July 20, 2008

Writing Sample

Expectations, an excerpt from ORANGE PEELS AND COBBLESTONES


Eight-year-old Marietta spotted her father and gasped. Her
first reaction was to hide behind her cousins at the end of the
jump-rope line, but when he neared, her heart skipped a beat. She
didn’t know whether to run into his arms or remain out of view.
The pattern of her parents’ attempts to mend their broken marriage
was too familiar. They’d argue, he’d leave abruptly and, a week
later, her mother Stella would move her and baby sister Pia back to

But as the lean, handsome man now approached, Marietta hoped that
Papa recognized her. Would he lift her off the line and raise her
into his arms as half of her wanted or as half of her feared?
She stepped forward to find out. To her surprise, he brushed
past her as if she were invisible. With a fresh bouquet of
wildflowers in one hand and a tight fist in the other, he bolted up
the clean steps two at a time, his red, wavy hair bouncing across
his forehead until he reached the top landing. He knocked and her
grandmother, Nonna, stiffened as she opened the door. They stood
on the platform for several minutes exchanging words in subdued
tones. Then, as if he made his first conquest, Antonio walked in
and the door shut behind him.

Moments later the door re-opened.

"Marietta, vieni sopra. Come upstairs,” Nonna called. The
child’s heart raced as a bitter taste rose from her stomach to her
mouth. Thankfully Nonna met her at the door and, clutching her
hand, caressed the top of her head. “Your father wants to see
you,” she said.

The minute Antonio saw his daughter he knelt on one knee, opening
his arms. His face was tanned and rugged but his hands were long
and smooth. Marietta always admired them because they were
capable of lifting her up into the air and she liked the rush in her
chest when he catapulted her above his head.

But now she was afraid. Her eyes turned to Nonna, whom she
trusted. With her nod, the little girl walked closer into the
circle of her father’s arms.

“My little Marietta, how you have grown! Will you come live
with your Papa?” he asked misty-eyed, as if he were the child.

"Will Mamma and Pia come too?” she asked.

“Certamente. Certainly. I’ve come to take all of you back
home. I’ve just explained to your grandmother that I want us to be
a family again.” How Marietta wanted that too. Yet the only place
she found family was here with Nonna. “When your mother returns
from her job at the florist, I’ll tell her about my work in San
Demetrio. I know how to make the best wine. I was also lucky at
cards. I’m a brand new man with money and a job.” He smacked
his hand across his chest and waved it in the air as if it were a flag.

“Your mother won’t refuse me now. Don’t you agree?” he said
turning to Nonna.

Marietta was surprised to see her grandmother at a loss for
words. Her silence spoke.

Stella’s father and brothers, too, were angry once they heard
Antonio had returned. The whole next day the family huddled in
heated conversations that ended in shouting bouts. They shook
their heads in disbelief. How dare he come back? There was no
proof of a job, no amount of money saved, nothing that showed he
had changed. Only words. Words don’t put food on the table or
clothes on the children’s backs. Why, she should throw the bum out
as quickly as he had come.

Each time Marietta entered the house, Nonna placed her finger on
her mouth to hush her sons. It was obvious she didn’t want to
upset the child. But the tension created a thick web and Marietta
was often caught in it.

“Good for nothing, drunk, gambler.” Marietta knew the words
referred to her father when her uncles spewed them out. “Deluded
dreamer” described her mother. The words traveled like arrows
across the air and pierced her, and as much as she tried to shake
them off, she couldn’t.

“What about the time he threw the loaf of bread and hit you right
in your pregnant belly? The child you lost – have you thought of
that?” Pasquale reminded his sister.

“Yes, but he’d had too much to drink,” Stella argued. “He’d just
left his third job in six months. He was desperate. You drink
too. I’ve seen you drunk at Mama’s table many times,” she cried
out of breath, her chest heaving up and down. “It’s not his fault
he lost at gambling. He thought he could make money at it.”

“He never will,” Nonna shouted. Then, in a gentler voice, she
added, “Stella, no one wants your happiness more than me. But
you’ve made a mistake. You should have listened from the
beginning, when we told you to stay away from Antonio. Instead
you sneaked off together. Don’t keep making the same mistake.
Find a new life for yourself. You’ve got the children to think about.”

“What about the knife he put to your throat the last time?”
Nonno said gravely. “That’s why you escaped from him in the
middle of the night.” He forgot reason and grew visibly angry at
his daughter’s naiveté. How could she turn out so differently from
his other children?

“Stop it! I can’t stand it,” Stella shouted. “You’re always
telling me what to do, how to run my life. He’s changed,” she
said. “Can’t you see he’s changed? I’ve got everything to gain
if it works out and nothing to lose if it doesn’t. What do I have
here? Nothing. I’m miserable and poor, dependent on your charity.
I’m tired of your charity. I want my own life!”

Marietta felt sorry for her mother. She wanted to do something
nice. Perhaps she’d stir the sugar for her morning coffee or help
take care of Pia instead of playing with her cousin Lucia.
Eventually Stella and the rest of the family would see eye to eye
and peace would return.

But the end of the week brought no change.

"There’s nothing we can do,” Marietta heard Nonna finally say to

“We can hope we’re wrong. Perhaps Antonio has turned a new
leaf. Who are we to deprive Stella of another chance to pull her
life together?”

