Historical Fiction American

In this part of the city the fog doesn’t hang around for very long. At dawn the sun comes out and wakes up the neighborhood and brings everyone out of their homes. There are children playing in the park, parents pushing strollers, people waiting for the bus, stoners standing outside the donut shop, and early birds buying fresh produce from the vendedor de frutas. A homeless man is curled up at the entrance of the boarded up old movie theater. He wakes up and stretches his stiff limbs. He holds his face up to the blinding sun and closes his eyes. It looks like he’s praying. Rose walks past all these people, as she does every morning. They see her, she sees them. Sometimes they exchange a good morning, sometimes she nods her head as she passes by a familiar face. 

Rose is walking to her mother’s house with a loaf of bread she got from the bakery on her side of the neighborhood. As Rose’s mother got older she realized that small pleasures like fresh bread and visits from her daughter were worth living for. Emilia waits for her daughter and her daily bread. She used to hold onto the world with a tight deliberate reign, but now, with her arthritic hands and poor eyesight, she handles the world delicately and with detachment.

Rose has a key to the house and lets herself in. Carmella, Emilia’s tenant on the first floor comes in behind her, her arms full of groceries. Carmella greets Rose, and they exchange a few words. Rose invites her up for coffee. Carmella declines, she’s busy, another time.

Rose walks up a steep flight of stairs to the third story. There’s no aroma of coffee that usually greets her at the door. The house is still, the windows are shut and the curtains are drawn, as if it were hibernating. Emilia’s bedroom door is ajar. Stagnation and darkness seep out from behind the door. She opens it and sees her mother, lying in the bed, on her back. Ma? She says this quietly. There’s no answer. There’s no movement in her chest and no breath when Rose holds her head close to her mother’s face. A ripple goes through Rose. È morta. 

Rose opens the window to let in light and fresh air. She looks down and sees that the trucks are gone. José, Arturo and her brother Sil must’ve left early for a job somewhere outside the city. The smell of the workshop hasn’t changed in all those years. As far back as she could remember, she smelled sawdust. She grew up hearing the crunching of wood being sawed into pieces and the tattooed beat of hammers. When Rose was a child she wore a tool belt around her waist and followed her uncle around the workshop. She’d never known her father or grandfather; she was always looking for them in the shadows of other men. She breathes in deeply at the open window and sighs, one heavy sigh that is followed by a desperate wail. 

That same day, 65 years before, there’d been an unannounced heatwave. The central valley’s infernal heat poured in through the bay. For three days the city was fog free. For three days San Franciscans were lost without their fog, landmarks and the sloped terrain look different. They slept without blankets and had the fan running all day and night. This is how New Yorkers live, the said to each other. The temperature was up and so was war time hysteria. It was 1942. The USA had been pulled into the war a year before. Some young men were sent to islands on the Pacific and others had gone to Europe, to fight dictators that sought to redraw the world map and build nations based on ethnicity. On the west coast, preconceived ideas of alien enemies, Japanese spies and Italian disloyalty were prevalent. In some neighborhoods, signs hung in shop windows read, “English Only” or “No Japs.” By summertime there were no more Japanese Americans in San Francisco. They’d been forced out of the city and relocated to internment camps in the high western desert. Italians who weren’t US citizens were deemed enemy aliens. They were forced to abide by a curfew and weren’t allowed to leave the city without special permission. Emilia’s mother, Lucrezia was an enemy alien. 

Emilia had been pregnant with Rose. He was on a naval boat near Manila. Emilia thought about Antonio, and prayed for his speedy return, but her attention was on the baby growing inside her. She, it was a girl, Emilia was sure of that, was starting to tumble and kick. The weight on her body and the flood of hormones made her tired and cranky. She took advantage of her physical discomfort to sleep in. Her mother, who usually had her working in the house at 7am, had suddenly found sleeping in permissible. The family home was a three story Victorian, with stables in the back, built in 1900. Emilia lived with her parents on the third floor. The stables has been turned into a woodworking shop. Emilia’s father, Giovanni ran his carpentry business out of there. Emilia and Antonio had occupied the bottom floor for 10 months before he was shipped out. Their apartment would stay uninhabited until Antonio’s homecoming, that was the plan, although it never came to fruition. 

Emilia came into the kitchen. The aroma of coffee pervaded the house. Emilia sat down at the table. Her mother, Lucrezia poured her a glass of milk. 

“Oh ma, I can’t drink that first thing in the morning. Please just give me some coffee, just a little bit to open my eyes.”

