Sunday is my day off so I’m asleep, dreaming a sad dream of Carly, when Carmen kicks in my front door. I’m out of bed and wide awake in moments, crouching behind the worn overstuffed chair with a hefty chunk of clear quartz in my hand. Outside it’s still snowing and the wind is making a spooky sound around the gables of my boarding house. Before he’s finished wrecking the door, tiny Mrs. Ferradosa is on the landing at the top of the stairs.
“Idiota! Desgraçado!” My landlady snatches off her own shoe, reaches up and slaps Carmen’s face with the heel – she wields it like a baton – wap! wap! wap!, and he absorbs the beating like a cow, lowers his head.
“I warned you” – wap! – “never to come here drunk again” – wap! – “useless piece of bosta” – wap! He turns on the waterfall, sobs, drops to the floor in a funk of stale beer and greasy junk food. Mrs. Ferradosa slaps him a few more times, but her heart’s not in it. He’s one of the few people in the world she tolerates. Why this is, I have no idea.
“I’m not drunk,” says Carmen. “Not even close. Maybe a little. I just need to talk to her.”
“What you’re doing is scaring the woman.”
“It won’t happen again.”
“That’s what you said last time.” Mrs. Ferradosa has her grandson on speed dial. “Demetrio? Can you come over today? I need something done right away. Yes, it’s the door again. Yes, I told him. What time? I’ll tell him you said so.”
Carmen perks up a bit, smiles. She smacks his face one more time. Wap!
“Demetrio says this is the last time. If it happens again, he says he’s going to lay you out. Você entende o que estou dizendo? For you only, mau-olhado – the evil eye! Ramona!”
“Ha-ha,” says Carmen. “He’s going to lay me out. Right.”
“There used to be quite a neighborhood here in Union City,” says Mrs. Ferradosa. “A very small community, all Portuguese families. Then and now, the boys had a sort of a gang – to keep the neighborhood safe. Maybe sometimes that meant chasing away Irish or Italian kids who came looking for trouble. I know very little about it, but what I know, I know. Now do you understand? Ramona!”
But I’m already in my doorway, pulling the chenille robe tighter. Carmen puts his hand on my bare foot. I jerk back, then step on his hand – bring all my weight down on it. He grits his teeth and grins at Mrs. Ferradosa.
“Maybe one of those rehabilitation places – that’s what you need,” she says. “Alcoholics Anonymous, maybe?”
“What about me?” I say. “What about me being protected from someone who might actually harm me one day? Might even kill me? Isn’t that right, cabeça-de-bagre?”
“Oh! Such language,” she says. “Where did you learn to speak like that?”
I pull the robe tight. “Demetrio.” Carmen’s hand tenses beneath my foot.
“When was this?”
“Last night – and other times, too. I’m glad he’s coming over this morning. I don’t know when I’ve had so much fun.”
“Isabel, she’s stepping on my hand.” He primes the pump. A tear leaks out.
Mrs. Ferradosa hefts her shoe and glares at me before stomping down to the landing on the second floor and pausing. Without turning around she makes a gesture with her hands, mumbles something in Portuguese. Then, the sad sound of an eighty-year-old lady shuffling to her own rooms on the first floor. The warm smell of herbs and spices from her kitchen.
Carmen yanks his hand from under my foot and grins.
“I brought back your laundry,” he says.
“Well, where is it?” He’s been doing my laundry for six months now. The things we get used to – the things that make it all balance in the end.
“Out in the car.”
“Since when? Where did you get money – oh wait. You stole it? That’s your big news? Stealing a car?”
“Maybe I did, and maybe I didn’t.”
“Some tough guy. You used to be so – you’re drinking yourself to death.”
“And you’re medicating yourself to death. At least I have a good reason to drink. I grew up without a dad. My mother did not raise stupid sons. It was not an easy life. God bless the memory of Elena-Teresa DiLuca.”
“How many times do I have to hear that story?”
“Want me to hold your hand while you cry about your sister?”
“Stop hurting me!” I slap his face and cry at the same time.
“It was an accident!” he says. “Nobody’s to blame.”
We argue on the landing for an immense half-hour. It started out good – he was so nice to me, did things for me and made me happy at a time when I was so sad. We don’t do it anymore, though. If there was at least that. Sometimes he just stares at me and laughs like a maniac.
Downstairs a door slams, a man’s voice. Carmen slips inside while that single voice distracts me. Demetrio reaches the landing at the same time Carmen reappears, face scrubbed and the smell of my own deodorant over his sweat-stink. Mouthwash for his breath. I make sure he sees me kiss Mrs. Ferradosa’s grandson on the cheek.
“I’ll help,” says Carmen. “Whatever you need.”
“Help me by fucking off,” says Demetrio. He loosens a cracked strip of wood with a crowbar, then rips the wood away with his hand. Points the crowbar at Carmen, taps his chest. “Someone told me you’re a wise guy, but really you’re dumb as a sack of rocks. Next time something like this happens—”
“—Never,” says Carmen, “and it won’t, I mean it, ever again.”
“You’re not listening. Go. Now.”
“But Isabel said—”
Demetrio grabs Carmen’s t-shirt and slams him against the broken door frame.
“You have no respect,” says Demetrio. “When you talk about my grandmother you call her Mrs. Ferradosa.” Carmen’s arm is scratched and bleeding from the splinters. He gets all tight and his pale skin blushes.
“You want to do it right now,” says Demetrio, “I’m ready.”
Carmen shakes himself away, snatches his overcoat. “I see what’s going on here. Two’s company, three’s a crowd. Message received loud and clear.” He thunders down the stairs.
“What was that kiss for,” says Demetrio. “Trying to make him jealous? He doesn’t know I’m gay?”
“Neither does your grandmother,” I say.
“Not my business,” he says, “but you could do a whole lot better. He’s a taker, a leech. I think you keep him around for punishment or something. The only one getting punished is this house. My mother lived here before I was born. Half of your rooms were her bedroom. This was her bedroom door. Then my father arrived, straight from Coimbra, took her away from her family. Strange to think, in this day and age – people still immigrating to America. He was a taker, too, and old-fashioned in his thinking.”
“Psychiatric evaluation with repair work?” I say. “You’ve been breathing too many paint fumes down at the docks. Oh, shit, wait a minute—”
I run down the stairs. My laundry is scattered near the curb and already covered with a light dusting of snow.
Late afternoon. Mrs. Ferradosa knocks on the repaired door with the toe of her shoe. She’s carrying a tray with a teapot and cups and something wrapped in velvet. I step aside, and she goes right to the kitchen.
“This half was once Amalia’s room. Before she moved away. Before they all moved away. This house – so full of life. And now – punks knocking down the door. Amalia liked it because she could see the river from that window – same reason you like it. Paolo used to visit her here. Now I know that that was a wrong thing – what he did to her – my youngest—”
“You brought tea,” I say. “How nice. I’ve got some crackers somewhere—”
“Ramona, about your rent—”
“Becky’s ninety-nine percent sure she’s moving in. That’ll be half the rent. And I’ll be getting my first check this week from Catelli’s. I’m a hostess, not a server. That’s more money. You know that. Please give me another month.” Ever since my little sister was killed by a drunk driver it’s been difficult to care about anything.
She pours out the tea and we sit at the kitchen table. She touches one of the mineral chunks on the window ledge.
“So many big rocks.”
“They’re crystals and minerals,” I say. “Out of all of Carly’s stuff this was all I really wanted to save. This and the jewelry. She made jewelry – from tiny stones and wires – but she loved collecting these big crystals and minerals.” I turn one over to show the bit of brown tape underneath. “She labeled everything too. This one says amethyst geode, Thunder Bay, Canada. So heavy – this must weigh ten pounds. Yet she carried every one of these stones back from wherever she visited. She loved traveling too – stayed in hostels or with friends – or family – she would have been forty-three this year. So young—”
“They die,” she says, “and sometimes they don’t leave. They stay on – this world is all they know.”
I feel cold then, and it’s not the wind howling outside. The late morning light is gray and dim, and it feels like Carly is right there in the room with us. I’ve felt her before, but lately, with me getting depressed and taking medication and the short winter days – seems like she visits more often than at the beginning.
“She’s here now, isn’t she?” says Mrs. Ferradosa. She means her daughter, Amalia.
“Yes, she’s here with us, right now.”
Mrs. Ferradosa unwraps the velvet and holds up her tattered cards.
“These belonged to my own mother – from the old country.”
The first card is a heart with three swords stuck in it. Mrs. Ferradosa sucks in her breath, surprised.
“Bad, huh?” I say.
She lays the second card on top of the first: a lady opening a lion’s mouth.
“Força,” says Mrs. Ferradosa. “That’s strength.”
A knight on a horse waving a branch. A goblet with water pouring from it. Five-pointed stars, the moon, more swords.
I look closer and see that her necklace is made of tiny gold coins. Carly leans over my shoulder, whispering about seat belts and icy roads. I don’t understand what she means. The sky darkens. The tea tastes all wrong.
Mrs. Ferradosa burns some dried leaves in a dish, an awful smell like rotten eggs and plastic, hums, and rhymes something about the arrangement of the cards.
“Strength – and here, the Knight of Wands – ah, that’s being in a fire – not very often a real fire, but a burning sometimes inside. In the heart. Also, know what you want before you begin something. The Moon – the world of your imagination. The dog is the fear inside of you, the wolf is the fear from outside. Seven of Coins, upside down, much wasted energy, plans that fail or come to nothing—”
I hear voices. Carly. Amalia. Meanings, premonitions, voices that get in my skin and hang on like cat’s claws. Dozens, hundreds, thousands of whispered words. Sleepiness presses down on me. Embarrassed, I push away from the kitchen table and climb back into my bed. She excuses me with a wave of her hand, shakes her head at the cards: not good.