The next morning before dawn, aunts, uncles and cousins assembled
at Nonna’s door. As Antonio gathered the suitcases for the train
that would take them back to his hometown, the family planted
sleepy kisses on both sides of Stella’s cheeks and hugged Marietta
and Pia goodbye.

“Buona fortuna – Good luck,” whispered Nonna.

“Have a safe trip,” her sister, Maria, said.

Marietta wanted to stay in Nonna’s warm bed and wake up to her
smile. For two years Castellaneta had been her home. She loved
the cobblestone street beneath the steps of this eleven hundred
year-old house that had become hers. She felt wanted here. She
chose to belong to it, as though she’d been a part of its antiquity
from the very beginning.

To Marietta, Nonna symbolized the world and all that was good in
it. No other person cared about her as much as this white-haired
grandmother whose Christian name was Anna. She was Marietta’s
anchor, providing security and stability, loving and guarding the
child as if she might disappear at a moment’s notice.

And now she would.

“I’ll write to you,” Lucia said.

When they reached the train station, Antonio cautioned his
family. “Sit here while I purchase the tickets.” Pia lay in
Stella’s arms, her mouth wetting her mother’s clothing as it
searched wildly for her milk. Stella obliged her. She unbuttoned
her blouse and directed the nipple toward Pia who gripped it with a
vengeance before relaxing into a rhythmic sucking.

Marietta wished she could be as carefree as Pia. She already
missed Nonna. In the darkness there was no Lucia to play with. If
only her mother had married someone in her own town as Nonna’s
other children had. Then they’d never have to leave the family in
the middle of the night and go far away.

The four reached San Demetrio, a town high in the mountains of
Calabria, and had to adapt to the cold, unfriendly air, not unlike
the head of their new house, Antonio’s mother. The old woman
knew two emotions: displeasure and anger: But once a month,
when a cardboard box wrapped in heavy hand-sewn muslin
arrived from her daughter in America, she jumped up like a
schoolgirl to claim it. The sugar, coffee and cocoa it contained
were dear to her.

Marietta relished the cocoa. When her grandmother took naps,
she quietly stacked two kitchen chairs in front of the cupboard and
climbed up to reach the canister on the top shelf where the cocoa
was hidden. There, Marietta helped herself with an oversized spoon.

It didn’t take long for Antonio’s mother to notice the precious
cocoa drop in level. “I’ll teach you not to steal,” she yelled,
raising her cane in the air. But Marietta was too fast for the old
woman to catch.

One day, however, Antonio’s mother pretended to fall asleep.
When Marietta climbed to the cupboard and was about to lick up
spoonfuls of cocoa, the old woman sprang up like a fox disturbed
from its lair. Marietta caught the swift movement from the corner
of her eye. She immediately stuffed a mouthful down her throat,
jumped off the chair and dashed under the double bed, crouching
into the furthest corner possible.

“I’ll get you,” the old woman threatened, running after her. Her
cane swished back and forth but it could not reach Marietta. The
grandmother soon tired from bending over and, in disgust, went to
rest on her chair in the kitchen where she eventually fell asleep
for real. Marietta crawled out from under the bed without fear.

When Antonio returned from his job picking grapes – not
making wine as he had told Stella - the house was transformed. He
entered through the unlocked door and caught everyone off guard.
Marietta had learned to expect him at odd times, for he rarely came
home. Where he ate and slept, she couldn’t imagine. But when he
chose to show his face, she’d usually be setting the table while
Stella stood in front of the stove stirring pasta in the pot of
boiling water. The grandmother rocked in her chair by the fire and
Pia cooed in a blanket on the floor. Suddenly, Antonio appeared,
lifting them out of the stupor of their daily existence. He always
brought presents.

“For the most beautiful woman in the world,” he’d say to Stella,
keeping one hand hidden behind his back. Marietta watched her
mother fall into his arms, instantly gratified with whatever was in
it, perfume, a comb or silk scarf. Then Antonio would turn to his
mother. Like a knight, he’d bend on one knee and gallantly kiss
the back of her hand. Turning it palm up, he’d place in it a box
of Perugini chocolates, her favorite. She would rise, groaning,
lifting her short, round frame, and immediately hide the box.

“Oh, and what do I have here?” he’d say next, with hands roaming
and searching his jacket pockets. A pretend frown hid his smile.
“What, indeed, do I have here?” he’d repeat, twinkling his eyes,
pulling out shiny pink, blue and red ribbons. “Oh, who could be
pretty enough to wear these lovely presents?” He held the
ribbons high in the air, looking left, looking right, in every
direction but Marietta’s. She rushed around him, turning
every which way to catch his eyes.

“For me, Papa? Could they be for me and Pia?”

“Pia is too young for ribbons. When she wakes up, she
can have a chocolate. But these,” he explained, “These are ve-ry
spe-cial.” He stretched out his arms pulling the ribbons as if
they were dough.

“The shopkeeper said they’re fit for a princess. Only those
whose name begins with M are worthy enough to…”

“Mine begins with M. Mine begins with M,” she’d shriek.

Antonio let go and freed the ribbons. As they floated in the space
between them, before landing in her hands, Marietta made a mental
note to share them with Pia. Then, bending down, he grabbed her by
the waist, lifted her high in the air and squeezed her against his
muscled chest.

The next morning he was gone for good.

No comments: