Carmella By L. A. Chavez
Carmella Greco laid her wooden cane against the bannister, eased with her coffee into a chair on her sunned balcony and squinted up at the summered heavens. Past the Gashouse Cove where the Redwood Highway became the red behemoth above the bay, two tugs made their daily trip tutting their horns in a drawn out beat. It would take the ships a half hour before they completely passed each other and all the while their horns going. She made it a rule that she must sip her coffee at every spurt of sound. A sloppy game, but also it was an unconscious security that as time passed (even at ninety-one) she would not be left behind holding a cold cup of dirty water. After washing cup, spoon and saucer, she leaned on her cane in the alcove beside the apartment door where an unframed and dusty mirror rested on the small table wrought in white iron. Her son gave her the mirror before he left her for New York. Every time she used it she reminded herself of the same thing, I got to ask Jamie to hang this for me when he comes back for a visit. She tamed any unrestrained hairs into her silver bun and then felt in the closet behind her for a beige flowered sun hat on the wooden upright hanger. After locking the door behind her, she placed her only key into her change purse. Carmella Greco did the same as every morning. She descended carefully the twisting steps of the converted firehouse, followed with her cane the broken white line on Van Ness to the bike path that went by the beachâ€”billowing mirrors of light cut the sea, young womenâ€™s bosoms splayed full out in the sun and spotted hands shadowed her brow as she noticed a tinge of nostalgia and propriety old as salt. In Ghirardelli Square, mist from the fountain siren touched
Chavez / Change / 2 her and she nodded in closed-eyed agreement with the cocoa filled air, chlorine, child sung caprice, the bit of warm sun on her hands and cool stone beneath. Tommy, who cooked in that restaurant with the chopsticks, came to sit with her, as he did daily. He smoked a cigarette, made sure to blow the smoke away from them both, talked about the weather and then asked about what to expect in the years to come, about what surprises, about their endings, about how much time and what to do with it, and about how frightening it is to stare into a white expanse completely empty and see only space to build where no one before has laid a finger. She was not a fortune teller. She could not tell him what to expect of his life. But this sweet boy, who was long haired and pierced and tattooed and nothing like her son, was somehow, nevertheless, reminiscent of Jamie—because of an aimless wonder in his voice, a keen search in his eyes so close to pleading, a seemingly careless gift of chocolate he left beside her always, which she covered with her slight tremor and quieted into her pocket. Because of these things she forgave him for implying her antiquity. Also, he was local and she liked that. She could forgive a lot for that. The first day he had sat near her at the fountain, he had kept looking at her until (in that now practically lost accent, similar to the Irish of South Boston) she had said, “yeah?” “Sorry,” he told her. “I just always see you here and stuff.” “Yeah?” “Nothing.” He went back to smoking his cigarette, looking at the crowd. Suddenly he turned to her, pinching the cigarette between his fingers, “this smoke bothering you, Ma’am?” She looked at his eyes. “Whereya from?” “Here,” he said, looking at the crowd again. “Oh yeah? What school?” She leaned her head back, squinting down her nose, skeptical.
Chavez / Change / 3 “St. Ignacius.” Makes sense, she thought, looking at his piercings, his ponytail. He was rebelling from something—that was for certain. “Want some chocolate?” He exhaled smoke and, still looking at the tourists, he placed a heart-shaped chocolate beside her. She had looked at it and then at him. He had smiled at her then walked away. When Tommy went back to work, Carmella stayed a bit longer, feeling the stone beneath her still cool as she listened to the tourists deliberate over plans, make professions, brighten up laughter. She did this until she tired then made her way through the street crossings at the signal of young girls in go-carts. Damn things were everywhere. And they were her to stay.. She walked back past the beach to her balcony where she would wait for her Jamie to call, which he did every other day, but since she could not remember if he had called yesterday or the day before, she waited—to be safe—until the pier lights scattered on. As night came, Carmella stumbled