I wake in the tail end of late evening light. Someone stands at the foot of the bed. It could be Carly, it could be Amalia. I don’t care. I can’t understand the words, but the meaning goes deep inside me, settles there, grows into a hard and sharp crystal.
A woman opening a lion’s mouth – that means strength. Turn on the lamp. Mrs. Ferradosa – her teacups and her cards are gone. I make a sandwich and eat it. It’s snowing hard and the sky is bright with the reflected glow of Union City. I set two alarm clocks and leave the lights on.
Catelli’s is half a mile away and the sidewalks are packed with snow. I leave the house at eleven, meet Becky at a coffee shop.
“Your second week at a new job,” she says. “At our age we should be taking it easy.”
“Have you decided?” I say. “I told my landlady you were ninety-nine percent sure about moving in.”
“I’m still thinking about it. It feels small for two – crowded, in a way.”
“Two bedrooms, close to work. You can walk and save gas money.”
“Let me think some more.”
After that the day – freezing as it is – melts all around me. I greet customers, check reservations – the place is packed for lunch. Upscale and hoity-toity office workers who need a place to show off their hipness gather here, eat, drink, boast – one man actually snaps his fingers at Becky. She smiles. I’m bored. The loud talk drowns out the whispers.
After the dinner rush Mrs. Catelli takes over at the front. She tells me I did a good job. Becky and I part outside the door.
That gray light presses down, and the crystal in my stomach grows larger, sharper, tells me to turn and look across the street where Carmen is sitting in a luxury sedan with the motor running. Cigarette smoke trickles from a window slit. He knows I’m looking so there’s no point in crossing over and confronting him.
The first floor of the boarding house is dark.
I smell that rotten egg smell again on the stairs, and then a warm cinnamon breeze blows into my face, like someone baking. I run the rest of the way and look closely at recent scratches on Demetrio’s new deadbolt lock. Inside, the oven is cold, nothing is baking, and the aroma of cinnamon bread vanishes. I touch the light switch, and then I see her. Standing by the window, her back to me. She’s whispering again, touching the minerals on the ledge, gesturing.
“What do you want?” I say.
She’s sad. Holding one of the crystals. How can a memory hold something so solid, so heavy? It’s like a trance.
Night arrives, full of hurt and indecision.
Carly looks at me with her sad face and car-smashed broken body. Amalia with the bruises on her neck where Paolo choked her for the last time.
In my dream a dog and a wolf bark at the moon. I see inside myself: a heavy purple crystal where my heart should be, stabbed through with three swords and reflecting sparkles of bright light.
Someone breathing on the other side of the door.
It’s easy to snap the buckles on the leather handbag, easy to float down the stairs, easy to see Mrs. Ferradosa asleep in front of her television set. Easy to walk in the snow without leaving any footprints.
The sedan is warm, close, and comfortable. He lights a cigarette and hands it to me. We drive down by the river where the road gets close to the edge – a narrow pull-off with a historical marker and a trash can. He sets the hand brake and leaves the motor running.
“What’s in that bag,” he says.
“Thunder Bay, Canada,” I tell him.
“What the hell?”
“Something Carly loved.”
Swords stabbing a heart. A woman opening a lion’s mouth.
“Frozen,” says Demitrio. “Hard as a rock.” He leans against my kitchen sink reading the newspaper and drinking coffee. Mrs. Ferradosa and I sit at the table.
“The man who found him was walking his dog,” he says. “It’s so cold – the body was covered with snow. It must have looked like one of the rocks by the river – where they piled those big chunks of concrete to keep the banks from washing away—”
“What, exactly,” I say. “Not that I care.”
“—discovered Wednesday morning – pending notification of relatives – information leading to – police ask for assistance – alcohol in his blood, legally intoxicated, no sign of foul play—”
“An accident? What about his stolen car?”
“Sure, an accident. He got drunk, fell from the edge, hit his head on a rock – nothing in here about a car.”
“I’m glad he’s dead,” I say. “Now I can get on with my life.”
“Destino,” says Mrs. Ferradosa. “Fate. I could read it on his face. I saw it the first time he came here.”
“Is that why you were so nice to him?” I say.
“I felt sorry. A burden, sometimes, this knowing.”
The worst part is the voices are all around me now. Alone or with other people, wide awake, walking in the market, greeting restaurant customers who all look the same. Many others I do not know speaking their creaky winter storm warnings, staring at me, drawn to the thing I cannot erase. But always, here before me:
Amalia wanders through my rooms at all hours and strokes the bruises on her neck.
Carmen’s arm sways like a branch in a breeze, finger pointing at his torn skull.
Carly grabs the steering wheel from him and screams. I realize she’s not wearing a seat belt. I wonder does he care, does that make a difference.
I whisper, plead with her.
“Why did you leave me?”