d said, “you want me to stop. I stop. That’s my baby, but, sure, sure I stop.” So, she delivered the pastini dry-eyed, and fluffed the pillow without a sound; she tuned the radio program to suit the patient, too, without a hitch in her breath. Mama Carla moved like a mezza-morte herself, her black pumps no longer lively, just plodding upon the floor. She never looked in the mirror anymore and brushed her hair staring at the wall.

One night, before she fell asleep, Carla Inzinna wondered what it would feel like if her child died and the weight lifted, and then, not immediately, but close to it, guilt punched her face and struck her dumb, and she lay there, still as her own tongue until morning. That was the first time. Now, in mornings, she found herself unable to see the little soul in the easy chair. What kind of a mother, she wondered, would ever think such a thing? And she’d thought it more than once, almost every night. It was such a very bad thing that she couldn’t confess it to the priest, and besides, she’d begun to hate him a little anyway. He had reprimanded her for having the streghe over, twice. How he’d even found out was anybody’s guess, but he had, and he went on and on about it. A priest never understands about having a witch over. When Father Molloy had bellowed at Carla in the narthex, others all around, his face somehow both cold and flaming red, she’d marveled at the repulsive combination of such things in a clergyman but neither cowered nor shed a tear. She met his gaze as if she weren’t there at all.

Later that night, she’d gone into the basement laundry room; the clean laundry draped in masses there because it was too cold outside for hanging, what with all the wind and snow. Her whites where drying on poles, and the warm little room smelled of detergent and bleach and fels naptha and starch. Carla pushed her face into a great wall of very white sheets, took a deep breath, and summoned tears, attempted to moan out a cry—more out of curiosity than need. She’d lost the need. She tried for a long time before she gave up and went to the kitchen to pour two tall glasses of milk. She added Ovaltine for good measure, clinking the spoon in each as she persuaded the milk and the powder together. It resisted. Carla felt the powder was a very strange substance, but the man on the radio said it had all the vitamins and minerals a body needs.

The tray on which she carried the filled glasses had a little rim to keep them from slipping off, a good buy from the five and dime long ago. She set the tray down on the floor with care, and then she gently lifted the enormous book of mythology from her sleeping son’s lap. It was open to Persephone and Demeter. Carla Inzinna-Once-Having Been-A-Girl-Named-Carla-Pernice recognized Demeter in her blue cloak, looking very like the Madonna in light from the table lamp. She traced the illustration of golden sheaves of wheat with her small finger, and the outline of the chariot Demeter drove in her great search. She traced the nose of Demeter, the feet of Demeter, the hem of Demeter’s robe that stirred in the wind. This Demeter, she was from Carla’s island, and her plight was familiar.

How long Carla-Pernice-Inzinna remained rooted to the carpet beside Jimmy’s window, beside her Jimmy, holding the massive book and staring at the woman spread on the page, no one can say. Her legs finally grew tired and her mouth grew dry. Carla closed Gods and Heroes and placed it on the table with a little thud, which woke Jimmy. She sat him and gave him one glass. She drank the other herself, perched beside him on the easy chair. Green and nubby and enormous, it was much larger than Jimmy and his Mama, so much larger, that a third person might have fit, but no one else was there. She helped him up and off to bed, and as they stood, Carla and her Jimmy noticed their faces together in the old mirror with the black spots, and they each thought their own quiet thoughts.

Bio:

Christina Marrocco is a professor of English at Elgin Community College, Elgin, Illinois. She teaches Advanced Fiction and Poetry Writing, Literature, and Composition courses. Her focus on ethnicity in America combined with personal experience growing up in a working class Italian American environment inform much of her creative and research work. Her dissertation work is on The Evil Eye in Italian American Fiction, and her narrative poetry appears in The Laurel Review and Silverbirch Press.

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