Sparkle Street offers you a short story by Raymond DeCapite unavailable elsewhere...

In September, almost a year after my wife Helen died, I sold the house and most of the furniture. I moved from Lakeview, a suburb east of Cleveland, to Franklin Heights, a suburb south. I moved into a one-bedroom apartment on the top floor of Sunrise House, a six-story building that offered a fine view of Big Creek Park. I would take walks in the park and try to find peace in a world without Helen.
The day I moved into the apartment I was so depressed I made up my obituary.
Anthony Dominic Federico; 67; former Seaman 1st Class, United States Coast Guard (Semper Paratus); former dispatcher for Ace Trucking; newspaper subscriber; moviegoer; televisioner; horseplayer; widower of Helen; father of Daniel; father-in-law to Rebecca; grandfather of James.
Rest in peace.
Even more depressed, I called my son.
"I don’t understand," he said. "Your family’s in Seattle, all that’s left of your family, and you move to Franklin Heights."
"It’s temporary."
"It’s beautiful out here. You saw that when you came with Mom. Besides, Jimmy’s crazy about you. He likes to hear stories till he knows them by heart. So does Rebecca."
"Just for that, I’m coming out."
"When?"
"Soon. Maybe I’ll drive across. And stay awhile."
"I’ll have the cinnamon rolls for you."
Three times a week in those days I went shopping for groceries at the neighborhood supermarkets, Finast, Stop-n-Shop, and Heinen’s. I had learned to cook from my mother. I made some of her favorite dishes. I made baby lima beans with elbow macaroni in tomato sauce; spare ribs and red potatoes roasted with rings of hot banana pepper in vinegar; lentils with ditalini in tomato sauce; dandelions with navy beans in olive oil strong with garlic.
I was getting up early in the morning, so early there were days I was sitting down to lunch at ten, ten-thirty. I found myself talking Italian a little. It brought back faces, voices.
"Che bello pomidoro."
"Un po’ di peperoncini."
"Non dimenticare l’aglio."
I thought about Helen. I thought about my mother, my father and my grandparents. I was moved by their patience, their generosity, their good humor, their love, love that never failed.
I was drinking more than ever. Before lunch I would have two, sometimes three shots of Jim Beam chased with a bottle of Molson’s Golden. I raised my glass to people I admired, people I loved.
"Here’s to Gorby," I said.
"Here’s to Mother Teresa."
"St. Francis, here’s to St. Francis."
I was surprised there were so many people I admired, so many I loved.
Five afternoons a week I went to the races at Thistledown. It was not much fun without Joe Stentini. By the fourth or fifth race I wanted to be elsewhere. Trouble is, it was the same with just about everything I did. I would go to a movie and more often than not walk out in the middle, or sooner. I would look forward to watching the Monday night professional football game and then, bored with it, I would change channels before the half.
One morning I went for a walk in Big Creek Park. Going this way and that were chipmunks and squirrels. There were sparrows and robins, bluejays and starlings, crows and butterflies. I went back to the apartment and drank to the creatures of the park.
"Here’s to the chirpers," I said. "Here’s to the squawkers and scamperers, the flitters,, flutterers and chitterers."
I discovered before long that many of the tenants of Sunrise House were widows, seventy, eighty-year-old blondes, brunettes and redheads. One had blue hair. They greeted me with warm smiles and bright eyes, eyes eager to see more of life and the world, eager to find companionship, affection and even love. There was often a group in the lobby waiting to go to a style show, or water exercises, or a cooking demonstration, or a talk by Senator Bilge or Congressman Malarkey.
"Why don’t you join us?" a woman said, one morning.
"What’s on the agenda?" I said.
"Golf."
"I better not. Golf makes my heart pound."
There were shrieks of laughter.
One Thursday in that September, a day that turned out to be as eventful as any in my life, I lost five straight photo finishes at the track. Never had that happened. Fuming, I went back to Sunrise House. I was unlocking the door to my apartment when a woman called to me.
"Hello there," she said, at the first door on my right.
"Hello yourself."
"Anthony Federico?"
"Tony."
"I’m Josephine Ranelli. They call me Josie. We’re neighbors."
"So I see. You live alone?"
"I’m sorry to say I do. Didn’t you hear my cry for help?"
"I didn’t hear a thing. I’d have come to the rescue."
"Now’s your chance."
"Here I come."
I went over.
Laughing, we shook hands.
She had auburn hair, a cloud of it, with here and there a silver lining. She had hazel eyes, a straightforward nose and a mouth ripe, tempting, like a plum. There was a stirring in me, a whisper from the grave.
"Come over and have a drink," I said.
"Thank you."
We went to my apartment.
She was a woman of medium height, medium weight. She was wearing a beige blouse, a beige sweater and charcoal-brown slacks. The slacks were a little snug on shapely legs and a bottom round and pretty as a cake.
"Your furniture," she said. "Where’s the rest of it?"
"Sold. I kept only what I needed."
"May I look at the pictures?"
"Go right ahead."
On the end table was a picture of Helen beside a picture of Danny with Rebecca and Jimmy.
"I understand you’re a widower."
"I am, yes. My wife’s name was Helen. I took that picture on her sixtieth birthday."
"When did she pass away?"
"A year ago."
"And every day since?"
"And every day since."
"She has a beautiful smile. It’s like she just heard good news."
"The other picture’s of my son Danny and his family. Rebecca and Jimmy. They live in Seattle. Danny writes movie reviews. He’s trying his hand at a screenplay."
"My husband’s been gone almost two years."
"And he went with great reluctance."
"What do you mean?"
"I’m sure he didn’t want to leave you."
"Thank you."
"You’re welcome. You’re most welcome, in fact. Do you have children?"
"I have a daughter. Her name’s Lucy. She’s married to a man named Frank Walsh. They live in Boulder, Colorado. He teaches at the university there. He teaches English."
"Are you a grandmother?"
"I hope to be in March."
"Do you mind sitting in the kitchen?"
"I’ll feel more at home."
We went to the kitchen.
She sat down.
"What would you like to drink?" I said.
"What are you going to have?"
"I usually usher in the twilight with a shot and a beer."
"A boilermaker."
"Yes."
"I’ve always wanted to try one of those. ‘You better not,’ my husband used to say."
She thought about it.
"He used to say that a lot," she said.
That might have just occurred to her.
"I’ll have one," she said. "I won’t lose control of myself, will I?"
"Maybe it’s time you did."
She was startled.
"Maybe it is," she said.
"Besides, you’ll be in good hands."
I rubbed mine together, as if rejoicing at the prospect.
I poured two shots of whiskey.
I poured two foaming glasses of beer.
"Here’s to my first guest," I said.
We touched glasses.
She tasted the whiskey, the beer.
"They go well together," she said.
"There’s something to be said for tradition."
I sat across from her.
We looked at each other. She looked away, as though she had been caught looking. Suddenly I was happy, so happy I just wanted to sit there and gaze at her.
"Did you make a tomato sauce?" she said.
"I made one early this morning."
"It fills the apartment."
"But what kind of pasta should I have for supper? Shells? Elbows? Linguine? Decisions, Josie, decisions."
"We used to have spaghetti every Sunday when I was a girl. Every Sunday at noon. My mother and father were Italian."
"Born in Italy?"
"My father was."
"So was mine."
"My mother was born here. Little Italy. It’s where my husband was born. His name was John Ranelli. Doctor John Ranelli."
"You were married to a doctor?"
"A dentist. He was older than I was, twelve years older, but everybody said I was fortunate to be marrying a professional man. I remember my father saying, ‘Do you want to marry a laborer, like me?’ And then he said, ‘It’s a wonder they didn’t yoke me and my brother together, like oxen, when we got off the boat.’ And then my mother said, with that whining note Italian mothers have, ‘Listen to your father, Josie, listen.’ One of my friends used to say that if she’d listened to her parents, if she’d taken their advice, she’d have ten children and a nervous breakdown.’"
Remembering troubled her.
The next moment she brightened.
"I get freckles," she said.
"Do you?"
"If I’m out in the sun awhile."
"Does anything happen in the dark?"
"It hasn’t yet."
She was as surprised as I was.
We laughed again.
"Where did you live before this?" she said.
"Lakeview. It’s where my wife was born. There was no reason for me to stay after she died. I grew up on Fulton Road. It’s a couple of miles from here. Besides, Joe Stentini was gone."
"Joe Stentini?"
"Joe lived next door in Lakeview. We’d go to the track. We’d go to baseball and football games. We were like kids. He had a heart attack."
"Don’t you have other friends?"
"No friends, no enemies. I might as well be dead. This is the first time in a year that I’ve laughed. Did it sound strange?"
"No."
"It’s your doing. I’m excited."
"So are the women here. They’ve been buzzing about you ever since you moved in."
"Why?"
"You’re a man, for one thing. A man alone. Then it’s your hair. It’s so white, so thick. Then it’s that scar on your cheek. It looks like a dagger. How did you get that? Wait a minute. Let me guess. You were defending a lady’s honor."
"I wish I could say so."
"Then it must be a war wound."
"It happened during the war. I was in a bar in Honolulu when a fight broke out."
"It gives you a certain look. Like it would be dangerous to fool with you. It adds to the mystery."
"What mystery? I’m scarred. Who isn’t? My hair’s white because I’m old. I’m driving a sixty-seven-year-old car."