“Coffee is no good for you or for baby,” Emilia’s mother wagged a finger at her. “I want my grandson to be healthy.”

“I told you a hundred times, it’s a girl.”

“Non sai nulla. Look at you. You’re shaped like a balloon. It’s a boy.”

There was no use in arguing with mom in the morning, not a good way to start the day. Emilia drank her milk and changed the subject. “Where’s dad?” Lucrezia sighed heavily, and said he was on the roof fixing a problematic area. At 8am it was already 95 degrees. On the roof it felt more like 105. 

“Oh yeah, I thought I heard him hammering up there a little while ago. Shouldn’t he have come down by now? It’s almost breakfast time. He shouldn’t be up there with this spell of Hades over our heads. Couldn’t he have waited a few days.”

“Conosci tuo papà.”

Giovanni had done anything and everything to keep his mind off the war. He had always been a hard worker, running his own business and all, but ever since Italy entered Hitler’s little war he became more of a workaholic. He was really upset when Hank Yamamoto, the cabinet maker, was forced to leave with his family. Hank’s young wife Lori was friends with Emilia, and had become pregnant at the same time Emilia had. The women had talked about raising their babies together, and then, with the war, the future they had in mind was uncertain. Poor Lori would have her baby far from home, in a desert camp of all places, she’d return to San Francisco three years later with Hank and their toddler son. Hank would get his job and home back. They were the lucky ones. After the war most Japanese Americans had no homes or community in the city to go back to.

Then, the Federal Bureau of Investigation came for Luigi. Two men had whisked him off in the middle of a job. Luigi had been attracted to Mussolini’s promise of unity and prosperity for il popolo. Il Duce’s initial message of national socialism made him proud to be Italian, but when Mussolini invaded Libya and made himself an imperialist idiot, Luigi unpinned his hopes on the dictator. When the war started, Luigi and Giovanni ranted about il mostro, Mussolini. Both men had fought for Italy in the first war, and both knew war’s unbridled brutality. 

When the FBI agents came for Luigi, he had been cutting through a beam that was part of a new project that Giovanni  had been doing on the house. Giovanni had given the old Victorian a face life, it’s termite infested wooden exterior was replaced by cream colored stucco and red window boxes. The old house had been rebellious in the process. Luigi had fallen down the stairs after hitting a broken step, and Giovanni had fallen off the third floor scaffolding, while trying to wrench a wooden embellishment from a window, fortunately landing in a truck bed full of sawdust. Lucrezia called it the maledizione. The problematic area on the roof was another part of the saga of the rebellious Victorian.

“Is Sil getting the focaccia?” Emilia asked her mother. Sil had been going to Gianluca’s in North Beach every Saturday for the past year. Saturday was the day they made focaccia, and it was a chance for Sil to talk to Gianluca’s daughter. On his way home he’d pick up cheese and salami from Lucca’s deli. Saturday morning breakfast had become a ritual. It was one of the few occasions they all sat together, Luigi, dad, mom, Sil and Emilia; they had been six around the small kitchen table before Antonio left.

“God, I’m hungry.” Emilia said. Her mother gave her a look. Her mother was chopping vegetables for the soup. Everyday, no matter the weather or time of year, her mother made soup. She made other things, fried fish or chicken with rosemary, but there was always soup on the table too. “Sorry, gosh,” Emilia corrected herself, then she got up and stretched and announced that she was going to see what dad was doing. 

“Don’t you go looking for trouble; you’re carrying my grandson. I don’t want you falling off the ladder,” Emilia was out the back door, “you hear me?” Lucrezia called after her. Emilia was used to climbing ladders, scaffolding and even the old bougainvillea at the side of her dad’s office, ascending three stories.

Emilia went out on the back porch where her mom had a vegetable garden. The porch was in the full sun. The tomato and basil plants were wilting. She stood next to the ladder that her dad had propped up. She called out, papà. No answer. She called out again and again. A seagull landed on the top rung of the ladder. What’re you doing here? It looked at her. Shoo. It was staring at her. I’m pregnant, not an invalid, she said aloud and ascended the ladder. The gull flew off. She watched its wide winged shadow glide over the courtyard far down below. She felt a momentary dizzy spell. Then, she pulled herself onto the roof. She could see the tops of all the houses and factories. It didn’t look so crowded from above. Everything looked neatly arranged and symmetrical. All the roofs had a washed out color that blended in with the clear sky. The sun’s reflection was blinding. She shielded her eyes and called out again, still no response. She could see her father at the other side of the roof, the part that was closest to the street. He was bent over backwards. The closer she got the more anxious she became. She stepped and heard a crunch underneath her slipper. She’d stepped on his thick rimmed glasses. He was staring up at the sky with a look of shock in his face. He was completely unresponsive. 