softly in from the balcony, righting herself with her cane and the books on her dining table. She often tripped there. Her pale oriental rug now curled at its edges. Also, sitting still on the balcony for so long made her arthritic knees stiff. She made a familiar dinner of grapefruit and sardines with toast. It would not do to spend too much money on food when all her needs could be met with a few dollars a week. She drank coffee too, black, and she allowed herself a quarter cube of sugar. Milk soiled too quickly and diabetes ran in her family. It had gotten her mother and her father. So she beat it off, with her cane if she had to. The apartment was only two rooms. In the front room, in a corner, a toilet was surrounded by curtains. While she sat on it, she brushed her teeth in the palm of her hand then soaked them in a solution near the kitchen sink. After, Carmella removed a long pajama gown from one of the cabinets beside the stove. In the other room that might once have been used as a supply closet when the building was still a firehouse, a day bed squeaked under Carmella’s
Chavez / Change / 4 weight. She dropped Tommy’s gift at the foot of the bed, into one of the glass jars half full with individually wrapped chocolates. She put on the gown and, while waiting for sleep, she gazed out a long narrow pane of glass at her bedside that showed the beach path and the bay. Hand-inhand, a man led a boy down the path, burnt orange spilled onto the tossing water behind them, and music and voices slipped in through Carmella’s open balcony to where she lay, and the darkness of her bed-room waited silently to spread out from her window into the world so full. # The following morning she sat out on the balcony sipping her coffee to the barge rhythm when the phone rang up a small cloud of dust. “Jamie. Son. Howareya, honey?” “Good morning, Ma’am. Is Mrs. Greco available?” “Yeah. I thought you was my son Jamie. I’m waiting for him to call me.” “Excuse me, ma’am. Sorry. Am I speaking with Mrs. Greco?” “No one’s called me that since I moved back here from Sannazay. My husband is— he’s... Wh-who is this?” “Mrs. Greco, this is Michel from Speedy Steamers. I am pleased to inform you of a special we are running this week. For the low price of $39.99 we will steam all of your carpets and rugs. We also offer other cleaning ser—” “I used to know a Michel. This is going back thirty… uh—yeah thirty years. And this building was a firehouse. You’d get fresh boiled Dungeness down the wharf. Thems cracked right open without so much as a tap.” “Yes, Ma’am—”
Chavez / Change / 5 “Thems was eager to be eaten, little things. That’s where he worked. Nice man. He was from Paris. Yeah. He’s not here anymore. Nobody is. I’m the only one left. Wharf is full of shops, restaurants , all this expensive food. Nobody’s from here anymore. Barely smell the salt.” “Yes—” “Yeah. Marty was it?” “Actually it’s—” “I don’t need a steaming service, Marty. Because I live in a old firehouse. Floors are concrete and need no vacuuming. Thank you.” She hung up and wiped her hands on the side of her rose print smock. “Nice man,” she said. “But he’s not from here. Must think I’m a sucker. $39.99.” With cane in hand Carmella walked to the mirror beside the door. She’d remind Jamie to hang the thing. As usual, she fixed her hair, reached for her sun hat and walked out towards Ghirardelli Square. There were always people in the square at this time, but her determination and concentrated stare were always enough to secure her spot on the fountain bench. A family with sticky children sat by the mermaid that day. Completely oblivious to the older woman plodding in her grayed tunic, the mother tried to rinse her boy’s and girl’s hands in the fountain. Carmella stared as she walked by them, having to sit by the fanciful turtle and the fountain sign, which she read loudly, “DO NOT TOUCH.” She looked over at the family in her seat. They hadn’t heard. Sun on her back was not enough. For one thing, she remembered how the sunlight, popping the roses on her tunic alive, heated her up from the ankles, loosened knots made from walking, and then how the breeze lifted her hem just an inch or two, airing out her knees, and on her sweaty backside the coolness of stone and the mist of fountain as if a symphony, all of it, to her pleasure. For the other, she looked at the father, watched as he gazed past his wife to the
Chavez / Change / 6 shops on the edge of the square, and suddenly Carmella remembered her own husband, now long dead. Perhaps it was the phone call earlier or the discomfiting inconvenience of losing her seat, but she remembered him clearer than the morning—salted halibut at day, lemoned musk at night, his hands chapped and stocky, the balcony air dominated by smoke, the working man calling, “Carm!”—and since she had not thought of him for longer than she could recall, the memory seemed to loosen up something inside her and launch it like a bag of Fall torn open and its dusty leaves dispersed in Summer’s air. Carmella shook her head and turned away from the family. It had been nearly twenty minutes, she noticed, and still Tommy had not come to sit with her. As fast as a woman her age might, Carmella turned her head every few moments to see if he appeared at the door of the restaurant where he worked. Maybe he had looked at the bench, seen the family in her place and thought she had taken ill. Still, he would come out to smoke his cigarette. Although she never ate the chocolates he brought her, Carmella began to feel a craving for them. Actually, maybe Tommy hadn’t seen her and had gone out to smoke in the alley with the other cooks. Across from her at the Ghirardelli HQ was a sign, Ghirardelli The Original Chocolate Shop Luscious Truffles $2.99 Limited Time Only Certainly they were luscious, she thought. Tantalizing even and for that reason all the more perfidious. They would allow in all their lusciousness a person to blind herself to the fact that they were $2.99 apiece. Much too much. Their limited appearance was only further evidence of
Chavez / Change / 7 this, for anyone with half a brain would realize soon enough the deception. Not to mention, she thought, that she housed probably close to a hundred chocolates from Tommy in her bed-room. Those were certainly as tender—probably already half-melted. The craving soon quieted. Actually, perhaps it hadn’t, but, at the least, its ruse was uncovered. She walked on not noticing in all her harangue about how opulent and how luscious was everything, even the way the word seemed to leap softly from the tongue, that she had taken a wrong turn and ended up on the other side of the square, an area she had not visited in quite some time. She walked two blocks, bumping into other pedestrians, and thought about luscious truffles openly robbing people’s purses and, too, why Tommy had not appeared, leaving her without a chocolate and with a feeling a bit like loneliness. When she encountered the smell of grease, redolent of some still opaque memory, Carmella blindly walked into the Chinese take-out restaurant. She had been there before, when these places had started popping up all over the place, though not for many years. The young woman at the register was not familiar or maybe she was. Hadn’t she been shorter, grayer, plumper? And this one, this woman, whom Carmella could only really think of as a girl, seemed a bit too jolly to be the same woman. No matter. The smell made her stomach grumble and she could go for one of the rolls. A dollar for two, indicated the menu. “Welcome to Bambu. May I help you?” The girl jumped right up and smiled at the sight of Carmella. “Yeah. I’ll have a Spring roll. Uh—please,” said Carmella, leaning her cane against the counter and reaching into a small rose-print change purse in her tunic’s pocket. “One Spring roll? Is that all?” “Yeah. Thank you.”
Chavez / Change / 8 The girl called the order in Mandarin to the cook behind her and then faced Carmella, “Ok. One dollar eight cents.” “No. I want only one Spring roll. Please.” “Yes. One order Spring roll,” said the girl, nodding. “That’s what we make for you, one order Spring roll.” Carmella looked at the girl. She trying to get one over on me? she thought. “Please,” Carmella said with practiced calm. “I would like only one Spring roll. Not two.” “Yes. One Spring roll. One dollar eight cents.” “Look here, I want only one. That’s 54¢. With tax. Your menu. It says two for a dollar. I want one. So, you should only charge me 54¢ and that’s with the tax, like I said.” “Oh! You want one spring roll,” said the girl, illuminated. Meanwhile, the cook dropped the freshly fried rolls on a small table behind the girl and then stood at the stove, arms crossed, watching Carmella discuss price. “Yes. Please.” Carmella smiled too, finally being understood and smelling the Spring roll. “No.” “Excuse me?” “No. Sorry. We cannot give to you just one Spring roll,” said the girl. “Yeah,” Carmella asked, “why not?” “Sorry. We cannot. You have one egg roll. Same price.” “They’re two for $1 and I want one: that’s 50¢. I only want one,” Carmella said holding up her index. “Please,” she added. Carmella placed two quarters and four pennies on the counter.
Chavez / Change / 9 “Here,” she said. The girl cocked her head, looking at her sideways. “I only have 54¢,” said Carmella quickly. The cook yelled something at the girl, shook his head, and disappeared into some back room, though he could be heard speaking loudly in Mandarin. “Ok,” said the girl, grabbing the rolls behind her and placing them on the counter. “You have these Spring roll. But we cannot sell you like this way again. Ok?” As the girl grabbed the change, Carmella took a napkin from the dispenser on the counter and pulled a roll from the bag. “I’ll have only the one. Yeah? Thank you.” She left the other and stepped outside. The Spring roll was a bit of a treat, but if she ate only half of it, Carmella would have enough for when she sat on her balcony later. She could still hear Mandarin being spoken loudly and rather violently behind her. Of course, she had just done what any red-blooded American would and asked for what she wanted at a fair price. Nothing to be ashamed of and it was delicious. But did it always have carrot in it? She wasn’t sure. She might have to skip dinner or have maybe just toast and coffee. As she walked she finally realized that she was on the other side of Ghirardelli square and a bit further from home than usual. To get home she would simply turn left at Leavenworth and go down Columbus until she reached Beach. Yet, the distance was longer than her usual. “It’ll be good to walk more today,” she said. “Digest this Chinese grease.” The walk was longer than usual, but the sidewalks were good and the trip should not have required too much energy. Carmella was, however, a bit fidgety: tapping her cane and repeatedly adjusting her tunic, which seemed very suddenly to be heavy and tight and ill-fitting. She made such a fuss talking to herself about her right to haggle—rather to get her entitled—and adjusting her clothing that she bumped into even more pedestrians. Some brushed it off. Others were ready
Chavez / Change / 10 to scold her for being so careless, but stilled their tongues when they saw her cane, her harrowing gait, and heard her bitter attack of some invisible person. By the time she reached the end of Columbus, Carmella had to stop, taking a seat beside a pot of Calendula on the concrete walk-up of a tall house. From across the street came the fog pushing in over the bay and also the cries of excited girls and boys renting go-carts with their parents. Those things, she thought, for those newcomers. All these people who weren’t from here changed the face of her home. Their children too, loads of them, making sure the change became permanent. Carmella breathed as deep as she could. Her chest was heavy. She fingered her empty pocket and wondered briefly about Tommy. She looked at the Calendula and considered taking one bud to treat a rash that had started on her thigh. It was not itchy, but it was spreading. Golden sunlight hit the Calendula petals’ frail orange, tender like peach. No one could truly own nature, she thought. It grew, it changed, it died and there was not a thing a person could do about it. Same thing with cities. Same thing with homes. Though, to be fair, of every tree and plant, she quoted loosely, people may freely eat. So, it was not truly stealing. No matter how much it hurt. She reached up to snap off a flower when she heard someone call her name. “Carmella! Carmella, is that you?” She snatched her hand away faster than a woman her age possibly could. Leaning on her cane, she rose and turned to face the man. He was man of about seventy, very smiley, wore a red silk scarf and a fedora despite the heat, and a buttoned-up shirt that, with every plump rustle, released a spray of either cologne or sweat. “Who are you? I don’t remember you.” “Is that so? I knew your husband from school. It’s Thomasino.”
Chavez / Change / 11 “Yeah. Where’d you go?” “Huh?” “Where’d you go to school?” She raised her chin and looked down at him. “I went to USF. 1964.” “You don’t know me,” she said. “You’re not from here.” “Of course, I do. Your husband worked at USF as a maintenance worker in my dorm. Nice man. I met you once on the quad. His name was Daniel. Right? I have a mind like a steel trap.” He smiled. Daniel had not worked at the University. Had he? She could not remember. Thomasino said he was very sorry to hear about Daniel’s passing from the alumni association and was sorry he had not been able to pay his respects. For, you see, he was overseas on business. “But you look wonderful. I wouldn’t put you a day past sixty,” he said, resting his heavy hand on her arm. “Your eyes. They are still as sweet as chocolate.” But at that, through some movement, it seemed Carmella reared up and Thomasino adeptly changed the subject. “And what of your son? Uh— James,” he said triumphantly. Carmella did not recall this man, his name or his face. He seemed, nonetheless, to know her and seemed proud of the fact. He knew Daniel. (And so what?) But Jamie? She began to feel a bit claustrophobic, trapped between the concrete steps and the looming man. Her eyes darted from Thomasino to the laughing children across the street. The fog had come upon shore and filled Aquatic Park. Soon it would cover the go-cart stand. “Jamie. His name was Jamie,” said Carmella and she also replied, automatically, that her son had passed too, thirty years ago in a crash on his way to New York City.