"The body looks to be in pretty good shape."
"I could use new shock absorbers."
"How long have you been retired?"
"It’s almost two years."
"I used to help my husband. What kind of work did you do? Wait. Let me guess."
She considered me.
"It’s coming through," she said.
"What is?"
"The picture. You’re wearing a white hat. You have a spoon as big as your hand. You were a chef, a chef known far and wide for your pasta. Maestro Antonio!"
"I was a dispatcher for Ace Trucking."
"How do you occupy yourself these days?"
"I shop, I cook. I eat, I drink. I go to Thistledown and bet horses. Last winter I bet other horses."
"What other horses?"
"The trotters and pacers at Northfield Park. But I don’t enjoy it much now."
"My husband took me to Northfield Park one night. He lost twelve dollars. We never went again. ‘I made my donation,’ he used to say. He lost that twelve dollars a hundred times."
"I watch television. Sometimes I go to a movie. I read the paper. A paragraph here, a paragraph there. I used to read books."
"You don’t anymore?"
"I don’t have the patience. Things are creeping up on me, things like old age and confusion, and it’s better if I keep moving. Besides, I know how the story comes out. How do you keep busy?"
"I spend two afternoons a week at Franklin General Hospital. Information, visitor passes. Thursdays and Fridays I go to St. Augustine’s Church and help feed the poor. And then we do things here. We go for nature walks in Big Creek Park. We saw a blue heron the other day. We go to museums. There’s usually a program of some sort. Last week we went to the Institute of Music. There was a piano recital."
"Who was tickling the ivories?"
"Etienne Marchand."
"Etienne was in town?"
"Ouí."
We toasted him. I finished my whiskey and filled the glass. She held thumb and forefinger an inch or so apart. She wanted a bit more whiskey. I poured it for her.
"I’m getting light-headed," she said.
"Light-hearted comes next."
"I hope so."
"So do I."
"My husband used to say, ‘Don’t overdo it.’ He used to say that a lot."
"Overdo what?"
"Whatever. ‘Don’t do it,’ is what he meant."
She sat back.
"May I tell you something?" she said.
"Tell me anything. Tell, ask."
"Don’t you think you’d feel better if you were doing more than just shopping and cooking and betting on the horses?"
"It bothers me when I go down the list of things I could be doing in the world. Could be doing, should be doing. I’ll make myself useful one of these days. But first I’m going to take a trip."
"A trip where?"
"I’m going to drive across the country."
"Alone?"
"I’d rather not. Maybe I’ll advertise in the paper."
"What will the ad say?"
"Let’s see now. It’ll say: Widower in late sixties seeking a woman as traveling companion, friend and lover. How does that sound?"
"You have an interest in sex, apparently."
"I do, yes."
"How would you describe it?"
"Thrilling."
"Not the sex. The interest."
"Maybe I better advertise for a governess."
"What about freckles?"
"Yes and no."
We drank to each other.
"Stay for supper," I said. "I have that sauce made. We’ll have a dish of linguine and a salad. I’ll fry bread crumbs in olive oil."
"Bread crumbs?"
"To put on the linguine."
"I never had that."
"My mother used to make bread. If it got stale, if it got hard, she’d grate it and fry the crumbs."
"I’ll stay."
"Good. I’ll get things started."
We went on talking while I made supper. I put water on to boil for the linguine and put the tomato sauce on a low fire. I had made a salad early in the morning, a salad of endive, escarole and red onion. I seasoned it with garlic salt, black pepper, olive oil and wine vinegar. I put it back in the refrigerator to stay crisp. I fried the bread crumbs to dark brown and then made four cups of coffee.
"My husband’s been gone almost two years."
"I know."
"He was a good man, Tony. A good husband, a good father. He was even a good son-in-law."
My heart plummeted.
"He couldn’t do enough for me," she said.
She smiled, ruefully.
"Funny how that came out," she said.
She shook her head.
"I’m surprised," she said. "I’m telling you things I’ve never told anyone. It’s like we’re on a train and it doesn’t matter what we say because we’ll never see each other again."
I was setting the table.
"Things were different once," she said. "I’m sure you know all about it."
"All about what?"
"You got to be a certain age, a girl, I mean, and they’d arrange things for you. John saw me in church one Sunday morning. He sent word by the neighborhood matchmaker, an old woman named Caterina, that he was interested in me. My father invited him to the house. They came to an understanding."
"They made a match for my mother. But it turned out well."
During supper we talked about arthritis. We talked about the cost of living. We talked about the intense heat of the summer. Every now and then we looked at each other and smiled.
"The food is good," I said.
"It’s delicious."
"Food hasn’t tasted this good in a year. It’s because you’re gracing the table."
"Thank you, Tony."
