From the author: An elderly married couple bicker about the disappointments in their lives and each other.
THE MORNING BIRD
Mark R Conte
Dawn came as usual, red-eyed, peeping over smoke stacks, struggling its was around tall gray buildings that made up the Philadelphia skyline.
Salvatore reached into his pocket and pulled out the gold watch he had received for his forty-five years of service to the Budd Company and confirmed the time. Two minutes had passed since he had last checked the time.
Strange how long two minutes can be when you are waiting for something, but what was he waiting for? Certainly not his children. They would not be here today. They only came on holidays for a brief hour or two, kissing him on the cheek and hugging his wife Clara. Then they would settle down to the small talk of their accomplishments. Now and then they said a word or two to him, shouting as if he were deaf or senile. He was neither, but sometimes he wished he was.
Salvatore remembered now. He was waiting for the movers who would take him and Clara away from this decaying street. But did he really want to go? He had lived here for forty-five years, raised his children here, built his wine cellar here, slaughtered the Easter lambs here, married his sons and daughters here, and buried his friends here. He was reluctant to go and live among strangers.
He put his watch back into his pocket. You’re a crazy old fool, Salvatore. Look at yourself, the once proud Salvatore Gelese. You were too good for the wonderful hills of Abruzzi. No one could talk to you. You were going to America. You were going to be rich. You were going to be successful, and most of all, you were going to live in a country of equality, a country without classes.
Salvatore took off his battered gray felt hat. He had not found riches or success. He had made his peace with that, but equality lived only in the dreams of the poor. He was of the immigrant generation, looked down upon even by their own children.
He took out an old worn pipe and stuffed tobacco into the bowl with his thumb. The Declaration of Independence! The Constitution! What words they had been to him once. A country ruled by laws, not by men and their weaknesses. In his hear, he was an American even before he climbed aboard the ship heading for New York City. He had never thought he would wind up being a dago, a guinea, a wop. In Philadelphai, it was a subtle prejudice, spoken between friends and behind closed doors, so when the children grew to men and women, they Americanized their names. Di Giovanni became De John, Guiseppi became Joseph and so on, giving up their heritage.
In Boston, at least they put it on the walls of the factories. “No Irish need apply,”
For God and all the world to see. The laws were useless against this kind of hate and prejudice. A country ruled by laws, yes, but it was the interpretation of these laws that was important, and at times, the interpretations were enough to try a man’s sanity. But shouldn’t he have known? God himself had tried setting the laws. He had given Moses ten commandments. They had been wise rules. Something men could live by. In the end, Didn’t God have to send his own son to explain them to man? And what did they do to him? He struck a match on the steps and put the flame to his pipe, sucking the smoke from the bowl. Well, God, he thought, how do you like your paradise now?
“Salvatore!” Clara called from inside the house. He could hear the pans clanking against each other in the kitchen sink. “Salvatore, can you hear me?”
“The whole world can hear you,” he said softly.
He rose and walked up the marble steps. The door opened with a creak, sighing perhaps of what time and man had done to its house. Clara stood at the g as stove, her long, black hair dangling loosely to her hips. She wore a faded pink bathrobe tied carelessly around her waist with one of Salvatore’s old ties. He looked at her a moment. Clara. How beautiful she had been. He remembered following her in the streets of Chiati, watching from street corners, afraid to speak. How proud he had been when she agreed to marry him.
Clara pushed her hair away from her face with a gnarled hand; her small black eyes peering at him through her wrinkled face.
“What are you looking at?” she said.
“It was nothing,” he said. “Just a dream.”
“Eighty years old and you’re still dreaming!”
“What else do I have to do?” he said.
“Go and visit your friends,” she said.
“Who shall I visit, the dead or the dying?”
“What’s the matter?” she said. “Have you run out of friends? You didn’t have that problem forty years ago.”
“Are we going to have that same argument?” he said.
“And why not?” she said. “What shall we do, hold hands like love birds? Ha! Go to your friends.”
Salvatore walked to the sofa and sat by the window in the warmth of the September sun that had just come through the morning sky.
“How many eggs do you want?” Clara said.
“Just Toast,” he said. “Non me sento bene.”
“Better eat some eggs,” she said. “It will give you strength.”
“Okay then,” he said. “Eggs.”
“Eighty years old and I still have to take care of him like a baby,” she said to the stove.
Salvatore rose from the sofa and walked to the kitchen. He took out his pocket watch. Six fifteen. Surely his watch had stopped now. He looked at the toip of the cabinet and tried to focus in the small clock without his glasses.
“Che ora e?” he said.
Clara turned from the stove. “Talk English, she said. “Forty-seven years you’ve been in America and still you talk Italian.”
The eggs crackled in the frying pan, bringing back the cold country mornings of his father’s farm, but the memory drifted away as quickly as it came.
“Was I a good father, Clara?”
“You were a good provider,” she said.
“But was I a good father?”
“Not the best. Not the worst.”
“No,” he said. “I suppose not.”
Clara put the plate of eggs in front of him and filled his cup with coffee. Salvatore looked up at her.
“Was I a good husband?”
“You weren’t the most romantic,” she said.
Salvatore wrinkled his face and said, “Perhaps I should have been a school teacher.”
Clara gripped the frying pan and closed her eyes.
“That was thirty-five years ago,” she whispered. “Thirty-five years.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Time has made us ugly.” He took a sip from his coffee.
“What is the measure of man?” he said. “Is it talent?” He looked at his short, thick hands. “I cannot paint a picture, nor can I use a fine chisel, and the words I use would grate a poet’s ear. No,” he said. “I do not have a poet’s heart.”
He cut the egg in quarters with his fork and ate the first quarter with a bite of bread.
“Perhaps it’s accomplishments,” he said. “But what have I accomplished?”
He blew on his coffee and sipped it again. He turned and looked at Clara.
“I was a good worker,” he said in a proud tone. “I worked every day for forty-five years. Not once did I miss work, not even when I was sick. That’s something, isn’t it Clara?”
“So on your gravestone I’ll put ‘Worked every day for forty-five years,’ “ Clara said as she scrubbed the frying pan.
“No,” he said. “Not so much.”
There was a chirping sound in the back yard. Salvatore rose from the table and went to the back window, raising the window halfway. A gold and blue bird was sitting on the fence. Salvatore took some bread crumbs from the table and spread them aalong the window sill. The bird flew to the knotted clothes line and chirped again, keeping a wary eye on Salvatore.
“Come on,” Salvatore said. “It’s waiting for you.”
“What a silly bird,” Clara said.
“Why?” Salvatore said.
“Because all the other birds are flying south while this one comes around for stale bread crumbs.”
Salvatore shrugged his shoulders. “Come on little morning bird..”
“Why do they call it the morning bird.?” Clara said.
“Because they only mate in the morning,” Salvatore said.
“In the morning?’ Clara said. “What a disgusting time!”
“Not to birds. Only humans are ashamed of sex. They are always looking for shadows. Birds have nothing to be ashamed of.”
The morning bird hopped on the window sill and pecked at the bread crumbs.
“It is a story of great love,” Salvatore said. “They mate for life. Not cold, or hunger, nothing, not even death can separate them.
“So,” Clara said.
“Not even death,” he said. “When the mate dies, the other sings a beautiful song for a full hour, then falls dead beside its mate.” He looked up at the sky. “They say it sings its heart out.”
“And what happens to the young?” Clara said.
“The young live their own lives, as they must,” he said.
Clara rubbed the goose pimples from her arms. “I do not like such stories,” she said. “They are morbid.”
“Only when you are old,” he said.
Salvatore turned from the window and walked to the cellar door.
“Where are you going?” Clara said.
“I’m going to the wine cellar to get a bottle of wine,” he said.
“But we haven’t finished packing. The movers will be here at noon and we have to be ready.”
“Well,’ he said “We have five and a half hours. Besides, I am not ready to leave yet.”
“You’re impossible.” Clara said.
Salvatore stepped down the creaking stairs to the basement and opened the wine cellar door. The cool air of the wine cellar mixed with the aroma of wine and refreshed his face. Salvatore sighed and closed the door behind him. He had built this wine cellar with his own hands, was careful of the right location in the basement, made the stalls for the barrels, six in all, and the shelves for the gallons stacked neatly on the South wall. One tiny window looked out the back yard, low, half below ground level, so that the sun could not find its way to the barrels.
Other men had dens. Some had playrooms or bocci pits. A few had left Philadelphia, scrimping and starving the last twenty years of their working days to move to the sunny warmth of Florida. Perhaps they had done better, but he doubted it. He remembered a letter from Antonio who had written that he had lived in a retired community just outside Clearwater, Florida, where he sat by the windows every day and watched the funerals go by. I would not like that, Salvatore thought. Better to stay among my wine barrels.
He took a wine glass from the shelf and wiped the rim with the edge of his sweater. There was a large wine barrel with a tap on the front with a tap on the front, and a small stool beside it. Salvatore sat on the stool with a grunt and placed the glass under the tap. The wine gurgled out of the tap and filled the glass, giving it a rich warm glow. Salvatore brought the glass to his lips and swallowed half the glass in two gulps.
At least I have my wine, he thought. What does a man have if not for good wine? And this was good wine. He had made it himself, just as he had done every year, choosing the right grapes, dark purple, on the verge of black; crushing them, letting them sit until he could almost hear the swelling, ready for the pot, and then the precise cooking on the small cellar stove.