Chavez / Change / 12 Thomasino was very sorry to hear this news, of course, and made a big show of grief, slapping his palms lightly to his temples and looking bewilderedly up at God. He slapped his brow and shook his head, and then looked around as if in search of support for this mourning, but finding none shook his head again. Carmella looked at him, bewildered. If Thomasino had met her son, Jamie would have been but a boy, yet the man was visibly distraught. “So young,” he lamented loudly enough to draw attention from passers-by and a couple parents across the street. Finally, he grabbed Carmella by the shoulders with such force and obvious mendacity he almost toppled the poor girl, looked her in the eye and asked, “But you, dear. You are all right?” Yes. I’m alright. Why shouldn’t I be? Are you alright? Making a scene in the middle of the street. Stomping your feet, throwing up ash all over the place. You hardly knew the man. Are you alright? And are you the standard, she asked? Are you the standard? She did not say all of this aloud. She bellowed it inside. Too much propriety. Too much to just do away with. She looked the man in the eye and said, “Thank you. But, I think, it’s no concern of yours.” Then she ducked from in between his arms and started to cross the street. She hobbled into traffic as quickly as she could. The fog now spread onto the street, surrounding Carmella’s calves. Eliciting some foul language, Carmella made it safely across. A boy at the go-cart establishment stood pulling on his mother’s sleeve, with his eyes watching Carmella intently. He was not the only one. About a half dozen others also watched the spectacle and the cars drove by slowly at the sight of the commotion on the sidewalk. “What’s she doing,” asked one. “Ready for Laguna Honda,” said another. Thomasino stood across the street also watching. Carmella took the opportunity to cut in front of the boy, who stood in front of an empty go-cart. She turned to face the boy and with the help of her cane lowered herself slowly and backwards into the small car.
Chavez / Change / 13 “Lady, what are you doing?” The man who ran the go-cart business looked at her wideeyed, but Carmella paid no mind and swung her legs into the cart. “Give me the keys. Please. I’m renting this,” she said. “Mommy,” said the boy, tugging his mother’s sleeve harder. “Lady. I’m not giving you this cart. You got to give me a credit card and it’s forty dollars an hour.” Carmella pulled out her change purse and rummaged through, dropping coins on the cart’s seat and floor. She could hear Thomasino calling her from across the street. “Hold on,” she said shakily to the go-cart man. “I have money.” “I’m not giving you the cart,” said the man, looking at the people around him with his palms out, looking for support. “Give her the cart,” said one woman. “Yeah,” said another amidst light laughter. Most just stared from the fog. “Lady. Get out of the cart. There’s a line here and a protocol. You can’t just hijack the thing.” “Carmella,” called Thomasino. “Just a moment,” said Carmella, looking through her purse. “Lady. I’m going to have to call the cops.” With that he made as if to hail the bicycle policeman on the beach path behind him although the fog was now too thick for the officer to see him. “Oh. Alright, you nancy!” The onlookers laughed. The mother covered the boy’s ears. Carmella tried to get her legs out of the cart, but dropped her cane in between the cart and the
Chavez / Change / 14 sidewalk. The go-cart manager sighed at that and Carmella made a frustrated grunt, but no one moved to help her. “Carmella?” “Leave me alone,” she yelled. “Carmella. It’s me, Tommy.” So it was. Carmella looked up at him and saw the last bit of sun hazing a few loose strands from his pony-tail. “You know this lady?” “Yes,” said Tommy reaching for the cane and helping Carmella out of the cart. “‘Cause I was going to get the cops on her. She’s acting kind of crazy.” Tommy wiped the cane on his pants. “Sorry. She’s just a bit confused,” said Tommy. “I’m going to take her home.” He helped Carmella through the fog to the beach path. Most of the onlookers went on, the scene over, and Thomasino disappeared. Tommy did not know where she lived exactly, so Carmella gave him directions. He was sorry he did not see her at the fountain earlier. He had a doctor’s appointment that morning and went into work late. “What were you doing in that car?” “I was going to drive it.” “Yeah? Where?” “Someplace.” When they arrived outside her house, Tommy insisted on taking Carmella upstairs. But she said “no” so emphatically he did not continue to argue. Carmella entered her apartment and put away the sun hat. She removed her flats and placed them under the small table where the
Chavez / Change / 15 mirror waited to be hanged and she put on a cerulean cardigan and walked to her balcony. There, she found the dishes from earlier. She had forgotten to wash them. Tired, much too tired to wash, Carmella sat in her seat. The sun sat low on the horizon, dying in the cool fog like a fireâ€™s last embers. In the pocket with her change purse was the other half of the Spring roll. She did not have the stomach for it. She threw it over the balcony for the birds. They cried out even now in the dense grey. It was chilly that evening and Carmella was glad for the sweater. Her cane fell softly against her lap and she grabbed the handle, feeling the glossed wood in her fingers. She fell asleep on the balcony chair, breathing in the salt air, exhausted and waiting for her son to call.