"Let’s get back on the train for a minute. I just realized something. I haven’t been living since my wife passed away. I’ve been dying. I’d like to resume living."
"I’d like to start."
My heart went up like a balloon.
"Let’s start then," I said.
"How?"
"I’ve been planning to spend some time with my son Danny and his family. Your daughter lives in Boulder. Let’s drive west before the weather gets bad. We’ll stay in Boulder awhile and then go up to Seattle. I’ll buy you a roll."
"A roll?"
"They have these cinnamon rolls in Seattle. Cinnamon with raisins. No icing. Best rolls I ever had. You can’t wait to get out of bed in the morning and have one. But I can wait."
"You’re lonely."
"I was lonely before you came. And I’ll be lonely if you leave. Besides, what am I suggesting?"
"What are you suggesting?"
"I’m suggesting we go for a ride. We’ll see the country and visit our children. No promises, no commitments. If you’re unhappy along the way, in Chicago, or Omaha, or anywhere at all, I’ll put you on a plane bound for Cleveland. Do you drive?"
"Yes."
"Then let’s go out of our way when we leave Boulder. Let’s go down to Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park. They’re in Utah. Joe Stentini used to rave about them. From there we’ll go to the coast. You’ll hear them barking."
"What are you talking about?"
"The seals on the Oregon coast. Spend the evening with me."
"I’m spending the evening with you."
"The night, Josie. The night is what I meant."
"I know."
"The night belongs to everyone."
She sat back.
"I saw you in the lobby," she said.
"When?"
"One morning. When I found out you’d moved in, right next door to me, I asked in the office about you. I asked Jenny, the superintendent’s wife. She told me you were a widower. She told me you were living alone, as far as she knew. I got excited, so excited it surprised me. I was wondering about it later. Maybe it’s how my husband felt when he saw me in church that Sunday morning."
"I’d have sent word to your father."
"Would you have?"
"Or delivered it. As I’m doing."
She smiled.
"Three or four days passed," she said. "I was expecting to see you in the hall or the lobby. It didn’t happen. I made a loaf of bread for you. I came over and I was just going to knock on your door when I heard you talking. You were talking Italian. Then you drank a toast to St. Francis. St. Francis, of all people!"
"Of all people?"
"That very morning I’d bought a card with his prayer, a birthday card for my Lucy. I was pretty sure that you were alone here, that you were talking to yourself, so I didn’t knock. I didn’t want to embarrass you. Then it happened."
"What happened?"
"You invited me over for a drink. But it’s no accident we met. I was looking out my bedroom window and I saw you get out of your car and walk across the parking lot. You were talking to yourself. Again. I could almost hear you."
"I had a bad day at the track."
"I went out in the hall. I went out to wait for you."
"We might become famous. Like that other Italian couple."
"What Italian couple?"
"It’ll be Tonio and Josette. I’m on the verge of great wealth."
"Great wealth?"
"Love. Companionship."
I touched her hand, lightly.
"Stay the night," I said.
"Shouldn’t we wait?"
"We’ve waited long enough."
"Shouldn’t we know more about each other?"
"We’ll know more tonight."
There was a gleam in those eyes, eyes that seemed to be melting to gold.
"Shouldn’t we stop wasting time?" she said.
We touched coffee cups.
"Remember one thing," I said. "I’m driving a sixty-eight-year-old car."
"You said sixty-seven."
"My birthday’s next month."
"So is mine. I’ll be sixty-six."
We spent the night together.
We spent like millionaires.
The next morning, Friday, I called Danny with the news. Josie called Lucy. We were all of us excited about getting together.
Later that morning Josie and I went to St. Augustine’s Church to help feed the poor. The line of people waiting for lunch went clear out the door. I served mashed potatoes and gravy. Jose served string beans. Some of the people in line were ashamed to be seen. They did not look at our faces. Others, especially women with children, were full of smiles and gratitude. A few, men and women both, were hostile, defiant, as though it was our fault they had to wait in line for food in the richest country on earth. I was so happy to be with Josie that my heart went out to everyone. I wanted to find jobs for the unemployed, homes for the homeless. I wanted to enrich them with health, hope and dreams.
Saturday and Sunday Josie and I volunteered at Franklin General Hospital. I went around with the book cart. I played checkers and gin rummy with patients. I told and heard stories.
Wednesday morning of the following week Josie and I were on our way to Boulder, Colorado. I was driving and she was feeding me red grapes.
Just before locking the door to my apartment, just before leaving, I looked at the picture of Helen. She was rejoicing for me, it seemed, rejoicing for me and with me. I realized it was because of her, because of my voyage with her, a voyage blessed with love, laughter and peace, that I was so eager to set sail again.
"Eight bells," I heard myself saying, in the car with Josie.
"All is well?"
"All is well."

 
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