In the early years, his sons had helped him, gleefully playing with the wine crusher, stealing grapes behind his back, and oh! The way they strained a t pressing the grapes, pulling the long iron handle as the wine trickled down the sides of the presser and flowed into the half barrel under the spout. How proud he was of his children then.
He lifted the glass and drank the rest of the wine down. Now his sons were grown and had families of their own. Anyway, they did not care for wine. They drank whiskey and scotch mixed with sweet sodas. They gave cocktail parties and drank from delicate glasses like women. But they were good sons, tall and strong and handsome. College men. He was proud of that. It had not been easy, but he had done it. He had given them a college education.
Education was something he had never thought of for himself. It was a luxury the people of Abruzzi did not deem necessary for their children when there was so many things to be done with the land. Yet, he was not illiterate. He could read both the Italian and American newspapers. He had never been cheated in business and always voted for the man he believed to be the more honest of the two. He realized no one was completely honest, especially in politics. It was a profession of tried and true lies. However, there were some good men.
Salvatore placed his glass under the tap and refilled it with the red wine. I will get drunk today, he thought. I will drink my wine and sing “O Sole Mia” like the old days, and Clara will put me to bed and scold me, and I will laugh. I will laugh and dream of young Italian girls in Chiati and picnics on the hillside. I will dream of moonlight nights and songs with mandolins. Yes he thought. I will get drunk today.
Clara packed the last of the dishes in the cardboard box and folded down the flaps. She turned and walked to the cellar stairs.
“Salvatore. Hey Salvatore! Do you hear me?” she said. She walked down the cellar stairs. “Will you never listen to me?” She said as she walked into the wine cellar. She opened the door to the wine cellar and saw him on the stool. The old fool was sleeping on his stool again.
“Oh you! You can sleep anyplace.” She nudged his arm. “Come on, come on,” she said. “The movers will be here in an hour. You have to get up.” She reached down and touched his face. The coldness of his skin made her draw back her hand instinctively. She looked at his chest and it was not moving. Clara stepped back and made the sign of the cross.
“Oh, Blessed Mother,” she said, then she turned and hurried up the stairs. She walked quickly past the kitchen to the phone in the dining-room. She picked up the receiver and dialed Giovanni’s number. On the third ring, there was a click, then she heard her son’s voice.
“Giovanni,” she said. “I think you’d better come over.”
“What’s the matter Mom?” he said.
“It’s your father,” she said. “I can’t wake him. She hesitated a moment. “His face, Giovanni, it’s so cold.”
“Okay, Mom. Now take it easy,” Johnny said. “Go next door with Katie and wait for me there. I’ll take care of everything.”
“But can’t I wait for you here, Giovanni?”
“No, Mom. Now listen to me. Go next door and wait for me there. I be there in twenty minutes, okay?”
“Okay, Giovanni,” she said and hung up the phone.
Clara walked to the kitchen and took her coat off the hook on the wall. She looked out the window. Cats prowled the fences searching for scraps of food. Dogs in every yard barked angrily at them, and children shouted at the dogs to stop their barking.
Clara looked at the cluttered back yards, the sagging fences, the rusted garbage cans. Her eyes went to the corner of the yard. There was a small garden, two feet by three feet. A garden Salvatore had made for her. She had so loved flowers and would plant seeds every Spring. But except for a few blades of wild grass, the garden stayed bare. It was only a dream, she thought. Only a dream.
A board creaked on the cellar stairs and she turned quickly, as if she would see him there. As if he would come through the door at any moment.
Clara rose and slowly walked to the front door. As she gripped the doorknob, she turned and almost called out to say goodbye to Salvatore. I must be going mad, she thought. She felt her head for fever.
Not once in fifty years had she left the house without saying goodbye to Salvatore, and every morning, when he left the house, Salvatore would make the sign of the cross at the door and call back to her, and he never left until she answered, and she always did.
No, she cold not go. She could not leave him there like that. He was a baby. He was always a baby that she had to take care of when he was sick, when he was drunk, and when he felt lost in this new world growing so large around him.
Perhaps he was still alive. She had not felt his pulse, listened to his heart. A chill, yes, perhaps a chill made his skin cold. The doctor would come, he came before, and there would be medicines to take, certain things to eat. She would have to make sure he got the proper rest. Scold him again and again, but he was a baby. She had to do this.
She hurried up the hallway stairs to the bedroom, almost stumbling on the toip step. She picked up a pillow and tugged at the blanket that it fell to the floor. She knelt on the floor and gathered the blanket in her arms.
I must hurry, she thought. It is damp in the wine cellar. He must be getting cold. I will have to hold him in my arms to keep him warm, perhaps hum the old songs to him. His bones are old. His neck will be stiff by now and I will have to rub it. I always do.
This story originally appeared in Potomac Review & Honoranle Mention PEN American.