Emilia stood in the doorway of the kitchen and tears came to her eyes. She held the broken glasses in her hand. Sil had just walked in with his hands full of paper bags. Lucrezia’s face paled. “It’s dad.” Emilia said. Sil pushed passed her. A few minutes later Sil and Luigi, where carrying Giovanni through the kitchen into the sitting room. He was a big man. 6foot3, broad shoulders, reddish blond hair that had shades of grey in it, blue eyes, and hands as big as a catcher’s mitt. Without his big personality to match his physical stature, it felt like someone else was in the room. Emilia didn’t know that man. It looked like her father but it wasn’t. At that moment she realized that he was gone forever. They should’ve been gathered around the table eating focaccia, listening to dad tell a yarn about how the roof was disagreeable and stubborn, as if it had a personality to match his. 

Dr. Fellini said it was a heart attack. Her mother said the house and the heat killed him. Sil said that his work killed him. He was always working too much and for too long. Emilia blamed it on the war. If there hadn’t been war, then maybe her father wouldn’t have worked so much, he wouldn’t have gone on the roof when they were supposed to be together at the table enjoying their Saturday morning ritual.

The body stayed on the couch until the coroner came. They all sat silently around the kitchen table. Crumbs of focaccia dotted the table around half empty mugs of coffee, even Emilia drank a cup of coffee. Her mother didn’t say anything. It wasn’t an occasion to argue, or even to talk much. That evening the fog rolls in. The horrible heat spell had been broken. The war raged on. Two months after Giovanni died, Antonio came home in a coffin draped in an American flag. A month later Rose was born. 

Rose calls Dr. Vicini and an ambulance. She hears a scratch at the back door. It’s Grigio, the cat. Grigio comes up every morning for food scraps. He used to be a rat catcher but his old age has slowed him down. Nowadays he waits for Emilia’s minestrone. He prefers Emilia’s soup over the kibble that Rose buys him. Grigio isn’t allowed inside the house. Grigio’s domain is the workshop and courtyard. The men that work for Sil feed him pieces of their ham sandwiches. He’s spoiled and happy in this carpenter’s obstacle course. Rose opens the door and finds the food and water tray empty. She refills them. Grigio stands in front of the food tray and meows. There’s no more minestrone; you’ve got to eat that. Rose leaves the back door open. Her mother always had, expecting that her son or grandson might come up the steps at any time. Rose measures the coffee and starts the machine. She takes out the butter and a half wheel of cheese at the back of the fridge. She puts them on the table. Grigio stands in the doorway and meows again. Rose hears footsteps up the backstairs. Carmella has responded to Rose’s cry. She taps on the open door.

“Is everything ok up here?” she asks. She peers into the kitchen and realizes that Emilia isn’t there. “Dios Santo.”

“Come, keep me company,” Rose says. 

Carmella sits and puts her hand over Rose’s trembling hand. 

Rose hears a siren. “It’s the ambulance.”

The smell of coffee awakens her senses. Rose and her mother should be drinking coffee and breaking bread. Rose would be chopping veggies for Emilia’s lunch. It hits her, all that she has lost, and she begins to cry. 

March 19, 2021 08:41

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Michael Boquet
15:28 Mar 26, 2021

Powerful story. I like how you chose to answer the prompt. You handle the switch between the two time periods very well. I think the parts about Luigi and the cat may have been unnecessary, but beyond that, the detailed descriptions of the family's life really make them feel real. Congrats on getting shortlisted.


Jen Ponig
11:53 Apr 23, 2021

Thank you for reading and commenting on the story.


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05:12 Apr 06, 2021

Nicely done. There were a few formatting issues that threw me off, and the two paragraphs about the FBI and Luigi were a little ramble-y and confusing. But I think you handled the prompt really well, and it was a hard one! Congrats on the shortlist.


Jen Ponig
11:55 Apr 23, 2021

Thanks for reading the story. I appreciate your feedback too.


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H Bolton
18:03 Mar 26, 2021

My favorite part is the beginning. It was immediately obvious that we were in san fransico and no famous landmarks had been mentioned. Made me very nostalgic


Jen Ponig
11:59 Apr 23, 2021

Thanks for reading the story. I’m so glad to hear that you realized the story was set in San Francisco. I miss San Francisco too.


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